"It is a question of
character. I want to prove myself the equal of any of them, if not their
"Silly people," he protested. "We will see them once a year, at Christmastime. Why let them make you suffer?"
He passed a hand over her exquisite face, as if, by magic, to erase its expression of resolve.
"Swear," she said, "you will tell no one."
"You have my word."
From Rottingdean, Lady Tabitha would proceed directly to Tattson Hall, the country estate of the Baroness, where she had agreed to spend part of the summer. Finch would join her there later. She had not permitted him to accompany her to the train, fearing it would attract notice. Instead, he took the liberty, unbeknownst to her, of lunching that afternoon at the station buffet, which, coincidentally, gave him a view of the platform. It was childish, he knew, almost like spying, but he simply could not see her often enough. He savored his new love as he would a fine cognac, sniffing it, rolling it on his tongue, untroubled at that instant by anything else in the world.
But the Tabitha he saw at the station looked hard, steeling herself for the ordeal ahead. Her carriage was more erect than usual as she struggled with her bags. He was halfway out of his chair, about to reveal himself and help, when a familiar figure, that of Carrier, his valet, appeared, with a porter in tow. Lady Tabitha's bags were added to those emblazoned with the Choir coat of arms. While Finch had known his friend was attending the funeral, he had not realized he and Lady Tabitha were taking the same train. He sat back down as the Earl arrived and watched the two chat amiably. Lady Tabitha visibly relaxed now as her burden was lifted. She wore the simplest of hats, merely a confection of felt and ribbon. While she and Choir talked she put her hand to her head, smoothing a stray lock of hair, a social, even, he dared say it, flirtatious gesture he had seen her make countless times while speaking to young men at a dance or dinner party. Whistles blew. Men in uniforms ran up and down the platform. Doors slammed. Choir offered his arm. Together they walked off toward the front of the train. A couple quite similar in dress and bearing, whose being seen together would, to the casual observer, excite no surprise. Made for each other, Finch thought, then banished the phrase from his head. Was this the other side of love, a black cloud of jealousy ready to blot out the sun of adoration at any moment? He got up and stretched. Served him right, for doing such an ignoble thing as coming here in the first place. The steel behemoth snorted and screamed. With eerie smoothness the last cars slid out of the station. He gripped his fork, though he had long since finished eating, and stared.
Of all this Lady Tabitha knew nothing. She had been surprised to meet Choir and while she found his attentions unwanted she could hardly refuse the kind offer to have his man help with her luggage and then--in for a penny, in for a pound--share the private coach he had hired. He was, after all, a distant relation, as well as her future husband's greatest friend. It must also be said that the young woman had an understandable weakness for luxury. So long deprived of what she had been raised to respect above all else, the trappings of wealth, of power, of good standing in society, she could hardly repress a thrill at having the conductor obsequiously open the jet-black door to a locomotive world of brass fittings and deep leather chairs. Carrier silently busied himself setting out refreshments. She noticed an entire tea set artfully stored in a travelling case.
"Can't stand a compartment," Choir said, giving the coach a perfunctory inspection. "Makes me feel caged. I need to prowl, not just watch the countryside go by."
The ride was uneventful, and the Earl's company, she grudgingly admitted, quite pleasant. She was tempted to tell him about herself and Lutwidge, whose name, from time to time, arose naturally in the conversation. It gave her a sense of duplicity to hear the Earl's passing judgements, his small confidences into their friend's nature, without revealing what a deep stake she now held in everything concerning the man. But having extracted Finch's word it hardly seemed proper to make any announcement herself. As for the Earl's manner, he was a perfect gentleman. She sensed an interest, lurking, almost animal in its intensity, but safely restrained, as if his breeding, or something even more immediate, she could not say what, made any outward sign or declaration unthinkable. Does he know? she wondered. Can he tell that I am now spoken for? Am I so changed? Such is the naivete of youth, thinking itself not only transparent but a worthy object for scrutiny. In fact, the Earl was concerned solely with his own attraction to this pretty creature--which was unusual in itself--while at the same time, because of monetary considerations, he expected to gain nothing from her but a more tolerable two hours to Rottingdean. Speculation as to her inner feelings or future matrimonial state was the furthest thing from his mind. This private coach, typical of the luxury he could not do without nor afford, taunted him every mile of the journey, as would an addict's drug. It was only by staring into Lady Tabitha's extraordinary eyes he gained any measure of relief.
"You do not seem the type," he mused.
"What type is that?"
"One who carries her own bags or mends her own dresses." He nodded to an ill-sewn seam, for though the dress was new she had had to make her own alterations. It was strange how sharp-eyed he could be when it came to women. He had that keen interest in the opposite sex that many of them, even those not too gullible, mistook for sympathy. "Two hundred years of breeding in that wrist," he went on, as she held her teacup aloft. "It should be lifting nothing heavier than fine china."
"I do not believe in an aristocracy of blood," Lady Tabitha answered. "I believe character is formed, under pressure, like a diamond."
"Diamonds would look fine on you." The Earl, by contrast, held his tea by the cup itself, rather than the handle, taking short sips and chewing them as if tearing away at a chunk of meat, staring at her all the while. "When dark women wear gems, too often they recede into the background like the cloth in a display. But when a fair woman wears diamonds her skin itself takes on that faceted, sparkling aura, as if the jewelry were a natural outgrowth, a mineral expression, of her beauty."
Lady Tabitha looked away. She sensed the insincerity of his remarks, but they were strikingly similar to her own feelings. An early memory, of modelling her mother's jewels in the mirror, for the last time, before they were taken away to the pawnbrokers, flashed before her eyes. What beauty she had, she often felt, was merely a vain attempt to regain those lost treasures, by appearing worthy enough to deserve them.
"What a strange conversation," she said.
But here at the church, the Earl seemed more interested in the chorus. He kept his eye on them even while the lesson was read and the eulogies began. The boys were forced to sit, fidgeting, for over an hour while the obsequies dragged on.
"He was at his best enduring these very occasions, weathering them with a stoicism we could only envy," a colleague said, motioning to the corpse as if congratulating it on its decorum.
"Oh, he will get a licking for that," Choir chuckled, nodding as a blond eight-year-old who had misbehaved was dragged off by the master.
Lady Tabitha was touched at his child-like interest, a side of the Earl she had never seen before.
Jesus was not in to the Reverend Belcher today. That, at least, was the blasphemous thought he entertained, getting up on creaking knees and smoothing his trousers. It was like waiting in the anteroom of the Archbishop. Always, he reflected, this sense of being just outside, of being barred from or unwilling to enter into the house of the Lord. Yet did that not prove his faith, that he believed in it so? That he would rather fail at this than succeed at anything else? "Holy is the sinner," he had blurted last Sunday, rather cryptically and out of context, to his perplexed congregation. No doubt they thought they had misheard, though he had seen Mrs. Barnstable rummage round in her bag and write something on a slip of paper. Holy is the sinner, he continued to himself, mulling over this private revelation he had been so unwise as to share. For only he can hope to attain salvation. One cannot be saved unless one is lost. Like Nan, truly lost now, in all senses of the word. It was for her safe return he had been praying. Since that night she disappeared, raving, down the Seven Dials Road, he had found no trace of her. Visits to Scotland Yard, where he had been treated first with incredulity and then something approaching outrage, that they would be aware of the existence, much less the disappearance, of such a creature, then, horribly, the morgue, had produced nothing more than a deepening sense of futility. She was gone, swallowed up by the night, by the river. He shuddered at the possibilities.
As a child he had liked playing with the farmers' children best. With them he had milked cows, driven the ox into its pen, climbed trees to knock down fruit. Manual labor freed his mind, which would soar up into the blue Somerset sky and think about everything all at once. There was a girl, Jenny, always dirty and in crude dresses her mother had obviously sewn from old aprons and rags, he had kissed one time, high in an apple tree. They had agreed to marry and live there, at the very top. He would come back and build a platform the next day, he remembered promising. Once he had been sent to school and his peculiar talent for languages discovered, the future seemed determined for him. He had won a scholarship, to a not very socially regarded college, but Oxford nonetheless. For his parents, the aged town solicitor and his wife, who had despaired even of having children, this was the blazing sunset of both their lives. He was glad he had given them that happiness, but also glad, in a bittersweet way, they had not lived to see what happened next. He had fallen into a funk, as so many prodigies do, and neglected his studies, without even indulging in the compensatory thrill of undergraduate debauchery. He lost, he reluctantly saw now, his faith, just when all the machinery had been set in motion to make him what he was, a clergyman of the Church of England. A parish like this was where disappointing scholarship candidates were supposed to prove themselves, work their way back, by pluck and luck, into the good graces of certain benefactors, eventually landing themselves a plush position in the Deanery or being whisked out to the countryside as some great lady's private chaplain. Instead he was stuck here, sinking even deeper into whatever miasmal end awaited him.
Saint Eustace's was built of inferior materials. The walls cracked, the roof leaked. One incongruously beautiful window, given by an anonymous patron, a Passion, cast a rainbow of blue, red, and purple over half the pews. Dust hung thick in the motes. Striding briskly up the center aisle, already gone from here in his mind, no longer in a "holy" mood, the Reverend stopped, frowned, and, sniffing the air, began crouching and retracing his steps, peering under each row until, yes, there, a sleeping figure, the source of the stink he had noticed, breathed fitfully, snuggled against the unforgiving floor. He walked as close as he could for a better look. It was Old Tom, a parishioner, if that was not too strong a word, always eagerly spooning the thin stew offered after service, red in nose and cheek, with teeth only on one side of his jaw, as if the rest had been destroyed by a crushing blow. Half of his face had correspondingly collapsed. He presented the vision of a human balloon slowly deflating, doing his best to deal with the gristly lumps of meat and occasional mouldy potato, all the while making unbelievably loud smacking sounds, a grotesque parody of gustatory pleasure.
"Tom." He shook the sleeping man's shoulder. A year ago he would have hesitated. Everything from fear of lice to much worse would have stayed or at least slowed his hand. But no longer. "Tom, wake up."
A small man to begin with, he looked even tinier curled in a ball and squeezed neatly under the pew. He wore a gray jacket smeared with green, a kerchief tied around his throat, and trousers held up with a length of twine. A cap was wadded underneath his head. His shoes did not match, which often happened if one were clothed by a charity.
"Ah, sure it's the Reverend," Tom said, finally opening his eyes but not moving. "What brings you here, Reverend?"
"Are you all right, Tom?"
"Oh, I only comes in here when it rains. My bones, you know. They ache in the damp."
"Then you shouldn't sleep on a floor. Even a church floor."
"Faith, it's true."
The man's eyes were bright and set deep in his head. He looked like a small animal peering out of its hole. The Reverend noticed a patch of green light shimmering on the rough cement. No flagstones or ancient memorial slabs here. Set a child's marble down and it would roll all the way to the wall. He knew. The parish engineer had shown him last week. The place was built on muck.
"Want me to be on my way, then?"
"No. Stay as long as you like, Tom."
"Ah, you're a fair man, sir."
He said it in an unctuous, insincere way that gave the Reverend no pleasure. Probably should have kicked the sod out but what good would that have done? He heard, with irritation --his hand on the door now--a match being struck. Having himself a smoke. The place would be reeking tomorrow. He would hear about it from the old biddies who came for Matins. If Saint Eustace's hadn't burnt to the ground first.
The rain that had driven Old Tom inside was coursing down the Seven Dials Road. The patch of green blazing through the stained glass was due, the Reverend Belcher could now see, to the Saint Steven's Tower, fog-bound and rain-shrouded, which glowed like the tail of a phosphorescent worm. It was three PM but already dark. There was still time for a five or six mile walk. He turned up his collar. If the blood of Jesus would not wash away his sins perhaps the rain of London would.
When Finch returned to his lodgings, he found a man sitting on the sofa, or rather the drop cloth now covering the sofa, for Lutwidge himself was due to leave later that day, planning first to stay with his aged parents in Kent, then, later in the month, going on to Tattson Hall. A single travelling bag, packed by Carrier, waited on his already stripped bed.
"Burglar?" he asked, taking off his hat, giving his hair a quick pat. There was a saber-stick somewhere in the foyer, but Choir had choked the stand with his eccentric collection of umbrellas. Besides, the man hardly looked like a thief.
"Inspector Jenkins," he said. "HMIS."
"His Majesty's Investigatory Services. You are Lutwidge Finch?"
Inspector Jenkins wore a drab trench coat similar in color to the dirty drop cloth on which he sat. He was a middleaged man who had invested all his capital in a rather impressive walrus mustache, going gray in places, which gave his words the impression of issuing from a moss-choked spring. His eyes were large and observant, this characteristic emphasized even more by the lazy stillness the rest of his body kept. He did not, for example, rise to greet Finch, yet this did not seem rude. It was his job, his posture implied, to sit and watch. finch sat opposite the Inspector in his favorite armchair. With the curtains drawn, the carpets rolled up, and the furniture cloaked, the room took on a half-remembered dream-like atmosphere, in which it seemed perfectly natural to be conversing with an utter stranger who had materialized in his locked apartment, claiming to be from a government agency he had never heard of.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" Inspector Jenkins asked.
"Is this about what happened in the Park?"
He struck a match and sat back.
"Possibly. What happened in the Park?"
"Absolutely nothing," Finch said promptly.
"And I came all this way." The faintly mocking tone made Lutwidge realize he was on the wrong track, and acting like a fool. He resolved to say no more. Inspector Jenkins looked in vain for an ashtray, then apologetically tapped the cigarette into his cupped hand. "Know a man named Ghoulrich?"
"Bradley Ghoulrich. Of course. He is a great friend of mine."
"I am afraid I have some bad news about your friend, Mr. Finch."
"He has had an accident."
"Is he all right? He has been sick lately and--"
"He was run down by a coach. Very badly damaged, I should say. He lingered for quite a time at the hospital."
Lutwidge was on his feet.
"I should like to see him right away."
"I am afraid that would be impossible, sir."
"I am afraid he is dead, you see."
"Oh." Finch sat again.
Inspector Jenkins got up, disappeared for a few moments and returned from the apartment's pantry with a small dish. He rested his cigarette in it.
"Fine china," he offered, admiring the porcelain.
Lutwidge had not moved.
"When did this happen?"
"A few nights back. He left a note with his solicitor. General instructions, that sort of thing. He named you executor of his estate. You are..." he produced a small book and flipped through the pages, "...Lutwidge Finch, Knight of the Clear Gaze. What's that about?"
"A joke," Finch murmured, looking down. The detritus gathered in the corner of the room, the stomped, crumbled bits of food, the wisps of dust, all existed, and Bradley, now, did not. "He had no family."
"So I gather."
"Where is the body?"
Inspector Jenkins twisted uncomfortably in his chair.