"Well sir, there wasn't
really much to begin with, after the accident, I mean. And now, it being
three days and all..."
"Took us a while to find you, Mr. Finch. The fact of the matter is, Mr. Ghoulrich's body was burnt."
Roused to battle, inspired, perhaps, by the mention of his heraldic name, Finch met Jenkins' level stare with one of his own.
"You burnt Bradley's body?"
"It was beginning to decompose, sir. And, as you said, he had no family, no one else to notify and have take charge of the corpse. It was disposed of as a public health hazard. I wonder...if Mr. Ghoulrich left any records with you?"
"Diaries. Letters. That sort of thing."
"Why would you want to know?"
"It's purely routine. Did he, then?"
"Who are you?" He looked at Inspector Jenkins as if the man had just appeared. "What are you doing here?"
"I told you."
"Are you a policeman?"
"Not directly. No."
"...Investigatory Services. The case was referred to us by the police."
"It is government policy to follow up on matters like this. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions about Mr. Ghoulrich's activities."
Finch went to the elephant leg and grabbed a flamboyant umbrella with a peacock-head handle, which he brandished, bill first, at the sedentary Inspector.
"Get out of my house."
"There is no need for violence, Mr. Finch."
"Why did you come here? Why didn't his solicitor simply inform me? And how did you get in the door?"
"The door was open." Inspector Jenkins did get up now, slowly, ignoring the rather ludicrous weapon in Finch's hand. "As for why I came: I told you, I am investigating Bradley Ghoulrich's activities. Did he confide in you?"
"We discussed things, yes."
"Things?" Jenkins stood before him, hands buried deep in his coat pockets. "Did he tell you much about his personal life? Whom he was intimate with, for example?"
Finch looked at him uncomprehendingly.
"Never mind," the Inspector smiled. "I can see I'm barking up the wrong tree. You know nothing, do you?"
"I do not wish to continue this conversation."
"Of course not. I will be leaving you, now. Sorry for your loss." He pushed the forgotten umbrella aside. "If someone asks, I would advise you not to recall this conversation."
"Get out," Finch said dully, staring at the painted handle, wondering how there came to be in his hands this strange simulacrum of the royal bird.
"Earth to earth, dust to dust..."
"--and me to the pub," Choir grunted. "Can I get you anything?"
The graveside ceremony was at a private chapel, several miles from the cathedral. A road ran along the edge of the estate so that an inn was faintly visible past the subsiding cemetery wall.
"I think we should wait," Lady Tabitha whispered.
"As you wish."
He had retained his respectful attitude through the wearying, drawn-out affair, which was, at last, winding to a close. A line of coaches waited to take the mourners to Sir Roderick's house, where refreshments would be served. Here, Lady Tabitha would at last be introduced to her highborn relations. She was surprised at the gratitude she felt towards Choir for shepherding her through this first part of the ordeal. Aside from his giving her a stout pillar on which to lean, she knew that appearing with him initially, one whose reputation and quarterings were beyond reproach, had lent her a definite cachet and would provide her a "leg up" for the meetings soon to take place. She felt no guilt in growing to appreciate the Earl. Quite the contrary. Since this man was her husband-to-be's friend, liking him was merely a demonstration of her loyalty to Lutwidge.
"Over there," the Earl said, standing rigidly at attention as the coffin was lowered but managing to indicate with his eyes a formidably erect woman in deep mourning. "The Duchess Middleton, technically your second cousin three times removed. She is the matriarch of the Bourneville clan, though-"
here he did turn, just slightly, and wink, "ñ several places behind myself in strict court precedence."
"And the others?" Lady Tabitha asked.
"Various riff-raff of the nobility," he yawned, now that they were all turning and trooping off towards the coachmen. "Not worth the gunpowder it would take to blow them all to Hell. I am famished. I wonder who is in charge of the spread."
"I heard Sir Roderick left instructions."
"Typical of him, meddlesome old bastard. Sorry! Mustn't speak ill of the dead," Choir laughed, seeing her shocked expression. "Forgive me. It's just all this..."
"All what?" Lady Tabitha waited for him to help her into the coach.
He gave a sweeping glance to the perfectly trimmed hedges, the fattened flock of sheep, the rolling, unmortgaged hills, the majestic house set on a slight rise. It made him sick with envy. All this acquired by a man who was little more than a civil servant! But then he motioned to their fellow travellers.
"All this hypocrisy," he concluded, knowing that was what she wanted to hear. "Come, let us get you introduced to your Peers."
Sir Roderick's house was furnished in bachelor taste, with comfortable furniture and glass-fronted cabinets containing the many treasures from his travels. A gallery of portraits, framed in gold, enshrined those most dear to him, few of whom, Lady Tabitha noted, seemed related by blood.
"Mabel," Choir barked. "Dreadfully sorry for your loss."
"Good of you to come, Jeffrey," the Duchess Middleton replied with equal negligence, staring instead at Lady Tabitha, who stood beside Choir.