"May I present Tabitha Bourneville," the Earl went on.
"At the ceremony she specifically commented to me on the striking resemblance you bore to her late father."
Now Lady Tabitha had done no such thing and were her self-possession not screwed to its highest pitch she would have reprimanded Choir for this cynical attempt to curry favor on her behalf. He has no scruples, part of her realized, but it was far too important an occasion for her to do more than register the fact for future consideration. Besides, the gambit had obviously worked, since the Duchess, a stern, white-haired lady with steely gray eyes, broke into a kindly smile and held out her hand.
"Do you really think so, my dear? Your father was a great favorite of mine. And of Sir Roderick's as well." She nodded to one of the gold-framed portraits where Tabitha now recognized her father, the mysterious cipher at the center of her life, as a child himself, posing with a shaggy dog. "Roderick was heart-broken when he died," the Duchess went on. "He always asked after you."
"I am sorry," Lady Tabitha felt herself blushing, "that I never met him."
"Taciturn chap," Choir said. "To me, at least."
"He did not waste words," the Duchess said haughtily.
"Nor caviar, either." Choir had spied the buffet table. "You will excuse me."
He took the liberty, it seemed natural enough under the circumstances, of kissing Lady Tabitha's hand.
"Yours would be quite a unifying of the branches," the Duchess said, scrutinizing Choir's departing form.
"Oh no," Tabitha protested. "That is not at all why I am here. I merely met him on the train."
"A chance encounter, dear?"
"No. We are acquainted, but..."
"Your mother was intimidated by this...atmosphere." The Duchess waved at the room, the high ceiling of which, Lady Tabitha now noticed, was a fresco of Lord Castlereagh being welcomed into Heaven. "She shrank before us, instinctively, as it were. I hope that is not a tradition you will carry on."
"One can shrink from something for many reasons," Lady Tabitha said evenly.
"I will be frank: We felt your father married beneath him. We felt he died a disappointed man."
"Of that I cannot say. I was less than two at the time." "You must take my word for it."
"I must do nothing of the sort. I can tell you that my mother was treated shabbily by your crowd." It was her turn now to motion, to include by a quick glance the titled multitude who stood all around them surreptitiously watching and straining to hear the two women. "Sympathy for a grieving widow, simple Christian charity; are not those traits of the true nobility?"
"Of charity she received much. On a monthly basis, I believe. But I see I am upsetting you. You are as headstrong as your mother. And even prettier, I daresay. It proved in the past an unfortunate combination. I pray history does not repeat itself."
"Sandwiches," Choir said, returning with a plateful. "Getting along like a house on fire, are we?"
"Lords, ladies, gentlemen, will you all please be seated?"
A tall, distinguished man in a black waistcoat had positioned himself in the center of the room. He seemed accustomed to public speaking, and with a firm smile willed the conversations around him to a halt, waiting patiently until the last of the party had either sat or posed themselves expectantly on the outer fringes of the newly formed circle.
"I am Arthur Bellingham," the man began. "Sir Roderick's neighbor, friend, and solicitor. I welcome you all today, while deeply regretting the circumstance which has brought you here. It was one of our lamented friend's last wishes that I organize this sad gathering. I thank you all for coming."
There was a polite, appreciative murmur, then the first tendrils of resuming conversation. But Mr. Bellingham went on:
"I shall now read Sir Roderick's last will and testament."
He produced a sheet of paper with a red and gold seal at the bottom.
"Is that really necessary?" one of the close relatives called. "I thought only the involved parties were required to--"
"It is what he wished," Mr. Bellingham said. He held the document at arm's length, as if peering past the horizon, into the land of the dead, and from there retrieving his friend's words.
"I, Roderick Arthur Knowlton Saire Bourneville Shepperton," he intoned, "of sound mind and healthy body, do hereby bequeath the following..."
A list began of which Lady Tabitha took no notice. A book here, a statuette there. Something someone had once made the mistake of admiring. She noted the sugared, guilty, disappointed smiles of the recipients. Her father, six years old perhaps, was hugging the ruff of a large collie, clinging to it really. He wore a uniform of blue velvet and a lace collar. With his subsequent fate sharp in her mind, she felt an overwhelming bitterness at the tricks life plays, at the expectations of a child so carelessly trampled. Had he died a disappointed man? Had her mother given him cause for disapppointment? She stole a glance at the Duchess Middleton. Do you have proof my mother was unfaithful? she wanted to ask. "...the remainder of my estate, in its entirety," the lawyer's voice droned on, "my land and retainers, my lodgings and their appurtenances..." Even if there was proof, what difference did it make now? Everyone involved was dead, except herself. She heard her name, followed by audible gasps from the others.
"What?" she asked, emerging from her revery. "Did he leave me the picture?"
The Duchess's jaw had dropped. Choir was looking at Lady Tabitha in amazement.
"The picture?" he echoed. "Didn't you hear? He just left you everything."
"He just left you the whole bloody packet!"
(To be continued)