"Something hit me in the head. It was an oar from a passing pleasure boat. I held onto it as naturally as one takes a cup of tea. They hauled me on board, a group of Methodists from Northumberland, on holiday. The near-drowning explained the state of my clothes, not to mention my agitated physical condition. I was returned to my mother, who herself had taken a turn for the worse. In the confusion of the sickroom, my misadventure was barely noted."
"And this caddish ex-Colonel?"
"Acted as if nothing had happened. A week later my mother breathed her last. I never saw him again. Until last month."
Why is she telling me this? the Earl asked, but was smart enough to keep silent. They had not, the whole time, looked at each other. Rather they were doing exactly what they had announced: strolling to the gazebo and admiring the Cotswolds.
"I appreciate your accompanying me," she said. "Not just to Rottingdean, but here as well. I know it was not in your plans."
She really looks magnificent, he thought, no longer feigning interest in the landscape. There simply is no substitute for wealth when it comes to bringing out one's natural advantages.
"It seemed ungentlemanly to leave you," he said. "Alone, with your great news not yet sunk in, surrounded by that peevish crowd of would-be inheritors." He smiled, recalling the shocked expression of the Duchess. "You certainly gave as good as you got."
"It does not shock you, then?" Lady Tabitha asked, turning to him now.
"What? The story you just told?" He emphasized the word 'story', as if offering to take it as such, a girlish fiction, should she ever ask him to, should she ever regret, and wish to retract, her confidence. "What people do, what people have done to them, is of the most supreme unimportance to me."
"You are unusual in that way."
"But a man in your position--"
"Jolly good view up here," he breathed, letting the statement do double-duty. "My dear woman, you are as you stand before me. We are all tainted, one way or the other, by Original Sin, if not by the events that follow. What I cannot believe is that you allow the actions of inferiors to have any lasting effect on you at all. You are one of us now."
Lady Tabitha, though not responding, compared Finch's imagined reaction to that of Choir's. He would be sympathetic, yes, and solicitous, in a way that the Earl was not. But would that have the same effect of banishing her shame? She felt, in many ways, more of a kinship with Choir. There was much cold and artificial in their shared view of the world, but he seemed to feel none of the guilt she did in regarding it as such. Lutwidge often made her feel bad, inadequate, but also gave her something to strive for, a spiritual and moral compass, just what she had been told, a hundred times, her poor mother had so sorely lacked. Choir, on the other hand, made her feel free to be who she was. He beckoned to her from a world without gravity, with no east, west, north, or south, a world in which a compass would not be necessary, would be, indeed, ridiculous.