Norrell had been more than usually minute and tedious in his demands that evening, and Strange had drunk rather more Madeira than he had intended in the effort not to show his vexation. He half expected to find Arabella already gone to bed when he returned to Soho-square. She was sitting in the parlour, however, her work basket by her side, though she did not seem to have any work in hand. There was a quality to her stillness that reminded him of something he had seen in the Peninsula, though he could not say exactly what it was.
He began on a mumbled apology for the lateness of the hour, but before he could explain how tiresome Norrell had been, she interrupted him.
Why that should make her look graver still, he could not tell. She drew a deep breath, and squared her shoulders for all the world like – yes, now he knew what it was. Like a soldier preparing to go into battle, but what possible reason could there be –
“I found this in your coat pocket,” she said.
This was a scrap of paper: a small enough cause, one would think, for her embattled air. A spell, was it? He did not remember putting a spell in his coat pocket, but perhaps –
He stared at the inscription in Grant’s familiar hand: 2 Samuel 1, 26.
Grant was not in the habit of quoting Scripture at him, or indeed of leaving stray bits of paper in Strange’s coat pockets. Yet it was plainly his writing; Strange would have known it anywhere.
He ought to know what the verse was. If he had been a more regular churchgoer, or paid attention to the lessons on Sundays instead of trying to catch Arabella Woodhope’s eye –
Bell made a small movement of impatience. “It is David’s lament,” she said. “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan –”
Jonathan? Grant had never called him that. It was Mr Strange, at first, and then, when dislike had turned to friendship, invariably Merlin, no matter how intimate the situation in which they found themselves. To discover that Grant had thought of him as Jonathan gave Strange a very odd sensation.
“Whose writing is this?”
To say Grant’s name appeared to be impossible. Strange’s throat was dry. “One of the officers,” he said.
She was silent for a time, as if gathering her strength. Then she said “What was he to you?”
A thorn in Strange’s side, at first; then, a source of unlooked-for comfort and kindness. A friend. A warm body in his arms, in his bed; a relief from loneliness so acute he had thought he would die of it.
I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
The memory of his last time with Grant, in a wretched little quayside inn the night before they embarked for England, came back to him as sharp and clear as if it were yesterday. He had known that the next day would bring what he had wanted for so long, the return to home and Bell, but he could not feel it. It seemed as if there was no desire left in him for any thing or anyone, only a great weariness. He had thought Grant might be disappointed in him, since this was the last night they would spend together, but it did not appear so. Grant embraced him very affectionately; he kissed him on the forehead, and kept his arms around him until Strange grew comfortable and heavy and eventually fell asleep. When he awoke, he found Grant looking down at him so kindly that it warmed him and at the same time made his chest ache. He did not think Grant had slept at all.
“Jonathan?” Bell’s voice was steady, but her hands were clasped tight in her lap. “What is this man to you?”
Strange’s mind was all confusion. He did not know how to answer her. Those memories of being with Grant belonged to Merlin, and he had left Merlin behind him when he returned to England, or so he had thought.
“I love you, Bell.” He could not think what else to say.
“I know you do,” she said quietly. “But I need to know what this writing means.”
He gazed again at the paper, as if it could tell him what to say, but no words came.