Since Poppy didn’t look any more interested in Eve’s bellybutton than he was—although who knew, given all the secrets she’d kept—Fletch felt free to continue their conversation under cover of the choleric debate.
“God would never have placed false evidence on Adam’s body,” Mr. Brownrigg stated, looking as if he’d addressed the point with the Almighty just last week.
“Your mother seems fine,” he hissed at Poppy. “But how are you?”
She listened intently to Mr. Pringle’s infuriated response to Brownrigg and turned to Fletch with a brilliant smile. “I’m having a marvelous time,” she said. “I can’t remember being so happy in my life. I trust you are just as happy?”
“Of course,” he muttered.
“God has no need for false history,” Mr. Brownrigg said, going head to head and jowl to jowl with his opponent.
“Jemma says that you gave a speech in the House of Lords,” Poppy said. “What was it about?”
“It was about Pitt’s fitness for the position of First Lord of the Treasury.”
“I didn’t know you were interested.”
“It was an utter disaster.”
She finally turned her head to look at him. “What do you mean? The paper reported that your speech was extremely lively.”
“Lively, it was. And well received by the opposition,” Fletch said. “Halfway through I began arguing for my opponent’s viewpoint.”
Poppy gasped and—to do her credit—managed not to smile. “How on earth did you do that, Fletch?”
“LordTemple asked me to present his point of view, and I thought it would be easy. Then halfway through my speech I realized that I didn’t quite agree with the line of argument I was making—so I turned it around.”
“You can’t do that!”
“I did.” He grinned a little, remembering. “I thought wigs were going to start steaming.”
“I would have never thought it of you,” Poppy said, staring at him.
“What part of it? Making a hash of the speech? From what you said earlier, I’d think that was a natural for me.”
“Speaking in Parliament. I never thought you cared about that sort of thing.”
“Nothing but the color of my coat?”
She was starting to look a bit guilty. “I know that you take excellent care of the estate, of course.”
“I enjoyed it,” he told her. “It became a farce, of course, when I realized that I was arguing the wrong side, but my fault: I should have taken the time to think it through.”
“Well, I’m sure that took courage,” Poppy said, touching him on the arm. “Admitting you were wrong, I mean.”
“I didn’t admit it,” Fletch said. “I just talked so much that no one had the faintest idea what precisely I said until I rounded into my conclusion.”
“Adam was formed from dust with no scars!” one of the antiquarians said with huge emphasis.
“I think they’re almost finished,” Poppy whispered.
“How do you know? My guess is that they could go all night. They really hate each other, don’t they?”
“Oh no, I don’t think so. I believe it’s staged. Why, in the last issue of Philosophical Transactions, Mr. Brownrigg quoted Mr. Pringle and said that his treatise on the trochus shell was one of the best of its kind.”
“On the trochus shell?” Fletch asked.
“Yes, I ordered the treatise on that basis, but I didn’t find it very interesting. Pringle argued that the concentric rings on the shell indicated the number of seasons a clam had lived.”
Fletch just blinked at her.
“That suggests that a clam grows a new ring every year,” Poppy explained to him.
“It could be,” she said.
On the stage Brownrigg and Pringle were glaring at each other in one final burst of scientific fury before they stamped off. Watching them, Fletch guessed that Poppy was right and they were about to retreat into some back room to swig a glass of brandy together. The whole event was like an odd shadow of debates in the House of Lords.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were interested in shells and slothes and that sort of thing?”
She frowned at him, obviously puzzled. “You aren’t interested in the concentric rings on shells, are you, Fletch?”
“But you—you were in love with me!” For some reason, Fletch had the strongest desire to say it. To tell her again. To make her take back what she said before.
Her eyes were clear and blue. “I wasn’t really, Fletch. We already discussed that. Neither of us was really in love. And anyway, this is—this is different from all of that life.”
“What life?” Fletch felt as if he were desperately grasping at straws, trying to understand a foreign language.
“This—this is my pleasure,” Poppy said, looking around. “Don’t you see how interesting it is?”
Fletch looked around. The room was shabby and crowded, mostly with men but with a fair sprinkling of ladies. To the right several people were having a spirited discussion of flying squirrels.
“They don’t really fly,” a short plump man said, jutting his round plump chin forward. He had rusty colored hair that began somewhere around the middle of his head. If Fletch had ever seen a man in need of a wig, it was he.
“Yes, they do,” a big-boned man replied.
“That’s a professor,” Poppy whispered, nodding toward the second speaker.
Fletch noticed her eyes were shining and grunted.
“Dr. Fibbin proved without a shadow of a doubt that squirrels can fly a distance of forty to fifty feet.”
“Fibbin is a fool,” the half-bald one said.
Though he hated to admit it, Fletch agreed with him.
“They have a stuffed flying squirrel at the AshmoleonMuseum in Oxford,” Poppy said, settling back beside Fletch. “I have written for an appointment, and I’m going to the museum in December.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing?” Fletch said, dumbfounded. “I haven’t seen you at any parties. You’ve been going to museums?”
“Oh no,” Poppy said. “That is, I haven’t yet. But I mean to. You know, the only time my mother allowed me to visit Somerset House was for a lecture on the customs of polite society, even though the Royal Society was meeting here at precisely the same time!”
“You’re married,” Fletch said. “You could have visited a museum any damn day you please, Poppy.”
“Now I can,” she said. “Hush, Fletch. Mr. Belsize is going to speak.”
Mr. Belsize did speak. And speak. But Fletch just sat there, staring at the worn carpet and wondering why Poppy never felt free to go to a museum, and why he never knew that she wanted to go to a museum. A tiny thread in the back of his mind was also thinking about the upcoming debate in the House over Fox’s East India bill.
“You’re not traveling to Oxford with Jemma,” he said, as Mr. Belsize gulped a little water.
“Of course I am,” Poppy said.
“I’m not having my wife trot around outside London without me,” he said.