“For instance,” Mark said, sweeping his gaze over the blue-arm-banded boys who sat in self-satisfied honor in the front of the room, “the members of the MCB are the biggest lot of liars I have ever met.”
There was a pained silence at that—as if several hundred people had suddenly forgotten how to breathe.
Mark glared at Tolliver beside him. “You claim that you’ve committed my book to memory, but as far as I can tell, you haven’t bothered to read a single word. At least, I must presume you haven’t, because the MCB has failed to understand the central message. Let me start by revealing your secrets.”
He made the hand signal Tolliver had showed him at the picnic earlier. “That is not a signal that appears in A Gentleman’s Guide. Not anywhere. And yet I was told that it is a warning. A signal that men might use, to let each other know that a woman is dangerous.”
Tolliver’s nose crinkled, and he frowned at Mark.
“The import of the whispered accusations, those sly hand signals, is that a man who has been unchaste is a man in need of saving, and he can redeem himself by a renewed adherence to principle. A woman, however, who makes a mistake—well, she is unclean, and must be forever cast from good society.”
A few fans rose at this and worked the air furiously.
“I don’t blame any of you,” Mark said. “It’s not as if you could learn proper conduct from a rector who sees nothing wrong with manhandling a woman, simply because he thinks that nobody will notice.”
Across the distance, Jessica lifted her eyes to his. She smiled faintly, but her eyes were still sad. The rector started, his chin lifting suddenly, as he pulled his eyes from her bosom. Good.
“And so,” Mark continued, “I will explain this to you, since you seem to never have heard the concept. There is no such thing as a dangerous woman. If a woman makes you want to lose your head and forget what is right, it is you who are dangerous—to yourself, and even more possibly, to the woman in question. I simply do not believe that any of you who claim to hold me in adulation could have read my book, if you do not understand that basic principle.”
He was caught on the tide of his fury now. For once, he felt no need to restrain his temper.
“There are no unchaste women, or profligate men.” He set his hands on the podium. “There are no saints. None of you men want to hear me say that. After all, if it’s not a woman who’s led you astray, you’ve gone down the wrong path all on your own. If I am just an ordinary man, it means that chastity is attainable for everyone. It means that you are all responsible for your own mistakes, that you must own up to the wrong you have done without laying the blame on anyone else’s doorstep. It means you can never hold a woman scapegoat for your shortcomings again, not even if she is pretty and lively and intelligent.”
Jessica had not taken her eyes from him. They were wide and luminous—and still sad.
“When you make the secret hand signal that suggests that a woman is dangerous, you do not prove yourself strong. You prove yourself weak. What kind of man hides his weaknesses behind a woman? What kind of man places the blame on someone else, rather than admit that he is fallible? And so, yes, I don’t think much of the lot of you right now. I think you’re a pack of cowards and cheats.”
Jessica’s mouth was ajar. Had nobody ever taken her side, then? Who had ever stood as her advocate? Who had defended her? An emotion besides rage presented itself—something cold and prickly, rising up from the depths of him.
“There is one other basic concept that I think you have failed to comprehend,” Mark said. “If you think that women are your nemesis in some struggle for your soul…well. You’ve bungled everything. Completely.”
Mark met her gaze and delivered the next words for her and her alone.
“Women are the point of chastity, not the enemy of it. You should hold to chastity not because you fear what your cohort will say, but because when you indulge your own lusts, the woman you indulge them with is hurt. She is the one who will weather the censure of society. She is the one on whom the burden and expense of an unanticipated pregnancy will fall. She is the one who will be cast out. Men? Men will survive the temporary opprobrium of society. Only an unfeeling cad ignores the plight created by his passing desire. Only a juvenile lets the weight of his actions fall on someone else, and then blames her for his own weakness.”
The crowd had disappeared from his vision. He could see no one but Jessica, could think of no one but her. She watched him like a stone statue, her cheeks marble.
“I know what integrity looks like,” Mark said. “A person with integrity takes responsibility for his own failings. And I respect and admire that more than any number of false protestations of honor.”
If he’d not known better, he’d have thought her on the verge of tears. He looked away. Proud as she was, he didn’t think she’d want him to see it.
“And so when you say a woman has caused your downfall?” Mark swept his gaze back to the members of the MCB. “You’re acting like a pack of irresponsible infants.”
Tolliver actually cringed under Mark’s glare. And for the first time since Mark, swept up in his rage, had begun to speak, cold reality asserted itself. He’d truly let his anger get the better of him. He’d called them all cowards and babies, as if he were the worst sort of hellfire pulpit-thumping preacher.
But thinking of Jessica, sitting isolated and scarcely tolerated, infuriated him. He couldn’t even feel a mild regret.
What was left?
“There,” he said, brushing his hands together as if he were Pontius Pilate disclaiming all responsibility. “I’m done with you.”
He began to walk away. For his first three steps, there was silence. Then the crowd surged to its feet, applauding, shrieking wildly.
He couldn’t believe it. “Are you mad?” he protested aloud. “I just called you all fainthearted infants!”
But they didn’t hear him, not over the whistled accolades. It hadn’t done any good—they still sprang from their places as he tried to escape, slapping his back, thanking him—even though he’d done his best to make them hate him.
“Brilliant speech, Sir Mark!” Tolliver was saying.
“Such heartfelt conviction!”
“I feel inspired,” someone was saying by his elbow. “Truly inspired to live a righteous life.”
“Everyone loved it.” That was Tolliver again. “Except, um, Mr. Lewis. I think he’s looking a bit angry. And Mrs. Farleigh—she’s leaving already.”
Mark turned toward the exit. In this crowd, he could scarcely see more than elbows and hats, wide sleeves and cloaks being claimed in the entrance. But he didn’t need to see more than her elbow—more than the tip of her finger—to recognize her.
She was leaving. After all that, she was leaving without saying a single word to him.
“Tolliver,” Mark said, “do me a favor, there’s a good lad. Tackle anyone who tries to stop me.”
But there was no time to explain. Mark shoved through the crowd after her. Not a chance he’d let her go, not now.
She didn’t want to turn, especially not at the sound of his voice. She didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to have to sort through the confused welter of emotions that coursed through her.
But his footfalls pounded on the dirt road behind her. He must have run clear from the center of town.
“Jessica,” he repeated as he came up to her.
“Sir Mark. I told you not to make a romance of me. You…you are the dearest idiot.”
He didn’t flinch. “Is that what you think I’m doing, then? Seeing some idealized version of you? Didn’t you hear a word I just said? It’s not about you.”
“No? Then you must have been making a champion of yourself.”
“I’d quite forgot,” she said, “you are a knight, are you not
? I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that you occasionally play the part.”