Something was afoot: of this he was suddenly certain. Balfour was performing a role, on behalf of the others: taking his measure, Moody thought. But for what purpose? There was a system behind this battery of questions, a design that was neatly obscured by the excess of Balfour's manner, his prodigious sympathy and charm. The other men were listening, however casually they turned the pages of their papers, or pretended to doze. With this realization the room seemed suddenly to clarify, as when a chance scatter of stars resolves into a constellation before the eye. Balfour no longer seemed cheery and effusive, as Moody had first believed him to be; instead he seemed overwrought, strained; even desperate. Moody wondered now whether indulging the man might serve better purpose than denying him.
Walter Moody was much experienced in the art of confidences. He knew that by confessing, one earned the subtle right to become confessor to the other, in his turn. A secret deserves a secret, and a tale deserves a tale; the gentle expectation of a response in kind was a pressure he knew how to apply. He would learn more by appearing to confide in Balfour than by openly suspecting him, simply because if he placed his trust in the other man, freely and without reservation, then Balfour would be obliged to confer his own trust in exchange. There was no reason why he could not relate his family storyhowever vexing it might be to recall itin order to purchase the other man's trust. What had happened aboard the Godspeed, he had no intention of divulging, of course; but in this he did not need to dissimulate, for that was not the story that Thomas Balfour had requested to hear.
Having reflected upon this, Moody changed his tack.
"I see that I must win your confidence yet," he said. "I have nothing to hide, sir. I will relate my tale."
Balfour flung himself back into his armchair with great satisfaction. "You call it a tale!" he said, beaming again. "Then I am surprised, Mr. Moody, that it concerns neither love nor money!"
"Only their absence, I am afraid," Moody said.
"Absenceyes," Balfour said, still smiling. He gestured for Moody to continue.
"I must first acquaint you with the particulars of my family history," Moody said, and then lapsed into silence for a moment, his eyes narrowed, his mouth pursed.
The armchair in which he was sitting faced the hearth, and so nearly half of the men in the room were behind him, sitting or standing at their various sham pursuits. In the several seconds' grace he had secured for himself by appearing to collect his thoughts, Moody let his gaze wander to his left and right, to make note of the listeners sitting closest to them, around the fire.
Nearest the hearth sat the fat man who was feigning sleep. He was by far the most ostentatiously dressed in the room: a massive watch chain, thick as his own fat finger, was slung across his chest, between the pocket of his velvet vest and the breast of his cambric shirt, and affixed to the chain at intervals were knuckle-sized lumps of gold. The man next to him, on Balfour's other side, was partly obscured by the wing of his armchair, so that all Moody could see of him was the glint of his forehead and the shiny tip of his nose. His coat was made of herringbone, a thick woolen weave that was much too hot for his proximity to the fire, and his perspiration betrayed the posture of apparent ease with which he had arranged himself in the chair. He had no cigar; he was turning a silver cigarette case over and over in his hands. On Moody's left was another wingback armchair, pulled so close to his own that he could hear the nasal whistle of his neighbor's breath. This man was dark-haired, slim in build, and so tall that he appeared folded in two, sitting with his knees together and the soles of his shoes planted flat upon the floor. He was reading a newspaper, and in general, he was doing a much better job of pretended indifference than the others, but even so his eyes were somewhat glassy, as if they were not quite focused upon the type, and he had not turned a page in some time.
Excerpted from The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Copyright © 2013 by Eleanor Catton. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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