A church bell chimed the hour, then struck. He counted out the long, slow strokes, and felt Percy doing the same thing beside him. Midnight. A long time yet ’til dawn.
The bell fell silent, and the air shivered and rippled, falling still around them like the water of a pool.
“Shall I tell you a great secret?” Grey whispered, at long last. The room was dark, but his eyes were well accustomed to it by now; black beams crisscrossed the whitewashed ceiling above, so close that he might touch one if he sat up.
“Please.” Percy’s hand tightened on his.
“My father was murdered.”
I found him, you see.” The words came with surprising ease, as though he had told the story many times—and he supposed he had, though only to himself.
“He was in the conservatory. The conservatory had doors that led out into the garden; it was the easiest way to come and go from the house without being seen—I used it all the time.”
He’d used it the night before, in fact, to steal out for an illicit excursion to the river with the son of a local poacher. He’d left the conservatory door carefully jammed, to ensure an inconspicuous return at dawn, and when he came back in the soft gray light, wet to the knees, his pockets full of interesting stones and dead crayfish, a live baby rabbit tucked in his shirt, the door had seemed just as he’d left it. A careful look round in case the gardeners should be stirring early, and he had slipped inside, heart thumping with excitement.
“It was so quiet,” he said, and saw it in memory, the glass panes of the ceiling beginning to glow but the huge room below still slumbering. Everything was gray and shadowed, dreamlike.
“It wasn’t yet full day. No noise from the house proper, all the ferns and vines and trees still—and yet, you know the way plants seem to breathe? They were doing that. I didn’t see him—see the body—just at first. My foot struck the gun; it was lying just inside the door, and went spinning off with a terrible clatter.”
He’d stood transfixed, then ducked hastily behind a row of potted acacias, in case someone should have heard the racket. Apparently no one had, though, and he peeped cautiously out from his refuge.
“He was—he was lying under the peach tree. A ripe peach had fallen and smashed on the stone floor beside him; I could smell it.”
Smelt it, rich and sweet, above the jungle damp of the plants, mingled with the richer stink of blood and bowels. That was his first exposure to the smell of death; it had never troubled him on battlefields, but he could not eat peaches.
“How far…? The, um, the…gun?” Percy spoke with the greatest delicacy. Grey squeezed his fingers to show that he appreciated it.
“No, he couldn’t have dropped it. He lay twenty feet away, at least, with a bench and several big pot-plants between.”
He’d known at once that it was his father. The duke was wearing his favorite old jacket, a shabby thing of checkered wool, not fit for anything beyond puttering.
“I knew from the first glimpse that he was dead,” he said, staring up into the white void above. “But I ran to him.”
There was no way in which to describe his feelings, because he hadn’t had any. The world had simply ceased in that moment, and with it, all his knowledge of how things were done. He simply could not see how life might continue. The first lesson of adult life was that it, horribly, did.
“He’d been shot in the heart, though I couldn’t see that, only a pool of blood on the floor under him. His face was all right, though.” His own voice seemed remote. “I hadn’t time to look further. The door into the house opened just then.”
Sheer instinct, rather than thought, had propelled him back behind the acacias, and he had crouched there, frozen like the rabbits he had hunted in the night.
“It was my mother,” he said.
She’d been in her wrapper, not yet dressed for the day, and her hair hanging over her shoulder in a thick plait. He’d seen the first light from the glass panes overhead strike her, glowing from the dark-blond plait, showing up her wary face.
“Gerry?” she’d said, voice low.
The baby rabbit in John’s shirt had stirred then, roused by his own immobility. He was too shocked to do anything about it, too frightened to call out to the duchess.
She looked about her, and called once more, “Gerry?” Then she saw him, and what dim color the growing light had lent her vanished in an instant.
“She went to him, of course—fell on her knees beside him, touched him, called his name, but in a sort of desperate whisper.”
“She expected to find him there,” Percy said, intent. “And she was shocked to find him dead—but…not surprised, perhaps?”
“Very astute of you.” Grey rubbed at his ribs, feeling in memory the scratch of the rabbit’s sharp claws, a pain ignored. “No. She wasn’t surprised. I was.”
The duchess had remained for a few moments crouched over her husband’s body, rocking to and fro in an agony of silent grief. Then she had sat back on her heels, arms wrapped about herself, her white face set like stone, and tearless.
The rabbit’s scrabbling at his belly drew blood, and he clenched his teeth against a hiss of pain. Fumbling madly and silently, he pulled the tail of his shirt free and the little thing tumbled to the stone floor of the conservatory, where it stood frozen for an instant, then shot out of the acacias, toward the outer door.
The duchess recoiled from the sudden movement, hand clamped across her mouth. Then she saw the rabbit, quivering in a small puddle of early light, and her shoulders shook.
“Oh, God,” she said, still quietly. “Oh, dear God.”
She’d stood up then, the skirt of her wrapper stained with blood, and walked across the conservatory. Keeping her distance from the rabbit, she pushed the door ajar with one outstretched arm, then stepped back and stood watching, apparently deeply absorbed, as the rabbit stayed for a long, nose-twitching second before bolting for freedom.
“I might have come out then,” Grey said, and drew a deep breath. “But just then, she saw the gun. I hadn’t known it was a gun myself—only that my foot had struck something—but when she picked it up, I saw it was a pistol. A dueling gun, one of my father’s. He’d a pair of them, chased silver—very beautiful.”
His father had let him shoot with one, once. Seeing the silver of the barrel glint as his mother lifted it, he’d felt the shock of recoil in his arm, heard the sharp bang, and his empty stomach had risen up, choking him with bile.
“She stood there for a moment, just staring at it. Then her face…changed. She looked at my father’s body, at the gun, and—I knew she’d made a decision of some kind.”
She had crossed the floor like a sleepwalker, stooped, and put the pistol in her husband’s hand. She’d laid a hand, very lightly, on his head and stroked his hair. Then rose swiftly and walked quickly away into the house, closing the door gently behind her.
John had stood up, light-headed from the sudden movement, and staggered to the outer door. He’d shoved it open and, leaving it hanging ajar, ran through the garden and out the gate, across the back fields—running without thought or destination, only running, until he tripped and fell.
“There was a hayrick near. I crawled to it, and burrowed in. After a bit, I went to sleep.”
“Hoping that it wouldn’t be real when you woke,” Percy said softly. Somewhere in the telling, Percy had gathered him into his arms, and held him now, close against his body. His head lay in the hollow of Percy’s shoulder, and the curly hairs of Percy’s chest brushed soft against his lips when he spoke.
“It was, though. The farmer found me near sunset; I’d slept nearly the day through, and everyone was in a panic, looking for me.”
Percy’s hand smoothed the hair away from John’s face, gentle.
“Your mother likely thought whoever’d killed your father had got you, too.”
“Yes, she did.” For the first time in the telling, a lump came into his throat, recalling his mother’s face when she’d seen him, filthy, trailing hay and mud across the Turkey carpet in her boudoir. “That’s—the only time she cried.”
Percy’s arm tightened round his shoulders. He could hear Percy’s heart, a muffled, steady thump beneath his ear.
“And you?” Percy said at last, very quietly. “Did you weep for your father?”
“I never did,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Grey had one precious day of leave, following the wedding. He was greatly tempted to spend it in bed with Percy. But it was his only chance to go and have a look at Gilbert Rigby, erstwhile soldier and suitor of widows, presently guardian to London’s foundlings. And there was the minor consideration that flesh had its limits.
He and Percy had reached them twice more, waking in the night in a musky tangle of limbs. The memory of warm, wet mouths in the darkness and the taste of wine and wood morels had been enough to make him slide out of bed at dawn when he saw Percy, naked, dousing his face with water at the basin, and seize him from behind.
He would have felt guilt at his own rough manners, had Percy not made it clear as day that such usage suited him.
“Don’t worry,” Percy had whispered, when he had tried to say something afterward—apologize, perhaps. Percy’s face was buried in his shoulder, but he felt the smile against his skin. “You’ll have your full share.”
He hadn’t realized what that meant, but it became clear soon enough; such slow and tender use as Percy put him to was nonetheless thorough—and lasted a very long time. It brought him to the edge again, held him trembling there, gasping and whimpering, and finally dropped him over the side of a sheer precipice he had never suspected was there. He came to himself bathed in sweat and so shattered that his eyes barely focused, only to find that Percy still held him, was still inside him. He had made some small sound, and Percy laughed.
Percy was laughing now, and the sound of it, deep and infectious, made him hard on the instant, blood rushing through him like a spring tide, rich with salt, surging through and stinging his abraded flesh.
“Look at that!”
He turned to see where Percy was pointing, and saw a small pug dog trotting through the crowd, its tail curled up tight as a spring and a grin on its face. Everyone who saw it was grinning, too; the animal was wearing a black velvet jacket with silver buttons and yellow silk butterflies embroidered round the edge, a small brimmed hat tied to its head with a string beneath its chin.
The dog was attracting a great deal more attention than the portraits on display. They were in the inner court of the Foundling Hospital, where an artists’ exhibition to raise funds for support of that institution was in progress. No better opportunity, Grey had thought, for laying eyes on Doctor Rigby, while still enjoying Percy’s company.
The women, in particular, were in ecstasies over the pug, and from their remarks, Grey gathered that the pug’s owner, a tall, lean man with a dignified air, was indeed the director himself. Rigby was evidently conducting a sort of royal progress, moving slowly through the crowd, greeting people and pausing to chat for a moment.
Rigby would reach them within a few minutes, Grey saw, and so turned to examine the pictures at hand. The Dilettante Society had organized an ongoing exhibition, making this the first public art gallery in London. The painters of the society had lent a number of their own canvases, as did some of the richer governors and noble patrons of the Foundling Hospital. Among the modern paintings by Reynolds, Hogarth, Casali, and Rybrack was a rarity—a portrait from an earlier century.
“Look at that,” he said, nudging Percy.
It was the famous Larkin portrait of George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham. The duke, slender as a sylph in white silk hose, and bejeweled like a dagger hilt, gave them back a grin of slightly frenetic gaiety, below a pair of knowing eyes.
After a long moment, Percy turned to him, with a nod at the portrait.
“What do you think?”
“No doubt about it, I should say.”
They looked at the portrait together, standing quite close; he could feel the warmth of Percy’s arm brushing his.
“Odd, how it shows on some men, but others—” Percy shook his head, then glanced at Grey with a smile. “Not you, John.”
In fact, most of the men he had encountered who shared their “abominable perversion” gave not the slightest indication of their appetites in the outward person. Those few who did tended to be of the very effeminate, doe-eyed sort; pretty in youth, but they aged badly.
He cast a look back, as they moved on. George Villiers had not had the opportunity to age, badly or no. Villiers had been not only a nobleman but the favorite of a king, and as such, immune to prosecution. He had been killed by a naval officer at the age of thirty-six—not because of his private behavior, which was notorious, but because of his military incompetence. Grey wondered what Michael Bates would have thought of that, and for a fraction of an instant, wished the captain there.
But Dr. Rigby was approaching them now, cordiality stamped upon his saturnine features.
“Good day, gentlemen!” the doctor said, coming up to them. “You are enjoying the exhibition, I trust? It is so kind of you; we appreciate your support more than I can say.”
“Your servant, sir.” Grey bowed, unable to keep from returning Rigby’s smile, which seemed to hold a genuine warmth and sincerity, for all he had doubtless been employing it without respite for the last hour.
“We are honored to be able to be of any help,” Percy said, with a depth of feeling that surprised Grey a little. He bowed, too, and held out his knuckles to the pug, to be sniffed. “Your servant, sir,” he said gravely to the dog.