He stood waiting. Grey sat staring at the pistol, loaded and primed. He’d loaded it himself.
“Go on, then,” Grey said at last.
He saw Percy’s back swell with his breath, and saw the naked lines of it beneath broadcloth and linen, slender, perfect.
“The first time I lay with a man, it was for money,” Percy said quietly. “I was fourteen. We had had no food for two days—my mother and I. I was going through the alleyways, looking for anything that might be sold. A man found me there—Henry, he was called, I never knew his last name—a well-dressed man, rather stout. He told me he was a law clerk, and he may have been. He took me to his room, and when he had finished, he gave me three shillings. A fortune.” He spoke without irony.
“And so you…continued. With him?” Grey strove to keep his own voice colorless.
Percy’s head rose from the bricks, and he turned round, dark eyes somber.
“Yes,” he said simply. “Him, others. It made the difference between poverty and outright hunger. And I discovered that my own tastes…lay that way.” He gave Grey a direct look. “It was not always for money.”
Grey felt something turn over inside him, and didn’t know whether it was regret or relief.
“I…when I thought…that there might be something between us…I would not come to you at once; you noticed, I think?”
“There was a man—I will not give his name; it is not important—call him ‘Mr. A,’ perhaps. He was…”
“Your protector?” Grey gave the word an ugly intonation, and was pleased to see Percy’s jaw clench.
“If you like,” Percy said tersely, and met his eyes directly. “I would not come to you until I had broken with him. I did not wish there to be any…complication.”
“Michael—the man with whom you saw me…” He pronounced the name in the German way, Grey noticed: ”Meechayel.” “I knew him. Before. We met in London, a year ago.”
“Money?” Grey asked brutally. “Or…?”
Percy took a deep breath and looked away.
“Or,” he said. He bit his lower lip. “I told him I did not…that there was someone—I did not tell him your name,” he added quickly, looking up.
“Thank you for that,” Grey said. His lips felt stiff.
Percy swallowed, but did not look away again.
“He insisted. Once, he said, what harm? I would not. And then he said—it was not quite a threat, but clear enough—he said, what if there began to be talk? Among the German officers, among our—our own. About me.”
Clear enough, Grey thought bleakly. Was it the truth? Did it matter?
“I do not tell you by way of excuse,” Percy repeated, and stared at Grey, unblinking.
“Because I loved you,” Percy said, very softly. “Since we began, I have not touched anyone else, or thought of it. I wished you to know that.”
And considering his history—as he told it—that was a considerable affirmation of affection, Grey thought cynically.
“You cannot say the same, can you?” Percy was still looking at him, his mouth tight.
He opened his own mouth to refute this, but then realized what Percy meant. He had not touched another, no; but there was another. And exactly where was the boundary to be found, between the flesh and the heart? He shut his mouth.
“Do not tell me I have broken your heart. I know better.” Percy’s face was pale, but hectic patches of red had begun to glow across his cheekbones—as though Grey had slapped him. He turned suddenly away, and began to strike the white wall with his fist, slowly, soundlessly.
“I know better,” he repeated, his voice low and bitter.
If it is your intent to place the fault for this disaster upon my shoulders—He swallowed the words, unspoken. He would neither defend himself nor engage in pointless recriminations.
“Perseverance,” Grey said, very softly. Percy halted abruptly. After a moment, he rubbed a hand over his face, once, twice, then swung round to face Grey.
“What do you want of me?”
Percy looked at him for some moments, unspeaking. At last he shook his head, one side of his mouth turned up in what was not quite a smile.
“What I wanted, you couldn’t give me, could you? Couldn’t even lie about it, honorable bloody honest bastard that you are. Can you lie now? Can you tell me that you loved me?”
I could tell you, he thought. And it would be true. But not true enough. He did not know whether Percy spoke out of panic and anger—or whether from a calculated effort to evoke Grey’s guilt, and thus his help. It didn’t really matter.
The air in the small room hung thick, silent.
Percy made a small, contemptuous sound. Grey kept his eyes fixed on his hands.
“Is that what you want?” he asked at last, very quietly.
Percy rocked back a little, eyes narrowed.
“No,” he said slowly. “No, I don’t. It’s late to talk of love, isn’t it?”
He could feel Percy’s eyes upon him, gauging him. He lifted his head, and saw the look of a man about to roll dice for high stakes. It came to him, with a small, sudden shock, that he recognized that look because he was a gambler himself. He hadn’t realized that before, but there was no time to contemplate the revelation.
“What I want,” Percy said, each word distinct, “is my life.” He saw the uncertainty cross Grey’s face with the possibilities that conjured—if it could be done; a sentence of imprisonment, transportation—and the considerations of what those possibilities might mean—not only to Percy, but to Hal, the regiment, the family…
“And my freedom.”
A feeling of sudden, senseless rage came over him, so strong that he pressed his fists into his thighs to keep from springing to his feet and striking Percy.
“For God’s sake,” he said, voice harsh with the effort to keep it low. “You do this—make such a frigging mess—why did you not tell me? I could have made sure Meechayel was no threat to you. For that matter, how can you have been so weak, so stupid, as to give in to a feeble threat like that? Unless you wished it, and took the excuse—no, don’t say anything. Not a fucking word!” He struck his fist violently upon his knee.
“You do this,” he went on, voice trembling, “you not only destroy yourself, you embroil us all—”
“All. You and your bloody brother and your goddamned family honor, you mean—”
“Yes, our goddamned family honor! And the honor of the regiment—of which you are a sworn officer, I remind you. How dare you utter the word ‘honor’? Yet you do dare—and presume further to demand that I not only perform some miracle to save your life, but to save you from all consequences of your folly?”
The pistol lay on the bench before him, loaded and primed, requiring only to be cocked. For one instant, he thought how simple it would be to pick it up, cock it, and shoot Percy between the eyes. No questions would be asked.
“I didn’t say that.”
Percy’s voice was choked. Grey couldn’t look at Percy’s face, but saw the long hands clench, unfold, reclench themselves. There was silence between them, the kind of silence that rings with unspoken words.
There were noises, somewhere in the building. Voices, laughter. How was it possible that normal life continued, anywhere? He heard Percy draw breath, heard it catch in his throat.
“You could not give me love, you said—but kindness and honor; those were yours to give,” Percy whispered. Grey looked up, and saw that the hectic flush had faded, the luminous skin gone pallid and chalky.
“There is no honor left to me.” His lips trembled; he pressed them tight for an instant. “If—if there is any kindness left between us, John—I beg you. Save me.”
He couldn’t. Could not bear to remember: not Percy warm in his bed, not Percy in the fetid cell—certainly not Percy in the attic room with Weber—could not think about the current situation, could not decide what to do, or even how to feel. Consequently, he went through the necessary motions of each day like an automaton, moving, speaking, even smiling as necessary, but aware all the time of the clockwork within, and his inability to stir beyond the constraints imposed upon him.
Beyond a terse inquiry as to whether Percy was housed and treated decently, Hal had not inquired as to the results of his visit—a glance at Grey upon his return had told of the failure of his mission. The old pistol was still in Grey’s haversack.
The note arrived a week later. There was no direction upon it—a German private had delivered it—but Grey knew where it had come from.
He should throw it into the fire. Grimacing, he slid a thumb beneath the flap and broke the seal. There was no salutation; was that caution on Percy’s part, he wondered, to avoid incriminating Grey if the letter should be intercepted—or simply that Percy no longer knew how to address him? The question evaporated from his mind as he read the opening.
I will leave you to imagine, if you will, what the writing of this letter costs me, for that ultimate cost is up to you. I have been in perturbation of mind for days, debating whether I shall write it, and now, having written, whether to send it. The end of my deliberations, though, is the point from which I began: that to speak may mean my life; not to speak may mean yours. If you are reading these words, you will know which I have chosen.
Grey rubbed a hand over his face, shook his head violently to clear it, and read the rest.
You know something of my history, including my relations with the gentleman I will call A. One day whilst I was in his house, another gentleman called upon him. I was sent upstairs, their business being private. Looking out upon the drive, I saw the visitor’s coach, which was a very elegant equipage, plainly not hired, but minus armorial markings or crests. After a short time, the gentleman came out and was driven away. I saw nothing of him save a glimpse of his hat as he passed out from beneath the porte cochère, though I did hear him exchange some words in farewell with Mr. A.
Being sent for, I came down, whereupon A told me that his visitor had heard of your mother’s marriage, and thus of my putative relations with your family, and wished to know whether I had met you or your brother, and when we might meet again. A had told his visitor of my luncheon with you and Melton, adding that I had invited you to Lady Jonas’s salon. The visitor had given A a packet of money to give to me, and asked that in return, I should undertake to guide you to the edge of Hyde Park upon our departing the salon, and should leave you near the Grosvenor Gate, as he wished to have a message delivered to you there.
This sounding innocent enough, I did as he requested. As you did not mention the matter upon our next meeting, I supposed it either confidential or inconsequent, and thus did not ask you about it. I did not learn of your encounter with the two soldiers in the park until you told me of it later. I was shocked to hear of it, but did not perceive that the incident might be connected with Mr. A’s visitor.
Then we were attacked in Seven Dials, and I realized that you were the specific target of it. This caused me to recall Mr. A’s visitor and his errand, and consider whether both attacks might have been at his instigation. I could see no reason for such a thing, however, and thus held my peace, though resolving to keep close guard upon you.
You then told me the true story of your father’s death, and later of the other odd events, such as the page of your father’s journal discovered in your brother’s office. I began to suspect at this point that the matters were connected, but I still could not see how. As the regiment was bound to depart within such a short time, though, it seemed you would be removed from harm.
I had, as I say, debated for some time whether to write to you regarding my knowledge. The matter became exigent early this week. I heard a voice in the corridor outside my cell, and believe that I recognized it as the voice of Mr. A’s visitor. I could not attract the attention of a guard for some time. When finally I succeeded in speaking to one, I asked who the English stranger had been. The guard did not know, had not seen the man—but was persuaded for a consideration to make inquiries, and next day returned to tell me that the man was an army surgeon, come to make trial of a new experiment upon one of the prisoners who had suffered a grisly leg wound.
I cannot swear it is the same man, and if it is, I still do not know why he should wish you harm, though I must suppose that it has to do with your father’s death. If it is connected in this manner, though, then there is every reason to suppose that you and your brother lie in mortal danger.
Believe me always your servant,
P. Wainwright (2nd Lieutenant)
Grey said something blasphemous under his breath, and threw the letter on the table.
Mysterious visitors and army surgeons—with no names. It was possible that Percy had not been able to discover the surgeon’s name—if Mr. A’s visitor had been the same man, or if he even existed. It was also possible that the man did exist and Percy knew his name, but wished to force Grey to see him again in order to discover it. He made no mention in his letter of trading further information for the Greys’ assistance, but the implication was clear enough.
“Are you all right, me lord?” Tom Byrd was squinting at him dubiously. “You look what my mam calls bilious. Ought you to be bled, maybe?”
Grey felt distinctly bilious, but doubted that bleeding would help. On the other hand…
“Yes,” he said abruptly. “Go and ask Dr. Protheroe if he might come as soon as convenient.”