Mortimer Lightwood hated games. He hated standing on a field in a steady English drizzle in short pants. He hated the glum atmosphere that accompanies you to bat when your side knows you are no good at cricket. And most of all he hated the hearty corpore-sano attitude that characterized almost everyone at school. Mortimer was quiet, and good at lessons. No one much cared about those things.
But he’d grown up in Richmond, and he loved to row on the river — not in competition, but for the simple pleasure of it. It was exertion, but aimlessly so; one felt like the world was passing by at a soothing pace, while you sat at a fixed point listening to — well, birds, and plashing sounds, and your own breath.
A groaning sound brought Mortimer back to himself. He remembered that he was not rowing alone.
“I believe,” grumbled his boat-partner, “this to be the most boring afternoon I have ever spent. And there’s been a lot of competition for that dubious honor, I can assure you. Whole afternoons of listening to sermons read by our stentorian curate at home. Or listening to my respected father relate his entire game book down to the merest pheasant. But this requires actual arm-work, and thus I think it may edge out even Charney’s Latin set.”
Mortimer felt a bit slighted, on behalf of the river, but didn’t say anything. The rowing trip was a special treat for the end of term; he didn’t really know the boy assigned to his boat, except that his name was Wrayburn, that he was known to put on like he was fully forty years old (which got him the whack more than was usual), and that he never seemed to be standing fully upright. At school Mortimer often noticed him leaning against things for support.
“You don’t say much, do you, Lightwood,” remarked Wrayburn.
Mortimer thought it hard cheese that there was really no response to that question, if it even was a question.
“Well, I wish you would,” Wrayburn said after a decent pause. “I am feeling rather desperate. Imagine how terrible you would feel if your silence drove me to plunge headlong into the roiling main.” The Thames trickled gently alongside, and Mortimer laughed. “A sound made by another human being! A laugh, no less. You revive me quite, Lightwood.”
“It’s just,” Mortimer stammered.
“Don’t — yes, it is true, I have not even the slightest clue what is meant by ‘roiling main.’ I’ve been reading the pirate books Feastonhaugh’s brother sends him, I’m sorry to say.”
“No. What I mean is — I am sorry for being unsociable. My grandfather and I rarely talk on the river. The sounds—” Mortimer waved his hand vaguely at the riverbank.
Wrayburn twisted around to look at him. “Ah! Nature study, you mean?”
“In a sense. The less you disturb them, the more animals you might see.” Mortimer smiled, hesitantly.
Wrayburn smiled back. A moment later, Mortimer had to bark a warning, as they were drifting precipitously towards a log and Wrayburn was not a natural hand at steering. “A watery grave after all!” Wrayburn exclaimed. The moment collapsed, but Wrayburn’s smile lodged somewhere inside Mortimer, waiting to change him.
At Oxford they would punt, the activity Eugene loved best of all. “My dear fellow,” he drawled to Mortimer on one occasion, “it is the happiest combination one can conceive. Healthful exercise in the fresh air, a delicious picnic lunch, and the opportunity to both see and be seen by all the local notables one could desire. Why do we ever go to lectures?”
“If I may interpose,” said Mortimer (Eugene was showing no signs of ending his encomium), “when do you go to lectures? Not to mention that I am the one usually doing the all the healthful exercise. You don’t derive much benefit from lounging and admiring your waistcoat.”
“Mortimer! Surely we are agreed that you are the natural waterman? Ancestral voices call you to the nautical arts.”
Mortimer smiled and poled the punt onwards up the river. “We can only assume that your ancestors were the preeminent loungers of their day. Perhaps they invented the art of lolling.”
Eugene released a delighted huff of mirth, and Mortimer’s heart rose in his chest, as it always did when he made Eugene laugh.
After a few moments, Eugene asked in a slightly injured tone, “Is something wrong with this waistcoat?”
“Indeed not, Eugene.”
“Don’t indeed-not me in your placating way, nanny; I must have your real opinion before I debut it for Miss Decker.”
Mortimer’s heart settled down into its usual constraint. “It is the prince of waistcoats,” he said quietly.
No more was said until Mortimer poled them into harbour. Eugene deigned to carry the picnic basket ashore his own self. They ate, then flung themselves onto sun-warmed grass. None were about, and Mortimer stretched one arm over his eyes and pondered taking a nap. His muscles ached pleasantly.
But of course Eugene would be talking. “We met on the river, Mortimer, and do you know, now that I recollect, it seems to me you were far quieter back then? Timid, perhaps, and studious.”
“And now so louche, so world-weary! And witty, of course. But otherwise quite spoilt.”
“Thank you, Eugene.”
“To what do you owe the change?”
“Poor company, Eugene.”
Mortimer felt a shift in air and light. He removed his arm from his face and opened his eyes, and there he was, Eugene.
“Don’t say that, dear boy,” Eugene said, and kissed him.
It was Mortimer’s first kiss, and he was always a bit ashamed later to remember how his initial feeling was like nothing so much as nausea — a dropping of the stomach, a giddiness of the chest. But Eugene was never surprised by anything, so he limited his visible reaction to a widening of the eyes and the tiniest of squeaks. And then his eyes fluttered shut.
Eugene’s lips were cool and dry, elusive somehow even as they pressed against his; only a trembling of his hand against Mortimer’s chest betrayed a nervy intensity. Mortimer reached up to cup the back of Eugene’s neck, to trap him into remaining so close — a novelty, Eugene was practiced at keeping his distance. And so Mortimer memorized everything, it could be the last time — the warmth of Eugene’s breath, the weight of Eugene’s body flush against his, and — oh dear — the sliding of Eugene’s tongue into his mouth, fastidious and controlled.
At which point Mortimer used his superior strength — heavens be praised for healthful exercise upon the river! — and rolled on top of Eugene. If this was the one time he would be permitted, he would omit no opportunity. Eugene’s mouth curved upwards even as he kissed him, as if amused by Mortimer’s taking the lead for once.
Later, when Mortimer lay sleepless in his bed, he forced himself to remember each detail: the brittle feel of Eugene’s limbs, the waves of his hair under his fingertips, the almost inaudible gasp Mortimer had been able to elicit by nipping at his elegant throat. And after he’d spent himself into a handkerchief, he repeated once more: it would probably never happen again. The wind had blown briefly in one direction, and Eugene had, as ever, gone with it.
Mortimer was surprised, then, when Eugene took the next opportunity when they were quite alone — on a staircase, of all places — to kiss him once more. He also took great amusement from Mortimer’s shock. “Heavens!” Eugene laughed. “Have I done something untoward?”
Mortimer pulled Eugene up the remaining stairs and into his study to give himself time to think of a reply. “Of course not, dear fellow,” he said, closing the door behind him. “I only thought — well, it is against the law, for one thing.”
“Is it?” Eugene mused. “I am glad you know these things. What an estimable barrister I will make!” He ran a careless hand over the hair at Mortimer’s temple. “In that case, would you mind awfully not telling anyone?”
Mortimer suppressed a snort. “What an absurd fellow you are, Eugene!”
“As you are fond of saying. And yet you don’t seem to mind me. And you, my dear Mortimer, are the only man with whom I have never been bored.”
Much as Mortimer had attempted to study wit, there was no intelligible reply to this, except a rather silly and embarrassed smile.
“Though I would rather,” Eugene continued, a hand on Mortimer’s lapel, “not continue talking, just at present.”
'The wind sounds up here,' quoth Eugene, stirring the fire, 'as if we were keeping a lighthouse. I wish we were.'
The summer cottage at Hampton had been Eugene’s idea — he was, by that time, quite as accomplished a rower as Mortimer — and after the unfortunate matter of Jesse Hexam and the sobriety it occasioned in his friend, Mortimer was very glad to see the Long Vacation begin.
But it was not what he expected. Eugene was often absent, disappearing back to the city for reasons never explained — Mortimer was afraid to ask, and nothing was volunteered, except that Eugene was anxious to keep Mortimer from becoming bored of him. An impossibility, as he well knew.
Mortimer had grown used to how things were, he realized — the all-in-all nature of their relationship, though they never discussed it in such terms. Mortimer's family was gone; Eugene showed little interest in visits to his father's run-down estate, or to see his disapproving siblings. They dined out frequently, but rarely with anyone for whom they had respect — all the better, Eugene said, for the amusement of mocking them afterwards (in bed, more often than not — Eugene would smoke cigars as he talked, and Mortimer would attempt, even as he laughed, to keep his sheets safe from singe marks or incineration). They had friendships with other young men, but not close ones — all the better, Eugene said, for the avoidance of sameness in one's social circle.
As the years wore on, other ties held him but loosely, or dropped off entirely, but Eugene was the constant, and he supposed he, Mortimer, must have served much the same role in Eugene's life.
Mortimer did not have a high opinion of his ability to fascinate, or bind; now that he thought about how long things had lasted, it seemed inevitable that Eugene, with no malice in the world, would tire of their arrangement. It was his way.
Now, when he’d return, they’d row just as always — Eugene’s manner as light and whimsical as ever, as he’d try to remember the words to the sea-shanties they’d sung on the rowing trips of their school days, and Mortimer’s chest would constrict with the force of his happiness.
At night in the bachelor cottage, Eugene would come to Mortimer’s bed, again just as usual, and hold Mortimer’s face between long, nervous fingers, and murmur, “My dear boy.” And Mortimer would try to say with his body all the things unsaid between them — his unspoken worries, and the depth of his emotion. He would, as he hadn’t since that first day near Oxford, memorize things — perhaps this was the end, and in that case he must never forget the way Eugene’s body shuddered like a horse when Mortimer slid inside him, or the odd refinement of his groans.
The next day he would leave again.
Mortimer would putter about, and fry an egg, and sit on the lawn and smoke.
Only once did Eugene ask how Mortimer did while he was gone, offhand and careless, his back to Mortimer — they were rowing.
“Like a lighthouse keeper without his fellow,” Mortimer replied, and Eugene laughed, as if it were a joke.
'You wanted to tell me something, Eugene. My poor dear fellow, you wanted to say something to your old friend—to the friend who has always loved you, admired you, imitated you, founded himself upon you, been nothing without you, and who, God knows, would be here in your place if he could!'
'Tut, tut!' said Eugene with a tender glance as the other put his hand before his face. 'I am not worth it. I acknowledge that I like it, dear boy, but I am not worth it.'
Mortimer visited Eugene at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Harmon and found him lying in just his old manner on a couch in his room. Had he not been so wan and worn, he might have been lounging in a punt. Mortimer said so, and Eugene laughed.
“Quite so, dear boy,” he said. “I am only now, at this late stage of my development, discovering the joys of independent motion! Now that I must lean on my wife like a sad lame thing, I want nothing so much as to exert myself.”
“I apologize,” Mortimer said, “I thought this Mr. Wrayburn’s room?”
“Much has changed,” Eugene laughed.
Much had. As they talked of Eugene’s affairs, and of Lizzie, Mortimer asked himself, for the first time in weeks, how he really felt. He was — proud, certainly; marrying Lizzie was perhaps the most admirable thing Eugene had ever done, and the circumstances of her saving his life were not such as admitted normal jealousy. Eugene was alive, alive and improving — gratitude for the familiar sensation of Eugene’s fingers in his was enough, was plenty. Was abundance.
And yet, and yet, and yet. The gloomy refrain.
“You are thinking, you are serious,” Eugene broke in upon him, “are the melancholy Lightwood bells about to peal?”
Mortimer smiled, abstracted. “Melancholy, Eugene? Seeing you so much improved? I would ring out a waltz, were it not too soon for you to join in.”
“Or a hornpipe.”
“Or a hornpipe, certainly,” Mortimer said. “You know best.”
“You have not asked about what lies between us, Mortimer,” Eugene said, serious himself. “Not for months, not since you first divined my feeling toward Lizzie. You have sat like Patience on a monument, and I — well, I admit I was not sure what to say myself, and accordingly did not hurry you.”
“Little to ask, little to say,” replied Mortimer.
“I don’t know that,” said Eugene. “You must pardon me, but I do not.”
“What I mean, dear Eugene,” said Mortimer, “is that you are no stranger to me. I am proud, immensely so, at how long our unusual association has held interest for you. But I was prepared for its end; how could I not be?”
Eugene was silent for a moment. “Mortimer! I really do not know what to say. It is odd that you should surprise me at this stage in our friendship, but I think for the first time in years I am — yes, I am really angry with you. The novelty is something, I will give you that much.”
“Angry, Eugene? It was not my —”
“Intent, yes, of course not, no one wishes to anger poor Eugene, or do anything to upset poor Eugene. Poor Eugene is quite well enough to be angry,” he said, obviously nettled. “Mortimer, what is my feeling for you? Can you tell me so much?”
“I — we are friends, old schoolfellows. I have been known to amuse you, you have appeared to prefer my company to that of —”
“This anger really is wonderfully cleansing! I can see why M.R.F. indulges so often; I shall be in a rage directly. Mortimer, none of this is much to the purpose. I shall have to cross-examine you in a moment, and you know I have not much practice in such legal matters. I would hate to repeat what I told you before, as it was in the manner of a death-bed confession, but as you did not attend at the time: I love you, Mortimer. Full stop.”
Tears rose behind Mortimer’s eyes, almost painful; he willed them back.
“No one is more surprised than I,” Eugene continued, “to find myself capable of so much feeling. And you will not expect me, I hope, to always be nattering on about it to you. Lizzie and I understand each other now, and I must establish myself on the same ground with you, to save myself the trouble of such unburdenings.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment.
Eugene reached out at last and reattached himself to Mortimer’s hand. “And you said nothing in return, when I told you,” Eugene muttered, much subdued.
“Words, any words, were too much to hope for,” Mortimer stammered. “Every moment I feared breaking down.”
“You are quite collected now?”
Mortimer mustered a feeble glare.
“You are moderately collected, then?”
A pause. Then, “I love you, Eugene.”
Eugene’s grasp on his fingers tightened, but all he said was, “So you do, and I am glad to hear it. May we never make so much of so little again.”
“And Lizzie —”
“Lizzie knows all — or rather, I have told her all I can, and she has inferred the rest. Lizzie is quite glad I was not altogether abandoned and alone all this time. Lizzie does not wish you to be alone either, and is secure enough in her title on me to make a number of allowances,” Eugene said. “She is the best of women, Mortimer, as I believe I have mentioned to you one or two times.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Mortimer weakly.
“I have made a vow to her I will honor, Mortimer,” Eugene said seriously. “She is one-half my heart, one-half my soul. And she has graciously permitted me to dispose of the other half as I choose. It is not enough, perhaps, that I should ever wish to bind you. You may find another who has more he can offer; I cannot wish it exactly, but of course I wish always for your happiness to increase. And I am certainly aware of how little I merit such devotion as you are capable of, dear boy. But until that time, all I am capable of saying is this: I desire no essential change in our relation.”
Mortimer’s smile broke in, sure and sudden.
“And the time for speeches is over,” Eugene said. “Are there any questions?”
“Did you ask M.R.F. for his blessing as well?” Mortimer asked.
Eugene laughed long and heartily. “And that’s my dear fellow back!” he said. “I cannot get up. You will have to come here. Kiss me quick, before I faint from my unaccustomed fit of pique.” And Mortimer knelt beside Eugene’s couch, and slid his fingers into Eugene’s dark brown curls, and complied with the invalid’s whim, as well as every one of his own.
When Lizzie came back, she resumed her place at Eugene’s side, and tenderly touching his hands and his head, she said:
“Eugene, dear, you are more flushed than you have been for many days. What have you been doing?”
But her eyes sparkled merrily, even as she asked.
“Oh, my darling girl,” Eugene said, with his old airy manner about him. “I have been planning my next rowing excursion with our Mortimer, just as you suggested. And now I really must recover utterly.”
“Eugene!” Mortimer cries. “You have no more sense of steering even now than does an infant cocker-spaniel. Bring her over!”
“An invalid such as I, and you see how he criticizes me.” Eugene is addressing the invisible air.
“That excuse expired years ago.” Mortimer sits back heavily and huffs out a few breaths. “I am too old to act as sole guarantor for our safety. A watery grave awaits after all. Good-bye, good earth!”
But Eugene brings her over, and they are only moderately grazed by twigs and branches. “And lunch is safe, I beg to point out,” Eugene laughs. “Much could be lost without complaint, but not my hat or Lizzie’s basket.”
Mortimer rows on. After a few moments, Eugene says, in a sulky tone utterly unsuited to the few grey hairs appearing in his whiskers, “You haven’t mentioned this hat once, you know, dear boy.”
“It is the prince of hats, Eugene.”
“Your rote answer! I understand well.”
“Oh, Eugene,” Mortimer sighs, “I really do not think I have seen so much as a water-bird on the river since I met you. You do announce yourself rather.”
“I am a better conversationalist than any bird in England, my respected solicitor, and I’ll thank you to remember it.”
They row to harbor. They eat. They fling themselves onto sun-warmed grass.
After a decent pause, Eugene asks, “Well? Can you manage, old man?” And Mortimer says, “Old?”
There is a scuffle, and then a surrender.