After several decades of navigating society with a more than fair degree of success, Robbie barely had to consider what venue would best suit a meeting with a new acquaintance. Wilfred Owen, according to Sassoon, was charming though provincial and a poet just beginning to reject doggerel and write something real. (This last observation made Robbie smile upon reading it; Sassoon was unrepentantly arrogant, but so many of Robbie’s dearest friends were. When untainted by meanspiritedness--as in Sassoon’s case--Robbie tended to find it endearing.)
As to the precise nature of Owen’s “charms,” Sassoon was more circumspect, and in the absence of information, Robbie remained unwilling to fully credit Sassoon’s assessment of Owen’s talents. He was equally prepared to find Owen a genuinely interesting poet as he was to find him a middling but beautiful one.
In either circumstance, the Reform Club was an excellent choice for their meeting. The club’s literary luminaries would be beneficial acquaintances for a talented young writer; its wide range of members would ensure that a less talented one wouldn’t feel thrown to the wolves. And, on the chance that Sassoon had a personal interest in Owen, the Reform Club would impress the young man with Sassoon’s social connections yet not provide him with too strong a temptation to stray.
At 12:30 on the day of their appointment, he emerged from the club’s front door and encountered a young stranger climbing the steep steps with the uncertain look of a tourist rather than a member. Robbie hurried forward. “Mr. Wilfred Owen?” he asked.
“Yes,” the young man--Owen--said with a polite smile.
“Robert Ross,” Robbie said and offered his hand. Owen’s smile broadened, and he shook with a firm hand, a bit chilled by the November air. Not beautiful, he thought, looking at Owen appraisingly, but attractive enough. Owen was dark-haired, with features more pleasant than refined and a pair of lively, intelligent brown eyes.
Since receiving Sassoon’s letter, Robbie had wondered privately whether Owen would be nervy. It was a pleasure and a bit of relief to see Owen looked instead a healthy and vigorous young man.
He placed a hand at Owen’s back to escort him into the club, his curiosity increasingly piqued by this young poet whose looks--pleasing as they were--almost certainly weren’t distracting enough to sway Sassoon’s opinion of him. Robbie wondered how soon he might be able to persuade Owen to show him some of his poetry.
Sassoon has told me that you need rooms to let in London. By happy coincidence, there is a free apartment just above mine, in Half Moon Street. Rent is 8/6 with breakfast, or perhaps a bit less since you’ll be on a higher floor, with I believe smaller windows than mine.
If you wish to take the rooms, I would be very pleased to act as a broker of sorts for you and reserve the apartment before anyone else snatches it up. Please let me know either way what your plans are, and be sure to let me take you out again when you return to London.
With wishes for your continued good health,
“Are you ready?” Robbie asked gently; Owen, standing at the mirror for the past five minutes, looked more anxious than Robbie had yet seen him.
“Yes,” Owen said, his voice firm, though Robbie noted the tremble in his right hand that he sought to conceal by quickly sticking it in his jacket pocket.
“There’s no shame in crying off,” Robbie said. “The law is no less unreasonable than it was in 1895. Indeed, in some ways things have become even worse due to the war. You already brave the battlefield. It’s not necessary to conquer British society, as well.”
Paradoxically, his reassurance seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect. Owen’s expression firmed, and when he took his hand out of his pocket to straighten his jacket, the tremble was gone. “Thank you,” he said. “But I’m quite ready.”
Robbie nodded his acquiescence and touched Owen’s arm as indication that they should head out. Before they reached the door, he said, “If you don’t mind my asking: what decided you at last? I don’t believe I’m incorrect in thinking that you had had your doubts a moment ago.”
Owen smiled ruefully. “You compared this evening to a battle. Though it strains credulity, I admit I’ve grown almost comfortable on the battlefield.”
My dear Robbie,
Graves appears to be giving me the cut sublime: I’ve ceased to have any word from him but his poetry, and even that comes to me by a convoluted route. Graves gave his latest poem to Sassoon who in turn forwarded it to me. The poem, of course, is brilliant. If Graves would condescend to speak to me, I might even tell him so.
Speaking of poets, your shy young friend--though none the less charming for his shyness--made a great impression the other evening. I understand that he will not be staying in London long, and I hope that we may see more of him before his necessary departure.
The fire was warm, and Robbie could feel himself drowsing, despite the liveliness of Owen’s conversation. He was about to make his apologies when Owen touched his arm in making a point, and then didn’t remove it.
Robbie blinked at him, almost embarrassingly befuddled. He’d had young men proposition him before, of course, whether out of a wish to benefit from his influence or--somewhat more insultingly--out of a desire to fuck Oscar secondhand. Owen wasn’t the sort to indulge in either of those motives, though, unless Robbie had grievously mistaken his character.
“Owen,” he said, certain of this if nothing else, “you don’t love me.”
Owen flushed. “No,” he agreed. “Nor do you love me. Not beyond the love of friends, in any case. But you’re an admirable and kind man, and I don’t believe either of us would consider it a hardship if we were to...do what I’m suggesting.”
The thought sprang unbidden into Robbie’s head that Owen might be wholly inexperienced. He wouldn’t embarrass him by asking, but there was that in his demeanor that suggested it. In which case Robbie ought even more to refuse him. “Scott Moncrieff might love you,” he said, too tired and harried for greater delicacy.
Owen’s hand dropped. “I’m not wanting for love, though it’s not returned, not as I might wish. I don’t wish to place another man in the same position. And yet I want...well. I want.”
Robbie met his eyes, so direct and eloquent, and knew at once that he wouldn’t refuse him again. Owen was perhaps trusting to too much, in assuming that Robbie’s heart would not become engaged against both their wishes, but he no doubt believed that Robbie’s devotion to Oscar extended beyond the grave. He was young enough and romantic enough to credit that notion.
Robbie was more than capable of discretion, however. If he fell for Owen, then he would be the only one between the two of them to know, and he sealed that private promise with a kiss on Owen’s mouth.