Oscar had the distinct impression that the blond boy whom Lionel Johnson had brought to tea did not particularly like him. Perhaps, the slightly sneering expression that would occasionally creep over his face had some other, more mysterious origin, but, really, Oscar suspected not. The boy was pleasant, yes, but without the customary effusion of sentiments that ultimately meant: please take me to bed, Oscar, and show me what I have been seeking. The blond boy already knew what he was looking for and it was not Oscar. Oh, certainly, he admired Oscar (didn't they all?), but he lacked the subtle insinuating manner of the usual class of young men who expressed a love of Oscar's work.
Oscar had the alarming feeling that Bosie might actually have enjoyed it.
They were settling themselves into Oscar’s study, he himself and the blond boy ("Lord Alfred Douglas, but call me Bosie, please.") and Lionel, whom Oscar had nearly forgotten already. He was a small, sweet boy with a florid temper and too many years to his name. Oscar had found him implacably precious after the first few months and had left him to the dedicatee of his insipid poem, this very Bosie, and to this love of friend for friend. (What a prosaic phrase and dedicated to such a lovely boy, too.)
"I liked your book tremendously," Bosie said with polite graciousness, beginning as they all began in those days. "I couldn't put it down."
"Not for the first ten reads, anyway," Lionel muttered. He seemed to be steeling himself for the inevitable. Oscar was, after all, a man of great predictability within certain bounds, and Lionel, a man of no modest perspicacity.
"Fourteen." Bosie looked up at Oscar through thick golden eyelashes. The gesture in another young man would have been coquettish, but Bosie wore it with wondrous complacency. "You must forgive Lionel. I neglected him monstrously at the time, and he will never let me forget it."
"I find myself able to forgive Lionel in most things," Oscar pronounced and took a bite of cake. It was too sweet: evanescent and cloying on the tongue.
"Oh, yes, I have quite the same problem," Bosie said, and Lionel flushed slightly and sipped at his tea. Oscar could not help wondering if they were lovers (but that was practically a given) and what they might look like together.
"If you two carry on talking about me to my face, I will leave," Lionel said, smearing an immoderate amount of orange preserves onto a piece of toast and then indelicately licking the knife.
"What else would we talk about while you're here to be admired?" Oscar had always believed it best to flatter former lovers into firm friendship.
Lionel licked his lips. "Bosie is reading Classics." The look that Bosie shot his friend in response suggested the he did not share Oscar's views.
"Are you really?" Of course, Bosie was. He had the face for it. "I have rather more than a passing acquaintance with the Classics myself."
"You have an Oxford First in it, you smug old weasel," Lionel said.
Bosie sighed with the melodramatic air of a French actress whose looks were going. "Well, if you must know, I study Classics in life as well as in university. I try to put Plato to the test."
"How clever of you to recognize the separation. What dialogue in particular has so ensnared you into attempting to resuscitate the ancients?" But Oscar knew without asking because he had heard it so many times in the words of so many boys that it had become tedious. He could only be the willing Socrates to so many aspiring Alcibiadae. He poured a generous amount of milk into his tea and stirred. He had begun to recognize the great wisdom in Socrates' refusal.
"The Phaedrus, of course."
Oscar's spoon, which he had carefully been keeping from tapping the china, clattered against his teacup. "How terribly novel of you." He still remembered most of the Platonic dialogues he had read as an undergraduate. It would be lax of him to let his knowledge of the Classics slip, even if he had not gone on to pursue them. They were the robe in which he draped the world, flimsy, sheer, and exposing everything, and although he was not among those men who earnestly felt that their own pursuit of their fellow man was some elevated discourse in philosophy because they were echoing the great and ancient tradition of paederasty, he did enjoy the parallel. The Greeks had understood beauty as the Aesthetes did. It was not a similarity to be overlooked.
"It has many things of value in it, even for those of us who are not rhetoricians." Bosie added with feigned reluctance, "I do wonder if Socrates isn't wrong, though." It was left out for him to take up or to leave: a challenge in academic and psychological terms. Lionel would, of course, have told Bosie about Oscar, and any friend of Lionel's to whom he dedicated erotic poetry was sure to be so, but Bosie had not come out and stated it plainly.
Oscar could not resist. "About Lysias?"
His low, drawling voice gaining clarity, Bosie recited, "λέγει γὰρ ὡς χαριστέον μὴ ἐρῶντι μᾶλλον ἢ ἐρῶντι."
"You declaim like a schoolboy, Bosie," Lionel said, wrinkling his nose delicately. Lionel had the serious disposition of someone who had never been taken seriously. His knowledge of the Classics was impeccable. His knowledge of the bedroom took impeccability to its roots and was also seriously lacking in sins or at least any interesting ones. "Are you going to begin quoting Jowett at me?"
"Mr Johnson, no translation may be offered, for it concerns," and here Bosie paused to cough stentorianly before continuing in his best mock don, "that most notorious vice of the Greeks."
"If it was good enough for the father of gods and men, it's good enough for me," Lionel said with the ostentatious grace of a man claiming Zeus as his model for life.
Oscar thought of Apollo and Hyacinthus and Achilles and Patroclus and kept his mouth shut on the subject. He returned instead to Bosie's Platonic quotation on not-so-very-platonic love, asking, "And do you say that he who does not love is most agreeable, rather than the fellow who does?"
Bosie narrowed his eyes. "I remain unconvinced."
They had attended the fête at Constance's insistence. Oscar supposed that that was the great irony of it. He was going about his husbandly business with tactful charm and disarming wit when he happened to see the blond boy whose name Oscar had completely forgotten across the room. He was occupied being himself at the time, but as he was himself professionally, trying to be himself in his hours of leisure was not a particular strain, and watching the boy did not greatly detract from his performance.
The boy was standing listlessly by a potted plant that looked nearly as unenthusiastic as he did. He was caught in the thrall of an evocatively paternal gentleman with too little hair on his pate and too much on his chin. He seemed completely flummoxed by his sudden and compelling interest in the young man. Oscar, always willing to rescue beautiful boys from boredom, swooped in and said, "My dear boy, may I borrow you? You simply must meet a friend of mine. I think you will find the Sphinx quite enchanting. She is nearly as Greek as you are."
"How very sweet of you, Oscar. Mr Yeardley, you will have to tell me more about your experiences of the Stock Exchange some other time. I have been called away," he said definitively, allowing Oscar to steer him away toward the friend who was not in actuality there at all. Incredulously, the boy said, "What in the world brings you to a party like this?"
"My wife." It felt painfully and suddenly like an admission.
The boy stopped, half-turned to Oscar, and looked him in the eye. "My mother brought me."
"Is there a difference?"
The boy laughed obligingly, but Oscar wondered if his heart wasn't in it. The boy said, "Thank you so much for the rescue, but if you'll excuse me?", and drifted away. Once they had parted, it came back to him: the boy's name was Bosie.
The bookshop was nearly silent, and the only sounds were the musty settling of old books, huddling into their hidey-holes, and the occasional shuffling footsteps of the shop's patrons as they industriously avoided one another's eyes. Its inventory was not significantly more scandalous than that of any other French bookshop in England, but natural English reticence about being caught reading a novel in a barbarian tongue went a good distance, Oscar found. He only became aware that someone was hovering at his elbow a moment before the boy said, "Don't tell me you don't already own it."
Oscar nearly leapt out of his skin, compulsively shoving the copy of À rebours back into the vacant place on the shelf. "You gave me such a fright. Bosie, isn't it?"
"Mm." The boy, leaning against the bookshelf, pulled the book out again. He made a show of flipping through it. He looked up, resting the book against his nose, so that his eyes just peeked out over it. "What was your favourite part?"
Oscar sighed. "Is it worth my pretending for the sake of decency that I haven't read it?"
"This is not a very good impersonation of Oscar Wilde, good sir," Bosie said, shutting the book and replacing it on the shelf. "I feel quite deceived."
"Oh, hush, I'm buying it as a gift for a friend." He picked the poor book out again and carefully turned to where its binding was gently broken because of Bosie's handling of it. He read the page and smiled and shut the book again.
Bosie straightened up. "Lionel tells me that you're writing a play."
"Yes, I'm afraid that's quite true," Oscar said, gesturing for Bosie to follow him toward the front of the bookshop. "It's a comedy."
"How monstrous. Telling the truth is one of his worst habits," Bosie said. He lingered half a pace behind Oscar, which might have been the difference in stature, but was more likely Bosie's pose of casual indifference, which was beginning to wear on Oscar. (The possibility that Bosie could genuinely be indifferent did not occur to him.) "But I'm sure that if it's anything like Dorian, it shall run interminably."
"I shall be certain to send you tickets if you keep this up." He set the book down on the counter, so that the lounging clerk could examine it to find the price while Oscar himself hunted through his pockets for money to pay.
"Please do," Bosie said. "I so hate to pay for anything beautiful. It quite spoils the purity of my enjoyment."
Oscar found the notes in his inside pocket and set down an amount that he thought was likely to cover the cost. "For two?" and he touched Bosie's hand where it lay on the counter.
"Oh, no," Bosie said. "Just the one."
The company was entirely present but one. Oscar wished he were surprised that Lord Alfred Douglas, whose name he sometimes could not remember but whose face he always did, was late. His absence would likely pass unnoticed; he was not yet one of Oscar's set. The lights dimmed, and Oscar gripped Robbie's shoulder. Robbie, increasingly familiar with Oscar's moments of authorial whimsy, leaned over and said with the stolid assurance of an old friend, "I'm certain it will be magnificent."
"Of course, you are," Oscar said, exasperated. "It's my own opinion of which I'm uncertain."
Behind them, someone entered the box. Oscar turned, a half-prepared reprimand to not bring the flowers till later on his lips. Bosie Douglas, green carnation slightly askew, looked down at him. "You're late," Oscar said, contrite because his anger had been upstaged by more agreeable sensations.
"A gentleman is never late," Bosie said with alacrity and, sitting himself down, began to fuss with his carnation, trying to get it straight. He grumbled in frustration as the rise of the curtain became imminent.
"Here, let me," Oscar said. Bosie sighed and submitted, and Oscar managed it in a single elegant stab of a pin.
Constance looked up from where she was sitting over a cup of tea in the drawing room when he came in. Oscar was sopping wet even after having taken his coat off, and he felt like someone's stray dog. The last thing he wanted was a tête-à-tête with his wife.
"You said you'd be home for tea," she said, but her heart wasn't in it.
"No, please, not now," he said. "I have a headache coming."
She hissed. "Oh, I am sorry. Would you like your letters to read while you lie down?"
He crossed the room to her, his headache only worsening at the thought of her reading his correspondence (and this would be the batch with a letter from poor Edward Shelley in it). He took them from her with excessive haste. She would only be curious now.
"There's one from a Lord Drumlanrig," she commented evenly. "He's the elder brother of that friend of Lionel's, isn't he? I think I met him when he was here for tea."
Oscar sorted through until he found the letter meant. "Who, Lord Alfred Douglas? I hardly know him." His trembling fingers betrayed him, and the letter fluttered graciously to the floor, lying lily-white on the lily-red carpet.
When he got off the train, unburdened by baggage or briefcase, Oxford greeted him like an old friend with a thin, pendulous rain. He squinted into the grey drizzle, making what he knew to be an unflatteringly middle-aged expression as he set out in search of a cab. On his way out of the station, he spotted heading in a young man, looking girlishly surly as he held an umbrella over his head and scowled at the rain as though the shower, if it had had any courtesy at all, would have ceased forthwith upon his very suggestion.
"I wasn't expecting to be met," Oscar said as the boy came up to meet him, having noticed Oscar in the same moment that Oscar had noticed him.
"I had a tutorial I needed to miss," Bosie said sweetly, taking Oscar's offered arm. "I thought we'd take a cab to my rooms. It's a lovely walk ordinarily, but the rain has rather spoilt it."
Although Oscar suspected that, in fact, Bosie knew very little about the loveliness of the walk, probably never having taken it at all, he did not argue. They clambered into a cab in which the previous occupants had tracked no small amount of mud and damp. Bosie shook out his umbrella, succeeding mostly in transferring the water from it to them. "Damn."
Bosie looked pointedly away and out the window. "I'm sorry that you felt you had to come down."
"It's no trouble, really," Oscar said. He touched Bosie's upper arm, and he jerked away. "I'm sorry."
"I don't want more trouble," Bosie said. "Which is why I have, of course, managed a stunning about-face and completely changed my nature, habits, and interests." He gave a short, sharp laugh.
"And will you be going down?"
Bosie turned to look at him, confused, his lips set in a moue. "What?"
"You cannot possibly think of continuing your studies in Classics if you intend to abandon your previous lifestyle." He meant it as a joke, but as he watched, something changed in the boy's face and his Adam's apple bobbed twice as he swallowed and a tear slid down his cheek.
"Oh, hell." Bosie rubbed it ferociously away, which only left his face looking redder and making it more obvious that he had been crying earlier. "I can't help but fall to pieces lately. It's disgusting."
Oscar offered Bosie his handkerchief, apple-green and monogrammed. "No, you couldn't possibly be that."
Bosie waved it away. "Please stop trying to flatter me, Mr Wilde. I can't stand it."
"I am not," Oscar said, pressing the handkerchief on him, "trying to flatter you, dear boy. I am simply speaking the truth."
Reluctantly accepting it, Bosie blew his nose and clung to it. "God, really, I am sorry. Not fit for company at the moment."
"I'm only here to help."
"I do wish Francis hadn't felt the need to get involved," Bosie opined. Oscar had had the distinct impression that Bosie had asked Drumlanrig to do exactly that, but he was hardly going to argue. "Here we are."
After they had descended, Oscar pressed an immoderate amount of coin into the driver's hand and waved him off. The rain had gotten heavier, and Bosie immediately put up his umbrella again, although he did not offer to share its shelter. Indeed, they continued into Magdalen without speaking a word to each other, passing the porter to whom Bosie said something polite, and Oscar felt a tragic reversion to undergraduate levels of sophistication approaching. It was unlike (and unbecoming) him to be so helplessly silent.
When they passed out into the rain again, Oscar said, "I'm certain that we can get this taken care of. We've all had a spot of trouble here or there."
Bosie sighed again. Oscar felt it was perhaps Bosie's most dramatic gesture and used in extreme excess at that, especially in times of emotional duress, but had faith that he could be cured of it. "I can't imagine it happening to you."
"My dear boy! Surely, you don't think I'd know the second thing about how to get you out of this muck if I hadn't done it myself." Oscar had an urge to laugh, but suppressed it. He slid an arm around Bosie's shoulders and tugged suggestively, and the boy slumped gently against him. As they crossed the quad, he sighed. Oscar did not think this one sounded so terribly melancholy.
When they reached Bosie's rooms without falling to their deaths down a slippery staircase, steps worn smooth by centuries of undergraduate feet and wet with tracked-in rain, Oscar sat down in an armchair by the fire, thoroughly damp, and watched Bosie bend over to set his umbrella in its stand. He straightened and caught Oscar looking at him. Oscar immediately looked away.
Bosie put the kettle on in silence and passed out of the sitting room into his bedroom, saying, "I'm going to change into dry things. I'll only be a moment." Oscar heard the door firmly click shut. He loosened his tie slightly and checked in the glass that his buttonhole was straight. He regained his seat and realized that a moment was quite a while on Bosie time, especially considering that he had left Oscar waiting for him.
The kettle boiled, and a sharp keening whistle broke out. Oscar went to rescue it and, feeling an absolute fool, sought about for what to do with it, but luckily, this seemed to be some secret signal for Bosie to return, now dressed in a robin's egg blue suit, and he went scuttling about the room with an industriousness of which Oscar had not thought him capable. Presently, a modest tea was laid out before them on a small table that Bosie had rescued from under a slanting pile of books and periodicals.
"It's a bit of a mess," Bosie said by way of apology, "but I've been so upset lately. It's the last thing on my mind."
"Well, I'm certain we can set that to rights. My solicitor, George Lewis, is expert in these matters. I shall consult him immediately upon my return to London. I won't even go home first."
"Will you really?"
"On my honour," Oscar said. His honour was a specious but not nonexistent thing, twiddly and elusive but ever-present. He reached out and placed his hands over Bosie's where they clutched at his teacup. "I have not come here under false pretences."
"I never said you had." But Bosie continued to look fixedly at his cup of tea.
"You didn't have to," Oscar snapped, his voice rising. "You pretty well telegraphed it with every word. I am, in fact, capable of kind gestures in spite of being a lecherous old fart."
Bosie gave a half-smile. "You cannot fault a boy for being careful of his virtue."
"Now," Oscar said, "it is you who are being capricious, for I am positively certain that you haven't a speck of virtue left."
They stared impassively across the table at one another. Some of Bosie's hair clung damply to his forehead. He seemed to notice where Oscar was looking and so brushed them away, breaking his gaze. Oscar brought his cup of tea to his lips and sipped. It had needed to be steeped longer. Bosie cut himself a thin slice of cake and fussed with it, eventually sticking a piece in his mouth.
"Should I go?" Oscar asked.
Bosie grumbled, swallowed, and pulled a face. "Don't ask me threatening questions while my mouth is full. It's entirely unfair. And, no, of course not." He paused. "I like the company," he said, but Oscar had a feeling he meant something entirely else at which Oscar could not safely begin to guess.
Oscar nibbled at a generous slice of the cake and discovered why Bosie had made such a face. "Well, isn't that bracing. I'm sure that I'm not the only person who could sit with you and keep you distracted."
"My friends think it's funny."
"It isn't the least bit funny," Bosie said. "But you haven't read the letter yet, have you?"
Oscar's trepidation in the face of adolescent prose was staggering, but his curiosity would not hear of his avoiding the doubtless travesty of Bosie's prose composition. He hoped that it would not lapse into Latin. The Latin of today's youth (or at least today's Lionel Johnson) was particularly horrifying if only because rhyming somewhat dampened the majesty of the old tongue. Nevertheless, he said, "No. Should I?"
"You'll probably need to take it to Lewis." Bosie stood and began rifling through piles of schoolwork and literature and bottles, some full and some empty but none in between, and some less edifying items, including, at one point, a stuffed bear, which Bosie decorously declared to be Lionel's. Oscar could guess how the letter had been discovered if Bosie were always this careless with his correspondence. As Bosie flipped through a book with brilliantly yellow binding, a few sheets of cheap paper fluttered out, drifting to the ground near Oscar's feet. He bent to pick them up out of politeness and caught sight of part of a sentence that nearly made his heart stop. He swore, started to read, stopped, and said, "Are you quite sure you want me to read this?"
Bosie colored. "Yes, I'd like your professional opinion."
Oscar stared at him. "Of your prose or your capacity for— obscenity? I wonder that you're able to sleep at night without knowing where these are. Good grief." Bosie shrugged. "I'm sorry. That was rather callous, wasn't it?"
"I deserved what I got, I suppose," Bosie said. "From you and from my blackmailing friend."
Oscar flipped to the end and nearly laughed aloud. "You wrote this to Lionel? I do hope it was worth it."
"Oh, yes, he quite liked them at the time." Bosie's lips twisted into a smile. "I didn't know he'd turn into a Catholic and send all my lovely letters back."
"Were the others like this too?" Oscar asked incredulously. "I imagine he had to go to confession for each and every one of them."
"Oh, yes, how very difficult for him," Bosie snapped.
"I didn't want him to send them back," Bosie said softly. "I liked to think that he would want to keep them. Apparently not."
"Did he break your heart?"
Bosie looked at him, expression studiedly blank. "No, Mr Wilde. No one falls in love with Lionel Johnson. He doesn't have the face for it." He shrugged, his expression coming alive again. "I ought to have burned them."
"Yes, that's exactly what Robbie would tell me to do. —Robbie Ross. He is my voice of reason and mostly conscience. I haven't got a proper one of my own, you see, so I supplement it with Robbie. His is overactive, and I think it helps him to share the burden with others." He hesitated and added, "But I would never return such a letter to you. It is surely one of a kind."
"There are a few others like it," Bosie said. "Of mine, I mean. So you can keep it if you like. I'm sick of looking at it."
Oscar stashed it in the inside pocket of his suit jacket, feeling the neat line of his suit rumple. Well, he was a corpulent mountain anyway, so it hardly mattered if he had obscene letters making him look even more lumpish than usual. "Do you keep the others in books as well?"
"I haven't the faintest idea where they are." He laughed. "Hell, I do deserve what I get, don't I?"
"No. Of course, you don't."
Bosie finished off his cup of tea and looked up at Oscar speculatively. It was very much like watching a lion considering which cut of meat it wanted to devour off one first. "I think I've remembered where I left another. Would you like me to read it to you?"
"Oh, I should like that extremely."
Bosie rose, crossed to the fireplace, and took a pile of letters off the mantelpiece. It took him a moment to find the one for which he was looking. "I have been thinking of taking up Mr. Holmes's habit of stabbing his letters. It would at least give me some sort of satisfaction of having gotten back at him."
"Do you mind if I smoke?" Oscar asked, pulling out his cigarette case and matches.
"Only if you don't share." Bosie returned to his chair, crossing one leg over the other and propping the papers up on his knee. "Now, Oscar, are you quite sure? They are most shocking."
Oscar lit the first cigarette. "I think I'm prepared."
Bosie cleared his throat. " 'To my dearest Lionel, I feel compelled to suggest that you presently lie down because, although my letter may cause excitement, I fear that it may prove'—" Bosie beckoned for Oscar to hand him the cigarette, which Oscar presently did. "—'too much for you.' " Bosie took a drag on the cigarette, blew smoke into the air, and passed the cigarette back to Oscar.
The involvement of a private detective made it feel all the more torrid, but since Oscar was unwilling to dispatch George Lewis, Bosie, or himself to face the blackmailer, he was a wholly necessary participant. It did add a certain Doylean glamour to the episode, but Oscar would rather have avoided their Mr Holmes (his actual name was Edwin Levy, but that struck Oscar as alarmingly prosaic). After reassuring Oscar that he certainly could take care of it, he had embarked on a tirade of monstrous proportions (a whole hour!) on the evils of an association with a gentleman of such tendencies (and, moreover, such lack of discretion, for what sort of fellow left out letters like these?) until Oscar had announced that he was required in Tite Street for dinner and really had to be going.
Instead, he went to the post office and sent a telegram to Bosie. It read: "All taken care of by G.L. Dinner this Saturday?"
He had a late dinner appointment with Robbie for which he arrived stunningly on time. Robbie, whom he suspected had arrived a good quarter of an hour before, was reading a book, which he set down in haste when the waiter escorted Oscar over.
"Hello, hello. What's this?" Oscar picked up Robbie's book and looked at the intensely neutral binding and title page. "You are reading something quite delicious, aren't you?"
Robbie laughed. "The word I would have chosen is salacious, but yes. You won't like it, though."
"How can you know I won't like your 'salacious' novel?" Oscar grumbled.
Robbie rolled his eyes. "A gentleman always knows what Oscar Wilde will and won't like."
"That means that you are the sum total of all gentlemen, my dear." He handed the book back. "The waiter has not brought us menus. This strikes me as something of an oversight."
"I ordered," Robbie said, setting his book at the corner of the table. "It should arrive when you usually do.
"How clever of you," Oscar said.
"What do you want to tell me?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're practically bursting with it. Go on."
"I've met the loveliest boy," Oscar said with practiced intonation.
"You've never said that before." Robbie drank generously from his glass of red wine.
"No, really, he's clever, Robbie, really clever."
"You've never met clever boys, either! I am certainly an absolute dunce."
"Robbie," Oscar whined.
Robbie poured him a glass of wine "for your voice, Oscar, to keep it from drying up." He said, "Well, clearly, you are going to tell me all about it. Who is he?"
"Lord Alfred Douglas," Oscar said. Robbie laughed. "What?"
"You're starstruck by his title," Robbie said. "No, it's sweet. That's all. Go on."
So Oscar told him. The full account consumed the best part of three hours if only because Robbie had a pernicious habit of laughing at the dramatic parts and bemoaning the romantic parts, which required subsequent berating from Oscar before he could continue. Indeed, they were caught up on the topic of Bosie's letters for the better part of a course in debate over whether it was actually the most foolhardy, idiotic act that Robbie had ever heard anyone admit to so glibly with Robbie arguing strenuously for the affirmative and Oscar advocating for the opposition.
After the third bottle of wine, when Oscar had finally wound his story back to where they were presently sitting, Robbie said, "I think you are in grave danger of falling in love, Oscar."
"And I think you are in grave danger of being drunk," Oscar said, "but let us order a sherry and toast to Eros, shall we?"
"You are a tawdry, maudlin, pathetic lover." Robbie drained his glass. "And you always have been. Please don't change."
"I don't think I will, dear boy," at which Robbie laughed with the extravagance brought on by drunkenness and despair. "We must have another drink, though." Oscar, with the generosity of an old friend, secured a waiter with accompanying sherry.
"Oscar, they'll want to close soon," Robbie said as he drank with painstaking precision.
Oscar considered. He ought to go home to Constance and the boys. He looked at Robbie who was clutching at his book with a tenacity that bordered on the indecent. His eyes had a slightly glazed brilliance to them. "Shall we take the evening's enjoyments elsewhere?"
"That sounds like a perfectly horrible idea. Let's."
When Oscar returned home the next morning, he was still drunk, not terribly so but undeniably tipsy. Constance was alone at the breakfast table with a cup of tea, a few dry slices of toast, and Oscar's morning papers. "Hello, sweetheart," he said, leaning over her to kiss the top of her head.
She wrinkled her nose. "You've been drinking."
"Of course, I have! What else is a man to do when ladies are not present?"
"A telegram came for you this morning. I left it in your study."
Oscar, somewhat out of sorts at this obvious dismissal from his usually docile wife, left without another word. In his writing-room, on the ornate desk, in between his notes for an upcoming article and a modest pile of books threatening to topple over, there sat a neat telegram form. It said: "Yes."
Bosie arrived five minutes late and had clearly run to get there even then from the spots of red high on his cheeks. He slid into his chair, pressed a hand to his heart, and sighed. He was wearing a pale yellow suit, which did little for his complexion, although it did nicely set off his buttonhole, which was a stunningly green carnation. Oscar was tired of the sighing. Bosie said, "You have no idea what a weight off my mind it was this whole week knowing that I had the letter."
"I trust you've put it somewhere more secure than your books?"
"I burnt it," Bosie said, "and I hope you'll do the same to your copy."
It was Oscar's turn to sigh. "I suppose I must."
Bosie sipped at the red wine Oscar had ordered, and Oscar suddenly realized that Bosie was smiling. It had not occurred to Oscar that he had never seen Bosie smile properly before, but here it was, resplendent and lovely. "Good choice," Bosie said.
"Isn't it nice?" and he was about to add an anecdote about drinking it with Robbie earlier that week, but stopped himself. He thought of what Robbie had said and looked at the boy, reclining slightly in his chair, sipping at his wine glass, and watching the room around them. His head was flung back carelessly against the dark wood of the chair, and his hair fanned out golden against it like the sun rising over the wine-dark sea.
Bosie looked over at Oscar. "Apollo," he said.
"The divinity you're trying to think of. It's Apollo. I mean, he's got black hair on all the vases, but he's a sun god, isn't he?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Oscar said unconvincingly. "You aren't a thing like Apollo."
"I never said anything about myself," Bosie said smugly. He set his glass down and consulted the menu for their evening's meal. "Do you want to get the salmon or the lobster?"
"Excellent. I do so like being deferred to." He set the menu down and turned the full power of his gaze back on Oscar. "Really, I do appreciate your help. I don't want you to think that I'm ungrateful or that I've taken advantage. I suppose quite a lot of boys must do."
Oscar pursed his lips. He was not one to speak ill of the lovely, but his friends (and this category coincided rather significantly with his former lovers) did have a tendency toward sponging, although Oscar could hardly be said to discourage it. He was not a wealthy man, but he did like to appear so. "We playwrights are made of leaner stuff than you suppose."
"No one would ever know it to look at you," Bosie said without malice. He had the odd roving gaze of a man of experience (at least in certain, specific matters), and Oscar felt as though he had been keenly appraised and judged worthy, although of what he was not entirely certain. He did, however, remain hopeful that his appraisal and Bosie's had coincided.
"I'm thinking of writing another play," Oscar said lightly. This was not wholly true. The first had been successful, so he knew that a second play was now expected. The substance of it, however, he could not imagine.
"Whatever is it about?" Bosie asked, and Oscar cursed his foolishness in having brought it up. "Please do say you're making fun of the peers again. I cannot help but feel that every attack against them is a knife in my dear papa's bosom."
Oscar tutted. "Not very filial of you, dear boy. I shouldn't like to hear my sons speaking of me like that to their friends."
"Your sons," Bosie snapped, "would never say anything of the kind to anyone about you because they shall never have any cause."
Oscar, if he had been a less self-absorbed man, might have reflected that his sons did, indeed, have due cause to say such things about him to their friends, but he was considerably occupied by the continued perpetration of said cause. "One hopes. The trouble is that we are all simply making it up as we go along. One never learns anything from one's own parenting, for one always has the faint sense of having turned out— wrong."
"Do you think you've turned out wrong?" Bosie asked, and suddenly they were talking about something else entirely, one of Bosie's mysterious and unspoken topic changes, which were nearly as profligate as his sighs and far more mysterious.
"Yes, but only in the best possible way," Oscar said. Although that was not strictly true —Oscar had many and varied thoughts on who and what he had turned out to be— Bosie seemed to take it as a mostly correct answer. He pursed his lips. "I'm sure your boys won't turn out wrong."
"Oh," Oscar said, "I certainly hope they do. Otherwise, they shall be such disappointments." His sons were bound to disappoint one of their parents in adulthood, and he had always had the nagging suspicion that it would be him. Constance's pernicious influence would have them turn out as quite upstanding and normal gentlemen who would doubtless go on to better the Empire. Oscar found the prospect uninviting.
"My father finds me to be a disappointment, but then, I think we are all disappointments to him," Bosie said, "even Francis, and he's quite successful. We all love Mother better than him. The children of absent fathers always do, you know. Real love is better than imagined love." Bosie gave a little cold laugh, and something ugly flickered across his face, but the demon was only momentary. "I'm sorry. I'm boring you."
"No, you couldn't."
Bosie looked across the room, staring at some imagined object behind Oscar. "I doubt that discussing my upbringing or your sons' was what you intended for this little meeting."
Oscar hemmed. "I don't mind discussing it if you'd like to."
"I don't care about it in the slightest. I don't know what to say to you, Mr Wilde."
"Bosie, my dear boy, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were intimidated."
The boy flushed. It was a tremendously lovely sight, and Oscar revelled in it, the pure and genteel innocence of watching Bosie's embarrassment physically creep across his face. "Whatever gives you that idea?"
"Intuition," Oscar said, "and many years of experience."
"I do hope you aren't intending on using that on me," Bosie said sharply.
"My intuition, or my experience?"
"I fear that it is too late to prevent the judicious application of either." Bosie's revulsion was a palpable force, and Oscar leaned back in his seat to try to escape it. He hadn't the slightest idea what his faux pas was, but it was evident that he had taken a grave misstep. Oscar said, "What's wrong?"
Bosie looked up from where he was straightening the silverware. "Nothing."
"Nothing," he said with greater vehemence. "Only I thought—"
"What? What did you think?" Oscar said, his voice rising. "If you ever said what you meant—"
"Oh, that's a laugh coming from you."
"There is no need to—"
"I see a bloody need, you pompous, middle-aged—"
And there it was in the center of Bosie's face, contorted by anger and greed and desperate defensiveness. Oscar could see it then with perfect clarity, although he had only suspected it half an hour before. It had been in the tea and the telegram, too. Oscar leaned across the table and pressed a hand over Bosie's. "Stop."
Bosie stilled, the storm still threatening under his temporary calm. "If you toss me aside, I'll destroy you. I'm not one of your boys, Mr Wilde."
"You aren't going to throw me over." Bosie poured himself another glass of wine. "If anyone's going to do the throwing over, it will be me."
"That has been clear from the start," Oscar said softly.
Bosie flagged down a waiter.
The room in the Savoy had a restrained opulence that pointedly reminded its occupants that it was the most expensive hotel in London and it was utterly imperative that they kept that in mind at all times. Bosie was sat on the bed, and Oscar was stood by the door. It reminded Oscar uncomfortably of his own farce. Oscar shrugged off his suit jacket and moved to hang it in the closet out of perverse habit.
"Leave it there. On the chair."
Oscar dropped his jacket onto the chair and looked at Bosie in bemused wonderment. "It will get wrinkled."
Bosie flopped down onto the bed in a fit of pique. "Don't you have a wife for those things?"
"Is that what wives are for?" Oscar murmured.
"Among other things, but you don't have much use for Constance when it comes to those, do you?"
"Bosie, please, she's my wife."
Oscar tried to find the will to be cross with him and could not. Bosie was not the sort of boy to whom one could lie.
"Are you going to stand there all night?"
"Possibly," Oscar replied diplomatically.
Bosie stretched out his arms over his head. "I don't usually do this with men twice my age."
"Well, I'm not twice your age."
"And I'm not naked yet."
"That," Oscar said, "could be fixed."
Bosie looked down his nose at him. "Well?"
"Should I leave?" Bosie asked, sitting up.
Oscar crossed the room until he was quite near to Bosie who tipped his head up lazily in expectation. Up close, he smelled faintly piney and sharp, skin underlying whatever scent he wore. Oscar hesitated, and Bosie's hands curled around his face and pulled him down. His lips were soft and slightly sweet, tasting of the wine they had drunk at dinner. Their kiss was peculiarly chaste after so much built-up expectation, and Oscar felt a soft and foreboding fear settle into the pit of his stomach until Bosie pulled away, his lips redder than before, and said, "If you don't start undressing me, Mr Wilde, I shall begin to think that you don't like me."
"Of course, I like you. How could I possibly not?" He began by plucking the green carnation from his breast and tossing it to the floor.
Bosie slid the suit jacket off his shoulders and swept it onto the ground. "Are you obliged to make symbolic gestures?"
"Yes, they are the last refuge of my virtue," Oscar said and started with slipping fingers on Bosie's buttons. "Are you going to help or just argue?"
"Oh, honestly, do you just want me to take all of it off? I can do that, you know. It'll only take a moment."
"I prefer to reveal you at a slightly slower pace," Oscar said, "for the sake of my heart."
"Going to die, old man?"
"With you to look forward to? I very much doubt it."
"It'll say on your epitaph: 'a weak heart but a strong co—' "
Oscar stopped him by forcefully pressing his mouth over Bosie's, and Bosie's subtle tongue slid into his mouth, and if Oscar had feared that the first kiss had been chaste to the point of being devoid of passion, he had now to worry about only the opposite. Was it possible for middle-aged men to lose virtue of which they had not previously been in possession? He suspected that if it were, he should presently find out.
Bosie's hands slid down and pressed impertinently between Oscar's legs, cupping with sensuous appreciation. His fingers, thinner and nimbler than Oscar's own, made swift work of his yielding trouser front, and Bosie slid his hand between skin and fabric.
"You really must learn to slow down, my lord," Oscar managed.
Bosie tilted his head to the side, but withdrew his hand without comment, sliding his filmy white shirt over his pale shoulders, unfreckled and smooth. Oscar ran his thumb over Bosie's red lips, as yet unbruised. "They tell me you're famous, Mr Wilde. Don't you think that should make me want to hop into bed with you?"
Oscar sat down on the bed beside him, feeling it sink and settle under his weight. "Someone's been pulling your leg, my dear."
Bosie laughed. "And yet I still want to go to bed with you." He shifted to perch in Oscar's lap, his legs pressed against Oscar's thighs, and slid his arms around Oscar's neck.
"Do you? Whatever for? I snore abominably." Oscar stroked Bosie's hair, coaxing it from its neat golden waves into thistled wildness.
"Laugh at me," Bosie said. Oscar went to press a kiss to Bosie's pout, but Bosie slid away. "I can't bear being laughed at. You can just say it's only a pose and be done with it."
Oscar had long ago found that he had extreme difficulty in maintaining any sort of pose once his clothes began to be discarded, and so it took him a moment to significantly recover in order to deduce any sort of meaning from Bosie's statement. The boy, not insensible to his confusion, began to withdraw, and Oscar slid an arm around Bosie's back to stop his escape.
"No," Oscar said. "How silly of me. You're a very serious young man."
"Only about the important things."
And Oscar laughed and Bosie settled against him and smiled slyly up at him and they did not find their way into bed for some time, but the evening did end with Oscar on his knees.