Of all the things that John expected to see in Lady Joffrey's dining room, a half-naked Perseverance Wainwright was perhaps the least likely. He stopped dead in the doorway to stare, much to the perturbation of the couple behind him who barrelled into his back in surprise. He turned at once to make his apologies to them, which only made the congestion in the doorway worse, and the girl he was escorting – Phyllida? Phyllis? One of Lady Joffrey's many eligible cousins, whose names by now were beginning to blur together – rolled her eyes in a most unladylike fashion. With a quick nod to the gentleman he had inconvenienced, John took the lady's arm again, and ushered her swiftly but politely to her seat. He kept his eyes fixed on the table before him for fear that he would be caught gawping again. As soon as the guests were busily picking apart some delicacy in aspic, John took a furtive glance upwards at the painting.
The canvas was huge. Was it truly Percy in that painting? Or was it merely the phantoms of his past, the vestiges of emotion, that pulled his gaze to the painting again and again as dinner progressed? Perhaps the same madness that forced John to follow a flash of red hair in a crowd also made him see Percy in those dark curls and curved white shoulders. After all, the face was barely visible; the figure, styled as Cupid, looked back over one shoulder with an expression meant to embody innocent love. To John, who knew Percy better than most viewers, the look was an invitation – and far from an innocent one.
"It's lovely, isn't it?" Lady Joffrey murmured as the ladies began to withdraw. She paused for a moment, one hand resting on the back on John's chair while they both viewed the painting. "I find this new, clean style so restful to the eyes. The French taste has become a little tiresome – all those petticoats and simpers."
"I don't believe I know the artist." John looked at the figure, wreathed in ethereal but entirely decent wisps of white gauze. There was an austerity to the painting, despite the romantic subject matter. The skin tones glowed with natural colour, and, rather than an idealised kind of beauty, the painter had captured a sense of the real – folds in the skin where the upper arm closed against the ribs, soft tousled hairs curling at the nape of the neck. The wings were especially well done – feathers gently ruffled, the white tips crossed neatly just above Cupid's white-swathed thighs. Lady Joffrey stood beside John with her head tilted to one side. John wondered, not for the first time this evening, whether the placement of the painting was a deliberate choice. Lady Joffrey did so like to know things. He glanced longingly at the decanter on the sideboard – he dearly needed a drink. Or a friend. He felt suddenly ill-equipped for the political fencing that dining at Joffrey House demanded. He wished for someone solid like Von Namtzen at his side, someone whose purpose was unambiguous and true.
"My brother had the painting shipped from Rome. Some portraitist who settled there for his health." Lady Lucinda touched him once on the forearm. "I shall find the name for you, my dear. I know you have quite the eye for art." Her voluminous skirt brushed the carpet as she gathered the ladies together, and they moved as one large multi-coloured cloud towards the stairs. John took his seat again with a grateful sigh.
"Here," said Sir Richard Joffrey, as he passed the heavy decanter towards him. "Would you occupy Mr Meynell for a few moments? He has quite monopolised my conversation this evening with talk of his wretched fox hounds. I would be much obliged if you could give him another audience so that I may entertain my other guests."
John took a mouthful of the excellent port and nodded obligingly. He moved towards the ruddy faced country squire now espousing the virtues of hunting fox rather than deer. A long-winded and one-sided conversation would afford him the opportunity to study the painting further. While the Honourable Mr Meynell held forth on the great speed and endurance of his hounds, John covertly examined the figure in the painting.
There was no doubt that it was Percy, he decided. The way the large, dark eyes creased at the corners, the passionate curve of the lower lip – there were too many intimate details to ignore. The person who painted this image had spent long hours in quiet, close contemplation of Percy's face. He had let his fingers – or perhaps his lips – trace those features until they could be rendered on canvas. John's stomach clenched uncomfortably. It was not a concept he had prepared to deal with, even knowing the particulars of Percy's youth. How foolish, he thought. He had no claim on the man. Did he expect Percy to remain chaste?
"And of course," Mr Meynell droned on, "at Quorndon we have half a century of blood lines to draw upon, which is why our pack has the greatest scenting ability of any in England."
"How splendid," said John, politely. He took another swallow of port to ease the irrational rush of jealousy that swept over him like a fever. Fortunately, the sheer volume of liquor being consumed and the generous size of the fireplace in the dining room lent a florid expression to most of the gentleman in the room, and there was no reason for anyone to question the high colour in John's cheeks. He turned his back to the wall so that he need not look at Percy's come-hither gaze any longer.
"So, I imagine you like a spirited mount?" Mr Meynell said, smiling most genially.
John's eyes widened. What had they been talking about? He scrambled back into the conversation as best he could. "I believe that to be the case for most gentlemen."
"It is a very fast sport – I'd suggest something with plenty of go in him." Mr Meynell leaned a little closer to John and nudged him gently in the side. "I'm sure we can find something suited to your tastes. Or, if you prefer, bring your own down. We do not lack for space in the stables."
"I see," said John, who did not.
"So, it is agreed, then?" Mr Meynell clapped John on the shoulder. "You'll come to Tooley Park for the next meet. I think you'll find fox hunting very much to your tastes – it is a most invigorating occupation."
"Of course," John said weakly, and made a polite bow. "I shall endeavour to attend."
Lady Joffrey was true to her word. The artist was a Mr Robert Leith-Reynolds of Sant'Eustachio, and John sent a carefully worded enquiry the very next day. He had no particular expectation of a reply, and neither had he considered what he would do, should one appear, but his foolish heart leapt with every collection of letters that Tom brought to him. Eventually, though, reason won out, and he forgot the casual thrill of flicking through the crisply folded papers each morning. The regiment was wintering in London, and John wore a path through the snow from the barracks to Whitehall and back again. He had seen, from time to time, the tall, blond head of Von Namzten above swarms of bureaucrats, but the two of them had been so caught up in the business of soldiering that neither had been able to do more than exchange a brief nod and a smile as they passed in the busy corridors of power. Thoughts of Percy faded again, blanketed by the daily drudge of administration, just as a smooth white vista of snow softened the sharp edges of London's streets.
He was alone in the morning room when he spotted the letter on the silver salver with the morning mail, amongst a slew of invitations to winter balls and evening salons. The neat, round character of Percy's hand leapt out with painful familiarity, and John snatched the letter from the salver before his mother came down for breakfast. Benedicta was altogether too sharp not to recognise Percy's handwriting, and after all the man was, to all intents and purposes, deceased. It would not do to cause a fuss, John thought, with sudden irritation. Percy should know better. Then he flushed – it was unfair to blame Percy for being careless, since it was John who had made the first step in seeking him out. He waited a moment for his heartbeat to slow, then with a steady hand, broke the seal on the letter.
Forgive me, it began, with no salutation and no name. Percy had learned something of caution in his exile, at least. The letters flowed over the thick white paper with an easy grace; it was not difficult to imagine that Percy stood before him, speaking.
Forgive me for intercepting your letter – although it is within my duties to open and sort Mr Leith-Reynolds' mail, I would be loath to intrude on your personal correspondence. The deed is done, however, and I do believe that I am the best person to answer your questions. Mr Leith-Reynolds is a man of delicate constitution, and I am certain that he would surmise the nature of your curiosity and be much distressed by the idea.
And turf you out of a comfortable bed? John didn't want to read such a venal purpose into Percy's words. It was unfair, as he did not know the particulars of Percy's situation. "The first time I lay with a man, it was for money," Percy had told him, in the miserable whitewashed storeroom that did for a cell at Crefeld. John shook his head. It is a poor soldier who is surprised by what people will do to survive. Percy was a survivor and an opportunist, and John ought not to blame the man for continuing to do the same, now that he was removed from John's protection.
He is a kind man, if eccentric, and I like to think that his life is made more comfortable by having a secretary to manage his affairs. It is the least I can do to repay him for his kindness.
I assume that you have seen his work in England – I am pleased that he is gaining recognition, though he has few ambitions himself. Like many people of an artistic persuasion he is guileless in the extreme. And yes, you have correctly identified the man who sat for the painting, though he does not model any longer; Mr Leith-Reynolds almost exclusively paints portraits for the young English gentlemen who are touring the continent.
Despite his discomfort with the pecuniary nature of the arrangement, John was a little impressed by the way that Percy had managed it all – arranged Mr Leith-Reynolds (and hence himself) a steady income from the wide stream of young people making the Grand Tour, a fat and easy source of profit. At the same time, the calculated nature of it made John wonder just what Percy had seen in him that first day at the Beefsteak. He had not realised how very, very precarious Percy's position had been in that moment when they recognised each other from Lavender House. How much of Percy's charm that afternoon had sprung from an instinct for survival? He did not doubt Percy's affections, but he had not realised how carefully Percy manoeuvred himself into a position of security before he allowed himself to express them. The thought was bittersweet.
I must confess that I am puzzled by this attempt to make contact, and wonder what I am to infer from it. I find myself trying to anticipate what your questions might be, so that you may ease your mind on whatever matters trouble you. Again, please forgive me if I miss the target – you know that I am, at my very best, an indifferent shot. And well as I know you, and fondly as I hold you, you are an inscrutable devil at times.
"I am no such thing," John said aloud in outrage. His own voice in the quiet morning room startled him, and he shook his head.
So, I anticipate your questions thus: am I well? Am I happy? Do I wish sometimes to have our time over again? The answer to all of these is, of course, yes. I feel it likely, though, that were you able, you would demand that I qualify my response. I am well – the climate, the history, the people of Rome bring me a great deal of contentment day to day. The beauty by which I am surrounded is nourishing in a way that I have never before experienced, and I delight in it constantly.
As to the second, I believe that I am, for the most part, happy. There are black days, of course, but in those times I remind myself that I am alive. I breathe, I walk ancient and beautiful streets, and every day reveals some new treasure. And I live. I will not permit myself to waste the opportunity I have been given; I will live. I will thrive, and I will be happy. Are you are able to say the same of yourself?
John raised an eyebrow. It was not a question he had ever seriously entertained. What would be the point? Duty did not give a fig for happiness. How very like Percy to view the world and the people around him in those terms.
Perhaps you think it would have been more fitting if Mr Leith-Reynolds had painted a Narcissus? All this contemplation must sound terribly self-centred. There is, however, cold logic behind my words – do stop rolling your eyes! – I also know full well that you are the last person to whom you would dispense mercy and kindness, though you are so generous with those whom you love. Be kind to yourself, my friend. It is not an indulgence, and it does not make you weak. And that brings me to my third answer: of course I would have our time again, and of course I would live those days differently. That is the vainest of wishes, though, and one that can only exist through mistakes already made. I know I cannot have the thing I desire most, but I live. And I will be happy. I pray that you are able to be so, in time.
John folded the letter carefully along the creases, running the tip of one finger where Percy's had pressed shape into the paper, so far away. I know I cannot have the thing I desire most, but I live. He pictured Percy walking those ancient streets, caught half in shadow between narrow, stuccoed walls. The hurt and disappointment of what had passed between them eased a little. He leaned back in his chair with the relief of it, shoulders aching.
"You look well, my dear," said Benedicta, sweeping into the room with a rustle of silk.
John stood as she entered, then bent to kiss her on the cheek with sudden affection. "As do you, Mother."
She smiled to herself as she flicked through the mail on the sideboard. John tucked Percy's letter carefully inside his coat and looked out of the window; on Jermyn Street, the snow was crisp and as yet unblemished. Perhaps Percy was right – perhaps it was time to banish those phantoms that pulled his heart this way and that, and instead take up the banner of today.
Benedicta paused with a cream-coloured envelope in one hand. "I believe this one is for you, John." She frowned at the address. "Meynell. Isn't he the gentlemen with the..."
"Fox hounds, yes." John took the letter from her and looked at it curiously. He read through the awkwardly-worded missive and made careful note of the date for the upcoming meet in Leicestershire. Von Namtzen would still be in England at that time – perhaps his friend would find a fox hunt a merry diversion from the toil of bureaucracy. It could not hurt to try.