"I will be replaced - by Lord Grenville, as prime minister."
Why was he remembering that? That, and Billy's ravaged face, his hot, dry hands. It was a fine, cold day, but Wilberforce could hardly see the sun stippling the grass, Billy's face kept interposing.
Barbara had been terribly, painfully kind to him. An unwarranted kindness, he felt. It was so long since he had been unchaste - never during the years of their marriage - yet there had long been, somewhere in his heart, a falseness to all that had unfolded since those Cambridge days. They had had a fineness that was now irrecoverable, that had vanished from the earth with Billy.
It was vain, somehow, to tell himself again that it had melted away long before, unnoticed as dew. He was no longer young; he would never again enjoy even moderately good health - how wasteful, how ungrateful to meditate thus on loss, when Billy had used every ounce of his waning strength to ease the way for him. His throat tightened at the thought. Dear, dear Billy had been afraid, had longed for faith, his faith. And he could say nothing, could not tell Billy of his own terror at being left behind, could not tell him of the many nights - hundreds, indeed - when he had not only thought himself dying, but had wished to die, had lost every vestige of the faith he was usually so eager to proclaim.
He never admitted it. In the hours of darkness, alone, for he was often ashamed to disturb the servants' rest with his weakness, he had longed for death and renounced every hope of salvation. Then, as light came back into the sky, he had clutched at his sheets in shame, not pain.
He wished, now, that he had told Billy. Something was lost, although he could not quite say what.
Richard had done everything for him, for a week. Lifted him when he was too weak to raise himself, held a basin for him, again and again; changed his bed and the soiled napkins. Every attack he had, it was like that, and somehow, afterwards, the normal order of things returned. Nobody but his doctors and his servants was to know that Wilberforce, in the extremity of his suffering, was like an infant child.
Where had the strength come from, while Billy was here, the strength to rise from the bed and begin to dress himself? Already the laudanum was dulling his pain, but his legs were feeble, he could not seem to stand. He tried to fasten his stock, but his fingers fumbled.
Billy had talked of sedition. They had both been so angry. For a moment, just for a moment, he - had wanted to strike Billy down.
The odd taste left by the fluid was sickening to him, at first sweet, but with a lingering bitterness. He curled onto his side, and knew nothing, until Richard's familiar hands were untwisting his gown - it was tangled around his body - and pulling the heavy sheets over him. His anger had not dissipated with his strength. His hands trembled under the covers.
He longed for Billy to come back, but there were only doctors, and servants.
Nobody seemed to breathe. For a moment, Pitt held the House in the palm of his hand. Wilberforce felt himself hunching up on the hard bench as the pain grew, twisting in his belly. He was going to be sick. He would have to step out again.
No, he wasn't - he wouldn't. He swallowed hard.
They'd be in session another hour or two, perhaps. It was already late, but he had agreed to join Thomas afterwards. There were endless letters to write and lists to make. Late into the night, petitioners kept coming, ragged men and women with no hope - and hungry, some of them.
Yet this, God's work, enjoyed no good fortune, no kind hearing. His oratory was not the finest, his dedication, it seemed, was sorely wanting, and he could never master his bodily infirmity.
There was a roar of approbation from the House. Billy had finished things off quickly. In no time at all, the members were flooding out of the Chamber, their breath steaming in the chillier air of the corridors. Billy caught his arm, and led him without speaking through the passages, to a small withdrawing room. It was rarely used, not especially comely and too far from the Chamber for convenience, but tonight a light supper had been laid on the table and a small fire burnt in the grate.
"Sit down, Wilber," said Billy, pushing him gently into a chair. "We must talk. You - haven't been looking well, lately."
Wilberforce could think of nothing to say. Billy's extraordinary kindness - when he, Wilberforce, was so utterly unworthy of it - unmanned him, and he felt tears start in his eyes.
Billy saw, of course. Billy saw everything. He turned away to the table, and fussily poured himself a glass of port. Wilberforce felt too sick to drink anything at all - no doubt Billy had noticed that, too. He gulped, knowing he must compose himself, wishing the pain in his belly would ease. He couldn't think.
He gave his eyes a surreptitious rub, and spoke quickly. "Billy - I - I'm sorry." Those eight votes, he thought. Only eight votes, and I couldn't do it.
"We will do it," Billy said. His voice was low, and he was still facing away, his attention seemed to be fixed on the tabletop. But Wilberforce could hear every word he said. "They're not going stop us. You know that, really - but you're ill, discouraged. It's awful, seeing you like this."
"I'm so sorry."
"Please, go back to the country - just for a few weeks. A little repose would set you right, make things easier. You really do look dreadful, Wilber, almost as bad as the first time. There's no flesh on you at all."
It was always easy to agree to what Billy wanted. Except - Clarkson was waiting for him. The others, too. They'd always be there, even if he was safely resting in the country.
He refused to go entirely on their account, not at all because he resented the feeling that he, like the rest of the House, was Pitt's, to do with as he would.
With a fling of his arm, Wilberforce unfurled the petition. It stretched the length of the Chamber. The windows burnt with light, and the long strip of parchment itself seemed bright with hope. He had seen so many people sign it. They were here with him, in the Chamber, now - their signatures carried a force that no opponent of his could muster.
It was God's work, of course. He could not fail.
The light began to dim very early in Cambridge, these days. Winter had come on suddenly, and rime lay on the lawns every morning.
The cloisters were black-dark, and empty of people. It might have been eerie, but Billy had been telling him old intrigues, and Wilberforce was still half-rapt in the story. Billy could always keep him interested.
They walked quickly, because Billy's father had arrived in Cambridge that day, so Billy was going to dine with him. Wilberforce had no father, and his manner was, perhaps on this account, more than usually gay. He was not sure why, but - for some reason - he wished Billy to think him very blithe and free, and less susceptible to troubles than he really was.
Since they were walking quickly, Billy did not seem to have his long limbs perfectly under control. He was growing very quickly, even Wilberforce could see that, and as well as taxing his strength, it made him quite clumsy. So Wilberforce said nothing when Billy's hand suddenly banged his. It hadn't hurt.
When it happened again, he thought perhaps Billy was embarrassed. He had stopped talking. He was out of countenance. Wilberforce knew he should do something to put him at ease again, so as they stepped out of the cloisters and into the lighted quad, he slipped a hand into the crook of Billy's arm.
The next moment, with a jerk, Billy had torn himself free, grabbed Wilberforce's wrist and pulled him back into the darkness of the cloisters, where there were no lamps at all. Billy's fingers were tight on his wrist. They looked at each other for what felt like a very long time - but perhaps it was not, really - and then Wilberforce took a slow step backwards, and then another, until his back was pressed against the cold stone wall.
Billy had not let go of him. The grip was almost bruising, and Wilberforce felt an odd shakiness inside himself. He bit his lip to keep it steady, and reached up with his other hand, touching the cool, smooth skin under Billy's chin.
Wilberforce was not growing as quickly as Billy, so Billy had to bend down to kiss him properly. He was pressed back more firmly against the wall, and he felt one of his stockings catch on the stone and tear, and the next moment he forgot it. There was only Billy, and Billy had let go of his wrist, but now he was feverishly undoing the ribbon that Wilberforce used to keep his hair out of trouble, scrabbling at it with both hands, and Wilberforce felt the hair fall loose around his burning face. Then Billy's hands were tangled in it, and he was kissing Wilberforce's cheeks, and Wilberforce shut his eyes tight against tears of excitement, and Billy kissed his eyelids.
Wilberforce wanted to say, `Don't stop doing that,' but his voice died in his throat, and he didn't need it anyway. They were doing everything right.