Chapter 1: Just before midnight
"Life is short. We're all standing on the brink of the precipice. One misstep, one push and we're falling into the dark from which there's no return."
Erik laughed. Charles felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
"From which there's no return . . . "
He was looking at Charles, no, he was looking through Charles and, from the expression on his face, Charles didn't want to see what Erik was seeing. He'd seen horrors enough for this lifetime and twenty more. No more, no more.
Erik's eyes refocused on his face. Then the haunted look was gone and a smile, no, a sneer took its place.
"Life is short, so the only thing to do is enjoy it and to enjoy life you need money. Money, something I don't have and you do. You won't be getting any more than my hand or my mouth until you pay. Your cock won't be up my arse, or mine up yours, unless I get what I want."
Charles knew he should tell Erik he wasn't rich and all he had was an old name, a name which had been dragged through the mud. He had the education and manners of a gentleman but no property or money to go with them. He should tell him, he must tell him. But what then? Erik had made it very clear what he wanted from Charles. Money. For Charles, Erik was an obsession, the object of a desire that bordered on madness. Yet he also felt a powerful connection to Erik, a connection as close to love as anything he had ever known. If he told him the truth, Erik would turn away. He would lose him.
"What do you want, Erik?"
He gave a contemptuous little laugh.
"I knew you were just like the rest of 'em. Willing to pay if you can get your way, eh, Charlie boy? I want a nice little place in London, in a good part of town, with all the mod cons and a servant to do for me. I want clothes like yours, made for me by a tailor, not bought off the peg from some shonky shop. I want a gold watch and a gold signet ring. I want to go to the theatre and the ballet and the opera. I want to eat in all the best restaurants and have the waiters bow and scrape to me. I want to drink fizz until I'm screwed. I want, I want everything."
Charles must tell him, he must.
"And if I give you everything?"
"Then you'll get everything."
He put his hands on Charles' shoulders, then dragged them down his arms, thumbs digging into his muscles, nails scraping over shirtsleeves and then the skin of his wrists. One hand drifted up to pinch at Charles' nipples through his shirt. The other dipped down to squeeze his cock through his trousers. Charles moaned and put a hand on Erik's shoulder to steady himself and fumbled at the buttons of Erik's fly with the other. He got his fingers inside, through the flap of Erik's underwear and onto his erect cock. He was burning hot. Charles withdrew his hand, spat on his palm and wrapped his fingers round Erik's prick. Erik had slipped his hand down the front of Charles' trousers and was working his cock with brutal efficiency. His hand was hot and dry and calloused and his grip was viciously tight. It was as painful as it was erotic and Charles couldn't get enough. He started pumping Erik's prick with equal fervour.
"Erik, Erik, I'll give you anything, everything, oh god, Erik."
Erik pressed his lips against Charles' ear.
"You'll give me everything," he whispered.
It was a statement, not a question.
"Yes, yes," gasped Charles and came hot and desperate in Erik's hand.
A moment later Erik's spill seared his fingers. They leant against each other, Charles gasping for breath, pulse hammering in his head, Erik's heartbeat and breathing scarcely elevated. Erik stepped back and tucked himself into his breeches. He looked quite calm and composed. Charles could hardly stand, his shirt was stuck to his body with sweat and he felt as though he was shaking apart.
"We'll meet here tomorrow, at midnight. Bring your things. We'll walk to the station and catch the dawn train to London."
He turned to go. Charles caught his hand. He couldn't let him go like that, like a whore who'd just made a deal with a client. Erik spun round and Charles dropped his hand as though he'd been scalded. Erik's eyes were dark slits in a white face, his cheekbones unnaturally prominent and his teeth bared.
"You'll give me everything," he hissed.
Charles shrank back. Erik's thin lips curved in a deaths-head grin. He grabbed Charles throat with both hands. His fingers were startlingly cold and startling strong.
"Erik, Erik, you're hurting me," he choked out.
Erik's grip tightened. Charles scrabbled at his hands, desperately trying to break his grasp. Erik's fingers felt as though they were made of frozen stone. Charles kicked feebly at his shins. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't move, he couldn't think, he was so cold, he was drowning. There had to be something he could do or say to stop this. Somehow he managed to whisper:
" . . . love . . . "
The grasp on his throat loosened. Then Erik's arms were wrapped around him and Charles was breathing in great gulps of air. The cold that had pierced him was gone and Erik was his usual furnace-like self. Charles gazed up at him. He looked like himself again, starkly beautiful. Tears were shining in his eyes. He stroked Charles' hair and pressed soft kisses to his brow.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else, I thought you were him, them, I didn't recognise you my love," Erik said, voice so gentle it hardly sounded like him.
Charles just stood there, in the embrace of a man who'd bargained with him like a common prostitute, who'd strangled him and was now soothing him like the tenderest lover. His throat was aching, there was come on his hands and his trousers, and he knew he should walk away from all this madness.
Erik drew back a little and looked down at him. Charles had never seen him look so vulnerable. An expression of utter confusion crossed his face.
"You're not him, you're not . . ."
Confusion was replaced by what Charles could have sworn was grief. It was so momentary he couldn't be sure and the next instant Erik looked like his old self; cool, mocking, enigmatic.
"Tomorrow, Charles. Midnight. Don't be late."
Charles should have said he wouldn't be there, he couldn't give Erik what he wanted and he wasn't some rich bastard in want of a bit on the side.
"Tommorrow, midnight, I'll not fail."
As he watched Erik disappear into the darkness, he wondered how the hell he'd come to this point.
Chapter 2: After dinner
One month earlier
Charles slipped out of the drawing room through one of the full length windows that opened onto the terrace. It was blessedly cool outside. It had been a blisteringly hot day and the house felt stifling. He couldn't stand anymore talk either. The nouveaux riches harping on about trade and politics. The old money nodding politely and privately sneering, then turning the conversation to hunting and their dogs. He despised them all equally. He set off across the terrace, through the Italian garden - the scent of mock orange blossom and honeysuckle heavy in the air - and over the grass towards the lake. The light from the house was left behind and there was only the full moon to light his way. He took it slowly and placed his cane carefully, not wanting to jar his duff leg.
He made it to the big willow right by the edge of the lake without incident and lowered himself onto the bench beneath it. He set down his cane, got out his cigarette case and lighter and lit up. There wasn't much of a breeze to speak of, but he could feel the cool air coming off the lake. Charles smoked and watched the moonlight on the water and wished he'd turned down the dinner party invitation. Mrs Shaw had been so very insistent though and, since her husband was employing him, he'd found it impossible to say no.
An old school chum had recommended him to Stephen Shaw: "Wants his library catalogued. Thought of you as soon as he mentioned it. Always had your nose stuck in a book. Shaw's a bit of a blighter but his wife's a decent sort and their house is tip top. Not much money in it but you'll get bed and board, eh?"
Charles, lost and aimless, had taken the offer. After all, what else was there for him to do? If he'd known he'd be required to attend dinner parties, he might have had second thoughts. He knew why Mrs Shaw had wanted him to attend. Charles was old money. Mr and Mrs Shaw were not. Then there was the frisson attached to the Xavier name. No doubt a good deal of delicious gossip had been stirred up by his presence at the table.
He tipped back his head and blew a long plume of smoke up towards the stars. The job was alright though. He was left entirely alone. No one seemed in the least interested in what he was doing. He could shut out the modern world and lose himself in seventeenth century pamphlets blasting the clergy for their godless ways or 18th c. tomes on land management.
"Can you spare a fag?"
Charles startled and knocked his cane to the ground. Leaning over the back of the bench was a man. Charles stared. He'd thought he was quite alone. His visitor walked round to stand in front of him. He was tall, rangy and handsome in a hard-faced style. He wore boots and breeches and an unbuttoned waistcoat over his partially unbuttoned shirt. Some sort of outdoor servant obviously. He looked down at Charles with a faint, amused grin.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, can you spare a fag?"
His voice was deep and his accent a little more cultured than Charles had expected, with a trace of something foreign. He was bloody insolent too. Not that Charles minded. Bowing and scraping set his teeth on edge.
"Of course. Here you are."
He took the cigarette, put it between his thin-yet-curvy lips and bent forwards for a light. The pale flame of the lighter illuminated his face. His skin was tanned, his hair auburn and his eyes an unusual grey-green. Charles watched his throat move as he inhaled and felt a flicker of attraction. The man sank gracefully onto the bench and disposed himself comfortably, legs stretched out, one arm on the seat-back, fingers almost brushing Charles' shoulder. He observed Charles through half-closed eyes and a cloud of smoke. If he made a habit of behaving like this with the family and their guests, it was a miracle he'd not been turned off without a reference.
"You're up at the house then," a statement rather than a question.
"Good cigarette this. You can always tell quality."
"Thank you. I don't think I've seen you about the place?"
"Head groom. You've not been down to the stables?"
Charles shook his head.
"That leg of yours stop you from riding?"
Charles usually hated questions about his leg, but the man sounded nothing but matter of fact.
"How'd it happen? Hunting accident?"
That seemed an odd assumption to make. Most people immediately assumed, correctly, he'd been wounded in the war. Charles knew a chap who'd lost an arm in a factory accident and said he was sick and tired of being hailed as a wounded hero. Charles couldn't stand talking about the war so he replied:
"Something like that."
"What you doing out here then? Had enough of them up at the house?"
Gossiping with servants. What would his mother think? Charles had given up caring what she thought a long time ago, when he'd realised she didn't give a damn for him.
"Yes. There's only so much talk of stocks and shares or some woman's pug dog a fellow can take."
The man laughed, warm and throaty. Charles felt that stir of attraction again.
"You don't know how lucky you are, you don't. I'd put up with a bit of jaw for fizz and lobster and a crowd of servants waiting on me hand and foot. You rich nobs have got it made."
Charles was far from rich, but a gentleman never discussed money, so he didn't put the chap right. God, that old nonsense was deeply ingrained.
"I haven't introduced myself. Charles Xavier."
He held out his hand. The man took it in a strong grasp. Dear lord, the fellow was burning up. The last time Charles had touched someone so hot, it had been a wounded soldier dying of a fever.
"My, aren't we fancy? Erik Lehnsherr."
Surely that was a German name? It would explain the slight accent. Anti-German feeling had faded considerably, but Charles was still surprised to find a German employed in an English country house
He became aware their hands were still clasped. He made to let go. Lehnsherr's grasp tightened momentarily, then he released him, trailing his long fingers over Charles' shorter ones and giving Charles a smile he would have classed as flirtatious had Lehnsherr been a woman. Christ, this was dangerous ground.
"I suppose I'd better return to the house before they send out a search party."
"You're welcome to join me down by the lake anytime you get bored of all them stuffed shirts. I'm out here most evenings. Make sure you bring some of your fancy fags though, I could develop quite a taste for 'em. Don't suppose you'd give me a couple to take away? My baccy will taste like horse shit after your stuff."
Charles couldn't help laughing.
"You've got some nerve."
"I have, haven't I? So, do I get the cigarettes or not?"
He gave Charles a wicked grin, impossible to resist.
"Here you go, you shameless cadger."
Their fingers brushed as he handed over the cigarettes.
"I'm shameless about a lot of things, me."
There was no mistaking that look. Charles had seen it before from men who shared his tastes. He needed to go, now. He grabbed his cane from the grass and pushed himself up. Lehnsherr stood too, so close he could feel the heat radiating off his body. Oddly enough, he didn't smell of much. Charles had expected sweat and the stables, instead he had a faint, strangely sweet scent. It was hauntingly familiar but Charles couldn't quite place it. Some cheap brand of soap probably.
"I'll see you again?" said Lehnsherr, putting his hand on Charles' shoulder.
Charles found himself leaning into that hot, heavy touch. No, no, no.
"I . . . yes, I daresay you will. Enjoy the fags."
"I will. See you tomorrow night, right here, under the willow. You can tell me what a tough life you rich bucks lead and I can educate you on the different types of horse shit."
"You're a disgrace," laughed Charles, aroused and exhilarated.
"Oh, you don't know the half of it."
Lehnsherr squeezed his shoulder and rubbed his thumb over Charles' collar bone. Charles felt his cock twitch. Everything in him yearned to press against the other man and rut like an animal. He looked into those grey-green eyes. He felt drugged, as though this was a morphine dream, like the ones he'd had in hospital. He was falling into Erik, a drowning man.
"Mr Xavier, Mr Xavier!"
He stepped back from Lehnsherr, startled, and turned towards the voice. Someone was coming across the lawn towards the lake. He turned back to Lehnsherr, but he was gone.
A footman pushed his way through the dense weeping-willow branches.
"Mr Xavier, sir, very sorry to disturb you, but Mrs Shaw was concerned for your safety. She saw you setting off for the lake and, when you didn't return, she was alarmed. The lake's very deep sir, and with your leg - "
Charles interrupted him. "Yes, thank you very much. I'll return to the house immediately."
The footman accompanied him back to the house. Mrs Shaw pounced on him as soon as he stepped inside. Charles apologised for leaving the dinner party without speaking to his hostess. It was unforgivably bad manners but he'd felt rather overcome with the heat. Mrs Shaw assured him that she wasn't in the least offended and had only been concerned for his welfare.
"You must be more careful, Mr Xavier. You can't go gadding about as you did before your injury. Only think if you had slipped and fallen into the lake and hadn't been able to get out because of your leg."
Charles thanked her for her concern through gritted teeth. She fussed over him a little longer, apparently convinced that, because he was a cripple, he was some kind of idiot child.
He escaped to his room as soon as politeness allowed. He threw open the windows and looked out to the lake. God, he was sweating like a fever patient. He stripped off and wiped the sweat from his body with a cold face flannel. He lay on his bed atop the covers, stark naked. His leg ached. His cock ached too. Well, at least he could do something about his cock.
He spat in his hand and wrapped his fingers round his cock. He closed his eyes and thought of Lehnsherr, no, Erik. His eyes, his mouth, his lean body, his long fingers. Oh, those fingers, gripping Charles' cock, firm and demanding. Dragging Charles' orgasm from him with hot hands and a filthy grin. Charles moaned and gasped and worked himself frantically. He was close. He reached between his buttocks and fumbled for his hole. He pushed a finger in, reaching for the place inside that made everything blur into heat and pleasure.
He opened his eyes. The room stank of come and anal musk. He was sticky and stinking. Charles levered himself off the bed, leg protesting, and cleaned up. He lay down again, covering himself with a single sheet. He was tired, but it took some time for him to fall asleep, thoughts running on Erik, and when he did sleep, his dreams were uneasy.
Chapter 3: Late evening
Charles had realised he was as attracted to men as to women when he was fifteen. He was in the boiler room with Jenkins major. They'd just brought each other off and were reclining on a pile of empty coal sacks. Everyone at Harrow knew what went on between a good many of the boys - in fact one of the Classics masters was notorious for not only teaching Greek, but also demonstrating certain aspects of Greek culture to his favourite pupils - however, it was still an offence which merited expulsion so everyone practiced discretion. Hence the boiler room.
Jenkins major was two years older than Charles and a head taller. He was a rugby forward, so had a solid, beautifully muscled body. His thighs in particular were a joy to behold and to touch. He was blond and tanned and covered in a golden down which, in the right light, gave him an angelic glow. His mind was as dense as his muscles. Charles was besotted with him.
"I'll be jolly glad when I can get hold of a girl and do the thing properly, won't you Xavier?"
"I mean, fooling about with boys is all well and good, but it's nothing like getting your hand up some tart's skirt. There's a waitress in a tea shop in Greenford who let me put two fingers up her and my sister's friend, Freda or Freya or something, is a dead cert for the summer vac. I can't wait."
"No, no, me neither."
"Come on Xavier, better get back to the dorms."
Charles lay awake in his bed after lights out. It was clear that Jenkins saw Charles as a substitute for a girl. If he could've got hold of a female, he wouldn't have wanted Charles. Over the next few days, Charles pondered the behaviour of his contemporaries. Some boys took care of themselves and didn't want to touch or be touched by another boy. Some boys were like Jenkins major and preferred girls, but would take what they could get. Other boys, though they'd never admit it, seemed to prefer their own gender. Then there was Charles. He loved fumbling around with a schoolmate and often got crushes on one of his fellows. However, he was also romantically attracted to girls and had enjoyed some frantic groping with a pert housemaid at Westchester. His desires seemed perfectly poised between men and women.
His first time with a woman was a year after this revelation. Kurt took him down to London for the weekend to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. This was highly suspicious. Marko's usual contact with Charles consisted of thrashing him for dumb insolence (reading a book), laziness (reading a book) or unmanliness (also reading a book).
"Boy doesn't want to spend his sixteenth here, surrounded by a parcel of women. He's becoming a man, he needs to spend time in the company of men. I'll take him to my club, introduce him to my friends, that sort of thing."
Kurt was quite right about Charles not wanting to spend time with his mother, but he would miss Raven. They'd been planning to row out onto the lake at midnight, eat cavier, drink champagne and set off fireworks. His step-father's plans sounded absolutely dire. They took the train down and booked into the Dorchester. Marko had hardly said a word to Charles all day, apart from joshing him in that jovial, bordering-on-aggressive way that Charles particularly hated.
After dinner, they took a taxi to what he presumed was Kurt's club. The place was certainly very luxurious and the staff very obsequious. They were ushered into a splendid drawing room, decorated in amber and gold. It was crowded with well dressed men and lightly clad women. Charles heart beat rocketed as he looked around the room. Sweat prickled his armpits. This wasn't Kurt's club. A tall, elegant woman in an exceptionally low cut dress approached them.
"Mr Marko, how delightful of you to honour us with your presence. A certain little filly will be overjoyed to see you again. And who is this fine young man? Your son?"
"Step-son, my dear. It's his first time and he's a sensitive little chap, too sensitive if you ask me, so I'm relying on you to pick the right girl."
"I know just the one. She'll take good care of young Master Marko."
"Xavier," quavered Charles.
The elegant woman smiled. "I do beg your pardon, Master Xavier. Ah, here she is, Angel by name and Angel by nature."
Marko guffawed. "A fallen angel I'll be bound."
The women laughed. Angel was a short girl, with long, lustrous black hair, light brown skin, plump lips and dark eyes. The few wisps of lace she wore did more to accentuate her figure than hide it. Her breasts were full, her waist tiny and her hips curvaceous. She was the most beautiful and erotic creature Charles had ever seen. He was completely terrified of her. She reached out and took his hand.
"Hello, Master Xavier. Have you another name I might call you since we're to be such very good friends?"
"Ch, Ch, Charles," he stammered.
"You come along with me, Charles. Don't you worry about a thing, Angel will take care of you. We'll have a high old time, we will."
Marko clapped him on the back so hard he almost fell over.
"Time to prove you've got it in you Xavier or, rather, that you can get it in her."
Laughter all round. Angel led him up a broad, curving staircase to a large bedroom, lavishly decorated in sky blue and silver and furnished with a four poster bed.
"Why don't we get a bit more comfortable?"
Apparently this meant taking her clothes off. Her nipples were dark, her belly-button a well of darkness in the smooth plane of her stomach and the curls between her rounded thighs were dark as pitch.
"Let's get your kit off."
Charles stood stock still while she undressed him. Every light touch of her fingers sent pulses of fear and arousal shooting through him. His cock was already at half mast when she steered him to the massive bed.
"Wouldn't you like to touch me?"
He nodded, quite unable to speak. He ran his hands over her blood-warm, satin-smooth, feather-soft skin. Her breasts were a marvel. He'd touched girls' breasts before, but it had usually been a hurried business for fear of getting caught. He could explore Angel's at his leisure. He gently squeezed them and played with her nipples, rolling them between his fingers and lightly tweaking them. She made appreciative noises. Greatly daring, he bent his head and fastened his lips to a nipple, licking and sucking and nibbling. She groaned.
"You're a fast learner aren't you? Sure you've never done this before?"
He shook his head. His cock was painfully hard. Angel gave it a couple of playful strokes. He moaned and almost came right then and there. She laughed. There was a slight edge to her laughter.
"Hold your horses, Charlie. Don't want you going off like a rocket just yet, do we? I bet you'd like a look and feel of where you're going to pop your little chap?"
She leant back and spread her legs, reaching down to open her dark lips between two fingers. Charles could hardly breathe.
"Go on, put your finger in."
Hand trembling, Charles slid a finger into the hot, wet place between her legs. He'd done this before, but not often and always under layers of clothing so he'd not been able to see what he was doing. He slid his finger in and out of her cunt, feeling her clench round him, feeling her heat and slickness. Her juices glistened on his finger and her light brown skin. She smelt warm and spicy. Angel moaned and shifted.
"Give me another one, love."
He eased another finger in. His prick was aching. He was pretty sure he could come just from this.
"Let's get you inside me, Charlie, my darling."
She spread her legs wider and, grasping his buttocks, manoeuvred him between her thighs. He positioned his leaking cock between her cunt-lips and pressed in. He'd never done this before. He couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't breathe. Everything focused on the tight, wet heat clenching round his cock.
"Go on and move then."
He only managed a dozen desperate, uncoordinated thrusts before he came. He collapsed on top of her, head pillowed on her breasts, breathing in a mix of perfume, sweat and sex. They lay there for a while, cooling down and breathing quietly. Everything seemed very still and very quiet. Charles realised he hadn't kissed her, well, not on her mouth anyway. He listened to her heartbeat. He'd thought his first time would be with someone he cared about, not a complete stranger. A stranger who'd been paid to fuck him. It had still been pretty damn wonderful. He wondered if she'd enjoyed it or if it was just work to her.
"Be a dear and get off me now. I'll have a little wash and brush up and spruce you up too."
He rolled off her and watched her back and arse and thighs as she walked over to an ornate dressing table. She poured water from a ewer into a basin and started wiping herself down with a cloth. God, she was beautiful. He felt he should thank her and tell her how lovely she was. Feeling suddenly shy, he said nothing. He felt so tired, pleasantly so. He lay back on the bed and pulled the covers over himself. He partially closed his eyes, watching her through the merest slits. Angel glanced at him in the mirror. An expression of pure loathing and contempt distorted her lovely face. Then her professional smile was back in place once more.
Charles never went to a prostitute again.
During the war, his men took every opportunity to enjoy the whores who clustered round the main camps. Charles would hire the most miserable and desperate looking girl and spend an hour practising his French. The poor wretches seemed grateful for a rest from servicing an endless line of soldiers and Charles vocabulary was considerably expanded. Sometimes he was tempted, but he didn't want a dose of the clap and he never quite forgot that look on Angel's face. Besides, he'd found a subaltern who was always up for a little frottage or mutual masturbation.
He mulled over his sexual history as he waited for Erik under the willow tree. If his secret was discovered the game would be up. The law branded him a criminal. The church condemned him. Society considered him unnatural. By rights he should be harrowed by guilt, shame and self-hatred. He wasn't. Anyone who'd read the Classics, particularly in the original Greek and Latin rather than a bowdlerised translation, knew that men fucking men had gone on since time immemorial and had been regarded as perfectly normal. Nature had made Charles this way - his nebulous religious beliefs hadn't survived his first month in the trenches - so how could it be unnatural for him to act according to his nature?
"Did you bring my fags?"
"Christ, you do have a habit of sneaking up on a chap, don't you?"
Erik laughed and sat down beside Charles.
"You haven't answered my question."
"You're a demanding devil, aren't you? There you go, a whole packet. I hope you're grateful."
Erik tugged his forelock, dipped his head and put on a whining, grovelling voice.
"Oh, very grateful young sir, bless you, bless you, I'll name my firstborn after you, so I will."
He straightened up and faced Charles with a sardonic grin.
"See if I bring you anymore cigarettes," said Charles, laughing.
"See if I turn up again if you don't."
"And I thought you were here solely for the pleasure of my company. I'm deeply offended. I may have to give you the cut direct."
Erik's fingers came to rest on Charles' shoulder. The contact was electric. Charles' cock responded instantly. Good god, what was the matter with him? He wasn't a thirteen year old boy anymore. Erik smiled at him with mingled warmth and mockery.
"Don't you go doing that, Charlie. Of course I'm here for the pleasure of your company. Who wouldn't want the company of fine, handsome, charming gentleman like yourself? Course the cigarettes are an attraction too, but you're the main attraction."
He was gently stroking Charles' shoulder. Nothing existed except the lake, silvered by the moonlight, the softly swaying willow tree and the two of them. The rest of the world was a ghostly dream and they were the only real people on the planet.
"I say old friend, you'll make me blush."
"I bet you blush very prettily, Charles. I'd like to see you blush, I'd like to make you blush."
Charles burnt with reckless exhilaration. He put one hand on Erik's knee and the other on his bicep. He felt Erik's muscles shift through the rough fabric of his breeches and shirt. He couldn't look away from those grey-green eyes.
"Why don't you then?"
Erik's smile broadened, then disappeared altogether. He put his hand on the back of Charles' neck, stroking the fine hairs with one finger. Face expressionless, he leant forward. Charles leaned towards him, Erik's face becoming an unfocused blur as he moved closer. Their lips were a fraction of an inch from touching, when Erik drew back, laughing.
"Oh, Charles, what a naughty boy you are. I bet you were popular at your fancy school. I bet the other boys couldn't get enough of you. "Xavier's always good for a tumble," they'd say. Probably compared notes, who'd got you to do what, eh?"
Charles leant on his cane and pushed himself off the bench. He was equal parts frustrated and furious.
"How dare you! How dare you lead me on and then mock and insult me. You're nothing but a cheap cock-tease."
He turned to go. In his haste, he placed his cane badly. A bolt of pain shot through his bad leg and he felt himself start to fall. Erik leapt to his feet and wrapped his arms around him, clasping him to his chest. The man gave off heat like a furnace. Charles struggled and Erik's grasp loosened, though he didn't let go.
"Steady now, steady Charlie boy. Don't be so hasty now. I'm sorry, I was just joking, just having a bit of fun with you. I didn't mean anything by it. Say you forgive me, go on, say you forgive your old pal Erik."
He spoke cajolingly, as though Charles was a fractious horse he was trying to settle. He stroked his hands up and down Charles' back, soothing and arousing in equal measure. Charles was still angry, but he was also half-hard. Damn Erik for being so enraging and irresistible.
"I'm not sure I do forgive you."
"How about if I show you I'm sorry?"
Charles looked at him doubtfully.
Erik bent his head and touched his lips to Charles. His lips were as hot as the rest of him. It was the merest, fleeting touch, but Charles' prick responded eagerly.
"Now do you believe I'm sorry?"
"I . . . yes, I suppose so."
"Good, I wouldn't want us to part as enemies. See you tomorrow?"
Charles hesitated. Erik ran strong fingers up and down his spine and smiled in the most coaxing, charming way.
"Oh, very well then."
Erik's smile widened into a shark-like grin.
"Don't forget my fags."
Charles snorted and punched him on the shoulder.
"You rotten sod."
Laughing, Erik disappeared into the darkness.
Charles barely made it to his room before he was shoving down his trousers and tugging at his cock, mind roiling with obscene thoughts of Erik. After he was done, he started getting ready for bed. He was brushing his teeth when he noticed a strange taste on his lips. Erik? It was odd and reminiscent of something he couldn't quite place. Everything about Erik was odd. Since the war, Charles had felt everything was odd and wrong and strange. Erik fitted right in.
His dreams were of burning trees and water-filled craters and the voices of the dead.
Chapter 4: In the boathouse
Charles was having tea with the housekeeper, Mrs MacTaggert, a brisk, friendly Scotswoman in late middle age. She must have been a beauty when young because she was still a handsome woman. Mrs MacTaggert had been at Adderstone since she was a scullery maid and knew everything about the house and the people in it. She was an intelligent woman, with little education apart from her own reading.
Before, Charles would have kept a proper distance. One was always polite to servants, when one noticed them at all. If they displeased you, a quiet word would be had with the housekeeper or butler and they would discipline the offender. One might be friendly to staff who had been with the family for years and grown old in service, but they weren't friends, except perhaps when one was a child and didn't understand the proper order of things. Now all of that seemed utterly ridiculous to Charles. Meaningless nonsense. Of all the people at Adderstone, it was Mrs MacTaggert in whom he found a sympathetic spirit, with whom he could converse most easily and in whose presence he felt at ease. He was happy to call her a friend.
They were sitting in her parlour, surrounded by her books and ornaments. Despite the warmth of the summer evening, a fire was burning in the grate. Mrs MacTaggert's room was in the oldest part of the building and the four foot thick walls kept out the summer's heat. They were drinking tea and eating shortbread and arguing the Brontës versus Austen.
"There's a strain of the ridiculous in "Jane Eyre" - that scene where Rochester dresses up as a gipsy woman and tells their fortunes or, after his proposal, when Jane is deliberately keeping him at a distance and he calls her all kinds of absurd names - that I can't like."
Charles nodded. "I agree, but isn't life ridiculous? Aren't we all ridiculous, especially when we are in love?"
"Perhaps, but I find it breaks the mood of the book. "Wuthering Heights" now, it's the way it starts at the end and has Lockwood telling a story told to him by Nelly that I can't abide. Why make it so complicated? Why not have the main characters tell us their story?"
"Because Emily wants to draw us in, she wants to give us the fragments we need to build a whole world. She wants us to make up our own mind about the characters, not just take Nelly's and Lockwood's views at face value. Jane Austen tells us what to think about her characters, Emily Brontë allows us to form our own opinions."
Mrs MacTaggert shook her head. "But with what a loss of clarity and structure and elegance."
"And where exactly do you find those qualities in this world? The Napoleonic Wars were going on when Austen was writing and the great families were growing rich on the slave trade, yet you'd hardly know it from her novels."
She sat up in her chair. "Now there I must disagree with you Mr Xavier. Why the military are everywhere in her books, everywhere. And as for slavery, my memory is not what it was but I'm quite sure that Fanny Price in "Mansfield Park" comments on that vile trade and as an abolitionist too, I think."
He laughed. "Touché. I agree that Jane Austen is a masterful writer. I'll even admit to enjoying her novels more than those of the Brontë sisters. I still maintain that if you want life in all its chaos, you'll get it from the Brontës and not from the divine Jane."
"But maybe I don't want chaos?"
"Maybe what we want is of no consequence. We get what we are given and what we are given is . . ."
He stopped, unsure of how to finish, suddenly aware of moving into deep waters. Their eyes met. She had lost a husband and a son. All he had lost was the full use of his leg. Who was he to begrudge her some order?
"What was it like?" she asked, voice low, fixing him with her gaze.
He knew what she meant immediately. Raven had asked him what it was like, had said:
"You can tell me, Charles, you can tell me about the war. You can tell me anything, everything, I'll understand."
But how could she understand? Unless he slid a bayonet into his pale belly and let his guts spill out, glistening and reeking, and said:
"There, Raven, that's what it's like, now do you see?"
He'd said nothing and they, who'd always been so close, had drifted apart until there was the same distance between him and Raven as there was between him and everybody else. He was sorry that it hurt her, but it was for the best. He was no longer fit to be her brother. No longer fit to be anything to anyone.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked," said Mrs MacTaggert. "It's just . . . my boy, my Kevin . . . I started reading everything I could to try to understand what it was like for him, but it's not the same as hearing it first hand from someone who was there. Forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive," said Charles, gently.
He put his hand on hers. Perhaps there was a way he could help her to understand.
"I'm not sure I can talk about it, but I have something that might help. It helps me. I won't be a moment."
He limped upstairs to his room, found the book, then limped back to the fire-lit parlour. He handed the slim volume to her.
"Poems by Wilfred Owen," she read.
"It's only just been published. A chap from my regiment sent it to me. At first I wouldn't touch it. Poetry? What had poetry to with all that? It made me angry just to think of it. I thought it would be like Rupert Brooke, you know "some corner of a foreign field that is forever England". Beautiful stuff but all absolute nonsense. This chap, Owen, he was there. Killed in 1918 I think. Some of his poems have caught what it was like. He's not made sense of it, how could one make sense of the senseless, but it might help you to understand. It upsets me, but it comforts me too, makes me feel I'm not quite alone."
He stopped, feeling he'd said too much, yet, somehow, not enough. She smiled at him, a more motherly smile than any he'd had from his actual mother.
"Thank you, Mr Xavier, I'll read it later." She pulled herself together. "Now, would you care for more tea?"
"That would be splendid, thanks."
How absurd it was to be drinking tea in this pleasant room, he a cripple and she a widow and the mother of a dead son. A child who lost their parents was an orphan, but what was a mother who'd lost her child? How odd that there was no word for it.
They spoke of various things; the changes she'd seen at Adderstone over the years, the beauty of the summer garden and Charles' continuing adventures in cataloging. There were several times when he was on the brink of asking her about Erik, but he never quite got up the nerve.
He and Erik had been meeting almost every night for two weeks now. Erik blew hot and cold. One night they would exchange passionate kisses and caresses, the next he wouldn't even speak to Charles, let alone touch him. Every time they met Charles would tell himself it was the last. Erik was mocking and taunting and sometimes treated him with thinly veiled contempt. Yet Charles couldn't stay away from their infuriating, hallucinatory encounters. There were moments when Erik's guard dropped and Charles glimpsed a kind, melancholy, affectionate man.
One rainy evening they took shelter in the boathouse and sat looking out at the pouring rain and listening to it beating down on the roof. Charles watched Erik's profile, illuminated by the glow of his cigarette and wreathed in smoke. Erik smoked like a film star, impossibly elegant and soigné. They'd been sitting quietly for some time when Erik said, quite out of the blue:
"My mama liked the rain. She said it washed the world clean and brought the flowers forth. She was never angry when I came home soaking wet from playing in the puddles. She'd dry me with a towel in front of the fire and say I needed watering so I'd grow up big and strong like a tree."
He took a drag on his cigarette.
"My . . . friend . . . he liked the rain too. He said it reminded him of home. He liked to go swimming when it rained. We'd sneak down to the lake, this lake, and strip off and dive in. We'd have been in trouble if we'd been caught. Dismissed maybe. The lake's very deep so it was always freezing. Our lips would be blue with cold and I'd get out and dry off and warm up, but he'd keep swimming until he was so chilled he could hardly move his limbs. I'd coax him out, then rub him down with a towel, like my mama used to do for me, and hug him close to warm him up."
They'd lit a lantern they'd found among the boating equipment. Erik's face was soft and sad in its golden glow. He finished his cigarette and flicked the end into the water. His expression grew bleak.
"That's all gone now, nothing left, no one left."
Charles said nothing. What could he say? Erik was right, everything was gone. He turned to Charles, face unreadable.
"No one left but you and me, Charlie. What do you want from me? Anything? Everything? Tell me, Charles, Charlie, tell me."
What did he want? Friendship? Love? Or just a good fucking?
As though he'd read his mind, Erik came to stand right in front of Charles, putting his hands on his shoulders, crotch level with his face.
"What do you want right now, Charles?" he whispered, a lewd smile curling his lips.
Charles made no answer. Instead he put his hands on Erik's hips and pressed his face into his crotch, rubbing against his cock through the fabric of his trousers.
"I thought so, I thought that was what you wanted. Go on then, take what you want."
Charles unbuttoned Erik's breeches, opened the flap of his underwear and pulled out his cock. He was circumcised and absolutely massive. Charles wrapped his fingers round the base and licked a stripe up the underside. Erik shuddered. He was so hot, so very, very hot. Strange how little smell or taste there was, just that faint sweetness he'd noticed before. He licked Erik's shaft and head and tapped and flicked his tongue at his slit until he was fully erect.
"More," he gasped.
Charles grinned up at him and sucked the head of his cock into his mouth. Erik muttered something in German and moved his hands from Charles' shoulders to his head, twisting his fingers into his hair. Charles took a little more cock into his mouth, rolling his tongue, then hollowing his cheeks. Erik pressed his fingers to Charles cheek, chasing the movement of his prick in his mouth. Charles started bobbing his head, taking a bit more with every movement.
"Oh, Charles, you dirty little cocksucker, you filthy little whore," gasped Erik.
Aroused and insulted, Charles took Erik down as deep as he could. Erik started thrusting. Charles coughed and choked and tears ran down his cheeks. He angled his head so Erik was thrusting down his throat. It was painful and he was gagging and he could hardly breathe, but it was exactly what he needed to get him painfully hard. Erik came with a curse. His come tasted sweet and strange. Erik collapsed onto the seat beside him. Charles coughed and spat and brushed the tears from his eyes.
"Fair exchange is no robbery," said Erik, undoing Charles' trousers and freeing his cock.
His hand was hot, too hot, and his grasp was too tight. Charles dropped his head on Erik's shoulder and dug his fingers into Erik's back as his orgasm was wrung from him, painful and perfect. He spurted over Erik's hand, pale stripes of come on tanned fingers, Erik calling him every filthy name under the sun. He slumped against Erik, as dazed as if he'd awoken from a fever dream.
Erik pushed him off and stood. He tucked his softened cock back in his breeches and, without a word, turned to go.
"Do you have to leave? Can't you stay a little longer?" asked Charles.
"What does it matter to you? You got what you wanted, didn't you?"
"For Christ's sake, Erik, do you have to be such a bastard?"
"Sorry my manners aren't to your liking. I daresay you won't want to see me tomorrow."
Charles stood and grabbed his arm.
"Stop, Erik, just stop."
Erik shook him off.
"You'll have me on my terms or not at all, do you understand?"
Defeated, Charles nodded.
"Very well, your terms it is."
The door slammed behind him.
The next day, Charles had to explain away his scratchy voice as the result of a sore throat.
Chapter 5: Teeth and smiles
There was a huge, concussive blast. Charles was thrown backwards and part of the trench wall collapsed on top him. He lay there, winded, ears ringing and earth in his mouth. He pushed himself up, dislodging sandbags and soil, and looked around. Where there had been a dugout, there was now a crater about twenty feet across. Charles knew he should do something but his head hurt and he felt rather dazed. He put his hand up to check his skull. There was a tender spot and a bit of blood but nothing serious. Sergeant Harrison ran up to him, shouting and gesturing. At least, Charles presumed he was shouting. He couldn't hear a thing. Temporary deafness from the blast. Christ, he hoped it was temporary.
"I can't hear you, Harrison. Deaf for the moment, I'm afraid. Is everyone alright?"
Harrison opened his mouth to speak, then realised it wouldn't do any good and shook his head. Charles' gut clenched. Harrison gestured for him to follow and skirted round the edge of the crater. Bits and pieces of what had once been human beings littered the ground. No telling who they were, the only way to identify the dead would be to do a head-count of the living. They scrambled down into a relatively undamaged section of trench. Harrison stopped and Charles bumped into him. Several soldiers were standing or crouching around something. They looked pretty sick.
Private Waites, who had lied about his age in order to join up, grabbed Charles' arm and started talking. He had traces of vomit round his mouth.
"It's no good Waites, I can't hear anything. The blast's buggered my ears. You'll have to show me."
Waites dragged him forward. A couple of soldiers moved out of the way. Lying on the ground was Carstairs. Everything below his waist was gone. Bloody ropes of gut trailed on the mud. Blood was pooling around him. The smell was appalling. Worst of all, he was still alive. Charles stood in the ringing silence looking down at him. The men looked at Charles, waiting for their officer to tell them what to do.
He knelt beside Carstairs, who clutched feebly at his arm. Charles felt a strong urge to pull away from him and an equally strong sense of shame for wanting to. Surely to God he couldn't survive for long? His lips moved.
"I . . . I can't hear you old chap. Deaf from the blast. You . . . you're in a bit of a bad way. I daresay the stretcher bearers will be here in a minute. They'll get you out of here and the medics will soon sort you out."
He took Carstairs' hand. He was cold and clammy. His eyelids began to droop. God, just die, just die, please, please die. Charles was on the verge of pulling out his pistol and shooting him in the head, onlookers be damned, when a convulsion shook what was left of him and he went quite still, eyes open, unblinking, staring at Charles. He closed Carstairs' eyelids with his fingertips and stood up.
Carstairs' hand was still holding his. He tried to shake him off but he wouldn't let go. Charles grabbed his fingers and attempted to bend them back. They were like iron. He started tearing at Carstairs' wrist, the corpse bumping horribly against his legs. Christ, he'd have to chop his hand off.
"For fuck's sake, someone give me a bayonet!"
He looked up. They were standing round him in a circle, smiling. It was very dark. All he could see were their white teeth. He looked down. Carstairs was smiling, white and sharp, pulling himself up Charles' legs, smiling, smiling, smiling . . .
Charles sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in cold sweat. Had he screamed? He sat in silence, listening for someone coming to his room. Nothing. If he had called out, no one had heard him. He untangled himself from his bedclothes, got out of bed, lit a cigarette and paced up and down, smoking furiously, cane tapping on the floorboards. It hadn't happened like that, well, Carstairs had been blown in half alright, but when he'd died his grip had loosened. As for the teeth and the smiling, Lord knows where that had come from.
He checked his watch. Just gone half past four. It would be dawn soon. He pushed open the bedroom windows and leant on the windowsill, watching the sky lighten to grey and silver and gold. The lawn was silver with dew and a slight mist carpeted the ground, the sort you often got at the beginning of a really hot summer's day. The birds sang as colour returned to the world. So much green.
He wondered if Erik was up and about. A servant's day started early. The indoor staff would soon be stirring. Was Erik seeing to the horses? Running those strong, elegant fingers over a velvety, chestnut flank? No, he was the head groom. He'd be supervising the others. Charles could just picture him, standing with folded arms and a severe look on his face. He'd be a hard taskmaster, wanting everything to be perfect.
Was he thinking of Charles? Was he looking forward to their nightly meeting? Looking forward to seeing him, talking to him, touching him? Or was Charles just an inconsequential addition to his life? A bit of fun, no more, no less?
He was mooning like a lovesick girl. That'll be quite enough of that Xavier. The day had got off to a bad start but there was no reason he couldn't improve the shining hour. Charles washed and dressed and wandered down to the kitchens. Breakfast wouldn't be served for hours yet so he'd have to pick up something himself. He charmed some bread and butter and cheese out of a startled cook and headed for the library.
His plans were thwarted by his leg. He couldn't concentrate on his work because it hurt too damn much. Perhaps his dawn pacing had done the damage. He tried to ignore it. He tried changing position. He tried getting up and walking around a bit. It was no good, nothing worked. The pain just got worse and worse.
Around lunchtime he gave up and retired to his room. It was so bad, he took a dose of the laudanum his doctor had prescribed. He hated taking the stuff, he'd been damn near addicted to it at one point, but the pain was becoming unbearable.
The housekeeper brought a luncheon tray to his room at about one o'clock in the afternoon.
"Thank you, Mrs MacTaggert. You really shouldn't have gone to such trouble. I hate to be a bother."
She smiled. "It's neither a trouble, nor a bother. Now, would you like me to keep you company or would you prefer to be left alone?"
He smiled back. "I prefer my own company when I'm ill, but I do appreciate your offer."
"My Kevin was just the same. You ring if you want anything Mr Xavier. I'll check on you at tea-time."
He managed to eat about a quarter of the luncheon, but polished off all the tea and rang for another pot. The laudanum made him very drowsy, so he took off his shoes, lay down on the bed and slept.
A gentle knocking at his door woke him.
Mrs MacTaggert had brought him more tea, some sandwiches and scones with cream and jam.
"Is it tea-time already?"
She nodded. "How are you feeling Mr Xavier?"
"Rather better actually. Not quite my normal self but much improved."
"Excellent. Shall I stay and help you eat those scones or shall I leave you in peace?"
"Please stay, that's if I'm not keeping you from your duties?"
She laughed. "I'm quite happy to be kept from my duties. There's an infestation of ants in the larder, Mrs Shaw's personal maid has fallen out with Mr Shaw's valet and one of the laundry girls dropped a bottle of bleach on a black velvet opera cloak."
"I can see how even my company might be preferable to such a catalogue of disasters," he said, laughing.
She kept him company for an hour, entertaining him with the mysteries of below stairs and persuading him to eat a sandwich; he couldn't stomach a scone.
"I'll be back up with a dinner tray. I'll make your excuses to the family," she said as she left.
His leg was feeling much better - the sharp, stabbing pain had faded to a dull ache - and Mrs MacTaggert's company had made his dream seem very distant. He didn't think he'd be up to meeting Erik after dinner though. He thought of sending a note to the stables but, since he didn't ride, that would cause comment. He'd stayed away from the stables at Erik's behest and he had a feeling Erik would view the sending of notes in a dim light. All the same, he didn't like to think of him waiting. He'd probably get angry or perhaps fall into one of his melancholic moods. Or maybe he wouldn't care at all, whispered the voice of doubt.
After dinner in his room with Mrs MacTaggert, he hobbled up and down the long gallery. Sometimes too much rest was as bad for his leg as too much exercise. He took it slowly and stopped and sat every few yards, entertaining himself by examining the family portraits.
Since the Shaws were nouveaux riches, the older portraits were actually of other people's ancestors. The more recent ones were of Shaw family members. There was one of Sebastian Shaw, the father of the current Mr Shaw. A slim man, moderately good looking in a slightly weasely way. Charles didn't much like the current Mr Shaw, he reminded him too much of his stepfather, but he liked the look of the father even less. Maybe it was the fault of the portrait painter, but Sebastian Shaw's eyes were cold and dead and his mouth was closed like a trap.
The portrait of his wife, Emma, who had been a Frost, was much more pleasant to look at. She was a devastatingly beautiful blonde woman, with a ravishing figure, dressed all in white. She looked rather cold too, but not cruel. Keen, considering eyes gazed out at Charles. He imagined her as rather prickly, hard to get to know, but worth it once you did. Poor woman, married to the vicious looking Sebastian. Still, she looked as though she could take care of herself. He seemed to recall the Frosts were an old family, but impoverished. Perhaps she had married for money. Looking at Sebastian, it couldn't have been for love.
He seemed to remember Mrs MacTaggert saying Sebastian Shaw was dead, a heart attack or something, but Emma Shaw was still alive. No doubt enjoying life a good deal more without Sebastian at her side. He wondered if Erik had known them. He was a little vague about how long Erik had been with the family. He'd have to ask him tomorrow night, though Erik did have tendency to ignore direct questions.
Charles went back to his room and got ready for bed, trying not to worry about how Erik was taking his absence. He'd explain and apologise tomorrow. He got into bed, read a little and fell asleep with the light on and the book in his hand.
He dreamt of Erik. His eyes, his mouth, his hands, his cock. He was mocking Charles, laughing at him. He was bringing him off, whispering filth in his ear. He was cold and angry. He was smiling at Charles, one of his rare genuine smiles, soft and sad. A slim, smartly dressed figure stood in the background. Charles felt he knew him, but couldn't quite recognise him. He knew he didn't like him. Erik turned towards the man, face twisted in fear and hatred. Everything was blotted out by blinding light. Charles woke up, confused and anxious, to find his bedside lamp still blazing.
He switched it off and fell asleep again straightaway. If he dreamt, he didn't remember his dreams.
The next day got off to a good start. He woke well rested and pain free. The cataloging went smoothly, only interrupted by his discovery of a first edition of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus". He spent several hours happily lost with a student of the unhallowed arts and his monstrous Creature.
Things took a turn for the worse after lunch, when Mrs Shaw requested his presence at "a delightful little supper party, quite informal, such fun, I know you've been unwell but you're positively glowing with health now and it will do you good to be amongst people and have some pleasant distraction from your ills."
He was quite sure he would be distracted, but not pleasantly. He'd already begged off two dinner/dance parties and she was so insistent he found himself unable to say no. He'd plead ill health and sneak off early to see Erik.
The delightful little supper party was worse than he'd feared. A young woman, with bobbed hair and too much jewellery, cornered him as they were gathering for pre-prandial drinks. She appeared to have had quite a few drinks already.
"I think it's shocking poor show how you've been tarred with the same brush as your stepfather. He was the one that sold sub-standard munitions to the army, not you. Serves the blighter right, dying in that factory fire. He'd have been locked up, or maybe even executed, if he hadn't. I think it's beastly unfair all his money, er, your money, um, the money was seized. And you a wounded war hero."
She fluttered her eyelashes and put her fingers, tipped with scarlet nails, on his arm. Perhaps she meant well, but he really couldn't bear it.
"That's terribly kind of you. Now I must go and have a word with Mr Shaw."
He disengaged himself, despite her protests, and walked over to Shaw and his cronies.
"Closer relations with Germany are inevitable, for the economic and political good of both our nations. The War should never have happened. We've got more in common with the Germans than we ever had with some of our so called allies," Shaw was saying.
"It was the Jews of course," said a tall, distinguished older man. "They instigated the whole thing. Made millions and used the post-war power vacuum to wriggle their way into high places. They've no loyalty to any country you know. The only loyalty they have is to money."
Shaw nodded sagely, as did a couple of other men. Several others looked doubtful, but said nothing.
"As a matter of fact, a great many Jewish men fought for their countries. Fought and died. Surely that's the ultimate in loyalty?" said Charles, voice shaking slightly with anger.
"I know you were a soldier, Xavier, but you're too close to the recent conflict to see things clearly. Can't see the bigger picture, can't see the wood for the trees, my boy."
Charles wanted to smash his cane into Shaw's smug, stupid, sneering face until it was nothing but a bloody pulp. He turned away, trembling with rage and stood looking out of the window, gripping his cane so hard his fingers hurt. He couldn't stand this.
The butler announced that supper was being served on the terrace.
"Such a good idea of Lucinda's, having supper outside. It's divinely cool now and, with all the tiny, coloured lanterns, so terribly romantic."
"Isn't it just? I was chatting to that Xavier fellow earlier. He's an absolute dish isn't he? I think the limp makes him even more attractive. I know there's no money and there's the scandal of course, but he'd make for a simply terrific fling."
Scandalised laughter and murmured agreement.
Charles waited until everyone had gone outside and then walked in the opposite direction, out of the main door, across the gravel drive, down the lime avenue - the trees smelt delicious - and down to the lake.
Erik was waiting under the willow tree.
"Finally decided to turn up have you? Didn't know if it was worth my while coming out tonight, not after you were a no show yesterday."
"I'm sorry, Erik, I wasn't well. I had a bit of trouble with my leg."
Erik gave him a long, considering look. "Hmmm, alright, if you say so. You look a bit done in now, if you ask me."
"Oh, that's nothing to do with my leg, that's the bloody awful dinner, no, supper party I've just escaped from. Christ, the poisonous rubbish they were spouting."
"What poisonous rubbish might that be?"
"Ghastly stuff about the Jews."
"Jews, eh?" said Erik, voice and expression unreadable.
Charles was struck by a horrible thought. What if Erik was an anti-Semite? It was terribly common. Charles couldn't carry on seeing him if that was the case. No matter how painful he found it, he'd have to end things between them. He braced himself for Erik's response.
"My grandparents were driven out of Russia and my mama and papa were driven out of Germany and that's how come I'm here, a Jewish man in yet another country that doesn't want him or his people."
Charles stared. "I . . . I had no idea."
"You don't have much of an idea about anything do you, Charles? With your money and your old name and your easy life, you've got no idea what it's like for the rest of us, what it's like for me." His voice was heavy with contempt.
He didn't know what to say. In some ways Erik was quite right about him, in others he was so very, very wrong. It wasn't as if Charles had tried to put him right, he'd let Erik believe he was one of the gentry from the big house. Pride and shame had stopped him from explaining his actual status. Fear too, fear that Erik wouldn't be interested if he knew Charles had lost his money and his good name and was just as much an employee of Shaw as Erik.
It was all such a hideous mess; him, Erik, those bastards up at the house, the whole fucking world, world without end.
"I'm sick of all this, Erik. Sick and tired of the whole bloody shooting match. Make me forget, make me forget it all."
"I'll make you forget alright," he said, taking Charles in his arms and kissing him hard and greedy.
Charles wrapped his arms round Erik, kissing him back and revelling in his heat and strange, familiar scent. Erik nipped at his lips, bit his throat and dragged sharp teeth over his collarbone. He shoved him backwards until the backs of Charles' knees hit the edge of the bench. Charles half sat, half fell down onto the seat. Erik climbed on top of him, legs astride Charles' thighs. This was probably doing all kinds of no good to his bad leg, but Charles was too far gone to care.
Erik ground his arse into Charles' lap, making him groan and his cock stiffen. He smiled like an incubus and rubbed his hardening prick against Charles' belly. There were far too many layers of clothing in the way. Charles scrabbled at Erik's waistcoat and shirt, tearing off buttons in his haste. Erik pushed Charles' dinner jacket off his shoulders, pulled his bow tie loose and ripped his dress shirt open.
They pressed against each other, skin to skin, sweat-slicked muscle sliding over sweat-slicked muscle. Erik was feverishly hot. He bent his head and sank his teeth into Charles nipple, biting down until he drew blood. Charles gasped and cursed.
"You fucker, you evil, bloody fucker."
Erik straightened up. His lips were red with Charles' blood. Charles grabbed his hair, dragged him down and kissed him, licking his own blood from Erik's grinning mouth. Erik manhandled Charles until he was lying on his back on the bench, Erik on top of him. Erik pulled his breeches down - he was naked underneath - then tugged Charles' trousers and underwear off. Their cocks slid together, fully erect and leaking pre-come.
They rutted against each other, Erik's cock sliding in the groove between Charles' hip and thigh and Charles' prick rubbing against the smoothly muscled planes of Erik's stomach. Erik reached down and pressed his hand to Charles' cock, trapping it between his calloused fingers and his lightly haired belly. He pressed harder. Charles snapped his hips. The friction was divine.
"Come for me, Charles, you lovely slut, come for me."
Erik turned him over so he was face down on the bench and pushed his dinner jacket under his hips. He slid his prick between Charles thighs, one perfectly muscled, the other twisted with scars and began to thrust.
"Clench tight, my faygele," gasped Erik.
Charles clenched his thighs as tightly as he could.
"Perfect, sweetheart, perfect," he moaned.
He thrust harder and faster until he spurted hot and wet between Charles' legs. Erik collapsed on top of him. The bench was hard and Erik was heavy and Charles could hardly breathe. Eventually, Erik pushed himself up and hauled Charles into a seated position. He dipped Charles' handkerchief in the lake and wiped him down with it. Gently, he pulled up Charles' trousers, tenderly buttoned his shirt and eased him into his jacket. Charles sat quietly, like a good child bring dressed by his mother, feeling very peaceful despite the distinct ache in his leg.
Erik pulled on his own clothes. He kissed the top of Charles's head, then pushed his way through the trailing willow branches and was gone. His heat and his strange scent lingered.
Chapter 6: Midnight
It had been a month since he'd met Erik. The moon had waned and waxed and was full again. It wasn't quite the end of August, yet there was already a slight chill in the air and the weather had turned windy and damp. It felt as though autumn had come early.
Charles was distracted and distressed all day. His throat hurt and he had to hitch his collar up to hide the bruises Erik had left on his neck. He kept going over Erik's extraordinary behaviour. His ultimatum; effectively "you'll get no more from me unless you pay". The way he'd choked Charles almost to unconsciousness and then treated him with loving tenderness. His apparent confusion over Charles identity. Was Erik suffering from some sort of mental illness, like those poor devils with shell shock?
Charles kept vacillating between going along with Erik's plans for living the high life in London and telling him the truth. The problem with the high life was that it required money.
He had a few things he could sell; his father's watch, his cigarette case, a couple of signet rings set with gemstones - passed down from a 17th c. Xavier - and a small collection of rare books. He might even be able to cadge some money from his mother, who was living in the dower house in what she considered abject poverty and what most people would have thought was considerable comfort. He hadn't taken any of what money was left after the forfeiture of their assets, partly because he wanted Raven to have his share and partly because it was blood money as far as he was concerned. He'd seen a shell explode in the breech. He'd seen rifles jam. He'd seen the consequences. The thought that his stepfather's factory might have supplied that defective equipment made him feel physically sick.
Even if he did sell everything and take the money he'd sworn he'd never touch, it would probably only last a few months, maybe half a year, and then what? Would he and Erik go their separate ways? Would they never see each other again? He wasn't sure he could bear that. He'd lose Erik even sooner if he didn't pay, but did he really want to keep him as nothing more than a glorified whore?
No, he had to tell him the truth. They could afford to live a simple life in London and there were plenty of ways to enjoy oneself in the capital even if one didn't have much cash. More importantly, they'd be together, which was all Charles wanted. He'd even settle for living together as mere friends if that was what Erik preferred.
Erik could be cruel, angry and unsettling. He could also be gentle and tender. In his way, Erik was just as wounded as Charles. Perhaps they could heal together. Despite everything, Charles felt a deeper connection to Erik than he had ever felt for anyone else. He was determined to tell the truth and if he lost Erik, he lost him, at least he'd have been honest.
Mrs MacTaggert noticed Charles' distracted state.
"Are you quite alright, Mr Xavier?"
"Oh, yes, it's just my leg giving me a little trouble."
She gave him a shrewd look. "Are you certain that's your trouble?"
"Yes, but thank you for asking."
She put her hand on his arm. "It's not my place to speak to you like this, but if you need a friend, I'm here."
He was touched but, really, what could he say? That he was considering running away with his queer, servant, Jewish lover?
"Thank you, but I'll be fine, honestly."
She didn't look convinced but nodded and walked away.
The day seemed interminable. He couldn't concentrate on his work. His leg ached. Mrs Shaw interrogated him about his absence from her supper party. He blamed his leg but struggled to be convincing and could tell she didn't believe him. She made some very pointed comments about modern manners and ungrateful young people.
"And how is your work progressing Mr Xavier?"
"Very well, thank you."
"I was surprised when Stephen decided the library needed cataloging. It seemed rather unnecessary to me. Then you came along and made such a good start and I began to change my mind. Lately, though, I'm inclined to think my original opinion was right. I may have to have a word with Mr Shaw about your continued employment, Mr Xavier."
He wanted to scream in her face that he couldn't give a damn about his employment, or her opinions, or her vile husband.
"You must do what you think best, Mrs Shaw," he said, glacially polite.
Her lips compressed into a thin, fuchsia line. "You can be assured that I will, Mr Xavier."
He bowed his head and smiled the insincere smile his mother had taught him.
The hours dragged by. Luncheon alone in the library. Tea with Mrs MacTaggert, who looked at him with concern, but asked no questions and allowed him to direct the conversation towards trivialities. Dinner in his room. Then finally, finally, it was almost midnight and he was limping towards the lake, coat thrown over his shoulders to protect him from a thin, fine drizzle.
The willow provided a decent shelter from the rain as he waited for Erik. The overcast sky drenched the lake in darkness. He sat and smoked, then paced up and down and smoked. No Erik. Perhaps he'd had second thoughts? Perhaps he was ashamed of his behaviour and couldn't face Charles? Perhaps he was playing some kind of cruel joke? What if he'd gone to the boathouse because it was raining and was waiting there for Charles, thinking he wasn't coming? He pushed his way through the willow branches, wet leaves sticking to his face, and headed for the boathouse. He'd taken half a dozen steps when he stopped. Erik was standing at the edge of the lake with his back to Charles, looking out across the water.
"Erik, Erik!" called Charles, walking up to him and touching his shoulder.
Erik turned. Charles took a step back. All the colour seemed to have leached from Erik's face. In the dim light his eye sockets were shadowed. He was smiling, a wide, white unsettling smile.
"You haven't brought your things, Charles. Having second thoughts?"
His voice was soft and cold as the falling rain.
"No . . . yes . . . I . . . you haven't got a bag either."
Erik took a step towards him. Charles took another step back. Something was wrong, something was terribly wrong. He had to put things right. He had to explain to Erik, he had to tell him the truth and beg his forgiveness and accept whatever decision Erik made.
Erik stepped towards him again. This time, Charles stood his ground. Erik put both hands on his throat, thumbs pressing lightly on his windpipe. His hands were absolutely freezing.
"Why should I need a bag, Charles, when you're going to buy me everything? Unless you think you can have me for nothing? Unless you think you can take what you want and I can go hang?"
The pressure on his windpipe increased.
"No, Erik, no. I don't want to use you and discard you. I care for you, more, perhaps, than I've ever cared for anyone. I love you."
Erik shook him, the way a man might shake a disobedient dog, and laughed low and ugly. Charles tried in vain to pry those cold fingers from his neck.
"You love me do you, Charles? Fine words. Fine lies. You'd fuck me and leave me and forget about me before the leaves were off the trees."
"No, I love you, I do. I've been lying to you, but that's true, I swear."
Erik leant closer, eyelashes glittering with rain, hair plastered to his skull. They were both soaked. The strange, sweet smell he associated with Erik was very strong.
"What have you been lying to me about, Charlie boy?" he hissed.
Charles struggled to get his words past the grip on his throat.
"I'm not rich. I was, once, but there was a terrible scandal and all the money's gone. I'm not staying at the house as a guest, I'm an employee of Shaw. My leg, it wasn't a riding accident, it happened in the war. I have . . . terrible nightmares. Sometimes I want to . . . I want to . . . die. Sometimes I want to destroy everyone, everything. I think . . . I think I might be a little mad. Nothing makes sense anymore. I don't know how I can carry on . . ."
It poured out of him, everything he had never said, everything he'd never been able to say. Erik drew back a little. His cold grasp loosened. He stared at Charles as though he didn't recognise him.
"Since the war, the only time I've felt alive is with you. I don't want you to be my whore, Erik, I want you to be my friend, my lover. We can go to London if you want. Men like us can go unnoticed in a big city much more easily than in the countryside. I can get a job tutoring or teaching. We can get a flat, nothing luxurious, just a cozy little place where we can be together. I just want to be with you, Erik, I just want to love you."
Charles was crying, tears mingling with the rain. Erik let go of Charles' throat. Charles embraced him and pressed his face into Erik's broad shoulder. Erik was so cold, so desperately cold.
"I'm sorry, Erik, I'm sorry I let you believe I was rich and that I'd set you up in style. I can't offer you that. All I can offer is myself and I'm damaged goods I'm afraid. I'll understand if you don't want me. I love you, but I don't know if you love me."
Erik's chest heaved. Charles looked up. Erik was crying in great, soundless sobs. Charles reached up to wipe the tears from his icy cheek. Erik jerked backwards, pushing Charles away.
"You're not like them," he whispered.
"Like them, like those bastards who've got everything, but want more and take what they want no matter who gets hurt, no matter who suffers."
"No, no, I'm not like them. Erik, let's go to the boathouse. You're freezing and we're both soaked. We'll get dry and talk and maybe we can find a way to be together."
Charles reached for Erik, but he backed away, shaking his head. Charles followed. They were right at edge of the lake now, among the reeds and rushes.
"I thought you were like them, but you're not, you're like him, you're like my Jamie," sobbed Erik.
He was knee deep in water now and still retreating. Charles staggered after him, cold water lapping round his legs, cane getting stuck in the mud and caught up in the weeds. God, what a stench of decay. Rotting vegetation or some animal that had crawled into the reeds to die. It stuck in Charles throat, that strange, sweet smell, cloying and rich with rot.
"Erik, you're frightening me! Come back! The lake's deep! It's dangerous!"
Erik threw back his head and screamed. Charles froze. The last time he'd heard a man scream like that he'd been in the trenches.
"They killed him, they killed my Jamie, they killed my love," he sobbed.
Charles stumbled towards him. The water was up around his thighs now.
"Erik, I don't understand, I want to help, but I don't understand. Please, oh, God, please let's get out of this fucking lake, let's get back on dry land, please!"
Erik gazed at him, hollow eyed and hollow cheeked. He looked utterly heartbroken.
"Go back, go back, Charles. I don't want to hurt you. You're like him, you're like my Jamie. The terrible things I've done, they couldn't bring him back, so it was all for nothing. Go back, Charles, live, live for me and Jamie."
He smiled and for just one moment looked the way he had when Charles first saw him; handsome, mocking, enigmatic. Then he disappeared beneath the black waters of the lake.
Charles yelled and plunged forward and immediately found himself out of his depth. He let go of his cane and started swimming towards the spot where Erik had vanished.
He dived down into the dark, freezing waters again and again. Nothing. He couldn't give up. He had to keep trying. Down and down until his lungs were bursting. His leg spasmed violently and he sank ever deeper. He thrashed wildly, trying to reach the surface, but he couldn't tell where it was. Weeds wrapped themselves around his limbs. He tore at them, but they clung like lovers. Charles couldn't hold his breath any longer. He breathed in the cold water. It burned like liquid fire. Everything was going black. It was a relief to stop struggling and give in.
Strong arms took hold of him, lifted him to the surface and towed him to the bank. He coughed up lungfuls of lake water. A voice whispered in his ear:
Charles passed out.
Chapter 7: Dawn
Charles opened his eyes. The light filtering through his bedroom curtains was cool and grey. Dawn. No need to get up yet, but he could do with a drink of water, his throat was desperately sore and dry. He pushed himself up in bed. Mrs MacTaggert was sitting at his bedside reading "Northanger Abbey". How odd; not her choice of novel, but the fact that she was there at all. Alerted by his movement, she looked up from her book. She gazed at him with mingled concern and relief.
"Ah, you're awake at last, Mr Xavier. How do you feel? Is there anything I can get for you?"
He opened his mouth to say he was very well, thank you, but would like a glass of water. He paused. Something was terribly wrong. It all came flooding back, memories welling up in cold, dark waves. Erik's deranged behaviour. The lake. Almost drowning. He was paralysed by fear, desperate to know what had happened to Erik, but terrified to find out. He couldn't breathe. He was drowning again. The waters were closing over his head and the darkness was absolute.
"Mr Xavier, Charles, Charles!"
Someone was shaking him and calling his name. Not Erik. A woman. Mrs MacTaggert. He opened his eyes and tried to speak. His throat was so dry he could barely make a sound. Mrs MacTaggert filled a glass with water from the jug on his nightstand and pressed it into his hand. He drank it down in one gulp. He had to know.
"Erik. Is he alright? What happened to him? Where is he? For the love of God, tell me, please!"
He knew from the look on her face what the answer was going to be. She took his hands in hers. Her voice was very gentle.
"He's dead, Charles.
He didn't scream. He didn't cry. He didn't rail at her that it couldn't be true, it was a terrible mistake, she was lying.
"How did it happen? Did he drown himself?"
How level and calm his voice sounded. He felt quite calm; calm and numb and dead. Perhaps the voices of the dead were calm, after all, they had nothing more to fear.
Mrs MacTaggert paused, some kind of internal conflict expressing itself in her face.
"I need to know," he said, voice compelling, every inch the officer and gentleman.
"He . . . he was murdered."
Charles stared. Surely she was taunting him, mocking his grief and loss, but he saw no mockery in her gaze, only sadness.
"I don't understand."
He didn't understand, he didn't understand anything. The world and its peoples were a mystery to him, an ugly secret, and the man who'd made it all make sense was gone.
"They found you down by the lake, soaked and freezing. You've had a fever. You've been in and out of consciousness for three days. You kept calling his name. Sometimes you'd speak to him. I . . . I know what he means, meant to you."
"Please, Mrs MacTaggert, Moira, tell me what happened. I must know. Tell me."
A long silence.
"Erik's been dead these forty years."
Had she lost her mind? Had he? There she sat, seemingly as sane as he, saner, looking at him with such sorrow and sympathy. It couldn't possibly be true, could it? Could it? Something deep within him recognised the truth of what she'd said. Everything fell into place, neat puzzle pieces slotting together. He'd met Erik only at night. He'd seen Erik only when he was alone. Erik had appeared and disappeared so swiftly. He'd burned with unnatural heat or frozen with deadly cold. And that strange, sweet scent; the signature of death and decay.
Charles had fallen in love with a dead man.
"My grandmother had what they called "the sight". My mother said it was all heathen nonsense, but I'm not so sure. Sometimes she just knew things and there was no explanation for it. She used to tell me stories of witches and ghosts and spirits. She told me of women who'd been wronged and came back from the grave to revenge themselves on their betrayers."
She gripped Charles' hands a little tighter.
"That's what Erik wanted, revenge, and he got it too. Not on you, no - at the end he realised you were just a foolish young thing like his beloved Jamie - but he had his vengeance on the others."
A vast, gaping emptiness was poised to swallow him whole. Before he stepped off the edge, into the dark, he had to have the truth.
"You must tell me everything, Moira."
She nodded, took a deep breath and told him about one summer forty years ago.
"I'd not long been at Adderstone when I met Jamie. I was the lowest of the low, a scullery maid, beneath the notice of the other servants. I was far from home and lonely. Jamie was the gardener's boy. He was delivering fruit and vegetables to the kitchen when he noticed my accent. He said:
"We Scots must stick together. Shall we be friends, Moira MacTaggert?"
Well, of course, I said yes. Ah, he was a bonnie lad. Fair skinned and freckled, with dark hair, bright, bright blue eyes and cherry lips any girl would envy. You . . . you remind me of him. He was cheerful and friendly and hard working. Everybody liked him, even old Wickham, the butler, and he was the most miserable man I've ever met. Even Erik, Mr Lehnsherr, liked him and he didn't like anyone.
Mr Lehnsherr was the head groom. He wasn't much liked, not by the men at least. His staff complained he was a hard taskmaster, never satisfied. The other men thought him standoffish and proud. He was a foreigner too, a foreigner and a Jew, and that counted against him. As for the women, well, you've seen him. The women were all foolish over him, and me as silly as the rest of them.
I didn't have any romantic feelings for Jamie, handsome as he was. No, he was like a brother to me, the best brother a girl could wish for. As for him, he flirted with all the girls, but you could tell he never meant anything by it.
It was a fine day in May when the housekeeper told me to run down to the stables and tell them "Mr Shaw had changed his mind and was going to ride with the hunt after all, so his bay hunter must be saddled up immediately". I trotted off to the stables. There was no one in the yard. I peeped into the tack room. No one there. I thought I heard voices coming from the main stable building. I stepped inside. It was dark after the sunlit yard and smelt of horse dung and hay. The noises were coming from the far stall. I was a shy little thing in those days so didn't like to call out. I crept towards the voices.
"Erik, we shouldn't, not here, not in the daytime. It'll all be up with us if we get caught."
It was Jamie speaking.
"They're all out front with the horses and the hounds. There's no one here but us. It's quite safe, no need to be frightened my little bird."
That was Mr Lehnsherr, Erik.
Not really understanding what I was hearing, I crept closer. I could see round the end of the stall. Jamie and Erik were lying on a heap of straw, half undressed and pressed together from top to toe. They were kissing each other on the mouth. Jamie's finger's were tangled in Erik's hair. Erik's hands clasped Jamie's buttocks. They were so lost in passion I might as well have been invisible.
I fled the stables and ran to the main entrance. All the riders and hounds were milling about. I blurted out my message to a groom and hurried back to the kitchen. Cook told me off for taking so long.
All day and all night I thought about what I'd seen. I knew it was wrong; the bible said so. Jamie and Mr Lehnsherr would be dismissed if they were found out, maybe even imprisoned. I loved Jamie like a brother. I didn't want to get him into trouble. I didn't want to get either of them into trouble, so I said nothing and prayed for them to change their sinful ways. The next time I saw Jamie, I meant to keep my distance, but he was his usual smiling, laughing self and I couldn't help smiling and laughing with him. Whatever I'd seen, whatever he was, he was still my friend.
It might have stayed a secret if it hadn't been for Mr Shaw. Sebastian Shaw. Everyone was frightened of him. He seemed such a jovial fellow, but he'd beaten one of the stable boys bloody for getting mud on his new riding boots. Mrs Shaw's lady's maid hinted that her mistress - such a proud, beautiful woman - had to watch her step. One of the footmen said he'd seen Mr Shaw strangle a dog that bit him. The kitchen maid told me to watch out for him.
"You're a pretty little thing, Moira. Just his type. One of the house maids was turned off for falling pregnant. Said it was Mr Shaw what did it. Said he didn't give her much choice about it neither."
I thanked the Lord that, as a scullery maid, I barely even saw the family.
Not long after that conversation, I saw Mr Shaw with Mr Lehnsherr. Mr Shaw was on his fine, tall bay hunter. Erik was standing beside the horse, looking up at Mr Shaw. They were talking and smiling. Erik made to adjust the stirrup. When he was done, he put his hand on Mr Shaw's thigh and ran his fingers down his leg to his booted ankle. Oh, the look Shaw gave him, hot and hungry and greedy, and the way Erik looked back, sly and promising.
I didn't know what to think. Mr Shaw was a married man, with a wife and a son. Surely he couldn't be like . . . like that? And didn't Erik love Jamie? After that, I kept an eye on them. I was worried for them both.
Late one evening, I followed Jamie down to the lake, making sure to keep out of sight. He disappeared under the huge, old willow tree.
"What are you playing at?" Jamie sounded angry and upset.
"What do you mean, sweetheart?" Erik's voice was soothing.
"Don't you sweetheart me and you know exactly what I mean. I've seen you with him. The way you look at him, the way you talk to him, the way you smile at him. All those little touches, leading him on and promising him what he wants, the dirty bastard."
"Hush, now, hush. You know you're the only one I love, you're the only one I've ever loved. I'll love you till the day I die and beyond."
"I thought I knew it, but if it's true, what in hell are you playing at with him?"
Jamie sounded close to tears.
"Ah, Jamie, Jamie, my love. Don't cry now. I'm just using him to get what I want. I couldn't give a damn for him. I hate the smug, cruel bastard."
"You're using him to get what you want?"
"Yes, love. He's promised me money and a gold watch, a signet ring, cufflinks, tie pins, a cigarette case and fancy clothes too. We can sell the jewellery and the clothes. We'll have money. We can get away from here. We can be our own masters. See the world. Start up a little business maybe. We're meant for better than this; servants to rich pigs who treat us like the shit on their shoes."
Anger and contempt coloured Erik's words.
"And what do you have to give him in return?"
"My hand and mouth maybe, but no more. Oh, Jamie, don't be like that. It's just flesh, it means nothing. You have my heart, you always will."
"Erik, I don't care about being my own master or having money. All I care about is being with you. You must stop this. He's a dangerous man and a clever one too. Do you think you can fool him? Do you think he'll let you, us, get away with it? Please, Erik, please stop."
Jamie was begging.
"So long as he's thinking with his prick, he's easy enough to fool. As for letting us get away with it, he'll have to unless he wants a scandal. He's got a lot more to lose than us."
How confident he sounded.
"Erik, no, please, Erik, please," whispered Jamie, so quiet I could barely hear him.
Erik tried to reassure him and called him all sorts of tender things. I heard soft noises of kissing and little moans and gasps. I slipped away.
I had the most terrible feeling of foreboding. The next day, I wanted to say something to Jamie, who I could tell was deeply troubled but hiding it behind his usual smiling face. I didn't know where to start though. How to explain that I knew his, their, secret? And I was ashamed of spying on them. I said nothing.
The end came quickly after that.
It was the end of August. The weather was sweltering. The attic room I shared with Molly was stifling. Molly snored like a pig. I tossed and turned but couldn't get to sleep. I had to get outside, get some air, or surely I'd smother in my bed. I tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen and out of the scullery door. It was much cooler outside. Still and quiet and moonlit. I walked down to the lake, hoping there might be a breeze coming off the water. I ducked under the willow tree branches and out the other side. There was a dark shape at the edge of the lake. Curious, I went towards it.
It was Erik.
He was lying face down in the mud and shallow water, head turned a little to one side, eyes open. Bruises ringed his throat. There was blood at the base of his skull. His breeches were down around his ankles and there was blood on his thighs and buttocks.
I knew he was dead straightaway. I'd helped my mother lay out my grandmother and two sisters, so I knew a corpse when I saw one. I didn't scream or faint or run away. I pulled up his breeches and closed his eyes with my fingers. He was cold, so cold. Then I walked back to the house and woke up the housekeeper and told her what I'd found. When the police came, the inspector told me off for touching the body.
I didn't cry until the next morning when Molly told me they'd arrested Jamie. One of the stable boys had overheard him and Erik quarrelling.
"He said it was a lovers' quarrel. Whoever would have thought Jamie and Mr Lehnsherr were . . . like that? And now Jamie's gone and killed him. A judgement on 'em both I call it; one murdered and the other to hang."
I knew Jamie hadn't killed Erik. I knew who had. I should have said something, but I didn't. I was scared, scared of Shaw. And what proof did I have? Some looks? A touch? The conversation I'd overheard, well, they hadn't said Shaw's name once, not once. I'll be ashamed to my dying day that I didn't speak up. I doubt it would have made any difference, but I wish I'd done it all the same.
I couldn't get leave from work to attend the trial, so I read the newspapers and eavesdropped on the upper servants instead. Poor Jamie, oh, that poor, poor lad. He didn't offer anything in his defence, just cried and said he loved Erik and he'd never hurt him. They questioned him and questioned him, but that's all they go out of him. I think he was quite mad with grief. The papers said he didn't seem to know where he was or what was happening. The jury found him guilty anyway and the judge sentenced him to death. They hung him, that sweet, kind, lovely lad, they hung him and that was the end of it.
Except it wasn't the end of it.
On the anniversary of Erik's death, Sebastian Shaw was found dead at the edge of the lake. A heart attack they said. Except the gossip in the servants' hall was that his throat was necklaced by bruises. I knew no living man had done it. I remember thinking justice had been served.
Things were quiet at Adderstone for a good many years after that. Emma Shaw preferred to do her entertaining in London. Then, some ten years ago, Stephen Shaw started having parties here again. A Russian prince, Azazel, I think he was called, was found strangled down by the lake. There were some gypsies camped nearby and it got about that they'd robbed and murdered him. No one was ever arrested. Three years later it was a handsome Spanish gentleman named Janos Quested. People started talking about a curse. No, not a curse, not justice anymore, but vengeance.
Then the war started and there were no more parties.
Well, my tale is told. The rest is silence."
They sat quietly for some time. Finally, Charles asked:
"Do you think he'll come back?"
"I believe pity wipes out revenge and he felt pity for you, pity and, perhaps, love. No, I don't think he'll be back."
Charles became aware that tears were sliding down his cheeks. Moira gave him a handkerchief and sat and cried with him. When the tears stopped, for the time being at least, she said:
"What will you do now?"
What would he do? What kind of future could he have, given his past? No future at all. Except . . .
"I'll be true to Erik's last words. I'll live."
Chapter 8: Morning
I'm really sorry, but this is the ending I've had planned from the start . . .
Charles walked briskly down Charing Cross Road, cane tapping out the rhythm of his strides, heading for the War Office Building on Whitehall.
When war was declared he'd wanted to sign up straight away. Well, "wanted" was the wrong word perhaps. He'd felt compelled. Of course the last thing the army needed was a forty-three year old with a dodgy leg. They'd seemed interested in his qualifications though; a degree in mathematics and a good working knowledge of various modern languages. Shortly after his abortive attempt to sign up, an old Oxford pal, now a professor, contacted him. After some havey cavey goings on, Charles had found himself codebreaking at Bletchley Park.
He'd been used to being the cleverest chap in the room, but found he was outclassed at B.P. That Turing fellow was a genius and Margaret Rock was jolly impressive too. He suspected Turing shared some of his tastes and hoped he was discreet. When the War Office had wanted someone to come up to town and report on progress in person, Charles had been chosen.
"You know enough to tell 'em what they need to know, but you're not essential so we won't miss you for a day or two," Dilly Knox had said.
"Thanks awfully," he'd responded, dryly.
Actually it was something of a relief to get away. The hours at B.P. were punishingly long and it was rather a hot-house atmosphere.
London was looking a bit battered. Charles was glad Gaby and David were safe in the country. Gabrielle had fought him over leaving London. She was a fierce, uncompromising woman and determined to stick with her job at The Daily Mirror. She'd gone in the end, mainly because she'd agreed David shouldn't stay in town and she didn't want to leave him with Charles' mother.
Sharon had been horrified when he'd told her he planned to marry Gaby. He'd disappointed her by choosing to work in a co-educational school in one of London's tougher areas - "a disgusting slum, Charles" - now his choice of bride was a further source of disappointment.
"It's not that she's Jewish, Charles, I have nothing again the Jews. Though they're not quite like us of course; they have some very strange ways and they never really seem to fit in. It's her background I object to. She's verging on working class. How ever will the two of you get on? There are so many nice girls of your own sort who'd be perfectly suited. Why are you doing this? Is it just another way to get at me?"
He'd reined in his temper and said, "I'm doing this because I love her and she loves me."
"Do you have to marry her?"
This was code for "Is she pregnant?" As a matter of fact, Gabrielle had been pregnant, but Charles had asked her to marry him before he knew. He'd desperately wanted her to keep the baby, but he'd kept quiet and Gaby had decided she was ready to have a child off her own bat.
"I want to marry her and I'm going to marry her. I'd like you to be happy for me, for us, but if you can't be, well, that's your problem, not mine."
She hadn't spoken to him for six months. No great loss, truth be told.
Raven had been ecstatic. She liked Gaby, they were rather similar in temperament, and, when David was born, was the most enthusiastic aunt in all creation.
He was meeting Raven for lunch tomorrow. She'd joined the Women's Auxiliary Army and was an ambulance driver. He'd prefer her to leave London, but they'd had that conversation - for "conversation" read "violent shouting match" - and she'd stayed put.
He was looking forward to seeing her. His work at Bletchley Park was all consuming and he hadn't seen her in ages. He'd been lucky enough to get away for a weekend with Gaby and David not so long ago. David seemed taller every time he saw him. Raven would be amused to hear that Gaby had taken over the local paper and was publishing hard-hitting articles about the black market beside the "Make Do and Mend" sewing tips. She'd be less amused to hear some of the grim rumours Gaby had heard from her relatives in Europe. He couldn't tell Raven (or Gaby) about his work of course. They were supposed to think he was cataloging important documents for the Ministry of Defence. He had a shrewd suspicion they didn't think anything of sort, but were just going along with it.
Charles was jostled from his thoughts by a minor collision with a passerby. His bad leg bent at an odd angle and he could feel himself falling. Strong hands grabbed his upper arms and wrestled him upright. He looked up into face of a tall, broad shouldered, ginger haired man, dressed in an army uniform and wearing corporal's stripes.
"Steady on, guv'nor, watch yer step. Charing Cross Road's a sight too busy for you to be daydreaming. Look where you're going, eh?"
With that, he released Charles, gave him a huge wink, a mocking grin, a jaunty tip of his cap and went on his way, whistling.
He wasn't really like Erik, but Charles' heart beat a little faster anyway. He hadn't thought of Erik in months. He'd never told anyone about a him. Not Raven. Not Gaby. He still corresponded with Moira MacTaggert. She had remarried late in life and was now the proud step-grandmother of a gaggle of step-grandchildren. He occasionally mentioned Erik in his letters to her.
Enough wool gathering. He set off again only to be stopped by a ghastly wailing that rose to an ear splitting crescendo. Air raid siren. The closest shelter would be the nearest Underground station. He turned and walked as fast as his leg would carry him. People streamed past, heading in the same direction, but a lot quicker.
"'Hurry up, mate. I reckon we 'aven't 'ad much warning of this un. I can 'ear 'em already."
There was an ARP Warden at his side. Charles could hear the bombers too, a low, continuous drone. They were close.
"You go on ahead," said Charles.
The man hesitated, then hurried off.
Charles kept going. He was the only person still out on the street. He could see the Underground sign. He was almost there.
There was eerie whistling sound, then the most tremendous explosion. He was thrown into the air and landed on his back. The wall of the building next to him bulged and then collapsed on top of him. Charles put up his arms to protect his head. He was battered by bricks and timbers and shards of stone. He closed his eyes and prayed to a God he didn't believe in. Something hit his head and he was knocked unconscious for a few moments.
Charles opened his eyes. It didn't make any difference. It was pitch black. He couldn't feel anything below his waist and there was something heavy on his chest, crushing him and making it almost impossible to breathe. The air was filled with choking dust. God, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt. He shoved at whatever it was that lay on his chest. It felt like a length of wood. It shifted a fraction of an inch then settled back down again. The pain was overwhelming. He screamed, but nothing came out of his mouth except a choked gasp. He pushed at the timber again. This time it didn't budge. Stop it hurting, please, stop it hurting.
Strong arms embraced him from behind. His back was pressed against a muscular chest. The pain eased. The weight on his chest seemed to lighten. His lungs cleared. He'd know that embrace anywhere, even after two decades, even though it wasn't burning or freezing.
"Yes, Charles, it's me. I've been waiting for you. So has Jamie. It's time to go now, time to go with us."
"What about Gaby and David? What about Raven?"
"They'll grieve, but they're strong, they'll get on fine without you. You must let them go, let go and come with us. Come with me."
Warm lips brushed his brow.
In the pitch dark, buried under tons of rubble, Charles smiled.
He let go.
* * *
"'Ere, Alf, take a look at this un. Right peaceful ain't 'e? Looks like 'e just dropt orf to sleep, not 'ad 'arf a building fall on 'is 'ed. Even got a little smile on 'is face. I 'ope I go like that when its my time."
They gazed at him solemnly for a moment, then covered the corpse with a tarpaulin and carried on sifting through the the rubble.
Dulce et decorum est pro amor mori.