Further on in the grove, they could hear the galloping laughter of their dear friends - but here, beneath the heat and shade, high up on the hill, they gazed on at the sky in a silence most serene.
But after a while Derek could not bear it. His heart overflowed with emotion, and he grabbed his companion's hand and pressed it hard against his chest.
'O William,' he said feelingly, 'words cannot express how grateful I am to have gotten the true measure of you! I cast my eyes ahead of you, vain creature that I am, and in so doing nearly lost a true friend for life. Say you will bear me with patience, please!'
William gazed at him then, with clear affection in his eyes. With a light laugh, Derek let free both of their hands, but could not think of what to say. 'If only I were not so wicked,' he thought to himself wretchedly, 'then I would not mistake simple kindness for something it simply cannot be!'
But William slid closer to him on the bench, took both of his hands, and pressed them to his own chest. Derek stared at him in amazement, for he could feel how wildly his heart was beating.
'I will bear you up indeed with patience,' said William softly. 'I hope only that you will be patient with me - for though I know nothing at all of this path, I can do naught else but press on against its full length.'
'Oh, my,' said Derek, faintly. He meant to glance about them, but his eyes were caught on William's face; caught, as his hands were between them, pressed loose to the front of William's chest.
He tried out a laugh, but it was not so steady as he liked. 'Have a care, William! I know you were raised in the country, but those words mean something quite different here in town.'
William's eyes flashed, and a shuddering heat bloomed throughout Derek's chest. 'I care not what they mean here in town,' he said fiercely, 'I mean them to say that I love you, and I will not cease! And I will have you in any way you let me.' And he bent down and kissed his warm mouth to Derek's fingers, his palms, his wrists, whatever bare skin he could reach.
'O Will,' said Derek, trying to catch his breath. It was worse than he feared. A spurned love he could suffer alone - but how awful that his affections should be returned! 'I would not curse you to such a life of loneliness as loving me would require, not even if I disliked you still; and now never that I like you so dearly.'
William's hold around Derek's wrists tightened briefly. 'You will not love me?' he asked.
'I cannot,' said Derek. He swallowed roughly, overcome; and it was then that William caught the measure of him once more. He held on. 'I must not.'
And William brought their mouths together for the first time, there on that bench at the top of the hill, their friends and their horses far and away below them.
'That is,' said William, his eyes alight with joy, 'not what I asked.'