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The Circling of Wolves

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Summer fell hotly upon England in the year of 1725. The golden sunlight spilled over the grand estates and sprawling green pastures of Sussex, and refreshing breezes swept in from the sea. Not a single young person suffered to be indoors for more time than was absolutely necessary, and even the most retired elders found the will to often venture into the gorgeous weather. By July, the season had established itself to be one of recent memory's most fruitfully social, and Jonathan Randall was sick to death of it.

It was not so much that he minded the beautiful weather. The warmth stirred his blood into health, and lent itself wonderfully to the long solitary horse rides he craved more and more lately. In his rare good moods, he even enjoyed watching the fun his brothers got up to in sport or at gatherings.

Yet each season casts its shadow, and the shadow of bright summer is darkest of all. Jonathan's mood tended to grow blacker as the temperature rose and the days grew languishingly long. His rides grew more brutal, leaving both rider and horse sore from saddle and whip. When he was too bruised to ride, he found no way of filling the tepid hours of the day, and alternated between the urge to weep and murderous, aimless anger. He drank in secret, more than he had ever dared before, and then quailed inwardly at the idea of his father suspecting his inebriation. He either ate ravenously, gaining no weight to his slim frame, or could not bring himself to eat at all. His mood fluctuated from one extreme to the other, and if he were a believer in the religion his parents were so attached to, he might have suspected the Adversary was using him as a plaything.

It wassome kind of adversary, Jonathan mused now in privacy. He was seated at the writing desk in the study, gazing out the windows at the Randall Estate's lush green grounds. A clean sheet of parchment was rolled out on the blotter, his quill was poised neatly in his long elegant fingers, but he hesitated before dipping into the ink. He was writing to this adversary of his, or making an attempt at it.

'Dear Lady Charlotte …'

Such an adversary to have, that slim blue-eyed girl with her soft chestnut hair! Jonathan chuckled ruefully, shaking his head. He set the quill down on the parchment and sighed, sitting back to think. The amusement was bitter, nearly as bitter as his contempt for that girl. There must be a Devil, Jonathan decided finally, and he had wrought Lady Charlotte Arnsbury from the flames and set her in Jonathan's life to finish him.

What else could possess that girl—woman—to be so smitten with Jonathan Wolverton Randall? He was aloof, and he sharpened this natural quality into coldness for the woman's benefit. Still, Lady Charlotte was oblivious to his cynicism (or pretended to be) and went straight on batting her eyelashes and fanning her considerable breasts for hisbenefit.

And what had Jack done? What had he done? He bit his tongue hard as he considered his own foolish role in Satan's little act. What had he done?

I courted the damned darling Lady, Jonathan thought, is what I did.

Jonathan stood up from the desk and paced. He felt too warm, and removed his jacket. His fine black hair stood out in great contrast to his ivory breeches and shirt, wisps of it having slipped from its ribbon and grazing his handsome face. His hazel eyes had a habit of taking on a darkness when he narrowed them, the rich brown tones overpowering flecks of green and gold.

Jonathan gave in to a wave of self-pity and blamelessness. Had he really had much choice in the matter? The Lady Arnsbury had been so receptive to him that no one could help but notice, least of all Jonathan's older brother, Edward. Proper, proud Edward had naturally reported this prospect to their father, and the equally proud and proper elder Randall had demanded a match be made. Sir Denys Randall had never liked his second child very much, and had the most untoward suspicions of him (suspicions that were quite justified, and then some). Since Jonathan turned fifteen, Denys Randall had been trying to marry him off. What problems this would solve, Jonathan could not fathom, but he supposed the appearance of normalcy was the only hope his father had for him. Still having neglected this duty at the ripe age of twenty, Jonathan was thus forced to court Lady Charlotte.

God, to be forced into action by his father, and at his age! The thought galled Jonathan to no end. When his father had fallen into physical feebleness from old age and illness, Jonathan had thought himself free of his discipline. Sir Denys had wasted no time in employing his eldest son, Edward, in the physical aspects of disciplining Jonathan. Jonathan had not minded being struck by his brother, who was dutiful but never cruel, but he could not tolerate the indignity once he turned eighteen. He had claimed that if Edward wished to beat him like a child, he would have to fight him like a man first. At Denys's insistence, poor Edward had tried, and Jonathan had bested his brother in the ensuing fight. To the entire family's horror, Jonathan had not merely won the fight, he had bloodied his brother until he was insensible.

Edward had forgiven him some months after the fight, but since their cordiality had always felt feigned to Jonathan. Sir Denys had given up the notion of ever having Jonathan beaten again by then, and Edward was relieved to be freed of the duty (though Jonathan suspected he might have appreciated having one more shot at him as payment for the fight). For two years, Jonathan had as much freedom as he could ever expect.

Liberty was revoked once he turned twenty, however. Denys Randall realized that he still had one remaining switch in the bundle, and that was the rod of finance. Sir Randall began to insinuate that if Jonathan did not mend his errant ways, he would find himself cut off from the baronet's resources. Jonathan was not entirely certain this would be much of a punishment, he was certain he could take care of himself, but financial caution kept him from throwing his family away.

Not only financial caution, Jonathan thought. He paced more furiously than ever, frowning deeply. He loathed his father Sir Denys Randall, mildly disliked Edward, and he thought nothing at all of his Bible-obsessed mother. His youngest brother, Alexander, however … The idea of never seeing Alex again, never hearing his bright laughter or having his sympathetic ear bent his way …

For Alex, he stayed home. For his kind, conscientious little brother he would have given the world, or taken the torments of hell. In a way, it was for the sake of remaining close to Alex that he had agreed to court Lady Charlotte Arnsbury.

But I will not marry her! Jonathan thought in a burst of outrage. He stalked back to the writing desk and sat down. He dipped the quill and began to scrawl the letter. Would she cry when she read it? Would it break her delicate little heart? He hoped that it would. He hoped to break her stupid heart into a thousand pieces. She was … was …

A rapist! Ah, they said that women could not rape, but what did they know? Women raped with their doe eyes, the naked curve and promise of their bodies! They raped a man's mind with fantasy, and his life with marriage! They raped through the pressures of society, the expectations of family, and they did so with the blessing of the Church! His life was his own, not to be shared with someone like her, not to be shared with anyone, damn it all, and he would not let her rape him into sharing it! He would not!

Of course, Jonathan dared not write Charlotte in such terms. Gritting his teeth, he cordially, politely dashed her hopes of making a match. He had plans to make his name and his own fortune, he gently explained. He was in no way worthy of such a lady at this date, being of no note or particular personal worth. He would never dare dishonor her by asking for so precious a gift as her hand in marriage when he was such a poor coin to pay her with, etc. and etc. …

Jonathan's gritted teeth broke through his finely formed, thin lips in a wolfish grin. The farce of it all made him shake with laughter. To think that he was writing so many insipid words while his mind methodically envisioned bludgeoning the good lady to death!

Am I so wrong to lie with my hand and murder with my mind? Jonathan wondered. Am I so strange? Has ever a love letter been written without the intent of lust being consummated? Do poets die by the beauty of love, or by the agony of lonely nights spent with a stiff and unsatisfied cock? Does anyone, besides the very simple, truly believe in these social farces of ours? Yes, they are necessary, or we would be no better than the howling savages of the world, but … sometimes … sometimes … Oh, it does chafe sometimes, damn it all!

Nonetheless, Jonathan wrote such a self-deprecating, tender, anguished letter that Lady Charlotte could do nothing but let him go gracefully. His father would be angry, but Jonathan thought that he might be able to feign true unworthiness. If Sir Denys could believe anything of Jonathan, it was that he was worthless. As he wrote, the brilliance of this scheme made Jonathan smile genuinely. Yes, he would claim that love for Lady Charlotte had driven him to take stock of himself and all his shortcomings. He would never impose on her by asking her to wait for him, but he would strive to find success worthy of such a lady (he thought this with a cynical sneer) if she did. Eventually, she would find some other suitor to marry (and he could then avoid suspicion by playing at being heartbroken), and he would by then have found enough freedom to do as he pleased. What could Sir Denys really do? Edward would support him, he was hopelessly gullible to stories of redemption, and Alex would always have faith in him. His mother would sigh and say, “That's lovely”, as she always did about matters of the heart. Sir Denys would not dare be the only cynic, and he would be rendered impotent.

“Oho! Jack!”

Jonathan was relieved to hear his usual nickname. He had been thinking of himself by his birth name, the one Lady Charlotte so delicately used, and he realized that he had come to hate the sound of it. He set the quill in the ink well and turned around in his chair. Edward had come in, brushing grass from his riding boots, riding whip in hand.

Edward Randall was the only one of the boys that no one ever felt quite fond enough of to relegate to a familiar name; he was always only 'Edward' (though his friends called him 'Ned'). Jack was of sufficient height, but Edward had their father's great tallness, standing two inches over six feet. He was slim, but fuller in muscle than svelte Jack and slight Alex. His looks were rougher than Jack's, as he boasted the severe nose and broad forehead of their father. Jack always bristled at the imposing sight of him, as if his father's youth lived on in his brother's body.

Then Edward smiled, and the illusion was broken. Edward had a free, engaging smile, full of astonishingly good teeth. He sat languidly on the sofa, resting one leg on the opposite knee. Ever since Jack had miraculously bested him in their last fight, his dark hazel eyes always held a hint of wariness when they fell upon Jack. He watched his brother as one might watch a beloved hound that was still prone to biting. Today, at least, the caution vanished soon.

“Well, you appear to be in good spirits, Jack.”

Thinking of his letter and subsequent plans, Jack grinned. “I am. I am, indeed.”

“Wonderful!” Edward exclaimed, too heartily. He pointed the riding crop at his brother. “That is very well, brother, because I have something to ask of you.”

Jack's smile wavered. He stared at the riding crop, contemplating it. It was this instrument that his brother had used to whip him, before The Last Fight had put an end to that. He wondered vaguely if Edward brandished it so boldly to annoy him, or if he clung to it to remind himself that he had once had power over his younger sibling. Either way—it was damned hateful.

“What is it?” Jack ventured.

“Cricket, lad, cricket,” Edward said. “I thought you might oblige to join Alexander and I when we ride out to see the match.”

“Match?”

“Come now, Jack, even you can't have failed to hear about the Duke of Richmond's next match,” Edward said. “He'll be playing against Sir William Gage's boys?”

Jack stared at his brother. Cricket? Really? He began to suspect that Edward was indeed nursing a grudge against him. There was no malice in Edward's face or eyes, but—well, cricket?

Jack turned from Edward and bent over his letter. He continued the meandering supplication, though he was distracted. He felt a flush creep up his neck and hoped that it would not reach his face. Edward very well knew that the last time Jack had played cricket, as a boy of eleven, he had gotten into a row with a teammate. Always having been inclined towards the simplest solution to conflict, namely violence, Jack had taken his bat and clubbed the former mate. Given that his father was also the sort to cut to the chase, he had in turn beaten Jack so raw that he had been bedridden for a week. Ever since, Jack had fostered a deep hatred for the sport of cricket.

“You know that I hate cricket,” he said curtly, not looking at his brother.

“Oh? Oh, right, that … that time,” Edward said, sounding surprised. Had he actually forgotten? “Er, but see here, Jack, that was ages ago. Ages! Besides, you'll be spectating, not playing—thank God, haha!”

Given the tone of this last remark and the nervousness of the laugh, Jack could tell that his brother remembered the incident very well now. He wondered if it reminded Edward of The Last Fight. A small smile tugged the corners of Jack's lips. How thin the farce of politeness wore when the suggestion of baser pains and pleasures crept in!

“So, how about it?” Edward asked. He lowered his leg to the floor and leaned forward slightly, as he always did when coming to a point. “You've been wasting a gorgeous summer with all those long horse rides of yours, and the horses have had it! You nearly killed poor Grinning Idiot—ghastly name, by the way, and I know one of yours—and you're only sitting in that chair because you've turned your own hide into leather. Well, I won't have it, Jack. You must come out with us, you simply must.”

Jack sat up straight and met his brother's eyes. Though he still smiled, hardness crept into the expression. The wariness instantly welled up in Edward's eyes, mingled with alarm. His grip on the riding crop tightened.

“Oh?” Jack inquired pleasantly. “Must I?”

The sun suddenly felt very hot, even in the spacious study. Jack sat there, wearing only ivory in a room of cream and gold, and still he seemed to absorb the brightness. Though only his hair and his eyes were dark, the young man seemed outlined in darkness. Edward could have sworn that Lucifer must have seemed the same against the backdrop of Paradise.

Edward was the first to drop his eyes. Jack felt a thrill of satisfaction at this. He almost pitied his stalwart brother, such the man and such the heir until he wasn't. In a way, Jack had been done many favors by being beaten and bullied by their father: he knew how to take a loss of power, could swallow it down without choking the way Edward always did. God forbid Edward ever found himself completely vulnerable, the man would probably kill himself forthwith from the despair of it.

“Yes, I'll go,” Jack said generously, turning back to his letter. “Why not?”

“Wonderful,” said Edward, with a marked loss of enthusiasm.


 

Edward took his leave of Jack soon after, and Jack finished the letter. He set it to dry in the sunlight of his room upstairs, beneath the window. He would send it out tomorrow, he decided, and then Lady Charlotte Arnsbury would trouble him no more.

Once the joy of liberation faded, moodiness swept over Jack again. He had been trying to deny it, but a part of him had wanted the courtship of Lady Charlotte to find success. The definite end of his efforts—no, the definite failureof his efforts—marked a point of no return.

Jack contemplated riding through the sweltering heat, but his brother had not been exaggerating when he said the horses were in no condition for it. The beasts stamped nervously and eyed him with fear the moment he entered the stables. Jack stroked his few favorites apologetically. He liked the animals very much, though they gave him the same wary look Edward did. Sometimes the expression in their eyes hurt him, if he was in a sensitive mood. How could they only remember his cruelty, when he was often so kind to them? All the riders beat them, snapped at them, rode them too long and too hard when necessary—yet the damn things always seemed to forgive Edward, Sir Denys, and all the rest. Why did they shy away from only him?

Melancholy, Jack returned to the stuffiness of the house. He undressed, and decided to wash up thoroughly before he dressed for the evening. Studying himself in the mirror, he saw that Edward had also been correct in saying that he had turned his hide into leather. His skin was fair where clothing protected it, but his face and hands were tanned red from the hot summer. His thighs and buttocks were still bruised from his last riding, a few sores blighting the skin here and there. He was very slim, but his muscles were as tightly wound and tough as the leather strands in Edward's precious riding crop. He liked the look of himself naked of his class's finery: he looked rougher, more of a man.

“Johnny!”

Jack threw down the washing cloth in alarm, reaching blindly for whatever covering he could find. Alexander Randall had bumbled in, and took hardly a notice of his brother's nakedness. He glanced at Jack, then politely averted his eyes, talking all the time.

“Edward has told me that you'll be joining us for the cricket game!” the fifteen-year-old said. “It's ever so good of you to come with us, Johnny. It is such a beautiful summer, is it not? I know that father thinks gambling is improper, a sin, but surely a bit of a wager never harmed anyone, did it? And it does make it all terribly exciting, don't you think?”

Alex spoke with the opinionated certainty of a man, chirped with the high innocent tone of a boy. Jack's heart ached for him, even as he desperately climbed into his evening breeches. He grumbled something about knocking to Alex, who ignored him. Just as he was the only one to use the affectionate nickname “Johnny”, Alex was the only one that never took his dark moods seriously. There were a few times when Jack contemplated showing Alex the full extent of his capacity for violence, but the thoughts were fruitless: he could never bring himself to hurt Alex. Alex was pure, pure beyond the feigned stupid innocence of the farce, pure beyond the pious sanctity of the religion, as pure as spring sunshine. Jack had nothing of the poet in him, but he could see in Alex what inspired men to attempt to distill beauty into the dullness of human language.

I love him, Jack thought as he dressed, glimpsing at his slight, pale younger brother. Alexander had the finer aristocratic features that Jack and their mother shared, along with their father's dark hair and hazel eyes. In truth, he looked nearly a twin to Jack, though their souls were different as night and day. I've wanted and lusted and thought I've loved, but the truth is that I have never loved anyone as I love Alex.

Love—hang all the poets for their idealistic lies! What was love, anyway? As a boy, even before puberty, Jack had understood most love to be the violation of the sexual flesh. He had glimpsed his father 'doing his duty' with his mother through a keyhole early on, and the stolid fury of it had stayed with him. An intelligent child, he had clung to the darker stories of the Bible, and his chattering mother had distastefully (but with underlying relish, he thought) described exactly what was meant by the insinuations: she believed that one must know exactly what sin was, if one was to avoid it. He had spent many a night contemplating the brutal beatings and executions that God Himself deemed appropriate. Later, his imagination had been enraptured by rape and sodomy, and he had many times cast himself as perpetrator and victim in his mind. In the dead superficial world, only those musings kept him from feeling utterly dead inside.

Unfortunately, this muddled idea of love had warped Jack's mind. He was aware of the fact, to his constant shame. His love for Alex tore at his heart with claws forged of pure guilt, bringing his shame to near-suicidal depths. He would never hurt Alex, he never would, yet the cold animal portion of his brain had contemplated—the unthinkable.

Jack did not lust for his brother, and he knew lust well enough to be certain of that. Still, he was aware of Alex's lovely thin body, the delicate beauty of his face, the thin but very pink lips … That bestial thing inside Jack that saw sex and violence in everything knew exactly what Alex would feel like in his arms, and his bleak imagination told him that Alex would never even hate him for it.

Jack shut his mind off. It was a difficult trick, but self-preservation had forced him to master it. The restrain told upon his body, however, and he fetched the bottle of gin that he kept in a small cupboard. He saw a slight frown form on Alex's brow when he took a deep drought of it, but his brother was by now used to Jack's provocative ways. Jack was only grateful to God that his little brother had thus far shown no inclination to follow said ways.

“Who do you think might win the game?” Alex asked, his young mind full of dreams of sportsmanship and wagers.

“Oh, I don't know,” Jack said, his nerves eased by the liquor. Alex had been born long after Jack's cricket incident. “I'm not very keen on the sport.”

“Oh but it's wonderful!” Alex said. “I only wish that I could play it. If I were robust enough, I surely would.”

“You would play it brilliantly, Alex,” Jack smiled. “But, you know, sportsmen are usually rather daft. Would you really trade that fine mind of yours to swing a bat around? Hm?”

Jack dared to ruffle the lad's hair. Alex had to laugh at the rare affection and blatant insult to the strapping sportsmen they both knew so well.

“You can be wicked, Jack,” Alex scolded. When he took that tone, Jack saw a touch of their pious father in him. “Truly. Why aren't you keen on cricket?”

“I don't care for sports.”

“You enjoy hunting.”

“Hunting is no sport,” Jack said, crossing his arm. “Hunting is murder dressed in sport, and don't you forget it.”

“No wonder I don't like it,” Alex sighed, shuddering. He sat down on a chair, looking somewhat like a hunted animal himself. “When father made me—I mean, of course I could do my duty, and God made animals that we might nourish ourselves upon them, but—but—”

Jack remembered the day that Sir Denys had frightened Alex into taking his first life. Even Edward had cringed back from watching poor, pale Alex go hunting. The boy had nearly passed out when he met the dying eye of his first deer. Jack would have murdered his father without a qualm that day, if he could have gotten away with it.

“I hate cricket, you hate hunting, and what of it?” Jack said vehemently. “You'll be a wise man, and I'll—well, I'll—”

“You'll be a soldier,” Alex said without hesitation. “Oh, Edward and father don't think so, but I do. I think you'll be a marvelous soldier, Jack.”

Do you see such violence in me, Alex? Jack thought. He wondered how Alex could be so insightful and yet only see good. He was insightful himself, and yet he only ever seemed to find the evil. What God had created such a double-sided truth?

“Well, I don't know about that,” Jack said. He sat on the edge of his bed, swigging gin. “Sometimes, I—”

I don't trust myself with power. I don't know what I would do if I had license to do anything. I know the things my father did, I found and read all those war diaries of his, I know what his knighthood was built upon, and I know … I know …

I know that I would do worse.

Alex sat next to him then. He was a bit shy of Jack, knowing his brother's reticence of physical affection. Nonetheless, he put a hand on Jack's shoulder. The gesture was so sweet, so respectful, that Jack wanted to tear his heart from his chest. The heart did not sing for love, he thought, it bled for it.

Jack's heart bled then, poured forth sweet pain into his body. He stared at his clutched bottle of gin, expression blank, while he bled and bled inside. Alex loved him purely, yet he had seen in illicit flashes of imagination what his brother would be like in the throes of obscene violation. Alex wished that he could be a sportsman, but he was a frail little thing, might not even live past twenty. Alex saw good in every person, yet evil had taken root in men, and would always conquer. Oh, Alex, Alex! Did he not understand? Jack wanted to shake him until he understood, sometimes. So much as he prized that pristine innocence, a part of him longed to destroy it.

Homo homini lupus, Jack's personal motto flashed through his mind: Man is wolf unto man.

“Why are you so sad, Jack?” Alex asked softly. “And why are you so angry?”

“I don't know,” Jack said honestly. “Alex, I really do not know.”

“I think you need company,” Alex said, with that naive authority of young men. “Yes. What of Lady Charlotte? I'm sure she will be at the game.”

Jack's eyes widened to roundness, and Alex smiled at his own cleverness. If only the poor lad knew the emotions behind Jack's glossy hazel gaze! He felt that a demon had clawed itself between his beloved brother and himself. Of all the people to bring up, Lady … fucking … Charlotte! 

“I cannot suffer the lady's pleasure any longer,” Jack said mournfully, proud of  the quality of his farce. “I am not worthy of such a lady, no matter how much I might long for her. No, Alex, I desire to be a proper man before I ever--”

“Oh, Johnny, don't lie to me,” Alex interrupted softly. “I know you don't love her.”

Jack was stunned into silence. Was his theater so poor, after all?

“I only thought that you might take some solace in her friendship. I even believe you might learn to love her if you tried. Have you ever loved anyone, Jack?” Alex asked, with real concern. “Have you, brother?”

You, Jack thought. God, Alex, only you.

“Love is more complicated than you know, Alex,” Jack said gently. He smiled, though sorrow gripped his heart. This boy would never, should never, know the truth of love, nor the violence of sex that lit hearts into the falsity of romance. “It is business, when it comes to marriage, and when it is not … well, it … there are things that pass between man and woman, there are—are—”

“Oh, I know about sex, Jack,” Alex said, flippant as only a virgin could be. “The boys all talk about it often enough! It is pleasurable, they say, and father says the Devil made it so. It is a duty, sacred, but the Devil made it pleasurable to tempt man into over-indulgence. I know that.”

If only he knew, Jack thought, though he smiled and said nothing.

“And it does fascinate me, of course,” Alex said, blushing prettily. He stared at his hands, the hands they had both inherited from their mother, long-fingered and elegant, hairless as the hands of women. “The way of a man and a—a maid. It can be beautiful, can't it, Jack?”

Jack had to bite his tongue hard enough to make it bleed. He had tried to find the allure of the feminine anatomy, with ladies and whores both, but had failed in this venture. The feminine form simply did not appeal to him, freakish as that was. He cringed when he thought of having once sucked at his mother's breast, loathed the flutter of tiny weak hands upon him, dreaded being expected to plunge into their wombs. The way of a man and a maid … how quaint! Poor Alex, poor beautiful Alexander, who could still relegate the rapine violence of sex into those trite terms.

“Yes,” Jack said, hoping the words did not sound as stilted as they felt rolling off his tongue. “Yes, all of literature sings of … of the beauty of love between man and woman. Of course, of course it must be very beautiful, when it is genuine.”

“Yes.”

Alex no longer spoke of Jack's life, but his own. His eyes were full of dreams and emotions. Sir Denys always wished Alex to be a priest, but Jack somewhat doubted he was cut out for such solitude. He was certainly a romantic, the truest romantic Jack had ever seen. Jack wondered which spouse would be gentler, God or a woman. He decided that if God were not a less cruel partner, at least He was an absent one. Perhaps I should be a priest, Jack thought wryly.

“Johnny?”

Jack looked at his brother, and remembered Alex as a babe: round and downy-haired and happy. The wariness had been in all their eyes when Jack had first approached that tiny creature, but Jack had been freed of his darkness in that moment. He had been cautiously fascinated by this being his mother's body had spat forth into the world, but his disgust did not last. When he beheld the tiny rosy thing, affection had surged in his heart. Then, that new bundle of humanity had met his eyes, and reached out and wrapped a chubby hand around his finger. Jack was lost then, knew that nothing would ever come close to the pure beauty of that guileless touch. Men and beasts had always shied from him, even then, but Alex had grasped onto him with all the love and trust his newborn soul had.

Now, Jack reached out and took Alex's hand into his own.

“You will find the most beautiful and true maid there is,” Jack said, in an uncharacteristic fit of sentimentality. “If that is what you wish, Alex, you shall have it. If not, you'll find whatever life suits you, and enjoy all its promises. You are beautiful and wise. God will reward you.”

If there is a God, Jack added mentally. He smiled warmly at Alex, and took another long drink of gin. Alex watched him with sympathy and love. Pure, pure—his purity shamed Jack but he craved it so. How must it feel to be free of evil? How must it be to know oneself to be blameless and good? What did the faithful see in their pristine minds? What did they dream of heaven?

“And you will have the love you desire, someday,” Alex said. He paused. “All love is beautiful, Johnny, don't you ever think otherwise. I do know that there are many kinds of it, of love, of sex, and whatever the Good Book says, however people judge certain forms of it … ”

Jack frowned deeply, the words suggesting truths that he had never suspected Alex was aware of. The lad was no longer a child, but could he possibly know of Jack's nature? He searched the boy's eyes, as Alex struggled to find the right words. 

“All I mean is, you'll find what you seek, what you need to find love. I'll pray for you. Ah, dinner!” Alex cried, remembering. “But I came up to fetch you. Goodness, all this talk! Let us go to dinner, shall we?”

Jack smiled and acquiesced to be dragged down. He clung more tightly to Alex's warm hand than he should have. He wished that he could seep the boy's purity into his own soul, and thus be cleansed of his darkness.