The second Duke of Richmond had only taken up the title two years ago, but it had fallen grandly upon his capable shoulders. Four years older than Jack, the Duke of Richmond was a gentleman sports player, and one of Edward's closest friends. He was big, though not so tall as Edward: a robust man who was always flushed with health and brought good cheer to all that loved him. Despite Jack's comment regarding the general intelligence of sportsmen, the Duke, Charles Lennox by name, was not stupid. He had a keen confidence tempered by a realistic assessment of his strengths and faults. Charles had never particularly noticed Jack as anything but Edward's younger brother. Jack kept his distance from the man, knowing that two such different types of men could never be friends.
The Duke of Richmond greeted them on the green of his estate. He was dressed in white for his favorite sport, cricket, and his ruddy broad face beamed at them like a hot coal. His hair was auburn, a mane around his face. He greeted Edward with great love and some challenging to join the play games they were having already. He did not seem to remember Jack, moving from Edward to Alex. He was less loud with Alex, gentle, and Jack was fond of him for it. His reddish brows furrowed a moment when he saw Jack, and then recognition dawned. He gave Jack's hand a hearty shake.
“Jonathan Randall, isn't it?” he chuckled. “I say, man, you've grown up! I don't think I've seen you in ages, have I?”
“Our paths have seemed loath to cross,” Jack said dryly. “It is an honor to see you again, Your Grace. Please, call me 'Jack'.”
“Yes, yes, lovely to see you again, Jack,” the Duke said affably. “Will you be playing the good game with us today, then?”
The Duke's eyes burned as brightly as his complexion, and he fixed them upon Jack. Jack knew that he was taking stock of him, trying to see where Jack fit among Sussex society. Jack bit his cheek to keep from laughing. If you find any answer to that, please tell me of it, dear Duke, he thought.
“No, I'm not much use with a bat, I'm afraid,” Jack said, at which he heard Edward distinctly snort. “Purely a spectator. I will be placing a wager or two on my brother, of course.”
“A sportsman by purse, then!” the Duke said approvingly. “Good man, good man. Right! Ned! Let's get you dressed for a game, eh?”
They went walking quickly across the sprawling lawn. Jack loosened his cravat, letting his neck breathe. He was tired from the horse ride out on the hot day, and in no mood for entertainment. He strolled down the lawn, dotted with small clusters of people talking or practicing for the upcoming game. The air smelled grassy, with the scent of humanity coming and going with the breeze. It was a happy scene, Jack thought as he walked along, inside it and outside it at once.
Servants bustled to and fro, and he managed to get water, then wine from them. Refreshed, his mood lightened slightly. He walked around as if he belonged there (by birth and right, he did), making pleasant small talk. His appearances among his fellows were rare, and so he was met with no little amount of interest.
They really want to claim me, Jack thought. All of them wish me to add to their little personal ranks: the sportsmen, the genteel, the fashionable, the soldiers, and all the women. It isn't even that any of them wish me to be a friend or a love, they simply need to place me into a familiar corner of their world.
It's all so important to them, isn't it? Politics, finance, status, marriage, prowess, they live and fight for it the way pups chew and snarl for table scraps. Some think that the particular path they've chosen will lead them to the truer pleasures of life: love, sex, adventure, and all the lesser vices. For others, their virtue itself is a vice, what they cling to in the small hours and pray brings them in death the joy they never found in life. These are the sums of their lives.
I frighten them. They're nervous to see someone that needs no definition, that chases none of their dreams. This apathy is unnatural, almost inhuman. They'll never know that I only feign emptiness to keep them from seeing what it is that fills me.
Despite his enigmatic personality, Jack was witty and knowledgeable enough to keep his company's interest. Though he had his own concerns, he still kept himself informed of the world's activities, and he spent an inordinate amount of time reading. He dulled his fatalism into a witty cynicism that the quicker-witted aristocrats found charming, and his handsomeness kept the slower ones engaged. Ironically, the one vice he never cared for was the one that came to him most easily. He wished that he was dim enough to be satiated by social success.
“I would rather face a savage in the colonies,” Jack was saying now, “than one up north, I'll tell you that! Savages being shot is one thing, savages that manage to puzzle out how to shoot is quite another, don't you think?”
“Aye, and the Scots can't be charmed by beads and trinkets.”
“If you can't shoot with it, shoot it, or weave it into a damned plaid, the Scots wouldn't know what to do with it,” Jack explained. He took a sip of wine. “No, no, give me red men over red-haired men any day.”
The small group around him laughed. Jack took another drink, and Lady Charlotte Arnsbury was there when he raised his head again. His smile twitched, but he was in too good a mood to let her spoil it. In fact, the adoration in her eyes merely struck him as flattering.
Today will prove whether or not I'll ever have a chance at a normal life, even one that serves only as a facade, Jack realized. He was more mellow than he had felt in years, open to all the trifles his life should be filled with. It may just be possible. Why should I be denied the lives all of these have? Why should I be an outsider? Because I love men? Half these men would love men, if they only were not taught it was a sin, if they only had the moral choice! How many of these women would rather lay with one another than I, were they not taught to prize men as commodities? I've seen the liberties certain so-called 'ladies' take with their affections, holding hands and kissing and sharing rooms. Who can blame them all for esteeming marriage, though? What chance outside marriage do women have to trade fortunes? And what other chance do men have to satisfy their cocks with the blessing of God?
Jack let his stream of evil consciousness fade into the background of his thoughts. He wondered if all these cheery smiling faces hid similar rivers of thought: some irrational, some distracted, some evil, some lusty. What would happen if all those thoughts were loosed upon the world?
Jack turned his gaze to Lady Charlotte. He must be aroused by her, what man would not be? What man would not long to press his lips to that red satin ribbon of a mouth? What man could not lose himself in the creamy pillows of breast, or let his tongue drink the taste of her silky white skin? She smelled of flowers--
Ah, but he hated the smell of flowers, whether perfuming the skin of a man or a woman. He liked to smell the natural scent of a person's body, it often gave a promise of how they would taste on the tongue. People did not—and should not—taste like flowers. The body always gave up its particular taste and odor eventually, and he would rather not have to sneeze his way through layers of false fragrances. He preferred his nose to be unfettered by perfume, free to scent his prey, the place where they laid, and perhaps the leather of a whip or--
Jack's untamed mind turned yet again, as if it were a man descending a spiraling staircase down to hell. How would the Lady Arnsbury fair under the lash of a whip? Would she scream? Oh, certainly she would, no lady (hardly a man) would not. Would she be more horrified by the fire of the stroke, or the scars the act would permanently lay upon her fine flesh? She was innocent as Alex, but he did not know her, did not care for her. Hers was an innocence he could joyously destroy.
These few evil turns of the mind passed through Jack's consciousness within the space of a few minutes. Wine washed them away quickly, and he convinced himself they had never ensnared him. Passing demons had no power on a beautiful day like this.
Yes, and Lady Charlotte. He wished to meet the appetite in her eyes. He wished to luxuriate in her porcelain figure as any man his age should. He wished to wed her, bed her, and make an heir for himself. Those tasks need not be joyless, he told himself. He could find pleasure in her, he told himself. He would try himself on her, and if he finally performed naturally with the suitable woman, he would go home and burn the unsent letter dismissing her suit.
Yes, yes. If he drank enough, if he envisioned enough, if he ignored enough, then he could enjoy a decent, normal life.
The cricket game bored Jack. He could not see why grown men would focus all their prideful strength on a meaningless task. They flung balls when they really would like to fling fists, and swung bats at said balls when it must be more gratifying to swing such a weapon at an enemy. Why not simply duel and get it over with?
Jack made small talk with Lady Charlotte through the game. Mentally, he was pleasantly wondering which blooming lad might be best to have over. The positions that they took were very pleasing: arses stuck out, if only for a moment, strong legs pumping over green grass. Drenched in sweat, the white outfits showed every gorgeous line of their bodies in exquisite detail. Jack mused that he should have become a cricket spectator earlier on. He did not fail to notice that chaste Lady Arnsbury's starry eyes often caressed the very same enticing bits of anatomy that his did. A naughty desire in her, true, but oh, such an unnatural one in him!
The Duke of Richmond's team won the game. The sheer joy men exhibited when winning such a game, or making a kill on a hunt, made Jack question the nature of sex. Sometimes, watching these displays of primal ecstasy, he wondered if perhaps people made too much of sex. He had seen more men loll in unbridled delight after a sports victory than a sexual conquest. Then again, killing and winning a game had no taboos to chafe the pleasure, whereas sex was forbidden fruit. He wondered why, of all the indulgences of earth, “God” (or whoever penned such parts of the Good Book) had decided sex would be the most illicit.
By late evening, Jack was drunk. Lady Charlotte had sunk her claws of entitlement into him, set herself upon his arm, and dared with fierce eyes any other woman to try to charm him. The crowds thinned by the time darkness fell, becoming more intimate gatherings of two or three. The Duke of Richmond's home was open to all guests, and many retired there. Jack stayed up, chatting as an excuse to go on drinking. It was not long before he found himself alone with Charlotte.
Jack's lonely nature dragged him away from the estate and the lawn. Charlotte managed to keep pace with him, and she had the bottle of wine they were sharing. Jack's hatred of Charlotte had left him. She was a woman, but a clever and carnal one. He only wished that she had been a boy, that he might have fully savored her personality's fruits.
The night was quiet save for the cries of bird and beast. The heat of the day had distilled into the perfect coolness of night, and the moon shone its pale light gratuitously upon the land. All the forest was silver and shadow. Charlotte's hand was hot in his own, as they walked through the aloof land, leather shoes sinking into the soft earth and crunching the foliage. They stopped beneath a stately oak, he pinning her to its trunk with kisses and affections.
“I would not take your maidenhead,” Jack said breathlessly. “I would not dishonor you so, dear Charlotte.”
“There are other ways to please a man,” Charlotte said with a devilish smile. “So many other ways, love. My girls taught me.”
Before Jack could protest, Charlotte had cupped his crotch through his breeches. She licked her lips and a soft, whispering breath escaped her as she weighed the size of him as a farmer weighs fruit. Jack tried to move back, but Charlotte held his cock as if it were a leash. Her eyes were hungry with carnal famine, and she was unlacing his breeches now. The old irritation crept into Jack, cutting through hope and drunkenness swiftly.
“It is wrong,” he tried to dissuade her. Panic was beginning to spread, just as a blush spread over his face. “Charlotte. Dear, 'tis a sin.”
“But only a small one.” She kissed his unresponsive lips. “Shh, oh, hush my darling, my beautiful Jonathan. Let me make you happy. Let me love you, my love.”
“There, now, doesn't that feel nice?”
Jack's breeches gaped open, and her hands busied at him. Annoyance turned to revulsion. Jack's blood ran cold, and he felt himself withdrawing physically. Charlotte's besotted look trembled, and she lowered her gaze. Her hands worked more skillfully (where had she learned this?) in determination. They moved, and Jack ended up the one pinned to the tree.
“Please, Charlotte, stop,” Jack said, hating the begging tone of his voice. Fear unmanned him, left him limp. “Charlotte!”
Jack took one of her wrists in two hands. Charlotte's free hand worked at him, painfully rough now. Jack's face burned with the shame of impotency. Why?the back of his mind asked. Why could he not perform? Why could he not channel all these heady summer months of frustration into a single act? Why, why, why? What was wrong with him?
Charlotte lifted her perfect little face to his finally. Her eyes were saucers in the moonlight, mirroring Jack's own confusion and shock.
“Oh,” she said. A sort of horror swept over her countenance. “Oh.”
Jack was not particularly suicidal, but he could have easily died just then. Why would she not release him? Clearly, he would do her no good tonight, so why did that hot little hand continue to grope him? Blood shot up and down his body, hot and cold, while his nerves shook.
“Oh,” she said for the third time, concern washing her face. “Jack, are you ill? Oh dear, poor Jack. Oh dear.”
Her voice lilted into a laugh. Jack stared at her incredulously. Was she laughing at him? She held his intimacy in her hand, had shamed him with it, and now she laughed?
“Oh dear,” was all the girl could say. Nerves had taken hold of her senses. “Ha ha ha!”
Jack did not hear the embarrassed anxiety in her tone. He only heard scorn and mockery. The stillness of the night rang with her laughter, as tears of humiliation and shame stung his eyes. Desperate with misery and fury, Jack reached out for her. His long lovely fingers clutched the young woman's delicate throat, and her laughter ended in a short-breathed gasp. Jack turned her back to the tree, and he grasped the other side of her neck with his other hand. Her sparkling blue eyes bulged then, and the night was silent again. The hands that so recently violated him fluttered at his in protest, the touch of her fingers like butterfly wings.
Jack was enraptured by her struggle. He could see the fight for life in her eyes, as her frail body did its best to disengage him. He squeezed her neck more tightly. The bit of ration still left to him told him that now there was no going back, that if he released her she would fly to her family and expose him for the villain he was.
Even if he could have plucked this memory from her mind, Jack would not have been able to stop. For the very first time, he saw true beauty in her as her life faded. She was not a woman vying for his claim, she was merely another animal bowing to its fate, to the fate that he was granting her. The little dreams and hopes that seemed so important at the time were stripped from her. She was beyond ambition, beyond sex, beyond even God, at the mercy of his soul and finally touching the fullness of her own.
Jack stirred then. He glanced down briefly, and a short laugh escaped him. He pressed his naked front against her skirts. “Oh,” he said, mimicking her startled tone. “Oh, I suppose I'm not so ill after all.”
It was strange, being aroused for the consummation of violence rather than sex, but not unpleasant. Jack choked the girl, and odd animal sounds escaped her throat. He pressed harder and harder against her, the ruffles of her skirt enfolding his cock. The noises choked off as the light in her eyes grew dull. He gripped her neck harder, silken white skin crushed in his grasp, the night serenely gazing on. Watching her soul leave her was like watching the sun go out.
It was gone then, and he came upon her dress. Sheer pleasure thrilled through his body, and his breath escaped in deep, long pants. He raised his eyes to the sky, blue as her eyes and pricked with stars white as her skin. The leafy night air filled his lungs, and he was—alive.
The euphoria was absolute, but fleeting. It seeped out of him as morning dew seeps back into the arid air of day. He came back to his limp, spent body, and felt the tremble of a chill. Slowly, he lifted his fingers from the cold, still neck. Without his hands holding her, Lady Charlotte collapsed in a whisper of silk and velvet. The smell of flowery perfume wafted up from her, ruined with the sea-like odor of semen.
Jack's practicality returned then. He licked his dry lips and drew a deep breath. Too aware of his sticky, limp cock, he stuffed it into his breeches and laced them up. Wiping his hands on his jacket, he knelt before the slumped girl. He felt her wrist and neck, but her blood had stopped.
She's dead, Jack marveled. A moment ago, she had been lustily full of life, and now she was dead. Whatever stirred in a woman's inward loins would never stir for her again. She would never take another man's member in hand, never flash that naughty white smile, never give up the maidenhead she kept guarded despite her creative sexual talents. Lady Charlotte Arnsbury was dead, and he had killed her.
Jack's pulse pounded dully. He backed away, and then began to make his way swiftly through the forest. It was too late for any of the other drunken guests to have ventured so far out, but he must be careful. He stopped before leaving the cover of the forest, watching the lawn for minutes. When no one stirred, he made to cross it. His heart raced in his chest as he walked boldly across the lawn, bright and empty as a stage. No one accosted him, but he worried about what sleepy eyes might glimpse.
What of them? Jack thought defiantly. One man looks much like another in moonlight, at this distance. I'm not so tall as Edward, not so obvious a figure as the Duke of Richmond. Who could really claim to have seen me out here tonight? Even if they did make such a claim, what would that prove? Everyone is out taking what desserts they can. No one saw Charlotte and I disappear into the forest, that is all that matters.
Jack found a guest room that was still empty, doubtless the other men were out with company. He washed up automatically. He balled his soiled clothing up and stuffed them into his traveling chest, way down at the bottom. He took the ribbon from his hair, impatiently brushing his fine dark hair off his face. Clean in his night dress, he sat on the edge of his bed and stared out the window.
Once the thunderstruck shock wore off, elation filled Jack. He smiled, then he chuckled, and then he began to laugh. He laughed and laughed, falling onto the bed. He should be regretful, scared, ashamed of himself, but he was joyous. He was utterly joyous.
“God forgive me.”
Curled on the bed, Jack tried the words on his tongue. For an instant, the monstrosity of his act shot veins of horror through him. He stopped laughing, growing very still on the soft sheets and plush mattress.
What am I?
Then Jack felt the insincerity of these sentiments. Humor returned, and sorrow fled. He laughed again, burying his face in his pillows to stifle the sound. He was disgusted with himself, but not sorry. He remembered the girl's distaste, her shock--
--and he could not be sorry. He was glad to be rid of her. He was glad to be done with the pretense. And the sensation of it! To have finally taken control of his life, to have ejected from it one who had scorned him, who had mocked him …
It was beautiful, Jack thought, amazed. His laughter subsided, after causing tears to stream from his eyes. He crawled under the covers and buried himself in the foreign bed. Yes, it was the most beautiful death I have ever witnessed.
Did crafting such a beautiful scene make him an artist? He laughed at the thought, until he could laugh no more. Exhaustion had seeped into the marrow of his bones, and began to stake its claim. His body stopped shaking at last, and thoughtless oblivion overtook him.
Did she feel this sort of bliss? Jack wondered just before sleep. Did she go into dreams or nightmares?
Silly, silly …
Of course, she went nowhere. She simply departed. She departed from this world of bitter somethings … into … nothing …
Nothing at all.