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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Jack awoke in a guarded mood. The other men that were to share the guest room had trickled in by that time, and were scattered in sleep around the room. He took a minute to consider the guileless man sleeping beside him, plainly attractive and helpless in slumber. Jack brought his face very close to the man's, letting his breath graze his warm face. He touched the man's bottom lip, and then rolled out of bed. He dressed without waking anyone, and ventured out of the guest room.
Jack found Edward and Alex in another bedroom. Edward was already awake and dressed in cricket whites. He glanced at Jack and smiled.
“We missed you last night.”
“I retired early.”
No one knows yet, Jack noted, pleased. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched Alex sleep. Everyone is busy sleeping off last night's indulgences or preparing for the match. No one has even noticed that Lady Charlotte is missing.
“The sleep did you well,” Edward said. “You look marvelously refreshed, Jack.”
“It's good to be out,” Jack said. “I've had a wonderful time.”
“See? What did I tell you?” Edward said. “All you need is to keep more company than your own. It isn't healthy to be so solitary, not at your age.”
“I concede your point, brother.”
Alex stirred and looked up blearily at Jack. He smiled, yawned, and bid Jack good morning. The other men were waking, going about their morning toilet and dressing. Jack felt apart from them, but the feeling was no longer unpleasant. He had broken the bonds of this world, torn their trite world asunder. He had taken the most precious thing there was in this world, life, and none was the wiser. If there was a God, He must feel like this when He tore this person out of the world, or set that person suffering. It was a powerful, giddy feeling, one he could grow accustomed to.
“You look very happy, Jack,” Alex remarked as he dressed. “I saw Lady Charlotte join your party yesterday, might she be the heart of your happiness?”
“Aha, so that's the cause!” Edward grinned. “Alex, I do believe our brother is in love!”
The secret pounded in his mind, and blood rushed to his face. Taking this for a blush, Edward congratulated him and teased him. He even put his arm about Jack's shoulders while they headed out of the guest room, so happy was he to finally behold his brother as a normal human being.
Even cynical Jack was amazed that no one thought much of Charlotte's absence over breakfast. One of the ladies even claimed to have left her sleeping upstairs. The match was all anyone could speak of, and wagers were already being made.
One of the girls in Charlotte's traveling party began to search for her while the match was being organized. Jack joined her in voicing concern, and they recruited some servants to search the house and grounds for her. Such a search would take hours before it breached the forest, and Jack put it out of his mind.
A small concern began to worry at Jack's calm during the game. He recalled writing Charlotte the letter that proclaimed he could not love her. It was sentimental drivel, hardly even a refusal of her affections, but it troubled him. Would it be enough to kindle suspicions against him? Surely not, but …
Still, there was nothing to be done about the letter now, and it was safe in his bedroom still. If he left to pursue it, he would seem suspicious to all when her body was found. Her body, he thought, feeling a chilling thrill. The murder came back to him in flashes like lightning. He shivered despite the summer sun.
The Duke of Richmond's team won, to the delight of Jack's finances. He was swept up in the celebration by Edward and the Duke. They drank and sang and had a picnic lunch on the lawn.
“You seem distracted, Jack.”
Jack looked at Edward as he picked at his food. He had been worrying about the letter, but what could he say? He decided to use half the truth.
“It's Lady Charlotte I'm thinking of,” Jack said. “She's missed the game, and her party sent servants to find her. Do you think she might be ill?”
“Not so ill as you are, my lovesick brother,” Edward said merrily. “Are you certain you're not the cause of her being still retired?”
“Me? No!” Jack said in innocent fervor. “I should never stain a woman's honor, certainly not a woman that I intend to take as wife. We parted last evening. I'd had too much to drink, and bid her goodnight early. I haven't seen the fair lady since.”
Edward and the Duke shared a look. Now what was this? They seemed concerned not for Charlotte, but for Jack. Genuinely baffled, Jack frowned.
“What?” he asked. “What is it?”
“Oh, nothing,” Edward said uncomfortably. “It's nothing at all. Gossip and silliness.”
“He might as well know all about his intended,” the Duke insisted. “It is gossip, but the gossip goes that the lady takes great liberties with men.”
“I'll never believe it!” Jack said, pretending to be angry. “Such an honest creature as Charlotte can be nothing but a virgin.”
“Oh, she's a maid still,” the Duke said. “So they say, anyway. You've been home too long, Jack, if at your age you don't know the difference between loss of virtue and loss of innocence.”
“Charlotte is pure in both,” Jack told him. “I'd swear it on my life.”
“You must not hold your life very dear,” the Duke said flippantly.
Jack clenched a fist, and Edward put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“It has been known for some time, Jack,” he said gently. “But never you mind what people know from poisoned tongues. I'm sure Lady Charlotte is worthy of your faith.”
The Duke shrugged. Jack calmed, though he affected to be distressed. It was all turning into a play, he thought in amusement, and a very convincing one at that.
The climax came just after lunch. There was the sound of a woman screaming, and a commotion broke out at the edge of the forest. Edward followed the Duke to see what the fuss was about. Jack watched, feigning anxiety. The men talked to a lady servant, who was being held up by her fellows. She had just returned from the wood, and was ghastly pale. After some discussion, Jack saw Edward glance back at him with a stricken expression.
Time for my finest hour, Jack thought. He ran over to the growing crowd, followed by Alex. He pushed his way through to Edward and the Duke, whose ruddy complexion had paled considerably. The Duke looked at Jack with embarrassed pity. By now, Jack was more than a little attracted to the strapping, impressive man. The talking ceased at a gesture from Edward.
“But what's happened?” Jack asked. “Have you found Charlotte? Is she ill?”
Edward gripped Jack's shoulder, but Jack shrugged him off. He demanded an answer, to which there was only silence. He saw the lady servant look into the woods, and ran off in the direction of her gaze. Edward shouted and ran after him, and soon the crowd was on his heels.
The Lady Charlotte Arnsbury lay where he had left her, crumpled like a gilded leaf in her stained golden dress. Her dark hair spilled around her tiny body, whiter than shell, and framed a horrific face. Her eyes bulged unnervingly, accusingly, and her face had taken an unnatural shape, the tongue bloated up to protrude between her formerly perfect lips. A fly landed on that dry dead tongue, and the smell of the corpse wafted into Jack's nostrils. His nerves shattered, guilt overcame triumph, and there was no longer a need to feign his emotions.
Jack reeled back and vomited onto the earth. He coughed, choked, and by the time his brothers found him, he had spat up all his lunch. Edward gripped his shoulder, and this time Jack allowed it. Dizzy and ill, he actually clung to his brother's strong arm to stay on his feet.
“Who would do such a thing?” Jack murmured. I did.“What kind of a monster does a thing such as this, Edward?”
“No!” Jack cried furiously. “No, tell me, Edward! Tell me! Tell me what kind of animal has it in his nature to commit such an act? Tell me!”
“No animal of human kind,” Edward said, “could ever do such a thing.”
Jack saw the genuine disgust in his brother's eyes, and the words stung him. He looked in a daze back at Charlotte. He knew in that moment why the horses shied away from him, and why his father had always been strictest with him. He knew what he was. Even in his grief, he knew that he mourned not for Lady Charlotte, but for the loss of all self-pretense. Even then, he could not regret the murder for its own sake, but for the sake of his peace of mind. He stared at Charlotte's glazed empty eyes, which seemed to stare back at him, for what felt an eternity.
Edward turned Jack from the sight, embracing him paternally. “No, avert your eyes, dear brother,” he said soothingly. “Do not taint your memory of your love with such a sight. Her soul has gone, and this shell is only a shell.”
Jack pushed away from the comfort he did not deserve. The forest spun around him, and he stumbled. The urge to laugh mingled with the tears streaming from his eyes, and he knew he was nearing hysteria. If he lost himself, he knew he might confess, and though a part of him cried for punishment, his reason shied away from it still. He was not a fainting type, had never lost consciousness for emotion, and so he put on one last feint. It was not difficult to fall to the ground, and Jack appreciated the rest. There was stillness around him. Then, feet shuffled. He kept his eyes shut and forced his mind to retreat.
“Did Jack actually faint?” Edward asked, stunned. He knelt down beside his brother and shook him. “My God, the poor man's fainted!”
“Jack fainted?” Alex's tremulous voice breathed. “He never faints! Get him off the ground, Edward! This is terrible. I can't … I can't … Oh God!”
Alex burst into tears and Jack ached to comfort him. Had he thought once since last night how this would affect the boy? No, he had not even spared a thought for his precious brother. He lay still, wishing that he really could find the peace of sleep.
Jack almost gave up his ploy when Edward heaved him up and slung him over his shoulder. He hoped that no one would notice the flush of humiliation creeping into his face. He heard Edward gently usher Alex to his side, and he brought his brothers away from the grisly scene.
“See how the dress is soiled,” Jack heard the Duke saying behind them. “Doubtless she was out with a man, whatever Jack Randall wishes to believe otherwise. No good can ever come of such ways in a woman, but this! None of the gentle sex deserve such a fate, not even the most wanton … ”
His murmur faded as Edward swiftly bore them out of the forest. Weary, woozy, Jack felt his consciousness begin to waver. He did not pass out, but he did fall into a dozing stupor. Edward carried him all the way to one of the guest rooms, where he lay Jack down on a warm mattress. He stroked his brother's forehead, and ordered a servant to bring water for when he woke. Alex sat down on the bed beside him, and clutched one of Jack's hands tightly in his own.
“Oh, Jack, poor Jack,” Alex lamented. “Poor Lady Charlotte, of course! And poor Jack. He looked so happy this morning.”
“Aye, he glowed with love for the lady,” Edward said. “It is first a tragedy to the lady and her pitiable family, naturally, but next it is a tragedy to Jack. Seeing him these two days past has been as watching the sun shine through the clouds of a storm. He is so rarely happy, and has never before loved.”
Jack felt the bed grow considerably lighter as Edward rose. He heard his footsteps, heavy and fast, pacing him across the room.
“Goddamn such a beast as would do such a thing!” Edward said darkly. “No, Alex, do not look at me that way. Cursing a demon by the Lord's name is no blasphemy. And only a demon could have done this! Only a Satan-besotted usurper of God's good earth would steal a lady away in the dead of night and slay her so brutally!”
Jack, being the subject of Edward's insults, twitched. He willed his brother to shut his mouth, but his silent appeal went unanswered.
“Damn the villain a hundred times over!” Edward continued. “Let me find him, Alexander, and so help me, I'll give him a death that will make him envy his poor victim. Filth of that kind should be boiled alive, after having every strip of flesh whipped from--”
This was too much. Jack groaned loudly, and pretended to wake. Edward was still hot with anger, but he softened as he returned to his brother's side. Jack looked at his brothers dully, and found that he could hardly meet their eyes. The secret no longer blazed like the power of God within, but smoldered dismally in the pit of his heart.
Edward helped Jack sit up and let him rinse his mouth into a bowl. He then gave him water to drink, but Jack could hardly keep it down. The smell of death had stuck in his nose, and his stomach still rolled uneasily. Edward moistened a cloth with cool water and mopped Jack's brow. After his condemnation of Charlotte's killer, Jack found the attention a very cold comfort indeed.
The luck of the Devil was with Jack. That very night, after a thorough search of the woods was made, a vagrant was arrested for the murder of Charlotte Arnsbury. Obviously, the innocent man denied the charge, but he was known to live rough in the woods of the county, a ruined son of some noble family that had been convicted of rape in the past. Jack knew the unfortunate would hang for his crime, and his assured escape of blame for it provided some comfort.
Jack was withdrawn through the journey home, and not even Alex dared approach him. With the Duke of Richmond's estate behind him, the entire matter of Charlotte Arnsbury's murder seemed a nightmare of some distant night. His heart began to recover, though his nerves had not.
Edward and Jack greeted their father in the hot sitting room. He was resting in his chair, but waked fully when he saw their expressions.
“What have you done?” he asked Jack immediately. “What misery have you brought upon us now? Where is Alex? Have you hurt Alex?”
“I've hurt no one!” Jack shouted, bristled into fury. “Why must you always think the worst of me?”
“Alexander is fine, he's resting,” Edward said, putting a calming hand on Jack's shoulder. “It is Jack who is partly a victim here, for his great loss.”
Edward told Sir Denys of how Jack had found love in Charlotte Arnsbury, only to have it cruelly dashed away by a hideous murder. Jack stood by miserably, but he was very aware of his father's keen hazel eyes studying him. The old man's color faded from his cheeks, and he said not one word when Edward concluded. All was silent save for the ticking of the clock.
“I must tend to Alex, and tell our mother of this tragedy,” Edward said. “Jack is to be comforted, father, please be gentle with him. His loss is terrible.”
Edward left them alone. Sir Denys stared up at his son for a long moment. Jack felt ominously, but he dared not go.
“Your loss?” Sir Denys finally rasped. “Your loss, Jack? And what did you lose, exactly?”
“Why, the woman that I loved,” Jack said, though his nervousness tempered his affected anguish. “I was to marry her.”
“Marry her? You were to marry her, you say?” Sir Denys laughed incredulously. “The woman he loved, he says! Oh, oh God … ”
“I see that the news has made you unwell,” Jack said, turning. “I'll leave you to--”
No sooner had he turned his back on his father than the man's walking stick shot out and struck him full across it. Jack stumbled, shocked by the sudden pain, and turned to Sir Denys. Though his frame was wasted by the idleness of old age and disease, Sir Denys was still very tall, and he had drawn himself up to full height. He towered over his son, and Jack felt a pang of the old childhood fear. Before he could defend himself, Denys rapped the cane across the side of his legs, and they gave way. Jack fell to the floor, throwing up his arms in a feeble attempt to protect himself.
“What! Are you mad?” he cried. “Why are you hitting me?”
“Oh, bastard, evil, demon child!” Denys roared down at his son. He struck him again, and yet again. “Were your mother not a holy woman, I would suspect she bedded the Devil before conceiving you! Unholy monster! Murderous cowardly sinner!”
“Murder, man, are you daft?” Jack asked angrily. He tried to stand, and was rapped back down to the floor. His legs and back burned with pain, but the bruises were nothing compared to the pure terror he felt. He knew! His father was not fooled, he knew what Jack had done, he always knew what Jack did. “They arrested the culprit!”
“Then they'll hang a dog for a wolf!” Denys snarled, wolf-like himself. He reached down to grab Jack, lifted him to his feet, and threw him against the wall. With his sturdy walking cane, he beat Jack's back, his buttocks, his thighs, too savage in hatred to remember his aged body. “I read your letter, you lying cur! You made much of your lies, but you meant only to refuse the poor lady! So! Was refusing her not enough? Are you so unnatural a man that you could not even abide a gentle, loving woman's life?”
Jack said nothing. What could he say? His father knew the truth, and there was no point denying it to him. The cane struck deeply into his flesh, well-earned punishment but galling all the same. Though he knew he should stay there and take it, Jack could not remain facing the wall while the hated old man struck him. He whirled around and grabbed the cane even as it swung towards him. The wood struck his palms hard, and he grimaced.
“Enough!” he shouted. “Enough! I'm not a child, to be beaten by you, old man!”
Denys tried to wrest the cane away, but Jack held fast. He was pulled close, and looked up at his father with hurt hatred burning in his hazel eyes. For a moment, he saw a flicker of fear in his father's gaze, and it emboldened him.
“You killed her,” Denys said dully. His anger had cooled, leaving him deeply grieved. “You strangled that woman. You strangled a poor, innocent woman.”
“And what will you do?” Jack whispered in a hiss. “Ha? Tell all of Sussex that it was me? Let all of Britain know the sort of son you have?”
“I have no son in you, Jack.”
“That's not what the world would say, and you know it,” Jack said, grinning like a madman. The beating had finished snapping his nerves. “Would you let them say your son was hanged for murder? Would you bring that shame to pious Edward? Would you bring that grief to poor Alex? Would you damn and doom the Randall line for my sake? Ha? Do you hate me so much?”
Denys's temper was riled again. He let go the cane, which Jack still gripped, and slapped his son full across the face. Jack stumbled, and raised the cane in anger. Denys's eyes blazed at the sight.
“Would you strike me then, Jack?” he asked, voice soft with fury. “Would you strike at your own father?”
“You've struck me often enough.”
“Go on then, Jack, and batter an old man the way you once battered your poor brother,” Denys dared him. “You are kin only to the Devil.”
The fight had taken much out of Sir Denys. He no longer looked frightful or mighty, but only tired and ancient. He staggered to his chair and sat down in it, breathing heavily. Jack lowered the cane, but kept it in both hands ready.
“I do not hate you more than I love my true sons,” Denys said. “I would not have you hanged so that your mother can die with sorrow. I will say nothing. They must never learn of this, never.”
Jack set the cane down only then. His father watched him with the baffled eyes of a person encountering some rare, strange, malevolent animal.
“But you are no longer any son of mine,” Denys said. “Your soul is black, Jack, the blackest soul that I have ever had the misfortune to meet. I have seen terrors and wrought terrors in war, but none have been equal to the terror of knowing that I issued you into this world by my own body's seed. I almost wish that your mother was not a loyal and decent woman, so that I could deny any claim to you, you demon.”
“I'd rather claim the Devil as a father,” Jack said, “than you. You have never loved me. You have never thought me anything but evil. Is it any small wonder, then, that your prophecies have come to fruition, father?”
“No wonder, only a product of my own foolish father's pride and love,” Deny said. “Do not look at me so, Jack, for I did love you. I loved you, even though I always knew what you are. I loved you, and so I did not drown you when you were a babe and I felt only ill tidings by your cradle's side. I loved you, and so I tried all my life to beat the evil out of you, to at least temper it so that your soul might be redeemed someday. I suppose I even love you now in some measure, or I would have beaten you to death with that cane and have done with you.”
“And here I thought it was my hand that stopped you from doing so.”
“Don't be cynical of my love, Jack,” Denys chided him. “I was a soldier, knighted for my service, and I know the difference between beating a man and killing him. Had I wanted to, I could have dashed your brains out with that cane, and you know it.”
Jack crossed his arms sullenly.
“You do not believe that I love you,” Denys said knowingly. “So be it, and it's probably best. You do not deserve to count yourself loved. But whatever stupid fatherly love I might still have for you, I cannot abide you any longer. I would not grow poisonous weeds in my own garden for Edward and Alexander to be sickened by. You will leave this house of mine, Jack. I will support you with an allowance, only to avoid raising your brothers' suspicions, but I will not be any more of a father to you. Go to London, Jonathan, and be damned there.”
“I will go to London,” Jack said with a smile, “and be free there. I won't stay to trouble you here in your house for longer than a day.”
“Good,” was all the weary old man could say. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his clammy face. “Good.”
Jack turned and crossed the room.
He turned. Denys threw a parchment across the room at him. Jack went to it and picked it up. It was the letter he had written to Lady Charlotte, as he knew it would be. He laughed, completely undone. Sir Denys Randall stared at his son, and had to turn his face to hide his tears.
By the time he returned to his room, Jack was a wreck. He did not know why he lamented being thrown out of his home, it granted him the freedom he had always craved, but he could not deny his misery. He tore the letter all to pieces and threw it in the fireplace, then set a fire blazing despite the evening's heat. Only as he stared into the leaping flames did he realize that he had been crying.
Jack cried out, furious that his father had brought him to tears this one last time. He screamed wordlessly, falling to his knees, tearing at the carpet, his clothing, pounding on the hard stone mantle. All this, he thought, all of this, and for what? For the fact that one night I couldn't force my cock into some lady? For that one secret shame, that one secret failing in me, I am made a monster. I shall never be human again, if I ever was.
“You should have killed me!” he shouted, though he knew their father was nowhere near to hear it. “You should have killed me, then! You should have killed me!”
Because I'm too much of a coward to kill myself. Impotent in everything that could save me. I'm no man, no man, no man at all …
Jack lost time, himself, and everything in his frenzied anguish. He screamed so wildly that Edward and Alexander came rushing into his room at last. Edward lifted his brother from the floor, trying to shake him back to reason. Alexander tearfully soothed Jack's hot face, and kissed his cheek. The tenderness finally began to bring sense back to Jack.
“There now, Johnny, there,” Alexander murmured. “Be still, be still. Edward, put out that fire, it's burning up in here, and he's already fevered. I'll get water, and you get him into bed.”
Jack let Edward lead him to the bed, weak and docile as a child. Edward was grimly silent, as he always was when emotions ran high. He was a good, simple man, and untoward behavior always horrified him. He went to move away after putting Jack in bed, but Jack pulled him close by the front of his shirt.
“Edward, kill me.”
“Do not talk that way,” Edward said sternly. “It's a sin to think of suicide, Jonathan.”
“I'm too cowardly for suicide, and so you must kill me,” Jack said. “Edward, you must, you must end me. I'm afraid. I'm deadly afraid of the things I may do if I live.”
“Don't be ridiculous, Jack,” Edward said. He paused with slight hesitation before adding, “You know you're a good man.”
“You know I'm not!” Jack exclaimed, agitated again. “Edward, if you love me, kill me! Kill me! I'm scared. Oh, brother, I'm so scared.”
Edward pried his hands off his shirt and escaped from the insanity. He passed Alex returning on his way out, and Alex was shocked by his pallor. Alex shut the doors, leaving himself alone with Jack in the hellishly hot room. He gave Jack a glass of water and held a cold wet rag to his forehead.
“What did you say to Edward, Johnny?” Alex asked once Jack's sobbing his subsided. “He looked as if he had seen a ghost.”
“I begged him to make me a ghost,” Jack said wearily, “and he refused.”
“I must die, Alex,” Jack told him. “I fear what I may become, if I am suffered to live any longer. I have an anger inside me, Alex, the equal and opposite of your purity. I am foul, my soul is aborted, and I must die.”
“You mustn't speak so,” Alex said. “I love you, and I could not live if you died.”
“But I could live if you died,” Jack said, “because I am a base and evil coward.”
“You are not.”
“I am, Alex!”
Alex's breath ran short, and his hazel eyes widened. Jack bit his tongue and bowed his head. He had never shouted at Alex before, not once. Fresh tears and fresh shame flowed over him. It's about time, he thought miserably. He must know the truth of me. He must stop loving me. I cannot bear his innocent love any longer.
“I am wretched,” Jack told his brother. He lifted his head and took Alex by the shoulders, hard. “And I do not deserve your love.”
Jack kissed him then, and not as a brother. He opened his mouth widely onto Alex's soft lips, and kissed him with all the passion of a lover. Alex was very still in his grip, and he dropped the wet rag onto the bed covers. Then, slowly, miraculously, Alex opened his mouth and kissed him back.
“Do you see what I am, Alex?” Jack whispered when they pulled apart. Their foreheads leaned together, their black hair mingling, and in profile they were very nearly twins. “Do you see now, dear Alex?”
Jack took the dagger he kept beneath his pillow and put it in Alex's effeminate hand. Alex looked down at it, tears standing in his eyes. Then he reached over and lay the blade on the bedside table.
“No,” he said simply. “No, Johnny. I love you, and you must live for my sake, if not your own.”
Jack met his eyes, stunned. How could Alexander love him, knowing the true black depths of his affection for him? Why was there only love in his eyes? Where was his horror, his judgment, his hatred, his revulsion?
“But don't you understand?” Jack asked, his throat raw and his voice course. “Don't you see what I am?”
Jack kissed him with a more slovenly voraciousness, a lewd and lustful kiss. He kissed him and kissed him, until Alex stayed him by putting two fingers to his lips.
“Stop, Jack, you must stop,” he said firmly. “You will not make me love you less. I have always known that you love me with perhaps too much affection than the world or God might understand. I've felt it in your touch, seen it in your eyes. I know that you want the love of a man, and not of a woman. What should I say, Johnny?”
“Say you hate me,” Jack begged. He lay back, sighing, and spread his arms out over the bed. He stared at the canopy above the curtained bed, the silken sheets draped from the dark rich wood. “Strike me and curse me and call me an unnatural demon.”
“The way father has? The way Edward has?” Alex asked, shaking his head. “I will not hurt you, and whatever you think, I know that you cannot hurt me.”
Alex leaned over Jack, bringing their faces level. He kissed Jack's lips, not lustfully but not as innocently as before. He settled down against the pillows, and cradled Jack's head on his lap. The electricity of this intimacy brought Jack back to tears with shame.
“I do not deserve you, Alex.”
“But you have me.”
Alex held him thus while he cried until his heart was sick from it. He stroked his face and hair gently. Jack cried himself to sleep, and Alex stayed where he was. He stared at the face that was so like his own, listening to the man breathe easily at last, and wept for him.
Alex lifted Jack off, and lay him on his back in bed. He would not lie in sin with him, as he knew Jack often wished to, but he would lie beside him. Jack rolled onto his stomach and threw an arm over him. Alex lay down, his profile close to Jack's, their breaths commingling. He held one of Jack's hands and whispered a prayer for him.
“God protect you, Jack,” he said in the last. “God protect you from yourself.”
Jack awoke with Alex in his arms. There was no more ugly lust in him, it had cooled as the room had with the breeze. He lay holding his brother and being held by him for a while. Would that I could die in this moment, he thought. I would let my soul fly into nowhere to keep this moment untainted by the hideousness that the future must hold.
Vaguely recalling that he did not deserve such an easy fate, nor even this embrace, Jack crawled out of bed shamefaced. He washed and dressed, then went about packing for London. He had come too close to hurting Alex with his base nature last night, and the sooner he left him, the better.
“Why are you packing?” Alex asked when he awoke. He stretched and yawned, his silken black hair all askew. “Where are you going, Johnny?”
“Away, to London.”
“For what purpose?”
“To live,” Jack said, unable to look at him. “There is nothing left for me in Sussex, and father yesterday informed me that he will no longer suffer my presence.”
“I was distraught, he was displeased, and we argued,” Jack said. “The details do not matter. I must go, and it is time that I go, anyway.”
“I shall miss you very much, Jack.”
“Yes, but you are almost a man, and will be busy with your own life soon,” Jack said. “Edward will find a wife soon, and you will find a career, and I … I will live in London.”
“I wish you well, brother.”
“I deserve less, but thank you, Alex.”
Alex came over to him and put a hand on his arm. Jack looked at him, exhausted from emotion. His skin was still very warm, and he thought that he might be fevered still.
“I will always love you, Jonathan,” Alex said. “Wherever life takes us, never doubt it. Now come, you're not well, and father cannot begrudge you breakfast. Let the servants pack, and come eat with me, brother.”
“You make me feel the child between us,” Jack sighed. “How are you so wise, Alex?”
“Love teaches wisdom. Come with me.”
If I never hear of love again, Jack thought wearily, I will be able to live content.
By that evening, the choicest sum of Jack's worldly possessions were packed upon a carriage. He disliked riding as a passenger, but the bruises his father's caning had given him were livid and painful. Only Alexander and Edward were outside in the calm night to see him off: Denys refused to see him, and their mother had already said a wan goodbye inside.
“I do not like this,” Edward said. “Must you travel so late? And you're fevered, Jack. Stay a day or so.”
“No, I will not see another sunrise in Sussex,” Jack said. “I cannot.”
Edward shook his hand heartily. “I wish you luck, then, brother, and health.”
“As do I,” Alex said.
“Thank you, Edward, Alexander,” Jack said. He paused, still holding Edward's hand. “Edward, I am sorry.”
“Sorry? For what?”
“For all of everything that I have done, and all of everything that I am,” Jack said. “We should have been closer. We would have been, if I had never begrudged you your strength, your seniority, and a thousand other petty things. Forgive me, Edward.”
“I've already forgiven you, Jonathan,” Edward said. “But if you need to hear it, then I forgive you over again. I love you, I am your brother.”
Jack surprised him with a short embrace, and then gave Alex a rather longer one. They had no more words to share, they had shared many and more. Alex bid him farewell, and Jack squeezed his shoulder. Then, he climbed into the carriage.
I will never be a part of that house again, Jack thought as he watched his home and family grow distant. For the one failing, for the one shame, I am exiled. Not the shame of murder, that was only a symptom of my true unnatural shame, the shame of wanting men as men should want women.
Jack sighed, but he was too tired to be truly melancholy. What was done was done, and there was no reason to spend the rest of his life mourning it. He was now apart, alone, truly outside all.
In the end, perhaps it all turned out for the best, Jack reflected.I was too complacent to live at home, in Sussex where my preferences would not be so easy to hide. I had been lucky these past years in keeping my secrets, but my luck would have run out eventually. London will shelter me well from prying eyes, there I can live and sin in peace. Alex and Edward will be none the wiser of my murder, and I am free of Lady Charlotte and father and all of it. It was not a clean break, but it was a total one. Now I am only my own, least until I find someone to love. Until I find … a man to love.
Freely plotting such an illicit love gave Jack a thrill, and he smiled. His father would never dare try to marry him to a woman, knowing what he had done to Lady Charlotte Arnsbury. He was free to find pleasure in a city of guilty pleasures, and there was no one to judge him for it.
I am free, he thought. God help me, I'm finally free to do as I will.
So musing upon his blood-bought freedom, Jack Randall sat back, and looked ahead to London.