Drury Lane was Archie Kennedy’s home--at least he liked to pretend it was. He’d spent enough time in the Theatre Royal that he knew its insides as well as his family’s town house in Mayfair. He considered himself a fixture in the theatre, same as the curtains and lamps.
Archie loved becoming lost in the magic of a superior performance--the noise of the orchestra, the whispers in the audience, the well-dressed ladies, and boisterous applause. Watching a good play, you were part of something, synchronized with the rest of the audience in laughter and sorrow. But Archie could also be completely alone when the lights were low. When all eyes were fixed on the stage, no one was looking at him.
He knew that he was supposed to prefer hunting and cards over silly little comedies, but the theatre was the one place where he could forget. The demands of his father, the way people talked about him. Archie was not the first-born of his siblings but there were still expectations for him, expectations that he often failed to meet. The harsh words and scornful looks etched into his mind disappeared when Archie was moved by a soft song or listening to a stirring monologue.
The theater was safe and intimate and the young Archie Kennedy stole whatever chance he could to be there.
Tonight, he had the excuse of meeting his Aunt Mary and cousin Emma for a performance, though he would have preferred going on his own. It was no fault of Emma’s; she was a pretty girl with all the charms a man could want: bright blue eyes, able but not over-eager conversation, a talent for music. Archie was well aware of his parents’ intentions for the two of them. He shuddered at the thought. He liked Emma, without a doubt. She was kind and laughed easily at Archie’s jokes, but his stomach turned each time he thought of the prospect of a lifetime with her. She would make a fine wife but the poor girl deserved a husband that would appreciate her beauty more thoroughly. Perhaps he was too young to be interested in Emma’s blonde curls and dainty wrists, but at nearly 16, he was beginning to doubt that was the case.
Archie snuck backstage as soon as he arrived. He was dressed too well to be questioned but he had spent so much time in the bowels of the theatre, no one even gave him a second glance. He loved the commotion here. The actors lingered about in the dim light, drinking wine and smoking from clay pipes. Props and set pieces were shepherded to their places often without regard for others roaming the halls. The walls were plastered with programs and announcements, some peeling away at the corners. Someone was always singing, even when the evening’s entertainment did not call for music.
Archie passed into an open dressing room divided by thick curtains where the actors were readying themselves. At the first dressing table, Sally was being laced into her stays by a maid. Tall and skinny, she already wore a large wig over her red hair. Beside her, square-chested Maddock was drinking from a bottle, his feet up on the dressing table. Archie lingered in the doorway until Sally caught sight of him in her mirror.
“Tom!” She announced. “It’s your young squire.”
“Ah! Squire Kennedy.” Tom appeared from behind the last partition and waved him over. Archie was sure the actors had given him the nickname to mock him but he enjoyed being part of their little joke.
Tom sat in front of his mirror, arm hooked over the back of the chair. He looked at Archie appraisingly. Tom was an attractive man though he had at least ten years on Archie. His face was already made up in powder and dark rouge but Archie could still see the handsome angles of his straight nose and full lips.
“Back again? Surely four times is enough for anyone to sit through our little drama.”
“Five,” Archie corrected, blushing.
Tom raised his eyebrows. Archie had become friends with the whole of the company, and felt like a younger brother to them, but he had taken a special liking to Tom, who always played the best roles. Tom had a confident swagger that drew him in and and a rakishness he wished he could emulate.
“You do us too much honour,” Tom said. Every word he said oozed charm.
He returned to his mirror, queuing his chestnut hair.
“I think it’s my favorite play,” Archie said.
“I believe you said Hamlet was your favorite,” Tom replied. Archie was flattered that he had remembered.
“I like your speech in this one. ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,’” he quoted.
“Do you hear that, Sally?” Tom called over the curtain.
“Maybe the squire ought to play the king tonight, and you can sit in his box,” Maddock laughed.
“I’d pay good money to see that,” Sally said, revealing herself in her full costume.
Archie licked his lips. He could feel himself flushing as Tom eyed him in the mirror. He’d considered running away and joining their company on more than one occasion but he knew it was just a fantasy.
“You’d better go find your seat or you’ll miss the curtain,” Sally warned.
Archie was used to her shooing him away. “Well, perhaps I shall see you all after the performance.”
“Young squire, if you are so inclined, our merry band of marauders are attending a little soirée after the performance. We’d be honoured to have you join us. Mr. Sheridan might even condescend to attend.”
Archie’s heart fluttered. A real invitation--and not to some stuffy ball where he would be regarded with sideways glances. And to meet Richard Sheridan himself? Archie couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend his evening.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said, trying to sound much less enthusiastic than he felt.
“That’s a good lad,” Tom grinned. “We’ll be at the Yellow Siren.”
Archie climbed back up to the box, buzzing with anticipation. He would just need to find a way to slip Aunt Mary after the play. That would be difficult but it would all be worthwhile. The idea of sharing a drink with Tom had him giddy. How would he be able to focus on the production? He began to formulate a plan.
When he reached the box, he was surprised to find that his scheming was for naught. His cousin Emma sat looking expectantly at Archie; beside her, her brother Edward stood at attention.
“Oh hello, cousin!” Emma said, brimming with happiness.
Archie gave her a polite greeting though he was distracted by Edward. It had been some time since he’d last seen the young man. Ned was only two years older than Archie and they had played together as children. He’d grown into a dashing young gentleman. Ned was taller than Archie now, good-looking with sandy blonde hair and a sharp chin, dressed in a spotless midshipman’s uniform. Archie admired the polished buttons and neatly tied silk cravat. The deep navy wool complimented Ned’s equally blue eyes.
“Ned, it’s good to see you,” Archie said, extending his hand.
“My mother is ill,” Emma explained. “You’ll have to forgive her.”
“How unfortunate,” Archie said.
“Unfortunate for me,” Ned complained. “One night in town and I’m chaperoning my sister to the theatre.”
“Oh stop,” Emma said, laughing though she clearly wished her brother was more cultured.
“You don’t like the theatre?” Archie asked. He couldn’t fathom the thought.
“I suppose there are worse ways to spend an evening,” Ned sighed.
“You’ll enjoy this one. I’ve seen it before,” Archie said though he was now embarrassed to admit how many times.
“Is there singing?” Ned asked. He helped Emma to her seat and placed himself outside of her. “I don’t like the singing.”
The play was as good on its sixth viewing as it had been on its first. Archie had no trouble putting the nerves about his upcoming invitation aside to slip completely into the performance. He enjoyed the gallantry and pageantry, the poetry in Shakespeare’s words. He loved to see the subtle changes in recitation from night to night.
Archie sat on the edge of his seat, willing himself closer to the stage. Especially during the scene where Henry tries to woo the French princess. Even perched up in the box he could see Tom’s charms. There were moments when he felt as though Tom were reciting the lines directly to him.
But, as Archie had already admitted backstage, his favorite part of the entire play was the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech: The king rallying his troops, outnumbered, outgunned, to victory. He admired the honour and sacrifice the monologue described. Archie knew he wouldn’t be brave enough to face such hopeless odds. He couldn’t even face his father. He had always been a coward, a failure. That was why he hid here. Archie knew that this was just a fiction, words put to paper hundreds of years ago, but he tried to take those words to heart. He studied the scene with each performance, he’d even dog eared the page in his copy of the complete works of Shakespeare.
Perhaps memorizing it would give him some of the fortitude he knew he lacked. It hadn’t yet.
“You were right. It was quite good,” Ned said once the actors had taken their final bows.
Archie couldn’t have been prouder if he’d directed the entire endeavor himself. “Glad to hear it.”
“I didn’t think you could turn war into theatre.”
“Well I thought it was quite violent,” Emma complained. “I thought Shakespeare wrote romance.”
“There was romance,” Archie told her.
“Just goes to show,” Ned continued with his own train of thought, “the damned French have been causing us grief for centuries.”
“We’re not going to discuss that,” Emma said as any polite young lady would.
“Very well,” Ned sighed and rolled his eyes, unused to sharing his company with the opposite sex. “Should we depart?”
“There is a party,” Archie let slip. “My friends invited me to a party. But you could join me.”
Ned considered this, placing the back of his hand elegantly on his hip. “Someone we know?”
“No...just some of the company from the theatre,” Archie said. He immediately regretted mentioning it. He’d wanted to impress Ned with his unique friends. This was not the way to do it.
“The actors?” Emma asked and her cheeks turned pink.
Ned eyed Archie with amusement.
“They’re not a bad sort,” Archie tried.
He was beginning to worry this conversation was going to make its way back to Aunt Mary. What would his father have to say about his Dangerous Influence on impressionable Emma?
“Why not?” Ned shrugged.
Archie felt relief.
“Just us?” Emma asked, a little scandalized by the idea.
“We went to the theatre,” Ned said. It appeared he was ready to have some real excitement.
Emma chewed on the inside of her bottom lip.
“Emma,” Ned said, taking her hand in his, “I shall escort you there myself. If they’re friends of Archie’s I’m sure we’ll all enjoy ourselves.”
She still looked unsure.
“You won’t be in any trouble. I will take the blame,” he said. Ned was the favorite and somehow impervious to punishment. Archie could only dream of such things.
Emma gave a helpless look between them and relented. “Alright.”
“Take the lead, Mr. Kennedy,” Ned declared and they were off.
The Yellow Siren was already full of activity when Archie and his cousins arrived. It was a dodgy looking place, adorned with a worn wooden sign, not the kind of tavern Archie would normally have chosen to frequent but tonight it was just perfect. He could already hear muffled laughter and music from the muddy street.
“Here we are,” he announced.
“Here?” Emma asked, stopping short. “I don’t know.”
Her big blue eyes glanced at a fat man that had stopped to relieve himself on the corner of the building.
Archie was about to tell her that she could leave if she wanted when Ned chimed in.
“It’ll be good fun,” he said, nudging his sister. “Come on.”
Archie followed, taking an increasingly nervous Emma on his arm.
Inside, the tavern was bursting with life. It was packed wall-to-wall with all sorts. Men shouted at one another, slapping their open hands on tables, some with ladies sitting on their knee. The whole room smelled like sweat and tobacco and stale beer. Someone was scratching at a fiddle and further into the taproom a glass fell to the floor with a clatter. A skinny man hoisted a punch bowl over his head as he squeezed through the crowd.
“Back there,” Archie shouted at Ned, pointing at his friends.
The actors had situated themselves at a corner table and were creating their own commotion. One of the actresses was singing operatic notes in between bouts of raucous cackling and two of the stagehands Archie recognized were already throwing cards down on the table. Sally sat against the wall, taking a pull from Maddock’s tankard despite his protestations.
At the head of the table, Tom had seated himself as though he were holding court. Most of the actors were still wearing their stage make-up but Tom had wiped his face clean and Archie could see just how striking he was. He had a wide, square face and wonderful, thick eyebrows. His jawline was dotted with stubble over a wolfish grin.
“Squire Kennedy!” Tom yelled over the crowd as Archie approached. “We were afraid you’d decided not to join us!”
“At least Tom was,” Sally teased.
Archie felt himself blush. There was a feeling he couldn’t describe when Tom looked at him with those sharp eyes.
“May I introduce my cousins? Mr. Edward and Miss Emma Lindsay,” he said. “This is Mr. Tom Palmer, Miss Sally Siddons, and Mr. John Maddock.”
Sally tittered at Archie’s attempt at a formal introduction. Tom didn’t even bother to stand.
“A Navy man,” he said, appraising Ned’s uniform.
“Midshipman, His Majesty's Ship Berwick,” Ned said.
Tom looked delighted.
“If I‘d known you were going to bring such good-looking company, we would’ve invited you ages ago,” Sally smiled. She fluttered her lashes at Ned.
Maddock raised his drink.
“You were all very good,” Emma offered, squeezing between Archie and her brother. “Quite a performance.”
“You flatter us, Miss Lindsay,” Tom purred.
“Might I have a dance with the squire’s lady?” Maddock asked. He had appeared at Emma’s side and gave an uneven bow.
Emma didn’t know what to do. She’d probably never attended a party where dances didn’t involve cards and tutting aunts. “I, I think Mr. Kennedy would-”
“Go on,” Archie encouraged.
She looked to Ned who was shrugging with a grin.
Emma gave a helpless smile. She was too polite to refuse even an actor in a dingy public house. Maddock took her hand and pulled her away towards the music.
“I’m going to get a drink,” Ned said and patted Archie on the back.
“Have a seat,” Tom said once Archie was left on his own and he took Maddock’s empty chair.
“You ought to watch out for that girl,” Tom warned. He leaned in close so he could be heard over the noise and Archie could feel Tom’s nose graze his ear. “Maddock might eat her alive.”
He watched Emma and Maddock in the crowd of other dancers. The music was rollicking and the dancing was certainly more rowdy than Emma must have been used to. She was catching on quickly, though, and was soon laughing.
If only Archie’s father could see this scene: Emma Lindsay in a back street tavern dancing in the arms of a Welshman. An actor, no less. His Aunt Mary would certainly faint if she heard.
“Have a drink, lad!” Tom slid a glass in front of him. “Give us a toast, Mr. Kennedy!”
“To the company,” Archie suggested. He felt drunk already on euphoria alone.
Archie gulped down the liquor.
He could hear his father’s words about his duty and his family name and What Was To Be Expected of Him echoing through his mind. And here Archie was drinking gin and sitting far too close to another man. That was another sight that would have flared his father’s gout. He would probably leave Archie with a swollen jaw if he knew. It had happened before over lesser offenses.
His father could go to the devil.
Stirred from his thoughts, Archie felt Tom’s hand at the back of his neck between his queue and the fabric of his shirt. It was a gesture that could be interpreted as friendly, but it felt incredibly intimate to Archie. He now realized that he was equal parts excited and nervous.
“You know how to get into trouble,” Tom said in his ear.
Archie gave him a puckish grin.
“A lad after my own heart,” Tom said. Each time his lips grazed Archie’s ear it sent a wave of pleasure through him.
He refilled Archie’s glass. Archie could already feel the gin warming his cheeks but he took another drink of the medicinal liquor. He didn’t like the taste of gin, had never had to grow accustomed to it, but it was doing its duty in making him fuzzy.
“Is Mr Sheridan really going to come?” Archie asked. He had seen all of Sheridan’s plays and relished the thought of shaking the man’s hand.
“Perhaps,” Tom said, “after the receipts are counted.”
Across the taproom Ned was in conversation with Sally, sharing a bowl of punch. She was putting her hand over his sleeve as she laughed.
“Well, what did you think of our performance?”
“You were excellent, as always,” Archie said.
Archie felt Tom’s thumb trace a delicate line down the side of his neck. He eyed Archie up and down. Archie’s heart quickened. Tom reclined in his chair like a sultan of Arabia.
“It helps to have a good audience. When you know they’re enjoying it, you can really give your all,” Tom said.
Under the table, Tom took Archie’s hand and placed it on his thigh. Archie’s head swam. He’d forgotten all of his words like an actor that hadn’t studied his script. He licked his lips but he could only think of Tom’s. Tom’s eyes were now staring at the place that Archie’s tongue had just traced. He swallowed.
“Is that true?” He managed. He’d suddenly broken out in a cold sweat.
“Of course,” Tom said.
Tom continued talking but Archie couldn’t follow, couldn’t think of anything besides his own fingertips and what lay at the end of them. He concentrated all of his attention on staying perfectly still, like he was touching a sleeping lion.
On the dance floor, Emma spun around. She was clapping along in time with the music.
Archie had always admired Tom, had wanted to drink and talk with him. To be touched by him was beyond Archie’s wildest dreams. Now that it was more than a fantasy, it felt somehow dangerous. But there was danger in adventure, wasn’t there?
Archie moved his fingers, just slightly, over Tom’s breeches and the corner of Tom’s mouth curled up into a grin. Archie’s heart was pounding. Tom’s hungry eyes were making him light-headed.
Perhaps some drink would settle his nerves. He downed the glass in front of him.
“It’s deafening in here. You can hardly hear me speak. And I’m saying very interesting things!” Tom winked. “We can go if you’d like.”
Archie licked his lips again.
“Where?” He quavered.
Tom was so much older. Had he been with other men before?
“Anon!” Tom shrugged.
What would they do, he and Tom? What did men do together?
“I shouldn’t leave Miss Lindsay-”
Archie pictured what Tom’s body might look like underneath his clothes and not for the first time. He’d done it before, alone at night, under his blankets. Fear and desire tightened in Archie’s chest.
“She’s with her brother,” Tom said. His face had come very close to Archie’s.
It was that simple. Just slip out with him, go somewhere private or at least somewhere hidden. He could imagine Tom’s mouth on his own, firm and commanding. Tom would know what to do and all of Archie’s questions would be answered.
Archie felt Tom squeeze his thigh. His cravat had suddenly begun to choke him. He tried to take a deep breath but all he could smell was tobacco and gin.
“I shouldn’t,” Archie said, blinking nervously.
“The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks,” Tom purred. Archie loved hearing Tom recite Shakespeare but it in this moment felt obscene.
“I-” he felt dizzy, grasping for words.
“Alright, Squire Kennedy,” Tom said with a sigh. “We’ll stay right here.”
He poured more into Archie’s glass. For a moment, Archie felt relief, even a shade of disappointment. Then Tom’s hand wandered further up his thigh and Archie sprang out of his seat.
He couldn’t finish the sentence. He was already stumbling over the chairs and floundering towards the back door. If Tom had called after him, he couldn’t hear over the music and the shouting and the buzzing in his ears. He made his way, shaking, past the bar, and nearly tripped outside.
“Steady on, Archie!”
Archie gasped. It was Ned with an even hand on Archie's shoulder.
“You alright there?” Ned asked.
Archie tried to laugh but it sounded hollow. “Just need a little air.”
“It’s brimming in there. Berwick’s a ship of 700 souls and it hardly holds a candle to that crowd. Sit down, Archie,” Ned said.
Archie dropped down to the bench that stood across the facade of the tavern. It smelled awful in the little alley but the night air was cool and soothing on Archie’s clammy skin. He tugged at his collar.
“You’ll be fine,” Ned said and he rubbed Archie on the back. “Too much to drink.”
Archie was cursing himself. Too weak to deny his desire, too timid to follow through with it.
“Your friends are a bawdy bunch,” Ned laughed.
Archie was an idiot. Ned belonged in a better sort of place than this. And God only knew what Emma was getting up to. This little excursion would be circulating the gossips faster than Archie dared imagine. If he had any good reputation left, it was finished.
“You must forgive me for bringing you here,” Archie said. He had almost caught his breath.
Ned grinned, his cheeks ruddy with drink. “I’m rather enjoying myself,” he protested.
Archie was surprised to hear this.
“The men before the mast are just as unruly, perhaps worse,” Ned chuckled. “I just didn’t think you had a taste for that.”
“You think I’m as stuck-up as my father?” Archie asked.
Ned let out a big laugh. “Your father’s a right bastard, Kennedy!”
Now they were both laughing. It felt like a moment when they were boys together. Things were uncomplicated. It didn’t take long to remember their circumstances now.
“Shall we rejoin the party?” Ned asked, sensing Archie’s uneasiness.
Archie shook his head, blinked away the tears that were welling. “I think I’ve embarrassed myself.”
“In front of that lot? Impossible.”
Ned was probably right. Tom wouldn’t turn him away if he changed his mind. In fact, it would probably stroke his ego. But the thought of that made Archie’s heart start to pound again.
“I can see why you enjoy their company,” Ned told him.
Archie was afraid to hear the biting remark that would come next.
“You know, in the Navy, the men don’t care much about your name, your family, as long as you do your duty,” Ned finally offered. “There are lads that have come up from nothing. Could be a captain if they work hard enough.” He smiled ruefully. “You don’t have to pretend at anything with them. Same as your friends.”
Archie stared at him for a long moment, wide eyed and lips parted. What could Ned have understood about pretending? He had always been so popular, favored amongst the Lindsay children for being well behaved, witty, and studious.
In fact pretending was what Archie liked most about the theatre. When he was backstage, he could imagine he was someone else, no expectations, no shame in his unsuitable inclinations. Someone beloved.
“Perhaps if I were a better actor, I might be spared some misery.” Archie tried to sound lighthearted but he felt the words choking him.
Ned simply shook his head, his features had turned melancholy.
“It’s...difficult,” he whispered. “If you perform well enough, you might even fool yourself. But it’s just that. An act.”
Archie suddenly felt like he was looking at his cousin with new eyes, as if Ned had pulled off a mask to reveal a different face. No, it was Ned’s same, handsome, face, just tired and unsure.
“I always thought that if I did well by my name...I don’t know.” Ned looked at his hands. “I’m not who they want me to be. Not really.”
Archie felt his heart swell with longing as Ned looked at him with wistful eyes. Archie wanted to comfort him, though he had no words that would suffice. He had never been able to express it before, the inadequacy, the loneliness. Perhaps Ned could see it plainly on his face that they were one in the same.
Before Archie knew what he was doing, he found himself reaching out for Ned. It was the only way he could tell Ned that he wasn’t alone. He pressed his lips against Ned’s, both timid and tight. Ned didn’t stop him, didn’t withdraw. It was a swift, exhilarating sensation. Archie broke away, remembering himself, but Ned’s lips found his again with urgency.
It all came at him at once, the soft wool of Ned’s coat, the feeling of Ned’s hand on his cheek, the taste of liquor on his lips. Ned pushed against him, kissing him back, drawing him in. Archie felt like a bird that had just taken flight for the first time, clumsy and unsure at first but right, like he belonged in the sky.
Ned’s back thudded into the wall but he didn’t stop pulling Archie into him. His weight felt warm against Ned’s chest. Archie’s heart was beating fast. Not like before, he could hardly recall anything that happened before now. This was thrilling, shivers tingling over him from head to toe. He deepened the kiss and was welcomed, hungrier and wet and biting.
Just as the world had melted away, Archie heard a gasp and Ned froze. Archie’s eyes shot open. Untangling his mouth from Ned’s, he saw Emma just stepping off the threshold, her hand still on the doorframe. The color drained from her face as she halted, completely frozen except for the wide smile on her face that was quickly disappearing.
The three of them stood there, stock still, crystallized in their shock. It was a brutal, agonizing moment and Archie could not tell if it lasted just an instant or many hours. Archie knew exactly what she saw, there was no mistaking the scene for some innocent situation. There was her brother and her intended, wrapped in each others arms.
A new sick feeling crept up Archie’s throat, acidic and hot.
Eventually, Emma’s eyelashes fluttered like she could blink the image before her out of her eyes. Her eyes dropped to the ground and she swallowed hard. She opened her mouth but no sound came. Then she let out a little whimper and fled back into the tavern.
Ned pulled away, his face completely red, eyes clouded.
“Good god,” he murmured. He was shaking.
What had Archie done?
“I’m sorry,” Archie said but the word was just a hiss.
Ned shook his head, wiped his mouth with his open palm, and ran after Emma without giving Archie another look.
Archie stood paralyzed in his humiliation. He’d ruined them. All of them. Even poor Emma. There was no doubt the damage had been done. Bringing them to this groggery had been bad enough. But this, this couldn’t be explained away.
Even if Ned could talk to her, Emma was sure to be in hysterics for a fortnight. She would tell eventually even if she didn’t have words for it. How could he have done this to poor, sweet Emma?
And what would become of him?
Archie didn’t know if he could survive what waited for him at home. He doubled over, the gin coming up as quickly as it had gone down.
What would his father say when he heard?
Ned had been wrong. There was a reason for this act. It was dangerous for Archie to be himself. He was a fool for thinking otherwise, even for a second.
What would be done to him?
Archie stumbled out of the alley. He had nowhere to go but he certainly couldn’t stay here any longer.
Where could he go where he would be safe?
He couldn’t go back to the theatre, it didn’t feel like a haven anymore. He couldn't face Tom again.
Ned was so lucky. At least he could return to his ship and sail away, make a life for himself. Archie couldn’t just float away. Or could he?
Archie decided his course of action then and there. He would not return home, that much was already clear. He would write his father and tell him that he was joining the Navy, doing his duty for King and country. His father might disapprove, but at least it was an honourable thing to do.
And besides, he wouldn’t have to look at his disgraceful son over breakfast.
Archie would find a ship and he would live like a monk. He wasn’t sure if he was cut out for it but it was his only hope. Surely it would be better than returning to the torments that awaited him at the hands of his father.
Feeling weak and cold, he headed for the coach to Plymouth. The sky was just beginning to pale. Archie wondered how long he would be able to keep up this new act.