“Francis, what is this?”
James appears in the sitting room doorway, his head cocked coyly to one side, a sheet of letter paper in his hand. He’d come in late from Brighton, forgoing supper in favour of a brushing a fleeting kiss to Francis’ cheek before disappearing upstairs for a bath. Now, in jacquard dressing gown and pointed Persian slippers, he saunters across the room, an amused and dangerous light in his eyes.
Francis lays aside his copy of The Westminster Review. “It’s nothing,” he says, making a hopeless stab at disdain.
James slides onto the arm of Francis’ chair, smelling of bergamot and oakmoss, and looks down at Francis quizzically, a half-mocking smirk dancing on his face.
“You have been at my books,” he says, “which you’ve a perfect right to do — though, to my knowledge, have never done before. You have found a small volume of Jacobean metaphysical poetry, and you have copied out rather a long poem in your own indifferent hand—do not argue, my heart,” he chides, as Francis shifts indignantly in the chair, “I have found five mispellings which John Donne certainly did not make — and you have left it for me on my pillow.” James bares his teeth in earnest now: a wondering, delighted smile. “Each of these things in isolation would be strange enough, but taken together an enquiring mind, like my own, might begin to wonder what the devil has come over you.”
“I missed you,” Francis grumbles, speaking to the crackling grate.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I missed you,” Francis says again and turns his head; belligerent, furious at his own foolishness, at James’ mischief, at the gleam in his greenish eyes.
“Dearest.” James squints at him. “I’ve only been gone five days.” He rises in a single, sleek movement and catches Francisʼ hand, dragging him upright. “Was it such a trial?”
“Yes,” says Francis, meaning it.
James kisses him then, one hand at the nape of his neck, but pulls away when Francis tries to twine an arm around his silk-clad waist. “I should like you to read it to me,” he says, pressing the piece of paper to Francis’ breast.
Francis takes the paper but waves the suggestion away. “No, James.”
“What a man commits to writing he must be prepared to say out loud,” says James, clasping Francis sternly by the elbows. “Surely your schoolmasters taught you that much, even if the captain of the Hamadryad did not.”
He deposits himself on the sofa and lounges back against the cushions, long legs folded. Francis glares at him, but receives nothing in return save an insouciant smile.
“I own it was meant to be read, James,” he says darkly, “but by you alone — and to yourself.”
“A fine gesture,” says James, “it being one of my favourites.” He fusses with the fabric of his dressing gown, arranging the black and gold about himself, demure as a dowager preening in an opera box. “But I would like to hear it — from your own lips. In your own fine voice.”
“Fine, indeed.” Francis’ voice is a mongrel thing: twisted Banbridge vowels flattened first in the schoolroom and then at sea, as much by mockery as by instruction. He feels it still too soft and yet too rough; uneven, unseemly, announcing his origins whether he desires it to or not.
“Very fine,” says James firmly, clasping his hands together in his lap, “and very lovely. Why don’t you begin?”
Francis clears his throat, vacillates a moment on the carpet, looks around at his vacated chair. “May I at least sit down?”
“No,” says James. “Let me look at you.”
So Francis plants his feet, as he might on the pitching deck of a ship, tugging the front of his waistcoat down. He brings the paper to his face, clears his throat and begins, stumbling a little over the words.
“Come, madam, come; all rest my powers defy; until I labour, I in labour lie. The foe oft-times having the foe in sight is tired with standing, though they never fight.” He raises an eyebrow at James. “This is irredeemable smut, I suppose you know?”
James’ thin mouth curves into a smile. “Oh, I know. Carry on.”
“Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering, but a far fairer world encompassing.” Francis’ eyes rest on the cord of James’ dressing gown, the seamanlike knot at his waist, the tassels resting in his lap. “Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear, that th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.”
Now he contemplates the collar of James’ nightshirt, the red-on-white embroidery, the mother of pearl buttons. But he thinks, too, of the bodice of a certain dress: deep blue with tiny stars, like dewdrops on a cobweb. The soft feel of velvet and the stiffness of baleen; an impossible contrast, like ice-burn under Francis’ hands.
He clears his throat again and continues to read, the room seeming warmer than it did before. “Off with that happy busk whom I envy — that still can be, and still can stand so nigh.” Francis pushes aside thoughts of a drawer upstairs, where corsets lie quietly folded, their strings and ribbons slack, and says, “That’s a pun, is it not? To be so close and yet… upright.”
“It is,” says James. “Twice over, I should have thought.”
“Too clever by half,” mutters Francis. “I’ve never held with poetry, James.”
“Perhaps we should desist, in that case.” James feints a rise from the sofa but Francis puts out his hand.
“Bide, James, bide.” Though he reddens as he says it, shifting from foot to foot like a schoolboy. “The task is underway, now, at any rate.”
“Is it such a penance?” James’ mouth is working, his eyes large and dark; doubtful.
“Not so much,” says Francis. “Not at all,” he adds, wanting to chase that doubt away.
It’s only that he hates to be a spectacle, to be so visible, to be so closely watched. He feels unarmoured in his shirtsleeves, shoeless, standing here as though piped from below by the bosun’s whistle. This is Jamesʼ realm: to be the centre of deserved attention, to be admired.
But the sentiment had been sincere enough last night, when Francis was sleepless without James fidgeting at his side and had gone poking among his bookshelves by candlelight, landing upon calf-skin binding, a well-thumbed page. He’d felt husbandly, uxorious: copying out the arcane words with a careful pen, leaving the sheet of paper on James’ pillow the next morning, awaiting his return.
Francis reads on, undisturbed, save for the weight of James’ gaze upon him, a gentle pressure. When he comes to the lines, “Licence my roving hands, and let them go,” he has to swallow, and then go on. “Behind, before, above, between, below.”
He looks up to find James less at ease than once he was: his lips twitched to one side, nostrils flared, chest rising and falling beneath the folds of his clothes. Francis feels a shiver trace its fingers up his spine.
“Francis, come here.”
Francis goes, as he always does, when called. He sits, but does not cease his reading. “Oh my America,” he says, as one of James’ hands steals into his own, “my new-found land, my kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned.”
James curls against him, rests his chin on Francis’ shoulder, sighs a warm breath against his neck.
“My mine of precious stones, my empery; how blest am I in thus discovering thee.”
“Quite right,” says James, kissing Francis’ temple.
“James, you must let me finish,” says Francis, in as dour a voice as he can muster, though he can’t keep a smile from opening across his face.
“Oh, wicked man,” says James, but softly, in his ear.
“To enter in these bonds is to be free; then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.” Francis hooks his hand around James’ knee; the tender flesh behind the joint, where it sometimes aches. “Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee; as souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be.”
James’ fingers are at Francis’ collar, loosening his cravat, pulling it from the confines of his shirt. Francis reads on, barely parsing the words, voice uneven as James unbuttons his waistcoat one-handed and slides it from his shoulders. He slithers out of his own outer layer, the empty dressing gown like the shimmering skin of a great snake: leaving James new and clean without it, long planes of water-softened skin, yards of fine pale linen.
“Then since I may know—” Francis’ reading is at last interrupted, as James climbs over him, bare knees bracketing his hips. “James, you are incorrigible.”
“Hush,” says James, applying himself to the farther side of Francis’ neck. “Keep reading.”
“I cannot very well do both,” says Francis, which makes James pull his hair. Francis smacks his thigh, and hears James’ breath catch in his chest. He holds the letter paper to one side and turns his head to read. “Then since I may know, as liberally as to a midwife, show thyself.”
“You’d make an appalling midwife.”
“Cast all, yea, this white linen hence; there is no penance, much less innocence.” Francis raises his eyebrows at James. “Off with it, then,” he says, plucking at the hem of his nightshirt.
James narrows his eyes. “Finish the poem.”
“Francis.” James’ tone brooks no negotiation; his hands are at Francis’ collar again, gripping his shoulders.
Francis swallows, and obeys. “To teach thee, I am naked first.”
“Do you see?” says James. “There is an order to proceedings — it must be followed.”
“Why then,” Francis reads, “what needst thou have more covering than a man? ”
He meets James’ eyes and finds them black, a glow like firelight in his cheeks.
“An excellent question,” murmurs James, mouth achingly close to Francis’ parted lips. “Don’t you agree?”