All of Strange’s dreams since coming to the Peninsula had been of elsewhere – of home and being reunited with Bell, or of wandering in a land he had never seen in life, but knew to be Faerie, and which he could not afterwards have described.
This dream was different: it was as close as a dream could be to the truth of memory, which made it all the more confusing. He was aware that he was dreaming, and that he must soon wake up, though he felt a great reluctance to do so.
In the dream he was with Grant, as they had been last night, talking by the fire, and Grant was leaning very close to him, so close that Strange felt they must be on the point of exchanging a kiss. His dream self desired this more than any thing, and could think of nothing else but how it would feel: a slow, searching kiss that would taste of wine and tobacco smoke, the ardent pressure of Grant’s tongue against his lips and how he would open his mouth to take him in, how he would open his arms and pull Grant closer still, press against him, so close he could feel the heat of his body through his clothes. He knew in the dream that the kiss and what followed would undo him irrevocably and he did not care, he wanted –
Strange woke up, hot and trembling, gasping for breath. His mouth was open and pressed against the heel of his hand. He had an erection, a thing that had not happened on waking for longer than he could well remember. He felt thick-headed and confused, though he knew he had not been drunk last night. What in God’s name had Grant done to him, that such desires should invade his dreams? And what would Grant think if he could see Strange now, in such a state from dreaming about him? The thought made him groan aloud, careless of who might hear him.
He knew, very clearly, that the one thing he must not do was to frig himself and think of Grant, however much he might wish to. There would be no going back from that; he would not know how to look Grant in the eye afterwards. It was bad enough that he would have to encounter Grant this morning, while the rags of his dream still clung to him. Sweating and cursing, he got out of bed, stripped to the skin and washed in cold water in an attempt to quell his arousal. The attempt failed wretchedly; if any thing it seemed to make matters worse. He cursed again and dressed himself, determining to ignore his rebellious body.
The memory of last night’s conversation appeared fantastical to him now, as if becoming part of his dream had coloured it with unreality. He wondered what Grant made of it all, or whether he even remembered their exchange, given that he had been drinking. It seemed to him that Grant’s singing might give some clue to his mood, and this idea came as a relief.
So accustomed had Strange become to hearing Grant’s songs that the slow realization of their absence that morning struck him like the removal of a familiar landmark. He looked around in perplexity and disquiet, wondering if some accident had befallen Grant, or if he was merely not in the mood for singing that day. Both of these thoughts made him uneasy, and he determined to go in search of Grant, without in the least knowing what he would say to him when they met.
“Good morning to you, Merlin,” De Lancey called to him from the entrance of the quartermaster’s stores.
“Good morning,” replied Strange, rather distractedly. “Is Major Grant with you?”
“Not he,” De Lancey said, with an air of amusement not altogether comfortable to Strange. “He was gone before first light, when most of these idle fellows were still fast asleep.”
“Oh,” Strange said stupidly. What could be more natural than for the Major to have ridden out on some mission of reconnaissance? There was nothing in that to cause any one surprise, yet it had not occurred to him.
De Lancey raised an eyebrow, and smiled again. “Now I think of it,” he said, “he asked me to – what was it now? – make his adieux to you, I believe, or perhaps it was to send you his compliments. The fellow is becoming absurdly ceremonious in his old age.”
Strange did not well know what to make of this. He was sure De Lancey was teasing him, but not certain how far that might extend. “Indeed?” he said, colouring under De Lancey’s ironic gaze. “Perhaps there is something odd in the water in this part of the country. Good day to you, Colonel.”
It seemed unlikely that De Lancey would invent a message if Grant had not left one for him, but there was no way of knowing what the message truly was; it would do no good to ask De Lancey, who was clearly bent on frustrating his curiosity. Strange did not like the sound of make his adieux; the phrase had a note of finality he had not considered before in relation to Major Grant. He knew better than to ask where Grant was gone, or for how long. There was nothing for it but to wait.
Strange found himself increasingly impatient for Grant’s return over the next two days. He had not expected to be waiting for any thing here, other than a letter from Arabella, or for the defeat of Napoleon and the chance to return home, and this new uncertainty was an unwelcome distraction. De Lancey’s amusement rankled with him; he did not know what it meant, but suspected it was nothing good. It was quite possible that Strange was merely the latest in a long line of men whom Major Grant had liked in this way. He wondered if the others had also exposed themselves to ridicule by enquiring after Grant from his superior officer, and thought that probably they had had more sense.
“Damn and blast!” he exclaimed, and transfigured his tobacco pouch into a large toad.
The toad eyed him reproachfully and hopped away into the bushes.
Reflecting that he had now lost his tobacco did nothing to improve Strange’s temper; there was no reason to suppose the transformation would not be permanent, and no way of knowing when he would next have a chance of acquiring fresh supplies.
Major Grant’s return brought neither tobacco nor tranquillity. He had been at Calorico, where he reported that the roads Strange had made had disappeared before Beresford’s soldiers had finished with them, and his request that Merlin should set about having visions to prevent a repetition of this occurrence grated on Strange’s nerves. Happily for all concerned, whatever Strange would have said to this proposal was rendered unnecessary by Lord Wellington, who remarked briskly that the troops must simply keep up, and bent his attention to the more urgent question of the 4th’s current position on the wrong side of a river.
“Merlin, can you not arrange for the 4th to sprout wings and fly across the French?” he demanded.
Strange was not quite sure whether his lordship was joking, but thought it best to answer as if he was in earnest, expressing his scepticism about the enterprise.
Joking or not, Wellington was clearly much taken with the idea of winged soldiers, and reluctant to abandon it. “Grant here, for example,” he persisted, “I have a great desire to see Major Grant sprout wings and flutter about.”
Grant looked as if he was trying hard not to laugh, while De Lancey was openly amused. Strange, who was still extremely irritated with Major Grant for his earlier remarks about roads and visions, did not join in the laughter. He protested that it would take too long to make each man sprout wings, and offered to move the river instead.
“Well,” said his lordship in high good humour, “clearly the best thing from now on is for the army to stay where they are while Merlin moves Spain about beneath their feet. Carry on.”
Strange found himself almost at once regretting his proposal to move the river; he had no idea how to perform such a feat of magic, which had not been done since 1302. No one seemed to appreciate how difficult his position was: his best efforts were referred to by Wellington as “your tricks”, or met with ingratitude and complaints. In addition to this, he was fretted almost beyond endurance on perceiving that Jeremy had received another letter from home, while he had still heard nothing from Arabella. All of these vexations so wrought on his nerves that he snapped outright at Jeremy when the latter confessed his inability to boil Strange some eggs because “Eggs require chickens, sir.” Jeremy’s clumsy attempts after that to comfort him about the continuing absence of any letters from Mrs Strange only made him feel worse.
Arabella had joked once about being glad she had married him for his money, not his sense of humour. He had been sure then that she was joking, but as the period of his absence and her silence stretched over weeks and months, he had begun to feel a cold sense of doubt about her affection for him. He knew that if something had happened – if she had died – he would have heard. Henry, or Sir Walter, would have found a way to get word to him. Why did she not write? His father had always said she could not love him for himself. Perhaps nobody could. How unlovable must a man be whose wife did not write to him at all during a six months’ absence, now stretching to seven?
His temper was not improved by a conversation between De Lancey and Grant before dinner, on the subject of Wellington’s wish to see Grant sprout wings.
“Cupid had better look to his bow and arrows,” De Lancey teased. “I dare say Merlin would give you wings if you asked him nicely; they would suit you charmingly.”
“Be quiet,” Grant said, in a tone of command that surprised Strange greatly from a junior officer to his superior.
“Or else what?” De Lancey said, with a wicked grin. He looked over Grant’s shoulder at Strange, and Grant turned, clearly not having realized Strange was there. Grant flushed, and looked discomfited on seeing him.
Strange wondered what this exchange meant - there seemed to be more in it than mere raillery. A vivid image of Grant and De Lancey disporting themselves together flashed into his mind, and he felt hot all over. No wonder De Lancey had laughed at him. He was so angry that he could hardly breathe.
“Are you coming to dinner, Mr Strange?” Grant asked.
The formality might have been born of embarrassment, but to Strange it was intolerable.
“No, I thank you,” he said coldly. “I seem to have lost my appetite.”
He turned away, not listening to whatever Grant was saying, and strode off to sulk in his tent.
Strange lay down upon his bed, feeling sick at heart. He heard the call to mess, but what he had said to Grant was true: he could not have swallowed a mouthful, though he had been asking Jeremy for eggs so little time before.
He thought of Grant’s tone of command and De Lancey’s sauciness in reply, and his face scalded with heat. Did De Lancey like to play at being disciplined? Did Grant take his hand to him, or his riding-crop? Did he bend De Lancey over a table, or put him across his knee like a naughty child? Did he reward him for obedience by pleasuring him with his mouth or his hands?
Strange’s skin felt hot and too tight. He was shamefully hard from these gross imaginings, and vexed beyond measure at his treacherous brain, which tormented him with images of the Colonel on his knees before the Major, sucking his cock with feverish eagerness, or of the two men naked and entwined together in some vast ornate hotel bed.
He told himself that he did not want these things with Grant, that what games Grant and De Lancey chose to play were their own affair and not his, and that he had no right to be jealous. Yet he knew that what knotted in his gut like a nest of serpents was jealousy. Jealousy, and the shame of having given himself away to De Lancey with his enquiries after Grant, for all the world like a lovesick schoolboy.
It was growing dark outside; he did not know how long he had been lying there, staring into space and watching the procession of obscene images pass and repass before his eyes. His erection had subsided some time since, through weariness and humiliation. He longed for sleep, but sleep had been fitful and elusive since that conversation by the fire with Grant. He was ragged with exhaustion, at the very edge of his endurance.
He heard footsteps, and voices: the officers coming away from dinner. One set of footsteps stopped outside his tent, and he heard a voice – Grant’s voice – begin to sing, softly but clearly:
The water is wide; I cannot get o’er,
And neither have I wings to fly –
Strange winced at that; he felt the song was ill chosen, though he did not think it was meant in mockery.
Give me a boat that shall carry two, Grant went on,
And both shall row, my love and I.
O down in the meadow the other day,
A-gathering flowers both fine and gay
A-gathering flowers both red and blue,
I little thought what love can do.
He had known what love could do, but not looked to find it here. And then he had thought he was loved, and the thought had split him open with longing, leaving him soft and defenceless like a crab out of its shell. To glimpse the possibility of love, only to have it taken from him, so abruptly and in such humiliation, was more than he could bear.
I leaned my back up against an oak, Grant sang on,
Thinking that he was a trusty tree,
But first he bended and then he broke,
And so did my false love to me.
Strange knew he had no right to accuse Grant of playing him false: it was not as if Grant had promised him any thing, or even spoken of love. The whole business might be merely a figment of his own love-hungry imagination, and yet he could not think it was. He wished again that he knew what message Grant had really left for him with De Lancey. There was a simple way to find out, but he could not bring himself to take it.
Grant’s voice stole through him, filling him with yearning. He longed to go to him, and yet he could not do it. He lay still, waiting for the song to be over, and clenched his fists so tight that he thought his nails must have drawn blood, but it was not so.
There was silence for a moment after the song ended, and then he heard Grant say, very quietly, “Merlin.”
Strange did not answer. If he opened his mouth, he thought, he would say some terrible thing that neither he nor Grant would be able to forget, or, worse, he might begin to cry and be unable to stop.
“Merlin?” Grant said again, a little louder this time. Strange heard him sigh. After a while he heard footsteps departing.
Strange buried his face in his pillow with a low groan, and tried to think of nothing. Weariness overcame him, and sleep came down on him at last like a thick heavy blanket.
“Sir,” Jeremy’s voice said in his ear. “Wake up, sir. There are eggs.”
“Eggs?” Strange said, sitting up so abruptly he felt dizzy.
“Yes, sir. Major Grant brought them.”
“Eggs!” Strange exclaimed, delighted.
He could hardly believe it. They were done just the way he liked them, and he had eaten two in his shirt before he took in the rest of Jeremy’s news.
“Major Grant brought them, you say?”
“Yes, sir. Lord knows where he found them, or the chickens. There are three chickens,” Jeremy said, with an air of satisfaction.
“Oh!” said Strange. “Where is he now?”
“Packing to go off again, sir,” said Jeremy, “but I think he’s not gone yet.”
Strange pulled on the rest of his clothes in haste, buttoning them all anyhow, and went to find Grant before he could change his mind about doing so.
Grant was standing by his horse, fastening his saddlebags. His face lit up on seeing Strange, but then a more cautious look came over it, as if he thought Strange might still be angry with him. In truth Strange was not sure about this himself.
“I believe I have you to thank for the eggs,” he said. “You must have ridden out very early to get them. And the chickens.”
“It was nothing,” said Grant, rather stiffly. “A small return for what you do. I thought that I – that we – perhaps do not show you enough appreciation. It is difficult work, and the conditions are not what you have been used to.”
“I was – I have been – not in the best of tempers of late,” Strange confessed, though this could hardly be news to Grant.
“It is a lonely life for you, I know,” said Grant. “Forgive me – I could not help overhearing what you said to your man yesterday.”
“It was a day for that!” Strange said, wincing at the recollection of Grant’s exchange with De Lancey and what had followed. He felt some annoyance at the idea of Grant listening to his conversation with Jeremy, yet there was a pleasure in being the object of his attention.
“I am sorry you had to hear that conversation,” Grant said, flushing. “De Lancey and I should not have –”
“What you and Colonel De Lancey do together is none of my affair,” Strange said. As a statement of indifference it sounded remarkably unconvincing, even to him.
Grant raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. He looked steadily at Strange, and there was a warmth in his expression that made Strange’s pulse quicken.
“And now you are going away again,” said Strange.
“And you have a river to move,” Grant said, still with that same disturbing look.
“The water is wide,” Strange said with some bitterness. “Indeed, your song was most apt.”
He realized too late that he had given himself away without meaning to, but Grant did not reproach him for having pretended to be asleep.
“Not all of it, I hope,” Grant said. “It is a sad song.”
“So many of yours are,” Strange protested.
“I would gladly sing you a happier one, if you choose to name it,” Grant said.
There was an uncharacteristic shyness in the offer, as if he expected to be rebuffed. Strange was moved by it, and vexed at himself for being so. Worse still, he could not call a single song to mind.
“I do not know what to ask you for,” he said, thinking he sounded like a peevish child.
Grant smiled at him, but so kindly that Strange could not take offence. “Do you not?” he asked. “Well, it will not spoil with keeping, whatever it is. You may ask me for it when you will. As the Genii say in the Arabian Nights, your wish is my command.”
Strange could think of no reply to this excepting a very coarse jest about rubbing the Major’s lamp; from the expression of suppressed amusement on Grant’s face, this jest had occurred to him as well. The conversation was rapidly becoming impossible.
“Oh, is that so?” Strange said, taking the war into the enemy’s camp. “What will you do if my wish is for a song you do not know?”
“If what you desire is new to me,” Grant said, with a glint in his eyes, “then I shall hope to have the pleasure of your instruction.”
This was such an evident and shameless provocation that Strange could not forbear laughing at it, and Grant joined him.
“I am glad we part friends, at least,” Grant said.
“So am I,” said Strange, and found it was true. “Will you shake hands?” he asked impulsively.
“Certainly, if you wish it,” Grant said, a little surprised.
Grant’s hand was warm and strong: Strange felt a shock of pleasure at the sensation. He knew he should let go again, but the way Grant was looking at him made him feel as if he was falling through water, or dreaming of doing so.
“I wish you well for your mission,” he said hoarsely.
“And I you,” Grant said, letting go of his hand.
Strange watched him mount his horse and ride away. The sensation of Grant’s touch lingered as it had done before, but worse; he felt as if some alteration had happened to his hand, as if it was not the same any more.
He shook his head, as if that could clear it of these thoughts. Then he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and set off to move a river.