Strange applied himself to his work with more than usual diligence during Grant’s absence. The days seemed long in spite of this, and the nights brought dreams that left him stirred and troubled in body and mind. After that parting exchange with Grant, his dream-self was no longer content with kissing, but insisted on acting out all that he had imagined Grant and De Lancey to do together, and more. On the third day of Grant’s absence, Strange woke to find that he was on the point of spending, and could not stop. He had not been so fearfully roused by a dream since he was in his teens, and he could not shake off his feelings of humiliation for quite some time.
Had Grant intended their exchange to have such an effect on him? The idea seemed ever more unreal the longer he was away, and yet there could be no mistaking his intention to tease and provoke Strange’s imagination. If what you desire is new to me, I shall hope to have the pleasure of your instruction, he had said, with that glint in his eyes that made Strange feel breathless remembering it.
In truth, Strange doubted very much that he could instruct Grant in any thing. He felt sure that Grant was thoroughly experienced in these matters, and not only with De Lancey. The Colonel at least refrained from twitting Strange openly about Grant’s absence this time, though Strange was careful not to give him occasion to do so. De Lancey’s bearing towards him seemed friendlier than before, yet he still had an air of secret amusement that made Strange uncomfortable.
Some people would think De Lancey handsome, he supposed. Doubtless Grant did so. Strange had never particularly considered other men’s looks, and it had not occurred to him before to think of Grant as beautiful, yet the images of him that haunted Strange’s mind were distractingly so. Once he found himself sketching Grant’s profile on a page of his notebook, and tore it out in vexation: a grown man behaving like the heroine of a bad novel! And besides, the likeness was so very poor. Bell would have made a much better job of it.
To think of his wife in this connexion should have been a shameful thing, yet somehow it was not. It was as if that part of his affections had been numbed by their long separation and her continuing silence, or so he told himself. He did not want to admit that any thing could have displaced her in his affections, even temporarily, yet his thoughts for the time being were almost wholly occupied with the prospect of Grant’s return. He thought far too much about what he would say and do, and what Grant would say and do.
He felt like a child at school again, longing for the holidays that would take him to Charlotte-square and his Erquistoune cousins. This seemed a very odd comparison, yet it was the one that came to mind. He supposed it was the helplessness of knowing he could do nothing to make Grant’s return come faster. There was always the possibility that Grant might not return, of course; but that thought was one that he shied away from.
If nothing else had served to keep Grant in his mind, the pleasure of having eggs again would have done so by itself. Of course there were other claims on the eggs, and Strange could not always have as many as he would have liked; but the thought of Grant having gone to such trouble in order to please him was irresistibly sweet.
Perhaps it was the thought of the chickens that had him humming A Fox May Steal Your Hens, Sir – or perhaps it was the thought of the Erquistounes and the lawsuits which they and his father had waged over his dead mother’s fortune:
It ever was decreed, sir,
When lawyer’s hand is fee’d, sir,
He steals your whole estate.
One song brings on another, he found; at least he had no other explanation for humming that other song about foxes from The Beggar's Opera:
I like the fox shall grieve
Whose mate has left her side,
Whom hounds from morn to eve
Chase o'er the country wide.
Where can my lover hide?
How cheat the wary pack?
If love be not his guide,
He never will come back.
He had the sensation of being watched which he had often experienced with Grant, and looked up from his notebook. There was De Lancey, regarding him with a quizzical expression. Strange was extremely vexed to have been caught in the act of humming that particular song.
"A charming air," De Lancey said. "The Lass of Patie's Mill, is it not?"
That was the tune, of course; Strange had forgotten it had other words. But he felt De Lancey knew quite well which ones he had in mind.
"Grant played in The Beggar's Opera at school, did he ever tell you that?" De Lancey asked. "I believe that was one of his songs."
The thought of Grant playing Lucy Lockit was so unexpected that Strange did not know what to say to it.
"He was very young then, of course, and no doubt confoundedly pretty," De Lancey added, which did nothing to calm Strange's unsettled state of mind.
Apparently deciding he had teased Strange enough for one morning, De Lancey went away, and Strange attempted to return to his work. The intimacy, whatever it was, between Grant and De Lancey continued to pull at his mind; the best that could be said was that De Lancey did not seem to resent Grant's interest in Strange or to be jealous of it. In this, Strange thought gloomily, the Colonel was a better man than he was.
An hour later, with little progress to show for it, he found to his irritation that another of Lucy Lockit’s songs was stuck in his head. The tune was one of Purcell’s, he thought, If Love’s A Sweet Passion. This in itself was bad enough, but to imagine Grant as a schoolboy singing Lucy Lockit’s history of her education in love was worse:
I was kissed by the parson, the squire and the sot,
When the guest was departed, the kiss was forgot.
But his kiss was so sweet, and so closely he prest
That I languished and pined till I granted the rest.
Strange wondered jealously who had been the first to kiss Grant like that, to press him so closely that he granted the rest, whatever that might mean.
“Merlin.” He looked up to find De Lancey at his elbow again, holding a book.
“Colonel De Lancey,” he said stiffly, repressing an impulse to snap Oh, what now?
De Lancey grinned, as if he knew what Strange was thinking. Strange felt a strong desire to punch him on the nose.
“For you, I think,” De Lancey said, and handed him the book.
For a moment Strange thought it might be one of Norrell’s, and was furious with De Lancey for having taken it. On closer inspection, he realized it was not a volume he knew. It was bound in calfskin, and had the word AIRS stamped on the spine. He opened it cautiously at the title page: AIRS FROM THE BEGGAR’S OPERA. At the top right hand corner was scrawled, in a familiar hand, “Colquhoun Grant”.
“Grant lent it to me,” De Lancey said. “I don’t have any further need of it, but you may find it of value.”
There was so evidently an additional meaning in this utterance that Strange did not know what to say. He looked at De Lancey, seeking some clue to his intention, but his expression was as infuriatingly cheerful as ever.
“Truly, you are welcome to keep it,” De Lancey said, in the tone of one offering reassurance.
Grant did not feel reassured. This double conversation was unsettling, and he was vexed at himself for being so tongue-tied.
“What do you expect me to do with it?” he asked, and wished the words unsaid as soon as they were out of his mouth.
De Lancey laughed. “I am sure you can find a use for it. Good day to you, Merlin.”
He turned away, and left Strange staring at the book lying open in his hands.
The book was an unsettling gift, or loan – he was not altogether sure which it was. Alone in his tent, Strange turned the pages slowly, running his fingers along the lines of the music. Some airs he did not remember, and he wondered whether they had been cut from the productions of the Beggar’s Opera that he had seen in Edinburgh and in Bath, some years ago now. It would be pleasant to hear Grant perform them. He allowed himself briefly to imagine casting a spell on the book to make it sing to him in Grant’s voice, but the thought of someone overhearing this, especially at a time when Grant was known to be absent from the camp, made him turn first hot, then cold. When he tried to imagine how Grant’s voice would sound in these airs, he quickly fell into recollecting the times when Grant had sung to him, which filled him with such yearning that he was forced to think of any thing else. He avoided Lucy Lockit’s songs, and addressed himself steadily to those of Peachum and the highwaymen, which spoke of money rather than love. But from these it was only a short step to Macheath’s airs, and then the motive of love began to creep in again before he could well defend himself against it. In truth he could hardly remember any longer why he should defend himself: the idea of surrender seemed to promise such relief from the exhaustion of struggling against his own desires.
On the fourth morning of Grant’s absence, Strange was sitting on a hillside at the edge of the camp and busily engaged in constructing a spell to divert any roads along which the French would pass, to lead them into stony valleys or barren wastes. His mind was on his work, and he did not immediately notice what he was humming; perhaps it was the landscape before him, or perhaps it was the image of the shifting roads that had prompted him to start up Over The Hills And Far Away. He was used to dislike the tune, from hearing it played so often as a marching song, but the words that came to mind now were not those of the soldiers, but Macheath’s duet with Polly Peachum:
Were I laid on Greenland’s coast,
And in my arms embraced my lass,
Warm amidst th’eternal frost,
Too soon the half-year’s night would pass.
The clear morning air reminded him of the first time he had overheard Grant singing Robin Adair, and for the first time in many months Strange felt the impulse to lift his own voice in song:
“And I would love you all the day,
Every night would kiss and play,
If with me you’d fondly stray –”
“Over the hills and far away,” Grant’s voice chimed in, completing the chorus.
For a moment Strange thought he must unconsciously have cast that spell to make the book sing after all. He looked up and saw that it was Grant himself, dusty from riding, and looking very tired, but grinning from ear to ear.
“So you have found your voice at last, Merlin,” Grant said. “It is very good to hear you.” He dismounted and came towards Strange, who wondered how he had missed the sound of the horse’s approach.
“And you,” said Strange, aware that his face must be scarlet. “I have missed hearing you sing.”
Grant looked extremely pleased at this, but said nothing, though he looked as if he would like to say a great deal.
“De Lancey gave me your book of airs,” Strange said, as the silence stretched out between them.
“Did he?” said Grant, flushing slightly. “That was – I am glad of it.”
“It did not need that, to keep you in mind,” Strange said, before he could stop himself.
“You have been much in my mind as well,” said Grant. He stopped, and cleared his throat.
Even if no other obstacles presented themselves, Strange thought, the place was too exposed for them to continue this conversation with any ease.
“Your book is in my tent, if you would like to reclaim it after Lord Wellington is done with you,” he said, a little surprised at his own forwardness.
“I should like that, very much,” Grant said, with a look that made his pulse quicken. “But my report may take some time.”
“I am happy to wait,” said Strange. This was not entirely true, and both of them knew it, but what other choice was there? “Besides, I have a spell to finish,” he added, which was true, but sounded absurdly defensive.
“Yes, of course,” Grant said, though he seemed to be only half listening. “Until later, then.”
Strange watched him lead his horse away, and sat for a while staring at the landscape and trying to compose his scattered thoughts.
It was almost noon by the time Grant appeared in his tent. Strange had long since completed the spell for the roads, and had begun on one to make the French troops’ cooking-pots sprout holes when their contents reached sufficient heat. In his present distracted state he thought the spell quite likely to have some other effect – to make the pots burst into song, for example. No doubt this would disconcert the French for a time, but he did not like to think what Lord Wellington would say about it.
“Merlin,” Grant said, coming into the tent without waiting for permission. He was not smiling any more, and Strange’s heart sank. “We don’t have much time.”
“Is he sending you away again?” Strange burst out.
“Yes, but – ” Grant began.
“Damn the man!” Strange cried, vexed beyond endurance.
“Hush,” Grant said, in some agitation. “You must not say such things, Merlin, it is not safe.”
“I do not care,” Strange snapped, almost beside himself with frustration. “Damn W – ”
Grant clapped his hand over Strange’s mouth. “For the love of God, be quiet!” he said. “You’re coming with me.”
The shock of this was so great that Strange could scarcely take it in for a moment, and they stood like a pair of awkward statues, staring at each other. Grant’s hand was warm and dry and smelled faintly of soap. He made to take it away, but Strange clasped it with his own and pressed a kiss against his palm before letting go.
Grant drew his hand away slowly; his eyes were wide and dark.
“Wellington’s orders,” he said, rather breathlessly. He must be rattled, Strange thought, not to say Lord Wellington as usual. “Just you, not your man. How soon can you pack?”
“How long will we be gone?”
“Two days at least,” Grant said, “perhaps longer.”
One night, at least. “Please God we find a bed somewhere,” said Strange; the words spilled out before he knew the thought was there.
Grant gave him a wild look and kissed him, a quick clumsy kiss on the corner of his mouth. “Be ready when I come for you,” he said, and stumbled out of the tent without waiting for an answer.
“I shall,” Strange said, into the empty air. He hoped it was true, though he was dizzy and his hands were shaking. Over the hills and far away, and who knew what might happen before they returned?