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i: In Which Tristan Jarrett Does Not Fall

Barringford, Cumberland, January 1803

 

"Penrith!"

The Honourable Mr Tristan Jarrett turned in the saddle to see his father striding across the frosty yard from the stables, his angry expression marking one of his lordship's bad days. Tristan turned back to his brother. "Why does Father call you Penrith, David?" he asked. "I have been wondering for ever."

"It is my title, Tris," David replied as he bent to adjust Tristan's left stirrup.

"Well, I know that. But why does he not call you by your name?"

"I don't know," David said quietly. "It is just his way. Hold the reins. Sit calmly." He stroked Dauntless' neck, then turned and made a bow to their father. "Sir."

"Penrith, it is not the duty of a viscount to teach small boys to ride!"

"No, sir. Of course not. I was only helping my brother up into the saddle. He already knows how to ride, don't you, Tristan?" David turned and gave Tristan a wink.

"Yes." Tristan wanted to canter across the yard in proof of this, but David had told him to sit calmly, so that was what he did. David said there was a point at which, in settling upon a horse's back, one was as steady as one could be, and that it was the ability to find that point and always return to it that made a real horseman. Tristan found it now.

If his lordship the Earl of Barringford observed his younger son's excellent seat, he did not comment upon it, but only barked, "Where is that fellow? What's his name? The riding master."

Tristan said, "Mr North does not come back until February, Father."

"You, sir!" his father shouted. Tristan observed in some trepidation that his face was growing very red. "I was not addressing myself to you. You will remain silent until spoken to, do you hear me?"

"Yes, sir."

Dauntless tossed his mane. David leant toward Tristan and said out of the corner of his mouth. "Do not distress yourself, Tris. He'll be gone in a moment."

"Is that not your horse, Penrith?" their father bellowed.

"It is one of them, sir."

"What is the boy doing up on him?"

"He is eight years old, sir. He cannot go on riding a pony forever. And he is very tall for his age. He has grown while I've been away at school."

After another disapproving remark or two, his lordship the Earl of Barringford could not find anything farther to cavil at in his sons' riding, and strode away across the yard toward the kennels, his approach triggering joyous barking from within. Tristan watched him leave with a sense of relief. Lord Barringford was less surly to his dogs than to his sons, and Tristan had concluded some time ago that the dogs must do less to displease him.

"Try not to let him upset you, Tristan," David said. "I think Mama's confinement worries him."

"It ought to worry him!" Tristan said.

"Tris, do not speak so. Father's sharp words are more than enough for everyone."

Tristan understood a confinement to be very dangerous for his mama, and mention of the subject caused him a deep dread. He took a deep breath and let it out, reminding himself of the new brother or sister he was supposed to have at the end of this ordeal. David said that a horse could tell when its rider was agitated (Mr North declared this to be patent nonsense), and Tristan felt that was reason enough to learn to be calm.

"Now, then, Tris, what is the first thing you must remember?"

"To know my horse."

"And what do you know of Dauntless?"

"Well, that he is your horse, David."

David laughed. "He is, but he knows you, and he is not so spirited that he will object to a good rider like you upon his back! What else?"

Tristan looked out over the top of David's head toward the frosty fields of Barringford. "He is very tall!"

"He seems so now. One day, I wager, you will ride an even taller horse. If you grow into those enormous feet of yours, you will be taller than all of us. Do not let Dauntless' height trouble you. Never fear your horse, Tristan. Respect him, let him know that he can trust you to direct him, and you will both be at your best."

Tristan was not perfectly certain what David meant by all of this, but because David said it, he listened. David was the best horseman in all of Cumberland--maybe in all of England--and Tristan did not care that Mr North called his horsemanship wild and ungentlemanlike. He loved to see his brother ride.

"And what is the second thing to remember?" David asked him.

"Ignore what Mr North says and do what you have shown me."

"Good man! Let me see you direct Dauntless to walk around the paddock."

Tristan pressed with his thighs and Dauntless began to move, shoulders and haunches rolling as iron-shod hooves struck the frozen ground. Once they had crossed the stable yard and entered the paddock, Tristan pressed again, and clicked with his tongue, and Dauntless broke into a canter.

"Tristan! Wait!" David called, sounding alarmed.

"David, do not be such a scold! I know how to ride. You have just said so yourself." Tristan wanted to laugh at the way Dauntless' cantering motion made his voice bounce out of him in pieces. When he had cantered halfway around the great paddock and was on the point of leaving it for the open fields beyond, he looked back and saw David leap up onto Bellator in the stable-yard, and urge him into a trot.

Snow was beginning to fall in earnest now, and Tristan knew there might be no more occasion to ride before David went back to Eton. He leant low over Dauntless' neck and said, "How would you like to run?" and, quite as if he understood English, Dauntless shook his long grey mane. Tristan turned his heels in and gave a shout, and Dauntless stretched out joyfully into a gallop.

Tristan was flying. Dauntless thundered out of the paddock and into the open grazing land of Barringford. Sheep bleated and scattered in his wake. Tristan hung on with his knees and matched the horse's rhythm with his body. David was shouting behind him, and he could hear Bellator's hooves pounding closer. Tristan glanced over his shoulder. David was gaining on him, looking terrified.

"Tristan! Rein in! Slow down!"

Tristan looked ahead again and saw the low stone wall just before Dauntless took it at top speed. His stomach dropped and everything seemed to go completely silent as he sailed over the obstacle on Dauntless' arching back. Then Dauntless came down, fore-hooves striking the ground with a force that made Tristan's teeth clack together and almost caused him to lose his seat. He found his bearings again, reined Dauntless in with a soothing word, and turned to see David coming over the wall on Bellator, his face white, his coat flapping behind him.

Bellator had barely come to a stop when David was leaping down and running to him. "Tristan! Are you hurt?"

Tristan looked at him curiously. "No, David. Of course I'm not hurt. I did not fall off my horse."

David reached up and hauled Tristan down out of the saddle as if he were a little boy. "Do not do such a stupid thing again!" he shouted, shaking Tristan's shoulders. "You could have been killed, you idiot!"

"David!" Tristan pulled away from his brother's grip in some annoyance. "I am not a baby."

"You are! You are just a stupid baby who can't obey the simplest instructions!" David knelt in front of him in the mud and shook him again.

"But David! I did not fall off! And did you see? How we jumped over that wall? It was like flying!"

David's face, rosy now from his exertions, and his relief, and the cold winter air, broke into a reluctant smile, though he tried to hide it. "It was very good. Wouldn't Mr North just have an apoplexy!"

"What's an apo--apoplexy?" Tristan asked.

"It means he would fume, and frown, and become very angry and red in the face."

"Like Father?"

"Something like Father, yes." David laughed and pulled Tristan's woollen scarf up around his ears. Tristan squirmed away. "You must be more careful," David said, growing grave again. "That was a lucky jump. You could have just as easily broken your neck."

Tristan wanted to argue, but David was very serious. "I will be more careful, David," he promised.

"Good. Then we shall canter back to the stables together. Not gallop. Idiot." David went back to Bellator and swung himself up into the saddle.

"You are just afraid that I shall grow up to be a better horseman than you."

"I am no such thing, brat!"

"You are." Tristan smoothed his rumpled coat, snugged his gloves more firmly over his cold hands, and looked up at Dauntless. "I say. David?"

"Yes, Tristan?"

"Will you give me a leg up, please?"



ii: In Which John Acklebury Draws The Sun

Winchester, February, 1803

 


"Maître Jean, veuillez remettre vos dessins maintenant. Votre père a demandé votre présence."


"Très bien, Mademoiselle. J'y vais."

At Mademoiselle Claude's request, John Acklebury put aside his pencil. He was attempting to draw a lion. Having never seen a lion, but only pictures of them, he was unsure of what he was doing, but he had lately read descriptions of lions in an article about the exploration of Africa that had appeared in one of Uncle Martin's periodicals, and supposed that, as lions were great cats, he might as well start with an ordinary cat and make it more ferocious. It was not proceeding as he had hoped, for Sir Lancelot, the housekeeper's inaptly-named feline, was a poor model of ferocity, preferring a nap by the fire to every other activity. John carefully turned the drawing over and got up.

He suffered his governess to smooth his hair and straighten his coat, then left the schoolroom to descend to his father's study on the ground floor. The bells of the cathedral clock tolled the quarter-hour, and from the quality of the winter light coming in at the window, John supposed that it might be a quarter past two, or possibly a quarter past three. He had been intent upon his drawing, and had not noticed which hour had recently struck.

"Ah, John. Come here, please," his father said as John entered the study. The Reverend Doctor George Acklebury put down his pen and favoured him with a serious smile. John crossed the carpet to the desk behind which his father seemed perpetually to be writing, when he was not delivering one of his sermons. "You may sit down."

John took a seat in the chair next to his father's desk. His feet touched the floor now. He had perched upon that chair to hear his father's instruction, his praise, his advice, and, upon rare occasions, his censure, all through those of his twelve years that he could recall.

"At your baptism, nearly twelve years ago now, your mama and I made a solemn vow on your behalf, that you and Margaret would be raised to obey the laws of God and the Church, and to follow a path of righteousness."

John refrained from pointing out that he already knew this, for his father always showed disappointment when John forgot his manners so far as to interrupt the speech of another. John looked at his father's face and noted the similarity between the shape of his nose and that of Uncle Martin, who had lately been visiting.

"Now that you and Margaret are old enough to understand what this means, and what your duties are as Christians, tomorrow you are to be confirmed."

John stopped examining the features of his father's face when he realised that it must be his turn to speak, and said, "Yes, Papa. We have been studying for our confirmation this age."

The Reverend Doctor laughed gently. "I am sure it seems an age to you, son. I believe you have been studying for four months now. Please tell me what the bishop will ask you to declare."

"That we...well, that we promise to keep the vows you and Mama made for us at our baptism."

"That is right. And what will the bishop then do?"

John thought a moment. "He will ask the congregation to pray for us."

"And from which chapter of holy scripture is that prayer derived?"

"From Isaiah, Father. Chapter two, verse eleven."

"No, John. Think again."

"Oh, no! Chapter eleven, verse two. That is it."

"Very well. And can you tell me what chapter eleven, verse two of Isaiah says?"

"I think so, Father." John had drawn a picture to help him remember, one that his father would have called irreverent, and disapproved of sternly. John brought it to mind now, a man with a dove sleeping on his head. "'And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,'" John recited.

The man had a long beard, and held a sword in one hand and a book in the other; each of these meant something. "It is...several things. Wait, I know them. 'Oh..." he screwed up his eyes. "It is to do with the spirit of power... and...oh...wisdom! Wisdom and understanding. Oh! And knowledge..."

John's father sighed.

The most scandalous part of the picture had been Meg's idea: the wise man held up his robes, frightened of a mouse that scurried past wearing a little waistcoat emblazoned in red letters with "THE LORD". John swallowed a giggle and finished "...'and the fear of the Lord.'"

John had asked his father on two or three occasions what it meant to fear the Lord, and why anyone should wish to do so, but he could never remember the answer. Now the Reverend Doctor Acklebury shook his head. "I do not yet entirely despair of your following in my footsteps into the Church, John, but I am afraid that my hopes fade. You are an odd child."

John did not think he was especially odd, and had lately begun to think it inevitable that he would disappoint his father, for he did not know how to become something he was not. "I try to remember scripture as it is written, Papa. But I do not know why one word must come before another, so long as all the words are there."

His father looked at him with a sad smile. "It is holy scripture, John." He placed both palms flat upon his desk, always the signal that their interview was at an end. "I did not ask such questions at your age. You are more like my brother every day." John liked his Uncle Martin very much, but he was aware that his father did not intend his words as a compliment. "It is as well that we did not send you away to school," his father went on, "for they do not tolerate such questions at school."

John had seen boys from Winchester College, jaunty and a bit wild in their caps and their black gowns, barely holding themselves in orderly ranks as their professor expounded upon some detail of the cathedral's architecture or history. He thought he might have liked to go to school, but he knew that his father did not care for the way religion was taught there, and that his mother who had grown up in France before the Revolution, shuddered at the crass inelegance which the schoolboys evinced in their manners and their dress.

"Very well, John. You may return to your lessons."

"Thank you, Papa." He was halfway across his father's study when another thought occurred to him. "Why would a lion eat straw, Father?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"In Isaiah, chapter eleven, it says that lions will eat straw."

"It is a prophecy of peace, son. It means that at the coming of Jesus, violence will be at an end." John's father had already put his spectacles back on.

John knew that his father was trying to complete work on a book of his sermons and would brook very little more delay, but he pressed on. "But it is not at an end, Papa. Only yesterday, I read in Uncle Martin's newspaper that Edmund Despard is to be hanged, drawn and quartered."

Reverend Acklebury removed his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Despard is convicted of high treason for attempting to kill the King. And I wish you will not read the newspapers. I must speak to Martin about that."

John, too, wished very much that he had not read the newspaper, for he had vaguely imagined that someone would have the unpleasant task of drawing a picture of Edmund Despard upon the gibbet before his dead body was taken away to his quarters, and when his uncle had explained what "drawn and quartered" really meant, he had felt quite sick. "Well, I do not think lions will ever eat straw, Father. It is not in their nature."

***

John Acklebury was confirmed a Christian and a member of the community of Christ in the Church of England on Candlemas Day, 1803, in the Lady Chapel at Winchester Cathedral, along with his sister Margaret. The Right Reverend Bishop North had, indeed, called upon the small congregation to pray for them, and somewhat to John's amazement, they had done so. What he principally remembered from this important sacrament, when he thought of it afterwards, was trying not to catch Meg's eye and laugh whenever the Bishop said "fear of the the Lord," which the Bishop had done quite a lot; and hearing the rain lash against the cathedral's great stained-glass windows.

As a gift for his confirmation, his elegant mama presented him with a box of pastels. "They are not new," she told him. "I have had them since I was a girl. When this horrible little Corsican man has been dispatched, perhaps we may once again get good French things." She sounded bitter. "But I did not use them very much, and I know that you will make me many pretty pictures with them." She kissed his forehead, but he was already lost, looking at each of the colours in the large, flat wooden case.

"Merci, Maman," he said absently, trying out the crayon whose paper wrapping said ochre jaune.

"Do not become too engrossed, chéri," Mrs Acklebury said fondly. "The Italian master will be here within the hour."

"Si, Mamma," John answered. He was already busy drawing the sun over the plains of Africa.



iii: In Which Three Young Gentlemen Enjoy a Snack

Winchester, Autumn, 1811

To the many difficulties any young man must have in starting at a new school at the advanced age of sixteen, the Honourable Mr Tristan Jarrett was able to apply several advantages: he was an excellent sportsman, his friendly nature quickly overcame the general awe, not to say the antipathy, in which the very wealthy and idle younger son of an earl might otherwise have been held; and he was preceded to Winchester College by the rumour of his having been already expelled from both Eton and Harrow, a circumstance that made him interesting to nearly every boy in the school.

This rumour was not true, but, want of wit not being among the charges laid to his account, Mr Jarrett did not trouble to correct it, and by this simple omission, he soon found himself the object of a general admiration.

Almost immediately upon his arrival at Winchester, he made two unlikely friends by the simple expedient of sitting down between them at breakfast. One was Mr Josiah Wheaton, a ginger-haired boy with a comically glum expression whose first words to Jarrett were, "Oh, you're the new boy. If you need any advice at all for getting on here, you may call on me, for every boy in my family for the last four generations has gone here and I know where all the bones are buried."

The other was Mr Henry Dauncey, who seemed scarcely to tolerate Jarrett, but who looked up from reading Aristotle long enough to join the conversation. When Wheaton said, "The worst teacher here is Youngblood," Dauncey scowled and said, "No. It is Milford," then turned his attention back to his book with reddened cheeks as if he had said something shocking.

On his third day, Mr Jarrett was able to determine the matter for himself, and concluded that Dauncey, and not Wheaton, had the right of it. Youngblood had only droned through a lecture on Shakespeare's King Henry V, and while Wheaton declared this an unforgivable sin, it was as nothing to the unseemly look Professor Milford gave Jarrett when he came early for his geography lesson. Jarrett found himself the first pupil to have arrived in the classroom, and Milford's eyes, in travelling over Jarrett's person, lingered where they ought never to have rested at all. He did not smile--not precisely--but his expression became avid, and Jarrett realised with a sinking heart that Winchester College would be no different from his other schools.

Mr Jarrett became assiduous in avoiding the notice of Professor Milford. He allowed himself to be unkempt; he never missed a lesson and was never late or early, coming to the classroom and quitting it always in the midst of other boys; he wrote out his lessons in a fashion that was neither good enough to draw praise nor poor enough to require censure; and by these means, he began to feel that he had made himself wholly uninteresting to the man.

One of the last fine days of autumn found Messrs Jarrett, Wheaton and Dauncey seated together at the public house in the St Cross Road, a place that enjoyed their regular custom. Under the unfinished sign of a leaping stag-like creature with no name, this establishment boasted a larder that had proved an excellent source of sustenance in the long interval of near-starvation between luncheon and dinner, and as the publican would draw a tankard for anyone with money to buy it, nothing was wanting for all three gentlemen to deem the place entirely satisfactory.

In the present instance, Mr Wheaton's attention was divided between the little snack of bread-and-butter, pickles, half a pork pie, a large wedge of Stilton cheese, six boiled eggs and the flagon of ale he had ordered, and the pretty maid who was placing it all before them. Mr Dauncey's attention was entirely given to Mr Jarrett.

Mr Jarrett, disregarding for the moment Dauncey's rather longing look, was intent upon watching a young man who sat in the front window of the common room, drawing in a large sketching-book. The sun came in through the window behind him, illuminating light brown hair that fell in thick curtains to either side of his face, and highlighting the angle of a strong cheekbone. He wore a coat of grey wool with black velvet lapels that looked very fine to Mr Jarrett's eye, and he seemed in every particular a gentleman.

"Have a boiled egg, Jarrett," Wheaton said.

Jarrett slowly withdrew his attention from the artist. "I beg your pardon, Wheaton. What did you say?"

"I said, 'There are elephants parading down St Cross Road.'"

Mr Dauncey snorted at this.

"You are very preoccupied today," Wheaton said. "I have never known you to refuse food."

"Oh, yes. Boiled eggs. Thank you, I will." Jarrett's attention was soon drawn once more to the young man and his sketching. "He is drawing us, I believe," Jarrett said, his mouth full of egg.

"Well, we are very interesting," Wheaton conceded.

Just then, the artist looked up and met Jarrett's gaze. As if caught at something untoward, he quickly turned his attention elsewhere.

"How old do you think he is?" Jarrett asked under his breath.

Wheaton shrugged, and Dauncey said, "Pretty old. Twenty. Twenty-three, even. Why do you care?"

Wheaton looked from Dauncey to Jarrett and said, "Nineteen or twenty, probably, but really, Jarrett, your stare would discountenance anyone! Look--I have brought a riddle."

Jarrett glanced at the paper in Wheaton's hand. It appeared to be a Latin rebus. He entered into the game not from a wish to please his friend, but from a desire to make himself more interesting to the artist by appearing interested in something; but the rebus, being of quite a ribald character, soon enough engaged him, and when he next looked up, the artist had gone.

Mr Jarrett saw him upon only one other occasion, in the cathedral close. It was an overcast and windy autumn day, and the artist sat upon on a low wall, sketching not the cathedral, but the face of a gardener who worked in the grounds. Jarrett, unwilling to interrupt such passionate absorption, could think of no means by which he might begin a conversation. He nevertheless did not leave, but made much of studying the cathedral's buttresses and otherwise lingering in the vicinity until the young gentleman gathered his drawing things and went away.

That evening, Jarrett waited until Dauncey had left the dining hall before mentioning to Wheaton that he had seen the artist again. Wheaton's expression turned speculative, and he said, "I think Dauncey is jealous."

Jarrett thought so too, but deemed it simpler to say nothing that would lead Wheaton to enquire farther into what he and Dauncey had been doing together in the stables the other day, for Wheaton had already pointedly observed that Dauncey had no interest in horses, and he was not one to let an interesting story go unexamined. Jarrett remained silent, therefore, and Wheaton continued, "One cannot help noticing that the artist is a very handsome fellow."

Jarrett laughed rather too loudly. "Is he? If you say so, Wheaton, I believe you, for I know you like a pretty face, and that is why we are friends."

Wheaton only snickered and threw a bread-roll at his head.

The following day, after a sculling race, Mr Jarrett lingered too long in the boat-shed, imagining that the artist had been present to draw a picture of his victory, and did not notice the time until the silence around him made him realise that he had heard the tower clock strike four some minutes earlier. Despite the considerable speed his long legs lent him in running across the grounds, when he opened the door to Professor Milford's classroom, the lesson was in progress. All eyes turned to him.

Professor Milford said, "Jarrett. You are tardy."

"Yes. I beg your pardon," Jarrett replied, moving toward his place.

"Mr Jarrett, at Winchester College, pupils address their teachers as 'sir.' It does not matter whether these pupils be the sons of gentleman farmers or the sons of earls. Do I make myself clear?"

Milford's words, his unctuous, taunting tone, caused Jarrett's ordinary restraint to fail at just the moment when he ought to have depended on it most heavily, and a potent mixture of fear, anger, and pride made him drawl, "Oh, certainly" in his best imitation of the bored and idle younger son that Milford and everyone else supposed him to be. "Sir," he added after a suitable pause.

Snickers arose from several pupils around him in the classroom, and a look of respect and awe was evident on many of the faces turned towards him. A covert glance revealed Dauncey's to be not among their number, his expression being rather one of pity, as if he thought Jarrett very stupid, and viewed with horror the likely consequences of that stupidity.

Professor Milford said, "Jarrett, you will stay after class."

Jarrett's rage evaporated on the instant. As the geography lesson resumed, he stared at his book, unseeing, unhearing, bitter with himself for what he had done. When at last he looked up, Milford was gazing at him with a slight, satisfied smile. Jarrett felt his heart grow cold.


iv: In Which Giovanni Becomes a Fresco

Venice, Easter 1812

John Acklebury pushed up his sleeves and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his bared arm. His hands were black with charcoal, as they generally were in the morning at Maestro Fiorio's workshop. Mornings were the best time to draw, for the light slanted in through the dusty windows set high in the east wall of the studio, and fell softly upon the occupant of the raised wooden platform.

Today this was a youth perhaps seventeen or eighteen years old, with dark curls, smooth olive skin and a slight, well-made frame. John had not easily hidden his blushes upon first seeing one of Fiorio's models disrobe insouciantly to pose on the dais. He had been uncomfortable upon realising that most of the women were prostitutes, and scandalised to learn that some of the young men were, too. One morning he had arrived early in the studio to find one of these young men already present with Maestro Fiorio and wearing nothing but a long white shirt. When the maestro had slapped the young man's posterior and flung him a coin, John had been nearly overcome with shock to recognise what that must mean.

Three months, however, had accustomed John to the ways of Maestro Fiorio and his workshop, and these unclothed bodies were just shapes and lines to be perceived and drawn, no matter in whose arms they might have lately lain. As today's model sat upon a stool, his hands gripping the edge of the seat between his spread thighs, the bone of his shoulder was...John softened his gaze and looked, really looked, letting his charcoal stick trace the line of what he saw...thin, bony, angled upward. He glanced at Signor Ossatura, the human skeleton that hung, wired together, from a rack in the corner, and then back to the boy. Understanding of the shoulder's structure flowed from his mind to his hand and onto his paper.

When John next glanced up, the boy was gazing at him, and, upon catching John's attention, he shifted his hips very slightly. This movement was not so great as to alter the pose he had struck, but enough to draw John's eyes downward to the enlivened condition that had not earlier been apparent. He then quirked an eyebrow in such a knowing way as to make John look quickly down to his paper again.

"Usa tutto, Giovanni," Maestro Fiorio said softly, coming up behind John. "Use everything." He said this often, and John only nodded. He tried to continue his figure drawing, but his concentration was lost, and he turned his sheet over. "La sua lussuria," the maestro continued, la sua paura, usa le tutte." There was no point, Acklebury knew, in protesting that he had neither lust nor fear to use in this moment, only discomfiture at the boy's wantonness; Maestro Fiorio would probably not believe him. "Draw your homesickness! Paint your anger! Even your English nature," Maestro Fiorio added, shaking his head doubtfully. "There must be a use in painting even for that!" Acklebury repressed an impatient sigh. He had heard all of this before.

The maestro clapped his hands loudly and the boy on the stool got down. Renato and Massimo, the other two students, immediately left their easels, with crude gestures and ribald laughter to disguise the uneasy glances that they cast at the young model-- and at l'inglese.

"Go! Eat!" the maestro told them. "Giovanni, stay. I want to speak to you."

John wiped his hands on a rag and rolled his sleeves back down. "Yes, Maestro?"

"I want you to pose for me."

The rag went still in John's hand.

"Oh, do not alarm yourself, Giovanni," he said with a grin. "Your English virtue is safe with me, isn't it, Primo?" He directed this last to the model, who had not yet finished putting his clothes back on. Primo's white smile flashed as he looked over his bare shoulder. Maestro Fiorio leant very close to John, and said in confidential tones, "You are a bit older than I like."

John reminded himself that if he wanted to learn what he had come here to learn, he must bear with Fiorio's constant teasing. He thought he had gained a modicum of sophistication, but to hear a grown man--a man of forty!--speak so openly of a preference for boys was not something he knew how to respond to, and Fiorio knew it.

"I will not pose unclothed, Maestro. You know that," John said.

Fiorio slapped his shoulder and said, "Good! Because I do not think the Church would care for it."

"Pardon me?" John felt lost, as he often did in Venice, wondering if he had missed some nuance in Italian that would have been clear to him in English or French.

"I am to make a small fresco of the Last Judgement in San Sebastiano church, and I want you to be my San Gabriele, for you have the face of an archangel, Giovanni. You will pose, I will make the cartoons, you will come to San Sebastiano and learn something about fresco, eh? And you do not pay me for this. What do you say?"

John thought that of the many things he could not comfortably write to his father about--of prostitutes, and human skeletons, and nude bodies, and the unseemly relations of grown men and boys, perhaps this might be the most shocking. Dear Father, he imagined writing. I hope you will not mind, but for the next three or four hundred years, my face will adorn the wall of a Catholic church.

"This amuses you?" Maestro Fiorio asked.

"No. No!" John forced his expression back from the brink of hilarity. "Of course, Maestro," he said. "I would be honoured to pose for you."



v: In Which Tristan Cannot Honestly Answer No

Barringford, Cumberland, Easter 1812

When the Honourable Mr Tristan Jarrett emerged from the carriage in the great sweep before Barringford House, he had not seen his family for nearly six months. David and a young lady whom Jarrett presumed to be his new sister-in-law were waiting to greet him, and behind them stood a phalanx of liveried servants. His mother and father were not to be seen.

"Good God, Tristan!" David exclaimed, laughing, as Tristan got down. "You have grown a foot, I declare!" They embraced, and Tristan realised with a start of surprise that he could, indeed, now see over the top of his elder brother's head. David clapped him upon the back, still laughing, his evident happiness making Tristan glad, for once, to be home.

"Charlotte," David said, turning to the elegantly-dressed but rather plain young lady who stood looking on with an anxious smile. "Allow me to present to you my brother. Tristan, this is Lady Penrith."

David looked eagerly from Tristan to his new wife and back, as if to assure himself that they would instantly esteem each other as much as he esteemed them both. Tristan smiled and gave her his best formal bow. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance--my lady. I am sorry that I could not come to your wedding."

"David has explained to me that your education has been interrupted a good deal, and that his lordship wished you not to come all the way from Winchester during the term," Lady Penrith said. "Nothing is so important to a young gentleman as his education."

Tristan began to think her a poor sort of thing, neither pretty nor lively and therefore not good enough for David, when she suddenly laughed. Her face was transformed by it, and when she said, "Oh, David! What a dullard I become when I am nervous!" then turned a bright smile on Tristan and added, "Forgive me, brother! It is delightful to meet you at last, and I hope we shall be very good friends," Tristan thought she might not be so bad after all.

He did not see his mother or his father until they went in to the dining-room an hour later. There, with five people arrayed along a table made for twenty, waited upon by six footmen and the butler, Tristan Jarrett saw his family and his home as if through the eyes of his new sister, and wondered at her willingness to become a part of it.

"You are come home, Tristan," his mother said in tones of mild surprise.

"Yes, Mama. How are you feeling?"

"A little better," she sighed. Tristan knew that she took something to ease a nameless pain that she had suffered for much of his lifetime. "You have grown very tall, my dear. How handsome you have become." She patted his hand, and her eyes filled with tears, as if, in looking at her younger son, she saw someone else.

"Penrith!" Lord Barringford said loudly. "You will speak to the boy about that letter."

Tristan cast a questioning look at his brother, who only shook his head minutely before saying, "Yes, sir. After dinner."

The conversation at table consisted principally of David's plans for the rehabilitation of the old house at Ravensworth, and Lord Barringford's criticisms of these plans. When this tax upon everybody's civility was paid, and the ladies had withdrawn, David said, "Will you excuse us, sir?"

Lord Barringford, being by now much the worse for wine, did not appear to care that they left him alone in the dining room.

David and Tristan walked together to the conservatory, Tristan growing uneasy at his brother's uncharacteristically serious manner. "Leave us," David said to the footman hovering near the doors. Inside the humid, plant-filled room, he turned to Tristan. "What I have to say is not easy to speak of, Tristan. It principally concerns these...proclivities of yours that have arisen in boarding school."

Tristan stared at him, quickly cataloguing his sins and wondering which he would be asked to account for.

"Boys--outgrow these things," David went on. "I blame myself! If I had been more watchful the year we were both at Eton, if I had insisted more forcefully upon your being removed from Wickersham's sphere...or perhaps it was Quigley, at Harrow who caused you--" David halted, clearly very ill-at-ease. It was a moment before Tristan could overcome his own discomfort at the mention of two such hated names, and realise what David must be trying to speak of. Somehow, Tristan thought, he must have heard about Milford.

"Why was I removed from Eton?" he asked, growing angry. His voice sounded cold and haughty to his own ears, and he did not trouble to soften it.

David stopped in his pacing. "What? To remove you from the influence of Professor Wickersham, of course. I thought you understood that, Tristan."

"Let me put my question differently," Tristan said. "Why was not Professor Wickersham removed from Eton?" He took a step toward David, his temper rising. "Why was it, I wonder, that the eleven-year-old son of the Earl of Barringford must be taken away, while the grown man who had the effrontery--the wickedness!--to--to--" Tristan dashed a hand through the space between his brother and himself "--to treat me as he did continues to teach there to this day?"

David looked at him, horrified.

"How is it that the Earl of Barringford had not the power to relieve such a person of his position? How is it that my father saw fit only to send me to the next school, and the next, but to do nothing in my defence--the defence of his younger son?" Tristan spat the two hated words at his brother.

"Tristan! You must not speak so--"

"I will tell you how, for I have understood it at last. My father believes me wicked. He believes that I was at fault. He believes that I brought about the licentiousness of Professor Wickersham, and that I went on to bring about the unseemly attention paid me by Mr Quigley at Harrow, and now you are here to lecture me about having attracted the attention of Professor Milford at Winchester, and I am sick to death of it. I cannot help looking as I do. None of it is my doing, and none of it is my fault! I have done nothing to deserve these things. Do you hear me, David? Nothing!"

David was perfectly still now, staring, his mouth agape. "What?" he said in a whisper.

Tristan paused for breath, exalted in his anger, and saw the utter disbelief in David's eyes. "Oh! You did not know? You did not bring me out here to tell me that I must now leave Winchester because I have corrupted another grown man? You did not know that Professor Milford put his hands on me and said the most shocking things to me?"

David shook his head and seemed unable to speak.

"Shall I repeat some of them to you? He told me that since I could not keep a civil tongue in my mouth, he would make me put my mouth to better use upon hi--"

"Good God, Tristan, stop, I beg you!" David sank to one of the ornate iron benches in the conservatory, his face pale, his eyes wide with horror. "I had no idea! I did not know. I--will take steps instantly! If the Earl of Barringford will not do what is right, then Viscount Penrith will!" David rose. "I will write to the governors tonight, demanding this man's instant dismissal."

Tristan, having said the worst, felt his temper receding. His hands came slowly unclenched and he took a deep breath. "I am in no farther danger from Professor Milford," he said coolly. "I cannot speak for other boys, but he will not trouble me any more."

David looked at him bleakly. "I should have known. I should have come down to Winchester with you and seen for myself--"

"David! Do you not understand? My father should have done these things. He has not. I am old enough now to do them for myself."

"I--yes, I see that." David sat again on the bench, his hands loose between his knees, his head lowered, the very picture of dejection. Tristan came and sat beside him, and for a long moment they were quiet.

"His lordship wanted you to speak of something to me," Tristan said when the silence had grown too long. "It was not, after all, about Professor Milford."

David shook his head.

"Well, go on. I am equal to nearly anything tonight."

David took a deep breath. "Father has had a letter from Mr Percival Dauncey."

Tristan's heart sank and he knew a moment's fear. Surely no-one had seen him go with Dauncey to the stables, or into one of the disused classrooms--? No-one, not even Wheaton, really knew what they did there, knew the silent intensity of their meetings. "Dauncey's father? One of his brothers?" he asked.

"His father, Tris. Mr Dauncey intimates that there has been some...impropriety in your friendship with his son Henry. Has there been?"

Tristan could scarcely believe that Dauncey had spoken to his father of--of such things, but he must have done so. Disbelief gave way to a sense of betrayal. "We are not even friends," he declared, and thought, not any longer.

"Tristan! Please! Do not make this more difficult. I am asking you to tell me: have you formed an attachment--that is, was it already too late when I took you from Eton?"

Tristan looked down at the conservatory floor between his evening shoes. He noted that his feet were now bigger than David's. "I do not know how to answer that," he said at last.

"Do you have an improper attachment to Henry Dauncey?" David persisted.

"I do not think so."

"But you do not say 'no'."

"I do not know that I have an attachment to Henry Dauncey at all," Tristan clarified, thinking of how, just days earlier, he had wanted to kiss him, and how that kiss had inexplicably driven Dauncey away as all their other shared moments had not been able to do. I am not like you. Those had been Dauncey's cutting words. "I do not understand very much in that regard," Tristan added.

David sighed. "This is very difficult."

"I am sorry."

"Do you--do you touch him, Tristan, as you ought not?"

Tristan did not answer.

"Tristan! Do you approach him as--as God intended only for a man to approach a woman?"

Tristan remained silent. David turned his face away and seemed almost to shudder. "You are nearly grown up now, as strange as that is to me, and soon I shall have no right whatever to ask you such things. I suppose I must trust you to --" David shook his head and was again silent for such a long period that Tristan began to fear that disgust stayed his tongue. Memories of his interludes with Dauncey came before Tristan's mind, unspeakable and intoxicating, and he tried to push them away. At last David said, "I will ask you for your word upon two points."

"Very well," Tristan managed to reply, swallowing back his fear and his shame.

"First, Tristan, I want your word that you will never press your attentions upon any person who does not wish them or is powerless to refuse them. Do you understand me?"

Tristan looked at him, puzzled. This was not the promise of self-denial he had expected David to require of him.

"I mean that just as you would not improperly approach a young lady of good family, you must remember that your rank, your station, even your wealth, can cause people to fear the consequences of refusing you. Consult your conscience and do not ask for what is improper, not from ladies, not from persons of lower rank, not from--from boys. Do I make myself clear?"

Tristan rose to his feet. "I do not--! How could you think that I-- David! I do not importune ladies, or servants, or--or boys! If you think me so depraved, then you do not know me at all. Do you think that because I was treated indecently as a boy, I do the same? Is that what you are asking me?" He paced away, dashing a flowering vine from his face as he passed it, and causing it to break and fall. "As for Henry Dauncey, he is older than I am and well able to speak for himself, which he has evidently done, though I cannot say I think much of him for doing so. I assure you David, whatever I may be, I pose no danger to the little boys at my school. I am not Wickersham."

"Tristan! Consider the position you have put yourself in, and do not take an angry tone with me. My forbearance is your only surety against Father's learning of your...your nature. I will tell him that the Dauncey boy has made up a tale to harm you out of spite, or--or envy, and do my best to make Father forget this. But I must understand the truth, and I must have your word."

"Well, you have it." Tristan could not bear to look at him. He stood next to the vine-covered column and scowled at the floor.

"I can ask for no more upon that head," David said. "Come, sit down again, please." He patted the place next to him on the bench. Tristan turned his face away and remained standing. "Look at me, Tris. Please. This is very important."

Tristan glanced at David's face, just long enough to see how strained, how earnest, how sad he looked--how very much unlike his usual self--and then turned away again. He did not think he could bear very much more of this conversation, and hoped that it would soon reach a conclusion.

"The other promise I will ask of you is that you will remember your duty to the family name and honour, even if your inclinations should not lead you to--family life." His tone was one of barely concealed disgust.

"I will remember," Tristan answered, stung. "Though why that should matter now that you are married, I do not know."

David made a sound, nearly a shout, of frustration. "You do not understand what you are saying, Tristan! If you truly cannot change, you must be seen to have changed." He rose, took a pace toward Tristan, then, when Tristan still did not look at him, turned and sat again. He ran a hand through his hair and let it fall listlessly to his thigh. Tristan waited, still and wary.

"I knew a boy at Eton," David said finally, in a quiet voice. "His name was--well, it does not matter what his name was. He was not--not--that is, he was quite an ordinary fellow. No-one realised, I suppose, that his preference for the society of other boys was more than..."

Tristan stole a glance at him, afraid of what he was to hear next. David had picked up the vine that Tristan had broken earlier, and was shredding it.

"Well," David went on, letting the bits of leaf and stem fall to the floor between his feet, "he was not able to overcome his inclinations. Rumour about him arose while he was at Cambridge and pursued him into his adult life. No gentleman would ever speak of such things, but someone, someone who bore him a grudge, accused him of--of what is best not spoken of."

David did shudder then, at the mention of this unspeakable thing. Tristan looked at his brother now, openly, a horrified fascination overcoming his pride.

"He was tried, Tristan, at the Old Bailey!" David said in a tone that was almost pleading, as if begging Tristan to understand him fully. "Every detail of his unseemly practices was brought out into the light of day for the scrutiny of the common man. His letters--which his...his particular friend was foolish enough to preserve--were read out in his trial and published in the newspaper. He was found guilty, and was sent to gaol, and so he lost everything: his inheritance, his family, his name and reputation, and finally his health. He was not very much older than I, and two years in gaol destroyed him. I heard that he fled to the Continent upon his release, and for all I know is living there in penury, if he even still lives."

Tristan felt cold inside. He did not know precisely what this old schoolfellow of David's might have done, but it was clear to him that David was trying to draw a comparison between it and what Tristan had done with Dauncey. Tristan understood that those meetings must remain secret, that they were shameful and even sinful, but that they were a crime for which one might be tried in court, like burglary or murder, was terrifying to him. He swallowed and said nothing.

David went on. "He was my friend for a time in school. I liked him. He was not a monster. He enjoyed a ride, or a song, or a spring day as much as the next fellow. But in that one particular he was not like other boys--not like other men--and there was finally a terrible price to pay for that difference." David bowed his head for a long, silent moment. Then he took a deep breath, and when he looked up, he met Tristan's eye squarely. "Promise me that you will remember."

"I have said that I will."

"Then that must be enough for me." David sighed and scuffed at the bits of vine that he had scattered on the conservatory floor, as if to make them vanish. Then he rose and came forward to put both hands on Tristan's shoulders. "I--forgive me, Tris."

"For what?"

"For hoping that you will yet change."

Tristan reflected that he had never had a pleasant school holiday at home, and chided himself for having hoped that this one would be different. "I have always tried to be what you would wish me to be, David. Perhaps I will change."

David gave a small, sad smile. "You are my dearest little brother and, I hope, still my friend. I break my heart knowing that I have failed you. Truly, the happiness that I have found in marriage to Charlotte is what I would wish for you. I shall not despair of your finding such happiness."

Remorse filled Tristan's heart at the certainty of his inability to gratify David in this wish. "You have never failed me," he said, not wishing to make some promise he could not keep. "I am not a little boy, David. I ought never to have been your responsibility, but I truly am not your responsibility any more. I am mine."

"You will be my responsibility as long as I live," David said with a heavy sigh. "I can scarcely describe my trepidation at that prospect!"

Tristan searched David's face. He saw anxiety there, and sorrow, but not the contempt or disgust that he feared, and his relief at this made him almost giddy. "Confess it, David: I keep you from becoming bored and complacent," he rejoined, trying for a light tone that might break the disturbing mood of the evening. Encouraged by David's short, rueful laugh, Tristan said, "What do you say to a game of billiards?"

Still looking rather shaken, David said, "Perhaps Charlotte will excuse me," and Tristan remembered that his brother was not altogether free any longer. "I suppose a short game..."

"Oh, well, it goes without saying that the game will be short, for I will thrash you pretty quickly."

"Do not imagine that because you have grown so strangely tall, your skills have in any way surpassed mine," David said, as they walked out of the conservatory and back along the hall.

Tristan laughed, surprised that he was still able to do so. They passed through Barringford House to the billiards-room, and if David looked at him differently than before, at least, Tristan consoled himself, it was not without love.

Chapter Text




Restraint
Part I

London, March, 1818

When an English artist has gone away to study in Venice, his countrymen may wonder at his foreign proclivities, and when, upon returning at last to Great Britain, he paints young Mrs Danforth in a state of undress not usually seen even by General Danforth, they may say that such proclivities have made him cross the boundary of taste and propriety. The English painter thus adjudged, it will not surprise the reader to learn, suffers censure and enjoys popularity in equal degrees. Everyone is eager to be painted by him.

Mr John Acklebury, for our scandalous painter is he, returned to London after four years in the workshop of Maestro Fiorio da Calvo in the Santa Maria Zobenigo parish of Venice, during the winter of 1817. His brown hair was unfashionably short, from a desire for convenience rather than from any pretension of setting a new style; his clothes were of a rather Continental cut and a peculiarly Venetian sumptuousness, though he tied his neck-cloth in a simple manner, and for ornament wore only a heavy gold signet ring.

"He needs no other," sighed Miss Augusta Fellowes to her friend Miss Mary Elam one February morning following a dancing-party at which Mr Acklebury had made an appearance. Miss Elam arranged herself upon the long-chair in such a way as to glorify her admirable figure, and said with a dreaming expression. "He is a remarkably handsome man! I never saw such wide green eyes!"

"Or such a fringe of dark lashes!" Miss Fellowes added.

Mrs Elam, Mary's mama, gazed into nothingness, seeming to have forgotten her tea-cup halfway to her mouth, and said, to her daughter's great chagrin, "And such a pair of lips! Why, I do not think a more splendid mouth was ever seen."

"I thought he had a rather feminine air," Mr Lucas Elam, Mary's brother, chimed in. All three ladies turned on him and began speaking at once.

"His shoulders are positively god-like!" cried Miss Elam in some heat, while Miss Fellowes, swooning very slightly, declared, "He has a voice far too deep and thrilling to give such an impression to any one paying the slightest attention!" and Mrs Elam exclaimed that such a fine, strong jaw could never be deemed other than very manly.

"Oh, he seemed a good sort of fellow," young Mr Elam conceded, rising and preparing to make his escape. "I do not say a word against him." In a low mutter, he added, "But he has bowed legs!" and was surprised that a teaspoon did not hit him in the back of the head as he left the room.

***

In another quarter of London that morning, Mrs Carr had scarcely handed a cup of tea to her visitor before she burst out, "I have secured Mr Acklebury to paint the children!" Smugly noting Mrs Harcourt's rather sour look at her triumph, she went on, "You know, Maria, I cannot believe that one so handsome is quite as modest as he seems, but everyone says he is. I am sure that I never saw such courtesy! And he is so fashionable."

Mrs Harcourt said, "Well, he has improved in that regard. Lizzie Danforth insists that he was quite...Italian in his manner when he was first in London. You know how they gesture and wave their arms about--the Venetians do, I mean--and stand so near one when speaking. But now he is the pattern-card of English gentility."

"There is something about him, however," Mrs Carr said. "He has a certain air of sophistication that can only come from living abroad."

Mrs Harcourt sipped her tea. "I hear that he gets his living from an uncle. There is an annuity, I believe. That is what Lord Westhill said."

"Yes. I believe Mr Acklebury has no need to paint for money. He is a gentleman."

***

From an elegant townhouse in Curzon Street, the noted dandy Mr Richard Denham emerged with his good friend Lord Westhill. "You would hardly believe it," Mr Denham exclaimed, as they set out arm in arm along Curzon Street. "He paints scandalously, and his face and form are such as might open any lady's bedchamber door! And yet he is quiet, Westhill. He is dull. He is, not to put too fine a point upon it, boring."

"One imagines that to be a consequence of his being the Reverend Doctor George Acklebury's son," replied Lord Westhill. "I have heard that he is well-looking, but as to his character, you have not met him. How do you know?"

"Well, I know that he is shockingly handsome because I have seen him. And I know that he is dull because everyone calls him 'respectable' and 'modest.' What else could he be?"

"That remains to be seen, Denham," his lordship said. "True, no-one says anything of his past in Italy, but it does not follow that there is no past to talk of. Nobody so handsome could ever attain the age of six and twenty without a story to tell."

***

In Berkeley Square, Mrs. Elizabeth Danforth welcomed her friend Viscount Penrith, and that gentleman, upon being chided for having missed the party at which Mrs Danforth had shown her scandalous new portrait to all the world, said only that March always put him out of spirits.

"I do not like to see you unhappy, Tristan," Mrs Danforth said, looking up at him. "I do not think you have enough friends."

His lordship gave her a sharp glance. Finally he said, "It is true. I find that my...my nature does not incline me to real friendship. I cannot be myself among other men."

"You were always used to have one or two good friends."

"I have changed."

Mrs Danforth rose from her couch. "Well, I am your friend, in any case, and I must do what I can to lift your spirits!" she said brightly. "I think you ought to have your portrait done." She indicated the large and handsome portrait of herself that dominated her drawing-room, and that had, with its author, lately been the talk of London. In this, her pretty brown curls and roguish smile, her white skin, and most of her bosom, were amply on display, framed by a near-transparent drapery that stood about her shoulders in stiff folds. She held this garment closed and stepped toward the viewer, one shapely white leg protruding almost entirely from the opening in the material.

His lordship said, "Lizzie! You scandalous minx. You look as if you have risen to answer a secret knock at your bedchamber door!"

She dimpled. "It is wonderful, is it not? Do you not think it would be amusing to get one like it?"

"I do not have a shocking dressing-gown," his lordship said. "And what on earth has this to do with my want of friends?"

"Oh, nothing," replied Mrs Danforth in airy tones. "Only, it will be some amusement for you to have it done. I will ask the General to write down the artist's direction for you. His name is John Acklebury. He is a very staid sort of man, and I know how much you dislike dull people, but do not regard it. He paints wonderfully."

***

As a pebble is unaware of the ripples that it creates upon the pond into which it is introduced, so was Mr Acklebury oblivious to the talk that his presence and his painting were causing in London society. He left his lodgings in Marylebone on the seventeenth of March in the midst of a downpour, and, after viewing a room to let that he hoped might serve as his new painting studio, but that was, alas, quite unsuitable, Mr Acklebury repaired to Wiltons, where he thought he might get a late luncheon without extending his resources too far. The draft from General Danforth's bank had lately made its way into Mr Acklebury's account, augmenting his quarterly income very pleasantly, and, despite the dismal weather, he was in a mildly celebratory mood.

When he had given his rain-bespattered greatcoat, hat, and gloves to the waiter and taken a seat in a small booth opposite the window, he took out the letter that had been delivered to him that morning. The seal, he now perceived, bore a coat of arms. He broke it and took out a large calling-card on heavy paper whose quality he could not but admire. Engraved upon the card was again the coat of arms, along with the impressive words:

Tristan Jarrett
Viscount Penrith

Below that, in a lazy scrawl, there appeared an addendum:

Mr Acklebury: Be so good as to wait upon me tomorrow, 10 Half Moon Street.

Yours &c,
Penrith

Mr Acklebury stared at it, and read the line again. There was no intelligence to glean from it except that a titled gentleman commanded his presence in the most peremptory terms imaginable. He did not know this Viscount Penrith and briefly considered holding the card to the candle-flame. But, however little propriety had been exercised in the phrasing of the request, propriety demanded a response. Let an Englishman pride himself as much as he liked upon his right to stand straight-backed before the highest in the land, Acklebury had been in the world long enough to know that that Englishman ignored a letter from a peer of the realm at considerable social risk.

"Not bad news, I hope."

Mr Acklebury looked up and was agreeably surprised to see his friend Mr Christopher Caine standing at the booth, unbuttoning his greatcoat with a cheerful smile. "Saw you come in here from just opposite--" he indicated The Angel, the public house on the other side of Jermyn Street that was visible through the front window, "--and thought you would not mind my company. If I intrude, you must just send me off."

"Not at all, Caine," Acklebury said, rising and making a bow before indicating the vacant place at his small table. "I am delighted to see you. I was just wishing I had someone to dine with. Will you join me?"

"With the greatest goodwill in the world, for I am as empty as a drum."

Acklebury had met Mr Caine at Mr Tankley's boxing salon in the Strand only a few weeks after his return to England. Caine was not a large man, but was powerfully formed and athletic, preferring fighting, riding, and fencing to any other activities, with a long walk across half of London being the least of his exertions. As a result, he was frequently very hungry.

Mr Caine handed his own coat and hat to the waiter who had hurried up, and took the other chair. He indicated the card and envelope that Acklebury had let fall to the linen table-cloth. "That," he said, "seems to have put you in a worry."

"Oh! No, not a worry. Not precisely." Mr Acklebury regarded the calling card dubiously. "It would seem that I am summoned. I wonder, Caine, what do you know of Viscount Penrith?"

"Penrith?" Caine thought a moment. "I have never met him--above my touch, of course. I know only what is generally known. He will be the Earl of Barringford one day, but he is the younger son of the present earl, and was not raised to expect the title--well either title, not the viscountcy and not the earldom."

Acklebury listened with interest. Caine was the scion of an Irish family connected with the Earl of Waterford's estates, but he had lived in London for several years and took an avid interest in all the doings of London society.

"The elder son, the seventh Viscount Penrith, was killed," Caine went on. "It was four or five years ago, I think. Hunting accident. They are all known as great horsemen in that family, but the elder brother was thrown, and broke his neck. Left a nineteen-year-old widow, as I recall." Mr Caine shook his head in genuine sorrow. "They had not been married above three months! It is the saddest thing I ever heard."

"Indeed," Acklebury said, surprised at this evidence of tenderheartedness in Mr Caine.

"I have heard that the new Lord Penrith was pretty wild in his youth," Caine went on. "Hamilton says he was expelled from both Eton and Harrow. But when his brother died, people say his behaviour took a more depraved turn."

"Good lord," Mr Acklebury said. "What must his behaviour have been to merit being called 'depraved'?"

Caine shrugged. "I have no idea. Some people think the drinking of whisky is depraved, and some people do not draw that line much before congress with animals." He grinned at Acklebury, who was sure that his face had reddened at Caine's outrageous words. "I would wager that Lord Penrith's depravity falls somewhere between those two extremes, though."

"It--it is only reasonable to suppose so," Acklebury said in a faint voice.

Mr Caine waved an airy hand. "People will tell stories. I have a scheme of accounting for them that I will tell you about: do not give the meat of those stories a great deal of credence, but only attend to their number. I have observed, you see, that the more really interesting a chap is, the more society talks of him, and the more shocking the talk is likely to be, with hardly a particle of truth in it." Mr Caine withdrew his snuff-box. "Lord Penrith is talked of a good deal, by which I suppose he is pretty interesting," he went on, flicking the box open and offering it to Acklebury, "and besides hearing hints of this supposed wildness, and speculation that he is a rake--which I am far from allowing to be true!--what one hears of him more often than other things is that he is haughty. High in the instep, don't you know. A large acquaintance, but no friends. That sort of thing."

"I see," Acklebury said, abandoning his attempts to assemble a clear picture of the man from the disparate pieces he had before him, for they would not fit together. "Well! I cannot think what he wants with me, but I suppose I must go."

"He'll be wishing a portrait, I should imagine."

"I had not thought of that," Mr Acklebury said in some surprise. "Of course you are right. That must be it."

"What will you say? Will you paint him?"

Acklebury thought of his training, of Maestro Fiorio telling him that it was impossible to paint well without passion, and that if he did not like his subject he would not create art, but only spazzatura, only rubbish. "I do not know," he answered, as the waiter returned. "I suppose it depends upon how I feel about him."

***

The following day, Mr Acklebury presented himself at number 10, Half Moon Street. It was a large townhouse faced in polished white stone. Two broad, stone steps led up to a columned portico. Mr Acklebury mounted these and knocked at the door.

A butler answered, his mien formal and almost forbidding. He clearly expected Mr Acklebury, however, and upon hearing his name, relieved him of his gloves, his hat, and his greatcoat, then conducted him through an echoing, marble-tiled entry to a library. There he offered Mr Acklebury a glass of sherry wine, which Mr Acklebury declined, feeling too unsure of himself and his footing in such elevated circumstances to take any beverage.

"I will inform his lordship of your arrival," the butler said, and silently left the room.

Mr Acklebury, despite his uneasiness, looked curiously about him. The room was large and airy. A Turkey carpet in red and beige covered much of the floor, and upon it, arrayed before the fire, were four mahogany chairs upholstered in pristine straw-coloured silk.

Several shelves of books that looked new and untouched lined one wall, and near these stood a tall writing desk in the thin-legged Sheraton style. Alone among the room's furnishings, the desk had the look of use, for an inkstand and several sheets of paper lay upon it. Everything, Acklebury could not but observe, was new and of the highest quality, excepting only the painting that hung in a place of honour above the mantelpiece. It depicted an ancient half-timbered house set among rugged green hills, its sentimental, rather mawkish style and ornate frame greatly at odds with the spare elegance of everything else in the room. It had the look of something a child might have loved, and perhaps salvaged from the nursery or school-room, and Acklebury smiled at the thought that even a viscount might sometimes let sentiment overrule taste. Perhaps Lady Penrith--supposing there to be such a person--had made his lordship put the picture where she would not have to look at it very often.

There was little else to see in the room, but before Mr Acklebury could begin to worry about the meeting to which he had been summoned, the double doors burst open. Mr Acklebury turned just as a young man's voice said, "Good morning--" then broke off. A man not much above the age of twenty halted in the middle of the room, his brisk expression growing surprised, or perhaps even shocked, as he beheld Acklebury.

In form he was like a Grecian statue of a young god: Apollo, Mr Acklebury thought. Apollo writ rather large. He was of a remarkable height, overtopping Mr Acklebury, generally accounted a tall man, by a hand's width or more.

He was dressed in the first stare of fashion, his snug, perfectly-tailored coat of dark brown superfine showing to perfection a breadth of shoulder and a leanness of waist that owed nothing to any tailor's artifice. His legs were encased in tight buckskin breeches and Hessian boots, as if he had been about to go riding. Acklebury remarked the excellent taste with which the young gentleman's cravat was tied, and the way its snowy whiteness accentuated the fine, wind-bronzed complexion and strong jaw that it framed. This elegance of dress was contradicted by the abundant tumble of brown hair that he wore rather long and clubbed at the back, a strand or two escaping to fall onto his face.

"I do not believe it!" the young gentleman said. A wondering half-smile dawned upon his features and he seemed for an instant rooted to the spot. "You are Mr Acklebury?"

Before Acklebury could begin to formulate an affirmative reply to so simple a question phrased so surprisingly, the gentleman said again, "I do not believe it! You are the artist from Winchester! Why, this is wonderful!" He bounded forward, extending his hand in such a friendly gesture that Acklebury could only extend his own, despite his confusion. The young man went so far as to enclose Mr Acklebury's hand in both of his. Then he looked down, and with a laugh seemed to realise what he had done, for he released Acklebury's hand and said, "I beg your pardon! I am Viscount Penrith."

Momentarily nonplussed, Mr Acklebury could only think that Caine had misled him somehow, for during their conversation upon the matter, Acklebury had pictured a much older man. His manners quickly reasserted themselves, however, and he made a bow that he hoped attained the correct degree of courtesy for a peer of the realm. "My lord," he said, and, as Viscount Penrith clearly already knew his name, said no more.

Lord Penrith made a sketchy bow in return, but quickly spoke again, as if wishing to explain his surprising informality. "I was a great admirer of yours at Winchester. I attended public school there for a time. You will not remember me, for I was only a schoolboy, and we did not speak, but I certainly remember you!"

The butler re-entered the library looking rather breathless, as though he had been hunting high and low for his lordship, only to find him where he was meant to be.

"Ah, Stephens. Some claret, I think."

The butler bowed his way back out of the library and Viscount Penrith swept his arm wide, indicating the chairs. "Sit, Acklebury, please." He took a seat and Mr Acklebury followed suit, noting his lordship's use of only his surname, quite as if they were good friends.

"You once drew a picture of me," his lordship said, resuming the thread of his story.

Acklebury blinked, still trying to find his footing in this wholly unexpected conversation. "Did I?" he managed, then hastened to add, "My lord?"

"Yes, I am sure that you did. You sat and drew my friends and me one afternoon at that public house in the St Cross Road. You know the one--it had the most extraordinary name that we could never remember."

"The--the public house? You, my lord?" Mr Acklebury said in surprise, before he could stop himself.

Lord Penrith raised an eyebrow and for a moment, Mr Acklebury feared that he had given offence, but his lordship seemed unable to maintain the expression, and broke into a confiding smile. "My friends and I haunted the place."

The restraints that Viscount Penrith's very high rank would ordinarily have placed upon Acklebury's demeanour loosened considerably in the light of that smile. With some small measure of daring, Acklebury gave Lord Penrith a sideways glance and said, "I believe its situation near the college made it popular with truant schoolboys. I am sure you were not of that number. My lord."

He was relieved when Penrith laughed and said, "I assure you, I was!"

Feeling now more at his ease, Acklebury said, "It is quite possible that you did see me there. I would sometimes go there to sketch." He had drawn so many faces in those days! Perhaps he had sketched Lord Penrith; he did not recall, and could not therefore claim the same delight that his lordship seemed to feel in their meeting.

Lord Penrith gazed at him with a wondering scrutiny that began to make Acklebury uncomfortable. Then he gave his head a slight shake as if to clear it, and, resuming the brisk air with which he had entered the room, said, "Delighted though I am to meet you properly after all these years, I must not waste your time just now in reminiscence, for I asked you here on a matter of business. I saw your picture of Mrs Danforth. It was remarkable. I would like you to paint me."

Acklebury, though expecting this proposal, felt a surprising degree of delight in hearing it. To be offered a commission by a peer of the realm so early in his career was a great piece of good fortune, and he was very sensible of all the honour, and all the opportunity, that it represented, but he believed that he might agree to paint this young man's portrait even were he a clerk, for no artist would lightly turn away a subject so striking. He searched his mind for a proper response. "I am honoured by the faith you place in my abilities, my lord. It is perhaps more than they deserve."

"Nonsense!" Lord Penrith said, waving Mr Acklebury's modesty away. "I know Mrs Danforth. I know her rather well--since childhood, in fact--and I think I am among the few people who can say with certainty that your portrait of her is Lizzie to the very soul. She is a roguish thing, and I believe most people think her happy, but I know that she does not have what would make her happy. When I saw the picture, I recognised instantly the spirit of...of want in which you captured her."

Mr Acklebury found that he could say nothing to this without speaking of the lady herself, so he merely nodded, faintly shocked that his lordship would make so free with her character. His lordship was, however, correct in describing young Mrs Danforth as roguish and secretly unhappy in her marriage. She had attempted to seduce Mr Acklebury at each of her sittings, and was in every way scandalous. To Lord Penrith he said simply, "Painting her portrait was a most...interesting experience."

"Yes, I daresay." Lord Penrith leant back in his chair, his long legs thrust out across the figured carpet. He regarded Mr Acklebury for a long moment, still apparently in wonder at this reunion that he alone could appreciate.

Mr Acklebury took advantage of his lordship's momentary silence to note the planes of his face, the colouring of his skin and hair. His features individually were not especially good, Acklebury perceived. He had narrow, rather fox-like eyes, a too-broad forehead jutting out over a nose whose bridge seemed to be in just the wrong place, an irregular mouth, a long chin, and upswept eyebrows of an oddly foreign cast that reminded Mr Acklebury of the Slavic people he had sometimes seen in Venice. These features, however, combined to form a visage so suggestive of intelligence, enjoyment of life, and determinedness, that no-one could find it other than compelling. It was, Mr Acklebury thought, as handsome a face as he had ever seen. A palette of sienna and ochre and terre verte began to take shape in his mind: warm, earth pigments that would speak of this young man's apparent enjoyment of the out-of-doors, and of the strong, sensual nature that was written in his every movement.

"You are younger than I was given to believe," his lordship said.

Mr Acklebury started, and refrained with difficulty from saying that he had been thinking much the same thing. "My lord?"

"Being painted is dull work," Lord Penrith said in explanation. "You must forgive me for saying so, Acklebury, and I mean no offence towards your profession. It is just that it is difficult in the first place to be obliged to sit for long periods, but to do so in the company of some dry old fellow is the outside of enough. I should not have enjoyed that."

Acklebury could not keep a grin from his face at the prospect of young Lord Penrith sitting still for more than a few moments at a time. He bent his head to hide it, reflecting that in carrying out this commission, he would be grateful for Maestro Florio's insistence upon speed. "Rapidamente, Giovanni! Non pensi cosi tanto! Disegni! Disegni!" Acklebury could still hear him saying. Do not think so much. Draw! He assumed a more proper expression, but not, he thought, before his lordship had seen his amusement. "May I ask what sort of portrait your lordship has in mind?"

"My lordship," Viscount Penrith replied in a drawling tone, "wishes to be painted in...let us call it 'a state of disarray.' A state such as only his most intimate friends might ever observe." He swung one booted leg over the arm of his chair, dangling his wine glass from the tips of his fingers, and, from this sprawling slouch, regarded Acklebury frankly. His expression, indeed his entire demeanour, underwent a subtle change, and Acklebury began to understand how some of Caine's informants might view Lord Penrith as a rake. Society did not generally hold the term to imply anything that a man need be cautious of, but Mr Acklebury had learnt differently, and he felt an alert wariness.

"Disarray, my lord?" he finally managed to say.

"Yes, something like your picture of Lizzie."

"Mrs Danforth," Acklebury began, but his throat was dry and his voice was pitched higher than normal. He swallowed. "Mrs Danforth...was en negligée, my lord."

"Yes." Viscount Penrith seemed to find amusement in the matter, perhaps even in Acklebury's discomfiture, for his sardonic smile did not leave. Mr Acklebury looked away, feeling all at once that he was being importuned, though he could not point to any single thing in his lordship's words or manner that was definitely improper. Yet into his mind unbidden sprang the image of Fiorio's young male models, making eyes at him, some not troubling to hide the evident pleasure they took in being unclothed before il bel'inglese. He realised with a flush of hot embarrassment that Lord Penrith was looking at him in very much the same way, and the cause of his wariness was clear. Oh, this cannot be, he thought. Not again! I must not allow this. I must walk away now.

Even as he searched for words that would allow him an honourable escape from this suddenly disastrous interview, Mr Acklebury was sensible of a battle being joined within his breast: on one side, Maestro Fiorio passionately shouting that such a subject as Lord Penrith might never present itself again and that Giovanni was pazzo if he refused it; on the other, the Reverend Doctor George Acklebury looking on sadly as his son's fundamentally weak nature disappointed him once again.

"I have discomposed you, I see," Lord Penrith said.

"I beg your pardon, my lord. If I appear discomposed it is only because I do not think that I am the artist to do justice to the dignity of the house of Barringford." Mr Acklebury knew the argument was poorly chosen before he had even finished uttering it.

"The dignity of the family is hardly my object in this enterprise!" Lord Penrith instantly rejoined with a knowing smile. "Come, Mr Acklebury. Look at me and tell me if I strike you as someone who does not generally get what he wants."

Mr Acklebury looked, although he had already memorised the face. After a moment he became aware that his lips were parted in a very foolish fashion, and he closed them. "My lord," he said in some desperation, "I am sensible of the great honour you do me in offering me this commission. I beg you will believe me when I say that I am in no way prepared to fulfil it."

Lord Penrith burst into laughter. "Good God, man. I am not proposing marriage!"

Acklebury's eyes fell involuntarily closed in mortification, and he turned his face away. Dear God, he thought, let this end now! In the corner of his vision, he saw his lordship set his wine-glass down, swing his feet to the floor, and stand, giving Acklebury permission at last to do the same, and perhaps to salvage, in a quiet escape, the tattered remnants of his dignity.

Lord Penrith stepped forward and put a hand to Acklebury's upper arm, causing Acklebury almost to flinch away. "I am sorry," he said. "I have not lately been accused of being too friendly." He gave a sardonic little laugh. "On the contrary, I believe I am generally thought supercilious, but I feel as if I know you, and it has made me careless. Please, accept my apology."

Acklebury bowed, rather more rigidly than he would have liked, his embarrassment making his movements stiff.

"Come riding with me tomorrow."

"My lord?" Acklebury said, confused and keenly aware that his face must still be very flushed.

"Riding. I keep two saddle-horses in town. Both need exercise. Come tomorrow and ride with me in the park. We will leave the subject of this portrait, and reminisce together of Winchester. Do not say no."

Lord Penrith's laughter still rankled, and made Mr Acklebury feel disinclined to overcome the other obstacles to his enjoyment of such an outing: that he was but an indifferent horseman, that Lord Penrith's station was too high for him to be at ease in his society. However, as he had no wish to shame himself farther by making paltry excuses, he took a breath, and said with what grace he could muster, "Very well. Thank you. I will come."

"Excellent!" His lordship clapped his hands together and appeared genuinely pleased--almost relieved, Mr Acklebury would have said, as if the proposed outing meant a great deal to him. He turned and rang for his servant. "I ride at two or three o'clock. Come then."

Mr Acklebury refrained with some difficulty from saying, "Yes, my lord," as if in response to a royal command, and managed what he hoped was a more civil bow than previously. The butler appeared and conducted him to the entry, where he assisted him to don his coat, handed him his hat and gloves, and bowed him out into Half Moon Street.

The paving-stones were still damp from the morning's rain, and the March breeze provided a welcome coolness upon his hot face. He set out toward his lodgings in Marylebone, assailed by thoughts he could not instantly bring into order. He had told himself that the unseemly attention of other men was a peculiarity of the Venetian character, for Venice was a very decadent place; in the hope of not receiving such attentions any more, he had come home. Lord Penrith had, in half an hour's interview, proved to him the vanity of that hope.

Acklebury did not realise how greatly such thoughts preoccupied him until, at the end of Half Moon Street, he collided with a very finely-dressed gentleman and was obliged to beg his pardon profusely. He turned into Curzon Street and quickened his pace, for a brisk walk generally served to clear his mind. So long as he avoided a certain set of men, and a certain kind of attention, he told himself, he could avert the calamity to which his weaker nature inclined him. He was sure of it.

Feeling stouter in his resolution, Acklebury turned into Park Lane and began to take notice of the busy London day about him. Carriages bowled along, and fashionable people on foot and on horseback made their way into Hyde Park. One open barouche bore two ladies swathed in furs against the chilly afternoon, and as it passed, he recognised one of them as Mrs Danforth, though she did not see him. Had he not adroitly turned away her improper attentions? he asked himself now. It could be no more difficult to turn away someone else's.

A pair of ladies on foot, followed by a servant, cast him covert, admiring glances as they went by, so he smiled and tipped his hat to them. There. He could certainly choose whose society to cultivate! Once this ride tomorrow was done, Acklebury decided, he would politely decline the commission to paint Lord Penrith. Surely, if there were to be no portrait, there would be no occasion--no occasion whatever!--for a viscount to seek the society of a clergyman's son. Lord Penrith would take his commission to another, more celebrated, portraitist--Mr Lawrence, perhaps--and would trouble him no more.

That artist would probably make his lordship look forty years old, and unfashionable besides, but what was that to Mr Acklebury? Such an artist would be obsequious--for that was how one got a career painting the rich and the great--while ignoring Penrith's wishes, and the portrait would therefore be dull and good and of no particular note, because even in all the hours that artist and subject must spend together, that artist would not trouble to know Lord Penrith, not as Acklebury had already begun to know him.

Lord Penrith would accept the picture, and pay handsomely for it, for money was nothing to him and the portrait had surely been a whim in any case; it would be relegated to the end of some long hall of portraits at the Barringford estate in the north. Years would go by before his lordship commissioned another, perhaps on his accession to the earldom, and the world would have no true record of the splendour that was the young Tristan Jarrett, Viscount Penrith.

Mr Acklebury turned into Great Cumberland Place, sensible of a twinge of regret at the decision he knew he must make. By the time he arrived at his lodgings in Upper Berkeley Street, he knew that he would forever regret refusing the commission. As he mounted the stairs to the second floor, he had already begun composing the portrait of Viscount Penrith in his mind.

It was Wednesday, and Mr Acklebury tried to adhere to a practise, begun in Venice, of writing his personal letters on Wednesdays. As Wednesday was also his servant's half-day off, Mr Acklebury cleared a stack of sketches from his desk himself, found a pen and his inkstand, and began to write.

14, Upper Berkeley Street
Marylebone, London
18th March

Dear Maggie,

Father assures me that you go on very well, and Mama is in raptures over her impending grand-motherhood, so though I do not hear from you, my mind is pretty easy on the subject of your well-being. Still, you are very much in my prayers as your confinement approaches. How grown up we have become, you a clergyman's wife and almost a mama now, and I a painter of portraits!

My portrait of Mrs D has proved a success. People seem to have found it scandalous, which is what they love best. I did not, of course, set out to scandalise, but simply to portray the lady in that most difficult of lights: the one which shows the subject as she really is, and to advantage, at one and the same time.

Mr Acklebury paused to trim his pen, wondering if he ought to tell of the meeting he had just come from. He could not very well write home without mentioning the most important event of his week, so he went on:

Another commission seems to have come to me as a result of it: Viscount Penrith has asked me to paint him. It is the most extraordinary thing: he attended Winchester College, and says he remembers seeing me in the town. Whilst I consider whether to accept the commission, his lordship has asked me to ride out with him in Hyde Park tomorrow. I do not know whether I am at ease in such lofty society, and yet he seems genuinely to wish my farther acquaintance. Certainly, for my part, if I am to paint his portrait, I shall need to know more of the nature behind the face.

Would Meg read the agitation of his spirits in his words about Viscount Penrith? No, surely not! He was over-cautious, he told himself; his mind was not yet quite at ease after the disconcerting interview. He considered throwing the sheet into the fire, but on reading over his words a second time, he concluded that nothing untoward was in them. Nevertheless, he cast about for something to write that Meg would like better.

You may like to know that I dined with the Jenningses in Hartley Street again last week. They are agreeable, kind people, and have taken me into their hearts quite as if we were related by blood and not by a slight connection with Uncle Martin. I think you would like Miss Jennings, their daughter, for she is very intelligent, and she is moreover quite pretty. (Having grown up with you and Mama, I have never understood why so many men find this combination surprising.) One does not want for pleasant conversation at the Jennings house.

Mr Acklebury read again what he had written, and decided that it must do, for he had no wish to write it over.

I do not get on in my search for a studio, for the rent on even a small room in London is shocking and it would astonish you how few at any price have both a large, north window and a direction to which I could reasonably ask a patron such as Lord Penrith to come. I do not despair yet, but I must loosen my purse-strings, I think.

I close with a little drawing, for I am quite out of things to say, and would not wish in any case to bore you. Please give my regards to Phillip, and know that I am

Your loving brother,
John

He turned the sheet over and drew a sketch of the the landlord's cat perched upon his window-sill and looking out over Upper Berkeley Street, at the elegant, modern townhouses opposite, the public house on the corner, and a lady in a very large bonnet hurrying by below, the March breeze carrying her ribbons out behind her.

Chapter Text

London, March, 1818

 

Viscount Penrith stood at his library window and watched as his visitor walked away down Half Moon Street. It was co-incidence, nothing more, he told himself; the romantical notion of destiny now blossoming in his mind was very foolish.

He had entered his library that morning thinking only to make a business arrangement, to set a time to begin his portrait, and to get on with his daily ride before the rain came again. Instead, he had found the artist from Winchester--broader of shoulder, stronger of hand, sharper of cheekbone, to be sure, but the same person, and handsomer even than in Tristan Jarrett's youthful memory, if such a thing were possible--and the project to have a portrait made had become, in that instant, much more than the amusement Lizzie had proposed.

Penrith's butler came into the library, putting a period to his musings, and Penrith moved away from the window. "I shall ride now, Stephens."

"Very good, my lord."

The morning rain having let up, Hyde Park was crowded with strolling ladies and gentlemen eager for fresh air and what pale sunlight the March day could provide. Penrith was able to bring his horse to a brief trot along one of the less-frequented lanes, but anything more vigorous was impracticable. He nodded and tipped his hat to one or two of his acquaintance, but he was enjoying his own thoughts too much to fall in with any of them.

"Why, Penrith!" a merry voice cried. Lord Penrith was roused from his reverie to see two ladies in an open barouche, which had halted on the carriage-way before him.

"Lizzie! I beg your pardon. My wits were wandering." He bowed from his saddle toward Mrs Elizabeth Danforth, so very lately the subject of conversation.

"I knew they must be, for you just cut Lady Anne Renshaw."

Penrith looked, and saw Lady Anne on her temperamental black mare, retreating the way he had just come. "I shall write her a note and apologise," he told Lizzie. He looked enquiringly at her companion, whom he did not know.

"Alexandra, dear, allow me to present to you Viscount Penrith," Lizzie said to that young lady. "Penrith, this is Miss Lareton. She is a cousin of Danforth's from Warwickshire. She comes to us for her first Season."

The contrast between the two ladies in the carriage could scarcely have been more marked, for Mrs Danforth was a small, well-rounded young woman of Penrith's own age, with light brown curls, mischievous blue eyes, and a roguish dimple that appeared with each of her ready smiles. The other lady, not a day above eighteen, had the largest brown eyes and the longest neck Penrith had ever seen, and her dark hair was coiffed with a smooth elegance that accorded well with her very long-limbed, slender figure. As her only acknowledgement of Lord Penrith was to incline her head silently, and as her only ornament, other than those nature had favoured her with, was the gently stirring white fur collar of her pelisse, Penrith was forcibly reminded of a swan.

"I am afraid we must not expect his lordship to get down from his horse and walk alongside us," Lizzie said in tones of mock confidentiality clearly meant to make the swan-like young lady smile, "for I have never known him to choose conversation over exercise."

"Lizzie, you wound me!" Penrith said, taking up the bantering spirit. He noted that Miss Lareton still did not smile. Perhaps she was in awe of him; he had to remind himself sometimes that he was not a schoolboy on holiday in the great metropolis. "You know that nothing pleases me more than your society. Only Lucifer's restiveness prevents me from stopping just now." Miss Lareton's eyes widened slightly at the mention of his horse's name.

"As you say, Penrith. Well! Do not let me be the cause of any little difficulties between you and Lucifer!" Lizzie gave a peal of laughter. "Only remember, my dear: last week you promised me a waltz at Mrs Harcourt's ball, and I shall hold you to that promise."

"I shall endeavour not to fail you, Lizzie," he said. "Though I box this afternoon, and if someone plants me a facer, I shall have to beg off on the grounds of shocking bruises."

Lizzie gave a small shudder and closed her eyes. "Do not let that happen, dear," she said. Then her most roguish smile reappeared, and with a glance at Miss Lareton, she added more brightly, "Not that being a viscount, and very rich, and a fine horseman, are not all great inducements to admiration, but I should be sorry to see you spoil your handsome face!"

Penrith found that he did not care very much to be tied up in string and labelled so, presumably for the benefit of Miss Lareton. "Really, Lizzie," he said, but spared her any farther admonition, for she had been very kind to him, and was one of the few people he called friend.

Lizzie responded with a shrug and a guilty smile, and in a patent attempt to change the subject, she said, "Oh, I have secured Signorina Moretti to give a musical evening in May!"

She seemed very pleased, and though Penrith had not the first idea who Signorina Moretti might be and could hope only to be spared an evening of operatic singing, he supposed from Lizzie's tone that securing her was a social triumph, and so he said, "My felicitations. I am sure it will crown your efforts to out-do Mrs Carr as the first hostess in London."

With a laugh and a wave, Lizzie told her driver to move on. Penrith saluted her and her young companion with his riding crop as they drove away.

An hour in the park being far too sedate to consume his excess spirits or quell his oddly fanciful thoughts, Viscount Penrith proceeded next to Gentleman Jackson's pugilistic establishment. There he boxed with the Gentleman himself, watched and applauded by several other young sporting men who felt, as Lord Penrith did, the want of adequate exercise in London.

The large room was dim, its rough wood floor strewn with straw where men might perspire, and spit, and sometimes bleed. The onlookers smoked and laughed and placed private wagers on each bout, although Mr. Jackson did not approve of gambling and said that his establishment was for the physical and moral betterment of his clientèle.

Lord Penrith flattered himself that he was a good pugilist: fast, intelligent, and strong, with excellent reflexes; Gentleman Jackson, who did not mince words or spare the tender feelings of any of his patrons, no matter how highly placed, had said so, deeming Lord Penrith a "right 'un". Today, however, Mr Jackson huffed, "Do not be a fool, my lord. Mind your bloody left!" and, when his lordship did not adequately do so, landed a sound blow under his left that knocked the breath out of him. "I do not know if there is a lady in the case," Jackson went on, "or only a bottle, but you want a bit for concentration today, m'lord."

In response to this, Lord Penrith could only wince through a tight, ironic smile and redouble his efforts. "Ah! That is better!" Jackson said, as Penrith blocked him at last and managed to return a blow that very nearly connected.

Breathing hard and sweating, Lord Penrith finished his sparring bout, and as he wiped himself dry and threw his coat back on, he became gradually sensible of having had Mr John Acklebury in his mind throughout. There was something in the manner of that mild clergyman's son, some glint of humour in his eye, that said he would not stand a great deal on ceremony where he was easy and among friends, and that he would not hesitate to twit him, as Jackson had done, on his lack of concentration in the ring. It was not very surprising, therefore, when on wondering if there were enough time left in the afternoon to take himself off to Signor Pellerino's fencing academy in the Strand, the imaginary Mr Acklebury gave him a bland look and said, "No, you great blockhead, there is not, for you must still dine, and dress for Mrs. Harcourt's ball."

"Oh, very well," Penrith answered him in his mind, and, as Acklebury's real company was impossible of attainment, enjoyed its imaginary counterpart all the way home.

***

Mrs Harcourt's ball was a crush by the time Lord Penrith arrived, just before eleven o'clock. He stopped at the head of the short set of stairs leading down into the crowded ballroom, and from this vantage point, he did not instantly perceive anybody he cared to speak to. It was unpleasantly warm, as ballrooms generally were, with vast numbers of people dancing, and hundreds of candles. The orchestra was playing a quadrille, though it was hard to hear above the din of so many conversations.

Dancing, ordinarily a pastime that Lord Penrith enjoyed well enough, tonight seemed the dullest thing in creation. Everyone was dressed alike, ladies in pale, fluttery gowns with silly things in their hair, just so much merchandise on display in a shop window; gentlemen in black and white, making the polite gestures that allowed them to pretend they were not simply examining the female goods. The transaction seemed to Penrith unspeakably tawdry and insipid. He wondered that he had not remarked it before.

When had he stopped enjoying balls and parties? He could remember laughter, and rooms nearly as crowded as this one, and something like enjoyment, from those unwholesome days at Cambridge before he had come to his senses. It had been only a counterfeit of happiness, a submersion of his grief in gambling, and drink, and sensuality, and though he had no wish to return to such things, or to such friends, he missed the society.

As if arising out of one of his uncomfortable memories, a familiar voice addressed him. "Penrith! As I live and breathe, now at last this shocking party can begin."

Lord Penrith turned to see Robert Allen, Viscount Westhill, examining him through a ridiculous lorgnette. Westhill, a slight, well-made gentleman whom Penrith had known most of his life, had been on the periphery of his wild set at Cambridge. Nowadays he affected the most exquisite style of dress and the most fastidious manners, and set himself up as an arbiter of taste and propriety. "Oh, Westhill. Good evening," Penrith said. He was aware that his tone was uncivil, and found that he did not particularly care. "I trust I see you well."

Westhill waved this away. "Tolerably well, I thank you. It is all over town, Penrith, that you are to be painted by Mr Acklebury."

Lord Penrith was startled out of his ennui. "How the devil did you--" he began. It was not like Lizzie to gossip, and no-one else knew. "Everyone is to be painted by Mr Acklebury," he finished in his best bored tones. "It is not extraordinary."

Westhill looked delighted by his accidental confirmation. "Ah! But you, my dear Penrith, are before the rest of us. Why, the oh-so-respectable Mr Acklebury becomes positively interesting with your patronage." Westhill craned his neck to look beyond Penrith. "Is he here?"

"I have only just come through the door. I do not know who is here," Penrith said, annoyed by the unspoken supposition in Westhill's question. True, he had just been thinking that Acklebury's company might make the evening more tolerable, but that could not possibly be apparent to any one else.

"It is the most extraordinary thing!" Westhill went on avidly, raising his voice a little above the renewed hubbub. The quadrille had ended, and the dancers were leaving the floor. "Do you know, as he turned from Half Moon Street this afternoon into Curzon Street, Mr Acklebury collided with Mr Denham?"

"Indeed?" Penrith said, still affecting a disinterest he did not entirely feel, for whatever his thoughts of Acklebury, he would have liked to witness this amusing encounter. Acklebury was a significantly taller and more substantial man than the exquisite Mr Denham, and a collision between them would almost certainly have ended very much in the artist's favour.

"Yes. Denham said that Acklebury seemed to be in a state of great confusion." Westhill invested these words with a world of meaning, looking up at Viscount Penrith and raising his lorgnette again. "Your townhouse is in Half Moon Street, I believe, Penrith, is it not?"

Here, then, was the source of the rumour. Penrith did not deign to answer this purely rhetorical question, for Westhill knew perfectly well that he lived in Half Moon Street. "Really, Allen," he said. "Has your appetite for scandal grown so large that you perceive it where it does not exist?"

"Certainly not, Jarrett," Westhill replied in kind. He tapped his lower lip with the lorgnette. "It is possible, however, that I perceive it where it simply does not exist yet."

Penrith looked at him for a long moment. "Do you accuse me of some impropriety, Westhill? You?"

Lord Westhill was not so easily cowed. He raised his eye-glass again and surveyed Penrith through it in an impertinent manner that even their equality of rank could not excuse. "I accuse you of nothing, Lord Penrith. But do not forget that I knew you at Cambridge. Neither of us, I think, may cast a stone."

However little Penrith cared to hear himself thus summed up in the same column with the likes of Westhill and his set, he could not pretend that in the eyes of God and the judgement of civil society they were not similar in certain unspoken respects. Indeed, their only surety against exposure and ruin, other than honour, was that they had encountered one another at parties and in precincts where men of more acceptable persuasion were never found, and could, therefore, do each other equal damage.

Finally Penrith said, as evenly as he could, "You and I, Lord Westhill, may say what we like about one another and expect to do no harm except in branding ourselves gossips and making ourselves unworthy of respect." He allowed this to hang in the air between them for a moment, as the crush of ball-goers shifted around and past them, and the orchestra began to play a waltz. "Mr Acklebury, on the other hand, has not the protections of title and wealth that you and I enjoy. He can be harmed by talk." Penrith took a step toward Westhill, sensible of the threatening air he thus presented, and added, "Do not bandy his name about." He gave his coldest bow and turned away.

Mrs Harcourt's ball suddenly lost whatever slight power it might have had to amuse his lordship. Westhill would already be looking for someone to regale with the interesting news that Viscount Penrith had been warm in his defence of the painter. By tomorrow, people would be dredging up old rumours from Cambridge, and within two days, Mr Acklebury's name would be linked in many minds to his own, in a manner certain to be distasteful to Acklebury, and very likely to be damaging. Penrith chided himself severely for having spoken. Indifference! he reminded himself. Indifference and silence were the only shield and weapon against talk.

A gloved hand touched his sleeve. Lizzie Danforth, in a revealing gown, stood smiling up at him. "The waltz! I promised you a waltz!" he said, wishing that he had made no such promise, for nothing could have appealed to him less in that moment.

"I shall redeem my voucher now, Tristan, for I perceive that you have already tired of Mrs Harcourt's ball and I shan't have another chance."

He used the space of his formal bow to smooth away his scowl. He loved Lizzie dearly, but waltzing with a lady more than a foot shorter than oneself must always be a little awkward, and it was unflattering to the lady to appear to be scowling as one did so.

They entered the dance. "I long to know, Penrith," Lizzie said as soon as the music and the whirling of the waltz created a private space about them, "whether you have thought more about my idea."

"Do you mean your idea that I should have my picture made by your portraitist? Or your idea that it is time for me to cultivate one or two new friends? Well, it does not matter, for the answer is yes: I have given a good deal of thought to both of your ideas. You know I regard what you say, Lizzie, unless it is about dresses."

She swatted him playfully upon the upper arm. "Well? We shall not very often be more private than this, Penrith. Tell me!"

"I met with Acklebury this morning." he said, guiding her toward a less crowded corner of the floor.

Lizzie's eyes widened, and her lips parted in a delighted gasp. "And did you find him agreeable? That is--" She tried to make her expression into one that was less avid, but did not entirely succeed. "That is, does he agree to paint you?"

"I think any objections he has may be overborne. You will be happy to know that I have invited him to ride with me tomorrow. I shall talk him around to it, I think."

Lizzie laughed delightedly at this. "You once nearly talked me into eating a worm, so I do not doubt your powers of persuasion!"

"I did no such thing!" he protested, though it was a story that she loved to tell. They danced past the place where Miss Lareton stood with one or two other young ladies, and Penrith realised that if he did not make an immediate retreat from the ball after this waltz, his failure to dance with all of them would be viewed in the nature of a crime. "You intimated that he was dull, Lizzie. In fact, I have heard that in more than one quarter, and yet I did not perceive it myself. You led me to suppose him a staid old fellow. He is scarcely any older than we are!"

"Well, he was quite vicarish toward me," Lizzie said.

Penrith could imagine what she might have done to bring out such a quality in a gentleman of Acklebury's modest temperament, but only looked at her, saying nothing.

"Well, he was! So I took it into my head that you might enjoy his society."

"Why? Am I vicarish too?"

She looked up at him. Her cheeks were rosy from the exertions of the dance, her eyes sparkled, and she looked very pretty. He was glad that she was married and no longer had those expectations of him that had seemed to blossom for a time in their youth. "No, Tristan, you are not vicarish. And I do not think Mr Acklebury is either, not really. I am sure that you will meet another side of him."

The strains of the waltz drew to an end. Penrith led Lizzie to her friends and bowed himself away as quickly as he could, making a note to attend no more balls if he could avoid them.

As it was scarcely yet midnight, an hour which did not customarily find Lord Penrith in his bed, he sent his coachman home, for such was the press of traffic in Grosvenor Square that driving would be impracticable for the next two hours. He walked the half mile or so through Mayfair, lively with carriages and people, to Madame Fournier's, a favourite gaming establishment in Duke Street.

He wondered if Acklebury played cards, and thought that, as the son of a noted clergyman, he probably did not gamble. He had not seemed at all prudish or severe; rather modest, it must be said, but not prudish. Penrith found himself looking forward to their ride together on the morrow. He would make up for discomposing the poor fellow with a perfectly respectable jaunt in the park. It had been far too long since he had practised the art of making friends, but he thought he still remembered how to do it.

In this agreeable state of mind, he gained admittance to Madame Fournier's card-rooms. The place was almost as crowded as Mrs Harcourt's ballroom had been, though there were only a few ladies present, and no music, and a good deal of smoke. He espied his old school-friend Taunton at one of the tables and made his way there. "Ah! Penrith. Capital!" Taunton said. "Join us! Bickerstaff here has just lost that pretty mare of his to Throckmorton, and must leave the table before his father-in-law cuts him off entirely."

It was the counterfeit of enjoyment, he knew as he took Bickerstaff's place at the table and was dealt into the game, but it was preferable to going home, where he had only a house full of servants for company.

Penrith had not been long at the table when a gentleman by the name of Phillips made his excuses, having found the play too deep for his purse, and ceded his place to another. Penrith looked up, and stared. "Murray," he said after a moment, in what he hoped was a suitably cool tone of voice, for he was badly surprised.

"My lord," Charles Murray replied smoothly. "Why, this is pleasant indeed! I declare I have not seen you in--well, how long has it been?"

It had been nearly three years, Penrith realised. When he did not immediately provide this information, Murray looked around the table with a lazy smile and said, "Gentlemen, I do not think Lord Penrith wishes me in his game. Perhaps someone else--?"

"Do not distress yourself, Murray," Penrith said. He could not put a name to the reeling sensation that was making his hands unsteady and his voice too sharp; shock, or anger, or shame, or perhaps an amalgamation of these. "You have as good a right to throw your money away at this table as any one else." To his dismay, more words poured from him. "I would not dream of sending you off. You may, of course, leave if you are ill at ease in playing with me." Penrith shoved his last hand toward Throckmorton, who was to deal the next round, knowing that the gesture must appear peevish. Murray's expression was one of inordinate satisfaction. Mr Throckmorton, the winner of Bickerstaff's mare, cleared his throat.

"Deal the cards," Penrith snapped, and for a few moments their table was an island of silence in the sea of noise that was Madame Fournier's card room. Penrith felt an impatient energy in his limbs, and only a strong habit of courtesy kept him from throwing his cards down and stalking away from the table.

"You are looking very well," Murray ventured. As Murray looked very much worse than he had at their last meeting, Penrith could only incline his head in acknowledgement of the compliment, for he could not return it. Murray had a debauched air, as if those habits of excess and self-indulgence that had characterised him at Cambridge had grown with time rather than diminishing with age and responsibility. Indeed, after Murray had glanced at his cards, before even placing a wager, he was gesturing for a drink, and it was clearly far from his first of the evening.

Penrith held an excellent hand; as he became absorbed in the game, his agitation subsided and he was able to look at Charles with something like disinterest. His features were, at--Penrith calculated--twenty-eight years of age, blurred into a mere memory of the handsome charm they had possessed at the age of twenty-three. His skin was very brown, his hair both much lighter and much longer than Penrith remembered. This condition gave credence to old rumours of Murray's exile to the West Indies, and Taunton verified them by asking Murray whether the play in Antigua had been any good.

"I do not know, for I was in Jamaica," Murray replied, glancing at Penrith as if to gauge his reaction to this news. Penrith made none.

"Did not your father send you to attend to his cotton-fields?" Taunton asked. Baron Taunton scarcely tolerated persons like Murray who were removed by but a single generation and a vast sum of money from their origins in trade. Mr Murray's manners, however, were generally pleasing in company, and he wore extremely good clothes, and rode well, and so Lord Taunton bore him with a bare modicum of courtesy.

"The Murray fortune is founded upon sugar, not cotton," Penrith said, "and I am sure that Mr Murray will oblige us all with a discourse upon the running of a sugar-cane plantation when we are not playing cards."

Murray laughed. "His lordship is correct in saying that there is sugar and not cotton at the bottom of my father's coffers--"

"--and yet you land soft," jested Mr Throckmorton, to the great merriment of several standers-by.

Murray grinned at this interruption. "--but he is quite wrong in supposing that I would ever discourse upon so dull a subject as the running of an estate." Here, Mr Murray gave Penrith a private smile. "For I knew nothing about such things before I went to the West Indies, and I know nothing about such things now."

There had been mornings in Charles' rooms at Cambridge, pleasant ones, Penrith would have said, when he had pored over drawings of Ravensworth, read portions of David's old letters aloud to Charles, and spoken of carrying out what his late brother had intended for the ancient manor. Perhaps he had been too avid, spoken too much of a project that held little interest for anyone else, but for Murray to mock him now with those natural excesses of a grieving heart was merely callous.

Penrith remembered finding Charles' scathing opinions amusing, in the days when those cruel jibes had been directed at others, and this reflection caused him some discomfort now. He reordered the cards in his hand, discarded one, and accepted another from Throckmorton, then added to his wager.

For two hands, he took money from Mr Murray's seemingly endless supply, but Murray's words rankled, and soon his mind was not fully engaged in the game. When a lamentable lapse of concentration resulted in the loss of a hundred guineas on the turn of a single card, he decided that the evening had gone on long enough.

"Sadly, I have not Mr Murray's resources," Penrith said, laying down his hand and rising, "and so I must cede my place to someone else. I wish you all better luck. Good night."

The London night was relatively fresh after the close and smoky confines of Madame Fournier's house. A light fall of rain had cleared the air and washed the pavements, and oblongs of yellow gaslight were reflected up from their wet surfaces with a pleasing regularity along the deserted street. As Madame Fournier's doorman sent to find a link-boy, Penrith took a deep breath and paced a short distance along Duke Street. He was dismayed, but not very surprised, when only a few steps from the door of the club, he heard Murray's voice.

"Tristan!" Murray called, hurrying up behind him. Penrith halted. All of his earlier anger surged up in him again, unclouded now by shock. He rounded on Murray, seized him by the lapels and shoved him rather more forcefully than he had intended against the iron gate of the townhouse in front of which they stood.

"What do you want, Charles?" Penrith asked quietly.

"I do not want anything. I only wished a civil word. Nothing more." His expression was appeasing and his voice had a wheedling quality that Penrith had quite forgotten about.

Penrith stepped very close to him, bringing their two faces only inches apart, and did not loosen his grip upon Murray's coat. "Unlike you, Charles, I am not drunk. Unlike yours, my mind is clear. You do not want a civil word. You want what you always wanted of me."

Murray had the effrontery to try a sweet smile. It did not accord nearly so well with his features today as it had once done. He put his hands on Penrith's coat-front and said, "Naturally I have only the fondest memories of our friendship, Tristan. I would gladly renew it."

Viscount Penrith leant close enough to smell the brandy on Murray's breath, and see clearly the distension and redness in his eyes. "Our 'friendship,' as you please to call it, ended very decisively on the day I awoke to a note in your hand explaining that your inheritance depended upon our being friends no more."

Murray swallowed and his eyes flicked from Penrith's eyes to his mouth.

"Inasmuch as your father is still among the living, and may change his will as he pleases, how is it that a renewal of our friendship will not threaten your inheritance today as it did three years ago?"

"No-one need know," Charles said, his hand now caressing Penrith's coat-front. "I heard that you were quite broken up by my departure," he said. "Why, the excesses you committed after I had gone were practically the stuff of legend. I believe the period ended with your sister-in-law dragging you away from Cambridge before you could be sent down for good."

Penrith stepped back. He could not deny the substance of those stories, but, thanks to Charlotte's patience and kindness, he had got beyond them, and had spent the last three years living in a way that would make society forget them. He said, "Such distress as I may have felt led me soon enough to a sense of my duty to my title and my estates."

Charles, clearly disbelieving, gave a small giggle. "Your title! When I knew you, it was ever 'David's title,' and 'David's estates', and you did not want either of them. Do you take your place in Parliament?" A glance at Penrith's face gave him his answer and he cried, "Oh good God, you do! How dull you have become, Tristan!"

Penrith found to his surprise that he did not care anymore whether Charles Murray found him dull. "I am Viscount Penrith," he said. "If ever you earned the right to address me by my Christian name, you relinquished it long ago. I do not renew that privilege. I will thank you, Mr Murray, not to importune me any more." He began to walk away, but a hand upon his shoulder stayed him.

"My lord!" Murray said, his voice now desperate. Penrith turned to see his features opened into a pleading, ingratiating expression that he remembered well. "You cannot know the pressures that were applied to me. You cannot expect me to have ignored the threat of being cut off without a penny! You! Who are secure in your station! Do not condemn me so quickly--"

Penrith interrupted him. "Quickly?" he repeated. "Do you think I condemned you quickly?" He turned and took an agitated step, aware that his voice had risen to a level unsuited to the silent night-time street. "I missed you, Charles! I did not know who I was without you. You had separated me from my friends until there was only you, and when you left, I was wretched."

"Then--" Charles began, reaching a hand out again to touch him, to draw him back in.

Penrith cut him off. "I did not condemn you quickly!" He faced Charles again. "I did not condemn you at all, though I ought to have done. And now? Now you condemn yourself. Your drunkenness, your perfect disregard for the source of the fortune you throw away--you condemn yourself."

Charles' hopeful expression was fading to one of dismay, and Penrith added in softer tones, "We were not friends, Charles. Never friends. We were--we were as a drug to one another, that is all."

"That is absurd!" Charles cried, though doubt was clear in his eyes. In a cajoling, almost sing-song voice, he said, "I have taken a house in Cavendish Square. The servants are very discreet. Come. Come with me tonight."

Penrith swallowed. Many months had passed without any but the most solitary satisfaction, and his sense of privation was strong. He did not know whether he was sorry or glad for the sound of approaching footsteps, but from long habit of secrecy, he drew away when he heard them, and the space that this action put between him and Charles gave him the strength to say, "No, Charles. I say again: do not importune me any more."

Charles let his hand fall slowly as he searched Penrith's face. "You have changed," he said.

"And you have not."

The doorman came hurrying up with a link-boy in tow, and Penrith walked away, leaving Charles standing in Duke Street. No sound of footsteps followed, but in the empty street, Murray's voice was clear enough. "You could never stay away, my lord. You will be back, I will wager a large sum upon it."

Penrith hunched his shoulders and turned his collar up, the better to shield himself from that insinuating voice that had once had a such power over him. The little link-boy, in a high, reedy voice, said. "Davies Street or Grosvenor Square, guv'nor?" in Cockney accents so decided that Penrith had to puzzle out his words for a moment before understanding that the boy wished to know which way he preferred to take going home.

"Davies Street," Penrith told him. The boy held his torch aloft and set off, half-running to keep a pace or two ahead of his lordship's long strides. By this late hour, the traffic leading away from Grosvenor Square had thinned to a bare trickle, and only a few late carriages were to be seen.

"Have you got friends, boy?" Penrith asked, as they passed before the houses that lined Berkeley Square.

The link-boy, whom Penrith judged to be anywhere from eight or nine years old to a poorly-fed thirteen, turned a grubby face to look up at Penrith. "Yes, m'lord," he answered without hesitation. "I've got two."

"And do you stand up for one another, the three of you?"

"Oh, yes, m'lord, for one of 'em's me brother, and we all stick together."

"Do you laugh and go about together--when you are not employed, I mean?"

The boy was looking at him askance, and Penrith supposed that those who used his services did not as a rule speak to him. He had certainly never spoken to a link-boy before, except to give an instruction, and he was not entirely sure what made him do so now.

"I reckon we do, m'lord, often enough," the boy said.

"That is good. Do not lose them."

"No, m'lord," the link-boy said with a shrug and an ill-concealed glance of pity, as if to say that Lord Penrith and all his kind were sadly lacking in wits.

Lord Penrith's encounter with Charles had taken a toll upon his spirits, and he was very tired. As he came up the front steps of his townhouse, Stephens opened the door to him, and, despite his obvious sleepiness, appeared happy that his lordship was safely home. Stephens paid the link-boy, and Penrith did not apprise him of the fact that he had already given the boy ten times his usual wage, for the sentimentality that had prompted him to do so was not what he wished his butler to know about. The boy doused his torch, doffed his cap and ran off.

Penrith went up to his dressing-room, where his valet, Cooper, roused himself from a sitting doze to help him out of his formal attire. "I hope you had a pleasant evening, my lord," he murmured.

"It was well enough," Lord Penrith replied, "but I am glad it is done." He sat quietly as Cooper combed his hair. "I ride tomorrow in the park with Mr Acklebury, Cooper. It is my wish not to...overawe him."

"I understand, my lord. The dun-coloured serge, perhaps. And the brown carriage hat."

"Yes, that will do."

Viscount Penrith retired and Cooper drew the curtains tightly closed, that no ray of light might disturb his lordship before he cared to rise in in the morning. Penrith set thoughts of Charles Murray aside, and allowed far more pleasant thoughts of Mr John Acklebury to carry him off to sleep.

Chapter Text

London, March 1818

As his needs were modest and his income small, Mr Acklebury employed only one servant, a man of broad talents and remarkable discretion, by the name of Marchbanks. Marchbanks had served in the late Peninsular Wars, attending to a valiant lieutenant who had lost first his leg, then his life, at Roncévaux. Marchbanks, upon returning to England mostly unscathed but almost entirely silent, had difficulty finding employment, and was nearing destitution when Acklebury engaged him. He was a fair cook, an excellent barber, and, by dint of his several years' service to an officer in Wellington's army, a valet of no mean accomplishment.

On the morning of the nineteenth of March, Marchbanks, who had a way of anticipating Mr Acklebury's inclinations, laid out the suit of old clothes that were fit only for painting, and helped Mr Acklebury to put these on when he had risen and washed.

"I am to ride this afternoon with Lord Penrith," Mr Acklebury said as Marchbanks poured his coffee and placed a basket of warm rolls before him. "Is my grey coat presentable?"

"It is, sir."

"I should prefer not to shame myself or embarrass Lord Penrith in his choice of friends by appearing unfashionable."

Marchbanks, as was his wont, said nothing to this.

"I shall paint this morning, I think," Acklebury went on. "Do not let me forget my engagement. You know how I lose sight of the time."

Three hours later, Marchbanks knocked at the door and Mr Acklebury returned to the present with a start. "Good Lord! Is it that time already?"

He looked about him. He had accomplished no useful work. He ought to have been finishing the portrait of the Carr children, which commission he had undertaken as soon as Mrs Danforth's picture was ready. But the Carr children were not at ease with him nor he with them, and Mr Acklebury was uninspired by the project. Instead, sheets from his sketching block were scattered across the table and the floor, and upon each of these was a representation of some part of a male figure: a hand, a head, a pair of shoulders seen from the back in a high-collared coat, a leg in a polished boot.

Acklebury did not know precisely what Lord Penrith had meant by "disarray," and, despite his best efforts to turn his thoughts elsewhere, he had passed a good portion of the night imagining everything from windblown hair, to an unbuttoned waistcoat or a loosened neck-cloth, to a déshabille more or less entire. The last possibility, unthinkable yesterday, had become the subject of Mr Acklebury's intense fascination during the course of the night, and one or two of the sketches that had drifted to the floor were representative of Acklebury's ideas along this line: a bare forearm and hand, the lithe line of muscle running from a knee to a thigh, a strong and bony foot.

Acklebury had drawn enough of the human form both in and out of clothing to have a very good idea of the musculature and bone structure that Lord Penrith's finely tailored clothes at once concealed and advertised. He had such a keen eye for the nuances of colour that he felt prepared to mix a palette for Lord Penrith's skin and hair from memory, and to wager that it would be accurate.

Mr Acklebury was, by his own estimation, in the throes of an unhealthy enthusiasm for an undertaking that yesterday had been distressing to him. He wished very strongly to paint Lord Penrith, and he knew that his peace, so recently restored by his return to England, would be broken up entirely if he accepted the commission. Lord Penrith would surely honour his word and not raise the subject of the portrait during the afternoon's ride, Acklebury thought. He did not think he was master enough of himself today to make the right decision.

As a painter, he was more pleased with his drawings than not, but he was sensible of a need for prudence. He hoped that this unwelcome turn of mind would run its course as it had done before, and return him to a more tranquil state. Until that time, he thought it best to draw no attention to it. He hastened to gather the telling sketches and place them between pressing-boards, and these, he buckled shut.

He washed his hands, scrubbed and trimmed his finger-nails, and had Marchbanks shave him closely. He put off his old painting clothes, donned what Marchbanks had laid out for him, and allowed Marchbanks to brush his hair into a more fashionable state than he might have achieved by himself. After taking a moment's extra trouble with his neck-cloth at the mirror in the entry hall, Mr Acklebury left his lodgings in as pressed, fresh, and polished a state as Marchbanks could contrive.

At half past two, he arrived for the second time in as many days at number 10, Half Moon Street, trusting that when his lordship had mentioned two or three o'clock, he had not meant, by some code that Mr Acklebury was not fashionable enough to understand, a later hour. Acklebury knocked, and tugged at his collar, which felt suddenly too tight.

The butler ushered him to the drawing room. "Mr Acklebury, my lord," he announced.

Lord Penrith was standing at the window, looking out at the street. He was dressed again for riding, in pale, form-fitting breeches and a dun-coloured coat. He turned from the window and Acklebury found himself struck anew by the artistic beauty of his lordship's powerful, athletic frame.

"Mr Acklebury," Lord Penrith said, with a very slight bow and the barest hint of a smile. "You are prompt. Excellent."

Acklebury noted that he had become "Mr," and told himself that his lordship's polite, disinterested greeting was a relief after yesterday's excess of informality. He returned Lord Penrith's bow.

"Stephens," his lordship said to the waiting butler, "we shall ride at once." Then he turned to Acklebury and said, "I am eager to get out while the sun shines. Cooper, my valet and a man with an uncanny knack for the weather, tells me there will be rain before sunset."

"Indeed, my lord. Sunshine is rare enough in March that we must seize it while we can." Acklebury wished the commonplace sentiment back in the moment he uttered it, but he could find no remedy for it. Everything else that occurred to him to say was equally insipid.

Lord Penrith was polite enough to disregard his conversational deficiency, and to supply the lack from his own store of volubility. "It was good of you to agree to accompany me on my ride today. I go out most days while I am in town. One cannot truly exercise a horse, or indeed oneself, in Hyde Park, but one must get out of doors! And to make up for the lack of real riding, one must have conversation and companionship. Do you not agree?"

His lordship's expression as he spoke was civil, but lurking just behind it there seemed to be a good deal of delight. Acklebury was reminded of the louvred shutters on an Italian window, unable entirely to prevent the sun's insistent rays from pressing through at its cracks, and, heartened by this observation, he rejoined, "Oh certainly, my lord. And a conversation without a companion only startles the passersby. Or so I have found."

Lord Penrith looked at him quizzically, a half-incredulous smile on his face. Then he laughed, and it was as if the louvres had been thrown open, filling the room with sunshine. Acklebury could perceive in his lordship's face the schoolboy who, after all, could not yet be very many years gone. Lord Penrith clapped Acklebury on the shoulder. "You surprise me, Mr Acklebury!" he exclaimed.

Their laughter echoed from the cold marble of the townhouse's elegant entry as the butler helped Lord Penrith to put on his coat. Acklebury perceived a look of surprise, and, he was sure, of approbation, upon the butler's features that was quickly smoothed over again. Did the servants in this great house never see their master merry?

His lordship's horses were beautiful creatures, as Acklebury had been sure they would be: lithe and powerful, tall, and highly bred, perfectly suited to Lord Penrith. A groom stood holding both horses' heads in the street outside. There was a pale, dappled mare that his lordship called Queen Mab and indicated Acklebury should ride; and a thoroughbred stallion, provocatively named Lucifer, which he mounted himself. Acklebury got up, hoping as he did so that he still had a creditable seat. He did not ride in town and had almost never ridden during his four years in Italy, and he was out of practise. He could not help noticing the easy grace with which his lordship swung up into the saddle and wheeled about toward the park.

The morning's pristine fairness was beginning to give way to an amassing of clouds on the eastern horizon, but as their horses walked sedately side by side along Picadilly, the day was still bright and dry.

"You did not go to Winchester College, I believe," Lord Penrith said.

Acklebury wondered how far his lordship's enquiries about him had extended. "No, my lord. I was educated at home. I, and my twin sister."

It was not uncommon for people, when apprised of his being one of twins, to exclaim over that fact, and Acklebury had learnt not to mention it unless he wished to hear the commonplaces that invariably followed. Oddly, however, Viscount Penrith said, "You have no brothers, then?"

"No, my lord. We are a small family." Not wishing to leave him with so short an answer to a question that seemed clearly to indicate a real interest in knowing him better, Acklebury added, "Meg--my sister, Margaret--is married now, to a clergyman in Winchester. She approaches her first confinement."

"I wish her well," his lordship said, his face and voice evincing a surprising concern.

"Thank you, my lord. I shall convey your kind words."

Acklebury began to fear that their entire conversation would unfold along these same stilted lines, with the nobleman politely asking questions of the clergyman's son, and the clergyman's son giving brief, unexceptionable answers. He did not know how to prevent it, for he could think of no topic he might properly introduce with a viscount, no matter how young, or how sunny his smile, that would not lead down equally uninspired paths.

Lord Penrith, perhaps similarly hoping for more stimulating discourse, once again took the reins of the conversation, turning in his saddle and saying, "Since Mrs Danforth first told me about you, I have been wondering how it is that you came to study under a Venetian painting master."

Acklebury was delighted to be asked about this singular adventure in his life, and thought a moment, wondering how best to frame the tale. "I was at Oxford for two years," he began. "Happily, my father had by then abandoned his hope of my following in his footsteps to become a clergyman, for never was anyone less suited to that path than I, and so I did not go to Divinity, but to please him I undertook to study philosophy and languages."

Lord Penrith was listening with every appearance of interest, his open countenance and eager half-smile speaking of a genuine desire to hear more, so Acklebury went on. "At the end of my first year, I was drawing in a public-house--" here Viscount Penrith grinned, causing Acklebury to smile and add, "--a pastime of mine that you are familiar with!--when an extraordinary gentleman approached me and entered into a discussion of art."

That art was not the only discussion which that gentleman had tried to enter into with him was certainly not a part of the present story, John thought. "He was Venetian, travelling through Europe and painting. He was generous enough to say that he perceived some small talent in my work, and in the course of several meetings and conversations, he encouraged me to improve my skills in Italy."

"Do I understand, then, that you spent another year at Oxford before acting upon this advice?" Lord Penrith asked as they came to the Serpentine Road. Acklebury was both startled and flattered at this evidence of how acutely his lordship was listening to his little tale.

"I am afraid so," Acklebury replied. "It took me a month to speak of it to my father, who did not wish me to leave Oxford, and another two months before I could bring myself to the point of writing to the painting-master whom Signor Cavalieri--that was the Venetian gentleman's name--had recommended me to. It was three more months before Maestro Fiorio was able to reply. He refused me without ceremony."

"I am very avid, then, to learn how you came to spend four years in his workshop. Come--let us follow along the water," his lordship said, directing Lucifer to the path that parallelled the Serpentine. Few people walked there, and they were able to continue riding side-by-side.

"It was simple, really, though I sometimes look back on it in wonder, for my actions were quite contrary to my nature. I caused a portfolio of my drawings to be sent to him. He refused me again--wrote his refusal across one of my drawings, if you please!--and added that he had no time for Englishmen. Well, he was rather coarser than that." Acklebury was enjoying telling his story to an auditor as appreciative as Lord Penrith seemed to be. "So I went to Venice and knocked at his door."

A silence followed this disclosure. Acklebury glanced at Lord Penrith, to find him blinking in very evident surprise. "You astonish me, Acklebury! And did he accept you as his pupil then?"

"Not at once. But I returned every day, and paid him to let me stay and draw his models along with his two Italian apprentices. I believe he thought me a dilettante, and it is true that I knew very little and had never really dirtied my hands with art--that is how he put it; he said my hands were too clean, you see--but I returned again and again, and one day he pointed to an enormous stone mortar and told me to occupy myself grinding the oils, and that is how I began."

"That is an extraordinary story!" Penrith exclaimed. "I am all admiration! Talent such as yours must always be admired, it is true, but I cannot help thinking that your determined pursuit of mastery is the more admirable thing. It is what I cannot claim for myself. I do not have a drop of talent, not a whit--I cannot sing, or paint, or play an instrument, or write a poem--and I do not think I have ever diligently pursued anything."

Slightly troubled at this declaration, Mr Acklebury said, "I am flattered by your kind words, my lord, but I must take exception to your self-deprecation! I am in at least as much awe of your horsemanship as you are kind enough to say you are of my painting. Indeed, it is clear to me that you have a great gift for it, and have pursued it very diligently."

Lord Penrith turned to him, the afternoon sun full in his face, causing his pupils to contract and the earthy hazel colour of his eyes to be startlingly apparent. A smile dawned over his face and he said, "I am rather good at it, am I not?" The stallion danced impatiently, and Lord Penrith brought him back under his control without any apparent thought. Then he laughed so boyishly that Acklebury could not have taken offence even had he been inclined to do so. "It is true that I have always felt at ease in the saddle."

Acklebury found himself smiling back and had to remind himself to speak. "As I have always felt at home making marks on a sheet of paper," he replied. "They are called 'gifts' for a reason, I think, for they were bestowed on us by nature, or by God. I see no reason to take undue pride in what we have not accomplished. But we both seem to have done something with the gifts we were given. For that, I think, we may be a little proud."

To Mr Acklebury's great dismay, Lord Penrith's smile faded, to be replaced by a sad, distant look. It came quickly and was as quickly replaced with another smile, though one much sadder than its predecessor. His lordship said, "You remind me very much of my late brother."

Mr Acklebury drew his horse to a halt and turned to look at Lord Penrith directly, feeling a great need to undo whatever he had done to provoke Penrith's sorrow. "I--I beg your pardon, my lord. I hope--that is, I would not for the world cause you pain. I am impertinent sometimes. Please, forgive me. "

"No, Acklebury, on the contrary! David was the only person in the world who could lift me up in my own estimation and make me laugh at myself at the same time. He has been gone--well! these five years now. Five years almost to the day, for he was killed on the seventeenth of March. How odd that I did not remember it this year." Lord Penrith seemed to look into an invisible distance for a moment before giving his head a slight shake. "I still miss him sometimes, but my memories of him are all very fond. I could honestly give no higher praise than to say that you remind me of him."

The look in Lord Penrith's face as he spoke these words was of such a vulnerable, open character that Mr Acklebury wanted to reach out a comforting hand to him, and refrained only with difficulty from doing so. He swallowed back a rush of emotion in his own breast before he was able to say, "Then I am honoured."

He became conscious of a need to move from such a precipice of sentiment, and urged his horse forward. Penrith, perhaps feeling the same need, did likewise, and they moved on. Acklebury said, "My point, which I was long in coming to, was simply that the skill and grace you have cultivated in riding surpass anything I have seen, and your talent is certainly no less praiseworthy than mine."

Penrith looked down at the reins in his gloved hand, smiling now at some private thought, and said, rather quietly, "Perhaps we shall come to know one another's talents better." Something in that smile made Acklebury's face grow warm, though he was sure that his lordship spoke merely of riding, and of painting. This wary, alert feeling was as needless today as it had been yesterday, Acklebury told himself, for whatever his lordship might be, he was a gentleman.

As if he had read Acklebury's thoughts, Lord Penrith cleared his throat and said in brighter tones, "Well! It appears we are before the crowds. How would you like to run?" Without waiting for Mr Acklebury's response, he touched his heels to Lucifer's flanks and galloped off toward the copse at the centre of the park. Queen Mab was only too ready to open up and run after her companion, and responded instantly to Acklebury's command. He had not often galloped, and knew a moment's trepidation, but Queen Mab's gait was smooth and he managed not to discredit himself.

Lucifer thundered ahead, chunks of damp turf flying from his hooves, Lord Penrith lying over his head, his knees gripping the horse's flanks, his body barely touching the saddle. Acklebury was glad to be in his lordship's wake, partly so his own mediocre skills as a horseman would be less apparent, and partly because it afforded him an excellent view of his lordship's fine riding form.

He and Queen Mab caught up with Lord Penrith when he reined Lucifer in at the edge of the Round Pond. Lord Penrith appeared breathless, his cheeks flushed and his eyes alight, his hair escaping from its tie, and Acklebury was seized by the desire to paint him just so, to capture this moment. Here was disarray! he thought, and in it, perfect order, for Lord Penrith was at one with his horse, and the earth, and the chilly, wild spring air, fierce and delighted and utterly himself.

"Well!" his lordship said, catching his breath and patting Lucifer's elegant neck, favouring Mr Acklebury with a brilliant smile. "I enjoyed that."

Mr Acklebury smiled back. The late afternoon sun rebounded from the darkening wall of cloud to the east, casting a vivid, almost lurid glow over all that it touched. The turf was impossibly green, the surface of the Round Pond nearly black, Lord Penrith's waistcoat a burnished bronze, the signet ring he wore a heavy, dense gold. The light made everything flat and immediate, reminding Acklebury vividly of gold-encrusted Byzantine religious icons he had seen in Venice, but for the lively, decidedly unsaintly expression upon Lord Penrith's face.

"Much as I would love to gallop with you from here to Hampstead Heath, I am afraid we must proceed at a more respectable pace. See--already, we have drawn the eyes of the ton." Lord Penrith raised his chin slightly and looked over Acklebury's shoulder. Acklebury turned to see that he and Lord Penrith were the object of interested or scandalised gazes from strollers along the footpaths behind them. Lord Penrith bent confidentially toward him and said, "Do not distress yourself. With luck, it will be forgotten in a day."

At just this moment, a large raindrop struck Mr Acklebury's cheek, and another, and within a short space it was raining in earnest. Lord Penrith swept off his hat and turned his face to the sky with a smile. When he looked once again at Acklebury, droplets glistened upon his skin. Mr Acklebury could think of no words that would not diminish the simple perfection of the moment, so he tilted his head back and let the rain fall upon his own face.

Lord Penrith laughed and replaced his hat. "Come, let me offer you a hot drink in front of the fire."

"Thank you, my lord."

"Really, Acklebury, you must call me Penrith. All my friends do."

A part of Acklebury's mind knew that in a more sober moment, his lordship might well regard this request as misguided, and wish to withdraw the privilege; for his own part, Acklebury knew that all his more usual acquaintance would raise their eyebrows to hear him refer to a viscount with such a degree of familiarity. So beautiful, however, was the March sun slanting in and illuminating his lordship against the black sky, and so pleasing were the fat, splattering raindrops upon their eyelids and their lips and their hair, that Acklebury could only incline his head graciously, and try how it felt.

"Penrith," he said.

Penrith smiled.

Chapter Text

London, March, 1818

The importunate rain that soaked them both on their return to Half Moon Street inspired Lord Penrith with an excellent idea for extending yet a little while the afternoon's agreeable intimacy. His waiting groom leapt from the area stairs to take the reins of Lucifer and Queen Mab, while Penrith and Acklebury bounded up the front steps in the downpour. Penrith slung his wet hat into Stephens' waiting hands. His boots were spattered with rain and dirt--how Cooper would cluck!--and he and Acklebury were both dripping onto the floor of the entry hall.

"Come, Acklebury," Penrith said, peeling off his damp gloves. "My valet can find you something dry to put on."

"That really won't be necessary, my--Penrith."

Penrith hid a smile, pleased that Acklebury was willing to omit his title. He had no intention of hearing any answer but yes, and persisted, quite as if his proposal were the most ordinary thing in the world. "I cannot have you catching cold on my doorstep, man, not when it is so easily within my power to prevent it."

Acklebury's cheeks and nose were rosy with the chill and the rain, and he was searching his pockets for something. Penrith, guessing his wish, pulled a handkerchief from his own pocket and handed it to him. Acklebury smiled gratefully and used it to mop his wet face.

"Now, come up. Cooper will see to you."

Acklebury followed him willingly enough up the staircase to the second floor, and into his dressing-room. This chamber was fitted out almost as a small parlour, for in addition to its wardrobe and dressing-table, there were two armchairs and a small table where Penrith sometimes took coffee. Owing to the excellence of his servants, a fire was already pleasantly crackling in the grate.

"I hope you will find it comfortable here," Penrith said as Acklebury glanced about him in a nervous fashion. "It is less grandiose than the library or the drawing-room downstairs, and I, for one, prefer it." He rang the bell and indicated a chair.

"Really, Penrith, a few minutes before the fire and I shall be quite dry."

"Nonsense. Ah, Cooper! We are soaked. We require dry shirts."

"At once, my lord. This way, sir, if you please." Cooper acted as if being requested to provide clothing for another gentleman were an everyday aspect of his duties, though to Penrith's certain knowledge, he had never been requested to perform any such service--or, if he had, it had not been in Penrith's employ.

Cooper conducted Mr Acklebury across the room to the wardrobe. Penrith turned politely to one side as Cooper assisted Acklebury to remove his waistcoat and neck-cloth, but he allowed himself the pleasure of observing, as Acklebury emerged from under his damp shirt, that the very pale skin of his upper back was scattered with freckles to match those that adorned his nose and cheeks. It was, moreover, impossible not to feel a moment's admiration for the breadth of Acklebury's bare shoulders and the well-developed musculature of his arms. It was as much of a surprise to espy these qualities under his modestly-cut and well-buttoned-up garments as it had been to discover the glint of sharp wit under his mild demeanour.

The moment was quickly gone, as Cooper efficiently got a fresh white shirt over Acklebury's head. His face was flushed as he did up the ties, and Penrith supposed that a man who had not gone to boarding school or grown up with brothers might be modest about such things. Penrith stripped off his own shirt and applied a towel to his hair, turning away again to spare Acklebury's blushes, but not before catching a quickly-covered stare. He flattered himself that it had been one of admiration.

Cooper bent to assist Acklebury in removing his boots, and then attended similarly to Penrith. By not the smallest sign did Cooper betray any disapproval when, upon enquiring whether his lordship wished to put on fresh stockings and shoes, his lordship informed him that he did not.

"I have no shoes that will fit you, Acklebury, and no coat, so let us both remain here before the fire in our shirt-sleeves and bare feet and be altogether too shocking to go downstairs again." Penrith observed with interest that this proposal brought a blush to Acklebury's face. "Cooper, tell Stephens that we want some sandwiches and hot whisky."

"Very good, my lord."

When they were seated before the fire in the dressing-room's comfortable armchairs, Penrith said, "You box, I perceive."

"I do, yes. How did--" Acklebury cut himself off, very evidently realising how Penrith had arrived at this conclusion.

Penrith was tempted to say something complimentary about Acklebury's degree of physical development, but he was conscious of a need for caution. He felt far more at ease with Acklebury than two days' acquaintance generally permitted, and, judging from Acklebury's very presence in this room, Acklebury felt the same friendly warmth himself, but it would not do to press into more dangerous territory too quickly. Penrith contented himself with the sight of Acklebury's bare feet and easy posture before the fire.

"I have the honour to box with Gentleman Jackson himself from time to time," Penrith said. "Only yesterday he got under my left guard and gave me the bruise on my ribs that you might have perceived a moment ago."

"I--yes," Acklebury said with a look of guilty confusion that told Penrith a great deal. "You--you box at Mr Jackson's establishment, then. I am an indifferent boxer, and that establishment is in every way above my touch, I am afraid. I go twice a week to Mr Tankley's boxing salon in the Strand. It is an activity as unlike painting, I think, as an activity could possibly be. I find that the exercise clears my mind wonderfully."

"I can only imagine that in painting, there is a certain physical stillness that would require a great deal of self-discipline to cultivate."

"I confess that it comes naturally to me," Acklebury said. "I must exercise self-discipline to stop being still. I very much enjoyed our ride this afternoon. In such good company, on such a fine horse as Queen Mab, the activity came easily and passed very pleasantly."

"I am glad she pleased you," Penrith said. "My brother gave her to me on my sixteenth birthday." He was seized by a reckless desire to make Acklebury a gift of Queen Mab on the spot, somehow to give Acklebury a part of his memory of David. Only the consciousness that Acklebury probably could not afford to keep a horse in town and would be embarrassed by such a gift, stayed his tongue. Instead, he began, "I would not have guessed your temperament to be--" then broke off, recognising his blunder before he made it.

But Acklebury anticipated him. "To be what? Naturally lazy?" He gave Penrith a grin that took any possible sting from the words. "I would say, rather, that I have a somewhat yielding and fluid temperament which makes me content to move in the direction where I find fewest obstacles."

"Your story of gaining entrance to your painting-master's studio gives the lie to that assertion, Acklebury."

"Oh! Well, the current was very strong in that instance! But as to taking exercise, I assure you, had my uncle not shamed me into playing cricket for Hampshire, I would have never left my room at home in Winchester."

At this interesting revelation, Penrith was unable to resist looking again at Acklebury's shoulders. "You must surely be a batsman," he said.

"I am--or, rather, I was. Did you play at Cambridge?"

Penrith's thoughts strayed momentarily to his two years at Cambridge, far too much of which period he seemed to have spent in Charles Murray's bed. "No. I did not have the patience for cricket. I won a sculling race or two. I preferred rowing to studying, I am afraid."

"I think university life suited neither of us very well," Acklebury said, "perhaps for different reasons. For myself, I wanted only to paint. You must have been called upon--well, to sit in the House of Lords, I would imagine." Acklebury said this with great respect, and Penrith felt a certain pride in hearing it.

"I have done so. It is tedious work, I assure you!" If Acklebury wished to believe that his failure to finish his course of study at Cambridge was owing to the call of duty, Penrith was tempted to let him do so. Some stronger impulse, however--to be honest, to disclose a truer picture, to let Mr Acklebury know him--made him add, "But that is not why I left Cambridge. I fell upon some...difficulties following my brother's death." Scenes of licentiousness and drunkenness came before his mind's eye and he pushed them away in discomfort. "Ultimately, my sister, Lady Penrith..." he hesitated, choosing his words. "...made me see the wisdom of coming to live here with her until I should find my feet again. It is wonderful, really, how many people prefer to think that I was sent down for some scandal or other. I suspect my friend Wheaton of having planted such seeds so that he could later reap stories."

"The playwright?" Acklebury asked.

"Yes. He was a very good friend of mine at Winchester, and I still see something of him from time to time, though our paths do not often cross anymore."

Penrith thought his remorse must have showed in his face, for Acklebury did not pursue the point, but instead said, "I did not realise that Lady Penrith lived here."

"Oh, she does not. The house belongs to the title. I would have been very happy to let her keep it, for she set me to rights by sheer strength of character, and my debt to her can never be repaid." Penrith did not think he had ever expressed this sentiment to anyone other than Charlotte, and was rather surprised to find himself doing so now. "But she prefers country life," he went on. "She spends most of the year with my mother--Lady Barringford, that is--at Barringford House in the north, and though I cannot understand why a handsome widow of six-and-twenty should wish to live in that dismal mausoleum and not marry again, Charlotte seems --" Penrith broke off suddenly, embarrassed. "Good God, how I go on! I beg your pardon, Acklebury. You cannot wish to know so much. Next I shall be telling you about the repairs at Ravensworth! I declare, I forget that we have not known one another for years and years."

Acklebury, apparently not discomfited in the least by such an unseemly degree of disclosure, only smiled and said, "Not at all." Then he stretched his feet toward the fire in a most relaxed and comfortable way. "Do you know, when I enquired the other day about who this Viscount Penrith fellow was, I heard hints of scandalousness." He gave Penrith that bland look that spoke of innocence but seemed to precede some little daring, "And yet, having the honour now of, oh, at least three hours of your society, I know that I was right in not believing a word of it."

"You wound me, Acklebury! Truly, you do! You must know that I take great pride in my supercilious reputation."

"Then I shall never reveal the shameful truth."

"And what is that?" Penrith was keen to know, and somewhat leery to learn, what Acklebury's true opinion of him might be.

"Well! That you are a generous and good-natured man," Acklebury said simply. He looked down at his finger-nails for a moment and added, "With an excellent taste in art."

Penrith laughed, and after a moment, Acklebury joined in. At this pleasant juncture, Stephens entered with a tray of sandwiches. "Thank you, Stephens. We will serve ourselves."

They ate and laughed and talked of university, and sport, and Winchester ("'Impala,' I believe, is the name you could not remember for the public house in St Cross Road," Acklebury told him), and in this way nearly two hours passed and the daylight faded.

Cooper eventually returned to the dressing-room, Acklebury's now-dry coat and waistcoat over one arm, his shirt and stockings neatly pressed and folded, and his boots, polished to a very high shine, in Cooper's free hand. "Send the shirt back at your convenience," Penrith told Acklebury, reluctantly letting go the pleasure of seeing him once again change his clothes. He was sure that doing so would create more discomfort than Acklebury could compass in one afternoon. "I would make you a gift of it, but the sleeves hang too long on you. Cooper will wrap yours up."

"You are too kind," Acklebury said, buttoning his freshly-pressed waistcoat. "I shall intrude upon your hospitality no longer."

To Penrith's eye--and undoubtedly to Cooper's, he thought--Acklebury looked still rather undone. Denham lived in Curzon Street, and the two of them, Denham and Westhill, lounging about as they did in windows and on the street and watching the world walk by, could draw wild conclusions from the slimmest of clues, as Westhill had proved very vividly last night. "I think," Penrith therefore said, "that Cooper must arrange your cravat." He let the implication of his words hang in the air, curious to learn if Acklebury would understand it.

He did not. "Oh, no. That is truly not necessary. I would not for the world--" he began.

"It would make me unhappy," Penrith said, interrupting and giving what he hoped was a speaking look, "--if you were to leave my house in any less respectable a state than that in which you entered it earlier today."

Acklebury gazed back at him, his wide eyes particularly innocent for a moment, until Penrith's meaning clearly registered in them. He looked away quickly. "I see. Yes, of course. I would not wish to...that is, I am grateful for your consideration."

Penrith leant back and watched as Cooper wrapped and tied Acklebury's neck-cloth in his usual impeccable manner. When Acklebury was once again buttoned into his coat, and his boots were once again upon his feet, Penrith rang for Stephens.

"Thank you, my lord--" Acklebury began.

"Penrith," Penrith corrected.

"--Penrith. Thank you for allowing me to accompany you on your ride today. It has been a most enjoyable afternoon."

Penrith, loath to say or do anything to make Acklebury skittish, and equally loath to see him away with no further engagement in hand, rose as Stephens came into the dressing-room, and said, "I promised that we would not speak of my portrait during our ride today."

Acklebury's expression became wary. Penrith pushed on. "I hope you will not think I am breaking that promise by mentioning it again now, for our ride has been over these two hours, and it would not be right to let you think I had forgotten the reason of our meeting in the first place. I still wish you to paint me, Acklebury. Very much so."

Mr Acklebury sighed and gave every appearance of resignation. He lowered his head, and one hand came up to scratch the back of it as he looked at Penrith side-wise. "I confess that I was taken aback yesterday when you told me the portrait you had in mind," he said. "I apologise for that. I have been thinking about the project, and I have conceived a number of possible approaches. For instance, as we were riding today, there was a certain wonderful light--"

Penrith watched him, amused and not a little surprised at the spark of passion in his eyes as he contemplated the exercise of his art. For a moment, while he spoke of the light, his hands opened and broadened, as if he were about to gesture in the Italian fashion. Then he cut himself off, drew that spark back within himself, and grew mild again.

"I beg your pardon!" he said with a small, self-deprecating laugh. "I am--enthusiastic sometimes. I would be happy to engage to produce some sketches for your consideration."

"Excellent!" Penrith did not mean to discompose the man any more, but his urge to touch some part of what he had lately glimpsed unclothed was very strong, and such was the ease and pleasure of his mood that he did not trouble to resist it. He gripped Acklebury's shoulder and could not but note that that powerful form was as satisfactory under his hand as it had been to his eye. Acklebury's face coloured, but he did not shrink from the touch.

"I am leaving town tomorrow for a fortnight or so," Penrith found himself saying, "and as soon as I return, I will arrange for us to meet again." It was a plan which to this very moment had existed only in the most insubstantial form in his thoughts, but Acklebury's quickly-hidden look of disappointment told him that it was an excellent one, for it seemed clear that an absence would increase the pleasure of meeting once again at the end of it.

There was a pause, during which Penrith could only admire the self-possession that allowed Acklebury visibly to master himself, his manners, and the situation, and then to say in tones of perfect, bland civility, "I look forward to our next meeting."

***

Having told Mr Acklebury that he was leaving town for a fortnight, Lord Penrith had little choice now but to do so. He wrote two letters for posting on the morrow, one to his steward at Ravensworth, and the other to the architect in Carlisle whose services he had bespoken some time ago. He scrawled several notes to be delivered around town, regretting his need to cancel certain engagements. He conveyed to Stephens his intention to travel north in the next day or so, and spoke separately to Cooper about it, for it did not do to for one's valet to feel ill-used or superseded by one's butler.

An idea of going to Ravensworth had been in Lord Penrith's mind for a time. That he had so far forgotten the date of David's death as to experience only a general ennui; that he had, in fact, summoned John Acklebury to an interview without being conscious of the day's significance, made Lord Penrith realise that he truly mourned no more. He wanted to begin work on Ravensworth now for his own sake, and no longer only as a monument to David's memory.

Penrith the conscientious landlord had no part to play in the reputation for aloofness that protected him in Town, and he told himself that a quiet journey north to Ravensworth before the social season was well and truly underway would serve to keep the two facets of his life separate. He was, however, sensible now of another reason for discretion upon this point: Ravensworth, being very remote and quite forgotten by most of society, could be a place of retreat and privacy if he should one day require such a thing.

Chapter Text

London, March and April, 1818

Acklebury grew increasingly uneasy in the hours following his riding engagement with Viscount Penrith. In his lodgings that evening, uninterested in the dinner Marchbanks set out, unable to concentrate upon the copy of the London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres that he had received that day by post, and with no-one he might speak to of what troubled him, he became restless. He stared at the same page while Marchbanks quietly went about clearing the dinner table, and told himself that each event of the afternoon had succeeded the previous one in a perfectly rational sequence. Nothing unsuitable had taken place. After all, he thought, having set out to ride on a March day, one could scarcely avoid being rained upon, and, having become soaked by rain, one must dry one's things, and, having doffed certain articles of clothing, one must wait in privacy for them to dry, and there was nothing terribly untoward in two gentlemen companionably passing the time in conversation as this happened.

It was, moreover, not wonderful that he should take pleasure in these things, for he did not have many friends yet in London, and the want of them had lately been troubling him. Perhaps he ought to be less complacent in a friendship that was new and untried, but he could not really reprove himself for enjoying a camaraderie that had sprung up where two natures seemed to complement one another so naturally. As to the pride he felt in having been invited so soon to call his lordship only Penrith, well, such a privilege must please and flatter anyone! That Acklebury found Lord Penrith agreeable to look at might be excused by the artistic training which caused him to see the world as other men did not.

All this, Acklebury could explain to himself. It was his indelible image of Penrith, naked from waist to neck, his arms raised to work a pristine white towel through his rain-soaked hair, his breeches dipping low enough to expose the tender skin below his navel, that refused to fall to any acceptable scheme of reason that Acklebury could devise.

He turned the page of the Gazette, realising that he had not yet read a word.

***

He went the following morning to Mr Tankley's boxing salon. The brisk walk down to the Strand, and the vigorous exercise of hitting the punching-bag until he was covered with sweat, cleared his mind so wonderfully that he went again the next day. On the third day, he went first to George Street to rap on the door of his friend Mr Caine, whom he had not seen at Tankley's in some time, and easily persuaded him to come along.

At Tankley's, Acklebury observed Caine surreptitiously as they both stripped off their shirts and made ready to enter the ring together for a friendly bout. Caine was a well-looking fellow, he thought: compact, strong, broad of shoulder and neat of waist, with agreeable, regular features, a good head of waving brown hair, and keen blue eyes. Acklebury noted all of these qualities without having any of the unseemly ideas that Lord Penrith's presence had aroused. Perhaps, he thought as the bucket-boy helped him put on his mufflers, the disorder of mind that had lately assailed him again was not general, but particular only to Lord Penrith's unusual charm.

"What are you smiling at, Acklebury?" Caine asked, taking his own mufflers from a hook on the wall and handing them to the boy. "Perhaps you think me an easy victory because you outweigh me, but you are about to learn the power my skills will have in balancing the scales!"

"Oh, I assure you, Caine," Acklebury said, suppressing his smile of relief, "I learn something from you every time we come here!"

***

When two or three days had passed, Lord Penrith's absence from town resulted in at least his partial absence from Acklebury's thoughts, and Acklebury found his attention and his artistic nature drawn back to their proper object, the commission to paint the Carr children.

Miss Carr, arrayed in a pink gown, sat in her little gilt and satin chair, her slippered toes just touching the carpet. Her brother Henry stood next to her in his knee-breeches and a coat of military cut, one hand upon the back of the chair. Miss Carr shifted and seemed to have difficulty in becoming comfortable. As her governess hurried forward to make some small adjustment to her gown, Miss Carr gave Acklebury a bright smile and a giggle. Acklebury found himself smiling back, and he realised in surprise that he had not hitherto smiled at the Carr children, nor received any smiles from them. He wondered what he might say to provoke a little conversation from them, and, thinking of his own recent adventures, asked, "Do you ride, Master Carr?"

Before the young gentleman could answer, his little sister said, "Henry is a bruising rider when we are in the country! He has his own pony! I do not ride. I am quite frightened of horses. I think Henry very brave, don't you, Mr Acklebury?"

Acklebury nodded solemnly. Master Carr said, "Lottie will have carriages, and will not need to ride," and Mr Acklebury understood, quite suddenly, that they were people; that in a short space of time, young Master Carr would be at Oxford or Cambridge, and young Miss Carr would be young Mrs Somebody, and that before the paint of their portrait was even fully cured they would already have grown a little, and changed a little, and that the process never stopped. He looked at them and saw life, and hope, and with these, time and sorrow. He did not know how to explain this opening of his eyes and his heart, but he became passionately interested in capturing it in his portrait of the children.

So it was that the final sitting gave rise to an alteration in its composition. Young Henry Carr looked now, rather protectively, at Charlotte, and not at the world, as before. Miss Carr did not look back at him, but away, as if at the prospect of courtship and marriage and family life that all young girls seemed to find delightful.

Acklebury finished the painting during two very long days, and was deeply satisfied with what he had created. When Mrs Carr came to see it as the paint was drying, she exclaimed, "Oh, my dear Mr Acklebury! Why, it is beyond everything! It is transformed, quite transformed!" She turned to him, her hands clasped before her bosom, her elegant pelisse of cherry-red velvet flaring about her feet. "You have captured something utterly soulful in my little ones. I declare, I have not seen the like! Oh, how eager I am for all the world to see it!"

Mr Acklebury knew that Mrs Carr, besides being very rich and fashionable, was a popular hostess whose parties were noted for their taste, their elegance, and the excellence of the gossip that could be had at them. If Mr Acklebury had thought about this fact at all, it was to suppose that his picture of her children, though of course in no way scandalous, would be seen and talked of as Mrs Danforth's had been, by members of society who visited the Carr house. Now he thought that if others perceived it with as much satisfaction as Mrs Carr was presently doing, more commissions were likely to come his way.

He bowed the rapturous lady out, thinking principally about the arrangements he must yet make for the crating and transport of the portrait to the Carr residence, and the politely-worded billing he must submit to Mr Carr at the same time.

He was therefore very much surprised, on a day about a week after Mrs Carr's visit, by the contents of a letter that came from his sister.

Dear John, she wrote.

Your letter of the 18th occasioned the pleasure that your letters always bring me. I am happy to know that you are well occupied with your painting, and with London life.

Perhaps you will be as pleased as Philip is to know that Mama's and my suspicions were correct, and that I am to be the mama of not one but two babies. For my part, I am just tired. But do not worry about me, John: I go on pretty well, and Mama is a constant reminder to me of the ability of Remillard women to bear twins without much difficulty. You will be an uncle twice over! I think they are both little girls; Philip, of course, hopes for boys. Perhaps they will be one of each, as you and I are.

John put the letter down for a moment and gazed unseeing out of his window. Twins! He felt both pleased and worried. Meg was strong and hale, but six-and-twenty was a late age at which to be starting her family, and he did not suppose that the bearing of two children at once could be easy.


Mr and Mrs Beverley are in Winchester and visited us yesterday. Well, you may remember what an old gossip Mr Beverley is, for all his moralising ways. Mama and Mrs Beverley have always been great friends, though, so there you are: one must bear the husband with the wife sometimes. They came, they visited, they talked; and what they talked of was, of all absurd things, your friendship with Viscount Penrith. You may imagine my astonishment! I am afraid I was not attending as I ought to have been, so perhaps I missed some little detail that would explain things, but I gathered that people in London society are saying that your friendship with Lord Penrith has transformed your painting.

John stared at his sister's stylish, untidy handwriting, and attempted to make sense of what it said. He read the paragraph over to be sure he had not mistaken it, and when he determined that he had not, his discomfort became great. Within himself, he thought, he could acknowledge that meeting Penrith had opened a door in his mind through which inspiration had come, but he could not begin to imagine how anyone else had drawn such an astonishing conclusion.

I did not wish to mention it to you at all, but upon consideration, I decided that you ought to know. Papa was present at this conversation, and he was clearly displeased. Mr Beverley said, "You know that Lord Penrith has a very unsavoury reputation," and Papa was quelling, as he always is toward gossip, but Mr Beverley pressed on. "He is known as a rake, but I have heard that no lady has anything to fear from him."

Papa did not, of course, dignify this with any kind of response, and I thought that must be an end to it, but after Mr and Mrs Beverley had gone away, Papa said an odd thing that I do not think he really meant me to hear. "Dear God, I had thought him better," were his words. "Who, Papa?" said I. "Your brother," he replied. "I had thought his friendship with the Bishop's boy to be the beginning and end of it." I believe he meant Robby, Bishop North's footman, whom I know you befriended when we were only fourteen or fifteen years old, and who persuaded you to steal a pie from the bishop's larder.

Stunned, Mr Acklebury recalled that tall young servant and his memorable theft of the pork-pie. John had accepted responsibility for this misdemeanour, a week with neither dinners nor his paints having been a small price to pay for ensuring that Robby did not tell the Reverend Doctor Acklebury what had really happened in the Bishop's larder that day. John had run off up the stairs and out into the daylight, ashamed of having looked, even for a moment, at that proof of masculinity that Robby had wished him to see. Weeks of dread and several pointed readings of Holy Scripture had passed before the fear that his father had learnt the truth of it gradually subsided.

Acklebury had not thought of Robby the footman for years, not really. Reluctantly, he went on reading what Meg had to say.


I am not so strait-laced as to think it improper to be a disinterested friend to someone of a lower class, so long as one does not do so among one's own servants, but Johnny, even I cannot but draw a disturbing conclusion from these hints: that Viscount Penrith consorts far beneath his station, and that Papa fears he will influence you to do the same.

A sense of panic rose in Acklebury's breast, and for a wild moment he feared that his father had somehow heard of the interlude in Penrith's dressing-room. Suddenly, an afternoon that John had persuaded himself was wholly innocent seemed reckless in the extreme. If Penrith's servants were indiscreet...if Marchbanks should have broken his customary silence after noting the too-long shirt his master had worn home that day...

But no! he was being foolish. The gallop in Hyde Park was the only thing he had done in Penrith's company that could have given rise to any talk, and that was, at its worst, only an instance of young men behaving a little wildly on a fine spring day. John took a deep breath, forced himself back to some semblance of calm, and finished reading his sister's letter.

I have certainly never said anything to him about your associations in Venice, but you told me yourself that these were not always among your own class. Still, Father is anxious for your reputation, though he does not say so.

The words formed in his mind almost before he became conscious of the mutinous thought: He is anxious for his own reputation. John told himself that of course the reputation of the son had a very great bearing on the family, and that he must not be too hasty to judge the parent who had, after all, let him follow his own path in life.

I do not think Papa really knows you as I do, Johnny, nor understands your refined nature. Pray, before you allow your feelings to be injured by my words, remember that I am only making a picture from a few stray scraps, and that I am as likely to be mistaken as not. Truly, I have struggled with whether to tell you any of this, and have only decided to do so because you might soon hear something like it from Papa, and if you can discreetly say a few words in your next letter to set his mind at rest, I am sure it will affirm his faith in the restraint and discipline that have always made him so proud of you.

Acklebury stood in the middle of his sitting-room, the letter slack in his hand. It was very unlike his sister to repeat gossip, and Acklebury hardly knew what to think of her having done so now; but to learn that his own father required proofs of his character was very lowering. As if John had ever given him the slightest cause for doubt! As if, even hundreds of miles away in Venice, he had not so far restrained himself as to be in a constant state of unease! He crumpled the letter and flung it toward the hearth. It fell short, and, overcome by remorse, he bent to retrieve it and smooth it out.

He forced himself to return to his writing-desk, sit calmly down, trim his pen, and begin a reply, but his custom of carefully reading over any letter he was about to answer agitated his feelings once again, and his response was brief. Only with difficulty did he omit what he most wished to say to Margaret: that he had met their father's expectations for twenty-six years, and would thank his sister to mind her own business. Instead, he assured her that if his painting was better, it was through effort; that he had known only perfect civility in his brief acquaintance with Viscount Penrith; and that he would soon write to tell Papa that no-one ought to think any more of the matter.

Mr Acklebury was not able to follow his own advice in this, however. Day by day, the mental discipline that his sister praised in him was ravelling; he could not deny it. He thought of his next commission constantly, and was nearly as constantly aware that his feelings on the matter were too warm, too engaged.

Fear of creating more speculation caused him to adopt a policy of strict silence about what was uppermost in his mind and heart, and never to mention the name of Lord Penrith. Such a constant guardedness with his acquaintance and with Marchbanks soon began to make him feel isolated, secretive, and lonely.

So it was that when the evening of a dinner engagement en famille with the Jenningses came, Mr Acklebury knocked upon their door in Hartley Street with a great good will, eager for their agreeable, disinterested company.

"Mr Acklebury!" Mrs Jennings exclaimed when he was announced at the drawing-room door. "How good of you to come! It is always such a pleasure to see you!"

To this, Mr Jennings added, "Indeed, sir, we have all looked forward to our little dinner-party this evening with great anticipation, for we have not enjoyed anything so much since your last visit."

John received their greetings with a bow and a feeling of gratitude so warm that he soon turned to their elder daughter and said, "You are looking very pretty this evening, Miss Jennings." Miss Jennings gave a modest smile that nevertheless made it evident that she was extremely pleased. She was nineteen or twenty years old, with dark curls and an elegance of face and figure that was not just in the common way, and Acklebury had enjoyed her company on several occasions since his return to England.

He proceeded with the family from the drawing room in to dinner at the appointed time, conversing easily all the while. Only one moment's discomfort occurred during the whole course of the evening, when, at the dinner table, Miss Jennings said, "One hears wonderful things of your portrait of the Carr children, Mr Acklebury. I long to know whose picture you paint next."

"I do not yet have a definite commission," Acklebury answered, truthfully enough. There was no evidence in the faces around the dining table that the subject of his painting was connected in their minds to any gossip, so he continued. "At present, I am working on a small town-scape, purely for my own enjoyment. It is the unfinished tower of the new St. Marylebone Church."

Mr Jennings said, "How interesting such a picture will be to your children, sir, for they will know only the finished church-tower and will wonder to see that it was not always so!"

Mr Acklebury, ignoring his host's veiled hint about his future prospects for family life, said, "That is an intriguing idea, Mr Jennings. Indeed, I am not sure whether I am making a work of art, or an historical document."

"I do not think there can be any real difference," Miss Jennings said, with every appearance of thoughtful absorption in the question. "For does not every painting, every sculpture, capture its subject at a particular moment in time?"

"Certainly," Mr Acklebury replied.

"And that stand of trees that is so green and leafy in the picture of Wivenhoe Park by Mr Constable--well, it must have been leafless and barren, and green again, two or three times since he painted it, and the birds have flown, and the clouds will never again be quite as he depicted them."

Mr Acklebury smiled at her, delighted. "Do you know, Miss Jennings, I have lately realised something of the sort myself."

"Have you, indeed? I wish you will tell me more."

Acklebury thought a moment. "That painting by Constable shows us the essence of a summer day," he said. "It is, in some sense, a picture of all summer days. I believe that is what elevates it above the common and makes it great." He searched his mind for a clear way of saying what he meant. "A work of art may indeed capture a moment in time, but a good one does not merely pin it down like--like a dead butterfly, to be collected! It finds what is timeless and ideal in that moment--or, at least, that is my goal in painting."

Miss Jennings gave a surprisingly mischievous little smile and said, "Do you suggest, Mr Acklebury, that the unfinished church tower in its scaffolding is the ideal and timeless essence of the church?"

Acklebury laughed and inclined his head. "No, Miss Jennings. You have me there. I would not dare to tread upon such theological ground--that is my father's province! I suppose that my little painting really is just an historical document, a butterfly pinned down, as it were. A moment in time."

"But one worth looking at, I am sure," she rejoined. "I hope I may see it one day."

The evening passed in such subjects, and in good food and a hand or two of whist, and when, at eleven o'clock, Mr Acklebury left the home of Mr and Mrs Jennings still a welcome guest and friend, his heart was lighter and his mind easier than they had been in several days.

***

So Mr Acklebury brought himself back under that rule of mildness and self-discipline that had always kept his life steady. The agitation that Viscount Penrith had caused in his spirit began to fade and Acklebury knew he was the better for it, though his days seemed rather dull by comparison.

On a fair and mild Tuesday in the first days of April, when his lordship had been absent from town for a fortnight, Acklebury and his friend Mr Caine were walking together from Tankley's salon. After the vigorous exertion of boxing, Mr Acklebury was in an easy, even self-satisfied mood, and as their walk took them along the fashionable shopping streets of Mayfair, where there were people to be seen and shop windows to look into, Acklebury conceived the notion of buying a new hat. Mr Caine, seizing upon this idea of a similarly pleasant indulgence for himself, declared that he thought it was time for a new snuff-box. "And you are just the man to help me, for you know that I am colour-blind and will certainly choose something that will clash with my new yellow waistcoat," he said, ushering Acklebury before him into the fragrant precincts of Pettygrove and Lovejoy, Tobacconists, in Bond Street.

They emerged a short time later, Caine in possession of a fine new silver snuff-box, and Acklebury having permitted himself the novel extravagance of two cigars such as he had enjoyed once or twice in Venice. "You do not usually go so often to Tankley's," Mr Caine remarked as they sauntered along Bond Street. "I am pleased to have your company there, but you have been used to need me to urge you out of doors, and now it is the other way."

"I am--" Acklebury began, and then paused, not knowing just how to answer Mr Caine. "I have been inspired, I suppose one might say."

"With that picture of the young lady and gentleman that you have been working on?"

"Henry and Charlotte Carr, yes." Acklebury hesitated before answering a little more truthfully, "That, and another commission that I am thinking of accepting in a few weeks' time."

"How do you keep your temper around children?" Caine asked. With a conspiratorial look, he added, "I think I should vastly prefer to paint ladies."

Mr Acklebury laughed. "Painting ladies is not the unalloyed pleasure you might imagine! As to children, well, I am not perhaps the best man to please a loving mama by portraying her darling little cherubs, for I do not see them that way, believe me! But I flatter myself that I got on rather well."

Caine clapped him on the back and said, "Well, I am all admiration. And this next commission? A pretty woman, I hope?"

"No--" Acklebury began. "No. A...gentleman." Greatly to his relief, Caine seemed more interested in pursuing his own line of thought than in enquiring about Acklebury's hesitancy.

"When I marry," Caine said, "I shall have you paint my bride!"

"Oh? Have you a candidate in mind for this honour?"

"Not yet." Caine gave a happy smile. "Though when I look about me, I see a town filled with charming girls." At this, he touched his hat to a well-dressed young woman just emerging from a milliner's shop, her maid trailing behind her with a large hat-box. Maid and mistress both smiled back at him.

Curious, Acklebury gave voice to the question that came to his mind next. "Do you--do you feel inclined to the state of marriage?"

"Oh, certainly!" Caine replied instantly. "I hear men speak of being leg-shackled and the like, but I suppose I have a domestic turn of mind. I quite like the idea of being settled. Do you not?"

"I do not think it would come naturally to me," Mr Acklebury said carefully. "Oh, I know that I must marry. I am the last of my name, as my father does not fail to remind me from time to time." He pushed away the unpleasant thought of his sister's last letter.

"Nearly everyone marries," Caine observed. "You will fall into the condition of it soon or late, for every woman in London between the ages of fifteen and thirty has set her cap at you, and the one who does not lose the power of speech when you come into the room will eventually succeed!"

Acklebury had heard this sort of thing before; it masqueraded as a compliment while refining too much upon what he had no control over, and setting him apart; Caine's tone was so sympathetic, however, that Acklebury forgave him.

"That is why I value your society, you see," Caine went on. "Another man might not like to be seen with you, for you steal all the women's hearts, but I am prepared to benefit from it! For one or two of them are bound to notice me when they see that you do not notice them, and then, you know, they may turn to me and find that they are not so tongue-tied after all."

"Well, I am glad to be of service to you," Mr Acklebury laughed. "It is a fine thing to be useful to one's friends."

Caine grinned. "Do not take offence, Acklebury, for I am all gratitude!" He nudged Acklebury and gave him a meaningful look. "But I do not have the least chance with Miss Jennings."

"Oh? Did you wish such a chance? She does not seem the sort of girl you would like."

"She is very pretty, and her portion is not small, it is true, but she has a bit of the bluestocking about her and I do not think we would suit, do you?" Before Mr Acklebury could respond to this, Caine went on. "She, for one, is not tongue-tied in the least around you. Why, I believe her mama has already fitted you for a morning-coat, and reserved the church."

"Mr and Mrs Jennings let it be known that suitors for their daughter's hand come to dinner, or cards, or morning-calls, in such crowds that they must take numbers, for no-one can remember all their names."

"Well, the number you have taken is the number one, I am sure of it."

"I am in no hurry to wed, Caine," Acklebury said. He did not wish his discomfort to be evident, but his enjoyment of the conversation was rapidly fading. "I believe I can avoid it yet awhile longer. If Miss Jennings is still upon the market in two or three years' time--a very unlikely eventuality, you must agree--then perhaps I will ask for her, but only because you indicate that you would not object, of course!"

Noting that they had now come to the haberdashery, Acklebury seized on the occasion to turn the subject by looking into the shop window, where one or two fine curly-brimmed beaver hats were on display. As Mr Caine began to muse upon the relative merits of Miss Fellowes' beautiful brown curls and Miss Mary Elam's excellent figure, Acklebury's ear was caught by another voice, mentioning a name he could not ignore.

"Penrith?" a gentleman was saying. "I believe he is at that ramshackle old place of his in--is it Northumberland?"

Acklebury lost the thread of Caine's discourse in attempting to hear more without turning to discover who the speaker was. Caine soon noticed his distraction, and tried to see what had caused it. The gentleman who was speaking went on in an exquisite drawl: "Penrith is secretive, you know. He told no-one where he was going."

"I'll wager Acklebury knows," said a second voice. Acklebury felt fixed to the spot where he stood, at once avid to see who spoke, and loath to be seen.

"The artist?" exclaimed the first. "Do you suppose their friendship to be so advanced?"

Mr Caine looked at Acklebury in puzzlement. Acklebury, suddenly conscious of the beating of his heart, turned his face a little more toward the shop window.

As the two speakers came nearer, Acklebury could perceive them reflected in the window-glass. They were dressed in tightly fitted coats, and had shirt-points so high as almost to prevent their heads from turning. Each sported a showy brocaded waistcoat sprouting half a dozen fobs and seals, and altogether they gave the appearance of idleness and excess that only extreme wealth could account for. With a start, Acklebury recognised one of them as the gentleman he had collided with outside of Lord Penrith's townhouse a few weeks earlier. The two men seemed to have not the slightest notion in the world that the subject of their conversation was so close at hand.

"Well, Murray has returned," one of the speakers said, in tones of great significance.

"Has he indeed?"

"Yes! I met him at White's not three days ago. He never had any taste, and two years in the West Indies have done nothing for his manners. And he is brown, Westhill!" This declaration was made by the gentleman Acklebury had collided with. The two paused on the pavement nearby.

"What has his brownness to say to the matter of Penrith and Acklebury?" the one called Westhill demanded.

"Nothing. But only fancy: Murray said he saw Penrith at cards the other evening, and Penrith was not at all interested in renewing their friendship." Something in the way he said the last word made Acklebury uncomfortable. "It was clear to Murray that Penrith has a new friend. I believe it is the artist."

Caine was now giving Acklebury a startled and quizzical look. Acklebury felt too astonished to do anything but shake his head, bewildered.

"Mrs Harcourt might agree," said Westhill. "For she gave it as her opinion that a decided change came over his painting of the Carr whelps after they they were seen galloping together in Hyde Park--Acklebury and Penrith, you understand, not the Carr brats. Well, Mrs Carr may describe the change as 'touching'--" Here Westhill gave little high-pitched laugh that said he found this idea ridiculous. "--but the Harcourt declared it to be 'passionate.' Make of that what you will, Denham. You know I do not spread speculation. I know only that Penrith was excessively careful of the artist's name when he spoke to me about the matter."

The two men's stroll took them out of earshot. Acklebury stood before the haberdashery, staring after them for several long moments. A thousand phrases, each righteous and cold, came into his head, but they would not form themselves into any coherent speech. He could only think that whatever he said, the two dandies would first twist it, then repeat it, for here, certainly, was the fountainhead of that gossip that had made its unaccountable way clear to Winchester by means of Mr and Mrs Beverley.

"Good God, Acklebury!" Caine said under his breath. "Do you think you ought to let that stand?"

Acklebury knew he ought to do exactly that, but he suddenly found himself calling, "I beg your pardon, gentlemen!" before he could stop himself. They turned, Westhill raising his quizzing-glass. Both men clearly recognised Acklebury, and Westhill at least had the grace to appear embarrassed.

"I could not help hearing your conversation as you passed," Acklebury said. "I do not listen to the private conversations of strangers, I assure you, but I heard my own name mentioned, and it naturally drew my attention. I am John Acklebury, the artist."

Denham's eyebrows went up. Acklebury pressed on. "I really must insist that you retract the use of impertinent names when referring to the Carr children, whose portrait, as you seem already to know, I lately had the honour of painting. They are Miss Carr and Master Carr. Not whelps. Not brats."

How he longed to say more! While these two useless young men remained astonished into speechlessness, how many more points he might have made! But his store of coherency had run out, and all of the intelligence he would have conveyed had he been a more voluble man--that Mrs Harcourt had never seen the Carr portrait; that he needed no gallops in parks with peers of the realm to account for the taste and skill of his work; and that he had no more idea of Lord Penrith's whereabouts than had the Man in the Moon--all this, happily, was left unsaid. Acklebury, breathless, stood glaring at the pair.

Finally, Westhill made a cold bow and said, "Believe me, sir, you shall not hear me speak of Miss Carr and Master Carr--" he gave these names a sarcastic inflexion "--by other than their rightful names again."

The other man simply inclined his head stiffly, while giving Mr Acklebury a look that said he felt no obligation to be civil to anyone wearing such unfashionable clothes. He did not appear to see Caine at all. They turned and walked away, and Acklebury looked after them, wondering miserably what damage he had wrought by speaking.

"That was well done!" Caine said in tones of admiration. He fortified himself with a pinch of snuff, and offered his box to Acklebury, who declined wordlessly, a riot of conflicting feelings staying his tongue. "Why, I believe they must have been referring to Viscount Penrith!"

"Yes," Acklebury managed to answer. "Penri--that is, his lordship has asked me to paint him. I have met twice with him upon the matter."

Caine looked at him curiously. "Well! That is quite a feather in your cap, man! But what would give two fellows like those the idea--well, I think they were speaking of--that is, is this Penrith chap... No! he cannot be! Why, he is a great, sporting sort of gentleman, so I have heard. Surely he is not--" Caine lowered his voice and made a balancing gesture with his hand "--of a Greek persuasion?"

Acklebury could hardly contain the discomfort he felt. "Have I not just said that I scarcely know him? And were he my closest friend and I knew the answer to such a question, I would not give it. I cannot believe you have asked!"

"I beg your pardon, Acklebury," Mr Caine said with an odd, quizzical look and a tone of appeasement. "It is just that--well! I suppose those two fellows have managed to shock me."

"Only imagine what they have done to me!" Acklebury muttered, reconsidering Caine's offer of snuff as a palliative for his nerves. He took a deep breath. "I am sorry you had to hear that. I cannot explain it to you, for I do not understand it myself."

"You understand one thing, certainly," Caine said, and at Acklebury's questioning look, he cried, "Good God, man, your name has been bandied about! They seemed to paint you with the same brush as--well! Anyone with eyes can see that you are not of that sort!"

Acklebury looked down at the pavement.

"How I would have liked to knock the block off that fellow with the quizzing-glass!"

Struggling for equanimity in an afternoon that had grown suddenly intolerable, Acklebury said, "He is obviously not up to your weight. It would not be fair!" and hoped that Caine would hear only jocularity and not his discomfort.

"It is true, he did not look like a fighting man. Not like ourselves, eh, Acklebury?" Mr Caine put his fists up and struck a blow at the air a few inches from Acklebury's face. Acklebury feinted and dodged and halfheartedly struck a mock blow in return.

They parted at Bruton Street, Acklebury desiring nothing so much as to retreat to the shores he knew best: his painting, his quiet lodgings, his own thoughts; and to escape the treacherous waters of London society. He had, however, already engaged to view a room that was to let in Bruton Street, and the matter of a studio now becoming pressing, he felt he ought not miss the opportunity to look at one in such a good neighbourhood.

He ended by accepting the room almost recklessly. Situated above a fashionable dressmaker's establishment, it was was sparsely furnished and clean, boasting a good fireplace, and, most important of all, a large window that looked north, whence came the best light for colour work. The landlord did not cavil at his proposed use of the place for painting, only adding a guinea to the annual rent in view of the unusual cleaning that the presence of oil paints would surely demand. It would do, Acklebury thought.

***

Mr Acklebury busied himself, and Marchbanks, over the next few days with the task of fitting up the new studio. Carpet and furnishings were pushed aside or removed. The situation of easels, materials, and tools was considered and decided upon. Acklebury spent several hours of each day in the room, marking the changing quality of the light. He completed his little painting of the unfinished church with some thought of presenting it to Miss Jennings if the occasion for offering her a gift should ever arise.

He redoubled his efforts, in short, to avert the speculative gaze of society, and in so doing, grew less uncomfortably preoccupied with the portrait of Penrith.

For the most part, he was able to disregard the pang of regret he felt by reminding himself that if he agreed to the work, he would be thrown together a great deal with Penrith, and people would talk. What was more, in whatever degree of disarray his lordship presented himself to be painted, Acklebury knew that the disorder of his own peace of mind would be greater.

He was easy enough with his decision during the day, but dreams of an unsettling nature troubled his sleep. In his youth, he had dreamt often of lions, and rivers. He supposed the dream originated in the period when he had read everything he could find about the explorations of Africa.

In this dream, he tried to draw pictures of lions from a short distance away. One of them would lift its mighty head and scent him, and he would run, terrified. Sometimes he would leap into the river and float along, looking at the sky. Lions lined the riverbanks and prevented him from coming to shore, yet the sensation of drifting was very pleasant. Then he would perceive a waterfall ahead, and waken suddenly, just as he was about to cascade over the edge. When John had left his father's house to go to Venice, the dream had come no more.

Nearly three weeks after his meeting with Lord Penrith, he dreamt the dream anew. The plain through which the river flowed was dotted with large, spreading trees. Chased by a feline beast of enormous proportion, he found himself suddenly up in one of the trees, clinging to a limb that overhung the swiftly-moving river. The great animal was climbing the tree toward him, and in his dream, John thought, Of course! He is a cat. He can climb trees. In a terrible panic, he knew that he must jump into the water or be mauled, but he hesitated, enthralled by the lion's majesty, until it reached out a powerful paw to slash at his throat. He let go, and awakened in his bed with a gasp.

Beside his coffee cup the next day, Marchbanks had laid the morning post. Acklebury glanced through one or two bills and smiled to see a letter from his benefactor, Mr Martin Acklebury. He was about to break the seal to see what his amusing and generous uncle had to say, when his eye fell upon the last item in the small stack. It was a note, evidently delivered by hand, for it was only a large calling-card.

I shall do myself the honour of calling upon you tomorrow at three o'clock. --Penrith

Mr Acklebury finished his coffee and his rolls and his boiled egg. He let Marchbanks clear his dishes away and leave the room before he succumbed to the agitation that his lordship's message had given rise to.

"How long?" Acklebury muttered to himself. He rose and threw the card into the fire. "Is this not finished?" Honesty forced him to admit that it was not, for he could not deny the unseemly elation he felt at the prospect of meeting Penrith once again. All of the ideas he had so resolutely put away upon realising how dangerous a further acquaintance with Viscount Penrith could be came surging forth again, strengthened and sharpened by their three weeks' repression.

He went into his little painting room, now nearly emptied of the detritus of his art and ready to assume its intended character as a dining parlour, with some idea of burning the damning sketches he had made after his initial interview with Penrith. The portfolio he opened, however, presented first a number of his older drawings from Winchester, and he fell to looking at them.

The unschooled strokes of pencil and charcoal now seemed unutterably juvenile, and yet, looked at dispassionately, they showed talent. More than that, Acklebury thought, sitting down with the portfolio, they showed an unrestrained and open interest in the world; they were, paradoxically, artless, and so better, at least insofar as passion and feeling make art better, than almost anything he had produced from that day until his completion of the Carr children's portrait. By the time he came to the most recent sketches, they did not make him as uncomfortable as he had feared.

He was on the point of gathering them up to put into the fire when one sheet of old drawings commanded his attention. There were six or seven of his small public-house sketches, all centred around a larger study of three schoolboys with their heads together, laughing. One of these was unmistakably the young Viscount Penrith. The broad, high cheekbones, the slanting brows, the narrow, laughing eyes, even the unruly hair, all were clearly represented. Acklebury stared.

The taste of ale came back to him, and the feeling of warm autumn sunshine through the public house window, but try as he might, Acklebury could not remember thinking anything in particular about the boys. He supposed, in looking at the sketch now before him, that he had been struck not by young Penrith alone, but by the contrast among the three of them, one remarkably handsome, the other two plain, all equally merry in one another's company. It was just one of dozens or even hundreds of sketches he had made before going to Venice. He thought he must have been about nineteen years old when he had made this one, and on turning the sheet over, saw that, indeed, he had written a date seven years earlier on the reverse.

Acklebury rose, the drawing held loosely in one hand, and moved toward the fireplace. How odd! he thought. It is as if I have been drawing him all my life.

He could not consign it to the flames. He carefully replaced the sketch, along with those of more recent date, back in their large portfolio, and buckled it securely closed once more.

Chapter Text

London, April, 1818

On the afternoon of the 10th of April, Viscount Penrith drove his phaeton to Mr Acklebury's residence in Marylebone in high good humour. Recovered from the ennui and lassitude of his three days' journey from Cumberland, whence he had returned the day before, he was pleased to be exercising his driving skills in the metropolis, and very happy to be calling upon Acklebury.

Number 14, Upper Berkeley Street was, he noted, a respectable enough direction, but one or two streets to the north or the east, one would find oneself in a far less savoury quarter. Penrith supposed vaguely that Acklebury must not have the means to secure a more elegant address.

"Walk the horses," he told his groom as he leapt down from the high seat. "I shall not be long." He entered the building and took the stairs to the first floor, curious about Acklebury's living arrangements, and eager to discover how Acklebury would greet him.

The servant who answered his knock struck Penrith more as the hardy veteran of military campaigns than as a gentleman's gentleman. "I am Viscount Penrith," he said. The servant bowed, ushered him into a sitting room, and relieved him of his coat and hat, all without a word. Penrith had begun to wonder if Acklebury employed a mute, when the fellow said, "Mr Acklebury will be right in, my lord," and left the sitting room.

Penrith looked about him with interest. Instead of the artist's garret he had been imagining, the room into which the servant had conducted him contained a pair of matching armchairs upon a handsome carpet before the fire. Instead of pots of paint, and rags, and brushes in jars, Penrith was slightly disappointed to perceive a pleasant sitting room, furnished with the same modest good taste that Mr Acklebury's manner of dress conveyed.

A single painting adorned the room, and though it appeared unfinished, sections of canvas showing at its edges, it was framed and was clearly no longer a work in progress. It was a representation of the Grand Canal in Venice, a view that Penrith had seen upon his Continental travels. He was admiring it when Mr Acklebury came into the room, and his whole attention was drawn from the picture to Acklebury's face. Penrith was struck anew by the felicitous arrangement of features that made Acklebury, if possible, even more perfectly handsome in reality than he had been in Penrith's memory.

"My lord," Acklebury said, and bowed.

Penrith returned the bow with amused impatience, and said, "What? Has a fortnight sufficed to make you forget our agreement to speak to one another as friends?"

A flush spread over Acklebury's cheeks. "I beg your pardon...Penrith. I have not forgotten. Not at all." Acklebury bent his head forward and looked at Penrith from under his brows. "I am simply a creature of my upbringing--which did not put me within the sphere of more than, oh, perhaps one or two viscounts, at most."

Penrith laughed. "Then let the third one assure you that while many another viscount may demand punctilious recognition of his rank at all times, this one does not! In point of fact, I wish I were not its recipient at every turn."

"I shall endeavour not to subject you to more of it, then," Acklebury said with that mild tone that Penrith was beginning to recognise as the signal that Acklebury was teasing him, "though I do not wish you to regret having permitted me to be so informal with you. If I forget myself too far, you must not hesitate to give me a setdown."

Unbidden to Penrith's mind there came several images in rapid succession of how Acklebury might forget himself too far, each provocative enough that his lordship felt the need to blink them away. "Oh, I do not think that day will come," he said. There was a moment's silence. Acklebury regarded him curiously, and Penrith cleared his throat. He indicated the painting over the mantelpiece. "This is your work, I perceive?"

"It is, yes. Quite unfinished, of course, but I am fond of the view."

"As am I. You have perfectly captured the peculiar quality of the light in Venice. I remember remarking it."

Penrith had been in Venice. Those few daylight hours that had seen him abroad in the streets had given him an idea of the decaying grandeur of the place, and he knew that it would have astonished his acquaintance to hear him speak of the quality of light other than as something that had assaulted his tender eyes after a night in the ridottos and casinos. A pleased look crossed Acklebury's face and he said, "You are too kind."

Penrith waved this away. "Not at all," he said. "Your work is excellent."

Acklebury inclined his head courteously, but without self-effacement. A certain prim reserve might mark his character generally, but, Penrith noted to himself now, Mr John Acklebury was confident of his artistic talents. His expression changed quickly, however, when Penrith said, "Why did you not finish it, I wonder?" He thought to hear only a few words upon some esoteric point of artistic expression, and was surprised by Acklebury's suddenly serious face.

"I left Venice before I could do so." He cast his eyes down, leaving Penrith with a strong impression that the circumstances surrounding that departure had been a cause of regret to Acklebury, perhaps even of shame. He would not for the world have pursued the matter farther, but Acklebury added, "I keep it to remind me of--of the importance of all that I learnt there."

"Oh?" Penrith said. He knew he ought not to make Acklebury feel he must disclose more, but his interest was real.

Acklebury looked up from the contemplation of his own memories, and favoured Lord Penrith with a frank look, even going so far as to raise his eyebrows in a mild challenge to his untoward curiosity. "Forgive me. I did not mean to be mysterious. I am careless in my speech sometimes."

Penrith thought this unlikely, but as Acklebury clearly did not wish to be pressed on the matter, he said only, "And I did not mean to trespass upon your privacy. I am the careless one! I came here with the intention to speak to you about my portrait today, but I cannot seem to resist straying into conversational by-ways with you." He noted Acklebury's pleased half-smile, and went on, "I trust that the subject is still open as we left it before I went to Cumberland?"

Acklebury gestured to one of the room's two armchairs. "Please, will you not take a seat, and let me give you something to drink?" He turned away, under the cover of ringing for his servant, but not before Penrith perceived a certain strain upon his face. He did not reply until he had settled himself into the other chair. "I have had--" Acklebury began, so hesitantly that Penrith feared a definitive refusal. "I have had some misgivings upon the matter."

"Well!" Penrith said in a heartier tone than he felt. "What misgivings are these? Let us see if I cannot overcome them."

"About the portrait, none at all, I assure you. I am avid to begin. In you I have a most...inspiring subject."

Penrith made a note to ask him, at some future moment, what the prospect of painting his portrait had inspired in Acklebury's mind to make him flush so. For now, he simply said, "In what quarter, then, do your doubts lie?"

Acklebury looked at him directly, no longer trying to conceal the strong feelings that his fair skin betrayed so clearly. "I will be forthright."

Penrith leant back in his chair, intrigued. "I beg that you will be."

"It has been borne in on me during your absence from town that what we are seen to do in each other's company gives rise to talk."

"Why would that be, I wonder?" Penrith murmured.

"I do not know."

Penrith thought this, too, very unlikely, but said nothing, and Acklebury went on. "Perhaps it does not matter. But I would not for the world be the cause of any harm to your reputation."

Penrith prevented himself with difficulty from giving an incredulous snort. "Tell me, Acklebury: do you have some reason to believe that your society would have that effect upon me?"

Acklebury's eyes widened. "I--that is, no. I do not think so."

Penrith looked at him for a long moment. "Indeed," he said, "can you think of anything in a friendship between two gentlemen that could cause harm to the reputation of either? The very word 'gentleman' must be defined by there being no such thing, would you not agree?"

"Yes, of course." Acklebury looked down at his hands, and it was clear to Penrith that he was wishing he had chosen to be less forthright.

"People will talk because that is what people do, Acklebury," Penrith went on. "People will talk about me, and about what concerns me--even including my friends--whether you paint my portrait and gallop a hundred times across Hyde Park with me, or simply have the misfortune to be seen leaving my house. They will do so because I am rich, and young, and I have a lofty title and am heir to a still higher one, and I am therefore as much the common property as a young girl on the marriage market."

Acklebury looked up, shocked. "Penrith! Do not say such things."

"Why ever not? They are perfectly true." Penrith had not meant for quite so much bitterness to be evident in his voice. "Forgive me--I find myself saying things to you that I would not usually speak of."

"I am honoured by your trust," Acklebury said.

"Then honour me with yours," Penrith said impatiently. "I can perceive no danger to my reputation from your friendship. If you suffer ill effects as the result of mine, then do not spare my feelings by remaining silent on the point."

"No! No, it is not--" Acklebury rose from his chair in some agitation. "That is, it is true that my name has come up in connexion with yours. I have overheard gossip of a most distasteful kind, and I am sorry to say that I have allowed it to make me anxious--and rather foolish. I did not mean to be on such a footing with you. I beg your pardon!"

Penrith feared the worst, and dared not ask what Acklebury had heard, for of the many things said of him in society, only one might cause such discomfort to another man. Penrith did not think this one thing was said openly, and he did not think it was generally believed, for people expected men of his stamp to be like Westhill, and not great, strapping fellows with sporting proclivities. It would be very easy to allay Acklebury's concerns with some allusion to shotguns, or pretty opera-dancers, or curricle-racing, but Penrith found that he could not do so.

"No, Acklebury," he said with a sigh. "It is I who must beg your pardon. I pretend that I do not understand the true character of your concern, when I believe I do." He rose, no longer able to remain still. Reason demanded that he move farther from Acklebury, but his nature made him take a step closer. He chose his next words carefully, watching Acklebury's face. "I am aware of what people say about me. I wish I could tell you that it is all baseless." He could say no more without incriminating himself, and part of him was astonished that he had said so much.

It was a rare man, Penrith reflected, who would not react with fear or contempt to the truth he had just hinted at; even a man who was similarly inclined might be incited to violence by it. Acklebury's eyes grew wide as comprehension dawned, but if he was disgusted by the implication of what he was hearing, his expression did not show it. Discomfort was there, to be sure, and perhaps a flash of panic, but both were so quickly schooled into neutrality that Penrith could not guess at what Acklebury's true feelings were.

It was not the response he had been hoping for: not that happy relief which another man of his kind might feel at no longer having to be secret, and far from a clear declaration of fraternity; but it was not so bad as it might have been, and so Penrith pressed on. "It is only fair to tell you that what is said of me is not unknown to be said of my friends. I cannot prevent it--it would be useless to pretend to you that I can, and wrong to imply that your...concerns upon this head are unfounded." Penrith saw uneasiness in Acklebury's face, and with it, a certain defiance that gave him heart to continue. "I can only give you my word that in point of your...person, I will in no way--"

Acklebury cut him off, his eyes wide and his mouth agape in apparent mortification. "Penrith! Of course, there is no question of--please! You need not...I never thought...please! Say no more!"

"Very well. I think we understand each other," Penrith said. Acklebury nodded, looking at the floor. Later, Penrith thought, he would allow himself the luxury of a moment's disappointment. Now he said, "But you have not yet said whether you are willing to paint me."

Mr Acklebury took a deep breath. "I--yes. Yes, I am." He looked surprised at his own words, and then gave a small laugh. "Perhaps, as we are being honest, it would be more accurate to say that I am unwilling to let the commission go to any other artist. I do not say that another artist might not do the commission justice! No! My motives are more selfish."

"Indeed?"

Acklebury said, "As a painter of portraits, I have had to become a flatterer. It is a talent that does not come naturally to me, and some subjects, requiring more flattery than others, can be very taxing. You would require none. I find that I do not want any other artist to have that pleasure."

Penrith gazed at him, more than a little taken aback. Such a compliment upon his appearance was, in light of the matters they had just discussed, either unusually liberal-minded, or exceedingly daring. Acklebury held his eyes for a moment before apparently losing his will and looking down at his hands. Penrith took pity on him. "You find me worthy of your painterly eye, do you?"

Acklebury was clearly flustered. "I did not mean--that is, of course, every subject must--"

"Oh, do not distress yourself! I have a mirror, and even if I had not, I know that I am well-enough looking because I am told so with some frequency. A handsome devil--that is what I am." He laughed, and was pleased to see Acklebury shake his head with a rueful grin in response. "Let us dispense with all of this. You wish to paint me. I wish to be painted by you. It is settled in my mind."

Acklebury let out his breath in evident relief. "Then it is settled in mine."

"Capital! I am very pleased," Penrith said. Suddenly freed from the tension of the difficult conversation just past, Penrith was assailed by the urge to stretch his arms, and did not trouble to repress it. "Pardon me!" he said through a yawn.

"Oh, not at all, my lord," Acklebury said. It took but an instant for Penrith to realise that he was teasing again. "I assure you, all of my subjects become somnolent at some point during the project--though most wait until they are actually being painted. And I do not believe I have yet seen one stretch like a great cat."

Penrith abruptly ended this exercise and, with a glare at Acklebury, said, "When I told you that we must speak to each other as friends, I had no idea such lightminded bantering would ensue!"

Acklebury bowed, grinning, and Penrith could not remember when he had been so delighted with a new friend.

"I forget my manners," he said, "and I apologise. It is only--well, I am too long for most chairs, and sitting does not agree with me. I assure you, I would ordinarily wait to stretch like a great cat--" he shot Acklebury a reproachful look "--until I am private."

"That must make a wonderful excuse to curtail unbearable morning-calls."

"Is there any other sort of morning call?" Penrith rejoined with another yawn.

"Not in my experience. I believe to be an invention of the devil."

Penrith laughed. "It is very easy to be in your society, Acklebury. I cannot be out of spirits with you. It is quite remarkable. I shall enjoy our sittings." He took a step toward him, and Acklebury did not appear to be troubled by his nearer approach, but simply held out a glass of wine.

"Let us drink to our collaboration, then," Acklebury said. "When shall we begin?"

"Tomorrow, I think," Penrith replied at once. "I am eager to make a start, and I can see no reason to delay."

Acklebury blinked, but did not cavil. He raised his glass, took a drink, and moved toward his desk. "Tomorrow, then. My studio is in Bruton Street--" he scribbled an address on the back of a calling card. "Will you come there?"

Penrith's earlier image of the cluttered and interesting artist's garret came back into his mind. "Certainly, if you wish."

"The first sitting will be comprised of sketches. Later, when we have settled on a pose, you may care to move the remaining sittings to your townhouse, where the background will consist of your books, perhaps, or your furnishings."

Penrith could not imagine wishing to be portrayed among his possessions. "At what time shall I present myself?" he asked.

"The proper response, I know, is to say that I am entirely at your service, and to ask you to name the hour," Acklebury said. "But I'm afraid the work is a slave to daylight, and that is best fairly early. We will need no less than two hours tomorrow to begin. May I ask you to come at eleven?"

"Greatly to the astonishment of everyone who knew me in school, I am generally an early riser. I shall be there at eleven o'clock without fail. And now I must take my leave. My horses do not fare much better than I do when asked to stand in their traces."

Acklebury rang for his servant, and Penrith said, "Our conversation has been most gratifying. I thank you for your candour. It has led, I think, to a better understanding between us."

"Yes," Acklebury said, appearing once again slightly uneasy.

"Notwithstanding all that we have discussed, my wishes as to the character of my portrait have not changed. You have not forgotten them, I trust?"

Acklebury looked away. "No. I have not forgotten."

"I take my leave of you, then," Penrith said, "and look forward to beginning our work together tomorrow."

***

Upon returning to his townhouse, Penrith was pleased to discover that Mr Satterlee, the architect whose services he had engaged in Carlisle, had sent him a plan for the improvements at Ravensworth. He carried it into the library and unrolled it on his desk. It was larger, and far finer, than the drawings David had sent him at school, and it differed from them in a few particulars, but it was their realisation. Indeed, Penrith had set some of the work in train during his hurried visit north, and he felt a surge of bittersweet pride at finally beginning the work at Ravensworth that David had so enthusiastically wished to accomplish.

As he stood over the plan with his palms spread on the table, he found himself imagining what Acklebury might say to it. "See, here," Tristan would say. "This is where I propose to build the new stables."

"What is wrong with the old ones?" John would ask him.

Penrith sighed. The John Acklebury in his imagination refused to admire him unquestioningly. He would explain that it was not a mere whim--far from it!--but that the stables as currently situated were damp, and bad for the horses, and that moving them would improve the lot of the livestock and allow long-needed drainage work to go forward.

It was not very long before Viscount Penrith was absorbed in a reverie in which John Acklebury would come to visit Ravensworth, far enough from London that society's gossip and speculation could not follow. There, in simple and rather rustic circumstances, Acklebury might abandon his reserve, and confess that he, too, was a member of the secret fraternity.

They would dine in the great hall--no! Penrith thought, in the small parlour. He would see that Acklebury was made comfortable and easy. The absence of many servants, the remoteness of their situation, the excellent claret, the simple meal, the warmth of a good fire--no, of a summer's night--all would serve to loosen Acklebury's manner.

Acklebury would go to stand at the double doors that gave onto the balcony--Viscount Penrith scanned the document before him and ascertained to his disappointment that Ravensworth did not, in fact, boast a balcony, or any double-doors, and made a note to ask Satterlee about these items in his next communication--and, looking out at the summer night, would not hear Tristan's approach until Tristan's arms came around his waist and Tristan's lips touched his neck...

First, Penrith thought, Acklebury must have undone his neck-cloth. How that was to be accomplished he did not know. The wine, perhaps! Or, no--the heat of the evening. Yes, that was better.

John would start, and grow tense, but Tristan would continue his caresses, certain that they were welcome. John would gradually grow calmer, like a skittish horse coming to the bridle...

A tap at the library door broke into Penrith's pleasant imaginings. Stephens entered, the afternoon post on a tray in his hand. Several invitations, to parties and dances that interested Lord Penrith very little, figured in the pile. These, Penrith set aside one by one, idly wondering if Acklebury were invited to any of the same social events.

One interesting note came from Lizzie Danforth.

2, Berkeley Square
Westminster, London
8th April, 1818

My dear Penrith,

I propose a little house-party at Highcliffe in early June, and I long for you to come. We shall be very merry and informal, and play bowls on the lawn, and ride, and dance and be entirely at our ease. Danforth has promised to organise hunting for the gentlemen, and I have cajoled him into bringing Antoine, so the meals will be very fine! As an additional inducement, I have invited the beautiful Miss Lareton. She will be all the rage this Season, and I have thought of her first! She is very elegant, as you have seen, and you will like her.

Do say you will come, Tristan. It is the 5th of June, for a few days.

Yours,
Lizzie

P.S. All the world now speaks of your being painted by Acklebury. So it is decided! I am glad that you do not find him too staid. He is so very handsome that one does not mind looking at him as one sits.

P.P.S. Do not say no, Penrith. I quite depend on your being there, and if you do not come, I shall be out of temper with you for ever.

Penrith re-folded Elizabeth Danforth's letter and tapped its corner thoughtfully against his jaw. That "all the world" could not possibly know what had only been decided an hour ago only proved the justice of Acklebury's concerns. Together, he and Acklebury were being talked of, a scandal that did not exist. Yet, he remembered Westhill saying. Well, no very great harm could come from cultivating Acklebury's friendship when "all the world" supposed them to be already great friends indeed. He would go to Lizzie's house-party, he decided. The question was how to induce her to invite Acklebury. He sat down at his desk and drew out a sheet of stationery.

Lizzie:

Of course I shall be there. You are still out of temper with me for ever for having come late to your ball at Christmas, and I do not like the idea of your being doubly so, for it will put a crease between your eyebrows, and we cannot have that.

Count upon me for the 5th of June.

Yours,
Penrith

P.S. You know perfectly well that Acklebury is not staid. Only think of being the first hostess to discover it.

There! he thought. That ought to do.

The following morning's post proved him right. A note in Lizzie's hand was brought to him in his dressing-room just as he was ready to leave for Acklebury's studio.

My dear Penrith, the note read.

I am glad you will come to my party. I must reconsider Acklebury. Danforth says that you and he are already great friends! Why did you not say so? Shall I invite him to something? I believe I shall.

Yours &c.
Lizzie

Laughing, Penrith put Lizzie's note onto the fire and left the house.

Chapter Text

London, April, 1818

Viscount Penrith arrived on foot at the Bruton Street address Acklebury had given him, just at eleven o'clock. He had submitted to Cooper on the matter of his general toilette, and was as perfectly groomed and dressed as usual, Cooper having evinced dismay at the very notion of letting his lordship leave the house otherwise. Well, Penrith reasoned, neatly arranged hair could be easily mussed, and buttons could be undone, and he supposed that his hope of being painted with a day's stubble upon his chin had always been futile.

He mounted to the uppermost storey and knocked on the door at the top of the stairs. Acklebury himself flung it open. He was dressed in trousers and an old and disreputable-looking grey coat with spots of paint on it, its sleeves pushed up on his arms.

"Good morning!" he said to Penrith with an easy smile. "Please, come in. I am still somewhat unorganised, and I beg you will disregard it. You are my first patron here!" Acklebury was clearly pleased at this fact, and Penrith smiled at his enthusiasm.

The room was filled with as much light as the April morning could afford it, and was nearly bare of furnishings. An armchair was situated in the midst of the light from the large window. A high, wooden three-legged stool, an easel with a large sketching block mounted to it, a bookcase filled with jars of pigments, and two or three leather-strapped portfolios made up the principle of the room's contents. Against the wall farthest from the window there was a small sideboard containing a bottle or two of wine and spirits, and half a dozen glasses. A small carpet covered a few feet of floor before the armchair, but otherwise the wood planks were polished and bare.

Though thwarted again in his wish to see a romantic and shabby garret, Penrith was not displeased. "I have never been in an artist's studio," he said as Acklebury closed the door. "Are they all so empty?"

Acklebury's worried glance lasted only a second or two before he burst into a short laugh and nodded. "Yes, my lord. The idea is to fill it only with the subject."

That would be me, Penrith thought happily. He took off his coat and hat, and, momentarily nonplussed by the absence of any servant to relieve him of them, was about to drop them on the floor. Acklebury said, "Here, please allow me--" and took them from him. "I sent Marchbanks home a bit earlier. I was not thinking." He hung Penrith's things on a set of hooks behind the door.

He does not even realise that he wishes to be alone with me, Penrith thought. He sat in the armchair that was clearly his place, and bent to remove his boots. When he glanced up, Acklebury was frozen next to his easel, staring at him. Penrith smiled and tugged one boot off, and as he bent to the other one, he heard Acklebury first clear his throat, then shift the wooden easel.

Both boots off, Penrith set about untying his neck-cloth. Acklebury by this time had turned his back and apparently was busying himself selecting the drawing implements he would be using. Everything in his posture and tight movements spoke of uneasiness, and Penrith felt a laugh arising from somewhere deep down. How far would Acklebury let him go, he wondered? He removed his neck-cloth, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and undid the first tie of his shirt. It was not until he stood and padded in his stocking feet to the sideboard that Acklebury turned again.

"I--I am stupid! Forgive me!" Acklebury said in a rush. "I did not offer you a drink. I should not have sent Marchbanks off. I do beg your pardon." He hastened to the sideboard himself and made to fetch out one of the bottles.

Penrith put a hand on his arm. "Do not apologise, Acklebury. I am quite at home! Indeed, so much so that I am helping myself as if I were in my own dressing room. It is I who am in the wrong. But I have a notion of being portrayed with something in my hand, and I thought perhaps a glass of wine would look well. What do you think?" Penrith reached around him and brought out a glass, forgetting for an instant that Acklebury, like most men, probably did not care to have another man so near.

"We can certainly try it," Acklebury said taking a half step backward. "Consider, however, that a portrait carries a great freight of meaning over a long period of time, every detail in it being subject to close scrutiny. Will you be pleased, I wonder, in years to come, to have been portrayed with wine or spirits?"

"Better wine or spirits than a cup of tea!" Penrith said with an uncomfortable laugh. Acklebury probably did not know how right he was to suggest something else. He set the glass back upon the shelf.

"Oh, indeed!" Acklebury said. "I would cavil to portray my own grandmother with a cup of tea, for even she is not so staid. A portrait tells a story. That is what Maestro Fiorio taught me. You--" Acklebury began once again to be uncomfortable. Penrith was intrigued by the ease with which he could read this gentleman's changes of emotion, and resolved out of pity never to invite him to play cards. "You expressed a wish to be portrayed in a state of disarray."

Penrith did not fail to note Acklebury's use of exactly the phrase in which he had expressed his wishes, more than three weeks earlier. "Yes," he said. "I did." He held his arms wide, causing his undone waistcoat to swing open and his shirtsleeves to hang loosely about his wrists. "What do you think?"

One corner of Acklebury's mouth lifted in a slight, ironical smile. "You told me that being painted is dull work, and yet you were willing to undertake it even before you knew I was not, as you put it, 'some dry old fellow'. I wonder, was there something that prompted you to seek a portrait just at this time?"

Penrith paused in the midst of running fingers through his hair, thoughts of the anniversary of his brother's death and of his meeting with Charles coming into his mind. "That is a very good question," he said after a moment, his hand on the top of his head. He let it fall to his side. "I suppose I am beginning a new chapter in my life."

Acklebury regarded him thoughtfully. "Well then," he said, "I have one or two ideas. Come, sit there, and let me make a few sketches, and we shall see where they lead."

Penrith went back to the chair, and Acklebury selected some kind of black crayon or pencil from a box. "Please, make yourself comfortable," he said. Penrith had expected to be told how to array himself for the best effect and was taken aback by the idea of choosing his own position. He thrust his legs out, put his elbow on the chair's arm and reclined in a lazy fashion, looking at Acklebury and hiding his mouth behind the knuckles of his left hand. Acklebury's eyes narrowed, and soon his hand was moving rapidly across the paper. In what seemed a short time, he was turning the first large sheet over the top of the easel.

"I wonder if your boots would do," Acklebury said, more to himself than to Penrith. Instantly understanding Acklebury to refer to his earlier wish of holding something in his hand, Penrith shifted his position and bent to gather up his boots. He held them dangling by their tops from one hand and looked up again at Acklebury.

Acklebury seemed excited, abstracted, outside of himself and his usual restraints. "Please, stay there just a moment," he said, looking at Penrith and obviously seeing lines, forms, shapes that pleased him. "Yes," he murmured, sketching rapidly as Penrith watched, fascinated. He no longer believed that Lizzie had found him dull, for there was nothing dull in observing Acklebury's handsome face in such a state of focus. His full lips were parted; his eyes, very green in the light from the window, were intent, his brows were lowered, and everything about him exhibited a passionate engagement in his art. It made him somehow loftier than he had been before, and, if possible, more compelling.

After a time, the second sheet went over the top of the easel in a loud rustle of paper, to join the first. Without speaking, Acklebury came forward and took Penrith's right hand. "Here," he said, draping that arm over the chair. "And here." He stepped between Penrith's knees and put a finger to his jaw. "Turn your head a little this way." He then pressed Penrith's shoulder back into the chair. "Relax," he said, and Penrith could not resist saying, "Yes, sir." Acklebury seemed not to notice. He stepped back a pace, squinted through narrowed eyes at the arrangement he had made of Penrith's limbs, and nodded.

To have been touched so unconsciously by Acklebury drew Penrith's mind into a fresh daydream of being touched by him intentionally. He told himself that allowing such ideas to unfold within his own mind could do no harm and did not break his promise in respect to Acklebury's person. He sat as instructed, listening to the small sounds of Acklebury's crayon on the paper, and the traffic in the street below. Somewhere in the distance, a church bell rang.

"I think we must portray you looking directly at me," Acklebury said as he turned over another sheet. "That is, at the viewer."

"Very well." Penrith shifted his posture once more, trying to find a comfortable position. He moved his weight forward on the seat, slouching back upon his spine into the upholstery, just as he had always been admonished not to do. His arms, one flung out over either arm of the chair, felt loose and easy. One knee fell wide, the other leg was thrust out before him, his boots on the floor between his feet. He let his head fall to rest upon the chair's back and gazed at Acklebury. "Will this do?"

Acklebury went still. "I beg you not to move," he breathed. "For that is..." Acklebury trailed off, and went into action, drawing almost feverishly upon the sheet before him. A long moment passed before he finished his sentence. "...is perfect," he muttered. "Perfect."

Penrith, not so much relaxed as transfixed, gave himself over to the fascinating task of being Acklebury's perfect subject. The arrangement of his limbs, the direction of his gaze, the angle of his head, all conspired to make him feel very much the rake he was reputed to be, and so he looked at Acklebury freely: at his face, his neck, the powerful shoulders that he already knew were pale and freckled. Penrith let his gaze linger upon the strong left hand that held the easel steady. Acklebury's unbuttoned coat parted as his right arm moved, revealing the place where his shirt was coming undone from his trousers, the fine white cotton bunched and pulling. Penrith imagined tugging the shirt-tails out and running his hands over the skin beneath, pushing the overlong, concealing coat off his shoulders and to the floor, so that what was most interesting in Acklebury's form could be more clearly observed.

How long these imaginings ran on, Penrith could not be sure, but he became gradually aware that Acklebury was no longer drawing or even looking at him. Penrith realised in some embarrassment that his own warm thoughts had brought about a condition of partial arousal that Acklebury could not have failed to observe. Penrith shifted so as to make his state less apparent.

"Do not distress yourself, Penrith," Acklebury said, his voice tight with some small distress of his own. Then he took a breath and let it out, and very much to Penrith's astonishment, he added, "It is nothing I have not seen before." Well, of course he had--but...Penrith's uncertainty must have showed upon his face, for Acklebury said simply, "Remember that I spent four years drawing people in Venice."

So provocative were the images that this statement gave rise to in Penrith's mind that he knew he was agape and could not quickly school his expression. Modest, prim, tightly-buttoned Mr John Acklebury, who had blushed furiously to be momentarily without a shirt in Penrith's presence, was intimating that nothing in the masculine form was unfamiliar to his artist's eye; that he had seen and drawn it in its variety of states.

"I--I see," Penrith said. He abandoned his attempts to cover his own surprise, and instead said, "I do not yet have your measure, Acklebury. Forgive me if I have misjudged you."

"There is nothing to forgive." Acklebury carefully turned the last drawing over the top of the easel, leaving a blank sheet. "I am not by nature a particularly sanguine or demonstrative person, and I am aware that I give an impression of...excessive modesty. If you have supposed me to be more unworldly than I am, you are in very good company, for everyone does so."

Penrith, fascinated, said, "I suppose that your father's profession colours many people's ideas about you."

"I would have said so, certainly, before I went to Italy. There, where no-one knew my father and there is no such thing as a clergyman's son--" Acklebury put a hand to the back of his head and looked at Penrith with a grin "--at least, not legitimately--I was still accused of quite a ridiculous saintliness."

Not by anyone with eyes to see, Penrith thought. Aloud, he said, "I, by contrast, am accused of quite an absurd degree of sin. It is clear to me that we are both misjudged."

Acklebury lifted the easel and carried it to the far side of the room, where he turned it to the wall. At Penrith's enquiring look, he said, "I do not look at my work for a day or so. I cannot really see it until I have left it for a time, and it is better if I do not try." He then went to the sideboard and poured water from a pitcher into a wineglass, and, when Penrith declined it, drank from it himself.

Penrith rose, a little stiff from long sitting, but more settled in his body now than a few moments previously. "Is it always like this?" he asked.

Acklebury looked startled. "I beg your pardon?"

"Is sitting for one of your portraits always such an experience?" Too late, Penrith realized what meaning Acklebury must take from such a question in the circumstances.

"It is...not unknown to happen," Acklebury replied in a quiet voice. He glanced up. "Though not with female subjects."

Penrith found himself in the odd position of feeling rather shocked, and gave an uncertain laugh. "I only meant to ask whether one always experiences this sensation of time passing strangely," he said.

"Oh!" Acklebury's eyes went wide, then he threw his head back and laughed, a rich, deep sound. "Oh, I see!" he said when he had recovered his composure. "I beg your pardon!" He laughed again.

Penrith, his usual store of conversation stolen by the sound of Acklebury's unrestrained laughter, the sight of his exposed throat and the powerful line of his jaw, went to the sideboard and poured himself a glass of claret.

"Well, I have never sat for one of my portraits, of course," Acklebury went on, "so I cannot say. Time does pass oddly for me when I am working, and perhaps it was the same for you. I believe the term 'bemused' is apt, for the muse does seem to come." Acklebury's smile faded and he looked down into his own glass. "I must say, though, that today has been extraordinary in that regard. I feel that something very new will come of it."

Penrith longed to look at the sketches, and as he could not do so, went back to the chair and set about tugging his boots on and putting himself back in order. "I believe," he said as he thus busied himself, "that you were very worried about whether I was going to remove any more of my clothes."

Acklebury, who was sipping from his water at just that moment, choked. Penrith gave him a moment to sputter and cough, and finally he nodded and said, "I was!" He held up a hand as he coughed a little more, then continued, "Indeed, I was. I was prepared for nearly anything. I did not know precisely what you meant when you said 'disarray,' and believe me, my lord, when I tell you that I have drawn some rather shocking disarray. It's just that I have never done so in a situation involving a peer of the realm. Or, for that matter, an Englishman of any kind."

Penrith experienced a moment's jealousy, wondering what Italian persons Acklebury might have portrayed during his long sojourn in Venice. He had seen many very handsome people when he had been in Venice himself, men and women with exotic looks and hot-tempered ways, from the Balkan lands to the east. He put this notion aside and said, "Let us agree, then, to be more clear in our meaning from here on."

"An excellent plan." Acklebury watched him struggling with his boots for a moment, then sighed and set his glass down. "Here, let me help you."

"Certainly not, Acklebury! You are not my valet."

"And yet you appear to struggle for the want of one. Marchbanks may reappear at any moment to assist you, and you are, of course, welcome to wait here as long as you wish. But if you will let me lend you a hand, you will be properly shod again and have many more choices as to how you will spend the rest of your day."

Penrith closed his eyes, but not before the image of Acklebury kneeling before him, the top of his head exposed to view, was engraved upon his mind. He thought that putting his boots on, and retying his neck-cloth, and buttoning up his waistcoat, and putting on his coat, and his greatcoat, and his hat, and his gloves, would serve merely to remove the one choice he would have liked to make as to the disposition of his afternoon.

But there was nothing for it. Acklebury, in making short work of the boots, was indicating clearly that whatever had passed between them, any advancement of their friendship must wait for another day. Acklebury rose to his feet, dusting the knees of his trousers.

"When shall I come again?" Penrith asked. It sounded wishful to his own ears and he quickly added, "That is, how does the work proceed from here?"

"If you'll indulge me," Acklebury replied, putting away his drawing implements, "I would like to look over my sketches in a day or two and consider that very question. I believe I have found the pose and expression that will become your portrait. I will need to see you once more for colour, and then perhaps twice or thrice more. If you wish to be painted in your house, we will meet there for the final sittings."

"I have no wish to be painted in my house. Or with my books--which I purchased by the yard. I quite like it here. I am as much at home here as anywhere."

Acklebury's eyes widened at this, and Penrith considered whether he had said something untoward. He supposed that to someone raised by a loving family, in a home he had never been sent from, such a sentiment would be rather shocking. Acklebury only said, "You--you do me and my little studio too much honour."

"Not at all." Penrith did his best to tie his cravat himself in the absence of a mirror. Acklebury came forward as if to offer his services again, and Penrith shook his head. "I must insist on making my own muddle of this." In truth, Penrith did not think he could answer for his actions if Acklebury were to stand close enough, for a long enough period, to help him with this task. "I will button up my coat and no-one will notice my ineptitude."

"Yes, of course."

When all his disarray was either undone or hidden under hat and coat, Viscount Penrith turned to Acklebury at the door of the Bruton Street studio and said, "Will I pass muster between here and Half Moon Street?"

Acklebury said solemnly, "His lordship has a quick pace that will serve him well today. And it is not far."

"Oh wonderful, Acklebury. Thank you very much," Penrith laughed. "I shall expect to hear from you in two or three days' time as to our second sitting."

"Without fail."

Chapter Text

London, April, 1818

"This has just come for you, my lord," Stephens said, as Viscount Penrith bounded down the stairs from his dressing-room in anticipation of his morning's ride. Stephens was holding out a silver tray containing an extraordinary-looking piece of correspondence. Penrith picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It appeared to have been torn from a larger sheet, folded haphazardly, and sealed with candle-wax. It was written, of all preposterous things, in fine, reddish chalk.

"Who the devil is it from?" he demanded of Stephens.

"A young person delivered it, my lord. From a dressmaker's establishment, I believe."

"A dressmaker?"

"I believe so, my lord. The young person is waiting for a reply. Shall I send her away?"

"What on earth would I want a letter from a dressmaker for?" Penrith broke the seal, unfolded the missive, and laughed. Of course! Madame Hélène's fashionable Bruton Street establishment occupied the ground floor of the building in which Acklebury's studio was situated. "No, do not send her away yet," Penrith said.

My dear Penrith, Acklebury had written in artist's chalk, apparently in very great haste. Can you come again tomorrow? I have found the story that your portrait must tell and I must begin colour-work right away. Forgive this letter, I beg you. I am distracted and cannot leave just now. Will you wear riding clothes? --A.

At the bottom of the sheet were some bars of colour in what appeared to be pastel: browns and greens and a warm yellow, perhaps the beginning of the colour-work that Acklebury was so eagerly needing to begin. That the very courteous Mr Acklebury could send so extremely informal a note must be further evidence of that state of mind which had lately allowed him to arrange Viscount Penrith's limbs and adjust the tilt of his head quite as if he had been a mannequin. Penrith felt that he was meeting an entirely new John Acklebury, and a very amusing one.

"Have I a pencil?" his lordship enquired of Stephens.

"A pencil, my lord? Yes, I believe your lordship keeps a pencil in his memorandum book."

"Ah, of course." Penrith patted several pockets in his riding coat and did not find his memorandum book. "Fetch that, will you, Stephens?"

"At once, my lord."

A few moments later, Stephens returned bearing his lordship's small leather memorandum book with its silver-bound pencil. Penrith strode into the library and took out one of his large calling-cards, which he tore into two untidy pieces. On the larger of these, with the pencil, he drew a stick-figure man upon a stick-figure horse. Beneath this he wrote, Without fail at 11 o'clock. --P.

This masterpiece he folded inside Acklebury's note, re-sealed it, properly this time, with red wax and the Penrith seal engraved into his signet ring. He crossed his own name from the front and wrote Acklebury's.

"Give this to the girl to take back," he told Stephens.

"Very good, my lord."

***

Penrith made it his business to ride unfashionably early the following morning, in order that he might go directly to Acklebury's painting-room afterwards, dressed, as requested, in riding-clothes. Inasmuch as he intended to remove several of the garments that would distinguish a riding costume from any other, he was uncertain as to the intent of Acklebury's request. Carrying his crop and his hat, and trying to remove his gloves at the same time, he entered the building in Bruton Street and mounted the stairs.

Somewhat to Penrith's disappointment, Acklebury's servant, Marchbanks, answered his knock. Acklebury himself was in the far corner, where the building's roof slanted down and made the ceiling very low, looking through some sort of case. When he perceived Penrith's entrance, he rose, dusting his hands on his grey painting coat.

"My lord! Welcome! Thank you for coming."

Penrith observed that Acklebury's face was rather pale, and that his eyes seemed larger than usual. "Oh, I could not possibly refuse such an original invitation!" he said, handing Marchbanks his things.

"I do apologise for that." Acklebury grinned, ducking his head forward. "Your reply was extremely forgiving! Thank you for it. It made me laugh a great deal."

Penrith could not help noticing that his torn card with its absurd drawing was lying on the bookcase. "I assure you, Acklebury, your note to me was by far the more amusing!"

Marchbanks silently offered Penrith a glass of sherry wine from a bottle that Penrith was certain had not been there yesterday. It appeared that Acklebury wished the studio to be more hospitable. He accepted the small glass and took his seat in the chair. "Will you not sit a moment with me, Acklebury? Frankly, you look very tired. Are you quite sure you wish to work today?"

Acklebury gestured to Marchbanks for a glass, and drew his high stool a little closer to the arm-chair. "I am afraid that my complexion tells exaggerated tales. I am quite well. I was up rather late last night working, and rose early this morning with your portrait on my mind, but I am not tired. Not in the least." He turned to his servant and said, "I think that will be all, Marchbanks. On your way out, ask Mrs Phillips if her girl would bring us some tea in an hour or so."

Penrith watched the silent servant go. "I am glad that you have sent your man away," he told Acklebury when the door had closed behind Marchbanks, "for I take great pleasure in your society." As surely as the sun rose in the east, Mr Acklebury's traitorous complexion flushed, and had embarrassment not been blended in his face with an equal part of pleasure, Penrith would have supposed Acklebury anxious at being alone with him, knowing what he was.

To soften the improper sentiment which had, indeed, prompted his words, Penrith quickly added, "I am for ever surrounded by people who do not wish me to be myself. I find this little room, this little glass of wine, and indeed this entire undertaking, very much to my liking." He sipped his drink, noting Acklebury's downward glance. How a man so well-favoured in every important respect had not learnt in a quarter-century of life to accept compliments with a better composure was outside Penrith's power to comprehend, and he wished very much to believe that something other than modesty caused Acklebury's confusion now.

After a brief pause, Mr Acklebury said, "I am honoured. Indeed, I believe that the portrait I have in my mind will reflect the...the camaraderie between its subject and its painter."

"Camaraderie," Penrith repeated quietly. "And the prospect of reflecting that in a painting which will surely be seen by society does not cause you further misgivings?"

Acklebury hesitated a moment before saying, "No." He set his glass aside and rose. "No. Maestro Fiorio said something once that I did not like to hear: that a picture revealing nothing about its creator is not worth the canvas it is painted on, and that the artist appears in every one of his works that is worthy of the name of art. I realise now that in this, as in everything to do with painting, he was quite right."

"Allow me a moment or two to struggle with this new intelligence!" Penrith said. At Acklebury's worried glance, he added, "I mean this discovery that I am not, after all, commissioning a portrait solely of myself!"

Acklebury frowned in thought for a moment, then slid down from his high stool. "I assure you, my lord, that the little picture I shall paint of myself, hidden in the background, will be scarcely noticeable!"

Suppressing a laugh in order to affect the same thoughtful tone, Penrith said, "I think perhaps a shadowy face in a mirror would be more to my taste. Or, no! A strangely human pattern in the wood-grain of, oh, I do not know, a table."

"Or in the clouds! My face in the clouds. I quite like that." Acklebury was now having difficulty maintaining his serious expression.

"Will there be clouds?"

"I am beginning to think there ought to be," Acklebury said with a laugh. "But no. I assure you, my lord, my appearance in your portrait will be entirely...what is the word?"

"Metaphysical?"

"Perhaps that is it. I shall be under the paint, as it were. Beneath the surface."

Penrith could not prevent an image from coming into his mind, of Acklebury's hands insinuating themselves up under his coat, inside his shirt, upon his skin. Before he could begin to linger dangerously upon this notion, Acklebury spoke again. "May I--may I show you what I have produced so far?"

"Oh! Yes, by all means! I am consumed with curiosity." He watched with interest as Acklebury lifted the easel from its shadowed corner and brought it toward the window. As Acklebury turned the cover over to reveal the first sketch, Penrith rose and went to stand beside him.

Penrith had been the subject of several efforts at portraiture. There was, hanging at Barringford House, a portrait of him at the age of four, standing next to a ten year old David. Shortly after David's death, his mother had had Tristan's miniature painted. Several young ladies, one or two of them quite accomplished, had taken his likeness in the course of dull country-house evenings. And in each of these cases, the face that Penrith saw looking out at him seemed to be someone else's, that of a boy or a young man who had features similar to his, but who had no expression at all. "Oh, it is very like!" people would say, and Tristan Jarrett would think, It is nothing like.

In Acklebury's first sketch, Penrith saw himself amused and careless, his knuckles up to his lips, covering his mouth and hiding most of his chin and jaw; and yet not entirely hiding the fact that he was smiling a secret, rather mischievous smile. In this simple drawing, Penrith perceived himself as more his mother's son than his father's, more as David's younger brother than as Viscount Penrith; the eyes and eyebrows that the sketch emphasised declared him almost foreign, perhaps exotic. Penrith saw himself as a clever, handsome man who was perhaps not always kind but who was, nevertheless someone the artist esteemed highly. It was the vividness of this last impression that surprised Penrith most.

He swallowed and continued to regard the drawing, a little overcome by its powerful frankness. "It is unlike anything I have seen," he managed to say.

Acklebury hastened to turn to the next drawing. In this one, as in the first, Penrith saw his own physical attributes candidly portrayed. It was quite true: his nose was rather broad at the end, and he could not deny that his chin was, indeed, rather long. His boots dangled from his hand in a manner that said "conventionality may go to the devil," and Penrith was forced to admit to himself that their removal in the first place had been his own idea. The picture--and therefore the artist--refused to flatter. As he looked, Penrith became more uncomfortable. Each drawing was admirable in its way, masterly and sure, and so very like him that he began to feel exposed. He was aware that Acklebury was glancing at him nervously.

"This is the last," Acklebury said, "and the one that I shall use--that is, that I would like very much to use--as the basis for your portrait." He turned over the page and stepped back, as if to allow Penrith a more complete and private viewing.

It was remarkable, and exceedingly provocative. In it, Penrith looked every inch the rake, and only a powdered wig and satin coat from the court of Versailles a century ago, he thought, were wanting to complete the impression of scandalousness. His lazily parted legs, his stockinged feet, the repose of his head upon the chair-back, all spoke of a man waiting to be served in some licentious fashion. Penrith stared for a long moment, at once recognising himself in the drawing and completely unprepared to see himself so. When, after fully a minute had passed, he was still unequal to speaking of it, Acklebury stepped between him and the easel, and with very tight, very careful movements, turned the last sketch over, leaving a blank sheet.

"You do not care for it," Acklebury said quietly. "I will put it away. It distresses you." He began to carry the easel back to the corner. His tone said that he was hurt and unhappy, and Penrith could scarcely look at his face.

"I asked you for a scandalous portrait," Penrith said. "I was not prepared to be seen by you as wicked."

Acklebury stopped dead, staring at him, the easel balanced on one of its legs and swaying in his hand. Penrith looked away again, sorry to have spoken so thoughtlessly, and yet still reeling from seeing himself as Acklebury apparently saw him.

"Wicked?" Acklebury repeated. From the corner of his eye, Penrith could see him slowly set the easel back on its legs and take a hesitant step toward him. "I do not see you as wicked, Penrith."

Penrith moved toward the window and rested his hands on the cold sill, looking down at Bruton Street. A part of him was greatly astonished, when, a moment later, Acklebury approached and put a hand on his upper arm, almost as if he would make him turn.

"Do not believe that I think you wicked," Acklebury said, "for I do not. Truly, I do not."

His hand was warm, and firm, and insistent. Penrith turned to him finally, some of his excess emotion draining away. Acklebury's face was a picture of concern that Penrith felt he did not deserve. "Come," Acklebury said. "Let me show you something."

Penrith left the window and followed him across the room. Acklebury brought one of the portfolios to the armchair. Between its boards was a stack of drawings and sketches in charcoal or pencil or red chalk, on various kinds of paper, and in every size.

"Ah! Here it is." Acklebury handed him a large sheet, on which several disparate small sketches were arrayed around a larger, central one. Penrith was aware that Acklebury looked not at the paper with him, but at his face. Compared to the marvellous drawings Penrith had just seen, these were relatively unskilled, even to Penrith's untutored eye, yet still they were lifelike and expressive.

As his eyes roamed over the page, Penrith began to understand what he was looking at, for there was a publican with a beer barrel behind him and a foaming tankard before him, and there was the public-house sign of the leaping, stag-like creature, and there...

There was his own face, and Wheaton's, and Dauncey's, clearly laughing over something that lay before them, probably one of Wheaton's bits of Latin doggerel. Penrith looked from the picture to Acklebury in amazement.

"This is--this is me! Is it not?"

"It is."

"I do not believe it!" Penrith exclaimed. "I remember this day! I remember you drawing us and pretending not to be doing so." I remember how smitten I was with you then, he thought.

"Yes, well," Acklebury said with a guilty grin, "I did learn to draw by drawing everything I saw, with or without the permission of the subject, I confess it. Be that as it may, what I principally wished you to see is--" he gestured at the drawing. "Well, look. It is the way I saw you then."

Penrith looked again. He saw his own broad forehead and untidy hair, and his own eyes. He saw youthful hilarity, on the very edge of being no longer so innocent as it had been. He saw himself as the well-liked friend of clever boys. He saw himself as he was just before David's death, before he had inherited David's title, when he had been still just Tristan Jarrett.

"I draw what I see," Acklebury said quietly, "as I see it. I saw you then as filled with--with life, with a joy in being alive. And I see you that way now. I do not know who taught you that a passion for living is wicked, but I do not believe that, and wickedness is not what I see in you."

Acklebury moved to the easel again. "Please, look once more at this drawing, I beg you, and let me tell you what was in my mind as I drew it. If it still distresses you afterwards, then we will not speak of it again. We will take an entirely new approach to your portrait, or abandon the project altogether if you wish it. But I beg you will not decide until I have shown you what I see."

"Very well," Penrith said. A warmth was growing in him. "Very well," he repeated more heartily. "Forgive me for my first reaction, Acklebury. You are being kinder than I deserve. Please--every one of your drawings is magnificent. Let us look at them again, and I will try to see more than my own terrifying shortcomings."

Looking still very diffident, Acklebury turned once more to the last and most provocative of the studies he had made. Penrith looked. Now that the the initial shock was past, he could no longer be sure just what it was that he had seen as wicked a few moments earlier. Acklebury stood very close to him and gestured toward the drawing.

'You have just come in from riding," Acklebury said.

"Have I?"

"Yes, you see? You have taken off your own boots because you have come in at the kitchen door and your valet is nowhere to be found."

"Is he not?"

"No. He is upstairs in your dressing room, fussing over something."

Penrith laughed.

"You have had an excellent ride, you see. Very invigorating. Your hair is disarrayed. You are a little over-warm and have taken off your coat and your neck-cloth, as I am sure we all do the moment we decently can."

"I certainly do."

"Yes. You have had a hard ride, and you are...hungry, perhaps. Wanting something more."

Penrith knew precisely what more he would hunger for at such a moment. He was very conscious of having been aroused to a state of just such appetite the other day when Acklebury had been taking this sketch. It would be scandalous indeed to include thatin the portrait, he thought. He looked again. No, it was unthinkable that Acklebury would...Penrith quickly decided that the simple lines of the drawing were ambiguous upon this particular point.

Acklebury was continuing. "You are--I beg your pardon, Penrith, I don't exactly know--three-and- twenty years old?"

"Yes, that's right."

"You are three-and-twenty years old and burdened with a title that you did not ask for and were not raised to expect."

A stab of something like sorrow deep within his chest caused Penrith to swallow, and he hoped the sudden emotion did not show upon his face, for Acklebury was looking intently at him, and no longer at the drawing. "I did not know that you were aware of how I came into my brother's title," he managed to say.

"It is widely known. And you have spoken of his death."

"Yes. Everyone knows it," Penrith said, and thought, but no-one has understood it. It was strangely affecting to know that Acklebury had done so, and had incorporated that understanding into his depiction.

"You bear it lightly--as lightly as anyone can--but it weighs on you." Here Acklebury indicated the cast of Penrith's shoulders in the study. "It is a responsibility that you are keenly aware of."

Penrith nodded tightly.

Acklebury leant in closer, indicating with his forefinger the drape of Penrith's right hand over the chair's arm. "Your riding crop has just fallen from your hand."

"I do not see it."

"I do." Acklebury glanced at him, then added with a reassuring wave of his hand, "Oh, in my mind's eye! You brought it with you today. I would like to include it in the painting."

"Ah! So that it will be evident that I have been riding."

"Certainly, if you like. I would say, besides, that it is emblematic of your--dominion."

Penrith, not yet entirely at his ease with the sketch, felt defencive once more. "I have said that I do not wish to be portrayed in my character as a peer," he replied.

"No, no. The portrait finds you in a moment when you have laid it down. So here is Viscount Penrith," Acklebury went on, "but also Tristan Jarrett, in the full flower of his youth, bursting with life, demanding that the world see him not just as a lord, but as a man."

Penrith glanced at Acklebury. He was looking now at the drawing, a hot flush upon his cheeks. It occurred to Penrith that it was in this way that the painting would portray more of John Acklebury than might be apparent to a casual viewer. Whatever else might be said of it, there could be no doubt that the artist admired his subject very warmly.

"Do you still see wickedness?" Acklebury asked him.

Penrith shook his head and continued looking at the drawing, for doing so was easier than meeting Acklebury's eyes. After a time he said in what he hoped was a light tone, "My hands, surely, are not that big."

Acklebury held up his own hand, palm toward Penrith. "I am afraid they are."

Penrith put his palm out, near enough to Acklebury's to see the difference, and the contrast was very clear. "I do not generally wish to be other than I am," Penrith said, "but if there is one thing I could change, I would not be so large. It is very inconvenient."

Acklebury slowly withdrew his hand and tilted his head toward the sketch. "You may see that, too, represented here."

Penrith looked again at the drawing. Indeed, the sense that he overwhelmed the chair, and would soon spring impatiently out of it, was vivid. So completely had the drawing changed now in his perception that he was tempted to look behind it for its twin, the other one, the one that had troubled him so. The transformation was remarkable.

"You said the other day that a portrait painter must be a flatterer," Penrith said, "and were kind enough to intimate that I would require no flattery. And yet all that you see here--that you seem to see in me--is far superior to what I really am."

"I say again, Penrith: I draw what I see, as I see it. I must ask you to trust me in this. I do not see what is not there."

"Well, I cannot pretend that I am not flattered by your vision of me."

"Then...we proceed?"

Penrith took a final look at the sketch made his decision. "Yes, Acklebury. We proceed."

Acklebury's face was such a picture of happy relief and excitement that Penrith almost expected to be embraced in the excitable, Italian fashion. But Acklebury merely turned away, rubbing his hands together, clapping them once or twice, and went to fetch the items he would need to begin the colour-work for which he had begged Penrith's attendance today.

"I do not wish to discompose you," Penrith said as Acklebury dragged a small table forward and laid a box of pastels on it, "so I warn you that I am removing some of my clothes now."

Acklebury laughed and glanced over his shoulder. "As you wish, my lord. Do leave your buckskins on, however, because the colour is very good, and I have my heart set on there being a great deal of yellow in the portrait."

Chapter Text

London, April 1818

Following Viscount Penrith's second sitting, Mr Acklebury caused a mirror to be brought to his studio and mounted on the wall for his lordship's convenience. The third sitting now being completed, Penrith was availing himself of the mirror to re-tie his cravat. He said, "Lizzie Danforth tells me she has invited you to this grand musical evening she is giving."

"Yes," John replied, pleased at this indication that Penrith must also be going to the concert. "Signorina Moretti is the singer's name. I have heard her..." He trailed off, gazing through narrowed eyes at what he had painted thus far, and interrupted his own thought to say, "I do not think I am entirely satisfied with the painting as it presently is."

"Oh?"

"I am not able to say just why." Acklebury shrugged and crossed to the shelf at the far side of the room, where he kept a bottle of turpentine for cleaning his brushes. "The pose is perfect. The colour is proceeding along the lines I originally envisioned."

"But?" Penrith prompted.

Acklebury looked up. The mirror had the happy effect of throwing some of the light back toward the window and subtly altering the colours in the room. "I do not think I envisioned it aright." At Penrith's quizzical look, he added, "Something is lacking. It has to do with the light, but I don't yet know how to mend matters. I think I need to leave it for a short while. A solution may come to me better if I am not standing before the problem, staring at it." Acklebury uncorked the bottle and poured some turpentine into a rag.

"Well, then, if you do not intend to continue painting today," his lordship commented, straightening the knot under his raised chin, "perhaps you would care to accompany me to Tattersall's."

"Tattersall's?" Acklebury repeated, surprised. "If--if I can be of some use to you there, then certainly."

Penrith turned from the mirror. "You do not have to be of use, you know, Acklebury." He grinned. "In this instance, however, you will be, for I do not wish to go alone, but I have a mind to look at a new pair of carriage-horses, and your company would be very useful to me in making the excursion enjoyable."

Acklebury, more flattered by this compliment than he cared to show, said, "With such blandishments, how can I refuse?" He finished cleaning his brush. "I have never been to Tattersall's. I am curious to see it."

"Then you shall."

Penrith had entrée to the inner sanctum of the establishment at Hyde Park Corner where the finest bloodstock in Europe was sold to the richest gentlemen in England. Acklebury followed, impressed and out of his depth, as Penrith strode in among the well-heeled denizens of the Tattersall's Subscription Rooms. "I see one or two of my acquaintance," Penrith said to Acklebury. "Let me make you known to them." He hailed a gentleman of sporting mien, indifferently and yet expensively dressed in clothes more suited to the country than to town.

"Taunton! Let me present Mr Acklebury. Acklebury, Baron Taunton."

A mere baron, Acklebury thought, suppressing a wild urge to laugh. Viscount Penrith's careless manners made it easy to disregard his high rank, but Mr Acklebury did not suppose that a similarly casual tone would be acceptable here, where Penrith was only one rich and noble gentleman among many. He hoped that his bow to Lord Taunton achieved the correct degree of civility.

With an apologetic look at Acklebury, Penrith allowed Baron Taunton to draw him into a discussion of horseflesh. Acklebury could hardly cavil at the subject matter, for what would one speak of at Tattersall's except horses? Acklebury simply enjoyed the sight of Penrith's animated face, and marvelled at the great knowledge of horses his conversation revealed.

Another gentleman, a Mr Gilbert, joined them before very many minutes had gone by, and Mr Acklebury was given to understand that Gilbert had been a schoolfellow of Penrith's at Winchester. Baron Taunton made sport of the fact that Penrith had not been able to keep his place at Eton, and though Penrith and Gilbert both laughed at this, Acklebury noted the exercise of a muscle in Penrith's jaw.

In such rarefied realms of society and sport, Mr Acklebury was soon quite astonished to espy Mr Caine just coming into the Subscription Rooms. "Caine!" he said with pleasure as his friend caught sight of him and approached. "I did not know you were a member here." Indeed, Acklebury was almost certain that Mr Caine was not nearly plump enough in the pocket to frequent this place.

"Oh, I am not, strictly speaking," Caine said, shaking Acklebury's hand. "But horses are the family occupation, you know, and m'father knows Tattersall, so I come around now and then to admire the stock. I have a pretty good eye for a winner. But you are not someone I expected to see in these rooms!"

"No, I would not have expected it myself," Acklebury replied. "I am here at Viscount Penrith's invitation."

Acklebury drew Caine forward and introduced him to the very exalted gentlemen in his little circle. Lord Taunton seemed disinclined to honour Mr Caine with his notice, but Gilbert acknowledged him graciously enough, and Viscount Penrith, the most highly-placed of them all, was the easiest in his manner. "Acklebury has spoken of you," he said. "I am pleased to know one of his friends."

Caine offered his snuffbox to the other gentlemen, and as he was able to enter with enthusiasm into the discussion of horses, he soon made himself so agreeable to everyone that Acklebury, though pleased for him, began to feel rather supernumerary. He could not take offence, however, for Penrith caught his eye several times in a confidential manner, as if to assure him that he was not forgotten. Acklebury was at once pleased and confused by this sign of Penrith's sympathetic understanding.

At one point, Penrith seemed on the verge of excusing himself from the general conversation and drawing him aside for a private word, when his expression darkened. Acklebury turned to look at what Penrith had seen to displease him so.

Though the room was crowded, it was not hard to determine the object of Penrith's gaze. A gentleman of about seven- or eight-and-twenty years of age had entered and had clearly perceived Penrith. His straight hair was overlong, its nether ends bleached very pale by the sun of some distant clime that had also tanned his skin. Even from across the room, it was possible to discern the pale blue-grey of his eyes. He was tall, and long of limb, with features of a remarkable symmetry and regularity, evidence of a once-broken nose lending interest by diminishing their perfection.

"I beg your pardon, Acklebury," Penrith said. "I must just--" he did not complete his sentence, but gestured toward the unknown man. Mr Acklebury had time to observe the fineness of the stranger's dark blue coat and the jaunty addition of a waistcoat in bold stripes of black and white, before Penrith was approaching him through the throng. There followed a brief exchange between the two men, Penrith clearly displeased and the other gentleman amused, almost insolently so, Acklebury thought. He did not mean to intrude on Penrith's conversation, even from across the room, but he could not stop himself from observing it in fascination. His acquaintance with Penrith had been until today entirely private, and Acklebury was surprised to realise that annoyance and even anger were to be seen upon his features just as they might be seen on any other man's. For the space of perhaps half a minute, the exchange went on, and at the end of that time, the unknown gentleman looked about the room, his eyes settling directly on Acklebury before Acklebury could turn his attention away.

Penrith made his way back to their group, and the stranger did not follow. Lord Taunton and Mr Gilbert, being absorbed in conversation, did not seem to have remarked Penrith's brief absence. "Let us go view the animals," Penrith said, in tones perhaps a touch more hearty than the situation called for. "I wish to see whether there is anything worth my while here today." Acklebury allowed himself to be shepherded with the others through the doors, resisting the urge to look back over his shoulder at the man whose society Penrith clearly wished to avoid.

Their little party moved out into the arcade, which abutted the long rows of stables and gave onto a ring where the horses were brought out. Caine availed himself of a brief moment when he and Acklebury became separated from the other three gentlemen to say, "Well! He seems a capital fellow. I cannot think where those well-dressed chaps came to their idea of him."

It was a moment before Acklebury understood what Caine referred to; and when he did, he was at a loss to give any sort of response. Finally, he said, "No. Well, I am glad that you..."

Grooms leading magnificent horses from the stalls out into the ring and the full daylight relieved Acklebury of any need to say more, for Caine's attention was entirely drawn to this spectacle, and he seemed to forget his comment.

The smell of the stables was strong; men's voices calling out to the auctioneer and to one another mingled with the sounds of horses' hooves to create a din. Acklebury looked about him with interest, gentlemen, stable-boys, men of business, and horses presenting a great diversity of things to see. Soon, however, Acklebury became engaged in watching Caine, in his element as Acklebury had not seen him before.

When Mr Gilbert, admiring a showy thoroughbred gelding, turned to the company and said, "Oh, that is a fine-looking animal! I think I should look rather well on him!" Mr Caine leant over the railing and pointed, peering along his arm and then catching Mr Gilbert's eye. "He stands under rather more than you would be happy with," he said quietly.

Mr Gilbert looked where Caine was pointing. Acklebury could perceive nothing amiss with the horse, and did not know precisely what standing under might mean, but Mr Gilbert said, "No! Do you think so? Why, perhaps you are right! Penrith! Mr Caine says my horse stands under."

Penrith looked at the horse. "He is quite right. Well-spotted, Mr Caine."

Caine indicated another animal, one whose colouring was less handsome than the first horse's. "That one," he declared, "is the horse that I would get for myself if it were within my power to do it." Caine now turned his back to the ring, done with looking. "That is the best horse here today."

That Penrith and not Gilbert eventually won the horse did not seem to disappoint Gilbert terribly, for he invited them all to be his guests at White's for a glass of something afterwards, courteously including Mr Acklebury, though he had said scarcely a word for the whole of the afternoon. As they passed back through the Subscription Rooms, Penrith appeared to be looking about, but the gentleman with the sun-bleached hair was no longer in evidence.

Once they were in the street, Penrith allowed Gilbert and Caine to walk a little ahead. "I am afraid that I have neglected you, Acklebury. Forgive me. I ought to have known that it was outside my power to turn any conversation at Tattersall's away from the subject of horseflesh."

"No, please, do not regard it. I am well-satisfied with my afternoon," Acklebury replied. "I have now seen Tattersall's, and admired the finest horses in the land, and discovered a facet of my friend Mr Caine's character that I was not fully aware of." He glanced at Penrith as they walked side by side along Picadilly. "I believe I may have witnessed a new aspect of your nature, too."

"Indeed? You are perhaps astonished at the way Gilbert and I bid up the price of that horse. Did not you already suspect me of profligacy?" Penrith's tone was bantering.

"Certainly not, Penrith! You will persist in the conceit of your wicked nature, though, won't you? I do not believe it, and you waste your breath upon it with me."

"Consider me chastised," Penrith said with a laugh. "But I suppose that you are really talking about Murray."

"If Murray is the gentleman in the striped waistcoat who seemed to displease you, then yes."

Penrith's eyebrows rose and he puffed out a breath. "Murray is not someone I would wish to be obliged to present to my friends. It was perhaps not well done of me."

"I beg your pardon--I shall not enquire farther," Acklebury hastened to say. For a fleeting moment, Penrith appeared discomposed, a circumstance so extraordinary that Acklebury nearly convinced himself that he had not seen the flush upon his cheeks, or his strained expression.

"One day, perhaps...well, let it suffice to say that we have enjoyed a pleasanter afternoon in his absence than we might have in his presence."

It was clear to Acklebury that the matter was one Penrith wished to keep private. This circumstance, more than any other that had come about that afternoon, made Acklebury feel himself external to Penrith's life. What else should I be? he had to ask himself. We live in very different worlds.

This simple fact was further impressed upon Mr Acklebury as their group together entered London's most exclusive gentlemen's club. If the servants were extremely formal, the other members were informal to an almost shocking degree, and Mr Acklebury recognised the insouciant fraternity of society's highest and richest, who had all gone to the same schools and spoke in the same language. They lounged about, their feet on the elegant furniture, talking and laughing loudly. A small group seemed be tossing bread-rolls at one another. Some of them addressed Penrith as "Jarrett," and all of them called Mr Gilbert "Bertie."

They found a group of chairs around a low table at one end of the long, carpeted salon, and soon Penrith was introducing Acklebury and Caine as his friends to a bewildering array of gentlemen who wandered up, many titled and all quite obviously rich.

By the time they had partaken of one or two glasses of claret and were preparing to leave Mr Gilbert in the card-room (for, he said, having saved a great deal of money by losing that gelding to Penrith, he was of a mind to throw it away at vignt-et-un), the day was growing dark, and the bewigged and liveried servants were lighting candles. As his lordship was being helped into his coat and and handed his gloves in the entry, Acklebury suddenly realised what the portrait needed. "Candlelight," he said.

Caine turned to him. "Beg pardon?"

"Oh--no, I am sorry, Caine. I spoke my thought aloud. I am looking at the colour of the candlelight." He was absorbed enough in his ideas that he did not think a great deal before saying, "Penrith, I would like to begin the colour-work entirely anew."

Caine shook his head and gave Penrith a glance that clearly said, "My friend is rather odd," and Penrith raised his eyebrows in a response that seemed to agree.

"Now?" Penrith asked Acklebury.

"At your convenience, of course, my lord."

Penrith exchanged another glance with Caine and said, "Yes, now, I think. Caine? Will you bear with Acklebury's talk of ochre and boar-bristles and I do not know what, as he has borne with our talk of horseflesh all day?"

"With pleasure," Caine said. "That is, if Acklebury will not mind it."

Acklebury was conscious of a slight disappointment, and realised how little he wished to share the private time he and Penrith had in his studio with any one else. He said, "Of course not, Caine. You have not been up to my studio. Come along."

It was full dark by the time they had walked the short distance to Bruton Street and had collected all the candles that Acklebury had on hand, as well as all those that the landlord could spare. They lit these and stuck them, in a great mass, to the bookcase after dragging it nearer the armchair.

Penrith removed his over-coat, and unbuttoned his coat, but did not otherwise disarrange his clothes. He said nothing about this, but gave Acklebury a brief, speaking glance in a moment when Caine was looking away, as if to say, "Let us not bother Mr Caine with these things." That this small communication should have restored Mr Acklebury to his sense of being first in Penrith's consideration was not laudable, he knew, but he enjoyed the momentary satisfaction of it nonetheless.

Penrith took his place in the chair, and Caine perched on the stool, talking and laughing with him as Acklebury prepared to paint.

The candlelight was ravishing. Acklebury knew that he had no hope of mixing paints with any degree of skill in such light, but he made a start, mentally cataloguing the tones in Penrith's skin, the glint of his hair and eyes, the fall of shadows richly tinged in violet and black against the warm glow from the mass of candles. The planes of Penrith's face were greatly augmented by the contrast of light and shadow, his skin-tones warmed, his eyes deepened.

Caine watched for a while, expressing interest in the proceedings, but as Acklebury could not paint and converse at the same time, and Penrith fell into the quiet state that he had assumed in the previous sittings, Caine's boredom soon became apparent. "I am afraid that I must take my leave," Caine said after a time. "Forgive me, Acklebury."

"Not at all! It is dull work, as I have been told by one or two of my subjects." He favoured Penrith with a grin. "Shall I see you Thursday at Tankley's?"

"You will, to be sure. I shall let myself out--do not stop what you are doing. My lord," he said, with a bow to Penrith. "It has been an honour."

"Oh, the honour is all mine, Mr Caine," Penrith replied. "Your expertise today has allowed me to beat Bertie to a very fine horse, and that must always be gratifying. Thank you!"

As soon as Caine had gone, Penrith rose and unbuttoned his waistcoat. He did not move to take off his boots, or untie his cravat, but stood watching Acklebury. After a moment, Acklebury became uncomfortable under his gaze. "May I offer you a drink?" Acklebury asked him.

"I think that I should bring you one. I would not wish you to interrupt your work." Penrith went to the sideboard and poured out two glasses of claret. He brought one to Acklebury and set it upon the stool that Caine had vacated.

"Thank you."

When Penrith did not return to his chair or his pose, Acklebury stopped and laid his palette aside. "It is rather late," he said. "I did not mean to make you lose your evening to my whim. I--I think I have enough to work with."

"Was it a good whim?" Penrith asked, still standing nearby, unmoving.

"Yes. Yes, a very good one."

"Good." Penrith came closer, and Acklebury did not think it was to see the broad strokes of paint or the notes in charcoal that he had made. He set his brush down carefully on the easel. His mouth was suddenly dry, and he took a sip from his glass.

"I do not think there is more I can do here tonight," he said. He felt foolishly nervous.

"Oh?" Penrith took another step. The mass of candles was behind him on the low bookcase, causing his face to be in shadow, and his height to seem even greater than it naturally was. He seemed intent upon Acklebury, strangely still, and it was a moment before Acklebury realised what it reminded him of: a cat in the grass, silently approaching a bird. To prove to himself that he was being fanciful and absurd, he lifted his easel and carried it to the far wall, turning his back on Penrith.

When he turned around again, Penrith was before him, and just putting one hand on the wall next to Acklebury's shoulder. Acklebury froze, staring. Penrith looked down at him, a faint smile on his face. "There is a great deal more you can do here tonight," he said. He leant closer and Acklebury could no longer pretend not to know his intent.

"Do not--" he whispered, suddenly desperate. He could not complete the sentence. "You said that you would not--you said that I need not worry about--" He shook his head and looked down, aware of nothing but Penrith's proximity and his own desperate confusion.

Penrith sighed and moved back a step. He drank deeply from his glass and turned aside, though he did not move far enough away to set Acklebury's mind completely at rest. His expression was perturbed, even annoyed.

"I am sorry," Acklebury said.

Penrith shook his head. His lips were pursed and it was a moment before he took a deep breath and smoothed his features. "No, you are quite right," he said at last, in even tones. "I gave you my word that I would not importune you. I have let the evening, and the candlelight, go to my head. Forgive me." As he spoke, his voice softened. With apparent difficulty, he added, "It will not happen again, Acklebury." At this, he transferred his glass to his left hand and extended his right to Acklebury.

Acklebury shook it, suddenly keenly aware of its size, its warmth, the firm, dry skin beneath his palm, the power of the arm behind it. "There is no harm done," he said. "I am not offended. Only taken aback." He bit back the stream of meaningless babble that threatened to pour forth, excuses and defences and digressions, and said, "I will work better, and give you a better portrait, if..." he paused to consider his next words. "...if I am not distracted."

For some reason, Penrith smiled at this.

***

The following day, Mr Acklebury arose certain of nothing in his life except that the portrait must have a square composition, and that it must be four feet on a side, for by no other means could the expansive character of Viscount Penrith's nature be portrayed. He sent Marchbanks to the joiners to order a new canvas, for none of those which he had previously bespoken would do.

When Mr Acklebury entered his studio, the smoky odour of many spent candles was still faint in the air. He flung open the window and hastily cleared away the mass of candle-stubs on the bookcase before fetching his easel from its place near the door, but memories of last night were not so easily made to vanish. He knew he must close his mind to those memories in the daylight, or risk losing command of himself altogether.

But it would not do. He could not paint a portrait without thinking of its subject, and he could not think of Viscount Penrith without remembering his shadowed face bending near, his obvious desire to take what Acklebury had not been prepared to give. Acklebury reminded himself of Maestro Fiorio's oft-repeated admonition: "Usa tutto!" Use everything!

And so, as Acklebury set out his oils, he thought about why he had not simply let Penrith have what he wanted. It was not abhorrence or disgust that had caused him to push Penrith away, but the fear of his own disgrace, of his father's horror, of the price he would pay, if it should ever be known to what state of longing Penrith aroused him.

As he mixed the colours that he had perceived in the candlelight, he allowed himself to feel that longing. He grew heated recalling Penrith's suggestive words, and lost himself in imagining what it might be to feel Penrith's arms about him, Penrith's mouth upon his. He began laying a dark ground on the canvas, wondering how long words like "sin" and "abomination" would be able restrain him, and gave free rein to the agitation of his spirits that Penrith had caused."I must try," he told himself, but whether he must try to resist, or try what he had not yet done, he was no longer sure.


 

END OF PART I

Chapter Text

Restraint
Part II

London, May, 1818

"Oh, dear heavens, Westhill," exclaimed Mr Denham from his armchair in the coffee-room of White's. Lord Westhill was standing at the nearby bow window, scrutinising the costumes of the passers-by in the street below with a sigh of great ennui, his fine features reflecting a certain discouragement with the world and its sartorial taste. Westhill turned bored eyes to his friend, who was perusing a periodical.

"Listen to this," Denham said, holding up a finger and reading. "'To the acclaim of some and the disgust of others among the select few who were privileged to view it, a new portrait of the eighth Viscount Penrith by Mr John Acklebury was displayed recently in his lordship's London townhouse.'"

"Were we disgusted, Denham? Or did we acclaim the thing? I do not perfectly recall," Westhill drawled.

"We were inclined to acclaim it, I believe," Denham said, "but listen to this." He ran his finger along the page. "Yes, yes, very well. How he does go on. Oh, here we are. He speaks of the nasty little engraving of it that appeared in the Times, and says '...it created an uproar, Lord Penrith's pose being informal to a point delightfully near indecency, and the degree of his undress more reminiscent of a Roman fresco than of the portraiture we have learnt to expect from English artists.' Well, really," Denham said, looking from the page to Westhill. "It is not as though it were a nude. Who wrote this? I declare, Westhill, he is trying to make the thing more outrageous than it is."

"Perhaps Mr Acklebury wrote it," Westhill suggested.

A scandalised giggle bubbled up from within Denham at this remark. "That would be very amusing. Oh, no, it says here that it is by Mr Wheaton, the playwright. What, I ask you, has a playwright to say about painting?" Denham demanded.

"A vast deal, evidently," Westhill replied. He thought a moment. "He and Penrith were friends in school, don't you know."

Denham glanced up, startled.

"Friends," Westhill insisted.

"As you say, Westhill. Listen, he goes on. 'Indeed, we have become so inured to what is staid, lifeless and blameless in portraiture--' That is quite true, Westhill. You know it is. No-one of taste will hereafter want to be painted in the old way. Let me see... '--that the appearance of Mr Acklebury's Penrith After A Ride is startling, for who among us has seen a peer of the realm bootless and reclining in his shirtsleeves? We heard more than one viewer averring that a person of superior rank ought not allow himself to be depicted as a common man.'"

Lord Westhill interrupted his friend's reading with a small shudder. "I certainly never shall do so!"

"Oh, you will enjoy this, Westhill: 'To this we would argue that Penrith After a Ride does not attempt to portray an English lord as a common man, but rather portrays in all the natural power that youth, vigour and health can bestow, a man who, almost unawares, finds himself to be an English lord.' Finds himself a lord unawares?" Denham exclaimed. "What nonsense! Why, he inherited the title five years ago! Longer! Are we to believe that he is still surprised by it?"

Viscount Westhill sipped from his coffee-cup and did not reply to this, saying only, "What other flights of fancy does this play-writing devoté of painting indulge in?"

"Oh, he goes on about the wonderful colour. The palette is 'earthy,' if you please. We are to believe, I suppose, that Penrith is humble and close to the soil. Here we are: 'The portrait is dominated by yellow ochre, for the colour of the buckskin breeches Lord Penrith wears is palely reflected in the expanse of his shirt, and all appears to be lighted by an abundance of candles, though in keeping with the almost Spartan qualities of the whole picture, we do not see these, but only their effect.' How romantical he waxes!"

"Must one really mention breeches?" Westhill wondered aloud.

"Oh! And here! '...from the simplicity of the stone wall we glimpse, his lordship might as easily be seated in a kitchen as an ancient abbey.'" Mr Denham lowered the periodical and laughed. "You see, Westhill? Penrith must be a revolutionary! The greatest among us may come and go by the kitchen door. I am sure you do so regularly."

"I do not believe I have ever been in a kitchen," Westhill commented. He waved a hand. "Pray, Denham, do continue."

"He next goes on about the expression on Penrith's face. 'The viewer cannot but marvel at the quickness with which Mr Acklebury must have worked to capture so fleeting a moment of sardonic humour and a position of such ease and grace. The eyes look directly at the viewer and almost invite confidence.'"

"The confidences of the common are what I do not need!" Westhill proclaimed with a snort. "I daresay neither does Penrith."

"No, indeed," Denham agreed. "Why, one imagines Wheaton standing and conversing with the thing!"

In response to this notion, Lord Westhill deigned to give a small laugh, and said, "If you had ever met Wheaton, you would not say that with such incredulity."

"Well, he says that one cannot be indifferent to the picture, which is very true, though I do not think I agree that it is a virtue in art to inspire abhorrence and disgust, do you, Westhill?"

Westhill took a delicate pinch of snuff.

"'We admire its insistence upon making us feel strongly about it.' It is intemperate, to say the least! And here at last is the man's astonishing conclusion: 'As the document of a moment in the life of a man, as a timeless image of English aristocracy, and as a refreshingly new kind of portraiture, Penrith After A Ride will be lauded for a century to come.'"

"Only a century?" Westhill asked. "Why, to hear him prose on in such unbridled enthusiasm, I would have wagered that the adulation would cease not a moment before the Year Two-Thousand!" He put his cup and saucer down and moved closer to the window, to inspect the bonnet of a particularly fashionable lady passing by below. "I cannot argue with the review in the main," he said, "for the picture is well worth looking at--as, of course, is its subject--but such effusiveness is in very bad taste."

Denham put the London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres upon the table. "Well, he does not mention at all the thing one is most immediately struck by in the portrait."

"What is that?" Viscount Westhill raised his lorgnette. "Oh! You refer to Penrith's supposed state of--"

"Precisely that."

"One could hardly mention such a thing in a periodical that will be read by young ladies!" Westhill exclaimed. He considered a moment and then said, "I will give Mr Acklebury a great deal of credit for subtlety, for the portrait is ambiguous upon that point. One brush-stroke more or less would have clarified the matter. Those with eyes to see may make of it what they will, and no-one will ever say a word about it."

***

Mr Acklebury could no longer disregard the fame, not to say the notoriety, into which Penrith After a Ride had suddenly thrown him. Each day's correspondence brought one or two letters begging that he would consider accepting a new commission. Penrith's picture, though actually seen by very few people--it being hung on the library wall in Viscount Penrith's town-house in Half Moon Street, where he did not regularly entertain--was made generally known by the engraving of it that the Times had printed, and by the review in the Literary Gazette. Talk had spread in ever-widening rings, as talk was wont to do, from those who had been privileged to view the picture at the small reception Penrith had given for its unveiling, to those who had not, and Mr Acklebury found himself once again the object of society's avid scrutiny.

A cartoon by Cruikshank was published in the Times a few days after the review in the Gazette, depicting Mr Acklebury with very exaggerated and rather feminine features, standing at his easel with a palette and brushes in one hand, gesticulating with the other at a lady and gentleman who were clearly posing for him. The lady reclined on a couch, completely uncovered but for a narrow drapery across her lap, her expression pouting and rather lewd; and the gentleman, one of whose boots had been flung away, was getting out of his coat with every appearance of haste, while the fall of his breeches was half-unbuttoned. The caption read, "Do not move, my lord! What could be more natural and inspiring of confidence than to see that lords and ladies have all the lust and impetuousness of the common man?"

 

10, Half Moon Street
20th May, 1818

Acklebury,
Disregard the cartoon.
--P


14, Upper Berkeley Street
20th May, 1818

Yes, my lord. If you will but tell me how, I shall endeavour to oblige you by following your advice.
--J.A.


10, Half Moon Street
21st May, 1818

I recommend a distraction. Join me tomorrow at Mr Jackson's, where no-one knows anything about art, and almost no-one reads the Times. I find that an hour's sparring relieves most forms of uneasiness and is a great restorative of calm. I shall be there at three o'clock.

--P.

Acklebury smiled and put the note into the fire. Apparently, Penrith was not so displeased with him as to wish his continued absence. He could not be entirely easy in Penrith's society, it was true, but he had discovered in recent days that he was rather dull without it. If Penrith were willing to set aside those wishes that Acklebury could not grant him, and forgive him for that deficiency, then Acklebury would welcome his friendship very heartily.

He presented himself the following afternoon at the lofty and rough warehouse near Vauxhall Gardens in which Gentleman Jackson purveyed instruction in the pugilistic arts.

Within, amid pools of dusty light from the high windows, he found four roped-off squares in which training matches were taking place, each surrounded by a scattering of spectators. Acklebury paused, looking about, unsure of himself and his place amid the sounds of so many men shouting, and the heavy shifting of feet upon the floor planks, and the rough breathing, grunts and even swearing of those men engaged in landing repeated blows upon the punching bags, or upon one another. This establishment was much larger and more impressive, and frequented by men of more obvious means, than was Mr Tankley's salon in the Strand.

To one side, several large, heavily-stuffed canvas bags were suspended from the ceiling-beams, and it was among these that Acklebury espied Lord Penrith. He wore only loose, dark grey trousers bound about his waist with a wide leather belt, and soft boots. His hair hung in damp strands over his forehead as he pummelled one of the bags, and sweat glistened on his face and his bare chest. Acklebury swallowed, and could find neither the motive power to raise his hand and step forward into Penrith's view, nor the voice to call out to him. When Penrith at last perceived Acklebury, he lifted a gloved hand and spoke a word to the man who was steadying the punching-bag for him.

"I am glad you came," Penrith said, breathing heavily as he approached Acklebury across the open floor. "Since my final sitting, we have not seen much of one another."

"No, we have not." Too aware of his lordship's unclothed chest and arms, glimpsed but once before and now fully on display, Acklebury felt a wild need to look everywhere about the room, to find something else to say to cover his confusion.

Penrith, either unaware of his discomfort, or kind enough to disregard it, said, "I was sorry that you could not stay longer at the unveiling. All the world wished to fawn over you, and I know how much you relish attention of every kind!"

This comment drew a huff of involuntary laughter from Acklebury, and he glanced up from his keen examination of the floor planks. "I beg your pardon, Penrith. It is true, I was overwhelmed by the presence of so many people wishing to speak to me." Ladies blushing and becoming tongue-tied, gentlemen looking at him askance and scarcely bothering to hide their contempt of his profession, his station, his appearance, and everyone glancing speculatively from the portrait, to its subject, to its author... Acklebury had known that attending the party would be a mistake, and only his anxiety to refuse Penrith nothing he could reasonably grant had made him go at all.

"Do not regard it, Acklebury. Those who spoke with you now feel very privileged, and you remain mysterious."

A trio of boxing aficionados who had just entered the establishemnt, laughing and throwing punches at one another, approached and passed too near, as if going around the two gentlemen standing and talking were more trouble than the courtesy was worth. Acklebury had to step a pace toward Penrith to avoid being jostled by one of them. He remarked a faintly annoyed look on Penrith's face, as though Penrith knew the men and wished he did not.

"Well! I see you brought your own mufflers," Penrith said briskly when the three men had passed by. "Excellent! It would not do to harm your hands, for who then would paint the portraits of all London?" Penrith dashed hair from his eyes as best he might with his gloved hand. "Come! I will show you where to put your clothes, and then I shall hold the bag for you."

"Very well. Thank you." Acklebury said. He had known, of course, that attendance at Jackson's would entail disrobing, and though he was certain that Penrith's invitation had been motivated by no such consideration, he felt the force of his own modesty now more than he usually did. He refrained with difficulty from disclaiming his boxing abilities, for everything in Penrith's appearance and demeanour spoke of a degree of athletic excellence that Acklebury could not equal. He settled for saying, "I am fairly sure I can make the punching-bag know the power of my right hook."

Penrith laughed and clapped a hand to Acklebury's shoulder. "I do not doubt it for a moment."

He showed Acklebury to a corner watched over by a pair of youths, where two benches met along the wall, and pegs were arrayed. The boys leapt with alacrity to attend to his lordship, who instructed them to mind Acklebury's coat and hat as they would his own.

A short time later, stripped of his shirt and fitted with a belt similar to the one Penrith wore, Acklebury found himself striking at the heavy, hanging bag. Lord Penrith stood behind it and a little to one side, holding it for him. He made no criticism, nor by any word or sign did he convey that he found Acklebury's science anything other than laudable. Acklebury grew calmer and more focused as he delivered one blow after another to the bag.

Penrith expelled his breath in a grunt at a particularly strong blow from Acklebury, and recovered himself, saying "You imagine the bag to to be Cruikshank, I believe."

"No, my lord," Acklebury panted. "Cruikshank is a fellow artist--" he struck the bag a sound left cross "--of sorts--" he hit with his right "--and I am not--" two very swift, sharp jabs followed "--a violent man." Acklebury could not divide his attention enough to explain to Penrith that he was striking not at the caricaturist, but at the caricature.

One or two of Mr Jackson's followers and students paused in their own activities to observe Acklebury's exercise. One older gentleman with extraordinary mustachios stayed a moment to comment favourably upon his style to Penrith, and he heard Penrith reply that this was his friend Acklebury. Acklebury paused only long enough to acknowledge the gentleman with a nod before returning his attention to the bag.

Acklebury had just begun to feel more confident in his boxing form when he became aware of the way Lord Penrith's well-muscled arms flexed in steadying the bag against his blows. Acklebury glanced downward to the equally impressive thigh and the squared lines of the knee that gave definition to the shapeless trouser leg he could perceive from behind the bag. He had made visual note of these excellencies time and again while painting his lordship's portrait, but now Acklebury found himself comparing them to his own, and suffering by the comparison. His arms were well enough, but not so perfectly sculpted as Penrith's, and he was suddenly very conscious of the slight bow of his thighs, an imperfection to which he did not ordinarily give much thought. The muscles of his shoulders and calves burned with the effort he was making, and sweat gathered on his scalp, threatening to drip into his eyes.

Penrith said, "You have nothing to fear from thieves, Acklebury, for I should not like to cross you in a dark street at night!"

Even as Acklebury's pride at this compliment gave him heart, he was assailed by an image of encountering Penrith in some deserted London alley, being driven back against a wall, struggling to free his hands from Penrith's grip, not to strike him but to seize him and pull him closer. Acklebury redoubled his blows.

He was winded and drenched in sweat when he finished. Penrith passed him a bucket of water that was to hand for the purpose, and as Acklebury ladled some of its contents over his hot scalp, Penrith favoured him with a penetrating look and said, "Someday you will have to tell me whom you were hitting just there. Whoever he was, I think you have driven him down."

Mr Acklebury, feeling grim but clear-headed, looked at Penrith. "I think he will rally. He generally does."

By unspoken mutual consent, they began to walk the perimeter of the great, dim warehouse, the better to allow Mr Acklebury to cool himself and regain his breath. "The gentleman with the very remarkable mustachios who stopped to watch you a few moments ago was Mr Jackson," Penrith told him. "He was most favourably impressed. As am I."

Surprised and gratified, Acklebury said, "It is good of you to say so."

Mr Jackson, who seemed to move constantly from place to place and from patron to patron in his gymnasium, paused in his assessment of a very young gentlemen in the second ring, and strode over to Acklebury and Penrith. "Mr Acklebury! I hope you will do me the honour of sparring with one of my students, Mr Townsend. He would benefit from your example, I think. He is just there."

Acklebury looked where Jackson indicated, and perceived a dark, rather hirsute young man of about Acklebury's own height, who bounced and shuffled in a showy manner in the first ring. Acklebury recognised him as one of the group who had jostled him earlier.

"I--I do not know," Acklebury said. He did not feel at ease in this place, or at home among its denizens, excepting only Penrith, and was not at all sure he cared to put his middling skills on display.

"I should like very much to see you spar myself," Penrith said, when Acklebury hesitated. "Say you will, and I shall cheer you on!"

Jackson seemed to take Acklebury's dubious expression as acquiescence, for the next thing he knew, he was being introduced to Mr Townsend and agreeing to go a round or two with him. Townsend was younger than Acklebury, and rather lighter, and Acklebury judged him to have the advantages of speed and stamina, while Acklebury almost certainly had experience and weight on his side. Townsend ran his eyes over Acklebury's body and his lip curled in a quick sneer that Acklebury thought no-one else could have perceived. He knew that some amateurs of pugilism employed such tactics to gain advantage over their opponents before the fight even began, but he had never thought to find such behaviour in a member of Gentleman Jackson's establishment.

Jackson's assistant rang the bell, and the round began. Acklebury was aware that both Lord Penrith and Mr Jackson were watching, and he was not certain whose scrutiny made him more self-conscious. His opponent, however, stepped into the ring and soon demanded all of Mr Acklebury's attention. Mr Townsend showed himself immediately to be a quick, impatient fighter, dancing rapidly on the balls of his feet and throwing punches well before his opening was secure. He grinned at Acklebury in a challenging, rather insolent fashion that Acklebury thought would suit a village bare-knuckle ring.

"What is the matter?" Mr Townsend huffed as Acklebury bided his time. "Out of your depth?"

"Poor form, sir!" Mr Jackson called out. "I will thank you, Mr Townsend, not to taunt your opponent. Leave that to the spectators."

Mr Townsend took umbrage at this, shaking his head at Acklebury as if he were to blame for Mr Jackson's admonition. While Townsend's guard was down, Acklebury moved in and aimed a blow with his right at Townsend's jaw. Townsend narrowly avoided it, causing it to glance off his shoulder, but in his surprise he turned a little, leaving himself open, and Acklebury followed with a left that struck him squarely on the other side of his jaw.

You would be a good fighter, Acklebury thought, if only you were not so vain. Townsend scowled and surged forward haphazardly, and Acklebury sidestepped him without difficulty, then rounded and landed yet another blow, this one to his belly, which Townsend had left open while protecting his head.

"Oh, well done, John!" he heard Penrith call, and such was his surprise at Penrith's use of his given name in such a public setting, that he did not see Townsend's next blow coming until it struck him upon the cheekbone.

Acklebury reeled back and regrouped for the space of a breath, the left side of his face aching, and a ringing in his head. He did not think he was bleeding, but could not pause to find out. The spectators were voicing their encouragement, whether of Mr Townsend or himself, he could not be sure.

Townsend's lips were peeled back from his teeth, and he inhaled in an angry hiss as he surged forward again. Acklebury suddenly understood that Townsend hated him, and he became sensible of a certain resignation, amounting almost to fatigue. He had seen it before: men who hated him for what he appeared to be, hated his manner, his air, his appearance. He had not, however, encountered this prejudice in circumstances of violence, and for the first time in his life, he knew a moment's fear for his face.

Strong emotion made Townsend stupid, and he lunged at Acklebury almost exactly as Acklebury expected him to do, signalling clearly his intent to strike a blow that would damage his opponent's looks. Acklebury wove away from the right fist coming squarely at his nose, and blocked the weaker left that came quickly after it, so that it struck his forearm rather than his abdomen. The failure of both blows to find their intended targets exacerbated Townsend's anger to such an evident degree that Mr Jackson called out, "Take hold of yourself, Mr Townsend, or I shall be obliged to call this bout."

Townsend fell back a step or two, breathing hard, and though he nodded in acknowledgement of Jackson, Acklebury could see that he had not mastered his temper. Acklebury shook out the forearm that had taken the blow, and waded back in. They raised fists again, and Townsend began a series of feints and dodges evidently designed to wear his opponent down. Acklebury obliged him by slowing his reactions. He did not have to feign breathlessness, and the sweat that sprang freely to his forehead was very real. He had already used a good deal of his strength on the punching-bag, and he was tiring a little, but not as much as he let Townsend think.

Townsend was not without friends among the spectators, it seemed, for there were several voices raised in approbation of Townsend's lively bobbing, and one or two jeering at Acklebury's apparent fatigue. Acklebury thought he heard someone admonish Mr Townsend to be gentle with the poor artist, and a great deal of laughter followed. In the corner of his vision, he perceived Penrith watching him, his coat flung over his shoulders, his arms crossed on his bare chest, and his brow knotted in worry.

Townsend had the effrontery to take his eyes off Acklebury long enough to acknowledge his friends' shouts with a grin, and Acklebury saw his opportunity. He moved quickly in and struck Townsend under the chin with an unexpected left uppercut just as Townsend turned to face him. As Townsend's head flew back, Acklebury followed with his right, and felt his fist sink a good way into the solid slab of muscle covering Townsend's abdomen. His breath left him in a grunt.

For an instant, Townsend seemed to cave very slowly in on the place from which Acklebury's quick, hard fist was retreating. He went to his knees, gasping for breath, and then listed and fell to one side. The spectators began a chanting count, and Mr Jackson made a sharp gesture to his assistant, who scrambled between the ropes to Townsend's side. Acklebury, winded himself, stood panting, watching to see whether Townsend would get up again, and assuring himself that he was not badly hurt.

"Well done, John!"

He glanced back to see Penrith at the ropes immediately behind him. The spectators' counting came to eight, and Townsend struggled to his feet. Acklebury did not dare to acknowledge Penrith, but raised his fists again, dismayed to think that Townsend might wish more.

He need not have distressed himself, however, for Townsend swayed again and his knees buckled. The count reached ten, and Mr Jackson called out, "This bout to Mr Acklebury!"

Acklebury turned and nodded at Penrith, relief and distress combining to prevent any unseemly glee in his quick victory, then went to offer his hand to his opponent. Honesty prevented him from complimenting him upon his skill or his form, so he said, "Thank you for the bout, Mr Townsend. You put my endurance to a severe test!"

To Acklebury's discomfort, but not his astonishment, Townsend refused to shake his hand, turning pointedly away toward his friends who were arrayed behind the ropes. Acklebury exchanged a surprised look with Mr Jackson, then crossed the ring to where Penrith stood.

"I do not think Mr Townsend will be coming back to this establishment," Penrith said quietly, holding the ropes apart for Acklebury and lending him a hand to come out of the ring. He gestured with his head and Acklebury looked back. Mr Jackson's assistant was escorting Townsend by the elbow toward the dressing area, and Townsend was glaring back over his shoulder at Jackson.

"I--" Acklebury began, "I truly did not intend to cause him trouble."

"Don't be absurd, John. He caused his own trouble. You know he did. He is a poor boxer and no sort of sportsman at all, and one has no idea why he ever came here in the first place, for he belongs in a street brawl. You handled yourself very well."

Acklebury tried to disregard this third use of his Christian name, and, though naked to the waist and covered with sweat, bowed slightly in response to the compliment. "I thank you, Penrith. It was not much of a match, I'm afraid."

"Perhaps not, but Mr Jackson says that every bout shows the mettle of the men in the ring, and this one was certainly proof of it!" Penrith clapped Acklebury upon one bare shoulder. Then, lowering his voice and dropping his head to speak privately into Acklebury's ear, he added, "I think we can safely say that you are the better man."

Before Acklebury could muster any but the most confused reaction to this encomium, Penrith took his hand away, straightened, and said, "Of course, there was never any doubt of it. Come! Let us leave here."

Acklebury nodded. His shoulder felt exposed, damp with sweat, and the chillier for the loss of Penrith's warm, heavy hand upon it. He stole a glance at Penrith's face, still unequal to speech. Penrith was looking now toward the dressing area in the far corner. Townsend was there, gathering his things and buttoning his coat in an agitated fashion, under the impassive eye of the large assistant. Penrith halted. "Perhaps we ought to wait a moment."

Acklebury found his tongue at last. "Yes, let us not make him any angrier." As one, they turned aside so as not to appear to notice Townsend and thereby add to his disgrace. Acklebury cast about for something to say. "Do you know," he ventured, "I could drink a pint of ale very happily just now. Would you care to join me?" The words were out before he realised their import. He had never invited Penrith to accompany him anywhere. What time they had spent together outside of the studio had all been at Penrith's instigation.

Penrith's delighted smile, however, put his mind at rest. "That is a capital idea," he said. "There is a public-house just along the road where I think we might go for a quiet drink, as soon as we are dressed again."

Chapter Text

London, May, 1818

A half an hour saw Lord Penrith and Mr Acklebury towelled dry, dressed again, and standing in the Rose and Crown in Lambeth. It was a large, old place whose massive bar with its battered brass rail said that it had once been a respectable inn and might be so again. In the meantime, their damp hair, their careless neck-cloths, and the bruise that was forming on Acklebury's cheek from Townsend's blow went unremarked, for the Rose and Crown was the public house nearest Mr Jackson's establishment, and Acklebury and Penrith were not the first gentlemen to thirst for ale after boxing; indeed, it was clear that they were not even the first that day, for one or two familiar faces were already there and drinking.

When the serving maid had brought them a flagon of ale and filled two pewter tankards from it, Penrith looked at Acklebury for a long moment and said with a smile, "I do not mean to be a sentimentalist, but I cannot help remarking that the first time I ever saw you was in a place much like this."

Acklebury glanced down at the table-top. It was a sentimental thing to say, and a little discomfiting because of it, and yet he was sincerely touched by it. Penrith, though he honoured his promise not to importune Acklebury again, could not seem to refrain from smudging the boundary John had drawn, and re-drawing it ever closer; it was simply in his warm nature to do so, and John could no longer pretend that Penrith's little intimacies displeased him. Perhaps, he thought, he had drawn the boundary too wide for genuine friendship in the first place.

He traced a line upon the table's surface with his finger, the contour of Penrith's temple and cheekbone in three-quarter profile, and said, "I am only sorry that I do not have a sketching book with me to complete the picture for you." Penrith gave a soft laugh, but John still drew his imaginary lines without looking up. He did not feel equal to letting Penrith see what was in his eyes. Trying for some less particular topic, Acklebury said, "Oh! I have promised myself that I would remember to tell you: Mrs Danforth has invited me to to her country-house party. I was very surprised."

"Ah! Has she indeed? I am happy to hear it. Do you go?"

This had been a matter of some concern to Acklebury. He could not make his attendance conditional upon Penrith's being there, but wished very much that he might have done so.

Lord Penrith added, "I do hope so, for I have promised her that I shall go, and I do not much care for the prospect of four days in Hampshire with only Danforth's friends for company."

Greatly relieved, Acklebury said, "I told her that I would go, but I was prepared to cry off. I am afraid I shall be rather at sea as a guest in General Danforth's country-house. I do not think I know many people in their circle. It will be pleasant to meet a friend there." He resumed his invisible sketching. "I think that both of Mrs Danforth's invitations to me are the result of my knowing you."

Penrith took a drink from his tankard. "Oh, do not underestimate yourself, Acklebury. Lizzie has an excellent eye for what is fashionable, and you, my dear friend, are fashionable!"

Acklebury observed that his lordship did not precisely disclaim credit for this sudden elevation in his social standing. He was on the point of saying that he did not know what to think of being fashionable, if it meant that invitations to the best parties must come at the cost of embarrassing cartoons in the newspapers, when a sudden commotion at the front of the room made him pause and look in that direction.

"There he is!" a voice said. To Acklebury's dismay, it was Mr Townsend, accompanied by a trio of his supporters, and his over-loud remark was clearly directed at Acklebury. He felt again that resignation that had come over him during the bout. He raised his eyes to Penrith and said, "Did other schoolboys pick fights with you because of your--appearance?"

Penrith smiled grimly, comprehension clear in his face, and said, "No. Not schoolboys."

Acklebury did not have time to wonder what he meant, for the four men were approaching, all wearing horribly false smiles and moving together in a threatening manner. John glanced at Penrith, and Penrith glanced back with a fierce, lively glint in his eye that gave John heart.

"Well! What a pleasant sight!" Townsend said in slow, drawling tones. "The artist and the peer, I declare! You fight well, sir--for one of your sort." Townsend put a twist of contempt into his voice, and for the barest moment, Acklebury wondered how his being an artist could be so upsetting to the man. A muscle in Penrith's jaw twitched as Townsend's friends leered, and Acklebury realised that Townsend did not refer to his avocation. As he could find no answer to such a veiled innuendo, he made none.

Penrith raised his tankard to his lips and gave every appearance of hoping that if he paid these insolent men no mind, they would vanish. Acklebury, wary and uncertain, did likewise.

"I am addressing myself to you, Mr Acklebury!"

Acklebury looked up. Townsend was smiling an arrogant, hateful smile. "I have complimented you upon your fighting."

Acklebury inclined his head, and stole another glance at Penrith for guidance. He was aware that others in the public house had broken off their conversations and were beginning to notice the scene unfolding at the far table. Penrith's knuckles were dangerously white upon the handle of his tankard, and inasmuch as he would tower five or six inches over the tallest of Townsend's group, and was by anyone's measure a powerful athlete, Acklebury wondered at their temerity. He supposed that they had the courage of their numbers.

"Indeed," Townsend went on in dangerous tones of mock civility, "I believe men of your stripe do not generally fight so well." His friends laughed at this.

A little ale slopped over the rim of Penrith's tankard. Acklebury willed him to remain silent and said, as mildly as he could, "What do you want, Mr Townsend?"

"I would like to buy you a nuncheon."

So unexpected was this rejoinder that Acklebury looked at Penrith to see if he understood it. Perhaps it was a cant term--for a return bout, possibly?--but Penrith's expression showed a flicker of puzzlement. When neither of them spoke, Townsend went on. "A sausage, perhaps. I am sure that you enjoy a sausage."

Penrith's chair scraped back from the table as Acklebury still struggled in utter confusion. Then Penrith was on his feet and flinging the contents of his tankard into Townsend's face. There was an astonished silence in the room as Townsend stood sputtering and his companions gaped and stepped back. Penrith's arm was shaking, as if he stopped himself only with difficulty from completing the arc which would have brought the heavy tankard smashing into Townsend's nose.

Acklebury realised that he had never seen Penrith truly angry. His nostrils flared and his face seemed drained of blood, his lips lifting into some cross between a snarl and a sneer that Acklebury did not think boded very well for anyone.

A look of delight crossed Townsend's face before he pursed his lips and spat out the ale that was dripping to his mouth from his hair. He gave his head a shake, looked Penrith in the eye, and said, "Oh, how his lordship defends his property. It is never difficult to anger your kind. Only mention that his particular friend might enjoy dining at someone else's table, and see what a wild cat he becomes!" This last was said in a fey, lisping tone. Penrith's empty tankard came down hard on the table-top.

Townsend did not see the blow coming. Penrith's right fist struck his jaw so hard that it must have loosened some teeth. A roar went up from Townsend's friends, and there was a general hubbub as other men rose, either to leave the public house discreetly, or to cheer the impending brawl. Acklebury was on his feet, and two of Townsend's friends were rushing him, even as Penrith's tankard was still rebounding from the table-top and clattering to the floor.

Acklebury, resigned and appalled in equal measure, sent a short, wordless prayer for forgiveness heavenward, then shoved the first of Townsend's friends hard upon the shoulders, and sent him reeling back into the startled embrace of the second, who nearly fell to the floor under this sudden burden. Acklebury took another step forward as the first friend drew a hand across his mouth and struggled upright. "Will you scratch my eyes out next?" the friend asked in a taunting voice. "I have seen my sisters fight as you do!"

"I am sorry that your sisters are not ladies," John heard himself say as he stepped forward again. "But it is not surprising, for their brother is no gentleman." The words seemed to burst from a storehouse in his heart that he had never before unlocked. "And all his friends are useless--" he shoved the man again "--uncouth--" he came closer and took hold of the man's lapels "--fools!" He hauled his right arm back and struck the man in the nose. He had meant to say more, to say every word that had he had ever withheld when someone faulted him for being too handsome, or suggested that painting was not a fit preoccupation for a man, or that his features rendered his virtues vices.

The sight of blood pouring from the unnamed man's nose shocked him into a realisation of what he had done, and a sudden hard grip upon his upraised arm stopped him from doing it again. "Enough!" a rough voice shouted. John released his grip upon his opponent's coat and turned to see an enormous fellow in a white apron preventing him from delivering a second blow by holding his elbow with a beefy hand. This man's other arm was outstretched, making a barrier between Penrith and Townsend, who panted and glowered at one another.

"Enough! Out! The lot of you!" the aproned publican roared.

As Townsend and the friend whose nose Acklebury had bloodied were assisted away by the uninjured pair, Acklebury breathed hard and gradually became conscious of himself, and of the slow ebbing of his rage. On the other side of the bearlike host, Penrith, too, seemed to come down from the exaltation of his anger.

The publican stood looking from John to Penrith and back again until he was satisfied that neither of them required further restraint, then released John's elbow and lowered the arm that had barred Penrith. "I 'eard what they said, and I am sure that you was both sorely provoked. I do not like men as find courage only in two-to-one odds," he said quietly. "But I don't allow fighting in this establishment, nor in the street outside it. They have gone, and now you'll be gone too, and not welcome back."

Penrith tugged at the bottom of his waistcoat with one hand, and stretched his neck left and right. He nodded curtly. "Acklebury," he said. "I think we must drink ale elsewhere today." His face was still pale, and John could not but observe that he made no attempt to button his coat again.

As they walked together out of the Rose and Crown, Acklebury observed that most of the men they passed turned away from them. He could not help feeling that, having heard him accused, they all condemned him, as it were to be on the safe side; and that they condemned Penrith for standing with him. He did not have time to refine too much upon this lowering thought, however, for as soon as they gained the street outside, Penrith turned to him with a wince of pain and said. "I hope you know how to drive a phaeton."

Acklebury, still rather dazed, said, "I--I can manage it, I suppose. Why?"

"Because I think I have broken my hand."

***

Acklebury had driven a gig, but the principal of his experience with carriages was to ride in them. He was so shaken by the altercation just past that he was grateful for the demands of driving a sporting vehicle across London; the traversing of Vauxhall Bridge and the intricacies of threading through the traffic of Westminster, while managing Penrith's spirited carriage horses, all required his full attention and did not allow him to reflect on having just struck a man in the face out of anger, or on the unseemly words that had provoked it.

"You have a natural ability at the reins," Penrith said as they set out, and though Acklebury knew he was only being kind, the words were calming to him and allowed him to carry on in tolerable equanimity. The inevitable jostling of a carriage ride over indifferent paving clearly caused Penrith pain, but he bore it without comment, and after what seemed a remarkably arduous journey through town, Acklebury directed the horses into Half Moon Street.

Stephens opened the front door, and, perceiving that his lordship was handicapped by some indisposition, hastened down the steps to help him from the high vehicle. One of Penrith's two grooms came up from the servants' area, buttoning his jacket and replacing his cap, and got up into the driver's seat as soon as Acklebury got down. As the phaeton was swept away toward the mews, Penrith's valet Cooper came hurrying out. "What has happened? Why, my lord, you are injured!"

"It is nothing, Cooper," Penrith said, though his grimace of pain belied his words. "I may have broken my hand, that is all."

This statement produced so much exclaiming and bustling-about and sharp words to the second groom to run and fetch the doctor, that Acklebury thought he might easily slip away unnoticed. As Cooper solicitously ushered his lordship into the house, however, Stephens quietly approached Acklebury and said, "Thank you, sir, for seeing his lordship home. Will you stay and let Mr Stockleigh--that is his lordship's physician--see to your own hurt?"

Acklebury placed a hand on his left cheekbone and winced. It was tender and swollen. "It is nothing," he said. "A careless moment of inattention in the boxing-ring, that is all." He did not care for the idea of walking all the way to Marylebone in the late-afternoon sunshine with what was certainly a very noticeable injury, but he wished to be away from Penrith, about whom so much activity seemed to swirl.

Stephens bowed. "As you wish, of course, sir. Thank you, sir."

Acklebury went in the direction of home, but hesitated before his own door, and walked on. A few more minutes found him knocking instead at the door of Mr Caine's residence in George Street.

"Acklebury!" Caine said, when the servant had admitted him. "I am surprised to see you." He glanced around from his mirror, where he was putting the finishing touches on an Oriental knot, and started. "I have not known you to be struck in the face before!" he exclaimed, abandoning his attentions to his neck-cloth. "That does not look good."

"It is nothing," Acklebury said, dismissing his friend's concern in a voice that he could not keep from snapping. Caine blinked and drew his head back. "I--I beg your pardon, Caine. I am--agitated, I suppose."

"No, no, not at all. What happened?"

"I have been in a fight," Acklebury said.

"Well, evidently!"

"No! That is, this bruise you see is from the boxing-ring, but it is not very bad, and I gave worse to the fellow who gave it to me. Only, I went with Penrith afterwards to a public house, and my opponent followed me there with his friends, with some idea of--" Acklebury hesitated, realising suddenly that he could not tell the whole story.

"With some idea of settling matters outside the ring?" Caine offered.

"Yes, I suppose so."

"You brawled in a public house?" Caine said with an incredulous grin. "You?" Everything in Caine's manner spoke of pleased pride. "You and Viscount Penrith?" He could scarcely contain his enthusiasm for this turn of events.

"I am not proud of myself, Caine!" Acklebury protested, but he found that he did not feel all the force of his convictions under Caine's approbation.

"You ought to be!" Caine said. "You bested a man in the ring--at Jackson's, no less!--and he came after you while you were taking your ease over a mug of ale? That is barbarous! He deserved a sound thrashing and I hope you gave him one!"

"I--I am afraid I bloodied the nose of one of his friends."

"One of his--" Caine broke off, amazed. "How many were they?"

"Four."

"That is very cowardly! And the fellow himself? Did he let his friends do his fighting?"

"No. Penrith hit him--" Acklebury stopped himself from completing the sentence. Penrith hit him for me.

"Four against two," Caine said, shaking his head. "That was not sporting. And yet I imagine that you and Lord Penrith gave a good accounting of yourselves."

"The publican, who was larger even than Penrith, put a stop to us." Acklebury found himself unduly amused at the idea that there was a man in the world larger than Penrith. A laugh found its way up from where he had been holding his confusion, and shame, and indignation. Caine laughed with him, seeming not to notice the wild edge to Acklebury's expression. "The other two men did not wade into the brawl, and so it was Townsend and his friend down, and Penrith and I being held back from doing more damage by the large fellow in the white apron."

Caine's laughter trailed off in a frown. "Townsend, you say? Dark-haired fellow, about your height?"

"Yes."

"I know of him. He is a popinjay and a fool. How did he come to be at Jackson's?" Caine asked.

"I do not know, but he will not be returning, for I believe he was barred after my bout with him, and that--" he paused. "Well, I must suppose his humiliation at that was what made him come after me." The more Acklebury related of the story, the more Townsend's aspersions upon his character seemed merely common insults and not real insights. Townsend knew nothing, Townsend had not perceived anything untoward between him and Penrith, Townsend had only been fishing with such bait as might tempt any man's pride into reacting.

Caine looked at him speculatively for a moment, then said, "Do you know, I think word of this will not harm you."

"Caine! Tell me you will not speak of it!" Acklebury said.

"I? No, you know I will not. But it will be spoken of. And since no-one in society will believe a word Townsend says, everyone will know what your friends know: that you are not the sort of fellow that Cruikshank drew a picture of in the Times!"

Acklebury gave an uneasy laugh.

"I dine this evening with the Elams," Caine said, returning his attention to his cravat. "Do you think Miss Elam will approve of this coat?"

Acklebury became suddenly sensible of having intruded upon his friend at an hour not normally reserved for visiting. He said, "You look very well, Caine. Miss Elam can only be flattered at the attentions of such a splendidly-dressed fellow." Caine grinned at him from the mirror. "And forgive me for intruding on you. I will leave you to your preparations. I wish you a very good evening."

When Mr Acklebury let himself into his lodgings a few minutes later, Marchbanks took a single look at him, put down the rag with which he had been polishing a silver fork, and went to fetch ointment and a cool cloth. "Fisticuffs, sir?" In those two words, Acklebury discerned worry in Marchbanks' voice; worry, and a hint of pride.

Chapter Text

London, May, 1818

On the evening of Signorina Moretti's performance, Viscount Penrith arrived at General Danforth's Berkeley Square house at precisely eight o'clock, more from a desire to see Acklebury, whom he had not heard from since their ill-fated sojourn at the Rose and Crown, than from any interest in impressing Lizzie Danforth with his punctuality.

After answering one or two questions about the splint on his right hand that could not be hidden without his posing all the evening like Bonaparte, he was desultorily sipping a glass of champagne and wishing for Acklebury's arrival. The young lady who was having her first London season under Lizzie's wing curtsied to him. Gowned in white, with only a few pearls in her dark hair, she re-enforced the swanlike impression she had made upon him at their first meeting several weeks before. "Miss Lareton," he said with a bow. "Do you enjoy your London season?" He tried to position himself so that he might observe the arriving guests while not appearing terribly impolite to Miss Lareton.

"Yes, my lord," she answered, her eyes wide. "London life is most stimulating and varied."

"I daresay it is, when you are going about with Lizzie--with Mrs Danforth." Before Miss Lareton could reply to this rather questionable comment upon her cousin, Penrith heard that lady's voice carry from the drawing room door, saying, "Oh, Mr Acklebury! How delightful to see you once again!" He was hard pressed not to turn his attention from Miss Lareton, and only a consciousness of how uncivil it would be for him to do so made him continue, "I mean only that I know Mrs Danforth to have a very generous heart, and I am sure that she has done everything in her power to insure that you are--amused."

"Indeed my lord. Mrs Danforth has been all generosity and kindness toward me. I am, of course, very grateful."

Miss Lareton's words were everything that was proper, but she gave the appearance of finding his society trying, much as she had at their first meeting, and on the two or three occasions since, when civility had required him to make a morning call to Lizzie. He reminded himself that she must simply be awed in his admittedly lofty presence--young ladies, he had noted, were frequently so--and struggled to find something to say that might conceivably interest them both. Longing to glance away and see whether Acklebury had successfully passed the trial of being greeted by General and Mrs Danforth, and not thinking very much, he said, "Do you ride, Miss Lareton?"

To his dismay, she coloured up, and said in a more natural voice, "I do, my lord. I have a horse at home, and I sometimes miss riding very much." She looked down uncertainly and appeared to have to think a moment to find something to add. "Mrs Danforth has said that you are yourself a very notable horseman."

Penrith bowed in acknowledgement of her compliment while inwardly chiding himself for his carelessness, for there were now but two avenues open before him, and the decision must be swift: invite Miss Lareton to ride with him, as she clearly expected, and create an impression that he had no wish to create; or turn the subject, a most ungentlemanly action and one very likely to result in Lizzie's displeasure as well as Miss Lareton's. He recklessly made his choice. "Perhaps you will do me the honour of riding with me in the park one day."

Miss Lareton's demeanour thawed entirely. "Oh! Yes! Thank you, my lord!" she breathed. Penrith understood at once from her grateful manner that she missed her horse, and her riding, and probably her home in the country. She seemed suddenly very young, and, in a rush of sympathy, he said, "Well then, let us ride together next Wednesday."

When at last he had set a time for their outing and was able to turn from Miss Lareton, Mr Acklebury was already in the room. He was bowing low over the hand of Mrs Harcourt, who was receiving his polite attentions with every indication of flattered pleasure--as well she might, Penrith thought, observing with great approval the cut of Mr Acklebury's evening coat. This was of wine-coloured velvet and very well fitted. He had about him a more polished air than Penrith had seen in him before, and his appearance, never less than remarkable, was so much enhanced by the fineness of his attire that Penrith was not at all surprised to observe several ladies gazing at him with awestruck expressions. Penrith was sensible of a certain pride, as it were of ownership, for to his certain knowledge no-one in the room other than he could claim John Acklebury's friendship.

Acklebury rose from his bow and saw Penrith watching him. He murmured a few polite words to Mrs Harcourt that Penrith could not hear, and turned from her. "Viscount," he said. His smile seemed slightly forced, and Penrith was taken aback, having hoped for, indeed expected, a warmer greeting. They made their bows to one another, and Penrith was sensible of a degree of formality that had not existed between them since their first meeting.

"Mr Acklebury," he said, looking enquiringly into his friend's face. "I trust I see you well. Indeed, you look very well."

"I am well, I thank you." Mr Acklebury brought his features into his more customary mild complaisance, but not before casting a glance across the room.

Penrith followed his gaze to where Miss Lareton was standing. The sudden realisation that Acklebury must have heard him fixing his engagement with her, and was unhappy with him for that reason, was rather pleasing. Very quietly, so as to be overheard by no-one in Lizzie Danforth's increasingly crowded drawing-room, Penrith said, "I am afraid that in keeping one eye on the entrance for your arrival, I rather stumbled into that."

Acklebury's expression became confused and embarrassed. "I--no--" he began in tones of mild protestation, looking quickly away from Miss Lareton. "I see."

Heartened by this evidence of John's attachment, Penrith said, "I have not properly thanked you for your care in seeing me home last week."

"It was the very least I could do." Acklebury's eyes seemed to look everywhere about the room except at Penrith, quite as if the subject discomposed him.

"What is the matter?" Penrith asked him. "I hope that you do not chide yourself for having struck that fellow in the nose. I do not advocate violence as a way of life, but by God, Townsend's insolence was intolerable, and his friends were no better!"

Acklebury looked more miserable with each word that Penrith spoke. "If you don't mind, Penrith," he said when Penrith paused, "I should prefer to speak of other things." His tone was strained, and not with indignation or anger. He seemed to be labouring under the weight of some more difficult emotion, and it was a moment before Penrith recognized it as shame.

"Of course," he said quietly. "Just as you wish." What had John to be ashamed of? He had sparred well in the ring, and, when Townsend's boorishness had rendered all courtesy futile, he had made a good account of himself outside the ring as well. Penrith could not understand the chagrin that Acklebury's face and posture were evincing now, but it was clear that he felt it.

"Thank you." Acklebury swallowed and made a visible effort to be calm. After a moment, he indicated Penrith's injured hand and said, "How long must your fingers be bound up like that?"

"Mr Stockleigh says at least another week. Boredom, I am afraid, will be the worst of my fate, for I cannot ride, or drive, or even write properly. I can feed myself, but only just." He heard his own voice becoming petulant. "You seem unbruised. I did not know whether you were well or ill."

Acklebury raised his eyebrows and said, "I assure you, I was a sight to frighten little children the first day or so, but the worst of it is gone. I suffered mostly in my vanity."

"I am glad that you took no great hurt, then." This talk of injuries reminded Penrith that his own broken finger still caused him some discomfort if he allowed his right hand to dangle too long at his side. He held it up to his chest, cradling it in his left. "You did not call."

Acklebury looked away, and for a moment Penrith thought to hear an apology from him, but a second glance told him that Acklebury was biting his lips to keep laughter back. He looked pointedly from Penrith's face to his protected hand, and could not seem to prevent a grin from coming to his face.

"What?" Penrith demanded, feeling foolish. "I am in pain."

Acklebury laughed out loud. "Oh, I beg your pardon, my lord." He closed his lips primly and struggled for a moment more with his mirth before clearing his throat and saying, "I am sure you have been very brave."

Penrith glared at him.

"Dear Mr Acklebury!" Elizabeth Danforth sailed toward them, looking very pretty, Penrith thought, her gauzy and low-cut gown in some pale shade of green making it clear that while Lizzie's papa might have sold her for Danforth's money and honour, General Danforth had got the best of the bargain. "I beg your pardon, Penrith," Lizzie added with an airy, dismissive little wave. "I must steal your friend away. Signorina Moretti has asked to speak to you, Mr Acklebury. Would you be so good as to come with me?"

"She wishes--?" Acklebury repeated, looking in surprise first at Lizzie and then at Penrith. "Yes, of course. It would be my pleasure."

"She is preparing to sing and does not wish to come out into the company, but she saw you from behind the draperies there, and asked for you. She seems to know you. It is my impression that you and she are old friends from Venice. You are full of surprises, Mr Acklebury!"

Penrith could not but agree.

"I can hardly do myself the honour of calling myself Signorina Moretti's friend," Acklebury protested. "We met once or twice in Venice, that is all."

Penrith reflected that any lady who had met Acklebury once or twice and did not wish to further the acquaintance must be blind to handsomeness or insensible to courtesy, and he was not surprised in the least that this Italian singer would remember her meetings with him. He could not help wondering, however, what those meetings had consisted of.

"Pardon me, Penrith," Acklebury said with a bow. "It seems I am called."

Penrith, delighted at this unexpected glimpse into some part of Acklebury's life, said, "I would not dream of interfering with your duties as a representative of the English nation--or with the renewal of an old association. However, I would be very happy to make the lady's acquaintance."

Lizzie immediately said, "Oh, Signorina Moretti will not have the slightest objection to meeting Viscount Penrith."

"Then come, Penrith. I shall introduce you."

Penrith followed Acklebury and Lizzie to the draped alcove. Inside, a woman of perhaps thirty years of age reclined on a little sofa. Though she was not beautiful, she had a voluptuous sleekness that spoke of sensuality and pleasure. Her dark, glossy hair was worn pulled back from her face, the better to reveal her striking brown eyes. Her figure was excellent, and appeared to advantage in the gown of pale blue that exposed a great expanse of creamy skin. When she espied Acklebury, she leapt from the sofa, smiling and holding out her arms, looking with frank and undisguised admiration at his entire person.

"Signor Pittore!" she cried. "Giovanni!"

Penrith was greatly interested to observe that Acklebury did not hesitate or show the slightest discomfort, but approached the lady with the same gesture, and kiss her upon each cheek while she did the same to him. This most un-English greeting concluded, the lady immediately launched into very rapid Italian, of which Penrith could make out scarcely a word, though from her smiles and Acklebury's easy expression, Penrith judged the subject to be pleasant to both of them.

Acklebury listened politely, and with even more attentiveness, if that were possible, than that which he applied to conversation in his native tongue. When Signorina Moretti came to the end of her locution, he began to reply. He spoke Italian with apparent fluency, and what was more fascinating, his entire manner seemed altered by his doing so. He gestured with his hands, as the lady had done. He stood with his weight upon one foot, so that his hip jutted out in a most interesting way. He smiled broadly, and laughed out loud at one point. Very soon, he was indicating Penrith to the lady, and Penrith discerned the word amico. He stepped forward and, when Acklebury had presented her to him, bowed very punctiliously over her hand as she looked up at him in frank admiration.

"Signorina Moretti asks me to beg your pardon," Acklebury said. "She does not speak English very well and wishes me to translate for her."

Penrith nodded. "Please convey to Miss Moretti that I am honoured to meet her, and that I look forward to hearing her sing this evening."

Acklebury did this, and she smiled again, very broadly, favouring first Acklebury, then Penrith, with a look that could scarcely be described as anything other than a leer. Elizabeth Danforth looked on in amusement, and exchanged a glance with Penrith, as if to ask him whether she did not in fact give the most interesting parties in London.

Miss Moretti said something in very animated tones that made Acklebury blush, and when he hesitated to translate it, she tapped him playfully on the arm with her fan and added some words that she clearly intended as encouragement. Acklebury turned to Penrith with a look of blended humour and discomfort and said, "Signorina Moretti says that she may go home to Italy very soon, for she has now met the--the handsomest men in Great Britain, and has no further need to stay."

Penrith laughed and bowed again to the lady. "Please tell her that if her singing is half so beautiful as her face, I shall have no further need to hear other singing after tonight, for it must all pale in comparison." Acklebury gave him an appreciative look and seemed happy to convey this flattering rejoinder to the lady. Its effect was to produce another tap of her fan, this one to Penrith's upper arm, and a very pleased, dimpled smile.

Penrith watched as Acklebury once again listened to the lady's speech. He had gone so far as to put his hands into his pockets--a very surprising lapse of deportment, and yet a gesture that seemed to fit this Italianate version of John Acklebury quite elegantly--and then to withdraw them again to gesture broadly.

Acklebury turned at last to him, and to Mrs Danforth, and said, "Signorina Moretti expresses her pleasure in meeting you, Penrith, and her sense of the honour you do her, Mrs Danforth, in inviting her to sing this evening before so many great English ladies and gentlemen." He glanced at the singer again. "She requests a few moments to collect herself for her performance."

Miss Moretti said something rather quietly to Acklebury then, looking from him to Penrith and back. Her words must have discomposed him, for his response, which would have been clear in any language, was a polite and smiling refusal to translate it.

They made their bows and left the alcove. Lizzie hurried off to speak to one or two of her many guests, thanking Acklebury rather breathlessly for his ambassadorial service and begging them to make themselves comfortable.

"I am very impressed, Acklebury," Penrith said as they stood in the drawing room, waiting for all the ladies to be seated.

"Indeed, my lord? In what respect?"

"You are a diplomat!"

"I would say, rather, that you were the diplomat, for I never heard so neat a compliment. You charmed her entirely."

"Yes, I was pleased with that," Penrith admitted. "But it was a small thing compared to your talent as a translator. What was it she called you? Pittore?"

"Yes. Signor Pittore--Mr Painter. 'Acklebury,' you see, is very difficult for most Italians to pronounce properly." Acklebury laughed ruefully and raised a hand as if he would touch or scratch the back of his head, as he sometimes did when not in formal company. He let the hand drop to his thigh and looked at Penrith. "Do you know, my painting master, Maestro Fiorio, attempted to pronounce my name correctly only once, very soon after he accepted me as his pupil. 'Ack-ul-bree' I told him. 'Ecka-la-bree,' said he. Then he pointed at my face in a most disconcerting way, and shouted, 'Ecco labri! Ecco labri!' whereupon he nearly fell to the floor laughing."

Penrith, supposing that Italian was enough like Latin for him to render this phrase correctly, glanced at Acklebury and said, "'Behold the lips'? Do not tell me--that is what he called you ever afterwards?"

Acklebury nodded. "I could not cure him of it. For four years, whenever Maestro Fiorio had any occasion--any occasion whatever--to introduce me to someone, he called me Ecco Labri, explained his cleverness, and laughed as if it were all new again. I am only grateful that Signorina Moretti was not introduced to me by the maestro, or I fear she would have repeated the terrible pun this evening. By comparison, I find Signor Pittore very inoffensive, I assure you!"

Penrith found himself torn between hilarity at Acklebury's expense--an impropriety Acklebury would surely forgive him, since he had, after all, introduced the subject quite as if he wished Penrith in on the joke--and an unsuitable desire to gaze at that most perfect of Acklebury's features, that had given rise to the joke in the first place. Penrith chose the lesser of these two trespasses.

"Ecce labri," he said. "It works even better in Latin. I am surprised your Maestro Fiorio did not notice that."

Acklebury gazed at him unblinkingly, a very faint smile upon the lips that were apparently celebrated in two nations, and though no word issued from them, Penrith understood at once that if he should mention the matter again, it would be very much at his own peril. Penrith replied to this unspoken challenge with a slightly raised eyebrow, which Acklebury regarded for a long moment. Then Acklebury's face lapsed into an exasperated grin, and he said, "I shall never hear the end of this story from you, shall I?"

"It seems very unlikely."

Acklebury sighed.

"But come! We are to hear some very fine music this evening, and I depend upon you to tell me what Miss Moretti is singing about."

"Then I shall endeavour to make everything clear to you."

As the chairs and couches in the drawing room were claimed by the ladies, and some gentlemen began to be seated in the remaining places, Penrith stood with Acklebury at the back of the room, and ignored the one chiding glance Lizzie cast his way when another gentleman sat in the vacant place next to Miss Lareton.

"I am quite curious to know more of your time in Venice," he said. "Your friendship with Signorina Moretti, for instance, seems to be rather more advanced than you admitted."

"It is the Venetian way. That is all." Acklebury gave a slight shrug and stretched his neck in a manner that suggested discomfort with his collar or his cravat. There was a story here, and Penrith would have liked to hear it, but Acklebury was clearly ill-at-ease now, and Penrith desisted. Perhaps there had been an affaire de coeur. Lizzie Danforth's drawing room was hardly the place to ask.

Very soon, a musician entered and took his seat at the pianoforte, and a moment or two later, Signorina Moretti came in by the door at which both Penrith and Acklebury were standing. She greeted them as old friends, grasping their hands and smiling, and Penrith began to see the justice of Acklebury's remark about the Italian way. She treated one or two other ladies and gentlemen in the room with a similar degree of effusiveness, as she made her way to stand before the instrument.

The music began, and Penrith, though he considered himself no judge of the art, found it pleasing enough. Signorina Moretti sang lightly, and with many smiles, and even plied her fan like a Spanish lady during the first air.

"She accuses love of tormenting her," Acklebury whispered to him. Penrith had to lean down to hear him. "'You tease me, you pinch me, you poke me, you bite me!' she sings. 'What tortures...it is all your fault.' etcetera, etcetera."

Penrith nodded. To judge from the light, rather jocular melody of the song, the listener was not meant to believe the singer displeased with her torment.

For each air the lady sang, Penrith was obliged to bend close to Acklebury to hear the quiet translations he offered, and in this way he discovered within himself a hitherto unsuspected taste for Italian songs of the previous century.

When Signorina Moretti came to a particularly moving passage, Acklebury, still apparently lost in his more Italian persona, rested against the door-frame and closed his eyes, a crease appearing between his brows, almost as if the music caused him pain. He seemed, in any case, to feel it deeply. Penrith did not attend to the music himself any great effort, preferring to imagine Acklebury in Venice, where he had evidently been very popular indeed.

Signorina Moretti received the applause of the audience graciously after each song, saying, "Thank you, thank you, mille grazie," but nothing else. When she had sung ten or a dozen songs, she turned to her accompanist and spoke a few words. He took out a different sheaf of music. With a luminous smile, Signorina Moretti looked out over the assembled guests and said something in Italian. Her glance seemed to favour Mr Acklebury particularly. He became very still, and a look of apprehensiveness came into his face.

The accompanist rose, bowed, cleared his throat and spoke in heavily accented English. "Signorina Moretti wish to sing a special song for her friend, il Signor Pittore."

Penrith looked from the accompanist to Acklebury. One or two of the guests turned to see for whom the warm glances, and presumably the song, were intended. Penrith was beginning to think that the Italian lady had indeed been Acklebury's lover, and though he found that he did not like the notion, he thought that if others should arrive at a similar conclusion from her dedication of a song to him, it might prevent any more such insolence as Townsend had displayed to John last week.

The pianoforte made a lengthy introduction, and Miss Moretti stepped forward, her pale blue draperies floating about her. With a dazzling smile at Acklebury, she began to sing. Soon enough, she turned her attention more generally to her other auditors, and Penrith seized the opportunity to lean close to Acklebury again and say, "Well? Of what does this special song treat?"

Acklebury did not answer at once, though it was clear that he knew the song already and had no need to listen carefully to the words. After several measures had passed in Miss Moretti's rich, warm voice, Acklebury leant toward Penrith once more and said, "I beg you will not hold me to my promise of translation."

Penrith could only release him from that promise, as the prospect of fulfilling it clearly now troubled him. Penrith returned to leaning against the wall, more curious than ever to know what had passed between Acklebury and Signorina Moretti.

The performance ended to appreciative applause, and Signorina Moretti made her way back through the drawing room on General Danforth's arm, followed by her accompanist. She smiled and kissed her fingertips as she passed Acklebury, and Acklebury bowed to her.

When finally one had partaken of another glass of champagne and spoken to one's hostess and to one's acquaintance in the room; when one had made a courteous and obligatory bow to Miss Lareton after reiterating plans for a ride Wednesday next; then at last one could conclude the evening as one had hoped to do, by offering Mr Acklebury a carriage-ride back to Marylebone.

"It is scarcely a mile away, Penrith," Acklebury said, "and it is in quite the opposite direction of Half Moon Street."

"Oh, it is possible that I do not go directly home. There is an establishment in St Johns Wood to which I may repair. So you see, Marylebone is very much in my way."

Acklebury looked at him, then glanced about the room as if to assure himself that no-one remarked their conversation. "Very well. Thank you, Penrith. I must make my farewells to Signorina Moretti. I hope that will not inconvenience you."

"Not at all." Penrith watched him walk off through the drawing room toward the great hall where the Italian singer was standing in the midst of several admirers. He exchanged another of those warm embraces with the lady, and said something that made her laugh. Then, as if donning a suit of stiff clothes, he bowed very formally over her hand, turned from her, and walked away.

Penrith soon enough found himself waiting with Mr Acklebury in the street outside Lizzie's house for his driver to bring the carriage around. When at length the landau came forward amid the crush of guests and conveyances in Berkeley Square, Penrith and Acklebury entered and made themselves as comfortable as two tall gentlemen might in the confined space within, only to find that they must spend more than a quarter of an hour not moving forward at all. The landau did not offer all of the room that their long legs required, and the occasional touching of one gentleman's knees to the other's afforded a certain pleasing degree of intimacy.

"I am afraid that you could have been home well before now had I not insisted upon giving you a ride," Penrith said.

"As could you have been, for I believe one might throw a stone while standing on your doorstep, and hit Berkeley Square with it." The carriage interior was partly illuminated by the twin lanterns hung from the front of the box, and in this light, Penrith easily discerned Acklebury's ironic smile. "But I forget! You do not go directly home."

Penrith had no firm intention of visiting the gaming establishment to which he had earlier alluded. He principally wished to enjoy John's company a little longer, in circumstances more private than a society party could afford, and few circumstances were more conducive to a pleasant and uninterrupted conversation than a closed carriage at night.

"I had thought to play cards this evening," he said, "but I am in any case very happy to spend a little more time with you."

Acklebury inclined his head but made no other reply.

"Thank you for translating Miss Moretti's songs this evening," Penrith went on after a moment. "I would have been quite at sea without you. Indeed, I am sure that few of the ladies and gentlemen in the room were able to understand above ten words."

"It is as well," Acklebury said with a small laugh. "Some of the words were rather risqué."

"Yes! Biting and pinching and teasing, indeed!"

"And poking!" Acklebury reminded him. "But that was not the half of it! I wished to spare your blushes, so I did not translate everything."

Penrith rested back in his seat. "I am all agog."

"In one of the songs, she sang, 'Cease tormenting me, let me die,' and 'you are made of stone' and 'you take pleasure in seeing me faint away.'"

Penrith raised his eyebrows. "You do not mean--she sang of --"

"That other death, yes."

"You shock me, Acklebury. Truly you do."

"It was my intention to protect your delicate sensibilities from distress, my lord. Much of the recital consisted of similar sentiments. In one, the singer has endured too much pleasure, and begs to die in Cupid's lap."

Penrith laughed. The carriage lurched into motion at last, and Penrith, who had ceded the forward-facing place to his guest, was nearly thrown from his seat. He stopped himself by the involuntary placement of his hands squarely upon Acklebury's knees. "I beg your pardon," he said, drawing back.

"Not at all." Acklebury cleared his throat. "Finally, we have Silvia, who enjoys the love of a shepherd, but declares that while she may prefer lilies today, tomorrow she will choose the purple rose."

Penrith considered for a moment before realising what the rose and the lily must signify. With a delighted laugh, he said, "Well! I shall never look at a rose again in quite the same way."

"Nor I a lily."

Penrith regarded Acklebury with great interest. He was gazing self-consciously down at his hands. Penrith's inner eye was suddenly assailed by the image of a lily, its spotted petals curling back, its standing central member curving up and out, its intense fragrance filling the air, the brilliancy of its pollen staining everything that touched it. He had not fully appreciated to this moment the sheer promiscuity of flowers. He patted his coat pockets until he discovered his memorandum book, which he withdrew. This action brought Acklebury's attention back from whatever internal vista he had been surveying, and he looked curiously at Penrith, who was enjoying himself very much. "I am making a note to apprise Stephens of my wish to have more flowers in the house," Penrith explained.

"Ah," Acklebury said.

Penrith returned the memorandum book to its pocket. "I had no notion of such scandalous goings-on in those old-fashioned melodies. I declare, Lizzie shall know of this!"

"I do not think Mrs Danforth will be especially scandalised when you tell her," John said.

"To my knowledge, nothing very much discomposes Lizzie. She will be rather delighted than shocked, if indeed she did not herself direct Miss Moretti to choose the warmest songs in her repertoire." Penrith attempted to stretch his legs out a little, requiring him to lean back into the corner of his seat and put his feet into the corner diagonally opposite. Mr Acklebury acknowledged the excellence of this plan by doing the same. The companionable comfort thus established, impossible of attainment with any other person of Penrith's acquaintance, pleased him greatly.

"I, on the other hand," Penrith went on, "am quite turned about not only by the very improper nature of the songs I have just spent an evening listening to, but by your easy familiarity with such things, sir, and in two languages, no less!"

"Since I perceive that you are enjoying yourself to an unseemly degree, I cannot in good conscience apologise." Acklebury crossed his arms over his chest and shifted down in his seat, so that he now looked very comfortable.

The carriage came to a halt again. Penrith lowered the glass and looked out into the street. "It would appear," he reported, "that another ball or party is either beginning or ending." His driver looked around and said, "I am sorry, my lord. We cannot move just yet."

"Very well," Penrith replied, and raised the glass again. To Acklebury he said, "I must know. What did Signorina Moretti sing of in that last air, the one that she devoted to her dear friend Mr Painter? Forgive me! I know you asked to be excused from your translator's duty just then, but I cannot resist asking now." He watched Acklebury's face as closely as he could in the shifting lantern-light. Acklebury turned his eyes up in some exasperation, and sighed. Penrith waited.

"'You have said yes at last, beautiful mouth.' That is the substance of the song. After your amusement at Maestro Fiorio's deathless pun upon my name, you may understand why I hesitated to translate 'O bocca bocca bella' to you. It goes on, 'Love has opened you with a kiss, sweet fountain of pleasure.'"

Penrith's avid consideration of what might be meant by these provocative words was gradually impinged upon by the realisation that Acklebury was humming a few notes of the melody. "In addition to your many other excellencies, you sing very well," Penrith declared, resolutely putting aside for the moment the image now in his mind, of a fountain of pleasure and the draught that a beautiful mouth might take from it. "You surprise me very frequently, Acklebury."

Acklebury smiled. "While I am happy to do anything that may spare your lordship from tedium, that is not an office that I can possibly continue to perform very much longer."

"What do you mean?" Penrith asked, momentarily worried. "Do not say that you return soon to Italy. That would be a most unwelcome surprise."

"No," Acklebury laughed. "I have no idea of going back to Italy. I mean only that soon enough you will know me, and I will not have the power to surprise you any more. When that unhappy moment comes, I am afraid that you must settle for the general and unsurprising pleasure of my company."

Penrith gave a mock sigh, and said, "I am, I think, strong enough to endure it," in an attempt to disguise by humour the warm sentiment that had sprung up within him at hearing Acklebury speak so openly of continuing their friendship. "But let us return to Signorina Moretti's selection of the song about the beautiful mouth."

Penrith saw Acklebury's hand go to his thigh, where it pressed and slid down, rather as if he were wiping something away, or perhaps holding fast to his self-control. He said, "You wonder, I suppose, whether Signorina Moretti and I were...more intimate than I have said," Acklebury began. "We were not. I did not meet her above thrice."

Penrith felt a degree of satisfaction at this disclosure that was quite out of keeping with its import. "Those three meetings left a very strong impression upon the lady," he interjected when Acklebury seemed disinclined to say more.

"They left a very strong impression upon me!"

Penrith silently willed Acklebury to continue in this interesting vein, for the carriage was moving again, and the distance to Acklebury's lodgings was small. Acklebury drew himself up, straightening in his seat, his hands folding primly in his lap and his feet coming back to rest side by side in front of him. "Italy is...different in many ways from England.," he said. "Much that is unacceptable here is permitted there. What may be forbidden here might merely be frowned upon there, and what may not be spoken of here at all may at least be hinted of there."

Could he be opening at last the subject that had lain unspoken between them since their first meeting? Penrith felt that if he indicated by the slightest movement the intense fascination Acklebury's words were creating in him, Acklebury would stop speaking. He scarcely dared to draw a breath.

"Signorina Moretti expressed a wish to form the nearer connection with me that you were perhaps wondering about. She did not want for companionship, and her attachment to me was not of a deep character, so when I found that I could not in good conscience oblige her in this, she did not take offence."

Penrith's hopes rose.

"Instead, she spoke to me of...some of those things that may not be spoken of here. She wished to make me known to--well, to someone she believed I might like better. It was not--" Acklebury paused. "I was not prepared to...At that time I could not..."

Penrith waited, aware that his pulse was racing and that he was a little short of breath, but Acklebury seemed to have come to the end of his words. The carriage rolled on through the night, the less-fashionable streets north of Berkeley Square presenting little impediment in the form of traffic. They made a turn into Great Cumberland Place. Penrith rested his head back upon the squabs of the carriage seat and looked at the roof, creating a little distance between himself and Acklebury, that Acklebury might thereby feel freer to say what was difficult. At last he continued.

"Tonight, before her performance, Signorina Moretti asked me to translate what I could not possibly say in company."

"You are no longer in company. I wish you will say it now."

"It is very improper--I cannot--"

"Say it now, John." Penrith brought his head forward again and regarded him steadily, understanding suddenly that in such uncertain country, only by a firm hand on the reins would Acklebury move forward.

"Very well." Acklebury took a deep breath. "She told me that she was glad to see that I have found someone to my liking, and she asked me to convey to you her felicitations upon succeeding where many another has failed."

The carriage drew to a stop. Penrith did not need the lantern light to know that Acklebury's averted face was flushed. The downcast eyes, the reflexive curling of his hands, the lower lip caught and held between his teeth, all spoke of his inward state of anguished uncertainty.

Penrith, for his part, felt as certain as if he were once again upon the back of Dauntless, flying over the fence at Barringford. He sat forward and put his hand upon Acklebury's knee. "I have not succeeded yet," he said.

Acklebury looked at him then, his eyes wide, his lips parted. So closely was fear commingled with desire in his expression that Penrith drew his hand back. Acklebury could be persuaded this very night to some farther exploration of this forbidden country; Penrith was very sure of it. The idea of making him do so when he was afraid and unready, however, was so distasteful to Penrith that he reached instead for the latch of the carriage door.

"Good night, Acklebury," he said. "I have learnt a great deal this evening."

Acklebury opened the door and got out of the carriage. He turned and looked in again, his face now calm. "Thank you," he said, holding out his hand. Penrith took it. "Thank you."

They shook hands, as good friends do, and Acklebury closed the carriage door.

"Drive on," Penrith called.

"St Johns Wood, my lord?"

"Home, I think."

"Very good, my lord."

Chapter Text

Hampshire, June, 1818

On the day appointed for the start of the Danforths' country-house party, Lord Penrith descended to Half Moon Street well before sunrise to find his landau and four horses awaiting his pleasure. When they had driven the short distance to Marylebone, he was pleased to see Acklebury already in the street, watching as his trunk and valise were loaded onto the hired carriage that was to follow them to Hampshire with their servants.

Acklebury held up a hand in greeting as the open landau drew to a halt and Penrith got down. They had not seen one another since the night of the Italian lady's concert, their communication in the intervening week having consisted only of a pair of notes by which they had fixed the arrangements for today's journey down to Highcliffe, and Penrith was not sure where matters now stood. There was something intimate in the phrase "Good morning, John" that Penrith was loath to put forth if it were not wanted, so instead he said, "Acklebury! You are punctual."

With a lack of ceremony that Penrith found at least hopeful, Acklebury replied, "You have Marchbanks to thank for that," then was overcome by a jaw-cracking yawn. "Forgive me!" he added with a pleasing smile and sleepy eyes. "I am not yet quite awake." He cast a glance over the waiting landau, both of whose hoods were folded down, and said, "I see that we shall travel in the open air today."

Penrith thought John looked disappointed at this, but he knew that his wishful imagination might be deceiving him; to discover which was the case, he took a step closer to John and said in a low voice, "I can have it closed if you would prefer it."

He had his answer when John turned away awkwardly, clearly pretending to be oblivious to the purport of Penrith's suggestion, and said, "No. No, it is to be a fine day. I should be sorry to shut it out."

They set out immediately, and spent the first hour's travel with almost no conversation, for Acklebury was still somewhat somnolent and half-dozing in his corner of the landau, and Penrith was in a state of disappointed pique with him. Soon enough, however, as they left London behind in the brightening day, Penrith's natural good spirits reasserted themselves. He remembered how very highly he valued John's friendship, and set aside, for the moment, his warmer wishes. He could not in any case have attempted by word or gesture to break down John's damnable reserve so long as the coachman sitting on the box could overhear them, and the driver of the following coach could clearly see them.

They soon therefore began to enjoy their usual bantering conversation, admiring the countryside, talking of sport, and of their respective travels; of a horse Penrith wished to buy, and a difficulty Acklebury was having with his current commission, and the morning passed as agreeably as a morning of travel could when the day was fine, the carriage luxurious, and the countryside very pretty.

They stopped for a meal late in the afternoon at Basingstoke, and, as the journey thence to Longstock carried them mostly westward, Penrith was easily able to persuade John to sit next to him on the rear-facing seat for the final leg of their journey, with the declining sun at their backs.

Though this meant that their shoulders or sometimes their thighs or knees must touch, far from appearing uncomfortable with this arrangement, John seemed to enjoy the companionable contact, and so Penrith ventured to stretch his arm across the back of the seat. Still John did not object. Emboldened, Penrith placed his hand upon John's knee in such a way as would go unnoticed by the driver of the following carriage. Still John still said nothing, but neither did he respond with any gesture of his own, becoming wary and confused, losing his place in the conversation. He was not easy again until Penrith withdrew his hand and shifted away.

So it was that when they rolled through the gates at Highcliffe near dinner-time, Penrith was somewhat out of temper. Did John suppose that such a day of nearness was nothing to him? Was he insensible of the frustration that his reticence was causing? Was his nature so cool as never to wish more than the small intimacies which he had permitted? Tristan had seen him fight; more, he had seen him paint! John's nature was not cool; of that Tristan was certain. What, then, was he playing at? How long did he expect Tristan to wait?

As he and Acklebury were admitted to the grand, white marble entry hall at Highcliffe, Lizzie came sweeping down the staircase with open arms. "Tristan!" she cried. "And Mr Acklebury! Welcome to Highcliffe! I did not mean to let you come in without a greeting! I have just been seeing to the Fearnleys, and the General is--" she looked about her "--well, he is probably showing Major Harcourt the kennels. I trust you had a pleasant journey?"

Acklebury attempted to give his best formal bow, but Lizzie made an impatient sound and seized both of his hands in hers, saying, "We are all friends here, Mr Acklebury!" Penrith was amused to note that Acklebury reddened like a schoolboy when she leant up and kissed his cheek.

"Thank you, Mrs Danforth," Acklebury managed to say. It was wonderful, really, how quickly he recovered his composure and raised her right hand to his lips in that way of his, both warm and formal, that invariably seemed to please women and was presently driving Tristan to distraction. "You do me too much honour."

Feeling a want of attention, Penrith cried, "What! No kiss for me?"

The startled look John gave him nearly made him laugh out loud. Lizzie, however, was spellbound by John's considerable charm and did not remark anything else. She laughed, stood on tiptoe to kiss Penrith's cheek, and said, "There! I am glad to see you in such good spirits, Tristan."

He would not have said his spirits were good, so much as agitated. The butler conducted them up to their rooms, opposite each other at the far end of a long corridor and removed from other bedrooms. Had John been even slightly more forthcoming during their journey, Penrith would have thought this a very promising development, for it would be nothing to steal between these two chambers unobserved as much as one pleased. As it was, John seemed oblivious to any nuance that such an arrangement might present, and only looked into his room with an exclamation of pleasure at its elegance, leaving Penrith to smile as best he could, nod, and go into his own room to let Cooper prepare him for dinner.

Dinner on the first night of the house-party, as Lizzie had promised, was excellent. The company consisted of a rather odd assortment of guests, from the eighteen-year-old Miss Alexandra Lareton to the very aged Sir John Bertram and his white-haired lady; between these were two or three couples like the Danforths, vivacious young wives with husbands whose best years were behind them; and Mr and Mrs Fearnley, who were both young, and both handsome, lately married and clearly very happy with one another. Lord Penrith did not think the numbers were quite right, and wondered whether Lizzie had failed to secure some other single young lady to pair with John, for he was sure she intended to fling Miss Lareton at himself. He was sorry for the girl, and intended to give her no encouragement, no matter what Lizzie wished.

As he had been seated far from Acklebury, Lord Penrith spent the dinner conversing with Mrs Carr on his left and Major Harcourt on his right, and the first meal of the house-party passed agreeably enough. Once the ladies had left the dining room, General Danforth announced that the gentlemen were not permitted to linger. "M'wife assures me that we may do just as we please tomorrow, but she will not be happy if we abandon the ladies this first evening of her little party," and so they made short work of their port, and soon went as a body into the drawing room.

An hour later, Tristan, having learnt that his tolerance for country-house evenings had diminished sharply since the last such occasion, looked up from his place at the card-table and glanced about the room in the hope of catching John's eye. John was not to be seen, however, and Tristan wondered if he had stepped out into the garden for a breath of air. "It is your bid, my lord," Miss Lareton said, obliging him to return his attention to the interminable game of whist.

When he and Miss Lareton had shortly thereafter to concede the round to Mrs Carr and Mr Fearnley, Tristan made his excuses and left the table. He was on the point of enquiring of a footman where Mr Acklebury had gone, when Lizzie approached and put a hand on his arm. "Mr Acklebury wandered in the direction of the library, I believe. He must have found a book to his liking."

Penrith looked at her quizzically.

"Oh, Penrith," she said, shaking her head. She patted his arm and said, "Run along," quite as if she were his mother's age and not his own. Shrugging at the unpredictable nature of Lizzie's mind, he let himself quietly out of the drawing room, and along the hall to the library. A liveried footman opened the door for him.

He halted within. John was lying asleep on a chaise longue, his head lolling against the raised arm, his hands neatly folded in his lap. A book lay on the carpet beside him. John must have wandered to this room to be alone for a time and relieve his mind of the exercise of constant courtesy among strangers, most more highly placed in society than he. That he had then fallen asleep was a clear gauge of the effort this was costing him. Tristan came closer. The window-curtains stirred slightly in the mild night air.

Only four or five candles were burning, and John's sleeping face was exquisite in the light these provided. Tristan's earlier frustration was gone, mellowed by the excellent dinner and tempered by his realisation that he needed the support of a friend over the coming few days. "Dear John," he thought, though he knew he must not say such a thing aloud--not to his friend. John turned his head on the arm of the chair and opened his mouth.

Tristan froze, fearing to have awakened him, but no, John was only shifting in an easy sleep. His lashes lay dark upon his cheeks, his mouth in repose a perfect bow, a faint sheen of moisture upon his upper lip. Tristan bent over him, feeling an almost irresistible desire to touch the sprinkling of freckles across his fair cheeks, to smooth the strands of hair back from his forehead where they had strayed, to unbutton his waistcoat--for he had fallen asleep with it all done up and his cravat still tied, the absurd man.

Tristan reached a hand out to stroke that face, just once, just lightly, only to know its contours and its warmth. It was not too much to ask, he told himself. John would not mind; it was not really taking something; he had kept his promise not to advance himself upon John's person, even in the face of mounting evidence that John was not so averse to such an approach as he had once seemed to be...

Penrith's fingers came down lightly on that sculpted cheek, and instantly he knew it for a mistake. The heat of desire, of need, flared in him, and he wanted more. He bent nearer. He brought his lips to where his fingers had strayed, and set a tender kiss on the crest of John's cheekbone.

"Penrith?" John mumbled, coming half awake, and turning his head so that his lips accidentally brushed Tristan's. Tristan found that he had not the will to step back. "What are you doing?" John asked.

"I--" Tristan hesitated. "I am trying very hard not to kiss you again."

"What do you mean, 'again'?" John gazed up at him, not yet fully awake.

Tristan wondered if that one stolen kiss was enough to see him through the loss of John's friendship, for he was afraid that he had forfeited it in breaking his promise.

John only looked at him, however, blinking, searching his face. "You have already kissed me?" he asked. He did not seem distressed.

"It is possible that I have, yes," Tristan replied. "I am having difficulty keeping my promise, John."

John brought a hand to the side of Tristan's face, and Tristan let his eyes fall shut, overcome with the sensation of his touch. "I know," John said.

Tristan felt John's hand, hot from sleep, and his thumb as it slid alongside his mouth; he leant closer again to receive the kiss that he knew John wanted to return. But John only shifted, and put his feet on the floor, causing Tristan to have to move back a little.

"I know," John said again. "And I wish--that is, I am... I cannot yet..." he shook his head. "I am sorry, Penrith. Tristan. I am sorry. I must go."

***

Despite the flame of desire that John's sleepy actions had kindled--despite, indeed, his keen awareness that John lay only a few steps away in the bedroom opposite--Tristan was able to sleep eventually, soothing his renewed frustration with the hope of John's eventual surrender. John had only said "not yet". John had called him by name for the first time. Tristan tried to content himself at least for this night with the sensation of John's lips brushing his, John's hand on his face.

The morning found his spirits so much refreshed that he passed one or two peaceful hours angling in Danforth's trout-stream by himself before most of the party were up and about. He discovered John at mid-morning, seated in a chair on the lawn while Mrs Fearnley drew his portrait.

"The irony of it is not lost on me, my lord," she said, when he approached with an amused smile. "But who will portray the portraitist, if not his new friends? We can none of us do him justice, of course! It is his sad lot in life to make everyone live forever in great beauty and character, and to be without a portrait himself. So I have said that I would do my little best, and Mr Acklebury has very civilly agreed to be condescending about the result."

John laughed at this and protested, "I did nothing of the kind, Penrith, I assure you. Mrs Fearnley has shown herself to have a very acute eye and a skillful hand, and I am certain of seeing an excellent drawing!"

The sketch was rather good, Penrith thought, going to stand behind the lady and look over her shoulder. He decided he would like to have it. "Will you give it to Acklebury when you have finished it?" he asked.

"If he will do me the honour of accepting it, certainly."

Before John could begin another polite protest, Penrith fixed him with a gaze over Mrs Fearnley's head and raised his eyebrows, pointing ostentatiously first to the sketch, then to himself.

"Mr Acklebury, you must not laugh! I do not think I can draw you laughing," Mrs Fearnley exclaimed. She turned to see what Penrith was doing behind her back. He only bowed politely and excused himself, assured that John was well-occupied.

The day being magnificent, the countryside fresh and lovely, Danforth's stables impressive, and his dogs enormously entertaining, Lord Penrith did not have occasion to sit down with John until dinner once again found them together in the same room. Tonight, John was seated directly opposite him, and so they could not converse with one another, though Tristan did not scruple to look over and admire John's appearance as often as he could.

As soon as the ladies had withdrawn, Danforth called for a box of very fine cigars to be offered to the gentleman at the table, and a bottle of excellent brandy to be poured. Penrith, who did not generally smoke, looked curiously into the box proffered by the footman. The tobacco had a rather appealing fragrance, but after due consideration, he declined. The meal had been very good, he had a pleasantly sated feeling, and he was thoroughly enjoying watching Acklebury across the table at his most civil and courteous. This was very courteous indeed, so courteous, Penrith thought, that Acklebury must be near the breaking point.

When the footman made his way to the opposite side of the table, Penrith smiled to see that Acklebury accepted a cigar. And what was this? He was receiving a rather large portion of brandy! Penrith put a careless elbow on the table and just watched, fascinated, as Acklebury expertly clipped one end from his cigar, moistened the other end with his lips, and then bent toward the lighted taper held by the footman, and drew upon the thing with hollowed cheeks, until the tip of it flared up and burnt bright red. Acklebury leant back in his chair with every appearance of satisfaction, and emitted a stream of smoke from between his lips. The heavy, pungent smell of tobacco filled the air. Acklebury caught Penrith looking at him, shrugged, and gave a sheepish grin.

"What is this I am hearing, Viscount, of works you are undertaking at your country house?" General Danforth boomed in his great voice, pulling Penrith's attention reluctantly from this new vision of John Acklebury. Several of the gentlemen at the table, Acklebury among them, turned interested gazes toward Penrith.

"I do not know what you may be hearing, General," Penrith said, wishing not to have this conversation and disguising his displeasure behind the rim of his own glass of cognac. He very much wished to keep Ravensworth out of the minds of society, and could not readily imagine how it had now entered into General Danforth's awareness.

"Oh, come now, sir. Carr told me that you had lately been north, and Mrs Danforth had a letter from her mama saying that--well, I do not know what it may have said, precisely, for who can hear what one's mother-in-law puts into a letter and remember it, eh? but she made sure that you were causing something to be done to one of your houses."

Penrith considered. "The old place is tumbling down," he answered finally. "I have not yet decided what to do with it. It is, I assure you, quite uninhabitable. My steward told me that unless I would instantly authorise some--" here he waved an airy hand "--some sort of repairs, the place would be quite beyond hope after another winter. I believe the term 'shoring up' figured in his letter."

Acklebury was regarding him in at least as much surprise as Penrith had felt a moment earlier upon witnessing Acklebury's familiarity with cigar-smoking. Penrith reflected that Acklebury had probably not seen him in his former character as the bored younger son, and attempted to convey by a covert look that Acklebury was to disregard it.

"Old houses! They might as well be great holes in the ground into which one may shovel as much gold as one pleases," General Danforth said. "Give me a stout, modern place any day of the week, and you may keep your interesting ancient abbeys and dank castles."

Penrith inclined his head as the other gentlemen around the table laughed. Highcliffe was no more than five years old, and everything in it was new and modern. The footman unobtrusively refilled Penrith's brandy glass, and he drank from it, feeling that he had successfully made the subject of Ravensworth so dull that no-one would broach it again.

The conversation turned soon enough from houses to horses, and thence to hunting, which activity was scheduled for the following day. The well-trained footmen in General Danforth's dining-room maintained the depth of the brandy in Penrith's glass so quietly that he was not quite sure how much he had drunk, but his head felt light, and he was obliged to concentrate rather more than usual upon the pronunciation of his words, for it would not do, by slurring them, to appear inebriated. That, Penrith told himself sternly, would not look well at all.

The talk around the table was growing rather loud and jovial. Mr Fearnley, on Penrith's left, was holding forth on hunting-dogs, a subject normally near to Penrith's heart, but his eyes kept slipping to where Acklebury sat opposite, his face partially obscured by a branch of candles. Acklebury held his cigar between the first two fingers of his right hand and drew upon it from time to time. Sir John Bertram was at Acklebury's left. Once or twice, Acklebury caught Penrith's eye. By not the smallest sign did he betray anything but the most bland and complete civility, so that Penrith began almost to believe that he found the conversation of a very elderly and infirm gentleman deeply interesting.

Danforth rose, and most of the other gentlemen at the table automatically did the same. Penrith followed suit a little late, but, he told himself, only because Acklebury was distracting him in a most disobliging way.

"I propose that we go outdoors!" General Danforth cried in his stentorian voice. "Let us take our brandy and our cigars, and escape this place before the ladies make us go in and play lottery-tickets."

To judge from the alacrity with which nearly everyone at the table approved this notion, it was the finest plan of battle General Danforth had ever devised. Penrith could find no fault with it himself, apart from its general impropriety, and he felt sure that Lizzie would not disapprove, for her husband was unfit for the drawing room at the best of times, and more so under the influence of drink.

The footmen opened the glass doors that gave from the dining hall onto the garden, and the gentlemen made their way out into the mild June night. The air was soft and smelt of earth, and grass, with an overlay of tobacco smoke as the gentlemen moved out onto the lawn. Penrith caught up to Acklebury, who still held his cigar. Acklebury, in a low, confidential tone, said, "I do not think the ladies will be very happy with us."

Danforth's excellent brandy seemed to have removed some of the more polite circumlocutions from Penrith's immediate reach, for all he could find to say was, "Do you care?" Acklebury regarded him side-wise for a moment and then said, "Not very much, no." He burst into a laugh.

"You are rather disguised, I perceive," Penrith said.

"I am nothing of the kind, Prenrith!" Acklebury exclaimed. "Or, not so much that I cannot see that you are drunker."

"Do you think so?"

"Gentlemen!" Danforth bellowed, preventing Acklebury from answering this pressing question. "I propose a game of bowls."

Acklebury leant rather closer to Penrith than he usually did, and said, "It is dark," as if disclosing an important secret. Penrith could smell smoke and brandy, and beneath these, a trace of Eau de Cologne that Penrith had never known him to use before.

It was, unarguably, dark. The night was moonless, and the bedewed lawns of Highcliffe were illuminated only by the candlelight coming from the windows of the dining room and the drawing room. Seven of the gentlemen fanned out across the grass, some attempting to lay out a field of play, one hunting for the bowls. The eighth, the frail Sir John Bertram, hobbled across the grounds to sit in an armchair carried outdoors for his comfort by a pair of footmen.

A propos of nothing, Penrith said, "I am very glad you are here, Acklebury." He happened to stumble just at that moment because one of Danforth's damned poorly-laid flagstones presented an uneven edge to his evening pump. He staggered into Acklebury.

"Why is that?" Acklebury asked, steadying him with a hand to his shoulder. "So that I might prevent you from falling down?"

"Well, that is very helpful. But no! Because there is no other man here below a century old! And I am not so bosky that I do not know sarcasm when I hear it, Ecco Labri," Penrith replied, drawing himself up. This play upon Acklebury's name and face delighted him so much that he fell to laughing and could not readily stop. A glance at Acklebury's expression, which was annoyed and pleased in equal measure, only made him laugh more. "Ecco Labri!" he repeated.

"I will forever regret telling you that story, won't I?" Acklebury sighed. Penrith was about to make this clever pun more generally known to the other gentlemen when Acklebury took hold of his upper arm and pulled him down far enough that he might speak directly into Penrith's ear. "Pray shut up, my lord," he said. The buzzing sensation created by the proximity of Acklebury's lips to his ear tickled.

"I am a viscount," Viscount Penrith informed Mr Acklebury, attempting to wipe his ear upon his raised shoulder and having little success. "You cannot tell me to shut up." Mr Acklebury eyed him and made a sound very much like a snort, then stuck his cigar back into his mouth.

"Let me try that." Penrith moved as if to take the cigar from him.

Acklebury fended him off with a slapping motion that connected with nothing. "Get your own cigar, you great...viscount."

Penrith snatched the cigar anyway and put it between his lips. It was soggy, and rather hot, and terribly foul-tasting. "Dear God!" he cried, "That is disgusting!"

"Then pray, give it back," Acklebury said. Penrith held it at the uttermost limit of his arm's reach, which, he reflected with some satisfaction, was farther than Acklebury's. Acklebury grabbed for it nevertheless, stretching himself out and jumping. Penrith leapt backwards, but he was a moment late, and Acklebury collided with him, chest to chest, his head knocking Penrith's chin back and making his teeth clack together.

They both fell. The disgusting cigar, Penrith perceived rather vaguely as his back came into contact with the damp grass, flew from his fingers. Penrith felt his breath leave his lungs forcibly as Acklebury's full and considerable weight came down upon him. Acklebury, still reaching for the cigar, was apparently unaware of the absurdity of his position. It was a moment before Penrith could draw breath and push him off, but he managed at last, causing Acklebury to roll onto his back, where he lay looking up at the sky.

"Things are spinning a bit," Acklebury said, a little out of breath.

"When things begin to spin, you are going to vomit," Penrith replied, scrambling to his feet and searching in the lawn for his fallen glass. "If you are going to vomit, do so over there somewhere. I believe I saw some convenient bushes."

"I am not going to vomit." Acklebury did not move to stand, but looked up at him from his supine position upon the lawn, a wounded expression animating his features. "You threw away my cigar!" he cried. Penrith offered Acklebury a hand, and Acklebury grasped it, pulling himself to his feet. "It was the only thing making my evening here tolerable. I cannot believe that you have taken it from me."

Penrith very nearly let him fall back to the ground at this. "I beg your pardon!" he said, affronted. "Is my society so intolerable, then, that you must put a large roll of dried leaves between your lips--rather smelly ones, if I may make so bold as to point out--the leaves are smelly, not your lips--and light it on fire to relieve the pain of your boredom?"

Acklebury looked at him seriously. "Oh, Penrith," he said. He seemed to lose the thread of this thought for a moment, and began again. "Oh, Penrith. You were not seated between--" he lowered his voice and looked ostentatiously over first one shoulder, then the other "--between Mr Markwell and Sir John Bertram. Therefore I can say with great certainty that you--" here Mr Acklebury had to pause and cover a small hiccough with his fist, "--that you do not know what boredom is. I was never so glad to see a cigar in my life, for I was ready to light something on fire in any case."

"Do you mean to say that Mr John Acklebury, son of the Reverend Doctor George Acklebury--wait a moment. I must get this stone out of my shoe. Please hold this, sir." He handed Acklebury his glass. Using Acklebury's shoulder as a prop, he attempted to remove his pump. "You are a very good--what is the word for what one leans upon?"

"Post?" Acklebury supplied.

"No! No! Not a post. You are not a post, John. A pillar, perhaps. Of strength. Yes, that is it! You are a very good friend." Penrith got his shoe off at last and turned it over. "There! I have you, little wretch!" he cried as the pebble fell out. "What?" he asked. "Why do you look at me so?"

"It--it does not signify," John said. "I shall continue my story of boredom now."

"Do try not to bore me with it, will you? You know I am easily bored."

"Well, I was seated next to Sir John, and Sir John--" Acklebury's face creased into a broad, almost helpless smile and he gave in to a gale of laughter. Penrith had never seen him this way, and could not but laugh with him, waiting to hear what had amused him so. Recovering himself momentarily, Acklebury went on, "Do you know, Penrith, that the great-crested grebe is to be seen hereabouts in January?" Acklebury appeared ready to lose himself once again to laughter. "Grebe!" he said, in a high, quavering voice so like Sir John's that Penrith glanced over his own shoulder lest the old fellow were nearby to be offended.

"You did not know that, I wager," Acklebury went on in his own voice, "for I certainly did not. Nor did I know that--let me see--Sir John was able to espy a godwit when last he ventured out upon a bird-watching expedition." Acklebury turned and looked up into Penrith's face, his head tilted to one side. Once again in the unsteady and high pitched voice of a very old gentleman, he said, "I astonish you, I can see that I do, sir! Well, then, imagine my astonishment when I learnt that Lady Bertram, upon the same expedition, spotted no fewer than ten tits. Ten tits, sir!"

Penrith exploded in laughter. John very nearly had tears coming down his cheeks, and he had to lean forward, resting his hands upon his thighs for a moment, to catch his breath.

"So you see, Penrith," Acklebury said when he had recovered his composure somewhat, "that my cigar was a solace to me." He slung his arm suddenly across Penrith's shoulders. "But it does not signify." He patted Penrith upon the chest with the hand that still managed to be clutching his glass. "Now that we no longer have a dinner-table between us, we may amuse each other." Acklebury tried to locate two or three more drops at the bottom of his glass. As he did so, his other hand slipped from Penrith's shoulder and came to rest on the back of his neck. Acklebury seemed unaware of the intimacy--indeed, the appearance of impropriety--in the position of his hand, and Penrith found that he lacked the will just then to draw away, though he knew he ought to.

''Where is the footman with the brandy?" Acklebury asked, looking around.

Most of the General's servants were, just at this present, occupied with bringing lighted torches out to the lawn so that the General and his guests might enjoy a game of lawn bowls at eleven o'clock on a June night. One poor young fellow, Penrith noted, was scurrying from guest to guest with the brandy bottle. Acklebury's hand left Penrith's neck and instead took hold of his glass. "I shall get us more drink," he announced, and strode, not necessarily in a perfectly straight line, toward the servant.

Penrith followed, feeling very strongly that he ought not to leave Acklebury alone.

"Lord Penrith!" Mr Carr called out. "You and Mr Acklebury must take opposite sides, for you are the youngest and fittest among us, and to have you both on the same side would be very unfair."

"But we are also the boskiest," Acklebury muttered for Penrith's ears only.

Penrith looked at the other gentlemen. "No, I do not think so," he said.

"Well, I am certainly rather drunk. Do you suppose I shall regret it in the morning? I have on other occasions."

"Oh, decidedly. Definitively. Most certainly."

With a glass of brandy in one hand and a black lawn-bowl in the other, Mr Carr gestured them apart. "Do not worry, my lord. Your friend may safely cross the lawn to our side without you!" Penrith realised that he had been guiding Acklebury with a hand to the small of his back, and was indeed as loath to let go as Carr seemed to surmise.

Acklebury turned to him, took a drink from his glass and said, "Yes, Penrith. You threw away my cigar. I shall speak to you about that again later." He laughed and walked off with Carr.

Lawn bowls, be there never so many torches held aloft by never so many footmen, cannot be made into a suitable pastime for seven gentlemen in various stages of inebriation on a moonless night in June, though in this instance, enough hilarity was to be discovered in attempting it--and in watching Mr Acklebury attempt it--that Viscount Penrith was far more amused than he might have been by playing such a dull game under more ordinary circumstances.

It was not very long before one or two of the ladies ventured to the drawing-room window, undoubtedly alerted by the gentlemen's shouts as the bowls rolled very wide and more than one gentleman fell to the lawn. Their pretty gowns and pretty curls, their smiles and graceful gestures, looked very fetching, Penrith thought, behind the window-glass.

"They are like a picture," he said to no-one in particular. He thought he preferred them that way, all in all.

"That elegant lady with the long neck--what is her name?" Acklebury said to Penrith as they passed each other on the field of play, "is watching you."

"Who? Oh, Miss Swan?"

"That is not her name!" John said, looking very scandalised.

"It could be," Penrith pointed out. "It ought to be!"

Acklebury said, "I am sure she is filled with admiration for your--" Penrith staggered a little into him once again "--your balance," Acklebury finished, placing steadying hands upon his shoulders, where they lingered long enough that Penrith began to feel the heat of them through the black superfine wool of his coat. "And your tailor," Acklebury added with an outward, brushing motion. "She is admiring you, in any case."

"My lord! Mr Acklebury!" General Danforth called. "Do we play?"

Acklebury waved at Danforth and made to return to his side.

"The ladies like the cut of your jib, sir!" came the thin, high voice of Sir John Bertram as Acklebury walked away. Acklebury turned to him, clearly embarrassed, and managed a half-bow to go with his laugh. Sir John then reached a wizened hand from under the shawl he had about his shoulders, and plucked Penrith's sleeve. "And the ladies are not the only ones," Sir John added in a much softer voice.

Penrith slowly turned his gaze from Acklebury's retreating form to Sir John. He met his bright, beady eyes for a long moment. Sir John gave him a knowing, almost fraternal smile that seemed to span the gulf of the fifty years that lay between them. "You would do well to take up bird-watching, young man."

Penrith's wits were not so dulled with drink that comprehension did not finally dawn. After a long moment, he forced himself to turn toward the drawing room window. He gave a smile and a sketchy bow to Miss Lareton and the other ladies who stood there.

"You see?" Sir John piped with a little nod of his head. "It is not so difficult."

Chapter Text

Hampshire, May, 1818

It surprised no-one when, on the following day, the gentlemen set out to shoot birds in less than enthusiastic condition. Acklebury awoke with a ferocious head, and only the sensibility of what was expected of him as General Danforth's guest--and the prospect of being alone in a house full of ladies--prevented him from begging to be excused from the day's sport. Marchbanks silently provided his master with a cup of strong coffee upon rousing him unhappily from a sleep during which confused dreams of bird-watching and bird-hunting succeeded one another in his brain. The coffee seemed to cut through the thick, foul taste in his mouth, and by the time Marchbanks had finished shaving him, Acklebury was feeling at least able to speak.

He found Penrith in the breakfast parlour, looking rather bleary-eyed but as fashionably turned out as he usually was. "Cooper actually scolded me for looking very bad," he said to Acklebury without preamble. "You look rather well, all in all."

"I do not believe I drank as much as you did," Acklebury muttered. "But Marchbanks did not seem pleased with me. Did I shame myself very badly last night, do you think?"

"Not in the slightest," Penrith said. "Did I?"

"I do not think so." Acklebury could not remember the evening in clear detail, but he did not find anything in his memory to make him think either of them owed any apology to their host, or to one another. "I believe I fell on you at one point."

"Yes, but only for a moment."

Acklebury nodded. They reached for the coffee-pot at the same moment, their hands colliding. Penrith withdrew politely and said, "Please," whereupon Acklebury poured coffee into two cups and handed one to Penrith. They sat at the breakfast table in silence as first one gentleman then another made his way into the room in varying states of apparent discomfort.

When a quantity of eggs and kippers and toast and coffee had been consumed, General Danforth proposed that they go forth. The dogs could be heard baying outdoors, the sun was up, and if there was to be hunting, it must happen very soon.

As Mr Acklebury had little experience with firearms, he elected to treat the morning's hunt as an opportunity for a long country walk. The land around Highcliffe was green and gently rolling, the air mild. All was fresh and fragrant with the promise of a fine June day.

The ache in his head began to wane as they struck out from Highcliffe in the direction of the ancient hill fortification of Danebury, and he took as much delight as the prior night's excesses allowed to see Penrith in the centre of a circle of hunting-dogs, all of whom seemed to view his lordship as their natural leader. Danforth, who was their master in name but not, apparently, in fact today, looked on in some chagrin, and was heard to comment to his friend Mr Carr that he did not think very highly of this disloyalty of the canine breed.

The General's overworked footmen were once again called upon to perform extraordinary duty, this morning as beaters and loaders. After the first few birds emerged from the low brush in response to the approach of men wielding sticks, and a few shots had been fired, all of them wide, Acklebury lost interest in the proceedings except inasmuch as a hunting scene might provide the subject matter of a painting. Penrith's voice, shouting his name from a hundred yards away, drew him out of his contemplation of the proper colour in which to render the shadows among the bushes, and he hastened to approach, the better to hear what Penrith wanted to say to him.

Fearnley, Markwell and Harcourt were farther up the side of Danebury Hill, a footman going ahead of them--rather bravely, Acklebury thought, considering that all those gentlemen were somewhat the worse for last night's brandy, and all were carrying firearms--while their host, General Danforth, and Mr Carr, being older and stouter, were still behind. Penrith was alone on the hillside, but for the company of the hunting dogs, and he smiled broadly as Acklebury approached.

"It is a fine day," Penrith said, his shotgun perched upon one shoulder. "I believe we may have some sport, and quail for dinner tonight."

Acklebury heard a shot ring out and started, turning to see whence it had come. He saw Danforth standing, stock still and in apparent shock, staring at his firearm, forty or fifty yards down the hillside. He heard a gasp from Penrith, and suddenly Penrith was on his knees, and then down on the damp ground, and blood was blooming on the front of his shirt.

"My God!" Acklebury cried. "Penrith!"

Penrith put a hand to his chest and drew it away bloody. He looked at it, puzzled, and said, "I am shot." Penrith's head fell back, his eyes closed.

Acklebury dropped to the grass and grabbed Penrith's lapels, hauling his inert form up to rest on his knees. "Penrith? Penrith? No!" he said frantically. "No, no, no, no!"

When Penrith's hand once again came up, Acklebury nearly wept with relief. "Oh, thank God. Do not move. It will be all right, Penrith. Be still. All will be well." He tore off his coat and pressed a wadded section of it to the place high on Penrith's chest from which the blood was issuing. From the edge of his vision he could see General Danforth and Carr hastening up the slope toward them. Penrith's bloody hand touched Acklebury's face, and Acklebury took hold of it in his own. "It will be well," he said. "Do not move. Do not move. Be still. Everything will be well." Penrith tried to raise his head. Acklebury bent close, and pressed his lips to Penrith's forehead, to his hair, to his cheek. "Be still," he whispered. "All will be well."

Penrith slumped in his arms and did not move. "Penrith!" Acklebury cried, looking wildly around. Penrith gave a faint moan.

General Danforth rushed up in a state of great agitation, alternately calling for help in his great booming voice and saying in bewildered tones, "Damn me, my lord, the thing went off without warning," and, "I do not know how--I am generally accounted a good shot," and, "All will be done to make you easy, my lord."

Acklebury, beside himself with fear, kneeling upon the muddy earth, supported Penrith's head and shoulders. He could not stop himself from saying, "Be strong, Penrith. You must be strong. Please, Penrith." He saw Mr Carr and Major Harcourt exchange a look of distaste, before Carr ordered one of the footmen to fetch a doctor. The young man went off at a dead run in the direction of the house as the other gentlemen rushed downhill toward this chaotic scene.

"Dear God, do not let him die," Acklebury whispered. "Please, Penrith. Stay with me. Everything will be well." He knew that he was bending too close. He had some idea that his anguish was greater than that of the other gentlemen present, possibly excepting General Danforth, and that in holding Penrith in his arms and speaking to him so, he was behaving improperly. He did not care. His own coat, so heedlessly doffed, was becoming soaked with Penrith's blood. Penrith was breathing with difficulty, and he did not move.

"We must get him to the house," Mr Carr said. "It will take at least two of us to support him. Come, Acklebury, you must take his right side."

Acklebury nodded and looked at Penrith's pale face. "Penrith?" he said quietly. When Penrith did not respond, he said in more forceful tones, "My lord! Please--you need to listen to me. We must lift you now and get you down to the house."

Penrith's head rolled to one side and he moaned softly. "John!" he said, his eyes fluttering open for a moment. "Do you know, it is rather painful, being shot."

"I know. But you--you are very strong. The doctor has been sent for."

"Well, I think he had better bring laudanum."

"I am sure that he will do so."

"And you will stay?"

Acklebury became keenly aware that the other gentlemen--Carr, and General Danforth, and Harcourt, and Fearnley--were all listening to this exchange. "Yes, my lord. Of course I will, if you wish it," he said.

Penrith cried out in pain only once as they tried to get him to his feet. Acklebury would not cede his place supporting the bulk of Penrith's weight to any of the other gentlemen, or to the servants who soon came running to help. In the end, a stout young footman and Acklebury half-carried his lordship back down to Highcliffe and into the drawing-room, and Penrith, whose awareness seemed to come and go, bore the discomfort stoically enough. If he clung to Acklebury's waist with his uninjured arm, and buried a groan of pain in Acklebury's shoulder once or twice; if he asked more than once for John's assurance that he would not leave him here, Acklebury reasoned that the footman would not refine too much upon it.

Among the servants gathered at the door, ready to assist, or gape, as the situation demanded, was Penrith's man Cooper. He gave in to his emotions so far as to cover his mouth with his hand, gasp, and say, "Oh, my lord!" before recovering himself and looking to Mr Acklebury. "What may I do, sir?" he asked Acklebury. Acklebury had not the first idea, but he felt some sympathy for the man, who was, in a very real way, Penrith's closest companion. "His lordship will require fresh clothes a little later," Acklebury said. "Once the physician has come and done his work, he will not want to be seen in such a state. I am afraid you will have your hands very full for a time, Cooper."

Gratification erased some small measure of the anxiety from Cooper's face, and when he followed his master into the drawing room, no-one objected. A man's valet, after all, must be accorded rights that others did not have.

It was Miss Lareton, however, who surprised them all by taking charge of matters once Penrith had been settled upon a couch in the drawing room. Elizabeth Danforth was too horrified at the sight of her old friend so badly injured to be of any immediate use. Mrs Harcourt swooned to perceive so much blood and promptly left the room under the care of her friend Mrs Carr. Miss Lareton calmly told the housekeeper to bring supplies, and asked to be assured that someone had already been dispatched to bring the physician. When the housekeeper arrived with bandages and hot water, Miss Lareton, heedless of her gown, knelt beside the couch and gently removed John's ruined coat from the wound. Cooper took it reverently from her hands, as if it had sacrificed its life for his gentleman. She did not pale to see the blood that soaked Viscount Penrith's clothes, and did not hesitate to press a thick pad of white cotton cloth upon the wound, even though it meant placing her hand under his lordship's shirt.

Acklebury, his anxiety stretching every resource to its uttermost limit, could manage no more than to remain silent. He was jealous of the office of comforting Penrith, and wished Miss Lareton were not there. He fixed his eyes upon Penrith's face and watched anxiously for any sign of increased pain, listened for any change in his breathing, and did his best to disregard the young lady altogether.

"Mr Acklebury," she said, rising from her kneeling position next to the couch. "I wonder if you would--" she wavered slightly, "--would just hold this compress in place. His lordship must be prevented from bleed--" Here Miss Lareton's knees appeared to give way beneath her and she nearly fell. Acklebury's lifelong habits of civility came to the fore and he leapt to his feet to assist the lady. She slumped heavily against him for the barest instant, then seemed to recover herself. Penrith tried to speak, but only moaned weakly.

"I--I thank you, Mr Acklebury. I shall just sit a moment. I am well. Please, his lordship needs you more than I do."

The parlourmaid, who had been hovering nearby, hastened forward to assist Miss Lareton into a chair. Acklebury knelt at once next to Penrith, and pressed the folds of cloth firmly against his shoulder, sparing a glance for Miss Lareton to be sure she was in no more danger of fainting. The parlourmaid was chafing her wrists and saying, "Come away, Miss, please. I will call your maid."

"Miss Lareton," Acklebury said when she protested at being made to leave the room. "You have acted very admirably, and I do not doubt that your calm good sense has helped save Lord Penrith's life. You are overwrought. Please, allow the maid to attend to you. I assure you, I will not leave his side until the physician comes." She met his eyes for a long moment, then gave a slight nod. With the solicitous help of the parlourmaid, she rose from her chair and allowed herself to be escorted away.

No more had the doors been closed behind her than General Danforth came in, trailed by Fearnley, Harcourt and Carr. Old Sir John Bertram shuffled in after them. Danforth was still white-faced and clearly shocked at what he had done. "Will he--?" he managed to ask before collapsing into the chair that Miss Lareton had just vacated.

Acklebury, intent upon Penrith's face and upon the task of staunching the flow of blood without causing him any more pain than he must, did not look up, but only wondered if he was expected to offer solace to the general now as well. "I do not know," he said. "When will the physician be here?"

Harcourt spoke. "We sent the young groom on the fastest horse in the stables. The village is not far. The doctor will be here within the hour, I should think." He did not seem as deeply shaken as General Danforth. He came closer. "Saw a dozen wounds like it in the Peninsula," he commented. "Sawbones can get the bullet out, stitch him up. Penrith hasn't bled to death yet, so he probably won't, and it don't appear to have hit the lung. Infection. That's your worry with this sort of thing. Could be worse. Could be very much worse."

Acklebury took a strange comfort in Harcourt's words, grim though they were. "Did you hear, Penrith?" he said quietly. "Mr Harcourt, who has had experience of such things in the wars, says you will not die tonight. And since no infection would have the effrontery to inconvenience you, you will soon be well."

Penrith managed a faint smile, though he did not open his eyes.

Sir John, whose presence Acklebury had forgotten, hobbled forward upon his walking-stick. He favoured Acklebury with a piercing glance, then bent with difficulty toward Penrith and said, "Your friend is pretty steadfast, my lord. Pretty steadfast." He straightened and said to the room in general, though no-one else paid him very much mind, "I had such a friend in my youth." Acklebury stared at him. For a brief instant, the old gentleman's lined face was a mask of sorrow. Then it smoothed again into the bland calm of great age, and he slowly left the room. "Come, General. Major Harcourt. Mr Carr. Mr Fearnley. We must see to the ladies, who are very distressed. There is no more we can do here. Young Acklebury will see to his friend."

Penrith's breathing seemed calmer, his bleeding a little less, when Acklebury dared to lift the compress again. Only Cooper now remained in the room with them, and he stepped forward with alacrity when Acklebury indicated that a fresh compress was needed. Penrith clutched at Acklebury's hand. "Is it very bad?" he asked.

"You have been shot. That must always be very bad," Acklebury replied, trying for a cajoling tone. "But the bleeding has lessened now, and I do not doubt that before a day or two has passed, you will be much better, and poor General Danforth will continue very ill."

"Lizzie will never forgive him for shooting me," Penrith whispered.

"Oh, eventually I think she will. She will not, however, soon forgive you for bleeding all over her upholstery. That, I am afraid, is quite unforgivable. Thank God you have now stopped doing so."

Penrith seemed to have not the energy to smile, and he closed his eyes again. "Where has Miss Lareton gone?" he asked.

Acklebury gathered himself and said, "She was very brave, and showed a good deal more calmness than anyone else. She has gone off to rest. I--" he swallowed and forced himself to go on. "--I will ask her to come back to you if you wish it."

"No, John. I only want to thank her. That is all." Penrith's eyes fell shut again and his fingers closed weakly around Acklebury's.

Acklebury stayed when the doctor came. He helped Penrith drink the laudanum that the doctor supplied. He watched, unflinching, as the doctor probed into the wounds. He allowed Penrith to clutch his hand until the bones there felt very nearly broken, and, with Cooper, pressed Penrith down upon the couch when he would otherwise have arched up in pain. He did not look away when the doctor extracted first one ball of shot, then a second, and a third, and dropped each, bloody and clanking, into a dish. He wiped the sweat away from Penrith's forehead and jaw as the doctor stitched the holes closed, and he helped lift Penrith's unresisting form so that bandaging could be wound around his chest. He listened intently to the instructions the doctor gave to Cooper for his lordship's care in the coming days. When Penrith, heavily drugged with poppy and scarcely conscious at all, was carried up the stairs and to his bedroom, Acklebury followed.

When at last the doctor had left; when Cooper had gone belowstairs to prepare all that the doctor had instructed him to do; when Mrs Danforth had come to see to her injured guest and had conveyed Miss Lareton's anxious solicitude for his lordship's speedy recovery, and gone away again, Acklebury sat in the armchair next to Penrith's bed and realised that his hands were shaking.

I must...he thought. I must not.... His thoughts would not come into order. He remained next to Penrith's bed, unmoving and exhausted, until his hands had settled and the images in his memory had sorted themselves into a narrative of which he could make some sense. In one version of this narrative, General Danforth had accidentally shot Viscount Penrith in the chest and shoulder, and only their having been separated by a distance slightly greater than the firearm's effective range had spared Penrith's life. Acklebury had been at hand to offer comfort, and to help carry Penrith to the house. General Danforth would make everything right, as best he could, by sending his other guests home, and providing a surgeon's care, and sending for whatever or whomever his lordship might require in the difficult days to come.

In the other version of the story, the version he could scarcely bear to recall, Acklebury had so far forgotten himself in his anguish as to kiss Penrith's face, and show his anguish, and refuse to leave Penrith's side as if he had some claim to that office that he could not possibly have. In so doing, he had exposed to anyone with eyes to see those sentiments that he had up to now concealed even from himself, feelings that would be lauded by all the world if only their object were another.

Acklebury rose at last in the gathering dusk, agitated and torn. He wanted to run from this place that must forever live as the scene of his undoing, but he had promised Penrith that he would stay. He decided to seek refuge in his own room, and trust that Mrs Danforth would forgive him if he did not come down to dinner.

Cooper had taken a chair in the corridor, and leapt up as Acklebury emerged. "He is sleeping as peacefully as can be expected," Acklebury told him. "Go to him. I am only going to rest for a short time. If he calls for me, I will be just across the corridor. Marchbanks will fetch me."

The turmoil of his heart, the exertions of the day, the want of sleep from the previous night, and a great need to see and speak to no-one, all combined to make Mr Acklebury sleep for many hours. No alarm came in the night, and when he awoke to daylight, as Marchbanks quietly pulled the curtains back, he felt rested, at least, if not at peace.

"How is he?" he asked, before he had even sat up in bed.

"Feverish," Marchbanks replied.

Acklebury dressed hurriedly and went directly to Penrith's room. Penrith was propped up on pillows, the better to discourage any further bleeding, and he was awake. His cheeks burned red and his eyes were overbright. Cooper was putting away his lordship's shaving things, and Acklebury could not but note that he had also combed his lordship's hair and tied it neatly back. Penrith was wearing a fresh white night-shirt and, to judge from the mound of bandage material in the basin that Cooper was preparing to carry out of the room, his dressings had already been changed. Acklebury gave Cooper a grateful half-smile and a nod.

"He became feverish in the night, sir," Cooper told him quietly. "He spoke your name once or twice, and I called upon Mr Marchbanks to bring you, but he deemed it best that you sleep." Cooper's voice evinced clear disapproval of this decision.

"The better that I may sit with him today while you take some much needed rest. Have you been up all night?"

"Of course, sir," Cooper replied, affronted.

"He is lucky to have you, Cooper."

The valet bowed.

Penrith was not awake, nor yet quite asleep, when Acklebury went to sit with him. He tossed his head against the pillows and seemed to be in considerable discomfort. Upon the doctor's instructions, Acklebury made him drink a little laudanum for the pain of his wounds, and this seemed to give him some relief. He opened his eyes and said, "John," and then closed them again.

Acklebury tried to read. A familiar book lying upon Penrith's bedside table captured his attention for a few moments, and he began reading aloud at the page marked with a ribbon.

"The monarch of the place, a magnificent lion, stood on a small rocky ledge, about halfway up one of the surrounding hills. He turned his face steadily towards us as we marched slowly past. My musket was at the ready, for I concluded that he was meditating an attack; but my companions intimated that if we left him alone, he would keep his distance and not molest us. Once I gave the long-drawn death halloo of the chase, but this evoked the natives' alarm and they gathered round me to make me stop; I found that I had succeeded in frightening them, without having had the least effect upon the lion but the slow lashing with his tail of his yellow sides--"

"John?"

Acklebury replaced the ribbon and looked up. Penrith was regarding him with bright, fevered eyes.

"Penrith! What do you require?"

"I am rather thirsty."

Acklebury hastened to pour out a glass of water and help Penrith to drink it. He could not help observing that Penrith's skin was very hot. "You will soon be easier, Penrith. You have a fever. Are you in much pain?"

"It is--" Penrith closed his eyes in a grimace as he lay back against the pillows once more. "It is not too bad."

"I have given you all the laudanum you may have for another little while. I am sorry I cannot do more."

"Stay awhile and talk to me. I am very bored."

Acklebury smiled. "I was reading to you from Travels to the South of Abyssinia, but you interrupted me."

"Were you? I am sorry. I did not realise. Do go on."

He took up the book again and read a page or two, becoming rather engrossed in the descriptions of the animals Mr Bruce saw as he travelled into east Africa, and did not look up at Penrith for several minutes. When he did, Penrith had once again lapsed into that state of half-waking delirium in which he began to turn his head from side to side uncomfortably.

"David," he said, and Acklebury set the book down. "David, do not tell Mama that I know. He approached me in Vienna. Said he knew Mama. Charles saw it first...look just like him. No-one told me, David. I guessed. All makes sense..." Penrith gave a weak laugh, his eyes closed. "It is no wonder Father hates me. Do not tell him I am ill, David. He will think me weak."

Shocked at the purport of these fevered words, Acklebury struggled to find a soothing answer. "Do not worry--Tristan," he said. "David will not say anything you do not wish him to say." Penrith's expression became at once calmer. Acklebury suddenly realised that Penrith's family must be notified of his accident, and it was a moment before he was able to assure himself that of course Mrs Danforth, being a friend of the Jarrett family, would have undertaken this office already.

There was a soft tap at the door, and the housekeeper came in bearing a pitcher and several towels. She curtsied to Acklebury. "Mr Caselton said that if his lordship was to become feverish, we was to bathe his forehead and keep him as cool as we might."

Acklebury stepped away and watched carefully as she set about pressing a cool, damp cloth to Penrith's forehead and his cheeks. The need he felt to perform this duty in her stead was so strong that he thought he must leave the room or betray himself further. The housekeeper seemed to think that his sudden restiveness was a desire to be quit of his sickroom duty, for she turned to him and said, "I will watch his lordship a while, sir, if you wish. Mr Cooper, his valet, said you was willing to stay by your friend, and I am sure that is very good of you, sir, but you must eat."

Acklebury realised that he was very hungry.

"Go along, sir," she said. "I will stay. I have tended one or two sick young people in my time. His lordship will be in good hands with me, sir."

As Acklebury was leaving the room, Penrith said in clear tones, "John! Do not go yet. There are one or two things I would like to say to you." Acklebury came back to his bedside. He was not really awake, and the strong clarity of his voice was a result of his delirium and not from any sudden improvement in his state.

"Yes, my lord?" Acklebury said, very mindful of the housekeeper's presence.

"It seems I must be shot to bring you to my bed. If I had known, I would have arranged to be shot sooner."

Acklebury felt a flush rising to his own face. The housekeeper's hand stopped in the midst of carrying the damp cloth from Penrith's forehead back to the basin. Then she gave an uncomfortable little half-laugh and said, "There now, sir. What odd things people do say in a fever."

Acklebury remembered his duty with difficulty. "My lord," he said in a voice that he could scarcely trust over the sudden pounding of his heart, "Do not say such things. No-one wishes you to have been shot at all, and I am, of course, always at your service." Desperate to quit the room before Penrith could find something more damaging to say, Acklebury said, "I must leave you for short time, my lord."

Penrith regarded him through eyes now barely open at all, though their fevered glittering was plainly discernible. He nodded his head rather too many times, and Acklebury once again made to leave. He was closing the door when he heard Penrith say to the housekeeper, "He is a very well-looking fellow, is Mr Acklebury," and that good woman replying, "Yes, my lord. There, my lord."

Acklebury sought out Mrs Danforth, and found her reclining in the morning room.

"I do not generally succumb to the vapours," she said, rising. "Forgive me, Mr Acklebury. You see me rather low. Please, come in. Be seated. I will ring for some tea." She did this, her normally vivacious manner subdued.

"It is my intention to go away as soon as I am assured that his lordship is out of danger," Acklebury said. "I would not for the world continue to inflict myself upon your hospitality when you have so many calls upon your care and attention. You have been everything that is kind and generous."

"Oh good heavens, Mr Acklebury! My husband has shot my dearest old childhood friend! You have been willing to play nursemaid to him. It is I who owe you all my thanks and the most abject apologies." She sank once again to her long-chair. "I have written to Penrith's father, but I do not expect anything from that quarter." Here, she leant her head upon her hand, regarding him. "You look very shocked. Do you not know that Penrith and his father do not speak?"

"No, madam." He thought of Penrith's strange, fevered words. "I have never until this hour heard him say ten words about his family, except to express a great fondness for his late brother."

She gave him an enquiring look, but only said, "Well, his brother, at least, was kind to him."

There seemed little to say to this, so Acklebury replied only that he was glad Mrs Danforth had written to Earl Barringford.

"Last night, when you had left Penrith's side to take a few hours' sleep, and before he became fevered, I spent an hour with him. He was, of course, dosed with laudanum, and laudanum makes one so very imprecise and hazy, do you not find, Mr Acklebury?"

"I--I cannot say that I have ever had cause to use it, ma'am." He tensed himself against what she might say next.

"Penrith said any number of interesting things, but he was quite clear upon one point: that he wished you to stay."

"I see." Acklebury felt his heart sink. He did not know how much longer he could bear the strain of being at Highcliffe. Mrs Danforth was looking at him shrewdly.

"Of course, Miss Lareton would not be opposed to taking his nursing upon herself, but that would be quite out of the question, at least until he is able to come downstairs."

"No, of course, it would be most improper, but I--I am sorry that is the case, for she showed herself very competent and goodhearted yesterday, and it is clear that she--that she has his lordship's best interests at heart."

Mrs Danforth gave an unladylike laugh and said, "Like all young ladies of marriageable age, she has the best interests of herself and her family at heart."

Acklebury quite suddenly found himself at the limit of his civility. He rose. "I have promised Penrith that I would stay, and so of course I shall, at least until he is a little better and more himself. I left him the care of your housekeeper, who, I am sure, has very many other duties to perform, and so, if you will excuse me, Mrs Danforth, I shall go back up to him now."

Lord Penrith passed the remainder of the day and a part of the night in his delirium. Mr Caselton returned toward evening and, having examined the patient, declared himself hopeful, as his lordship was young and strong. Acklebury forced himself to go out of the house and walk in the garden while Penrith slept. The fresh air and evening breeze had the desired effect, clearing Acklebury's mind wonderfully; this, however, left him alone with thoughts that were nearly intolerable to him, and he soon came back indoors.

He was on the point of falling asleep in the chair next to Penrith's bed when Penrith suddenly said, "Do you know, John, I am extremely hungry!"

Acklebury opened his eyes. It was evident even in the light of a candle that Penrith was very much better, for he was making an effort to get out of bed. Exhausted and relieved, Acklebury let him try. Penrith very quickly sat on the bed again and lowered himself painfully back into the pillows.

"I shall have some food brought up for you," Acklebury said, rising from his chair to feel Penrith's forehead. It was cool and dry. In his relief, he allowed himself to lean closer, to press more fervently, than was proper, and Penrith looked up at him with all the impertinence that his weakened state allowed. John was nearly overpowered by a desire to bring his other hand up and caress Penrith's face, to bend and kiss him. Realising his danger, he drew away, and with some attempt at matter-of-factness, quickly said, "You have been in a fever for a day and a half. Have a little patience with yourself." Penrith sighed and nodded.

Acklebury went to the door and looked out. Cooper was drowsing in the chair just outside. "His lordship declares himself hungry and has just tried to rise," he said. "I believe his fever has broken."

Cooper's reply of, "Very good, sir" was everything that was proper, but his shoulders slumped in relief and he seemed to require a moment to collect himself, looking away down the hall. "I shall see that a tray is sent up right away."

Acklebury went back in, but did not sit down. "I must go," he said.

"I feel a very great deal better," Penrith replied. "Go along. I will see you in the morning."

"I--I mean that I must go from Highcliffe. I shall leave at first light. Now that you are out of the woods, I must go."

"What is the matter, John?"

Acklebury could not find it within himself to say that the matter was Penrith now calling him John; that he preferred it above all things; that everything he was feeling was contrary to his beliefs and his upbringing; that he could no longer stay to be tempted into a further exposure of his weakness. "We will, perhaps, speak of it at another time, when you are better," he said. "For now, I must ask you to allow me to go."

"Forgive me, John. I do not want you to stay against your will." Penrith's voice was peevish and hurt and rather childish.

Acklebury sighed. "Thank you," he said. "I am going to go home for a little while. I was supposed to do so in April. I have two new nieces to meet, and I have not seen my family in months. I am--only rather tired, Penrith. Mrs Danforth and Miss Lareton will bear you company until you are well enough to return to London."

Penrith gave an undignified snort at this prospect. "Must I tell you in plain terms that Miss Lareton's company is not what I want?"

Acklebury reflected that his desire to be reassured upon this point was of a piece with everything that was calamitous in his heart since coming to Highcliffe--no, since he had failed to hold Viscount Penrith's card in the candle flame on the seventeenth of March. "We will speak more of this, perhaps, later," he said. "I must go."

Penrith looked at him for a long moment then held out his hand. "Very well, John. Then I will say good-bye for the present."

Acklebury took the proffered hand. "Good-bye," he said. Everything in Penrith's face expressed puzzlement and hurt as Acklebury drew his hand away again and left the room.

Chapter Text

Winchester and London, June, 1818

When General Danforth heard of Mr Acklebury's intention of going to Winchester, he insisted upon offering the use of his carriage and coachman, and, indeed, seemed ready to offer Mr Acklebury the gift of a horse if it might hasten the departure of a guest who had shown himself to be so lost to all propriety as Mr Acklebury. In Danforth's manner as he made these offers, contempt was covered by all the guilt and confusion of a man who had through carelessness shot and very nearly killed a guest, and had Acklebury not been looking for it with a kind of dreadful fascination, he might not have seen it.

The general did not go so far as to let his unease with Acklebury make him entirely discourteous. He came out with his wife into the drive as Marchbanks was seeing to the disposition of Acklebury's luggage atop the carriage, and vouchsafed a stiff bow before turning and going back to the house. Acklebury was too weary to be affronted, or even to stand upon his pride and decline the offer. He had been prepared to make the journey on foot if he must, in order to absent himself from Penrith's sphere, and whatever Danforth thought of him, his carriage and coachman were a welcome boon.

Mrs Danforth looked over her shoulder at her retreating husband, scarcely bothering to hide her annoyance. When she held out her hands to Acklebury, her expression was kind. "Good-bye, Mr Acklebury. I hope we may see each other again in town."

"Goodbye, Mrs Danforth." Acklebury said. "You have been all that is generous to me. My mind is easy upon the subject of Lord Penrith's full recovery, and I know that he will be well looked after."

She took his hands in hers and said, "I am so sorry--well, I do not suppose there to be any great point in saying all that I am sorry for, but I hope you will believe me when I say that I have had great pleasure in your company. I shall be forever grateful for the service you rendered to us with your steadfastness when some of the rest of us were falling apart!" She shook her head, then went to her toes and kissed him on the cheek. "Goodbye," she said again.

The drive to Winchester, being a matter of but ten or a dozen miles, was quickly accomplished. Marchbanks rode on the box with the coachman, leaving Acklebury to his thoughts. These were not of a character to make him calm, but he was unable to stop himself from dwelling upon them: his terror in the moment he believed Penrith dead; the great surging of tenderness and affection that had caused him to behave so very improperly before so many people; the shameful heat of physical desire that had nearly overcome all of his scruples last night when Penrith's fever had broken. That which was realistic in John's nature forced him to concede that in Penrith's presence he was losing a long-fought battle; honesty forced him to acknowledge that Penrith had only ignited in him what was already there to be set alight.

As he attempted one last time to deny his own nature, he grew so miserable that he very nearly called out to the coachman to stop, that he might get out and walk, and thereby ease his spirits a little. When Winchester Cathedral came into view, John knew that must go as a last resort to that place of supplication which his father had always taught him must be his first: he would go to church and pray.

Acklebury informed the coachman of his wishes, and when the carriage came to a halt in Dame Alley outside the cathedral close, he descended and said, "Wait for me. I will not be very long." He strode across the close in a dreadful state of nervous agitation, and entered the great cathedral as if storming the gates of heaven.

Inside, he paused. The soaring vault overhead was pierced through with beams of bright summer sunlight, the great, echoing stone place dwarfing the small sounds of the respectfully whispering visitors and the footsteps of the sacristan who was attending to one of the tombs. The air within was cool and still, filled with the prayers of centuries, and John breathed it in gratefully. This wonderful place, at once awesome and comfortably familiar, eased his heart. It was very long, altogether too long, he thought, since he had last come into a church with so much intent. He made his way along the transept and to the Lady Chapel, daring to hope that the spirit of wisdom and peace might come upon him.

So thorough had been the destruction of the great stained glass windows of Winchester Cathedral by Cromwell's armies that no one afterwards had been able to reconstruct them, but the shards of coloured glass had been collected, pieced together in a new and chaotic pattern, and fitted into the windows once again. John took a seat. One of his earliest memories was of letting the parti-coloured rays of light play across his fingers under this very window. He had had a favourite shard, high up: the peaceful face of a lady saint who had reminded him of his mother. He looked up at the window now, and found the face again.

He bowed his head. "Almighty God," he whispered. "I know that this affection is hateful in your sight. I know that I must ask you to relieve me of it. I know that only with your divine help may I be saved from the weakness of my own flesh."

He fell to his knees and pressed his clasped hands to his forehead. "Forgive me, Father! For I do not even want what I know I must pray for. My corrupt body longs for what is wrong, and my mind is too weak to stop it. I am torn. Make me whole again, Father, I pray. Make me desire only what is right. 'Create in me a clean heart, O God!' Moderate this--this terrible love I feel into something acceptable in your sight. Take this craving and this anguish from me, make me calm again, oh Lord. Quiet my flesh. Please, dear God, make me want only what is good and what is right."

He knelt there, his eyes closed, his head bowed, his mouth open and trying for breaths that had no power to calm him. Peace did not come. There was no answer in the dusty, sanctified air of the cathedral. The presence of the Lord, which he had always felt in this place, seemed to have deserted it, and him. At last he opened his eyes and rose.

He gazed up at the reconstructed window of shards for a long moment, until a sort of hollow, calm acceptance came over him, then he turned and left the Lady Chapel, unshriven but no longer afraid. He passed out of the cathedral and across the close, and directed the waiting coachman to take him to his father's house.

***

It was not yet midday when he knocked at the door of his childhood home and was admitted, with surprise and delight, by Harriman, the housekeeper, and ushered into the morning room.

"Look who has come home, Madam!" she cried.

John's mother looked up from her embroidery. "John! We did not expect you! This is an agreeable surprise." She rose, graceful as always though moving perhaps with a little more stiffness than formerly, and John came forward to kiss her cheek. "Are you well? Is everything all right?"

"Yes, Mama, I'm perfectly well. I have been visiting friends not far from here--out near Longstock--and so I thought that before returning to London I would stop for a few days." He was vaguely surprised at his own omission of the circumstances that had made the party break up early. "It was wrong of me not to write and tell you. Do I come at a very busy time?"

Mrs Acklebury indicated her embroidery hoop with an ironical look. "As you see. I go to your sister every day, but she and her little babies are becoming settled now, and so I am not so occupied as I was a month ago."

"I am anxious to make the acquaintance of my nieces," John said. "I shall go visit her this afternoon, if you think it will not be inconvenient to her. I miss her very much." This was truer than he had realised, and he conceived a hope that his sister might offer more solace than he had lately found with God. "And where is my father today?"

"He is at Saint Cross. I do not look for him before dinner-time, but he will be very happy to see you."

He would not be so if he knew. Such was John's quickly-repressed thought. He felt a certain relief at the prospect of talking for a while to Meg before seeing his father.

An hour later, he knocked at the door of the house of the Reverend and Mrs Phillip Porterfield. His sister was clearly waiting for him, Miss Anne Porterfield in one arm and Miss Rebecca Porterfield in the other. "Where have you been, John?" Meg asked. "Harriman came to tell me that you had come home. I have been expecting you this half hour."

"Meg!" he cried, embracing all three of them at once. "It is wonderful to see you!"

He was introduced to his nieces, and found himself fascinated to look at their nearly identical little faces. It was a few moments before he began to discern, with his artist's eye, the very subtle differences between them, and their resemblance to their mama. He said all that was suitable about their loveliness, which Meg said must mean they took after their uncle John; and the intelligence evident in their eyes, which trait Meg was happy to take credit for, and she gave them into the care of the maid and begged her brother to drink a cup of tea with her and stay for a little coze.

They sat down together side by side on the couch in Meg's drawing-room, where one of her own water-colours, a pretty landscape, was framed upon the wall, and the chairs were upholstered in a pleasant shade of pale green, making the modest room very cheerful.

Meg looked at him for a long moment and then said, "You have changed, I think. I cannot decide whether you look well or ill."

"Thank you very much, Maggie!" John replied with a laugh.

"No--I beg your pardon, John. You look perfectly fit and healthy, surprisingly so for someone living in town. It is only that you seem different."

Curious and wary at once, John said, "Do I? In what regard?"

She scrutinised him a little longer. "You are not stouter, nor yet thinner. You look, I suppose, a little older than when I saw you last. Your clothes are very fine, so I believe that your portrait-painting is adding to your income, for Uncle Martin's annuity could not buy you such fine things."

"Oh! Do you like this coat?" John asked, looking down at it. "I bespoke it of a very good tailor and I am quite pleased with it."

"I am sure it makes the ladies swoon," Meg said, laughing. "Maybe that is it--you are become a fashion-plate!" She regarded him in sudden surprise. "John! There is a lady!"

Meg knew him better than anyone. Swallowing back the alarm her insight raised within his breast, he said, "I assure you, Margaret, there is no lady. No lady in particular."

"Well, it is high time there were! You seem to run in a very fast set these days. Is there truly no-one yet who catches your eye?"

John longed to tell her the truth. Of all the people in the world in whom he might confide, his twin sister was the least likely to cast him off, or to repeat his secret. He wavered for a long moment, and finally said, "I--I do not think it likely that I will marry very soon."

Meg put her teacup carefully in its saucer and set it upon the table before them. "You wrote to me once from Venice about some of your acquaintance there." She turned the cup's handle until it was at some precise angle that only she could perceive. "This was not long before you came home. You mentioned a young woman called Violetta."

John remembered the letter. He could not now imagine what had made him think such an improper liaison a fit subject for a letter to his sister. It must have formed the basis of her belief that his weakness was for women of the lower classes. Perhaps that had been his intention. "I ought never to have done so," he said.

"I do not enquire about--that sort of thing," Meg went on. "Hard as it is for me to believe, you and I are both quite grown up now, as Annie and Becky remind me every hour of every day and most of the hours of the night. But I remember the letter very clearly, for I thought at the time how odd it was that you would keep company with a countrywoman when ladies of the highest rank would--well, fling themselves at you, frankly."

"Meg! They do nothing of the kind!"

"Well, they would if you gave them the slightest encouragement."

"Do you think I ought to encourage that sort of behaviour?" John asked mildly.

"Oh, Johnny, you are being provoking on purpose! Of course that is not what I mean. Only, you were always perfectly oblivious to the fact that ladies fainted away rapturously in a great swath behind you wherever you went. How unfair it was that my twin brother was more beautiful than I!"

"Good God, Meg." This was an old refrain. Margaret had grown up to be a very striking woman, sharing with John the green eyes, the long lashes and the full lips that distinguished his own face. She was, however, also as tall among women as he was among men, and was of an athletic, vigorous nature, and her shoulders were rather broader than was fashionable. John could not understand how the matter could possibly have any further importance to her, now that she was married and a mother and very well settled, but he knew better than to say so.

"Well," Margaret went on, "I only mean that you might win the heart of any lady you wished, and the fact that you do not try to do so is fast becoming one of the most notable things about you."

"This is a subject of frequent discussion between you and Mama, isn't it?"

Meg did not reply directly. "Mama wonders why you do not try to attach some young lady. She is very avid on behalf of Georgina Jennings, as you may have surmised from hints in her letters to you." Meg poured them each a little more tea. "I must confess, I wonder, too. Why, your letters speak more often of your very great and noble friends than of any pretty girls. It is 'Penrith-this' and 'Penrith-that' until I wonder if a mere Miss So-and-So is beneath you, and you must now have at least an Honourable!"

She handed him his cup with a chiding smile, and turned her attention to adding the extraordinary amount of sugar to her tea that she had always preferred.

"He was shot," John found himself blurting out.

"What?" Meg exclaimed. "Who was shot?"

"Penrith--Viscount Penrith."

One hand went to her breast in astonishment. "John!" she gasped.

"That is why I am here." John's clarity of mind from earlier in the day seemed to have vanished again.

"I do not understand you, John. What do you mean?"

"I have been at General and Mrs Danforth's country-house party. We went hunting. it was...the other day. I forget now. Two or three days ago, I think. General Danforth's shotgun went off accidentally. Penrith was hit."

"John! Dear heavens! Is he alive?"

"What? Oh. Yes. Yes, he will eventually be quite well, I think. The wound was to his shoulder. I remained with him as long as I could, but I had to leave, Meg. I could not allow myself to stay by him."

"Well, I am sure this General Danforth and his wife must have the charge of caring for him. You cannot reproach yourself with not being a surgeon, John! What more could you have done? You were always used to be very fretful in the face of illness or bloodshed of any kind."

"You misunderstand me," John said. "I wanted to stay. I did not wish to be parted from him."

Meg's expression of sympathetic distress slowly altered. Her eyes widened for an instant before she glanced away and down. "What are you saying, John?"

"I was standing near him when it happened. There was...a great deal of blood. He lost consciousness for a moment. I was terrified that he was dead." John looked at her, reliving the anguish of that moment and only vaguely aware that he must seem very distraught.

"Well, of course you were. It would have been quite unnatural had you not been."

"Meg, my feelings at the prospect of his death were...not natural."

His sister was staring at him, her cup and saucer forgotten in her hands, a high colour rising to her cheeks. After a long moment, she picked up her spoon and stirred her tea. "Well! How can we know just what our feelings are in such a terrible moment? You must have feared for your own life, for the shot might as easily have struck you! Very strong feelings must be natural in such a case!"

John allowed her to go in in this vein for a moment or two, his courage slipping every instant more. He recognised each of her attempts to alter the facts, for he had made all of them himself over the course of the spring. When she had done appeasing herself with these little comfortable explanations, he said, "Margaret. Meg, please. I am trying to tell you something. I am--I am trying to understand it myself."

"There is nothing to understand, John. Please, I beg you, think of it no more. You are troubled by your friend's very near brush with death. God has spared him. It is for you--for us all!--only to be grateful." She set her cup down again, rose in some agitation, and took a step or two away from him. When she turned back, her face was set in a terrible, false smile. "Dear John. You will soon find a young lady who makes you forget these strange fancies. You--you will marry, and soon know the joys God has intended for us in the raising of a family."

"Meg--"

"Speak of it no more, John!" She looked at him rather wildly, then glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the nursery to which the maid had taken the twins, as if to assure herself of the safety of her children.

It required all of his strength to see this and not turn away, not to leave her house on the instant and keep going until he had quit Winchester, quit his family, even quit England. By a hairsbreadth of will only did he stand where he was and say quietly, "I will go now, Meg. Do not despise me. Please." He reached a hand toward her. "I am what I always have been."

One of the children began to cry, and Meg looked at him. "I am the wife of a clergyman, and a clergyman's daughter. I--I cannot know more of this. I must go. Anne is crying again." She turned and hurried off, saying, "Dear little Annie! Mama is coming!"

John put down his teacup and left his sister's house.

***

14 Upper Berkeley Street
Marylebone, London

12th June, 1818

My dear Penrith,

Mrs Danforth has been kind enough to write to me with the wonderful news of your speedy recovery. Her letter of 8th June awaited me when I arrived home today from a short stay at Winchester. I can hardly express my relief at knowing that you are recuperating comfortably and that Mr Caselton expects no lasting ill-effects from your injury.

I write to you now to beg your forgiveness for my precipitate departure from Highcliffe. I make no excuse, for what excuse is cowardice? I can say only that it was not your injury, nor your terrible discomfort, that finally overbore me, nor am I so light-minded as to run from attending upon an invalid friend, for that was a duty I was most willing to perform.

John set down his pen and rose from his desk to take a few agitated steps about his sitting room and think how he might say enough to make Penrith understand his meaning.

What then, you may ask yourself, caused me to leave your side so suddenly? You would be correct to suppose that I was running away from something, but what I fled cannot be outrun, for it is inside me, and it goes where I go. I could not withstand the force of my own sentiments, and so I ran from you, though you neither caused them nor were to blame for them, but were

He crossed out the last word and summoned the courage to change it.

--are their object.

I would have done much better to stay and be useful to you than to go as I did, and you will perhaps be satisfied to know that I soon paid the price of my cravenness, for my family found me much altered and had so little to say to me that I scarcely looked upon my new nieces before I must leave and come back to London, which now seems more like home to me than home does.

He swallowed back the pain that lay behind this light statement, and continued.

If you are so good as to forgive the sin that I have committed against friendship, I shall undertake to be a little more amusing in my next letter. Until then, I beg you will believe me

Your friend,
John

He sealed this missive, addressed it, and gave it to Marchbanks to post before he could change his mind. The days of sending a note the short distance to Half Moon Street--very often in the hands of Penrith's own groom or footman--and knowing that it would be read within the hour, were gone, and Acklebury did not know when they might come again, if ever they did. He must now wait several days at least for any reply; and as to the great question of when Penrith might return to London and resume the easy friendship that had become the centre of John's life, its answer would be quite immaterial if Penrith were not inclined to forgive him.

There was a knock at his door, and Acklebury opened it to find Mr Caine there, looking dapper and quite pleased with himself in what was apparently a new pair of boots. So great was Acklebury's pleasure at seeing a friendly face that he smiled quite intemperately and shook Caine's hand with an unwonted enthusiasm.

"I do not listen to gossip--you know I do not," Caine said when he had come in, made himself at home, and declared himself glad to see Acklebury back in town. "But it is impossible to ignore the news that Viscount Penrith has been shot, and I know that you and he have been away at the same party. Is it true? What happened?"

Acklebury found himself describing the event in terms much different to those he had been reproaching himself with for many days. He dwelt somewhat longer on the unfortunate state in which all the gentlemen had embarked on the morning's hunt, and somewhat less on his own emotional reaction to the dreadful accident. He described Penrith's wounds in some detail, for, the great danger of those wounds having now passed, it seemed perfectly acceptable to feed Caine's avidity for gore and violence; indeed, Caine seemed to enjoy the tale very much, remembering only at the last moment to express a proper concern for Viscount Penrith's well-being.

As it was a splendid summer day, Acklebury was keen to go out of doors, and so Caine's suggestion that they hire horses and ride to Hampstead Heath, where they might enjoy a gallop and some fresher air--"with very little likelihood of being hit by any stray balls," he laughed--met with Acklebury's complete approval.

Caine was, in his rough-and-ready fashion, nearly as fine a horseman as Lord Penrith, and as Acklebury was feeling all the humility that recent difficult events could confer, he asked Caine to help him improve his own equestrian skills a little. As a consequence of this excellent notion, Acklebury and Caine returned many hours later, as the late daylight of June was giving way to dusk, Acklebury rather saddle-sore, pleasantly tired, and in better spirits than he had been in since before the accident.

"Thank you, Caine," he said, shaking his friend's hand as they parted company at the end of George Street. "It has been a fine day. I do not mind telling you that I have been in rather low spirits, and you have cheered me wonderfully."

"Do not mention it," Mr Caine replied. "It was my pleasure. I could make a horseman of you, you know!"

John laughed. "Then let us go again soon!"

John could not prevent his mind from straying to Penrith, and to the pleasant prospect of showing a little more skill in the saddle the next time they met than he had previously done in their rides together. He no could no longer tell what his desire to please Penrith might mean, and he found that he did not much care. He knew only that in a friendship of two or three months' duration, he had found greater sympathy and ease than either his family or God had lately seen fit to offer him.

John Acklebury returned to his lodgings in Upper Berkeley Street in this pleasantly defiant state of mind, resolved to pass the time until Penrith's return enjoying the many advantages that a single young gentleman of means and leisure ought to enjoy in London during the fine, long days of June.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, June, 1818

Highcliffe House
nr Longstock
Hampshire


8th June, 1818

Dear Penrith,

In your pardonable haste to leave the General and me, you missed by only an hour the delivery of the letter from Mr Acklebury which I am enclosing herewith. Nobody knows as well as I how slow the post in the north can be, so it must be many days before you see this. I have written to Mr Acklebury to tell him that I would forward his letter, and, inasmuch as I believe your exact words were, "Tell Acklebury my plans, will you, Lizzie?", I have told him that you are at Ravensworth and unlikely to be seen again in London this summer.

I hope and trust, my dear friend, that you truly were well enough to travel, for you seemed scarcely so when you left us. Had I not been so worried, I would have laughed at Mr Caselton's grudging consent to your travel scheme, for I do not know anybody who can stop you from doing exactly as you please upon all occasions. Your landau is the most comfortable and well-sprung carriage imaginable, and I must hope that it was comfortable enough, for you would escape us, and I cannot blame you!

Though, like most gentlemen, you are a dreadful correspondent (I say this fondly, you understand, for you know with what great affection I have always regarded you), and though your shoulder prevents your writing very easily yet, I beg you will not long fall back on that convenient excuse for what you do not like to do anyway, and write Mr Acklebury a short note. You observe that I do not beg you to write to me, for I am not so idealistic as that! Whatever his reasons for leaving us when he did, I hope very much that they did not in some wise signal an end to his friendship with you, for that friendship seems to make you happy.

You were quite right about him, Penrith: he is not at all prim, and is, moreover, quite a gem in the crown of any hostess, as courteous as any one could wish and handsomer than any one has a right to be! I should be very unhappy to know that you and he are not friends any more, for then I should not be able to invite you both to the same parties. For my sake, do what you must to secure that gentleman's good will!

I must apologise again for the circumstances in which you left us today. What a shocking country house party it turned out to be! Since I am assured that you will soon be perfectly mended, I console myself that my party will, at least, be talked of.

Yours, &c.,
Lizzie

 

Viscount Penrith read Lizzie's missive while shading his eyes from the midday sun and trying to ignore the sounds of hammering from the east wing, the shouts of the building labourers, and the barking of dogs. So pleased was he to read her letter, and to know that the other letter he held in his hand was from John, that it was a moment before he realised what he was hearing.

He rose from his chair in the garden and made his way to the front of the house by means of a walk that was partly blocked with a ladder. "Beg pardon, m'lord," a workman said, hastening to remove this obstacle from his lordship's path.

"Oh, do not regard it," Penrith replied in some asperity. A large brown dog raced toward him with a great, booming bark. "Samson!" he cried. Another, scarcely less forward or enthusiastic, came bounding up, barking joyously. "Delilah!" Penrith took each of his dogs' heads in turn between his hands and gave it an affectionate shake. He glanced up to see the long-suffering Cooper just getting out of the carriage.

"Thank you, Cooper," he said, trying in vain to settle Samson and Delilah. Cooper bowed and looked miserable. Penrith knew that Cooper would not be at ease again until he could ensure that not a single dog's hair attached itself anywhere to his clothing, and that he would prefer to have the same assurance about Penrith's clothing. "How was the journey from Barringford?"

Cooper bowed again and said, "It was--relatively uneventful, my lord. If your lordship will permit me, I will attend to your bandage immediately. And I will shave you."

"Watson shaved me this morning."

"Indeed, my lord."

Cooper's little war with Watson, the butler that his lordship's steward had engaged at short notice in Carlisle, was fought mostly on the battlefield of his lordship's toilette and preferences. Watson, being very good at managing the building labourers, could not be spared, and so Penrith had been forced to send Cooper, on two occasions already, upon errands that took him away from the estate overnight. Watson had, accordingly, been pressed into service as barber and bootblack, and Cooper seemed to take great, bitter pleasure in the fact that Watson was not very good at either task.

"I shall come in very soon and then you may make me fit to be seen. I am glad you are back, Cooper, for I dine tonight with Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe."

"Very good, my lord." Cooper bowed yet again, perhaps a little less stiffly, and went into the house. Poor Cooper, Penrith thought. A valet of his calibre must for ever be affronted by life in the country. Only the certainty that Cooper would be more miserable in London with nothing to do and no-one to look after assuaged in some small degree his lordship's sense of guilt at making him stay. Such tasks as fetching Samson and Delilah from the kennels at Barringford, thirty miles away, were completely outside Cooper's normal duties and very foreign to his nature, and he bore it all rather ill.

Penrith frolicked with his dogs for a pleasant half-hour in the garden, then was obliged by the renewed aching of his right shoulder to leave off. He sat down at the little table he caused to be placed on the stone flags outside his drawing-room window each day, and where he had taken to eating his breakfast on fine mornings. Samson and Delilah came and sat at his feet. He had left Acklebury's letter there, and now broke the seal on it in some trepidation. His eyes went first to the bottom of the page, and the signature he saw there gave him heart to read what was above it, for it was simply, "John."

His mind grew easier as he read. Penrith had a horror of unexpected personal letters that dated to a certain morning long ago at Cambridge, and he had been more worried than he liked at the prospect of receiving such a letter from John. Far from wishing to end their friendship, however, John hoped only for the forgiveness that would allow it to continue. Moreover, Penrith knew, the less comfortable John was with his own sentiments, the more proper he became, and to judge from the stilted formality of the letter, his friend was uncomfortable indeed. "If I am so good as to forgive the sin that you have committed against friendship?" Penrith repeated to himself, shaking his head. "You sound like your father, John."

A bath, a change of dressings over the three bullet-wounds that were healing now very satisfactorily, a shave, a trimming of his hair and his side-whiskers, and the careful selection and donning of evening attire suitable to a country dinner engagement, accounted for nearly all of what was left in Penrith's afternoon, before he must ride to Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe's house on the other side of the village of Crosby-Ravensworth.

"It will rain before sunrise," Cooper intoned as he dressed his lordship's hair. "Would you not prefer to take the carriage, my lord?"

"I do not intend to stay at Sir Thomas's until sunrise, Cooper. I expect I shall leave there before it is full dark. I am not sick, nor am I an invalid. A little rain will not hurt me."

"Very good, my lord," Cooper said, almost mournfully, as if his master rode to his death and not three miles along a well-travelled way through a village.

This journey, Lord Penrith made quite comfortably, arriving a little before time at the house of Sir Thomas Bedlowe, Baronet. That edifice, though younger than Ravensworth by a century or more, was much smaller and just as ramshackle.

"Lord Penrith!" Sir Thomas called to him. He and Lady Bedlowe stood in the front door.

"Sir Thomas, my lady," Penrith replied, happy enough to see old friends. They looked almost the same as when Tristan had last seen them, several years earlier. They were much of an age, and a height, and so generally like in appearance, as some couples long together will become, that one might easily have supposed them brother and sister. They were rather stout, and rather florid, Lady Bedlowe's brown hair now mostly grey, and Sir Thomas's now mostly gone, and altogether they gave the impression of solidity. They were, in a word, the sturdy foundation of the English gentry.

"Is it possible that you have got taller?" Lady Bedlowe asked. "He is taller, do you not think, Sir Thomas?" she asked her husband as they made their bows.

"It is possible, my lady," Penrith said, feeling more inclined to laughter than irritation. "For I was only sixteen the last time we met."

"Sarah!" Sir Thomas admonished. "Do not importune his lordship so!"

"Oh, hush," Lady Bedlowe said with a laugh at her husband. To Lord Penrith she said, "Come in! Come in! We are not formal here, my lord."

"We beg your pardon, my lord, for the simplicity of our arrangements here," Sir Thomas said, ushering Penrith through the front door. Penrith wished he would not for ever be called upon to assure those whose wealth, or station, or elegance was less than his own, that he was not so high in the instep as to refuse their hospitality. In response to Sir Thomas, he only smiled and went into the house.

Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe would have done better, Penrith thought as the dinner was served, to have instructed their cook to prepare whatever they normally ate, because the cook was not apparently equal to the task of the French-style dishes her mistress and master had asked for. A simple roast of beef or mutton and a glass of ale would have gone a great deal farther to please his lordship than the greasy terrine de canard en croûte and the slightly curdled sauce béchamel in which the braised asparagus was smothered.

"The evening has taken a cool turn," Sir Thomas said, as Penrith attempted to eat, if not to enjoy, the repast that clearly represented a great deal of effort.

Lady Bedlowe smiled and said, "Yes! It is delightful. A little respite from the warmth of the summer days."

"I shall have Jeremy light a fire, for I am sure his lordship does not wish to take cold," Sir Thomas went on, quite as if his wife had not spoken.

"I beg you will not do so on my account," Penrith said, growing annoyed. "I assure you, I am quite comfortable, and, like Lady Bedlowe, I welcome the cool night air." After two or three protestations of this kind, Sir Thomas was finally convinced not to trouble Jeremy or to waste firewood on a June night.

They spoke of Ravensworth, whose small repairs they had just heard news of. It was not very long before Sir Thomas forgot to be in awe of the Eighth Viscount Penrith and began reminiscing of the Seventh, whom he and Lady Bedlowe had esteemed very highly, and whose last visit had been shortly before his untimely death. They were kind, well-intentioned people, Penrith realised, and he felt he could forgive them for the indifferent meal. The conversation was blessedly free of gossip or talk of society, for never were two of its members more removed from its centre, although word had reached them of Penrith's injury, for it had been in the newspapers. Lady Bedlowe evinced great concern for his well-being and Sir Thomas had several hunting stories to tell, though he admitted that none was so shocking as Penrith's.

Penrith listened with interest as Sir Thomas spoke of improvements to the fields and pastures of his own small estate and, when the meal was finished, gladly accepted the loan of Sir Thomas' Country Almanac for his further edification as a landlord. He left the Bedlowes' house firm in the opinion that he would not mind coming again if only they would not try so much to impress him the next time.

Cooper's weather sense must have been somewhat tricked by the change of locality from the south of England to the north, for it rained well before sunrise, and Penrith was caught by it half a mile from home, at about ten o'clock. He entered the house to find Bracken, Watson, and Cooper hastening up the front stairs toward the first floor, where his bedroom was. Each of them carried a bucket. Cooper turned and came back down.

"The roof immediately above your lordship's bed has been tried by the rain-shower, my lord, and has been found very badly wanting."

"I see."

"We are endeavouring to catch the drips, but I am afraid that your bedding is quite ruined for sleeping. Watson is about to arrange the smaller bedroom across the corridor for you." Cooper appeared to be near tears. "It is hardly adequate, my lord."

"Is it dry?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Then I am sure that it will do. I shall answer a letter while I wait. I left it in my coat-pocket this afternoon."

"It is on your writing-desk in...there, my lord," Cooper said, indicating the only nearly-habitable room on the ground floor, which presently served as drawing-room, study, and dining-room.

"Very well."

Cooper managed to bow while holding an oaken bucket, then bustled off up the stairs with it. As Penrith went into the nameless room, he heard Cooper say, "Mr Watson! Give me those linens! And see that you have some sharp words tomorrow for the tilers!"

 

Ravensworth
Cumberland
14th June 1818

Penrith paused. He hated writing letters. Do not begin with "I". Observe the correct forms of address at all times. Do not write what you would not say. Except in a letter to your wife or husband, or your betrothed, do not write what you would not wish another to see. Do not underline words but let your choice of words make your meaning clear. Do not use the Post-Script, for afterthoughts are the mark of a poorly-considered letter.

There was a clatter overhead, and the sound of hurried footsteps. Penrith sighed and dipped his pen into the inkwell again. It seemed to him that he could observe all the rules of letter-writing and never write a word, or ignore them and get something into the post to John before winter came.

Dear John,

I cannot pretend that I was not disappointed by your departure from Highcliffe just as I was feeling better, for I would have supposed any sensible person to prefer me in my right mind and not when I was delirious. Lizzie tells me I said some interesting things, though she would not say just what those things were, and I felt sure that I had offended you. Your letter, however, does not say that you were offended, so my mind is now at rest upon that vexing point.

Nor have you done anything requiring my forgiveness, but since you ask me for it, here! I forgive you with the greatest good will in the world. You are very severe with yourself! I have noted it before. I think we must continue friends, for I need a little of your severity just as I think you need a little of my carelessness.

I am once again at Ravensworth. You see, we both left Highcliffe precipitately, you for reasons that I hope to understand better when we see each other once more,

Penrith paused again and considered whether to say more upon this interesting point, but concluded that he might spend an hour and many sheets of letter-paper in attempting so delicate a work of the epistolary art and arrive only at a great pile of tinder, and so he moved on.

and I to flee something truly terrifying: to wit, the tender attentions of Miss Lareton and Mrs Danforth. They were quite pleased, I think, to regard themselves as ministering angels. They read to me, John! It was insupportable. Only that French cook of Danforth's seemed willing to ignore Caselton's orders, but despite the very good food, I had no choice but to make my escape. Lizzie lives within a stone's throw of my London townhouse--as you yourself once pointed out--and as Miss Lareton, having not yet secured a bridegroom, goes where Lizzie goes, Half Moon Street was not far enough. Ravensworth seemed a safe distance, it being about 300 miles from Highcliffe.

By day, I find myself harried from one end of the house to the other by workmen who hammer, and saw, and shout at one another and clamber over the roof and put ladders in my path. I did not think it advisable to stop work on the place simply because I had been shot and had decided upon no notice to take a rusticating leave at Ravensworth, and they are, after all, here at my behest, so I bear it as manfully as I can.

By night, I am importuned by a leak in the roof over my bed, or so Cooper informs me I shall be if I do not move to a different bedroom. I have just come in from dinner with my neighbour Sir Thomas Bedlowe, and the first hard rain of my stay has very helpfully made clear just where the roof needs repairing most urgently, but I have not been up to see it yet.

I am sorry you did not enjoy your visit to Winchester very much.

Yours, &c.
T.J.

P.S. Do write me that amusing letter you promised.

Without another thought, Penrith sealed and addressed this letter, then, feeling industrious and noting, besides, that the activity overhead had not yet ceased, wrote three more. The first was to Ricks, his steward, who lived in the village, and the second to Saterlee, his architect in Carlisle, asking each to wait upon him at an early date, and informing them of his intention to advance the schedule of work on Ravensworth. He had an idea of inviting a guest to come before the summer was over, and he could not do so if the place was in constant danger of falling down. The third was to his sister-in-law, Lady Penrith, cordially offering her the use of the townhouse in Half Moon Street if she cared for it.

***

In the days of summer that followed, Viscount Penrith was occupied from morning till night. Plans for all of the work that he now hoped to accomplish on the house before Michaelmas were such as to require Mr Satterlee to come down and stay for three days. Mr Ricks was given the task of hiring workers from Crosby-Ravensworth and the surrounding countryside. Penrith, whose experience in such matters was limited to having asked Lady Penrith to select a wallpaper for his drawing room in Half Moon Street, became engrossed in learning about all that made an old house into a fit habitation for a modern gentleman.

Satterlee was indispensable, for he understood which walls might be removed to make two cramped, old-fashioned rooms into a commodious one, and which must remain to support the floor above. He had very clear and practical ideas about the best use of what was, after all, a rather small amount of space. He knew just how to make the work proceed so that Penrith could continue living in some part of the house. He was, in every way but one, an excellent choice, but he had never undertaken a building project for anyone so highly placed in society as a viscount and was therefore more deferential than Penrith cared for. Satterlee did not willingly correct any misapprehensions that his lordship might have about what was and was not possible in the matter at hand. When, after two or three such moments, Penrith found himself saying, "Pray, do not tell me what you think I wish to hear, Satterlee!" Mr Satterlee finally overcame his reticence and thereafter produced the facts.

Penrith had never been so industrious. He rose early and retired sometimes before it was full dark, too tired to consider more than fleetingly what his friends in London would have to say about his engagement in such honest work, during such unfashionable hours. When a letter came from John, Penrith realised that a fortnight had passed without his ever having felt bored, or lonely, though he would have gladly admitted to the occasional irritation of his spirits from the noise and chaos.

 

14 Upper Berkeley Street
Westminster, London
21st June 1818


My dear Penrith,

My first summer in London commences, and all of society now deserts me for pleasanter realms, so your letter was very welcome. My mind is eased considerably to know that you are well enough not only to fly 300 miles to escape the evils of being read to (I flatter myself that I was clever enough to read to you while you were very ill and could not escape), but to bear with workmen and go calling upon the lesser nobility.

Your letter came two days ago, and I would have answered it sooner, but your post-script has paralysed me. I said I would write you a more amusing letter, but as nearly anything would be more amusing than my last, I did not think I had undertaken what I could not do. Now you expect a letter that is actually amusing, and I do not know if I can oblige you.

I have put the finishing touches on my portrait of Mr Gilroy, who would pose as you did for your portrait, and could not be talked round to a depiction more suitable to his age and his habit, which, as you may know, is not very different from that of the Regent. I could not make him look as he wished and still live with myself as an artist, and to nobody's astonishment, he now says that he will not pay me. Happily, I next paint Mrs Throckmorton, who is prettier and therefore far more likely to be pleased with her portrait. After that, I have no certain commission until autumn.

Caine and I have been thrown much into each other's company by the thinning of society in town. He has persuaded me to accompany him to Signor Pellerino's fencing academy, and though he, like you, puts me to the blush in matters of physical prowess, I will claim for myself at least a certain doggedness in pursuing again and again these activities until I am a little better at them. I am almost disappointed--almost, I say!--that however disarrayed Caine's and my appearance after a bout, however much we laugh and joke as we walk back to Marylebone, I do not hear a word of gossip about it! This is persuasive evidence that you are far more interesting than I am, as if this letter were not evidence enough.

I had thought to spend some time at Winchester during the warmest days of July or August, but I find that I am not very much inclined to it now, and so, if you should write again, your letter will find me here in Upper Berkeley Street.
Yours,
Acklebury

There were three post-scripts, each in the form of a little drawing. In the first, a striped cat lay curled, its bottle-brush tail covering its face, and below it there appeared the words, "Tibby, the landlord's cat, is bored." In the second, a young gentleman who raised his high-crowned hat was accompanied by the words, "Caine begs I will convey his regards to you." The third depicted a cup and saucer, a roll, and a jam-pot, with the caption "Breakfast."

Penrith smiled, marvelling at the drawings, and was loath to put them into the fire. Sentimentality in all forms was very foreign to his nature, and he would have burnt the letter on the instant, he told himself, were it not a brilliant and rather hot morning, and neither hearthfire nor lighted candle was to be found. He folded the letter and put it into his breast pocket, and, as he heard the first of the workmen arriving, deemed his quiet breakfast over.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, August, 1818

John Acklebury emerged from the coaching inn at Lancaster on the third and final day of his long journey from London to Cumberland, blinking in the glorious August sunshine and permitting himself to stretch his arms, for stage-coach travel had left him stiff and dull. However, if the prospect of another half-day's travel was daunting, it was only in small part because he was weary of confinement and idleness; by far the greater part of Acklebury's uneasiness arose from his contemplation of the journey's destination.

Finish your current commission and come to visit me, Penrith's letter had said. You cannot wish to pass the entire summer in London, and I may not quit Ravensworth just now. As I miss your society and you seem to miss mine, there is nothing for it but that you should avail yourself of my rustic hospitality! Be my first visitor. It is the only sensible course, John. You know it is.

A servant of the inn approached him. "Begging pardon, sir. Your carriage is ready and the driver is awaiting your convenience." The servant, who had been only as courteous as necessary to a stagecoach passenger last night, was nearly obsequious toward the gentleman who would be travelling onward in a carriage sent by a lord.

Swallowing back a surge of fear and doubt, Acklebury nodded. "I will be along forthwith."

When he passed back through the inn and out into the yard, he recognised at once the Penrith landau. A driver and a groom sat perched on the box, and a pair of fine matched bays were in the traces. The groom leapt down, doffed his cap, and hastened to place a step beside the vehicle. Acklebury observed his trunk and valise, and the wooden case containing his artist's necessaries, securely bound to the boot.

Acklebury climbed in and settled against the black leather upholstery. Two days' travel in public coaches, where other passengers crowded him and made him feel that his shoulders were too broad and his legs too long, gave him a keen appreciation for the luxury of Penrith's private arrangements. He relaxed as best he could, trying not to dwell upon memories of sitting in this same seat, with Penrith opposite, and speaking of what could not be spoken of but under the seductive cover of night. In very short order, the carriage was moving out of the coaching inn's yard and bowling along the King's highway in the summer morning, toward whatever lay in store for Acklebury at Ravensworth.

***

The ancient manor house came into view only when they were nearly upon it, its half-timbered white walls bright and rather festive in the afternoon sun. Acklebury had time to observe scaffolding and ladders all along one side of the western wing, and to note the old-fashioned charm of its oddly crooked lines, before the carriage was coming to a halt in the gravel sweep, and Penrith himself was bounding out of the front door, followed by a pair of joyful-looking dogs. His hair was carelessly tied back, his face was quite brown, and--if Acklebury was not mistaken--unshaven, and he appeared to be just struggling into his coat. He wore no cravat, and his shirt was open at the neck.

"Acklebury!" he cried, opening the carriage's door before the groom could jump down to perform the duty. Acklebury emerged into the twin brightnesses of the August afternoon and Penrith's wide smile, and to the clamouring of the excited dogs, which Penrith quelled with a word. Penrith gripped his hand and shook it, grinning. "It is very good to see you." Penrith's other hand came up to enclose Acklebury's, and he gave every appearance of holding himself back by sheer will from any farther display of affection.

Acklebury, momentarily overcome by the warmth of his lordship's unaffected greeting, and the almost unseemly beauty of his informality of attire, had trouble marshaling himself. "It--it is very good to see you, too, Penrith. I am happy to be here."

It was the simple truth, he realised. After three days and two nights of anxiety--as to Penrith's intentions, his own motives in coming, and the meaning to be ascribed to the situation--he found himself simply happy to see Penrith again, and all other questions vanished in the sunlight. "You are looking a vast deal better than you were the last time I saw you," he added. "Are you fully recovered from General Danforth's hospitality?"

Penrith laughed. "Scarcely a twinge, though I imagine that I shall become one of those elderly gentlemen whose shoulder gives them pains when it is about to rain, or stop raining, or whatever such old war-wounds do."

To prevent his gaze from lingering too long upon the open neck of Penrith's shirt, and his imagination from dwelling upon the scar that undoubtedly lay beneath the muslin there, Acklebury turned to look at Ravensworth. "What a charming old house."

Penrith led Acklebury toward the entry, gesturing broadly. "As you see, very little has changed since Good Queen Bess last visited. I have undertaken a few improvements, though, in anticipation of your stay. You will find that most of the fires no longer smoke, most of the windows are properly glazed, and most of the doves have left off living in the roof--which, I am happy to tell you, no longer leaks." He put a friendly arm across Acklebury's shoulders, causing Acklebury's thoughts to run riot again.

"I am impressed!" Acklebury replied after a moment. The pressure of Penrith's arm, the sense of being embraced, was making it difficult to find words. Acklebury thought he must fall back upon commonplaces until he could gather himself better, but he was in no hurry to be free of that arm. For the first time since since Highcliffe--since Winchester--John felt welcome, and Penrith's touch, however he intended it, soothed John's heart even as it excited his senses.

The entry was shadowed and cool, the manor's front door being recessed under the jutting structure of an upstairs room. That room, Acklebury noted, was surmounted by a yet larger overhanging chamber on the uppermost storey, giving the house an almost topsy-turvy air. The decoratively half-timbered walls stretched away on either side of the entry, scarcely a straight or plumb line anywhere in them. Three or four brick chimneys rose up haphazardly, though clearly in excellent repair.

An elderly butler in a black coat bowed with some difficulty as he held the door open to his lordship and his lordship's house-guest.

"Watson, see to Mr Acklebury's things, will you?"

"Yes, m'lord," Watson said.

Acklebury could not but note that Watson, in common with the groom and the driver who had brought him from Lancaster, was far more suited in manner and appearance to serve in the household of a country vicar than in the ancestral home of a viscount. As country vicars were more numerous in Acklebury's experience than peers of the realm, this made him feel quite at home, and his many concerns about the elevated and old-fashioned staff he might have to deal with at Ravensworth evaporated. Still, it was very odd to see Lord Penrith in the care of such unpolished servants who, it seemed, needed to be told what their duties were.

"I have put you in the Queen's Room," Penrith said. "Family history holds that Her Majesty stopped here in 1575 and was pleased to refresh herself for an hour or two in the grandest bedroom my forebears had to offer." Penrith had not taken his arm from about Acklebury's shoulders, and Acklebury saw the elderly butler observing this fact with a rather sour look. Penrith, apparently seeing the same thing, immediately assumed a more correct manner, and preceded Acklebury up a narrow stair to the first floor.

"I have furnished the eastern part of the house, but much of the rest of the place is uninhabitable," Penrith went on. "I will show you over it when you have rested from your journey."

"I am eager to see it all," Acklebury said.

The room to which Penrith conducted him was situated at the end of the east wing, its windows looking out at the hills of Penrith. It was large and low, with a generous old-fashioned fireplace. An Aubusson carpet in shades of rose and gold covered the polished wood floor, and a sprightly wallpaper relieved the sombre air imparted by the low ceiling and small windows. A bed in the latest style, light and high, with elegant curtains, stood in the far corner. In an uncharacteristically diffident tone, Penrith said, "I hope this will do."

Acklebury turned to him. "Of course. I shall be entirely comfortable here."

Penrith's face broke into another of his sunny smiles, and he appeared genuinely relieved. "Please, make yourself easy. I haven't many servants here. I sent Cooper back to London a week ago. He was miserable, and making everyone else miserable, and so Watson and the housekeeper, Bracken, have been looking after me. They will see to you, as well, for I know that you could not bring Marchbanks. It is rather--" he hesitated and grinned sheepishly, "--rather rustic, I am afraid. I hope I have not lured you here under false pretences."

"I have no reason to think so!" Acklebury said with an uncomfortable laugh.

"Well, then, join me downstairs whenever you are rested, and I shall take you over the place and regale you with its many deficiencies, since you seem so tolerant of them!"

Penrith made to leave the room, and Acklebury suddenly said, "Talking of false pretences--"

Penrith turned in the doorway and raised his eyebrows with a wary expression. Acklebury cleared his throat, feeling guilty. "I--I have put it about in town that I am making a visit to my family at Winchester." He looked down. "I'm afraid I was not quite equal to--that is..." He risked a glance at Penrith, who had leant a shoulder against the door-frame and crossed his arms over his chest. A sardonic grin was just beginning to push up one corner of his mouth.

"You lied about it?" he asked, and his tone was cajoling, a little incredulous, and more good-humoured than Acklebury had dared to hope.

"No! No, of course I did not. I merely...said that I was leaving town and that I had not spent any time with my parents in more than a year, and allowed people to draw their own conclusions. I did not mean to devalue your hospitality or disclaim your--your friendship. I am sorry."

"Do not be, John." Penrith looked at him for a long moment. "I know that you cannot afford the kind of talk that would arise if your being here were generally known. Why do you think I waited so many weeks to invite you?"

John considered this. He had supposed Penrith angry at him at first, and recuperating from a serious wound for some time after that, and had not allowed himself to think that Penrith had missed his company as much as he had missed Penrith's.

When John could find no answer, Penrith went on, "I can assure you that nobody will hear of your visit from me. Even Lizzie Danforth does not know of it. There is no one in the neighbourhood with any connection to society, and when you have seen the state of the place, you will see how impossible it would be for me to entertain here. Even if there were there ten great houses nearby, full of neighbours I might invite, I could not do so. Your secret is quite safe."

John had not known how powerful his anxiety upon this point was until Penrith's words relieved him of it. He felt immediately lighter, and smiled at Penrith, grateful for his understanding, not to say his complicity in the little subterfuge. Penrith pushed away from the door-frame. "I am glad you are here, John. You may be as incognito as you like," he said, and left the room with a warm glance.

Acklebury found a basin and a towel-wrapped pitcher of warm water, an indication that the servants were not entirely without skill. He could not settle the nervous sensation in his belly, and hardly dared look at himself in the mirror over the wash-stand for fear of seeing the flushed complexion and wide eyes that would betray, to himself and to any one else, the state of his feelings. He was here, and he had as much as confessed to Penrith that his intentions in coming were clandestine in nature.

He washed his face and hands, straightened his cravat, and left the room again just as the servant who had earlier that day acted in the capacity of a groom, and now appeared to have a footman's duties, came in bearing his luggage.

Downstairs, Acklebury looked into one or two doors, but found no one until a dog's barking drew him into a pleasant room at the back of the house. Through its large, open windows, he espied Penrith. Roses gone wild trailed up and over a hedge that must have once neatly demarcated a square garden in the strict, French style. A statue of Diana, worn and weathered, stood at the centre of this space. Penrith was near it, trying to wrest a stick from the mouth of one of the hounds. The dog growled and crouched and worried the stick; Penrith, too, bent low and growled, and made to steal the stick away. The dog, clearly familiar with this game, let it loose so that Penrith might throw it. The stick sailed over the hedge, and the dog scrambled through a gap beneath it.

As Acklebury approached the open window, Penrith saw him and waved. "John! Forgive me! My dogs and I do not see much of each other. Let me just come around back inside."

"No, no! Please, stay where you are. I shall come out. I should like to meet your dogs." Somehow, Penrith's use of his given name here, where there was no one else to hear it, seemed less fraught with meaning than it had in London. Here, it was of a piece with the remoteness, the informality, the very simplicity of the house. He found his way outdoors and eventually to the back of the house. The stick came flying high over the hedge again just as he approached, and a second or two later, the hound wriggled from beneath it. Acklebury let himself into the pleasure garden by the more conventional means of opening the gate.

"I hope you have found everything tolerably comfortable," Penrith said, approaching Acklebury and shading his eyes with one hand against the bright summer sunshine.

"Oh, everything is very much to my liking."

The dog with whom Penrith had been exchanging growls a few moments earlier came bounding back through the open gate, the stick in its mouth. "This is Delilah," Penrith said, "and Samson is about somewhere."

Acklebury bent down to make the acquaintance of Delilah, and was pleased when she dropped the stick, now thoroughly chewed and wet, at his feet and looked at him, wagging her tail so much that her entire body seemed to wag with it. Acklebury picked the stick up and pitched it, as he had seen Penrith do, over the hedge. Delilah gave an appreciative bark, and ran off once again after it.

"She approves of you," Penrith said.

"And I of her! She is a fine creature, and very amusing."

Penrith's smile widened. Here in his country house, Acklebury thought, and upon his own grounds, Penrith seemed younger and more eager to please than he had ever appeared to be in London. "If we do not walk away at some point, Delilah will play fetch until she drops from exhaustion--or so I suppose. I have never outlasted her interest in the game. Come! You must be hungry. We will have a little luncheon, and then, let me show you the place!"

They partook of a simple cold collation that had been laid out in the parlour and, thus restored, began their tour of Ravensworth. True to its external appearance, the manor's interior was as old-fashioned and ramshackle as Penrith's Half Moon Street townhouse was elegant and modern. No floor continued long unbroken by a step up or down; no wall followed a straight line, either horizontally or vertically.

Penrith, having left his coat over the dining chair in the parlour, rolled up his sleeves and carelessly pushed his hair back from his face. He did not seem to know that smudges of dust and dirt were visible upon his clothing in a way that Cooper would never have allowed. He strode through the old house with Acklebury, pointing up at ancient hewn oaken beams, and speaking of excavation, and the cutting of stones from the old quarry that had supplied the foundation blocks of the original manor. Acklebury took pleasure in following him, listening to the warmth in his voice, watching him gesture to this or that feature of Elizabethan architecture.

"You amaze me with what you have undertaken here," Acklebury said as they passed together up into the third storey, whose many windows were newly glazed. "I believe many another man would have pulled the place down."

Penrith appeared to be very gratified at this. "My father is among their number. Happily, he never took the time, and when David--my brother, the late Lord Penrith--came of age, he began making plans to restore it to its proper condition. I am continuing the work as I think he would have liked."

Though Penrith did not evince the same degree of sadness as John had once seen, there was a softening of his features when he mentioned his brother that spoke clearly of a loss never fully overcome. "It is a fine way to honour his memory," John ventured.

At this, Penrith hastened to add, "But do not suppose that I am a slave to the wishes of my dead brother, for I am not so sentimental. His ideas were very good, and I flatter myself that I have improved upon them."

Acklebury smiled. "I make no doubt that you have."

When they had been over all three storeys of the eastern wing, including an entirely separate house related to the main structure only by means of a narrow passageway, and containing the kitchens and the servants' quarters, Penrith ushered Acklebury through a door and back into the entry hall. "Everything else is boarded up, I'm afraid. I have sent the workers away for the first two or three days of your visit, because the noise and dust are not what anyone would wish after a long journey."

"I would not like to be the cause of delays--" Acklebury began.

"Oh, no! I was very glad of the respite myself. They will be back altogether too soon, and I apologise now for the inconvenience to come. Mr Satterlee, my architect, assured me that I would regret losing very many of these long summer days. He told me that after Michaelmas I may enjoy all the peace and quiet I like, for the workers cannot do very much work once autumn comes. Of course, I anticipate going back to London by Michaelmas, so that meant very little to me! I am sorry, though, for I had hoped to offer you a peaceful visit."

Acklebury reflected that such a thing was hardly likely, given the state of his own heart, but only said, "I would imagine that a busy day of labour at Ravensworth is still a little quieter than any ordinary day in London." He went to the open front door and looked out. "And besides, it seems to me that I shall wish to go out into this splendid countryside a good deal."

Penrith joined him at the door, and again showing diffidence, asked, "Are you very tired from your journey?"

"Not at all," Acklebury replied. "I am a little dull from want of exercise, but the drive here today was not tiring. Your coach is very comfortable."

"Good! I would like to take you out for a ride around the land this afternoon--that is, if that would suit you." His expression grew more avid, and he said, "It is very wild, as you can see, but there is a view from the top of the hill that is worth seeing, and a fine Norman church in the village."

This was Penrith, Acklebury realised, the land that belonged to the title, and this man--this friend--who had come so unexpectedly into that title was keen to show it to him. "I would be honoured," Acklebury said.

The horses in the Ravensworth stables, though not so fine as those Penrith kept in London, were of good, sturdy stock, well groomed, gently treated, and easy to ride. Acklebury noted in some amusement that Penrith's mount bore the name of Jupiter, while his own was called Neptune, and supposed that such grand and mythical names reflected Penrith's high regard for animals, as they did not in any way describe the creatures' mild temperaments.

Acklebury was exceedingly pleased when, as they rode along the lane, Penrith turned to him said, "You, sir, have been riding without me! There is a marked change in your style."

"I hope that change is for the better," Acklebury replied, and silently thanked Mr Caine when Penrith raised his eyebrows and nodded.

Penrith left the lane and set off at a canter across the hillside in the late afternoon sunlight, and Acklebury followed, very much at his ease. They rode north for a mile or so, the sun to their left and a light breeze stirring their hair, then turned to the north-west and started up a hillside dotted with sheep.

They did not speak very much as they rode. Acklebury wondered if he ought to make conversation, or compliment his lordship upon his lands, but he did not feel pressed to do so. From time to time, Penrith pointed out some small feature of the scenery, or a bird, or something in the distant view, but he seemed satisfied to note Acklebury's sincerely appreciative gaze. The country was wild and open, the bones of the earth protruding here and there in outcrops of rock, and the cloudless sky above it all was very wide. It would be difficult to paint, Acklebury thought, for it possessed a beauty that could not be perceived by the eye alone. The somnolent buzzing of insects over the sun-warmed soil, the occasional bleat of a sheep, and the soft clatter of their horses' hooves over the stony ground, were the only sounds above the breeze, and the silence seemed vaster for them.

At the crest of the hill they had been climbing, Penrith got down from his horse. Wondering if they had arrived at some significant place, Acklebury did likewise, watching Penrith for any sign as to his wishes, or his intentions, and feeling the return of all his uncertainty.

The horses immediately bent their necks and began placidly grazing. Penrith stood and looked out to the west. Higher hills lay before them, their crests washed dun and rosy by the declining sun, deep inky shadows flowing down their flanks and pooling in nearly black stands of timber in the narrow valley below. The breeze was stronger here on this unsheltered promontory, and it caught at Penrith's hair. He turned his face to the wind and closed his eyes.

"You are happy here, I think," Acklebury said.

Penrith smiled, his eyes still closed against the breeze. "I am as happy here as I have ever been anywhere." After a moment, he added, "Does it please you?"

"Very much," Acklebury answered. "It is handsome country. It is grand, but not unknowable, I think, and not so wild as I had been led to suppose, though it is perhaps rather lonely."

Everything in that open place seemed to pause, as on an indrawn breath. Penrith opened his eyes and slowly turned to look at Acklebury.

"Why am I here?" Acklebury asked.

"I believe it is because I asked you to come."

"You know that is not what I mean, Penrith. Tell me why I am here."

Penrith gazed at him levelly for a long moment. "You cannot go on pretending that we are friends as other men are friends," he said at last.

John's heartbeat grew faster and he felt his face grow hot. He looked down, the agitation of his spirits making it hard for him to hold Penrith's gaze. "No. I cannot."

"I have waited for you to acknowledge it. I have waited for you to come to me. I would have you near me in any way that I can, but I will not go on pretending that what I feel is a civil, disinterested friendship, for you know it is not."

"I know," John whispered.

"So perhaps you can tell me why you are here. It is a question only you can answer." Penrith stood now with his arms folded over his chest.

"I--" Acklebury swallowed. "I want--"

"Do not make me guess, John!" Penrith's face held no trace of that sardonic humour, no vestige of that rakish elegance, that had always characterised him in London. He held himself stiffly, his body turned a little away, and Acklebury realised that he truly was uncertain.

"Do you not already know?" Acklebury asked. "I have not known a moment's peace since I met you. I have fought...God! how I have fought my nature. I came because I have stopped fighting."

Penrith stood as if rooted to the spot, closing his eyes tightly and turning his face farther away from John's, as if John had told him something distressing. Suddenly more doubtful than he had yet been, John stepped away. "I--have I said...?" he trailed off, confused.

"I must know that you did come here in defeat, or from obedience!" Penrith's jaw clenched and the look he gave John was distraught and wild. "I do not command you, John, and I have not sought your surrender."

And yet you have it, John thought. He said, "I want to be here, Penrith. I came because I was finding life very dull without you." He took a step and closed the distance between them. "I came because ever since the day you were shot, I have thought of little other than kissing you again."

"John--"

John could scarcely breathe.

"Are you sure?" Penrith asked him, searching his face.

John nodded.

It was tender at first. Penrith put a hand to John's face and brushed his lips against John's. John found himself at last gently exploring with his mouth the mouth whose contours his eyes already knew so intimately. But still Penrith held back, making no further movement, and John wondered if his inexpert caresses were too clumsy, or too bold, or in some wise unpleasing.

His doubt did not outlast many seconds, however, for Penrith groaned and seized John by the arms, pulling him hard up against his body. At last, at last, at last, the voice within John's heart said. Penrith's mouth was on his then, his lips parting and insisting that John's part to meet them. Suddenly Penrith's hands were on his back, and in his hair, and on his face, and John was helpless to do anything but put his own arms around Penrith's waist and seek a way to bring their two bodies still closer together.

Penrith made desperate sounds deep in his throat, hungry and lustful, as he broke from kissing John's mouth to planting his own upon John's jaw, his neck, his temple. Penrith's every movement was demanding and possessive, and John felt immensely powerful to command such desire.

He kissed Penrith again, only to feel Penrith's tongue upon his lips, and then, shockingly, between them, and in his mouth. John realised that whatever small experience of kissing he had had in the past, it had not included this sensation of being borne down upon and devoured; it had not included the roughness of a day's growth of beard under his lips, or any such powerful arms holding him. John gave himself over to learning this entirely new art.

"I am on fire for you," Penrith said. The vibration of his voice against John's ear threatened to rob him of his breath altogether, and when he felt the tip of Penrith's tongue enter there, John groaned, his senses nearly overwhelmed. Penrith pressed his body against John's, and pressed again, leaving John in no doubt as to the degree of his ardour. John was equally aroused. It was too late for shame, and far too late for doubts. John's every fear was submerged in this need to touch, to be touched, to move against Penrith's magnificent body until...

Penrith pulled away from him, breathing hard. "I cannot--we must not--"

"We must," John heard himself say, trying to draw Penrith closer again.

"John! You do not know what you are saying."

John did not care that Penrith was reminding him of his inexperience. His body demanded more--more of Penrith's lips, more of his hands, more of his skin than these damnable layers of clothing could permit. Even as a part of his mind seemed to stand by, watching in amazement, John reached for the buttons of Penrith's waistcoat. "Only let me touch you," he said. "Tell me what pleases you."

"John!" Penrith said again, and at the stern note of command in his voice, John stopped. "We must, of all things, be private. Now that we are--we are to be something more to each other than friends, nothing is so important as discretion!"

The sincerity of Penrith's tone, the clear worry in his eyes, caused the haze of lustful passion to clear a little from John's mind, and he realised in some chagrin that he had been ready to throw all caution away. This, then, was the state that drove men and women to disastrous folly. He understood in a single instant much that he had previously judged immoral and weak-minded, and forgave it all.

"You are right, of course," he said, breathing as though he had just been running. "I am sorry. I was not thinking."

"Nor was I. One does not, in such a case." Penrith gave a brief, rueful laugh. He took a step back from John and turned aside. "We have much to lose by letting ourselves forget that."

The freshening breeze that came to the hills at the end of the day seemed to find the space between them and widen it. Penrith stood gazing once again toward the west, and Acklebury watched him from two or three feet away. A proper distance, he thought.

"Come," Penrith said. "Let us go back down."

They started toward Ravensworth quietly, their horses picking a path down the side of the hill. When they reached a more level stretch, their long shadows thrown before them, Penrith, who had ridden a few paces ahead, drew around and came back, until their two horses were standing shoulder-to-flank, and Penrith's knee brushed John's. John waited, wondering what would happen next, fearing and hoping that Penrith would seize him again. But they were by this time within view of one or two cottages, their occupants tenants of Penrith and he their lord, and Penrith's hands did not leave the reins. He only leant close and said, "You see that I am not yet master of myself."

John dared to glance in the direction of his lordship's saddle, then raised his eyes back to his face. He swallowed, and nodded, feeling his face flush, and was not equal to replying.

"I do not know how I shall manage to be discreet with you under my roof," Penrith went on. "I cannot think of anything but what you have made evident to me today."

John cast his eyes down again. The sin being already committed in everything but flesh, the last hope of restraint torn away by the embrace they had shared, he had nothing further to lose, and the liberty conferred by this simple fact was intoxicating. "Then you had better get a longer coat," he said, "for I shall be very much in evidence under your roof."

"Good God!" Penrith laughed. "You are--" he broke off, shaking his head. "I do not know a word for what you are, but I am very eager to be home." With this, he directed his horse away and into a trot, looking back over his shoulder at John with a challenging grin. He turned his heels to his horse's flanks and broke into a gallop. John laughed, and followed suit.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, August, 1818

The exhilaration of a hard ride did much to settle John's state of excitement, and by the time he trotted back into the stable yard at Ravensworth, a minute or two behind Penrith, he was much less intemperate with desire than Penrith had left him on top of the hill. The long shadows were deepening toward dusk as he dismounted and handed his horse's reins to the groom. Penrith, who was waiting for him at the front door of the old manor, seemed easier, too.

"Bracken informs me that dinner will be served within the hour," he said, holding the door open for Acklebury and following him into the hall. Only one brief, raking look betrayed him as they walked together past Watson and into the small parlour that Penrith had caused to be fitted up as a dining-room à deux. He did not come any nearer than he ought, only handing John a glass of wine and then taking his seat at the table.

John sat opposite him. The heavy, ancient silver was polished but indifferently, the table-linens, though neatly pressed, showed signs of having recently come from many years' residence in a cupboard. The wine-glasses were of more recent date, Acklebury noted, in keeping with the creditable collection of bottles he had seen in the cellar earlier in the day.

"To your very good health, Acklebury," Penrith said. His tone was proper, with just the right degree of genial hospitality, and he did not betray by the slightest sign that anything had passed between them that might not be known by all the world. "If you should honour me with another visit in the future," he went on, "I hope that we will be able to dine in the great hall, and that you will see me with a more complete household."

John took his cue from his lordship's manner and said, "While I hope that all of your ambitious plans may be realised, I am happy to be here now, with so much still in its original state. It will make your renovations all the more impressive, I am sure, and in the meantime, everything here is charming and quiet, and very much to my taste."

Penrith inclined his head with a formality that John had almost never seen in him. John began to feel strangely divided, and was on the point of making some personal observation that would be more in keeping with his inner feelings, when Watson and Mrs Bracken came into the parlour bearing trays. Penrith's right eyebrow went up a tiny fraction, enough to say clearly, "See how, even here, we may not be private."

As the hearty and simple dinner was served to them, John had cause to be grateful for the upbringing that had forced him to cultivate the art of conversation. Penrith spoke further about his plans for the house and his lands, and John was able to enter intelligently into this discussion, posing a question here and there and listening carefully to Penrith's replies. Any onlooker, had such a person existed, would have seen only two gentlemen speaking companionably upon subjects to which no one could take exception.

At long last, the dishes were removed and Watson came in with brandy. Penrith said, "Tell Mrs Bracken that we very much enjoyed her dinner this evening, Watson."

"Very good, my lord."

As Watson shuffled away, Penrith indicated the armchairs at the other side of the room with a sardonic smile, and said, "Shall we take our brandy into the drawing room?"

John began to realise, as they sat near the open window in the warm summer evening, that until the servants were finished with their tasks and ready to retire to their quarters, he and Penrith must carry on in this desultory way. His nervousness grew as their embrace on the hilltop receded, and as what was to happen next loomed closer. John was at once very avid to feel Penrith's touch again, and very uncertain about what was expected of him.

"Do you know," Penrith said after a long moment of silence, "that you are only my third guest in this house?"

"Indeed?" Acklebury was taken aback, for the letter Penrith had written him inviting him to come to Ravensworth had stated clearly that Penrith hoped Acklebury would be his first visitor. He allowed his puzzlement to show on his face, but refrained from speaking it.

"Yes. The first was a schoolfellow of mine at Winchester College. He did not stay long. He found that it did not suit him here." Penrith gave him a brief, significant look over the top of his brandy snifter and Acklebury began to listen to him with different ears. Penrith was speaking now of something other than the history of the house.

Watson shuffled in and quietly enquired whether his lordship required anything further. His lordship did not, and Watson left again. In the silence that stretched out after this interruption, Acklebury heard Watson making his way up the front stairs, and knew that he was attending to his final duties of the evening: seeing that the gentlemen's beds were turned down, and that wash water was heated for them. This thought caused a surge of anticipation, almost amounting to fear, deep within Acklebury's body. "You were saying," he reminded Penrith, "that your first guest in this place did not find it to his taste."

"Yes. I was fond of him, though it was a youthful friendship and did not outlast the discovery of our...differences. Here is an odd thing! He and my good friend Wheaton married each other's sisters."

"How unusual." Acklebury sipped from his drink and watched Penrith's face carefully. He felt that he was beginning to understand the real conversation for which this one was merely a cipher.

Penrith seemed to nod, very slightly, as if encouraging John's further penetration into his meaning. He got up and walked to the open window. "The second was very much at his ease in this place. I knew him at Cambridge. He was several years older than I. He taught me a great deal."

Acklebury got out of his chair and went to stand with Penrith. The window was wide enough that they might both look out of it together without being too near each other. Acklebury searched his mind for something to say that would further one or other of the two conversations they were having. "Was his visit of a long duration?" he asked finally.

"Oh, long enough, I suppose," Penrith replied. "He left when his father commanded him to return to more...acceptable precincts, or pay a price for staying that he was unwilling to pay."

"And what of you? Would you have wished a longer visit?"

Penrith sighed. "No. I missed his society for a time after he left, but I was glad of the peace. I look back now and realise that I was still very much in mourning for my brother, though the customary year had passed, and it made me a little wild."

Acklebury felt a selfish relief to learn that Penrith did not pine for the companionship of friends who were friends no longer. He was sure, now, that he had perfectly understood Penrith's meaning, and said quietly, "I am glad that you have had such a friend. I am sorry that so much time has gone by from one visit to the next."

"Oh, one manages one way and another." Penrith seemed to hide a smirk behind the rim of his glass.

Acklebury felt himself blushing, partly at what Penrith must be referring to, and partly at his own ignorance upon the matter. That so much of what he had wondered about might soon be opened to him set his heart racing.

"What of you, Acklebury?" Penrith asked. He still spoke lightly, gazing out at the night, seeming to pay more attention to the brandy in his glass than to the import of his words. "You lived in Italy for a long time. You cannot have been without friends there."

Acklebury considered his next words carefully. "One or two," he said hesitantly. He did not wish to convey anything false, but he was uncomfortably aware that in intimate matters his experience was scant, and little to the point. "But none who taught me how to be a worthy guest here. For that, I am afraid, I must fall back on your forbearance."

It must have been an acceptable thing to say, for though Acklebury did not dare to look directly at Penrith, he thought he heard a smile in Penrith's voice as he murmured, "Oh, you need have no worries. I can show you how to go on."

They stood side by side looking out at the night. John's heart slowed a little, though Penrith's proximity and the strange tension of the conversation did not allow him to be easy. He took his brandy in very small sips, afraid to break the spell of the moment by draining his glass. At last he heard the sound of slow footsteps making their way down the front stair; the clanking of keys and the heavy slide of an old-fashioned iron lock; a door--the one letting into the odd little passageway to the servants' quarters, John felt sure--opened, then closed again.

There was silence in the house.

Penrith drained his glass and set it down. "I shall retire, I think," he said. "We keep early hours in the country. I hope you will not feel that you must do the same. Please, stay up as long as you like." He turned from the window. "No-one will disturb you in the morning. Good night, Acklebury."

Acklebury was on very uncertain ground. Surely the servants were all going to their beds now, and there were no constraints...was an embrace on a remote hillside to be the whole of the matter? Perhaps Acklebury had misunderstood everything...

His confusion must have showed plainly on his face, for Penrith drew near and whispered, "It is never safe," then stepped away again. "Come up whenever you are ready," he added in more normal tones.

"It has been a long day. I shall retire momentarily myself," John ventured, trying not to set a foot wrong.

"As you wish," Penrith said. At the door, he turned with a warm glance that reassured Acklebury, and said, "Well, good night." Acklebury waited until he heard Penrith's quick, firm tread up the stair and along the passage above, and until he heard a door open, and close, and the house fall silent again, before he took a candle and left the little parlour himself.

"Good night, sir," came a voice from the shadows near the servants' door. It was Jem, the sometimes-footman.

"Good night, Jem," Acklebury replied. How much such a young servant might have gleaned, or supposed, from seeing the lord of the manor go up the stairs to his bedroom in the company of his guest, Acklebury could not say, but that Penrith did not care to take even such a small risk was at once sobering and reassuring.

Acklebury was nevertheless surprised not to find Penrith waiting for him in the Queen's bedroom. He put his candle into the sconce above the wash basin, and, not knowing what else to do, undressed, washed, and made himself ready for bed. He supposed that there were rules of conduct even for such an occasion as this, but he did not know what they were.

He was on the point of simply getting into bed, when the door to his room opened and Penrith came in, attired as for bed himself, in a white nightshirt and an open dressing gown. John felt his heart speed up violently. Without a word, Penrith strode to him, pushed him against the bedpost, and kissed him with such force that his knees very nearly buckled. John recovered his senses after a moment and remembered what he had learnt on the hillside that afternoon. He opened his mouth under Penrith's and tilted his face so that they might each penetrate more deeply into the other's embrace. He had not fully appreciated the extremity of the tension under which they had both spent the evening until it was released. His entire body seemed to bubble over with the desire whose expression had been so carefully repressed and he could not seem to get his fill of Penrith's mouth.

"I thought this evening would never end," Penrith murmured when at least he must break off and steal a breath. "I did not want my dinner, or my brandy, or my hot water, or my turned-down bed. I wished all the servants at Jericho. I wanted only this."

When John, engrossed in pushing the dressing gown from Penrith's shoulders and exploring the shape of his body under only the fine white muslin of his night-shirt, did not make a reply, Penrith said, "Assure me again that you still want--"

"Yes," was all that John could manage to say, but it seemed to be all that Penrith needed to hear, for he leant in again, his kisses landing wetly and haphazardly on John's face and neck, his hands hard upon John's shoulders. John found himself being pushed backward, none too gently, onto the counterpane. Penrith laughed softly and got to his knees on the bed. As he moved to straddle John's thighs with his own, the thin, voluminous fabric of the nightshirt now concealed, now revealed the state to which his impatience for John had aroused him. John did not know what was to happen next, and yet he believed that he must have been waiting for it most of his life.

"Take this off!" Penrith said, pulling up at the hem of John's own night-shirt. So great was his urgency that he did not seem able to move from his position pinning John to the bed, and simply slid the shirt upwards with his hands, revealing John's nakedness from knee to chest. Before John could even think to feel ashamed or exposed, Penrith was bending lower, his own nightshirt billowing open at the neck and no longer hiding anything from John's fascinated view.

The tantalizing glimpse was cut off as Penrith's lips came into contact with the tender spot over John's breastbone. The surprise, the heat, of this unexpected kiss caused John almost to shudder, and to arch insensibly up. Penrith began laying a line of these caresses one below the other, showing no sign of halting his downward progress. As pleasurable as this was to John, he could not allow--

"Penrith!" he cried. Penrith's mouth was straying very far, and he looked up briefly, his eyes dark in the flickering light from John's one candle, his sardonic expression evident.

"Are you displeased?" Penrith asked. "Do you want me to stop?"

"It is--no! It is--does it not--?"

"I want to know every inch of your body," Penrith said, moving lower. "Do not fight me on this." His lips found what they had been seeking and John's head fell back against the bedding. Any objections he might have had to the idea of such contact vanished in the nearly overwhelming sensation of he thing in practice. Penrith's lips encircling him, his tongue moving with such insistent rhythm and purpose, brought John near the end of his restraint.

"My God, Penrith, you must stop. I cannot--"

One breath, one touch more, would finish the matter, John was sure, but Penrith drew away. John teetered on the exquisite edge of self control for the space of a dozen heartbeats before he felt his senses settle. He risked a glance along his body.

"Very well," Penrith said, raising himself. "Though I assure you, John, that it is not a thing that very many men would refuse."

"I do not refuse--there is little that I could refuse you!" John said, desperate for Penrith's understanding. "I only--it is--" He broke off.

"I believe I understand you," Penrith said, and his expression was good-humoured enough. "When you trust me better, you will know that I will not hurt you."

"I know that already," John said.

"What, then?"

"I--would not give you a disgust of me," John managed to say.

Penrith got up then, upon his knees, still straddling John's legs, and looking down at him from what seemed suddenly a very great height. His expression softened. "When we are private, you must not fear to give me a disgust of you. I am not a maiden, to shudder delicately at what a man truly is. And I know you are not, either. Let us dispense with any such notion here and now. When we know each other better, you will understand that you may be as unbridled as you please with me."

Penrith sat back on his heels once more, regarding John with a mischievous smile. In a single, fluid movement, he pulled his nightshirt off over his head and flung it aside. John ran his eyes over everything thus revealed, from his lordship's broad shoulders and lean, hard belly to his powerful thighs, and the proud, flushed member that rose between them. Penrith swooped lower suddenly, his lips hovering a bare inch or two from John's. "I will respect your wishes in this--for the moment--and apply myself to bringing about your satisfaction in another way."

John's anxiousness--to show himself worthy, to please Penrith, to take all due pleasure in an act that was entirely new to him--vanished with these words. Penrith would show him the way. He put his hands low on Penrith's hips, and pulled him down. He could not have said why, but what he wanted above all in this moment was for Penrith to cover him entirely, to be upon him, face to face and as intimately close as it was possible to be.

Penrith made a pleased and surprised little sound, and moved his hips in a way that stole John's breath in a gasp. Avid to offer to Penrith all that he could, John moved his legs apart. The sensation of Penrith's weight sinking between them was deeply gratifying. An accord, a perfect alignment, between their two bodies seemed to result from this shift. Penrith's head dropped, as if in concentration, and he buried his face in the hollow between John's neck and shoulder with an inarticulate moan. Then he raised himself and moved, a rolling, surging motion of his thighs and his hips that created a friction so ravishing that John could only spread his legs wider, and grip Penrith with his hands, and make him do it more. The powerful muscles that let Penrith master a galloping horse now gathered and surged again under John's hands, and again, and yet again, as Penrith's breath grew harsher. John threw his head back and lifted his body to meet Penrith's next thrust. Penrith's hair was tumbling against John's nose and mouth, and his hot skin smelled of soap and sweat. He was saying something, groaning words with each movement, half-formed blasphemies that John understood to have no other meaning than yes, yes, yes.

Sensation mounted upon sensation until John could compass no more. Penrith, seeming to sense John's imminent release, raised his head and took possession of his mouth. As John opened to him, at once helpless and all-powerful, he felt a vast, hot wave rise up from his inmost core and engulf his body, bursting out of him so suddenly that it overwhelmed him. He cried out, but Penrith's mouth was there to swallow the sound.

"Yes," Penrith murmured, drawing away a little. He continued his movements, spreading the hot slickness of John's release over his belly, and though John did not think he could bear any more stimulation, he felt his muscles clenching again into a hard and involuntary spasm, pulling another shudder from him, and a third. "You are--" Penrith panted, but whatever he had been about to say was lost in a loud gasp. His face contorted into a passionate mask as he raised himself upon his arms. John pushed up into his thrust, wanting only to increase his ecstasy and hasten his fall. Penrith cried out wordlessly, and John felt more hot wetness before Penrith collapsed onto his chest with a guttural moan, his face once more hidden against John's neck.

John brought his arms up to circle Penrith's body and hold him close. For a long moment they lay there together, Penrith cradled between John's thighs and in his arms, both of them breathing hard.

Little by little, John returned to himself, to a more usual awareness of his surroundings, only to find that nothing was usual any longer. Penrith was warm and heavy against him. The scent of their combined essences was in the air between and around them as Tristan shifted a little to one side to allow John to breathe.

I am lying naked and spent in another man's arms, he thought. He opened his eyes to see those arms, that man, shadowy and limned by candlelight, lying partly across him, his face still burrowing into John's shoulder, one hand open upon John's chest, possessive even in its languor.

"At last," John murmured.

"At last," Penrith agreed, from the hollow of John's neck. He raised his face slightly, and, with a breathless little laugh, said, "I have been very impatient for you."

John knew that they were speaking in different terms, and struggled to make his thought clearer. "This sinful thing," he explained. "It--it has loomed before me all my life. I no longer know why I was so frightened of it." Penrith raised himself on one elbow and looked into his face with so troubled an expression that John reconsidered his words. "I am glad it was you," he said.

"Do not be so hasty to put me in the past tense!" Penrith protested. "For I assure you, I shall be again in the very near future as I have just been." He moved his fingers in a slow circle over John's heart, as if defining a widening boundary to his territory. "And I beg leave to hope that this 'sinful thing'--as you please to call it--will not have been a unique occurrence." Under his gently jesting tone, John could hear his doubt, his uncertainty.

"I do not come as a casual visitor to this estate," John told him. "I am not going anywhere." And he thought, there is no going home again.

This realisation made him bold, almost reckless, as he felt the shame of years fall away from him. Reveling in a sense of freedom such as he had never known, John put his hands behind his head and smiled at Penrith. "And anyway," he added, "there are one or two things that I would like to know more about."

"Only one or two?"

"One or two at least," John amended.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, August, 1818

Tristan opened his eyes and knew from the greyish quality of the darkness in the Queen's Room that morning approached. He turned his head on the pillow and saw John, lying curled on his side as near to the edge of the bed as he could be, with his broad back toward Tristan, the sheet pulled firmly up under his arms.

Tristan remembered reaching for John in the night, and John moving away from him. He frowned. Memories of the night's pleasures returned in vivid glimpses as he woke more fully: hot embraces interwoven with murmured words of instruction, encouragement, and desire; passion spent once, twice, a third time almost in sleep; pleasures so warm and real that for only the merest instant could John's withdrawn posture make Tristan doubt of those pleasures having been entirely mutual. Perhaps John was only being polite; Tristan could easily imagine him wishing not to take even his own share of the bed, out of a desire to cause no inconvenience.

"John," Tristan said softly, putting a hand out to touch the shoulder that protruded from the sheet. John shifted slightly and sighed. Tristan moved nearer and insinuated one arm under the sheet, draping it over John's ribs. "John," he repeated, drawing himself up against John's back and speaking into his ear. John made a sleepy sound and tried to pull away. Tristan tightened his one-armed embrace and put his leg over John's, curling himself in to match John's posture, moving so as to leave John in no doubt of his desirous state, and to augment it. "Good morning, my--" he broke off, his impulse to use some fond term stopped by uncertainty, for he did not wish to worry John with an unseemly sentimentality, or offend him by calling him what a lady might expect to be called. "You, my dear sir," he said instead, "cannot get away from me without falling out of bed."

At this, John curled in on himself a little more tightly. Tristan pressed his nose into the back of John's neck, taking pleasure in the scent of his body. His hand discovered John's firm member, and began lazily stroking it, but John muttered something that sounded like a refusal, and managed to turn himself within the confines of Tristan's embrace to lie face down.

"Very well," Tristan said, disappointed and rather surprised. "The servants will be abroad at any moment, and I suppose I ought to go." He rose and snatched his night-shirt from the floor, and pulled it on, swallowing back his annoyance. He picked up his dressing gown, cast one last look at John's handsome face in repose, reminding himself that they had many days and nights before them in which to become better acquainted with one another's most intimate nature. He did not allow himself to dwell on such a thought, however, for it would make quitting John's bed impossible. He left the Queen's Room to cross the corridor and go into his own chamber.

Once risen of a morning, Tristan Jarrett was not a man to return to his bed until nightfall and fatigue compelled him back thither, and so it was odd for him to lie down again. Lie down he must, however, in order to disarrange the bed which his servants expected him to have slept in. He flung back the linens, stretched himself upon the mattress, and saw to it that the pillows were properly impressed with the shape of his head, then got up again before sleep should overtake him.

After washing the traces of the night from his skin with cold water, and dressing himself in yesterday's clothes, he made his way downstairs. Samson and Delilah lifted their heads from the carpet in the little drawing-room and followed him eagerly out into the summer morning.

Soon they were racing ahead of him as he strode out across his estate in the sunrise, his mood only a little marred by John's not having wakened with him. The dawning day was fair and sweet-smelling, and Tristan was soon content again, for though John had shown a little of his old reticence this morning, there could be no doubt that he had taken pleasure in their embraces during the night.

By the time he returned to the manor, the sun was well up, and smoke was issuing from the kitchen chimney. Tristan went in with a lively tread, his thoughts full of the prospect of a day of leisure in John's agreeable society. Watson, who was polishing the table in the entry hall, bowed to him as he came through the front door. "Is Mr Acklebury up yet?" Tristan asked.

"He has not rung, my lord."

Tristan wondered if John were still sleeping or only fending for himself, as was his wont. "I require to be shaved before breakfast," he told Watson. Despite his reluctance to submit himself to Watson's dubious barbering skills, he wished to look his best this morning in compliment to John.

A quarter of an hour later, as Watson performed this duty with the appearance of distaste and unease that he seemed unable to disguise, Tristan heard the door to the Queen's Room open. John's footsteps trailed away along the corridor and down the stairs. That John did not look in or say good morning struck Tristan as odd. Perhaps, he thought, John was only abashed; after all, there was no entry in the books of etiquette to instruct one gentleman upon the proper way to greet another after a night of secret amours.

He found John in the parlour. A breakfast was set on the sideboard, but John was looking out the window and did not appear to have eaten anything. At Tristan's approach, he turned. His expression was wary, his eyes wide and gravely alert. Tristan suddenly felt that he ought to slow his steps, reach out an empty hand, and make soft, reassuring sounds. He told himself not to be ridiculous; that John was not a frightened horse. Nevertheless, he did not come closer, but only said, "Good morning."

"Good morning," John replied, his expression scarcely relaxing at all.

Tristan looked over his shoulder at the room's open door, and, seeing no sign of his servants, came forward. He would have liked nothing better than to kiss or embrace John, but John's manner did not seem to give permission for such an action, and it would in any case be inadvisable. Instead, Tristan said, "Did you sleep well?" in a low, private tone.

A rosy flush overspread John's face. "I--I slept as well as I had any right to expect on my first night in an unfamiliar house." He glanced at Tristan. "I trust I did not--that is..."

"You disturbed my sleep mightily," Tristan said in answer to John's unfinished question. He moved nearer and bent his head to say into John's ear, "More than once. And yet I have not felt so well in a very long time."

Still John did not smile or laugh, and seemed altogether unequal to answering such a warm allusion. Tristan could not count the number of times he had imagined this morning; in these daydreams John had been sometimes reticent, sometimes wanton, sometimes demanding and always ultimately willing; but Tristan had never imagined such unease. At the look in John's eyes, all of Tristan's hopes crumpled, and all of his fancies felt suddenly foolish. He became aware that John was dressed rather more straitly than such a morning of luxury called for, his waistcoat done up entirely, his neck-cloth neatly arranged, a fine coat of pale grey buttoned over all. It was a moment before realisation dawned: John was attired as for travel.

His dismay and hurt at this unwelcome turn of events must at all costs be kept private. Tristan swallowed them back and drew the mantle of his rank about him like a cloak. "Do you wish me to order the carriage?" he asked in a cold, haughty voice.

John looked up, startled, and did not immediately answer. The excess of his emotion became slowly apparent to Tristan in the compression of his lips, the reddening of his cheeks, the wild brightness of his eyes. Everything in his bearing as he stood before Tristan spoke of agony, of wishing to be gone and being constrained to stay. Tristan braced himself to hear the words I do not wish this, or This is not worth the price that I must pay, or, worst of all, I am not like you. John's continued silence only gave Tristan's fears a looser rein.

"It will be no trouble," he went on, trying to sound bored, but unable to keep a sharp note from his voice. "It would be a remarkably short visit after such a long journey, but if even the mild attentions I paid you last night were too much for your delicacy of mind to compass, then I shall certainly not make you stay." This torrent of words might have flowed longer, had Tristan not become aware of John's expression, comprised in equal measure of shame and horror.

John stared at him for a long, stunned moment, then turned and left the room.

Tristan watched him go, a knot of tension forming between his eyebrows, and a painful hollow in his chest. Short of breath and almost shaking with the force of feelings he could not contain, he left the house by the back door and went directly to the stables. Jem hastened to saddle Jupiter, clearly alarmed at his lordship's temperamental mood.

Tristan galloped off without gloves, hat or coat, and it was not until he had gone two miles along the lane leading away from the village that the disorder of his feelings began to diminish. He slowed his horse to a trot. He did not know what to think of John's disappointing want of courage, and could not bear to consider what it meant that John's ardour had cooled so sharply from night to morning, but he became aware of his own unconscionable lapse of manners, and knew that he must at least apologise to John for it. He turned and rode back to Ravensworth.

John had not gone. He was in the French garden with a sketching block and a pencil. He had drawn a picture of Samson, Tristan saw as he looked out of the drawing room window. John heard him and turned to the window with a miserable look, setting aside his sketch and rising.

"Stay there a moment, John," Tristan said. "I would have a word with you." Then, worried that John might flee in the space of time necessary to walk through the house, out the front door and all the way around to the back garden, he simply climbed out the window. "Satterlee agrees with me that a pair of French doors just here must on no account be left out of my plans," he said, brushing at his trousers as he leapt lightly to the ground. John's expression became slightly incredulous, but even at this he did not smile, or laugh, or unbend.

"I am sorry for my words earlier," Tristan began, coming to stand before him. Samson uttered a whimper. "I beg your pardon for having spoken so thoughtlessly. I do not make excuses for myself, and in my defence I will say only that your wish to leave so soon has distressed me greatly." He reached a hand towards John's shoulder.

John turned away from his touch, and Tristan drew his hand back slowly, unwilling to believe that he was alone in the depth of his feelings about what had passed between them in the night. He tried to moderate his tone. "I cannot know what has caused your unhappiness unless you will speak to me." He waited, looking at John's profile in the morning sunlight.

John spoke at last. "We are not alike, you and I."

Tristan swallowed, and blinked, aware of an unseemly stinging in his eyes, and found it difficult to draw a breath. "What do you mean?" he managed to whisper.

John regarded him openly. "Only that I am not as strong as you are. I am not open in my manner, and not resilient in my feelings. I cannot say everything that is in my heart, as you can."

These last words were uttered in tones of reproach, but Tristan did not regard it. Hope loosened his throat again. "I wish you will say some of it." He paused to swallow. "I know it is hard for you to speak of certain things. I have seen this reserve in you since the day we met, and I learnt very early to accept it as part of your nature. Forgive me for my rash words, John, I beg you! I will do anything to put right what I have done wrong, only do not walk away. I cannot bear--" He stopped himself. I cannot bear your leaving, he thought. "I wish you will tell me what I have done to cause you to want to go away so soon."

"You have done nothing," John said. His eyes were still wide, but the look of dismay in them was giving way to puzzlement. "Some idea of that kind may have been in my mind this morning, it is true, but I have thought better of it."

"Why?" Tristan asked, his voice pitched absurdly high. He cleared his throat and moderated his tone. "Why did you wish to leave?"

"I only had some thought of flight this morning when I woke, and began to remember our..." He finished with a small motion of his hand, and fell silent, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, raising his hand quite unconsciously to the back of his head, and then returning it to his pocket.

Recognising John's restlessness better than John did himself, Tristan said, "Come, let us walk." John preceded him readily enough through the gate in the hedge, and it did not require many steps away from the house and across the surrounding fields for him to become a little easier in his manner.

"It is a very great thing to me," John said after a time. "I have no wish to make you uneasy with an excess of emotion, but I am not able to view what we...what we have now become, with indifference. I feel it strongly."

Tristan longed to interject some comment, some small jest, to relieve his own tension as John slowly untangled his thoughts, but he knew that to do so would be to curtail the answer he had asked for, so he held his tongue. They strode along in the morning sun, and Tristan waited, feeling his own great agitation subside into a tense state of cautious hope.

Soon enough, motion, exertion, and the circumstance in which two people might best converse without the need to look into one another's eyes had the hoped-for effect, and John spoke again. "When I awoke this morning and examined everything again in the daylight, I will admit to some little shock, perhaps even fear, at--at what I found myself to have become."

With his head lowered and his hands in his pockets, he seemed to shoulder his way into a strong wind, though the morning was still. "But that is not true. Last night did not make me anything I was not already. It only took away the last possibility of denial." He half-turned his face toward Tristan at this. "I am more settled now."

"Was it so bad, waking to find me there?"

"It was--strange to me," John said quietly. "I do not know the right way to behave. I live alone. I am not accustomed to share anyone's bed."

Tristan quite suddenly saw the night, and the morning, from John's perspective. "Dear God!" he said. "I feel rather foolish. I ought to have realised... Forgive me! I--well, it will not astonish you to learn that over the past few months, I have given some thought to last night."

John huffed out a small laugh and shook his head.

"But it seems that I did not give enough thought to today, and for that I am sincerely sorry. I had forgotten how this particular morning feels. My own was five years ago, and since I have known you, and come to understand that you have not, perhaps, not had such a morning, I ought to have done more to ensure that yours was better than mine." He realised that this must sound as if he had been planning John's seduction, and though it was not far from the truth, he hastened to add, "That is, I hoped I might have the honour of offering you such a morning, after such an evening."

John's surprising response was, "Tell me about it."

"About--?"

"About your...your morning."

"Oh. Oh, well..." Tristan hesitated, but quickly decided that disclosure of the facts would be better than secrecy, as it generally was. "My...the other person in the case was careless of my feelings on that day, and did not seem to realise that I was rather undone by all that he had introduced me to. I am not proud of what I was in those days, and nobody will be the better for my recounting all of its details, so I shall not do so." He looked at John. His profile as he walked along, gazing at the ground before him, did not reveal very much, but he was silent, and listening, so Tristan continued.

"I will tell you that I had known only one other man at that point--a boy really, for we were about seventeen years old, and still in school--so I knew something of matters, and did not doubt of what this man's intentions were. Mine were the same, though I pretended to myself that they were not. I had not known him above a fortnight, which time was spent in establishing these intentions but not yet acting on them, when he persuaded me to go with him to a private club."

John's questioning glance said clearly that he had not the least idea of what Tristan meant.

"There are places where men of certain persuasions may go without fear of discovery," Tristan said carefully. "I was eighteen years old, and entirely ignorant of the existence of such places. I certainly had no notion of what went on in them."

John looked so uncomfortable that Tristan quickly decided to be clearer, rather than let his imagination paint a picture that was either far worse, or far more innocent, than had actually been the case.

"I was...attended to by more than one man, while my friend watched," Tristan said. He tried to measure his words out slowly, but it was not easy, for, having begun, he was anxious to be done. "I was persuaded to give pleasure in turn to others. The diffidence that anyone must feel in such a circumstance was overcome in me by the use of opium. I make no excuse for my having accepted the pipe in the first place, but once it was done, all that followed seemed easy enough."

There was more, but John's faint "I see" told Tristan that he had said enough of particulars, and so he moved on to generalities. "I went on in that way for some time, and grew unfortunately accustomed to things that ought to shock anyone of normal sensibilities. It has been three years since I left those things behind, but I am afraid that one cannot unknow what one has been exposed to. I did not realise, until this morning, that my gauge of what is shocking is very inaccurate."

Tristan thought again of the warmth, the intimacy of their embraces last night, and could not persuade himself of their having been other than tender and fond. In disclosing so much of his unsavoury past, he hoped to help John come to the same conclusion, but he feared John's disgust, and waited anxiously for a response. John said nothing for a long while as they continued their walk. Then he asked, "Do you miss it?"

Tristan halted, and caused John to do the same by taking hold of his arm. This was not what he had expected. "No, John. I do not miss it. I wonder that you should ask."

John shrugged. "In Venice, I saw a great many things to make me question my own ideas of what is...usual. I was among people there who frequently chided me for being bland, or colourless, by comparison to themselves. I suppose I am."

Tristan looked at him, at his strong, handsome face and powerful body, at the glint of self-deprecating humour in his eye even now, and felt a moment's anger on his behalf. "Then you were among an extraordinarily foolish set of Venetians," he said, "for nothing could be further from the truth, and I will not hear another word against you!"

"Very well," John said softly, and began walking again. They were by this time in the hedge-lined lane that led off around the grounds of Ravensworth and eventually into the village. The morning was still and warm, the sky cloudless, the lane quite empty but for themselves. Tristan noted that John did not keep quite such a distance between them as before.

"I look back on that period of my life with abhorrence, but I would be lying if I told you that it was without any value to me, for it taught me a great deal."

John glanced up at this. "I'm not sure that I ought to ask what you learnt."

"I learnt what I do and do not wish my life to be."

"Only that?" John said. His voice was warmer now, and that part of his face that Tristan could perceive from the side seemed to repress a smile.

"You are ironical," Tristan said with a smile of his own. "But I am not. I had a dangerous tendency to carelessness, for what difference could it make whether I condemned myself to hell with a man of low character or a man of high character? So long as I called my own nature wicked, I could not tell the difference."

"You--you do not fight your nature any more?"

"No. It was Charlotte--Lady Penrith, that is, David's widow--who taught me to accept myself." Tristan was surprised by his own words, for he had never spoken to anyone of the conversation that had altered the course of his life. He found that he wanted John to know of it. "She came to Cambridge to take me back to London, where I lived under her eye until I was more myself. She told me that her last real conversation with David before his death was about me--about my nature."

John was silent beside him as they walked.

"David was unhappy with me--naturally enough, I suppose--and she reminded him that I was still his brother and his friend--" Tristan fought down the sudden emotion in his voice. "She said that she repeated it until he was calmer, and made him promise always to remember, but he was killed the next day." He took a deep breath and exhaled, letting his sorrow go. "Charlotte told me that I was her brother now, and that she would do her best to look after me, as David would have done. 'I will not countenance debauchery,' she said, 'and I will not see you fling yourself away on persons of low character. I expect you to behave as a gentleman...'" Tristan trailed off with a small laugh. "Well, she said a great deal more, and laid down the law very clearly, but one thing above all has remained with me: 'Vice lies in one's actions, not in one's nature. I am sorry you are not like other men, but I should not like to see you ruin your life because of it.' Those were her words."

"She must be a remarkable woman."

"Oh, she is," Tristan agreed. "I learnt to be cautious, and to accept that secrecy and concealment are necessary, but I do not fight what I am. I might more profitably try to be shorter."

John gave a small laugh that was quickly replaced with more seriousness. "It is true that I do not have your courage."

"John, please, I beg you will forgive me for impugning your honour earlier. I do not think you delicate, or lacking in courage. You show strength of character in everything you do! I shall not try to convince you that your coming here, to me, was an act of courage, for I believe you view it as a sort of defeat--"

"No!" John protested in a strained voice.

Tristan ignored it. "A surrender, then. In any case, you have fought your nature for a very long time. You said so yourself, John," he added when John seemed about to argue again. "I am honoured by it."

"It was not, I think, anything very extraordinary for you," John said softly.

"Why? Because I did not invite two or three other men to share in it? Because you did not insist upon being bound with ropes? Because we did not smoke opium together?" Tristan realised that his arms were flung wide and that his voice had risen. He moderated his tone. "I learnt at nineteen that these things were hollow; it took me until I was twenty to break from them, and for the past three years I have worked to deserve what I found with you last night. When you said that you wished to leave, my fear of losing what I had so lately found made me say things I did not mean."

John paused again in the lane and looked at Tristan directly. "I did not say I wished to leave."

"You were dressed for travel. You are still dressed for travel," Tristan said, indicating the generality of John's attire with a sweeping gesture.

John looked down at his coat. "I always dress this way, Penrith."

It was, Tristan realised, quite true, and to cover his feeling of foolishness he said, rather feebly, "You are all buttons and knots and I do not know what else, as if we were strangers!"

John gave a strained laugh. "Do you mean that you supposed me ready to order the carriage and quit Ravensworth because I shaved, and...and buttoned my waistcoat?"

"You did not wish my attentions this morning," Tristan pointed out.

"I did not know what to do!"

Tristan seized John then, and kissed him. A startled sound came from John's throat, and he did not at first respond, but Tristan enfolded him tightly, one hand at his nape and the other firm upon his posterior, and did not draw his lips away. When John at last relaxed into his embrace and began to return the kiss, Tristan knew that he had not mistaken last night's ardour. John was not unwilling, not indisposed to passion; he was only uncertain.

"I will not tell you how to behave, John," Tristan said after a time, "but do not doubt of my pleasure in your society."

"Have patience with me, my lord," John murmured, his words muffled by the kisses he began to lay along Tristan's jaw. He left off and looked into Tristan's eyes, searching, as if he were still unsure of Tristan's forbearance. "The change in my circumstances is very great. You must give me a while to become familiar with it." Laughter came into his expression then and he drew away from Tristan's embrace, favouring him with one of his slantwise looks. "Did you wish me to lounge about in my shirtsleeves all day?"

"I remember once seeing you in my shirtsleeves," Tristan rejoined, his spirits lifted by John's willingness to make sport of him again. "I have been wishing to see it again."

Greatly to his astonishment, John began to unbutton his coat. He took it off and handed it to Tristan, who accepted it wordlessly, wondering what fresh surprise John might deliver. John unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and pulled them down over his hands.

"There," he said. "That is what I look like in your shirtsleeves."

Tristan could not prevent himself from turning his eyes up, though he laughed. "You have never returned my shirt," he pointed out. "Cooper confirms it."

"Have I not?" John raised his eyebrows in a very poor imitation of innocence. "I cannot think how I overlooked such a thing. I ought to speak to Marchbanks about it."

"You kept my shirt on purpose!" Tristan cried.

"That would be stealing."

"It was a very good shirt. I hope you do not paint in it."

"Oh, no! I did mistake it for a nightshirt one evening. Marchbanks looked at me very oddly the next morning."

Tristan bit his lip. He could not tell whether John knew how provocative he was being. "I am very tempted to give you another of my shirts, if it will allow me to enjoy the thought of you sleeping in it when we cannot be together."

"Well," John said, taking his coat back from Tristan's hand, "you may, of course, do as you wish, but I don't think I shall soon have any great need for a new nightshirt."

With a gasp of astonishment that was only partly feigned, Tristan made to slap John's bottom, crying, "John! You scandalous--" He could not think of a word, and John danced away neatly with a mocking laugh.

"I am famished," Tristan declared as the realisation of this fact struck him. "Do you think Bracken will give us something to eat, since we let her breakfast go to waste?"

John shrugged. "Let us go back and find out."

They started together back towards the house. "Do you forgive me for my rash words earlier?" Tristan asked.

For answer, John nudged Tristan's shoulder with his own, and did not draw away from this companionable contact until the lane gave onto the open field, and they must once again walk with a more seemly distance between them.


End of Part II

Chapter Text

Restraint
Part III

Ravensworth, August, 1818

Tristan was delighted to discover that he wished John at his side as much during the bright, busy hours of the day as during the secret hours of the night. He could admit to himself that some worries upon this head had assailed him before John's arrival, for although he knew John to be excellent company in London, there was not as much to do in the country, and Tristan had feared John's boredom, or his own.

He need not have worried. Once they had come to an accord after the little quarrel that had marked their first morning together, the atmosphere at Ravensworth became very easy. Putting together all he now knew of him, Tristan perceived that John's greatest need was to be allowed the free expression of his nature. Affection toward another man was the most novel part of that expression, but it was not, Tristan realised, the whole of it. John needed more time than Tristan did to discover his own feelings and tease out the strands of his own thoughts. Tristan began to see that John's propriety did not spring from any sense of superior self-discipline, but from a wish never to put a foot wrong. John, for all of his adventures in a foreign land, needed to feel at home.

So Tristan exhorted John to treat Ravensworth as his own house, and was pleased when John took him at his word, declining what he did not care to do, asking for what he needed, and generally making free of the house without ceremony. The disrepair of Ravensworth, far from annoying John, seemed to give him the permission he required to be informal. He was in every particular an ideal guest.

John's horsemanship was so much improved that Tristan did not hesitate to break into a gallop when they rode together; John was not accustomed to long country rides, but assured Tristan that he soon would be, and, meanwhile, that Tristan ought to ride on if he wished, while John was perfectly happy to return to the house. Samson and Delilah, moreover, seemed to take to their new friend, and he to them, a circumstance which pleased Tristan excessively.

To Tristan's great amazement, John was a willing and surprisingly canny--or perhaps lucky--partner in an evening hand of cards, winning twenty guineas after dinner on the second day of his stay, and quite unapologetically collecting his lordship's note of hand when Tristan confessed that he did not have so much money about his person. This note Tristan wrote out while muttering about secret gambling proclivities.

"You grumble," John said, accepting the note, "but you are delighted that I am not as strait-laced as you feared. Everyone who makes this astonishing discovery is. You might as well admit it."

On John's third afternoon at Ravensworth, Tristan's steward called, wishing to apprise his lordship of the need to restore a long section of dry stone wall between two fields whose tenants were each unable to repair it themselves, one being a very old man, and the other being a widow with small children.

"It seems that duty calls," Tristan told John. The day was overcast and threatened rain, and John was reading, his feet up, in the disused room room at the front of the house that he had quietly appropriated for his painting. "Ricks thinks it best if I go and speak to some of my cottagers today. I have been putting it off, I'm afraid. Would you care to ride along?"

John looked up from his book and, in what seemed almost a feat of mind-reading, said, "The last thing you need, my lord, is the speculation of the entire neighbourhood. And the last thing I need is another long ride, though I thank you for asking. I shall amuse myself quite happily here."

"How Ricks and all of my tenants manage when I am absent is a mystery to me," Tristan said, trying for a degree of lordly insouciance.

John's smile was indulgent enough to tell him he had failed and need not try further. "One cannot blame them for taking full advantage of your presence," John said. "I do not think every landlord in England is willing to be so attentive. I am sure they count themselves fortunate. Go and do your duty. I shall be somewhere about when you come back."

Tristan left him with a grateful smile. However much he relished John's society--and he was very partial to it indeed--he found the notion of taking a guest on a visit to his tenants somehow disrespectful of the people who depended on him. They deserved to feel that their lord's attention, when they had it, was undivided. He was glad John had declined.

By the time Tristan returned to Ravensworth, his sense of noblesse oblige, though still intact, was sorely tried. Mrs Rowbottom, the young widow, had insisted on giving him a tankard of rough ale, of which he had drunk as much as he could bear, and a slice of her famous butter-cake, which though pleasant, was not what he was accustomed to eat and sat rather heavily on his stomach. Mr Applegate, the elderly tenant of the next farm, had wished to reminisce not about the seventh Viscount Penrith, nor even the sixth, but the fifth, Tristan's great-uncle, who had died long before Tristan's birth.

Ricks then persuaded his young lordship to return with him to his house in the village, where Mrs Ricks pressed a slice or two of ham, another glass of ale, and some of her very good bread on him, saying that she had never known a strong young man to say no to food, and generally behaving as if Lord Penrith were one of her sons. A detailed exposition by Ricks of the labour and cost required to repair the stone wall, and as long as his lordship was of a mind to look after his lands, the two cottages they had visited, occupied another hour, and when his lordship was finally free to turn Jupiter back towards Ravensworth, it was dark, the dinner hour was long past, and he was sensible of a slight headache and a great desire to see John.

As he handed Jupiter's reins to a yawning Jem and wished him good night, he heard a robust and heartfelt baritone issuing from the open windows of the Queen's Bedroom. Delighted at such convincing evidence of John's ease in his house, Tristan went inside and, stopping only to toss his hat and gloves onto the hall table, he mounted the stairs.

He paused before John's door. John seemed to be singing in Italian, some pretty air that Tristan thought he must have heard somewhere before. He perceived the words "O bocca bocca bella!" and recognised the song about the beautiful mouth, that Signorina Moretti had dedicated to John at her recital.

The singing was momentarily interrupted by the sound of water. John, evidently, was taking a bath. Tristan opened the door a small distance and peered into the room. The air within had a humid, slightly steamy quality, and was permeated by the pleasant scent of lavender soap. It was dark but for a soft glow given off by one or two candles situated behind the dressing screen, whose panels of linen shielded most of the bath from view.

A silhouette of the tub, and of the head and arms of its occupant, was cast by candlelight upon the screen. One of John's feet came to rest on the edge of the tub, the shadow of his knee rising up. The posture thus revealed was very clearly intended to make John's most private region more conveniently reached. Tristan grinned. To judge from the steadiness of the Italian air that John continued to sing, he was only washing, and not otherwise attending to himself.

Tristan eased the door open under the cover of a particularly full-throated passage. John had a rather good voice, Tristan reflected. He disliked interrupting it, but he could not stand in the corridor listening like a thief at the door, so he rapped upon the door-frame.

The song ceased with an embarrassed cough, and there was a great splashing. Tristan cast a glance behind him into the hallway, and, seeing no servant, stepped inside the Queen's Room and closed the door. "It is I," he said.

"Oh!" John cried, sounding startled. There was more splashing, and then John's silhouette filled the screen as he rose from the bath. Some of the finest excellencies of John's body--his powerful shoulders, the taper therefrom to his narrow hips and well-formed posterior--were greatly emphasised in their shadow form.

As John turned to reach for his dressing-gown, it was clear that while his intent may have been only to wash himself, his ablutions had had a most lively effect on his spirit. He emerged hastily from behind the screen, self-consciously trying to close his dressing gown. "Penrith--"

On hearing his title, rather than his name, Tristan's pleasant mood gave way to a moment's vexation, and before John could tie the gown closed, Tristan reached him and put his hands inside it, spreading the heavily brocaded lapels. John's skin was damp, his hair wet. His lips were parted in surprise, and even in the dim light of few candles, his discomfiture was evident.

"Do not be so quick to cover yourself," Tristan said in a low voice, and pushed the dressing gown off John's shoulders. It slid to the floor in a rustle of silk and wool. John made a hasty, shamed movement, as if he would hide his state of arousal from Tristan's eyes.

Tristan took hold of his wrist. "There is no need for that."

John slowly relaxed his arm and let Tristan move it aside, looking away awkwardly. Tristan regarded his averted face for a long moment before sighing and releasing his hand. John immediately bent to retrieve his dressing gown.

Once he was covered, he seemed able to meet Tristan's eye. "I am sorry, Penrith," he said, and Tristan blinked against this second use of his title. "I am not as free as you would wish me to be."

"It is not that. Do not distress yourself about that, Acklebury." Tristan could not stop himself from placing rather too much emphasis on the name.

"Ackle--" John looked at him, startled, and then comprehension dawned clearly upon his features. "Good God," he said. "I have been calling you Penrith, haven't I?" He sat heavily down upon the bed and put a hand through his damp hair, all rigidity and formality gone. "It is very strange that I should do so. In my mind, you are always Tristan. I am at a loss to account for my lapse." He looked up at Tristan and patted the bed beside him. "Come, forgive me."

Tristan sat down next to him, somewhat mollified.

"I think," John said after a moment, "that I still go very much in awe of you."

"In awe--? That is quite absurd."

"Not at all. Consider: I am a guest in your ancient baronial hall--"

"I am a viscount, Acklebury, not a baron." In spite of his pique, Tristan felt a smile coming to his face.

"Yes, my lord," John replied, very seriously. He folded his hands in his lap in a gesture so prim that Tristan nearly laughed. "You are a viscount. What is more, you are very tall."

"I know I am. What has that to say to anything?" Tristan demanded.

"Your presence is commanding. I do not think you are aware of how much so."

Tristan considered this. He supposed that it was true, though he did not really believe that he had the power to intimidate John.

"Furthermore," John said, "taking only the present and particular circumstances into account, you are dressed, and I am not." John's hands remained clasped in his lap, like a choirboy's. "You came upon me in a rather defenceless state."

Tristan could not resist rejoining, "You did not look defenceless." He glanced at John, first at his face, and then pointedly downward.

"On the contrary, I gave proof that I have no defence against thoughts of you." John's expression was such a blend of humour, embarrassment, and boldness that Tristan found himself relenting utterly.

John's prim hands at last parted, one coming to rest on the bed just behind Tristan's back, the other upon Tristan's knee. "Do not refine too much upon what burst out of my thoughtless mouth in such a moment, I beg you."

"Very well." Tristan grinned and kissed him. "I am commanding, am I?"

"You are."

"I do not wish to be on that footing with you. You know I do not," Tristan said.

"I am sorry to hear you say so," was John's rather surprising reply. He withdrew his hand from Tristan's knee and instead leant heavily against his shoulder. "Until I am better acquainted with your desires and pleasures, I depend upon you telling me what to do. I have said so. For a time, anyway, you must think of yourself as the master, and of me as the apprentice. I am, as such, entirely at your command."

Tristan swallowed, and was unequal to replying. The counterpane presented a rich texture to the fingertips of his right hand and he realised that he was toying with it. He could feel the humid warmth of John's still-damp skin through his coat-sleeve, and was unable to account for the sudden diffidence he felt in the face of John's trust. To cover it, he seized on an idea that came to him from John's words. "When you were in Venice--that is, you speak often of your painting master. Was he--?"

John's eyes widened in an instant expression of astonished distaste. "Oh, good God, no. Maestro Fiorio was a shocking libertine, but I was not in his style. And, I hasten to assure you, he was not in mine."

Tristan felt a great relief. "I have been wondering about that for some time," he said. "And the other evening, when you spoke of certain friendships that you had enjoyed in Venice, I thought--but, forgive me, John. I should have known better. You were, of course, very popular with the Venetian ladies."

At this gambit, which Tristan was prepared to admit had been rather feeble, John turned his eyes up in a brief moment of exasperation. "I flatter myself that I was agreeable to those I met in Venetian society," he said. "I was civil, my Italian is good enough to carry me through polite conversation, and I hope I did nothing to give people a disgust of me. So yes, I was popular enough with Venetian ladies. But I believe you are asking quite a different question."

"I am." Tristan grinned, rising to push John back onto the bed and lean over him. John made no protest, but only lay looking up at him expectantly. "I want to know about your intimates. Your lovers. I want to know what sort of person has preceded me to the pleasures of your body. If it was not Maestro Fiorio, and it was not Venetian ladies, then who?"

John raised his hips to move himself farther back on the bed, and Tristan could not tell whether he intended this movement to be as wanton as it was. Tristan allowed himself to fall by John's side, and regarded him, his head propped on his hand.

"I did not say that I knew no Venetian ladies intimately," John corrected him. "I admitted that I was popular with them."

"So it was a Venetian lady!" Tristan fully expected to hear the name of Signorina Moretti in John's next utterance.

"No. I had a brief...liaison... with a girl there. Her name was Violetta. She was a countrywoman, and very pretty. She made such eyes at me, and there was a...a certain gentleman importuning me in a way that I could no longer ignore, so I am afraid that Violetta became my shield--my proof that I was not..."

"I understand," Tristan said. He was hearing only what he had asked to be told, and must therefore do his best to overcome the sudden jealousy that this information aroused.

"It was abominable of me, and I broke with her as soon as I could. Happily there were no...consequences."

"There is not, in short, a little Giovanni or Giovanna scampering about the streets of Venice with green eyes and freckles?"

"No. And I thank God that Violetta was spared that indignity, for I could not have married her."

"You could have provided for her, though."

"That would hardly be the same thing!"

"Oh, I do not know. My father has done it above half a dozen times, I am fairly sure."

John looked at him with a sad smile and touched his mouth, almost as if to hush him. Tristan parted his lips and kissed the thumb that strayed there. "So, to answer your question," John said, stroking Tristan's lower lip, "Violetta was before you."

Tristan swallowed. John's lying here now, and their embraces, and everything in John's behaviour toward him, made it plain that John was not inclined to abandon him for the pleasures of a woman's arms, but he could not keep the anxiousness from his voice as he asked, "Only Violetta?"

"Only Violetta." John took a little sliver of his lower lip between his teeth and instantly released it. "Though Antonio Moretti--that was the gentleman I mentioned--did steal a kiss from me at Signora Paschale's Carnavale ball last year."

"He-- what?" Surprise and amusement and a fresh flare of jealousy vied for the uppermost position in Tristan's mind until he realised just what John had said. He raised his head from his hand. "Wait a moment! Moretti?"

"Yes. Cecilia's--that is, Signorina Moretti's--brother."

Tristan gaped at him. "So you are telling me that entire families fall in love with you! Do I understand you correctly?"

"Oh no!" John said, his eyes wide and absurdly innocent. "Cecilia and Antonio are but two of a very large family. I have no reason to believe that Sebastiano, or Caterina, or Anna, or Gianbattista, or Augustino, or, let me see...yes! Teresa, that was the youngest sister's name, Teresa--I have no reason to suppose that any of the rest of them had more than a civil interest in me." John finally gave in to a silly grin.

Tristan laughed. "But this Antonio Moretti forgot himself so far as to--to what? To drag you into an alcove and kiss you?"

"It was out of doors, actually," John said. "On the landing behind Signora Paschale's house on the Canale Castelli at about three or four o'clock in the morning. I was waiting for a gondola to take me home. Signor Moretti was, perhaps, a little drunk. He seized me and kissed me, quite thoroughly."

"The blackguard!" Tristan muttered, though the image that formed in his mind, and the powerful feeling of ownership that accompanied it, were oddly arousing.

"Yes. It shocked me deeply, I am afraid," John said. "I allowed it to go on far longer than I ought to have done. I told myself--well, you may imagine the things I told myself, about sin, and depravity, and hell, when I could not pretend that I did not like it, or wish it to happen again."

"Poor John," Tristan said. "I have told myself many of those things."

John's eyebrows drew down in puzzlement. "Have you? You have said that you are at ease with your nature."

Tristan smiled. "Perhaps I did not speak sternly to myself about sin, for I was not raised by a clergyman, or next door to a cathedral, but I assure you, John, I did try to deny my nature, as every man must if he is...as I am."

"As we are," John corrected, and Tristan felt something give way in his heart, some last uncertainty. John's frown deepened. Tristan wished he might smooth away the crease that formed between John's eyebrows; he wished John to be easy and happy in what he had just so quietly declared.

"You have not finished your story," Tristan reminded him. "Did you--did you seek this Moretti fellow's attentions again?"

"No. I went to my lodgings and began packing to come home. I thought that no Englishman would be so intemperate, for none had ever been. I thought that I would be safe."

Tristan remembered the unfinished painting of the Grand Canal that hung in John's lodgings. Here, then, was the reason he had not stayed to complete it. "I have been your intemperate Englishman," he said. "I should not like to think that I have caused you pain."

John turned on his side, and they lay face to face upon the bed. "I was raised to believe that all good things come from God. I was slow in realizing that I have known only good things from you. I have prayed to be other than I am, for no one else--certainly not my father, or--or my sister--thinks these things are good. They would see me cut myself off from life rather than find happiness here, like this."

"Your sister knows?" Tristan ventured.

John looked away and bit his lips. His sharp, wordless nod told Tristan what was essential. He had sometimes envied John what seemed to have been an ordinary upbringing in the heart of a loving family, but the loss in John's face, in his voice, made him think that his own lot had not been so cruel. He was sure that David, had he lived, would never have spurned him.

He felt torn between a great desire to touch John, to make him forget his sorrow, and a reticence to underscore the cause of that sorrow. But they were lying together on a bed, and John was scarcely clothed, and theirs could never return to being an ordinary friendship, if ever it had been one, and so Tristan reached out a hand to the side of John's neck, and cupped his jaw, and caressed the corner of his mouth with his thumb and said, "I am sorry, John."

John's eyes fell closed. After a moment, he covered Tristan's hand with his own and sighed, opening his eyes once more. Visibly gathering himself, he said, "No. It is better now. I am happy here. I cannot deny it."

"Are you?" Tristan had some idea that his relief was not entirely honourable, but he could not prevent the feeling of elation that rose up, making him long to put an end to conversation for a little while. He shifted his free hand to John's hip and caressed it lightly, hoping that John would soon catch his desire. "It is difficult for me to believe that prior to your time in Venice, nobody--well, that nobody was intemperate with you."

John made a small, unconscious sound of pleasure and moved a little nearer, and Tristan's desire quickened at this encouragement. "Oh, I can look back now and see that it happened," John replied, "but I truly did not know it at the time. I do not think you can imagine the degree to which I was sheltered before I went to Oxford. I scarcely recognised flirtation from women, and did not believe such a thing was possible from other men. Only the most direct approach could have opened my eyes, and such things do not happen to a boy who is under the watchful gaze of a clergyman father and a bishop."

Tristan was fascinated, his entire life having been marked, not to say scarred, by men who approached him too directly. "You most decidedly did not notice me!" he laughed. "I must have spent an hour one day hovering near you as you sat sketching near Winchester Cathedral, and you never once glanced at me!"

John looked as if he were about to apologise for his ungentlemanlike behaviour of seven years past. To forestall him, Tristan said, "Of course, I was a gangling schoolboy of sixteen, and scarcely worth your notice. Do not apologise, John. I am glad now that your taste does not run to schoolboys."

John huffed. "Certainly not!"

"But when you got to Oxford?" Tristan prompted, running his hand now along John's arm. "Surely there you were approached!"

"I suppose so, but I still did not discern it readily. I have been accused of using my--well, my appearance--to gain advantage, but I was so innocent that I had not the least idea in the world that anyone might wish to--to trade with me on that score alone."

"Trade with you?" Tristan repeated, wondering what sort of offers John had received, and making a note to enquire farther at some later moment--perhaps when John was more completely clothed and less distracting. "That is an odd way of putting it. I meant that surely somebody simply fell in love with you. It was inevitable."

The shadowy darkness of the candlelit room did not allow Tristan to see nuances of colour, but he was sure that a blush was rising to John's face. "Well, as to that..." John said, trailing off in evident embarrassment. "I could not say." He cleared his throat. "I wonder if we might--"

Tristan waited with as much patience as he could muster in view of his growing wish to be done with talking.

"I--well..." John looked intently into Tristan's face, then took hold of his neckcloth and pulled him into a kiss. Tristan, surprised and delighted, lost himself in the sensation for several long moments, noting with a kind of pride that John was being very free with his tongue and his hands. Finally John drew back a little and said, "You must stop me if I displease you."

Tristan pressed John back, rolled so that he was on top of him, and claimed his mouth again, saying, "I shall certainly let you know."

It was not very long before Tristan had to withdraw a little, for though he was not displeased by anything in John's actions, he was very avid to shed his evening clothes. As he rose to his feet and began removing his coat, John watched him with grave fascination and said, "Let me."

Tristan smiled and spread his arms wide.

John got up and stood very close before him. Tristan was accustomed to being helped out of his clothes by a servant, but no servant had ever lingered with such fascination over each button, or leant in so close as to trap his hands against his lordship's chest. None had ever run his hands over the buttons of his waistcoat before undoing them, and certainly none had ever pressed kisses to his neck as he carried out his duty! But John did all these things, moving from Tristan's waistcoat to his cravat, and thence to the ties of his shirt, all the while quite indifferent to the fact that his dressing gown was coming undone.

Maddeningly, he took time to drape Tristan's coat and waistcoat over the back of the chair, and to fold the neck-cloth neatly. He saw to it that Tristan's voluminous shirt did not fall to the carpet, but hung safely from the top of one of the bed-posts. All of these little labours he carried out while his dressing gown swayed now open, now closed, and with each glimpse inside it, Tristan could see that John was returning to the state to which his bath--and his thoughts of Tristan--had aroused him, and would soon be ready to enter the fray. The sight of it did nothing to increase Tristan's patience.

When John pushed him gently to sit on the edge of the bed, and knelt on the carpet before him, Tristan's breath caught, but John only lifted Tristan's foot and removed the boot from it.

Tristan looked on, growing both more aroused and more laughingly annoyed by the moment. He rested back on his elbows and enjoyed the view that he seen once before and imagined many times since, of John's kneeling form and bowed head between his knees. John's hair, still damp, glistened in the candlelight, and Tristan was hard pressed to refrain from lacing his fingers into it and pulling John's head forward. "John, have you any idea what you are doing to me?" he asked.

"The effect is apparent from this perspective, my lord." John pulled off Tristan's other boot, then his stockings, and began on the knee-buttons of Tristan's breeches. At last, finished with these ancillary attentions, he leant in very close and began undoing the buttons of his fall. John's knuckles, seemingly quite by accident, pressed against the sensitive firmness still concealed by his linen, and Tristan's breath caught.

"I must consider going into the button business," John said thoughtfully. "A man could become quite wealthy selling them, for so far I have counted twenty-four. These--" he set to work on the small buttons at the front of Tristan's underlinen "--will bring the count to thirty-two."

"If you do not make shorter work of them, John, I cannot answer for what may happen to you next."

John cast his eyes mildly up to Tristan's face as the last buttons were released. He shifted aside that final layer took hold of his member. Tristan could feel John's warm breath, so closely was John now examining what he caressed with his hand. "The other evening," he said, "you did something like this." His tongue darted out, and Tristan gasped.

"Do I--" John looked up. "Do I displease you?"

"God! No. No. You please me very much." Tristan wanted nothing more than for John to continue, far less gently, but he now understood perfectly that John had no experience by which he could know how to proceed.

"You begin to come forth a little," John commented.

"You torment me!"

"Then you must tell me how to please you better."

Tristan knew at once exactly how he ought to proceed. He raised himself again to a sitting position, though it was not easy to draw away from John's attentions, and pulled John up to face him. "I will show you," he said. John's eyes widened, and Tristan added, "I did offer the other night, you know."

"You did. I was afraid that in refusing...I thought perhaps I had forfeited it altogether."

Tristan very nearly laughed. "You have thought of it since then, have you?"

"To the exclusion of many other things," John admitted with the barest flash of a guilty grin.

"Well, I am delighted to hear it, for I was very selfish in offering it. If I addict you to this pleasure, I can expect it to be returned, you see." Tristan could not but note that John's glance strayed to his unbuttoned drawers, and the display that his own erect member made in protruding from them. "The thought of your mouth on me has been driving me to distraction for many months," he said, taking himself in hand, "and I do not propose to put it off very much longer."

John no longer made any pretense of looking anywhere else, and when he unconsciously licked his lips, Tristan had to bite back a groan. Without ceremony he got to his feet and pulled John hard against him.

John opened his dressing gown and brought it around them both. He moved against Tristan as naturally as if it were his long custom, and not the experience of only two or three nights' duration. His hips sought a more complete alignment with Tristan's while his arms found their place, low around Tristan's waist. Tristan nudged the dressing gown away from John's shoulders, and applied himself to the exploration of John's collarbone with his lips, all the while wondering whether he ought to have John lie down, or remain standing. Expediency made his decision for him: John was heated, already lost in sensation from Tristan's kisses, breathing rapidly and making gratifying sounds of pleasure. To interrupt the moment would be to spoil it, so Tristan simply slid to his knees in front of John and began lavishing upon him all that he wished to receive himself when their positions should be reversed.

"You are beautiful everywhere," Tristan said, pausing in his attentions. He looked upward to see John's face averted, his eyes closed and his lips parted, the picture of passion. One of his hands groped behind him for the bedpost, seeking stability. "John, I expect you to attend closely." He punctuated his words with a kiss, and John gasped out, "Yes, my lord."

"There is licking," he said, suiting action to words, eliciting another sound from John. He illustrated this essential technique until, by the satisfactory frequency of the sounds John was making, he deemed him fully appreciative of it and ready to begin the next.

"There is suckling," Tristan went on, feeling a deep, simple satisfaction in taking the end of John's member into his mouth. His eyes, despite his wish to watch John's reaction, fell closed of their own accord, and a sense of peace stole upon him. After a few moments, he was recalled to himself by a high-pitched whimper from John, and resumed his instructional tone. He drew away and said, "You may combine the two, of course." John was looking down at him now. "Indeed, it would be wrong not to do so. Shall I show you?"

"Yes," John whispered, and Tristan went on with the lesson, deriving as much pleasure from John's groans of astonished arousal as from his eager and responsive body. "You will observe that I attend to your various parts." He looked up again to see John's free hand moving over his chest, and at this sight of John's enjoyment he redoubled his efforts, dipping low between John's thighs, returning again to suckle him, moving without cease to give him satisfaction.

When John gave voice to a particularly strong sensation and seemed to let his attention wander, Tristan said, "See how I do not scruple to use my hand." John's attention returned to him, and he added, "You are too substantial for my mouth alone." Tristan did his best to give the lie to this last assertion by taking John in as completely as he could, while gripping with his hand where his mouth could not reach.

A low cry erupted from John's throat and his hips bucked involuntarily forward, taking Tristan by surprise and throwing him off of the rhythm he had established, but with a certain sense of pride, he managed to continue unabated until John's breathing grew wild. "You are so close," he said, pulling back to draw breath. "Let me feel you spend yourself for me."

John required only another few moments of Tristan's intense devotion before he was overcome. Tristan did not hesitate or draw away, but stayed the course as he had never done before, not for Charles, not for anyone. He was lost in sensation himself; the fullness of his mouth, the press of John's body against his face, the potent tastes and smells that issued from John and the wild, barely-repressed sounds he made as he came to the height of his pleasure, all were as overwhelming to Tristan as if he, too, were entirely new to this experience.

Tristan felt John pulling him up, and then John was kissing him haphazardly, each breath coming as half laugh, half groan. He ground himself against Tristan in the most luxurious way, as if he would wrest every possible scrap of satisfaction from the moment, and inhibition and propriety could go to the devil. Tristan, whose pleasure had not yet been seen to, encouraged him to continue by meeting each of his movements with a thrust of his own, as he nudged John toward the bed.

John fell willingly onto the mattress and tugged Tristan down upon him, lying back and still moving his hips in such a way as to make Tristan wild. "Show me what you do," John said in a rough whisper. At Tristan's puzzled look, he added, "When you are alone."

Tristan was only too ready to oblige him. He raised himself over John and rested back on his heels, his state of arousal suddenly augmented by the sight of John lying beneath him, his legs splayed, his spent member dark against his pale thigh, his lips parted, and both arms flung above his head as if in utter surrender. He watched with languid interest as Tristan began to stroke himself.

Tristan did not trouble to draw out his pleasure; he was too eager for it, and too excited by John's fascinated eyes upon him, to postpone it for very long. John said, "I must touch you," and reached out to do so, running his fingers through the wetness that gathered at the tip of Tristan's member, and encircling him tightly. When he then withdrew his hand and put his fingers into his mouth, Tristan lost the last of his will, and succumbed, spilling out over his own hand and John's belly with a loud groan.

The arm upon which he had been supporting himself went lax, and Tristan let himself fall to the bed next to John, still working himself. The soothing sounds John made accompanied him on his return to more normal awareness, and when he was finally equal to speech again, he said, "You are a great wanton, John."

"I, my lord?"

Tristan rolled toward him and planted a kiss on his throat. "Yes, you. Look what you have made of me."

"Look what you have made of me!" John smeared the substance on his belly with an open palm, then gave Tristan a lascivious smile. "I assure you, my lord, I have never been a wanton for anyone else."

"You do it for me, do you?"

"It would seem so." John looked at his hand before letting it fall carelessly back to the bed. He made as if to rise.

"Do not get up," Tristan said. "I know what you want."

With this, Tristan left the bed and went behind the screen to the bathtub. He moistened and wrung out the corner of a towel in the bath water, now grown cool, and returned with it. John seemed already to be falling asleep. Tristan could not help smiling at him, for he still lay in so abandoned a pose that even John himself might hesitate to draw it. Tristan stooped and cleaned away the traces of his passion, and carried the towel back behind the screen again.

"Thank you, Tristan," John said in sleepy tones. He patted the bed beside him, and Tristan, on hearing John call him so unthinkingly by name, wanted very much to go there.

"I cannot stay, John. You know I must not."

"Only for an hour or two." John was practically asleep.

"Sleep, my dear John," Tristan said, drawing away with great reluctance. "I will see you in the morning."

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, August, 1818

Despite Viscount Penrith's wish to postpone the ordeal of having Watson shave him, he was forced to admit, looking ruefully into the mirror over his dressing-table, that he could not hope to avoid it any longer. He had engaged weeks ago to dine again this evening with Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe, and he could not do so with stubble on his chin.

He opened the drawer of his dressing table and took out his razor. Cooper always used a good deal of hot water, but Tristan thought he might dispense with that nicety, as the water in his pitcher was nearly cold, and the servants all occupied; and anyway, if John could shift for himself in the matter of personal toilette, then certainly Tristan could manage it.

He had dampened the brush and was attempting to create a lather at the bottom of his shaving mug when there was a tap at the door. "Yes," Tristan said, tipping his head to the side and beginning to apply lather to his jaw. He glanced up to see John come in, dressed in his old painting-coat and looking a little sunburnt. "Oh, John. There you are. Did you paint?"

"I did, a little," he replied, his voice deepened and slowed by the evident state of ease that had been growing upon him since he had come to Ravensworth. "It is rather warm out, but the light is very good. Very yellow." John stayed near the open door. They were both becoming skilled in the game of concealment that their situation demanded, and John, his nature being less demonstrative than Tristan's, was very good at it indeed. As he stood with his shoulder against the door frame, watching, only the small smile playing about his lips betrayed any warmer sentiment than friendship.

Tristan applied himself to his task and tried to look more certain than he felt. The lather was cold and unpleasant, but he did not grimace at it. After a moment, John stepped forward, dipped his fingers into the water in the basin, and sighed.

"Please, promise me that you will desist for three minutes," John said. Tristan laid the brush down and looked at him in the mirror. John reached past his shoulder and took the pitcher from the table, and as he did so, Tristan caught the scent of the summer wind in the folds of his canvas coat, and felt the warmth of his body.

"John, I cannot go to Sir Thomas's looking like this."

"I do not ask you to. But you had better arrive a few minutes late than let Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe see you with cuts on your face. Stay there."

"Oh, pray, do not call Watson," Tristan said, feeling rather exposed in his incompetence.

"I do not intend to." With this, John left the room. Tristan watched him go with a blend of asperity and fascination. He had not known John to take the upper hand unless he was painting. This sure, competent side of his nature intrigued Tristan as much as the warm and yielding side delighted him, and it was the more provocative for being rarely seen.

John returned some minutes later with a steaming pitcher in his hand and a pair of white towels over his shoulder. He left the door open and came into the room. "Let us turn your chair to the side. You will not be needing your mirror."

"I thank you for bringing me hot water," Tristan said, moving the chair as instructed and sitting down again, "but you know I do not like you to be acting in the capacity of a servant here."

"Oh, I do not do so for anybody else," John said, setting the pitcher carefully down upon the dressing table. "Now, pay attention."

Tristan leant back in the dressing-chair. "You are very high-handed, sir." He lowered his voice. "If I had known what tyranny you would make free to exercise over me after spending your lust with me once or twice--"

"Surely more than that," John murmured, pouring some of the hot water into the basin. His voice had that carefully bland quality that he always used when he was being scandalous.

"For only a week, then," Tristan amended.

"I now know you well enough, in any case, to know that you tire of being always over everyone. I have observed that you do not object when I relieve you of that office a little." John withdrew a small vial from one of his pockets and tipped a drop or two from it into the basin. "I am doing so now."

"So I see." Tristan felt a rush of affection for John that surprised him almost into silence. A warm, resinous scent bloomed in the rising steam. "What is that?"

"It is oil of balsam."

"What is it for?"

"It is soothing to the skin. And it has a pleasant fragrance. It is from Italy."

John placed both the mug and the brush into the scented hot water, and followed these with one of the towels from his shoulder. This last he withdrew again and wrung out firmly before laying it over the lower part of Tristan's face.

Tristan breathed in the fragrant steam and said from under the muffling material, "I do wish you will change your mind and come with me this evening." Vapours rose from the towel as he spoke.

"They are not even supposed to know that I am here."

"I am sure they have learnt, for there are no secrets in the country."

"There had better be one or two, my lord," John said, and Tristan acknowledged the truth of it with raised eyebrows. "Lady Bedlowe is not expecting me, and I wish to stay in and look over the new Gazette tonight, so it is all for the best."

John began drawing the razor along the leather strop with a sure, practiced motion. "In stropping," he said, "the edge of the razor must trail."

"Very well," Tristan replied, amused. After some two dozen quick strokes, John tested the edge on his thumbnail, making Tristan wince. His movements were similar to those that Tristan had seen Cooper make hundreds of times, but in being performed by the same hands that lately had explored his body so eagerly, this quotidian task became infinitely more fascinating.

John pulled the little shaving-stool from under the dressing-table, and sat, drawing up until one of his knees was between Tristan's thighs. Tristan shifted closer.

The balsam was soothing, and the moist heat of the towel made Tristan feel languid. John put a hand on either side of his face, over the towel, and pressed firmly along his upper lip, his chin, his cheeks, his jaw, his neck. When he lifted the towel away, he glanced behind him at the open bedroom door. The house was quiet, the corridor untenanted. As if it were a necessary step in the business at hand, John leant forward and kissed Tristan warmly.

"By and by," he said, still in his bland voice and with his serious expression, "I shall test again to see how well I have done in shaving you."

"I see." Tristan, feeling quite greedy, reached a hand to the back of John's head to draw him near again, but John pulled away and said, "No, my lord. You have an engagement this evening."

Tristan withdrew his hand obediently, laughing.

"You observe that everything is warm," John said, lifting the brush dripping from the basin and putting it into the mug. "The brush, the soap, the razor, and your beard."

"I observe that am warm elsewhere," Tristan pointed out.

"Yes. I hope, my lord, that you do not react so to your valet."

Tristan gasped. "I beg your pardon!"

John vouchsafed him a brief grin, his eyes sparkling, then bent his attention to stirring the brush inside the mug for a period, concentrating upon it just as much as if he were mixing one of his subtle colours. At last he was satisfied. John leant in again and applied the brush, heavy with warm white foam, to Tristan's cheek. Tristan could hear a faint fizzing sound as bubbles of lather broke upon the skin near his ear. He allowed his eyes to fall closed.

The small ting of the razor coming out of the basin caused him to open them again. He could not help eying that instrument a little askance, but when John applied the edge to Tristan's cheek, his hand was sure and steady, the blade warm and so keen as to glide freely across his skin, his beard no obstacle to it. The tip of John's tongue protruded between his lips and his pupils were contracted in concentration. His eyes were very green; the freckles across the bridge of his nose seemed to have multiplied during his sojourn in the afternoon sun. He reached over to rinse the blade in the basin, tapped it on the porcelain edge, and applied it again to Tristan's face.

"Ah. I have found a way to silence you," John commented, drawing the razor along the bony crest of Tristan's jaw. He rinsed the blade once again and tipped Tristan's head back with a finger under his chin. Tristan fixed his eyes upon John's.

"When you come back tonight from Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe's house," John said conversationally, "I think--" he paused to attend to the placement of the blade "--that you ought to pose for me." He flushed red as he drew the razor in a long, smooth stroke up the very center of Tristan's throat, but otherwise gave every appearance of calm concentration. Tristan did not dare to swallow. "I have been wishing to draw you in the nude since the day we met."

John repositioned the razor for the next stroke, and added, "It would please me to have one or two...private pictures of you."

Tristan felt sure that John must see the quickening of his pulse under his jaw as the blade skimmed it. Just as Tristan reached out for him, unable to repress the urge to touch him, John rose and turned to pour more water into the basin. When he came back to the stool, he drew himself up so that Tristan's knee was now pressed between his legs. The interesting point of contact was obscured from view by a fold of John's coat, but a firm shape was evident against Tristan's knee. Tristan's eyes fluttered shut again as he flexed his knee minutely and felt John shift against him just as minutely in response.

If a servant were to walk through the door at this moment, Tristan thought, he would see one gentleman shaving another in a thoroughly unseemly fashion, but Tristan could not spare a thought for that just now; he told himself that it could be explained--by necessity, by convenience, even by eccentricity--so long as the state of arousal to which this activity had brought both gentlemen could not be observed. He shifted slightly in his chair, wishing John's legs were not shorter than his own.

John applied the razor's edge once more to Tristan's face, and Tristan abruptly left off moving his knee. The moment John lifted the razor again, Tristan managed to say, "Good God, John," before John was once more covering his face with the damp towel.

"I beg your pardon," John said, assiduously wiping the shaving lather from Tristan's face, lingering over his lips and preventing his speaking. When at last John moved the towel away, he said, "There, I have done. What were you saying?"

"I shall ravish you insensible, you rogue," Tristan replied, scarcely knowing whether to laugh or seize John and bear him to the floor. John merely sat back and looked at him, inspecting his work and pretending not to hear. Tristan made to rise, but John impeded him with a firm hand to his chest.

"The final test, and then you must dress for dinner with Sir Thomas." John bent as if to kiss Tristan again, but turned his face and rubbed his own, afternoon-stubbled cheek over Tristan's chin and jaw. "Perfect," he murmured. Tristan found himself leaning into the caress, sliding his hands under John's disreputable painting coat to grip his posterior and pull him forward.

"Help me dress," he said.

"No, I am sorry. That, I am sure, you can manage for yourself," John said, and drew away from him calmly, only his parted lips and quickened breath betraying his reluctance to quit Tristan's immediate sphere--these, and that other evidence against indifference that was partly obscured by his coat.

"Wretch!" Tristan cried. "How the devil shall I go through an evening with Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe now without scandalising her ladyship?"

John turned away and began gathering up the shaving things. "I do not know." He looked over his shoulder and gave one raking glance up the length of Tristan's body, then smiled in a most annoyingly self-satisfied way.

***

John was on the point of succumbing to the desire to stay in Tristan's bedroom and help him put on his evening attire, when Watson came in, prepared to perform this task. He looked at the basin, where shaving-lather still floated on the surface of the cooling water, and then at Mr Acklebury. John excused himself without meeting Tristan's eye, or the butler's.

He retreated downstairs to the room that Tristan said would eventually become a library and study, but which at present was serving as John's painting room. There was no carpet to spoil and little furniture to get in the way of his easel, though there was a comfortable chair, and two large windows that made the room as pleasant for reading as for painting. It was a good room at all times of the day, and Tristan seemed amused at John's quiet commandeering of it.

Tristan looked in to say goodbye half an hour later, though he scarcely entered the room, Watson being practically on his heels to put him into his riding coat, and Jem almost certainly waiting outside the front door with Jupiter. He looked very well, polished and combed and wearing John's favourite of his coats, the midnight blue serge with black buttons that fitted him very closely and emphasised both his fine figure and the warm tone of his skin. John took a step towards him in the doorway, then stopped himself. They could not embrace, and it would be odd to shake hands in such circumstances, so he only said, "Cooper, I think, would not disapprove."

"Do you think so? Well!" Tristan touched his neck-cloth with a self-conscious grin, then made an exaggerated bow in acknowledgement of the compliment. "I do not expect to be out very late," he said, straightening.

"I shall certainly be up when you return." John did not recognize the double meaning his words had until Tristan's smile widened into something far more confident.

In a creditably businesslike tone but with a private look that Watson could not see, he said, "I am glad to hear it."

When Tristan had ridden off to his dinner engagement, John realised that he had only the Gazette and one or two overdue letters with which to fill the evening that stretched before him. As some hours of daylight yet remained, he found himself at a loose end, and thought that a walk might serve to pass the time.

He set out, admiring the changing colours among the hills as the sun sank lower. As he walked, he allowed his mind to review recent events. Had it really been only a week since he had come to Ravensworth? It was a lifetime! Everything had changed. His imagination returned again and again to all the private pleasures that Tristan had introduced him to, and one or two that remained as yet untried, leaving him at once aroused and abashed, uncertain of himself and his ground, and filled with a desire to closet himself once more with Tristan, where he felt safe in expressing this new side of his nature.

In a the purely rational light, he could not say that a few nights' experience of another man's intimate society had made him something new; he had long desired such experience, and it was fruitless to dwell upon the failure of will that had brought him to the point of having it, for it would have certainly happened soon or late. He knew that now, and felt extraordinarily fortunate that it had happened with Tristan.

Still, it felt like a very great change indeed. John scarcely knew the words to describe his new situation, and though there was no one apart from Tristan to whom he could possibly write or speak of it, he found it disconcerting not to know what to call himself now. The accepted words for what he was--for what he and Tristan were, and did--were almost unspeakable, freighted with contempt and fear, dismissive and damning at once.

He strolled along the lane, absently noting the length and sharpness of the shadows, the golden quality of the late afternoon light. Autumn would come soon. Only four or five weeks were wanting until day and the night were equal in length, and the long descent into winter would begin.

Ordinary terms, the ones applied when there were a man and a woman in the case, felt absurdly inappropriate: this was no courtship, and he was not a suitor--nor was Tristan! John felt foolish even thinking the word "sweethearts," and there was no name like "mistress" for a man--nor would he care to think of either of them in such a role.

Lovers, he thought. He left the lane and struck out across the open land. Tristan is my lover. It was almost a reasonable word in comparison to the others. I am the lover of Tristan Jarrett, Viscount Penrith. We are lovers. "Oh, they are lovers," he imagined some friend saying; no such person existed, of course, but he supposed that other men like them might somehow look, and know, and have such a word at their disposal. Viscount Penrith has a secret lover.

The word began to lose all meaning as he repeated it in his mind. Then, with a small shock, he realised that a lover was one who loved. Now the litany took on a new significance, and became a series of questions: Does Tristan love me? Do I love Tristan Jarrett, Viscount Penrith? Do we love one another? It occurred to him that he could easily imagine Mrs Danforth saying, "Oh, they love one another," or "Oh, they are in love."

A hot spike of emotion lanced through his heart, composed of realisation and relief, joy and shame, wonder and remorse all at once and in so great a measure that he halted and had to breathe deeply for several moments to restore his equanimity. It was true. He was in love with Tristan. It was so clear to him in that instant that he could not account for his previous ignorance of it. This most poetic state, this cherished condition, had come upon him unawares while he had been busy despising himself for an unseemly lust, and now that he owned it, he must keep it a secret, for he was by no means sure that Tristan would care to know it, and certainly nobody else must ever suspect. He did not even dare to think that Tristan might be in the same condition.

In a state of some agitation, John wandered for another mile along the hillsides that looked down on Ravensworth, but finally hunger and the waning of daylight sent him back to the house.

Watson was coming down the front stairs as John entered, and though his "Good evening, sir," was proper, John detected a dislike that he was sure Watson would have covered better had has lordship been present. "Your dinner will be served shortly, sir."

Disregarding both Watson's tone and his own discomfort, John went up to his bedroom to wash and make himself presentable, less for his solitary dinner than in anticipation of Tristan's return sometime afterwards. He picked up one of the towels on his washstand, and as he did so, a small book fell from its folds and onto floor.

It was a copy of the New Testament, cheaply bound in cloth and pasteboard. A quick glance inside the cover revealed no owner's name. A torn strip of paper marked a place, and when John opened the volume there, it was clear that the page was well-worn and told over many times: 1st Corinthians, Chapter VI.

He had no need to read it closely, for he had been made to memorise great swaths of Holy Scripture in his childhood. "Be not deceived." John could hear his father reciting those words along with him in the days following the incident with Robby, the Bishop's young footman. "Neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor idolators, nor catamites, nor sodomites..." oh, how the list went on! Liars and thieves, extortioners and drunkards, all were equal in St Paul's sight, and all equally ineligible to receive God's reward.

How terrified John had been, reading along with his father, suspecting that what he had felt with Robby meant that one of these bad words described him now, and that his father had somehow discerned it. With some vague idea that a sodomite was a practitioner of disgusting perversions, he had believed for a year or more afterwards that Robby's wish to expose his private parts to John's view was the sum of such perversions. It had required a long sojourn in Venice under the tutelage of Fiorio da Calvo for John to understand of what a sodomite and a catamite were, and when he understood that he had never done anything to make him either one, his fear dissolved.

John put the little New Testament into the drawer at his dressing table with shaking hands. It was almost certainly Watson who had left it, and it meant that the elderly butler's suspicions about what was going on under his master's roof had taken a more definite turn. If Watson could feel it proper to leave such a message for a guest in his lordship's house, then his lordship could not depend upon his discretion. John knew that Watson's dismissal would be the probable outcome if he disclosed the matter to Tristan, and he supposed that Watson must know it too. Perhaps moral outrage was stronger in the man than self-preservation; John had seen such things during his upbringing in a milieu of clergymen and churchgoers, though even his own father had had little patience for the self-righteous.

John did not like to be the recipient of such an ugly message, but he liked even less to cause a man to lose his place. No good could come of it, and a disaffected senior servant could do Lord Penrith more harm abroad and unemployed in the neighbourhood than busy under his master's roof. As he went down to his solitary dinner, John wondered how he might broach the matter with Tristan.

If Watson was unusually silent as he served John his meal, his demeanour was not otherwise marked by any particular change. John did not meet his eye or in any way try to communicate to him his displeasure; that was for Lord Penrith to attend to. John thought of Marchbanks, enjoying a season of leisure in London, and wondered whether he would perceive the great change in his master's circumstances. The idea that Marchbanks might do so, and deem it sufficient cause to judge him, as Watson had done, made John so unhappy that he had difficulty enjoying his dinner.

He resolved to put the matter from his mind, so as to preserve his own equanimity and avoid spoiling the latter part of Tristan's evening with bad news. The matter,he decided, would keep until morning.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, August, 1818

Tristan rode the three miles through Crosby-Ravensworth and beyond it to the home of Sir Thomas Bedlowe. Only by the strictest self-discipline did he prevent his thoughts from dwelling upon John's provocative behaviour, and cause them instead to run along lines of restoring the French garden at the back of Ravensworth. But workmen scything grass and shearing hedges were too much like John wielding a razor, and so Tristan tried another topic, and another. By the time he handed his reins to the waiting groom at Sir Thomas's house, he had remembered all he had read in The Country Almanac about the use of drainage tiles and trenches to make a boggy field arable, all of which helped to bring about a more composed state than that in which John had left him.

Since his last visit, work at Ravensworth had gone forward at a great speed, and once he was seated with Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe in the drawing room with glasses of Burgundy wine, Sir Thomas said, "Your brother would be very happy to see you undertaking so many improvements to the old place."

Tristan inclined his head. "I think, indeed, Sir Thomas, that he would disapprove of some of what I am doing there." In response to Sir Thomas's enquiring look, he quickly added, "He was in favour of retaining what he pleased to call the 'old fashioned charm' of the house, whereas I am very much in favour of bringing everything I can into a new condition. I hope, when I am finished, that in walking through the front door, one will leave the sixteenth century on the exterior, and find all that is comfortable and modern in the nineteenth century inside."

"Well! That is very sensible," Sir Thomas said. "I know that when you marry, your wife will appreciate it, for ladies love to see anything that is ancient and mysterious, but they prefer to live in comfort, is that not so, my dear?"

Tristan tried not to let his annoyance show. Though men as young as he were not generally expected to marry, very few were engaged in the improvement of a large house and estates as if to provide for a family, and so Tristan supposed he must learn to bear more and more with such hints. Thankfully, Lady Bedlowe did not add to his discomfort by cajoling him on the subject, as women were so wont to do, but instead said, "It is quite true, Lord Penrith, that I made Sir Thomas repair this place better before I would agree to marry him. It is so long ago now that those improvements are ancient and need doing again!" She gave a peal of merry laughter.

At this juncture, a bell was heard, and, soon after, voices from the direction of the entry-hall. "Oh! That will be our other dinner-guests," Sir Thomas explained. "There is a gentleman from Edinburgh visiting in the neighbourhood with his wife. I met him out riding. They have let the old Settlefields house, and I took the liberty of inviting them to join us this evening."

Having wished Sir Thomas to stand less on ceremony with him, Tristan could hardly cavil now at his having invited new friends to dine without asking his permission; yet the obligation to exchange visits with new neighbours, to act the lord, to break up the privacy of Ravensworth, loomed suddenly and disagreeably before him. He did not care for the notion of exposing John to talk. "Indeed? I had not heard of Settlefields being to let," Tristan said, to cover his momentary displeasure.

"Yes, it was not empty long." Sir Thomas seemed to perceive Tristan's altered mood, for he quickly added, "Oh! you may count upon our silence, never fear! My lady says that we are not to know of your visitor, for we hear that he is in the country incognito." Sir Thomas pronounced the word with relish and all but danced a jig in delight at such doings. Lady Bedlowe shook her head and put a hand to Tristan's arm. "I am sorry, Lord Penrith," she said softly. "I begged Sir Thomas to say nothing. Did I not beg you to say nothing, Sir Thomas?" Her expression of resigned fondness said that she had had no real expectation of her husband's discretion.

Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe got up to greet their new friends, and there was no time to mend matters properly. "Do not regard it, my lady," Tristan said, rising to his full height and encompassing them both in an unsmiling look. He did not bother to hide his vexation. "I am sure that you and Sir Thomas will say no more upon the matter."

The baronet and his wife, old enough at least to be his parents, looked back at him like chastised children. Tristan preferred not to use his rank in this way, but reflected that if it would forestall any inconvenience to John, it was worth whatever discomfort it might cause.

The drawing-room door opened, and the butler entered. "Mr and Mrs Murray, m'lady, sir," he said. Tristan turned. Charles Murray strode into the room.

Greetings, introductions, and all the flurry of new friends arriving gave Tristan a moment or two to regain his bearings. His shock at seeing Charles was exceeded only by his amazement at discovering him to be married. Charles was noticeably stouter than he had been only a few months before; the woman beside him was well-looking, though she had done her pale complexion and her coppery curls no great service in choosing the dull, earthy colour of her silk gown. She was not a schoolroom miss, being of an age with her husband, or even a little older, and yet she clung to his arm in a manner that was at once possessive and uncertain, her eyes wide.

Sir Thomas said, "Lord Penrith, allow me to present to you Mr and Mrs Murray."

"Oh, Lord Penrith and I are old friends," Murray said with a particular look at Tristan that could not possibly escape the notice of anyone watching closely.

Sir Thomas gave a gasp of surprise. "Well, this is a happy coincidence indeed!"

Charles glanced at Tristan over his wife's head and gave a sly smile. It blended guilt and satisfaction so completely that any doubt Tristan had of his being there by happenstance vanished at once, and gave way to suspicion. Several questions sprang into his mind, "What the devil are you doing here, Charles?" being first among them, but civility prevented him from giving voice to any of them. Instead, he inclined his head and looked pointedly to Mrs Murray.

"Ah, yes," Charles said. "Viscount Penrith, allow me to present to you my wife." He turned to the lady, about to say more, but Mrs Murray was already giving a deep curtsy, her eyes cast down. Before she had quite risen, Charles said, "Yes, Mary, very well. We are not at Court."

This admonishment caused the colour to rise in Mrs Murray's face, and her abashed, stricken expression was enough to make Tristan quickly give her his most formal bow in return before saying, "There, Mrs Murray. Now we have done each other a great deal of honour and may be easy."

"Thank you, my lord," she said, and with those few words, spoken in unrefined accents, she confirmed beyond a doubt Tristan's growing certainty that in marrying Charles, Mrs Murray had stepped well outside of her normal sphere.

Charles took her arm and drew her back with an impatient look, then gave his attention to Tristan. "I wonder to find you here," he said in such a patent falsehood that Tristan nearly laughed at him. "You were used to prefer town life." He swept his eyes over Tristan's person and, with a too-knowing look, added, "It would appear that country life suits you better this season."

"Country life suits me very well in all seasons," Tristan managed to say in tones that, if they were not friendly, were at least civil. He did not care for the implication that Charles knew something of John's presence at Ravensworth, and hoped that he was only guessing. Aware that Mrs Murray was watching their exchange keenly, Tristan said, "As you know, Mr Murray, I was born and raised in Cumberland. I am very much at home here. But I cannot help wondering what brings you all the way to these wilds."

"My wife wished for a bit of rustication, did you not, my dear?"

Mrs Murray turned her face gratefully to her husband, as if his addressing a comment to her were a great favour, and seemed to derive enough courage from it to look again at Tristan with a smile and a quiet, "Yes, that's right, my lord."

Disregarding Charles' obvious falsehood--for Mrs Murray seemed scarcely to know what the term rustication might mean--Tristan turned to her and said, "Do you and Mr Murray make a long stay in Cumberland, madam? I can recommend several very fine sights if you are inclined to walking or riding."

Mrs Murray glanced again at her husband, clearly seeking permission to speak, but Charles was looking at Tristan and did not remark it, so she took a breath and said, "Oh, well, my lord, I am a London girl, born and bred, and not much accustomed to these hills." She spoke very softly, as if, by making herself difficult to hear, she could diminish the effect that her uncultivated speech must have in such company. "But the fresh air is very agreeable."

Lady Bedlowe, overcoming her surprise at finding such an unlikely guest in her drawing-room, entered the conversation with an enthusiastic endorsement of a pretty walk from Settlefields into the village, and Sir Thomas soon joined in, freeing Tristan to gather his thoughts.

He could easily imagine what had possessed Charles to marry, but he could not determine why he had chosen to inflict himself on this poor woman. The usual course for someone of Charles' stamp, with a sizable fortune to his name, was to marry a very young lady of impeccable breeding and no money, an arrangement in which both parties might seek shelter from society's censure in the respectability of an advantageous marriage. Mrs Murray, for her part, could well have seen Charles' wealth as an inducement to accept what must otherwise be a rather poor bargain, though Tristan did not think that explained matters, for she seemed, astonishingly, to be in love with him.

As the oddly-assorted party went in to dine, Tristan became convinced of it. Mrs Murray regarded her husband with admiration, not to say an awe that befitted him very ill. Charles, for the most part, ignored his wife, and attended instead to putting as much of Sir Thomas' Burgundy wine inside himself as he could. Lady Bedlowe found one topic after another upon which Mrs Murray could be persuaded to converse a little, and it was not long before Tristan, whose concentration had wandered a bit, was brought back to the present when he realised that she was relating the story of how she and Murray had met.

"At all events," Mrs Murray was saying, "when I was done with a decent period of mourning, I found that I would like to be married again, for though I might have gone on well enough with what Mr Lovejoy left me, I did not care to live alone."

It seemed that Mrs Murray was a widow. Tristan was curious to learn more, and as he brought his attention more fully to the conversation, he saw that Lady Bedlowe's solicitousness had finally made Mrs Murray more at ease, for she spoke now with some little animation, and showed a livelier character than previously.

"I was calling upon Miss Eleanor Coombes in Notting Hill one day in April--that is an old lady who still takes snuff, like ladies did in the old days, and wears a powdered wig and a patch, and tells shocking stories of the French court before they went and lopped everybody's heads off. And who should I find in Miss Eleanor Coombes's sitting room but Charlie, for she is his maiden aunt and he was come to call that same day upon her, and I quite liked the look of him, didn't I, Charlie?"

Murray gave her a forced half-smile. Tristan remembered him once saying that only the members of his father's family who had not yet managed to jump the counter called him Charlie, and that he did not tolerate it from anyone else.

Something lingered in Tristan's mind, and it was a moment before he could capture it. Snuff, he thought. Lovejoy. Suddenly he was sure that Charles had married the widow of a shopkeeper, albeit a very exclusive one: Mr Lovejoy of Pettygrove and Lovejoy, Tobacconists, in Bond Street. He glanced at Charles, who lifted his wineglass in a lazy salute of such marked intimacy that into Tristan's mind quite unbidden came an image of Charles, unclothed before him, bent over a leather armchair and looking back at him with an expression very like the one on his face now: insolent, expectant, and carnal.

Tristan shifted in his seat and looked away, lest someone else at the table perceive anything amiss. He had no wish to remember Charles that way; he had little desire to think of Charles at all. Even the gentlest and tenderest of his memories of that time were tainted with the poison of excess, and Tristan was not able to account for the unseemly warmth of this sudden recollection now. He thought of John: good, generous, and forbearing; John who bore with all his foolishness, who made no demands and trusted Tristan with his body and with his heart; for a moment, Tristan held John's mildness up to Charles' licentiousness, and found it wanting.

Shocked at himself, ashamed, Tristan lost all awareness of the conversation about him until Lady Bedlowe said, "Lord Penrith?" in a tone that clearly indicated concern. He blinked and returned from his abstracted state.

"I beg your pardon, Lady Bedlowe," he said. "My wits were wandering."

She smiled. "Do not regard it! I was enquiring after your sister-in-law."

"Charlotte? She has been in London, I believe, until very lately," Tristan answered. "I asked her if she might not wish to use the townhouse while I am at Ravensworth, and I believe she has been buying bonnets and visiting her dressmaker. She writes very good letters. I am afraid I do not do them justice in my replies."

"I wish you will convey my regards to her," Lady Bedlowe said. "We only met her the once, but a more amiable young lady would be difficult to imagine."

Tristan inclined his head. "Yes, of course, with pleasure."

Talk of Charlotte drew Tristan back from the edge he had been straying near. While he did not imagine that Charlotte could ever be sanguine about his private nature, or approve any lover who was not a lady, and his wife, he thought that she would like John if she met him, and he knew that she despised the very idea of Charles. His head seemed to clear, and he recognised his earlier thoughts of Charles for what they were: the residuum of an old habit, rising again to try him. It had almost found him its willing victim.

After the dinner had been eaten, the small party removed to the drawing-room again, and Charles took the chair next to Tristan's, ignoring his wife except to cast her a disdainful glance when she thanked the servant for bringing her shawl. He leant close and said, "What do you hear of Allen?"

Tristan frowned. Not only did Charles exclude everyone else in the room by asking after an associate from Cambridge, but by choosing Allen to speak of, he increased the gulf that already lay between him and his wife. Indeed, Mrs Murray seemed to shrink, and sat stiffly, many feet away, her eyes flicking back and forth between Murray and Tristan.

Tristan turned to Sir Thomas pointedly and said, "Mr Murray is referring to a mutual acquaintance from Cambridge, Lord Westhill. I do not really run in that set, you see, Sir Thomas. Viscount Westhill is very fashionable. I do not pretend to such heights." To Charles he added, "I see him from time to time. He seems well enough."

Thwarted in his attempt to make private conversation with Tristan, Charles slouched back in his chair.

Somehow, the evening came to an early end. Mrs Murray seemed unable to hide her anxiousness at her husband's wine-drinking, and when, after a small exchange between Sir Thomas and his butler, the decanter was allowed to run dry, Murray began to evince a restlessness that soon led to the making of excuses, and the calling of their carriage.

Tristan left as soon after the Murrays as he decently could. As his horse trotted easily along the moonlit lane toward Ravensworth, Tristan considered how to prevent a meeting between Charles Murray and John. It soon became evident that he could not reliably do so. He could take steps to ensure that Murray was not admitted to the house, but unless he then restricted John's movements, there was no guarantee against their meeting in the neighbourhood.

What would John think of Charles? More to the point, what would John think of Tristan once he had glimpsed the character of the man to whom Tristan had given two years of his life? Would such knowledge lower John's opinion of him? John's standards were, after all, very high.

On the other hand, what if John, newly awakened to pleasures he had formerly denied himself, should find Charles attractive? It was a moment before Tristan remembered that Charles was a married man, and that John would never stray across such a sacred line. Still, he thought, no contract existed between him and John, and there was nothing to prevent John's eyes from looking at other men.

Such unpleasant thoughts were foreign to Tristan's nature and he shook his head to clear them away. He did not think that John would seek other pleasures; at the very least, John would not be so discourteous a guest. Tristan thought it would behoove him to ensure that John's thoughts were entirely taken up with him, so that even if John and Charles should meet, there would be no doubt in either man's mind as to who belonged to whom.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, August, 1818

John was reading in the drawing room, partaking of a small portion of his lordship's excellent brandy in an effort to relieve his worry over discovering the little Bible, when Delilah raised her head expectantly from her place on the carpet next to his feet. In a moment, she was standing at the drawing-room door, wagging her tail. John could not hear Jupiter's hoofbeats until fully five minutes had passed, and wondered what extraordinary sense a man's dogs possessed to know that he was coming home so much in advance of his arrival. John felt very much as Delilah evidently did at the prospect of Tristan's homecoming, though he refrained from wriggling in excitement, and did not get out of his chair until Tristan had actually entered the room.

"Good evening, John," Tristan said in civil tones that were belied by the casual and somewhat annoyed way in which he was untying his neck-cloth.

"Good evening, my lord," John said, going to the decanter and pouring out a second glass, for it was clear that Tristan would be glad of it. "Did you have a pleasant time at Sir Thomas's?"

Tristan's forehead knotted. "Let us not speak of my dinner at the Bedlowes'. I was greatly vexed, and I am very glad to come home."

It was clear to John that something in the social engagement had made Tristan unhappy, had perhaps even worried him--something beyond badly-prepared food or uninspired conversation--and John was tempted to press for details, but when Tristan stepped into John's immediate sphere and put a hand on his shoulder, he forgot what he had meant to say. Tristan's thumb strayed briefly to the skin above John's shirt-collar, and quickly away again as Watson came into the drawing-room to enquire whether his lordship required anything. Watson, as John had predicted, was all propriety in his lordship's presence, his tone and manner perfectly neutral.

"No, Watson. We will see to ourselves. I shall retire shortly. You may go."

Tristan turned to John as soon as Watson had bowed himself out and closed the doors. Before John could consider yet again whether to introduce the matter of Watson's indiscretion, Tristan said, "You were going to make some sketches, I believe. I am very much in a mood to sit for you." He took a sip of his brandy and as he looked at John, his mood changed visibly, the irate crease between his eyebrows disappearing as his expression dissolved into a fond smile. "I am glad to be home," he said again. "And to underscore that fact, I am going to kiss you in my own drawing room."

John raised his eyebrows as Tristan drew near, and said, "Is that so?" though he had no thought of stopping him.

"That is so, John." Tristan was all warmth and soft, languid movement, with nothing like the demanding ardour he usually showed. John felt that he was melting into that embrace, that they were each yielding to the other, a little sleepy, perhaps, and very much at home. Lovers, he thought again, sliding his hands inside Tristan's coat and around his back, loose and lazy. His mouth was hungry on Tristan's, but he felt no urgency for that hunger to be satisfied.

"Get your drawing things," Tristan said after a time. "I shall see how many candles I can find."

In the end, though, it was too much trouble to light the candles, to open the sketch book, to find the right crayon, and so they only tumbled into each other and fell into John's bed, borne down by languorous desire, and forgot all about the drawings.

***

John woke alone at an early hour and rose at once, intent upon doing in the morning light what had been forgotten last night. It was scarcely past dawn, he perceived, the sun showing just above the horizon as he drew back the draperies and looked out his window. He splashed his face with cold water and carefully selected a shirt from the wardrobe. He buttoned yesterday's trousers hastily, then left the Queen's Room with his drawing things clutched in one arm. From the silence in the house, it was clear that the servants were not yet abroad. He crossed the hallway and let himself into Tristan's bedroom, closing the door behind him as quietly as he could.

Tristan lay face down on his bed, only the sheet covering him, the blanket having fallen to the floor. Tristan's under-drawers were crumpled beneath it on the carpet, and the rest of his clothes were heaped on the room's one armchair. John vaguely remembered Tristan stooping to gather them up in the Queen's Room when he had finally quit John's bed at some silent, small hour of the night. It seemed that Tristan had fallen asleep quite naked, just as John had done, but unlike John, he had not later wakened and self-consciously pulled on a night-shirt.

John felt a little wistful at their need to carry on such a charade. Twice already they had fallen asleep together in John's bed and not wakened until full morning, and on both occasions Tristan had managed to repair to his room before Watson came upstairs. John knew they could not depend on such luck, but he could not help wishing that it did not matter. He looked at Tristan now and wanted above all things to shed his own clothes again and lie next to him. He could not remember ever having felt so much at his ease--so much at home--as he had lately begun to feel in Tristan's arms.

Those arms now embraced a pillow, into which Tristan's cheek was pressed. The shape of his shoulder-blade, the tumble of his hair, his open mouth, even the fact that his lordship was drooling into his bed-linens, all were fascinating to John; Tristan was wonderfully favoured by nature in every regard, as all the world could see, but his imperfections, those traits that nobody saw who did not know him well, were what made him dear.

John quietly pulled the wooden dressing chair around and settled astride it, his sketching-book balanced on its railed back, and began to draw. He captured the jut of Tristan's brow with a few strokes of charcoal, ignoring a slight soreness in his arm muscles that must surely have arisen from last night's tender but prolonged exertions. He was intent upon the sweep of Tristan's closed eyelids, when Tristan's breathing stuttered abruptly and he began to wake.

"Oh, good morning, John," Tristan said with a sleepy smile. He was unperturbed and indeed even seemed pleased at finding John there. As sometimes happened when an interesting subject was before his eyes, John could not immediately make his mouth form words, so he only smiled back.

"Do not tell me that you were drawing me in my sleep."

"Very well," John replied. He wanted to capture the loose curl of Tristan's hand still lying on the white linen before Tristan moved it.

Tristan laughed. "Have you been there long?"

"I don't think so," John murmured. "I did not like to disturb you, but I'm intent upon have some drawings of you, and I'm afraid that it escaped my mind last night. I cannot think why."

Tristan grinned and turned onto his back, forcing John to give up his sketch. He stretched his arms and put his hands behind his head, and as he did so, the sheet slid away from his chest. "Well?" Tristan said. "I hope you see something worth drawing."

"I do not yet see all that I wish to draw," John replied. Tristan was as much at ease in his nakedness as any of Maestro Fiorio's models, and he had made it very clear that John need hold back no desire with respect to his body, yet what John most wished to draw was very warm indeed, and he felt a certain diffidence in asking for it.

Tristan seemed to understand, however, for his smile widened. He pulled the sheet away entirely and said, "Perhaps now you see it."

John swallowed and set to work before he should once again lose the will, and the occasion, to capture the image before him.

Tristan bore with his making two sketches, but when John turned the second sheet over to begin a third, Tristan said, "Come here, John."

John looked up, still intent upon the line of hard muscle that ran from Tristan's hip to his groin, and did not immediately comprehend his words.

"You have gone off to that artist's world where no mere mortal can follow you," Tristan said, waving a hand as if to catch his attention. "I want you here, now. I am flattered that you wish to have a picture of me standing at attention--indeed, I will be the first to admit privately that I am well worth looking at in that respect--but I must insist upon being drawn in quite another way now."

John came into the present with a start. He looked at the sketch before him and felt rather shocked by it. "Do you wish to see?" he asked. Tristan raised his eyebrows expectantly, and when John handed him the drawings, they went up a little higher.

"Well!" he said after perusing both sketches. "What must I do to make you look in a mirror and draw a picture of yourself for me to look at?"

John flushed.

"John!" Tristan said. "You have done so!"

"Only as a boy!" John protested.

"Well, and who has not?" Tristan set the drawings aside. "The difference is that your self-portraits in this regard would have been good."

John was at once relieved and rather scandalised to know that he was not the only boy ever to have drawn such a picture. He could not help laughing a little at the thought of Tristan doing so. "You made yourself Priapus, I am sure."

Tristan was lying back against the headboard of his bed, still uncovered, still erect, and looking generally very pleased with himself. He traced the line of his member idly with a long finger and said, "Come, John, you will admit that there was not much need to exaggerate."

John swallowed. "No, my lord. Very little need." He picked up the sketching-book and closed it. "I ought to burn these."

"You ought to give them to me!" Tristan said, and John turned his eyes up, for of course Tristan would have no qualms about their salaciousness, and no fear of discovery in having them, or looking at them. They were beautiful, John acknowledged to himself, and he could not easily imagine destroying them. He set his drawing things down with an idea of binding the sketches inside the lining of his portfolio later. For now, the day was nearly upon them and their private hour would soon be gone. John began unbuttoning his own trousers, watching Tristan watch him.

"Why, John! You have nothing on underneath!"

John grinned. "No. I felt it would be a waste of effort." He quickly shed his trousers altogether before climbing onto the bed, and thence onto Tristan. "I am doing only what I must to maintain appearances. I thought it best to look as if I were dressed, in case Watson saw me crossing the corridor to your bedroom." Mention of the butler made him remember the small Bible still lying in his dressing table, but he set the thought quickly aside, lest it rob him of even a moment of his pleasure in being with Tristan.

"Your bare feet might have raised his suspicions," Tristan pointed out. He busied himself running his hands up under the shirt that hung down around John's naked thighs. "Wait a moment!" He took hold of John's wrist and examined the shirt-cuff there, where the letter P and the Penrith arms embroidered in white had at last caught his attention. John did his best to feign ignorance. "You are wearing my shirt!"

"Am I?" John began making explorations of his own on Tristan's body with his free hand. "That would explain its absurd length."

Tristan gave a half-stifled groan of pleasure and tried, from his supine position, to push the shirt up and off, but it was too soft, too voluminous, its folds of snowy muslin falling between his hands. When he reached behind John's neck for the collar, John leant away from him. "I want to leave it on."

At Tristan's puzzled look, John shrugged. "It is yours. I like it." The shirt hung loose and open at the neck, one shoulder dipping low and exposing part of John's chest. Tristan reached again for the cuff and fingered the embroidery there. When John shifted forward, the hem of the shirt became trapped between their thighs, and he saw with satisfaction that Tristan was admiring the effect the fine material had in being pulled snugly against his body.

"Do you like to see your monogram on me?" John asked. A part of his mind wondered where in his firmly locked-up nature lay this hitherto-undiscovered well of wantonness and audacity.

Tristan instantly replied, "I do not own you, John," but even as he spoke, his hands closed possessively over both cuffs, and John felt a wave of certainty, a trust and confidence, that made him feel very brash indeed.

"No, but I believe that you are pleased to mark me as your own anyway."

In answer, Tristan raised a knee and looped an arm about John's waist, and with a single strong movement reversed their positions. Before John could overcome his surprise at finding himself so easily surmounted, Tristan said, "If it troubles you, I shall have the stitching picked out."

"It does not trouble me at all."

***

John lay prone beside Tristan as full morning came on, his head cradled on his folded arms and his face turned away. He was not sleepy, but his eyes were closed as he enjoyed the cool morning air on his naked back, and the contrasting heat of Tristan's body where it touched his, at the shoulder and the thigh.

Tristan had locked his bedroom door, and his servants were at least well trained enough to regard this indication of their master's wish to be undisturbed, but it could not long escape their notice that his lordship's house-guest was not to be found in his own room or anywhere else in the house. Though John now had clear evidence that their subterfuges were not deceiving the servants, he clung to the notion, as Tristan seemed to do, that suspicion was not proof. Nevertheless, he thought he must very soon rise and begin his day afresh, in a more complete costume, and with his chin cleanly shaven, fit to be seen at the breakfast table.

He was truly about to make good on this intention, he told himself, when Tristan ran his fingers into the hair at his nape and said, "Where did you get this?"

"What? Oh, you refer to my sole battle scar," John said, as Tristan's fingers explored more pointedly. He thought a moment about how to tell the tale, then began, "My father's house--the house where I grew up, in Winchester--is not especially large, but it is fitted with a very grand staircase of the sort that sweeps out widely at the bottom."

"This is going to be the tale of a banister, isn't it?"

John felt Tristan kiss the back of his neck, and he made a small humming sound of pleasure before answering. "It is the tale of a banister. Ash, to be precise, and extremely smooth. Meg and I employed a highly complex method for sliding down it. Harriman--my mother's housekeeper, that is--and the two maids would polish the banister with beeswax every Tuesday. On Tuesday afternoon, our governess, Mademoiselle Claude, would have tea for half an hour or so in the servants' area with Mrs. Harriman, and at that same time, my father would generally be ensconced in his study and my mother would be out on visits."

"Mm," was the whole of Tristan's comment on the tale so far, but as he began now to kiss John's shoulder, John surmised that he was at least not bored. John tried his best to lie still and enjoy the pleasing sensation while continuing his tale.

"We had, you see, only one half hour each week in which to perfect our skills."

"Very assiduous of you."

As usual, John reflected, Tristan was paying attention. It was among the principal of his many attractions. "We each took off our shoes and grasped the banister with our hands and our stocking feet--this was bottom-first, you understand, and face down."

"That must have felt rather nice to a young boy."

John laughed, remembering. "Do you know, now I think of it, that banister may well have been the origin of my predilection for your society."

"John!" John felt Tristan pause in his attentions to the skin of his exposed shoulder. "I am shocked at you."

"I do not think you are," John replied. "I think you are as flattered as I intended you to be."

Tristan did not make a reply, but he shifted his position in such a way that John knew he was very flattered indeed, and that evidently he had not yet expended all of his passion.

"At any rate," John went on, his breath catching only a little, "we had wonderful methods for leaping off the banister at the bottom of the stair, just before the newel."

"Good God, I hope so," Tristan murmured. "On a purely selfish note, I thank you for your caution in that regard."

"While I am happy to have obliged you," John said, "believe me, my concern was all for myself."

"Yes, I daresay."

"Well, Meg had the happy idea one Tuesday of putting stockings on her hands as well as on her feet, having seen the maids using old stockings to apply the polish. This increased her speed so much that of course I must not only do the same, but must come up with some method even more daring for arriving at the bottom of the staircase."

Tristan worked back up to John's nape and began to kiss the place where the scar ran up into his hair. John raised himself on his elbows and turned his head, and Tristan obligingly kissed his mouth instead. "Do go on," he said, draping one arm over John's back and pulling himself closer.

"I decided I would go down head first."

"I begin to see a newel-post in the immediate future."

"Exactly. In point of fact--and as my mother said then and has repeated countless times since--I am lucky to be alive. For of course, I had not perfected a dismounting method in that direction. I did not smash into the newel, but I have a vivid memory of it rushing toward my face at a great rate of speed. I flung myself off the banister mere inches before breaking my neck, and crashed into the plinth upon which my mother's favourite Limoges vase was perched."

"A Limoges vase!" Tristan exclaimed, curling a leg over the back of John's knees under the sheet, and causing him to have to part them. "I did not anticipate a Limoges vase!"

"Nor did I. It was in the chinoiserie style, and was filled, as I recall, with roses and white peonies." John turned on his side so that he was facing Tristan. Tristan's hazel eyes were clear in the morning light, his hair an absurd tangle, one massive hand propping his head up. He looked amused, so John went on to the conclusion of his story. "It shattered, and my head landed on one of the shards. It was as noisy and as bloody and as terrifying as a twelve year old boy could wish. After being sewn up, and given rare beef to eat to build up my blood again, I was sent to my room and given only thin porridge for three days as a punishment."

"Meg brought you boiled eggs and wedges of Cheddar cheese, though, didn't she?" Tristan nudged John's head back with his mouth, and kissed the tender place under his chin.

John frowned, wishing suddenly that he had not made so much of his twin sister's role in the tale, for the thought of her, of what he had lost in losing her esteem, was heavy. "Yes," he managed to say after a moment. "Something like that. How did you know?"

Tristan smiled into the hollow of John's throat and murmured, "I have deciphered you. That is how." Moving upward to John's ear, he added, "And I am sorry. I ought not to have reminded you."

John was warmed again by this evidence of Tristan's solicitude. "I--I am..." He longed to tell Tristan of the discovery he had made yesterday while walking over the hills of Penrith, and did not think there would ever be a more auspicious moment. Love, he thought. I am your lover. I am in love with you. But the words collided on his tongue and stopped, impeded by his uncertainty, and he had to regroup. "It's all right," he said, smoothing a hand down the back of Tristan's head over and over. "It is all right."

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, August, 1818

Just as Tristan made a point of preceding John upstairs of an evening, so he also liked to be before him at the breakfast table. It was natural for him to rise early, and he liked the notion of being on hand to greet John as the public part of their day began. He was reading some correspondence over a pot of tea, and glanced up from his perusal of a letter from Satterlee when John came into the garden, settled in his customary chair opposite Tristan's, and looked into the coffee-pot.

With a resigned sigh, John said, "You need another servant, Tristan."

"Is your coffee cold?"

"Not particularly." John reached into an inner pocket of his coat and withdrew a small book. "I found this on my wash-stand yesterday."

Tristan took the book from his hands and turned it over. It was a rather grubby, clothbound thing whose spine was frayed, but whose front cover was imprinted with a cross. A glance inside revealed it to be the New Testament. He set it on the table, puzzled. "It is not yours, I perceive?"

"No, Tristan. I do not care for the the MacKnight translation." John's voice carried a note of irony, but a muscle in his jaw worked for a moment before he added, "And I do not generally carry a Bible with me. I was made to spend more time with it in my childhood than most boys are." He looked down, clearly ill-at-ease.

"No, I have never observed you to have one," Tristan said quietly. "And if you did, it would be a handsomer volume than this, I am sure." This attempt at levity did nothing to soften the line of John's jaw or raise his eyes, and Tristan began to worry. Careless servants were not unheard-of, and he disliked to reprimand anyone for a single occurrence of such a small mistake. He thought he could understand, however, why John would particularly dislike to find a Bible in the room where his surrender to his sinful nature had finally taken place. "I suppose that one of the servants left it. I shall speak to Watson, if you like, about being more careful."

"Open it, Tristan. Look at what was marked out." John was gripping the table's edge now, while one finger tapped it nervously. Tristan noticed that a place had been marked in the book, and with a growing sense of dismay, he opened it and read.

He did not at first recognize just what he was seeing, but his eye soon fell upon certain ugly words, words that had on some occasions been spoken within his own hearing, either to insult, or to condemn, or to edify him, and the entire situation became clear. He put the book down with too much force, and John looked up, startled.

"By God!" Tristan said. "The servant who did this shall be dismissed instantly." He rose, a sudden, cold anger driving him, and had they been indoors, he was sure he would have pulled the bell-rope hard enough to ruin it. As it was, he was on the point of shouting for Watson, and had drawn breath to do so when John said, "No, wait, Tristan, please."

Tristan exhaled.

"I have no wish to create difficulties. Do we really know what servants do? It is possible that Watson took a moment from his labours to refresh his spirits with a little St Paul, and simply forgot to take his Bible with him when he left the room. It is possible." He lowered his voice. "I do not think it is likely, though, for you must have seen him watching us, Tristan. I do not mean--no! Good lord, not that, but in general. From the moment I arrived, there is little he has not noted in your behaviour towards me, or, I suppose, in mine towards you."

Tristan had seen nothing out of the ordinary, for a servant's job was to observe his betters closely in order to meet their needs, but before he could say this, John forestalled him again.

"You are accustomed to a style of servant who is as far above the ordinary as your rank is above mine. The pride, the--the discretion you depend on in your servants is not to be found universally. No, please, hear me out, Tristan. Please. You cannot expect everyone who works in your country household to be a Stephens, or a Cooper. Indeed, you will not find a Stephens or a Cooper in this neighbourhood, I am fairly sure, and until you are prepared to come to Ravensworth with your entire staff from London, you must make allowances."

"John, there are no allowances to be made when a guest has been insulted by a servant."

"I am not insulted, Tristan. I am only worried. I am afraid that he will do you harm in the neighbourhood by talking. Consider! If, indeed, that is meant to warn or condemn me, his moral outrage must be very much greater than his self-regard, for he must know that such a thing would not go unremarked. If you dismiss him, bitterness and resentment will join with his self-righteousness, and all of it will be directed at you."

"I do not care what a former servant thinks of me," Tristan said, but it was bluster, and John said nothing. Tristan sank back into his chair with a sigh. "Very well. If I may not dismiss him, what do you think I ought to do?"

"I do not want to overstep my bounds, but one thing is clear, Tristan, and I have wanted to say something to you about it for some time: you do not have enough servants here."

Tristan closed his eyes briefly against the truth of the statement. "God! I hate the matter of servants!"

John smiled. "It is difficult for you, I know. But you must be strong."

"Oh, shut up, John," Tristan replied with a rueful laugh, grateful that John could make light of the matter. "Very well. I shall write to Ricks this morning and tell him to get me another footman."

John cleared his throat.

"What?"

"Of course I know nothing about these matters except what I observed during my youth, which was very much more modest than yours."

"Out with it, John."

"My mother always considered the advice of her housekeeper in these matters."

"Bracken? You wish me to go into the kitchen and speak to Bracken?"

John laughed out loud. "Tristan, you idiot. Send for her. Speak to her in the study."

"Oh. Well, yes, of course. But she is terrified of me."

John only looked at him and reached to push the little Bible across the table towards him.

"Yes. I take your meaning. I am sorry, John," Tristan said again. "This should not have happened in my house, even if it was only an instance of carelessness." He hesitated, not wishing for John to perceive yet another weakness in his ability to fend for himself as an adult, then plunged on. "But I am afraid that it was not, and if it was not, I don't know what to do."

"One thing at a time, Tris." John seemed unaware of having used the nickname that only David had ever called him. Tristan looked up, his surprise quickly turning to fondness. John did not think less of him for his inexperience; John wished him to do better, and was offering to help. "See if the addition of a servant or two does not improve matters."

"Oh, so it is two servants now, is it?" Tristan said.

John poured himself a cup of coffee. "Consider that meals must be prepared, and messages carried, and horses attended to, and the rooms kept up. This table is moved back and forth almost daily, and besides, water is drawn, and fires lit, and clothes laundered. Dishes must be washed and--"

"Very well, John!" Tristan held up a hand before John could mention chamber-pots. "Two more servants. How do you know so much of what goes on belowstairs?"

"When I lived in Venice, I had to do many of these tasks for myself," John replied, reaching for the bread basket. "At all events, I do not think Watson will be so inclined to remind me of my duties as a Christian if he is at ease in carrying out his duties as your butler."

"Well, that is very sensible, and you are quite right: dismissing my head servant when I cannot get another would have been very foolish. But no servant of mine will insult you with complete impunity. I cannot simply ignore this."

John gave a small shrug. "He is only human. What would pique your conscience if you knew you had done something wrong?" He appeared to suppress a smile. "Not that you ever behaved badly--in school, for instance."

"No, I was the pattern card of angelic boyhood," Tristan said with a laugh. "But you are right. I shall think about it while I finish my breakfast."

John gave his attention to the careful application of a spoonful of marmalade to his roll, and Tristan returned to Satterlee's letter. After a time John said, "Tris?"

Tristan looked up from his letter, deciding that he very much liked hearing John call him so.

"There is something I have been wanting to ask you."

Tristan waited. John's face was resolute, and he made minute adjustments to the silverware on the table. Apparently he was not yet done with talking of serious things. He seemed to be seeking the right words for what he now wished to say, and it was clear to Tristan that the matter was difficult for him. He knew a moment's irrational fear.

"There is...that is, I believe there is more--" John broke off and looked down. "There is more that we might do. Together, I mean. I have heard--I understand that--well..." He looked as if he might expire from the strain of trying to say what he clearly could not say outright, and Tristan knew intuitively that the matter must be an intimate one. He relaxed a little.

John took a deep breath and said, "I will not break, Tristan."

Tristan blinked, and his eyebrows went up in surprise. He looked closely at John, wanting to be certain that he was truly trying to say what Tristan had been hoping to hear. It would be disastrous to mistake the matter. John's face was very red. He had taken another roll from the basket and was hollowing it out crumb by crumb.

"There is no polite word for what I believe you are referring to," Tristan ventured at last. When John gave no sign that he was going astray, Tristan leant forward across the little breakfast table, his heartbeat quickening, and in much lower tones said, "You wish me to use you more roughly?"

John put the roll down and slowly raised his eyes to Tristan's, his expression one of guilty desire, and there was longing in his voice as he said, "I think about you--about us--in that regard all the time."

"You--" Tristan had to pause. He stretched a foot under the table and began stroking John's ankle with the toe of his boot. He did not feel as aroused or as lascivious at the prospect as he had in sometimes imagining the thing; rather, a great tenderness filled him. "It is not a small matter."

John's seriousness gave way and he snickered like a schoolboy before contritely biting his lips.

Tristan turned his gentle stroking into a light kick. "You may be as ribald as you please, John, but what you ask--what you offer--is truly not a matter that I will take lightly."

John nodded.

"It will probably astonish you to learn that I, too, have read my Corinthians."

John glanced up sharply.

"You cannot be unaware that in crossing that boundary, you become what St Paul condemns. It is too late for me; I have already entered that realm, and when I found that I was no more evil afterward than before, I began to lose whatever small fear of God that my sorry upbringing might have instilled in me. But I have not pressed you to go there with me because...well, it is a choice you must make willingly--and not, I might add, in a heated moment."

"I will confess that certain heated moments have planted the idea in my mind," John said. "But you will observe that the present moment is as cool as my moments with you ever seem to become."

Tristan, though intent upon making his point, was much struck by this statement, and cocked his head to one side, regarding John. "This heat you feel," he said. "You hide it well, you know."

John's eyebrows flicked up at this, and he said, "We have already been over this ground, Tristan. I cannot act upon all of my feelings. You must simply believe that I have them, and that my actions are as demonstrative of them as my nature can make them."

"Of course, John. I beg your pardon," Tristan said. "I am glad to know that I am not alone in wishing constantly to be--well, to be alone with you."

"You are not, my lord."

"Well, then. Good." Tristan smiled in his relief at being reassured upon this point, feeling rather silly, very young, and decidedly unlordly. John smiled back, and when the tip of his tongue stole out to swipe his lower lip, Tristan felt a hot flare of desire deep within his belly, more sudden and powerful than he had hitherto known in John's presence.

It was a moment before he swallowed, and closed his lips, and collected himself. "What has brought this wish about?" he asked after a time. "I would very much like to know."

John only looked at him for a long moment, his expression open and unguarded, and Tristan felt that he was seeing John--his heart, his deepest nature--for the first time. He did not deserve what he saw there, and in the instant before John looked away, he knew that he wished to have it anyway.

There seemed little doubt that John's desire for this new experience was formed on a very real sentiment, but Tristan was not persuaded that he really knew what he was asking for. "Do not think me averse to the notion. I am not. I like the notion very much. But it is...different, John. It changes everything. It will change you."

"I believe you."

"There would be matters of--well, of a very private bodily nature to become accustomed to."

John coloured again. "I know that it may be...difficult," he said, avoiding Tristan's gaze once more.

Tristan could not keep a smile from his face as he shook his head slightly. "John."

John looked up.

"If it is done properly, it is not difficult." He leant back in his chair and added, "I assure you, John, I shall do it properly."

"Of course. My lord."

Tristan laughed. "You think me arrogant, do you?"

"In this instance, I count on it heavily."

Tristan snorted and looked back at his letters, seeking refuge there from the excess of his own feelings.

"I only wanted you to know that I-- would not object to it, if it is something you wish."

"I do wish it," Tristan said quietly.

John pushed his chair back and rose from the table, seeming now much easier.

"Shall you paint today?" Tristan asked him. "Or have you had enough of your art for the morning?"

John's lips quivered, though he pretended to disregard Tristan's innuendo. "I thought I would start a landscape--perhaps go and take some sketches," he replied.

"Oh? You will use up all of your green paint."

"England's green and pleasant land is not so entirely green to the painter as it is to the proud Englishman," John replied, "but yes, that is a decided risk of landscape painting in this country. I have a notion to put this house in the picture. Do you mind?"

"I should think I might mind indeed, if you were any less a personage than the noted society artist Mr Acklebury," Tristan replied. "You wish to paint Ravensworth?"

John put his hands on the back of the chair he had just vacated, and leant into it, his elbows locked and his shoulders raised. "I have a notion of including it in the landscape, yes."

"It is under scaffolding. It is not at its best."

"The most interesting subjects are imperfect," John replied, smiling at him so fondly that Tristan, for once, found himself blushing. "Will you excuse me, my lord? I would like to take advantage of the morning light."

"Go along."

John made a small, ironic bow and turned to go. As he approached the gate in the hedge, Tristan abandoned his letters and stretched an arm over the back of his chair. "John," he said, and John turned to him once more, expectant and willing. "Tonight, perhaps."

John nodded, very seriously, and left the garden.

Watson came out shortly after John had gone off, and Tristan realised too late that the New Testament was lying in plain view on the table. He supposed he must deal with the matter now. He let Watson approach and begin removing dishes to a large tray, and saw the old fellow pause very minutely upon seeing the book. Tristan picked it up and held it out, looking at one of his letters rather than at Watson. "Someone left this in Mr Acklebury's room," he said. "We must all, of course, admire St Paul's letters to the Corinthians." He looked at Watson and saw that his face had gone pale. His hand, as he reached to accept the volume, shook slightly, and Tristan was sure he was sensible of being in very great danger. "Do not let it happen again, Watson."

"No, my lord. Thank you, my lord."

"And send Bracken to me in a quarter of an hour. I shall be in the study."

"Very good, my lord."

***

John was coming to know the hills of Penrith, as nearly every day he rode or walked out into them while Tristan was occupied, and since his arrival, he had begun to see them as a fit subject for painting. He did not think of himself as a painter of landscapes; indeed, Maestro Fiorio had called it women's work, and French, and had generally scorned it as unworthy. That Maestro Fiorio had himself been born and bred in Venice and had no taste for the country, John thought, probably explained this view. Nevertheless, people were what he had taught John to paint: people, and the works of people, and it was a pleasant novelty for John to look at English hills and English hedgerows and stands of good English timber under the English sky, and consider them all through the eyes that Maestro Fiorio had trained to see so keenly.

There was a vantage point, perhaps a quarter of a mile to the north of the house, where the ground rose and the view of the house itself was partly screened by a sycamore. The black-and-white half-timbered exterior made a vibrant, rather bold mark in a landscape which, despite what John had told Tristan earlier, was rather demanding of his store of green pigments. John was seated upon the low, dry-stone wall that ran alongside the road, his box of pastels open beside him, his sketching book propped on his thighs. Whether he could ever again separate the act of drawing from the heated memory of what he had drawn this morning was a question as yet unresolved.

Nevertheless, immersion in his drawing allowed him to set aside for the moment his uneasiness over Watson's odious message, and he did not become aware of the clopping of hooves until the horse and rider were nearly upon him. He turned to look over his shoulder, realising that he had been hearing them approach for some few moments already.

A gentleman was just reining his horse from the trot to a walk. He wore a fine, glossy black hat and highly polished black Hessians, and as he came near, John perceived the lower edge of a boldly striped waistcoat visible beneath the gentleman's coat. His dress was suited to town, and seemed out of place here in the vast openness of Penrith.

"Good day," the gentleman said, drawing his horse to halt and lifting his hat.

John rose and inclined his head. "Good day." The man's face was familiar; John was sure that he had seen him somewhere.

"You must be Tristan's guest."

John was so taken aback at this statement that he did not immediately reply. "I--I have the honour to be a guest of Lord Penrith, yes." He realised that he had been thinking himself the only person in the world with the privilege of using Tristan's given name, and the discovery that he was not--that someone he scarcely recognised claimed that same right--lowered his spirits very precipitously.

The other man smiled. "Penrith and I dined together last night at Sir Thomas Bedlowe's house," he said, as if to explain himself.

John felt stunned. Tristan had come home filled with such ardour that there had been no thought of anything but to be in one another's arms till sleep should take them. Had Tristan really dined with this man? Had he spoken of John to him? John waited, aware that his face must reveal his confusion.

"Is he at home this morning?" the gentleman enquired.

John was at a loss to know why he ought to answer such a question from a stranger. "I do not know," he replied finally, reasoning that Tristan might have gone out in the hour since John had left him reading his letters and drinking his tea in the garden.

"I beg your pardon," the gentleman said, dismounting from his horse and removing his hat in order to make a punctilious bow. "You do not know me--of course you do not! But I feel as if I know you. I am Charles Murray, and you are Mr Acklebury, the artist."

John felt an antipathy toward the man that he could not honestly set to the account of his bad taste in waistcoats. Tattersall's! he remembered suddenly. This was the gentleman at Tattersall's whom Tristan had avoided.

"Yes, I am Acklebury," John said with the smallest possible bow.

"Well, I am interrupting you at your art," Mr Murray said. "I beg your pardon. I shall just go along and see if I find Tristan at home. He was ever one to lie abed of a summer's morning." With this, the man got back up on his horse and trotted away down the road toward the house.

John stared after him for a long moment. Then, aware only of a great wish to be away, he left his sketching things on the low stone wall and walked off in the opposite direction.

***

"There is a gentleman to see you, my lord."

Tristan turned from the builders' foreman to see Watson just coming into the French garden. He could not say with certainty, but Watson's demeanour seemed somewhat chastened, his posture perhaps slightly more proper and formal than Tristan had seen it before. Watson bore a calling-card on a tray, and for the first time since waking that morning Tristan remembered his intention of refusing callers. He knew that it was too late when Charles Murray entered the garden practically on Watson's heels.

"Ah, Penrith!" Charles called out with a wave.

Watson glanced over his shoulder in evident surprise, then back to his lordship with a look of apology mingled with fear, as though any small, ordinary irregularity in the running of the house would now be added to his real misdemeanour and used against him. Tristan was sorry for it, but relieved to see what a salutary effect his impromptu warning was having.

"Never mind, Watson," he said quietly. "I shall see him. We will not require any refreshment."

"Very good, my lord." Watson made a stiff bow to Murray as he left the garden again.

Murray came forward with a wide and brash smile that said he saw no need to stand on ceremony with Tristan. He was dressed in the first stare of fashion, as if his morning's ride had taken him to the Green Park, and not across several miles of Cumberland's limestone country.

"I met Mr Acklebury in the lane," he said, foreclosing any hope Tristan had of preventing their meeting. "Are you hiding him? Why did he not come to dinner last night? He is very agreeable."

Tristan glanced at the foreman and back at Murray. To the foreman, he said, "Proceed with the work on the western wing at once."

The foreman bowed, gathered up his drawing, and left the garden.

Choosing not to answer Murray's question, Tristan said, "As you see, I am not prepared to entertain callers."

Murray ignored the hint, as Tristan supposed he would, saying, "Oh, it is no matter. What is a little sawdust between old friends?"

Tristan could feel himself being swept into the easy familiarity that had always marked Charles' character. Attempting to answer one of his impertinent questions, laughing at one of his jokes, even arguing a point with him or insulting him: all would lead down a path Tristan did not wish to pursue. It occurred to him now that to engage with Charles in any way was to encourage him. It had ever been so, he realised. He said nothing, therefore, and waited.

The effect of this choice was remarkable. Murray's smile faltered. He began to look nervously about him in the garden, finally indicating the table and chairs that were still out on the flagstones near the drawing-room window. "That is a charming arrangement," he said with an uneasy laugh. "Do you breakfast out of doors on these fine summer mornings?"

Tristan had no wish for Murray to know anything about his breakfasts with John, those moments being among his favourite things in all of the delights of John's society, so he did not answer this question, either, and did not invite him to sit at the table, though clearly he was hinting at it.

"Is there some particular reason for your call?" Tristan asked, when he deemed the silence to have gone on long enough.

Murray gave another nervous laugh. "I--well! How surprised you must have been to see me married!"

Again, Tristan only waited. He might say many things in response to this sally, but as he could not oblige Murray with the expression of regret or jealousy that Murray probably hoped for, and as everything else that came to his mind was an insult either to Murray's character or to Mrs Murray's honour, he once again remained silent.

"If you must know, I married her for her money. There! My father has cast me off at last. I was very near to throwing myself on the mercy of old Aunt Coombes just to keep a roof over my head." This confession came out rapidly, in a breathless, defensive tone, as if Tristan had made some accusation.

Tristan looked at him and saw that the flaws which had once made him interesting, exciting, even lovable, now seemed to lace all through him, touching everything in his character with an incurable weakness. He would certainly crumble from it soon or late. "I am sorry for you," Tristan said at last. "And I am very sorry for your wife."

Murray seemed almost to cringe from these words. His smile was appeasing and guilty as he said, "Oh, we expect to bring my father around before long. When there is a child, he will have to relent. When he does, Mary can buy all the dresses in London, and half the jewellery, too, and we can each turn a blind eye to the other."

And in the meantime, Tristan thought, you have almost certainly thrown away that poor woman's entire portion... His thoughts seemed to freeze for a moment as he stared at Charles. "What did you hope to accomplish by coming to Penrith?" he asked. "Tell me now, Charles, and do not lie to me. Did you come here hoping for money from me?"

"What? No! My God, Tristan! I am not so far gone as that!" Murray's protests were thin. "It--it is true that things are very bad. I needed to get away from town. You cannot imagine the pressures, Tristan. Everyone wants his money--my tailor, my landlord, Tattersall's...well, Tattersall simply sent a pair of very unsavoury chaps around to take my horses back. But it was very bad."

Tristan longed to know how the elder Mr Murray, one of the King's richest subjects, could bear the scandal of letting his only son's debts go undischarged, but asking such a question would give the impression of a compassion that he did not wish to show. Instead, he said, "I asked you before not to address me by my Christian name."

As if struck, Murray drew back, clearly both surprised and dismayed at the failure of his woeful tale to gain Tristan's sympathy.

"You have not answered my question, Murray. Why did you come to Cumberland? Why to Penrith?"

"I did not know where else to go! I knew that you were here--all London knows that you are here--and I...I was without friends."

Tristan felt that he was holding on to his resolve by a fingernail. It would be well within his power to give Murray some money, to call it a loan between friends and thereby take away the humiliation that charity must have for Murray, while allowing Tristan to pretend that it was a business arrangement and not a capitulation; he could invite Murray and his unlikely wife to dine, or ride, and provide them some semblance of friendly society in what must be circumstances of oppressive isolation; in short, he might ease some of Murray's distress while appeasing his own conscience.

Something in his morning, however--John's confidence in him, and his dealing with an unsatisfactory servant--braced him up. He looked Murray in the face and without apology said, "You will not have a farthing of me, Murray. Do not hope for it."

Murray, still not dissuaded, pursed his lips and said, "You used to be more charitable."

David had always said that the Viscounts Penrith were generally known for their charity and generosity, and it was a point of honour with Tristan to follow that tradition. He did not care to hear himself called uncharitable, for to his mind, the word spoke of meanness, greed, and ignobility, characteristics that he associated with his father. "I assure you, Murray, I am still charitable where my duty is invoked or my heart is touched," he managed to say.

Murray apparently sensed a weakness, though, for he scarcely faltered. "It is sordid to speak of money, isn't it?" he said, drawing a step closer and putting a hand on Tristan's forearm in a most unwelcome way. "Let us speak of pleasanter things. You and your friend Mr Acklebury must be longing by now for a little variety in your company. Perhaps he could be persuaded to let me join you some evening."

Tristan was astonished into stillness for a moment: astonished at the suggestion, and at his own failure to have predicted such a thing. His friendship with John, the intimacies they shared, were of so private a character that Tristan hated the thought of Murray even suspecting their existence; that Murray might lay a finger on John's person, a notion that last night had been merely distasteful to him, this morning caused a flare of some wild emotion that filled him suddenly from belly to throat, preventing speech. Tristan noted in some surprise that he had begun to bare his teeth.

Murray, however, seemed to take Tristan's silence as a sign that he considered the possibility, for he smiled in an encouraging fashion and moved his hand upward on Tristan's arm.

Tristan looked down at that hand, resisting the urge to fling it off in disgust. He stepped away from Murray instead, shaking his head to clear it of the violent thoughts that assailed him. He drew himself up and said, "There is not the slightest chance of it."

"Are you quite sure?" Charles persisted. "He seems a very willing sort of fellow, and I know you have a taste for such things. I feel sure he would do whatever you asked of him. I knew that he was handsome, Tr--my lord, but now that I have seen him at close quarters, why, you cannot keep that all to yourself! Those lips alone would--"

Tristan's fist struck any more words from Murray's mouth before Tristan was even aware of the decision to hit him. In the space of a breath, Murray was staggering back, shocked, his hand on his jaw, his eyes watering, and Tristan was flexing his fingers, ready to strike again if the next words from Murray's lips did not reflect a perfect understanding of the situation.

There was a long moment of silence between them into which the voice of a workman, calling out to one of his fellows from the distant peak of the roof of the western wing, rose clearly. Murray swiped his mouth with the back of his hand, his eyes never leaving Tristan's face as he backed up another step and finally straightened.

"I take my leave of you, Lord Penrith," he said.

Tristan only inclined his head and watched Murray go.

"Watson!" he shouted. He did not as a rule shout for his servants, and had to remind himself that in any case, Watson's hearing was not sharp. He waited until he heard the sound of a horse galloping away along the sweep before climbing in through the drawing-room window, where he rang the bell and paced until Watson appeared.

"The gentleman who was just here," he began, "is called Mr Charles Murray. You are to refuse him if he comes again. Neither I nor Mr Acklebury will be at home to him at any time. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, my lord. Very good, my lord."

"I expect my wishes to be adhered to absolutely in this. See to it that everyone understands, not excepting the workmen."

"At once, my lord."

Satisfied that he had done what he could to protect John, and indeed, his own peace of mind, from Murray's presence so long as he remained in the neighbourhood, Tristan went to the western wing in search of the foreman, wondering if he might spare one or two of his men to turn the drawing room window into a damned doorway this very afternoon.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, September, 1818

The vigorous stride of agitation took John quickly away from the departing figure of Mr Charles Murray, and up into the hills of Penrith. He walked, his inchoate thoughts swirling, as the sun climbed toward its zenith and the day grew hot. As his steps carried him upward, his exertions gradually settled his mind, and, at the crest of the rise where he and Tristan had first kissed one another, John finally stopped and sat down in the dry grass. His mind was clearer now.

He picked up a small stone and tossed it away. There had been others before him. He knew that. Tristan had told him of two of them, and if John was not so romantical as to suppose those two the sum of Tristan's amorous past, he accepted that they alone had been important enough for Tristan to speak of. Murray was surely one of them; who else would have called Tristan by name? Who else would know of his habits of sleep?

One of John's pebbles roused a brown rabbit from the grass and sent it hopping off. John supposed that Murray's presence in Cumberland could be a coincidence. His voice had the sound of Scotland in it; perhaps he had come south from there to see the Lakes. It could be a coincidence.

John felt in the grass and did not encounter any more pebbles to his right. A few more, however, presented themselves to his left hand, and he began throwing these one by one down the hill, aiming them at a small outcrop of stone which, when he hit it, produced a satisfying clack in the somnolent summer air. There were not many people in the region that Sir Thomas and Lady Bedlowe might reasonably invite to dine; it was not wonderful that Lord Penrith and a visiting gentleman should find themselves dining together there.

John's aim was improving, giving rise to a rhythmic series of small clatters. John could not account for Tristan's having said nothing of this dinner with Murray, except by supposing that Tristan still felt some attachment to him. His ardour last night--and again this morning--had seemed very warm and very real, but what did John really know of such things? Perhaps Tristan had only been overcome by desire for this former intimate. The first time Penrith had tried to kiss him, John recalled now in chagrin, was after that odd encounter at Tattersall's. Perhaps, he thought, he had been only a substitute all along, a replacement for what Tristan really wanted. Perhaps, even now, back at Ravensworth, in the stables or in the boarded-up wing where the servants did not go, Tristan and Murray were reconciling.

His conversation at breakfast came plunging back into his mind; with sudden shame, he saw what he had asked for--what he had offered!--not as the great thing he felt it to be, but as a trifle. Tristan's confidence in speaking of the act, so reassuring to John two hours ago, now seemed to mock him in his inexperience, and make light of the act. It struck John with the force of a blow to realise that Charles Murray, that overdressed popinjay with his arrogant, lazy manners, must already know Tristan in that way.

The idea was so lowering that for a long and terrible moment, John could scarcely bear the pressure of his own clothes against his skin. He wanted to rise and run, he wanted to lie down in the grass and never get up, he wanted to shout, he wanted to sink silently away. Then he became angry.

Anger was a sentiment that John sometimes pretended he was not subject to. He was accustomed to ignoring it, to talking himself out of feeling it, and he could not remember when it had ever felt as powerful as it felt now. Anger sparked in his mind and clarified his thoughts marvellously; it stiffened his back and filled his heart, and he wondered, as he rose and brushed bits of dried grass from his coat and trousers, how he could have been so meek and yielding before Murray. Why, he had given Murray no reason at all to think that Tristan was taken up with someone new. Murray might be forgiven for supposing John Acklebury to be merely a casual visitor to Tristan's estate.

Well, he could do nothing about that now, but he would be damned, he decided, if he would concede his own present happiness without any fight at all.

By the time he arrived back at Ravensworth, the heat of the day had rather irritated than tired him, and done nothing to blunt the exhilaration of his anger. Work appeared to have begun on the west end of the house, and though this put an end to John's unwelcome fantasies about its illicit use by Tristan and Murray, it proved nothing. He went in at the kitchen door and, after restoring himself by drinking most of the pitcher of water that Bracken offered him, strode into the main house. He found Tristan and the foreman of the workers leaning over a drawing that was spread out on a table made of a plank and two saw-horses in the middle of the main entrance.

"John! Oh, good," Tristan said when he looked up. "You are home." He straightened, and rolled his head back and forth as he was wont to do when he had been still too long and his neck was stiff. His hair was as untidy as it generally was, and his clothes were those he had been wearing at breakfast. If Murray had called, he was long gone. Tristan put a hand on John's shoulder in a gesture so unconscious that the edifice of doubt and betrayal that John had spent the afternoon constructing threated collapse.

"I need to speak to you at once," John said, and, ignoring Tristan's look of surprise, took him by the arm and pulled him into one of the disused rooms that opened off the entry. A workman glanced up from where he knelt taking measurements of the floor. "Leave us," John told him. The startled alacrity with which the workman scrambled to obey this command had the odd effect of augmenting John's anger once more by making him feel the power of it.

As soon as the man had gone, John pushed Tristan against the wall, a feat of strength made possible as much by Tristan's unresisting surprise as by the urgency of the feelings running through John's body. With a hand on either side of Tristan's jaw, John pulled his head down and kissed him hard and fast upon the mouth. He did not care that the foreman might turn around from his examination of the plans and see them; he wished in this moment that everyone in the house--indeed, everyone in the world--might see.

Tristan let the kiss go on for several seconds before apparently rediscovering himself and pushing John back a little, saying, "John!" in a rather strangled voice. He glanced nervously out into the entry. John did not care what he saw there, and kept his eyes on Tristan's face. His cheeks had coloured up, John observed, but he seemed neither angry nor displeased, only uncharacteristically flustered. When he glanced back at John, he blinked rapidly, clearly puzzled, and said, "What has got into you, John?"

John continued to look at him, wishing he might explain himself, but unable to muster the words for it. Tristan's shirt and hair were dusty, and he smelled of sweat. His breath had the sour tinge that told John he had neglected to eat anything and was hungry. John became conscious of the sweat-dampened condition of his own shirt, and the probable odour of exertion arising from his own body. At any second, John knew, the foreman was going to look about him to determine where his lordship had gone. "Nothing," John said at last. "That was all I wished to say."

Tristan stepped away from the wall and tugged at the neck of his shirt, though it was no more disordered now than it had been a moment before. The honestly quizzical look he gave John, the utter want of any guile or evasion, made all of John's anger, and the worry and fear behind it, fly away.

"Well!" Tristan said with a small laugh and another quick glance out at the foreman, "I hope you will feel yourself at liberty to speak your mind again soon!" He accompanied this statement with an absurd waggling of his eyebrows, then turned to go back to his conference over the building plans.

Now that the propitious moment had passed, John was astonished and exhilarated at the risk he had just taken. He had learnt at least some of what he wished to know: that Murray, if he had been admitted to the house at all, was unimportant to Tristan. With this, John seemed to come back into himself, the summer day suddenly vivid and bright through the open front door of the house, the noise of the workmen sharp and industrious. The foreman turned at last from the drawings on the plank table, and John realised that only a few seconds had passed.

"Have you eaten yet, Penrith?" John asked.

Tristan, still wearing a bemused half-smile, said, "No, Acklebury. I have not had time."

"Well, pray, make some time, my lord. I am famished, and I think you are too."

Tristan favoured him with another particular look, this one consisting of the pursed lips, the raised eyebrows and the wide eyes of exaggerated and obviously feigned displeasure; then he laughed, shook his head still in evident surprise at John's behaviour and said, "Very well. I shall eat. And then I am going to go riding, for I have not been out today. Come with me."

"As you wish, my lord." John bowed.

After partaking of a cold nuncheon together, they rode east and a little south, towards the village of Orton, with the sun at their backs, galloping where the limestone scars did not impede their horses. Tristan spoke from time to time, but when, after a mile or two, he still said nothing about his visitor, John became impatient. There seemed little possibility of Murray's having failed to call at Ravensworth, so either he had been turned away at the door, or Tristan had received him and did not wish to speak of it. John felt a great need to know which was the case, and so he said, "I encountered a gentleman in the lane this morning. He said he was on his way to visit you."

He glanced at Tristan and noted a tight nod and the clenching of his jaw. It was a moment before he replied, and John could see that the matter was one of considerable irritation to him. He waited, his spirits steady, for, while utter indifference to a former lover was what John most wished to see, irritation with him was an acceptable alternative. Irritation was not a sentiment he thought he needed to worry about.

"Charles Murray, yes," Tristan said finally. He sounded resigned.

"A...friend of yours from the past, I surmise?"

"Yes, John."

Undaunted by Tristan's apparent unwillingness to speak of it, John said, "Perhaps it is not my concern."

Tristan did not instantly contradict this essay, but rode on beside him without saying anything for such a long period that John's modest habit of mind began to reassert itself and tell him that it truly was not his concern. A bolder voice within him, however, reminded him that he had every right to know about the intrusion of one of Tristan's former intimates into the privacy that was, after all, dear to both of them. "You ought to know that he was very free with your name and character," John pressed on, beginning to feel rather mulish in the face of Tristan's continued silence. "He seemed to know a good deal about your...habits."

This caused Tristan to turn at last in his saddle and give him a startled look. "Good God! What did he say to you, John? He cannot have said anything more shocking than what I have already told you."

Here, then, was confirmation that Murray was the corrupter of Tristan's years at Cambridge, and not some other associate John had not yet heard of. Tristan truly seemed to have nothing to hide. "Oh, nothing very particular," John answered. "His acquaintance with you seems to date to a period when you were not an early riser, that is all."

Tristan scowled. "Yes, well, when one is nineteen years old and addicted to the sort of life that cannot take place but under cover of night, one does not get up much before noon." He took his hat off, an unconscious gesture of great annoyance, then made a sound that was akin to a growl and put it back on. "I am sorry that you met him, John. I did not know he was in the neighbourhood until I saw him at Sir Thomas's house last night. Were it in my power to make him go away again, I should do so at once, I assure you. He is the sort of man who falls repeatedly on hard times, and it seems that he has exhausted what little goodwill the world had towards him."

"So he has come to you for help?"

"In short, yes."

The question that would spring next to anyone's mind, John thought, could not be asked with any propriety, so he remained silent, and soon enough, Tristan answered it for him.

"Of course I refused him. He tried to play upon my sympathies, and when that failed, he accused me of uncharitableness. He very nearly had me with that, but you had been stern with me in the matter of my duty not an hour earlier, and I had just finished reprimanding Watson in what I think was a rather clever way--I shall tell you about it if you like--and so I was feeling pretty stouthearted. He cast aspersions on you then, and I hit him."

"You did what?" John said, aghast. Neptune shook his head and whickered, and John had to calm him for a moment. "Tristan, you cannot continue to hit people who insult me. It was lowering enough the first time you did it."

"What? Oh. I did not think of it that way." Tristan's forehead creased in a frown. "This was nothing like our little brawl in Lambeth that day. You must forgive me for that, John. Really, you must."

John waved this away. "Long forgiven, Tris."

"I am glad to hear it. And I was not conscious of defending your honour this morning, so much as...well, I do not know what I was conscious of, but believe me, John, I struck him on my own behalf because what he said angered me a good deal."

"What did he say?" John interjected.

He was not really sure that he wanted to know, and was glad when Tristan said, "It does not bear repeating. You must just believe me when I tell you that it merited the blow to the face I gave him. But I am not proud of it! You need not chide me for weakness of character."

John felt a laugh coming on, and cleared his throat. "I am glad that you did not break any bones this time. That is all."

"Even in the throes of anger, I was not so lost to all rationality as to hit him as hard as that," Tristan declared. "My fingers are only just now fully healed from the last time!" Then, lowering his voice a little, though there was no one anywhere about, he added, "And besides, I expect to have an especial need for my hands tonight."

John was able to find no answer to such a hint, and only hoped that his face did not appear quite as heated as it felt. Tristan turned Jupiter with a self-satisfied smirk, and raced off, leaving John to follow.

They came soon enough upon an ancient, tumbledown stone structure, a small building with an arched opening in one wall, whose purpose John could not discern. They dismounted, as he supposed, to look at it more closely. "What is this?" John asked, examining the fine dry stonework.

Tristan pushed him against the one wall that stood unbroken and said, "Do you really care?" before descending on his mouth and kissing him until he could no longer remember his question.

***

By the time they returned to Ravensworth it was dusk, and John was growing nervous about the evening's proposed adventure. He and Tristan dined in a silence that was laced with delirious tension, Tristan not hesitating to cast him heated looks whenever Watson was out of the room, and neither of them doing justice to the dinner that had been prepared for them.

When at last the servants had withdrawn to their end-of-day duties and the gentlemen were finishing their brandy in the armchairs by the garden window, John became very self-conscious, and said with a nervous laugh, "It is very odd to have planned...such a thing, is it not?"

He did not know quite what to think of the almost flustered answering expression on Tristan's face. He wished that the urbane and confident Viscount Penrith who had importuned him every day of their entire acquaintance would lead him step by step into this new territory and require no thought of him, but he was, at the same time, gratified to perceive that Tristan thought the matter significant enough to view with some little abashment, and not with the careless indifference John had feared earlier in the day.

Finally, Tristan said, "It is. I am not accustomed to go so with so much forethought into--" He gestured with his brandy glass.

"Into your lover's bed?" John supplied boldly. Tristan's eyebrows rose, but before he could make a reply, John got up and went to him, insinuating himself between Tristan's knees and bending towards his upturned face. Tristan's thighs were hard and warm against his legs. "Then you must upon no account think so much about it now." John placed his hands on Tristan's shoulders and kissed him with as much desire and intent as he could contrive to put into the meeting of their mouths, hoping that by this means, Tristan would understand that he was ready, that there was no need for awkwardness, and that Tristan ought now to make good on his promise of the morning.

Tristan was not long in recovering his habitual brashness. With his hands inside John's coat and then up under his shirt, he soon became so engrossed in touching John and trying to remove his clothes that John had a moment's fear of discovery. He did not, however, wish to interrupt with any word of warning the ardour that was pleasing them both so much, so he only shifted as best he could onto his feet again, pulling Tristan with him and saying, "I want you in my bed. I cannot wait longer."

Tristan allowed John to precede him from the drawing room and across the hall, but not by any proper distance. When it was clear that even Jem had quitted his post and gone off to bed, Tristan came so close behind John as to practically embrace him going up the stairs, and when they reached the landing, Tristan pushed John against the wall, taking the bedroom candle out of his hand and setting it on the table.

John could only hope that Jem truly had retired, for Tristan began to move against him in so lascivious a manner that John, his cheek pressed to the wallpaper, could scarcely breathe, and could certainly not find it within himself to give any warning. Tristan was heavy and insistent at his back, his breath coming hot upon John's neck. John sought purchase on the wall with splayed fingers, and Tristan's hands closed over his wrists. Tristan's body was pressing against his from knee to nape, cradling him, hiding him, ravishing him. He felt Tristan's teeth close on his earlobe, and he drew breath with a sharp hiss.

Tristan thrust up against his posterior and murmured into his hear, "Do you still wish this?" John nodded, breathless, and could only try to return the movement within the confined space Tristan was allowing him. "Good." Tristan drew away just far enough to turn toward the remaining stairs and retrieve the candle, one hand coming around the side of John's neck, where it remained until they were inside John's bedchamber.

Once there, far from releasing John so that he might catch his breath or even light another candle, Tristan seemed loath to let any distance open between them at all. Gripping John about the shoulders, kissing him with an almost painful ferocity, Tristan fumbled the candle to the dressing table and, both hands now free, proceeded to wrap himself about John in a veritable bear's hug.

It was a new sensation. Tristan, though always very fond of touching and stroking every part of John's body, customarily kept a small distance, for his predilection to see what he experienced was almost as great as John's. Moreover, he was wont to speak a good deal during their intimacies, and though these utterances tended to be more in the nature of appreciative and very warmly-worded murmurs than great orations upon the pleasures before them, they were a constant feature of John's experience in Tristan's arms.

It was not to be so tonight, it seemed. Tristan clutched John's body as if John were in some danger of slipping from his grasp, and though he rained kisses on John's face and neck, and mouthed at John's skin through the material of his shirt, he did not speak, but only emitted small, high-pitched sounds filled with need. John had no real objection to this novel treatment, and for several moments did his best to return kiss for kiss and stroke for stroke, but it was soon borne in on John's awareness that Tristan was hesitating to go farther.

"Tristan. Tristan. My--my dear Tristan," John said, managing to get his hands on Tristan's shoulders and push back, only a little, enough to see that Tristan's eyes were closed. His face bore a look of...not fear, precisely, but of something very far from the insolent, demanding confidence that John was used to see there. "Tris," he said softly. "I would like to take off some of my clothes."

This brought a faint smile to Tristan's face, but he still did not open his eyes, and groped like a blind man until he found John's cravat and began untying it, taking up again the planting of haphazard kisses on John's face. Though by no means yet certain of his footing, but somewhat reassured, John took advantage of his momentary freedom from Tristan's enveloping embrace to remove his own coat, and then to unbutton Tristan's.

Finally, Tristan opened his eyes and took part in undressing himself, but still he did not look at John. Whatever his misgivings, it was evident to John that he did not suffer from a diminution of physical desire, and that, John reflected, was some comfort, for he would not like to urge Tristan on if he had changed his mind so completely as to be in no amorous state at all.

Before he was entirely undressed, being still in his shirt, Tristan once again took hold of John and brought him very close. John had by this time stripped to only his under-drawers, and as he allowed himself to be gathered into that demanding embrace, he reflected fleetingly that between them they were decently covered enough for one man.

"Do not suppose that I dislike your kissing me so much," John managed to say, hoping that in adopting a light tone, he might induce Tristan to be more himself, "for I like it very much. If you wish to kiss me all night long, you will have no objection from me." He drew back and looked at Tristan's face. "But I don't think that is what you want. Is--is something troubling you?"

Tristan took a deep breath then and let it out in a sigh. He put one hand through his already disordered hair, and when he realised that it was still tied back he quickly reached to pull away the cord. John put his hands into the soft, overlong hair that fell freely about Tristan's neck, and pulled his head down. "What is it, Tris?" he asked, searching his face. "If you do not care to proceed with what we had in view for the night--"

Tristan shook his head and answered with another kiss, this one beginning only tentatively, but progressing quickly, at John's insistence, to a more customary degree of ardour. Their breathing grew more rapid, both of their movements becoming once again heated, and John began to hope that whatever doubt had threatened to quench Tristan's desire was now vanquished. But in stepping back once more to shed his own last garment, John caught sight of Tristan's face in the candlelight, and saw there an expression of such uncertainty and worry as to make him look like a schoolboy facing an examination he had not prepared for.

All at once, John saw Tristan as the young man he was. Tragedy might have thrust him too young into a worldly role, and inclination might have made him seek carnal knowledge that far outstripped John's, but he was just gone four-and-twenty, more than three years John's junior. While Tristan might have done before what John wished him to do tonight, it had not been in the role of preceptor, but quite the reverse. Despite the superiority of rank, his wealth, and his experience, Tristan was in no way John's master. John realised with sudden, perfect, clarity, that Tristan had been trying to tell him so very nearly since their first meeting.

Without a word, John took Tristan's hand and led him to the bed, and there pulled his shirt off for him and dropped it to the floor, smiling all the while with his new understanding. Tristan regarded him in some puzzlement.

"We need not force this night into a form it does not wish to take," John told him. "I would not have you think that some particular thing is wanting for my complete satisfaction, for you must know that I am always completely satisfied in your company. Come, lie down with me for a while." John drew Tristan with him to the bed, and onto it, and Tristan made no protest, but came willingly enough and soon lay stretched out beside John, his hands behind his head and his ankles crossed, as if he was at the end of an evening's pleasure and not the beginning. Indeed, his arousal had begun to flag a little, and this unprecedented circumstance made John so careful of what he might say next that he censored his speech altogether, and only nudged Tristan's arm with his own, in the name of maintaining a little physical contact.

If Tristan preferred to postpone John's initiation into that most bonding, not to say that most damning, of intimate relations, John did not object, so long as Tristan's hesitancy was not the result of a change of heart. John thought that it was not, and that what weighed with him now was an extremely unusual failure of self-assurance. Lying beside Tristan, his own ardour a little abated by the concern he felt, John resolved to mend matters as he had learnt worked best, and in a tone of light raillery, said, "You cannot think what a scrape I put myself into a few days ago, trying to convince your housekeeper that a small flagon of sallet oil was an essential accoutrement of my shaving-kit."

Tristan turned his head to look at John, his eyebrows knitted in confusion.

"Yes," John went on. "It was absurd, really. Probably there is no need at all for such a thing. It is not as if I might go into Lackington's and get a book on the subject, so I do not understand everything I ought to about it, but it is my understanding that oil is...used. To smooth the way, as it were."

Tristan's expression grew surprised.

"I know that it is pleasant enough to me," John added when Tristan still did not speak. Violetta had introduced him to its use when he had not come as readily to attention with her as she would have liked, and the rubbing of warm, slick, fragrant oil on his recalcitrant member had gone some way to correcting the deficiency. John did not think he cared to explain this much to Tristan, however, and instead said, "You will like it, I am sure." He rose and went to his dressing table, and came back to the bed with the small stoppered bottle of olive oil that he had hidden there.

He poured a few drops of oil into his cupped palm and let it warm for a few moments. In the dim, golden light, Tristan pulled a pillow up to the headboard, and shifted to rest back against it. John could see that his interest was beginning to be piqued once more. An entirely coarse and ungentlemanlike lust drew John to Tristan's member, its generous proportions being the source of a deep fascination to him, but he knew that the contact that his hands, his body, even his mouth had thus far made with it had in no way prepared him to be penetrated by it.

He got onto the bed and knelt between Tristan's thighs, careful not to spill the oil in his hand. He rubbed his palms together. Tristan was smiling at him now, a small, sardonic lift of one side of his mouth. Only one hand still propped up his head; with the other he was caressing his own chest and belly almost absently. John thought that delicacy probably had no place in the matter, and so went directly to the point, taking Tristan's member into his oil-coated hands.

None of Tristan's usual banter ensued: no joking animadversions upon John's sauciness, no declarations of surprise at his hidden tyrannical leanings. He silently allowed John to continue making him firm again, watching with parted lips as he did so. After a time, John, not wishing to bring matters to a premature end, abated his stroking, took Tristan's hand, and put the little bottle into it, saying, "I wish you will use some of this on me."

Tristan looked at him for a long moment, only the marked rise and fall of his chest betraying any particular feeling. Then he seemed to come to a decision, for all at once his nostrils flared, and his upper lip seemed to stretch, and lift, quite as if he would snarl.

"Come here," he said in a gruff voice.

John, who was already as near to Tristan as knees, and thighs, and bedclothes seemed to permit, began uncertainly to turn around, for he thought that what was to come next must happen with Tristan behind him, as he had been on the landing, and as John had seen depicted in certain illicit pictures that had found their way to his guilt-stricken eyes in Venice.

Tristan forestalled him, however, and with firm hands to John's hips let him know that what he wished was for John to remain facing him, and to draw nearer by parting his legs wider and wrapping them about Tristan's waist. Tristan helped him to achieve this position by lifting him up onto his own thighs. To stay there, John had to wrap his arms fast around Tristan's shoulders, but as the position also caused his private parts to be pressed up against Tristan's hard belly, he was not eager to relax that grip.

There was a nudge against the opening that had never before been so exposed, and it was a moment before he realised that, both of Tristan's arms being fully occupied in bracing him up, it was not Tristan's hand that was touching him there. Well-oiled and with a firm elasticity, it caught and slipped away again, bobbing against John's bottom. It felt impossibly large, and had the sensation it caused in touching such delicate hidden places not been so electrifying, John thought he might have been more worried.

"Lie back, John," Tristan said. One strong hand lowered John carefully to the bed, while the other gripped John's thigh, and in a moment John found himself on his back, his legs still around Tristan's body, his nether parts elevated, and he began to see how it was to be done. Before he could begin again to worry about it, Tristan had poured a little of the oil into his hand.

The sensation of Tristan's hand had never been so pleasing. The oil was thick and warm, and made Tristan's palm slide over his sensitive flesh with almost no hindrance. He could feel Tristan's hard member, slippery and hot, pressing along the cleft of his posterior, and did not trouble to suppress a grunt of pleasure as he sprang quickly back to readiness himself.

John moved his right hand to assist in this effort, feeling that he ought not leave everything to Tristan, but Tristan batted his hand away with a low laugh that John found reassuring. "Let me do this, John. Do you like it?"

"Need you ask?" John murmured, moving his hips upward toward Tristan's hand. Tristan's other hand came up to stroke John's chest, and pinch his nipple. John's breath hitched, and an involuntary "Oh!" escaped him. He scarcely knew whether to push forward into Tristan's hand or back against the firm length behind, and so he did each, in succession.

"Upon no account must you think to stop moving in such an abandoned way," Tristan murmured, pushing forward with his hips as John pressed back. John became lost in sensation and allowed his eyes to fall shut, the better to feel everything. They flew open again when Tristan's fingers strayed downward to circle the opening that was, after all, the object of all their efforts tonight.

"Shh," Tristan said, almost inaudibly, though John had made no sound. With a very serious look, he said, "I told you that I would do it properly, and I shall. Trust me, John." He slid the tip of his finger inside.

John opened his mouth, but no sound came out, only a broken breath. He nodded, urgently, desire and apprehension warring in him. Tristan's other hand came down to John's belly and stroked there in soothing circles for a moment before grasping his member once more. John felt the finger go in a little deeper, but the oddness of that sensation was offset by the compelling friction where he was more accustomed to take pleasure in it.

With many soothing words of encouragement and praise, Tristan slowly worked John open, ensuring all the while that in making way for his own pleasure, he did not neglect John's. He was assiduous in applying more oil where any lubrication was wanted, and despite little moments of discomfort or uncertainty, John remained firmly at attention, a circumstance that Tristan seemed to find very gratifying.

When at last Tristan deemed John ready to be breached by more than his fingers, John was in a haze of arousal, half-unconscious with lust and sensation, no longer caring that the grunts and moans of pleasure he made might be crude and unseemly to Tristan's ear, and only vaguely aware that they might be heard from outside the room. Tristan leant low over him and whispered into his ear. "I am going to fuck you now."

The sound of so shockingly coarse a word in his ear made John wild. He arched up and splayed his legs as wide as they would go, some part of him thinking how animal he was being, but Tristan only pressed his bent knees back with his hands and bore down on him. There was a sharp, almost unbearable pain as Tristan tried to push into John's body, and John nearly cried out. For a terrible instant, he thought that if this was what he would be called on to endure in order to offer Tristan this bond, he would not be able to do it.

Tristan withdrew immediately, saying, "It's all right, John. Relax. Do not resist. Just let me in. It need not hurt. Trust me." Then he bent low and took John's mouth in a kiss so sweet, so tender, that John forgot his pain, and let go the tension that had brought it about, and Tristan slid into him.

There was too much sensation, and John was too lost in it, to have any coherent idea of what was happening. In addition to the most overwhelming feeling of all, that of being filled and ravished and opened to his very core, John was aware, at various moments, that his heels bounced against the firm flesh of Tristan's posterior as Tristan drove into him; that Tristan's hand was between their bodies, working John's member erratically; that the muscles of his thighs burned; and that Tristan was saying coarse, meaningless things, as he generally did when his pleasure began to overtake him. The single candle was guttering, its unsteady light casting an exaggerated shadow-play on the far wall: Tristan surmounting him, and rutting into him, as unrefined and base a thing as John had ever seen. It was the sight of this that robbed him of any remaining restraint, and a wave of intense, almost painful pleasure took him.

Tristan was only a little while in following him. He reared up, pushing John's knees back almost to his chest and forcing John's nether regions up to allow the deepest possible penetration. He drove himself in with one final thrust, and, with a cry almost of amazement, was overcome.

He fell onto John's body with his entire and considerable weight, and John could at last extend his punished legs to a more natural position, bent loosely around Tristan's. Several long moments passed before John could think coherently. Tristan's diminishing member was slipping out of him, and though the sensation was not painful, neither was it very pleasant. Tristan made a small, disappointed sound as the connection between them was thus undone, and rolled off of John enough that John could close his legs. He supposed that this feeling of too much openness must be one of the intimate physical matters to become accustomed to.

John fully expected Tristan to demand an accounting, with some question like, "Well, John. What do you think?", but Tristan said nothing. John turned on his side to face him. His hair was lank with the sweat of his efforts, one or two strands lying across his forehead. John brushed these back and said, "I trust you are well?"

Tristan gave a snort of laughter, directed at the canopy. "Oh, I am very well, I thank you," he said. Then he turned to John hesitantly. "The question is, how do you go on?"

"I am a little overwhelmed," John admitted.

"But not...displeased?"

"Oh no! You observe that I took all due pleasure from it. But you said yourself that it's not a small matter, and indeed, it isn't."

"I did not hurt you?"

"No, you did not hurt me."

"Good," Tristan said. He flopped back onto the pillow and lay gazing upward, his hands folded over his stomach. "For you ought to know that I am rather good at that."

It was John's turn to laugh. "I believe you, my lord."

"I do not say that I have developed my skill through uncounted rehearsals, and I cannot claim to have...rehearsed lately, but I flatter myself that in an otherwise unsavoury period of my life, I did gain some little ability that I hope made this night not unpleasant for you."

John raised himself on his elbow and leant in to kiss him before he should commit the regrettable faux pas of actually asking for praise. "I was nearly overcome with the pleasure of it," he said. "I believe you when you suggest that I might have done very much worse, and I cannot readily imagine better. I count myself fortunate to have such a solicitous lover."

The word was out again, unchecked for a second time this evening, but Tristan did not appear to refine upon it particularly. He only turned his head to John and smiled widely for a moment, before gathering John in in his arms and propping his chin on the top of his head.

In only a few minutes, his lordship was asleep, a gentle snore issuing from his throat and causing a surprisingly soothing vibration in John's temple. John smiled to himself and decided that though he ought to tidy himself up a bit, that task could wait until morning.

He was startled awake sometime deep in the night by the realisation that he had left his best French pastels out of doors that morning. He was under the blankets, he noticed, and Tristan was lying beside him. "What is it?" Tristan muttered, and for a moment John could only marvel at the intimacy that made Tristan rouse from his own sleep at John's silent waking.

"Nothing, Tris. I'm sorry. Go back to sleep." It was a clear night, John told himself. If a few of the leaves of his sketching block were warped by the dew, it was no matter, and his colours would be protected until morning by their good wooden case. No one would steal such a thing. It was odd, what worries came in the night.

Tristan flung a sleepy arm over him and pulled him in. "Don' worry, John. I'll take care 'f it,' he said, quite as if John had spoken his thoughts.

John said, "I know, Tris," but Tristan was asleep again. "I know."

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, September, 1818

One material improvement that came from the addition of a footman and a housemaid to his lordship's household at Ravensworth was that the servants as a body finished their day's work earlier, and retired sooner, than had been possible before, nor did they need to begin their day quite so early in order to perform all their duties. Tristan, therefore, was freer to fall asleep in John's arms, and to stay there until morning.

A quite unexpected advantage began to arise from this pleasing circumstance. Feeling less need to mark off the moments until he could be private with John--indeed, sometimes being naturally inclined to sit up later than the servants over a hand of cards or a conversation--Tristan began to discover a deep satisfaction with John that was not tied to their intimate embraces. In the months of friendship that had preceded John's arrival at Ravensworth, Tristan's desire for John had coloured the pleasure he took in his society, and for the first weeks after the consummation of that desire, he had been able to think of little else than the hour that might find them alone and free to express it yet again. Now, that urgency abated, they enjoyed an ease together that Tristan could not remember having known with anyone.

Once, John went so far as to draw his chair up closer to Tristan's and put his stockinged feet on Tristan's thighs, and continue reading. Tristan could find no way to express his delight at this, so he said, "I am your footstool now, I perceive." John's only response was to scratch one ankle with the toes of the other foot, and turn a page.

Upon another occasion, John disappeared quietly from the room for a few moments, then returned with his sketching things. For a time, Tristan pretended to be engrossed in his newspaper, stealing only a glance or two at John. John's face reflected that expressionless absorption, almost an absence, that Tristan had seen several times before and that gave it an angelic quality, aloof and powerful. He would look up, as it were to take another sounding, to capture some angle or curve, then down again at his drawing, and did not for many moments notice that Tristan was regarding him.

"Let me see," Tristan said, when at last John laid aside his sheet. John handed it to him absently and began on a second. The angle of the drawing disclosed the newspaper, and Tristan's hands upon it, only his forehead and eyes showing above it, and legs beneath. "You will exaggerate my hands."

"It is possible that I think of them more than is entirely seemly."

Tristan smiled and set the drawings aside, returning to his newspaper. "At least your drawings of them are not unseemly. Your other pictures are what I cannot show to anyone."

"I am glad that you like them," John said, with a knowing look. Tristan would have liked to see the daring sketches again, but they were hidden away somewhere amongst John's things, and Tristan did not care to ask him to bring them out, for John would certainly tease him with self-conceit if he did. Besides, the idea of John hoarding such things secretly for his own enjoyment pleased Tristan excessively.

Upon a bright but cool Sunday morning, Tristan found John in the stables, sketching Jupiter and Neptune in their stalls. He was seated on a barrel in a shaft of dusty sunlight that streamed in at the window. On the still morning air, the sound of church bells from Crosby-Ravensworth came faintly to his ears.

John did not look up from his drawing, but acknowledged Tristan's entrance by saying, "Do you ride?"

"Oh, probably," Tristan replied. "Though it seems a great pity to go away from the house on the one day the workmen do not come." He pulled the stable door to behind him. "John."

"Mm?"

"You know, don't you, that if you wish to attend services, you may."

John looked up at this, and Tristan thought he saw remorse in his eyes. "I don't wish it," John said. "I ought to, I know, but it is...I would not..." He sighed and set his pencil down. "It has seemed too complicated."

"Ah." Tristan thought he understood. "I am very late in realising that you do not go to church, and I only wanted to reassure myself that you did not refrain from it upon my account."

John rose and came to him. "I suppose I am a hopeless case," he said, running his hands up Tristan's chest. "My fear of the Lord has never been what it ought to be." His arms went around Tristan. "Watson is delighted at having two new souls to save, and I believe he has made their moral rectitude quite his first order of business. They have all gone to church this morning."

"Well then, Mr Acklebury! What shall we do with all this privacy?"

John only smiled and pulled him into the shadows.

It was not until some little while later that John spoke again, and then only to say, "You have straw-dust all over you, my lord." Tristan brushed the knees of his breeches and pulled John to his feet.

"So do you, you shameless thing," Tristan replied. He plucked a strand of hay from John's hair, and John reached up self-consciously to brush away any others that might be there, an absurd gesture of propriety considering that his trousers were still undone and he was holding them up with one hand. Tristan drew him close, sensible of a rush of fond warmth, and held him there for a long moment, John's hand trapped between their bodies and his face pressed against Tristan's shirt-front. "You make me better," he found himself saying, the words coming to him, unbidden, whole, and too suddenly to censor. "I am a better man for you." He squeezed John tightly and gazed unseeing over the top of his head.

John said something in muffled tones.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said, if you do not wish me to make you an accidental murderer, you will stop smothering me," John replied, pushing himself back far enough to breathe. He tried to hide his smile, but Tristan saw it clearly in his eyes.

Tristan slapped John's bottom, released him, and said, "I suppose you had better button yourself up before the devout return."

John acted upon this recommendation, and together they stood in the light from the window, brushing dust and hay from each other until they deemed themselves fit to go out.

***

The work on Ravensworth recommenced the following morning with a will and a clamour that seemed to his lordship to represent a belated realisation on the foreman's part that autumn was fast approaching. Tristan was hard-pressed to appreciate all that had been accomplished during the summer, for the noise and inconvenience were constant, and the progress sometimes imperceptible from one day to the next.

Much, however, had been done, and Tristan had taken to walking out to the elevated vantage point along the lane, in order to get an overview of it all.

Most of the scaffolding was gone. Fresh new slates were visible here and there all across the many-peaked roof. The window that had for some two centuries looked out at the French garden was now a handsome pair of glazed doors, and the garden these opened into was, if not entirely restored, at least pruned and tamed. The interior wall that had for a similar period separated two cramped parlours was gone, creating a more generously-proportioned great drawing room. Some of the workmen were concentrating their efforts now inside the western wing of the manor, while another group laboured outside, repairing masonry both in the foundation and along the drive. A new iron gate graced the entrance to the grounds, and this was mounted to stone pillars that had until lately been almost completely concealed by overgrown hedges.

Satterlee had told his lordship that his plans would not come to fruition in a single summer, and assured him that his residence in the house with a guest would ultimately make little difference in the degree of progress that could be made, for even had the house been entirely empty, the supply of skilled workmen in that part of the north was not inexhaustible, and only so much could be accomplished. Tristan had girded himself to exercise patience, but found that he had needed very little of it once John had arrived. John's calm, somewhat ironic tolerance of the inconveniences inherent in the works underway, and his ability to put each little annoyance into perspective, made everything easy.

Tristan watched as his landau swept from the drive and momentarily out of view, before appearing again coming towards him up the lane. Carpenter drew the horses to a halt before him, and John looked out of the carriage. "Has any last-minute commission come to mind that I can carry out for you in the town?" he asked.

"No, I thank you. I am sure that the stationer there will have some of what you require, and the drive is very pleasant."

"I shall be home, then, by dinnertime."

"Very well, Acklebury," Tristan said, mindful of Carpenter's presence. "Enjoy your day in the great metropolis of Penrith." John grinned and made a small salute, then to the coachman he said, "Drive on." Tristan held up a hand as they went off, and started back down the lane towards the house.

He was just approaching the new gate when a figure emerged into the lane from the shadow of the gatepost. Charles Murray stepped forward, one hand raised. "My lord!" he called.

Penrith stopped. Murray's boots were dusty, and he looked rather warm. It was evident that he had been waiting outside the gate. Penrith found himself torn between annoyance and concern. "Murray," he said after a moment.

"I beard you in your den." Murray said, making a bow that managed, as Murray's manners had always managed, to combine insolence and grace. What small anxiety Penrith had felt on Charles's behalf vanished with that bow, and was replaced with suspicion.

He said, "There is evidently little point in reminding you that I have told you not to come here."

"Oh, none at all. I have been twice refused by your butler."

Penrith was surprised to hear this, for Watson had not informed him that Murray had attempted to call. "I wonder, then," he said, "that you come again."

Murray, far from appearing in any way abashed, only smiled. "Naturally, if it were not a matter of the utmost delicacy, I would not have done so. But what I have to communicate to you cannot be confided to writing."

Good God, Penrith thought. Suppressing with difficulty the urge to make some comment on this melodramatic turn of Murray's, he said, "What is this matter?"

Murray looked ostentatiously about himself, even casting a glance over his shoulder toward the drive and the house behind him, and, thus reassured of their privacy, said, "What you do in the stables with your house-guest is most...interesting."

Penrith stared. The unexpectedness of this statement robbed him of words for a moment and he searched his memory of the previous morning. Could Murray have seen--could he have been hidden in the stables--? No, surely not. He conceded to himself that Murray might, however, have heard something, for, with all the servants gone to church, neither he nor John had taken any great pains to be silent, and evidently Murray was not above skulking at gates and sneaking onto the grounds. Tristan clenched his teeth and resisted the urge to respond to this sally, for Murray knew from experience that Tristan had a predilection for the peculiar atmosphere of privacy that a stable could offer, and he might be merely guessing.

"I don't imagine that it is what you want your servants to know," Murray said. Still Penrith said nothing, and Murray, apparently having adapted to this new form of communication, went on, "Of course, servants do know, don't they? How could they not? They know everything."

Penrith began to feel a very real worry. Charles was right, and Penrith was prepared to admit to himself that the extreme discretion he had exercised at first with John had eroded little by little, until it was now a mere pretence, a thin covering over the naked truth of what went on at Ravensworth. It was enough so that a loyal servant, if asked, might honestly say that he had seen and heard nothing to confirm the immorality of his master or his master's friend, but it had for some weeks ceased to be more of a shield than that. "If you have a point, Murray, I beg you will come to it quickly. I have a great deal to do."

"Very well," Murray said. He reached into his coat and brought out a rolled paper that was tied with a ribbon. He did not offer it to Penrith but only tapped it upon his own shoulder and said, with a speculative gleam in his eye, "In point of fact, your indiscretion cannot be at issue, can it? It never was. You never did believe that any real harm could befall you from committing the crime of sodomy."

A cold certainty about Murray's intent settled heavily in Penrith's belly, and Murray confirmed it with his next words.

"Mr John Acklebury, on the other hand, can be ruined by it. He can be ruined quite easily, in fact."

Penrith looked at the rolled-up document in Charles's hand. It was too large a sheet of paper to be a letter.

"What a talent he has!" Charles exclaimed. "Why, he is already in a fair way to becoming the next Sir Thomas Lawrence! Do you think he will be commissioned to paint some one of the Royal Family? Possibly. The reviews deem him generally to be that good. But I do not think he could rise so high with...moral troubles to his name. Ah well. I imagine that if he were for some reason unable to find work next season in London, the French would not scruple to employ his skills. Yes, he could go to France. I quite like that idea. I believe the French are very liberal in their notions--that is what I have heard!"

Penrith lunged at him and seized the document from him. Charles leapt back, both hands raised in a gesture of conciliation. "Very well!" he said. "I cannot overpower you. I shan't try." Penrith ignored him and stepped out of arm's reach, sliding the ribbon off. He unrolled the paper.

It was not so bad as it might have been. It was one of John's more temperate drawings of him, for though it depicted him asleep, a circumstance that might be deemed questionable, it showed only his face, turned mostly down into the pillow, and a bare shoulder and arm. It bore the title "Tristan" and a date some weeks earlier. If he were not so deeply suspicious of Charles's purpose here, he thought, he might have spared a moment to wonder how many times John had drawn him in his sleep. "How did you come to have this?" he asked after a moment.

"It does not matter how, and as I have no wish to be branded a thief, I would like nothing better than that you should have them back."

Tristan glanced up sharply. "Them?"

"Oh yes. There are any number of them. One or two are quite...Roman in their sensibility."

Tristan decided to bluff. "No such drawing exists," he said.

"Ah!" Charles replied. He scuffed the dry earth next to the gatepost with the heel of his boot, and gave every appearance of careful consideration. "Then the resemblance to you in the one of the very long-limbed young man lying in bed with his engorged cock in his hand is merely a coincidence, I am sure. The fact that that one, too, is labelled 'Tristan' is no doubt quite immaterial."

Tristan's heart sank. He could not readily imagine how Charles had come into possession of those scandalous drawings, and the idea of their having been seen by anyone save himself and John was very troubling. "What do you want, Charles?"

"Why, I want what you want, Tristan! I want to ensure Mr Acklebury's future success in English society. I want to help protect his family name. I want him to avoid any little trouble that might arise should his reverend father, for instance, happen to see what he has been drawing, and come to undesirable conclusions about his son's habits."

Tristan thought quickly. How many drawings could there be? What was their nature? Had John signed any of them? He did not think John made a practise of signing his work, but there were the dates. Standing at the gates of Ravensworth in the morning sun, utterly unprepared for Charles's ambush, he could not readily marshal his thoughts or the facts. He had to fight through an urge to leap upon Jupiter and ride after the carriage, in order that he might discuss the troubling matter with John, warn him, shake him and demand to know how he could have been so careless as to let the drawings out of his possession. Perhaps the servants...

Reason finally came to the forefront of Penrith's thoughts. The great thing in this moment was to prevent any further action on Murray's part. Whatever role John might have unwittingly played in this debacle, it was done now and could not be undone.

Murray stood, his coat unbuttoned, his hands in the pockets of his breeches, an expectant and slightly nervous smile on his lips as he regarded Penrith.

"What will it cost for me to recover all of the drawings?" Penrith asked at last.

"Do not be sordid, Tristan!" Charles exclaimed, and Penrith had not the heart to demand the use of his title. He felt like a boy of eighteen again, unskilled in the ways of the world and dependent on Charles's experience to tell him how to go on. "Do you really wish to stand here at your gate and speak of money?"

With an effort, Penrith drew himself up once more. "I wish to know in clear terms how to ensure the return of those drawings--all of them!--without their being seen by anyone else. Are you satisfied, Charles? Somehow, I know not how, you have stumbled into a means of threatening me."

Charles's hands remained in his pockets, but his expression turned sour. "I have no means of threatening you, my lord."

"You threaten a friend of mine. That is no different."

"A friend," Charles repeated. His tone was bitter. "Yes. A friend, unless I am much mistaken, who makes you a better man."

Tristan froze for the barest instant. Here was proof that Charles had indeed overheard--perhaps watched--him in the stable yesterday with John. "A good friend must always have that effect," he said, trying desperately to keep any hint of bluster from his voice or his face. He knew that he did not entirely succeed, but he would be damned before giving Charles an inch of ground.

"Indeed. And you would not let any harm come to such a good friend, I am sure! Not when you might easily prevent it."

"Naturally," Tristan said. He clenched his teeth to keep any unwanted word from escaping them, reminding himself of the remarkable effect his silence had had on Charles in their last interview. Given enough silence to fill, Charles would show his hand, Tristan was sure of it. He was also suddenly sure that Charles had expected him to stumble over his own feet in his haste to offer a ransom for those pictures. Well, Charles must name the price, and live with it, for he was incapable of imagining the value that Tristan placed on John's peace of mind, and would therefore certainly set it lower than Tristan did himself.

"My wife," Charles began tentatively, with a wry twist to his mouth, "has generously funded my escape from London. So far, she believes that my father will make good on his duty to the family name, and ensure that any child I might produce by her will live in comfort." Charles, who had never been the card-player that Tristan was, now betrayed a certain agitation by removing his hands from his pockets and taking two short steps in one direction before turning and retracing them.

Tristan, as he waited, tried to calculate the probable sum he would be asked to provide. How much might a merchant of Mr Lovejoy's calibre have left his widow? Would it be a hundred pounds? A thousand? He realised that he had no idea, and would have given much to consult his man of business in London, or even Charlotte, whose practical knowledge always seemed wonderfully wide-ranging. Keenly aware of his ignorance in the matter, he followed the instinct which made him remain silent still.

Charles went on. "She is a widow, however, you understand, and not a maiden. Already she wonders how she will conceive a child when even old Mr Lovejoy came up to scratch more often than her new husband seems interested in doing."

"You begin to bore me, Charles," Tristan said.

"I do beg your pardon, my lord," Charles replied sarcastically. "I'll just trot along back to Settlefields, shall I? It is dull in the country, but I have some wonderful works of art to look at."

"Come to the point, Charles. I meant it when I said that I am busy today. We both know that you are not going to leave without some arrangement in hand, because you cannot afford to do so. You seem to have had no trouble in overcoming your scruples to bring me this--" Tristan indicated the drawing, "--so you must now overcome the dictates of good taste and propriety and speak of particulars. You must name the price of your silence."

With these words, and the slight pout that appeared on Charles's face as he uttered them, Tristan began to feel that control of the conversation was coming back into his hands. While Charles had the power to harm John, the greater truth for Charles was his desperate need for money.

"Very well. Mary's little portion was twelve hundred pounds."

Tristan had to exercise all his will to keep a look of astonishment from coming to his face.

"It is amazing, is it not? Why, I have lost as much at the card table in an evening, and now have been reduced to stretching such a sum over nearly four months of very dull living."

For an instant, Tristan pictured himself grabbing Charles by the collar--by the throat--and shaking him. The words formed on his tongue: She expected to live comfortably on it for the rest of her days! He took a breath and said with acceptable calm, "Mrs Murray cannot be aware that all her money is gone."

"Oh, she has a pretty good idea," Charles replied. "She was a merchant's wife. They know the value of a penny."

"Very well, Charles. When I have the drawings back, I shall arrange for a banker's draught in the sum of twelve hundred pounds." Tristan swallowed. It would not be a simple matter to justify such a transaction. He reminded himself that his fortune was his own, and that his banker was neither his father nor his keeper.

Charles gave a sad, knowing smile and shook his head. "Oh, dear me, we seem to have come to a misunderstanding already. That sum will purchase one of the drawings."

Shocked, Tristan managed to ask, "And what sum will purchase all of them?"

"I have not yet decided. Let us suppose that every quarter I send you another one of them."

Tristan came very close to asking incredulously whether he ought to expect to pay twelve hundred pounds for each of the pictures, and barely stopped himself. "First of all, Charles, you will not send the drawings. You will bring them personally. They will not go by any other hand than yours, and you will leave them in no other hand but mine. Do I make myself clear?"

"Certainly, my lord. That is only prudent. Very well, let us suppose that I shall personally deliver one more of the drawings every quarter, and in exchange for my...discretion as to the remaining drawings, you will defray the quite absurd cost of living in London to the tune of, oh, let us say...five hundred pounds?"

"Let us say three hundred, Charles."

He shrugged. "It is but a small matter to ride down to Winchester. And an even smaller one to go to Fleet Street."

Anger almost entirely now overcoming his anxiety, Tristan began to feel very sure of his ground. He could see no way of avoiding blackmail altogether, but he knew Charles; knew him to be indolent, careless, and not deeply clever. "At present, you have no proof of my being anything to Mr Acklebury other than the object his artistic regard. I, on the other hand, am perfectly prepared to give full details of the debauched style of living you embraced at Cambridge, and to testify that you seduced me into that debauchery when I was scarcely eighteen years old. How far do you suppose I would have to go to ruin you, Charles?"

"Ah, but I am a respectably married man now."

Tristan bit back the retort that came to mind about the respectability of his marriage. Murray was not incorrect to say that having a wife was, indeed, some protection to him in this respect. "How long do you suppose you will remain in that state," he persisted, "when your wife discovers that she has not a penny left to her name, and that this plan to open the tap of your father's wealth depends on the performance of a duty to which her husband is shockingly disinclined?"

"As long as need be," Charles countered without hesitation. "My father's wealth hovers before her eyes, and divorce is out of the question. For my part, I have little to lose either way."

Tristan remembered the longing and respectful gazes Mrs Murray had cast at her undeserving husband and knew Charles to be overestimating her greed and underestimating her emotional attachment, but he clearly cared little for the fury of a woman scorned, and less for her pain. "Four hundred," he said.

Charles bowed.

"How many drawings are there, Charles? How long shall I have the honour of supporting you and your wife?"

By some reasoning possible only to a man who found blackmail an acceptable solution to his difficulties, Charles finally chose to be insulted by this statement of the bald truth of the case. He drew himself up stiffly--had Penrith not been so much on his guard, he would have called the posture absurd--and said, "You will have to ask your lover for the answer to that question. I do not think you will, though. Poor Mr Acklebury! What an excess of sensibility he must have to be such a great painter! Why, he will fret himself into a decline if he learns what a pass his own carelessness has brought you to!"

Penrith took a step toward him, not troubling to disguise the intimidating nature of his superior height and strength. The stark panic that flashed into Charles's eyes told Penrith that he did not fear merely being made to look weak, or being struck on the jaw again. He feared for his life, and for one terrible moment, Penrith considered the possibility of stopping him in that most final manner, a plan forming unbidden in the space of time he required to draw breath and blink his eyes: meetings with unsavoury characters, who would meet with still more unsavoury men, who would know how to dispose of an enemy and retrieve delicate documents, and would do so for a price considerably lower than the one Charles was proposing...

The shock of realising how far he might be pressed to go had a wonderful effect upon the clarity of Penrith's mind. He reined himself back from that dangerous edge of abandoned amorality that Charles had always been able to lead him to, and knew with perfect certainty that he would never approach it again; at the same moment, he knew that Charles would never understand his having done so.

In confirmation of Penrith's thoughts, Charles spluttered, "Do not suppose that I have left myself--or my wife!--without insurance, my lord. Someone else has been instructed to take actions if anything should happen to me."

Penrith smiled and took another step toward him, causing him to back into the stone pillar that supported the gate. A wild, instinctive certainty made him say, "Do not bluff, Charles. You are not good at it. You have no friends--you have told me so yourself. You have no trusted servants. You have no credit with your father's solicitors or bankers. You have no insurance." He loomed over Charles, whose cowering told Penrith he was right. "I, on the other hand, have all those things, and more. Do not suppose that an attempt to harm my friends, or my own family name and titles, will be met with indifference, or with inaction. You cannot imagine, I think, the resources I might command if I chose to say the word."

Penrith stared down at Charles, and watched as the threat he had not actually uttered registered on his face. "I think we understand one another," he said, stepping back and straightening his coat. "I acknowledge your possession of some number of...sensitive documents, and shall purchase them back from you at the rate of four hundred pounds apiece. If any quarter-day passes in which I am not in possession of another of these drawings, I shall know that you have sold me back the last of them."

Charles's expression bespoke a relief and satisfaction that said he thought himself very clever. Penrith did not care to see him at his ease, for he was too well acquainted with Charles to place any trust in his sense of honour, and knew that fear would be a better safeguard, and so he added, "If your greed should get the better of you, Charles, and tempt you to approach me or any of my friends or servants in future with any further scheme of extortion, you may be sure that I will call upon all of the resources at my command to bring an end to the matter."

A part of Tristan seemed to stand back and listen in wonder to the eloquent clarity this version of himself was able to bring to bear. Charles must have felt something of the kind too, for he nodded quickly and stepped away from the pillar, looking almost obsequious in his anxiety to be away.

"Content yourself with the fruits of your surprise attack, Charles. You have played your hand, and you will not find me so unprepared again. You know you will not. Go home and try what you can to get yourself an heir upon that poor woman who married you, for the number of drawings you have to sell me cannot be infinite, and soon or late you will need your father's bounty. I advise you to plan for that day, and hope that you live to see it."

With a miserable look, Charles turned to go. It was almost pitiable, Penrith thought, when, despite the awful pass he had brought himself to, the rout of his own dignity, his utter unmanning, Charles still paused and licked his lips and said, "The--the first payment--?"

"Twelve hundred pounds, yes," Penrith replied. "It will be arranged."

As he left on foot along the dusty lane, Viscount Penrith looked after him and wondered whether an earlier offer of charity would have prevented this ugly situation. Probably not, he thought, and went back to the house.

He passed the remainder of the day not at all as he had anticipated on rising that morning. He wished very much to put the entire matter from his mind, for the idea of those private pictures in Charles's possession disturbed him mightily, and a hard ride or indulgence in several glasses of brandy had proved useful in the past for easing such a turn of mind. But that would not do today, and instead, he made himself go directly to his writing-table and trim his pen.

If Tristan had thought letter-writing difficult before, by the end of the afternoon he knew that he had never truly been exercised in the craft. The letter to Barclay's in London required only two tries, the first containing rather more explanation than was quite proper for a viscount to offer to his banker. When he had sealed and addressed it, he began another.

There was a small heap of crumpled sheets on his desk by the time he completed this second missive.

Dear Charlotte,

I owe you three letters at least, and you know me too well to believe me likely to write them. The present one is not destined to be one of them, I'm afraid. Forgive my lack of nicety, I beg you. In plain terms, I require your advice on a matter of some delicacy, and that is why I write this.

That which David feared for me has, in some measure, come to pass. A former associate--I name no names, but you will know whom I mean--being as he says at the end of his resources, has approached me with certain documents that could expose me to embarrassment, and more importantly, could ruin a dear friend of mine. In exchange for a certain sum, he has agreed to return the documents to me one by one.

I know I ought not to have acceded to the demands of a blackmailer, and had only my own reputation been at stake, I do not think I would have done so, but there is someone else in the case, and that person has not the means or the standing to weather the consequences if the content of the documents should become known. It is only through his association with me that this threat comes to him, so there was no question but that I should do everything in my power to shield him.

Money is not at issue. The sum is not so great as that, and I have already set in train the first payment because I fear my old associate truly is in desperate enough pecuniary straits to have taken the documents to another bidder if I did not act swiftly. But I do not know where it will end. Ought I to seek advice? Is it wise, do you think, to put such a matter before one's solicitors?

What ought I to do, Charlotte? While I await your sound advice with anticipation, I am as ever

Your fond brother,
Tristan

Chapter Text

Ravensworth, September, 1818

John was cleaning his paint brushes in the sunny yard next to the stables one autumnal afternoon when he realised that he had been at Ravensworth for more than a month. His things were scattered here and there about the drawing room, his bedroom, and the study that he persisted in thinking of as his painting room. His coat hung on a peg next to Tristan's in the vestibule inside the front entrance, a pair of Wellington boots he had acquired since coming into the country stood outside the new garden doors, the pens he trimmed to his own preference were in Tristan's writing desk, and he was, all in all, very much at home.

Thus it was that when he heard a carriage coming up the sweep, he did not instantly think to retire from view and give Tristan the choice whether to make his guest known to the visitor now arriving. He watched as the carriage, a fine landaulet bearing a coat of arms on its side panel, rolled past him, and saw an unknown lady looking back at him. Well, he thought, all the neighbourhood knew that Lord Penrith had a guest, though nobody knew anything about him, and he could hardly be expected to hide from the visiting lady, whoever she was.

Accordingly, he rose and followed in the carriage's wake back to the house. By the time he got there, the lady had descended and was being admitted at the front door. John waited a short while, then went in himself, to find Betsy, the new housemaid, hovering in the entry hall.

"Oh, sir!" she said. "It is Lady Penrith!"

"Is it indeed?" John had heard Tristan speak so many times of this paragon of sisterly sense and strong character, that he was happy to have the occasion to meet her. "Is his lordship with her?"

"No, sir. He did not know she was coming, so her ladyship said. Mr Watson sent Jem to look for him, and I must go air the blue bedroom for her."

"Ah. Very well," Acklebury said. "Thank you, Betsy."

The housemaid curtsied again and hurried away. John stood in the hall before the drawing-room doors, uncertain of his duty. Ought he knowingly to leave a lady sitting alone, or would it be the better part of courtesy to wait to be presented to her? After all, he did not know that Tristan wished his relations to meet him; indeed, there were very good reasons to prevent it. Introducing himself to her, moreover, would give the appearance that he ran quite tame in the house, which, though true, was not what even the most tolerant sister-in-law could be asked to accept without question.

As he hesitated in indecision, the lady solved the conundrum for him by emerging from the drawing room and very nearly colliding with him.

"Oh!" she said. "I do beg your pardon."

She was not at all what Tristan's praise of her had caused John to expect. She was of middling height and rather plain features, though she made up in taste what nature had not supplied her with, for her travelling coat was of a dashing, military cut, and her brown hair was stylishly coiffed and glossy beneath her rakish bonnet à la Hussar.

The face this bonnet framed, while not beautiful, was intelligent and lively, dominated by a mouth that was accustomed to smile, if her present expression were any indication, and eyes whose pretty blue must very quickly make a less acute observer than John forget that they were neither large, nor limpid, nor long-lashed. They took John in now with a speculative expression.

"I am John Acklebury," he said, finding his tongue after a moment. "Forgive me--you are surely Lady Penrith?"

She nodded. John bowed over her hand and said, "Betsy told me that they have sent the groom to find Penrith. I do not think he can have gone far. He is fishing, I believe."

"Fishing?" the lady repeated in tones of amused surprise. "We are speaking of Viscount Penrith? The very tall young gentleman with generally over-long hair?"

John could not but laugh. "Yes, my lady," he replied, at once delighted with Lady Penrith's frank humour and fascinated at the glimpse she provided of Tristan through the eyes of someone else who knew him well. "I came upon him at it the other day, but he had fallen asleep in a patch of sunlight and so I cannot honestly attest to his having learnt to sit quietly for any period, but he persists in going to try again from time to time."

Lady Penrith's smile was both sad and rather knowing as she looked at him, and it made him realise that his words had done nothing to disguise the intimacy of his knowledge of Tristan's habits. So accustomed was John to that intimacy, so happy in it, that it had not even occurred to him to hide it from one whom Tristan esteemed highly. He felt his face grow warm, and it must have been apparent to Lady Penrith, too, for she glanced away.

Anxious to make the conversation more ordinary, John said, "I do not think anyone can have shown you to a room where you might refresh yourself after your journey."

"No. My maid has gone with the girl here to see to it."

"May I be of some service to you while you wait?" John asked, putting on a more formal manner as he had not had cause to do in a month.

"I require nothing," she replied. "That is, the butler said something about tea, and so I would imagine that to be imminent. I have put the household at sixes and sevens with my unannounced arrival, I'm afraid. Do come in and keep me company until my brother shows himself."

By the time Tristan came into the drawing room, John had enquired about Lady Penrith's stay in London and had heard an amusing anecdote involving the accidental dropping of a hatbox in the street. Her evident enjoyment in recounting the tale made what might in another's words have seemed a very prosaic incident most amusing, and cemented John's generally good impression of her.

It was apparent from the dampness of Tristan's hair near his face, and the fresh shirt and coat he now had on, that he had taken a moment to make himself presentable to his sister-in-law before bursting into the room. John watched with great interest as he embraced her in brotherly affection and warmth and said, "Charlotte! I did not mean for you to travel all this way!"

By this, John surmised that Tristan had written to her, and when she replied that she was happy to be of some use to him, he became sure that Tristan must have asked her advice on some topic. He swallowed an unworthy feeling of pique and reminded himself that in matters touching family and estate, Tristan might quite reasonably seek other counsel than his own. "Lady Penrith has been kind enough to let me sit with her," he told Tristan, "but now I shall leave you to catch up." He bowed to Lady Penrith and turned to go.

"John," Tristan said, and John halted and turned back, ready to cast him a warning look in case he should lapse farther than only the use of his given name. "Thank you for playing host in my absence." Tristan's expression was quite open, and his manner free, and John realised that Lady Penrith must know of her brother's nature and, therefore, must have some idea of what John's presence in the house meant. John smiled as best he could at both of them, and quickly left the room, discomfited to think of her having such knowledge.

He rejoined them at dinnertime. Lady Penrith's presence made John feel the need to take some extra pains with his appearance before going down to the dining parlour, and when he emerged into the corridor in the best of his coats and the one pair of knee-breeches that Marchbanks had packed for him, it was clear that Tristan had had the same thought, for he, too, was just coming out of his room similarly attired. He gave John a look of warmest appreciation and nudged up against him with one elegantly-clad shoulder. With his freshly-shaven face very near to John's ear, he said, "Do you wish my sister to fall in love with you?"

John was on the point of turning to face him, to steal a kiss or at least to breathe in the scent of his Eau de Cologne, and inform him that Lady Penrith was not quite to his taste, when a third door along the corridor opened and Lady Penrith herself came out. Happily, she was directing a comment to her maid inside the bedroom and did not at once see them. Tristan moved smoothly away from John and offered her his arm to descend to dinner.

John very soon understood why Tristan thought so highly of her ladyship. She possessed a wonderful blend of gravity and good humour, listening with quiet attentiveness to what was said to her, and responding with wit and insight. She recounted the small adventures and modest indulgences of her stay in London with such enjoyment that John was emboldened to say, "Do you know, Penrith, that her ladyship was the object of a daring rescue?"

She laughed gaily and said, "Mr Acklebury misrepresents my story for effect, I'm afraid. My hatbox, and not I, was the object of a very nice piece of gallantry from a gentleman in Brooke Street. Jarvis, my maid, was carrying two hatboxes--I really ought not to have burdened her so, but the second purchase was quite impulsive and she insisted that she could manage it." Lady Penrith warmed to her subject, leaning forward, her eyes alight. "Well! the box on top slipped off and rolled into the street. Jarvis, poor girl, had nowhere to set the other box, and so I made to go after the one that had fallen, thinking only that if Mademoiselle Rocher's girl had not so securely tied it up, my lovely new hat would have popped out of it and gone into the dirt of the street. I saw a carriage coming, and thought that I might just snatch my poor hat from the jaws of death, when a gentleman sprang out in front of me and did so. He scarcely avoided falling under the horses' hooves himself, and presented me my hatbox with a great flourish."

John glanced at Tristan to see if this tale of what had surely been a mildly daring encounter between his brother's widow and an unknown gentleman caused him any distress. Tristan seemed diverted by it, even happy. "Charlotte!" he cried. "Did you get up a flirtation?"

She looked down at her plate, evidently trying to suppress a smile. "Well, I could hardly do so, since I did not know the man."

"But he was a gentleman?" Tristan asked.

"He seemed so, yes. He was well dressed and had nice manners. He did not press his attentions on me--not at all! But he said it was more than he could bring himself to do to hand a burden to a woman who was already carrying one--meaning Jarvis, of course--and very civilly begged leave to carry the hatbox he had rescued to my destination."

Tristan next asked whether she had learnt the gentleman's name, and John was amused to hear a protective note in his question.

"Not then, no," Lady Penrith replied. "He very properly left me to Stephens' care as soon as we came to the townhouse. The next day he left a calling card, and so I made one or two enquiries."

Though flirtations and romance had never been subjects of much interest to him, John found himself engaged in the tale.

"And did your enquiries reveal this fellow to be a dangerous mushroom?" Tristan asked.

She frowned in thought. "I do not think so, truly. I will relieve the suspense of the tale and tell you that he paid me a morning call two days later, and Stephens did not look disapproving."

"Well, then!" Tristan said, leaning back in his chair. "There is no better judge of whether a fellow should be let into the house than Stephens. You know that because you engaged him for me in the first place. And now you must tell us, Charlotte: who is this gentleman?"

"He told me that he is acquainted with you, Tristan. His name is Mr Caine."

John's gasp of surprise matched Tristan's.

Lady Penrith gave her brother a worried look, "He is not--that is, I know that he is not, perhaps, in the first circles of society, but he is quite respectable," she said, almost a question.

John felt somewhat defensive of his friend, and, by extension, of himself, for neither he nor Caine had been born into the first circles of society. Who, indeed, was? There could be only so many noblemen to go around. Not every gentleman could offer his wife a title.

"He is not, in short, David," Tristan said quietly, and John was instantly contrite at his own thoughts. Of course, if Lady Penrith thought to marry again, she must at least hope to have the blessing of the Earl of Barringford and his countess, and someone so much below their late son could not easily please them.

"No," she replied.

In rallying tones, Tristan said, "He is, however, a good friend of Acklebury's, and I can think of few better recommendations than that." He looked at John, and John felt he ought to say something to establish Caine's credit in the eyes of this lady.

"He is an honest man," John said. "I know few so good-hearted. And what is more, he told me himself that he is of a domestic turn of mind, and wishes to be settled. But do not think him milky, for he can best me in the boxing ring about half the time, and I outweigh him considerably."

A gleam came into Lady Penrith's eye then, and John supposed that if Caine should find himself married to this lady, his boxing days would probably be over. "I must ask you, however, my lady, whether you know that his family and land are in Ireland."

She glanced a little nervously at Tristan. "That is what he told me," she said.

Tristan's expression took on a degree of unhappiness, and, had they not been in the middle of their meal, John thought he ought to excuse himself from the table and let them continue their conversation privately. Watson and the new footman, Barney, were just carving the joint, however, and John thought that if Lady Penrith did not wish him to hear of such personal matters, she would have done very much better not to bring them up at dinner. He was resident in the house, while she was here unannounced. He decided that he would not allow himself to be made superfluous at what was practically his own dinner table.

A glance at Tristan's face reminded John of Lady Penrith's great importance in Tristan's life and esteem. Lady Penrith was younger than he was himself, and neither her title nor her widowhood, nor the great commonsense Tristan attributed to her, could entirely erase the simple fact of her youth. Surely, John thought, she was as susceptible to passion and enthusiasm as any other young woman, perhaps the more so for the early tragedy she had suffered, and the retired life she had led ever since.

The fingertips of Tristan's right hand, John observed, pressed hard on the tablecloth, and John knew that he was trying not to say what was in his thoughts. Then the hand relaxed, and Tristan moved it, reaching a little toward his sister-in-law. "I should not like you to be so far away," he said. His face was, for an instant, a mask of sorrow and pique, like a little boy's.

Lady Penrith smiled and put her hand over Tristan's. "I have seen Mr Caine upon three occasions. Pray, do not leap over yourself." She caught John's eye briefly and seemed to realise just how far the conversation had strayed. "Well!" she said, patting Tristan's hand before returning to her soup. "How ridiculous I must seem! Why, what must you think of me, Mr Acklebury? I do beg your pardon. I am not generally accounted a giddy girl."

"Do not give it another thought, ma'am," John replied. "If I may say so, Caine is worthy of your regard. I will admit to a prejudice in his favour, but I am delighted that you see his worth. Penrith has spoken often of your great wit and good sense, and if you like my friend, it must be a great endorsement of him."

Tristan cast him a grateful glance.

"I think it possible that Tristan over-estimates my worth," she replied, but her expression showed her to be pleased.

After dinner, John offered to retire to his painting-room in order to allow Lady Penrith and Tristan to continue discussing whatever private matter had brought her so unexpectedly to Ravensworth; whether that was her wish to consider marrying again, or some other thing, John could not tell. Tristan was not as quick as John would have liked in waving this offer aside, and it was Lady Penrith who dismissed it outright. "Nonsense, Mr Acklebury," she said. "I wish very much to know you better."

She was interested in his painting, and asked if she might look at something he was working on. He went to get his sketching-book, and quickly looked through it to reassure himself that Tristan had not returned any of the most revealing drawings. Apparently, Tristan intended to keep them for himself. John smiled a little at his vanity and made up his mind to make one or two more such sketches before his visit to Ravensworth ended. He struggled for a moment with his own artistic pride before setting aside two excellent drawings of Tristan that were not scandalous but that revealed too much intimacy: one in which he was reading the newspaper with his bare feet on a chair, and another showing only his arm and his hand resting alongside his breakfast teacup. He brought all the more seemly sketches--of the house, the dogs, the horses, of Tristan out-of-doors, of the landscape--back into the drawing-room.

"Why, what a marvel you are, Mr Acklebury!" Lady Penrith said upon looking at the first of them. John could only suppose that it was some shared familial history that made her cast several subtle glances of enquiry at Tristan as she turned over the pages, for he could not find anything in the unexceptionable subject matter to account for her unspoken curiosity.

"Perhaps," he said, when he could not puzzle out the meaning of it, "you will allow me the honour of taking your likeness this evening."

This suggestion seemed to please her, for she looked up with wide eyes and said, "Oh! I would like that above all things! The honour would be all mine." She turned to Tristan and added, "Lady Barringford would be very happy to have a likeness of me, I am sure, but I could not ask--that is, a likeness by Mr Acklebury is very far above what I would ever expect..."

"Believe me, sister," Tristan said, "he would do it in any case. I have found almost no way to stop him."

John hid a smile, recalling the way Tristan generally persuaded him to put his drawing things away, and said, "As I have not yet found the limit of your tolerance for seeing yourself portrayed, it would seem that we have a happy combination of circumstances."

Tristan grinned at him, and John could only hope that Lady Penrith did not see half of what was in that look.

He got out his crayons as she settled herself near the fireplace. Throughout dinner, he had been looking at her face, trying to gauge precisely what it was in the arrangement of her features that gave her the air of countenance and real amiability, but stopped short of beauty. Her deeply-set eyes were a fraction too close together, the chin slightly too pronounced; her mouth was set higher, and her upper lip was therefore less generous, than beauty demanded. She gloried in a singularly graceful figure, however, and glossy golden-brown hair, and John quickly decided that she must sit in profile to him, but turn her face a little towards him, and that from such an angle, all that was best in her appearance would be very visible.

She posed in such a calm, self-disciplined manner that John murmured, "You are an ideal model, my lady."

"I thought I was an ideal model," Tristan said from his place lounging on the sofa.

"Oh, yes. Of course. My lord."

Lady Penrith laughed and then quickly schooled her features back into the mild half-smile she had been holding.

John did not hurry, enjoying the quiet of the evening, the crackling of the fire in the hearth, the desultory conversation that Tristan carried on with Lady Penrith. She expressed great delight with the likeness when it was done, and John was warmly amused, and not a little proud, when Tristan leant over her shoulder, regarded the drawing seriously for a long moment, and then said, "See how you seem to look to the future. It is as if you are turning with a smile toward what is to come."

She looked up at him, colour rising to her cheeks, and once again, a communication to which John was not entirely privy seemed to pass between them. This time, though, he thought he understood it. She rose, and John got to his feet politely. She said, "I shall retire early, I think, Tristan, if you will forgive me. I must make an early start tomorrow."

"What? Do you really leave so soon?"

"I must, dear. Your mama looks for me, and I did not mean to break up your peace by imposing upon you for many days. I shall see you in London next month, just as we discussed." She turned to John and extended her hand. "Thank you for my lovely likeness," she said. "You do me too much honour, but I cannot pretend to be displeased at being made prettier than I am!"

"Not at all, ma'am," John assured her. "A woman of such countenance must always be the preferred subject for a portrait artist. I hope I may paint you one day." Lady Penrith's pleased expression was entirely eclipsed by the much warmer look Tristan favoured him with as he stood behind her.

When she had gone upstairs, Tristan poured himself a glass of brandy, and offered one to John before crossing the room to look out of the new French doors. "I do not think it will be very long before Charlotte is no longer my sister," he said with a sigh.

"You would miss her terribly, I think, if she went away."

"Oh, I don't know. I do not see her above twice in a year as it is. I am very fond of her, and I'm sure I wish her to be happy. Nobody deserves happiness more. But I am not at all sure how I shall do without her good advice."

"Would she withhold it, do you think, if she were married again?" John asked. Tristan was showing signs of melancholy, and John supposed that it was more from the prospect of such a change in his life than from any real objection to Lady Penrith's finding happiness outside of the Jarrett family.

"No, I do not think so. But it is time for me to grow up."

John smiled into his brandy glass. "You are doing marvellously well at it, Tris. I believe that everything you have accomplished here at Ravensworth, not least in the matter of the servants, might have given her ladyship the idea that you know how to go on without her."

Tristan leant one shoulder against the door-frame. "She advises me to go more actively into politics."

The excellence of this idea struck John forcibly, and made him smile. "That is capital!" he said with real enthusiasm. "Shall you, do you think?"

"I scarcely know where I might begin such an enterprise, but Charlotte's brother is in Castlereagh's office, and she thought he would not object to putting in a word for me."

John was truly amused. "I should think not indeed. You are, after all, a peer of the realm," he said, and saw Tristan's most boyish smile appear. "So far, you are Viscount Castlereagh's equal."

"I am! I think that if you point that out to me often enough, I shall begin to take myself quite seriously as such."

"You ought to."

Tristan stood before the new glass doors with the black night at his back and the soft light in the room making his skin golden and warm. He regarded John for a long moment, an expression on his face that John could not readily decipher, composed as it was of solemnity and some measure of wonder, as if he were just realising something for the first time. He pushed away from the door and crossed to John. "I believe that she saw me through your eyes."

"What?"

Tristan drew very near and said, "Charlotte. She saw that a gentleman of refinement and taste--" He kissed John. "--a man of parts--" He kissed him again. "--a talented...intelligent...extremely well-set-up fellow--" he continued to punctuate his speech with kisses so that John scarcely knew what he was saying. "--thinks well enough of me to endure all my foolishness, and so she knows that I am becoming the man David wished me to be."

John thought it unlikely that even the beloved David would be sanguine about his younger brother kissing another man, but he was far too lost in the warmth of Tristan's praise and the heat of his embrace to mention such a thing. He gave himself over to returning each mark of affection.

Tristan broke away first. "We cannot--" he began.

"No. I know. Not tonight." John drew back a little and smoothed Tristan's waistcoat. "You had better not kiss me any more."

"No," Tristan said, kissing him again.

It was some time before Tristan finally released him. "Go on up. I have a letter to write before I retire. I shall see you in the morning."

John went up to his bedroom in a pleasantly heated state, reviewing the evening and deciding that, upon the whole, he was very satisfied with it. Lady Penrith had not appeared to be disgusted by his presence in the house or by the degree of easy friendship between her brother and him, though they had not gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal their regard for one another. Perhaps, he thought, it would be possible to be in society after all without a constant fear of exposure. As he retired to his bed, he wondered if he had truly had such a salutary effect upon Tristan that Lady Penrith could see it; he might do a great deal worse, he thought, than to be seen as Tristan's better angel.

Chapter Text

Ravensworth and London, October, 1818

Life at Ravensworth seemed to accelerate after Charlotte's flying visit; Tristan felt as though the summer had reached the top of a slow and leisurely road up a pleasant hillside and was now starting back down: towards London, towards the whirl of society, towards a modern, convenient house that was full of highly-trained servants and generally empty of workmen. That it also rolled inexorably towards days where John's amiable company would not be entirely his, and nights where John's intoxicating embraces would not be so easy of attainment as they had lately been, was something Tristan did not care to think much about, except to find ways of enjoying both pleasures as much as he could before those days arrived.

Cooper returned to Ravensworth shortly before Michaelmas and, upon seeing the state of his lordship's dress, hair, and complexion, seemed on the point of weeping. A martial light came quickly into his eye, however, and it was not many hours after his arrival that Tristan found himself bathed, perfectly shaved, newly barbered and coiffed, and dressed for dinner in an excellent coat of drab green that he had bespoken of his tailor in June and forgotten entirely.

Cooper sighed in some blend of satisfaction and despair as he smoothed the new coat over his lordship's shoulders, and again as he tugged at the cuffs of his lordship's shirt. Tristan felt rather like a schoolboy who had done something wrong, and was inclined for a moment to take this discomfort out on Cooper in the form of a few sharp words, but he disliked the notion of treating Cooper with less magnanimity than he had shown the vastly inferior Watson, and therefore took the space of a breath to reconsider. Under the cover of buttoning his fine new coat, he brought his thoughts and his expression into a more charitable state, and, when he turned from Cooper to look into his mirror, he felt all the satisfaction of being scrubbed and impeccably groomed, and all the reassuring glory that freshly-pressed muslin and perfect tailoring could provide.

"I do not know how I have gone on without you, Cooper. Truly, I do not," he said, keeping his eyes carefully on the cravat to which he was making a minute adjustment in the mirror before descending to dinner.

As Cooper inclined his head and murmured, "Thank you, my lord," Tristan thought he perceived a flash of stark relief on his face.

John was wearing his wine-coloured velvet coat when Tristan found him a few minutes later in the study. "It would seem," John said, "that Cooper and Marchbanks have been conspiring. Did you know that he brought me some clothes? Had you anything to do with that?"

"I assure you, I had not," Tristan replied, admiring the play of candlelight on the expanse of dark velvet across John's shoulders. "I wish I had, though, for it was an excellent thought."

"You have been so busy writing letters and preparing to go back to London, that when Cooper tapped on my door a little earlier and presented me with half of my town wardrobe, all clean and pressed, it occurred to me that you must have instructed him to rescue me from my shabbiness."

Tristan reflected with some complacency on his success in having shielded John from the unsavoury matter of Charles Murray's blackmail attempt. He did not think that John had seen any of his recent letters go out, addressed to his bankers and his solicitors. "Cooper is very resourceful," Tristan said, taking a seat in one of the new armchairs that adorned the study. "I can only hope that he will forgive me for having dispensed with his services for half the summer. Do you think he will? I should not care to lose him."

"I think him unlikely to leave your employ," John replied. He gave a soft laugh and added, "Though you probably ought not to expect a second chance." John, too, took a chair, and Tristan remarked that he sat upright, rather than slouching back into it; one wrist reposed in unconscious grace on the chair's arm, while in the other hand he loosely held a glass containing his customary very small quantity of wine. His movements spoke of the same renewed formality, the same sense of satisfied elegance, that Tristan was feeling himself.

John went on, "Cooper knows that he will not find a better employer in all the kingdom, nor one who does so much justice to his skills. But only imagine his distress as he languished in London, knowing that you were probably advertizing to all of Cumberland that you had no valet at all. I don't think he will weather another such trial."

Tristan sighed. "I know. It seems quite foolish now, but of course one's valet knows everything, and I did not want him here when--that is..." He looked at John, imploring him to understand. "Your privacy. Mine. Cooper has been with me only since my rehabilitation at Charlotte's hands. There have been times when I did not come home at night, but I have never required him, or Stephens, or anyone else in Half Moon Street, to turn a blind eye to what they must pretend not to know."

"You entrusted far less loyal servants with that charge," John said in a tone that was gently chiding, and Tristan could not but remember the little New Testament with its message of contempt, and wonder again at John's forbearance.

"Yes," he replied at last. "I was mistaken. I hope to do better in future."

After a moment John rose and went to stand near the fire, and Tristan perceived a certain unhappiness in the narrowing of his eyes, and in the way he bit unconsciously at the side of his lower lip. "If you are saying that you do not wish me to complicate your--your household situation once we are back in London--"

"What?" Tristan leapt from his chair and stood staring at John, who had his back to the mantelpiece quite as if he were prepared to defend himself and the whole fireplace from some attack. "John! No! I am saying nothing of the kind!" Tristan felt real distress, and with it, some irritation, at the persistence with which John came time and time again to this absurd idea. He moved nearer. "It is true that we must exercise more discretion in London, where there are more people to see us, and talk about us. You know very well that we must. But that does not mean I wish it, or that I like the idea. Do you really believe me so detached? You cannot think so."

John relaxed his shoulders slightly against the mantelpiece and lowered his head. With a great sigh, he looked up again at Tristan and said, "It is the thought of going back to London, to all of those strictures, Tris...forgive me. I am making myself quite ridiculous."

His words were calm and sensible, but his expression said that he would not object to a little farther reassurance upon the point, so Tristan said, "Do you know, I have tried, and I cannot explain it."

"Cannot explain--?"

"Oh, it is true that you are very amiable, but I have known any number of amiable people who did not affect me as you do. You have an undeniably handsome face, but I have seen faces almost as handsome from time to time and never invited them to stay in my house." He made a point of surveying John from head to foot, and went on, "Your form must please anybody who does not object to absurdly wide shoulders and an unfashionably round bottom--though I do not envy your tailor!--but what sort of gentleman would I be if I allowed only such worldly considerations to sway me?"

He saw that John was beginning to smile.

"Truly, I cannot account for it," Tristan pressed on. "I have known a dozen clever people, and a half a hundred good-natured ones. And kindness! Kindness is not unmet-with, even in the drawing rooms of Mayfair, so I cannot set my great attachment to you to the account of your kindness, either." He paused, pretending to think deeply. "It must be the painting. I cannot claim to have known anyone else who could paint a portrait, so it follows quite logically that it is your painting, and your painting alone, that causes me to want to find you in my bed, even after more than a month of that pleasure."

John's cheeks had gone rather pink, and he was looking down, one hand to his brow as if to hide his eyes. His shoulders quivered, almost imperceptibly.

"Only the smell of linseed oil can account for my continued tolerance of your presence at my breakfast-table. It is almost certainly that enchanting paint-spotted grey coat of yours that makes me so happy to ride with you, or lounge about saying nothing. Why, I am sure, now that I give it serious thought, that the very presence of a pot of burnt sienna paint in your hand--"

John silenced him with a kiss so muddled by laughter that it very nearly missed Tristan's lips altogether, encompassing part of his chin and ending with John's mouth against his neck-cloth. When he had recovered himself somewhat, Jnoh said, "Cooper is perfectly cognisant of the facts of his master's situation, you know."

"Is he indeed?"

John disengaged himself from Tristan's arms and stepped back far enough to look at him. "Tristan. He brought a valise full of my clothes. This means that he either went to my lodgings in Marylebone or--what is more likely--politely summoned Marchbanks to Half Moon Street, whereupon he discussed--with my manservant, Tristan--what I might require after six weeks in the wilds of Penrith."

Tristan considered this point.

"If you doubt me," John persisted, "Imagine him doing so for anybody else."

They spent the remainder of the dinner hour, when an absence of servants allowed it, speculating with increasing hilarity upon the various visitors Tristan might conceivably entertain, and the likely content of Cooper's conference with each of their valets--or maids, in the case of Elizabeth Danforth and Tristan's mama--prior to their arrival.

Not until they had considered even old Sir John Bertram and his bird-watching wife did their amusement begin to subside in diminishing bursts of laughter and the little, quieting sounds of "Ah" and "Oh, dear!" and "Mm" that were interspersed with them as they trailed away.

In the peaceful stillness that followed, Tristan looked across the table at John and said, "We shall find a way, John."

"I know," John replied, and Tristan thought there was little he would not do to ensure that the look of simple happiness he saw in John's eyes would always be there.

When, at about ten o'clock, after a quiet evening of chess and reading in John's company, Tristan went upstairs, he found Cooper awaiting him in his room. A pristine white nightshirt was laid out carefully on the bed, and everything in the chamber was perceptibly tidier than it had been.

"Good evening, Cooper," he said, wondering whether John was right and his valet really did understand the unspoken circumstances at Ravensworth, or whether he would have to be pointed in his dismissal of the man so that he might go to John's room.

"Good evening, my lord. I trust you and Mr Acklebury enjoyed a pleasant evening."

"Very pleasant indeed," Tristan said, handing him his coat. "Oh--and it was good of you to see to Acklebury's needs. Thank you."

Cooper inclined his head and set about brushing the coat as Tristan continued undressing. When he emerged from under the nightshirt, he was surprised to see that Cooper, rather than turning down his bed, was holding his dressing-gown up for him. "It is rather early, my lord," Cooper said. "I would not wish your lordship to take any chill if you should care to...sit up a while." He slid the silk-lined robe up over Tristan's shoulders and then bent pointedly to align his bedroom slippers for him on the floor.

Clearly, John was right. Tristan was suddenly greatly annoyed with himself for having ever sent Cooper away. What a bastion he would have been against the eyes and the judgement of the servants here.

Tristan put the slippers on, tied the dressing-gown closed, and met Cooper's eye briefly. "Thank you," he said. "That will be all."

Cooper gave a small bow. "Very good, my lord."

***

They left Ravensworth a few days after Michaelmas, early on an October morning as the sun's first rays revealed a light frost on the ground, and quickly burnt it away. The horses stamped, their breath steaming and their harness jingling in the chilly air, as the servants, mostly under Cooper's supervision, hastened to ensure that all of the gentlemen's luggage, and all of the peculiar accoutrements of Mr Acklebury's profession, were safely stowed in and on the carriage.

Tristan bade a fond and sad farewell to Samson and Delilah, who were to fall into the care of Jem rather than being subjected to the journey back to Barringford's kennels, and made a last visit to the stable.

"I am sorry," he told Jupiter, stroking his nose. Neptune looked out of his stall, and seemed to desire some attention too, so Tristan reached out to him with his other hand. "I could not get your new stable finished for you, and now I must go away." He pressed his face to Jupiter's and added, "But you shall have it next summer, I promise, and I hope you won't be terribly uncomfortable here for one more winter." Neptune shook his head and whickered quietly.

There was a soft cough, and Tristan looked up, embarrassed. John was standing in the stable door, buttoned up in the warm travelling coat that Marchbanks had thought to send, looking at him with a sad, knowing little smile, "Are you ready to go?"

Tristan was not sorry to be leaving; the comforts and entertainments, the luxuries of London life awaited, he told himself. He was eager to take up one or two duties that did not directly involve the details of cottage repair, field drainage, or roof tiles, and he looked forward to trying what his rank might do to get him to the notice of Castlereagh or Lord Liverpool. He could not immediately understand, therefore, what it was that locked in his throat and made his eyes burn at John's simple question. He could only shake his head.

"Come," John said. "The carriage is ready. It is time."

Tristan preceded him out into the cold and brightening morning, his hands thrust into the pockets of his own coat, his head down, and got into the landau. John settled beside him and put a comforting arm about his shoulders, squeezing once or twice. "Ready?" he asked again, softly, and at Tristan's nod, he called out, "Drive on."

The carriage lurched forward and Tristan leant into John's shoulder, not wishing to look back.

"Good-bye to Ravensworth," John murmured, so quietly that had his lips not been very near Tristan's ear, he would not have heard it above the pounding of the horses' hooves.

"Good-bye to Ravensworth," Tristan repeated, and stayed within the warm embrace of John's arm until he knew that his house, and his estates, and all of the landmarks of the summer, had passed from view.

***

They did not hasten back to London, going only as far each day as his lordship's own carriage horses could easily take them, and stopping by dusk at the finest coaching inn that Tristan's excellent London coachman could contrive to find. The peculiar pleasures of such travel made themselves apparent to Penrith on the first night when, at the King's Head Inn at Lancaster, Cooper settled them both into a generous set of rooms in which two bedchambers lay off a dining parlour. Once their dinner had been served and the dishes removed by the inn's servants, the door was shut and bolted, and if only one of the beds was occupied that night, none of his lordship's own servants was privy to that fact.

"I begin to realise," Tristan said to John as they embarked upon the second day of their journey, "that London is full of inns, and some of them must be quite splendid."

"So you imagine that I will come to you at an inn? I am your strumpet now, am I?" John rejoined as the carriage left Lancaster and set out once more on the highway.

"I would not say 'strumpet'."

"What would you say, then, my lord?" John winced a little in settling more comfortably on the seat beside him.

Tristan grinned. "To the innkeeper, I believe I would say my 'associate.' Or perhaps my 'business partner'."

"And to me?" John asked, still industriously seeking a position of comfort.

Tristan took hold of John and drew him sideways, under his arm, pulling John's head back against his belly and ruffling his hair with the knuckles of his free hand. "To you I would say 'my idiotish lover'."

John stopped trying to wrestle free from Tristan's embrace. After a moment, he turned onto his back, his head resting in Tristan's lap, his knees drawn up and his feet unhandsomely on the leather upholstery. He cleared his throat and, from his supine position, made some attempt to straighten his waistcoat. "Very well, then," he said. "But so long as I am doomed to ride all day in your carriage, my lord, I regret to inform you that I cannot again make myself available to you as I did last night. What in God's name was I thinking?"

Tristan snickered, and John said, "No, I withdraw the question. What were you thinking?"

"You seemed to enjoy it," Tristan said in defence of his actions.

"Well, I am not enjoying its aftermath today."

"I am sorry."

John reached a fist up and landed a feather-light blow under Tristan's chin. Tristan made a noise of mock pain and allowed his head to fly back as if he had been struck. "It is all right," John said. "I know that I am irresistible."

***

As the shingle separates the quiet land from the noisy and tumultuous sea, so five days of leisurely travel, and five nights with John at inns where neither of them would ever be seen again, separated Ravensworth from London. The period of travel gently loosed the tight grip that leaving Ravensworth had placed upon Tristan's heart, and let him order his thoughts and make his plans. Those which he could share with John, he did, and they beguiled many hours of travel in discussions ranging from the Corn Laws and the Austrian alliance to Lord Liverpool's defence of slavery; in the hours when John read, or dozed, or pursued thoughts of his own, Tristan was able to think carefully about the problem he could not speak of to John.

They bowled into the metropolis late on the sixth day of their journey, and John became quieter by degrees, gazing out of the carriage with a still, solemn face. Tristan nudged him with his knee, and said, "Come and...dine with me in Half Moon Street tomorrow night."

To his satisfaction, John smiled at this, and seemed to cast off his gloom, and they passed the short remainder of the journey in a contented silence.

When the carriage at last halted in Upper Berkeley Street, Tristan got down with John, grateful to stretch his legs. Marchbanks came hastening out into the street with a gruff smile of welcome, and began supervising the retrieval of John's luggage. John turned to Tristan and held out his hand. His expression was warm and humorous, and his tone cordial, as he said, "Goodbye, my lord. Thank you--for everything."

Tristan gripped his hand for longer than politeness required, aware that he ought to let go, and gazed into John's handsome, beloved face. He scarcely knew what to feel: the long journey home had postponed the final end to their Ravensworth summer, but the end was here at last, and he could not quite shake off the ache of relinquishing it; yet he had much to look forward to, not least the enjoyment of John's companionship in a new season and a lively place. This was by no means a good-bye.

"I will see you tomorrow evening," he said. Then, lest John's roguish grin tempt him into some demonstration of affection not suited for the eyes of the servants or the curiosity of neighbours, he got back into the carriage, and told his driver that he was ready to go home.

***

Attired in his most conservative suit of clothes, Tristan went the following day to the offices of Morton and Jacoby, Solicitors, in Threadneedle Street, with the intention to inform himself whether any relief of his present difficulties might be obtained through legal means. He found himself in a vigorous, hopeful frame of mind, the ordered elegance of his townhouse and his servants' apparent happiness at seeing him again having lent him a good deal of heart. He was, besides, always stimulated by the great bustle of London, where a thousand years of history seemed so easily to subsume one man's worries, and put them into perspective.

Though he had no appointment, he was instantly seen by Mr Morton himself, a white-haired old gentleman whose mien of grave intelligence and deep thought would have quite intimidated Tristan had this senior partner not come hastening out of his sanctum at the mere sight of Viscount Penrith's calling-card. After thanking his lordship for the letter entrusting his firm with the commission to procure a house in London for Lady Penrith, Mr Morton enquired in what way he might serve his lordship today.

Tristan had given a good deal of thought to what he ought to say to the solicitor whose firm had served the Jarrett family for three generations, and had concluded that it would be best to say as little as possible. "I am being blackmailed," he therefore replied.

Mr Morton, perhaps taking his cue from Lord Penrith's terseness, did not ask a great many questions at first, but only ascertained from his lordship that documents of a particular nature had been stolen, and were now being used as the means to extort money from him. Morton then offered to lay out certain principles which, he said, might guide his lordship's further thinking upon the matter.

Blackmail was a crime, Morton explained; many men had been prosecuted and convicted for it, but not without the details underlying the blackmail being made a matter of record. Was his lordship prepared to face down the unavoidable scandal that would surely ensue even from a successful prosecution?

Penrith replied that he was, but carefully said that there was another person in the case--a person of quality, he hastened to make plain when the solicitor raised an eyebrow--who most decidedly would not weather such a scandal, and whose protection was his first object. This, Mr Morton conceded, complicated matters. He narrowed his eyes speculatively.

"The law views blackmail in the character of a robbery," Morton said. "Reputation is the greatest of all of a man's valuables, and that is what the blackmailer attempts to steal with his unsavoury accusations."

Murray's accusations, though unsavoury indeed, Tristan reflected, were also true. Some of his discomfiture at this thought must have been plain upon his face, for Morton fixed him with a knowing look and said, "The law does not, in such cases, distinguish between a false accusation and a true one. I mention this, your lordship will understand, merely to clarify that the blackmailer is equally criminal in either case."

That this keen-eyed, grave old fellow suspected the nature of the blackmail--and the nature of his client--without being told was oddly reassuring, for it meant that nothing further need be said upon that point. What was more, Tristan had laboured for many days under the belief that his relations with John, so a monstrous crime in the eyes of society, must somehow trump or cancel out the mere personal affront which Murray was perpetrating upon him; he had not, to this moment, fully understood Murray's misconduct to be a crime in its own right, and the business of the law courts. The knowledge lifted some of the weight from his mind.

In such a light, Tristan began to see Murray as not a very creditable accuser. Perhaps, he thought, the drawings were not so damning Murray wished him to believe. Perhaps the entire matter would look as paltry to the world as it was now beginning to seem to Tristan. Perhaps, by comparison to the sordid and ungentlemanly crime of blackmail, what Murray threatened to reveal about him and John would be seen as a private sin, and forgiven.

The slight lifting of his hopes upon this point was not long-lived, however, for Morton soon went on. "A blameless life, of course, my lord, is the most powerful defence against future extortions of money by the resentful." With a wry look at Penrith, Morton held up a hand and added, "Inasmuch as a blameless life is very difficult of attainment, the exercise of constant discretion must be every gentleman's object."

"I assure you, Mr Morton, that in general I am already assiduous in pursuing that policy," Tristan responded, "for I promised as much to my brother, the seventh Viscount Penrith, immediately prior to his decease." Tristan began to feel beleaguered again, hemmed in by a vow that he had tried his best to honour, but which, if he fulfilled it absolutely, would rob his life of much of its colour and savour. Hearing the same demands stated anew--and by this lawyer--depressed his spirits considerably, and made it difficult to attend to what Mr Morton had to say next.

The solicitor, having delivered his generalities, commenced to pose one or two questions about the particulars of the blackmail, and Tristan answered them as civilly as he could, though he longed now to be away.

Mr Morton did not care at all to know that his lordship had already redeemed one of the documents, though he did not enquire as to the price of it; the idea that his lordship would pay to get back all of the documents pleased Mr Morton even less, for to do so would be to abet the original crime, and he could not advise it. When Mr Morton learnt that the number of those documents was not perfectly known, he became avid in counselling his lordship to refer the blackmailer for prosecution, for, as he said, "You will never be sure that he does not retain one more document, and he will be able to extract payment from you endlessly on the strength of your fear that he does."

Penrith felt a hollow, sour dread at this possibility, for though he had been turning it over in his mind for many days now, he had not thus far considered what 'endlessly' might really mean. Suddenly he was assailed by an image of Charles Murray, as grey-headed as Mr Morton, still coming forward on quarter-days and demanding payment. Penrith had already begun making certain personal economies so that nobody--no servant, no tradesman, no friend, and decidedly not John--would suspect that he was losing money in an unsavoury fashion; he imagined now that these economies might become larger as Charles grew greedier. He had no clear idea of what such strictures might amount to over time: would he be driven to give up the townhouse and his London life, and retire to Ravensworth? He did not know, and made a mental note to learn better from his banker how to judge the matter.

At what point of life, Penrith wondered, will I no longer care for the threat of John's exposure? At what point will it become unimportant? Never, he thought. Never, until one of us is dead. This idea, while surprising Penrith with its strength and ferocity, subjected him also to a very uncharacteristic flood of melancholy. Damn you, Charles. Damn you.

"I do not wish my blackmailer ill," Penrith said at last. "I ought to, I know. Even if you could give me assurances of privacy in the matter--and you have already said that you cannot--I could not be easy with the idea of sending an old friend, and a gentleman, to gaol. Could anyone? It is true that he has fallen very far, and that he disgraces himself. I do not wish to see him again. I have no intention of knowing him socially or even recognising him, for he has proven himself entirely unworthy of my regard, but I cannot wish him to rot in prison." He raised his eyes to Morton's face. "And yet you make it clear to me that I cannot go on living in fear of his threats and paying him indefinitely. Is there truly no other way?"

Morton gazed at him, his eyes seeming to weigh him to the ounce and measure him to the quarter-inch. Penrith felt sure that the old fellow could guess what desperate measures he had considered, however briefly, to ensure that Charles Murray never troubled him again. "Within the bounds of law, you may prosecute this man, or you may try to persuade him to give up his course of crime," Morton said. "I mean, of course, by employing some rational method of persuasion. Outside the bounds of law, I cannot and will not advise you, my lord."

"Naturally," Penrith replied, at once disappointed and grateful that Morton did not offer to make known to some denizen of London's more disreputable precincts his lordship's wish to be finally rid of the problem that Charles Murray represented.

"You say that your blackmailer is a gentleman? Well, has he no relations? No one to whom you might apply for help in making him see that he must stop? Is there indeed no one who might naturally wish to prevent him causing the sort of scandal which will expose his friends to shame?"

Penrith had seen Murray's father only once, at Cambridge, whither he had come in a futile attempt to rein in his elder son's profligacy: to hear Charles tell it, Edmund Murray was a heartless miser who valued gold above his family, and though Charles's lavish way of life in those days had belied his assertion of his father's clutchpurse ways, the elder Murray had, indeed, regarded his son with cold loathing, and Tristan with a contempt that had rivalled that of the Earl of Barringford. Tristan said, "I do not think his father very likely to help."

"What about his mother?" Morton suggested. "Some men will heed their mothers even when they are beyond the reach of any other voice."

Penrith recalled Murray having spoken fondly of his mama. "It is possible. The entreaty could hardly come from me, however," he said. "His mother has cause to think very ill of me, I am afraid."

"I see," Morton said. He seemed to look inward for a period, musing upon the matter. After a moment, he made as if to drum his fingers upon the leather-inlaid surface of his desk, but stopped himself and sighed. "Very well. The courses open before your lordship truly are limited in number. I am sorry to say it, but it would be very wrong of me to paint a falsely bright picture. You are the victim of a crime that is uniquely pernicious, it is true, but one that also uniquely offers its victims the choice whether, and for how long, to be its victims." Morton rose, and Penrith followed suit.

"My advice to your lordship is to prosecute the blackmailer, and to take the measures you must take to ensure that you and the other...gentleman...in the case may each, individually, weather the social storm that may follow."

Morton was hinting that he ought to end his friendship with John. Tristan was suddenly buoyed up by an anger so overwhelming that for a moment he was insensible of his surroundings. Then it broke over him like a wave, and swamped him in helpless outrage and fury. He wanted to strike the old man. He saw himself breaking every article in the room, sweeping the books from their shelves, pinning the solicitor to his desk and demanding to know where justice was to be found in such an inhuman suggestion.

"My lord?" Mr Morton said. Penrith came back to himself, reluctantly letting the hot thrill of rage ebb from his body. He blinked once or twice, shook his head, and took a deep breath. His hands were shaking, he noted vaguely. He thought he ought to hide that fact from his solicitor, and so clasped them behind his back. Mr Morton could not know how hateful his hint was--could not be expected to understand what it was that he was asking--but Penrith could not bring himself to forgive him.

"You have given me a good deal to think about," he said, once he had taken another breath and felt that he could trust his voice. "I shall apprise you if I require your services in the matter."

Morton, clearly aware that he had said what his noble client did not wish to hear, and just as clearly accustomed to such a response, took no apparent offence at Penrith's sudden cold hauteur, but ushered him personally out to his waiting carriage, and saw him away with only one farther admonition to consider carefully all that they had spoken of.

As the carriage moved away along Threadneedle Street, Tristan's restless, frustrated rage became intolerable. Over and over in his mind, he rehearsed what he ought to have said to that heartless, dry old stick of a solicitor. Phrases that he could never in reality give voice to rolled from him in his imagination: Why must I pay more than another man to be protected from a common criminal? and You would not advise another man to divorce his wife or leave his home... and How dare you ask me to forswear what I love best? You would not ask it of another man!

Little by little, however, as he left the offices of Morton and Jacoby behind, Tristan was able to look at the interview more rationally, and to realise how very much worse it might have been. He was not another man. He was what he was, and Morton appeared clearly to understand this principal unspoken fact in the case. Morton had not dismissed him in contempt as he might have done--indeed, as others had sometimes done. By apprising him coldly and clearly of the actualities of blackmail, Morton had done exactly what Tristan had wished him to do.

The carriage rattled into Cheapside and was approaching St Paul's when it occurred to Tristan, rather belatedly, that he might be wise to take some exercise. Why, he had scarcely moved for several days, apart from the pleasant exertions he had enjoyed in John's arms during the journey home. It was not wonderful that his thoughts refused to come into order! It was true that he had nobody to talk to about all that troubled him, but he might at least go and hit the punching-bag for a period, and thereby ease his riotous spirits.

He lowered the glass and rapped on the box, and when he caught his groom's attention, said, "I have changed my mind about going home. Take me to Jackson's instead."

The effect of two hours' attendance at Gentleman Jackson's boxing salon was such as to return Tristan's thoughts almost to their usual sanguine cast. As he battered away at his troubles, they shed the cloak of their many confused emotions, and gradually resolved themselves into a few simple truths. The first of these was that upon no account would he consider turning away from John; Tristan was not able to bear the thought of it, and was, moreover, sure that he could protect him.

The next was that a criminal proceeding against Murray would expose John to too much risk for it to merit Tristan's farther consideration. It was something of a relief to set that possibility aside.

Finally, he concluded that Murray, having been silenced for the time being by the sum of twelve hundred pounds, would probably remain silent for a few more months at least.

Tristan began to feel sure that Murray would withhold the most damning and salacious of the drawings till last, and so when Tristan had that one in his possession, he would know that there were no more, and that would be the end of the matter. Tristan could do nothing at present except to behave as discreetly as possible while getting on with his life and his plans. If tomorrow brought fresh problems, he would deal with them. He was Viscount Penrith, after all.

Much restored in body and mind, Tristan left Jackson's and ordered his coachman to take him home. He put the worries of recent days resolutely out of his thoughts, and whiled away the drive with the agreeable prospect of dining tête à tête with John in Half Moon Street for the first of what he hoped would be many times.

Chapter Text

London, October to December, 1818

"Evening attire, sir?" Marchbanks asked, when, on his first full day back in London, John apprised him of his plans to dine with Tristan in Half Moon Street. It ought not to have been a question to confound him, but he was struck by the problem it presented: he could scarcely dine at Lord Penrith's townhouse in daytime wear, but he would be remarked if he should walk home tomorrow morning in evening clothes. He could not carry a change of dress, for even if the idea were not quite ridiculous, how would he look to Stephens, standing on the doorstep with a valise in hand? He ended by saying, "No, my grey coat, I think, Marchbanks--the good one."

John passed the day responding belatedly to the stack of letters that had accumulated during the last weeks of his absence. Mrs Jennings had written to express the hope that they would see Mr Acklebury again in Hartley Street on the following Wednesday; to this letter John sent an affirmative reply after wrestling for several minutes with his conscience, for though he enjoyed the Jenningses' company, and they his, he was aware that their principal object in inviting him was to encourage an attachment between him and their elder daughter, and his in accepting the invitation was to let society think he might be fixing his interest in that quarter. He told himself that he would be careful to show no particularity to Miss Jennings, and that by such means, people might draw their own conclusions, while he did no great wrong.

When it was time to leave for his dinner with Tristan, he was unsure of what to say to Marchbanks about the probable length of his absence. He reminded himself that he did not owe his servant any explanation of his actions, but it would not do to make him worry for his master's safety, either. Finally, just as he was going out, John said, "It is possible that I will not be home tonight. Do not worry if that is the case," and closed the door behind him before his embarrassment should be apparent.

His vigorous walk soon turned his thoughts from that discomfort to the agreeable anticipation of the evening to come. Though he had parted from Tristan only the day before, the prospect of dining with him in Half Moon Street, and afterwards, as he hoped, retiring with him to his bedchamber, was exciting in its novelty, for John had never dined at Tristan's townhouse, and had never been beyond his bedroom door.

Before his eager steps could take him into Mayfair, John was forced to pause in his walk to allow the passage first of a troop of the King's Guard then of a pair of fine coaches along Great Cumberland Place. As he stood waiting by the side of the busy road, his breath slowing and the cool October air making itself apparent upon his face, a curious sensation came over him. For a moment everything about him seemed to slow, and grow quiet. The thundering of the horses' hooves, the call of the sergeant of the guard, the rumble of the carriages' wheels, the crack of the coachman's whip, all faded from John's hearing, and he stood silent and still, as if in a daze. Someone jostled his shoulder in stepping out into the road, but he scarcely noticed.

I am changed, he thought, and nobody knows it. He could not have found words to describe what he felt, but into his mind came an image in which all of London was receding, flying away from him in every direction with a great rushing of sound and a blur of faded colour, while he stood on this street corner, unmoving and vivid, golden and warm, and as full of sweetness as a pear on an autumn bough, truly alive for the first time in his life. A cord of fire tugged at his heart, and at its other end was Tristan. It did not matter whether Tristan was a mile away in Half Moon Street or a world away; in that long, resonating moment, John thought it would not matter whether Tristan were in this world at all; he would still feel the pull of that cord.

As if coming suddenly back to life, the city crashed into tumult around him again, and John shook his head to clear it. Even before the exhilaration of his vision began to wane, he felt a pang of sorrow, for that new colour, that succulence and round fullness, had been brought into his life by what must remain forever hidden, unspoken, and celebrated only in dark and secret places, and he did not know if he could bear it.

John drew a deep breath of London's insalubrious air, looked carefully about him, and crossed the road.

***

When Stephens conducted him into the library at Half Moon Street a short while later, John was struck by the sight of his portrait of Tristan, prominently mounted to the wall above the Sheraton desk at which Tristan himself was writing. John realised that he had grown a good deal in skill and taste since its execution, for to Tristan's portrait he had brought all that Maestro Fiorio, all that Venice, all that the first spring of a young man's life could make available to him; while to all the paintings he had made since then, he had brought Tristan.

Tristan rose from his desk, smiling, at John's entrance. He was flawlessly turned out in black evening attire, John noted, feeling some little chagrin at his own choice of coat. Tristan favoured him with a warm look and, clearly noting the disparity of their attire, said, "Forgive me, Acklebury. I appear to have overdressed."

His manner was so unironically lordly, his words so truly obliging, his appearance so commanding of admiration, that John felt an upwelling of pride simply to be his friend. The stripling who had commissioned a scandalous portrait for the amusement of it was vanishing, and in his place there was this nobleman, this gentleman worthy of the name.

John could not seem to stop smiling at him, though he found nothing to say until Tristan had sent the butler off. Then John drew close and said into Tristan's ear, "I take the liberty of hoping that you will be rather less dressed later in the evening." In response, Tristan gave him a nudge with his elbow and a ridiculously ribald snicker that very nearly undid John's noble impression of him.

John was somewhat disconcerted to find that they were to take dinner in the splendid, formal dining room. Two places were set at the end of the long table, which was adorned with a large silver branch of candles and a fine arrangement of flowers, and attended by Stephens and two footmen. "I beg your pardon, Penrith," John said quietly when they were seated. "I did not expect to be dining in state. I am truly not properly dressed for it."

"You look very well," Tristan said, waving the matter aside. With a sheepish grin, he added, "I did not mean to overawe you with all of this, but I could hardly ask you to take a slice of cold meat in my dressing room. I wanted to show you that I can do the thing properly."

John found himself smiling rather too openly at him again. In a very quiet voice he murmured, "You have shown me that already, Tris." The presence of the servants obliged both of them to break off, sooner than was natural, the exchange of warm looks that this comment engendered.

Regardless of the need for a new degree of restraint; regardless, too, of the elegant glow that candlelight cast upon the vast quantities of silver on the table, or the sparkle it brought from the crystal glasses; and despite the silent attentiveness of the white-gloved Stephens and his two lieutenants, John noted with some satisfaction that he and Tristan were as easy and informal in one another's company as they had always been. They ate and drank freely, spoke of what came to their minds, and laughed a good deal. The only inharmonious note of the evening came when John asked Tristan how he had spent his first day back in London, and detected some small evasion in the way Tristan looked away for an instant before describing an afternoon at Jackson's.

John reminded himself that the special nature of their friendship did not entitle him to know of Tristan's every movement when they were not together; a great distaste for appearing to need more from Tristan than Tristan was ready to offer stopped John from pressing him on his omission.

"What of you?" Tristan asked. "How do you find being back in town?"

"It is noisy," John replied. "I am afraid that I've become accustomed to the quiet of the days and nights in Cumberland. And the fresh air! I do not think I fully appreciated before how much London stinks. It seemed quite pristine last year in comparison to Venice, particularly Venice in summer, but now, I am afraid, London has a good deal of unpleasantness to answer for."

"It is rather dirty," Tristan agreed, "but I enjoyed the hurly-burly of it today when I was out. I found it stimulating."

John laughingly swallowed some little half-formed riposte about Tristan's wonderful capacity to be stimulated, and instead said, "Well, I spent a good deal of my day in the less stimulating pursuit of answering letters at my writing table. There were at least two dozen waiting for me just from the last fortnight or so. Tell me what you make of this one." He withdrew from his breast pocket the most interesting item he had discovered in the pile of correspondence that Marchbanks had presented him with the evening before. "It is from my uncle, Martin Acklebury, my father's elder brother. He is my benefactor, as I think you know, and he has been abroad lately. I have been avid to know your opinion of it all day."

"I shall give it."

"Yes, I felt sure that you would." John unfolded the letter. "He writes from Rome, where he has been travelling with friends. There are one or two amusing travel stories, then towards the end of the letter--" John turned over two sheets. "Ah, here it is. He says, 'Braithwaite and I have decided to part company with our companions and shall go on to Mycenae by ourselves.'" John glanced at Tristan, whose eyebrows were raised in surprise. "I begin to see my uncle in a new light."

"Indeed!" Tristan replied. "That is most interesting."

Pleased that Tristan seemed to think this small hint as telling as he did, John went on. "And listen to this: 'I hear from Arkwright that you are gone from London, and yet your sister writes that you are not visiting your parents, though she says no more.'" John, apprehending Tristan's concerned look, said as carelessly as he could, "Oh, it is all right. I am surprised that she mentioned me at all." He moved quickly on. "My uncle then says, 'I hope that you are enjoying a not-too-edifying summer of amusement with some one or other of your particular friends. The north is agreeable at this time of the year--' His letter is dated the second of September, you see-- 'and one hears of your friendship with Penrith.'" John put the letter down. "Is that not odd?"

Tristan, who was eating the last spoonful of his syllabub, nodded, but made no other answer while one of his footmen hastened forward to remove his empty glass. John watched in admiration as Tristan acknowledged this service with a very nice degree of notice, neither haughty nor condescending: he only turned his head so as to encompass the footman's presence in his gaze for an instant, and gave a small nod. The footman went silently about his task, but John noted in his face and his precise actions an uncommon degree of professional pride.

John turned his eyes back to Tristan and simply admired him for a moment. He was truly becoming the lord he had once so ardently wished not to be, and it suited him wonderfully. The warmth that this observation gave rise to in John's heart flared into need so hot and so sudden that he was hard-pressed to disguise his quickened breath.

Once the footman had moved off again, Tristan said, "Do you think your uncle knows something?"

Under the cover of huffing out a short laugh, John shifted in his chair to make himself a little more comfortable with the quickening of his desire. He shrugged. "I begin to wonder whether he has not 'known something' longer than I have known it myself. His settlement of an annuity on me is of a relatively recent date: he made it when it was clear that I would not complete a degree at Oxford, and I have always supposed him to have been acting as a sort of foil to my father's disappointment in that regard."

It was a mark of their easy friendship, John thought, that this mention of money--and at the dinner table, no less--did not seem distasteful, and caused Tristan no apparent discomfort. Tristan said, "Perhaps he perceived in you a kindred spirit." His eyes were alight at this possibility, and the humour in his expression tempered the heat John was already feeling with an affectionate warmth that made it very difficult not to reach over and touch him. "Did you never previously suspect him of--?" Tristan let a minute tilt of his head complete his sentence for him.

"It is not something one thinks of in one's elders, really, is it?" John answered. "But I suppose there were always indications. He is able to provide for me because he has no wife, and no children of his own. My father disapproved of him, though I could never tell why, because for my part, I always liked my uncle a great deal, and he me."

"You were his favourite."

"He had no other nephews to choose from. I did not read a great deal into his choice."

Tristan put his elbows on the table and leant a little towards John. "Do you know, I should be very happy to think that the man whose good will is at the source of your income--well, some of it, at least--would not be inclined to revoke it in adverse circumstances."

"What sort of adverse circum--? Oh." It was as if a draught of cold air had come into the room. John felt rather stupid for having failed to understand Tristan's meaning instantly. "You think him likely to support me even if others should turn from me, or--or worse."

Tristan gave an almost imperceptible shrug of one shoulder. "Such things are not unknown. An ally within the family would be advantageous."

"Yes. You are quite right." John supposed that Tristan must be thinking of David, whose support and protection he had lost far too early in life. "My uncle's letter certainly does seem to hint that he understands the--the actuality of my life and does not hate it." John glanced over his shoulder to assure himself that the servants were standing well back. "But we have been so careful!" he said quietly. "We shall continue to be careful--we will do all we can to prevent any 'adverse circumstances'." He could not entirely keep the question out of his voice. Haven't we? he wondered. Won't we?

An odd look passed across Tristan's features, almost as if he were on the point of saying something that he ought not say. John raised his eyebrows, hoping he would speak, willing him to do so.

Tristan did not hold his gaze, but indicated the letter with a gesture and said, "Do you not see a warning there as well?"

"A warning?"

"I mean that if a gentleman travelling in Italy and Greece can assemble small pieces into a coherent picture, then how much more easily might someone do so who is closer at hand?"

"I had not thought of it in quite that way," John said, frowning. It was an unpleasant notion, and made him wonder if Tristan knew of some instance of suspicion or gossip that he was not aware of. "I suppose I was enjoying a feeling of comradeship with my uncle. I did not stop to think of his letter as warning."

Tristan gave a careless wave of his hand. "Oh, I should not worry too much," he said, in a tone that John wanted to find reassuring. "If your uncle is...among our number, then he would be inclined to notice the smallest signs of that similarity, and would look more closely at all the evidence."

"That is true," John acknowledged. With an uncomfortable little laugh, he added, "Indeed, I have done so myself. Even before--Ravensworth, I admit that I wondered about certain individuals."

This confession appeared to amuse Tristan, for he smirked and waggled his eyebrows in a manner that suggested a great deal of knowledge upon the point--well! he had never made any secret of his wide experience in this regard--and John was certain that a very improper discussion of this gentleman and that one in society would have ensued had they been private.

Now, however, Tristan's face grew more serious, and he said, "It is only natural for men like us to wonder. I believe it is equally natural that other people--other kinds of people--not to do so. It is not hard to encourage them to remain blind, either, for you must have observed that people do not see what they wish not to see, and they do not wish to see what is distasteful in anyone they esteem."

John had always found this philosophical side of Tristan endearing, but tonight it did something more. This talk of "us" and "those other people" gave John a wonderful sense of belonging, and though he knew that what they spoke of was a dangerous and undesirable fraternity, it had given him Tristan; it had brought him to life. He could not despise it.

"Sadly," Tristan went on, leaning back in his chair, "not everyone who is...like oneself...is a friend."

"I suppose not." John thought vaguely of Lord Westhill and his set, whose damaging gossip had begun the very day he and Tristan had first met.

"And as to other people--ordinary people--well, it is simply not possible to have the esteem of all the world, is it?" Tristan did not seem to be posing a mere rhetorical question, so John shook his head and said that of course, nobody could be universally liked. "The best defence one has against 'adverse circumstances'," Tristan went on, "is to give nobody any reason to look closely at the way one lives."

John was struck again with the feeling that in only a day, Tristan's life had diverged from his, and that in that divergence something had happened, something which he did not wish to speak of but which was colouring his speech, and making him talk of caution and discretion. John reminded himself that they had been always careful, always discreet--to the point of self-abnegation, sometimes!--and thus was able to submerge his discomfort at Tristan's words in the the heated desire that he felt pooling deep in his body.

Tristan signalled to his butler and said that they would take some port in the library, and, when Stephens had withdrawn again, got up from the table. John rose with him. The candles had not burnt down quite halfway, and the white linen tablecloth showed all the pleasant disorder of a meal well enjoyed and finished at leisure: napkins haphazardly folded, a few crumbs, unused forks and spoons no longer perfectly lined up, chairs pushed back, one glass with a sip of wine still in it and three quite empty. The servants stood respectfully back against the wall, waiting, no doubt, to begin clearing it all away. Tristan ushered John before him out of the dining room with a hand covertly touching the small of his back.

When they were alone in the library with their port, John considered whether to ask Tristan outright what he was withholding, but he found that he had almost no wish to learn what it was; not tonight. Tonight, Tristan was before him, looking extraordinarily handsome and regarding him warmly. Tonight John wanted to look, and touch, and have his fill of his beloved Tristan as if no care in the world could ever come between them. Anxious thoughts were quite out of place here. Admiring Tristan in the candlelight, and anticipating the latter part of their evening, was a vastly superior occupation.

Tristan leant with one shoulder against the jamb of the closed library doors, and, looking at John with a raised eyebrow, said, "It is too early to retire. How shall we pass the evening?"

John moved near, and when he put one hand around Tristan's hip, Tristan moved appreciatively into it and made a small sound of pleasure. John did not cup that hand around Tristan's posterior as he wished to do, but only groped until he found the key that was protruding from the lock in the library door. He turned it with a soft click, and said, "I feel sure that we can contrive something."

He released the key and took hold of Tristan instead, pulling him close up against his own body in a single, smooth movement. "I have one or two ideas." With his other hand, he pulled Tristan's head down into a kiss.

Tristan evinced only the slightest surprise before returning the kiss warmly and without any reserve. John moved against him, sensible of a wish not to express all the urgency he felt, but only the warmer, sweeter part of it. The golden succulence that he had felt within himself on the street corner came back to him now, and he tried to convey it to Tristan with his body, with his lips, with a hand as gentle as he could make it at the nape of Tristan's neck. Whatever was troubling him, John would drown it in this honeyed richness, this lustful generosity that he was feeling.

Tristan came gratifyingly to full arousal against John's slowly undulating hips; he gasped into John's mouth and tried to speak, but John said, "Hush, shhh, say nothing," and Tristan did not open his mouth again, except to let John penetrate it with his tongue.

Some moments of this agreeable ardour passed in a silence broken only by soft breaths and quiet, wordless utterances of desire. The door before which they were still standing rattled as Tristan yielded to John's movements and leant back heavily against it. As if of one mind, they sprang apart.

"Yes?" Tristan said with an admirable calm, but there was nobody there. Tristan cast John a chagrined look and said, "We must not--" he waved a hand toward the key in the lock, but did not turn it until John shrugged and nodded. It was unlikely that Lord Penrith's extremely well-trained London servants would intrude upon their master and a guest in the drawing room after dinner, but if there should be any cause for Stephens or one of the footmen to do so, it would not do for him to find a locked door.

Tristan stood wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and breathing rather hard. John withdrew to the window to part the heavy velvet curtains enough to look outside. After a moment, Tristan joined him there. "God!" he murmured. "I am utterly spoilt by the freedom we had at Ravensworth. How shall we go on?"

"How would you like to go on, my lord?" John enquired, sipping from his port and hoping that it, and the cool air near the window-glass would help settle him. It was no good, however, for Tristan bent near and put his lips against John's neck, and John did not think there was the smallest chance of recovering his composure. He let out a soft groan.

"I would like to go on as we began a moment ago," Tristan said into his ear. Then, drawing back, he said, "But that is not what I meant. I am puzzling over how to spirit you inconspicuously upstairs to my bed."

In the end, John simply went up. If the liveried footman who rose at his exit from the library had any thoughts about his lordship's guest making so free of the house, John hoped that his vague gesture would convey nothing more than a wish for the private facility that he knew was available upstairs. He climbed to the second floor, let himself into Tristan's dressing-room, and waited.

When Tristan came in a quarter of an hour later, he scarcely had time to say that he had dismissed Cooper for the night before they were kissing each other again, and tearing haphazardly at each other's clothes. John could not bear to break from Tristan's lips even long enough to stoop and remove his shoes, and Tristan seemed equally disinclined to let any space open between their two mouths. They wrestled each other into the bedroom and onto the bed, still kissing and struggling out of their clothes.

Even when they were both completely undressed, and lying tangled in one another's arms, face to face upon Tristan's bed, Tristan did not seem able to stop kissing John. He would break off for breath, and sometimes press his lips to John's eyes, or his forehead, or his jaw; he nipped and bit at John's ear and his collarbone; but John could not help observing that Tristan did not stray far from his mouth. John had no objection to it, for there was little in the world he liked so well as being kissed by Tristan, and there was, besides, all of the agreeable contact that Tristan's fervent movements were creating between their two bodies. After some moments, John rolled onto his back and said, "You wish to finish me in the next few moments, I think."

Tristan laughed low in his throat. "Yes," he said, his voice almost a growl. He took John's supine posture as the invitation John intended it to be, and began moving downward with his kisses. "I do. I wish to finish you, and then start again--all night long, if possible." It was just as he had done in their first hour together as lovers, placing kisses in a tidy line down the center of John's body, moving inexorably and maddeningly towards the crux of it; this time, unlike that first time, however, John had no idea of refusing him, for Tristan did not offer the pleasure of his mouth very frequently, and John rarely asked for it by word or gesture, but he had learnt to welcome it heartily when Tristan was inclined to give it.

John did not hold back, or try for any art at all, but simply surrendered to Tristan, and let himself spill forth after only a few strokes of Tristan's tongue upon him, his body arching insensibly up from the bed, a low cry of pleasure broken off in his throat.

"I am sorry," he said afterwards, between one heavy breath and the next. "That was rather quicker than one might wish."

"Oh, no, John. Do not apologize. It is the gentlemanly thing to do." Tristan came up and surmounted him, at first holding himself above John at arm's length, looking down at him with undisguised lust and moving his own unslaked member against John's spent one. He soon went down upon his elbows, at which range John could smell himself in Tristan's exhalation, and, insinuating his hands and forearms under John's shoulders and behind his head, said, "It allows me to feel all the satisfaction of having given you satisfaction, with none of the aching jaw. Indeed, it would be wrong to withhold one's pleasure very much longer."

"I shall remember that you said so." John laughed quietly and rolled his hips up against Tristan's. "You make it pretty easy to oblige you in that respect, so I cannot take any great credit for it. I have been upon the point of spending myself since I came into the library this evening and looked at you."

Talk of a ribald nature did not come easily or naturally to John, but he knew Tristan took pleasure in it, and so he tried not to censor himself when something of the kind occurred to him. "I would offer to return the favour immediately, my lord, but I think I prefer to have you another way."

Tristan fell on him at this, a fresh wave of ardour making his movements powerful and demanding. He did not enquire as to that other way, but he knew. He always knew, John reflected.

John wrapped his legs about Tristan's waist and his arms about Tristan's shoulders, and let himself be levered upright as Tristan got to his knees. Tristan embraced him in that position, his powerful arms and large hands seeming to cover all of John's back, his face buried in John's neck in a manner that blended strength and desperate need. John felt Tristan's breath against his collarbone, and, wishing he could be everything that Tristan needed, pulled him in tightly, resting his chin atop Tristan's head and looking out into the candlelit dimness of the bedroom. Tristan's skin was hot and slightly moist, and his hair was sweaty and disarrayed under John's jaw. John let his eyes fall shut and just held him.

"I will take care of you," Tristan said. He relaxed the tight clasp of his arms at last and lowered John to the bed. His face bore a serious expression as he looked down.

"You always do, my lord," John replied, hoping that they were still talking about their intimate satisfaction, and feeling sure that there was a good deal more than that in Tristan's words. He raised his hips and let his knees fall wide, and shifted until the length of Tristan's member was aligned against him in a way that suggested clearly what Tristan ought to do next. "I count upon it."

"God, John!" Tristan said. "How shall I ever do without you?"

John looked up at him and held his eyes, not flinching as Tristan slid into his body. "Do not do without me," he gasped. "There will never be any need for it." Never, he thought. He relaxed into the almost unbearable fullness of Tristan deep inside him, parted his legs wider and raised himself wantonly so that Tristan could penetrate him still farther. "Never do without me," he whispered.

"Never," Tristan grunted, drawing himself partly out, only to plunge in again hard enough to let John know that he was not entirely in control of his actions. John let out a low groan and pushed himself backward into Tristan's thrusts.

"Never," Tristan said again. "Never. Never. Never."

***

In the days that followed, John re-accustomed himself to the throngs of people and close quarters, the noise and smell, the constant assault on all his senses that was London in the busy autumn season. The want of any horizon on which to rest his eyes began to frustrate him, and he often went to Hyde Park--not, he assured himself, to be nearer Tristan's townhouse, but only to refresh his eyes with its green and open spaces.

He was not unhappy; on the contrary, he was at pains to keep a besotted and daydreaming look from overtaking his features at every moment. The thrilling game of secrecy which he had learnt to play with Tristan in the country became ten times more demanding, for life in crowded, busy, gossiping London imposed a heavy tax on the ingenuity of two young men who wished to satisfy their desire for one another's company.

They must guard their eyes, their hands, and even their speech, and remember to call one another only "Penrith" and "Acklebury" lest some accidental warmth give anyone evidence from which to look at them more closely and perhaps draw damning conclusions. In London as in the country, Tristan was sometimes so good at appearing merely civil that doubts assailed John, and only the feeling of Tristan's hardest embraces and roughest caresses, lingering in his skin long afterwards, let him be easy again.

John spent as many nights at Tristan's townhouse as the exigencies of their situation permitted. It was a luxury made possible solely by Cooper's discreet interference: that superior servant lowered himself so far as to bring breakfast to his lordship's dressing-room, and take the tray away again, shielding the housemaids and the butler from any definite knowledge of their master's activities, so that John could remain until an hour at which, if anyone were to see him leaving the townhouse, he might conceivably have been paying a morning-call. On the nights when conflicting schedules or the demands of discretion prevented his being with Tristan, the increasing chill of autumn made his bed feel lonely and absurdly large.

"Do you think," John asked Tristan one morning, "that we ask too much of your man?" Cooper had just gone out of the dressing room, having shaved his lordship and helped him to dress, and John was at last free to emerge from the bed-chamber, mostly attired, to shave himself before going out into the street.

Tristan was standing next to the fire, reading a newspaper. "It will not kill him to carry a tray now and then," he replied without looking up.

John bit his lip. "That is not what I was thinking of. My being here requires him to carry out a subterfuge--in short, to lie--for his employer. I know that he is very devoted to you, Tris, but it is not right to ask him to do so routinely." He did not want to say it, but felt that it must be said.

Tristan lowered the paper and looked at him. "Perhaps you are right." He folded the newspaper haphazardly and laid it on the mantelpiece, and for a moment John thought his words had irritated him, but Tristan only sighed, and drooped a little, and with a disconsolate look said, "I miss Ravensworth."

***

If they could not lie in one another's arms every evening, and breakfast openly together every morning, as they had done at Ravensworth, they could at least sometimes sleep through the night in the same bed and rise together at a respectable hour in London, and while this arrangement was by far most agreeable when it took place at Half Moon Street, it was also to be had elsewhere, for, as Tristan had surmised, there were many respectable inns in the metropolis.

Even the best of these hostelries could not offer all the comfort that Tristan's well-trained servants and Tristan's luxuriously appointed townhouse could provide, but two or three of them boasted fine accommodation of the sort that prosperous visitors from other parts of the kingdom expected. Moreover, so long as two gentlemen did not arrive together of an evening or leave together the following morning, the best of these establishments showed no inclination to notice that the "wealthy merchant" and his "associate" remained closeted privately all night long.

Farther down the scale of what was desirable were the moments that they stole, in some blend of desperation and defiance, when the restraints of society and the limitations of their increasingly busy lives left them no alternative. The first such encounter occurred a week or ten days after their return from Ravensworth.

John and Tristan walked along the Pall Mall one windy afternoon, on their way from Signor Pellerino's fencing academy, where they had enjoyed an hour of vigorous exercise together. Tristan said, "Can you come riding tomorrow?"

"Oh, I cannot, not tomorrow," John was forced to reply. "I am sorry. I have a sitting with Miss Urquhart tomorrow in Russell Square, and by the time I go, and paint, and come back, the day will be quite gone. Perhaps on Thursday?"

"No, more's the pity. I do not ride on Thursday because I must submit to my tailor in the morning, and then in the afternoon, Reginald Lane-Smythe has agreed to meet with me--that is Charlotte's elder brother, who is in Castlereagh's office."

"Indeed? That is capital news, Penrith!" John was truly pleased at this indication that Tristan was making a start on the political career he had spoken of, but he waited in vain for an invitation to meet afterwards and hear about it.

"It involves a dinner, I am sorry to report," Tristan said. "Some gentlemen from the Foreign Secretary's office dine together on Thursdays, and Lane-Smythe has said that if I am to get on, I must meet them all, and eat with them, and I do not know what. They wish to survey me, I suppose."

Though disappointed, John managed a smile and a discreet leer, and said, "I cannot say that I blame them," and they continued what felt like a sort of calendrical negotiation, in which John's prior and sadly unbreakable engagement to dine with the Jenningses, and Tristan's appointment with his solicitors that he must upon no account change again, and other such impediments to leisure were discovered, until they came to Piccadilly and still had no definite engagement in hand. "I must part with you here, " John said regretfully. "I have a few things to collect at my studio for tomorrow."

"I shall come with you," Tristan promptly rejoined.

No more was John inside the studio than Tristan was upon him, pushing him against the door he had just closed, mouthing wordlessly at the back of his neck and reaching around inside his greatcoat. The studio was cold, and lit only by the faint grey of the afternoon sky visible through the window.

"Let me?" Tristan said, but it was not really a question, and John nodded, excited by Tristan's urgency and the strangeness of the situation. There was no building opposite, no window looking towards his, and no one, therefore, to see into his studio, and yet the sounds of the street came up to them clearly and reminded John of how close they were to a hundred other people.

Tristan pulled John's overcoat off of him and fumbled at the buttons of his breeches until John undid them for him, baring only what was essential. John pushed himself back towards the heat of Tristan's body and said, "Do it. Hurry," and Tristan did.

***

Compared to nights in Tristan's bed, or at some one of London's finer coaching inns, these furtive couplings in John's studio or Tristan's library could scarcely be deemed easy or luxurious. They had, however, the charm of a certain danger, and the advantage of allowing an unceremonious expression of the impatient desire that seemed never to wane. John did not object to being taken, almost fully clothed, against the wall, or upon some piece of furniture that was not a bed, and he observed that Tristan's predilection for it was very marked. The practice introduced a wholly new element into the variety of their embraces, and made John wonder, in the more ordinary moments of his life, whether this or that lady or gentleman whom he passed in the street ever enjoyed such licence. He was pleased to doubt it, and took some pride in his character as an unsuspected wanton.

Those more ordinary moments, measured in days and weeks, comprised far the greater part of John's life, yet he had but to place them in the scales of satisfaction against the few hours each week he was able to spend with Tristan, to find that they weighed very little. He did not dislike the requirements of his everyday life, or chafe against them, but it was hard at first for him to bring himself to them fully. Yet duty, commonsense, and the need to earn some part of his living, all conspired to ensure that John Acklebury was seen in society and did not simply while his days away at home.

He cultivated anew his friendship with Caine. "I am smitten," Caine confided to John one evening at a party to which they had both been invited. Their hostess, Mrs Fellowes, was organizing two tables of loo, and in the general hubbub, Caine, looking fit to burst, had drawn John aside. "I have met my ideal. She is too good for me, Acklebury, but I cannot stop thinking of her."

There was no time to pursue the subject, for the card game was beginning, but a few days later Caine nearly let John knock him unconscious at Tankley's, afterwards blaming his poor performance in the ring on the distracted state of his mind. With very little prompting from John, Caine confirmed, as John had hoped, that the object of his worshipful adoration was Lady Penrith. All at once John had no need to feign an interest in Caine's pursuits among the fair sex, for Caine no longer tried to engage him in his general admiration of all womankind, and was far too preoccupied with his own suit to pay the slightest attention to John's silence on the matter.

John resumed his habit of regular letter-writing. He wrote to his mother every week, and to his father when he had something of substance to report; he could not write to either of them without a keen awareness of the great secret he bore, but as their letters back to him gave no indication that they knew of his hidden life, he was able to carry on tolerably well. From Meg he had received only one letter in the summer, written in the dutiful and impersonal terms she might use to write to a relative she scarcely knew; he told himself that he must answer it, but he never found the time.

His correspondence with Uncle Martin, though it was a duty dictated by gratitude, was also a pleasure, and the exchange of two further carefully-worded letters over the course of the winter made John almost certain that the friendship between his uncle and Mr Braithwaite was of a very particular character. He would be back in England in the spring, he said; John must visit him in Somerset whenever his busy career of painting fashionable people should permit him to get away from London. John replied with a heartfelt assurance that he would do so.

Of all the calls upon John's time when he was not with Tristan, his painting was the most demanding, and the most altered. There had been several commissions awaiting him on his return from Ravensworth, and at first, none of them interested him as passionately as Tristan's had done. After the unfortunate case of Mr Gilroy, he refused to paint any other gentleman in Tristan's pose, but instead found ways to cajole his patrons into a more suitable conception of themselves, and in this way, he grew engaged again with his work.

He became much more inclined than formerly to see, and to represent, what was mischievous, or roguish, or unfettered, in his subjects, and discovered, as he showed each work in progress to its commissioner, that people were rather flattered than offended to be seen so. It was with some small degree of guilt that he accepted first payment, and then considerable public approbation, for the work he undertook so carelessly and completed so quickly, but so it was: his work had not merely improved by increments over a summer of landscapes and private sketches; it had leapt to a new level. It seemed almost that the less he cared about it, the more really expressive it became.

After their first days together in London, John no longer wondered whether he ought to press Tristan upon the matter that made him sometimes look away, or turn the subject; their time together was precious, and their ardour unabated, and John always found reasons to wait for another occasion.

After all, John told himself, Tristan was very busy. In meeting with important men of government, in conferring with his bankers and solicitors in London, and writing to his steward and his architect in the north, he was making a place for himself in the world; of course John could not expect to know the entire content of his mind, or the minutiae of his every day, any more than Tristan could be privy to the inner workings of John's art. If Tristan sometimes omitted to speak of something, John felt that he could let it go unremarked, so long as nothing in the omission seemed to be a wish of ending their friendship.

When one or two tentative enquiries along that anxious line elicited only the warmest and most open assurances from Tristan, John gradually came to let his concerns lie fallow, so that as autumn became winter, and winter began slowly to turn its cold face toward spring, he forgot them entirely.

Chapter Text

London, December, 1818 to March, 1819

The morning of the twenty-first of December found Viscount Penrith dressed for driving and seated at his desk writing a letter while he waited for John to arrive. It was one of the increasingly rare days on which neither of them had so much as a single call upon his time, and as soon as this unusual circumstance had been discovered, they had agreed that a drive to Richmond Park together would be an excellent way to spend it. The weather looked almost miraculously like cooperating in this happy scheme, being only a little overcast and not terribly cold, and Tristan was anticipating the day's pleasures when Stephens knocked and entered. "I beg your pardon, my lord," he said, "but a Mr Murray has called for you."

"What the devil--?" Penrith said with a note of panic in his voice. "I am not at home."

In a perfectly neutral tone, Stephens said, "So I informed him, my lord. He has refused to go away."

A rapid review of the unwelcome situation persuaded his lordship that he would do better to learn at once what had brought Murray to his door fully four days in advance of the Christmas quarter-day, and dispose of the matter quickly, than to have him ejected from the premises and risk his being still about, enacting a drama, when John arrived. He sighed, wishing there were another course. "Very well. Show him in. Oh, and Stephens, send someone to fetch a hackney. Murray will not be here above a quarter of an hour, and I wish him conveyed away the moment our conversation is concluded."

"Very good, my lord."

When Stephens, a few moments later, ushered Murray into the library, Penrith could only stare, trying unsuccessfully to reconcile his image of Murray thriving upon the largesse he had extorted only three months earlier, with the shocking reality before him. Murray's hair was badly cut and his boots were worn down at the heel; his coat was shabby and fit him indifferently, his gloves were dirty and past cleaning, and there was about him a stale air that was not difficult to recognise as the result of a night passed in drink.

Murray still had his careless manner, however, and came into the library with all his customary arrogance. "I have heard that you are much in the company of Castlereagh's set," he said when Penrith rather unwillingly offered him a seat. "Do you think of politics? You would make a wonderful ambassador, my lord, for you could always talk anyone into anything."

How the deuce did Murray know of his new political acquaintance? Was this some attempt at a further threat? Trying to disregard it, Penrith said, "What are you doing here, Murray? It is not yet quarter-day."

"Well, that's the thing, you see, Tristan. I know what a planning sort of person you are, and I am persuaded that you must have already put by the little sum we agreed upon for the next drawing."

Penrith refrained from looking towards the cabinet where the household money, lately augmented by four hundred pounds, was locked away.

"It is shockingly expensive to live in London, especially with a wife to support. I am afraid that the price of the picture has changed. I thought that you would require a day or two to accommodate an alteration in our agreement."

"Oh? And what would the new price be, I wonder?"

"I shall need eight hundred pounds for it."

Penrith told himself that he ought not to be surprised. Indeed, he felt it incumbent upon him to show no sign of discomfiture, but he was very taken aback. "Eight hundred pounds," he said in a tolerable facsimile of calm. "I see. And this sum will ensure your continued discretion for another quarter?"

"Oh, probably." Murray said.

Confronted with the gulf between the authority he was accustomed to wield and his powerlessness before Charles Murray, Penrith knew a deep, wordless frustration. Murray was casually doubling the sum they had agreed upon three months ago, and might double it again next time, or worse, and Penrith, with all of his resources, could see no way of stopping him without incurring a far more terrible price.

With an effort, he set his frustration aside and brought his thoughts into order. He felt a pressing need for more time, and was also aware that if he did not soon get rid of Murray, there was a great danger that John would collide with him upon the doorstep. Agreeing to Murray's demands without dispute would appear to answer both needs, and so he said, "Very well. Come back in three days with the second picture, and you shall have the sum you require."

As soon as Murray had been escorted away by Stephens, Tristan sank into the chair at his desk and indulged in a moment's despair.

It was not in his nature to remain long with his head in his hands, however; there was no good in reckoning up the cost of Murray's blackmail so far, or reminding himself of all that he might have bought with the sum of two thousand pounds. He drew a deep breath, scrubbed his face with his palms, and took out a sheet of paper.

Once he had taken the necessary action of writing to his banker, his anxiety began to lift. The expenditure of eight hundred pounds this month would not cripple him financially, and it would buy him another three months' reprieve from Murray's presence and his threats.

He heard a knock at the front door, followed by the sound of John's voice, and rose, happy to turn his thoughts once more to the day's proposed outing.

Tristan openly admired the handsome figure John made as he came into the library. He wore white drab pantaloons cut very tight to the leg, a pair of glossy black Hessian boots, and an overcoat of heavy, charcoal-grey wool whose collar of sealskin stood about John's neck and framed his face in a most flattering way. "Well!" Tristan said, going to shake his hand. "You look snug indeed. Good morning, John. It will be a brisk drive into Surrey. I hope you still wish to go."

"I do, I assure you." John stood grinning at him for a long moment before adding, "Rather than miss this opportunity to spend a day in your society, I am positively swathed in warm clothes against a ten mile drive in December. You do know that it is the shortest day of the year, though, don't you? How much of Richmond Park shall we be able to see before night falls?" His expression was merry and knowing.

"Oh, well, as to that, the drive is scarcely seven miles, not ten," Tristan assured him, "and Cooper is even now supervising the hot bricks, so I feel sure that we shall contrive to stay warm somehow." He favoured John with a smirk. "I expect we shall see a few fallow deer in the park, and perhaps some swans, and then take a look at Pembroke Lodge. Really, I think if we set out immediately, we may have quite a complete little day, then round it off with a neat dinner at the Coach and Horses Inn."

There was a smile playing about the corners of John's lips. "The wonderful thing about the shortest day of the year is that it is invariably succeeded by the longest night."

Tristan opened the library door and ushered John out before him, saying, "Exactly so."

***

Three days later, on Christmas eve, Viscount Penrith found himself handing a bank draught to a rather festively inebriated Charles Murray, who bowed and thanked him as if for an unexpected present. In exchange, Murray proffered another of John's drawings with an unsteady flourish and a "Merry Christmas, my lord," and was gone.

Tristan sat gazing at the drawing he had just purchased for eight hundred pounds. It depicted him sitting in his nightshirt at the edge of a bed, his bare feet upon a figured carpet, his rumpled hair and sleepy smile betokening morning. Though it was not scandalous in itself, no one looking at it would fail to perceive the intimacy of the circumstances which had permitted it to be taken.

Tristan knew that to Murray's mind, the most overtly shocking picture was the most damaging, and was therefore the one that he would reserve till last, and sell back for the highest price. As he looked at the relatively tame drawing in his hands, however, he began to perceive an advantage in this fact: he realised that the most damning story did not lie in one nude and salacious image, but in the whole series, portraying a life lived intimately together. Without these more modest, domestic little pictures, the last was merely embarrassing, demonstrating foolish self-conceit and perhaps a certain libertinism, but not absolutely declaring that Lord Penrith and his artist friend shared a criminal passion.

He was determined nevertheless to recover all of the drawings, and to do so on a timetable very much shorter than whatever Charles Murray imagined as the period of Lord Penrith's extorted largesse. By God, he was more intelligent than Charles Murray, and had more resources at his command than most men, and he would be damned if he did not use both to end this blackmail quietly before the March quarter-day.

***

Had it not been for John's vivid recollection of the drenching rain that had given Tristan an excuse to lure him to his dressing room on only the second day of their acquaintance, he would have sworn that no March was ever rainier than this one. He stepped out of Lackington's book emporium in Finsbury Square to such a downpour that he permitted himself the extravagance of a hackney, rather than risk spoiling the fine leather bindings of the three-volume novel he had just purchased.

He and Tristan had never exchanged gifts--John did not think the many drawings he had made could really be called proper presents--and it was not a custom John proposed to start. The disparity of their wealth, for one thing, argued against it, and John was anxious to avoid any semblance of the sort of relationship, defined by expensive gifts, that other men of Tristan's class carried on with mistresses. Nevertheless, in a few days' time it would be the eighteenth of March, exactly a year since they had met, and John wished to distinguish the date with a small token; after long consideration, he had settled on a book as striking the right note of affection without being so overly personal as to require concealment.

Tristan's life being now so much occupied that they could scarcely ever meet on a whim, and must plan their intimacies, John was not yet sure that they would be able to see each other on the anniversary of their first meeting. However, when Tristan sent a note by his groom on the seventeenth asking if John could dine with him the following evening, John was pleased to suppose that the date's significance had not, after all, been lost on Tristan.

He presented himself in Half Moon Street at seven o'clock, attired in his best evening clothes, his modest gift in hand, to find Tristan in his library, still engaged at his writing table, ink staining his fingers. He had not yet dressed for dinner at all. John realised that Tristan's choice of the date had been unconscious, and wished he might hide his present, in order to spare embarrassment to both of them, but Tristan had already seen it.

"Is that for me?" he asked, rising from his desk. He looked so tired, so tense, that John very nearly asked him what was troubling him. Tristan had not lately cared to hear such a question, however, so John refrained from posing it, but hid the present behind his back and said, "No. It is for Molly, that pretty housemaid of yours. We have been meeting secretly." When this attempt at levity elicited only a polite half-laugh from Tristan, he proffered the gift and said, "Of course it is for you."

"Shall I open it?"

"If you like."

Tristan unwrapped it. His eyebrows came together in curious puzzlement. "Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. Is it a novel?"

"Yes. I thought you might enjoy a good story. I have not yet read it myself, but it is said to be quite blood-curdling."

Tristan opened the first volume and leafed through it for a moment. "I think it must be very engrossing," he said, looking up from the pages with an uncertain smile. "But what is the occasion?"

John's spirits sank entirely. "It is no great thing," he said hastily. "A mere whim, that is all. It is--well, it is a year since..." He trailed off.

Tristan regarded him for a long moment, a series of emotions crossing his features. Annoyance, embarrassment, perhaps uneasiness or even resentment were there, and with them a kind of sorrowful affection. John felt foolish beyond measure for having wanted to commemorate their first meeting, and when Tristan said, "I did not know you to be so sentimental, John!" his discomfiture was complete. It stung to have his gift reduced to such an unfair jibe, for few men were so sentimental as Tristan himself, but it was far worse to hear Tristan dismiss the anniversary so lightly.

"Forgive me, Tris," John managed to say. "I have refined too much on--that is..." He took a deep breath. "Well! I feel pretty silly. Please, say no more about it."

Tristan put the novel down decisively on a table and held out his arms. "Come here, John."

His embrace was warm and strong, and as John relaxed into it, it grew tighter. They stood in the middle of the library for John knew not how long, Tristan gripping him as if letting go would mean his drowning. "I am sorry. I ought to have remembered," he murmured, loosening his hold a little. "It is these damned quarter-days. I am glad you are here."

John drew back. "Never mind, Tris," he said, wondering why quarter-days should be a cause of worry to a man as rich as Tristan. It would be crass to enquire, but it was very troubling to think that Tristan might be in pecuniary difficulties. John realised that he had no very accurate idea of Tristan's fortune, except to suppose it vastly larger than his own. "I'm sorry you've been worried. Is there anything I can do--?"

Tristan patted his shoulders and smoothed the sleeves of his coat. "Not a thing!" he said in hearty tones. "Thank you for the novel. I am sure I shall enjoy it. Let me just run upstairs and put on a decent coat, and then we shall dine."

***

Tristan awoke the following morning with John peacefully asleep next to him in the pale light of dawn. His hair was all awry, his lips were red and parted, and he had stretched his arms up over his head in a position that he often took in his sleep. Seeing John in this vulnerable, trusting attitude was ordinarily a thing that increased the warmth and delight Tristan felt in waking next to him, but this morning he found it irritating. He lay looking at John's profile and tracing with his eye the line of John's upflung arms. They must be cold, he thought, protruding as they were from the warm bedclothes; this, too, annoyed him, for he wanted to cover them, and at the same time resented having to think of John's comfort.

He rose and availed himself of the chamber pot, then wrapped his heavy dressing gown about him. John began to wake, and muttered, "What's o'clock?"

"About half past six," Tristan replied. He went out into his dressing room, unable to account for his vexation and sensible of being on the verge of saying what he would surely regret. John had done nothing wrong; a man could not help the position he took in sleep, and it could hardly matter in any case. Tristan closed the communicating door and rang for Cooper.

Some thirty minutes later, when Tristan was shaved and dressed, and Cooper had bustled away again, John emerged from the bedroom. He, too, was mostly dressed, though rather rumpled, for his clothes had been untidily cast upon a chair last night. Tristan's frame of mind was not restored to so equable a state as he had hoped, for when John asked him quietly, "Is something the matter?" he felt all of his inexplicable annoyance well up again.

"No, nothing is the matter," he answered, making much of an unnecessary adjustment to his neck-cloth, and thereby avoiding looking at John. There was a long silence.

Finally, in a voice that was falsely light, John said, "At what time do you meet with Lane-Smythe today?"

"Not until one o'clock." Tristan was keenly aware of being too curt, too unresponsive. He could not seem to prevent it. He ought, he knew, to enquire about John's day, but he found in himself a stubborn disinterest in what was surely just another portrait sitting with another aspirant to fashion.

A silence again followed his brief utterance, and he finally had to turn from his mirror. When he did, he saw that John was buttoning up his coat. "You do not wish to shave?" Tristan asked.

"I think I prefer to do so at home," John replied tightly.

Before he could censor himself, Tristan said, "You do not propose to leave my house looking as if you just got out of bed!"

He would have welcomed a word of anger from John, but John did not even look affronted, only hurt, and rather prim. In a soft voice, he said, "Don't distress yourself, Tristan. Nobody will see me at this hour." He went to the door, then turned and said, "I am sure that the gentlemen at the Admiralty will be favourably impressed with you today." He quit Tristan's room, closing the door softly behind him.

Deeply unhappy with himself and with John, Tristan paced several times around his dressing room in a state of growing agitation. It was too much, he thought, to be obliged to account for John's tender feelings when he had so many other calls upon his time and resources. He went down to breakfast still fuming, and partook of a meal for which his appetite had been sharply diminished.

Many hours and many bewildering meetings and conversations later, Tristan emerged from Admiralty House with Charlotte's brother.

"Well? What did you think, Penrith?" Lane-Smythe asked him as they descended the steps to Whitehall in the gathering dusk.

"My head is spinning," Tristan said honestly. "Earlier today I scarcely knew where the Seychelle Islands might be on a globe, and now I understand a great deal more about coconut plantations and slave owners and piracy than I could have imagined."

Lane-Smythe nodded and gave him a friendly slap on the back. "It is a dull business."

"Oh, no, I did not find it so at all," Tristan assured him quickly. "Far from it. In fact, I am quite surprised at how interesting most of it was!"

With an uncomfortable little laugh, as if he did not quite believe what Lord Penrith was saying to him, Lane-Smythe said, "Well, poor Charlotte told me that you were a long-headed one, and I believe it. I declare, I nodded off once or twice."

With half of his sister's intelligence and scarcely a quarter of her gravity, Reginald Lane-Smythe was not the sort of man Tristan had expected to meet with in the government, and something told him that he would do well to distance himself eventually from such a benefactor; at the moment, however, he was grateful for the entrée which Lane-Smythe had been able to provide, and told him so.

"Happy to do what I can as a favour to poor Charlotte, but your title certainly does you no harm either!"

Tristan wished Lane-Smythe would not continually refer to his admirable sister as "poor Charlotte," but said only, "Well, I am excessively obliged to you."

A hackney approached, and when Lane-Smythe had caught the driver's attention, he turned back to Tristan and added, "At the end of the day, it is Castlereagh you need to impress, and he looks for sober, steady men of taste and propriety to serve in the Foreign Office. A word in your ear, Penrith: title or no, do not wait too long to settle down. Marriage--that is the ticket. Find yourself a girl from an influential family. My wife's a cousin of Castlereagh's, and I can tell you that it did not hurt me."

That explained a great deal, Penrith thought, choosing to ignore the hint, for it was of a piece with Lane-Smythe's general blockishness. Nobody expected a man of four-and-twenty to be married, and a viscount had no need to marry at any age to get power and influence. Scarcely a woman in the kingdom would be able to confer upon Tristan Jarrett a greater standing than that which he had become heir to at David's death; marriage might well be a necessary step in the careers of the Reginald Lane-Smythes of the world, but Penrith could not imagine it making very much difference to him.

As Lane-Smythe drove off in his hackney, Tristan stood a moment looking after him, glad that his long day of duty and responsibility was done, and thinking that he would like to tell John about it. No sooner had he conceived this agreeable notion, however, than it was soured by the memory of John's moody departure that morning, and, he was obliged to admit, his own very uncivil behaviour. The whole matter caused an unsettled feeling in his stomach, amounting almost to dread, and made him disinclined to seek John's company just then.

He could not do so in any case, for he was engaged to dine at the Danforths' house, and he did not think he could find even ten minutes to dispatch a short note to Upper Berkeley Street before morning. Tomorrow, then, he decided: as soon as he had paid a long-overdue call to Charlotte, and made good on his promise to drive out behind Gilbert's new team, he would find a way to mend matters with John.

***

The colourless light of an overcast March afternoon filled the Bruton Street studio, and illuminated the face of the Honourable Mr Richmond Rycombe, who was sitting for preliminary sketches. Mr Rycombe had the sort of strong, chiselled features that resisted the unkind actions of time which ruined many men's faces by the age of forty, and as John looked, and drew, and looked again, he thought that Mr Rycombe must have been an extraordinarily handsome fellow in his youth, for he cut a very dashing figure even now, his dark, waving hair distinguished by touches of silver, and his trim form still that of the natural athlete. In the soft, pearly light, John began to conceive of a portrait in greys and blacks, with a good deal of pure white, that would capture Mr Rycombe's cool, sterling air.

His subject interrupted his reverie by saying, "Are you a married man, Mr Acklebury?"

John pulled his awareness into the present and met Rycombe's steady regard for a moment before giving the answer he generally gave to such a question: "Not yet."

"Why, that is just what I always say!" Rycombe rejoined with a glint of knowing humour in his eye. John felt his cheeks heat and knew that his damnable complexion betrayed him. Rycombe went on, "And then, if the person posing the question interests me, I may say that my unmarried state leaves me sadly in want of new friends. If, upon the other hand, that person does not interest me, I may say that I already enjoy one or two very particular friendships and need no more." He smiled. "Which would you say, Mr Acklebury?"

A week ago, John thought, his answer would have expressed an unequivocal disinterest in Rycombe's flirtation, but Tristan's coolness last night--his outright incivility to him this morning!--still rankled deeply, and he considered giving a more encouraging reply. Here before him, casting obvious lures, was a polished, courteous, and very attractive gentleman who might welcome the sentiments that Tristan seemed no longer to have time for.

After a brief struggle with himself, John replied, "I would say, Mr Rycombe, that it is outside my power to provide you with any satisfactory answer to that question."

Mr Rycombe's look of good-humoured interest did not vanish with this rejoinder, although he said no more. John returned to his drawing.

The matter troubled him, however, and he turned it over in increasing agitation during his walk from Bruton Street back to Marylebone. What would he do if Tristan truly grew tired of him? The Honourable Mr Rycombe was not by any means the first gentleman who seemed ready to enter into a liaison with him. Tristan probably did not realise that, John thought. He probably supposed that he had no rivals at all for John's attention! Well, it would be an easy matter to show him his mistake, for John would not sit by, waiting to be cast off. He could have his choice of several admirers, and he would choose one.

But it would not do. He arrived home in a miserable frame of mind, aware that he was in no way prepared to enter upon intimate relations with Richmond Rycombe or anyone else, and that little could be more ill-advised than to do so merely because he was angry with Tristan. Still, he would be damned if he apologised, or even took the first step towards repairing the morning's unpleasantness. Tristan had turned cold and uncivil through no perceptible cause, and he could damned well explain himself, and count himself lucky if John heard him out.

By the time Tristan's apology came at about four o'clock the following afternoon, John was in as fine a state of anxiety, doubt, and stubborn pride as he had ever been. Each hour that had gone by with no word had made him stiffer and more unyielding, until he scarcely had the use of the muscles in his neck and shoulders. Tristan did not come to beg pardon in person--a wise decision, John was later able to concede--but sent a note by the hand of his undergroom.

John winced with pain to turn his head and see who knocked at the door, and he experienced another sharp twinge, this one in his right shoulder, upon reaching to receive the sealed missive from Marchbanks. He broke the wafer and took out a single folded sheet.

Forgive me, dear John. I am a lout. Ben has instructions to wait as long as need be for your answer, so if you do not wish to feed him dinner, please at least indicate which of the following statements most nearly expresses your views by placing an X next to it, and send this back with him.

Send it soon. You know how impatient I am.

There followed an elaborate flourish, after which, in a painfully neat hand, Tristan had written:

1. I forgive your Lordship because your Lordship has never been quite so loutish with me before and I dare to hope that you will not be again.

2. I forgive you, Viscount Penrith, because I know that you value my friendship above all things and would not wish to go many days without it.

3. I forgive you, sir, because I am becoming very bored with my own society.

4. I forgive you, Penrith, because if I do not, I shall fret myself into a distempered freak and become ill.

5. I forgive you, my dear Tristan, and shall come and dine with you at the George in Southwark on Friday, 26th March, at at seven o'clock.

John gave a strained laugh, his exasperation and relief tinged with some stronger sentiment that constricted his throat and caused his eyes to prickle just a little. He marked an X next to each of Tristan's ridiculous statements, sealed the note carefully back in its cover and, when he had composed himself, carried it out to Ben, who sat waiting on the floor in the hallway.

He was eating an early dinner two hours later when he noticed that his neck no longer hurt him at all.

***

Charles Murray did not show his face again in Half Moon Street until the twenty-fifth of March. When Stephens brought him into the library, he was looking rather pale, and appeared to stand in need of a good night's rest and a bath, but he was not in any evident state of inebriety. Penrith was glad, on the whole, that Murray was not drunk, for he suspected that sobriety was uncomfortable for him, and he wanted Murray unsettled.

"You have removed, I believe, to Spitalfields now," Penrith said as soon as Murray had come in. "That cannot be easy for Mrs Murray."

If Murray was astonished at Penrith's knowledge, he did not show it, but only scowled. "If it is difficult for a woman of her background, only imagine what it is to me!"

"I cannot," Penrith said truthfully. "Do not suppose me entirely unsympathetic, Murray. I am very sorry indeed for your circumstances. I would have thought that the considerable sum you extorted from me in September would have staved off such a pass."

"Oh, what do you know of pounds and pence, my lord?" Murray said in a sarcastic whine that told Penrith just what a position of weakness Murray was in.

Penrith no intention of ceding an inch of ground to Murray today, either through carelessness or through misplaced sympathy, so he answered, "More than you might think. I took the trouble to inform myself of the value that twelve hundred pounds would have to a person of modest habits. You may imagine my surprise when I learnt--from my attorneys, you understand--that many very respectable families live in London upon that sum for a year. A great many more people, I discovered, work very hard to get such a sum over the course of their entire lives."

"Dear God, Tristan! Do not lecture me on economy."

"Oh, I would not presume to do so!" Penrith assured him. "Indeed, now that all but your largest debts have been discharged, I have no need to do so. You may not know how to practice economies, but evidently Mrs Murray does."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Murray muttered.

Penrith took out his memorandum book. "On Christmas Eve, Mrs Murray paid all that was owing to...let me see...your tailor, her mantua-maker and two milliners, and various other merchants in Bond Street and Savile Row." Penrith turned over a leaf in his book. "She was able to pay about half of what you owed in rent on both of your previous residences, and that interest is accumulating on the balance in both cases."

Penrith glanced up to see Murray staring at him in angry incredulity. He pressed on. "To that charming moneylender in Cheapside whose name I failed to write down, Mrs Murray was able to give a sum large enough to postpone--only for the time being, of course--any little actions he might have had in train designed to encourage immediate payment."

Penrith saw Murray glance at the decanter of brandy on his side table.

"Please convey my compliments to your wife, by the way. I have seldom met a more resolute woman. Will you turn over your next blackmail payment to her, I wonder? It was very clever of you to do so in December."

"She stole it from me!" Murray was moved to exclaim.

Penrith had to remind himself to be on his guard, for he was beginning to enjoy himself. "Very ungentlemanly of you to shout at her about it, and at Christmas, Charles. Really! All of your neighbours in Thrawl Street now know that you drank and gambled away her entire nest-egg, and they do not think well of you for it."

Murray's eyes were wide with astonishment and chagrin now, and Penrith silently thanked the unremarkable little man, recommended by his banker, whose discreet investigations had put him in possession of all of this detailed intelligence. "Your most pressing concern is Mr--oh, what is that moneylender's name? Bright? That is it--Mr Bright! I am sure that by now he has renewed his demands for payment, for, like all of your neighbours in Spitalfields, he has probably heard the strange rumour that you get a 'quarterly allowance.' I believe you still owe him five or six hundred pounds."

Murray was looking positively wretched, and Tristan decided to play his most risky card. He had thought long and carefully to remember all of the occasions at Ravensworth upon which John might have taken sketches of an indiscreet nature, and six was the number he had settled upon; of these, he was already in possession of two. "I can help you," he said. "I shall, however, require in exchange the return of all four of the remaining drawings at once."

Without the slightest hesitation, and indeed, with a look of some dismay, Murray said, "That is not what we agreed, Tristan." He looked again at the decanter, licked his lips, and said, "I can still take them to Fleet Street."

"Fleet Street cannot sell enough newspapers in a twelvemonth to justify the sum you can get of me tomorrow." Tristan felt almost exhilarated. His calculation had been correct: there were four drawings left. To keep Murray off-balance, he held up a hand and went quickly on. "And if you think to act upon that other feeble threat of yours by making the pictures known to a certain clergyman in Hampshire, you may put it out of your mind. That man would be unable to pay you anything."

Tristan was intrigued to see Murray rise, go to the decanter, and, without request or leave, serve himself a large measure of brandy. His fascination paled into a sort of horror, however, to observe the shaking of Murray's hand as he poured. "Good God, Charles," he said faintly.

Murray turned to him with a wholly unconvincing look of challenge, but did not have the temerity to say anything. He drank the brandy.

"Take my offer," Tristan said. "You will not get a better."

Murray poured and drained a second glass of brandy and drew the back of his hand across his lips. Then he shrugged and said, "Very well. You may have them for two thousand pounds."

Tristan had done the arithmetic a hundred times; a hundred variations upon the theme of Charles' extortionate greed had been scribbled out upon a hundred scraps of paper, each thrown into the fire. Tristan had consulted his banker to understand what the payment of this sum or that, at this date or another, would cost him in interest if taken out of the Exchange, or save him if left there. He was glad now that he had done so, for he knew with a high degree of precision what he could afford to pay to protect his name and John's without ruining his estate, and two thousand pounds, while certainly requiring some fresh economies on his part--forfeiting a new pair of matched greys, for example, and the new phaeton he had envisioned them to be pulling--did not approach the limit of his resources.

Murray could not know that, however, and Tristan said, "You have a very exaggerated idea of my worth if you think I can lay my hands upon such a sum."

A dubious look crossed Murray's face, and for one brief moment Tristan dared to hope that he might escape the matter at a lower price, but Murray quickly covered his doubt with belligerence, leaning towards Tristan in some attempt at a threatening posture. "Find it, my lord," he said. He moved towards the library door, and as he did so, he cast a hateful glance at the splendid portrait that dominated the room. "Find it. I shall return in two days' time."

When Murray had gone, Tristan sat staring into nothingness for a long moment. It is over, he thought. At last, this disaster is at an end.

Chapter Text

London, April and May, 1819

Lady Penrith was making ready to leave her new house in Brook Street on a morning late in April, happily anticipating a brisk walk and the pleasant indulgence of showing off her becoming new bonnet, when her butler informed her that his lordship Viscount Penrith had called.

Charlotte found her brother-in-law in the drawing room. "This is a pleasant surprise, Tristan," she said, coming forward. "Why, I have not seen you in a fortnight. More!"

Tristan rose, tugging at his cuffs, rolling his shoulders, and giving every appearance of nervousness. "Good morning, Charlotte. It appears that I have mistaken your at-home day. I beg your pardon. I see that you are on your way out."

"It does not signify. I was only going for a walk. The park will wait for me." She looked closely at him. He appeared tired and anxious. Suppressing a sigh--for she could see from his mood that his visit was likely to detain her from her outing for some time--she turned to her butler said, "Will you bring us some tea, please, Martindale?"

Tristan enquired politely about her satisfaction with the house, and about Mr Caine, who was in Ireland upon family business, and said all that was proper about the coming wedding, and the prospects for fine weather on the day in June when Charlotte was to make Caine the happiest of men. Charlotte would have welcomed the chance to talk more upon this delightful topic, but Tristan sat chewing on the inside of one cheek, and despite the characteristically casual position he had assumed, one foot made spasmodic little jerks that spoke eloquently of suppressed emotion.

"I beg your pardon, Charlotte," he said after a moment, rising from his chair. "I ought not to have called today. I shall not keep you from your walk any longer."

Charlotte held out a hand. "What is amiss, Tristan?"

He shrugged and seemed disinclined to answer, but the pause in his leave-taking told Charlotte that he did not wish to go. Finally he replied, "Nothing that has not been amiss for several months."

She could not keep the dismay from her voice. "What--? My dear!" she cried. "Your blackmailer persists? You have not yet resolved the matter?"

"I--no, not...not quite. Not yet." Tristan looked away, biting his lips.

"Have you told Mr Acklebury?" she asked. His silence provided the answer. "Oh, Tristan, why do you not tell him? He is responsible for your present difficulty. If I were in his place, I should wish to know."

Very softly, he said, "You are not in his place, Charlotte, and he is certainly not responsible for my present difficulty. The situation is no longer--I could not control it, Charlotte. Things are so very much worse than they were." He sank back into his chair.

"What? What do you mean? What has happened?" When he did not answer at once, Charlotte drew a footstool up so that she might sit nearer and put a hand on his arm.

After a time, he began to speak. He made several false starts and embarked upon a somewhat confused discourse involving a man he had hired to spy on Murray. There was something about Murray's drunkenness, and a point at which Murray's wife seemed to have paid off his debts. Charlotte did not interrupt with questions, and only waited for him to come to the burden of his tale.

"I ascertained the number of remaining drawings to be four," he said at last, "and I deduced that Charles was desperate and careless enough to agree to sell them all back to me at once. He was." Tristan's voice became colourless. "He came back the next morning with only three."

"What? Oh, no," Charlotte murmured.

"I told him that of course I would not give him a penny until I had all four pictures in my hands."

Charlotte cried, "I should think not indeed! And you did not, did you?"

Tristan sat looking down at his hands as they hung limply between his knees. "He said that he would take the last one, the worst--the most revealing--to my father. He said his lordship would give a good deal to conceal from the world that his heir is a filthy sodomite."

Charlotte felt herself blanch at such language.

"I told him that the Earl of Barringford did not care a farthing for my reputation, for he has always hated me. Then he said that he would keep the drawing for his own--his own private purposes, and expose me to the world as a--as a bastard."

Tristan was too wrapped up in his misery to see that he discomfited her with his shocking words. The defeat in his face when he looked at her was painful to see, as was the flush of evident shame that rose to his cheeks. He glanced away again and said, "I perceive that I do not astonish you."

"No." It was an unvarnished answer, but Charlotte could find no words that would soften it.

"How did you know?"

"Lady Barringford told me one day last year. It was on the fifth anniversary of David's death. She was not herself. She had taken a little too much of her medicine, you see. I feel sure she would not have spoken of it otherwise."

Tristan's shoulders slumped further, as if there were a great weight pressing on the back of his neck. "Did David know?" he whispered.

"I believe he must have guessed at the truth."

"Why did he never speak of it to me? I ought to have known long before I did."

"We shall never know, my dear," Charlotte said, as gently as she could. "I can only suppose him to have been perpetuating the secrecy that he learnt at his mother's knee. "

Tristan nodded miserably.

"I must ask you, though: how did Mr Murray learn of it? You did not tell him, when you and he--?"

"No! No. He worked it out for himself. He knew before I did. He was with me in Vienna when my--my natural father made himself known to me. Baron Patocki: that is what he is called." Tristan's eyes flared with sarcasm and in mocking tones he said, "He wanted to be remembered to my beautiful mama. He talked of balls and parties where he had danced with her during some Prussian embassy to London in 1794. Dancing." He laughed bitterly.

Charlotte listened, conscious of a desire to be away, to place herself in her dear Christopher's care, to tell him everything and beg him to take her far from this troubled family.

"Charles remarked the pointed way in which Patocki mentioned the date, and the particular interest he showed in me. It was Charles who saw a resemblance between us," Tristan said. "I certainly did not. Patocki was just an old Lithuanian baron with a strong accent and a foreign manner of dress. I saw only his outmoded white wig and his buckled shoes."

Tristan thrust his hands into his hair and sat shaking his head, remembering. He did not meet Charlotte's eye as he continued. "He came back again a few days later and I happened to get a glimpse of myself in a mirror as he stood next to me. The likeness was so startling--well, I became persuaded. It explained a great deal about my life, and I did not care then that the truth should cost me my title, for I did not want it. Charles thought it a great joke, but he swore that he would never speak of it, and I believed him." Suddenly agitated, Tristan rose and took three or four steps across the room.

Anything Charlotte might have wished to say about the young Viscount Penrith's very poor taste in friends had been said long ago; to point out that his youthful sins were coming home to roost now would be merely unkind. She arranged her skirts, waiting, then touched the bonnet that she longed to don, and drew her hand back.

Tristan pinched at the bridge of his nose as if he would stop all emotion that way. After a moment he looked at her again. "God, Charlotte! What am I to do? Charles will come forward with what he knows. The Crown will give my title to my father's cousin. Ravensworth, the townhouse, everything, it would all be taken from me! I have already given him four thousand pounds for his silence, and I do not know where it will end."

She was so thunderstruck to hear the sum named that she sprang insensibly to her feet with her hand at her throat. "Good heavens, Tristan! You have paid him the money? So much?"

"I had no choice!" Tristan cried. Then he stilled himself with apparent effort and repeated, much more softly, "I had no choice. I will lose everything, Charlotte. I will lose John."

Charlotte abruptly ran out of patience. "You overstate the case, brother," she said. "You are distraught; I can see that you are, but it will not do!" She reached up to place her hands on his shoulders, and gave him a small shake, without regard to delicacy. "You are a man, Tristan, and David's brother. I cannot bear to see you dishonour his memory by giving in so helplessly to such a--such a low person as Charles Murray."

She took a breath and moderated her tone, choosing her next words carefully. "I am soon to relinquish the Jarrett name," she said, "and so I shall say what I could not say before: this family has too many secrets. If you cannot see the unwholesome pattern that you perpetuate by keeping a secret from someone you claim to--to love, then I have greatly overestimated your understanding."

Tristan's expression grew wary--almost afraid, Charlotte thought--and he said, "Some things cannot be told."

"Perhaps. But some, remaining unspoken, fester in darkness and destroy what is good. Talk to Mr Acklebury," she urged. "You demean him by your secrecy. You remove from him the possibility of choice that must be every man's right. He must be allowed to decide for himself how he will act." She took both of Tristan's big hands in hers and shook them, imploring.

Tristan's eyes were growing moist as he looked down at her. He blinked rapidly. "I only wished to shield him," he said, almost in a whisper.

"I know." Charlotte imagined that Mr Acklebury, if he were half so attached to Tristan as Tristan was to him, would wish to do right thing, the honourable thing. "I know," she said again, "but it is not your duty to do so. You must speak to him."

Tristan made no farther argument, and seemed to grow up again before her eyes, resolutely squaring his shoulders and straightening his back. He nodded tightly and said, "You are quite right. Thank you, Charlotte." He bent to embrace her, and though she was sure he made a sad crush of the rosettes on the front of her walking dress, she did not cavil at it, for she thought it unlikely that they would ever again embrace as brother and sister.

He took his leave of her with a calm, civil word before turning and striding from the room as one who walked bravely to his doom. When he had gone, she called to mind the fading image of her first love, and with a little smile murmured, "Well, David. I have done all that I can. I think you would be proud of him." She picked up her bonnet and went out into the hall, where her maid was waiting.

"I am ready to go out now, Jarvis," she said.

"Very good, my lady."

***

Tristan sent a note to John immediately, begging the favour of his company that night. Two hours elapsed before his footman returned with John's hastily-written reply, in which John regretted that he was engaged to dine with the Elams and could not oblige Tristan in his wish, and enquired whether tomorrow night might serve.

In the event, it was three days before they were both free, and in that time, some of the force of Charlotte's words was lost. The appointed evening being mild and full of the early promise of summer, Tristan asked his cook to provide a simple meal of cold meat and ale, and he and John partook of it at the card table in the drawing room. When the covers were cleared away, they played cards over glasses of good cognac, John speaking of a brief visit he was shortly to make to his uncle in Brighton, and Tristan reminiscing about some of the seaside towns he had visited. They indulged in a little mild gossip about the Prince Regent and his mistresses, and, the evening passing in such quiet companionship as they had hardly ever been able to enjoy since Ravensworth, Tristan decided that tomorrow would be soon enough to to bring up the subject which he knew must erase the contented look from John's face.

"You have not been sleeping, have you?" John asked him as they made ready to retire together in Tristan's bedroom. "You are not in spirits."

Tristan was putting his ring into the tray on his dressing table and was surprised to find John's hands on his shoulders, gently turning him around. John looked into his face with a worried expression and said, "I hardly know what occupies your days any longer, Tris, and we have not seen very much of one another lately. Something seems to be troubling you. I collect that you don't care to talk about it, but I wish you will tell me."

"It is nothing," Tristan said, managing a smile and taking John's hand to pull him towards the bed. "But I do sleep better when you are here. The night has grown chilly. Come and make a bed fortress with me."

"A what?"

"A bed fortress. Did you never imagine your bed to be a castle when you were a boy?"

John's bewildered look gave way to one of slight embarrassment, but he raised a forefinger and said, "Ah. You mean a ship. HMS Counterpane."

Satisfied that he had turned John's attention from any farther enquiry into his worried state, Tristan laughed and said, "HMS Counterpane? Not the Queen Anne's Revenge?"

"No!" John cried. "I was a valiant sea-captain, not Blackbeard the Pirate!" He considered a moment. "Meg was the pirate. We slew each other regularly."

"Oh, well, that is acceptable, then."

A breeze at the open window stirred the heavy drapes, and John went to close the casement. Tristan lifted the bed covers high and leapt under them, and as they settled again about him he said, "I'm afraid you will have to board me, Captain."

John gave a snort of laughter and got into bed with him. "I dare not ask about firing a shot across your bows."

"That would be a sad waste of balls."

"Oh, dear God." John settled against him.

"John," Tristan began.

"Mm?"

"I wonder if we might change places." His own words surprised him, for he had had no conscious thought of them until that moment.

"Certainly," John replied, promptly raising himself and beginning to climb over Tristan in the bed. "You usually like to be nearer the door, but it makes no difference to me." Tristan took hold of his hips and stopped him halfway.

"I meant something else, John."

John stared down at him, stilling as understanding dawned. "You wish me to--? Are you sure?"

"If you do not dislike the idea, then yes, I am very sure."

"I do not dislike it, not in the least, but--" John gave a puzzled little smile.

"I am tired, it is true," Tristan told him. He was on the edge of confessing more, and checked his words. Tomorrow, in the daylight, he told himself: that would be a more propitious circumstance in which to reveal dark truths. He took John's face between his hands. "I want you, very much. I have been so lonely for the time we had at Ravensworth, before--before we both were so busy. I want it to be simple again, John. I have too much on my mind. I want...I want to forget everything and just sleep. I want you to help me forget."

John gazed down at him, searching his face. Tristan could see the questions in his eyes: Why do you wish this now? and What is going on? and How shall I proceed? but he voiced none of them, and after a long moment, his visage cleared. He smiled a slight, tender smile and said, "Sit up and take off your nightshirt." When Tristan had done this, John drew the covers back up over both of them and said, "There we are. Are you warm enough?"

Tristan nodded.

"Lie on your side, Tris."

Tristan closed his eyes and curled on his side, his knees drawn up.

"There. I shall take good care of you."

He felt John's hands upon his back, and heard John's voice murmuring little soothing phrases as he made ready to assume a role in their relations that he had not yet played. John did not once ask him for assurance or guidance; he did not enquire about Tristan's preferences or his experiences as the recipient of another man's ardour. He gently took each step in its turn, reaching for the bottle of oil Tristan kept in his bedside table, coaxing Tristan to relaxation and openness with his fingers exactly as Tristan usually did for him.

John's gentle movements and quiet breathing betrayed nothing but tenderness, and Tristan had begun to wonder whether his solicitude left room for any warmer feelings, when he felt John's firm member against the back of his thigh and heard a slight catch in John's breath. John's hand came up to his neck and coaxed Tristan to twist towards him for a kiss. "Bring your knees up a little more, Tris," he said, guiding this action with the hand that was not gently cradling his nape. "There. That's good."

Tristan was surprised at the ease of it when John penetrated him. He felt more curious than ardent at first, and did not mind that his curled-up posture made it difficult for his own satisfaction to be easily be attended to, for he was not aroused. John's gasp of astonished pleasure pleased him, and he tried to make his body as completely available to him as their comfortable position allowed. John's gentleness began to give way to increased urgency, his quiet murmurs to groans that seemed to be drawn up from his depths. Tristan felt a stirring of desire as the sensations and sounds of John losing control of himself mounted to their climax.

In the throes of his release, John's hand gripped his hip so tightly that Tristan was sure he would be bruised in the morning; no sooner had John spent himself, however, than he was gentle again, patting and smoothing Tristan's skin and kissing his neck and jaw between panting breaths. His questing hand soon discovered Tristan's state of partial arousal, and with an appreciative sound, he began working it. Tristan hooked his leg back over John's thigh so as to give John's hand room to move, but did not otherwise change position, enjoying the sensation of John, strong and warm at his back, taking care of everything.

"Well, what do you think of it?" he asked John after a time.

John shifted against him with a sigh of pleasure. "I think I might like to do it again sometime. What did you think of it?"

"Much the same," Tristan answered. "I have not often done it. I have never cared for it before, but I begin to change my mind." He was feeling very sleepy, and moved languidly into John's hand. "You are better to me than I deserve," he murmured, drifting. He thought he heard a soft laugh from John and supposed that he must have begun snoring. "Forgive me, John."

"Sleep," John whispered. He left off his stroking, and Tristan felt a warm kiss just under his ear. As he lost his hold on consciousness he heard John say, "Goodnight, my love," but sleep claimed him before he could reply.

The difficult conversation which Tristan had put off in the evening did not take place the following morning, either. He slept well, and woke to find John already dressed and preparing to leave. "I am going by post to Brighton this afternoon, and I have a great deal to do," John said. He sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on Tristan's cheek. "I wish we might have more time together."

Tristan grasped his hand and held it, saying nothing, and hoping that the love he felt for John was apparent in his eyes, for he could not speak it. John leant down and kissed his forehead. "I shall not be gone above a week."

"I shall miss you."

John looked at him quizzically, as if he thought Tristan were being ironical, and when Tristan did not laugh or smile, but only pulled him down for a more satisfactory kiss upon the lips, John's cheeks flushed with pleasure.

***

John was all but bouncing on the balls of his feet when he next appeared in Half Moon Street at the end of the following week. He came striding up from the direction of Curzon Street just as Tristan was handing Lucifer's reins to his groom after his morning's ride, and it was clear to Tristan that he had some good news to impart. Tristan swallowed the nervousness that surged up at John's approach, and promised himself that he would broach the difficult subject of his blackmail just as soon as John had had his say.

"I have a royal commission!" John burst out as soon as they were alone in the library.

Tristan stared, and hoped that John saw only his pleased surprise. "Indeed?"

John nodded, his eyes wide and alight. "Yes! It was at Brighton. My uncle Martin, very much to my astonishment, knows Prinney. Not well, you understand, but he has been in that set of men on and off over the years. Well, His Royal Highness was in Brighton, and I was introduced to him. Imagine that! I! One thing led to another, and now I am to paint the Duchess of Kent and her child."

Surprised at this unlooked-for elevation in John's fortunes, and not entirely easy with it, Tristan spread his arms wide, and John came within their compass before he could perceive any falseness in Tristan's smile. Tristan embraced him hard, saying, "Congratulations!" and nearly lifting him off his feet. John only laughed.

Tristan remembered Charlotte's words--indeed, he had thought of little else during the dark, sleepless hours of recent nights--but John was not often so unreservedly happy, and Tristan could not bring himself to spoil such a moment; not when John's embrace was so melting, his kiss so open and delicious, his heart so trustingly on display.

He knew he must speak soon, however, for little could be more damaging to John than to accept a commission from the Duchess of Kent, who was known as a high stickler with a positively Gothic set of morals, and then have it withdrawn because of the scandal that John did not even know hung over his head. Better never to have accepted such a commission; better never to reach so high.

When they had restored themselves to order, Tristan said, "I did not know that Kent's wife had given birth. You do know, don't you, that she speaks almost no English? How is your German?"

"I haven't above a dozen words, but I imagine she will provide an interpreter. Or I could do so--do you think I ought to do so? No, that would be improper--" John waved this little difficulty away. "Well, I mustn't put the cart before the horse, for to answer your other question, no, she has not yet given birth, though it is expected every day. If Her Highness is blessed with a healthy baby, she wishes a portrait in the autumn, when the little prince or princess will be a few months old. She saw my picture of the Carr children and decided on the spot, apparently, to have a portrait of her own child."

Despite the risk such a public commission would expose John to, Tristan could not but feel proud of him. "Well!" he said. "We must celebrate."

"I am already celebrating," John replied with a warm smile at him. "I am here."

John's modesty prevented his exulting about the brilliant opportunity before him, but he was overflowing with it. Tristan let him talk, and listened to the uncharacteristic torrent of words that poured from him. What would Maestro Fiorio think to learn that Ecco Labri was climbing almost to the rung of prestige occupied by Sir Thomas Lawrence? Ought John to write and tell him of it? Would it not be the oddest thing in the world if John were to be knighted one day himself? "Then I should be Sir John. Sir John!" He laughed in delight at the prospect. "That would be very amusing."

Tristan could scarcely bear to accept John's warmth or his generous, unsuspecting smile, and felt himself growing more tense.

After John had considered the effect that his knighting would have upon various family members and old friends, he seemed to notice that Tristan did not enter into the playful spirit which his good fortune ought to have engendered. He tilted his head a little to one side, and with a faintly amused look in his green eyes, he said, "What is the matter, Tristan?"

Tristan gave up all pretence of enjoying the conversation. "Will you sit, please, John? I must--" and he could force no more words out, for a cold hand seemed to grip his heart, and he did not think he could hide his nervous state from John's view any longer.

"What is it, Tristan? What has happened? Is it--your mother? your father? Not Lady Penrith!" John said, as Tristan could do nothing but shake his head in negation of each of these guesses. "You ought never to have let me go on and on as I did. Do you need--?"

"No, John." Tristan took a deep breath and felt composure slowly returning. "No, do not call anyone. I am not ill. Nobody has died." He looked at the carpet between his feet for a long moment. All the words he had rehearsed, he saw now, were wrong: self-serving and defensive and shallow. He rose again from the chair and took John into his arms.

"I love you," he whispered into John's hair.

"I know."

"Do you? Do you know?"

John drew back and looked at him with a quizzical expression, his eyes moving back and forth on Tristan's face, searching. "Yes," he said simply. "Will you please tell me what the matter is?"

Tristan pulled John close, enveloped him in his arms again so that John would not see the weakening of his self-control. As Tristan held him, all of John's earlier warmth and pliancy palpably drained away, to be replaced by a wary rigidity. Tristan took a deep breath, summoned his courage, and drew back, forcing himself to look John in the eye. "I have been concealing something from you," he said. "I am sorry. It is very bad."

***

John's shock at learning what Tristan had been withholding from him for nearly nine months kept him silent throughout Tristan's miserable recital. He was not aware of having risen to pace about the library until he found himself standing before his portrait of Tristan, staring unseeing at its magnificence.

When Tristan at last fell silent and waited for him to speak, John could not find the words by which he might begin to express a coherent thought. Into the lengthening silence, Tristan said in a voice that was strangely timid, "I ought to have spoken much sooner."

It was enough. John whirled to face him and cried, "Do you think so indeed? Tristan! I have been--" he broke off. "My God, Tristan! Did you never consider that I might be willing to risk exposure? That I might wish you to prosecute Murray? That I, too, might have a stake in wishing his crime to be punished? That I might wish to protect you?"

"I did not wish it to be your problem."

"Well, it is my problem! Good God, it is now even my uncle's problem. He introduced me to the Prince Regent! Do you think him likely to have risked his own reputation in that way if he had known that scandal was likely to surround me?"

Tristan sat with his elbows on his knees and the fingertips of both hands pressing into his forehead and cheeks, caging his downcast face. John felt no desire to approach him. The many strong sentiments roiling within him were coalescing now, dividing him from Tristan as surely as if a wall stood between them.

"And the money! You have doled out sums on my behalf that I cannot hope to repay in a lifetime. What am I to think? What must be your opinion of my intelligence? Do you think me so light-minded--so weak--as to be unable to help solve the problem that I created?" John took a step farther away. "I thought myself your equal, at least insofar as our private friendship is concerned. I did not think that your--your superior rank entitled you to withhold from me what so nearly concerns me! I thought I was your friend."

On these words he fell silent, unable to continue. His breathing was laboured and his mouth dry. He went to the sideboard and poured water for himself, only to find that his hands shook and made the pitcher rattle against the rim of the glass. The self-control required to set the glass down quietly and not fling it across the room gave him just enough presence of mind to pause, to breathe, to think. Tristan's shoulders, he noticed, had risen higher, as if he would hide between them. "Tristan," he said, making an effort to soften his tone. "Please, look at me."

Tristan slowly raised his head. His expression was full of pain and remorse, and in his eyes John glimpsed something of what he must have been enduring for the better part of a year. "I am angry, and I do not wish to speak in anger. Indeed, I do not wish to be angry with you at all. I did not know that I could be."

Tristan huffed out a small, bitter laugh.

"I do not hate you. You know I do not, but I need a few days to consider all that you have told me," John went on. Something in Tristan's posture seemed to relax slightly. "I must seek counsel. I must tell my uncle--I must go. I shall forgive you eventually, for I am foolish that way, but I must...I must go."

John waited only long enough for Tristan's slight, silent nod of acknowledgement, then let himself out of the library, out of the house, and into Half Moon Street.

Chapter Text

tris hugs john drawing room

London and Ravensworth, May to August, 1819

Hasty preparations and a precipitate flight from London heightened John's overwrought state, and, as the carriage ride to Brighton left him nothing to do but to dwell with increasing dismay upon all that Tristan had told him, he found such terrible phrases as "Murray somehow obtained those drawings," and "He threatened to take them to your father," and "I only wanted to shield you" repeating themselves endlessly in his mind for the first half of the journey.

The blame is entirely mine, he thought. I made the drawings, I did not secure them; my carelessness has brought Tristan to this pass. He could scarcely bring himself to consider the stunning sum of money that Tristan had laid out on his behalf.

During the second half of the five-hour drive, however, John began to remember the other part of Tristan's confession: that Murray was privy to a Jarrett family secret having nothing to do with John. At least half of the sum Tristan had named was to silence Murray upon that head, and not to protect himself and John from the accusation of sodomy. John could not fault Tristan for having kept that secret from him, for it was not entirely Tristan's to tell. On the contrary, John was sensible of a pang of guilt, for had he not guessed the truth from Tristan's fevered ravings a year ago? Tristan's true parentage was none of his concern, but in saying nothing of it, had he not also been guilty of keeping a secret?

As the carriage rattled south through Sussex, John considered carefully for the first time what Tristan's illegitimate birth might mean. It did not signify with John, except insofar as it was important to Tristan. Did Tristan think he would lose John over it? Did he suppose John so base as to abandon him if he no longer had a title and estates? John realised that he might have spared Tristan that doubt, at least, had he spoken sooner of knowing what Tristan had inadvertently revealed to him.

By the time he rapped upon the door of Uncle Martin's house in Marlborough Place at half past eleven o'clock, the anger and distress that had driven him to make this extravagant journey were much diminished, though he was by no means easy in his mind yet. He was relieved to find his uncle still up and not displeased to see him.

"Johnny, m'boy!" Uncle Martin said in amused surprise when John was announced. "I would swear that I put you in a coach back to London yesterday. What? Not had enough sea air? Or perhaps you have discovered the society of a couple of old gentlemen to be wonderfully salutary."

"Old? Speak for yourself, Acklebury," Mr Braithwaite said from his wing-back chair near the fire.

"Good evening, Mr Braithwaite," John said with a small bow. "I beg your pardon, Uncle, but there is a matter that would not wait for the post. I hired a carriage and came back instantly. I hope I may stay the night." He looked about him at the comfortable drawing room. Braithwaite was in a dressing gown and sat with his feet propped up, a book open in his hands; his uncle was in his shirtsleeves, his cravat undone. "Forgive me, I beg you, Uncle Martin."

"Not at all, my boy," Martin said. He turned to his companion. "Albert, you must excuse us. It seems that young Johnny here is in a pickle and requires my advice. Are you in a pickle, Johnny?"

"I think it is safe to say that I am, yes," John answered.

Braithwaite left them in the drawing room with a look of affectionate exasperation, and Martin said, "Now then, my lad! What has brought you all the way back to Brighton in the middle of the night?"

After having spent five hours wondering how he would answer this very question, John suddenly decided against circumlocution. "Blackmail," he replied. Martin's eyes widened, but before he could say anything, John continued. "Anger. Desperation. Outrage. Shame. I do not know! I came mostly to warn you. If I had known sooner, I would never have allowed you to introduce me to the Prince Regent, for what must he think of you for doing so if the scandal is made public?"

Martin poured him a glass of port and urged him to drink it, then told him to start from the beginning, and for heaven's sake to calm himself.

John nodded, drank some of his port, and began again. "I think you know that Viscount Penrith is a very good friend of mine."

"It became apparent after the tenth time you mentioned him your first day here," Martin said drily. "Oh, do not ruffle your feathers. I think I have a fair notion of your friendship."

John felt himself reddening. "Well, I drew some pictures of him."

Uncle Martin cocked an eyebrow. He said nothing, but his expression was knowing, and rather more humorous than disapproving, so John told him the entire story as precisely as he could, excluding nothing except the specifics of Tristan's parentage, which was not his secret to divulge, and referring instead only to a private family matter. Uncle Martin asked a question from time to time, but for the most part listened intently. As he finished his story, John watched his uncle to judge his reaction.

Martin pursed out his lips and gazed at him for a long moment, clearly thinking over everything he had just heard. Finally he sighed, drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair two or three times, then rose and went to refill his glass.

"First of all," he said, "pray do not fret yourself to death over my reputation. It has survived far worse dangers than this scandal of yours that has not yet happened, believe me. His Royal Highness will have forgot you already, for though he likes a handsome face, he has a strong predilection to find a pair of ripe breasts below it." Martin returned to his chair, set his glass down, and began ticking items off on his fingers. "If you and Penrith together cannot contrive to avert scandal, if the Duchess of Kent gives birth safely, if she remembers her wish to have a portrait, and if she thinks it politic to follow the Regent's recommendation as to her portraitist, then we shall see whether there is any reason for you to decline the commission. There are a great many ifs. Do not act upon any of them unless you must: that is my advice to you. I shall certainly not do so."

John began to feel easier in the presence of his uncle's untroubled and philosophical attitude. "Yes, sir," he said. "I thank you, for I confess that I have been very worried about how to proceed on that score." He hesitated. "And what of Penrith's actions? Ought I to--?"

Martin cut him off, holding up a palm and shaking his head. "Oh no! Do not ask me for that sort of advice. That is between him and you. If you feel honour-bound to repay him, then you must come to some arrangement with him. I can perhaps increase your annuity a little, but the sum you mention is beyond my ability to defray."

"No! No, I did not intend--that is, no! The money is not at issue here, not with you, sir! Please do not imagine that I came to you for that reason." John was mortified to think of having given such an impression.

"No, I did not suppose you had. I beg your pardon, John." Martin sipped his port and, to John's very great gratification, appeared to muse seriously upon the matter for some moments. Suddenly his eyebrows came together in puzzlement and he said, "What is this Murray fellow's object?"

John blinked and gave him a quizzical look. "Why, money, naturally."

"You have said that his father is as rich as Golden Ball. Undoubtedly he is a good deal richer than Penrith; so many of these merchant fortunes are unbelievably vast. Why has he not found a way to extort something from his own family? That is what most such wastrels do. Why blackmail Penrith?"

"My drawings provided him the means to do so," John said patiently.

"No, no. Think, Johnny! This scoundrel followed Penrith to the north before the drawings existed. They may have provided the opportunity, but he was not in the neighbourhood by coincidence. He had some other motive for being there in the first place. Did he know of you?"

John remembered Murray introducing himself in the lane outside of Ravensworth that August day. "Yes, he seemed to."

Martin drummed his fingers again on the arm of his chair, and said, "I must meet this viscount of yours, John. Truly I must. Anyone who inspires such devotion in friends he has cast off must be remarkable indeed."

"I beg your pardon, sir? I do not quite see--"

"Your viscount would have done a great deal better to bugger the poor fellow once or twice for old times' sake and send him on his way, for I suspect that would have done the trick."

John's incredulity outweighed his shock at such language, and he cried, "What? You mean to say that you think Murray is acting from jealousy?"

"Resentment, jealousy, envy." Martin shrugged and then gave in to a yawn. "You think about that, dear boy. As to the rest: well, I can say only that I would not be so quick to take umbrage at Penrith's motives if I were in your shoes. What he is shielding you from is not what any man would wish to face. It says a vast deal about his character that he has not once considered disavowing your friendship. A lesser man, or a man less steady in his affection, might have cast you to the wolves. You think about that, too, Johnny."

Uncle Martin got to his feet with a small groan of stiffness, and John rose politely with him. "If you like, we will speak more of this tomorrow," he said. "I am going to bed."

John watched him go, then poured himself another glass of port. After a moment, he went to the writing table. He took out a pencil and began to draw Murray's face from memory with some idea of thus calling him more clearly to mind in order to consider Uncle Martin's unexpected notion.

As Murray's features took shape on the page, John remembered his single meeting with the man, and the misery it had caused him. He was ashamed now to think he had believed, even for an hour, Murray's taunting hints of an affair with Tristan that had never really ended, and an intimacy that surpassed anything Tristan shared with John.

Jealousy was foreign to John's nature, but it was jealousy that had finally made him act that day--made him storm back into the house, seize Tristan, and kiss him practically within view of a workman. He still derived pleasure from the memory of what had followed, for on that night he had done everything, given everything, and taken all in return, to secure Tristan to himself and make him forget Murray. It had been needless, of course; unforgettable, inevitable, and potent, but quite unnecessary. John had never been in any danger of losing Tristan to Charles Murray. He knew that now.

When had Murray discovered the same fact? When Tristan had refused him even the sop of money? When Tristan had struck him in the face for insulting John? Or when Murray had first set eyes on the private sketches? John let his pencil suggest the flattened bridge of Murray's nose, musing on the likelihood of its having been broken by another man's fist. Murray's insolence had probably invited blows to the face before.

He paused and looked at his drawing, and found to his surprise that it did not depict the handsome, glossy-hatted dandy he remembered, but a street tough, a boy from the workhouse, scrapping for status in a hard world. The idleness, the lazy style of speech, the elegant clothes: these were merely the veneer of excessive wealth, but money could not buy what this Charles Murray desired.

Dear God, John thought. My uncle is right. He stared at the picture for a long moment before tearing it up. He knew what he must do.

***

John commanded the hired carriage to let him down at Half Moon Street late the following day, and knocked at Tristan's door in his travel-rumpled clothes. A grim certainty motivated his actions, but it was brittle, and he knew that if the smallest thing should thwart him, he would lose his courage.

"There is a simple solution," he told Tristan the moment they were alone. "You must marry."

"What? No! Do not be absurd, John," Tristan said, as though John had made a feeble joke to which he had only lent half an ear.

John took hold of his arm. "You must listen to me, Tristan. Please."

"Why, what could I achieve by marrying?" he asked, then shrugged and muttered, "Other than misery for the poor young woman, and for myself?"

"And for me," John said quietly, then gathered himself and went on. "Tristan, do you not see? That is what Murray wants: your misery. Mine. He hates what we have. He tells himself that your money is what he needs, but it is not, for he could conform to his father's wishes enough to restore his place in his family if he tried. His object is to ruin your happiness as he has ruined his own. From everything you tell me of him, your happiness was never his object."

He had Tristan's serious attention now. Tristan shook his head vehemently, several times, and John watched his face as he moved from denial to consideration. He saw the moment when Tristan began to accept that John truly was showing him a way out of his predicament.

"My God, John. I--I do not know what to say. You are probably right in supposing that Charles wishes my misery. I have seen it myself. The last time he was here to collect his payment, it came to me that he hated me. He looked at my portrait as if he would slash it to ribbons. But marriage? It is true, I think I should be very unhappy in marriage, but my being so would not prevent his blackmail. Would it? Do you really suppose it might?"

John swallowed hard, then turned away before continuing. "Think of it, Tris: when you have a wife, it will establish you in the minds of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Liverpool as the right sort of man for the Foreign Secretary's cabinet. Your father--I mean, the Earl of Barringford--would have no reason to disavow you, and every reason to uphold the fiction that he is already guilty of perpetuating since your birth. Your mama would be protected from censure, or worse."

Tristan put his hands on John's shoulders, and John was compelled to look at him. His face had become drawn and pale, and his eyes were filled with pain, as if he could not longer disguise all of the troubles he had been hiding from John for so many months. "And what of you, John?"

I would die inside. "I would benefit, too, Tristan," he said, trying to sound practical. "If you are married, society must abandon its speculation about you and me, and, inasmuch as I can assure you that society will not see me with another such friend, I will soon be quite forgotten." John thought that if this conversation continued very much longer, he would suffer a nervous collapse. He was strained to the breaking point with the effort of remaining calm.

"John. John. There must be a better way."

"You cannot go on paying him, Tristan. I do not presume to know the extent of your fortune, but his wish to destroy you knows no bounds! Where will it end? When your entire fortune has been transferred to him to drink and gamble away? When he owns this house? Ravensworth? And to what end? My protection? Once you are married, and settled, and I am no longer much in evidence, you may prosecute him, and his accusations will be patently baseless, and...and all the world will see them as having been motivated only by malice and resentment."

"He will make my illegitimate birth known."

"He may try. He will not succeed unless Lord and Lady Barringford corroborate his story. Do you think they will do that? He has no proof, for none exists. At your brother's death, his lordship might have seen to it that the title passed to someone else, but he did not. He could not, Tristan. Even this foreign gentleman who appears to be your natural father makes no such claim--how should he? He can hardly come forward now. He has legitimate sons and a thousand reasons to remain silent. There is nobody who wishes your secret known except Murray, and Murray is not a credible person." John could see that his argument was beginning to convince Tristan, and wondered bitterly why he should suddenly find such persuasive eloquence on a subject he so ardently wished never to address.

Tristan said, "Then he will publish the last drawing."

John wanted to take a deep breath, to steady himself and buy a moment's thought, but there were bands of steel about his chest and he could not. Aware of little other than the sense of falling, of cartwheeling down a steep slope, he was surprised at the clarity of his own voice when he said, "What of it? You will say that it was a freak of mine--that the artist whom you befriended for a time, having...having painted you once in a state of disarray, took the liberty of imagining..." John's voice failed him and he could not continue.

"What? You cannot think that I would ever--no!" Tristan was gripping his shoulders now, wild and wide-eyed, and the too-bright adamancy in his voice told John that he had already considered the thing he was now protesting.

"No, I do not believe that you would do such a thing willingly. I am only saying that if you must, in order to preserve your inheritance and all the good you may do with it, you would have my permission to do so. At worst, it would make me seem lascivious and rather foolish, but not criminal."

"But I do not wish to marry! I do not wish to tell lies about you."

"Please, Tristan. Please, I am--" John halted. "It is too much. Do not ask me to reconsider, for I will. I will, and we will both regret it forever. We could never have lived together! What have we before us?" John swallowed and willed himself to continue. "Summers at Ravensworth? For how long? And stolen nights at coaching inns? How many more times could we have expected to go unrecognised at the George in Southwark? How many more times can I creep away from your house in the morning without being seen?"

"A few more, at least," Tristan said in tones almost of pleading. His eyes were full of sorrow as he enveloped John in his large embrace, and John knew that he had won the argument, and lost everything. He wanted to stop time, turn them both to stone so that this moment would never end. With a sob, Tristan said, "I cannot bear to lose you, John."

"You will never lose me," John said softly. "Never in my heart."

"Never at all! Do not say that I must ever renounce you altogether, for I will not."

John knew he ought to say so--ought to speak the words and walk away forever, as honour demanded--but he was not strong enough. He threw his arms about Tristan's neck and clung there as for his life, tears spilling from his tightly-closed eyes, and was silent.

***

April, with its sprinkling of dinners and card-parties and small dances, gave way to the burgeoning social whirl of May, and the imperious Lady Anne Renshaw gave the first really elegant ball of the season on the eleventh. Tristan caught a glimpse of John across the Renshaws' ballroom, and, using the advantage of his superior height, managed to keep him in view while he made his way as courteously as he could through the throng of ball-goers.

John saw him, smiled, and excused himself from the knot of ladies who had gathered around him. When Tristan at last reached him, John bowed and said, "I thought you would never get here."

"I could not have made any better speed across this room without harming several young ladies."

"No, I mean I thought you would never arrive at Lady Anne's ball."

"Have you been reserving your waltzes for me?"

John gave him a look of fond annoyance. "I have not seen you in days, my lord. You look tired. Are you well?"

Tristan was tired; the effort of staying away from John, of making a new appearance in society, was taking a toll upon his spirits. "You would be astonished at the amount of work it is to get the ministers to consider giving one some work to do," he said. He leant just close enough to speak into John's ear without raising his voice--everyone did so at such a crowded ball. "I have missed you," he said, and drew away again immediately, as any gentleman would.

John leant sideways towards him and said, "I have missed you, too. How long do you intend to stay?"

"I must dance with Miss Lareton, or Lizzie will never speak to me again. Twice will suffice, I think."

John's smile faltered. He directed his bemused expression not at Tristan, but out into the room. Still looking at something--an innocuous pillar halfway around the room, Tristan thought--he nodded, and by silent mutual consent, they bowed very slightly to each other and went their separate ways, John to disappear into another knot of ladies, and Tristan to seek out Miss Lareton.

She was a little more polished and self-assured now than she had been in her first season, and had learnt to smile just enough to prevent Tristan from wondering whether he still frightened her. She was once again under the wing of Lizzie Danforth, who looked on with great approval now as he bowed over Miss Lareton's hand and expressed his wish to redeem her promise of a dance. The words of his solicitor, Mr Morton, were always in his mind these days--Morton, and old Sir John Bertram, and even David from so long ago: it was necessary to seem to be something that society approved; necessary, and not so very difficult, so long as he did not think too deeply about its effect upon the Miss Laretons of the world.

He and John took places in separate figures of the country dance, and when a waltz was next struck up, Tristan spotted John whirling a pretty, buxom dark-haired young lady away from where he and Miss Lareton were coming back out onto the floor. No, it was not so very difficult.

When Tristan at last made his excuses to Lady Anne, he found John already outside among those waiting for carriages to be brought forward. They nodded civilly to one another, and when Tristan's landau came into view, John walked off along Mount Street without a word.

A few minutes later, when the carriage had rounded the corner and gone out of view of the Renshaws' house and guests, Tristan ordered his coachman to stop. The door opened and John got in, and for the remainder of the short journey to Half Moon Street, four words made up the whole of their conversation. "Can you stay?" Tristan asked, and John said, "Yes."

***

Barringford House
Barringford, Cumberland
2nd June 1819

Penrith,

I am in receipt of an impudent letter from a friend of yours, stating that he has certain knowledge of a matter closely touching the interests of the Jarrett family; a matter, moreover, which bears upon the succession that, had not your estimable and lamented brother David been taken from me by untimely death, would be no concern of yours, but through weakness, error, and calumny, it is.

The writer of the letter, whom I believe to be one of the despicable associates of your unseemly manner of living, threatens to reveal your true character and to trumpet at the same time that other matter, unless I pay him. The sum he demands for his blackmail is laughably high when considered as the price for saving you, your reputation, or your title, and though it is a shrewd guess at the value I place on mine, and on the family name, I will not pay it.

I have therefore undertaken to deal with his importunities by other means, and will do so upon conditions which I set out as follows:

Firstly, you will, for at least the period of my lifetime and that of your mother, remain silent upon the matter first alluded to here.

Secondly, you will, for the same period, desist from all such disgusting associations as the one which I believe gave this insolent counter-jumper the means in the first place to threaten the impeccable name of Jarrett. David's widow, before she, too, chose to cast off the honour of his name and title, assured me that you have been reformed, and though I do not believe it, I doubt not that you have been able to conceal your corrupt nature from her, and hoodwink her, and I expect you to do the same for all of society while I am on this earth to be ashamed if you do not.

Thirdly, you will offer for and secure the hand of a suitable young lady in marriage. I do not care who this unfortunate person may be, but I must and shall approve your choice and will not cavil to select a better for you if you err. Get an heir as soon as may be.

When I have your word and your proofs that you will meet all of my conditions, you will hear from me or my secretary again as to the disposition of the matter.

Barringford

***

Had Mrs Danforth's caller been any less a personage than Viscount Penrith, she might have refused him, for the preparations to leave Grosvenor Square for another dull summer at Highcliffe were reaching a fevered pitch, and she was neither dressed for callers nor inclined to polite morning conversation. She did receive him, however, and when, following the exchange of a few commonplace courtesies, he enquired after Miss Lareton, she was amazed, and began to entertain a thrilling suspicion.

"What is her father's name?"

"It is Sir Rutherford Lareton," Lizzie said, delighted. "Why, Tristan! Do you intend to pay your addresses to Alexandra?"

"If you think she will not object," he answered. Without waiting for her reply, he said, "Is he a baronet or a knight?"

"A knight."

"Well, then he can have no objection."

"No father in his senses could have any objection to you, Penrith."

Tristan raised a sardonic eyebrow, and Lizzie regarded him for a long moment. Could he have decided to mend his ways at last? Could Alexandra's beauty, her tall elegance, her reserved manner, finally have made him see reason? She had ceased regretting his disinterest in herself years ago, but she felt a pang of envy to think Alexandra might win this prize. She gave him a matronly pat on the knee and said, "She will make you an admirable wife, my dear."

"I have no doubt that she will try." Tristan abandoned his cool, sardonic air and leant forward earnestly. "I do not think that I will make an admirable husband, however. I am not fit for it."

"Nonsense! You are the heir to an earldom," Lizzie assured him. "She did not dream to go so high when I brought her out last year. She is of excellent family, and of course she is beautiful, but Sir Rutherford is not rich. Alexandra knows where her interests lie, and she is very sensible of her duty. She does not pine foolishly for a grand amour. Though I must say, she seems to like you very well."

"Does she? I thought her indifferent to me."

"Oh, no! She is not blind, Tristan. She thinks you very handsome and kind, and admires you excessively. Do not regard her reserve. She is only rather shy. It has made my job difficult, for several worthy young men have been warned off by what they perceive as her haughtiness. But you need not regard that!"

"I shall write to Sir Rutherford, then, before I leave for Ravensworth."

"What? Tristan! You are not purchasing a horse! If you are going to ask for Alexandra's hand, you must at least address yourself to her directly."

"But she has gone home to Warwickshire, and I leave for Ravensworth in a fortnight."

"Then you must stop in Warwickshire on your journey north, Penrith. Really!" Lizzie shook her head.

"Very well. What do you think I ought to say?"

Lizzie turned her eyes up and sighed. "Good God, Penrith. I do not know!"

"Well, what did General Danforth say to you?"

She remembered the moment with some fondness, for the General had been very sweet. "He said all that was proper and kind: that he was very happy in my society and no longer cared to contemplate a life without the felicity of my companionship; that I would be making him the happiest of men if I would do him the honour of accepting his proposal of marriage, etcetera, etcetera. Nor was he so foolish as to fail to mention Highcliffe, and the many advantages of social position that would be mine if I would but consider his offer. Oh, he was not so crass as to enumerate! No! He said that he longed for me to crown the balls and parties that he knew I would love to preside over, and spoke of the high esteem in which his many important friends held my family, my beauty, and my delightful nature."

"I cannot say those things. She will not be given the choice of refusing me. Am I doing her a terrible injustice?"

"Why would you think so, my dear?"

"I do not love her."

Lizzie waved a hand. "Love," she said, investing the word with the cynicism she believed it deserved. "My mama assured me, when urging me to accept the General's proposal, that with respect and kindness, a married couple may rub along well enough, and that happiness in marriage is to be found in security and in children. I have been married nearly five years now, and I can tell you that where respect or kindness lack--or where children do not seem likely--a large house and a wide and...separate acquaintance may go some distance to supply the deficiency."

Tristan stared at her, and she felt unaccountably guilty, as if she were advising him to do something to his own or Alexandra's detriment. "Few marriages are founded on love, Penrith," she said. "Alexandra knows better than to expect it. You will make her a countess one day, and no girl could wish for more."

***

John was not surprised by the announcement in the newpapers of Viscount Penrith's betrothal to Miss Alexandra Lareton, nor, he told himself, did it upset him unduly; in order to halt the progress of Murray's blackmail, Tristan had had to act quickly, and in accordance with certain directives of the Earl of Barringford. If John felt horribly exposed upon going out into the streets in the days immediately following the announcement, sure that people saw in him the rejected lover, overthrown for a more suitable alliance, he told himself that it was his imagination.

Indeed, his treatment by all of his acquaintance surprised him in its ordinariness. The enormity of his sacrifice was unknown to the world. A short note from his uncle, still in Brighton, was the sole acknowledgement of his loss, and that said only, "Braithwaite showed me the announcement in the Times, and we both thought that you might like to get out of London for a period. Come down and stay a few weeks with us, my boy. You will be more than welcome."

John spent nearly a month with his uncle and Mr Braithwaite in Marlborough Street, attending such quiet parties, salons and modest balls as suited the older gentlemen. Uncle Martin and Mr Braithwaite sometimes failed to disguise the worried looks they exchanged when they thought he could not see. "Consider making some new friends," Uncle Martin said to him one hot day in July. "It will not do, you know, for Penrith to be your only friend now."

"No, Uncle," John said, and thought only that autumn would be soon enough to accustom himself to having no friends at all.

He travelled next to Winchester, and was more relieved than offended to find Meg willing to speak to him again; word of Penrith's betrothal had reached her, and her approval of this turn of events made her generous. He was so glad to reestablish his place in his own family that he did not refine too much upon it, telling himself that the purpose of Tristan's betrothal was to garner precisely that sort of reaction from all of society.

On the first of August, John began the long journey to Ravensworth.

***

There were nights when Charlie didn't come home till dawn, but he always came home. He liked his comforts, Charlie did, and though he drank a bit too much, he found his way back to Thrawl Street, to Mary, and a bit to eat, and the bed they shared. Charlie wasn't a bad boy, not in his heart; Mary sometimes despaired of him, but he needed her. He always came home.

She awoke on a still and muggy July morning, not much past sunrise, with a horrible sickly feeling in her belly, and just barely managed to get to the basin before she cast up her accounts. Even as she was wiping her lips and pouring a little water to drink, she realised two things: Charlie hadn't come home, and she was with child.

Mary Murray dressed and went out into Spitalfields. She knew where Charlie liked to drink and dice, and so she went round the Hare and Hound in Brick Lane, and when the old codger of a barman there knew nothing, she spoke to one or two of the slim young men who seemed to idle about on the street corners at all hours. At last one of them said, "Oh, yes, missus. Your Charlie had gold in 'is pockets yesterday!" He gave her a sly smile that she did not like the look of, not one bit, and patted the front pocket in his breeches in a way that seemed very lewd.

"Where would my Charlie get gold?" she asked.

The boy's eyes went wide and he put one hand over his frail-looking chest, pretending to be impressed. "Why, he got it off an earl!" He broke into giggles, saying, "Oh, didn't he just! Or maybe it was a Royal Duke!" and Mary could get no more out of him.

Two days passed, and she grew sick from worry as well as from her expectant condition. In desperation on the third day, she put on her one remaining bonnet and left the lodging house to set out for Russell Square, where Charlie said his dad lived which never spoke to him nor lifted a finger to help them out though he was as rich as the King, thinking only that maybe the old man had let Charlie come home. She heard a shout of, "Missus! Missus!" and turned to see the slim boy from Brick Lane running towards her all in a lather and looking frightened to death. "They found him! They found Charlie!" he cried, and burst into tears.

Two hours later, having knocked at three of the big, fine houses in Russell Square, Mary finally learnt which house was Mr Edward Murray's. She scarcely knew what she did. She stood pounding on the door until a butler answered, then ignored him, staring into the entry behind him and saying over and over again that she must speak to Mr Murray, that she was Mrs Murray, that she would wait, that she would not take no for an answer. She thought she must have been shouting, for a white-haired gentleman came down the stairs and demanded to know what was going on.

"Your son is dead!" she cried. "My Charlie is dead! He was knocked on the head and thrown into the Thames for a couple of golden guineas." She was finding it hard to breathe, but she managed to go on. Was she screaming? She didn't care. "I have seen his corpse. He is dead, and you as good as killed him!"

The last thing she saw before she swooned was old Mr Murray's grief-stricken face.

***

As the carriage swept down the lane and through the gates at Ravensworth, John vaguely perceived how much restored the old house looked, and how neat and lively--and numerous!--were the servants arrayed before the entrance, but all he really saw was Tristan, hastening towards the carriage before it had even come to a stop.

Laughing in delight and saying, "John! John!" over and over like an