It was insufferably hot again. The closed-in streets squeezed the heat up to the window where William sat bemoaning the coming evening. In heat like this, the last thing he wanted to do was attend another of Mother's card parties. He wanted to walk alone to the river and slide unseen into its cooling depths. He wanted to lie on the riverbank and watch the stars. He wanted to finish the poem. He wanted to think about her. He would do none of these; he would sit in a stuffy drawing room with old people who smelt of powder and gin, and he would attend his mother. It's what he did. It was his life.
William did the dutiful rounds of the guests. He played one hand to please Mother, then he stood at the empty fireplace, leaning nonchalantly, hoping everyone understood the small statement he was making: he was there, but in his mind he was far away; he was with them, but he was far above them. The thought that he might come over merely as an insufferable prig made him uneasy, but he squashed that feeling quickly and returned to his poem.
If I cannot have your love,
I think that I will die,
And your scorn will spark alight my funeral pyre,
He took another sip of wine - elegantly - and tried to picture Cecily weeping alongside his burning body. It was a nice image.
The heat in the room made sweat trickle down his back. He longed to escape to the privacy of his own rooms, where he could at least take off his coat. He glanced across the room at the clock, dismayed to see it was only ten and still early for one of these parties. As he looked across the throng he felt someone watching him. He straightened slightly, striking the pose of an ironic poet and looked slowly around the room. A young man who was not playing cards either was watching him through lowered lids as he sipped his wine. William quickly looked away. Mother's friends he could usually fool and occasionally impress; young men were a different matter. Sweat began to prick under his arms now. He desperately hoped the man wouldn't come over and speak to him. He would have nothing to say; he never did. Hunting, fishing - men's pursuits and men's interests - what did he know of them?
William kept his eyes resolutely fixed on the hearthrug, so he jumped when a low, slightly amused voice said, 'I grow weary beyond suffering. I need some intelligent conversation. Will you indulge me?'
William looked up confused, and could not reconcile what he heard with what he saw. Well-built, handsome, easy manners, the man was like a hundred others William knew; he should be laughing and ridiculing his gentle - superior - ways, not seeking him out and speaking of conversation. William was even more lost for words than if the man had come over and asked him which shoot he favoured. He tried a smile but felt it was rather weak even as he made it. The man didn't seem to mind for he smiled back. 'I'd have brought my book if I'd known it was going to be this insufferable.'
'You like reading?' William cursed inwardly. What a stupid thing to say. He frowned and tried to pass the moment off by drinking his wine. When the man didn't reply, only continued to watch him, William said hesitantly, 'I don't think we've been introduced. I'm William. You came with…?'
The man continued to smile. 'No, we haven't met. Don't worry; I was invited. That's one thing you can be sure of, William: I'm always invited.'
'Oh.' He could think of nothing else to say and hoped the man would go before his total lack of conversational skills was noticed.
Instead of leaving, the man leaned comfortably against the mantel and said, 'Have you seen the new Hamlet? I went last night. It seemed rather lacking to me, but I cannot for the life of me say why.'
William blushed with pleasure and said, 'Yes. I thought that, too. I think it was the leading man. He was rather… flat, I thought.'
The other man nodded thoughtfully, and they continued to talk about the theatre and books for some time, William's tongue flowing as freely as the wine. He felt sweat rolling down his brow now and kept wiping it off with his sleeve distractedly.
Watching him do this, the man ran a hand through his long hair, lifting it off his collar. 'What you wouldn't give to take that coat off, I'm thinking.' He smiled. 'And what I wouldn't give for something a little stronger.' He put his glass down on the mantel and looked at it wistfully.
William hesitated then said, 'I have some whisky in my rooms… if you'd like. And we could take our coats off.' He blushed furiously at his boldness and toed the faded carpet nervously.
'Aye, well, the heat dinna bother me none, but the whisky sounds like heaven itself.'
The man chuckled. 'Aye. I am. Is that a no then?'
'Oh! No! Of course not. I'm sorry, only….' William realised he was blushing madly once more and could have stamped his foot at his inability to control this infuriating affliction. A well-manicured hand was placed on his arm.
'Come on, laddie. As I'm Irish, I'll show you how to really drink whisky. And I hate to drink alone.'
William led the way to his tiny set of rooms. He tried to view them through the eyes of this attractive stranger, hoping he didn't think them too… fussy.
The man didn't seem to notice anything awry. 'Do you mind if I take off my coat?'
'No. Please.' William frowned and then copied. Even in his waistcoat, this almost seemed too casual in front of a stranger. 'I'm sorry, but I didn't catch your name.'
'Did ye no? Well, fetch me that whisky, lad, an' I'll tell that an' many other wonderful things.'
William laughed. 'I'm the same age as you. What a strange way of talking you have.'
'Ah, well, I save it for those that will appreciate it, me lad. I saw tonight you were a cut above the rest assembled. Was I wrong?'
William blushed again with pleasure, a bright crimson flaring across his face. He turned quickly to the drinks, putting his back to the man. Handing him a drink, they sat in old armchairs by the open window. The stranger lit a cigar, offered William another, and they smoked and drank happily for a while, neither seeming to feel the need for speech.
It was the first time William had ever had anyone else in his rooms other than Mother or Martha, and he did not think mothers or housemaids counted. He felt bold, mature, manly, clever, interesting. He crossed his legs in the same elegant way the other man did and leant back, trying to look as if this were a regular occurrence.
'What do you do, William? Do you have a profession?'
William jumped. He hated this question and feared the pleasure of the moment was lost. 'I… err…. I studied for the law. But my health… you know. I had to give it up…. I… um… write a little now.'
He trailed his voice off very low at this last, hoping it sounded more convincing if less emphasised.
The man nodded. 'I hoped you might. When I saw you in the room tonight, I thought you looked like a writer - poetry, I'd venture?'
William's face lit up. 'Why, yes. How did you guess?'
'I see it in your whole stance, William. I'm Irish, don't forget; we know a true poet when we see one. Another?'
William got up to refill their glasses, relaxing in the man's easy presence. He suddenly realised how desperately he wanted male company. He wanted this man to stay. He wanted this man to like him. 'May I read some?' The quiet Irish voice slid under William's protective armour. Instead of refusing outright, instead of sweeping his papers away out of sight, he felt tempted to show him.
He murmured, 'They are rather private.'
The man came over and stood close behind him at the table. 'All good poetry should be. Please. I'd very much like to.'
The large physical presence of the man unnerved William somewhat. He felt himself flush again and felt renewed sweat staining his shirt, despite the absence of his coat. He fidgeted with the papers a little, but then felt a hand on his. It was cold. It almost tingled where it touched his flushed, hot skin. Distracted, he did not immediately snatch his hand away, and the man capitalised on the moment by gently lifting the stack of papers away from him. He sat back down and began to peruse the precious works.
William paced nervously, ripping the cuticle on one thumb with his fingernail. This was the most intimate thing he could imagine, and his heart was racing with tension. The man read slowly, nodding every so often, and after a while, he shaded his face with his hand. When he looked up, there was a sheen of tears in his eyes, caught and betrayed by the low light from the candle. 'These move me to tears. I have no words to describe them.'
'Really? I mean… thank you.'
'Aye, I've never read anything like them. They are unique. This one's not finished, I'm thinking.'
Unbelievably, William blushed once more. 'No. I'm stuck. I need something to rhyme with pyre, and all I can think of is higher…
"And your scorn will spark alight my funeral pyre,
And my ashes will rise higher and higher.".'
A small smile played around the dark-haired man's sensuous lips, but he appeared to rein it in and nodded. 'Aye, a difficult word to rhyme to. Your solution is… elegant. Give me a while and see if I can't assist you to something even better?'
'Oh. Yes.' The implicit promise that they would see each other again in the stranger's comment made William almost gush with pleasure, and he clamped his lips together, refusing himself permission to speak again until he could control the unseemly emotions.
Once more, the stranger didn't seem to mind any of William's odd ways, for he rose and made a slight bow. 'I thank you for your hospitality.'
'You're going?' Disappointment was evident in every syllable, and William gave a particularly vicious dig at his cuticle to punish himself.
'Sadly, I have to. I have left my… mother and my… sister alone, and they miss me when I am gone.'
'You live with your mother, too?'
William's delight in this discovery shone out of his words, and for once he did not blush at his awkwardness. The man laughed. 'That I do. That I do. It seems we have a lot in common, William.'
William did blush at that and looked down confused.
'William.' The stranger waited until his host looked up. 'I have a habit of walking in the evenings. May I press upon you to join me tomorrow night? May I call for you? Shall we say eight? Just after dark.'
'Oh yes! I would be delighted. Thank you.'
'Until tomorrow then. Goodbye.' He went toward the door, paused and turned. 'Oh, and by the way, my name is Liam. Nice to have met you, William.'
William did not sleep well that night and put this down to the heat and too much spirits. He was restless and played the whole encounter with Liam over and over in his head. Sometimes, he changed his part, alternately making himself funnier, cleverer, more aloof or more mature. Sometimes, he let the night play out just as it had. He came to the delightful conclusion that, despite his revisions, it couldn't have been more pleasing than it actually had been.
He felt a sense of nervous anticipation about the coming night and couldn't eat all day. The heat wave they had been suffering had finally broken, and the temperature had plummeted to more usual cool, drizzly English levels. He tried to write but, suddenly, finding similes for blue eyes didn't seem so satisfying. Who wanted to describe cool oceans, when they could illustrate deep Irish peat? Who wanted to rhyme with ice, when they could enjoy the resonance of rich, warm soil? Ethereal love suddenly seemed to pale somewhat; something more substantial was required. He was not so good at substantial writing.
Eight came and went. William was in an agony of suspense, and then the girl announced him. William sprung up, kissed Mother, and went eagerly to the door.
Three people awaited him. His heart sank, and he stumbled slightly on the step. An elegant hand in a delicate lace glove stretched out and steadied him. 'Careful.'
William blushed and backed away from the young blond woman. Why did he have to bring young ladies to accompany them? Why did this upset him so? William had no answers to either of these questions, so he just kept his eyes lowered and hoped Liam felt the waves of annoyance he sent in his direction.
'William.' As before, Liam waited until William was forced to look at him. It was an effective trick, but it was beginning to make William feel like a child with his father. It was annoying. Dutifully, however, he looked up. 'May I introduce you to my mother?'
William blushed with pleasure. 'Oh, of course, I would be honoured. Are we going there now?'
All three laughed as if he had made a great joke. Liam slipped his arm into William's as if to stop him bolting at this gentle mockery and said, 'The beautiful young lady who just saved you is my mother.'
'OH. Goodness. I am so sorry, Ma'am. I didn't….'
The woman laughed but glared at Liam. When she saw his expression she seemed to retract the glare momentarily, but then offer it again with a mock intensity. 'Silly darling. You are so naughty. William will be thinking I really am your mother and wondering how I can possibly be so well preserved. Or, I hope he is?' She turned to William with an enchanting smile.
'No! I mean, of course! I'd never presume to think….'
Liam only laughed. 'William, this is Drusilla, my sister.'
William blushed once more at the familiarity of this introduction, and as he didn't know Liam's last name, could not address the striking young lady at all. He merely bowed.
They began to walk, the ladies arm-in-arm to the fore and the men a few paces behind. William began to relax and started to enjoy himself. He noticed people glancing at their group and imagined the picture they made. He had to admit, they were a striking family. His heart swelled at his inclusion, and his step firmed slightly alongside the other man.
Just as he was glancing around to see if anyone he knew was observing them, Liam said to his mother, 'Shall we walk to the park, my love?'
He took William's arm in his and leaned closer. 'I have not been able to get you out of my head since meeting you last night. I have been thinking about your poem, William. Liar….'
Endlessly embarrassed, utterly confused by the odd way Liam often expressed himself, William could only stammer, 'I'm n-not.'
Liam chuckled. 'Your scorn will spark alight my funeral pyre. As false tears of sorrow mark you as a liar.'
William winced initially at the rough language, but then felt a strange stirring at the thought of saying such a word to Cecily. Liar…. It was shockingly provocative, and he murmured his appreciation.
Liam only took William's arm more fully in his and patted his hand. 'There you go then. So, Will - may I call you by the familiar? I feel I know you so well already.'
'So, Will, you are in love; I can see it. Who is the lucky young lady? Was she there last night?'
'Oh, I can't…. I'm not exactly…. I couldn't….'
'Ah. It's a secret liaison; I can see that now. I suspected it might be when I saw you leaning on the mantel. You had the air of a man in the full flight of a secret affair.'
'I did?' William tried to see his distant longing for Cecily in this light, but was having a rather hard time doing so.
'What are you two talking about?'
Liam's mother turned and pouted prettily at them. His sister turned as well and gave them both an odd look. 'Daddy's hunting a little rabbit. He's so bad. We should let the little rabbit go… he's too pretty to eat.'
'Now, darling, come along and leave the men to their talk. I'm sure they are abusing us most dreadfully, and they can enjoy that best when we cannot hear.'
'Oh, no! Please, we wouldn't….' William's words were wasted as, surprisingly for such elegant women, they sped up and were soon too far ahead to hear more.
'So, your father is in town with you?'
William turned innocently to Liam and caught the tail end of a thunderous frown. Sensing William's look, however, he laughed. 'Sorry. Only my sister is such a worry to us all. I'm sure you understand how anxious I am.' He dashed a hand across his eyes briefly, and William was moved by this display of brotherly devotion. 'My father is still in the old county. Dear Drusilla rambles sometimes and is dreadfully confused. This grand city of yours is rather unsettling to us poor country folk.'
William began to see himself as a cosmopolitan man of the world and stood slightly taller. Liam patted his hand again. 'So, tell me about this little affair of yours. I hope you are being careful. They will trap you soon as look at you with a wee squealing one, if they can.'
Having little knowledge of men's talk, William was bewildered by this speech. He had never heard anyone mention such indelicate things but, at the same time, the sentiment made him feel oddly powerful: he was a man of the world; he was having an illicit affair; he was… intimate… with a woman. He blushed deeply once more at the thought of things he never usually allowed himself to think about - that no decent gentleman ever would.
'Have I offended you?'
'No!' He tried to sound the man of the world Liam thought him to be. 'Of course not. She is… I am… we are careful, of course.'
The lie, once spoken, committed him. As it left his lips, he suspected that this one lie might be merely the foundation for many lies still to come - that having implied he was a man of the world, having effectively denied he was virginal and inexperienced, he would have to layer lie upon lie upon this stupid initial lie.
As he barely even understood the mechanics of such an affair, he knew he would flounder badly should Liam pursue this odd conversation.
He was rescued from his anxiety when the ladies paused to allow them to catch up. 'My dear, shall we go home? Shall we offer William our hospitality for the rest of the evening? I fear Drusilla grows tired; she complains of hunger.'
The apparently weary sister turned to William once more. 'Silly rabbit. Why don't you run? Grandmother, why does the little creature sit so still when the wolf is after him? Is he dead, too?'
'Hush, dear.' The concern her soft words implied was somewhat belied by the extremely forceful way she manoeuvred the girl away. Liam laughed once more and held onto William's arm very firmly. He bent right down to his ear and spoke so softly that the words were mere shadows passing. 'Can I tempt you, Will?'
'What?' William blushed. Liam's lips had touched his ear, and he had the absurd notion of putting his hand up to touch the spot. 'For a nightcap, William, for some refreshment with my family. Don't you mind Drusilla, now.'
'No. Of course…. Yes, that is. I would be pleased.'
William was in awe when they left the park through a small side gate and entered one of the elegant mansions to one side. Far grander than Mother's house, William looked at his new friends with increased respect. They sat in the drawing room. Drusilla wandered over to the piano and began to play a quiet, sad melody. Liam gave William a drink and once more took his arm. 'Shall we take these to my library?'
'Oh, yes please….' He determined not to speak again if he couldn't say anything more mature than that. Liam only chuckled and led him to a large, impressively well-stocked room with a billiard table in the middle. Liam went around lighting candles, which slightly surprised William, servants being in abundance - he presumed - in a house of this size.
Liam lined up some balls and offered William a cue. William bit his lip. 'I don't play.'
Liam looked surprised but quickly covered this and gave a pleased chuckle. 'Perhaps I may have a chance of winning then! Mother so disapproves of my playing that I have never become proficient. Shall we be brave? Together?'
He was so easy, so pleasant to be with that William could not refuse to save his life. He took the cue and bent to take a shot. After a while, and some whiskies later, they shed their coats. With a smile of apology, Liam removed his waistcoat, too, and loosened his cravat. William hesitated then copied him.
Talk flowed between them as easily as if it were the whisky they consumed. William could not exactly have said what they spoke of, but it left him excited and breathless, easy, not stammering and tongue-tied as so often happened. Again, he tried to see the scene as an outsider might and felt a flush of pride at the quiet, masculine intimacy they had established.
But all things had to end. Guilt at leaving Mother alone so long began to nag at him. He glanced once or twice at the clock. Liam excused himself for a moment then reappeared and began to tell an amusing story about Paris. William didn't like to interrupt, and so the evening got even later. Finally though, William laid down his cue. 'I really must….'
The door swung open, and Liam's mother came in, agitated. 'Darling. The most horrible thing. There has been a murder in the park this evening, only a few feet from our very door.'
The young woman sat heavily on the couch and flashed her stepson an odd look. 'She's upstairs. Now. But it's too horrible. William must stay here tonight. I would be so uneasy thinking of him out there….'
'I shall be quite all right. Mother will worry….'
'Oh, have I done wrong? I dispatched one of the servants to inform her of the situation.' She turned helpless, innocent eyes to her son. 'Was I wrong to do so, dear?'
'No. You were your usual kind, thoughtful self.' Liam pulled the woman into his arms and embraced her. William frowned, disturbed by something in all this but, befuddled by the drink, the thought slipped away before he had time to examine it.
Liam went around the house obsessively securing the doors and windows. William trailed after him. 'You don't think we will be attacked in our beds, do you?'
Liam smiled. 'I have no intention of finding out. You must share my chamber tonight. We do not occupy most of the rooms.' For the first time that night, it stuck William that other than Liam and his family, he had seen no one else in the house since his arrival. Life was punctuated by servants - lighting candles, stocking fires, bringing refreshments…. This house was silent and oddly cold.
He followed his host up the broad staircase. 'I really think I should go. If there is any danger, perhaps you could send a servant to accompany me?'
He wouldn't have admitted to anyone that he was testing Liam, but he felt a certain bold cunning at his cleverness. Liam only laid an affectionate hand on his arm and said, 'Aye, I could, Will, but I so rarely have such company; can you forgive me for being glad you are staying?'
Overwhelmed by Liam's heartfelt confession, William found himself in a set of gloomy rooms before he could protest further. 'Will ye be comfortable on the couch?' William nodded dumbly as Liam went into the other room. He left the adjoining door open and continued chatting as he undressed. William saw the occasional glimpse of him as he passed the gap, and a large shadow flickered on the walls as he moved between William and the candle. 'Here.' William took a step back. Liam had emerged and, naked from the waist up, was coming toward him with a blanket.