"Why aren't you wearing a costume?" I wailed in disappointment on entering Twister's room: he was just finishing his tie, a plain boring white tie to go with his plain boring tailcoat. It was the night of my much-anticipated masquerade ball, the grand finale of my house-party, and I was wound tight with excitement; seeing him in ordinary evening dress struck me like a blow.
"What the hell are you got up as?" he countered, his eyes wide with amazement.
"Oberon, of course," I sniffed, striking a regal pose to show off the costume. It was a dazzling thing, designed for the ballet by Caro's pet costumier: pale green tights with knee-high boots and a wide-necked doublet of silvery green lamé glittering with crystal dewdrops, a fluttering mantle of pale green net spattered with silk butterflies, an immense headdress of silver-gilt papier-mâché antlers and peacock feathers, and a tall silver staff twined with pale green lamé ivy and topped by a crystal rose.
"Of course," he agreed, ogling my practically bare shoulders and shamelessly displayed legs, "You would have to be King of the Fairies, wouldn't you?"
"No point in being Parliamentary Undersecretary of the Fairies, is there?" I smirked at him, slowly turning to give him the spectacular rear view. I looked very good in those tights, if I do say so myself.
"How am I supposed to keep my hands off all this for the whole evening?" he complained with a deep growl, coming close and pawing the silken material at my hips.
"Put them in your pockets?" I suggested helpfully, wrapping my arms around his neck and kissing him softly, "But really, why aren't you wearing a costume?"
"I have a mask," he explained, running his hands up my back and nuzzling my neck.
"Everybody has a mask, that's no fun," I pouted, gasping when he bit me lightly on the earlobe, "Get off me, I can't hide what you're doing to me in these tights."
"I think you'll like it," he said, stepping into the clothes-press and giving me a moment to recover my dignity, "The mask, I mean. Look."
"You're a fox!" I cried with delight when he came out of the press, most of his face obscured by a very realistic-looking fox's head, made of red fox fur, with whiskers and eyelashes and everything.
"I'm you, Foxy!" he replied, turning around to show me the long bushy fox-tail protruding from between the tails of his coat.
"My tail isn't that bushy," I laughed at him.
"I'm wearing your cufflinks and studs," he showed me the details of his costume, "and your tie and handkerchief. Your braces and socks, too. This is your wristwatch."
"Nobody will notice those," I frowned, "I didn't even notice them."
"They don't need to notice: I'm not wearing them for anybody else, just for us," he took my hand and nuzzled his fox-nose into the palm, kissing my fingertips, "I'm just a fox for everyone else. But in my own mind, and yours, I'm Foxy."
"You're a very strange man, Twister Paget," I laughed, deeply touched by the fetishism of him wearing my things.
"Says the man dressed as a fairy," he laughed right back.
"We're going to be late for the party," I said with a sigh as I leaned my staff against the wall and started checking the pins holding my headdress in place.
"Nonsense, we've got fifteen minutes," he looked at his watch—my watch.
"This is going to take at least twenty," I replied, pushing him back onto the bed and climbing up on top of him, "Thirty if you ladder these tights and I have to go change into my spares. No, leave the mask on."
My prediction of doom for my house-party turned out to have been quite unfounded. Aside from Jingo and Dotty, who left immediately after Thomas's inquest, and Twister and Claude who were more like family, none of my guests was actually involved in the affair; barring a scandal, there would be no reason for anyone to take to their heels.
And the scandal was of course diverted, Silenus fixed everything before I was even out of bed the next day, cooking up a fiction that covered all the facts and shielded everyone involved, then spoon-feeding it to the Coroner and the Press.
One of the new housemaids, Peggy, a talented amateur actress with no local family, claimed that she'd been the bone of contention between William and Thomas, swearing to reporters (and under oath at the inquest) that she'd been aware that both men were in love with her, but had preferred William's attentions, which made Thomas jealous enough to kill him.
Silenus also reconstructed the confrontation scene to match, excluding the ladies and Alfie, as well as Claude who couldn't lie, and Twister who wouldn't, reducing it to myself and Otterly as the only witnesses to a fictional scene: Silenus allegedly tricked Thomas into confessing his crime to Peggy by the rather fanciful means of frightening him with a fake séance.
I thought the tale was pretty flimsy, with great big glaring holes in it (such as why the estate manager was involved in a situation with the indoor staff), but the coroner's jury bought it and the Press lapped it up like cream: "The Belowstairs Love-Triangle" was blazoned across the newsstands all the next week.
Summerill knew all about it, though, since Twister insisted on telling him the whole truth; but that worthy detective surprised us all by agreeing completely with Silenus's solutions, even admiring the way he'd coopted Jingo's blackmail ring. I thought Twister would be disgusted with Summerill for his complicity, but instead he stopped grumbling about Silenus. I suppose hearing those same arguments from a trusted colleague instead of a sinister old poof put a different complexion on things.
At any rate, Thomas's death was judged an accident; and though he couldn't be tried posthumously, his confession closed the case on William's murder. Peggy went to London with two thousand pounds in her pocket to make a bid for the legitimate stage (though she ended up in pictures, and became quite successful playing working-class ingénues), Mrs. Coldicott went away to visit relatives and recover from the shock, and the rest of us pretended nothing had happened: one footman had killed another and then taken a fatal spill down a corkscrew stair; a tragic episode, but nothing to do with the Saint-Clairs or our guests.
And so Pater went back to London, Sir Lionel and Lady Brazington came to stay in the Faringdons' place, and we went about our merry business—some of us a trifle subdued, perhaps, though some of us with the knowledge of what had actually happened were more than a little giddy with the relief over the ghastly scandals we'd avoided—and had a rather good time.
I'd had to cancel some of the more frivolous entertainments I'd planned, in deference both to a death in the house and to the somewhat reduced staff, not to mention my own slightly hampered ability to play the charming host with a knife-wound in my shoulder (which healed up surprisingly fast and didn't even leave much of a scar); but anything for which I'd hired entertainers or caterers went on as planned, culminating in a ball that grew prodigiously in size in the week following the inquests.
We had invited a great many people to begin with, even people we didn't know, pretty much lifting the guest-list from Who's Who and sending an invitation to every family listed in that tome within thirty miles of us; and with country-house ball invitations, guests staying at the time are always included; but the publicity of the Belowstairs Love Triangle was such that every one of the invited families suddenly had a dozen guests staying with them.
And then, of course, one's London friends started clamouring for invitations, drawn by the rubbed-off glamour of press mentions and the photographs from the first entertainments I'd held, which had already been published due to the sudden attention we were receiving. The guest-list grew so exponentially in one week that we had to hire a second catering crew, press-ganged two dozen villagers to act as waiters and maids, and opened all the third-floor bedrooms and the attic to make room for the overnighters.
It was a glorious chaos, with nearly four hundred guests expected and over six hundred showing up in total, including a platoon of Bright Young Things who crashed the party en masse, the festive crowd pouring out of a small fleet of charabancs from London; only fifty or so were meant to spend the night, but in reality the sun was well up before the majority of party guests started leaving, and few of the beds were actually slept in (though most were utilized, at least).
My costume was much admired, as was Aunt Em's (I'd wanted Caro to act as my Titania, but she thought that would be taken as a too-early proof of our engagement, so dressed instead as Cleopatra with Claude as Mark Antony); far more modestly draped than I, she was resplendent in dove-gray and midnight-blue robes spangled with diamanté stars and feather songbirds, like a partly-cloudy night sky, and a silver foil headdress representing the phases of the moon. We even had a pretty village lad painted blue and dressed as a miniature maharajah to act as our page, holding a big velvet bag from which we dispensed favors (tie-pins for the gentlemen and compacts for the ladies) while receiving our guests.
Though the majority of guests had opted for the simplicity of a mask with standard evening dress, there were quite a few really spectacular costumes on display; and even a half-mask tends to reduced people's inhibitions enough that you'd scarcely credit their behaviour, hidebound judges dancing on table-tops and decorous matrons flirting outrageously, and a good time was had by all.
There was proper dancing in the Long Gallery and jazz dancing in the music-room, cards in the Great Chamber and a banquet in the dining-room, and a troupe of Gypsy carnival performers circulating around with dancing monkeys and magic tricks, blowing fire and balancing on balls, even swinging on trapezes and crossing high-wires in the upper reaches of the great hall. And when it got so late the musicians and performers were fainting in their chairs, the guests took over the instruments and put on impromptu shows that went on until dawn.
I was so giddy and exhausted by the end of the party that I started weeping like an overstimulated child when Pond took me out of my costume the next morning. I became so hysterical that I alarmed him enough to send for Twister, who got me into bed and held tight to me while I bawled myself to sleep.
"I'm going to miss you so much when you go home," I said to him when I woke up some hours later, finding him lying awake beside me, "I don't think I'll be able to stand it, waking up and not having you in my arms."
"You lived without me your whole life before I came here, I'm sure you'll survive after," he smiled and stroked my hair.
"I didn't know what I was missing, then," I replied, not smiling, still feeling weepy after my hysteria, "These last two weeks have been heaven, everything after will feel like hell. I wish I could live with you always."
"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," he said uselessly, echoing Nanny, or perhaps his own nanny. I suspect that little bit of doggerel was standard-issue nanny propaganda.
"I'm quite serious," I said, rearing up on my elbow so I could look into his eyes, "There must be some way for us to live together, to wake up together every day."
"Oh, my beautiful Foxy," he wasn't smiling, now, either, "It's just not possible. We'd have to give up everything: you'd have to give up your position and your family, I'd have to give up my career, we'd have to go away where nobody knows us and live always in fear of the law. That's no life for us."
"That's not quite true," I nestled back down in his arms, my face in his neck, chilled by the tone in his voice, the bleakness of his vision, "I wouldn't really have to give up anything. Nobody can take away my money or my title, not even Pater. I can easily live in France if I wanted. I don't have a reputation yet to protect. But you'd have to give up everything, wouldn't you? It isn't fair of me to even talk of it."
"You'd still lose, because I can't give you an heir," he said, "You need an heir. You're the last of your line, all of your titles would go extinct without you."
"I never realized how easy it is for me," I sat up and scrambled out of bed, suddenly hating myself and wanting to get away; I was halfway across the room before I turned back to Twister, laying astonished on the bed, "I can get an heir just like that. Caro would marry me, regardless, and even if she and I couldn't engage in the act, we could always get a baby somewhere or other to pass off as ours. I really don't have anything to lose. And yet here I am always nagging you to give up everything to be with me. What an awful cruel ass I've been to you."
"Oh, come on," he sounded alarmed and annoyed at once, "You're not being cruel. You're just being naïve."
"I don't deserve you," I started crying again, collapsing onto the floor in front of the empty fireplace, the stone hearth comfortably cold against my bare skin.
"You're crazy," he laughed indulgently after he'd scooped me up off the floor into his lap, curling up with me on the sofa and holding me until I calmed down, "Are you always like this after a party?"
"I've never had a party like this," I conceded, hiccoughing and laughing at once, "I guess this is what 'overwrought' feels like. I've always wondered."
"I don't want to leave you like this, but I have to get dressed," he grasped my chin and turned my face toward his so he could kiss me, "Bunny's driving me back to London this afternoon. And I have to be at work bright and early tomorrow morning."
"I'll be all right," I promised, pushing him down onto the sofa, "If you'll give me a little something to tide me over until I come to London next."
"Little!?" he roared and slapped my backside hard enough to hurt, then started tickling me, "I'll show you little."
Once the party was over and the guests gone, life at Foxbridge went right back to the way it had been before, quiet and a little dull—though after all the hullabaloo, I had to admit that the quiet dullness was a welcome change. Caro and Claude stayed on, as well, and they added a bit of life to the house that had been lacking before.
October came on all misty with rain, and Aunt Em's travelling al fresco luncheons had to come indoors: I suggested we simply move luncheon into the great conservatory, just like being outdoors but without the weather; but her conscience couldn't allow making the servants walk all that way every day, so the big bay window of the great hall became our luncheon-spot.
"Look at this!" I exclaimed over an unexpected envelope in the pile of post beside my plate, "A letter from Verevale!"
"Really?" Aunt Em snatched the thing out of my hand in disbelief, studying the crest and address through her lorgnette, letting her own letters fall in her excitement, "Well, I never! Whatever can they want?"
"You'll likely find the answer inside the envelope," Nanny pointed out drily, reaching over to pluck Aunt Em's letters out of the soup.
I took the envelope back and tore it open, savaging the paper in my haste, and quickly scanned its contents, "They want me to come stay!"
"Who are 'they'?" Caro asked, amused by our shock.
"The Levondales," I answered as Aunt Em took the letter away to read for herself, "Lord Levondale is the tenant at Verevale Court, our other seat."
"And why is it so surprising they'd write and invite you to stay?" she pursued.
"They never have!" Aunt Em said breathlessly, "They've never written to us, not in three generations. Not even a Christmas card."
"But they're your tenants?" Caro frowned.
"I think that's why," Aunt Em opined, "I think they're embarrassed that they don't own Verevale, they're just tenants. So they pretend we don't exist."
"That's horrid," Caro was offended on our behalf. As we spent more and more time together, with just family around us, Caro and I were coming to feel like we were already married, and members of each others' families: an insult to the Saint-Clairs was an insult to the Chatroys.
"That's not really why," I told Caro, wanting to share knowledge that I had gleaned by eavesdropping on my parents years and years ago but not sure I should mention it in front of Aunt Em, "My grandfather insulted Lord Levondale's grandfather, and there has been a certain coolness ever since."
"Who told you that?" Aunt Em looked at me sharply.
"I heard it from Pater," I temporized: he certainly didn't tell me about it, he told Mummy about it, but I heard him from my hiding place behind the drawing-room curtains.
What happened was this: when my grandfather, the ninth Earl of Vere, acceded in 1881, he found he couldn't afford to live at Verevale Court and Foxbridge Castle, as well as Vere House, all at the same time; he also needed a substantial infusion of cash to keep the estates solvent under the load of debt left by the eighth Earl; he therefore had little choice but to let Verevale Court. The newly-ennobled Baron Levondale, an obscenely rich gem-merchant and banker, could have afforded to buy Verevale outright (if it hadn't been entailed); but he didn't want a whole estate, he just wanted a stately country-house with a sufficiency of parkland.
So he bought the hundred-year lease on Verevale Court, paid in advance (which was still cheaper than buying the whole estate: old Levondale didn't get rich by paying more than he had to for anything), and retired to Sussex to take up the life of a landed aristocrat; the ninth Earl paid off a lot of debt and bought a great many diamonds for his new bride; everyone was happy.
One would think this a very straightforward transaction, and perfectly opportune for both parties; but though the Earl had no cause to complain of the money, he really would have preferred to have had more, and so took it into his head that Levondale had cheated him on the price. One night, in his cups at a ball, he loudly referred to Levondale as "that damned dirty Jew."
Ordinarily, nobody would have paid the slightest attention to the anti-Semitic babble of a drunken peer. However, Lord Levondale's son, a rather hot-headed young man aptly named Lionel, happened to be in the room at the time and took some exception to the comment: though Lord Levondale was originally a Jew (born Leventhal, he Anglicised his name when he was baptised) he'd converted to Christianity at the time of his marriage to a viscount's daughter; he also had a mania for hygiene, and only God could judge the state of his soul.
The Honourable Lionel Levondale, who later became the second Baron Levondale, actually slapped the ninth Earl with a glove at that ball; but duello had rather gone out of fashion by then, so he had to be satisfied with impugning Lord Vere's honour and intelligence all over London; to make matters worse, it got into the papers during a slow news week—resulting in suits and countersuits of libel, and a relatively vicious Society feud that was the highlight of three Seasons.
Though Lionel's son, the incumbent third Baron Levondale, did not keep up the feud, neither he nor his wife had any reason to end it; my father was quite indifferent to them, and Mummy hadn't pressed the question after learning the story; consequently, no Saint-Clair living had ever set foot in Verevale Court, the house our ancestors had built and occupied for two centuries.
"Do you know the Levondales, Caro?" I asked. She seemed to know everyone, I wondered if she'd had anything to do with the invitation.
"I've met them, of course, but I can't say I know them very well. They're Social, but not quite Fashionable."
"Lord Levondale's son Michael was one of Papa's freshers last year," Claude said, unexpectedly joining the conversation. He had become very quiet since the murder, and seldom ever spoke unless addressed directly, "He came over for tennis sometimes. He played very well."
"I wonder what prompted the Levondales to reach out to you now, after all these years?" Nanny took the letter from Aunt Em to peruse its contents. Visitors have often been shocked by the way we pass our letters around at luncheon, it seems that most people think of their post as sacrosanct and private; but Nanny has always read Aunt Em's letters, as her secretary, and let Aunt Em read hers; and when I came back to live at Foxbridge, I naturally joined in with the practice — as I've said, my private affairs are of the sort that nobody in his right mind would commit to paper, unless one wants to be blackmailed, so I had no reason to hide my correspondence.
"Lady Levondale mentioned mutual friends," I said, "but not which ones. I suppose it could be anybody. I'll have to find out when I get there."
"You're going to accept, then?" Caro frowned.
"If for no other reason than sheer, raw curiosity," I answered, tucking into my filet of sole, "I'm mad to know what prompted Lady Levondale to write. And I'm dying to see Verevale Court, I may never get another chance. I'm sure to be dead and gone before the lease expires."
"I'm not so sure I'd be willing to let a three-generation feud go so easily," Caro considered, resuming her examination of her own letters, "After that long, it rather becomes a tradition, doesn't it?"
"If the injured party extends the olive branch, it would be caddish not to accept," I explained.
"The lease expires in 1982, Sebastian," Nanny corrected me, "You'll only be seventy-six years old by then, I'm sure you'll still be up and about and perfectly capable of seeing to your estates."
"Seventy-six!" I gasped, shocked by the idea, "That's frightfully old, I can't imagine living that long."
"There are plenty of septuagenarians running about these days," Nanny looked at me over the top of her pince-nez, "With medicine advancing at its current rate, it's expected that living to a hundred will soon become quite commonplace."
"That will be rather hard on the heirs, won't it?" I laughed, "Waiting around for a hundred years to come into one's inheritance?"
"Perhaps it will inspire young men of rank to make something of their own lives instead of just waiting around for their fathers to die."
"Something in that," I agreed, intrigued by the idea. Very few of my male ancestors had lived much past sixty, and very rarely did anyone marry before acceding, so it was almost unheard-of for a Saint-Clair to know his own grandfather. One wonders what might have happened if they'd had more opportunity to make their own way in the world before taking on the responsibility of the earldom.
If my father lived to be a hundred, I'd remain Viscount Foxbridge until I was nearly seventy; and if I married Caro in the next three or four years, as I intended, it was quite likely that I would have children and grandchildren before Pater fell off his perch. I'd also have plenty of time to do all sorts of interesting things before taking on the estates and Parliament. It made for rather a dizzying prospect.
"When are you asked?" Caro wondered, taking the letter from Claude, who'd been looking at it blankly as if it were written in hieroglyphics after Nanny passed it along.
"November fourth, to stay at least a fortnight," Nanny replied for me.
"Oh!" Aunt Em exclaimed in disappointment, "You'll miss the first hunt of the season! I was especially counting on you being here for that."
"But Auntie, I haven't been to the first hunt at Foxbridge since I went to Eton."
"Exactly, you've always been stuck at school for the first hunt, I wanted to have a hunt ball here now that you're home."
"I suppose I could put Lady Levondale off until the following week," I suggested.
"No, don't do that," Aunt Em sighed, "If she invited you for their first hunt, it would be cruel to disappoint her."
"I'll be absolutely sure to be here for the first hunt next year," I took her hand and shook it about on the table, "And the year after that. And so on and so on, I'll be around a while yet."
"Unless there's another war," she shrugged sadly, poking at her food.
"What makes you think there'll be another war?" I gaped incredulously. Wasn't the whole point of the Great War to prevent future wars?
"I didn't think the last one would happen, did I?" she said, her voice strange and hollow, "But it happened anyway. And if I learnt anything from the experience, it's to not put things off for a future that may never come. So many young men with their lives ahead of them, bright lovely boys like you, all dead now, all their tomorrows taken away."
"Now, Emily," Nanny said sternly, "You mustn't talk like that."
"I wonder what the riding is like in Sussex," I hastily changed the subject, not liking the haunted look in Aunt Em's eyes, and rattled by thinking of both living to a hundred and dying young during the same course of one meal, "I've never hunted there before. Do you suppose I ought to take my own horse?"
The rest of the meal passed with inconsequential topics related to hunting and riding, and afterward I went up to my little study to delve further into the life of Louis XIV's younger brother, Philippe, le Duc d'Orléans, the first research subject for my embryo collection of Queers in History.
I'd found this obscure and untidy bookshop in Soho run by a funny little gnome of a man, a former professor of history at Cambridge who'd been sacked for repeated indiscretions with undergraduates; he was helping me with my research, sending along biographies of, and literature by, gentlemen of Our Sort to give me some ideas of what to look for by way of artifacts. He'd started me off with Monsieur (as the duke was known all his life), the Emperor Hadrian, and Ludwig II of Bavaria as the most likely to have left luxurious detritus lying about in shops, and was sending along more whenever I finished with those three.
While I read, I took up my other new hobby, smoking a pipe. I'd snitched one of Pater's from the rack he left behind in the business room, and was busily practicing with it: smoking a pipe is a lot harder than it looks, there's a great deal of skill involved in packing the bowl just right so it stays lit; as a novice, I of course spent more time tamping and lighting than I did actually drawing smoke, but it gave me something to do with my hands (if I sit too still while reading, I fall asleep) and made the room smell lovely.
I was startled from my pursuits by a knock on the door into the corridor. Pond was the only one who used that door, as I generally entered from the bedroom, and he of course never knocked; nobody else ever came into that room except the servants to clean and build the fire when I was still asleep. No one had ever knocked on that door before. So bemused was I that my caller had to knock again to stir me from my stupor.
"Come in?" I ventured, a note of uncertainty breaking my voice.
"So, this is where you hide all afternoon," Caro came strolling into the room, looking around with interest, "What are you up to?"
"Reading," I said simply, strangely shocked to see her in all her fluffy femininity moving around in my terrifically masculine sanctum sanctorum. She was wearing pleated white silk, and glowed like a Christmas angel against all the oak and leather.
"You look quite ridiculous with a pipe," she settled down in the chair opposite me and gave me that superior smile of hers, a smirk I'd have found annoying on anyone else.
"I know, like a child playing dress-up," I admitted, knocking the smouldering tobacco out into the fireplace, "That's why I haven't taken it out of this room. What brings you by?"
"Claude got a letter from his mother today, she wants him to come home. Apparently his brothers are pining for him. They've never been apart this long before."
"Perhaps going home might bring him back to himself somewhat," I said, repacking the bowl of my pipe, "He's been so sad since William was killed."
"I don't know," she took a cigarette from a case hidden somewhere in her costume and lit it with the patent pipe-lighter from my table, which she handed to me when she was done, "I think it might be hard for him to go back to his old life, after living as much as he has the last few months. First the kidnapping and Lady Bea, and now William and the murder. I'm afraid he may have lost his innocence for good, poor lamb."
"Does losing your innocence automatically make your family tedious?" I wondered; having never had siblings or even cousins of my own, I was genuinely curious.
"You don't feel like you belong, anymore," she said after a thoughtful pause, "You know about something they don't know about, and you can't tell them about it. It makes you feel divided from them."
"That sounds sad," I said, "I guess it's just as well I didn't have brothers or sisters."
"And that you're still innocent," she smirked again.
"Me?" I must have looked a picture of comedy, the poorly-lit pipe hovering uselessly in front of my gaping mouth, "By what definition can you call me innocent?"
"Loss of innocence isn't just discovering physical love," she explained, "Nor even pursuing it with the abandon and enthusiasm you do. It's more a matter of trust and wonder. You still think the world is a lovely place."
"Isn't it, though?" I smiled at her superiority, "For the most part, anyway?"
"When your heart gets broken is when you lose your innocence," she said, "When you're betrayed by love. You'll be an innocent until Twister hurts you, which I doubt will ever happen."
"Who broke your heart?" I wondered; she was right, of course, even Jingo's betrayal, painful as it was, hadn't really scarred me—but I'd never really loved anyone until I met Twister.
"Clarissa Seton," she said in a strange tone, somewhere between a sigh and a snarl, "My second year at Roedean."
"What was she like?"
"Exquisitely pretty," she got up and threw her cigarette into the fireplace, going to look out the window at the courtyard, "and unbelievably sweet. Like a Dresden shepherdess made of spun sugar. I fell in love with her the first time she spoke to me. But it was just a game to her, getting girls to fall in love with her and then setting us at each-others' throats for her own amusement, like gladiators. I very nearly murdered Sylvia Cattermole before I realized what she was doing."
"Not very nice," I said after a bit of glowering silence stretched into an uncomfortable pause.
"No," Caro turned back, her composure back in place, "Not very nice. But to return to the reason for my invading your burrow, I think we should go home with Claude."
"Whatever for?" I frowned. Claude was growing on me, I had to admit, but I still habitually held him at arm's length.
"You and I have been away to school, and he hasn't; we have experience of coming home, experience we can share with him. Besides, it's fun there."
"I can't very well just drop in on Claude's people, can I?"
"Of course you can," she laughed, "There's no formality at Bourneham. I'm family, and you're my incipient fiancé, so of course you can drop in. Come spend a week before you go to Verevale."
"Alright," I agreed, knocking another wasted nugget of scorched tobacco into the hearth and giving up on the enterprise, "I'll have Pond pack us up."
"You may want to leave Pond behind," she perched on the arm of my chair and picked up my pipe to examine, "He might not like the informality. The family eat in the kitchen, there."
"The kitchen!" I was stunned, "Like farmers? Will I like it?"
"It's not a hovel, Foxy, it's a country-house, quite comfortable if not as luxurious as Foxbridge. But there's no structure, no rules, no dress-codes. If you want something to eat or drink, you just go get it instead of ringing for it; if you want coffee at tea-time or brandy for breakfast, you can have it; and if you feel like wearing pajamas to dinner, nobody will care. Imagine a whole week without a collar on," she said enticingly, then changed her tone, "Imagine poor Pond in such an atmosphere, he'd be absolutely barking in a matter of hours."
"Do you bring Partridge?" I wondered what Pond would do without me for a week.
"Yes, I'm incapable of dealing with my own hooks anymore. But remember, she's got a theatrical background. Pond is a hereditary professional, he's so much more easily shocked."
"Yes, I see what you mean," I got out of my chair and reached for the bell-pull, "He'll kick like a mule, but I'm sure he could use the rest."
"Good, I'm glad," she kissed me on the cheek on her way to the door, "I'll let Claude know, and telephone to Bourneham so they expect us."
Pond was reluctant to let me go to such an unconventional house, and even more reluctant to let me go with a suitcase full of jumpers and old tweeds; but the promise of a week's paid holiday in Plymouth, taking the sea air cheek-by-jowl with His Majesty's Navy, eventually swayed him. Three days later, I was bowling along the Cambridge Road with Caro at my side, Partridge and Claude in the back seat, and an amazing amount of luggage in the boot of my Rolls (Claude and I could travel light, but Caro had her image to uphold).
Just as the spires of the great university came into view on the horizon, I was directed off the main road toward Leechester, through which we passed to find Bourneham, a sleepy little hamlet cuddled beside the Cam about four miles downriver of the city. On the far side of the hamlet, we turned through the tumbled remains of a stone arch and drove along a heavily wooded lane for several minutes. Then the wood parted and Bourneham Hall hove suddenly into view, a great rambling pile of gables and chimneys, draped in ivy and glittering with warped diamond-pane windows.
When I pulled up to a crumbling wooden porch in the Gothic style, instead of the expected butler, we were greeted by an explosion of Chatroys: two gorgeous boys flew out of the house as if it were on fire and tackled Claude the moment he stepped out of the motor, wrestling him to the ground amid a clamour of glad cries like excited beagles; behind them came a woman of absolutely astounding beauty, who despite being rather stout was a picture of blooming health with bright roses in her alabaster cheeks and a happy glitter in her large inky eyes; finally came an eccentrically dressed and epically bearded man smoking an elaborately ugly Meerschaum pipe, a Victorian Punch caricature of a mossy academic.
The woman stepped nimbly around the seething mass of screeching boys and flung her arms around Caro's neck, peppering her with loudly smacking kisses, "Caro, carina! Che bellissima! But so thin, we will have to feed you up."
"Hello, Zia," Caro pushed the woman away very gently but firmly, then turned her toward me, "This is my friend, Lord Foxbridge."
"So nice to meet you, Donna Cecilia," I put my hand out to shake.
I'd had a long discussion with Nanny, who is an expert on Italian history, about what I was to call the lady: as the foreign-born wife of a duke's younger son, by the strictest Court etiquette one would have addressed her as Lady John; but she is the daughter of a count, so could be called Lady Cecilia if one applied English courtesy titles to foreign nobility (which Court does not); but in Italy, she would properly be called Contessa or Donna Cecilia. After much consideration, we'd decided on Donna Cecilia, being careful to pronounce the C as a Ch in the correct Italian manner, but it all turned out to have been in vain:
"No, no! You must call me Chichi, everyone calls me Chichi," the woman objected, slapping away the hand I'd proffered and clutching me enthusiastically to her ample bosom, kissing me wetly on both cheeks, "How can I call you? Your name is so hard to say."
"My friends call me Foxy," I admitted weakly, overwhelmed by her personality. She was even more beautiful up close, though she can't have been much younger than forty; aside from the bloom on her unlined skin and the enticing lustre of her rippling raven hair, she was dressed with surprising elegance, wearing a simple skirt and cardigan with that inexplicable chic only European women seem to have, and she smelt divinely of violets and gingerbread.
"Foxy!" she laughed delightedly, a musical cadenza worthy of any opera-house, "A little red animal? La volpe? Così adorabile! Now, alla cucina, all of you. We have something to eat."
"Welcome to Bourneham Hall, my boy," Lord John came over and shook my hand after giving Caro a peck on the cheek and a pat on the head; one could see how handsome he was underneath the fierce mass of his beard and hair, but there was a misty vagueness in his manner that I found slightly off-putting; he did not meet my eye at all, instead staring off into space as if he were blind, and his handshake was dry and limp, like having an empty glove placed in one's hand.
I was familiar with the type, of course: at Oxford, I'd known several such dons, the sort who made excellent lecturers but dreadful tutors, men who wandered through life in an abstracted dream until and unless they were discussing their own particular subject, at which point they became passionate and brilliant. I'd just have to find some way to bring the conversation around to early medieval literature and he'd come alive like the Blackpool Illuminations.
I followed the family into the house just as a troupe of burly men came swarming out of the kitchen courtyard to empty the Rolls and drive it off to the stables, and had to stop a moment in the great hall to let my eyes adjust to the lower light.
The lofty room was a wonderfully preserved medieval original, its interior walls made of rough plaster between crooked oak beams, its crumbling stone fireplace big enough to roast an ox in, big uncurtained windows stuck high in the walls, and a crudely carved wood screen across one end with a gallery above and a raised dais beneath. It was furnished rather like a university common-room with massive lumpy couches and armchairs under heavy cloth slipcovers, but instead of books and trophies the scarred old tables were littered with brightly-coloured pottery, vases and urns and figurines all painted in a similar primitive but lively style.
"Hideous, aren't they?" Caro whispered to me when I paused to gawk at a towering tulip-vase blindingly embellished in cobalt, crimson, viridian, and heliotrope that made the real flowers protruding from it seem quite drab, "But not a word, they come from her father's estates in Perugia and she loves them like children."
"They're so colourful," I gasped, though mostly in admiration, finding them crude but delightful, "so exuberant."
"Wait until you see the kitchen," she promised in a dire tone, pulling me away from the vase and through a broad Gothic arch, along a short stone passage, and down a half-flight of time-hollowed stone steps into the vast and ancient kitchen.
"Oh, my," I blinked at the brilliant daffodil-yellow walls and the profusion of gaily painted pottery crowding every surface and shelf. The room was enormous, brightly lit with broad windows and electric lights, dominated by a gargantuan fireplace made of bricks and plaster with ovens and warming-chambers built into it, and an actual iron cauldron of boiling water bubbling away over the flames. There were several women bunched around various counters and appliances, cutting and stirring and kneading things, and they took no notice whatever of us as we came in and assembled ourselves around the venerable scrubbed wood table that stood in the center of the room.
Donna Cecilia bustled around us, pouring milk for her sons and tea for her husband and niece, bringing me first a cup of coffee and then a glass of wine, and enjoining us to dig in to the great heaps of pastries, fruit, and cheeses on painted platters in the middle of the table. Once she had everyone eating, she finally stopped and greeted Claude, yanking him out of his chair into a ferocious hug and kissing him almost amorously on the mouth repeatedly, all while pouring out a stream of endearments and complaints in her native tongue. He took this treatment complacently, but seemed to squirm a bit before she finally let him go.
I imagined Pond in that room, and had to giggle: he would have dislocated his jaw from gaping in disbelief as the lady of the house went and snatched some fresh almond cakes out of the oven and dropped them on our plates herself, as the housekeeper Signora Pozzi was brought forward to meet me and shake my hand, as the Chatroy boys talked with their mouths full and threw biscuits at each-other, as Lord John put his feet on an empty chair and ate muffins off the open book he was reading instead of a plate. I found it quite jolly, though, if a bit overwhelming.
Once I was stuffed to bursting, most of the family had wandered off on their own pursuits and Donna Cecilia excused herself to go get dinner started (Pond would have died, quite simply laid down and died), so Caro took me to my room and then on a tour of the house. It was a really charming old place, large but by no means grand, well preserved but with no pretensions to museum-like perfection or manufactured romanticism; it had grown organically over the centuries without any sort of plan or overriding principle of design, and as a result had a lived-in, timeworn beauty that was entirely enchanting.
My bedroom, when I returned there to unpack and change, was quite comfortable, large and paneled in coffered oak with more university-like furnishings of slipcovered chairs and battered bureaus, though the bed was a massive antique four-poster with a mesh of ropes holding up a sack mattress filled with fresh straw and lavender. The one large oriel window had a lovely view of the river and the garden, and the heavy desk was angled against it so you could look out while writing letters.
There were only two bathrooms, though, and while Caro could loll in luxurious privacy in the room set aside for ladies, with only Donna Cecilia to compete for time, I got to share with all three boys and Lord John. And with the university-like décor extending even into this room, it was rather like being in college again.
"Mind if I come in?" Claude asked, startling me while I was having a contemplative soak before dressing for dinner.
"Sure," I replied, although he was already all the way into the room. But that wasn't what he meant: he quickly shucked off his clothes and climbed into the tub with me. I was too surprised to object, and simply shifted to one side so he could nestle down into the water beside me.
"You have a nicer body than I expected," he said, running his hand over my torso and onto my hip; but it wasn't a flirtatious statement, nor an erotic prelude, it was simply an observation.
"Thank you?" I replied, quite nonplussed, and deeply embarrassed by my body's reaction to his caresses and the sensation of his hot breath against my damp neck; to distract him from noticing it, I tried chatting, "I enjoyed meeting your mother. I bet you're glad to be home."
"Not really," he said, stroking my chest absently, "Something's different. I don't know what it is, but I feel cut off, like I'm wrapped in a blanket and everything is muffled somehow."
"I'm sure it will clear up after you get used to being home again," I offered lamely. It was exactly as Caro had said he'd feel; and though it was my appointed task to help him ease back into his home life the way one does when returning from school, I couldn't think of anything more helpful to say. I was still 'innocent' after all, and had no experience of that cut-off feeling.
"I guess," he shrugged, then pulled away from me and sat up on his haunches, "Budge up a bit, would you? I need to wash."
I budged as requested and handed him the soap, and watched him as he lathered himself up. I really ought to have got out of the tub, but I was still in a state and the water was hiding it, more or less. Besides, Claude was in a similar state, and didn't seem to think a thing of it; I wondered if that strange unselfconsciousness was what I'd missed by not having brothers, or if it was just the Chatroys who were like that—even at Eton, where I'd lost most of my modesty in the shared bathrooms, we did not share a tub, nor touch each other except with the business end of a wet towel, and displays of arousal were invariably ridiculed into remission.
"Do my back, would you?" he turned around and handed me the soap, presenting his broad back for washing; I complied, getting into even more of a state, and contorting myself into an incredibly uncomfortable position so it wouldn't touch him; and when I was done sluicing him down with water from a big copper pitcher, he got out of the tub and did the same for me, lathering up my back and rinsing me off thoroughly. I had no choice but to get out, then, state or no state, and tried to emulate his nonchalance about it. It was the most unsettling bath I'd ever had.
I scurried back to my own room and did what I had to do to compose myself (twice), smoked a couple of calming cigarettes, and then got dressed in my smoking jacket, claret-colour velvet with dazzling navy satin lapels, wrapping a cravat inside my collar instead of putting on a tie. Then I went poking around the house trying to find where they gathered before dinner.
In most households I'd ever experienced, there would be a butler or footman to tell you these things; but there were no male indoor servants at Bourneham, only the half-dozen or so maids and Signora Pozzi, who all cooked and cleaned without the usual specialization. The men were outside, seeing to the livestock and the gardens, only coming inside to eat and repair things. I soon learned that this is a common form of country housekeeping in Italy, even on the great estates, women indoors and men outdoors with no hierarchy among staff; but it seemed quite chaotic and bizarre to me at first.
I found the family in the parlour, a snug chamber directly beneath my bedroom, with tall French windows standing open to the chill evening air while a blazing fire in the elaborately carved stone hearth competed to make the room untenably hot. Donna Cecilia was not yet present, nor had Caro come down, though Lord John was ensconced in an armchair near the window, wreathed in pipe-smoke and dressed in a disreputable old tartan smoking-jacket. He looked up briefly from his book when I came in, pointed amiably at a drinks tray, and went right back to reading.
Claude and his brothers, Tony and Paul, were heaped together in a pile on a worn Knole sofa near the fire, dressed in fresh shirts but no jackets, leafing through an enormous old book that appeared to be an atlas of some sort; that had to be a habit peculiar to those boys, the way they lounged all over each-other like puppies in a basket, I'd never seen any other brothers do that—on the other hand, I'd never known brothers as close in age as those three, barely a year apart and so alike that one might think them triplets.
As I helped myself to a drink, I watched Claude with his brothers, and wondered what he was feeling. For though he seemed natural enough, chatting and cuddling with the other boys out of long habit, I could sense that he was slightly uncomfortable. Being next to me in the bathtub, as Platonic as our relationship was, had stirred his body; what was it doing to him being sandwiched between two nubile youths, now that his body knew such pleasures? That beast, once awoken, cannot crawl back into its shell.
Or was I just being dirty-minded? After all, I'd never really known that kind of warm intimacy except in the realms of Eros, had not been introduced to physical affection until first being introduced to physical passion. Cuddling was only ever, for me, something one did with one's lovers; I had no idea what it would be like to lay in someone's arms in all innocence like that. Perhaps that gentle, clean affection would heal Claude's battered spirit in ways that Caro and I, with all our experience and sophistication, couldn't even comprehend.
"What a pretty colour," Caro came floating into the room, a fluttering cloud of pink chiffon and ostrich feathers, sidling up beside me and taking my whiskey out of my hand, "I've never seen you in a smoking-jacket before."
"Pond doesn't often let me wear it," I admitted, pouring a new drink, "He considers smoking jackets as not to be worn in public, nor in any company containing ladies. Though I must say, I feel a little overdressed in it, here."
"'One can never be overdressed or overeducated,'" she quoted Wilde with a wink, knocking back the whiskey in a single gulp and holding out her glass for more, "And this house is not built on conformity. You needn't try to fit in."
"I enjoy fitting in," I protested, "People like you better if they see you trying to emulate them, and adapt to their customs."
"You care too much about being liked," she scolded me with an indulgent smile.
"Everyone wants to be liked, don't they?"
"I prefer to be admired," she struck a regal attitude, as if posing for a portrait.
"Rather the same thing, isn't it?" I laughed.
"They are completely different things," she said in a pedantic tone and poured a third whiskey for herself, "You might like and admire someone, or you might admire someone you don't necessarily like; but more often, one likes people one doesn't really admire. And people seldom admire those who want desperately to be liked."
"I suppose so," I deferred to her wisdom, though I wasn't sure I agreed with her.
"Ah, miei tre bambini!" Donna Cecilia burst into the room and launched herself at the three boys in the sofa, inserting herself between Claude and Tony while pulling Paul's head into her lap by the hair, "All together again, finalmente!"
"Mama!" they all protested, squirming in her embrace but obviously loving every minute of it, giggling with delight as she kissed them and pinched them and pulled their hair. I wondered if all Italians were so boisterously affectionate; and if the daughter of a count could rough-house with her sons, as well as cook meals with her own hands, what must their farm women be like?
Dinner was served shortly afterward in the dining-room, a low darkly-paneled room with tiny windows that was incongruously furnished with gilt and marquetry Baroque furniture of imposing grandeur, and lit with fantastically elaborate Venetian glass chandeliers, which I later learned Donna Cecilia had brought with her from Italy as part of her dowry.
I say "served," but in fact the food was simply heaped up on the table, and the dishes passed around by the diners themselves instead of by servants. All during the meal, which was immense and varied and quite exquisitely delicious, Donna Cecilia peppered me with questions about my family, my friends, my homes, and my clubs, offering very little information about herself but rather taking the pauses in between my answers to press more food onto my plate. By the end of dinner, I felt like an overinflated tyre.
"Join me for a smoke, Foxbridge?" Lord John asked me after the food had finally been depleted and Donna Cecilia's attention was diverted to talking to Caro.
"Thank you," I replied, rising from my chair, only slightly surprised that the men were expected to leave the dining room first; I was beginning to become accustomed to the Chatroys' topsy-turvy ways of doing things.
"Chichi doesn't like smoke around food," Lord John explained to me as he led the way back into the great hall and then up a crooked wooden staircase in the corner, "Even if we're done eating. And we don't have many ladies visiting, so it only seems fair that the smokers should go out instead of making Chichi go sit by herself in the drawing-room."
"What a wonderful room!" I exclaimed as we emerged from the tunnel-like stair into a vast space, nearly as large and lofty as the great hall below, and absolutely packed with books. The walls were paneled up to shoulder height, then plaster and planks the rest of the way up into the peaked roof, where immense rafters were painted and carved with all sorts of flowers and grotesque figures; two enormous stained-glass oriel windows at either end gave light and air, while two relatively small-scale fireplaces were burning merrily to keep the place warm.
"It was called the 'solar' in the old days," my host beamed at the compliment, and I could tell from his glowing expression that the house was one of his pet subjects, "The heart of the house, really, where family and social life was conducted; though it had been in use as a ballroom when I bought the place. Some eighteenth-century idiot had covered all this paneling in painted pine, and installed a dropped plaster ceiling, very amateurishly done. Vandalism, I call it, but worse things have been done in the name of passing fashions."
"Indeed," I agreed, settling down in a very comfortable sofa and lighting a cigarette, "But at least the damage wasn't permanent. There are so few places like this left."
"You're interested in medieval architecture?" he looked at me with surprise, nestling into his own chair by the fire.
"I'm more familiar with the Elizabethan period," I said, not wanting to commit myself as an expert, "My home is Elizabethan, but my great-grandfather tried to turn it into a medieval castle. Fortunately he had a good architect, some of the worst excesses of Victorian taste were deterred."
"Hmmm?" he murmured encouragingly while lighting his pipe.
"And I recently had a guest staying who is an expert, she told me a great deal that I hadn't known about the house. Funny how we can live in places without knowing much about them, so I started doing some reading."
"You were at Magdalen in Oxford, I heard you say? Did you read in the Arts?"
"I took a first in Modern Greats," I said hesitantly; the subject was a sore one with some scholars, considered too practical and preparatory for the rarified realms of Arcadia, treating government and diplomacy as a trade that one could learn like masonry or engineering.
"Planning on going into politics?" he frowned at me.
"Well, not 'planning' so much as preparing for the inevitable. It seemed sensible to have some idea what I was doing before I took my seat in the Lords."
"Too much emphasis put on sensibility these days," he shrugged grumpily, "But I suppose it's just the pendulum swinging back. Oxford and Cambridge used to exist for the sole purpose of turning out clergymen like ready-made suits; soon we'll be turning out civil servants with the same efficiency. Perhaps scholarship for its own sake is only a passing fashion, itself. Everything takes on the aspect of passing fashion if you view a broad enough scope."
"I expect so," I said, hoping he'd either start an impromptu lecture or relapse into silence: I was already in over my head, conversationally.
"You're not boring Uncle John, are you, Foxy?" Caro entered the room and navigated through the crowd of chairs and book-laden tables, taking my cigarette instead of lighting her own.
"Foxbridge knows something about architecture," Lord John replied in the sort of mildly astonished tone usually inspired by performing monkeys, not standing or even lifting himself slightly as one does when a lady enters a room, "Cleverer than your usual run of friends, Caro."
"Most of my friends are too frightened by your beard to talk intelligently," she said affectionately, perching on the arm of his chair and draping an arm over his shoulders, "Foxy's made of sterner stuff. He solves crimes, you know."
"Professionally?" he raised his eyebrows at me, apparently impressed.
"Oh, no," I smiled at the notion, lighting another cigarette, "I haven't the discipline for a profession, I just suffer from unbridled curiosity. Or, rather, I make professionals suffer from my unbridled curiosity."
"Curiosity without discipline is nothing better than mischief," Lord John scowled quite ferociously.
"He's just being self-deprecating, Uncle," Caro laughed, a light of mischief in her eyes, "He's really quite clever. Foxy, tell him about one of your cases."
"Oh! Um," I stuttered, suddenly realizing that all of the cases in which I'd recently been involved were of a nature that couldn't be discussed in polite company, and certainly not in front of Caro's uncle—I mean, two of them involved his own son in some very indelicate circumstances, "I'm sure Lord John would find my stories quite dull. I'd rather hear more about Bourneham Hall. When was it built?"
"The main part of the house was built in 1450, enclosing the existing great hall which was built in 1380. But the original foundations were laid in 1290, on an even older site. The name Bourneham originates..." Lord John was off and running on a favourite set-piece, his face alight with the fanaticism of a scholar on his pet subject.
"Well played," Caro whispered to me as she got up and moved away from the fireplace, having heard the lecture a hundred times before. She left the library as soon as she'd finished a second cigarette and a last glass of brandy, leaving me the sole auditor of the lesson.
The lecture went on for more than an hour, encompassing the entire history of the house's owners since the days of Canute, the dates and reasons for the later additions of wings, the original uses of all of the main rooms, the restoration projects he'd undertaken since buying the house twenty years back, and his plans for future restoration. When the lecture was over, he simply stopped talking, opened a book, and apparently forgot that I was there.
I got up and poked around the room with some curiosity, but decided to go to bed when I heard my host snoring in his chair. I was glad, as I made my way across to the other wing of the house, that Lord John had not been so wedded to historical authenticity as to eschew electric light, else I would have had quite a time crossing the great hall and navigating so many crooked staircases.