Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Feast of Saint Luke 2

The next morning was Sunday, and I lay in bed idly wondering what fresh new vistas of nonconformity lay before me. At home we always went to church in the village (the chapel in the house, slightly larger than the village church, is pretty much only used for family weddings and funerals) then had the vicar and all the churchmen to luncheon with their families; the servants all had alternating Sundays off, so that only half of them were working at a time, and meals tended to be simpler and service a little slower; but otherwise it was just an ordinary day.

"Morning, Foxy," Claude came rushing into the room, moving surprisingly fast for someone carrying a tray, which he set on the table beside the bed before leaping in under the covers with me, "Cold morning."

"Get off, you're freezing!" I protested as his frigid feet came in contact with my toasty warm legs.

"The whole house is freezing except the kitchen," he said, clutching onto me for warmth, "I forgot to put on a robe and slippers, I got so used to how warm it always is at your house. But I thought you'd want a cup of coffee, and I had to get Mama to make it before she went to chapel."

"That's very thoughtful," I said, touched by the gesture and deeply grateful for the coffee.

"Here, drink it fast before it gets any colder," he reached over to take a cup and saucer off the tray and handed it to me, "I didn't know if you wanted to go to church or not."

"I didn't think you went to church, here," I said, humming with pleasure over the coffee, which was rich and strong and syrup-thick, like you only get in Italian restaurants.

"We don't, but you always went when you were home," he explained, nestling against me again and wrapping his arms around my chest, his legs around my thighs, and burying his chilly face in my neck, "And you always went at Castoris, too. Caro doesn't go when she's here, but if you want to go into Leechester, I can go with you. Papa wouldn't like me to go inside, but I can show you where it is, anyway."

"I don't fancy going to a strange church by myself," I said, swallowing down the last of my coffee and setting the cup aside, then put my arm around Claude's shoulders and snuggled back under the covers. He was already warm again, and radiating his own heat; decently clad in flannel pajamas, he made quite a pleasant addition to the bed, "But you said your mother went to chapel?"

"There's a chapel here in the house for Mama and the servants, but it's Catholic. They do confession first thing, it takes ages, there's still time if you want to hear the mass."

"Another time, perhaps," I said; though I'd like to see what a Catholic mass in a private chapel was like, I wasn't curious enough to get out of bed yet.

"Are you going to church, Foxy?" Caro came into the room without knocking, surprising me a little. She was dressed for riding in a green wool habit and a tricorne hat with a veil, the train of her skirt looped up on the crook of her riding-crop.

"No, though Claude offered to take me," I said as she climbed up on the bed and lounged across my feet.

"Good, you can help feed the animals, instead."

"Hey, why are you all in here?" Tony came in next (nobody knocked on doors in that house, not once while I was there) with Paul right behind him, still in their pajamas. Without so much as a by-your-leave, they both crawled into the bed under the covers on either side of me and Claude; Peter took my free arm and wrapped it around his shoulders as he snuggled up against me, reaching over my chest to pull on Claude's hair, while Tony pressed himself against his elder brother's back and kissed his neck.

"What animals?" I asked Caro after everyone was comfortable—including me: it was nice, being enveloped in that chaste pile of warm bodies; and though my libido stirred at the contact, it wasn't any more urgent a stirring than is usual first thing in the morning.

"Pigs, chickens, horses, two cows, and some sheep," she said with a wicked grin, anticipating my surprise, "The servants don't do any work on the Sabbath, but livestock still have to be tended, so we heathens get to feed the animals, and ourselves, on Sundays. We can go riding after, if you'd like to join me."

"That sounds like fun," I faked a grin; it sounded like hard work, but I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of thinking herself a better farm-hand than me, she was already better at too many other things.

"Well, get up, then, you lazy boys," she started whacking at our legs with her crop, starting a rowdy sort of exodus in which I got pummeled by knees and elbows as well as Caro's whip.

"Bugger off so I can get dressed," I said to her as she walked over to the bureau and began adjusting her hat in the looking-glass.

"I'm physically incapable of buggering," she laughed at me, then poured out some water into the painted pottery basin, "Come wash your face and I'll get your riding togs out."

"I'm not going to be valeted by a lady," I protested, pulling the coverlet up to my chin for emphasis.

"I wish you'd stop thinking of me as a lady," she turned and glared angrily at me.

"But you are a lady," I countered.

"Piffle," she threw a hairbrush at me, narrowly missing my head--though I doubt she actually missed, she was probably aiming exactly one quarter of an inch from my left ear, "If you and I are going to be married, you're going to have to drop your notion of us being different genders."

"But we are different genders," I stubbornly insisted.

"We're both queer, so it amounts to the same thing as us both being boys who aren't queer, or both being girls," she reasoned, snatching the covers off the bed and pulling me out by my arm, "And we've already seen each other in our unmentionables, so what's the point of modesty, now?"

"I'm just not comfortable," I pouted, taking off my pajama-jacket so I could wash while she rummaged in the wardrobe, "It feels wrong."

"Just think of me as a man who happens to be dressed as a lady," she said, tossing a fresh shirt at me, "instead of a lady who sometimes dresses as a man."

"I'll try," I promised wearily, knowing I was beat, "But it'll be difficult, since I have already seen you in your unmentionables."

With Caro's help, I was dressed neatly, if not as nattily as usual, in fairly short order; trotting down to the kitchen, we found the Chatroy boys clustered around the fireplace, toasting bread on long forks and guzzling big bowls of porridge.

Claude interrupted his meal to show me where everything was, letting me scoop up my own porridge from a great cauldron over the fire, fix it up with sugar and cream from a crock, cut my own bread from a massive loaf, and pulled up a chair so I could make my toast in comfort. Caro had already eaten, her maid had brought her breakfast in bed before the rest of us were up, so she preceded us into the kitchen yard.

Once I'd eaten and gone outside with the rest, I wished to God I'd had a camera: the Tatler would pay a fortune for a photograph of Lady Caroline Chatroy, fashionable Society darling in full sidesaddle riding kit, hunkered down on a wooden stool and milking a cow. I helped feed the pigs, robbed several hens of their eggs, and had a go at milking a goat--though the goat did not enter into the spirit of experimentation and bit me when I handled her too roughly.

The rest of the day passed in leisurely fashion, Claude joining Caro and me for our ride and showing us over the hamlet of Bourneham and other highlights of the estate; then I had a nice long bath (the only uninterrupted bath I had in that place) before dressing for lunch, which was also taken in the kitchen without the assistance of servants, making sandwiches out of slices from an immense Italian pork sausage full of nuts and peppercorns, along with olives and hunks of goat-cheese. The same thing happened at tea-time and dinner-time, as well, just picking from big platters of cold meats and cheeses, pickles and fruit--antipasti is the Italian word--while the servants lolled about their own quarters, the kitchen gardens, and the barn. It was quite pleasant.

Monday brought the servants back to their posts, and I was wakened by a tiny wizened gnome of a woman who greeted me cheerfully in Italian (all of the servants were Italians, imported along with the Baroque furniture and the colourful pottery from Donna Bianca's Perugian home) while opening the curtains, and left me an ewer of hot water and a pot of coffee.

The rest of the morning I spent with Claude and his brothers, who climbed into bed with me as soon as I'd finished my coffee, then dragged me down to the river for a freezing bathe, where we raced each other against Lord John's motor launch when he went upriver to the University for the day. Then we all had hot baths in the house before a huge breakfast, followed by a prolonged game of tennis.

The Chatroy boys pretty much adopted me as one of their own, despite my being several years older than them, including me in all of their pastimes as well as dog-piling on top of me whenever I sat down on any piece of furniture that could accommodate them; and while I sometimes had to fight an urge to touch them inappropriately, such urges were not frequent nor particularly compelling.  It was really like becoming a child again, myself.

Those boys lived in their own idyllic little world, a little boys' world full of little boys' pastimes (tracking wild animals, chasing each-other through the woods, climbing trees, catching tadpoles in jars, etc.), a world into which Eros had yet to intrude: ripening bodies were observed and remarked on, but not explored or indulged. 

Eros cannot be excluded completely from any world, though, at least not when some denizens of that world were already closely acquainted with him; my second night at Bourneham, Claude sneaked into my bedroom not long after midnight, and we spent a pleasantly strenuous hour or so together before he returned to his own room.  

I worried, the next day, that his habitual candour would expose our new relationship to his brothers, or worse his parents, but I needn't have: Claude was discretion itself in this one aspect of his life, and did not by so much as a look or a gesture give any indication of our nocturnal pastimes, nor so much as a hint of his adventures with the white-slavers, Lady Beatrice, and William (though he did share them with me, in excruciating detail).

With growing fondness, I watched Claude slowly returning to himself as he reacclimated to this world, the bubbling enthusiasm and shocking candour that had formerly enlivened his personality coming back to the surface; and I found myself losing my own grown-up reserve, becoming rather more Claude-like than I would have thought possible.

Caro kept herself somewhat aloof from us, though, watching our games from the sidelines and spending much of her time chatting with Donna Bianca in the kitchen. And though she was dressed impeccably all the time, she seemed so much more relaxed and serene than usual, her jokes became gentler, her smiles less ironic; it rather enhanced her beauty, I thought, and I found my admiration for her developing into something more like affection.

All the time I was at Bourneham, though, I missed Pond terribly, even more than I missed Twister. I'd not realized how completely I'd come to depend on him as a confidante as well as a servant, and I rather wished I'd brought him along after all--although the informality of the place would have shocked him to the core, I think he would have enjoyed himself after getting used to it. The demonstrative affection of Italian men, not to mention their beauty (every male servant on the estate was a stunner, without exception), would have been ample recompense for any discomfiture he might have experienced.

The end of the week brought a new treat, in the form of a church fĂȘte in the neighbouring village of Leechester, which was one of the highlights of the local social calendar, featuring not only an elaborate pleasure-fair and the usual sports but also a lengthy concert of local talent and visiting luminaries. We were to make a day of it, spending several hours at the fĂȘte and then having an early supper with the local squire, returning to the village hall for the concert followed by a cake-and-cocoa reception in the vicarage.

The boys were as excited as children on Christmas morning, and I was afraid they were going to injure themselves in the haste with which they bathed and dressed; Donna Bianca dressed with special care, assisted by Caro's maid, wearing some magnificent cameos and a very smart cloche; Caro was of course immaculately turned out, fully expecting to be photographed by the local Press, and could have walked straight into the Royal Enclosure in her French wool walking-suit, fox-fur muff, and extravagant picture hat; I made an effort as well, since I'd probably be photographed along with her, though I didn't have my best suits with me.

Leechester is a very picture-postcard sort of place, leafy and quaint, with a line of thatch-roofed buildings along the top of a gently sloping common meadow terminating at the banks of the Cam, dominated by a squat and massive medieval church at the eastern end of the High Street. The fair was set up around an ornamental bandstand in the centre of the common, made up of a dozen colourfully striped canvas tents; at a slight remove from this cluster, on the banks of the river, a string of Gypsy caravans stood in a semicircle around some sort of scaffolding.

I made my way around the fair with Caro on my arm, applauding the little band in the bandstand, examining the foodstuffs and handicrafts offered for sale, being photographed by the local press and Country Life, failing to win a goldfish with some quoits, riding on the carousel, and eating an ice-cream; but all the time, I was drawn to the scaffolding in front of the caravans, trying to figure out what it was meant to be used for, and the curiosity was eating me up.

But of course Caro could not be led, and no matter how hard I tried to steer our course toward the scaffolding, she kept counter-steering toward the game booths, which she studied intently but did not seem interested in playing.  I was coming to understand that Caro's passion for games was more for how they worked than just winning them, she was observing the mechanics of the thing rather than the players or the prizes.

"I want to go see what that scaffolding is for," I finally tried the direct approach, always my last resort, pulling her away from her study of the cocoanut-shies.

"Certainly," she swiveled cheerfully on her heel,