by Sally Fell
The young man slipped quietly into the sunlit library and immediately found himself the object of two identical glares from two very similar pairs of eyes.
"Uncles," he said politely, nodding at the two men seated before the large mahogany desk. A third pair of eyes, a good deal more friendly in their appraisal, was turned upon him from the other side of the desk, and the young man acknowledged their owner.
"Mr Pemberton, I trust you are well?"
"Quite well thank you, Mr Doyle..."
"Raymond!" the larger of the other men spluttered. "I thought that on this day of all days you would at least attempt to arrive for an appointment on time."
Raymond Doyle glanced pointedly at the ornate marble clock which was ticking noisily upon the mantel. "My apologies, Uncle," he replied, careful to maintain his respectful tone. "I was informed that the reading of the will was to take place at twelve o'clock. I see that we are still two minutes short of the hour." He seated himself in the one vacant chair as his uncle raised his eyes heavenwards and snorted derisively.
"Can we get on with it now, Pemberton?" the quieter of Raymond's two uncles asked impatiently.
"I am sorry, Sir Edgar. Miss Doyle's instructions were quite clear," the solicitor replied authoritatively. "The proceedings were to take place at twelve o'clock and not before."
For once in his life Raymond Doyle shared his uncles' feelings wholeheartedly. This was the moment that he'd been dreading for months; from that first terrible day that he'd been gently told by old Doctor Miller that his beloved aunt would not recover from her illness. Now that she was gone -- one of the few people in his life who had ever truly loved him -- all he could see stretching before him was a lifetime of misery and destitution, and that being the case he would as soon get the whole sorry business over and done with without any further delay. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, causing the old leather to squeak noisily, and earning himself yet another glare of reproach from his uncles.
Watching the hands of the clock drift slowly towards the appointed hour, Raymond could only sit and wait as an air of impending doom settled inexorably about him. His future, once so pleasant to consider, now seemed to him to resemble nothing more than the jaws of a dark and loathsome cavern. He expected nothing from his aunt's estate; he had no inkling of her financial affairs but he knew beyond doubt that she was not wealthy. Their comfortable but fairly frugal lifestyle bore witness to that fact. And the house in which the two of them had lived -- the Dower House, which had been graciously bestowed upon his aunt by his uncle Edgar and in which Raymond had lived since the age of three -- remained the property of his uncle. That he would be allowed to remain there was more than he could hope. So lost in his thoughts was he that the striking of the clock gave him a start, and he sat up in his chair as Pemberton slowly shuffled the papers before him on the desk and cleared his throat theatrically.
"Sir Edgar, Sir Nigel, Mr Doyle," he addressed each of them in turn. "We are here today, as you are aware, to witness the reading of the last will and testament of Miss Charlotte Doyle, spinster, late of the Dower House, Highgate, in the county of Middlesex..."
"Get on with it, man, can't you!" Sir Nigel exclaimed bitterly. "Never mind all the rigmarole, just read the damned thing."
Raymond looked wide-eyed at Pemberton, and saw his own sense of shock reflected in the older man's expression. The solicitor turned his gaze toward Sir Edgar, obviously seeking direction. The older of the two brothers sighed, his air of indifference completely unruffled. "Just the bare bones, Pemberton, there's a good fellow," he said languidly. "We can hash out all the details later."
"As you wish, Sir Edgar," the elderly man replied distractedly as he hurriedly rearranged the documents in his grasp. "It is most unusual, but nevertheless..."
Raymond was beginning to wish that he was a thousand miles away from this nightmare. He certainly had no desire to sit and listen to his dear aunt Charlotte's last instructions; the very fact that there was a will to be read at all was like an arrow in his heart. And yet if the thing had to be done then it was as well that it were done properly, with the respect that was due to her memory. How she would have hated this.
"Now then... yes, here we are," Pemberton continued hastily. "Miss Doyle's primary instructions concern her nephew, Mr Raymond Doyle." He looked up at the said nephew, ensuring that he had that gentleman's full attention. Raymond returned his glance with a sinking heart. "The 'bare bones' of Miss Doyle's bequest, Sir Edgar, is that Mr Raymond Doyle should receive an allowance of two thousand pounds per annum from her estate..."
Raymond stood abruptly as the other occupants of the room turned as one towards him. He looked agog at his uncles.
"Two thousand pounds per year!" bellowed Sir Nigel. "Impossible! Charlotte was as poor as a church mouse."
"Please, Sir Nigel. If I may continue?" Pemberton protested. Sir Edgar laid a restraining hand on his brother's arm and nodded towards the solicitor.
"Two thousand pounds per annum," the older man continued. "Until such time as the said Raymond Doyle chooses to marry or reaches the age of thirty years, whichever is the sooner, upon which event the allowance will increase to six thousand pounds per annum."
Raymond felt himself physically stagger at the pronouncement, the sight of his uncle Nigel's face taking on a particularly florid shade of vermilion the only thing that registered with his shattered senses.
"I... forgive me," he stammered, clutching the back of his chair for support. "I am feeling somewhat... Forgive me, Uncles, I need some air." He lurched from the room, intent only upon escaping its claustrophobic clutches.
The cooler air of the passage outside the library served to improve the feelings of panic and bewilderment that had threatened to overwhelm him. Leaning against the wall for support he loosened his collar as he rested his head back against the oak panelling and attempted to bring his rapid breathing back under control. His mind was reeling. Surely there was some mistake? Two thousand pounds a year? Six thousand if he married?
From the room behind him came the sound of raised voices demanding explanations of the solicitor. Pemberton's voice in response was calm and evenly toned and Raymond only caught the odd word here and there; "sound investments"... "intuitive speculation"... The words came at him as if in a dream.
Suddenly aware of a cautious hand on his arm he turned to see Mr Pemberton standing beside him. "Mr Doyle? If you are recovered, sir, there are some papers that require your signature."
Raymond took a deep breath, and then another. "My apologies, Mr Pemberton," he replied. "Your words came as something of a shock. I never expected..."
"Indeed, sir," the solicitor observed quietly, a wry expression upon his face. "I suspect that you are not the only one who has received a shock here today. If you would be so kind..." He gestured towards the library door and Raymond preceded him into the room. Observing the barely disguised contempt upon the faces of his uncles, he kept his eyes fixed on the floor and returned to the seat that he had previously vacated so abruptly.
"Now, Mr Doyle," Pemberton began as he resumed his place at the desk. "In accordance with your late aunt's instructions an account has been opened in your name at Hoare's Bank in Fleet Street, and an initial deposit of two thousand pounds has been made. Further deposits of the same amount will be made each year upon the anniversary of your aunt's death until such time as you either marry or reach the age of thirty. In which case, as I have previously stated, the amount will increase to six thousand pounds per annum."
"This is madness!" Sir Nigel interrupted, unable to hold his tongue any longer. "The whole amount in one fell swoop? The boy'll spend the lot in a month, I'll wager. Surely a quarterly allowance would be more appropriate?"
His uncle's noisy rantings seemed to cut a swathe through the fog that had been occupying Raymond's brain; suddenly there were a multitude of questions that he was eager to know the answers to. Too impatient to await the solicitor's response to his uncle's protestations he gave vent to his all-consuming curiosity. "It is probably not my place to ask," he began tentatively, surprising himself by his own audacity. "But I am totally perplexed by this whole turn of events. Mr Pemberton, just how was my aunt able to settle such a bequest upon me? She was not a wealthy woman -- at least, not to my knowledge. How on earth did she manage to accumulate such a fortune?"
The business-like demeanour with which the elderly man had carried out his duties thus far seemed to thaw somewhat, and he looked at Raymond Doyle with something akin to kindness in his expression. "As I have explained to your uncles, Mr Doyle, your aunt was a very shrewd woman. As a young lady she was herself the recipient of several sizeable bequests and -- being an eminently sensible young person -- rather than spend her fortune on fripperies as one might expect a young woman to do, instead she chose to invest her money. It was my honour to advise her in her dealings during those early years, but I have to say that her knowledge in such matters soon outpaced my own, and in more recent times she has been ably directed by Mr Hichens of Threadneedle Street. In short, Miss Doyle eventually increased her fortune a hundredfold and, apart from several small bequests to her brothers and a few others, the bulk of that fortune now passes to you, sir."
Raymond could do no more than gape at the man. The very thought of his aunt -- his dear, sweet, practically-minded aunt Charlotte -- dealing on the London Stock Exchange was enough to send his brain reeling.
Noticing his air of confusion, Pemberton turned to Sir Nigel. "In answer to your question, sir, regarding the regularity of payments into Mr Doyle's account, it was your sister's express desire that the specified amount should be deposited yearly as a lump sum rather than as a monthly or quarterly allowance. I will admit that I initially advised her against such a decision but Miss Doyle was most adamant that her nephew was an exceedingly level-headed young man who would handle his inheritance wisely." A snort of disgust was the only response forthcoming from the increasingly irate man.
As Raymond prepared to ask his next question of the solicitor, Sir Edgar Doyle cleared his throat noisily. "I am sure that the regularity of the payments into Raymond's account -- and what he decides to do with the money -- are of no import to us, Brother," he said softly. "You mentioned some papers which need signing, Pemberton?"
Raymond felt the familiar chills along his spine at the sound of his uncle's voice. He had grown used to his uncle Nigel's habitual bluster over the years, but Uncle Edgar's unctuous tones remained as terrifying to him now as they had when he was a small boy.
Pemberton shuffled the papers before him once more. "Yes, Sir Edgar," he replied. "Mr Doyle, if you would be so kind as to place your signature on this document -- there are two copies also -- you will now have full access to the monies in your newly-opened account." Raymond scrawled his name obediently at the bottom of the sheet that was thrust before him and then repeated his action twice more. "Excellent," the solicitor continued. "I shall witness your signature..." There was a pause as he signed his name with a flourish. "And then if you, Sir Edgar, and you, Sir Nigel, would also witness the documents..."
Raymond watched uneasily as his uncles silently obliged with their signatures and passed the documents back to Pemberton, who added two of the copies to his pile of papers and held the third out towards him. "This is your copy, Mr Doyle. Of the other two, I shall retain one and the other will be kept by Hoare's. The money is there for you whenever you choose to withdraw it."
"Yes. I thank you, sir," Raymond replied dazedly, studying the document in his hands and yet seeing nothing. It was only the movement before him that made him look up, and he stood to shake the solicitor's hand as that gentleman made to take his leave.
"Mr Doyle, please feel free to call upon me at any time if you need advice of any kind," Pemberton said as he moved towards the door.
"Yes, I shall. Thank you."
Raymond watched as the elderly man nodded curtly toward his two uncles and then was gone. It was only the sound of his Uncle Edgar's voice that brought his attention back to the present. "Well, Raymond. A rather eventful and surprising day for us all, I think."
"Yes, indeed sir," he stammered in reply.
"Would you be good enough to leave us. There are matters which my brother and I need to discuss, as I'm sure you'll understand."
"Oh... Yes, of course, Uncle. I shall... um... I shall see you at dinner, if not before." He bowed stiffly to the two men and left the library, the document which encapsulated his change of fortune now resembling nothing more than a throwaway scrap of paper in his hands. He was barely through the door when the discussion of his future began behind him. Shocked at his own inclination to eavesdrop, there was nevertheless nothing he could do to stop himself from indulging in that most unfortunate practice. Not surprisingly, it was his uncle Nigel who was expressing his opinions with the most fervour.
"What's to become of the boy? Will he remain here?"
"Hardly a boy, Brother. He is almost four and twenty, after all."
"Well, he may as well be a mere boy for all the use he is to either of us. I ask again, what's to become of him?"
"He cannot stay here. I intend giving the Dower House to my boy Charles when he marries next year. And I won't have him under my feet here, eating me out of house and home. Can't you take him?"
"Certainly not! What the devil will I do with him? He'd be nothing more than an encumbrance to my household, not to mention an embarrassment."
Raymond sank back against the wall, dismayed at the words he was hearing. He was under no illusions as to his uncles' opinions of him, but to hear those opinions expressed so forcibly made him feel as though he was the lowest form of living creature. His face began to feel clammy with sweat as his comfortable world crumbled around him. Realising that his uncle Edgar was speaking once more, he forced himself to listen, despite now knowing that the old adage about eavesdroppers never hearing good of themselves was undeniably true.
"Two thousand a year isn't enough for him to set himself up in his own household. If we want to get him off our hands there is only one solution -- he must marry. With six thousand a year he'd have no need for us to keep him. Yes, we must marry him off. And the sooner the better."
Raymond lurched forward and grabbed the banister for support. Marriage! The whole idea was unthinkable! He had known for several years now that the institution of marriage was not for him, and the thought of his uncles arranging such a thing filled him with a sense of panic. He tried unsuccessfully to blot out the conversation which was continuing behind him in the library.
"Do you know of a suitable girl?"
"I believe so. More than one, in fact."
"Excellent! Marriage it is then, and the boy out of our hair for good."
Suddenly aware that he had no desire to hear any more of the conversation taking place in the library, Raymond moved swiftly and quietly towards the stairs, his mind in a whirl. As he reached the top of the staircase his eyes moved automatically upwards and he stopped abruptly. The painting of the five Doyle children had always been a part of his life, but he felt as if he were seeing it for the first time. There was his father, William, the oldest of the five, of whom he had no recollection. His uncle Henry, the second son, who had disgraced the family in some way that was never spoken about, and whom he had never met. Then his uncle Edgar and uncle Nigel, who were currently mapping his entire life out for him at that very moment, and finally his aunt Charlotte.
He looked at the face of the young girl in the painting before him, seeing so clearly the fire and determination that he had come to know so well in those six-year-old eyes. And where would he be now without her? He had been orphaned by the age of three, and it had been his unmarried aunt who had taken him under her wing; who had taken him to live with her in the Dower House despite the protestations of his uncles and who had cared for him and nurtured him throughout his young years. What would have happened to him had his uncles taken on the responsibility of his upbringing he shuddered to think. Even now he could recall his aunt fighting like a lioness to keep him at home when his uncle Edgar had decreed that he should be sent away to school. She had forestalled that particular plan by employing a tutor to teach him his lessons, thus opening up a whole new world of learning and creativity to him. And as he grew older she would share with him her hopes and dreams for his future. Foremost amongst those dreams was one of the day when he would be happily married and the Dower House would be filled with her great-nephews and nieces. He could still hear her words, even now:
"Oh, Raymond! How I shall love your children!"
How could he ever have told her that marriage would never play a part in his life? That there would never be any offspring of his running wild with delight through the rooms and gardens of her home as she so fervently desired? He could never have disappointed her so. The memory of his aunt and the depth of his feeling for her seemed to calm him somewhat, the sense of panic he had felt at his uncles' words now replaced by one of bewilderment and loss. She had been such a lively and vital individual that he simply could not have envisaged that the day would come when she would not be there by his side. And now here he was, faced with the legacy that she had left him. He could not condemn her for it. It had been done for love, nothing more and nothing less. And yet now it seemed that the material manifestation of his aunt's love for him was about to make his life one of abject misery. It was with a heavy heart that he descended the stairs and left the house.
The short walk along the drive to the Dower House helped to concentrate his thoughts somewhat. The more he considered his situation the clearer the solution seemed to be. He would have to go away. Away from the house that he had grown up in, away from this part of the country that he knew and loved so well, away from his friends...But then, would that be such a hardship after all? He would not be allowed to continue living in the Dower House for very much longer; he had heard that from his uncle Edgar's own lips. His friends, few as they were, were staunch and true, and would always remain his friends whether he stayed here or not. And why should the idea of leaving Highgate distress him so? He was a fit and healthy young man with no responsibilities. And moreover, he reminded himself, a fit and healthy young man with two thousand a year to his name; perhaps it was high time that he broadened his horizons, maybe even travelled abroad. Despite his initial misgivings, he could actually feel a small knot of excitement and anticipation beginning to form in his stomach. His pace increased as he neared his destination; tonight he would make plans for his departure and tomorrow he would put those plans into action.
So lost in his thoughts was he as he approached the Dower House that he was suddenly taken aback at the sight of an unfamiliar carriage standing in front of the house. Puzzled, he approached cautiously and was surprised to see the solicitor, Pemberton, alight as he drew near.
"Mr Pemberton! I thought that you had returned to the City. Have I neglected to sign something?"
"Forgive this intrusion, Mr Doyle," the other man replied, seeming a little flustered. "There is one other matter pertaining to your late aunt's will which needs to be settled. A matter which your aunt afforded a certain degree of... um... secrecy."
Raymond frowned and gestured towards the house. "We'd best go inside then."
Seated in the study, Raymond waited patiently as the elderly man rummaged in his overflowing bag, eventually extracting a sizeable package which he passed to his puzzled host. Raymond examined the package with an air of bewilderment; it was wrapped in oilcloth and tied securely with twine to which was attached a small label bearing a name and address which he read aloud. "Mr Acton Chaplin of Banstead, Surrey." He glanced up at Pemberton and shook his head. "Who is Mr Acton Chaplin? The name means nothing to me."
The solicitor seemed taken aback. "Your aunt never mentioned the gentleman to you?" he asked.
Raymond frowned and shook his head once more. "No, never. Should I know him?"
Pemberton sighed and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "It was Miss Doyle's wish that you should deliver this package to Mr Chaplin personally. I had assumed that you would know of him, even if you had never actually met the gentleman."
"Mr Pemberton, I can assure you that I have never heard of Mr Acton Chaplin in all my life. Who is he? And what does this package contain?"
The solicitor was slow to respond, seemingly taking a few moments to gather his thoughts. "When I first met your aunt, Mr Doyle, she was a young woman. A charming young woman, in fact, with her fair share of admirers. Mr Chaplin was one of those admirers; I believe that he was the one she favoured above the rest. I fully expected them to marry, as did everybody else acquainted with them. But alas it was not to be, for what reason I do not know. Suffice to say that Mr Chaplin left Highgate and I never heard of him again until the day that your aunt entrusted me with the safekeeping of the package which you now hold. As to what that package contains, your aunt did not say, but I suspect that it is something that was very important to her, and probably equally important to the gentleman in question."
Raymond's eyes remained fixed on the package as he toyed absently with the label. "Why did she never tell me about him?" he asked quietly. "If he meant so much to her that she remembered him all these years later... It makes no sense."
The older man leaned forward and placed a hand on his arm. "Mr Doyle," he said kindly. "You are a young man of the modern century. You do not understand the attitudes of thirty years ago. Then a young woman would not have dared to go against her family's wishes in the matter of matrimony."
"Against her family's wishes?" Raymond replied, looking up sharply. "Is that why they never married?"
Pemberton shrugged. "The fact that your aunt would entrust the delivery of this package to you and you alone and, in addition, beseech me not to inform her brothers of your errand leads me to assume so."
Raymond sighed. "Hence your somewhat furtive arrival at my door."
There was a moment's silence as Raymond pondered the situation. "Very well, Mr Pemberton," he suddenly said. "I shall undertake this final errand for my dear aunt with pleasure. I had been considering leaving Highgate, as luck would have it. Surrey is as good a destination as any to start with, I suppose."
The solicitor smiled and nodded as he stood, extending his hand to the younger man as he also rose from his chair. "I wish you luck in your travels, Mr Doyle."
"Thank you, sir," Raymond replied warmly as he clasped the elderly man's bony hand. "You have been a true friend to my aunt, Mr Pemberton, and I'm grateful to you for it."
"I always held your aunt in the highest esteem, Mr Doyle. It gives me great satisfaction to be able to carry out her last wishes as she directed. I hope that you will come to see me upon your return. I should like to know that the package was delivered safely."
"Of course. Goodbye, sir."
As the door closed behind the solicitor, Raymond sank back into his chair and ran a slightly shaky hand through his hair. How could he have known his aunt so well and yet have been oblivious to the existence of someone who had been so important to her? He felt suddenly ashamed as he realised that he had never given a second thought to the fact that his aunt had never married; never doubted that her chosen role in life was to devote herself to his upbringing. Was he really that insensitive?
He found himself gazing through misty eyes at the package that he had placed on the desk. Did this Mr Chaplin even know of his aunt's passing? Was he still alive himself? Cuffing his eyes dry, he rose and took up the package, placing it in the large bottom drawer of his desk which he carefully locked before placing the key in his waistcoat pocket. It seemed that he would be leaving Highgate after all then, although Surrey hardly qualified as one of the exotic climes that he had envisaged. But, as he had said to Pemberton, he supposed it was as good a place as any to start.
He suddenly found himself yawning loudly as the day's confusing events caught up with him. He would forgo dinner with his uncles; in all truth, he did not think that he could face them tonight. His bed seemed a far more attractive proposition. He crossed the room slowly and paused in front of the well-stocked bookcase, reaching down to take a fairly recent copy of the Universal British Directory from one of the lower shelves. Thumbing through the pages he quickly found the information he was seeking, and then replaced the hefty volume. He yawned again, surprised at how exhausted he suddenly felt. He should retire early, he knew; he would need to arise well before dawn if his swiftly formulating plans were to be brought to fruition. He had one more thing to do before he retired though, and with a hundred and one questions echoing through his brain he closed the door of the house behind him and set off in the direction of the stables.
The evening light was fading fast as he tapped on the door of the cottage adjoining the stables, smiling broadly as that door was thrown open and he was bathed in the warmth and the light spilling out from within. "Good evening, Martha," he greeted the comely middle-aged woman standing before him.
"Master Raymond! Now here's a surprise!" beamed the woman as she stood aside to allow him entrance to her home. "Come inside, do."
He allowed himself to be hustled into the tiny cottage, taking pleasure as always in the homely, happy atmosphere within. A tall, rangy figure uncurled itself from a seat in front of the fire as he entered, and clapped him unceremoniously upon the shoulder. "Well, lad! A surprise indeed, as Martha says. Come and sit yourself down by the fire."
"Thank you, Jem," he replied as the recently vacated chair was moved nearer to the flames and he was guided into it. "The evening is somewhat chillier than I expected, I'll admit."
Martha made a disapproving noise as she poked the fire up vigorously. "And you out without a topcoat as well. Catch your death, you will," she chastised him. An amused glance passed between Raymond and his host as Jem pulled another chair up to the fire.
"He's not a boy anymore, Martha," Jem smiled. "No need to keep clucking around him like a mother hen."
Raymond looked at the two of them affectionately. How he envied them their easy companionship and the love they so obviously shared. Not for the first time in his young life he wondered whether it would ever be his good fortune to experience something similar. He very much doubted it. But still, he counted himself lucky that he'd had Jem and Martha's love and friendship over the years. For as long as he'd been able to remember, in fact. Next to his late aunt they had always been the two most important people in his life, and they had always made it plain that they were equally as fond of him. Whether it was because they had never been blessed with children of their own, he did not know, but he suspected that he played as big a part in their lives as they did in his.
His thoughts were interrupted by the thrusting of a large mug of ale into his hand, accompanied by a scowl from Jem. "Something's troubling you, lad." It was a statement of fact rather than a question.
Raymond sighed and took a swig from his mug. "I'm going away," he announced bluntly. There was a gasp of disbelief from Martha as she sank onto the settle. Jem nodded silently and waited for him to continue.
At the outset he had intended telling them only the barest of facts but as he began to recount the day's events to his two dearest friends he found himself unable to hold anything back. The extent of his inheritance and the shock of its discovery, his horror at the plans his uncles were already making for him, Pemberton's secretive visit, and lastly the responsibility that had been placed upon him to ensure the safe delivery of the package to the mysterious Mr Acton Chaplin. By the time Raymond had completed his narrative he felt quite drained. It did not seem possible that so much could have befallen him in just a few short hours.
"Have you supped this evening, Master Raymond?" Jem asked, practical as ever, and breaking the silence which ensued.
"What? No... no, I haven't."
A nod of the head from her husband was enough to send Martha scurrying off into the pantry. Jem eased forward and placed his big ex-prizefighter's hand on the younger man's arm. "When your visit to Mr Chaplin is completed... will you be coming back?"
Raymond hesitated. "I don't know, Jem. I think perhaps not," he replied quietly.
Jem nodded. "I think we'll keep that from Martha for the time being," he said in a low voice. "Your going to Banstead will be enough for her to cope with for now." He smiled at Raymond's look of consternation. "Always told her you'd go one day. Young chap like you wants to see the world, I told her. Only natural." He patted Raymond's arm encouragingly and looked up as Martha returned, hands full of plates of bread and cheese, and a decidedly delicious looking side of ham. "There's a name we haven't heard for a long while, eh Martha?" Jem asked in a cheerful voice. "Mr Acton Chaplin, eh?"
Raymond looked from one to the other in amazement. "You know of the gentleman?"
"Never away from here was he, Jem?" Martha replied as she set the food down on the table. "Before you were born, of course. Very sweet on poor Miss Charlotte, he was."
"Why didn't they marry? Mr Pemberton told me that everyone assumed that they would."
"None of us ever knew for sure." Jem replied. "Always thought your uncles mustn't have approved the match. Anyway, he left Highgate suddenly and we never saw him again."
Martha shook her head sadly as she handed Raymond a fully-laden plate. "Poor Miss Charlotte was upset for many a long month. Not that she ever said anything to the likes of us, but you could see it in her face."
Raymond could feel a knot of anger in his stomach. "It seems that arranging other people's lives for them is not a new diversion for my two uncles," he said coldly.
"It was a long time ago, lad," Jem replied kindly. "And your aunt had a happy life, especially after you came here to us." They ate in silence for a few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. "'S funny, that," Jem said suddenly, startling Raymond enough to make him spill his ale.
"What's funny?" he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Mr Chaplin living in Banstead. I did hear tell that it was down in those parts that Sir Henry ended up."
Raymond gaped at him open-mouthed. "Sir Henry? My uncle? I thought nobody knew where he was!"
"Oh no, they know all right. Just never talk about him, that's all."
Raymond's inquisitive nature was immediately aroused. "Nobody's ever told me a single word about him, do you know that? What happened all those years ago?" Jem studied the inside of his glass with great concentration. "Jem, if you know I wish you'd tell me. After the day this has been I don't think one more revelation about my family is going to shock me."
"Well... this is only hearsay, of course..."
"Jem, I know full well that you know everything there is to know about this household," Raymond interrupted with a snort, fixing Jem with his best glare as he did so.
Jem sighed. "Your Uncle Henry was a gambler, Master Raymond. He would wager on anything; cards, horse racing, cock-fighting, bull-baiting. He didn't always lose, mind you. I made him a pretty penny or two during my days with The Fancy, always used to place a few pounds on me he did. His trouble was that he didn't know when to stop. Couldn't stop I suppose, if the truth were known. Anyway, before too long he was in debt. He couldn't honour his IOUs and he fled to France, but when he got there he carried on gambling just like before. Only then he started forging the old master's moniker on his notes, and nobody was any the wiser until they were called in."
Raymond looked at him aghast. "He forged his own father's name on his IOUs?"
Jem nodded. "The old master was livid when he found out. Settled Sir Henry's IOUs though, but then he disowned him. Old master was never the same again. He died five or six years after that."
"And nobody in the family has ever seen Sir Henry since then?"
"Oh, he turned up when the will was to be read. Don't know what he thought he'd get out of it. I remember the look on your father's face when Sir Henry arrived on the doorstep. Thought he was going to take an apoplexy, I did. Brought his wife and the boy with him too."
"There is a family, then?"
"Only the boy that I know of. 'Course, there could well have been more. D'you remember that day, Martha?"
"That I do," Martha replied with a chuckle as she looked at her young guest. "You and the other little laddie were running round and round the garden all afternoon. Like two peas in a pod, you was."
"You'd have been about two year old then," Jem continued. "And the other boy about five. Martha's right though, you could've been twins 'cept that he was a head taller than you."
"And that was the last anyone saw of Sir Henry?" Raymond asked doubtfully, still unable to quite believe that a family would cast out one of their own so coldly, no matter what misdemeanours had occurred.
"As far as any of us know," the older man shrugged in reply. "Sir William sent him off with a flea in his ear and nobody's heard of him from that day to this. Maybe Mr Acton Chaplin will know something of him."
Raymond smiled at him. Jem's last comment had mirrored his own thoughts precisely. "Jem, can I ask a favour of you?" he asked, the mention of Mr Chaplin's name bringing his mind back to his current situation.
"Will you take me into London in the cart tomorrow morning?"
Jem nodded his assent as a shocked expression appeared upon his wife's face. "Must you go so soon?" she asked, twisting her apron in her hands in her distress.
"I'd as soon get this business over and done with, Martha," Raymond replied kindly. "Then I can decide what I'm going to do with the rest of my life." He reached out and took one of Martha's hands in his own. "Surrey isn't foreign parts, you know," he grinned. "I don't think I'll be in danger of being eaten by cannibals or some such." She giggled as she gently pushed him away in mock irritation and he turned his attention back to Jem. "I'd like to leave at first light, Jem, before there's anyone up and about at the big house."
His friend frowned at his words. "Secrets, Master Raymond?"
"Yes, Jem, I'm afraid so. My aunt was quite clear in her instructions that her brothers should know nothing of this. I'm afraid that I shall have to ask you both to keep this evening's conversation between ourselves."
"Very well. You can trust Martha and me, you know that. I'll have the cart at your door at seven tomorrow morning. Martha and young Samuel can look after the stables between them until I return." He looked at his wife for confirmation, which she readily gave with a nod of her head.
"Thank you, Jem. And you, Martha. Leaving the two of you behind will be the hardest part of all."
"But surely you'll be home after a week or two," Martha protested.
Raymond found himself on the receiving end of a glare from Jem and silently cursed his slip of the tongue. "Yes, of course I shall be. I'm very tired, and today has been a very strange day. My thoughts are jumbled, forgive me." He stood and looked around, wondering how long it would be before he sat and talked with his friends like this again. Pulling Martha up from her seat he encompassed her in a huge hug and, whilst he hoped that he was not being overemotional, still he could not resist the urge to do so. He gave her a wide grin as he released her and turned to her husband. "Until the morning then, Jem," he said, clasping the big man's hand warmly.
Both men breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief as they turned into the Strand, knowing that their journey was all but completed. Neither held any great affection for the teeming London streets, despite the fact that Raymond had frequently accompanied his aunt on her visits to the metropolis, and Jem had spent a good deal of his life there in the pursuit of his former occupation. Raymond looked around him at the bustling humanity that surrounded them as they slowly progressed. It never failed to amaze him that the quiet lanes of Highgate were but a few miles away from all of this.
Jem guided the small cart expertly around the impressive landmark of St. Clement Danes and into the courtyard of the Angel Inn, where there was hardly any less activity than on the busy thoroughfare. Finding a reasonably quiet corner of the yard, he pulled the cart to a halt and jumped down. "We made good time, Master Raymond," he observed as he reached to retrieve his young master's bag from the back of the cart.
Raymond consulted his pocket watch as he joined him and took the bag from his hand. "We did that, Jem," he agreed. "The Kingston Mailcoach is due to depart at two o'clock. That will give me ample time to secure a place on the coach and enjoy a leisurely meal."
"And when you reach Kingston?"
"With luck I will find a local carrier to take me to Banstead. Failing that I can walk. It is but a few miles." Jem nodded silently. "It would probably be wise if you set off back to Highgate as soon as you have watered the horse, Jem. The chances are that you won't have been missed, but best not to tempt fate," the younger man warned."
"Don't you worry, lad. Martha and me have got it all worked out. If the master sends word for me she's to tell him that I've been called to visit my old uncle Tom in Hampstead." He flashed Raymond a sudden grin. "Did you know that the poor old fellow is dangerously ill?"
Raymond grinned back at him. There was a strangely awkward silence between them for a few seconds before Jem spoke again. "D'you remember when you were a nipper and the two of us used to spar in the stable yard?"
"Of course I remember," Raymond smiled. "I'm not likely to forget all those bloody noses you used to give me."
"Them bloody noses was all your own fault," the other man answered indignantly. "Used to keep telling you not to come forward all the time. Sometimes you've got to back off, give yourself time to plan your next attack. You'd have made a terrible fighter, lad."
Both men laughed at the memory of those happy times many years before. "Remember the first thing I learnt you all those years ago? The most important thing of all?" Jem continued.
"Keep your guard up," Raymond replied without hesitation.
"Aye, that's right. And you just remember that, lad. Always keep your guard up. And I don't just mean your fists, either."
Raymond nodded and grasped Jem's shoulder. "Don't worry about me, Jem. What's the betting I'll be back in Highgate as soon as I've carried out this errand? You won't even have had time to miss me!" He tried to assume a carefree tone to his voice, but even so his words failed to ring true. Somehow he had the feeling that it would be a very long time before he saw his home again, and he knew that Jem could see right through his false air of bonhomie. "I'll write to you and Martha!" he suddenly declared cheerfully.
Jem's face lit up. "A letter! Well, that would be something, to be sure." He waved a finger in Raymond's face. "Nothing fancy, mind. Just plain and simple words. You know I'm not much of a scholar."
"Nonsense, Jem. You were always a far better pupil in the art of reading and writing than I ever was in the art of pugilism," Raymond laughed in reply.
"Well... begging your pardon, Master Raymond... that's not saying much, is it?" Jem observed drily.
The two laughed again as they slowly walked the horse over to the drinking trough and watched in easy silence as the creature noisily drank its fill. When the horse finally lifted its head Raymond reached out and clasped Jem's hand. "Best not delay any longer, Jem. The morning will be well advanced by the time you return."
Jem nodded and returned Raymond's handshake strongly before climbing back up onto the cart and easing the horse around. The younger man raised a hand in farewell as the cart moved briskly towards the courtyard gate, slowing just long enough to allow Jem to look back over his shoulder. Raymond heard his voice boom out as the cart neared the exit -- "No forgetting that letter, mind!"
The late November afternoon was already dark and decidedly chilly as Raymond Doyle alighted from the letter carrier's cart in front of the Woolpack Inn. He hurriedly thrust a florin into the man's outstretched hand and watched thankfully as he went on his way. Raymond had found him a most insalubrious individual, with a surly nature and a smell that reminded Raymond of a chicken coop that was in dire need of mucking out. He looked about him, to little avail. The bright lights of the Woolpack were the only sign of life in Banstead at this hour and, shouldering his bag, he stepped forward and opened the door. The heat and the smell of tobacco hit him immediately, causing him to catch his breath. Several heads lifted from their tankards of ale to regard him suspiciously before returning to their previous positions. He made his way to the counter and plastered a nervous smile upon his face.
The morning mist was still clinging to the trees as Raymond strode purposefully along the lane. He had been thankful to discover from the landlord of the Woolpack that Mr Acton Chaplin's house was situated only slightly less than two miles from the inn. The thought of having to avail himself of the letter carrier's services yet again had not been a pleasant prospect, and he was grateful that he was within easy walking distance of his goal. The opportunity to stretch his legs was also more than welcome after all the hours he had spent the previous day seated in various modes of transport, none of which had proved to be especially luxurious, and the lumpiness of the mattress upon his bed in the inn had provided him with something less than a restful night's sleep.
Shifting the hefty package which he carried from one arm to the other, he contemplated his forthcoming meeting with his aunt's old friend as he walked. As little as he relished the thought of breaking the news of his aunt's death to the gentleman, his feelings of trepidation were far outweighed by those of curiosity concerning the relationship which had existed between the pair, and the reason for its sudden ending. Added to this was the hope that Mr Chaplin might also have some news of the errant Sir Henry Doyle or his family.
As he rounded a bend in the road his eyes alighted upon an ornate gateway from which a wide driveway swept downwards, and there at the bottom of the hill, exactly as described by the innkeeper, stood the elegant red-brick house which he knew to be his destination. It was only then that a disturbing thought occurred to him; could he be sure of a warm welcome here? Had the parting of the ways between Mr Chaplin and his aunt been acrimonious? Perhaps that gentleman would take none too kindly to the reopening of old wounds and the awakening of unhappy memories.
He hesitated for a moment as he passed through the open gate and for a brief instant he almost gave in to the desire to turn around and retrace his footsteps. Those feelings of apprehension were not too difficult to suppress however. A strong sense of duty had been instilled in him from an early age, and his natural instinct was to carry out the task with which he had been charged. He therefore hefted the parcel into a more comfortable position under his arm, took a deep breath and strode toward the house with renewed vigour.
His loud rap at the door was answered rather warily by an ancient-looking individual who regarded him with some suspicion. "Good morning," Raymond greeted him with more cheeriness than he was in fact feeling. "Is Mr Chaplin at home?" His enquiry was met by a searching look and air of disbelief on the part of the elderly manservant. Raymond awaited a reply, but none was forthcoming as the man continued to gape at him. "This is Mr Chaplin's residence, is it not?" he ventured tentatively.
"Yes, sir. I... er... I beg your pardon. For a moment I thought..." The man suddenly seemed to gather his wits and opened the door fully so that Raymond could enter. "Forgive me, sir. Please come in." Raymond looked around him at the warmly decorated hallway as his hat and coat were taken from him.
"Mr Chaplin is out exercising the dogs at present, sir, but he should be returning shortly. If you would care to wait in the study..." Raymond nodded his thanks as the man turned and gestured towards an open door. "Might I ask your name, sir?" the servant asked as Raymond passed by him, still clutching his precious parcel.
His answer died on his lips as the front door of the house suddenly burst open and three decidedly shaggy and exceedingly muddy spaniels launched themselves playfully at him. Placing the package on a table out of harm's way he returned the animals' interest with delight, more than happy to revel in their friendly greeting despite the damp smudges being left behind on his clothing.
The servant hurried from the room to greet his master and Raymond heard the murmur of voices as his presence was made known. "A visitor, Lorimer? Who is it?"
"I was just about to ask the gentleman's name, sir, when the dogs..."
Raymond looked up as a rotund, red-faced man entered the room and was alarmed to see the affable expression upon his face immediately change to one of amazement. "Good morning, sir," he said, as he extricated himself from the attentions of his newly acquired canine friends and stepped forward, hand outstretched. "My name..."
"...is Doyle, of that I have no doubt."
Raymond looked back at him in utter bewilderment. "Yes..." he stammered in reply. "Raymond Doyle. At your service, sir." His hand was grasped in a strong grip which lasted for several seconds as the older man studied his features intently.
"Incredible... absolutely incredible..."
"I fear that there is something about my appearance that troubles you, Mr Chaplin," Raymond ventured cautiously.
His words seemed to bring the other man back to his senses and the grip on his hand was released abruptly. "Please excuse me, Mr Doyle. I have been unforgivably rude." Chaplin gestured towards a chair, which Raymond took gratefully, all the while aware of the unremitting scrutiny of his host. Shifting awkwardly in his seat, Raymond opened his mouth to speak but was silenced by an upraised hand. "One question, Mr Doyle. Might I ask the name of your father?"
"My father? My father was Sir William Doyle of Highgate." He took a deep breath and continued. "The brother of Miss Charlotte Doyle, with whom I believe you were once acquainted."
The older man faltered momentarily at the sound of the once familiar name, and sank into the chair which was fortuitously standing behind him. He closed his eyes and seemed to gather his thoughts for a moment. "Then you are her nephew," he eventually answered as he looked at his young guest thoughtfully, his manner subdued. Raymond nodded silently. It was patently obvious to him that his aunt still meant a great deal to this man, and he frantically searched for the words with which to inform him of the sad event of her passing. As it transpired there was no need. "And you have come here today with news of her, am I correct?"
"Yes, sir. Sad news, I am sorry to say."
Chaplin nodded and slowly passed his hand over his face. "It has to be either illness or death," he said. "There is no other reason for a member of your family to seek me out. Which is it?"
"The worst of the two, sir."
"As I feared," Chaplin sighed and fell silent again. Raymond waited patiently while the other man composed himself. "How long since?"
"A little over a fortnight."
They sat quietly for a few minutes before Chaplin stood, fussily straightening his apparel in -- or so it seemed to Raymond -- an attempt at normalcy. "I may ask you for more details some day, Mr Doyle, but not just now, I think." His discomfiture was all too apparent to the younger man as Raymond took up the package from the table and held it out to him.
"My aunt left this for you, sir."
Mr Chaplin looked at him in puzzlement as he took the parcel from him. "What does it contain?"
"I do not know, sir," Raymond replied with a shake of the head. "All I know is that it was one of her last wishes that I should deliver it to you personally. It is the reason that I am here today."
He watched in silence as the older man stripped the wrappings away to reveal a lidded box. Lifting the lid slowly, Chaplin sighed audibly as he caught sight of the box's contents. "So many years ago..." he murmured quietly as he extracted a handful of letters from the box. "To think that she kept them for all those years..."
There was a long silence as Chaplin shakily examined the contents of the box, seemingly oblivious to the presence of his visitor who quickly began to feel acutely embarrassed at the knowledge that he was intruding upon the other man's obvious grief.
As he stood to take his leave his host sniffed loudly and looked up at him with misty eyes, his complexion now pale in comparison with the healthy glow he had exuded not five minutes before. He placed the letters carefully back into the box which he then transferred to the table alongside him before rising slowly from his seat. "Mr Doyle, I am forgetting my manners once more," he said croakily, as he grasped the younger man by the arm. "Please be seated. There are many things I should like to discuss with you if you have the time."
"Of course," Raymond replied as he sat once more. "I must admit that my own curiosity is somewhat aroused."
"Then we shall exchange views and information as we partake of a brandy or two," the other man said as he crossed the room and took up a decanter and two glasses. "Not that I am accustomed to strong liquor at this hour normally, but today is somewhat exceptional I feel."
Raymond nodded his approval, relieved to see that something of the older man's earlier air of bonhomie was gradually returning. "I have to tell you, Mr Chaplin, that I was completely unaware of your existence until a day ago," he began, as he accepted the offered glass. "But I have been told that you were very close to my aunt at one time."
"Close? Mr Doyle, I loved your aunt dearly. If she had consented to marry me I would have been the happiest man on this earth."
"It was not to be," Chaplin replied, shaking his head sadly. "The match did not meet with the approval of your uncles, and so..." He held up his hands in resignation. "It was a long time ago, Mr Doyle. But now, tell me of your aunt's life. Was it a happy one?"
"I believe it was, sir," Raymond smiled. He began to recount the story of how his aunt had taken on the responsibility of a small orphaned boy, and before too long he found himself laughing at some of their escapades, laughter that was echoed by his host as that gentleman was reminded of Charlotte Doyle's fun-loving nature and kindly spirit.
The atmosphere became more subdued as Raymond told of his aunt's last days, but as he concluded his tale he found himself feeling surprisingly uplifted and at peace with himself for the first time in many weeks. The very act of recounting so many happy years spent with his aunt had somehow seemed to lift the dark gloom that had settled around him, and had left a sensation of peace and tranquillity in its stead. He gathered his thoughts to find Mr Chaplin looking at him with a kindly expression on his face, and he instinctively knew that he was in the presence of someone who could prove to be a steadfast friend. "And what of you, sir," he asked quietly. "I hope that your life has turned out to be as happy as my aunt's was."
Chaplin looked at him ruefully. "I have been... content," he replied.
"You have a family?"
Chaplin shook his head. "No, no family."
"You never married?"
"Why would I have wished to marry, Mr Doyle? I could never have settled for second best."
Raymond was suddenly filled with a great sadness at the thought of what Mr Chaplin and his aunt had given up, an emotion that was swiftly replaced by an even greater anger as he thought of the hurt and despair that they had suffered at the hands of his uncles. His anger only served to strengthen his resolve that those two gentlemen would not dictate the path that his own life would take. "Why do some people insist upon interfering in the lives of others?" he said bitterly, allowing the words to slip out before he could stop them.
"Ah. There speaks a man who has also suffered from a degree of interference in his life, if I am not mistaken."
A look of understanding passed between the two men.
"You are not mistaken, Mr Chaplin," Raymond sighed. "If I had not been charged with the delivery of this package to you, then I should have left my home in any case. As it was, the instructions which my aunt left merely led to my departure taking place sooner rather than later."
"It is a sad day indeed when the actions of relatives lead a young man to leave the only home he has ever known," Chaplin replied with concern. "What are your plans now that you have carried out your errand as directed?"
Raymond looked back at him in confusion. "Why, that I do not know, sir," he admitted. "Suffice to say that I shall not be returning to Highgate within the foreseeable future."
The two men sat in silence for some minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. When Raymond looked up again at the older man he found himself being regarded with undisguised sympathy. "Mr Doyle, I see a great deal of your aunt in you. I believe you possess the same appetite for life that she had and, that being the case, I am sure that you will make a success of whatever you choose to do with your life." Raymond managed a half-hearted smile, unconvinced by Chaplin's optimism but appreciative of his words nevertheless. "As for now, we appear to have talked the morning away and Lorimer will no doubt be preparing to serve my midday meal. You will join me, of course?"
Luncheon in the company of Acton Chaplin turned out to be a pleasant and somewhat educational affair. Raymond found that his host and he had many interests in common, and he was happy to sit and listen to the older man's knowledgeable discourse on a variety of subjects. By the time the remnants of the meal were cleared away Raymond felt as if he had known the other man for years rather than hours. As they returned to Chaplin's study, a thought suddenly occurred to Raymond and he turned to face the older man. "Mr Chaplin, when I arrived here both you and your man seemed surprised -- shocked, even -- at my appearance. May I ask why that should be so?"
Chaplin looked askance at him. "Surely others have remarked upon the resemblance before?" he replied. "It cannot be the first time that you have been mistaken for him, I'll be bound."
"Resemblance? Resemblance to whom? Whom did you mistake me for?"
"Why, Frederick of course!" Chaplin replied, surprised. Raymond looked nonplussed. "Frederick Doyle," Chaplin said, looking at him as if he had suddenly taken leave of his senses.
Raymond shook his head and shrugged. "Who is Frederick Doyle?"
"My dear young sir..." It was Mr Chaplin's turn to look baffled as he sat abruptly. "I am referring to the son of your uncle, Sir Henry Doyle. Your cousin, Frederick Doyle..."
"My cousin?" Martha's tale of Sir Henry's son and himself playing together in the garden suddenly sprang into his mind.
"Who happens to be the exact image of yourself!" Chaplin exclaimed. He paused and peered at his young visitor a little more closely. "Apart, of course, from the mark that you bear upon your cheek. Well, this is a fine turn of events and no mistake..."
Raymond almost fell into the nearest chair. "A legacy from a childhood accident," he replied abstractedly, lifting a hand to his damaged cheekbone as he spoke. "We really are that much alike?"
"The positive spit and image," Chaplin replied. "And you really knew nothing of him?"
Raymond shook his head. "I knew that Sir Henry had a son a little older than myself, but nothing more. To be truthful I was hoping to learn something of my uncle during my visit here. I understand that he settled in this part of the country after he left Highgate. Can you tell me where I might find him, Mr Chaplin?"
"Mr Doyle, I am sorry to be the bearer of sad news. Sir Henry passed away some four years ago."
"Oh... I see. Then what of his family? Where can I find Frederick? Are there other cousins?" As the questions poured from his guest's lips Mr Chaplin held up a hand to silence him.
"Frederick was Sir Henry's only child, Mr Doyle. As to where you might find him, well..." Chaplin hesitated for a moment before continuing. "I understand your desire to seek out your family, sir, but I should tell you that neither Sir Henry nor his son were well-liked in this parish. I have no desire to speak ill of the dead, or of the living come to that, but I would advise caution in your dealings with that young man if you should happen upon him."
"I know why Sir Henry left Highgate, Mr Chaplin. I know that he brought dishonour upon my family and almost ruined my grandfather. Nevertheless I am sorry that I shall not now have the opportunity to meet him. But I should dearly like to meet my cousin Frederick, if only to see if we are as alike as you say."
Chaplin sighed. "I have no idea where Frederick is now. His departure from these parts was very sudden -- one day he was here, the next he was gone. That was just about a year ago or thereabouts and as far as I know, he has never returned. It was always the opinion of the local populace that the Law was not far behind him, and knowing his reputation I see no reason not to concur with that theory."
"But is there nobody who would know of his whereabouts?"
Chaplin considered his reply. "There is one man," he eventually replied. "A neighbour of mine; he and Frederick were great friends from boyhood. Inseparable, in fact, until something occurred that rendered their friendship asunder. What that was I do not know, but I'm told that from being the best of friends they became the worst of enemies. Nevertheless, I believe that Captain Bodie would be the man to help you."
"Can you take me to see him?" Raymond asked excitedly.
"I know that Captain Bodie is not at home today, but I will take you to him tomorrow if you so wish."
"Thank you, sir. I am grateful for your help."
Chaplin regarded him thoughtfully. "I am not entirely sure that introducing you to your errant cousin would be a wise move on my part, but still..." After a moment or two, the older man stood and crossed the room to where Raymond sat. "And now to practical matters, Mr Doyle. Where are you staying? At the Woolpack I daresay?"
"Yes sir, I..."
"Then I shall send someone for your belongings and have them brought here. I would not see the nephew of my dearest friend lodging in such a place. I trust that that would be acceptable to you?"
"Why yes, of course, Mr Chaplin. I should be most happy to avail myself of your generosity," Raymond replied delightedly.
"Good, then that is settled. And in the morning we shall pay a visit to my friend, Captain Bodie.
Raymond was in good spirits as he and Mr Chaplin strode out along the country lane. A pleasant and affable evening had been spent in that gentleman's company, good food and good wine being the precursors to a night of exhilarating conversation, and now the bright, sunny morning was having a positive effect upon his demeanour.
'Rosebriars', the home of Captain Bodie, was less than a mile from Mr Chaplin's residence, and Raymond found the short walk to be a perfect start to the day. A vague sense of excitement was curling inside him as they were shown into the library by Captain Bodie's manservant, there to await the arrival of his master. He had been vastly intrigued by Mr Chaplin's tale of a long-lost cousin whom he resembled so closely as to be practically identical, and he hoped beyond hope that this morning's meeting would lead him to his kinsman.
"Ah, here is Captain Bodie now." Chaplin's voice cut into Raymond's wandering thoughts abruptly. He turned and extended his hand with a smile towards the newcomer. To his dismay the gentleman's jaw dropped in amazement and an expression of utter disbelief played across his face for just a brief second before his features contorted with fury.
"You!" he hissed incredulously. "I told you never..."
Raymond instinctively took a step back as Captain Bodie raised his riding crop to shoulder height, convinced beyond doubt that he was about to be struck.
In an instant Mr Chaplin, moving surprisingly quickly for a man of his age, was between them. "No!" he exclaimed. "Captain Bodie, you have made a dreadful mistake!"
"It is not I who have made the mistake, sir. I vowed to kill this blackguard if he ever again came within fifty miles of me."
Raymond stood transfixed. He had never in all his life witnessed such abject fury as that now displayed by this man.
"Hear me out, sir," Mr Chaplin continued. "This gentleman is not who you think. If you would but take a moment to calm yourself you would see that I speak the truth."
Raymond found himself being studied intently by a pair of the deepest blue eyes he had ever seen. He watched as the anger which those eyes had contained when first lifted to his face gradually abated to be replaced by a look of sheer disbelief.
There was silence in the room for several minutes as both men looked at each other. "I don't understand..." Bodie eventually croaked. "Just who are you?"
"You may know the face, sir, but you do not know the man," Chaplin said quietly. "Allow me to introduce Mr Raymond Doyle."
Again Raymond extended his hand, albeit somewhat hesitatingly.
"Doyle!" Captain Bodie almost spat the name.
"The cousin of the... er... gentleman whom you mistook him for," Chaplin continued. "The resemblance is remarkable, I'll admit."
Deciding that the time had come for him to play some part in the proceedings Raymond took a step forward and bowed politely. "At your service, sir."
The proffered hand was accepted at last, although the expression on his host's face was still one of incredulity, and he continued to stare at Raymond until that young man began to feel decidedly uncomfortable.
It was only the sound of a nervous cough from Mr Chaplin that seemed to snap Captain Bodie out of his trance. "Forgive me, gentlemen," he apologised. "I am a poor host. Please be seated." He waved absently at two easy chairs before being seated himself. "It is a long time since we last met, Mr Chaplin." His eyes never left Raymond's face for one instant as he spoke and, for his part, Raymond's eyes remained locked hypnotically upon those of Captain Bodie.
"Indeed it is," the older man replied, clearly relieved that the conversation had taken on a more pleasant tone. "You have been away from home again, I hear."
Bodie nodded. "Ireland," he replied distractedly. "Regimental doctors to see, papers to be signed. The inner wheels of the British Army sometimes turn exceedingly slowly. But still, it is all settled now."
"Ah, then we shall have the pleasure of your company in Banstead a good deal more than we have been used to! Splendid!"
Raymond squirmed nervously under the continued scrutiny of his host, and listened with growing impatience to the pleasantries being exchanged by the two men. There were so many questions that he wanted to ask of Captain Bodie and, judging by the expression on the other man's face, he was also in no mood for polite conversation.
As Mr Chaplin continued to expound the delights of life in Banstead as opposed to that of an Army officer, Raymond suddenly felt unable to sit and listen in silence any longer. He took a deep breath and prepared to interrupt the conversation if necessary, as rude as that might be. He was forestalled however by Captain Bodie, who rose abruptly from his chair and crossed the room to stand before him. "Mr Doyle, I can stand this suspense no longer. You say you are Frederick's cousin?"
"So Mr Chaplin informs me. I myself have never met the gentleman, but now that I am aware of his existence I am desirous to do so. It is part of the reason why I am here in Banstead. Mr Chaplin was under the impression that you would be able to help me."
He was shocked at the range of emotions that played across Bodie's face in the space of a few short seconds. As the other man turned away and moved slowly and somewhat unsteadily over to the fireplace, Raymond was at an utter loss to understand what was going through his mind. He was also taken aback to realise that he had not noticed Bodie's distinct limp before, a fact which disconcerted him for some reason.
"I cannot help you, Mr Doyle," Bodie replied quietly, his back still turned towards the room. "I have had no contact with your cousin for well over a year now, and that is precisely how I wish things to remain."
"Mr Chaplin! Have you not informed our young friend here exactly what manner of man Frederick Doyle is?" Bodie's anger seemed to have returned with a vengeance as he turned and faced his two guests.
"Sir, it is not for me to..."
"Then it falls to me, Mr Doyle, to tell you that your esteemed cousin is nothing but a liar, a cheat, and..." He hesitated and ran a hand through his unfashionably short hair. "...and worse, if I could but prove it." The outburst seemed to drain him and he leant, pale-faced, against the mantel.
"Are you unwell, Captain Bodie?" Raymond stood and moved towards the other man, concerned that his presence should have caused his host so much distress.
"No," Bodie replied between clenched teeth. "It's just this damned leg. It will pass in a moment."
Raymond remained close by, unconvinced that Bodie was not about to pass out at his feet. "I'm very sorry, sir, for causing you so much distress," he said quietly. "It was merely my intention to contact a member of my family, nothing more. I shall make enquiries in other quarters and trouble you no more." He was unprepared for the anguished look that the other man gave him; a look, he was sure, that had not been prompted by pain of a physical nature.
As the colour began to return to Bodie's face he shook his head ruefully, his expression composed once more. "It is I who should apologise, Mr Doyle. I am usually a more even-tempered soul, but..." He rubbed his injured leg tellingly. "It's perfectly natural that you would want to know about your family. Unfortunately I shall be busy for the rest of today but if you would care to call again tomorrow..."
There was a quick flash of his eyes in the direction of Mr Chaplin, unseen by that gentleman but noted instantly by Raymond who knew at once -- although how he knew he had no idea -- that he was to come alone when next he called. "Yes, I shall. Thank you, Captain Bodie," he murmured, somewhat confused. "I... er... I trust that the rest of your day will not prove too arduous."
For the first time Bodie smiled, and Raymond felt an odd but not unpleasant sensation steal over him. "Not arduous, Mr Doyle. Thoroughly boring, more likely. Entertaining an auctioneer come to discuss the disposal of my father's library. He'll tell me yet again that I need to have the damned books catalogued before he can sell them, and I'll tell him yet again that I don't have the time or the inclination to do so. Fortunately the man's anxious to have the collection otherwise he would have washed his hands of me a while ago."
"Until tomorrow then," Raymond replied, returning the smile, and this time his hand was grasped strongly.
Captain William Bodie watched from his window as the two men walked slowly down his drive, passing from his sight as they rounded the bend by the grove of poplar trees that shielded 'Rosebriars' from the road. He was unsure whether the sense of unreality that he was currently experiencing was due to the waves of pain emanating from his injured leg or, more likely, to the shock of being confronted by the sight of Frederick Doyle's double standing before him, as large as life, within the four walls of his home.
He recalled his last meeting with the man, some eighteen months previously. An ugly encounter that had ended with him having to be forcibly restrained from inflicting serious injury upon his former friend. Even now, the memory was enough to rekindle the feelings of blind rage that Doyle was capable of arousing within him.
He hurriedly turned away from the window, oblivious to the stab of pain that the sudden movement caused him, and reached for the decanter of brandy which stood on a nearby table. Pouring himself a large measure of the spirit, he cursed himself under his breath. Anger was an emotion that he could deal with. Indeed, it was an emotion that had served him well on the battlefield, giving him an edge, or so he believed, that had ensured his survival when his comrades were falling around him.
Harder to deal with however was the self-disgust which he felt at the other emotions that Frederick Doyle aroused. That his body could betray him so was an anathema to him. For at that last meeting, even while he was being prevented from strangling the other man by the rough hands of unknown bystanders, he knew that his desire for Doyle had not diminished. His craving for him was as strong as it had been for all of the eight years that they had been lovers. And he knew that even now, if Frederick Doyle was to offer himself up to him, he would take him without hesitation despite all that had passed between them. It had ever been the same. Frederick Doyle was a temptation that he found impossible to resist.
He drained his glass and slammed it down heavily upon the table. There was now another element to the equation. This stranger, bearing the hated name of Doyle, who had walked into his house today. A stranger with the face and body that he still wanted so much. Looking up he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror which hung over the mantel. Have you taken leave of your senses? Why ask the man to return here tomorrow? Far better to have shown him the door and be done with him.
He knew, of course, the answer to his self-posed questions. His lust for Frederick Doyle was a vice that he would never, ever allow himself to indulge in again. Raymond Doyle, however, was another matter entirely.
Raymond found himself reflecting upon the events of the afternoon as he slowly dressed for dinner. He had been in the man's company for less than an hour, and yet he was greatly intrigued by Captain Bodie. Never had he seen anybody display as many varying moods in so short a time; never had he seen the evidence of such distress upon another man's face before. The fact that some of that distress was obviously attributable to a physical injury of some sort also aroused his well-developed sense of curiosity. What had befallen this otherwise apparently fit and healthy young man? An occurrence serious enough to cause his discharge from the Army, that much was plain from his conversation with Mr Chaplin.
He allowed himself a tiny smile as he thought of his garrulous host; no doubt Mr Chaplin would be happy to discuss the enigmatic Captain Bodie over dinner. A brief flicker of guilt arose as he realised exactly where his thoughts were leading. His interest in the whereabouts of Frederick Doyle, and the capability of his cousin to arouse such violent reactions in his new acquaintance, was perfectly natural and acceptable. His interest in Captain Bodie, he realised equally well, was not. For although Raymond's dealings with the members of his own sex whose inclinations mirrored his own were few and far between, he was not so na´ve as to be unable to recognise his own feelings of arousal when confronted by an attractive man. And Captain Bodie was nothing if not attractive to Raymond's eyes. He wondered exactly what the reaction of the other man -- and Mr Chaplin, come to that -- would have been if either of them had known that the stunned expression upon his face when first confronted with Bodie's fury was not entirely due to the violent outburst to which he was subjected. For, quite simply, Bodie had taken his breath away. The very sight of him had filled Raymond with a longing that he had never experienced before.
He finished dressing with his mind on anything but dinner. Tomorrow he would call on Captain Bodie as invited -- and how grateful he was that that invitation had been issued! Even if Bodie had no relevant information about his cousin, the prospect of seeing the other man again was more than enough. Tonight though he would learn what he could about Bodie from Mr Chaplin. For a moment he chastised himself as he paused with his hand upon the door handle; sometimes a streak of self-interest emerged in him that both surprised and grieved him. Mr Chaplin would no doubt be happy to discuss his neighbour's affairs with his new friend; that Raymond's interest was anything but innocent would not occur to him. So where was the harm? he thought as he pulled the door open decisively. Nothing would come of it anyway...
Later that same night Raymond reflected upon the conversation which had taken place between Mr Chaplin and himself over dinner. As he had suspected, his host was nothing if not forthcoming upon the subject of his friend and neighbour. The elderly gentleman seemed to positively revel in the telling of how Bodie had been injured upon the field of battle at Waterloo, the victim of a sabre blow which -- according to Mr Chaplin -- had almost resulted in the amputation of the young man's leg. It seemed that it was only due to the skill of the Army surgeon who had attended Bodie that the limb had been saved, although the injury had brought his Army career to an abrupt end and it appeared unlikely that Bodie would ever be completely free of pain again.
As Raymond lay in bed his thoughts kept returning to the other man's plight. It had been Bodie's imposing physical presence that had first snared his attention; although only an inch or two taller than himself, Bodie was none the less solidly built and Raymond had no doubt that the man was used to using his physique to its full advantage. It was not difficult to imagine him in command of a body of men; in point of fact he appeared to be everything that Raymond had ever imagined an Army officer to be. How on earth would such a man learn to cope with life as little more than an invalid?
The wave of compassion which suddenly swept over him took him by surprise; why should such a thought bother him? Despite his feelings of attraction towards Bodie, the fact remained that he barely knew the man, and it was certainly no concern of his as to whether Bodie was capable of adapting to a life as a less than able civilian. And yet he was concerned. For even if he disregarded the physical aspect of his attraction to the other man, there remained an attraction of another kind. The kind of attraction in which sexuality plays no part but which is firmly rooted in friendship; an attraction which Raymond had felt but a few times before but which he recognised now without hesitation. As much as he wanted Bodie as a lover, he knew that he wanted him just as much as a friend.
His eyelids grew heavy as he lay there thinking of his new acquaintance, and he snuggled further down into the soft feather mattress. Tomorrow he would see Bodie again; he smiled indulgently to himself at the picture that appeared in his mind. The dark-haired man astride his horse, resplendently handsome in his red dress uniform and tall hat, and every inch the Army officer. He did have to admit to a certain weakness for a uniform, and he had no doubt whatsoever that Bodie would fill his admirably. And with that pleasing image in his head he gave himself up to the arms of Morpheus and slept soundly until morning.
He was halfway to Bodie's house before he even thought to question the wisdom of his actions. The sudden realisation of the fact that he could well be acting extremely foolishly made his footsteps falter. Why was he so sure that Bodie had wished him to call unaccompanied that morning? There had only been the merest flicker of an expression upon the other man's face that had led him to believe so. Was that enough to justify the outright lie that he had told Mr Chaplin? Feigning a headache and the need for fresh air in order to make his escape from that gentleman's household was hardly an acceptable way of displaying his appreciation of the generosity that he had been shown since his arrival here.
As common sense prevailed, he turned and slowly began to retrace his footsteps, only to come to a halt once more a few moments later. There had been something in Captain Bodie's eyes yesterday, he was sure of it; and if there was some information about his cousin that Bodie wished to impart to him away from the presence of any other person, then he was eager to learn what it could be. There was also a sense of urgency about the matter that he could not shake off. The merest mention of Frederick Doyle's name had aroused such passionate reactions in the other man that he suspected that Bodie could easily change his mind and refuse to entertain any further discussion of his cousin's whereabouts. If his prevarication caused him to lose this opportunity... His mind made up he turned yet again and set off towards his original destination with an air of determination.
His welcome on this occasion could not have been further removed from that of the previous day. To Raymond's great relief Captain Bodie actually looked pleased to see him, and as he followed his host into the large book-lined library the shocking memory of the anger that the other man had displayed upon their only other meeting quickly began to fade.
The other emotions that his new acquaintance had aroused in him at that other meeting, however, were less inclined to fade away, and Raymond found himself regarding with no little pleasure the sight of Bodie's broad back as he preceded him into the room. He was also gratified to notice that the other man seemed to be untroubled by his injury this morning, and was moving with a confident ease that only added to his ever-growing allure in Raymond's eyes.
"I'm glad that you chose to return here, Doyle," Bodie said as he waved his visitor into a chair, his expression a little grim. " I behaved abysmally yesterday, and I apologise for it. Perhaps today you'll allow me to show you that I can be a dutiful host."
"My appearance was obviously a great shock to you," Raymond replied pleasantly. "And your injury was obviously causing you a deal of pain. Your apology is accepted. Let's speak no more of it."
He was rewarded with a smile and a brief nod as Bodie sat across the room from him. "Even so, I feel that I owe you an explanation for my behaviour..."
Raymond held up his hand to silence him. "Captain Bodie, I am simply seeking my cousin's whereabouts. I have no wish to delve into the reasons for your obvious displeasure with him. If you can help me to find him I will be extremely grateful and will ask no more of you." There was an uncomfortable silence as a frown passed across Bodie's face, and to Raymond's disquiet the other man seemed to struggle to find the words with which to continue. "Are you able to help me?" he asked eventually. "I assumed that you could when you asked me to return here today, but if I was mistaken then I will take up no more of your time."
The bleak expression that Bodie turned upon him took him aback. What on earth had his cousin done to this man to affect him so profoundly? The look of utter defencelessness upon the other man's face only served to increase the intensity of Raymond's attraction towards him, something that he would not have thought possible given the already turbulent state of his emotions where Bodie was concerned. The words he had uttered just a moment ago were suddenly forgotten. If it was within his power to right whatever wrongs Frederick Doyle had perpetrated then he would do so. It was an instinctive reaction which he gave no conscious thought to. Instead his thoughts were far more concerned with the entirely inappropriate response which his host was currently causing him to experience and which, if he was not careful, could very well overwhelm him completely. He really was unable to remember feeling such a strong attraction to another man before.
Suddenly aware that he was gaping at the object of his unruly thoughts he rose abruptly and turned toward the fire, fervently hoping that his face had given nothing away. In doing so, he missed entirely the look of surprise, swiftly followed by one of jubilant understanding, which flitted briefly across the face of the other man.
As Bodie's eyes roved up and down the slender form which currently stood unmoving in front of the fireplace, he felt almost triumphant. Perhaps his seduction of Raymond Doyle would not prove to be too difficult after all. More than one man had looked at him in that way before, and Bodie was under no illusions as to its meaning. There was no doubt that his interest was returned. The absolute certainty of it caused the blood to course hotly through his veins, and he felt almost faint at the thought of possessing that most desirable of bodies, so like the one that he still yearned for. Almost two years since he and Frederick had lain together. So damned long. But now...
He looked up as his guest turned unexpectedly back towards him. The glint in his eyes that had given so much away was now gone, and had been replaced by a look of concern that Bodie found disconcerting. He found himself suddenly ashamed at the direction his thoughts had been taking. This was not Frederick, who was capable of treating his lovers with callous disregard and expected nothing more in return. The man that stood before him now was an innocent in comparison, Bodie was sure of that, and as such he would need to be wooed and befriended. He was not the type to tumble into another man's bed like a shilling whore.
"Captain Bodie, is there anything that you can tell me about my cousin?"
The voice was quietly persuasive, and Bodie found himself struggling to reply. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry, Doyle. I'm afraid that I still find your appearance somewhat... distracting." It was no less than the truth, although he suspected that as yet Doyle would have no inkling of just why he was having trouble concentrating on the conversation. Bodie was taken aback to see a sudden flash of anger in the green eyes of the other man, a fact which sent a shiver of delight through him.
"Since my arrival in Banstead people have spoken of nothing else but my strong resemblance to Frederick Doyle. Even so I have yet to learn a single thing about him," Raymond said tersely, his voice increasing in volume. "Is he such a man of mystery that nobody is willing to discuss him with me? Do such dark and dire secrets surround him that everybody shuns any talk of him? What on earth has he done to make him such a pariah?"
Bodie looked on, entranced at the first signs of spirit to be shown by the man that was becoming more attractive to him by the minute. So, Raymond Doyle is not always as placid as he seems; the man has a temper. This could prove to be an interesting courtship.
Surprised that he was now thinking in terms of courtship rather than seduction he smiled apologetically and gestured for Raymond to resume his seat, which he did with a grunt of annoyance. Bodie took a deep breath; his guest's growing impatience was doing nothing to help his increasingly unsettled frame of mind. He took a few moments to gather his thoughts and, finding himself still on the receiving end of a green-eyed glare, eventually he spoke. "I'm sorry that my reluctance to speak of Frederick upsets you," he said slowly. "He was my greatest friend for many years; now there is nobody on this earth that I detest more than he."
Raymond frowned, his frustration disappearing immediately as he became aware of the discomfort that the other man was going through. "Please, Captain Bodie," he interrupted quietly. "There is no need to speak of things that are painful to you. If you can but point me in the right direction, that is all I ask."
Bodie shook his head. "No, you deserve to know what manner of man you are seeking. You may decide not to pursue your quest once you know all there is to know. I hope for your sake that that is the case."
"Then please, tell me what you will."
Bodie stood and moved to stand in front of the fire. Taking up the poker, he raked amongst the glowing coals for a while. As the fire began to blaze once more he began to speak again. "Frederick and I were boyhood friends. Our fathers were friends and neighbours, and also had business interests in common. I cannot remember a time in my early childhood when Frederick was not there also. I idolised him, Doyle -- he was four years older than I and he could do no wrong in my young eyes. When he was sent away to school I was grief-stricken. I lived for the times when he came home, however brief they were. When I was also sent to the same school, and our friendship was renewed, I was the happiest boy in England."
Raymond watched his host's face with growing concern; the distress that he was feeling was only too plain, highlighted as it was by the glow from the fire. "Bodie..." he began.
The other man held up a hand to silence him. "When I look back at those times I can see it all now. The cruel tricks he would play on people, the way he would manipulate others, turning friend against friend, the sheer nastiness of the things he would do to others too weak to stand up to him. Even as a boy he had an evil streak running through him -- and I, blinded by my hero-worship, never even realised what was happening. I am ashamed now to think of the way I stood by and did nothing."
"You were just a child..." Raymond protested.
"It was the same when we reached our early manhood," Bodie replied ruefully. "Still I followed his lead like an idiot and thought nothing of it. I was such a damn fool..." Returning to his earlier preoccupation with the fire Bodie fell silent.
"Something must have happened then, to bring you to your senses," Raymond prompted after a minute or two. When Bodie looked up Raymond was shocked to see that his eyes were shining with unshed tears. No less a shock was the almost overwhelming urge that he felt to stand and take the other man in his arms in order to comfort him.
"Yes, something happened. Something that I will never forgive Frederick Doyle for. Something that if there was any justice in this world he would have swung for."
Raymond watched with fascination as Bodie's expression changed once more, suddenly sliding into the thunderous fury that he himself had experienced the previous day. He couldn't begin to imagine the conflicting emotions that were assailing the other man, and he cursed himself for having forced this entire situation upon his host.
"There was another boy at school that I was on friendly terms with," Bodie continued quietly. "His name was Thomas Neale, and a more pleasant, amicable soul you could not wish to meet. For some reason Frederick despised him; would call him weak and spineless, and would cuff him around the ear whenever he saw him. He bullied poor Tom unmercifully throughout our schooldays. And beyond..."
The light thrown up by the fire played upon Bodie's face, emphasising the haunted shadows that seemed to lurk in his eyes. Raymond waited patiently, unsure as to whether he wanted to hear any more of Bodie's narrative when the subject was obviously a source of great distress to the other man. Bodie, however, seemed determined to continue, despite the torment that showed so plainly upon his face. When he spoke again the anger seemed to have vanished; instead his voice sounded remarkably weary to Raymond's ears. "I did nothing to help him, Doyle. Even after we had left our schooldays behind and were grown men ...I continued to stand by and watch Frederick demean him at every opportunity. I did nothing..."
The sadness that was so apparent in the other man's voice now began to send a whisper of alarm through Raymond. He was suddenly sure that some terrible tragedy had befallen Bodie's old school friend, and that Frederick Doyle was somehow responsible. He rose and moved closer to his host. "What happened to your friend?" he asked softly.
Bodie took a deep breath and turned to face his guest. "It happened when I was away. In Ireland with the Regiment... A letter came telling me of Tom's death..."
Raymond was shocked. "Was there an accident?" he gasped.
"No, no accident," Bodie replied, shaking his head sadly.
Bodie's eyes grew cold as the anger returned, his mouth taking on a cruel twist as he spoke. "It seems that he was plied with drink and inveigled into a game of cards one night. He lost heavily, but returned the next night in an attempt to win his money back. And then the next night, and the night after that. By the end of that week he had lost everything. He was ruined." He took a step closer to his guest, his troubled gaze never leaving Raymond's face. "The knowledge of what he had done was too much for him. He had disgraced his family and left his wife and child destitute. He took the only course of action that he could see fit."
The realisation of what had happened to Bodie's friend hit Raymond like a slap in the face. "You mean he..." he whispered.
Bodie nodded. "He hung himself, Doyle."
Raymond searched for the words to express his shock but none came to him. Instead he rested his hand on Bodie's shoulder and left it there as the other man continued. "Tom was neither a drinker nor a gambler. He never indulged in strong liquor, and as for cards, well he wouldn't have known a spade from a club. Those that were present believe that he was probably given a drug of some kind, something that would affect his judgement." He paused and looked long and hard into Raymond's eyes. "Aren't you going to ask me who else was playing cards with him? Who took all his money from him, and then laughed in his face afterwards?"
Raymond shook his head in reply. "I think I know..."
"Frederick Doyle murdered Tom Neale, as surely as if he'd held a pistol to his head. If there were any justice in this world he would have swung for his crime. I'll not rest until he's brought to answer for what he's done." Raymond's hand was shaken off as Bodie turned away from him. "There you have it, Doyle. This is the manner of man that you are seeking. If you have any sense you will forget that you have ever heard of him."
"As you should too, perhaps. I fear that your desire for vengeance will prove to be the undoing of you," Raymond ventured quietly.
Bodie suddenly whirled to face him. "And why should you concern yourself if it does?" he spat accusingly.
Raymond's jaw dropped and he stood speechless, unable to answer Bodie's question. He had no idea why the prospect of the other man's undoing should concern him, but he knew beyond doubt that it did.
Bodie seemed to take pity on him in his confusion. "Do yourself a service, Doyle," he said, somewhat wearily to Raymond's ears. "Go back to Hampstead or wherever it is that you've come from. Forget that you ever heard of Frederick Doyle. Forget that you ever came to Banstead and heard the sorry tale that I have related to you today."
Raymond knew that Bodie's words made perfect sense; the desire to find his cousin no longer existed. He had no wish to ally himself with a man who was capable of driving another to take his own life. Instead he was filled with a deep shame that such a man could have the same blood running through his veins as himself. And yet, if he was no longer seeking the whereabouts of his kinsman then where was the need for him to continue his association with Captain Bodie? For, despite the maelstrom of emotions that Bodie's story had stirred in him, one thing was clear to him. He could not walk away from this man and never see him again. If he did, he knew that he would regret it for the rest of his life. "Highgate," he said softly.
"Highgate, not Hampstead. And I won't be returning there, not for some time at any rate. But you are right, Captain Bodie. I see now that it would be unwise for me to claim any sort of kinship with such a man as you have described to me. I will not pursue my search for my cousin."
Bodie nodded and allowed a small smile to appear. "I am glad. You and your cousin are worlds apart, Doyle. Believe me when I tell you that he would chew you up and spit you out as soon as look at you. I have no wish to be instrumental in putting you within his reach."
And with those words of undoubtedly genuine concern a tiny spark stirred within Raymond Doyle, a feeling that only served to emphasise his desire to get to know this man better; to call him his friend and be called friend in return. "And what of you, sir? Can you forget the wrongs that have been done? Will you place yourself in harm's way to see your friend avenged?"
"If I have to."
"Then I regret that it has been a member of my family that has caused this sorry state of affairs."
Bodie stood in silence, frowning as his eyes raked over Raymond's face, his expression unreadable as he did so. "So alike, and yet so different..." he murmured quietly, almost to himself, before suddenly crossing to the door and throwing it open, indicating that Raymond's visit was now at an end.
His guest followed him slowly, frantically searching for something to say that might prolong his stay. As he reached the threshold his eyes alighted on a pile of books in the corner of the room and inspiration struck. "I trust that your transaction went well yesterday?"
Raymond nodded towards the pile. "Your father's books, I take it."
Raymond was rewarded with a smile as Bodie sighed, obviously relieved to return to a more mundane topic of conversation. "Ah! No, Doyle, it did not go well. But there, it was just as I expected. It was made quite plain to me that the books must be catalogued before the auction house will consider dealing with them for me, and so my next concern is to engage a secretary who will undertake the task for me. It is a bother that I could well do without if I'm being honest."
"I could do it." The words were out before the idea had even formed properly in his brain.
Bodie looked at him as if he were mad. "You?"
"Why not?" Raymond shrugged. "I have a fair and legible hand, or so I've been told. And I have a great fondness for books. I should probably find the task more than pleasurable."
Bodie continued to regard him with a look of disbelief. "I hardly think that it is fitting and proper for one gentleman to employ another in such a way, Doyle," he replied incredulously.
"Then do not consider it as employment -- goodness knows, I would not expect you to pay me for doing it. Consider it a favour. You have a job that needs to be done, and I need a worthwhile pursuit of some kind to fill my days. It seems to me to be the perfect solution to both our problems."
As the shock of his guest's suggestion gradually began to wear off, Bodie actually found himself considering the idea with some degree of favour -- although the fact that he was not impervious to the expression in the green eyes which were now studying him almost pleadingly was not lost on him. But most of all it was Raymond Doyle's ability to surprise him with his unconventional outlook upon the everyday proprieties that struck the deepest chord within him.
"I suppose it almost makes sense when you put it like that..." he conceded slowly. His reward was an answering smile that very nearly took his breath away and banished any remaining doubts from his mind.
"Then the matter is settled," the other man replied with a laugh that could almost be described as triumphant. "Will I begin tomorrow?"
He extended a hand which Bodie took without hesitation. His guest's enthusiasm was contagious and Bodie found himself grinning in return as his hand was taken in a strong grip which sent a tingle down his backbone. When his hand was eventually released -- had he imagined that Doyle had held onto it slightly longer than was strictly necessary? -- he could not help but feel a ridiculous sense of loss. He felt almost dazed as Doyle took his leave and left the house. As he watched him walk jauntily along the drive and out of sight, Bodie was suddenly struck by the unnerving realisation that whereas he had started the day by planning Raymond Doyle's seduction he now knew that the likelihood was that he would be eating out of the other man's hand before the week was out.
It was with a growing sense of pleasant anticipation that Raymond stood before the heavy oak door of 'Rosebriars' the next morning. As he was admitted to the house and was relieved of his coat by Bodie's man he could not prevent himself from glancing around the spacious hallway in the hope of seeing his host appear. Those hopes were dashed however as the servant showed him into the library. "The Captain's apologies, sir. He has been called up to Town unexpectedly on pressing business," the man explained. "He hopes to return home before evening, but cannot guarantee that he will be able to. In the meantime, sir, I am to inform you that the house and staff are at your disposal."
"Thank you," Raymond replied, his previously sunny mood disappearing to be replaced by a sense of dejection that he immediately chastised himself for. What had he expected? That Bodie would dance attendance upon him whilst he was carrying out his allotted task? A task, he reminded himself, that he had undertaken completely voluntarily and, having done so, would complete to the very best of his ability. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the other man's voice.
"...writing materials here for you, sir," the servant was saying, indicating the items assembled neatly upon the large library desk. "And I have had all the cases of books brought in so that you can organise them in whatever way you see fit."
Raymond's eyes widened in surprise. The few wooden boxes that had been present in the room yesterday had now grown in number to a dozen or more. "My goodness!" he exclaimed.
A small smile appeared upon the other man's face, only to be swiftly hidden. "The old master was quite the collector, sir."
"So it seems! This is the entire collection?"
"There are some other volumes on the shelves, sir. The Captain will show you which of those he wishes to dispose of."
Raymond nodded his thanks to the servant as he gave a slight bow and left the room. The size of the task at hand had taken him aback at first but now, as he discarded his jacket and started to open the first box, he found himself wondering just how long it would take him to complete the undertaking and thus remain in regular contact with Captain Bodie. The thought that it would most certainly be longer than he had originally anticipated was rather agreeable, he decided.
He had not been speaking untruthfully when he had told Bodie that he had a great fondness for books. An hour into his self-appointed mission found him completely absorbed in his task, for it had not taken long for him to realise that Bodie's father and he had one great interest in common. The vast majority of the books that he had so far uncovered were concerned with the subject of natural history; the flora, fauna and geology of his native country that he had studied so much himself since childhood. The artist in him thrilled at some of the colour plates that the books contained, the detail in them filling him with a sense of admiration and awe. So engrossed was he that he politely declined the offer of luncheon, returning his attention immediately to the volume that he was currently inspecting and therefore completely oblivious to the servant's raised eyebrows at the sight of the grubby, wild-haired young man sitting cross-legged on the library floor surrounded by a seemingly disorganised clutter.
The sound of voices in the hallway startled him. At some point in the late afternoon someone must have entered to light the lamps. Raymond had not been aware of anybody doing so, and the realisation that almost the whole day had passed took him completely by surprise. It was with a sense of horror that he was suddenly aware of the fact that Bodie had obviously returned, and that he himself had achieved absolutely nothing other than to make an unholy mess of the man's previously pristine library.
His knees and back protested as he raised himself from the floor, and he was in the process of indulging in a spine-cracking stretch when the door opened, and he found himself staring into a pair of incredulous blue eyes. "Bodie!" he stammered. "I apologise for all of this..." He waved a hand in the direction of the book-strewn carpet. "I am afraid that my curiosity got the better of me."
He stooped and began to hurriedly gather the books together, only to be stopped by a loud burst of laughter which came from the direction of the other man. He stood and looked at Bodie in confusion. That his host was having difficulty containing his mirth was only too apparent. "Doyle, do you have any notion of what you look like?"
Raymond looked back at him blankly. Bodie's gaze alighted upon his shirtfront, and as he allowed his own gaze to follow suit he gasped. "Oh! How on earth..." He placed the books he was holding on the desk and looked at his hands. They were blacker than a coal-miner's.
"I've seen cleaner street urchins," Bodie chuckled as he crossed the room. "Here, you've got a..." He lifted a hand to Raymond's face, only to drop it hurriedly back to his side as the other man's eyes widened. "Simmons tells me that you have eaten nothing all day," Bodie said, somewhat awkwardly. "Will you dine here tonight? You can tell me of your... er... progress." Bodie's eyes were twinkling with amusement once more as they surveyed the chaotic state of the floor.
Raymond looked down at himself in despair. "I'm hardly in any fit state to dine, Bodie, as much as I would like to."
"That can be easily remedied," Bodie replied as he walked to the door and called loudly for his manservant. "Simmons will show you where you can wash. I'll have him lay out a clean shirt for you to wear as well. It may be a bit on the big side for you, but it will suffice for a few hours I'm sure."
"Thank you, that would be most kind."
He was aware of Bodie's eyes upon him as he knelt to gather the evidence of his day's labour -- or lack of it -- but his host's voice stopped him as he retrieved the first book. "Do not trouble yourself, Doyle. Leave them as they are. No doubt you will wish to... er... organise them in a similar way tomorrow."
Raymond was suddenly aware of the fact that he was being laughed at -- teased almost -- and yet there was no malice in Bodie's voice or his expression. Instead there was an indefinable quality to the other man's manner which, if he did not know better, he would have been inclined to call affection. He banished the thought from his mind hurriedly, for as much as he might wish that to be the case, he knew from experience the dangers of interpreting such things erroneously. Instead he chose only to return the smile that was currently lighting up the other man's handsome features before grabbing his jacket and following Bodie from the room.
As they crossed the hall Bodie suddenly stopped and turned. "Would you like to see him?" he asked. "The governor, I mean?"
Raymond looked back at him in confusion. "Your father? But I thought..."
"Oh, not in the flesh. The old boy's long gone, thankfully." He nodded towards the staircase. "There's a reasonably good portrait of him on the landing, if you're interested."
Raymond studied him quizzically. He was interested, of course, in seeing the man whose collection he had volunteered to catalogue. But he was even more interested in seeing the man who had sired the person now standing before him. Not only that, but it seemed to him that Bodie was offering him something more: an insight into something more personal. Yet again he was aware of an almost gravitational pull towards the other man. It was as if Bodie had thrown an invisible loop around him and was drawing him ever closer. And, for his own part, Raymond had absolutely no inclination or desire to resist. Aware that Bodie was awaiting his response he nodded. "Indeed, if it is not too much bother."
Following Bodie slowly up the stairs he noticed how the other man favoured his injured leg, and he inwardly cursed his own insensitivity. It was all too easy to forget that Bodie was not as able bodied as himself. "Your leg is troubling you. You can show me the portrait another time," he said, instinctively grasping Bodie's elbow as he spoke and pulling him to a halt. Bodie stiffened immediately, shaking off the offending hand as if he were burnt, and whirling around with eyes blazing. Raymond gasped with shock at the reaction his gesture had caused and was relieved to see the other man's anger dissipate as quickly as it had appeared.
"I'm sorry... forgive me," Bodie stammered, his own face mirroring Raymond's obvious discomfort. He turned and resumed his ascent of the staircase in silence, moving with a renewed sense of determination and vigour that Raymond could not help but admire. As Raymond watched him reach the head of the stairs he vowed that would never refer to the other man's injury again, unless Bodie himself broached the subject. By the time he had gathered his senses and caught up with his host Bodie was standing before an ornately-framed painting, his expression unreadable as he studied its subject.
"I am sorry if I caused offence. It was not..." Raymond began, only to be silenced by a raised hand.
"No. Yet again it is I who must apologise. I have spent the past year listening to trite expressions of sympathy from everybody in the vicinity. I do not need their pity, Doyle; I know that my health will improve. I walk miles every day to strengthen my leg, did you know that? I exercise religiously every morning as soon as I rise. It will get stronger..." He paused, his eyes never wavering as they looked into those of his guest. "Sometimes," he continued ruefully, "I think perhaps I should remind myself that at least some of the concern expressed is genuine."
Raymond met his gaze determinedly. "It is, I assure you," he replied quietly.
Bodie nodded silently, a faint smile playing upon his lips briefly before he turned his attention back to the portrait before him. When he eventually spoke his voice seemed strained. "Well, here he is. What do you think of him?" he asked.
Raymond moved to stand beside him and looked up into an older, harsher version of the face that was becoming so familiar to him. "You are very like him," he observed after a while. "And yet..."
"If you can find something dissimilar in our appearance I should be gratified to hear it," Bodie responded coldly.
"William Bodie," Raymond read aloud from the plate affixed to the base of the frame, somewhat disconcerted at Bodie's words. "You are also William, are you not?"
"I was baptised with that name, yes. I do not choose to use it."
"Why ever not? My father's name was William also. It seems a perfectly good name to me."
"Ah, but no doubt your father was everything a good father should be. Unlike him." Bodie gestured disdainfully at the portrait. "He was William Bodie. I have no wish to bear the same name as him."
Raymond felt a faint stirring of annoyance at Bodie's presumption. "My father died when I was three years old. I barely knew him." His reply seemed to fluster the other man somewhat.
"Well then, I expect that your Mama will have told you stories of his heroism and kindness," Bodie continued hurriedly.
"My mother died when I was born. I knew her not at all."
Bodie sighed and shook his head, an expression of regret upon his face. "Yet again I have to ask for your forgiveness," he replied awkwardly. "That was unthinking of me. I am sorry."
"There is no need. For all that I was left an orphan at the age of three, my childhood was not an unhappy one."
Bodie turned his eyes back to those of the man that was scowling down at him from the wall. "Would that I could say the same," he observed softly.
Raymond watched in silence, unsure of what he could say to alleviate the pain that the other man was obviously feeling. No words were forthcoming from his host for almost a minute, but just as Raymond was about to say something -- anything -- to lighten the mood Bodie turned to him and regarded him with a puzzled expression. "I've known you less than two days, and yet already I have told you more about myself than I would tell another in a whole year. I wonder why that should be so?"
Because, Raymond immediately thought, I remind you of a lost friendship. It has nothing to do with me whatsoever. The thought saddened him more than he could have thought possible.
Early December 1816
Raymond relaxed drowsily upon the cushions of the large armchair which had been drawn up to the blazing fire for him. As he nursed the generously poured glass of brandy in his hands and gazed into the flames he felt a sense of contentment that had been lacking from his life for too many months now. It seemed a little odd to him that he should feel thus in the company of somebody who was in reality little more than a stranger, but at that moment he was not inclined to question the fact. The mood was too enjoyable and too comfortable to analyse.
He glanced across at Bodie, seated on the other side of the hearth, and was gratified to see that the other man looked as bonelessly languorous as he himself felt. They had fallen into an easy pattern over the past fortnight; with the exception of one day, when the necessity of replenishing his meagre wardrobe had had to be attended to, Raymond had presented himself at Bodie's door each morning without exception. On most occasions Bodie was present, but even on the days that he was not, Raymond was quite happy to be left alone to continue with his work. The disappointment that he had felt on that first day when told of the other man's absence did not recur, for as the days progressed he began to feel a closeness between them which was not dimmed by separation. The very fact of being within Bodie's house, working upon an undertaking which he knew would benefit his friend, was enough to keep him content. And the knowledge that Bodie would always return before late afternoon, and that he would be asked to dine with him and thus spend several hours in his company before departing for Mr Chaplin's house was enough for now.
The fact that it might not remain enough as time went by was something that Raymond had spent many lonely hours considering, and yet sitting here in companionable silence before a crackling fire with a good meal in his belly and an admirable brandy in his glass, how could he fail to feel content? His attraction to Bodie was something that he made no attempt to deny to himself, but he had never considered himself to be a sensual being. He could live with the fact that the attraction was one-sided as long as he could continue his daily contact with the other man. For in his early morning musings, huddled under the covers in his freezing bedroom, he had quickly come to the conclusion that friendship was all. He would not lose Bodie's friendship, of that he was determined. He glanced across at the other man again and smiled at the sight of him dozing before the heat of the fire, his glass balanced precariously upon his knee.
The meal of which they had recently partaken had been exquisite. As grateful as Raymond was for the recent hospitality extended to him by Mr Chaplin there was no question that Bodie's cook was far superior in her talents to that of the woman in the elderly gentleman's employ. The thought of Mr Chaplin suddenly caused him to sit upright in his chair and inspect his pocket watch. Not quite able to believe the evidence of his own eyes he uttered a quiet curse as he rose. "Good heavens, Bodie! It's approaching eleven o'clock. Mr Chaplin will be expecting me."
Bodie rose from his chair with a start and seemed flustered for a moment. "Forgive me, Raymond," he replied, almost coyly. "When I noticed the lateness of the hour I took the liberty of sending word to Mr Chaplin that you would probably be spending the night here. I trust that that will be acceptable to you?"
For a second Raymond was speechless. He knew that he should feel annoyed that Bodie should make such a presumption without consulting him, and yet he could not find it within his heart to do so. Neither could he fail to be affected by the sound of Bodie's voice speaking his name; the first time that he had addressed him by his Christian name rather than by his surname. The warm glow that had been present within him all night threatened to burst into a veritable flame as he stood there. He felt positively flustered as he replied. "Er.. yes, that is quite acceptable, thank you. I am very grateful to you for your hospitality."
Bodie cleared his throat awkwardly, and Raymond was suddenly aware that the other man seemed as nervous as he himself felt. "In fact, it would seem to me to be a much more practical arrangement if you were to stay here rather than with Chaplin. After all, if you are coming here every day..."
Bodie's voice tailed off and a tiny little tendril of hope began to entwine itself around Raymond Doyle's heart. Where had the supremely self-confident man that he had come to know gone? Could it possibly be that the thoughts which had become increasingly prevalent in his mind were shared by the other man?
Raymond made an effort to pull himself together; courtesy demanded that he respond to Bodie's invitation. "Yes, indeed. That would seem to be eminently sensible, thank you. To tell you the truth I have been feeling somewhat guilty to think that I have been availing myself of Mr Chaplin's hospitality for so long when I rarely spend any time there." He was pleased with the matter of fact way in which he had replied, even though he was convinced that Bodie must be capable of hearing the hammering of his heart within his chest.
"Splendid! Splendid!" Bodie's voice was too loud, too falsely ebullient, and bore the traces of an obvious nervousness that Raymond had not perceived in the other man's manner before. He almost laughed at the over-exuberance of Bodie's response, but swiftly stamped down upon the temptation to do so. For it was only too plain to him that there was suddenly an atmosphere between the two of them that laughter would not dissipate. The almost soporific air of contentment that he had been experiencing just a few short moments ago had disappeared completely. An awkward silence filled the room, alleviated only by the crackling of the fire in the hearth.
Raymond lifted his glass and slowly drained the remainder of his brandy and, as he raised his eyes to Bodie's face, he found himself on the receiving end of an intense midnight-blue scrutiny. Forbidding himself to look away, he met the other man's gaze with an air of defiance that he hoped would look more convincing than he knew it to actually be. For in reality, his innards were churning uncontrollably, and he clenched his hands firmly behind his back in order to disguise their sudden tendency to shake.
Bodie's inspection of him never faltered, his eyes seeming to scan every square inch of his features as Raymond fought the impulse to turn away. Instead he stood as impassively as he could, and when Bodie's eyes met his own once more he returned their scrutiny with undisguised interest. He was stunned to find that interest reflected in his friend's eyes. This cannot be right. It cannot be possible. He has given no indication that...
It was at that point, as Bodie took a step towards him, that Raymond's thoughts started to become jumbled. The hand that alighted upon his shoulder almost made him jump, and he made a conscious effort to gather his thoughts. The expression that the other man turned upon him was bleak, almost pleading in its helplessness. Raymond raised his hand and placed it upon Bodie's shoulder, mirroring his action. "Bodie?" His words were barely audible, so quietly did he speak. "Is there something amiss?"
He watched as his friend struggled for the words that he needed to express his obviously warring emotions. Raymond squeezed his shoulder gently. "If there is something that you wish to tell me..."
"Yes. Yes, there is. Something that I have wanted to tell you since the start of our acquaintance, and yet I could not be sure..."
His voice tailed off into silence and Raymond waited in vain for him to continue. "Bodie," he encouraged gently. "We may have known each other but a short time, but I think that we have become friends, have we not?"
Bodie nodded. "I hope so."
"Then please..." Raymond smiled. "I am a good listener..."
The hand upon his shoulder tightened noticeably as Bodie took a deep breath, seemingly unsure of where to begin. Then, as Raymond held his gaze, the midnight-blue eyes took on a determined air, and Bodie's chin came up defiantly as he began to speak. "I told you when we first met of my friendship with your cousin Frederick; of the closeness of our friendship, and of my hero-worship of him when I was a young boy."
The sound of his cousin's name took Raymond aback. Despite the fact that it was his determination to find Frederick Doyle that had brought him to Bodie's home in the first place, it was something of a surprise to realise that he had not thought of his cousin in days. He allowed his surprise to remain unexpressed however. Instead he nodded silently, unwilling to interrupt the other man's words.
"What I did not tell you was that Frederick and I were much closer than you could ever imagine. Far closer than two young men should be, most would say."
Raymond's throat had suddenly become dry. Even if he had wished to speak, he doubted whether he would have been capable of doing so. The hand that had been gripping his shoulder so tightly began to move slowly, gently stroking his upper arm. Bodie's next words seemed to come at him as if in a dream. "We were lovers, Raymond. From the time that I was fourteen years old. He was everything to me; at the time I believed myself to be deeply in love with him. For many years I persuaded myself that my feelings were reciprocated. I know now that I was a fool, but back then..." His eyes suddenly closed as the memories obviously became more painful. When he opened them again his expression was unbelievably sad. Raymond's heart melted.
Suddenly Bodie took a step nearer, his face only inches from that of his guest. "Do my words disgust you, Raymond?" he asked quietly. Speech was still impossible. A shake of the head was all that Raymond could manage as the hand upon his arm moved upwards into his unruly curls. "I suspected -- I hoped -- that they would not."
Raymond's eyes widened as the other man moved closer still, and he stood transfixed as Bodie lowered his gaze, hardly daring to breathe as the other man leant forwards almost imperceptibly and grazed his lips with his own. The blue eyes were almost black as they were raised once more, their expression questioning as they sought permission to continue.
That permission was given without hesitation as Raymond renewed the contact between them, unable to wait for any further advances on Bodie's part. He had yearned for this since the first moment he had laid eyes on the other man; spent virtually every waking moment thinking of it, every sleeping moment dreaming of it. His arms slid around his friend's back as he pulled him closer, pressing their bodies together and taking Bodie's mouth in an almost frenzied assault which was enthusiastically returned.
He clutched at Bodie's shirt frantically as both the other man's hands threaded into his hair, holding him so firmly in place that he could not have moved even if he had wanted to. Aware of a sudden pressure on his groin from a leg insinuated between his own, he ground his thickening erection into the muscular limb, groaning into the other man's mouth as he felt the answering hardness against his own thigh. Both men were gasping for breath when their mouths eventually parted, each continuing to grind their lower body against the other man's as they took the much needed oxygen into their lungs. It was only as Bodie's trembling hands left his hair and moved to the fastenings of Raymond's shirt, that a flicker of panic shot through the slighter man.
"Bodie..." he whispered breathlessly, his voice somewhere between a gasp and a sob. "We cannot do this..."
The eyes that were lifted to his were frantic. "We must..." Bodie gasped. "Raymond, I cannot stop now. We must..."
The other man shook his head in desperation. "I mean here... We cannot do this here. The servants..."
"...have all been dismissed for the night, and will have been in their beds an hour since," came the strained reply, as Bodie continued to deal with his lover's clothing. "We will not be disturbed."
Raymond shuddered with delight as first his jacket and then his shirt were discarded, and Bodie's arms encircled him, hands deftly mapping his back as the dark-haired man kissed his way along Raymond's collarbone. Raymond pulled desperately at the other man's clothing. "Yours too," he mumbled almost incoherently. "Want to feel you..."
Bodie pulled away slightly, his hands joining Raymond's in relieving him of his garments as quickly as possible. As they came together again, and their hands and mouths renewed their frenzied explorations of each other, Bodie pulled on the other man's arm. "Down here," he said thickly. "By the fire..."
He sank to the floor somewhat awkwardly, pulling Raymond down to lie on top of him, one hand embedding itself again in the other man's curls, while its partner fumbled frantically with two sets of trouser buttons. Raymond buried his face with a groan into Bodie's neck as he felt his cock spring free, only to be taken firmly within his lover's capable hand. And as his hardened flesh was joined within that grasp by another of similar hardness, he groaned even louder and came without warning into the shaking hand that held them both. As the last waves of his orgasm subsided Bodie thrust once, twice, three times; and with a growl from deep within him, his seed shot from him to mingle with that of the man who was now lying spread-eagled and satiated upon him.
They lay in silence together; their joint heartbeats almost tangible in their chests, the only audible sound that of their rasping attempts to catch their breath. As each of them gradually calmed, Bodie's arms came around Raymond once more and held him tightly. In response Raymond nuzzled even closer into his lover's neck, planting soft kisses upon the perspiration-soaked skin as he did so. "Better next time..." Bodie whispered, on the edge of sleep. "Slower... be better next time. So beautiful, Raymond..."
His breathing deepened as he drifted off, leaving his new lover to marvel at the lovemaking that they had just shared. It had been an experience the like of which he had never known before. As he rested his head on the other man's broad chest Raymond's eyes slowly closed.
It was only a few minutes later that he opened them again; Bodie still slept, his face illuminated by the glow of the fire which still burned softly beside them. Raymond thought that he had never felt happier in his life; everything that he had ever wished for -- more, in fact -- was lying here beside him. He studied the other man's face lovingly -- was it love he felt for Bodie? He had no reason to think otherwise -- and wondered why on earth such a man would want to make love with him. And yet Bodie's need had seemed to be as desperate as his own; Bodie who had instigated the whole thing. Raymond thought back to the words that the other man had spoken just before that first sweet kiss. Bodie and his cousin. Not merely friends but lovers! The devastation that Bodie must have felt at Frederick Doyle's despicable actions took on a new meaning to him now. And if he bore as much a resemblance to his cousin as everyone insisted then it was a miracle that Bodie could even bear to look upon his face, let alone...
An icy hand gripped his heart as a terrible thought entered his mind. A substitute? A substitute for the cousin that Bodie no longer loved but still yearned for? The shock of such a realisation hit him like a blow to the gut, and he sat upright abruptly, no longer seeking the physical contact with the other man that he had been revelling in just seconds before. As he stared panic-stricken into the dying flames of the fire the figure beside him stirred, disturbed by his sudden movement.
A hand curled gently around his arm and attempted in vain to turn him around. "Raymond? Is there something wrong?" Bodie asked softly. "What is it? Have I upset you?"
Raymond turned to face him, his face a picture of complete devastation, and Bodie gasped in shock. This was not how it was meant to be. He knew how wonderful their coupling had been. Surely it had been the same for the other man? He sat up slowly and wrapped his arms around his lover; how beautiful it was to hold him like this. The lack of response from Raymond was like a knife in his heart. "Please, Raymond," he pleaded. "Tell me what I have done wrong."
Raymond looked away and hung his head, the curls that Bodie found so fascinating serving to hide whatever it was that he was feeling. "Please, Raymond..." Bodie repeated, his voice breaking. He felt the slim body in his arms shudder as Raymond took a deep breath.
"It was not me that you wanted, was it?"
"Not you that I wanted? Of course I want you. Haven't I just shown you how much I want you?"
Raymond's eyes were shining as he turned to face him. "You thought that I was him when we first met. Did you allow yourself to fantasise that I was him whilst we were making love?"
"Did I...?" Bodie looked back at him in confusion, his eyes widening as the implications of Raymond's question suddenly became clear. "Oh, no! Never!" he groaned as he pulled the other man closer.
"But if we are the exact image of each other, as you yourself have so often said in the past, what could be easier? This way you can still have him even though you hate him."
Bodie pulled away slightly and studied Raymond's face in silence, disturbed at the distress that he found there. A rueful smile slowly appeared on his face as he gently stroked Raymond's back. "Lie with me, Raymond," he said quietly as he sank back to the floor, his hands urging the other man to join him. He breathed a sigh of relief as Raymond settled alongside him once more, although it was clear to Bodie that his lover was studiously avoiding any physical contact with him, choosing instead to lie rigidly on his back with his face turned away.
Bodie propped himself up upon one elbow and looked down on his friend concernedly. He trailed a deft finger down the side of Raymond's face and neck before taking his lover's chin in his hand and gently turning his head towards him. The expression in the green eyes that looked up him was one of undisguised accusation, and he was suddenly filled with shame and remorse at the memory of the seduction he had planned when he had first met the man who was now lying beside him.
"I will not lie to you," he said softly, stroking Raymond's face with the backs of his fingers as he did so. "When first we met my thoughts were of seduction; to get you into my bed by whatever means I could."
"Because of my resemblance to him."
Bodie nodded, letting his eyes reveal the pain that he felt. "Yes. Because I still wanted him and yet I knew that I would never allow myself to touch him again."
"Then you have succeeded in your plan," Raymond replied coldly. He attempted to rise from the floor, but was held firmly by a hand on his shoulder.
"Please... I have not explained to you how it is now. How things have changed so much in two short weeks."
Raymond's answering riposte died upon his lips. He knew full well how much his own feelings had intensified and grown during the past fortnight. Dare he hope that Bodie also... and yet, by his own admission, it had been Frederick, not he, that Bodie had wanted in his bed. Despite the turmoil raging within him, he forced himself to answer with as little emotion as possible. "I know that my face cannot have changed so much in so short a time. Do you now consider there to be no similarity between us?"
Bodie closed his eyes and rested his forehead on that of the man lying beneath him. "You are nothing like him, Raymond," he gasped. "How on earth I could ever have thought that you were..."
He opened his eyes and scanned the face before him, taking in every detail as if seeing it for the first time. Those eyes were filled with such affection and sadness, that when their gaze met his own Raymond felt all traces of his anger and shock dissipate immediately. "How can I suddenly not be like him?" he murmured quietly, turning slightly towards his lover as he became lost in the blue pools that studied him so intensely.
"You are as unalike as two people can be. I see it so clearly now..." Bodie's gaze moved upwards as his hand threaded itself into Raymond's auburn curls. "His hair is shorter, and thick with pomade," he continued quietly. "Not soft like yours." He buried his face into the said curls and planted a gentle kiss behind Raymond's ear. "So beautiful..." he whispered.
Raymond groaned and moved closer still to the other man, his arm encircling him as Bodie shifted his attention to his face. "And your eyes... his are lifeless and cold. They do not sparkle like yours. They do not laugh. They have never looked at me in the way that yours look at me now." A soft kiss was placed on each eyelid in turn and Raymond tightened his hold on his lover's waist. "Your nose..." Bodie hesitated. "I really do not think that there is any difference to speak of in your nose and his. But still, it is such a pretty nose..." The tender kiss that was placed upon the tip of his nose made Raymond squirm delightedly. "And your mouth... there lies the greatest difference of all. His has a cruel and sardonic twist to it, whereas yours... I think that it is your mouth that I love most of all."
And as if to prove the veracity of that statement Bodie proceeded to bestow the sweetest, most arousing kiss that Raymond had ever experienced. It was not fraught with fervent, unquenched desire as their previous kisses had been. Instead the kiss seem to consume Raymond's very soul, and sent a tremor through every inch of his being. As Bodie's lips left his he arched upwards, not wanting to relinquish the exquisite contact with the other man's mouth, only to feel the gentle touch of Bodie's finger on his face. "What happened here?" he asked softly as his fingertips explored Raymond's damaged cheekbone.
"An accident when I was a boy," the other man replied somewhat distractedly before beginning to grin. "I managed to descend from one of Farmer Johnson's apple trees a good deal quicker than I had gone up it."
The grin was not returned by the other man, however. Instead he stroked Raymond's face tenderly. "Does it trouble you?"
"Sometimes on cold, damp days."
"Promise me then that the next time you are troubled by the cold you'll come to me and let me warm you."
Raymond nodded, all trace of humour vanishing to be replaced with a longing for Bodie to take possession of his mouth again. He waited as his lover shifted awkwardly on top of him. "There is a perfectly good bed waiting for us upstairs," Bodie smiled somewhat shakily. "And as romantic as the firelight may be, I'm afraid that my leg is protesting at the hardness of this floor."
Raymond's quickly reviving erection subsided immediately as he cursed his thoughtlessness. "Oh, Bodie! I never thought..."
Bodie silenced him with a kiss. "Shush... it is nothing. But as I intend to carry on making love to you for the rest of the night, I think we may as well be comfortable, don't you?"
Raymond smiled and nodded, relaxing once again as Bodie's grin grew broader. "It will also give us the opportunity to rid ourselves of ... um... certain encumbrances."
Raymond's eyes followed those of his lover as Bodie glanced downwards, suddenly aware for the first time that they still wore both their boots and their trousers, even if those garments were currently tangled around their knees. They looked back up at each other, and Raymond's grin grew as wide as the other man's. "Bed would seem to be an eminently sensible idea," he agreed.
The noise intruded upon his dream as he slept. It was a rhythmic sound that his dream-self could not identify. A noise that continued uninterrupted even as he surfaced from the deep sleep that had followed the hours of lovemaking which had left him wonderfully exhausted. As he strove to give a name to the sound that had interrupted his reverie he stretched out an arm and a leg, shaken into wakefulness as his limbs touched icy sheets and not the warmth of his lover as he had expected. Raymond half-opened his eyes and pushed himself up in the bed, casting a glance around the room as he did so and thereby discovering the origin of the sound that had awoken him.
There, in the centre of the room with his back towards the bed, was Bodie, one hand grasping the back of a chair, the other resting on his hip. He was clad only in a thin undershirt which, despite the freezing temperature of the room, clung to a back that was plainly soaked in perspiration. Raymond watched in pleasurable silence as his lover slowly sank down onto his haunches -- expelling a noisy breath as he did so -- remained in position for a few seconds, and then resumed the upright, the sharp inhalation of breath as his body straightened out indicating that the exercise was obviously not without a degree of pain. Raymond allowed himself a small smile as his eyes drank in the sight of the other man's muscular back; no wonder the sound of Bodie's laboured breathing had awoken him. Hadn't the same sound been echoing in his ear just a few hours earlier when he and Bodie...
He slid silently out from under the bedcovers and crept across the room towards the other man. As Bodie began to sink into a crouching position again, Raymond slid his arms around his waist and laughed heartily, the prospect of a bout of horseplay with his friend -- and what it might lead to -- appealing greatly to him as a way to start the new day. The reaction that he received, however, was nothing like he had anticipated.
As the startled man twisted around to face him, he gave a yelp of pain and dropped to the floor like a stone and Raymond, his arms still tightly entwined around him, fell with him. Instinctively throwing himself to one side so as not to harm his lover further, he landed on the carpet with a jarring thud, gasping as the air was knocked out of him.
It was nothing however to the gasp that spilled from his lips as his eyes alighted for the first time upon Bodie's injured leg. His eyes widened in horror at the sight of the livid red scar that stretched from groin to kneecap, the limb itself thin and wasted in comparison with its well-muscled counterpart. "Oh, Bodie..." he whispered, unable to keep the anguished tone from his voice as, with an air of grim fascination, he tentatively reached out to touch the other man's thigh.
A firm but gentle grip on his wrist forestalled him, and he dragged his gaze away to look up into Bodie's face. He was even paler than usual, his dark hair soaked in sweat and clinging to his forehead, the pain showing only too clearly in the expressive blue eyes that looked back at Raymond. Bodie's breathing was rapid as he attempted to withstand the waves of pain that were sweeping over him, and his lower lip was grasped between his teeth.
An overwhelming feeling of nausea swept over Raymond at the knowledge that it was his stupidity that had caused Bodie such agony. "Oh, Bodie..." he repeated. The other man shook his head in silence and released Raymond's wrist, lifting his hand instead to gently cup the other man's cheek. It was almost more than Raymond could bear. Throwing his arms around Bodie's neck, he pulled the other man to him. "I am so sorry. I wouldn't hurt you for the world. You do know that, don't you?"
As Bodie's arms snaked around his back to return the embrace he spoke for the first time, albeit somewhat shakily. "Of course, of course. There is no harm done. Do not upset yourself." They remained locked together in silence while Bodie's breathing slowly evened out and his tautly strung body gradually relaxed within Raymond's arms.
When it seemed that the pain from his leg had finally eased Raymond pulled away slightly, and once again ventured a gentle exploration of the injured limb. This time Bodie allowed his touch, his only reaction a seemingly exhausted resting of his head upon his lover's shoulder. As Raymond's long fingers gingerly caressed the angry-looking skin Bodie sighed. "You have a very soothing touch," he murmured sleepily.
"You must have suffered so much," Raymond replied quietly. "Will you tell me what happened?" The silence that followed led Raymond to believe at first that Bodie had indeed fallen into a slumber, but when he transferred his gaze from the other man's horrifically injured leg to his face, he could see that the deep blue eyes were open and obviously troubled by Raymond's request.
Just as Raymond was about to withdraw that request, Bodie took a deep breath and began to speak. "It was at Waterloo -- well, you knew that, I daresay. My Company was involved in a skirmish with a group of Frenchies that were holed up in a small wood on the edge of the battlefield. There were only a dozen or so of them, but they were fighting like a hundred. Eventually we wore them down -- we outnumbered them by three to one, so the outcome was never really in doubt. When we finally went in for the kill there were only a few of them left standing and we soon saw them off." Raymond waited as Bodie paused, his face haggard as the bloodstained memories came back to him.
"Then how...?" Raymond prompted. "If they were all dead..."
Bodie laughed; a mirthless sound that made Raymond's blood run cold. "Unfortunately, my friend, some of them were not as dead as I had thought. I was on horseback, picking my way amongst the bodies, when one of those damned Frenchies suddenly arose and swung a sabre at me. His aim was poor -- he was virtually a dead man, after all -- and all his strength had gone, otherwise he would certainly have taken my leg off or worse. I was lucky."
"Lucky!" Raymond gasped incredulously.
"I am living, Raymond, and I am walking. I served alongside many a good man who is doing neither today. I am grateful for that."
Bodie lifted his head as his lover ceased his tender ministrations and Raymond felt an overwhelming tide of compassion and affection for the other man sweep over him.
"As am I..." Raymond whispered. "To think that you were nearly lost to me before I had even found you..."
Bodie stared, hit by the sudden realisation of exactly what he had come to mean to this man. And in that same heart-stopping moment he knew that he reciprocated those feelings wholeheartedly. Without thought he gave himself up to the lips that sought his, and he gloried in the sensations that overwhelmed him as he was held and caressed to the point of oblivion. And then the arms that held him were pulling him slowly upright, guiding him back towards the bed, and lowering him gently again onto the tangle of sheets that showed only too clearly the evidence of the previous night's activities. He opened his eyes slightly, just in time to catch a tantalising glimpse of over-bright eyes before his lover dipped his head to tease none too gently at a hardened nipple and then proceeded to journey down his body. Bodie arched his back as a hand brushed his groin and moaned softly as that same hand then moved to his balls, cupping and caressing them as a questing tongue laid a wet trail across his stomach and thighs.
It was a novel experience for Bodie; for the first time in his life he was content to let a lover completely dictate the pace of their lovemaking. Frederick Doyle had been a demanding bed mate, and more often than not it had been he who decreed when and where their coupling took place. Even then, Bodie had never fully acquiesced to him, despite his once-blind devotion to the older man. There was a strong sense of self-preservation inherent in Bodie's character, and Frederick had never instilled the feelings of absolute trust which would have been necessary for him to relinquish control completely. But Raymond... Bodie revelled in the knowledge that his new lover would never knowingly harm him, that he could place his body and his soul in Raymond's safekeeping without any fear of injury. Raymond loved him; he knew it as surely as if the words had been spoken and, God help him, it seemed that he loved Raymond in return.
His body arched upwards again as the other man's mouth kissed and nipped its way ever closer to the place that he most desired to feel it. His cock jumped of its own volition as a cool breath skittered over its tip, seeming to seek out for itself the touch that it needed so badly. And then, just as he was about to cry out in frustration, he felt the warmth and the moistness envelop him; felt the faintest scratch of teeth and the quick soothing of a tongue which delved into his slit; felt the suction and pull of lips which moved with a quick rhythm up and down his shaft. And because it was Raymond, he knew without doubt that it was the best sucking he'd ever had; and because it was Raymond he was coming within seconds, shouting in sheer joy as his seed exploded into his lover's mouth, wave upon wave of it until he was sure that every part of his body must be drained.
A part of him knew that he should now be repaying his lover in kind, but in reality he was incapable of doing anything but threading a hand through Raymond's curls as he moved up the bed to lie alongside him and pulling him in as closely as he could. As Raymond wrapped himself around Bodie and nuzzled into his neck his bed mate planted an abstracted kiss on his forehead and promptly fell asleep.
Subconsciously Raymond counted; five... six...seven. He sat up with a start as the chimes of the distant clock died away. "Bodie! At what time does your household begin to stir?" he gasped in alarm, jumping from the bed as he did so.
"Mmm?" came the sleepy response from beneath the bedclothes.
Raymond repeated his question slowly and deliberately, as he began to gather boots, shirt and undergarments.
"What is the time now?" Bodie asked as he stretched and turned over.
"It has just turned seven o'clock," Raymond replied hurriedly as he attempted to get one leg into his trousers.
"Then the servants will already be up and about their duties. Why do you ask?" The last word was all but lost in a jaw-cracking yawn as Bodie burrowed further under the blankets. "It's cold and it's early, Raymond. Come back to bed."
Without warning, Bodie was suddenly exposed to the chill of a December morning, and he cracked open one eye to see his new lover standing at the foot of the bed, his arms full of bedclothes. As Bodie groaned and scrabbled ineffectually for the covers Raymond tightened his grip.
"Somewhere in this house of yours there is a bed which was meant to have been occupied last night. Do I need to remind you that your servants will find that bed in its original pristine condition unless I get to it before they do?" With a final groan of resignation Bodie sat up at last but made no effort to rise from the bed, choosing instead to wrap his arms around his knees in an effort to conserve some body heat. "Bodie!" Raymond sighed in exasperation. "Do you really wish for us to be discovered?"
At the answering look that the other man shot at him from beneath his lashes, Raymond sighed again, this time with a degree of forbearance. Letting the tangle of bedclothes drop from his grasp he moved around the bed, cupped his hand around the nape of Bodie's neck and kissed him firmly on the mouth. "What we are doing is against the law, you know that," he said softly. "We cannot risk discovery... especially not after just one night."
As Bodie reached for him to continue their kiss Raymond backed away, a look of quiet determination on his face. Bodie seemed to consider the other man's words for a moment and then with a frown he rose slowly from the bed and silently, almost ceremoniously, crossed the room. Raymond watched in confusion as he stopped in front of a narrow door, which Raymond had taken to contain a closet, waggled his eyebrows conspiratorially and then, with a grand gesture, threw open the door with great aplomb to reveal an adjoining bedroom.
Raymond's face lit up in amazed delight, his laughter echoed by that of his lover as Bodie returned to the bed and opened his arms to embrace him. Raymond's expression, however, changed to one of annoyance as he batted the other man's hands away, his eyes narrowing suspiciously, although the hint of a smile remained on his lips. "As this is the bedchamber of the master of the house I assume that..." he gestured towards the other room "...is that of the mistress?"
Bodie nodded in assent, his face the picture of innocence. "I am not entirely sure that I like what that infers," Raymond continued indignantly.
Bodie's face dropped instantly. "I meant no offence, Raymond, I assure you," he stammered apologetically. "I just thought..."
Raymond could contain his grin no longer. "That it would be an admirable arrangement?" he suggested. At yet another silent nod from his lover, Raymond laughed aloud and held an outstretched hand towards him. "And so it is. A perfect arrangement, in fact!"
Relaxing visibly Bodie took the offered hand with a smile and stepped into his arms. As their hands began to explore one another once more, Raymond nipped teasingly at an earlobe with his teeth. "The bed would seem to be in need of some attention however before your servants arrive to see to their duties," he purred, his seductive tones sending shivers along the length of Bodie's spine. "You would not wish them to know that it has remained unused all night." And with one last nip at Bodie's ear his hand slipped back into that of his lover and he led him slowly into the next room.
Mid December 1816
Raymond sighed loudly as he closed the ledger with an unmistakable air of finality. The sound caused Bodie to shift his attention from the book that he was perusing on the other side of the library and he glanced across at his lover. Sitting back in his chair, his eyes fixed unseeing upon the cover of the book, Raymond was the picture of dejection. Bodie crossed the room silently and perched on the edge of the desk where the other man was seated. When there was no response, he removed the quill from Raymond's grasp and laid it down on the desk before taking Raymond's hand in his. "What is wrong?" he asked quietly. "You look as though you have the cares of the world upon your shoulders."
Raymond looked up at Bodie with an expression of confusion which Bodie answered with an encouraging smile. "The job is done," he replied with a frown. "Your books are all catalogued and are stored away in order."
"And an admirable job you've made of it too. You have done me a great service. You should be pleased with what you have achieved."
"But what now? What reason do I have to remain in your household and continue to impose upon your hospitality?" He swept a hand through his unruly curls, and Bodie smiled again as he realised how fond he had become of this habit of his lover's. "I confess, the thought had never crossed my mind until I closed the ledger," Raymond continued, his speech quickening. "And now..."
He was interrupted by a soft, reassuring kiss from the other man. "My dear Raymond, the cataloguing of my books was not the sole reason for your remaining here. That ceased to be the case some time ago, you know that."
"Then I can stay?"
With a sound that could almost be described as a sob, Bodie stood and pulled Raymond to his feet, wrapping him in a rib-cracking embrace as he did so. "Don't you think that I have been dreading the day when your task would be completed and you would leave me?" Bodie gasped.
"Leave you?" Raymond replied, equally as breathless. "There is nowhere in the world that I would rather be than here with you."
Bodie felt the tension disappear from the other man's body as he relaxed against him and returned the embrace. They stood thus for many moments, each wordlessly reassuring the other of their need and desire to be together. When they eventually parted it was with a look of undisguised love and an affectionate smile at the over-bright eyes that they were both displaying. "Look at us..." Bodie murmured fondly, cuffing the corner of Raymond's eye gently with the back of his hand.
"Each of us as bad as the other..." Raymond replied just as fondly as he returned the gesture.
"You will be, though," Bodie suddenly observed, all trace of a smile gone. "Leaving me, I mean."
"No!" Raymond protested in confusion. "Why should I? I have no reason to..."
"Christmas, Raymond," Bodie interrupted ruefully. "It will be upon us in less than a fortnight, and no doubt you will want to return to your family for the festivities."
"My family? Oh no, Bodie, I have no wish to return to my family, either at Christmas or at any other time."
Now it was Bodie's turn to look confused, taken aback at the sudden loss of warmth in the green eyes of his lover and the grim set of his jaw. "But I thought..." he paused. "When you told me of your happy childhood I had assumed that there were loved ones awaiting your return to Highgate." He suddenly averted his gaze before looking back up at the other man through lowered lashes. "In fact," he continued, almost shyly, "I have to confess that that was one of the reasons why I so dreaded the completion of your work here -- just the thought that somewhere there were those whose company you would prefer to mine... and especially that there might be someone in particular who..."
"No! There is no one!"
The air was crushed from Bodie as Raymond embraced him savagely. "No one..." he repeated quietly, slowly relaxing his grip as Bodie held him and murmured soothing words to him before gradually easing him back into his chair. As Bodie resumed his position on the edge of the desk his hand came up to cup Raymond's cheek and the other man turned into the caress. "What troubles you so much, Raymond? Why is the thought of returning to your family so abhorrent to you?"
Raymond looked back at him with an expression of complete bewilderment upon his troubled face. The ensuing silence lasted so long that Bodie was beginning to wonder whether the other man had heard him speak at all.
Then suddenly he took a deep breath and the words came spilling out. "Since I arrived here you have filled my thoughts to the exclusion of all else. At first I could think of nothing but how much I wanted you and then, after we... became close, my senses were filled by the very sight of you, the smell of you... the touch... the taste... I allowed my troubles to be pushed to the back of my mind as though they did not exist. But that does not make them disappear, does it? They still remain and have to be dealt with. I was foolish to think that I could run away..."
Bodie suddenly gripped him tightly by the shoulders. "If you were but to tell me what these troubles are then perhaps we could begin to do something about them."
Raymond cast a puzzled look at the other man and then shook his head. "There, d'you see? I have not even mentioned the matter to you, have I? My mind has been in a veritable whirl..."
"As has mine, Raymond. As has mine..." Bodie replied softly. "I believe that is quite normal when one is in love."
Raymond's demeanour softened at the word. It was one that had been mentioned only a few times during their short relationship and yet he was in no doubt that it was indeed love which they shared. And it was the sound of that word upon Bodie's lips, coupled with the look in his eyes as he said it, that opened the floodgates.
He told Bodie everything; from his earliest childhood memories to the death of his aunt and the double-edged sword that was the inheritance that she had bequeathed to him. When he had completed his narrative, however, the sympathy and understanding that had expected from the other man was not forthcoming. Instead Bodie's eyes were twinkling, and his mouth was twisted in what Raymond could only describe as a smirk.
The anger began to tighten in Raymond's chest as he knocked Bodie's hands away from him. "I am gratified to see that my predicament affords you a degree of amusement," he said coldly as he began to rise, only to find himself pulled back down into the seat. He could feel his temper rising as he attempted unsuccessfully to free himself from Bodie's grasp, finding to his extreme annoyance that the other man's strength was too great for him to overcome. As it became only too plain to him that he could never match his friend for brute strength his struggles gradually subsided, although the piercing glare that he shot in Bodie's direction clearly indicated his continuing belligerence. Bodie slowly relaxed his grip on the slighter man and lifted a hand to his cheek but froze as Raymond jerked his head out of reach and away from his touch.
"Raymond, will you look at me?" he said quietly. With obvious reluctance, his lover slowly turned his head and regarded him coolly and disdainfully. "If you think that I am laughing at you then you are mistaken," Bodie continued calmly. The other man's expression showed that he would need some convincing of the fact. Nevertheless he passed no comment in reply, although his eyes remained fixed upon Bodie's in an unspoken challenge. Finding some encouragement in Raymond's silence Bodie reached out to him again, relieved when this time the contact was allowed. "The solution to your problem is obvious," he said as his fingers trailed around to the nape of his friend's neck.
"Then I wish that you would share it with me," Raymond replied. Bodie could feel him relaxing under his touch, unconsciously leaning back into his hand as Bodie threaded his fingers into his hair.
"It's quite simple. You must find someone to marry." Bodie nearly fell from his perch as the other man stood abruptly.
"Marry! I cannot marry! For goodness sake, Bodie..."
Bodie stood to face him, his hand returning to caress him once more. "A marriage of convenience, nothing more. You find a girl who is willing to enter into marriage with you, you tie the knot, you claim your inheritance, and then pay the girl handsomely. The deed is done -- you are happy, she is happy, and you need never see one another again. Simple, as I said..."
All trace of anger had fled from Raymond's demeanour as he stood face to face with his lover. Instead he looked hurt and bewildered. "You want me to marry?" he croaked in disbelief.
Bodie shook his head ruefully. "Oh, Raymond. I am talking about a business arrangement -- something that will benefit both parties. I'm not suggesting that you go out and seduce some poor creature and make her fall in love with you -- although, God knows, I don't think you would have any difficulty in doing just that. Don't you see how simple it is?"
"The marriage would be a sham! How could I expect any woman to enter into a loveless marriage, purely for money? And if I did, how could I then walk away?"
Knowing his lover as he did, Bodie curbed the desire to throw his head back and laugh out loud. Instead he planted a chaste kiss upon his lover's mouth, much to Raymond's obvious confusion. "You obviously haven't met some of the women I've met," he smiled, taking in the indignant expression that he was currently being subjected to. "You really are an innocent, Raymond." A finger placed lightly on Raymond's full lips curtailed his instinctive response. As he slowly traced the outline of his lover's mouth with the tip of his finger, Bodie sensed the other man's hackles were rising once more.
"Innocent, am I?" Raymond replied in an unexpectedly calm tone. "Yes, compared to you I suppose I am. I haven't travelled the world like you, or seen half of the things you've seen. And when I think of the things you have seen..." His words tailed off as he gently ran his hand down Bodie's injured thigh. "...well, I'm not sorry for that." He paused and gazed at the other man with undisguised affection. "There is nobody on this earth that I would wish to marry... save one. The thought of standing before priest and congregation, uttering words before God that I had no intention of honouring... it would be blasphemy, Bodie. I could not do it."
The time for affectionate teasing had passed, and Bodie knew it. "My love, we blaspheme every time we touch one another," he said earnestly.
"I know that... I have pondered that fact so often over these past weeks." Raymond closed his eyes and sighed. "I am not a saint, Bodie. I am a man, and men are weak." He opened his eyes once more and offered a weak smile. "You are my weakness. You are a temptation that I cannot resist and I have no desire to do so."
Bodie's eyes suddenly flashed as he gripped Raymond's arms fiercely. "Weakness?" he gasped, his voice shaking. "The feelings that we have for one another are no weakness. They are our strength! Singly we are but two men -- together we can achieve anything!"
Without warning, Raymond's mouth was taken roughly. As he began to respond, however, the kiss was just as swiftly broken. "Do you really feel that you owe your allegiance to a Church that condemns a relationship such as ours?" Bodie whispered breathlessly. "Our feelings affect nobody but us; we do not harm anybody by them. How can it be wrong for us to feel as we do?"
Raymond looked back at him wide-eyed, surprised by the intensity of his lover's words. It was a full minute before he could bring himself to reply, so transfixed was he by the range of emotions displayed upon the other man's face. Above all, the love that was shining in Bodie's eyes held him enthralled, and when he did eventually speak his voice was unsteady but his face was beaming. "Of course it isn't wrong. Love can never be wrong, can it? And I do love you." He reached out to touch the other man's face, only for Bodie to grasp his hand and place a soft kiss in his palm.
"And I you," he replied quietly. "So, so much." He entwined his fingers with Raymond's as he leant forwards to kiss him tenderly on the mouth, so unlike the savage kiss that had taken place just moments before. When they parted, Bodie regarded him ruefully. "I am sorry, Raymond. I have no right to question your belief in the teachings of the Church. That is nobody's affair but your own. For my own part, I have had piety and godliness crammed down my throat until I am sick of it. I want nothing more to do with it."
Raymond smiled and nodded, gratified that the other man was not about to try to dissuade him from his decision. "So much of what you have said is true," he said quietly, his arms snaking around Bodie's waist as he spoke. "But some things are too deeply ingrained. I will not marry just to get my hands on my inheritance. I will simply wait. Six years is nothing really, when all's said and done, and my present income is handsome enough. I am certainly not destitute."
"You are a man of strong principles, Raymond, and glad I am for it," Bodie replied, returning the embrace. "I would not have you any other way. And, I confess, the thought of your being married does not sit well with me."
Raymond quirked an eyebrow mischievously in response. "Jealous?"
It was Bodie's habit to briskly walk several miles each day -- part of his self-imposed regime to aid the strengthening of his weakened leg muscles -- and in an effort to ensure that such exercise remained a pleasure rather than a chore, he would attempt to vary his route as much as possible.
On a good day he would roam across country to the neighbouring villages; on days when he did not feel as strong he would content himself with an energetic stroll into Banstead itself, an easy walk of just a few miles there and back. As he gradually became stronger, his wanderings began to take him further afield, and although this meant that he was absent from his home -- and Raymond -- for longer periods of time, his determination to improve his fitness and well-being would not allow him to give in to the temptation to remain cosily ensconced with his lover.
It was with great delight therefore that he welcomed Raymond's request to join him on his daily excursions, and one bright, crisp morning just a week or so before Christmas found the two men approaching the village of Caterham. Bodie smiled to himself as he cast a sidelong glance at his companion; Raymond was fairly bouncing along the road, his eyes bright and his whole being seeming to draw strength from the cheerful winter sunshine. "You seem very happy with life today," Bodie ventured cheerfully.
"I am," Raymond beamed in response, and then came to a halt as he drew in a lungful of frosty fresh air. "I've spent too many weeks indoors pouring over dusty old books. It's wonderful to be out in the air again."
"I told you at the very outset that you were not to consider yourself obliged to spend every day in the library," Bodie protested with a frown. "You could have left it at any time and..."
"It doesn't matter. Knowing that the job is now finished makes today even more enjoyable," the other man interrupted with a grin. Bodie returned the grin wholeheartedly. It was plain to him that nothing was going to dampen his friend's spirits today, and his mood was infectious.
As they continued walking Bodie had to admit that he was also feeling especially chipper; his leg was causing him less pain than normal, the day was beautiful, and he was with the person that mattered most to him in the world. I'm content, he thought with something of a surprise. For the first time in my life, I'm really and truly content.
The sudden revelation must have been reflected in his face as Raymond's smile suddenly wavered. "Bodie?" he asked uncertainly. "Is something wrong? Is it your leg?"
Bodie's answering laugh was unexpected. "No, there is nothing wrong. Nothing at all. You are not the only one who is happy with life today."
Raymond felt a warm glow inside as he studied the other man. So often Bodie's brow was creased with pain, his face bathed in sweat as he fought the waves of nausea caused by the agony he was suffering and, although he sought to hide his discomfort, Raymond always knew and it would make his heart ache. But now his heart was singing to see Bodie like this and to know -- for he felt it himself -- that it was their love for each other that was making them both feel so enlivened. He reached out and gave his lover's hand a squeeze before gesturing towards the village. "I'm hoping that there is a decent inn in Caterham. A large plate of bread and cheese would go down very well, I think. My appetite has been poor lately but now seems to have returned with a vengeance."
"I didn't notice anything lacking in your appetite last night," Bodie leered in reply. "Or this morning, come to that."
Raymond cuffed him playfully on the side of the head in response. "Food, idiot. I'm talking about food."
"There is an excellent inn here, as it happens, where you can eat to your heart's content." Bodie slung an arm across Raymond's shoulders as they entered the village. "The Lion and Lamb, here on the corner, will do us very well."
Raymond almost stumbled as Bodie suddenly came to an abrupt halt, fingers digging into his flesh as the grip on his arm tightened. "What is it?" he asked, unnerved by the look of fury upon the other man's face.
"Did you see him? The man who has just entered the inn?" Bodie hissed.
"I saw somebody go in, yes. I did not notice especially who it was. Do you know him?"
"Oh yes. Jack Short, if I'm not mistaken; a miserable cur whose sole purpose in life is to carry out the evil schemes of his master."
"And who is his master?" The black look that Bodie turned upon him conveyed more to Raymond than any words could. "My cousin?" he whispered, knowing beyond doubt that his assumption was correct.
Bodie was off like a greyhound, bad leg or not, before Raymond knew what was happening. Suddenly galvanised into action he sped after him, overtaking him within just a few strides and placing himself firmly in the other man's path. "Bodie, stop! Just what do you intend to do with this man, if indeed it is he?"
"Do? I intend to do what I said I would do to him or his master if I ever saw either of them again."
"Which would leave you thrown into the nearest gaol. Where is the sense in that? Is that what your friend Tom would have wanted?"
The rage in Bodie's eyes continued unabated despite his entreaties. As he tried to brush past, Raymond grabbed his arm. "Bodie, please. Listen to me," he pleaded, lowering his voice. "Life is so sweet for us. Don't do anything to spoil it. Don't do anything which could take you away from me."
Bodie seemed to hear him at last. The anger fled from his eyes and instead was replaced by a look of anguish as he studied Raymond's face intently. "No," he murmured, hanging his head. "You are right. I would be a fool to risk everything we have for the sake of a twisted bastard like Frederick Doyle." Lifting his head again he looked into Raymond's eyes with the air of a lost soul. "But I have carried this in my heart for two years, Raymond -- two long years."
"Then it is time to let it go. There is something else in your heart now, is there not?"
Bodie nodded dumbly. "You know there is," he croaked eventually.
"Then let us find another place to eat where we can sit in comfort and companionship, and talk of more pleasant things," Raymond replied as he guided the other man away from the doorway of the inn.
There was an edge to Bodie's lovemaking that night that Raymond had not experienced before in their short relationship. An air of desperation and pent-up aggression that had taken Raymond aback at first, but which he quickly decided that he was quite willing to accommodate. Since the first night that they had lain together, Bodie had always placed his bed mate's pleasure and satisfaction before his own, and because of that Raymond was happy to hold him as he asserted his dominance on this occasion, slamming into Raymond's body incessantly while his teeth sank into the reddening skin of the slighter man's shoulder. As the rhythm of Bodie's movements increased, Raymond felt the tightening of fingers in his hair and the desperate raking of fingernails across his back which left him in no doubt that he would be marked in the morning. He ignored the pain and discomfort; instead he just held on tighter and wrapped his limbs around the other man's torso as the groaning in his ear became louder and more frantic and the thrusts became stronger. And as Bodie climaxed violently inside him, he continued to hold him, waiting until the groans had subsided into breathless sobs and his lover had collapsed in a trembling heap on top of him.
It was only then that he moved, easing Bodie onto his side and nestling the other man's face into the crook of his neck. He was content to lie there in silence with the man that he loved enfolded in his arms. There was no desire on his part to achieve a climax of his own, in fact his cock was decidedly uninterested. But he loved holding Bodie like this, basking in the absolute trust that the other man placed in him and the knowledge that their love for one another was enough to conquer all. He rested his cheek against the sweat-soaked hair of his lover, and felt his eyes closing, only to be roused again at the realisation that, far from sleeping, Bodie was murmuring something softly. He attempted to lift Bodie's head off his shoulder only to be met with resistance as the other man burrowed further into his neck. "I can't hear you, love," he whispered. "What is it?"
The face that was turned towards him was distraught, the dark eyelashes spiky with moisture. "So sorry... so sorry," he gasped. "No right to treat you like that. No better than an animal..."
Raymond pulled his lover's head back onto his chest. "Hush now," he soothed. "It's all right. It was what you needed. You've been troubled all day; you needed a release. I don't mind..."
"No! That's no excuse! Oh, Raymond, how could I do such a thing to you?"
"Love, it really is all right," he smiled in reply, seeking to lighten the moment. "To tell you the truth I'm not averse to a little bit of... er... more robust activity from time to time. You do have the tendency to treat me as if I were made of porcelain sometimes."
He jumped as a hand suddenly wrapped itself around his flaccid cock. "You're not even aroused. I've done nothing whatsoever to pleasure you tonight. All I've done is taken from you and given you nothing in return. What sort of a lover does that make me?"
"The only lover I'll ever want. Come here," Raymond replied drowsily, pulling him closer. "We're both tired. Let's sleep now."
"No. I need to do this for you."
Before Raymond could protest, Bodie slid down the bed, leaving a trail of kisses on Raymond's skin as he did so. By the time he reached his destination any protestations had been forgotten and Raymond sighed as he was taken into Bodie's mouth, tangling his fingers in his lover's hair and pushing his groin upwards as the tip of his cock was teased lovingly by the other man's tongue. His whole body shuddered as Bodie tenderly explored him, his tongue swiping around the sensitive crown and delving inside momentarily before beginning to exert a more forceful pressure with his lips. As he felt the movement of his lover's mouth upon him Raymond groaned, echoing the sounds that the other man had made just a few minutes before, and as a hand began to caress his balls Raymond arched his back, wanting to bury himself as deeply inside his lover as was humanly possible. Forcing his eyes open he looked down and was lost, his climax ripping through him like an explosion as Bodie continued to suck, taking everything that Raymond could give until with a juddering sigh he relaxed back into the pillows. As he struggled to bring his breathing back to normal, Raymond felt a movement beside him and before he knew it he was being kissed soundly, the taste of his own essence still fresh in his lover's mouth.
As they lay entwined, Raymond ran his hand lovingly down the other man's back. Bodie nestled closer in response, nuzzling Raymond's hair and nipping at the lobe of his ear. "I'll never use you like that again," he whispered. "Can you ever forgive me?"
Raymond pulled away slightly and propped himself up on one elbow. As Bodie turned his head to face him, Raymond smiled. "There is nothing to forgive," he replied, planting several kisses upon his lover's upturned face. "I just wish..."
There was a pause before Bodie spoke. "What? What do you wish?"
Raymond sighed. "I wish that you could let the past go. You are allowing it to colour your life. I wish that you could forget the wrongs that Frederick Doyle has done you. Don't allow him to drive a wedge between us."
Bodie pushed himself up off the bed and stared down at Raymond incredulously. "Drive a wedge...?" he hissed. "I'll see him in hell first!"
Raymond pulled him back down again. He did not want to initiate a serious conversation at that particular moment; he was too content and warm and satiated to want to do anything other than go to sleep with Bodie wrapped around him, and because of that, the change in his lover's mood went unnoticed by him. "I didn't think that heaven and hell played any part in your philosophy of life," he murmured drowsily as he snuggled down and pulled Bodie's arms around him. Those arms did not hold him lovingly as he had expected. Instead they gripped him painfully and he opened his eyes with a start, all trace of lethargy gone, to see his lover's frowning face glaring back at him.
"Don't mock me, Raymond," Bodie said quietly, his voice cold.
"I...I wasn't," Raymond stammered in reply. "I'm sorry. I had no intention..." He was relieved to see his lover's features relax once more, and yet he was perturbed to realise that the black mood that had dogged Bodie throughout the day had not been entirely dispersed by their lovemaking. Perhaps this was the time for serious conversation after all. "Why do you rail against religion so?" he asked quietly, gently stroking the other man's face as he did so. "Is it yet another aspect of your past that haunts you?"
Bodie closed his eyes and nodded silently. "And yet it is all connected; Frederick... and my father... and his reaction to our 'perversions', as he put it."
"Your father...!" Raymond gasped. "You mean... he knew about you and Frederick!"
Again Bodie nodded, his eyes still tightly closed. "He caught us," he replied, his voice deceptively matter-of-fact. "Not actually 'in the act' as it were, but as good as. There was no doubt as to what was going on."
Raymond was speechless. The mere thought of such a thing horrified him. Suddenly aware that Bodie's eyes were open and searching his face for his reaction, he tried to gather his thoughts. "Wh... what happened?" was all he managed to utter.
Bodie sighed deeply and turned onto his back. "I was seventeen years old. Frederick and I hadn't seen each other for some months. He came here to find me. The house was empty apart from the servants, we were both feeling... well, it had been too long for both of us and we were reckless, I suppose."
Raymond waited for him to continue, watching as the sad, blue eyes that captivated him so much raked across the ceiling before they were turned to rest their gaze upon him. "My father walked in on us. Needless to say, after the initial shock he was incandescent with rage. He beat me unmercifully, as big as I was..."
"And Frederick?" Raymond croaked.
Bodie laughed mirthlessly. "Dear Frederick fled. Four years older than me and yet he did nothing to help me. I should have seen then just what manner of man he was."
Raymond watched as Bodie's expression changed to one of resentment and anger. "The beating was nothing, Raymond. I could cope with that well enough. It was the incessant vilification and chastisement that followed, day after day, hour after hour. How 'evil' I was. How I would burn in hell. How I was too vile and despicable for decent people to even look upon. Oh, there were more beatings too, but I almost welcomed them in comparison. I was little more than a child, and here was this man -- a pillar of the local church, a church warden, no less -- constantly drumming it into me that I was nothing more than scum until I almost came to believe it myself. Where was the spirit of compassion and forgiveness that his blessed Church preached then, eh? But I knew, deep down, that he was wrong. I wasn't evil. Who had I hurt? Nobody at all..." Bodie's voice tailed off into silence as his face contorted with the memory of it all.
"How did it all end?" Raymond prompted eventually, his voice little more than a whisper.
"When my father decided that he could no longer bear the presence of so contemptuous a character in his household, he shipped me off to the Army. Pulled some strings and had it all arranged within three weeks. Before I knew it I was commissioned and kicking my heels in Ireland." Raymond frowned at the smile which now played upon his lover's features. It was not a joyful one. "Ironic, really," Bodie continued. "If he'd wanted to cure me of my deviant nature he could not have chosen a worse place. There are always willing hands and mouths, not to mention arses and cocks, in the Army, Raymond. And, of course, whenever I was stationed in London, it was the easiest thing in the world for Frederick to come up to Town and continue our affair. We had far more freedom to indulge ourselves than we'd ever had before."
For the first time since his harrowing narrative began Bodie reached out for his lover and Raymond went into his arms thankfully. As they held one another, Raymond's heart ached for the boy who was treated so shamefully by his own flesh and blood. "I've never spoken about this to anyone before," Bodie whispered as he fiercely embraced the other man. "Perhaps you can understand now..."
A searing kiss was Raymond's only reply, and Bodie's response was just as intense. Even so, neither man attempted to progress beyond it. Instead they were both content to lay in each other's arms, simply touching and kissing, and Raymond welcomed the opportunity to show Bodie that, whatever had happened in the past, he was now well and truly loved.
As they lay silently in the darkened room Raymond pondered what he had been told by his lover. It was no surprise to him that Bodie had not discussed the subject with anybody before. He had come to realise during the weeks since they had met that Bodie was unusually reticent about his past, and now he could understand why. That reticence, however, only served to increase Raymond's curiosity about his lover, and as Bodie was for once in the mood for sharing confidences he wondered if any more information might be forthcoming. There was one thing in particular that had been on his mind since he and Bodie had become lovers, something that he had never quite found the opportunity to ask but which might well receive an answer if he broached the subject now.
"Bodie?" he ventured hesitantly, not entirely sure if the other man had finally dropped off to sleep.
"Mmm?" came the drowsy reply.
Raymond realised belatedly that the emotional turmoil of the day, not to mention the sheer physicality of their lovemaking earlier, had drained the other man. Nevertheless, he decided to pursue his questioning. "Have you ever been with a woman?"
"Yes, on numerous occasions." There was no hesitation in the reply, and Raymond breathed a sigh of relief. For some reason he had feared that his inquisitiveness would offend his lover. "Have you?"
It had never occurred to Raymond that the other man might be interested in his own limited experience of sexual matters, and the question took him aback somewhat. "Umm, well... no. No, not at all," he replied falteringly.
"Never?" There was a note of disbelief in Bodie's voice as he propped himself up and looked down at his lover. "Surely you've had women interested in you? I mean, just look at you..." He reached out and brushed an errant curl off the other man's forehead.
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean, Raymond, is that you're beautiful. Who could resist you, man or woman?"
"Beautiful!" He almost laughed at the thought of being described so by someone as strikingly handsome as Bodie, but the laughter died in his throat as he realised that his lover truly believed it. And if Bodie thought he was beautiful, then he cared nothing for what the rest of the world thought of him.
"Yes, you are. In every way." Bodie's voice cut into his reverie, and he dragged his thoughts back to the conversation. "You would be a great catch for any young woman -- particularly, if I might add, now that your circumstances are altered."
"My aunt did try on several occasions to make a match for me," Raymond admitted, sighing loudly at the recollection. "Daughters of her friends, nieces and so on...Some of them were very pleasant girls whose company I enjoyed -- I've remained friends with several of them. But there was never any attraction on my part, there was just -- nothing. I felt nothing towards them in that respect. I already knew where my preferences lay, you see."
There was a pause as Bodie seemed to deliberate something. Sensing that there was more that the other man wished to say, Raymond leaned forward and caught his lower lip between his teeth, nipping it gently. "Bodie...?"
The dark haired man smiled and nipped back at Raymond's mouth. "I knew you must have had other lovers..." he said slowly, and so softly that Raymond could barely make out the words. "Of course you've had other lovers, only an idiot or a blind man would think otherwise. I just... I don't know... I had just the tiniest hope that I might have been your first. Stupid of me, I know..."
"Oh, love. I wish that I could make it so; but I cannot turn the clock back."
Bodie shuffled around slightly, changing his position so that he could wrap his arms around his lover and settle Raymond's head upon his chest. "Pay no attention to me," he murmured, kissing the other man lightly on the forehead as he spoke. "I am being foolish. Will you tell me? About your first?"
"Yes, if you want me to."
Bodie nodded, his face nuzzling into Raymond's curls as he did so, and his embrace tightened as his lover began to speak. "His name was John Miller, and he was the grandson of the local doctor. We became friends when John came to stay with his grandfather one summer. We were both sixteen years of age." He paused as the memories came flooding back; it was a long time since he had thought of the boy who had literally changed his life. "One hot afternoon we were fishing as usual. At least John was fishing; I was stretched out on the riverbank beside him, dozing in the sun. I remember being vaguely aware of a shadow falling across my face -- even with my eyes closed I could see it, and when I opened them John was leaning over me, so close that I could feel his breath on my face. That was when he kissed me... and touched me... for the first time." There was a pause as Raymond allowed himself a thoughtful smile. "I think he was surprised at how hard I was when he touched me. In fact I had grown hard the moment I looked up and saw him gazing back down at me. But it was no great shock to me that I reacted as I did; my body had been responding to him from the moment that I met him."
Shifting contentedly within his lover's embrace, Raymond took a moment or two to get comfortable before turning a lazy gaze upon the other man. "You probably don't need me to tell you any more of what happened after that, or of what happened throughout the rest of John's stay in Highgate. Suffice to say that we sampled most of the delights available to us." Raymond shuffled again and burrowed deeper into Bodie's arms, his eyes closing as sleep threatened to overtake him at last.
"Do you still see him?" Despite its quietness the voice was harsh, worried. Raymond's eyes shot open again as he recognised the note of concern contained within it.
"No. He went home in the early autumn and I never saw him again. I did hear, however, from Doctor Miller, that he married quite young and soon had a growing family." He raised a hand to Bodie's face and cupped his cheek. "He meant a lot to me at the time, I'll grant you that. But it was a long time ago -- he's no more than a memory now."
"But there will have been others?"
"No, no others. Unless you wish to count a farm boy that I shared a few kisses with one Harvest night when I was staying with relatives in Norfolk." He smiled his widest, most indulgent grin at Bodie and was profoundly relieved when it was returned in full measure.
"I'm sorry. I did ask you, after all. I wanted to know, and yet the thought of you with somebody else..."
"Bodie," Raymond replied softly. "You may not have been my first lover, but I could wish for nothing more than for you to be my last." He felt the body beside him grow tense. There was a silence that seemed to last forever.
Eventually a voice, that was not immediately recognisable to Raymond as that of his lover, broke that silence. "Are you saying... are you really saying that you want us to spend the rest of our lives together?"
"Yes," came the whispered reply. "If you'll have me."
"If I'll..." Two strong hands suddenly gripped Raymond's upper arms and he was pulled unceremoniously on top of the other man. Without warning he was suddenly enveloped in an octopus-like embrace that almost squeezed the breath from him before their positions were reversed and he found himself looking up into two blue eyes that were dark with passion. The ensuing kiss confirmed exactly what he'd been hoping to hear without a single word being spoken.
After such a night it was not to either man's liking that the requirements of the following day necessitated their separation. Raymond slumped, hands in pockets, and stared out of the drawing room window on to the gardens outside. The fine drizzle that was presently covering everything seemed to reflect his mood perfectly. It was all wrong -- a night spent in declarations of love and affirmations of their commitment to one another should have been followed by a day spent in comfortable and loving congeniality. Not a day in which Bodie had saddled his horse at first light and departed for London in order to conduct urgent business which could not be delayed. Apparently the visit had been arranged several days earlier. Apparently there were papers which needed to be appended with Bodie's signature today and not a day later. Apparently Bodie considered all this more important than spending his day here, with him.
If the thought had been spoken aloud, Raymond could not have been more shocked at himself. What on earth was he thinking? He was behaving like a petulant adolescent. Of course it would have been far more pleasant if Bodie had been at home -- it was only natural that they should want to spend as much time as possible together -- but they both had their own lives to lead and at times that would cause them to be apart. And being apart wasn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if every separation was preceded by activities such as those they'd both enjoyed in the hour before they'd risen that morning.
The recollection brought a smile to his face for the first time since Bodie had departed more than two hours previously. Thrusting his hands further into his pockets, Raymond made a decided attempt to throw off his miserable mood; 'mumpish' his aunt used to call him when he had been in the throes of such melancholia in his youth. It was a memory that caused yet another small smile to appear, and one which made him even more determined to cast aside the bleakness that was hanging over him. He turned abruptly from the window and strode from the room, pausing just long enough to gather up his topcoat, which he donned as he reached the front door of the house. He turned his collar up against the elements and spent a moment or two looking left and right along the wide driveway, uncertain at first which direction to set off in, and then, mind made up, he set off with a resolute step towards the small wood which marked the southernmost point of Bodie's estate.
The drizzle had eased considerably by the time Raymond reached his destination. He had wandered up to the wood several times with Bodie during their early morning walks, and the tree-covered hilltop with its view back towards the house had quickly become one of his favourite spots. Leaning back against the trunk of an ancient oak, he surveyed the vista before him. 'Rosebriars' was a solidly built structure that Raymond found aesthetically pleasing, and which looked as though it could still be standing in another two hundred years time. The surrounding gardens and farmland added an air of calm to the location which Raymond could feel seeping into his bones as he stood there in quiet contemplation. For the first time since he and Bodie had pledged themselves to one another he realised that this was now his home. It was a strange feeling -- he had only ever known one home in his whole life before -- but one which felt immediately right to him. Bodie was a part of this place, as they were now a part of each other, and Raymond could only foresee a long and happy future here for the two of them.
Casting an eye around him, Raymond looked down towards Banstead; a cart was slowly making its way along the narrow track which led into the village, its lazy progress reflecting the uncomplicated way of life of which he was now a part. No longer would he have to withstand the scorn and degradation which his uncles seemed to delight in subjecting him to. They no longer figured in his life, and that thought filled him with an immense pleasure. There was one regret though -- he would miss Jem and Martha terribly and, knowing how fond they were of him, he was sure that the feeling would be reciprocated.
His eyes continued to follow the rickety cart as it rounded the bend in the track before entering the village, and it was just as he was beginning to wonder how long it would be before he laid eyes upon his old friends again that he spotted the lone figure of a man standing at the side of the thoroughfare. The man was looking directly towards him, and Raymond instinctively shrank further back into the shadow of the tree. He watched as the man slowly scanned the hilltop before turning slightly to study the path through the fields that Raymond had taken from the house. Raymond had no idea why he should feel so certain that the man was looking for him -- or indeed, why the thought of it should fill him with such a sense of trepidation. However, a cold chill ran up his spine as he watched the man eventually give up his surveillance and trudge off, hands in pockets, in the direction of the village.
As Raymond retraced his footsteps he could not shake off the uneasy feeling that had overwhelmed him as he had watched the unknown man from the woods. He cursed himself for a fool; the chances were that the man was merely searching for a lost dog, or was familiarising himself with the landscape. There was absolutely no reason why he should find the stranger's behaviour in the least threatening. But his air of melancholy had returned with a vengeance by the time he arrived back at the house, and Bodie's continued absence did nothing to alleviate his gloom.
Distractedly handing his sodden topcoat to Simmons, he suddenly became aware that the other man was holding out a piece of paper towards him. "Mr Chaplin's boy brought this note over for you, sir," the servant explained. "He's waiting in the kitchen in case there is any reply."
Raymond unfolded the paper and read the message which was penned in Mr Chaplin's distinctive script:
My Dear Raymond,
The letter carrier has this morning brought a note here for you. I realise that it is rather remiss of me not to have forwarded it to you immediately, but I was hoping that you might feel inclined to collect it in person, and that in the process Captain Bodie and yourself might be enticed to dine with me this evening. It is a while since we enjoyed each other's company. The boy will bring your reply.
The pang of conscience that he felt as he read the words only added to his disquiet. He had sorely neglected Mr Chaplin since he had taken up residence in Bodie's house; and after all the kindness and friendship that the elderly gentleman had shown him upon his arrival in Banstead he now saw his actions as nothing less than disgraceful. He did not need to consider his reply. "Kindly ask the boy to inform Mr Chaplin that I would be delighted to dine with him this evening," he instructed Simmons. "But also ask him to tell his master that Captain Bodie is not expected back from London until late tonight, and will therefore not be joining us."
Simmons gave him a nod of affirmation and departed to pass on his instructions, leaving Raymond to contemplate his recent behaviour towards not only Mr Chaplin, but also to his old friends back in Highgate. Admittedly he had written Jem the promised letter upon his arrival in Banstead, but since then they had had no further correspondence. So wrapped up had he been in his new life and his relationship with Bodie that he had neglected his duties of friendship miserably. He made up his mind to atone for his failings immediately, starting with his visit to Mr Chaplin that night.
As it transpired, Raymond's decision to contact Jem and Martha as soon as possible was made all the more important by the letter that he was handed by Mr Chaplin that night upon his arrival at that gentleman's residence. As he settled in the familiar surroundings of Chaplin's comfortable library he studied the letter in his hand and was overcome by a wave of nostalgia, for there was no mistaking Jem's painstakingly clear hand. The large characters were written in Jem's usual implement of choice -- a thick, blunt pencil; he was far too heavy handed for a quill, and it was nothing for him to break several nibs in the course of writing a letter. Raymond began reading the letter with a smile on his lips; the picture of his old friend bent over his kitchen table as he slowly and deliberately set his words down, tongue tip just poking through at the corner of his mouth as he concentrated fully on his task, was so clear in his mind's eye. The smile faded somewhat however as the content of Jem's letter sank in, to be replaced by a knitting together of his brows as a look of confusion supplanted that of anticipation.
"Raymond? Your letter does not contain bad news, I hope?" Raymond could hear the note of concern in the older man's voice.
"No, sir, not bad news," Raymond replied distractedly as he reread Jem's words. "More like something of a mystery. It seems that there has been a stranger in Highgate who has been seeking out information about me. My friend says here that a man has been asking questions of our neighbours, wanting to know my whereabouts and whether I was likely to return there soon. I am at a loss to understand why..."
"Good heavens!" the older man exclaimed. "This is most strange." He rose suddenly from his seat, crossed the room and flung open the door, bellowing for his manservant as he did so. As Raymond looked on in bewilderment Lorimer entered the library and Mr Chaplin began to talk excitedly. "Lorimer, will you tell Mr Doyle what you told me two nights ago? About the er ... gentleman who spoke to you in the Woolpack?"
The servant drew himself up to his full height and cleared his throat pointedly. "Hardly a gentleman, sir," he replied haughtily before turning to face Raymond. "A most insalubrious individual, Mr Doyle, of questionable personal habits, I would suggest. And not very pleasing to the nose, either."
"What did this man want, Lorimer?"
"He wanted to know if you were residing here with the master, sir, and if not where you could now be found."
"And what was your reply?"
"I sent him off with a flea in his ear, sir. I told him that your place of residence was your own business and nobody else's. I hope that I did the right thing, sir. He hardly seemed the type of personage that a gentleman of your stamp would be associating with."
"Yes, thank you, Lorimer," Raymond replied as his confusion grew by the second.
"I fear however, sir, that others who were frequenting the Woolpack that night may not have been as tight-lipped as myself. Your face is well known in the village, not least because of your resemblance to Mr Frederick Doyle who was, may I say, somewhat notorious hereabouts. And it is common knowledge that you are currently staying with Captain Bodie."
"I see..." Raymond replied slowly as he attempted to make some sense of the whole business, but with no success. He uttered his thanks to Lorimer as the servant was dismissed, and then turned his attention back to Jem's missive.
"Does your friend describe the man who has been enquiring after you in Highgate?" Chaplin asked.
Raymond turned to the second of the two pages which he held. "Yes. 'Dirty and ill-kempt'. The same man, do you think?"
"Almost certainly, I would say. And you have no idea who he can be?"
Raymond shook his head. "None whatsoever."
"Well, well. Most strange, to be sure. But still, I'm sure that there is a simple explanation for it. Now, shall we dine...?"
Raymond was deep in thought as he walked along the lane. He had declined Mr Chaplin's offer of a ride home in his carriage; the night was dry and brightly moonlit, and the walk was not an arduous one. Try as he might he was still totally bemused as to the identity of the stranger who was seeking him out, and indeed the reason why the man was doing it. He wondered whether Bodie might have any ideas on the subject.
The thought of his lover cheered him; Bodie would by now be waiting at home for him and the prospect of seeing him caused him to quicken his step somewhat. It had occurred to him several times during the past few hours that, as pleasant as it was, his evening with Mr Chaplin would have been even more enjoyable had Bodie been at his side. It came as something of a surprise to him to suddenly realise that Bodie had become such an indispensable part of his life in so short a span of time. Suffused with the warmth of that knowledge -- and not a little with the wine and brandy that he had imbibed at Mr Chaplin's table -- his mind was on anything but his immediate surroundings and he almost stumbled to the ground as a figure suddenly emerged from the shadows directly in front of him and blocked his path.
Any sense of well-being drained from Raymond immediately. He did not know the man, or what his mission was on this lonely road so late at night, but he knew without doubt that it was not an innocent one. As the stranger took a step towards him, Raymond stood his ground. "If you want money you've chosen a poor target. I've but a few guineas on me," he said truthfully.
"Hand it over anyway," the man growled, gesturing towards Raymond's pockets. Any words of dissent died upon his lips as he caught sight of the glint of metal in the villain's hand. He was quite prepared to use his fists to protect himself, but was not foolish enough to pit himself unarmed against a knife. He fished in his pocket for the few coins that he was carrying and held them in his outstretched hand, from which they were snatched unceremoniously. "What else have you got?"
"My watch. Nothing more." The man grabbed Raymond's hands, cursing as he realised that his victim's fingers were ringless. Raymond gasped as the knife was then suddenly placed at his throat whilst his pockets were roughly searched. His heart sank as his watch was removed and transferred to his assailant's coat. It had been a coming-of-age gift from his aunt, and was irreplaceable in his eyes. "I've told you. There is nothing more," he hissed, trying hard to keep a rein on his temper as the man continued to rummage through his clothing.
"Ah, but here is something... something you were trying to hide, eh?"
The man's rough fingers extricated a leather pouch from the inner pocket of Raymond's jacket.
"There is nothing in there of any value to you. Merely a few documents."
The pouch seemed to interest the man greatly however, much to Raymond's puzzlement. Without warning an almighty shove suddenly landed him on his back in the middle of the lane, an action which finally caused his temper to snap. He roared his resentment as he furiously attempted to gain his feet again, only to find the knife once again hovering just inches from his face. "If you've got any sense you'll stay where you are," the stranger snarled. "At least until my business with you is finished and I'm away from this place."
Even in his rage, Raymond realised that his situation was hopeless. He was at a complete disadvantage, and he knew that he had to accept that fact. And so he remained on the ground and watched while the man unfastened the pouch and removed the documents which it contained. He knew that there was nothing there to interest the scoundrel; a letter from his aunt -- the last letter she had written to him, in fact; the letter from Jem which Mr Chaplin had handed to him just a few hours before; and a hastily scribbled pencil sketch of Bodie which he'd hoped to make more of some day. Meaningless things that were all very dear to him but completely valueless to anybody else.
The man studied the various pieces of paper intently by the brilliant moonlight before uttering a vile curse and then pocketing the letters. Screwing the picture up in his hand, he then threw the resultant ball of paper at Raymond's head, cursed once more and then turned on his heel. Within a few seconds he had disappeared completely, leaving his victim bemused and shaking with fury on the ground. Reaching for the scrap of paper which had been so cruelly discarded he attempted to flatten it on his thigh before replacing it in the pouch which had also been thrown to the ground beside him. His hands were shaking -- whether with fury or fear he was not sure -- as he rose and tried to dust himself off. He was now completely alone. It was just as though his assailant had vanished into thin air. His one overpowering thought was to get back home to Bodie. Once he was with Bodie, he could forget about this unfortunate incident. Once he was with Bodie he could forget about everything...
There was but one light burning in the house as Raymond approached along the tree-lined drive, an indication that Bodie was either waiting up for him or had left a lamp in readiness for his return home. He hoped that Bodie had not yet retired for the night; sleep was the furthest thing from his own mind at that moment, and he needed his lover's presence to calm and reassure him. He let himself in through the heavy oak door -- he knew that the servants would all be long abed, Bodie not being the type of employer who expected his staff to dance attendance upon him at all hours of the day and night -- and slumped back against it as it closed behind him. Eyes closed, he allowed the relief that he felt at finally being home and safe to overwhelm him for a few moments.
"Raymond? I was beginning to wonder..." He opened his eyes to see Bodie emerge from the drawing room, the welcoming smile upon his face changing to an expression of concern as he took in Raymond's dishevelled appearance and obvious distress. "What on earth has happened to you?"
"I was waylaid on my way back here from Mr Chaplin's house. Robbed. I..."
Bodie was at his side in two strides, his hands clamping upon Raymond's upper arms like a vice. "What! Dear God, are you hurt...?"
The grip on his arms relaxed as Bodie's eyes raked in alarm over his face and body, searching for any apparent injuries. Raymond shook his head as he raised a hand to Bodie's face. "No, not hurt thankfully. A trifle shaken..."
"Come then," Bodie urged, leading him back into the drawing room where he was guided into a chair. Within seconds a large glass of brandy had been placed in his hands, and Bodie had pulled a second chair up beside him. Having poured himself a glass of similar measure, Bodie then sat beside him and looked at him earnestly. "Are you sure you're not hurt?" Raymond took a large mouthful of brandy and closed his eyes as the liquor warmed and relaxed his body. "Raymond? Love?" Bodie's voice was quiet and somewhat shaky.
Raymond's eyes opened to find those of his lover looking back at him worriedly. "I am all right, really I am." He smiled weakly at the other man as fingers carded tenderly through his hair and he leaned into the caress gratefully.
"Will you tell me what happened?"
"Can we go to bed?" Raymond replied wearily. "We can finish our brandies while you hold me and I'll tell you all about it. I really want you to hold me, Bodie."
The glass was removed from his grasp and placed alongside that of his lover on an adjacent table. He then sank into an embrace that offered everything he'd ever wanted: love, friendship, reassurance, and above all an overwhelming sense of belonging. Of being so at one with another person that it was almost impossible to determine where one of them ended and the other began. Paradise, in fact. "Come on, then," Bodie eventually croaked, as they broke apart. "You're nearly dead on your feet and I want the full story out of you before you go to sleep on me."
A strong arm wrapped itself around his shoulders as they slowly mounted the stairs and, surprised to find just how shaky his legs had suddenly become, Raymond was immensely grateful for the solid presence of his lover. Once in the privacy of the bedroom he allowed Bodie to undress him quickly and efficiently, and without any outward sign of passion, before being ushered into the bed where he was joined by the other man just a minute or two later. He nestled into the reassuring figure alongside him and was rewarded with a brief but loving kiss as Bodie's arms snaked around him. "Now then..." Bodie prompted and Raymond sighed.
"My own stupid fault, I suppose. Walking home alone at such an hour. It was such a clear, dry night though, and I thought the walk would clear my head." He felt the shrug of Bodie's shoulders beneath his head as it rested upon his lover's chest.
"The roads around here are usually safe enough. There was no reason why you shouldn't choose to walk home if you wanted to."
Raymond suddenly propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at the other man, the light of the candle that Bodie had left burning highlighting the anguished expression upon his face. "He appeared from nowhere, Bodie. He took my watch, damn it -- the one that my aunt gave me on my twenty-first birthday. I can never replace it... it was my most treasured possession..."
A frown appeared on Bodie's face; he knew just how much Raymond's watch meant to him. And it was a beautiful piece of work too; he had admired it himself many times. His hand came up and cupped the other man's cheek. "I'm sorry..." he murmured.
"I should have stopped him. Fought him for it. The money didn't matter -- it was only a few coins anyway -- but I should not have let him take the watch. If he hadn't have had the knife I could have..."
Bodie sat bolt upright in the bed. "Knife!" he exclaimed. "You were held up at knifepoint?"
"I could have disarmed him," Raymond continued, oblivious to his friend's distress. "I didn't even try though. I didn't throw a single punch... I felt so damn impotent, Bodie. He held that knife to my throat and there was nothing I could do to stop him."
Bodie's fingers gently slid down to his lover's neck and examined his skin with great gentleness, breathing in sharply as his fingertips alighted on a laceration that he had not noticed beneath Raymond's clothing. "He's cut you!" Bodie hissed. "If I could get my hands on the thieving bastard..."
Raymond's head fell heavily back onto his chest and his eyelids drooped. "Doesn't matter now," he murmured drowsily. "Should have stopped him taking the watch though..."
There was silence for a few moments before the sound of heavy breathing told Bodie that his emotionally exhausted lover had finally succumbed to sleep. He moved slightly, shifting as best he could without disturbing the other man. He was not in his preferred position for sleep and he knew that his leg would be complaining bitterly in the morning, but he had no intention of waking Raymond now. If anything he held him even tighter as a wave of gratitude that his lover had not been hurt -- or worse -- swept over him.
Knowing Raymond's temper as he did, he could so easily imagine what might have been if that temper had not been kept on a tight rein. To think that he could now be lying in a pool of blood on a lonely country road, lost to him forever. A new sensation hit Bodie like a thunderbolt. Losing Raymond was a thought that was too terrible to contemplate, and a feeling of dread the like of which he'd never experienced before coursed through his entire being. He suddenly knew that he would never allow anything to take this man from him; life without him was too horrifying for him to even begin to imagine. As the tears rolled silently down his cheeks, he buried his face in his lover's curls and waited for sleep to claim him too.
Bodie woke at dawn to an excruciating pain in his leg, as he had known full well that he would. Raymond still slept like a baby, curled up virtually on top of him, but as loathe as he was to move and disturb his lover Bodie knew that he had no choice but to do so. He could not help uttering a yelp of pain as he shifted his position, and he cursed silently as Raymond began to stir as a result of the involuntary noise and the clumsy movements which accompanied it. The head of unruly curls was lifted slowly from its resting place on Bodie's chest and a pair of sleepy green eyes smiled a good morning at him. Bodie responded with a chaste kiss on the other man's forehead. "Go back to sleep," he commanded gently. "It's early yet."
Raymond yawned in response and proceeded to stretch luxuriously along the length of his lover's body, which reacted all too predictably. "No," Raymond replied drowsily. "I've slept enough. It's nice lying here like this, though."
He moved slightly, easing his weight off Bodie and lying so that they were face to face, sharing the same pillow. Bodie's hand came up and absently traced the marking on the other man's throat before leaning forward to claim a tender kiss. Raymond responded lovingly, but the sense of urgency that was usually present in their early morning encounters was conspicuous by its absence. As Bodie pulled back slightly he noticed that his lover's brows were knitted together in a frown, and that there was a preoccupied droop to the sensual mouth that he loved so much.
"Do you think I'll ever see it again? My watch, I mean?"
Bodie sighed and shook his head in reply. "We could call upon the parish constable if you'd like, but I'd say your watch is almost certainly being hawked around the fences of Seven Dials even as we speak."
There was an answering sigh from the other man as he snuggled into Bodie once more. "I wish you'd been with me at Mr Chaplin's; I don't suppose that ruffian would have dared to accost the two of us together."
Bodie pulled his lover's head back down onto his chest and stroked his back soothingly. "I was surprised when I arrived home and Simmons told me that you were dining there." Bodie could feel the tension ebbing from his lover as his ministrations began to have the desired effect, and there was a purr of contentment from the other man as he arched into his touch.
"'s nice..." Raymond murmured, as his own hand came up to Bodie's face, tracing the line of his jaw before carding into the hair that curled slightly at the nape of his neck. They lay in silence for several minutes, both enjoying the relaxing sensation of the other's hands upon them, and the feeling of warmth and security that they shared. It was a new experience for both men to lie thus with a lover; to feel so completely at ease with another person and to lie secure and content in their arms without the pressing need to assuage an urgent and insistent sexual arousal.
Bodie was almost dropping back off to sleep again when Raymond spoke. "Yesterday was a strange day, all told," he observed quietly. "Mr Chaplin's dinner invitation came out of the blue. I did not feel like accepting, to be truthful, not if it meant going there without you, but there had been a letter delivered there for me."
"Yes -- and that was another strange thing. The letter was from Jem, my uncle's groom and my oldest friend. Apparently a man has been enquiring about me around Highgate -- asking where I might be found and so on -- and when I mentioned this to Mr Chaplin he informed me that there has also been somebody seeking information about me here in Banstead. From Jem's description it would seem to be the same man."
Bodie's mood of drowsiness disappeared immediately. "Have you any idea who he can be, or what he wants with you?" he asked, a frown appearing upon his face.
"None whatsoever. I'm at a complete loss to explain it. And then there was the man yesterday morning, not to mention the events of last night."
Bodie sat up with a sigh and pulled Raymond up with him, grasping him by the shoulders as he did so. "You do realise that I haven't a clue what you're talking about. What man? What happened yesterday morning?"
"Well, nothing happened really. It's just..."
An ominous feeling began to descend upon Bodie as he waited for the other man to continue. "For goodness sake, Raymond," he gasped impatiently. "Will you please tell me exactly what has been going on?"
Raymond took a deep breath. "Yesterday morning I took a walk up the hill that overlooks this house, and while I was up there I could see a man down by the track. He was looking directly towards where I was standing, and for some stupid reason I took the notion that he was looking for me."
"And what could you see of this man? Could he be the same one that your friend wrote to you about, or the same one that Chaplin mentioned?"
"Well, yes, I suppose he could. In fact..."
Bodie raised an exasperated eyebrow in encouragement. "Yes?"
"In fact I think he could well have been the same man that robbed me."
Bodie's eyes widened. "Raymond, why didn't you tell me all of this before?"
"I...I don't know. I didn't make the connection, I suppose. It all seems rather bizarre."
Bodie was silent for a moment. "Very well," he said slowly. "How did your friend and Mr Chaplin describe this man?"
"Er.. 'dirty and ill-kempt' I believe were the words Jem used, and according to Mr Chaplin the man who approached Lorimer could be similarly described."
"And the man that robbed you; would you describe him thus?"
"Undoubtedly. He was a most unsavoury looking individual."
"And what else can you recall about him?"
There was a pause as Raymond seemed to gather his thoughts. "He was fairly short -- shorter than I am at any rate -- but quite stockily built. Dirty, as I have said, and shabbily dressed."
"Older than you or I."
"Um, no, I don't think.... no, there was something."
"There was a smell of some sort about him -- I don't mean anything particularly unpleasant, but I remember being reminded of something at the time. Something to do with when I was a child. I can't quite recall..." His brows knitted together as he searched for the elusive memory. "Something to do with being ill..." Bodie waited patiently as Raymond ran a hand through his hair. "Yes!" he suddenly exclaimed. "Camphor! That's what it was. When I was small I used to suffer bouts of bronchitis every winter, and my aunt would dissolve camphor in boiling water and make me inhale it. That's what the smell was -- he smelt of camphor!" Bodie exhaled noisily, his teeth clenched. "Does that mean something? Do you know who he is?"
"Oh, I know him all right. The man in Highgate, the one in Banstead, the man who watched you from the track and the one who robbed you last night -- they are all one and the same. And they are all one Jack Short."
"Do you remember the man I saw entering the inn in Caterham? Your cousin Frederick's lackey, Jack Short. You have described him perfectly. The scoundrel has a morbid fear of illness and carries a kerchief drenched in camphor with him all the time. He positively reeks of the stuff."
"But what do you think he is up to?"
"Nothing of his own devising, that's for sure, he doesn't have the brains. No, this is something to do with Frederick."
"Frederick? But he doesn't even know of my existence! What could he..."
Bodie held up a hand to silence him. "Raymond, just think back to last night and tell me exactly what happened," he said slowly.
"I've told you what happened; the blackguard stole my watch and my money at knifepoint. What more is there to tell?"
"Please, Raymond. Just bear with me and do as I ask."
"Very well," the other man replied with a sigh of exasperation. "Although I fail to see..."
Bodie glared at him and Raymond shook his head. "I'm sorry," he sighed. "I know I'm not explaining this very well." Taking yet another deep breath he continued with his story.
"I was less than ten minutes from here when he jumped out in front of me. I told him that if it was money he was after then he was out of luck as I only had a few guineas on me. He took it anyway. Then he searched me for jewellery -- he was annoyed because I wore no rings -- and found my watch." He paused for a moment as something seemed to occur to him. "I remember he read the inscription on the back of my watch before he pocketed it; what he read there seemed to please him. I thought nothing of it at the time but wouldn't the inscription make it more difficult for him to sell the watch?"
Bodie nodded as he remembered the engraved dedication upon the watch.
'For my beloved nephew, Raymond Doyle, on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday.'
"It would indeed," he agreed, his suspicions growing by the second. "And then what happened?"
"After he'd taken the watch he continued to search my pockets. He found the leather pouch which I carry with me and he read through the documents inside it."
"Just a couple of letters and..." Raymond hesitated, and reached for his jacket which lay on a chair next to the bed. Pulling the pouch from his pocket, he handed it to the other man and waited for him to peruse the contents.
Bodie's eyes widened in surprise as he found himself looking at his own likeness. He ran a tentative finger over the now-creased paper and looked at Raymond questioningly. Raymond smiled in reply before continuing his account of the previous night's events. "There was a letter from my aunt and also the one from Jem which I mentioned. He took them both, although I fail to see why they would have been of any interest to him. I did get the impression that he was hoping to find something of importance there. Whatever that was he obviously didn't find it because he threw your sketch at me with a curse and then took off into the night once more."
Bodie's attention remained fixed upon the pencil sketch before him. "When did you do this?" he asked quietly, admiring his lover's handiwork . "I had no idea that you were so talented."
"One evening last week, after supper. We were sitting in the drawing room -- you were so engrossed in your book that you didn't even notice that I was sketching you."
"I think that you have flattered me somewhat..." Bodie protested, a slight catch in his voice.
"Not at all," Raymond replied softly as he took the sketch from the other man's hand and attempted once more to smooth out the creases. "I have drawn you as I see you."
"Then you must be biased in my favour..."
"Of course I am." He leant forward and kissed the other man gently. "I love you."
The kiss was returned with vigour before Bodie reluctantly broke the contact. "Raymond, I fear that we cannot spare the time for any distractions, as sweet as they are," he said breathlessly. "If my suspicions are correct then we must act immediately."
"Just what are your suspicions?" his lover replied, obviously unsettled by Bodie's sudden curtailment of their fun.
"You realise by now that Jack Short was lying in wait for you -- and by that I mean you, specifically. This was no ordinary highway robbery. There is something belonging to you that he wants, or rather that Frederick wants. An important paper of some kind that you might have been carrying about your person. Do you have any idea what that could be? What important documents do you have in your possession?"
"Why, there is only one. My letter of authorisation from Hoare's Bank; without it I cannot draw on my inheritance."
"And you have that safe?"
"Yes, it is locked in the desk in the next room."
"Then there is no danger that Frederick could get his hands on your money?"
"I don't see how he could. It was impressed upon me by my solicitor that the letter would be needed if I wished to make any withdrawals from my account."
Bodie took a moment to gather his thoughts before suddenly throwing the bedcovers back. "I've learnt never to underestimate your cousin, my love." He left their bed hurriedly, wincing as the sudden movement sent a stab of pain along the length of his leg. "I believe it would be advisable for us to set off for your bank immediately." Moving stiffly across the room he gathered up the other man's clothes and threw them towards the bed before dressing himself as quickly as his limited movements would allow. Following his example, Raymond also donned his clothes swiftly despite his obvious puzzlement.
"Bodie, surely you are overreacting. Frederick does not have the letter; there is no possibility of anybody handing over my money to him."
Bodie pulled on his jacket and limped over to the other man. His hand gripped Raymond's arm firmly. "Have you forgotten how alike the two of you are? Even I was fooled when I first met you -- I of all people, who had been his lover for all those years. And don't forget that he has your watch in his possession, complete with the name of Raymond Doyle inscribed upon it. And I would not put anything beyond his powers of persuasion. No, we must journey to London post haste."
Twenty minutes later found the two men riding at a steady pace towards the capital. They rode in silence for the most part, Raymond still not completely convinced of the need for their journey, but a swift glance at the grim set of his friend's jaw was enough to persuade him to follow the other man's lead without further protest. He watched Bodie carefully as he rode alongside him. The steely determination in his eye belied the fury that Raymond knew was simmering just below the surface. Yet again Frederick Doyle was responsible for the emergence of a dark side to his lover that Raymond cared little for. A side that was completely at odds with the caring and reasonable man that he knew Bodie to be. He knew then that their trip would not be a wasted one. Whether Bodie's suspicions were correct or not, their confrontation with his cousin was inevitable. Until Bodie had laid to rest the wrongs that Frederick Doyle had done him, Raymond knew that his errant kinsman would always remain a stumbling block between them. Suddenly realising that Bodie had increased his horse's pace somewhat he urged his mount forward and drew alongside the other man.
"We have lost too much of the day already," Bodie said tersely, his eyes never leaving the road ahead. "It will be early afternoon before we arrive and the damage could well have been done by then." The statement was followed by an obscenity which caused Raymond's eyes to widen. "While we were lying abed this morning..." Bodie continued, oblivious to the look of annoyance which was rapidly appearing upon the other man's face. "Damn it, Raymond. If you had only told me everything last night..."
He was interrupted by the firm grip of his lover's hand upon his forearm as Raymond pulled his horse to a halt, forcing him to follow suit. "Now just a minute," Raymond hissed. "I appreciate that you have my best interests at heart, but this is about a lot more than just that, isn't it? This is a personal vendetta, Bodie, and well you know it. If you are right and Frederick is intending to swindle me out of my inheritance -- and if we do manage to thwart him because of your suspicions -- then I will be eternally grateful to you. But don't pretend that that is your only consideration. To be honest I hope that you are right, and that we manage to bring the full weight of justice down upon his head, for it is only then that the hatred that you have for him will be laid to rest and you and I will be allowed to get on with our lives."
Bodie looked back at him, open-mouthed and speechless. Raymond's expression softened as he relaxed his grasp on the other man's arm and began to rub the spot gently instead. "I know that this matter between the two of you will have to be brought to a head some day, I just wish that it wasn't such an obsession with you."
Bodie shook his head, his expression rueful. "Raymond..."
The clattering of horses' hooves and an accompanying squeaking and rumbling cut his words short, and both men raised their heads to see a carriage approaching them at speed from the direction of the city. Reining their horses into the side of the road they waited in silence for it to pass, the exchange of a shy smile the only indication that the atmosphere between them had now lightened once again. As they guided their horses back onto the road they were both surprised to hear the carriage draw to an unexpected halt, and even more surprised to hear a shout.
"Mr Doyle! Raymond Doyle!"
The two men exchanged a puzzled glance as Raymond turned and rode slowly towards the carriage, Bodie following in his wake. As a slightly stooped figure alighted from the carriage Raymond gave a gasp of surprise. "Mr Pemberton! Good heavens! What on earth are you doing here?"
"Seeking you, my good sir."
"And we are on our way to London to visit Hoare's Bank," Raymond replied, alighting from his mount as he did so.
"Then it is indeed fortuitous that our paths have crossed. I have come with some disturbing news."
Bodie dismounted and was at Raymond's side within an instant. "What has happened?" he demanded.
Seeing Pemberton's look of disquiet Raymond introduced the two men hurriedly. The solicitor seemed reluctant to continue however. "You can speak freely in front of Captain Bodie, Mr Pemberton," Raymond reassured the elderly man. "He is aware of my circumstances, and did indeed fear that there may be some dirty work afoot. It is the very reason for our haste."
"And time is wasting while we are standing here..." Bodie interrupted impatiently.
Pemberton shook his head in reply. "There is no need to continue your journey, sir. There was an attempt to gain access to Mr Doyle's account earlier today, but that attempt was thwarted. There is no further threat to Mr Doyle's funds."
Bodie, however, was not placated. "There is only one way to make sure of that," he grunted as he mounted his horse once more. "Raymond, we must go now..."
"No, Bodie. Wait!" the other man replied, grasping the reins of his friend's horse. "At least let us hear what Mr Pemberton has to tell us. A few more minutes will make no difference."
"Captain Bodie, I assure you, your presence in town is not needed. The bank are under strict instructions that they are only to issue funds to Mr Doyle if he is accompanied by myself." He turned to Raymond, a sheepish expression upon his face. "I hope that you do not think that I exceeded my authority, Mr Doyle. It seemed the obvious solution until this unfortunate business is sorted out. It is merely a temporary measure, of course."
"Of course, I understand. But how much of a safeguard will it be?"
"A foolproof one, I hope. An impostor is hardly likely to be accompanied by the Doyle family's solicitor."
"Yes, indeed. It seems, Mr Doyle, that you have a double."
For the second time in less than an hour, Bodie's answering riposte smacked of the barrack-room.
Having been reluctantly prevailed upon by both Raymond and Pemberton to cut short their journey and return to 'Rosebriars', Bodie now sat on the edge of his seat, his demeanour blackening by the second, as the solicitor began to recount the events of that morning. Raymond moved to sit alongside him, all the while casting pleading glances his way in the faint hope that his lover's temper would soon fade. Bodie, however, successfully ignored Raymond's silent supplications, concentrating all his attention upon their visitor.
"When Hoare's opened for business at eight o'clock this morning, a gentleman was waiting on the doorstep," the elderly man began. "He introduced himself as Raymond Doyle and requested access to all the monies in his account. Naturally he was asked for his letter of authorisation, but explained that he could not produce it as it had been accidentally misplaced. When he was then asked for any other proof of identity he produced a watch from his pocket which bore the inscription of your name, and declared that he would hardly be carrying such an item if he were not Raymond Doyle. He also carried two letters which were addressed to yourself."
Raymond laid a hand on Bodie's arm. "Just as you thought, my friend," he said quietly. "I'm sorry that I did not give your suspicions more credence."
"It's of no matter," Bodie murmured in reply, his attention still riveted upon the solicitor.
"Somebody at the bank had the sense to send a messenger to my office," Pemberton continued. "When I sent word back that I would be there directly, it seems that this fellow took to his heels. The strange thing is that when I arrived and asked somebody to describe the impostor they gave me a very accurate description of yourself, Mr Doyle. The only differences would appear to be the length of his hair -- which indicates nothing, of course -- and the fact that he did not bear the mark of an old injury upon his face as you do."
Raymond's hand lifted involuntarily to his damaged cheek. "No, of course he wouldn't, would he?" he remarked distractedly.
"I think that I am right in assuming that you two gentlemen have some idea of what might be going on. Who is this fellow?" Pemberton asked, his face a picture of puzzlement. Bodie sat in silence as Raymond told of Frederick Doyle's remarkable likeness to himself, and the events that had occurred over the recent weeks.
As Raymond's narrative drew to a close Bodie stood abruptly. "How would Frederick know which bank Raymond's money was in?" he asked accusingly. "How would he even know that there was any money? Could someone in your employ have been loose-tongued?"
"Certainly not, sir!" Pemberton replied indignantly.
"Bodie!" Raymond interjected. "The Doyle's have banked with Hoare's for years. It wouldn't take a genius to work out that that was where my money was kept. And as for the inheritance -- my aunt's death was announced in the newspapers. If he knew anything about the family he would know that I would be the most likely beneficiary."
Raymond's heart sank as he realised that Bodie's fury was increasing and not dying down as he had hoped. Suddenly he wished that Mr Pemberton was anywhere but in this room. He needed to speak with Bodie alone; convince him that Frederick had failed in his attempt to steal his money and, most importantly, do something to calm the other man down before he exploded with rage. Throwing caution to the winds, he turned to the solicitor. "Mr Pemberton, would you excuse us for a moment. There is something that Bodie and I need to discuss."
To the surprise of both the solicitor and Bodie himself, Raymond grasped his lover's sleeve and steered him unceremoniously from the room, ensuring that they were far enough away from their visitor to be out of earshot. "Bodie, you've got to leave it," Raymond hissed. "Pemberton and the bank have taken care of things. Frederick didn't get away with it. The money is safe."
"You still don't understand, do you?" the other man replied coldly. "Frederick won't be beaten. This is a challenge for him now, and he won't rest until he's met it. Now he knows that he needs that letter of yours to get his hands on your money there's only one thing he can do."
Raymond looked at him blankly. "And what is that?"
"Come after you, my love, and take it by force."
Raymond sat in the library oblivious to the existence of the book that was resting open upon his knee. Instead his full attention was focussed on Bodie and the pistols that the other man was checking for the umpteenth time. "They're loaded, Bodie," he sighed. "They've been loaded for the past two days."
"There's no harm in making sure," the other man replied, his eyes never leaving the weapon in his hand. "And as you refuse to carry a pistol yourself, I am not willing to take the chance that either of these might let us down."
Standing, Raymond set down his book and crossed the room to where his lover was seated. "You want him to come here, don't you?" he asked. "And when he does you'll use those things on him without a second thought."
Bodie looked up, frowning. "I'd use them on him if I needed to, yes," he agreed. "But only if I had no choice. I'd far rather see him sent to prison, and know that he was going to spend the rest of his life rotting in a fetid cell. A shot through the brain would be too easy an end for him to my way of thinking."
Raymond sighed once more and walked over to the window. Pulling the heavy curtains back, he looked out into the dark, rain-swept night beyond, yet saw nothing, not even his own reflection in the glass. Until a few days ago, he had almost allowed himself to believe that Bodie had forgotten his desire to avenge the wrongs that Frederick Doyle had inflicted upon his old school friend; weeks had gone by without even a mention of the man's name. But now it seemed that Bodie's obsession had returned with a vengeance. Pulling the curtain further back he focussed on his friend's reflection. He had finally laid the pistols down upon the table at his side and was sitting with his head upon the back of his chair, eyes closed. This was not the way Raymond wanted him to be. He wanted his lover's blue eyes to sparkle again, not to be haunted with undeserved guilt over something which he had had no control over. Releasing the curtain he crossed the room and knelt in front of the other man, his hands resting gently on his lover's knees.
Bodie's eyes opened slowly. He was still frowning as he looked down at Raymond. "Bodie," Raymond said softly. "It's Christmas Eve. It's a time for happiness and companionship. We shouldn't be sitting here worrying about something that may never happen."
"The season of goodwill is something that's unlikely to affect Frederick Doyle's evil schemes."
Raymond gently ran his hands up and down the strong thighs, careful not to exert too much pressure upon Bodie's injured limb. "Then let us prove that we are not like him. Let us spend the night with love in our hearts, not hatred. Come to bed."
Bodie's eyes widened at the directness of the other man's request, and the beginnings of a small smile began to pull at the corners of his mouth as his expression softened. "It's early..." he protested feebly.
"It's Christmas Eve. Indulge me. Come to bed."
Bodie's smile widened considerably. "You should have been in the Army. You'd be good at giving out orders."
"And weren't you taught never to disobey an order?"
"Then come on."
Raymond ascended the stairs with a lighter heart; it seemed that Bodie's obsession was not so all-encompassing after all.
When Raymond awoke the next morning it was to find the room filled with bright sunshine, and he wondered how late the hour was. Instinctively reaching for his watch, he experienced a brief pang of regret before banishing the feeling from his mind. He felt too good to dwell upon such matters.
Stretching lazily, he was filled with a contentment that could only follow hours of tender lovemaking with the most important person in his life. Bodie still slept soundly beside him. It pleased Raymond to see that the frown lines between his lover's brows had disappeared, it seemed to him for the first time in days. He could not resist a soft kiss upon the upturned face, and smiled as the other man's eyelids flickered and opened slowly in response. "Merry Christmas," he said quietly in greeting.
"Wha..? Oh!" Bodie returned the smile. "And a merry Christmas to you too." He reached for his lover and pulled him down into a searing kiss.
"That was a most acceptable Christmas gift. Thank you," Raymond murmured breathlessly as they parted.
"There are more of them if you're interested," Bodie replied huskily, reaching for him again.
"What time is it?" Raymond replied as he fended off the other man's attentions.
"What does it matter?"
"Christmas Day, Bodie. Things to be done."
Bodie wrapped himself around his lover's slighter form, and nuzzled at his neck. "Nothing that can't keep. Please, love..."
For a second Raymond's resolve wavered, and he groaned with pleasure as his body began to respond. He knew, however, in which direction his duty lay that morning, and with a supreme effort he pulled away from the other man's embrace. "If we had woken earlier..." he sighed. "But still, I will not be gone for very long. A couple of hours at most."
He felt the tension flow through Bodie's body as his lover turned quizzical blue eyes upon him. "Gone? Where are you going?" There was a slight trace of panic in the dark haired man's voice.
"I've been a very poor churchgoer since I came here, Bodie. I won't miss today. Not Christmas Day."
Bodie opened his mouth, seemingly about to protest before thinking better of it. Instead he held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
"I don't suppose..." Raymond continued thoughtfully, "...that you could be persuaded to come with me?"
A narrowing of the eyes and slight pursing of the lips was his only reply. "I thought not," he grinned. He planted a small kiss on the end of his lover's nose before leaping energetically from the bed. Reaching for his clothes, he suddenly stopped and turned back towards the bed, his expression serious once more. "It is important to me, Bodie. I wouldn't leave you alone on Christmas morning otherwise."
Bodie smiled and nodded. "I know. You go -- and when you return home I'll be waiting with something to warm you up." He threw the covers back to reveal an impressive erection that almost caused Raymond to forget his pious intentions.
"Bodie..." he snarled, warningly.
Bodie chuckled as he rolled out of the bed and began to dress, his movements slow and painful at first until the stiffness in his leg began to ease off. "I'll take my walk while you're at church," he said as they moved around each other, retrieving their clothes from where they'd been hurriedly discarded the night before. "And then when you get home -- a jug of mulled wine. That should warm you nicely."
Raymond stopped in his tracks and glared at him. "Mulled wine? That's not quite what I had in mind..."
Bodie ran a finger down his lover's still-bare chest. "Just as an aperitif, you understand." He wound his arms around the other man and brushed his lips against his ear. "I forgot to tell you -- we'll have the house to ourselves. I always give the servants Christmas morning off to visit their families after church. They won't be returning to their duties until the middle of the afternoon."
Raymond could not stop the tremor that ran through his body as Bodie's voice echoed through him. "Then I'd best not dawdle afterwards," he replied breathlessly, the final word all but lost as Bodie kissed him soundly in reply.
They breakfasted on a cold repast which had been left for them in the kitchen, a Christmas morning ritual which Bodie had followed ever since becoming master of the house. There was a companionable and easy-going air about the proceedings which warmed Raymond's heart and almost made him forget the unnerving events of the previous few days. How different his life was now compared to the previous Christmas, and all due to the man who now sat smiling at him from across the table.
The distant sound of a church bell suddenly broke into his reverie, and he rose somewhat reluctantly to collect his hat and coat, allowing himself a brief caress of his lover's back as he passed. As he donned his thick topcoat he watched as Bodie emerged from the direction of the kitchen and silently entered the library, his knitted brows and sullen demeanour a distressing indication to Raymond that the other man's black mood had returned. Raymond entered the room just as Bodie was placing one of his pistols in the drawer of a side table. "Remember where this is, Raymond," he instructed, his voice devoid of any emotion, and his manner that of the experienced Army officer that he had latterly been. "The other is here..." He crossed the room and opened the middle drawer of his desk. "Our lives may depend upon it," he added ominously.
"Surely not..." Raymond protested.
"We would be foolish not to be prepared for the worst." Bodie's expression softened at the look of horror upon his lover's face, and he smiled somewhat ruefully. "You will be late if you do not leave now. Remind Mr Chaplin when you see him that we shall be expecting him at eight o'clock."
It had been Raymond's intention to exchange a few words with Mr Chaplin after church and then to slip away unnoticed back to 'Rosebriars'. The change in Bodie's mood before he left had disturbed him, and he hated to think of the other man alone in the house whilst in such a miserable frame of mind.
His fellow worshippers had other ideas however; it seemed that everybody and their dog wanted to pass on the compliments of the season to him. And not just to him -- Bodie was also included in their good wishes, despite his absence. Raymond marvelled at the way in which he had been accepted into the small community, especially knowing the disesteem in which the Doyle family was held thereabouts. It was down to Bodie, he knew that, and the high regard in which his neighbours held him, and Raymond could not help experiencing a sense of pride in his lover's popularity amongst the villagers. He could not help wondering as he conversed with the good folk of Banstead just how many of them had interpreted correctly the true nature of his relationship with their friend, the master of 'Rosebriars'. If any of them had then it was certainly not apparent in their treatment of him, and it was a good hour -- and numerous declined invitations to indulge in some Christmas cheer -- after his emergence from the church that he managed to set off for home once more.
His route home took him past the spot where he had been so cruelly waylaid just a few days before, and his brisk pace slowed somewhat as he recalled that night's events. But those recollections could not dispel the good humour that currently flowed through him. Even the prospect of finding Bodie still enshrouded in the bleak mood in which he had left him did not deter him, for he was as sure as he could be that with some specialised attention from him his lover's single-mindedness could be diverted in another direction. The thought sent a shaft of heat to his groin, and he quickened his pace once more, smiling broadly to himself as he rounded the bend in the lane and the house came into sight.
He let himself in quietly, thoughts of creeping up on Bodie and catching him unawares playing through his mind. With an otherwise empty house at their disposal, the prospect of a little horseplay seemed rather attractive to him. It was with a sinking heart therefore that the sound of voices carried to him from the open door of the library, raised voices at that, one belonging to Bodie, and the other unrecognisable to him. He frowned as he removed his outer clothing and puzzled over who could be calling upon them uninvited on Christmas morning. If it was a business associate of Bodie's then he had no wish to intrude, and for a moment he contemplated retiring surreptitiously to the drawing room to wait until the visitor had left. But there was something in the tone of Bodie's voice as it reached his ears that sparked an overwhelming feeling that he needed to be at the other man's side. For what purpose he did not know; perhaps only to deflect some of the obvious anger that was apparent in his lover's tone, for it seemed entirely possible to him that some poor unfortunate had unwittingly unleashed the pent-up fury that had been slowly simmering for the past few days.
His mind made up he crossed the hall to the open doorway, and then gasped in shock at the scene that met his eyes. Bodie -- his Bodie -- leant back against the desk, an ugly cut above his brow from which blood was issuing profusely, the paleness of his face only serving to emphasise the crimson of the flow. For one utterly absurd moment Raymond's only coherent thought was that his lover's new jacket, worn only twice before that day, was being ruined by the ever-spreading stain where the blood was dripping from the line of his jaw onto his chest. Bodie's eyes were black with rage as they met his, but within an instant had widened in panic at the realisation that he had returned home.
"Go! Go now!" he hissed, his face contorting with pain as he pushed himself up off the desk.
The words cut into Raymond's consciousness, and for the first time he turned his attention to the man who stood facing Bodie, his back to the door, his face unseen. As Raymond stood rooted to the spot the man turned and Raymond's jaw dropped. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind as to who this man was. His face had been looking back at Raymond from countless looking-glasses for the whole of his life. For a split second his amazement was mirrored in Frederick Doyle's expression, and then the other man smiled as his equilibrium quickly returned.
"Cousin Raymond, I presume. A strange way for us to meet, I'm sure you'll agree."
If Raymond had expected his own voice to emerge from his cousin's lips, he was sorely disappointed. There was an unctuous, oily tone about the sound that made his flesh crawl. It broke the spell of unreality that had enveloped him, giving way to a hatred that he knew he had never borne towards another man before now. This was the man that had caused his lover so much pain, and had twisted Bodie's heart so much that the tender, loving man that Raymond had come to know could often be lost in the resulting turmoil.
Raymond met his cousin's eyes and returned the wolf-like smile that he bore; Bodie had too much history with this man, too many emotional ties. He had no such restrictions; family ties meant nothing to him where this man was concerned. "No need to tell me what you're here for," he replied, relieved to hear that his voice came out clear and strong. The other man's eyes narrowed.
"Then you'll know that I don't intend to leave here without it." There was an element of uncertainty in his voice that momentarily took Raymond by surprise.
Suddenly aware that his cousin had not expected to meet with any resistance from his direction, Raymond pressed his advantage. "You are sadly mistaken if you think that you can take the both of us on. If you leave this house now there will be no repercussions." He was not prepared for the laugh that echoed from the other man as he raised his arm, bringing the pistol that he held into Raymond's view for the first time. And to his dismay Raymond also noticed the distinctive mother-of-pearl handle of one of Bodie's pistols at his middle where it was tucked into the waistband of his trousers.
"I believe, Cousin, that I hold the upper hand here. Poor William tried to disarm me, but I fear that he is but a shadow of the man that I used to know." He glanced quickly in Bodie's direction. "Such a shame that you ended up a cripple -- we used to enjoy such boisterous games, didn't we, William?"
Raymond felt his blood boil and he tried desperately to keep his anger under control. If he failed to keep calm now everything would be lost. "How can you be so heartless? After everything Bodie was to you."
"To me?" Frederick's laugh was hollow. "What makes you think he was ever anything to me? A distraction; an ever-willing body when I needed release. Nothing more."
Raymond gritted his teeth. "You know he loved you," he hissed.
Frederick's laughter grated on his senses. He looked beyond the other man to where Bodie stood, silently taking in all that was being said. Prepared to see a look of sadness upon his lover's face, Raymond was taken aback by the other man's expression. Bodie's eyes were gleaming and predatory, his face feral. Their eyes locked and Raymond saw the love and the pride that Bodie felt for him. From nowhere Bodie's words suddenly came back to him -- "Together we can achieve anything" -- and somehow he knew that Frederick Doyle would fail in what he had set out to do that day. He stood his ground as his cousin moved closer to him, gesturing with the pistol.
"I'd be obliged if you would fetch me the letter now, Cousin."
Frederick's tone had become harsher, more impatient. The time for idle chatter had obviously passed. Raymond continued to look beyond him, his eyes fixed upon those of his lover, seeking the signal that he knew would come.
As Frederick raised the pistol menacingly to his kinsman's chest Bodie's gaze slid downwards towards the table standing just to Raymond's right, a sign that Raymond acknowledged silently with a tilt of his chin. Taking the movement as a gesture of defiance Frederick roared his annoyance and raised his hand, but in the instant before he could bring the pistol down across his cousin's face, there was a flash of movement from the other side of the room as Bodie launched himself awkwardly at the other man.
It was all the distraction that Raymond needed in order to lunge for the side table and extract Bodie's second pistol from the drawer. For all his greater weight and strength Bodie was no match for the smaller man, the agonisingly obvious pain as his leg protested at the sudden movement rendering him powerless against him. To Raymond's horror, he watched as Frederick regained his feet and levelled his pistol at Bodie's chest. There was a deafening noise as a shot was fired, the confines of the room causing the sound to echo in Raymond's brain as he attempted to make sense of the terrifying scene that was unfolding before him.
Dropping the pistol, he screamed Bodie's name and in two strides was on his knees beside him, his shaking hands desperately searching his body for unseen injuries as the tears that filled his eyes rendered his sense of vision useless. As his wrists were grasped by two strong hands, he choked on a sob as he croaked his lover's name once more.
"I'm all right. Raymond, I'm all right." Raymond's frantic movements ceased as he blinked the tears away to find himself looking into the concerned blue eyes of the man he loved. "You stopped him, Raymond. It's over."
It was only then that the realisation of what had occurred hit him with a force that was almost physical in its intensity. He gaped at Bodie disbelievingly before forcing himself to drag his gaze away and focus upon the figure that was lying prone upon the floor just a few feet away. "Dear God..." he whispered, involuntarily shrinking back from the sight before him. He felt Bodie's arm around him, heard the soothing words in his ear, yet nothing could fend off the horrifying sense of dread that was creeping over him. "Dear God," he repeated, his voice little more than a croak. "I've killed him..."
He watched as Bodie moved across the floor and turned the lifeless figure of Frederick Doyle over onto his back, gasping at the sight of the pool of blood that the man's body had been obscuring. "No, he's alive. Unconscious, but alive. Your shot creased his temple, do you see?"
"I've never shot a man in cold blood before, Bodie," Raymond murmured as his lover returned to his side and held him once more. "But when I saw him raise his pistol at you I didn't give it a second thought."
At the sound of the shock in his voice, Bodie tightened his embrace and pulled the other man's head down onto his chest. "And it's as well that you didn't, my love," he soothed. "He would have killed me for sure, and then done the same to you. He knew that we were alone in the house. He would have been well away from here before our bodies were even discovered." His lips brushed Raymond's forehead briefly as he loosened his hold upon him. "The constable has to be fetched..."
Raymond nodded and took a deep breath as he gathered his wits once more. "Yes, of course. I will go. That is, if you're sure..." Bodie had already turned from him and was gathering up the pistols from where they had fallen in the struggle. Raymond's gaze rested upon the stricken man once more. "Bodie -- there is no danger that he..."
"No, it is merely a flesh wound," the other man reassured him, anticipating the question. "His life is in no danger, never fear." He gave a half-hearted smile as he began to reload the pistols. "He will be waking up before long, and when he does I shall be ready for him. He will be in no fit state to try his evil schemes again, believe me."
Raymond started for the door and then stopped. Turning back towards Bodie he crossed the room and kissed him fiercely on the mouth. "I do love you, so much," he said, his voice thick with emotion. And then, with one last glance at the still unconscious Frederick Doyle, he was gone.
Bodie opened his eyes and eased himself back against the tree trunk where he rested. The day was unseasonably mild, and he was pleased that he had suggested that they spend a few hours up on the hill overlooking 'Rosebriars'.
A few feet below him, Raymond sat cross-legged, his knees supporting a large board upon which were fixed several sheets of paper. From where he sat Bodie could see the other man was sketching the vista which stretched below them. "Are you drawing the house?" he asked lazily.
"Mmm," his lover replied distractedly. His hand passed over the paper a few more times before holding the result up for the other man's approval. "I think I should like to paint you in front of the house," he added with a grin over his shoulder. "The dashing Captain Bodie of 'Rosebriars'."
Bodie moved to sit beside him. "I have a better idea. Why not commission someone to paint us both in front of the house. It is your home as much as it is mine, when all's said and done."
Raymond looked at him askance, clearly unsure for once whether he was being teased or not. "Don't you think that would be a bit obvious? It is a traditional setting for portraits of married couples, after all."
"Then I would say it would be an eminently suitable setting for us, my love." He laughed and rested back on his outstretched arms as a playful punch landed on his shoulder. As the laughter died away and Raymond returned to his sketching, Bodie sat upright once more "You do think of this as your home now, don't you?" he asked, his voice taking on a more serious tone. Raymond turned to him and frowned.
"Of course. Wherever you are is home to me, I thought you knew that."
"You don't miss your life in Highgate? Or your family?"
"I haven't missed my family since the day I walked away from them. The few possessions that I left behind are all here now, thanks to Jem." He paused for a moment and ran a hand through his hair as he thought of his friend. "I do miss him, of course, and Martha." He fell silent and pulled abstractedly at the blades of grass beneath his hands.
"Then we will write and offer them employment here."
Bodie smiled at him. "From what you have told me of your uncle's treatment of his staff, I do not think that they would have any qualms about leaving his service, would they? Old James can't carry on for ever as our groom, we'll be needing a younger man before too much longer. And we can always find work for Martha in the house."
"You'd really do that?"
"We would do that. You're as much the master here now as I. We're a partnership, Raymond. In every possible way..."
Raymond raised his arms, ready to embrace the other man before belatedly remembering where they were. He contented himself with a squeeze of his hands instead. "Thank you. It would mean a lot to me to have my friends close by."
Bodie eased a hand from his lover's grasp, and raised it to gently stroke his face. "You've had a turbulent few months, my love, but it's all settling down now. We're set for a life of boredom and domesticity."
Raymond shook his head in reply and leaned into the hand that caressed him. "Life with you could never be boring," he replied. The smile that Bodie bestowed upon him in response was enough to take his breath away.
"Shall we go home now?" Bodie asked, his eyes promising things that made Raymond's groin ache.
Bodie looked on in puzzlement as Raymond turned away and picked up his sketching pad once more. His hands were a blur as his pencil skated across the paper and then with a triumphant grin he handed the drawing to his lover. The picture of the house that Raymond had worked on all morning was now altered slightly. Two instantly recognisable figures now stood hand in hand before the house. He raised his eyes to those of his lover and grinned.
"I may paint it some day," Raymond shrugged in reply.
"For our eyes only?"
"Maybe. For a while, at least. We could hang it in the bedroom until people get used to the idea that the two of us are married in everything but name." The amusement in his voice disappeared as the truth of his words suddenly hit home. They could never publicly acknowledge their relationship, never indulge in overt displays of affection other than in private, never declare their love in front of anybody else. But that was a small price to pay in Raymond's eyes. He had never forgotten the look of despair and utter hopelessness upon Mr Chaplin's face when he had spoken of his ill-fated love for Raymond's aunt Charlotte -- a love that was thwarted only by the interference of others. He was determined that the love that he and Bodie shared would never suffer a similar fate simply because others did not approve of its existence. Looking across at his lover he felt his emotions begin to overwhelm him, and he bit hard into his lower lip to stop it trembling. Bodie's smile was swiftly replaced by a quizzical expression.
"Raymond? What is it?" he asked with concern.
Raymond jumped to his feet and held his hand out to the other man. "Nothing," he replied with a smile as his hand was taken and he pulled Bodie upright. "Just reminding myself how much I love you."
For once the temptation to embrace his lover was too strong and he gave in to it without regret, allowing his fingers to linger upon his lover's cheek for a few seconds before his hand fell back to his side. "Let's go home, love," Bodie replied quietly. "And after we've decided where we're going to hang our painting, you can remind me of how much I love you too."
-- THE END --
Originally published as a zine novel, Requiem Publications, September 2005