Keep Your Distance
by Olympian Heights
"The rich man in his castl'e, the poor man at his gate..."
It was a bitterly cold morning in early spring when Cowley and his ragged assistant arrived at the tradesman's entrance of Guisley Abbey, situated far out in the Wirral wilderness. The keen winds blew straight from the sea, cutting through everything in their path; hoar frost edged the plants and flagstones with a misty white so they looked like the acid-etched ferns on the mirrors in the gin palace under Cowley's lodgings. The chill beauty was lost on the Master and his worker as Cowley knocked on the green door. It was opened by Mrs Pontoon, and a draught of warm air greeted them, scented with newly baked bread and clean clothes airing.
"Come in, Mr Cowley. Will you take breakfast? It's past six."
"Yes, thank you kindly, Mrs P."
The craggy blonde touched his hat and made for the Windsor by the fireplace while his assistant clattered after him with the heavy equipment. He sank wearily to the floor by the large kitchen table as a bout of coughing shook his frail body. Mrs Pontoon was shocked and handed the wretch two dripping-coated crusts and a large mug of mulled ale.
"Just tea for him, ma'am," cut in Cowley sharply, "and no meat of any kind; it turns his brains. But I'll take a couple more of your excel-
lent bacon pies. This weather gives a man an appetite."
Doyle stowed half his bread for later in the front of his ragged shirt. God knew when he would get his next meal! He sipped his tea delicately from his bone china saucer.
"I dare say you know best, Mr Cowley, but, Lord! whatever became of the other lad of yours? The big one."
"Ah, you mean Murphy, ma'am. Turned out he was Irish though you would hardly credit it, but there you are. He was impossible to train and far too handy with the housemaids. We had to let him go in the end. Went off to art school -- there was no stopping him."
"Poor child! Those art students lead a dreadful life, so I am told. How time flies! it hardly seems a year since you were here last. What's this one like?"
"A gem, ma'am. You've only got to look at the thickness of the hair and the thinness of the body. He's a perfect pole." "I'm not a Pole, I was stolen by gypsies..."
Cowley landed the rebel a clump on the head before he continued his conversation with the housekeeper. "Fully a year, I assure you. Another mug full? How, kind!"
"So much has gone on here at the Abbey since his lordship came into the estate. It's as sad a history as any in these parts. Poor young man, for all his fine ways and carriages!" She blew her nose and edged closer to Cowley. "They say he is even denied the consolation of religion."
"It's not for us to judge the Quality, ma'am, just to make money out of them wherever we can. Doyle, the chimneys!" He barked the order.
Doyle jumped to his feet, gathered up his rods and brushes to crawl into the flue next to the fire. He then disappeared up into the maze that ran around inside the Abbey.
Ten minutes later he emerged on the roof. Doyle clung tightly to the sharp gray tiles and made his way to the first chimney he could find that was not smoking on this icy morning. He squeezed his way down and squatted on a ledge; the soot was still quite warm. He was chilled to the bone, his filthy, torn shirt and coal-sack breeches afforded little in the way of protection from the cold at the best of times, but since they were damp they were worse than useless. Doyle could no longer feel his extremities as he hauled out the larded crust and picked away at it, delighted to find Mrs Pontoon had left the extra grease caught in the holes in the bread, not gouged it out as others so often did. He was so taken up with his good fortune that when a sudden burst of hail hit the back of his neck he started violently, falling from his place into the grate six feet below. He stepped smartly out of the hot dust and cinders; he was cut and bruised from head to foot. How he wished he could have run away to Wapping Art School with the handsome young gossoon, but Cowley had kept him chained to the piano leg in the pub downstairs. A discreet exit was now impossible; cautiously, he looked about him; he had never seen anything like it in his life ... so much white!
Once, long ago he had peered out of a stack at stately Mortlake Manor and seen the fields towards the river covered with a mantle of white, its purity broken only by the stark outline of the old trees and the brewery on the distant river bank. On cold winter nights he often used to think of the manor and its kindly mistress, Mrs *****. She had filled him with hot soup and bread, saying there would always be a place for him in her stables should he wish to change his position. What had he done, fool that he was?
"No thanks, my Lady, I 'ate 'orses," is what he told her. Liar! his pride would not let him be beholden to anyone, not even the Mistress of Mortlake. He sighed quietly as he honestly admitted there was no way he was going to cut it as a sweep; his health was giving out and his lungs would pack up before the year was out -- if he did not fall to his death before.
Doyle began to pick out the details, now that the initial impact of his sudden landing had subsided; he found himself in a small bedroom, white walls, white lace curtains, white furniture and carpets, and in the centre of the room a four-poster of white and silver. Doyle crept across to see who was in the bed, pausing to steady the bedside table which he had brushed against. What a collection was presented for his inspection: a bridal boquet under a glass dome; a small, ribbed blue bottle of sleeping draught; a decanter of port; several slices of opium; a family bible; and on top of this a series of slim volumes. These were bound in crimson leather with old gold lettering, richness without vulgarity. The sweep looked at the vision in the snowhite pile of pillows and bedding; black, silky hair fell across the forehead, there were dark circles beneath the long lashes, he was very still. Maybe he was dead ... To take his mind off this unpleasant possibility Doyle attempted to read one of the little books. He had picked up some of the elements of education from the scholar gypsies and a short stay at a ragged school.
"'Lord Body's guide to the great battlefields'." He quietly turned the page and started on the credits, following the line of print with his finger to make sure he got it right. "'A grand day out for the wife and children, real value for money' -- Mendoza, Whitechapel. 'A clarion call to the military student, first rate food!' -- General E. Moncrieff. 'Any lady in the land would be safe in Lord Body's hands.' -- Lady Fiona Drambuie. 'My lady is right, I'll warrant you, more's the pity!' -- Jaunty, her maid. 'History comes alive in the company of Lord Body ... "
His lordship woke from his drug-induced slumber with a start, to find what he took for a blackamoor with a studious bent at his bedside. Assured that this was indeed no dream, he sat up suddenly, and immediately wished he had not moved so abruptly, as the whole room seemed to dance before him.
"The name is pronounced Bo-dee, and get off my carpet, Ethiope!"
"I'm not an Ethiope, I was stolen by gypsies..."
"I do not want to hear your life story, boy. Look whet you have done to the Axminster! Now, move!"
Weakened as he was by nervous prostration after his latest volume, Bodie could still give the true, born-to-rule edge to his voice. Doyle looked at his sooty imprints across the carpet, like footprints in snow, and he jumped onto a low pouf; he started to weep. The early start, the freezing weather, Cowley's cruelty, his fall down the chimney... and now this! this being who looked so beautiful that he had instinctively wanted him as a friend once he had found out that he was not a corpse, had turned on him as a guard dog would upon a robber -- he did not even rate a bit of carpet! His tears produced streaks of gray as they splashed down his face to spend themselves in his shirt. He did not know fate had dropped him down the chimney of one who was even more attuned to emotional atmosphere than he was himself.
"Stop!" ordered Lord Bodie, knowing his tenuous control was slipping away. "Stop crying, I command you!"
Command at this moment was wasted on Doyle as the tears now poured unchecked. Lord Bodie got up and crossed to the sooty creature; he had heard whispers that things could be caught, shaking hands with sweeps, but he brushed these considerations aside. Here was an unfortunate who needed his help and support and he had turned him away with harsh words and reduced the stranger from his grate to this present pitiful condition. He took Doyle's hands in his and peered up into the contorted face above him.
"I'm sorry. Please don't cry any more."
Doyle did his best to stop, he so wanted to please Lord Bodie as he was helped down from his perch. Bodie used the sleeve of his nightshirt to mop up the larger tears.
"I had no intention of hurting your feelings, will you accept my apologies. It will not happen again, I promise."
A couple of sniffs and a hiccup later Doyle was enough in command of himself to nod his assent.
"You made me jump, you did, Lord Bodie. That is how you say it? That thing your old lady's?" he enquired, pointing directly to the bouquet.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your wife, sir. Has she gone to Jesus?"
Doyle had correctly formed the impression that Lord Bodie had suffered deeply in the past.
"Oh no, I am unmarried. It was poor dear mama's. May we change the subject?"
Doyle glanced at the strange, sad young man. He could not go on calling him Lord Bodie and any man who had money enough to afford a mother could certainly afford other names. Even Cowley managed that.
"What's your other name, Lord Bodie?"
It was an impasse; Upstairs and Downstairs tried to face each other out.
"I asked first. You tell me yours -- or I'll toss you for it."
"Done!" Lord Bodie produced a guinea. The golden disc spun into the air carrying Doyle's hopes with it. He chose tails, and lost. His whole face betrayed his disappointment.
"But I'm used to winning -- it's all I have left in life."
"I'll lose if you like," offered Bodie generously.
Doyle looked sadly at Bodie and shook his head. He did not speak for a moment; he did not trust himself.
"I'll not cheat. My name is Raymond." He choked on an excess of emotion and the unaccustomed clean air as it hit his lungs. His lordship handed him a glass of port and Doyle was at once on the defensive.
"No, no, I cannot!"
The cough slowly subsided, and lord Bodie was fascinated by this member of the lower classes who had refused alcohol. What else might he have 'views' on?
"My name is William Andrew Philip, Lord Bodie it was to have been Arthur but poor dear mama was over-ruled for once."
At first Doyle was taken aback by the sheer number of names; there must be vast wealth in a family who could afford to lavish enough names for three children on just one. He dismissed this thought as unworthy of him, as he was of the opinion that wealth and position should count for nothing.
"Are you serious about all these names?"
"Yes. If you will not accept a drink you will not offend me by refusing the offer of a bath, will you?"
"I'm not sure ... maybe, if the water is not too cold..."
"Excellent! It will do you good. Come this way."
Lord Bodie led the way to a palatial bathroom full of ferns, floor to ceiling mirrors, and the occasional Roman statue. The bath was huge, filled with hot scented water, and the outside decorated with embossed terracotta tiles showing well endowed sea nymphs.
"I am perfectly able to undress myself," insisted Doyle, peeling off the coal sacks and wrecked shirt. They stood in a stiff heap on the impractical goatskin bathmat. The water was delightfully hot, and Lord Bodie's soap much better than the coarse scouring powder Cowley had used on him when he was new. It was only when they were into their second change of water that Lord Bodie thought it safe to start on the hair; before the steam had got to work he had found he could snap the sooty covering off the curls like breaking open a nut. He ceased this activity after Doyle objected that it hurt like hell. Bodie's strong hands massaged the shampoo well into the scalp and went on rinsing until the water ran clear. Doyle blinked at him through the bright torrents.
"Do you carry on like this with everyone who comes into your bedroom?"
Bodie returned from the bedroom minus the shirt and coalsacks, confident Doyle had not noticed this move on his part.
"Only those who elect to enter via the chimnay. Your hair is beautiful now I can see its true colour. It's rather like cleaning up a dirty antique-" he indicated the statues, "and finding its true potential."
"0y! I am but four and thirty , that's not antique," he giggled. I can manage down there myself."
"Sorry." Lord Bodie removed his hand but not his eyes.
"It's all there, you know. It may be small but it works a treat."
"I said nothing."
"No, but you looked, and don't say sorry again. I quite like being looked at but it's far too soon for anything else."
Doyle's attention, now the slog of getting clean was over, turned to his surroundings. Rainbow-coloured globes floated around him, his reflection was captured in every one. He noticed how modest the statues were, not like some in the halls of the nouveau riche. They could have been used as impromptu hatstands; the only alert fellow here had ivy all over his outstanding feature.
"Let me help you out."
Lord Bodie offered his hand which Doyle refused on principle, but nearly fell back into the bath as the soap had turned to a jelly under his foot. He was wrapped in towels with his host's crest on, and escorted to the stillwarm bed. Doyle was glad to sit down, the bath had taken a lot out of him, and all his injuries had started to make themselves felt with a vengeance. Lord Bodie left him silently and returned ten minutes later, washed, fully dressed, and having ordered three breakfasts. He assumed, rightly, that Doyle could manage two breakfasts with ease. He stood in the doorway and, stared at his strange guest. In the red-gold sunlight of the cold spring morning he looked like a flawed renaissance angel. God! he was beautiful.
"What are you staring at? Where are my clothes?"
The subject of clothes made Lord Bodie start. "Mrs Pontoon is at them this very minute, but they could/well disintegrate in the wash."
No clothes; in not just a strange bedroom but a strange bed, and no doubt Cowley on his tracks by now -- Doyle suddenly felt accountably insecure. He made a move towards the safety of the chimney; when his Master did catch up with him at least he would find him on the job.
"No, you are to stay here with me. Never again are you to work with that man Cowley."
"Stay with you? On what terms? I'll not remain here on charity, William Andrew Philip!"
The words fell like a gauntlet between the two men.
"Stay here on any terms, but stay here as my friend. I feel strangely drawn to you, Raymond Doyle."
"I can work with animals. I'm very good with 'orses. When I was stolen by gypsies they taught me the secret ways of the wild woodland creatures and the lore of the forest glades."
"Really?" Lord Bodie raised an eyebrow. "And did they also teach you to read?"
Doyle looked at the guide books on the table and at once understood Bodie's question. "They did have something in the way of learning; one of them was a scholar."
His guest suddenly caught sight of a stuffed animal sitting on a chair in the corner of the room. "What the hell's that? It nearly scared the life out of me."
"That is Quentin the stoat," said his lordship with a note of pride in his voice. "He goes to church for me. Prayer by proxy, that's my motto."
"How could you be so cruel? He would be bored out of his drawers." Doyle was very sensitive to the feelings of all God's creatures and the wretched Quentin was dressed ironically in hunting pink so there was every chance, as far as Doyle could see, of the stuffed stoat being forced to flash as the three hour sermon ground to its end.
"He doesn't mind, Doyle, he's fond of me, you see. And besides, he has his pick of the girls at the May ball. There are advantages of a social nature in being scapestoat of Guisley, I can assure you."
"May ball! you must be mad. How does he dance?"
"On castors, of course. He might consider an early retirement if you want the position."
Doyle thought for a moment; he was very religious but in the way of a child of nature and thought God was best worshipped in the open air.
"No, thank you just the same."
"It looks as if your job is safe, Quentin."
Lord Bodie smiled at the form in the corner and Doyle could have sworn the ruby glass eyes glowed with pure affection. What had he got mixed up with? Lord Bodie crossed from the door which he closed softly after him and moved to the bed, taking a small folding knife from his waistcoat pocket as he came. Doyle backed up against the pillows until he was trapped by the headboard of the bed. His strange host sat beside him and pulled Doyle's hand from its hiding place in the folds of the towels. He examined it closely.
"Was she very cruel ?"
"Your stepmother?" He looked at the ripped skin around the finger nails; some of the tears extended almost to the first joint.
"I was stolen by gypsies. Val of the gray hair'. He kept on about recherchez l'avinier, some kind of quest for his missing hedgehog. I never had a stepmother."
"I had a hedgehog once, before Quentin came into my life. He was called Grisha. I gave him my heart, Raymond, but he just played with it and threw it away. Went to better himself in, Bucks. It still hurts in here!" Bodie tapped his shirtfront with his free hand.
"I'm sure. Hedgehogs are tricky to handle. What are you going to do with that knife?"
Doyle suspected Bodie might have some ideas along kinky piercing lines or worse, a blood brother pact. He was, as it happened, quite wrong on both counts; Bodie simply trimmed the loose skin around his nails and rubbed oil onto his hands.
"Breakfast will be here shortly. I am sure you are hungry."
At that moment Mrs Pontoon appeared in the doorway with her tray; she smiled indulgently at Doyle. "Landed on your feet here and no mistake, poor little lamb!" She placed the huge tray between the two on the bed and then tactfully left for her kitchen where she had other fish to fry. Doyle felt a surge of deja vu as he started his meal, using the Bodie family silver as to the manner born. Bodie was amazed; he had looked forward to feeding Doyle himself.
"You never learned that from gypsies, Raymond."
Doyle waited until his mouth was empty -- yet another thing he had not learned around the campfire. "It just felt right to me ... sort of instinctive."
Bodie was not convinced. There was no way aristocratic table manners could be instinctive. He was unaware that he was entertaining the Earl of Ealing in his bed. (One cannot blame him, since Doyle was at this point in the dark as to his true identity.)
Downstairs, Cowley lay back in his chair quite undone by Mrs P. He had chased her through the herb garden, wheezed after her around the linen press, made a frontal attack in the still room, to find himself repulsed both there and in the pantry. The wine cellar had proved the final straw. He sought oral satisfaction in his trusty hip flask.
"You're a grand wee lassie, one with the kind of spirit I appreciate," he gasped. "I would have caught you but for my limp."
Mrs Pontoon made some remark to the effect that he should give up or grow up. She was just about to collect the breakfast tray when to her amazement Lord Bodie arrived in her kitchen with it.
"Mr Cowley," he announced without waiting for any kind of introduction, "Doyle is to stay here with me. Here is the money you paid for him and two hundred pounds compensation for his board and training."
Cowley had had enough shocks to his system to last him a week, but like the old trooper that he was, he refused to be thrown by the unexpected offer.
"You drive a hard bargain, Lord Bodie, but if you have taken a fancy to young Doyle I will part with him." He grabbed the money before the eccentric lord could change his mind. "I will be on my way once I have finished my meal."
Lord Bodie made his way up the grand staircase. Doyle was his, bought and paid for. His heart beat so quickly he had to pause on the landing to regain his composure.
In the bedroom events had taken an alarming turn; Doyle had been admiring himself in a full length glass when a handful of gravel hit the window. Opening it, he was amazed to see old Penelope, Queen of the gypsies, in the front yard.
"We followed Cowley all the way up here," she shouted, "and we have come to rescue you. Catch these, dearie, and put them on before you get your death of cold." She slung up a large bundle of clothes.
"But you sold me for next to nothing."
"That was before we found out who you really are. When you fell from the arms of your chatelaine while on the Judas hunt thirty years ago we could not know that by now all the male heirs have died one way and another and you have inherited the lot. The last poor bugger was carried off by a nasty case of drains. As your agents in this matter we will only ask for the usual fifteen per cent. Always had a soft spot for you, my angel!"
Doyle dressed quickly; he looked enchanting in trousers of green crushed velvet, a gay gypsy shirt caught at the waist by an excessively tight belt, and a black bolero trimmed with gold. It was only in the boot department that the old Queen had failed him, but nobody's perfect. He would be free once more, but suddenly his heart started to beat as wildly as Bodie's had, when all at once he realised he would never be free of the strange, sad master of Guisley. He knew it was love as surely as he knew Lord Bodie was his from the moment he had mispronounced his name.
The door opened and the object of his affections came in.
Bodie had never seen anyone look so attractive in his life. He stood transfixed. Gradually, he became aware that Doyle was speaking to him.
He would not beg! If Doyle really wanted to go he would let him -- but he had to know why he no longer wished to stay with one who would have given him everything.
"Why, Raymond? I love you so much. Why do you want to leave me?"
Doyle clasped him fiercely in his arms, only slackening his hold when Bodie started to lose consciousness.
"Time for US to go. You don't belong here in this mausoleum. Join me on the open road!"
He raised himself unsteadily from the bed where Doyle had put him for safety; his head was still swimming as he faced the choice of a lifetime. No choice really, he reflected. Without Doyle he would merely exist in the Abbey. He turned to Doyle with eyes brighter than they had been for many years.
"Let's go!" he said softly.
He paused only to make a more than generous arrangement for Mrs Pontoon and the tenants; he picked up Quentin and a decanter of port and led the way to the back stairs. He hated farewells of any kind; past goodbyes had unmanned him more than he cared to remember. In a matter of moments they were sprinting up the drive in pursuit of the old Queen and the four, bunk, deux chevaux, custom built caravan with the ethnic logo. Once aboard Doyle gave Bodie's hand an affectionate squeeze and cuddled closer to his lover.
"It'll knock years off your chronological age, squire," he promised.
Ahead lay a life crammed with incident, what more could a loopy lord like Bodie ask for? both 'our boys' were happier than they had been before, which all things considered was not difficult. Indeed, the only one out of countenance was Quentin; he had pinned his hopes on the right deb turning up to sweep him off his castors -- now it looked as if his lot had been thrown in with the noble savages.
Mrs Pontoon and Cowley watched the scene in stunned silence. All they saw from the side door was the caravan shoot past, driven by the crone, and with Bodie and Doyle's faces at the window, taking their last look at Guisley Abbey.
"Whatever does this mean?"
"I'm afraid your young master and that Doyle of mine have been stolen by gypsies, ma'am. With your permission I'll contact the police at once. Doyle, by his own account, quite enjoyed the experience, but I doubt if his lordship is cut out for that kind of thing."
"Do hurry, Mr Cowley. Poor young man, he's been so ill and low lately. I fear he could go into a decline at any moment!"
-- THE END --