“The sword of time will pierce our skins. It doesn’t hurt when it begins, but as it works its way on in, the pain grows stronger: watch it grin.” - Mike Altman
The January day was grey and damp as the students headed back to the halls after classes. “I suppose, if you must be someone’s boy, you could do considerably worse than Holmwood.”
“I’m not his boy, Craig,” Seward said in confusion. “Arthur and I are friends.”
“I didn’t think you that naive.”
“I’m not naive.” He began to get heated. “Arthur and I were at school together. We have been friends since we were eleven years of age. I am not now, nor have I ever been, his boy.”
“Forgive me.” Craig did not sound very sorry in his apology, however. “But you know how it looks. A scholarship student in that crowd. We really ought to stick to our own kind. It is better.”
“Am I really your kind?”
Craig examined him thoughtfully. “No, but socially we have more in common than you have with Holmwood.”
“Socially, we have very little in common. I have the daughter of gentry for a mother, and you have a merchant captain with an elder brother in Parliament for a father. At least I was once Arthur’s equal, even if I am not now. But what should that have to do with one’s friends?”
“You are naive.”
“No, I asked what should it have to do with one’s friends, not what does it have to do with one’s friends. We should be rather more advanced than we are. We should engage everyone as equals and spend our time with the people who are most like us and whom we like rather than those who are deemed our social peers.”
“I had heard you were something of a radical. I did not believe it.”
“I’m not a radical. Merely a liberal.”
“Holmwood will drop you soon enough. If I were you, I would not be so sure that I was not his boy.”
“But you are not me, and you know Arthur by reputation and by sight, not by his heart. He’ll never drop me.” Seward hoped his voice was stronger than doubts.
“Jack, there you are! You’ve been hiding from me!” Arthur threw his arm around Jack’s shoulders to draw him in his own direction across the wet, grassy quadrangle.
“Hardly. I must attend my own courses, you know.” Jack couldn’t help smiling. “Reading chemistry involves far more than just reading.”
“You’re mad for bothering with all that rot.”
“I must make my way in this world somehow, the Foreign Office would be rather shooting above my head, and what good would come of continuing Greek and Latin in this modern age?”
“So what will you do? Mix fireworks in a grubby little shop?”
“I told you I wasn’t going into trade. But I do know how to blow things up,” he added cheekily. Jack found that his hand had naturally gravitated to Arthur’s waist. “Arthur, you still respect me, don’t you?”
“As much as I’ve always done. What’s eating you?”
“It’s one thing for people to think whatever they like with no concern for the truth. I know what they think. After all, we seem to have nothing in common, and though it sounds conceited, I know perfectly well that most of the men here are not as comely as I. It isn’t that I mind being thought your boy. I know most people must think it. But when it is stated to my face by one I had thought a friend, in the guise of friendly advice, I must take the charge rather more seriously.”
“My boy? For Christ’s sake, Jack!” Arthur knocked his head against Jack’s in a playful butt. “You know better than listen to any of that twaddle. If anything, if they could see us together, they’d know I’m actually your boy.”
Jack tightened his hold around Arthur’s waist. “I do know better than to listen to fools. But he called me naive. Can you believe it?”
“He doesn’t know you at all, then. You are joining me for dinner tonight, aren’t you?”
“I can’t afford it.”
“No, you idiot, that’s tomorrow night. Tonight is in the halls as usual. But you have to be there. I repeated one of your little epigrams on Victor Hugo to someone, and he thought it frightfully clever and invited me to dine with his little set tonight. I think they’re Apostles.”
“And what am I to do? Be invited to join?”
“If you were my boy, I wouldn’t take such unutterable cheek from you. I need your help,” Arthur pleaded. “I’m always more witty when I’m around you.”
“Because I occasionally have wit and you never have any.”
“Oh, very well. But I’ll not be drinking in your rooms tonight. One of us must study, and the other ought to study.”
“Brilliant, thanks,” Arthur told him gratefully. Jack loosened his hold on Arthur, expecting the inevitable “Must dash.” Arthur let go of Jack’s shoulder in order to slap him heartily on the back. “Meet me in my rooms at seven; we’ll go in together. Must dash.”
He took off across the quadrangle at a sixty degree angle, Jack observed. He wasn’t pulling me in his proper direction at all. He just wanted to walk ostentatiously with me across the grass. And I don’t even know what that means.
Seward sat at his writing desk, staring at the blank sheet of paper he had been so anxious to fill, the April breeze from the open window flickering the lamp.
“Arthur,” he began. “I feel I must write this or I may never say it properly. You take my friendship for granted. You assume I will always be here to satisfy your desires. But we do not know where the future may lead us, and I, at least, already know that nothing in this life is permanent. I am not certain I even look forward to the next life, as I was taught, because I cannot believe anymore in the perfection of anything. Not even the perfection of our friendship, because it is not perfect. Nothing is perfect or can be perfect. Of course I care for you, but I am no longer certain you care for me. I sate your desires, but I am not what you want me to be. I cannot give myself completely over to you. I have my own desires, of the soul, not only of the flesh.”
A knock at the door prompted him to crumple the paper - it was rubbish anyway. Too flowery for a letter that only meant to say “I can’t take it anymore if all you want is to fuck me”. Craig stood patiently, holding a letter. “This just came.”
“Since when do you deliver the post?”
“Since I felt I ought to apologise. You’ve avoided me for months.”
“Yes, well, we’ve little in common, and I’ve been rather busy with my studies.”
“I never meant to offend you. I had thought you were Holmwood’s boy. Everyone at Kings thought it. I meant only a piece of friendly advice. I was wrong. We were all wrong. I am sorry for what must have seemed an accusation.”
The apology appeared truly felt this time, but Seward was already in a bitter mood. “Because we no longer appear attached at the hip, you think he threw me over, is that it?”
“Hardly. You are in his company rather too often for that. Less familiar on both sides, that is all.”
That is because I got myself invited to join the Apostles when he was so bloody anxious that I make him look a candidate, Seward wanted to say. And then he threw another fit when he learned I had turned them down. But he respected the secrets of the society too much to spill them to Craig, even in his own defence.
“In any case, I have apologised, even if you do not accept it. I am sorry for being an ass.”
“Very well.” Seward took the letter and shut Craig out without a word of farewell. He looked at the crumpled paper that had been his letter to Arthur and shook his head. It was a futile pursuit, convincing Arthur of anything. The letter in his hand had a London postmark - thank God, he thought, not bad news from home - and the return was an address on Gower Street.
He settled down to stare at it, unsure if he ought to open it or write his letter to Arthur. What I must say to him I must say, whether or not I stay at Cambridge, he said to himself. It ought to be written clean, without the knowledge of my leaving. And if my application has been rejected, the letter should still be written, otherwise I would never say what I must say. But I want to look at that letter. I want to know my fate. Not fate - fate is the wrong word. I want to know in what way I might write my future.
But Arthur is also my future.
He propped the letter from London against his chemistry texts and pulled a fresh sheet of paper to begin again.
“I write because then you may have time to think about what it is I must say, and that time will, I trust, soften any blow my words may deal.
“We have known each other for nearly ten years and have been the best of friends for the greater part of that time. I will never forget, or regret, the moments, public and private, that we have shared. But I know that I am in the wrong at Cambridge. Not because of idle gossip, but because you have others who give you more than I. You come to me when the rest of your set has failed you in some way, as a last resort. You take my acquiescence for granted.”
No, this is more ridiculous than the last, Seward scolded himself. The problem would be the same anywhere, not solely at Cambridge. He burned this one as unfit to ever think of again.
The letter from London still stared at him. Without another thought, he ripped open the envelope and began to read. When he saw the word “accept”, a smile slowly spread across his face. “Conditional upon your examinations.” Only to be expected, really. One has to pass the mathematics tripos to avoid looking a failure, and how can one really start in the middle at another university without having taken examinations in the critical subjects? “Scholarship to cover all fees and books.” Well, some men manage to live all their lives in London on pennies a day - I’ll simply have to find the pennies, Seward told himself. It will work - it must work. It is worth everything to study patients at the University College Hospital.
“Arthur, we must speak.”
“Just go see your mother. I told you I’d wire your results. And I won’t get the damned spoon, I swear.”
Jack shook his head. “It’s not that. She died last night. Instead of seeing her, I’ll merely be at the funeral.”
“My God. Jack. I’m so sorry. What can I do? I’ll go with you.”
“No, no. It’s not for you. There’s something else, too.” He started folding the telegram still in his hand. “I won’t be back after hols.”
“Won’t be back? Why ever not? It’s your mother, not your father. There’s no reason to quit now.”
Another fold, and another: it was a very narrow rectangle now. “It’s not to do with this at all. I’ve known for a couple weeks now and didn’t quite know how to tell you. If I’ve passed my exams satisfactorily, University College London have agreed to allow me to transfer in order to study medicine properly. And if I have not passed my exams, then my scholarship here will not be renewed. I’ll start second year medical studies after Michaelmas.”
“That’s - that’s - you put it all on me at once? I can’t very well say anything is brilliant when you’re leaving for a funeral! But London! You’ll come to Ring this summer, we’ll work it all out then.”
Jack bent his little stick of paper back and forth, back and forth. More talk of trips he could not afford was the last thing he needed, regardless of how well-meant. “Arthur, I can’t come to Ring. I’ll have to work this summer if I’m to afford to live in the autumn. They won’t pay room and board.”
“You’ll live at the house. Don’t worry about it. Worry about your father and your sister. I’ll take care of the rest. I swear it. I’m not that horrid, am I?”
“Of course not,” Jack replied, trying to force a smile.
“Then don’t miss your train. I’ll come after the funeral. Next week. Is that that all right?”
Jack nodded. Arthur squeezed his shoulder in a manly show of sympathy, though his eagerness to please and his real sympathy for the situation meant much more than the physical contact. Arthur still cared - that was more important than the inevitable argument over the meaning of London.
“Good afternoon, Reverend. I was so sorry to hear about Mrs Seward.”
“She would have liked to see you again, Mr Holmwood. It’s been too long since your last visit.”
Jack raced to put a stop to idle chit chat. “Arthur and I are going for a walk. So,” he asked as they crossed the garden, “if you did not get the spoon, who did? I note you conveniently left that out of your letter.”
“Harry Bevans,” Arthur announced with all the ceremony of a town gossip.
Jack made a low whistle. “He’ll catch it.”
“I’ll say. May as well have been me. I’m not sure I’ll go back come autumn.”
Jack was so shocked by the announcement, or the flippancy of it, that he stopped in his tracks. “Why ever not?”
“You’ll be in London - ever so much more amusing, I should think. And in any case,” he added quickly to cut off Jack’s ready chastisement, “how much education is a man supposed to endure? I’ve spent two years, sat exams, isn’t that enough?”
“What will you do?” Jack asked with concern.
“Well, to start, set you up properly in London.” He began walking again, heading for the shade of the copse across the meadow. “You’ll stay in the house - it’s already settled.”
“What do you mean, already settled?” Jack asked, fearing he already knew the answer.
“I asked the dad, and he thought it a marvelous idea. I won’t be about all the time, I swear, and he lives quietly even when he goes in for the season, so you won’t be bothered at all in your studies.”
“Arthur, do you ever listen to a word I say?” Jack snapped.
“Of course.” Arthur looked confused. “What is the matter with you?”
Jack pushed him against a tree, firmly, but with an evident lack of malice. Their faces were very close, and Jack’s expression was as stern as could be. “Listen. Really listen. Do you care for me? I’m not asking if you love me, because that would be a ridiculous question, but do you care for me? Am I your friend? Or am I your cupbearer?” His control started to fade, and a note of deep emotion crept into his voice. “To be both is an impossibility, but if you are my friend, you would respect that I have needs, wishes, desires as much as you do, and you would at least think of them. But if I am merely your cupbearer, your boy, my needs are unimportant.”
“Christ, Jack, I know you have your pride.” Arthur put his hand on Jack’s waist, prepared to pull him even closer at any moment. “That’s precisely why I sorted it. I’m not asking you to pack up and go to, oh, Sumatra, with me, though it’s the sort of thing that would please me if you could. I’m asking you to live in a house with proper lights, a good cook, and plenty of quiet, because I know perfectly well that after a month of being cold, hungry, and broke, you’ll stop seeing anyone, and after a month more you’ll give up your studies as impossible, convinced that you can’t fit in at London anymore than you fit in at Cambridge, which will be utter rot but you’ll believe it because you’ll be miserable, all by your own doing. Now kiss me or let me go, but don’t fight me over this, of all things.”
Jack couldn’t kiss him, but he did let him go with an indulgent shake of his head. “I’ll have some money to live on. My father has managed to scrape a bit together.”
“How? Especially with your mother’s funeral.”
“We’ve learned to be rather more prudent in the past couple of years, I suppose. Economic. Thrift is a virtue. For once it seems he has learned to practise what he preaches. And I’ll have a bit more as well, as I’ll spend the summer as secretary to Lord Marbury again at four guineas a week.”
“Four guineas?” Arthur asked in shock.
“Very good, you actually know what a guinea is worth,” Jack teased. “Pornographers pay quite well for temporary labour, especially when they believe they are corrupting the sons of the clergy. Part of the payment is for silence, though half of England must already know where his interests lie.”
“I know,” Jack smiled.
“Do be careful.”
“He just looks - I don’t think the old man would know what to do with living flesh.”
“As long as you are renting your brain and not your bum. If you tire of heaving bosoms, you’re always welcome at Ring.”
“I don’t think the heaving bosoms will have much effect on me. A scientific mind is an asset in this case. And perhaps I can discover just what makes a man collect and categorise erotic texts without ever being aroused by them. It must be a sort of mania.”
“Just be careful you don’t fall into it.”
“I’m more concerned with concealing my distaste - I accepted the position to study him, not his collection.”
“You are profoundly odd.”
“Perhaps that is true.”
“Promise me you won’t ignore me even if you’re flat broke and living in a boarding house three steps from hell. Have you ever thought my pride doesn’t let me ignore my friends? Besides, it might be convenient someday to have a doctor for a friend.”
“You plan to contract syphilis?”
Arthur punched him in the arm good-naturedly. “Take that back!”
“I take it back,” Jack replied in mock solemnity.
“And kiss me.”
Jack obliged, feeling all his fears melt away. Arthur’s boy? How could anyone have convinced him of such a thing? The fool always means well, and he’s never had a selfish instinct. Except that once. “I’m sorry about the Apostles,” he murmured in Arthur’s ear before teasing it with his tongue.
“Bugger the Apostles. They wanted to bugger you.”
“Now you’re just being crude. And jealous.”
“I foresee an entire entry on the Apostles in Marbury’s catalogue.”
“Care to give a demonstration of what such texts might be like?”
“Your mother isn’t even cold in the ground, and we’re rather too exposed out here if it’s my bum you’re after.”
Jack pulled back with a sigh. “I’ll agree with your last point, but my mother has nothing to do with this. I’m the reason I’ve not been at your bum in months.”
“Then you’ll just have to come to Ring for it!” Arthur took off running across the meadow towards the house, with all the energy of a naughty schoolboy.
“You tease!” Jack followed as quickly as he could, laughing as they came back together in the garden and went in for tea.
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