Douglas Shrove glanced up at the noise from the street outside, and immediately decided to browse the shelves of Goldcrest’s Bookshop nearer the window. A cart containing what looked to be full casks of ale had half-fallen into the ditch in front of the bookshop, and several strong young men were engaged in the task of righting it. To do this, they first had to unload the heavy cargo, and he found a great deal of surreptitious pleasure in the heaving backs and straining muscles of the laborers. One of the men, overheated by exertion, paused to pull off his shirt, and Douglas couldn’t help a small sound of appreciation.
“Impressive physique, wouldn’t you say?”
Douglas jumped at the voice that so neatly echoed his thoughts. He flicked a glance at the man standing next to him. Oh, my. About his own age, well-dressed, with clean, refined features and fair curly hair, and an accent that spoke of good breeding. Watching the adventure of the cart with the same avid interest as Douglas himself. Could it be…? He chanced a reply.
“Yes, very admirable. Arms like rocks.”
“A veritable Hercules. One must admire the classic form.”
Douglas looked sideways at the other man. “Indeed. Who wouldn’t want a body like that?”
The blond man looked back, his eyes traveling slowly over Douglas. “There are those with an esthetic preference for a more willowy build. Not the hero so much as the kouros, not Ajax but Apollo, or even--”
“Ganymede?” A smile played about Douglas’s lips.
“Yes, indeed.” The other man looked pleased. “Perhaps…would you care to continue this conversation over a drink? I have rooms just down the street.”
Sweet Jesus, Douglas thought, I think I was flirting, and now I’m being picked up. He glanced sideways at his reflection in the window. Brown hair, slightly tinged with red, ordinary hazel eyes, the usual number of features. Presentable, I suppose, except maybe for the bump in my nose, but is there really anything there to tempt a stranger? He took a step back, away from his admirer. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I can’t. I…I…”
The man’s blue eyes grew cool. “I quite misunderstood. How mortifying. My apologies, sir, if I caused any offense.”
“No, I… No, you understood very well. I just…” Douglas lifted his chin. “I’m in mourning. It’s only been a few months, and I’m not…not ready to…”
“Ah. I understand. I’m sorry for your loss. Was it a long illness?”
“Very brief. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.”
Something Douglas couldn’t read—a memory of his own, perhaps--flickered behind the other man’s eyes. “Helpless. So few have any conception of what that word really means,” he murmured.
“I suppose that’s true,” Douglas said. “But those of us who’ve experienced it…” He stared out the window again. They stood in silence for a moment. Outside, the cart was righted at last, the workman resumed his shirt, and there was only the normal bustle of London traffic to look at.
“My name is Mark Goldcrest,” the fair-haired man said. “Of the Buckinghamshire Goldcrests. This is my shop. I’m a respectable tradesman from a very good family, and I swear I don’t approach all my customers this way.”
“Douglas Shrove. Pleased to meet you.”
He shrugged. “Yes, those Shroves.”
“Then thank you for not laughing when I suggested I was from a good family. Listen…would you consider dining with me sometime this week? With no expectations of anything but friendship. It would just be lovely to talk to someone and not have to censor my every thought.” Douglas hesitated, and the other man added, “Things are worse now than ever. Since the whole Queensberry mess began, I mean.”
Douglas looked down at the book in his hand, an edition of Oscar Wilde’s poems. Yet another reason the stranger had felt comfortable approaching him, he supposed. He shook his head. “How could such a brilliant man make such a poor decision? Suing the Marquess of Queensberry for libel for calling him a sodomite when, well…”
The other man’s mouth twisted into a rueful smile. “He so clearly is one? And now, not only has the case against the Marquess been dismissed, thanks to his own efforts Wilde himself will be tried for gross indecency. If ever a man should have swallowed an insult, it was he.”
“Pride, I suppose. Hubris. He’s such a giant among men, he must have felt himself untouchable.”
“No one is untouchable.”
A clerk approached, young and timid. “P-pardon me, sir, but there’s a gentleman who’d like to speak to you about a special order.”
The bookshop owner nodded to his employee curtly, then reached into his jacket pocket and removed a slender silver card case. “My card, Mr. Shrove. Would you be free to dine with me on Thursday, perhaps?”
Douglas bowed. “Yes, Mr. Goldcrest. It would be a pleasure. What time would be convenient for you?”
“Shall we say seven o’clock?”
Plans made, Douglas exited the shop feeling both pleased and apprehensive. Well, Henry, he thought, you always did encourage me to meet other people. It was one of the few things they’d ever argued about. I just never felt the need while you were around.
When you live with your best friend, other people are superfluous. The social circle of his university days had drifted apart, forming new friendships in their professional lives. But he had never felt the call of a career, and thanks to his family legacy had no need of one. For years he had drifted along, his days spent in solitary contentment: reading; working puzzles; puttering around in the garden. Alone except for Perkins, their lone and very non-obtrusive servant. Their house was a bright, cheerful haven; small compared to the Mayfair mansions around them, but plenty spacious for the two of them. It was his quiet sanctuary during the day, and at night Henry would return home from the City and provide him all the company he needed.
“Why don’t you go out more?” Henry would say. “Join a garden society, or a book club. See more of London—here we are, living in one of the cultural capitals of the world, and you sit in your garden all day.”
Douglas would just smile and shake his head. “I like my garden. Things are perfect just the way they are.”
And then Henry was gone, and things ceased being perfect, and his isolation had only increased. At first the thought of interacting with anyone was painful—hell, at first breathing had been painful, getting out of bed nearly unbearable. But the pain, which he accepted would never go away, at least grew manageable. With Perkins’s help he was able to dress and face the day, to resume looking after his flowers, find pleasure again getting lost in the pages of a book. Even so, if today hadn’t been his manservant’s day off, Douglas wouldn’t have ventured out to the bookshop himself.
“I’m glad.” He said the words out loud and raised his face to the spring sunshine. April could be capricious, even cruel, but today was clear and breezy and there were daffodils everywhere he looked. His errand was complete, and it was too fine to go home. You should get out more. See the city. Why not? A hansom cab was approaching, unoccupied, and feeling greatly daring, Douglas raised his hand and hailed it.
He wasn’t far from the British Museum, so he started there, touring it as he hadn’t since boyhood, marveling anew at treasures such as the Rosetta Stone and the Babylonian Gates. Westminster Abbey next, Douglas thought, but when the cab dropped him off in front of the hallowed edifice he hesitated to go in. Too many dead people. He turned away, lifted his hand to hail another hansom, then dropped it. If he walked past the Houses of Parliament, then straight up Whitehall, the National Gallery was less than half a mile away. And that would be plenty for one day.
Such a pitiful thing you are, he mocked himself, that spending a few hours away from home is a major accomplishment. The gallery was quiet as he meandered through the rooms back toward the exit. Most people, he supposed, were outside enjoying the fine spring weather. It was just that poor artist’s luck, that one of the few people in the gallery was standing directly in front of the painting he was trying to sketch. The artist, sitting on a bench with his black brows beetled in concentration, continued to wield his charcoal with quick authority, despite the fact that his view must be almost completely blocked by a middle-aged lady sporting a hat of true epic proportions.
Douglas’s jaw dropped as he studied the creation. Wide brims were both fashionable and practical on a sunny day like today, and a little colorful trim went a long way. But which milliner had decided to bless this woman with so much of Nature’s bounty? The hat was a veritable orchard of shiny wax fruit: apples, peaches, pears, plums, bunches of grapes and bobbles of dark red cherries, advertising a fecundity the lady was surely beyond in years. He shot a glance of sympathy at the artist, who grinned and turned his sketchpad so Douglas could see it.
He grinned back. The man was sketching the lady, not the painting, and had captured her headwear in all its overblown glory. Douglas’s smile changed as he studied the sketch, and he glanced swiftly back at the subject for confirmation.
“I never would have seen that,” he said with surprise, eyes following the woman as she walked from the room. “She’s proud of that hat—she knows it’s silly but she loves it and wears it like a queen. All I saw was the hat.”
“An artist shows you what he wants you to see,” the other man said, reclaiming the sketchpad. He was good looking, if you favored the dark and slightly dangerous type—which Douglas didn’t, preferring the finely-cut features of today’s other new acquaintance. “For instance, if I illustrated the society pages…” The charcoal moved swiftly, forming the elegant lines of a fashion sketch. It was the same lady, her face now doll-like and simpering, the hat appearing daring and chic. He had barely finished when he flipped over to a new page. “Guess this one.” He used a heavier hand this time, emphasizing the subject’s age and just slightly exaggerating—or possibly not—her headgear.
“I see,” said Douglas. “This would be for—for a Baptist polemic on frivolity and wastefulness.”
“Exactly. And all I’d have to do is add a few starving children in the background and we’d have a political tract.”
Douglas considered. “But the first one was the truth.” His voice crept up at the end, making it sound almost a question. “I certainly liked it the best.”
The artist smiled. “In one way or another, they’re all true.” He turned back to the first sketch and ripped it from the pad. “Here—for you.”
Douglas looked at it again with appreciation. The man might be shabby, but he was talented. “Thank you.” Belatedly, he realized he hadn’t introduced himself. “I’m sorry, how rude of me. I’m Douglas Shrove.” He held out his hand, bracing himself for the usual question, but the other man just smiled and squeezed his hand warmly in his blunt, charcoal-smudged fingers.
“Warren Scott. I know who you are--we met at the bank’s Christmas party a few years ago. Henry Carter was my banker.”
Douglas felt himself turning pink. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with faces,” he said. “I do remember meeting an artist, though.”
The dark eyes studied him. “I liked Henry immensely. I was very sorry to hear of his death.”
“Thank you,” Douglas said quietly.
“I should have come by to pay my condolences at the time. It’s bothered me that I didn’t.”
He looked at the floor. “It’s all right. No one did.”
The artist winced. “And that is about as cogent an indictment of the human race as I’ve ever heard.”
“No,” Douglas said, looking back up, “that’s not what I meant. I just meant—it’s only natural not to know what to say in…in cases like these.”
“It must be difficult to even find people you can talk to about it.”
About which? The way Henry had died, or what Henry had been to him? Douglas just nodded, and looked toward the exit.
“If you ever feel the need—to talk about it, I mean—I’d be happy to listen.”
“Of course, thank you,” Douglas said, with a polite nod. It was unlikely that he would pursue the acquaintance. The artist’s speech was educated, but his accent was firmly middle-class, and he didn’t imagine they had much in common. And despite what were possibly respectable enough beginnings, the man’s clothing was shabby and hair not recently cut, suggesting a typical starving-in-a-garret sort of life, which, frankly, a man of Douglas’s wealth should avoid or risk being exploited. He held out his hand. “It was very nice to meet you—again.”
The artist shook his hand for the second time. “Somewhere, I have some sketches of Henry that I did during one of our meetings a year or so ago. I’ll have to search them out, but if you’re interested--”
“Sketches?” Douglas felt his knees grow weak with something like hunger. “I—I don’t even have a photograph of him. If you really mean that--”
“Yes. I should have several. There’s one in particular that I remember as being quite nice.”
Forget being exploited. “I’d love to see it—all of them. And I’d be happy to pay whatever you think is fair.”
“I couldn’t accept payment.” The artist searched his pockets. “Damn. I haven’t got a card with me. I’m at 8 Carrington Place, off Tottenham Court Road, can you remember that?”
Douglas smiled. “I had a governess named Miss Carrington who terrorized me until I went to school when I was eight. And Tottenham Court is where my favorite bookshop is. I think I can remember that. When should I call?”
“Oh, anytime, except weekends, when I go off to the country to paint portraits of tyrannical dowagers. Early morning isn’t good because I tend to work late into the night, but I’m usually up and about by ten o’clock.”
It was impossible to leave things so amorphous. “You’ll need a few days to find the sketches, I suppose. Shall we say Friday afternoon? Two o’clock?”
“That will be fine.” The dark eyes, sensual and heavy-lashed, lingered on his. “I look forward to seeing you again.”
Douglas took his leave. I look forward to seeing you again. Was it possible that he had gained two admirers on the same day? The thought made him want to laugh. Well, it was spring, and what did Tennyson say? In Spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
That’s it, he thought, smiling. Just the effects of spring. A trick of the weather. Shaking his head, he hailed a cab for home.
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