St. Bride's College, Cambridge, November 1906
Champagne. A dressed Cromer crab. Strawberries.
How Jonty Stewart could have got hold of strawberries on the fifteenth of November only the angels could say, but there they were on the table along with a jug of cream and a bowl of sugar to indisputably prove their existence. Orlando Coppersmith reached across to take one of the little ruby-like fruits but a sharp slap to his hand stopped him.
"No pudding until firsts are done with, you know that." Jonty grinned like a schoolboy and heaped crab upon their plates.
"Why all this opulence? I've not seen such a lunch in ages." The bright noontime sun slanted in through the latticed windows of Jonty's study, the mellow gold stone of St. Bride's college shining with a warm lustre.
"Do you really not know, or are you teasing me again, in revenge for all the times I've teased you?" The blank look on Orlando's face seemed to show that he really had no recognition of the significance of the date. "It's exactly a year to the day that I came back to St. Bride's and so underhandedly stole your chair in the Senior Common Room. Don't you remember?"
Orlando smiled. "The day is forever etched into my memory. That afternoon was the last time I enjoyed any peace and quiet, for one thing." A crab claw came flying through the air but he swerved neatly to avoid it. "This champagne is truly extraordinary."
"Mother sent it, she always has champagne on her wedding anniversaries." Jonty admired the sunlight-kissed bubbles then took a deep draught. "Do you know, the man who invented this compared it to tasting stars. He was absolutely right."
Orlando looked at his glass with a degree of suspicion. "Just why did your mother send us champagne?"
"For our anniversary, of course. Do I need to spell it out to you like I spell out As You Like It to my dunderheads of students? She wanted us to have something special today, as she and Papa do."
The answer didn't mollify Orlando. He knew that Helena Stewart was aware of exactly what went on between him and her son, but this gift seemed a touch too blatant. He drank it nonetheless, enjoying the food, which he guessed Jonty's mama had also had a hand in providing.
"Seems appropriate, really--" Jonty had finished his seafood and was ready for more chatter, "--as I often feel like we are a married couple in all but name. Oh, I say, let me slap your back."
The food and drink had conspired to attempt an attack on Orlando's lungs and he began to choke. A whack from Jonty's strong hand dislodged the offending items, enabling him to take several breaths, and another glass of bubbly, to recover. "You feel like we're married?"
"Of course I do, don't you?"
"I've never thought of it. Still, I guess that marriage of any kind has never really entered my head." Orlando frowned, having to mull over that common thing, a revolutionary thought from Jonty.
"Consider this. We spend as much time as we can together, we often share a bed, we take holidays with each other, we are absolutely faithful--well I am, I have my suspicions about you and that chap from the college next door--so many things that any respectable married couple would do. It's only the matter of getting children that makes us different and neither of us have the anatomical requirement to oblige on that score."
"And we can't take the vows, Jonty, the marriage vows. No respectability for us." Orlando knew it galled his lover, not being able to walk hand in hand together along the river, never to be able to dance together or show any untoward display of affection. Perhaps one day the world would be a more understanding place, but not now.
"Bit of a shame, if you think about it, because we live by them. 'For better or worse, cleaving only to one another' and all that. Think we might do a rather better job of it than some of my father's friends." Jonty sighed, refilled their glasses and ushered his guest from the table to the deep armchairs before the fireplace. "Such a shame that I can't show everyone how much you mean to me."
Orlando's chest swelled with pride. He knew exactly how much they loved each other, and couldn't help but bask in the glow every time Jonty said something like this. He reached for Jonty's hand. "You mean the world to me, too."
Jonty looked at him as if he was making absolutely sure of what he was about to say, which wasn't a usual Stewart trait. "The university is modernising. These are new times. We don't need to live in college anymore, you know. We could take a nice property up on the Madingley Road and set up house together. As long as we had a housekeeper who wouldn't be too fussy about how many beds had been slept in. Miss Peters could probably find us a suitable one."
"A house?" Dining out of college had been shock enough, going on holiday a jolt to the system, but to live outside of St. Bride's, that was unheard of. "And why Miss Peters? You don't think that she suspects about us?" Ariadne Peters was the sister of the Master of St. Bride's, and the only woman apart from the nurse permitted to live in the college's hallowed grounds.
"I think it quite likely that she does, she being possibly the most perceptive person in St. Bride's. In any case, she'd be far too discreet to say anything as this college has seen enough scandal. Nonetheless think on the idea of a house. I don't propose it idly."
"I will think on it, but you must let me recover from my surprise at the suggestion before I can make a rational decision."
Jonty nodded and they refilled their bowls with the last of the fruit. When there wasn't even the merest hint of the existence of a strawberry left, Orlando wiped his hands with great precision then reached into his pocket. He drew out a small red box, which he handed to his friend. "Thought you might like this, as a memento of the last year."
"So you did remember, you cunning old fox." Jonty opened the lid and immediately shut it. "I can't accept this, it must have cost you a small fortune. Take it back, get the money and put it in your savings." He flushed red and couldn't even look his lover in the eye.
"I will not take it back and you will accept it. You were the one who spoke of marriage, so perhaps this is an appropriate gift." Orlando opened the box himself, taking out an exquisite signet ring--Welsh gold, of an amazing hue--that had been made specially to his order, great subterfuge and a piece of string having been used to gauge the size of Jonty's little finger as he slept. "Please put it on for me." He admired the golden circlet as it twinkled in the late-autumn light. Jonty could walk around Cambridge wearing his ring and it would always be symbolic of their union.
Jonty slid the band over his finger, pronounced amazement at the accuracy of fit, and grinned. "I'm ashamed to say I have no equivalent gift for you."
"No need, strawberries in November are priceless. And you've given me the best year of my life."
"Truly? Even including murder most foul, an unwanted suitor and our lives endangered?"
"Absolutely. Never been so happy."
"And is that you talking or the champagne?" Jonty put his head to one side, like a bird.
"Oh, definitely me. The drink would make me say much naughtier things."
Jonty smiled, indulgence lighting his face. "Let's take a walk up to the lock and enjoy this unseasonably mild weather." Through the latticed window the piercing blue of the sky, found only in England in spring and autumn, mirrored Jonty's eyes. "Then we can come back here and read the sonnets together. Even number eighteen."
Jonty liked the early sonnets, although Orlando had been terribly shocked to find out that the intended recipient had been a man. When he'd discovered number twenty-nine it had brought tears to his eyes, speaking to him so clearly of his own situation--the death of his father, the years of brooding and then the arrival of Jonty.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate...
Orlando always read it every time he felt low, which was less and less often, now.
It was such a fine afternoon, they ventured far beyond the lock to a stretch of river where a few rowing eights were practicing, their red-faced coaches cycling along the towpath, scattering ducks and little old ladies as they went.
"Did you ever attempt rowing, Dr. Coppersmith?" They'd been content to use Christian names when they were in public on holiday, but back in their own city they'd gone back to their usual formality.
"I did, with no great success. Every time I took to a boat I seemed to have acquired an extra pair of knees and all four of the bony things kept trying to smack me in the ear."
Orlando laughed and Jonty laughed with him. Orlando's attitudes had changed beyond all recognition this past year. Before Jonty had come and stolen his chair, he'd been sullen, unsmiling, someone who viewed intercourse as akin to the preparation of Egyptian mummies--he knew the procedures existed, but the mechanisms were a puzzle and the process itself of no interest. Neither love nor easy laughter would have been possible before Jonty came along. Anything was possible now, even intimacy. Now they made love for all sorts of reasons, not just for gratification but in friendship, for consolation, because they were happy or because they were sad.
Jonty smiled indulgently as they walked along, even while he was sniggering just a little at the sight of a seven-foot oarsman suffering a tongue-lashing from a cox who was all of four foot eleven. He could see this idyllic life stretching long into the future, God willing, with his true love by his side and a bank balance full of his grandmother's money to support them in whatever they decided to do. To buy a little house, with an apple tree in the garden and a flowering cherry outside the bedroom window, that would be ideal. Some of the furniture held in store for him up in London or down in Sussex could grace it, although it might seem rather grand for a little villa up the Madingley Road. If Orlando would ever agree to their buying one.
The two men tired of watching the rowing, turned and began to amble back to the college, a slight anticipation starting to bubble up in Jonty's stomach. There was every chance that he could get Orlando into a bed this afternoon, and that would be an absolute delight. Even if the mattress wasn't visited there would still be at least a hug or two on the sofa which was always very pleasant. They'd reached a stage where the last favours were not the be-all and end-all, wonderful as they were. Jonty cast a glance across at his lover and caught him, unquestionably, in the same act of anticipation.
Orlando blushed, something that hadn't happened for a long time. I know what you're contemplating, Jonty mused. Great minds definitely do think alike.
Their pace quickened and by the time they reached the Bishop's Cope they were no longer just ambling but striding along with great purpose. Their tempo was brisk by the time they passed the porters' lodge and they positively sped up Jonty's staircase, eager to find themselves alone and safe to express their affection.
Orlando was taking the steps two at a time, as usual, in his desire to be in the room as soon as possible. He misjudged the edge of a particularly worn stair, which had endured hundreds of years' worth of treading and wasn't inclined to be kind anymore, then slipped. Perhaps nine times out of ten a man might have done that and suffered no worse than bruised knees or a scraped hand. Orlando suffered the ignominies of the tenth, and went clattering halfway down the flight.
It was ironic. Orlando normally led the way, making the joke that Jonty should be behind him in case he slipped, so that there would be adequate padding to break his fall. But this day Jonty was ahead, even more eager to reach the room than his friend was. He heard the tumble, turned--dismayed--and rushed back.
"Orlando!" Their rule about names was immediately broken. This was a moment of crisis, as the minute Jonty looked down he could see that his friend wasn't moving. "Can you hear me? Are you all right?" He reached the crumpled body, was relieved to see the chest rising and falling and to hear that the breathing sounded clear.
But there was no response, not even a moan, and blood had begun to trickle from the back of Orlando's head.
Jonty leapt up, his heart racing and a nauseous feeling filling his stomach. He knocked at the nearest door, demanding that the occupant go to the lodge to make the porters fetch a doctor. The inhabitant of the next room was sent for Nurse Hatfield. He returned to keep an eye on Orlando, making sure that he was comfortable and not about to do anything dramatic like swallow his tongue. It was all he could do, apart from worry himself sick.