Evelyn slid his fingers into the small porcelain bowl, prodding about the smooth surface for a few moments before he found the soft flesh of a strawberry. He had abandoned the use of the small fork set beside the dish and, instead, plunged his fingers into the fruit before bringing it up and popping it, whole, into his mouth. Once the fruit had disappeared entirely he sucked, happily, at his fingertips until he had caught every last drop of the juices.
It was the most undignified Nathaniel had ever seen his master be, particularly with food, but the young man seemed unusually relaxed. It might have been because he was becoming more comfortable with his companion, or the fact that these were the last strawberries of the season, or simply because he felt so completely content and at his ease he did not care how he appeared. whatever the reason, he was behaving like a ill-mannered child.
'You'll stain your new shirt, if you're not careful,' Nathaniel teased him, though the boy had rolled up the cuffs far enough to expose the fair hair upon his bony arm. Evelyn smiled, wryly.
'It's quite alright,' he assured the other man, 'I'm finished now anyway…'
Evelyn turned his face up to the young woman who was, at that moment, adjusting the collar of Nathaniel's shirt. He smiled at her, impishly, and she smiled back at him, pleasantly.
The woman was named Myrtle and he was one of the few people that Evelyn had known to be permitted into the household. She worked for a small outfitters and called, quite often, to deliver and adjust the master's clothes for him.
Nathaniel had often wondered where Evelyn procured his clothes from since the young man rarely, if ever, actually left his home. His beautifully embroidered shirts and his trim waistcoats always seemed to fit his narrow frame so perfectly, so exactly, that there had been no doubt in the young man's mind that they must have been professionally tailored.
'Myrtle has been in my employ for almost two years now,' Evelyn had admitted to him when the woman came to call and Nathaniel had admired her fine dress and long auburn hair. 'She's very talented really and she always takes the time to design my clothes just as I would have them – never misses a detail. She has a full staff, of course, but she's a great seamstress...'
While this was true Nathaniel suspected that it was not only Myrtle's skill that Evelyn appreciated; it was her good manners and her discretion. She never seemed uncomfortable around Evelyn and, from what Nathaniel understood, she had always been happy to make the house calls and keep the fittings private.
However, while Myrtle was courteous and professional, Nathaniel still felt uneasy about the way she acted towards Evelyn. He enjoyed watching Evelyn being fitted for his clothes, discussing with him choices of colour and fabric, but he always felt an unpleasant twisting in his stomach when Myrtle measured Evelyn and adjusted his clothes against his body.
He did not like to see the way she brushed her fingers against his shoulders while pinning fabric tightly to his body. This was not because the contact was too intimate but, quite the opposite, it seemed far too detached. While Myrtle did not recoil from Evelyn's body in disgust, she dressed him as she might dress a doll. She acted just as she would if she were pinning cloth to a mannequin, not a warm body. She was quite dispassionate.
Now that it was him that the young seamstress was dressing Nathaniel was all the more aware of how cold her manner had been. The young woman narrowed her eyes at him, pouting her lips prettily when she measured the span of his shoulders. It struck quite a contrast to how she dealt with Evelyn and it made him feel acutely embarrassed.
His feelings were further exacerbated by the fact that Evelyn had taken up a position directly opposite him and, resting his chair against the wall, had watched the process of the young man's fitting with undisguised enjoyment. He had propped up his faithful bear, Edward, beside him making the scene seem all the more preposterous.
'Really,' Nathaniel heard himself saying, his throat a little rough as he forced the words out, 'I don't need any more clothes…you're too kind…I already have my uniform and the dove grey suit and the blue one…'
He trailed off vaguely though because he was aware that his voice lacked real conviction. He could not force himself to say that he did not want more clothes because that was simply not true. He adored the clothes that he had been given and had spent an obscene amount of time simply admiring the fine fabric and delighting in the feel of it against his skin.
'I wanted you to have something else,' Evelyn said carelessly, bringing up his fingers to suck at the tips, although all the juice had long since left them. He caught himself in the act, resisting the habit and drew his fingers away with a slight frown. 'I like to see you well-dressed.'
Nathaniel felt unable to do anything else other than smile, shyly. Myrtle straightened his collar and then moved back, winding a loose thread about her thin, precise fingers. Her face became serious as she admired her work, her eyes running all over Nathaniel's body.
'I think you will be pleased,' she remarked, directing her comment at Evelyn, 'this suits the gentleman well.' She moved aside so that Nathaniel could admire himself in the long looking-glass and busied herself with piling up more shirts and neckties upon the table.
'Thank you, Myrtle,' Evelyn said, quietly, 'it's well done.' They talked a little more about some outstanding orders but Nathaniel did not pay the greatest attention as he was too busy examining his reflection, experiencing that queer mixture of delight and dissatisfaction that always thrilled him when he admired his own appearance.
'You are…truly happy..?' he asked once the young girl had gone and it was just him and Evelyn alone in the parlour. He turned to face the young man, twisting his lips with uncertainty, 'it is quite an investment in my appearance…' He had no doubt about the price these clothes had cost his employer and their lack of suitability for the job he performed.
Evelyn shrugged, carelessly, the same satisfied smile playing on his pale lips.
'You like fine things, don't you?' he put to Nathaniel, 'and I like to give them to you, it pleases me. It strikes me as a fine arrangement…' Nathaniel felt ashamed of his own impulses and turned, uncertainly, back to the mirror.
'You look very handsome,' Evelyn told him, pleasantly and Nathaniel found himself moved by the pure sincerity of the boy's tone. He turned, blinking, to read the young man's expression and found the pale lips tight.
Evelyn had turned his face to the mirror and his forehead gained the slightest crease as he looked at his own reflection, following the smooth contours of his boyish face and the tight span of his adolescent shoulders. He shrugged the shoulder of his severed arm, experimentally, and reached-up to adjust the flap of his sleeve.
'You are…quite beautiful,' Nathaniel whispered to him, struck suddenly by the thought. He couldn't help but be moved by the pout of his lips, the delicate fluttering of his lashes. In response to Nathaniel's words Evelyn's eyes blinked more rapidly and he let out a long deep breath as if coming up from beneath water. He breathed in and out quite deeply for a few moments, his eyes moving up the examine the other man's reflection in the glass.
'Beautiful…' he repeated, tentatively, 'not…handsome…?' Nathaniel was concerned he may have offended him but there was nothing in Evelyn's features that indicated this might be so. His lips were parted dreamily and his eyes were distant, thoughtful.
Nathaniel shrugged, vaguely, as his own dark eyes flickered from the young man's reflection to his own, comparing the shape of their faces and feeling, as he did so, that unearthly fascination with the young man's perfectly-proportioned features.
'It's just how I think of you,' he admitted, his voice coming out as little more than a whisper. He felt a little ashamed, and very anxious. Evelyn's dreamy look faded he began to look uncomfortable. His eyes slid away from the glass and he reached up to clutch at his neck tie, balling it in his palm.
'Have I upset you?' Nathaniel said quietly, 'I'm so sorry…I really didn't mean to offend…'
'No,' Evelyn said very quietly, 'no – you've not offended me…' His voice sounded very strange now though and his face looked quite hot, thoroughly flushed. Suddenly he lurched forward in his chair to lean an inch from the glass, pressing the palm of his hand to its cold, smooth surface. He stared into his reflection silently for some time as if searching for something, though Nathaniel could not imagine what.
Eventually he moved away a little and drew his palm away from the glass. He raised his hand up slowly and, quite carefully, placed his hand over the right side of his face, covering up his eye patch entirely. With one half of his face obscured in this way he continued to stare into the glass and his face assumed a hungry expression.
Nathaniel felt a lump forming in his throat as he watched this procedure and, before he could stop himself, he knelt down upon the floor and reached out to pry the young boy's fingers away from his face. Evelyn turned his face to him, his eyes wide with surprise.
'Don't do that,' Nathaniel murmured, his voice weak and rough, 'you don't – you shouldn't do that…' He couldn't say anything more to explain how deeply the sight of Evelyn covering his wounds had upset him. Evelyn looked astounded and he quavered under the intensity of Nathaniel's stare.
Nathaniel didn't let go of Evelyn's hand, instead holding the fingers tightly in his own and he could feel how hot the boy was and how, ever so slightly, he was trembling.
'It's not that,' he whispered, with a shudder, biting his lip and looking quite ashamed, 'it's not that I'm…' he searched for the words but failed to find them and returned, uncertainly to face his reflection.
'I don't think I'm…ugly…' he said, at last in a quiet, serious voice, 'I just can't help but wonder, sometimes, what I would appear like if I was whole…' He gestured vaguely at himself, indicating all at once his missing eye and stunted limbs.
'I don't want you to pity me,' He told Nathaniel quickly, and he clutched, clumsily at the young man's hand, 'you – I think you understand me, better than anyone else ever has…'
Nathaniel sighed, kneeling forward on the carpet to put one hand, familiarly, upon his master's shoulder. The young man was quite still now but his body still felt unusually warm beneath Nathaniel's fingers.
'We understand each other,' he said, quietly, giving the young man a re-assuring smile. Evelyn looked up at him and a tense, serious expression overcame his features. It was a look that Nathaniel had seen there several times now and was usually accompanied by a strange, sullen period of emotion. This time, however, Evelyn did not draw his lips tight and become quiet but breathed deeply and addressed Nathaniel in a bright whisper.
'You are somewhat like a brother to me now,' he confessed, 'but I like to think of you as my knight, you're as loyal and dear to me as a knight to a prince – as though you are Lancelot and I am King Arthur…' He flushed a little as he spoke and his gaze became bright and intense, 'I think you would do anything for me, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you…?'
Nathaniel was used to certain flights of fancy from the young man but this was unusual, even for Evelyn. The hard look to his face was still there and he did not seem especially light-hearted or playful. He whispered the words quite desperately.
'Y-yes,' Nathaniel murmured, uncertainly, 'I expect so…' Evelyn pulled his lips tight and nodded but his dark eyelashes flickered downwards and his face became quite sad and contemplative. He turned his face away after a few moments, his eyes lingering for just a moment upon the mirror and then he addressed Nathaniel in a hard, quiet tone.
'I want to be alone for a little while,' he told him, 'could you come see me later, in – in my library. Perhaps in about…an hour?'
'Of course,' Nathaniel replied, hastily, 'I'll leave you alone…' He rose, uncertainly to his feet and then, pausing to pick up his new clothes from the table. He looked back at the door, wondering whether to call out to Evelyn again, to say something re-assuring, but Evelyn wasn't looking at him and seemed completely absorbed in his own thoughts.
When Nathaniel entered the library, exactly an hour later, he found that the thick cream curtains had been drawn tight and the room was quite dark. Evelyn had carefully lit one of the small gaslight lamps and set it down on the end of the desk. He was sat behind it, in one of his familiar positions, with a book settled on his lap. He was clutching the book, quite tightly, to his chest when Nathaniel entered so he was unable to read the cover or spine.
'Sit down,' Evelyn told him, eagerly, 'sit down, just here with me.' He nodded his head at the chair set on the other side of the desk. His face was very pale and his voice trembled a little, quite strangely. Nathaniel raised an eyebrow at him but moved to sit down, leaning back against the cushions.
It was quite warm in the room, with the curtains being drawn so tightly, but not uncomfortably so. Nathanial relaxed his body, bringing his hands to rest on the soft, padded armrests of the chair and smiled, sweetly, up at his master. He had taken some time to brush out his hair and swept it to one side of his face. He had also re-tied his cravat and adjusted his waistcoat and he hoped that Evelyn would be pleased to see him taking care of his appearance.
Evelyn seemed quite serious however, his lips tight and his head bowed down a little. He peered across at Nathaniel with a tense expression.
'Is there anything the matter?' Nathaniel asked, nervously, 'you seem…unhappy…'He shifted his shoulders against the back of his chair and reached up to push his hair behind his ears in a self-conscious manner.
'No,' Evelyn replied in a hushed tone, his voice trembling a little, 'no, not at all. I just wanted to talk to you privately.' His hand gripped the book to his chest more tightly and a spasm of fear passed over his face for just a moment before he mastered it.
'I can trust you, can't I…Nathaniel?' he asked, quietly. 'I think I could trust you with, well..anything…' His face seemed perfectly white and he sat up straight in his chair.
'Yes,' Nathaniel said, 'yes, of course, Evelyn.' He watched as Evelyn nodded, slowly and took a few very deep breaths.
'There.. is something… I want,' he said very quietly, struggling with each word and pausing to breathe deeply and lick his lips, 'and it is…something that it is hard to…hard to…' His lips twisted with the effort of forming these words and expression became pained, contorted with emotion.
His fingers ran, smoothly, over the spine of the book in his hand and for a moment he closed his eye and fell silent, bowing his head further forward. Then, carefully and deliberately he laid the book down on the table and moved his fingers to a marked page.
'This…' he said, in a strangled whisper, 'this is what…I want you to do with me…' he opened the book up to the desired page and, turning it round swiftly, slid it across the desk towards Nathaniel's seat.
Nathaniel's eyes lingered, just a moment more, upon Evelyn's ashen face and then he lowered his gaze to the book. It was an old book and the page that it had been opened upon featured a black and white illustration. Nathaniel stared at it, dumbly. While his mind brought into focus the black lines and white space and discerned the entangled human bodies, male bodies, the rest of the room receded away into blackness.
The illustration was Greek, undoubtedly, and Nathaniel could just managed to recognize some of the text beneath the image as an approximate date and place reference. The depiction of the two men was done in the style of the period too, with emphasis upon the muscular thighs and the sharp profiles. He was able to see all of this yet it was the obscenity of the image that caused his mind to falter and fail.
The men were both naked, lying together in a tight embrace. Their genitals were entirely exposed, penises erect and they were touching one another, quite definitely, their hands pressed down between one another's legs. The picture was absurdly crude and yet it burned before Nathaniel's eyes with the same potency of real, raw flesh; with all the colour and vitality of such a pornographic image.
He wasn't sure how much time passed while he stared, silently, at the still, white page of the book. When he became aware of the room again, however, he found that he had grown very hot and he was shaking. He tried to speak and found that his mouth was too dry. He breathed deeply and reached up to press a hand to his mouth, closing his lips and forcing himself to swallow.
It was some time before he managed to force out some sound and when he spoke his voice sounded hoarse and strangled. The sound of it was utterly unfamiliar to him.
'What…is…this…?' He could not look up from the page, his eyes locked to the image even when his eyes blurred and he felt he had lost his sight. He heard Evelyn's voice through the thudding of blood behind his ears and the black blur of his failed vision.
'It is…a Greek nobleman and his favoured athlete and lover…' Evelyn said quietly. His voice sounded high and pure, as measured as if he was quoted a lesson that he had learned, though it seemed faintly muffled to Nathaniel's ears.
Nathaniel closed his eyes entirely, shutting out the image and moved forward to slump over the desk. He put his hands up to his face and covered his eyes with them, pushing the tips of his fingers to his temples and kneading the flesh. Evelyn did not speak again and Nathaniel sat in silence, covering his face from view.
'Evelyn,' he began, at last, his voice still quite hoarse, 'you – you understand that this…picture…is from a very different place and time…these…' he struggled for a moments to find the words and force them out but, with some effort, succeeded, 'these…acts…they are not considered acceptable in this age. This is…illegal, do you understand?'
When he spoke the last few words he heard a whine in his own voice as if he was pleading with the boy. He heard Evelyn shift in his chair slightly, moving his hand to rest upon the desk.
'Of course I understand that…' he replied in a whisper.
'Then,' Nathaniel continued, carefully, swallowing deeply in attempt to clear the lump in his throat, 'then you understand that..that I…I cannot do this with you…' He breathed deeply and raised his head, finally to face his young master. He saw that Evelyn's face was whiter than paper now but his lips were tight and he stared back at Nathaniel with a defiant expression.
'Why not?' he breathed, quietly, his voice very high and clear, 'why not?'
Nathaniel felt his breath catch in his throat and he heard a strange, crackling sound escape him. He shook his head, wordlessly, and his face crumbled in an expression of disorientated disbelief. He felt it had been a mistake to look at Evelyn; his face was so white and so serious.
As Nathaniel watched Evelyn lowered his head a little and reached his hand, across the table, towards Nathaniel.
'No one would know,' he whispered, his voice trembling.
Nathaniel felt his nerves bristling and he pulled his hands away from the desk, hastily. He was terrified that the young man would try to touch him and he pushed back his chair to get, unsteadily, to his feet. He paced the floor restlessly and then stood over by the windows, staring at the long cream curtains that shut out all light.
'You can't ask this of me,' he hissed, distractedly, reaching up to run his fingers through his hair, 'don't you – don't you think…?' He bit his lips in his agitation and felt the flesh tear a little, the taste of blood on his lips. 'What are you asking of me…? You're asking me to – to…'
He faltered and shook his head, moving his hands to his sides where he clenched them into fists and held them tight against his body. He didn't turn around to look at Evelyn again but he listened to the pattern of his breathing.
'Is it because I'm so young?' Evelyn asked, quietly. 'Or because…I'm a man…?'
Nathaniel heard himself make a sound similar to a laugh but it was mirthless and unnaturally high. He felt his hands growing hot, balled as they were into tight fists and he made an effort to, carefully, stretch out his fingers again.
'Those are both reasons..' he said, weakly, his mouth twisting unpleasantly. He refused to look at the young man but he could feel his eyes staring, unblinkingly at the back of his head.
'Please…' Evelyn hissed and his voice, for the first time, sounded as though it was going to break. 'Please – I just- I just want this…'
A thrill of horror ran through Nathaniel at those words and he found himself shaking, fiercely.
'I don't want to talk about this Evelyn,' he said sharply, 'I can't talk about this.' He turned, slowly and eyed the door, considering running out. Evelyn seemed to anticipate him and called out, desperately.
'Don't leave me, Nathaniel,' his voice was high and fierce, 'talk to me, please – you have to talk to me.'
Nathaniel titled his head towards the desk and looked over at Evelyn, who had not moved from his position. The book still lay, open, at Nathaniel's place – it's obscene illustration on full display. The carnal embrace was perfectly lit by the circle of warm, white light that gas-lamp emitted.
'Evelyn,' Nathaniel said slowly and determinedly, moving slowly towards the desk, 'I am your servant…and I am your friend…but…you – you cannot ask these things of me…' He reached a trembling hand towards the book and closed it tight, pressing down, hard upon the cover.
Evelyn looked up at him, piteously, suddenly quite vulnerable.
'You have been so good to me,' he began, shakily, 'and…I feel so comfortable with you. I don't care about anything else. There's just things I want to….feel.' He pressed his lips together tightly and turned his face away a little, shame suddenly overcoming him.
'You told me you didn't want me to pity you,' Nathaniel said slowly, withdrawing his hand from the offending book. Its leather cover seemed quite innocuous now and the golden lettering had worn away almost completely. Nathaniel stared down at it, absently, as he spoke to Evelyn. 'I'm not going to listen..to any of this kind of talk…'
He kept his eyes away from the man's face but he could picture the expression forming across Evelyn's features quite well; a mixture of shame and misery.
'I think you need to compose to compose yourself,' Nathaniel said steadily, 'I'll leave you until dinner.' Evelyn did not protest but bowed his head solemnly. Nathaniel stared at him for a few moments, seriously, before turning around and rushing to leave the library.
Once back in his own room Nathaniel sank to the floor, his knees trembling and his legs losing all their strength. He felt slightly nauseous and he was afraid he might vomit but when he raised his hand to his mouth the sensation passed.
He closed his eyes and pressed his head to the back of the door and sat very still, trying to calm down the frantic pace of his heartbeat. He told himself that he needed to get a grip on his emotions, to gather himself together before dinner. He was desperate to appear calm and detached, yet, he had never felt so fundamentally shaken in all his life.
'To ask such a thing…' he whispered to himself, running his fingers over and over his face, 'to ask such a thing…'