by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
“Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult–at least I have found it so–than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind” — Charles Darwin
Lucknow, North Western Provinces, 1886
On a hot dry afternoon in Lucknow, two naturally reticent men were seated across each other for afternoon tea, and after attempting to avoid direct eye contact for a few minutes, their resultant conversation, more or less, went about as this:
“The weather,” Edmund said.
“Yes, the sky,” muttered Mr. Korrapati.
“Blue,” said Mr. Korrapati.
“It is,” Edmund said. He noted how crisp and clear Mr. Korrapati’s English was, but such things had stopped surprising him during his two years soldiering for the British Raj. He had been naive, when he first arrived, presuming that mastery of English somehow dissipated once one left the blue confines of the English Channel. This was very obviously not true, however. Mr. Korrapati’s elegantly formed vowels could put his own speech to shame. Not that he minded, really. It was not a competition, no matter what his companions thought. Plenty enough room for everybody to excel, English or Indian or otherwise.
Being the first person to utter a suitably polite platitude and escape this dreadfully boring teatime without damaging their hostess’ feelings — now that was a worthy competition. He could see Mr. Korrapati gazing around trying to calculate the same.
Edmund ran his tongue over his teeth. He and Mr. Korrapati had been seated on the verandah where the sun fell directly into their eyes, and where a hole in the mosquito netting meant those little buggers were already crawling over his arms, trying to find a patch of bare skin to feast on. The tea was fine — a serviceable darjeeling — and the sandwiches really rather divine, thanks to Mrs. Sharpleton’s excellent cook, but he wished he could be anywhere but here. The chatter of the people around him, of English bureaucrats and their fashionable wives, made his head hurt.
The notion of escape was growing fainter and fainter. Mrs. Sharpleton, though she was his aunt and only family in India, did not oft issue invites for him to join her social peers for high tea. Edmund could hardly blame her. With his mangled leg and, perhaps even worse, brusque manners, he was not prime social capital. He wished she had not invited him today, but every now and then her guilty conscience did twinge as she remembered her poor crippled nephew living among the fruit and rats of Lucknow.
He wondered why Mr. Korrapati was here, and glanced towards the obviously uncomfortable fellow as Mr. Korrapati slowly swirled his spoon in his tea. They had met before, during a previous party Mrs. Sharpleton had thrown, but even then it had not been obvious why Korrapati had been present. Edmund’s aunt was not given to befriending natives, no matter how oft she cooed over her darling servants and devoted Madrassi ayah. Mr. Korrapati was not a member of her household, though Edmund could see that at least part of his appeal was that he was arrestingly beautiful with sharp cheekbones, full lips, and a quick gaze. Mrs. Sharpleton did always fancy gentlemen who were easy on the eyes.
Edmund cleared his throat. Think of something to say, he told himself, something — anything. This blasted silence was growing too long for even him to withstand.
“Fine day,” he lied.
Mr. Korrapati looked up at him briefly. “Not so much,” he said.
“Well,” Edmund said, “you’re right. Not so fine then.”
Two warthogs in the mud would likely produce better conversations, Edmund thought dryly. He flicked a mosquito off his arm and cast about for another venue of discussion. “I hear you’re a schoolteacher,” he said. “Down at St. Joseph’s.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Korrapati.
“My uncle, Sharpleton, funds that school.”
“I know,” Mr. Korrapati said, and there was an equal measure of dryness in his voice. “I would not be here otherwise, Lieutenant Welch.”
Of course he would know that! Damn it, Edmund thought, this was growing worse and worse. Better to simply sit still, finish his tea, and contemplate the wallpaper without making a further arse of himself. He cut another glance towards Mr. Korrapati, who was examining his own cuffs with an expression of mild boredom. Edmund sighed, opened his mouth, and would have spoken again if not for the sight of Mr. Sharpleton heading towards their table.
“Enemy at nine o’clock,” he said under his breath. Korrapati looked up and then stood when Mr. Sharpleton arrived at their table. Edmund clamoured to his feet ungainfully, clutching the head of his cane. “Hello Uncle,” he said by way of greeting.
“Edmund,” Mr. Sharpleton said. “And Devraj. Jolly good to see the both of you here — Amelia is so pleased that you could come. I know you’re frightfully busy at the school keeping those boys in line, Korrapati.” He grinned at Edmund. “You not so much, eh boy?”
Edmund kept his expression genial, if not blank. “I try to keep busy,” he said.
“Let me help you out there,” Sharpleton said. “We could use you at St. Joseph’s.”
Surprise flickered over Korrapati’s face. “Sir,” he said.
“Nasty business, that murder,” Sharpleton said. Edmund thought back to what murder his uncle could possibly be talking about — oh yes, that murder. Some weeks ago a teacher had been found dead in his classroom at St. Joseph’s. Two bullets to the chest, one puncturing a lung. The discovery had distressed his aunt and uncle briefly, but then they had stopped mentioning it in favour of more pressing concerns. If the teacher had been an Englishman, no doubt there would have been a great furor. But the teacher, if Edmund could recall correctly, had been a native like his colleague Mr. Korrapati, and this was the first anyone had mentioned the murder since the initial murmur.
“We could use a man stationed at the school for added security, to make sure something like that does not happen again,” Sharpleton went on. Both him and Korrapati glanced at Edmund’s leg. Edmund said nothing. “Well — someone should be there anyway, and you’re a distinguished a soldier, or were. I’m sure you’re still capable of striking feet into the hearts of unruly boys!” He laughed heartily.
“Unruly boys and wayward murderers,” Edmund said. “I will do my best.” He did not relish the prospect of admonishing schoolboys for their antics, remembering his own less than perfectly behaved youth at Eton, but it was at the very least something to do. A task to occupy his time with — and he had so very much of that of among his meagre possessions lately, time.
“Mr. Sharpleton,” Korrapati said softly, “surely a man with more physical bearing would be more appropriate to maintain the safety of the staff and students. I do not wish to imply—”
“Nonsense,” Sharpleton said. “Edmund will be quite sufficient.”
Korrapati frowned. “As you say, sir,” he finally said, sounding none too pleased. Edmund shrugged at him, somewhere between what-can-we-do and shall-you-finish-that-watercress-sandwic
The oven-baked heat of the mid-July season in Lucknow, and the wet, slick kiss of humidity, all of which served to plaster the back of Edmund’s collar to his neck. It was this time of the year that he longed for the monsoon season, as everyone in the city did, for the cool rains that would blow away the otherwise unforgivable heat — but they were still some months away from the rain, and Edmund struggled through the chutney-thick sluggishness of his own movements as he dressed to meet Mr. Korrapati for the tour of St. Joseph’s School for Boys.
Being in the army had the advantage of allowing him a complete and utter disregard for fashionable dress as, thank God, he more or less wore the same style every day. There were many English folk in India who were obsessive in keeping with the latest trends back home, terrified of being left in the dust a continent away. Edmund simply shaved, tossed on his soldier’s khakis that he had purchased from a Darzi, grabbed his cane, and hobbled out the door of his chummery that he shared with eight other army bachelors.
“Welch, where are you going?” Lieutenant Rollins called out to him at the door.
“A job, I think,” Edmund replied. “Good day.”
He faced the day. The streets of Lucknow — impossible to describe in letters back home, especially when he was not given to eloquence or clever language. When writing to his sister when he first arrived in India, he had said simply that Lucknow was a colourful city and left it at that. The truth was, Lucknow was a firestorm, a blaze of temples and marketplaces with a multitude of languages, beggars and maharajas alike prowling the street, and bumping shoulders with women in saris that looked as if they had been freshly dipped into a pool of dye. The reds, purples, and blues — a flash of a golden bangle — the sound of pipes — the smell of turmeric, curry, and ginger sizzling over an open hearth — he had no way of describing it to his sister, nor did he think she would care. His sister had never bothered to answer any of his letters. No one in his family did.
As a second son, he was meant to have joined the priesthood. When his family found him in bed with a man, they decided he should be a soldier instead and purchased his commission to India. He had not gone home to Sussex once since embarking.
St. Joseph’s was in a neighbourhood of Lucknow well-known for its foreigners and expatriates. The school itself had been founded by Christian missionaries who had come over with the Dutch traders. Its fortunes had risen and fallen with the unrest, closing during the 1857 Indian Rebellion and the siege of Lucknow, but now it was under Mr. Sharpleton’s management as a high-ranking administrator in the provincial governor’s office. Mr. Sharpleton was more accountant than educator, but the governor had a vested interest in seeing the Christian religion flourish and spread among the heathens.
Mr. Korrapati was waiting for him at the entrance of the school, which was itself beside an officer’s club. He was dressed, as he had been at high tea, with perfect precision. Edmund had no doubt Korrapati had tied that emerald cravat’s complicated knot himself. “Lieutenant Welch,” Korrapati said. “Welcome to St. Joseph’s School for Boys.”
He sounded no happier about Edmund’s presence than he had been yesterday, but Edmund was used to ignoring the judgment of others. He nodded and let Mr. Korrapati lead him inside, where it was blessedly cooler than the streets, though not by much. He stared at the back of Korrapati’s clean neck and wondered if the man even sweated. Edmund himself was starting to feel like a soaked elephant. Mr. Korrapati was a fairly tall man but Edmund had the honour of being the tallest person of nearly every room he ever walked in, and he felt that keenly now — the big, cane-wielding Englishman stomping through these quiet school halls.
“Are there many Indian teachers like you?” he asked.
“Though the school mostly teaches Indian boys of wealthy families, we have the blessed fortune of boasting a largely white staff,” Korrapati said flatly. “They bring with them their English education, for which we are quite grateful to receive.”
Edmund raised an eyebrow. “Then how’d you get to be here?”
“I am also the recipient of an English education,” Korrapati said. “I spent several years in England in my youth. My father was a scholar.”
“Really?” Edmund said curiously. “You’ve been to England. Whereabouts?”
“Oxford, mostly,” Korrapati said. “Though it was a long time ago.”
“Very impressive though,” Edmund said.
“To be taunted by English boys and snubbed everywhere I went?” Korrapati said. “Not particularly.” He stopped in front of an empty classroom. “This is where Mr. Malakar’s body was found.”
It was an ordinary-looking schoolroom, tables and chairs in rows and a blackboard scrawled with chalky algebraic sums. The only hint of its recent history of violence were the faint red stains on the wooden floor. Someone, probably a maid, had tried her best to scrub the blood out, but there was still a trace of it. Edmund would have kneeled to look, except it would be too hard on his leg, so he stood above it and gazed down instead.
“I suspect our esteemed Mr. Sharpleton wants you to look into the murder as well,” Korrapati said. “Part of why he sent you.”
“Yes, I get that sense too,” Edmund said. “But I’m hardly Scotland Yard.”
“We are in India,” Korrapati said. “Very far from Scotland Yard. Now shall we continue our tour?”
He showed Edmund the rest of the classrooms and introduced him to many of the teachers and students. He was accurate in his description. Most of the teachers seemed to be missionaries or ex-theological students; friendly enough when Edmund talked to them. The students were as he expected young boys to be: curious, alert, and fascinated by the revolver at his waist and also his leg. “How’d that happen?” one of the boys, Govind, asked loudly.
Edmund tapped his leg with his cane. “Sword right through the ligament during a battle.”
“Did it hurt?” Govind wanted to know.
“It still hurts,” Edmund said. He lived with pain. Every breathing minute of it. Most of the time it was a low thrum that he could force to the back of his thoughts, but the pain was also capable of rising up and seizing control of his leg, knocking the breath out of his chest and making him howl. He hoped that it would not happen now, in front of the boys and the very unimpressed Mr. Korrapati.
“They’re a nice lot,” he said when Mr. Korrapati led him away from the students.
“Yes, they are,” Korrapati said.
“How are they taking Mr. Malakar’s death?” He removed his handkerchief to start wiping the sweat from his forehead. Korrapati stared at him with an expression that clearly said you foul-mannered barbarian. Edmund smiled at him, quick and sharp and not especially nice, and kept on wiping.
“As well as can be,” Korrapati replied. “Malakar was a favourite of many of the boys. But we live in restless times. I am sure most of the boys have have seen death before.”
“Who was it that discovered the body?”
“I did,” Korrapati said. “After hours. I was working late grading papers when I heard voices. I ignored the voices, but then they grew loud and heated. Then there was a bullet. I did not arrive in time to save Malakar or see who the murderer was.” His voice grew strained. “He was my friend. I am furious at his death.”
Edmund was very familiar with death. He could no longer remember how many fellow soldiers he had watched die in battle, on jungle excursions, or through the ugly passage of cholera, which had swept the camps. He had counted friends, and a lover or two, among the dead. “Did Malakar have anyone who might want to see him dead?” he asked.
“Dead? I don’t know,” Korrapati answered. “He was a revolutionary, however, and outspoken about it when he let his guard down. He could… rile tempers.”
“A revolutionary?” Edmund said. “You mean one of the ones who want to overthrow the British Raj?”
Korrapati looked at him with dark, deep eyes. “There are quite a few in Lucknow. I am telling you only because you would have found out from the other teachers soon enough.”
“Is that so,” Edmund said. “Are you a revolutionary as well, Mr. Korrapati — no,” he shook his head. “Never mind. That is not a fair question. I don’t want to know.” Mr. Korrapati’s political opinions were his own. What mattered to Edmund was whether or not he had been involved in Mr. Malakar’s murder, and whether he was a danger to the staff and students of St. Joseph’s. He was, after all, the man who had found the body. Why would he admit to that if he were guilty? But Korrapati struck Edmund as a man of complex devices.
“I will do my best to keep the school safe,” Edmund said. “As Mr. Sharpleton has instructed. If we find out who killed Mr. Malakar along the way, then all the better.”
“I am sure we will all sleep safer knowing you are here to protect us,” Korrapati murmured.
His tone made Edmund smile inwardly. He could have told the doubtful Korrapati that once upon a time any man, Indian or English, would have been glad to have Edmund Welch of the Bengal Lancers on his side. In the heydey of his glory, all the other soldiers looked at Edmund going by and whispered that here was one to watch, sure of shot and swift with his blade, a golden Apollo on his steed to rally men in battle. When he put in his time and sailed home, they said, he would surely be awarded medals by Her Majesty, marry a lovely woman, and retire comfortably to whatever profession he chose. Such were the stories that once surrounded him.
But all soldiers may fall in battle, and so had he, his future wiped clean by a sword through his right calf. Now he had no regiment, no commendation, and barely enough control over his own broken body. It was only because of his aunt, and her influential husband, that he was able to stay in India and live out comfortably, if not dully, the rest of his commission. People gave him the odd task here or there, pity tasks for the poor lieutenant who had lost his bright future.
Edmund was proud. He did not have to bend his head just because he could no longer bend his knee. But every now and then he gladly accepted a bone that truly captured his attention, like this one now among the halls of St. Joseph’s and the ghostly stains of blood: a murderer for him to catch.
He was meant to properly start at the school on Monday, but as he was shaving in the morning his bad leg gave out underneath him and he fell. While falling, he tried to catch himself but was not successful, and when he hit the ground he fell with all of his weight on his bad leg. The pain was so horrendous that he shouted out loud, and lay in a heap on the floor clutching his teeth together until the memsahib who ran the chummery found him and fetched Lieutenant Rollins to carry him to bed. He was not close to either the memsahib or Rollins — was in truth close to anyone — but felt a deep well of gratitude mixed in with shame.
It was mid-afternoon until he felt he could properly walk through the pain. By then Mr. Korrapati had already sent a boy around to inquire about his tardiness. The boy had taken one look at Edmund and trotted back to the school. By mid-afternoon Edmund thought it rather best to wait until Tuesday to face the world, where he could have time to regain his composure.
Tuesday was better than the Monday. His leg did not hurt so badly, and he hobbled over to St. Joseph’s to take up his post. His post chiefly being composed of walking around the school grounds and the halls, nodding to whosoever passed him by, and reminding them that they were safe. Never fear, Lieutenant Welch is here, Edmund sang to himself. The large amounts of walking did put undue strain on his leg, but he forced himself to walk through the pain, for it was important to maintain image and, more importantly, respect.
The boys at St. Joseph’s all had impeccable English, and some, such as Govind and his crew, were especially friendly. During their luncheon they found Edmund leaning against the back wall of the dining hall and brought their dishes over to them. Whilst chewing a mouth full of roomali rotis, they bombarded him with questions about the army.
Can I hold your revolver?…Do you have any other scars?…Have you ever killed a man?…How badly did your socks stink after going through the jungle?
Mr. Korrapati came over from the teachers’ table. “Boys,” he said sharply, “we do not need to pester Lieutenant Welch.”
“He’s not mad,” Govind declared, peering at Edmund’s face. “Right, sahib? You’re not mad at us?”
“Not at all,” said Edmund. “I have three younger brothers at home.”
“At the very least, swallow before you speak,” Korrapati told the boys. “You do not want to give Lieutenant Welch the wrong impression of his host country, do you?”
Edmund was getting the impression that no matter how much he might care for image and presentation, Korrapati was damn near obsessed with it. He could imagine why — being one of the few Indian teachers in the school could not be restful — and it made him study Korrapati all the more keenly. The thought of seeing that composure slip, of noticing a human frailty when Korrapati was determined to be steel, was invigorating. He hid his stares behind the pretense of observing the school at large, but at times he knew that he failed, and he could feel Korrapati watching him back with a frown.
“Is there something on my face that is of such interest?” Korrapati asked one day while the boys had been ushered into the yard for some football.
“How long did you reside in England?” Edmund asked slowly.
“Three years,” Korrapati said. He put his hands together over his mouth and shouted, “Arjun! Do not bite your brother on the arm!”
“Little devils,” Edmund smiled.
“Good children,” Korrapati corrected.
“Well, I think all good children have a little bit of the devil in them,” Edmund said. “They would be horrendously boring otherwise. Let them think for themselves.”
“Hm,” Korrapati said. It sounded nearly like agreement. “Do you have children of your own, Lieutenant?”
“Good God, no,” Edmund said. “I am a devoted bachelor through and through.”
“I am much the same,” Korrapati said. They looked at each other, and Edmund felt a cold thrill of excitement curl through his muscles — could it be? Here? Now? No, he must learn to keep his desires in check, for it was one matter to consort with fellow soldiers in the hush before battle when all things were permissible, and another to dally with a man like Korrapati and all that he represented. It did not signify that Korrapati’s beauty could cut through stone. He turned his face away with some effort.
“Hm,” Korrapati said again, and Edmund felt himself, for a lack of a better word, seen.
Lieutenant Welch was an invert. That much was clear to Devraj by now, though he had not guessed it when they first met at one of Mrs. Sharpleton’s tea parties, nor the second or third time after. It had taken repeated exposure for Devraj to formulate his hypothesis, and repeated exposure translated to him seeing Lieutenant Welch nearly every day at St. Joseph’s, watching him closely for a sign of — of what? Cruelty, yes, for Devraj would not tolerate any typical British army snot towards his boys, but something else beside. He watched the watcher.
What did it matter if the lieutenant was an invert, he wondered. Lieutenant Edmund Welch was an Englishman same as the others, and Devraj, though an admirer of many things English — particularly their books and their scholars — bore no love for how they ran his country. They thought it was theirs, they carved it up and doled it out like cake treats, when in truth India belonged to no one but Indians. It would be a most joyous day to see the dreadful English and their tottering queen finally gone.
This had been a summer of great change. Malakar had claimed to feel it in his blood-lines, how close they were upon something grand. That was what he had said when he took Devraj to his secret meetings where men and women plotted the downfall of the empire. When he died, Devraj no longer had the heart to attend. The earnestness of the revolutionaries, the violence of their sacrifices — perhaps it made him a coward. Perhaps, he thought, he simply chose to exercise his limited bravery in other ways.
He waited until the classes were finished and his students gone before he returned to his classroom and opened the drawer. There, on top of a pile of rice paper and sweets wrappers, was his copy of Mr. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Devraj felt the tension leave his body even at first glance at the book. It was his talisman, his sutras, the anchor with which he chose to drag him to the bottom of the sea.
The evening hours at St. Joseph’s were his own. There was no one else to distract him. He could read his battered copy of Darwin in peace, make notes, and open his own composition book where there were charts and diagrams and long sprawls of scientific handiwork. He had been working for years on his paper supporting Darwin’s arguments towards the evolution of species by way of natural selection, collaborating with scientists both in India and in England. It was long, sloggish work, given that he had access to few scientific resources and spent every last rupee he had to receive some of the European publications. Just to keep up with research — in the hopes that he would be able to contribute his own.
He did not have a wife. Given his knowledge of his own… particulars, he knew he never would. The boys on the streets of Lucknow that he had grown up playing with, they were starting their own families, giving themselves over to the natural order of the world they inhabited. Devraj, who had once been just like them, who had once kicked a ball and wrestled and went swimming in the murky waters — just a boy like any other — had tumbled off-course.
He could not regret it. He was his father’s son, and his work — his true work, beyond the teaching of the St. Joseph boys — was his life.
A sound caught the edges of his attention. Devraj stood up abruptly. He had not forgotten that after hours in the school was how Malakar had been murdered, only weighed it against the peace and quiet he could not get otherwise. They did not pay him and Malakar as much as the white teachers, and the room he rented was on a street so noisy he often could not sleep at night.
The sound was of footsteps. Devraj found the letter opener in his drawer and clutched it in his hand.
Lieutenant Welch turned the corner and walked in. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
Devraj’s grip loosened. “Why are you here?” he said coolly. “Your hours are finished. The boys are gone home.”
“Thought I’d give the school one more sweep,” Welch replied. “See what goes on after hours, given previous events.” He was smoking a rolled cigarette with the hand did not grasp his cane, and it should have been clumsy but Welch pulled it off with raw elegance. He was a study in ridiculous contradictions, that man: quiet yet sly-humoured, amiable yet keen-eyed, broken yet proud.
Devraj casually turned over his copy of Darwin so that the cover faced the desk. “Well, there is no one in the school but me. I already checked.”
“Good,” Welch said.
“Good,” Devraj replied. He waited patiently for Welch to mind his own business and leave, but Welch had no intention of that sort.
“Mr. Korrapati, do you truly dislike me that much?” Welch said.
“I like you just fine,” Devraj said, “only I am busy now. If you wanted to engage me in idle conversation, you had all day. I have… papers to grade.”
Lieutenant Welch looked suitably discomfitted. “Sorry,” he said. “I mean, of course you do. I’ll leave you to it.” He shuffled towards the door but stopped right under its frame, the sunlight piercing through his already sun-bleached blond hair. “Only I was hoping that we could be friends. Or allies at the very least, while I get to the bottom of Mr. Malakar’s murder.”
Malakar would not have wanted this English soldier investigating his death. Malakar would not have wanted any part of British justice. But Malakar was dead now, and Devraj was still alive, and even beneath his fingertips he could feel the crease of Darwin’s book calling to him. The world was such a large place — science had taught him nothing if not that. “We shall be friends then,” he agreed. “Only to get to the bottom of this madness.”
“Oh good,” Welch said with a slight smile, “I do like friendships that begin with a declaration of madness.”
He worked until sunbreak. It was easy to forget time when he was so engrossed in his projects. He read the publications delivered from Europe, he made notes in the margins, he checked in on his experiments — which he kept in a little cupboard by the kitchens, paying the school cook not to ask questions — and he wrote another few paragraphs of proofs. At some point he startled himself from his own slumber, his head buried in his arms at his desk, in time to see the sunlight peeling over the walls like ivy.
He wiped the saliva from his mouth. “Fuck,” he said out loud. There was just enough time to get home and shave before the boys came — just barely enough.
Unfortunately Devraj was no stranger to these ugly morning awakenings, and he made it home and back in record time, just as the boys were shuffling in. “Good morning, sahib,” the boys said obediently, one by one. Devraj nodded at them.
“Jayant, take that monkey cap off, it looks ridiculous on you,” he said. “Govind, wipe your feet outside. Mayur, what in God’s name possessed you to draw those pictures on your hands?”
“It looks like henna,” Jayant cackled.
“Henna-boy, boy-woman,” Govind hooted.
“Enough,” Devraj said. He caught sight of Mayur’s crestfallen face and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “One more word out of the two of you and I’ll throw you back home to your mothers.”
Jayant and Govind scrambled to their desks. Devraj gave Mayur a gentle push towards his, and then all the boys were seated. Devraj walked to the front of the classroom and opened his attendance book. Then he lead the boys in a prayer, all facing the wooden cross that hung above the doorway. “God give us grace and bounty for the day ahead,” he said. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
“I do not think you believe in God at all,” Welch said during luncheon that day, sliding over as Devraj ate his curry.
“What are you — shhhhh!” Devraj hissed.
“No one is paying us any attention,” Welch said. He rested his cane by his chair. “It is just an observation of mine, is all. Regarding God mainly, but also other people paying us no attention.”
“I liked you better when you during Mrs. Sharpleton’s teas, when you did not talk much at all,” Devraj said. He wiped his mouth neatly with his handkerchief.
“You are not so inclined to talk to me, so I must go against my nature and begin all our conversations,” Welch said.
The truth was that Devraj did not believe in God. Either the Christian God of St. Joseph’s founders or the Hindu gods of his ancestors. He did not partake in any religion at all except that of logic and rationalism. It sounded less pompous in his mind than when he said it out loud, so he refrained from any mention at all, finishing his meal in silence while Welch puffed on his new cigarette.
Devraj turned to him. “Is there any news on Malakar’s case?”
“I’m afraid not,” Welch said. “I’ve talked to all the teachers at the school, and several of his family and friends. They all say what you did — that he had strong political opinions, but could not think of anyone specific who might want to kill him.”
“People die for their political opinions all the time,” Devraj said. See, how bold had he become, to trade quips about politics and rebellion with an Englishman. Underneath everything even he felt a trace of fear, fear that Welch was not as easygoing as he seemed, fear that he would rise up and snap Devraj’s neck for insolence. He did not think Welch to be that kind of power-thirsty man, but people surprised Devraj all the time. He did not think he would ever work for a Christian school and teach children about the Garden of Eden and God creating all the animals, either.
“True enough,” Welch said, tapping his fingers against the table. They were long and tan. Not that Devraj noticed such nonsensical details. “But inside the school? That speaks of calculation to me, someone who must have known where to find Malakar, who must have known something about him.”
“Perhaps so,” Devraj acknowledged.
“You should not work alone after hours,” Welch said.
“I have much to get done,” Devraj said.
“It isn’t safe,” Welch said. “Go and do that work at home.”
“I am afraid that is not an option,” Devraj said. “Please, Lieutenant Welch, do not worry about me. Focus on the boys instead. Make sure they are safe before you concern yourself over my safety.”
“Humour me,” Welch said. “You don’t have to stop your work. I can stay behind at the school with you. That is also an option.”
Devraj could not keep the astonishment from his face or voice. “Why on earth would you choose to spend your hours in a school alone with me?”
“I said humour me, did I not?” Welch said. He paused. “It makes me feel useful.”
“Oh,” Devraj said. The logical part of his mind reminded him that he did not care about the petty feelings of a well-to-do foreigner, and that he knew exactly what Welch wanted, and it amounted to a fumble and a grope. Did he think Devraj easy prey for his inclinations? He did not know how lonely Devraj truly was, but could he see some portion of it, some sliver that Devraj forgot to hide? It was not even that Malakar’s death had left him suspicious; Devraj’s pinpoint brain, that refused to see one thing when there could be many explanations, had grown up seeing shadows everywhere.
He remembered what he read in Darwin. “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.
His hands were shaking. He hid them underneath the table.
“I won’t stop you from anything,” he said to Lieutenant Welch. “If you wish to waste your hours playing bodyguard to a pittance-salary teacher, that is your choice.”
The bitterness in his voice shone through like copper. Welch smiled just as ruefully. “Do you think there is anything else worth spending my hours on?” he replied.
There were not many who knew of Devraj’s work, only a handful of friends and family members, all of whom thought less of him for it. That was partly why he decided that Welch might as well know. The most malicious action he could take would be to tell Mr. Sharpleton and have Devraj sacked for doing the devil’s work, but something in the way Welch had posed that question — “I think you do not believe in God at all” — had made it sound like a confession.
A confession: tiny, ragged, viciously hopeful.
“One expects Indians to be heathens, but a good strong Sussex lad like you?” Devraj said.
Welch smiled again. He came around the desk and looked down at the papers Devraj had spread over it. “There are many surprising things about the Sussex countryside, least of all myself,” he said. “Now tell me, what is all this? Explain it in small words so that I may understand.”
Devraj closed his eyes. Those words burned through him with a force that he had not expected, but perhaps he should have, for how long had he yearned for someone to say that? There were not many Darwinian naturalists in Lucknow, and most of them were Europeans who treated him with some measure of fatherly amusement, like Devraj was a cunning little pet who happened to share their interests. He did not call upon them often, and his other scientific correspondents were far away, reachable only by the occasional letter in the post. Welch was hardly a scientist, but he was curious and he was open-minded. He wanted to hear what Devraj had to say, and suddenly Devraj found himself talking at a furious speed.
“How familiar are you with Darwin’s work?” he said. “Have you ever read On the Origin of Species?”
“I have not read a book since I left Eton,” Welch said.
“Well, that is no good,” Devraj said. “If you had read Origin of Species, you would have been treated to a revolutionary piece of work, bridging the gap between many of the questions we have always asked about the natural world and our place in it.”
“I have heard a little about it,” Welch admitted. “The man traveled to an island, did he not?”
“The Galapagos Islands,” Devraj said. “The Beagle expedition. Then he brought back his stunning observations, which is that all species struggle for survival in their environments and not all survive to to reproduce. But those species that do reproduce, they pass on particular inheritable traits — the very traits that allowed them to survive. For there is such diversity within even the same species that not all of us are the same, and those less suitable to their environments will perish.”
Welch scratched his head. “It seems to follow.”
“Are you saying that because you truly believe in his theories, or are you saying that just for something to say?” Devraj asked.
“A bit of both,” Welch said, “but this is very interesting stuff and I am certain it will lead somewhere. Carry on.”
Devraj had already started speaking before Welch could finish. “This is a well-known example that came to public awareness,” he said. “The case of the peppered moth. The peppered moth was once light with dark spots, but after the industrialization of England factory soot killed light-coloured lichen on trees, exposing the dark trunks underneath. Light peppered moths were then easily seen by birds when they landed on trees. So they were quickly eaten. Only the abnormal dark peppered moths could camouflage themselves, and they survived to become the dominant species because they possessed traits beneficial to their environments. Do you see?”
Welch nodded. “Then this all has to do with… evolution, I believe you call it?”
“Yes, exactly!” Devraj said. “Darwin proposed that species evolve. Not in the way that you may think of evolution — a giraffe needing to reach a tall tree’s fruit does not automatically grow their neck for that purpose — but evolution in terms of natural selection. Only the strong and most adaptable to their environments survive, and they become the next generation of their species, and so on and so on until you can see patterns in the overall evolution of various species.”
“Fascinating,” Welch said, “but when I hear people talk about Darwin, I always hear them mention human being descended from monkeys — how does that play in?”
“Darwin does not say much on the subject of human evolution,” Devraj said. “His Origin of Species mostly confines itself to flora and fauna. But what he did was place the suggestion in our minds, the natural curiosity that if natural selection is the path that all species follow, are humans not animals as well? Do we not fall under these same natural laws?”
“I was meant once to become a priest,” Welch said, “and I daresay I would not have been taught that humans are the same as animals.”
“Many people do not like to acknowledge it,” Devraj said. “Why would they, when the Bible says that God created man out of His own image? Even in the religions of India, the gods of my people, humans are the creation of godly forces. Brahma the creator made the world, Vishnu preserved it, and Shiva in the next creation will destroy it. There is no room for monkeys there.”
“Where is there room for monkeys then?”
“Have you ever really looked at a monkey? You should — they are very common in these parts,” Devraj said. “If you did, you would notice how intelligent they are, like brothers and sisters to us, a species not dissimilar from our own. Naturalists after Darwin have proposed that humans are a natural selection byproduct of simian animals. My own research follows these propositions.”
Welch gazed around. “Your own research? Are you raising monkeys and I have not noticed?”
“No,” Devraj said, “there is no room here to raise monkeys, obviously. But I have colleagues who live out in in the countryside, near jungles, who keep records for me. There are communities of like-minded naturalists even in India who do research for Darwin’s theories. It is only that we are so geographically separated, it makes research slow, and of course few people in Europe where all the major journals are published take us seriously when we do not have an established European co-author to lend his name to the venture. ” He looked at Welch intently, trying to hide his own fears, that Welch too would be one of those who would laugh or scoff. But Welch did nothing of the sort.
The lieutenant looked serious, somber even, which was not typical for him. He looked at the papers on Devraj’s desk, all the charts and diagrams of plants and animals. Then he tugged at his own ear. “A few years ago I would not have believed you,” he said. “With my traditional Anglican upbringing, all of this would have seemed preposterous.”
Devraj held himself very still. Was he going to — was this to be —?
“But then I came to India,” Welch said, “and I saw how small my life back in England was, just a tiny piece of land inhabiting a very tiny world. In India I have seen wonders. Perhaps they are just ordinary occurrences to you, but to me there are marvels here.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I do not think I truly believe in God, not anymore, not after wars and sickness and losing all my friends. But I would like to believe in you.”
Devraj released his breath. He did not look at Welch for a moment, pretending instead to be captivated by a dust mote hanging from the window. Then he said, crisply, “You give in too easily. I have only given you the broadest outlines of the theories of natural selection. As with any logical mind, you should withhold judgement until presented with more evidence.”
“Then present me with more evidence,” Welch said, pulling up a chair. “What are you waiting for?”
Now that the words had come tumbling out of Devraj’s mouth like fallen fruit, he could not stop them. He had so much to say, so much to explain, that he knew he must appear as a giddy schoolchild, no different from Govind and the others. Look here! he wanted to say to Welch. Look over there! Look at all these things I want to tell you about the world! They churned within him like fresh milk into butter. He knew he was treading dangerous territory now, plunging deep into jungles where tigers awaited, but Devraj found he could not stop, or care.
Every evening Welch would stay with him at St. Joseph’s while Devraj worked, and they would talk. Largely about Devraj’s research, where Welch was a patient listener, but at times they would talk of other subjects as well. On the matter of his personal affairs, Devraj was much more reluctant to share revelations, but he enjoyed hearing Welch’s occasional comments about his family back in England, entertained by the image of Welch’s idyllic childhood. He could see it so very clearly too: a small blond-haired boy with freckles playing mischievous games against his older siblings in the tall green grass.
Welch prodded Devraj to be more open. “And what of you?” he would say, twirling his cane back and forth. “What sort of childhood did you have? Where were you born?”
“I was born here, in Lucknow,” Devraj said.
“So you must have family in the city.”
Devraj did not like to speak of his family. He loved them, naturally, the whole lot of them — parents and grandparents and siblings and cousins — but ever since growing up and becoming a man, he had felt apart from them, unwelcome at their gatherings. It was the result of many things, his blasphemous research and his barely articulated longing for the company of men among them, but he did not want to tell Welch about his own sad world. He knew Welch respected him, perhaps even admired him. He did not want to ruin that delusion.
When they were not speaking of Darwin, or stories of Welch’s past, they spoke also of Malakar and who might have killed him.
“I have spoken to everyone within the school,” Welch said, “and all the soldiers in the area, the government officials — everyone within my power.”
“Hmm,” Devraj said while examining a letter he had received earlier that day from a colleague in Maharashtra.
“Now I must ask for your help,” Welch said, leaning forward in his chair. “There are places I cannot penetrate, being who and what I am. Malakar’s family and his revolutionary friends. Of course they will not speak to me.”
“It is not likely,” Devraj agreed. “I see where you are heading with this, though. You want me to speak to them.”
“I see no other possibility,” Welch said. “Why would someone hellbent on rebelling against the British Raj share confidentialities with a British soldier?”
“Fine,” Devraj said. He wanted justice for Malakar’s murder too, so the next day after classes finished, instead of going to his real work he attended a meeting. It took place in a kebab shop behind a busy marketplace chaat stall, and it was the sort of meeting where he had to ask around beforehand to find out when and where it would take place. But as Malakar’s friend, Devraj still had some connections, and he joined the revolutionaries in a back room by the kitchen where the heat made sweat pour down his forehead. He dabbed at it with his handkerchief. There were eight others in the room with them, mostly men but one woman as well, and the vast majority of them were Kshatriyas, people of Devraj’s own caste. No one had thought to invite Brahmins, or even less likely, Vaishyas, Shudras, or anyone else besides.
“Well, if it isn’t his majesty, the high and mighty Mr. Korrapati!” Uchit said. “We haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“I’ve been busy,” Devraj said, taking a seat on a crate.
“Busy playing nice to your white schoolteacher friends, you mean,” Uchit said.
“I do what I need to make a living, as we all do,” Devraj said coolly. “Not all of us can find employment as labourers or chaat wallahs.”
“Look at this fellow!” Uchit jeered, jabbing his thumb at Devraj. “See how fancy he talks? Rubbing elbows with those British pigs and drinking expensive teas while he’s at it!”
Every time, Devraj thought wearily. Even when Malakar had stood up for him, every time he came to these meetings, it was like this. No wonder that he no longer attended. “And if a white man offered you some expensive tea, would you say no?” he said. “Just because I associate with the English does not mean I think they are our rightful rulers.”
Uchit was not soothed. “I’ve seen you with them,” he said. “With that yellow-haired soldier. The tall one. Looks like you two are gooooood friends.”
“One can like a specific Englishman, can appreciate his company, without having to like them as a whole,” Devraj said. “There is diversity within a species. Now do you want to help me get to the bottom of Malakar’s death or not?”
The sole woman, a mother of four, spoke. “We don’t know what happened,” Padma said. “Oh poor Malakar — none of us were there.”
“You were there,” Uchit said bitterly. “You were right in the school when it happened, no? How come you saw nothing?”
“It all happened so rapidly, he was dead when I arrived in the other classroom,” Devraj said. “But was there anybody he was talking to the days beforehand? Anybody he made angry?”
“You know Malakar,” Padma said, “he made everyone angry.”
“But we all loved him for it,” Uchit murmured.
“I know,” Devraj said. “Malakar was — he was a good man. He knew right from wrong and he was not afraid to say it.”
“Now he will never see it,” Padma said. “When one day India belongs to Indians, he will not be there with us.”
“Will any of us live to see it?” Uchit said. “I know I shouldn’t say such nonsense, but sometimes I feel so defeated that I have to wonder!” He put his head between his knees. Devraj, who was sitting beside him, put his fingers gently on his back. He had known Uchit for years now and had never seen him like this.
“We shall see it,” Devraj said. “Nothing stays in stasis forever. One day things will change, and how could it not be in our favour, when there are so many of us and so few of them?”
When he returned to the school the next day, Welch was waiting for him by the gates. “Hello,” Welch said, “how did it go?”
“No news,” Devraj said.
“That’s too bad,” Welch said. “I was thinking: I brought some tea for us today. My aunt gave these new leaves to me, so you know it will be good. We could put on a pot after class and share.”
“Not today,” Devraj said, walking past him. “I am sorry but I am not — not in the mood today.”
Well, damn and blast it. He must have said something wrong, or done something to offend, for Korrapati was not pleased with him and their careful friendship had tilted on its axis. This troubled Edmund for he had grown… attached to their conversations, which could sometimes span into the late hours after the sun had set and shadows played tag over the classroom walls. When they were alone together in that classroom, with Korrapati feverishly writing notes on his research but explaining to Edmund his thoughts the entire time, Edmund felt suffused with a quiet, rare peace.
He appreciated that a man as intelligent and passionate as Devraj Korrapati would find him worthy of sharing his work with. He felt cautiously happy that Korrapati saw him as an equal, when in truth it had been a long time since anyone saw Edmund as anything other than a wreck of his former glory.
It used to be, in his prime, that everyone wanted Edmund’s company. And that Edmund was not given to freely sharing it only made people want it more. Why should they not? He had been a fine soldier, a capable leader, and an ace on the polo field, where he led the Bengal Lancers to victory over other regiments. When they were not fighting in the field, soldiers loved nothing more than polo, and Edmund had been their hero.
Now they were all uncomfortable around him. They looked at his leg, at his slow, ungainly walk, and they made their excuses to be somewhere else. Edmund did not quite blame them, for he was no better when faced with other people’s tragedies. However, the end result was that it had been some time since he had a… friend, if friend was indeed what he saw Korrapati as.
Edmund had always prided himself on possessing at least one virtue, which was self-knowledge. He knew, of course, that he wanted Korrapati as more than a friend, and in the moments before bed at night he did not think it so far-fetched. Why should two friends not enjoy each other’s company physically as well as mentally? For he was fairly certain that Korrapati was an invert as well. It had taken some observation to deduce it, but he would bet money on it now.
It did not have to be love. Romantic love as celebrated in the tales, love as Lancelot had felt for Guinevere — that was ridiculous. Men such as them did not belong in that soft, sentimental frame of mind. Companionship and respect and some toe-curling physical release — that was good enough for Edmund, if only he could find some way to broach it with Korrapati.
“I notice that you do not wear a mustache,” he said one day. “I do not either.”
“And so?” Korrapati said.
“I’m glad we have that much in common,” Edmund said pointedly. “I do think men are much more nobler in bearing with a clean face.”
Korrapati rolled his eyes. “I’m afraid I have not given it much thought.”
“You should,” Edmund said. “In between all your scientific inquiries, I mean. You should devote some time to such thoughts.”
God, Korrapati must think him barking mad. Well, it was not far from the truth. Desire was a form of madness, and if Edmund was a truly intelligent man with more self-control, he would never, ever give in to his particular desires, for no good could come out of two men lying together. Only shame and ruin lay down that path, and yet he kept pursuing it out of madness.
“I wonder,” he said one evening while Korrapati was writing letters to his man in Maharashtra. “If natural selection means only the strong survive, then what does it mean to be strong?”
“I have told you a hundred times by now. It means to be adaptable to your environment,” Korrapati said.
“Do you think humans are adaptable to their environments?” Edmund mused. “They must be, for we are all so different in our corners of the world, and you say that we are the results of our environments. So my ancestors in England must have evolved differently from your ancestors in India.”
Korrapati froze. There was a flash of that familiar coldness in his eyes again, such as when they first met. “I have heard many uses of Darwin’s theories to extrapolate the differences between the races.”
“I mean no offense—”
“So you have never heard what they say then?” Korrapati said. “That the white man has evolved to be of much greater standing than the brown man. That it is not just divine right, but also natural legitimacy, that England rules India, for clearly the English are a much superior race. Survival of the fittest, is it not? It is the way of the world since Alexander the Great that the strong have the right to rule.”
“That is not what I was trying to say,” Edmund said, holding up his hands. “You know my thoughts on the matter, that we English are just as foolhardy, greedy, and awful as anyone. No one who has seen a London merchant dig into his supper would claim that we are an advanced people.”
“It is what everybody says,” Korrapati said. “Even scientists. They twist and wrap Darwin’s words to suit their meanings.” He clenched his fingers against the sides of his desk.
“Look at me then,” Edmund said quietly. “Devraj, look at me. My body is ravaged and broken, and there are some days when I can barely get to my chamberpot to piss without assistance. I am one of the weak ones, unfit to survive. If this was Alexander the Great’s army, they would have left me on the side of the road to die.”
“It is not as simple as that,” Devraj said.
“Then explain it to me,” Edmund said, and he leaned forward to touch the side of Devraj’s jaw. He could feel Devraj’s sharp indrawn breath, and he made his own smile gentle, though his bones were shaking inside. “May I kiss you?” he asked.
“I — what are you saying? Have you gone mad?”
“If you tell me to go, I will go and never mention this again,” Edmund said. “But I ask you this: if we are animals, then what is so wrong about acting like them too?”
Devraj shook. “You goddamn British pig.”
“See?” Edmund said. “Animals.” And then he was laughing, laughing while Devraj kissed him, hard and angry. Devraj lunged across the desk to grab Edmund by the lapels and their kiss was full of sound and fury, Devraj biting Edmund’s bottom lip while Edmund groaned. “Yes, like this exactly,” he said.
Devraj’s eyes were well pit-dark. “This is just a bit of pleasure.”
“Of course,” Edmund said, smoothing Devraj’s hair behind his ears. “We are both men of the world. Nothing harmful about a bit of pleasure.”
Devraj snorted. “Everything is harmful about this piece of idiocy,” he said, but he grabbed Edmund’s hand and pulled him out of the classroom. “There is a cot in the teachers’ room that we can use. No one is here but us.” His pulling was too forceful and Edmund could not keep up. Edmund’s leg collapsed, and Devraj stopped.
“I am sorry,” he said.
“You take a cripple to bed, there are some considerations,” Edmund said lightly, but he held tightly onto Devraj’s hand. Devraj softened and gently helped Edmund down the stairs towards the teachers’ room where there was indeed a dingy little cot. The door to the room locked, thank all the gods and Darwin besides, and Devraj slid the lock shut with a satisfying click while Edmund gingerly arranged himself on the cot. He looked up.
Damn but Devraj was beautiful. Surely the man knew it. Surely he could not be ignorant of how many appreciative gazes followed him whenever he walked down the street, how many of his students had fanciful schoolboy crushes on him. With his eyes so dark and his bone structure so fine, Devraj looked like a poet-warrior as he crossed the room and kissed Edmund again.
Edmund tangled his fingers in Devraj’s glorious hair, and laughed. “Careful with the leg.”
“Tell me where to avoid hurting you,” Devraj said.
“Here, like this.” Edmund settled Devraj between his legs and lay back. Devraj followed him onto the mattress with a deep, slick kiss, and their tongues dueled while Edmund used his nimble hands to undo the buttons of Devraj’s trousers. When his hand found its way inside and touched Devraj’s cock, Devraj let out a loud groan and threw his head back. The sound made Edmund’s own cock jump painfully, but he wanted to give Devraj pleasure, so much pleasure that he would forget how many better men there were out there in the city waiting for him. He started jacking Devraj off, while Devraj shook and writhed.
“Ow,” Edmund said when Devraj bumped his leg. Devraj looked up, apologetic, and leaned away. “That’s better,” Edmund murmured and continued his handiwork.
Devraj was open-mouthed and panting as he lay his cheek beside Edmund’s. It must have been a long time for him, Edmund thought sympathetically. He leaned over and kissed Devraj again, sloppy with a great deal of tongue, but tugging him up.
“Careful, careful,” he warned, but Devraj — for once — cooperated with him in changing their positions so that Devraj was lying on the mattress and Edmund between his legs. Edmund took a while to make sure there was a comfortable way to do this, but Devraj was patient, watching him with his cheeks flushed and his chest rising up and down. Edmund finally found the most comfortable position — not perfect but good enough — and leaned down to take Devraj’s cock in his mouth.
Devraj cried out.
Just a bit of pleasure, Edmund thought smugly, and ran his tongue up and down the big vein on Devraj’s cock before swirling his tongue on the mushroomy underside. Devraj’s head fell back and he whimpered, all of his limbs loosening at once. Edmund played with his cock for a long time using only his tongue, until Devraj was a shuddering mess, until he was moaning out loud and saying Edmund’s name and please, please, fuck, please.
Edmund took Devraj’s cock fully into his mouth then, and Devraj’s hips shook. Edmund used his hands to push those hips down, while Devraj protested, but then Edmund started sucking on him in earnest and Devraj groaned loudly. Precome glistened on the tip of his cock, and Edmund drank it down greedily while gorging himself on Devraj’s beautiful, fat cock. Finally it was too much and Devraj’s hips started jerking again, thrusting his cock up into Edmund’s mouth over and over.
It was too much. The force of it made Edmund readjust his position, and that sent a shock-burst of pain down his leg. He cried out, and Devraj looked up flustered. “Sorry, sorry,” he said again, but Edmund shut him up with a kiss before leaning back down to take Devraj’s cock in his mouth once more. Sex hurt. This was the truth of his life now, that there was nothing he could enjoy without some small measure of pain. But this particular pain he was willing to suffer for this beautiful, brilliant man under his hands and in his mouth. If the angle was awkward, Devraj did not seem to notice. He renewed his efforts, and when Devraj was shaking too hard to form words, Edmund tightened his cheeks. Devraj climaxed with a guttural cry, pouring himself hot and sweet down Edmund’s throat.
It was too much. Edmund dragged himself carefully up Devraj’s convulsing body and thrust his still-clothed groin against him, rolling and undulating through the pain until a sharp sweetness made his own limbs shake, and he spurted into his trousers while panting against Devraj’s neck.
Devraj looked up at him between those ridiculously long eyelashes. “You are,” he said hoarsely, “a very dangerous man, Lieutenant Welch. Your superiors should have warned me about you.”
“Is that what they say too?” Edmund said, trying to regather his composure while his body worked through the trembling aftershocks.
“It is what I say.”
“So it comes from a reliable source,” Edmund said. He reared up and kissed Devraj again.
Sex and science, sex and science — it became the rhythm of Edmund’s days until he was suffused in a perpetual fever from it, a fever that he hoped never to shake. For what a delicious fever it was, to catch Devraj’s face between his hands and press a kiss on those full lips, to trace a finger over Devraj’s collarbone and see him shiver, to press him against the cot in the teachers’ room and rut against him until they were both hoarse with pleasure. Edmund had had assignations with men in the army, but in the army privacy was a rare commodity and everything had been quick and furtive, cheapened by the mud and the mosquitoes.
In the classrooms of St. Joseph’s after dark, where no one would stumble upon them, Edmund and Devraj had time aplenty. Devraj would complain that it distracted him from his research, but he complained much less when he was lying against Edmund after, naked and sweaty, with his head tucked into Edmund’s shoulder.
“Tell me a story,” Edmund would say sleepily, and Devraj would comply. Devraj told the most wonderful stories, particularly Indian myths where heroes warred in great battles and gods could be born from a flower blossoming in a navel. These were the stories Devraj had grown up with, and although he rejected them as truth, it was clear that he remained fond of them as fairy tales.
Edmund began to help Devraj with his research. Devraj was nearing the end of a piece he hoped to submit for publication on the characteristics of monkeys in the Indian subcontinent and how it impacted the understanding of human evolution. There was still a great deal of work to be done, however, and people who had the most accurate data to track down. Edmund began to aid Devraj in writing letters to scientists in all reaches of India. When one person mentioned the name of another Devraj might find useful, Edmund copied that name down and found as much of their address and location as he could to compose a new letter.
When Devraj received letters, Edmund helped him organize the data, learning Devraj’s complicated system of annotations where symbols such as stars, moons, and suns coded each data element in its category.
Night-times with Devraj in the empty classrooms was sweet, and sometimes even tender. Devraj was growing used to Edmund’s company and even smiled at him sometimes, which made Edmund’s breath stick against his lungs like toffee. He tried to shake the sensation quickly, for what good would it do for either of them?
He liked the daytimes less. During the day it was hot and muggy, the heat soaking his shirt against his chest and making his leg itch with such a fierceness that it turned into an ache. His leg hurt more in the summer, for no reason any physician could divine — and Edmund felt as if he had seen all the physicians in India by now. When he had first been injured, his aunt had made him appointments with all the prominent medical officers she knew. Now, she no longer bothered to try. There was no fixing Edmund’s leg, she felt, and they must needs learn to live with it.
He made Devraj attend more revolutionary meetings. He made Devraj speak to Mr. Malakar’s family. Devraj always returned from these encounters with no new information to offer, which was greatly disappointing, for while Edmund did not think the world they lived in was a kind one, at the very least schoolteachers should not be murdered in their classrooms. It was an outrage, and it compromised the safety of the students beside, many of whom he had grown fond of.
He found one of them after classes ended, sitting idly in the schoolyard bouncing a ball made of bound strings. Edmund hobbled up to Govind and flicked him on the back of the head. “Why are you still here?” he asked.
Govind scowled. “Maa is supposed to pick me up, but she’s late. Again.”
“Is she?” Edmund said. “I’ll wait with you then.”
“I don’t know why she always wants to pick me up from school,” Govind complained. “We live so close! I can just run right home!”
“She is likely worried about you,” Edmund said. “She wants to make sure you’re safe.”
“Bah,” Govind said. He muttered something under his breath in Hindi and then brightened. “Say, Lieutenant Welch, can I see your revolver again?” Just as Edmund was about to shake his head and tell him no, a slim, surprisingly young woman in a purple sari came trotting up to the school gates.
“Ah, I’m late! Sorry, my son, sorry sorry.” She spoke quite excellent English and grabbed Govind by the wrist and bowed towards Edmund. “Sahib! Thank you for watching over my useless son.”
“It was no problem,” Edmund said.
“You are late!” Govind cried at his mother.
She swatted him on the arm. “I forgot!” she said. “How can you be so angry when you forget everything. Always forgetting your schoolbooks at school and then running back after to get them — running back to the school in the dark! There are bad men who could hurt you!” She swatted Govind again, who yelped.
“Don’t tell Lieutenant Welch! He’s not supposed to know!” he said.
“Don’t tell me what?” Edmund asked. His gaze sharpened as he looked down at the boy. “Govind, do you mean to say that you return to the school at night sometimes?”
“Sometimes,” scoffed his mother. “Nearly every night! Always always forgetting his books! Would forget his head if it wasn’t attached to his shoulders.”
“Were you here the night Mr. Malakar was attacked?” Edmund asked slowly. Govind looked away, and his mother quieted, understanding and uncertainty crossing her face. “You must tell me,” Edmund went on. “Even if it is frightening. Did you return to the school that night to find your books?”
Govind nodded. “But I didn’t see nothing!” he said. “Almost nothing. When I was leaving there was a man who walked in. He had a… a pink flower on his chest, right here.” He gestured. “That’s all I saw! I didn’t even know Mr. Malakar was still inside. Not until they told us the next day that he was d-d-dead.” His head dropped in an expression of misery.
“You were there that night!” Govind’s mother said. “You bad boy! You didn’t tell me!” She threw her arms around him and held him tight, whispering in his ear, while Govind sniffed and squirmed but held her in return.
“Thank you, Govind,” Edmund said. “That is all I needed to know.”
Devraj opened a letter and smiled. The edges of his smile caught the shadows created by the late afternoon sun. Edmund, lounging naked on the cot beside him, placed a chin on his shoulder and said, “What is it?”
“Dr. W.E. Bertillon will be passing through Lucknow,” Devraj said. “He will be delivering a lecture on evolution and natural selection in the home of Mr. James Lessmore.”
“Dr. W.E. Bertillon?” Edmund said. “Never heard of him.”
“He is a prominent Belgian naturalist,” Devraj said happily, no longer even bothering to rise to Edmund’s bait. “I hear he is in India on some personal business or perhaps a research excursion — I am not sure what the story is behind his travels. I knew he would be on the continent but I did not know he would be passing through Lucknow! On the 17th, my friend says.”
“Today is the 10th,” Edmund said, “so that is not so long from now.” He yawned and scratched his belly. “You will be going, of course?”
“If I am able to secure an invitation,” Devraj said. “It may be difficult. Dr. Bertillon’s research is not popular among the masses, as you may surmise, so there is not a large community of supporters in Lucknow. I believe it will be a small affair with only a few invitations issued amongst closed circles.” He smiled thoughtfully. “I will ask around. Surely someone will allow to attend.”
“What about Dr. Harris?” Edmund said. “Your friend who will help you publish your paper with him as co-author?”
“Dr. Harris lives in England,” Devraj scoffed. “He hardly has the time or connections to pull at strings in India, much less in seven days’ time.” He tucked the envelope with the letter back into his bag and turned around, balancing on his knees. “If Bertillon’s talk is on the 17th, that reminds me. Your aunt and uncle are throwing a ball on the 19th.”
“Are they?” Edmund said. “Oh yes, you may be right. I can’t claim the thought of attending that ball fills me with excitement, although the food will in all likelihood be excellent. One does grow tired of schoolyard fare day in, day out.”
“If St. Joseph’s meals tire you so much, you are free to leave,” Devraj retorted, but they both knew it was a jape by now and that there was nowhere else for Edmund to go — nor did he want to. Devraj settled himself back on the cot, glancing quickly at the door of the teachers’ room to make sure the lock was still in place. He slung a leg over Edmund’s hips and then played with a strand of Edmund’s hair, rubbing it between two fingers thoughtfully.
“Careful,” Edmund said sleepily, “or else you will rub all my hair off and I shall have none left.”
“I did not take you to be so vain,” Devraj said. He sniffed Edmund’s hair. “So yellow,” he said. “And it smells like gunpowder.”
“I was practicing on the range this morning with my regiment,” Edmund said. “It was strange, I daresay. I haven’t been practicing with them since my…” He looked down at his leg. “Since the accident.”
“How did they treat you?” Devraj said.
“They were all scrupulously polite and did not meet my eyes, not even once,” Edmund said. “To them I was a ghost. Even though my aim is still better than most of theirs,” he added.
Devraj smiled faintly. “You soldiers. I see enough of you swaggering about, trying to beat each other in silly competitions. You know that club beside St. Joseph’s? I think many soldiers frequent that club, though I cannot for the life of me ever remember what the club’s name is. Perhaps it has no name.”
“I can’t remember the name either,” Edmund said. “However, I know at least a handful of men in my regiment who belong to that club.”
“Which club did you belong to?” Devraj said. “Not that one, I imagine, for I would have noticed.”
“Would you?” Edmund asked. “Even before we grew to know each other so well?” He looked down at their naked bodies and smiled. Devraj flushed, which made Edmund chuckle. “No,” he continued. “My club is closer to where my chummery is. The food is good and the atmosphere quiet, which is what I like. No one bothers me when I go there to eat or read my newspaper. There are several older soldiers there, and a few Indians too. We are not one of those segregated clubs. Anybody can apply to join.”
“How progressive,” Devraj said.
Edmund turned over onto his belly. “Have I offended you again? I am sorry. We can talk about something else. Tell me about how you are progressing with your paper. Are you nearly ready to contact Dr. Harris and publish?”
“I am close,” Devraj said. “My analysis is solid and my data charts nearly complete. There are only a few details I should verify. I hope to fill in some of those pieces by talking to Dr. Bertillon. And then I publish — should Harris still be interested in attaching his name to the endeavour. It has been a long time since I have spoken to him, you know.”
Edmund opened his mouth to speak, but his mouth froze in a lopsided ‘o’ as he felt his bad leg seize. A hot pain poured through his ligament, as sudden and fierce as lightning striking a field of wheat. He knew what was coming the moment it hit, but there was never any way to stop it, only curl in on himself and ride the pain through. “God,” he choked as a second wave of pain began to course through him, harder than the first, making him sweat and his teeth clench. “Ah, God! Fuck!”
“Edmund!” Devraj cried. “Are you all right?”
No, he was clearly and patently not all right. Yet there was nothing Devraj could do to help, not when countless physicians had failed to offer any solution. Valerian did little to dull the pain, nor did any other medication outside laudanum, which even if he could predict the coming of these assaults, Edmund refused to take — he would not become an addict. The pain rammed through him as tears pricked the back of his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. It was unimaginable this pain, like a monsoon-monster who lived in the marrow of his bones. He seized, and the rest of his body shook. He could only wait for it to end.
“Edmund!” Devraj’s voice pushed through the agony. He heard it like a faraway yell. “Edmund!”
He had long been fascinated by bodies. Even during his youth, he could recall his intense interest that accompanied any hint of nakedness. Not even lust, though when he was older that did play its part, especially when the boys on his street stripped down to kick a ball around and Devraj would stare at the muscles on their chests. But underneath all the other, messier emotions there had always been simple, rational curiosity and wonder at how the human body worked, how it moved, its mechanics and its evolutionary history.
Edmund had a wonderful body. Devraj could admit that. The man himself was frightfully attractive with that dandelion-coloured hair and tanned golden skin, but he had a strong body with graceful muscles and quick reflexes. He could imagine how Edmund would have been before the knife tore through his leg, and how he must have moved on the field. It would have been a sight to see.
Which was not to say Devraj did not enjoy Edmund as he was now. Oh, he enjoyed Edmund very much. Sometimes as much as twice a day. He enjoyed the small things too, including the arrhythmic drag of Edmund’s leg and the thud of his cane, which signalled Edmund’s arrival even before Edmund himself would ever turn the corner and appear. It was ungainly but beautiful, and Devraj did not think those two qualities need be mutually exclusive. It was very Edmund, and Devraj was at risk of succombing to anything Edmund-related.
That pain, though. He mulled over it when he was alone at night, and he and Edmund had gone their separate ways from St. Joseph’s. He did not enjoy seeing Edmund in pain, that wonderful body turned mean and treacherous, trapping Edmund inside. It had been awful seeing Edmund seize up like that, writhing and thrashing while Devraj could not naught but watch. He had held Edmund after, tentative, but Edmund had not been in the mood for tenderness or for touches.
“Pain is how we answer the call of soldiering,” Edmund had muttered. “It is how we justify the things we have done.”
It had alarmed Devraj to hear Edmund speak so darkly. Though he knew that Edmund was fully capable of harbouring inner demons, his exterior was typically light and laconic. He chose to appear present that aspect of his character to the world, even to Devraj. The pain exposed that lie. It took Edmund to a place of his own making, a room with four walls and no doors for anyone else to join.
“How often does that happen?” Devraj asked him.
“A small seize, every other day,” Edmund said. “Usually in the mornings. Every few weeks there is a larger one that will set me back an entire day. I can barely walk after. That was what happened the morning I was to start at St. Joseph’s.”
“I see,” Devraj said.
“Don’t let it trouble you,” Edmund said, trying for light-heartedness but missing by quite a bit.
“It does trouble me,” Devraj said.
“Not enough to stop our friendship, I hope.”
“No,” Devraj said, wondering how Edmund could so mistake his meaning. He did not know how to explain, though, so instead he updated Edmund on Dr. Bertillon’s visit to Lucknow. He had learned of the exact time and location of Dr. Bertillon’s talk, and had, at the end of the day, managed to secure an invitation purely by his own cunning, which had involved approaching Mr. Lessmore, the host, and asking for one.
“He looked quite surprise to see an Indian at his doorstep who was not a servant,” Devraj said. “But he said he would be delighted for me to attend.”
“Actually,” Edmund said.
“It seems Dr. Bertillon knows my uncle Mr. Sharpleton,” Edmund said. “Their history together as young men at Oxford came to light over supper yesterday. He has invited Bertillon to the ball as well.”
“Even better,” Devraj said. “Then there will be more opportunity to talk to him and get his ideas on some of my research.” He frowned. “That reminds me that I must find suitable clothes for this ball.”
“What do you mean?” Edmund asked. “You are always so impeccably dressed.”
“I look like a schoolteacher,” Devraj corrected. “I do not want to look like a schoolteacher when I am talking to Dr. Bertillon.”
“Hmm,” Edmund said, studying him with an up and down glance. “One of the fellows at my chummery may be of a size with you. I can ask him if he has anything appropriate for you to borrow.”
Devraj frowned again. He was not completely pleased by the prospect of wearing a soldier’s castoffs, but it was a generous offer and he did not have the money to purchase the sort of clothes that Edmund and his ilk could buy on a whim. “Thank you,” he said. It was important to make a good impression on Dr. Bertillon.
He did wear his schoolteachers’ garb when the 17th came by and he climbed up the steps to Mr. Lessmore’s home, which was located on a shady patch of the city far from the sounds of the market. Only the very rich, and mostly white, could afford to set up residence here, where the shade from the trees provided much-needed coolness against Devraj’s skin. He tugged at his cravat to make sure it was tied properly — no need to be uncivilized even if he was dressed plainly — and joined the other guests in the parlour where there was darjeeling and samosas and Dr. Bertillon, who was a short stout man with a walrus moustache.
“Awfully spicy these,” he said in French-tinged English, holding up a samosa.
Not so much, Devraj thought but outwardly he smiled and said, “Yes. I am very pleased to meet your acquaintance, sir. My name is Devraj Korrapati and I am an amateur enthusiast, you might say, of all things Darwinian.”
“Where did you go to school, my boy?”
“I spent some time near Oxford, where I attended the local schools with professors’ sons,” Devraj explained. “Upon my return to India I was a student at St. Joseph’s School for Boys and also a beneficiary of private tutors. My father, before he died, was a great believer in education.”
“Is that so? Your father must’ve been a remarkable man.”
“He was,” Devraj said quietly. “A poet and a Sanskrit linguist, and yes, a remarkable man. My academic interests are much different than his, and we did argue about my research quite often before he died. But I would like to think — would like to think he is proud of what I have done.”
Dr. Bertillon smiled, and the smile transformed him into a gentle, grandfatherly man. “I’m sure he is.”
They spent some time chatting before Dr. Bertillon remembered he was here to give a talk, and Devraj took a seat in the parlour while Bertillon shuffled his notes. Anticipation burst through Devraj’s nerves — how rare it was to meet such a prominent Darwinian naturalist in India! He paid avid attention to Dr. Bertillon’s talk, which was about further evidence of natural selection as gathered on his own recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, and Devraj scribbled page after page of notes in his composition book until the talk was over and he was still writing. His hand cramped, but he paid it no mind. It was only until after his pen had no more ink and the room was half-empty of guests that he remembered to stop.
The Sharpletons were not Devraj’s most beloved people, as they reminded him of the sort of rich, ignorant, high society English eccentricity that irritated him the most. And these were the people who ruled his country? Yet even he must admit that Mrs. Sharpleton could host an excellent ball. She had brought in a chamber orchestra, including a pianist who played Chopin etudes with nimble balletic fingers. The food was a mixture of British fare and Indian; the platters groaned heavy under the heft of suet pudding and galub jamuns, and other sticky creations made of sugar, milk, and khoya. The tablecloths were delicately patterned with local chikankari embroidery. The overall atmosphere served to make Devraj feel both laconic by the weight of all these luxuries and at edge, for there were few Indians who were not among the serving staff.
“Thank you,” he said to a Sikh man holding a platter of white-bellied modak, and he could feel the man’s judgment and envy reflected back at him.
Edmund was forced to sit by his aunt and her friends, including their unwed daughters. Devraj watched as those daughters looked shyly at Edmund and then back at their mamas, who seemed uncertain, as if they could not be sure if Edmund was worthy of their matchmaking efforts. Most of them appeared to decide against it and led their daughters away.
“I can’t blame them,” Edmund said as he limped over to Devraj. “Not a penny to my name, and they’d have to play nursemaid to me on my bad days. What sort of young dewy rose wants that?”
“I can think of one or two,” Devraj said.
“You are not even paying attention, are you?” Edmund said. “Look, you keep on staring at Dr. Bertillon. Well, go talk to him instead of mooning about!”
“I am not—”
“You are,” Edmund said. He gave Devraj a nudge. “Go.”
“Will you be all right by yourself?” Devraj asked. Just this morning Edmund had had another painful convulsion. Though not a large one it had been enough to add a noticeable clunk to Edmund’s gait. Devraj wondered if he missed dancing — and here he turned to look at the couples doing the waltz before looking across the ballroom at Dr. Bertillon.
“I am going, I am going!” he said. “Dr. Bertillon!” He made his voice bright as he approached. “I do not know if you remember me—” He stopped when he drew close enough to realize that Dr. Bertillon was engaged in an argument with Mr. Sharpleton, who was standing nearby.
“Not that nonsense again,” Mr. Sharpleton was saying. “Augustus, did you really have to give a talk in the city?”
Dr. Bertillon looked sheepish. “There was interest—”
“Interest for what?” Mr. Sharpleton said. “For poppycock? For your attempts to convince us that man is descended from monkeys? Man comes from God, and what you are doing flies against everything that is natural and right.”
“There is great evidence—”
“God is evidence,” Mr. Sharpleton said. He held out his hand. “Look at these fingers. Look how much they are able to do when an ape’s hand does so little. Do you not look at a marvel like a human body and know that it must be divinely created? How could nature produce such intricacy?”
“Nature is intricacy,” Dr. Bertillon protested, but even from far away Devraj could tell that though a learned scholar, he was not much of a debater and Mr. Sharpleton’s aggressive tones were making him wilt. “Intricacies also include bodily imperfections. Anyway, what I do is none of your business.”
“I am only trying to help you, old friend,” Mr. Sharpleton said. “For your own good. If you don’t get rid of those filthy ideas, you won’t have much friends left.”
“Mr. Lessmore has no influence over society. He is an invert, a piece of lavender fluff who happens to have an Indian inheritance.” Mr. Sharpleton gestured towards the ballroom. “How many of these people have deigned to talk to you tonight, Augustus?”
Not one, Devraj thought. Now that Mr. Sharpleton pointed it out, it was obvious. No one seemed to have approached Bertillon all night. At first Devraj had thought it indifference, for young ladies and peacock soldiers might not have interest in engaging with an elderly Belgian, but he could see that Sharpleton was right. It was not indifference at all but disdain, and people were sneaking glances at Bertillon with laughter in their eyes.
Devraj felt sick. He was not unfamiliar with being branded a freak and a blasphemer, but he had thought perhaps among his own people, a famous scientist such as Dr. Augustus Bertillon, born among aristocracy, might be different. It seemed there was no safeguard against humiliation. When Mr. Sharpleton walked away and Devraj glided closer, Bertillon shook his head miserably and said, in a small voice, “Best pretend you don’t know me, boy.”
“They should not—” What? he thought. Should not laugh at you. Should not ignore you. Should not be so damnably stupid.
But they were. A young boy with his mouth full of payasam pointed and said, “It’s the monkey man!”
Devraj could not stay by Dr. Bertillon’s side. Mr. Sharpleton was watching them, and he was Devraj’s employer. He must pretend to be as disgusted as the rest. He swallowed, looked away, and rejoined Edmund by the orchestra while Dr. Bertillon milled sadly by himself, ate a few snacks, and was otherwise silent.
“People are afraid of what they do not understand,” Edmund said.
“People are afraid of everything,” Devraj replied.
Dr. Bertillon departed Lucknow on the 21st. No one saw him off, not even Mr. Lessmore, who had supposedly been his host, but who had retreated with the others during the sang froid of the ball, no doubt realizing that he needed social capital more than he needed Bertillon’s friendship. Devraj could judge all he liked but he too had retreated, and the sick ball in his throat would not go away. There were two options after this: either halt his research out of hesitance and fear, or throw himself into it anew.
He chose the latter. Dr. Bertillon’s experience demonstrated to him that it would not be wise to publish under his true name, but that was fine. He could create a pseudonym. Several Darwinian naturalists did. Although Devraj had always been proud enough to want to take credit for his work under his own name — he was his father’s son — he remembered the sharpness of Mr. Sharpleton’s revulsion, and he knew he could not afford to lose all that he had built.
“It makes me cold with fury,” he told Edmund. “One day the scientific method shall prove all those snickering idiots wrong and every book published will say This is true, this is the true story, all of this is true.”
“I believe that,” Edmund said. “But I do not know if that day has yet come.”
“Before I die—”
“You could die tomorrow,” Edmund interrupted. “You could die with a bullet to your chest or a sickness in your blood. If you want to do something that will change the course of humanity, might as well do it now.”
Sometimes Edmund could drive to the heart of the matter so adeptly that Devraj wondered if in a previous life he might have been an oracle. They balanced each other’s humours, Devraj thought, for if he could be hot-headed then Edmund would be even-tempered, and if Edmund could be fatalistic and self-loathing, then he could be the optimist.
So he returned to his work. Meeting Dr. Bertillon had given him the data he needed to finish his conclusions, and he felt a sense of urgency overtake him, for it was tempting to think of his work as large in scope and forever flourishing — so big that he would never finish it. In truth Devraj knew he had to force his mind to know otherwise, to refine his research and assemble it, for it was easy to drag his heels in the mud complaining that he would never finish. It was more important to actually finish. If he had ideas leftover to chase, there could always be more papers. He needed at least this one.
Every spare minute between teaching and sleeping, he now devoted to finishing his paper. He burnt his candles down to the stub, and then he poured the wax into a new mould and made a new wick. He began to sleep in the teachers’ room cot where he tumbled with Edmund so often, waking up bleary-eyed to find the other teachers staring down at him in confusion.
“What devil drives you?” Mr. Grey, who taught maths, asked.
Devraj ran a hand over his face and yearned for water.
He sent what proofs he had to Dr. Harris in England, and waited impatiently until there was a reply. When the response came, he clutched the letter in his fist and made himself wait to read it until he and Edmund were alone in the school at night. Then he read it, and when he was finished, he turned around and kissed Edmund so hard that Edmund nearly toppled over. He had to grab them both to keep them upright, and Edmund winced at the pressure it put on his leg. “Sorry,” Devraj whispered, but Edmund was not angry.
“Must be exciting news to get you all worked up like this,” he said.
“Dr. Harris has agreed to co-author the paper with me,” Devraj said. “He thinks we should try to get it published in the Linnaean Society. He will present it in London if I am not able.”
“Good news then?” Edmund asked, but he was smiling already with the answer. Devraj did not smile. He said nothing for some while, thinking over what this meant and all the doors it might open, and the doors it would close to. Edmund yawned, put his head on Devraj’s shoulder, and then yelped as Devraj scrambled back to his desk to pen his own letter in return to Dr. Harris.
It meant more work, more refinement, more long hours, but Devraj was feverish with it, just as he was feverish for Edmund. Edmund was the only distraction that could pull him away from his work, and Edmund was what he needed the most. Those insufferable kisses, that clever tongue, and the strength of Edmund’s body twining against Devraj’s that gave away to such vulnerability that Devraj became breathless with it.
“I don’t think I have ever lain with a scientist before,” Edmund mused as Devraj rode him one night, rising up and down on his cock until his thighs were trembling.
“I do not care who you have lain with before,” Devraj hissed. He reached down and grabbed a handful of Edmund’s hair, pulling him into a bruising kiss. Then he let go and started rolling his hips, earning from Edmund a deep groan. Edmund’s hands clenched around Devraj’s hips, and Devraj loved the hardness in that grip, grounding him to the earth, this bed, and this man in particular, his body pierced through by Edmund’s giant cock.
Sweat ran down the line of Devraj’s naked back. It pooled against his buttocks. He arched his back, finding the perfect spot for Edmund to rub against inside his arse, and then there it was, staccato bursts of pleasure. He rode harder, more determined. He had never ridden a horse in his entire life before, but he was learning quickly under Edmund’s tutelage, and when Devraj ground his hips down he could feel Edmund swell inside him, their bodies sticky with sweat and semen. “Fuck,” Devraj said, that single vulgar word containing every angry feeling he had, and then he was thrown into climax, coming loudly while Edmund cried out.
They reclined on the cot for a while, trading stories lazily, until Edmund’s leg started throbbing in pain and he cried out for an entirely different reason while Devraj held him, stroked his hair, and pressed kisses on him until the last candle died.
The gentlemen’s club located beside the St. Joseph’s grounds called itself the Presston Club, catering to a membership of largely soldiers with a few British civil servants through into the mix. When Edmund walked inside and gave the butler his card, he saw that the walls were painted a dark lacquer red and that the tables were a smoothly polished brown that was nearly black, with a stuffed camel in the atrium and a panther’s head nailed to the wall above the fireplace. The panther held a pink flower in its mouth. The butler examined his card before nodding and allowing him in.
“Sargeant Clarke, a Lieutenant Welch here to see you,” the butler announced. From his card table at the back of the room, Mr. David Clarke looked up.
“Have we met before?” Clarke asked as Welch lurched up to him. He was a large-set man with surprisingly delicate hands, and slender fingers that held his lit cigar. Several empty bottles of gin littered the table beside the cards.
“Not to my recollection,” Edmund said, drawing himself up a chair at Clarke’s table. There were two other soldiers playing baccarat with him, and all three men turned to face Edmund with expressions of polite hostility. They wore pins in the shape of a pink flower attached to the lapels of their shirts. Edmund leaned forward, adding, “We do share a mutual acquaintance, however. Darshan Malakar.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Clarke said, pulling his cigar up to his lips. “Name like that, I don’t think I would be familiar with at all.”
“So if the name were somewhat like Brown or Johnson, that may press your memory more, hmm?” Edmund said.
The second man at the table laughed. “Come off it, lieutenant! Who can keep track of all these foreign Hindustani names?”
“Well, forgive me but you may remember Mr. Malakar,” Edmund said. “He was a schoolteacher at St. Joseph’s next door. Have you been to St. Joseph’s before? Lovely little school with a complement of curious boys — but they all are at that age, are they not? Some of them, even rarer, grow up to be curious men. I do not mean men that are strange or peculiar. I mean men who retain their curiosity.”
Clarke stared at him.
“I myself am one such man,” Edmund said. “I was curious when Mr. Malakar was found dead of murder in his own schoolroom some months ago. What had happened? Who had shot him in the chest? I pursued numerous avenues of investigation, but now it is plain to me.”
“If you have something to say, say it plainly,” Clarke snapped. Sweat began to bead on his forehead. Underneath the table Edmund saw Clarke’s companions reach for their revolvers. Edmund smiled slightly.
“Fine. I will say it plainly. A man wearing the pink flower symbol of the Presston Club was seen by a student entering the school after hours the night Mr. Malakar died.”
“Is that so?” Clarke said. “Well, there are many men in the Presston Club and any one of them could have been the one your student saw.”
“Any one of them could be,” Edmund agreed, “but according to the account of one of your club’s staff members — who you should truly pay better, I think, he has four children to feed — it was you who had an argument with Mr. Malakar the night he dead. Right outside the club where your paths crossed. He was saying that India should belong to Indians, and you were laughing at him. You were very drunk, and Mr. Malakar grew angry. He became insolent. You could not forgive that. When he turned on his heel and went inside the school, you followed him. Then you shot him.”
“How could a staff member know I shot him if they cannot leave the club?” Clarke sneered. “Perhaps I did argue with this Indian of yours, but anyone could have entered the school and done it. With the way he was talking, any man might have wanted to.”
“Any man might have,” Edmund said, “but you are the only one to boast of it to your fellow club members.” He shrugged. “Man’s downfall is neither the sword nor the bullet, but rather the tongue. I have several accounts from club members who you might have treated better. They do not like you much, I think.”
Clarke roared. He pulled his revolver from underneath his table and pointed it at Edmund. Edmund’s hands stayed by his side — he knew he was a quicker draw than Clarke, but he was not here to kill anyone and he knew that if he drew his revolver, there would be dead bodies on the floor. Instead he looked the furious Sergeant Clarke in the eye and said, in the same even tone, “Please go ahead. Shoot me. The governor’s men are waiting outside the club. They could use a little action — they have had a slow day.”
Clarke’s friend, the one to the left, said, “You can’t win this one, David.”
The other friend said, “Don’t worry. They won’t arrest you for one little Hindustani — impossible. It will be a slap on the wrist, that is all.”
It was not a slap on the wrist. Calmly, Edmund stood up and punched the offensive man straight in the jaw, one straight shot up, and the man fell backwards whimpering. His lip split open, ruby-glistening with blood. The empty bottles of gin clattered to the floor, and one broke with an ugly crack.
Outside, the governor’s men were waiting, including Mr. Sharpleton. Edmund walked past them as they apprehended Sargeant Clarke to where Devraj and the other St. Joseph teachers were watching the scene play out, many of them anxiously, with their arms folded over their chests. The teachers were whispering amongst each other, save for Devraj, who stood slightly apart from the rest. His gaze settled on Edmund. “They may yet let him go,” he said.
“I don’t think they will,” Edmund said. “Not when Mr. Malakar was a teacher at a respectable Christian school, which is to say, he had connections.”
“What would men like us do without our connections?” Devraj said softly. “Survival of the fittest.”
“One day all this will change,” Edmund said. “Is that not another principle of yours? Evolution.” Devraj looked up at the sky, which was blue without clouds, only the sun, and the faintest taste of smoke. He nodded, and then nudged Edmund’s shoulder to draw his attention to Mr. Sharpleton, who was staring at them with grim understanding.
Sharpleton closed his study door and turned on Edmund.
“I had heard the soldiers talking but never thought it could be true,” he said. He carded his fingers through his hair, or what was left of him. His face was wan and tired. “First my old friend Bertillon and now you — is there no one I trust who does not have shameful perversions?”
Edmund’s spine was maypole straight. “I think you may be mistaken, uncle. Dr. Bertillon was a Darwinian naturalist. Despite my recent education and many attempts made by a particular friend, I am not a leader in that area.”
“I wish that you were!” Sharpleton said. “Better a blasphemer than an invert! My own nephew! Do you realize how it looks? How it could affect my rise in the governor’s office?”
Edmund thought about the choice of denial. How much could his uncle truly know? It was not as if he had seen him and Devraj locked in some passionate embrace — they had merely been speaking to each other outside the Presston Club. But even as he thought it, Edmund could not goad himself into that particular delusion, for Sharpleton was a perceptive man and Edmund knew that the way he spoke to Devraj was different than how he spoke to anyone else. There was intimacy there, and fondness, and clearly he had not remembered to conceal it this time in front of others. Perhaps he never could.
“Then what do you want me to do?” he asked. “Change my name? Retire to the countryside? Hide from all members of society until there is nothing left to bring shame upon our family?”
“I want you to leave Lucknow,” Sharpleton said. “There is still a year left on your commission so you cannot go home to England, not just yet. I will have your superiors reassign you to a different regiment.”
Edmund made sure nothing showed on his face. His fingers lay flat against his side of his body, just barely brushing his thighs. He was calm and steady when he said, “You know that will not stop me from being an invert.”
“At least it will take you away from Korrapati,” Sharpleton said. “By God, Edmund, must you?”
“Yes,” Edmund said, “I believe so. If that is your decision, I daresay that is little I can do to stop you. I will go home and pack.”
He could feel Sharpleton’s eyes on him as he left, but he did not let that taunt him into turning back. They had nothing more to say. Outside in the hot summer the heat beat against his calloused skin, but Edmund did not stop as he usually did to purchase some soothing beverage from a streetside seller. He walked straight to St. Joseph’s where he found Devraj in his classroom, but instead of working feverishly on his paper as one might expect, Devraj was lost in thought, chin balanced on the palm of one hand, staring out the window.
“Malakar,” he said as he heard Edmund approach. “I cannot stop thinking about Malakar and the injustice of it all.”
Edmund cleared his throat. “I am leaving.”
“But you only just arrived,” Devraj said. “Do you have some important task that takes you away so soon?”
“I mean that I am leaving Lucknow,” Edmund said. “My uncle knows about us, and he will have me reassigned. To where I do not know, but it does not seem that I will stay here. I thought this information might be of use to you.”
Devraj stiffened but did not turn to face Edmund. He continued to stare out the window with his chin on his hand, which made Edmund incandescently furious for did the news not affect him at all? But perhaps it did not. Perhaps he had been a fool this entire time to think that Devraj might hold any equal affection for him, a soldier who fought for the colonials who had taken Devraj’s country. It would serve Edmund right, and had he himself not said, in the beginning, that this was not love?
He stood by that assessment. It could not be love. Love was sweet and kind. Love did not make Edmund’s stomach churn and his head hurt. Love did not make the sweat run cold against the creases of his neck, and love did not make his leg sing and throb.
“I will be publishing my paper soon,” Devraj finally said. He seemed to have reached a decision.
God, Edmund thought. He wanted to run his hands over his face. He was so tired. A part of him did want to go home, after all. Find the first ship back to England and bury himself underneath a soft blanket where he could sleep and sleep, shaking the dust off the last several years abroad. “I know that has always been your dream,” he said to Devraj. “You have worked hard towards it.”
“I will publish the paper under my name.”
“Yes, I know. You just said.”
“My uncle may send me out as early as tomorrow morning,” Edmund interrupted. “I should go and pack.” He grabbed his cane and left, finding that he did not want to hear what cold platitudes Devraj would have to say after all.
It did not seem he owned much. Soldiers traveled light when they were in the field, and Edmund had the long habit of being able to wrap up his few possessions into a single rucksack, where he placed his clothes, his razor, bullets, tools to clean his revolver, a book of fairy tales his sister had given him before he left England, a bottle of brandy, and some pieces of paper with a half-used pencil. When he was finished he found that he was devilish hungry, so he went into his chummery’s kitchen where the memsahib who had been hired to watch over him and his roommates had some roti to spare. He ate quickly and savagely, sitting in a corner with a cup of water drawn from the well to wash it down.
“Thank you,” he said afterwards. The memsahib said nothing.
He did not sleep well that night. His leg woke him several times throughout the night, and when he finally managed to fall into slumber the sun soaked through his windows, waking him up. The sounds of the other soldiers clattering about distracted him. He could hear them chatting with each other with their gruff, easy voices, their humming, their laughter. Edmund rolled out of bed and tried to work the kinks out of his leg using the exercises one physician he met had given him. He was not sure how much they helped, but they did give him a sense of purpose.
After breakfast a messenger came with a letter. Edmund opened it. He was to be reassigned to Calcutta, effective immediately.
Calcutta. Edmund knew very little about that place, but ah well, it stood to reason that he would learn. He had not known much about Lucknow when he first came to this city, freshly injured from battle where his aunt and uncle waited to receive him. Lucknow had been strange to him then, but it was not so anymore. It would be the same with Calcutta, he imagined. He had crossed an entire continent to be in India, a few more spans of land would hardly signify.
And then Devraj was standing at the entrance to his room, saying, “So this is where you live. Your mosquito nets are better than mine.”
Edmund blinked. He had not even heard Devraj approach and so was startled. “What are you doing here?” he said.
“What is that letter in your hand?” Devraj asked.
Edmund showed it to him. “Calcutta.”
“Calcutta,” Devraj echoed. “Very well then.”
“Are you here to see me off?” Edmund asked. He sat down on the edge of his bed and looked up at the sharp angles of Devraj’s face and the dark furrow of his eyebrows. “You know you do not need to.”
“I am publishing my paper under my name,” Devraj said.
“So you keep saying!” Edmund said. “Might I add, it is mighty heartless of you to keep prattling about it. Yes, your paper is important. It is your life’s work and I can’t begrudge you that, but I am leaving and never coming back. You might pretend to be a little more upset by that.” He regretted his words immediately. What a selfish arse he was. Devraj had been occupied by his work even before he met Edmund. He had built for himself a world and an entire life even before they first exchanged witticisms. Who was Edmund to tell him how to think and what to feel? He sighed. “Never mind,” he said. “Tell me more about your paper.”
Devraj was looking at him strangely, as if he thought Edmund an idiot. “I have decided to publish under my true name. Not a pseudonym after all. It is my work and I want to claim it.”
“All right,” Edmund said. “Fair enough.”
“I will be summarily dismissed from my post at St. Joseph’s, of course,” Devraj said. “Not right away, but once word trickles from England that I am the author of human evolutionary research, I do not think Mr. Sharpleton will tolerate a heretic teaching at the school. I also do not wish to be known as monkey-man by everyone I once cared for.” He tilted his head. “It may be prudent to make my home elsewhere for the time being.”
Edmund let out a breath. “Calcutta then.”
“It is a perfectly good city. Why not?” Devraj replied.
“You don’t have to come with me,” Edmund said. “I know just ten seconds earlier I was telling you that I wished you thought more of me, but that is just sentiment speaking and this is your life. You can’t make such a decision rashly.”
“I have four refutations to what you just claimed,” Devraj said. “Allow me to make them. Firstly, it was more than ten seconds ago. Secondly, I am a man of rational thinking and I do not let sentiment rule me. Thirdly, I do not have to do anything. I choose to. Fourthly…” he paused and looked awkward. “I think very much of you. I think of you all the time.”
“Oh,” Edmund said. “Even despite your rational thinking.”
“Let me tell you what is rational,” Devraj said quietly. “I can be miserable here or I can go and seek my future.” He stepped closer. “There may be new physicians in Calcutta with newer methods for the pain in your leg.”
“There may be poverty,” Edmund said. “There may be revolution. There may be torn mosquito nets and the two of us bickering all the time and every other piece of uncertainty.”
Devraj shrugged. “Progress,” he said lightly. “Now are you coming or are you not?”
He could hear his heart’s blood coursing through the paths beneath his skin, and somewhere in the distance summer was coming to an end. Clouds were gathering in the once spotless sky, deep and grey, and even further east than that there was a rush of cold rains that would break the heat, signalling the arrival of the monsoons and the season’s change.