“Ah. Here is a young man transfixed. Do you like Hunt, sir?”
“Do I like him?” Phil tore his eyes from the painting before him and marvelled at the stranger at his elbow. Like him? One might as well ask do you like Michaelangelo? Do you like Homer? Do you like the Alps?
He gestured somewhat wildly at the canvas. It was, naturally, a storm: an autumnal tangle of cloud, caught above a field with orange in its hedgerows, and as wild and grand and luminous as any of Hunt’s storms that Phil had seen. It seemed to fill the cheerful drawing-room in which it hung with the sharp scent of ether, seemed fit to burst the frame and douse all the notables of London society gathered there that afternoon – in the presence of a genuine masterpiece, and still somehow sitting for piquet and swapping scandal instead of stopping and staring.
Like all of Hunt’s storms, it seemed to half-drown Phil’s soul and leave it panting for air, exhilarated. “He is a genius,” he said, inadequately. “A genius.”
“A genius!” The stranger‘s eyes bulged. Phil recognised his type: the red-faced, rationalist wit in a wig – a relic from the previous century, always greedy for an opportunity to skewer the Folly of Youth. “Oh, Heavens preserve us from enthusiasts! These fashionable young puppies. All sensibility and no taste!”
They were beginning to attract general attention now: heads were turning; conversations were suspended to titter at the stranger’s showman-like air.
“I blame the Germans,” somebody said, in an sardonic tone – lighter than the first man’s bluster, but still threaded with disdain. “Goethe has given them a textbook for their extravagances, and fostered a whole generation of romantics-by-rote.”
Phil flushed, feeling – not for the first time in his twenty-three years – rather like a fox cornered by the hounds.
Taste! Would he never be free of it – this constant clamour over taste? What was taste? That false, cultivated moderation of manner; that cowardly tempering of natural feeling! Phil did not have it in him, never had: only a hunger – deep and wiry and untaught – for the world and the wonderful things in it. He approached everything, the pleasurable and the painful, with the same eager sincerity. He could not help it, and he could not hide it – even on occasions when he might have wished it otherwise, when he could feel his lack of reserve leading him towards indiscretion, or exposing him to ridicule.
At present – with such contemptible opposition and a Hunt actually before him – he had no such wish. Let them tear him to bloody rags. He would not submit.
“What,” he asked, hotly, “is so detestable about sensibility? Without sensibility there could be no art, no true art. Edmund Hunt has a finer sensibility than any artist in the country, and certainly more than me. And if it is bad taste to prefer his work to the stifled, insipid efforts of others more classically inclined then – then hang taste!”
“Hang taste!” the old man cried, eyes starting from his head. “I think I will hang taste – upon my walls, and you can hang your storms upon yours!”
Phil glowered, uncertain that the witticism had either made much sense or been particularly amusing. But it had been said in the practiced cadence of a joke, and raised a ripple of laughter.
The man who had spoken about Goethe did not laugh. He was not the wig-wearing snuff-and-vinegar type, not at all; he was – he was something quite different. He had only a decade or so on Phil, and more than a head in height; he was probably the tallest man in the room, with a lofty brow and spare, patrician features. But what a singular countenance! Knowing, satirical, strange. Thin, mobile lips that twitched upwards at the corner, as though always on the verge of amusement; deep lines in the cheeks that might, in a less imposing face, have been called dimples, but here were somehow grand, sculptural.
Phil found himself oddly struck. He could not seem to keep from staring.
The man’s own gaze, meanwhile, was fixed on the painting – looking past Phil, as though he were quite beneath his notice.
“A genius?” he said, quietly. “Really? You do not find them a little – trite?”
“Trite!” Phil could have dropped his glass: he actually felt it slip between fingers shocked numb.
“Storm after storm – he begins to lose his novelty, does he not? No? Well, look, you must at least admit that the composition of this one is irredeemably weak: there ought to be a side screen here, to balance the perspective, but that hay-wain is barely sketched in, and–“
Now the crowd was all murmurs of admiration for the tall man and glittering, gleeful glances for Phil. He felt them, and knew abstractly that he was considered defeated, cast down – the most abominable fool. But still he hovered above the reach of any humiliation. He was incandescent with the complacent anger of a martyr at the stake. Laugh, he thought. You simply do not understand. I pity you.
“You will not change my mind, sir,” he said, serene despite the heat in his cheeks. “Some people are capable of comprehending such things, and some people are not.”
“No, indeed.” The tall man’s voice was wry. “And this touching display of devotion plainly demonstrates upon which side of the divide you stand.”
There was a pleased bubble of laughter: Phil’s hubris was considered sufficiently rewarded, and the knot of interest began to break up and drift apart. In amongst the movement Phil glimpsed his mother’s sprightly, resolute step and felt a flutter of relief, more than ready to be required elsewhere – the punch-bowl, the piquet table, anywhere that this tall, smirking critic was not.
She drew up to the pair of them and flashed a smile of such blithe radiance that Phil could be certain she had seen nothing of the confrontation. He came by his disposition honestly: his mother had been born in the age of reason, but her temperament was in the new style. She prized sensibility and natural feeling above all else; she balked at concealment; if she was capable of despising anything, then it was falsity and convention. Her eagerness of spirit, her refusal of moderation – these were her most cherished attributes, and she had encouraged all signs of the same in her four children. Phil was the youngest and perhaps the most like her but every one of them exhibited flashes of the family vivacity, just as they had all inherited their mother’s looks: dark hair, large black eyes, a rosy complexion. Freckles in the summer. A treacherously candid countenance.
She did read Goethe. They all did. Except for The Right Honourable the Earl Cavendish, who mostly read the gazette, and had always seemed amiably bemused to find himself sharing a house with a flock of fresh-faced tempests.
“Darling Phil!” she was saying now, rather inexplicably. “How delighted I am for you!” And then she turned to Phil’s adversary, and continued to be inexplicable. “Oh, Mr Hunt,” she said, “you must pardon my intrusion, but I am afraid that I could not restrain myself. I had the privilege of seeing your new works at the Academy last week. Breath-taking! Quite breath-taking!”
Phil felt the floor waver under him, like the surface of the sea.
“Hunt–” he said, softly, emptily. “You–“
All his self-righteous serenity, all his precious indignation – it all vanished in an instant, and he was dropped into a boiling sea of humiliation.
“I see that you have already made the acquaintance of my son,” his mother continued, gaily, “so you will not mind my impertinence in approaching, I am sure.” She inclined her head towards the man – towards Hunt – in the manner of one imparting the most charming secret. “Philip is an ardent admirer of your work.”
The painter was looking down at a spot on the floor, appearing to be in some conference with himself – some private, and deeply amusing conference.
“Yes,” he said, mouth twisting with tucked-away mirth. “He appears to prize my efforts far more highly than I do myself. But then I find that I am rather in vogue amongst the young and stylish at present.”
Phil heard the words as though from very far away, as though through water. He was being called a dupe. An affected dupe. By Edmund Hunt. It was as if the Florentine David had turned and laughed at him. As if God had spoken to him in the middle of mass, and told him that he was doing it all wrong.
He opened his mouth, but no words came to his lips: no words formed in his mind.
“I think that you are the first person here today to recognise me, ma’am, and you have me at a disadvantage,” Hunt was saying now, gracing Phil’s mother with a low bow – almost parodically low – “I must demand that you rectify the imbalance, sir.”
Phil realised dully that he was being addressed, and made mechanical reply: “Allow me to introduce my mother, Her Ladyship, the Countess Cavendish.”
“Ah. Which must make you The Honourable Philip Cavendish – storm-fancier and gallant defender of the arts. There, we have stumbled our way through the introductions fairly painlessly. What now?”
Now, if there was any mercy in this world, Phil took his leave and went to stare blankly into the punchbowl till it was time to head for home.
“Now, Mr Hunt,” his mother said, pleased, affectionate, and utterly irrepressible – and suddenly Phil could see the next sequence of events rolling out ahead of him with the hideous inexorability of nightmare – “you come and sit with us and tell us all about your art.”
The next twenty minutes passed Phil by in a close and heated whirl. His mother’s circle of friends peppered the artist with questions and were answered with a kind of detached amusement. Phil was still so sunk in confusion that he gained a very scanty understanding of the words; his eyes were fixed on the floor. But he could feel it – that air of bored tolerance. It radiated from the man.
“And do you never paint figures?” Some ever-hopeful mama, wanting her fleet of marriageable daughters immortalised.
“Not anymore; not if I can help it. I have never found a subject I could stick with. I always find myself no more than half-way through and utterly fed up – with them and with myself.”
“You have never found a model worthy of you, you mean!” A game old dowager, with an air of roguery.
“Well, I confess to a modicum of egotism on the subject – I am yet to meet anybody that I should like to have my name tied to for life. After all, Mr Edmund Hunt, Painter of Storms has a rather finer ring than Mr Edmund Hunt, Painter of Lord and Lady Such-and-Such upon the Acquisition of a new Water-Spaniel.”
“And will you have another show at the end of the summer?” Could have been anybody. God, Phil wanted to go home.
At this last inquiry, Hunt’s air of levity dimmed a little. When Phil stole a glance at him, those refined features seemed to betray some genuine discontentment.
“I dare not speculate,” Hunt said. “Storms make for vexingly unpredictable sitters. The number I lost last year purely because I was unprepared when they broke! I spent all summer fighting my way to the top of hills, and trying to set up camp in the middle of typhoons – only for them to clear the instant I was done, leaving me with a blank and soggy canvas.”
Phil saw an eager, beatific light come into his mother’s face and knew, at once, exactly what she would say next. In an instant that nightmare feeling was back again, and fast approaching screaming point. Oh, Lord, he thought. No. Don’t–
“Unpredictable!” she said, with bright fervency. “Now here is something interesting: my Philip does not find them so, not at all. He is the best barometer imaginable – predicts every rainfall, almost to the hour! Is that not right, Phil?”
That radiant amusement intensified. “You amaze me. While I would never wish to question Your Ladyship’s word, I feel bound to observe that he does not much resemble a barometer.”
More like a storm cloud, Phil imagined, and tried to chase the tense misery from his aspect. Not that Hunt would take notice – Phil did not think the man had deigned to look squarely upon him even once.
“No indeed,” Lady Cavendish was replying, all affectionate pride. “But it is the truth, sir. He feels them, in his shoulder. An old wound – it pains him, every time. His sensibility is quite remarkable.”
“Oh, most remarkable,” Hunt said, smiling into his glass. “And how does one pick up such a useful wound? Duelling, I suppose? Avenging somebody’s artistic honour?”
Phil sat there, wretched, wishing that the ground would crack open and swallow him whole.
Somebody with a very loud voice spared him the need for reply by seizing control of the conversation: “Oh, every third person believes they have an ache that foretells the future. I remember Addison had the most diverting piece on it in The Spectator…”
It seemed, for almost ten whole minutes, as though the worst was over, and now they would all be bored into blissful stupefaction, Phil quite forgotten.
But it appeared that Fortune was not done with him yet – and she was in a whimsical humour. Just as he was sitting there, beginning to breathe again, he felt it: the dull, nerve-deep, insistent pulse of pain. So familiar now, and yet that first dense throb of it was always so sudden it stole his breath, so singular it turned his stomach. As though somebody had struck a gong somewhere within him, a gong that sang out pain instead of sound.
Phil stared at the rug and tried to keep it from his face, but that ringing, juddering wrongness inside him was ever too much to conceal. He felt his mother’s attention, and knew that he had not succeeded.
“Ah!” she said, delighted. “Ah, Mr Hunt, I believe that the fit is upon him as we speak! There will be rain within two hours, I would wager anything upon it. Is that not right, Phil? You do feel it, don’t you?”
She sounded so tickled to be here at the centre of her group of worthy ladies, entertaining a man of renown, with a son to show off – to elevate in front of his idol, no less. God. “Yes, Mama,” Phil said. “I did feel a slight twinge. But whether that should necessarily signify–“
“Rain.” His mother folded her hands before her with complete satisfaction. “In two hours. You shall see, sir.”
And over the aching of his shoulder, Phil felt something new – the chilly liquid sensation of being regarded. He dared to raise his gaze and found Hunt’s eyes upon him: bright, intent, astonishingly penetrating – sharp with amusement and an undisguisedly sceptical interest.
“Shall I?” said the Painter of Storms. “Yes, I suppose that I shall.”
At that moment – thank God, thank God – a couple of young ladies across the room began suddenly to clamour for dancing, and some obliging person was sent to the pianoforte to strike up The Bishop of Ely’s Fancy. Phil could have kissed all three of them, and the Bishop of Ely too, impropriety be damned. He could have proposed, thrice over.
“I ought not to be sitting about complaining of aches,” he said. “There are ladies who need partners.” And he made his exit, rather abruptly, before things could get any more mortifying.
He spent the remainder of the assembly hot and starting, acutely aware of one tall, superior presence: Edmund Hunt, a handful of feet away – inches, sometimes, when they passed each other in the set – moving with a smooth and careless elegance.
Phil had never danced so poorly in his life. He had never been more pleased to quit a party.
One half-hour after his escape, and London was in storm.
One half-hour after that, and a very bedraggled messenger from Bloomsbury was standing on the doorstep. Mr Edmund Hunt, the Painter of Storms, would be lodging in the country for a few months, and would be most obliged if The Hon. Philip Cavendish – and his remarkable shoulder – would consider joining him for a spell. He found himself in need of a barometer.
“It is a joke,” Phil said, through gritted teeth, the note crumpled in his hand – hating to pour cold water on the glowing raptures of his mother, but simply unable to bear it any longer. “A joke. He is poking fun at my enthusiasm. I shall be the sporting-stock of Bloomsbury if I make an answer of any kind, even to decline.”
“Oh! Do not say so, Phil! It is not like you to be cynical.”
Phil scuffed at the rug with a resentful toe. “He is cynical. It is not an earnest proposition, Mama.”
But his mother was quite decided to be enchanted by the whole affair, and there was no fighting her. “It is a great honour and a wonderful opportunity. You adore his work, for heaven’s sake! If you pass this up because you are afraid of looking a little foolish, you will regret it the rest of your life.”
If the painter was surprised to have his invitation so guilelessly accepted, then he did not show it, not in writing, and not when Phil stepped down from the carriage into the Kentish sunshine, blinking and wary. Edmund Hunt had probably never shown surprise in his life – had probably never deigned to experience any feeling beyond a mild ironical derision for everything about him.
It made him an astonishingly agreeable host.
Phil had spent the first few days in an agony of formality, desperate not to please, exactly – he was still too scalded to wish for that – but to avoid appearing any more ridiculous before the greatest painter of the age. But this uncharacteristic reserve could not long withstand Hunt’s constant air of implacable levity, his rakish practicality. He drank, he smoked, and he painted, with tolerable cheer and very little ceremony. It was obvious that he usually did all three quite alone.
He paid so little regard to propriety – seemed so uniformly amused by all attempts towards it – that one could not help but follow suit. Before long Phil was doing things he would never have dreamed of anywhere else without a second thought – spending whole days in his shirtsleeves, lounging about in the sunlit chaos of Hunt’s painting-room with his boots on the couch, taking his luncheon sat cross-legged on the floorboards.
He could probably have come down to dinner entirely naked and received nothing more than the barest glance, the slightest quirk of the painter’s lip. He was almost tempted to try it: for all the time that Phil was passing poking curiously around his studio like a particularly starry-eyed cat, it sometimes seemed as though Hunt had forgotten his presence altogether. Until an ache would begin to brew in his shoulder and he was gasping out a warning, that is: then they would instantly be heading out to the hill beyond the house, Phil steadying the vast umbrella while Hunt pulled lightning from the sky and pinned it down in paint.
When the skies were bright and bare, he could have cleared out, and sometimes did – went riding on a borrowed horse or walked aimlessly about, admiring the sun-bleached countryside. But he found that he preferred to hang about Hunt, chattering idly to the man as he turned studies into masterpieces.
There was something perversely exciting – galvanic, almost – about the artist’s consistently unruffled demeanour: he was so difficult to impress, to interest, that when Phil managed it – won a look, a genuine laugh – it felt monumental, like the most thrilling reward. It could have his blood singing with victory for hours afterward.
And, of course, there was the work. Exquisite. Irrefutable. He spent whole days in dazzled fascination, watching from the corner of his eye as the Edmund Hunt put paint to canvas.
But still, there were some moments where it all suddenly felt – odd. Unsettling. Had Phil itching with a queer species of dissatisfaction.
He had felt it before at home, at school, at parties, all throughout his life: that hunger inside him suddenly twisting, becoming scratchy and desperate, filling him with a painful yearning for something grand and wonderful that he could not name, could not even imagine. Something more. He had felt it before, but it had never afflicted him quite so strongly, so regularly as it did here in Hunt’s house; had never had him so hollow and jumpy and snappish as he was this morning, perched on the edge of the studio’s expansive couch, listening to the slick sweep of brush against canvas, and feeling his nerves draw tight.
“Restless, are we?”
Phil was so out of sorts that Hunt’s words made him jump. When he replied, his own pettish tone astonished him: “No.”
“Capital,” Hunt said, mildly. “You can stop doing that, then,”
Phil flushed, and did not need to ask “doing what?”; he had been bouncing the heels of his boots up and down above the floorboards, setting his knees shivering. It had made no noise, or none that he could hear, and he had not had any notion that Hunt was marking the tiny movement.
He stilled all over, like a mouse under the shadow of a hawk.
“Doing what?” he said, after all, more guiltily than he would have liked.
Hunt laughed down at his palette. He had such a nice laugh, Phil thought, abstractly and not for the first time, a sort of velvet rasp. Worn and warmer than he might have guessed. It struck him, suddenly, that though he had seen Hunt smile in London – though Hunt seemed to have spent the whole blasted evening smiling – Phil had never heard him laugh there.
“I want storms,” Hunt said. “Not earthquakes. Those you may keep.”
Phil continued to hold very still and stared at the floor between his boots, skin prickling first with a sense of chagrin, and then with something else – a kind of haughty indignation, unaccountably keen and quite irrepressible.
“I am sorry,” he heard himself say, “that I cannot call you up a storm. I do not control them, you know.” As soon as the words were out, he could not help marvelling a little at them; at his nerve, his discomposure – quick, even by his standards.
Hunt only laughed again, blessedly unperturbed. “Your powers of prediction are miraculous enough: I do not actually expect you to whistle up tempests, like my very own Ariel. Though you do rather make me feel as though I have pegged you here to do my bidding, with all your fidgeting and fretting. I am sorry for it.” His voice turned ruminative. “What would you being doing now, I wonder, if I hadn’t dragged you away from your season? Expending all of that energy on quadrilles? Chattering with your fellow sprites till four in the morning? Kicking up a lark in Kensington Gardens? Or would you be just as trapped and fractious, and making some poor élégante’s salon floorboards shudder? You must upset a devil of a lot of teacups.”
Phil frowned. The man’s tone was gentler than he might have expected, certainly gentler than it had been in London – friendly, almost fond. And yet the words had not been so pleasing. “You make my life sound rather … I do not know.” Ridiculous. “Trivial. Tedious.”
“Do you not find it so? There is a big wide world out there, Phil, beyond the drawing-room, particularly for somebody with all of your advantages.”
Another pang of that strange, guilty yearning, and this time it brought with it a cold tickle of fear: the fear that Hunt might be right, and that nebulous something more was out there, beyond the limits of Phil’s life, and he had simply never ventured out to find it. Had instead spent twenty-three years sitting in the desert, idiotically longing for rain. The thought made him shiver; it made him bristle.
He leapt to his feet and stalked across the room a little aimlessly, trying to escape it.
“What,” he asked, hotly, “is so very wrong with drawing-rooms? Where would we all gather to talk of your incomparable talents if it were not for drawing-rooms? You would be on the street, if it were not for the London drawing-room.”
Hunt seemed near to delighted by this. “Well, spirit! You are in a mood this morning – charmingly contrary. Capricious as a kitten. If somebody had told me after our first encounter that I should someday hear that scowling young romantic defending the tedium of the London drawing-room, I should never have believed them. But that was before I realised that you have quicksilver for blood. What shall I say next, just for the pleasure of hearing you deny it so passionately? That I am dull and hideous and lacking in talent? It would please me to hear you scoldingly tell me what a handsome genius I am.”
He had called Hunt a genius before, hadn’t he? He had meant it entirely. So why did the memory have Phil’s face warm and his stomach lurching? Like a debutante shamed for flirting.
“I am neither capricious, nor contrary – or I do not mean to be,” he said, and if he sounded cross, plaintive – well, that was how he felt. “I really do believe the things I say, as muddled as they are. I am not striking poses.”
“No, I do not believe you are.” Hunt’s reply was slow, disarmingly serious. “Now that I know you, I can hardly understand how I ever thought you capable of such a thing.”
Phil was silent for a moment, standing before the empty fireplace and turning this one over in his mind; he felt that he might, just possibly, be being praised, but it was difficult to be certain.
Hunt seemed willing to continue the conversation alone. “That is why it troubles me to think of you shut up in a ballroom for the rest of your days, surrounded by mannequins.” He sighed. “There is life enough even in London, Phil, if one knows where to look. It need not all be – champagne and chaperones.”
Oh. So that was what he was driving at. Libertinism. Phil fixed his eyes on the grate, embarrassed, and embarrassed to be embarrassed. He was not actually a blushing debutante! He was not a child! Perhaps he was not rakish enough to impress in Bloomsbury, but he was not a total stranger to the red-lanterned doorway or the gaming-hell’s permissive public rooms: he had enough experience of women to be considered a man of the world, surely! And as for the – more outré inclinations of the artistic set, the arrangements he had heard whispered of that did not include women at all, or only included women– Well, he had been to Eton, and then on to Cambridge. He had done all of the usual things, and heard tell of much more. He would hardly be shocked— “I’m not– I know. Just because I do not constantly court scandal, it does not follow that I am a total innocent. I–”
He stopped, closed his mouth on the words with a snap and stared vaguely at the fender. He need not defend himself on that score to a man he had known for less than a month; in fact, it would be most irregular to do so, would be courting genuine impropriety.
Besides, he remained unconvinced. His brief brushes with debauchery had been fun – for both parties, he dared to hope – but never anything more, never that life-altering, lightning-strike connexion that he had read about in books.
And the other thing – those long-ago post-practice clinches, floorboards under his knees, companionable fingers in his hair, a pleasant burn in his lungs and his mouth kept busy– Well, he had hardly thought of it for years. Why was he thinking of it now? He banished it uneasily from his mind: they were speaking of Bloomsbury, not College and cricket pavilions. “Is there really so much more life among your libertines? It seems to me that there is no more of – well, the things that matter. The only difference is that the drink is slightly stronger and the clothes far fewer.”
Hunt laughed, and though Phil was pleased again to hear it, he had not intended to provoke it, not really – or not at the expense of his point. That was part of the problem with Hunt’s set, he realised abruptly, as though uncovering it – that sense, always, of detached flippancy. Their vaunted liberty was not accompanied by any increase in naturalness; everything must always be half in jest, must stay dry and impressive and oh-so-clever. Even Phil, in his limited dalliances, had tried his best to avoid any sign of mortifying over-investment or earnestness – had felt always that he was simply rehearsing some kind of role.
Hunt finished laughing. “The things that matter?” he asked, and though Phil was not facing him, he could imagine the twitch of mirth still around his lips.
“Well.” Phil looked at the fireplace, the framed etching of some Italian ruin that hung above it. The morning light drew out a faint reflection of the room in the glass: all dim, watery shapes and flashes of movement. He could just make out himself, face pale, eyes huge and dark. He looked odd, dreamlike, something deep and desperate in his indistinct countenance. “I don’t know. Fellowship. Feeling. Splendour.” He found that he could not look at that intense, wavering young man as he said it – could not meet his strange and fathomless eyes. He looked down at the smooth stone of the mantlepiece instead, at his own fingers against it. “Love.”
Hunt laughed again, and though the noise was still so pleasant, this time Phil felt himself shrink beneath it.
“Love?” the other man said, with an air of incredulity. Phil could no longer hear the whisper of brush upon canvas: with this new piece of idiocy he might very well have shocked his host from his employment. He could not bear to turn round and check. “And is there so much love in a London ballroom?”
“It happens, does it not?” Phil said, eyes still fixed on the mantel and voice less certain than he would have liked. “My sister will be married in the new year, and she first met her betrothed in a ballroom.”
“And she is in love, is she?”
It was said as though the very notion of love were ludicrous. Perhaps Hunt did find it so, Phil thought, and felt – in another of those inexplicable, all-encompassing flashes of feeling – not only foolish, but something sharper and deeper. Wounded, somehow. Wary and defensive, like a kicked dog.
He thought of his sister – twenty-seven, single, sharp-tongued and spiky – suddenly spending entire evenings staring at an unremarkably pleasant fellow as though he were the only other person in the room. How the most passing mention of his name would be enough to put a redness in her cheeks and a brightness in her eye. The occasions over the past few months when Phil had caught her standing around the house with a strange, distant smile on her face, as though listening to a strain of sweet and silent music.
“I do not know,” he said, irritable, and then, in a hot little burst of indignant courage: “Yes. I think that she is.”
When he dared to dart a quick look at the painter, he was smiling indulgently down at his canvas.
“Well,” Hunt said, “I hope so.”
If Phil had felt kicked before, now he was being patted on the head. He liked it even less.
The scratch of the paintbrush had started up again, and Hunt was still talking. “You are very convincing, Phil,” he was saying, and Phil could hear the amused smile still in his voice. “But I simply do not understand how somebody like you can breathe at those things. They make one feel quite lungless, like some kind of blasted marionette. If only it were the done thing to simply send along one’s finest set of clothes and a list of the scandalous nothings one wished to impart, and have done with the rest! It would save the body and brain an entirely wasted evening.”
The image was comical, or nearly comical. It had the cadence of things people said in company when they were trying to establish themselves as wits. But it did not persuade Phil in the slightest: he refused to let it persuade him.
“But you cannot possibly mean that!” he said. “I have seen you dance, and dance so well! You maintain that you do not enjoy it at all? That it was purely mechanical?”
Hunt did not look up, but he did still, his brush poised a hair’s breadth from the canvas, as though considering his next move. “Well,” he said, finally, still sounding amused – and something else, impressed or surprised or pleased, “perhaps I should send my feet along as well, so that I may dance. I should not like to deprive the world of a sight so greatly admired.”
Phil felt that fiery gush of shame come over him again, as fierce as ever, and twice as incomprehensible. He had hardly slipped into extravagance – certainly not by his own standards – and Hunt had said nothing to censure him – or not exactly – and yet, he could not shake the familiar queasiness that accompanied unintended indiscretion. The suspicion that his damned frankness had broken forth again and laid him bare somehow, to ridicule or to danger.
He was embarrassed, and the slippery irrationality of this embarrassment perplexed and frightened him: he felt suddenly as though he were playing a game of blindman’s buff in rough terrain, and could hear all about him the eager intake of breath that meant he was about to stumble into difficulty. And so that he would not be left standing there with his shoulders tensed, feeling hot and afraid, he leapt away from it all and took refuge in a species of sulky irritation.
“And I suppose,” he said, voice coming out louder and sharper than he had intended, “that the rest of your body will be across town in Bloomsbury, enjoying itself and disdaining everything. Or perhaps you can save effort there too, and only send the necessaries: I imagine you can get by at those evenings with no more than your spleen and your cock.”
Hunt dropped his paintbrush. The wooden handle rattled against the floorboards.
He cursed and bent swiftly to recover it. Phil heard his rash words hanging in the air between them: his entire face burned with regret – he must be pink to the roots of his hair – and he began to make a stammering apology.
But when Hunt straightened up and turned to him, his eyes were bright with interest and amusement. Bending over must have sent a rush to his head for there was the slightest bloom to his cheeks, a decorous and becoming answer to Phil’s own hectic colouring – like a rebuke, or an echo.
“That,” Hunt said, punctuating it with a pleased point of his recovered brush, “is very droll, Phil. A beautiful point, and well made. I may have to steal it.”
The thought of Hunt repeating his words to a group of his clever, smirking friends, at the kind of party to which Phil was not invited – the whole lot of them laughing dryly – Phil half a city away, standing about in some ballroom, waiting for something: Phil felt a near painful twist in his gut, like sickness. He felt, obscurely, that by couching his words in the language of those acid witticisms he had somehow betrayed his point, had cheapened himself.
“But I was not trying to be droll!” he burst out, overcome so suddenly by a feeling so close to anguish that it seemed set to knock him over. Hardly knowing what he did, he dropped heavily into the sofa and put his head in his hands, pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. Strange interior light – fuzzy clouds of purple and green – bloomed and whirled behind his closed lids as he tried to sort through his thoughts.
Why could he not make himself understood? Why did this failure seem so vital, so wrenching? Why did he care whether Hunt thought him risible, childish, irredeemably naïve? Why on earth was he so invested in winkling out a glimmer of sincerity from the man? Was his work not his work – vital, astonishing – no matter what, no matter whether the artist thought life a dry and disappointing series of absurd trivialities?
That was not what life was, was it? Phil knew that, did he not? There were bigger things, grander things – things to come. They would come. Why did he need Hunt, specifically, to believe in them?
“Phil?” Hunt’s voice was light but wary, as though addressing a half-feral animal, ready to be snapped at.
It occurred to Phil that he was acting more like a lunatic than ever: he must have been sat there in silence for near a minute. He looked up, hoping he did not appear as frantic as he felt. The shadow of alarmed consternation in Hunt’s keen eyes was not encouraging, nor was the way he started up and made speedily to Phil’s side. “My dear fellow! Forgive me. I am accustomed to conversing with people of quite a different composition! You were entirely right in your anatomisation of my set – particularly astutely, you left out any ears. We all talk to ourselves without heeding a word any of the others say. I certainly did not intend to upset you.”
There was still an air of marvelling amusement to his words, as though Phil were some charming oddity. Phil felt like an oddity – felt clumsy and alien, like he had been striving to make himself understood in a language that he had only the barest grasp of for hours and had been left empty-handed and exhausted.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I did not intend to take on so – I never intend to. I know it is not rational.” He laughed weakly. Lord, he felt light-headed. What was wrong with him? He had always been deeply feeling, passionate, even, or – he forced himself to think the word, though it drove another squirming spike of humiliation through him – enthusiastic, but it was not usually like this, never so wild and strange, not for years. Like being a blasted undergraduate again.
“What is my composition?” he asked, looking up at Hunt with an abashed smile. “I dread to think. All nerves and no brain?”
Hunt gave him one of those infrequent searching looks, and smiled. He reached out and laid a hand upon Phil’s shoulder, fingers pressed against the place where his waistcoat and shirt hid the silvery twist of scar tissue, and gave him a firm little shake, comforting and cajoling.
“All heart,” he said. “All hope.”
His voice was wry, but his aspect was softer than was usual; his words sounded less satirical than Phil might have expected. “It is rather singular,” Hunt continued. “An anatomical marvel. I do not know that I have ever seen the like.”
Phil suspected that he was being indulged, but he was too exhausted to feel indignation at the notion. He huffed out another laugh and put a grateful hand over Hunt’s where it rested on his shoulder. The artist’s fingers were cool, and surprisingly fine and soft beneath his own, only rough in patches with dried smudges of oil-paint. “An anatomical catastrophe, you mean.” He sighed. “If I am incapable of growing a brain, I must endeavour, at least, to cultivate a thicker skin.”
“Oh, Christ,” Hunt said. “Do not do that, Phil, not on my account. That would be the most pernicious stroke of my entire wretched life.” And though that ever-present ironical tone still clung to his words, Phil fancied that there was the flicker of something else in his face – regret, almost, or realisation. He pulled his hand away, out of Phil’s grasp, and gave him a light, jocular slap on the back. “You are too fine for such careless handling, that is all.”
With each passing day the summer seemed steadily to grow, thicker and hotter, until July was unfurling itself before them with an almost obscene luxuriance – fat and sweet and full of storms.
Crossing the meadowland that led up to Hunt’s vantage-point, laden with canvas and umbrella, was like pushing through a close maze. The grass was in a fever of growth – up to Phil’s waist now and spongy underfoot, threaded with gorses, harebells, swaying purple foxgloves, tiny white star-like things whose name Phil did not know. Bees were ambling irresolutely between them like bashful suitors: one of them – round and soft – bumped briefly against his cheek as he passed, making him laugh.
Hunt turned back to look at him and smiled.
Eventually the ground inclined, and they were bursting out of the grass and mounting the hill. This part of the journey always felt like a revelation, the sky suddenly yawning open before them, brand-new every time. Today it was bright and blue, and banked with slow-moving cloud: the sun still peeked through, lighting up a thick white slab of the stuff.
Phil set down his burdens in the grass, then surrendered to the impulse to throw himself down as well to drink in the view: he let Hunt laugh at him, feeling warm and magnanimous.
That brightness – so bright that he could not look for long, had to close his eyes against the glare – touched off a vague chime of concern. It was glorious, certainly, but not particularly – tempestuous. He sat up and rubbed idly at the dull ache in his shoulder.
“It is not the most promising of skies,” he said to Hunt, unable to keep the apologetic note from his voice. “I shall be sorry to have dragged you out here for naught.”
He rolled his shoulder experimentally. The ache was definitely, insistently there: the movement sent little bolts of discomfort squirming right through him, made him want to set his forehead against something and whimper. Since the only available surface would have been the back of Hunt’s thigh, Phil quashed the notion. “Perhaps I simply slept awkwardly?”
Hunt was setting up his easel, but spared a glance for the sky. “It will come. I trust you entirely.”
Phil chewed at his lip and squinted out over the fields. “Well, look, the cows are lying down ready for rain, so we shall all be embarrassed together if it stays settled fair all afternoon.”
“It is touching, the way you defer to your fellow philosopher,” Hunt said, and Phil could hear his smile. “Perhaps I should simply have invited a cow to stay with me – although I do not think it would make such a charming house-guest.”
Charming, Phil thought, and felt the heat of the sun upon his face. More charming than a cow. How little approbation it took to make one happy, when the sun was shining like this and the air was rich with the smell of baked grass and bright flecks of pollen were dancing in a haze over the wavering sedge. “A cow almost certainly would not set up your umbrella for you. Here, I will leave the lying around to the professionals and earn my keep.”
By the time Phil had finished wrestling with the umbrella, things were beginning to look reassuringly dramatic: the clouds were expanding at a rate of knots, blooming, turning to a deep velvety grey – soft and swollen with rain.
He let out a breath of relief at the sight, and then he was catching it again, because a great gust had struck him in the back and rolled past, down through the field, sending the grasses into rippling fits: pollen burst free in one vast puff and was blown away.
Wind whipped through Phil’s coat and set his hair fluttering against his forehead. For a second, he felt a rush of community, of vitality; for a second, even the pain in his shoulder felt grand and wonderful, like a blessing. As though the immense power humming in the air above them had touched him too – as though it was reaching inside him, bringing him into sympathy with everything around him, all that infinite, teeming life.
The first patter of rain against the umbrella broke his dizzy spell of awe and brought him back to himself: he must have reached out without any conscious thought, for his fingers were gripping tightly at Hunt’s sleeve. Phil turned to him and grinned – feeling vindicated, triumphant, exultant.
Hunt was looking back at him, and he must have been struck by that same upswell of feeling because he was smiling too – a small and private thing, so soft in his sardonic face that it was almost startling.
They stood there for a moment, smiling at each other, delighted with their storm.
Then the world seemed to spasm: a dazzling shot of lightning lit the sky for an instant, turning everything stark as an etching. Hunt started and looked to his easel. Phil let him go and fixed his eyes on the display above them.
The flash had taken him by surprise; it must have, because he could feel his heart leaping in his throat. He watched the clouds continue to roll across the sky in something of a stupor, spirit thrilling to every trembling crack of thunder.
Beside him, Hunt pulled out a handkerchief – the wind caught at it instantly, tearing it from his hand and sending it tumbling. It settled on the grass a few feet ahead them for just a second, folds fluttering, then another flurry snatched at it, and it was away down the hill.
Phil was vaguely aware of Hunt’s oath of amused resignation, but he heard it from behind him: he was already off at a dash, boots slipping on the sodden grass.
The force of the rain against his face was remarkable, each drop striking him hard and then so instantly melting away, like a firm caress. Phil threw an arm above his head, squinting after that sprightly scrap of white as it soared and dipped and paused, again and again, always just out of reach. Then the wind changed direction coquettishly, throwing the kerchief back over his head in the direction he had come: it had Phil stumbling as he turned, throwing out a hand to catch himself against the muddy ground and laughing.
Finally – almost before he was ready to stop – he caught up to his quarry; his fingers closed around sopping fabric, sending yet more water streaming down his wrist and into the sleeve of his coat, and he felt a simple glow of victory in his chest.
He was drenched, his hair and coat dripping – but there was so much water in the air that it hardly seemed to matter. He stood there quite happily – lit up with his triumph, his blood hot with the chase – and caught his breath, looking up to see how the storm was developing.
Cloud filled the sky now – a great bulging mass, riven with fleeting and brilliant threads of lightning.
An indistinct sound was audible from the top of the hill. Phil turned: Hunt, waving his arm above his head, shouting something.
Phil raised his own arm in answer, exhibiting his prize with some pride, and started the slippery scramble back to the summit.
As soon as he had staggered close enough, Hunt was reaching out and dragging him back under the safety of the umbrella by the arm: Phil stumbled wearily against his shoulder and leaned there for a second, huffing out a spent laugh into the soft fabric of his coat.
Under the shelter, the rain sounded different – a persistent clatter – and Phil could see again. He drew back to a more respectable distance, and found his companion looking down at him with a kind of wild amusement in his eyes. Phil grinned back, open-mouthed and panting, blinking the last of the rain out of his lashes.
“You lunatic!” Even at such close quarters, Hunt had to shout to be heard, his deep voice no match for the drumming of the rain.
Phil just laughed again, still breathless, and held out the wet twist of fabric, “Here!” he said, pressed it clumsily into Hunt’s dry hand with a tired arm. “I hope that you have some fondness for this one!”
“I was just about to dirty it irreparably on my brushes!” Hunt’s voice had a laugh caught in it, and his hand was shockingly warm where it closed around Phil’s own. “You have made me ashamed of my careless ways. Now I think I shall dig my rags out of the basket, and let it remain unsullied.”
They were pressed so close that they were almost sharing breath, and Hunt was still looking at him with an expression of delighted astonishment – as though Phil were some intriguing curiosity, or an ingenious display of fireworks. The scrutiny threw Phil into a fit of self-consciousness: he flushed, suddenly aware of the clinging fabric of his clothes, the mess of his collar, the trickle of water from his hair, rolling down his cheeks and tickling at his clavicle.
His chest still heaved from the exertion, and without the exercise warming his blood he could feel the beginnings of a shiver.
“Christ Almighty, Phil,” Hunt said, his voice quieter, distracted: Phil had to drop his gaze to his mouth to be certain of his words. “You are wet through. Mad thing.”
Then he smiled, bigger than any that Phil had seen on him before – a brilliant flash across his face. As if in answer to it, the storm rang out a rumble of thunder. For a moment he seemed so different. That demeanour of cultivated triviality, that sense of languid detachment – it had all fallen away, and left him looking vivid and regal, a wild light in his remarkable eyes. Suddenly he too seemed a part of the landscape, as though the storm were raging around him, his presence – so still and solid, and yet full of the promise of fluid, graceful strength. Phil could feel it in his hand, the sure dexterity of his fingers where they were still tight around his own.
Something else had fallen away, Phil realised, distantly: that heavy ache that had been in him all morning was gone, quite gone, and he felt right again – could move, could breathe without it catching at him. Everything felt right, felt so grand and immense; the air smelt fresh and so clean. Electric.
He gripped at Hunt’s hand, shivering. It seemed for a moment that he was poised on the brink of something, some grand revelation, something immense and vital that was pushing at the edges of his consciousness. He had never felt anything like it, this concentrated sense of promise: it was almost like fear – his heart pounded; the hair at his nape stood on end – but it could not be fear, not when his spirit was so eager, so hungry for it.
For an instant, the world seemed to press against him, stark and real and immediate, and full of measureless possibility. Was this it, that thing he had been wanting? What was it? A brush of the sublime? Of inspiration? Did artists feel like this all the time? What came next?
He stared up at Hunt – giddy, helpless, waiting.
Hunt took a short, sharp breath – it seemed to steal the air from between them, to leave Phil’s lungs empty – and then something shifted behind his clear eyes, an idea or a flash of feeling, there and gone again in one live swoop. And he was releasing Phil’s hand, taking a step away, and that feeling seemed to dissipate as instantly as it had come, like a line suddenly going slack. As though it had been flowing from the artist into him, and now was gone.
“You ought to head back,” Hunt said, voice rough with something – annoyance? Phil’s heart tripped. “You will catch your death. I cannot afford to take risks with your constitution: I know how delicate you romantic types can be.”
“I–” Phil heard himself begin, with no notion of where the words might lead him. His voice came out weak and uncertain: He did feel cold, suddenly, felt it all over and all at once, as though that charge of exhilaration, of possibility, had been the only thing keeping him warm, and now it had rushed out and away, and left him chilled and dizzy. “No, I–” I what? I must stay? I can bear it? I want–
Hunt sighed explosively, looking away at the wet tumult around them. Then in a sudden jerking motion, so unlike his usual fluid grace, he had struggled out of his mantle. “Here,” he was saying, “get back as fast as you can. Get in front of a fire, for Christ’s sake, and get out – get out of those clothes.” He finished in a dull, sighing tone – as though struck by tiredness, or resignation – and paused for a second, eyes downcast.
When he finally turned and held out his mantle, it was with the slightest twitch of a smile. Phil clung to it desperately as proof that he had not utterly disgraced himself, even though he could see the ruefulness there.
“Here,” Hunt said again, voice more gentle, and shook the coat coaxingly at him, “take it – not that you can get much wetter, unless you somehow contrive to throw yourself in the sea. Which you are expressly forbidden from doing, before you get any ideas.”
Phil took it with numb hands, feeling empty and ashamed. As though he had been turned away at the last minute from something grand and divine that he was not good enough to look upon. A traveller sent down a peak in Darien, unworthy of the view. He had so nearly glimpsed something, so nearly reached out and grasped it – felt it reaching out to him – and now he must return to mundanity, and Hunt would go on without him, alone.
The tired levity of Hunt’s speech felt awful, just awful – false, dried-out and flat.
“I thank you,” he managed to say, and that felt wrong too, the words unwieldy in his mouth, like a foreign language learnt by rote. “Most sincerely. You are very kind.”
Hunt laughed, too soft to be heard over the chaos still raging around them. But Phil was familiar enough with that laugh by now that the motion of Hunt’s shoulders was enough to have the sound echoing spectrally in his mind. His understanding shrank from it, unable or unwilling to conceive the other man’s thoughts – to see how foolish he thought Phil, and why he thought so, this time. He endeavoured desperately not to think of it, not to think anything at all – to let the hammering of the rain fill him up and drown all thought.
The wind was biting, now, at his cheeks and his knuckles and the tips of his ears. The mantle in his hands was soft with use and smelt of cigar smoke and linseed oil. It still held warmth.
“Oh, yes,” Hunt said, distantly, eyes fixed on his study, as though Phil had stopped existing, “I am renowned for my kindness. Run along, then, before you succumb to exposure.”
Phil turned away, mind utterly empty, and ran along.
He followed Hunt’s instructions mechanically: pushing through the clinging tangle of grass; pelting back to the house; bursting through the front door and sending it swinging. Being received with consternation by the housekeeper and chivvied to a bath that he was too dazed and docile to refuse. Regretting it the instant that he stood before the tub of steaming water.
His body as it emerged from the clinging cocoon of his clothes was numbed, bloodless and unappealing like a blind, burrowing creature of the dark: Phil hated it, quite inexplicably, in a way that he could hardly remember doing so before. He sat there, hating it, for as long as he could bear, then got out and covered it as quickly and mechanically as possible.
Shirt, he thought, emptily. Breeches. Robe.
Then he stood before the fire and stared into it for quite some time, letting his mind whirr and sputter and produce absolutely nothing but a dead, melancholy drone. He considered crawling into bed, but it felt like an admission of something – defeat, or weakness. Delicacy.
Instead, in an act of limp defiance against he knew not what, he went down and stood upon the threshold of the little studio, his damp hair dripping into his collar and his bare feet chilled against the floorboards.
The fire was alight, throwing a cosy orange glare about the place. Hunt stood behind his easel, bent over the canvas, his striking face warm and primal in the glow. He looked up as Phil entered and smiled minutely.
“Good evening,” Hunt said. “That is better. Looking a little less shipwrecked.”
Phil’s mind seemed to turn over, and work again. The blank melancholy of the previous hour felt distant, like a strange dream.
“Good evening to you,” he replied, with some enthusiasm, so happy to be free of it, all at once. “May I see it?”
Hunt drew back with a motion like a shrug, and suffered him to bound over and stand before the study.
The storm was before him, deep and dizzying. Hunt had caught it at a moment just before the flash – when the clouds seemed full of fire, on the very verge of spilling forth and igniting the whole canvas. Phil could almost feel that wind tossing his hair, whipping through the fabric of his shirt.
He could hardly bear to drag his eyes away, except to sneak a look at its creator, joyful and enchanted.
Hunt was frowning at the painting, a deep crease between his brows.
Phil stared at him, crestfallen. It was so perfect – as though Hunt had somehow trapped and tacked down the very clouds they had seen out on the hill. Was it the subject that was lacking? It would be ludicrous, utterly ludicrous, for Phil to feel responsible for that, and yet–
“Are you not pleased with it?” he said, anxiously. “Perhaps the next storm–“
Hunt huffed out a laugh, as though he knew exactly what Phil was thinking. “The storm was entirely lovely, Ariel. Your best yet. It is the painter, I am afraid, who is lacking – unable to rise to the challenge.”
Phil turned his untrained eyes back at the painting: it seemed to draw him in, magnetized. It did seem – different, somehow, from Hunt’s other watercolour studies. A little rawer, less mannered, the brushstrokes less precise. The edges of each shape seemed to crackle and hum with energy, as though the gessoed canvas could scarcely hold them still.
“But it is magnificent!” he said, feeling a little desperate. It had a great throb of feeling, a near-painful surge of half-formed yearning building inside him. Like a shout of anguish, or exultation, taking shape and trying to force its way out. “It is– I cannot describe it. It is so real. So alive. It makes my chest hurt to look at it.”
Hunt hummed. “It is nothing, compared to the real thing. They never are. Trite nonsense. It misses the movement, the freshness. The immensity. Ah, well. It is the same old fault: Nature sends me miracles, and I simply do not have enough in me to make sufficient answer.”
Phil cast a sideways glance at his handsome face, at that characteristic twist of wry dissatisfaction. Lord, the man was impossible. Conceited in every way – except over the one thing he got exactly right. “I like your trite nonsense,” he said. “It is magnificent.” And if it came out a little petulant, at least it had Hunt smiling again.
“Well,” Hunt said, “perhaps this attempt is a little better than the rest.”
“Well? Where is he? The Honourable Philip Cavendish. I must admit to being somewhat crushed, Hunt: I thought that I was the only member of the beau monde you could stand. And now I hear you are keeping legions of them in your linen closet.”
Phil paused on the threshold of the studio. He had meant to look in and let Hunt know of his return, hopeful of being offered a drink before dinner. He had no notion that they were expecting company, and yet that voice was entirely unknown to him.
The tone, though, was familiar – the distinctive dry ebullience of the Bloomsbury set.
“Just the one,” Hunt was replying within, “and he very rarely retreats to the linen closet, unless I am being particularly objectionable. He is out riding at present, but I expect him back at any moment.”
“Good. I should not have liked to come all the way out here and not see him. I already know what you look like, after all. So, are you to turn to figures? The on-dit in London is that you have found your muse, and your next show is to be all sickening shepherds and satyrs.”
There came the unmistakable sound of a drink’s being poured.
“Ha! Then London will be relieved to hear that Phil is simply acting as my weatherglass. He is remarkably good at it, actually. I should not have got anything done this whole summer without him. You should see it, Harry – he never fails. It is something of a marvel.”
Phil was struck, gratified, and beginning to smile like a giddy fool – then it suddenly occurred to him that skulking on thresholds and listening to oneself be praised was hardly the most becoming habit. He put a guilty hand to the brass handle.
“So that is true?” the stranger was saying, while he suffered this attack of conscience. “It was almost too fantastical to be believed. It is not believed, I must confess, in many parts. But then, what else could you possibly be–“
Phil turned the handle, and entered the room.
This commonplace action caused something of a stir. Hunt seemed unusually stimulated by Phil’s arrival: he sprang from his chair so fast that claret slopped over the side of his glass and onto his hand. Phil stared at it, glistening there on the shockingly delicate web between thumb and forefinger and tracking a shining purple trail down over Hunt’s wrist. Lord, he could do with a drink; the ride had made him more parched than he had realised. He could almost taste the liquor on his tongue.
“Phil! Back so soon! Good afternoon. Do come in, and allow me to introduce Sir Henry Stanhope. He has come to see what we– what I have been working on.”
Sir Henry Stanhope – Baronet, Phil added mentally and with something of a start, recognising the name from exhibition listings and – well, and from scandal-sheets – was revealed to be a very stylish gentleman of about Hunt’s age with regular features, and a countenance of such pleasing amiability that he might have looked fatuous – were it not for the glittering, vulpine mobility of his eyes.
The line of his frock coat was exquisite. Of course it was. Phil, meanwhile, was flushed and tousled and beginning to be sticky with sweat. Thank Heavens it was dry, and he was not actually standing before one of England’s foremost portraitists spattered with mud.
“Oh, let us not stand on ceremony,” Sir Henry Stanhope said, expansively, leaning back in his chair and waving a dismissive hand. “I am prepared to let the title drop if you are. I flatter myself that I am here in my capacity as a fellow artiste, after all – or, at worst, a humble critic. How was your ride? It looks to have been strenuous at the least. You make one feel thoroughly indolent. Have a seat, dear boy, and tell me all about yourself.”
Phil could have bristled at the air of cheerful presumption – dear boy, indeed – but found his distemper shocked away by a sudden swell of uncertainty. He had abruptly become aware of a sensation – cool, shivery, and still so rare it could not honestly be called familiar, yet so particular that it was unmistakable: the weight of Hunt’s regard upon him. He darted a glance at his host, and found him still standing, looking at Phil, with something intent and almost questioning in his gaze.
Phil flushed even further, and hesitated on the threshold like a nervy debutante on the ballroom steps. He was desperate, suddenly, to make a good impression on the first of Hunt’s friends that he had met, the first person that he had ever heard the man receive with anything beyond amused indifference. Desperate to be seen making a good impression.
“Good afternoon, Sir Henry,” he said, as politely as he could. “I am very pleased to make your acquaintance. How do you find Kent?”
“I do not,” Stanhope said, “I let my coachman do that for me. There, that one was old when Hunt and I were boys, back before the flood. I do hope you have a taste for antiques.”
Phil laughed, with some relief: this was about the level of wordplay that he could handle. He took a seat. “They are all new to me,” he said. “And I will never understand this pose of aged infirmity. We are not more than a decade apart, I think, or near enough as to make no difference.”
“A flatterer!” Stanhope seemed to be making a survey of Phil, his shrewd eyes darting over his face; Phil quailed a little under the scrutiny, but the artiste’s gaze lacked the penetrating clarity of Hunt’s look, and was bearable.
“Well,” Stanhope said eventually, with a sense of conclusion, “you are really rather remarkable. Uncommonly handsome. I wonder that I never came across you in London: I know your father by sight, of course, and I think I must have seen an older brother or two. But where have they been hiding you these past few summers? Those eyes! How large! How expressive! Such depth, and such spirit! I feel almost on the brink of falling into them. Have you ever sat?”
Well, now Phil’s face did grow hot: the words – fashionably hyperbolic and utterly meaningless as they were – sent a wash of bashful pleasure through him.
“Once or twice.” And he had been an utterly wretched subject: fidgety and curious and eager to chat about art – at such length and from a position of such total ignorance that it must have been sheer torture for his captive audience. He had primarily talked, he recalled with some embarrassment, of Edmund Hunt. “Just for society portraits, I mean.”
“Well, I should very much like you to sit for me, and for something a little less staid: an ancient scene, I think – what else, with your physique? That nose is too deliciously retroussé to be truly classical, of course, but I would rather cut my hands off than meddle with it. You would make a pleasingly lithe and springy Hyacinthus, bounding after the discus. Or” –a look of something like mischief flashed across his countenance– “throw your head back.” Phil tentatively lifted his chin a fraction, feeling rather foolish. “Yes! Capital! A particularly rapturous Ganymede in the claws of the eagle – after Rubens, though naturally mine will be better. I have never seen him done with dark hair, but why not? You are more than fair enough in other senses. I would have to make a study of eagles, but the result may well be worth that tedium. What do you think, old man?”
Hunt had moved to the cellarette, his back to them, and was pouring out a drink with an unusual stiff precision. “I think,” he said, without turning round, “that you do not have the sober temperament suited to studying eagles, Harry. You would have your eyes scratched out.”
Stanhope raised his eyebrows and pulled a face, a sly twist of the lips that looked a lot like satisfaction. The pair of them clearly shared the kind of intimate fellowship where insults were almost preferred to approbation: it reminded Phil of the close, easy friendships of his college days, that kind of cricket-field fraternity, and he felt a pang that might have been longing, or envy, in his chest. How had they met, he wondered, in a sudden fever of curiosity, and what had they shared together, over the years? Studios, models, supplies, tools, critiques, jokes, drinks, lodgings, women, possibly, or–
“That would be exciting,” Stanhope said, shaking Phil from his somewhat flurried reflections. “Now come down off your perch, and let the poor lad have his claret. You are a simply contemptible host.”
Hunt came over, his face set and unreadable, and thrust the glass into Phil’s surprised and grateful hands. Then he stalked over to the window with a tight, careful version of his usual leisurely grace. He looked rather like a tiger on the prowl, all suspicion and coiled strength. Was he worried that Phil might embarrass him? But surely Stanhope would not hold Hunt accountable for any idiocy on his part–
Phil looked down and realised with a kind of dim amazement that he had not been given claret after all, but brandy – exactly what he liked, what he would have poured for himself. He wanted it, quite badly, but knew with a sinking sensation that it would only make him slower, dull his wits, and he was not sure that he could afford to have them dulled when Stanhope was talking like this and Hunt was frowning like that.
“Well,” Stanhope said, and Phil realised that he was still being scrutinised, “one thing is for certain: You are wasted as a barometer. What do you do with yourself, when you are not sitting about looking fetching and waiting for Jove to take notice? You ride, I know that: you shoot, too, I suppose? Go out, hunting the hart? This may be good country for it, despite unpromising appearances.”
Phil nodded rather hesitantly, in quite some confusion now at the effusive – and yet the markedly impersonal – praise, at the cool manner in which it was being dropped. He was beginning to feel like a specimen poked at by a naturalist, his responses recorded for future consideration.
“I am passionately fond of riding,” he said, “more than hunting or shooting.”
In truth, he did not care for the latter two at all, the thrill of victory quite outweighed by the sickening thought of an animal in distress. But he knew from experience that it was an opinion likely to have him mocked as excessively sentimental. And he found that he quite ardently did not wish to be mocked right now – not in front of Hunt.
“I hope that your host has not been neglecting you on that front,” Stanhope said, lightly. “Despite the name, he has always been the most indifferent of sportsmen: he can so rarely muster up enough interest in his quarry to see the thing through to the kill, and he never keeps his trophies. No prize fine enough to keep his attention, I suppose, once the thrill of the chase has worn off.”
“That is not the whole story, Harry,” Hunt said, with a warmth of feeling that had Phil actually jumping; he had whipped round from the window and was looking towards them at last. “You ghoulish bastard. It is that I do not–”
He seemed to catch himself, stopped short; he drew in and let out a long breath, moved to his chair, threw himself into it and snatched up his glass with a species of sullen fury. “Perhaps,” he said, tilting the crimson liquid and looking down at it with eyes that flashed, “I simply do not like to see anything come to grief for my entertainment.”
Phil marvelled at him.
Stanhope seemed entirely unoffended by the outburst. “My mistake,” he said, coolly. “These are unexpected reserves of tenderness, old man. A rather recently adopted attitude, I would say.”
Hunt looked so entirely uncomforted by this response – his eyes still so stormy and his brow in creases – that Phil felt ashamed for his own cowardly silence, and yet any words that he tried to scrape together seemed to fizzle into nothing under the threat of general scrutiny. He sat there, in a stinging glow of wonder and admiration and sympathy, and said nothing.
Stanhope looked between them, slapped his hands upon his thighs. “Well, there!” he said. “I have seen Phil. Now you must let me see your work.”
Phil sank gratefully from the surface of the conversation, content to watch as Hunt rose and brought out canvases from the pile leaning against the wall, and Stanhope drifted around and bent over each in turn, the refined languor of his movements belying the keenness of his inspection. Hunt was still in a state of some agitation, hauling his paintings about with sulky abruptness, and then throwing himself back into an armchair to await the verdict.
Phil watched him light a cigar, watched those pale eyes track the movements of his friend – and a thought struck him like a thunderbolt. Stanhope would be the first person – or the first person whose opinion was worth a penny – to see the paintings all summer. Perhaps Hunt was simply apprehensive.
Phil rewarded himself for finally stumbling upon this explanation by moving stealthily to refill his glass, and then sat and drank and listened to Stanhope say several things that he did not comprehend, in tones that he timidly judged to be approving.
Then, all at once, Stanhope was standing up sharply from a canvas as if alarmed, or delighted. “Is this– Does this one have a figure? Here, in the front?”
Phil squinted at the painting he had indicated, developed from the most recent set of studies – good Lord. He had never noticed – too busy looking at the gorgeous chaos of the sky – but there was the suggestion of a figure there – some way ahead of the viewer, with its back to them. It was too small to make out much, but from the turn of that tiny head, it seemed to be looking at the sky.
Phil stared. Was that something in its hand? A flash of white–
“Well, well, well,” Stanhope was saying. “Extraordinary. You sly old dog. You are learning new tricks, after all.”
And then he turned to Phil, startling him: it was as though a character in a stage-play had suddenly turned to his box and addressed him by name. “And what,” Stanhope asked, “do you think of it?”
The floor seemed to give a sickening lurch under Phil’s chair. He felt, all at once, the hum of brandy in his system – a slow, sly poison making his blood hurtle and his thoughts slip about. Here it was, the moment where he made an irrevocable idiot of himself.
He ought, he knew, to speak with some moderation, to pretend a little at indifference – or his opinion would have the tenor of enthusiasm, and be discounted. And yet–
“I think that it is wonderful,” he said, honestly. “His finest yet – the finest thing that I have ever seen.”
There was a moment where Stanhope simply looked at him, eyes alight with interest.
“Phil is too kind to me. He is invariably too kind to me.” Hunt’s voice sounded rough after so long silent; his words filled Phil with a familiar consternation.
“He never seems to think them any good! I cannot understand it, when they seem to me utter perfection! I wish that he could see them with my eyes.” Phil stopped, and bit at his lip, cowed suddenly by an awareness of his own presumption – as though his apparent lack of discernment were anything to be proud of, for God’s sake. “But I suppose that if he had my eyes, he would be incapable of painting them– “
“Hm,” Stanhope said, speculatively. “His finest yet. Perhaps. I certainly detect a change. I believe his touch is becoming more sensual – more expressive. Almost indecorously expressive. There is a feeling here that simply was not there before, a species of… trapped passion. Wild, ravenous passion. Like it wants to jump from the easel and ravish one. Do you not agree, Cavendish?”
“Harry,” Hunt said, voice dangerous, and this time Phil did not have to wonder at him. He may as well have actually said let the poor fool alone, the sentiment rang so loudly through the close and hazy confines of the studio. Phil found that he was too desperate for the rescue to resent it much.
Stanhope turned to his friend, and smiled. “All right,” he said, soothingly, with a kind of fond simplicity. “All right. You know, of course, that you are making your life very difficult. It will not please the critics – the coup de grâce, I should imagine, for your reputation amongst the society set.”
Phil almost dropped his brandy. “Please the critics? Hang the critics! Hang the society set! It is perfect! It is real! Is that not more important than the approval of society?”
He regretted the outburst instantly, and slammed his mouth shut so fast that he heard his teeth click.
Hunt had turned sharply to look at him. His gaze was dark and bright at once in the low, smoky light; his eyes burned like brands.
“I see,” Stanhope was saying, but Phil found that he could not look away from his host. He had never seen so much feeling in Hunt’s face. For a second it was like looking at one of his pictures: the same measureless depth, the same magnetic power. Phil could not interpret the look at all – only stare, wide-eyed and transfixed, and try to weather its titanic force. He was amazed it did not blow back his hair – blow him clean away.
Stanhope’s voice sounded faraway under the rabbiting thump of his pulse. “Less un coup de grâce, and more un coup de foudre, it seems. For you, at least.”
Oh, Hell, Phil thought, desperately, tearing his eyes away. And now they were speaking French. Un coup de foudre – it signified lightning, did it not? Which was relevant, at least, but did not seem to make all that much sense. And how should he possibly answer?
There seemed to be some kind of trap lying very close at hand, and if he moved recklessly – as he usually did – he would stumble into it and be exposed for the fool he was. The air had grown thick, and his mind was a heady whirl: the whole cursed room was a whirl, rippling with sub-currents of meaning that Phil did not understand.
He cast a beseeching look at his host, but Hunt was silent, face still vivid and unreadable.
“I like them very much,” Phil said, a little wretchedly. “I do not know– I am no artist. I do not understand these things at all. But I like them very much.”
Stanhope’s countenance softened into something like pity, or apology, and when he spoke his clever voice was almost kind: “That is what matters, isn’t it?”
That was a reprieve if ever Phil had seen one. He stood, rather abruptly, head spinning a little at the shift in altitude – good Lord, he was rather deeper in his cups than he had thought. “Well,” he said, “I am sure that you will get on perfectly well without my muddled contributions. Forgive me, Sir Henry: would you mind awfully if I withdrew for a moment? I ought to change before dinner.”
And he bolted for the door like a rabbit to a hole, and got it blessedly shut behind him.
He paused on the threshold again, feeling that he had undergone some great ordeal, and not at all sure how he had performed. That look in Hunt’s eyes, so very unlike his usual detached amusement, almost like anger – but had Phil really said anything so foolish?
He rested his head against the door and breathed for a second, listening to the pounding of his heart. Lord, it was intolerable, this constant discomposure. Awful, unreasoning – like an animal. Hunt had been right: his blood was quicksilver, and he would do anything to calm it – or at least to understand why it leapt about so.
A murmur of conversation continued on the other side of the door. They must have returned to contemplation of Hunt’s work: Phil could hear Stanhope’s clever, clever voice, speaking not in exaggerated raptures but a cool, assessing tone – more like a surgeon than a sensualist.
“Exquisite,” he was saying, “quite exquisite. And obviously, irrevocably, desperately” – and then Phil did not catch his next words, only the tail of the sentence – “positively vibrating with it.” Then a laugh, and Stanhope continued in tones of rallying affection: “Though I can hardly fathom how you contrived to make that happen, you prickly old devil.”
Phil could not even begin to speculate at the missing praise, but it certainly did not seem to please Hunt. His voice was quieter, a soft rumble that barely penetrated the polished wood of the door.
“Do not mock me,” he said, in a low, agonised tone, and, “too cruel, even for you” — “anything but false encouragement, Harry” — “cannot stand it.”
Phil ached at the sound of this unalloyed misery. But the paintings were so good, he was sure of it!
Perhaps it was the security of this knowledge that had Stanhope laughing again. “For possibly the first time in our acquaintance, my old cock, I am speaking entirely in earnest. You would have to be blind not to see it. If you cast this one aside, I believe that it will be the mistake of your life.”
Well, Phil thought, with some relief, well, then. I am not a total fool, after all. It was good. Exquisite. Phil could have told him that.
It was the first time that Phil had occasion to regret the informality of Hunt’s household: dressing for dinner took him almost no time at all, barely long enough for his thoughts to settle, his flush to cool. Even throwing open the window and leaning out on the sill was not a bit of use, the night air too still and sultry to give any relief.
The honeysuckle was blooming – he could smell it, dense and sweet in the darkness. He could hear the rustle and trill of crickets in the hedgerows.
Due a storm, he thought, abstractly, and felt a bright jolt of joy in his chest at the prospect.
When he came downstairs, he found Hunt still in the studio, still smoking, still strange and sullen around the eyes. Stanhope was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh,” Phil said, stopping short in the middle of the room, face as hot as ever it had been again in an instant. “Oh, Lord. I did not realise that Sir Henry would not be staying for dinner. I would have made my goodbye in the proper fashion: he must think me abominably rude.”
Hunt did not look up, but that intense look wavered a little: his lips gave a rueful little twitch. “He will think nothing of the sort. I practically chased him out of the door at pistol-point and he was droning on about how perfectly charming you were to the last. He may think that I am abominably rude, but I doubt that the notion will be an unfamiliar one.” Phil’s consternation must have shown even in his attitude for the painter raised his eyes, and smiled properly. “Oh, do not look so anxious, Phil. We did not quarrel – or rather, we quarrelled exactly as much as Harry wished us to. He would have been sorely disappointed not to have been expelled at some point.”
Phil felt his spirit lighten at the sight of the smile. He idly picked up the novel he was currently grappling with from the windowsill and threw himself down on the chaise, surrendering to an unworthy but delicious sense of relief. “Good,” he said, simply. “I am glad that you parted well.” And glad that your friend liked me. And glad that it is over.
Hunt picked up his drink and took a reflective sip; Phil tracked the movement as discreetly as he could, beginning to be more intrigued than wary.
“I am sorry to have deprived you of his company for the evening,” Hunt said finally, sounding uncharacteristically tentative. “You seemed tolerably taken with him, or– Well, I had grown accustomed to thinking of you as unreserved to the point of impudence. It was quite a shock to see you come over all shy. Skittish, I mean, and formal. All” –he waved a somewhat vague hand and Phil realised with a start that he too was rather foxed– “all pink cheeks and little fawn-like glances. Harry is rather … impressive. When he wants to be.”
Phil laughed. He had not thought himself capable of shocking the other man: he had not thought anything capable of shocking him. He opened his mouth to say so, but stopped. Hunt had seemed so out of countenance tonight, less laconic and – sharper, somehow. As though he were actually reaching out and taking part in life, instead of watching, amused, as it drifted by. He had seemed less the self-consciously untouchable genius – almost human. Like a god, Phil thought, made foolish by all the brandy and classical talk. Like a god, stepping down and taking mortal form.
Perhaps that was what Hunt was like when he was surprised. Perhaps it knocked him from his mountaintop.
“Shy,” Phil said instead, and pulled a face. “You are biting back the word ‘stupid’. I do not know what to say to clever people. They seem to talk so intricately – twice over at once – and I can only hear what they say and know that it is not what they mean. But I have no idea what they do mean. And I know that they know it, and are laughing at me.” And you were watching, he did not add. The whole time, you were watching.
Hunt was watching him again, now, and continued to do so for a long moment.
There was something disconcertingly soft – almost like concern, or contrition – in his look. Phil felt jumpy under it. His open collar itched; he resisted the impulse to fuss with it. “Well,” he went on, with a half-abashed breath of laughter, “you know exactly what I mean. You cannot have forgotten our first encounter: you had me wretched with confusion.”
A crash rang out, abrupt enough to make Phil start. Hunt had set his glass down on the tabletop with an unusually graceless motion; he was staring at it as it stood there in his own hand, contents swinging back to stillness.
“That was very wrong of me,” Hunt said, finally, low and rough. “I had you all wrong: I assumed that everybody must be as posturing and paper-thin as myself. If I had known you then as I do now–” He stopped, seemed to set his jaw. “It was badly done. I hope that you will forgive me one day.”
Phil did not know what to say to that. Forgive him? It seemed so long ago, and all those people who had stood around laughing as he was brought low seemed like they no longer existed – he had almost forgotten that anybody but the two of them existed, until seeing Stanhope that afternoon, and now that he was gone– Well, that other world only felt more strange and alien and blessedly faraway. It felt once more as though it were only he and Hunt. And the storms.
Phil found that he liked the notion. He liked it a lot.
Propriety demanded an answer, and yet Phil was not quite sure how to put these last reflections into words without sounding insincere, or insane, or – or anything else. “Oh,” he said, instead. “It was not so bad really. And perhaps I was overdue a lesson in moderation.” He thought of his late turbulence, the dizzy swooping of his soul that had characterised his stay in Kent, often on the slightest, least rational pretexts. “Perhaps it is dangerous for the constitution to be always in a flutter. I sometimes find that it leaves me quite ragged.”
Hunt laughed, and Phil realised that it was the first time that he had done so all evening. It was not quite his usual laugh. There was something thick to it, something aching.
“And that is with all your years of practice,” Hunt said, quietly.
Phil suspected that, once again, intricacy was afoot. After a half-hearted attempt to tug his understanding from the clinging embrace of the brandy, he left the statement – the insult? – alone, and opened his novel. He had, he decided, quite had his fill of cryptic remarks for one evening – possibly for a good long while.
“Will Sir Henry be calling again?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the page and trying not to sound too apprehensive.
“I doubt it. Harry is never content to continue stirring the same pot for long.” Hunt laughed again. “It is one of his better qualities: One could not stand him otherwise.” Then he cut Phil another of those soft, bottomless looks, an odd, tight set to his mouth as though he spoke against pain. “Why? Should you like to see more of him? He was not speaking entirely to scandalise: He would give a limb to paint you in whatever manner you think fitting. He would do it this season if you return to town. I can write and secure you a reception at his studio. If that is what you would like.”
Return to town? “No! I mean – My sincere thanks. That is a very kind offer. And I am flattered that he would like me to sit, truly. But to quit Kent so soon–” Phil broke off, alarmed at the sense of desolation, a kind of freezing horror, that rose in him at the prospect – the very notion of London – it was unthinkable, utterly unthinkable – the assembly rooms, the club, his own home, his own bedroom– It all suddenly seemed cold, and repulsive.
Hunt gave a strange sighing laugh. “Thank God,” he said in something closer to his usual sardonic tone. “Thank God. Where would that leave me? I would be finished without you, Ariel.” He paused and gave a little shake of his head, chuckling again; as he turned away to reach for his sketching-book, Phil fancied that the ghost of a smile that was always in his face was a little fonder than usual.
Phil looked back down at his novel. He was a little too foxed, a little too warm and sleepy to gain much from it: he watched the words swim free from the page and jostle about with a sense of idle contentment. This summery evening air! It really did press about one like a blanket of cloud, or an embrace. He had seen a painting rather like that once, at the Royal Academy: a woman – Io, it must have been, if he was remembering his Ovid correctly – bare-breasted and reclining, yielding with a luxurious pliancy to the enveloping caress of a shifting bank of vapour, eyes glossy and remote. He felt like that now, thick air pressing him down into the couch, licking at his sweat-damp throat: perhaps Sir Henry should paint him like that.
But Hunt would really be the man for that theme, if he ever went into figures – all those clouds; that charged, visceral sense of movement. That intoxicating promise of power, of helpless rapture—
These were fanciful thoughts. Very strange. Phil reviewed them with some alarm. Philip Cavendish, he thought, sternly, you have had far too much to drink. You must–
“Stop scowling,” Hunt said. “Or if you must scowl, keep at it. Choose a grimace and stick to it.”
Phil was on the verge of protesting this new height of imperiousness, when he realised its significance. The painter had his sketching-book on his knee, and his head was rising and falling with the smooth, assured intent of a hawk on the wing.
“You cannot be drawing me?” Phil’s voice came out unaccountably hoarse in the close and scented air.
“I am,” Hunt responded, placidly. “And you make it very difficult. Is your novel so vexing? You may apply to me if you need assistance with the longer words.”
Phil laughed and, since the wretched book really had not been doing him much good, felt justified in succumbing to the impulse to throw it gently in his direction.
Hunt caught it in one hand, snatching it out of the air with startling ease – like a cricket-ball – and stood. For a moment Phil thought he was approaching with the intention of giving him a friendly swat with the thing and made ready to defend himself, but Hunt simply reached down and returned it, pressing it against his tense chest.
And then his hand moved up, and he was smoothing a thumb against the crease between Phil’s brows.
Phil’s breath caught.
Hunt’s hands were so cool, even in the welter of heat that filled the room – that seemed suddenly to have found its way inside Phil and set him ablaze from within. He wondered whether his cheeks were in a glow, whether he was as feverish to the touch as he felt. Whether Hunt could feel the flush, the quick rush of blood just below his skin.
“Stop scowling,” Hunt said, so close that Phil could see the flicker of candlelight in his remarkable eyes. “And read back whatever it was that was bringing out your lovely elfin grin.” Then he was touching Phil’s cheek – just a soft, barely-there brush of his finger – something deep and rueful in his countenance. “I had almost caught it.”
And he drew back and resumed his seat, and Phil lay there, hot all over, and listened to the scratch of the pencil, and felt as though something deep in the centre of the universe that had been catching untidily all evening – all summer – had suddenly slipped sideways and changed everything. As though something had given way in his brain, and now the world was strange and new.
Avoir un coup de foudre, he thought, dislocatedly. Oh. I have remembered.
To be smitten. Love-struck.
Oh, good God.
Overnight the heat intensified, became graver and oppressive. Sticky. By midday even the crickets had left off their chirping, tired out, and the whole county lay silent and sweating.
Phil hardly noticed. It was not the heat that had him fidgeting on the studio couch – unable to read, to relax, to think. To do anything at all except sit there and torture himself.
“Slept upon nettles again, I see.” Hunt, from his customary seat behind the easel. So he could sense Phil’s agitation. Capital.
Phil managed a vague noise in reply. His sleep had been very troubled: hit all at once by a vast mass of guilty desire, he had spent the whole night by turns hot and hurting, plagued by fantastic visions and terrible forebodings – and, of course, by excruciating humiliation.
He had been so intolerably blind! Every second of his acquaintance with the artist – every second of his life – had paraded before his sleepless eyes, all of it taking on a new and mortifying tenor. It was as though he had been blundering about in the darkness for weeks, and now suddenly the sun had come out: he could see, and he was burning.
His wretched volatility. The strange swooping of his soul. The long looks and the caught breaths and the inexplicable rushings of blood. The defensiveness. The jealousy. The pathetic, maidenish admiration – horribly open, contemptibly artless. Finest thing that I have ever seen. Lord.
The vast and formless yearnings. Not formless anymore.
Had Hunt seen it? He was a man of the world, a man of great renown: he must have seen it, must be accustomed to it, must think Phil utterly pitiable, not even worth a tumble. No prize fine enough to tempt him. Or perhaps he simply thought him too eager, too naïve to take it in the sporting spirit, too likely to become attached at the first hint of attention. And he would, would he not? He was already attached, for God’s sake, and Hunt scarcely looked at him–
He thought, yet again, about something else that had been dredged up and re-examined last night – a raw, caustic memory that he had convinced himself was quite forgotten. The hollow floor of the college pavilion under his knees and the pat of clumsy, satisfied fingers against his cheek. A revered voice, pleasantly exhausted but with something incredulous in it – something mocking. My goodness, Cavendish. I have never known anybody go at that with such enthusiasm. You seem to positively take pleasure in it. Kneeling there and looking up and feeling, all at once, cold all over and hideously exposed. As though an icy wind had ripped through the shed and left him flayed open and frozen. Hardly need me to take care of that, do you?
Knowing that he had stumbled over some ineffable line – had wanted too much, too openly, rushed ahead and shown his hand, and now he was disdained.
It need not happen again. He would not let it happen again: now that he knew what it was he wanted, he could keep himself from slipping. All he must do was grit his teeth and stick it out until the end of the month. Or – or should he leave now? Was he only mortifying the pair of them by staying? Should he–
It was almost a relief to be startled from such thoughts by the familiar judder of pain in his shoulder. His gasp was loud enough to have Hunt looking up at him sharply and setting down his pencil; Phil tried not to shrink away from his eyes upon him, tried not to stare back. Nodded feebly.
Hunt slapped his hands on his thighs and stood, crossed to the window with an air of pleased anticipation.
“Well, Ariel,” he said, “I never would have guessed. My debt to your remarkable shoulder only grows.” He paused. “How did you win the wound? Don’t tell me that somebody truly pointed a pistol at you.”
How had Phil won it? Doing something stupid, for the attention of somebody that he had greatly admired. There was something else that made more sense now, Phil thought, half amused, half wretched. “Retrieving a cricket ball,” he said, truthfully. “From a tree. A moment of rashness: I fell badly onto unfriendly ground and made quite the spectacle of myself. You would have found it most diverting.”
Hunt left off his vigil at the window and looked over, a frown on his face. “I do not know about that,” he said, and then his features softened. “But– Well, is it monstrous that I am rather glad of your rashness, in this case? I should have been very sorry not to know you.”
Was that monstrous? Phil was so pathetically gratified to hear it and so disgusted with himself for the intensity of his gratification that he had no idea at all. All he could seem to manage in response was a weak smile. God, but his shoulder hurt.
Perhaps Hunt could discern that it did, for he continued to look at him, countenance oddly tender: he might almost have been hurting too, with that tension in his frame and that feeling glow to his eye.
“Would you– ” Hunt began – and then he did something fantastic: he stopped, quite abruptly, as if his words had dried up – or, no, as if he had caught them. He closed his mouth on them. And a bright flush suffused his features, as though he was holding them on his tongue, like a chestnut out of the fire, and was letting them burn him up from the inside.
Phil stared up at him, startled. His face must be all inquiry, but really, it was too strange, too entirely unlike him. “Would I what?”
Hunt laughed, an inward huff of breath. “Well,” he continued, voice strange – light and heavy at once, laden with a sort of resignation, as though he knew himself to be embarking on a very foolish endeavour and was amused by it, by himself. “The entirety of my livelihood and legacy currently rests on that shoulder. I confess to a certain amount of natural curiosity. One of these days I should like to see it.”
Now it was Phil’s turn to blush. The request had been put in such a casual, bantering manner: he could – he should – simply laugh, and say something jocular in return, and begin to hurry them out of the door, and yet–
And yet the shock of seeing Hunt faltering seemed to have numbed all Phil’s sense, because his hands were already fumbling at his waistcoat buttons; he was shaking himself free of the heavy fabric before he knew what he did. That dull ache in his shoulder seemed inspired by the movement – it bit down and shaded into agony. For a second he could do nothing but sit there and shudder at it.
Hunt made a noise that might have been surprise, or concern, and sat down beside Phil with some haste, fine hands coming out to hover uselessly about him. Phil did not dare even glance at his face. His own was growing hotter and hotter. This was lunacy, actual lunacy, but now it would be even more odd to stop, and so in one decisive, damning movement, he pulled his shirt free and wrenched it over his head.
There was a moment of silence, of heavy, humid stillness.
Phil turned his shoulder towards his companion and fixed his eyes on the floor, the upholstered velvet armrest, his own knee. All was not yet lost, he thought, with a sort of feeble determination: he could weather this inspection. He need only behave normally for the next few minutes, keep breathing and behave normally–
His pulse was trembling in his throat.
“How badly does it grieve you?” Hunt asked from behind him. “I have never asked.”
Even the feeling of breath against the skin of Phil’s neck, where it was just beginning to turn sticky with summer sweat, was enough to have him shivering. But he could endure it; he must see it through. “Oh, not so much,” he said, voice admirably even, hearty – irreproachable. “And I am well used to it now.”
There was movement behind him: Hunt reached out, and then he was running his fingers along the twisting line of the scar – lightly, very lightly, as though it were a still-wet patch of paint that he was afraid to smudge. Phil heard himself make a noise of surprise, a startled little intake of breath; he felt himself go tense under the touch. Oh, Lord, wait, perhaps— he thought, and felt that familiar sick swoop, deep in his stomach – the forlorn, regretful pang that meant his rashness was about to have its inevitable reward.
Hunt pressed his fingers against the mark again, firmer, and it felt like he was reaching right into Phil and touching bone, or something deeper, something soft and indefinite. It was not a shock of pain, not really, but – a pressure, a tender intensity that seemed to crack Phil open and set him shivering: he let out another helpless noise, an awful gasping sob, unlike anything he had heard from himself before. He almost wanted to twist away, out of Hunt’s grasp – the slim rational part of him demanded that he do so – but he was so desperate for the touch, the attention, so weak for it, that he struggled to compel himself to give it up.
“It does hurt you,” Hunt said, his voice grim. “You stoic little fool. Why did you not speak up?”
“Yes, it – it hurts.” Phil’s reply was breathy and desperate, and oh, good Heavens, he must put a stop to this now. “But not for long. And nothing can be done for it. Should – should you not be making ready to repair to the hill?”
“I still have an hour or so, if you are running to time,” the painter said, voice distant. “And you generally do. Here, does this help?”
His thumb dug sharply into the tight flesh of Phil’s shoulder, sharp enough to hurt, and then it – did something, or undid something, deep within the muscle and Phil felt a tingling rush of relief, a sudden and wonderful absence of pain. “Oh,” he said, in a drawn-out, falling sigh, too astonished to mind how he sounded. “Yes. How – how did you–“
“I thought so.” Even in his scattered state Phil could sense the self-congratulation rolling off Hunt. “You tense up when it pains you, and that only makes it worse.”
Phil had the distinct impression that he was being scolded. “I can hardly help it! I do not do so by desi– oh.” Hunt’s hands worked again and another heady rush of warmth soaked through him. “By design,” he finished in a whisper. He felt odd – light-headed, heavy-limbed – liquid and strange, like one in a dream– He seemed fit to float away, unmoored from everything – except for Hunt’s firm and careful fingers, and the velvet burr of his voice.
“That’s better,” Hunt was saying. “Breathe. How does that feel?”
Phil’s fingers were clenched around Hunt’s knee, tight against the buckskin of his breeches. When had he reached back and gripped at him like that? He should let go, move, but his arm felt almost alarmingly weak. “I– oh, Lord, I–” He could not think. “Good,” he choked out. “Oh, it– Hunt, it feels so good. Better. Do not – do not stop.”
Hunt must be applying a good amount of force: his breath against the back of Phil’s neck was quick, unsteady. A press of his thumb over the scar again, another shimmering burst of feeling: it was too much – Phil could not fight against it, not with this soft fog filling his mind. He squirmed under the touch, pushed back against it, bowed his head. Bit back a shuddering moan.
In the heavy summer stillness of the room, even the stifled noise sounded loud. It sounded obscene.
A wash of pink, stinging heat spilled down Phil’s chest, and all along his shoulders.
Hunt’s hands – so strong, so blissfully, blessedly cool – stilled, but he did not draw away. Instead, he stroked a thumb down the back of Phil’s neck.
“I ought to–” Hunt said, sounding vague, distracted – made uncomfortable, perhaps, by the way his guest was coming apart under his hands.
“Of course,” Phil said, quickly, a catch in his throat, “you have an appointment with a storm. I am sorry; I did not intend to impose–“
Hunt only laughed, and stroked that thumb down the back of his neck again. Phil twisted round, at a loss, and could only hope, wretchedly, that he did not look as he felt – plaintive and fever-stricken and starving. And Hunt–
Hunt always looked artistically dishevelled, but right now – well, he looked downright discomposed. That flush was still in his cheeks, and his eyes, usually so clear and lucid, were dark. There was a fine glimmer of sweat on his forehead, his throat, his collarbone.
Phil stared. He felt, all at once, as though he were poised on the very edge of some lofty precipice, his heart a fuzzy pound in his throat, his joints like water – powerless to move, to step back towards safety, or–
“Impose,” Hunt said, the warm rasp of his laugh still in his voice. “That is not what I was going to say at all. You are in a bad way, Phil, and I have been merrily wringing miracles from you without the slightest consideration of the pains they cause you. I ought to see to you properly.” His thumb was still moving, stroking circles into the crook of Phil’s shoulder. “If you will permit me the honour.”
And Phil really must have come adrift from reality, because he was nodding before any coherent kind of notion of what “see to you properly” might mean had even had a chance to form in his mind. But he could hardly regret his acquiescence, not when it drew forth such a smile from Hunt – not that languid twitch of amusement, but a real radiant smile, the one that broke across his face all at once and had his eyes shining with satisfaction.
“Wait here,” Hunt said.
Phil sat there, mindless, and watched him move with a cheerful air of purpose towards the door: it was only once his strong back had disappeared from sight that the haziness cleared a little, and the particulars – the perils – of the situation pressed back against Phil’s consciousness. He was shirtless. He was infatuated. He seemed to have lost command of his senses. He fancied that he could still feel the spectral impression of Hunt’s hands, tiny thrills skittering over every inch of skin that Hunt had touched. He could no longer feel the pulse of pain over the throb of need at his lap. He was at half-mast. Oh, damn it all.
Hunt reappeared in the doorway, something in his hands. Phil looked up at him like a cornered deer: it took a moment before he was able to tear his eyes away from the intensity of Hunt’s gaze, from the smudge of lilac paint on his tanned cheek. But when he did, when he looked to his hands– Suddenly he could not stop staring at them instead. His eyes must be like saucers. Oil. Hunt was bringing oil.
“Boots off,” he said. “On your front, Ariel.”
Phil stopped sitting there like an idiot and obeyed at a scramble, gratefully letting the movement hide the worsening predicament in his breeches. He wavered about his hands for a second, before grabbing at a cushion and folding it in his arms, pressing his face against it in a daze; it was a little difficult to breathe, and he could smell years of trapped dust, but now his deepening flush was hidden admirably as well.
He almost choked on a breath when Hunt’s knees settled, solid and unyielding, on either side of his hips; he waited – nerves stretched tight as piano-wires, twanging at the other man’s smallest movement – for Hunt to sit against him, but he seemed to be solicitously hovering just aloft, keeping his weight off Phil’s thighs.
There was a series of mysterious sounds that must be the oil being poured out and warmed. Hunt’s hands paused over Phil’s shoulder blades; he could sense them there, just an inch or so above his skin.
“Christ,” Hunt said, “you are throwing off heat. Sun under your skin.”
Then his hands, slick and cool, were against Phil’s back, sweeping a thin layer of oil over his shoulders with the same steady grace that he put paint to canvas – a sure, confident pressure; a deliciously smooth slide.
It was better, indescribably better than before. It was worse by a hundredfold.
Time seemed to slip sideways as Phil surrendered himself entirely to that floating sensation, falling into it: existence contracted – or expanded? – into a confused and heated instant. Centuries might have passed as he lay there, letting Hunt stroke at him and say things in a soft, soothing tone – “That’s right, Phil. Let go. Relax for me. Breathe. There’s a good lad.” Simple, terrible things that seemed to get into Phil’s bones and turn them to syrup.
Phil panted into the cushion, open-mouthed, trying with the very last shred of his self-discipline to stifle his moans against the musty fabric.
A hand fisted in his hair. It pulled his head back, with a kind of gentle briskness that made Phil startle – and then melt, all over, in a way he had never experienced before, pliant as a scruffed kitten in one dizzying blink. He gave a cry that was only partly surprise, and could help it no longer: he shifted restlessly against the cushioned surface, grinding his half-hard cock into it and reeling at the breath-taking burst of pleasure the movement unleashed.
“Don’t– ” he heard Hunt say faintly, no power behind the words, as though he had prepared himself to say them and then been thunderstruck, and now they were falling from his mouth unchecked and empty in his astonishment. “Don’t suffocate yourself, Phil.”
Phil let out a wretched sob of laughter, throat tight. His fingers clenched and unclenched compulsively in the cushion, arms in a tremor, and he dragged his hips forward again, and again. His eyes slammed shut – half from the sensation and half from the shame.
“I’m sorry,” he heard himself pant out, sounding pained. The whole room – the whole world – felt so unstirring, so heavy, static as a still-life – except for him, lying there under Hunt with a hand firm in his hair, lit up and desperate and shaking. “I am so sorry. I cannot help it. You – you are so– Your hands— ” He broke off in a moan, and this was the moment: there was no denying it now, no hiding. He had jumped the precipice. He was falling. He could actually hear the air rushing past his ears – no, that was the hurtling crash of his heartbeat, immensely magnified and filling his whole head.
Hunt swore, and his hold in Phil’s hair tightened. It cut through the waves of pleasure, brought him to the very edge of pain, and it was so shocking, so good – he keened, there was no other word for it, and felt the prickle of tears in his eyes. Hunt said something, and it took a moment for the words to penetrate through the haze of sensation.
“Easy, Phil,” he was saying, “easy. For the love of God, wait a second. Turn over. Look at me.”
Phil’s hips stuttered and he finally contrived to get himself in rein. His pulse was still so loud, only rivalled by the awful, ragged sound of his breathing: he hauled in one last gulping breath and rolled over.
He was a mess, a frightful mess, and he knew it; in the pit of his stomach, he knew it. Flushed and sweating, chest heaving, his lashes shining with tears, and his traitorous cock– His eyes dropped to it helplessly, just for a second. It was so obvious in his breeches, jutting up immodestly, and – oh, Hell – beginning to leak, he could feel it, so much it would surely show. He could not bear to look up to Hunt’s face and see the amusement, the disgust, the pity that might be there: prim little aristo, he thought, wretchedly, coming to pieces at the first friendly touch, simply gagging for it— He looked off to the side instead, fixed his eyes on a worn spot in the rug, self-disgust heavy upon him like a blanket of fire.
There were fingers against his face, soft and demanding. They tilted his chin up, gently forced him to meet Hunt’s gaze.
The artist’s eyes were so bright, so intense that they seemed to transfix Phil and tear him open – like an arrow, or an iron bolt, shot right through his chest. He lay there, held fast, as Hunt brushed a thumb across his cheek, just under his eye, along the damp line of his lashes.
Pale fire splashed against the walls of the room for the most fleeting of seconds. Lightning, ripping through the world and turning it to white. Everything blinked out of existence for a second except for the cool weight of Hunt’s hand against his cheek.
When it came back the room seemed dim. Rationally, Phil knew that clouds must be massing outside and throwing them into shadow, but Hunt’s eyes were so dark and deep and lively that it seemed that they might have drawn in all the light – might have swallowed it up and kept it, crackling, in their depths.
Hunt looked– He looked sharp. Vivid. Charged with need. Hungry.
“What – what is this?” Phil heard himself say. He sounded faint, almost dazed; he felt it, too.
“It is – whatever you wish it to be. As little or – or as much.” Hunt’s voice might actually be trembling; his thumb – stroking at the line of Phil’s hair, pushing it back from his temple where it had begun to dampen with sweat – certainly shook.
“God, look at you,” Hunt said. “Lovely thing. I could not dream you up. “
Heat pulsed through Phil, just from the words, from the tone of his voice; his cock jerked, and he let out a humiliating whimper. He had never heard Hunt so earnest, never heard his voice like that at all – so shorn of all irony, so heavy it felt like a touch.
“Can I– Would you like me to–” Hunt faltered again, and then his words came out in a stumbling, irrepressible rush. “Christ, Phil, let me take care of you. Please. Let me see you come apart.”
The curtains shuddered and blew in all at once, an explosion of movement. There might have been a crash of thunder, a roar of rain, but Phil could not have said for certain, because a great hot wave of exhilaration – swift and stunning – seemed to rush right through him and set his ears ringing.
He gave a shaky laugh of disbelief, and threw a hand up to grasp at Hunt’s wrist – simply to reassure himself that this was real, not some heat-induced mirage that would shimmer and wash away with the downpour. “Would I like you to?”
His incredulity won him the slightest hint of that familiar smile, but Hunt’s voice, his gaze remained sincere. “Let me be of assistance. It need not be anything more.”
Phil had the completely foreign experience of watching somebody other than himself – watching Edmund Hunt – be fatally, ludicrously indiscreet. Rash. Vulnerable. He could do it, could coolly take what Hunt was offering him and walk away from the encounter triumphant and startlingly unscathed. And yet–
Or as much. That was what Hunt had said. Phil thought of the past few weeks, of long mornings spent watching Hunt paint, in thrall to even the finest motions of his fingers. The pleasing weight of Hunt’s gaze over dinner, the gilded thrill that came with his approval. The sound of his laugh, and the creases around his eyes when it was truly meant – when it took him by surprise, had him helpless. His startling fits of kindness.
The live nerviness that came from simply being in the same room as him, like every breath mattered. Like the air was full of sparks.
“And if I would like more?” Phil’s voice came out very quiet – barely audible over the sound of his heart, the sound of the rain on the roof. “If I would like everything?”
Something flashed in Hunt’s deep eyes, and Phil knew – with a shock that was half terror, half fluttery delight – that he had been instantly and utterly understood.
That shock still had him in its grip, still had his mind blank and his body yielding as Hunt drew him closer, resting their foreheads together for a moment, and shook against Phil with a laugh of his own – not of ridicule, or even of amusement, but of frank, fierce joy. It was the sweetest sound that Phil had ever heard. He wanted to taste it: he turned his head, closed the minute distance between them, brought their mouths together, and then he did.
That first kiss was so gentle, little more than an exchange of breaths – a soft, wonderstruck crush. It had Phil utterly at the mercy of the second, which was not gentle at all, but wild and deep and insistent. Consuming. It stole Phil’s breath and filled him up with light. It set the room spinning, turned everything in the world to water, except for Hunt’s solid warmth against him, his capable fingers, his extraordinary mouth, coming back again for more.
By the fifth or sixth Phil felt a little like he was drowning – helplessly, happily drowning – and he was too busy expressing his enthusiasm to keep count.
By the time Hunt pulled back, Phil’s lips seemed to buzz, pleasantly blushed and stinging. “Oh, thank God,” Hunt was saying. “Thank God. Thank God.” He brushed their noses together, and then their lips again, very lightly – less like a tease than a promise. Phil felt tipsy, electric.
“Because that,” Hunt said, almost against Phil’s lips, and Phil, kissed stupid, had to make a concerted effort to string his meaning together, “is exactly what I would like to give you. I want you quite immoderately, Phil. Earnestly. Extravagantly. It hardly even terrifies me to say so. It hardly even seems comical. What have you have done to me?”
It was impossible not to kiss him again, and then it was impossible to stop. Or it was impossible until one of Hunt’s hands – everywhere again, smooth and assured, exploratory – made its way to Phil’s breeches, cupping him through them, and he had to break off to gasp out a hot breath of air against Hunt’s cheek. And then – finally, finally – Hunt was getting his fall open, and the strong, elegant fingers that had been entrancing Phil for a month were around his cock, taking him in hand with firm, knowing strokes. It sent a jump of sensation all through Phil; his arms trembled where he was clutching at Hunt’s shirt, and he hid his face in the crook of the other man’s neck, breathing in his smell – smoke and sweat – along with the vibrant scent of the rain. It was coming down in ropes now, he realised distantly, lashing against the window in heavy rhythmic slaps.
“Could bring you off like this,” Hunt said, voice urgent and tender near Phil’s ear, “if you would like, or – or–” He swiped his thumb over the dripping head of Phil’s length, toying with a kind of gentle confidence at the slit; his breath caught audibly at the choked noise Phil could not keep from making into his shoulder in response. “Or – you are so sensitive, Phil, have you ever– I believe that you may like– Would you allow me– “
“Anything,” Phil was saying, before he could get any further, an eager muffled cry, “please.” This time he felt Hunt catch his breath, hold it for a second, his chest stilling, and let it out in a ragged sigh. Then all was a whirlwind of wonderfully rough movement: Phil’s breeches were being pulled from him and thrown across the room, the vial of oil was scrabbled for amongst the cushions, and Phil found himself on his back once again, winded, looking through his own spread knees.
At first it was not pleasure, just sensation and strangeness. The finger that was so slowly, so carefully breeching him, working its way inside – a finger that Phil knew to be so fine and elegant – felt enormous, impossibly large. It did not hurt, exactly, not with the slick slide of the oil and Hunt’s free hand petting carefully at his thigh, but it did feel – odd, entirely new and foreign. He breathed and tried to relax – must have managed to do so, because he could feel it deeper and deeper.
He was taking it nearly up to the knuckle, he realised, a little stunned. Hunt was stroking at him, inside, and that was beginning to be more than sensation: that was beginning to be good.
Then Hunt did something, grazed against something, and a white-hot thrum of feeling arced through Phil – intense, incandescent. It had his breath catching in his chest, and his legs so strange and weak so suddenly that he was almost frightened by it, almost could not stand it; he jerked away, heaving in air, his feet scrabbling for purchase on the velvet of the couch. Hunt made a noise of concern and started to say something – but Phil did not hear what it might be because the instant that electric sensation receded he found that he wanted it again, was greedy for more, even as his thighs still trembled from the first brush of it.
“Oh, God, yes,” he breathed, and moved to grab clumsily at Hunt’s hand, to compel it back to where it was required. As he reached between his own spread legs, his wrist bumped incidentally against his rosy, swollen cock, and that unexpected burst of a more familiar pleasure had his pleas melting into a startled cry. “Yes! Please. More.”
Hunt gave him what he asked for, and curled his fingers again with devastating intent; another jolt of that shimmering liquid feeling shot up Phil’s spine, and a noise like a sob burst from somewhere deep inside him. His back arched quite without his permission; his grip about Hunt’s wrist went so tight that his fingers must be bloodless; his eyes slammed shut; his legs quivered – and then his hips gave a violent, reflexive twist away from the pressure, from that queer, near-melting sensation, and he was throwing his free arm out blindly in an attempt to scramble away. He missed the edge of the couch: his hand met only air. In the dark he felt gravity give a swimming shift, and it was only Hunt’s hand catching at his knee that kept him from tumbling to the floor.
Phil flopped back to safety and lay there, laughing and breathless. “Lord, I’m sorry,” he said, as soon as he could speak again. “I do not mean to be so – so difficult. Please, go on. Please.”
Hunt huffed out a laugh of his own, and did not move, except to stroke at Phil’s raised knee with fingers still slick with oil.
“Now that, you must admit,” he said, “is a little contrary.”
He dipped his head to press a kiss to the soft inside of Phil’s knee; Phil shivered under the touch and was rewarded with another kiss, firmer and open-mouthed, midway up his inner thigh, Hunt’s tongue swiping briefly over the sensitive skin there. Then he was drawing back and Phil found himself fixed with a look as Hunt continued, voice wry and ruinously affectionate: “You are not obliged to like it, Phil. There are plenty of other things that we could try.”
Rational, kindly words – and yet they raised a thrill of something like panic in Phil. All the desperation that he had felt earlier was back in an instant – and it was keener this time because he had been given a taste of what he desired; he knew its shape, and yet he could not quite recollect it, could not hold it in his head. It was like trying in the dead of winter to remember a dream of the sun: all he knew was that he did not have it, and he wanted it badly.
“No!” He forced himself to raise his head, to get his elbows under him and look Hunt in the eye. “I like it. I do. It is simply–” He blew out a breath, tried to put his words in a comprehensible order. “It is so much, too good; I cannot bear it and yet – and yet I want to. I want more.”
There was a crack of need in his voice that had him colouring, embarrassed, but it only served to make Hunt’s breath come quicker, to draw out a flicker of something rich and vital in the depths of his eyes. Phil followed that darkening gaze as it dropped from his face, to his cock where it was standing blood-hot and aching, beginning to bow towards his stomach under its own weight. Lord, he was in a state, from nothing more than Hunt’s hands: Phil felt a squirming shiver that was half shame – half perverse pride.
“You certainly seem to like it here,” Hunt said, in a slightly dreamy tone, and reached out to brush the side of one finger – gently, just the lightest of touches – along the underside from base to head.
Phil tossed his head back and drew in a rough, shuddering breath; he fancied that he could almost see the hot, bright edge of his climax behind his eyes, and yet it was so stubbornly out of reach. He needed – He needed–
“Please,” he said, helplessly, to the ceiling, words coming out in a broken whisper that only just carried over the drumming of the rain. “Please. I need– You could – you could hold me down. Compel me to bear it.” The idea only truly seemed to come clear as he heard his own words: it hit him like a cannonball to the chest, had him breathless – and he had to sink his nails into the upholstery to keep from simply bringing himself off on the strength of that notion alone. The imagined pressure of Hunt’s forearm across his hips, and his fingers inside him– “I want it. I want that, from you.”
There was a moment of stillness with only the hushing sound of the rain and the frantic thrum of Phil’s own pulse to fill it – a moment long enough to have him cursing his frankness, his gut caught suddenly in the old sick clench of regret.
Then Hunt swore, sounding raw and urgent and not at all repulsed, and Phil did not have to imagine that pressure, because his forearm was really, truly braced across his hips, his weight leaned forwards, pressing Phil down into the sofa. A slick fingertip stroked firmly against his entrance again, making him jump, but that arm kept him in place.
“Go on talking,” Hunt said, voice rough. “If you say stop, we stop, at once. If you want it, tell me so.”
“Please,” Phil said, and then he could not seem to stop saying that, even as his hips bucked and twisted violently at each lightning-strike press inside him, as he writhed and struggled against the implacable restraint – the teasing rhythm of Hunt’s touches driving him close to a thoughtless, yearning distraction that felt a lot like madness. “Please, please, yes, there, oh, hard – harder. I need – I need– “
Something was building somewhere indefinable in his abdomen – a sweet, almost queasy thrill that had his muscles jumping, his feet in taut arches, his toes curling – and yet his eyelids felt so heavy, his mouth slack with growing bliss. A current of wind was whipping through the room again, and he was so fucking hard that even the whisper of it against his cock had him whimpering like – Lord, like a harlot. He simply could not help it.
He did not even notice the second finger breach him, too drenched in sensation. Then all at once there were two fingertips pressed hard against that one particular spot and Phil saw galaxies.
He soared amongst them, all joy, certain for a second that he might, he might– But then came that hellish relief as Hunt let up, and Phil could think again. Not well, not impressively, but he could think. He could think such things as More. Again.
Was he not supposed to be saying something? He stared sightlessly at the ceiling, his breath coming in near frantic gasps. His tongue felt hot, clumsy. “So good,” he managed, his voice thick with pleasure. “Feels– oh.”
His hips were still shifting, tiny restless movements against Hunt’s arm, but instinct had stopped trying to get him away. Now Phil found that he was actually bearing down upon the fingers inside him, trying to sink into the pressure, to get more of that sensation.
“That – That is better, Phil,” Hunt was saying, a wondering note in his voice. “That is perfect. You are taking it so well now. So sweetly. You are– Christ, you’re a marvel.”
That weight across Phil’s hips disappeared, and his knee was being pushed up towards his chest with steadfast care, spreading him wide in a movement that made him gasp and tense around Hunt’s fingers.
He forced his eyes open. Hunt was kneeling over him, and he had that rapt, observing look again, seemed to be drinking in whatever expression of tortured ecstasy must be etched across Phil’s features. It was hardly possible to flush further, but Phil gave it a shot.
Then that intent gaze was dropping between Phil’s splayed legs to take in everything there: his cock where it lay kissing clumsily against his stomach and leaking a stream of fluid so thick and steady that his abdomen was glazed with it, almost as though he had somehow spent without noticing; his balls, drawn up tight and desperate for release; the place where his body was welcoming in Hunt’s fingers – so obligingly, so eagerly.
Hunt raised his gaze and smiled, fierce and wicked and adoring. “Finest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Phil realised distantly that his own words had dissolved entirely into an irrepressible string of sighing moans – Christ, almost mewls. His cheeks burned, and he threw an arm across his mouth, bit at his own forearm to stifle them.
“No, don’t,” Hunt said, instantly, his voice disarmingly sincere. “Don’t do that. Let me hear you.”
Phil obediently let his arm fall away, thoughts a heated whirl. Hunt could no longer be verifying that he was enjoying himself – there could be no mistaking the tiny, eager motions of his hips now, the desperate arrhythmic clenching of his muscles: he simply wanted to hear Phil, wanton and enthusiastic. Hunt liked it. He liked it.
Phil shuddered all over at the sublime, shameful notion, and let out an overwhelmed sob. He could not have checked it if he tried.
A third fingertip was nudging at his entrance, he realised, all his awareness abruptly seizing on that point of contact. He pulled in a deep breath, and then his brows were drawing together in a slow frown of feeling, his mouth was falling open on a thin cry, little more than a rapturous exhalation, and he was stretched, tight and shaking, around three of Hunt’s talented fingers.
The feeling of fullness was – immense, revelatory, triumphant: it began finally to satisfy a formless need inside him. But it was the look on Hunt’s face – a kind of shocked, reverent awe, as though he were being allowed to see something grand and magnificent – that, more than anything else, made Phil’s head spin. He laughed, breathlessly, reached up and put a weak and fumbling hand to Hunt’s cheek, his lips, his hair; traced the elegant curve of his neck, gripped at the fabric of his shirt.
“Bewitching thing,” Hunt was saying, as his fingers began to move again, tentatively, monumentally. Phil gave a helpless whine at that slow drag; his hand fluttered and clutched feebly at Hunt’s collar. “I could watch you like this for hours. Forever. God, Phil. I could watch you do anything.” He spoke like one in a dream, as though the words were falling from deep within him without any thought or moderation. “You make me– I have never felt like this before. Not once. I did not know that I could feel like this. You make me believe in it, all of it.” And even though he was all around him – inside him – Phil needed him closer. He pulled weakly at Hunt’s collar, with some vague hope of bringing their mouths together.
Instead, Hunt leaned close, the motion folding Phil almost in half, and laid a kiss to his forehead – a soft, lingering press of his lips that kindled something bright and singing in Phil’s chest. It felt – sacred, somehow. It felt a lot like devotion. Phil’s eyes began to sting again; he was overtaken, suddenly, by an immense swell of feeling – gratitude, and disbelief, and a fragile, luminous joy.
And he could not even begin to be embarrassed by it, not with Hunt looking at him like that – his countenance so bare and wondering, his eyes round and shining like an acolyte at the altar. Everything felt permitted, felt gloriously right and natural, like a hot, eager wave crashing through him, bowling him forward and never quite breaking.
“Not hours,” Phil managed, half-laugh, half-gasp, and tossed his sweat-damp hair from his face. His voice sounded strange and broken against his ears. “I shall– I’ll go mad. Please, now, I– H-Hunt. I am going to– I cannot–“
“All right. All right.” Hunt gave a rather wild laugh of his own. “Whatever you need. Finish for me, beautiful. Let me see how much you like it.” He turned his head and sucked a shaky kiss into the inside of Phil’s wrist where he was hanging onto his collar, and those fingers – three of them, so splendid and thick inside Phil where nobody had ever been before – crooked hard.
And apparently that was all that Phil had needed, because just like that, the maddening tension shattered – Phil seemed to shatter, seemed to fall to pieces. His crisis tumbled down upon him with such force that his cry echoed around the room, and he was coming without a hand on his cock, with such vehemence that a thick splatter of his own release hit him in the chin. It was different from the headlong, instantaneous rush that he was used to; instead it felt as though that feeling – bright, white, helpless bliss – rumbled through him for a small, shining eternity, wringing pleasure from him and leaving him spent and twitching.
Lightning might have flashed through the room again. Or Phil might have slipped out of consciousness for a second.
He lay there, weightless, stunned. Tiny trembling shocks were still running through his muscles like – like the flickering puffs of thunderlight that mariners saw scampering about their masts after a storm at sea. I flamed amazement, Phil thought, in a dizzy, nonsensical snatch of half-remembered Shakespeare, and blinked the room back into being, felt the soft crush of linen in his fist again. To thy strong bidding, I flamed amazement.
Everything seemed to have taken on a pleasant, hazy glow: even the rain had faded to a soft buzz. Hunt’s eyes were upon him still, dark and intense, but his touch was so warm and gentle where he was stroking at Phil’s hair, at his thigh.
Lord, he was handsome, Phil thought, because it was true, and he was finally allowed to think it. A genius. Eyes like the ocean, like stars. Built like a god. His hands felt like heaven, and his lips– Phil smiled sleepily and tipped his chin up, hopeful of another kiss.
Hunt cursed softly and lunged in to oblige him, not minding the mess on his chest, his throat. Phil let himself be soundly kissed, mouth sunny and yielding: he felt done-over, deliciously so, dreamy and elastic, and each long kiss only seemed to send him deeper into it. Forgive me, he wanted to say, You must need to– I’ll— He would get a hand on Hunt, just as soon as he remembered how to work his arms, how to do anything but cling helplessly and rejoice.
But Hunt did not seem to resent his indolence all that much. He was pressing his lips to Phil’s cheek, the line of his jaw, the hollow of his throat – kisses growing sharper, wetter, desperate and bruising – and then Phil moaned in surprise and sensation as a hand gripped more firmly at his hip, his arse. Hunt was hitching him up and grinding clumsily against his wet hip, and Phil found himself gasping and squirming at every brush of fabric against his softened prick – but not trying to get away. Not at all sure, in fact, that he did not rather like the sensation.
“Beautiful,” Hunt said, lips moving against the spit-slick skin of Phil’s jaw, voice rough, “just beautiful. Glorious. Like nothing on earth.”
Ridiculous. Phil gave a dazed laugh and urged him on with a heel against his arse, his foot sliding gracelessly over the seat of Hunt’s breeches.
“Hunt,” he managed, his voice coming out throaty and foreign and incredulous. “You – you are still dressed. Next time we must–” and broke off, because Hunt’s hands had tightened abruptly and he had made a noise so vehement it could almost have been pain. Phil considered his own words, and for an instant he could not breathe for hope. Next time.
Hunt seemed to find the notion similarly inspiring, because he contrived to fumble his fall open, and then– Well, and then they were finally skin against skin, at least where it mattered, and Hunt was so hard and so hot and so big against Phil’s hip, the slick, slippery plane of his stomach, and was bucking against him with such ardent dedication that Phil could do very little but lie there in his arms and tremble with the glory of being wanted, fiercely.
He had just mastered himself sufficiently to begin mumbling a string of more or less nonsensical encouragement into the other man’s hair, brushing the flecked silver at his temple with his nose, when he heard himself say, “Yes, Hunt, come on”. His efforts dissolved into laughter as he was struck, suddenly, by this absurd formality of address from somebody in his position – from somebody who had lately had half the man’s hand inside him, for Heaven’s sake– “Come on, Edmund.”
Hunt – Edmund – made a noise like he had been punched in the stomach, and thrust forward with such vigour that Phil was jolted up the couch, his shoulders hitting the upholstered arm behind him. Edmund’s head jerked up; he began to choke out a rough apology that Phil stopped with an imprecise, lightning-quick kiss.
“Come on,” he said, against Edmund’s cheek, rushed and heartfelt. “Come on, Edmund, do not – do not be careful, do not hold back, I can take it. I want it – anything you will give me.” And he had the satisfaction of hearing Edmund choke out a curse, of feeling his grip tighten even further, hard enough to bruise, as he dropped a booted foot to the floor and began to slam his hips forward without moderation.
The feet of the couch gave tiny scraping jumps across the floorboards with the force of his movements, and it was Phil’s turn to be inspired. He felt a blinding swell of need, and then his arm was moving without thought, or without any lucid thought, and he had his hand on Edmund Hunt’s pleasingly thick cock. Had the finest artist in England – in history – shuddering against him, groaning into his sweat-damp collarbone.
Phil lit up – with triumph, with affection. He was so happy his chest hurt with it. He could feel Edmund’s pulse under his fingers, his skin so silken and hot: in a sudden flashed vision, he imagined that same heat, this same force, but within him, taking him apart just as Edmund’s fingers had, but more— He imagined being pinned down and filled up and enjoyed – imagined Edmund’s eyes upon him as he yielded to the hot, steady press of his cock, the things Edmund might say. Imagined it with such clarity that it left his lungs empty and had his spent prick giving an overeager, aching twitch.
“Edmund,” he said, breathless, drunk on promise, “next time, Edmund, I want this inside me. I want your cock inside me.”
Edmund made a wounded, desperate noise, bit at Phil’s shoulder with enough force to make him yelp, and shook against him. A flood of liquid heat splashed against Phil’s wrist, his stomach: he marvelled at it, dizzy with achievement.
Then the entire weight of Edmund’s lofty frame was collapsing against him, warm and heavy in the rapidly cooling room. Phil welcomed it, wriggling around in a not particularly dignified manner under him until he was less crushed and more comfortable. He was not sure that he had ever been more comfortable, ever happier – a filthy, perfect wreck. Sated and boneless and bathed in a great and spreading glow of contentment.
He slung his arms around Edmund’s shoulders and lay there, listening to the sound of their breathing, slowing together and falling into sync, and the patter of the rain
“Christ Almighty,” Edmund said. The tickle of his breath against Phil’s collarbone sent warmth through him, down to his heels; he preened contentedly under it like a cat in a sunbeam. “The things you say.”
Phil laughed, and did not feel the slightest lick of shame.
The storm clouds cleared, and there were the two of them – spent, bruised, exhausted and unspeakably happy.
“Well,” Edmund said eventually, when they had been lying there for what could have been a very agreeable lifetime, “you have ruined my shirt, my breeches, and – in all likelihood – my couch. I hardly dare to hope that the ceiling escaped unscathed. I hope that you are pleased with yourself.” He pressed a lingering kiss to Phil’s shoulder; it stirred a vague and lazy heat within him. “I certainly found it pleasing.”
Phil laughed, and let him pull away and sit up with only minimal protest. Edmund reached out with a smile and rubbed a thumb over Phil’s chin, where the skin was beginning to turn tacky. “I am coming back,” he continued, all fond amusement. “You lie there looking ravished and divine, and let me attend upon you.”
Ludicrously, it was only once he was gone and Phil was alone that a fit of shyness overcame him. He cast about for his shirt, found it, pulled it on – wandered to the window to see whether the world was still there. Whether it looked as new and lovely as he suspected.
The sky was still clouded but there was a brave radiance to it, the sun beaming through all over, like canvas shining through a thin purple glaze. The grass glittered, hung with rain.
Phil turned, and idly surveyed the well-known chaos of the studio with a sort of complacent fondness. Dear desk, he thought, stupidly, admirable desk: splendid paintbrushes, wonderful paintbox, excellent paint-stained rags. Capital spill of sketching-paper and even more beloved pencil-marks, and— A smudged little sketch caught his eye, dashed down on the corner of a page, half-hidden under a pile of paper: a hand, with something familiar to it. Curled around a short-stemmed glass.
He reached for the page and tugged it free, mind fuzzy with an awed conjecture.
The movement let loose a soft cascade: papers slid out over the desk, till it was covered in bold, exquisite shapes in lead and charcoal. Clouds, of course, and plants, and trees and distant hedgerows, craggy rocks, a foreign shoreline. And everywhere amongst them, seeming to jump from the page, to jostle and crowd out the pastoral scenes– More hands. Faces. Figures. Or one figure, again and again. Dark hair, dark eyes. The curve of a shoulder, an untidily pushed-back shirtsleeve. A very familiar countenance, caught in a smile – a scowl – a frown of concentration, dark brows drawn together and bottom lip bitten. A bright and vivid look of entreaty; a turned-away, half-glimpsed laugh.
The lightest dusting of freckles. Almost imperceptible, but there. Noticed.
“What are you up to over there? Not restless again already?”
Phil made no reply; he hardly even registered the words until a warm presence drew close behind him, and a hand was against his shoulder, rubbing absently at the place where the ghost of an ache no longer lingered. “Oh,” Edmund said, sounding a little choked.
Phil looked up at him, eyes wide and astonished.
That fetching blush was back in the painter’s cheeks again. He looked – more than he had at any point so far in their acquaintance, even in the last two hours – positively abashed.
“They are all of me,” Phil said, voice weak with amazement. “Of me. Edmund–“
The obvious wonder in his demeanour seemed to cure Edmund of his fit of diffidence. He made a noise that was half-laugh, half-sigh, and then he was crowding against Phil’s back, his arm was tight around Phil’s waist; Phil happily let himself be pulled close, let a fervent kiss be dropped into his hair, and turned his eyes again to the masterpieces before them on the table.
“Yes,” Edmund said, reflectively, “they are. All of them, all summer. Even the storms. I could not keep you out.”
Phil stood there, reeling; he watched as Edmund’s free hand reached past him and those elegant fingers leafed through the pages with practiced grace. He made a noise of dissatisfaction over Phil’s head, and Phil could picture exactly the self-amused quirk of his lips, the ironical humility in his face, as clearly as if it were Edmund’s lovingly reproduced face looking up at him a dozen times from the table, rather than his own.
“I still have not done you justice,” Edmund said. “Not even close. But if you will permit me, I should like to keep trying.”
They all looked utterly, utterly perfect to Phil. But for once he was not at all inclined to argue the point. For once, Edmund Hunt’s endless dissatisfaction with his own work filled him with nothing but a thunderbolt flash of hope – so fierce and brilliant that it seemed to light up an entire future, an entire life. Phil very much liked what he saw there.
“As long as it takes,” he said, and meant it.