by Cat O’ Nine Tails
It was the morning after Freddy Furlong’s farewell party, and I was suffering the effects of an assortment of wines, brandies, whiskies, ports and fruit liqueurs, mingled with semi-digested oysters, plovers’ eggs and a dish that Freddy had claimed was made from octopus, although nobody at the club had believed him. My brain had turned into porridge; my skull was threatening to split into more pieces than the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and somebody had decided that what my stomach really needed was a spot of incendiary bombing. In short, I was not a well man.
To make matters worse, I had sacked my valet, Jenkins, only two days before, and so I was all alone in my flat with nobody to call upon, and all my cries for aspirin and cold water and an end to the infernal hammering in my brain went unheard. I succeeded in reaching the kitchen on my own steam, which I consider quite an achievement given the state I was in, but once I was there I found myself lost. So many cupboards, all of them identical, and where on earth did I keep the glasses? I opened one cupboard door tentatively, and was very nearly hit on the head by a bag of sugar. In my fragile state of mind, I became immediately convinced that Jenkins had booby-trapped the kitchen in a fit of disgruntlement, and that no matter what cupboard doors I tried, I should be assaulted by flying groceries.
I saw no alternative but to retreat to the sitting-room, fling myself onto a sofa, and groan until my headache subsided; and so that was what I did.
Some minutes later, my groans were interrupted by a loud ringing sound. At first I assumed that my ears were punishing me with the same fervour as my head and my stomach, but when the ringing stopped, and then started again, it occurred to me that perhaps it was the doorbell. I did not feel at all equal to exploring this possibility, but the ringing persisted, and I decided that after all it was doing my head no good, and I should get up and make the blighter who was disturbing me stop it. Alas, by the time I opened the door, this line of thought had escaped me, and I could only gape at the fellow who faced me.
He was a tallish fellow — taller than me, at any rate — dark-haired and soberly dressed. “Mr Baskerville?” he said, inclining his head.
I blinked, thought about it, and said, “Yes?”
“I’ve come in answer to your advertisement, sir.”
“Yes, sir.” He produced a folded-up newspaper and handed it to me. Even in my decrepit state I could make out that one of the advertisements had been circled neatly with a pencil; it said “Valet required for single gentleman” and gave my surname and address. I dimly remembered having placed such an advertisement, but now that it had produced a result I had not the slightest idea of what to do about it.
“Well,” I said, “I suppose you’d better come in.” I stood back to let him pass. The edges of his mouth tightened a little, as if he were suppressing a smile. I glanced at myself, and for the first time realised that not only had I slept in my clothes (full evening dress, at that), I had not removed my tie before falling into bed, as a consequence of which the knot was somewhere around my left ear. As if that were not enough, there was a bright green stain on my shirt-front from when Marcus Phipps had spilled crème de menthe on me the night before.
I refused to blush or stammer, but I couldn’t help feeling a little disadvantaged. “Had a bit of a party last night,” I muttered, jerking the tie back to its proper position. “I’m not feeling quite… I say, I’ve just had a thought.”
“Yes, sir?” His mouth had stopped twitching and he was the picture of deference once more, his face perfectly expressionless.
I harrumphed a little and shut the door behind him. “I mean to say, you’re here now, and I don’t have a valet, and we might as well dispense with the interview and just — set to it.”
“I see, sir. And if you are satisfied with my services?”
“You can consider yourself hired.”
“Ah… forgive me for asking, but shall I be paid for my time regardless, sir? There were some other gentlemen I had planned to visit in search of employment, and I should not like to miss those opportunities without compensation.”
I waved a hand impatiently. “Yes, yes, of course. And now that that’s settled, get me a — a large glass of water, an aspirin and a damp towel. I shall be in the sitting room.”
I repaired to the sofa and recommenced my groans. In what seemed an eternity but was actually, according to the clock, about a minute and a half, my provisional valet came in bearing a salver on which he had placed a glass, a pill, and a damp towel. I leapt for the glass with a cry of joy, and instantly sank back down upon the sofa with a groan lower than any I had yet uttered.
“I would advise against sudden movement, sir,” said the provisional valet. “It is apt to unsettle the nerves of a gentleman in your condition. If you will permit me?”
I closed my eyes and nodded. I had no idea what he was asking permission to do, but there was a cool professionalism in his tone that inspired great confidence. Somehow I felt I was in good hands.
He draped the towel on my forehead with a gentle unfussy touch, then indicated with a quiet clearing of the throat that I should open my eyes. I took the pill proffered me and washed it down with what proved not to be water after all, but some fizzing, fruity concoction that slid down my throat with great ease and left me feeling once more like a human being rather than the stunted troglodyte I had been transforming into.
I sat up — slowly — and drank the rest of the fizzy stuff. The provisional valet was standing at the perfect distance: close enough that he would be there as soon as I needed him, but not enough to make me feel hovered over. My heart filled with gratitude, and I decided to end his provisionality on the spot.
I opened my mouth to ask for his name, but before I could speak I was distracted by a most disturbing sound that appeared to emanate from the guest bedroom, not unlike the yowling of a cat that had got its tail trapped in a door. I hardly cared about the source, however, as the noise had started up the hammers in my head.
“Shall I investigate, sir?” said my new man. I nodded feebly and sank back onto the sofa.
As I waited for the aspirin to take effect, I discovered a certain morbid fascination in the study of my own basso groans and the treble shrieks coming from the guest room; they harmonised rather well, I thought, and when combined with the syncopated beat of the throbs racking my temples, made for a jazzy number that would not have disgraced the speakeasies of New York. Alas, the shrieks abated before I could compare the number to the ones I had heard on the radio, and shortly afterwards I heard the sound of a throat being cleared.
I opened one eye a crack. “What is it?” I said, meaning to convey with my tone that unless “it” was a crisis of international proportions, I was not to be disturbed.
“A gentleman is asleep on the bed in the guest room, sir,” he said. “I believe he may have been having a nightmare. He had inadvertently tightened his collar in his sleep and was having difficulty breathing. I managed to loosen it for him, and he awoke for long enough to say ‘Tell the world Freddy Furlong is not for turning!’ before going back to sleep.” He paused, and one of his eyebrows twitched eloquently. “I believe, sir, that the gentleman will remain asleep for several hours to come. If you were to retire to your own bedroom, any noises he were to make in his sleep would be considerably muffled and unlikely to disturb you.”
“That’s a capital idea. I think I’ll — wait a minute. Did he say ‘Freddy Furlong is not for turning!’?”
“The precise words were ‘Tell the world Freddy Furlong is not for turning!, sir.”
“Blast!” I got up with some care, although my headache had subsided somewhat. “Come with me,” I said, “I may need your help.”
“Of course, sir.”
He followed me to the door of the guest room, which I opened as quietly as possible. I poked my head around the door and glanced at the supine figure on the bed. “It’s Freddy all right,” I muttered. “Damn him! I don’t even remember taking him home. Did he follow me? Did I forget?”
“Is there a problem, sir?”
I shut the door. “Yes,” I said. “Freddy Furlong is a very old and dear friend of mine, and last night was his farewell party, but it looks like he got so drunk that he’s forgotten why we were bidding him farewell in the first place!”
“Ah. Then this gentleman is indeed the Frederick Furlong, author of Blood on the Snow and playwright of First Catch Your Thief?”
I blinked, momentarily distracted from my train of thought, and asked whether he was a great reader. He confirmed that he was, and that while he typically resorted to poetry to while away dull hours, he was also quite fond of modern detective novels, and had been most impressed by what he called “Mr Furlong’s gift for subtle characterization”.
I digested this, and grasped again at the thread I had left dangling a moment before. “But that’s by the bye,” I said, “because Freddy’s supposed to be going to Hollywood, to write for the motion pictures. His ship sails in — ” (I checked my watch) ” — good Lord, it sailed twenty minutes ago!”
“It would seem that Mr Furlong will have to delay his departure. There will not be another boat sailing for New York until tomorrow morning.”
I sank back against the guest room door. “You’re right, of course. Blast him! I’ll have to pay for his ticket, too. Freddy’s always broke.”
Once again his eyebrows moved very slightly, this time upwards. “Forgive me, sir, but I was under the impression that Mr Furlong was a highly successful author. First Catch Your Thief ran for over a year to packed houses. It was very difficult to get tickets.”
“Oh, you saw it, did you?” He nodded. “Good for you. I never bothered. Freddy talked so much about it that I knew all the lines anyway.” I bit my lip. I was not accustomed to talking to servants about my friends, even when the said servants had been soothing my fevered brow mere minutes previously, but there was something about this chap that invited confidence. It didn’t feel as if I had known him for less than an hour, even though I had.
I decided to take a risk. “Look. I’ll spill the beans, if you promise that what I say does not go beyond these four walls.”
He almost looked offended. “Sir, anything you tell me will be kept in the strictest confidence, I assure you.”
“Good. Good.” I turned over in my mind a number of different angles from which one could view Freddy Furlong’s life, and decided on the one that was easiest to understand and least likely to scandalise the fellow. “You see, the trouble is, Freddy can’t keep money. He’s not bad at making it, but once he’s got it he spends it as if spending money were going out of fashion. That’s why he’s going to America, really; he does have a job lined up in Hollywood, but more importantly he’s got an aunt there. Not actually in Hollywood, but in the city, what’s it called — ”
“Los Angeles, sir?”
“That’s the one. And the idea is, if he’s living under the watchful eye of the aforesaid relative, he won’t be able to spend quite so recklessly as before.”
“Is this aunt of Mr Furlong’s particularly thrifty, sir?”
“Welll… not thrifty, exactly. More… puritanical. Not the type to allow him to indulge himself.”
“It would seem a good plan, then, sir, but for Mr Furlong’s present incapacity.”
“It is a good plan, and when Mr Furlong’s present incapacity comes to an end I shall implement it posthaste. But for the time being, I’m going to take your advice and go to bed. If Freddy starts shrieking again, shut him up.”
“Very good, sir.”
My headache had abated enough that I managed to drift off after only a few minutes’ restless staring at the ceiling. I awoke some hours later, and for one delicious moment I did not remember the previous night, the liqueurs, ports, wines, whiskies, and assorted indigestible delicacies, nor did I recall the presence of Freddy Furlong in my guest room or the fact that I had sacked Jenkins.
“Jenkins!” I cried. “I know it’s late, but I need some breakfast!”
My new valet slid into my room with a tray, just as if he had been listening at the keyhole for signs of wakefulness. I blinked, and the events of the morning, and the previous night, crashed into my mind all at once. I groaned.
“Do you need more aspirin, sir?” said my new valet as he set down the breakfast tray.
“No,” I said, pulling myself upright. “I am in need of a little gentle stimulation. That is, a cup of tea.”
He poured, and I drank. “I wasn’t groaning because I had a headache. As it happens, I don’t have a headache, and I suppose I have you to thank for that. What was that fizzy stuff you gave me?”
“My own invention, sir, intended to treat the symptoms of dehydration. I discovered its effects during the War, when it was needed for the sake of soldiers’ health, and only afterwards applied to, er — ” He made a polite little throat-clearing noise, and went on, “I am gratified that you have found it effective, sir.”
“Damned effective. Anyway, as I was saying, I was groaning for an entirely different reason. The enormity of my plight had just dawned on me.”
“Your plight, sir?”
“Yes. You see, I’d suspected for a while that Freddy didn’t really want to go to America, and now I know it for a fact. And that is trouble, because he has to go, whether he wants to or not. There are only so many times I can bail out his dinghy. Sooner or later, he shall get himself into trouble when I’m not there, and then what?”
“One shudders to think, sir.”
“Indeed one does.” I tucked into a plate of kidneys with some gusto; my stomach had recovered, and I was ravenous. “So you see, it’s imperative that we get Freddy off to America and under his aunt’s watchful gaze as soon as possible.”
“It should be a relatively simple operation, sir. While you were sleeping I took the liberty of making some enquiries by telephone. There is a ship sailing for New York tomorrow morning, with tickets available in all classes. Once Mr Furlong has had a chance to rest and recuperate, he can be on his way to his aunt with the minimum of trouble.”
“Good job!” I had finished the kidneys, so I started spreading marmalade on the perfectly browned slices of toast. “But as to trouble… you don’t know Freddy like I know Freddy. Freddy could find trouble in a bag of boiled sweets. I think I may have to join him on this trip of his, just to make sure he doesn’t bolt and miss his train, just as he missed the boat this morning. I mean, when I think about it — ‘Freddy Furlong’s not for turning!’ — well, it doesn’t sound like it was an accident, does it?”
“No, sir. Indeed, as he was saying those words, he had an air of inchoate defiance about him.”
“Inchoate defiance. That’s Freddy in a nutshell.” I drained the last of my tea, and got out of bed. “I am going to have a bath,” I said, springing towards the bathroom door. I paused with my hand on the knob and waved vaguely at my wardrobe. “Set out some clothes for me — you decide which.”
I don’t mind admitting that I sing in the bath, since nobody ever hears me except my valet, and I think putting up with the young master’s caterwauling is one of the things any well-trained valet has to take in his stride. On this occasion I felt rather anxious, and so I embarked on a Gilbert & Sullivan medley to cheer myself up. By the time I reached Iolanthe, I had cleansed my frame as thoroughly as was needed, but the water was still hot and fragrant from the salts, so I lay back and enjoyed it, singing all the while:
“When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache
And repose is taboo’d by anxiety
I conceive you may use any language you choose — ”
“To indulge in without impropriety,” sang a familiar tenor, completing the quatrain. I jerked into a sitting position, and grabbed onto the sponge, partly to protect my modesty but mostly so that I should have something to throw, if that proved necessary.
“Freddy!” I said sternly. “And what do you think you’re doing here? By now, you ought to be steaming across the Atlantic in a first-class cabin, but look at you!” Indeed, Freddy looked a mess. His tie was askew, his hair was rumpled and sticking out at odd angles, and his shirtfront looked as if somebody had been sick on it. “What will your aunt think when she hears about this?”
“I don’t care!” said Freddy with a tone and expression I recognised with a sinking heart as having an air of inchoate defiance. “Let her worry. Let her be angry. I’m not going, Tom, and nothing you say will persuade me! I’m staying in England.”
“But, Freddy, you can’t! There’s not a chance in a thousand you’ll get another play put on after what happened last time. In London’s theatrical circles, your name is mud.”
“What of it? I can write books instead. The novel is a medium far more suited to my particular genius. If you’d ever bothered to read Blood on the Snow, you would realise that.”
I gripped the sponge tightly, but resisted the urge to throw it. “Your name’s pretty much mud in publishing circles, too, or so I hear. It’s not much good having a particular genius for novels if nobody will bally well publish them.”
“That’s all lies! It’s only old man Horwood who’s taken against me, and he doesn’t own Grub Street. Even if Horwood & Son won’t touch me with a bargepole, there are dozens of other publishers who’d leap at the chance to publish my next work.”
I raised a sceptical eyebrow. “Not if they find out what happened to the ‘& Son’.”
Freddy drew himself up to his full height (all five feet six of it). “I did nothing to Robert Horwood that he didn’t want me to do, as you well know, and if his fiancée found out about it, that wasn’t my fault. How was I to know she had a key to that room?”
“That’s beside the point and you know it,” I said, wielding the sponge in what I hoped was a menacing fashion. “You might well have had the best of intentions when you seduced the young Mr Horwood, but the fact remains that only some substantial bribes and a lot of wire-pulling on my part have kept you out of chokey. How would you fancy being the next Oscar Wilde?”
Freddy got a wistful look on his face, which, combined with the rest of his dishevelled aspect, made him look as if he was about to be sick. “It would be a marvellous thing to have Oscar Wilde’s gift for poetry,” he said. “Gosh, when I think of the number of times I’ve read The Ballad of Reading Gaol — ”
“My dear boy, if you don’t leave London soon you won’t be reading it, you’ll be living it. Forever pining after ‘that little patch of blue that prisoners call the sky’. You have to leave, Freddy. You must see that.”
Freddy sank down upon the lid of the WC. “You wouldn’t shop me, would you, Tom?” he asked with a pained expression. I let my heart soften a little, but only a little. I had seen that face on Freddy before, and it never lasted long. “Of course I wouldn’t shop you,” I said, “don’t be silly. But I can’t be with you twenty-four hours a day, either, and I can’t trust you out on your own. You’re a danger to yourself and to others. And possibly to civilisation as we know it,” I added, thinking of the previous night’s octopus.
“Well,” said Freddy, “maybe you’re right. Maybe I need to be a bit more responsible. But I still don’t want to go to America. Dash it all, Tom, can’t I stay with you for a while? You could give me a rap on the knuckles whenever I look like doing something rash, and I’m sure after a few weeks I’ll be a model citizen.”
“Freddy, no! You can get the same tutelage from your Aunt Marigold in Los Angeles, and the weather will be better. It’s always sunny there, you know.”
He brightened a little at that. “Yes, I’d forgotten the sunshine. And there are orange trees, aren’t there? Fancy picking your own oranges for breakfast every morning!”
“There, you see? It won’t all be stern reprimands. Come on, Freddy, admit it: you know this is for the best.”
“Perhaps… perhaps… But, I say, I can’t go, Tom! I get so terribly seasick. I only went on a boat once, and that was just a trip across the Channel which is so short I could probably swim it, and I got so sick I felt like hurling myself into the sea just to put an end to it. I’d never survive an Atlantic crossing. No, I can’t go.”
“Excuses, excuses. Freddy, you can’t fool me. You were never seasick in your life — ”
“I was! I was as sick as anything!”
” — and in any case, the Channel crossing is far choppier and nastier than the Atlantic.” I was making that part up. Anything to stem the tide of excuses.
At that Freddy’s expression grew morose. “I don’t want to go,” he muttered. “I like oranges, and I like sunny weather, but, Tom, it’s not enough. There’s so much I’d miss.”
“Like policeman banging on your door, creditors sending you threatening letters, the tailor refusing to mend your trousers until you pay your outstanding bills…”
“Would you miss any of that?”
“I don’t have any debts. Or, none to speak of, anyway.”
“Because I paid them off! But sooner or later you’ll get into a debt too big for me to pay off. Or,” (I averted my eyes to soften the blow, and avoid seeing his face) “I shall get sick and tired of helping you, and decide to cut you out.”
There was a moment of silence. I scrubbed myself with my sponge, not for purposes of cleanliness but because the bathwater was getting cold and I needed to warm myself somehow.
“You would, wouldn’t you?” he said at last.
I had been expecting “you wouldn’t, would you?”, but evidently Freddy had a more accurate idea of how trying his escapades had been to me than I had imagined.
I turned and looked him in the eye. “Yes,” I said. “I would. Not because I don’t care for you, my dear boy, but because you would try the patience of a saint. And I am very far from being a saint.”
He sighed heavily. “All right,” he said. “All right, I’ll go. But, Tom, promise me one thing.”
“Not before I know what it is.”
“Tom! I only wondered — well, would you come with me? Not to stay, of course, but just — just on the crossing. It might be a bit of a holiday for you; you’ve never been to New York, have you?”
I shook my head, but said nothing. Of course I had meant to accompany him anyway, just to make sure he really went, but now that he had suggested this plan himself, I suspected him of trying to wrangle his way out of going to California at all. He might well believe he could do that by taking me with him to New York and demonstrating how very responsibly he could behave without his aunt’s supervision. But then, I was still as sure of anything as of the fact that he couldn’t behave responsibly without supervision, so the risk was pretty slim.
“Well, if I do come — ”
“You will! You will come, won’t you?”
“If I come, as I said, it will only be to New York. Once I put you on the train to Los Angeles, you’re on your own.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t dream of asking more.”
“And you have to promise to be on your best behaviour — the same best behaviour you’ll be on when you’re under the beady eyes of your Aunt Marigold.”
“Yes, yes. Absolutely. Got to get some practice in, after all.”
“Well. In that case, go out and tell my man to book two — no, three tickets on the next boat to New York. First class.”
He nodded and left the room. I squeezed my sponge meditatively and got out of the bath. I did too much for Freddy, and I always had; though he had tried to do favours for me more times than I could count, somehow he always ended up in the red. Perhaps he liked it better that way.
All the same, the incident of young Master Horwood had finally convinced me to send him packing. I understood dear Freddy’s propensities only too well, having much the same tastes myself, and had I met Robert Horwood in different circumstances I, too, might have made a play for him — but I would have had the sense to lock the bedroom door, and the humility to admit it if I forgot. The episode had not, all things considered, been much more expensive or troublesome than most of Freddy’s escapades, but it revealed a depth of unconcern in him that worried me. I began to think that I had been helping him too much, too much for him to be able to help himself. For the sake of his pride and my own peace of mind, I had to cut the tie.
When I had dried myself adequately and clothed myself in a red silk dressing-gown, I tiptoed into my room and was pleasantly surprised at the array of clothing on the bed. My new man had set out a brown suit I had entirely forgotten about, accessorized to perfection: shirt, tie, socks, cufflinks — all were a harmony of colour, fit, and style, such as would set off my best features and make me look twice as handsome as I normally did. I whistled a gay air as I dressed myself, contemplating a long and fruitful relation with this fellow whose name I still hadn’t learnt, and stepped out into the sitting room with more optimism in my heart than I would have thought possible that very morning.
He was standing at parade rest by the sideboard as I entered. “Have you booked the tickets?” I said.
“Yes, sir,” he said, “and I have arranged to have them delivered here this afternoon. Ah…” His eyebrows flickered downward slightly; it was not a frown, any more than a pebble is a mountain, but it partook of the nature of frowns. “May I take it, sir,” he went on, “that the third ticket is for me?”
“Indeed you may,” I said. “You have acquitted yourself admirably so far. More than admirably. Yes, you shall come, unless — I say, you don’t object, do you? I’m loath to pull rank, but if you object to coming with me and Freddy, I shall have to. I can’t possibly survive an Atlantic crossing with no one but Freddy for company, and I don’t think he could survive it either.”
“I expect not, sir, but you need not fear on my account. I am quite pleased to come with you wherever you might need my services.”
“Good. Good. Then perhaps you might tell me — ”
I was going to ask him his name, but before I could say the words, a shriek, a crash and a clatter came from the guest room. “Blast Freddy! What do you suppose is wrong with him now?”
“Do you wish me to investigate, sir?”
“Do that, would you? And take care of it. By fair means or foul,” I added darkly, “whichever prove necessary.”
“Very good, sir. Shall I pack for your journey tomorrow, sir?”
“Yes, you’d better. And I fancy I shall make myself scarce, in case Freddy tries to talk me out of talking him out of staying. I shall be at my club — the Routledge, d’you know it?” He nodded. “Good. Good. Well, er — ” I glanced about myself in a hopeless sort of a way. I had forgotten something, but I couldn’t pin down what. After thirty seconds of aimless staring, I gave it up as a bad job and picked up my hat. “I shall be back after lunch,” I said.
“Very good, sir,” he said, closing the door gently behind me.
I was halfway to the Routledge when I realised that I still didn’t know his name.
It transpired that my new manservant rejoiced in the name of James Darling. He said this to me with a slightly tense air, as if he were expecting me to recognise it and be displeased, or perhaps to make fun. I did neither, which seemed to unsettle and relieve him in equal measure; at the time, I made no remark of this, for which I blame my impeccably upper-class upbringing.
I hope you will think no less of me if I tell you that I was raised — not to ignore servants, precisely, but certainly not to notice them, unless they were failing in their duties. My father had a butler when I was a boy who was always called Hodges, and it was not until the man’s funeral that I found out that his name was really Wilkinson, and he was called Hodges because of some whim of my father’s. Thus it was that on our transatlantic crossing, I never noticed the way Darling steered Freddy away from the handsome young Honourable travelling with his father the Viscount M—, and towards the equally handsome and considerably more discreet young steward who attended our cabins. The lack of suspicious incidents was almost enough in itself to make me suspicious, but whenever I considered spying on Freddy to be sure he was behaving, I reminded myself of proverbs involving sleeping dogs and gift horses, and changed my mind.
It simply did not occur to me that both my peace and quiet and Freddy’s blissful avoidance of angry parents were the result of clever and careful manoeuvring on Darling’s part, or if it did occur to me, it was only in the vaguest possible way. If there was a mess, Darling would clear it up. That was what servants did. It was not a fact to remark upon, or even to think about.
When we arrived in New York and ensconced ourselves comfortably in a pleasant but not luxurious hotel, Freddy contrived to miss the first train to Los Angeles, and the second, and the third, upon which I found myself out of ideas and with no recourse to assistance, being thousands of miles away from my friends. I said as much to Darling one evening, meaning only to unburden myself, only to find him frowning intently in a way that suggested ferocious cogitation taking place behind that wrinkled brow.
I stared at that very brow for a long moment, and at the face on which it was mounted. It was, it suddenly occurred to me, a good face, a clear, handsome, intelligent face, well-proportioned, elegant, and yet not flashy or particularly outstanding in any way. I could have stared at it for hours without getting tired of it; it could have been in front of me for hours without my ever noticing it.
It was a perfect servant’s face, in other words.
That thought troubled me in a way I couldn’t pin down, so I broke the silence. “Penny for your thoughts, Darling?”
Darling’s brow smoothed over. “It may not be my place to say, sir — ”
I waved a hand airily. “Perhaps in England I might agree with you, but this is America. Land of the free and all that. Speak your mind; it can’t be as stumped as mine is.”
“Well, sir, it has occurred to me that perhaps in your attempt to induce Mr Furlong to comply with the plan laid down for him, you have been using too much of the stick and not quite enough of the carrot.”
“And what did you have in mind?”
The brow wrinkled once more. “May I speak frankly, sir?”
“By all means.”
“I have had occasion to observe Mr Furlong’s character during our admittedly brief acquaintance, and it would appear that he has a great — indeed, one might almost say a profound need for…” He made a discreet throat-clearing sound, the kind that clears nothing from the throat save for the words one wishes not to say. “A need for diversion,” he finished. “If one were to indicate plainly to him that the… diversions… which he is so attached to would be easily available in Los Angeles — perhaps, in fact, more easily than in London, or, indeed, New York — he could most likely be persuaded to relocate there without any complaint.”
There was something about the way he said the word “diversion” that turned my blood to ice. I trip as lightly through my life as I can, but I know what danger can lie in an unlocked door, or an indiscreet servant. Darling was, in fact, being very discreet, and that was all that kept me from dismissing him with a frosty word.
I licked my lips. “Come now, Darling,” I said with a slightly stiff smile, “I did say you could speak frankly. Let’s have some frank speaking! Beating round the bush won’t get Freddy packed up and sent away.”
Darling blinked rather rapidly at that, and frowned, and took a breath as if to speak, and let it out without speaking. Finally, he dropped his head and said quietly, “Do forgive me if I overstep my bounds, sir, but it has not escaped my notice that Mr Furlong is — that he favours male company. If one were to make representations to him that the motion picture industry is a fertile ground for — for assignations of that nature — ”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
He looked up. “Sir?”
“‘Favouring male company’, as you put it. It doesn’t bother you? There are a lot of rather nasty words for it, and not many nice ones.”
“What people call something is not a measure of whether it is worthwhile,” he said with some heat in his voice.
“You surprise me,” I said, because it was true; but what surprised me was not that he was willing to overlook the perverted leanings of his employer’s friend, but that behind that perfect servant’s face I had seen a glimpse of a person, with thoughts and feelings that had nothing to do with cufflinks.
In a flash it came to me why I had come to trust him so quickly and easily. I could not stop myself from crying out, “Why, you’re Geoffrey’s batman!”
He shifted into a parade rest stance and inclined his head slightly. “The official term is ‘soldier-servant’. Or it was when I was in the Army.”
I stared, unable to help myself, unable to care that it was rude. I had been sixteen years of age when I had first seen him in a photograph that came wrapped up in a terse and water-stained letter from my brother, Captain Geoffrey Baskerville.
A frightful thought occurred to me. “I say, when you saw my advertisement, you didn’t think — I mean to say, Geoffrey is — he — it was during the War — ”
His eyes grew distant, and then with a blink they were clear again. “No, sir,” he said, “I was informed of Captain Baskerville’s death shortly after it happened. It was a mere coincidence that I happened to see your advertisment at a time when I was seeking employment.”
I sensed that he was holding back, and I stood up, not quite liking to have my eyes at a different height to his. “But it wasn’t a coincidence that you answered the advertisement. Was it?”
Darling’s eyes softened. I wondered how I could ever have thought him expressionless with eyes like that. “No, sir,” he said. “Captain Baskerville spoke very fondly of you. I thought — if you will permit me to speak personally?”
I nodded impatiently. I had rather thought we’d crossed that bridge already. “Of course.”
“Captain Baskerville and I were not merely fellow soldiers. There is a bond that arises when men serve together in war, and in particular a kind of intimacy between an officer and his servant. We became… I think it is not presumptuous to say that we were close friends.”
I nodded again, searching his face. There was a mixture of pleasure and sorrow on it that was familiar to me, a kind of nostalgia that was both warm and painful. “Yes, I know. He didn’t write much in his letters home — never liked holding a pen — but he always mentioned you. I remember thinking how important you must have been, since he wrote about so little else.”
Darling’s lips twitched in something that was not quite a smile. “It was a great blow when I heard of his death. I was in hospital at the time, recovering from injuries. I had no chance to pay my respects until after the War was over.”
“Yes, I think I should have recognised you if you had been at the funeral,” I said.
“I was rather more glad than otherwise that you did not, sir,” he said. Now he seemed a little agitated. “I… It was a sentimental urge that led me to answer your advertisement. Perhaps not a wise one. I… It has been a long time since the War. I am not the man I was then.”
No, he was not. I had a sharp image in my mind of the face in the photograph: a cheerful, smiling face, young and fresh and unafraid. I could call it to my mind instantly, which suggested that I had never truly forgotten it, though I hadn’t thought about it for years.
“Do you regret it?” I said, the words heavy in my mouth. “I can offer you a month’s pay in lieu of notice if you’d rather leave. That is, when we get back to England.”
“No!” Darling took a half-step in my direction, then stepped back, as if he had been reproved by a silent voice. “No, sir, please do not misunderstand me. The impulse that brought me to your service was a little foolish, but I am happy to be here.”
“Good!” I said, more loudly than was entirely necessary. “Well, if you’re happy to be here I’m happy to have you.”
“I am pleased to be in your employ, sir.”
“Good. Good.” I sat back down and looked away, a little embarrassed. What had I revealed of myself? More than I had intended, I was sure. I cast about for a less intimate topic of conversation. “Now, about my friend Freddy — ”
“I believe that he can easily be persuaded to move to Los Angeles with a little careful footwork. According to some reports from reliable sources of gossip, there is a well-known motion picture actor who likes to frequent the speakeasy Mr Furlong and yourself visited two nights ago — ”
“Not that place with the naked dancers?”
“I believe the preferred term is ‘striptease artiste’,” said Darling, “and I also believe that the dancers are clad in body stockings and are not truly naked. In any event, the club is known to the cognoscenti as a rendezvous for men of Mr Furlong’s inclination, and as a preferred haunt of the aforementioned actor when he is in New York.”
“I think I see your line of reasoning,” I said, leaning forward, excited. “Bring Freddy along on a night when the young thespian is in attendance and introduce them. Then, if they hit it off — not a sure thing, but a good twelve to seven by my reckoning — Freddy’s got a rock-solid reason to vacate New York posthaste in pursuit of his young swain.”
Darling smiled slightly. “Indeed, sir. A simple plan, but one that takes into account Mr Furlong’s character. A hedonist is actuated by pleasure tailored to his taste.” Suddenly he looked alarmed. “Ah, that is, if you will forgive the liberty — ”
“Oh, let’s not stand on ceremony,” I said, standing up and holding out my hand. “Now that we know each other a little better, let us — let us be friends. Can we be friends, do you think?”
I don’t know where that thought came from. It was, in Darling’s own words, a sentimental urge, and during the two or three eternities when he only stared at my hand dubiously, as if unsure of my personal hygiene, I thought it was perhaps not a wise one. But at length his face grew warm, and he grasped my hand and shook it and said, “Yes, Mr Baskerville, I think we can.”
That very night, Freddy and I turned up at the speakeasy in our best bib and tucker. I must confess that the club was not much to my taste; the music was splendid, of course, and the company was attractive, but the drinks were rough-tasting and bad quality when they weren’t watered down, and the place was so noisy I could hardly hear myself think.
I wanted to think, very badly. I wanted to reflect on Darling, to wonder how well he knew my brother, how it was that he came to be so tolerant of men who “favoured male company”, whether he would still be tolerant when he knew that his employer was also that way inclined; whether, perhaps, he had already worked it out. I wanted to contemplate the change in him from the bright, fresh-faced young man in the photograph my brother had sent home to the inconspicuous, self-effacing, perfect servant in my employ. I wanted, most of all, to have a few minutes to myself to stare at my hand and wonder why it still tingled, hours after Darling had shaken it, and why the skin of both my palms itched and crept as if it were craving some remedy that was nearby, if I could only find it.
Amid the noise and crowds and spectacle of the club, I could do none of those things, so I set myself the task of watching Freddy like a cat at a mouse hole. He and the well-known young actor very quickly took seats close to each other, and they spent most of the night talking; the noise of the club required them each to do this by leaning very close to the other and speaking directly into his ear, which did not trouble them in the slightest. I might have been troubled on their behalf, if only for fear of what the club’s other denizens might do if they saw, but it had not escaped my notice that among the couples on the dance floor were at least half a dozen who had to negotiate which of the pair would lead before they could take a step.
It ought to have been a cheery sight, but it made me melancholy rather than gay. I felt a certain resentment that a chap should have to happen across the password for an illegal speakeasy if he wanted to dance with another chap, and this was mixed up in a confused sort of way with a sad longing to have a chap of my own to dance with, and a faint irritation that Freddy and the well-known young actor were not dancing. I knew damned well that Freddy’d never had the chance to do anything like this in England, and it seemed positively wasteful to pass up the opportunity now it had arisen.
As it happened, it was just as well he didn’t, because halfway through a particularly scandalous-looking tango, one of the waiters made a throat-cutting gesture at the band leader and cried out “Cheese it! The fuzz are here!” I was prepared; I grabbed Freddy firmly by the elbow and yanked him down underneath our table, along with the actor, who was so thoroughly entwined with Freddy by now that I couldn’t have left him behind if I’d wanted to.
“Tom! What on earth is going on?” Freddy yelled over the clattering noises of a nightclub being evacuated haphazardly by its intoxicated patrons.
“I think it’s a raid,” said the actor with a giggle, “a raid! Gosh, doesn’t Prohibition make life exciting?”
There was just enough light underneath the table for me to see that Freddy had gone pale. “Good Lord! D’you mean to say the police — Oh, Tom! What shall we do?”
“Follow me,” I said with my best authoritative air. Darling had briefed me on the club beforehand; apparently he had struck up an acquaintance with one of the waiters on our previous visit. “There’s a side exit this way, and if we stay on the floor, we should be able to keep out of sight.”
“Crumbs!” said Freddy, sounding twelve years old, holding onto my hand for dear life.
I had deliberately chosen a table that was as near the side exit as possible, just in case, and we made it to the door and through it with no more harm done than a few false alarms. Once we were out in the alley behind the club, I stood fully upright and started briskly strolling towards the nearest decent-sized street, affecting an air of jovial innocence. Before I could get far, the actor clapped me on the shoulder.
“Don’t go, Mr — Mr — you know, Freddy told me your name, but I’ve gone and forgotten it, how do you like that? It’s a good thing they don’t make you talk in the movies, or I’d be out of a job. I can’t imagine ever learning lines!”
“We’d best get going, what?” I said, sidestepping him and aiming a frosty glare at Freddy, who was leaning back against a wall and whistling a tune from the Ziegfeld Follies. “Want to get as far from the police as possible, I should think.”
The actor shook his head. “Nope. Not yet. This alley is a dead end. The only way back to any place where you could hail a cab is going to lead right past where the cops are waiting, and they’ll know by the looks of us where we’ve been. Just wait a little while and they’ll be done, and then we can go.”
I gave him a dubious look. “But, I say, if they know this alley is a dead end, won’t they come and look for us?”
He grinned widely. “Nah. They’ll have their hands full with the people who didn’t make it out of the club.”
“Rotten law your country’s got, where a fellow can’t even get tight in the privacy of his own home,” Freddy muttered.
The actor turned to look at him, a fond, slightly condescending look. I held my breath. This was the carrot. Now, would the rabbit bite?
“It’s not this bad everywhere,” he said.
Freddy rolled his eyes. “I suppose you’re going to tell me it’s better in California?”
“Well…” The actor shrugged. “I don’t know about the whole state of California, but if you’re anything at all in Hollywood, blind eyes get turned to all kinds of things.”
Freddy looked up sharply, from which I gathered that he was not at all as drunk as he had appeared to be. “All kinds of things?”
The actor’s grin widened. “Maybe not all kinds of things. But lots of kinds of things. Listen, Freddy, I know you’re not thrilled with the idea of moving in with your aunt, so why don’t you come and stay with us for a while? We’re a lot more fun than she is, I guarantee it.”
“Me and Jimmie. We have a house in LA — you’d be welcome to stay with us. And you have a studio job lined up, don’t you?” he went on, coaxingly. “It’d be a shame to waste it. Come and visit. Say hi to Jimmie. I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”
“Well…” Freddy sounded dubious. He glanced at me, and frowned. “Tom, is this your doing?”
I sighed. “My doing? I don’t even know this chap’s name. I do beg your pardon, Mr–?”
He looked a little bemused at having to mention his name. “Haines. William Haines.”
“Mr Haines, a pleasure. I assure you, Freddy, the only part of this evening that was my idea was sitting at a table near the side door.” It was true, too. It had all been Darling’s idea; if I had been in charge of events, I should never have visited the speakeasy a second time.
Freddy still looked dubious, but when his gaze flickered towards Mr Haines, whatever he saw on his face seemed to clear away his doubts. “How long did you say you and Jimmie had been… er… living together?”
“Oh, it’s about a year now. The first of many, I hope.”
Freddy stared at him for a moment, his eyes glowing with something that looked like hope. Finally Freddy looked from Haines to me, and nodded. “I’ll do it,” he said. “I don’t believe you for a moment when you say this is not your doing, by the way,” he added, “but I suppose it doesn’t matter.” He looked back at Haines and smiled, and I became aware that my shoulders had been hunched for a long time, for they had suddenly relaxed. There had been a time when I had seen that smile on Freddy’s face almost daily, before the Horwood affair, before the worst of the debts, before he started drinking quite so very much. It made me sad to think that the only way to put that smile back on his face was to send him away so that I might never see him again.
“Do you suppose we’ve waited long enough?” I said, impatient to get home — not just to my hotel room: home. This farewell had dragged out far too long already.
“Oh, yes,” said Haines, and we strolled out into the street nonchalantly and took two cabs back to our respective hotels.
I had to stay in New York a few days after Freddy departed for Los Angeles, awaiting a suitable ship, which gave me plenty of time to brood. I went on walks through Central Park and visited museums and theatres and generally did as much as possible to keep me away from the hotel and from Darling, who was the subject of most of my ruminations.
I had been too young to fight in the War. I had wished otherwise, longing to serve my King and Country, until Geoffrey came home on leave, white-faced and thin, and quieter than he had ever been before. After that, I wished that I could fight so that I could go to the front in his place, or at least keep him company in the trenches. Before he left I told him as much, and he ruffled my hair and said “I have Darling to keep me company. You keep to your books, Tom.”
“Does he do a good job, then?” I asked. “As good as Hodges?”
“Better,” said Geoffrey firmly. “He makes Hodges look like a slovenly barmaid. He’s as brave as anything, and clever, and the most wonderful soldier-servant a man could ask for.”
I had had no answer to that but to scuff the ground with my toe and mutter something about family, at which Geoffrey had only ruffled my hair again and promised to send me a photograph of Darling when he had the chance.
I wondered, now, as I sauntered aimlessly through Greenwich Village, where that photograph was, if it still existed. I wanted to look at it again, and compare the Darling of 1927 with the Darling of 1918. When I had first looked at the photograph, I had searched Darling’s face, probed his posture, critiqued his uniform and every detail of his appearance, to be certain that this man was worthy of serving my adored older brother. It seemed bizarre that I should have stared at that photograph so long and so intently and yet failed to recognise the man in it when he turned up on my doorstep ten years later.
I told none of this to Darling, of course. I told him only that his idea had worked beautifully, and that Freddy and Mr Haines had hit it off, and Freddy was departing for Los Angeles on the first available train.
I continued to say nothing for the first two days of the crossing back to England, joining games of quoits and shuffleboard on deck when the weather was fine and propping up the bar when it was foul, always avoiding Darling as much as was possible. On the night of the third day, after dinner, I retired to my cabin to find him there, sitting on the bed with his head in his hands.
I cleared my throat as I loosened my tie. He started and rose to his feet. “Sir, pardon me, I don’t mean to intrude — ”
“Is something wrong, Darling?”
He looked stricken and afraid and a little sick. My stomach roiled and I cursed under my breath. “I was going to ask you the same question, sir,” he said softly. “I hope I have not disappointed you in any way. Am I — is my work satisfactory?”
“Good Lord, yes! Are you afraid I’m going to sack you? I shan’t. I couldn’t. You’ve done me a precious service, and you’re quite the best valet I’ve ever had.” He exhaled loudly, and I felt the knot in my stomach unravelling. “Besides,” I added, “you took care of Geoffrey. That means a lot to me.”
He looked surprised. “Oh, no, sir, I did my duty by Captain Baskerville. It wasn’t — I mean to say, I didn’t — ”
I sat down on the bed beside him. “You said you were his friend.”
He looked at me, and I swallowed. Such expressive eyes. “I was his friend,” he said, “and he was mine. I never hoped to find such a friend again.” He shook his head. “No, that’s not true. I did hope. I was disappointed.”
I thought of the nightclub dancers, then, and Jimmie and Mr Haines and their house in Los Angeles. I had hoped, too, and been disappointed, though not in friendship.
“You don’t think, I hope,” I said carefully, “that I’ve been avoiding you because of something you’ve done? I assure you, that’s not the case. I’m in a bit of a muddle and I can’t seem to find my way out of it, that’s all.”
“Perhaps I can help you. I should be glad to help.”
I shook my head. “No, though I dare say if it were any other kind of problem you’d be of great aid and comfort to me. This is — well. You can’t help me with this.”
He looked down, frowning. It was a relief not to have those eyes on me any more, and at the same time it felt a little cold, as if the sun had gone behind a cloud, cutting out the glare of noon but also its heat.
“You said, sir, that — Mr Baskerville. You said that we could be friends. I should certainly like to be your friend.”
“And I yours.”
“Then may I not help you? Or if I cannot, can you not explain why?”
He looked up again, and I was conscious, as I had not been before, of how close we were to each other. Close enough to kiss, if that had been what he wanted; and that was the problem, wasn’t it? “Darling, I — well, look, first things first. If we’re to be friends, we must drop all this ‘Mr’ rubbish. Call me ‘Baskerville’. Or, no, nobody calls me that except people I knew at school and didn’t like. Call me ‘Tom’.”
He nodded gravely. “Then you must call me ‘James’.”
“James, then. I’ll be frank: I can’t tell you the problem because you’re part of it — not that it’s your fault, you mustn’t think that, but… well, I suppose it’s my fault. Or at least, the muddle is in my head, even if it is to do with you.”
“That’s all the more reason you should tell me.”
“No!” I inhaled raggedly, squeezing my eyes closed, trying to calm myself. “That would be a bad idea. I shall have to — ” work it out on my own, I was going to say, but for Darling’s hand slipping into my collar, just at the juncture of my throat and jaw.
I opened my eyes. There was his face, a breath away from mine, bright with hope and desire. “Tom?” he whispered, and I could stand it no longer: I took his face in my hands and kissed him until I couldn’t breathe. We sat there, panting, our gazes locked and our foreheads pressed together, for what felt like a long time; foolish thoughts bubbled up in my mind, like are there laws against sodomy in international waters? and darling, darling, how very well named you are. I knew I should have to kiss him again to keep from saying them aloud, and I was on the brink of doing so when he pulled back, just far enough to take off his jacket and tie and unbutton his collar.
That done, he took my hand and stood up, pulling me to my feet. I made an interrogative noise, and he smiled slightly, murmuring “Patience.” He pulled at my tie, untying it carefully and laying it on the floor beside his own. He circled around me, unbuttoning his shirt and tossing it to the floor casually; I felt my breathing quicken and my pulse begin to race.
He was pale underneath the shirt, his chest marred by an ugly scar across the ribs on the left side. At first he held his arm slightly over it, as if to keep it hidden; when he saw me looking, he caught my eye and then lowered his arm, slowly. I held his gaze and then glanced at the scar, which was ugly indeed, the more so for being a reminder of who knew what horrors of war. I did not let the scar hold my eyes for long. I could love it, since it was part of him. I could hate it, if it caused him pain.
I tried to convey all of this with my eyes, because I could not speak; my heart was too full.
I think it worked, because he nodded thoughtfully and carried on undressing me, taking breaks every so often to undress himself. My clothes were more elaborate than his, and I wasn’t sure whether to bless or curse them for that; collar-studs and buttons and starch and cufflinks and braces all served as barriers between his skin and my own, and all provided occasion for his fingers to brush against my wrists, my waist, my neck. Little flames licking up my skin in a dozen different places, everywhere he touched me, until I felt as if I had been engulfed in fire from head to toe.
At last we stood naked before each other, and I could feast my eyes on him: his pale skin was flushed pink from his chest to his hairline, a shade or two lighter than the deep red flush of his cock, which stood proud and erect against his belly. I took a breath to calm myself, and another, the thrum of my own arousal like a drum in my ear. Gently I pushed him down to sit on the bed, then sank to my knees and wrapped my lips around the tip of his cock.
He let out a choked sound, and I glanced up; he had his hand over his mouth. I wanted to pull away and protest, to say that it was all right with me if he made as much noise as a dozen brass bands, but his eyes bulged with alarm and he jerked his head towards the door. Of course; the cabin bulkheads weren’t thick enough for us to make as much noise as we wished. I silently promised myself that another time I would hear him cry out, and concentrated on the task at hand.
Most times when I had done this before, I had been concerned with making an impression, or pulling off a great feat of technique; this time I felt so sure that there would be many happy returns of the act that I allowed myself to revel in what I could feel and smell and taste. I even closed my eyes to increase the sensation. That tangy salty bitterness, the hot-smooth-hardness of him, the little noises he could not help but let free — it was all too much, too much for my body to take; I felt my own arousal grow to a pitch as I sped up the movements of my lips and tongue and hands. When his climax came, I was too dazed with desire to back away, as I always had before, and he spilled into my mouth. That last intense burst, the taste of him, pushed me over the edge into my own climax.
He lay back on the bed, panting, and I rested my head on his thigh, scrubbing at myself with the first piece of cloth that came to hand; I never found out afterwards whether it had been my shirt or his. I felt a kind of pleasant blankness just then, and I revelled in it, until Darling tugged at my hair and sat up. “Come, Tom,” he said with a fondness I had not heard in his voice before, “you’ll catch your death of cold. Come under the covers.”
I complied, curling up around him in the narrow cabin bed. “I rather think I love you,” I said, tucking my head into the crook of his neck. “I rather think I’ve been in love with you for years.”
“‘Oh, arr?'” I pulled back a little and gave him a playful shove. “Are you from the West Country?”
He grinned and nodded. “Little village near Dorchester. I try not to show it too much or people jump to conclusions.”
There were Rs in his accent that hadn’t been there before; it sounded softer, sweeter, more like himself. I stared at him, at the face I had known for nine days or nine years, depending on how you counted it. Oh, this was the face in the photograph. Thinner and older and a little more lined, but still the same face.
I bit my lip. “Do you remember my brother taking a photograph of you?”
He shook his head. “I don’t rightly remember him ever holding a camera. Unless — oh, he took a photo, that’s right, one I’d had done years before. I only ever had one photo taken of me by myself, and that was the day I signed up.” He sighed. “I must have looked a proper fool, all smiles, as if war was larks and fun.”
“You looked marvellous,” I said, some unacknowledged tension easing in my chest and a swell of tenderness filling it so that I felt I would burst if I moved too fast. “I stared at that picture for hours. And to think it took me this long to work out why!” I yawned, my eyelids sliding closed. “You look the same now as you did then,” I murmured, fighting sleep without much success, if only so that I could say the things I wanted so much to say. “You didn’t before, but you do now.”
He had been stroking my shoulder, and at this he stopped, but only for a moment. “It’s because I’m happy again,” he whispered as I drifted off to sleep. “That’s why.”