Algernon Grimsdale and Richard Smith are happily settled at the Grimsdale's family estate, but keeping their love a secret is a strain.
Algernon Grimsdale and Richard Smith are happily settled at the Grimsdale's family estate, Avoncaster. Secrecy is making life difficult for the couple, as is Algie's mother's ill-health. A secret passage or two might make matters easier, but a houseful of guests over Christmastide may not.
Avoncaster, Algernon Grimsdale's ancestral home, was relatively isolated. This time of year was bleak and cold, the lawns around the house brown, the trees bare. The household could theoretically be hard pressed to amuse themselves in those circumstances. However, this set of happenstances lent themselves very nicely to one of Algernon's very favourite middle of the night occupations. This was lying spread full out on top of Richard Smith, his putative private secretary, nipping and nibbling his way across every delectable inch, while Richard returned his attentions in kind. They might do this for hours, spending in each other's hands, or nestle top to tail, sucking each other to completion. Or if the fancy took them, Algie might get onto all fours, and let Richard take him as roughly or gently as he preferred.
Since his lover, Richard, had agreed to become his "secretary" and they had removed to Avoncaster, Algie indulged in this occupation nearly every night, with Richard's full and enthusiastic cooperation. They needed to be careful, of course, even in the household Algie was the master of. He had toyed with the idea of creating a communicating door with the adjoining chamber, but had dismissed it as too obvious. Richard had to brave the halls at night, and return to his own room by morning, trying not to be seen by any of the servants.
Algie's valet, Ames, kept his secrets, but there was no reason to think the housemaids would. An occasional encounter in the hallway would not arouse suspicion and seem no more than a conscientious employee seeing to his employer's bidding, but a usual habit might be hard to explain.
Still, this winter rustication was bliss. Privacy for pleasure, long days of riding about the estate or ensconced in the library. If Algie's mother was only well, he would be the most blessed man in England.
Unfortunately, she was not. Her decline was slow, but inexorable. Physicians had only been able to guess at what ailed her. One had claimed a consumption of the blood, and while others had disagreed, it was as good a diagnosis as any. What need to put a name to whatever was killing her? This past month she often did not go downstairs, but kept to her room, thrice taken in dresses hanging loose upon her frame. He was fairly certain that some of what she now wore were old frocks of Sophy's, his youngest sister.
Now in the great old-fashioned bed, hung with heavy curtains for warmth, Algie tightened his arm around a dozing Richard. It was past two, and he needed to awaken the other man in a few minutes, so that he might return to his own chamber. The servants had orders not to enter either of their rooms until rung for, so falling asleep in bed together should not spell ruin, but it was a risk. Algie doubted any of his servants would go to the magistrate, but one could never be sure of such a thing, and he feared blackmail. Sodomy was a capital crime. Convictions were rare, but the spectre of the gallows inspired extraordinary prudence.
Richard stirred on his chest. "Time to rise, slug-a-bed," Algie murmured.
"I'd rather kiss you some more," the other man answered, lifting his head and blinking.
"That could be arranged."
After numerous kisses, and certain other, more carnal, demonstrations of affection, Richard rose and dressed in trousers, shirt, and banyan. He leaned over to give Algie, who was rummaging for his nightgown, one last buss with a murmured, "In the morning, my love."
* * *
The morrow brought them to the breakfast table, where a single footman served them rolls, coddled eggs, mulled ale, and kippers, along with some sliced ham. Algie's mother would take some tea, along with a morsel or two, in her room. Quite probably she would not venture downstairs at all. If she did it would be a bit later in the day, and only briefly. For dinner, or to sit in the drawing room for an hour or so as the mood struck her and her energy allowed.
Algie tried not to dwell upon this thought as the footman placed his pile of letters by the side of his plate. Some of it would be Richard's lot to answer, to keep up the charade of him actually being a secretary. His hand at penmanship was no more than fair, to be told, but Algie barely had enough correspondence to warrant the pretence, anyway. The estate was not vast, his farm manager was competent, he had no political ambitions, and his obligations to pensioners and relations were few. Algie was quite certain many of his local acquaintances assumed "secretary" actually meant billiard partner and sympathetic masculine ear. Gentlemen did not hire companions, as ladies might, but such a post might be offered to a congenial but impoverished gentleman of one's acquaintance. Of course, Richard, while educated and a former naval officer, was barely considered a gentleman as the son of a factory owner, and he had a couple of hundred a year his father had settled upon him at his majority. The twenty guineas per annum that were agreed to for appearance's sake were a source of some hilarity between him and Richard.
He pushed the routine missives over to Richard's place and jocularly announced, "You may earn your keep with these, if you please."
Richard made a ridiculous face at him and replied, "As you wish, most esteemed master."
"Oh, there are many things I wish."
"I am certain there are."
Algie picked up another letter. "And here is one from Sophy. You have not heard anything from Parker, have you?"
"No, but the Vigour will have left Bristol for Jamaica Station by now."
Lieutenant Edward Parker was Algie's brother-in-law, having married his sister Sophy in July. Parker was also Richard's dearest friend, as they had been assigned to the same ship at the ages of twelve and thirteen. It was a time-honoured custom, but Algie was sometimes cognizant that Richard had seen men dead in battle before he had been old enough to shave. The bonds forged in such circumstances were naturally strong. Algie occasionally had to remind himself that the ties between his lover and Lieutenant Parker were of a different character than the affection he and Richard now shared.
He had never asked his lover plain, but he suspected there had been a few fumbles between Richard and Parker, such as many men might indulge in when convenient. He knew Richard true, and Parker faithful, but the ease the two men had in each other's company sometimes made him uncomfortable. Algie and Richard loved each other, as surely as David and Jonathan, or Achilles and Patroclus, but they had known each other a scarce half-year, not most of their lives.
Algie scanned Sophy's letter. Another sheet was enclosed, folded and sealed with wax and addressed to their mother. He read the section meant for his eyes twice and sighed, putting it down.
"It does not appear that Sophy will be able to come to Avoncaster for Christmas."
Richard looked up from the sheet of foolscap in his hand. "No?"
"No, she is, erm, expecting an addition. Of the family sort." Not that one ever wanted to think of one's own sister in such terms. Despite the way his other sister, Althea, had been producing babes since her marriage.
"Yes, I wish her happy, but..."
"You do not wish to think of it?" Richard's smile was sympathetic.
"Nor I of mine, truth be told." Algie knew Richard was the sixth child of seven, and four of the others were girls. His nieces and nephews were legion. "Your solicitor wants permission to provide your pensioners with extra fuel for Christmas fires, and puddings."
"Oh yes, of course he may. Blast it, he asks that every year, and it is a small enough matter."
"I could tell him that there is no need to consult with you on it."
"I think I have instructed that already."
Richard shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps he thinks it profligate?"
"Perhaps. We keep Christmas quietly, but it is the season of charity. I have no need to emulate my ancestor's Yuletide excesses, but some of the modern thinking smacks of cheese-paring."
"Cannot have that," remarked Richard. "I suppose there will be greenery in the house?"
"Of course," Algie said, "quiet, not Methody."
Richard's eyes met his.
"Oh," Algie said, "your family did not bedeck the place in such a manner, did they?" Richard was not raised a dissenter, but Algie knew his father had been heavily influenced by Wilberforce, and disliked a number of ancient customs.
"No. Charity, but no paganism."
"Oh," Algie said, "I did not mean..."
"I know you did not. I take no offense, and as you are aware, I am not a particularly religious man. If bedecking the place with boughs and branches gives you pleasure, I have no quarrel with it. Perhaps it will cheer Mrs Grimsdale."
"It may. Sophy's news should lighten her spirits as well, but it will be hard not to have my sister here." It would be months before Sophy would be able to travel. His mother would likely not see her youngest daughter again.