Nicholas Romanov, the last Russian Tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Now, fifty years later, Tom Bradshaw sees a young man in New York's popular west side YMCA. The young man looks remarkably like a fellow student Tom was in love with at Yale; Eric Lindenhurst Hall, dubbed Prince Eric thanks to his good looks and wealth. Tom's love was not reciprocated and never would be as Eric had died in a boating accident several years ago. Tom befriends Eric's double, Nicky, and is soon involved in a passionate affair with Eric's 'ghost.' As Tom learns more about Nicky's birth and rearing an elaborate plan begins to unfold in his mind. A plan so preposterous that every detail must be meticulously thought out if it is to succeed. Tom was going to have Nicky Pretend to be Prince Eric.
Thomas Bradshaw arrives at what he affectionately calls the O. V. C. A. (Old Voyeur's Christian Association) every Tuesday and Friday at six p.m. He enters its portals, when feeling mean, like a general leading an invisible army into the fray or, when feeling magnanimous, like the Prince of Wales visiting an orphanage. Shoulders squared, head erect, eyes veering neither to the right nor left, he marches to his locker to the inaudible cadence of a hundred virile tenors belting out "Stout-Hearted Men."
As he nears his locker the strains of "Stout-Hearted Men" give way to the muted trumpets of "The Stripper." His audience can't hear the music but it is the performer, not the song, that draws their undivided attention. The O.V.C.A.ers are all eyes, and all of them are glued to Thomas Bradshaw.
But the band plays on in Tom's head as shirt buttons pop under his agile touch and the garment is removed with a masculine flourish not unlike Clark Kent's maneuver in the tight confines of a phone booth. The t-shirt is a gleaming white, the material stretched across hard pecs and broad shoulders. A flash of firm belly is momentarily revealed as the t-shirt is yanked free of the trousers.
The tempo of the music changes, becomes relaxed, undecided. He brings one foot up on the low bench and bends to undo a shoelace. This action causes his pants to separate from the rear of his waist and those with front-row seats can see the white band and the letters JOCKEY imprinted in black around and around and around the one-inch elastic.
Shoes and socks gone, he rises and with arms crossed he pulls the t-shirt over his head in one quick motion. His chest is hairless except for a fine line running down its center and curving delicately under each breast. He pauses for a brief moment. The orchestra he conducts, perfectly attuned to his every mood, breaks into a military air. A marine waving the white flag of surrender. His audiences on the verge of bursting into applause.
Now he does an about-face, back to the locker, making himself accessible to those who are in back as well as the lucky ones to his right and left. His sense of noblesse oblige knows no bounds at the O. V. C.A. He runs a hand through his hair which immediately falls back into place. Tom Bradshaw has that kind of hair.
The lights seem to dim and a single spot, amber and diffused by the heat of twenty pairs of smoldering eyes, engulf the star. Then the wail of a saxophone; the steady beat of a drum; the hand unlatching the belt buckle; unhooking the top button; parting the zipper.
If a feather were to fall to the floor of the West Side Y. M. C.A.at this moment its impact would be like the explosion of a firecracker in a tunnel.
The pouch of the Jockeys is a proud arc. His hand glides the pants downward over a pair of perfectly matched legs. The thumb of his right hand, barely, touches the arc. He picks up the pants, turns once again, and hangs them by the back belt loop on a hook within the locker.
A roll of the drums preludes the brass section's outbreak into a pure honky-tonk, low-down and dirty burlesque overture. He digs his thumbs into the elastic band of the shorts and pushes downward. The music swells, the hips sway, just so, in perfectly acceptable male fashion.
First the mat of tamed pubic forest. Then the base of a thick, white birch appears, as if growing out of the moss. His hands are buried inside the shorts as with a slight forward thrust the Jockeys go down, one knee goes up and the birch proves to be a mighty oak supporting a giant acorn and resting contentedly upon a billowing mound of flesh.
The air in the locker room stirs as twenty baited breaths are released in unison. Tom takes his jockstrap from the locker and dangles it from one finger as he turns, contemplating the ceiling. With his back to the locker, this sense of noblesse oblige goes just so far, he bends and steps into his jock.
Next he dons his swim trunks and then, almost angrily, slams shut the metal locker door. "Stout-Hearted Men" is reprised and, with shoulders squared, head erect, and eyes veering neither right nor left, he exits to the pool area. A silent ovation accompanies his departure.
* * * *
Thomas Bradshaw loathed the West Side Y. M. C. A. but being in reduced circumstances was forced to use its facilities to keep his weight of one hundred sixty-five pounds perfectly proportioned throughout his six foot, one inch frame. Having read Gide's Corydon in his freshman year at Yale he knew that the trick of a successful life was not striving, hopelessly, to cure our ills, but learning to live with them. Being a natural exhibitionist, he simply applied Gide's principle to his twice-weekly visits to the Y and not only learned to cope but also acquired a following among the members of what connoisseurs of the chase consider the best man-made hunting ground since Louis XV's Deer Park.
Tom liked nothing better than to show others all the good things in life they would never possess. He wasn't mean, he was just retaliating. This was how life had always treated him and while passing it on did not cure, it somehow helped him to live with it.
Besides the body, Tom was endowed with a face that would make a Norman Rockwell drawing of the all-American boy look ethnic. His hair was that almost blond shade that commercial rinses and tints promise but never deliver. His eyes were truly brown, his jaw square and his teeth white and even. If one insisted on looking for a flaw it could be found in a nose which tilted, ever so slightly, toward heaven. At twenty-eight Tom was not above using all of his considerable assets to ease his climb up Mount Success. No one at the West Side Y.M. C.A., however, was going Tom's way.
The members of the fashionable Yale Club in New York had already arrived at the destination Tom so desperately wanted to reach, and being himself a graduate of that school he could have taken his exercise there and rubbed shoulders with those he considered his peers. It wasn't the club's modest membership fee that prevented him from doing so. He had learned from painful experience that "arriving" was easy, but running with the pack when in reduced circumstances was a trick not even the venerable AndrÃ© Gide had learned to master. If he didn't keep up socially he would be snubbed - or worse, pitied - and Tom couldn't financially afford the upkeep, nor emotionally endure the put-down.
Tom had, not by accident, allied himself with the richest young men at Yale. Here he broke with Gide and tried desperately to cure, by association, what ailed. Keeping up then had been easy because being broke has always been a common ailment among students.
But what had been acceptable at college was totally unacceptable in the real world, a fact all of Tom's formidable endowments could not overcome. He had gotten to Yale on a scholarship and was now a minor executive with a major bank. Those he called his friends had paid full fare at school and were major executives with firms their families tended to own. Tom worked to sustain life. They worked to fill the gaps between dinner parties, long weekends in Southampton and longer ones in Palm Beach. But Tom preferred to be associated, however dimly, with the Haves rather than sparkle with the Have Nots. Hence the snub of his fellow Y members, made infinitely easier by the shape of his nose.
Tom had also managed to fall in love with the richest of his rich classmates. Eric Lindenhurst Hall was not only the richest man at Yale, he was probably the richest young man in America, if not the world. Tom had told himself that money had nothing to do with what he felt for Eric, but whether the cause of Tom's affection was of the heart or the wallet had made no difference to his suffering.
He had never gotten to first base with Eric and knew that five minutes after graduation Eric Lindenhurst Hall forgot that Tom Bradshaw ever existed.
He dove into the pool with the ease and precision of a perfectly aimed arrow ejaculated from a sturdy bow, leaving hardly a ripple as his long, sleek body shot toward the tiled floor, arched, and made his way to the surface of the pale green water. He began to swim with long, well-paced strokes and as he did so all the cares and worries of Tom Bradshaw's life were washed away by the beads of foamy water which caressed, retreated and quickly returned to administer their special solace. The tepid water was a gigantic womb and Tom eagerly surrendered himself to its comforting security.
Tom was born under the sign of Aquarius, the Water-Bearer, and astrologers would say that this was the reason he bore that element like a cloak of armor. Within its depths he felt invulnerable. Swimming was the only exercise he enjoyed and the only exercise he indulged in. He found repugnant the thought of lifting weights or being shoved about by intricate pieces of machinery. The results were too often grotesque caricatures of the human body: bulging muscles that were never meant to bulge, mounted on frames not constructed to bear them.
Swimming was a constant cleansing, while every muscle was exercised at the same time and to the same degree, making the whole a perfectly proportioned oneness. Nothing was forced, therefore the end result was a completely natural look. Perfection and straining were to Tom a contradiction in terms.
When he started his sessions at the Y Tom had counted each lap he took, increasing the number with each succeeding visit. Now he swam until he was exhausted, not coming out of the pool until his arms and legs refused to obey the commands of his still willing mind. Then, hands pressed to the marble ledge, he pulled himself out of the water with his last bit of strength and sat, feet dangling, chest heaving, eyes closed and at peace. The smell of chlorine, the echo of voices and laughter in the vaulted room and the water gently lapping at his ankles had all become familiar and strangely comforting sensations. Now, his heartbeat returning to normal, he opened his eyes and wiped the water from them as he focused in on his surroundings.
The first thing he saw was a young man at the far end of the pool, poised to dive. Tom instantly became alert. At first he thought it was someone he knew but quickly discounted the idea; none he knew would be caught dead swimming at the West Side Y. M. C. A. But liking what he saw, he continued to stare through chemically irritated eyes at the slim, finely-muscled, dark-haired diver. Though he couldn't see from such a distance Tom knew, almost instinctively, that the young man had blue eyes. This fact caused an eerie chill to crawl up Tom's spine and before he could rationalize the cause of this strange reaction the young man plunged into the pool.
It wasn't a very good dive. The timing was off and chest rather than head entered the water first. Tom watched, still somewhat bewildered, as the young man made his way directly toward where Tom was seated. His swimming was no more impressive than his dive and he moved across the water with more bravado than skill.
When he reached Tom's end of the pool he lifted his face from the water and found himself staring directly at Tom Bradshaw. Their eyes locked for one second and then, using his feet, he pushed himself away from the marble wall and like a torpedo began to make his way back up the length of the pool.
"I was right, his eyes are blue," was Tom's first thought. Then, his gaze fixed on the retreating mass of white foam, his heart once again began to race under his chest and the chill which had invaded his body moments before returned with an overwhelming intensity; but now he knew with devastating certainty its cause.
He had just seen Eric Lindenhurst Hall...and Eric Lindenhurst Hall had been dead for almost two years.
St. Petersburg, Russia - 1884
She had red hair and blue eyes which were now opened wide as they beheld with awe the splendor and pageantry of the scene being enacted in the ornate chapel. Her strict Protestant upbringing had in no way prepared her for the pomp and ceremony, the overt audible and visual rites of the Orthodox church.
The long-bearded priests in robes of silver and gold chanted endlessly and swung their smoking, incense-filled censers to and fro, flooding the chapel with an exotic aroma and creating a filmy haze between altar and spectators as they sent their prayers upward to the frescoed dome and, hopefully, to even higher echelons. The chapel itself was in sharp contrast to the stained glass windows, wooden benches and bare altar of her own Lutheran church. Here, every place her blue eyes roamed they encountered a statue painted a vivid red and blue, icons encrusted with priceless jewels, heavy gold chalices and crosses ablaze with diamonds.
The congregation was dressed as if in competition with their surroundings. The women's gowns of silk and velvet and brocade cloth spun with threads of gold exposed more powdered flesh than they concealed. The exposed flesh, as well as the gowns, was adorned with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls that absorbed and reflected the pink, pampered skin they decorated.
The men wore brilliantly colored uniforms which fit their tall, muscular bodies like a second skin; their chests were covered with medals of gold and silver and, in many cases, even these military adornments were encrusted with precious stones.
The overall effect was that of a gaudy, multicolored tapestry designed to illustrate the pages of an elaborate edition of a book of children's fairy tales.
He was slim and handsome with dark hair cut close to his head and he wore the simple gray tunic of the Russian soldier. He was used to the sights and sounds which now filled the chapel and his eyes, once they had spotted the girl with red hair and blue eyes, never left her face as she turned now this way, now that way, as if trying to memorize all that was happening around her before it too evaporated before her eyes like the gray smoke on its way to heaven.
He waited patiently, knowing that sooner or later their eyes would meet and when finally they did he smiled directly at her and she, taken completely by surprise by this friendly gesture amid such alien surroundings, smiled back.
Then, the ornate chapel, the ceremony being performed within its walls and the bedecked and bejeweled congregation dimmed and all that stood before her blue eyes was the boy's handsome, smiling face. Befitting the fairy-tale tapestry into which they were woven when their eyes met for the first time, they had fallen in love at first glance and had sealed their troth with a smile. And what could be more apropos than that she be a princess and he be a prince?
They were not destined to live happily ever after.
This was the first encounter between the czarevich, Nicholas Romanov, and his future bride, Princess Alix of Hesse. The occasion: the wedding of Alix's sister, Elizabeth, to Nicholas's uncle, the Grand Duke Serge.