“She’s lovely”, James said as soon as the door closed behind her.
Because James he was now. Charles could not remember when or how it had happened, he was more than a little confused about a lot of things at the moment. But whenever he looked its way his glass was full of wine, and so he just had to drink it.
“To look at, perhaps”, he said. He took a cigar from Guerin, who placed the box with the tools in front of him. “But I doubt there’s much inside that pretty head of hers.” As he spoke he picked up the sniper and cut off the edge of his cigar.
James also received his and reached it out for the same treatment. “Oh?”
Charles cut off the edge of his cigar too. “I took her here eight years ago, eight years, and you hear how she still talks.”
“’Where met you?’” James grinned.
Charles lit his cigarette, surprised to hear himself laughing. A look at the wine bottle that Guerin was just picking up let him know that it was emptier than he would have guessed.
James reached out his cigar and Charles obediently lit that too, raising a hand for Guerin.
“I don’t think we need any scotch”, he said in French.
“Scotch?” James had recognized a word. He took a puff of his cigar. “What are we drinking?”
Charles puffed on his own and leaned back in the chair. “Ah, nothing. I think the wine was enough for tonight.”
He looked up at the ceiling and tried to clear his thoughts, they had turned into an intangible mess.
“Really?” James said. “I wouldn’t mind some scotch.”
Charles closed his eyes and sighed inaudibly.
“Guerin, we’ll have that scotch anyway.”
He arrived quickly with two glasses and a bottle, poured up for them and was on his way.
“Can he leave it here?” James asked sweetly.
“Guerin, leave the bottle with us.”
Charles turned his head to watch him walk away stiffly, then turned back and leaned closer to James.
“I don’t think he approves”, he whispered.
James picked up his glass and smiled. “Then we might as well give him sufficient reason.”
Charles hesitated a second before he did the same. Following James’ lead he took a big gulp. At this point it made no big difference anyway. He leaned back again and crossed his legs.
“Guerin, you may leave now.”
If he thought it was so horrible to see his master drunk, why then he did not have to.
When the door closed James pushed his chair back from the table and stretched out his legs. He had started slouching now, perhaps he had been a bigger help in emptying the wine bottle than Charles had noticed.
“Is that how long you’ve been married, eight years?” he asked, puffing on his cigar.
Charles sighed. “It feels more like 80.”
“Shall we drink to that?” James smiled mischievously and reached out his glass as if it had not been a question. “To 80 years of happy marriage!”
And Charles drank as he added “And may there be many more”, which made him drink even faster. His glass was, again, mysteriously empty, but James helpfully grabbed the bottle and asked, “Some more?”
“Thank you”, Charles said.
James poured up for him and raised his glass for another toast before he had even set the bottle back on the table.
“And good friends”, he said.
Charles raised his brows. “After a lunch and one dinner?”
James waited persistently until he drank, then did the same and started splashing his scotch around nonchalantly.
“Actually…” He put down his glass on the table and stood up. “Would you mind if I…” He sat down at the edge of the table just in front of Charles, looking down at him in the chair. “If I asked you another favour?”
Charles observed him with doubt.
James leaned closer to him. “Could I stay here tonight?”
James interrupted him by putting a hand on his thigh. Charles could only gulp and feel his heart rate go up. James leaned in closer so their faces almost touched, and slowly moved his hand further up.
“I hate hotel beds”, he whispered. “I’m so sick of them.”
He looked down at his own hand, as if it was moving against his will. It had started to slow down, you almost could not see it advancing any more. But Charles could feel it. Oh, he felt it.
“Please?” James tilted his head. “Just for a night?”
Charles was breathing heavily. He would do anything, he thought, he would do anything to make that hand move faster and get where he wanted it, that spot in his trousers that was growing and aching already.
“I’ll tell Guerin to prepare a room for you”, he pressed out.
“Will I be needing a room?” he asked.
In a second he closed the last distance between them and forced his tongue into Charles’ mouth, kissing him hotly and hard. Charles gasped as his hand reached its goal.
The next morning Charles entered the dining room heavily supported on his walking stick and hiding his face behind his hand as he ordered the curtains closed. James was loading food onto an already overfull plate by the buffet and yelled out a cheery “Good morning!”
Charles felt it like knives in his ears and winced and hissed and staggered towards the table. He pulled out a chair, almost losing his balance, and collapsed into it, trying to remember what time he was supposed to be at Westminster.
“Guerin, only coffee for me”, he said. “Lots and lots of coffee.”
“Do you want me to get you anything?” James called from the buffet. His hair was immaculate, but he had removed his jacket and hung it over the chair where he had sat the night before and his bowtie hung loose around his neck.
Charles sighed. “I want you to get that mouth of yours closed.”
Two cups were delivered to the table, and James arrived just as the second one – his – was being filled.
“Merci”, he said with horrible pronunciation, making it sound like an English “mercy”. He picked it up and took an immediate sip. “We don’t have any tea?”
“We need coffee.” Charles rubbed his throbbing forehead. “Not tea.”
James accepted it without complaint and started cutting up his food. Even before he brought it to his mouth he looked up every once in a while, in a way that would have been unnoticeable if it had been just a few times, but not at this point.
Charles watched him with furrowed brows.
“Why do you do that?”
“Do what?” James’ mouth was so full food almost started falling out when he opened it.
“Swallow first”, Charles sneered, reaching for his cup. “You look at me. You always just look at me.”
At the club he had liked being looked at, the day before he had loved it, but when his hair was a mess, he felt like his head might explode and thought there were remains of last night’s dinner and its morning return still left on his chin, he did not.
“I do?” Now James was looking at his plate as he ate, as if he had never done anything else.
“You do”, Charles said. “You did when we ate lunch, you did when we had dinner and you did just now.”
James chewed in silence for a few seconds. This time he swallowed before he looked at Charles.
“It’s awkward to admit”, he said, “but things are not like this in India. Etiquette is different. Here I simply don’t know how to act.”
“So you look to me for guidance.” Charles took a big sip of coffee. “How adorable.”
“I hope you don’t mind”, James said sincerely. “But if you do, maybe I could-“
“Please, James, I drank way too much last night, you barely let me sleep, I feel horrible and I need to get to Westminster in an hour, I’m not young, mind you, and right now I really can’t.”
James returned to his food, offended-looking.
“I was going to say that I could stop”, he mumbled.
Charles let him eat in silence as he emptied his cup with remarkable efficiency. He was tired of coming up with subjects to speak about, and James never offered much help with that. He could make toasts (and things in bed), but that appeared to be all he was good for.
So the room was quiet, until James had finished eating and subconsciously touched his chest as he reclined contently, and Charles suddenly remembered something.
“What’s in that locket?” he asked, holding his cup out for Guerin to refill.
“Hm?” James returned from wherever he had been and pulled away his hand as if burned.
“I saw it last night”, Charles said. “You must still be wearing it under your shirt, aren’t you?”
“Oh”, James smiled, “that? It’s just a picture of my mother.”
James twitched. “Since long.”
“Mine too”, Charles said, before he resumed pouring coffee into his mouth.
“Your wife won’t join us?” James asked.
Charles rolled his eyes and pulled himself away from drinking long enough to answer. “She eats in her room. It’s her right as a married woman.”
This morning he too would have preferred to close himself up and consume all this caffeine alone, and he regretted letting James stay the night. Of course, at the time he had been very happy with his decision, but a man can change his mind.
He emptied his cup and put it down on the table, standing up with the much required help of his walking stick.
“I should get ready now”, he said.
James nodded, sipping on his coffee.
“I expect you’ll be gone when I return”, Charles continued, meaning that he wanted him to be, “but I suppose we’ll meet at the club some time.”
“Yes.” James smiled sweetly. “Have a good day.”
Charles nodded and made his leave. As he passed through the door – opening for him magically by the help of Guerin – he turned around and looked at James by the table, crossing his legs and looking around the room over his coffee cup. Charles frowned and thought that he looked all too much at home, before the door closed behind him as if he was the guest and it was time for him to leave.
“How have things been here?” he asked that evening, handing Guerin his coat and hat.
“Perfectly good, monsieur”, the butler replied.
Charles pulled off his gloves. “And Madame Carmichael?”
“Not home, monsieur. I believe she was attending-“
“Now, Guerin, I don’t need to hear that.” He gave him the gloves and a meaning look. “Let the woman have her secrets. Perhaps she’s having an affair.”
Guerin, ever the good Christian, had a strained smile and did not meet his eyes. Charles patted him on the shoulder and took his walking stick from where it stood leaned against the wall.
“Dinner in an hour?”
“Very well, monsieur.”
Charles went darting up the stairs, when suddenly Guerin called out “Oh, monsieur!” He turned around and looked down at him over the railing.
“What?” he asked irritably.
“I just wish to know how long monsieur Federline is staying”, Guerin said. “And if we should prepare dinner for the both of you.”
Charles furrowed his brows in incomprehension.
“Monsieur Federline?” he repeated. “Is he here?”
Guerin nodded carefully. The confusion had reached him too now, he had no doubt assumed that Charles knew.
“How long has he been here?”
“All day, monsieur.”
“He never left?”
“No, monsieur. He did not.”
Charles thought for a few seconds, chewing at his lip and looking up the stairs.
“Where is he?” he asked eventually.
“Upstairs somewhere, monsieur. I am not certain where.”
Charles waved his hand to dismiss him.
“So”, Guerin smacked his heels together, “should we prepare dinner for two, monsieur?”
This was another life-changing decision Charles would make in complete oblivion, and at the time all he thought about was how to appear in front of Guerin, not at all about himself or James or the actual dinner.
“Yes”, he said slowly. “Dinner for two. But make it light, and only one course.”
Guerin bowed his head and dispersed into the shadows somewhere beneath him. Charles took the rest of the stairs more hesitantly, keeping a slow pace and never letting his hand leave the railing. Before he reached the top he would need to have planned what to do and how to act, but he kept getting closer without reaching any decisions. Then he took a deep breath, and his time was up.
This hallway was narrower than its downstairs counterpart, and not by far as ornate. The walls were usually white but at this time of day they appeared grey, and the simple uncarpeted wooden floor more black than dark brown. In the middle of that the figure of James Federline was closing a door. He faced Charles, who was walking towards him fast.
“I hate to be impertinent”, he said harshly, “but what on earth were you doing in my wife’s bedroom?!”
“I swear it isn’t what it looks like”, James stammered meekly. “I got horribly lost, swear to god.”
Charles reached him now, and could see that he looked positively horrified. His eyes were big and wide and his mouth not properly closed.
“Scratch that question.” Charles put down his walking stick with a bang. “What on earth are you doing in my home at all?”
Two big wrinkles appeared on James’ smooth forehead and he twisted his own hands.
“I had planned to be gone by the time you came home”, he said desperately. “I’m so sorry, I suppose I put it off for too long and then just-“
“Is this supposed to be an explanation?” Charles snapped. “Because I’m afraid I can’t consider it a very good one.”
James looked right into his eyes as if he was staring straight through them, and Charles suddenly found himself quite frozen and mute.
“I’m sorry”, James whispered slowly. “But I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t know what to do.”
Charles looked at him in silence. Suddenly all the anger had run right off him and all he had left was a look of minor concern.
“What do you mean?” he said after a while.
“I haven’t tired of hotel rooms.” James’ lips shivered during a short pause. “But I- I lost my luggage, I lost my passport, and I lost my money. The little I had left has run out, and I can’t afford to stay at my hotel another night.” His voice shook, but his eyes stayed desperately staring at Charles’. “I don’t know anyone in this country, and I’m trying to fix everything, but I can’t find a lawyer, the police said they couldn’t help, and the ship I came here with has departed already and won’t be back for months, so there’s no way to tell what happened to my things.”
Charles bit his lip.
“All right”, he said with a softer tone. “I could ask around and see if I can find someone who knew your father, and then-“
“That’s the thing.” James snivelled. “He was such a recluse, you won’t find anyone!” He tried a dry, unhappy laugh. “Or maybe someone, but no one that would have liked him!”
Suddenly he was crying. He made a desperate attempt at covering his face for a few seconds, but it was twisted by tears and snivels and he did not do it silently.
“Please”, Charles sneered, “bring yourself together.”
“I’m sorry.” James looked out from behind his hands with red, wet eyes. “But I think-“ He struggled for air. “I think it hasn’t sunk in yet that he’s dead, but now it is, and-“ He never managed to finish the sentence or get out any more words.
“Come here.” Charles grabbed him by the arm and led him harshly in the direction away from the staircase. “Quick now.”
James stumbled after him, but he did not lower his pace. He pulled him through the hallway and opened the door to his bedroom, into which he pushed his sobbing companion. Before he followed he looked out into the hallway to both sides and thanked his lucky star that it was empty, then he went in and closed the door.
He locked it behind them and lit one of the sconces on the wall, illuminating the room just enough to make it visible. James had sat down on the stool at the foot of his bed and was crying into his hands, quieter now. As he watched him from the wall, Charles’ heart ached with compassion for him. He saw himself in him now, the young man mourning his father, penniless, homeless and alone in the world. For the first time he thought he understood James Federline.
He leaned his walking stick against the wall and walked over to him.
“James”, he said, carefully sitting down next to him. “It’s okay. Calm down.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I-“
“James.” He used his stern voice. “Calm down and look at me.”
James lowered his hands and obeyed as if he had no will of his own.
“I didn’t plan to do this”, he said. “I didn’t think I would do this.”
Charles took both his hands in his own in case he would decide to hide again. He held them firmly and forced eye contact, and slowly James’ snivels grew quieter and further apart.
“I know how it is”, Charles said when he deemed it safe to speak without being interrupted.
“How?” James’ voice was unnaturally high. “And what? How it is to lose the only person you had in the world, how it is to end up in a strange country with no money and no contacts and be all on your own?”
“Not all of it”, Charles said, “but trust me, some.”
James nodded in quiet acceptance and his lips moved into something that was almost a smile. Charles did not know what he was going to do until he was doing it.
“You can stay here for as long as you need while you make arrangements”, he said. “Until everything is cleared out.”
The relief was visible in James’ entire face.
“Really?” This time he succeeded in smiling. “Thank you.” He squeezed Charles’ hands. “Thank you so much.”
Charles smiled back, feeling very generous and good-hearted. Had it been a regular beggar of the working class he would not have been sitting like this, but now James was actually a gentleman of a good family and background. Now it was exciting, romantic, almost like in a novel. Now he could imagine that one day, once this young man had made something of himself, he would be able to point at him with his walking stick and say, “This is my doing.” He had a profound sense of being part of something big, of being there for the beginning of something very special.
“You need to dry those tears”, he said, “and clean yourself up. I will tell Guerin to prepare a room for you, and then we will have dinner, just the two of us, and you won’t have to do anything else tonight. Tomorrow we will go see a tailor, but I will pay, and then we’ll take the rest as it comes. I will help as much as I can. Does that sound good?”
James nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”
He freed one of his hands and used it to dry himself under one eye.
Charles tilted his head to the side. “But I have to ask, what have you been doing alone here all day? Nicoline wasn’t here, was she?”
James shook his head. “No, I never met her. I-“ He snorted, seemingly at himself. “I walked around some, and occupied myself in the library. It’s easy to do, really. It’s an impressive collection.”
“All day?” Charles raised his brows.
“If you mean the bedroom incident”, James said, “it was an honest mistake. I had to look at the rooms at least a little, didn’t I? But I was only in there for a second, I swear, and I left as soon as I realized that it was hers.”
Maybe Charles looked suspicious, because he hurriedly added, “Do you believe me?”
“Yes.” Charles put his free hand on his shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. “I believe you, James.”
Looking dead serious, James asked, “Do you trust me?”
He was making a bigger deal of it than it was, but Charles felt like a good enough person to continue comforting him. After all, he was his responsibility now.
“Yes”, he said. “I trust you.”
The answer almost came too quickly. It was almost too genuine.
The plan, as everything Charles did, was executed perfectly, into the tiniest detail. The very next day they spent several hours at the tailor’s, during which James looked exclusively uncomfortable and confused. He had to be told time and time again to stand still, to move that way, to turn here and then there, to do that with his arms and this with his legs.
“It’s not like Indian tailors”, he said with a strained smile.
Charles stood by the side with his walking stick and chose outfits, colours and patterns from a catalogue. James had given it one look, furrowed his brows and confessed that he knew nothing of English fashion, so Charles shouldered that responsibility too.
“How much will this cost?” James asked.
The tailor – a wrinkly, white-haired older man whose name Charles had once been told but then forgotten and never asked for again – frowned.
“Lesson”, Charles said. “A gentleman doesn’t ask about money.”
Before they left they had placed an order to have a white tie outfit, a tweed suit, a long coat and a complete set of riding clothes done, and on the way home they passed by the hatter to purchase a top hat and a bowler. Balancing the boxes on top of each other, James said that he thought they looked the same and did not see the need for both. Charles quickened his pace and walked away from him.
“Lesson”, he said when James came in through the door ten minutes after him. “You are what you wear.”
“Well”, James smirked, handing over the hat boxes to Guerin, “in that case I suppose you can’t hope to see me naked again.”
Charles smacked him with the walking stick, only half on joke.
“Lesson. Language is important.”
During tea James asked – with lowered eyes – why he was giving him lessons.
“Because you’re an uncultured swine”, Charles said matter-of-factly. “And it is my job to turn you into a gentleman. So hold the cup like this, and sit like so.”
James was an excellent learner. By the end of tea he drank and sat just like him and waved for Guerin as if he was a dog he owned. Charles’ heart was swelling with pride.
He taught him everything. He taught him proper etiquette for all situations, French and Latin phrases to seem educated, which places in London and England that were for their class and which ones were not. He taught him to play chess and croquet, he taught him to discuss and converse and which subjects to choose for men and for women, he even taught him how to dance, wearing riding boots to protect his toes. He taught him about literature and art, he taught him about politics and current events, he taught him about fashion and clothes.
James picked up all of it quickly. He formed opinions now, of books he had never read and plays he had not seen. Sometimes they had to be coaxed out of him and he could not always handle any follow-up questions – he would tilt his head to the side, smirk and kiss him instead – but he could hold his own in a conversation. And he never did become a very secure dancer, but he had a head for chess and Charles had to stop playing croquet with him because it was too humiliating to lose that often. By the time his clothes arrived, James both looked and acted like someone who had grown up just like him.
Charles loved it. James Federline, young English gentleman, was his project, his protégé, his creation. And he was a masterpiece, his life’s work.
“You’re going to be something”, he said in bed.
James had not made reality of his threat and was just as undressed as he. He straddled his hips and smirked.
“You are”, Charles promised. James put his hand on his chest and started sliding it down, slowly. “There are all sorts of ways a man can rise in this world; money, marriage, connections, sex, a little lie there, a little exaggeration here.” He moved his face closer to James’ and smiled crookedly. “You just have to choose.”
James hummed in agreement and stopped his hand just above where it was supposed to be.
“I’m going to be something”, he said.
His tone left no room for alternatives, because there were none. It was not a prayer, a piece of useless hope or a desperate ambition, it was a simple statement. He was going to be something.
And Charles was going to help him. He was already making arrangements to take him out to the country and teach him to ride, hunt and play cricket.