‘This way through, Lord Alfred,’ the guard said, leading the way into the ward of Bethlem Royal Hospital.
They passed room after room quietly – though Lord Alfred had heard of the appalling and inhumane treatment of the patients of the lunatic asylum, he paid no heed to any noise of movement in his periphery.
All he had his mind was on one person.
It was a sunny day in Cambridge, delightful, and just the tonic Alfred needed after the grim days that had descended on London. There really was a newfound spring in his step as soon as he got out of the carriage, every clink of his heels on the cobbled pathways was singing with excitement.
He missed this. More than he realised, it turned out. He had been quite comfortable at the Palace, in a luxurious self-exile from the world, where he could be left alone for the most part, to read poetry, play the piano, ride his horses, and drink champagne all day in peace, no questions asked. But this, this fine city full of bright young men, rushing to their lectures or chasing after their tutors before hall for help on their Latin translations…
Alfred’s own years at Cambridge were the happiest. He hadn’t been heartbroken yet, not back then. It was all poetry and Greeks and punting on the river, and then there were a few of those bright young things in his year, or above, or below, or from the town, and then even occasionally from Oxford – he couldn’t help it, when they were hosting the competition, well, he had always fallen easily for a tall brunette with rowing shoulders…
Oh, there it was, Alfred’s own dark cloud. He thought he had escaped that by fleeing London, but it had caught up with him again.
It was a fact that he had fought tooth and nail to hide from the world but he hadn’t been the same since Drummond’s death. If he were still here, Alfred wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving London – Drummond would have stayed, complaining about the Whigs yet working hard on a solution for the horrid epidemic, he thought guiltily. But it was more than that, after all Lord Alfred could hardly find the cure regardless of where he was.
It was the memory of Drummond himself that still hung about him. He did not much believe in ghosts but… The Fates had not been kind: the bond they shared could not have been torn in a less clean fashion. In fact, Alfred was daily overwhelmed by the same crushing thoughts that he had when he first learned of the murder, they still winded him, made him falter in his steps, froze the blood in his veins, and knocked out the little life he had managed to work up in himself. He was still beating himself up for it all. It was as if he had cursed Drummond with that argument, it was as if it had all been his fault, if he had just spoken a little more gently that night, if he had just left all the caution for after dinner…
‘Lord Alfred? We are going to be late,’ Prince Albert said since Alfred had fallen a good few steps behind him on their way to the Chancellor meeting in Magdalen College.
Alfred apologised, blaming his having been distracted on the beauty of the surrounding architecture, and followed the Prince to their destination. In the hall, they were greeted by a large group of men, old and young, dons, professors, fellows, alumni, and current students, all in their neat robes and heads held high with the arrogance of belonging, something which the Prince would have to contend with if he was to avoid public embarrassment.
Lord Alfred had verily supported the Prince’s decision to go to Cambridge for the Chancellor vote. Though he cringed every time the Prince used an incorrect term (which was often), Alfred was on his side and was quick to whisper corrections in his ear discreetly whenever needed. He thought the whole idea quite exciting, really: Cambridge needed just the sort of innovative man he had come to know Prince Albert as, and, though Alfred perhaps felt stifled by Albert’s immense lack of a sense of humour for his own liking, he was curious to see what would come of it. For once, he did not have to tag along to an excursion into alleyways swimming in sewage water for the Prince.
But he had a bit of another selfish reason to accompany him on this trip, too.
He thought he wanted this. The Palace. But then again, he thought he had wanted the marriage, too. And what a mistake that turned out to be!
Lord Alfred proposed to Wilhelmina while still in the thickest of that blinding fog of grief, under the impression that she was in agreement with the terms he was offering. A marriage of friendship. For companionship. After all, he was never going to marry properly, so if it wasn’t the woman who knew and didn’t judge his love for Drummond, it was facing a life alone forever – and at the same time he could offer a welcome escape from her tyrannical aunt’s bullying. It should have worked.
However, it only became apparent on their wedding night that she had not been entirely on same page on the plan as Alfred. He was confused, he thought she knew what she was getting into but apparently not. That night he apologised and feigned exhaustion. The following night, he said he had drunk too much at dinner, claiming not to have known the strength of those French wines – they were well on their honeymoon by then. The third night, she saw right through him and told him she understood that he was not like other men but that she had been promised some kind of love and definitely a proper marriage.
Alfred thanked the Heavens that that one night was enough to make her pregnant. She had that to focus on instead of trying to make him love her like she had apparently grown to love him regardless. Wilhelmina was one of those women who could not separate marital affection from love, as he found out only too late. And though it was not the most ideal decision in their parents’ eyes – and certainly not that of the Duchess of Bucchleuch, who had just fallen from grace as the Whig government served as the perfect excuse for the Queen to swap her for a new Mistress of the Robes – Alfred returned to the Palace.
He thought that was a good way to escape his married life, which he still thought about as something from a distant nightmare, something that was not part of his own life. He berated himself for it, of course, as he did not see himself as a cruel, neglectful man, or a coward.
All the same, he did leave his wife in the country, happy to take up his role as Chief Equerry as if nothing had happened.
However, as the months progressed, his ghosts had caught up with him again. He soon grew tired of the tedious court gossip, surrounded by the dullest ladies in waiting – save for Lady Portman maybe but she was always too quiet, too discreet to provide any real distraction – whether at the Palace or at Osborne House, it was always the same claustrophobic circle of ladies and no substance to any talk, every utterance over a game of cards as meaningless as the next. Tired of people and idle chatter, he devoured books and drinks with equal fervour, blending in the background, performing his duties impeccably and smoothly when called upon, but retiring early every night, hugging his pillow close until his sobs ceded and he fell asleep and came morning it all started again.
And now his wife had summoned him home to see their new-born child.
So of course, though Alfred winced whenever the Prince gave away his being an outsider, he was thrilled when His Grace was to travel to Cambridge to become the Chancellor and aided him in finding the right words lest he cancelled it – especially as Lord Palmerston, upon learning of this development, seemed ever so keen to assert his being an Old Boy over Prince Albert’s clumsiness. However, catching Palmerston’s eyes, Alfred knew he was just playing with Albert, his thorniness merely an eccentric expression of support.
And thankfully, the Prince did not cancel.
Oh, this haven! As Alfred sat at the high table on His Grace’s left, biting his tongue now whenever he felt the urge to correct him but could not, Alfred looked around the hall. Everywhere, he saw fine learned men – men – well, perhaps he was sceptical about the group of older fellows whose frowns grew deeper and deeper as the Prince went on about the importance of science over humanities. Though almost half of the assembled were eyeing the Prince with mild contempt (and those were the ones who cheered the loudest when Lord Powis dismissed natural sciences for his almighty theological traditions, making it seem as if he belonged in 1448, not 1848), Alfred caught they eyes of a few chaps who seemed more open-minded than that, even as he was sitting there – eyes that looked up at him, not the Prince, with curiosity, intrigue, even cheek.
He knew he stood out of crowds with natural looks he could not help, but he had developed such a low opinion of himself in the past couple of years that he had been turning a blind eye on that kind of attention, from men and women alike, even when he did get some. People meant nothing to him now, really. He could surround himself with anyone and everyone in the whole wide world and it would still be for naught because the one person he needed could not be his and he was desperately lonely for it.
Now, however, even he had to admit it was hard not to be pleased with the interest that he was being shown by some of the more handsome attendees in various corners of the hall. In fact, there was one apple-cheeked young man, tall, dirty blonde curls styled elegantly, with a smile that suggested he held an incredible secret, who did not take his eyes off Alfred during the Prince’s whole speech, which did not go unnoticed by him. Alfred chanced a few glances his way to remember him for later. To disguise his wandering thoughts, and to support his apparent good mood with a respectable reason, Alfred tried to focus on His Grace’s words, which he actually agreed with even if they had not been delivered in the most eloquent manner, voicing his support once he was done.
And judging by some of the reactions by the more traditionalist fellows, Prince Albert and his progressive views were going to need all the support they could muster.
The crowd was dispersing for a break before the vote and Alfred took this time to say hello to a few familiar faces, his former professors or those of his friends back in the day. As he was finishing his round of small talk, he spotted that tall young man again, wading his way through the crowd to approach Alfred.
‘Lord Alfred – I should so like to commend you on your bravery at being the first to support the Prince. His ideas were perceived here as rather unconventional, as you must have noticed.’
‘I have. And he did not surprise me a bit – I have grown to know His Grace well. He is not unknown to present rather severe ideas. And thank you…’
‘Michael Savage, at your service,’ the man said, offering his hand.
Alfred shook it. ‘Glad to meet you, Mr Savage.’
‘As I am glad to meet you. Very glad,’ Michael repeated rather forwardly for emphasis, his deep green eyes piercing into Alfred. And there was that smile again. ‘I should tell you, I believe I had just heard that Lord Powis has decided to stand against the Prince.’
‘Has he?’ Alfred asked, searching for Powis with his eyes and finding him fervently making his case to a group of his equally wrinkly and grumbling fellows about the disgrace of having a foreign, a German chancellor, calling Prince Albert nothing short of a foreign heretic. Alfred knew his antediluvian type, and a hateful one at that too, but bit back his many remarks and turned back to the young lad. ‘Well… He has every right to. May the best man win.’
‘How diplomatic you are, Lord Alfred. But something tells me that, in your opinion, is Prince Albert.’
‘I shall keep my opinions between myself and the ballot, if you don’t mind.’
‘Fair enough. I wonder if you’ll stay in the city after the vote.’
‘We have not decided yet.’
‘Hm… Wherever the Prince goes, you go, I suppose?’
‘You could say that.’
‘But what about asking questions and freedom?’ Michael said in a mock lofty tone.
Alfred’s façade broke and he had to laugh as he realised he was definitely being flirted at. ‘I’m sure you know all the answers you should ever need.’
‘Oh, I do not think so, Lord Alfred. In fact, I believe there is much you could teach me,’ Michael said in a voice much lower than appropriate but it succeeded in avoiding being overheard by others. Alfred didn’t really react – it had been so long, and too many things had happened to him. He had spent almost two years as a recluse, happy to retire to his private rooms except for the public duties he had to perform. It was all very well to look, as he had done so all morning, to enjoy the smiles of handsome men all around the college, to wonder… but he wasn’t sure what he would do if someone had been serious.
Off his silence, Michael continued: ‘Well, if it’s any incentive, we’re having a bit of an evening in my literary society tonight. Whisky, cigars, the Greats. If I am not mistaken, I’m guessing you are a fan of the Greeks yourself, and we should be delighted to have you as a guest of honour. Albeit, tonight’s topic is Ovid,’ he added with a covert wink.
‘That’s flattering, Mr Savage, but, alas, I’m not sure I can attend, the Prince might demand that I…’
‘The Prince, who is… where exactly at the moment?’
Alfred looked around – this chap was right, he had lost the Prince. He excused himself and left to find him. His Grace was just speaking to the Master of the college so it fell on Alfred to inform him that he had a rival.
As a result of Powis’s stance against Prince Albert, the vote was delayed a day.
So Alfred found himself spending the night in Cambridge after all. Rooms were provided by the college and he really did feel like he was 20 again, reading Literature before he left to train as an equerry. At university, he missed his horse; at the academy, he missed the arts. In many respects, the Palace was the perfect place for him in the end. There, he had both.
Unfortunately, he could not escape being sent to the House at times and it was as painful as ever: every hallway bore memories of Drummond, every office he peeked into was missing his presence, the air was knocked out of his lungs upon seeing the desk he used to sit at, the seat he sat on, not able to erase the cruel, false instinct that he would walk through the door any second, carrying his trusty folder stuffed with papers as always…
Alfred was just about to undress for the night when he heard a knock on the door.
‘Mr Savage,’ Alfred said, pretending to be surprised. Of course it was about the literary evening, a transparent excuse for a half-illicit get-together. He almost said no. But, giving in after all, he told the chap to wait two minutes and followed him to the event.
Turned out, Ovid was not the designated topic for the night: it was the password to enter the secret society. The meeting was in a cellar room, wainscoted with dark oak, dim with smoke, crowded with finely dressed gentlemen conversing about the Classics as if they could offer something new that no one but them had discovered throughout the centuries. Those who weren’t chatting were kissing their partners in dark corners.
Alfred was offered a seat, drinks, cigars, and less and less subtle propositions as greater and greater quantities of alcohol were being consumed. Though he was as polite as ever, and though he enjoyed the attention, he turned them all down.
‘Whisky?’ Michael asked, interrupting a specky young lad arguing his corner about Keats at a wholly unamused Alfred, not waiting for an answer.
Alfred drank without thinking and coughed as soon as the burning drink slid down his throat, observing the glass.
‘What sort of whisky is this?’ he asked in a hollow voice.
‘I haven’t put any poison in it, if that’s what you’re worried about,’ Michael tried to joke but Alfred wasn’t laughing. He grabbed the bottle out of Michael’s hand and read the label. Just as he thought… He threw away the bottle, he didn’t care where or whether it shattered, and left at once.
‘But… Lord Alfred!’ Michael called after him as he ran in his wake across the quad. ‘Lord Alfred! What is--- Lord Alfred!’
But Alfred was already dashing up the stairs towards his rooms.
For a minute he thought he had managed to shake off Michael but he heard his name again on the other side of the door so he thought it best to let the stupid boy in before he woke up the whole bloody college.
‘Lord Alfred…?’ Michael asked, perplexed to see tears on Alfred’s face.
‘I do not desire to talk to anyone at present so you might as well leave, go back to your dull little party.’
Seeing as Michael showed no signs of leaving, which was terribly annoying, Alfred simply pretended he wasn’t there, took off his coat and his tie, threw a match on the fire and sat in an armchair to calm down.
‘Gin?’ Michael asked tentatively after a minute – apparently Lord Alfred was touchy about whisky.
Alfred nodded. Why not, he might as well, to tolerate it all, to wash away the taste of that special brew of Scottish whisky that he had in his flask that evening that found them by the lake in Hercules’ Garden; that whisky was the taste of Drummond’s lips that lived so vividly in his mind even after all that time.
How joyous those days were – and yet, in retrospect, Alfred remembered Drummond bringing up his own impending doom. At the time he put it down to Edward’s being melodramatic, imagining falling off cliffs and equating returning to London with his life being over. But now, looking back… had he sensed his own fate in advance?
For a while they just sat by the fire, drinking.
‘I should apologise. I assume you have questions,’ Alfred said quietly after some time had passed. Not a single sound disturbed the night, even the fire was eerily silent in its weakness.
‘No,’ Michael surprised Alfred. ‘I believe it is answers that you need, Lord Alfred, and of those I’m afraid I would not have any.’
Alfred did not reply. It seemed too tasking an effort to speak, let alone try to be clever.
He felt he was being watched but he didn’t want to give Michael the satisfaction of returning a look or even acknowledging him. He was glad of the silence. He knew that wasn’t it for the night, and he felt as if he had no control over it but it was a feeling he welcomed, as long as he didn’t have to explain more for now. Things were just happening to him those days, had been for a long time. And he let them. Whenever he tried to be an active agent in his fate, it ended badly, in destruction, near expulsions, a sham marriage, and most horribly, the death of the man he loved. Now, he handed over the reins and abided by the rules of Society, joining its flow, if not helplessly but passively, dispassionately. If he didn’t, he would be like this always: storming back to his room every time he tasted that whisky or every time the Queen was shot at – never with any loaded guns, though, of course, no, the one time an assassin had not neglected the bullets was when they aimed at Drummond. He envied others: they could move on after a reasonable time, yet he was still reminded of his love at every step.
Michael was still watching him. Before long, Alfred heard the rustle of fabric, felt hands on his thighs, kisses on his bare neck. It was all wrong but he didn’t stop him. His kisses were alien to Alfred’s lips but he accepted them.
He didn’t respond to any of it. Until he did.
He thought this was the answer. He wanted to forget. He wanted to forget him so much. In his desperation, he urged Michael on. The chap meant to be very caring and gentle, of course, seeing as Alfred was in a fragile mood. But Alfred didn’t want soft, loving kisses, gentle touches, no, those needs died in him when he died. No, what he wanted was to be distracted. Clearly, neither the Palace, nor drinks had proved a sufficient escape. So he had a new idea: if only the sensations coursing through his body were intense enough, just for a few minutes, he would be able to think about that.
Instead of him.
He bit Michael’s shoulder, his nails digging into the skin, and begged him to go harder, rougher, hoping to be made to forget, hoping that his memories could be pounded out of his mind.
Maybe he did forget, for a few moments, and that made it all worth it. Le petit mort – if it was this kind of death that brought him to a moment of blissful oblivion and a piece of calmness of the mind, so be it for now.
He sent Michael away as soon as he caught his breath. Not unkindly now. It was hard to be unkind when both of their spirits were much higher than before, all that earlier bitterness forgotten. But he was glad Michael left without further insistence, though not without flashing that smile of his one last time. And Alfred could sleep through the night calmly for the first time in years.
The next day he found he was in a better mood indeed. Despite his manners and allegiance to the Prince, he couldn’t help cracking up when Palmerston surprised them with his arrival for the vote and a jabbing mention of Ovid, of all poets, thinking about the pleasing events of the night before. It amused him greatly, Palmerston’s obliviousness about his own thorny remark.
Or perhaps, if Homer had really been the making of the Foreign Secretary, was he a quiet suggestion about the Iliad away from revealing himself to Alfred as a literary club member, too?
Alfred decided against pursuing the answer to that question. He knew enough about the man from Lady Portman. And his father, who, unlike Alfred, never cared for hiding his true self from the world and as such was in the know about the goings on of Society’s livelier members, such as Palmerson, who frequently had his billiard games interrupted by an testy husband demanding whether he had liaised with his wife or not.
Well, it really was easier to be friends with someone who had some life in him rather than Prince Albert, who, as respectable and remarkable as he was in his own right, never seemed to crack a smile and seemed to look upon everyone from the only realm he was undoubtedly the king of: his moral high ground. And, alas, after another day tailing his (very) serene (and very serious) Highness, Alfred’s cheer wore off by night. Though Prince Albert won the Chancellor vote, he continued to brood as always and was eager to leave back for London after the ceremony as he felt it was a humiliation rather than what it should have been, a formality.
However, Alfred had a trick up his sleeve: citing the entirely true excuse of having been summoned home by his wife, he got the Prince’s permission not to accompany him back to London. His Grace could always be prevailed upon to be generous when it came to matters of marriage and family.
However, instead of making the journey to his country house, Alfred remained in Cambridge.
And now that word got out about his many talents within a close-knit society of trustworthy young men, once his mood started to sink, carnal consolation came easily to Alfred, in dorm rooms, restricted nooks of the library, abandoned study halls, in punts stationed far from buildings for the night, a different, bright, athletic young man every night, each with different preferences and Alfred was so willing to accommodate them, anything to ensure a full night’s sleep instead of spending it tossing and turning as he battled alone with his usual maddening thoughts.
Because through all the fun, he did feel as if he was committing a kind of sacrilege. As if he was doing a disservice to Drummond’s memory, even cheating on him, which was insane, after all he and Edward never…
He knew he was perhaps being a tad reckless, too. In fact, he wondered if he had a death wish by doing this. He had never been this careless in his life about these things – though he had long been madly in love with him, he had waited for three years for Drummond to make the move and kiss him at last – yet no repercussions came from anyone like the great old saintly Powis and his lot, who would have gladly seen men like him crucified.
But it was never enough, not nearly enough to last. But it was either this or going home. And he wanted to delay that for as long as he could.
Born two months ago and he hadn’t even been home to see his child yet. It didn’t seem quite real that he was a father. He left it to Wilhelmina to name and christen her in his absence.
Everyone wanted a piece of the fine, elegant, beautiful Lord Alfred, not one of them suspecting how rotten he felt inside.
He wanted to stay in Cambridge forever but his last encounter broke his faux high spirits damn well.
He was given the transparent excuse of teaching the boy the particularly tricky third movement in Beethoven’s Appassionata. So his last night found him in his – David’s – dorm room, where he had a pianino.
To the chap’s credit, the piece Alfred was given to demonstrate was indeed almost hellishly tricky, and given Alfred had started drinking earlier than usual that evening, he surprised himself the most by making an impeccable job of it. After all, when literature and art betrayed him, he selected the most difficult pieces to practice out of the royal collection of sheet music, and when he ran out of them all, he ordered more (one of the reasons he was keen to point out to Princess Feodora that Langenberg was safe was because she had taken to occupying the piano every hour of every day).
David was watching his performance with reverent adoration. Alfred wasn’t exactly flattered – David was good looking enough, that wasn’t it. In fact he rather reminded Alfred of a lively William Peel, with his dark locks and wistful blue eyes. But he was younger, and therefore easily dazzled.
Alfred finished the piece with ease.
‘Beautiful,’ David said with awe. ‘You were perfect, Lord Alfred.’
Alfred merely remarked that an e flat key needed tuning. He wasn’t playing hard-to-get, his heart itself was hardened.
Off David’s somewhat crestfallen face, he realised he may have been a bit too harsh just then and so he feigned better manners.
‘But then again, I’m spoiled – Her Majesty’s instruments are unparalleled, at the Palace or at Windsor or elsewhere alike. If you do well, perhaps you might see them one day. Do you play often, Mr Ashmore?’ he asked with a kind smile and that was enough to win back the boy’s unbridled devotion.
‘Whenever I can.’
‘Well, then, why don’t you delight me with a song in return?’
‘Oh no, I dare not. I am not nearly as skilled as you, Lord Alfred. I fear I would only embarrass myself.’
Alfred pulled a face. ‘Alas, I am not very fond of this piece. It is demanding as regards technique but I find the melody rather… crude. And menacing. Don’t you?’
‘I thought you played it splendidly.’
‘But what do you think of the piece itself? Don’t you think it is rather upsetting? I really feel somewhat anxious after it.’
‘Well, what sort of pieces do you prefer to play?’
Lord Alfred thought about this. Then, finding warmth in his heart, he started playing a more light-hearted Mendelssohn song without words, Lieder ohne Worte Op. 38, from memory. He could play this in his sleep – he frequently did so, in his dreams, when he was taken back to that night after the Prince’s father died and he managed to get Drummond to stay for dinner at the Palace.
He spent the whole night trying to impress him, but he knew he did not need to try very hard as Drummond had eyes for no one but him. He followed him everywhere that evening – if he went to the seat by the windows, Drummond went with him, when he sat at the piano to delight him with this piece, Drummond stood by the instrument, listening. And when everyone else had retired, they stayed behind by the fire. And he so wanted to talk to him honestly and openly at last. Now that they were alone, it might have been possible but that was just a dream, and as always, they were interrupted. Not to mention Drummond was keeping his engagement a secret even that night. Such blissful oblivion, that was. He wished that night back so desperately, if he could only have Drummond back for a minute, to see his face, hear his voice—
Alfred did not play more than about two minutes of the song before David kissed him and touched him without preamble.
Within minutes he was giving himself to David, catering to his every desire. He had clearly been prepared for Alfred, from the curtains that were already closed when he’d stepped inside, to the bed. Alfred played him like a piano, knowing exactly which keys to push on him; it was as if the first chap at Cambridge – he hardly remembered his name already – had broken a dam in him. After all that time not having been with any man—well, now he was pushing against David with ease. But with that ease came less intense a distraction, which was the whole point of all this. Alas, with the song still in his ears, his body was David’s but his mind kept wandering elsewhere.
Perhaps he really had drunk too much because he fell asleep almost as soon as he had got it over with.
He woke to the sound of birds outside the mullioned windows. Far too loud, far too sharp, his head aching from it.
Someone was stroking his hair.
‘…Dru—?’ he muttered, opening his eyes on the stull dark room. ‘…D-David.’
He was met with a smile. Such fondness in the lad’s eyes. He knew that look and he knew he wasn’t looking back at him the same way. David needed his Jonathan. Just as Achilles needed his Patroclus. And Alfred…
He felt heavy and weak, but he forced himself to sit up and started to dress.
‘You need not leave just yet. It’s safe,’ David whispered.
‘Nevertheless, I will.’
David laughed to himself and tugged on Alfred’s shirt sleeve. ‘You do not have to pretend.’
‘They told me you never stay the night with anyone. You stayed for me.’
‘And so fancy yourself special?’ Alfred asked, his sarcasm going missed.
Before he could stand and get his waistcoat off the floor, David embraced him and began to kiss the spot behind his ear. And he felt nothing.
‘Stop,’ he said, trying to peel David’s arms off his shoulders, to no effect. He had to be cruel, then. Very well. He pulled away and said sharply now, ‘I’m serious, Mr Ashford, stop. Our encounter is at an end.’
Finally freed, he stood and continued getting dressed. When he glanced his way, sure enough, David seemed quite hurt.
‘What is the matter with you?’ he asked, surprising Alfred. ‘They told me you were not quite right in the head but… What is so wrong with you? What can have happened?’
In many ways, every night over the past week or so, he wanted to be asked. He wanted someone to pick up on his sadness and grief. He wanted to be asked even if he wasn’t sure whether he would be able to explain, it had been so long, his guilt too high, his conscience too heavy.
But now that the right question was asked, he suddenly forgot how to button his own clothes.
David saw all this and was quick to catch him, take his shaking hands in his own, seat him on the carpet where they happened to be, and hold him until the worst of it was over and he could breathe again.
‘Do you love someone?’ David asked, triggering a new bout of manic crying in Alfred. He couldn’t help it, he was breaking in two from the force of his pain. He felt quite mad from it all, driven insane. It was unbearable. Speaking was out of the question in this state. So sooner or later David guessed. ‘Did you love…?’
Alfred’s whole body was a knot of pain that came from within, his muscles were in cramps, his bones frozen, and his chest filled with lead.
Somehow, before the sun rose, as briefly as he could, he heard himself tell David about Drummond and what had happened to them, to him. He could barely string two consecutive words together but he could manage the gist of it. That there was the most beautiful man that he fell in love with and who loved him back but that he hurt him, making him think Alfred didn’t love him as he did Alfred after all. Which wasn’t true – he was crazy about him, he loved him with all his heart, he loved him.
Stuttering, sobbing, he told him how Drummond was murdered before Alfred could put it all right. How he loved him but now he was dead. He was dead. He was dead.
As always when this pain found him at night, he waited until numbness replaced the hysteria. He felt as it filled him, turning his veins, which had been on fire before, into stone. And he was just a little more dead inside.
Ashamed at the gross display of emotions in front of this unsuspecting young man, he finished buttoning up his waistcoat and moved to stand.
‘You cannot leave in this state, Alfred.’
Alfred glanced at himself in the looking glass and saw indeed that he looked like a lunatic on the run. He dried his eyes, fixed his attire, his hair, and tried to pull himself together as best as he could. It was of utmost importance that no one should know any of this. He already regretted telling David about it.
‘Wait, please,’ David said, tentatively approaching him. ‘I hate to think you’ll leave like this.’
‘I’ve no choice. I’ll leave like this and I shall live my life like this.’
‘What if someone else loved you now?’ David asked, looking at him with his big blue eyes.
Alfred shook his head, the mere thought was impossible and unwelcomed. No one could replace Drummond, in any way.
He moved to leave but David clung to his arm. ‘Please, Alfred. Come and see me again tonight.’
‘You haven’t the faintest idea how I feel, do you?’
‘I… I know you are sad.’
‘Sad,’ Alfred could have laughed.
‘But let me show you it can be different,’ David said, kissing his lips, then his hand. ‘I could be yours. I could love you.’
Alfred pulled his hand away. ‘How old are you?’
‘I’ll be eighteen next month,’ the boy replied with the phrasing of one who tries to sound older than they really are.
Alfred cursed as a fresh jolt of pain shot through his head. He felt sick.
‘Please do not make me cause any more pain,’ Alfred pleaded.
The boy clung to his arm still, mistaking his passion for love. Some part of Alfred wished to be understood but, as much as the fine men of Cambridge knew about the arts and history, they knew nothing about what Alfred was going through.
Then, Alfred was struck by a new realisation. Maybe there was a place he could still seek answers. And though he could have collapsed on the floor and left for dead from exhaustion, he pulled the last of his strength together and freed himself from David’s arms.
‘I’m leaving,’ he said, ‘I must go. I have to go home.’
And that, he did. It was still only dawning when Alfred was already on the road.
He reached his and Wilhelmina’s country house just west of London sometime after breakfast.
‘Alfred? Is that really you?’ Wilhelmina was running out of the door at the unannounced visitor. ‘I thought I saw you from the morning room – oh! Alfred!’
She flung her arms around his shoulders and Alfred mechanically returned the hug.
‘You must see her at once! Come,’ she said and took him right upstairs into the nursery.
‘Come, my darling, meet your Papa,’ Wilhelmina cooed as she lifted the baby out of the cot.
Alfred carefully reached over to lift the laced little hem of the baby’s hat that hid her face from his view. And for the first time he saw his daughter’s beautiful face.
‘But she is perfect,’ he said in wonder.
‘She’s sleeping now but she has your eyes,’ Wilhelmina said quetly, careful not to wake the child.
‘W-what’s her name?’ Alfred asked, knowing it was shameful he had to ask, and so late.
‘Victoria Alexandrina Paget,’ Wilhelmina replied proudly, not caring about the strangeness of the way things had been done. She was too elated that Alfred was finally there.
‘I know, I did not aim to be very creative, but I am so thankful for Her Majesty, and her court is where we met. I was thinking about Emily, too, after your sister – she came to help with everything.’
‘Emily was here?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid you just missed her, she only left three days ago. And dear Harriet and Florence came to visit for a little while, too. And my aunt, of course. But it was Charlotte who was here the most, when you… could not.’
Alfred could but he didn’t. The birth of his first child easily outweighed entertaining the fallen French king or accompanying Her Majesty to Osborne House.
‘Wilhelmina, I’m sorry,’ Alfred said because it needed to be said. ‘I should have been here.’
It was obvious she had grown to doubt him. However, she masked it as best as she could, and, gathering strength from the beautiful baby in her arms, she decided not to press for a quarrel now.
‘Well, you are here now,’ she said with that kindness that Alfred felt undeserving of – as before he had even proposed as well as now.
Alfred was used to doting on children, with as large a family as his, it was impossible not to have developed this instinct. And seeing Victoria – his daughter – he was glad she had such a popular name now. He hoped this meant she would take after her mother – plain, simple, but content. Not like her father, who would always be battling with demons and always had to strive doubly in Society lest he was found out as an outsider and horribly persecuted for it.
Though he felt fondness for the child, he felt as he did for his nieces and nephews, rather than as a father, whatever that must have felt like. He knew he would protect her with his own life, should any harm threaten her, and he knew he was going to give her everything she wanted and ensured she would be free of that which she did not. But, alas…
Perhaps because he had missed the pregnancy and the birth altogether, or perhaps because the way she was conceived was an unpleasant episode in Alfred’s memory, but his own feelings for the child underwhelmed him. In fact, Alfred did not miss the dewy-eyed way Wilhelmina was looking up at him even now and shuddered. They had been friendly before the wedding but then – well, their union was one that made Wilhelmina fall in love with him, while to Alfred it marked the day he made up his mind to escape to the Palace and not want to return even for short visits and perhaps informed his inability to feel like a real father to his own daughter and rather like friendly uncle.
Wilhelmina suggested that Alfred take some time to rest and change before lunch. As wretched as he felt, sleep was out of the question, of course, so he came down early. She took him around the house, talking about all the changes she had been making to the decorations and furnishings in his absence. They took a turn in the garden with little Victoria and she filled him in on their daughter’s short history thus far – what the pregnancy was like, how Wilhelmina prepared, who visited, that it was an easy birth and that she the nanny was the most charming lady in the world, and that she was eating well and slept like an angel.
By the time dinner came, Alfred was truly feeling as if he had given over control of his body to someone else, some puppeteer above him. He felt as if he was watching himself from an external point of view, not really himself somehow. It hardly seemed real that not a day ago, he was falling into bed with the dozenth man in a row in a misguided attempt to forget Edward.
‘… and Henry and Charlotte came all the way here for the Christening and they have brought the most charming presents, oh, Alfred, you must see them first thing tomorrow. I do hope this summer shower stops by the morning and then perhaps I could show you the orchard, too, it’s around the folly beyond the lake… Alfred?’ she trailed away as she realised Alfred was hardly paying attention.
He noticed himself. ‘Yes, the orchard. Of course.’
‘Yes, I wrote to you about it. Do you remember?’
‘I… I’m sure I do,’ Alfred said, pressing himself for the last of his strength to keep sitting straight and feign kindness. As always, he could rely on his good looks to mask how rotten and gloomy he felt inside. But, seeing his reflection in the cabinet glass, he looked like a ghost. ‘I apologise. I have been busy and the journey wore me out.’
‘Of course. If you would rather retire now…’ she offered, hardly able to hide her disappointment.
So of course he had to accommodate her wishes and pushed the food around on his plate until she declared it was time to go into the sitting room before bed.
‘Would you like me to read from a book, Alfred?’ she asked. He shook his head, knowing she would elect a romance novel about marriage and he had not the strength for that strain now. ‘Then, perhaps, some music?’ she offered, indicating the piano. Alfred thought about David by the piano the night before, then he thought about Drummond, and how visions of him kept creeping into his mind even as he was touching David, or Michael, or any of the forgettable men that he had had during his stay in Cambridge.
‘Not tonight, perhaps,’ he replied.
She looked crestfallen but she saw now that he seemed a shadow of himself so she sat with him by the fire.
‘You have not told me a word of your news.’
‘What have you been doing? How are Her Majesty and His Grace?’
‘They are well. There is really nothing of worthy of mention.’
‘That cannot be true.’
‘Well, there’s cholera in Soho, so…’ Alfred fell silent seeing as Wilhelmina was like any sheltered woman of her class, fainting at the slightest mention of bad news. He had spent too delightful a time among learned men and forgot there was no real conversation to be had among ladies like her. So he changed his course for her sake. ‘But Prince Albert has been elected as Chancellor of Cambridge.’
‘Oh, how lovely! I do not quite know what that entails but I shall send him my congratulations.’
‘I believe he also found a tutor for Prince Bertie there.’
‘A tutor! Already? Well, they grow up so fast, don’t they?’ Alfred said nothing in a way he thought was calming. Alas, she never could handle long stretches of silence. ‘So… Cambridge left a good impression on His Grace. And what about you?’
‘What about me?’
‘Did Cambridge leave a good impression on you, my darling?’
Alfred considered the fact that he still had bruises on parts of his body hidden by clothes: hands, nails, and teeth having indeed left impressions perhaps too deep on his skin in the heat of passion.
‘Quite,’ he said curtly.
‘Is that really all, Alfred? You are normally so generous with your stories and… oh, I don’t know. I have missed you, you know – I am dying to talk to you the way we used to.’
‘The way we used to?’
‘Do you not remember? You were my closest friend at court.’
‘So I was,’ Alfred said noncommittally, remembering that time quite differently: he had been blind to everything else because of his friendship with Drummond. Everything dwarfed in importance next to him – whether he would come to the Palace or not, what fetching colours his clothes were and how they suited him as he stood so nobly and tall behind Peel, the secret smiles and looks that communicated a thousand words keeping Alfred elated for days at a time.
What was his life now, sitting in his wife’s beige drawing room?
‘Forgive me, I am awfully tired.’
‘Forgive me but I have not clapped eyes on you since not long after we returned from our honeymoon.’
Alfred did feel a little sharpness there – even the ever gentle Wilhelmina had her limits of patience. But even in reproach – others held their heads high with dignity, demanding what is rightfully theirs, yet Wilhelmina seemed humiliated to be begging for affection.
‘I don’t know, Wilhelmina,’ Alfred sighed, grasping for something that would suffice. ‘It’s the same as usual. Dinners, banquets, dances, fashions, gossips, card games… The names of the participants change but the stories are the same.’
‘You sound quite bored of it,’ she said, obviously hoping he was indeed. ‘How long are you going to stay?’
Alfred wanted to say “not a minute more” and jump on his horse right away, if he hadn’t been so bloody well-mannered or desperately tired.
Off his silence, Wilhelmina sighed and stood. ‘Shall we go to bed, then?’
‘You go. I’ll just finish this,’ Alfred said, indicating a drop of port still left in his glass.
She nodded and left, to Alfred’s relief. He waited a minute, had a cheroot, drank his wine, and then walked upstairs. There, however, he heard his name again as he passed Wilhelmina’s open door.
‘Yes?’ Alfred responded from the hallway.
‘Aren’t you going to come in?’
It was all Alfred could do not to break something.
Struggling to sound calm, he said, ‘I shall sleep in my own room, thank you.’
‘You cannot,’ she said, coming to the door as he was not coming in. ‘I have not given instructions to the maids to make up your bed at all. I thought you would—’
‘What did you think I would do?’ Alfred said without thinking. He was not harsh or furious, simply dry and at a loss for patience. He had had enough of this masquerade.
‘Sleep?’ Alfred repeated, failing to keep his voice devoid of mockery. Though once Alfred could genuinely imagine a happy life of companionship with Wilhelmina, now the thought of sleeping, just sleeping in her bed made him strangely uncomfortable. And she was too transparent at any rate to fool him.
‘I don’t see what is so wrong about wanting to sleep with my husband. I thought…’
‘What, what did you think, Wilhelmina? That I would be your wedded husband? That I would make you child after child, spend my days strolling through tacky gardens, that I would tell you I loved you like a man should love a woman, just because the ring was on your finger now? What did you think? Really? Because I thought we had an agreement that our marriage was to be a pact between friends, precisely to avoid this, this, whatever you are still somehow hoping this would be.’
‘This? We are supposed to be married. I love you.’
Alfred did laugh now. ‘You’re not the first person to say that to me today.’
‘Whatever do you mean?’ she asked incredulously.
‘I mean the man in whose bed I woke up this morning. He was confused about that too. Believing himself in love when he knew not the first thing about me or about love.’
She was aghast. And desperately hurt.
‘You… you love… someone else…?’
Alfred’s eyes closed as if in prayer for patience. ‘And as I told him, also, being in bed with someone does not equal love. You’ve been confused about that too.’
‘Please, it’s not like you to be so ungallant. You said you loved me.’
‘I never did, though. I never said so.’
‘You did!’ she was choking up now. ‘There’s more than one kind of love. Remember?’
‘So you do love me?’
‘Clearly – or so I thought – Platonically, I did.’ Alfred saw incomprehension in her eyes and he was so frustrated at her simplicity, naiveté, and unsubtlety. ‘As a friend, for God’s sake.’
‘More than one kind of love, as in, I can love you dearly like a friend. But not like… Not as I can… Not like him. Wilhelmina, you knew. You knew,’ he said, tears not of frustration but grief welling in his eyes.
They both heard the creaking of a floorboard below the bannister. She pulled him into the room by his elbow for privacy.
‘I asked you if you were sure,’ she said, voice thick with suppressed tears.
‘But you knew. You’re the only one who knows. I thought you would understand,’ Alfred reached the end of his strength. His voice betrayed him. He found support on the post of the bed, hugging the hard wood of it to himself and hiding his face behind it as he was quickly crying. What did he sought to achieve by coming here, he could not understand now. He would not find any answers, any resolution here. ‘You knew I loved him.’
‘But then you married me.’
‘Marriage isn’t love, by God…’ Alfred pushed his forehead against the post though he would have liked to bang his head against it harder. ‘I thought you would understand. But you really have no idea about what love is, do you?’
‘I am not sure you do, either. You thought you would marry me and then break your vows by being with men behind my back?’ her hand shot up to her mouth – this must have been the first time she had ever said something so improper in her sheltered life.
‘No, actually, I thought I would never be with anyone ever again – not you, nor anyone else – since Edward, dear Edward, has occupied my soul so entirely that I can hardly believe I am still breathing. How can I still breathe when he was my air? How is it that I can still walk when he was my path? How can my heart still beat when his no longer does to set its pace?’
Wilhelmina was struck dumb now.
‘This is what love is. Look at me. I am destroyed. I have lost my sanity to it. Edward was…’ Alfred, despite his tears, smiled. He felt it, he felt it all now, the fullest joy and the bitterest pain. ‘You may think you love me but what you love is the idea of me. Love is not that. It is loving someone as they are, for who they are. I did not want Edward to be anything but exactly who he was. And I didn’t just want him for myself – I wanted to help him in his endeavours, his career, life, and he made me want to be my best self even when I was not in his presence. He died some fifty years before his time. Time that was ours to have. And he and I could have been happy. We were. He and I should have been together for a long time yet – years, maybe even decades! But it was not to be. I came here because I thought I could rely on my friend Wilhelmina. Because you knew him with me. But there are no answers here, and you do not understand and try as I might I would not be able to explain it in words if you gave me a thousand years. Your world can be right yet, but alas, mine shan’t be because I am without him now, and worst of all he died with anger in his heart at me, therefore my world can never be right again. Do you understand me at least a little? Because I hope you don’t. I hope you never shall.’
Alfred sank on the bed, feeling more alone than ever. His head ached from exhaustion and its repeated bangs against the bedpost. He felt he ought to be restrained. But he was free to hurt.
He heard her walk around the room quietly, until she approached him. He felt something pushed in his hands gently: a letter. He recognized his hand at once.
‘I told you Florence was here,’ Wilhelmina explained. ‘You will have to forgive me but when she asked what I had done with the locket, I told her I had given it to you and when she questioned why you were not here with me even though I was having Victoria, I… I’m sorry. I thought it did not matter anymore because were married now. But then she returned, alone this time, to bring me this. With all the horrible confusion at the time, she thought she had discarded of it but… I think you should read it.’
‘Please do,’ she insisted, opening the letter and placing it in his hands when he would not.
Please excuse me for my absence of late. I should like to explain it to you in more detail at my appointment in person with you tomorrow. However, I feel it only gallant to write as a preamble, so as to allow you to prepare yourself.
I have come to realise that I cannot be your husband. This is through no fault of your own – only mine, my shortcomings entirely. I have always cared very deeply for you and did not fight when our parents suggested a match. You really are the most admirable woman. I thought I could grow to love you with time. But I feel obliged to be honest and tell you that I have grown to love another instead, and therefore I would be false to marry you now.
I cannot say more about it in writing but suffice it to say that, though I had thought I had lost my chances of happiness with the object of my true love, I have been blessed anew with the chance to make amends and be happy. Therefore, I am determined to pursue that.
I regret to be of such grave disappointment to you and I vow hereby to be your humble servant in all your future endeavours as a friend and a supporter of your utmost happiness, but not, I am afraid, as a husband.
I shall take whatever blame is to come and shoulder it gladly, for I know that it is the price of ensuring that you are not tethered to a man who would never be able to love you as you deserve, dearest Florence, and that I shall not be forced to disrespect you with a lifetime of dishonesty.
Your affectionate friend,
Alfred was speechless. He read the letter three times over, four, caressing the surface of the paper where Edward’s name curved in his beloved brown ink.
‘He was not angry with you when…’ Wilhelmina said gently. ‘Sir Robert said so, too – apparently he had insisted on giving Mr Drummond a ride in his coach but he said he had an engagement. Apparently, he was quite elated about it. Surely, he was going to see you.’
That was the last sensible memory that Alfred remembered.
He vaguely remembered riding on horseback all the way to London. He remembered stopping at the Palace for something.
But all there was to blind him and cloud his vision was pain and that had to be resolved.
And he had one last person who might provide some sort of answer.
He had expected heavy iron doors but the place seemed rather like a regular hospital, only here the illnesses of the mind were treated, not of the body. “Treated” was the wrong word, for this was more like a prison in its practices, worse than that, if the accounts of torture were true – but Alfred had not come with a humanitarian purpose.
‘Please wait here,’ the doctor said and he sat at a table in a drab little room with a single caged window.
Before long, he was brought into the room, just as Alfred had requested.
‘Here he is, Lord Alfred,’ the doctor said, indicating the chained old man now sitting on the other end of the table.
Alfred willed himself to turn his way and look him in the eye. He did not seem mad. He may have been unkempt but he was certainly not as mad as Alfred had felt so often when he had run over his memories of Edward again and again trying to find some explanation for it all, for what seemed such a senseless course of events.
But perhaps death was senseless more often than not and the answer was to accept that there was no answer at all.
Alfred tried his best to understand this as he eyed Drummond’s murderer and felt for his pistol underneath his stylish coat. No one had thought to search him on his way in – he was Lord Alfred Paget, Chief Equerry to Her Majesty, after all, so it was not unusual to find him armed anyway.
But he wasn’t guarding the Queen at the moment. He was face to face with the man who took Edward from him.
‘You killed Edward Drummond?’ Alfred asked.
McNaghten’s face twitched. Maybe he would have liked to answer with a simple aye, maybe he would have liked to smile spitefully. Alfred supposed he was playing the part of a lunatic the best if he remained silent. This was his way of escaping the noose. Alfred remembered having to see the articles about the trial in the papers. Edward’s remarkable character was praised in his death as he had been when he lived. Instead of it being more of an argument for a grave sentence for the killer, however, the defence used it as a shield: since Drummond could not possibly have had any enemies, it could only mean McNaghten was insane.
Alfred did not care a fig about it then, as no punishment would bring Edward back. Although… as he was sitting there in the killer’s presence, he imagined the satisfaction of revenge. But was not as mad as to assume he would not be quickly carted off to the nearest cell for manslaughter and he placed his hands on the cold top of the table.
‘Thank you, that was enough,’ he told the doctor and the assassin was taken away.
‘Are you quite sure you do not want to come to Ireland?’ Alfred asked once he got in the carriage that was waiting for him outside the asylum.
Wilhelmina had surprised him. Apparently he had mentioned something alarming, something along the lines of “I’m going to kill him” before he left back to London in such a haste, so she guessed where he would be. And apparently, he had not fulfilled his plan after all so they could roll away in their own ride rather than one of the police’s.
‘I am. Little Victoria needs me. And she needs you.’
‘I know. I will see you again after we return,’ Alfred said with a smile that came to him genuinely now.
‘We might come to London, too. When it’s safe, of course.’
‘Do,’ Alfred said and meant it, too.
The scenery changed from grey buildings to green fields. He was still thinking about Edward’s letter.
‘A penny for them?’ she asked.
Alfred took Wilhelmina’s hands in his.
‘Wilhelmina, I must tell you now, once and for all. And I will never go back on this, I promise. Edward was most honourable, as always. Should you fall in love – no, please, listen to me – should you fall in love, with a man who is much more deserving of your kindness and love than I, and should he return it, I do not want you to be held back by any allegiance to me. We will divorce, I will not stand in the way, there will be no scandal, I shall take the blame, and you shall be married to him before anyone could point a finger. And if they do, they shall have to answer to me.’
‘You would lose your position,’ she pointed out, fretting as ever.
‘I doubt that. Look at Papa. He’s doing quite well, for a man divorced or not. And what he and Mama did was indeed what the Prince would refer to as downright barbarism. And to think, our hosts in Ireland will be Lord and Lady Palmerston!’
‘What about them?’
And Alfred was for once glad to divulge some open secrets about the Foreign Secretary, much to the shock of his wife. Or rather, his friend, just like in the old days.
He would continue to be bored of idle chatter and meaningless walks in orchards. He would continue to be more upset than he let on when an assassin threatened the Queen’s rides in the park if not her life. He would continue to grieve. He would always be shattered and aching with an absence that would never be remedied. But that terrible anger and guilt that used to tear at his every atom at every hour of the day was gone now.
Edward knew. And that was all the answer he needed.