‘Chaise lounge was something I always fancied,’ Alec muttered, with a sidelong glance at Maurice. ‘Don’t this look just like the one in the drawing-room at Penge? Right down to them water spots on the upholstery.’
Maurice contemplated the chipped gilt and greasy, threadbare crimson velvet.
‘Longue,’ he corrected. ‘Because it’s long, not because you lounge on it.’
Alec grunted without resentment, evidently feeling that this was a reasonable distinction, not mere pedantry.
‘It’s certainly seen better days,’ Maurice continued. ‘Probably when Queen Anne’s demise was still news.’
‘Look it up in the catalogue.’
‘Really? I don’t think it’s quite the thing for a bachelor estate manager’s lodge. I don’t want Lady Frobisher to get the wrong idea about me from the off.’
‘Who said anything about your lodge?’ Alec’s casual drawl belied the speed with which his hand darted out and took possession of the catalogue. ‘Head gamekeeper got a tied cottage too, an’t he?’
‘Alec! You can’t possibly mean to—’
But Alec’s dark, curly head was already bending repressively over the booklet, his nose close to the print in an aggravatingly board-school manner. ‘Lot 668. Empire-period parcel-gilt mahogany mer—méridienne—who’s she when she’s at home?—with reeded rails and foliate decoration, moulded frieze flanked by brass urns and thigh—thy? What’s that?’
He jabbed. Maurice craned.
‘Thyrsi. Staffs, wrapped in ivy with a sort of pine-cone thingamajig on the end. The followers of Bacchus carried them.’
‘Them there?’ Alec pointed, with a grimace composed of equal parts ribaldry and puzzlement. Maurice nodded, shrugging.
‘The moulding’s fairly crude.’
‘I’d say. The things the quality take a notion to put in their living-rooms and have their ladies sit on. I wonder if Mrs Durham ever looked at it up close, like.’
‘I expect she’d have said that it was as vulgar for a woman—one who’d been married, at any rate—to take any notice of them as to be ignorant of what they—resembled.’ A chilly prickle touched Maurice’s nape and squirmed down his spine. ‘I say, though, Alec, the odds are hundreds to one against it being that same—’
‘You din’t have to hump it about whenever the drawing-room ceiling sprung a new leak.’
‘No—just the piano.’
‘And just the once.’
‘Once,’ Maurice said, dreamily but with an edge of decision, ‘was enough. What the devil are you—’
Alec was on the floor, leaning on one elbow in a rough parody of the reclining posture enforced by the chaise longue itself, examining the underside of the moulding by the near end foot. ‘I put my mark on it, when the family was up in town and everything was in dust-sheets for spring cleaning. Before I ever laid eyes on you. Couldn’t have been there six weeks and I wor already fed up to the back teeth. And here you are, dragging me back into service—’
‘You’re not serious.’
‘Look for yourself.’ He gave a muffled yelp of triumph. ‘Here it is. Told you it was the one.’
Maurice found that he did, in fact, want to see this hieroglyphic artefact of Alec’s pre-Hallean era, and very urgently indeed. He nervously scanned the half-empty saleroom—everyone seemed fairly occupied—and dropped to his hands and knees. There it was, sure enough, a firm, fluid inscription, except the lower curve of the S wasn’t finished.
‘Why on earth did you carve your initials, you ass? if anyone’d noticed—’
‘Din’t even know my name, did she, the bitch.’ He turned his head, bringing their lips so close that Maurice could not just smell, but taste the tobacco on Alec’s breath. What if they kissed, here, beneath an angry boy’s feral retaliation against the class that refused him full humanity, the class to which Maurice, despite former pretensions, no more belonged than did his lover, the class by which, despite and because of the war’s upheavals, they were now both employed? He could tell Alec was thinking the same thing.
‘Can I be of any assistance, gentlemen?’ boomed a bass voice far above a pair of cracked, over-polished shoes and a pinstriped trouser hem. They scrambled to their feet, dusting themselves like schoolboys, to find that the impressive tones belonged to a personage a full head shorter than either of them, with the rubicund looks and kiss-curl of a Kewpie Doll, who proved also to be the auctioneer.
After that, they had no choice. Plus premium and commission, it cost them two pounds, seventeen shillings and threepence.
Dusk was wearing slowly into darkness when Maurice hurried along beneath the elms and over the plank bridge, through two stubbled fields and down the lane with its high hedgerows to Alec’s cottage, but the lateness of the hour was owing to Lady Frobisher’s high expectations, rather than subterfuge, of which there was little need. It was well known that Scudder had been Mr Hall’s Sergeant in the War, and Lady Frobisher was inclined to be sentimental about their friendship, in fact thoroughly approving of it as the right sort of democracy, the sort cleansed by—Maurice had only meant to think ‘active service’ but somehow ‘mud, blood, bully beef, piss and putrescence’ obtruded, and he gave a short, cynical laugh. That neither of them was going to show any sign of proceeding towards alliance with one of the district’s overplus of spinsters and young widows was a problem for several months hence.
They smoked and drank strong Army char by the range, talked about their day’s work in an elderly, married fashion. Maurice’s thirtieth birthday, three weeks ago, had passed without celebration: when the only person who knew the date was a gamekeeper, it was more or less bound to. He wouldn’t have it any other way, though Alec had bought him an apologetic box of cigars when the house party had departed.
There was a seed-cake under a cloth on the kitchen table. That meant Gladys Roberts, who chared for him, and was a war widow. Had it begun so soon, the marriage carousel?
‘I come back for some aniseed oil and found her, feet up on my chaise,’ Alec said, as if he had read Maurice’s thoughts, though of course he had just followed his eye. ‘She’d taken off her boots,’ he added, forgivingly. ‘She said it was a queer thing for a gamekeeper to have in his parlour.’
‘So it is. What did you say to that?’
‘I says it was from my old situation, before the war, and she says Mrs L. at the shop has a silver teapot from her days in service but she’d never heard of an outdoors man, and furniture. So I showed her where I’d carved my name—look at the scowl on you, Maurice, I believe you’re jealous.’
He was not, but the image of Mrs Roberts’ round backside in its daytime Dutch pinks, curving above stockinged feet as she looked at the graffito, had come to and disgusted him, which reminded him that Alec’s nature, unlike his, was not entirely inverted.
‘You could have—she would have let you—’
‘Daresay. She’s lonely. Weren’t married for more'n six months before her husband was called up, then he was killed, news of that brought her time on early, and the baby was right puny and it died.’
Maurice stood up stiffly. ‘Rotten luck, yes. There’s a lot of it about.’
‘Don’t be like that.’ Alec clasped his right hand between both of his; Maurice tried to pull it away, but found himself—paper-wallah, desk-johnny—no match for the grip of a man who daily worked intricately, and hard, with his hands. He needed to take more exercise. ’I din’t do nothing. I din’t even want to. I just felt for her, was all. Reminded me of Milly. Sort of girl you can have a laugh with, being so sad, it in’t natural.’
‘And us, that’s natural, is it?’ Maurice finally shook himself free.
‘Yeah.’ Alec looked up, eyes narrowed, and lips tight, his florid complexion as high, almost, as it had been among the bloodless statues of the British Museum. ‘I’ll show you how, if you come upstairs.’
‘No. In there.’ Maurice jerked his thumb in the direction of the parlour. Alec took a sharp open-mouthed breath, as if he had been struck, then nodded, for desecration is separated from sacrament by the thinnest of veils.
They lit no lamp; the chaise longue filled half the small room, looking rather maritime in the greenish last of the light: a beached jolly-boat or small yawl. Alec grasped Maurice’s tie and hauled him in for a rougher kiss than he was wont to give, his tongue brutally jostling Maurice’s aside, which provoked him to reciprocation at first more in a spirit of wounded amour-propre than desire. But desire followed soon enough, and when they parted, gasping, Maurice’s member was at a full stand. He grabbed Alec’s hand and pressed it to his groin; Alec gave a low gurgle and rubbed him through the flannel, ducking his head to bite the narrow rim of flesh squeezed towards Maurice’s right ear by his collar. He thrust up against Maurice’s hip, showing how hard he was in turn.
‘I’m going to have you on that fucking chaise longue, and there in’t a damned thing you can do to stop me.’
‘Who says I want to—’ Maurice flung away his jacket, tugged off his tie and began to struggle with his collar pin.
Alec covered Maurice’s fumbling hands with one of his. ‘I can’t wait. Get your trousers down, and your drawers.’ He reached under Maurice’s waistcoat to release his braces-buttons. These orders were an outrage, and an impossible thrill; for a shivering moment Maurice considered pivoting away on one foot, and throwing a good hook or uppercut; Alec might be rather the stronger these days, but he couldn’t box. The thought of violence evaporated as quickly as it had come, leaving a ravenous need to submit. He abetted Alec in unfastening his trousers and smalls, pulled them down over his bounding cock.
‘Just down,’ Alec said. ‘Not off.’ He seized Maurice’s shoulder and spun him around, pushing him to his hands and knees on the chaise. In the gloom the stains on the fabric seemed to bulge, flicker and mutate, like the floating islands that you saw after pressing fists into your eyes. He turned his head; Alec was a great dark shape against more dark, the upper half of his face, that was not covered by beard, a paler point far away, his hands at disembodied work around the level of his belt. Maurice grasped his own prick and squeezed, making a small needy noise between clenched teeth.
‘All right, I know you do,’ Alec murmured, suddenly gentle, as he drew Maurice up towards him, easing his cock up and down between his buttocks, as if to soothe. He had found something in his capacious pockets to grease himself with—Maurice almost laughed aloud at the resourcefulness of it, but he acknowledged relief too. Alec’s tenderness harboured in it the queerest streak of cruelty, from whence the notion of blackmail had once sprung. He had never done, but Maurice could not quite be sure that he would never do, him injury: it was one of the things that kept him by Alec’s side.
‘I thought—you couldn’t wait,’ he gasped, as Alec sighed out another long, tantalising stroke over his hole, up to his tailbone. The texture of corduroy against Maurice’s thigh was a provocation: naked, they were equals sharing; like this, half-clothed, it was something else, what the world would see if the world ever saw, a gamekeeper fucking a gentleman.
‘It’s always you who can’t wait, Maurice. You should know that by now.’
But he relented, parting Maurice’s buttocks and spitting into his hole, massaging the grease around it with a testing thumb, then nudging the head of his prick inside, slowly filling him, eliciting a deep reverberation that seemed to begin about where the tip of Alec had reached, swelling and forcing itself up through Maurice’s body as he began to move. Maurice clutched at his cock, afraid of the physiological quirk that would make it soften at such astonishing sensation.
‘Eh, eh, come here,’ Alec reproved, leaning down and slipping his hand around Maurice’s waist to assume this duty too. But Alec's own pleasure overtook him quickly, and he let go to brace himself against Maurice’s hips for a few savage final thrusts. At the last moment he pulled out; he had a boyish, insatiable curiosity for bodily function, and the sight of his spending member brought him as much delight as climax itself. As Alec’s spunk fell on his backside—different in texture, but not in temperature, from his hot skin—Maurice thought how very singular it was, and not a little shabby, that throughout, and despite the provenance of the chaise longue, he had not once thought of Durham, of Clive, whom he should never see again, because Clive had died of cholera in Mesopotamia in 1917, his bones lay in the War Cemetery at the North Gate of Baghdad, and would until the Day of Judgement in which he had not believed.