Grey was taken entirely unaware by the wash of heat that flooded his face at the question.
“Ah…no, sir. I am afraid not.” He glanced unobtrusively aside for Percy, but his stepbrother had gone to one of the windows that overlooked the grounds and was watching something outside. “Nor is my stepbrother,” he added, nodding at Percy. “General Stanley’s son, Perc—Percival Wainwright.”
“Time enough, sir, time enough.” Rigby smiled indulgently, then became aware of the hovering presence of several ladies, awaiting their turn to be introduced to Hercules, who was wagging the entire rear half of his body and panting at them in friendly fashion.
“I must go,” the doctor said, clasping his hand once more. “How pleased I am to have met you, Lord John—it is Lord John, is it not, and your brother’s name is Harold? Yes, just so, I thought I remembered. Allow me to say that while your mother was entirely correct in her refusal of me, I should have taken the greatest pride in being your stepfather, and I offer my most sincere congratulations to Sir George in his entering that office.”
His departure left Grey with the feeling of one who has had a warm blanket removed and finds the cool air surprising. He felt somewhat disconcerted, but oddly touched by the meeting, and strolled over to join Percy by the window.
There were a number of children on the open ground, bundled in coats and shawls against the chill, running about in some sort of game under the eyes of a pair of nurses.
“Do you like children, particularly?” he inquired, surprised at seeing Percy’s attention fixed on them.
“No, not particularly.” Stirred from his reverie, Percy turned and smiled at him, his face touched with ruefulness. “I was only wondering what their life is like here.” He glanced around them, at the high walls of brick and gray stone. The place was clean, and certainly not without elegance, but “homely” was not the adjective one would choose to describe it.
“Better than it would have been otherwise, I suppose.” Some of the foundlings were orphans, others given up by mothers who could not feed them.
“Is it?” Percy gave him a crooked smile. “My mother tried to have me admitted here, when it opened. But I was much too old—they didn’t take children older than two.”
Grey stared at him, aghast.
“Oh, God,” he said softly. “Perseverance, my dear.”
“It’s all right,” Percy said, his smile becoming better. “I didn’t hold it against her. My father had died the year before, and she was desperate. But tell me, what did you make of the good doctor?” He nodded at Rigby, now some distance down the gallery, his cordiality as indefatigable as Hercules’s wagging tail.
Grey would have said more, but Percy was plainly disinclined to pursue the subject of his early life, so Grey obliged with his impressions of Doctor Rigby.
“I cannot think he has anything to do with the matter,” he concluded. “He was plainly taken completely unaware by my appearance, and unless he is most remarkably devious, he had no inkling of my mother’s marriage.”
A fresh inrush of people caught them up at this point, preventing private conversation, and they made their way slowly along the gallery, carried along with the crowd into a special room where the permanent exhibition of William Hogarth’s paintings were kept—Hogarth being one of the principal benefactors of the hospital—and out again, each alone with his thoughts.
They came back again along the main gallery, but Doctor Rigby and Hercules had disappeared.
“Do you ever wish—” Percy began, and then stopped, a small frown visible between his brows. Thick, silky brows, the sable of a painter’s brush; Grey’s thumb itched with the urge to smooth them.
“Do I ever wish?” he prompted, and smiled. “Many things.” He let a hint of such things as he wished show in his voice, and Percy smiled back, though the frown did not disappear altogether.
“Do you ever wish that you were…not as you are?”
The question took him by surprise—and yet he was somewhat more surprised to realize that he did not need to think about the answer.
“No,” he said. He hesitated for a moment, but Percy’s asking of the question was enough. “You do?”
Percy glanced back at the portrait of Villiers, then looked down, dark lashes hiding his eyes.
“Sometimes. You must admit—it would make some things less difficult.”
Grey glanced thoughtfully at a nearby couple, evidently courting; the young woman was flirting expertly over her fan, giggling as her swain made faces, imitating the stuffed-frog expression of one portrait’s subject.
“Perhaps. And yet it depends, I think, much more upon one’s position in life. Were I my father’s heir, for instance, I should feel the pressure of an obligation to marry and reproduce, and should likely consent. As it is, my brother has met his obligations in that regard nobly, and thus it is a matter of indifference whether I should ever wed.”
He shrugged, dismissing the matter, but Percy was not willing yet to let it go.
“You may be indifferent,” he said, with a sideways smile. “The women are not.”
Grey lifted one shoulder briefly.
“There is the issue of consent. They will scarce abduct me and wed me by force.”
“Oh, Lady Joffrey would see it done, I assure you.” Percy rolled his eyes expressively. He had met Lucinda Joffrey at Lady Jonas’s salon and been impressed by her force of character, which was considerable. “Never turn your back upon her; she will have you knocked on the head and carried out in a roll of carpet, only to wake in Gretna Green as a new husband!”
Grey laughed at that, but conceded the point.
“She would. You are in as much danger as I, though, surely—Lady Joffrey has eight cousins and nieces to marry off!” Then he caught a glimpse of the wry twist to Percy’s mouth, and realized what he had meant by making some things less difficult.
“Oh, she has had a stab at you already, has she?” he asked, suppressing a smile. “Which one did she throw at you?”
“Melisande Roberts,” said Percy, his mouth drawing down in an expression of mild distaste.
“Oh, Melly?” Grey glanced down, hiding a smile. He had known Melisande all his life; they had played together as children. “Well, she is good-tempered. And kindness itself. And she has a modest income.”
“She is the size of a hogshead of ale, and approximately the same shape!”
“True,” Grey allowed. “And yet—it would make no difference to you, surely, if she were a great beauty?”
Percy, who had been looking sulky, gave a lopsided smile at this.
“Well…no. Not in terms of…no. But I shouldn’t want to go about with a plain woman on my arm, as though I could get no better!”
“Shall I consider myself flattered,” Grey inquired, “that you consent to be seen in public with me, then?”
Percy glanced at him and uttered a short laugh.
“Oh, you would be a catch, my dear, were you bankrupt and common as dirt—or as I am.”
“I am exceeding flattered,” Grey said politely, and took Percy’s arm, squeezing until his fingers sank past cloth and flesh and touched bone. “Shall we go?”
Percy caught breath, but nodded, and they went out, walking in a silence of unshared thoughts down High Holbourn Street. They had planned to see Mecklin’s performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and have supper at the Beefsteak; Grey was anticipating the evening—and the night to come thereafter—but Percy’s thoughts were evidently still focused on their conversation.
“Do you think it true,” he said suddenly, in a low voice, “that we are damned?”
Grey was not of a theosophical turn of mind, nor yet much concerned about the stated tenets of religion. He had many times heard his father’s uncensored opinions of an earlier sovereign, Henry, and the effects of that worthy’s sexual itch and dynastic ambitions upon the Church of Rome.
Yet Percy’s eyes were deep and troubled; Grey would ease that trouble, if he could.
“I do not,” he said, as lightly as possible. “Men are made in God’s image, or so I am told. Likewise that we differ from the animals in having reason. Reason, therefore, must plainly be a characteristic of the Almighty, quod erat demonstrandum. Is it reasonable, then, to create men whose very nature—clearly constructed and defined by yourself—is inimical to your own laws and must lead inevitably to destruction? Whatever would be the point of that? Does it not strike you as a most capricious notion—to say nothing of being wasteful?”
Plainly, the notion of a reasonable God—let alone a thrifty one—had not struck Percy before. He laughed, his face lightening, and they spoke no more of the matter then.
Percy did return to the matter a few days later, though. No doubt it was a matter of Percy’s own upbringing in a religious milieu, Grey reflected. Or perhaps it was only that Percy had never been with a man willing to discuss philosophy in bed. Grey hadn’t, himself, but found the novelty mildly diverting.
They had left the barracks separately and met in Percy’s rooms for a few stolen hours. Where, after the initial delights of the flesh had been tasted, Grey found himself with his head pillowed on Percy’s stomach, being read to from a collection of legal opinions, published a year or two previous.
“If any crime deserve to be punished in a more exemplary manner, this does. Other crimes are prejudicial to society; but this strikes at the being thereof: it being seldom known that a person who has been guilty of abusing his generative faculty so unnaturally has afterwards a proper regard for women. For that indifference to women, so remarkable in men of this depraved appetite, it may fairly be concluded that they are cursed with insensibility to the most ecstatic pleasure which human nature is in the present state capable of enjoying. It seems a very just punishment that such wretches should be deprived of all tastes for an enjoyment upon which they did not set a proper value; and the continuation of an impious disposition, which then might have been transmitted to their children, if they had any, may be thereby prevented.”
“So,” Grey remarked, “we must be exterminated, because our pleasures are insufficiently ecstatic?”
Percy’s brow relaxed a bit, and he closed the book.
“And lest we pass on this deplorable lack to our children—which we are hardly likely to have, under the circumstances.”
“Well, as to that—I know more than one gentleman who seeks no pleasure in his wife’s bed, but goes there in the course of duty nonetheless.”
“Yes, that’s true.” Percy still frowned, though with thoughtfulness, rather than unease. “Do you think it’s actually different? Between a man and a woman? Not merely in mechanical terms, I mean, but in terms of feeling?”
Grey had seen enough of marriages arranged among the nobility and the wealthy as to know that the emotions and mutual attraction of the persons involved were usually considered irrelevant, if indeed they were considered at all. Whereas such ongoing relations as he had from time to time contracted himself involved nothing else, being quite free of the requirements of society. Still, he considered the matter, enjoying the peaceful rise and fall of Percy’s breathing beneath his cheek.