Copyright © 2008 Charlie Cochrane
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, November 1905
“That is my chair, sir.”
The voice was deep, sharp, and shattered Jonty’s concentration. He looked up to see a stern-looking young man towering over him. Well, not necessarily that young, he must be nearly my age, but he has such a lean, youthful look about him, you might think he’s just an undergraduate. Jonty swiftly took in a pair of chocolate brown eyes—eyes that lurked below curly black hair that seemed to want to cover them—a handsome face, and a very bony frame.
He rose. “I do apologise, sir. I’ve only arrived at St. Bride’s today and I haven’t been appraised of all the customs and habits. I hope that you’ll forgive me.” He produced what he hoped was a winning smile and bowed.
The other man harrumphed and nodded in return. “There are a number of traditions we cling to here, Mr…”
“Stewart, Dr. Stewart. The college authorities saw fit to forget the indiscretions of my undergraduate years here and have appointed me to a fellowship in English. The Kildare Fellowship.” Jonty grinned again, not surprised he didn’t get one in return. His mother always vowed he’d been born to wear a smile, while this man appeared as if he’d never smiled in his life.
“Well, Stewart, we are great ones for resisting change, and the particular chair a man inhabits after High Table is regarded as sacrosanct.” The severe-looking man pointed to the empty seat next to him. “This place never seems to be occupied. Perhaps you might like to use it?”
Jonty could guess why that chair was never used but decided he’d take the risk. “How long have you been at St. Bride’s? I can’t place you from my earlier time here.” He would have remembered if he’d met him before, of course. He’d noticed this man at High Table, not just for his striking good looks but for his apparent unease with joining in the conversation around him—except for one occasion when he seemed to be extremely animated and the words “differential calculus” could be heard across the table. Bet he’s a mathematician. They’re all as mad as hatters.
“I’ve been here six years, Dr. Stewart, ever since I took my degree. I have the honour to be working under Professor Moore, teaching mathematics.” For the first time the stranger looked fully into his companion’s face. “I suppose you’ll be with Professor Goodridge?”
“Oh, no, not clever enough by half to be with the fellows who delve into Anglo-Saxon. The Bard of Avon is my concern.” Jonty saw the puzzled expression on the other man’s face and grinned. “Shakespeare, I mean. As a man of logic and higher reasoning you’ll please forgive the whimsy of a mere playgoer.”
The other man looked closely at him again, obviously suspicious that he was being made game of, then seemed to decide that the remarks were kindly meant. He almost smiled. “Even a pupil of Euclid can recognise the value of Shakespeare’s works. Indeed, I was named after one of his characters.”
Jonty couldn’t have been more stunned—the man’s hard-faced exterior didn’t suggest a romantic name. “Hamlet, Jacques—which is it?”
“Orlando. I was christened Orlando.”
Jonty waited to see if a surname would follow, decided that it wouldn’t, so spoke himself. “You’re very lucky. My parents saw fit to name me Jonathan—the only thing in my life that I’ve not forgiven them for. I’m Jonty to all those who want to use the name.”
The mention of parents had caused a small cloud to pass over Orlando’s face and he began staring at his feet. Jonty pressed on, unable to stop gabbling in the face of such studied non-communication. “Are there any other customs I must seek not to break?”
The question never got answered, as the Jove-like figure of Dr. Peters, the Master of St. Bride’s, approached. “I beg you not to get up, gentlemen. I was coming to introduce you to each other, our numerical genius not having been here before dinner when Dr. Stewart met the rest of the fellows—but I see that you’ve already made Dr. Coppersmith’s acquaintance.”
Coppersmith—no wonder he was so unwilling to tell me. His parents certainly gave him an unlucky combination of names, perhaps that’s why he always looks so cross. “Dr. Coppersmith has been instructing me in the college ways, in case I make some dreadful error of etiquette.”
Jonty inclined his head to express his gratitude; his mathematical colleague looked sterner than ever.
“I’m honoured to be able to share some of our little ways with Dr. Stewart and hope he’ll profit from being back at our college. I wish you good night, gentlemen, I have a lecture to deliver in the morning and must take my rest.” Dr. Coppersmith rose, bowed his head and departed, leaving the other two men speechless.
Later, as Jonty strolled back to his rooms, he chuckled to himself. I’d give a five-pound note to be at that mathematics lecture tomorrow and I bet most of the students would give five pounds to miss it. But for all that his new colleague seemed—on the surface at least—to be a pompous prig, his stern face and deep voice stayed in Jonty’s mind until he fell asleep.
St. Bride’s wasn’t one of the most notable Cambridge colleges, lacking the grandeur of St. John’s or Trinity. It formed a little backwater where life had changed very little over the last four hundred years, but small adjustments were made from time to time. The chair next to Coppersmith’s soon became associated with Stewart. They now sat together almost every evening after High Table, chatting over coffee or port.
The dons who’d known Coppersmith since his arrival at the college were astounded. He was notorious for being a solitary fellow, never one to indulge in college chat or even in most of the discussion in the Senior Common Room. Unless it was about maths, of course, when he would contribute freely and with amazing perception, before clamming up if the subject strayed a little.
And yet there he was, evening after evening as November passed into December, talking away to Dr. Stewart, and sometimes even smiling. What they talked about, none of the other dons would’ve hazarded a guess, nor understood why they’d struck up such an unlikely alliance.
If they’d have asked Stewart, he’d have told them he’d come back to his old college hoping to make a fresh start and acquire new friends in the process. He’d have wondered along with them about the fact that he and Coppersmith had hit it off immediately, after their first meeting, putting it down to them realising the few things they had in common were more interesting than the things in which they differed.
He wouldn’t have told them that he found Orlando Coppersmith very attractive or that being with the man was a constant pleasure. Only in his thoughts would he compare their meeting to that of Rosalind and her Orlando, an instant magnetism drawing him to the other man. He wasn’t stupid enough to confess such a thing. Even if the traditions of this college, within this university, made it possible to remain an old bachelor surrounded by other old bachelors and have no one raise an eyebrow, there were still dangers. Public disgrace, prosecution. He would risk them both if he formed, again, an alliance with another man within the walls of St. Bride’s. For the moment he would have to savour the budding friendship with this strange young mathematician and hope against hope the attraction might prove to be mutual.
Anyone asking Coppersmith the same question, about why he’d suddenly found himself an acquaintance, wouldn’t have received any sort of an answer. Not just because he kept his feelings to himself, but because he couldn’t say at this point why he felt so differently about Stewart than he felt about all the other dons. About anyone else he’d ever met. He couldn’t tell why he should want to spend time with the man, when he’d been solitary all his life. The university part of his mind might have said it was the classic case of opposites attracting, the properties of poles of magnets or particles of different charge. The personal part wouldn’t have commented as it had no idea what was going on.
“You didn’t take your degree here, Coppersmith. Which seat of learning did you grace with your incredible skills?”
“I was at Oxford, Stewart—Gabriel College.” Orlando settled into his usual seat in the Senior Common Room, more comfortable than he’d been at any point since he came to Cambridge. More comfortable than he’d been since he was a child. For the first time in his life, it seemed like he’d made a friend and the experience was all a bit startling.
“If I had known the university would stoop so low as to take someone from the other place, I would never have agreed to return.”
Stewart grinned—he seemed to spend half his life grinning, or smiling, or smirking, and that unsettled Orlando, too, although he couldn’t work out why just yet. He wondered whether there was some fixed amount of cheerfulness allowed in the universe, and if his companion’s excess compensated for his own apparent lack of it.
He’d become quietly accustomed to the happy presence in the adjacent chair, even though such a thing would have horrified him only four weeks ago. He’d never wanted to share his thoughts with anyone else—unless they were to do with numbers—and now he was gossiping away like one of the college cleaning ladies. He cast a furtive glance at his companion, who was struggling with a pair of nutcrackers and a wayward walnut.
Stewart’s unruly blond hair was all over the place, his blue eyes showed unusual depths of concentration and his tongue was poking out a bit, as it often did when he tackled a difficult task. Orlando had never appreciated that Stewart possessed a handsome face and the realisation was a great shock to him. He could define the most obscure bits of calculus, look at a problem and solve it almost instantly, but he’d never really understood what people meant when they mentioned beauty.
Not until now, when it was sitting right next to him.
“Got the little bugger in the end!” Stewart beamed in triumph, offering his friend half of his newly released treasure. No one had ever used the word bugger in the Senior Common Room before, no one was ever likely to again, but somehow the more colourful aspects of Stewart’s speech were tolerated in a way which would be unlikely with anyone else.
They often talked about sport—discovering that they’d each won a rugby blue but hadn’t managed to play against the other, being picked in different years. Orlando had been a wing three-quarter, naturally, given his wiry physique—lacking in grace but fast. He’d scored twice in the Varsity Match, despite finishing on the losing side.
“I suppose you were in the front row?” Orlando drew his conclusions from Stewart’s muscular frame.
“Excuse me! Do my ears look as if they have spent time in a scrum?”
They didn’t. Orlando thought they were rather shapely ears and that was a shock to him, too. To be sitting in the SCR of his college and musing about how attractive the man sitting next to him seemed was beyond his imaginings. Making a friend had been enough of a surprise—this sensation staggered him, whatever it signified.
“I was scrum half, and a very wily one was how The Times described me. Shame we lost that year, like you the next—your selectors seemed to have imported an entire troop of gorillas to play in your pack. One of them broke my finger.” Stewart held up the joint in question and smirked. “I broke his nose.” He began to laugh, his bright blue eyes crinkling up with the sheer joy of being alive and in the company of someone he liked.
Orlando began to laugh, too—for the first time in what seemed ages. When they stopped, out of breath and in disgrace with the rest of the fellows, he knew that their friendship had been cemented.
Orlando was supposed to be marking papers from his students, work attempted when they’d been at home for the vac, having their stomachs stuffed with chestnuts and goose enough to addle their brains. But he was more interested in watching, through his window, the progress of a golden head across the court.
That’s my friend Dr. Stewart. He walks along the river with me and listens to all my latest theories, even if he doesn’t understand a word of them.
Back in November, Orlando had no one in his life he could ever call friend. Then, into his world of gown-black and stone-grey, half-tones and half a life, had come this vision of blue and gold, like a ray of spring sunshine against a cloudless sky.
My friend Dr. Stewart. We go to chapel together and he’s never bothered that I sing all the hymns and responses out of tune.
Orlando thought it strange, if other people were anything to go by, that he’d reached the age of twenty-eight without finding anybody he wanted to be close to. His life had been bound by the university, the college and mathematics, all of them important and serious. And now he’d found that most frivolous of things—someone to share his thoughts and ideas with—although in reality Stewart had come along and found him, stealing his chair in the process.
It made Orlando feel more alive than he’d ever felt and more than a little frightened. He’d not been able to get the man out of his head the ten days Stewart had spent celebrating Christmas and New Year with his family, and he was still there, butting into Orlando’s thoughts when he should be working. He wasn’t sure it was right to be so obsessed, but didn’t know what he could do about it. Even a nice bit of Euclid couldn’t obscure the memory of a pair of piercing blue eyes.
My friend Dr. Stewart. He comes along and says, “We’ve been invited to drinks, Dr. Coppersmith, so get your best bib and tucker ready.”
We. Suddenly Orlando had a social life, whether he wanted one or not, and it was as part of a pairing. Somehow all the things he’d always dreaded—making small talk, being sociable—had become possible, so long as he had his colleague with him to jolly him along. Unexpectedly, life had a distinctly more enjoyable flavour.
Orlando turned his attention back to the papers on his desk, only to find that he’d written My friend Dr. Stewart on the topmost one and now had to scratch it out furiously before anyone noticed.
“Will you come and take a cup of coffee or a glass of port in my rooms, Stewart?”
It was evening and the Senior Common Room had been overrun by strangers. There were women visiting, patronesses of the college to be sure, but still female and therefore to be treated with caution by most of the fellows. Especially by Coppersmith, who, though he was now brave enough to talk to almost any woman, even one from Girton, was still unhappy in their company.
Jonty almost choked on his answer. He’d been waiting nearly two months for an invitation to his colleague’s set of rooms. All he’d managed so far was to poke his little nose around the door before being whisked away—and now it had come like a bolt out of the blue. The bright potential of 1906, a new year and a new term, seemed to have made Coppersmith bold.
“I think we’d better. Don’t look just now, but there are two skirted bottoms occupying our chairs.” Jonty sniggered.
Coppersmith looked horrified, as though he’d have to have the things fumigated before they could sit there again. “Come on, then, before we’re forced into conversation.” A sudden disconcerting thought must have occurred to him. “Unless you want to stay, of course?”
One of the ladies was quite young and Coppersmith had earlier asked Jonty whether she would be described as pretty. Perhaps, he had suggested, Stewart would like to talk to her, he always seemed to have no problem chatting with females and they always flocked around him.
Jonty took his time before answering. “No, I’d be more than content with a glass of some pleasant brew and a little peace and quiet.”
In Orlando’s set they found a whole bottle of a really good port—most welcome, as both of them had been extremely sober at table due to the unnerving presence of the petticoat brigade. Jonty settled into one of Coppersmith’s worn but comfortable armchairs and enjoyed the glow from the fire. While his friend poured the port, Jonty drank in his surroundings.
The room contained the usual Bride’s mix of the academic, the sporting and the personal—very little of the last compared to the first. It was what his mother would have described as “being part of a house, dear, not a home”, and it gave away very little about its owner. He found that disappointing, as his family had plied him with questions about the mysterious Dr. Coppersmith all over the Christmas break and he’d not been really able to answer them adequately.
“He’s my friend, Mama, and I enjoy his company very much,” had been as far as it had gone, even under his mother’s third degree. Although if he were being honest, Coppersmith meant a lot more to him than just being a colleague. Jonty’s opinion of his friend had gradually changed from pompous ass to treasured companion, and he realised he was beginning to harbour more than just platonic thoughts about the man.
Being in his rooms now, simply watching him wrestling with a Brazil nut and the crackers, was a true pleasure. The fire’s glow highlighted Coppersmith’s dark hair and a halo of light gave him the appearance of one of the more studious angels. Jonty felt his heart beating faster as he savoured the sight.
“Much nicer here than in with those women, eh, Dr. Stewart?”
“It is indeed, Dr. Coppersmith. Deal us a hand of whist and we’ll make an evening of it.” Jonty watched his friend poke around in a drawer for a deck, admiring the fact that even his rummaging was a neat and ordered process.
Coppersmith truly was both the strangest and loveliest of creatures.
“Why don’t you call me ‘Jonty’? I think, Dr. Coppersmith, we’re friends enough now to lose some of the formality.” Stewart had just lost his third consecutive game of cards, the clock’s hands were nearing half past ten and the evening had been enjoyable for them both.
Orlando considered—it was as if he had to find the second differential of “Jonathan” before he could answer. “I think that I could call you Jonty here in my rooms, but I don’t think it would be appropriate anywhere else.” He was embarrassed enough about all the occasions he’d doodled My friend Dr. Stewart on things; it would be awful if he were caught writing My friend Jonty. “I suspect I’m far too set in my ways.”
“That would be absolutely fine—if I may call you Orlando, in return?”
It was the strangest thing, but Orlando felt decidedly peculiar when his friend said “Orlando”—the first time Stewart had ever used the name. The first time Jonty had used it.
This was turning out to be an evening of firsts. The first time he’d had another one of the fellows of St. Bride’s in his set other than on college business. The first use of his Christian name. The first time he’d had this peculiar fluttering in his stomach that he couldn’t put a cause to. “It would be an honour so to be addressed.”
Jonty—it would be Jonty and Orlando from now on, at least within these rooms—smiled in the face of such affectation, rather than breaking into his usual laughter. Orlando knew his own weaknesses better than anyone, and now Jonty was recognising them. It was true he became pompous when he felt some deep emotion and Jonty must have picked it up. Perhaps the man found this trait rather touching.
Whatever he was thinking, Jonty rose and moved to the mantelpiece, picking up a gilt-framed photograph, the only one in the room with no obvious university link. “May I, Orlando? Is this your mother and father?” Jonty was watching his face out of the corner of his eye and must have seen the discomfort there.
Orlando nodded. He didn’t really want to speak as he was sure his voice would tremble and he had no idea why that should be. It wasn’t just at the mention of his parents—every time he looked at Jonty, the fluttering got worse.
“It’s extraordinary how much you resemble your mother. Do you see very much of them?” Jonty held the picture at arm’s length and compared it to the man across the room.
There was a long pause. “They’re both dead—my mother didn’t survive to see me take my degree.” Orlando studied his hands, deliberately looking anywhere but at his friend, or the photograph.
Jonty’s voice shook with remorse. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I can’t imagine what life would be like without one’s parents in the background—it makes me sad to think that yours didn’t see the success you’ve made of yourself.”
Orlando looked blankly around his room to see if he could see any signs of the success to which his friend referred—there wasn’t any obvious evidence. “I have some more pictures of them,” he said after an awkward pause, “if you’d like to see them.”
“But of course I would.”
Jonty sat down again while Orlando rummaged in another drawer and produced a small photograph album. He brought it over, sitting on the floor next to Jonty’s feet and placing the book on his lap, accidentally brushing his hand against the man’s leg in the process. Just the barest touch, no more than a hairsbreadth of contact, but it had sparked like static between them.
Orlando froze, his heart racing at the effect the touch had made on him. This feeling was unlike anything he’d ever known before and he still couldn’t put a name or meaning to it. He gingerly placed his hand next to Jonty’s on the velvet cover of the album—their eyes met and held, dark staring into light, until they could look no more.
“Orlando,” Jonty whispered, raising his hand until it was almost touching the other man’s face. “I…”
There was a loud and persistent rapping at the door and Orlando became aware of three things. Firstly that his heart was pounding so strongly he wasn’t sure any ribcage could contain it. Secondly that Jonty was muttering, “Damn it. Damn it and blast it,” over and over. Thirdly that someone might just be trying to gain their attention.
He rose and stumbled to the door.
“Dr. Coppersmith, sir.” It was Summerbee, red-faced and out of breath from running up from the porters’ lodge. “It’s young Lord Morcar. I thought I would come straight to you, seeing as he is one of your pupils.”
“And what is it about Lord Morcar that can’t wait until morning?”
“He’s dead, sir. His friends found him not five minutes since—we’ve sent for the doctor, but I thought you should…” Summerbee tailed off, unsure of himself.
“Has the Master been informed?”
A frightened look on the porter’s face showed he was hoping the hard-nosed Dr. Coppersmith would take that particular burden from him.
He would not. “You must do it immediately. I’ll go to his lordship’s room—which is it?”
“The Old Court, J7, sir.” Summerbee touched his bowler and departed, no doubt full of dread at the prospect of knocking at the hallowed door of the Master’s lodge.
Orlando turned and saw Jonty watching him. He wondered whether his friend would be astounded at the command that he’d shown with the porter, how a shy, socially uncomfortable man had transformed into a figure of authority and action. Orlando had astounded himself, although he felt proud at his newfound courage. Even if he was disappointed at the interruption. “Will you come with me?”
Jonty didn’t hesitate. “Of course, if you want me to.”
“It’s not a matter of wanting. I’m going to need you there, I think.” All the flutterings in Orlando’s stomach had faded now, driven off by the thought of a dead man, but he still wanted Jonty beside him.
As they made their way over to the Old Court, they regretted their lack of prudence in terms of overcoats. The harsh East Anglian wind—straight from Siberia, the locals said—carried snow with it, and they felt chilled to the bones.
A crowd of undergraduates had gathered at the bottom of the staircase, being kept from the room itself only by the burly form of Lee, another of the porters. Orlando tried to make his way through them, but they took no notice of him; they were excited and afraid, and some of them were beginning to show signs of hysteria.
This time Jonty took control. He was popular among the undergraduates, being the most open and approachable of all the fellows at St. Bride’s. Although he was merciless in pulling apart any essay he felt was poorly written or ill-researched, he did it with such kindness and good humour that none of them took umbrage, and they all tried harder the next time.
“Gentlemen!” Jonty’s tones split the night and brought all the chattering to a halt. “Thank you. It does no one any good, you staying out here freezing to…” He was about to say “death” but thought better of it. “Freezing to the ground. I would suggest that unless you have something useful to say about this to either the doctor or the Master, you return to your own rooms.”
The gathering broke up, aided by the threat of Jove’s imminent arrival and the especial efforts of one young man who Jonty suspected had a bit of a crush on his English tutor and who was, no doubt, determined to see his idol obeyed.
Orlando was able to get up the stairs at last and into the room, leaving Jonty with Lee to await Dr. Peters. He was gone what felt an inordinate length of time, making Jonty bold enough to venture up. He found his friend standing rigidly over the half-dressed body of a lad of about twenty—a slim, angular young man, pale in life and milk white now. The room was freezing, the window being open wide. Jonty reached over to shut it.
“Don’t touch anything.” Orlando’s voice was as icy as the glittering windowpanes. “Look at this, Dr. Stewart.” He pointed to the young lad’s throat, ashen but mottled with ugly contusions. “I believe Lord Morcar has been strangled.”
Jonty shivered. It had certainly been a night full of revelations, and this had been perhaps one surprise too many.