The sun was high in the sky, casting its warmth and gleaming rays onto the early-spring dew. A gentle breeze swayed the leaves tenderly as the birds sang melodically in the newly-blooming trees. Though small patches of muddied snow remained spotted about in the grassy hills of Lancashire, Nature seemed to finally be awakening after a long and frosty hibernation.
Down by the stable, a small and sturdy wooden structure, two men stood side-by-side admiring the delightful scenery.
“Look, sir!” Exclaimed the shorter one, running to the majestic tree that stood beside the stable. He instantly plucked a colourful bud from one of its branches, a sweet smile settling upon his features. “It’s blooming, sir, spring is really here!”
The taller gentleman smiled back at the other, amused by his excitement. He soon spotted a tiny nest wedged between a few higher branches in the tree and instantly found himself drawn-in by its beauty.
“Nature really is amazing, isn’t it, sir?” Said the shorter who was still grinning eagerly under his worn ascot cap.
The gentleman opened his mouth to reply but was instantly cut off by a loud and booming voice.
“Dutcher, have my carriage prepared, I am heading into town!” It announced, catching both men by surprise.
“Ah, certainly, sir.” Replied the stable hand before scurrying off into the building.
“Where are you off to, Father?” Asked the other man with curiosity.
“Just into town to pay a visit to a dear old friend of mine,” he replied, fiddling carelessly with his walking stick, “he just so happens to have two daughters…”
His son let out a heavy sigh and turned away, uninterested in pursuing such a topic.
“William, I feel that one of them might be right for you.” Smiled the older man, placing a firm hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Father, you know I –”
“William, no excuses!” Ordered the older man, frustrated at his son’s denial “As a nobleman, you must marry.”
William remained silent, not wanting to provoke any further arguments.
“The carriage is ready, sir.” Announced Dutcher, returning to the duo and gesturing towards Edwards, the coachman who was standing by the vehicle.
With a stern glare, the older man left and mounted the carriage without turning back.
“Sir, ‘s everything alright?” Asked Dutcher, looking towards his disheartened companion, though he already knew the issue.
“George, I shan’t marry,” declared the taller man as he stroked the other’s dark hair affectionately, “how can I spend the rest of my life with somebody that I do not love?”
The one who lay next to him looked up and smiled sweetly.
“Will you marry, George?”
He shook his head softly as he wrapped an arm around the other’s torso, pulling him closer. “No, I don’t reckon I will, jus’ not fit for me I s’pose.”
At that moment, William had felt an overwhelming sense of reassurance and was at peace.
The taller man pursed his lips, wanting to say something, but refrained. “So long, Dutcher, have a pleasant afternoon.” He concluded before turning and leaving.
William slowly walked up the dirt path that led to the mansion. It was a large and elegant building with extraordinary architecture that had been passed down through his family for almost five generations.
‘This will all be yours one day, William, all of it,’ his father had always said, “But only once you marry.” Mumbled the man out loud, repeating the undesirable but familiar words that his father never ceased to prompt.
William had known since he was quite young that he had never fancied women. He felt, at first, that this was normal; a sentiment that every young lad had once experienced. However, the feelings and thoughts that quickly developed over his teenage years made him wonder, instead, whether he was infected with some type of strange disease, or rather curse. Though he had never brought it up, the term ‘homosexual’ always lingered in the back of his mind. He had never seriously considered the possibility, for although he was in no way a devout Christian, he liked to think that he was a respectable man, for he came from a reputable family.
As he entered the mansion, dragging his fingertips lightly across the rough surface of the walls, William thought back to when he had first met Dutcher, a smile pulling at his lips.
It had been at least a couple of months, four at most, since the stable hand had entered into their service. A fit and fine young fellow, only a year younger than himself, William had never taken much of an interest in the man until that cold winter’s night when they had unexpectedly crossed paths in the garden (though it could hardly be labelled as such, for all of the vegetation was frozen in the ground).
William often wondered how he had been so trusting of the other man, though he quickly blamed this on his naive nature, a foolish defect that often brought him more harm than good, for the world was an evil place.
With a sigh, the man reluctantly pulled himself away from his lingering thoughts and sat down by the large window of his room, opening a voluminous book to pass the time.
By dinner, William’s father had returned and the two sat casually in each other's company.
“Perkins’ daughters were absolutely gorgeous,” commented the older man with a smile as he looked across the table to his son, “both of them were quite fine and elegant, either would be a great match for you.”
“Father, please, can we not –”
“The oldest is Mary, a fair and proper young woman –”
“Father!” Interrupted William in exasperation.
“What is wrong with you?” Questioned his father abruptly “You are nearing twenty-six, you are a handsome young man and a noble at that. You must marry! Have children!”
William could feel his stomach twist at the idea and shook his head vigorously as if he were an unhappy child.
“What would your mother have said?”
“Mother would have wanted me to be happy.” Mumbled the young man before getting up from the table and swiftly leaving the room in a surge of irritation.
He thought about retiring for the night but decided that some fresh air might do him well.
And so, he made his way to the back garden and wandered up the stone path in the silence of the night, his thoughts buzzing around incessantly like a swarm of agitating flies.
“Hullo, sir,” said a sudden voice that pulled William out of his thoughts.
Startled, he spun around instantly and found himself face-to-face with Dutcher.
In a sudden rush of emotion, he pulled the shorter man by the vest and wrapped his arms tightly around him “George –”
“Oh, stop it, George. I’m William, call me William.”
“Alright,” hesitated the younger one, placing a gentle hand on the other’s back.
The taller man soon unwrapped the shorter from his grasp and awkwardly stepped back. “Will you walk with me?”
Dutcher nodded, his eyes glistening in the dark, and the two strolled closely together in the obscurity of the night.
The crickets were chirping noisily in the tall grass and the occasional but distant owl hoot would resonate in the clam air; the soothing ambience was still and peaceful.
As they walked, William could feel himself continue to ponder. He thought about his father, his future, marriage...George.
His long strides soon came to a halt and, feeling that he had to get something off his chest, William turned to the man next to him, taking hold of his hands and squeezing them gently between his own.
“I care very deeply about you, George,” he began hesitantly after taking a deep breath, “and I know that we have not been in each other's company for long, but that is how I feel.” He continued timidly, anxious for the other’s response. Though he had wanted to say much more, he felt the need to restrain himself in fear of divulging.
The shorter man only smiled up at him, lifting his chin to place a quick kiss on William’s cheek. “It’s lucky we met.” He added as they both resumed their walk.
“Yes, indeed.” Agreed William with a content sigh, letting the chilly evening air fill his lungs as he looked up towards the dark and misty sky.
One warm evening, they found themselves lying side-by-side in a large grassy field as the sun set slowly in the distance, William’s head resting on the other’s chest
“George,” he began, adjusting himself so that he could look the other man in the eyes “I reckon we should run away.”
The other chuckled. “Really? And where’d we go?”
“I am not yet sure, but anywhere would be better than here.” Replied William with a sigh.
“What would your father say?”
“He wouldn’t know.”
“And if he found us? How’d we make a living?”
“Too many questions, George!” He exclaimed, playfully poking the other’s side.
They both sighed in a satisfied unison as they continued to lay in silence, the gentle breeze blowing against their skin and the birds chirping sweetly in the trees.
“George?” Began William soon after.
The other hummed in acknowledgement.
“Promise you’ll never leave me.” Whispered the taller man, fiddling with a long piece of grass he had picked out of the ground.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Smiled the other as the silence resettled once more.
“Edwards, where is Dutcher?” Asked William in a proper tone, though internally he was quite panicked and concerned.
He had gone down to the stables early that morning to meet George, a habit they had recently developed, but upon arriving, the other man was nowhere to be found.
“I believe that he was discharged last evening, sir.” Explained the elderly coachman who was tending to a horse.
“Why?” Wondered the gentleman in absolute bewilderment.
“I do not know, sir.” Replied Edwards with a simple shrug.
Troubled, William immediately returned to the house and found his father who was sitting in the dining hall eating breakfast.
“Father, have you discharged Dutcher?” He asked rapidly, out of breath.
“The stable hand? Yes, Son, I have.” Answered the older man “The boy was slacking off.” He explained nonchalantly.
William was dumbfounded, unable to utter a single word. Why hadn’t George come to see him? Where had he gone? Why had he left in such a hurry?
“I had one of Edwards’ young cousins replace him. I’ve been told he’s a sturdy young fellow.” Continued his father, puffing on an old pipe.
“Is something wrong, William?” He finally asked upon noticing his son’s stillness.
“No,” replied the young man, struggling to keep himself composed “I just thought that Dutcher was a fine fellow.”
His father exhaled sharply. “Edwards told me you two were quite close.”
“I suppose –”
“William, you are a nobleman, you are not to be friendly with the servants,” reprimanded the older man in a stern tone, “they are here to serve, not to be comrades.”
William felt a pang in his heart. “Yes, Father.” He whispered helplessly before returning to his room and collapsing immediately onto his bed in anguish.
In a single morning, he had lost the person he deeply cared for, the one who brought him joy and comfort; his companion.
Two weeks passed and William had still not seen nor heard from George.
He had eventually been able to convince himself that the boy had never truly loved him. Although, if that really were the case, why had Dutcher spent so much time in his company? Why had he seemed so happy when they were together? Would he expose their secret? Could his intentions have been...blackmail?
As the days went by, William soon began to mask his overwhelming feelings of grief with a vague sense of relief, glad that no threats had emerged from the other side.
One evening, William’s father decided to invite Mr Perkins, his old friend, to the estate along with his two daughters.
Though William found the family to be quite pleasant, he was not at all interested in either girl and soon found himself wishing that the night would be over so that he could be left in peace.
At one point in the evening, William was alone with both girls– a painfully intentional ploy – when his father and Mr Perkins moved to the private study.
Mary, the oldest girl seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the man and contented herself in analysing the large paintings that were hung on the walls. Nina, on the other hand, a blond angel, was quite visibly infatuated with him.
“So, William, I heard you were planning to travel to America later this year.” She smiled, resting a delicate hand on the side of his arm.
The man was quite surprised at her knowledge, and more so by her confidence.
“Yes, I suppose that’s the idea, assuming that everything goes as planned.” He replied, trailing off passively.
“Are you going alone?” Asked Nina curiously, staring into the man’s eyes.
“Er...I’m still unsure, miss,” Responded William nervously.
“Is there a special someone? Or –” She asked timidly, brushing her fingers against his hand.
William immediately sprang up from his seat, anxiously wiping his sleeve across his forehead with a nervous chuckle.
“I truly am sorry, miss, but I am feeling rather ill.” He began, backing away from the young woman.
She looked concerned. “Do you need any –”
“No, no, it’s quite alright, I think that I just need a bit of fresh air.” He explained quickly before turning and leaving the room, thankful when the girl had not further pursued him.
He could already imagine his father’s disappointment after learning that he had left both women without company, but was feeling so overwhelmed that he could not bring himself to care at that moment.
Silently, he strolled through the back garden, listening to the chirping insects and croaking frogs, for he was not far from the lake. He let his thoughts wander off again, replaying the entire evening in his head. He did not find himself pleased with the uncomfortable memories and decided, instead, to simply listen to the soothing sounds of nature.
Suddenly, as he was passing a small thicket of trees, he felt somebody grasp his wrist firmly and, taken by surprise, spun around in a panic only to be met with a familiar pair of soft, brown eyes.
“George,” he breathed out in shock, wrapping his arms around the other “you came back.”
The shorter one nodded with a smile.
But then, swarmed with his previous thoughts and speculations, William jumped back instantly, overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.
“Why have you come back?” He asked abruptly “Why have you come back, George?”
The younger man was bemused at the sudden change in behaviour. “To see you.”
“What do you want from me, George? Money? Payment?”
“No, I –”
William began to pace back and forth rapidly, his head pounding violently with the sudden emotions.
“My father warned me of people like you. He warned me they would try and take advantage...” he trailed off in frustration, “I’m a damned fool!” He finally blurted out in distress, sitting on an old wooden bench and placing his face into his hands.
George, stunned and confused, remained at a fair distance from the other man. “I don’t understand…” He whispered in despair.
“Extortion, George, you know everything!” He cried out in anguish, clenching his fists firmly at his sides.
Taken aback, Dutcher instantly began to defend himself. “No, William, I would never –”
“How can I be sure?” He asked, standing from the bench and approaching the other man cautiously. “How can I know if what you say is true?"
There were a few tense moments of silence as both men contemplated the situation.
“For goodness sake, William, I came back for you!” Exclaimed George in a sudden outburst, grabbing onto the other’s hand and squeezing it tightly “I know that I may not be as respectable as yourself, sir, but I swear to you that I'd never be unfaithful! I'd never betray you...”
William’s features instantly softened at the other’s distress and instinctively pulled him closer to himself.
“I’m sorry, George, I don’t know what came over me,” began William with a deep sigh “I suppose I’m just…scared.”
William nodded slowly, resting his chin gently on the other’s head as they each composed themselves, disinterested in further conflict.
“I’m not supposed to be here, William.” Whispered George, looking up into the other’s eyes.
There was a brief pause.
“I think your father knew...”
William considered this information, thoroughly horrified at the thought but forcing himself to remain composed nonetheless.
He thought back to the man who had raised him, the girls, the concept of marriage, the disagreements...he wondered whether his father had ever truly cared about him or if his good reputation was worth more than a son...he wondered what the girls were doing at that moment inside of his house...he wondered how Nina had really felt about him...and then he sighed.
“We must run away, George.” He declared with assurance.
He had nothing to lose nor did he have anything to stay for.
The shorter man nodded rapidly in agreement.
“We must run away and never return.” He repeated, affirming, mostly to himself, that it was the right thing to do.
And so, the duo departed, hand in hand, into the humid obscurity of the night.