C1 A Ghost Story: Chapter One
Manchester, England 1899
From Lord and Lady Maplethorpe:
You are cordially invited to attend an intimate soirée on the evening of February 24 th at 8 p.m. The renowned poet Mr Robert Clavell will entertain us with a short dissertation of his recently published poem, Lannisbourne . A light supper and refreshments will be served.
Robert sighed as he read the words printed in an elegant scroll on the very expensive card he held. He wished now he had never agreed to attend or read a stanza or two from his latest poem. Lannisbourne meant more to him than being listened to by a gin-swilling mob of degenerates masquerading as nobility. In his opinion, the secret life he led was a damned sight more palatable than the ghastly indulgences favoured by some of the Maplethorpe’s friends.
Only yesterday, he had heard through the gossip mill that a young girl had been admitted to the local hospital suffering from a severe beating after attending a private party given by some well-heeled fops. Robert had a suspicion as to whom the gossip referred. He shuddered, hoping against hope that George Russell would not be one of the attendees at tonight’s soirée. The man was a thorn in Robert’s side, a self-proclaimed ‘master of the verse’, and one to quickly deride Robert’s work at every turn in the editorials he wrote for the newspaper bequeathed to him by his late father.
A discreet tap at his bedroom door pulled him from his dark thoughts. “Come in, Danvers.”
His manservant appeared in the doorway, a small smile on his lined face. Danvers had been his parents’ manservant before their tragic accidental deaths five years earlier in a hotel fire in Venice, Italy. As their only surviving heir, Robert had inherited the townhouse on Featherstone Avenue, and he had asked Danvers to stay on in his employ.
“Mr Edmonton is here, Master Robert. Shall I tell him you will be down momentarily?”
“Ask him to come up please, Danvers. I’m not quite finished dressing.”
“Do you require assistance?”
“No, no… I can manage.” Robert rarely asked Danvers to assist him with his wardrobe, requiring him only to draw his nightly bath and occasionally help with a bothersome button or collar.
“Very good, Master Robert. I shall send him up directly.”
“Thank you, Danvers.”
Robert breathed a sigh of relief that he had managed to garner his friend John Edmonton an invitation to tonight’s gathering. John, a successful lawyer based in London was in Manchester for a weekend visit, staying at a gentleman’s club. With John there it would be bearable, and perhaps afterwards they could return here for a brandy, and…
Another tap on the door, this one more robust, and John entered, his handsome face wreathed in smiles. “Robert, how dashing you look in your best bib and tucker!”
Robert chuckled and opened his arms to his friend. “And you will turn every head tonight, John.”
“The only head I want to turn is the pretty one perched on your shoulders.” John wrapped his arms around Robert and kissed him, gently at first, then as longing and need took over, with a fervour that had both men moaning into each other’s mouths.
“Oh, Robbie…” John groaned his pet name for Robert softly against his lips. “It’s been too long since last we enjoyed one another’s company like this.”
Robert ran a hand over John’s thick, sandy-coloured hair, his fingers straying over the nape of John’s neck in a tender caress. “I know, my love, but it’s difficult when we live so far apart.”
“You could move to London.” John kissed Robert’s neck. “What is there here for you that makes you refuse to leave?”
“This is my home, John. I have friends here…”
“You have friends in London, you have me in London, but more importantly I hear that you have a jealous enemy in Manchester. I wish you would reconsider and move away so that you’d no longer be exposed to the vitriol George Russell spews about you in that rag he calls a newspaper.”
“Russell is a boor, and everyone knows it.” Robert’s tone was dismissive. “I just pray he’s not there tonight.”
John tightened his arms around Robert. “If he throws one disparaging comment at you or about you, I shall whip the man to within an inch of his life.”
“Mmm… Your role as my protector makes me want to send a message to the Maplethorpe’s saying I cannot attend, then divest you of every bit of clothing and make love to you until dawn.”
“A notion I cannot for the life of me fault.”
Robert canted his hips to press his erection against John’s, taking his lips again with a kiss that sent fire through his blood and very nearly made him forget that he was needed elsewhere in a very short space of time.
Danvers’ tap on the door had them springing apart and straightening their clothes as the manservant announced without opening the door, “Lord Maplethorpe’s carriage is here, Master Robert.”
“Damn, but your man’s discretion is to be lauded,” John muttered, smoothing down the front of his trousers in an effort to disguise the obvious bulge.
They chuckled together, then after a quick kiss that held a promise of more, they made for the door.
* * * *
Robert’s heart sank as he entered the elegant but crowded salon at the Maplethorpe’s town residence. Despite the throng, he could almost feel the stare of hatred George Russell sent his way. Damn the man, and damn Lady Maplethorpe for inviting him , he seethed. Even John’s strong grip at Robert’s elbow was not enough to give him complete comfort.
As far as he was concerned, the evening was already ruined. He had half a mind to feign a sudden illness and give his hosts his apologies. It would serve them right for having the charlatan in the same room as him. Surely they knew of the discord between Russell and himself? A rumour had reached Robert’s ears that Russell dabbled in the black arts, that the man had been seen casting runes in order to destroy the success of a competing newspaper publication. As far as Robert was concerned, any wrong-doing that was laid at George Russell’s door most likely had some merit—outlandish as this story seemed.
“Steady, Robbie,” John murmured close to his ear. “Ignore the swine.”
“Easier said than done, John,” Robert remarked through a forced smile at an elderly dowager who was bearing down on them like a silk-clad galleon at full mast.
“Mr Clavell, how gracious of you to attend my daughter’s soirée,” she gushed, one eye appraising John as she came to a stop only inches from the two men.
Robert bowed over her hand. “The pleasure is mine, Lady Brightwell. May I introduce my friend, John Edmonton?”
“Delighted,” the lady simpered, accepting John’s bow with a smile and a faint nod in his direction. “And we are to be regaled with a recitation of your latest work, are we not?”
“If it pleases Lord and Lady Maplethorpe.” Robert tried hard not to glance in George Russell’s direction even though he knew the man was still glaring across the room at him. He was never quite so glad to see Lord Maplethorpe as he was at that moment, the man’s vast girth blocking Russell from his sight.
“The guest of honour!” Maplethorpe declared, shaking Robert’s hand. “And who’s this fine-looking fella?”
Robert introduced John to a tipsy Lord Maplethorpe, who then swept them from Lady Brightwell’s startled presence, a massive arm around each of the men’s shoulders as he led them to where wine was being dispensed by the household staff.
“Wonderful red from the Loire Valley,” he informed Robert and John, pressing a glass into each man’s hand. “Just arrived yesterday. What d’you think?”
“Very good,” John said after taking a sip. “Very good indeed.”
Robert nodded his agreement, hoping the wine would take the edge off his unease. He downed half the glass in one quick swallow, enjoying the vague dizziness that accompanied the bouquet as the wine slid over his tongue. He was suddenly filled with a longing to leave the crowded room, be completely alone with John and make love to him until they were both exhausted. He flicked a look at John over the rim of his glass and saw the same lust in his friend’s hazel-green eyes.
Oh, but let’s put a speedy end to this evening !
“Come now, Clavell,” Maplethorpe was saying. “Let us hear your splendid new poem… Hush now,” he practically bellowed at the assembled crowd. “Mr Robert Clavell, the esteemed poet, will now honour us with a recitation from his magnificent work.”
Robert’s face burned with embarrassment, but he kept his composure, allowing Maplethorpe to lead him to a space near the grand piano. Fixing his gaze on John’s smile and relieved that he could no longer see George Russell’s hateful visage anywhere among the sea of faces staring at him, he gave a perfunctory bow and introduced his poem, Lannisbourne .
“Lannisbourne is a land that came to me in my dreams. Unfortunately, it does not exist, but if it did, I would take all of you there so you could experience for yourselves the beauty of the lush forests, the majestic mountains, the sweet water rivers… All of that is Lannisbourne.”
From somewhere in the room he heard the sound of a derisive snort followed by someone’s whispered, “Hush…” He saw John turn his head trying make out who was being so crass, but Robert knew. He tensed his jaw and straightened his shoulders, then found George Russell’s baleful stare directed at him with such loathing, that for a moment his heart stilled and his breath caught in his throat.
There was no doubt whatsoever in Robert’s mind that the man wished him harm, and that if he indeed pursued knowledge of the black arts to empower himself, it was now being unleashed in order to ruin Robert’s dissertation. He opened his mouth to begin and found his lips could not form the words. He coughed to clear his throat…
“ In Lannisbourne two lovers kissed,
And murmured softly in the mist.”
Steeling himself, he turned away from Russell’s malignant gaze and locked eyes with John, whose smile of encouragement gave him strength to continue.
“They lay in shadows’ dark delight.
Forbidden love disdains the light.”
His voice gained its normal composure as he continued,
“In Lannisbourne as they embraced
In passion dark, their bodies traced
The mark of love upon the bed,
Their lips sore bruised with words unsaid.
In Lannisbourne two lovers vowed
To love ‘til claimed by stone and shroud -
‘Til death and then what lays beyond
Their love an everlasting bond…”
The applause and murmurs of bravo a few minutes later when he finished the short excerpt were gratifying enough, and Robert couldn’t help but feel a certain smugness that Russell had to be grinding his teeth in furious frustration.
Well, let him , he thought, smiling at John as he approached, a glass of wine in each hand. The wretch is merely jealous, knowing he will never be asked here to recite any of his rancid rhymes .
“Wonderful,” John murmured, handing Robert a glass and meeting his eyes with a smouldering gaze.
Robert met that gaze with one to equal its emotion. “It will be dedicated to you, John,” he said, his voice low-pitched and husky. “And one day, perhaps you and I will find our Lannisbourne.”
* * * *
“I feel ashamed,” Robert murmured as he and John entered his home a couple of hours later. He had decided that his earlier suspicions of Russell’s dark side must have been his own foolish fancy and nothing more. Some people might believe in the power of the black arts, but he did not.
“I thought you to be strangely quiet on the carriage ride here,” John remarked. “What are you ashamed of?”
“My pettiness towards George Russell. The man deserves my pity not my anger.”
“The man deserves a kick on his arse, Robbie. He is fortunate I didn’t take it upon myself to do just that before we left the Maplethorpe’s residence. The man is an utter cad, and ugly to boot.”
Robert chuckled and led John in the drawing room. He was pleased to see Danvers had left a decanter of brandy and two glasses on the small table by the fireplace as he had asked him.
“Lovely. Danvers abed?”
“Yes, I told him not to wait up, so we won’t be disturbed. Let’s take this upstairs, shall we?” He handed John a glass, poured a generous amount of brandy into it, then his own, and, taking the bottle with them, they made their way up to Robert’s bedroom.
“Will you stay the night?”
“If you don’t mind. It might be dashed difficult getting a cab at this hour.”
“And even more difficult much later,” Robert said with a salacious smile.
They raised their glasses then Robert downed his brandy quickly, the sweet, fiery liquor warming his blood. He smiled at John, whose hazel eyes were sparkling from the effects of the brandy, and the wine they had imbibed earlier. He hooked one hand behind John’s neck and leaned in for a kiss. John’s tongue swept over his, the sensual feel of his moist heat laced with the sweetness of the brandy, setting fire to Robert’s senses. Quickly, they set their glasses aside and began pulling at one another’s clothes.
Jackets and shirts were tossed aside, warm, bare flesh was kissed and caressed, mouths meshed, and tongues tangled in an almost desperate passion. Robert was half carried by John to the bed and flung upon it, John’s hard, lithe body covering Robert’s, his mouth searing Robert’s skin as he traced an erotic pattern over the smoothly muscled chest.
“John,” Robert whispered, his body undulating beneath his handsome lover’s, stiffening with pleasured shock as John took each nipple lightly between his teeth and teased them to pebbled points.
John grasped Robert’s straining erection at its base and guided the moist head into his mouth, causing Robert to cry out John’s name this time, his voice hoarse with delirium. He arched his back, driving his cock deeper into John’s mouth, gasping his ecstasy as the muscles at the base of John’s throat contracted around his pulsing flesh.
Desperately, he tugged at John’s hips, urging him to shift position so he could pleasure his lover. John’s soft moan as Robert tongued the glistening head of his erection made Robert smile around the hard flesh. He loved these times he spent with John, and a part of him yearned for a more constant, deeper relationship with the man. John was everything Robert wanted in a companion—if only it wasn’t so damned difficult, not to mention dangerous, for them to be seen together too often. But he wouldn’t think of that, not with John’s naked body pressed to his and his lover’s masculine scent filling his nostrils. Right now, he would give himself over to the fleeting pleasure they could bring one another…
John’s cock pulsed in Robert’s mouth, and a salty essence spilled over his tongue, inflaming his senses. An overpowering lust made him break away from the warmth of John’s body almost with impatience. He reached for the small bottle of oil he kept in a table drawer near the bed then straddled John’s hips, smearing the oil over John’s hard shaft. His eyes locked on his lover’s, he carefully set the bottle to one side, then slowly eased himself down upon John’s length. The slow-burning pain of penetration was eclipsed by the satisfaction Robert felt watching the expression of pleasure that spread over John’s handsome face.
“Yes, fuck me, John,” he murmured, taking John’s hands in his own. “I want to remember you, me, like this, until I see you again.”
John placed their clasped hands on Robert’s hips and steadied him as he pushed upward, driving his cock deep inside Robert, causing the young poet to cry out, to say John’s name over and over as the gentle rhythm they’d begun increased in speed and intensity. He leant forward, taking John’s mouth with his, their lips, breath and tongues fusing in a long, passion-driven kiss. John groaned, his arms tightening about Robert’s torso, his body arching off the bed, sweat-covered muscles straining as he drove himself in and out of Robert’s slick heat. The sensation of John’s hot semen surging inside him had Robert gasping his ecstasy into his lover’s mouth, his own release swiftly overwhelming him.
They lay panting in one another’s arms, and Robert was reluctant to pull away from their embrace, content rather to hold onto the sweet euphoria that enveloped his mind and spirit.
“Come back to London with me,” John whispered after a few minutes had passed, his lips soft and warm on Robert’s ear. “I hate it that we have such a short time together.”
“I will come and visit you soon,” Robert replied.