Excerpt: Price of Passion
A smattering of bells rang out over Oxford, the dolorous echoes drifting through the mist-shrouded spires to signal the imminent approach of teatime. Algernon Price, ensconced in his private study, moved his candle a bit closer as the afternoon shadows tilted around him. He would take his tea alone, he decided, since no official college function demanded his presence. His translations had been flowing better today, his brain primed to struggle with Klaus Ritter’s deliberate jumble of German, Latin, and Ancient Greek verses. At times, he felt he was just on the verge of grasping the elusive 18th-century poet’s meaning, no easy feat with a style as obscure as Ritter’s.
He reached for a clean sheet of foolscap, dipped his pen into the well for a fresh drop of ink, and was about to continue when a knock shattered his concentration. Stifling a curse, he slid a clean sheet of paper over the work he had already done and went to open the door.
The porter’s lad stood before him, a letter in his hand. “For you, sir. Shall I wait for a reply?”
Algernon recognized the handwriting at once. “Not necessary. You can be on your way.”
“Thank you, sir.” The boy offered a brief nod of respect and scuttled back down the narrow staircase. When he was alone, Algernon tore open William’s envelope and extracted his note.
My dear Algernon, his brash American friend had writ in his usual bold penmanship, I am desirous of your company this evening. I believe I have discovered that most elusive of elixirs—a cure for your intractable addiction to solitude. Come directly after supper.
Typical William, Algernon thought as he folded the letter and tucked it into the pocket of his drab grey waistcoat. Though he had planned to spend the evening alone, immersed in his translations, Algernon was sufficiently intrigued to forego his work for a night; still he carried the papers home and made a half-hearted go at them anyway. He was even motivated to skip dinner in the college hall and take a solitary meal at home.
Afterward, he changed into a new striped waistcoat, dark blue frock coat, and a tall, rather jaunty hat he’d bought on a whim a month before but had never quite dared to wear. Knowing how particular William was about his own clothes, however, Algernon decided to join the game for an evening. After all, one never knew whom one might meet at William’s.
The door he sought lay at the end of an alley, discreetly tucked behind a collection of grimy, cast-off barrels and dilapidated wooden crates. A coded knock gained him entrance to a darkened parlor, where a grizzled older man appraised him with a stern expression before recognizing him and motioning him inside. Algernon heard the thunk of the door being barred again behind him as he stepped toward the heavy curtains into the next room. A prickle of nervousness ran along his back and shoulders at the sound of many men within, all engaged in easy laughter and energetic conversation. Steeling himself, Algernon placed his hat on the rack beside the doorway and stepped through.
Over the years, he had become accustomed to encountering startling scenes at William’s establishment, but none had taken him by surprise in quite the way this one did. As always, the underground space was crowded to bursting, with exotic scents and the clinks of glasses and bottles mingling with the voices that drifted in the thick air. Algernon was used to spotting men he knew there, including his fellow dons from the university and the occasional politician or even one or two peers of the realm. Never, however, had he passed into a space full of figures from history, mythology, and literature of the most imaginative sort. Guests stood—and lay—attired in costumes ranging from the ornate ruffs and tight hose of Henry VIII to the brief togas favored by the Greeks. In some cases they wore even less, as Algernon discovered when a young man walked by him wearing nothing more than a black mask that resembled out-thrust bat wings.
Through the eye-holes, a cool grey gaze swept over him in open invitation. Algernon paused, unable to ignore the smooth expanse of pale, bare skin and the feather-soft tuft of hair nestled between long, graceful legs. His attention did not go unnoticed. Just below the rim of the mask, those full red lips parted to say something. Algernon began to sweat as arousal tugged at his own flesh, thankfully hidden beneath layers of fabric.
To his relief, William swept through the crowd at just that moment, his hands outstretched in greeting. His attire, at least, remained as stylishly conservative as always. His frock coat accentuated his tall, lean figure, and a ruby gleamed within the folds of his cravat.
“Algernon! Punctual as always. How pleasant to see you.” Without the slightest hesitation or embarrassment, he turned to the naked young man who lingered a few feet away, one hand propped on his tilted left hip. “Off with you, Bertie. Algernon is here to sip champagne, not guzzle cheap ale everyone’s already had a taste of.” Playfully, he swatted Bertie’s bare arse, and the younger man sailed off with a theatrical sniff of disdain.
“You did not tell me this was to be a costumed event, William,” Algernon managed to sputter as William took his arm and guided him through the crowd.
“It isn’t—not in any official sense, at least,” William said with a laugh. “No doubt you’ve forgotten what night this is, though. I would be remiss if I didn’t allow my guests to indulge their fancies this evening.”
Algernon frowned, puzzled, but soon the answer came to him. “All Hallows’ Eve. You’re right. I had forgotten.”
“Too caught up in your books, as usual. You might try living in the same century as the rest of us once in a while, you know.” William grinned. “But never mind. As I said in my note, I think I have found a solution to your introverted nature.”
“You speak as though I were suffering from some illness,” Algernon protested, somewhat taken aback. “Would it matter to you if I reiterated that I am perfectly content as I am? Not all of us need the sort of constant excitement you favor.” He scowled as a giggling man ran past them, his body draped in tassels and feathers, followed by another in a low-riding loincloth.
“You say that only because you never sample the sweetness of life outside the rigid barriers of your academic cloister.” Stopping at another door, William produced a large key ring and somewhat ceremoniously released the lock. “Come,” he said, motioning Algernon forward.
For a moment, given the raucous scene in the outer room, Algernon fretted that William had invited him to an orgy. However, instead they entered a quiet, darkened space. When William lit a candle, the amber circle of light touched a few simple pieces of furniture, including a narrow cot pushed into one corner.
“I don’t understand,” Algernon said, unnerved by the tight space and the musty smell of the air. Had William brought him here to appraise antiques? The ludicrous thought almost made him laugh out loud. “What is it you want to show me?”
“There,” William said, pointing. As his eyes adjusted to the light, Algernon saw something he had not noticed before.
A young man, who appeared about twenty years of age, lay atop the cot. His long limbs—thankfully clothed except for his hands and bare feet—stretched loosely tangled in the blankets, while a splash of dark, curly hair cascaded over a plain white pillow. His face, when William tilted the candle toward him, remained perfectly composed in the deepest sleep Algernon had ever observed in another human being.
“His name is Jules Beaumont, and he came to me late last night,” William explained. “Apparently, he has been living on the streets, yet by some miracle he has managed to cling to what those in more delicate social circles than ours would call his virtue. I will credit his economic sense, though—he offered to sell that very commodity to me, or to any comparably motivated bidder I could recommend. Naturally, I thought of you.”