For Frank Harte, impoverished schoolteacher, January in London means a yearly fight to survive. A former soldier, his injuries have barred him from all but the lowest-paid posts, and the cold incapacitates him still more.
The chance to work as tutor to Viscount Gracewater, son of the famous big-game hunting Earl, comes as a lifeline to Frank. The Earl’s Knightsbridge mansion is huge, elegant – and, most temptingly, kept warm from basement to attics. Viscount “Scapegrace” Gracie, used to foreign climes, is delicate.
He’s also wild, charming, and only five years younger than Frank himself. His innocence and feckless good nature soon endear him to the quiet, reserved tutor.
But the Earl’s house is a dark one beneath its bright veneer, and the Viscount is in the thrall of unscrupulous Arthur Dickson, a handsome, brutal parasite who’ll stop at nothing to retain his power over Gracie’s heart and soul. Edwardian secrets burgeon as Frank begins a battle to free his student, confronting along the way the knowledge that he’s losing his own heart to this brilliant and beautiful young man.
Despite everything, Gracie and I were both in our places in the library next morning at ten o’clock. I hadn’t expected him at the breakfast table, and his vacant place there had sent a sharp pang through me, despite my new knowledge of him: that he was Arthur Dickson’s puppet, lost to all propriety and self-respect, that he would abuse me on command just as he would sit here and learn from me when told to do that. He was grey to the eyelids. Well, I had my own problems. I was that sorriest and most absurd of mortals, the dried-up old teacher falling for a handsome, unworthy pupil. When I tried to let myself off the hook with the mere five years that divided our ages, the gap yawned mockingly, full of knives, pain, impotence.
A good morning for calculus. The Earl had provided me with a blackboard as well as with maps and a heartache. I ran my Y and X axes boldly up and across, marked off integers in my neatest, prissiest chalkboard hand, added a secant and a theoretical curve. “Explain to me the function of the differential equation we will derive from this graph.”
“Well, it could be used to work out rates of change. Newton’s second law of motion is based on differential calculus.”
That took the wind out of my sails. “What is the function of Newton’s second law?”
“That’s just it. I didn’t realise any of this had a function. But I looked ahead in the textbook you gave me, and I saw all the notes you’d made on practical applications. The second law tells you how much force you need to accelerate an object, which depends upon the object’s mass. You can use it to work out the force on the joints of something you’re building, like a tower or a bridge. The force is equal to the object’s mass, multiplied by acceleration.”
I never had understood why educators put theory before practice. Maybe one boy in fifty would be intrigued by the pure abstract maths, the equations. The rest wanted reasons for cudgelling their brains with figures. At St Joe’s, I’d limped out onto the sports field with my pupils and a range of bean bags, balls and kettle bells before even attempting to explain, or formulate F=ma. Gracie and I had a beautiful example before us, if we cared to use it. Mr Harte, with mass m, must apply a certain force F in order to accelerate, a, along a corridor, in a vain and misguided attempt to prevent a situation already far beyond his control or understanding. “Very good,” I said, as crustily as I could manage. If I felt a hundred years old this morning as a result of my misadventure, I might as well sound it. I let his obvious effort to please me drop to the ground like so much dust. “The Cambridge examiners don’t care for bridges or towers, I’m afraid—just the figures, so let us apply ourselves to those.”
“You must have heard what I said about you. Dixie put the words into my mouth, but I said them. And you came back to try and warn us anyway.”
I laid down my chalk in the neat tray devised for it. I brushed my palms together, then pressed my fingertips to the surface of the desk. “Viscount Gracewater,” I said, hating the miserable rasp in my voice but unable to smooth it away. “I thought that perhaps your friend was harming you, forcing himself upon you against your will. I felt it my duty to try to intervene. However, I was mistaken. We will therefore limit ourselves to the academic relationship your father hired me to pursue.”
I turned away and began to set out a series of equations on the board. I couldn’t bear to see the shadow that fell across him: the lostness, the edge of despair. What did he have to grieve over? He lived like a prince inside his gilded cage, as far as I could see, encouraged and enjoyed his captivity. When I looked back, his head was down, his pen skimming obediently over the page. I put away the memory of drawing back the silky hair now hiding his face.
For once I pushed him. So far he’d responded so much better to the carrot than the stick that I’d been happy to feed him, serving up treats from the arid basin of knowledge he was expected to consume. He was good at maths, though, and if his spelling failed him in his exams, I wanted somebody somewhere to see that he was bright. That he deserved a pathway out of this house and into a broader world, where perhaps the company of other bright young men would help him forget Arthur Dickson and his chains.
He soon perceived that a successful working of one problem would only earn him another, harder example of the same, not one of our pleasant chats about Vanity Fair or the state of British politics and empire. His sweet face set into some of the same adult lines of determination I’d observed when he’d banished Dixie from the library. Not a sigh, not a protest escaped him. He could lose himself in work and so could I, and perhaps, perversely, we would find each other there, on our only legitimate patch of shared ground. We ploughed on.
Just after midday, a tentative tap at the door announced Manning, silver tray in hand, a note folded upon it. “Sorry to disturb the Viscount’s lesson, Mr Harte,” he said quietly, offering me the tray. “The Earl was particular that we shouldn’t. But I understand from the messenger that the matter is an urgent one.”
I didn’t mind the interruption. I sensed an ally in Manning, though I couldn’t understand why he’d let such a rat as Dixie run riot on his tight ship the night before. I took up the note and read.
A cold hand closed on my heart. “I have to go,” I said, the words like stones in my mouth, chilly and falling. “Gracie, I’ll… make my excuses to your father.”
“He’s not here. He’s on a shoot down in Kent.”
“Then he can deduct my day’s wages.” I whisked my jacket off the back of a chair and threw it on. My coat and boots were in the porch where I’d left them. “Manning, will you hail me a cab?”
“I’ll have the carriage brought round for you, sir. It won’t take above five minutes.”
“No. I need to leave straight away. It’s all right, I’ll fetch one myself.”
Something in Gracie’s voice caused us both to turn. He’d stood up behind the desk, and the smudge of ink on his brow didn’t detract in the least from his dignity. “Fetch a cab,” he went on, with a soft authority that brooked no refusal. “Make sure the driver comes right up to the door, and pay him in full out of household expenses. Wherever Mr Harte needs to go.”
Dear Frank, I beg you to help me. I’ve been arrested at the Montague. They’re holding me at Oak Lane station. For the love of God, come to me at once. You’re my only friend—Cyril.
The handwriting was a wild scrawl. I tucked the note into my pocket, as deep as it would go. The Hansom cab jolted over frozen snow ruts, and I had all my work cut out to repress a shout of pain. Pity touched me for the poor beast labouring between the shafts ahead of me, or perhaps just fellow-feeling. Neither of us knew the purpose or outcome of our journey. In my own way I was as blinkered as the horse. Cyril was a liability.
Yet, when I thought of him laid out and helpless under the gaze of the hotel staff and an arresting officer, I wanted to weep. I built a brief, stupid fantasy where I hadn’t got myself gelded in a war zone, where I’d liked Cyril enough—loved him enough—to retire with him to some village in Cornwall, where we’d live out our lives as eccentric bachelors, gentleman companions, attending to one another’s needs in the peace and privacy other married couples could take for granted.
Something caught my eye, a dancing scrap of red reflected in plate-glass shop windows as we rounded the corner onto Brompton Road. I leaned my elbow on the cab door and craned to look back. The fantasy cottage fell down, replaced by the real but extraordinary sight of young Viscount Gracewater tearing along the pavement, waving frantically with one hand, the other clutched round a red blanket.
Whatever he wanted, I couldn’t deal with it now. The road ahead had been cleared of snow: I reached for the trapdoor in the Hansom’s roof to tell the driver to hurry on, but Gracie sidestepped a cluster of old ladies on the kerb, cut across the path of an omnibus, darted between two fruit-and-veg vans and put on an astounding turn of speed to draw alongside my cab.
God, he was lovely. His flying hair caught amber lights in the sun. His build was light but strong, and outside of his gilded cage he was real enough, not a hothouse plant but an athletic young man, blood beating warm bright colour to his face. To my horror he grabbed at the handle of the door, made an unlikely leap and got a foothold on the step. The cabbie gave an outraged yell, and the shadow of a well-aimed whiplash flicked down and across my vision. “No!” I shouted, springing the trap with my cane. “No, don’t touch him. I know him. Slow down, slow down. Let him aboard.”
I waited while the cabbie, grumbling mightily, drew the cab to a halt for long enough to let Gracie scramble into the seat beside me. He was beaming widely. “Haven’t been in one of these for years,” he declared. “Haven’t forgotten how cold the things are, though. Here—I brought you a rug. We used to sleep under these on the savannah.”
Still I waited. A cab might be a novelty to Gracie, but I was a veteran. There would come a moment when the noise of the horse’s hooves and the clatter of traffic would reach a certain pitch, and then it would be safe to speak. I didn’t resist when Gracie spread the blanket over my knees. When he tried to tuck it under me, I pushed his hand away and firmly tugged half of the thick, soft fabric across his lap so that we were both covered. I waited for half a minute more, and then I handed him Cyril’s note.
He read it, then glanced up at me with a quickness of sympathy I’d have given my eye-teeth for in a man who wasn’t my student. “I’m sorry,” he said, still breathless but utterly serious now. “Let me be your friend in this.”
“God knows I want a friend. I’ve been… lonelier than I knew was possible, trying to deal with it. But loneliness is better than betrayal, Gracie. Whatever else you share with Arthur Dickson, this can’t be part of it. Do you understand?”
“Yes. You’ve no reason to believe me, but I promise.”
I did have reason. I couldn’t explain it to him because I didn’t understand it myself, but away from Dixie and his father’s house, Gracie was stalwart. “I’ve known Cyril all my life. He served with me in India. He commits the same kind of… indiscretions you and Dixie do, but he doesn’t have a wealthy father or a mansion in Knightsbridge to conceal them, and servants… Let me see. Servants well paid to stay out of the way when you’re alone together?”
“Very well paid. Nobody minds except Manning, who hates it. Well, he hates Dixie. He keeps trying to turn his notice in, and I go and plead with him not to.”
“Gracie, you speak as though you have no agency over yourself. No power.”
“I don’t feel as though I do, not in there. I’m different out here with you. For instance, in a moment you’ll tell me I have to get out of this cab and go home, that no matter how much you want a companion, it can’t be your employer’s son, and certainly not your pupil. You’re in a position of trust.”
“And… having read my mind with eerie precision, what will you do?”
“I’ll tell you that you have no authority over me here. You don’t have to worry about corrupting my innocent young mind with whatever Cyril’s done, do you? I’m your ideal pal for this sort of jaunt. Corrupted already, and… I like you, Harte. Mr Harte. I feel sane when I’m with you, grown up, and… hopeful, somehow, as if there might be a better life.”
I let the next half minute rattle itself away in the music of iron-shod hooves on cobble. A thin grey sleet had begun to fall, but I was warm as toast beneath the Viscount’s blanket. “It’s Francis.”
“My name. Since you seem to struggle so with Mr Harte. If you like, you may call me Frank.”
“Frank Harte,” he said, with the same satisfaction I’d heard in his voice when the Earl had first introduced us, as if his experience of me since had borne something out. “Give me your hand on it.”
I smiled and shrugged, but held out my right. “Not like that,” he said, and a moment later I felt my left hand gently taken and clasped tight beneath the rug.
His grip was dry and warm. A sweet elastic strength seemed to come from it, a promise that all would be well. He had no idea, of course. I sat up very straight, and so did he. We both stared ahead. We were just two proper English gents, pursuing legitimate business in the broad light of day. And so I bowled past the Hyde Park Montague and down the narrow mews to Oak Lane police station, hand in tight-clenched, hidden hand with Viscount Gracewater.