That Whiter Host

'Tis indeed peculiar, Edward, Marquis of Monmouth thinks as he slashes his way through the matted undergrowth of his ruined estate, now hardly 'under' at all, it has grown so wild. 'Tis peculiar and unnerving, in fact, how being here again, walking in these shadowed, rank-scented woods, can feel so sharply defined and yet so like a dream.

Everything in this place has an edge to it now, an edge that cuts into far more than mere cloth or even flesh. Indeed, there is almost more edge than centre here, as if a harried artist paid too much attention to his outline and subsequently had time only to dash in the rest, leaving it indistinct -- a suggestion more than an actuality.

The chill under the trees invades Monmouth's clothing as if he were underdressed, when in fact he has more than adequate garments for a May afternoon, albeit perhaps better suited to town riding than country walking. The brambles catch in his moleskins, staining them with his blood, as if trying to hold him back. His hessians are wet and shining, inelegantly splattered with bog mud and smeared with the spore of a puffball spotted too late. Twigs have whipped his face; he can feel the blood, wet and itching, running over his chin, hence no doubt to ruin the lace bunched below.

He is, in short, a perfect fright, but why should he care? Why, indeed, should he care?

His lands do not welcome his passage anymore. They cling to him like a fallen woman, beseeching his pity and his charity. He has neither to spare. Let them die of his neglect. Let them be forgotten, ignored and avoided by all that is right and respectable. 'Tis only fitting.

He is a fool to have come here, but that is hardly something unknown. He has always been a fool, but once, long ago now, he was a happy fool.

Back when Monmouth House was a source of gaiety and warmth, so too was he. He smiles slightly as kind memories briefly cosset him. There were balls then, such balls, and there was glory of a kind swirling within them. Newly out beauties of the first water had scalloped the ballroom floor in a rainbow of gowns. Young men, their growing bodies ungainly in their broad-cuffed coats and tight breeches, had seemed like young animals not yet quite grown into their hides.

And Monmouth had been one of them once, his mother smiling fondly as he gallanted some heiress, or reacting with equally fond censure as he exchanged cant crudities with Tom or Stelling. Had she known how little any heiress held his true attention; had she known just what he and Tom did together when they were certain they were alone, would she have been so fond?

No, of course not. "My God, Mother, I am so sorry," he mutters, the sound no louder than the dripping damp from the branches above. He has brought her nothing but shame and an early death, she who once took such pride in her only son. She who birthed him, gave him life and love, was murdered in effect by his ruin.

Now only the small crawlers dance across the old ballroom floor. Like all the east wing, 'tis naught but blackened bones now. A fire for which he knows no history seems to have eaten so much of the building he grew to adulthood within. Time and nature have claimed the rest. There is no shelter here for him, and that too is fitting.

Monmouth rests a while to catch his miscreant breath. The deep-grooved bark of a sycamore cuts into his palm through his glove as he leans upon it. 'Tis bellows to mend with him so quickly these days, he who once sparred with the great Angelo himself and won.

A noise on the breeze lifts Monmouth's head as surely as a hand reaching out to tip his chin -- boyish laughter? It seems so incongruous a sound in this forsaken place, this place of stagnant death, that Monmouth entertains fancies of spectres.

Could it be the ghost of his long dead innocence come to haunt him? If so, 'tis a comfort to know that something of him can still find joy enough to laugh.

The sound flutters through the trees again, and it calls to Monmouth, imparting a piquant urgency. He returns to his labours, severing fern stem and briar, stepping over stubborn tendrils of ivy, and stooping low under twiggy fingers that seem to desire to make a meal of his eyes.

The thin blade from inside his cane is scarely up to the task, but the laughter is all that he and his lands are no longer, and he needs must snatch at it, like a beggar after a penny carelessly thrown.

Finally, when his arms are burning in every muscle, he breaks though into sunlight so bright it is like waking from a fell dream. Before him lies a body of water, his lake, and where his meadows are barren gorseland, and his woods are wild and hungry, his lake it seems remains a magical place, a thing of blue and gold.

And breaking the gilded waters, each movement bringing more ripples for the sun to tip with gold, is the source of the laughter. Two young men, naked as far as he can see, wrestle and play in waist-deep shallows. One, fair-haired and broad shouldered, is just like his dearest Tom; the other is shorter, black-haired. It could truly be the ghost of the two of them. For a moment, and then another, Monmouth cannot draw breath.

The boys suddenly stop their horseplay, and Monmouth draws back into the shadows of the woods' edge as they look about them.

Their gazes pass over him, one then the other, but seem not to see him. 'Tis as if he is the spirit here, not they. Then, having searched their surrounds, the boys move closer. Hands reach tentatively for faces and then mouths touch, and oh, my Tom, my Tom.

Has Tom really been here all this while, caught in time and place, laughing and loving with the spirit of that part of Monmouth which broke away after Tom had died? 'Twould be mercy indeed were Tom's ghost here and not keeping company with the haunts of rogues and highwaymen in the grimy Tyburn cell in which he perished.

Monmouth was not there to hear Tom's cries, but he has heard them since, every night since, as he travelled Europe like gypsy Ahasverus himself, finding shelter nowhere.

The boys' hands are moving under the water; Monmouth knows what they are doing well enough. He wants to cry out warning to the green lads -- stop, you poor sweet fools. Stop or they will destroy you; they will take everything from you, and only if you are lucky will that include your lives.

He says nothing, of course, years of exile having taught him both cowardice and selfishness, and his hand slips to the front of his breeches as he watches the boys frolic. So beautiful, so very, very beautiful. Oh, my Tom, my lovely boy, my poor sweet fool.

Monmouth steps further back into woods; he doesn't belong in the sunshine anymore. Like the scuttling things in the carcass of his once great House, he belongs to the dark, rotting places. But his eyes are still bathing while they can in the blue and the gold, in the tender kisses and rough grips, and as his hand moves over the memory of passion, he can again feel Tom behind him, soft lips pressing into his neck.

"There's no one here," Tom whispers. "No one to see us. Tomorrow you leave for Yorkshire, and who knows when we shall see each other again. One last time, Ned. Let's do it one last time."

"Yes," Monmouth mouths silently, his hand speeding. "Yes, my Tom. One last time."


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