For a man of sixty-six, it seemed to Alexos that Mr Sutton was a remarkably hale and healthy man. He looked a good many years younger than his age, could easily pass for a gentleman in his forties and not one approaching seventy, but for all his face was youthful, he was struggling more and more along. Alexos didn’t at all begrudge him his retirement, although it did of course make him a little sad – it seemed to him at times that Mr Sutton had raised him more than his nanny had, let alone his parents, and he would miss him desperately.
As it stood, he had employed the assistance of Betty, the cook’s assistant, to help him carry the cake into the little servant’s dining hall. He had baked it himself, even though Mrs Perry had wrinkled her nose at the thought of Alexos being permitted to spend an hour in her domain to make it.
“It’s turned out very well, Mr Fox,” Betty said when she laid eyes on it, seeming so genuinely surprised it was impossible to take it as a compliment. “Do you bake an awful lot?”
“When I can creep into the kitchen, when not ruled over by its queen’s watchful eye,” said Alexos.
“It’s your house,” pointed out Betty, and Alexos gave a short laugh.
“That might be true,” he said good-naturedly, “but what you’ll come to understand, Betty, is that as much as it might be our house, Mrs Perry rules the kitchen, and we are but guests therein – just as Mr Sutton rules below stairs. Or did. Have you hold of it?”
“Yes, Mr Fox, I think so,” Betty said as she pulled the take tray forward and rested it on her forearms to make sure she could hold it steady – Mr Sutton had no wife or children, but he had a lot of nieces and nephews, and Alexos had wanted to ensure it was big enough for him to take home to them – and the two of them walked together down the corridor. “You really can be quiet with that thing, Mr Fox, it took me ages to get my footsteps quiet on this tile.”
“Fifteen years’ practice has served me well in that regard, Betty,” Alexos whispered back, and led the way down the cellar corridor and to the servant’s dining hall, to which Mr Sutton’s office adjoined. It wasn’t that it was a big house, merely that the cellar had been built very narrowly, so that it was a long way from the stairs down to here.
Alexos tilted his cane as he moved the same way that he did his foot on the downstroke, so that he didn’t make even the smallest shuffle or squeak, and he made a silent hand signal to Betty to stop short as he leaned slightly forward to look inside.
Mr Sutton, luckily, was sitting at his requisite place at one end of the servant’s table, and Alexos had picked his moment well: it was a little bit after four, and as well as him and Mrs Perry, Mr Gill, his mother’s chauffeur, was sitting at the table and playing cards with Tom Lloyd, the gardener. Young Becca, the maid, was up in London visiting her sister, but she would be back tomorrow, and Alexos knew that Mr Sutton would think nothing of leaving a piece behind for her.
He knocked crisply on the door, averting his eyes and waiting a few moments for everyone to collect themselves before he stepped inside – Mr Gill especially was very particular about his appearance in front of his employers, and as much as Alexos didn’t much care about that sort of thing, he didn’t want to upset anybody.
“Hullo, Mr Sutton, all,” said Alexos, and waved them all to sit down again, which everyone did except for Mr Sutton, who remained on his feet. “I’ve a surprise for you.”
“A surprise?” asked Sutton, and then Betty came forward with the cake and its candles, and the old man’s bushy eyebrows raised up like black and silver caterpillars, his mouth falling open in a bright grin. “Oh, Mr Fox!”
“A parting gift,” Alexos said, stepping in after Betty as she set the tray down.
Mr Gill and Tom clapped their hands together, although Alexos didn’t miss the way that Gill subtly pushed his ashtray back with his elbow, as he had professed to Alexos’ mother to have quit smoking four months back – not that he’d ever tell her. Mrs Perry leaned up in her seat, lifting herself off of her chair to oversee the bake with a critical eye.
“It looks alright,” she said, which Alexos took as the fervent praise it was coming from Mrs Perry, and Mr Sutton stood to his feet to shake Alexos’ hand, clasping it in both of his own.
“It looks splendid, Mr Fox, it’s very kind of you. I don’t know that we can eat it all ourselves, though.”
“It’s for the whole Sutton clan, really,” said Alexos. “There’s paper and string under the tray to tie it up with.”
Mr Sutton beamed all the brighter, the apples in his cheeks showing with the wideness of his dimpled smile, and he reached up to deliver an affectionate pat to Alexos’ cheek.
“I do hope you treat my nephew with the kindness you do me, Mr Fox,” said the old man.
“I wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise, Mr Sutton,” Alexos promised, and gave everyone a neat bow of his head before he went back into the hall.
“You’ve to save a piece for Becky, Mr Sutton,” he heard Betty say as he made his way toward the stairs. “Mr Fox was worried you might forget.”
“As if I could,” was the quiet, warm response, and Alexos did his best to ignore the pang in his chest as he made his way up the steps. He knew that the servants’ stairs weren’t really intended for him, but the knowledge made it no easier on his bad leg or either of his bad knees when he had to scale their steep incline, and once he came up into the hall he took a moment before he went to brave the main staircase and walk up to the library.
“Alex,” said Mother. “Were you downstairs?”
“Only for a moment,” Alexos said mildly, giving her a smile as he approached her, and they walked together into the salon, her fingers touching against his back. His mother was giving him one of her concerned looks, but unfortunately, these looks of consternation were rather the default where he was concerned whenever she was home.
“Are you feeling alright?” she asked, with a note of anxiety in her tone.
“Yes, Mother,” he said with all the assurance he could manage. “No cold, no fever, no illness whatsoever – I am as healthy and in my prime as I get.”
She looked down at his cane, as though looking at it with enough scorn might make it dissipate from between his fingers and burn the ache out of his joints, too – or at least burn out that her son made the weakness visible in the way he held himself.
“Your voice sounds rather hoarse,” she said.
“It does,” he agreed. “But I regret to inform you, Mother, that it always does.”
She peered at him, her lips twisting into a little frown, her nose scrunching up in a way that he knew his own did, when similarly taken aback. “Does it?” she asked.
“Yes, Mother,” said Alexos, and patted her shoulder as they sat down for tea. “Yes, it does.”
* * *
By early that evening, his mother had departed again with Mr Gill at the helm, and Alexos was sitting alone at the window bench in the library, a hot water bottle resting on his knees. It wasn’t a particularly cold evening, but his knees were bad today, and the heat did help – as did, of course, the martini resting on the table beside him, although he hadn’t much touched it.
“Surveying the grounds, Mr Fox?” asked Mr Sutton as he stepped into the library, and Alexos turned to look at him, his lips parting.
Mr Sutton had his coat folded over his arm and his hat in his hand. Mr Lloyd had helped him with his bags, he thought, and Mr Sutton’s eldest nephew, a stockbroker, was due to pick him up in his motorcar at any moment to ferry him home.
Home away from the Foxes Burrow’, as it were.
“Looking for your nephew’s car,” said Alexos.
“You needn’t look so glum, lad,” said Sutton, coming up to stand beside him, and Alexos forced a little smile. “You can write me.”
“I wouldn’t want to bother you.”
“Nonsense,” said Sutton, with a little shake of his head, and squeezed Alexos’ shoulder. “Mr Fox, I have cared for you since you were a babe in arms and view you with the affection I do my own nephews. More, if Claude, Wentworth, and Gregory are to be counted into the matter.”
“Well, they ought be, Mr Sutton,” said Alexos. “They are your nephews, and I’m not.”
“More’s the pity,” said Sutton with a soft sigh, and Alexos laughed quietly, stroking one of his hands over the hot water bottle in his lap, and with the other reaching up to pat the old man’s hand on his shoulder.
“Which one is it you’re sending to take over your mantle?”
“Harry,” said Sutton, and then raised his chin, clearing his throat. “Henry Reginald, that is.”
Alexos tilted his head, feeling his lip curl up in a half-smile. “Reginald? He’s named after you?”
“It’s not the only reason he’s my favourite,” said the old man, and Alexos laughed quietly. “He’s a very capable young man, a few years older than yourself – and he was a Second Lieutenant in the Great War. He’s more than qualified to head the household, and he’ll keep everything in fine working order for your father and for you, at such a time as you take your inheritance as master of the house. Truth be told, I think the two of you will be perfectly suited to one another.”
“Won’t he be disappointed?” Alexos asked. “I would have thought a young man in his prime should want a more interesting house to buttle for. You know, somewhere with a great deal of action going on, and an employer with a little more esprit.”
“You’ve esprit in spades,” said Sutton, almost scolding him.
Alexos tapped his fingers against the hot water bottle, listening to the watery tap it made. “Mother was disappointed not to meet him.”
“Was she?” Mr Sutton asked, surprised.
“Well, no, I don’t think so,” Alexos said. “But she said she was.”
“That was good of her.”
“She does try to say the right things,” Alexos said, and saw the twin lights of the junior Sutton’s motorcar on the drive as he came up toward the house. “I’ll go down with you,” he said, standing up to his feet.
“Oh, Mr Fox, you needn’t,” said Sutton. “Your knees—”
“My knees hurt anyway,” he said, vaguely waving one hand, and picked up his cane to walk with him. “You did warn our new Sutton of that, at least?”
“I’ve told him everything about you,” said Sutton, pulling on his coat. “You will like him, Mr Fox.”
“You might as well call me Alex, you know,” said Alexos. “You’re officially retired, now.”
“Alexos,” said the old man, and Alexos smiled to hear his full name – his parents had loved it on his birth certificate but hadn’t liked it once they started saying it out loud. He did, though. He really did. “But that does mean you have to call me Reg.”
“I couldn’t possibly,” said Alexos.
“Reginald,” said Alexos. “I might just manage.”
The old man laughed, and it was a wonderful sound, like a creaking door – Alexos would miss that laugh, as often as he usually heard it.
“Do you want me to tell Father you’re departing?” asked Alexos.
“If you really want to,” said Sutton. “But you know your father. He won’t care.”
“I’m glad you said that,” Alexos said. “I didn’t want to go up the stairs.”
They laughed together as they walked down together, and it almost made it all better, that the old man was going – and Alexos was glad he was retiring, because he really had earned it, as old as he was, and he was being selfish, really, he knew that. It wasn’t as though he’d be alone in the house, anyway.
“You will like him, Alexos,” said Sutton again. “I’m sure of it.”
“You needn’t make your retirement all about me, you know,” said Alexos as they slowly descended the stairs. “You must think me an awful narcissist.”
“My retirement isn’t about you,” said Sutton. “But my replacement is, no doubt about that.”
“Thank you, Reginald. For everything.”
“I’m not dying, lad,” said Sutton. “Cheer up.”
Alexos smiled as they came to the stair, and he picked up the cake by the box’s string, following the old man out to the car.
“Hullo, Uncle,” said the driver, waving a handsome hand wrapped in a handsome driving glove. The man himself was handsome too – Alexos had had a great many of Mr Sutton’s handsome nephews inflicted on him over the years, and it seemed each one he saw was more of a painful temptation than the last. “You must be Mr Fox. He loves you more than he does most of us, you know.”
The young Sutton winked a shining grey eye, and Alexos swallowed hard, trying to force down his blush as he gave a polite bow of his head, and handed the cake to Mr Sutton as his nephew pulled the door open for him.
“Safe home, Mr Sutton,” he said, and made no more fuss of his farewell, hurrying back inside and closing the door behind him.
He allowed himself to think for a moment on the terrible allure of Benjamin Sutton, and then turned the key in the lock.
Collecting his martini from the library, he hurried fast to bed.
* * *
It was on Monday that their new Mr Sutton Junior came down on the train from Oxford, where he had for two years been serving as underbutler at a much larger country house. Alexos saw his suitcase in the hall as he walked from the library.
The Fox household had three storeys: on the first floor was the library and Alexos’ own bedroom, as well as the servants’ bedrooms accessible from the back corridor, and on the second were his parents’ and guest bedrooms, and of course, his father’s office.
He had always rather idolized his father’s office.
It was a beautiful room, dominated by wide windows and a balcony that overlooked the grounds, adjoining onto the master bedroom. Tall, mahogany bookshelves covered every wall, filled to the brim with leatherbound volumes, globes, some of Mother’s book covers printed on fine card, and framed photographs – and his father’s medals, of course, awarded for his service in the Boer war.
It had seemed to him as a child to be a room filled with magic, particularly as short as he had been for the longest time, with so much of the room out of reach – and particularly as, back then, his father would often carry him up the spiral staircase to the second floor, that he not need make the journey himself.
Now, ascending the steps, he did his best to ignore the painful, sticking ache the tall, narrow steps rendered in his knees, even as he gripped tight at the bannister to support himself. It didn’t help that he hadn’t slept well the night previous – his hips were worse than usual and they’d kept him up, and his whole body was thickly weighted with a pained fatigue.
His father’s office door was ajar as he limped up the corridor, gripping tightly at his cane’s handle.
“… two years, and of course, before the war, I was valet for Lord Loxley’s eldest son, Mr Bispham.”
“Oh, we needn’t take pains over your curriculum vitae, Mr Sutton – anyone your uncle would recommend, we would of course be glad to snap up. I believe he’s spoken with you already about the house?”
“I have the maintenance schedule, the grocery order, the servants’ schedule. My uncle informs me that in recent years the wine cellar has been neglected owing to his ailing vision, and he requested that I devote some time to setting it in order.”
“Oh,” Alexos heard his father say. “Well. I don’t know about that, Mr Sutton. I don’t drink wine.”
“But I do,” said Alexos, appearing in the doorway, and his father looked up at him with a little, absentminded smile. “As does Mother, and as do our guests, Father. Your aversion is not a universal one.”
“My son, Alexos Fox,” his father said affectionately, and Alexos stepped over the threshold of his office.
Harry Sutton, who had been standing in the open doors to the balcony and overlooking the grounds, stepped in from the bright sunlight outside, and Alexos’ eyes took a moment to adjust to looking at him, without the light behind him.
His mouth, all at once, went very, very dry.
He had seen, over the years, quite a few of Mr Sutton’s nephews. He had close to thirty nieces and nephews, owing to his having five brothers each possessed of apparently prodigious fertility, and many of these nephews were devastatingly attractive, not that Alexos went out of his way to dwell on it.
Really, he did his best not to.
It seemed as though every other day he read another case of a gentleman being tried and sentenced for some act of sodomy or other, and one of the few benefits the relative isolation he had adopted for himself, lingering at home with his family and his research, was in avoiding any sort of temptation, and yet—
And yet it wasn’t yet a crime to think of men, or so it seemed to Alexos.
How could one not, when nephews like Mr Sutton’s existed?
And yet Harry Sutton, it seemed to Alexos – at least it seemed to his breath, which had stopped fast in his lungs, to his heart, which was speeding its pace in his chest, and to his cheeks, which were burning – was the most tempting of all.
He was a tall man, two inches taller than Alexos himself, fat with a broad chest and huge shoulders. He did not know if his suit was tightly tailored or if it was simply that the style of the modern butler’s suit was not intended for a man so incredibly packed with prawn: either way, he could see the way his sleeves tightened into the great bulk of his arms, his waistcoat and shirt barely holding back the wonder of his barrel chest, and most tremendous of all, his trousers.
The butler’s legs were woefully – or perhaps, mercifully – obscured by the length of his tailcoat, but Alexos could see the way his trousers hugged in against his thick thighs and tightened in toward the ankle, so that his legs formed a sort of Bermuda Triangle, a dangerous territory one would like to perish within the borders of.
Alexos felt slightly light-headed.
“My uncle ever sings your praises, Mr Fox,” said Sutton, putting out one beefy hand to shake. Alexos stared at it a moment – he was a tall man himself, but lithe, and although Sutton’s fingers were the same length as his own, it seemed his hand was almost twice the size of Alexos’ own.
He had a strong, powerful grip as he shook Alexos’ hand, his skin warm and dry and rough with scars, and as he withdrew his hand his thumb stroked over Alexos’ wrist. It made his head spin, and he struggled to force the blood out of wherever it had wandered off to and back to his tongue, so that he could try to speak again.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Sutton. He had a low, fruity voice that sounded rather like how port would sound, Alexos thought, if port had a voice – it was Dionysian in its melody and its rhythm and its sheer intoxicating quality, and he swallowed hard, glancing to his father.
“You have everything all in order, I expect?” he asked.
“Almost everything,” his father said. “I was explaining to Mr Sutton that your mother isn’t often here.”
“I am informed Mrs Fox is a novelist of tremendous aptitude and flair, Mr Fox,” said Sutton as Alexos looked anywhere but his face, which unfortunately included his chest, thighs, and hands, all of which were too overwhelming with which to cope, and he busied himself moving to examine some of the old photographs on the wall.
The Alexos in the photos was a brightly smiling child, and Alexos had never failed to notice that in many of the photos his father displayed – owing to his mother’s editing of them, he expected, more than a preference of his father’s – his legs were somehow obscured, a blanket over his knees or his body behind a chair or a tree trunk, that the camera should not catch a glimpse of his braces
“Quite,” Alexos said. “She is often abroad, Mr Sutton. I’m afraid you shall have to make do with myself and Father most of the time.”
“I’m sure I shall incur no trouble on your account, Mr Fox,” said the butler mildly. “My uncle advised that each of the gentlemen of the house had business pursued within the bounds of the home.”
“That’s right,” said Father pleasantly. “We own a small factory and have investments in a handful of other business, which I keep track of; Alexos is a student of classics, and is an author in his own right.”
“Is that so?” asked Mr Sutton, in a voice which curled around the base of Alexos’ spine and threatened to make its home there. “It seems in joining your household, Mr Fox, my reading list increases exponentially. Ought I presume that you have books in print too, Mr Fox?”
His father laughed.
“No, my head is for numbers, not letters, Mr Sutton – or at least, not words. I’ve always been quite at home with algebra. But Alex here, he writes exceedingly well.”
“My father flatters. It was, ah, a pleasure to meet you, Mr Sutton. With my work in mind, however, I’m afraid I must back to the library.”
“Won’t you show me, Mr Fox?” asked Sutton, and Alexos whipped to look at him, feeling more colour rise in his cheeks.
Mr Sutton did not at all resemble his uncle.
Apart from his body, he had a square face, a sharp jaw with a cleft in his chin, and a heavy brow, and he had a healthy, handsome colour to his face, but not the apple red his uncle carried in his cheeks. His hair was a tawny brown, neatly combed, and he had forest green eyes which were heavily lidded and decorated with long lashes. Mr Sutton had a sort of exacting gaze that Alexos felt he could dissipate, melt, or otherwise liquefy under, and he was liquefying swiftly under it now, because Mr Sutton’s gaze was fixed on him.
“No,” Alexos heard his own hoarse voice say. “I’m afraid I simply have— far too much work to be getting on with. See you.”
He moved so fast he lost his balance, putting his cane down with the wrong foot, and his left knee buckled when it took all of his weight unexpectedly. He let out a hissed cry of pain, and as he crumpled to one knee, the great figure of Mr Sutton came in behind him, gently grasping him by the elbows and lifting him up.
A great bear of a man, he exuded warmth, and Alexos had to bite back a squeak as he hurried out of the room, moving so fast he couldn’t even mumble out a thank you. He took a few moments in the corridor, leaning one shoulder against the wall and doing his best to collect himself before he inflicted the stairs on his aching knees.
He wouldn’t go back to the library after all, he didn’t think – he would retire to his bedroom for an hour and rest.
“I do hope I did nothing to offend your son, Mr Fox,” he heard Sutton say.
“He doesn’t mean anything by it,” his father replied. “Your uncle didn’t speak in detail about his condition, I suppose?”
“I wouldn’t presume to ask, Mr Fox,” said the butler.
“No, no,” said Father. “We make no secret of it, Sutton. Alexos was quite sick with polio, as a young boy – we were very lucky, and he’s mostly recovered, but he’s prone to sudden fits of fatigue, and his joints are weak, particularly on the left side. He’s a little embarrassed of it at times, that’s all – please don’t take it as some personal slight when he needs a moment to himself.”
“Not at all, Mr Fox,” said Sutton.
It was better than when his mother talked about it, Alexos thought disconsolately, and descended the stairs one by one.
The warmth of his bedroom was a welcome relief from the draught in the corridor, and even more wonderfully, his mother’s dog, a Basset Hound by the name of Aristaeus, was waiting for him on the bag, and wagged his tail lazily.
“Hullo, Aristaeus,” said Alexos, falling onto his back on the bed, and immediately Aristaeus wriggled closer, clambering onto his knees to warm them and laying his chin on Alexos’ ankles. The animal had a great fondness of laying on Alexos like this, as though Alexos’ straightened legs were a log and he was some sort of jungle cat lying upon it with his legs hanging down.
Alexos had made attempts, over the years, to explain to Aristaeus that he was, in fact, a dog, but the creature had cheese and honey for brains, perhaps owing to his namesake, and never seemed to understand.
“I think this new butler shall be the death of me, you know,” Alexos said, ashamed of the wistful note that eked its way into his own voice.
Aristaeus wagged his tail, so that it tickled Alexos’ belly, and he laughed, absently scratching the dog’s lower back. They dozed together for a time, two classicists as they were, each with their own aching joints.
“Do you ever think about men, Aristaeus?” asked Alexos.
The dog raised his head, turning to glance at him, and hopefully wagged his tail.
“No, I thought not,” he said. “You’re a wiser man than me.”
There was no relief for pained knees quite like a hot water bottle made of dog.
* * *
That evening, Harry sat down at the desk in his bedroom with a page laid out before him. On the other side of the paper were a few lines of vague, rather generalized text bidding his uncle well, and advising that he was installed at the Foxes’ safe and sound, and happy indeed to be there.
On this side, in neat and easy code written in invisible ink of his own brewing, he wrote something of actual substance.
Dear Uncle Reg,
I know your feelings toward the young man, being as they are of that paternal lilt, but I think I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that you’d rather underestimated – or at least, underdescribed – precisely how handsome young Mr Fox is.
You described him as doe-eyed, as I recall, but I don’t believe you noted precisely how wide his eyes are, nor imparted the deep brown of their colour; his lips are far more defined than ever I expected, and although the whole of him seems to be made up of points and sharp angles, particularly in his chin and cheekbones, there is a charming delicacy to his features I should never have expected, as though some dollmaker or similar artist of repute had carved them for the purposes of aesthetic alone.
As you warned me he might be, he was skittish from the very outset, but I don’t believe I imagined the fire of interest in his eyes, nor the hungry way he took in the sight of me. It seemed to me in the moment we met that there was a spark of mutual interest, of attraction, and in touching his hand there was a rightness I don’t know that I have ever felt before.
Perhaps I am being overly romantic – I know that is a flaw of mine – but he is lovely.
Even as I write this, I think of how lonely he must be, how he isolates himself, bricking himself in with his books and his paperwork, and I think…
You know what I think, Uncle.
I shall, of course, keep you abreast of some developments – I know that this is no guarantee, that I might well be entirely imagining that he likes the look of me as much as I do of him, but I do hope that is not the case.
He’s so lovely, after all. I know it would be my loss.
I shall sign off here and put myself to bed. A bright and exciting morning beckons, I think.
Setting the letter down to try, he turned out the lamp, and crawled into the warmth of his bed.
On the other side of the wall beside him, he knew – unless he was still in the library – Alexos Fox was probably lying in his own bed.
The happy thought led to easy and pleasant dreams.