“ecquis erit modus?” inquit. “amor non talia curat,
nec lacrimis crudelis amor nec gramina rivis
nec cytiso saturantur apes nec fronde capellae.”
“Will there be any end to this?” he asks. “Love does not bother with such things,
love is not satisfied by cruel tears, nor the grass by the rivers,
nor the bees by the clover, nor the goats by the leaves.”
Sebastian thinks, in many ways, that it is Charles’ fault he is here. Sebastian’s fault for goading him, maybe, and for always taking such advantage of him, but Charles’ fault for indulging him. If Sebastian were to be indulgent himself, he might say that was the calling card of love. He ought not kid himself, though, that it ever went both ways.
“Charles,” he says. His voice slurs as he plays with the word: “Charles, Charles. They do not think of my happiness.”
“I know,” Charles says. After a moment of trepidation, he takes Sebastian’s hand in his. “I know they do not.”
“They will take everything I love from me.”
Charles has nothing to say to that.
“They have taken my comfort, my freedom—next they will take you.”
“They will never,” Charles says at last—he knows by now when to play the conciliatory role—his voice hoarse, his thumb tracing circles on the back of Sebastian’s hand, his inflection as though he means to continue, but no words following.
It’s winter and sleet falls outside. These are Charles’ quarters. Sebastian can hardly bear to be left to his own; it is too much like confinement, and he has long since stopped caring how he keeps the rooms. Charles is self-consciously tidy. This is one corner of the world where Sebastian will never fully be able to impose his presence. His clothes lie wherever they happen to fall and he brings his drink too, or makes Charles hide it for him, but this is only the dressing to a scene.
They lie entangled, centre-stage, under the blue-grey light through the dirty glass windowpane. This, too, has lost its joy—but neither would Sebastian prefer a life of celibacy. He dozes, drifting between the twin lands of dream and wakefulness, although he does not dream, just sees the walls whitewashed and the bed surrounded by canvas stretched to screens and the scene stripped back to its barest bones, and Charles—Charles is gone.
“I don’t want you to see me like this,” Sebastian says.
Charles props himself up on one elbow, his short hair damp with sweat and falling over his eyes. “Pardon?”
“You must pay proper attention to me at all times, Charles. I was saying—” What had he been saying? “I was saying that we ought to meet again tomorrow. We can go down to the river.”
“In this weather?” Charles has a low-pitched laugh; it makes Sebastian’s heart stutter.
“It will be sunny tomorrow,” Sebastian says. “I am certain of it.”
Charles looks at Sebastian curiously. It is a familiar expression—a demand, in many ways, that all the emotional labour of their relationship be performed for him. He must know that Sebastian is weak. Sebastian will not bear the burden of being the first to speak it, nor would he bear it with grace were it foist upon him as Charles seems so intent upon doing. Charles might not know his own feelings, but he certainly knows Sebastian’s. It is easy for Sebastian to tell Charles, however obliquely, that he is an object of much adoration and worship, and perhaps easier still for Charles to convince himself that this is the case—he is a creature who needs to be loved.
Sebastian has waited, and waited. He waits for the day that Charles will let himself love in return. He is afraid that it will never come, and that is one of the many reasons why he drinks.
The bottle sits on the floor by the bed. Something expensive—cognac, Sebastian thinks, although he no longer cares what the writing on the label reads—and half-empty, resting in a patch of its own condensation. Sebastian reaches down and picks it up; he is lying prone, and as he tilts the bottle to pour it into his mouth, he spills a drop onto his chin. Before his tongue, entangled in the bottle neck, can reach it, Charles’ fingers brush across his skin, wiping it dry.
“Thank you,” Sebastian says, putting the bottle back on the floor. It does not surprise him—Charles has always been tender with him, and he is sincerely grateful every time. But when he looks up, he sees something new on Charles’ face. Not confusion, nor even that searching recalcitrance, but pity.
After too long a pause, Charles says, “As ever, your servant,” and smiles wryly down at Sebastian.
“It is not like you to joke.” Sebastian is aware that his tone is terse—aware, but not sufficiently engaged with the notion to do anything to correct it. “What do you mean by that?”
“I meant nothing,” Charles says quickly.
“I know,” Sebastian says. This, too, he does not mean.
“Will you give me leave?” Charles says. “You know I have matters to attend to this evening. I will bring you something to eat, if you’ll allow me.”
Sebastian nods. “Go on, then.”
Charles knows him too well, now. He is the world-renowned expert in Sebastian Flyte, and in turn Sebastian is his keenest follower, able to tell that Charles can tell there is something wrong. The cycle feeds the snake its own tail and in no time both of them will let it unsettle them, and perhaps, Sebastian thinks, this is the tragedy of love, or of this adequate forgery.
Charles knows also not to attempt to remedy the situation with words. He kisses Sebastian in the briefest of gestures and then gets to his feet, locates his clothes. They’re never hard to find; he makes sure to sling them over the back of a chair or some such. Charles steps over Sebastian’s trousers, tangled on the floor, to reach the door, letting in the sun—had it been sunny before? Charles casts one look back at Sebastian before closing the door behind him.
That is it for the day, then. Sebastian's hours of charity, in which Charles convinces himself that he can still do something worthwhile to help his old friend, poor Sebastian, addled by drink and so far from home. This is not the version of him that Charles had kissed, not the Sebastian deserving of those looks.
In short: Charles will come back tomorrow, and he will find Sebastian gone.
Sebastian has not yet decided where he will go. Back to Venice, maybe. He would not have the first idea how to get there, and he is still infirm—well, the details may come later. It is the escape that appeals to him, not the journey. This is captivity, this ward that keeps him dry while humid air squeezes in through the grating over the window that Sebastian can see from his bed, the curtains flutter almost tenderly against it, translucent cotton baring its veins with each shaft of sunlight. He dreams that he rips the curtain aside, removes the grating with force he knows he will never possess, and impossibly, he flies.
His reality remains prosaic. The sun is beginning to set outside the small window, painting the white walls of the ward orange. Sebastian wonders if Charles is still painting. They did not speak of it, over the course of Charles’ visit—they did not speak of Charles at all. He had only asked, as he always did, after Sebastian and his health. Sebastian imagines that this means Charles has not changed, that he could still be holding onto his obsession.
Sebastian does not imagine what Charles might think of him after he’s gone. He only knows that Charles now sees him as a pathetic facsimile of himself, and he cannot bear being at the receiving end of that pity any longer.
He does wonder about Kurt. Sebastian is so used to people deciding that his problems are theirs and taking it upon themselves to ameliorate his condition that he has been greatly relishing the opportunity to take care of someone else. He knows that Kurt would be useless without him. Here, then, is proof that Sebastian has not been rendered useless without Charles. That makes up his mind. He will leave both of them and he will travel, he will be self-sufficient and he will drink himself to death if he so pleases. Maybe, he thinks cruelly, Charles will take care of Kurt in his absence. One leech on his life for another.
The others in the infirmary are dozing; the doctors are all absent, running errands, he supposes. Sebastian gets up quietly nevertheless and walks to the door, watching the way his shadow cuts through the light spilling across the floor. His frail fingers close over the door’s handle and he turns it slowly. It opens onto the lawn, down the old stone steps from the college where Charles lingers behind. Sebastian takes the steps backwards and tumbles, but lands on his feet. As he rights himself, in celebration, he hooks Aloysius beneath one arm and uncorks the bottle.
“Come now, Charles, you will have to do better than that,” Sebastian says. “Do keep up!”
Charles lingers by the open door, swinging on its hinges in a light breeze. He leans against the doorframe, his smile half-hidden by shadow. “You know I have reading to do.”
“Yes, I have reading to do myself. Do you see that I brought any books with me?”
“I see a bottle of prosecco,” Charles says.
“Very astute,” Sebastian says. “Come. We will do our reading later. We must seize the day. Who was it who said that—was it Ovid?”
“It was Horace.”
“Horace. He was a smart fellow. It rained only this afternoon, and now the sun is up again. Charles, you must join me.”
Charles regards Sebastian with concern. “It hasn’t rained for almost a week.”
Sebastian looks down at the dry grass. His feet are bare. “Of course, of course. Well, it may rain at any moment. We must use the sunlight to our advantage before it sets—or worse, before those clouds—”
But there are no clouds. Sebastian masks the moment with a wicked smile. He brings the bottle to his lips and keeps his eyes fixed to Charles’ as he takes a sip.
“No glasses?” Charles asks.
“Join me amongst the trees,” Sebastian says, “and you may find out.”
It is teasing with no substance behind it, because Charles can see all that Sebastian is holding, yet they both know he’ll follow, as he always does. There is no-one in the gardens and Sebastian turns, trusting that Charles is behind him, and walks towards the trees at the far end of the lawn.
“You ought to at least have put on shoes,” Charles says. Sebastian can hear that he is out of breath from trying to keep up.
“The act of redressing after congress is to curtail the moment, to ruin the impression it leaves,” Sebastian says. “I am wearing clothes out of decency to anyone who might be looking out the windows, and that is it. You ought not to have put your shoes back on.”
“I’d rather not dirty my feet. Perhaps you should take more care of yourself.”
“I don’t need taking care of. Are you with me?”
“About this afternoon—” Charles begins.
“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts, Charles Ryder.”
“If we’re both dressed, then the moment is already lost,” Charles says, although he sounds uncertain of himself.
“You are with me, or you are against me,” Sebastian says simply. “What is your choice to be?”
Charles does not answer immediately. Perhaps Sebastian should take this for the first sign of danger, but he is enraptured by the way Charles’ face works when he is thinking. At last, Charles says, “I only want to know you.”
“In the Biblical sense, I hope,” Sebastian says. He takes another sip of prosecco. “My family are devout Catholics. If you do not intend to make an honest man of me, Charles, I will have to start being more choosy with my iniquities. I am afraid that you have spoiled me for any other.”
“You are making fun of me. You know well that I feel the same.”
And that is the closest he ever comes to saying it, that very first time, in the college garden. Charles is taller than Sebastian and broader too, and he obscures Sebastian from the sun as they are obscured by the shade of the tree. Charles leans down and kisses Sebastian on his wine-wet lips; the sun sinks lower behind the building, and Sebastian invites the darkness of night, closes his eyes and reaches for Charles to steady him. He finds that the bottle of prosecco is gone from his hands, and Aloysius too, and then Charles is not there, and Sebastian is clinging blindly to empty space.
Sebastian opens his eyes to a quiet street outside the infirmary. The night is cool and there are clouds drawing overhead. He is backed against an oak tree and he is sweating, although he did not run. He could end his journey here, bound to this tree and suffering the arrows of his martyrdom. He could venture into the parts of town he knows Kurt cannot walk to unaided, find something to drink, a passage to Venice.
It is startling how restrictive he finds his sudden freedom.
He shakes his head to clear it. He tries to remember the joy he felt in looking after someone else, and finds only the reassurance of someone looking after him.
When he looks up, he sees Charles.
“You came back.”
“Of course I did,” Charles says. He’s standing by the doorway, with a plate of food resting in one hand. “I told you I would.”
“And I gave you leave,” Sebastian says, stepping away from the tree. The rain outside the window has eased up. Sebastian still isn’t dressed. His feet are bare. “Will you forgive me for trying to run away from you?”
“I didn’t realise you were running away.”
“I don’t know if I am,” Sebastian admits.
Charles gives him that curious smile. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Oh, don’t tease,” Sebastian says. “Walk me back, would you?”
“Back where?” Charles asks.
Beyond the lintel, a peach-coloured sunset gives way to night at last. The first drops of a rainstorm fall from the clouds above. Sebastian says, “I don’t know. Forward. No. Elsewhere, far from here, Charles.”
He holds out his hand for Charles to take. The street is quiet again.
tristis at ille, “tamen cantabitis, arcades,” inquit,
“montibus haec vestris, soli cantare periti
arcades. o mihi tum quam molliter ossa quiescant,
vestra meos olim si fistula dicat amores!”
But, sadly, the other replies: “Nevertheless, you Arcadians
will sing it to your mountains, for Arcadians are solely skilled
in singing. Oh, then my bones would rest most calmly,
if only your pipes sung of my love!”