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De Profundis

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“What do you think of sex, Colonel Brady?”

 

A rustling, murmuring in the courtroom audience, shock and surprise. Hornbeck had been in the middle of some snide comment or other to nobody in particular; but when the question was asked, he froze mid-sentence.

 

Cates, beside him, didn’t seem to notice. Too busy being anxious.

 

“Sex.” He was saying it again, kept saying it. “Sex.”

 

There were things in between, too - probably important things, brilliant oratory, should be in the next article and mailed to Chicago by tomorrow morning - but it was all drowned out, background noise, impossible to make any sense of it. Hornbeck wanted to punch himself. What was he, fourteen?

 

He gritted his teeth, settled into his chair, tried to listen - and couldn’t. He knew the expression on his face must be all sorts of embarrassing, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. The blood was rushing in his temples. He lowered his eyes, tried to think of other things.

 

Henry Drummond, leaning contemptuously - attractively, Hornbeck tried not to think - against the judge’s bench, laughed.

 

Hornbeck felt the tide pulling him back. Back to the same again, the same love-that-would-not-be-called-love, the same flurry of infatuated glances and sighs, attenuated only by a sort of melancholy, self-pitying nostalgia for all the times that came before. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and gave himself a moment of reflection.

 

First year of university… and how many such stories have started that way? He was young, and afraid, and disoriented; but he had discovered homosexuality. Only theoretically, that is - still, he knew, all of a sudden, what it all meant. It was excruciating, of course, as all real epiphanies should be. (It’s what makes them holy, isn’t it?) He suffered. He tore himself apart for it night and day for a living hell of a year.

 

He began to read about it in secret, couldn’t help himself. First things first - he was systematic about it. Started with the classics, Achilles and Patroclus, erastes and eromenos. Then the Victorian poets, the Villa Diodati. Then the exhilaration of tracking down modern novels - Maurice he eventually got his hands on, and read in a little over an hour, in a sort of breathless feverish state. He called it curiosity, tried to joke about it to himself. What a morbid fascination. And he felt things, too, more than ever. Plenty of people to feel things for in college. Agonized over one or the other for months at a time.

 

But eventually it was alright. He reconciled himself to it - a person had to, to keep on living. The fear wore off with time. He began to unlearn his aloneness, to unlearn his shame. And many things took their place. Defiance, for one. Spite. Cynicism.

 

So long as he remained alone, he had thought, it would be alright. It became a rule, one he made for himself. The only rule he followed; the only one important enough. Still, there was no rule against looking. Everyone else had so much; at least he should have this.

 

Hornbeck bit his lip and let himself, let himself look at the man’s rough palms and tough jaw and the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, the way he ran his hand through his hair and rubbed the back of his neck. The strong, gravelly sound of his laughter, ringing through the courtroom. Intimidating, perhaps at first, but then more endearing than anything.

 

He hadn’t come expecting this. Sure, he’d heard of Henry Drummond. Fascinating man. Admirable, even. Had looked forward to meeting him, maybe getting a few minutes of interesting conversation out of the deal. An interview, even, if he was lucky. But he hadn’t anticipated - well… this.

 

Court was adjourned too soon. Hornbeck hung back a while, pretending to sort through the notes he hadn’t taken. He would miss this. All the action. All the loyalties in play. Almost too much to write about… And the counsel for the defense - how unpredictable of him today! Unprecedented, really. And his brilliance, his fury, his… his…

 

Hornbeck's thoughts trailed away. He rolled his eyes at himself, and stalked off.

 

In his room he was restless, desperate for someone to talk to. Nobody sharper than a doorknob for miles around. Short of the town prison, he couldn’t think of anywhere else he could go to find - well, any sort of conversation at all, really.

 

Oh, might as well. He didn’t have all that much time left here. Better talk to the man.

 

It wasn’t long before Henry Drummond opened the door to a familiar sneer.

 

“Oh, you again!” A laugh. “I was expecting worse, to be honest. Come in.” The two shook hands.

 

“Tell me if I am making myself a nuisance,” Hornbeck smiled, full of courtesy; but as he said it he took a seat on the overstuffed sofa without waiting to be invited, and all in all looked very much as if he couldn’t care less whether or not he was being a bother. Leaving now was not in his agenda.

 

“Oh, no, you’re welcome to stay. But I’m not taking interviews, mind you.” Drummond laughed again. “What brings you?”

 

"Decided I needed some company, and to hear a full sentence with all the words strung together in the right order.”

 

“I bet Hillsboro wasn’t exactly the assignment of your dreams.”

 

Hornbeck rolled his eyes. “The weather is insufferable, and I won’t mention the people. You’re lucky it’s an interesting case, or you'd have had to suffer my absence, commission or not.”

 

“Interesting, is it?”

 

“Have you ever wondered what man was like, back in the old garden? Before discovery was invented, and invention discovered? Here in Heavenly Hillsboro holy ignorance is eternally preserved. I’m surprised more people haven’t come to take a look at this: the zoo of man, free admission, open on weekdays, weekends, and especially holidays.”

 

Now it was Drummond’s turn to roll his eyes. “Alright then. A drink? I brought a bottle with me. Thought I might need it, one way or another.”

 

“Why not?” A stupid thing to say, Hornbeck knew, but he said it anyway.

 

Drinks were poured. Drummond sat down beside him with a sigh. Handed him a glass; their fingers touched, briefly. For a while they didn’t speak.

 

“Well?” Hornbeck muttered, eventually. “Tomorrow’s only a night away.”

 

Another sigh. Drummond rubbed his temples, grimaced. “I did all I could. I don’t regret what I did today. Better something than nothing.”

 

“And it was certainly something.” A laugh too soft to be quite casual, too awkward to be intimate. “Even cynics can be impressed.”

 

Drummond raised an eyebrow. “You were impressed.” Said flatly, more statement than question, but there was a hint of something in it.

 

“My predilection is towards critiques far more than compliments, it’s true. But an honest reporter must give what is deserved where it is due.”

 

“Now you’re flattering me.”

 

“I protest! I have never flattered a soul in my life, and I never will.”

 

“Oh, you’re young. You’ll get to it.” Drummond gave a wry grimace. “Good skill to have.”

 

“You underestimate both your subject and the journalistic profession. Subordination isn’t in our tradition.”

 

“Passion doesn’t last forever. You’ll run out soon.”

 

Hornbeck paused, processing the series of sharp turns this short conversation seemed to have taken. “Have you... run out , then?”

 

A pause. “Not yet.” Pause, sigh. “But…” He shakes his head. “No, not yet.”

 

“But?” Hornbeck’s eyes glittered, and he was a journalist above everything, a hunting dog sniffing for a headline.

 

“But nothing. As long as I have enemies in the world… it's not over yet.”

 

“Noble of you.” Hornbeck seemed to contemplate the statement. Silence, for a moment. Something hanging in the air between them. “Enemies. Interesting.”

 

“You’d better not be planning an article about this.”

 

“I’m innocent!” Hornbeck threw up his hands. Drummond looked sceptical. Hornbeck rolled his eyes. “Let’s change the subject, then, if you must. Look at this,” he gestured to the pattern of the sofa they were sitting on. “You think they’ve made aesthetic beauty a sin here too, or is it just natural selection? Survival of the tasteless?”

 

A tired smile from Drummond. “As a certain poet would say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

 

“And the beholder is insulted! He is revolted! He is appalled! Was that Oscar Wilde? Did the learned counsel quote Oscar Wilde in defense of this sofa?”

 

Drummond shrugged.

 

“Oscar Wilde!” Hornbeck feigned exaggerated horror, face going slack.

 

“The one and only.” Drummond wasn’t looking at him, was staring out at some point between the ceiling and the far wall. Distant. “You read much of him?”

 

Hornbeck sputtered, unsure where the conversation was leading - but only for a second. Then: “Oh, only in passing. A journalism student has to wade his way through a couple of literature courses.”

 

“Dorian Grey, I assume. Anything else?”

 

“I wouldn’t have taken you for the breed of man who talks about literature over brandy in the evenings.”

 

“I’m not.” Drummond shrugged. “But I’m guessing you are.”

 

Hornbeck couldn't help but smile at that. “Very well, then. Yes, Dorian Grey. A couple of plays here and there. Poems, though I wouldn’t be able to recite anything.”

 

“Any letters?”

 

Hornbeck was a little thrown. It had to be admitted. This was not a line of questioning he had anticipated. It was a little too - he wasn’t sure what. Familiar, maybe. Perceptive. Intimate.

 

“Oh… well… De Profundis , of course… Nothing else that I remember,” he lied. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde had spent a month under his bed in the university dormitories. But to say that now… it would be too much like a confession.

 

Drummond nodded, muttered some “huh” of approval or amusement, as if he had understood something. And probably he had. You never knew with men like him.

 

There was a strained, nervous minute of silence. Hornbeck wanted desperately to distract himself, to say something - about poetry, law, anything really. But he couldn’t think of anything - him! E. K. Hornbeck, at a loss for words!

 

“You said you were impressed today,” Drummond said, finally.

 

“I suppose I must have been.”

 

“What the hell does that mean?”

 

“I am so rarely impressed that I sometimes find it difficult to identify the emotion, but I suspect…” Hornbeck stopped, then seemed to resolve himself, and went on: “I suspect that what I was subject to at the time was… a form of admiration, yes.”

 

Subject to.” Drummond laughed. “I apologize, Mr. Hornbeck, for interrupting your contempt.”

 

“Apology accepted. Grudgingly.” The usual mocking smile.

 

Drummond shook his head. “E. K. Hornbeck. The cynic. Certainly live up to your reputation. You know, sometimes I think you might never feel anything at all.”

 

“I -” Hornbeck hesitated. Caught off guard again. This evening was full of surprises. “I feel plenty, I assure you." A grim smile. "Disdain, for instance. Over the past few days especially.”

 

Drummond shrugged, as if to say - That’s not what I was asking. But oh well.

 

In place of a response, Hornbeck emptied his glass.

 

They were sitting a little too close for comfort. The room felt even warmer than before. The air was thicker. When Drummond leaned forward, reaching for the bottle to refill their glasses, their legs touched - briefly, nearly imperceptibly - and Hornbeck drew back with a shock, as if burned.

 

“To Bertram Cates,” Drummond declared, holding up his glass.

 

“To Bertram Cates,” echoed Hornbeck, “and to our victory.”

 

At that, Drummond froze comically, and drew back his glass, waving a finger. “Wait just a minute! Hold your horses! What makes you think this is our victory? Don't you have some sort of journalistic neutrality clause?”

 

“Does the defense reject the generous offer of my assistance?”

 

“What makes you think we need assistance?”

 

Hornbeck frowned. “Your confidence is admirable, if not very realistic.”

 

“That's encouraging. Hell, all I’m saying is, you’re not doing much good for Cates' case, going on like this.”

 

“Like this?” Hornbeck’s eyebrows were furrowed in determination; if the lawyer planned to accuse, two could play at that game.

 

“I have no contempt for you,” Drummond began - putting a hand on Hornbeck’s knee. The journalist drew in a sharp breath. “I have a lot of respect for what you’re doing here. I read some of your articles. Brilliant stuff. But you're not a bloody saint, you know, come to enlighten the masses… Whatever you can say about these people…" He waved to the window, to some abstract "them" outside somewhere. "They aren't deaf and dumb, and contempt is contempt. You’ll get us all in trouble, acting so damned full of yourself. And sooner rather than later, I’d say.”

 

Their faces were very close together, eyes shining, features achingly close, painfully clear.

 

“My choices are mine and mine alone. Or does the counsel deny me the very right he defends so virulently in court?”

 

“I can’t deny you anything. I can only tell you… you won’t get anywhere looking down your nose at everyone. Makes people want to kick you in the shins, to be frank with you. You’ve got to brighen it up some. Show a bit of genuine human emotion.”

 

It was a stupid thing. It was the stupidest thing Hornbeck had ever done. Part of him blamed Drummond - getting him riled up like that. Could have sworn he knew exactly what he was doing. Part of him blamed the drink - though he’d hardly had enough to justify something like that. The rest of him had nobody but himself to blame.

 

It was a stupid thing. But when Drummond said that - genuine human emotion, for God’s sake… It was the contradiction that got the better of him, really. The contradiction between what he was and what he should have been, what he tried to be. And suddenly everything was flung out of proportion, all order and organization shattered in an instant, and everything that had been sublimated and boxed up was blasted all of a sudden into the stratosphere for all the world to see.

 

It was a stupid thing, but Hornbeck leaned forward, then, and kissed the lawyer on the lips.

 

It only took him an instant to realize what he'd done. He broke away at once, and sprang to his feet, horrified and ashamed, heart gone cold with fear of what could be done to him now.

 

Drummond was very silent. Everything was very still. As if time had stopped. Hornbeck desperately hoped he was dreaming.

 

“I see,” said the lawyer at last.

 

“Please -” began Hornbeck, but Drummond held up a hand to stop him, and the journalist swallowed his words.

 

“I could recite to you every law you stand to be accused of breaking,” Drummond murmured, shaking his head - incredulous. A long, excruciating pause. Finally, he stood up, and the two were face to face. He sighed. “But that’s not what I’m here for.”

 

And before he could even begin to understand what was happening, Hornbeck felt Drummond’s hand warm on the side of his face and lips pressed against his, very chastely, very gently; and he thought that Drummond’s lips were very warm, and his eyes were very dark in this light. And it was all very soft. Very slow. Swimming in treacle, clock faces held in place, the Earth pausing in its rotation, as if what they were doing couldn't take place in the ordinary flow of time - it had to be contained, retained, bottled up in a moment that belonged only to the two of them.

 

Hornbeck thought this was all he’d ever wanted. He thought he shouldn’t think things like that, but what was the point if he was already here? Already - this ?

 

And it was everything - absolutely everything.

 

Drummond broke away first.

 

"Goodnight," he murmured. Pointedly, but not cruelly. An instruction, but not an order. An acknowledgement of what had to be done.

 

Hornbeck nodded. Muttered a "Goodnight" in reply. Returning the acknowledgement. They shook hands before he left.

 

"Good luck," Drummond said to him in parting.

 

Hornbeck didn't have time to ask what he needed the luck for, didn't have time to point out that he wasn't the one risking everything tomorrow morning in front of a biased jury with all the nation's eyes on him.

 

It had only been a moment - only that. A few seconds. A sort of a gift. And he could have lost everything for it, he knew that much. Both of them could have. God, it would have been the end of the world. It would have destroyed them. But it didn't. And now all was in entropy. What had been bound tightly together in a dark corner now spread through his heart like a great wave crashing. His old rules no longer felt so necessary. He had understood something in that moment - something about passion. Something about infinity. Something about forgiveness.

 

And he understood, also, what he needed the luck for. For passion, for infinity, for forgiveness. For the rest of his life. For telling the truth.

 

And if everyone else had so much, thought Hornbeck, shouldn't he at least have this?