I returned to Brideshead in the spring of nineteen-twenty-four. The Easter party was a bitter time, culminating in a small but unforgettably painful experience.
The family had already accepted me as one of their own, and I was treated as such for the duration of the stay, which lasted for nine days, beginning on Maundy Thursday. Rather to my disappointment, I spent more time with Cordelia or Lady Marchmain than I did with Sebastian. This was not Sebastian’s fault. It just happened that Cordelia and Lady Marchmain, or sometimes both, came into the room when we were both in there. When it was just his younger sister, Sebastian was inclined to stay, unless we were in the middle of something important. When it was his mother, Sebastian left the room more quickly than a rabbit leaves the crosshairs of a shotgun.
I had a feeling that Lady Marchmain’s incessant interruptions did not have the intention of actually spending time with me, but of depriving Sebastian of that time. In some ways, then, I blamed her for what happened that Easter Monday.
Sebastian had been drinking very hard for a week; only I knew how hard. When I was with him, I did my best to discourage him. Often, I succeeded. Once, I resorted to something that I wished I did not have to do, but I found that it worked:
I essentially blackmailed him. It was on Friday. He was very drunk that day, almost too drunk to be coherent during dinner. That night, as usual, I came to his room, but I refused to do anything with him. Then I told him that if he was as drunk on Saturday night, I wouldn’t do anything with him then, either.
On Saturday he was more sober than I had seen him in weeks.
His sobriety did nothing for his depression, however. He spent most of the time in his room, reading, or at least I supposed that was what he was doing. He definitely was not drinking. For all I knew he was lying prone on his bed, sobbing.
It was not up to me to watch him, so I did not. Lady Marchmain had commissioned me to paint another panel in the summerhouse. The first panel I had ever painted had Sebastian in it; Lady Marchmain thought it would be only fair for the next one to have her other children in it.
Capturing Brideshead’s likeness without making him look like a prat was no easy task, but I think I rose to it admirably.
Easter Sunday passed without much incident. Sebastian was sober again, but this time it was not I who had forced this, but his mother. For the holy day, she had locked away all of the alcohol and given the servants strict instructions to not allow anyone to have any. She had even sent a servant to search Sebastian’s room to find his supply and remove it. He was enraged at this, and it took the combined effort of myself and Cordelia to convince him to not leave the house. I reflected with sadness that Lady Marchmain was unable to make the effort to help Sebastian for his own wellbeing, but she could when God was involved.
On Monday, his stash of whiskey must have mysteriously returned. I hardly saw him all day. In the afternoon, I was playing dominoes with Cordelia at her request, and a few minutes after the game concluded I was reclining in the living room, pondering the situation, when the door opened.
It was Sebastian, and before he spoke I genuinely thought he was sober. He seemed normal, his cheeks without the flush I had come to expect. Though he did not greet me. Instead, he glanced at the side-table and said:
“Haven’t they brought the cocktails yet?”
I busied myself with putting away the dominoes set. “Where have you been?” I said eventually, when it became clear that Sebastian was not going to offer up any further conversation.
He hesitated for long enough to make me suspicious. “Up with Nanny.” He crossed the room and paused by the end-table, fingering a photograph or some other trinket.
“I don’t believe you,” I said. “You’ve been drinking.”
“I’ve been reading in my room. My cold’s much worse today.”
He had confided in me that before my arrival, he had been using the onset of a cold as an excuse to avoid his family. Two things stung me: the fact that he had apparently drunk enough to forget he had told me this; and the fact that he now considered me one of Them enough to use this excuse on me too.
As if he had been waiting for his cue, a servant appeared in the room with the cocktail tray. He was about to pass us by to put it in its place on the side-table, but Sebastian stopped him.
“Just a minute.” He picked up the decanter of vodka and poured some into a glass. And he kept pouring. I looked on in disbelief, too shocked even to say anything. The servant watched impassively. When the glass was half-full, Sebastian put the decanter back down. He glanced once at me, then at the servant, then back at me. Glass in hand, left the room.
I concentrated again on the dominoes before my curiosity got the better of me. Had that been some sort of signal? I threw down the dominoes and followed him out.
He was astonishingly fast for someone who had spent the day drinking. I followed him up the stairs and down the corridor to his room, him remaining several paces ahead of me. When he reached his bedroom, he closed the door behind him. I went to open it. It was locked.
“Sebastian!” I said, conscious that I was being too loud. “Sebastian, let me in.”
To my right, a door opened. Someone was behind me. Praying it was neither Brideshead nor Lady Marchmain, I waited for a moment to see if they would ignore me. No such look. When they spoke, it was Julia. I was not sure whether that was better or worse.
“What’s the matter?” she said in her disinterested way.
I thought I might as well tell her the truth. She was hardly going to go squealing to Lady Marchmain. She loved Sebastian as much as I did. I turned around to face her.
“Sebastian’s drunk,” I said.
“He can’t be.”
“He’s been drinking in his room all afternoon,” I said.
She stared at me, then at the closed door. “How very peculiar,” she said. “Oh, what a bore he is.”
This was an interesting reaction.
“Will he be all right for dinner?” she continued.
“No,” I said, as if the answer was plain, which it was.
She looked me up and down. “Well, you’ll have to deal with it. It’s no business of mine.”
And with that, she walked away.
I went to the other side of the hallway and heard her footsteps stop. She spoke again:
“Does he often do this?”
I let myself slump against the doorframe. This was not something I cared to discuss with her, but I could hardly lie at this stage. And if she was showing genuine concern for her brother, I had to do what I could to reassure her.
“He has lately, yes,” I said.
Julia glanced at Sebastian’s door wistfully. “I suppose it must be something chemical in him.” She blinked at me as if that answer should have occurred to me sooner. “How very boring.”
It’s not chemicals, I wanted to shout after her. It’s his mind. It’s this house. It’s his godforsaken mother. And it’s you.
But none of those words would have helped me to remain a welcome guest at Brideshead, so I kept my thoughts to myself and went to my room to change for dinner.
When I had first visited Brideshead, Sebastian gave me the room next to his. The two shared a bathroom. For all my subsequent visits, I took the same room; even on this visit, despite the odd situation Sebastian and I were in. When I went into the bathroom to take my bath, I tried the door that led to Sebastian’s bedroom. I was unable to open it, despite the fact that it did not lock from his side. He must have put a chair in front of it or something. Drunk or not, he was thorough.
When I emerged, dressed only in a towel, his door was still closed. However, when I entered my room, Sebastian was there.
He was crouched by the fireplace, which he had taken the initiative to light. He was cradling his head in his hands, a cigarette dangling loosely from his fingers. At least there was no glass in his hand.
“Hello,” I said, for despite everything I was glad to see him. “Are you feeling any better?”
He turned to look at me. The look in his eyes was the most devasting thing I had ever seen in my life. Then he closed his eyes and half-smiled, half-grimaced.
I smiled too, and went over to the dresser, where I had placed my dinner clothes. I pulled on my vest and Sebastian said:
I looked at him.
“What you said was quite true,” continued Sebastian.
I decided to let him carry on by himself, and started to put my shirt on.
“Not with Nanny,” said Sebastian. “Been drinking whiskey up here. Feeling rather drunk,” he said, with a small laugh.
I stopped getting dressed, and instead went to stand next to him. I was unsure how to proceed. Sebastian stood up painfully and leaned against the mantlepiece.
Nothing ventured, I thought wryly, and leaned towards him.
He kissed me for several seconds until he groaned and put a hand to his head. The cigarette that he was holding had completely burned down. I let him rest on my shoulder for a moment before saying:
“Go to bed, Sebastian. I’ll say your cold’s worse.”
“Yes,” he said. “Much worse.”
I took hold of his arm and led him to his own room. He started to take off his waistcoat and I made to help him, but he shrugged me off and went to his vanity. The look he gave himself in the mirror was something I will never forget. He clutched the sides of the vanity like he was clinging on for dear life.
The decanter of whiskey was on his desk, and I noticed with a sinking heart that it was over half empty. I stood in front of his mirror and did up my tie, stealing glances at him.
“You should get into bed,” I said. If he was in bed he would surely sleep, and not drink any more.
“No,” said Sebastian. “In a minute.” He sank down with his head in his hands.
While his back was turned, I took the opportunity to pick up the decanter, but he looked up just as I did and saw me in the mirror.
“Put that down,” he said sharply.
“Don’t be an ass, Sebastian,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “You’ve had quite enough.”
“What the devil’s it got to do with you?” he said, getting up and coming towards me. “You’re a guest here. My guest. I shall do what I want to in my own house.”
I didn’t know what to do. I was genuinely afraid that he would hit me, so I put the decanter back down.
“All right. But for God’s sake, keep it out of sight.”
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” he said.
I stepped towards him and he took an equally sized step backwards. I stopped. Sebastian dropped his gaze and went back towards the vanity. For a moment I stared at him, then I decided to leave it, and went back to my bedroom. With one last look at him, I shut the door tightly and locked it from my side. Then I unlocked it again.
I went to my bed and picked up my cufflinks from the dresser. The door opened with a slam.
“You came here as my friend,” shouted Sebastian, and I wondered if it was possible that he was more drunk than he had been ten seconds ago. “And now you’re spying on me for my mother. I know! And you can get out of here. And you can tell her that I’ll bring Anthony Blanche next time, and we can fuck on the dining table while she watches.” He slammed the door and I heard the key turn in the lock.
I couldn’t move.
I was late going down for dinner because of the interaction with Sebastian, but through sheer force of will I managed to dress myself and go downstairs to face his family. A servant offered me a drink as I entered the lounge. I took one look at the tray of drinks and felt sick.
Lady Marchmain was reading on the settee, Julia next to her drinking a cocktail. Cordelia was doing an embroidery or something, and Brideshead was making a detailed examination of his cigarette case. They all looked at me as I entered. I took out my own cigarette case and tried to look nonchalant.
“What has become of Sebastian?” said Lady Marchmain.
“He’s gone to bed,” I said. “His cold’s rather worse.”
“Oh dear,” said Lady Marchmain, “I hope he isn’t getting ‘flu. I thought he looked a little feverish lately.”
I felt Julia’s eyes on me but I could not look at her.
“Is there anything he wants?” said Lady Marchmain.
“No,” I said quickly. “He particularly asked not to be disturbed.”
“I think he needs a glass of hot whiskey,” said Lady Marchmain, placing a marker in her book. “I’ll go and have a look at him.”
I thought desperately for a reason to stop her, but Julia glanced at me pitifully and said:
“No don’t, Mummy, I’ll go.”
But before she could rise, Cordelia jumped from her chair and said:
“May I go? Please, Mummy, if he’s not well.”
“I’ve only just been in to him,” I said. “His cold really has come on rather badly. He says there’s nothing that he wants. I think he just needs to get some sleep.”
“Well, I’ll just have a look at him,” persisted Cordelia. “I’m sure he’s feeling awful.”
“Cordelia,” I said, as sharply as I dared, but I could hardly restrain her. I looked to Julia for help, but her hands were as tied as mine were.
“I promise I won’t disturb him if he’s asleep,” said Cordelia, and left the room.
There was nothing I could do but wait for her to come back downstairs while praying that Sebastian hadn’t completely taken leave of his senses and had gone to bed. I sat down and lit a cigarette.
Minutes later, I heard rapid footsteps coming down the hallway. Cordelia entered, breathless. I turned to look at her and back quickly, forcing myself to keep my face straight so as not to betray my emotions. Cordelia slowed to a respectable pace upon seeing her mother, and gently closed the door and returned to her seat. She looked from face to face, and said:
“No, he doesn’t want anything.”
Julia and I were alternating between staring anxiously at Cordelia and staring anxiously at each other. Lady Marchmain leaned forwards and said:
“How was he?”
“I don’t know,” said Cordelia. I silently prayed that Sebastian had been asleep, or at least faking it, but then Cordelia continued:
“But I think he’s rather drunk.”
“Cordelia!” said Brideshead, who was playing patience on the end-table.
Evidently unable to help herself, Cordelia started to laugh. I looked away from her.
“’Marquis’ son unused to wine’,” she quoted in between peals of laughter. “’Model student’s career at stake.’”
“Cordelia,” said Lady Marchmain quietly, without a hint of the air of authority her words normally carried. She looked at me. “Charles, is this true?”
I could have lied, said I thought Sebastian had a cold as that is what he told me, but I feared that would make things much worse for him. Sebastian and Charles contra mundum, that is what we had said. Besides, I could not get the image of Lady Marchmain being the audience of Sebastian and Anthony Blanche making love upon the dining table: something that filled me with an unpleasant mixture of humour, desire, and revulsion.
So I said:
Brideshead looked at me, amazed. Julia closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat. I would have said something further, something like, ‘Well, I wouldn’t say he’s very drunk’, or maybe something as bold as ‘I would have imagined you would have noticed the condition your son was in by now’, but a servant entered, unaware of the dramatics that were taking place, and said:
“Dinner is served, my lady.”
Lady Marchmain kept her eyes trained on me for a few seconds, then said:
She rose, and left the room, closely followed by her daughters. As was the etiquette, Brideshead and I waited until they had passed us, then went out ourselves.
I wanted to avoid conversation with Brideshead, but of course he spoke to me as soon as we had left the earshot of the servants.
“I don’t think Sebastian has been very well for some time,” he said, as if this was a great revelation he had just come up with. “I first noticed it when he came home from the retreat. Quite the reverse effect from what one might have expected.”
I recalled the look Sebastian gave me when I saw Anthony Blanche in the photographs.
Oh, Sebastian had been ill long before Egypt. If Brideshead only knew what had occurred in Venice last summer, he would not have been so confused.
As we sat down to dinner that night, the subject was not mentioned. I was feeling so terrible that I was sure I would make myself ill if I ate anything at all, so I just pushed my fork around my plate and tried to ignore the stares of Lady Marchmain and Brideshead. I was subdued, answering questions that were put to me but never offering up much conversation, all the while silently mourning my friend upstairs. They could all clearly see what was on my mind, but none of them questioned me about it. It was obvious that Lady Marchmain did not want to broach the subject, so perhaps everyone else sensed that and did not dare to bring it up. I reflected that it was a poor lot that kept silent when I was suffering in front of them.
When the ladies left, Brideshead and I were alone. This was the time I had been dreading, as I was sure that Brideshead would interrogate me about Sebastian. I was correct.
“Did you say Sebastian was drunk?” he said casually, as if there was any doubt about what I, or Cordelia, had said.
“What an extraordinary time to choose,” said Brideshead vaguely. I wanted to tell him that the situation was hardly comparable to a vicar deciding to redecorate his church around Christmastime, but I held my tongue. “Couldn’t you stop him?”
“No,” I answered simply.
Brideshead considered this. “No, I don’t suppose you could,” he said finally. “I once saw my father drunk in his room. I can’t have been more than ten at the time.” He gazed at me with sadness in his eyes, and I realised that this was a great confession from him. I was unable to feel sympathy for him. “You can’t stop people if they want to get drunk,” he continued. “My mother couldn’t stop my father, you know.” He said this as if he could not comprehend his mother being unable to stop anyone from doing anything.
I looked away from him. I could not quite decide if comparing Sebastian to his father was a good thing.
When I looked up from the glass of port that I was unable to bring myself to drink, I saw that Brideshead was staring at me. For one heart-stopping moment I thought that he suspected something. Then logic overcame fear, and I realised that the notion of me fucking his brother was miles outside of his realms of comprehension. No, he only knew that I had a secret – Sebastian’s alcoholism – and that it was now out in the open.
Brideshead leaned back and said:
“I shall ask my mother to read to us tonight.”
We retired to the lounge with the others, and Lady Marchmain selected a novel from the bookshelf by the wall. I took the chair by the corner; Julia was giving herself a manicure on the floor, Cordelia next to her gazing attentively at her mother, who had taken the settee, and Brideshead sat next to her. I could not possibly have said what the book was, I was not paying anywhere near enough attention for that. Instead, all my thoughts were with Sebastian. I wondered when I could politely take my leave and go and be with him, or at least see if he was feeling any better. I could claim illness myself, of course, but then the family would have thought I was as drunk as he was.
I felt something on my cheek suddenly, and I touched it. A tear. I was crying. I ran a hand across my face and closed my eyes tightly, willing myself to stop. When I was certain I had myself under control, I stole a glance around the room. No one was paying me any attention.
There was the sound of movement from behind the door, which I naturally assumed was one of the servants, but then the door flew open and crashed against the frame in a manner that would ordinarily have been unheard of in a house such as Brideshead. I could not bring myself to look, but I knew it was Sebastian. The rest of the family stopped what they were doing to stare at him. Even the unflappable Lady Marchmain paused her reading. When Sebastian did nothing, she averted her eyes and resumed.
Sebastian looked dreadful. He was still wearing his dinner suit, with his tie hanging about his neck and his shirt nearly open. He held a cigarette that looked as if it had burnt down without even being smoked. Far from looking like a drunk, his face was pale and streaked with what I assumed, aghast, were tears; he looked more like a man drowning in grief than in whiskey.
I watched him closely as he crossed the room, apparently unconcerned with the lack of reaction. He passed the end-table, knocking the lamp-shade as he did so. Still Lady Marchmain refused to acknowledge him. It was only when he reached the centre of the room that she looked up at him. Her voice died down. Perhaps she saw the same thing in his eyes as I did.
Everyone was watching him, waiting. I was not certain whether he would begin speaking, be sick, or faint. From the way he looked, I estimated that each option had an equal probability.
“I’ve come to ap-“ he said, stumbling over the words. “Come to apologise.”
Without waiting for him to finish, Lady Marchmain said, “Sebastian, dear, go back to bed. We can talk about this in the morning.”
“Not to you,” Sebastian said. “I’ve come to apologise to Charles.”
Already uncomfortable, I found the feeling of four pairs of eyes slyly shifting to me almost unbearable.
“I was bloody to him,” Sebastian continued. “He’s my guest.” He said these words in a whisper, gazing at me, and suddenly the echo of his earlier words was more painful to me than everything. I almost said something there and then, but, for once, my brain managed to overcome my heart.
“He’s my guest,” Sebastian said in a raised voice, with emphasis on the word ‘my’. “He’s my only friend. And I was bloody to him.
It was physically painful to hear his voice break on the final phrase. My heart ached for him.
Apparently having achieved his goal, a look of bewilderment passed over his face. He took a few shuffling steps backwards, almost falling into the end-table. Brideshead rose, but did not leave the safety of his mother’s side.
“Go back to bed, Sebastian,” he said stiffly.
Sebastian looked as though he wanted to laugh but did not have sufficient energy. Instead, he began to advance on Brideshead. I was afraid he would become violent, so I leapt from my chair and put myself between them.
“It’s all right, Bridey,” I said, taking the loose cigarette from Sebastian’s fingers. I thought he was going to push me aside, but he allowed me to gently turn him around. I followed him to the door and Brideshead sat down. Despicably, Lady Marchmain resumed reading. I paused for a moment to snuff out the cigarette, and when I took my eyes off Sebastian he changed his course and went to the side-table. Before I could do anything, he reached out his arm and knocked the photograph of Lady Marchmain to the floor.
Everyone clearly noticed, but pretended not to. Lady Marchmain did not even pause her reading. Evidently this was not the outcome Sebastian had anticipated. Looking as though he wanted to cry, he turned back towards the door. I attempted to take his arm but he shook me off. I let him; as he was already leaving, there seemed to be little point in trying to restrain him. I followed him out and closed the door behind me without looking back.
There was nothing to be said. Nothing that I could think of, at least. We made it to the staircase in silence, Sebastian’s paces becoming slower and more laborious as we walked. Eventually, on the second flight, he stopped and began to lean against the wall. I watched, unsure what he was doing. Then he turned to the side and slid down, landing on the steps. He turned his face away from me and began to sob, loudly and without dignity. After a second he stifled it somewhat, and that was somehow worse, watching him cut me out, trying to suffer alone.
I lowered myself onto the step next to him. “Come on, up to bed,” I said quietly, placing my hand on his shoulder. He pushed it away so violently I almost overbalanced. I was forced to just watch and wait to see what he would do.
Watching him was pitiful. I did not think I had ever seen a grown man cry so much before. It must have been the product of weeks of depression, letting it all build up before he let everything out without warning. It was all I could do to keep from crying myself.
Several seconds later, he looked up at me and said, “Were you spying on me?”
I could not think of what to say.
“Why do you take their side against me? I knew it would happen if I let you meet them.”
But it hadn’t happened, I thought, but there was not much point trying to reason with him now. It was plain he would not believe me, at least not in this state. “Sebastian,” I said instead, my voice wavering. “Sebastian, you’ll be better when you come upstairs –“
He cut me off with a wail and batted my hand away with his arm.
I could not help it. I started to cry too.
Sebastian looked up as if he was unsure where this new sound was coming from. When I quickly wiped my eyes, he said, “Charles, I’m the one who’s supposed to be upset.”
“I’m sorry,” I said helplessly. “I just –“
Sebastian laid a hand on my knee.
“Why do you do it?” I said, no longer concerned about the servants or his family or the fact that this conversation should be conducted in a much more private location. “Why do you rely on drink to make yourself feel better? It’s caused all of your problems.”
“It’s not the cause,” said Sebastian quietly. “It’s the effect.”
I sniffed and looked down the stairs. “I – I love you,” I said, for the first time. “You just love your bloody whiskey.”
“That is not true,” said Sebastian. “I love you, Charles. And that’s the cause.”
I took him in my arms.