The townhouse was in a narrow, unfashionable street. Robert sighed: he would have thought the Lukas money could’ve gotten the man something nicer, but perhaps Mordechai had been feeling stingy. Or perhaps a house in a better-appointed street would have attracted complaints that the middling professional men and cut-rate merchants who surrounded him here simply didn’t have the entitlement, or the energy, to make.
Robert climbed the steps of number 14, and knocked. It was a stolid brick thing of the last century, little thought put into its design, and that irritated Robert unaccountably. As he waited for the door to open, however, he left off frowning at the architecture to examine the brass plaque Jonah had affixed next to it. The Magnus Institute, Est. 1818--only four years old, and already left to tarnish at the edges. Putting his name on the thing had been an unfortunate step, but it had taken a certain amount of hubris that Robert, despite himself, found rather charming. Pasting that invented name that Jonah was so vain of onto an institute that could at best be called notorious: it had taken a certain amount of gall, to be sure.
Robert should have visited sooner. Yes, he and Jonah kept up a voluminous correspondence, and yes, they saw each other when Jonah dragged himself down to London, but nevertheless. Robert wasn’t sure exactly what had been stopping him: work, of course, and more of it every day. A tone, perhaps, in Jonah’s letters, that he didn’t wholly like.
The door had still not opened. Robert knocked again, and then a third time, and when this went still unanswered he tried the handle, and felt the latch click open under his hand.
The hall was dim, the hatstand burdened with a silver-headed walking stick and a fine felt hat with a slight fuzz of dust over it. Robert had the brief, unsettling thought that he was going to find Jonah incapacitated somehow, or worse, and he strode with anxious purpose into the sitting room.
Or, what had once been the sitting room, under a different occupant: now it was lined with shelves on which sat bundles of papers and stacks of books, contents spilling over into unsteady-looking piles on the carpet. A few bird and animal skins, stuffed with sawdust, ornamented the shelves as well, and the articulated skeleton of some strange little beast seemed to watch him from the corner, where it had been set upon a tea-table. A glass-fronted cabinet showed more bones and curiosities within, and a line of what seemed to be fossilized shells of some kind progressed atop it.
And in the midst of it all was Jonah himself, sitting bent over an imposing foursquare desk. He looked up at Robert’s entrance as though he were little more than an irritation.
“Robert,” he said, as though they’d seen each other yesterday. “Good evening.”
“It’s midday,” Robert informed him, “and your footman appears to have gone off.”
“Yes, he quit weeks ago,” Jonah said impatiently.
“Then you should perhaps look into engaging another,” Robert told him. “Or at the least locking your door.”
Jonah waved this off. “What if someone wants to come in?”
“What if someone wants to rob you?”
“There’s nothing here of value to anyone else.” Jonah’s voice was laced with bitterness. “That has been made abundantly clear to me.”
Robert sighed, relenting. Jonah cut a somewhat worrisome figure, in truth: his face pinched, his cravat half-undone, the edges of his sleeves stained with what Robert could only hope was ink. The spectacles perched on the delicate arch of his nose gave him a look somewhere between a schoolmarm and an owl.
Not a thought Robert would be sharing: Jonah was, and had always been, painfully vain. Admittedly, he usually had more reason to be. Robert took a few steps forward, fully took in the desk piled with papers and discarded tea cups. “Did the maid quit as well?”
“I’ve told her to stay out of here,” Jonah said. “She was touching things.”
“To. . .dust?”
“It doesn’t need dusting,” Jonah snapped: a demonstrable lie. “Regardless,” he added, subsiding somewhat, “these aren’t things it’s a good idea to be touching carelessly.”
Robert studied him a moment. “How are you, Jonah?”
“I’m perfectly well,” Jonah said, removing his spectacles to rub at the bridge of his nose.
“I spoke to Rayner, in London,” Robert said. “He said he’d seen you, and that you were in a. . .state.”
“I was not in a state.”
“Mmm,” Robert said diplomatically. “Why don’t we have some tea. You haven’t ordered the cook out of the kitchen, I hope?”
Jonah leveled him a glare, but relented, and in a quarter of an hour they were installed in his private sitting room upstairs--this one mercifully free of various esoteric materials and thus also of dust, if somewhat cramped--with tea and a plate of rather flavorless biscuits. They talked of business for a while: Jonah discussed the correspondence he’d received recently, the books he’d acquired, and they speculated about how the forces described in each might be categorized. Robert found himself scribbling notes down in pencil, which of Jonah’s books and letters he wanted to reference before returning to London. This alone seemed to cheer Jonah somewhat: he truly did love the things, after all, loved when other people understood the value of the knowledge they contained.
He also seemed genuinely fascinated as Robert described the completion of his latest project. The Opthalmic Hospital had been something of a whim, in truth, but it had come together quickly and he’d felt he was doing a good deed, while also getting an opportunity to tinker a bit with its workings, with the patterns of its halls and the hidden corners of its strategically placed passages and crannies. To no specific end, but it had seemed irresistible to experiment, and he found himself pulling out the pencil once again to sketch out floorplans and elevations, Jonah extracting from him a solemn promise he would entrust a copy of the full plans to the Institute.
They had by then finished the tea, and Jonah was looking less dour. He was thinner than he had been, Robert thought, his willowy elegance become sharper. For all his terror of death and decline, Robert would have thought he’d take better care of himself.
Jonah’s mouth set. “You’re--examining me.”
Robert only tipped his head in acknowledgement. “You could stand to spend less time with the papers.”
Jonah only scoffed. They sat in silence for several minutes; it was companionable enough, but there was a thread of tension run through it Robert couldn’t account for.
At last--and with what seemed to be a great effort, considering the casual tone in which he said it--Jonah came out with, “Mordechai was married. Last month.”
Robert blinked, adjusting himself to this line of conversation. “Hardly unexpected,” he said after a moment.
Jonah still looked disquieted, though. Was this what had been bothering him? Robert was all too aware that Jonah had kept Lukas in his stable of handsome and useful men, to be called upon when he needed a favor or was simply bored. He had not been under the impression that Lukas mattered any more than the rest, except perhaps for the size of the bank draw he could provide in exchange for whatever it was they did together, behind closed doors.
That was uncharitable, Robert was aware, but he suspected it was not as far from the truth as he would’ve wished. Jonah had always been perfectly aware of what his looks could get him, from the time they were at school together, and perfectly willing to use them however he could. Robert had always assumed that the--whatever it was, that he had with Lukas, had always been that. Useful, to an end which, judging from their surroundings, he had been successful in.
But then there was Jonah, looking discontent. “You know the Lukases,” Robert tried again. “Family above all else. Or almost all else.” And for a certain value of family, to be sure.
“Hmm,” Jonah said.
“And it’s not as though a set of vows has ever stopped you,” Robert added, a bit sharply. “Or them. Infidelity is practically expected, in that family.”
Jonah gave him an equally sharp look, and they stared at one another for a long, uncomfortable moment. Jonah was perfectly aware of what Robert knew about him, but didn’t like to be reminded of it: He liked to think himself unknowable, and Robert, who had seen all the painful morphings of his character since boyhood, occupied the tenuous position of being both an indispensable ally and an unforgivable weakness.
“It’s not as though I’m pining for him,” Jonah said coolly. “He liked her, the girl they picked out for him. Much as he likes anyone. I’d have thought that would be enough to call the marriage off immediately. An. . .interesting quirk. Something for my file on them.”
“Of course,” Robert said.
Jonah sneered a little, at whatever thought had passed through his head. “I’d have sent my congratulations, of course, but really, what does one say? ‘I hope you’ll be miserable together, just as your patron demands’?”
“They’d likely have been crestfallen you thought of them at all.”
Jonah gave a short, humorless laugh. “I’m sure.”
Sprawled in his chair, face drawn up in a sneer, he was the very picture of haughty discontent. He had always carried himself with a certain self-importance that had never won him friends: perhaps if he’d had the birth to match it he would’ve been called dashing, but stuck-up was the most frequent description of him Robert had heard throughout their lives. It was such a strange waste, Robert thought: He had so carefully watched and learned the proper speech, the proper carriage, the proper tone, crafted himself into a true gentleman, only to shut himself away in this drafty townhouse, buried in his papers and books and tales of the unnatural.
“Perhaps I should marry,” Jonah said, and Robert blinked, brought abruptly back to the moment.
“What?” he said incredulously.
Jonah was frowning slightly. “The Lukases are all insane, of course, but the urge isn’t so ridiculous. Marrying, having children. Giving your name to something.”
Robert was tempted to point out that a child wasn’t a something. “I thought that’s why you have the Institute.”
“Ha. Yes. Well. What will I do with the Institute, come to that? Who will take care of everything I have done here? What will happen to it?”
“You have many years, God willing--”
“Oh, don’t give me that drivel,” Jonah snapped, suddenly animated. He sat up, eyes burning with the intensity that always disquieted Robert. “God wills nothing. Anything could happen--I could die in my sleep this very night, and never know. I would never know.” His throat worked. “I will simply be gone, one day, and everything I have worked for, everything I have wanted and loved and felt, will be over. I cannot--” His expression morphed, into an ugly, desperate thing.
“You know that if something happened to you, I would look after the Institute,” Robert began.
Jonah made a dismissive noise. “Of course you would. And Mordechai has set up a trust--the Institute will survive, as a thing, a curiosity, but it won’t be mine, do you see? I want it to be mine. I want to be--me.”
The expression on his face made Robert want to look away, half from courtesy, half from embarrassment. This dark vein of fear that ran through Jonah was never far from the surface, but he usually kept it just far enough down not to emerge like this, raw and petulant. There was always something obscene about other men’s fear, Robert thought: part of the reason, of course, that it was so fascinating to study. But to see Jonah worked up like this made him uneasy, and slightly afraid: Robert knew Jonah did more than simply catalog what he collected, knew he studied it and absorbed the knowledge he found within. Robert could only hope that he would not find what he needed, for he knew Jonah would not be strong enough to resist if he did.
“You see,” Jonah said to him. “Don’t you, Robert? You understand.”
Robert cleared his throat. “I fail to see how getting married would solve any of this.”
There was a moment of stillness, and then Jonah let out an explosive breath, flopped back in his chair. He pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers, pressed down as though soothing an ache. “No. Perhaps not. But I’m growing old, Robert.”
Robert laughed a little. “Not so old.”
“Forty next year.” His face drew up in distaste. “Halfway through even a generous life-span, and by far the better half, too. We all have the work, but you have Laura. Maxwell’s all but married to his blasted church. And now Mordechai has his poor bride.”
“Sentimentality, from you?” Robert said lightly. “I wouldn’t have guessed it.”
Jonah’s mouth thinned into a humorless smile. “Hardly. It’s not as though I would enjoy marriage.” That was almost certainly true: even if his nature had allowed the enjoyment of a woman’s company, his personality would’ve surely prevented even an appreciation of her companionship. “But I feel it. . .slipping, Robert. Time. Life. I feel every minute of it. The loss of each hour, each day.” He dropped his hand from his face, and his eyes were deep and cold. “There is more to be known, more to be understood. I will die with books unread, with places unseen and stories unheard. And nothing is worse than that knowledge. Nothing. I cannot bear it.” He turned his head to fix Robert with his gaze, and even if Robert had wanted to look away now he could not. “I cannot bear it.”
“You are hardly the only man to have had these thoughts,” Robert said. He was speaking very quietly, as if to some frightened, dangerous beast.
Jonah did not seem to hear him, regardless. “What am I supposed to be doing? What am I missing? All I can do is sit in this house and read and understand, but what good is that understanding if it perishes with me? What good is any of it?”
Robert had words of comfort on his lips, but he knew they would be of no use. Jonah did not want comfort, or didn’t trust it. He had given himself over to the fear, had opened himself to it and let it soak his mind through.
So instead Robert only managed, after a few long moments: “You should have a respite from this work. From all of it. Go to the country for a few months.”
Jonah made a sound of derision. “I am not an incapable.”
“No,” Robert said, “but you are vulnerable, to the. . .influences of what you encounter here.”
“Hardly,” Jonah snapped. “If anything I am the only one who can do the work. The only one who can understand.”
“Even if you are skilled at it, you are hardly unique.”
Jonah sneered at him. “I see. Well, you must at least admit that I am unique in my willingness, if not in my talents. Even if I were able to pause my efforts in cataloging what I already have--which I cannot--there is correspondence to keep up with, to file, to know. It is not something one takes a respite from.”
“Get an assistant.”
Jonah scoffed. “If I cannot hold on to a footman, I could hardly keep an assistant.”
“Though an assistant would, in theory, be a bit more dedicated.”
“In theory,” Jonah said dryly. He gave Robert a narrow-eyed look. “Do you have someone in mind?”
“No. But I could certainly put a quiet word out, in the right circles.”
“Hmm.” Jonah looked, unseeing, to the side table between them, still strewn with the remains of their tea. “Perhaps. I doubt there is anyone suitable, of course.”
“Of course,” Robert repeated wryly, and Jonah gave him a quick, flashing look, almost amused. Boyish: not in the petulant, spoilt way he had too often, but with a hint of the mischievousness he’d had when they were boys at Aspley together. Jonah had never been untroubled, had always had a streak of melancholy and a taste for the macabre, a selfishness and a careless cruelty and an aching self-consciousness that could make him all but unbearable to be around. But he’d also had a sharp intelligence and a talent for mischief, unmatched by the other boys, and it was this that had attracted Robert to him at the first.
Robert remembered it well. Jonah, the natural child of a minor local gentryman, had been the subject of merciless whispers before his arrival at the school; the created name assigned to him by, Robert had learned later, his father’s solicitor had done nothing to suppress them. Robert, a few years older, had expected him to be an awkward, untutored thing--his mother had been a chambermaid, or so went the rumor--and so had been surprised at the proud, haughty boy who had at last arrived, holding himself with as much elegance as his gangly, boyish frame would allow. Once Robert had shown himself to be neither overly curious nor overtly hostile, Jonah had attached himself firmly to Robert’s side, and had revealed to him the cleverness under the brittle exterior.
Robert thought often of the boy Jonah had been. He found, when he could admit it to himself, that he missed the man he had thought then that Jonah would become.
“I suppose it wouldn’t do any harm to put word about,” Jonah was saying. “Simply to see.”
“Of course,” Robert said.
“And you’ve never had trouble finding those who will follow your instruction,” Jonah went on, leveling him with a shrewd look. “How’s that one I met? Scott?”
“Well,” Robert answered shortly: George was not precisely the model he’d like Jonah’s assistants to follow in. “In the meantime, however, you must think of things besides the work. You can,” he said, forestalling the protest he saw on Jonah’s face, “and you must, if you are to keep the Institute running. People are already suspicious of this sort of place; becoming a recluse is hardly going to settle their minds.”
Jonah made a scathing sound. “As though I care. Those who worry over the decorum of this place, or myself, were never going to care in the first place. They are not who this is for.”
“But they are the ones who will allow you to continue on.”
“You’re speaking of money?” Jonah waved a hand. “If anyone wishes to stop funding this place because they haven’t seen me recently at an assembly or a salon may do so at their leisure. The Lukases have no such compunctions, and their pockets are as deep as one might wish.”
“Even now?” Robert asked quietly.
Jonah fixed him with a flat, unnerving look. “I’d be careful about what you’re suggesting, Robert.”
“It was merely a question.”
The way Jonah looked at him, in that moment, made Robert suddenly apprehensive of what he was about to say. “Yes,” Jonah said slowly, clearly, “the Lukases can be counted on, whether or not Mordechai is fucking me as frequently as he used to.”
Robert winced, despite himself. “I wish you wouldn’t--”
“Wouldn’t what? It was merely an answer.” Jonah pushed himself out of his chair, ranged around the cramped room for a few moments. He had always been a strange creature, slight and elegant, with a grace that could come across as otherworldliness. He tended to catch women’s eyes, and he was a lovely dancer, which ensured his popularity whenever he managed to both receive and follow through on social invitations. He tended to catch men’s eyes as well, however, and their admiration was less assured: they seemed to see him, variously, as a competitor, a provocation, or the source of an obsession most of them hardly understood. Robert could only assume that Lukas had been one of the latter, even if he had evidently understood it better than most.
Jonah perched an elbow on the mantel, looking for all the world like a picture of discontented man. And a fine allegory he’d make, Robert thought darkly. “I did not mean to outrage your sensibilities,” he said, hearing the wry note in his own voice.
“It seems it was your own sensibilities that were outraged,” Jonah responded coolly.
“I only meant to question the wisdom of relying on a family whose defining characteristic is misanthropy.”
“So long as it does not become miserliness, all should be well,” Jonah said, the chill remaining in his voice. “They seem to enjoy the idea of funneling money into something few others are interested in. Evidently they do have a sense of humor, little as it’s usually in evidence.”
Robert stood, went over to him. Jonah was biting at his thumbnail, still leaning carelessly on the mantelpiece; with his unbuttoned waistcoat and casually-tied cravat, he could have easily passed for some dissolute poet. He’d be quite good at it, Robert thought, so long as he didn’t have to write any poetry. “Many others are interested in the work, Jonah, even if that fact is little in evidence among the ton.” He clasped Jonah’s shoulder, though touching him was always an uncertain affair: he tended to casually but definitively avoid it, much as a cat would. “You do a great service here. For us all. I hope you know that.”
Jonah looked down at Robert’s hand resting on his shoulder, seemingy bemused by it, before looking back to him. “I do,” he said simply, assuredly. “Believe me, Robert. I am fully confident of the rewards of my work.”
There was a note in his voice that Robert disliked, but before Robert could address it there was a knock at the sitting-room door. “Mr. Magnus, sir?” came a voice through the wood.
“Yes, come in,” Jonah called. Robert dropped his hand from his shoulder.
The young woman who had served their tea stuck her head back into the room. “It’s the post-boy, sir. He says you owe him near two pound today.”
“Good Lord,” Jonah said dryly, looking around the room as though for his purse. In the space of a moment he was once again the aloof, distracted academic: an act, Robert supposed, he liked to play around the servants. “I do so wish people would stop writing to me.”
“No, you don’t,” Robert said.
Jonah glanced to him, once again hinting at that slight mischievous smile. “No, I don’t,” he agreed. “Very well. Robert, it seems I must leave you for the demands of the post-boy.”
“I’ll return to take you to dinner. No, really, there’s no use protesting,” Robert said. “You can pause long enough to eat a proper meal. Eight o’clock? Good.”
They transformed so easily back into these people, Robert thought: old friends, bickering amicably. The bubble of tension, of argument and confession, that had surrounded them was dissipated in an instant. As though it was never there; as though that was only a dark shadow of their true selves.
Robert could wish that truly was who they were: not bound together by anything but genuine friendship and perhaps some shared hobbies, not beholden to each other for anything but tea and dinner a couple of times a year.
“Well, good-bye, dear fellow,” Robert said, and clasped Jonah’s hand; Jonah returned the sentiment, frowning slightly. As though he had read Robert’s thoughts on his face, but that they were in a language he didn’t understand.
Fitting, perhaps, Robert thought. He released Jonah’s hand, and watched him as he left the room.