They didn’t understand why he came to Buckinghamshire in the wet late April of 1881. Funeral attendance, of course, was acceptable. What could be more appropriate than the presence of the old adversary, head bared at the graveside, in sure and certain hope of their resurrection to continue duelling in another place? But why he came to the house… No. William knew that nobody understood that. Nor should they, except for the few. And the few would never speak of it.
“If I might pay my respects at his place of work, one colleague to another,” he said, after sufficient toasting and mourning had been exchanged, and the looks from Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition were starting to become pointed. “His study, or perhaps the library…”
He didn’t know, you see, exactly where it would be. Assuming Ben had been stupid enough to keep anything (and Ben was, they all were. He himself, if garrotted in a London backstreet, would leave evidence so incriminating that he had set firetraps around the worst of it. Better to see his life’s work destroyed than unveiled), which was far from a given¬. They had not been that sort of colleague. (And yet, they were entirely that sort of colleague, in the dark corridors they both walked. The true corridors of power, between the oak-panelled, leather-clad rooms that were commonly so known.) He never understood why Ben took that peerage, swapping one glorious form of sparring for a leisurely descent into respectability and senescence, quitting the field to leave William victorious, but alone. He has however always understood why Ben could not let this element of himself lie.
“Of course, Prime Minister,” said a flunky, resentfully polite, and with just a hint of stress upon the title. Don’t you have more important things to do, running the country into the ground for the sake of your poor infidels and Irishmen? Why must you stay and gloat over my late master this way? But it remained unspoken, as did William’s retort.
He was not left alone. That should not have been surprising, though one might have hoped that no one would suspect William of malfeasance or criminal intent in this particular instance. Ben always suggested he was far too far in the opposite direction, in fact. Virtuous to the point of chill beatitude, William remembered the epithet, flung at him in the midst of a private duel of wits. It was a little too accurate for comfort. Its barbs stuck.
But he was not overseen by suspicious flunkeys. Not at all. The cream of the crop, sent to guard the Beaconsfield legacy, it appeared. Northcote greeted him stiffly, with the resentful respect of a man who had been on the receiving end of some of William’s finest oratory rather too often for his liking. Cross, too, a good man, and a good brain. A reformer of note. One who should by rights have sat on William’s side of the floor, though he was too much the loyal soldier to cross the floor. They watched him in silence, as he scanned the shelves. Sat at Ben’s desk, inhaling the essence of a lost adversary. He could hardly rifle the drawers with their eyes on him. So perhaps this trip was a pointless self-indulgence after all.
He closed his eyes a second, taking time to say goodbye, before taking his formal leave.
The lock turned. Cross coughed, very slightly. Northcote shuffled his bashful feet. “Prime Minister-“
“I think,” he said mildly, “In the circumstances you might drop the title.”
“Very well,” said Northcote. Every inch polite and baffled.
Cross crossed him, however, with a very different tone. “And call you My Lord Nightwalker, perhaps?”
Scorn, in there. Scorn and fear both. Not to be borne. “The titles are absurd in daylight. The power is not to be despised. I take it you practice?” A little. It must only be a little, or William would not have missed it.
“I do,” Cross responded. “Or I did, before more important concerns took me over.” Artisan dwellings, William supposes. Plimsoll lines. Quite important, of course, for those affected. But not quite-
“I don’t,” Northcote said. Respectfully enough. But that was Stafford all over. He’d probably smile at a street prostitute’s insults and allow her to vomit in his hat for the sake of public tidiness. Impossible to imagine how he could have risen so high in the party, except that Ben would have been amused by his self-effacement. And, presumably, grateful for his ability to keep secrets. “But he told me-“
“He told us,” Cross corrected, too quickly. Interesting, that. Not everything in the Conservative party was lovely, it appeared, though they might carpet the place in Disraelian primroses and laud Ben’s name. “He told us that we had a duty, to ensure that his tools did not fall into dangerous hands.”
“He gave us a list of names. Names of safekeepers,” Northcote chimed in. They were duetting, in rivalry. Intriguing and more intriguing still. “You were among them.”
Well. Good. William closed his eyes again, inhaling again. Saying goodbye to Ben, again. He was trusted. He’d always known it, in the depths. They might not agree on the Turkish Question, or the Irish or the Schleswig-Hollstein, nor any of the other intractable international disputes of the day. But he and Ben respected one another where it counted.
(He noted, not without surprise, that Ben’s failsafes were so different to his own. Shallow practitioners, trusted colleagues, and a list of names that must never fall into the hands of the press. Not for Ben the burning of his life’s work in precautionary immolation. He did think of immortality so. Immortality on Earth, at that. Foolish Ben.)
But William had little time for reminiscence. Not now. “Am I the first?” he asked, blinking his eyes open to catch their glances, if any message were to be exchanged without words. But there was none.
“Yes,” shrugged Cross. “The others are old. Dead, in one case. We were wondering whether we would have to come direct to you.”
Oh, Ben. You put your future into the hands of broken reeds. Except for me. Except for me. And William finally realised that his hopes were coming true. Lord Beacon’s works would pass to him by right. He would have them all.
“Show me,” he said, and heard his own voice too eager. Dripping with concupiscence. The power, the power would be-
He stopped. Perhaps it would be too much. Perhaps he should- But he had to go on. And besides, Cross was unlocking a cupboard, a great mahogany door in the library corner. Northcote unclipped its heavy iron bars, and turned a further key from his own fob (clever Ben, making them work together, that was much more explicable than that he should have trusted either, entirely). William stepped into Ben’s realm.
His first thought was laughter. He’d always suspected Ben would be a showman in private, and there were silks enough, and a fez, no less. Heavy otto of roses and myrrh on the air. A crystal, more impressive than illuminating. Ben the exoticist, for once, the role he had sunk in public in favour of devoted, devout Englishness.
But underneath all the flummery, the artefacts of power. And those were small and unassuming, wood and metal, rare books and manuscripts in crabbed medieval hand. Ben’s staff, rune-carved and older than Parliament. The alchemist’s manual. Charts from Doctor Dee. William wanted to devour them all.
“Thank you,” he said, swallowing it down. “Thank you for showing me. You may leave.”
There was a pause. Then, Cross: “No. No, I don’t think we will.”
Northcote was trembling, but nodding too. “I fear sir, that- Well. Beaconsfield warned us. Too much, you see. Too much, if only one came to claim it all. So-“
“It’s all quite legal,” Cross said, cool and dry. “A codicil, for the executors’ eyes only. We can offer you a selection, ten items at most. No more.”
But nobody else wanted Ben’s remnants. “What will happen to the rest?”
“It will burn,” said Northcote, and there was nothing sedate in his tone now. “I had not imagined, but- Sir, you must see, even you, with your great experience in these matters as I understand it, even you were near taken over with this…” He made a face, the silent magical rubbish on the air.
It will burn. Burn you, more like, William screamed internally. But the control he’d fought for over decades began to win. Began to accept it.
“He left a letter,” said Cross. “For when you had seen the chamber. He said it would infuriate you.”
They enticed William out of the chamber with the letter’s promise, sitting hushed and silent while he broke the seal.
It was short.
Dear Will (if I may),
Congratulations on your victory. Your outliving me is one thing I shall never succeed in overturning. It has been the greatest of fun, though, don’t you think?
Take what you want most of mine, and let the rest burn – unless the other dullards I nominated are more ambitious than I think, you will have free rein. But don’t take it all. Don’t absorb all of what I was. It wouldn’t suit you.
(Mind you take the staff. And Dee’s papers. Wouldn’t do to put them on the fire, heaven knows what conflagration would ensue.)
Live well, old friend.
Curious, the sensation of emotion stifled. Perhaps old enemies, old friends, public adversaries, secret allies… perhaps their bond would always be deeper than others could fathom. Certainly, as William blew his nose and mopped his eyes, Cross gave a dry little cough of irritation at this unseemly show.
Very well. He listed his wants, from the room. Nine items of power. And the fez. Because otherwise none of the Others of Power would believe him, and he couldn’t miss this last chance to mock Ben and his pretensions.
The Prime Minister’s coach presented a peculiar appearance, leaving Hughenden that damp spring day. Its contents were not wholly those which might have been expected of the political classes. And it made a stop, on the way to Downing Street, at a certain bolthole in St James’s, where Mr Gladstone might have been observed regularly, of an evening, by those who knew. They were not numerous, but they could recognise each other’s signs. Both sides of both Houses, in that largely unspoken fraternity that transcended mere politics and guided the darker fates of the world.
Not every politician of the era was a magician, you see. But it helped.