Mere Mortals

 

 

 

 

“Erastes has hit the mark with this piece of historical fiction. Read it and love it. You won’t be able to put it down until you discover the fate of Myles, Jude, and especially Crispin as they grapple with their forbidden longings and dreams while at the whim of a crazed setting and background puppeteer.” — Damien Serbu, Lambda Literary Foundation

Norfolk, England 1847

Orphaned Crispin Thorne has been taken as ward by Philip Smallwood, a man he’s never met, and is transplanted from his private school to Smallwood’s house on an island on the beautiful but coldly remote, Horsey Mere in Norfolk.

Upon his arrival, he finds that he’s not the only young man given a fresh start. Myles Graham, and Jude Middleton are there before him, and as their benefactor is away, they soon form alliances and friendships, as they speculate on why they’ve been given this new life. Who is Philip Smallwood?  Why has he given them such a fabulous new life? What secrets does the house hold–and what is it that the Doctor seems to know?

Published by Lethe Press with beautiful cover by Ben Baldwin.

Buy from Amazon USA Amazon UK Also available in Kindle and in every kind of format in ebook.

Watch the Video

YouTube Preview Image

Excerpt:

Jude met my eyes then, his expression even and almost serious, the most serious I’d seen him since meeting him at the pier. “As you didn’t know who your parents were, you…how can I say…wished them to be something other than the parents of the boys around you? Is that it?”

I looked down, and removed the tray, placing it on the floor, ashamed that I’d said as much as I had. “I told you that it sounded idiotic.”

He smiled again, and regained all of his friendliness and charm. “My dear boy, nothing could be further from the truth. I would imagine—and this, you understand, is only from my observation of Myles, your dear self, and my own experience–but every orphan seems to wish the very same thing.”

It took me a second or two to gauge what he meant, but when I did I sat up, attentive, the torte forgotten. “You and Myles? Both of you?”

“Absolutely. Not a parent between us to rub together. What’s more it appears that none of us knew who they were.” His expression was a little challenging, as if he was inviting me to make more of the coincidence than was apparent.

I couldn’t help but smile. “I know I should offer the proper condolences,” I said, “and indeed I would, should any of us had lost a parent, but as we never knew them, or felt the loss…”

“Well, I shouldn’t exactly say that,” he said, his fingers once again stroking the edge of his glass. “But you are right, of course. The milk being spilt, is not mourned.”

I hardly knew what to say. I may have imagined what my parents were like, and had done so many times, but I could never truly say that I missed the lack of something I could not imagine. In my mind I imagined that my parents had been many things: sometimes an aristocratic young woman had an unfortunate tryst with a foreign prince, other times they were adventurous explorers who would not be separated from each other, leaving their baby at home with a wet-nurse, never thinking that their ship would founder. It saddened me to think that my new friend felt the lack more keenly than I did. While I was still struggling for something to smooth over my apparent faux pas he changed the subject. “And you haven’t asked about your host either, as yet. Really, your restraint impresses.”

Stung, for I hadn’t really been given much time to ask anything, I felt myself blushing. I bit my lip. “You must think me rather slow.”

He raised his glass to me, “Not at all. I’m rather intrigued by you, Crispin Thorne. But seriously, do you not long to know about our mysterious benefactor? Have you not wondered the slightest thing about him? Or are you, like our dear Myles, simply grateful to have landed in this lap of luxury and don’t look further than the next meal?”

“I am, indeed,” I said, reaching down and grasping the dish with the torte.

“Perhaps a little of both,” Jude said with a small laugh, as I used my fork to attack the pastry, which shattered and covered me with crumbs.

I finished the torte before I spoke again, for it needed justice doing to is, so light that the pastry melted in my mouth. “I know nothing more about him than his name—and now where he lives. Do you know more? Have you learned more of him since being here?”

“Almost nothing at all,” he said. “Myles has quizzed the staff, but no-one will say a thing. The only answer Witheridge allows—for I’m sure it is his iron hand that stops the staff from gossiping—is that the master will introduce himself when he arrives.”

“You said almost nothing.”

“Sharp Sphinx you are. Yes. Almost nothing. We know what he looks like. Do you want to see?”

For all that he called me uncaring, unquestioning, a sphinx, my curiosity bubbled to the surface once more. The lassitude in my limbs had faded and I sat on the edge of the bed, reaching for my boots. “Very much so,” I said. “I don’t even have ‘almost nothing’ to say about my knowledge. I’ve been in the dark for an entire year. Just because I haven’t quizzed you yet, that does not indicate a lack of curiosity, believe me.”

“Really. Look, don’t worry about your shoes,” Jude said, “come as you are.” He grasped my wrist and pulled me up, then led the way back out to that exquisite stone stairwell. This time we went all the way to the ground, leaving me a little giddy from the speed at which we descended. I followed him as he turned right, moving towards what I remembered as being the room we had eaten in earlier, although its official name had quite escaped me. Instead of going in there again, though he passed it and opened the very next door. Then he paused. “There’s no light. Hold on.” He moved away muttering, “I should have thought.” I was left in the dim hallway, itself only lit from one wall sconce nearby the door that Jude had opened. I stepped toward the open door and stopped at the threshold. The room beyond was huge; I could feel it stretching away from me, although I was sure that it was just the dark that emphasised the cavernous feel. I could see the moon glinting with bisected light through the mullioned panes, but it was not powerful enough to do more than to give a glimpse of the room, and none of its contents. I backed away from the door. I did not like the chill air, and I did not fancy stumbling around in the darkness.

“Here,” Jude said, having arrived behind me without me having heard him. He was laden down with a single silver candlestick and a deeply ornate three-pronged candelabra. “I found these in the kitchen. They are in for cleaning. Let’s hope I can get them back before they are missedhe misses them or there’ll be hell to pay.” He moved past me and once again I was struck again by the grace of his movement; in the flickering candlelight he seemed to slide across the floor and his feet made almost no noise, even on the parquet of the room we entered. As the light diffused out into the darkness, it became clear that the massive room was a library, larger by at least twice than the library at my school, and stretching, from what I could estimate from my very slim acquaintance with the house so far, for at least most of the length of one side of the building.

I ventured in behind Jude, my head tipping back in awe at the shelves which reached to the ceiling, every single one filled with beautiful books.

“Here—” He took my arm and pulled me forward gently. His hand gripped my elbow with a surprising strength. “There.” He lifted the candle up and I copied his action. “I think he looks better in candlelight, but Myles doesn’t agree. He rarely does, I’m afraid. There. That’s Philip Smallwood.” As I stood there, looking up, Jude took my candle holder from me, and with his own, moved to the nearest sconces to light the lamps there.

The painting suited the room, for it was enormous; more than life sized. The frame was a plain, ungilded and carved wood, and I could sense, even in that dim light that anything more ostentatious would jar with its surroundings. I stepped back, and was immediately struck with the portrait; indeed I could not imagine anyone who had seen it would fail to be impressed, for it was beautifully worked, and I wondered who the artist had been. My hitherto unknown guardian stared out of the picture, not eye-to-eye with his beholder, but staring beyond and behind me, his gaze set firmly on the distance. He was dressed in a distinctive embroidered coat, the like of which I’d never seen, gold and patterned with elaborate swirls in black and green, although, truth to tell, it was a little difficult to be sure of the exact colour without daylight. He held his cane in one hand, and the other was rested on the head of a wooden bird, the carving of which was just as elaborate as the frame that held it. My eyes took this all in in seconds, sweeping up involuntarily to the man’s face, eager as I was to see the visage of the man I had imagined for so long, who was shrouded in imagination and mystery. I found myself a little disappointed, I admit—for I had thought to find a Rochester, a Heathcliff; some broad, glowering fellow with the tale of his life in his eyes, but nothing could have been further removed. Philip Smallwood was slender. His colouring was not quite fair, his complexion told of a life in the open, perhaps a keen yachtsman, I guessed—but his hair was tawny-brown, like the golden-brown of an owl’s wing. It was difficult to ascertain his height, for there was nothing in the portrait—other than the large carved bird—to give any scale, but from his stance, and his slender frame, the elegant length of his legs, clad in dark blue trousers, I could guess with some certainty that he was tall, taller than I.

His face was rather square, it was the face that gave the air of a man who had no indecision in his life, had always known who he was, where he was from and where he was going. The mouth was set in a firm, patrician line, suiting the strength of the jaw. However, his eyes, which looked forever past the beholder, were filled with a merry light. I wondered what he was thinking, or what he was looking at, or whether it was just a trick of the artist to soften the otherwise rather formal aspect. That he was a determined man, I was left in no doubt, that he was handsome—or at least he had been when this portrait was done, I could not deny.

“Well?” Jude moved to stand beside me and joined me in looking up at the portrait. “There he is in all his glory.”

“It’s an impressive portrait,” I said, rather loath to drag myself away. It was beginning to dawn on me that this was my new home, and this man was the nearest thing I’d ever have to a father—this was my new family. It was sobering and exciting all at once. I did not want to discuss the man, so I sidestepped the opinion that I was sure Jude was waiting for. “The bird, it looks like a bigger version of something I saw swimming out on the river.”

“It’s a bittern,” he said. “The bittern, I suppose. Witheridge showed this portrait to me when I arrived, and he said the carving is somewhere in the house. It’s a bird native to the area; enormous apparently and with…what did he say, exactly? Oh, yes. With a cry that can still the blood in your veins.” He laughed, “Witheridge is quite the clumsy poet underneath that dour exterior, I suspect. I would wager that he has a trunk somewhere, filled with writings of a gothic and ghastly over-sentimental nature.” He gave a mock shudder and looked at me with a curious expression. “So, what do you think of Mr Smallwood?”

I still didn’t really have an answer for him, it was hard to judge a man by how an artist had portrayed him. It was likely that the flesh and blood version of our guardian had been flattered in this portrait, or that it had been painted so long ago that the real man was now greyer and not so infused with life. “He seems…determined,” is what I finally ended with.. I was oddly reluctant to say that I found him handsome, imposing, virile—I was glad that the room was dimly lit, for I felt my face colour in the darkness as I thought the forbidden word.

I am sure that Jude must have been a little disappointed with my lack of enthusiasm. “Well, I suppose we’ll find out for ourselves eventually,” he said, gathering the candlesticks in both hands and leading the way back towards the hall. “Although God alone knows when. And Witheridge of course.”

“Where’s Myles?” I asked, curious as to the whereabouts of my other ‘brother.’

“Probably prowling about. We ate together, that was the last I saw of him. He’s a regular explorer, always poking his nose around the corridors and trying the doors that are locked, just on the off chance that one of them will be open.”
“I thought you had explored together.”

“Oh, well, we did for a while, but frankly it’s dreadfully dull. Once you’ve tried a doorknob once, I find very little point in boring it with one’s presence on a daily basis.”

What’s he like? Myles, I mean.”

“A direct question? The Sphinx comes out of his valley. “I rather like him, although…”

“What?” Our voices seemed to echo in the dim, cavernous hall, and every footstep creaked as we mounted the stairs.

“He’s a little too persistent,” he said, but he said no more, as we reached the gallery and found Myles sitting on the top stair.

“You make me sound like some incurable snoop,” he said a little sourly. My ears burned a little, and I felt ashamed that we had been discussing him and that we had been overheard.

I think Jude must have felt the same because he said nothing else, but led the way up the winding stair. I said goodnight to them as we reached our landing, but neither of them replied.