We two boys together clinging / One the other never leaving . . .
Despite the rainy January weather, Herbert Pocket could not help whistling as he wound his way home to Holborn through the dark, wet, cramped evening streets. It had been quite the best day of his life thus far! Well, no, he amended, it was third or fourth best. Unless it should turn out as he anticipated – but no, fourth at very best. He ran down the list: one, meeting dear Handel; two, Clara promising to reserve her domestic felicity for himself; three, being born at all, though perhaps that should have been first, as it permitted all other happiness. A more practical man might chide him for such excitement over a mere introduction to another man, no more than an exchange of names and a hope that they should meet again, but Herbert entertained the belief he would never become so practical as to lose all joy at even the vaguest possibilities. His father had lost much joy even in Herbert's lifetime, but he had not become practical in the end. Practicality was, to Herbert's relief whenever he considered it, not a part of the Pocket inheritance.
The curtains were not closed, for the warm glow of Handel's lamp seemed to illuminate the whole court, homely in the dim lights of evening. Herbert took the stairs two at a time, not even bothering with a light from the porter, driven on by sheer exuberance. Handel himself opened the door to him, as if he had been listening for Herbert's step, a gesture that gladdened Herbert's heart still more.
Handel welcomed him home with a smile, hard to see with the light behind him but evident in his voice. "What news?" he asked. It was always the same question when Herbert returned from looking about him on 'Change, but today the question was so much sweeter that Herbert responded with a kiss, entirely forgetting to pull the curtains.
Three years had greatly softened his Handel, three years distant from the forge of his youth, but he could still grab Herbert with a thrilling strength and kiss the life out of him. The trappings of wealth and the exuberance of a youth with no need to plan for the morrow had not extinguished that working-class practicality, either, so it was not unexpected that Handel disentangle himself from Herbert's embrace to take the curtains in hand. "It is good news, I suspect?" He laughed, his eyes on the folds of fabric rather than on Herbert.
For his part, Herbert turned up the lamp and lit a second one. He wanted to see Handel's face as he shared his joy. "It might be good news," he hedged for a moment. "Oh, damn it all, it is good news, I think, very good news!" And it all tumbled out as he unconsciously took a glass of something strong and golden that warmed his spirits still more. "I was on 'Change, as always, looking about me and terribly abashed, I do assure you, my dear. This beastly weather – and the great Rothschild had his son with him today, a young man of our age exactly! The whole day was calculated to bring a man low. But a gentleman – a rather young and not very good looking gentleman, I may tell you, so you've nothing to fear, my dear – comes up to me and introduces himself! He had noticed me around, he said, and I really thought he must be a superannuated version of myself, as he must be about 30, and who but one like me would introduce himself to me, but then he gave his name – Clarriker! I had heard him spoken of as someone looking about him in an altogether higher sphere! A man with business already, seeking capital to expand. The sort of looking about I shan't be doing for years. If ever! But never mind that. Mr Clarriker said he had noticed me and wished to introduce himself!" If Handel had wanted to get a word in edgewise, Herbert gave not a crack in the chatty flood of his tale of fortune. "I have been noticed! And an introduction! I have never been noticed in all my life!"
"Except by me," Handel finally managed to say, the grin on his face nearly as wide as could be. By this point, he had taken a comfortable chair by the fire, and Herbert had ended up in his lap. He had meant to balance on the arm of the chair, but a fortuitous slip had brought him to his current position.
Herbert tangled his fingers in Handel's dark hair and pulled his head down for another kiss. "Except by you," he agreed, "and no stroke of fortune shall ever be so great again."
"Are you to see Mr Clarriker again?"
"I do hope. But there are no plans." That suddenly sounded terrible. Had he let his spirits run away with him? He was so often letting his spirits run away with him.
"I hope so, too. For your sake. For I do love you, you know." Handel sounded deadly serious for a moment, but Herbert quickly lost any thought of the cause as they kissed again, Handel loosening Herbert's cravat to better access his soft, white neck.
But fortune and happiness come to men, and men are sadly tied to nature. Herbert was happily nibbling at Handel's ear when his stomach let out a great gurgle and moan, so great Handel began to laugh. "We must continue our celebration over dinner, I see."
"Perhaps it is not really worth a celebration," Herbert worried. Now that it was all out, it sounded like such a flimsy pretext for joy.
"To see you happy in your prospects, however slight the cause, is always worth a celebration to me. We will have a fine dinner tonight, and we'll have a veritable party should this seed bear fruit."
The seed was fruitful. Throughout January, Herbert saw more and more of Clarriker. The man was no great mogul of business, merely a man somewhat older than Herbert who had begun life with a little stock of capital. Only two years ago had he progressed in business enough to dare take an office separate from his lodgings, a little hole in Billiter Street barely large enough for his papers, and now a little more capital had come his way, enough that he could at last hire a clerk to ease the increase of his business fortunes. If the clerk could even fit into the little hole in Billiter Street. Herbert gleaned this information through conversations on 'Change, not all of them with Mr Clarriker. Every new piece of information raised his hopes a little more and was duly imparted to Handel the very night it was received.
"But you are a clerk now," Handel said once, his practical core in evidence again. "What benefit would a change in house do?"
"I am a clerk for no pay, so that alone should be some benefit, if only to my conscience and our style of living. More than that, I heard Mr Grigsby say that Mr Clarriker has doubled the size of his business in the past year and must soon need a partner if he continues successful. I can bring no capital now, but at the next expansion, after a little business of my own under his auspices, I could be well-placed to come in as a third partner. A trusted clerk may go far in business."
"These are not very high hopes, dear Herbert. I've heard you speak much higher."
"But those were castles in the air, my dear. I learned to speak wondrous rubbish at my mother's knee and can spout reams of it daily, as you may have noticed. But this is so very real," he worried.
Handel kissed him. "It shall come out well if I have any say in the matter."
Herbert had smiled then, but he was rather glad Handel had no say in the matter. He was much too aware of being the child of his parents, and that history dictated something would have to collapse spectacularly one day. He would feel ever so much the worse when disaster came if Handel were caught up in it. Handel was too, too good to be brought further into the Pocket mania.
The damp of the new year had progressed through flurries of snow to an unseasonably warm spell when Clarriker at last invited Herbert to dine with him. Even had he been prey to the worst fears that had taken him during that month, Herbert would have recognised it was a momentous occasion. As it was, only when the reached a chop house upon his giddy acceptance did Herbert think to beg a moment to send a note home to say he was dining out. Clarriker seemed to assume he was writing to family – his mother, most likely – for he assented immediately. "Of course, how silly of me. Pen and paper," he ordered the waiter..
My dear, Herbert scribbled quickly, I dine out this evening. Do stay up, as I hope to have news for you. H.
Addressing it to P. Pip, Barnard's Inn, Holborn, he passed the folded note to Clarriker. Clarriker did not even glance at the address but handed the note and threepence to the waiter, asking him to see it delivered at once.
"Now, if we may fall to business." Business struck Herbert as quite the happiest word he could ever hear. Clarriker explained all that Herbert had gleaned from other men and clerks on 'Change, proving the truth of every piece of gossip. "As you may have heard, my business has been centred on the Channel trade, but I have lately come into a bit of capital that shall finance an expansion into the Mediterranean. Should these hopes be realised, and I am fairly certain I do not hope in vain, I shall soon have too much business and will need to take on a partner. I know you have seen all the varying sorts of men on 'Change with whom one could ally oneself, but I must admit I have particular needs, as it were. Capital is not an object, as it has come to me from another source, and so I have the freedom to consider my other needs. So many men think they can make their fortunes, today, that I find not that I am spoiled for choice but that it is far too easy to make a poor bargain. I am told, Mr Pocket, that you have quite a better education than most men in your position. Is this true?"
"I cannot speak for most men, in my position or any other. My father was a Cambridge man, and he educated me himself. I sat beside his dull knives so often, I daresay I was ground as sharp as any true scholar. My father takes in private pupils," he explained, as Mr Clarriker had evidently never required the services of a Cambridge-educated grinder. "I studied along with them as they prepared for important examinations."
"I see. Am I right in assuming that this education included instruction in modern languages? Namely, French."
"Yes. Of course, you need someone who can understand the customs documents!"
"And, I hope, understand the customs officers. I come across plenty of men with a smattering of Latin, but a smattering of French does me far more good."
"I have much more than a smattering, and if I can be of any help to you, I do hope you will call on me." He was exaggerating a bit but was thoroughly convinced he could bring himself up to the mark should it become necessary. Handel had all the necessary books.
"I believe I can be just as much of a help to you." Herbert's heart rose. It was really true – every tiny hope, the little promise of the first introduction was about to be paid. Clarriker explained, "I should like to offer you what is rather less than full partner but far more than clerk. I hope, in not too much time, to make a partner, and from my inquiries, I hope that partner shall be you."
He went on to discuss salary and duties and prospects, none of which were at all grand, but all Herbert could hear was, "Your fortunes are made!" Not a fortune in money – Clarriker's house was too modest for any other young man of good education to consider the low position – but a fortune in life. A steady salary, prospects for growth, everything needed by a young man who sought the basis for a settled family life, the only position to which Herbert had ever aspired.
"Well? Is the offer satisfactory?"
Satisfactory? Oh, this day was indeed happier than the day he had met Clara! "Yes! I shall – it is – whatever you like!" Herbert stammered in joy. "I believe I must be the happiest of men! Thank you!" He caught himself pumping Clarriker's hand out of all proportion and only with difficulty released his benefactor.
"I am in the process of changing offices – in preparation for your coming aboard, I may admit. May we meet on Tuesday?" He gave the address of his new premises in Lime Street. "There shall be desks installed by then, God and the workmen willing."
Herbert accepted everything with glee. Clarriker even looked vastly more handsome in the role of benefactor than he had as a man of interest on 'Change. The hour was not late, but he felt he must hurry home at once. Handel must learn it all.
The window was dark against the rainy night, stopping Herbert's heart completely for a moment before he recalled the note he had sent. A precautionary drawing of the curtain, that was all, he told himself, trying to work a spell on his suddenly raw nerves. He bounded up the stairs, the darkness cooling his elation. What if Handel had not got his note? Could he have been so callous as to have gone to the theatre with Startop? The key scraped horribly in the lock, and the door was again stuck with damp. But at last, he was home, and there was Handel, wrapped in his dressing gown, waiting for him in the glow of his reading lamp. The book had been set aside, and the decanter and two glasses were waiting to welcome him home. The note had decidedly reached its destination.
"My dear Handel, I have the best news – the best news!" His hat fell to the ground, having missed the hook entirely in his haste to greet Handel with a kiss. Dear Handel made no objection, pulling Herbert's damp body into his warm embrace, lips pressed against teeth in too-eager joy on both sides.
"Lord," Handel said, letting him go at last, "you are half soaked. Is it raining so much? Dry yourself and tell me everything." He poured out two glasses and handed one to Herbert.
It was quite the smoothest, most complex liquor Herbert had ever tasted. No ordinary warming brandy, but something quite out of his experience. "Where did this come from?"
"Where does anything come from? Dinkins."
"How much do we owe him?" Herbert took another sip to verify his senses had not deceived him. Yes, it was indeed something they could not afford. "I'm surprised he'd give this to us." They were constantly in debt to their wine merchant, and Dinkins had cut them off before.
"I told him it was for a quiet celebration and could we have just one bottle? It is a celebration, isn't it?"
"It is!" The events of the whole evening tumbled out between sips of that noble brandy. Every word Herbert could remember was imported verbatim to his dear Handel.
"And when shall you tell Clara?" What had Clara to do with anything? Herbert wondered. Handel's face was shaded, and his tone had been studiously neutral. Could he really think Herbert would leave him so soon? That would be precipitous even for a Pocket.
He dropped to his knees before Handel's chair, his hands on Handel's thighs. The silk of his red flowered dressing gown was deliciously smooth against Herbert's fingers. "I shall see her tomorrow, but that was long planned, nothing to do with my news. I say you, and me, and the rest of this brandy finish celebrating my excellent news in bed."
Handel bent down to meet his upturned face with a kiss. "I thought you would never ask."
They always used Handel's bed, it being newer and all around more comfortable. A good mattress and featherbed, a bedstead with tight ropes (Herbert's always felt slack), and the stability inherited furniture lacked had made it the choice location for their first foray, and habit led them to continue in its usage. Habit had come on them quickly, much more quickly than Herbert had expected. He played the role of experienced lover between them, but never having been to school, his loves had been confined to two of his father's pupils. Only one of those could be considered a tendre, but the other had provided more in the way of education. Perhaps that was how it usually went, though Handel had been an apt pupil. Herbert had thought Startop might make the third – the young man had that effeminate delicacy that often accompanied a taste for these pleasures – but Handel's coming had terminated all thoughts of that alliance.
Tonight, Handel had prepared well for their private celebration. Herbert, still fully dressed from his dinner with Clarriker, was quite behind. Undressing was an annoyance tonight rather than a pleasurable delay – one could not easily remove one's boots and kiss one's lover at the same time. Handel had removed even his stockings beforehand and stood ready to strip himself naked at a moment's notice. But he had been an apt pupil – or Herbert had trained him well (Herbert had never settled on which was precisely accurate) – and filled his duty admirably. The boots and stockings were indeed an annoying roadblock, but once they were out of the way, the rest could be removed in a far more erotic manner. Herbert's coat and waistcoat came to rest in a pile with Handel's dressing gown, pushed off shoulders and kicked aside as lips and tongues were busy with each other. Where Herbert's cravat landed was a mystery not resolved for two days, as Handel had tossed it aside with a flourish at the beginning of his amorous campaign. Starting in the hollow of Herbert's collarbone, he slowly worked his way up to a spot behind Herbert's ear. Handel's tongue flicking at the back of his earlobe was a certain trigger to Herbert's prick. A low moan escaped his lips as he felt his member grow in excitement. He grabbed Handel by the waistband of his beautifully tight trousers and loosened the fall. Handel took the hint – he was always wonderfully perceptive about any little signal – and freed Herbert's prick from its fabric prison.
Who pulled whom down onto the bed was a question for another day. Herbert had landed on top, and in that temporary position of liberty, he pulled off his shirt with a practised confidence. "Help me, my dear," Handel murmured, and Herbert was glad to assist the process of stripping his friend. It was a celebration, indeed, if Handel was stripping completely. He had never been as comfortable in nakedness as Herbert was, and they usually made love linen-to-linen as much as skin-to-skin. Whether it was a working class hobbyhorse or real shame at his body, Herbert had never figured out. What mattered was that Handel obliged him so often, in so many little ways, that Herbert could hardly complain if the young man preferred to keep his shirt on.
But tonight, as the rain fell outside, they were skin-to-skin, sunk into the featherbed. The unseasonable warmth, despite the damp Barnard's Inn always attracted, contributed to the ease with which they conducted their entertainments. Heavy blankets pushed aside, Herbert ducked his head into the close darkness under the sheet, the last vestige of Handel's confirmed modesty, to tease Handel's navel with his tongue, Handel's aroused prick rubbing against his chest. Handel ran his fingers through Herbert's hair with just enough force to set Herbert's scalp tingling. There was a certain amount of force in everything Handel did, and Herbert desperately hoped it would never be smoothed out of him. His ministrations, gentle though they were in comparison, were always to Handel's pleasure, and indeed, tonight, Herbert could feel his breath quicken with delight.
"Come, should I not minister to you?" Handel asked in friendly complaint.
Herbert poked his head out from under the sheet so Handel could see his smile. "I do it for my own pleasure."
Handel caught him up in a kiss, and Herbert found himself scrambling his fingers against the dark hair of Handel's chest. He finally found his way to an embrace, and there they stayed for a moment, skin to skin, Handel's breath hot on his forehead. But Handel pressed on, rolling them onto their sides, his prick insistent at Herbert's hip.
"Do you want to mount?" Herbert asked. He never demanded such a favour – it had first come after nearly a year of other delights and remained a rare treat, the better for being freely given rather than constantly solicited. This turn of their bodies had presaged such delights.
"If you wish me to," Handel replied.
"From the front, then," he requested.
Herbert lay on his back, legs spread, and raised his arse when Handel had grabbed a pillow for him. Handel was the only man to enjoy this face-to-face copulation. His predecessor for whom Herbert had nursed a real affection had disappointed him in refusing to try the position even once. It was not that Handel was easily led or refused him nothing, for he had strong opinions on how it should be done from the rear (he preferred to take Herbert with them both on their sides, no servile positioning on one's knees), but that he truly accepted the validity of Herbert's occasional request. It was only an occasional request, as he had wrenched his back once at it, but even the risk of that pain held a charm to Herbert, as every mild pain Handel had ever caused had been delicious to him. There was a particular pleasure in this position as well, for he could watch Handel's handsome face as they joined, until it and the very world grew hazy in climax.
Tonight, all Herbert's senses seemed terribly sharp. The contrast between his body under Handel's hot frame, working hard at pleasure, and the touch of damp chill at his ears put every action, every thrust into sharp relief. He was terribly aware of everything: the pink spots of exertion in Handel's cheeks, his dark eyebrows standing out against his pale forehead, the brandy on his warm breath as he exhaled in Herbert's face, the acrid smoke of the flickering rush that lit their celebration. He managed to catch at Handel's lips for a quick kiss – no easy task as Handel was so much taller – just before Handel came with a low cry. Handel slipped out, giving Herbert's prick a quick pinch at the tip with his unencumbered hand. That pinch was all Herbert needed to follow, his seed spraying across Handel's chest.
"I should – where's a towel?"
Handel reached over to where he had placed that necessary tool, but he lay across Herbert to do so, begriming them both in a decidedly cheeky gesture.
Herbert was the easier to clean of his emissions. He had never produced that manly efflorescence of hair that others could claim. Handel, in contrast, was the very picture of a proper man, and the contrast was much of Herbert's attraction.
Cleaned as well as a dry towel hastily wielded would do, the towel itself vanished into the darkness around the bed, they settled down to sleep, Herbert wrapped in Handel's arms. Handel's arms were quite Herbert's favourite place to be. From the beginning, when they had met and fought at Satis House, that unaccustomed strength had attracted Herbert. Handel had soundly beaten him, as should have been expected of a working-class youth, but that youth had a paradoxical delicacy of face that had concealed his origins. Once he learned where the boy had come from, Herbert was no longer surprised by his defeat. When Handel turned up again, that youthful delicacy grown to a fine handsomeness, the blacksmith's strength had not been well concealed by his country tailoring. No suit could change the way he stood or the muscularity of his well-used arms despite his wiry frame. When they first fell to kisses, only months after meeting again, fully half the excitement was the strength, almost to pain at times, with which Handel would grab him in his ecstasy. Rowing on the Thames as recreation was not enough to maintain a physique earned in the forge, and education in manners had smoothed Handel in other ways, to Herbert's delight in public and sorrow in private. His blacksmith had been a temporary conquest, but his friend could never be completely changed. In nights like tonight, the fruits of their first meeting were deliciously in evidence.
But all was not right. As the rushlight burned out, leaving them in darkness, Handel gripped Herbert still more tightly, and Herbert could feel him shake. Twining his fingers with Handel's, he asked softly, "Why the tears, my dear?" He had heard Handel cry in the night before, but never when they were still together like this.
"Happiness, my love," Handel tried to reassure him. "I think I have never been so happy."
Herbert squeezed Handel's hand but kept silent. It was the happiest day of his life, but the fortune was his. He wished Handel's own fortune had made him happier, and vowed he would never mention this night again. In the light of morning, surely Handel's prospects would look as bright as Herbert believed they were.