A child was crying disconsolately from down the dark hall.
A woman began to sob, her voice blending in melancholy harmony with that of the child. David, rooted in place at the other end of the hall, shook off his inertia and forced himself forward. But when he reached the closed door of Mrs. Sweet’s parlor in the
Greenwich Village brownstone where he and Julian
roomed, he stopped.
The woman was still sobbing. But now he could hear Julian’s voice, husky with weariness and emotion, speaking to her, comforting her. David could not make out the words.
He took off his homburg, turning it uneasily in his gloved hands.
Behind the heavy door, another woman’s voice joined in. She sounded shaken. As well she might.
The first woman’s voice raised in supplication. Julian spoke reassuringly.
Why? Why did Julian persist in this? Knowing how David felt?
David became aware that he was standing in a puddle of water. Snow melted from his boots and the shoulders of his ulster, dripping to the parquet floor in soft plops.
From the other side of the door came a sudden change in voices, the scrape of chairs, and he moved away from the door, walking a few steps down the hall, going to the window that overlooked the snowy terrace of the brownstone next door.
The snow formed tall, white pyramids on the round finials of the stone balustrade. No sign of their neighbor. Maybe today was too cold even for young Mr. Flipkey and his violin. That was not his real name, of course. His real name was Feldleit. David called him Flipkey, which meant nothing, but sounded suitably dismissive. Dismissive because David did not like Mr. Flipkey. Or, more exactly, did not like the fact that Julian did. Liked Mr. Flipkey’s fiddle playing, anyway. Didn’t mind that Flipkey fiddled at all hours of the day and night. No, Julian would walk out onto their own terrace and listen, enrapt, for as long as Flipkey chose to play. As though Flipkey were exercising some enchantment over him.
David smiled sourly. At least he didn’t kid himself he was anything but what he was. Jealous.
Part of the problem was the way he and Julian had met…
The door down the hall opened. David glanced around as two women exited the parlor. They were both young, both fashionably dressed, though the taller was dressed in mourning. The smaller woman supported her sister down the hall and out the door. There was a flash of gray day, a gust of winter’s breath. The evergreen and holly garland knocked against the wainscoting like a ghostly hand.
Julian did not appear.
David waited, trying to decide.
Three days ago he would have gone in at once, intending to soothe and solace, but in truth he would have snapped and scolded. He couldn’t seem to help it. They had been so happy together. For a year — a little more than a year, in fact. David had been happier than he could ever remember. He had nursed Julian through his long illness following the terrible shock of the events of last summer, and they had grown even closer during that quiet, closeted time. Julian had regained his health and, mercifully, the troubling visions seemed to leave him entirely. His fits grew less frequent, less violent. There was no sign the troubling predictions of idiocy, feeble-mindedness, or madness that medical books and physicians alike warned of would materialize.
Julian settled into David’s world with every appearance of contentment. He was happy, healthy. He charmed David’s friends with his boyish enthusiasm and exotic beauty. David had fallen ever more deeply, helplessly in love. He had begun to believe that despite the many obstacles, they might really manage some kind of future together.
But then, two months ago, the visions had returned. And worse, much worse, Julian had begun to hold séances. He didn’t call them séances. Mrs. Sweet would never have stood for that, but that’s what they amounted to, these private meetings with the grief-stricken.
And, as David feared, Julian’s health had begun to suffer. He started having seizures again. Didn’t this prove David’s point? Didn’t Julian understand what he was risking?
So David had done what any loving husband would do. He had forbidden Julian to hold any more séances.
And Julian — sweet, affectionate, always amenable Julian — had amiably, even a little amusedly, pointed out that David was neither his husband nor his father. And he had gone right ahead and continued to do as he wished.
Flabbergasted, furious, three days ago David had finally given Julian an ultimatum. Stop or their connection was at an end.
That very evening Julian moved to an empty room on Mrs. Sweet’s top floor.
David couldn’t believe it.
Of course, Julian had not really moved out. All his belongings were still right where he’d left them, carelessly scattered around their shared rooms. They both knew that was simply a beat, the light strike of one fencing blade against another. No blood drawn, no harm done. Not a real fight. Not then.
David had drawn first blood. He had only intended to force a quick and painless surrender for both their sakes. Even one night without Julian in his bed was unbearable. So he had informed Julian he would be spending the holidays in
with his family. He wished Julian a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Maine
Julian had gone white. He had looked shocked and hurt and then angry. Very angry. He had retired to his room — his new room — and had not spoken to David since.
David had caught his train, of course. He could not afford to back down. He must not set that precedent. That was what he had told himself as the train drew slowly out of the crowded station and picked up speed. If I back down now…
But with every white and snowy mile he grew colder and colder, as though he was setting out for uncharted arctic wastelands and not his family’s estate for a pleasant holiday visit. He had left the train at the very first stop, abandoning his luggage and parcels, fleeing home to find exactly what drove him away in the first place.
Now he was truly terrified. He had played his trump card and he had lost.
He watched the door to Mrs. Sweet’s parlor but still Julian did not appear.
What would Julian say when he did appear? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps he was still not speaking to David. Perhaps he would just give him that long, dark, unfathomable look and turn away again. Which was ridiculous because he was completely dependent on David. His grandfather’s estate was still tied up in probate, and probably would be for the foreseeable future.
Was that the trouble? Had David inadvertently made Julian feel beholden? Was that why Julian felt he had to defy David, to flout David’s wishes, to risk his own health and sanity? Because the fact of the matter was Julian brought so much more to David than David could ever begin to return…
From outside came the sweet spiral of notes as Mr. Flipkey wandered out onto his terrace, violin tucked under his chin. You might think the cold and damp would throw the instrument instantly out of tune, but then again, Mr. Flipkey’s melodies were so foreign and mysterious, who would know if he was playing out of key or not?
Sweet though. Sweet and sad, those delicate brushes of bow to strings. Like the beating wings of small birds.
A lump formed in David’s throat.
What if all Julian really felt for him was gratitude? And now gratitude had turned to resentment?
He considered this while Mr. Flipkey continued to play his mournful melody, indifferent to the snowflakes languidly floating down, as though they were white rose petals.
What was Julian doing in there? David listened.
Having a fit was not a silent business, so he knew Julian was all right.
He could go to his own rooms and then arrange to casually run into Julian at the Christmas Eve gathering Mrs. Sweet would hold tonight. That way he would not look desperate.
But he was desperate. He couldn’t help thinking that every minute he let pass was taking Julian further and further from him.
The chair scraped in the parlor. David drew his shoulders back, waiting. But Julian still did not appear.
Finally David couldn’t stand it another moment, he walked down the hall and waited in the open doorway. It took him a moment to find Julian in the gloom of the room. Julian stood at the window, gazing down at Mr. Flipkey who was still playing his sorrowful music.
David felt an instant stab of jealousy.
But as he stood there he saw that Julian’s eyes were closed. He was not aware of David, that was clear. The line of his body was weary, his face unguarded and sad.
David couldn’t bear the sadness, even though he had wanted Julian to regret his actions. This was grief, not regret, and it made his heart twist in his chest. He dropped his gloves and hat on the parlor table, and approached Julian.
The floorboard squeaked. Julian’s eyes flew open. In a matter of seconds his expression changed from disbelief to joy to wary suspicion.
For hours David had tried to think of what to say, how he could negotiate a truce that would allow him to save face but still win back Julian. But all his carefully prepared speeches fled.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Please forgive me.”
Tears filled Julian’s dark eyes. “Why did you say it? Why did you end it between us?”
“I didn’t mean to. It’s the last thing I want. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for us both.”
Julian shook his head. “I don’t understand you, David. I’ve tried to do exactly as you wished. Always. Except this one thing. And I can’t help this. It’s who I am.”
“But what about all the things we talked about? When you were getting well, we talked about traveling and you maybe one day opening a café or —”
Julian put his hands over his eyes. “David.” He lowered his hands, his expression older than David had ever seen it. All at once Julian seemed older than him. “One day. Maybe. It’s just a dream now. We have no way to make that happen. And in the meantime…”
“In the meantime you’re having these visions again.” David tried to say it without bitterness, but he was not successful.
“Yes.” Julian’s eyes looked black and Harlequin-like. “I don’t want them, but I can’t stop them.”
David took Julian’s hands in his, and although David was the one who had walked through the snow, Julian’s skin felt ice cold. “All right. I suppose I have to accept that. But what about the séances? You don’t have to meet these people, you don’t have to listen to their stories, and you sure as hell don’t have to contact their dead relatives. That’s your choice.”
Julian shuddered and his hands gripped David’s tighter. “I don’t want to, but how can I refuse? Especially this time of year when so many are remembering and longing for those who have gone before? I can help them. How can I refuse?”
“You refuse. That’s all. You simply do it.”
Julian shook his head.
“Yes,” David insisted. “It’s making you ill. It’ll destroy you. You have to refuse.”
Julian pulled his hands free. “I can’t. You’re just making it more difficult for me.”
“I’m trying to help you!” David spared a quick look over his shoulder, but Mrs. Sweet would be out in the kitchen preparing the evening meal.
Julian said quietly, “If you want to help, don’t ask this of me. Help me. Help me do what I must. Be my strength and my comfort.”
In the silence that followed Julian’s words, David realized that Mr. Flipkey had disappeared inside his brownstone once more. The only sound between them was the almost soundless brush of snow against the window.
“I don’t know if I can,” David said finally. It was painful to say the words, but it was true.
Julian turned from him.
Neither spoke as they watched the wall of white grow higher and higher on the window sill.
Either way he was going to lose what mattered most to him in the world. At least Julian’s way would make Julian happy, and somehow that seemed the most important thing as David stared into his own bleak vision of the future. He could not bear to picture himself standing here years from now remembering the slump of Julian’s shoulders, the hurt, closed look on Julian’s face before he had turned away.
Better to give than receive. Wasn’t that the motto of the season?
“But I can try,” David said. “I will try for you.”