When he finally came to, he dressed himself rather than calling for Jasper, out of consideration for the old man's rheumatism. And his first action was to visit Harris.
He tapped on the door but there was no response. He tapped again. And waited. And then quietly he turned the doorknob and eased the door open. He stepped into the room. John was asleep. He closed the door behind him and brought the chair close to the bed, taking care not to make any noise. And he sat, and watched the young man sleep. He watched his chest rise and fall steadily under the thin sheet. He watched his head on the pillow, noticing his nostrils ever so slightly expand and contract as he inhaled and exhaled. The arm nearest to Richard was outside the sheet, laid alongside his body. He reached out towards it, hesitated, then picked up John's hand in his own. He stroked the back of his hand gently with his thumb. The hand felt cool, the skin soft and supple. He warmed John's hand between both of his, and sat there for some minutes, just enjoying the touch of skin against skin. He lifted the hand to his lips and kissed it.
John opened his eyes. Recognition gave way to a growing smile.
“How are you feeling?” asked Richard.
“Sleepy. My leg hurts.”
“It will. You've got a hole in it.”
“The highwayman. What happened?”
“He ran off.”
“Did he steal anything?”
“No. You, er, dissuaded him.”
John's smile broadened.
“You are a hero, do you know that? You certainly saved my sister's jewellery, likely her honour, and quite possibly her life as well as mine. Attacking highwaymen is not part of your job, you know. I will not forget what you did and the courage you showed. Thank you.”
“It was the right thing to do.”
“Do you always do the right thing?”
“Not recently, no. Perhaps I need some more lessons from you.”
“That would be nice. Mr James was here earlier. He said the wound is clean, and he thinks you probably saved my life by stopping the bleeding quickly. So we're quits, don't you think?”
“Does that mean we can be friends?”
“It's too late now to object to that, I think. Friends it is!” John shifted his hand in Richard's so that they shook hands.
John's smile suddenly faded. “I don't know how this can work. You're gentry and I'm your servant. Do I still call you sir?”
“We'll have to work it out somehow. But there's got to be a way. Perhaps we'll have to behave differently in company than on our own. I certainly don't want you calling me sir in private.”
Neither of them had anything more to say for a couple of minutes. Two young men holding hands, one flat on his back in bed, the other sat on a chair beside him, their eyes locked together and both with identical smiles.
“John, ever since I was seven years old, there's been someone I can go to for advice about personal things. He's a wonderful man and I trust him completely. My manservant, Jasper. He's not just a servant, he's my friend, my father, my adviser and I love him like a son. Can I talk to him about this? Maybe he'll know what to do.”
“If you think that would be best.” A thought occurred to him. “He's a servant and a friend? So it is possible, then!”
“It is possible. But, John, I don't want you to be my friend like Jasper is my friend. I want you to be more than a friend.”
John looked deeply into Richard's eyes, eyes which burned back into his with fiery intensity.
“Are you sure?”
“John, I love you.”
As he watched, the face in front of him screwed up and the eyes watered. Richard started out of his chair, concerned that John was suffering sudden new pain. But he quickly saw the truth. Through the contorted features a new smile developed and the reddening, tear-filled eyes were smiling too. He stretched forward and slid his hand behind John's neck. His other arm went around John's shoulder. His mouth found John's mouth in the gentlest of kisses and then he pulled John to him and himself to John, taking care to avoid his wounded leg, pressing their chests together in a big hug, and his own tears began to flow. He pulled back a little so that they could make eye contact, and the contact they made conveyed their love for each other. Richard kissed away the tears from John's cheeks.
“We'll work it out somehow. We must!”
It became Richard's habit to visit John mid-morning each day. On the third such visit John was ready to try walking. The muscle in his thigh was damaged and he was very weak – and when Richard first helped him to stand on it he yelped in pain. But gradually, little by little, with his arm over Richard's shoulders and Richard's arm around his waist, he was able to walk across his room and began to build up strength.
The day came when John needed to exercise his leg beyond the bounds of his room. Richard helped him down the stairs and into the stable yard. They made their way across the stable yard in their usual clinch and headed under the arch, intending to take a walk around the kitchen garden. But they were arrested by the appearance of Jasper, running despite his rheumatism.
“My Lord...” his breath failed him and he stood panting a minute while he regained his breath.
“Sir, forgive me but it would be better if I helped the young man. Not you.”
Richard and John looked at each other and grinned. Jasper was right, of course. Richard handed his charge over to his manservant and walked away.
Later that day he consulted Jasper. “What are we going to do?”
“Well, I have an idea for you to consider, sir.”
“Yes. Have you thought about my age recently?”
“Yes, my age. Sir, your need for a personal manservant is going to become more demanding in the next few years. I'm already too old for you, my Lord. I need to be training my replacement.”
“Jasper, I don't need a manservant. I need YOU! You know how I feel about you and I don't care how old you are, it's you I want with me!”
“I'm sorry sir, but I can't do it any longer. My joints hurt all the time and I can't get up and down the stairs like I used to. In fifteen years time you will be forty and running this estate, needing someone who can keep up with you. I will be eighty-two years old if I'm not in my grave. Sir, now is the time to train my replacement.”
Richard impulsively swept Jasper into a big bear-hug. “What will happen to you? I don't want to lose you.”
“I will speak to your father. He always promised to give me board and lodging in retirement so I expect I will be fine. I'll probably be around for years yet.”
“It won't be the same. I won't ever be close to another man the way I'm close to you.”
“I should think not. If I've gauged it right, you will be a lot closer to your next manservant than you ever were with me.”
Richard's eyebrows furrowed, he looked at his old friend, uncomprehending for a moment. Then realisation reached his brain. “You're going to train John? Will he do it?”
“You know how close our relationship is. You and I have shared private matters that other men only share with their wives. If you and John Harris need to go through life together, this is the way to do it.”
“It'll work! You're a genius, Jasper!”
Richard paid his next visit to John in fear and trepidation. “John,” he began as soon as the door closed in John's little room.
“I would very much like to spend the rest of my life with you. I love you. My friend Jasper has suggested how it might be done. I would like to try to explain it to you. And then I hope you will say Yes. But the choice is yours.”
He explained Jasper's idea and a little about what the job of personal manservant would entail. And as he did so he went down on one knee.
When Richard stopped speaking, there was a full minute's silence in the room. The horses could clearly be heard moving around in the stables below. John considered his future. Then he reached out a hand and took Richard's and pulled him upright and into a hug.
“YES!” he said, quietly but clearly, into Richard's ear as they held each other cheek to cheek.
Jasper was as good as his word and, after an interview with the Earl, told Richard that the scheme had his father's approval. Jasper approached James in the stables, explaining that he had been instructed by the Earl to begin the training of his replacement and that he had selected Harris. He pointed out to James that Harris's wounded leg would be weak for a long time and might never be as good as before the injury. James was not difficult to persuade that he would be better off taking on a fresh staff member as stable boy.
So John began his training as personal manservant to his Lordship. Things began to change in Richard's private suite. One of the first duties John took over was waking and dressing the young master. Richard found he really liked being woken with a kiss and a hug. Dressing took a lot longer, though. Both men had a tendency to get distracted.
It took a while for John to settle into his new life. He spent all day and every day with the man he loved and whom he called sir except when he was certain they were alone when he called him Richard. Jasper was a strict taskmaster and insisted on the highest standards in everything. He knew Richard wasn't likely to criticise John's work, and didn't want him to receive less than the best service. But even Jasper began slowly to become used to addressing the master by name, rather than 'sir', 'my Lord', or, when he wished to chastise him, 'Master Richard'.
One of the perks of the new job that John found he really liked was clean, elegant clothes, and washing facilities. He loved looking smart for his boss, and he loved feeling and smelling clean. Richard seemed to appreciate it, too.
They discussed horses frequently. It was agreed that the best riding horse in the Earl's stable was Bucephalus. Second best in John's opinion was the new black stallion and Richard changed his previous plan. Rather than persuade his father to give Victor to his sister Rachel, he decided to ask the old man to let him buy the horse for himself. And when he raised the subject with his father, the Earl gave him the horse freely, knowing that he would use it in managing the estate, one of the most extensive in the country. And so John had a horse to ride out on when he accompanied Richard. Which left Richard with the task of obtaining a horse for Rachel, but he thought John might enjoy finding the ideal mount for her at the markets.
In the months that followed, each of the three men settled into their new circumstances. Jasper was able to rest his aching bones, while at the same time taking on the new challenge of training Harris. Harris became used to his new lifestyle slowly. The work was physically much less demanding but he found it difficult to get used to gliding, rather than marching, through the corridors of the big house, and it took him a long time to tie a cravat to Jasper's satisfaction. His love for his new master grew each day. They were able to express their feelings for each other only in private, but when they rode out together to deal with the many problems that arose on the estate, the companionship they felt together and the pleasure of working together drew them closer. For Richard, nothing had changed – and everything had changed. A great empty void in his heart had been filled and life had been given new meaning. He never expected to be so happy and he owed it all to John, and to Jasper, two people to whom he would always be grateful.
Jasper continued to surprise John. Richard was used to being able to discuss the most private matters with his old retainer, but for John such conversations made him uncomfortable.
One chilly evening the three men were sitting around a roaring fire in Richard's parlour. Richard and John were drinking port, Jasper had in his hand the small glass of sherry that he preferred. Their comfortable camaraderie broke every rule of contemporary mores but Richard's suite of rooms was completely off limits to the other servants and they could relax their guard.
John asked a question which had been forming in his mind for some time. “Jasper, how is it that you are able to be so much at ease with two men in love with each other?”
Jasper shifted in his armchair, sitting more upright. “I have known, or guessed, for a long time that when Richard fell in love it would be with a man. It seems that it is part of his personality that he feels that way. Richard has always been like a son to me and I could never want anything for him but happiness and if you are the one who gives him that happiness then I must love you too, for his sake.”
“Jasper that's a lovely thing to say. Thank you!”
Richard spoke up: “How did you know that I would love a man?”
Jasper did not reply immediately. He seemed to be pondering his answer and when it came, his tone was more serious.
“Richard, do you remember what I did before I was assigned to you?”
“I think you worked with old Mr Thorogood?”
“Yes, I was assistant Butler for about eight years. But do you remember what I did before that?”
“No. That would be before I was born.”
“You've forgotten, because I have told you this. I was your father's personal manservant, in his youth.”
“Yes, I had forgotten. Weren't you an equerry?”
“Your father chose to call me his equerry – it's the same thing, really.”
“And what did you do for him?”
“Pretty well everything that John is learning to do for you.”
He paused before continuing:
“Your father and I didn't do quite all the things together that you and John do, although I would have liked to.”
Richard and John glanced at each other and then back to Jasper, who was blushing. Richard couldn't remember him blushing ever before.
“You... and my father?”
“I loved your father, I still do. But it wasn't to be. He was wild as a young man and had more than an eye for the ladies and I realised that he could never feel for me what I felt for him. We were very close, as friends, and I think he knows how I feel about him, but I never told him. You're very like him in some ways, Richard, but quite different in others. After he married, I was sent away to work under the butler, managing the household staff and I was very unhappy. Your father knew it and once you were old enough not to need your Nanny any longer it was the greatest event of my life when he assigned me to you. I've been happier serving you than I could have been doing anything else.
“Your father sowed wild oats, in abundance, as a lad. It was something of a relief to me that you didn't, but I noticed too that you didn't seem to be even tempted by the village girls. On the other hand even when you were very young I remember you watching the harvesting teams in the fields, observing closely the young men working without their tunics. So I had a pretty good idea that you saw the world the same way that I did. And I've worried for you. So when you showed an interest in young John here, I couldn't have been more pleased. Now that I'm old it is my greatest wish that you two can have a happy life.”
John got up and knelt beside Jasper's chair and then leaned in and hugged the old man. They held each other for some minutes while their tears flowed freely. Richard just sat in his chair and watched the other two in the flickering light from the fire, his own tears running down his face to moisten his smile.
© Bruin Fisher February 2007
© Bruin Fisher February 2007