The Restoration [Part 7]

By M. Greene - mgreene70@yahoo.com
published November 20, 2017
Summary

The story ends.

It was mid-May and Millie was sitting in the old conservatory watching Stephen work. “Of course, I had you down as queer from the first moment I met you,” she said. “My twin brother was too, you know, so I know all the signs…”

Stephen dabbed a little more old varnish off the picture he was treating and smiled wryly. “Really? What are the signs, then?”

Millie was rooting in her handbag for some cigarettes. “Oh… You know… Artistic… Sensitive… More intelligent than men usually are…” She looked up at him. “I say, sweetie, you couldn’t let me have a ciggie, could you? I seem to be totally out…”

Stephen laughed, put down his paintbrush and picked up his cigarette case. He proffered it to her and took one for himself. “Your list of ‘signs’ makes us sound pretty superior to ‘normal’ men,” he said, lighting first her cigarette and then his own.

Millie shrugged. “I suppose so…” She picked a piece of loose tobacco from her tongue. “I expect that’s why I’ve never got married. ‘Normal’ men are so very dull, aren’t they?”

“Were you and Guy very close?” Stephen asked. He had decided that if she could be brutal and direct, so could he…

“Of course, silly; we were twins. Twins are always very close…”

“Did he actually tell you he was like me?”

Millie gave him rather a strange look. “Not for ages,” she admitted. “Only just before…” From the grief-stricken expression on her face it was now obvious that she might weep at any moment.

“I’m sorry,” Stephen said. “I expect that thinking about him is terribly painful for you.”

“No… I actually think about Guy a lot. I have to…” She took another puff on her cigarette. “After all; if one doesn’t ever think about the one’s loved ones, they really are forever dead, aren’t they? Having living people thinking about them keeps them alive, somehow, I always think…”

When Stephen returned to the vicarage later that afternoon, he found a letter from Howard waiting for him on the table in the hall. He took it upstairs with him and, after he had washed and changed, settled down to the pleasure of reading it.

Except that it was not a pleasure; it was what they called in the armed forces a ‘Dear John letter’.

Even though Stephen only read it once before angrily crushing the pages into a ball and throwing them onto the fire, certain phrases and sentences had already seared themselves onto his brain like permanent brands:

“…Her name is Francesca…”

“She’s very beautiful, with a lovely personality…”

“…So I knew right away that she was the girl of my dreams…”

“…I feel so lucky to have found her…”

“…I know that you’re way too decent to want anything but the greatest possible happiness for me…”

“I hope that, soon, you will also meet someone special; you deserve it…”

Stephen threw himself onto his bed and wept quite a few bitter tears. The fucking selfish, idiotic bastard! He had always known that this might happen one day, but he had not realised how much it would hurt him. He loved Howard so much… Why couldn’t Howard just love him back?

“You’re very quiet and pensive this evening,” Mary observed later, during dinner. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, thank you,” Stephen replied testily. “Everything’s absolutely fine…”

The following morning Stephen set off for the Hall slightly earlier than usual. He had decided that he needed to press on with the restoration work and get it finished as quickly as possible. He would take the money and move abroad, to South America, possibly. He did not really care… Any place would do if it helped him to escape from memories of his time with Howard. He needed to try and rebuild his life…

It had not rained for the past several days, so the earthen track he was cycling along was very hard and compacted, allowing for considerable speed. The footpath was extremely narrow and ran between large fields belonging to various local farmers. Stephen crested a hill and careered down the other side. He could see Baston Moat Hall now, nestling in the valley below. Just to his left was a very small patch of land right next to the path, too tiny to be a workable field, choked with weeds and surrounded by a low drystone wall. Stephen had often noticed it on his daily rides to and from the Hall, but had never given it much thought. It had always been completely deserted.

Today, however, the tiny field was fully occupied and, far too late, Stephen realised exactly what the little patch of waste ground actually was. There were seven of them altogether, standing in a group among the bushes just inside the wall. They were naked and filthy, their matted hair hanging down to their waists and their rotted heads twisted at an impossible angle, lolling loosely over their shoulders. Stephen knew that they were the hanged ones; the suicides who had been buried out here at this lonely spot, far away from hallowed ground. As his bicycle shot down the path, all seven of them shuffled forwards and raised their skeletal arms in an attempt to waylay him. Stephen felt their bony fingers raking across his body as he raced by. He almost lost control of the steering, but, yelling with sheer terror, he somehow managed to keep the bike straight and continued peddling for all he was worth towards the Hall. He did not dare to look back.

“Are you alright, Sir?” Fuller asked. “You appear somewhat flustered…”

Stephen took a deep breath and pulled the cycle clips off from around his ankles. “I won’t be cycling here any longer, Fuller, so you can return the bike to the shed, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Very well, Sir…”

“Also, could you possibly ask Jenkins to run me back to the Vicarage in the car at about four o’clock today?”

“Yes, Sir. Are you sure everything is alright, Sir?”

“Yes, Fuller. I’m fine. Please stop asking if I am alright!”

“Very well, Sir. And, Sir?”

“What, Fuller?”

“Well, if I may be permitted to say so, Sir, there is really no need for you to be raising your voice to me, Sir…”

Now that the days were getting brighter, the old conservatory was proving to be a truly excellent studio. Half of the ceiling and the whole outer wall of the room were comprised of glass panes which extended right down to the ground. Stephen stood for a while looking out at the sparkling moat which was almost dazzling in the morning sunshine. The water came up to within a few inches of the windows and greatly magnified the already generous amount of light in the room.

After what had happened to him on the way here, he clearly saw that there was no possibility of him returning to the Hall unless he was brought here in the car. He would go and see Sir George later on this morning and demand that Jenkins pick him up each morning and bring him back to the vicarage before it got dark.

He walked over to his work bench. A new painting lay across it, covered by a dust sheet. He decided that Fuller and Jenkins must have carried it in here together as it was far too large for one person to transport. He whipped back the sheet and gasped. It was the Van Dyke portrait of Sir Charles Baston! Those eyes! Quickly, he covered it up again and retreated back to the windows. His hands were shaking as he fumbled for his cigarette case. What on earth was the matter with him? He was behaving absurdly. A picture could not hurt him. With some difficulty, he lit a cigarette and filled his lungs with smoke. That felt a little better… “Come on, old chap,” he admonished himself aloud. “You need to get a grip on yourself and stop this foolish funking…”

He looked back towards the workbench. Somehow, he simply could not bring himself to approach the portrait again… He pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes. The Van Dyke was probably the most expensive painting in the entire collection. Sir George and Lady Ursula needed to have it restored. It was worth at least a million pounds, possibly more… And yet, he did not dare to look on that face again… He shuddered. Was he having some kind of nervous breakdown?

He turned away and once again stared forlornly out of the windows. The moat looked so peaceful and tranquil… It was ridiculous to be so frightened on such a gloriously sunny day…

Sensing a slight movement out of the corner of one eye, Stephen turned his head towards the east side of the moat and saw a peculiar shimmering in the atmosphere just above the opposite bank. Puzzled, he watched as a shape began to coalesce out of the bright April air. It formed into a long, thin streak which solidified within a few seconds to something like the figure of a man, but much thinner and more elongated. The apparition was impossibly tall, over ten feet in height, with long brown hair that hung down well past its waist. The head was deathly pale and the eyes were lost within sockets so dark that the face resembled a living skull. Stephen’s stomach clenched and a low moan of sheer terror escaped from his lips. It was the Master! He was staring straight at Stephen and grinning horribly as he began gliding across the surface of the water in his direction. Stephen wanted to dash towards the door, but found that he was rooted to the spot with fear. The ghastly thing moved across the moat towards him incredibly quickly, its arms held out in a gesture of desire and longing that was simultaneously pathetic, revolting and malevolent. Within seconds, the revenant of the dead baron was crouching down next to the window, its rotting hands pressing against the outside of the glass, the still handsome, but grotesquely decomposing face a mere inch or two from Stephen’s own.

“Stephen… Join us… Come to us…” The voice sounded faint and shrill through the thick panes, but still overwhelmingly insistent.

Stephen opened his mouth to scream, but before he could do so, the apparition abruptly vanished. Behind him, he heard Fuller cough politely. No noise had ever sounded sweeter to his ears.

“I’ve brought you a cup of tea, Sir, as I thought you might be a little thirsty after your cycle ride. I say, Sir, are you sure you’re feeling quite alright? You look rather queer…”

Stephen took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, Fuller, I am quite alright. Thank you for bringing the tea; it’s very welcome. And, Fuller?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“I’m very sorry I was rather tetchy with you earlier. I had a bad night, that’s all. It won’t happen again…”

Fuller inclined his head. “Thank you, Sir…”

Stephen drank his tea and then returned to the workbench and whipped away the cloth. There was The Master in all his handsome glory. He knew now, looking into those beautiful, cold, deep-set eyes, that there was no possibility of escape. There never had been… The Master loved him too much to let him go. All the young men that were here also truly loved him. They were his brothers. Howard didn’t love him, but his homosexual brothers did. All he had to do was fully commit to them. He left the old conservatory and began walking down the east wing passage.

This time, the chapel door stood wide open and it was not empty. They were all there, as he knew they would be, silently waiting for him. They were loyal. Stephen found that he even knew all of their names. There was Sir Charles Baston, of course, The Master, standing in front of the altar with James Hargreaves and Guy Baston in attendance on either side of him. The other seven were also there, standing to attention in the background: Reginald Pole, Samuel Higgs, William Ellis, Percy Dyer, Thomas Cheston, Hal Greenaway, Robert Knowles and Peter Preston. He recognised them all from his encounter with them earlier in their little field, but now they stood here as they were when they were in their prime; all handsome, beautiful young men…

They were all naked, so he must be naked too. As he moved down the nave towards the altar, Stephen stripped off his jacket, tie and shirt, throwing them to the ground as he walked. Once he reached the steps, he stepped out of his Oxford bags and then pulled down his underpants. His penis, already erect, stood out in front of him.

The Master stepped forward, embraced him and kissed him on the lips. How sweet that mouth was!

“Welcome, my servant. Are you ready to join our brotherhood?”

“Oh yes, Master…”

“Help him up onto the altar…”

Stephen felt hands grasping him and strong arms lifting him up onto the stone block. He saw the rope then, the noose dangling just in front of his face. He grasped hold of it and slipped it over his head. Then, with no more deliberation or consideration, he stepped off into the void.

The rope tightened around his neck, but he made no attempt to struggle or to grasp it with his hands. His arms remained limp at his sides as his suspended body slowly swung from side to side above his adoring and beloved brothers. His cock was sticking straight out now, a massive orgasm building at the same time as he was being slowly asphyxiated…

Sir Charles stood underneath, smiling up at him. Stephen gazed lovingly down at his Master’s handsome face. He knew he would be dead soon and he welcomed it. He would have a new life with his homosexual brethren… The orgasm hit and he felt his seed begin to gush out in thick gouts, splattering the grinning faces of his brothers below.

The baron’s smile became wider and toothier until it fully stretched from one side of his face to the other. As Stephen watched, the skin began to peel away from Sir Charles’ face revealing the bone beneath. The brilliant grey eyes were swallowed up by the cadaverous dark holes of his skull. A livid rope mark appeared on the baron’s neck, ugly and suppurating and his head began to jerk violently to one side. All the other men around him displayed similar signs of physical deterioration; their limbs shrivelling to bone, their hair falling out and their chests caving in. Now they were once again the decomposed walking corpses he had raced past on his bicycle…

Stephen opened his mouth to scream, but he had no air in his lungs with which to do so.

Then someone was grasping hold of his thighs and he was aware of his whole body being lifted up. A knife sliced through the taut rope above his head and, the tension broken, he collapsed down into oblivion.

He was lying in a white bed in a white room with a woman dressed in white leaning over him.

“Mr Paxton? Mr Paxton? Stephen? Can you hear me?”

He opened his eyes again. He realised that it was a nurse.

“Don’t try to speak. I’ll go and get the doctor…”

Blackness imposed itself again…

“You’re extremely lucky to be alive,” one of the doctors told him. “Another few seconds and you would have been a goner.” He glanced at the medical chart once again and then hung it back at the foot of Stephen’s bed. “As it is, you’ve severely damaged your larynx, so it will be quite a while before you can talk properly…”

Stephen nodded to indicate that he understood and promptly fell asleep again.

“It’s just as well Fuller noticed you weren’t in the old conservatory,” Sir George said. He squirmed in the chair next to Stephen’s bed. “Why does all the furniture in these places have to be so dashed uncomfortable?” He patted Stephen’s hand. “Anyway, we arrived at the chapel just in the nick of time. I lifted you up and Fuller climbed on top of the altar and cut you down.” He leaned forwards and peered at the patient. He was asleep. “Well, I suppose you need your rest; sleep is the best healer, or so I’m told…”

Stephen opened his eyes and saw that Mary Foster was sitting beside his bed.

“It’s good to see that you’re on the mend, at last…” She fumbled in her handbag and produced her cigarettes. “The nurses say that you shouldn’t smoke yet, but I’m sure you won’t mind me having one…”

Stephen nodded.

“Rick and Sir George opened up the grave in the chapel the other day,” Mary said, blowing a stream of smoke into the air above his head. “Rick obtained permission from the Bishop of Chichester for the exhumation…” She looked around the room and swore with exasperation. “Why can’t they provide ashtrays in these bloody hospitals?” Eventually she found a saucer she could use and picked it up to hold in her lap. “They removed Sir Charles’ body from the vault, loaded it into a hearse and took it up to Guildford to be cremated. Apparently, the whole atmosphere in the chapel has vastly improved since. Rick says that he’s going to be able to reconsecrate it soon.” Mary stubbed out her cigarette and looked closely at Stephen’s face. “Oh… It would seem that you’re asleep…” She sighed. “I really did not know that I was quite so boring…”

The next time he opened his eyes, Howard was there. Stephen gazed groggily up into the American’s warm brown eyes and smiled for the first time in several days.

“I’m real sorry about my last letter,” Howard said. “It was all just a stupid, dumb mistake.” He grinned sheepishly. “Typical of me, I know…” He reached out and smoothed Stephen’s hair. “I guess that for most of my life I’ve been in denial; trying to prove that I was something I wasn’t.” He shrugged. “The thing with Francesca wasn’t going to go anyplace… There was no way it could…” He laughed. “I guess my whole experience in France has taught me that I’m as queer as fuck and that there’s no going back…”

A nurse came in at that moment.

“I’m queer!” Howard announced to her cheerfully.

The nurse looked slightly startled. “Very well, Mr Schultz, if you say so… It takes all sorts, as they say…” She left the room rather quickly.

Stephen smiled again. That had been very funny…

“You see, baby? I’m committed to this… To you… To us…” Howard leaned across and kissed Stephen’s lips. “I want you to get better; to live. I want us both to live… To live together, in fact. Forever… After all, you’re the only person who’s ever really made me laugh…”

A tear pushed its way out of Stephen’s right eye and trickled down his cheek.

Howard bent over and licked the tear away. “Don’t cry, honey. Remember that I love you above all others and, dammit, I always will…”

Stephen sighed contentedly. For perhaps the first time in his life, he felt truly happy…

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