The First Law of Nature
"Carton. Hey, Carton!"
The figure seated by the fire barely stirred, his hand dashing across his page in a blur only interrupted by the regular wetting of his quill in the inkpot.
"Take his pen," a nearby boy advised the exasperated caller.
"Take his chair," another said with gleeful malice.
In the end, neither was necessary. The oblivious Carton scribbled a conclusion, dropped his pen onto the blotting paper, and leaned back in his chair with a sigh.
A third time, his name was called: "Carton!"
Carton turned to look at his accostor from under beetled, dark brows, the fine skin of his forehead drawn into a paroxysm of wrinkles by his frown. "Yes, what is it?"
"The headmaster wants to see you in his office."
"How should I know? He only sent me to fetch you."
"Right. I suppose I'd better be off, then." He rose to his feet and tossed the ink-covered sheets onto the bench opposite his. "See that those get to Channing, would you?" he added, and sauntered out of the room.
The messenger watched these proceedings with a profound astonishment, before turning to the room's remaining two occupants. "Does he often do this sort of thing?"
"Oh, Carton never does work but on someone else's behalf, and then he dashes it off so quickly that we think he's liable to give himself brain fever," came the cool reply.
"That's assuming that he hasn't contracted it already," his companion added darkly, and the messenger was forced to concede that he might have a point.
The object of their speculation had by this point progressed nearly to the headmaster's office. Though he was rarely seen to hurry, and never been known to run in the recollection of his schoolmates, his long legs carried him over distances at a surprising speed. Besides which, he had a fair notion of what he was being summoned for, and felt no need to dawdle.
The rooms of Shrewsbury were no less imposing than its brick facade, and the headmaster's office was particularly so. The large, heavy desk faced away from a broad window, and the light from the latter illuminated the headmaster's bushy, white hair with either an ethereal or a sepulchral glow, depending upon the viewer's perspective as respectively favored student or penitent.
Across from the desk were drawn three chairs, two of them occupied. The first held the stocky form of Stryver, his entire being quivering with some suppressed energy or emotion. The second figure, and the one that caused Sydney to revise his earlier conclusion that he was about to be once again scolded for missing attendance upon his lectures three of the past five mornings, was a slim though well-formed boy of sixteen, his face pale and pinched beneath his golden hair.
Sydney felt himself begin to blush and forced his eyes to meet the headmaster's. "You wished to see me, sir?"
"Yes, Carton," the headmaster said in grave tones. "Please be seated."
Sydney lowered himself into the remaining chair and waited with forced composure.
The headmaster cleared his throat. "Although no one wishes to speak of it, least of all myself, I trust that all of our students are aware of the terrible sins that can be committed in the pursuit of pleasure--sins not confined to mere licentiousness, but rather the most abject and base perversions that the human mind might conceive."
Unbidden, an image sprang into Sydney's mind of Robert lying splayed beneath a hedgerow, his naked limbs gleaming in the sunlight. They had loved each other with mouths and hands, tracing each other's skin with trembling fingers and kissing the taste of a shared bottle of wine from each other's lips.
"Yes, sir," he said evenly.
His heart pounded a frantic rhythm in his chest. Indolence was one thing, and he'd grown obscurely proud of his most recognizable failing and even had begun to advertise it himself. Immorality was quite another. He realized, with a sudden and aching certainty, that unless he took immediate action, he wouldn't survive this.
"Have you indulged in these transgressions yourself?"
"Not I, sir," he said, his voice steady. He didn't glance at Robert's face, though he could feel the wide, gray eyes fixed upon him.
"Nor anyone else, to your recollection?" the headmaster persisted.
Sydney hesitated briefly, then shook his head. "No, sir. I'd heard rumors about Dering, but not connected to anyone in particular."
He did look at Robert then, and watched the blood leach from his face at Sydney's words. He held his breath as Robert's lips trembled, but it was from an excess of emotion, and not the beginnings of speech. Either he realized the futility of attempting to implicate Sydney in turn, or he was possessed of a far finer sense of honor than any Sydney could lay claim to.
The headmaster sat back in his chair heavily. "Very well, Carton. I thank you for your assistance, though I might perhaps wish that you young gentlemen would approach us with your knowledge of these rumors at a more measured time, rather than allowing matters to reach such a desperate state."
"Yes, sir," Sydney said. "You're welcome, sir."
"You and Stryver are dismissed," the headmaster added, and Sydney nodded to him.
He fell back a pace as they neared the door, letting Stryver precede him, and turned to close it softly behind them. Robert turned his head at the sound. For the barest of moments, their gazes kissed. Then Sydney released the door and let it swing to, and Robert turned resolutely to face the headmaster once again.
"I knew you'd never let yourself become tangled up in that sort of nonsense," Stryver said from behind him as soon as the door had clicked shut.
"No," Sydney said, forcing his hands to still their tremble. He gave Stryver a tight smile. "I confess myself most artful at avoiding any and all entanglements."
Stryver laughed in response, as though at a delicious joke, and Sydney acknowledged his humour with a nod.