Then let the secret fire consume,
Let it consume, thou shalt not know:
With joy I court a certain doom,
Rather than spread its guilty glow.
- Lord Byron
The rain pouring down outside never seemed to end, rattling against the window panes and turning the already dark dining Hall into a ghostly chamber full of flickering lights. Not even the highly modern Argand lamps around the room could brighten the gloom of this late September evening. Even younger students, who were usually capable of laughing at everything, were sombre as they ate their dinner. Archer Grey shivered in his too harshly starched white shirt, the collar uncomfortably tight and the black sweater vest not enough to ward of the chill. For the thousandth time he cursed his decision to work in a tiny village as far North as you could get without running into Scotland, but in these times you took work where you could find it and due to his lack of experience that was this ridiculously expensive boarding school. Why, he had never seen children, some as young as eight years old, eat with silver cutlery before! As he moved through the dining hall, serving meat and potatoes to the students, he tried desperately to ignore the flutter in his stomach that only seemed to get worse as the night progressed. It was all due to the headmaster’s guest, Mr Smith, who had arrived from London the previous day to investigate the disappearances of the English teacher Mr Barton and Agnes Miller the parlour maid. Mr Smith was in his mid-thirties, had brown hair that seemed immune to combs and wild blue eyes. He had a slightly mad grin, an intensity about him that was magnetic - and the ability to set Archer alight with a desire that was frightening. He had sworn to himself before he took up this position to not entertain such indecent thoughts about men again, no matter how beautiful, but one look at Mr Smith the day before and Archer's traitorous heart had stuttered with sudden, unexpected longing. Even worse: last night he had taken himself in hand not once but twice before he could sleep, pressing his fist to his mouth so that James who slept in the other bed would not hear him whimper "John" at the height of his passion. Even now, the urge to crawl into the man's lap and kiss his beautiful mouth was strong enough for Archer's hands to tremble with need.
Suddenly a bolt of lightning lit up the entire room which was then thrown into complete darkness as the thunder roared above them. Archer could hear several of the younger boys call out in fright and the teachers trying to calm them. When it died away, the lights flickered on again as if nothing had happened - and yet, something had. A seat was empty. Mr Green had gone. Green was a slightly rounded ginger boy with glasses, and Archer had seen him right before the thunder roared. But now his seat, which was right beside Archer, was empty. All that remained was his glasses and his silver dessert spoon. Archer frowned in confusion. He had not seen the boy leave.
"Where did Mr Green go?" he asked as he stopped serving for a moment. The other boys looked at him in total confusion.
"Who is Green?" one of them asked, clearly confused.
"That is not funny!" Archer replied, agitated. "He was just here! You know him, heavy boy, wears glasses!" but the boys just looked confused. Archer's voice rose and took on a note of panic.
"He was right here!" he insisted shrilly.
"Is everything alright over there?" the headmaster asked in a warning tone, and Archer shrank with fear. There was something about this man that terrified him.
"Everything is fine, sir," he replied nervously, returning to serving the meal. He would talk to Mr Smith tomorrow. Surely the Londoner would listen to him.
Archer gulped and felt a fissure of alarm shiver through him. Dear God - if he was to report the missing student to Mr Smith that would mean being alone with him. Alone with Mr Smith... God Help him!
Archer knocked on the door and tried to stop his knees from shaking. It was no use, as the voice inviting him in belonged to Mr Smith and merely hearing it call "enter!" was enough to make him weak-kneed. He pulled his fingers through his sandy blonde hair, trying to look proper, but realised it was a lost cause after the sleepless night he had had. Instead, he took a deep breath and opened the door. He stopped cold on the threshold, instinctively wanting to check his mouth for drool: Mr Smith was in his shirtsleeves, and they were pulled up slightly so that his slim wrists were bared to Archer's ravenous eyes. Just this thin strip of skin was enough to arouse the desire that had throbbed inside him since the first time he saw the man two days previous.
Mr Smith was smiling at him in a way that was probably thought to be encouraging, and it was - but probably not the sort of encouraging it was intent to be. Instead of encouraging Archer to tell Mr Smith about what he had witnessed in the dining hall the previous night, it only served to make him want to fall to his knees and worship the man like the Adonis he was. Preferably with his mouth. Archer blushed deeply at his indecent thoughts and mostly wanted to turn tail and run as far away from this man as he could. But then he remembered Mr Green, and steeled himself to step inside and speak to the object of his immoral fantasies.
“Forgive me for intruding, sir,” he began and felt proud of himself that his voice came out clear and steady. “But I simply must speak to you about an event I witnessed last night.” Mr Smith nodded encouragingly.
“Please, speak!” he said with the same enthusiasm he seemed to do everything. “Tell me all the details! Everything is important at the present!” Archer felt a little calmer at these words, and proceeded telling Mr Smith exactly what had occurred the previous night: how a student had been present before the thunder strike and missing after it, with no one seemingly remembering that he had existed at all. As his tale progressed, Mr Smith’s enthusiasm seemed to diminish until his face was cut in stone, a frown marring his brow.
“Do you have any proof of this happening? That there was a boy called Green?” he demanded once Archer had finished. Archer nodded and pulled out the item he had swiped in the dining hall and carried in his trouser pocket, fearing discovery. Green’s glasses. He handed them to Mr Smith, who placed them on the table with all the care of a man handling a poisonous snake. Then he pulled an odd object from his pocket. It seemed to be a tool of some kind, for he pressed a button and the tip lit up before he pointed it at the glasses. It made a humming sound, and the frown on Mr Smith’s face became even more severe. Archer stared transfixed at his face; God, he was beautiful! Once the humming noise quieted down, Mr Smith turned to Archer, wild-eyed.
“This is not good at all. In fact, it’s bad. It’s really very bad!” He was gesturing wildly as he spoke. “This should not be possible, but there it is! It’s not good at all!” Suddenly he spun around, pinning Archer with that wild gaze. “You need to leave. Now. You’re a distraction. Go… polish silver or something. Now!” Archer flinched at the harsh dismissal, but stubbornly pushed down the hurt welling up inside. He must have given Mr Smith a vital clue that made him desperate to continue his investigations, and did not want to be disturbed. Archer gave a short bow and fled back to the safety of the servant areas.
When Archer arrived at the kitchen, out of breath after his flight, the only one present was Cook. Cook was a large, brutish woman whom Archer had mistaken for a man when first arriving at the school, and she had never let him forget it. Nor had she forgiven him, even though he had apologized more times than he could count. She still, after five months, punished Archer with the most demeaning and dull tasks she could think of: scrub pots, clean the larder, and serve the Headmaster his tea. Now she was glaring at him over a giant pile of fish she was preparing for the evening meal.
“Take out the trash,” she barked, and Archer valued his continued health too much to question or argue. Instead, he took the overflowing bucket of fish guts and hurried outside to empty it into the ditch dug behind the garden wall to minimize the smell. Some of the disgusting contents spilled out on his trousers, and he cursed softly. Now he would have to convince someone to lend him a pair until he could get the smell out: he only owned the one pair and could not possibly serve dinner reeking of fish. He emptied the bucket and took the chance to just stand there in the early April sun, enjoying its warmth and letting his thoughts wander as they willed. That turned out to be a bad idea, since his thoughts had a tendency to head straight to Mr Smith and stay there. At the present, they were occupied with the wild look in his eyes. It was so easy to imagine those eyes wild with passion, passion for him, as Mr Smith came towards him, he was in his shirtsleeves and had rolled them up, baring his slender but strong arms, backing Archer against the door, pressing close and-
“Archer!” Cook’s angry shout cut into his fantasy just in time, and for a wild moment Archer felt nearly grateful to the miserable woman; without her interruption, who knows what would have happened? He could already feel the heat pool in his groin. He took a deep breath and returned to the kitchen, resigned to end up with fish guts up to his elbows for the rest of the afternoon.
At dinner that night Mr Smith was mysteriously absent, and Archer found himself worried about the man’s safety. He wanted to ask the headmaster where the handsome investigator was, but as he was only a servant such interest would be most suspicious indeed. Therefore all he could do was try his best to act as if nothing was going on and wait, hoping for his swift and safe return. Thankfully, no odd events seemed to occur, but Archer could not keep his eyes from straying to the empty seat.
Mr Green’s seat.