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Hunger

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He was woken by polite hands jostling his shoulders. So unexpected was the contact, that Thomas swung his arm out in half-asleep self-defence, lost his balance, and fell off the sofa, all within the span of barely a second.

 

He landed on the carpet with a thud and let out a soft grunt, groggily pushing himself up. There was a pair of buckled shoes before him. He slowly lifted his gaze.

 

Morris's face was blank, save for narrowed eyes, which Thomas read as quietly reproachful. Morris's tone was a little more generous with the reproach: "Good morning."

Thomas's cheeks warmed and drowsiness passed into pale humiliation. He scrambled up and offered Morris a bashful smile. "...hello."

"I trust you had a," Morris's eyes flicked to the sofa. "pleasant night?"

Thomas cleared his throat quietly. "I got lost."

"Indeed." Morris stepped back. "I will show you to your room. You will clean up; the master wishes to breakfast with you."

"Oh." Thomas watched Morris's retreating form with a sinking heart. "Yes."

 

He paid keen attention to which paintings hung on which walls as he followed; it seemed to Thomas the easiest means of navigation. He must have gone well and truly astray last night, for the trek to his chambers was abnormally long.

 

"You will find a change of clothes on the bed," Morris informed him, pushing open the door. "you might notice it comes with shoes."

Thomas pulled his gaze from a picture of a butchered ox - hanging between his door and the next - and let out a weak huff of laughter. "Right. Shoes." He followed Morris into the room, easily spotting the clothes in question.

"Your things will be brought over this morning." Morris said. "I should mention the master does not look on inebriation with a favourable eye."

Thomas watched Morris step toward the door. "I wasn't drunk last night." He assured the servant. "Just lost and more than tired."

Morris accepted that with a slight nod. "Wash and change quickly." He said. "I will show you to the breakfast-parlour when you are ready."

 

Thomas did as he was told. The clothes were not starkly different to what he usually wore, but the feeling of them against his skin made their rich quality known. A white linen shirt sat beneath a slate linen waistcoat. Beige breeches finished mid-shin, and shin-high boots concealed white cotton stockings. These shoes and stockings were not as uncomfortable as others Thomas had worn. But he chose to tuck that knowledge away somewhere private and uphold his dislike of both.

 

He attempted once more to memorise paintings on the way to the breakfast-parlour, but quickly grew muddled and decided to let his surroundings acquaint themselves with him in their own sweet time.

 

Just as it had been on his first visit, the breakfast-parlour was a large, light room. The ceiling revealed a scene of feasting gods and the left wall held three massive windows; one pane of each stained artfully. Peyton sat at a circular table, reading the newspaper.

 

Morris withdrew from the room with a bow and Thomas was left feeling unsure about what to do with his hands.

 

"How long do you intend to stand there?" Mr. Peyton asked, not looking up from his paper.

Thomas promptly took the only other seat at the table.

 

Besides Peyton's newspaper, the table held tea, coffee, chocolate, toast and butter. Thomas noticed, with mild confusion, that Mr. Peyton's cup was empty and he had no plate to speak of.

 

Cautiously, he poured himself some tea. "Were you waiting for me, sir?" He asked.

"Hardly." was the terse reply he got.

He helped himself to some toast and began to butter it. "Did you..." He frowned at his breakfast and tried to think of appropriate conversation topics. "sleep well, sir?"

Mr. Peyton folded his paper and set it aside, fixing that now familiar cold gaze on Thomas. "Where did you go last night?"

Thomas was surprised by the question. "The alehouse, sir." He placed the knife down once his toast was coated adequately.

"Was the dinner you had here insufficient?" Peyton inquired. "Or simply not to your tastes? I was told you ate very little."

Thomas blinked at him, feeling - and fighting - the urge to laugh incredulously. "Sir, I may be a growing lad but there was enough food on that table to feed five men, at least." He said. "I ate all I possibly could, and enjoyed it very much." He picked up his toast. "I went to the alehouse for some friends of mine."

"I would appreciate," Peyton watched him take a small bite. "that you do not leave the estate after dark, unless it's with my express permission."

Thomas swallowed, something defiant rearing its head. "May I ask why, sir?"

"No." Peyton leant back in his chair. "You may not."

Dissatisfaction made itself known in Thomas's stomach and on his brow. He took another bite of toast and settled his eyes on his tea. Even breakfasts with Mr. Hume were more enjoyable than this.

"Why did you see your friends at so late an hour?" Peyton asked. "The business you had with them must have been urgent indeed."

A flare of irritation sparked in Thomas's chest. He chewed his next mouthful slowly, wondering how much impudence was too much. Upon swallowing, he gave a tentative, "Whatever business it was, sir, ain't any of yours."

 

Silence fell.

 

Thomas could feel Peyton watching him, as if the gaze was actually cutting into his flesh. Perhaps he should apologise.

 

But then, Peyton let out a short and hollow breath of laughter. "What an interesting creature you are." He mused coldly, resting his fist before his lips and absently rubbing his thumb over his knuckles. "I suppose you are right," He said. "even if your manners are lacking."

Thomas put his toast down and flicked his eyes up. Those words, for some reason, made him want to apologise more than if he'd been scolded. "Sorry, sir, I..." He wasn't entirely sure what he meant to say. "I don't know why-"

"-it is unnecessary to apologise." Mr. Peyton cut in. "Should you speak out of turn, rest assured I will let you know."

Thomas swallowed thickly. "Right, sir."

"You will not return to the estate drunk again, Thomas." Peyton removed his hand from before his mouth. It was dropped elegantly onto the tabletop and he tapped his forefinger twice. "That is out of turn."

Thomas shook his head and reached for his tea. "I wasn't drunk, sir." He said. "Tipsy, p'raps. But mostly lost. And awful tired."

"Lost and tired." Peyton echoed. "That is the reason you collapsed on a cold, hard sofa in exactly the same manner as a tippler?"

"I couldn't find my room, sir, and didn't want to wake no one."

Mr. Peyton looked at Thomas's half-eaten toast. "See it does not happen again."

Thomas took a little sip of tea and nodded. "Yes, sir." He thought it odd that Peyton should more strongly disapprove of Thomas sleeping on a sofa, than of Thomas telling him - with little civility - to mind his own business.

 

Thomas resumed eating his toast and Peyton resumed reading his paper. Quiet stretched between them like a lazy cat; a far pleasanter silence than had ever settled between them previously. It lasted for as long as Thomas's breakfast, and was broken with the finishing of his second slice of toast.

 

"I will show you around the grounds myself." Mr. Peyton told him as Thomas licked butter from his fingers.

The words had an almost paralytic effect as he registered them. With his eyes widened in question and the tip of his middle finger between his lips, Thomas let out a slight hum. It was a noise that could be translated universally as come again?

Mr. Peyton's eyes dipped to Thomas's mouth and lingered there. Without subtlety; without hesitance; without reservation. He gazed at Thomas's lips without anything other than cool, dark observation.

Heat flooded to Thomas's face and he pulled his hand down, wiping it on his breeches. His chest was quickly overrun with a swell of messy emotions: tight, fluttering nerves; hot embarrassment; itching self-consciousness; confusion; shame; disgust; guilt; agitation; doubt; fear; anxiety.

"At least, I will show you enough of them that you will not get lost when venturing out alone." Mr. Peyton unhurriedly lifted his gaze to Thomas's coloured cheeks and then to his eyes. He took in Thomas's flustered state with indifference, before picking up his newspaper and finding his place. "I am sure you will enjoy them."

"Oh." Thomas said, if only to give some response. "Um." He watched Peyton skim over the paper with a pink face.

 

Mr. Peyton had been unconventional from the very beginning of their acquaintance, of course. But surely the behaviour he had just displayed was beyond unconventional. Or perhaps... it was Thomas's-- condition that warped the interaction. Was it perfectly normal to gaze at another man's mouth in such a fashion? Was the only abnormality present the sickness of Thomas's soul? Had that polluted his vision and twisted innocent conduct? Thomas sat there and felt exposed in the most unpleasant of ways.

 

He was about to ask to be excused when Mr. Peyton spoke again: "I suppose you have not yet found a room suitable for using as a studio?"

Thomas swallowed and attempted to regain his composure. "Um. No, sir." He said, before thinking back to his first time in Harwood Estate. "Or, that is..." He fixed his eyes on Mr. Peyton's untouched teacup. "would the, um, heaven room be appropriate, sir?"

"You are the painter, not me." Peyton responded. "If you wish to paint in the heaven room, you may do so." He set down his newspaper again. "You will inform Morris of any necessary alterations that are to be made to it." He said. "Would you like to see the gardens now?"

"Oh." Thomas watched Mr. Peyton push back from the table and concluded his response was of no significance. He gave it nonetheless: "Yes, sir."

 

They saw Morris on their way out. Thomas could think of nothing he should like to alter about the heaven room - much to Mr. Peyton's apparent, albeit silent, dissatisfaction - so asked only for his supplies to be set up there.

 

They exited the house on what Thomas thought was the west, but could just as easily be the east or south sides. A stone terrace projected for a few metres before descending into carved steps, leading to a manicured stretch of grass, backed by a crisp wall of hedging.

 

"This is the east garden." Peyton told Thomas, making his way down the stairs and holding his hands behind his back. "It extends for fourteen acres. The most interesting part is the lake." He led Thomas to an opening in the hedge. "Though there are bigger, more beautiful lakes elsewhere on the grounds."

Thomas padded after him, having to step quicker than was natural for him to keep up. This side of the hedge revealed a parterre; a delicate assortment of flowers, shrubs and bushes, separated and connected by pebble paths. There was not a leaf nor stone out of place. The plants surrounded a sculpted stone fountain, trickling peacefully. Behind this, more hedging sprouted from the earth.

Peyton gazed impassively at the splendid landscape. "I will not take you further into this garden." He said. "To do so would require entering the labyrinth and I am not in the mood."

"Labyrinth." Thomas repeated under his breath, eyes falling on the hedges beyond the fountain.

"It is exceedingly simple." Mr. Peyton told him. "Though, with the sense of direction you have thus far demonstrated, I suspect you might struggle." He stepped back and began to retreat from the parterre. "If you wish to explore, I would ask you alert someone first, so that you may be recovered when you inevitably become lost."

Thomas blinked at the labyrinth. A second ticked by. And then a short, soft bark of laughter burst from him. He did not think Mr. Peyton intended the remark as banter, but this was the way in which Thomas's brain decided to interpret it. With the remnants of a smile on his face and in his chest, he turned and followed Peyton.

 

He was led around to the back of the great house - a walk that was far longer than it had any business being.

 

"To the south-west is an arboretum, within which is the water garden and aviary." Mr. Peyton said, gesturing to the other side of the manor. "The kitchen garden and stables are also to be found there."

Thomas peered over. "Arboretum, sir?"

"Collection of trees." Peyton reiterated. "Ahead of us is parkland." He glanced fleetingly to Thomas, before starting off. "I will take you to the twelve acre lake."

 

They walked in relative silence down the sloping lawn that spilled from the back of the house. At the bottom was a placid lake. The surface was speckled with aquatic plant-life and looked cold and sinister. It was certainly not twelve acres.

 

Thomas's eyes trailed a gadwall, gliding through the water. He wondered how a lake which was clearly not twelve acres, came to be known as the twelve acre lake and considered asking. Just as he parted his lips to do so, however, Peyton continued walking. Thomas had not noticed, until now, the faint path curving along the waterside, bumbling toward a clump of woodland.

 

The woods, when they entered them, were sweet-smelling and serene. Mottled sunlight found its way through gently rustling leaves and the fresh air was softened with birdsong. It was perhaps thirty minutes later when they emerged from the trees, only to be greeted by lush meadows. Wild spring flowers were scattered about and Thomas could see himself coming to paint here very often indeed.

 

In the distance to their right, was more woodland; to the left, Thomas could make out a herd of grazing deer. In the distance directly ahead, the glittering surface of water could be identified. This time there could be no question on its being twelve acres.

 

When they reached it at last, Thomas was sure his spirits were higher than they had been at any point over the last year; such was the majesty of nature. The power to destroy and create could be found nowhere else in so harmonious a balance. Nature was as cruel as it was nurturing; as constant as it was changing; as beautiful as it was terrible. It inspired awe and fear in equa-

 

"Of course it's entirely artificial." Mr. Peyton interrupted Thomas's reverie. "Created accidentally in the ninth and tenth centuries by people digging for peat. The excavations were flooded and eventually formed the lake." He said. "It was extended and given shape forty years ago."

Thomas could not help feeling a little put out. "Oh."

"Do you like it?" Peyton asked.

"It is stunning, sir."

Mr. Peyton took his gaze from the lake and gave it to Thomas. He said nothing for a long moment, before returning his focus forward. "I suppose it is."

 

They lingered by the lake for only a short period, strolling along its grassy banks. At one point, Thomas crouched on a portion of the shoreline and dipped his fingers into freezing waters. At another, a furious goose sprung from the reedy edges and pecked Thomas on the knee. Mr. Peyton let out a low, vacant laugh and suggested it was time they returned to the house.

 

"Am I to start painting today, sir?" Thomas asked as the southern facade of the estate came into view.

"If you wish to do so." came Mr. Peyton's apathetic answer.

Thomas nibbled the inside of his lip, glancing up at the man beside him. He tried a different question: "What am I to paint, sir?"

It yielded a similarly unhelpful reply: "That is up to you."

"In that case, sir," Thomas's footsteps faltered and Mr. Peyton's slowed accordingly. "I should like to walk 'round the grounds a while longer."

"Then I will take my leave of you." Peyton responded disinterestedly, resuming his previous pace. "Try not to get lost."

Thomas watched him go. "Yes, sir."

 

And so concluded the most pleasant time he'd thus far spent in the gentleman's company. He might even go so far as to say he had warmed to Peyton; hardly more than exposed skin warmed to the weak winter sun. But he was heading in the right direction, at least. He wondered if the two of them would ever come to call themselves friends. What a strange, unappealing idea. Thomas dismissed it at once.