I heard a voice at my shoulder: ‘I say, are you English?’ The voice was clear, belllike. I turned. An unwigged, goldenhaired young man was peering at me. His skin had the gilded pinkness of an Englishman in the South. I felt myself wince; my eyes flickered, even in the gloom of the church. He was a few years older than me, a man rather than a boy.
He wore a royalblue coat, so deep in hue it seemed to jump off his body. His cravat was badly tied. No one in Paris would wear their cravat other than tightly wrapped like a tourniquet around their Adam’s apple. And he was handsome, very handsome; as hand some a man as I had ever seen.
‘I am Mister Horace Lavelle,’ he said, a marvellous halfsmile on his lips. He was gazing at me, with amused intensity. ‘You are English, aren’t you? I can tell.’
‘I am Mister Benjamin Bowen,’ I said, my eyes glancing nervously across the floor of the church.
‘Where are you looking?’ His voice was all lightness. I looked up at him and now he was observing the ground, too. Then he lifted his eyes – they were like sapphires, very bright, very alert – and grinned at me. ‘Were you admiring my shoes? They are rather lovely, aren’t they?’ About what were we talking? I did not understand.
‘Excuse me?’ I murmured.
‘My shoes. Do you know where I got them?’ he said.
I simply stared at him, not sure how I should answer.
‘I stole them. From the Elector of Bavaria,’ he stated.
I saw him watch my eyes widen. ‘Truly?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘of course not!’ He must have seen my relief. He leaned forwards to whisper: ‘It was the Queen of Poland.’
He rocked backwards and roared, a loud, glorious, shameless laugh. It rang up into the eaves of the church, echoing, and then fell back down – onto me. The Latin speaking nuns watched us, their faces mean with a suspicion of . . . something. ‘You are just arrived?’ he asked. I said yes. ‘I thought so. I have not seen you in this hellhole the last two weeks.’
Two weeks? No person of Quality stopped in Aosta for two whole weeks. Why had he lingered here so long? ‘We have just been to Paris,’ I said.
His brow twitched briefly. ‘We?’
‘I am here with my brother. My brother, Edgar.’
With big, playful movements, Lavelle pretended to look around the nave, up and around, as if searching for something. Then he looked back at me, arching an eye brow: ‘I have noticed you these twenty minutes. I see no brother.’ Twenty minutes? Had he been watching me, truly, for twenty minutes, and I had not noticed him all that while? ‘You are quite alone. Do you have a brother at all?’
I knew that he was teasing me. He was amusing. But still, what was it about him that felt so ... perilous? ‘My brother is ill,’ I said. ‘He has eaten some spoiled yoghurt.’
‘Puking himself all the way to Rome, is he?’
He burst into loud laughter again, every bit as riotously as before. Now the nuns were wearing their annoyance like armour.
‘You are making enemies,’ I said.
He blew through his lips, to show his disdain. ‘I don’t care. Oh, how the Italians like to show their ill humour. It makes up for their lack of personality.’
‘How can a whole nation lack personality?’ I asked. ‘Ha!’ he responded. ‘Haven’t you just been to
Switzerland?’ The whole time he gazed at me, I felt his blue eyes burning.
‘You must like Aosta if you have been here two weeks,’ I said. I was becoming nervous under the intensity of his stare. ‘Have you been to see the Arch of the Emperor Augustus?’ I tried to be clever. ‘It’s all grey bricks.’
‘Oh, sir, are you truly asking me about the Emperor Augustus? Truly, are you asking me about some bricks you saw once?’ His face loomed towards mine. ‘Boring grey bricks,’ he said. And I began to grin, and he grinned again – again and again. ‘Who cares?’ he continued. ‘I couldn’t give a fuck. Next you will be quoting Montesquieu at me.’ His grin turned devilish. ‘If we are going to be friends,’ he said, ‘learn this: I do not give a fuck!’