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Unfit to Print by KJ Charles (1)

CHAPTER ONE

 

It was a bleak, miserable, cold November day when they buried Matthew Lawes. That seemed entirely fitting. He had been a bleak, miserable, cold November of a man.

Gilbert Lawless stood hunched against the penetrating gusts of wind and rain as his half-brother was committed to eternal rest in the family vault. He didn’t want to be here. His attendance had been commanded by his uncle Jessamy, and that letter had gone straight on the fire, only to be followed by a second, this one from Jessamy’s younger son Percival. Percy was the only member of his family that Gil wouldn’t happily have consigned to the eternal flames, so he had read the letter to the end, which meant he’d seen the assurance that he would find it profitable to attend.

He doubted that. Matthew, the much older and only legitimate son, had hated Gil, the living reminder of their father’s self-indulgence, and showed it in word and deed; the idea that he might have left Gil anything in his will was a truly twisted joke. But Percy had insisted, and enclosed a ten-shilling note for the railway fare, and after all, Gil had thought, perhaps there might be some answer, some resolution, something to be gained here, if only the satisfaction of seeing Matthew go into the ground.

It was not a satisfaction. It was a cold, wet, dismal mulch of misery, and the other people clustered around the vault weren’t helping.

Uncle Jessamy looked corpselike himself, his sagging, wrinkled face wrapped in a white muffler that brought winding-sheets irresistibly to mind. His older son Horace had an expression of pinched misery as the rain drove into their skin like needles, but there was satisfaction in his eyes. Matthew had lived as a miserly recluse for the last thirteen years. Jessamy would doubtless inherit a very substantial fortune, and since he probably wouldn’t last another year, it would all come to Horace soon enough. Gil just hoped Jessamy would remember to leave Percy a little something, since he wouldn’t see a penny after Horace inherited. The Lawes family wasn’t known for its brotherly love.

The parson droned out the final platitudes of farewell to Matthew’s carcass, and they were free to go at last. Horace walked solicitously beside his doddering father, heading for the carriage with the Lawes arms on the side. They could all have fitted in that, but Percy had explained it wouldn’t seem respectful to have just one carriage in attendance. What he’d meant was that Jessamy and Horace wouldn’t deign to share a vehicle with a disreputable mulatto bastard. That was fine by Gil; he didn’t want to share one with them.

“Great heavens.” Percy took off his tall hat, the cheap silk streaked with rain, and gave himself a shake like a dog. “I am chilled to the bone. Do you suppose they might have lit the fires? Maybe the kitchen hearth?”

Gil gave him an appalled look. “You’re not serious.”

“Matthew kept the place so cold I’m surprised it hasn’t rotted away, the old— That is—” Percy stumbled to a stop.

“The tight-fisted miserly old hunks,” Gil supplied, not feeling inclined to give respect to the dead that he hadn’t to the living.

“Oh, Gil. You’re not going to be awkward, are you?”

“I didn’t ask to come. What is this about, anyway? Don’t tell me Brother Scrooge had a change of heart and left me his fortune.”

“No indeed. It, uh... I honestly think you’ll have to see.”

“See what?”

“Well, what I want to show you,” Percy said. “I don’t think I can explain. Um, how are you anyway? You look well. Have you been...” He searched for a word. “Comfortable?”

“I’ve not been arrested, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Percy flushed. “I’ve a right to worry. I wish you wouldn’t.”

“I’m sure Matthew wished that too,” Gil said. “Bringing down the family name.” Or at least the parody of it his father had bestowed upon him, since naturally the bastard son of a Lawes should be dubbed Lawless. He had cared once about being marked out by his surname; later he’d wished to share Matthew’s name only so that he could disgrace it. It would have served the swine right.

“I don’t give a tinker’s curse what Matthew thought, with due respect and all that. I’d just rather you had some other occupation.”

“I’ll do what the devil I like,” Gil said, with the friendliest tone and the laziest smile at his command. Percy’s look of concern faltered and faded. Gil felt a pulse of sour satisfaction that almost immediately turned to guilt.

He oughtn’t snipe at Percy. None of it was his fault, and he’d gone out of his way for Gil in the past. But he was still a legitimate Lawes, and as such, Gil was damned if he’d listen to any requests, still less any criticism of his occupation. The Lawes had held far too much power over Gil for far too long, in their several poisonous ways; he was damned if he was going to let them affect him any more.

 

***

 

Wealdstone House was indeed warm, with fires blazing in every hearth, and lamps lit against the imminent twilight, since it was three o’clock when they arrived. Evidently Jessamy’s old bones and faded eyes required plenty of candles and coals. It had been like that in Pa’s time; he had never stinted on making his household comfortable. Matthew was probably turning in his vault.

Gil had spent his childhood here under his father’s carelessly affectionate eye. The old man might have played the fool, or the knave, with his housemaid, but he had never failed in his financial obligations to their son, and had formally acknowledged Gil his own when she’d died. That was more than many would have done. Gil had been christened with his mother’s surname and inherited her looks; Pa could well have avoided presenting the county with a brown-skinned proof of his misbehaviour. Instead, he’d renamed his bastard to make quite sure there was no doubt, and taken him in, and Gil had lived at Wealdstone House when he wasn’t at boarding school until he was sixteen years old. Then his father had died, and Matthew had inherited, and Gil had never seen the place since.

There are standing orders to the servants, Matthew’s man of business had said. If you set foot on the property you are to be whipped.

Percy was looking at him as he handed his coat and hat to a footman. “How does it feel to be home?”

“This isn’t my home.”

“It’s your home as long as I’m here,” Percy said stoutly.

“That is not yours to decide, Percival.” That was Horace, emerging from the drawing room with a glass of sherry in his hand. The sombre black of his deep mourning garments did nothing for his cadaverous face. The world being what it was, Gil did not find it a matter of great practical convenience that he’d inherited his looks, complexion, and hair almost entirely from his mother, but infinitely better that than resembling this horse-faced misery. “Wealdstone House is my father’s now—I say this with the greatest sorrow for the tragedy that has made it so—and Gilbert is here at his sufferance.”

“No, I’m here at his invitation,” Gil said. “So why don’t you tell me why that is, instead of pretending you aren’t delighted Matthew’s shuffled off.”

“You are a disgrace,” Horace said, words dropping cold as stones. “Have you no family feeling?”

“Are you taking the piss?” Gil asked, relishing the way Horace, and Percy too, flinched at the obscenity. “He was a miserly old hunks—Miss Havisham without the wedding dress, or the charm—and I doubt there’s a living soul sorry he’s dead.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Horace snapped. “I refuse to argue with you, Gilbert. My father commanded your presence—”

Invited.

“—because, distasteful though it is, you may be able to make yourself of use to this family.”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Gil.” Percy nudged him sharply. “Just listen, would you?”

“Did you tell him?” Horace asked. Percy shook his head. Horace sighed meaningfully. “Well, the fact is that Cousin Matthew— It seems, rather, that Matthew was, that he collected—or I should say, had an interest—that his library—” He made an irritated noise, fished in his pocket, and drew out a key. “Go and show him, Percival.”

Gil looked from Horace’s discomfort to Percy’s pink cheeks. “Show me what?”

 

***

 

Gil stood in what had once been his father’s private study, looking around, hands on hips. Once he was absolutely sure of what he was seeing, he drew a long breath. “Well, I’ll be blowed.”

“Quite,” Percy said. “You see the problem.”

The room had changed since Gil’s day. Not entirely: the old desk was still there, its green leather top more faded, and his father’s row of ornate, antique silver snuffboxes on the mantelpiece was in place. Gil had used to play with those as a special treat. Although—

“Where’s the seventh snuffbox?”

“What?”

“There used to be seven. The one that looks like a house has gone. Did Matthew do something with it?” The idea was painful. Of course the snuffboxes had become Matthew’s on their father’s death, along with everything else, but he’d never cared about them, not like Gil had. “He didn’t sell it, did he?”

“I have no idea,” Percy said. “Is that really the most interesting thing in here?”

It was to Gil, but that was stupid. The snuffboxes had just been a borrowed toy for special occasions, and now they belonged to Jessamy. They didn’t matter. He ought to be looking at everything else in here, because there was plenty to look at, starting with the shelves of books.

New books. Not his father’s old leatherbound volumes of Fielding and Pierce Egan—those were all gone—but a new and varied collection, some beautifully casebound, others cheap card. Gil knew these books. He’d read many of them. Come to that—

“For God’s sake,” he said, striding to the bookcase to pull out Miss Tickler’s Tales. “I wrote this one.”

Percy winced. “I don’t want to know.”

The room held perhaps a hundred books, and every one Gil recognised was pornographic. There were the familiar spines of many and varied Holywell Street publications, plenty of the great filth-monger William Dugdale’s publications, two more of Gil’s own work, and he’d bet that would have ruined Matthew’s fun if only he’d known. He scanned the shelves, incredulity vying with professional interest. Plenty of flagellation, plenty of tribadic stuff, all the usual ins and outs...and at one end of a high shelf, an elderly volume bound in dark red leather. The spine had no title visible, only the faded remnant of a gilt-stamped monogram that vaguely resembled a crow if you squinted, and brought the hair up on Gil’s arms.

Surely not. It couldn’t be.

He reached up to pull it out, very carefully, and opened it to the title page. And there it was. Jonathan: or, The Trials of Virtue. No author given. Single volume. Private printing, with no details of printer or publisher, just the lithograph of the crow. No edition number, because there had only been one.

“Bloody hell,” he said.

Percy came to look. Gil tried not to snatch the book away. “What’s that?”

“Nothing. Just a book. Something a bit out of the common way, that’s all. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Jonathan was one of the most precious rarities in his line, a cross between a pornographic novel and a Gothic romance, featuring an innocent young gentleman and the heroes and villains—all male—who pursued him. Rumour named the author as one of Gil’s favourite Gothic novelists; it had supposedly been written to commission for a wealthy lord, and privately printed in a run of just ten copies as gifts for the members of his hellfire club. Gil had been allowed as a great treat to read the first chapter when William Dugdale had got his hands on a copy. He had been looking for it ever since, in part because he wanted to know how the story worked out, in part because the right buyer would pay a fortune for it. God knew what this must have cost Matthew but it would have been well into three figures.

He put the book back with a reluctance so deep it was almost painful, and made himself glance casually around. Matthew’s collection had extended beyond books; there were piles of photographs and daguerreotypes and engravings on the desk, and several shelves of what looked like albums. Gil pulled one out and opened it at random to a slightly blurred image: a plump woman, legs wide, with one finger exploring the dark curls at her cunny.

Percy was looking at the ceiling. Gil raised a brow at him. “Not your sort of thing?”

“Not in these quantities. I dare say I like it as much as the next man, but...” Percy indicated the piles and shelves around them. “Well, it’s one thing to fancy an iced bun now and then, say, but this is like standing in a great big confectioner’s shop. It makes a fellow feel surfeited.”

“I hear you, mate. It’s a professional hazard.” Gil opened another album, and blinked. “Here’s some variety for you. Call it a sausage roll.”

“What— Oh my God!” Percy recoiled at the picture. It was a clearer image, a young man bent acrobatically over what looked like a clothes horse, photographed from the side. He had his lips wrapped round the prick of the man who stood in front; behind him was a magnificently moustachioed fellow wearing guardsman’s boots, an impressive cockstand, and nothing else. He held a whip in meaningful fashion.

“For heaven’s sake,” Percy said. “Put it away.”

Gil skipped a few pages and saw an image he recognised. “Blimey. Look at this.”

“I am not going to look at that.”

“All right, but this is connoisseur’s stuff. The complete series sold for something like forty guineas a set.”

“What?” Percy yelped. “How much?”

“A man could get two years for selling this,” Gil pointed out reasonably. “And the fellows in the picture could easily get ten for what they’re up to. You’ve got to charge for the risk.”

“I dare say, but forty guineas? That’s outrageous!”

“There’s some pretty pricey books here too.” Gil carefully didn’t look at Jonathan. “Matthew must have spent hand over fist on this lot. As you might say.”

Percy gave a yelp of laughter, then clapped his hand over his mouth like a schoolboy. “Sorry. House of mourning.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“It will be when Horace finds out how much Matthew paid for all this.” Percy shook his head. “So, this is why we wanted you.”

“I gathered it wasn’t for the charm of my company.”

“Well, I’m glad to see you.” Percy slapped him lightly on the arm. “But, er, yes. The thing is, Jessamy and Horace don’t want the servants to deal with this, even just carrying it out to burn it. You know how people gossip in the countryside. Word would spread like wildfire, make the family a laughing stock. Horace has kept the room locked, and been carrying the key in his pocket.”

“You think nobody knows, with all the packages this must have taken?”

“Yes, but he never left the house,” Percy returned. “Everything came on the carrier. And he’d reduced the place to a skeleton staff, he was letting the house rot away around him. Horace says they’ll need to hire a dozen people to bring the place back up to scratch. So I don’t suppose anyone was paying a great deal of attention to what he was doing, or cared if he didn’t want his study swept. In any case, Horace wants the whole thing kept in the family, and the evidence removed from his sight.”

“And he’s expecting me to sort this out for him, is he? What’s in it for me?” Gil made sure he didn’t sound too eager. If he could get his hands on some of this stock, even just Jonathan...

“If you mean payment, nothing. Horace won’t hand over a penny, he’s as much a clutchfist as Matthew ever was in his own way. But he is desperate to be rid of it all as quickly and easily as possible, so he asked me to suggest you, er, well, sell it. To cover your costs,” Percy explained, with the natural embarrassment of a decent English gentleman negotiating a bulk transaction of pornography.

Gil blinked. “So if I take this lot away for you, I can keep what I make from it? All of what I make?”

“Horace thought it would be an economical method of dealing with the matter, since that way it wouldn’t cost him anything to have it removed. And of course he wouldn’t want to be involved in the sale. But he, we, had no idea...” Percy trailed off, looking around at the heaps of images and shelves of books. “There is quite a lot, isn’t there?”

“Just a bit.”

“Some of it quite valuable?”

“You might say that.”

“Forty guineas for one set of photographs? Just one?”

“They wouldn’t all be worth anything like that.”

“No, I’m sure. Still. I don’t suppose he’d have said you could keep all the proceeds if he’d known it was worth this much.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Gil agreed, mind racing. The trick would be ensuring he got Jonathan in whatever deal he made, without letting Horace know he wanted it—

“On the other hand,” Percy went on thoughtfully, “Horace did propose the arrangement himself. And told me very firmly to be of use for once in my life and get it done. And I would hate to disturb him at a time of mourning to discuss money. It would be terribly crass.”

“It wouldn’t do to be crass,” Gil agreed. “Reckon we could avoid that?”

Percy gave him a sharp smile. “Fifty fifty, and we don’t trouble Horace with the sordid details.”

“Come off it. Seventy thirty. I’m doing the work and taking all the risk.”

“Sixty forty?”

“Done,” Gil said, mentally adding not including Jonathan. “Since it’s for the good of the family.”

Percy’s eyes brimmed with happy malice. “There. I knew you’d be reasonable.”

 

***

 

Packing up the product was more of a laugh than Gil had anticipated having in Wealdstone House ever again. Percy worked with him, piling books and photographs and lithographs haphazardly into crates. It took the rest of the day to get it all boxed, and they chatted and laughed the whole time, including while they ate supper together in the kitchen, since Gil wasn’t welcome at the dining table that had once been his father’s.

He had no desire to mix with decrepit Jessamy or his covetous son anyway. He didn’t want the contrast to remind him of this place as it had been, to hear his father’s voice down the empty hallways, or mistake the tap of Jessamy’s cane for Pa’s. And if he had to spend all this time here, packing books and photographs into box after box, it wasn’t too bad doing it with Percy. This was the longest they’d spent together in years, since Gil didn’t precisely go out of his way to seek out anyone named Lawes. He hadn’t seen hide or hair of his relatives after he’d been turfed out of school, and he’d never have spoken to any of them again, except that Percy had gone out of his way to find him.

Not that they were close. Percy held a respectable sort of position in Somerset House, so of course he didn’t want to be seen visiting the depraved environs of Holywell Street, and since Gil generally didn’t respond to his invitations, they rarely met. But still, he’d made the effort to look Gil up and do him a devil of a good turn once. Gil had asked why he’d bothered, and Percy had said, You’re family.

Gil took that for what it was worth, which was to say that it and two pennies would get you tuppence worth of tobacco. He knew precisely how much family he had, and what family had meant when he’d found himself at sixteen with nowhere to go, no help, no friends, no name. His family had damn near destroyed him once; he wasn’t going to give any of them that opportunity again, not even Percy. When it came down to it, you couldn’t rely on anyone but yourself, and you forgot that at your peril.

All the same, it was good to have this time together now. Gil told a few stories about his work as they packed, and Percy ended up laughing so hard that the miserable stiff-rump Horace came in, outraged, to remind them this was a house of mourning, and not one Gil belonged in. Take your filth and get out, was the message, and that was a lot more what he was used to from the Lawes.

So he did just that the next day, another wet November morning, leaving Wealdstone House for what would doubtless be the final time, with Jonathan safely stowed about his person in case of accidents.

The drive from Wealdstone House to the road took an unnecessary loop to give carriages a clear view of the Jacobean building in its magnificence. Gil didn’t look back.

 

***

 

The crates were sent up to London by carter, arriving at Gilbert Lawless Bookseller on Holywell Street early on Thursday afternoon. It was a cold, wet day, the air thick with smoke and mist and noisome smells, since the shop was close to Pissing Alley, which served as an escape route onto the Strand in the event of a police raid, and an impromptu privy for less dramatic needs. The wind was blowing from that direction, driving rain onto the cobbles and splashing into the puddles of filth and black mud. It stank like a wet dog out there, and nobody with sense would be shopping for gentlemen’s literary entertainment in weather like this, so Gil awarded himself a half holiday, shut up the shop, and settled himself to look at Matthew Lawes’ collection. He started with the loose photographs, since they were the easiest carried up the stairs to where he had a fire going.

Gil had been a writer and purveyor of obscene books to the discerning gentleman (and occasionally lady, and a few who stretched the definitions in their own ways) for eleven years now, counting his apprenticeship, and he’d seen a lot. There was very little surprised him any more when it came to what people liked. He didn’t make many demands of his own on the occasions he shared a bed, requiring only that his partners should treat things lightly and not expect him to be there the next day; he didn’t have the time, the energy, or the spinal flexibility to do a quarter of the things that featured in the books he wrote. But when it came to other people’s tastes in copulation, he’d call himself as easy-going as any man in London. It was all just flesh, in the end.

He would not have expected his sour, shrivel-souled half-brother to take that view, but after half an hour he concluded with some astonishment that when it came to fucking, Matthew Lawes had had a mind as open as the sky. There were men with women, men with men, women with women; women dressed as men, men painted as women. Every kind of pairing, and more than pairs because one picture had nine people in a heap. There was speciality stuff too. Plenty of flagellation, carried out with all sorts of implements—whips and canes; leather straps; prickly holly and bunches of furze. There were chains and cuffs; dildos and ticklers; champagne bottles and glasses used for everything but drinking champagne.

It was well outside Gil’s professional expertise. He was a bookseller, handling photographs only on the odd occasions they came his way, and he had no idea how to shift this quantity of product without getting nabbed.

He considered the matter. If he took the most valuable sets out, he could probably arrange to sell the rest as a job lot to Arnott on Wych Street. This was an unpalatable prospect, since he didn’t much enjoy Arnott’s company and indeed considered him highly likely to end up on the front page of the Illustrated Police News at some point, but he would prefer to get rid of Matthew’s stock as fast as possible even if it meant accepting a bargain price. Percy would doubtless be glad of whatever he got from the sale; Gil just wanted it gone.

Partly he didn’t much like having several years’ worth of imprisonment with hard labour on the premises, of course. But there was also something about the collection that made him uncomfortable, and he wasn’t sure what. It couldn’t be the content, which was nothing new. Perhaps it was just the idea of his miserable, stiff-necked prick of a half-brother enjoying himself at all, let alone with such variety. Gil had a buyer, a fellow called Ashbee, who was putting together a collection of every obscene book in the land. Perhaps Matthew too had wanted to own everything possible. Or perhaps it had been a job lot put together by someone else and bought in bulk, and anyway Matthew was dead and gone, so who gave a damn what he’d liked to toss to?

It was irritating to be even thinking about the vicious miserly sod. Gil set back to work, sorting rapidly through photographs, daguerreotypes, and stereoscopic slides in search of dirty gold—and then he stopped.

The image he was holding wasn’t particularly noteworthy, just a young man, no more than seventeen, smiling at the camera with his half-full prick hanging out. What caught Gil was that he knew the lad, and he was dead.

Errol, that had been his name. A cheerful cocky sort, always ready with a smart remark, made a fair bit using his mouth in other ways. And he’d been found in Clare Court, a little maze of alleys just a few minutes’ walk from Holywell Street, maybe three weeks ago, face battered, skull caved in.

They hadn’t found the culprit, and Gil doubted anyone had looked very hard. Errol had spent a fair bit of his short life skittering in and out of cells for indecent behaviour; the police probably thought he’d had it coming. He’d doubtless said the wrong thing to the wrong man at the wrong time, that was all. It happened.

Poor old Errol, though. Gil hesitated over the image, not sure what to do. It seemed disrespectful to sell it on for fist-fucking. Of course Errol wouldn’t know, and when he thought about it, how many of the people in these pictures would be dead now? Filthy, foggy London was a maw with iron teeth. People came in their thousands and were consumed. And of course those who sold their bodies were at more risk, girls because they were immoral, boys because they were illegal. They were just product, like the photographs, bought and sold and discarded.

Well, life was hard and there wasn’t much to be done about it. Gil stacked up the print with a few more in the series, which showed Errol had made the most of his short term on this earth, and moved on.