Monday, December 7, 2009

The Phoenix excerpt by Ruth Sims

The setting for The Phoenix by Ruth Sims is London, mid-1890’s.

Brought up in a strict faith in which theatre was only one of many evils, Nick Stuart, a young doctor dedicated to helping the poor, is dragged by friends to see “Hamlet.” He goes reluctantly, prepared to recoil in disgust at the playacting decadence. Instead, he finds something he could never have imagined—a man who takes his breath away and steals his heart: the intensely charismatic actor, Kit St. Denys. Nick’s first step into a theatre is an event that will soon change many lives and lead to tragedy and sacrifice.

The Phoenix
Lethe Press (2009)
ISBN: 978-1590210468


For several days Nick tried to put the experience out of his mind, tried to feel contempt for the shallow, imaginary world of theatre. He dealt with reality, with sickness and injuries, births and death. There was no room in his life for the frivolity of make-believe. And then, in his mind, there would come the image from the theatre poster.

He returned to the theatre night after night, sitting in the cheapest seats, paying for admittance with money that ought to have gone for food. It was more important to be there in the dark and absorb the beauty and power of Kit St. Denys, even though he was so far from the stage it was like watching moving dolls. He was astonished that, even so far away, he could hear every word. Every night he thrilled to the same lines delivered by the same voice but always with some slight difference in inflection or emotion. He watched no one else on the stage. If Hamlet were offstage Nick was impatient until he returned.

The theatre might well be an abomination. He no longer cared. He sat there in the dark and spun fantasies. Without knowing he was doing it, he prayed for a miracle: that he might speak to St. Denys. On closing night the miracle happened.

The last act this time was more lifelike than ever when Hamlet’s foot slipped and he felt on his back. He was up again in an instant, battling for his life, not missing a word or a step. Even from so far away, Nick thought he saw blood darkening the back of Hamlet’s fair head.

By the time the last curtain call had been made it was obvious he was injured. Every time he straightened from a deep bow there were red, shiny streaks on his face. Finally, St. Denys said calmly, “Ladies and gentlemen, we achieved an usual level of realism tonight. I have need of a physician. If one will come to the dressing room…”

While the chattering crowd streamed toward the doors, Nick pushed against the flow to find his way backstage, praying he got there before any other doctor who had been in the audience. He was guided to a dressing room where St. Denys sat, pale even through the stage makeup. It was almost shocking to see him up close—a tall, living, breathing man and not a child’s doll. A wizened little man held a red-soaked folded cloth against the back of his head.

“I’m—I’m a doctor,” Nick said, and heard the old man say unnecessarily, “The doctor is here, Mr. Kit.”

Nick took a deep breath and leaned close to the bleeding wound. “I need water,” he said. “A lot of it. I don’t think it’s as serious as it looks.” The little man quickly produced water and more cloths. Nick gently cleansed the wound and was relieved to find it was as he suspected—a minor injury but producing a great deal of blood. One side of the actor’s face was bloody as was the back of his neck. Nick concentrated on the injury itself, seeing it as a disembodied entity and not as something that was part of this creature who had disturbed his thoughts. Briskly, he said, “I need to send for my medical bag. This wants a stitch or two.”

“No time,” St. Denys said. “I’ve a wrap party to attend. I had the wardrobe mistress bring needles and thread.”

“Mr. St. Denys, with all due respect, that’s asking for infection.”

“Sew it.”

Nick hesitated. The needle could be sterilized in a candle flame but not much could be done about the thread. Reluctantly, he sterilized the needle, washed the thread and his hands in the basin the old man produced, and made the three stitches that closed the wound. Throughout the procedure St. Denys uttered not one sound. “There,” Nick said. “Finished. Rest for a day and if you find yourself with a severe headache or dizziness contact your own physician as soon as possible.”

St. Denys winced and smiled slightly as he turned his head and looked up at Nick. “I already have a headache,” he said. “Does that count?”

Nick looked down into dark eyes that saw into his soul. Something stopped in that instant. Time? His heartbeat? He didn’t know. He knew only that something stopped and something began.

St. Denys’ gaze held Nick’s. His lips parted as if to say something important, and then he said, “I no longer have a physician on call. I dismissed the last one this morning. Perhaps I could persuade you to join us at the cast party, and then you should be there in case I fall on my arse again, Dr. …”

Nick hesitated. “I think you should not go, yourself. You really should rest.”

“I shall rest when I am dead. Please come.”

Nick felt himself weakening. He prayed St. Denys did not notice his general shabbiness. “I couldn’t. Thank you. I begin work early.” But wouldn’t it be worth losing sleep to spend another hour or two in this man’s presence? And of course, he would be there in case St. Denys had a problem as a result of the fall…

St. Denys rose from the chair, weaving slightly on his feet for an instant. “I must speak with the theatre manager before he leaves. Give some thought to the party while I am gone. You know you’d never forgive yourself if you read in the newspaper that I collapsed during my wrap party.” He grinned and Nick dissolved inside. St. Denys left the room without waiting for an answer.

I can’t go, Nick thought. I can’t. Neither was he going to sit there like a smitten serving girl and wait for St. Denys to return. He could leave. He would leave. Immediately. Yes. Walk through that doorway. He glanced down and noticed a blond hair lying curled on his black sleeve. Slowly he pulled it off. It had a life of its own. He straightened it out and when released, it sprang back to its former shape. A single thread of gold in the form of a question mark.

A voice from a long ago act of sin spoke in his mind. “The apple’s off the tree now, Stuart. You can’t put it back.”

The terrible thing was, he didn’t want to

A large bathtub dominated one corner of the dressing room. The old servant filled it with hot water and ignored Nick.

The door flew open and a tall young woman swept into the room, her red hair flying in all directions. “Kit, are you—Where’s Kit?” She stopped, staring at Nick. “Who are you?”

“I’m the doctor.”

“You took care of his head? I almost fainted when I saw real blood. Will he be all right? Our company doctor was drunk again; Kit almost killed the worthless sot.” She smiled and stuck out her hand like a man. “Thank God you were here. I’m Rama Weisberg. I played the queen.” When he did not take her hand she withdrew it. “Didn’t you like the production? Or was it just me you didn’t like?”

Nick stammered, “I—oh—nothing of the kind. You’re very talented. It’s just that my friends accused me of being in love with you.”

“‘Accused’ you? It’s hardly the same as being in love with a piece of three-day-old mutton!” She flounced from the room and disappeared into the hallway. St. Denys returned a moment later. “What did you say to my leading lady?” he asked. “She’s almost sputtering.”

“I’m not really sure. She seems to think I called her a mutton, but I didn’t.”

“Ah, well,” Kit said, laughing. “She has a redhead’s temper.”

“Your bath is ready, Mr. Kit,” the old man said, and helped him unlace and remove the black sleeveless jerkin and the full-sleeved black blouse.

St. Denys thanked the old man, then asked, “Dr. Stuart, have you decided about the party? You will go, won’t you?” As St. Denys talked, he sat down at the makeup table with its boxes and bottles, and removed the blood and sweat-streaked makeup. The tips of his blood-stained fair mane lay in waves against the nape of his neck and hid his ears; the downward curve of his jaw was strong.

Nick was near enough to notice the light brown freckles on his shoulders. The words “No, I don’t think so” died unspoken. Nick gazed at the actor’s naked back and muscular arms. Sinful thoughts and feelings flew like ravens through his mind and his body. How would it be to lay his hands on St. Denys? Was his skin coarse or fine? Nick shoved his hands into his coat pockets, lest he reach out and actually touch him. He wished he could put his eyes in his pockets as well.

A peculiar lattice of faded, jagged white lines marred the actor’s back. They looked like scars, but how could that be? A small dark mole resided on his lower back, just above the waist of the black tights. Just then Nick realized St. Denys, with a slight smile, was watching him in the mirror. Even the tops of Nick’s ears turned crimson.

“If your wife is with you, she is more than welcome to join us,” St. Denys said, as the last trace of makeup vanished.

“I don’t have a wife,” Nick croaked. He did not realize that the way he said it told Kit St. Denys a great deal. “Mr. St. Denys—”

“Please. Call me Kit; everyone does.”

“Mr. St. Denys, I wouldn’t fit in at your party. I don’t enjoy that sort of thing.”

“I assure you, Mr. Stuart, it’s but a late dinner, a bit of the grape, laughter, and dancing. It is not a Bacchanalian orgy.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“Then you will come.” Kit turned toward him. Nick’s good resolves sank out of sight. Nick had hoped that the glamour and sensuality were all an illusion created by stage art and costume. Then he could go home, ask God to forgive his wicked thoughts, and forget he had ever spoken to the man. But that was not to be. The Devil himself had conspired to make St. Denys younger and more handsome than he had been with the makeup.

With complete unconcern, St. Denys stood up and let the old man help him finish undressing. Nick broke into a sweat and clenched his fists tighter in his coat pockets. How would it feel to spread his hands on that firm arse? Or see him erect and ready? Oh, dear God, he had to leave that room! But the same Devil who had made St. Denys beautiful had also nailed Nick’s feet to the floor.

St. Denys stepped into the high-backed tub of hot water and exhaled a gusty sigh of pleasure as the old man fussed over him with scented soap and a sea sponge… .

…Like a young Neptune rising from the sea St. Denys stood up in his tub and
stepped out. He grinned as if he knew the evil in Nick’s mind. Nick’s eyes sought a fascinating blank corner on the ceiling.

“Only a few more minutes, Dr. Stuart. Then we can leave.” The old man helped him into his clothing. As he started to do up the buttons on the shirt, St. Denys said, “I can manage from here, Nathaniel. Thank you. You go freshen up for the party.”

“Very good, Mr. Kit.” Nathaniel favored Nick with one more disapproving glare and was gone.

“I’m surprised,” Nick said, still looking at the corner. “You socialize with your servants?”

“Nathaniel is not a servant. He’s my dresser and has been for a long time. I’ve had several valets and servants, but Nathaniel never felt they did it properly. He feels only he can do it; he’s right. That I always have the right costume for any given scene is due to Nathaniel.”

Nick wondered how any man who had just been nude in front of a stranger could answer with such dignity. He was surprised when St. Denys said softly, “You’ll have to learn the ways of the theatre if you’re to be around me.” The actor’s dark eyes seemed to pull secrets from Nick’s soul.

At the assumption, Nick was dazed by a ferocious desire; he forlornly hoped St. Denys had not noticed the obvious, but the actor’s left eyebrow lifted quizzically and he said, “I knew the moment I looked into your eyes you that you were one of my kind. I’m never wrong.”

Nick’s lust was replaced by fear. ‘One of my kind.’ If St. Denys could recognize his demon so did God….

“After the party,” St. Denys said, “you will go with me to my hotel.” It was not a question. He did not touch Nick, and yet Nick felt as if he had been caressed.


“You’ll stay the night.” Still not a question.

“Yes.” With those two yeses he accepted everything and questioned nothing, and the knowledge made him afraid.

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