Chapter 1: I
Canon divergent from episode six onwards in the following ways, and probably a bit of handwaving between the lines:
1. Silna succeeds in binding Tuunbaq to her will
2. Lieutenant Fairholme's sledge party survives and reaches Fort Resolution
3. Without Tuunbaq's interference, Hickey and Tozer are hanged.
Now that this fic is complete, I've compiled a list of all the gorgeous fanart that's been made for it at the end of chapter six--there are spoilers, so please do check them out when you're finished reading!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lieutenant Little crested into view over the far ridge, sprinting for all his life’s worth.
“Full stop!” Francis called. Quickly, but careful not to hurry, he shrugged out of his boat harness. The sharp white rocks of the island clinked under his boots like broken china as he jogged to intercept the lieutenant.
Bowlegged on the bad footing, Little slid to a halt a few meters from him, bent double to catch his breath. “They’re here,” he managed. “They’re here—just as you promised.”
Francis took him by the upper arms and forced him, gently, to meet his eye. “Who’s here, Edward? Netsilik?”
“Company,” Little said. And, though he could barely suck in the breath for it, he laughed. “It’s the Company, come for us!”
The Hudson Bay Company, his mind completed; too cold and stunned to make it past his lips. To whose outpost he’d sent Lieutenant Fairholme and eight men, and in so doing pinned all their hopes upon them. Against all odds, and all impediments, they had succeeded.
Francis closed his eyes.
It was such a roar that went up among his bedraggled men when the Hudson Bay Company’s party crested the ridge that it nearly took Francis’s knees out from under him. He swept his cap from his head and wiped the moisture from his brow—and perhaps as well from the corner of his eye—and strode out to greet their leader, with a quick glance behind at James, who had not yet unharnessed himself from their sledge.
“Captain Francis Crozier,” he said to the man who came forward to meet him, “of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. Late of the Terror, and Greenhithe.”
The man had mutton chops so dense one could make a meal of them. His eyes appeared to loom out of his face like icebergs from a fog. Briefly, he shook his hand. “Wouldn’t believe it if the evidence weren’t of my own eyes. Your lieutenant was half-dead when he showed up at our door, saying something about a bear. Wouldn’t’ve come, ‘cept he had the gear.” The man nodded curtly, stepping back. “He had the gear. And here you are as sure as day. Name’s Rogers.”
Rogers was a head and a half shorter than Francis and swathed completely in pelts. Emotion surged in Francis at the sight of him: he had the strangest confusion whether to grin, or to bend the knee, or to embrace the man before him. He settled for clapping a hand on his shoulder and squeezing tight—Rogers would barely even feel it, under the furs he wore— and said, in all earnestness, “Thank you. We may owe you our lives.”
Rogers raised an eyebrow that rearranged his entire furry face. “As bad as that?”
“More than you could know.”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “Maybe.” Rogers turned and gave some sort of signal to his men. They were all as furred and bearded as he. “We’ve brought doctors. Who among your men is sick?”
The better question might have been who among them was not, but Francis sought one lined, wan face in particular. James was still harnessed; though he should by rights have come forward to stand alongside his captain while making first contact with their rescuers. Francis frowned as he strode towards James, motioning for him to unharness himself. Slowly, James did, swaying on the spot. Francis’s stepped quickly to his side so that he could grip his upper arm. All of James's weight--nearly more than Francis could support--shifted into the touch.
“Lieutenant Fairholme?” James murmured to him.
“Aye.” Francis let go cautiously. “He made it after all.”
Half-stumbling, James regained his purchase; ignoring Francis's worried hand and pulling himself up proudly. He raised his head to survey the men. It seemed to cost him an effort. Most of the crew had scattered and were mingling with the Company, and tents of heavy weather-proofed canvas were already going up; likely all the way from England, as their own were, but brighter than the grubby things they had been hauling for hundreds of miles.
For a long moment, James swept his gaze off behind them, towards vacant land; and ice. “You were right, Francis,” he said quietly.
“James,” Francis said.
James’s gaze stuck blankly to the north.
“James," he repeated. Close as they were, Francis could count the open sores decorating James’s cheeks, some of which had not been present a day ago. Francis’s eyes slid downwards. Broad bands of red soaked James’s clothes where the harness—good Christ, where the harness had dug into his chest. “Find yourself a—Never mind. I’ll fetch one myself.”
Goodsir, Bridgens, and what could only have been Rogers’ physicians were bustling in and out of one of the largest tents. He hallooed for Goodsir, and together, they half-supported, half-dragged James into the tent, ever careful of James's wounds; wincing as badly himself whenever James flinched in pain. One of the Company doctors shucked him of layers and settled him down.
Francis rested two fingers against the end of James’s cot and tore himself away from the awful sight of those seeping holes. “How is he?” he asked the doctor.
Busy unpacking his bag of instruments and vials, the doctor glanced only briefly over his shoulder. “Tough to say. Surprised he was still hauling.”
This man—and the two surgeons with him—had accented speech. Perhaps American, or French. Perhaps Esquimaux. Working his jaw, Francis felt his expression grow cold as it wandered down to scrutinize James again. Only a man so still and unmoving as to be frozen solid could look so unapologetic to finally be at rest.
“I wonder if you could leave us, for a moment,” Francis said to the doctor.
With a slow nod, he withdrew.
Francis pulled a stool nearer James and sat with his hands folded between his knees. James was having trouble focusing: one moment, he met Francis’s hard expression levelly; the next his eyes roved over his shoulder or above his head. Yet he preempted Francis’s percolating remonstrations by speaking first, in a voice that was hoarse, but strong. “You would have done the same.”
“It were a foolish thing, James,” Francis reprimanded immediately. “You could have rested. The men would not have looked on you any lesser for that.”
“Would you have done it? Like John Ross?”
“This is not—”
“No,” Francis allowed, as though swearing. “As you well know.”
James resettled himself with a satisfaction that no half-dead man should have been able to muster. “There, then. We understand each other.”
“Be that as it may. You’re to rest now.”
“What else would I be doing?”
Unlacing and re-lacing his hands, Francis looked up ruefully, knowing that James must be told, but not savoring the necessity. “I’ll be sending Lieutenant Little with three of Rogers’ men to retrieve the crew we left on Terror.”
A great groan rose from James. He tried to sit, but his pain fought him. “I should be the one to lead them back,” he insisted. “Little has no overland experience—”
Reasonably, Francis said, “He has as much as the rest of us, now.”
James continued to struggle. Francis half-stood to lay a restraining hand to his sternum, against which James, at last, subsided.
“Are those your orders?”
“They are. And I’ve another, for you alone.” He waited until James met his gaze, but found that, under the regard of those dark and hazy eyes, the words wouldn’t come out properly. Studying some strange green vial setting upon the table closest to him, he tapped four fingers lightly against James’s chest. “You will stay here, and you will get well.”
James looked away after a moment and scoffed. “Forced bedrest. In all my days, never once.”
With a small smile, Francis rose and donned his cap. “Rest, James,” he repeated, peeling aside the tent’s flap.
“And you, as well.”
As much as James or any of his men, Francis did long for it. But rest was not yet a luxury he could afford.
He and Rogers oversaw the men as they erected a neat camp. Sets of tents merged into serried lines, grey giving way to tan; and that first night, neither of them slept. In the godforsaken half-light, over a desk that had been dragged all the way from Terror, they laid out in flat terms their numbers and supplies; their resources and their needs. Rogers proved to be a man after Francis’s own deliberate heart: long accustomed to managing the movements and needs of several score’ transient fur trappers across hundreds of miles and unreliable weather. Francis found him possessed by many of the same prerogatives as a captain. Perhaps more mettle; for captains— usually —at least only had to keep track of their men within the square footage of a ship, rather than the square mileage of an entire country.
By the wee hours, Francis’s fingers were rubbing at his eyes as often as they were gesticulating towards their ledgers. “Rogers,” he muttered. “Shall we pick this up in the morning?”
Bright eyes bored into him. “You must be tired.”
“I am,” he said, as if it were not obvious.
“Sleep, then,” Rogers declared, standing and stretching. “More capable commanders than you would have done worse to bring your men this far on so little.”
Wryly, Francis glanced aside at him; even though it cost him nearly the last of his energy. “From you, I will take that as a compliment.”
They had conferred for several hours. In that time, a new landscape of canvas and braziers had arisen. Soft laughter, echoing alien and frail in the Arctic stillness, sounded among them. Francis could not discern if it was the laughter of his own men or that of Rogers’. In the end, he supposed, it didn’t matter.
Squinting, he established his bearings and set off, wondering in the abstract where Jopson was, and hoping his things had been moved carefully, and that there was still warm food to be had at this late—or early— hour. Food, that is, which would not slowly poison his insides with lead and madness.
All in his tent was as it should be. He took his pipe from its rag and considered the familiarity and warmth that smoking the last of his tobacco would bring. But the effort seemed monumental even in relation to those merits. Instead, he shucked his boots, unbuttoned his coat, and slept.
Uncertain dreams dogged him through the night. None of their details remained upon waking: only faint tendrils of anxiety. On such mornings, Francis always wished, bitterly, that his nighttime wakefulness would return. On mornings that dawned unbroken by sleep, he always wished, bitterly, that he could have had the dreams instead. He washed his face and shaved as he always had and always would, so long as there were men under him to look upon his example. Then, for the moment, he sat quietly by himself, and looked at his hands.
A week passed.
For all the joyous intermingling of the first few days in the combined camp, and of the doctors as they tended the sick, crew and Company kept mostly to themselves. Rogers gave his orders to his men, and Francis did the same for his own.
Sometimes, though, Rogers would seek Francis out in odd places; asking pointed questions very seriously. Mostly, Francis told the truth.
Pilkington's observations from the camp's perimeter were not one of the things he shared with Rogers. Standing alongside the private, far from the bustle of the camp, Francis asked, "Anything to report?” The careful emphasis placed on anything betrayed the fact that he was in fact asking after something very specific. They had not seen evidence of it since abandoning the ships. But Francis knew, for all the Arctic gave the impression of constancy—in unyielding horizon, in unending snowfields—this land and its creatures were anything but predictable.
“All quiet,” said Pilkington, keeping his voice low. “No speculation from any of Rogers’ men, either.”
Francis gave him a smile and a nod. “Good. And we are to keep it that way. But if they ask, you are not to lie. Do you understand?”
A sidelong look, and then Pilkington's "Yes, sir."
Francis trudged back to the camp with his hands dug into the pockets of his slops. Each day that passed without a sign of their white demon felt like another bag of ballast dropped from the gondola of a hot air balloon. With each, an accompanying surge of gleeful height, yes--but also the swoop of the stomach, and an increased wariness of the height from which they now could fall. Once, a drink would have been the cure for such aimless anxieties. The temptation was still there—still very much there. But now it was just another itch in his mind that he filed away with all the rest.
Francis turned his steps firmly towards the infirmary tents. Later in the day, he would make what he had begun to think of as his rounds: a brief visit to the men who were worst-off, be it from scurvy or lead or exhaustion or some combination thereof. He would tease Jopson about the indecorum of his sickbed being unbefitting of a newly-made officer, and Blanky would take one look at him and know to drive the dullness from his mind with something acerbic and wry between puffs of his pipe.
But first, he would visit James.
He cleared his throat at the entrance to the tent where he had been moved and received an answering rap from within: the signal they had worked out for come when James’s voice was not cooperating. Francis fell to his customary stool easily, arranging it so that he might best see James’s face, and the blisters on it which were just beginning to scab over.
He reached for the water jug. “Bad day?”
Eyes foggy, James nodded. His hair was dull and stringy and wanted washing. Francis couldn’t imagine the man had ever in his life allowed it to be so dirty. One of the surgeons, or perhaps Goodsir or Bridgens, might be persuaded to assist him with it; if it would give a little comfort. But James would never ask. All the same, Francis moved it aside from where it had got into his eyes as he helped him sit to sip the water, careful as ever of the slow-healing bullet holes. The back of his neck was warm, but not feverish.
With only the tent canvas and James to see, Francis leaned back and allowed himself to screw up his eyes for a moment. He sighed. When he opened them again, hands laced over his stomach, James was looking at him evenly and expectantly.
“Shall it be me doing the talking today, then?”
James raised his eyebrows, as if to say, Well, it certainly won’t be me .
“Very well,” Francis declared, inching closer so that James could hear easily as he lowered his voice. “I’ll be as long-winded as you before we walk out of this place.”
A laborious eyeroll.
“Can’t see why I bother. You’ve already heard all my stories, and I’m no good at invention.”
Shifting against the pillow, James’s gaze slowly left his and wandered towards the ceiling.
“Burma it is, then,” Francis declared. Francis propped his elbow on his knee and his chin on his hand. “I was sixteen, and it was damnably hot. I think it was Burma drove me to the Antarctic,” he mused, “like a night of too much drink turns any reasonable man to water, at least for a few hours.” When he looked down again, James’s eyes were already closed, and he was breathing evenly.
One last time, he shifted the hair away from James’s face. “That bad, eh,” he said. Then he rose and saw himself out.
One of the Company surgeons—Joseph, he thought might be his name—accosted him just outside. “Mister Crozier! You should not be up and about so much. You need your rest, too, you know.” Joseph paired this with a fulsome smile, as though Francis were a recalcitrant schoolboy.
“Would you believe me if I said I was taking my rounds,” Francis said, “same as you?”
He laughed easily, as only a man unburdened by three years of scrabbling by the beds of your nails for survival could. “Your men are safe now, Mister Crozier. You can rest easy.”
Francis’s smile slipped, first a little, as he kept his teeth from grinding out captain in correction; and then a lot. His jaw tightened. “Nearly, Joseph. I’ll be done in a moment.”
“Alright then Mister Crozier.” Joseph moved by him with a waft of rough soap.
Francis saved Blanky for last.
“I’m most nervous,” Francis confided to him, “when we don’t see sign of it.”
“You must be nervous fairly often, then.”
Blanky meant it lightheartedly, but Francis was not to be turned from his brown study so easily. “How’s the leg?” he asked.
“Useless. But my tongue’s still as sharp as ever.”
Breaking into a smile at that, Francis leaned over to clap a hand atop his friend’s good knee. The other was swaddled in bandages—clean ones, of linen; no longer of torn-up shirts—and newly several inches shorter than the job MacDonald had done for him aboard Terror, months previous. “God keep you, Thomas,” he said. “God keep you just as you are.”
“Why couldn’t you have asked Him that a few months and half a leg ago?”
“I did,” Francis said, with false gravity. His eyebrows climbed his forehead. “I also asked Him for leads.”
The smile faded from Blanky’s face about as soon as it bloomed. “Bastard,” he muttered; to whom—God, or the Tuunbaq, or Francis himself—was not made clear.
“I won’t sleep well at night until I can lay my head down within wooden walls again.”
“Myself, as well. But I’m not saying a drink of whiskey and a shapely woman wouldn’t go amiss either.”
He sighed. “Perhaps He is watching,” he said. “The Company found us.”
Francis waved a dismissive hand. “That was men did that. Lieutenant Fairholme. Rogers.”
“Is it man that keeps that demon thing away from us now?”
Francis opened his mouth to correct, woman, but something held him back. When he met Blanky’s stare, he felt that his meaning had been communicated regardless.
Days passed, seeming both longer and shorter when spent in one place rather than travelling. Francis made his rounds and counted stores and convened officer’s meetings, such as they were able to; and slowly acclimated his stomach to the feeling of being decently full. (Many of the men had eaten of the Company’s provisions too much, too soon—Francis, having spent that first day in conversation with Rogers, had not been able to warn against the mistake in time.)
He settled into a pattern of waiting: for the weather to warm further. For news from hunting parties. For the men’s strength to return. For an attack he was not certain would ever come. And waiting for James to recover, so that he might not feel so guilty burdening him with these feckless broodings on top of an illness; such things that Blanky would laugh away and Rogers would snort away, but to which James would listen. Would listen.
James endured two weeks of steady but fragile improvement when fever struck unannounced. The doctors, who had mostly left well enough alone to allow rest and fresh meat recede the affliction, now ceased to ever fully leave James’s tent, and with Francis as well as a surgeon more often than not vying for space, it was unmovably crowded. Often, Francis retreated to stand just outside the entrance, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes counting the stones on the ground.
On the occasions when James was not unconscious, he was delirious. On the first time he was neither, and Francis turned from him to let the doctors do their work, James protested.
Francis looked helplessly to the surgeon, who was trying to lay a cloth across James’s forehead at the same time as prepare a tincture, all while dancing a careful ballet around Francis and the doctor.
“I’ll come back, James,” Francis said.
James turned beseeching eyes upon the doctor. “He stays. Christ—make him stay.”
“He can’t help you, Mister Fitzjames. Be reasonable.”
“I am being."
It was then that his shuddering rendered him unable to work his jaw without danger of biting off his tongue, and Francis, for lack of recourse, sat himself upon the edge of James’s cot, resigned to mutely holding that which the doctors stuck in his hands and giving it back to them when it was demanded.
Three days came and went like this before James had weathered the worst of it. His wits were about him again, but the pallor in his cheeks had returned, and his eyes were still bright. Francis lay a hand over his brow to check for himself that his fever was indeed broken.
“I haven’t been myself lately," James said quietly. "I don’t remember—” He paused. “Or rather I do remember—”
Francis moved his hand down to feel the pulse in James's neck, a new technique he had but lately learned. Muscles contracted beneath his palm as James attempted to speak. “Don’t try to talk,” Francis said. “Sleep. I’ll stay, while I can.” He wreathed his face in a smile that felt as hollow as an empty Goldner’s can.
Spasmodically, James swallowed.
“May be sleeping myself,” Francis added. “It’s been a long few days.”
As August died, he and Rogers began to speak of moving on.
A strange agglomeration of men trickled into the command tent, called at their joint command, and settled wherever there was space. There were doctors both Company and Navy, as well as the wardroom officers and Rogers’ lieutenants, and, finally, Blanky; who limped his difficult way to the upturned crate that had been cleared for him. Francis moved to offer an arm, as did Goodsir; but Blanky waved them both off and settled himself. The only men missing were Jopson, still too weak to spend much time out of bed; and James, likewise.
“We will come to order,” Francis said. He shared standing room at the head of the table with Rogers, who was silent. Fidgeting ceased gradually among the men.
“Most of you know why you are here. We must needs discuss the next leg of our journey.” There were nods all around. Francis glanced at Rogers, but the man was, for some unfathomable reason, staring upwards at the place where the guy ropes held up the center of the tent. “Master Blanky has told me that the season is coming to an end. Within three months, there will not be enough daylight for overland travel, and at our current latitudes, exposure will make quick work of us without proper shelter.” He searched the countenances of those gathered, starting with his officers; feeling for their fear and resolve. “Goodsir. Doctor Janson. What of the men? Are we ready to walk out again?”
Goodsir gestured for Doctor Janson to speak first.
“Some of them will have a hard time,” Janson said. “Not as bad as when we found you, but enough to make a delay.”
“Could we make use of the sledges again?” Francis asked.
Janson looked to Rogers and said nothing. Francis twisted his torso to regard him, and, this time, did not relinquish him from scrutiny. Finally, the man took a breath. “No sledges. Not if we want to outrun the season.”
Francis nodded slowly. Looking down, he pursed his lips. “We can’t pack our supplies out. It is six hundred miles to Fort Resolution.”
“We could,” Blanky spoke, tilting his head to the side. “We’d buy time and warmth, the farther south we went. Back Fish River might still be clear. Could be fishing to be had. It’d be a hard push without the sledges, but nothing we aren’t used to.”
They both looked to Rogers. He nodded almost immediately. “Don’t have the means to winter in place,” he said again. “If the doctors give the clear, we’ll march.”
To the room, Francis said, “So we are settled.” He rapped his fist upon the table. “Home is within reach, gentlemen.”
A smile cracked across Blanky’s chapped and reddened face. “Thanks be to God and these fine men.”
Privately, Francis would thank the latter before he would praise the former. “I will confer with Commander Fitzjames--”
Sharply, Rogers interrupted, “You haven’t, already?”
He shrugged. “Will he disagree?”
“No,” Francis said again.
Across the tent, Blanky met his eyes; inscrutable, as Rogers spoke again. “Snows won’t come this far north. But we should leave soon. One week.”
“It’ll be enough,” Goodsir said, from the back.
Someone had washed James’s hair when Francis went to relay the news.
“I look somewhat less of a street urchin,” James informed him, sitting up in bed.
Francis pretended to pull a face, as if debating whether it were really true. James waved him off. “So—we’re moving on at last.”
“One week.” He rearranged his expression, serious, now. “Are you ready, James?”
“Francis. I keep to my bed more as a formality than anything.”
“That’s not what the doctors would have me believe.”
James spread his hands. “Perhaps you can carry me, then; across your back—like the rickshaw men do in Shanghai.”
Francis raised an eyebrow. “Now you consent to be carried? Less than a month ago, you would have rather died.”
It was a poor choice of words. Francis knew it as soon as they left his mouth, as did James; who merely wet his lips, and grasped for something to clear the air. “You needn’t be ridiculous to cheer me, Francis. My spirits are as high as any man here.”
Softly, Francis replied, “I never said they weren’t.”
Yet a silence dropped between them.
Abruptly, James asked, “Where would you go? Once we’d returned?” There was something distant in his voice.
“Do you doubt we will?”
“After all we’ve faced, you'll surely allow me my reservations.”
“After all we’ve faced,” Francis said, leaning forward, “we are still here. Does that not account for something?” James was no longer the same shade of pale as his bed linen, and his eyes were undimmed by laudanum or wine of coca. Pride swelled in Francis’s chest to see it. “You are like a cockroach,” he observed, too quickly to register any insult it might import.
James stared. “A what, now?”
Francis spread his hands, warming to his conceit. “Ever tried to kill one? It’s an impossible task. You grind your heel over it, and it scuttles between the planks. Bait it with turpentine and it walks across the top, untouched, like Christ over water.”
A rattling laugh bloomed from James’s throat. “Good lord, Francis. Have you ever paid a man a genuine compliment?”
Francis grinned crookedly, and found it felt good. “I just have,” he insisted, but his grin did not abate, robbing him of his credulity. “The Unkillable James Fitzjames. He will outlive us all.”
James reached out to stab a finger into Francis’s arm. “You shouldn’t tempt the devil with such words.”
Outside the tent, men could be heard talking and laughing within the camp, and the sun’s bright rays pierced dully even through the heavy canvas. News was slowly spreading: they were going home, and the men rejoiced—even those of the Company, who itched to be back to their traps and their trading and their families. The Tuunbaq had not been sighted in over a month. The rest they could take as it came. It would feel light as feathers compared to the burdens they had shouldered these past three years.
“There are no devils left before us to fear,” Francis said, and he meant his words.
In a thickened voice, James asked, “Do you promise it?”
Francis set his hand atop the edge of the bed close to where James’s arm lay over the blanket. He recalled draping a hand across his face during the fever, not a week past. The flap of the tent was stuck open and clearly admitted the footsteps of the surgeons on their rounds. “I do promise it. We will see home again, James.”
His throat bobbed with a harsh swallow, but a smile leaked across his face, and his arm twitched; brushing his shirtsleeve against the tips of Francis’s fingers.
Rocks crunched at the entrance of the tent. Francis twisted around to see Janson, waiting, with an armful of bandages. He nodded to himself, and then to James; and with one last reassuring smile he withdrew his hand and ducked out of the tent to give James his privacy.
In the brightness outside, Bridgens nearly ran into him going the other way. He had six books in his arms and dropped one as he went. Obligingly, Francis knelt to retrieve it.
“Thank you, Captain,” Bridgens said. “And by-the-by, he’s been asking for you. Wants to know how the meeting with Rogers went.” Bridgens tilted his head to indicate the line of tents from which Francis had come.
Francis raised an eyebrow. “I have already spoken with him, not a moment ago.”
“Ah. No, not Jopson.” Francis paused. Bridgens’s furry brows did not in the slightest relax from their puzzlement. “Nevermind, John. I’ll go to him now.”
In the week that preceded their leaving, seemingly the longest of all they'd spent in the camp, Francis’s mind wore itself into ruts with repetitive thoughts. Inventory. Morale. The men. And England, which would come back to him in small, irrepressible snippets that had long been no trouble to him: the smell of daisies in the streets at Michaelmas. The precise light blue of a spring sky over open ocean. Snow flurries, caught and suspended in Sophia Cracroft’s hair.
“Do you have a wife, Rogers?” Francis had asked him, once. It occurred to him then that he did not know the man’s given name.
“A trapper’s life is none for a wife,” Rogers had told him, as though it were the silliest question in the world, and Francis supposed it was; when the answer was so familiar to himself that he had to look down, and smile something that was not quite bitter. He looked up again to find Rogers regarding him with those coal-scuttle eyes.
Francis shook his head.
“I presumed,” Rogers said. “But I couldn’t be sure. You fight like a man who has something to go back to.”
Francis lifted one shoulder. “My men do,” he said. “They deserve to see their homes and their loved ones again. And more, beyond that—but for now, I’ll settle for seeing them back on English soil.”
He thought of Jopson’s mother, raising a young son alone, dependent on laudanum. And the sweetheart whose picture Irving had passed around the table in the officers’ mess, shyly, exactly once; who would now never marry. And Sophia—Sophia, who would need to be told of the death of her uncle. Francis had a brief vision of taking her hands in his, speaking the words, and seeing the light go out in her eyes as grief shuttered down on them--or, worse, blame.
“I’ll settle,” he said, “for the peace it will bring the families of those who are gone to know they died well.”
The night before they struck camp, sleep eluded Francis. He lay on his back, his knees sighing their relief, and shoved his hands behind his head. For a time, he kept his eyes closed, until he found that staring at the underside of his eyelids was even less amusing than staring at the canopy of the tent.
If he was to be awake—and he had come to know quite well when those nights were to be, although he could well wish it had not been this night; when they were to move out in the morning—he would at least look upon something decent. He pulled on his boots and draped his coat around his shoulders. At the flap of his tent, he paused; seeking the outline of James’s with his eyes. There was no light lit within. He went off instead some little ways from the camp. There would be no one out that way except the occasional marine sentry, guaranteed to move on, and not to linger.
But he was mistaken. Doctor Goodsir stood to the east, a dark silhouette from his curly hair down to his black boots, head canted upward to regard the stars. It seemed a shame to disturb him—but it seemed stranger for them to be two men, up at godless hours, both gazing skyward but neither acknowledging the other. Goodsir turned as he heard him approach, his perpetual small smile firmly in place. It seemed to Francis a little less sad than usual. Above them, the fingers of a weak aurora flicked in and out of the firmament, living as shooting stars and then dying.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Goodsir murmured. He was not quite looking at the stars. Around them, the ground was bright with the aurora’s light, a shadowless, pervading texture. Francis lowered his chin and gave him a searching look.
“Yes,” he allowed. “That’s the trouble with it, I suspect.”
Goodsir turned to him. “Trouble?”
“Like a siren.” His voice was soft, for his words did not come to him with any surety; like picking his way over crack-riddled summer ice.
“I suppose. Parts of it. But is the siren inherently troublesome? Perhaps it is the men who wander into her abode, unwanted.”
At that, Francis had to laugh; and he found he could do so more freely than he might have even a day previous. On the morrow, they were leaving. On the morrow, they were headed home. Goodsir, too, was letting a grin bridge his dark facial hair, eyes alight in a way that made him seem older; or perhaps younger.
“We shouldn’t jest,” Francis said, a thumb idly wiping at the corner of his mouth, “while we remain in hostile territory.”
“Does it hate us, do you think?”
“Not as much as we hate it.” Unconsciously, Francis’s eyes darted eastward, toward the rise of ground which obscured the rest of King Williamland from view.
“I wish,” Goodsir said, “that things could have been different.”
It was so simple and so large a truth that Francis could make no answer to it. He could only stare upwards once more, and watch as the aurora turned from green, to violet, and then to nothing.
Francis did not go back to bed, and therefore did not so much rise with the dawn as beat it to the punch. To his surprise, Rogers was already arisen as well; smoking a gigantic pipe and chatting with his second, his kit already packed.
“All has been made ready with my men,” Francis said. “And yours?”
“All good,” Rogers’ second replied.
Rogers turned to the man. “Give us a moment, won’t you?”
That left him, and Francis; who sat when Rogers nodded for him to, curiosity beginning to turn to dread the longer Rogers refrained from speaking. “I know you keep things from me,” Rogers eventually said. He was standing. There were a few furs laid around the spartan place that he now donned. Francis leaned back, to keep him in sight; to catch his eye, if he might, as the dread buried itself in his heart where there should only have been freedom from weeks of inactivity and the prospect of their impending march.
“That is our prerogative, as leaders of men, no?” Rogers continued. “But we are not blind. We are not deaf. Conversations cease when my men approach yours. And even a fool knows he is not trusted when he is not permitted to set guard over his own camp.”
Francis looked down at his hands. Once, he opened his mouth, and then closed it. After all, what could he offer to this man—this man who had saved them without blinking—except more omissions of truth? “Believe me to be most sincere,” Francis said, “that there are things we keep to ourselves not from selfishness, or lack of trust, but rather the abundance of it.”
Rogers’ eyes narrowed.
“Please.” Francis reached for his hands. Rogers jerked back, but Francis held fast. “It is better that you do not ask why.”
Between his palms, Rogers’s hands twitched. Francis let go. “We break camp today. In two months, we reach Fort Resolution. At the first sign of spring, you and your men leave for New England.”
And wasn’t that all Francis had ever asked for? From an indifferent God? From whatever fell spirits held dominion over this damned land? He held Rogers’s gaze and nodded once. Rogers left the tent.
With the return of Little and the six men left on Terror, their company was swelled to forty-two naval men and sixteen Company men. They were heading home with a third of the number that had left Greenhithe.
But they were heading home.
Francis fielded reports from Little and Hodgson; Janson and Goodsir. As the hour of their departure closed in, he caught himself looking more and more frequently towards the medical tents, which were the last to come down. James was laggardly in joining him: he would have appreciated his help in directing the officers’ questions; to have a face to turn to when he caught Rogers’s blank, even stare across the open stretch of the camp.
In the hubbub, however, he nearly did not catch James’s eventual arrival until he was upon him, striding firmly—though with the aid of an icepick as walking stick—upright amongst them at last; hair clean, clothes washed. Face scarred, but no longer seeping his body’s fluids. He wondered if James would rather have had a steadying arm than an ill-formed crutch--but he could not offer that. Not with all the men’s eyes on their commander. He would not shore up James’s physical strength at the cost of diminishing his presence in the men’s eyes. The dangerous, half-triumphant warmth that bloomed in Francis’s breast would have to find other expression. Firstly, he would smile, and prop his hand on his hip, and enjoy the sight of his friend on his feet once more, and know, in his bones, that they would make it home. For if James could weather this, then James could weather anything—and they with him.
“You’re looking well, James,” he greeted.
James’s lips twitched as though trying to contain a smile. He flicked his eyes out over the men, and only then did he allow the smile to come through, just slightly.
“How will you tell it now?” Francis asked him, half-mocking, half-serious. “The story of that musket ball?” He gestured towards James’s chest.
“Same as always, I suspect,” he said, twisting the tip of the icepick into the ground as he shifted his weight away from his bad side. “Except I shall change the title—and I’ve had the time to think on this, believe you me—”
“Oh, have you, now?” Francis found himself smiling, knowing James to be having him on, and perfectly content to be, for the moment—
“Francis!” Rogers barked.
He turned, expectant; letting his smile even out.
Francis gave a firm nod. He opened his mouth to give Little the order to move out, but then, before he could draw breath, he heard Rogers’s bellow over him:
I’d like to give Ias my sincerest thanks, not only for letting me lift wholesale dialogue from random discord conversations, but for her endless, patient, and enthusiastic cheerleading. I raise a Crozier-portioned glass of whiskey to thee.
Chapter 2: II
A court martial was automatic in the Royal Navy for any captain that lost his ship. Except in cases where gross negligence was proven, the captain was usually acquitted.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
New York City was much like London, except for all the ways in which it was not home.
News of their coming was in the papers before they had yet sighted Lake Champlain. Some nameless trader, perhaps taking his rest at Fort Resolution when the expedition’s numbers had first swelled its wood and stone, had likely brought it down. There was no way to be certain. Even as signs of American civilization became more prevalent with their southern progress, and each footstep put the horrors of the ice farther behind them, a cursed wind still seemed as plausible an explanation as any to Francis.
They came in by train from Albany and made directly for the Consulate General’s office, where Francis had the devil of a time convincing the clerk, and then the clerk’s supervisor; and, finally, the trade commissioner himself that they were who they claimed to be. At certain points, Francis nearly screamed at the man. James looked constantly as if he badly wanted to.
“How can we be assured,” the trade commissioner demanded, “you haven’t merely decided to take advantage of this sensationalism going around in the papers?”
Francis’s face wrinkled. “Sensationalism?”
“Yes--about the Franklin Expedition’s supposed miraculous return.”
“We are the—Francis, we have not come all this way to be stymied by this obstinate barnacle of a man—”
“ Captain Fitzjames,” Francis urged. He had not turned away from the commissioner. “You must excuse my second. It has been a long journey for us all, and you must understand our eagerness to return to our homes. But,” he stressed, “we require an advance on our duly earned Royal Navy wages in order to do so.”
They produced their commissions—dirt smeared into their creases and ink faded, but still legible, and still valid—and were forced to stand as they were scrutinized. Beside him, James’s breathing turned shallow, and Francis carefully did not look to him. He kept himself as still as he was able, chin tilted up, hands growing damp behind his back.
After nearly an hour’s further negotiation, they were granted moderate allowances for themselves and the men.
“Our own countrymen,” James muttered to him. They strode briskly away from the Consulate, through New York’s crowded streets, wending back to the establishment where the men had put up to await their captains’ return.
“Things will be different when we are home,” Francis assured. Shaky tenements towered above them, no doubt the dwellings of those who worked the wharfs. Many of the men, Francis knew, called similar buildings on the opposite side of the Atlantic their homes. Washing was strung above their heads out of windows and the clamor of industry could be heard from all directions of the bay. “Things will be different,” he said again.
Suddenly, James arrested him by the elbow. “Look here, Francis.”
An adolescent boy stood on the next corner, screaming in an unintelligible accent and waving a newspaper furiously in the air. A stack of them lay on the ground next to him. James dug out one of their hard-earned coins to drop into the hat. He stared at the front page, no longer walking.
“They’re calling it—Francis, look at this,” James called to him.
Francis wandered over to stand by his shoulder. The sensationalism mentioned by the trade commissioner was indeed splashed across the page in large print, completed by an amateurish etching of whatever ill-informed impression its artist must have held of the Arctic. It was so divergent from Francis’s own memories of their journey that he had to squint at it for several moments before recognizing what were likely meant to be icebergs, and a sail rising from their midst.
His eyes skipped farther down as James unfolded the paper. Words like heroism and endurance were sprinkled arm-in-am with ones like starvation and hardship , and a dozen other thing, which, when taken together, had as much resemblance to the last five years of their lives as a thruppenny novel had to a Londoner’s day-to-day.
James slapped the page with the back of his hand. “They’re calling it the Franklin Miracle ,” he read, incredulously.
They stared at each other. Then Francis took the paper from his yielding hands, read the title a few more times, and started to laugh. James joined him, after a bated moment, and by the time they had gotten their breath back, the paper was balled up to bits in Francis’s hand.
They kept to themselves as they resumed their walk, James with his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of the ill-fitting landsman clothes they had obtained in Albany, and Francis likewise, reconciling himself to the idea that sensationalism was a fair price to pay for silence kept. After all, the last thing he’d done before their departure from Fort Resolution had been to go around to every last man, regardless of where their berths had been crammed in across the fort, and sit them down sternly. He had looked seriously into their eyes and asked them to relate the truth of Sir John’s death.
“Tell it to me nice and slow,” he’d said, “like you’d do for a newsman.”
“It was a bear,” most had replied. “A large bear.”
“Uncommonly intelligent,” Goodsir had said.
Francis, however, shook his head.
“A—brute of a beast,” Goodsir tried.
Francis nodded. “And what happened to the bear?”
To that, Goodsir had responded immediately. “Gone.”
“We’ll leave it at that then, hm?”
The good news of their success—and the promise of further remuneration upon returning home— put all the men in high spirits. Francis, hands empty while those around him brandished American beers in celebration, fiddled with a crack in the wood of the table across from Blanky. Snippets of their journey floated across his thoughts, beginning to slot into place in his memory as they drew this last bit closer to being through with it. He made no effort to stop them: neither the good, nor the ill. Only when the latter began to outnumber the former did he shake himself.
“James and I will book passage in the morning,” Francis said. “The men can make their own way, in their own time. But I think it best not to linger. Not with what’s coming.”
“Court martial,” Blanky said flatly.
Contemplatively, Francis nodded.
“Acquittal for you both, though, surely.”
“For him.” Francis’s eyes drifted across the room to where James and Jopson were deep in conversation, and likely both deep in their cups.
Blanky, halfway through a long draught of his beer, spluttered slightly. “You worry like an old woman, Francis,” he declared. “Ross had no trouble.”
“Ross didn’t leave two-thirds of his men behind on the ice,” Francis said, slightly surprised at how even his tone managed to be. Enough for Blanky to have no immediate answer. “And I am no James Ross,” Francis added into the ensuing silence.
Conversation in the room around them ebbed and flowed. Accents—American, British, Irish— mingled, at times one rising more prominently over the others. Word had not yet spread of who they were, but if New York City was as alike to London as it seemed to be, it soon would.
“But you’ll have the public on your side. Right as rain you will.”
“You may be right,” Francis allowed. “But there will be grieving families to appease.” He paused. The pause grew long. “Lady Jane among them.”
“I’ve seen the papers, same as you. The Yanks may be a risible sort, but, well. So are Londoners.”
“Perhaps. But it is not American kinsmen that have lost loved ones to the pursuit of the passage.”
Someone must have spilled a glass at some point in the night, for Francis could smell it, carrying with it old impulses. With a roll of his shoulders, he sat forward again, focusing himself. “Whatever fate awaits me, we are safe now, and mere steps from home. That is not without merit.” And it might have been less, if not for Rogers. He rapped his knuckles once upon the table. “Though I’ll not raise a drink to myself, I’d do it for Rogers, if I could.”
“Don’t, Thomas,” he said, mildly. “It’s not his fault we kept things from him.”
Waving a dismissive hand, Blanky looked back down at his beer. “I know, Francis. And I’m sorry for it. The man deserves the crown jewels for the help he gave us.”
Francis grinned crookedly. “A high estimation of the worth the Admiralty would place on our lives.”
“And how would you price them?” The light of Blanky’s favorite pastime—a good yarn— crinkled his eyes. “Not less than a duchy.”
“How do you figure that ?”
“Well, I suppose first you account for the average salary of, say, a midshipman across the course of his service—”
And Blanky continued in that vein, overwrought and pleasant to listen to, while Francis let his eyes roam over the men. Hodgson and Hartnell were furtively engaged in a game of cards. Peglar, Bridgens, and Goodsir were poring over some type of flyer, evidently delighted by whatever American ridiculousness it purveyed. And James—
James looked up as his eyes settled on him, as though the weight of them had been enough to rouse him. He did not seem surprised to be thus observed.
In a slow and slightly inebriated hand, he raised his glass in Francis’s direction.
Four days later, Francis stood at the gunwale of a steamship, feet braced, hands behind his back. The spray of the sea as the ship got underway masked the footsteps which approached from behind.
“Never seen a captain looking less comfortable on the deck of a ship,” James observed, coming to stand near him, mirroring his stance. After only a moment, he relaxed from it; unclasping his hands and leaning them forward on the gunwale.
Francis’s lips stretched briefly across his face. “Not fully a captain, anymore,” he said. “Neither of men nor of ships.”
“But you will be again,” James pointed out.
Francis watched New York Harbor recede behind them. A hand landed softly between his shoulder blades when he made no answer. Under the touch, his muscles were stiff, but when he took in a deep breath of sea air, James let his palm slide slowly away.
“It almost seems too easy,” James mused. “We spend sixteen months travelling three thousand miles, and the last two thousand is done in a mere thirty days.”
A grin, unbidden, leapt to Francis’s face; quickly chased away by the knot between James’s eyebrows when he turned back around to regard him. “How else had you pictured our journey ending?”
James shrugged. He scratched at his nail; his palm. “Hadn’t,” he confessed. “For a long time.” He straightened, and suddenly extended a hand, at which Francis tilted his head; puzzled. “Francis. Thank you.”
He pushed the hand away. “No, James—It is you that I--”
“Francis.” James smiled, but there was something wrong with it. “If you won’t take my hand, I may have to embrace you, here in front of all who might see.”
And, too stunned to properly protest, Francis firmly took James’s hand, forcing himself to look at his wan smile, and wondering at the sense of duty which must run so strongly through all the man’s veins to have pushed him here to safety at last, even when all hope had long given way.
It really was a marvel; the steamship that drove them steadily homewards across the dark Atlantic at a steady thirteen knots. Every time Francis ventured out on deck and looked up, he expected to see sails, but beheld only blue skies.
Yet most of the voyage was passed below, especially as the seas turned rougher farther out. And, unlike a Royal Navy ship, Francis had no command to occupy his mind. No charts to turn to, or even a halfway decent book. A passenger at one juncture offered him use of her bible—an unmarried woman, later in life, though still fair. Francis had declined with excruciating politeness.
There was at least James and the chess-board for distraction. Both of them were mediocre players, so the competition was at least fair, and allowed them to trade slow conversation over its pieces; conversation whose topics never strayed to the expedition for fear of being overheard by other passengers.
On the thirty-second day, at dusk, the ship made berth at Gravesend. There was a great scramble among the passengers to collect their things and disembark. Most had been unaccustomed to keeping such close quarters for so long and were understandably eager to be ashore again.
At his back, in the midst of the clamor, James’s voice called. “All set there, Francis?”
Francis could barely turn against the tide of the press; but he craned his neck around nonetheless. “Yes, James—find me when we’ve made the pier, won’t you?”
A small but steady stream of bodies spilled down the ramp and milled out onto the dock. Some had weary friends or acquaintances waiting for them, and shouts of reunion were scattered about. Most merely dispersed towards the establishments lining the maritime district—alehouses; inns— but Francis stood aside, waiting to spy James’s head moving towards him.
The sun had sunk a low behind the distant bulk of London, and the Thames was transmuted from its usual muddiness into something dark and flecked with gold. Francis hefted his bag a little higher on his shoulder. It did not contain much. Most of the things he had brought with him were still on Terror , or sold in Albany, or traded away among the trappers at Fort Resolution. His only valuables he had left with James Clark Ross, for safekeeping.
Strange to think that those possessions were now so near—within reach—stranger even to think that, within a day or so, he might set eyes on the man himself. His eyes roamed over the city around him for a long time—even found himself breathing deeply of the river’s irregular stench—and, slowly, the knowledge that he was home settled into Francis’s heart.
“Good to be back,” he murmured to James, as they struck off together to hail a cab.
James looked around them, nodding. “That it is.”
“Where will you be rooming?”
“I belong to a club in Pall Mall. Or at least I should; still. Thought I might put up there for a while.”
Francis imagined the kind of Naval club James would belong to, and the sight of him walking through its doors; like the specter of Hamlet’s father, except more astonishing. “The papers will know of our return before the Admiralty,” he pointed out.
They stood now a few streets removed from the dock, peering into a rising gloam, hoping to spy a hansom. The lamps were already being lit.
“Perhaps that is not such a bad thing,” James said to him.
Francis turned to find James levelly regarding him. “Perhaps,” he allowed. “We’ll split a cab to town, then?”
Ruefully, James said, “We are on half-pay.”
“Five years’ wages yet to collect,” he countered.
With a thump, James let his bag fall to the ground so he could more comfortably put his hands in his pockets. “We’ll need that, though. I don’t know about you, but I’d like some new clothes, for starters. Perhaps a decent meal.”
Francis chuckled. He was looking only at James, whose eyes were bright even in the dimness; and had to be turned round with a hand on his arm when James spied a cab over his shoulder, and then moved past him to hail it.
Francis spent the night in rented rooms. In the morning, he stepped out of bed for the first time in five years with not a single demand on his time but his own whims. There was not a single person in all London who yet knew of his arrival--though news would soon spread regardless of James’s reappearance at his club, for the Atlantic was as leaky as a sieve when it came to the travel of news.
There were no commands to be given. No wardroom meeting to convene. No conversation to be had with James, elbow-to-elbow in the cramped dining cabin of the steamer.
Francis rose, dressed, and set off for James Clark’s residence in the West End. It was early enough in the season that he would still be in town, and among the things he had stored with him was his full dress uniform, which he would need for the court martial.
Besides which he had within him a longing to see the face of an old friend.
He took a long time over his toilet. His clothes might earn him a few odd looks down West End, but neither was his undress tailcoat serviceable enough to appear in, though he had brought it with him all the way from Nunavut. It would likely need burning. James had been right enough about money being needed for clothes.
All of which would come later—after he had reported to the Admiralty, and after he had called on James Clark, whose handsomely appointed front door was answered by a smartly dressed butler.
Francis cleared his throat and put his hands behind his back. “Is your master at home?”
With an up-and-down look, the servant replied, “The master is indisposed.”
Brows knitting, Francis shifted his weight to look around the man’s shoulder. A maid bustled down the hall and disappeared through a door. A terrier was sleeping in a patch of sunlight. “Tell your master that I have come all the way from New York on important business,” he said. “He will want to see me.”
After a brief hesitation, the butler stepped aside and led him to the parlor. Francis nodded curt thanks.
The house was lovely. He had not had a chance to visit, before the expedition; but a woman’s influence was apparent, and Francis reminded himself to ask after Ross’s new bride—not-so-new anymore, he supposed.
Footsteps sounded. Unaccountably, Francis found himself beset by nerves.
When he turned on his heel, James Clark Ross was standing in the doorframe, dressed in a green waistcoat that made his hair look horribly orange, his face going slack as his hands slid slowly off his hips.
“God in heaven,” he muttered. “ Francis .”
Francis nodded, unable to speak.
“Is that you, old friend? Or are you an hallucination?”
“No hallucination,” Francis said simply. “I am myself. More or less.”
Ross strode rapidly towards him, clearly not intending to stop until he’d enveloped Francis in an embrace. He thumped his back twice before releasing him. “Less,” he declared. “You’ve lost a stone or two.”
“You’ve gained it,” Francis quipped.
That old grin sprang to Ross’s face, just as boyish as Francis remembered. “Well. That’s married life for you.”
“And how is Lady Ann? It’s been—” He hesitated. “It is hard for me to think of you as aught but a newlywed.
Ross took him by the arm and led him to a settee. “Still feel it, sometimes. But it’ll be six years, soon—god, Francis, six years—I—what am I—” Ross spluttered into silence. Francis smoothed his palms over his knees under Ross’s open stare of disbelief. “Where have you been , old man?”
For all that Francis had practiced what he would need to say, the words came haltingly. “Came in yesterday by steamer from New York. We were stuck in two winters, west of King Williamland,” he began. “We lost Sir John that first winter to a bear.”
“God in Heaven.”
“I ordered a sledge party sent out to Fort Resolution in late—” He broke off. “Late ’47,” he remembered. “There were still no leads by the spring of ’48, so we abandoned the ships and struck out on foot. We, ah. Provisions became low. There were manufacturing defects in the Goldner’s cans. Some were spoiled, and all bore lead, which eroded away at the men’s endurance; myself and my second included. But the sledge party returned in good time with supplies and men from the Hudson Bay Company, where we wintered; and then on to New York, and home. That is not all the tale, I am afraid, but.” Francis spread his hands. “Perhaps the rest for another time.”
With seeming great difficulty, Ross roused himself. “Indeed,” he murmured. “For another time. And are you—that is—oh, damn it all,” Ross said. “Later. Francis, I am glad to see you, and to know that you are alive. You must forgive me my shock. Ann and I will have you to dinner very soon, and afterwards you and I will talk, just the two of us.”
Firmly, Francis declared, “I would like that very much.”
“We’ve a son now,” Ross said, unexpectedly. “You’ve not met him—but I would love for you to talk with him. A bright young lad.”
Francis had to tamp down the surprise from showing on his face. A child ? Though, he supposed, it was only the natural order of things. Yet hard as he tried to imagine Ross, still so youthful himself, a father to a bairn of four— five?—he found he couldn’t.
“But later !” Ross exclaimed. “God, Francis, that you are here —” He shook his head. “You ought not to spring such a shock upon a friend without warning.”
“How else should I have done?” Francis wondered. “Perhaps sent a calling card ahead? Would you have believed it?” He raised a teasing eyebrow.
Ross grinned. “I would have thought it an extremely poorly thought-out fundraising contrivance.”
Francis settled back against the couch. “Fundraising?”
“Of course—no way for you to have known--Lady Jane petitioned the Admiralty for a rescue party last year, and when they turned a deaf ear, she began soliciting her social circle. To great effect, I might add. They nearly have enough to outfit a small ship, last I heard. I contributed some pounds myself,” Ross confided. “And would have volunteered to head the Admiralty’s expedition a year hence if we had continued to have no word.”
For a moment, Francis absorbed this: that the man before him would have left his wife and child to a thankless search for friends on two lost ships—in such a place—at such risks as Ross, in all his experience, could fathom nothing. Relief that they had made it back on their own power, not only for the sake of his men’s survival, suffused him in that moment.
Perhaps not so surprising in turn that Lady Franklin would have gone to such lengths to secure rescue for her husband. Had he given her any more than a moments’ thought, it surely would have occurred to him that she might do so. Likely, Sophia had lent a hand in her efforts, too. And neither of them aware that all their efforts were to be in vain, Sir John having been dead long before they ever had cause to worry.
He wondered if it would be best for them to hear the news from the Admiralty, or from himself.
At last, Francis said, “I am glad it did not come to that.”
Ross leaned forward to clap him on the shoulder. “As am I, I readily admit. And let me also mention that I met Sophia Cracroft several times in passing while you were away.”
Francis looked up sharply. “You had opportunity to speak with her?”
“Briefly. She seemed in low spirits last I saw her.”
“She is an intelligent woman,” Francis said. “She no doubt realized how ill chances fared for her uncle’s return with each passing year.”
“Come, Francis. Not only for her uncle.” Ross paired this declaration with a half-smile. Unwillingly, Francis mirrored it.
“I only hope,” he said. “I do not presume.”
“Will you make a third attempt?”
Francis gaped. “She will be in mourning,” he protested.
“All the more reason for you to cheer her with a proposal. It need not be made public until later.”
“Think on it,” Ross soothed. “Let us not argue. Have you come only to see me? Or will you be wanting your things? I believe the housekeeper set them away; possibly in the attic someplace, though I’ll have them down in a moment.”
Standing, Francis said, “Yes. My dress uniform. For the court martial.” In the trunk he had entrusted to Ross’s keeping was also the deed to a small plot of land in Bainbridge, too small to farm and home to nothing more than a dilapidated house; his mother’s wedding ring, and a daguerreotype of his sister, taken shortly before her death.
“I’ll have it sent over,” Ross was saying. Startled from thoughts, Francis made a noncommittal noise.
“You’re not worried, are you, Francis?” Ross stepped closer and lowered his voice. “Do you have reason to be?”
He shook his head. “Not at all,” he lied. He said nothing of a hundred dead men—two by his own order. He said nothing of three weeks spent numb to the world, nor of the insanity of Doctor Stanley; nor of insubordination, or near-mutiny, and a nightmare beast that had plagued them through it all. Carefully, he kept all of this from his face, allowing only a veneer of blandness.
“Though I do not have your report,” Ross said, “Francis, I swear to apply any influence I have to your cause if need be. And my uncle’s as well.”
For that, though it was nothing he deserved, Francis thanked him.
Ross need never have made his offer. Against all the instincts honed by years of—admittedly badly—navigating the brackish waters of Admiralty sentiment, he was acquitted before a tribunal of officers, standing in his dress uniform with one moth-hole in the sleeve, which he concealed by keeping his arm tucked tightly to his side.
Afterward, Barrow asked him into his office. Unlike Ross, he seemed to have aged ten years in the last five. Francis toyed idly with the drink Barrow insisted on pressing upon him and did not sit.
“What of Commander Fitzjames?” he asked.
“What of him?” Barrow drank freely of his own glass.
“Has a date been set?”
“Oh, soon; soon. No need to spend much time on it.”
Francis set his glass, untouched, on Barrow’s desk. “Good.”
Barrow sat. “Captain Crozier,” he began. “You have made a full report, but I would have you speak more of the Arctic as you experienced it; first hand. You came the closest of any expedition yet to finding the passage.”
Francis’s dress uniform was slightly loose around his chest. Last he had worn it, new from the tailor, it had fit perfectly. It had been at the theater, seated between Sophia and Ross; and he had been warm.
“Some other time, perhaps,” Francis said. “For now, I think I should inform Lady Jane of her husband’s fate; personally.”
Barrow took a slow sip of his drink. “You need not concern yourself with that, although I’m sure a visit to his widow would not be out of order. I’ve already dispatched a messenger.”
The urge to swear rose in his throat. That, and the urge to seize the drink he’d set aside, and knock it back. Francis clenched his teeth to keep from groaning aloud. He stared at the books directly behind Barrow’s head, avoiding at all costs the man’s beady, despicable eyes.
He had no earthly concept of how Lady Franklin obtained the address of the hotel where he was staying, but, nevertheless; there was a card slipped under his door the next morning, bearing a cordial invitation for tea at her residence. For a moment, Francis only stared at it. He turned it over in his hands, expecting a post-script, perhaps; or a line revealing it was all a joke, really; and not to come at all.
This woman had looked him in the eye and denied him his happiness. Now, she was asking him to tea; as though they were old friends. As though she had some claim over him. And the damned thing was that she did, beyond all rational consideration; and Barrow—that odious man—had prevented him from discharging it, in his ruthless pursuit of the practical and mercenary that seemed to extend to all but his mad desire for the passage.
But there was Sophia to consider. There was the question of the clothes he would don to see her; and the clothes which she would be wearing—black—he pressed his fingers to his eyes. He did not want to see Sophia in black. He was not sure he wanted to see Sophia. His memory of her had grown hazy, and others usurped it. It was far easier to recall Blanky’s face, or James’s, than hers, and that seemed impossibly unfair yet only fitting, having been so much among their company.
Images floated through his mind like soap bubbles rising from a washerwoman's trough. They included the utter disdain in Jane Franklin's eyes after overhearing his second proposal to Sophia. Sophia, Sophia --when had he last spoken her name?
He whispered it to himself, quietly; alone in the hansom cab that he took, after all, to the Franklins’ London residence; address rattled off from memory. " Sophia ," he said aloud. It sounded alright. It sounded real. It felt quite the opposite.
Before he had finished wrestling with that, the driver was pulling up outside a familiar house, and demanding payment. Francis put it in his fist without looking and walked up to the gate, pulling down his tailcoat by habit and glancing at his shoes. The bootblack had attended to them that morning, and done a fair enough job; though not quite as good as Jopson would have done.
And then there was nothing else for it and nothing gained in hesitating. He knocked upon the door. It felt firm under his knuckles and solid before his eyes; both proofs of his senses that nevertheless clashed mightily with what his mind was telling him: that these things were memories, no more; and never again would cross his path.
A maid answered. He did not recognize her from the time he had once spent in this house.
"Captain Crozier," he said. "For Lady Jane."
Her hand flitted halfway to her mouth. She forced it back to her side. "Yes, sir. This way."
He proceeded her inside—there was the old hallway, the old stair--
"If'n I may ask, sir," the maid said, making him wheel; "have you really come all the way from the North Pole?"
"No," he corrected, not ungently. "The Arctic."
"Isn't that the same thing?"
Francis opened his mouth to reply, but his eyes were drawn, helplessly; towards the open parlor door; to the rest of the house beyond. "Shouldn't you fetch your mistress?"
The maid bobbed a hasty curtsy. "Of course, sir."
And then, from the top of the stair, a woman's skirts appeared, black and voluminous. They swelled around her feet as she descended, for a long moment indiscernible: possibly Lady Jane’s; possibly Sophia’s. Their slimness betrayed their true owner before long.
Francis took a deep breath.
Her face was carefully composed. Her fine hand slid down the banister slowly, not quite in step with her feet. Francis looked away to the carpet, and back again, half-expecting her to have evaporated in the interim. There were new wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and the black was no color he had ever presumed to see her in, but it was indubitably Sophia, before him again.
"Sophia." He smiled: a watery thing that slid again and again from his lips.
She alighted on the landing, her face doing something complicated. "Francis. It is very good to see you," she said, as though he had merely been gone to Brighton for a week.
"And you," Francis replied, slightly bemused. He had just unlaced his hands from behind his back, in expectation of pressing hers--although she had not yet extended her arm—but the maid had come back and was waiting to lead them into the parlor. Francis, hands empty, gestured for Sophia to proceed him. He did not rest his fingers between her shoulder blades as he once might have.
Lady Jane was perched stiffly at the edge of a couch, hands folded in her lap and tea untouched before her. She rose when they entered. "Francis," she said. "How gracious of you to accept my invitation."
With a short, uninterpretable glance, Sophia went to sit by her aunt, leaving Francis to flip out his tails and take the armchair opposite. The maid poured a measure of tea. He sipped it, gently; aware that he should speak, but wary of saying the wrong thing. Memories of the last time he had been in this house--the words he had exchanged and overheard--crowded over others: most prominently, and most disturbingly, that of Sir John’s last pathetic remnant lying severed upon the ice.
He glanced down at his tea to hide his over-long blink. "My condolences for your loss, Lady Jane," he said when the image had passed.
Her shoulders were stiff about her ears. "Thank you, Francis. We were informed yesterday by special messenger."
"I would have come myself," he said, "but it would not have done to speak with you before making my report to the Admiralty."
"You might have dropped a line,” Lady Jane said. “Such rumors circulate among the papers, and we women left to wonder. But I understand, of course," she said, in a tone which, to the unfamiliar ear, might pass as sincerity.
Francis put down his tea and laced his hands in front of his stomach, glancing fruitlessly to Sophia. She did not look back while his eyes lingered. She did, however, speak.
"You are undoubtedly still recovering from your journey," she said, "but Lady Jane and I were wondering if--"
"Sophia," Lady Jane said sharply.
"Oh, it's no use prevaricating, auntie," she snapped. "Francis, tell us how--it happened. The messenger would, or perhaps only could, tell us that he had rejoined our Lord in Heaven."
Francis cleared his throat. "It is not a tale fit for ladies’ ears," he tried; in vain. Both women were too stubborn to be put off for long by such an excuse. And he himself was not possessing of the fortitude to refuse the pleading look in Sophia's eyes, which she now turned upon him.
He took a slow sip of tea. "But," he said. "If you believe it will bring you true comfort, rather than upsetting you--"
Lady Jane flinched.
He cursed himself, inwardly; for his choice of words. "Only if you insist," he repeated.
Sophia leaned forward. "We do."
And as Lady Jane made no sound of disapproval, Francis told them; obfuscating the violence of it all, mentioning something about a weak patch of ice, and ending with some vague words he barely registered about the heartfelt eulogy. It felt, horribly, as if he were repeating a story from the paper James had bought in New York.
By the end of it, Lady Jane had tugged a kerchief from her sleeve, partially obscuring her face, and was staring determinedly out of the window. Sophia's lips were tightly pressed together, and Francis, unaffected; could only look with regret towards the dregs of his tea.
"I do not--that is to stay, if you wish to be alone with your grief," Francis said. He unlaced his hands, trying to communicate the idea that he might leave with his fingers alone.
It was not Lady Jane who maintained the veneer of hospitality. "You will stay, won't you?” Sophia objected. “It is only that I have so many things to ask--that is, Lady Jane and I, of--of other things, besides...." She trailed off and looked at her hands, which were teasing, in a most un- ladylike fashion, with her nails; a gesture which briefly and forcibly brought to mind James.
Shifting forward slightly, Francis said, "And I would answer all your questions. But it may be best to leave them, for now." He glanced at Lady Jane. "For another time."
"Yes, I suppose that is only wise," Sophia said slowly.
Francis stood immediately. "Thank you for the tea," he said. "And again. My condolences."
Sophia rose with a curtsy. After a long moment, so did Lady Jane, whose eyes were dry.
"Welcome home, Francis," she said, unexpectedly, with no effort made to hide its bitterness.
He nodded and turned on his heel. He could hear the swish of skirts following him out, and knew it to be Sophia; but did not turn to her until they were in the hall, well away from Lady Jane's direct earshot.
She came to stand close to him. In an undertone, she said, "Excuse auntie. I know you were never on the best of terms to begin with, but she has had such a shock."
"You both have," he said, the kindness in his words for Sophia more than for Lady Jane.
"I know. But so have you, I would wager. Which is why I have been able to prevail upon Lady Jane to invite you to stay here, while you look for more permanent lodgings. We both insist. It is the best and only place for you to rest after such an--an ordeal." Sophia reached for his arm with a suddenness that made him flinch. It had always been he who reached for her, not the other way around. "You deserve to be among friends," she urged.
Gently, he asked, "Would I be?"
Sophia glanced over her shoulder. "She will recover, soon, I am sure. There was a rumor in the paper several days past that a ship from America had carried back members of my uncle's expedition. She was mad with hope. Always was." She looked again, softly, in the direction of the parlor. "She keeps imagining he will walk off the next boat, even now. She is the most practical and rational woman I know in all things except this."
To that, Francis could make no reply, and the air between them grew thin and uncomfortable.
"Though," she continued, slightly rushed; as if to fill the silence, "Lord knows it is not my place to judge her. Were I in her position, I might do the same."
"Her position?" Francis asked. He canted his head slightly to one side. "That you were a widow?"
Her voice took on an uncharacteristic frailty. "That I had accepted your proposal," she said, "and you were now dead. Francis, do not look so chagrined--"
"I look no such thing--"
"You cannot expect me not to have contemplated the possibility," she continued, wringing her hands for a moment, "nor to have, on occasion, regretted my decision--"
Francis spun away on his heel and stared desperately at the ceiling. She stood before him in mourning dress--and Ross's words echoed teasingly in his ears--but this was too much of a scene from a dream for Francis to seriously contemplate; to be able to hold it in his mind and consider for what it was, beyond its absurdity: that she should come to him, rather than the long, painful, slow process he had presumed upon; when he had allowed himself to go beyond mere hope and into the realm of speculation.
He had not spoken for quite some time.
"Much has changed, Francis," Sophia tried. "In myself, in our circumstances--"
At last, Francis turned around again. He rotated his jaw. "Circumstances." He paused. "My own, or Sir John's?"
She covered her mouth with her hand.
"Forgive me, Sophia," he said immediately. He took her by the arms, and her narrowness felt strange. It occurred to him that it was the first time in half a decade he had held her. "That is not what I meant to say."
"But you did say it."
And Francis had to allow that he did. "We have always been straightforward with one another," he tried. "It is one of the things I liked most about you. And at times disliked," he ruefully added.
Under his hands, Sophia’s posture was stiff. He let them drop.
“I see,” she said. Then, brusquely, she fixed him with a frank gaze. "I hope you will accept our offer. I truly, truly do."
"I will send word within a day," Francis declared. "But you must excuse me, for now. I have a prior engagement." He hoped she would not inquire as to its precise nature. He had spun enough lies for one day.
"Of course," Sophia said. "Of course. Do let us know."
His decision to accept was not made lightly, nor without misgivings. But it had practical value—it was hard to find decent rooms during the season, on half-pay; and re-establish a life simultaneously—as well as sentimental. Refusing a request made by Sophia Cracroft was not something he had had as much chance to practice on the ice as, say, refusing drink.
Upon his arrival, his meagre things were unloaded by a footman and brought to the same room he had occupied on previous stays; short as they had been. He found the house more real to him than before. He also found sleeplessness had returned to him again. So much for the feeble hope that he had left that behind, along with a bed of rocky ground and subzero temperatures.
Once, he could have found distraction in work, or among the company of the expedition. Now, only one of those things remained open to him; and only after the long wait for daylight.
He begged off from Sophia and Lady Jane’s company the next morning on pretext of business and went out for the day. His head ached subtly and the mild London fall pressed nearly too warm against his new clothes and thick-soled boots. Bearing the forwarding address acquired from an Admiralty clerk, he made for Pall Mall on foot, and announced himself at James’s Naval club.
He was led to a waiting room; and from there, to a sitting room. Young officers lounged around the fire and sat at cards, but most were still absorbed in the morning papers. He sought for James among the card games, or in the knots of conversation, but he was to be found in neither. Rather, James sat apart, two fingers braced against his temple, paper folded open upon his knee.
James gathered up the paper and rose when he saw him coming, the deep frown lines in his forehead softening. “Francis,” he greeted. “I had thought to see you here sooner.”
Francis waved him back down and lowered himself to the nearest chair. The sitting room was slightly dark, curtains not yet fully opened to the light of the morning, and the air was made close by the fireplace. He made an equivocal sort of noise in the back of his throat. “It occurred to me you might appreciate some time unbothered by my company. We have shared it, often enough; these past months.”
Folding the newspaper, James said, “That is considerate of you, but had I known where you were staying I would have paid a call a week ago. Where are you now?”
“As a matter of fact—Lady Jane has offered her hospitality while I seek more permanent lodgings.”
James paused in his shuffling of the paper. “I presume Miss Cracroft still counts herself a member of that household?”
“She has not married, if that is what you mean.”
Carefully, James smoothed the now-folded paper over his thigh again. “Well,” he said. “I am glad for you, in that case. I hope my congratulations will soon be in order?”
He looked up to meet Francis’s eye. There was a distance in that gaze which Francis had not faced in a long time. He knuckled his fist against the arm of his chair and shifted his posture so that he could face him more fully.
“I will always be glad of your hope, James. But there remain many hurdles to the match, not least of which being that she is in mourning.”
“To be bounded by yourself in due time,” James said heartily, leaning forward to clasp his arm.
Francis nodded several times as he grasped for something to say that would not force Sophia Cracroft’s name past his lips. “How are you settling back in?”
James heaved a sigh. He extended his long legs so that they were crossed before him at the ankles. “I am terribly bored, Francis,” he said, plucking at a fraying string on the arm of the chair. “I’m sure you know the itch.”
“I do,” he admitted. “Though it does not yet afflict me. We have only just returned—” he lowered his voice— “a fortnight previous. I admit myself surprised that you do not take this chance to rest, completely, after your illness.”
“We wintered in Fort Resolution,” James said.
“It is not the same.”
James threaded a stray strand of hair back behind his ear with a finger. “Which is what I find so baffling about it all. Did you know I was stopped in the street only yesterday by a man of some short acquaintance from my war days? If I had not been so insistent that he keep his tongue, he would have shouted my name to the entire street. I must be constantly on my guard.” He picked up the paper from his knee and handed it to Francis. “Have you been keeping abreast of the dailies?”
Slowly, Francis shook his head.
The section was titled Letters to the Editor . A paragraph had been circled. Francis glanced at James and cleared his throat to read aloud.
“Regarding the Franklin Miracle,” he began, eyebrow already inching upward, “I am of the opinion that it has been no miracle, but an unholy resurrection. Perhaps these rumors remain unsubstantiated for good reason: the returned men are merely spirits—” Francis broke off, incredulous; but James gestured for him to finish. “Spirits,” he repeated, “whose restlessness results from improper burials far from consecrated soil in the savage Arctic wastes .”
Francis swallowed and slowly folded the paper away again.
"This ,” James said, jabbing towards the paper with his index finger, “is not what I had anticipated. I agree with the Admiralty’s decision to make a formal announcement, but I do not relish its necessity. I wonder to think I ever might have.”
Francis stared at him.
“Have you not received the invitation?”
It seemed these days that all of Francis’s friends knew something that he did not. He rose and paced a short way away, then back again. “No,” he said. “I received no word of—a formal announcement, you say?”
“Sit down, Francis. You’ll make me dizzy going back and forth like that.”
After a moment, Francis ceased his pacing, but did not sit.
James shook his head. “I cannot think why you would not have received one. Perhaps a consequence of your change in lodgings. Mine is up in my room—but suffice to say the Admiralty plans to hold a reception for some of the men, namely you and I; as well as the top brass. They will invite newsmen and expect to see it run front page in all the morning papers.”
At last, Francis sat down again. He raised an eyebrow, sighed, and said, “At least it shall be over with.”
James bit the inside of his cheek and turned dark eyes on him. “And what if it isn’t? It is all I can do to carve a moment for myself amidst the questions of my fellow club members. I do not fancy having my likeness splashed across The Illustrated.”
Francis grinned, a bit rueful, at the thought of James Fitzjames balking at publicity; and was pleased that James’s answering scoff seemed to echo his understanding of its irony. Then James ran his hand through his hair, although no strands were out of place. “I have been in unaccountably dull spirits of late.”
Francis was silent for several moments. James continued to bother at the thread of his armchair as Francis raked eyes over him, from his neatly combed hair to his impeccable boots; pausing at his deeply-carved frown. His overall mien was that of an interminable drizzle over moorlands rather than the summer thunderstorm of fervent and fleeting feeling he had grown accustomed to.
Eventually, Francis roused himself. “There is a moth-hole in the sleeve of my dress uniform that I must have mended,” he declared.
James’s errant fingers paused. “Did you discover this before,” he asked, “or after the court-martial?”
Lowering his voice to a whisper, as though imparting some scandalous secret, Francis said, “After.”
“Francis,” James said. A smile bloomed across his face. “You mean to say that you appeared before a full court martial with a moth-hole in the sleeve of your dress coat?”
“And spoke with Barrow in his private office afterward,” Francis admitted.
James’s crooked teeth appeared from behind his lips as he laughed softly. He reached out and plucked insistently at the cuff of Francis’s jacket, mockingly, before Francis leaned out of reach in affected offense.
“You should tell your tales more often,” James said. Dregs of mirth still sweetened his words. “You have a gift for self-deprecation I sorely lack.”
Quietly, of his own accord, James began to laugh again.
Francis consulted his fob watch for the sixth time in the quarter hour. A furrow was lodged permanently between his eyebrows as he scanned the dwindling crowd for a head of wavy brown hair, but James was either determined to be fashionably late, or very, very lost.
It was five to the hour at which the dinner was scheduled to begin when the foyer doors opened for the last time and a porter announced Commander James Fitzjames, Esquire . The man himself quick- marched through the door, eyes on adjusting his cuffs instead of where he was stepping. His heeled boots snapped against the marble floor and his medals clinked softly against his breast.
“You’re late,” Francis chided.
With a double-take, James noticed him at last. “You waited for me?” He smoothed his cuff one final time and stuck a finger through his cravat to loosen it. “Am I presentable?”
Francis raised an eyebrow. “Eminently.” He lowered his eyes, meaningfully, to the medals. “Chankiang?”
“For my service on the Euphrates Expedition, actually,” James said. “Feels almost silly to wear a pretty bauble in commemoration of such a thing.”
“We are in good company for foolishness tonight,” Francis pointed out, tilting his chin to indicate their surroundings: the Baroque foyer with its geometrically tiled floor; the lavish dinner ostensibly in their honor waiting for them behind a set of double doors. “Just as well we play our parts accordingly.”
James gave him a faltering smile. “And would this play be farce, or tragedy?”
With a last sidelong look, Francis checked his watch. He made no answer except to offer James his arm, so that they might walk through the doors together, as though they were merely two gentlemen taking a stroll through Hyde Park.
The dining hall was crammed with people. A susurrus of conversation slowly ceased at their appearance, eyes looking up in pairs towards the door. Linked to him as he was, Francis felt James falter for a step just before the applause began. It was polite but sustained, gaining momentum until it encompassed the entire twenty-strong table of Admiralty elite and sundry wives. Francis was obliged to steal his arm from James’s and bow, catching James, out of the corner of his eye following suit. Only then did the din drain away.
They took their seats more or less opposite one another at the table. Francis squinted up and down its length. He had not presumed the newsmen would have been invited to the dinner itself, but nor had he seen any in the foyer beforehand, and wondered at it, briefly, before tugging off his gloves and turning his attention to the first course.
Chatter sprang up along the table; too large for any one conversation to dominate. Francis kept intent upon his soup, an old habit meant to discourage his neighbors from engaging him. But he kept his ears peeled for snippets of gossip that might behoove him to know, finding his attention repeatedly distracted by James’s low murmur from across the table.
“You have a promising career ahead of you,” an admiral that Francis did not recognize was saying to James. “Your advancement to captain is surely pending.”
Francis looked up from his soup to watch James tuck his chin to his chest, cheeks high in color. “I have heard no such thing, though if the Admiralty wishes it, I will of course be honored.”
The admiral spent a moment digesting an overlarge mouthful of food before continuing. “A dinner in one’s own honor is no place for modesty, Fitzjames. Come now. Own to your accomplishments! You have returned from the Arctic, and if I am informed correctly, your name will be on half the country’s lips within the week for it.”
James hesitated before replying. “It was enough to serve my country.”
“Far more than enough,” Francis said, his voice carrying. Several heads turned to him, and then away. He had drawn breath for the words and expelled them before considering their reception, but he did not regret the sudden silence they brought.
“Undoubtedly,” the admiral said at last. “Undoubtedly.” He busied himself with his food once more.
“So,” James said suddenly, turning to his other neighbor, “Captain Wallace. You must tell me some of what has transpired in London these last five years.”
And Francis went back to his soup.
After the last dishes had been cleared, Francis donned his gloves again, trying and failing to catch James’s eye. They would likely be expected to smoke. He damned himself for having forgotten his pipe, and mentally rehearsed how best to refuse an offer of port. But, at the head of the table, Barrow was standing instead, gesturing for silence. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his voice deep and genial, “if you would follow me to the reception hall, we have arranged a small surprise to cap the evening.”
Again, Francis sought James; but the man was fixed on Barrow, and then figures were standing and mixing and filing out, obscuring him.
They were joined in the hall at last by the awaited contingency of newsmen, all clutching their journals. They descended upon the admirals first out of propriety, but no doubt itched to turn their attention towards Francis and James. Already Francis's dinner seemed to sit heavily in his stomach. The sea of blue tailcoats and gold epaulettes and ladies’ gowns coalesced in the center of the room, forming a scrum which the newsmen eagerly penetrated as they waited for whatever contrivance Barrow had engineered to cap the evening . Perhaps a speaker, or some foreign dignitary; drawn by morbid curiosity to London to gaze upon the miracle survivors of the Franklin Expedition.
Pushed to the edges of the fray, Francis drifted away to at last join James, who stood slightly apart, gaze fixed on the far double doors. They were being tugged open just as he drew level with his side.
A gaily attired servant pushed a wheeled cart into the room. Upon the cart sat a large, lavishly decorated confection. It was some kind of multi-layered cake whose composition Francis could only guess at, obscured as it was beneath blueish-green swirls and ivory icing. A dozen of the highest-ranking naval officers in the Empire were crowding eagerly around it, as eager as children confronted with a bag of sweets. The servant produced a taper, which he lit, and touched off to a dozen similar ones, all arrayed around the confection’s middlemost tier.
“How garish,” James whispered to him, nearly a hiss. “This was to be an announcement, not a celebration.”
“I agree,” Francis returned.
“Surely they don’t expect—”
Stood beside that monstrous white cake, Barrow himself was waving a beckoning hand in their direction. Expectant eyes and excited murmurs turned on them with all the inexorability of a gathering wave.
Francis drew himself up stiffly before taking a half-step forward. But at his side, James remained rooted to the spot, expression stony. Francis hesitated. Once, when they had been surrounded by canvas rather than mirrored walls, he might have clasped James’s hand, to reassure him where words would not do. But surrounded as they were by those that would only frown and judge, he could not bring himself to it, even in the face of James’s need.
Francis forced his grimace into something more closely resembling a smile as he turned towards James, to all watching as though merely about to share in some private joke with his former second-in-command. It served to obscure the movement of his hand as it slid low around James’s forearm, holding firm for a moment before his thumb loosened to brush across James’s wrist, just where his glove and sleeve did not quite meet.
“'Once more, unto the breach,'” he muttered, for James’s ears and James’s ears alone.
After a very brief pause, Francis leaned away, severing their contact with the movement. But now at last James was able to smooth his face into something outwardly amiable and step in tandem with Francis towards the waiting candles.
I know this fandom is unusually historically literate, so I'm doing my best to research as I go. That being said, it's only fanfic, and it's just for fun. Excuse any fudging you may happen to notice. (For example, Barrow was technically dead by the time I'm setting this story.)
“Oh, Sophia,” said Lady Jane at breakfast, as though she were just remembering something, “had you asked the Thompsons if they would like to have our seats for the opera?”
Sophia gently set down her knife. “I had a letter from Mrs. Thompson just two days past; she was most gracious in her thanks, but declined. She and Mr. Thompson are returning to Somerset in two days’ time.”
“Shame. I thought for sure they would covet the opportunity. And it being Miss Lind’s last performance in London, too.”
“I would have myself, had our situations been different.”
Francis ate steadily away at his ham and eggs, knowing full well when he was not wanted in a conversation. He heard Sophia give a heavy sigh. Though he did not see it, he could nevertheless imagine the way her shoulders might rise with the motion, and then fall; and was very quickly angry with himself for conjuring such an image. He closely contemplated the fat which glistened on the ham speared by his fork.
Lady Jane hummed in agreement. “I suppose they must then go empty. Perhaps we can return them. Or—Francis—perhaps you might be able to make use of them.”
Dabbing at his mouth with his napkin, Francis turned with pained attention towards the head of the table. Its seat was empty, and its occupant’s absence conspicuous, as Lady Jane took the seat directly to the right, Sophia next to her; and Francis opposed.
“Surely you must have some acquaintance in London who might be desirous of the entertainment?” Lady Jane continued.
And though she likely already suspected the answer to that query, Francis nevertheless found himself compelled to declare, “None that I can think of.” He considered it further. “Although—”
In about the same moment, Sophia suggested, “Perhaps Commander Fitzjames?”
Francis turned a wry look towards her as she plucked the very thought from his mind.
“You two seem to have grown close, while you were away.”
“Yes,” Francis said, the corner of his mouth twitching upward, “he had occurred to me.”
“Well. That being the case, you are welcome to them. It is to be this Friday next.” There lurked something in the expression Lady Jane turned upon him--perhaps disappointment; perhaps disinterest.
Francis could give less of a damn. He opened his mouth to protest—he had expressed no definite interest; merely pointed out that he did indeed have friends and acquaintances in London—but, upon meeting that gaze across the breakfast table, he found himself saying, “That is—sounds, I mean to say, most agreeable. I am sure James will be glad of the diversion.”
Just like that, it seemed an entire evening of his had been planned without his knowledge or consent, and he not yet wearing his boots. Nor had he even consulted with the man in question, though he had no doubt of his acceptance; should he ask. They had been taking irregular lunches together since the evening of the Admiralty’s distasteful banquet. Perhaps they could exchange an afternoon for an evening.
“John and I had Commander Fitzjames to dinner twice before the expedition, you know,” Lady Jane said. “Quite the fine young man. And as he was to be serving so closely under my late husband, it was only proper. ”
“—Yes,” Francis replied. “A fine man.” He did not know what else, if anything, Lady Jane expected him to say.
Lady Jane inserted a forkful of egg into her mouth and chewed carefully. “I would very much like to renew that acquaintance. We spoke so briefly before our dear John set sail.”
“And I as well,” Sophia put in. “Francis, might you make the reintroduction?”
Before he could stop himself, he was picturing it—James, stooping over Sophia’s hand to brush his lips over her knuckles, and Sophia’s piercing eyes surveying him thoughtfully, Lady Jane looking on approvingly in the background.
At a loss, Francis glanced between the two of them, breakfast forgotten. “I will arrange it.” He rose. “Will you ladies excuse me?”
Francis left the table with his coffee still undrunk.
That Friday next it was again into his dress coat and gloves He had not donned the ensemble in such rapid succession since—well. It had been years, naturally; but even before the expedition, such occasions had been rare.
“Ey,” the hansom driver exclaimed as Francis handed him his pence, “ain’t you that bloke? From the papers?”
Francis turned to look at James, who was clambering out of the cab behind him, and merely tucked his overcoat more closely about himself with a raised eyebrow. Francis turned back to the cab driver. “You must mistake me for someone else.”
“No, I—I think I recognize you.”
Awkwardly, Francis smiled; shifting so that he was less in the streetlamp’s light. “You are mistaken.”
“Oh alright then, ain’t nuthin to me.” The driver flicked his reins and clattered off.
James came up to his side, chivvying him away from the street, where other opera-goers were waiting to disembark their cabs and carriages. “Glad not to be the one hiding my face, for once,” he observed.
“Is it usually like that for you?”
“Often. Worse, since we stood for that photograph at the banquet.”
Francis nodded in full agreement as they joined the throng of people entering the theater.
He had never been through the doors of Her Majesty’s before, having had neither opportunity nor inclination. Gas lamps lit the gilt fixtures, their grease faintly staining the ceiling far above. Patrons milled through the foyer and chatted with one another. Several turned on reflex to survey the new faces disgorged through the doors, and some of them did not look away from James and Francis as quickly as they should have.
In an undertone, Francis suggested, “Shall we find our seats early?”
Though James looked pained to say it, he agreed.
They had only managed to ascend the stairs which would lead them to their box halfway before a voice behind them was calling out James’s name. It was a common enough name, and Francis kept climbing; as if sheer dogged denial could contradict reality.
It could not. A very fashionably dressed man was approaching them, taking the stairs by twos, intent in their direction.
“George,” James called to him in recognition, with a full-throated heartiness that Francis was at a loss to declare with any certainty to be feigned or genuine. “You devil of a man,” James continued, as this George came closer. “What are you doing here?”
The man shook James’s hand eagerly. There was some familiar aspect to his face which Francis could not pinpoint; something which made him hesitate to step down and accept the introduction James was waiting politely to make.
“Captain Crozier,” George said, moving around James to clasp Francis’s hand as well. “It’s an honor. My father speaks most highly, and often, of you.”
The resemblance slid into place at the mention of his father. Standing before him was George Barrow, Sir John Barrow’s eldest son. “Indeed,” Francis murmured. Then, louder, and more on social reflex than any conscious thought, he added, “ and James has told me much of you.”
George Barrow’s expression morphed from open and expectant to closed-off and pinched more quickly than a hat torn from the head in a high wind. There was a part of Francis—long-dormant but easily roused—telling him that his words had been a blunder. There was another part— smaller, but just as undeniable—that reveled in having made a Barrow go ruddy in the face. Only when James broke the silence did Francis realize he was clenching his jaw, in some badly apportioned mixture of savor and anger. “Where are you seated, George?” James asked. “Are you here with anyone?”
Flinching slightly, as though to unseat a fly from his shoulder, George turned back to James. “Why, yes; I have a lady friend with me—I had to leave her with her chaperone when I saw you, of course; so that I might extend my congratulations firsthand. You’ve left no card since you’ve returned, James; how came that by? We were once so very close, you and I.”
Blandly, James said, “Well, you’re more than welcome at the club, George; I’m keeping rooms there.”
“The famous Commander James Fitzjames, just back from the Arctic, rooming at his naval club?” George swept around, as if he could see it before him, and was passing judgement upon the place. A few more heads turned at the sound of James’s full name. “Where do you receive your well-wishers and admirers? I am sure there must be a fair few of them.”
Among whom, Francis was beginning to suspect, Barrow the younger must count himself a part. But James, in the hazy glow of the gas lamps, seemed unfazed, gesturing easily with his gloved hands, his hair swaying slightly with the movement. “I try to keep myself to myself,” he said. “It does a man’s ego no good to be endlessly flattered by such attentions.” And here, James levelled a meaningful look at George that was utterly lost on the man, but which had Francis raising the back of his hand to his lips to hide their twitching.
George shook his head in wonder that may well have been genuine. “You must be a doppelgänger, for the James Fitzjames I knew so well these many years ago would never shy from the limelight.”
Lightly, James chuckled. He made no other response.
Francis seized on the ensuing lull. “I am sure you will excuse us, George—we were just on our way to be seated. And your lady friend will certainly be eager to regain your company.”
As though just now recalling that he had not arrived unaccompanied, George Barrow wheeled to take in the foyer. “Of course, gentlemen. Don’t let me detain you.” He spread his hands— something between an obsequious gesture and a shooing motion. “I may call on you, James?”
They watched George Barrow’s well-dressed back shrink as he loped back down the steps. Francis closed his eyes and offered a prayer to whatever arcane force might be capable of interceding that they would reach their seats unmolested any further that night by well-intended strangers nor ill-intended acquaintances. “Barrow’s son has some gall in him,” he observed.
“That’s nothing new. Though I will say I am surprised to see him here.” James made a half-turn to glance back behind them. “Strange coincidence. I have been thinking, more and more, that I ought never to have helped him out of Singapore.”
“Things would have been very different.” Never promoted to commander. Never eyed for the expedition; never appointed to Erebus . “For the better, and the worse.”
James said nothing.
They found their box, arranged themselves; still silent. Quietly, Francis asked, “Is it not better that they know nothing, and admire us; than that they know some, and pity?”
“I would have nothing from the likes of George Barrow but his discretion,” James declared, ruthless and sure.
One eyebrow cocked, Francis watched him until his sudden vehemence subsided, though it took until James spoke again to release the inside of his cheek from between his teeth. “You were right about Barrow the younger’s gall. That men such as he should praise our survival, yet not the endurance of those we left behind, is the very height of—of something, Francis, though I do not know how quite to term it, but—” James cut himself off with a great, frustrated sigh.
To hear James speaking such things—which struck to the heart of him as easily as a needle piercing fabric—made Francis shift uncomfortably in his seat. “Let us merely enjoy Donizetti, if we can; and Miss Lind.”
“Yes,” James allowed, “I suppose we should. Distraction has been too lacking lately in my life for me to squander the charms of—Donizetti, you said?”
The curtain was just then parting, so Francis gave only a nod. A dozen men in too-bright costumes aping Napoleonic uniforms began to spill onto the stage. One separated from the others, and began to shout out his lines. “Oh,” Francis said softly.
James leaned over to him to pick up his soft words better. Francis licked his lips and asked, “Do you speak Italian?”
“No,” James said. “Do you?”
“I do not.”
“I thought it might at least be done in French. I can get by with French.”
Francis looked at James. He looked at the costumed performers. He looked back at James. “You thought—a name like Donizetti —might be--? He bit his tongue, for they were attracting stares; although blessedly for Francis’s tone rather than erstwhile recognition.
Someone in an even brighter uniform, his girth matching its grandeur, came on stage.
Aware of the curious looks, but not withdrawing, James brought a white-gloved hand up to hide his words. “I could interpret it for you, if you wished.”
Eyes fixed towards the stage and speaking only out of the corner of his mouth, Francis returned, “Could you now?”
“Yes, I’d say so. For example—this man here is the, ah, brother of Miss Lind, who will be arriving presently from out of town—”
Miss Lind herself did indeed swirl onto the stage, dressed not in some white high-waisted frock of the era but in something so fashionable it might have been plucked from a Strand storefront just a few streets along from where they sat. She and the broad-chested baritone immediately began to circle one another, their exaggerated postures and outstretched arms clearly speaking of a romantic entanglement.
“See,” James fairly hissed into his ear. “Clearly familial in nature.”
To his dismay, Francis’s mouth flitted into a full grin. He settled back in his chair, tilting his head subtly towards James, and heard the other man shifting similarly. “Not cousin, you don’t think?” he offered back.
“No, no. It will be the brother for sure. Only her brother would deign to debate politics with her, as they are so clearly doing now.”
This was only the beginning of James’s preposterous narrative, which grew more and more absurd as the act wore on—how he managed to juggle so many names and histories, which could only have been invented on the spot, was more mystery to Francis than it should have been; having had the opportunity to hear James’s embellished stories so many times over the course of the expedition. But unlike such tales, James’s increasingly cutting observations about the opera drew faint, repeated chuckles from Francis, which more often than not bloomed into something which had to be muffled in a cough against his fist.
When the curtains fell between acts, Francis seized the opportunity to duck out of the box and procure a cup of tea. By its dregs, he considered himself adequately prepared to face James’s litany with a straight face. He returned to the box on soft, silent feet. Bracing both hands on the back of James’s chair, and reveling in the small start he gave, he leaned down to mutter, “You are incorrigible .”
James twisted to face him, an insouciant grin firmly in place which showed off all his crooked teeth. He mimed stitching his lips shut and shifted to one side to allow Francis room to retake his seat. Now, with the warmth of the tea in his body, the lamps, and press of bodies below churning in entr’acte, a close heat rose. Francis ran a finger under his collar and caught James doing likewise out of the corner of his eye.
“Never thought I’d wish to be less hot,” James murmured.
Several replies crossed Francis’s mind. He looked down at his hands, which were folded in his lap, and flexed his fingers one by one. It was a miracle he still had them all— that none were shortened from frostbite, or worse. And James’s, too, were similarly unscathed: though gloved, he knew their skin to be healed from their blemishes, nails once more gleaming and uncracked. How absurd it was that only a year ago Francis could have barely contemplated a proper meal, let alone that he would be seated where he was now, hale and whole and heated through.
It occurred to him, in the warm theater with James’s cheerful fancies still ringing in his ear, that he had quite forgotten himself to happiness.
His hands stilled in his lap. In his periphery, he could see James resting with his elbow on the arm of the chair, forefinger and thumb supporting his head, expression hidden from view. A shilling for your thoughts, he might have said, but he could perhaps save himself the coin. He fancied that, in the strangely hot lull of the opera, his own ran in tandem.
And if James were thinking of hypocrisy, as he was; then they were both beginning to understand that the problem with such a viewpoint was not that the men they’d left behind on the ice lacked praise or recognition. It was that they lacked what Francis now possessed: what he had so freely and unhesitatingly partaken of that night; with so little thought for those who were forever barred from its comfort.
Francis turned his head slightly more to the side, but still could not catch James’s expression. For all his earlier mirth, Francis knew, far better than many, what could lurk longer and more deeply beneath that veneer. It was James who deserved to be light at heart, not he; and he wanted badly to know if he was—he could not tell if—could not share—
Too many contradictions pulled within Francis, tightening his chest and constricting his breath. Heat pricked at his eyes, but not from the lamps; and though he looked desperately upward, he found no respite in the dazzle of the chandelier. He must have made some unconscious noise, for he heard James shift. Francis suspected he was staring. He could not make himself turn his head to confirm this.
“Francis,” James said.
There was a pause.
“Look at me.”
Now, he did.
Quickly, James tugged a handkerchief from his sleeve and brushed at a trail of moisture that had made its way unnoticed down Francis’s cheek. He searched James’s face, but the other man was intent on his task; or else cautiously glancing around them, and then finally busy with folding away the square of silk, all the while never quite meeting his eye. But then he spoke, very quietly. “‘Hold hard the breath,’” James said, as though reciting from a rusty memory, “‘and bend up every spirit, to its full height.’”
It took Francis a moment to place the quotation. He raised thumb and middle finger to press against his drying eyes while he took a quivering breath. “You do know,” he managed, on the strength of that breath, “how the next line goes?”
James pretended to think about it. “Is it not on, on, ye noble Irish?” he misquoted, all quiet innocence.
Francis ducked his head and swallowed down a slightly manic chuckle. James’s hand twitched, as if to rise again, but Francis felt no wetness remaining on his cheeks, and glanced a query at James, mouth opening to ask, “Have I—”
“It’s nothing,” James said. The motion of his hand became a dismissive wave.
The crowd had mostly settled, though the conductor had not yet signaled for hush, and the curtains rustled with the movements of impatient actors behind it.
“Is it your favorite?” James murmured.
“Henry V? ” Francis shook his head. “I prefer—”
The conductor tapped his baton against his music stand, the orchestra putting their bows to strings, and the hall fell into silence.
Afterwards, they joined the queue of theatergoers waiting for cabs on Haymarket. Owing to his height, James’s waving arm quickly brought a hansom to their patch of sidewalk. “Go on then, Francis,” he said, “I’ll get the next one.”
Francis made to step into the cab. He took his time about it. “You’ll be getting back to your club, then?”
James raised and dropped one shoulder. “Soon, I suspect. I may walk.”
“It’s rather late.”
“The porters will still be up.” James put his thumb to the crook of Francis’s elbow where it held the door of the cab ajar. “Be of good cheer, Francis,” he said, though his voice was rather flat.
The cab driver glared down at them. “Hurry up, gents, won’t you?”
“In a moment,” Francis said.
It hardly seemed fair that he should be returning to the Franklin’s, which—though its large and bright windows were admittedly more often than not drawn close with curtains—was at least quiet, and comfortable, and devoid of impertinent young officers grown uninhibited in their questions by an evening’s drink. Before he could let practical considerations dissuade him, Francis was saying, “There are three chambers going empty at the Franklin’s. I’ll wager she’ll not begrudge you the small liberty; not when she expressed to me her desire only the other day to remake your acquaintance. And it is a cold night for a walk back to Pall Mall.”
“She , Francis?”
Francis cleared his throat. “Lady Jane, I mean.”
“Oh.” James squinted down the lamplit street. The cab driver noisily shifted his reins from hand to hand in a show of impatience. “If you’re certain it will not be an imposition.”
Ignoring his instinct to hesitate, Francis declared, “I am certain.” He stepped into the cab, shifting over so James could enter more easily. James hung his hands between his knees as he sat and fiddled with them. The longer they rode, the more and more he settled.
“I’ll pay my respects in the morning, then,” James said.
With a small start, Francis drew his gaze away from the window’s blur. “Yes. In the morning.”
The tired-looking housekeeper answered the door. It was gone eleven; presumably the footman was abed. “Been expecting you back, sir,” she said to Francis. “Ah—but—”
James had crossed the threshold and was sweeping his hat from his head, looking around the dim entryway.
“Put Commander Fitzjames in one of the spare rooms,” Francis instructed her, “and be sure to let Lady Jane know of it first thing in the morning.”
“Fine, sirs.” She took their coats and hats. With one last lingering look at James, she hurried away to rouse the maid.
Francis awoke, early, and stayed that way. He lay abed and listened as the household began to rise. He marked the maids as they started their morning chores at just past five chimes of the clock; the footmen at six. At seven chimes, he heard Sophia’s door open down the hall, and finally he rose to wash and dress. When he descended the stairs, laughter could be heard drifting from the sitting room: first Sophia’s, light and rich; and then James’s, soft and full. Francis hastened to the bottom, listening; one hand still on the rail.
“You must imagine, if you can, Francis’s expression in that moment,” James was saying, and Francis felt his face twitch. “This man was standing before us, telling us that we weren’t who we are, and if not for Francis I may well have—well. Frankly, Miss Cracroft, though you are a woman, I should not hesitate to tell you I would have bloodied his nose.”
“You may have?” Sophia exclaimed. “The Francis I know would have done so himself.”
“Well,” James said. His voice had gone low, and Francis either had to discreetly draw closer to hear; or else straighten up and enter the room properly, and stop skulking like some spying boy. Hand leaving the rail, he rounded the doorframe, taking in the tableau before him: James and Sophia on the settee, sitting quite closely; knees angled towards each other and heads bent together. It was hard to look for long at such a sight; harder still to look away, for reasons too nebulous in his mind for examination. Perhaps only because of James’s rare high spirits and the color come back at last into Sophia’s cheeks. The broad smile on James’s face, if anything, grew as his head snapped up and laid eyes on Francis.
“Speak of the devil,” James said. “I was just telling Miss Cracroft of how we managed to extract our naval pay from that skeptic in the Consulate.”
“Yes,” Francis said, not unamused, “I couldn’t help overhearing.”
“Don’t look so worried, Francis. Commander Fitzjames has told me only good things. Although,” Sophia said, “I admit I was quite surprised to descend for breakfast this morning and find an unexpected visitor at the table—”
"James and I were very tired last night, after the opera; I merely thought—”
Sophia rose and came to his side. “It’s alright,” she said. “Although if you’ll excuse me, I should really inform auntie—Lady Jane, that is.”
“I’ll go,” Francis said.
“It really is fine,” Sophia insisted.
Francis wrenched his hands behind his back, fingers clasping and unclasping. “I took the liberty.”
James interjected, “Perhaps if I were to—”
“Sophia,” said Lady Jane from the hall. “I--”
She broke off as she entered the room and beheld James. “Commander Fitzjames. What an unexpected surprise.”
Three voices attempted to speak at once. James stepped forward, silencing all. He took Lady Jane’s hand and kissed it as delicately as might a prince a visiting queen’s. “Lady Jane. It is an honor once more. Might we speak? Privately?”
"Certainly." Her tone held no emotion. She allowed James to take her arm, and led him into the study that had once been Sir John's. The last Francis had of James was him standing, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, before the sliver was obscured by the door closing firmly behind them.
Francis would never know what platitudes or perhaps genuine words James had exchanged with Lady Jane--concerning Sir John; concerning James’s loss or Lady Jane’s grief; perhaps merely concerning the weather and the latest fashion--but when they emerged from the study half an hour later, Lady Jane was quite breathless, and a footman was quickly given the order to have James's things brought over from his club. She said to Sophia and Francis (who had lingered, in the sitting room; unable to think of what else to do), in an offhand tone: “It helps, you know. To think that the man who knew him best will be staying in this house.”
Francis woke in the night for no clear reason. Then, the noise which had roused him came again, and his waking mind could parse it: a man’s cries; utterly out of place in this house yet horribly familiar.
He flung aside the bedclothes and stuffed his feet into his slippers. Attempting to turn up the oil lamp and shrug on his dressing gown simultaneously, he fumbled both, finally giving up on the lamp and staggering blindly to the door.
James yelled for the third time before Francis had gotten halfway down the hall. A door opened at his left, revealing Sophia, eyes wide and face pale. She was dressed only in her nightgown. Francis took her in, all at once, and then caught her by the arms as she hastened to him. “Francis,” she whispered.
“No cause for concern,” he soothed, looking past her. “Go to sleep. I’ll take care of this.”
Sophia glanced down the hall in the opposite direction of his gaze. Footsteps could be heard on the stairs at the far end: no doubt a maid or the housekeeper, roused by the noise.
“Send the servants back to bed. And keep Lady Jane away. She will want to help.” Distractedly, Francis tore his eyes away from James’s door to seek Sophia’s face, waiting for an affirmation.
Understanding slowly dawned in her startled eyes. “I will.”
Francis let go of her with a small shake of her shoulders. He moved off down the hall, and had a hand on James’s doorknob when she called back to him, or made what seemed as loud as a call in the sudden stillness. “Before I send them away,” Sophia said, “is there anything—he needs?”
Head hung low, Francis considered. This would be new to him. They would have to take things as they came. “Rest, and quiet,” he said, and then he went inside.
There was no light in the room.
James's voice came ragged out of the dark, breaking apart on his consonants and disappearing in the vowels. "Who's there?" he demanded.
"It's only me, James," Francis said evenly. "I'm lighting the lamp."
Yellow light filtered into the room, revealing James sitting up in bed, chest rising and falling rapidly. "Christ damn it," James swore. "Is anyone else out of bed?"
Francis considered lying. "Sophia," he admitted. "And myself."
"Clearly." James scrubbed his hands down his face. When they came away, his skin was ashen, with wild eyes framed by hair which stuck out at all angles. The lines of his cheek enclosed his mouth in dark slashes. "There's no need, Francis. I'm—" He looked around, entirely unseeing, yet somehow managing to avoid Francis's gaze until the last possible moment. "I'm fine."
There was no chair in the room but an armchair, too far and too heavy to drag closer. "May I?" Francis asked.
Sagging back against the headboard, James nodded. Francis eased his weight atop the bed and settled a hand on the covers. After a moment, he shifted it to cover James’s knee. In his life, Francis had found sleep elusive countless times, but not since childhood had it been ripped from him by a night-terror. He’d heard stories—heard more than stories; had heard cries not unlike James’s earlier ones—but never been made to confront them for himself. His thumb fidgeted atop James's knee. Neither spoke, but as Francis sat there, the other man's breathing slowed. "Sometimes," Francis began, when James sounded almost normal, "it helps if--" He stopped. "I've heard," he tried again, "that it helps to talk about them."
Over the blankets, James's fingers rubbed incessant circles against his knuckles. "Does it?"
James still fidgeted. "Fetch up a maid, or someone, won't you?"
Francis slid from the bed, the movement made loud in the quiet of the room. He fetched the pitcher and glass from his own bedstand and brought it back, pouring for James, who accepted with steady hands. He sipped; then gulped the glass down. Francis refilled it and set it on the table. At last his palm returned to James's knee, which seemed the proper place for it, in his mind. Not around his fingers, for this was not so dire as that--he would not allow it to seem so dire as that by allowing such a gesture. "James?" Francis gently prompted.
"I'm not sure I want to," James said. "I'm not sure it won't make it worse."
Underneath his fingers, he felt a shiver start up in James's leg, an echo of his whole body. Francis moved his hand lower, to his calf, and squeezed. "I understand."
"Do you?" James's throat moved as he swallowed. "Does it come back to you? At night?"
"A man must be asleep before he can dream."
Ruefully, James shook his head. "Look at us, Francis. A right pair we make. If only we could borrow each others' afflictions."
"That would hardly be fair to me," Francis said, with solemnity in his voice but a lightness in his eyes that he begged for James to share. He was rewarded for the effort it took to dredge up something amusing in this dark room at this late hour when James broke his gaze and let the corner of his mouth twitch upward. If James wished to fill the silence that then fell between them, he could; but he did not, and Francis had no more words to offer.
Soon, James’s sighs were increasing in frequency, and his chin dropping forward on his chest. Francis himself swayed on his perch in tiredness, the reflexive clenching of his hand on James's calf as his balance began to give way serving only to jerk the other man awake. With a small pat, he stood, before he ran the chance of collapsing entirely.
The lamp still burned. By its light James had arranged himself more or less peacefully, his eyelashes splayed darkly against his cheeks and his hands curled in loose fists atop the coverlet. He thought of Sophia then, in her nightgown, as he gazed upon James in his nightshirt. In his tiredness, the images bled together strangely, until he was once more swaying on his feet. Then he turned down the lamp and gingerly left the room.
Francis was first at the table, as was his wont; and he took his tea quietly alongside a small plate. He had no appetite in him. His fob watch lay open on the table before him, and an excruciating twenty minutes ticked by before he heard footsteps: too light to be James’s, though he half-hoped for it, right up until he heard Sophia speaking softly to a maid. When he turned his head slightly, the curtains of the sitting room had been drawn open to allow the sunshine through.
She appeared in the doorway. He stood as she entered. "Oh—Francis. May I ask if everything--"
Lady Jane appeared suddenly behind her. It was uncommonly early for her to be at breakfast. "Good morning, Sophia. Francis." She nodded to each. "And where is our second guest? We are missing but one to have a squared table."
"Let him rest, auntie," Sophia said. "I should say he's earned it." Across the table, she smiled at Francis with a delicacy that seemed somewhat more fragile than grace. He returned it in gratitude, knowing that the discretion required to make James’s excuses would have escaped him.
“It isn’t good for men of his age to spend their mornings lying about,” Lady Jane declared. “Don't you agree, Francis?”
Stiffly, Francis replied, “I have not been a man of James’s age in quite some time. I am sure I couldn’t say.”
He was saved from further speculation on the subject by the entrance, at last, of the man himself. James was fully and impeccably dressed in a silk waistcoat of deep blue. Its hue took away somewhat from the bruise-soaked skin beneath his eyes.
Lady Jane pursed her wrinkled lips to the rim of her teacup. "Now that we are all here, I had meant to ask—last night I was awoken by a strange noise. I wonder if anyone else heard it?"
The sounds of cutlery in use tapered off. James had stilled in the act of helping himself from the cutlets on the sideboard. Francis looked up and said, "It was I, Lady Jane. I--awoke in the night, and--"
"No," James cut across. "No need, Francis. My apologies, Jane. Last night I was taken ill. The bell escaped me, and I called for a servant. I hope I did not disturb you too much."
Sophia was trying to catch his eye, but Francis stared unwaveringly at the wallpaper just behind her head, and heard Lady Jane's reply as if from far-off.
"No matter, James. Don't worry yourself over it. I had thought robbers --but then, I suppose Mrs Hethers would have woken me."
Francis could hear the smile James must be wearing as he replied, "Quite right. No cause for alarm."
And once again cutlery scraped against china.
That was the only noise, excepting James's polite inquiry after Sophia’s plans for the day, until the butler darkened the door of the dining room, bearing a letter. They could practically smell the fresh-slaughtered sheepskin of its fine parchment as Lady Jane nodded for him to enter, carrying it before him on a platter. He stopped smartly by James's chair. James set down his fork, mouth twisting with curiosity, and grabbed it up.
His mouth twisted with some deeper feeling as he examined the address on the letter’s front. "Excuse me," he murmured, and broke the seal there at the table.
Francis strained to make it out. The coat of arms looked familiar, but he could not be sure—
James looked up to meet Francis’s gaze directly. He blinked several times. "Sir John Barrow has invited me to stay at his manor in Hampshire for the duration of the season," he announced, and exclamations rose from the ladies in the same fell swoop as Francis's stomach dropped. James’s chair made no noise against the carpet as he pushed it back and rose. “I must make my reply,” he said, “if you would excuse me.”
Francis waited two minutes and a half by the hands of the clock in the far corner of the room before making his own excuses and trailing James up the stairs, knuckles white on the railing. He found him with the door to his room ajar, facing his open luggage with hands planted on his hips.
"May I read it?" Francis asked.
James gestured carelessly with one hand to where the letter lay on his writing table. "I've been invited, " he said over his shoulder. "You know what that means as well as I."
“George Barrow,” Francis said.
Blindly, James put a shirt into a valise.
“Leave that, James. One of the servants will do it.”
“I don’t mind.” James shrugged. He crossed to the dresser, passing Francis as he went. “And it will only be the remainder of the season. Less, if I can get away. Or, I don’t know—feign illness, or drop myself from a horse and break my leg—”
“James,” said Francis sharply. Memories of sitting at his bedside, waiting for the man to recover from far more grievous injuries, mixed badly with the breakfast in his stomach.
James fiddled with the valise. “Alright. In poor taste.”
“You’re damn right.”
“All the same. All the same.” And then, more quietly: “Barrow should have extended the invitation to you as well.”
Francis scoffed. “After what I said to him at Her Majesty’s? Christ, I’d think you would be glad I’m to be spared that torture!”
“Ah,” James said lightly, after a brief pause, “but at least you’d have been an alleviation of mine.”
And, at last, Francis allowed himself to consider the previous night, and what should happen if it were to repeat while James was staying in the country. Not for the first time, but on the strength of that reason alone, he despised Sir John Barrow. “Write to me,” Francis said, for it was the only thing he could say, “as often as it suits. You can put your grievances to paper. Write of the elder’s boorishness, and the younger’s lack of taste. Perhaps if their footmen are unscrupulous your sojourn will be discreetly shortened.”
With a smirk, James shut the valise and clicked the latch. “I would be more worried about the contents of your letters being seen than those of mine.”
“Then we will both be careful, hm?” Francis let his smile fade from his face as he folded and re-folded Barrow’s invitation. “And we are nothing if not careful men.”
James quotes Shakespeare, because I couldn't resist. The true line is "on, on, ye noble English."
Because it was London, and it was September, it was raining; a drizzly downpour that would abate for half an hour and tempt the foolish onto the streets, only to dash their hopes once more. Sophia and Francis had gravitated to the sitting room, to read quietly in absence of other occupation. Lady Jane had shortly joined them, only she was writing; her nib scratching and the rain pattering, punctured only by the dry slide of papers and the pages of Sophia's book.
Francis had not turned his in quite some time. He let it close, finger marking the page; then, with a sigh, removed the finger entirely. The droplets of rain sliding down the crack of visible windowpane were far more amusing to him at this juncture. They slid and bumped into one another; grew and shrank. His mind was free to wander in their wake, though it wandered on nothing in particular: the nature of boredom, and how unique it was to land-bound life. Whether or not it was raining in Hampshire. What in the devil Lady Jane was writing with such focus and speed, given the incessant rustlings of the nib and the clink of the inkwell; quite at odds with the sedate trails of the rain.
“Lady Jane,” Francis said, lifting his head from where it was propped on his fist, “might I inquire as to what you are—composing?”
The nib slowed, then stopped. Lady Jane half-turned in the wooden chair, arm braced against the back of it; fingers quite blackened, though she did not seem to notice. There was something manic in her grip. “A book, Francis.”
He blinked slowly at her. “A book?”
“Yes, a book. Just like the one you have in your lap.”
With a small pit forming in his stomach, Francis asked, “On what subject?”
Just seconds ago he had been wholly consumed with something so simple and uncomplicated as a raindrop. Exactly how he could have strayed thusly, when there were things such as Lady Jane and her quill to be concerned of, was unfathomable to him—he could only presume he had been too long without his cocked hat; too long since he’d walked the deck of a ship, counting ways and means and giving orders amongst men.
“The expedition, of course," she announced, with relish, cementing Francis's foreboding. "It is to feature testimonials and first-hand accounts of all the men’s bravery and hardship. No detail overlooked. No adventure unexamined.” She smiled, though it did not reach her eyes. “A monument to all they endured.” With a brief glance at Sophia, whose eyes were fixed--though unmoving--on her book, Lady Jane turned briskly back to her work.
And not a word further to Francis, who had led the damn thing. Who had brought back those men, who had witnessed their bravery and hardship firsthand--and more, besides; that would look far less pretty once typeset by a printer--and not a single thought given--
"If only James were here still," Francis said, with absolute coldness. "What a help he would be."
"Plenty of time for that." Lady Jane did not look up. "I intend to form much of the volume from his account."
That declaration trickled dully down Francis's spine, more slow and chill than the raindrops down the window.
Eventually, Lady Jane folded up several close-written sheets and affixed them with sealing wax. She bore them away from the room pressed to her bosom, no doubt to deliver unto a footman's hands for prompt postage, weather be damned.
Sophia waited until she had been gone a little, and then she observed, “You are dour, Francis.”
Francis mustered the flash of a smile from the depths of his misgivings. “I have it on good authority that I am always dour.”
“Not to those who know you well.” Shifting on the sofa so that she was catty-corner to Francis’s armchair, she put aside her book. One hand landed on his forearm, as light and inconsequential as if a bird now perched there.
Francis nearly startled. His brow contracted briefly. “Then you should know that I am perfectly at my ease.”
“You need not insist.”
“I do no—”
“Is it the ice?” Sophia leaned forward. “Has it stayed with you?”
Francis considered her. “It is not the ice.” He met her expectant gaze. “I do not wish to speak of it,” he said.
It was the truth, and even though only partial, it was said with such earnestness that she was mollified. “Then perhaps we could—” she cast about herself. “Sit quietly. Or I might read for you? There was an excellent new volume by Barrett Browning published while you were away. Shall I fetch it?”
Francis nodded, mind caught on her euphemism: away, away. When she stood, the space her silhouette had vacated revealed a mirror, his own hangdog face staring back. Small wonder she had pushed the question to begin with.
In her absence, there was naught for Francis to do but sit with his hands folded in his lap, and contemplate the rain.
Later, he had paper brought to his chamber, and sat before it, one candle lit, a scene familiar from his cabin aboard Terror, complete all but for a glass of whiskey at his elbow.
It was cold in the house. Likely a consequence of all the rain. He’d had the maid stoke the fire, while she’d been in; but his fingers still seized up around the quill—this, too, reminded him of Terror.
James, he wrote. The curling J was a pleasure to etch upon the page, even in his own cramped hand. How goes your country sojourn? I fancy Barrow could give you a run for your money for most words spoken in a single dinner. I hope it gives you some small taste of your own medicine—but not too much, for I would only wish that upon an enemy.
Though I am in no doubt that your first letter is on its way as I set pen to paper, I must acknowledge
Francis stopped. He crossed out the last clause.
In truth I am rather bored.
This, too, he crossed out. He wrote James’s name once more, below the scribbles; just for the practice of it. Just to spite the numbness in his hands. Then he carefully tore the ruined parchment from the unspotted and set the entire endeavor aside.
The rain left a grey sludge of London's dust heaps, running into the streets and walks, putting a lady's shoes in dire peril and a man's trousers in a state almost too sorry to be received in good society. Such misery again confined Francis indoors to books, and to the moribund company of Sophia and Lady Jane. Fortunately for Francis, the Royal Mail knew of no such impediments as discomfort or mud. By mid-morning the footman had a letter for him, so thickly folded as to be nearly a parcel, and addressed in a hand that brought a smile to Francis’s face even already knowing who its likely sender was. Francis stood quickly when it was brought in, and, finally wielding a suitable excuse, retreated to his rooms with it tucked into his waistcoat.
He pushed his own aborted attempts at letter-writing aside to make space for it on the desk as it unfolded; cramped and darkly written, but thankfully unblemished by the rain.
I have arrived safely at Barrow's estate just ahead of a summer storm that has turned all the roads to rivers behind us, Francis read. James's hand was looping and hard to decipher in places, and often misspelled to boot. I suppose I should be releved to have been spared the deluge on my travels, but, truly, I feel the opposite. I am quite kept here. A drafty place this is, even so early in the month, & unlike to improve, since I've not seen a maid in hours. Rumour goes that the Barrows have Infamous time keeping servants.
You will forgive me if the provincial gossip of Hampshire is not to your liking, for it is most all I can summon. I confess the writing of this letter to be more for my amusement than your own. There is little to do here but shoot for partridge in Sir Barrow's company, and to hunt fox in George's, and I feel free to admit into your confidence that my horsemanship is in no comparison to the man, and aides me ill in pursuing rural pleasures.
Francis could imagine the chagrin with which James must have penned such a thing. His idle threat to fall from the saddle may well have been made in earnest. There were several crossings-out after it, but James picked up the thread of his thoughts and again spun on. In desprate search for amusement last evening I played a rather Wicked game with Barrow and his dinner guests. Whenever asked for an anekdote of the Expedition, I replied instead with one of your stories from my convalescence. They were mightily confused all round. I dared not lift up my wine to my lips lest my restraint fail and laffter choke me.
Francis set his chin in his hand. The tips of his fingers met the wry smile nestled into the corner of his mouth, which stayed firm as he finished the letter--consisting of James complaining about this or that or meandering off into tangents that filled inches of the page--and all more interesting to Francis than any book he had had occasion to read of late.
I do wonder how you’re getting on in idle hours, James wrote, towards the end, and they are nearly all idle hours. Francis's eyes stuck on that sentence, like a faulty clock whose mechanism would only allow it to twitch the same second over and over and over. Tho for all George's talk of how highly his father speaks of you, and, here, Francis’s good humor turned far more rueful, whenever I mention your name I am met with strange ambivalence. I suspect I shall away again within the fortnight. No longer than that—surely—we shall see.
Your good friend etc.,
Francis reached immediately for the inkwell. He shuffled for the papers he had cast aside yesterday--his writing table was an intolerable mess; he would clean it later--but for the moment, he set pen to paper so quickly the ink almost splattered.
Your letter has reached me in a most timely manner, and saved me likewise from boredom; although not nearly in the measures you face. If my own daily occupations were of color enough to brighten yours, I should not hesitate to relate them; as they are not, I shall refrain.
Nothing to report here. The ladies keep me always in company, though I find myself desirous of none but my own most days. He hesitated for suitable words long enough for ink to drip over the paper. Returning briskly to the inkwell, he continued. You should know that Lady Jane has gotten it into her head to compile some sort of memoir relating to the expedition. I will do what I can to prevail upon Sophia in swaying her aunt’s resolve—
He paused again. He was doing right to tell James as soon as possible, as unwelcome as the news might be. It would not do to allow him to return to the house, only to be accosted without warning by Lady Jane's pointed questions; made worse than those he had weathered from the officers on Pall Mall for the obligation presumed by hospitality and familiarity.
—but without much hope as to attaining a positive result. She is as intractable as her husband was when set upon a path. I do not like to think of what increased clamor its publication will rouse, but we shall weather it; as will Thomas and Edward and Harry and all the rest. Of this, you yourself have assured me. I shall not forget it.
What has been for you a summer storm has been in London a depressing fug. If it does not abate in the coming days, I fear I must brave it; if only to have something more substantial with which to fill my next reply, though as ever I have no delusions of matching your grandiloquence.
Believe me most sincerely to be etc. etc.
Francis R. M. Crozier
Eventually, the rain did abate, though Francis had not waited on its account. When the clouds finally broke he was halfway down Ludgate, and barely took notice of its cessation, his clothes having long ago acquired the fine drenching of moisture that renders one indifferent to further precipitation. James’s letter he therefore had tucked deep into a pocket, hidden from wetness, where he could finger a corner of it every so often as his eyes roamed over street-corners and beggars in search of something worth relating to him that was not vague concerns over Lady Jane's pending book.
The press and cacophony of traffic carried him east toward the banking district, and beyond. He had become far too adept at walking. A step was a step, whether taken over cobblestones or ice, and his body knew their rhythms all too well. Once, he might have found a pub and a drink. Or several. Now he walked. It was easy to find himself first on Fleet Street and then already standing before the white dome of St. Paul's, approaching the smell and press of the Thames and all its attendant chaos. The streets were full of workers returning to their homes, clothes bearing varying states of dust or muck or overwashed linen, and children ran underfoot, fetching bread or ale or turnip for the evening meal back to their mothers.
So much of his recent walking had been in James's presence that his absence seemed a strangeness. Despite the fact that he had not yet had a reply to his first, he began to compose another letter in his mind. Dear James, it might read, in a rueful tone; if paper were capable of conveying such sentiments. As this was merely his own imagination, he could indulge.
He had come midway across a bridge and now rested his forearms across its stone wall in order to devote his whole mind to the task. If he contemplated the Thames, muddy and unreflective of the clouded sky, it was not too hard to think that James was standing at his side; just out of eyesight.
Dear James [in rueful tone],
It is a fine stinking mess we have left, only to return to another, and her name is London. Such indifferent humanity I have known only here. Yet I find a strange peace in its midst. Here I observe, but am not observed. Among them I am content to know myself their better in society’s standing, but still feel a kinship. They think foremost of what they next shall eat, and where they are to lay their heads, and whether or not a shirt can be mended, and are these not the same things with which you and I were so fully occupied a very short time ago?
When he decided he had been jostled once too many times for comfort, Francis turned back the way he had come, hands twisting and turning behind his back as he continued his mental composition, finding it soothed him, much like the setting sun soothed the sky into soft orange hues. Perhaps alone of those that rushed and rode around him, he at least had that power: of leaving.
No feeling man can stand amidst such deprivation for long and not be moved. The most modern city in the Empire should not remind one so strongly of scenes glimpsed at the far edges of the map. Yet they do, and I cannot but think I am the only one in all the city to notice, save for you. I have no doubt you would share my mind in this.
Francis's foot slipped on some piece of city detritus, nearly bringing him down into a gutter. So dark had it grown when he reestablished his surroundings that he could barely see to the next street, and he quickened his step, focusing less and less on his fanciful correspondence; allowing its lines to ravel from thought rather than consideration.
I wish to add a post-script to my previous letter. I would amend that, though I am often desirous of solitude, your company I would consider most exempt. A cab ambled slowly down the street, and Francis took his hands from behind his back as he hastened to catch it up. Having contended once with the notion that I may lose your company entirely, I do not care to sally with such thoughts ever again. And therefore believe me to be,
Most anxious for your return,
It was badly late by the time Francis returned to Brook Street. A light still burned in the drawing room window, and Francis had not ventured ten steps in that direction before Sophia was accosting him in the hall, embroidery hoop in hand. Her voice was tight. “You’ve been gone a long while,” she said.
It took Francis several seconds of calculation to recall when he had set out and compare with the hands of his fob watch. He laughed in soft disbelief when the tally came to five hours. “Lost track of the day,” he said. “Sophia—were you worried for me?” He stepped towards her, still in amusement; though it drained rapidly when she crossed her arms.
“I had merely wondered.”
“It was only a walk.”
Her voice went from tight to clipped. “And you’ve missed dinner.”
Bemused, he shook his head. “I’ll—have the cook warm something small.”
“Very well. Goodnight, then.”
She nodded, and took her leave as if his visage were some vile thing to flee before. His answering goodnight had to be tossed in her wake.
The cook, when he made his slow way to the kitchen, feeling already the effects of his exertions in his limbs, claimed to have nothing suitable to be warmed. Francis settled for a cold repast in his rooms, hardly disappointed that the mere bread and cutlets before him were exactly what he had been dreaming of for four hungry years.
Francis, came James’s reply, not two days later.
Francis had a brief bit of trouble separating out the memory of what he had written with pen and ink from the memories of what he had written in thought alone on his long walk. This time, he read by the slant of light allowed by a window whose curtain he had drawn discreetly open; wary should Lady Jane happen by and order it closed again.
I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and in good weather. I have little of one and ample of the other, and less and less with which to occupy my mind but for my riding, which is much improved. I tell you this knowing full well you are best situated to appreciat the irony of the Best Walker in the Service, proud of his seat upon a horse. It is a fine way to travel. But that we could have ridden to Back Fish River.
You once called me Unkillable, but I think that Barrow may finally do the Deed. To-day he asked if the flesh of seal was indeed so disstastful as Ross Sr. has written of, and Francis I swear I will soon no longer need fear the indiscretion of a footman in order to find myself barred from this household, or perhaps from the Navy altogether. I would rather have wrung his Wrinkled neck than explain what seal meat pass’d our lips during the Expedition was thought by all involved sweetest ambrosia.
I am grateful this is all he asks, though e’r do I see the further question hovering in his eyes. Five years ago I thought his keenness for the Passage simply the ambitious duty of the Admiralty Sec'ry, bound by holy order to expand the borders of the Empire. Now I am not so sure.
I am told he is writing his memoirs, and that he has been thus Engaged for quite some time. I do not know if I am here to help him fill his missing pages, or, as George tells me, for that I am to be at last granted my promised promotion to Captain. Either rankles. I am of no mind to endure these petty tests. If either would be bald with me, I would have it; and then catch the next coach back to London, and try again for the post when the damned man retires.
Francis straightened in his seat, unable to stop himself from furtively looking around the empty room. He drew the curtain closed.
But I’ll not leave you on such morbid thoughts. If indeed you find yourself at loose ends in London, might I recommend a long walk in Hyde Park--no more amusing spectacle to be had, in my view; and on half-pay, the price is nothing to sneer at either. Perhaps Miss Cracroft might accompany you.
Your impatient servant,
There was no mention of Lady Jane's memoir. Tapping his fingers against James's lines, Francis could not decide if this was a positive sign. The letter would need burning, for both their sake--had they not agreed to be careful?--but he would allow himself to read it through once more, safely in his room. He rose to do so. Then he remembered the writing desk not feet from him, fresh stocked thanks to Lady Jane's fervid correspondence, and the room itself so much warmer than his own would be. The temptation was too great.
I should like to have been there when Barrow spoke of seal meat, if only to see the smugness fall from his hateable face while you strangled him. (I have burned your last--be sure to do the same with this when you're through, won't you?) I think it best I was denied invitation, or else I would have done it myself long before. I have been through one court-martial already and a second sounds less grievous an offense with each subsequent tale you relate.
If my recommendation for your promotion were to count for more than chips, I would give it to the Admiralty myself. W ith a head as strong as yours now tempered by our travails there could be no better captain in all Her Majesty’s Navy. Believe that to be true, despite what petty machinations Barrow and his ilk may be plotting. (For your own sake as well as mine, do remember to burn this.)
It is strange you should mention Hyde Park,
--and here, his thoughts wandered, like his feet had wandered, trying in vain to remember the words he had previously composed; whether any were coherent enough to be repeated.
“Is it the ice again?”
Quite unnoticed, Sophia had come into the room. He fought the sudden impulse to hide his letter, not least because the ink still glistened.
“I know you do not wish to speak of it; or perhaps I am not the one in whom you are accustomed to confiding. But I assure you I am up to the task.” She looked at him, all gentle and open blue eyes; to which Francis seemed to have grown all the more susceptible--defenses deadened by distance so that they now struck him anew. “It is so silent in this house. Fill it with words, Francis. Even if they be melancholy ones.”
“You do not deserve my melancholy words,” Francis said, and again fought the instinct to shove aside the paper before him. Sophia was not, he remembered, above snooping; and Francis was terribly relieved he had folded up James's letter before starting on his own.
“Yet I ask for them nonetheless.”
There had been a time when he yearned for nothing more than to set down his heart in the ocean of those beseeching eyes and let it drown. But what did they know of the burdens they sought? What methods did they possess of shouldering them? Nary a better head on a woman’s shoulders had Francis encountered than Sophia Cracroft's, but even hers were too frail for what she asked to be set upon them. “There is far too much of your aunt’s influence in you, for your sake,” Francis said. He reached out to rest his hand on her arm, brushing a thumb across her sleeve—a reassurance; a force of habit—except he caught himself in the midst of it, and thought it strange; as though turning down a road towards a house no longer inhabited.
Sophia, for her part, did not seem to notice. “From you,” she said, “I do not know whether I am to feel complimented or insulted.”
Francis breathed out sharply in what could have been a laugh. “Only ever the former.”
“Forgive me. I do know that to be true.” Still her eyes asked softly of him, but Francis was less and less sure, as her gaze dropped to his hand on her arm, that it was merely for a confidence.
Picking the first topic of conversation that came to his mind, he said, “I’ve had word from James.”
“Are his the letters with which you disappear so quickly?”
“Ah—yes.” Finding himself unaccountably coloring, he looked down at his knees.
“How does he fare?”
He paused. “He fares well.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Sophia rearranged the pleats of her dress. She was standing, while Francis sat. “He keeps auspicious company, your friend.”
“He is an auspicious man.”
“You might have been invited, as well.”
Those words drove the lingering warmth from Francis’s cheeks. “I have no taste for those sorts of social politicking, as you well know.”
“I think,” she said, slowly, “that is wise of you.”
“Do not let Lady Jane hear you say so.”
All at once, in one large breath, she sighed a sigh of exhaustion. She wheeled away so that Francis's hand fell limply to his knee. “You’ve changed in your absence, Francis. Is it so incomprehensible to you that my aunt and I have changed as well?” She fell to pacing, shaking her head. It was all the expression of frustration her good breeding seemed to allow. “I do not know how you explorers stand it. The constant hoping. I have found despair to be the great wound, and just when one thinks it healed, some small strand of hope comes along, preventing the scar from forming. A cut that never ceases to sting.”
Francis took her in—ardent; savage and frustrated and beautiful—and found himself lacking. If she were to reach for him, he could not say whether he would reach back. The indecision was an agony that pulled at his face and stymied his words. Still, before him, James's letter sat. One wrong word, Francis felt, would send her fleeing from the room. "I have changed," he agreed.
Reddened eyes fell upon him.
“Allow me time,” he added quickly. “I—I am changed,” he continued, hardly certain of what he was saying, even as he spoke, “but not in my—” in my sentiments, he tried to say— “not in my nature.”
This, at last, brought her pacing to a halt. Her face, when she half-turned toward him, was vulnerable with hope.
It was Francis's turn to pace.
In his room, there was paper ready and waiting upon the desk, but his hands remained behind his back, fidgeting. If he closed his eyes he could see Sophia as though she were there before him, so blinding and needful as to make the refusal of her request seem unthinkable. He clenched his jaw.
Without pausing to sit, he stood over his desk and wrote,
James, I ask your counsel
No. No, that wouldn’t do.
My dear James, he revised, allowing his pen to do what it would on its way from thought to paper, a strange thing has happened, being that Miss Cracroft has expressed interest in seeing the renewal of my marriage suit. He stared at the sloppy lines. Sighing aloud, he wondered if, as Sophia kept insisting, the ice really had stayed with him, and he was yet to fall prey to madness.
At which point he set down the pen and burned the draft.
Note that characterization has been based on AMC's canon rather than Simmons' or actual history. AMC's characters are the ones I fell in love with. I do apologize for any cognitive dissonance this might cause someone more well-versed in another version.
A night of tossing the sheets around, alternatively too hot or too cold or too bothered, granted Francis only a darkness beneath his eyes fit to rival James’s. There was as well a new stiffness in his joints when he rose at eight chimes. It had been an occasional pest aboard Terror—but there, it had had other culprits: the cold, overexertion, the cold. Here, it had none save for such unsavory things as age and infirmity. Francis chuckled at the thought. Had he survived the Arctic with all his limbs intact, only for them to slowly mutiny once on dry land? It would be, he considered, appropriate of that cold place’s whims.
There were two letters waiting for him on the mantle. Having not yet answered James’s last, he took them in hand with a healthy dose of trepidation—who else would write to him with anything but ill news? He read their address, then read them again, terribly confused, for both bore the name of James on their front.
The first was an invitation, done up in script so curled it was barely legible, proclaiming a dance in a week’s time. A small note was attached.
Old man, it began.
Francis’s shoulders loosened slightly from their crabbed set.
It isn’t the dinner I promised, but Ann insists upon seeing you in society again, and I quite agree. Do say you’ll come. –J.C.R.
He tapped the note lightly against his palm. He was halfway up the stairs to make his reply, lost in thought, when he remembered the second letter, presumably a longer missive from Ross with more chatter. He opened it as he walked.
I have had no letters, so it is a good thing I kept yours. You asked me to burn them. I did not, and am glad of it, for I can fain imagine what else I should have turnt to when I woke. An hour ago, now? Or is it more? The grate is cold, but I do not think it Matters, as the very stones of this damned house seem to leech away any warmth as soon as it is spat out by the coals.
Francis froze with one hand on the bannister.
Far more than a restless night, there are things which weigh upon me. Foolish indeed to have thought them all left behind on the docks of New York Harbor. I would not burden you with them but that I have read your letters six or sevn times all, and no other recourse is left to me at this hour, beset by
By what I can scarcely put down in ink. I prefferd when my Tormentor took a bear’s shape. Then, at least, I could fix my rifle upon it.
I am tired enouf to think it a good idea to seal this up and send it away come morning, hoping it carries with it as well my ill humours, even though I am regretful to lay them at your door. But you were ever more skilled at bearing such things than I was. Do not resent me for this impulse. You must understand—I know you to understand. Tell me you do, or forgive me, and know me to remain,
Briefly, Francis slid a hand up to his mouth, not having moved from the stair where he’d halted. He read the letter again, as quick as he’d ever read an admiral’s orders, his heart sinking lower and lower as his eyes scanned down the lines. Then, he spun on his heel, descending rapidly.
“Jopson!” he yelled. He looked around himself and cursed. “George!”
George came in a hurry.
“My coat and hat,” he ordered.
George scampered. Francis paced in the entry, the letters in hand, their physical presence quite forgotten until George returned, and Francis found putting his arm through the sleeve of a coat a difficult endeavor with stiff parchment barring the way.
If he put it to Ross, he would be at no pains to extend an invitation to James as well for his dance. Barrow could not claim such a monopoly over his esteemed guest that would begrudge an offer of such potential social advantage: at the tail end of the season in London, on the heels, as Barrow would surmise it, of James's triumphant return. However sorely granted by the Barrows, Ross's invitation would enable James to find himself at last free of that dismal house.
As no letter would reach Hampshire in time, he went first to the telegraph office, and planned for Ross later; but upon arriving at his first stop found that he’d left the house without enough for a return fare, and scarcely change enough for the wire itself. He made it short and plain, and hoped to God that Barrow truly did not have any snooping servants.
The cream of the Ross’s social circle drifted through the ballroom to the spread of biscuits and refreshments laid out in the room beyond, and back again; clutching glasses. Crinolines crammed the pastoral wallpaper friezes, and hardly a single woman sat—all were caught up in lively conversation, or partnered and dancing; and a humid warmth rose and swelled along with the music.
“Stop looking at the door, Francis,” Ross chided. “Were you this impatient when we sailed together?”
Francis straightened his jacket and dragged his gaze away from the door and back to his old compatriot. “Like as not,” he murmured.
In her quiet, high voice, Lady Ann, tucked a bit too close at her husband’s side, speculated, “Perhaps your friend has merely been delayed. The weather is always most disagreeable when we wish it to be least.”
“I know only too well, dear lady,” he said, keeping all but a small trace of bitterness from coloring his words. “I think James is correct, however. I must have dropped my patience on an ice floe and forgotten to pick it up again.”
Ross grinned aside at him in a commiserating way. “Or he may have gotten our wire too late. Telegrams are only as swift as the men who deliver them.” Drawing himself up, as though having decided something—something mischievous, if Francis judged that look aright—he took up his wife’s arm in one hand, and Francis’s in the other. Pulling them together and stepping back, he announced, “Now. If I do not see you two dancing this next waltz, I shall be terribly cross, and I would not like to be cross at my own party.”
“You needn’t, on my account—”
Ross’s high spirits were as irrepressible as his youthful beam. “Come now, I clearly must. For your own good.”
Lady Ann looked not at all put out by the idea—likely because she had not before ever had the unfortunate experience of partnering with him—and so, with only a very slight sigh, he drew her to the edges of the floor, waiting for the next dance to begin. A better option, by small margins, than continuing his best impression of a marble pillar on the fringes of the room; as had been his occupation the night thus far.
He had taken one or two turns on the floor with other ladies, yes; but their faces, vacant and unmemorable, now escaped him. The last woman he could clearly remember having in his arms was Sophia.
He would tell James about her overtures, when next they had a room to themselves where they would not be overheard. With any luck in the world, it would be soon. He played a small game: catching a movement out of the corner of his eye, and fancying it was James arrived at last, and when he looked, he would see him—
But it had been hours, and he had not.
Ann was nimble and light, and her skirts were shiny and new from some Mme Hyppolite or Mon Gageliu in Paris, as well as the ribbons in her hair. (All this she gladly effused to him.) Francis complimented them, and she smiled, as if on cue. They swung dazedly—mindlessly—around the floor, which seemed as though engulfed by a subtle haze or effervescent fog that clung obscuring yet imperceptible to all its occupants and walls. Despite Lady Ann's valiant and perfectly acceptable attempts at small talk, Francis’s gaze strayed over her hair again and again to the door.
Francis could scarcely credit the evidence of his senses when he heard it open at last. His head whipped round like a dog called to heel. Several bodies blocked his sight, separating and swaying together again like a field of wheat, but he would know that glimpsed silhouette anywhere—had known it in the dark, through a spyglass, from two miles away. He nearly let Lady Ann’s hand slip from his grip.
“Is something the matter?” she asked.
“No,” he said, firmly.
She looked down at their feet, which had stuttered to a halt. “Will you not finish the waltz with me?”
“Of course. I merely forgot myself, for a moment.” He dragged his eyes back down and took up the pace again, forcing himself to look at Lady Ann, and not into the crowd; despising himself for thinking the task of ferrying this lovely woman around the room suddenly such a chore.
By the time they’d made their bows, James had become ensconced by a small murmuring crowd, much like the one Francis himself had been subjected to at the beginning of the evening. Ross had called them off like the ravening dogs they were. Not wielding such authority himself, Francis drew off to the side rather than wade into the fray, settling with his hands behind his back; glancing impatiently around the room.
The chandelier's beeswax candles shimmered, late as the hour had drawn; enough candles to have lit a room aboard Terror for a week of perpetual Arctic night, all of which now exhausted in a single evening. Francis spent several minutes trying to count them—he could calculate exactly how many they’d have needed, absent the oil lamps; ledgers of supplies flashing in his mind as clear as if they were still before him—but, eventually, he had to give up. Their crystal-reflected light was too dazzling.
When the violin and pianoforte started up again, James’s admirers parted from him like honey from a spoon, and at last Francis was able to catch his eye. A smile crawled over James’s long face. Couples around them were pairing off to dance, and James picked his way straight through them. “Francis,” he greeted.
Francis flashed a crooked grin and grasped his outstretched hand tightly. “Good to see you,” he said, low and sincere, taking in James as though laying eyes on him for the very first time. His leanness now held more an air of fitness than of long illness. At least the country and its horses seemed to have done him that much good.
“Beyond words,” James returned. He cupped his other hand around the back of Francis’s, then shifted to clasp his forearm. “Beyond words, Francis,” James said again. “I am so very glad.”
Some bowline in Francis—taut, as if under strain—was let go. The world felt firmer beneath his feet than it had in many days. There were words Francis needed to say—not only of Sophia—and which James needed to hear, but he felt their public setting as heavy upon them as a blanket on a summer afternoon. “Managed to pry yourself from Barrow’s grip at last, then?” he japed, as if James had merely been kept away by something so surmountable as an irritating aunt.
“With help. And where is Ross, anyway?”
Francis turned. Their hands fell away from one another quite naturally. He indicated Ross in the crowd with his chin. “Dancing with Ann again,” he said. “Like newlyweds.”
Next to him, James smiled softly. “I can see that.”
Ross tapped Lady Ann’s shoulder and pointed in their direction. They broke off and headed towards them. “James Fitzjames,” Ross greeted broadly. “I’ve heard endless talk about you—and not even all of it from Francis.”
James put his heels together and inclined his head slightly; pleased, though trying not show it. “Between ourselves, Sir James,” he said, with a flicker of his eyes towards Francis, “I believe I owe you a favor. Your wire was most convenient.”
Though his wife looked between them rather blankly, Ross allowed himself a small wink in James’s direction. “All Francis’s doing. I sympathize; though we’ve not yet had the honor ourselves.”
“I am told it is a lovely estate,” Lady Ann eventually said.
“Quite lovely,” James replied. “Quite lovely. The grounds are extensive, and I found myself becoming rather familiar with them during my afternoon rides.” He leaned in close to Ann. “Falling off my horse and into the hedges, you understand,” he confided, causing Lady Ann to cover her mouth in a delighted way.
She laughed charmingly—near infectiously—Francis saw more and more why Ross loved her—but he had attention only for James, whose mirth drained curiously quickly, leaving his eyes pinched.
“I must find you a partner,” Ann said, in that same confiding tone. “And you mustn’t monopolize your friends’ company,” she chided Francis. She might have been aiming for stern, but her slight frame did not carry it off. After receiving his nod, she dove into the crowd quite effortlessly; seeming already to know who best to disseminate the privilege of James’s exalted presence amongst.
“Are you tired, James?”
James answered, casually, that he was fine. Francis thought to press the matter—he licked his lips, studying the way the tension had not left James’s mouth—but before long Ann was returning, arm in arm with a promised partner.
The woman was tall and elegant. Her lean neck swept gracefully down into thin shoulders, covered by fine lace and silk, and though Francis did not recognize her surname, there was no question that this woman’s father was wealthy and well-connected.
James bowed over her hand.
Francis looked at his feet.
As they swirled out across the floor, Francis found himself tracing James’s progress, hands kneading together behind his back of their own accord. Candlelight shone dully in James’s hair as he moved, a proper gap between himself and the woman, a fixed smile in place.
An unfocused wanting churned slowly within Francis, like yet unlike the impulse that he had learned to thwart with walking. But that, Francis decided, forcing the acknowledgment of it through his gritted teeth, was only natural: that he should wait so long to converse with James through a medium other than the page, and yet be stymied further.
Once, over the woman’s shoulder, James briefly caught his stare, leaving Francis too startled to manage more than a nod.
The woman returned to her group after the dance, and James to his side.
“Not the grace of a badger,” James murmured.
It was a little uncharitable. Francis had been watching; she’d done fine. “Don’t moan, James,” Francis said. “It could be worse.”
“I’d like to see you take a turn with one of these women. All air, they are; no weight to them. So lightly do they hold to you I seem to forget they are there. I am liable to trip, Francis!” Sharply, James jabbed at him. “You should take a turn. They wouldn’t mind, you know.”
Francis swallowed a smile that might have turned up the corner of his mouth. Everything seemed a bit more enjoyable with James being droll; without Ross to needling him to dance. “The ladies would far rather have you for their partner than I,” he said.
“Can’t see why.” James looked him wryly up and down. “You do cut quite the figure in your badly-tailored waistcoat and your sour demeanor.”
Now Francis really could not help but to smile under James’s gentle teasing, hardly having noticed how tight his brow had been drawn until it loosened. “Have you eaten?”
“Not yet. And after the journey I’ve had, the only stomach I have is for wine. As a matter of fact—excuse me, for a moment,” he said, leaving Francis with only a brief touch at his arm before striding away.
When he returned, he held a full glass loosely, adopting a studiously casual pose by leaning one shoulder against the wall that suggested he was settling in; away from the majority of the hubbub. They were surely to be missed among the rest of the guests—there were sure to be whispers wondering why the men of the hour were not mingling; not talking, not advancing their social standing.
Francis thought privately that they could, to a man, put a thumb in it. He might even say so to James, later; when they’d returned home, except for that James had gone very quiet, and no longer lighthearted.
“I burned your letters, before I left,” James said.
Next to him, Francis cast his head down. “For the best.”
Francis recalled how carefully he’d sifted through the grate’s ashes two mornings ago, squinting for recognizable words on blackened slivers of paper before the maid could come to take them away. “Burned,” he said. “I made sure of it.”
Rough on the edges of the words, James said, “Thank you.”
They stood in silence. It was a fanciful thought, but Francis reckoned James had been as reluctant as he.
“Barrow mentioned something to me, before I left,” James remarked. To all appearances, it was an offhanded comment, save for the way he tilted his body a bit closer than necessary towards Francis in order to obscure his lips.
“Is it wise to say it here?”
“Yes, here—will you not—”
“Peace, James. I will.” Francis pretended to search the ceiling. “Elder, or younger?”
“Elder.” James's jaw moved, as if chewing over words, but his lips remained closed, and his gaze darted just as uneasily out into the room. “He asked if I’d be willing to go South.”
“India?” Francis said, without thinking.
Pointed silence and a granite regard were his reply.
Francis recoiled. “Christ, James. The man’s a righteous prig, but—”
But James’s eyes brooked no doubt of his conviction. This, then, had been what he’d meant when he had written of burdens, and Francis felt the last tinder of his joy curdle within his breast.
“There were a few hints besides,” James admitted. “Off-colour jokes. I thought nothing of it, at the time. But when taken together—” He lifted and lowered one shoulder.
“Damn him,” Francis muttered. He stepped away from the wall and reeled a tight circle.
Drifting after him, James asked, “Do you believe him to be in absolute earnest?”
He was tempted to run his hands through his hair. For good measure, Francis jammed them against his hips, clenched into fists. “I can't be sure.”
“I should know better than to wonder," James spat.
“Were they idle words, James? Spoken in jest?”
“I don’t believe so.” The answer came after the tail end of a long drink from his glass, and sounded a bit choked. “He still thinks of me as the same man I was when I went away. The man who did his son a costly favor. Ambitious. Eager.” Scoffing, James declared, in a voice that was too loud for their quiet corner, “They all do.”
There was a slight drag to his speech. Francis put a finger to the rim of James’s glass, angling it to catch a sniff. “That’s potent stuff, James.”
“Well.” James lifted his glass and raised a sardonic eyebrow. “You’d know.”
Francis swallowed the sting of that old wound as easily as James swallowed his wine. He took him, discreetly but firmly, by the elbow. “We must be careful here. These people are not all our friends.”
“Barrow has his motives, I’ll allow, but surely Ross’s set are good people.”
“Good people,” Francis said, “do not always do good things.”
“We are beyond all that.” Color flushed into James’s cheeks. His eyes were wide. “You swore to me.”
“I thought that we were. I hope that we are. But I cannot say for certain.” Lowering his chin, Francis’s voice dropped to a near-whisper. “You can refuse.”
“Can I? For the sake of my career, if only—”
“For the sake of your life—”
“Let’s not argue this here, Francis. Please let’s not.”
Confusion and frustration roiled inside him, threatening fierce words. Francis wrenched them all aside. “At home, then,” he forced his lips to say. “Are you coming?”
James walked past him, without a word, to give his regrets to Ann.
In his mind’s eye Francis saw James at the bow of a ship again. In his mind’s eye, Francis saw James, starving.
They were barely returned and rescued—was their well-earned respite to be curtailed so suddenly by a board of privileged fools, removed from the deck of a ship for decades all of them; grasping at the glory of Nelson and falling far short, and good men like James the discarded consequence? The fact that Barrow had dared to even intimate another trip to a Pole stuck so deeply in his craw it physically choked him.
He waited for Ross to separate himself from a throng of officers, some of whom Francis recognized, none of whom he could be bothered to farewell. “I enjoyed myself,” Francis said to Ross, unsure of how much he meant the words. His mouth flattened out. “I wonder if there's anything you've heard,” he began, “about James?”
Ross looked into his face and drew him aside by the arm. “Heard?” he murmured.
“Regarding the Admiralty’s intentions towards him.”
“Impending promotion, I suspect,” Ross mused, “if not to skip captaincy altogether and advance straight to rear admiral."
Ignoring his levity, Francis spread his hands and urged, “Is there truly no whisper?” Ascertaining that James was still in conversation with Ann, he said, “I do not think Barrow would treat with him so seriously if he did not have his plans.”
Ross shook his head. “I’ve heard nothing, Francis.”
“Your uncle, then.”
“He declined to come tonight. It’s been several weeks since last we spoke.”
“You have,” Francis said, frustration curling his fist, “the Admiralty’s ear, do you not?”
Ross made no reply.
“In a way that I never have?” Francis pressed. As Ross eased his weight from foot to foot where he stood, Francis lowered his voice to a rasp. “If not for my sake, then for his. You know how that place can shift a man away from what he was. From what he would have been. Even a commander.”
Always taller than he, Francis had to crane his neck back to look up into Ross’s light eyes; farther still as Ross moved to place a hand on his shoulder. “I will listen hard, my old friend. But I cannot bring you news of what has not been said.”
And then there was naught to do but to return home, and to worry.
Breakfast was faced with a stern chin. He greeted Sophia as always, and though he searched her face for it, there was no trace of the passionate thing she had been a week ago. Francis did not know whether to rejoice that she had taken his plea for time at its face, or to worry; and he had now not even the recourse of confiding in James. He would not add his own paltry troubles to the ones James already bore. For the time being, Francis would quietly put it aside, like a thing resolved to die quietly in its corner and fester.
Lady Jane waited only for James to join them at the table the mere day after his return before launching into idle chatter about her memoir, seemingly the only topic on which she held forth these days.
“How goes it?” Francis offered, when it became clear she would not be deterred from the subject, and James would not be drawn out; marveling at how detached his voice sounded from his internal composure.
Lady Jane slowed in the act of cutting a piece of veal. “It is difficult going, as befits any undertaking of such magnitude. But I have no doubt of its eventual success.” She shook her head. “No doubt.”
“That is,” Francis said, grasping for a lie, “reassuring.”
“Especially with our dear Commander Fitzjames’s valuable input to ensure its success.”
James propped his wrist against the edge of the table, rubbing the pads of his fingers along the heel of his hand. “I’m sure Francis has already told you all there is to tell.”
“But your perspective is unique,” Lady Jane pressed. “To have been so close to the expedition’s commander, and to have shared his confidence.”
For a long, blank moment, James looked between Francis and Lady Jane.
“The expedition's commander," he slowly repeated. "You are referring to Sir John?”
“My late husband, yes.”
“I see. Lady Jane, I—” James put his hand in his lap. “I would be happy to offer you those words in private. However, I am not sure—I mean to say merely,” he amended, as Lady Jane’s brow compressed, “that with all the fervor surrounding our return, might it be better to wait before publishing an account?”
Sternly, she said, “Given all the fervor surrounding your return, now is the best time.”
James took his napkin from his trouser leg and set it on the table. He leaned back, looking around. “And why is that?”
“I’m sure it does not need explaining that the public is at its most eager, at this juncture, and that a book of the expedition will all the better received for the speed with which it enters its audience’s hands.” She said all of this with infinite patience, as though explaining to a child.
“A grand tale,” James summarized.
Mirroring James’s posture, Lady Jane pressed back into her chair. “A brilliant and fitting legacy for all those lost.”
“For your husband, you mean.”
“James,” Francis warned. He knew that set of his jaw. He knew it all too well.
James’s head whipped toward him only briefly, and then back to Lady Jane again instantly. “You may write it, but I will take no part in it. That is all I will say on the matter.”
He had pushed his chair back, and risen from the table, by the time Lady Jane seemed to recover from the shock of his refusal. She snapped, “After all my husband did for you!”
Francis half-raised a hand to his temple, and he looked, in agony, towards the opposite wall.
“All he did,” he heard James echo in a dismal voice. “Would that be before, or after he ordered us to—”
“James, that’s enough!” It took Francis a long moment to master his features enough to bare them to James, but, at last, he fixed him straight in the eye. There was mutiny looking back. “We will speak no more of this,” Francis commanded.
Lady Jane looked between them, uncomprehendingly. “You will speak more. I demand it!”
“That,” Francis said, his eyes still for James and James alone, “is an order. Do you understand?”
“Damn you, Francis.”
A gasp from Lady Jane. Perfunctorily, James turned. “I apologize for my words. And for Francis’s, as well; though he’s not like to say it. You must excuse me. I am abominably tired this morning.”
Beyond the capability to make any excuse for himself, even one so poor as James’s, Francis pushed back his chair and followed him out of the dining room.
James waited scarcely until Francis had shut the door of the sitting room behind them. “I am sorry, Francis,” he said. All of the fervor that seemed to have possessed him in the dining room was gone. He had a hand on the mantle and was glaring at the fire as though hoping it’d burn him. The tap of one foot was muffled into the rug.
It was easier than Francis had thought it’d be to put away his bruised pride in the face of James before him. By increments, like an old man lowering himself to a stool, James took the armchair closest the fire, letting his head fall against its wing. When he spoke, his voice had gone hoarse. “How long are we to stay in this house?”
“I don’t know.”
“Perhaps we could make a go of it ourselves. Until we receive our postings.”
Carefully, Francis sat as well. “Our pay combined would be enough to secure…something small.…” He trailed off. “What are you doing?”
With difficulty, James was shuffling the entire armchair in which he sat closer to the fire. “I’m cold, Francis.”
“Perhaps a blanket?”
“I am not an invalid,” James snapped.
Francis let his head fall into his hands.
“I’ll apologize to Jane later. She won’t mind.”
“I’m not so sure.” Unable to help himself, Francis laughed, voice gone low. “Although I’ll not say she didn’t deserve it.”
This failed to elicit even the shadow of a grin from James. But perhaps it was the wrong approach. All their long correspondence, a conversation like this had been coming, and Francis felt the dread of it fully, cresting and dark.
A good deal of time passed before James spoke again. Francis could hear the clock's ticks, the occupants of the house moving; Lady Jane’s voice rapping briefly. Once, footsteps that hesitated outside the door. He thought them Sophia’s. He couldn’t be sure.
Forearms braced on his thighs, James leaned forward, putting his face very near to the fire. Beads of sweat popped up along his brow. “There were mornings I would lie in bed,” he said. “Unable to move; unable to think. Hardly even able to breathe.” His eyes turned, horribly, to Francis. “I am a commander in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. What does it make me if I cannot act?”
Francis got up silently. He crossed to the coal scuttle and opened its lid. “What is asked of men in their darkest hours is not what is required of them in safety.” Taking up the tongs, he withdrew coal after coal, setting them all into the fire. It was maid's work, but he didn't mind. “It is a vastly different sort of courage to go on as you were. As if none of it had ever happened. But you, James—” He paused a moment to stoke the new coals. His voice became fervent. “You are still your own man. The very best I have ever served beside or known. And you will do it.”
Heat near unbearable now washed over them both. Knees twinging in protest, Francis stood from the hearth so that he could squeeze James by the shoulder, though it was half the gesture he wanted to make. “You must. Hm?”
James contemplated his folded hands. “You never were much good at invention,” he allowed.
It took a moment for Francis to remember. “You’re right,” he answered, quite serious. “I’m not.”
“Suppose I’ll speak to Lady Jane, now,” James announced, brushing back the hair from his sweating brow.
“We can sit another moment. If you’d like.”
James arranged himself in his chair so that he rested a little less close to the fire.
Thank you immensely to everyone who has reviewed, kudo'd, or clicked--the response this fic has gotten amazes me! Special thanks to Ias for helping me with the research in this chapter so I could get it posted in a timely manner. For the curious, I'm on tumblr as terribleoldwhitemen.
There was a life laid before him by his own hand.
It looked remarkably akin to the one James Ross now led—respected, indolent, married. But instead of Ann by his side it was Sophia; with her challenges and her strength of will and her fervid gaze all turned upon him. His, till death. No longer accompanied by an independent command and a knighthood, it must be allowed; but instead by this strange and undeserved infamy, both greater and lesser at once. It was a pittance to offer a bride, but Sophia was in full knowledge of this, and did not seem to mind.
It was likely she loved him.
The walls of his heart shrank away from the notion, and that which accompanied it: a life narrowed down to a London square, or at best a country house purchased on backpay. Never again to go to sea—he could, perhaps, live with that. He could, perhaps, live.
It would only require Francis to stride from the room and down the stairs; to take Sophia’s hand in his and breathe across the back of it: Will you do me the greatest honor a man can know?
Francis did not rise from his seat. “Perhaps a walk today,” he said, from the single armchair in James’s chambers. They had a semblance of privacy there; though a walk would offer more. His hands lay over his thighs with a looseness they did not feel.
Looking up from the basin, water dripping from his face, James asked, “Where to?” Damp fingers reached up to retie his cravat.
“You mentioned Hyde Park?”
There was a slight hesitation when he reached for a towel. “Capital. Give me a moment, Francis.”
Slowly, he stood, and with a nod to James made his way to his own rooms, to ferret out where exactly he’d left his damned walking stick.
They meandered through Hyde Park’s gravel paths arm-in-arm, surrounded by stately trees and wrought iron, walking sticks tucked into their free elbows and the cooling air playing across their faces. Several ladies were already sporting fashionable mantelets, though they were sure to be sweltering within them. It still felt as warm as summer to Francis. “One of the last dry days of the season, I’d wager,” he observed.
“Are we to talk of the weather, then?” James returned.
"You're quiet yourself."
Francis tugged at his elbow. "James?"
Francis nodded sagely, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. "I see," he said, although he of course did not.
James's eyes were far away--flitting between the tree line and the roofs of the houses lining the square. Francis felt that he should mention Sophia, but the impulse was glancing.
"I had thought to ask," Francis began, but he broke himself off with a sharp sigh. He was no better at speaking his mind than a tongue-tied schoolgirl. "Have you ever," he ventured, "thought of marrying?"
"Christ," James grunted. "Not lately."
And that was all James seemed to have to say, which left Francis licking his lips and grasping for some other oblique angle at which to stab at the matter.
But then James shifted, like a great bird settling rustled feathers, and took in breath. "I was pestered by it, in the later months of our voyage. It occurred to me that if I’d found myself a wife before setting off, like Ross did, I may never have left England to begin with." James opened and closed his empty fist. "And now I may never marry."
The beauty of the woman with whom James had taken a turn at Ross's ball came vividly to Francis’s mind. Though he would be hard-pressed to imagine any gentlewoman possessing of such attributes as would make her a worthy match to all the fine qualities that James himself embodied, she had nevertheless been no mean prospect. Francis declared, "I suspect every lady in London would swoon at your feet for the mere privilege of kissing your shoe."
"For what would they swoon, Francis?" The slashes in James's cheek deepened unexpectedly with bitterness. "For myself, or for my illustrious surname?"
Francis glanced at him.
"The irony," James added.
They could at least exchange a set of knowing grins at that. "I'm sorry, James. I only meant that you are...." Francis cleared his throat. "You are forthwith, and honorable, and will wear a captain's uniform. There is no shame in that."
They had nearly finished a complete yet leisurely circuit of the park’s walking paths, but Francis would not afterwards have been able to accurately relate their surrounds to any interested third party. The people milling around were, for once, not intent upon the business of any lives but their own; and James was tucked close by his side. The miasma that had enveloped Francis only a day previous was dissipating as effectively as if a brisk wind had blown through a becalmed sail.
James canted his head towards him, taking breath to mutter, "All the London ladies?"
Francis raised an eyebrow and kept his gaze trained firmly on the ground before him. "Well. Not all. But most of the unmarried aunts, and at least half the widows--"
James flashed a grin which showed clearly all his crooked teeth. "Are my dismal prospects so amusing?"
"Not at all."
"I can see it there, Francis—your eye has gone all squinty on one side."
"Apologies, James," he said, though he was not at all contrite, and his quaking lips did a poor job of concealing it. "I shall cease such gruesome contortions immediately."
"No need, Francis. No need." The look which accompanied James's words was as warm as skin. It settled deep in Francis's belly, more filling and more soothing than a hot meal. "No, I'll not marry," James continued, as if their conversation had never diverted. "At least not until all of this—" he waved a vague hand, indicating the park, or perhaps the entire city—"has settled with, for I suspect there is not a single place less disposed towards the tender feelings as London. Not even Nunavut."
"Are you so determined to confirm yourself a bachelor?"
"Is not the life of a naval man one of a bachelor, regardless of marital status?"
"Not necessarily," Francis said. He thought of Sophia. He thought of Ross, then, but—Ross was retired.
"Have you given any more thought to what I mentioned the other day?"
Carefully, Francis said, "Concerning?"
"Us taking rooms."
Perhaps his reluctance showed on his face in some way that James had learned to discern over the course of their shared hardships, for James halted them by their joined elbows, or else tried to pull from Francis's grasp altogether; though Francis did not loosen his hold enough to allow for it.
"I meant it, Francis. I'm tired of living off of Lady Jane's good will when she seems to bear so little of it towards ourselves. Alone we could talk as loud as we liked about whatever we wished, and live reticently. Is that not what we both desire?"
Francis opened and then closed his mouth. "Yes," he answered.
The idea of a flat appealed to him more than it would have done five years ago. But that life--of a confirmed bachelor, in quietude--precluded marriage. No life where he holed himself away from the misplaced regard of the world and spoke as scurrilously as he cared toward it would accommodate a wife who wished for society and its comforts.
But alone, he and James could, perhaps, be easy together—as easy as they had been this past hour; as whole and alive again as he'd thought, in the early days, he might have felt with Sophia. Francis found that he dreaded the necessity of returning to the house, and in this, he finally had his answer. “Alright," he croaked. "Alright, James. I'll write out inquiries today, when we return."
“Hear, hear,” James rumbled. His brow was wrinkled, but not in trouble or pain: only with a slight upward cant of his eyebrows in pleasure as the light began to turn golden.
The sun was descending quickly in its autumn arc. They were among the last to trickle from Hyde Park, speaking of nothing in particular.
“Shall we keep a dog?” James pondered.
“I should think not. Neptune was enough.”
“He was a gentle beast.”
“A mangy layabout.”
“He was your own animal, Francis.”
“And I had enough on a ship to be getting along with.”
“And now?” James prodded. “What great occupation shall indispose you for the care of an animal?”
“I’ll seek something suitable out, if that is what keeps a dog from our rooms.”
They walked a little longer in the vague direction of the gate.
“I’ll consider it,” Francis allowed.
Two intimates of Lady Jane’s joined them for tea, after which Lady Jane suggested a trick of whist, at which it seemed most natural for the four ladies to gather. But Sophia was apparently indifferent, and it was soon found out that James had played often with his aunt, and patiently agreed to round out their table—though not without a sly look of commiseration thrown across the room at Francis. An odd group, all told; but quickly engaged in their cards, and smiling.
Sophia had spent enough of herself on waiting—she did not deserve to have her patience tried any longer by Francis’s desire to spare her feelings, nor, truth be told, to spare his own. He was relinquishing an old dream, and old dreams have long roots. Francis came up to Sophia’s shoulder. “Might we be alone, for a moment?”
Lady Jane’s eyes followed them, hawk-like, as they left the room.
In the study, conscious that he would never again have the opportunity, Francis kissed her hands, as he had never before dared to do. “I have had my time,” he said, “and though it was needed, I am sorry for taking so much of it, only to give you an answer I suspect I have known all along.”
He looked straight at her and steeled himself against the hurt he would see in her face. None was forthcoming. Sophia seemed already to have constructed her bulwarks and retreated behind them.
She said, “Be plain, I beg of you. In the way I never had the courage to be.”
“You are not lacking in courage, Sophia,” Francis murmured, before he could stop himself.
Nothing in her stalwart regard wavered.
“I am not who I was,” he admitted at last, with no small amount of pride. “Or, rather,” he said, carefully releasing her hands, “I now know that I am not a man who could make a good husband to you. I would count it among my greatest mistakes to attempt to do so, only to fail.”
Her smile was tight. It had hardly rearranged the features of her face before it was gone again. “I understand, Francis. I do.” She blinked rapidly at the ceiling for several heartbeats. “I prayed to God that you would come home safe, and He answered me. I had no right to ask for more—though I could not stop myself from doing so. I am very glad to see you made happy again,” she continued, voice a little high; not quite meeting his eyes. “Even if it was not by my hand.”
Her gaze traveled over his shoulder and settled heavily against the door through which they had come. Lady Jane and her two intimates sat with James through that door, oblivious to their conversation. A sick feeling yawned in Francis’s stomach.
Sophia said, “I do not presume to know what exists between you and the commander, but I know it to be more than that which now exists between you and I.”
There was a muscle jumping in his cheek that Francis was powerless to quell. “I won’t pretend to misunderstand what you imply, but we are not—” Francis choked on the word, suddenly obliged to picture what precisely they weren’t. Not as two people who would make a home together? They had decided on taking bachelor’s rooms together only hours ago. Not as husband and wife, who share meals and evenings (he had shared many with James; and would share many more) and comfort one another (James brought Francis great comfort), or—or—
He sought for something to contradict Sophia’s insinuation, flickering from one vivid idea to another, wanting to rest longer on each but daring to less and less; finding none at all. There were only wordless looks exchanged in a language more rarified than the most remote Eskimo dialect; warm bones grasped beneath a blanket; a bare-skinned wrist under his fingers, and—wilder and wilder still—things he had never seen through waking eyes: James, in his shirtsleeves, chin lowered and stepping towards him. Hair between his fingers too thick and dark to be Sophia’s fine blonde curls. A mouth at his ear that whispered words no living soul had ever uttered to him aloud—
Francis shut his eyes, tightly, and when he opened them again most of the visions had swirled away, leaving Sophia before him, calm and expectant. Bewildered, he searched her face; her hands. Neither were illuminating. “He is not to me as you once were,” he gritted out.
She touched a finger to his collar. “You are right, Francis. Please, do not be troubled. I do not like to think I’ve made you troubled.” One thumb reached slightly upwards to smooth across his brow.
“You have made me that and more in the years we’ve known one another,” he said; as if to say, see, this is a truth you have not yet wrung from me.
“Well, then. It is for the best.”
His chin tipped down, and her thumb vanished.
“I will go back first.”
Francis meant to follow after a suitable moment. Then the suitable moment elapsed, and another; and yet another. When at last he urged his feet to move and returned to the parlor, it was to see Sophia once more at her embroidery; to catch James’s startled eyes as he looked up from his cards. Francis’s chest tightened like a noose being drawn.
“I am going out,” he announced. “Do not expect me at dinner.”
With one last look at James, he did so.
It would et him up inside, if he let it. If he refused to give it vent.
He knew of an alehouse where, when on land, Blanky was part-proprietor. It was not the kind of place gentlemen frequented, but then, by many accounts, Francis had never quite achieved that status. Not that this had ever given Thomas Blanky a lick of pause.
He kept his dress plain. To any onlooker, he was merely another clerk stopping off for some refreshment and company after a dry day spent poring over ledgers. The experience was certainly familiar enough. So was the alehouse: a scene of common life so little different from that of men drinking and talking aboard a ship’s mess that he found himself crossing the stoop almost eagerly.
Blanky was leaning heavily atop the bar to take the weight off his leg. His eyes found the newcomer, going narrow, then wide, as recognition trickled in. “I’d offer you a drink,” Blanky said, as Francis drew near, “but I hear you’re dryer than a widow’s cunt these days.”
Francis set his fists on his hips and fought back a surge of gladness. “That’s vulgar, even for you.”
Unapologetic, Blanky shrugged. “I’ve the mouth of a sailor.”
With a purposeful tilt of his head, Francis said, “Let’s us and that unparalleled wit of yours go somewhere a bit more private.”
“There’s a back room.”
Blanky slapped a palm down on the counter and inched his way out from behind it. Francis followed him down a narrow corridor, eyeing his friend’s girth. He’d gained a bit of weight back, and his limp was more pronounced, but he no longer winced with each step.
They stopped in the kind of back room that you wouldn’t know how to find if you weren’t looking for it in the first place and settled themselves at a spartan table. Blanky gave him a hard once-over, and, when it was clear that Francis wouldn't speak first, said, “How’ve you been, Francis? I’ve not heard anything from you these months, ‘cept from the papers.”
There was no one there for whom he needed to keep a straight spine, so Francis sighed and let his chin drop to his chest, shaking his head minutely. “I know, Thomas. And I’m sorry for it. There’s not been much to tell.”
“Oh, now I don’t believe that. Not for a minute.” Blanky peered at him keenly. Suspicion was a valuable trait in the task of reading mercurial Arctic ice; even more so to a friend of Francis Crozier. He sat back so he could rummage in his coat. “I’ll have a bit of a smoke while you sort it out, shall I?”
Reflexively, Francis patted his pocket for his pipe, but the familiar lump was absent. He had been too often in the company of women since coming ashore to keep in the habit. “Do you have a spare?”
“Around here somewhere.”
“Obliged,” Francis murmured as Blanky passed the tobacco across the table. They occupied themselves in the old routine, and soon smoke hazed around them, and it was as if they were once more trading confidences against Terror’s gunwale--though never had their confidences been so intimate as Francis now planned his to be. “And are you well, Thomas? The leg?” he asked. “I’m not here solely on my own account, no matter what you may think.”
“I’m at ease, Francis. Far more than you I’d wager." He seemed to be, at least; sunk low in his chair and grinning lazily as he was. "The gossip was good for business, at first, but mostly—” he sucked his pipe tight between his lips and inhaled— “all of that’s settled down. Me and the missus run a good profit, and I’m no more on my feet than betwixt the bar and the store room.”
Earnestly, Francis said, “It settles me to know you’re well.”
“A bit too settled, if you get my meaning. Don’t get me wrong.” He lifted his eyes to the smoke that curled towards the ceiling. “My remaining leg and I are glad of the rest. But it gets in your bones, you see.” A pause. “All the more when I know there’ll be no shaking it, now.”
“Plenty of sailors with wooden legs,” Francis said.
“Not me, Francis. Not me. Besides, the missus wouldn’t allow it.”
Francis thought, as always, of James. “I understand. Truly.”
“Do you, now?”
Francis took the pipe from his mouth, brandished the tip of it across the table, and said nothing.
“I’ve got a business to run out there, you know,” Blanky said archly.
Francis graced him with a fond and despairing look. He’d never known Blanky to leave a measure of tobacco half-smoked, and he’d barely begun what was in the bowl of his pipe.
It was a while of silence, broken only by the smell of tobacco, before he felt he had roped his thoughts into as much order as they were like to get. He resettled himself in the severe wooden chair. “Have I ever spoken to you of Sophia Cracroft?”
“Twice or a few dozen times.”
Francis nodded. He spoke steadily, keeping a cadence firm enough not to allow his better judgement to stymie his lips. “Free now as she is from the impediment of Sir John's disapproval, she has asked me to renew my suit.”
“Aye, you sly old—”
Blanky's teeth clacked against his pipe. He looked away from Francis and scraped a knuckle quickly, contemplatively, down the knotty table. “I don’t understand. You were mad for her, Francis. Mad.”
Gently, Francis said, “You know well how such a voyage as ours can change a man. Perhaps myself more than I at first realized.” An unbidden grin wrenched his mouth away from forming the right words. “James and I have been living in her house these past months, yet I’ve spent more time in his company than hers.”
Blanky’s eyes lit up. “How is the good Commander Fitzjames?”
“Far less well than you or I, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Not as sorry as I am.” Miserably, Francis shook his head, wordlessly pleading with Blanky to understand; pleading Blanky not to force the truth into immutable sound just yet—he was not ready for that.
After a moment's thought, Blanky replied: “Ah.”
Francis’s fingers were sweating along the neck of his borrowed pipe. He didn't dare blink for the effort of trying to catch his friend’s eye and discern his thoughts. “Don’t judge me too harshly,” he begged.
“There’d been a time I’d’ve ripped you to pieces for it.” Blanky lifted his careful gaze from the table. Then, he snorted. “Him, of all people. ‘The Most Handsome Man in the Royal Navy.’”
A grin flooded across Francis’s face. It was a grin of relief, of chagrin; a grin for the sheer unlikeliness of it all, and the absurdity of finding himself confiding such a ridiculous thing to Blanky—a thing which seemed less and less ridiculous the more he sat with it; the more they spoke of it.
“But not now,” Blanky continued. “Not after what we went through. Not after what he was to you, on the ice.” Thoughtfully, he muttered, “What he is to you, I suppose.”
Francis reached a hand blindly across the table and clasped Blanky by the forearm, holding as tight as he could.
Nearly inaudibly, Blanky asked, “Is it sodomy, then?”
Francis squeezed his arm and pressed his lips into a correspondingly thin line. After a while, he managed, “I may love him.”
“Worse,” Banky said.
It was not something Francis had yet indulged in considering. Hope unfurled like a sail at the mere thought, whipping taut; billowed to bursting with naught but air. “I believe that would require more luck than I am yet owed in this life,” Francis said.
“Oh, I think we’re owed all the luck left in the world,” Blanky replied. There was something secret in the way the man declared it, as if he possessed some knowledge Francis was not privy to. Francis supposed, with all Blanky had seen, it was well-earned. He fancied then that the man could stand peg-to-toe with Christ himself, armed only with a paring knife and his one good leg, ready to demand his fair share of good fortune remaining by hook or by crutch.
“What would you have done?”
A smirk split Blanky’s face, followed by a crackling, spluttering laugh. “If I were in love with the dear commander?”
Francis colored. “You know what I—”
But this only encouraged Thomas, who nearly upset his pipe bowl as he chuckled, and lost his footing with his wooden leg under the table. Bit by bit, Francis decided that it was rather funny, when you got down to it; but when Blanky’s mirth had faded, he pressed on in seriousness.
“Was I wrong to break my word to Sophia?" Francis asked. "Even given the circumstances?”
“Not to my eyes.”
“Christ, Thomas, she waited five years—”
“There now, Francis. You’ve done her no wrong.”
“She’s still a handsome woman.”
“Trapped there alone, with Lady Jane? Not like to be for long.”
“Would it have done you any good?”
“Would it have done you any good, Francis?”
His silence was answer enough. Blanky nodded, as if he had been expecting this. “You’re no longer a captain, same way as I’m no longer an able-bodied seaman. Your only responsibility now is to look after yourself. You’ve spent long enough looking after others. ”
Francis exhaled sharply. “And a fine job I did at that,” he remarked.
“What am I, then?” Blanky drew himself up in his chair. There was genuine anger in the words. “And forty-odd others besides you brought back, alive, from that place. Including him.” He paused, to let that sink in. “Though I know it’s of no account to you, I tally your own life among those saved. Would be a pity to let it go to waste.”
Every inch of him ached to demur. But if he would wish nothing more than for those men who had made it back across the Atlantic to lead full and fulfilling lives, each of them, then how could he deny the same to himself? No landmasses would bear his name down the generations, nor stories be written of his valor. Francis Crozier’s legacy would be forty-two men and the lives they lived. That was more than enough to be getting on with.
“You’re right, Thomas.” Francis’s voice rasped, not wholly from the smoke. “You’re right.”
“I usually am.”
As much to take the smugness from Blanky’s face than anything else, Francis said, “James and I have decided to take rooms together, you know.”
“Is that a good idea?” Blanky drawled.
“God willing, you’ll do alright. And if not, my door’s always open.”
After that, they lapsed into a companionable silence, wrapped in their own thoughts. They burned out the rest of the tobacco in their pipes.
“I’ve got to be getting back,” Blanky said, easing his leg in the socket of his stump. “Best take care now, Francis.”
Francis arched one eyebrow. “Have you ever known me not to?”
“Not as yet,” Blanky said. “But you’ve a gleam in your eye, Francis Crozier. Next I know I’ll be having a letter from you and James in the post from some god-forsaken corner of the world. Like the Yukon, or America.”
It was late, and the day had been long; but neither of those things could wholly account for how appealing Francis suddenly found such an idea.
He returned to the house and retired, not bothering to dress for bed past shedding his shoes and waistcoat and cravat. He did not fall asleep. Had he done so, he might not have heard the knock that came, impossibly softly, upon the door, the hour unknown.
Francis pushed away the sheet and rose. It was pitch-black, and he made his way by the slightly brighter sliver, broken by the shape of feet, beneath the door.
“What is it, James?” he whispered.
“May I come in?”
Francis stepped aside. He shut the door as James brushed past him, smelling sweat in his wake, and Francis went immediately to light the lamp. By its light, he watched James take the water Francis kept by the bed, drinking deep, his free hand braced on the toilet table. When he’d finished James let out a noise of satisfaction and sank onto the chair.
“Is anything wrong?”
James began, “Will you—” He did not finish.
Gently, Francis prodded, “Will I what, James?”
He began to stand. “I’m sorry to have troubled you.” His face was haggard and deeply lined, like a bed uneasily slept in and left unmade. He did not deserve to have such wear upon him anymore. Nor ever again.
“Were you asleep, James?”
After a delicate pause, Francis asked, “What did you see?”
James sat again.
“Can you speak of it?”
Francis ached to go to him. Once, he might have; but now he could not trust the motive behind the urge. Would it be for James’s comfort, or his own?
James began to idly rearranged the items on Francis’s desk. He sifted through the small pile of sealed flat inquiries, transferring them one by one into a second pile, and then back. He cleared his throat. “I was there again.”
When he flicked a glance at Francis, who had taken a seat upon the bed, Francis inclined his head, listening; encouraging.
“And all the men; they were there, too. But their faces were somehow...changed. I searched and searched, but there was no one I recognized. And then it was a kind of darkness.” The tapping of Francis’s dry pen against parchment, having started out steady and soft, escalated into a staccato. “I don’t know how to describe it. Not the darkness of ink or night. It both boiled, and crunched—” James’s face screwed up into a grimace.
Francis damned his own hesitation and crossed to him, laying a hand on the back of James’s neck. It was immediately covered by the other man’s sweating palm. James's entire body rose and fell with a breath that rattled as he forced himself to go on. “It was truly terrible. And I knew, in the back of my dreaming mind, that if I could find your face among the men’s, that it would stop. But I never could, and it never did.”
Even to speak seemed an immense effort for James. His eyelids drooped with sleep. The sweat of his nightmare had matted the fine hairs of his forehead to the skin of his brow. The man had faced death nearest of them all, and what other horrors internal as heaven knew not, but no matter what he had then or now suffered, he yet lived to tell of it. Francis loved him fiercely—this triumphant wreck of a man who now sat before him. “You should lie down,” Francis urged.
“Here, if you’d like.”
They removed, slowly, to Francis's bed; and did not look at one another. As the mattress dipped with their combined weight, Francis found it natural to nestle his hip against James’s crooked knees, a liberty he was barely conscious of taking. “What are you thinking, James?”
James managed a weak smile that crumpled almost instantly. “I’m thinking I may be losing my mind,” he said, with the tired frankness of a man too exhausted to lie. Slowly, James looked at him, seemingly expectant of—something—though Francis could only conceive of granting him honesty in return.
“What we endured was enough to vex any man, even the strongest. Of whose number I count you part.” There were more words on the edge of his lips; more than were wise, or needed, in this moment. He kept them back. “This is not a burden you need bear alone,” Francis said.
The great house sighed and groaned in the night. A chill wind blew beyond the shutters, but the room was warm enough within, and sounded only of the bed’s creak and Francis’s occasional shifts; the slight rustling of James’s hair as Francis carded his hand through it automatically. Taking, and being allowed to take; even as he knew he should stop, in order to let James have his rest. But he did not, and James did not ask him to.
“Tell me about Burma again,” James said.
Surprised, Francis wet his lips. “Burma?”
“Burma,” he muttered. He'd last told James that story in Nunavut, and James had fallen asleep halfway through. He wondered if it might have the same soporific effect now. “Well. I was fifteen—”
“Sixteen,” James interjected. He lay back upon the sheets.
“—Ah. Yes.” Francis reached beyond that day in the sickbay tent to the true memory, of youth and the tropics. It was not difficult to guess why James had requested this tale. Francis's oratory was haling at first, but gained momentum the longer he let his thoughts run unchecked; as the motion of his fingers through James's hair blurred into mindlessness.
Mid-recitation, he stopped.
“Why don’t you lie down.” James shifted, slightly, so that there was room on the left-hand side of the bed.
Was it merely courtesy to allow a man to lie down in his own bed? Francis fretted over this, but only briefly: he was tired in body as well as mind. No nebulous worry was strong enough to prevent him from taking his place atop the covers, hands folded lightly on his chest. “Where was I?” he asked, gazing at the ceiling.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw James turn his head. “Tenasserim.”
Francis grunted. “Blasted place.” Hesitating slightly as he gathered up the remaining threads of the story, Francis continued on.
Later, as the tale was winding down and Francis had begun to draw more from rambling than from reminiscence, he turned his head to see if James was still awake. He found him already gazing back, eyes wide and deep in the darkness.
Their arms were pressed together and had been for some time. It was the easiest thing in the world to tangle his hand with James’s. Easier than breathing. The happiness that surged through his chest at the contact was so great it stopped him from speaking, and he knew only the brutal way James returned his grip, five fingertips bruising the back of his hand. Their palms went quickly from dry to damp, but neither relinquished their hold; although James’s eased when Francis began to move his thumb in soothing lines across his skin.
Francis could find contentedness in this. If he ignored such selfish indulgences as want, he found he did not need James to be with him in any other way than as they were now.
In the morning, they would face the world. For the night, they were both in Burma, and the air was tropic-warm and far away.
Francis woke in the early hours to find James still pressed beside him, his breathing heavy and even. He shook him by the shoulder and spoke his name. “You ought to go back,” he said. “Before the maid comes.”
James’s hand slid along his arm as he sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. “Alright. Goodnight, Francis.”
Half-sitting himself, Francis mumbled, “Good morning,” at James’s back.
The man turned and let his teeth show white in the dark.
They had woken only just in time, for the maid was in with the wash water soon after; although Francis waited to emerge from his bed chamber until he heard James’s heavy tread pass his door an hour later.
The post had already arrived. James had seized upon it and was leant against the mantle sorting through it with languid movements. Francis, scrutinizing this long-limbed indolence, wanted James, unbearably so; for as long as it took his eyes to scrape down his broad shoulders to his narrow legs and back again.
“Some for you here,” James said, without looking up; and Francis shoved the feeling away.
A woman wearing a dress the shade of summer lilac strode past Francis and into the room. For a moment, Francis thought it must be a visitor, even at this early hour; except James put aside the post and smiled warmly at the newcomer.
“Miss Cracroft,” James greeted. “Allow me to say that the color suits you.”
Sophia swept out her skirts and bobbed her head. “You are kind, Commander. I think any color would suit after so long spent in black crape.”
Had she spent her mourning period, then? Francis counted back the days, but could not make them tally with what was expected of a niece for her uncle. But then Sir John had been more of a father; so it really ought to have been longer—but James was quite right. It was a beautiful color. Her face looked less pale by its lighter contrast, and her hair was no longer conservatively coiffed but tied with ribbons.
“Doesn’t she look well, Francis?” James said to him.
“Very well.” He could admit that, with only the merest of regretful pangs to accompany it. “Very well,” he repeated, and then even that small pang was gone. They had relinquished one another. There was no good to be done in clinging to strands of regret. Besides which, James also stood before him, looking very well himself.
Sophia gave a firm, “Thank you, Francis,” and moved smoothly past him without a glance back to gather her post and retreat.
Mentally, Francis tallied sums of days one last time, and again came up short.
“Francis,” James said. It appeared to not have been the first time.
He looked up from his gaze into the middle distance. “Hm?”
There were a few replies already as to flats, and something from the Admiralty, which Francis shuffled to the back of his small collection. James had one similar, but he had already torn his open, and now his brow contracted. “Barrow wants to see me,” he said, looking up from the letter. “It seems I’m to be made captain at last. Wants to do it in person, owing to the degree of friendship he accounts us to hold.”
Francis smiled, then felt it falter. Though the advancement itself was a long-overdue honor, the timing struck him as strange, if it were truly merely an advancement Barrow now wished to bestow upon James. Straightening, he said, “Congratulations, James.” They had for certain shared moments of greater triumphs than this, but a response more appropriate than to simply shake his hand did not come to mind. “Shall I accompany you?” he asked.
“Francis, I’d rather you didn’t—” he threw up a hand— “whatever it is you’re thinking of doing.”
“And what might I be thinking of doing?” he asked.
“Raising a fuss. Crossing sabers with the Admiralty, as you will.”
James was goading him, but it mixed badly with the curious feeling curling around Francis’s chest. “On my honor, James,” he intoned. “No fusses or fracases shall be raised.”
“Good. Then we shall go.”
They were kept infamously long in the waiting room at Whitehall, where they were universally recognized. Francis shook so many hands his fingers became pinched and damp. By the time he began meeting requests for first-hand accounts of the Arctic’s wiles with stony silence, he had long stopped forcing smiles due to the ache in his cheeks.
“Well,” James was still managing, with a heavy and ill-concealed sigh, “yes, it was colder than London. Far colder. Is that not—”
—and then, blessedly, a servant beckoned them in.
Francis had only been in that room a handful of times, and had, after each, emerged feeling less a man than when he'd entered. He swore that this would not be one of those times. Now, he owed the men within nothing; and his coat bore no moth-holes, and was properly tailored to fit the changes in his frame wrought by five years away from an English hearth. And he was with James.
Four men were gathered: the elder and younger Rosses, the Chief of Staff, and Barrow himself, his skin pale as a death’s-head and his eyes as empty. It seemed an auspicious board for the routine matter of a commander making post. Francis nodded to them all, except for Ross, whose hand he took in both of his.
“Good as always to see you, old man,” Ross said.
Francis’s lips curled into a wary smile. Behind him, James reached around also to shake Ross’s hand, a murmured exchange of names taking place before he moved to accept Barrow’s greeting.
"Fitzjames," said Barrow. "The hero of the hour. A drink?"
"I’m fine, thank you.”
“And you, Crozier.” Barrow looked hard at him. Francis looked hard back. “Just as well you’re here then, too. Drink?”
“I abstain.” He looked uneasily about the room, as if the furled maps upon the walls hid arrows in their rolls, waiting only for the tug of their strings to bring them down point-first.
"In that case, to business." Barrow took his place stiffly at the head of the table. Seated around him, the gathered representatives of Her Majesty’s Navy all nodded. “We wish to congratulate you, firstly; on a most well-earned promotion. We’ve gone through your account of the expedition, as well as records of your previous postings, and have found all to be exceedingly exemplary of what we prize in a captain.”
Though James was sprawled with his legs thrust out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, he was as still as a waiting cat. Not even a twitch of his hands folded in his lap.
Barrow paused. “The rank is absolutely deserved.”
This was where James was no doubt expected to exude thanks for the praises of this vile man, as if they did not curdle his blood just as quickly as they did Francis’s. And though for many things, he deserved praise without reservation; these were not things that the Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty—a civilian, no less—could be in any position to appreciate. To spare James the necessity of making such a farce, Francis clapped James on the shoulder and said loudly into the silence, “Hear, hear.”
Congratulations followed after a long moment from around the table.
"But that is not all we have gathered here for," Barrow continued, and a wide, secretive, self-satisfied simper spread along his face.
Though James was unmoved, Francis felt restlessness creep into his limbs.
Barrow scratched at his temple and took his time bracing his forearms against the edge of the table. Leaning forward on them, with a savor that Francis was revolted to recognize as a near-perfect mirror of Lady Jane's when speaking of her memoir, Barrow continued, “Captain Fitzjames. To suit your new position, not only in the ranks of Her Majesty's Navy but in the eyes of the public, we would like to extend the offer of an equally prestigious command.”
James straightened minutely. “Is this the southern expedition you spoke of, in passing?”
“I am pleased you remembered.”
“I—forgive me, Sir; but I must admit myself confused,” he lied. “I did not believe you to have been in earnest.”
Francis flicked his eyes across to Ross. His friend met them for only a moment before finding refuge in the small amount of whiskey sitting in the glass before him. Neither the Chief of Staff nor Ross the elder had yet broken into fits of chortles at their little joke at the expense of the newly made captain. They were all, to a man, deadly intent. The dull certainty of Barrow's proposition, now stripped of even Francis's most willful denial, settled like lead shot in his stomach.
Francis's chair made an awful noise as he pushed away from the table. "This is madness."
Pausing only for distaste, it seemed, rather than surprise, Sir John Ross snapped, “Talk like that will not be tolerated in this room. Not even from you."
"I expected better from a captain with as much experience as you, Crozier," Barrow said.
As much experience biting his tongue, Francis knew him to mean.
"I understand you may feel slighted by this news. There are some in this room—" Without a lick of subtlety, he turned to Ross— "who argued that you should be given a second chance at command."
“But that it were,” Francis muttered, with a bitter look heavenwards.
Barrow raised his voice slightly and continued. "Yet myself and the board feel it is best to let another have the opportunity for such glory. For Captain Fitzjames to raise this torch and lead the Discovery Corps to the last and greatest frontier of this Empire."
"If I may—" James began to say.
It was not soon enough for Francis to bite back an incredulous, "Greatest frontier?"
The Chief of Staff gestured vaguely at a map upon the wall. "It is the largest unexplored landmass remaining upon God's earth."
James noisily drew himself straighter in his chair. He might have cleared his throat. Francis could not tell, for his whole attention was occupied by the stunning idiocy of the Chief of Staff; a mixture of awe and frustration of the fact that he could sit in a room which held four men who had seen the very things he now deigned to describe so ignorantly yet persist in claiming such nonsense.
"And what, pray tell, might an expedition hope to explore there?" Francis shrugged. "Ice, perhaps? Or more ice?"
"It is not the place of a captain to direct the Board of the Admiralty as to strategic operations." His words were laconic; almost lazy. He did not even bother to look at Francis as he dismissed him.
There had been a time when Francis would have forced air into his lungs and calmed himself with a long drink of whiskey. There had been a time he would have shrunk back into his chair like a whipped dog slinking back into its corner. But Francis was tired—so abominably, unendurably tired—of being ignored like a chlid at tea whose parents have grown bored of his company. And he owed the men in front of him nothing, and his coat bore no moth-holes; and he was with James.
"I will have my say," Francis growled. "I have earned that much of you."
Ross said, “Let the man speak, for God’s sake.”
Francis’s lips quivered with some high emotion. A silence held, which he seized upon, stabbing one finger against the table. “You have no place to ask this man such a thing."
"Captain Fitzjames has pledged service to His Majesty,” Barrow said, “as have we all. He knows what risks that involves.”
“I am not referring to risk.” There was a low, disgruntled murmur from somewhere. “I am referring to duty owed, and this man has already paid his a thousandfold.”
Lowly, James said, “Francis.”
“You ask too much,” he pressed.
John Ross rose. “Now, see here, Crozier—”
The Chief of Staff joined the clamor. “This is beyond the bounds of respect owed even to you—”
“We have been lenient—”
Francis rose, too; rose and threw his arm out wide. “It is Fitzjames who has been lenient! Not to have told you off like the greedy dogs you are the instant you brought this insulting request—”
“Francis!” James seized his wrist, holding it, vice-like, as he pulled him down towards his seat. “I can speak for myself.”
Chest heaving, Francis sank back into the chair. He flintily accepted the gaze of each man around the table who would dare meet it.
Barrow was not among them. When he spoke, in James’s direction, his voice seemed frail. “The commission is Captain Fitzjames’s to accept or deny. We allow that much. But we pray he accepts. For the good of the Empire.”
“For the good of the Lords’ purses,” Francis spat.
Fury shining in his eyes, Barrow rose one final time. “Wait outside the chambers.”
Francis saw nothing at all until he was in the lushly appointed private anteroom, and the door had been closed behind him. There was an unlit mantle. He found himself staring into the empty grate, working his jaw. On impulse he wrapped his fingers around the fire poker. He hefted its weight, raising it; as if to strike—? What? Nothing. He could strike at nothing. Swiftly, he returned the implement to its rack.
In the warm comfort brought by envisioning days spent living by James's side, he had forgotten the very realities of their lives: that they were not their own masters. Having been so steadily in James's company for so long, there had been no time to register an absence—save for the weeks he had been away in Hampshire, full of boredom and brooding. What then would befall him if they were separated by leagues of open ocean, for years at a span? And not only ocean but Antarctic ocean, a mistress whose cruelty Francis knew only too well?
It was more piercing an insight into the state in which Sophia had spent the years of the expedition than had ever before struck him. They had been so cruel to one another, without meaning to or realizing.
He startled when the door opened.
Ross lingered at the threshold with an expression of polite confusion writ upon his face. Through his hazy rage, Francis was beginning to understand what a spectacle he’d made of himself. “Don’t,” Francis said. “I already know.” He scrubbed a hand down his face.
“It’s the Irish in you,” Ross said, perhaps unkindly.
He nodded for him to go on. “Say your piece, then.”
Ross stuck his hands in his pockets and strode closer. “I do feel some accountability for this. You saw it coming—I do swear, Francis, that I did not. I would have warned you both. Refusing an offer such as this can be quite the double edged sword, and I’m in no hurry to wish its sting upon your friend.”
“Fitzjames has no great successes behind him, as you did,” Francis dismissed. “Nor a blushing bride waiting to soften the blow. He will feel obligated.”
"No man wouldn't," Ross said. “I argued with Barrow about it—I shouted him down, Francis, but his pen is louder than my words.” He paused. “Barrow was mad for the passage. You cannot know how angry he was that it slipped through your grasp.” When he saw Francis’s stern face, Ross amended, “As he sees it. It was to be his legacy. He wanted something to put to his name before he dies.”
“He should take it up with God, then,” Francis said. “Not good English men.”
Ross bristled at his tone. "I know how Barrow vexes you. By rights the offer should have been yours. Even so, I would have counseled you against accepting."
The door opened again, softly, and James emerged. Francis allowed himself only a quick glance, lest too much tenderness show on his face.
“They’re asking for you,” James said to Ross.
“Think on what I’ve said, old friend,” Ross said. He clasped a hand to Francis’s shoulder and waited a moment, as if for a reply; but Francis made none.
James rounded on him as soon as Ross was gone. “That was ill-done, Francis. That was very ill-done.”
Behind his back, Francis clenched and unclenched his hands. “It was—Perhaps. If I’ve—well. I hope I’ve not made things difficult for you, James.” He broke off to laugh at himself. “I never did have the stomach for politics.”
“An understatement, if ever there were.” Turning away, James began to run his hands through his hair. “Good Christ.”
“Did you tell him no, James?”
James ran his hands through his hair again.
“It must not have been easy,” Francis ventured. He hesitated before taking a step towards James. “For the love of God, tell me your answer was no.”
“I told him I would think about it.”
“Christ! Did you hear a single word that was spoken in there? ”
James whirled. “They will send a ship South again with or without me. If—” He swallowed hard. “I am no great leader of men. But nor am I another Sir John. If those men could benefit from my experience and foresight, would it not be worth it?”
Wordlessly, Francis shook his head. He meant to meet James’s protestations with reason; persuasive, delicate phrases that James would understand and be swayed by. He grasped for them mightily, but what he found himself holding was brute instead of persuasive, and urgent instead of delicate. “Do not imagine yourself indebted to a crew you’ve neither met nor commanded. You cannot allow the Admiralty this—” Francis sucked in air through his teeth— “this base clutch for the next territory, and the next; all for the satisfaction of seeing another square penciled in on their map-rolls.”
“You could be my second,” James said suddenly. “I told Barrow it would be a condition of my acceptance.”
Something ugly must have entered Francis’s face, for James stopped himself halfway through reaching for Francis's arm. He continued, “When we returned, our future comfort would be set. Knighthoods. Respect. Influence in the course of future expeditions, once Barrow is gone.”
“Not so long ago we were glad merely to have our lives. Have you forgotten that so soon?”
“You know I haven’t,” James said harshly.
“Then I do not—James, I don’t understand.” His world was narrowing. The only words left in his heart were pleas. “There is nothing to consider. You cannot leave—” As if the thought choked him, Francis stopped. He closed his eyes and steadied himself. “You cannot leave,” he repeated.
“There is nothing here, for you nor I,” James burst out, cutting the flat of his hand through the air. “No joy. No fulfillment. Tell me London has offered you any of it, and I will take it all back. Why not go south?”
“Because of the risk, James!” Francis pushed his closed fist into James’s chest to drive home his point past his bared teeth. “Because you may not survive.” Not by accident did his feeble blow hit upon the place where he knew a puckered bullet wound lay hidden beneath shirt and waistcoat.
As if this mortal reminder had cowed him at last, James retreated, seeking the nearest chair; wooden and straight-backed, lined up against the wall. He braced his elbows upon his knees and held his head in one hand. Though it was muffled, and directed toward the carpet, Francis could hear him ask, “What would you have me do?”
Without hesitation, Francis replied, “Resign your commission.”
“And do what.”
“Stay, as we had planned. Or go. But not south, James.”
Francis searched the room unseeingly as he wrung out his mind for the most likely fantasies, the more plausible daydreams; anything onto which James might grasp. Thinking of Blanky, he blurted, “America.”
James scoffed. “Be serious.”
When Blanky had mentioned it, even in jest, it had not sounded so unlikely to Francis. "Consider it,” he urged. “We have five years’ back pay at our disposal. It could afford us comfortable stakes in Virginian tobacco stocks, or buy passages around Cape Horn. West of the Mississippi is largely unsettled territory—”
“For good reason—”
“There have been confirmed reports of gold and oil along the western coast,” Francis insisted, on no more authority than a newspaper headline he barely remembered glancing at six years ago.
“We’re officers, not miners.”
Frustration itched in his throat. He swept around James’s chair, twitched up his trousers, and knelt before him. This at last startled James’s head from his hands.
“Then India,” Francis implored. “Or Australia. Or sign on with a shipping company and let ourselves be blown about by the trade winds. James.” Very carefully, he placed his hands on James's shins. When James did not flinch, he risked moving them higher, and allowed his fingers to curl around his knees. “Any point of the compass but south.”
James’s hair parted like a curtain around his face as he raised his stare from the carpet, eyes gone dark. They lingered on Francis’s fingers, which splayed wide and firm around the backs of his calves. His scant whisper traveled well enough across the bare distance between them. “Are you asking it of me?”
Twice, Francis gave a firm nod.
“I would have you say it,” James said. “If you would ask me to abandon my career and follow you to America, Francis—” Wetting his lips, he continued, “If you want me, I would have you say it.”
Francis looked around them. The anteroom was empty, but his heart still leapt into his throat and his stomach quailed. It was nearly as hard a thing to do as it’d been to abandon his ship, yet he made himself pick up James’s hands from where they hung limply between his legs. Their calloused warmth was not new to his fingers, but now he raised them, with clear intent, to touch against his lips.
“James.” Too rough and too high, his voice broke. “I would have wanted you there at my last, had I died on King William Island; and that’s not changed. Come with me.” He fumbled the tangle of their four hands to bring the closest of James’s fingers to his chin, pressing one kiss after another down the knuckles until he heard James’s breath stutter.
He opened the other man’s hands, muttering James into each palm, and following the word with a hard kiss to the center. And because James had not yet stopped him, he went on, growing more bold and more clumsy as he did: an open press of mouth to James’s pulse; a drag of lips across the meat of his thumb. Only when every single inch of his sturdy and scarred hands was thus christened did he simply grasp them to his forehead, as though praying, and dare to look up again.
There was a neat crease lodged between James’s eyebrows. Yet when he smiled, it was impossibly tender. Somehow his grip clenched even further. “I will never know how Miss Cracroft managed twice to refuse you,” he murmured, “when I have not even the slightest inclination to do so once.” Cheeks flushed with color, he stared with wonder at their whitened, entwined knuckles. “Yes, Francis. America.”
Later, Francis would kiss more than James’s hands. He would touch more than his knee, and be touched in return. There was a life laid before them of quietude and company in a land that would know nothing of them and demand nothing from them. All they need do was reach.
“America. Goddamn, Francis. With all my heart.”
There are many talented people who have made fanart for this fic, and for my own greedy collecting impulses (and for your enjoyment), they are all gathered here:
Cover art by zehstern here and by marginson here
Banner edits by plaidmax here and here
Chapter Two art by nuizlaziart here and here as well as by confusedlucifer here
Multi-Chapter art by nuizlaziart here
Chapter Five art by goblinknight here and nuizlaziart here and zehstern here
It may have taken me a month and a trans-Pacific flight, but I've posted the final chapter at last. I doubt an author's note can accurately express how special an experience it's been to write my longest complete work to date; and to have it generate some cherished and astounding feedback.
I'd like to specially thank ultravioletness (most of this chapter was written with your art open in my tabs), drawsaurus (for the endless enthusiasm), and plaidmax--I wouldn't have finished this fic without your support. And thanks enormously as well to all who commented along the way. It'd be most grand if I could ask it of you one last time.