Every breath Lieutenant Graham Gore took felt like agony. His mind struggled to understand how his chest could feel like it had been torn open by a searing-hot poker, and yet simultaneously be so cold that he briefly thought he had slipped into the freezing water below the ice. He could almost swear he saw steam rising from his skin.
Gore was just lucid enough to know that his pain came from the straining of torn flesh rather than from air moving through punctured lungs, but that was little comfort to him. Unable to move, he watched as the face of Harry Peglar appeared above him, the man looking utterly horrified to have found Graham covered in dark blood.
Other faces began to appear, foremost among them being Harry Goodsir. After a moment he understood that the man was carefully examining his injuries and ordering the foretop captain to get clean cloth. From what he could gather, they were saying that something (he did not yet have the mental capacity to wonder what exactly it was) had slashed him across the chest with long claws and thrown him several feet.
Trying to think back to what had happened when he had landed, he could remember hearing the creature take Tommy Hartnell in its jaws with such force that something – most likely his spine – cracked loud enough to echo against the ice seracs around them. It must have carried him off in the mayhem because even now Gore could hear men trying to follow. But he knew deep in his gut that Hartnell must be dead – no man could survive that.
Hissing in pain, he tried to sit up and see what was happening around him. A gloved hand gently pressed against his shoulder, trying to push him back down.
‘I’m sorry lieutenant, but you have to lie back. I need to keep looking at your injuries.’
Gore looked up, surprised less by the doctor’s face swimming in front of him, and more by the fact that he had forgotten Goodsir was there in the first place.
He tried to smile at Goodsir in response, but his vision started to swim. He focused instead on lying back down and breathing evenly. The doctor was carefully peeling layers of his clothing back to see the wounds, so he fixed his gaze on Goodsir’s face to steady himself.
Muddled though he was, the lieutenant was grateful to have Goodsir tending to him in this moment. Unlike Dr Stanley back on Erebus, Goodsir was expressive enough that if Gore was dying then he would clearly read that on the doctor’s face. The man was clearly concerned and very focused, but there was nothing but determination in those eyes.
‘Th- thank you, Doctor,’ he managed to get out, gasping softly in pain on the last word as the effort of speaking pulled at his injuries.
Goodsir smiled without meeting his gaze, softly probing the torn skin of his chest. ‘I told you earlier lieutenant, I am no doctor,’ he said ruefully. It was the last thing Gore heard before the cloying darkness of sleep finally overcame him.
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
Gore woke to a low creaking noise, telling him even before he opened his eyes that he was back on his ship. He could remember nothing of the trip back to it, let alone how much time had elapsed since his return. He’d had flashes of feeling, but never for long enough to register anything more than pain until now.
Blinking into the soft lamplight – even that was too bright for him, making pain flare behind his eyes – he realised that he was lying on a cot in Erebus’s sick room, and more importantly, he was not alone. The body of a man lay on the bed opposite his own, covered in the furs he had seen worn by the Esquimaux people. His face was obscured by his thick hood, but Gore did not need to register his utter stillness to know that this man was dead.
They had left him in a room with a corpse.
He tried to speak, but his throat was dryer than if had ever felt and it took him some time before he could muster up the energy to call out a ‘hello?’
Footsteps sounded from the passageway outside, and moments later Doctor Goodsir was stepping through the low door. He smiled when he saw that Gore was awake, and rushed over to place an extra pillow under his head so he could sit up enough to survey the room. ‘Good evening, lieutenant. How do you feel?’
Gore smiled wanly. ‘I’ve been better’, he croaked. ‘The pain has lessened, I think. But I cannot remember anything since we were on the ice.’
Goodsir nodded, expecting that answer. ‘I bandaged your wounds as best I could after you lost consciousness, then we began the journey back. It took longer because there were less of us to pull and more to carry, but we returned within three days. It’s been a day since then.’
‘What happened? Are the men safe?’ His head swam with more questions, but one leapt to the forefront before he could stop himself. ‘Who- who is that?’ He asked, looking towards the man lying across from him.
Goodsir turned towards the body with a sigh, and Gore saw more sadnessand regret in his eyes in that moment than he had ever seen before. ‘He is the Esquimaux man who Sergeant Bryant shot at camp. Right before… right before you were attacked, and Thomas Hartnell was taken.’
Gore frowned. ‘Taken by what? What attacked us?’
‘I saw it clearer than anyone else and even I do not know. It looked like a white bear, but far too large.’ The doctor stopped for a moment, swallowing back the fear he’d been trying to suppress for days. ‘It lashed out and caught you across the chest with its claws before carrying Hartnell off. We searched a half mile in each direction and found nothing but blood in the dark.’ His eyes met Gore’s. ‘I’m sorry, lieutenant. We had to give him up as dead.’
He had known, even as he lay there on the ice, that Hartnell was lost. But as a lieutenant, as the leader of their party, he could not help feeling that he had somehow failed them. Had this happened in the midst of battle or at the hands of some illness then perhaps he would have felt differently, would have seen the death as unavoidable. But they should have been safe out there, or at least as safe as you can be in the discovery service. He should have been able to lead and protect his men, but he had failed.
Goodsir smiled kindly at Gore, clearly reading every emotion on the man’s face. ‘You must not blame yourself, Lieutenant Gore. None of us saw this creature coming. There was nothing you could do.’
Gore wished he could make his mind agree, but guilt was already eating at his heart. ‘Thank you, Doctor. But I am sure you feel the same when you lose a man on the operating table.’ He met Goodsir’s eyes. ‘Forgive me for being presumptuous, but I think that you and I are much alike in that way.’
The younger man turned away and laughed sadly. Looking down at his hands, still tinged red from the blood of the last man he had lost, he said softly: ‘Yes. Perhaps we are.’
They were silent for several minutes, both needing time to gather themselves. Even such a short conversation had taken a lot out of Gore, emotionally and physically, and he could feel exhaustion pushing through his thoughts.
Goodsir could see Gore’s eyes droop, and took the chance to break their pained silence. ‘I should let you rest, lieutenant. Just give me a moment to check your wounds, and then I’ll leave you be.’
Gore nodded. ‘By all means.’
The younger man carefully pulled back the bedsheets and Gore’s clothing, inspecting his injuries. ‘I had to stitch the wounds once we returned from King William Land, so they are delicate, but they should heal well. There is no damage to your lungs and the ribs appear only to be cracked, but you will have to remain here for some weeks while you recover.’ He began to redress the wounds and cover Gore again.
‘Thank you, Doctor Goodsir.’
He gave a small smile at the repetition of his false title, but let it go. ‘I will be back in a few hours with food. Sleep well, lieutenant.’ He stood to leave.
‘Doctor?’ Gore called him back. ‘The Esquimaux man. Will they give him back to his people?’
Goodsir did not meet his eyes. ‘There was a girl with him, but she’s been taken to Terror for questioning. Sir John does not want her on board, so it seems. Charles Des Voeux says they will give him a sailor’s burial by melting the ice.’
Gore had spent enough time exploring the Arctic and interacting with the native people to know that unless he was returned to the girl, there was no way that the man would receive a true Esquimaux burial. Especially not at the hands of men like De Voeux and – though he would never say it aloud – their Captain.
He was sorry for it, but could find no words to express why. Alongside the loss of young Tommy Hartnell, this man’s death weighed heavy on his heart.
‘I see. Thank you for telling me. Good night, Doctor Goodsir.’
‘Good night, lieutenant.’
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
Later that evening Gore was visited by Sir John, Commander Fitzjames, and Captain Crozier of Terror. The Esquimaux man had since been taken from the room. It had saddened him to watch the callous way the men took his belongings and carried him away, as if the body in their arms had never been a man and did not deserve the dignity of one even in death.
Franklin took the seat by Gore’s bed, with Fitzjames and Crozier standing behind him. ‘Good evening, Lieutenant Gore. I am very glad to see you awake, we had feared the worst when you were first brought onboard.’ Gore smiled and nodded, thanking him.
Niceties over, Sir John began his line of questioning. ‘I understand from Mr Goodsir that you were unconscious from the time of the attack to your return to the ship. Is that true?’
‘For the most part, sir. I had some moments of consciousness while on route, I believe, but nothing I can remember clearly. I am sorry I cannot be of more help.’
‘There is nothing to apologise for, Graham,’ Franklin said quickly, affable as ever. ‘Is there anything you can tell us about the attack itself? Did you see this bear, or see where it may have taken Thomas Hartnell?’
Gore looked grim, but held Franklin’s gaze. ‘I only saw a shape before it struck me, but I heard it take Hartnell. I heard something break, his spine I think. I can’t imagine he survived that.’
Fitzjames and Crozier shared a look behind Franklin, who was nodding slowly. ‘What about leads, Lieutenant?’ Asked Fitzjames.
‘Nothing. And while I do not pretend to have Mr Reid or Mr Blanky’s expertise, it appeared to me that the ice was thicker at the shore of King William Land than one would expect at this time of year.’
Franklin smiled, and Gore knew from the last few years aboard his ship that his Captain would refuse to recognise the importance of this. Even now he seemed not to accept the danger they were all in, stuck in the ice as they were. But behind him, Crozier’s expression darkened even more.
‘Thank you, lieutenant. We will leave you to rest now. For the time being, Lt. Le Vesconte will take over your duties as first lieutenant until Dr Stanley pronounces you well enough to return.’ Franklin stood, made to grasp Gore’s shoulder before thinking better of it and nodded instead.
‘Thank you, sir. I hope to be with you and the other officers again very soon.’ Gore smiled at Franklin as he walked towards the door, then at Captain Crozier and Commander Fitzjames as they followed him.
‘Heal well, Graham,’ Fitzjames turned to say, before he too disappeared through the doorway.
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
Gore spent the next few days either sleeping through the pain or trying desperately to stave off boredom. He was ill-suited to recovery, and asked for constant updates on the ship’s goings-on from Dr Goodsir. Sometimes Dr Stanley would oblige and tell him the latest news, but Gore could tell that the man only did so because he was an officer. He even seemed to brush off Gore’s questions about how the men were dealing with Hartnell’s death, as if it was unreasonable of them to grieve.
Yet again he thanked god that he had Dr Goodsir to care for him, and especially to keep him company. He had always respected the doctor deeply, and valued his advice above that of the ‘real’ doctor aboard Erebus, but the more time they spent together the more his respect developed into something more like fondness and warmth. Soon, Goodsir had Gore forgetting his boredom the moment he stepped into the sick bay and greeted him with a smile on his face (there was always a smile there – it was one of Gore’s favourite things about the doctor). They would speak on such a range of subjects that either man would need to start each new conversation by reminding the other of where they had left off the last.
Gore had always had a slight interest in natural science, but hearing Dr Goodsir talk about the lifespan of turtles and the migratory patterns of swallows made him almost wish that he had joined some equatorial voyage rather than the search for the Northwest Passage. Of course that would have radically decreased their chances of ever crossing paths – which to Gore seemed utterly insupportable – but should Goodsir have joined him then he would certainly have flourished with so much exotic flora and fauna to examine. Out here in the arctic wastes there was precious little life for Goodsir to study, besides some jellies and fish that he had picked up in the first few months of their journey.
However, this did not stop him from giving long enthusiastic explanations of scientific minutiae to the lieutenant. Often Gore would spend a happy hour listening to Goodsir explain what he had read about the behaviour of penguins (creatures which seemed to only reside in the southern Arctic) only to have the doctor apologise for having wasted his time once he realised how long he had been speaking. It pained Gore to see the doctor devalue himself like this, but he knew that it must have come from years of people ignoring or belittling his passions and interests. The lieutenant could not imagine how any person could treat such a kind man in this way, but he was resolved to never let him feel so in his presence.
‘Please doctor,’ he had said on that occasion, ‘please, do not apologise. I am nothing but fascinated, and only more so after hearing you speak on the subject. I only wish you could have been teaching me like this since the journey began, how much I would have learned!’ Here he had grinned at the spreading blush on Goodsir’s cheeks, before the doctor managed to stammer out a thank you and continue speaking.
Although Gore enjoyed conversing about natural science and exploration with the doctor, he also found himself telling the other man stories from his childhood and early career. He did not tend to talk about his personal life with the men, despite knowing so much about their own (as any decent lieutenant would). But something about Goodsir just made Gore want to impress him with stories of heroism and adventure, or to connect with him on a more personal level. He was not one to boast about his achievements – unlike Commander Fitzjames, although Gore suspected that the man was trying to prove something to himself rather than to his audience – but now he found himself almost embellishing stories, just for Goodsir’s admiration and approval.
Most of stories of his childhood were less a show of heroics but came from a desire to share some integral part of himself with this man he so deeply respected. He came to treasure the moments when he could make the doctor laugh with the story of the time his uncle’s hound pushed him into a lake when he was 8, or when a 17-year-old Gore had accidentally knocked a glass of port into the lap of the Duke of Wellington’s wife.
Best yet were the times when some anecdote of his would prompt Dr Goodsir to tell his own tale from his childhood in Edinburgh. From what Gore could piece together, the young Goodsir was much like the adult one but with more of a tendency to get into sticky situations, due either to his own curiosity or by following his brothers’ poor decisions.
He suspected they would have been firm friends if they had met as children. Gore had always been popular with others his age, but had craved a quieter and more thoughtful friend, someone who he could really talk to. Even as an adult he had easily fit in with the respectable men and women in Discovery Service circles, but often found himself frustrated with their arrogance or sycophancy. Likewise Goodsir, as a civilian, had no time for Royal Navy posturing. He was indifferent to glory and furthering the Empire, which were some of the central motivations of their fellow crew members. He had come here with them, to the edge of the known world, simply because he was curious about what they would find there. Gore, raised as he was in a naval family, had not been taught to value men like him. But here he was, two years into the most difficult expedition of his career, and suddenly the one man on either ship whose opinion he respected most was Harry D. S. Goodsir.
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
One evening, as Gore was reading Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches by lamplight (leant to him by the doctor), he became aware of a great deal of movement and shouting on deck. He called out in the hope that someone would come down and tell him what was happening, but from the sounds he was hearing it appeared that many of the men were already off the ship.
He began to wonder if the creature had appeared again, a thought that made his breath catch. He knew that Sir John had ordered for a bear blind to be built in the hopes of trapping it, because seaman Morfin had claimed to hear it following them back to the ships while Gore had been unconscious. It could have been lying in wait for the last few days, and only chosen this moment to attack.
He called out again, this time for Dr Goodsir, before remembering that the man had been asked to photograph the blind for posterity’s sake. Panic shot through him, bypassing all of the calm and control he had developed in his training for the rank of lieutenant. Goodsir was out there with this Thing, and he had no defensive training to speak of. He had been lucky enough to escape the creature once, but there was no reason that luck would hold a second time.
‘Dr Stanley!’ He tried, using the officer’s boom he had developed over the years. ‘Mr Hoar! Hello?’
Eventually he heard running footsteps and Mr Morfin entered the room, face pink under his collar and muff. ‘Yes, sir?’ He asked, gasping slightly.
‘What’s happening out there? I heard shouting.’
‘It’s the bear blind, lieutenant. We heard shots, and Best said he saw some of the marines running through the seracs towards the ship. They’re sending men out to find them.’
Graham threw caution to the wind. ‘Help me into my uniform and slops if you please, Mr Morfin. I need to go above decks.’
Morfin looked apprehensive, but he clearly wanted to go up just as much.
Before the seaman could question him, Gore pointed to where his uniform had been left folded near his bed. ‘Quickly, Mr Morfin.’
Dressing was painful, but it would have been impossible without the other man’s help. The pain he could withstand, but he prayed to God that he wasn’t undoing Dr Goodsir’s work and reopening the stitched wounds – although he was doing so mostly due to his fear for the doctor’s safety, so Gore hoped he would understand.
Morfin wrapped the lieutenant’s arm around his own shoulders and started to walk him towards the door, carrying his weight. The ladder was difficult, but now Gore could hear Commander Fitzjames calling out orders on deck and that spurned him on. The cold air as they walked up through the hatch was a shock after days below decks, but he had little time to react.
Men were running around the ship and the ice around him. Their movements were chaotic, with some looking around at a loss. From the seracs to the port side of the ship they heard a faint ‘Erebus!’ called out. It was the voice of Sir John.
With the help of Morfin, Gore stumbled over to where Fitzjames was gathering arms and men. The commander looked up in surprise at his approach, but was too preoccupied to reprimand him for leaving the sick room in his state.
‘Lieutenant. Remain on deck and keep watch, send out more men if we appear to be in danger. De Voeux, bring three men and follow.’ Before Gore could reply, Fitzjames was already off the ship and hurrying towards the seracs with a musket in his hands.
‘Someone give me a glass,’ Gore called out, waiting only a few moments before the engineer John Gregory was putting one in his gloved hands. Careful not to let it touch his skin, he held it up to his eye and followed the progress of the men ahead.
He could hear more shots being fired, and the calls of both their captain and Fitzjames as they tried to find one another. Through the glass he could see the men running towards the blind and some of the marines running away from it, but neither Sir John nor Dr Goodsir were within sight. Something white and large was flicking between seracs in the distance, and Gore knew what it must be. Then from the seracs to the east he heard the worst sound of all – a scream of pain, disorientated and hollow, a sick parody of the booming voice of their expedition commander.
Afterwards Graham would say that everything happened too quickly for him to remember half of what he had done, but at the time each moment had seemed to stretch for eternity. The roars, the screams, and later the calls of dismay as Fitzjames and the men found what was left of their captain’s body.
Stuck on the ship and barely able to hold himself up on the railing, Gore did his best to prepare for the return of the men. But limited as he was, all he could really do was try to suppress the heart-wrenching fear that somewhere out there Harry D. S. Goodsir was bleeding his life out on the ice.
When De Voeux finally returned with news from Commander Fitzjames and Captain Crozier, it was just as the men on board had feared. The creature had taken both their expedition commander and Sergeant Bryant. The marine’s body was salvaged – in pieces – but all they could find of Sir John was a severed leg. Fitzjames was said to have seen him disappear down the same ice hole in which the Esquimaux man had been ‘buried’, but it was impossible to retrieve him from beneath the ice. Goodsir was not named among the dead.
Everything was done to prepare the bodies for burial after that, the men containing their grief as best they could. Gore performed his duties as lieutenant as was needed until Commander – now Captain – Fitzjames returned to the ship. Following him was Dr Goodsir, looking pale and shocked, but very much alive. He immediately went over to Gore once he saw him on his feet, and holding him up carefully they slowly made their way back below decks.
Neither spoke until they entered the sick room and Gore was once again sitting on his cot. He began to strip out of his thick outer layers, only to find spots of blood on his undershirt.
‘My apologies, doctor. I’ve undone your good work.’
Goodsir smile weakly but said nothing as he began to lift the undershirt away and clean away the drops of blood seeping from his wounds.
Gore looked closely at the doctor’s face, trying to hide all of the fear and worry that he’d been feeling while he waited for this man to return to him. ‘Are you… are you well?’
Goodsir tipped his head up so that their eyes met, their faces close enough for Gore to see tears gathering there. Suddenly feeling self conscious, Goodsir stepped back and wiped a hand over his face. ‘I’m sorry, lieutenant. I know this is not a particularly brave reaction to have, but I don’t feel capable of much bravery just now.’
Gore smiled kindly, reaching out to press a hand against his arm. ‘I don’t know exactly what happened out there yet, but I know you are a much braver man that you think. We have just lost two men, one our expedition commander. Many more tears will be shed before the night ends.’
Goodsir nodded, leaning against his desk with a sigh. ‘It was so close. I could smell its breath, feel its heat. I did not see it clearly before it pursued Sir John, but I heard everything that happened to him. I saw what it did to Bryant, the way his body was torn apart.’ His voice cracked on the last sentence, emotion clogging his throat. The tears started to fall in earnest.
Clenching his teeth against the pain, Gore stood and walked over to the doctor. Saying nothing at the look of surprise on the other man’s face as he got closer, he embraced him.
Goodsir let out a shocked breath, tensed for a moment, and then slumped against him. Gore knew that this was hardly the norm for two men on the ship, and perhaps any other man would have pulled away by now, but the doctor was not like any other man. For some time he simply let himself be held, sobs shuddering through his chest and tears soaking Gore’s undershirt.
After some time he pulled away, his cheeks going slightly pink when he realised he had let his emotions show so clearly. Gore smiled softly in an attempt to reassure him, although his own heart started to beat faster at the look of gratitude on Goodsir’s face. Something had felt so right about that embrace, even though it was something he had never done for another man on his ship.
In that moment, as Goodsir collected himself and Gore stood watching him, he finally began to recognise the feelings that had been slowly building for weeks. Years living among other men onboard ships meant that he had needed to suppress anything like this, but what he felt for the doctor was nothing like the infatuations of his early life. Protectiveness that went far beyond his duty, affection exceeding friendship, respect bordering on adulation. He wanted to embrace the man again, a thousand times; to kiss the tears from his cheeks and cradle his jaw and tangle fingers in his hair. He wanted all of this and more – so much so that it terrified him to realise he had not known his own feelings until now.
Goodsir was still trying to calm himself down, completely unaware of the emotional turmoil of the man in front of him. Gore knew that only minutes had passed, but in that time his entire world had shifted on its axis.
The doctor eventually looked up, turning an embarrassed smile – God, he is so beautiful – towards Gore. ‘Thank you, Lieutenant Gore. Not many men would have done that. I am more grateful than I can say.’
Gore could not speak for a moment, and he only hoped that he was not showing his every emotion on his face. ‘You are very welcome, doctor,’ he eventually said, sounding more breathless than he had meant to. ‘Although perhaps you can call me Graham now, if you would feel comfortable doing so?’
Goodsir beamed, which only made Gore’s heart beat faster. ‘Only if you finally call me Harry instead of “doctor”.’
Gore smiled back, the chaos in his mind easing at Goodsir’s playful tone. ‘Of course, Harry.’
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
After his brief sojourn on deck during the hunting blind disaster, Gore was forced to return to the monotony of recovery. He was allowed to attend the funerals for Tommy Hartnell, Sergeant Bryant and Sir John, but Captain Fitzjames would not hear of him returning to duty until he was well again. Even after sending Lieutenant Fairholme off to lead the rescue party, their new Captain assured Gore that they would be able to operate without him.
Both Stanley and Goodsir were in and out of the sick room regularly during the coming days. Although Gore was still coming to terms with his feelings for Goodsir, the other man had also changed in his interactions with the lieutenant. He was more relaxed when they were together, no longer worried about offending Graham over some matter of naval protocol or conduct (which he had admitted he did not understand very well, even now). They talked at length about the thing on the ice, pouring over daguerreotypes of Bryant’s body and the wounds it had inflicted. Sometimes they would compare them to his own injuries, the long claw marks that were healing well but would leave trailing scars across his chest.
It was clearly huge, bigger than any white bear recorded yet. Even as they spoke of the tragedy of the three men already lost to it, Gore could see the glint of scientific fascination in Goodsir’s eyes. How could such a creature have survived up here for so long, when they had failed to find any signs of animal life for it to prey on? What was the significance of the creature appearing at the same time as the Esquimaux man and his daughter?
Gore enjoyed these conversations, as morbid as they sometimes were. He did grieve for the lost men in private – particularly their captain, who had always been a kind superior officer despite his many flaws – but he loved that when they talked he finally got the chance to exercise his intellectual curiosity. More importantly, he could enjoy seeing Goodsir speak with energy and passion, free of any shyness or embarrassment. He would do anything to listen to the doctor speak this way forever, if he could.
Each day he became increasingly aware of how deep his feelings for the doctor had become. He was not shocked at them – he had loved men before, and had known others whose tastes ran thus – but he was finding it more and more difficult to hide them. The doctor was so much more emotive than most men, and each of his bright smiles made warmth bloom in Graham Gore’s chest. Now that they were on a first-name basis, the lieutenant had to endure hearing his spoken in that soft, kind voice on a regular basis. It will drive me mad, he thought one night as Goodsir talked excitedly about his study of bioluminescent sea jellies the year before. If it does not drive me to kiss him first instead.
As far as Gore knew, Goodsir did not have many other friends on board, if any at all. As head of Magnetic Operations, then-Commander Fitzjames had treated Goodsir well for most of their voyage, the two men sometimes performing scientific research together before they had been frozen in and the Commander’s focus shifted to more important matters. Despite sharing a profession, Doctor Stanley had been dismissive and condescending towards him at all times, as had the majority of petty officers and able seaman (as far as naval hierarchy would allow – he was still an officer, at least technically). They seemed to look down on his shyness and kindliness, perceiving it as cowardice and a lack of what his father used to call ‘manly fortitude’. Gore had seen men sneer behind Goodsir’s back when he spoke in that soft voice of his, and more than once he had been compelled to call a sailor over to his cot to reprimand him once the doctor had left the room.
Although they had little contact, the Subordinate Officers' Steward John Bridgens appeared to respect Goodsir well enough. He had come in to serve food to Gore on several occasions, and each time he stayed a moment to speak to the doctor. He seemed to share some of his scientific interests and was clearly well-read, as he followed Goodsir’s conversation and provided intelligent (and surprising) remarks here and there. Something in his way of speaking and kind expression reminded Gore of Goodsir himself. The lieutenant had heard some rumours of Bridgens’s predilections, as such information tended to spread once one spent years in the Royal Navy. He respected the man, especially as he had continued to work and thrive despite the comments thrown around by able seamen about his ‘affairs’ when ashore. Gore knew that had the man been an officer like himself, he would never have risen through the naval ranks. For that reason Gore himself had had to maintain discretion at all times, even creating a false fiancée once after being hounded on the subject at a society dinner (unsurprisingly, that ‘engagement’ had been broken soon after).
However, friendly as Goodsir and Mr Bridgens were, their relationship never came close to the friendship that Gore and the doctor now shared. This gave him some semblance of hope, but it also meant that Gore became increasingly frustrated when he had to remind himself not to cross any boundaries in their daily interactions. Kind as he was, there was no evidence that Goodsir loved men in the way that Gore did. And as the lieutenant kept trying to remind himself, a relationship between men at sea was fraught with danger and could lead to one or the other of them flogged, or much worse.
When Gore had previously had feelings for other men on board his ships, he had been able to suppress them long enough to avoid any kind of awkwardness that may arise. But minor infatuations while a midshipman were very different to being in love with your ship’s assistant surgeon as the first lieutenant on a major polar expedition. While recovering he had had time to get to know the other man, but he was now healing fast and would soon be out of the risk of sepsis and able to return to his own cabin. His duties would keep him busy for most of the days and nights, and finding private time together would be near impossible.
He was getting ahead of himself. He still had no idea how Goodsir felt about him, and he was not even sure if he wanted to find out. Perhaps it would be better for everyone if he left things as they were, said nothing about how he felt, and waited for the feelings to subside?
Gore wrestled with these questions in his time alone, pretending to read books but really thinking about the doctor each and every moment. It had only been a few weeks since their journey to King William Land, and it amazed him that so much had changed in that time. He was all too aware of the months and years that stretched ahead of him, years of hardship in ice that refused to thaw and a creature stalking them just beyond the seracs. Was he naïve for thinking about love in a time like this? Was love even possible?
He knew the answer to that immediately: of course. Nothing could bring men together better than these circumstances, when they were forced to pull aside their cloaks and vanities and be the men they truly were. And he had already tried to show Goodsir the man he was. Even before he knew how he had felt, the two men had spoken about their childhoods, their life experiences, the things they cared about and the things they believed in. Gore knew that Goodsir saw the world differently than he did: more openly, and with a curiosity that was pure and unmatched in its strength. He valued that, and wanted to do anything to protect it. Anything to protect him from the ways the arctic could kill a man in spirit, just as much as in body.
But it was for this reason that he knew he could say nothing. He valued the man’s respect and kindness far too much to ever risk having it denied to him. Gore doubted that Goodsir would tell Captain Fitzjames about him if he did admit his feelings to the man, but nothing would ever be the same between them. Keeping his love to himself was torture, but losing Harry forever would be pure hell on earth.
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
When the time finally came for Gore to return to his bunk and to duty, he had resigned himself to his fate. He would continue to visit the doctor’s quarters, as a friend and fellow officer had the right to do, but the bulk of his time would be spent in helping care for his ship and his men. After all, he had felt passive and useless when recovering, and it would be good for him to work again. Or so he reminded him.
When the day finally came, Goodsir came into the sick room with his usual warm smile on his face. ‘Good morning, Graham. Feeling well?’
Gore was sitting up in bed, the sheets pooled around his legs. He smiled back. ‘Very much so. More than I ever would have expected in such a short time.’
‘I’m so glad to hear it,’ the doctor said, walking over to the bed and taking a seat at one end of it. ‘We were lucky with you. No sepsis, and the stitches remained in place. Is there still pain in your ribs?’
‘Some, but only if I put pressure on them. Walking and normal movement are much easier now.’
‘Good, good. In that case, you might as well begin to unbutton your undershirt so that I can check the wounds and remove the bandages.’
Gore nodded and began to comply, all too aware of Goodsir’s eyes on his chest and he pulled the shirt away.
The doctor shifted forwards, sitting close to Gore now as he carefully pulled back the bandages. Looking down, they could both see the flesh was still slightly reddened but no longer bleeding. He would have scars, but the pain would cease to bother him soon enough.
Goodsir was quiet as he worked, taking up a clean cloth and dipping it into some melted snow he had brought in a bowl. He cleaned the wounds again, a process which he had emphasised to Gore was crucial to keeping sepsis and other fevers at bay. Another cloth was used to dry him, and soon Goodsir was sitting up straight and looking him in the eyes with a smile.
‘All done. You are, as the late Sir John would often say, “fit as a fiddle”.’
Gore chuckled. ‘All thanks be to you, doctor. And no,’ he added, seeing the other man’s expression, ‘I do not care what you say. I may call you Harry, but you are still a doctor to me. Especially after all I have seen you do.’
Goodsir smiled in embarrassment, a blush spreading across his cheeks. He looked down, suddenly unable to hold the lieutenant’s gaze, addressing the next words to his lap. ‘It was the least I could do. I am just grateful that this was all that was needed to return you to health. I would have worked day and night to heal you, had the thing on the ice done worse. Harry Peglar can attest to how determined I was when we first found you out there. Then, as now, I felt that losing you was utterly unimaginable.’
Gore was desperately grateful that Goodsir was not looking at him, because he knew he had no way of hiding his love from his expression. What had he done to bring so good, so generous, so perfect a man into his life?
He was overwhelmed by his feelings in that moment, all of his careful-constructed barriers nothing but dust. He couldn’t find the words to respond to Goodsir so he simply sat there, heart swelling with affection, staring in awe at the man before him.
That was his downfall. Confused by Gore’s silence, Goodsir ignored his embarrassment and looked up at the lieutenant’s face. There was no time for Gore to hide his expression, and Goodsir’s confusion quickly changed to shock when he read the emotions blazoned across Gore’s face.
Throwing caution to the winds, Gore moved forward and caught the other man’s lips in a kiss. He could feel Goodsir freeze for a moment, but just like their embrace those short weeks before, he soon slackened and leaned forward. Encouraged, Gore began moving his lips then, turning his head to find the perfect position and softly taking the doctor’s lower lip between his own. He could feel the rasp of his hair brushing against his cheeks and jaw, and something that felt like Goodsir’s fingers tangling themselves in his shirt.
Gore pulled away after a moment, letting out a sigh. ‘Harry, I-’
‘Wait,’ Goodsir said, his fingers still holding tight to Gore’s shirt and his cheeks going pinker than before. ‘I need a moment.’
Gore smiled as he saw Goodsir try to calm down his breathing. He waited for a moment, before the other man looked up and caught his gaze again. ‘How did you know?’ Goodsir asked, voice full of awe.
‘I didn’t. Not until I saw the expression on your face, after you saw the expression on mine.’ He stopped to press another quick kiss against the doctor’s lips. ‘I never thought you shared my feelings until that moment.’
Goodsir beamed, as if he had been waiting for the verbal confirmation that Gore felt as he did. ‘Neither did I. I was sure you saw me only as a fellow officer, perhaps a friend at a stretch. I had never hoped a man like you, with all your adventures and achievements, could ever feel this way about me.’ He stopped, biting back another smile.
Gore took up Goodsir’s hand, pulling it to his lips and kissing the knuckles softly. ‘You are a marvel, Harry. I still don’t quite believe this is happening, but please know that you have made me the happiest man in all the world.’
Goodsir laughed softly. ‘The world is a very large place, Graham. You’ve seen a great deal of it, you should know.’
‘Fine. In all the arctic, then. Though I think that is being a little conservative.’
Both of them struggled to keep the smiles from their faces, until Gore reached a hand up to cup his jaw and slowly pulled him into another kiss. This one was slower than the last, both of them taking their time to soak in the moment. Neither had ever thought this could happen, and they fully intended to enjoy themselves as much as they could now.
Gore had no idea how much time had passed once they pulled apart again, but both men were breathing shallowly and he could see that Goodsir’s lips were red and glistening. He smiled again, more softly this time, and ran his fingers through the other man’s curls. ‘I suppose I ought to go. The next watch will change soon, and Captain Fitzjames is expecting me to join them on deck.’
Goodsir’s smile faltered slightly, as though he had forgotten the world existed outside beyond that room. ‘What shall we do, after this?’
Gore frowned as he thought. ‘It will be difficult, but not impossible. We will just have to be careful. Our friendship is known, and we are both officers, so spending time together will not be suspicious. Provided we continue to perform our duties as required.’
The doctor nodded, still looking unsure. ‘I have no intention of giving you up,’ Gore continued, his voice serious, ‘after all the time I spent dreaming of this moment but believing you could never feel the same way.’
Gore could see the tension ease from Goodsir’s eyes. He kissed him again, a little fiercer than before. He needed to show the other man that he cared for him, he wanted him, and he would always be here to protect him.
He pulled back and stood, beginning to clothe himself. The doctor helped him, aware that Gore was still his patient and dressing would be difficult. They did not speak, neither feeling the need to fill the moment with words.
When the lieutenant was finally back in uniform, Goodsir took a step back to check him over. ‘You look the very image of the dashing Naval officer,’ he said with a smile. Gore gave him a quick wink, before taking up his hat and looking glass from the table.
Dropping one last quick kiss on Goodsir’s lips, he walked to the door and stopped. He took a breath and turned, his smiling face bright.
‘You are worth every risk, Harry Goodsir.’
With that he stepped through the doorway into a new, and glittering, life.