Camp is made not far from where Peglar fell. It’s erected in silence, save the occasional murmur of “hand me that, will you,” the coughing of sick men in the cool tent dark. Crozier walks through, appraising the work, occasionally leaning over to help lift a tent-pole or peer his head inside somewhere, nodding to his crew, the grim line of his mouth approximating a smile of reassurance. Past the huge shingled ridges the sounds of hammering and whipping tent flaps echo until late afternoon, and then the silence falls.
Jopson helped to carry Peglar into the first sick-tent as soon as it was up, though Bridgens and Hartnell hardly needed the help. Peglar weighs about as much as an armful of tent-poles himself, and clung to Bridgens on the short walk over the shifting, sliding stone underfoot.
He’d gone ahead to pin open the tent flap and turn down the cot they’d set up, and watched as the two men lowered Peglar gently onto it, carefully prying off his shoes and tucking him firmly underneath the blankets. He’d gone back out into the stinging summer cold to find hot water and ship’s biscuits, squinting against the frigid sun, ignoring wilfully the pounding headache in his skull and the clumsiness of his gait. No time to worry about Thomas Jopson when the truly sick need looking after. Goodsir is gone, and he’s done this before, for his mother, for the Captain; the camp needs nursemaids, and he’ll have to be one.
Hot water and ship’s biscuits for Peglar. Rounds through the tents to see to anyone else who’s ailing. Informing the Captain of the dead. (There will be dead, tonight, or in the morning. Jopson knows that as surely as he knows the sun won’t set; it tastes like bile in his dry throat. It’s an ugly fact, but a fact at that.) And then, maybe, blessed rest of his own, though the thought of lying down perturbs him, as he is not so certain he’ll have the will to get up again.
He waits until the new de facto cooks have finished picking out the Goldner’s tins for the evening’s rations and then, wearily, begins unpacking a crate, looking for the hard white crumbs of the last of their bread. It takes an inordinate amount of strength to break apart a few pieces, enough to be soaked in water and chewed more easily, and by the time he’s gathered the shards of biscuit into his handkerchief for Peglar he needs to sit down and catch his breath. There is dried blood pooled in the cuticles of his fingernails, and he watches impassively as a bright bulb of red pushes up from beneath his thumbnail, stands and then breaks, flooding. The nail will come off sooner or later. This stirs no emotions in Thomas Jopson.
After a while, he stands, and someone at a cooking pot anticipates his needs and hands him a mug of lukewarm water. He’s thankful to be spared the effort of bending down and getting back up again. In the harsh light, everyone looks the same, mere skeletons shifting through the day, and he doesn’t recognize whoever it is, but he murmurs a cracked “thank you” through sore lips all the same.
Back across the seemingly interminable stretch of the camp to the tent near its edge, ducking through the pinned flap, Jopson lets the dimness wash over his eyes like cooling water and breathes a sigh of relief. He hands the mug and handkerchief to Bridgens, who is perched on an upturned crate at Peglar’s bedside, and stands there for a while, regaining his bearings and his eyesight, watching.
Peglar is sitting up; that’s an improvement, at least, though he seems only barely conscious. Jopson watches Bridgens dip pieces of ship’s biscuit into the water until they swell and begin to crumble, and then gently pass them to Peglar, who manages to lift them to his mouth and eat.
He doesn’t mean to stare. He knows he shouldn’t, as it’s not polite, and knows that the right thing to do would be to leave them be, and tell the others not to disturb them. But he’s barely standing as it is, and knows his knees won’t carry him if he tries to leave without catching his breath. He needs a moment, and in this cramped space there is only one thing to look at.
They don’t seem to notice that he’s there. If they do, they are long past caring what anyone sees or thinks. Bridgens folds the mug into Peglar’s left hand, resting on his lap, and folds his own fingers around Peglar’s right, his thumb chasing over the foretop captain’s rough, blemished skin, in comfort.
Jopson needs to sit. His head is swimming. So he does, on a stack of empty crates, and leans precariously against the thick, sturdy fabric of the tent. For a moment, he closes his eyes; when he opens them again, Bridgens has taken the mug away and set it on the ground, and Peglar is tilted towards him, head nodding near his shoulder.
“How do you feel now, Harry?” he hears Bridgens murmur. The old steward is gently moving Peglar’s wild, unkempt hair out of his eyes. “A little better?”
Peglar doesn’t answer. Jopson sees his grip tighten a little around Bridgens’ hand, though, and then relax.
He watches Bridgens lift Peglar forward and then ease him down until his head rests on the stained, filthy pillow, and watches Peglar’s cloudy eyes moving across Bridgens’ face as he pulls up blankets and rearranges folds. There’s so much trust in them, a deep and abiding familiarity, that Jopson almost can’t bear to look at them. It hurts his eyes the way the sun does.
He wonders who else has reckoned it. Little and Hartnell, certainly. The Captain, maybe. Crozier seems to know almost everything about his men and carries that information without prejudice. For his part, he only feels a sadness about these two, the most emotion he can muster anymore from the sick, curdled, dying inside of his ribcage. He wonders how long it has been going on between them. He wonders if this is where they’d imagined themselves, when it had first begun.
“Mr Bridgens,” he says, through his cracked throat, and Bridgens turns to him.
“Mr Jopson.” Bridgens finally releases Peglar’s hand to smoothe out the creases in his trousers. He looks exhausted, though his voice as polite and calm as ever. “If everyone is settled we should make our rounds.”
Jopson shakes his head, and Bridgens pauses. No. Jopson will find the strength to make the rounds himself, lugging the half-empty medical chest Goodsir had managed to leave behind by some miracle. He’ll do the work; it feels suddenly desperately important to him that Bridgens stay in this tent.
“I’ll see to it,” he says, smiling, though it hurts. “You’ll do good here.”
It’s hard to read Bridgens’ face--a product, no doubt, of years of constant, careful concealment--but Jopson thinks that perhaps he looks touched--at the very least surprised. But grateful.
He gets up, and Jopson watches him move across the cramped tent to the chest. From inside he pulls out a few near-empty bottles of morphine and wine of coca, the last of their supply, the last relief from pain any of them will be able to grasp.
Jopson knows that now, just as he knows there will be deaths in the camp tonight, and tomorrow, and the day after. They won’t ever make it out of here. It is a matter, now, of making the passing kind.
Bridgens hands him the bottles, wrapped in cloth. Silently Jopson finds places for them inside his coat, near his flesh, where the cold won’t freeze the glass and shatter it.
“I would ration it carefully,” Bridgens says, reaching out to help Jopson off his crate. He doesn’t complain; he needs the help. His knees feel as if they were full of needles. Bridgens is all pragmatism, but Jopson doesn’t miss the shiver of sorrow on his melancholy face. This isn’t easy. None of it is easy. “The stronger ones can do without. It may be that they’ll pull through yet.”
Jopson nods. His eyes must drift towards Peglar, because Bridgens drops his gaze to the ground.
“I’ve given him as much as we can spare,” he says softly. “There are others to be consoled.”
Jopson doesn’t know what to say, or whether he should say anything. He could barely stand it, to see the way Peglar had curled into Bridgens’ arms like a child, clinging to him like a climber on the sheer face of a mountain, unable to do anything else but reach desperately for warmth and safety. Perhaps, far away, in a much different place and clime, he would have reacted with disgust. Or perhaps not. He no longer knows that person. He only knows where he is now, with glass bottles clinking gently against one another inside his coat, feeling sick and sad and ashamed.
There is no telling when Peglar will die--only that he will. It breaks Thomas Jopson’s heart. Every man who dies breaks Thomas Jopson’s heart. He knows John Bridgens’ will break, too, and wonders what there is, beyond that.
It takes two hours to make his rounds, alone, of the tents filled with the sick. By the time he is done, the morphine is gone. Four of the men were dead when he arrived, their thin faces covered with blankets, and he feels hot, stinging tears in his eyes when he pockets the last of the wine of coca, selfishly, for himself.
He just manages to make his report to Crozier, and as soon as the flap of his own tent closes behind him he sits down heavily on his cot and begins to cry, gasping, fumbling with the cap of the bottle, sucking down every drop until his breath fogs the inside of the glass. It blooms inside his chest, and he buries his face in his hands, disgusted with himself, loathing clawing past the warm relief to strangle at his throat.
Somewhere in the opium haze he prays to God that Peglar won’t make it through the sunlit night. Prays that by the morning they will all be dead, and free of pain. Marble monuments, frozen forever to the Earth.
He has taken it upon himself to sit near the tent, to quietly turn away anyone coming near to ask for morphine or Peruvian. There isn’t any left, and there is an understanding, however quiet and unspoken, amongst the lieutenants that there is no reason to disturb the steward and the dying man. Nothing in this tent will help anyone anymore. And beyond everything else it is a chance to rest his weary feet for a time, blistered and aching from hauling across so many miles.
Behind him, in the tent, the two men are quiet. Occasionally he can hear murmurs of conversation, mostly John Bridgens’ voice. Every now and then a rustle of clothing or blankets. The creak of crate wood.
To judge them is not Edward Little’s place anymore, if it ever was.
Jopson has not come out of his tent in two days. There are murmurs that he is dying. Everywhere the camp is emptying into its hovels of canvas and filth, men falling ill one after the other, stumbling inside and never coming out. Last night one died. This afternoon, two more. South, the endless empty expanse stretching between them and Great Slave Lake. He wonders if any of them will make it even over that next ridgeline. If they will ever even glimpse the sea, free and moving, again.
Here, near this perimeter tent, things are quiet. He can’t hear the shuffle of crewmen around the fire pit or the scraping of poisoned tins. He hasn’t taken his rations in a day. He has wrapped his hands in rag cloth to hide the blooming black bruises that are beginning to appear on his knuckles, on the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. Everyone has them now, but Little refuses to be reminded of how sick he is until it becomes inevitable.
He hears a shift behind him, and then Bridgens leans out, his face worn and tired.
“Lieutenant,” he says, “I wonder if I couldn’t ask for your help.”
Little stands and follows him into the dark.
Peglar is awake, and even manages a small smile at Little, who braves a smile back. Everyone has always liked Henry Peglar; there has never been a reason not to. He is witty and charming, smart and quick on his feet, the model of obedient seamanship, and Little has seen the scars on his back from a long-past flogging. They had imparted their lesson. There has never been anything to scold Peglar for. No dalliances or deviancies, no drunkenness or boisterous bragging. It’s easy to forget what they both are, easy to forget that, shipboard, they’d both be flogged or hanged for what they’ve let slip, and Little thinks that perhaps it never mattered. Hadn’t made Bridgens any less of a companion to the captains, nor Peglar any less of a friend.
They are his crewmates. Dying men to be afforded dignity, if he can give it to them.
Bridgens appears at his side, a striped shirt laid over his arm—not clean, but more fresh than the stinking, sweat-stained sleeves Peglar is wearing under his red wool jumper.
“Will you help me lift him?” Bridgens asks, and Little nods.
“Haven’t the strength myself,” Peglar croaks, still smiling through his scabbed, blistered lips, as if it needed explanation.
He doesn’t complain as they grip his arms and lever him upright, even though it must hurt incredibly, their fingers pressing into his swollen joints and bruised, lacerated flesh. Little supports him from behind, sat sideways on the cot, as Bridgens works the jumper and shirt over Peglar’s head and sets them aside.
He has been thankful that no mirrors were brought from the ships, and hasn’t undressed to look at himself in weeks; he knows what he’ll see. He sees it in Peglar. He is a skeleton strapped tight under flesh, his arms wasted and thin, his abdomen concave, his ribs protruding, and everywhere over him dark blotches like wine stains that seep and ooze. Little breathes through his mouth. Peglar weighs almost nothing up against him. There is only the vague warmth of his body and the difficult raspy breath that fills and empties his ribcage.
Bridgens has to struggle to get his arms through the shirt, and Little finds himself holding a hand to Peglar’s forehead, to keep his heavy skull from nodding. He smoothes Peglar’s hair back from his eyes when the shirt is finally on, and keeps him upright while Bridgens buttons it. It hangs like sackcloth on his bony frame.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Peglar says, though it’s more of a whisper, the formation of breath through loose teeth and bleeding gums.
Little guides him back down to the pillow and then stands, unable to be near the sound of his lungs anymore. It sounds like boots crunching through fresh snow—like the squeak and pop of ice squeezing up through pressure ridges—as if the cold has slipped a long sharp finger down Peglar’s throat and touched his insides with frost.
Peglar closes his eyes and searches blindly with one hand out for Bridgens, finds his shirtsleeve and rests there.
Little goes slowly out, back to his seat near the tent flap, and lowers himself down again. No one has come to ask for morphine in hours, but he doesn’t know where else he might go. What else he might do. The sun is making its tentative, worthless dip towards the horizon, though it won’t meet it completely; it’s just a tease of sunset. Little wishes for a real night, with real darkness through which to sleep.
He hears murmurs from the tent and closes his eyes, tilting his head back to hear.
“John.” Peglar’s voice, pushing through his torn and swollen throat. He coughs.
Silence for a moment.
“Am I going to die?”
Little feels his heart sink.
He waits for Bridgens to lie. To tell his lover that he’s not so bad at all, and that by tomorrow he’ll feel right as rain. To say that all he needs is a good night’s sleep and a little tea. To say, I won’t let that happen.
He hears Bridgens take a long breath, and let it out. It shudders, and seems to break like glass.
“Yes, my love,” he says.
Little opens his eyes. He turns, quietly, just enough to see inside, where a low slice of light illuminates Peglar’s face, gazing at Bridgens with pale, delirious eyes.
His expression doesn’t change. Little thinks he sees—even—that same smile: weary, playing at the corners of his ruined lips.
“That’s alright, then,” he rasps. “I’m not scared.”
“Of course you’re not,” Bridgens whispers. He reaches out, caresses Peglar’s cheek, runs his fingers through his tangled, filthy hair. “Why should you be?”
Peglar coughs, and then again, until his body is wracked with them, and Little turns away as Bridgens is bending over him, lifting his frail body up against his chest, letting Peglar bury his face in his shoulder, where there is warmth, Little imagines, and security.
He hears Peglar try to speak again, but Bridgens hushes him; and then there is quiet in the tent.
At the darkest part of what passes for night, Little finally stands, and makes his slow, unsteady way back to the tent he shares with Le Vesconte, where his fellow lieutenant is sitting awake, staring into empty air.
He comes inside and fastens the flap, and lowers himself heavily onto the cot against the eastern wall.
Le Vesconte looks at him, and says nothing.
The men are asleep, or trying to be, but Crozier is sleepless. Beyond his tent the wind howls, moving shale, threatening to push their miserable village into the ground. It is impossible to discern the difference between the gale and the sound of, maybe, the Thing prowling along the ridgeline—the wails of suffering men—the distant, imaginary, keening ghosts of James—of Franklin—of Blanky.
He is useless to himself, and useless to his crew, lying here thinking horrible things, wallowing in his fear and pity, so he sits up, finds his coat in the eerie midnight light. The wind blasts his face as he steps out of his tent, and he squints into it, tugging his Welsh wig down over his ears.
The far sick-tent is sheltered from the worst of the wind by the ridge, and Crozier is thankful to reach it, to duck beneath the flap and stand in the sudden calm. He doesn’t announce himself, and Bridgens—sitting in his usual place at Peglar’s side—doesn’t seem surprised to see him.
“And how is our young friend?” Crozier says, softly. He ducks past the eave of the tent, and Bridgens finds another crate behind him, drags it along the rocks. Crozier sits, his knee brushing Bridgens’ in comfortable cameraderie.
Peglar is asleep, or unconscious. Crozier can’t tell which. His head is turned toward Bridgens on the pillow, his fingers curled around the bare edge of Bridgens’ sleeve. His breathing is slow, labored. Someone has tenderly combed back his hair away from his face; Crozier can guess who.
“He woke a little after noon,” Bridgens says, quietly, “and not since then.”
“Do you imagine he’ll wake again?”
“I pray that he won’t.” Bridgens’ wrinkled face is full of pain. Unimaginable pain. But resolve, too. “I pray he’ll go soon.”
In any other world it’d be a terrible thing to wish. But Crozier understands. Somehow. Down in the gut part of him that still loves Sophia Cracroft, he knows he’d wish the same.
“It seems his pain is past,” Crozier murmurs.
For a while they sit, as the night blows around them, rattling the tent poles, pushing and pulling the canvas wall above Peglar like the heaving lung of some great animal.
“John,” Crozier says, finally, reaching up to slide the Welsh wig from his head, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Bridgens turns to him. “What are you sorry for, Captain?”
Crozier doesn’t know; it had only seemed like the right thing to say. Sorry that he hadn’t understood sooner, what Peglar meant? Sorry that he hadn’t offered his friendship and his comfort after it was known, reassured these two quietest and kindest of his men that he loved them, regardless and relentlessly? Sorry—that Peglar will die, that he will leave Bridgens behind—that they will, in turn, leave him behind—his cold, fragile body under a pile of stones, or blown to ashes. Sorry for all of it. For having ever left Greenhithe. For having ever dragged them to this place.
So he says nothing.
Bridgens turns his face back to Peglar, and his right hand opens on his knee, and Crozier takes it, gripping it firmly, and Bridgens grips it firmly back.
He wonders if it is a relief, to be known.
He wonders if perhaps that wasn’t Peglar’s intent—when he grasped Bridgens’ sleeve, turned into his body, pressed his face against his throat, in full view of everyone. A last gasp of revelation. Now everyone knows—now there is no secret to it. Now they can comfort one another unflinchingly to the last.
They can own their pain. Own one another.
Now he can allow himself to die, Crozier thinks.
Sinless and free.