“You make a very indifferent lady’s maid,” says James, shooting a dark, amused look upward. He’s perched on a low armchair before the cheval glass, his hair pinned back but with ringlets left loose at either side, in a passing imitation of the current London styles.
Francis finds he misses the way it frames James’ long impassive face, echoing the deep-etched lines that run from each cheekbone to an inch above his jaw. But he’s richly compensated by the view of James’ throat: no longer wrapped in silk or linen but bared to air and gaslight. James’ chemise sits low on his shoulders, and shadows pool in the hollows of his neck, the muscles supporting his head taut and strong as backstays. Francis wants to trace the pattern of freckles that disappears beneath the garment’s lacy edge, put his mouth on the spur of bone where collarbone meets shoulder. It is these thoughts that have distracted him from his task: namely, untangling an ungodly mess of corset laces. He feels slow and stupid as a ship’s boy, the room too warm, his head fogged with wonder and desire.
He gathers his wits, swallows, and says, “My experience of such matters has, so far, gone solely in the opposite direction.”
“Hm.” James smiles, crinkling the skin around his eyes. He rolls a stocking in deft fingers and slips it over his toes, unfurling upwards over a well-turned calf, before tying a blue ribbon garter above his knee. Francis spies a glimpse of pantalette and forces a dry swallow. He turns his gaze instead on the embroidered marigolds adorning James’ bony ankle, while his fingers pull absent-mindedly at the corset cords.
“No need to unlace it entire,” says James. His lips quirk: half-irritated, half-amused.
“Don’t fret,” says Francis. “I know well enough.”
He’s learned, by now, the language of this shared endeavour. James leaves illustrated magazines dotted through their rooms, half-sewn garments strewn on table and chairs, and muses quietly on the trim of gowns and bonnets as they walk along the Serpentine. What a world of words women have built themselves: as impenetrable as Inuktitut or sailors’ cant. Francis still wishes, from time to time, for an almanack or dictionary he might devour; but suspects such a volume, should it even exist, would be beyond his wits to understand. He learns better from listening to James, from watching him dress, and undressing him in turn.
His nascent fluency is sufficient for shopping, however. He likes to have the words on his tongue for what he wants to buy, the names for those feminine accoutrements he knows will make James blush. It’s unusual, to be sure, for a man to buy such things, but not altogether unheard of. Francis plays the eagar bridegroom, the new-wed man with a lively wife at home.
The pretence comes more natural than he might suppose, as though he is embodying a looking-glass version of himself: the man that might have wooed and won Sophia Cracroft. Such thoughts are inescapable these days, surrounded by so much fine fabric, but he bears them with gentle tolerance. He and James speak often of Sophia, and Sir John and Lady Jane. The memories come easily. They left pretense and dissimulation behind them on the ice.
This, then, is a corset, rather than a pair of stays, with a split busk for ease of dressing, and studs that snap into steel eyes. Stays were what his sisters wore in their youth, and the dockside molls at Portsmouth when he was a midshipman and still grass-green, but gone are the days of long laces and solid, whalebone busks. Francis regrets the loss of that word—stays, so comfortingly nautical—and of the busk in particular. Were they still at sea he might enjoy engraving one for James, the story of their voyage told in pictograms: Erebus and Terror in full sail, the frozen pack, the tents of Carnivale. Perhaps not, he thinks, as the cords come loose at last.
James stands, his second stocking secured, and faces Francis with arms spread wide. Francis brushes a passing thought of Christ aside, and approaches with the corset, passing it around James’ ribs, bringing the open busk together over the chemise. But he cannot make the mechanism join and James takes charge, fitting top and bottom studs before slotting the rest into place. Then he turns and Francis is left with the laces again, tightening from the middle as he’s seen James do a hundred times. The edges of the corset close by inches, white cotton gathered and obscured by copper-coloured silk. James’ breathing catches slightly, and he brings his hands to rest on his hips.
Francis pauses in his task, concerned. “How does it feel? Are you uncomfortable?”
“Not uncomfortable. It takes a while to adjust, is all.”
James has said such words before with Francis at his back, and the memory brings blood into Francis’ cheeks. He looks up and catches James’ gaze in the glass. James, of course, is smiling, his mouth askew. “Now, now,” he chides. “We’re going out, remember.”
Francis put his chin down and gives the laces a punishing tug. “I don’t know what you mean.”
James gives a breathless laugh. “If you wish to be opaque, my dear, you will need a more robust complexion.”
“Betrayed by my Irish blood,” Francis murmurs. He knots a neat Flemish bend in the two loops of cord—if James wants to escape this contraption he must do so with Francis’ help, a thought he very much enjoys—and presses his lips to the top of James’ spine, kissing down and down the ridge of bone, over the top of the chemise to the unyielding corset edge.
James shifts, as if to turn and face him, but Francis holds him steady, hands on his baleen-bound, diminished waist, nosing into his hair.
“You will disturb the arrangement,” James says, the words coming as a moan.
“As you have already observed,” Francis breathes into his ear, “I am an uncommonly indifferent lady’s maid.” But he pulls back nevertheless and takes his hands away. “What comes next?” he asks, turning to the bed, which is heaped with clothes.
James, swaying slightly, says, “The quilted petticoat.”
He feels the cold these days; they both do. This second winter in England has been easier than the first, but the sight of snow on the ground is far from a cheerful thing, and their rooms have been draughty this last month or so. The house wants caulking, as Francis has mused more than once when a westerly is blowing, but they have been cosy enough by a merrily crackling fire: James in shirtsleeves or an Indian shawl as his mood dictates, and Francis in smoking jacket and slippers.
But this afternoon, in the gathering dark of Christmas Eve, James had felt like walking. And not just walking, but walking in his feminine attire, as his feminine self: a self which has so far been confined within their own four walls. Perhaps that was why he had asked for Francis’ help, wanting a co-conspirator in his transformation, where no conspiracy had been required before. They both know the risk the deed entails—the disaster they court by braving the midwinter air, by baring this most private part of James to public eyes—but James has never been one to shy away from danger. And Francis, reckless with relief ever since their rescue, cares little for his own reputation. All he wants is his freedom, to love James passionately and without reserve; and to retire, once the Navy’s byzantine affairs are in their proper order, to a quiet house somewhere, with a view of the sea.
James holds his arms protectively above his hair and Francis drops the heavy petticoat over him. The topmost layer is a printed lawn, the inner flannel, with a blanket of woollen batting held tight between. It falls almost to the floor, covered in a latticework of stitches. James pulls the strings tight at his waist and tucks them out of sight.
“The corded petticoat,” says James into the mirror, smoothing the fabric over his hips.
“How many of these damned things are there?” Francis growls, fumbling among the pile once more.
James laughs again: a liquid, musical sound. “I fear you’ll not like my answer.”
The corded skirt, when Francis finally lays his hands upon it, looks positively maritime. Plain ivory calico, with bands of fine rope sewn in to make the hem hang stiffly, it’s something a sailmaker might have fashioned; something Jopson or Bridgens might have jury-rigged for a domestic emergency. Strange, then, that this, lowered carefully over arms and shoulders, should alter James’ silhouette most of all. He has, from nowhere, the width of a woman, that trick of occupying space, the illusion of floating like a trim little sloop above the Turkey carpet.
Francis is too stunned by the new shape of him to move, so James takes the waist-strings once more, makes a neat bow, and tucks it tidily away. Francis has a sudden flash of premonition: sees his future self pulling at those bows, tangling the cords in clumsy fingers, making a cat’s cradle where all is presently shipshape and smart as can be. He thinks again of the marigolds, the blue ribbons, the lace-trimmed pantalettes—these last so like a pair of sailor’s trousers but for their astonishing, scandalous division—and feels his pulse quicken in his throat.
James, hands on hips again, raises an eloquent eyebrow in the glass. “The pale blue, if you please.”
Francis pulls himself together and delves once more, finding a linen skirt the colour of pack-ice. “What on earth,” he says, in a voice more steady than he feels, “is the point of this?”
James stoops to let it pass over his head, and says as he emerges, “It makes the line smoother—do you see?” He shakes the creases loose and spins slowly back and forth, head turned to catch his reflection.
“I see,” says Francis, following James’ oscillation with his eyes until he feels quite unsteady.
“Last, the lace-trimmed petticoat,” says James. “It has no particular function, before you ask. Save fullness—and frivolity.”
Frivolity is right, thinks Francis when he sees it: a foot deep in French lace at the hem, layer upon layer like a wedding cake. He lowers it without a word over James’ waiting arms, noting the risen colour in James’ chest and cheeks. This time, Francis ties the ribbons, standing before James as he does so, conscious of being watched by him, of James’ eyes following the halting movement of his hands.
“Is there more to come?” he says, in the direction of James’ narrow waist.
“The corset cover,” James breathes, “and the gown.”
Francis looks briefly towards the bed. “I see no gown.”
“On top of the wardrobe.” James nods in that direction and Francis spies a black and white striped box. Leaving James with some reluctance, he crosses the room and brings it down, setting it on the bed, where James is grappling with a scrap of muslin. The article resolves itself into a short, frilled chemise: obscuring the uppermost ridge of the burnished corset, draping James’ broad shoulders with gauzy sleeves, another pair of strings to be tied and tucked away.
“May I?” Francis lifts the lid of the box. James nods, and Francis searches through snowdrifts of tissue to find something soft beneath. He draws it into the light: a woollen dress in shades of red and green, heavy, with its own warmth and weight. Francis cradles it like a corpse, holding its length against him. The tartan is vivid, almost garish, but he can see at once that it will suit James very well. “You mean to be a Scotchwoman, then,” he says.
James smiles, coming towards him and lifting the hem of the gown. “Your Irish blood fails you once again,” he says. “The plaid is Ulster Red—from a mill in your very own County Down.” He drops his gaze to the fabric in his hands, looking uncharacteristically shy. “I thought it rather fitting.”
Francis surges forward then, claiming James’ lips with his own. James grasps his elbows, his shoulders, the base of his skull, drawing him closer, crushing the dress between them. Their mouths open, a promise of passion yet to come, and Francis, with triumphant pleasure, hears a note of arousal sing low in James’ throat.
“James,” he moans as they break apart, feeling heat gather in the small of his back, his prick stiffening against James’ many skirts; moved by the mere, distant hint of skin. “We’re meant to be going for a walk.”
“Yes,” says James distractedly, his mouth somewhere in the region of Francis’ jaw. “Walking. Of course.”
“It was your own idea, if you recall.” Francis pushes him half-heartedly away and James straightens, his mock-mournful expression somewhat undermined by the flush in his cheeks. “Put on your beautiful Irish dress, a mhuirnín,” says Francis, lapsing, distracted, into his boyhood tongue.
James, biddable despite the feverish gleam in his eye, raises his arms once more and the gown, for all its weight and size, goes on as easily as the petticoats. Francis lowers it carefully over James’ bowed head—there’s a small skirmish with the close-fitting sleeves—and then applies himself to a long line of hooks and eyes beginning below the waist and terminating just below the jutting summit of James’ spine. When all is secure, Francis turns James in both hands, smoothing pleats and gathers, seeking the warmth of his body beneath the wool.
“What will you wear on your feet?” Francis says quickly, as James looks set to lean against him again.
James mouth works for a moment. It pains him, Francis knows, to have nothing suitable. Dresses are all very well: easy to feign a sister or a cousin of unusual size, to placate a curious seamstress with evasion and a handsome tip, to buy silk in Covent Garden and convey it to a dressmakers’ in Chelsea. But cobblers are a different matter. At home, James wears his habitual embroidered slippers, or goes stocking-clad, but an outdoor expedition requires something more. Francis makes a mental note: a task for himself in the coming year.
“My black boots. No one will see them, at least," James says, at length.
“No, indeed.” Francis squeezes James’ hand and darts back to the wardrobe, finding the laced leather boots. Returning, he holds them out to James, who makes no move to take them.
“I—I cannot bend, Francis. You must help me.” He looks furious to admit it, and suddenly sheepish, ill-at-ease in all his finery.
And yet the words take Francis’ breath away. He kneels at once, a penitent before the confession grate, the carpet soft under his aching bones, the swish of James’ skirts frothing before him like a wind-whipped sea. James rests a hand on the crown of his head, balancing himself, and down Francis goes, searching beneath the many hems for solid flesh and sinew.
There—the marigolds again, the roll of bone under his fingertips, the once-strong calf slimmer but not wasted altogether as it was, across the sea, a lifetime ago. They move without speaking, Francis thorough as the best-bred servant, fitting James’ narrow feet into the well-worn boots, tightening the laces, tying yet more unseamanlike bows. When Francis rocks back on his heels, James’ hand still tight in his hair, his chest is heaving with the effort of bending, and the anguish of combined emotion: a spring-tide of awe, and longing, and love.
But something is wrong. James’ mouth is working again, his nostrils flared. “I must look a perfect fright,” he spits with sudden bitterness. “Dressed up like the cheapest sort of whore, except—” he barks an awful laugh “—what man would pay to spend the night with me?”
Francis feels a flare of rage and lets it carry him upward, slower than he’d like, but quick enough to force James back a step, letting out a sigh of surprise as his baleen-clad back hits the bedpost.
“Never,” Francis growls, “speak of yourself that way. Either in my hearing or out of it.” He takes James roughly around the waist, presses their bodies together again, unheeding of the yards of good cloth, unheeding of all save the pain in James’ wide eyes, wanting to startle it out him. “I would pay the Queen’s ransom—one, I assure you, that she has done nothing to deserve—for an hour in your company. For half that, for a quarter, under any sky you can name, in any godforsaken wasteland—”
The memories come then, unbidden but not unwelcome, and he can see the shale of King William Island pass, skittering, behind James’ eyes; can hear the drag of sleds, the cries of dying men, the shudder of deathbed breathing, and puts his forehead on James’ heated temple, to bring himself back to London, back to their warm bedroom, to Christmas Eve at home.
“—a godforsaken wasteland to which, if by some miracle you have forgotten, we have already been, where I already loved you—” he shakes James stoutly by the shoulders “—every pox-ridden bloody part of you, you ridiculous, wondrous—”
And James is laughing, and kissing him, and tipping his head back against the bedpost to laugh again. Francis presses his mouth to each of James’ cheeks in turn, to the longitudinal lines he loves so well, before moving lower, fulfilling his ambition of six or seven layers ago by licking into the notch of James’ throat. James arches, as much as he can, and holds Francis’ hips with painful strength.
Francis breathes hot and humid over James’ knife-blade collarbone, tracing its shape under the skin towards his shoulder, where freckled skin meets closely-woven Irish wool.
Half an hour later, after a hasty repinning of James’ hair and some trifling amendments to Francis’ toilette, they stand together in the encaustic-tiled hall. From somewhere, James has procured a winter bonnet, and is tying the grosgrain ribbon with care, peering into the hall stand mirror.
In the coat cupboard, Francis finds his fur-lined Chesterfield and, unexpectedly, a velvet cape. Smiling, he lifts it from the peg and folds James under its wings, hooking his chin over his shoulder. James, sliding smartly away, takes Francis’ top hat from the rack and sets it on his head, narrowing his eyes to make sure it sits straight.
Then mittens for them both—an unexpected handmade gift from Sophia last year—and a brown fur stole for James, its provenance again unknown. Francis wonders if it feels like caribou or sealskin close under his chin; if the memory is a happy one or sad. Whatever the case may be, it softens the sharpness of James’ jaw so that, with bonnet and curling hair, he is quite the respectable Englishwoman, for all his mongrel past and blood-red Ulster plaid.
James’ mind seems to be running on similar lines. He turns to Francis under the hanging lamp, an uncertain expression moving over his face. “Will I pass inspection?”
“Yes,” says Francis fervently, taking James’ hands. He is exquisite, radiant. Francis cannot believe his felicity and good fortune. His second bite at life has given him more than he ever could have dreamed. “Yes.”
Francis reaches for his scarf, and takes the latchkey from its nail. He sent Matilda home to her mother in Deptford, with a new work basket to unwrap on Christmas morning, and his assurances that her soft-hearted masters can shift for themselves until the new year.
“Will you be warm enough?” he says as he opens the front door. “Will you not take your shawl?” It is dark already, just gone four. A hansom rattles past and, from the square beyond, comes the lilting sound of carol singers. Snow falls like sugar through the air, and the sight sparks dread in Francis’ heart, despite himself.
But James links their arms, pressing the sinuous line of his body to Francis’ side, his skirts a susurration on the polished doorstep. “Don’t fuss, Francis. I am perfectly warm.”
And they step out together, arm in arm, into the frozen afternoon.