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The Board of Bog-Oak

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Like all the other survivors of the lost Franklin Expedition, Thomas Jopson had received many gifts since returning to England. Most came from well-wishers: perfect strangers - some rich, some poor, the greater number somewhere in between - who sent bouquets of flowers or knitted blankets or bushels of vegetables to him and the other men, care of the Admiralty. Prince Albert had given him a special medal, commemorating the expedition’s valor and fortitude; his brother had scraped together enough money to buy him an ivory hair comb; and his new neighbors in Portsmouth - two elderly sisters - had, upon discovering that he had been part of the expedition, lavished on him in two days’ time more roasts and meat pies and cakes than he could have eaten in a year.

But of all the gifts Thomas had received, none of them meant more to him than the bed. It had arrived on the very day he’d moved his meager possessions into the house: a massive four-poster, carved of black oak, with designs of trailing ivy, grapes and birds worked into posts and boards and frame. When new it had cost, Thomas was certain, more money than he’d made in his whole life; but it had been sold for much less in an estate sale, a bargain found by virtue of a certain someone having a number of sisters, one of whom had married a partner in an auction firm. Its condition was pristine, yet nonetheless Thomas spent the first two days in the house in Portsmouth polishing the wood and replacing all the bedding, piling fine new cotton sheets and an embroidered counterpane atop a feather mattress, propping thick pillows upon bolsters stuffed with down and sachets of lavender. By the third day in his new residence, the bed frame gleamed, its stately elegance making the bedchamber look like one fit for a monarch’s slumber.

It was on the evening of that third day that Thomas’s housemate arrived in Portsmouth. No wagging tongues could question the sensible frugality that induced two shipmates from the tragic expedition to share living expenses by residing in the same house, especially since one had just taken up a post at the town’s Royal Navy shipyard. It was proper - healthy, even - for two men who had both endured the same trials and privations to keep one another company, for how could anyone else appreciate what they had endured? Once all business concerning the court-martial of the expedition’s officers had been satisfactorily concluded - signatures and stamps appended to various documents, logbooks surrendered and accounts settled - Commander Edward Little had left London and traveled to Portsmouth to take up his new position on dry land, and move into his new home.

Thomas had their life in the house planned out in his mind, visible to his inner eye like a list on a sheet of paper, each entry penned in his own neat script. The schedule for each evening would be like their own private ritual, enacted to sanctify the hours to come and the space in which they would unfold. From the moment Edward came through the door, Thomas would do everything he was capable of - and having spent almost a decade as an exemplary captain’s steward, this was plenty - to ensure his comfort. He would take his coat and hang it on the coat rack just inside the foyer; he would pour fresh water, scented with rose petals, into Edward’s basin so he might refresh himself before supper, and he’d have some claret or Madeira waiting when Edward came back downstairs. They’d eat together, a meal Thomas had prepared, and though he knew Edward would not allow him to serve the food as he’d once done at the mess table, he’d top up Edward’s glass when needed and ladle out second portions when wanted, and then he’d clear the dishes afterward while Edward settled in the parlor.

When the dishes were washed and put away, Thomas would join him for the evening, massaging his shoulders to relieve the tensions of the day, pulling off his boots to rub his feet, then fetching his slippers. He’d found two wingback chairs to sit opposite each other in front of the hearth: a good bargain, the small tears in their embroidered cushions easily mended with Thomas’s needle. But no sooner had he put them in place than he realized they’d never be used, at least not at the same time; for he and Edward had spent too many years keeping distance between them for the sake of propriety, and now they would only sit where they could touch. So he’d settle on the hearth rug, leaning back between Edward’s legs, or maybe they’d share the sofa, Thomas pulling Edward down to use his lap as a pillow. He’d read aloud from the newspaper or a novel, or even from the Navy List, while their fingers interlaced; or perhaps Edward would hold him, telling him of his day at the shipyard. They might just spend the hours of the evening talking, about anything and everything, pausing between narratives - or sentences - or words - to kiss and whisper plans for later pleasures.

Before they retired, Thomas would prepare the bedroom, turning down the counterpane and smoothing it out with both hands until the fabric lay as flat as a becalmed sea. He’d add more wood to the fire in the bedroom hearth, stoking it until it blazed and filled the room with shifting golden light. On the bedside table he’d lay out various items: a decanter of oil, a bowl of clean water, a few soft cloths, and — depending on the night — he might add other objects, too: a feather, a silk ribbon, a little pot of Parisian chocolate. Then - and this would be the moment Thomas looked forward to each day - he would undress Edward, laying each garment neatly aside to be pressed or folded or laundered in the morning, lavishing tender attention on each patch of newly exposed skin. He’d draw Edward’s night shirt on over his head, fully intending to have if off again in minutes, and he’d pull back the bedclothes to let Edward slide inside. Only after he’d undressed himself and crawled beneath the bedding into Edward’s waiting arms would the ritual be complete and Thomas’s duties done for the day. The sacred acts to follow would change every night as they grew bolder, safe in a bed that was all theirs, in a room where no risk of interruption loomed to spoil the creative impulses of their mutual desire.

But on that very first night, nothing worked out as Thomas had planned.

It was his fault, he realized later, for expecting Edward to be the same man he’d been on Terror: circumspect, strait-laced, afraid of losing control. He soon learned that beneath their own roof, inside their own home, Edward was a different man. It was late when he arrived on that December evening, having sailed up from London on a sloop headed for dry dock, a government coach carrying him from the shipyard to the house. Fat snowflakes glistened against the inky night, sparkling in the lamplight that spilled from the windows, catching on Edward’s eyelashes beneath the brim of his hat. Thomas’s heart throbbed in his throat as he opened the door.

“Welcome home.” He offered Edward his hand, just in case one or both of their elderly neighbors were peeking through the lace curtains of their drawing room window. Edward took Thomas’s bare fingers with his gloved ones, wringing them heartily.

“Thank you, Thomas. The coachman helped me this far with my trunk. If you’ll just grab the one end there, I think I can manage the rest well enough.” Working together, they hauled the trunk inside the foyer, Edward carrying a few additional cases under one arm. As soon as Thomas toed the front door shut, Edward let go of his end of the trunk and dumped the cases unceremoniously on the rug. Grabbing Thomas, he kissed him with such force that they fell back against the wall, Edward colliding with the coat rack and knocking off his hat in the process.

“Am I dreaming?” he asked, pulling away long enough to look into Thomas’s eyes. He was grinning more broadly than Thomas could ever remember having seen before, the skin around his dark eyes crinkled at each corner. “I’ve been asking myself that all day. I half expected to wake up during the journey here, to arrive at a house that was empty, or one I’d be sharing with one of my siblings. Are you really here? It seems too wonderful to be true. Are we really together in a house of our own?”

Thomas laughed, Edward’s joy contagious. “I believe we are, Commander Little. Or else we’re dreaming the same dream.”

They sought one another’s mouths, losing themselves in a kiss that seemed endless yet far too brief. If he had no need of breathing, Thomas thought, he could spend hours in a slow appreciation of Edward’s lips, coming at them from every angle, indulging in the pleasurable dance of tongue against tongue. As it was, the pause for air was brief: a change of angle and they were back at it, Thomas raking his fingers through Edward’s hair and moaning softly.

When he felt something cold drop on his cheek, Thomas pulled back. Droplets of water were trembling at the ends of Edward’s long eyelashes like tiny diamonds. “Your snowflakes are melting,” Thomas laughed, brushing them carefully away. “It looks like you’re crying.”

“I can’t be certain I’m not.” Edward shook his head, his brow resting against Thomas’s. “I’ve never dreamed of such happiness. It’s overwhelming. Back on that accursed island, I would never have thought it possible.”

“Shhh.” Thomas pressed a gentle kiss to each of Edward’s eyelids, then the tip of his nose. “Those days are gone, my love. We need never speak or think of them again.” That was, of course, the real dream - impossible, as Thomas knew - but the hope of losing those memories eventually gave him strength nonetheless. “I plan to spend every day here proving to you that this happiness is real. I’ll make you feel it so much you won’t be able to doubt it.” He smiled and stroked his hands over Edward’s chest and arms. “You’re cold. Come into the parlor and warm yourself by the fire while I heat up some supper.”

“No.” Edward held Thomas fast, nibbling at his lips. “I’m not hungry. Not for food, at least.” His cheeks bloomed with warmth when he added in a whisper: “Let’s go to bed.”

“Edward.” The brilliance of Thomas’s smile put the lie to his disapproving tone. “I had the whole evening planned out. Getting you settled, serving your supper, giving you a tour of our home--"

“Our home can wait,” Edward said, and he touched Thomas’s face, brushing back that familiar strand of hair that was forever falling down upon his brow. “But I can’t.”

The hot blood surging through Thomas’s veins made speech impossible for a moment. He answered Edward’s words with a deep kiss.

“Very well,” he said at last, managing at least to work the greatcoat from Edward’s shoulders. “I live to serve my Commander, after all.” Once the coat was hung up, Thomas took Edward’s hand and led him up the stairs.

On the way up, they spoke of Edward’s journey and the dispositions of the shipyard: where he would be working, the kinds of problems he would need to sort out. But when they reached the large bedroom at the back of the house, Edward fell silent. As Thomas added wood to the fire, Edward walked slowly around the room, taking in every detail of the work Thomas had done in making the space as comfortable as possible. The objects on the mantlepiece, the framed lithographs on the walls, the oil lamps with their frosted chimneys, all added to the elegance of the room, but Edward’s eyes were drawn especially to the four-poster. The silver threads worked into its rich burgundy curtains and counterpane glimmered invitingly in the firelight, while the piled bedding and plump pillows promised a comfort unimaginable to a man too accustomed to narrow bunks and bedrolls.

“Thomas, it’s beautiful.”

Looking around, Thomas beamed. “Do you really think so?”

“Yes. Not as beautiful as the man who’s done it all, but beautiful just the same. You’ve worked marvels in such a short time, Tommy.” Edward shrugged out of his jacket, draping it neatly over the back of a chair. “Will the bed suit, do you think?”

Thomas straightened. “It’s quite comfortable, though for the past two nights I’ve found it rather cold. And much too empty. But I think that will be rectified tonight.”

Edward stroked his hand along one of the posts, his fingers tracing a vine carved in the polished wood. “It reminds me of an Irish ballad I heard once. There was a midshipman on one of my voyages in the Mediterranean - he was Irish, from Galway originally I believe. Anyway, he had this beautiful baritone, and sometimes in the evenings we’d prevail on him to sing for us in the gunroom. He knew all of these old songs, and he’d sing them in the Irish tongue and then tell us what the words meant afterwards.

“My favorite was called… let me think… ‘An Clár Bog Deal.’ I have no idea if I’m pronouncing that right,” he added with a laugh.

“What does that mean? Do you remember?”

Edward nodded. “‘The Board of Bog-Oak.’” He laid his hand on the top of the footboard: Thomas had polished even this to a high shine. “To the best of my knowledge I’ve never seen bog-oak - it may be nothing like this - but I’d imagine it’s quite dark.”

Thomas was somewhat puzzled by this turn in Edward’s conversation. “I didn’t know your musical tastes ran to Irish ballads.”

“They don’t, necessarily. It’s just I’ve always remembered that particular song.” He turned and looked at Thomas, and there was no mistaking the desire in his eyes; it was so plain, so fevered, that Thomas took a step back, his heart stilling in his chest before pounding hard to catch up with its regular rhythm. “The midshipman gave us the lyrics in English after he’d sung it and I remember thinking at the time, no other song pretending to be about love could possibly compare.”

Now Thomas understood. He drew a deep breath. “Tell me.”

‘I’d marry you without a cow or the least dowry’.” Edward walked slowly towards Thomas as he recited the words. “‘And bed you on a dewy morning at first light. Alas that you and I, my love - are not in the country with a board of bog-oak as our bed’.”

Coming to a standstill inches in front of Thomas, Edward touched his face, stroking his fingers along the line of his jaw, passing them softly across Thomas’s lips. Both hands met at the knot in Thomas’s neckcloth, and Edward began to work it loose. “‘Do not think because I’m poor that I’m lowly. Do not think I was found in yonder ditch’.” He pulled the cloth out from Thomas’s collar, undid the buttons at the throat of Thomas’s shirt, and gently eased the two halves of the garment apart, baring Thomas’s breastbone. Gazing fixedly at this naked skin, Edward ran one finger down the curve of his lover’s throat, dipping into his surprasternal notch, then brushing through the first of the black hairs that grew in a thick band down the center of Thomas’s chest.

‘Lie with me for a month and you’ll see’,” Edward continued, his voice low, “‘that from top to toe I’m a gentleman’.”

The lust in Edward’s eyes, his voice, his every movement, burned Thomas and he found he did not have the power or will to protest. He merely gasped out a harsh, heavy breath as Edward began to tear off his clothes. He had none of a steward’s finesse, that was certain: more than one thread snapped, more than one stretch of fabric was strained in Edward’s desperate haste to lay Thomas bare. Neither did he pause - not for word or kiss - until he had Thomas standing naked on the hearth rug, every inch of him exposed, the firelight bronzing his creamy skin. Only then did Edward step back, his eyes roving slowly up and down his lover’s body.

“You can have no idea how long I’ve dreamed of this, Tom. How many years I’ve been building up a fantasy of it, imagining every detail of undressing you completely in a bedroom of our own, one without a chill to make bare skin unbearable, one with a bed big enough to accommodate us both. There were days, up there, I only got through because of this fantasy, times I kept putting one foot in front of the other by pretending I was walking towards this moment. I’m not sure I ever really believed it would come to pass. I’m not sure I believe it now.”

“Come touch me, then,” Thomas murmured, so aroused he could scarcely breathe, “so you can believe it.”

Edward closed the distance between them again, running his fingers down the curve of Thomas’s shoulders, along his biceps, then moving to lay them upon his hips. Thomas watched him, his heart near to bursting at the expression of bald adoration on Edward’s face.

“How can I compete with such a fantasy, Ned? No man ever could.”

“Oh Tommy, you exceed it. In every particular.” Edward circled a finger around Thomas’s navel, dipping down into the thick hair below. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it feels like I’m seeing you for the first time, tonight. You’re too fine a thing for me to look at, let alone touch.”

Thomas rested his brow against Edward’s, at the same time taking Edward's hand and pressing it firmly to his chest above the hammering of his heart. “Am I a gentleman, then, Edward? Top to toe?”

“Without equal,” Edward whispered.