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Bend Not These Morning Stars from Me

Chapter Text

Chatham, England
HMS Terror, October 1839

Lieutenant Little, a harried man some ten years Thomas’s senior, barely glanced his way as he led Thomas across the ship and down to the lower deck. The lieutenant kept a swift pace with which Thomas rushed to keep up as he weaved between all the bodily traffic. The lieutenant slowed only when he reached the living quarters. At each doorframe, he tapped the lintel and announced who lived there before moving on with nary a glance back at Thomas.

“Second Master,” Lieutenant Little said, and then, “Boatswain, Second Mate, First Mate,” until finally, “Commander’s Steward, here.” He pushed the door open, handed Thomas the key, and then stood at parade rest outside. Thomas stepped inside and slung his single bag of belongings onto the narrow birth. Cramped up against it was a sink, above which hung a small, cloudy mirror. A circular window let the light in, and beyond it, Thomas could see the glitter and peace of the sea. There was just enough space for a stripling of a lad to turn himself around.

It was perfect.

Thomas opened the drawers beneath his berth and found a bedpan. The cabinets above his berth were empty. He took up his bag once more and opened it to begin unpacking when Lieutenant Little cleared his throat.

“Sir?” Thomas said, leaning out the door.

“Let me show you the pantry, Jopson.”

Thomas set aside his bag and ducked out the door. They made but a single step’s progress when the lieutenant stopped again and pulled out a key. He unlocked the door and withdrew the key only to hand it to Thomas.

“All of this is for the commander’s use only,” he said, ushering Thomas inside. It was a far more spacious room than Thomas’s, neatly stacked with a variety of tins of food in addition to ingredients. Lieutenant Little reached above and pulled open the cabinet doors, revealing bolts of fabric in tidy towers, smartly labeled boxes of buttons, and all manner of sewing accoutrements. The lieutenant closed the cabinets and pivoted to open what proved to be a false wall. Behind it, hundreds of gleaming bottles of spirits sat waiting for their occasions in neat rows. Lieutenant Little closed it again and finally looked Thomas full in the face. “Don’t lose that key,” he said. “Come along.”

He strode out of the pantry, and Thomas fumbled to lock it behind them. He dodged other crew members and mumbled apologies as he raced to follow the lieutenant through the bustle. Thomas caught up with him just as he announced the surgeon’s quarters.

“And this,” Lieutenant Little said at last, “is Commander Crozier’s cabin.”

The door swung open when the lieutenant pushed it, but he fished out a key and handed it to Thomas regardless.

“Don’t lose that key, either,” he said. He stepped inside and bid Thomas follow.

The commander’s cabin was commodious with a row of windows that let the light cut in in golden shafts. There was a seat of ease, a great table and many cabinets filled with books and china and spyglasses and other items any commander may deem necessary on a long voyage. A cupboard stood bolted to the floor against the inner bulkhead, and a set of cut crystal glasses sat atop it, as well as a matching decanter of what Thomas would venture was whiskey—surely a fine year for a fine man. His hands itched to pour a few fingers into a glass, to wipe any drips away, to arrange the set in perfect parallels and perpendiculars before his commander.

“You’re to keep the windows clear and sparkling,” Lieutenant Little was saying. Thomas listened with only half an ear—he had been debriefed upon his promotion from midshipman, and knew well how best to serve his commanding officer. He took a turn about the room, inspecting what he would need to clean, what he would need to set to rights. “Change the bedclothes weekly, but turn the bed down daily. You’re to sweep this room twice a day, as well as the sleeping quarters, and all surfaces are to be kept free of dust and grime, including the commander’s sink and mirror and his seat of ease. Linens should be changed and steamed weekly as well as the commander’s dress uniforms; the rest of his laundry should be on a thrice-weekly rotation. Every morning you will serve the commander his tea and breakfast after assisting with his ablutions. On Sundays, the commander takes his full bath, for which you will have to haul the hot water from below deck.”

Here, Lieutenant Little cast a doubtful eye down Thomas’s body. Thomas stood at attention, but he knew what the lieutenant saw: a reedy boy not yet become a man, gaunt as a street urchin with gangly limbs liable to snap under too heavy a gaze. Thomas tilted his chin up and refused to be cowed.

“I’m steady as a workhorse, sir,” Thomas assured him.

“I hope you are, Mr. Jopson,” Lieutenant Little said. He drew in a palpable breath, no doubt to continue in his litany of Thomas’s duties, but it was then that the door swung open again. As they both turned toward the interruption, Thomas caught sight of a splotch of pigment that peeked from Lieutenant Little’s collar and stretched its tendrils up the side of his neck to terminate in his beard. Part of his marcam conparis was visible even in full dress, the poor man.

Thomas had no more time to think on it before an imposing man in full dress, broad of chest and fearsome of mien, swept into the cabin and cast his gaze about. He had a rugged face hardly fit to be called handsome, and his pale hair glinted red by the canting sunlight—no, he was not handsome, but his was an arresting presence. His attention landed on Thomas, and one of his eyebrows winged upward even as the whole of his mouth pursed down like that of a cantankerous frog. Thomas’s heart flopped about against his ribs, but he stood tall and squared his shoulders. He would not be found wanting.

“Commander Crozier,” Lieutenant Little said, “this is your steward, Thomas Jopson.”

“And as I told the captain, I’ve no need of a steward, Lieutenant.” Commander Crozier said, swiveling on a toe to face Lieutenant Little, chest puffed out. His accent was touched with Irish, but tempered, as if he had lived too long in England. “Perhaps you will take him off my hands.”

“I have my orders, sir,” Lieutenant Little said, unhappy. “And you have yours.”

“Edward, for God’s sake,” Commander Crozier hissed, imploring now. “What am I to do with him?”

“Anything you wish, sir,” Thomas piped up. Commander Crozier turned his neck to consider him but otherwise stayed still as a predator spying its prey. “I am yours to command. I will start by putting away your things, and scrubbing up your windows and mirror and cabinet glass, if it pleases you.”

“If it pleases me,” Commander Crozier murmured. “What would please me, Mr. Jopson, would be to be left to my own devices, as I have always been.”

“Oh but your quarters are much bigger now, Commander,” Thomas said, and back up went the brow. The commander turned toward him and straightened. A smile threatened to curve his mouth upward. “And your duties so much more…consuming,” Thomas continued. “Mine are petty concerns, beneath the notice of a commander but paramount to his comfort. I’m happy to see to your every need as you lead this voyage, sir.”

“Captain Ross is leading this voyage, Mr. Jopson,” Commander Crozier said, and heaved a sigh. He met Lieutenant Little’s gaze again and jerked his head toward the door. The lieutenant nodded shortly and strode from the commander’s quarters, shutting the door behind him. Commander Crozier swept his hand towards the chairs in invitation. Thomas sat, spine straight, hands in his lap. Commander Crozier seemed to cast about for words or where to put his hands until he finally sat sideways in the chair beside Thomas to face him.

“The Navy,” Commander Crozier said, “like Britain herself, enjoys its hierarchies far too well. Perhaps you and I needn’t exert ourselves overmuch in accommodating such a farce. You do what you must when prying eyes rove about, and for my part I will be neat as a pin so as to make all of this painless for you, but otherwise we can be as strangers to each other, and you may spend your time as you would. Is this amenable to you, Mr. Jopson?”

“Aye, sir,” Thomas said, and beamed at him. Commander Crozier sighed and passed a hand over his face. He need not have worried—certainly Thomas knew how to make himself invisible and effective all at once. That quality in him was why he was chosen for this promotion. He would see to his commander’s every need during meals and ablutions, but what Crozier didn’t know was that Thomas’s each waking moment would be devoted to the upkeep of these rooms whilst the Commander shouldered heavier burdens. He would be so thorough, so consistent, and so unobtrusive that it would be as if perfection itself were the the rooms’ natural state, and Crozier would never have occasion to remark upon it. Thomas would start with the windows.

“Pour me some whiskey, would you, Mr. Jopson?” Commander Crozier asked, holding up three fingers. “And pour yourself a glass while you’re at it.”

Thomas hopped to his feet and happily complied. He gave himself but a splash, wiped the surface of the cupboard, and set the glasses neatly atop coasters on the table. He took his seat again and waited for Commander Crozier to drink.

“Christ, man, don’t look at me like that,” Commander Crozier said.

“Yes, sir, sorry, sir.” Thomas dropped his gaze to the floor. It could use a good scrubbing in addition to the sweeping—he’d add that to his weekly tasks.

“How old are you, Mr. Jopson?”

“Eighteen, sir.”

“And is this your first post as steward?”

“Aye, sir.”

Commander Crozier grunted and tipped back his whiskey.

“Well,” he said, voice tight against the burn of the liquor, “a voyage like this is sure to make a man of you. And a man likes his privacy, does he not?”

“Aye, sir,” Thomas said.

“You have your own quarters now?”

“Aye, sir.”

“No more hammock,” Commander Crozier said. His mouth curled into a rather dazzling smile that transformed his entire bearing. He leaned in as if to whisper Thomas a conspiracy. “No more falling asleep to a symphony of log-sawing and wind-breaking.”

Thomas barked out a loud laugh and Commander Crozier sat back and smiled languidly, downed the rest of his whiskey.

“Aye, sir,” Thomas said.

“Then you understand,” Commander Crozier said. “That a man’s quarters are sacrosanct.”

“I will treat yours with the utmost discretion, sir,” Thomas said. “I shan’t linger any longer than duty dictates.”

“Hmph. See that you don’t, Mr. Jopson.”

“Of course, sir.”

The clomp of heavy boots announced Commander Crozier’s visitor before the door swung open again. At the sight of a captain’s uniform, Thomas shot to his feet and stood straight, shoulders back. Captain James Clark Ross stopped in the doorjamb, epaulettes swaying as he spread his arms open in welcome. His hair was deep russet and made Commander Crozier’s look like a pale facsimile of those cheery hues. For his part, Commander Crozier’s expression lifted into one of barely-contained glee as he closed the distance between with an embrace. He reminded Thomas of nothing so much as his baby brother, overjoyed to see a playmate after mere days of separation. In spirited tones they greeted each other, queries and exclamations piling on top of one another in a great aural snarl not meant to be untangled. Thomas clasped his hands together behind his back and turned his attention to the windows.

A hasty hand had wiped these windows with mucky water if anything at all. The windows were streaked and clouded, grimy along their edges. Thomas intended to attack them with a soft rag and a vinegar lemon mixture in clean water. Commander Crozier deserved a clear view of the sea, when contemplation overtook him.

He was roused from his reverie by the call of his name. He wheeled around, brows raised, and saw Commander Crozier’s arm outstretched, hand beckoning him forward.

“Mr. Jopson,” Commander Crozier said gruffly. “This is Captain Ross. James, this is Thomas Jopson. He’s my—” Here he muttered something unintelligible, mouth twisting into a lopsided arc of pique. To Thomas’s surprise, Captain Ross laughed heartily at this and thumped Commander Crozier on the back with ungentle hands.

“Don’t mind Francis, Mr. Jopson,” he said. “I trust you’ll look past this curmudgeonly exterior to find the Christmas pudding within?”

Commander Crozier looked as though he were fighting to keep the chagrin on his face lest his mirth show through. Thomas met Captain Ross’s twinkling eyes and smiled.

“Certainly, sir,” he said.

“Good man,” Captain Ross said, and turned back to Commander Crozier. “One last look at the routes before we set off, old man?”

“Of course,” Commander Crozier said. Captain Ross was out the door when Commander Crozier paused there and looked back at Thomas. “You needn’t get to it right away, Mr. Jopson. Unpack your things. Acquaint yourself with your shipmates.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Commander Crozier flattened his lips in what Thomas supposed was a smile, and then he was out the door. Thomas strode to the entrance and watched the command team disappear. He rolled his sleeves up and shut the door.

Windows first, and then any glass and mirrors, and then the floor. It was only what the commander deserved.

 

That night, Thomas sank into his berth with the exhausted ache of a job well done. They had set off early, and Thomas spent several hours getting the commander’s cabin into a satisfactory state. Soon enough it was lunch time, and Thomas served the command team in the wardroom alongside Captain Ross’s steward, one Dougal Dunbar, and they did the same again at supper time. In the hours between, he tidied his own quarters, visited the engine room where he would also be steaming the laundry, and peeked into the commander’s sleeping quarters. He swept and scrubbed the floor, the sink, the mirror, made sure there was not a speck of dust besides, and turned down the linens in preparation for Commander Crozier’s rest.

He lit his lantern and took out his journal to record all the tasks he had accomplished that day. He made note of his impressions of the various people he had met. Of Commander Crozier, he wrote, The Commander is a gruff but good-natured sort of Irish extraction. He has climbed these ranks quite admirably for someone of his background, and the whispers amongst the crewmen are such that I suspect him of being a very fine sailor indeed. He seems discomfited being waited on, which is unusual in men of his stature and may indicate a more humble upbringing than most in his position. If he is so sensitive to this as to become his own most dour critic, I daresay he should strike such thoughts from his mind and be proud: does he not see all he has overcome to reach such dizzying heights of achievement? He is a young man yet, only forty-three. Surely his career has not yet blossomed to its full flower. I shall do my utmost to serve him well and as he desires—that is, without appearing to serve him at all. I will be as a ghost in his chambers—the best possible steward for one such as he.

Absently, he found himself rubbing at his arm, just above the elbow. When he completed his day’s entry, he realized he had irritated his skin most abominably, and held his arm up to the light.

He had been harassing his marcam conparis. He tutted at the inflammation that had risen around and beneath it. He traced its dear dots with a light fingertip, and drew, by habit, the invisible lines connecting them.

Almost Ursa Major—that was the picture that rose from his skin and pointed him toward his conparis as surely as Polaris guided all the argonauts from the dawn of time. This was how Thomas knew he was meant to be at sea, ever since he was a lad learning to sew at his mother’s knee. Curious, though, was the way Muscida, the star which represented the head of the bear, pulled from the body as if by some greater gravity. None of the star charts Thomas had consulted in all his years had shown Muscida so removed from the rest of Ursa Major. Thomas considered it a boon—surely many sailors bore constellations as their marcam conparis, but only he and his conparis would have this—noble Ursa Major, stretching her neck.

Perhaps someday, on a voyage to the North, he would find his match under her auspicious eye.

Thomas stood and rummaged in a cabinet for a pot of unguent. He spread a dollop of it onto his marcam conparis, and then tied a clean bandage loosely around his arm to cover it. It wouldn’t do to get an infection so early in the voyage.

He snuffed out the lantern and settled onto his cot. Yes, it was leaps and bounds more comfortable than the hammocks, just as Commander Crozier said. Thomas’s eyes drooped as if weighted by lead. As he drifted off to sleep, rocked by the cradle of the sea, he thought of his commander, and how he might earn one of his smiles.

 

Excitement propelled Thomas to his commander’s door with a serving tray and tea service before the break of dawn. At his knock, Commander Crozier’s voice bade him come. The commander was seated at his table in but a nightshirt and long johns, a lantern illuminating the atlas open wide before him. He traced one finger down its pages; in search of what, Thomas could not divine. He did not look up at Thomas’s arrival.

“Good morning, sir,” Thomas said. He ducked his head and set to being mother. “Sugar, sir?”

“No,” Commander Crozier said, inspecting the atlas. “But a splash of whiskey will do.” Thomas did as he was bidden and set the cuppa gently to the side of the atlas before the commander.

“Porridge and salt pork for breakfast, sir?” Thomas asked. “You may also choose a vegetable.”

“I may, may I?” Commander Crozier squinted up at him at last, mouth twisted, brow arched. Thomas felt heat bloom up his spine and fill his cheeks.

“That is, you have your choices, sir, and I will do my utmost to accommodate them.”

“Hmph.” Commander Crozier’s attention dropped back to the atlas. He turned a page. “My very own fairy godmother. What else is my fairy godmother to bestow upon me this morning?”

“A breakfast of your choosing, of course, and then I shall assist you in your ablutions and help you dress, sir.”

Commander Crozier’s neck snapped up sharply. He looked as though Thomas’s hair contained a thousand horrors.

“You’ll do no such thing, Mr. Jopson!” he said.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but it is in the roster of duties for a Commander’s Steward, and I intend to fulfill my duties to the letter, and joyfully.”

Commander Crozier’s fist came down on the table, sloshing the tea onto the atlas. Thomas jumped.

“And as the commander in question, I forbid it!”

The teapot rattled in Thomas’s hand and he set it down hastily. He scrambled back toward the door.

“Apologies, sir,” he said. “I’ll fetch your breakfast now, sir.”

Thomas shut the door behind him and sagged against it, heaving for breath with which to calm his rabbit heart. He closed his eyes, glad for the hour and the lack of prying eyes. When he opened them again, he pushed off the door to find his way to the kitchen for the commander’s breakfast. He would perform what duties he was allowed, and he would perform them well.

 

Some days later, Thomas caught sight of Mr. Dunbar in the mess, who nodded at him in greeting and did not object when Thomas joined him at his table.

“How goes it with the commander?” Mr. Dunbar asked. His accent was thick—Glaswegian if Thomas had the right of it.

“Oh, very well indeed,” Thomas said, and spread his mouth in a wide smile. Mr. Dunbar squinted at him and snorted.

“Och, you’ll have to do better than that, Jopson,” he said. He leaned forward and clapped a heavy mitt on Thomas’s shoulder. “What’s the trouble then?”

“It’s nothing,” Thomas said. “This is my first post as a steward. Growing pains, my mum would call it.”

Mr. Dunbar nodded slowly. He scraped beans and salt pork onto his fork and fed it to himself, chewing slowly, eyes on Thomas all the while. Thomas tucked into his own meal. When Mr. Dunbar swallowed, he pointed his fork at Thomas.

“Sometimes,” he said, pitching his voice so low that Thomas had to lean in to hear. “Men of a certain type feel unmanned by being served.”

Thomas flicked his gaze to Mr. Dunbar’s.

“Yes,” Thomas said. “Men of a certain type may be overly harsh in their correction of their stewards, and impede the completion of a steward’s duties.”

“Aye,” Mr. Dunbar said. He sat back and gave Thomas a smile and a shrug. “Donnae worry much on it, lad. ’Tis a long journey and close quarters. Men of a certain types can become different types, you’ll see.”

“What was your—what would be a steward’s best course of action, should he come upon such a type?”

Mr. Dunbar took another bite of food, and Thomas took a sip of his grog.

“Learn his habits,” Mr. Dunbar said. “Learn all the peculiarities of his preferences—which hours does he keep, how hot does he like his bath, which foods are his personal favorites. Learn him and provide for him whilst blending with the scenery. If he thaws to you, all is well. If not, well. You needn’t be his steward any longer than the duration of this voyage.”

Thomas tried another smile, but it was weak if it emerged at all. Mr. Dunbar leaned in once more.

“Men of this type, lad, are far preferable to certain other types,” he said, whispering. “Mostly they prefer to maintain the polite fiction that a steward is invisible. Certain other types are too keen—they believe that in the steward is a slave, obliged to wait on them hand and foot through all manner of treatment. They require things unbecoming of a commanding officer, or any Navy man besides. There are cruel men, and confusing men, men who warp your mind for the fun of it. If your commanding officer cannot be jovial, then at least all he wants from you is your discretion.”

Thomas swallowed his mouthful of food, tasting nothing. He and Mr. Dunbar shared the rest of their meal in silence.

 

Months passed thus: Thomas served Commander Crozier his tea and meals with the minimum of words passed between them. He never sponged the commander off in the mornings, and always left him to it when he brought the hot water up on Sundays. After breakfast, he tended to the cleaning of the commander’s cabin, including his sleeping quarters, and after lunch he tended to the laundry. He mended ragged hems and folded linens, he replaced buttons and shined silver, he studied the commander’s eating and drinking and sleeping and tidying habits from afar, and he helped him while he wasn’t looking. He was as a phantom, exactly as Commander Crozier desired.

It was a cheery afternoon in the south Atlantic that found Thomas sitting on the sill in the commander’s cabin, mending the lining of a jacket sleeve by the light of the sun. His mother had been a seamstress, had taught his sister the craft and then Thomas himself. He was certain that she was teaching William even now. A good living, she called it, an honest living. One would never be out of a job. Even if one broke one’s back and destroyed one’s eyesight in dimly-lit workhouses to do it, Thomas thought privately.

He knew he should not be so ungenerous in his thinking. What options had his mum had, after Dad had run off? Her work, and later Priscilla’s, and then Thomas’s own, had kept a roof over their heads, had kept their bellies from howling their emptiness day and night. Thomas hoped his Navy pay could pave a different path for his family, could offer a brighter future. And if he met his conparis while he was at it, out from London and covered by a blanket of stars, all the better.

Thomas’s ears pricked at the sound of Commander Crozier’s voice and footfall approaching the cabin. He sprang to his feet and cast about for his options. It was too late to dash out of the cabin, so he ducked into the sleeping quarters just as the door creaked open. He pressed himself against the bulkhead and held the jacket tight to his chest as though it could shield him from Commander Crozier’s sight.

“Come, Mr. Nithercott, and have a seat.” The scrape of a chair, the clinking of the cut crystal. Thomas itched to be the one pouring the whiskey, setting it out before his commander and his guest, wiping up any errant drips. He knew Nithercott only vaguely—a violently freckled lad of only fifteen or sixteen, new to the sea and thus a ship’s boy still.

“Here,” the commander went on, and Thomas heard the sound of crystal set upon the table. “This will shore you up.”

“Thank you sir,” the boy said. He sounded damp, choked. Thomas’s brows drew downward. The boy slurped and then Thomas heard his glass hit the tabletop once more. He hoped they were using the coasters.

“There’s a good lad,” said the commander in softer tones than Thomas had ever heard out of him. “Tell me the trouble, now.”

“It’s nothing, sir. Silliness.” Nithercott punctuated his assertion with a sniffle. Thomas could hear his breath hitching.

“Anyone with a beating heart can see it’s not nothing, Mr. Nithercott.” Another scrape of the chair, and through the slots on the partition, Thomas saw the commander’s arm reach out and clutch the boy’s shoulder. “You’re very brave for joining the discovery service.”

“Thank you sir,” Nithercott whispered. Another sniffle. The arm dropped and the commander passed something over to him. He blew his nose into it—a handkerchief.

“Are the other boys giving you trouble?” Commander Crozier asked. “I can put an end to it without their ever having to know you came to me.”

“It’s not that, sir. They take the piss a bit, but it’s all in good fun, isn’t it? Oh, I’m sorry sir.”

Commander Crozier’s laugh was half snort.

“It’s no matter, Mr. Nithercott. A mouth like a sailor on a ship full of sailors—it only means you’re one of us. Just don’t do it in front of the lieutenants, eh?”

Thomas could only imagine the watery smile, the big grateful eyes.

“It’s—it’s my mum, sir,” Nithercott said. “I’d never been away from her even a night before all this.”

Commander Crozier hummed out a note of sympathy.

“Making one’s way in the world comes with its price,” he said. “The heart is broken at least a bit each time we leave the ones we love.”

“Yes,” Nithercott said. “Yes, that’s exactly it.”

“You need not bear this alone, Mr. Nithercott. When I was ship’s boy, we made a game of it: what comfort of home might we duel a man for? A jape, most assuredly, but also a way for each lad to speak of his mother, his father, his brother or dog or friend. We are all of us missing someone, Mr. Nithercott.”

Thomas’s heart stumbled in its timekeeping. His mind skipped along the dear faces of those he loved: his mother, Priscilla, William, his boyhood chum Emmett. He imagined Commander Crozier himself, half as tall as he was now, crying into his knees for want of his mother, his sister. How had that boy grown into the man who banished Thomas from his sight with one side of his mouth and soothed a ship’s boy’s homesickness with the other?

“And I’ll tell you a secret, Mr. Nithercott,” Commander Crozier went on, pitching his voice low. Thomas didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but he could not help the keenness of his ears, nor their particular attunement to the commander’s voice. “When we come to a busy port, perhaps the Cape of Good Hope, I will approve your transfer to a different vessel and send you back to your family. How does that sound?”

“Oh, no, sir, I couldn’t possibly!” Nithercott cried with a vehemence that took Thomas aback. Commander Crozier as well, by the way he sat back abruptly. Thomas needed not the fullness of his sight to know one brow was quirked severely upward.

“There’s no shame in it, lad,” the commander said.

“It’s not that, sir,” Nithercott said. “Or, it is, but it’s not just me, you see.”

“Mr. Nithercott.” A note of impatience. Thomas held his breath. “I assure you, no one will think the less of you for not wishing to ramble about the coldest place on God’s earth.”

“It’s—it’s my conparis, sir,” Nithercott said in a rush. Thomas’s heart stuttered, and he stood still as a rabbit in the sight of a hawk. Commander Crozier had gone stiff in his seat, sat back from the boy. “I’m sorry to mention it sir, unmarried as I am, but, but it’s for her, you see. Ruth. Her father won’t let her marry me until I’ve proven myself, and what glories, what riches are there for a poor boy in London? How can I be worthy of one such as her when I’m naught but a guttersnipe?”

“You’re not a guttersnipe, Nithercott,” Commander Crozier said with a sigh. His voice had taken on the growl Thomas was familiar with, and through the slats of the partition he saw the commander pass a hand over his hair, his face.

“But you see, sir. You see now, how I have to stay. It will pass, surely. I’ll do as you say, I’ll make a game of it with the other boys. I’ll come out the stronger for it.”

Commander Crozier heaved a sigh and half-turned from the boy. He lifted his hand to his face—a sip of the spirits, no doubt.

“You will,” he said. His great shoulders sloped downward. “And you will learn a great many things, and perhaps you’ll make a fine sailor one day. I wish you every happiness with your conparis, Mr. Nithercott.”

“I—thank you, sir.” There was a question in the gratitude, but the boy was wise—or oblivious—enough not to pursue it.

“Off you go, Mr. Nithercott,” the commander said. “If you’ve any more trouble, you may knock at my door.”

Nithercott thanked him profusely and made his hasty way out of the cabin. Commander Crozier sat at the table for a long while. He finished his whiskey and poured himself another. He stood gazing out his windows and held his drink, watchful and still, until the rays of the sun shone orange. Thomas bore silent witness.