If going to the Arctic felt like traveling to whole new world, then so too did returning to England now. They had reached such catastrophic lows… How did one come back from that? Francis wasn’t sure, but recuperating among friends would certainly be a good start, and his dear James had all but insisted that Francis stay with him and Ann. Not that Francis ever would have argued, he never could say no to James.
So once Francis had ensured that everyone was handed off safely to family or friends, and made his report to the Admiralty, he allowed James to whisk him away to his new home. Well, not so new for James, but it would be Francis’s first time visiting Aston Abbots. His first time meeting James’ children as well; there were three now, James Jr., Anne, and Charlotte.
“Now, I wrote to Ann when we arrived in Hull that I was bringing you home,” James said, as the carriage rattled its way out of London and away from the misery of the Admiralty. “And I did warn her to keep the children a bay for a day or so, so you could have a chance to rest. James will want to hear everything as will Anne.”
Francis, who had been resting his eyes, cracked one open. “Do you mean Ann your wife? Or the smaller Anne?” he teased.
James chuckled. “The smaller Anne. Not that my Ann won’t want to know, but she’ll wait until you’re feeling better before asking you anything.”
They arrived just after dinner and so, after James ensured Francis was settled, he called for tray of tea and some light food prepared for Francis.
“There’s no need to fuss over me so, James dear,” Francis muttered fondly as James swept back in with the tray of food himself. He’d taken James’ absence to undress and settle into bed.
“Wrong, old man,” James said, setting the tray down on the bed next to Francis. “There is most certainly a need for me to fuss over you. You’d have fussed over me just as much if you’d been able when I got back in ’33.”
Francis sighed. “You would be correct in thinking that. I suppose I can tolerate your fussing.”
Francis fell asleep before he’d finished eating, but James could hardly blame him. It had been one exhausting event after another for Francis and he needed rest above everything. He tenderly brushed a stray lock of hair from Francis’s face because clearing up the tray of food and leaving to make his own bedtime preparations and to see if any of the children were still up.
Francis woke the next morning to the sound of a whispered argument outside his door.
“Papa said to wait.” A little girl’s voice, probably Anne, Francis thought.
“I just want to look.” And that must be James the younger.
Francis opened his eyes slowly, blinking the sleep from them. The door was open a crack, which was likely how he could hear them so well.
He cleared his throat and the voices stopped with a quick, “Shh!”
“If you’re going to stand out there bickering, you might as well come in,” Francis called quietly.
The door opened a bit more to reveal the voices, James and Anne, who was mostly hidden behind her brother.
“You can come in, I don’t bite.”
James shuffled forward a few steps and then stopped. “Papa said not to disturb you.”
“Well, I am awake now, so there’s no disturbing being done,” Francis said kindly, and after a quick glance back at Anne the two children entered the room, with James shutting the door behind him.
Francis sat up and gestured for the two to join him on the bed. Anne was the first to climb up, followed by James after a bit of further encouragement.
“Now, your father told me that the two of you have questions,” Francis began… pausing to wait for the interjection that came a moment later.
“What does penguin taste like?” James asked, bouncing on the bed a little. “Papa just says it’s bad, but he won’t tell us what it’s actually like.”
Francis made a show of thinking for a moment. “It’s a difficult taste to describe. It’s very fishy, in a bad and smelly sort of way, but also tastes a bit of beef and duck. It’s an odd taste for an odd bird. It’s certainly not for everyone, and…” (here Francis leaned in conspiratorially) “definitely not the only problem your father had with penguins.”
James and Anne both giggled at that.
“Has he ever told you of the time I set three of them loose in his cabin on Erebus?”
The children shook their heads, eyes wide and utterly enthralled at the prospect of an exciting new (and mischievous) story.
“Well, we were always collecting new kinds of creatures to study,” Francis began. “So it was not uncommon for there to be live animals and birds and insects and such aboard the ships.”
It was getting to be rather late in the morning and James, who, as was stated earlier, considered himself well in his right to fuss over Francis, was getting rather worried that Francis had not yet made his way downstairs. He’d also not heard hide nor hair of James and Anne since breakfast, but he’d instructed them to be quiet and not to disturb Francis, so he imagined they were playing in the nursery.
Except… as James approached Francis’s room there was the distinct sound of children laughing coming from within. Well… at least if they were laughing, Francis couldn’t have been too bothered by them. James smiled as he heard the story Francis was telling them through the door.
“Now, while our small boat was being all rocked about, your father decided he couldn’t tolerate simply touching the island, no, he had to climb out of the boat and onto the shore. Climb really isn’t the right word though, the way our boat was being tossed about the only way to make the landing was to jump, and your father, being the ridiculous man he is, did just that.”
“I would say heroic or brave before ridiculous,” James said as he opened the door, making his presence known. Then he turned to James Jr. and Anne, where they were still seated on the bed with Francis. “What did I say about bothering Uncle Frank?”
Francis waved the question off before either of the children could respond. “They’re hardly a bother, we’ve been having quite a good time.”
“Uncle Frank said you wore a dress!” Anne piped up.
James cast Francis a fond, yet despairing look. “I won’t deny it,” he said. “But I do think its time you let Uncle Frank get dressed for the day. I’m sure he’ll be willing to regale you with more stories later.”
James Jr. and Anne both pouted, but after Francis promised a few more stories after supper they seemed content to scamper off to find other things to do.
“I do hope they didn’t disturb your sleep,” James said, taking a seat at the end of the bed where his children had just vacated.
“They did wake me,” Francis admitted, stretching his back as he climbed out of bed. He groaned as his bones popped. “But I would have liked to have been woken for breakfast, and they did try to be polite about it. I think James just wanted a peek in to see me. It’s not like they came in and started jumping on the bed.”
James laughed. “They may eventually, but you did need the rest Frank. You look ever so much better, having gotten a good nights rest. Once you’re dressed I’ll take you out to the garden and you can see Ann and meet little Charlotte.”
Francis spent the rest of the morning sitting outside, talking to Ann and entertaining Charlotte, who he declared to be the sweetest baby he’d ever seen.
He was far from recovered, and the guilt and anguish would not be held at bay by the endearing charm of the little Rosslets forever, but for now, it was a balm, and he felt immensely fortunate, and grateful, to have made it home to such a warm and loving place.