On rare occasion, in order to do one's duty, one must neglect it.
It sounds like a paradox, or a riddle, a form of wordplay Edward heartily despises. I know a word of letters three, add two more and fewer there will be. Without a bridle or saddle, across a thing I ride astraddle, and those I ride, by help of me, though almost blind are made to see. How is a raven like a writing desk?
But appearances can deceive, and this is not a silly guessing game. It is the painful truth. Edward has lived it.
When they arrived, at long last, back on England's drizzly shores, Lieutenant Jopson was asleep. It had been his state for most of the voyage home. He awakened only from time to time for somebody, usually Edward, to spoon thin broth past his lips. The doctors of the Enterprise were busy men, occupied with other patients, and it was no hardship for Edward to do this. No hardship either for Edward to try and make Thomas smile with feeble anecdotes of his previous, more successful, voyages, or to allow Thomas to cling to his hand as sleep dragged him under once more. He was no medical man himself, but Edward took comfort in bringing comfort to this man, who so deserved it.
But now they were home, and Edward's services were no longer required. Thomas would receive the finest care. Captain Crozier would see to that. He would be reunited with his family. He would grow stronger with each passing season, and at some point in the not very distant future, he would find a woman—perhaps even one of the nurses who tended him, Edward thought, in a rare fit of romantic imagination—and marry her. Thomas' life would continue on its natural course; Edward's would do the same.
They could not do so if they stayed together.
So, for the second time, Edward left Lieutenant Jopson behind. It was his duty to look after him, but it was a greater kindness to go. Edward always wanted to be kind to Thomas. He got off the ship, and he didn't look back.
A small crowd turns out to see Benjamin Leigh Smith's Samson off on her voyage to the European far north.
Edward remembers much more fanfare for Erebus and Terror: brass bands, bunting, children with flags and men waving their hats. He remembers pride filling every inch of him as he stood on Terror's deck with his chest out and his shoulders back, the perfect example of an officer of Her Majesty's Royal Navy.
He cannot say what is different now, exactly. Perhaps the public has tired of the north. Perhaps the far reaches of Scandinavia do not capture the collective imagination as thoroughly as the land of icebergs and Esquimaux. Perhaps Benjamin Leigh Smith does not cut as dashing a figure as the great Sir John Franklin. Edward himself does not know, precisely, why he has come. He simply read the information in the newspaper and decided, with uncharacteristic spontaneity, that he had to see the ship depart.
He does not regret this rash decision. It is good to see a solid seafaring vessel again, even if he is standing on the dockside. And whilst he has long thought there is nothing about his voyage to the Arctic that is worth remembering, looking at the eager, excited faces of the Samson crew helps him to recall that there were good moments amid the tragedy, traces of happiness within the near-insurmountable pain. He wishes these men all of the best, and none of the worst, of what Terror and Erebus experienced.
Edward does not wave, but watches with keen eye as the ship pulls away from the dock. She bobs out to sea, her journey begun. Gradually, the crowd disperses. Feeling as much satisfaction as he expected, Edward turns to go back to his lodging house for the evening, to spend the night and then to travel home in the morning. He barely moves a step before there's a hand on his elbow.
Pickpockets thrive in a situation like this. Edward whirls about, ready to give this would-be thief a sound thrashing. Before he can raise his walking stick, he finds himself looking into a pair of unmistakable eyes, set in an unforgettable face.
“You've got a tear on your sleeve, sir,” the man says. He sounds the same as ever: calm and collected. Edward feels anything but. In a matter of seconds, his palms have become clammy, and his heart is pounding fit to burst. “Might I be of some assistance?”
Edward has seen him over the years, countless times. There were many glimpses caught out of the corner of his eye. Long fingers. Light eyes. Dark hair. A familiar gait, and the sea-change accent of a man who was born one thing, but has remade himself into something entirely new. It was never really him, of course. The men he saw were never really Thomas. Still, in those short-lived moments, Edward allowed himself to pretend it was he, that he was as hale and hearty and happy as ever Edward had wished him to be.
There were other times, as well. More private ones. As he lay in his bed in his fisherman's cottage, Edward's mind often strayed back to moments stolen onboard ship and on the shale, the occasions Edward collected and held jealously, guarded like jewels.
He remembered, for example, with a detailed precision he would not necessarily have expected from his ageing mind, the first words he spoke to Jopson that were more than a cursory, “Thank you.” The first time he saw Jopson as more than a ship's fixture.
They were two days out of Stromness, headed for Greenland and their last brush with civilization, so-called, until they found the passage and came out the other side. The evening meal was drawing to a close. The seas were calm, and Edward had not had overmuch to drink. There was no excuse when he reached for his glass of port, nearly full, and knocked it over, spilling a wave of red across the snow white tablecloth.
At once, Jopson was with him.
“Terribly sorry,” Edward muttered, embarrassed although none of his tablemates had made comment. They were absorbed, it seemed, in Hodgson's tale of spying a narwhal off the larboard bow.
“No harm done, sir,” Jopson replied, picking up the fallen glass with an adroitness Edward clearly lacked. “It is not even cracked.” Nevertheless, the stain was there, like a wound upon the table.
Edward's family was not poor, but nor were they rich. As a child, he had seen a succession of maids in the house, two or three at a time, and nannies when they were young, but the mainstay was the indomitable housekeeper, Mrs. Fulton.
According to Edward's mother, this woman was “a godsend.” Edward hadn't seen much evidence of that in his youth. Mrs. Fulton was certainly not a cheerful woman, nor was she particularly kind. Perhaps she was inexpensive. For whatever reason, Mrs. Little lived in fear of doing something that would cause her to pack her bags and go.
“Who'd you think's going to clean that, then, the fairies?” Was Mrs. Little's immediate reaction, whenever the children made any sort of mess. “Go and make your apologies to Mrs. Fulton.”
He couldn't say what brought this to mind now, but before he could stop himself, he looked at the dreadful stain, more work for Mr. Jopson, and said, “I'm quite aware the fairies aren't going to clean it up.”
Jopson blinked. Edward felt himself flush, but before he could stammer any sort of explanation, Jopson said, his tone serene and patient, “No, sir. Would you care for another glass?”
“I, ah...” Edward swallowed. “No, thank you, Jopson. I feel perhaps I have had enough.”
That brought a smile to Jopson's lips. It was small, and brief of duration. Edward would have assumed it to be mocking, but for the extraordinary gentleness in the man's eyes. “Very well, sir.” Jopson draped a serviette over the stain—like covering a body, Edward thought, morbid—and moved away.
The company left the wardroom shortly after that, retiring to the great cabin. Jopson followed, by the captain's side as usual, pouring him another drink as they settled in the next room. Not in the mood for George's nattering or John's proselytizing, Edward kept, as he often did, to a corner. Unusually, as the evening progressed, he found himself casting glances at Jopson over the top of his Ovid. Jopson neither looked back, nor did he attempt to speak with Edward. That was most fortunate. Edward did not know where his previous asinine remark had come from, and thus could not guarantee he would not make another. Two in such a short space of time would ensure Jopson thought of him as a complete fool. He found he didn't want that, not at all.
In time, anyone else would have forgotten the incident. A man of Edward's rank could say what he liked to a man of Jopson's, and never owed him any explanation for it. Being Edward, however, it stuck in his mind, festering like a poorly lanced boil. At night, he played it over and over again on the stage of his mind, a ceaseless comedy he could not find the slightest bit humorous.
Jopson gave no obvious indication he recalled the exchange. He treated Edward the same as he had before, with the diffidence and respect commanded by his rank. Still, every now and then, Edward spied that small smile accompanied by gentle eyes, and he knew Jopson was recalling his moment of stupidity.
This could not stand. A week or so after the incident, Edward came into the wardroom for a meeting with the captain. Instead, he found Jopson alone, polishing the table with great sweeps of a soft cloth.
“The captain's asked for a bit of peace and quiet, sir,” Jopson said, stopping his polishing to look up at Edward. “But I can take him a message, if your request is urgent.”
“Not urgent, no.” Edward swallowed. The time was as good as any. “I wish to offer an explanation.”
“To the captain, sir?”
“To you. For my words of the other day.” Jopson looked uncertain, as well he might. This was most irregular, but Edward pushed on. If he stopped now, the situation would haunt him forever. “When I made that facetious remark about fairies. You see, when I was a child, it was a common phrase of my mother's, and as you may be well aware, moments from our childhood can spring up at the most inopportune times.” He finished in a rush. He knew his face must be red. Surprisingly, Jopson's was as well, his cheeks ruddy as if he'd stepped out into the cold.
After a prolonged, painful moment, Jopson said, “I understand, sir. Although I must say, I wouldn't mind a few fairies about the place. Ship's pets, perhaps. I'm certain they wouldn't shit on the floor half as much as Neptune does.”
At the sound of his name, the big dog raised his head from his position lounging in the corner, and thumped his tail on the floorboards.
Edward was not a man given to gaiety. This statement of Jopson's, spoken so frankly, drew a surprised chuckle from him. That caused Jopson's smile, present in its politest form, to grow wider, more sincere. Edward felt the inexplicable urge to say something else, to keep that smile on Jopson's face a while longer, but nothing sprang to mind.
“Good day, Mr. Jopson,” he said, instead.
“Sir.” Jopson's tone was all business again. Still, at dinner that evening, his eye caught Edward's across the room. Rather than look away at once, as he always had before, Edward allowed the gaze to linger, just for a moment. Jopson did likewise. Edward felt a curious warmth in the pit of his stomach, one that could not, he thought, be adequately explained by the Allsop's or by Mr. Diggle's braised beef and mash.
“What say you, then?” Thomas insists, as Samson bobs out of view, his gaze fixed upon Edward's. That was always his way, Edward recalls. When other men of his position kept their eyes down, Thomas' were ever looking upwards. “Might I mend your sleeve?”
There is a severe tear near Edward's elbow, where he snagged it on a fish hook. It would be lunacy to deny its existence, and churlishness to refuse Thomas' aid. “Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you.” Thomas nods, as if something momentous has been decided. Perhaps it has. They speak no further, but following Thomas through the narrow streets is the closest Edward has been to him in decades.
They stop at a storefront some distance from the harbour. A sign reading “Latest Fashions for the Discerning Gentleman” sits in the window, and the name above the door is “Thos. Jopson.”
No “and Sons”, Edward notes, but that is not necessarily meaningful. Perhaps Thomas' children are young yet. Perhaps they are off adventuring, as their father did, before coming home to roost. Perhaps Thomas has daughters. That is no bad thing. Edward remembers his own mother saying, “Lord, give me girls” whenever he and his brothers rolled into the house filthy and variously injured, although, in all fairness, his sister Margaret was usually in the thick of that.
Thomas unlocks the shop door. Inside, bolts of fabric line the far wall, whilst a tailor's dummy dressed in an elegant jacket and trousers stands at the end of a long countertop. Surprisingly, a row of Naval uniforms hang, ramrod-straight and pressed to perfection, against the wall nearest the door.
“Give me your coat.”
Edward does so. Thomas goes behind the counter and pulls a spool of thread from a drawer. He expects Thomas to fill the quiet; instead, he says nothing as he expertly threads a needle and begins at once, plunging it into the fabric of Edward's coat sleeve.
Silence hangs like a heavy drape. When it becomes suffocating, Edward grasps at straws. “Do you think Leigh Smith's expedition will be successful?” A neutral topic. The best he can hope for.
Thomas glances up, then back at his work. He is close to fifty years old, but doesn't look it. His hair has greyed, lines cluster about his eyes, but his cheeks are as rosy here, on a warm May day in England, as they ever were in the depths of the Arctic winter. “He is a driven man. Intelligent. Capable. They've got as much a chance as anybody.”
“You must have an interest in him, to travel here to see the ship off. And you must have travelled some distance,” Thomas adds, pulling the needle and thread through the fabric. “I would know if you lived nearby.”
Edward swallows. “Yes,” he repeats. It's impossible for him to tell Thomas that he doesn't know what brought him here. He changes the subject instead. “Have you been tailoring long?”
“It was my father's profession, so one might say all my life. But I've had this shop for ten years.”
“It seems very successful.”
“I do a lot of work altering uniforms for the Navy. As you may have noticed.” Thomas glances at the uniforms against the wall. “I never thought I'd touch one again once I left, but life is funny that way.” He looks up, curiously. “What of you?”
“Yes. What occupies the life of Edward Little?”
It's a natural question. He answers it honestly. “Fishing.”
“Oh.” Thomas blinks. “I admit, I never pictured you as a fisherman.”
Neither had Edward, or his family, but he enjoys it. Now that he is older, he employs a boy to help, but for a long time he worked alone. It is soothing, he finds, being out on the water with nothing but his boat and his nets and his crab pots. No lower-ranking lieutenants to advise, no midshipmen to mentor, no men to command. No captains to answer to. No mistakes to make, at least not ones of any serious import. “I like it.”
“Then I'm pleased. Here.” Thomas bites off the thread, subtly angling his mouth to avoid his missing teeth, and holds up the coat. “All done.”
“Thank you very much.” Edward takes it gratefully.
“It was a simple task. Nothing your wife couldn't have done for you.” He hesitates. “You are married, I imagine?”
Again, Edward replies honestly. “I was, for a while.” His wife Mary was a friend of his sisters, a childless widow with a pretty face and good business sense. Edward was a poor husband to her. “Her cousin offered her an opportunity to move to America some years ago.” He does not anticipate seeing her again.
“I am sorry to hear that.” Thomas sounds genuinely saddened. Edward thought he'd remembered everything, every last little detail about Thomas, but he'd forgotten this one: Thomas' natural, sincere empathy. Edward's never known anyone to come close to it.
“And you?” Edward waits to hear that Thomas is happily married with half a dozen children.
“Nothing so exciting as fishing, I'm afraid. I lived with Captain Crozier for a time, upon our return. Sir Francis, I ought to call him, I suppose. I never did get into the habit of it.” Edward had read of his knighthood. In all honesty, he was surprised to hear the captain had accepted it. “Lady Crozier didn't much like having me there. I completely understood, of course,” Thomas adds quickly. “Particularly once the children arrived. Two daughters. Charming girls. They greatly favour their mother in looks, to Sir Francis' relief. But I had no place with them, so I went back to sea. Just a short voyage, in the Mediterranean.” Somewhere warm. He doesn't need to say it for Edward to understand.
“You acted as lieutenant on this journey?”
“As captain's steward. It didn't upset me in the least.” Thomas stems Edward's protest before he can make it. “That job suits me well, and we all knew the promotion would never last.” Edward had known that, only because he knew the infernal pettiness of the Navy. Thomas was a better, and a more deserving, lieutenant than any of the officers he'd served with. “In any case, I was fortunate enough to make a very good friend of one of the Marines on that ship. David Mackenzie. He and I decided to throw our lot in together when we arrived back in England, and we bought the shop here.”
Edward furrows his brow, confused. “He is a tailor as well?”
“No.” Thomas' expression is even, but there's a spark of defiance in his eyes. “He was skilled at carpentry. He did odd jobs for the neighbours, and was quite popular with them. I lost him to consumption eight months ago.”
Edward has no claim on Thomas, no right to know or query any detail of his life. He gave all that up long ago. “I'd rather hoped,” Edward says anyway, in a tone that does not, he thinks, belie the emotion he feels, “you would have found someone to marry.”
“Edward,” Thomas replies, his tone even and his gaze unwavering, “I did.”
It had never vexed Edward overmuch to be thought a humourless man. There were far more important qualities for an officer to possess, and Edward felt he had those others—steadfastness, loyalty, a commanding presence and a clever mind—in measure enough. When he was young, it hurt, a little, to be left out when his fellow midshipmen shared japes below decks, but he told himself it was unimportant. His career did not depend on his sense of humour.
He was unused, therefore, to sharing any sort of ongoing joke with anybody. He laughed, out of surprise as much as amusement, when, several weeks later, he came upon Jopson laundering the captain's clothes and Jopson greeted him with, “Can't get those damned ship's fairies to do a thing, sir.”
“Perhaps we ought to pay them better,” Edward replied after a moment. It sounded stiff to his own ears, but Jopson giggled so fetchingly, he felt like a renowned wit.
After that, it became a repeating occurrence. Not common, and only when the two of them found themselves alone. But if Edward came across Jopson cleaning or repairing something, or if Edward himself created some inadvertent turmoil, such as dragging his snowy boots into the wardroom or spilling a bottle of ink in the great cabin, one or the other of them would make reference to the “ship's fairies,” and the two of them would laugh together, if only briefly.
Edward appreciated this, and he appreciated that out of all the men aboard, it was Jopson with whom he shared this little joke. Jopson, always so strong and dependable, who never seemed to mind Edward catching his eye when Crozier was on a tirade or when something else was going wrong, yet again. Who seemed to encourage it in fact, who seemed to say I'm here, you're not alone without using any words at all.
As time wore on, there were fewer and fewer occasions on which to laugh, or even to smile. By the time Captain Crozier entered his confinement, Edward felt the pressure of the situation, and of his new, unexpected captaincy, like a lead weight across his shoulders.
Several weeks after Crozier handed over his gun and his liquor and took to his bunk, Edward came into the great cabin and found Jopson sleeping on the table, his head atop his folded arms. The sight touched Edward's heart in ways he would never have expected.
He'd always known there was a chance he, as first lieutenant, would be called upon to lead, but with two captains, a commander and another first lieutenant on Erebus, it seemed unlikely. Now the moment was here, and under these circumstances, he was being made painfully aware of just how unprepared he was for the task.
As overworked and overwrought as Edward felt, Jopson, charged with the captain's care, had to be feeling even worse. He never showed it. Edward could see the dark circles beneath the man's eyes, the pallor in his usually rosy cheeks, but Jopson never spoke a word of complaint. He cared for the captain with more dedication than any captain, or any man, could rightly ask for. More dedication than Crozier deserved, if Edward was frank. Edward had never known a steward to be so loyal, so unflappable and so reliable, to take on so much more than his required duties.
An impulse, similar to the one that led him to blurt that nonsense about fairies so long ago, spurred Edward to reach out. He watched, as detached as if the appendage belonged to another, as his hand stroked Jopson's hair gently, from crown to tip. It was very soft, like stroking a fine fur collar.
“Jopson.” A hoarse groan came from the captain's inner sanctum. Edward jerked his hand back as if scalded, but Jopson didn't stir. Edward considered waking him, but the thought was fleeting. Instead, Edward turned and entered the captain's cabin himself.
None but Jopson had set foot in here since the captain took ill. It smelled atrocious, the stink of vomit and sweat as ripe as it was below decks during a tropical gale. The captain himself seemed small, a pale, weak figure clutching at sodden bedsheets. He scowled up at Edward. “Where's Jopson?”
“I will assist you, sir.” Edward's gaze fell on a bucket beside the bed, the primary source of the odour. “Let me dispose of this, and I will bring you a glass of water.” The captain grumbled, but did not complain when Edward took a cloth from the foot of the bunk and draped it over the bucket, as he had seen his mother do when one of the children was ill. It helped the smell, a little, although Edward still held his breath as he took it over to the seat of ease and emptied the bucket down the hole.
“Sir?” Edward glanced over his shoulder. Jopson was on his feet, his hair disarranged. His thick eyebrows went up when he saw the bucket. “Goodness me, sir, you needn't do that. You ought to have woken me.”
Edward felt a warmth creep up from beneath his collar and onto his cheeks, as if he had been caught doing something he shouldn't. Which was true, in the baldest sense of the word, although his kindness should not bring shame. “I thought I might lend a hand,” Edward hurried to explain. “You do such a very great deal, and you've more than earned a little rest.”
The smile returned. On Jopson's sleep-softened face, it seemed somehow even sweeter than usual. “I appreciate the thought, sir, but truly.” He held out his hands. Edward passed over the empty bucket. “It's not so much work as all that, not when I've got the ship's fairies to help.”
Edward laughed, as he always did at their private joke. Still, watching Jopson rush to Crozier's bedside, he felt he could have done more for the poor man. Ought to have done more, somehow, although he couldn't think what that might have been.
Anger, deep and painful, simmers inside of Edward. It was a mistake coming here, to Thomas' shop. He would have been better off never knowing that everything Edward had done for Thomas, all that he'd sacrificed, had been squandered. He'd left Thomas, left the Navy, left everything he'd known so Thomas might have a normal life, so that he might marry and have children and live as a man ought. Instead, Thomas chose the very life Edward tried to save him from: a life on the fringes, gossiped about and ridiculed, no doubt, by those around him.
“I should go.” There is nothing else for Edward here; if he stays much longer, the anger might boil over. “Thank you again for mending the coat.”
“I've told you, it was nothing. You'd best be quick, though. You'll miss the last train.”
“I have a room for the night.”
“Ah. I see.” Thomas tidies away his sewing necessities, as neat and precise as ever. There is nothing preventing Edward from walking out the door. Still, he stands where he is, until Thomas says, “You might join me for a bite of supper then, if you wish.”
The last time they ate together—the only times they ate together—was on the shale, where the menu consisted of mouldy biscuits and poisoned tins. After this, it is very unlikely they will see one another again. As unhappy as Edward feels about being here, it seems wrong, somehow, to pass up this chance.
“All right,” Edward replies. Thomas looks up once more, his gaze catching Edward's and holding it until Edward looks away.
Edward expects to be taken to some local tavern. There are certainly enough in the neighbourhood. Rather than leave the shop, however, Thomas goes to a door at the back, behind two more tailor's dummies. Glancing over his shoulder, he says, “Are you coming?”
The door leads to a narrow staircase, which in turn leads to a small, neat room. A big iron stove sits in one corner, belching out heat.
“I once said I never wanted to be cold again, do you remember?” Edward nods. They'd been in the tent when he said it, Thomas clinging to Edward as though his life depended on it. Edward clung back, trying to impart all the body heat he could. “Well, I've kept my vow. It's warm as toast in here, even in the wintertime.”
“I'm sure it is.” Edward glances about. As well as the stove, there is a table and chairs, a short settee, and against the far wall, a pair of matching beds, neatly made. For a moment, this gives Edward hope that perhaps he was mistaken after all. Perhaps Thomas and this Marine, Mackenzie, were simply close friends, akin to brothers. This was not what Edward had wanted for Thomas, but infinitely better than the unspeakable alternative. Then he notices a groove on the floor where the beds have clearly been pushed together so often over so many years, the wood has been scarred by it.
“Sit down,” Thomas says. Edward can barely hear him. The anger, which had subsided, returns full force, along with a tempestuous tumult of other emotions Edward cannot articulate, even in his own mind. A rigid upbringing and a lifetime of training comes to his rescue. Good manners cut through everything else, like a machete through a jungle thicket, and Edward grunts, “I am sorry to hear of the loss of your friend.”
“Yes. Well.” Thomas is standing near the stove, which may account for the reddening of his cheeks. “David was a good man. Very good. He deserved better than a man who never stopped wishing he was somebody else.”
Something shifts in the air between them. If he was on his boat, Edward would tell the boy to head back to shore. If he was in his cottage, he would expect his two gutless old dogs to be cowering beneath his bed. It feels like a storm, before it comes. Edward has no explanation for that.
“Sit down, Edward,” Thomas repeats, more harshly. This time, Edward complies, taking a seat on the settee as Thomas pulls something wrapped in butcher's paper from the larder near the stove.
In the Royal Navy, as in daily life, adversity affords men the chance to prove their strength. It affords them equal chance to learn of their weakness.
When it became evident they could no longer remain on the ships, the captain ordered Edward out ahead of the others, to establish Terror Camp. Edward should have embraced this assignment not only as his duty, but as an opportunity for glory.
Instead, he sat in his cabin, shameful tears in his eyes, wishing fervently not only that he didn't have to go, but that he'd never set foot on this ship. Any glory that remained here had been burned up by their own doctor in a Carnivale tent. They were tired, broken men, facing a journey that was nothing short of impossible. Edward knew it, the two captains knew it, but they were carrying on this miserable charade, and Edward would be the next to suffer for it.
He wiped his eyes hurriedly when there was a knock on the door.
“Just me, sir,” Jopson slid the door open. “I've come to see if you've got everything you need for the trip.”
“I think so, yes.” If anything, Edward had far too much. It was a question of deciding which of his possessions he wanted to haul along with him, and which he would leave here, never to be seen again.
“And,” Jopson went on, “to tell you you have my most sincere admiration.”
Edward could not lie. Not to Jopson. “I'm afraid,” he replied, quite honestly, “you would not say that if you knew how frightened I am.”
He expected Jopson to turn away in disgust, but his gaze did not waver. “If I may be so bold, Lieutenant," he said, "courage does not mean an absence of fear. It means acting despite that fear. My mother told me that.”
“A clever woman.” Who raised a lovely son. Edward wanted to speak the words, to let Jopson know how much his friendship—by necessity tenuous, but nevertheless valued—had meant to him. There might never be another occasion to say it. Instead, he said, “I'll be sure to bring those fairies along. Do them good to air their wings a bit.”
“Yes, sir. I know you will take care of them.” Jopson seemed as if he would say more. His tongue darted out to wet his lips, and his hand twitched by his side. Edward waited, but nothing came.
At length, Jopson nodded. “Good luck. I shall see you at the camp.” Then, he was gone, disappearing as quickly as he'd come.
His dismal mood lifted, at least a little, by Jopson's overt admiration, Edward squared his shoulders and prepared himself for a long walk.
The meal is simple, mutton and peas, but it is good.
“Learned everything I know from Mr. Diggle,” Thomas says, with a laugh. He picks up Edward's plate and then his own. Edward is about to volunteer to take a bucket down to the pump for him, when he notices the basin is already half full of water. “I've got a bit of suet pudding in. That was always your favourite, wasn't it?”
“How fortunate you came today, then.” Thomas returns to the table with two portions of pudding, one noticeably larger than the other. This is the one he places in front of Edward. “I used to dream of making it for you,” Thomas goes on, “in our own little cottage in the country.” Thomas always looks up. Now, his eyes are firmly on his pudding.
They have to address the matter. It is like a feral beast hunting them, a tiger licking its chops in the corner. It cannot be ignored.
“I did it for you,” Edward says. He does not alter his volume, but his voice sounds loud, suddenly, in the small room.
Thomas' eyebrows spring up. “For me?”
Edward feels himself flush. He puts down the spoon, lest he inadvertently bend it in his tightening grasp. I wanted you to be free. After all he'd been through, all he'd survived, Thomas deserved that. Without Edward, Thomas could be a proper, respectable man. All avenues were open to him. To stay with Edward in the sense he said he wanted to, in the sense Edward wanted him to, was to consign himself to a life apart. Nobler by far, then, to cut the ties that bound them, and that would strangle Thomas in a web of disrepute.
“To save your reputation. Your honour.”
“Better to break my heart, then, than offer me the chance to decide for myself?”
“Yes.” Edward clears his throat, even as that phrase strikes his own heart like a knife. “No. Not better. Necessary. It was my duty to protect you, even if that meant leaving you.”
He expects to feel the brunt of Thomas' fury. Unless it has dulled with time and age, it can be considerable indeed. Edward bore witness to it more than once, when Thomas was too exhausted and too ill to maintain the facade of servitude. Instead, Thomas sighs, long and deep, and looks upon him with an expression Edward would, in another time and place, have described as fond.
“Oh, Edward,” he says, and reaches across the table to lay his hand over Edward's.
Woozy with pain, Edward cracked open his eyes. Through swimming vision, he saw the pretty, worried face of Lieutenant Jopson.
“What...” His skull pounded as if it had been rent in two, whilst the back of his head was curiously wet and sticky. Jopson, from his position beside Edward, was pressing something against that spot, exerting enough pressure to make stars dance before Edward's eyes.
“You've been struck from behind, sir,” Jopson answered, matter-of-factly. “The butt of a rifle, most likely. There's quite a lot of blood. But don't worry, all will be well.”
“Tozer.” The bastard. He'd distracted Edward whilst someone bashed his head in. Who was it? Edward stretched his mind back, trying to recall.
“Don't think about it at the moment.” Even here, even now, Jopson's eyes were brighter than they had any right to be. Edward felt something on his left palm. He bent his neck, just slightly, to see that it was Jopson's hand, his fingers slipping between Edward's own.
The happiest moment of Edward's recent life, certainly the happiest moment he could remember, came when Crozier named Jopson a lieutenant. Deserved, Crozier had called it, and Edward had never agreed with the man more. At last, Jopson was getting some of the recognition which he was long due. Not even Edward's own recent failures could diminish his joy over that.
“Sir.” Jopson frowned sternly as Edward shifted on the cold shale, trying to sit up. When Edward persisted, Jopson gave in and helped, manoeuvring him so he leaned against Jopson's shoulder, as Jopson kept up the pressure on Edward's wound.
“No need to call me that.” They were both lieutenants now, after all.
He couldn't see Jopson's face, but a huff of breath ruffled the overlong hair on Edward's right cheek. He wasn't sure if it was a sigh, or a chuckle. “Edward, then,” Jopson, Thomas, said. “You must rest easy.”
How could he, when his head pounded and his mind raced? “What of the others? What has happened?”
A pause. That was answer in itself.
“Be still, Edward,” Thomas reiterated. “All will be well.”
It was the first lie Thomas told him. The second came a short time later, when Thomas said he was in good health.
Two to a sack, like the orphans we are. More of Crozier's words. Edward didn't know how he'd let Le Vesconte talk him into supporting the callous plan to abandon the ill. Remorse struck him as soon as he said the words, and not only because they brought him Thomas' ire and, worse yet, his disappointment.
Despite the disagreement, Edward and Thomas had shared a sleeping sack almost since Thomas was promoted. Nothing was ever said about it. They lay back-to-back every night. If, in the morning, they occasionally found themselves in different, more compromising positions, nothing was ever said about that, either. Edward was surprised, therefore, to be deliberately nudged awake in the thin light before dawn, when Thomas returned from his watch.
“Let me see to your wound,” Thomas whispered, as he slipped into the sack beside Edward. Nearby, Le Vesconte slumbered alone. Thomas had offered to join the sacks, to share their precious body heat between the three of them, but Le Vesconte declined. He had not been himself for some time, Edward knew. He could hardly blame him for it.
Edward shifted in the sack as Thomas ran his hands through Edward's hair, his fingers gentle as they passed over the still-painful gash in the back of his head. “How does it feel?”
“Like hell,” Edward replied, frankly. “But better than it did.”
“That seems a good sign.” Thomas' hands moved away from the gash, but remained in Edward's long, thick hair. Gentle probing became stroking, and Edward felt himself grow hot.
“Such lovely hair,” Thomas murmured, burying both his hands in it. “So thick and luxurious. Like Samson.”
It was so dark, he could barely make out Thomas' face. A swath of whiskers, an occasional flash of teeth, the brilliance of his eyes. The dimness lent a hazy, dreamlike quality to everything. If not for Le Vesconte's snoring, a level of detail his dreams never included, Edward wouldn't have believed he was awake when Thomas leaned closer yet, and kissed him.
Thomas was as greasy as Edward, dirty and cold where his fingertips pressed against the back of Edward's neck. But his mouth was so very hot, it ignited a fire Edward hadn't known lay inside him. He grabbed at Thomas greedily, his arms pulling him close as Thomas' arms came around his neck. Thomas parted his lips, just slightly. With a saucy forwardness that surprised even himself, Edward pressed his tongue between them, and tasted the unmistakable metallic tang of blood.
It stopped Edward like a slap to the face. “Thomas.”
“No.” Thomas shook his head. “No, it's fine. I'm fine, I'm well. Please don't stop, not now.” His voice was so plaintive, Edward wished beyond measure they could do all he wanted to. All they both wanted, evidently.
He glanced over his shoulder. Le Vesconte stirred a little, mumbling in his sleep. If his presence had been the extent of their problems, Edward might have pushed on regardless, but there was more.
“I'm so sorry. I don't think I can,” Edward confessed, holding tight to Thomas, as if someone meant to take him away. “I mean, I don't believe my, my...” He flushed to admit it. “My current physical abilities match my desires.” He was exhausted and poorly fed. Any attempt to take things further would be let down by an uncooperative cock. Edward knew it without trying.
“Then we suffer together, because I am certain mine do not,” Thomas replied. “But I want you to keep me close, Edward. Please.”
Edward could easily comply with that request. He pulled Thomas down with him, Thomas' head atop his chest and Thomas' arm about his waist. He fell asleep almost instantly. Edward, however, lay awake, listening to his breathing and to Le Vesconte's groans, until the morning sun shone through the canvas of the tent.
“I wish I had been bolder. That I'd kissed you sooner.” Thomas says, his hand still covering Edward's in his little flat above the tailor's shop. “That I'd been brave enough to do something when we might have done more than kiss.”
“You have nothing for which to reproach yourself.” Edward allows himself to turn his hand in Thomas' grasp, to squeeze the hand atop his.
Kissing and holding Thomas every night, up there in the cold, had led Edward to think he might be able to keep him, that he might be strong enough to save him from that which strove to steal him away. Foolish thoughts. Naive. Thomas grew ever sicker, ever weaker, until there was no choice but to remove him from Edward's bed, from Edward's arms, and place him in a sick tent.
Edward hovered, anxiety and jealousy plaguing him in equal measures, as the captain himself tended to the dying Thomas. When he left, Edward slipped into the tent.
Thomas was sleeping, it appeared, until Edward drew close. He opened his eyes, and Edward said, “I do not wish to disturb your rest.” Certainly not when the conversation with the captain had doubtlessly sapped much of his scant energy.
“The captain was telling me stories of his youth.”
Edward wanted to embrace him, but Thomas looked so thin and weak, it seemed as if the slightest touch might cause injury. Instead, with the utmost gentleness, he pushed the hair from Thomas' forehead. Thomas smiled weakly, a skeletal grin.
“I don't want to hear about your past,” Thomas said. Edward had not planned on inflicting it upon him. “Tell me about the future.”
“Our future. Together. How will it be for us, when we escape from this place?”
Edward cleared his throat. He was no raconteur, no spinner of tales, and particularly not of fiction. Still, Thomas had asked it of him. There was very little he could refuse Thomas.
“I...” Edward coughed again. “I think perhaps we might share a home.” Impossible. But Thomas murmured with pleasure, and it encouraged Edward to go on. “A cottage, if you like. In the country. Unless you would prefer the city?”
“No, no. The country is lovely. Quiet.” His glassy gaze hardened. “But not like this.”
Edward took his meaning. “No. We shall have a beautiful garden teeming with birds, and rabbits, and...” He tried to think of the garden at his family home. It seemed a lifetime away. “Hedgehogs.”
Thomas seemed to consider this. “I've never seen a hedgehog, not outside of pictures. What are they like?”
“Brown and spiny.” Edward couldn't think of a more precise description than that. “In this cottage, you will never have to serve again.”
“I like serving.” Thomas' eyelids were drooping. Edward should leave, but he couldn't bear to. “I should like to serve you.”
Edward's heart, already so fragile, twisted a little more. “Then you shall serve me, and I shall provide for you, and it shall be just the two of us, in our cottage, forevermore.”
Thomas' eyes were shut now. Edward presumed he had fallen asleep, until, after a long moment, he murmured, “And you shall love me there.”
Tears sprang to Edward's eyes. He was relieved Thomas could not see them, his breathing slowing into that of slumber. “I love you now,” he whispered, astonished at how true the words were, and how deeply he felt them.
Two days later, Edward left Thomas for the first time.
The suet pudding evidently forgotten, Thomas comes around his little dining table to kneel beside Edward. Edward knows what he is going to do a moment before he does it. He should stop him, but he lacks the courage to move away, to stand up, to leave. Instead, he sits where he is, frozen in place, as Thomas presses their lips together.
Edward is an old man, white-haired and wrinkled. Thomas, not quite as old, is still aged. Passion is the province of the young, but nevertheless, Edward finds himself swept up in a wave of it. He pulls Thomas onto his bony knee, kissing him with the emotion of two lost decades. Emotion Edward has no right to feel, let alone to display so wantonly.
“Thomas.” He pulls back. Thomas is flushed, his lips as red as a saucy maid's. “I left you,” Edward confesses, because he must.
“I know, darling. Captain Crozier searched for you for quite some time, but we never thought to look in Cornwall.”
“Before that. In the tents.” Thomas doesn't remember that instance of betrayal. It was clear when Edward saw him again, after he and a few other survivors were retrieved from the sick camp by Captain Ross' men. As his health improved, he showed no signs of recalling anything about that period, but that did not mean he would not regain his memories one day, or that someone would not tell him about Edward's disloyalty.
“I followed Le Vesconte and the others. I walked away from you, and from all the ill men. Just as you said we shouldn't do.” Edward regretted it even at the time, but there was no going back. “I knew you would find out about it, sooner or later. And you would rightly leave me for it.”
There it is, out in the open at last. The real reason for his flight the moment they arrived home, the one Edward never admitted, not even to himself.
Edward did want to preserve Thomas' honour, to ensure he had a life Edward himself could never give him, but more than that, Edward wanted to save his own heart. Thomas would abandon him in disgust when he found out that Edward had left the ill. Better Edward act first, not to “do his duty by neglecting it”, but to preserve his own feelings. Another selfish act, Edward thinks, but he is a deeply selfish man. He has proven it time and again.
Thomas lets out a long sigh. Rather than leap from Edward's lap, strike him in anger, order him out of his home, he stays where he is. “David,” he says, pushing back the strand of hair which, after all this time, still remains errant, “knew how much I cared for him. I made certain of that. I thought I hid my other feelings well, until one night, after we'd had many years together, he said to me, 'I know you would leave me in an instant if ever the lieutenant returned.' I could not say he spoke false.”
Edward swallows. “My wife thought I had lost a woman I loved.” It began on their honeymoon, and continued periodically throughout their marriage: Edward awakening breathless and hard from powerful erotic dreams and reaching for Mary, surprising her with an ardour he never exhibited otherwise. His body had been loyal and husbandly. His mind was nothing but adulterous. “She often asked me to speak of 'her', but of course I never could.”
“We have both been abhorrently self-serving. Perhaps we deserve one another.” Thomas smiles, but Edward shakes his head.
“You cannot forgive me so easily.”
“I don't,” Thomas says. “But you chose to leave. Now it's my turn to make the decision, and I choose to stay. We've wasted enough time, haven't we?”
Edward's stomach churns. “It's not...I do not know how to be a good...” He's not sure of the word. Lover? Spouse? Whatever it is, his miserable marriage proved just how unskilled he is. “How to be good at it. What if I disappoint you again? I couldn't bear that, Thomas.” He would normally hesitate to share any of his thoughts, let alone ones of such a personal nature, but words flow like water with Thomas, just as they used to do. In return, Thomas kisses him lightly, first on the nose and then on the lips.
“In that case, darling, we shall simply have to ask the fairies for help.”
Edward laughs. The sound is more tearful than he expected, but he pulls Thomas to him, holding him twice as tightly as he did in the North, and with even more love.
“Brought your tea, dear.” Edward looks up to see Thomas approaching, tray in hand. He marks his place and sets his book aside.
It has proven a good read so far. Truthfully, Edward did not know if he would be able to stomach Benjamin Leigh Smith's tales of Samson's voyage to the Arctic, but Leigh Smith is an entertaining writer, and the subject matter is different enough from Edward's long ago experiences that he can see it as just that: entertainment.
“Here we are.” Thomas sets the tray down upon the little garden table. He expertly pours two cups, passes one to Edward, and comes to sit beside him on the garden seat, far too close to be proper. Fortunately, here in the hidden realm behind their cottage, propriety has never been a worry.
“I saw your hedgehog earlier, down by the hollyhocks.” Edward sips his tea, then leans forward to take a biscuit from the tray. “The big fellow.”
“Did you?” Thomas beams. “I'd hoped he was still about. I left a little saucer of liver out for him.”
“You'll attract every rat in the area doing that, darling.”
“Then we'll just have to get a cat, dear.” Edward suppresses a groan. They already have Edward's two dogs, big Newfoundlands who once loved galumphing all over the beach, and now love galumphing all over the countryside. Thomas complains frequently about the hair they shed and the mud they track in, but he loves them as much as Edward does.
Edward thought, at first, that he would miss fishing and the coast, but his life has been made up of changes. Coming here, to the landlocked countryside with Thomas, is a dream come true. Rather, it is a promise far too late in the keeping.
“How's the book?” Thomas asks.
“Better than I expected. You should read it when I'm finished.”
“I've never been much of a reader, dear.” Even now, Thomas' moments of leisure are occupied by sewing, or knitting, or something useful. His hands are never idle. “Although I did take a glance at the newspaper when I was waiting for the kettle to boil.”
“There was a riddle I found quite amusing.”
This time, Edward doesn't stifle his groan. “You know me and riddles, darling. We don't get along.”
Thomas nudges him and goes on anyway. “What is that which has been tomorrow and will be yesterday?” He pauses only briefly before giving the answer. “Today.”
Today. Edward looks at Thomas, his big pale eyes looking back over the rim of his teacup. That, they have decided, is the only moment that matters. Yesterday is nothing but memories, both good and bad. Tomorrow may not arrive; at their ages, that's a distinct possibility. But today is theirs.
This is Thomas' version of forgiveness, and, although Edward does not merit it, he is working hard to be worthy of it. Of Thomas.
Thomas leans forward, meeting Edward's lips in a soft kiss, from which he abruptly pulls away. “There he is!” Edward follows his gaze to a portly hedgehog, sitting beneath a bush gorging itself on chopped liver. Edward smiles, more at the look of loving wonder on dear Thomas' face than at the presence of vermin that will do nothing but dig up his garden in pursuit of worms. Then, with another fond kiss to Thomas' cheek, he picks up his book, eager to continue Benjamin Leigh Smith's adventures in the far North.