Mr Thos. Blanky
Combe St. Mary
My Dear Tom,
Well your wand’ring star has come down to earth again — dragged like a Whalefish from the ocean by the crewel hand of a Lady I need not name. Suffice it to say she will not marry me, no more than she would this twelvemonth gone.
So I am quite at my Liberty, you might say; or, at least, I am not in harness. Are you and your good Lady quite well — and your esteemable children?
Might I take advantage of your standing hospitality and impose myself upon you all? I find myself weary of London — Pepys can go hang.
I remain, though heavy-hearted, your most effectionate friend,
Capt. Francis Crozier
Thomas Blanky, late of His Majesty’s Ship Terror, gave a sigh and passed the letter to his wife. “Our Frank’s come a cropper again.”
Mrs Blanky read it at once, her quick dark eyes moving back and forth across the page. “Oh, the poor man,” she exclaimed when she was done. “And a foolish girl! Though she may be the niece of a baronet.”
“Miss Cracroft’s no fool,” said Thomas, closing his teeth around his morning pipe. “Frank’s on half-pay, no prize money to speak of, and liable to go to sea again at the slightest provocation. I’m surprised he’s still on land at all.”
His wife looked sharply up across the breakfast table. “But you cannot mean to let him come here? My dear, I know he is your oldest friend, but we’ve scarcely the room.”
“Oh, Frank’ll sleep anywhere — he’d take the hearthrug if we let him.”
“That’s as may be,” said Esther, folding the letter and setting it carefully aside. “But what are we to do with him? There’s no society—”
“He hardly cares for society, my pet.”
“—and no dancing—”
At this, Tom laughed outright.
“—nothing but the moor and the woods, and the park, such as it is.”
“The moor will suit his mood,” said Tom. “So will the woods, come to that — and as for the park, well... ” He fixed Esther with such a look as a husband is wont to give his wife when he has some intelligence of which she is ignorant, and which it will vex her not to know.
“Tom,” said she, in a warning tone. “Husband, what have you heard?”
Tom slid another letter from beneath the teapot and shook it open. “What do you think is become of Starcross Hall?” he asked. “I’ll wager you cannot tell.”
The coach from Exeter was trying in the extreme. Francis sat crushed between a woman with a covered birdcage on her lap and a traveller in buttons, whose rattling case of wares dug painfully into Francis’ knee. Whenever the carriage struck a rut in the road, the unseen contents of the birdcage started up a godless squawking, and the babe-in-arms on the opposite seat would begin to wail. Then the anxious mother would fuss, and the nursemaid would coo, and the child’s father, who at all other moments was engrossed in The London Chronicle, would feign an open-mouthed and noisy sleep.
It was with some relief, then, that Francis stepped down in the Kingstaunton market square, retrieved his sea-chest from the roof of the coach, and filled his lungs with country air. Even a mile or so inland he could sense the sea, and the sulphurous estuary, too. After the heat and crush of London, Francis almost felt himself in County Down again; or, perhaps, in paradise. They built ships upriver, he knew: the Fawn and the Cyane had been laid down at Topsham; Terror herself had been refitted there not two years before. It felt correct to be here, so near this cradle of the fleet. Were he at the water’s edge there would be flashes of calico against the muddy sky, trim paintwork gleaming, a sense of the wider world, and of the suddenly-concluded war.
But it was absurd to wish himself at sea again, with peace so painfully hard-won. Though lacking in as handsome recompense as he might like, it gave Francis — as it must give every survivor of the Trafalgar Campaign — a certain sense of satisfaction to think of Bonaparte marooned on as desolate an island as the civilised mind might comfortably imagine. And, in any case, here was Tom, stumping along the cobbled street, arms spread wide in welcome.
The old friends embraced, finding they fitted as well between each others’ arms as always. Francis drew back and clapped Thomas on the shoulders, looking him over with a captain’s care. “You look well, Tom. Very well indeed.”
“Aye, I’m keeping trim,” Tom grinned. He clunked his wooden foot against the paving stones. “You’ll see me dance a quadrille e’er your stay with us is done.”
Francis could not regard his friend’s condition without a pang of conscience. It had been his own accursed fault: action off San Domingo in the year six, with Francis in his cups. Heʼd never regretted anything more, in a long life over-full with disappointment. But self-recrimination must be postponed, for Mrs Blanky and her daughters were coming along in a flurry of muslin and ribbons. Francis permitted himself to be kissed and petted and generally mauled, and found himself with the smallest Blanky clasped in his arms and playing with his hair.
“And who might you be?” he enquired, raising an eyebrow at the girl. “Surely not Miss Hannah, for she was quite a little thing when last we met, and you are most handsomely grown!”
At this she slid out of his grasp and went to lean against her mother’s skirts, regarding him with large and candid eyes. Her elder sister was more reticent after her first outburst of affectionate good spirits, and bobbed a curtsey, blushing. She, too, had grown; had long outstripped her mother and was catching up to her father with alacrity.
“We’ve brought the dog-cart for you,” said Tom, eyeing Francis’ trunk. “’Twill be a squeeze, but comfortable enough.”
Combe St. Mary lay but one mile distant, and as they climbed the hill away from the town, the sea came into view: a sheet of silk under the burning summer sun. To the north lay the river, patched with mudflats, the navigable channel deep and green. Strand Cottage sat comfortably against a little rise, a flock of well-fed geese picking at the garden lawn. There was a goat, too, cropping grass, and the house itself was milk-white as the creature’s bristled fur, with cheerfully painted window frames and smoke rising from the chimneys; in short, everything that was most homely and charming.
Francis’ room, once he was shown to it, proved small but entirely pleasing: with walls that sloped into ceilings, rather like the cabin of a ship, and a window looking out towards the sea. He untied his stock and toed off his boots, dropped into the chair at the dressing table with the thought of writing to Ross, before rising again and depositing himself upon the bed.
As he passed from drowsiness into a grateful sleep, the image of Sophia Cracroft’s face darted, bright and fleeting as a shooting star, behind his eyes.
“Are you much disheartened, Captain?” asked Mrs Blanky as they sat beside the fireplace after dinner, the children having been parcelled off upstairs. “My husband has told me of your sad misfortune.”
Francis stared for a moment into the bottom of his glass. “I own I am,” he said at last. “I should never have renewed my suit.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” cried Tom at his other side. “The lady showed every sign of attachment last time you were ashore.”
His wife looked at him in surprise. “I am all astonishment, Tom,” she said, in gently mocking tones. “I never took you for a matchmaker.”
“Nay, I am not,” replied her husband, a little abashed, toying with his pipe. Francis smiled to see him, so like a common seaman scolded by his captain. “I mean only that she ought to have accepted you, Frank.”
“I begin to think it may be for the best,” said Francis slowly. He looked up to find Tom looking positively outraged. “I mean it,” he added. “That first rejection was a portent — I ought to have heeded what it warned.”
There had been affection on Sophia’s side, Francis felt sure. But mere affection was not enough to build a life on; to create the intimacy of a family home, to warm a house like this. Sophia Cracroft was as restless and adventurous as Francis was himself, only she had no war to fight and no ship in which to sail. Perhaps she was destined for another role; perhaps, as her husband, Francis would only have been standing in her way.
“But enough of my troubles,” Francis sighed. The first step in forgetting must be to interest himself in other things. “Tell me of your lives here, both of you—Tom, I cannot believe you have willingly quitted the North. What on earth possessed you?”
The parlour rang with Tom’s throaty laughter, and the conversation went on in this agreeable manner for some time, until Francis was as well-acquainted with the life of the town as the Blankys were themselves.
“And, oh!” Esther cried. “We are soon to have a newcomer in our midst — Starcross Hall is let at last, having long stood sad and empty.”
“What is Starcross Hall?” said Francis. “It sounds like something from a fairy tale.”
“Not quite,” chuckled Tom. “Last we heard, Sir Henry Courtney lost it at a game of cards, the daft bugger—pardon me, my dear.”
“It is the great house on the hill above the town,” said Esther, entirely unperturbed by her husband’s sea-rough mode of speaking. “Did you not see it on your drive — or the fallow deer running wild in the park? ”
Francis shook his head; he had seen nothing at all beyond the mouldering carriage drapes. “But tell me who has taken it,” he said, catching at the merry spirit in the room. “Some noted dowager? A disreputable writer of sensational novels, perhaps?”
“We cannot rightly say who he is,” Tom replied, a wicked twinkle in his eye. “No one can speak, at least, with any authority upon his parentage.”
“Good heavens,” Francis remarked, with mild surprise. “He has succeeded, then, considering he is, well, a natural child.”
“Scarce a child,” said Esther in excited tones. “Mrs Baxter tells me he is almost forty, and yet a bachelor still. The village is in an ecstasy of speculation.”
“I can well believe it,” said Francis heartily, determined to feel no bitterness.
“There is barely a ribbon or a feather or a scrap of silk left this side of Exeter.”
“No woman under thirty is left unmoved,” Tom said, grinning around the stem of his pipe.
“Even our Essie is taken up with the idea!” Esther’s dark eyes were dancing in the firelight. “Though she is far too young to think of marrying at present — least of all to Mr James Fitzjames.”
Mr Henry T. D. Le Vesconte
17 Albemarle Street
My dear Dundy,
O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Only, unlike the beleaguered Prince of the Danes, I am at least in full control of my emotional faculties and am, in my heart of hearts, a man of action.
I am resolved to leave for Devonshire on the morrow, and hang waiting for the attorneys and their damned prevarication.
Will you come, my dear fellow? I should like a friend for the journey, and I daresay there shall be adventure enough to satisfy your appetite — to say nothing of a brimming hamper packed by the estimable Wall.
I am in haste &c,
“I say, there is nothing in creation like a pigeon pie — and this is as excellent a specimen as I have ever undertaken.” Dundy wiped his hands on the napkin spread out across his knee. “James? Do you know, I declare you have not listened to a word I have said since Salisbury.”
“Hmm?” James shook himself from his stupor. “I’m sorry, old man. Lord, I am tired of this journey.”
Their travels had been tedious indeed. Even in a private carriage amply sprung, there is no enchantment can make the country rattle by at greater speed, nor save the horses from needing to be changed, nor keep Le Vesconte from insisting on a hearty meal in every wayside inn. A few miles outside Bath they had been forced to share a narrow bed, in which Dundy had snored and James had lain awake, his face in the darkness like a lonely waxing moon.
It could not be said that he felt any great grief at the death of his remaining parent. Sir James Gambier had never troubled to make the acquaintance of his only son and James, in his turn, had lived these almost forty years in happy ignorance of his father’s ignoble character. If James was unhappy, it was only for lack of grief; knowing he ought to be in mourning and yet not certain where to start. The one amelioration in the case, as so often, was that of money. Though not acknowledged by his father, James had at least been mentioned in his will, and the funds set aside proved enough to keep himself comfortably for as long as he chose; it was on this account that he had taken Starcross Hall.
As the carriage turned and the house came into view, James at last felt certain in his course of action. Starcross Hall was perfectly correct, entirely gentlemanly, just what a country house should be. It was built in the fashionable Classical style, but without seeming cold: softened by a course of rustication under the lower windows, by the restrained and moderate proportions, by two creeping arms of ivy that round around the door.
James stepped down from the carriage and the door in question opened, and there stood Bridgens, ever-unflappable, though looking as if he had only lately unpacked his livery and brushed it down.
“Sir.” Bridgens held open the door into a chequered marble hall, putting out his hands to take James’ hat and coat. “We were not expecting you so soon.”
“My apologies, John — don’t let us get in your way. I was impatient to see the place.”
“Of course, sir.”
James turned in the hall and looked about him: at the white stone staircase rising in a straight-edged spiral, the doors giving onto drawing room and sitting room, the portraits gazing down at him from the walls. “Find somewhere to put Mr Le Vesconte, won’t you? The coal cellar ought to do.”
Bridgens visibly suppressed a smile. “Yes, sir.”
“And I should like a bath when you can manage it — Dundy?” Le Vesconte had wandered away to admire the view. “How about a late supper? I’m sure even you cannot possibly eat again at present.”
“Capital!” said Dundy, raking a hand through his silvered hair. “I shall take a turn about the park.” He patted his waistcoat with a grin. “Work up my appetite again.”
“Well, John.” James settled against the linen-draped back of the copper bath. Bridgens brought a steaming pitcher and doused his hair; James scrubbed a sponge with soap and cleaned the grime of the road from his neck. “This house I’ve taken on — do you approve?”
Bridgens was setting towels to warm on a rack before the fire. “Oh, indeed, sir.”
“None of that,” said James firmly. “Tell me what you really think.”
Bridgens turned to face him, hands neatly folded behind his back. “’Tis a grand old place, sir, I can’t deny. But I fear the previous master has let it fall to disrepair. Not all over,” he added quickly, catching James’ troubled glance. “And not to any structural extent, so far as I can tell. There is no damp, which is a sorry trial for a house such as this.”
James smiled. Bridgens’ attitude to damp seemed more or less analogous to his line on moths and snagging brambles: paternal disapprobation combined with a firm resolve to see their deficiencies put right.
“Well,” said James, palming soap into his hair, “no doubt you shall direct me in the proper way of things. You would make a fine housekeeper, John, if your sex did not preclude you from the role. The library is in perfect order, I imagine?”
Bridgens smiled. “Aye, it is, sir.”
“And Mr Peglar?” James enquired lightly. He reached for the pitcher, but Bridgens was at his side. James closed his eyes and let the still-warm water sluice his hair. “What thinks he of the grounds?”
“He is very pleased, sir, so far as I am aware.” Bridgens fussed with a brocade dressing gown, folding and refolding the sleeves. “Says the ferns are grown a little over-wild, but that there are some fine old beech trees set behind the house, and a line of noble larches at the edge of the wood. Such as would have been grown for ships’ masts, sir — perhaps at the time of the Armada.”
James rose from the water in a rush and wound a towel about his waist. Bridgens was there in an instant, holding out the dressing gown. “What of the deer?” asked James, stepping out of the bath and forcing his damp arms into the sleeves. “I confess I haven’t the first idea of what to do with them.”
“They will keep to themselves well enough, sir,” said Bridgens. “Henry—Mr Peglar says they are in fine fettle — only needing a little straw in the winter, perhaps.”
“You must borrow whatever books you want,” said James, darting a glance over his shoulder. “You and Mr Peglar both.”
This much, he could do for them. In this small way he could show his comradeship and his regard. He had watched John and Henry Peglar over the years — discreetly, of course, and without ever meaning to pry — and had seen them fall firmly and quietly in love, as much in love as any husband and his wife. James had never thought it possible for men like them; for men such as himself.
James had secrets enough of his own; to keep one more seemed no great hardship. Heaven knew John had served and loved him well, and Henry in his turn. Both were cognisant of James’ murky origins, but neither seemed to pay it much regard. The arrangement, though unorthodox, was suitable to all.
William Coningham Esq.
6 Lewes Crescent
How I wish you were here in Devonshire with me. In the morning I shall draw the view for you — I cannot make a proper picture with my clumsy words alone.
I confess I am not happy yet. I know I shall be — that I can be — but a sadness clings about me still. Strange that the loss of my natural father should serve to accentuate my sorrow for a father and mother long-since gone; parents who, by rights, should be yours alone to mourn. I feel a second orphan, doubly-weighed by grief.
I must be grateful to Sir James, of course. He has, in death, provided me the means of life — but I treasure my Coningham inheritance far greater than that of the Gambiers. Father’s inkwell stands before me now, and Mother’s books have pride of place beside my bed, In my waistcoat pocket his watch beats gently as a heart.
I have could have nothing more, save your best love, and live forever as,
Your most affectionate brother,
The next morning, brightened by a night of dreamless sleep, James rode out on his tall brown hunter, warm wind whipping back the hair under his hat, pulse soaring as he climbed from park to paddock to the crest of the hill behind the house. Pyramus, sensing his master’s high spirits, shook his head and snorted and, at James’ urging, raced down again towards the edge of the wood. James kept a steady pace under the towering larches and the spreading, stately oaks, meaning to swing round towards the moor-gate, and the heathered heights beyond.
But here was something wrong: a man, a stranger, hacking through the undergrowth beneath the trees. He wore a shabby brown coat rubbed shiny at the cuffs and elbows, a hat at least twenty years out of date, and a pair of gaiters splashed with mud.
“You there!” James called, imperious beyond the usual limits of his nature; he was, in truth, annoyed at the disturbance, the blot on an otherwise unblemished day. “What are you doing?”
The man looked up, but did not break his stride. He came out of the bracken and stood before James on the muddy path, apparently unperturbed by Pyramus’ height and stamping feet. He had a round and weatherbeaten face; ruddy, marked with speckled scars.
“You cannot be here,” said James. The man must be a poacher, a villager grown used to wandering as his wants dictated while Starcross Hall lay unguarded and unoccupied.
The stranger gave him a long, considering look and said, “A man may take a walk, may he not?”
Good Lord, the man was Irish. An itinerant, then, perhaps a navvy or a sailor, and to judge by the villainous arch of his eyebrow, a ne'er-do-well to boot.
“A gentleman may, indeed,” retorted James, pivoting his head as Pyramus turned in a restless circle. “In his own grounds — on his own land.”
“Is this your land?”
“Yes, it is, by God.” If James had a horsewhip he would have struck the man. Such insolence in the lower classes was hardly to be borne. “And I would thank you to remove yourself from it at once.”
“Deer parks such as these once belonged to the common folk,” the man observed. “Before the kings of England fenced them in.”
“Oh,” cried James, “you are a radical, then?”
“It has been said before,” said the man, with a sneering sort of smile. “In any case, I shall take my leave of you.” He gave a curt bow, so fleeting and made with such ill-grace that James felt sure it was a mockery. The man’s next words, and the contemptuous tone of their delivery, served only to confirm it. “I bid the noble gentleman good day.”
At this he stumped off into the bracken, leaving James with no resort save staring, open-mouthed, at his retreating back.
“Wretched creature,” he said under his breath. He squeezed Pyramus’ flanks smartly with his heels and took off at a gallop towards the distant yews.
“He is an insolent, upstart puppy, Tom! Like the worst, most snotty-nosed midshipman.”
“Aye,” said Blanky placidly, folding one leg atop the other and sucking at his pipe. “I know the type you mean. I cannot be surprised at it.”
Francis paused in his furious pacing of the sitting room. In truth, he had been walking more in an abortive circle rather than a satisfying back-and-forth, being curtailed both by the smallness of the room and the comparative sturdiness of the furniture.
“He is the worst sort of bastard,” Francis proclaimed, making Tom bark his terrier’s laugh. “I mean it in the strictest sense, Tom. He has all the pretensions of his supposed rank, with none of the ease and grace legitimacy brings. He is brittle as an eggshell, and just as hollow.”
Tom squinted at him through his smoke. “You have made quite a study of the man.”
“Men of that condition are all the same,” said Francis, flicking up his coat tails and dropping into a chair. “With half of his advantages, what a life I should have made myself!”
He might have been an Admiral by now, and be comfortably retired; married, perhaps. Even Miss Cracroft might not have refused him. But he cast her determinedly from his mind. The word radical had rankled, that was all; he had heard it in Sophiaʼs voice as much as in Fitzjamesʼ.
There was a sudden commotion in the hall, much fluttering and feminine squeals, and the door burst open to reveal Esther and Essie bent over an unfolded sheet of letter paper, with Hannah standing on her tiptoes to peek at what it said.
“There is to be a ball at Starcross,” Esther beamed. “I have just this moment received the invitation.”
“Oh, can I go, Mama — can I?” cried Essie. “I am quite old enough for a ball, I think. Papa, am I not old enough? Please say that I may go!”
Francis looked at the girl in astonishment. These were as many words as he had heard from her all week, and in as animated a manner as he had ever seen. She was positively oscillating with excitement. He supposed a ball held many more attractions than a retired sea captain forty years her senior, and it was only natural that it should produce considerably more delight.
“Of course you can,” said Tom, at the precise moment that his wife said, “Well, we shall see.”
“Mama, may I go as well?” piped up Hannah.
“Decidedly not,” said Esther firmly. “You are far too young, sweeting.” To Tom she said, “Now, husband, do you see what you have done?”
Tom had the good sense to look sheepish, and took the letter from his lady’s hand. “This is entirely in your honour, Frank,” he said, heaving Hannah onto his lap and holding the paper aloft for her to read. “James Fitzjames would never extend such an invitation were you not here.” His eyes as they met Francis’ bore a wicked gleam.
“He does not know me,” said Francis, weighing his words with meaning, wanting them to find their mark across the room. “Not as my proper self.”
“Plainly he knows your name,” said Tom. “Your arrival has not gone unnoticed, Frank — a veteran of the Navy with a record such as yours.”
“My record,” Francis huffed, “such as it is — is solidly unremarkable. I am no Lord Nelson.”
“It does not take a Nelson to be notable in these parts.”
“Well, I am certainly notable now,” said Francis, with a rising sense of doom. “He thinks I am some radical sort of vagabond,” he added in an undertone. “He’s as like to call the magistrate as offer me a glass of wine.”
Tom chuckled and kissed the crown of Hannah’s hair. “Well, we shall have to see — shanʼt we, my dove?”
“Dundy, you utter imbecile. What on earth have you done?” James, still in his riding clothes, strode in a fury across the sunlit drawing room.
Dundy looked up from the card table, at which he had playing a desultory game of patience, waiting impatiently for James’ return. “What’s the matter, old man?”
James flung out a furious hand. “Bridgens has told me of your preposterous idea!”
“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Bridgens, following behind him in an uncharacteristic state of distress. “If I have done anything amiss, I—”
“Oh, John, I am not at all at odds with you.” James waved him away. “I am at odds with this reprobate whom I have unwittingly brought into my home.” He aimed a kick at Dundy’s folded legs so that the uppermost fell with a thud onto the floor.
“I have been informed that we are to have a ball,” James hissed. “As you may be able to imagine, this news has taken me somewhat by surprise.”
“We discussed it!” cried Dundy, in injured tones. “I suggested a party to brighten your spirits and you were quite amenable.”
“We were speaking of a house party,” countered James. “Half a dozen people for a fortnight, not a… Bacchanalian orgy.”
Dundy raised an expressive eyebrow. “Hardly that, old man. What the devil has come over you?”
James flopped onto the sofa. “Oh, I cannot say,” he groaned, passing a hand across his eyes. The stranger’s mockery was still ringing in his ears: the noble gentleman. As though he knew — as though he could see the mark of illegitimacy on James like some indelible stain.
“Will it not cheer you?” said Dundy, rising and coming to sit by James. “You have not been yourself of late.”
“Have I not?” said James, lowering his hand to look at his friend. “I confess I hardly know anymore what my true self might be.”
“Come now.” Dundy knocked his knee against James’, then tapped the tips of his fingers there. “Think of dancing, and candlelight, and pretty girls — well, I shall think of pretty girls, at any rate. Fresh and lovely as Devonshire cream. And as for other entertainments…”
His hand moved northwards up James’ muddied riding breeches, until James, now laughing, batted him away. Dundy was a cheerful sort of bedfellow, but it required that James be in a certain mood: lighter-hearted than he was at present, and ameliorated, on most occasions, with vast quantities of wine.
“Oh, very well,” said Dundy, not in the least put out. “I dare say you shall make a conquest of some strapping red-faced squire, and cast me unchaperoned among the womenfolk. Buck up, Fitzjames. The ball will be a marvellous success — just leave it all to me.”
Dear Mrs Abbot,
I write to enquire if an evening dress might be made for my young Esther, to be delivered Saturday seʼnnight.
Her measurements remain unchanged since Christmastide; save, I fancy, two inches more in height. As to the fabric, I had in mind a Muslin sprigged with green, which would look very well with her dark hair.
This is as near to a Debut as she is likely to enjoy — as such, she wishes the garment to be quite grown-up. For myself, I wish it quite the reverse. I trust to your excellent judgement to work a compromise.
With sincere Good wishes,
Mrs Thomas Blanky
Even Captain Francis Crozier was forced to admit that Starcross Hall looked magnificent on the night of the ball. Fitzjames had certainly filled the place with food and light and people: but then, Francis told himself, a man like that was wont to fritter his money away on pastel-coloured fancies and beeswax tapers, and was inevitably to be found with several dozen flatterers and hangers-on about his heels.
The Blanky party was greeted in the hall by a pair of liveried footmen and, having been divested of his travelling clothes, Francis found himself bowing to a tall, handsomely-attired man with a sweep of silver hair.
“Henry Le Vesconte, at your service.” The grey-haired man pointed his foot and made a little bow.
Francis narrowed his eyes. “You are of French extraction, sir?”
Le Vesconte laughed. “Only if you go back as far as Domesday. I am Jèrriais — and as staunch an enemy of Bonaparte as you are like to find in England.”
This utterance was made so heartily, and with such good cheer, that Francis could not help but smile. “In that case, we shall indeed be friends,” he said, warmly shaking Le Vesconte’s hand. “Though I myself am no more English than Napoleon himself.”
“Then we must find a quiet corner and make a scientific study,” said Le Vesconte with a jovial laugh. “The Englishman in his natural habitat — John Bull observed at home. Ah, Fitzjames!”
Francis followed Le Vesconteʼs gaze and saw someone approaching: a man with changeable eyes in a sallow, sharp-boned face, his chestnut-coloured hair worn long. There was no fleck of mud across his cheek, neither were his haughty nostrils flared, but it was without doubt the rider he had met the week before: the fêted James Fitzjames.
“James, allow me to introduce your neighbours.” Le Vesconte waved an elegant hand. “Mr Thomas Blanky and his good lady — their daughter Miss Blanky.” The parties named bowed and curtsied, Essie having abruptly turned the colour of a boiled shrimp. “And their guest, Captain Crozier,” finished Le Vesconte. “Late of His Majestyʼs Ship Terror, if I have read my navy list aright.”
Francis, rather caught off-guard by this remark, inclined his head stiffly. Fitzjames bowed, shaking back his hair as he straightened himself again. An absurd, dandified eccentricity: an extravagance that spoke volumes of the man.
“Weʼve met before, in fact,” said Francis, unable to resist temptation.
The arrow found its mark. Fitzjamesʼ thin lips parted in something like a snarl, the lines that framed his mouth deepening with displeasure.
“So we have,” he said archly. “But it seems I was labouring under a misapprehension. I took the gallant Captain for a dissolute wanderer — a man of little fortune and without a proper home. How glad I am to be mistook.”
His eyes lingered coldly on Francisʼ face before, with another bow, he turned away.
Francis, despite these provocations, found himself enjoying the Starcross ball. They passed through a room filled with linen-draped tables, where a hundred candles seemed to burn, and into another where sideboards had been heaped with food. He recollected a placating promise made to Hannah Blanky and quietly filled his pockets with candied biscuits and marzipan pears. In due course, there was dancing: Francis, with some trepidation, joining Esther in the first two turns about the floor.
“I thought you said you could dance a quadrille,” he hissed at Tom as he was led determinedly away.
After this was done, he essayed the Boulanger and the Roger de Coverley with Essie, who looked pleased and appalled in equal measure to be dancing with an officer of the navy in full dress uniform. Francis, catching sight of Fitzjames at the top of the set, missed his cue, and collided with a spry, elderly little clergyman, making Essie go beetroot-pink again.
Then there were more delicacies to be consumed, and more small treats with which to line his waistcoat pockets, and then musical recitals were given in the spacious drawing room. An elegant lady and gentleman sang a spirited duet together, and then a very beautiful young woman played a stirring sonata.
At the urging of Tom, who was mischievous and merry with punch, Francis went forward and selected a song by Purcell he felt he knew well enough to attempt. A diffident, fair-haired young man came forward to accompany him on the piano-forte. Francis acquitted himself well enough, though he rushed a little over the long descending melismas, rendering them more legato than they ought to have been; though not, he fancied, out of key.
“And now, you old devil,” he said in an undertone as he regained Tomʼs side, the room filling once more with music as the fair-haired man took up playing again, “what are you going to perform?”
As to Thomas Blankyʼs whispered answer there must, alas, be an amnesty, in order that the innocence of tender-hearted readers be preserved — suffice to note that it was a distasteful trick learned at a house of ill-repute in Greenhithe, and the less said of it the better.
When Francis had recovered his composure, he looked up to see James Fitzjames watching them, a glass of port in one long-fingered hand, the colour high in his fine-cut cheeks, eyes burning in the candlelight.
The moment Hodgson’s dreary tune was done, James strode forward and rifled through the music on the stand. Having found the piece he wanted, he thumped it down on the lid of the piano-forte.
“Are you sure, Fitzjames?” Hodgsonʼs earnest countenance was ill-at-ease. “Not quite the thing with ladies present.”
“Poppycock,” said James. “There are no ladies present.”
The women who had come in with Captain Crozier were going out by the farther door, leaving Crozier and his companion alone at the back of the room. The remaining guests were gentlemen, save the dashing Lady Godolphin, a game young person who would scarcely turn a hair.
“Play it, George,” snapped James, “and cease your bleating.”
So Hodgson played, and James sang out in a firm, bright tenor: “The London folks themselves beguile, and think they please in a capital style — yet let them ask, as they cross the street, of any young virgin they happen to meet…”
A ripple of anticipatory laughter went round the room, swift as wind through a field of grass. James rejoiced to hear it, and enunciated the following lines with aplomb.
“And I know she’ll say, from behind her fan, that there’s none can love like an Irishman! ”
Captain Crozier, just as James had hoped, went crimson. He stiffened where he sat, tugging at the front of his waistcoat, looking for all the world like a puffed, affronted pigeon, from his ruffled hair to his small, neat feet.
James fought down a laugh and attacked the next lines with even more alacrity: playing up to his eager audience, catching Lady Godolphinʼs gleaming, roguish eye.
“That there’s none can love — love — love! Like an Irishman, like an Irishman — that there’s none can love like an Irishman! ”
By the time James looked up again, having made an extravagant, unsteady bow, Captain Crozier had disappeared.
Capt. Sir James Clark Ross
My very Dear James,
You asked for news of Devonshire, but I have nothing of Note to report save that I have met the most insuffrable gentleman in the whole of England. The worst of it is that you would almost certainly esteem him, God damn your eyes. He is very like Lieut. Walker — do you recall the man? — who I despis’d on sight, but who became your Bosom friend.
I fear I shall never like that kind of man, and ‘tis certain he never shall like me.
But give me news of London, James dear. How fairs the fairest Ann and all your little ones? Does your noble Uncle crow at Buonaparte’s defeat or is he hankering after a second Trafalgar?
I confess there are times, in the company of the gentleman described above, that I wish myself at sea again — and even in the teeth of battle. At least in time of War one is permitted a cutlass and a cannon.
God bless you James & believe me ever,
Yours most sincerely,
F. R. M. Crozier
William Coningham Esq.
6 Lewes Crescent
My dear brother,
I write to you in a state of some affliction, having been carousing with Le Vesconte until the earliest glimmerings of dawn. He is indefatigable as ever, though I last saw him prostrate upon a sopha and it is doubtful whether he shall be perpendicular again until the evening.
Will, I fear I have been rather a knave. I am too tired to set it down just now, but suffice to say I see you, clear as if you sat at the foot of my bed, laughing at my foolishness. You would tell me to make amends — but I confess I know not how.
But now I must leave off, for my head aches abominably. I’m sure you would say I deserve it.
Your unfortunate, though no less loving,
Hannah Blanky came bursting into the drawing room, where Francis and her parents sat lingering over a leisurely and rather sleepy afternoon tea.
“What on earth is the matter, child?” cried Esther, forestalling her youngest daughter before she ran headlong into the table.
“Mr Fitzjames is coming!” Hannah panted. “I saw him at the garden gate.”
“Oh, good heavens.” Esther rose at once, smoothing the creases from her lap. “And what a state the house is in! Hannah, run and tell Mary to bring in one of the dining chairs, and have Cook prepare another pot of tea.”
In the end, however, Fitzjames did not stay for tea. He appeared, looking rather abashed, in the low drawing room doorway, a linen-covered basket extended in one hand. “There are so many laden plates at Starcross,” he said to Esther as she dropped into a curtsey. “More than I can possibly manage — even with my estimable friendʼs assistance. I fancied you might like some of the spoils.”
“That is most kind,” said Esther, directing Mary to relieve him of the basket. “Wonʼt you take tea with us, sir?”
Fitzjames smiled a slow and reticent smile, his eyes flicking minutely to Francis’ face. “I thank you, no,” he said. “I confess I am in need of a long and bracing walk.” He paused briefly and went on, “Captain Crozier is a stranger in these parts, is he not? I wonder if he would take a walk to the top of the moor with me — I’m told there is a very fine view.”
Francis scowled; the mere idea of his taking a walk with James Fitzjames was absurdity itself. But there was nothing to be done, with Esther looking at him expectantly, Mary lingering with the laden basket, Fitzjames watching him with heavy-lidded eyes. With the utmost reluctance, Francis acquiesced, following Fitzjames from room and taking his hat and coat from the peg beside the door.
He shot a final pleading look at Tom, who looked delighted beyond description, and left the cottage with Mr James Fitzjames.
They walked in utter silence, passing through the churchyard and into the meadow beyond, climbing the shallow rise into the edge of the wood: the Starcross wood, into which Francis — half-knowing, and half in ignorance — had lately trespassed.
When they came to the moor gate, Fitzjames cleared his throat. “I—I trust you came safe home last night.”
“As you see,” said Francis.
“What I mean to say is,” Fitzjames went on, leading the way along a sheep track through the heather, “well—I wanted to ask if you spent a pleasant evening at Starcross.” Francis was about to speak when Fitzjames went on, “Only I suspect that you did not — and I feel sure the fault was mine.” He looked back at Francis, who said nothing, but merely regarded him coldly until Fitzjames turned away.
At length they came to a plateau on the moor, a little clearing in the gorse and heather, pocked with sheep’s droppings and rabbit holes. On the western horizon lay a grey, glowering outcrop of stone, worn by millennia of wind and rain; resembling a frozen giant sitting with his head upon his knees.
“I would not have done it,” said Fitzjames in a rush, “if you had not laughed at me—though that is no excuse, I know.”
“Laughed at you?” cried Francis, all amazement. “I did not—” but at this he recollected himself, and went on, “oh, I laughed, certainly, but not at you.”
Fitzjames was staring at him, the lines across his forehead deepened in perplexity.
“It was a joke between old friends,” said Francis. All at once he regretted his easy levity, Tom’s coarseness, their shared lack of propriety. “Old shipmates, you know, must have their sailor’s yarns,” he said, equal parts conciliatory and chagrined. “Were we better acquainted I might relate it, but it is rather too coarse for gentlemanly ears.”
“I fear I am no gentleman,” said Fitzjames, whose colour had deepened to something like Canary-wine; his head held low, his hat clasped between his hands. “A gentleman would not have behaved in so graceless a way.”
“You’re a young buck,” said Francis mildly, his irritation melting quite away. “There’s time yet for gracefulness.”
“Ah, but I am not so young,” cried Fitzjames with a rueful laugh. “I might be expected to know better by now.”
And, indeed, he seemed no longer the preening dandy of the night before, nor the proud horseman with a haughty flush upon his cheeks. Today he was merely a man: a little careworn, and rather sad. The warm wind tugged at his hair, pulling loose threads of it across his face. Francis had an unaccountable urge to brush them back behind his ear.
“Taken in the spirit of the thing,” he said at length, having regarded Fitzjames rather longer was proper, “the song you sang was quite a compliment.”
The corner of Fitzjames’ mouth twitched. “I assure you I did not mean it as such,” he said, lifting his head at last.
“Oh, of that I have no doubt,” said Francis. He shifted his feet a while before making his mind up on the matter, and venturing, “What say you to starting again? I’ll no longer be a trespasser.”
“It was a poacher I took you for, in fact,” Fitzjames said, with a frank, unguarded laugh.
“I’ll no longer be a poacher, then.”
“And I’ll no longer be a fool.”
“Just as you desire,” said Francis, feeling his face go rather warm.
Fitzjames made a sweeping bow. “Captain Crozier.”
Francis lifted his hat. “Mr Fitzjames,” he said, smiling, with the sound of skylarks singing in his ears.
From that day forth there was nothing but companionable felicity between Strand Cottage and Starcross Hall. As July turned to August, Captain Crozier and James Fitzjames were to be seen together at frequent intervals, walking on the moor in the mornings and strolling in the Starcross gardens almost every afternoon.
The strawberry beds laid down by the previous owner proved fruitful despite a year of neglect, and a strawberry-picking party was arranged: the mingled households of cottage and hall spending a pleasantly tiring afternoon stooping to pick the swollen fruit. Then a walk on the moorland, where the monolithic remnants of ancient, long-forgotten peoples were admired; the mossy, pockmarked stones brushed by wond’ring hands; the great circles traversed in yard-long strides to measure their size.
This was followed by an excursion to the seaside at Dawlish, where the sight of Fitzjames’ face uplit by sunlight glancing off the sea so arrested Captain Crozier that he was insensible of Miss Hannah Blanky’s tugging on his sleeve for a full minute; for her part, she was sorely vexed at finding him such a poor companion in the important business of building a miniature replica of Starcross out of sand, and employed instead the services of an appropriately enthusiastic Mr Le Vesconte.
As for Mr James Fitzjames, he found that any hour spent out of Captain Crozier’s company was an hour ill-spent. He was fractious and restless while alone, bored in the extreme of Dundy’s well-wrung jokes, could not settle with a book of either poetry or prose.
His one relief was in riding, in forcing Pyramus as fast as he would go along the good flat ground of the park or up to the edge of the moor and back again, man and beast entirely of one accord: a single creature moving in unison, breathing and turning together, their shining hair streaming out in the same fierce breeze flying off the sea.
And if James Fitzjames lay awake night after night, thinking of how the summer’s light turned Captain Crozier’s hair to strands of gold; or of the peculiar timbre of his voice when he was pleased or stifling a laugh; or the warmth of his shoulder through his shirt as he leaned, in some familiar jest, against Jamesʼ upper arm — well, there was no one but Mr Bridgens who would know, and no one he might tell save Mr Peglar; and the two of them together were all discretion, being born into that condition, as one might say, just as Fitzjames was himself.
One afternoon towards the end of August, James Fitzjames and Henry Le Vesconte were walking through the village when they encountered the Strand Cottage party on the village green. By mutual assent, the two groups — save Mr Thomas Blanky, who pleaded his infirmity and went quite cheerfully home — banded together and passed into the meadows beyond.
Dundy, having helped Mrs Blanky over the stile, offered her his arm, and they led the way together; the comical difference in their heights giving them the look of a mustard pot taking a stroll along the tablecloth in company with a decanter of Madeira wine.
Miss Blanky trailed behind, plucking wildflowers with a secretive look on her face, such as young women are in the habit of assuming, whether or not they have any confidences of their own at all. Miss Hannah Blanky scampered along in the middle, darting back and forth to show her mother an empty bird’s nest or to bring Captain Crozier an interesting stone or a beetle with a pretty pattern on its back.
James and Captain Crozier fell into step side by side, talking of nothing in particular; James conscious, to an almost mortifying extent, of their proximity, of the accidental brushes of their hands, and — worst of all — of the approaching summer’s end, the inevitable breaking up of the Strand Cottage party, of Francis leaving Devonshire for good. Already there was a scent of autumn in the air, a change in the quality of light; and James mourned every sign of the turning of the year.
“There is—” he began “—there is a certain painting I would have you cast your eye upon,” said James, in more of a hurry than he might have wished. But Captain Crozier turned to him with an encouraging smile, and so James went on, “It shows a ship at sea — of course I thought of you at once. Perhaps you would be good enough to give me your opinion?”
“By all means,” said Crozier warmly. “Shall I call on you tomorrow afternoon?”
“I thought — perhaps today,” said James. They had come to the boundary of the Starcross park. Le Vesconte and Mrs Blanky had drawn ahead, and the Misses Blanky were running hand in hand to catch up with their mama. “We shan’t be missed.”
“No, indeed,” said Captain Crozier, resting his hand for a moment on the crook of James’ arm.
They went in through the orangery on the southern side terrace: a long glass greenhouse in which no oranges grew — not even any trees. James had meant to speak to Peglar about it, and had forgotten. Starcross Hall lay strangely quiet, though it was no more than three o’clock; the sun streaming, dust-speckled, through the empty rooms.
“What do you intend to do with the house?” said Captain Crozier as they climbed the stairs.
“To do?” James turned back in some surprise. “Why, to live in it, of course.”
“And the park, and the deer, and the woods? Those woods could do with coppicing.”
“And you’d know, I suppose,” said James sharply. He bit his lip, regretting his words at once.
But Crozier did not seem in the least put out, giving James a long and measured look. “A house like this must be husbanded, James.”
James gave a short, sighing laugh and said, “Oh, well — I have Mr Bridgens for that.”
The library was cut through with shafts of sunlight, pouring from the mullioned casements onto the coconut matting-covered floor. James slid out of his coat, throwing open a window to let in a draught of cooler air. “Here,” he said, pointing to a painting propped up against a sturdy chair.
“Oh, this is all wrong,” said Captain Crozier, bending down to examine it more closely. “The rigging would come apart in the first gale — and look at those staysails, quite out of their proper places. I would not sail this ship across a mill pond, Fitzjames.”
“I suppose the painter did not have seaworthiness in mind,” said James.
“Decidedly not,” said Crozier, straightening up. He looked about him and admired a landscape on the farther wall. “This is better,” he said. “Rio, I fancy — and captured rather well.”
James had never looked at this painting before, not properly, not with any great attention. It had been here when he arrived, along with everything else. Staring at it now, he was so overcome with a rising conflict of sensations that he wanted to sit down upon the floor and put his face into his hands.
Rio. He had never noticed — and would not have recognised it if had. The pointed mountains and the rounded hills, the blue-green sea with sailing ships at anchor, native boats and rowing gigs running back and forth. He might have been born within a mile of such a view, and yet all recollection of it — and of anything else from his earliest years — was utterly gone.
“James?” Captain Crozier’s hand was at his arm again.
“I—forgive me.” James turned his face away, staring at the garden through the window, at the glitter of the sea over the hill. When he looked around again, Captain Crozier was watching him, standing contrapposto with one hand on the back of the chair. “You have seen Rio, then?” James said, making not a little effort to sound at ease.
Captain Crozier inclined his head. “Aye,” he said. “Some years since.”
“I was—” James stopped short and started again. “I would like to visit,” he said. “Very much.”
“It’s abominably warm,” said Crozier, with a smile.
“I would not mind that, I think.”
“You are cold-blooded?”
“I suppose I am.”
“You will be miserable here in the winter.”
“Ah, but I should like to see the snow,” said James. “The snows in London are not what one would wish. Nothing like we had in Hertfordshire when I was a child.”
“So you are a country lad after all,” said Crozier, kind amusement sparkling in his eyes. “I took you for a dandy of the Covent Garden type.”
“I fancy very little of what I seem to be is true,” said James, with none of his usual archness. He could not seem to summon it. “I am a fraud, Francis.”
Crozier cocked his head but did not speak.
“I am no gentleman,” James went on. “No boy from the country, either.” He took a great breath, and felt it catch in the back of his throat. “Iʼm not even fully English.”
Francis came closer across the library floor. “I never would have known.”
“Iʼve grown accustomed to hiding it. But I was born—I was born there, in fact.” James pointed to the landscape of Rio. “The result of… an improper connection. I was never even told my mother’s name.”
After a pause, during which James felt himself closely and carefully regarded, Francis said, “You realise it does not matter, hm?” His voice was all solicitude. “It makes no difference where a man begins his life. It only matters how he lives.”
James nodded, feeling himself entirely unworthy of such praise.
“I mean it, James.” Francis closed a hand around his wrist and James, as though pulled by some strange gravity, leaned forward and kissed him on his partly-open mouth.
James could not have said what he expected, but certainly not what followed: neither Francisʼ fingers in his hair or his sturdy arm about his waist, nor Francis pressing him back against the bookcase, half-snarling with the violence of his passion, nor Francis returning the kiss with such fervour that James felt all the strength go out of his knees.
They drew apart and Francis’ face was shocked and pink, his bright eyes wild. “Forgive me,” he gasped.
“I’m sorry, James. I must leave you.”
And with that he was gone, and James was quite alone.
Cpt. F.R.M. Crozier
Combe St. Mary
My dear Francis,
I enclose the following from our young friend Hooker, who has got himself in quite a scrape. The long and short of it is that he is lately married, and his good lady is in her first confinement at Bath.
I have no doubt that all will go well with her but Hooker is in a frenzy of concern. He has always been more at ease with flora he can sketch and fauna he can pickle. I fancy the prospect of something live and wriggling has sent him into transports of distress.
He asks for company and help, but I am too wrapped up in Naval affairs at present — not to mention an ever-expanding family of my own. Would you go to him? I would not impose save that I know you to be close at hand. And you are a steadying influence, dear Francis. I’m sure it would cheer him to see you — a week or two would quite suffice.
When you are installed do send me a line or two for I remain, as always,
Your affectionate friend,
James C. Ross
Captain Crozier left Strand Cottage early the following morning. Mr and Mrs Blanky, finding their time more comfortably their own than it had been for almost a month, took a turn about the village, stopping now and then to greet their neighbours: Mrs Blanky with her right hand looped through her husband’s left arm, so that the chief of his weight rested on her shoulder, though to the casual observer neither of them gave the slightest intimation of it doing so.
They had come to the boundary of the churchyard when a horse and rider came loudly into view, cantering briskly in the direction of the church. The gentleman saw the Blankys and, with a little reluctance on the part of his horse, came up short before them.
“Forgive me.” Fitzjames touched the brim of his hat, chest rising and falling from the exertion of his ride. “I had thought to look in on Captain Crozier — do you know if I might find him at home?”
“Indeed, no,” cried Esther. “I am sorry, Mr Fitzjames. He left us late last night.”
The horse, agitated as its rider, turned a fractious circle on the cobblestones. “He’s gone?” asked Fitzjames. “When will he return?”
“Not for some while,” said Tom, raising a hand to shade his eyes. “He was called away to Bath on urgent business — well, not quite business. To visit a friend.”
“To Bath? That is… rather a pity,” said Fitzjames. “I had wished to speak with him — on a matter of some importance.”
“He will write soon enough,” said Esther. “If not to you at once, then certainly to us. I shall bring you the address the moment I have it in my hand.”
“Yes,” said Fitzjames. “Thank you, that is most kind.” He looked not at but through them, as though seeing nothing but the lych-gate and the church beyond.
“Wonʼt you come home with us in any case?” enquired Esther kindly. “Youʼd be most welcome to join us for luncheon, or for tea.”
But Fitzjames shook his head. He thanked her and, with a last unseeing look, took his leave, clattering away across the cobbles and along the lane.
“Have they had some quarrel?” said Esther to her husband as they resumed their promenade. “Francis and Mr Fitzjames? Francis was not himself when he came home.”
“I would not be surprised,” said Tom, who knew his former captain well. “But I thought them friends by now.”
“Mr Fitzjames seemed most distressed upon the matter,” Esther mused. “I hope Francis does write soon — for dear Mr Fitzjames sake, if not our own.”
“Dundy, for Christ’s sake either help me or get out of the way!”
Le Vesconte was a long shadow against the armoire, obstructing precisely the drawers through which James wanted to rifle.
“I cannot understand why you take such pains,” he said airily. “What is Captain Crozier to you, beyond the acquaintance of a month or two? And what is Bath, come to that? Beastly damp and crowded place — Brighton is much more the thing these days, you know.”
“You don’t understand,” said James under his breath. He shoved Dundy aside and tore up handfuls of shirts and stockings, casting them into the trunk that lay open on the bed. “Oh, don’t fuss, John,” he snapped at Bridgens, who was attempting valiantly to fold each item before laying it atop the rest. “I have never cared less for creases in my life than I do at present.”
“You shall care when you come to unpack, sir,” said Bridgens placidly.
James crossed to his desk and snatched up pen and writing paper, the miniatures of Will and Elizabeth in their gold frames, the double portrait of the children.
“How long do you mean to stay?” asked Dundy, levering himself off the chest of drawers and facing James across the bed.
“I don’t know,” said James tersely. He wrapped the miniatures in a handkerchief and stowed them safely in his trunk.
Dundy was frowning. “I cannot think what has come over you.”
“In that case, it is better you do not think at all,” James said sharply. “The volume of Shelley I was reading last night — would you bring it to me, Dundy? Please?”
The moment Le Vesconte was gone, James sank into a chair, suddenly drained of all feeling save weariness and despair.
“May I ask, sir?” Bridgens stopped and cleared his throat. “Is there any threat of scandal in Bath?”
“No,” said James at once. “Whatever do you mean?”
“On account of Captain Crozier, sir — your falling-out. I trust he will not be… indiscreet.”
“Oh.” James passed a distracted hand through his hair. “No, I do not think he will.”
“Then why go, sir? If you do not think it an impertinent—”
“For God’s sake, John, are we not past such niceties now?”
“But why take the risk?” Bridgens’ dark brows were wrung together in concern. “Why place yourself in danger?”
“To make amends,” said James simply, drawing an uneven breath. “And because… because I find I cannot be without him, John.” Tears started suddenly in James’ eyes, and he dropped his head to hide them.
Bridgens, with a father’s gentleness, laid a broad hand on his shoulder and held it there, saying nothing, until the sound of Le Vesconte’s footsteps were heard once more upon the stairs.
The coach set down under the west front of the Abbey, and Francis emerged into a world of ochre-coloured stone. He asked directions to Marlborough Buildings and, having sent his dunnage on ahead, walked there in the pleasant heat, taking in the Circus and the Crescent on the way. Bath was a mirage in summer sunlight, a city of cream and gold: of muslins and gabardine, of church bells ringing and the peal of gossip in the air.
He rapped the knocker at number eight, and having handed his hat and coat to a neatly-dressed maid, was shown into the sitting room where he found Hooker oscillating on the hearthrug.
At the sight of Francis, he brightened considerably. “Captain Crozier!” he cried. “Delighted, quite delighted.”
“My dear friend,” said Francis, noting with amusement the happy flush that rose in Hooker’s cheeks at the sound of these words. “How are you — and your good lady?”
“Quite well — she is quite well, I fancy.” Hooker waved Francis into an armchair and perched himself at the edge of the sofa. “We thought of Bath for the waters, you know, though I myself am not entirely convinced, and yet she takes a glass with every meal, brought from the Pump Room — quite warm! Almost hot, in fact. And with such an odour to it, such as I cannot describe — there is a good deal of sulphur contained within, I think — and calcium, perhaps — I ought to take a sample next time the stuff arrives…”
Hooker went on in this distracted manner for some time and Francis, tired from the heat and from his journey, felt his mind drift south again: to Devonshire, and to James Fitzjames.
He saw again the slant of light across the library, tasted James in his mouth, felt the texture of James’ hair under his hand, the press of James’ lips against his — and yet the savagery of his own reciprocation set shame scorching through him, fierce as cannonfire. The thing was monstrous; unseemly, but he wanted it again.
He wanted James.
On the third night of his sojourn, encouraged so wholeheartedly by his hosts to attend a recital at the Assembly Rooms that he felt positively compelled to go, Francis walked the short distance in the humid evening air and passed a over-warm hour listening to pretty music played tolerably well. At the interval he moved with the crowd into the circular atrium and stood about awkwardly, trying to get as far away from the four glowing fireplaces as he was able.
He had just acquired a glass of cordial when a voice said, “Captain Crozier?” and there, in the centre of the room, stood James Fitzjames.
Francis, feeling an intense, unnatural stillness come up on him, bowed and said, “Mr Fitzjames.”
Fitzjames returned the gesture. “Are you enjoying the concert?”
Francis gazed at him, thinking: these lips have I kissed; this silk-spun hair have I held between my fingers; this waist have I encircled with my arm. “I am, I thank you,” he managed to say.
“That is well,” said Fitzjames, looking about him at the gathered concert-goers. All his natural humour and good spirits seemed quite gone; he seemed entirely earnest, almost forlorn.
Francis longed to go to him, to comfort him, to touch his hand; he was about to speak again when a bell rang, and the people around them began to move in a tide back towards the Octagon Room, where the sound of musicians tuning their instruments could faintly be heard. He lost sight of Fitzjames, who had disappeared, like a phantom, into the crowd.
The second half of the recital passed like a feverish dream. Francis barely heard the music, could scarcely read the concert bill; would have turned in his chair to look for Fitzjames were his uniform coat and epaulettes not already a great inconvenience to the patrons in the neighbouring chairs. As soon as the final piece was done he stood and stared about him, before making for the atrium and the outer door.
Here, in torchlight, stood James Fitzjames. “Will you walk a little with me, Captain?” he inquired.
“I will,” said Francis. “I am very fond of walking.”
“I know,” said James. “I know you are.”
They walked together through the honeysuckle night. Francis was barely cognisant of where they were going, save that for a while they went uphill: the yellow stones turning to cobbles under his feet, the torchbearers and sedan chairs thinning into couples strolling unchaperoned, turning again to parlour-maids and footmen flirting on the pavement.
He asked once, “Where are we going, James?” but received no answer beyond an enigmatic smile.
At length they came to a gated garden below a honeyed half-moon terrace; a little Eden with a fence around it. Under cover of a spreading chestnut tree, James drew Francis close and, after a moment’s hesitation, kissed him, and Francis kissed him back in kind: holding his face between both hands, pressing his lips to forehead and temples and eyelids, to the deep furrows in his cheeks.
“James — James.”
“I came to find you—I wanted to—” James was entirely breathless, sounding almost on the verge of tears. “I thought you’d left me.”
“I did,” said Francis, kissing him again. “I’m sorry. I was called away and it was easier — I was afraid.”
James drew back and looked at him, his eyes black and liquid in the dark. “Are you afraid now?”
“Yes,” said Francis. He was afraid as one is afraid of the ocean, of a storm on the horizon, of an unruly current in an uncharted sea. “What are you, James? What have you done to me?”
In answer, James kissed him, and Francis held onto him in desperation, determined never to let go. He crushed James’ high collar with his clumsy fingers, grasped at the ends of his hair; slid a hand beneath James’ coat to stroke the silk of his waistcoat: slick and smooth and hot at the small of his back. Francis felt himself stiffen in his breeches, the pressure intolerable where James was twined around him, close as mistletoe clinging to a tree.
He was breathless by the time they broke apart and James, sounding scarcely more at ease, gasped, “Come home with me. Come back to Starcross.”
“I cannot,” said Francis, willing it not to be the truth.
“Why not? ” James shook Francis by the open placket of his coat. “I insist upon it. I will not have you from my sight again.”
“I am promised here,” said Francis, smiling at his petulance, though own countenance was far from unmoved: his face still red, his fall-front still straying somewhat from its proper line. “There is a baby waiting to be born — it will be at least a week. Can you wait a week?”
“No,” James breathed, pressing his nose to Francis’ cheek, the word a susurrus of air across his open mouth, and Francis kissed him again, clutching at him, swallowing him down like wine.
Captain F. Crozier
℅ Joseph D. Hooker
8 Marlborough Buildings
You asked me what I am and what I did to you, but I must turn the question, like a mirror, back upon yourself. I feel I have been under a spell since our first meeting in the Starcross woods. I am bewitched by you. You have infected me, mind and body. I have not slept since we parted.
I think of you beneath the tree at twilight; I think of you at the Assembly Rooms, with candlelight on your epaulettes and in your hair; I think of you upon the moor.
I think of your voice and your hands. The resolute line of your back. The way you stand.
A week cannot pass quickly enough. Will you walk with me tomorrow? I shall not breathe until I see your face again.
I am, in an agony of desperation, your own,
The George Inn
My dear James—
Mr J. Fitzjames
The George Inn
Mr James Fitzjames
The George Inn
I want to write you the sort of letter that should be burned as soon as it is read. I want to enflame you with my words, as you have enflamed my heart and head and every part of me.
I am no poet, James. If I longed for you less I might be able to set it down more easily — as one writes a Ship’s log or a report of military engagement, or a hundred other dull and empty things.
You are an eclipse. A Holy marvel. You intoxicate me. In your presence I lose all sense and reason, and yet I find I cannot mourn their loss.
I will walk with you tomorrow and on any day you name. I will walk with you for the rest of my days.
I will call upon you in the morning unless you send word before then to,
Your most humble servant,
It was two weeks before the child was born — a boy, named for his grandfather — and mother, babe and anxious father all content and well. When Fitzjames came to call he was forestalled on the doorstep by a maid with her finger on her lips, and shown into the sitting room to find Captain Crozier sitting on the sofa with a sleeping baby in his arms.
“You must be very quiet,” said Francis, looking up with a weary smile.
“So I was given to understand.” James deposited his hat on a chair and came to sit at Francis’ side. “He’s a bonny thing,” he said, peering into the bundle of shawls. “As babies go.”
“They’re all bonny, James,” said Francis, gently chiding. He shifted himself so that his right knee rested against James’ left. “Here.”
And before James could protest, a warm and living weight was passed into his arms. He looked down at the child, whose features were fine and translucent as those of a porcelain doll. A lock of hair fell across his face and Francis hooked it back behind his ear. “You look well like this, James.”
“I might have held you thus,” he added, when some minutes had gone by. “Thirty or forty years ago, perhaps.”
“Tush,” said James. “You are scarcely more than that yourself.”
“I was long from the nursery by the time you were born,” said Francis, with perfect placidity. “I had left my home and gone to sea.”
James shot him a wary glance. “Would you change those years between us? Be your younger self again?”
“By no means,” said Francis warmly.
“Or would you have me older?” inquired James. “Closer to your own age — less of an arrant knave?” He shaped his mouth into something very like, but not entirely, a smile.
“Not for the wide world,” said Francis, “and all the treasures in it.” He chucked the child under its sleeping chin, and tidied away another recalcitrant strand of James’ hair. “You are treasure enough for me.”
Sitting beside Francis Crozier in a public carriage was an exquisite kind of torture. They were pressed together from shoulder to knee and yet unable to speak, unable to touch, not even the slightest brush of hand against hand. James could smell him, beneath the sundry odours of tobacco and stale linen and sweat; could feel and hear him breathing; fancied he could even sense the beating of his heart.
They stopped for the night at a wayside inn, quiet and large enough that there was no argument in favour of sharing a room; they were separated instead by a darkly panelled hall, along which, at the edge of nightfall, James crept in his shirtsleeves to knock softly at Francis’ door. There was a sound of footsteps, and then Francis appeared wrapped in a dressing gown, his hair charmingly disarranged.
“What’s the matter, James?”
“Tomorrow,” said James in an undertone, “why don’t we send our luggage on at Exeter and ride the rest of the way?”
“A fine idea,” said Francis. “Only Tom has no stables, so I cannot say what I would do with the horse.”
“Well, you must come to Starcross.”
“I thought—” Francis reddened beautifully “—I did not think you meant it.”
James put a hand to Francis’ neck and laid a kiss upon his fevered cheek. “I meant it. Come home with me.”
That afternoon, they duly left the coach at the cathedral green and, having directed their luggage onward to Kingstaunton, hired a pair of horses at the Empire Hotel. James had privately expected Francis to ride rather gracelessly, but he took his seat with the ease and balance he might have shown on board a rolling ship: his shoulders set comfortably backwards, knees tight around his horse’s flanks.
In their absence, Devonshire had changed her colours, as man takes off his outdoor coat and puts on instead a robe of red and gold jacquard. James led the way across the river, pressing his mount onward up the hill beyond. She was no Pyramus, and Francis caught him easily; soon they were galloping together across open country, laughing at the sheer exhilaration of the exercise, at the freedom and pleasure of being out of doors.
When they arrived at Starcross, Bridgens was waiting for them, showing no amazement whatsoever at the sight of them together. “Mr Le Vesconte has gone out, sir,” he said, taking their hats and James’ coat.
“Out?” said James, though he was not sorry for it in the slightest. “Where on earth has he gone?”
“To dinner at Strand Cottage, as I understand it, sir.”
“Good heavens,” said James with a chuckle. He chanced a glance at Francis, who looked too tightly-wound even to smile. “Well, John, why don’t you retire for the night? We can shift for ourselves perfectly well.”
“Very good, sir.” Bridgens withdrew, leaving James and Francis alone under the great unlit chandelier.
James let his eyes rest on Francis’ face, feeling that he should never tire of looking; would never take the joy of looking for granted ever again. “Will you eat?” he asked.
Francis shook his head. James went closer. “Will you come upstairs?”
Francis gave a nod, and folded his fingers around James’ hand.
Francis followed James upstairs in a kind of haze; fairy-led, as an unwary traveller follows uncertain lights across a moor. His heart was racing from their ride, from the balmy evening heat, from the sight of James in riding clothes: long-legged and dirt-spattered, his hair loose and wild. When, on the landing, James turned and kissed him, Francis surged against him like a wave, feeling as though to resist or repress his desire would deliver him some mortal wound.
James led him to a bedchamber where the first fiery light of sunset was beginning to be spilt, making the yellow coverlet of the bed shine like polished gold. James’ hands were at his shoulders, prising Francis out of his coat and casting it aside.
Francis perched obediently on the edge of the bed and James, deft and dispassionate as a valet, knelt to help him out of his boots.
“Stand up,” said he, rising again to his full height. “Take off your waistcoat.”
Francis obliged, his hands shaking as they worked the buttons. James took his place upon the counterpane, still fully dressed save his coat, which he had tossed carelessly onto the floor. Francis turned his back, staring determinedly at the empty grate, eased the waistcoat from his shoulders and folded it, laid it gravely upon a chair.
“Stockings,” said James behind him.
Francis untied the laces at his calf and rolled his stockings down, praying James could not see the patches of careful darning, the much-washed bloodstain on the left ankle, remnant of some misadventure many months ago. Barefoot, he turned, daring a glance at James’ black boots, the shape of his knees under his breeches, the contours of the tightly-fitted, candle-coloured leather.
Francis unbuttoned his fall-front, once more lying rather less at ease than ordinarily, and the three hidden fastenings behind, pushing the well-worn garment down his thighs and onto the floor, taking care to shake his shirttails loose, so that they covered him almost to his knees.
“And your shirt,” said James, sounding rather breathless, and Francis, looking up at last, found him not unmoved: the colour was high in his cheeks again, his lips slightly parted, his chest rising and falling beneath the ruffles of his collar.
But Francis, in spite of all of this, prevaricated. “May I not leave it on?” he said.
James gave him a long and level look, his eyes very dark. “Do you trust me, Francis?”
“Yes,” said Francis at once. “Yes,” he said again, more firmly. He tugged the knot of his stock loose and undid his collar, before lifting his shirt over his head, baring his whole indifferent self to James.
Francis approached the bed, a hand shielding the shame between his legs, feeling like a schoolboy preparing for a beating, though no schoolboy ever looked thus: pocked and pitted, too large and yet too small, marked by age and war and every trial of the flesh a middle-aged man of the middling sort might be expected to endure.
“What troubles you, hm?” James steadied him between his knees, a hand on either elbow.
“I’m too pale,” Francis muttered.
“Like cream,” said James approvingly.
James frowned. “Show me.”
Francis touched his pock-marked cheek, and the graze left by a sabre on his upper arm, the mark of a surgeon’s scalpel below his ribs; turned to show James the star-shaped craters where a French bullet had pierced his thigh.
“They prove only that you’ve lived,” said James. He kissed Francis’ jaw, his arm, his side; brought a hand down to brush against his thigh. “You could have died, Francis — before I ever met you — but you did not.”
Francis said nothing. James squeezed him with his knees. “What else?”
“Too heavy,” said Francis, feeling colour rise into his face. “I’m not young and lithe like you, James. I fear I am rather sluggish and slow.”
“Have you not earned heaviness?” says James, dropping his head to kiss Francis’ belly, his open, teasing mouth making Francis’ groan. “It is the prize of living long and well — to be sluggish is to be at ease.” His fingers darted between Francis’ legs, and with a firm grip on Francis’ rapidly hardening prick he looked up, face lit by a wicked grin. “And are you not at your ease?”
At this James rose, almost overbalancing Francis in his swiftness, and captured Francis’ mouth in a feverish kiss. Francis moaned, overcome by the height and heat of him, at the sensation of leather and linen and cotton against his tender skin. James wheeled them about and pushed Francis back onto the bed, climbing over him like some great hungry cat, worrying his collarbones and neck, closing his lips around Francis’ nipples, kneading and pawing at his breast.
“James—Jesus God.” Francis pushed him ineffectually away. “Will you not undress yourself?” he asked, breathless, wanting to distract James from his ministrations, to give himself a moment of reprieve.
“Be patient,” murmured James, his words a cooling stream on Francis’ kissed and bitten chest. “Let me tend to you.”
“Like an unruly garden,” Francis grumbled, as James mouthed at his stomach again. “Or a sickly child.”
“But you are neither,” said James, getting a hand once more around his cock, making Francis writhe. “You are only yourself, my love — and what a wondrous thing you are.”
Francis, looking down, felt for a moment that he would spend from the mere sight — from the wild Bacchanalian vision — of James’ dark head between his thighs. When James took his leaking tip into his mouth, Francis was quite certain: he would not merely spend but actually expire.
To be surrounded thus, to be engulfed by James, to be held in this hot cavern of his mouth — Francis grasped at nothing, at the air itself, at the slippery silk counterpane; at last caught up a pillow and hid his face with it, letting out a muffled, wordless cry.
The overwhelming pressure lessened for a moment and then intensified: James’ strong fingers painfully tight at Francis’ hips, skating up and down his ribs, pinching his swollen chest again. Desire swept over Francis like a sickness, like a sudden fever — a moment more and he would be lost.
“James — James.” His voice came faint and fast. “I’m going to—I won’t last.”
James pulled off him with a laugh, and plucked the pillow from Francis’ hands. “Well we can’t have that, can we?” He looked entirely debauched, his hair awry, his mouth wet and open. He wiped it with the cuff of his shirt and patted Francisʼ thigh. “Come along, Captain.”
But Francis could do little more than attempt to catch his breath, watching as James slid backwards off the bed and stripped methodically, revealing broad embroidered braces, a linen shirt rather damp at the collar and in the small of his back, and at last the whole long length of him: a slender waist and finely-muscled arms, his skin like pale and burnished bronze. A sallow flush had spread from face to neck to chest, and his prick was hard and reddish-brown between his thighs. The sight made Francis’ mouth run dry.
James, finding himself observed, seemed for a moment wrong-footed, faltering a little on the rug beside the bed. Francis propped himself up against the pillows and stretched out his hand. James came to him, climbing coltishly onto the bed and into Francis’ lap, all bare skin and ungovernable limbs. He bent his head and kissed Francis, soft and sweet and almost shy.
“Am I too thin?” he asked quietly. “Or perhaps not thin enough — I used to be slimmer when I was young.”
“You are perfect,” said Francis fervently, stroking James’ hair with the flat of his palm.
“Or too tall?” James went on. “Though I am not as tall as Dundy—”
“Please do not mention Mr Le Vesconte at this precise moment, James.”
“My face is rather strange, I fancy.”
“Your face is beautiful.”
“But would you have me different, Francis?” James took Francis’ head in his hands, and gazed down at him with solemn, shining eyes.
“Never, James.” Francis kissed his mouth. “Never, never,” he said, kissing him again.
James moaned against him, his long-neglected cock twitching against Francis’ stomach. Francis’ own prick swelled again in sympathy, still wet and slick from James’ earlier attentions. He wanted more of this, more of James, wanted to take possession of him as a man takes possession of a horse or a house, only—
“I want you, James,” he said as they broke apart. “Only I do not know... how.”
James beamed down at him, infuriating and charming all at once. He made a long arm towards the bedside cabinet, and rattled around inside it for a moment before righting himself, a small apothecary’s jar held in his fingertips. There was some little ramification — James’ elegant hand vanishing behind him, his shoulder working while Francis nuzzled at the notch of his neck — and soon James was rocking back and forth in his lap, his lower lip caught between his teeth, sweat beading on his face and chest.
Francis, acting on instinct rather than experience, took himself in hand and nudged up against James, sensing a slide of oil, feeling the concerted motion of James’ fingers in and out.
“I’ll not hurt you?” Francis was shaking from the effort of holding still, of not pressing upwards into James. He stroked James’ back from shoulder blade to waist; cupped his backside, gently squeezed.
“You could not,” breathed James, and his hand found Francis’ aching prick, and guided him inside.
Francis had once climbed Terror ʼs rigging in a gale, had clung to the yard arm with arms and legs while the world seemed to move beneath him: towering, sentient waves rearing up and breaking over the shipʼs broad waist; her bow seeming like a model made of matchsticks, plunging into an inky sea; the wide ocean stretching on and on forever in all directions, endless, godless, a thing no human could ever hope to circumscribe.
Here, in the shock of James’ warm body, Francis felt something of the same abject fear and awe: as though he might slide from the edge of the world and into oblivion, might welcome it with open arms. But then James took his face between his hands again, kissed his forehead and his open, panting mouth, and Francis wanted nothing more than to remain on solid earth — to be pinned here, to be grounded under James.
“James,” he gasped, plunging his hand into James’ hair. “Oh, James.”
James shivered, his mottled eyes bright with unshed tears. “Francis, I—oh, God.” He shifted in Francis’ lap and Francis nearly spent at once, such was the strength of sensation that came over him. He put his forehead to James’ breastbone, content merely to breathe for a while, but James rose upon his knees and sank back down again, setting a lazy, comfortable rhythm: as confident in this as he was in the saddle of his horse, and just as bold.
As Francis’ hand slid from the nape of James’ neck to his narrow waist, James tossed back his hair — and Francis could not imagine ever having scorned the gesture; ever having loathed it, thought it mannered or insincere.
Francis brought his knees up, cradling James between the buttress of his thighs, matching his cadence until they moved together as one: their breaths each other’s breath, their sweat each other’s sweat, joined from groin to chest; James’ cock hot and wet between them, pressed affectionately close to Francis’ belly. When Francis gave a particularly forceful jolt, James clenched tight around him, making Francis shudder and throw back his head. His skull connected with the ornately carved bedstead, and he groaned, stars sparking behind his eyes.
Above him, James chuckled, the vibration going straight to Francis’ cock.
“Don’t laugh,” Francis said through gritted teeth, and when this only served to make James laugh harder, he dug his fingers hard into James’ back and sucked cruelly at a nipple, meaning it to sting.
Instead, however, James let out a pained, exquisite noise of longing. He was still for a moment, all the muscles in his body taut and strained as stays, and then he spent profusely over Francis’ stomach and chest and, indeed, over himself: a milky splash as far up as his collarbone.
At the sight of this — of James’ astonished, ecstatic face; of his golden skin adorned with pearls — and at the sudden, clutching grip of James’ slick arse, Francis felt himself cast into outer darkness, cognisant of nothing save James, and James, and James.
“Lord, I am sore,” sighed James. “From riding,” he added quickly, as Francis shifted in concern. “I forgot what it was to be a country gentleman — we spent so long in town.”
“We spent seventeen days there, James, that is all.”
“An eternity! If I never see Great Pulteney Street again, I shall be quite set up for life.”
They had drowsed awhile, wrapped comfortably in each other’s arms, heedless of the scandalous state of the bedclothes. Francis, rousing himself a little, was making a careful visual inventory of James’ long and supine form — the pretty ankles that protruded from the sheets; the horseman’s supple thighs; his soft stomach, strange contrast to the bony jut of rib; his small brown nipples, now faintly pink; his upper arms, and his peculiarly delicate wrists.
“I cannot sleep with you watching me like that,” said James, without opening his eyes.
Francis smiled to himself and bent to kiss James’ jaw. “I like to look at you.”
He passed a contemplative hand across James’ chest — up towards the place where his clavicle, with a flourish like a vault in a cathedral — met the apex of his shoulder. Moving lower, he stroked James’ belly, his breast; fondly thumbed a nipple, feeling it become a ripe and pointed peak.
James stretched and gave a groan. “If you do that, I certainly shall not sleep.” But he lay back again in Francis’ arms, apparently content. Francis pressed a kiss into his hair.
“I thought myself heartbroken when I met you,” he said at length. He had not thought of Sophia for some weeks — for months, perhaps. But it seemed only right to speak of her to James: if not of her directly then at least of the state of mind she had provoked. He felt he owed James that much. He owed James everything, in truth.
“Hmm?” said James, sounding as though he was feigning drowsiness with some not-inconsiderable effort.
“I had suffered a disappointment — proposed, in fact, and been refused.”
James opened one eye, his expression obscure but not, Francis thought, unhappy.
“I believed myself in love,” Francis continued. “But it was… it was the palest shadow of what I feel for you.”
At this, James sat up, turning in the tangled sheets to face him. “Say it again, Francis.”
Francis blinked at him. “What?”
“Don’t tease me.” James pressed a finger into the bare, fleshy top of Francis’ thigh. “Tell me — properly.”
Francis, suppressing a smile, hoisted himself upright. He took James’ hands, so much longer and more graceful than his own. “I love you,” he said simply. “I love you, James. I love you.”
James raised Francis’ hands and kissed them; again and again, pressing mouth and nose to knuckle, and fingertip, and open palm.
“I love you too,” he said, holding Francisʼ hand against his jaw. “I love—I love you.”
Mr Le Vesconte spent a night of riotous good cheer at Strand Cottage and was put to bed in Captain Crozier’s vacated room. He woke early that morning and wandered back to Starcross Hall with an aching head, feeling rather green about the gills.
In the unpleasantly sunny morning room he found Captain Crozier and James Fitzjames at breakfast, sitting companionably at either corner of the long table, deep in animated conversation. Mr Le Vesconte took one look at them through the half-open door, smiled widely to himself, and went quietly away to his quarters, meeting Mr Bridgens on the way and informing him that he would take his leave of Starcross upon the following afternoon.
Once Mr Le Vesconte had departed — with many promises to return and be the architect of another dazzling ball in the Spring — all that remained was for Francis to have his sea chest conveyed from cottage to hall, the task falling to a pair of rather put-upon footmen with a handcart, with Mr Bridgens following solemnly behind.
Francis made an extensive leave-taking at Strand Cottage, vowing to call on Tom as often as he was able, and to walk with Esther whenever the weather was fine; that Hannah could come to Starcross whenever she liked, with whatever small treasures she had to show him. Essie surprised everyone — including, to all appearances, herself — by rushing forward to throw her arms about Francis’ neck, before turning deeply pink and hurrying away upstairs.
So Captain Crozier made his home at Starcross Hall, and very little changed, in fact, from what had gone before. He and James still walked upon the moor, coming home happy and tired and kissed by sun and wind. Francis put in for retirement from the Navy and spent his pension on a spirited Cleveland Bay, riding out with James on muddy autumn days, climbing to the crest of the headland over the sea, and dismounting from time to time in secluded places about the countryside — the shade of spinneys and under the lee of moorland cliffs — to crush James close against him and get a hand under his coat or down the front of his riding breeches.
In short, all went well between them, and by the time the leaves were turning in the Starcross woods, neither James nor Francis felt they had known such happiness before, and were certain they would live in nothing but perfect felicity for the remainder of their days.
One morning in midwinter, James came into the breakfast room to find Francis pensive at the window, gazing out at the mist that was beginning to lift above the park. He was worrying at a ring upon the little finger of his right hand: a ring James had never seen him wear before.
“My love?” said James, for they were quite alone.
“I have been thinking, James,” said Francis, turning from the window.
There was such solemnity in his voice that James’ heart leapt into his throat, and he had to curl his hand around the back of a solid, nearby chair; steadying himself against the sudden weakness in his legs.
“The nature of our union,” Francis went on. “It is rather unusual, is it not?”
James, unable to speak, merely nodded.
“We live under the same roof,” Francis mused, unsmiling. He had the air of a man who has been pondering a question for many days, and has finally come to his conclusion. “We share our meals — we share a bed. There are not many men in England who can say the same, I think.”
“If you are dissatisfied,” said James, “then you may make what changes you desire — I shall not prevent you.” At this he broke off, finding his voice quite stoppered up with tears.
“Oh, my heart!” Francis rushed forward and took James by the elbows. “What on earth is the matter?”
“I understand,” said James bitterly, pulling out of Francis’ grasp. “You don’t have to explain yourself, Francis — it’s quite all right.”
But James was making for the passageway, for the orangery, for the terrace and the steps beyond, quickening his stride as he heard Francis’ footsteps behind him. On the frosted lawn he rounded on Francis, who came up short in alarm.
“Why do you follow me?” James demanded. “If you are to leave, you must have Bridgens pack your things — I’m sure he will oblige.”
“James!” Francis passed a hand across his creased and earnest face. “My love, you are quite mistook. I have not made myself plain.” He made as if to take James’ arms again, but James stepped away from him, shivering both with the cold and with a dreadful, muted rage.
“Very well,” said Francis, exhaling steam into the wintry air. He touched his fingers to the ring again; turned it, removed it, held it in his palm. “This ring was my father’s. The Crozier crest — do you see?”
James, despite himself, looked at the engraving: a heraldic shield cut deep into the gold.
“My family set great store by this crest, and by the Crozier name,” said Francis. “My mother was always proud to bear it — my brother’s wives, too, though of course it was not theirs before they married.” Francis took a long and apparently steadying breath, and when he spoke again there was the faintest of tremors in his voice. “Your own name is very fine, James. A name within a name — like a kind of puzzle. But I had thought to enquire… whether — in private at least — you might like to take the name of Crozier, too.”
And at this, Francis sank onto his knee upon the grass. James stared down at him in amazement.
“I know it is not usual, James,” he said. “And I know it is not truly possible. But if you would accept this ring—” he held the golden band aloft “—and if you would take the sacrament with me on Sunday, would it not be very like—would it not be nearly as good as being married?” Francis’ upturned face was the very picture of anxiety. “I would dearly like us to be married, James — if you will consent to have me.”
James stared a moment longer, then slowly smiled, and then let out a tearful, snorting, and wholly undignified laugh. “Oh, idiot man,” he said at last.
Francis spluttered, wobbling on his bended knee, and James crumpled to the frozen ground before him, putting his arms around his neck and kissing his flushed, affronted cheeks.
“Francis,” he breathed. “My own Francis.” He found Francis’ hands; found the ring, still warm from Francis’ skin. “How can you be in doubt of my acceptance?”
“Not two minutes ago you were directing me to pack my things,” said Francis, with not a little exasperation. “For heaven’s sake get up, James — we shall both of us freeze.”
They rose, James never once letting go of Francis’ hands. The signet ring was clasped between them, like a tiny broken robin’s egg: a hollow O that spoke of life beginning, of flight into a wondrous sky.
“Will you wear it, James?” Francis ducked his head, looking up at James from beneath his furrowed brow. “You may seal your letters with it, if it pleases you — the ones you write to me, at any rate.”
“I will write you a letter every day of my life,” said James. “If you would like me to.” He stretched out his left hand and Francis, whose eyes had filled with tears, slid the ring onto his smallest finger.
It would not have fitted where a woman wore her wedding band, but James found he did not mind. In this way he could wear it always; could have Francis with him always; could, in the words of solemnisation for such a union, love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, for as long as they both should live.
Francis clasped their hands together and the old gold shone like sunlight, like summer in a winter world.
The Sunday before Christmas dawned white as new-made marchpane, with snowdrifts lying thickly on the Starcross grounds. Captain Crozier and Mr James Fitzjames — and Mr Le Vesconte, their houseguest for the season — all well-wrapped against the cold, walked together to St Mary’s, followed at a respectful distance by Mr Peglar, Mr Bridgens and the remainder of the staff. At the lych-gate they met the Blankys, and all was quietly convivial: a deal of mirth and merriness suitably subdued for church.
The sermon was a short one, for which Captain Crozier would ordinarily have been glad; only on this particular morning he found he longed to draw it out, to delay the moment when the congregation would rise and take communion.
James Fitzjames, entirely sympathetic to the strange blend of apprehension and excitement felt by the gentleman sitting at his side, put out his left hand — on which he wore a gold signet ring, rather scratched, but finely carved — as though to take the open hymn book from his companion’s knee, and let it linger there awhile.
When it came time to kneel before the altar rail, Captain Crozier and James Fitzjames took their places together, with Thomas Blanky — as so often — at Francis’ elbow and Mr Le Vesconte on James’ right side.
Together they took bread and ate; took wine and drank.
Francis, as they rose, brushed James’ hand very gently with his own, and smiled.
When they came, rather giddily, out from beneath the shelter of the porch, it was snowing again. Francis, ever in readiness for emergencies, produced an umbrella, but James declined to stand beneath it.
“Like grains of rice!” he cried, wandering away from the slowly-spilling crowd. “Or flower petals — don’t you think?”
“I think you will catch your death,” said Francis, hurrying after him down the path. “And leave me a widower long before my time.”
James, snow glistening in his hair, looked pained. “I shall not,” he said. “I mean to live forever, if I can.”
“I have no doubt of your succeeding,” said Francis, covering James determinedly with the umbrella and catching hold of his arm. “But you must give Providence a fighting change.”
James gazed at him solemnly, though the promise of a happy smile danced at the corners of his mouth. “Do you feel altered?” he asked, as they walked towards the churchyard gate. “As though you had undergone some great change?”
“Not particularly,” said Francis. “I feel only… a very great joy.”
“That is just how I feel.” James squeezed Francis’ hand. “Husband. ”
Francis, who had wanted to smile, who had come to the point of doing so, found his eyes brimming suddenly with tears. “James.”
“Dearest.” James regarded him with fond amusement. “You do recall that this was your idea?”
“Of course I do,” said Francis, wiping his face with the back of his unoccupied hand. “Only — you must say it a little more, James, before I am accustomed to it.”
“Husband,” said James again. “My own dear husband. How very well it sounds.”
Mr. James Fitzjames
His green Sopha
The far corner of the orangery
If you insist upon this epistoliary Performance for very much longer, you shall wear poor Mr Bridgens out. He has been back and forth between us half a dozen times today and I daresay the novelty is wearing rather thin.
Come upstairs at once my Love and put both Bridgens and myself at ease.
You know I cannot bear to be apart from you — we ought to take a smaller house, James.
Captain Francis R. M. Crozier
I believe he is in the library
For dearest you will always be — even when, as now, you are vexatious in the extreme.
You know very well that I must practice my new signature, and the use of my new seal and, moreover, that the Orangery is warm and bright and gives a view across the park that cannot compare to any window of our perfectly-proportioned house.
Whatever are you doing up there that cannot wait a while? Venture downstairs, dearest, and sit with me. Let us eat oranges.
I remain, expectantly, your most affectionate husband,
James Crozier Fitzjames
James Crozier Fitzjames
James Crozier Fitzjames