Harry Thompson, his journal.
I light a candle and look on the man sprawled facedown among tangled bedclothes. The night air is sticky, airless, almost as hot as the day. I’m sat here at the desk, sleepless from the heat, as I will be until dawn brings a breeze from the sea, with the scent of tar and ships and a faint cool. I’ll sleep then. For now, I write. And look at him.
Gauze curtains hang around the bed, white, ghostly, veiling him. He’s kicked off everything but the tail end of a sheet and has hidden his face in the crook of his arm. His back is pale as milk and, in the candlelight, a sheen of sweat gilds his muscles. He is a tall man, lithe and slender, and his black hair gleams like jet, curling into the nape of his neck, where a final lock kicks up like a drake’s tail. I lean down to part the drapes and rest a hand gently on his bare shoulder. He shifts towards the touch without waking.
How did I come here? What strange movement of the heavens or gamble of Providence marked me out to be so blessed?
I reach for the open window and edge the sash a quarter inch further, letting in lush, choking air and a multitude of Saint Sebastian’s insect life. The pages of my journal lie limp and damp, and the ink sinks thirstily into them. A week ago, I examined a ship trading ice out of Greenland, crawled about the hold and parted the woven mats of straw to touch the cargo’s glassy sides and feel its burning chill with my fingertips. It was the first time I have been cold in almost a decade.
There might be some relief from this pressing humidity in the tiny boathouse beneath our dwelling. The thought of taking candle and journal and sneaking down there, to write in the cool, is appealing. But it would mean leaving him alone, and I begrudge every moment spent out of his presence. We have been forced to give up so much for this, our state of near-married bliss. Best appreciate it now, lest tomorrow the hangman snatch it away.
The oak-apple-gall-and-vinegar scent of the ink pricks my nose. I sand the page and smooth it. Why do I want to leave this record? Why not leave our story untold? It is dangerous to speak, let alone to commit the words to paper. My need to confess may be the death of us both. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that this love should go unrecorded, that posterity should judge men like myself—like him—by the poor fools driven out to grope strangers in alleys, all fumbling fingers and anonymous grunting. Those of us uncaught must perforce be silent. But one day, perhaps, when the world has grown kinder, this journal will be read by less jaundiced eyes. To them I will be able to say there was fidelity here, and love, and long-suffering sacrifice, and joy. To them I will be able to speak the truth.
I trim my pen and dip it. From the waterfront, the docks and warehouses all about us, comes the clap of rope against mast, and laughter: the riot of sailors trying to forget. In the town beyond, the notes of a cavaquinho fall like silver raindrops into the night. But, floating over all, from the hills of the interior comes a rumbling throb of drums as the slaves and the natives too remember their stories, keep their truths alive.
I should introduce myself. I am Captain Harry Thompson of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. I began my life as a Norfolk wherryman’s son. Pressed aboard the Sovereign under Captain Garvey at the age of fourteen, I took to the Navy as a bird, falling from its nest, takes to flight. It was my element and my delight. I filled my hours with work and study. Alone in my hammock at night, I imagined myself a great admiral, pacing the deck of a First Rate, my own flotilla following in a strictly measured line behind me. By diligent study of those better born than myself, I polished my manners and my mode of speech so that I could pass as a gentleman. In the year 1784 I was made lieutenant. The most junior lieutenant of the Barfleur under Admiral Lord Samuel Hood.
A man like myself, with no family connexions, may serve his whole life as a lieutenant, but I was determined that should not be my fate. If I required either a miracle or an act of heroism to secure a captain’s rank, I would produce one. So when, some years later, a French cannonball shattered the railing of the Barfleur, which burst into thrumming, foot-long splinters of sharpened oak that sprayed the quarterdeck like spears, I was ready. I leaped in front of the Admiral and received through my shoulder the dart that would otherwise have pierced his throat.
I remember the blur of the sky, hazy, hot, and deep, deep blue, all the masts bowing in towards me as if falling atop my face. I felt a crushing sensation as though they had indeed pinned me beneath them, and my mouth filled with blood. I could not have cried out even if I had tried, though I am pleased to say I did not try. I fell silently into oblivion. And then I awoke in my hammock with a vast pain, and an admiral in my debt.
Which may be taken as sufficient explanation for why, at thirty-four years of age, with a new wig atop my freshly shaved head and a servant going on before me to carry my baggage, I took possession of my first, and last, command.
HMS Banshee, a sloop of war, swung about her anchor rope in Plymouth that day under gentle English May-day sunshine, and looked as though she had sailed straight out of my boyish dreams. Her paint shone bright azure and gold, and her company, drawn up for my inspection, stood neat and biddable, the officers glittering, the men like a country garden in bright check shirts and ribbons.
I found, later the same day, that she was elderly, had been much knocked about in the Bay of Biscay, and was a leaky, wet ship. Always three feet of water in the well, no matter how we pumped. Always mildew on the food and in our clothes, and her finely dressed men wheezed and coughed as they worked.
My servant unpacked my things and did his best to make the cabin homelike, wiping the black bloom of mould from all the surfaces, installing my few belongings in this sumptuous, almost indecent, expanse of private space.
That week I was too full of work to see either officers or men as more than brief, bipedal shadows cast into the cave of my preoccupation. I had a convoy to organize. News had reached London that Captain Arthur Philip had successfully brought his fleet to Rio de Janeiro and, after reprovisioning there, had departed for Australia, his small payload of convicts largely intact. The birth of a new colony was underway, and I was directed to follow with a second fleet, comprising the convict transport vessels Drake, Quicksilver, and Cornwall, the supply ship Ardent, and the Banshee as escort and protector. All this I was to organise myself, and to achieve before the month was out.
In my zeal, I drove myself to achieve it all in little more than a week. I wonder now, looking back, whether—had I taken longer, been more scrupulous—I might have seen the seeds of the great calamity to come. A bruise here, a livid cheek there, among the men and women huddled behind iron bars in the holds of the transport ships. Doctors assure me the malady could not have lain low so long, but I cannot help wondering . . .
Yet hindsight makes Cassandras of us all, encouraging us to cry out, “You should have listened,” when it is far too late. Perhaps the doctors are right, and my fault came later. It is my fault just the same.
The weighed anchor rose with a pop and a spout of bubbles from Plymouth’s seabed. The day was fair, crisp and golden as white wine, and the breeze fresh. A Thursday, it was washing day aboard the Banshee, and we departed to our fate with the ensign flying, white sails bravely spread, and our rigging fluttering with shirts, small clothes, and stockings hung out to dry.
Now, I thought, taking a turn at the wheel to see how she handled—she wallowed like a swimming cow—I have the time to get to know my ship, my men.
The spray tangled like silver lace about the yellow-haired, screaming woman of Banshee’s figurehead. The wind strengthened and the ropes of her rigging creaked with accustomed strain. By afternoon we were out of sight of land. Our little community of ships sailed alone on the deep blue waves of the Atlantic, under a sunset as juicy orange-pink as a peach.
A great burden fell away from me then, and I sighed as the wind nudged my back and whipped the ends of my ribbon against my cheek, the land and its scurry behind me, a long, long voyage before. Now there is time to do more than merely work. Time to live.
The washing came down from the rigging. The watches changed, last dog watch into first watch. Soft and silver over the sigh of waves, the ship’s bell sounded out once. In echo came the sweet ring of the bells on Drake and Ardent, and a moment later the distant ting of Quicksilver and Cornwall further behind. Night fell with the lazy downward drift and sheen of a falling magpie feather.
After eating my solitary dinner, I set my wig on its stand, took off my uniform coat, and substituted an old grey short-jacket, disreputable and comfortable. I intended my officers to know at a glance that this was an informal visit. The officer on watch, Lieutenant Bailey, I believe, attempted to hide his lit pipe behind his back as he snatched off his hat with his other hand. I gave him a nod and walked past, pretending not to have noticed.
I have been down many a companionway—one hand for the ship and one for myself, leaning back to place my weight more firmly on the treads. I was unaware this was the last time I would do so in possession of my own soul. Not even when I paused outside the closed door of the wardroom at the sound of a voice singing, a voice as smooth and rich as a flagon of whipped chocolate, did I imagine that my life as I had known it was about to come to an end.
A wardroom servant, coming out burdened with dishes, held open the door for me, supposing me too grand to work the latch myself. I ducked beneath the lintel and froze there as if the air had turned to amber. I breathed in scented resin and eternity.
Scattered pewter plates reflected the light of lanterns swinging gently from the beams overhead. The hull curved in about the room like cradling palms. Down the long sweep of board, glasses glittered with pinpricks of silver, the wine within them burning red. He stood behind his empty seat at the head of the table, singing.
Braced, his long fingers curled over the back of the chair, the fall of his frock coat devastatingly elegant, he stood like the Archangel Gabriel before Mary. And his beauty was such that had he looked at me and said, like an angel, “Do not be afraid,” I would have had to thank him for the needful reassurance.
Words cannot do him justice. What word is “black” to describe hair as glossy as obsidian, as soft and thick as fur? He wore it in a loose mass of curls, collar length, informal, very modern. His top lip the shape of a Mongolian recurve bow, only a shade or two pinker than his strikingly pale skin. A stubborn jaw outlined in shadow and a long straight nose. Black lashes and strong black brows. A masculine face, and yet exquisite; clear and glorious as a sword thrust through the heart. I gasped at the shock and ecstasy of it, and without faltering in his song—to this day I don’t remember what it was he was singing; “You Gentlemen of England,” perhaps—he turned to look at me.
His eyes were dark brown, like his voice—like chocolate. Their gaze at first conveyed frankness, thoughtfulness, though with an element of wariness admixed. I saw them widen as he comprehended my interest. His song faltered. He licked his lips. At the sight, a wave of heat and blood rose stinging and tingling from the soles of my feet to my head. My heart beat twice in silence, the world falling away from our tangled glances, the two of us alone in the pupil of God’s eye.
And then normality returned with a chorus of clinks as the slouching officers set down their spoons and cups, leapt to attention, mobbed me with welcomes and glasses of wine.
I couldn’t remember his name! We must have been introduced a week ago. One of those obedient faces beneath cocked hats must have been his. But, distracted by duty, I had been deaf and blind. Impossible though it seemed now, I simply had not noticed.
“Lieutenant Garnet Littleton, sir,” he said, and gave me a wry, sensitive smile that made me choke on my claret. Dear God, so much for time! The voyage had only just begun and already I was doomed.
# # #
Year of Our Lord 1802. By the grace of God, and the strength of my own hand, Garnet Littleton.
You cannot guess how I am laughing in my heart. Well, why should you? I am dead and dust, and all you see is the change of writing from Harry’s crabbed scrawl to my elegant hand. There will be fewer ink splotches in this portion, I promise you.
Every night it is the same. We tryst with great mutual pleasure, and I, sated, fall asleep, only to be awoken in the grey of dawn by a flutter of curtains, a cold wind, and the sound of his snoring. Yet again, he’s slumped over the desk, tallow from the candle overflowing the tin saucer in which it stands and greasing his head and elbow. His fingers are in the ink. I have become quite the expert at hauling him from chair to bed and tucking him in without waking him.
Then I sit, and read what he has been saying, and chuckle to myself. He’s so earnest. So pedantic. So convoluted in his meaning and expression. I love him for it, but still I laugh.
Tonight I see he has begun a record of our love. For shame! How could he think such a thing worthwhile without asking for my contribution? He will miss every subtlety and tell but half the tale without me.
Look here, for example, where he has said, “I don’t remember what it was he was singing.” Is that not shocking? It reminds me of my father, trying to recount his own courtship over the dinner table. “Your mother was the most radiant creature I have ever seen,” he would say, “in a blue satin dress that matched her eyes . . .”
“Darling, it was teal,” my mother would reply. “And silk. I can’t believe you can’t even remember my dress. Thank God one of us was paying attention!”
And they would bicker for the rest of the afternoon, both of them with the same smug smile, taking great pleasure from their children’s annoyance.
I feel a little like that now. For the song was “Give Me But a Friend and a Glass, Boys,” and it was flung out like a net to see what I could catch. In case it is not sung where you are, dear reader, here are the words:
Give me but a friend and a glass, boys,
I’ll show you what ’tis to be gay;
I’ll not care a fig for a lass, boys,
Nor love my brisk youth away.
Give me but an honest fellow
That’s pleasantest when he is mellow
We’ll live twenty-four hours a day.
You see? I was angling for a fish to bite, so I shall not rebuke him too much for being unaware of the lure, when he took it down whole and was hooked regardless. Evidently he was so dazzled by my numerous and wondrous qualities that my message utterly passed him by. I find I can forgive him for that.
Do you think I’m a fool? Yet it isn’t folly which makes my words so light, and causes nonsense to spill out of my mouth like the notes of an aria. It’s just that I’m happy. I didn’t believe it possible to be this fortunate in life, being what I am. But I was wrong. Happiness goes to my head like wine. I daresay I am insufferable with it. If that’s the case, I ask you to bear with me. To suit my sad tale, I will become much more miserable presently.
I suppose I should cease this drivel and pick up the account where Harry has left it off. That momentous instant when Cupid’s arrow pierced us both. Straight through one heart into the other it flew. Metaphorically speaking, you understand, though at the time, had I looked down and seen blood, I would not have been surprised. The rosy-dimpled boy, having done his worst, clapped his bow back between his wings and flew off, chuckling. I was left trying not to smile, trying not to flirt or to stare. Trying not, in short, to get the pair of us hanged.
I had enjoyed the game of it, in the past. I did not enter the Navy because I feared to put myself at risk, and I have always found that life tastes sweetest with a slight spicing of terror. If you go looking for them, there are always men to be found, three weeks out of port, who are willing to take the chance of a quick fumble. From a whisper misjudged so that the lips brush skin, to the torment of squeezing by, just that little bit too close in a confined space. All this leading to a hasty climax on the cable tier or in the spirit room. The gunpowder magazine, that’s my favourite. Biting kisses and the little death in the dark, surrounded by all that slumbering fire.
I’m not a gambling man, despite what my present neighbours might tell you. But I believe the reckless compulsion a man finds at the tables, I found in this. Knowing I could be destroyed at any moment, loving the high stakes and the thrill.
And so I was singing in invitation when the door opened and Harry ducked beneath the sill. He has waxed lyrical over my charms. It is only fair I be allowed to do the same, lest you think that he is all the gainer and I the loser of this transaction. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is a broader man than I. Strongly built. Traces of the lower deck lingered in that awful jacket he wore and in his hands, made muscular and large by manual work early in life.
I would not dream of a liaison with a tar. A crewman could not in all conscience say no to me, an officer. I could never be truly certain he was as willing as I, and so I have never dallied outside my rank. But I’ve looked. And I must say Harry’s slight coarseness appeals. He has a pugnacious face, and keeps his hair cropped to the scalp. It is darkly rich as walnut wood, and I wish he would let it grow, just a little. He says it irks him in the heat, but I would make it worth his while.
Yet it was his eyes I noticed then. A beautiful blend of brown and gold, like the colour of the stone called “tiger’s eye.” They changed from shadow to light, from expression to expression. I thought I saw a different me in them, a man I liked better than I had liked myself hitherto.
I drew out my own chair for him and made him sit. He toyed with his wine, his tanned face white as if freshly painted. I thought he looked as thunderstruck as I felt: still deafened and dazzled by that moment of the divine. No wonder Jove’s lovers burned up entire when he revealed his full power to them! We had seen but an instant of it and we were as shaken as a two-year-old by the blast of his first cannon. Such a physical thing, I could have fallen on my arse from the recoil, and bawled for fright.
He looked afraid too. Instinctively, once I had made my introductions, I found a patch of shadow in which to sit, and let the Second Lieutenant, Angus Kent, fill up our silence with a long account of those things our old captain used to do, which he supposed our new one would wish to continue.
Harry nodded in appropriate places. I saw his eyes stray to me, once. I wondered why there was no crack, no snake of lightning following the path of his glance, for I felt it in me. Every fibre of my frame clenched and then released with a strange tingling snap.
He snatched back his gaze when he saw me watching, and coloured. His jaw hardened. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “I honour your captain’s name, and he seems to have run a taut ship. But I go my own way. I will keep those traditions I find useful, but I do not intend the hand of a dead man to guide me. You must reconcile yourselves to change.”
A firm voice, a frank stare. They were impressed. But I noticed that, after that first glance, he did not look my way again. His eyes travelled from one side of the room to the other by way of the table, avoiding me. I sat in a notional abyss cut out of the wardroom by his will, consigned to Coventry or to Hell, whichever would suit me best.
Oh, I thought, feeling the chill of it already, so that’s the way of it. He means to reject this. The most extraordinary event of my life, and I’m sure of his, and he intends to pretend it did not happen? I will admit that grudgingly I was pleased he was wiser than I and more self-controlled. But I was wounded to the quick in my pride.
To be so easily dismissed was more than I could bear. Oh no, I thought. You do not feel the thunderbolt of Jove, and go on as though nothing has happened. The gods punish hubris such as that. You do not have the strength to fight against Olympus.
Look at me again, sir, I thought. You do not want to make them angry. But he would not, and neither of us would have believed the retribution that was to come.