He does not die.
It surprises everyone but no one more than Cholmondeley himself.
When first he opens his eyes, he feels a cool cloth on his head and hears a gentle voice speak. He fancies in his pain that it is Maria’s but knows in his heart that it is not.
He asks for her forgiveness anyway.
His last thought as sleep takes him is that he should ascertain to whom the voice belongs.
Over the days that follow the voice anchors him, gentle and steady, standing firm amongst the terrible tempest of pain that Delaney has unleashed.
He had always known that Delaney would bring hell-fire with him but he had failed to anticipate just how fucking painful it would be.
On the 8th day he awakes proper and realises that he may not die. The pain is still unbearably present but he has a hazy memory of laudanum on his tongue and fears it could be even worse.
He blinks. For the first time since Delaney crashed into his life he is not planning, devising, stirring, moving or fighting.
He is below deck. It is quiet and empty aside from a woman sat in the corner, half asleep.
“Madam,” he croaks, “would you be so good-”
Her eyes fly open and she stands - Oh. Oh.
Not only not Maria but not a woman at all.
“Drink,” says the man gently, tipping a beaker of water against his lips.
Gentle, so very gentle. Where did he come from, this creature, to be so much a man but to be so fucking gentle. How soft must his life have been?
“Who the fuck are you?” he snarls when the man moves the cup away.
“And what the bloody hell happened? I-” He hisses as movement occasions a fresh wave of pain to wash over his body and sink into him. As he passes out he curses James Delaney to any pit of hell his mind can conjure.
He spends the days that follow conscious but consumed by a pain he never before imagined. He fancies he sees hobgoblins and soldiers and a room full of Delaneys, dripping blood at the mouth and advancing towards him.
Godfrey’s voice threads through the chaos and on occasion he knows a cool hand on his forehead or a damp cloth dragging across his skin.
He thinks that these moments may have saved that which had passed before for his sanity.
It is the morning and he is fully awake.
Again, they are alone in the berth and Godfrey tells him it is 14 days since they left London.
Godfrey also tells him that they are halfway to their destination which is not, it seems, America, but the Azores. They could have been there already, he is told, but Delaney has been taking the journey carefully, slowly, avoiding other ships at all costs, even if that means sailing away from their route.
Godfrey tells him what happened on the docks. A woman – Helga, the prostitute who believed Delaney killed her babe – is dead. Martinez is also dead. Cholmondeley’s back and legs will scar. Lorna was shot but is already upon her feet and bandaged up. Delaney is alive because Delaney will outlive his family, his friends, his allies, his enemies, the Honourable East India Company and perhaps God himself.
He looks at Godfrey, who is wearing a dress, although the wig and powder Cholmondeley remembers from previous days is not in evidence.
“Are you a Molly?” he asks finally.
Godfrey blinks, “When I am at leisure, yes.”
He snorts. What does that mean? Is he a whore or no?
Perhaps Godfrey reads the question in his eyes for his cheeks colour and his words stammer, “I…I mean, well…until recently… that is to say, I was employed as a clerk for the East India.”
Of course. This is Delaney’s inside man.
He would laugh if he were not certain it would cause him pain.
“I can ask one of the others to attend to you if you would prefer?” says Godfrey in clipped tones as his misreads Cholmondeley’s silence.
“No, I would bloody well not prefer one of the others,” he lifts his head up, “I didn’t mean any bloody offence, all right? Just didn’t take you for the sort of ill-mannered fucking lunatic who would enjoy life with the East India.”
Godfrey smiles, “I didn’t. All those sailors they employed though…”
It is an odd thing but Godfrey’s humour pleases him immensely.
“How did Delaney bring you into this godforsaken little venture?” he asks as he lays flat on his belly while Godfrey changes his dressings. He cannot quite imagine James Delaney having interest in any pleasure so straightforward as a Molly House nor can he envisage any other setting where their dammed leader could have come across such a gentle soul.
“We were at the Woolwich Seminary together when we were young,” he says.
Woolwich Seminary? The East India fucking Seminary?
Cholmondeley blinks, the dull ever-present pain receding against the astonishment that this new information engenders. Godfrey in a military Seminary.
No wonder he sometimes flinches when the others shout but somehow has the backbone to survive a deal with the devil that is Delaney. Godfrey had been through fire and, as Cholmondeley was now bitterly aware, that could do strange things to a man. It made one raw to the world and created an expectation of further hurt at any moment; it made one fearful of what new horror lay in store and caused a man to flinch away – at harsh words or at the light of the small candle by his bunk. But fire gave as well took; it gave a sense of hardened purpose, it forged steel, spun molten glass into fragile beauty and powered the life of the world. It gave to men in the same measure; as if to say nothing can harm me more than I have already been harmed, as if to say hell is empty and all the devils are here and I will watch them do their worst.
Godfrey was looking at him sharply.
“What?” he demands grumpily.
“You needn’t look so surprised,” answers Godfrey shakily, “I know I am not much to look at but I can work as well as most men-”
Cholmondeley snorts. Not much to look at. An odd turn of phrase for one with such looks, even if he means to speak of his brawn. Godfrey is blind to his own beauty; he has a good face as a man and as fine a one as a Molly. And there is strength in his hands, for all that they are so careful, as well as his body. “I don't doubt it,” he says, “I don’t doubt it.”
He jerks away as the cloth hits a particularly shitty and damaged patch of flesh.
“It is nearly finished,” reassures Godfrey softly.
“Until tomorrow,” he says grumpily, “when the whole fucking cursed rigmarole of stinking flesh and pus begins again.”
Godfrey tips the small bottle of laudanum against his lips, “It isn’t nearly as bad as it was. Your back is nearly free of poison. You said yourself that the corner has been turned.”
“I know.” He looks up at Godfrey, “I am a miserable and shitty swine who you should leave to rot.”
“You are in a good deal of pain. It is rather to be expected I imagine.”
He blinks as the laudanum pulls him under, “Why the fuck,” he slurs, “didn’t London chew you up and spit you out through its arsehole?”
Godfrey’s face fades away before there is an answer.
Godfrey reads. He has two books of verse and a volume of Shakespeare. Cholmondeley wonders if they are all he possesses or if other volumes have been left behind in the Molly House, victims to the hurried flight they have all endured.
He suspects Godfrey to be a reader of novels. He has the doe eyed hope of such fellows.
It is unlikely that Godfrey cares for natural philosophy.
Dinner is long over, the others have returned to their duties, and while Godfrey disappears at all hours to assist above or below deck, Cholmondeley has come to realise that a large part of the man’s duties appear to consist of being his nursemaid.
His nursemaid is reading, Shelley this time, and it prompts Cholmondeley’s curiosity again.
“Do you read anything aside from verse?”
Godfrey looks up at him with a smile, “Do you not care for poetry, George?”
He is the only one who calls him George.
“On the contrary, I am very fond of poetry but one cannot live on it alone.”
“I like to read plays, novels best of all I am afraid, histories, philosophy – even some books on mathematics and natural sciences, although I confess I do not find the material easy – but I had to leave much behind when I fled.”
As did they all. He looks at Godfrey, “Which tracts did you find difficult?”
Godfrey smiles, “Thanks to the East India I have a good foundation in mathematics but I found Dalton’s book on chemical philosophy was beyond the little of the subject that I was taught.”
Cholmondeley tuts and proceeds to explain the outline of Dalton’s theory.
The sun is shining as Cholmondeley limps up onto deck. Robert is, for once, behaving like the child he is and is chasing a gull that is swopping down towards the deck.
Godfrey is assisting Atticus with some piece of nautical nonsense that he does not have the vigour to try and fathom.
Today he is in breeches; yesterday it was a dress. On some days, he has worn rouge and power or wig but there has been no direct correlation with his attire than can be mapped. Cholmondeley has quite abandoned any attempt to predict how or why Godfrey will appear.
And he has been careful not to think on how closely he marks what Godfrey does or does not do.
Atticus inspects whatever they have been doing to the sail, seems to find it to his satisfaction and proceeds to gruffly shoo Godfrey back below stairs.
Cholmondeley is sitting on the steps that lead up to the poop deck, staring out at the endless roll of waves and sky and cloud as Atticus approaches and casts a shadow over him.
“Do you mind? You’re blocking the sun. Godfrey thinks I need light.”
Atticus rolls his eyes but crouches down and stares at him.
Moments pass and he grows irritable, “What the fuck do you want?”
“He’s not a bad lad. And we don’t want no unpleasantness, do we? Not with a crew as light as ours.”
Cholmondeley stares back at him for a moment, then looks away, “Fuck off.”
Atticus stands, “You’ve been told,” he says firmly.
Indeed he has.
Godfrey watches Delany with more than one face; sometimes with the affection of old friends, sometimes with the fear they all feel for this madman sent from hell to test them, sometimes in honest frustration and sometimes… sometimes he gazes softly at him as though Delany hung all the moons and stars.
It is the latter which gnaws at Cholmondeley’s innards and turns him to a mood even fouler than is usual. He snaps at all, even Robert, and as a result suffers while Lorna glares pointedly at him, Pearl slams his beer down and Atticus mutters about what would be done to his genitalia if he were not already a half-burned cripple.
And because Fate is a wretched whore who seems intent on turning his shitty convalescence into something even more unbearable, it is Godfrey who now approaches him as he glowers in the corner of the mess. Today it is breeches and there is no wig or powder or rouge – he could walk into the Honourable East India company in his current attire, albeit through the tradesman’s entrance. Yesterday he was in full Molly dress.
Cholmondeley ignores him as he sits next to him.
“Do you need more laudanum?”
“No.” He takes a swig of beer. He needs Godfrey to go. He needs not to fall for someone who has set their sights elsewhere. He needs not to be near someone who is as kind as Maria was. He needs to move without a ripple of pain and a choking tightness falling over him. He needs to be left alone.
He slams his beer down, “Go and bother someone else you mincing, prancing, foul little cunt. If I have need of a sodomite or a half man creature I will inform you.”
Godfrey ups and leaves the galley with no second glance.
The day before Pearl had burnt her hand while cooking and had let out such a scream of inventive curses that even he had been inclined to be a little shocked. Now she looks upon him as though she has never heard such language in her life.
“What!” he snarls, as he realises that the rest of them are staring.
Atticus snorts, “You’re an ungrateful fucker, ain’t you? A little love like him looks after you, cleans your pus and piss and shit and what do you? Be a cock to him, like any Buck Fitch off the street.”
“Well put,” says Lorna. She turns to Atticus, “Would you like a brandy?”
Atticus lights up – Lorna’s brandy is French and fine and she rarely lets it out of luggage – and nods, “If you would be so predisposed as to allow me a drop I would be most grateful, Mrs Delany.”
Cholmondeley can bear no more of these polite niceties at his expense and leaves the galley.
He finds Godfrey in the berth.
He has now stood for several minutes with no earthly clue how he is to explain himself, “I-” he begins but Godfrey interrupts.
“You are not the first to name me such things. Indeed,” says Godfrey steadily as he sorts through their meagre medical supplies and refuses to look him in the eye, although Cholmondeley can see he has been weeping, “I have been called far fouler names. If only you could hear what my brother called me, you would know that you have no great gift for insult. And it will not be the last time I hear such things, despite what James has said of this new world we go to.”
He swallows. Insults come easy. He has little experience with the art of apology. “I did not mean what I said. It was quite…unforgiveable and quite untrue and I am sorry.”
“Do not condescend to me,” hisses Godfrey, who still refuse to turn or to even look at over his shoulder, “Do you think I am so deluded that I do not recognize what I am? That I do not know that I am a mincing, prancing, little cu-”
“Don’t! Please,” he says, taking Godfrey’s hand, “Please don’t say that. I am foul mouthed but it is not your doing. I swear I didn’t mean a word of it.”
Godfrey frowns, turning at last to look at Cholmondeley, “Is it the pain?” he asks gently.
I don’t deserve you he thinks helplessly. He nods, “It makes me unbearable. I really am very sorry.”
“Think no more of it. Perhaps some wine? James has some in the hold.”
“Wine may help,” he agrees and follows Godfrey.
I don’t deserve you.
As the days and nights go by, merging into one, Cholmondeley tries to ignore the happiness that flares in his chest when Godfrey sits with him to talk of books or music or science. He tries to ignore how fucking beautiful the arch lines of Godfrey ‘s face look by sunlight or candle light. And he tries so very, very hard not to see how much Godfrey cares for Delaney, how he admires him and how he is clearly besotted by the insane whoreson whose heart is rusted away.
Delaney will use Godfrey, he will place him in danger and will let him be trampled under the wheels of the world when he is done and Cholmondeley knows he would rather have another explosion of fire and powder in his face than see that happen.
Delaney sits in the corner of the galley, drinking rum and glowering at the room. The others turned in some time ago. All night Godfrey and Lorna worried over Delaney as though he were a pet dog that would not eat. Cholmondeley’s gut had twisted when Godfrey had succeeded in making their taciturn captain take some nourishment.
Now there are only the two of them.
“Is that why you brought him along?” asks Cholmondeley.
Delaney looks at him blearily, “Hmm?”
“Godfrey,” his hand tightens on his own beaker of rum as he leans forward, “Did you bring him along so he could follow after you like a lost little lamb? Were you worried that the great Lorna Bow may not condescend to wait on a sorry cunt like you? Is that why you did it? Is it? Have you given any thought to what is going to happen to him? Do you think anyone in your fucking new world will be kind to him? Treat him as he should be treated? Do you?!?”
Delaney raises an eyebrow and Cholmondeley realises that he is both on his feet and shouting. He clears his throat bit does not return to his seat, “Well?”
Delaney looks at him for a long moment, searching his face for heavens knows what, the mad bastard, and then grunts before rising to his feet and leaving the galley.
Cholmondeley sighs. His life is running mad.
It is Godfrey’s turn to prepare breakfast. His attempts at all other meals have never risen beyond the mediocre but he makes a good breakfast and once joked to Cholmondeley that it is the only meal his gentleman friends ever asked him to make.
Gentleman friends. Cholmondeley wonders if the explosion has affected his wits as well as his mangled, scarring body. He now finds he is torn between hoping Godfrey’s gentlemen friends treated him well and seething with jealousy at what they possessed that he does not.
To everyone’s astonishment Delaney joins them in the galley rather than skulking in his room and he is now trying Cholmondeley’s patience as he mutters in conference with Godfrey.
To his delight, however, Godfrey seems unwilling to agree to whatever hare-brained notion their leader has concocted today, shaking his head as he glances over to Cholmondeley.
Delaney and Atticus leave to go on deck and relieve the night crew – such as they are – and Godfrey brings the pot of coffee over and refills his beaker. He looks a little perturbed and, indeed, spends the remainder of the day glancing over at Cholmondeley with an odd expression on his face.
He begins to worry that Delaney asked Godfrey to overdose his laudanum but, fortunately for his tenuous grip on sanity, by the time the sun sets Godfrey is quite himself again.
It seems he is not to be dispatched. He wonders perhaps if he should reduce the amount of laudanum he is taking. He appears to be imagining things.
He is minding his own business but that does not seem to bother Lorna who has sat this half an hour in the galley watching him.
“Can I help you, my lady?” he asks. His infatuation with her may have receded in light of… Well, anyhow, it has receded but she is still a great beauty and a fine lady and he has not enjoyed the occasions on ship when he has been the cause of her displeasure.
“I was considering men,” she says, “and how very stupid they can be.”
He blinks. Perhaps Delaney has been more insufferable than usual, “Indeed?”
“Yes,” she says firmly and rises, moving to leave the galley, but bends to whisper in his ear, “He will never declare first. Not here. He is too cautious. If you want Godfrey, you’re going to have to get that stick out of your arse and do something.”
“Miss Bow!” he splutters but she is already gone.
Perhaps he did die and is in a purgatory of his own making.
Godfrey is in breeches with rouge on his lips and cheeks. He lies on his bunk with a book and he is one of the most beautiful things that Cholmondeley has ever seen.
“George,” he replies with a smile, “Do you need anything?”
Do I need anything? He swallows, and sits next to him, “Godfrey,” he begins quietly, “I am somewhat of a wreck of a man-”
He puts his finger against Godfrey’s mouth, “Hush,” he says, “I am a wreck. I am short, burnt to a crisp and disagreeable; I am a whore in all but the taking of money, I am foul mouthed and my cock is not as spectacular as I give tell it is. I am also, incidentally, without current funds and appear to be some kind of fugitive. But, for all of that, for all of that, I would be yours, if you would take me.”
Godfrey looks at him for a long moment then takes his hand and kisses the palm, “Of course I would take you. You are not a wreck to me. I think you are quite lovely.”
Lovely. Godfrey thinks he is quite lovely.
Perhaps this may be a new world after all.
They are lying on the bunk and dust is dancing in the sunlight that creeps down into the cabin. Cholmondeley gently kisses the back of Godfrey’s neck.
“Have you seen my pink ribbon,” demands Pearl as she clatters down into the berth.
Godfrey tenses, muscle snapping taut like a violin string and he starts to rise. Cholmondeley starts up also and grips his arm in protest.
“I…” begins Godfrey softly, “I believe you left it in the galley last.”
She claps her hands, “I did! When Atticus and I was-” she stops and turns a little pink then beams down at them and winks, “Ta, Godfrey.”
She dashes from the room and he hears Godfrey murmur.
Cholmondeley frowns “What was that, my love?”
Godfrey clutches his hand tight and raises his voice a little, “Oh wonder. How many goodly creatures are there here? How beauteous mankind is, O brave new world, that has such people in ’t.”
He loves this man. He loves him in trouser or dress, powdered and bare faced.
He fears how even a new world will take what they are and he is terrified that Delany will drag them through further fire that they may not survive.
But now, for a moment, in this ship of lost souls, he loves this man and he is happy.
“Brave new world indeed,” he agrees and leans down to kiss him.