By mid-May, with less than a week before the expedition’s departure, the time had finally come for the crews to pack their chests and move aboard the ships. Their final night upon land, John bundled Henry up the stairs of his Southwark boarding house, quietly so as to not draw the attention of the sharp-eyed landlady, and in the relative privacy of his room they spent their last evening together, at least for the foreseeable future.
The news that they were to berth on separate ships – John aboard Erebus and Henry on Terror – had come as an unanticipated blow. By the time they learned of it, there was little they could do besides resign themselves to their misfortune, not unless they wanted to take their chances in deserting, and neither of them fancied being pursued by the law. But to make the voyage together, while separated for months on end by a small, yet unbridgeable span of ocean? It seemed a cruelty of fate – and an unnecessary one, in the face of the hardship they already faced merely by loving one another.
In John’s bed, they took their pleasure, murmuring and kissing and reveling in every touch and taste, the night settling all around them in a kind of timeless languor. John whispered bits of Latin and French, tender words whose meaning Henry could only guess at, and in turn Henry replied in the more familiar language of lips and hands, with little, it seemed, being lost in the translation.
Their joy was tempered only by a faint strain of melancholy, by the knowledge that soon enough the daybreak would come and mark an end to their idyll. After a few hours, the candle beside the bed sputtered into a thin ribbon of smoke: through the unshuttered window, pale moonlight blanketed them in swaths of blue and silver.
Henry rested on his side, John’s broad arm draped over his ribs, feeling the shiver of the other man’s breath as it ghosted across the back of his neck. Behind him, John lay still, not yet asleep, as his fingertips traced lazy lines across the top of Henry’s hand. Henry sighed and shifted back a little, burrowing further into the warmth of John’s embrace.
“D’you ever wish—”
No sooner had the words escaped his mouth than he cut them short, suddenly fearful to give voice to a fancy that, up until now, had resided solely in the safety of his own thoughts.
“Wish what?” John asked, and when no response was forthcoming, turned a touch more imploring. “Tell me, Henry.”
Henry stared down at the patterned weave of the bed linen, at that moment profoundly grateful not to have to look John in the eye. But before long, bolstered by the reassurance of his lover’s body wrapped around him, he found the nerve to speak.
“D’you ever wish we might be wed?” he answered quietly.
“Is that what you would wish?”
Henry rolled over to meet John’s gaze, terrified for a moment that those dark eyes might be filled with something unbearable: dismay, perhaps, or even pity. But instead they were wide, bright with wonder, corners crinkling with indulgent warmth. It was enough to set his heart to soaring within his chest, and he nodded, relief pushing aside any remaining fear.
“I would be yours, John. In all things.” He bit his lips together, smiling bashfully, and then let his gaze lower as he felt the smile begin to fade away. “But how can I wish for something impossible? No church in England would open its doors for two men to be joined in marriage.”
Underneath the blanket, John’s hand found his again, those warm, blunt fingers threading through his own.
“In a church, no,” John replied, as the corner of his mouth ticked upward, “but there is another way we might be married, if that is what you want.”
Henry shook his head in disbelief. “How?”
Thick black brows inched slightly closer, a narrow line pinching between them, and John blinked softly, eyes shining like twin flames in the darkness.
“Hundreds of years ago, before we all became Protestants, it had been the custom for two people who did not have the approval of society to marry to do so clandestinely – that is, in secret – and simply speak their vows to each other, without a priest. They called it handfasting.”
John nodded. “For they joined hands together as they took their oaths, and that was enough for the Church to consider them married.” He shrugged his shoulders with a gentle humor. “Or so I have read.”
Henry glanced down towards where their hands were clasped. A strange sensation came over him all at once, coiling through his limbs and around his heart; if pressed, he would not have been able to describe it as the singular emotion of either joy or fear, but rather as an indescribable mixture of the two, powerful enough to stir his blood and spur him to squeeze along John’s palm.
“Joined hands, like this?”
John nodded once more, eyeing him steadily as Henry reached back above the pillow and took John’s other hand into his own.
“And what would we say, if we wanted to make such vows?” he added.
John’s gaze widened a touch and he cleared his throat, but his eyes never once left Henry. “Some plain and honest words, I imagine, in keeping with so simple a sacrament.” He paused, a smile budding tenderly along his lips. “Perhaps I might say that I, John, take you, Henry, to be my husband, in the sight of God, and to you I pledge my troth.”
Henry’s heart stilled, caught as it was somewhere near the middle of his throat, but he could not stop himself from smiling, his expression a near mirror of John’s own.
“And then I would say that I, Henry, take you, John, to be my husband, in the sight of God, and to you I pledge my troth.”
With those words, Henry grew quiet, unable to tear his gaze away from John’s face and the expression of reverence written wordlessly across it, those dark and gentle eyes so full of love Henry thought his heart might shatter into a thousand brilliant pieces.
“And that would be enough?” he finally asked. “We would be married?”
“In God’s eyes, yes,” John replied. “Although…”
John’s gaze grew a touch more inviting, the corner of his mouth turning up in an uncharacteristically wicked curl.
“I have also heard it said that such a union might require a final act of consummation.”
“Oh.” Henry was not entirely familiar with the word, but from the way that John was looking at him, tendrils of fire catching in those dark depths, it was not at all difficult to imagine what it meant. “Well, then…” he whispered and then without hesitation pressed his lips to John’s, angling his face so that they fit together even more closely, cheek to cheek, jaw to jaw.
One of John’s hands reached up to clasp the side of his face, thumb brushing across his cheekbone, fingertips nestling in the thicket of his whiskers, and as they kissed he murmured something low and soft against Henry’s mouth. Henry smiled, lips parting in invitation as desire quickened deep within his belly. But before he let himself succumb to it, he paused and pulled back just enough that he could look at John, the man he had just claimed as his husband. He had never looked more handsome, with the tiny cleft in his chin that the peppering of his beard had not quite managed to cover up, the lengths of his dark hair – now marked with strands of pewter – tucked behind his ears. In his eyes, Henry could just make out the shadow of his own reflection.
“John…” he said, suddenly aware of the peculiar solemnity of the moment, “I think this must be our wedding night.”
“So it is, Henry.”
They found each other once more, bodies meeting in shared need, every touch driving them to greater and greater heights – and yet to Henry, the knowledge that they did so within the bond of matrimony somehow made it even sweeter.
And on the voyage, during the days and weeks and months that followed, it would be a secret they would carry with them, something they would keep close and savor in the dark winters of the Arctic, when they lay separated by the gulf of an icy sea. No one would know, of course, and they would never speak of it to another soul. But it would be enough.