Fitzjames remained with the Coninghams for two weeks, mostly at their insistence and only partly from the worry about what the situation living with Ross might be like. What did Lady Ann know? Could they have proper conversations without having to worry about eavesdropping house staff? Those were not things he’d ever had to consider much. In a proper household, such as William’s, Fitzjames would not breath a word of such things, but discussions about “such things” were the driving reason behind Ross’s invitation to stay with them.
Still, this newfound friendship with Ross was not something Fitzjames wanted to lose, and when he realized he’d be delayed for more than a week, he wrote to Ross to let him know to expect him later than they’d initially discussed.
“Therefore,” Ann read aloud, seated on the sofa across from James’ armchair. “I will be arriving the following Friday, unless my cousin and his wife make further request of my time, in which case I will be sure to inform you. Yours, Cmdr. Jas. Fitzjames.”
She lowered the letter. “Nothing to worry about then. He’ll be here by the end of the week.”
James sighed. “Forgive me. You were right when you told me not to worry about Fitzjames coming.”
Ann shook her head. “There’s nothing to forgive, darling. You’ve been through so much of late and you’ve, understandably, become attached to Captain Fitzjames. Will you reply?”
“I don’t think there’s a need,” James said, straightening in his chair. “He’ll likely arrive before the letter.”
The first week Fitzjames spent at Blackheath, he felt oddly like an imposter, like he’d been mistaken for someone he wasn’t. When he’d first arrived Ann had greeted him like he was an old friend, even though they’d never been properly introduced before.
Ross’s children too, had treated him like he was a normal part of their household. They had, by complete happenstance, arrived on the same day, Fitzjames coming up from Brighton and the children coming down with their nanny from Ross’s home in Buckinghamshire. In the days leading up to his court martial, Fitzjames was more than happy to be dragged into their games. It was a happy distraction from his worries, though it was also a careful balancing act, he learned quickly, to keep both five-year-old James and three-year-old Anne entertained at the same time.
“You’re wonderful with them,” Ann told him one afternoon after their nanny had ushered the two eldest Ross children off for their afternoon nap.
She seated herself on the settee, and Fitzjames hauled himself up off the floor to join her, with no small amount of protesting from his joints.
“My cousin, William, has several children of his own,” he said. “I always did envy the ease with which he was able to have a family.”
“Is that…” Ann hesitated, and Fitzjames knew immediately what she was going to ask. “Is that something to do with what you discussed with James?”
“Something,” Fitzjames admitted, surprised, but also somewhat relieved to learn that Ross had already discussed this with Ann, and that this was not something that would have to be kept hidden from her. “It’s much more complicated than just that, but it certainly played no small part.”
“Of course,” Ann said. “I certainly didn’t mean to pry, but I know such things have been weighing on James recently, among other things. From what he’s told me, I gather you’re… well you’ve known this about yourself much longer than James has, to say the least.”
“Yes,” Fitzjames said, frowning slightly in thought. “It wasn’t long after I joined the Navy, I think, that I started to realize that I found men just as, if not more, attractive than women. Of course it wasn’t merely that simple… knowing something about yourself is not being comfortable with it, after all… that took a bit longer and the help of a friend.”
He didn’t mention how the anxiety about his background being discovered, as well as the instability of his career, had played heavily into how staunchly he had ignored this part of himself until he’d met Edward.
Ann sighed, smoothing her hands over her skirts, in what appeared to Fitzjames to be an anxious gesture. “I don’t mean to speak for my husband, but I think he might benefit from the ‘help a friend.’ It seems to me great comfort and companionship can be found among those of similar experience.”
“I would be glad to be that friend for your husband,” Fitzjames said, though he had to admit that he was a bit surprised to hear the request coming so directly from Ann. “Can I assume he has told you what we already discussed, about Francis?”
“Yes,” Ann replied with a small nod. “I’ve been his confidant since he came to this realization. I hope it was no overstep.”
Fitzjames shook his head. “Not at all. I will admit to having worried, however, so I am glad you thought to speak with me.”
“I really hadn’t intended too,” Ann admitted. “But James has been awfully concerned about… about… well, about a good many things. But one of the things that’s weighed on his mind since our very first discussions has been about him being unfaithful to me. I know he loves me dearly, just as he loved Francis, and there was nothing sordid about that as many would think. I believe, though he hasn’t mentioned this, he’s concerned about the types of places such men as yourself might frequent,” Ann said. “All you hear in the newspapers is about arrests and brothels, but… there must be happier places, surely?”
“There are,” Fitzjames assured her. “But they may not be the sort of places you’d expect.”
Ann frowned and Fitzjames rushed to continue. “I would not take Sir James anywhere disreputable, but entering those circles at all poses an inherent danger and will be considered disreputable merely for the sort of people they hold. Even if we were to attend a private social event, there is no guarantee we would be completely safe, though there are certainly places that are safer than others, particularly for men of your husband’s standing.”
“You must count yourself in that number as well,” Ann added, still not appearing entirely at ease. “James told me he expects to see you knighted.”
Fitzjames gave an embarrassed chuckle. “I’m afraid I don’t have your husband’s confidence in that matter.”
“Well, don’t discount my husband’s familiarity with seeing men knighted for just about anything returning from the Arctic,” Ann said. “You discovered the Passage, the Admiralty won’t turn their nose up at that.”
Ann paused another moment, and then continued, “But you can turn it down, if you don’t want it. The first time James was offered a knighthood he turned them down in favor of demanding that the Admiralty promote Francis.”
“I hadn’t known that,” Fitzjames said softly. “Francis was very selective with what he told me about himself and Sir James, part of me wonders if he worried I’d be jealous.”
“Would you have been?” Ann asked.
“Perhaps,” James admitted. “But I don’t think it would have reared its head until we’d returned. I’ve long been anxious of my place in other people’s lives, but I also like to think it would have resolved itself.”
It felt like a lot to reveal, but Ann and Sir James knew one of his potentially career ending secrets already, and would, he knew, keep it safely. Perhaps given time, he might divulge to them that which he’d told to Francis.
In Fitzjames’ silence Ann got to her feet, catching his attention with a gentle touch to his shoulder. “I must go check on Charlotte, but once your court martial is over and done with, seek out James to talk. He’s… I only… I worry. This is all so different from what I imagined.”
“And what did you imagine?” Fitzjames asked, rising as well.
Ann sighed. “I don’t know, I like to fancy myself well informed…”
“It’s difficult to be informed on things polite society makes a point to avoid explicit mention of.”
Ann relaxed visibly. “Yes, exactly.”
“I won’t say you don’t need to worry for Sir James, a small amount of worry is entirely warranted,” Fitzjames said. “But there’s no need to let it overwhelm you. While there is danger, there is comfort and safety as well.”
Ann smiled. “Thank you.”
Ross was not intentionally avoiding Fitzjames, except that he was… a little bit. It was excruciatingly difficult to find the words for any of this; his feelings for Francis, his feelings about himself. He’d invited Fitzjames to stay with him so that they could discuss this and Ross felt rather guilty that they hadn’t, but every time he’d been in a position to discuss things with Fitzjames there had always been something or other that he’d found as a suitable excuse not to.
He had told Ann that his hesitation was from not wanting to overburden Fitzjames while he was preparing for a court martial he had made clear he was worried about. Ann, of course, had not believed him for an instant, but all she’d said then was that she would talk to Fitzjames, and he supposed she must have.
For his part, Ross had spent long hours thinking over the limited conversations he and Fitzjames had already had. He’d filled several journals with his thoughts, which he had burned almost immediately upon finishing. He was burning one now, in fact.
He prodded the fire with the poker watching the flames lick at the ink covered paper as the book slowly curled apart. The last entry had been a long list of things he’d garnered from the papers over the years about sodomy and various trials and such and how much did and didn’t line up with what he knew from his time in the Navy and what Fitzjames had told him thus far, and also what he still had no answer for. Now it was nothing but ash, or would be soon.
Ross heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Fitzjames enter, still in his new made dress uniform, and drop heavily into the armchair next to where Ross was crouched by the fire. “Burning a manuscript, are we?”
“Private journal,” Ross said, easing himself up and into the armchair across from Fitzjames. “I thought it best not to leave such explicit thoughts lying around.”
Fitzjames nodded. “A wise choice. I rarely catalogued any of my escapades and when I did it was with care. Though I’ve also known men who preferred to detail everything.”
“That seems incredibly risky,” Ross said, frowning.
“It can be, yes, if you aren’t careful, but we still have to write letters, don’t we?” Fitzjames pointed out. “There are discrete ways of writing to get your intent across without incriminating yourself over much. Of course, I personally would still burn such letters, but I suppose if someone were romantically inclined, they might keep them.”
Ross was quiet for several moments. He knew that Ann still had some of their early letters, but the idea of sending and keeping such letters from a man seemed entirely too dangerous. But then his mind turned to all the letters he’d received from Francis over the years; knowing what he did now, what things might he find if he read between the lines? His stomach twisted. He still had a box of them somewhere.
“I don’t think I’d risk it,” Ross said, eventually, “but, enough about that. How went the court martial?”
Fitzjames grimaced, and for a moment Ross worried he’d horribly misjudged the decisions the Admiralty would make, but then the moment passed and Fitzjames relaxed visibly.
“As well as you’d inferred,” Fitzjames said. “I’ve been promoted to captain and a knighthood is likely imminent.” He paused, still looking less than happy. “They tried to place the blame for the disaster entirely on Francis.”
“What?” Ross was utterly baffled. “They should be laying the blame at their own feet for the expedition’s poor provisioning if anything.”
“I didn’t go quite that far in my accusations, but I told them, if they were going to place blame on Francis then they needed to place it on Sir John in equal measure, as he had ignored advice from his fellow Arctic veterans that could well have allowed us to keep our ships clear of the pack, and that I myself had not heeded that advice either.”
Fitzjames sighed. “They stopped that line of inquiry there, preferring to talk up my promotion and teasing the idea of a knighthood.”
“Will you accept?” Ross asked.
“Yes, though I’ve made my acceptance conditional, to ensure that Jopson’s promotion will be upheld, among other things,” Fitzjames sighed. “You know they may have agreed to allow for him to keep his promotion because they didn’t realize he wasn’t one of the mates. I had gotten them rather flustered at that point and had only mentioned that he hadn’t taken the lieutenant’s exam, not his precise rank.”
Ross chuckled softly. “It is untraditional, but he seems well suited for the role.” Jopson had seemed highly competent as a lieutenant and it had been easy to see why Francis had promoted him. “What was his service record prior? You mentioned he’d done work on a slave busting ship.”
“Yes, he served on the Racer under Captain James Hope,” Fitzjames said. “The agreement we came to was that Jopson will of course have to sit for the lieutenants exam, but once he passes, he can return to service as a lieutenant.” He paused a moment before continuing. “This is provided he wants to do that. I wouldn’t fault any man on that expedition for not wanting to return to sea.”
As he finished speaking, Fitzjames slumped back in his chair, suddenly looking utterly exhausted. Which was quite understandable, Ross thought.
“Go get out of that uniform,” Ross said, ending the conversation. “I’ll have Sarah bring some tea. Once you’ve had a chance to relax we can discuss things further.”
Fitzjames fixed Ross with a peculiar stare, but then his face relaxed again. “I think I will, thank you.”
“I also have something I’ve been meaning to give you,” Fitzjames continued as he rose to his feet. “I’ll fetch that as well.”
Ross frowned to himself as he watched Fitzjames leave the room, as he tried to think of what it might be. The way Fitzjames had said it made it seem rather serious, but Ross couldn’t think of anything of import that Fitzjames might have to give him. He would just have to wait.
Fitzjames took his time changing out of his dress uniform, and it was such a relief to be free of the constricting garment. He could feel the tension leaving him as he redressed in civilian clothes and then folded his uniform and tucked it in the far back of a dresser drawer. Out of sight, out of mind… for now.
Before he closed the drawer, he pulled out a small cloth-wrapped parcel that he’d had nestled between two shirts. It was the daguerreotype portrait of Ross that Francis had brought with him to the Arctic and then carried with him on their long walk on King William Land. It had, somehow or another, ended up among Fitzjames’ things instead of buried with Francis and left to decay. It seemed appropriate to return it to Ross.
When Fitzjames returned, Ross had moved away from the fire to the sofa, in front of which there sat a tray of tea on a small table.
As he seated himself next to Ross, Fitzjames held out the cloth-wrapped daguerreotype. “It belonged to Francis,” he added, when Ross gave him a curious look.
Ross made no reply other than to extend his hand to take the parcel, but Fitzjames heard the hitch in his breath and when Ross withdrew his hand the tremor was more prominent than it had been before.
“It feels foolish to be afraid of unwrapping this,” Ross said quietly. “It’s the daguerreotype, isn’t it? The one I gave him.”
Fitzjames nodded. “Yes. Francis and I shared a tent on our walk, before he…” He paused a moment before continuing. “It wound up mixed in with my things by mistake. I certainly can’t say I remember when that might have been.”
As Fitzjames spoke Ross unwrapped the picture, his face a tightly held mask of grief and his hands were shaking so much Fitzjames feared that he’d drop it.
“It’s an odd thing,” Ross said at length. “To be returned a portrait of oneself, though it does give me some comfort, I suppose, to know he carried this with him. ”
Ross carefully set the bare plate down on the table. “What happened to the frame?”
“I don’t know,” Fitzjames admitted. “I don’t know why Francis should have discarded it, perhaps it was damaged. He kept it on his person most of the time.”
Ross nodded slowly, clenching his fist against his leg. His face was tight and drawn. “Will you tell me about him? I… everything you’ve told me… it feels like such an awfully large thing to not have known about him. He was my dearest friend… How much of him didn’t I know?”
Fitzjames understood that desire to know, he did, and he regretted that what he had to tell Ross was vastly limited. “I think you likely knew more of him than anyone else. Much of what he told me about himself revolved almost entirely around you.”
Ross shut his eyes tightly, but it wasn’t quite enough to hold back the tears.
“Is there anything in particular you’d like to hear?”
Ross let out a shuddering breath before returning his gaze to Fitzjames. “I don’t even know where to begin. There’s so much I want to know…”
“Why don’t I start from the beginning of what I know?” Fitzjames offered. “And you can ask questions as they become relevant.”
Ross nodded, and Fitzjames began.
As Francis had told it to him, Francis had realized his feelings while Sir James had been North with his uncle on the Victory. It had been the slow mounting worry of the fate of the expedition that had left Francis questioning whether or not his feelings for Ross might extend beyond simple friendship. The mounting fear for Ross, Francis had told him, had been so much greater than for the other friends he had on that same expedition.
Fitzjames realized the horrible irony of the situation as the words were coming out of his mouth. It was the same situation Ross had found himself in when he decided to mount a rescue expedition. So worried for Francis that he’d come out of retirement just to try to get him home safely.
Ross choked back a sob. “All these years… and I never knew.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Fitzjames said. “From what I understand, Francis took pains to keep it from you. All that nonsense about being able to identify sodomites by appearance alone, is just… well, nonsense. There are recognizable things, certainly, discrete ways of knowing, but for the most part, I could point to more men than just us who don’t appear that way in the slightest.”
Ross was silent for several moments, attempting to recover himself before he spoke again. “I don’t suppose you’d know if Francis was…” he paused again. “If he frequented any particular places.”
Fitzjames shook his head, setting down his half finished tea. “I’m afraid I don’t. What Francis told me about his life was fairly limited, much of it you likely already know. I was told a fair bit about your time in the Antarctic. But as to Francis’ other involvements… he may have been involved in some club, but if he was he did not tell me, and knowing what I do about him, I find it fairly unlikely.”
“Yes,” Ross agreed. “He wasn’t exactly the most at ease at social events, even less so when left alone.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t think to ask,” Fitzjames said, quietly.
“I can’t fault you for that,” Ross said, though he sounded resigned. “I don’t imagine you thought you’d ever be asked such questions.”
Fitzjames chuckled softly. “That is true. I hardly expected this turn of events. It’s not entirely a bad one though.”
“No certainly not,” Ross said. “Having lost Francis, I…”
He had to pause to gather himself before he continued. “Having lost Francis, I… I am unspeakably glad to have you as a confidant, and I hope that I can be the same for you.”
Fitzjames was beginning to feel choked himself, the pressure of tears beginning to build behind his eyes. “I would be glad for that. I’m sorry that I can’t give you more insight into Francis’ life, although… I suppose I could tell you the rest of the stories he told me. You know them, no doubt, but hearing them from Francis’ perspective, how he saw you…”
Ross let out a shaky breath. “Yes… yes, I would like to hear those stories.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon talking. Fitzjames telling various stories of Francis’ private feelings about particular moments in his and Ross’s shared past. Ross had not minded Fitzjames’ halting manner of telling these, though Fitzjames had apologized. He’d prided himself on being an engaging storyteller, but it was much harder to tell incredibly personal stories of someone else, particularly to one who knew the details of those stories better.
Ross, for his part, simply took Fitzjames’ hesitations and pauses to fill in further details that Fitzjames had been unsure of, or simply hadn’t known. Eventually, when Fitzjames had run out of Francis’ stories to retell, it simply turned into the both of them sharing stories about Francis, starting with Ross’s elaboration on how Francis had released penguins in his cabin, and then how he’d gotten back at Francis for it, and there were tears and laughter both by the time Ann appeared in the parlor to tell them that supper was waiting on them.