In their early days in the Bahamas, when Miranda’s cottage was still a foreign country of its own and her body not yet reconciled to a climate as unlike England’s as it was possible to be, James rarely visited her, much less spent the night. To come to her was not only impractical, but dangerous: he had arrived in Nassau burdened with the necessity of cultivating his reputation as a captain-in-waiting, not to demonstrate distraction and sentiment. That he did so anyway was toxic with risk, potentially lethal — and something of a miracle, too. Manna in the desert.
The first time he stayed the night was the first time in more than six weeks that Miranda had set eyes on him at all, though he sent notes when he could, grubby scraps of paper clutched in the fists of grubby boys. On that night, lying awake beside him, she gave voice to the thought clanging in her head like a cathedral bell. “It does not hurt or anger me to know you’re thinking of him,” she said. “You know that, don’t you?”
James, lying on his back with his eyes fixed on the ceiling, put one broad callused hand over hers and after several seconds’ silence said, “I’m here with you, Miranda.”
“Thank you,” she said, and withheld the observation that his answer in no way precluded any desire on his part to be somewhere else, with someone else — the desire, for instance, to see Hamilton smile again, or to be safe in England before their lives fell apart, the two men in their shirt-sleeves in the study, toasting bread at the fire and passing the best pieces to her, their papers scattered over the floor… She loved James — he had become a dear friend long before Alfred Hamilton’s fury blew them across the sea, and she had followed him to the West Indies even when she might have gone to ground elsewhere — but even so, she had not married him and he had not married her: Hamilton connected them, and Hamilton was gone. Miranda believed that she and her husband had been mingled in the essence of their being, that they had each been one of Plato’s stumbling half-humans, searching for each other. They had shared everything, lives, vision, beliefs, hopes, fears, and their bodies too, for they had both wanted children, and in their way, they had shared James: loved and treasured him. She had recognized in the gruff, guarded autodidact battling class and circumstance the same bruise-tender longing she knew in herself: to yearn for more than status as a charity case, a spectacle, a dancing bear. James had a brilliant mind, and was respectful, kind, and strong, fiercely sincere, and she had relished making love with him, both for her own pleasure and for each step together taken to coax him from the carapace in which he had barricaded himself, but she could not, she would not, lie in a little straw bed in a little island village, next to her lover, the man who had been her husband’s lover, and permit herself to believe that James saw her when he closed his eyes. Faced with his silence, Miranda strained to quiet her mind, but plagued by insomnia as well as regret and a sound in the night of this new place that she could not identify, she tossed and turned.
Half-asleep as he was, James again took and pressed her hand, and murmured, “Sleep, love.”
It would have been better if he had said nothing at all. Instead a sharp pain made itself known about Miranda’s ribs, like the slice of a surgeon’s lancet. For James was chary with endearments: the familiarity of Christian names was for him profound, and while his use of hers signified the depth and sincerity of his regard, only Hamilton — only Thomas Hamilton — had ever earned a sweetheart’s sobriquet from Lieutenant James McGraw, and Thomas Hamilton was far away.
She lay awake, wandering like Cain in a labyrinth of memory.
Long before she became Mrs. Barlow, before even her miraculous transformation into Lady Hamilton — water to wine, sow’s ear to silk purse — Miss Miranda Congreve had been the dreadfully poor great-niece to the aging widow of a baronet. Through her childhood she had lived with her mother and father in a draughty curacy in Kent, where they kept a large and earnest country garden and wore every stitch to the bitter edge of utility, but being neither deprived nor avaricious, Miranda might have stayed there in relative contentment the rest of her days, coaxing carrots and cabbages from the brick-earth soil, darning socks and patching skirts. Largely left to her own devices, she was not unhappy: she read from her father’s library, augmented by volumes begged and borrowed from the manor house, and — like the young carpenter’s son she had not yet met — she educated herself. She studied Latin, Greek, and French, and a bit of Spanish; was passable at figures; dissected dramas and pored over natural histories, according to her interests; traced her country’s bloody monarchies and relived the battles of its antiquity.
Yet all this counted for nothing when she turned twenty, and her aunt carried her away to London in a sudden charitable convulsion, the better to secure a husband worth having. “One with a little money at least, Miranda,” she said over breakfast, over tea, over dinner, over needlework, time and again. “A second son would do as well as anything else, no need to put on airs.” But homesick — and prideful, too —Miranda wanted nothing less in the world than a husband. They dressed beautifully, London men, but spoke in nonsense and trifles, and left everything of consequence to flow in conversation over port where not only a solid wooden door, but the potent derision of the male gentry barred her way. She did not want them, she thought; so what matter if they did not want her?
At an evening party some two months into her stay, she strayed from the over-warm room, its walls lined with wealthy Londoners, flushed and smiling, and slipped into the garden, hoping to remain unnoticed there as long as she could manage. She had wanted fresh air and the familiarity of growing things, but it was not like the gardens of her childhood, plush with useful greens, practical herbs, her mother’s country flowers. It was a pleasure garden: nothing to nourish a life, only idle prettiness, and it smelled of the city.
She hesitated a moment, for it was dark and her eyes ill-suited to it, but after sharply chastising herself for nerves, she pressed on, thinking idly of the darkness as something rich and living, something into which she might disappear, lose herself — or perhaps find an antidote to the fear of shame and poverty that had rooted in her heart since her aunt took her away. She had never feared destitution before. Walking slowly, her hem dragging in the damp, she heard a low murmur ahead, started, then sunk into the shadow of the hedges. A flicker of movement, and Miranda peered into the darkness, eager to see without being seen, and… She put her hand to her mouth, partly in embarrassment and partly to keep from laughing: she had intercepted a tryst. Then the pair shifted, kissing quite tenderly, with the little sighs and soft huffs of laughter so irritating in courting pairs, and in the delicate moonglow of the evening Miranda saw two broad-shouldered forms, and neither wore skirts.
She bit her tongue: felt the sting, the salt of blood.
“Now, Hamilton, you must get back. You’ll be missed—“ Another kiss; Miranda held her breath. “You with a dozen misses panting for a dance.” Yet another kiss. Miranda, for all her hard-earned Greek literacy, could not have conceived of such a thing: there was no violence, no aging man and golden youth, nor whiff of brimstone. Only a tenderness that reminded her absurdly of her own parents, so dearly loved. “Really, now,” said the man, laughing. “Haven’t you an heiress to secure?”
The second man — Hamilton, she supposed — said, “If you insist. Go on. I’ll follow in a moment.” They separated, after another kiss, and Miranda kept her eyes on Hamilton while the other’s footsteps faded. He touched his fingers gently to his lips and suddenly, then more than any preceding moment of sodomitical intimacy, Miranda was ashamed. She turned away, but stumbled over her dew-heavy hem to fall heavily against the hedge.
“Who’s there?” Hamilton’s step drew closer. “Norris, man, did you go the wrong way? How oiled are —” He caught sight of Miranda and his cheerful voice fell away like a heavy stone down a deep well. He opened, then closed his mouth. “Madam,” he said, and bowed stiffly.
Miranda immediately understood their situation: even if she wanted to expose the lovers, and she was not at all sure she did, she could do so only by exposing herself unattended with a man unknown to her. Like Alexander before the Gordian knot, she moved swiftly, holding out her hand, praying that he was kind. “We each have the other at a disadvantage, sir. Should we not be friends?”
He hesitated only a moment. Then, “Thomas Hamilton.”
“Miranda Congreve,” she said, though she was shocked to hear her voice tremble, to feel the drumming of her heart in her ears. “My confidence is yours.”
“Thank you,” he said, quietly.
He was frightened, she realized. A man of the type she knew to mill about London’s parties might have lashed out in his fear, but Hamilton only stood silent, rigid with trepidation. “‘A bee with its honey stored, and a human being after helping others,” she said in Latin. “'They don’t make a fuss about it.’”
“Aurelius?” He lifted his eyebrows and relaxed, fractionally.
She nodded and wanted fiercely not this chill stranger, but the gentle lover who had absent-mindedly touched a finger to his just-kissed lips. But that was not hers to yearn for. “I did not mean to spy,” she said. “Only to get away from the party.” She sighed.
“Not one for music?”
“No, I love music.” She did — at home, where competition and social calamity did not lurk behind every interaction, every opinion. She could play the game, and win it, but god, it wearied the soul. She tried to make out Hamilton’s features: a young man, blond, hair close-cropped to suit the wig clutched in his hand, tall and lean. Whatever instincts for survival she possessed were silent in the face of him: him, a strange man who could hurt her, at the very least deal a hearty blow to her reputation, and yet she did not fear him.
He said, “Miss Congreve,” and nodded a little half-bow. He seemed on the verge of saying more, then swallowed hard and stood aside, and Miranda returned to the house to find that she had not been missed at all.
To Miranda’s surprise, she was not the village freak, even as one who sometimes gardened without a bonnet and who accepted midnight calls from a pirate in league with Eleanor Guthrie. No, that position was held instead by a queer little Dutchman who made his home just outside the village boundaries, spoke a lilting English, and was utterly ostracized by the stiff-necked British colonists who despised outsiders while failing to see that they themselves were interlopers.
Naturally, Miranda sought him out as soon as she was able, when James had returned to sea after that single sleepless night, and she was lonely. She had no vegetables to offer, the garden only recently planted, but brought biscuits baked over her fire, and a packet of coffee she’d brought from England. At the house, lopsided and roughly thatched, she called out in greeting, was met with silence, and was on the verge of rapping on the front door when De Groot himself stumbled out, sleep-rumpled in a patched nightshirt and brandishing a poker. “If you don’t —“ He came up short when he spotted Miranda, dropped the poker to the ground, and bowed extravagantly. Miranda put her hand to her mouth, delighted, but inclined to nervous laughter and not wanting to give offence.
“Madam, I apologize,” he said. “I thought myself disturbed by those little brutes once more.”
Miranda nodded in return. “I understand entirely, Mister … De Groot?”
“Having been heckled myself by those ‘little brutes,’ as you say, I understand your apprehension.”
“I would offer you a cup of tea, madam, but alas, I have none.” He shrugged, honest and cheerful.
Miranda smiled and held up her basket. “Fortunately, I brought something to share. I am new to the island. I am Mrs. Barlow.”
De Groot seemed to remember, then, that he was not dressed, for the smile that had briefly lit his face was evicted in favour of sad sobriety. “Mrs. Barlow, I would be delighted, but if you are new to the village, perhaps you do not know… That is, your countrymen…”
Miranda interrupted. “I have no coffee or biscuits for hypocrites. Only for friends.”
De Groot smiled again. “In that case, Mrs. Barlow, I welcome you gladly.”
De Groot lived like a bachelor, and a pauper as well, yet treasured above all things a precious pair of telescopes, meticulously maintained with near-religious fervour, and although his habit of staying awake through the night and sleeping through the day — thus his nightshirt at their first meeting — did nothing to endear him to his neighbours, Miranda had no objection, for he allowed her to use them.
“Your captain,” said De Groot, when they met at the next new moon to watch the stars, “he will not grow jealous?”
Miranda was impressed by De Groot’s reconnaissance, but the idea of James objecting when he daily exerted himself to gain her any comfort she could think to want was so shocking as to be comical, and she could not suppress a little laugh. So De Groot thought her a kept woman? Well, she supposed she was, and the Dutchman did not pose his question to degrade her or to make his own advance: James had already made a name for himself in Nassau, and the astronomer was likely afraid of him. Miranda remembered the first time a man had presumed her bought and paid for, and worthless for it, the fury that had flooded her body, and De Groot aroused no such emotion. “Oh no, he will not mind,” she said. “He likes me to be happy.” She had not put it to herself in such terms before, but pausing to consider, she was surprised to realize that it was true. She had not yet thought of their presence in the West Indies as anything but a way to gain some oblique measure of revenge for Hamilton, and was even sometimes irritated by James’s fuss, as though she needed breakfast on a silver tray to set foot out of bed in the morning. In the distress of their flight from England, he had fallen back on the habits of his naval youth: all women of status were mothers, wives, sisters, and it behooved any decent officer to settle on them as much of his income as could be spared. Oh, foolish boys, she thought, and shook her head.
“You are thinking now of your captain?” De Groot smiled, teasing.
“He is a sailor,” said Miranda,though De Groot knew that, of course. She gestured to the telescope. “He showed me the stars as we came here from England.” He had, too: the bright beauty of the Southern Cross and its fellows, and more over, the crisp functionality of sailors’ navigational trigonometry. For the first time in his life, James had been a passenger, idle all the hours of the day, and he had tutored Miranda in astronomy and navigation, the better to keep them both busy and their demons at bay. Both needed the occupation, for he was started at random from his sleep by nightmares he claimed he could not remember, while Miranda suffered the reverse. Tortured by insomnia, she lay each night awake and thinking of Hamilton, drawing further from him with every breath. That kind, beloved face was now worth a penny a viewing at the meat market of Bethlem Royal Hospital. There the gentlest man Miranda had ever known, he who had never raised a hand in anger, not even against his father’s fists, would be brutalized daily. There was nothing to be done — but that was because she had done nothing. She had acquiesced to Hamilton’s sacrifice, and that was a deed that could never, never be undone.
“It is hard,” said De Groot, quietly, “for lovers to be separated by the sea.”
After her encounter with Hamilton in the garden, Miranda did not see the man again for several weeks. A few careful questions, though, discovered that he was sociable, well liked, wealthy, and unmarried, all of which suggested that unless he had gone to ground to flee enterprising mothers or instead lay trembling on his deathbed, his absence was unusual. He exceeded her in class and they might never have met again, had the winter not dealt him two particular blows. First, gossip circulated that his own mother kept him away — after a long illness, and a longer half-recovery, she had died much as she had lived, tucked away in the country — and second, the parents of Miss Lucretia Hearne announced her engagement to Sir William Norris.
The Hearnes hosted a little party to celebrate, complete with a private theatrical performance, and afterward, Miranda sat against the wall in a low hard-back chair with a tumbler of punch in her hand, gazing round the room, hoping simultaneously to sit unseen and to be asked to dance. Hamilton stood in her line of sight, straight as a soldier, but he was not looking at her; she followed his gaze to Norris, who stood beaming next to Crecy Hearne, and although she was privy to Hamilton’s secret only by accident she felt a sudden, intense connection to him, such that she felt the compression of his brow in her own, his pain in her own breast, and she wished she could speak to him honestly. What was he like? What did he believe? Had he loved Norris? She had not been in love and did not expect to be, but her fancy filled the gaps in her experience, and she willed him to turn and meet her eye. He did so, then, eyes widening a moment before his emotions settled, leaving Miranda to gape at the fulfilment of her wish.
Hamilton crossed the room with another man in tow, one Miranda knew but whose name she had forgotten, and contrived for their mutual acquaintance to introduce him. “Miss Congreve,” he said, making a sombre leg before her.
She rose, curtsied herself. “My Lord.” She was not entirely sure how to address him: in the garden she had not known his title, but had only learned so afterward, learning also that he typically irritated his father and discomfited his peers by foregoing titles in favour of his surname. The other man excused himself, apparently eager to return to a young woman who had captured his attention. “You remember me; that’s very kind.”
“Our meeting would be difficult to forget.” A small quirk of his mouth; the spark of some inner good humour.
Miranda felt an immediate glow of pleasure and camaraderie: Hamilton was not a man to be ashamed of himself. He did not shrink; he was no hypocrite, no hapless and agonized sinner. “But I would forget it, before my remembrance brought you unhappiness. I’m sorry.”
His brow furrowed again. “Have you done me ill?”
She shook her head. “And I will not. Not intentionally.” She frowned, discomfited by herself: it was not in her nature to be coy, but she was suddenly unable to do more than grope toward directness, like a mole toward the sun in spring. “I… was sorry to hear of Lady Hamilton’s death. My own mother died two years ago and that wound is fresh for me still.”
“Ah, well,” said Hamilton. “Perhaps she is better off where she is.” That last said impishly, laced with conspiratorial cheek.
Miranda recovered from the shock of his implication — that his mother’s attainment of peaceful rest was not only uncertain, but unlikely — with the realization that if Hamilton needed any soothing, true honesty was the only balm that would serve. Besides, if he proved priggish, and she told herself that she did not care if he did, each held enough gossip to still the other’s tongue. “What I meant to say, my lord, is that I watched you from my seat, here, and you are the only one in this room to look at Crecy Hearne and frown, apart from Charles Forrester, who she refused. I am sorry for it.”
He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, swallowed heavily. “You don’t think me despicable, then? Depraved?”
At the centre of the room, Norris and Crecy turned in a twist of colour. “I think you are lonely, and that you’ve been isolated from a precious and particular friend. I think it unfair that if you had sought Crecy and been disappointed, you might have sympathy now. I think —”
“I have no desire for sympathy,” said Hamilton, but his face had relaxed, the tension gone out of it. “A friend, though… Would you be a friend to me, Miss Congreve?” Miranda was embarrassed by the little flush of pleasure that rippled through her, in spite of herself, at Hamilton’s request, and she stiffened her spine.
Hamilton mistook her stiffness for insult, but said personably, “I can tell truths as well as you, Miss Congreve. Very few have the strength to stand alone as you do, but their strength does not preclude regret. You would like to be surrounded by suitors, laughing with friends, just as much as I wish I might congratulate Miss Hearne with an honest heart.”
“But we are not such people,” said Miranda.
Hamilton shook his head.
Miranda was alone when Ashe’s letter found her sanctuary. She set it on the table to await James’s return, and there it lay, until she fancied it burning like a brand, enough to light the room. It was unbearable, heightening her restlessness until she left the cottage simply to be free of it, allowing the light of the moon to guide her to the only friendly door she knew.
De Groot poured two glasses of the cheap wine he paid Nassau’s grubby boys to deliver, and held one out. Miranda took it. “You wear a bloody countenance,” he said. “Just the thing for battles at sea, but for traversing the stars, you and I?” He shook his head.
Miranda flinched at her first sip of bitter wine; a few more, though, and it wouldn’t matter. “Tell me,” she said. “What shall we see tonight? Tell me something of those places so far away.” She pulled her shawl around her shoulders; the sun was all but sunk below the horizon, bloody itself, and the breeze from the sea was cool.
“No need even for the telescope, Mrs. Barlow.” He pointed: a button of white light blinked just beyond his fingertip. “Venus. Little star that is not a star.”
“Love or Lucifer?” said Miranda, thinking of Milton. She sipped again, her tongue already grown accustomed, then recited, “His countenance, as the morning-star that guides / The starry flock, allured them, and with lies / Drew after him the third part of Heaven's host.”
“Only in England, Mrs. Barlow. Here…” He gestured toward the night. “Here, night falls and the planets show themselves. The Greeks called it Eosphorus, dawn-bringer, and at the same time, Hesperos, evening one — and as much one as the other, both at once. But we stray into the figurative: do I speak of England or its colonies, Satan or the stars?” He refilled her glass. “Politics and religion, bah! Drink, my dear, and we shall wait for Jupiter instead, and with my telescope, his lovers.”
She drained her glass, and he his, and when she peered through his precious lenses, Callisto’s pockmarked face filled her vision.
“You will always see her so,” said De Groot. “Jupiter is so large, its mass so great, she cannot turn away.”
Muddled by wine and metaphor, Miranda thought, Who am I, Juno or Callisto? From whose face could we not bear to turn? Thomas, where are you? De Groot handed her his handkerchief when she began to cry, and she sniffed and said, “Do you feel so small as I do, when you look at them? How can you stand it?” Ashe’s letter blazed like Venus in her mind.
“I do,” he said. “Just as you say. But I have never troubled Venus, nor has Venus troubled me.”
Miranda cleared her throat and reclaimed her equanimity to say coolly, “The planet, Mr. De Groot, or the notion of love?”
He laughed, bright and cheerful. “Oh, the planet, my dear, the planet. Love is nothing but trouble — that is why we chase it. Why I chased it. And…” He laughed again. “And why I sleep with one eye open, on account of Hilletje Jansdochter’s brothers.”
“But not Hilletje herself?”
“Oh, no,” said De Groot, smiling. “No, we were very happy, she and I. For a time. Our time, brief though it was.”
When James next returned, wearied, bloodied, and ill-tempered, plagued by a discontented crew and his own unwillingness to delegate responsibility, Miranda added to both their sorrows by opening Ashe’s letter at last. She read it, silently, and felt nothing, observing the void within herself as though from a distance, and distant still, she passed the letter to James, watched the flick of his eyes as he read. Ashe’s words were cold and precise: Hamilton was dead. In that moment, watching herself, cold, detached, Mrs. Barlow cursed Miranda Hamilton for a coward. You knew it. The moment you held the letter you knew it, but you pretended, lived a fantasy, coward, traitor, wretch.
James trembled, barely noticeable but that Miranda knew him well, knew that he would hide from her his rage, his grief, his shame. Their intimacy surpassed friendship, family, sex, but he remained a statue alone in his misery, willing only to acknowledge it on the understanding that Miranda would not.
He trembled and Miranda wanted to scream, to smash crockery, to bring the cottage down around their ears. He stood, turned to leave, and snatched at his elbow. Said, “James, I can’t not think of him, not speak of him.” James’s face tightened and he jerked free of her hands. “No, don’t turn away. This is what I mean. I can’t bear it.”
He was angry, then, in his anguish. “Do you think I pretend he never was? Is that what you believe?”
“What am I to think when you won’t speak his name, when you — ”
“Every wound, every discomfort, it’s nothing, compared to what he suffered in that place.” He slumped to the floor, back against the table leg, and Miranda sank to her knees beside him.
“James, you can tell me anything in the world, so long as it’s the truth. I wish you would.”
For the barest moment, she thought he would walk away, but instead he closed his eyes and spoke. “I took one of his shirts. From the house. Before we left. That little housemaid of yours, Charlotte, she packed it in paper for me, but I’ve never looked at it. I tried once, lifted the tray, but I… It smelled like him.” His face twisted with self-disgust. “I was sick over the side like a fool never gone to sea.” He forced himself to his feet, refused to look at her, refused to allow her love to penetrate his shame.
“James.” Her call stopped him at the door. “I’ll find out where he is, where he’ll be.”
“He’s dead, Miranda,” said James, anguished. “It makes no fucking difference where he is, or where he’ll be, and it won’t, not ever again.”
“Not him,” said Miranda. “His father.” But James did not respond. She watched him walk away, and when he had gone, she crawled to the fireplace and scooped handfuls of cool ash over her head, thinking of Jupiter and Juno, Callisto and Ganymede; of James, working himself to death amid a crew of cutthroats; of Hamilton, purple-faced with bedsheets knotted around his neck. There was a path to follow, a way to make things right, if only she could find it. A way to save James and to avenge Hamilton.
She must have fallen asleep — pure exhaustion and nothing more — for she opened her eyes and found it dark, and her head resting in James’s lap while he gently wiped her face with a warm cloth.
He said, “I’m sorry I left you alone. We promised him, and I left you alone. I’m sorry, Miranda.”
She closed her eyes again, but took his hand, and they lay together amid the ashes.
Hamilton found her afterward in the hall; he must have separated himself from the party as soon as ever he could, sooner than was appropriate, too soon to pass without comment. Hamilton was never practical about such things. Miranda was alone, on her way to her bedroom, for the other women had kindly, but incontrovertibly, suggested that she was overexcited and ought to retire for the evening, and she had nowhere else to go: no more money of her own than for trifles, no horse, no carriage, no knowledge of the streets to navigate them, no place to stay unless she went home and took bread from the mouths of her brothers and sisters. She was unable to still her shaking hands and cried silently, but without restraint: it was the only outlet for her anger, fed by the echoing refrain of her memory. She had been talking with Crecy Norris, a girl she had once counted a friend, and Norris had come, and taken his wife by the elbow, and steered her away, whispering in a voice pitched to carry that she ought not to recognize Hamilton’s mistress. She had been invited to stay as nothing more than a winking courtesy to Hamilton and at the same time, a joke at his expense. Even her aunt could not deny that.
He was gentle, kind, and he was there; she lashed out. “Haven’t you done enough?” He said nothing, his patience infuriated her, and still she could not stop her trembling. “Dismissed like a child, sent to bed without my supper. I will run mad. I’ll kill him. If I were a man, I would, or die trying. I will run mad!” She thought she would: strip naked and run through the dew-struck fields under moonlight like a pagan priestess — or the ill-bred country prostitute Norris had accused her of being. All while he… the hypocrite! The animal!
“He's jealous. He doesn’t know—”
“Doesn’t know better? A brute animal would.”
“Doesn’t know that you could destroy him with a word.”
“If it were true, I would own it gladly, but he is a liar, Hamilton, and if you think it inspires my confidence to know that smug beast would only refrain from naming me whore for the sake of blackmail. Not to mention that such a thing would expose you.”
He shook his head. “No, no. Can we…” He gestured toward the bedroom.
As quickly as her rage had flared, it passed. She had no anger left to spend on poor Hamilton, and spoke wearily, without venom. “You know Norris’s accusations and now you want to enter my bedroom?” She sighed. “Well, you must be careful, Hamilton, going out again.”
“Congreve,” he said solemnly. “I’ll never see you hurt by word or deed of mine, I swear.”
She was shaken by his words, and turned from him to close the door and set the lock.
“Being such as I am,” said Hamilton, “I loved him.” He fidgeted with his coat. “He was a friend to me when I was alone in the world, a part of his nature I fear now lost forever, because he in thrall to his fear and his shame.”
Miranda opened her mouth to say that if Hamilton had come to make his lover’s apologies, he would get much the same treatment from her, but he lifted his hand to forestall her.
“I do not make his excuses. I make a point about his lack of courage — and your surfeit, Congreve. How could I do otherwise? You risk everything, utterly committed to your convictions. Miranda…” He swallowed. “Will you marry me?”
Her anger rekindled, she flew at him, then. “You think I can be had for nothing because Norris has humiliated me? That I will gratify your desire to follow wherever Norris leads? He has got a wife and so must you do, and you can purchase me by saying, ‘Congreve, I shall make you comfortable.’ I should rather be slighted by everyone I’ve ever met than be owned!”
Hamilton had gone as pale as fresh linen but for two bright spots of colour high in his cheeks. “You think that little of me.”
They stared, both too prideful to be the first to move.
Then, in embarrassed agony, “I’m sorry, Hamilton.”
“Sorry for impugning my honour, or to refuse my suit?”
“Your father will despise me, as will your friends.”
“It would not be the first time he was wrong, he has no control of my inheritance, and they will adjust or we will discard them.”
Miranda huffed, exasperated. “Are you so immune to the world’s disapprobation? You risk more than your reputation: your life is at stake. I may stifle under the dictums of society, but at least I can see their boundaries, the better to respect them.”
“I am not reckless,” he said, with the faintest hint of blush about him, “but you have made me understand that I cannot live as a coward without conviction.”
“Oh, Hamilton,” said Miranda. She rubbed her temple. “I could never believe you a coward, never.”
“Yet I am not as brave as you. I can see all that our lives could be together: true friends, true partners. You deserve as much a chance as any man. Let me give it to you.”
“The gossip will hurt you.”
“My love, I do not care.” Hamilton held out his hand.
“Do you see? There in the Southern Cross.” De Groot jabbed toward the sky with one stubby finger. “Acrux.”
Miranda did see: the bright point gleaming in the pride of the southern hemisphere.
“Look, now, through my telescope,” said De Groot, “and see what Father Fontenay saw thirty years ago. You will hardly make it out, my lenses are not so good as all that, but I will tell you: it is not one star, but two — a double star — and they are circling something we cannot see. The way the moon circles the earth and draws the tide.”
“Who is Father Fontenay?”
“Oh, a Jesuit.” De Groot waved a dismissive hand. “But also an astronomer—ah, a legend, the head of the society when he returned from preaching his gospel in China. The first I know to see a double star, except perhaps Riccioli. Do you see it, Mrs. Barlow?”
His enthusiasm was contagious, and Miranda peered eagerly into the telescope. There it glimmered: Acrux, distant even while her hand twitched at her side with the sudden desire to reach for it. You could see no star so clearly in London. England made her think of Hamilton, then of James, then of the idea she had been nursing. “Mr. De Groot, have you ever considered going to sea?”
“I have been and gone, my dear.” He pushed back his shaggy hair from the side of his neck, where was inked a small turtle in faded indigo. “Dutch navy, out here in the Indies, but never the navy again. Not if old Grandfather de Ruyter himself rose from the dead and beseeched me.” He made this pledge even while watching her expectantly.
Miranda smoothed the front of her skirt. “My captain needs a sailing master.”
“Your captain is a pirate.”
“Ah, but not the navy — Dutch, English, or otherwise.”
He laughed. “Mrs. Barlow, let us be frank: do you ask me to spy on your captain?”
“Goodness, no,” she said, with genuine surprise. “I have no need of that: he will tell me anything I ask. No, he is a fair navigator himself, but takes too much on his shoulders. A sailing master he could trust…” He eyed her, thoughtful, and she held his gaze. “That would lessen his burden considerably.”
“And who would you talk to, if I went away to sea like I were still a boy making his way in the world? That parson? The mother of those little wretches casting stones at you? Perhaps your captain would despise me for leaving you here alone.”
He was testing her. “I would not ask you to spy,” she said. “I would not want you to, nor to act on anything but your own conscience. But his crew… Some of them love him as though he were a god, while others despise him, think him the very devil. If you were there, no matter what you thought, you would know, you would understand how I love him, merely the man. I am the only one in all the world who loves him.” Now that Hamilton is gone.
De Groot nodded. “Well, a few Spanish dollars would not go amiss, I could not deny. I will speak to your captain, Mrs. Barlow, if he will speak to me.”
“Thank you,” said Miranda. If De Groot and James could come to an understanding, that would be one matter addressed, leaving outstanding only her letter to Charlotte.
It was apparent to Miranda very early on that Hamilton had fallen in love with James. She had nourished a tendre for the man herself, had told Hamilton so from the start, for though their affaires had not been numerous in their decade of marriage, neither of them had gone without. But she sensed in James, beneath the bashful tenderness of a sailor who could brain a Spaniard or speak at ease with pursers’ wives and port doxies yet found gentlewomen as incomprehensible as a foreign language, the same alien fear she had known in Hamilton: that to make love to a woman was necessary for survival, yet unnatural. In her carriage she kissed him for the first time and thought she could feel in the pulse of his heart how he wanted her, a desire manufactured in intentional, painful rebellion against his every inborn sense.
When James left for Bermuda, Hamilton fretted terribly, buried himself in his work, barely surfaced for meals or rest. In turn, Miranda was doubly lonely, missing her new friend and lover as well as her husband’s companionship. After a dinner with Hamilton’s father more cold and tense than usual, by far, she let herself into Hamilton’s study and found him sitting by the fire in the dark. The flickering firelight did not make him fearsome or spectral, but cast him instead in the soft glow of some happy, faraway time and place that Miranda had never seen. He did not notice her until she stood at his side and had put her hand on his shoulder. He looked up, startled from his reverie, and smiled to see her, took her hand in his and pressed it. He kissed her palm.
“Sweetheart, I’m sorry.” He always apologised for the old man, who that night had for once concentrated on his son’s failings rather than the shortcomings of his wife: the distress Hamilton’s initiatives had riled, the need to better accommodate Alfred’s political allies, the wicked old sodomites in the House of Lords — and this with a pointed stare across the wine, the dishes, and the long cold table, toward Hamilton, who bore the abuse as patiently as ever.
Miranda stooped to kiss his cheek, then sank into the chair opposite. “Never think on it.”
“I shouldn’t either,” he said. “After all, I’ve not faced the challenges McGraw has,” he said.
“His upbringing?” She thought of him, a carpenter’s son, rated midshipman at the age of 20 and far older than his peers, the snot-nosed sons of the gentry. “Or his experience of war?”
"Both, I suppose.” Hamilton looked up at her. “My father’s been a bully all his life, that should not surprise you, but he was never physically violent. Toward me, I mean. Not because of any philosophical opposition, mind, but I think because it disgusted him to touch me at all. But once… You know, I had forgotten it until tonight. Why I should have forgotten such a thing… Well, he caught me once, with another boy: ran him off and beat the stuffing out of me. And he didn’t say a word, no lecture, no exhortation to leave my childish habits at Eton. Only this cold, terrible anger. I must have fainted, for I woke in my bed the next day. Couldn’t hardly get out of it for another week…” He gave a little smile. “But as you can see, it had no bearing on me, in the end.”
Though she knew Alfred’s anger well, the brutality still surprised her: she could not conceive of a grown man beating his child into unconsciousness. “You are concerned for the lieutenant. My love, you must tread carefully with him.”
Hamilton’s face transformed: a wash of gentle, eager hope that disappeared as quickly as it had come. “Oh, I do not begrudge him loving you, Miranda. How could I? We have always been honest with each other, and I presume you have been honest with him.” His eyes widened. “He’s not afraid of me, is he? Poor man. I couldn’t bear that.”
Miranda shook her head. “I have told him, of course, but it’s not an easy thing for a paramour to believe, that the cuckold does not begrudge him — torn between disbelief, relief, and a chivalrous compulsion to resent your indifference on my behalf.” She said that to make him smile, and was glad when he did. “But it isn’t that. Thomas, he admires you, as I… As I believe you admire him."
The look of hope returned. “Miranda, I —”
“But you must tread carefully. He has not confided in me, nor I think even to himself, and your father is a hazard to a man with so few protections.”
“We happy few,” said Hamilton. “But we have been in pursuit of the salvation of Nassau for some time, and longer have I been in partnership with you. I would not jeopardize either.”
She understood: he would not let the lieutenant come between them, though neither would he leave the lieutenant outside the shelter of his love if he could help it. “Life is brief; there is but one harvest of earthly existence,” she said.
“Aurelius again?” He smiled.
“My love,” said Miranda. “If he survives Bermuda, I would not let him get away again.”
Charlotte’s reply reached the cottage with uncharacteristic speed, and Miranda, drunk on rage and starlight and shattering fatigue, took it in mind that this was a sign that lent virtue to her desire for vengeance harboured in her breast and that the deed she so longed to see done had become possible.
Indeed, everything had aligned. James was not only ashore, but there with her, for the first time secure enough in his position in Nassau to leave his ship and crew unattended for more than a handful of stolen moonlit hours. Indeed, he sat close by, drinking tea from a bone china cup incongruously fragile in his hands. Miranda knew what those hands could do, what she wanted them to do. She read Charlotte’s letter again: Alfred would travel soon on the Maria Aleyne, a little mail ship, sprightly enough but nothing worth the interest of the lowliest Nassau pirate. Unless Captain Flint thought it worthwhile. Poor Charlotte. Miranda hoped that she would never realize the connection between her letter and Alfred’s inevitable death — if it was, indeed, inevitable.
He set down his cup, looked at her. He was waiting for her, not to pin to her the moral weight of the decision, but to show that he would suppress his own heart’s desire if she wished it. It was his way of making recompense: he wore his shame like sackcloth and believed that his pursuit of desire, of Hamilton, had led to their catastrophe, and he had not yet released himself from blame. Perhaps he never would. On top of that, he trusted and respected her as Hamilton had, knew that she chafed against life among the isolated Puritans whose children thought her a witch. He would do anything to rescue them from their lives — anything but defy her outright.
Miranda refused to think of that chafing life absent both him and De Groot, her only friends. “He’s leaving England,” she said. “On a little tub called the Maria Aleyne. Charlotte’s included the route, copied from old man’s secretary.”
“Not to speak of. It’s a mail ship. Charlotte says he’s in a tearing hurry to reach the Carolinas, some business interest or other.”
“Mail’s not worth stealing, though.” For the Walrus’s crew, he meant. Something must have shown in her face, for he added, “I’d do it tomorrow, Miranda, if that’s what we decided.
Ashe’s letter two months before had brought the shocking, inevitable news, and now Charlotte, innocently enough, had opened a door of possibility, something bloody lay in the darkness beyond the threshold.
“Some of the crew will die in the taking,” said James. “Mine perhaps, theirs for certain.”
He wanted her to understand the consequences, but Miranda wanted that vicious old man to feel powerless, afraid, and alone — wanted him to fully comprehend that those whom he had tried to destroy had brought about his own destruction. Hamilton could not be brought back, but she wanted revenge all the same. She handed James the letter. “Could you find him?”
He scanned the paper, then nodded, the dispassionate appraisal of an experienced sailor. “I will speak with your friend this afternoon. If we are amenable to one another, perhaps he will join us. After the Maria Aleyne.”
Miranda nodded. “And you’ll come home when it’s done?” She realized the word she’d used only after she spoke. Home.
“If I can. That ship is no prize, and the Walrus must have one soon. More than one, if I can manage it.”
“Miranda,” Hamilton said, all terrible solemnity while Alfred’s brutes hung back in the doorway. “It is time again for you to be the bravest of us.”
“Wait, just wait,” she said, her mind spinning. “Until James comes, he will come, and we will run. Thomas, don’t.”
He grabbed her hands and spoke in a fierce whisper. “They’ll take me to Bethlem, Miranda, but James will hang in a public square and then they’ll take me anyway. Here, now, we cannot outfight them: we will lose, and you and James will pay the price. We have no time.” He was agitated, shivering and pale. “You must take care of each other. You must take him away from here.”
She looked to the door, then back to Hamilton.
He put his hand to her cheek, turned her face to his and gently held her there. “Listen to me. Your sisters are safe, married, and the money for your brothers’ commissions is secure, untouchable. We’ll not have them join the blasted navy, hey? Sweetheart, I love you.” He kissed her, but she did not feel it. “Take him away from here. Promise me, Miranda, please, and tell him…” His voice failed him; he looked like he was about to be sick.
“I promise,” she said, and when she embraced him, he was pulled away from her. He shook off the brutes' grip and left with them. He was a lamb to the slaughter. That thought charged her from her stupor, but it was too late: the door had shut and she would never see her husband again. The house was as good as empty, cold now that its warm heart had gone, and the servants had scattered. Numbly, she rang the bell: she needed to pack, for herself and for James, but no one answered. At last, one of the little maids appeared, Charlotte, a young woman who had come up from Kent with Miranda as a girl. She was not herself accustomed to being seen and stammered with nervousness. “My lady, I’m sorry, Hemmings won’t come. The master, I mean, Lord Hamilton…” She flushed. “I mean, he ordered us not to.” She trailed off, the courage it had taken to defy the master of the house exhausted as she told her lady what she’d done. Miranda’s mind raced: soon James would come home, terrified and furious, and Miranda wanted nothing more in the world than to turn him loose, but Hamilton had tied her hands. Damn him, damn him — and he was damned, a fate worse than hell. She swallowed hard. “Charlotte,” she said, watching the girl's sweet, anguished face. “I am going away, do you understand?”
“And you will stay with the house, won’t you? I’ll write to you and you can tell me how the house gets on, and we’ll keep this between us, won’t we, Charlotte? I shall sign all my letters from… from… Mrs. Barlow. Do you understand?”
“Anything, my lady, for you and… the master.” She meant Hamilton, then; that much was certain.
“Thank you,” said Miranda, floating above her body. James was coming home, their home, but it was not their home anymore; he would be there soon. “You can go. I wouldn’t want you in trouble with…” She could not say his name.
“I’ll pack for you, my lady. It won’t take no time, and there’s no one upstairs.” The young woman peered at her, waiting for direction that Miranda could not give. “I’ll do that, and Mary’ll bring you tea.”
They shared a bed that night, they often did, but did not make love. Miranda would have killed Alfred herself if presented with the opportunity, but she did not want to bring the deed into her bed: he had stolen enough of intimacy from her. More than that, she was exhausted, as tired as though she had laboured all day in the field, hardly able to lift her limbs, but as insomniac as ever. She remained awake, conscious of all around her, of each movement James made and the fading glow of the hearth-fire. She thought, Come, you spirits, unsex me here. Hers was a grim deed that needed doing, and she would see it done. James’s hand was her hand. He slumbered on beside her and she peered through a gap in the gauzy curtains at the round, heavy moon, as far beyond her reach as Hamilton. She was only nominally religious: she did not believe she would ever see him again.
As sudden as a thunderclap something changed in her perception of the night, and she strained her senses to ascertain its source. Then she knew: she had ceased to hear the chatter of the birds and insects, the full-throated frogs and the sibilant chatter of the wind through the sugarcane. Fatigue covered her, heavy as an infant’s swaddling clothes.