Sophia has been trying to grind her fears to powder all her life. It truly began at boarding school, after she was reckless and laid her hand on top of another girl’s when they were alone in a classroom. The girl had stared her dead in the eyes and, Sophia assumed, warned her friends because then ten girls who had been friendly with Sophia never spoke to her again. When Uncle John and Aunt Jane had guessed her lack of friends when Sophia asked no one to visit over the holidays, Sophia had almost had to fall to her knees to beg them to discard a letter complaining to the headmistress that “a member of the Franklin family is being shamefully treated by her peers.” She’d made up something on the spot about “Jesus was shunned too, Uncle” that had quelled Uncle John’s anger enough for him to let the matter rest. Sophia had continued to grind away at herself, mentally whipping her own back every time she gazed longingly at a woman over a man’s shoulder at a ball.
All of the rinds of the ground up secret knit back together the moment she first kisses Eliza, and then the secret disappears in front of this one person who matters most and the aftertaste is the sweetness of Eliza’s mouth.
“You’ll tell me straightaway if she gives you any trouble. I’ve checked her references twice but one can never be too careful. After all…” Lady Jane puts her sewing in her lap as her hands shake. Hands shaking is either a side effect of her diagnosed melancholia or of the sedative she takes to sleep every night, the doctors aren’t sure. Sophia knows she needs to ask Lady Jane to stop sewing before she pricks herself, but she doesn’t have the heart yet.
Lady Jane clears her throat and nods, Sophia’s not sure at what. “We’re not quite…anymore…we are as we are, and no one shall give us any trouble.”
It’s then that Sophia hears only the faintest clink of the cups on the tea tray as the new maid, Elizabeth Young, lays the tea set on the drawing room table with a practiced ease. As Elizabeth leans over the table, Sophia takes in her profile. She has an angular face, high cheekbones, large brown eyes. Not a face considered delicate like Sophia’s. Her dark blonde hair is braided in a thick coil down her back and the morning sunlight brings out auburn streaks.
“Will the ladies need anything else?” Her voice has a melody in it at unexpected moments.
“No, Miss Young.” Lady Jane lays her sewing quickly down and reaches for her cup. “Sophia?”
“No, thank you.”
Elizabeth nods and meets Sophia’s eyes very quickly before she turns away and retreats back to the kitchen.
Sophia watches her go and the feeling of yearning is like something sharp coiling and uncoiling again and again in her breast. She doesn’t trust her own hands not to shake.
“Thank you, sir, I’m very honored as always.” Sophia leans in to kiss Mr. Dickens’s cheek as he places the newest installment of his latest novel in her hands. Elizabeth closes the door on him and locks it while Sophia keeps her eyes on the book cover. She reads the title several times and forgets it each time as she senses Elizabeth moving near her.
Sophia jolts her head up. “Yes. Do you like to read, Miss Young?”
Elizabeth blinks, licks her lips, then swallows. “Miss…I…I can’t read.”
Sophia’s breath freezes. Idiot. Of course Elizabeth can’t read. She’s been a maid since she left an orphanage, her papers said. When would she have had the chance? Who would have wanted to teach her? Shame pools in Sophia, black like spilled ink. She has to save this somehow.
“We will…I will read out loud to you. That way we can both enjoy a book.” Sophia smiles and gestures for Elizabeth to follow. As she turns away and heads up the stairs, her head swims and her chest feels like it’s shrinking. She can feel a red flush staining her from her neck up to her cheeks. It’s Elizabeth’s first day here and already Sophia has bungled their first interaction alone.
Alone. As they pass Lady Jane’s room, Sophia remembers her aunt is resting in bed. This will be the first time she is truly alone with Elizabeth.
In Sophia’s bedroom is a bookcase packed shelf to shelf with all manner of volumes. The ones Uncle John bought for her over the course of her life are still there. She had once removed several volumes of the history of Van Diemen’s Land and begun wrapping them up for storage when Lady Jane passed by, registered Sophia’s actions, and screamed, nearly tripping, one hand desperately clawing the doorjamb. Her cries of “Put them back, put them back, nothing can change, nothing, no moving things, nothing can change,” were soothed only by Sophia both returning the volumes to the shelf and kissing her aunt’s hands in penitence, promising never to move anything belonging to Uncle John ever again.
Now, Sophia points to the bookcase and says, too earnestly as even she can tell, “I have novels, biographies, memoirs, geography, history.” She has everything. Sophia Cracroft wants not for books, nor anything. She’s pressed that point home unintentionally but quite firmly. She wants to lay face down on her bed.
Elizabeth has barely followed Sophia into the room. Her face is calm but her jaw is very tight. “Miss, I couldn’t trouble you this way…”
“It’s no trouble at all.” Sophia turns away, gulps, and turns back. “How about Mr. Dickens’s latest? We can start the first volume.”
“But Miss, he just gave you the second.”
“No matter. It’s a good story. At least I think so.” She plucks the book from the shelf. “How about tonight? When my aunt is asleep. Then we’ll have time to focus.
It would be such enjoyment. My aunt doesn’t care much for reading, not even for reading out loud. It would be so lovely to talk to someone about a book for once.”
Elizabeth’s discomfort is becoming palpable. “Miss, you’re only too kind, I only can’t think that I’d be a very good person to talk to, what with knowing so little of books, I can only imagine this would be so much better with someone else you know, one of your lady friends, or…”
“Please.” Sophia feels her desperation rising like mercury in a thermometer. She doesn’t have any good friends any more. And even if she did…
Elizabeth quickly bows her head. “Miss.”
Sophia’s spirits sink. “Oh, no. That wasn’t an order, Miss Young. That was a request. I’d appreciate it if you would listen to me read, but you don’t have to. Here, never mind anyway, I’ll put it back.”
“I…” Elizabeth gestures quickly at the book. “I would like to hear it. I would. Miss.”
Relief kindles in Sophia. Her breath is audible and her voice wobbly, but she manages, “Wonderful. Tonight, then.”
Elizabeth nods. “That would be very pleasant, Miss.”
They stare at each other. Elizabeth’s eyes are so big and her lashes curl at such a beautiful angle.
Sophia is saved from speaking what she’s sure would have been garbled nonsense by Elizabeth preceding her with, “I can tend to the laundry now, Miss, or scrub the-”
“Yes, of course. Thank you, Miss Young.”
“Miss.” Elizabeth bows her head and is out the door in a less than a moment. Sophia leans back against the bookcase with her hand over her mouth, eyes squeezed shut. She doesn’t know much about anatomy but she thinks the heart is a muscle and that muscles get sore and that her heart will be sore in a minute’s time if it keeps beating this quickly. She moves to sit on the edge of her bed, then lays back on it, staring up at the canopy. The sun is shining through the window and hitting her face at an uncomfortable angle but she doesn’t move. She can’t move. Embarrassment still roils in her stomach, but she’s going to be alone with Elizabeth tonight.
Everything has to go right.
Sophia tries to give each character a unique voice or accent while not tripping over the words, which she still does, but she reads straight through two chapters while Elizabeth does needlework in a nearby chair. When she finishes, she closes the book, leans back against the sofa, and smiles. “Well, what do you think?”
She waits for Elizabeth to haltingly make a comment or two on the story. Instead, Elizabeth stares at the fire and then gives Sophia a diagram of her own soul.
“May I be honest, Miss?”
“Yes, I hope so, Miss Young.”
“I don’t care for it. The woman, she’s written poorly. I don’t believe a word she says. A word the author gives her to say. What woman would ever say those things and then be described as ‘happy’? I mean, I suppose it’s possible, all things are meant to be possible...but it doesn’t sit well with me. She can’t simply be happy when all the men are around her and she can’t ever leave and do something else without them.”
Sophia has never heard Charles Dickens’s writing criticized before. She grips the book, which suddenly feels as useless as a brick. “I see.” The words come out stiffer than she means them to and Elizabeth immediately lays down her needlework and holds her hands up.
“I could be very wrong, Miss. I didn’t mean to say the whole book wasn’t worth anything, I-”
“No no, I know you didn’t. I had simply never thought about it.” She laughs suddenly. “No, I really hadn’t. I only read the story. I never thought about the characters as though they could really breathe. Especially the women.”
Elizabeth lowers her hands. “Maybe it was the only way I could hear it, Miss. I listened to it like it was real. But it’s not.”
“It came from somewhere real, though. From a mind. I like your thoughts, Miss Young. I don’t know how the woman is happy either, now. She never has a moment to herself. That’s how I feel at parties. It’s even how I feel sometimes around other women. When I have to sit with my aunt when her friends visit…I have nothing to say.”
Elizabeth is watching her carefully. “You couldn’t talk about the book with them. Not this way.”
“No. They would never understand.”
“It was a good idea then, Miss.”
“Reading aloud. So you can talk about your books.”
“Yes, the books. And myself too, I suppose.” The recklessness she’s been curbing all her life suddenly resurges in her before she can tamp it down with tooth and nail. “I am myself right now, thanks to you.”
Elizabeth’s face is carefully guarded as a good maid’s is always supposed to be, but one corner of her mouth softly twitches up. “I am glad for it, Miss.”
It’s a melody and Sophia leans into it. “I am, too.” This conversation, this night, can’t end yet. Time must be suspended. They must keep talking. They must keep being together. “Tell me more about the female characters. How would you depict them?”
And Sophia hears more about her own heart, her desires and fears, as a woman, by listening to Elizabeth speak about fictional characters than she ever has discussing herself at any ball or with any gentleman.
“How do you make it so perfect?”
“Oh, it’s not perfect, Miss. There are lumps and bumps, you just can’t see them.”
“Then it’s still perfect by my standards.” Sophia, from her chair at her dressing table, gazes at Elizabeth’s braid, which is swinging back and forth as she hangs up new dresses in Sophia’s wardrobe. “Where simply are these lumps and bumps?”
“On the underside, mostly.”
Sophia tries not to smile, and probably fails. “Ah.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth stops in mid-step, her big eyes meeting Sophia’s. “That wasn’t a serious question.” And for the first time, she breaks into a smile with all her teeth.
Sophia’s heart lurches sweetly and she immediately grins back. “What? What are you thinking?”
Elizabeth runs her fingers down her braid. “My brother, he used to tease me, he’d tell me he could braid my own hair better than I could and then he’d do it but the lumps and bumps were still there and then I’d tease him back.”
Sophia is still grinning. “You have a brother?”
Elizabeth’s face shatters faster than a smashed china plate on a hardwood floor. “Oh…” She turns her back on Sophia and leans her hand against the wardrobe.
Sophia jolts out of her chair just as Elizabeth presses her palm over her mouth and the heaving, staccato sobs begin. Her back shakes but she stands rigidly, even as Sophia takes her elbow, vaguely registering that this is the first time they’ve touched. “Elizabeth?” She forgets to call her “Miss Young” as she tries to lead Elizabeth to the dresser chair, but Elizabeth’s knees give out and she steps on Sophia’s dress and they both fall on their knees to the rug.
Elizabeth tries to stand and pull Sophia with her. “Miss, I’m so, so, I’m sorry, I’m so, forgive me, please, please-” She starts coughing through her sobs.
“Shh shh shh,” Sophia whispers as she tries to sit and bring Elizabeth down next to her. Her heartbeat is wild and off-kilter. “Please, what’s wrong? What can I do?”
“Miss, oh please don’t tell Lady Franklin…oh god…” Elizabeth is shaking and her face is inflamed with red patches, as if she’s had an allergic reaction to some strange plant. Sophia finds a handkerchief from her dress and presses it into Elizabeth’s hands. Anxiety is juddering along her nerves, panic beginning to thump in her pulse. She wants to gather Elizabeth to her chest but of course she can’t, so she keeps one hand awkwardly gripped on Elizabeth’s elbow and the other on her upper arm.
When Elizabeth carefully peels the handkerchief from her eyes, Sophia sees a ragged layer in her bleary gaze. She knows immediately that something has been torn from this woman’s life, something of great value. This pain is old. This woman has been mourning for a long, long time. The empathy Sophia feels for her is a strong, physical sensation that she feels coursing through her blood faster than wind. She already imagines herself crying out all of her sorrows to this woman and listening to her anguish in return. But no one starts pouring their heart out to another person because they sense some shared bond of pain. The other person doesn’t even need to be as skittish as a deer to be driven away by the intensity of interest shown. Sophia knows this from hard experience. She lost chances to make friends, or more, with girls in boarding school by insisting fate had brought them together. There are no such things as little mistakes in these situations.
“Elizabeth. Please tell me. You can tell me.”
“My brother was a ship’s boy on the Erebus,” Elizabeth half whispers, half sighs, then crumples forward onto Sophia, who catches her and holds her while tears begin to stream from her own eyes and seep into Elizabeth’s hair.
“I’m so sorry, Miss. It’s a habit from always. Don’t talk too loud in an orphanage or you’ll be beaten and don’t talk hardly at all as a maid or you’ll be slapped. The world made me be quiet.”
Sophia shakes her head in disbelief. “You didn’t think my aunt and myself would welcome someone like you with open arms?”
“I try not to think things I can’t prove anymore, Miss.”
“Please, call me Soph-”
“Sophia. I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
Elizabeth’s palm is clammy but Sophia won’t let it go as they sit against the book case. “Did you ever think you would tell us?”
“No.” Elizabeth’s jaw is firm and she keeps her eyes at a spot on the opposite wall.
“Why ever not?”
Elizabeth breathes in. “I didn’t think you would believe me.”
“What? Why ever-”
“I’m a maid!” Elizabeth almost wails the last word and she yanks her hand roughly from Sophia’s. “I don’t get to speak! Ever!”
There’s silence for only a beat before Elizabeth shivers and gasps, then rolls onto her knees, eyes enormous, hands gestured out to Sophia, pleading. “Miss. Oh, no. Oh, oh no. I am so sorry. I am so, so-”
Sophia doesn’t bother grasping for her hands. She simply kneels up and folds Elizabeth back into her arms. Warm tears smear onto Sophia’s neck, making her blood beat hot. She lets Elizabeth’s weight settle against her body before she says, as the truth grimly sinks in, “You’re right. We wouldn’t have let you in. My aunt would have said it was too convenient for someone who lost a man under my Uncle to turn up on her doorstep looking for work. She wouldn’t have bothered to check your references, never mind orphanage records against ship rosters. I know all this.” Sophia sighs, her chin on Elizabeth’s shoulder as Elizabeth weakly clutches Sophia’s back. “I don’t know why I thought I could believe otherwise. Of either my aunt, or myself.”
Elizabeth clutches Sophia’s back harder. “No, you would have let me in.”
Sophia is shaking her head but Elizabeth swings away from her and gazes at her intently with those beautiful big eyes. “You would have, Mi- Sophia.”
Sophia feels a tear wobble out from one eye corner as she peers morosely into Elizabeth’s fervent eyes. “No. No I wouldn’t have. Because then before I knew it, he would be all I could see standing before me.”
“‘I told Sir James Clark Ross once that God and his angels would watch over Aunt Jane and me. But I don’t think they care for me very much, Francis. If they did, they would have turned my heart to face yours, like yours was facing mine. And if they truly, truly cared, they wouldn’t have made me feel shame that I could never tell you that my heart faced away from you. I did try, Francis. I did. And I failed. And maybe you’ll never know it, but that failure would have saved us both a lifetime of anguish had you returned. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe where you are, you can read my whole heart, read all the thoughts I ever had about you. Maybe you’re finally sorry you knew me. And I’ll never know just how sorry. But you deserve the truth, and peace, and rest, and this is the best I can do to lay you to rest.’”
Sophia lets her chest fall, not having realized just how tightly she was holding her breath. The twigs in the fire make pop sounds and the flames shift their points and dips. It’s been at least a year since she recited this speech in her mind, one night in her stockinged feet as the pale flurries blew around her. But she’s not surprised that she remembers so much of it, not when he walks in and out of her dreams so many nights, softly but steadily in his captain’s boots, arms at his sides, his epaulettes swinging gently, so serious and melancholy and always leaving with empty hands. “And it’s not even him,” she says quietly. “It’s my own memories and feelings. It’s wrong to say that he doesn’t let me alone. I don’t think I ever made that distinction until now. And now I feel guilty.”
Elizabeth pours more tea into Sophia’s cup and hands it to her, then leans back against the sofa. “Don’t make two of us,” she says in that half whisper of hers.
Sophia puts the teacup back, alarmed. “Why? What happened?”
Elizabeth turns to face her, her cheeks ruddy in the fire glow, and fingers the ribbon at the end of her braid. She blinks and swallows. “I prayed too hard. At least, that’s what I caned myself for, for so many years. Davey, he wanted to see the ocean so much. I don’t even know how he heard stories about the ocean at the orphanage. I never will. I only know Davey wanted it, so I prayed for it, and when he got his first job at the docks, I felt like God heard me and decided either he was happy with me or that he pitied me very, very badly. It doesn’t matter. Davey got to go to sea, and he never wanted anything else after that. And so I got to wave to him from the docks when Sir John’s ships sailed away. Davey, he had this ring, nothing special, but he liked it and the light kept catching it and I kept laughing and I laughed all the way back to the lady I was serving and she saw me laughing and hit me but I still laughed behind my hands for weeks because I was so proud of him. I never wanted anything for myself. Knowing one of us got what they wanted, that made growing up with nothing worth it. All I wanted was him to have glory, however little it might be compared to all the captains and commanders, but he’d have had a little slice and it would have made all the years of bruises and hunger and sadness and missing our parents worth it. So it makes two of us, doesn’t it? I prayed too hard and you couldn’t feel what you wanted to. And so we both think we have bloody hands somehow. How cruel we are to ourselves, Sophia.” She grabs Sophia’s hand. “We need to stop. Let’s stop.”
Sophia’s heart wrenches and she wants to weep because Elizabeth took her hand first this time. “How do we stop?”
Elizabeth licks her lower lip, then grimaces. “I…don’t really know. Maybe if we try to do it together, though, it’ll work. Let’s just say it. ‘Let’s stop.’ Will you say it with me?”
Sophia is awed. Elizabeth is like some goddess of wisdom transported here from a myth that is, in fact, the truth. “You’re very wise, Elizabeth,” she says in a hushed tone.
Elizabeth shakes her head.
“No, you are-”
“No, I want you to call me something else. Call me ‘Eliza.’ It’s what Davey called me and no one’s called me it since he left and I miss hearing it. It’s what my name really is, in my heart. Will you do that too?”
Sophia smiles at the musicality of it in Eliza’s already melodious voice. “‘Eliza.’ It’s lovely.”
“Thank you. Now.” Eliza threads all of her fingers through Sophia’s. “We will stop punishing ourselves.”
Sophia looks at their joined hands, knuckles raised like little mountains, fingers woven tight as vines. She dreads the moment they’ll be unwound. But she straightens her back. “We will stop punishing ourselves.”
“Do you mean it?”
Sophia closes her eyes and sees Francis taking her hands, proposing, then walking away, closing the door behind him. She’ll dream about him again soon, she is sure.
She opens her eyes. Eliza, Sophia’s beautiful song, is all that’s before her.
“I mean it, Eliza. I mean it. Let’s stop.” She thinks, and says what feels right. “Let’s give ourselves that gift.”
“Do you feel bitter, ever?”
“Your life. Your lot in it. Is that a ridiculous question? Is the obvious answer ‘Yes’?”
Eliza pulls her knees up on the couch and wraps her arms around them. “No. I don’t believe in ‘obvious’ answers anymore. But yes, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel bitter. It’s not…it’s not something I feel every moment of the whole day. I have lived so numbly for so long. I’ve had to fight to keep my mind from falling apart. My biography, oh that’s a funny thought, but all it’d be was, ‘She was a maid,’ and not ‘She lived with nothing, but her brother loved her and she will always have had that, and her own thoughts too.’ Because that is my real life, my thoughts and my memories of my brother. Davey sees me and hears me when I talk to him. I know he does. Or I have to believe it.”
She falls silent, the fire behind her brightening the auburn in her hair. “I used to get very angry,” she says quietly. “I used to really rage. I mean fling myself about and almost scream in the rare times Davey and I found a moment alone in the orphanage. He’d have to catch me and wrestle me down and hold me while I cried.”
Sophia shakes her head. “I am so sorry.”
Eliza moans and rolls her head to the side. “No, please.”
Sophia blinks in alarm. “No…?”
“Don’t feel sorry for me.”
Sophia quashes rising anxiety. “Forgive me.”
Eliza turns and drops her feet to the floor, hand on the side of her face. “No, I’m sorry Sophia. That’s the bitterness talking and I never wanted you to see it in me. It’s ugly.”
“But it’s understandable. You’re more than allowed to feel it. I always used to think I had a poor lot in life. Can you believe that? Me, who wants for nothing and never has? What an idiot.” Sophia tucks her hair behind her ear and grimaces. She looks over at Eliza, who she realizes hasn’t objected to Sophia’s statement. Eliza gives her a tiny smile and Sophia laughs into her hands. “You don’t deny it.”
“No. That, I can’t deny.” Eliza’s quirks her mouth but her face softens almost immediately and she meets Sophia’s eyes. “But you’re allowed to feel like you can’t breathe. It’s something different that chokes you than chokes me. Sophia, I don’t want this to be a contest of which of us had it worst. I mean, I certainly did, and do, but I don’t want it to be a contest. You can’t breathe. Just take that fact. I’m not part of it. You can’t breathe, and that’s painful.”
Sophia fiddles with her hands. “It’s like my dress is always too tight and I can’t loosen it. What do I do?” she whispers.
Eliza turns on the sofa to face her and her eyes are so full of empathy, like a well about to brim over. “I wish I could stop it. I don’t know how, though. My god, how I’d do anything to stop it, though,” she whispers even softer than Sophia had.
Sophia feels all her emotions churn and fly to Eliza like a bird hurdling toward a branch and landing firmly. “I would, too. Eliza, I’d do anything.”
Eliza’s smile is sad. “You’re not allowed to care about my life that much, Sophia.”
The recklessness cracks the surface of Sophia’s heart and surges up. Sophia closes the space between them and threads their fingers together. “I care. You can’t stop me.”
Eliza’s smile is shy, but she says, “I don’t want to stop you.”
Sophia dreams of Francis turning to face her and reaching for her but when she wakes up, Eliza’s figure is moving about, preparing Sophia’s dress and underclothes for the day, talking softly about how she saw a dove on the window ledge of her room. Her graceful stride and melodious voice are what sustain Sophia through Lady Jane’s social circle calls and what she holds close like a treasure when she nestles into bed that night.
She would really prefer to be nestling into Eliza’s arms.
It’s this thought that snaps her eyes open and keeps them open in the dark, unmoored from any sense of the space she takes up in the room or in the universe. She doesn’t feel grounded back to earth until she knows that she has to tell Eliza how she feels or she’ll know no peace in her bones or in any beautiful sight she sees from now on. Eliza needs to be able to leave now, if Sophia upsets or disturbs her.
Sophia rubs her eyes and makes a half-strangled noise. The thought of Eliza leaving is like being grounded but with her heavy, oh so heavy heart holding her down. She pictures the scene before she can help it, Eliza backing away from her, packing her bag in silence, passing by Sophia without a word as she walks at a fast clip out the door, pulling it shut behind her, and that is that.
But then she thinks back to the affection in the way Eliza laced their fingers together. Is it possible…? Women are allowed to touch each other’s hands fondly but briefly. But to join them fully together to make a pledge? It’s like something from a wedding ceremony in a fairy story. Stories are stories though, and what if that is that? Women are allowed to care for each other, everyone knows that, but to talk so openly of pain?
Sophia heaves onto her side and buries her face in her pillow. Bed is the only place she can truly be free. The second closest place is Eliza’s company.
She wants Eliza’s company to be the first place she can turn to.
She wants Eliza.
Sophia is devoted to her. Eliza needs to know. That settles it.
When she falls asleep after hours, she dreams of basking in Eliza’s warmth. She can’t see Eliza’s face, but the feeling of welcome is so strong that she’s certain it could shake the sky, set stones ablaze, give her a better place to rest her head.
“I have to make a call to the Ross’s later. Will walk with me to the house? You’ll have to walk back here immediately afterwards, but…it’d be nice to have company while I’m on my way.”
Now that the nurse is caring for Lady Jane, who seldom leaves bed for more than an hour or two a day, Sophia is free to leave the house more often. On the one hand, she dreads the idea of having to make twice as many social calls. On the other, she has an excuse to spend time with Eliza out of doors. This has made it worth it, if for no other reasons than to see Eliza coil her braid into a crown and tuck it into her bonnet, a brand new, beautiful sight as Eliza’s arms move with such speed and grace that it’s better to watch than going to the theater.
Eliza finishing straightening the fresh blanket she’s laid on Sophia’s bed. “Of course I will. I’m sorry she’s called again so soon.”
“I know.” Sophia sighs as she brushes her hair. “I think she sees me as a daughter even though she’s not old enough to be my mother. She’s very kind, but I do wish she’d stop fussing over me so much.” She feels a knot in her hair and begins to brush it out. “She does the same thing every time I’m at the door to leave. She has to kiss each of my cheeks twice and then she says, ‘God has them all in His arms, your Uncle rests in his radiance forevermore, there is no pain and Judgement Day will rain blessings upon him.’ I know already. I know, I know, I know. I don’t want to hear it anymore. I don’t-” She cries suddenly as she pulls the knot and she feels a hair torn from her scalp.
“Sophia.” Eliza is at her side in an instant as Sophia pulls the brush and it doesn’t budge from the tangle. “Sophia.” Eliza takes the brush carefully from her hand and touches the knot gently.
A frisson moves through Sophia’s body and, despite the throb of pain from her head, she struggles not to shiver in pleasure at Eliza’s hands on her hair. “Can you fix it? Or do we need scissors?”
“Scissors?” Eliza scoffs. “Of course not. This will be easy. Just keep your head still.” She carefully begins to pull strands of hair from the brush. “This is a beautiful brush. Tortoiseshell, yes?” She doesn’t wait for Sophia to respond before she continues. “My last lady had a toile set of toiletries. I love toile. I liked cleaning her set because it gave me a chance to look at all the figures. They were pale yellow. I imagined there was a real world where everything was pale yellow, just like if the sun were always shining. I tried to imagine a world where the sun always shone. Would people be happy there? Or would they miss the rain and snow? What if there was a world when everyone decided what the weather would be that day? I don’t think it would work, though. What if most of the people wanted sun and there was never snow or rain? The people who wanted snow and rain would be disappointed day after day, and then they’d be downright mad. And so it’d be like a medieval story. All the different groups would go to war against each other. Except I’d have to make it better than a medieval story. The women can’t be kidnapped, and they have to be able to either fight or keep the castles secure and protect their families. Nothing bad can happen to them. Nothing. Maybe that’s a boring story to some people but I don’t care. It’s my story and I’ll make it up until I’m happy with it. There.” She holds the brush up, unstuck from Sophia’s head. “Now we just have to comb the knot out.”
Sophia falls out of her trance. She didn’t even feel the brush leave her hair. A blossom opens in her heart. “You told me that story to distract me.” She looks up in the mirror to see Eliza smiling almost coyly, and the flower opens wider.
“It was a true story, though.”
“And if you were in the story? Who would you be?”
“Well.” Eliza takes the strands with the knot in one hand and places the brush carefully on them. “I’d probably be a scout. I’m quiet as can be because I’ve been a maid most of my life. I’d pass messages between the castle and the rebels in the woods. I’d sneak up on anyone who was about to hurt anyone I cared about. I’m not big but I can hold my arms steady and I can tie knots fast so I could blindfold and gag my enemies, even all the tall men. Even if there were a whole pack of them. I’d have them blindfolded and gagged and then with their hands tied behind their backs all sitting in a nice pretty row after I was done with them. And they’d never know it was me until my side won, and then they’d learn it was a woman who beat them. And as a reward for my services, my queen would give me my own toile toiletry. Now that’d be something. Oh, and a toile tea set, so I could throw a party for all the other women and we could relax after having saved everyone. There, feel that, can you feel any tangles still?”
Sophia touches the spot on her hair. It’s completely smooth. She turns in her chair to gaze up at Eliza. “No. They’re all gone.”
All gone appears to be her common sense of restraint as well as she takes Eliza’s hand and presses it to her cheek. She nearly flings it away as her heart screams in panic and she feels almost sick until Eliza drops to her knees and places both her palms on Sophia’s cheeks, pulling their foreheads together.
“Do you feel it? Between us?” Eliza whispers, voice unsteady.
“Yes,” Sophia breathes. Eliza’s forehead is so warm. “Do you?”
“Well I’m holding your face, aren’t I?”
Sophia laughs in shock and Eliza grins, but Sophia can feel her breathing unsteadily as well. And for the first time ever, she feels Eliza’s hands shake as they rest on her cheeks while Eliza raises herself higher on her knees and accidentally bumps her nose against Sophia’s, which makes them both laugh. And then Sophia can’t wait any longer and she closes her eyes, heart soaring like a flock of birds taking flight, and touches her lips to Eliza’s.
The kiss has to be interrupted almost immediately as Sophia remembers that her door isn’t locked and she stumbles out of her chair to fix it. Eliza is waiting with open arms when she turns around. The feeling of a kiss after years of aching for one is like entering Eliza’s world of sunshine. She has no idea what she’s doing, but it feels good, and it feels right, because it’s a woman running her hands up and down Sophia’s back and pressing her lips to this side and then the other against her mouth. One of Sophia’s hands finds Eliza’s braid and she caresses it. Eliza breaks their kiss. “Untie it,” she whispers in Sophia’s ear and Sophia pulls the ribbon immediately and Eliza shakes her head around and Sophia nearly whimpers at finally seeing Eliza with her hair down. Sophia thrusts her fingers into the long soft locks and brings them to her face, curtaining herself in them as they meet lips again and again and again.
To her surprise, Sophia breaks away next, and to pull Eliza onto the bed with her no less. She pushes the hangings roughly aside so that she can see Eliza gilded in the sunlight from the window. Sophia knew nothing about kissing until now but she knows they’re going fast when her mouth misses Eliza’s lips and lands on her cheek instead. Eliza hums and Sophia hums back at the sound and then they’re making a sport of who can kiss whose cheeks and chins and foreheads faster. Eliza’s giggling is a sound purer than running water and Sophia darts in to kiss all over her face so she can memorize the sound. When she kisses the dip of Eliza’s neck, Eliza gasps and threads her fingers in Sophia’s hair, bringing her closer as Sophia kisses up to her ear and down to her shoulder. Eliza tugs her dress down her shoulder and Sophia nearly sobs to see so much of her bare skin. She kisses it as Eliza tugs the other side down until the tops of her breasts show. She holds out her hands to Sophia’s dress, questioning, and Sophia immediately pulls down one side of her dress while Eliza laughs and takes care of the other. Then Eliza has her arms around Sophia again and in one swift movement, pulls them both down across the bed, Sophia laughing into the warmth of her shoulder.
Eliza strokes Sophia’s face in between kisses. “You feel the same,” she whispers, sounding nearly close to tears herself.
Sophia nods fervently against her forehead. “I never thought you would.”
“I thought I was too rare to find someone else like me.”
“Maybe we’re rare. I don’t know. I don’t think so. Not if the two of us found each other.” Eliza thumbs wet from Sophia’s eyelashes. “Hold onto me and I’ll hold onto you. I won’t let go. I promise.”
Sophia kisses her palm. “You have my word.”
They giggle more as they pull their dresses down to their waists, and then there’s a hush. Sophia has frequently gazed longingly at women’s breasts in paintings in museums or prints in books, but nothing prepares her for the softness and warmth as she runs her fingertips gently across the tops of Eliza’s. Eliza makes a throaty noise and keeps her fingers in Sophia’s hair as Sophia delicately touches the bud of a nipple. Eliza’s breath heaves as Sophia rolls it around with the pad of her finger. Knowing she’s giving Eliza pleasure makes her ache even more keenly. She doesn’t want to move faster though, doesn’t want to rush this new, rapturous experience, not when Eliza is arching her neck and opening her mouth and making the loveliest sighing sounds.
“Put your mouth around it,” Eliza manages through staggered breaths. “Please.”
Sophia moves over Eliza’s chest and takes her nipple between her lips. When her tongue touches it, Eliza jerks her whole body but Sophia can tell it’s in joy as Eliza’s hips rise and fall. Sophia shifts herself on top of Eliza, straddling her legs on either side of her as she bends down to her breast. All of her fantasies were right. This is what she really wants, what she’s been crying out for, for year upon empty year. She tongues and sucks at Eliza’s nipple, stroking her bare arms up and down.
“God, oh god, Sophia.” Eliza leans up abruptly and flips Sophia over, pressing kisses along her collarbones as she climbs over her. She kisses her way down to Sophia’s breasts and Sophia thinks her heart could give out but no paradise could be sweeter than this so she can’t ever leave this moment. Eliza’s tongue rolling one nipple around, then the other, is glory the likes of which God probably doesn’t even know. So long, so long, so long she’s waited and it’s happening.
They make another game of wrestling each other onto their backs and kissing further and further down their bodies. Sophia traces the arch of Eliza’s back with one hand while Eliza combs Sophia’s hair with her fingers. Sophia’s mouth is almost at the spot where Eliza’s dress is rucked around her waist and she’s moving her eyes up to ask Yes? from Eliza, who grins and nods eagerly, when the clock in the drawing room chimes and Sophia is supposed to have been dressed and ready to leave for the Ross’s at this exact moment. Yet she can’t move. Lady Jane, woken by the clock chiming, will be expecting to hear her tread in the hall. But Sophia rests her head on Eliza’s belly as the clock chimes and chimes.
Eliza strokes her hair and traces circles on her back and Sophia leaves half an hour late. Eliza walks behind her as they make their way to the Ross’s, but Sophia feels Eliza’s mouth all over her face and breasts and continues to feel them as she sits and listens to Lady Ross’s gossip. When she comes home, Lady Jane is on the sofa with another friend. Sophia greets them, says she needs a rest, tries to climb the stairs normally instead of racing up them, unlocks her door, and then leaps on Eliza, already waiting on the bed with her dress and all of her underclothes discarded on the floor.
One year later, the glare of the sun is too strong on the pages of Sophia’s book for her to read the words, but she was never reading anyway, just as Eliza is holding the needlework but not truly sewing. Voices chatter and hum as couples, groups, and children meander down the paths of the park.
“No one can hear me except you,” Sophia is saying, as she looks straight ahead at the trees and the birds jumping from branch to branch. “But we are together, outside, among people, and my words will live out here amongst them, even if no one hears them. That’s why I brought you here. Eliza, I am the happiest, most fulfilled, and, I know for sure, the most loved woman on earth. You’ve heard all of these words before, in some formation, but I realized I have never said them out of doors. You know how poorly I am at writing speeches. I’m not writing this. I haven’t spent any time rehearsing this. These words are flowing from me now, right now. I love you. I know you love me. Nothing I say would be less true if I were speaking it indoors, in bed with you. But, I’ve felt this desire lately, to say words that could, if the wind wishes it, be carried on the air and into other people’s ears. Or, even if they didn’t move, the words would exist right where I am speaking them, and when we rise and walk away, they will remain. Whoever sits next on this bench will be sitting amidst them. And that strikes me as very, very beautiful and something I will always be proud that I did. I am so lucky, Eliza, to be able to walk with you out here, even if we can’t hold hands or kiss. I’d like to do this again, soon. Maybe every time we have the opportunity, I will lead us here and say these words and they’ll exist outside of a house, and they’ll always have existed outside of a house, even if no one heard them. So. I love you, Eliza. I love you, I love you, I love you. There.”
Eliza is completely still beside her, not even making a semblance of working the needle. She says, looking straight ahead, “I see doves. There used to be a dove on my windowsill, the first few months I was here. I named it ‘Sophia.’ I have no idea if it was a female dove. But I named it after you so I’d have an excuse to say your name, instead of calling you ‘Miss.’ So that I could say, ‘Good morning, Sophia. You look beautiful today.’ Well, you do every day. But I like saying it out loud. ‘Beautiful Sophia.’ And I did say it every day, I whispered it but I said it. So you’ll understand that if I could cry right now, I’d be crying, listening to you say how much you want your words to live outside. We have always been house creatures, the two of us, all women in this country are. That’s not our fault. But from now on, these words will all live under the sun. And, my love, that is very beautiful. Sophia my dove, you are the love of my life. I have lost so much. We both have. But I have gained so much too. And I don’t need to ask you to know if you feel the same way. I already know you do. We have talked so much, our souls talking, that I know. I know and I believe that we will weather anything, Sophia. I love you too much not to try with all my heart. I will try, and I will weather anything and everything for you.”
Sophia sees the doves, a small group of them, ruffling their wings and bobbing their heads as they hop around a tree trunk. “Eliza my dove. Our forever started a year ago and it starts now, and now, and now.”
“Are you comfortable, auntie?”
“Comfortable enough.” Lady Jane rolls her head on her pillow to look at the opposite side of the bed. “You’ve noticed, I’m sure, Sophia, that I only sleep on my side of the bed. John’s side is the picture of tidiness, ready for him any second he should come back. I’ve made sure I only stay on my side, because the other is his.” She smiles weakly but proudly. “I still take care of him.”
Sophia finishes mixing the medicine drops into the water, measuring them carefully as the nurse instructed her. Sophia isn’t sure why the nurse was dismissed early today by Lady Jane, but her aunt’s whims have become stranger and more unpredictable these months of late.
Sophia turns in her chair and holds the cup out to Lady Jane, but her aunt says, rather pointedly, “Not yet, Sophia.”
Sophia frowns. “Auntie, the nurse said you should take the drops right before bedtime.”
“I will take them before I go to sleep. There are words I must have with you first.”
Sophia feels a tremor at the base of her spine, small but undeniable. Lady Jane never speaks to her this way. She takes her medicine and goes to bed with a, “Goodnight, Sophia.” There are never any “words” to be had.
“Auntie?” she asks, as nonchalantly as she can.
Lady Jane looks at Sophia with hooded eyes, her nightcap bunched up, her blanket pulled up to her chin. “It won’t be long for me, Sophia.”
Sophia jerks back in horror but Lady Jane nods her head. “I dream of John every night. I know I’ll see him soon. I feel my breath getting weaker every day.”
“Auntie, all the medicine is supposed to help-”
“Oh Sophia listen to me, would you?” Lady Jane’s voice is quiet and raspy, but Sophia knows that her aunt just snapped at her. “I know you’re not going to keep this house when I’m gone. It’s too big for you.”
Sophia shakes her head. “Auntie, I don’t understand.”
“You’ll be moving to a smaller house. You’re not going to marry, so there’s no point in paying for the upkeep of such a large space.”
Sophia feels the tremor move further up her spine. “I may marry yet, auntie.”
“No, you certainly won’t. Why would you, if you haven’t already? You’re approaching thirty, Sophia. Your time as a bachelorette is limited, and you show no impulse to take advantage of what time you have left.”
“Auntie, I don’t understand.” Sophia swallows. “I go to plenty of balls and I meet nice gentlemen at Mrs. Ross’s house, too, and-”
“You’ll leave this house unmarried, Sophia. And you’ll take that maid with you. Miss Young.”
“I need a maid, auntie, you know that.”
The tremor shoots all the way up Sophia’s back and her hand shakes around the medicine glass before she can put it down as her heart bucks against the wall of her chest.
Her silence is clearly all the affirmation Lady Jane needs. “You’re not good at hiding anything, Sophia. You never have been. It was very easy to tell that even though you rejected Francis Crozier, you felt enormously guilty about it. Just as it has been very easy this past year to watch you be joyful, to see color in your cheeks again, to see how you relax and smile when Miss Young is in the room. You adore her probably more than you’ve ever adored anything, if I were to guess from the way you melt when she walks by. Yes, I can tell. I see it because you try so desperately hard to hide it. Sophia Cracroft.” Lady Jane squeezes her eyes shut. “Daughter of the sister of Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, in love with a-”
Woman, Sophia thinks.
Sophia looks up, then freezes. Lady Jane wrinkles her face and heaves a sigh. “For Heaven’s sake, Sophia! How many ladies have you met at balls and parties and at the Ross’s and Barrows’ and all of our friends’ houses! If you had to become attached, if you absolutely had to, why not a woman of your own stature? It’s awful enough that you love a woman at all, but a maid. A tiny person in this world, hardly anyone tinier. Sophia, why? Not, I don’t mean that literally. I don’t want to know Miss Young’s character and what you see in it. I only need to know that you’ll keep this house and if you must, absolutely must, live in this awful sin, you do not let our position in society wane by leaving the place you are expected to spend the rest of your days in.”
Sophia is holding the glass between her fingers so firmly that her nails scratch on the glass. Lady Jane winces at the sound but doesn’t break her gaze from Sophia’s eyes. Sophia feels a pulse in her throat but she swallows and talks through it.
“I will be leaving one day, auntie. This house will always be here. Everyone will always associate it with you and Uncle John. It will not matter if I leave or who lives here afterwards. This is the Franklin House. No one will blame me for leaving, either. They’ll look at me and say, ‘Poor Miss Cracroft, destined to be a spinster because her Irishman never returned. She rejected him but we all know that’s only because her aunt and uncle forced her to, because they disapproved of his country and his rank. She’s brokenhearted and she’ll never love another man.’” Sophia hears the bite in her tone but she persists as she watches Lady Jane’s eyes widen. “I’ll be leaving. And Eliza will come with me. And we shall wash our clothes together, sweep the floors together, cook together, do everything together. She won’t be my maid. She’ll live as my wife. You say you won’t be here much longer. I wish with all my heart that you’re wrong. But are you not glad you are hearing these words from my own lips, finally? That you will not need to wonder about a single thing ever again? I have decided my future. Part of my future is wishing you absolute peace, auntie, every day for the rest of your life and mine. Peace in the arms of God, the angels, and Uncle John in Heaven.”
Lady Jane is weeping now. “You hopeless girl. Where has my old Sophia gone?”
Sophia places the glass on the nightstand. “Drink this before you are ready to sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning. Good night, auntie.” She closes the door behind her, trips over her dress, rights herself, and races down the hall to her room.
Eliza is sitting at the dressing table, combing out her hair for the night. She jumps to her feet before Sophia has even closed the door. “What’s wrong? Did she say something to you?”
Sophia buries her face in Eliza’s shoulder, tears spreading out along the nightgown fabric. “My aunt has stopped loving me.”
Eliza briefly halts her stroking of Sophia’s back. “Oh. She knows. About us.”
“Yes.” Sophia sniffs and holds Eliza tighter. “I didn’t think she’d ever figure it out.”
Eliza presses their cheeks together. “Davey never figured it out, about me. I know he didn’t because we told each other everything. Except I kept this from him. I loved him more than anything and he loved me more than anything but I was afraid to tell him. It doesn’t make sense. I should have told him.” She swallows.
Sophia shakes her head. “No, I understand. It’s a special kind of fear. There’s no logic. I love my aunt but I never would have told her. Never. She won’t do anything about it now. She can’t. I just have to go on, knowing she knows…”
Eliza kisses Sophia’s cheek. “You’re brave. Say it for me. ‘I’m brave.’”
Sophia gives her a wobbly smile. “I’m brave. I’ve been brave for a long time. And so have you.”
Eliza gently thumbs the tears off Sophia’s cheeks. “That’s my girl. Braver than the knights of old. We have to be, and we are.”
A month after Lady Jane is laid to rest, Sophia removes her starchy black mourning dress and bonnet and packs them away. She sits down with her solicitor, who assesses her fortune and makes recommendations. Sophia tours a number of townhouses, all vastly small than the Franklin house, and picks the one closest to the park as her first choice. She brings Eliza to tour it, telling everyone that her maid must be as comfortable as possible in order to do her work well. Sophia and Eliza look around the master bedroom, which faces onto the park.
“Yes,” Eliza says immediately.
They purchase the house.
The next thing Sophia does is buy dresses, lots of them, all different colors, and of simple fabrics. She keeps her satin and lace dresses and bonnets for social calls but the cotton dresses are a delight to try on and model for Eliza. Eliza goes shopping for herself for the first time in her life and chooses her own dresses of the same kind. They spend a whole afternoon and evening in the bedroom trying on each other’s dresses. While Eliza is taking one of them off, the top and sleeves down to her waist, Sophia says, “Wait a moment.”
Eliza turns to her, the lamplight bathing her breasts in mellow light, and Sophia sighs happily for a moment while Eliza smiles coyly and holds the pose. Sophia finally tears her eyes away and reaches under the bed. She hands a rectangular box to Eliza, who gives her a questioning gaze, but sits next to her on the bed and unties the ribbon. Eliza sobs immediately as she pulls out a yellow toile dress. “It’s for me as much as for you,” Sophia whispers, chin on Eliza’s shoulder as Eliza runs the fabric between her fingers. “You remember the day, the sunlight story day and the first kiss day.”
Eliza knuckles tears from her eyes. “Now you owe me a tortoiseshell brush to match.” They both burst out laughing and Sophia lays Eliza back on the bed.
Sophia finds it especially erotic when Eliza touches her between her legs while Sophia is still dressed. It’s like Eliza has been searching all over for a hidden secret and finally finds it and can’t wait to explore it at that moment, dress be damned. They kiss deeply, tongue-tips pressed together and then tongues running along teeth and then one simply caressing the other. Eliza takes her hand away so that Sophia can straddle her, both of them yanking Sophia’s dress down to her waist. Then Eliza moves her hand under Sophia’s dress again and holds up one finger. Sophia sinks down on it and hums and sighs, tilting her head back. She holds herself still for a moment, relishing the feel of Eliza inside her, before she rises on her knees and lowers herself down again. She brings her head back level as she moans. Eliza is smiling up at her, eyes crinkled, the tip of her tongue licking one side of her lips. She watches Sophia’s face every moment as she moves her finger around and Sophia makes sounds of joy in her throat. The sounds are amplified as Eliza gently slides a second finger inside Sophia, who clenches around her as her head falls back again.
This dance makes up in uncountable spades for all the perfunctory dances Sophia has had to suffer through with an endless line of gentlemen all vying to hold her hand. Sophia and Eliza sometimes sing and clumsily stomp around together in their version of a dance, heaving in laughter, making as much noise as they can because no one can hear them. The same is true with their dances in bed. Sophia lets her breath sound as naturally loud as it truly is as she rides Eliza’s hand slowly at first, then faster as Eliza moves her fingers further in, then with her hips pounding down as Eliza touches the perfect spot inside her. Eliza licks a fingertip with her free hand and gently moves it on Sophia’s nipple side to side as Sophia thrusts up and down. The new sensation on her breast brings out a breathy “Dear god Eliza” from her lips. God doesn’t know how this feels, though, only the women who delight in giving each other pleasure.
Eliza rubs the pad of her thumb in a circle on one of Sophia’s nipples, then the other, as Sophia arches her back and bucks herself up and down. Eliza rubs her faster and juts her fingers in and out in rhythm with Sophia’s hips and the tidal pool of pleasure gathers faster and faster as Sophia bucks in abandon. She lets her cry leave her lips in all its ragged ecstatic cadences as she comes. Eliza sighs in satisfaction as Sophia leans forward on both hands and presses their foreheads together as her breath slowly evens out and her heart beats hard but with complete peace radiating from it and through her body.
She bunches up her dress and pulls it off, then presses her body against Eliza’s, planting kisses down her neck and shoulders. Eliza squirms in glee, running her hands around Sophia’s bare back as Sophia licks lines down both of her collarbones, a favorite spot of Eliza’s. She licks a circle in the hollow of Eliza’s throat and then kisses all across the tops of her breasts. She licks around her nipples before taking each in her mouth, sucking gently and then harder and Eliza starts to clutch and dig her nails slightly into Sophia’s back. The tiny points of pressure feel incredible and spur Sophia on as she kisses down Eliza’s belly and to the top of her dress around her waist. Sophia unrolls it ever so slowly. Eliza loves this game, the anticipation. Sophia kisses down the patch of hair and pauses before she reaches the small bud. Eliza moves her hips around and Sophia relishes the movement for a moment before touching the bud with the barest tip of her tongue. Eliza’s whole body convulses and the noise of pleasure she makes is almost a scream, a sound Sophia cherishes. She gently strokes her tongue down again as Eliza’s hands grip her shoulders, her hair, any part of Sophia they can find.
When Sophia slides her tongue inside Eliza, they both moan. Sophia adores this part, Eliza’s wetness, the warmth of the velvet softness. Sophia circles her tongue around and Eliza shudders, whimpering. Sophia moves her eyes up and the view of Eliza, back arched, nipples hard, eyes closed and mouth open in a perfect o makes her ache again. She enjoys the feeling as she moves her tongue further into Eliza and knows she’s found the perfect spot when Eliza jolts her hips up and groans. After all this time, the musicality of her voice has never faded, and even her groan sounds like something a wind instrument could make. Sophia listens keenly as she flicks her tongue, rubbing Eliza’s hipbones with her thumbs. She knows Eliza is close when she hears “Christ, Christ Sophia,” which always tickles Sophia, to imagine herself a woman Christ, sent to earth by a goddess to love a woman so exquisitely that the world could be saved if only it reveled in the power and the glory of two women loving each other. Eliza continues her streak of sweet blasphemies in between the music of her gasps as she comes, hips moving furiously until they slow and fall down onto the bed.
They lay there for a few moments, Sophia’s tongue still inside Eliza, just as they both like in the afterglow. Then they’re in each other’s arms, sweat sheening their bodies but neither of them ever caring as they press delicate kisses on each other’s faces. Sophia rests her head on Eliza’s chest and Eliza cradles her, cheek pressing into her hair. They don’t usually speak after making love. It’s one of their rituals – silence until they’ve both drifted off to sleep and woken up in the morning. Then it’s time for “Bloody hell you moved your hips so fast that my vision actually blurred” and “My god, the filth you say when you reach the height, that’s my sermon, that’s my girl, that’s my faith.”
Sophia and Eliza spend the morning watching the doves in the park from their window after they eat breakfast in bed. Then Eliza reads aloud to Sophia. Sophia has taught Eliza to read and now Eliza is never without a book nearby, even when they cook and clean together. Mr. Dickens still makes regular deliveries of his installments to Sophia, but Eliza, during one of their many bookshop trips, discovered a new favorite. She cherishes the novels of Charlotte Bronte. “Her heroines, Sophia. They all suffer loss, they’re all sad to their cores, but then they find love and they remember why they suffered through all the hard years. It was to live to find love and find their own thoughts. That’s me. That’s my story.”
The next May 19th, the day Erebus and Terror sailed away, they light candles for David Young, Sir John Franklin, Francis Crozier, and all the men who perished. “We were both at the docks that day and never realized it,” Sophia says softly as they watch the candle flames leap and simmer. “I was waving a handkerchief to my uncle and you were waving one to your brother. I couldn’t see Francis but of course he was somewhere. We were all together, all of us, that day. I don’t think I truly thought about that until now.”
Eliza leans her head against Sophia’s shoulder and links their arms. “We’re all tied together and we always will be. And that’s alright.”
“Yes.” Sophia presses her cheek to Eliza’s hair. Sophia still dreams of Francis now and then but she doesn’t mind his company as much anymore. It’s not her fault he left an indelible mark on her, just as it’s not Eliza’s fault that she occasionally wakes up in the night and cries for David. Survivors of men who perished in the Arctic carry the weight of innumerable snowflakes that fell on them. The two of them acknowledge the weight, watch the candles until the wicks burn all the way down, and then they dress and walk to the park.
They sit on a bench and write off-the-cuff verbal love letters to each other. They make love both in the morning sunlight so they can bask in the sight of each other’s bodies and at night when they have to use their senses to find each other in the dark. They light the candles every year. Eliza dances in her toile dress while Sophia sings, then Eliza picks her up and spins her around, Sophia nearly crying in laughter. As the years pass and Sophia’s acquaintances pass with them, Sophia begins telling new people that Eliza is her live-in companion, not her maid. Sometimes she gets strange looks, but no one wants to press Miss Sophia Cracroft for further answers. So they let the matter be and Sophia and Eliza walk on, to the park, the bookshop, the dress shop, their beautiful home, and then, one soon after the other, into eternity, having known the glorious feeling of breaking the chains of shame so that their hearts and minds and bodies and souls became the only ties that need to bind two women in love.