It’s not to say that it isn't pleasant, living in this town by the sea. In the summer of 1818 the weather is agreeable, and in the winter the storms prove most exciting, the time of year when all the young men pitch in to help sturdy and reinforce the coast so that their little fishing town might be spared. Life, indeed, is certainly anything but unpleasant.
It can, however, be fairly dull. William S. Preston is now sixteen and as much as he enjoys what life has to offer, he’s come to realise that oftentimes it is rather boring, and all the more emphasised by his loneliness. He isn't an unfriendly young man - far from it - but his peers have always found him a little on the odd side; with his penchant for daydreaming and his peculiar obsession with what he calls music, (but what others would call 'a sound akin to cats wailing.') The son of a wealthy Lord, he is certainly not disliked, but there is no-one in town he considers himself especially close to. That is, until, the town’s famed Captain Logan returns from sea with an unusual extra passenger.
Half the town turns out for their Captain’s return. He brings interesting cargo from the exotic, far off lands he’s visited - strange fruits and colourful silks and of course fish, but what stands out most strongly is a boy. He seems to be of about William’s age, stood silent and awkwardly stiff behind the captain, in plain clothing, with long, dark hair half tied behind his head. He hovers behind the Captain the entire time the welcoming party stands at the docks, right until almost everyone has dispersed.
William approaches Captain Logan in typical manner, with swagger in his stride and an easy grin on his face. William likes Captain Logan, though sometimes he suspects their feelings are not mutual.
“Good afternoon, Captain!” William says, brightly. Captain Logan nods curtly in return.
“William. Good to see you again.” He says, politely, shaking William’s hand. William continues to beam.
“And you, Captain.” His gaze then slides up and to the side, looking to the young man still standing behind the Captain. “Who is this, sir?”
Captain Logan steps aside and gestures to the young man.
“Ah, yes. William, this is Theodore.”
William grins again, and extends his hand to Theodore. Theodore looks down at William’s hand, a little unsure. His eyes dart to the Captain’s, who nods. Then, with this apparent approval, his face splits into a grin of his own and he gladly shakes William’s hand. His grip is firm and calloused, and his smile is bright and friendly. William is, of course, instantly taken with him. There's something a little unusual about the look of his face, familiar in some ways, and yet not in others. William suspects from looking at him that he may be foreign, but he isn't entirely sure.
“How do you do?” William asks, as they let go of each other's hands. Theodore looks pleasantly blank, as if he either hasn’t heard or hasn't understood, and William’s gaze lifts again to the Captain’s, who clears his throat.
“You’ll have to forgive him, William, we took him on in Hong Kong. He speaks very little English.”
William’s eyes widen. “In China?” Then he beams again. “Well, that's remarkable! I’ve never met anyone from overseas before, welcome to England, Theodore!”
Theodore smiles again, nodding cheerfully despite the still faintly confused look in his eyes. Captain Logan clears his throat.
“Well, William, I really must get him situated in his lodgings. If you’ll excuse us.”
Captain Logan then leads Theodore away. William waves as they disappear, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Theodore grins and waves back.
William doesn't see Theodore again for a few days, not until he goes down to the docks to mooch around and maybe see if any of the sailors need any help. Typically they don't, but William feels it’s polite to volunteer all the same. After all, he’s heard about the fantastical land of opportunity that is the Americas, and he’d like very much to someday get there. Sailing seems to be the best bet. He wants to absorb as much as he can about the ins and outs of life aboard ship, even if such a ship is docked.
He’s halfway down the pier when he spots a tall figure hauling nets in with the rest of Captain Logan’s crew. Theodore doesn't seem to be doing quite as he’s asked, or maybe he’s trying but just not quite managing it. The sailors seem very frustrated with him, and as William gets closer he’s displeased to hear what's being said.
“...look at him now. For god's sake, half-breed, we said fold it, not just let it fall back into the water! Are you stupid?”
Theodore shrinks back from the sailors as they start to hurl further insults, but half-breed is what they call him the most. Never by his name, never Theodore.
The insults don't seem to be stopping any time soon, and as one of the sailors takes an angry, purposeful step toward poor Theodore, William decides to intervene.
“Good afternoon everyone!” William says cheerfully, stepping up to the boat. A few of the sailors roll their eyes and fewer greet William with the odd grunt. Not in the least bit deterred, he continues. “Do you need any help?”
The sailors exchange looks, and eventually one of them shrugs and says, alright, since the half-breed doesn't seem to understand, maybe you will .
So William tosses his smart overcoat and cravat off and eagerly jumps up onto the boat with them, sidestepping his way amongst the men ‘til he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with Theodore, who looks much more tired and nowhere near as cheerful as he had at their first meeting.
“Hello,” William half-shouts, half-whispers to Theodore as he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work with the fishing nets. Theodore nods, and echoes the hello. It’s the first thing William's heard him say, and if they weren't stood so close together William probably would have missed it. But, emboldened by the knowledge that Theodore does have a voice, William launches into friendly conversation. He talks about town, all the best places to go, asking whether or not Theodore’s been to any yet.
“I wouldn't bother, Preston,” says one of the younger sailors, leaning over to him. “He doesn't understand a word you say. Half-breed only knows chinese!” Then the sailor leans past William and sneers at Theodore. “Isn't that right, half-breed? You have no idea what I’m saying, have you?”
Theodore only shakes his head uncertainly and William’s stomach twists uncomfortably.
“His name is Theodore,” William says, weakly. The sailor scoffs.
“Not much of a chinese name, that. I heard they're all called Chang.” Then he sniffs, hauling the net he’s holding up onto deck. “Then again, he’s only half-chinese. Half-breed seems like the only right thing to call him, eh?” Then he claps a heavy hand on William's shoulder and walks away. William frowns deeply, and then turns back to Theodore, fixing a smile back onto his face.
“Don't listen to him, Theodore.” He says. “I think you’ll fit in alright here.” He takes a chance, and thinks on his own status as essentially a social pariah, despite his friendly attitude. “You certainly will with me, anyway.”
William grins, and he too lifts a hand and pats Theodore’s shoulder, squeezing in a way he hopes is reassuring. Theodore’s worried expression finally melts away, and he grins back. “Thank you,” he says, still quiet, and William notices the odd accent around his words. He thinks it sounds fantastic.
As before, it's another few days before William sees Theodore again. This next time he’s in the marketplace, dutifully carrying his stepmother’s purchases. They have servants who could do that, of course, but William likes to feel useful. Lord knows he's doing poorly enough in his studies - he's got to find some way to contribute to society. Porter to his stepmother may as well be it. He can't be a layabout son of a Lord forever.
She’s busy admiring some new style of hat when William spots Theodore sitting glumly at the flower stall run by Widow Wardroe, who herself is barking about her prices and frightening away potential customers in the same breath. There's what looks like a children’s book in Theodore’s hands, one of the very simplest texts for those just starting out. He looks up from it as William approaches.
“Good morning, Mrs Wardroe!” William says, handing her a few coins in exchange for the bunch of posies she shoves at him. “Good morning, Theodore.” William adds, sticking a couple of the little flowers into the buttonhole on his jacket.
Theodore lifts a hand in a little wave. “Hello,” he says, grinning widely. “Good morning William.” His speaks slow, and a little unsure, with that same unusual accent, and William finds it to be just as pleasing to hear as it had been the last time.
“Oh William,” Widow Wardroe says, before he can get to any further idle chit chat. “That poor boy’s been bored to tears sitting here all morning with that book that his--” she stops suddenly, catches herself. Before William can really think about that, Wardroe presses on. “That book Captain Logan gave him. It’d do him good to spend some time with someone his own age. Why don't you two go and do an old woman’s shopping for her, hmm?”
Before William can protest or tell her that he’s already helping a lady with her shopping today, she thrusts a bag of money and a scrap of paper into his hands, and then snaps her fingers at Theodore, motioning for him to follow William. Theodore looks unsure, so William makes sure to nod as encouragingly as possible.
“Very well, Mrs Wardroe,” William says, punctuating with his most charming smile. “We will bring you your groceries with the most excellent service.” He bows shortly, and then grins up at Theodore. “Shall we?”
Theodore takes one step for every two of William’s, and keeps his head bowed. His hair isn’t tied today, and it falls right over his face. As they weave through the marketplace, William starts to notice the sidelong glances people are giving them, the hushed whispers as they pass by. He keeps hearing half-breed , and it really is terribly frustrating. So he makes a point to speak very loudly, address Theodore as cheerfully as possible, and pointedly by name. Theodore is mostly quiet, nodding in response to most questions, and carries his half of Widow Wardroe’s shopping without complaint.
“So,” William says, as they finish up at the greengrocer’s stall. “How are you liking England?”
Theodore hums, thoughtful. “It is...cold.”
William snorts. “Yes, I suppose that's true. It’s even colder in the North, I think.”
“That is not bad,” Theodore continues. “But is different to my home.”
Wiliam’s eyebrow quirks, interested. “What is it like in China? I’ve only ever seen drawings.”
“ Not cold.” Theodore laughs. “People wears different clothes, not like yours.” He waves a hand at William’s smart jacket and colourful cravat.
Well, few young men around town dress quite like William do, anyway. Something of a show-off, he does tend to dress his best, regardless of occasion.
“But other than that?” William says. “Or are the weather and the fashions really the only difference?”
Theodore laughs. “No, there is more.” He adjusts the groceries he’s holding. “But really, only small things.”
They walk in amicable silence ‘til they get to the greengrocer's stall and procure the next few things on Widow Wardroe’s list. Then, handing the carrots to Theodore while putting the cabbages into his own bag, William asks;
“Do you have any family back in China?”
Theodore’s eyebrows suddenly pinch together, and his shoulders stiffen. William’s about to backtrack and hurriedly assure his partner in errand-running that he needn't divulge any secrets of his past if he isn't entirely comfortable with it, but Theodore answers before William can.
“Not anymore.” Theodore sighs. “Only my mother, before, but not now.”
His head is bowed as they walk. If William happens to notice the glimmer of wetness in Theodore’s downcast eyes, well, he’s polite enough to not mention it.
“My mother’s gone too,” William says, after a moment’s hesitation. “Years ago, now, I was… too young to remember.” A tentative look to his left. “Anyway, my father remarried. His new wife is as good a stepmother as any, and I’m sure--” it’s then that he spots the woman herself, carrying several shopping bags and looking a little lost. When he catches her eye her pretty face lights up and she hurries through the marketplace crowds toward them. “--she’d be most pleased to meet you!”
William beams as his stepmother reaches them, ready to place her shopping in his arms before she realises his hands are already occupied.
“William!” She says, confusion furrowing her brow. “Why...why are you holding all these groceries?”
William nods to the far side of the marketplace, toward Widow Wardroe’s stall. Mrs Preston’s eyes follow, and then she nods in understanding.
“That woman, always stealing my errand boys,” she tuts. Then she looks up, to Bill’s left, cocking an interested eyebrow.
“And who might this be?” She asks.
“This is Theodore.”
Mrs Preston’s eyes light up. “Oh yes ! The young man Captain Logan brought back from China! How do you do?”
Theodore smiles his cheerful-yet-confused smile, the one that William’s already familiar with. William laughs and gently nudges Theodore’s elbow.
“What she means is ‘how are you’, my friend.”
Theodore nods, his smile losing the worried shade. “Good. I am good, thank you.” He bows his head quickly. “It is good to meet you.”
“And you!” Mrs Preston says, reaching up to touch his shoulder. “You know, I’ve heard so much about you. You're quite the talk of the town, Theodore. You really must come over and meet my friends sometime.” Then her eyes slide back down to William. “Of course, since you and William are already friends, that means that you're always welcome at Preston Manor.”
William turns to Theodore his face lighting up with excitement.
“She’s right, you have to come to our house, Theodore. Anytime you’d like. How about after we’re done with the market?”
Theodore nods slowly, and William beams.
“Excellent!” Says William. Theodore nods again, with a little more conviction.
“Excellent,” Theodore echoes, and William doesn't think the word has ever sounded better.
Shopping errands taken care of, Mrs Preston, her stepson, and his new friend take a carriage back to Preston Manor. Theodore looks faintly uneasy throughout the whole ride, and clutches the lip of the carriage at every bump. It is terribly endearing, and, absurdly, William rather wishes it were him who was being held onto for dear life. But then, he thinks, it’s ridiculous to be jealous of a carriage, so instead he decides to distract Theodore by asking about life at sea. He offers his suppositions on the climate, and the living conditions, and eventually Theodore haltingly explains that he spent most of the journey between China and England feeling seasick. That probably explains why he looks so relieved when they finally arrive at the Manor, and back on stable ground. Then his relieved expression melts into one of complete and total awe as he looks up at Preston Manor, jaw hanging right open. William laughs.
“You’ll catch flies like that, my friend.”
Theodore’s head whips ‘round. “This is...your house?”
William nods. “Absolutely! And it is is a most excellent building. Come on,” He says, taking Theodore’s arm by the elbow. “I’ll give you the tour.”
Theodore nods in polite amazement at everything he’s shown, but it’s the grand piano in the drawing room that he’s most taken with. William gestures to it with a wide sweeping motion of the arm, and then he loudly bangs out the melody to frere jacque , after which he recieves the biggest grin he’s seen from Theodore yet. And does he ever want that to continue, so he also plays a little bit of row row row your boat and twinkle twinkle little star .
No-one’s ever looked so impressed to hear William tap his halting way through children’s nursery rhymes on the grand before, and he wants desperately to hold onto it, for as long as he can. So he shuffles himself over a little and invites Theodore to take a seat on the other half of the piano stool. Theodore’s long fingers tap nervously at the keys and his eyes go wide with wonder at the sound. He can’t really play it, of course, but neither can William. They improvise a random sort of duet on the low and high notes of the piano, and to anyone else, it likely sounds dreadful, but to William?
To William it sounds like the greatest symphony ever played.
He looks to his left, to Theodore beaming and laughing along with him as they strike loud, dissonant chords together, and in the moment he’s sure someday they’re going to share this with the world.
For now, though, he’ll settle for this.