Shore leave, even for a few days, was a blissful thing for Archie Kennedy. Though he loved his career and all the excitement that came with it, a few days away from Simpson and the hell he gave him almost constantly was something he desperately needed to rest his weary mind and body, preparing himself for whatever that man was to put him through next. Unfortunately for Archie, reaching the docks on this occasion didn’t quite mean that freedom was upon him, as Simpson had invited the rest of the Midshipmen to join him at one of his favourite late night haunts. And by invite, he really meant ordered. Not doing what Simpson asked was really not worth it if you wanted a quiet life. Archie was the exception to this rule, only because he didn’t get a quiet life anyways. But disobeying orders would only make the hell he was forced to live even more hellish. So he forced himself to nod in agreement hoping that it wouldn’t be too long before Simpson was too drunk to notice him slip away.
The place was seedy, the downstairs room of some already dodgy looking tavern and as he descended the stairs, Archie already knew this was a place he didn’t want to be in. Flickering torches on the walls and candles on the tables gave the room its only real light, a glow of red and orange, as barmaids in low cut dresses served leering men at the tables. Looking around as he took his seat, Archie could see that the barmaids were not the only ladies the men had their eyes on. Women and girls, some even younger than him, were being pushed forward towards the men at the tables by their masters, forced to sit on their laps and give them attention, whatever the men wanted or whatever they could afford to pay for. Archie saw Simpson’s eyes light up as he saw a particularly beautiful blonde woman and beckoned her over with his finger. She obliged without hesitation, clearly she had been doing this for a while, and the next minute she was sat on his lap, her hand caressing his face as his hands made their way up the skirts of her dress. Archie couldn’t watch anymore, the whole idea of these girls being forced to do these things making him feel sick. He sipped at his drink, hoping it wouldn’t be long before Simpson was drunk enough to forget he had even brought him there.
“Looking for a bit of entertainment, Sir?”
Archie jumped at the voice at his ear. As he looked up he saw a man grinning toothlessly at him, holding a young woman tightly by the collar of her dress. Her face was heavily made up, her dark brown hair pulled tight and piled upon the top of her head and Archie felt she was probably a good few years older than him, though the terrified look on her face made her look like a child. He shook his head, respectfully.
“No. Not tonight. Thank you…”
“But all your friends are having fun…” the man persisted, gesturing over to the other midshipmen of the Justinian who had all indeed decided to each find a lady of their own. Archie shook his head once more.
“I’m fine. Thank you. I have little money…”
“This one is as cheap as they come…” he insisted, pushing the young woman forward as she tried to disguise a yelp of fear, “You won’t need much for her to show you a good time…”
“No. Thank you.” Archie said, a little more forcefully this time, and the man backed off, “I am not interested…”
As he saw the look of anger on the man’s face towards the young woman, Archie regretted slightly the force in which he refused. And as the man dragged her off and he heard her cry out a little in pain and fear he couldn’t shake the niggling feeling of guilt at what might happen to her now. Glancing over at Simpson and the others, he noticed they were far too engrossed in their own fun to even notice him anymore. So taking the last gulp of his drink he got to his feet and made his way up the stairs, hoping he could find out where the man had taken her. He wasn’t sure what, if anything, he could do but he knew he couldn’t just walk away. As he got outside he breathed in the fresh sea air of Portsmouth thankfully after so long in the dingy, smoky downstairs room. He was just getting his bearings when he heard a scream and instinctively ran towards the sound. As he got round the corner he saw the young woman, cowering on the floor as the man stood over her.
“You stupid girl! What the hell am I going to do with you if you can’t make me money? I couldn’t even offer you to that sailor for next to nothing!”
As he grabbed her from the floor and threw his hand down against her cheek which made her scream out in pain, Archie stormed over.
“Leave her be!”
His voice was stronger than he ever thought it could be, but as the man glared at him, the niggling anxiety crept back into his chest. The man scoffed, throwing the woman to the ground as he walked up to Archie.
“You had your chance in there.” He sneered, “Changed your mind have you?”
“Then if you haven’t then leave us alone. I’ve got business to deal with…”
Archie watched, horrified as the man rolled up his sleeves and marched back over to her. She looked over at him and he couldn’t bear the fearful, pained look in her eyes.
The man turned back to Archie as he reached into his pocket and took out the week’s wages he had just been given.
He said, handing it out to the man who took hold of a coin and held it up to the streetlight.
“You said you had no money. This is a lot of money. For this she will do whatever you please…”
Archie shook his head and the man looked at him in confusion.
“I don’t want her to do anything. I want you to let her go. Set her free from her employment, or imprisonment or whatever you class this as being. Let her go free into my care.”
His voice was stronger than he felt. He could feel his limbs trembling as he spoke but he couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. The man looked at him in bafflement.
“You really want her?”
Archie looked down at the woman again, huddled on the ground like a frightened animal. She could barely look him in the eye, she was so petrified of what was happening. Swallowing loudly, Archie nodded. The man grinned, holding out his hand to Archie who passed him over the money. The man walked over to the woman and crouched down. She flinched away as he brought his face close to hers.
“He’s paid me more than you could ever make me anyway…”
He spat in her face before making his way back into the tavern. As Archie walked towards her, she shook her head in fear, shuffling backwards until she hit a wall and could go no further.
“Please, Sir…” She whispered tearfully, still shaking her head, “I know you paid him but I don’t want...I can’t...I…”
Archie crouched down next to her, his heart breaking at her words.
“I meant every word I told your master…”
He spoke with a soft voice and as she looked at him properly she saw he had kind eyes and a gentle face.
“I don’t want you to do anything. All I want is to get you away from here and safe…”
He smiled gently at her.
“My name is Archie Kennedy. I’m a midshipman of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. I will not hurt you. I promise you.”
He looked down the street, pointing towards one of the buildings.
“I have lodgings for a few days just above the bookshop in the high street. It’s not much but it is safe and warm and away from the streets…”
The young woman looked up at him with tears in her green eyes, trying to understand why he would want to help her. She was almost certain that he was genuine, yet she still couldn’t understand why.
“Why?” She whispered eventually, shaking her head, “Why are you being so kind to me?”
He smiled, but there was a sadness behind it that she couldn’t quite understand.
“We all need someone to show us a little kindness.” He answered eventually, “The world can be a dark place. Sometimes a little kindness is the light you need to see you through…”
He got to his feet again, holding out a hand to help her up. Yet she hesitated. Sensing her hesitation, he spoke again.
“Trust me. I will not harm you. I swear it.”
His blue eyes never left hers. And in that moment she decided to trust the stranger who had come to her rescue, taking his hand and letting him pull her to her feet. He led the way down the high street towards the little shop he pointed out. She could feel the chatter of her teeth and the goosebumps prickling at the bare skin of her arms with the frosty weather. She had nothing but the clothes she was standing in and spending most of her time locked away in that tavern meant she had little need of a cloak. Then suddenly the bitterness lifted as she felt herself being wrapped in a heavy, warm material and as she looked down she realised he had given her his cloak, still warm from the heat of his own body. He smiled at her and for the first time she couldn’t help but smile back as she followed him onwards towards his lodgings.
The lodgings were small but cosy. Both the living room and bedroom had open fires in them, which Archie lit as soon as he walked in. And the bedroom also housed a tin bath which the young woman couldn’t help but look at longingly; she couldn’t remember the last time she had bathed properly.
“Once the fire takes hold properly I shall draw you a bath…”
His voice made her jump and as she looked at him her cheeks reddened slightly as she realised he must have caught her staring at it.
“No. No it’s fine. I’m fine, thank you, I…”
Archie chuckled at her panicked babbling, seeing a lot of himself in her.
“I insist.” He said, gently, “Forgive me, I haven’t even asked your name.”
She smiled shyly at him.
He smiled back at her.
“You have a very pretty name…”
He said before coughing and turning away, trying to disguise the reddening of his own cheeks. Both of them relaxed into a comfortable silence until the water for the bath was warm enough and he busied himself drawing it up. Eventually it was ready and he walked over to her, in his arms a towel and a shirt.
“I...don’t have anything else you can wear.” He said, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment once more, “It’s clean, and it should fit…”
“It’s fine…” Nell replied, taking them from him, feeling the soft cotton fabric under her fingertips, “It’s very kind of you…”
He smiled shyly once more before turning and leaving, closing the door behind him to give her privacy. As Nell unbuttoned the filthy, revealing dress she had been given and forced to wear, she let it fall to the ground and as she walked towards the bath, she felt a sense of freedom wash over her that she hadn’t felt in a long time. Dipping her toe into the water she discovered that it was not too hot, just perfectly warm and she allowed herself to step in and let it fully immerse her. The tears started to fall down her cheeks and she let them. The simple pleasure of a bath that she had been denied for so long, the kindness of one person after so much cruelty just forced this wave of emotion to crash over her. Eventually, once she had cried all that she could, she tipped her head backwards, letting the water rinse the dirt from her hair and soften the layers of caked on makeup which her master had made her wear. She scrubbed at her face, wanting to rid herself of it. She could still feel the sting of her Master’s hand against her cheek which would stay long after the makeup had been washed away. Once she felt clean, she rose from the bathtub, reaching for the towel to dry herself before grasping hold of the shirt he had given her. It was a simple man’s shirt with a cord fastening at the neck, but it was the most precious thing she had ever been given. Slipping it over her head it was big enough to cover her down to her knees and it was the softest and most comfortable thing she had worn in the longest time. Feeling slightly self conscious after ridding herself of everything she had known herself to be for the past few years, she padded from the bedroom, opening the door into the living room where she saw him sat at the table, reading a book by candlelight, a small plate of food in front of him. He felt her presence, and looking up from his book he looked over and had to do a double take. He didn’t recognise the girl he had rescued from the streets an hour ago. With her dark hair loose, falling in curls down her back, and the makeup scrubbed from her face he realised that the woman he thought was older than him was in fact most likely his own age or younger. And more beautiful than he even imagined. Realising he was staring, he cleared his throat, getting to his feet and offering her a seat.
“You must be hungry.” He said, “Please. There isn’t much, but you are welcome to share…”
Part of her still couldn’t understand or cope with all of this kindness and wanted to refuse, but the grumble of her stomach made the decision for her and she accepted the seat, taking a plate and filling it with a slice of bread, some cheese and meat as he poured her a glass of water. The food was so good and so needed that she almost forgot her manners, and had to wash down her first mouthful with the water so she could thank him. He smiled, nodding his head in acknowledgment before returning to his book. As she tore off pieces of the bread to eat, Nell turned her head on a side, trying to read the title on the front of the book.
She didn’t realise she had spoken aloud until he looked at her in curiosity.
“You can read?”
He looked mortified with himself, shaking his head as he placed the book down on the table.
“Forgive me. That was incredibly rude of me to assume that...I shouldn’t have...I…”
Nell shook her head, letting him know that she took no offence but the look of embarrassment lingered on his face.
“I was schooled by my parents at home for many years…” she explained, trying to stop him from looking so horrified with himself, “They wanted me to have an education. So they taught me to read and write and do basic sums. Then they died. Illness took them. Three Winters back. My Mother first and then my Father. I tried to keep the house running but I couldn’t. That’s why I ended up on the streets and finally with my Master…”
Nell never told the story. She hated pity. She never wanted to be pitied by anyone. But for some reason she wanted to tell him. And the look on his face was not one of pity. It was one of sadness but not pity. It was almost one of understanding. He opened his mouth to speak, but she shook her head, letting him know it was alright.
“I loved reading.” Nell continued, “The idea of being able to transport yourself into another world through words was always magical to me…”
Archie grinned widely.
“Me too. Having a world you can go to and escape whatever is happening in this one. It’s like a safety blanket…”
Nell nodded in agreement.
“I’ve missed it terribly…”
She sighed and Archie watched her closely. Suddenly he got up from his chair and walked over to his bag, hunting in it for a few moments before finding whatever it was he was looking for and walking back over to her.
He said, holding out in his hand a copy of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Nell stared at the beautiful leather bound book in his hands before looking up at him and shaking her head.
“I cannot accept that. It is yours. It is far too precious…”
“I have read it a hundred times over…” he replied, softly, “I practically know it word for word. It’s time someone else got some joy from it. Please…”
Nell felt the tears pricking at her eyes as she took it from him, her fingers sweeping across the embellished words upon the cover.
“Thank you…” she whispered, tearfully, “I will treasure it…”
He smiled at her, watching as she stared at the book in amazement. She stifled a yawn, not wanting to appear rude, but she could feel the tiredness creeping over her.
“You should get some rest.” Archie said, having spotted her fatigue, “You take the bed. You are in more need of it than I. And I shan’t take no for an answer…”
Nell knew it was pointless arguing with him, so she smiled her thanks and wished him goodnight as she walked to the bedroom and closed the door behind her. She knew that she should really head straight to bed, but the draw of the warm fire and the magic of a book in her hands after so long was too much of a temptation so she instead settled herself down on the rug and began to read.
Archie also continued his book, sat at the table, enthralled by the words, not wanting to stop reading until the candle started burning too low and his eyes began to feel heavy and he knew that it was time for him to retire. Placing the book down on the table, he blew out the candle and was beginning to decide on which chair looked the most appealing to make his bed for the night when he suddenly decided to check that Nell had settled alright. Moving quietly to the door, he opened it gently, not wanting to make a noise as he looked in. He smiled softly as he saw her, fast asleep on the rug, her face resting against the open pages of the book. He walked over to her, sliding the book from under her head and closing it before bending down and lifting her from the floor, carrying her over to the bed in his arms before placing her down gently and covering her with the blanket. She shifted in her sleep slightly and he watched her until she settled again before placing the book down on the bedside table, blowing out the candle and leaving the room to find some peaceful sleep of his own.
The next morning Nell woke to the sound of birdsong and it took her a while to get her bearings. Panicking slightly as she opened her eyes, she wondered where she was. Then she felt the softness of the bedsheets and saw the pure white cotton shirt she was gifted and remembered with a relieved sigh the events of the night before that led to her being freed from her Master’s grasp. The kindness of the young midshipman who had come to her rescue. It all felt like a dream. Too good to be true. Then she saw the book he had gifted her on the bedside table and as her hand touched the soft leather cover she knew that this was all real. She didn’t know how long she had slept for. She couldn’t even remember going to bed. To be warm and safe and comfortable after so many years meant she had been able to have her first proper nights sleep in as long as she could remember. But she could hear movement from the next room and felt she should make her way out for fear of seeming rude. Getting to her feet she stretched the last of the sleep from her body before walking over to the door and opening it. She saw Archie sitting at the table, a book in his hand once more. He looked up as she entered the room, a kind smile upon his lips.
“Did you sleep well?”
“I haven’t slept so well in a long time.”
Archie smiled again as he gestured for her to join him at the table, pouring her a cup of tea from a teapot as she sat down. Taking a slice of bread and spooning some jam onto it, she looked at Archie closely. He looked tired. And suddenly she felt guilty for taking the bed when he had just returned from god knows how many months at sea and must have needed the rest.
“Did you not sleep?”
He replied, before shaking his head at the look on her face.
“I don’t sleep well. Not at the moment. I assure you it had nothing to do with the sleeping arrangements.”
Nell wondered what he meant but didn’t want to pry so didn’t push him further.
“How many days of shore leave do you have?”
“Three.” Archie smiled softly.
“That’s not long at all.” Nell replied, feeling sad for the young man. “Though I suppose you see the ocean as your home considering how much time you spend there.”
He nodded but the look of tiredness in his eyes also held a flicker of something else. Something between sadness and fear.
“The ocean doesn’t have the theatre through.” He smiled as he replied. “If I’m honest, the theatre is where I feel most at home.”
“I’ve never been…”
Nell’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. This young man was obviously intelligent and well schooled. He probably wanted to talk about the theatre and here she was struck dumb, unable to contribute anything to a conversation…
“Would you like to?”
Nell looked at him in confusion.
Archie chuckled, his kind eyes never leaving hers.
“The Theatre Royal is staging a production of Othello this evening. If you would like, I...I would be honoured if you would accompany me. As a friend of course!”
Archie felt his cheeks flaming red and he cursed himself for being so presumptuous. Nell hadn’t answered and now he felt a fool. Of course she wouldn’t want to. She only met him yesterday. Why on earth would she want to accompany him to the theatre as a friend or anything else?
“I don’t have anything to wear…”
Her voice interrupted his panicked thoughts and as he looked over at Nell he could see that she held the same look of embarrassment in her face as he felt in his.
“My dress…” She stuttered. “It is neither clean nor suitable. Thank you for the very kind offer, but I feel I would make a fool of you.”
Archie could see the disappointment in her face. But the thing that hurt him most was the shame he saw. He had been made to feel shame so many times and he hated it. He couldn’t bear to see that same look on someone else’s face. Then suddenly an idea occurred to him.
Before Nell could speak, Archie had gotten to his feet and left the room. Baffled, Nell waited, the minutes passing by so slowly that she began to feel like he had left her there for good, when all of a sudden the door opened and he walked in, awkwardly holding a bundle of blue material in his arms.
“Mrs Jones is the landlady of these lodgings.” He explained, eventually. “She owns the bookshop downstairs. She has been most kind to me over the years. I just explained the situation to her and she wondered if this might be suitable…”
Nell walked towards him curiously and he gestured to the bundle in his arms. Taking hold of it, she immediately felt the softness of silk beneath her fingertips and as she let it unfold she saw in her grasp the most beautiful inky blue gown she had ever seen. Nothing like the itchy red dress which revealed far too much of her that she had been handed and forced to wear when she was employed by her Master. This was simple and elegant with long sleeves and a high neckline, finished with a collar of ivory lace.
“She said it might not be to your style but it is all she had…”
“It’s beautiful.” Nell whispered, the tears pricking her eyes as she looked up at him. “I don’t know what to say…”
Archie smiled shyly.
“Say you will accompany me to the theatre this evening.”
Nell couldn’t help but let out a joyful laugh as she nodded.
“I would love to. Thank you.”
Mrs Jones, or Lily as she repeatedly told Nell to call her, ended up gifting her some shoes and a cloak too, though Nell tried to refuse. Lily said that it was about time young Archie found a lady friend and that he deserved a little happiness. Nell didn’t fully understand what she meant and wanted to ask more but didn’t feel it was her place to. Later that evening, Nell felt like a completely different person, in the best way. Wearing a dress more precious than she ever could have dreamed, which somehow fit her perfectly, she looked at herself in the mirror of Lily’s bedroom, where the kind landlady was just finishing pinning her hair up, letting some of the dark curls fall loose, framing her face before finishing it with a mother of pearl pin which sat right in the middle of the bun.
“There.” Lily said in her broad Cockney accent. “You look pretty as a picture. Young Mr Kennedy won’t be able to take ‘is eyes off you.”
Nell felt her cheeks blush as she shook her head.
“It’s not like that. We are just friends. Not even that yet, I suppose…”
Lily raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“How long have you known Arch...Mr Kennedy?”
“Since ‘e were sixteen. Fresh off the ship, his first shore leave as a midshipman of ‘is Majesty’s Royal Navy.” Lily replied with a smile. “That were four years ago. ‘E looked so lost. So unsure. I took pity on ‘im. Gave ‘im the lodgings you’re stayin’ in right now. ‘E’s always been kind to me. Always bringin’ me some knick-knack or souvenir from ‘is travels…”
Nell smiled, recognising the description of the kindhearted young man who had come to her rescue.
“Lily…” Nell ventured. “I’ve never been to the theatre. I’m so scared I will make a fool of myself and him because of it.”
“You are in safe hands with young Mr Kennedy.” Lily smiled. “‘E knows the theatre like it’s ‘is home. Now stop frettin’ and go and enjoy yourselves!”
Nell made her way from Lily’s lodgings over to Archie’s, cursing the butterflies in her stomach. She didn’t know why she felt so nervous, it was nonsense. Like she said to Lily, they were barely even friends. Opening the door she saw him standing at the window and he turned as he heard her footsteps. He couldn’t have looked any more handsome, dressed in full dress uniform, a dark cravat against a crisp white shirt and a blue jacket with lines of gleaming gold buttons down either side. He held his hat under his arm as he walked towards her, his mouth slightly ajar. Archie couldn’t believe this was the same, scared young woman he met only yesterday. He thought she was beautiful then but nothing could have prepared him for the sight of her standing in front of him now. Though she seemed slightly self-conscious, her hands twisting at the sleeves of her dress as if she wasn’t sure what to do with herself.
Archie managed eventually and Nell looked down at the ground with a shy smile. Taking out his pocket watch he glanced at the time before placing it back in his pocket.
“If we set off now we can take a leisurely stroll to the theatre?” Archie suggested. “Perhaps a walk along the seafront?”
Nell nodded and he grinned back, holding out his arm which she took without a second thought as they headed out of the door to enjoy the early evening beauty which the city had to offer.
The sea air was brisk and Nell was grateful for the cloak which Lily had gifted her. Her arm tucked securely into Archie’s, she enjoyed their walk along the seafront, Archie regaling her with stories of his life at sea. He spoke about it with such excitement, his eyes lighting up as he spoke about defending King and country, yet Nell could sense deep down that it wasn’t all as wonderful as he tried to make out. After walking the stretch of the seafront they made their way back inshore, heading up the high street towards the Theatre Royal. As they passed the tavern which Nell had been forced to call home for the past few years she grasped tighter onto Archie’s arm and he seemed to silently understand her fear, quickening his walk to move away from it faster.
The voice that plagued Archie’s nightmares called from the place they had just rushed past, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He wanted to move, to keep on walking, but he found himself frozen to the spot, unable to move a muscle. Nell looked at Archie with concern. The colour had drained from his face at the sound of this man’s voice and as he came to stand in front of them she noted that Archie could barely meet his eye. She had no idea who this man was, but instantly she recognised him as the sort of man who frequented taverns like the one she had been forced to work in. His eyes were fixed on Archie, a cruel smirk creeping across his lips and Nell pulled herself in closer to him, wanting to give him support whilst finding some of her own.
“I’m talking to you Kennedy…” Simpson sneered. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you.”
Archie somehow managed to lift his gaze to meet Simpson’s even though he felt sick. The bravery within him whilst fighting the enemy out on the open sea collapsed into nothingness when faced with this one man.
“You left early last night.” Simpson questioned, his eyes bearing into Archie’s. “You never asked my permission to leave. It was my night, therefore I say if you stay or go.”
“I’m sorry Simpson.” Archie stuttered. “I...I was tired and needed rest but I didn’t want to spoil your evening…”
Simpson continued to glare at Archie, belittling him with his eyes, until his gaze suddenly found Nell, his eyes widening at the sight of her.
“And who is this pretty flower?” He asked, and Nell shrunk back as he leaned in towards her. “Don’t I recognise you from somewhere?”
He stood staring at Nell, she could feel him undressing her with his eyes, like all of the men who frequented the tavern did. All of them apart from Archie. Suddenly realisation dawned in Simpson’s eyes as he turned his gaze back to Archie.
“Well aren’t you a sly dog, Kennedy.”
He scoffed. “No wonder you left in such a hurry. How much did he pay you to spend the night with him, love?”
Archie felt his cheeks flaming and Nell couldn’t bear the look of humiliation on his face. Her arms still through his, she reached for his hand, linking her fingers tightly with his.
“Come on Archie.” Nell said softly. “We don’t want to be late.”
Archie had to force himself to move with Nell’s encouragement. His legs felt heavy with fear and shame. As they walked away he could hear Simpson and his friends laughing before Simpson called out after him.
“I’ll see you back on deck in a few days time, Kennedy! We’ll have a lot of catching up to do.”
Archie was quiet the rest of the way to the theatre. Nell couldn’t understand how the brave young man who stood up to her Master could be the same person she just saw being tormented by this Simpson. Archie felt numb. It was taking all of his strength to keep on walking, to stop the darkness which threatened to consume him from taking over his body, to spare Nell the shame and the embarrassment of witnessing the affliction which Simpson’s torment brought about in him.
“Is that man your superior?”
Nell asked carefully, wishing to understand but not wanting to cause him any more distress. Archie smiled sadly.
“No. He is a Midshipman, same as I.”
“Then why must he treat you so?” Nell replied, her anger at his treatment overcoming her cautiousness. “He has no right! He has no power over you!”
Archie couldn’t explain. Couldn’t admit the power which Simpson did hold over him. The things that happened in the dark of night when nobody was around. He was grateful when the torchlit pillars of the Theatre Royal came into view and the safety of his favourite place began to blur the panic and the fear from his mind. Grasping Nell’s hand tighter he quickened his pace until there were standing right outside it.
“Isn’t it one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen?”
Archie grinned at Nell who had to agree with him, even though she was perturbed by his unwillingness to talk. The Theatre Royal was a beautiful pale stone building and the torches that lit the outside highlighted the posters which advertised the evening’s performance of Othello. Hoards of people were milling about, ladies dressed in furs on the arms of well dressed gentlemen making their way into the foyer. Suddenly Nell felt like a fraud, like people would be looking at her as though she didn’t belong here. She didn’t.
She began and as her eyes met his it was as though he understood silently how she was feeling.
“Don’t worry.” He said softly. “They intimidate me too. But we aren’t sitting near them. Our seats are much better, you will feel much more comfortable when we reach the auditorium I promise you.”
He was right of course. He held her arm tightly as they made their way through the crowds of people, making her feel safe and secure. After handing their tickets to the man on the door Archie took hold of Nell’s hand once more, leading her through the door and into the most breathtaking place she had ever seen. The stage was right in front of her, cloaked in red velvet curtains, surrounded in mosaic tiles of different shades of blues and greens. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling above rows and rows of seats where people dressed in clothes far more ordinary than those she saw outside sat, chatting animatedly to their companions, waiting for the performance to begin. As they took their seats Archie looked at Nell, pleased to see that her panicked expression of earlier had given way to the wonder which only the theatre could bring. And as the lamps dimmed and the curtains rose, his own fear and panic of earlier melted away as he was transported to another world, far far away from this one.
Nell couldn’t think of a more perfect evening. She now understood what Archie meant when he had said that the theatre felt like home. She felt at home there too. The moment the curtain lifted and the performance began she forgot any feeling of worry or embarrassment. She was transported into the world, into the story that was playing out on stage, enthralled by the magic and the wonder of it. Her cheeks were wet with tears by the end and as the curtain fell and the lights went up she could see that his were too.
They walked home, cloaks pulled tightly around themselves to keep out the cold, yet Nell barely even registered it, she was far too engrossed in conversing with Archie all about the magic they had seen that evening. Though by the time they reached his lodgings, Nell suddenly felt exhausted, the excitement and new experiences of the day taking their toll. As she stifled a yawn Archie smiled.
“You must get some rest.” He said softly. “It has been a long and most exciting day.”
Nell smiled at him.
“It has been the most magical day.” She replied. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you.”
Without thinking, she reached up and placed a gentle kiss against his cheek. Cheeks flushed with embarrassment she pulled away.
Archie watched her walk away towards the bedroom, not quite sure if what just happened was actually real. But he could still feel the tingle of her kiss against his cheek and so he deduced that he wasn’t just imagining things. Smiling, he shrugged off his jacket and hung it on the coat stand as he prepared to retire for the evening.
Nell sat at the dressing table taking the pins from her hair one by one until her dark curls tumbled down her back. She removed her dress and once again put on the soft cotton shirt which Archie gifted her yesterday before climbing under the covers of the comfortable bed. She still felt guilty taking this from him, especially as in only two days time he would be back aboard a ship where she suspected such luxury as a bed for the night didn’t exist. As she settled herself down onto the pillow she decided that tomorrow evening he would take the bed. No excuses. She was happy to sleep in the chair. After all, even a chair would seem a luxury to her after the last few years.
After falling into a peaceful sleep for a few hours, Nell was suddenly awoken to the sound of murmurings from the next room. Lighting the candle at her bedside table she got to her feet and padded quietly to the door. The room was in darkness as she opened it and the murmurings, she soon realised, were coming from where Archie was sleeping on the chair near the fire.
Nell took cautious steps towards him and as he came into view by the light of the candle, she could see that he was dreaming, shifting in his sleep as if to try and get away.
Nell whispered softly, holding out a gentle hand to his face to try to wake him but it didn’t work.
His brow was covered in a sheen of sweat and his face was screwed up as though he were in pain, his closed eyes flickering manically due to whatever vivid night terrors he couldn’t wake from. Then the fitting started. She knew it was a fit because one of the girls at the tavern had the same awful affliction. She also knew there was nothing that could be done to stop it but she knew how to help in a small way. Archie was stronger than the girl but Nell was stronger than she looked too and eventually managed to take hold of his arms to stop them flailing, holding them against his chest and placing her own body weight gently on top of him, soothing him until the fit passed and he began to calm, his murmurs turning to whimpers before he found some peace once more. Nell didn’t want to leave him, she didn’t want him to be alone, finally beginning to understand the reason why he didn’t sleep very well. Confident that he was once again somewhat settled she removed herself from him, taking hold of his hand in hers as she seated herself down on the floor beside him, taking hold of his hand as she rested her head against the side of the chair and tried to find some sleep of her own.