Chapter 1: chapter 1
we die as if a ship were going down inside us,
like a drowning in the heart,
like falling endlessly from the skin to the soul.
pablo neruda, "only death"
He hears it echoing down the walls, a sinister sigh whose source he cannot discern, swallowed as it is by the paneling on the walls and the thick carpet underfoot. The drumming of rain overhead further mutes any guiding voice as the storm outside intensifies.
Thomas knows that he should not be awake, wandering the halls of the labyrinthine house, his only source of light the candle gripped quaveringly in his hand.
The breathing of the house had roused him, followed by that unmistakable moan of a name. His name. As if in a trance, he had risen and followed.
He pulls his housecoat tighter around his frame, cursing at himself for forgoing slippers as the cold from the floor seeps into the bare soles of his feet. He moves as in a dream, each step labored, the air heavy and reeking of moist earth. Lightning lands outside, its only presence marked by a loud crash and the bright claw marks slashing down the seams of the tapestries drawn across the hall’s windows. When he flinches, wax flings from the candle onto his hand. He hisses and peels the cooling wax off the reddened skin.
Thunder follows the lightning, and the walls of the house shift inward as it breathes in and out, in tandem with the storm.
Behind him, this time, a murmur, so soft that the thunder nearly masks it.
He twirls, but there is only the long passageway behind him, empty and dark. Thomas swallows, feeling sweat collecting at the base of his neck. Reason begs him to return to his bed, to think nothing more of the strangeness of the manor. All this nonsense will seem silly in the morning, under the comfort of daylight.
The two syllables of his name jeer in a paper-thin voice, inches away.
A hand falls on his shoulder.
The candle falls onto the rug, but before Thomas can cry out, another hand slaps over his mouth. He sees the flash of a man with dark hair of equal height to Thomas before the scuff of his boot extinguishes the flame into the carpet, pitching both of them into the lurid darkness of the house. Thomas’s eyes adjust, enough that he can make out the figure before him.
Mr. Little, his mind foggily supplies. A guest of Mr. Crozier’s who had arrived two evenings ago, of whom Thomas knows nothing and has seen only once at dinner.
“Stay close,” Little says beside Thomas’s ear as lifts his hand from his mouth. “Don’t move.”
“Mr. Little, I don’t—”
The words are hissed with such urgency that Thomas shuts his mouth. The rolling nausea in his stomach worsens as anxiety shoots through his every limb and as gooseflesh ripples up his arms. Little pulls him close, one hand on his shoulder, the other resting at his waist. The man is near enough to him that Thomas feels his breath brushing against his neck. Equal forces of fear and excitement battle within Thomas, and he is immensely grateful for the lack of light in the hall, as he feels his face and neck blotching from the confusion.
His ears catch a low rumbling, from somewhere deep in the bowels of the house. It morphs from a soft growl into a roar as the deafening sound charges through the house, shaking the walls, the paintings clattering where they hang, and the floor beneath rocking as fitfully as a ship pitching on an angry sea.
Thomas’s feet start to sway, his balance thrown, and he is only kept upright by the tight hold of Little’s hand on his shoulder. There is another crack of lightning, and the pair are close enough to a window that the flash of light illuminates them long enough that Thomas can see Little in profile, staring intently over Thomas’s shoulder and toward the black hallway behind him. His brow is furrowed, and his lips parted as he wets them with his tongue.
There is fear on Little’s face, and Thomas’s breath hitches in his throat, his eyes squeezing shut as the noise reaches them, the deafening cacophony ringing and plunging so deeply into Thomas’s ears that his teeth ache and his muscles quiver.
Then it passes, as rapidly as a stampede of wild horses, and the echo of it fades as it races to another part of the house.
Thomas releases the breath he did not realize he was holding. Slowly, almost reluctantly, Little’s hands remove themselves from his body.
“What was—” Thomas begins.
Little grunts. “Not here.” He grabs Thomas by the wrist and pulls him down the hall. “Come.”
The events of the night leave Thomas reeling, so he finds no reason to argue. He walks, his feet mindlessly accepting Little as guide.
They turn a corner, into a hall that leads deeper into the manor, near the converging of stairwells that meet in the center of the house and spiral into the foyer of the great hall. To Thomas’s confusion, Little does not pause before a door but simply the wall itself. Little releases Thomas long enough to tap something against the wall. In the near palpable darkness, Thomas can only guess at what he is hearing, but his eyes go wide as he sees a crack in the wallpaper, faintly illuminated by a light behind it. The wall moves back and slides open, revealing a narrow corridor, barely the width of their shoulders and lit by a single, hanging gas lamp.
Little glances back at Thomas, something in his eyes silently imploring Thomas to continue following before he ducks into the passageway and disappears into the darkness beyond the lamp.
Hugging his arms around himself, the surprises of this massive house no longer as strong a shock as it had been his first nights staying here, Thomas follows.
He tries in vain to ignore the racing of his heart as the wall clicks shut behind him, trapping him in whatever maze Little has opened.
The hall is short, however; its destination obscured by a couple of cobwebbed twists, designed – so Thomas believes – to disorient and confuse. The passage ends in a cramped, unadorned room, the location of which is hard to establish. Paintings and furniture, draped in dusty canvas line one side of the room, and on the other side is a cot, freshly made, and a desk. To the left of the desk and directly across from Thomas is an odd, octagonal window through which the flash of lightning and the crystalline smear of raindrops is visible. Thomas stares in wonder at the strange space before him as Little busies himself with lighting candles across the room.
The various stubs of wax are placed haphazardly, some set in brass holders, the others melted into their resting places. He loses track after he counts over a dozen of the mismatched candles, and he watches silently as Little finishes lighting each of them. When he is done, the room blossoms with a cheerful, yellow light that helps to dampen the fear that coursed through Thomas when they were exposed in the vengeful darkness of the hall.
He takes the opportunity to truly see Little and is surprised that, despite the late hour, he is completely dressed, save the lack of a neckerchief where his collar lies open instead. Their eyes meet as Little crosses the room to secure another door behind Thomas, effectively locking them in.
Startled toward the center of the room, Thomas stares at the cot and desk in wonder.
“Are you…staying here, Mr. Little? Not in the guest room?” he asks, the idea as baffling as it is maddening, as he knows fully well the ludicrous number of guest rooms the manor hosts.
Little shrugs. “Sometimes. Please, sit.”
There are not many options from which to choose, so Thomas perches on the edge of the cot, folding his hands neatly into his lap. Little pulls a stool in front of Thomas that he leans on before he takes Thomas’s jaw in his hands and lifts his face, his dark eyes scanning every inch of his features.
A tiny gasp slips from Thomas as he stiffens under the unexpected scrutiny.
Little begins to list a series of questions to which Thomas tries to reply promptly and accurately; the whole setup oddly clinical.
“Did you see anything?”
“No, sir. Only noises.”
“You are unharmed?”
“Yes, I’m fine, sir.”
“What were you doing up? Did Captain Crozier send for you?”
Thomas relaxes somewhat, the quaint way in which Little called Mr. Crozier by his late naval title somehow being the reassurance he wanted. “No, sir. Mr. Crozier takes a tonic before bed. He rarely wakes in the night.”
“How long have you worked for him?”
“Since May, sir.”
“Yes, sir. His caretaker.”
Little releases his face and walks to the desk. He is frowning deeply. Thomas clenches his hands on his lap as he resists the urge to brush at his hair or rub away the tingling sensation on his skin where Little’s hands had touched. Thomas’s toes curl against the cold floorboards, and the longer Little stands at the desk, rifling through papers, his frown worsens. Questions of his own fly through Thomas’s head: what was in the hall that frightened him so, whether he served in the Navy alongside Mr. Crozier, why his concern for Thomas’s wellbeing, and why the secret rooms in a house already riddled with mysteries.
Exhaustion begins to creep into Thomas, the excitement from earlier having long faded, and as the scent and warmth of the many candles lay a blanket of ease over the room, he catches his head from drooping. He shifts on the cot so that he can tuck his feet under his legs to warm them.
Little looks up at him, and his mouth hangs open a fraction before he hurries to a chest, opening it and pulling an extra blanket from its depths.
Before Thomas can protest, Little sits beside him on the cot and helps to wrap the blanket around his shoulders. Thomas stares at his lap. His face feels hot, and – if he were truly honest with himself – the tender attentions of this handsome guest of Mr. Crozier’s have been a delightful surprise, and the more that Little’s hands stray near him, the more Thomas finds himself wanting more.
Little pats both of Thomas’s shoulders when he deems him properly wrapped in the blanket.
He clears his throat. “I feel I owe you an apology, Mister…?”
“Jopson.” Thomas smiles, his blushing cheeks dimpling. “We met briefly last night.”
To Thomas’s utter amazement, Little returns the smile, one corner of his mouth pulling farther than the other, the grin boyish and kind.
“Right. Jopson,” he repeats with a nod, the intensity of his gaze unsettling but warm.
Even as his heart beats faster, Thomas tries to keep his breaths calm and regular. Once their gaze has connected, he finds it impossible to look away, and sitting this close to Little, Thomas can make out more color in his eyes, the deep brown shimmering from the candlelight, specks of white dotted across the dark irises. Thomas is reminded of a night in London, more than a year ago, when he and his brother had walked along the Thames one late evening, and both were enraptured by the gleam of the many lamps lighting up the street, or along a bridge, or illuminating the deck of a barge on the river; the deep, murky shadows of the night broken up by each floating halo of light. Homesickness hits him in a wave, and his smile fades.
Little’s brow twitches, perhaps as he notices the sudden shift of Thomas’s demeanor, and he pats Thomas’s knee.
“It’s best if you stay the night here and return to your quarters come morning.”
Thomas stares at him, eyes wide, his discomfort swelling at this room hidden in the walls of the house, and the presence of a single, narrow bed most prominent in his mind.
“I don’t want to impose.”
Little shakes his head. “You won’t. It’s safer during the day.”
In the back of his mind, that spine-tingling whisper which beckoned Thomas from slumber and his bed raises its ugly head, and the memory of it rushes back full force, so strongly that Thomas flinches. It’s a wonder. He nearly forgot why he was wandering the halls of the house.
“I heard my name,” he says simply. “Earlier. That’s why I was awake.”
The revelation of this jerks Little up onto his feet. “It spoke to you?”
Thomas nods dumbly, almost wishing he had refrained from saying anything.
The fear has returned to Little’s face, though he looks away from Thomas, as though attempting to shield Thomas from the worst of it.
“How much has Captain Crozier told you?”
“I know very little about him, save his illness and that he was a naval officer,” Thomas says.
Little runs a hand down his face before he turns to the desk. From a drawer, he produces a pipe and tin of tobacco. Thomas watches as he methodically stamps a thumbful of tobacco into the pipe, retrieves a box of matches from his pocket, and lights it. Thunder rumbles distantly outside, the storm moving farther from the house, but Thomas feels a sudden shiver. The lights of the candles flicker ominously, and Thomas tries to console himself that it is only a draft. The house is old, and there must be cracks, even in bizarre, hidden rooms such as these.
He also wonders, against his better judgment, if the thing stalking the halls can hear them, even as he and Little try to hide from it within its own shadow.
After a few puffs from the pipe, Little turns to face Thomas and leans against the edge of the desk.
“There is not much that I can tell you that will explain the goings on here, and Crozier can supply you with more answers in the morning,” Little says, deliberately chewing over the words as he chooses them. “I don’t know how much you read in the papers concerning ship voyages, but I served under Crozier on an Arctic expedition in 1845 in an ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage.”
Thomas nods. “He mentioned it in passing.”
Little bites the mouth of his pipe. “Well, I don’t know how many details he burdened you with, but we were unsuccessful and were beset in ice for two years. We had to abandon the ships and walk across hundreds of miles of wasteland in the hope of being saved.”
Thomas finds it difficult to breathe, as the room feels tinier by the second. “And you were saved, clearly?”
“Yes. But not before half our men froze to death or starved, including most of our officers. We were picked up in the summer of ’48 and came back to England, ashamed and disgraced. The Admiralty did what they could to suppress any news of our expedition’s missteps. Crozier and I retired from the Navy, and we foolishly thought that would be the end.”
The rain outside has ceased but is replaced by a sharp, howling wind that buffets against the house and rattles the geometrical window glaring down at them from its position high on the wall.
“Something—I don’t know what—followed us, ” Little says with a deep sigh. “All the way from the godforsaken Arctic.”
Thomas’s mind reels from the information, the events of the past two days blurring together. He recalls a telegram arriving from town, shortly after Dr. MacDonald left from his biweekly checkup with Mr. Crozier. The day had been particularly cold but humid, a thick fog settling over the hedges of the remote manor. When Thomas delivered the telegram to Crozier, the man visibly relaxed, sagging with a relief that pulled on his muscles like gravity.
“Mr. Jopson, I know this is outside your usual tasks, but would you make sure one of the guest rooms in the east wing is clean and the bed made?”
“Of course, sir.”
Edward Little arrived late that evening, a scant half hour before Crozier retired to bed.
Now, he sits opposite Thomas and tells him, perhaps without the explicit words, that they are haunted, by some ephemeral and vindictive spirit that trailed them from the far North.
“And this…thing? It is dangerous?”
The pause is long enough that Thomas wonders if Little heard him.
“It seems determined to kill us all yet,” Little manages, after another puff from the pipe. He looks at Thomas, the fondness in his expression taking Thomas by surprise. “Please, get what sleep you can. There will be much for us to do come morning.”
“Of course, sir.”
Little smiles again. “No need for formalities. I’m not an officer anymore. Please, call me Edward.”
Thomas smiles and nods, adjusting himself under the woolen blanket, feeling safer now that he was not alone, and protected as they are by the sunny glow of the candles.
A spontaneous impulse bursts into Thomas’s mind that he should invite Little to share the cot with him, but he stamps it down with a barely suppressed chuckle, reasoning that he does not know the man well enough to tease him so. He lifts one arm to cushion the side of his head and closes his eyes, the mellow light of the room cradling Thomas.
“Good night, Edward,” he says.
He falls asleep before he hears Little respond.
Minutes later, or perhaps hours later, the bed dips beside him, and his eyes squint open long enough to see that Little is on the cot beside him, the pipe hanging from his mouth as he sits against the metal frame, his chin resting on his chest. His eyes are closed, and he breathes deeply.
The light in the room has dimmed, a few wicks drowned in their waxy basins, but the room is illuminated enough for Thomas to see the freckles splashed across the bridge of Little’s nose. After a long sigh, Little slumps forward more, so Thomas sits up long enough to gently pull the pipe from his mouth and lay it on the man’s lap.
Little turns toward Thomas but otherwise does not stir. Thomas brushes some dust off the man’s jacket before he stops himself and then settles back under his blanket, lying as close to the warmth of Little’s thigh as he dares.
Minutes pass. Perhaps hours again.
The house breathes in. It breathes out. Wind whistles against the glass pane of the window.
His eyes snap open. The room is swathed in near darkness, only a single flickering candle still burning on the desk. His pulse is racing, but he is frozen in place, on his side, pressed close against Little’s leg.
There is another indentation on the bed, and the springs creak under the added weight.
Thomas breathes faster, his eyes wide and unblinking, tears gathering in the corners.
He wants to roll away. He wants to sit up. He wants to scream. Though none of his muscles even twitch from his mind’s desperate pleas. Blood pounds through his veins as he tenses his arms and tries to move them, even an inch, anything to help push himself away.
A hand touches his back, and the chill of it seeps through his clothing. The scream begging to burst from his throat crawls out as a whimper.
The candle sputters out.
Little jerks awake when Thomas’s paralysis blessedly lifts, and he catches Thomas before he causes them both to tumble from the bed. Thomas’s breaths come fast and hard, and as his pupils – blown wide with fear and adrenaline – adjust to darkness of the room, he nearly cries with relief that there is nothing else on the bed with them.
Little’s arm is tight around his midsection, and Thomas can faintly hear him shushing him, humming something gentle in his ear. Thomas squeezes his eyes shut, a few stray tears sliding down his cheeks, as his chest stops heaving. He places one of his hands over Little’s arm and wills his heart to slow down.
“It was in here,” he whispers, eyes still shut as he pulls Little’s arm tighter around him. “Whatever the thing is, it was right behind me.”
Little says nothing but wraps his second arm around Thomas, loosely embracing him. He presses his nose against the crown of Thomas’s head, and they stay wound around each other for what feels like eons.
With a pat on Thomas’s hand, Little finally extracts himself and stands. Thomas’s hand reaches after him, not wanting to be separated yet. Little lights a few of the candles that had extinguished during the night, and Thomas wraps himself in the blanket while he watches. The window has a gray tint to it with the approach of dawn.
“The light keeps it away,” Little explains, as he flicks the match out and lights another. “Or so I like to think. I’m sorry I fell asleep.”
Thomas shakes his head, his gaze vacant as he stares at his covered feet.
“Are we safe in here?” His voice is quiet, like a child spooked by the dark and the threat of monsters spiriting the naughty ones off into the night.
Little does not look at him. “I had hoped.”
He produces fresh candles from the same trunk that housed the blankets, and once he has replaced them in the brass holders and has lighted them, he returns to the cot and sits beside Thomas.
“I fear this is worse than Crozier thought. This,” Little murmurs, his eyes reluctantly meeting Thomas’s, nodding toward him; “its fixation with you…changes everything.”
Trembling, less violently than before, Thomas cannot find it in himself to answer or speak at all, but he is grateful when Little wordlessly lies on the bed with him and urges Thomas’s arms to wrap around him as they sleep, chest to back, Thomas burying his face between Little’s shoulder blades.
The wind groans outside, and the candles flicker.
Thomas tries to sleep, but the house breathes so loudly that sleep comes slowly, if at all.
Chapter 2: chapter 2
The morning after.
Thanks to everyone who has read and commented thus far! <3 <3
Bring my candles,
Though they stab my tired brain
And hurt it.
For I am afraid of the twining of the darkness
And dare not sleep.
amy lowell, “strain”
Thomas wakes with a start, dust tickling his nose. His eyes itch from the mustiness of the room, and he winces when he rubs the sleep away. For a long while, he lies on his side, his shirt bunched up, a heavy wool blanket sliding off his shoulder, his gaze aimed groggily at the wall opposite the bed.
He hardly remembers where he is, and when the events of the previous night filter through his sleep-fogged brain, they crash with the ferocity of an earthquake. He leans onto his elbow, the blanket falling away. The only source of light comes from the window, though Thomas can see the faint outline of the sun through the thick layer of clouds. The other occupant of the room, Mr. Little – Edward, Thomas’s mind coyly murmurs – sits at the desk.
He looks up to the creaking of the cot.
“Good morning,” Little says.
Thomas pulls on his housecoat, painfully aware of his lack of dress. His hand drifts to his hair to flatten some of the tangles.
“What time is it?” he asks.
Little refers to a watch from his pocket. “It’s twenty after seven.”
Thomas jolts upright, biting back a curse as he throws his legs over the side of the bed. Little stands with him.
Their words overlap as both start speaking at the same time.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but I need to go—“
“Should I have woken you? I thought you—“
They both pause, and their hesitation grows into long seconds, Thomas’s eyes drifting from Little’s to a pale freckle just above the line of his whiskers.
Thomas nods. “Thank you for your help last night, but I need to attend to Mr. Crozier.”
“Of course,” Little returns, and after another pause, too long for Thomas’s comfort under the man’s strong gaze, the man starts. “Right, the doors.”
He steps past Thomas to unlatch and slide open the entrance. In the light of day, Thomas can now see how fortified it is; wooden planks, overlapping and tarred, like the waterproofed hull of a ship, with bracers at the top and bottom securing it in place.
The same hesitation from last night infects Thomas briefly as Little moves into the dark hallway, but he squashes it and stays close to Little’s back this time. Little turns the sharp corner, and at the end of the hall, he has to duck his head to avoid hitting the gas lamp. Underneath its glow, only the top of his brow and the bridge of his nose are lit as he jockeys a lever hidden in the darkness of the wall.
Prompted by the inaudible whir of what Thomas can only assume is a pulley system, some unknown machinery under their feet and looped through the walls, the door to the hall comes inward and slides into a groove. Little does not leave the passageway, instead stepping to the side and gesturing that Thomas may pass him.
His eyes resolutely on the ground, Thomas thanks him in a subdued voice and starts to exit.
A hand grazes the edge of Thomas’s cuff, fingers tracing along the seam only to slip under the fabric. The touch is light as a feather, but Thomas feels the sensation of pins drag up his arms. He does not flinch, but a tremor twitches the skin violently at his wrist.
Little’s eyes are warm, offset by the deep crease between his brow. Before Thomas can thank him again, the fingers close on his wrist and squeeze gently.
“You should be all right during the day,” Little says. “But be careful, please.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Little steps backward into the shadowed opening, and Thomas watches, rapt and unblinking, as the panel groans from its slot and presses closed against the wall. It clicks, like a key turning in its lock, and once it has stopped moving, the panel is indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. The edges of the panel, insofar as Thomas can discern, align perfectly with the grooves of the wainscot and the pattern of the wallpaper. Already the details of the door are slipping from Thomas’s mind like fine granules of sand.
He tries to put the wall to memory as best he can; the location of the nearest window, the exact flower in the carpet in front of it, the sconce with waxy drippings on the tarnished bronze.
He wants to remember this place should he need to come here again.
Hugging himself, he hurries to his quarters only long enough to dress fully. The bed is unmade from where he pushed aside the quilt the night before, and although the curtains are closed, their fabric is flimsy enough that the morning light dimly shines through. He pours some of last night’s water into his basin so that he can splash himself in the face. The cold water is enough to invigorate him, and the longer he is awake, the more that the events of the night are distant, like yellowed pages of a diary long abandoned and sitting on a shelf, the importance of the tome forgotten.
The exact pitch of the voice slips from his mind. He cannot even recall if the voice belonged to a man or woman, and it is easy now to dismiss the notion that he had heard his name at all. The comfort of day and the safety of his small room dispel any lasting concern.
After he ties his cravat, he wets a comb and runs its teeth through his hair, fixing the deep part and flattening any flyaway strands. Though Thomas cannot fully deny his vanity—he is fully aware of his handsome features and the attention they attract—he cares more for the neatness of his appearance, and late as he is this morning, he wishes to maintain his standard. With a downward tug of his lips, he runs his fingers along his jaw to feel the length of his stubble and decides that, although he wishes otherwise, it is too late in the morning to shave now.
Adjusting the hem of his waistcoat, he appraises his murky reflection in the mirror one final time, deeming himself as worthy as he will ever be, but as he opens the door to his room, the air about him shifts. It envelopes him, like bathwater swelling when one steps into the tub. A cold draft patters past him on little goblin feet, drawing his attention to the single window in the narrow room. The curtain flutters, gossamer muslin so like a woman’s nightgown.
Oh. With a start, Thomas’s hand flies to his neck. He nearly forgot.
He goes to the cupboard beside his bed. From the top drawer, kept in a well-worn velvet box, green once but faded now to a joyless gray, he unwinds the locket, one of the few personal affects that he had packed with care into the lining of his suitcase the night before he boarded a train leaving London. The locket itself is plain, a deep copper with a date clumsily etched on its surface; that of his mother’s birthday. Inside the oval rests a miniature likeness of Sarah Jopson and a tiny circlet of her hair, the same ebony shade as Thomas’s. The pad of his thumb runs a gentle circle on its face before he clasps it around his neck and folds it under the cloth of his cravat.
The draft flutters through the room again, billowing the curtain from the window. Thomas frowns, his hand resting idly at his throat. He remembers latching the window the night before, as the gales of the storm grew, shaking the walls of the house.
Curious, he crouches by the window and checks the carpet underneath, which should be soaked through from last night’s rain had the window remained open. It is dry as bone under his hand. Frowning, he stands and pulls back the curtain, watching as the pane sways open, the hinge emitting a reedy creak.
He reaches to pull it shut, but when he tries hook the lock, he realizes the latch is missing.
The wood is splintered where the brass attachment had once lain.
A fierce gust rushes past him and slams the door to the bedroom. Jumping at the noise, he swallows and runs his finger carefully along the edge of the window. He will have to find a replacement downstairs. Surely, there are extras somewhere. Thomas takes a second to look for the metal clasp lying on the floor or the windowsill, but save the ragged edge of the wood, it is as though it simply removed itself and strolled away.
He shuts the window and tells himself to not worry about such a small thing. He checks his watch, gritting his teeth at the lateness of the hour and leaves his bedroom, hurrying to the narrow back stairwell adjacent to his room.
The thud of his shoes echoes loudly, and Thomas shortens his stride, overly conscious of the noise he is making. It is a sharp contrast from the night before, when all sound was swallowed in the din of the storm and suffocated by dusty carpets and tapestries.
The kitchen is warm, a fire lit in the grate and the manor’s other two staff members present. Mr. Diggle does not look up from whatever he is stewing at the stovetop, but Mr. Bridgens, a kind man, soft-spoken and gentlemanly in manner, looks up with a smile when Thomas enters.
“Morning, Tom,” he greets, “I took Mr. Crozier his tea, and he was still abed.”
Thomas sags against the counter, some of the tension sapping from his face.
“Thank you, John. Was he sleeping?”
“Like a babe.”
Thomas stands at attention once more and retrieves another tray from the shelf.
“Is there more hot water?” he asks over his shoulder as he assembles another tea service.
Bridgens nods, and – though he eyes Thomas curiously – he fetches the kettle and watches bemusedly as Thomas brews another pot of tea and arranges a single saucer and cup on the tray.
“Have you seen Mr. Little yet this morning?” Thomas asks him.
Thomas looks up from where he pours cream into the ceramic pitcher. Bridgens looks up from where he is peeling and chopping potatoes for the day’s meals.
“Mr. Crozier’s guest. The naval officer.”
“Ah,” Bridgens says with a wave of the knife. “I saw him ride out first thing this morning, not a quarter hour ago. Seemed in a hurry.”
Thomas’s hand hovers over the bowl of sugar. He stares at his reflection in the silver of the tray.
“Did you speak to him?”
“No, I hadn’t the chance.” Bridgens resumes peeling.
When the man will return, or what his destination is, Thomas can only wonder. He glances at the large, frosted windows of the kitchen and sees that they are streaked with rain. Poor day for riding, he thinks.
At present, he thanks Bridgens and takes the tray through the side door of the kitchen and up the narrow servants’ stairwell. Dim morning light paints his pathway as Mr. Bridgens has been good enough to draw the heavy curtains from many of the windows, and despite walking the same route he had the night prior, Thomas feels safer.
Turning a corner, he looks for the pattern in the carpet for any of the tell-tale signs of the passageway, but the surrounding details are wrong. No wall sconce. The window too far to the left. Thomas pauses, examining the walls with excruciating care.
Nothing seems out of place. Perhaps this is the wrong hall. The house is needlessly large, after all. He continues walking toward the eastern wing, his eyes searching always. But no matter each crack he examines, nothing indicates the existence of the hidden room.
If he had not woken there that very morning, Thomas would have been more inclined to believe it all a dream, a symptom of his homesickness, loneliness, and the strange facade of the house; its winding corridors, excessive stairwells and massive, vacant rooms.
A house as watchful as Mr. Crozier’s manor had no need for a haunt, when its grinding emptiness was torture enough.
Thomas quickens his pace, feeling exposed and particularly vulnerable now that he was not in the company of Mr. Little or his fellow staff.
The room he had selected for Mr. Little was at the opposite end of the hallway from Crozier’s, and though Thomas doubts that their guest has returned yet, he gives the door a swift knock before trying the knob and finding it unlocked.
The room itself, Thomas chose because it was one of the few rooms that was fully furnished and whose fixtures, while draped in cloth that Thomas had removed the night before Mr. Little arrived, were quaint. A far cry from the heaviness that the rest of the house exuded.
Thomas leaves the tray on a short bureau, his eyes glancing at the bed, fully made, its surrounding canopy open and tied to the posts. Were it not for the addition of a small chest at the foot of the bed, the room appears unoccupied, no different than the evening when Thomas tidied and prepared it for their guest.
The curtains to the room are open, as they were when he aired the space two days ago, and a cheerless gray light spills onto the pale carpet. Drawn like a moth to lamplight, he crosses the room, his hand brushing his hair aside as he walks.
The overcast sky has begun to drizzle, remnants of the night’s storm. From the window, he can see the steep lines of the roof, harsh angles bending and twisting, punctuated by windows of varying sizes and shapes, all dark beady eyes glaring at the surrounding countryside. His eyes are drawn to the far corner of the yard where there sits a monolith of a mossy, cobbled wall. Cut into the wall, almost like an afterthought, there is an arched yellow door, cheerful perhaps at one time, but its paint is faded and chipped, as neglected as the overgrown garden beyond its threshold. It is locked, as far as Bridgens—the keeper of the house’s many keys—is concerned, and there is no desire amongst the house’s inhabitants to find another way into the garden.
Movement in the opposite corner of the yard catches Thomas’s eye, and he is surprised to see Little return, his horse slowing from a canter to a trot. Standing by the window, Thomas is at a vantage, and he cannot help himself from watching as Little dismounts the horse and leads it toward the carriage house. He pauses across the lawn and looks up toward the house, a perplexed expression marring his face. Thomas doubts that he can see him. Nevertheless, he imagines for a moment that their eyes connect, and he reels back from the window, his face coloring. He has stayed here long enough, and he wants to save himself the embarrassment of crossing paths with Mr. Little should the man decide to return to his room.
Thomas checks his watch as he exits Little’s room. It is five after eight, and he hurries to the opposite end of the hall to Crozier’s room. He foregoes knocking and opens the door with care, moving swiftly and soundlessly. The suite is larger than the guest room, and despite the season, there is a low-burning blaze in the grate of the fireplace, casting a gentle light across the carpet. The tea tray lies untouched on a table by the settee, and true to Bridgens’s words, Mr. Crozier lies on his side, facing the window, the blankets pulled up high enough that only the mess of his hair can be seen strewn over his pillow.
Thomas releases a sigh of relief, and he keeps his weight on the balls of his feet as he crosses to Crozier’s bedside. He adjusts the covers where they have tangled under the man’s arms, and he pauses when Crozier stirs. He does not wake, instead rolling onto his back, but there is a crease in his brow that Thomas reaches out to soothe. His skin is warm to the touch, more so than what makes Thomas comfortable. He goes to the basin to wet one of the face cloths he leaves for this very purpose, and as he dampens the linen and folds it into a long rectangle, the line of medicinal bottles on the cabinet catches his eye. One of the bottles is uncapped, half its contents gone.
He reaches over to reads it label, written in Dr. MacDonald’s spidery hand. It is a tonic designed for pain relief and reduction of fever, but given Crozier’s medication before bed, Thomas is baffled how the man was lucid enough to administer himself anything from the array of bottles during the night. He screws the cap back onto the bottle, making a mental note to check Mr. Crozier’s temperature throughout the day, in the event that he need summon the doctor back to house.
Crozier moves again, when Thomas pulls the blankets back and places the wet cloth on his forehead. He mumbles, too slurred and quiet for Thomas to understand, but he runs one hand down the side of Crozier’s head, pushing back the sweat-slicked strands of hair, lingering a moment at the man’s chin as Crozier leans into the touch.
He mutters a single syllable, his tongue too addled by the medication for the noise to be anything more than a groaning exhale. For a moment, Thomas thinks that the man’s eyes squint open, but his brow merely twitches as he repeats the same noise and rolls onto his side. Thomas presses his thumb near Crozier’s hairline to catch the cloth from falling, and he readjusts it, counting the seconds in his head before he removes it.
Crozier’s breathing has calmed and the wrinkles between his eyes have lessened when Thomas removes the cloth, and feeling a surge of familial fondness, Thomas once again tucks the blankets around Crozier’s shoulders. Mr. Crozier will likely sleep the day away, caught in a wave of fatigue, caused by his illness and melancholia. Thomas hangs the cloth over the lip of the basin to dry and begins fixing the room to better accommodate the man’s rest.
He closes the curtains to keep out the brightness of the day and checks the hearth, stoking the coals so that the wood is burning evenly. He stops once more at Crozier’s bedside to pull the bell rope free from where it has caught on the bedframe and leaves it in arm’s reach for Crozier should the man wake and need Thomas’s assistance.
With that, he briskly crosses the room, retrieves the untouched tea tray, and returns to the hall. Unable to stop himself, he spares a single glance down the hall toward Mr. Little’s room, but there is no sign of the other man.
He descends to the kitchen, hearing the murmur of conversation die as he re-enters the room. Bridgens starts when he sees the tray in Thomas hands. Diggle’s mouth frowns in either concern or distaste, but the man has enough sense to turn back to the stove without comment.
“He’s resting for the day. I doubt he’ll wake,” Thomas says as he puts away the sugar and returns the cream to its canister.
“Aye.” Bridgens wipes his hand on the cloth tucked into his apron. “Any place settings for breakfast?”
“Only for Mr. Crozier’s guest.”
“Oh, good, good.” He watches as Thomas pours the lukewarm tea into one of larger clay mugs kept in the kitchen. “Mr. Diggle is finishing the broiled lamb for tonight, and then he’ll be off.”
Diggle grunts at the mention of his name but otherwise adds nothing to the stilted conversation.
“Have you eaten yet, Tom?”
Thomas shakes his head as he hooks the mug around the curve of his thumb and retrieves a tin from the shelf, nestling it into the cradle of his arm. “I’ll be outside for a moment. If Crozier calls, would you find me?”
Bridgens eyes the mug and the tin, frowning in his paternal manner, successful always in making Thomas wilt under his watchful gaze. Thomas makes a point of picking up a slice of bread from a serving platter.
Bridgens’s face relaxes, and his shoulders drop. “Mr. Crozier will be fine, lad. I’ll take care of his needs and only fetch you if he asks.”
Thomas dips his head, a tight smile on his face. The rain has increased outside, and he hurries to the outbuilding near the walled-in garden. It may have served as a conservatory when the house was younger and better kept. Perhaps it was where the missus of the house grew exotic flowers, grandiose ferns, and towering palms. Thomas likes to imagine the afternoon teas that she would host in the humid air, surrounded by the waxy, hothouse flowers, enveloped in their heady perfume.
Now, half the windows are broken, and the skeleton grows nothing but moss and cobwebs. When Thomas first discovered the abandoned greenhouse, he had arranged the iron-wrought furniture toward one corner of the room that was most sheltered from the outdoors, and over his few months as Crozier’s caretaker, he would occasionally hide himself here, close enough to be on beck and call, but far enough from the overbearing musk of the house that Thomas felt he could relax here.
He settles himself in one of the chairs, setting his mug and tin on the table beside him. The rain patters a mellow tune on the metal roof overhead, and Thomas draws one leg to his chest as he sluggishly, almost begrudgingly eats the dry piece of bread, interspersed with sips of tea.
Days such as these are both blessings and curses, he has found. When Crozier is struck by an intense exhaustion, he sleeps for hours on end, and Thomas finds himself at a loss of what to do. He does not wander far in the house, as its many halls wind around themselves like a spiraling maze, so instead, he seeks solace out of doors, despite the average weather being oppressively cold and wet, no matter the season.
Sighing, Thomas abandons the piece of bread on the table to open the tin. He retrieves a square of rolling paper and taps a small mound of tobacco in its center before he expertly rolls it, running his tongue along the edge to seal it. He hisses lightly when he catches the tip of his tongue with the paper, but he ignores the pain, pressing his tongue against the back of his teeth as he holds the cigarette between his lips and lights it with a match. Once it is lit, he leans back on the chair, his legs stretched out before him, and he takes a long inhale, holding the acrid smoke in his lungs for several seconds before releasing the burning breath from his nostrils.
This was a habit he had not intended to bring with him from London, but after only a week spent in the house, the sighing of the walls, the groaning of the roof as it shifted, and the prickling sensation of eyes roving up his neck or fingers tapping against his shoulders, Thomas bought the bundle of tobacco while on a trip to town. When he now hears whispers echoing in empty rooms or walks through a frigid mass of air, or when the creaking in the floors moves in step with him, only a few paces behind him, Thomas an unwilling partner in a macabre march, he retreats from the house and smokes.
The center of his back itches, the memory of the palm imprinted on his skin like a tattoo. He rolls his shoulders, relishing the crackle in his bones, and takes another long inhale.
“My sweet Tommy, you’re a bright one.”
“Just like Nan.”
Sarah Jopson’s voice echoes in his head tonelessly. Faded by the passage of time, he remembers only snippets of his mother’s whispered assurances when he as a child would rush to her side, crying of shadows he had seen on the wall or voices he had heard by the window.
“Will it hurt me?”
“No, love, never. This is a gift. It can never hurt you.”
His fingers tighten on the cigarette, and he taps it against the edge of the table, indifferent as the ashes fall and join the dust on the ground.
She had called it a gift, so he quickly learned to stop speaking of it, whenever he would see something particularly grotesque; men without faces or women in blood-drenched gowns. He, too, called it a gift and learned to look away.
In all the years where he has experienced waking dreams, disembodied voices, or translucent bodies hovering inches over the ground, never has he been threatened so viscerally.
Nothing has ever touched him before.
He taps his foot as he leans forward, setting his forehead in the palm of his hand. The rain falls harder, muting all other noise; the groaning of the house or the rustling of birds in the underbrush.
Thomas does not hear footsteps in the greenhouse until they are short meters away, and the person clears their throat quietly. Thomas jerks up so rapidly that his elbow knocks against the table, tipping over the mug and spilling the tea across its surface.
Little is before him, gripping the edge of his hat with both hands, and he dashes forward to fix the mug as Thomas stands to do the same.
“My apologies, sir,” Thomas says in a rush; “I didn’t hear you.”
A smile plays at Little’s lips. “It’s not even noon, yet you have apologized to me twice today. There is no need.”
Thomas says nothing, managing a polite smile. He fully takes in Little’s appearance, the knee-length boots and dark brown coat, shimmery where raindrops cling to the wool. His hair, despite the hat, frizzes and curls from the rain, but Little seems utterly unaware of his unkempt appearance, with boyish grace that Thomas finds refreshing.
He fingers the near-finished cigarette in his hand before he sighs and extinguishes it in the mug. “Where did you go this morning?”
Little tilts his head. “Go?”
“Mr. Bridgens said you went riding. Did you go into town?”
Little’s face colors, of all things. “No. I was…clearing my head, is all.”
Thomas smiles, more genuinely this time as he sits and begins a new square of rolling paper. “In this weather?”
Little stops fidgeting with his hat and sets it on the table before sitting in the second chair opposite Thomas. “Like I said, it clears my head. I needed to get out of the house.”
Thomas nods, careful with the tip of his tongue as he seals the new cigarette. He pauses when he notices Little’s dark eyes focused on his mouth, and he feels his face blotch. Looking at the table, with the tin and his abandoned tea, he gestures.
“Would you like—?”
Little straightens. “Yes. Thank you.”
Thomas hands him the cigarette and slides the matchbook toward Little as he makes quick work of wrapping another.
“You make that look easy,” Little says, conversationally, the words muffled as brings a lit match close to his face.
Thomas shrugs. “Never been much of a pipe smoker.”
Instead of returning the matches, Little surprises Thomas when he strikes a new one and leans across the small table, holding it with his palm cupped around the flame. Thomas hesitates only a second, but he feels chest tighten with nerves as he uses one hand to hold his cigarette in place and the other to support Little’s wrist. The match is close enough that he feels its warmth against his cheek, but Thomas keeps his eyes down until he leans back. Curiously, Little is also staring intently at the ground while he flicks his wrist to snuff out the flame.
They smoke in silence for the next few minutes, the rain gaining momentum outside. A gust of wind carries some mist into the greenhouse, scattering drops against the side of Thomas’s head which he wipes it away easily. He relishes the clean, cool scent in the air.
Little is the first to break the peaceful quiet. “I fear I was out longer than I intended. The housekeeper Bridgens told me he is still asleep?”
“Yes,” Thomas says, tapping the ashes from the tip of the cigarette; “I doubt he’ll rise for the day. He’s not feeling well.”
Little hums. “And how are you? Any residual effects from last night?
“Just tired, sir.” Thomas hesitates but manages his next question haltingly. “Is there more you can tell me of whatever…haunts Mr. Crozier?”
“No more than I told you last night.” Little rubs at the crease between his brow. “To tell you the truth, I’m not similarly affected by the thing. I have seen it drive others to madness and self-destruction, but so far I’ve been spared. Captain Crozier will have to supply you with more details.”
Thomas feels a shiver run down his back. “And there is no…precaution we can take?”
“Nothing beyond common sense. The housekeeper was kind enough to lend me what keys he had. I’ll start locking off unused wings of the house. Even if we cannot barricade the ghost, we can try to stay close to each other. Which room are you staying in?”
“The floor beneath Mr. Crozier. Near the back stairwell.”
“Good. I’ll lock the western wing and the hall leading north. There should be no reason for any of us to venture there.”
“What of passages in the walls?” Thomas takes a long drag of the cigarette, eyeing the rain thoughtfully. “I mean no disrespect, sir, but if there are more rooms like your hidden study, I doubt locking doors will do much to stop it.”
Little frowns, as he rolls the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. “I fear you’re right, but we must do what we can. I know of a handful of other hidden doorways, and I plan to barricade those as well.”
“You seem very familiar with the manor, sir.”
“Please,” Edward starts, raising his eyes to meet Thomas’s; “call me Edward.”
Straightening where he sits, under the weight of Edward’s intense stare, Thomas meets the challenge, his heart beating wildly. He keeps their eyes locked while he raises the cigarette to his lips, tasting the tobacco through the damp paper as he bites it told hold it in place, his tongue curling around the end.
“Of course, Edward,” he says, before he inhales again, and on the exhale, softly spoken and deliberately enunciated; “pardon me.”
“Asking pardon is awfully close to an apology, Thomas. That would be three today.”
Thomas’s smothered chuckled comes out a snort, and he instantly notes how Edward’s eyes light up at the noise.
“You still haven’t explained why you know Mr. Crozier’s house so well, Edward.”
“Well, that—” Little pauses, mulling the words over. “The house belongs to my family. An uncle of mine built it sometime around the turn of the century. He died before I was born, so I never met the man. But the stories that my parents would tell me; he was an eccentric, reclusive, had a streak of paranoia. He purposely built the house to fit his needs, which no one truly knew save for himself. When he passed, the house went from hand to hand. It’s sat empty for the better part of the last decade.”
Thomas’s cigarette burns nearly to his fingertips, so he douses it in the mug. Edward takes a final drag from his before Thomas offers him the mug as well.
“And Mr. Crozier?” Thomas prompts.
Little heaves a deep sigh. “He was relatively well when we were rescued, more so than the majority of our men, but his health declined in the following months. City life and the constant stress from the Admiralty worsened his condition, so I offered him the chance to get out of London and stay here instead.”
Balking at a level of wealth he knows he will never achieve in his lifetime, Thomas cannot help but ask, “You own the manor yourself?”
“No, the deed is in my father’s name, but,” he hesitates, running a hand through his hair, “the house will more than likely fall to me once my parents pass. My brothers certainly don’t want the property.”
With his hands empty, Thomas feels an itch prickling the skin of his forearms to his fingertips, and he fights the urge to fidget with his trouser legs. There is a brief respite in the rain, having lessened to a weak shower, and with little ceremony, Thomas stands and gathers the contents of the tin.
“Well, if you will excuse me, Edward, it’s time I go back inside. Mr. Bridgens has set up breakfast for you in the dining room, if he did not already tell you.”
Little stands as well, shooting up with such speed that Thomas’s eyes widen slightly.
“He said so, yes.” He eyes the bread on the table, Thomas’s pathetic excuse for a breakfast, but he ignores it in lieu of asking if Thomas has eaten yet and, without waiting for a true answer, inviting Thomas to join him for the remainder of the morning.
Thomas’s heart beats so loudly that it is a wonder that Little cannot hear it.
“Thank you, but I should check on Mr. Crozier,” he smoothly says, “His fever was rather high this morning.”
A polite smile on his face, Little nonetheless looks toward the ground, and Thomas feels an unexpected wash of guilt. He gathers the bread to throw away, half a mind to toss it for the birds to eat, but he figures that would be coarse of him. He bids a quiet goodbye to Little and stops momentarily when Little’s voice catches him at the door.
“Later, then?” Edward drags his eyes up, the very action stiff as though needing a good deal of effort from the man. “You could join me for tea.”
Thomas’s lips work around an answer that he cannot quite voice, but he manages a smile and a nod, satisfactory enough for Little who clutches the hat in his hands. With that final image of Little, looking after him shyly with his hat held before him, a flimsy shield of silk and felt, Thomas hurries back into the kitchen. It is blessedly empty, but far from desiring company, Thomas makes quick work of cleaning the mug before he heads upstairs.
Truthfully, he stops first in Crozier’s room to find the man fast asleep. The droplets of sweat are fewer on his skin to Thomas’s relief. He reminds himself that the doctor will be here in the morning, so as long as he keeps Mr. Crozier’s fever low, all should be well for the day. Nothing else in the room is amiss, but out of habit or lack of any further task, Thomas stokes the fire and sets another log in place before leaving.
In reality, days like these pass like a thick, endless miasma, with precious little for the man to do, and during the tedium, Thomas usually frequents his corner in the greenhouse outside or the library downstairs, with few other alcoves to hide himself. Little’s addition to the household creates a marked change, and the new slant leaves Thomas feeling off-balanced.
He enjoys the man’s attention, if he were to admit the truth to himself. With that truth come sentiments that Thomas has never had to look in the eye previously, so when his path converges with Mr. Little, he is quick to turn a sharp corner away or have a ready excuse on his tongue—anything to escape the man’s intoxicating presence. As the hours of the day pass, Little seems to adjust less to the rhythms of the house and more to the habits of her staff; Bridgens’s steadfast presence in the downstairs corridors, and Thomas’s constant wandering as though he were one her ghostly inhabitants as well.
He monitors the minute hand on his watch with a ruthless vigor, perhaps to convince himself that time still passes, that they have not descended into a bizarre limbo, where they each like Sisyphus push their boulders up his own private hill, endlessly failing, falling, and beginning anew. The sun never shines that day, though Thomas is hardly surprised as sunlight is as rare as strangers in their isolated corner of the countryside.
Evening comes at last, and the weak summer daylight peeks through the murky windows, painting the ceilings of the cavernous rooms a dusty, sickly yellow. Mr. Bridgens was gone for the evening, as well as Mr. Diggle, so Thomas stores the day’s barely touched meals into the cabinets and icebox, to be reheated for the next day. After quickly eating a small portion of days-old soup, Thomas finishes his routine with a final check-up of Crozier.
He opens the man’s bedroom door with some difficulty, his arms full with fresh linens and his lamp, as the house is fast descending into the dark of night. He sets the basket by the bed and the lamp on the dresser, and Crozier stirs when Thomas lays his hand on the man’s shoulder. He is pliant enough to placidly follow Thomas’s direction to sit up, and he manages half the walk to the chamber pot as Thomas busies himself with changing the bedsheets. As he sits on the privy, Crozier asks him the time and the day, confusing the poor weather for a winter storm.
“No, sir, it’s only Thursday and summer yet.” Thomas folds back a corner of the quilt before going to Crozier’s side, helping him clean himself and change his nightshirt before leading him back to the bed.
“Mr. Little’s asked after you, sir,” Thomas adds, “He arrived two days past if you recall.”
Crozier’s eyes open beyond slits as he lies his head back against the downy pillow, and he swallows, nodding ever so slightly.
“Yes,” he mumbles, “I remember now. He will know what to do.”
Frowning at the cryptic words, his curiosity and fear merging into a single raging storm between the harpstrings of his ribcage, Thomas leans close.
“What does he know to do, sir?” Thomas’s hand curls into the sleeve of Crozier’s shirt. “What can he do?”
“I can’t make things right. Not now,” Crozier says with a moaning despair, his eyes sliding shut once more. “It’s too late. I’m too late.”
He repeats the word: late, a despondent chant that morphs into a whine the more he tosses in his bed. Thomas fears that he is in pain or that the fever has returned, but as he rubs the man’s shoulders and shushes him, some of the tension melts from Crozier. He falls into an uneasy slumber, and Thomas stares at him helplessly. He takes his lamp from bedside table and tiptoes out the room, conscious to shut the heavy door silently behind him.
“Is he sleeping?”
Thomas gasps, his hand still on the doorknob. Little’s voice is barely more than a whisper, and embarrassed that he jumped, Thomas smiles through the heat on his face and turns toward the direction of Little’s room.
The words die on his tongue. Little is not behind him, nor anywhere to be seen in the short hallway. The door to his guestroom, only two rooms down, is closed. Thomas frowns, knowing for certain that he heard the man’s voice and would not have mistaken it.
Thomas takes a step toward his door. It unlatches and opens just a crack, enough that a sliver of darkness is outlined between the door and wall. Thomas’s throat feels tight, but he cannot think this is the same creature as last night.
It cannot be.
Thomas stops moving, even as the door creeps open another inch. Someone is breathing heavily, though Thomas cannot be sure if the gasps are coming from him, the crack in the door, or the house itself. His feet are grounded, frozen in place as though roots have sprouted from the soles of his feet into the wood and carpet underneath. The glass and metal in his hand rattles as tremors rack Thomas’s body.
He wills enough courage to utter meekly, “Edward?”
A faltering, guttural growl snakes from the door, a choked noise like someone learning to speak after years of silence.
“Thomas, is he sleeping?”
Thomas whips his head back toward Crozier’s room where Little stands, dressed down to his shirtsleeves, his coat draped over his arm. He jerks his chin toward Crozier’s door and gives Thomas an understanding smile.
“Well, he can rest easy knowing that we’re doing what we can to batten down the hatches. So they say.”
The words sound distant, as though Thomas is trying to overhear a conversation spoken in the next room, but as Little's eyes glitter warmly at him, Thomas feels more at ease. His heart still pounds in his chest, but his breathing slows.'
The smile slips from Edward’s face.
“Are you all right, Thomas?” He steps close enough to place his hand over Thomas’s elbow. “You look pale.”
“I’m perfectly fine, thank you,” he says, glancing over his shoulder toward the guest room.
The door is shut. No cracks. No shadows.
“Well, be sure to rest up yourself.” Edward pauses, squeezing Thomas’s arm through his sleeve. “No more nighttime walks, I hope?”
Thomas smiles feebly at the mild worry in Edward’s voice. “I don’t intend to leave my room unless Mr. Crozier himself calls me.”
“Good.” Edward nods, eyes narrowing as he stares at Thomas’s face longer. “And you’re—you’re certain you’re all right?”
The hairs on his arms and neck stand stiff. Thomas nods nonetheless.
“Yes, Edward. I’m all right.”
His answer suffices for the moment, and Thomas can do nothing else but watch as Edward opens the door to the guest room. Their eyes meet one final time, and Edward dips his head bashfully before pulling the door shut.
Hurrying to his own room, the lamp slipping in his sweaty palm, Thomas finds himself exhausted to the bone but undesirous of sleep.
His walk the evening prior had not been a conscious decision but rather the actions of a man in a hypnotic trance. Thomas would be lying to himself if he said aloud that he is not afraid. He does not know what triggered the trance, and he worries that his body will go against his wishes again.
As he changes into his nightclothes, he presses the flat of his palm against his mother’s locket, the metal warmed against his bare skin. Her gentle words as he had embraced her the night before he left London, ring in his ears, echoing as he undresses.
“All will be fine, Tommy.”
He draws the curtains tight across the window, making sure it is shut, despite the missing lock.
“Come back soon. I will be here.”
He extinguishes the lamp, the remaining illumination coming solely from a lit candle beside his bed. Dressed down to his nightshirt and socks, he leaves the locket around his neck, feeling a sudden unwanted wave of melancholy. He pulls the covers up to his neck, turning onto his side toward the candle, blinking back a sudden swell of tears.
“I love you, Tommy. My special boy.”
He blows the candle out, and squeezing his eyes against the sudden darkness of the room, it is a kindness that sleep comes quickly.
His dreams are vivid, as they are every night, but there is a quality to them this night that heightens every color, every sound, every motion as though Thomas were under a magnifying glass and a great eye witnessing him.
He is home in London, his brother crying as the little boy tries to clean up the broken tea cup on the floor. Thomas rushes to help him, wanting to comfort his distress, but every piece of porcelain crumbles in his hands like dust. His brother’s wails grow louder and louder, and Thomas works faster, each attempt as futile as the last.
A clock chimes, deafening and monstrous. The windows of their home rattle, and Thomas looks up. He blinks, and he is standing on a riverbank, muddy water up to his knees. He smells rain in the air, and the horizon is gloomy from an approaching storm cloud, even as he feels the dry oven heat of the sun looming behind his back and smearing the buildings across the river in a sinister, blinding orange. Lightning branches through the clouds like an enormous spiderweb, veinal and bloody like floss threaded taut through black velvet.
Something slithers past his feet in the water, but when he cries out in surprise and falls back, strong arms catch him, someone chuckling in his ear.
A dog barks. A woman cries. Thunder rumbles.
He blinks, and he is in a tiny bedroom, smaller even than the closet he shared with his brother as a child. The arms circled around him are tight in their embrace, and one of the hands rubs gentle circles on his back. His cheek is pressed to their chest, and lulled by the beating of their heart, Thomas feels a sudden, aching warmth.
The room shifts about them, and Thomas starts to sit up in a panic before he realizes that the small room is on a ship. It is only the lulling rock of waves that moves the room and the man with whom he lies. Warm hands beckon him back into the embrace, and Thomas finds himself helpless to resist the roaming hands and trailing kisses along his neck. He sighs, feeling arousal pool in his stomach.
He feels a calloused hand cup his face, and Thomas leans into the contact as the man whispers.
My love, let me see you.
He knows that voice.
He opens his eyes, mouth falling open in surprise.
Speaking allows the viscous, poisonous air—thick as filthy riverwater—to rush into his mouth, choking him. A heavy weight falls against his back, the sudden pressure knocking the wind from his lungs, and large hands close around his throat, crushing the tendons with unforgiving strength. The image of Crozier dissolves into mist, and the room falls away, leaving nothing but a black expanse surrounding him. As he writhes under the suffocating weight, he turns enough to see an enormous, shadowed figure standing over him. Thomas claws desperately at the grip at his neck, his eyes smarting. He wheezes, the noise croaking from him even as his vision begins to blur, and pain smarts along his neck as he feels something thin and sharp cutting into the tender skin.
Faintly, through the ringing of his ears, he hears sobbing, a drawn out wail as horrifying and plaintive as wind whistling through the trees.
He feels consciousness slipping from him, and with tremendous effort, he clutches at his mother’s locket, a whimper escaping him. With no warning, as abrupt as it began, the hands on his neck lift. Thomas sits upright in bed, coughing violently, tears streaming down his face as he rubs at his neck. He jerks his hand away as he feels something wet and sticky on his fingers. Stumbling from the bed, he tries to light a candle, his unsteady hands missing the wick three times before it takes the flame, and in the sudden glow, Thomas sees blood coating his fingers and running a messy trail down the front of his shirt.
The pain in his neck becomes apparent, now that he can breathe. Gingerly, he touches the skin where the chain of the locket rubbed it raw. He hisses as he unlatches it and pulls bits of the chain away from the slowly oozing cuts.
A sudden chill descends upon the room, and Thomas realizes with mounting horror that the curtain he had tied shut earlier is open, the window creaking as it sways in the wind.
Hurriedly, with a set to his teeth and eyes, his focus the only thing keeping him from succumbing to blind panic, he retrieves the extra candles in the cabinet, lighting each of them and arranging them around the room so that there is not a single dark corner left. He shuts the window again, securing the curtain once more. Unsatisfied with the curtain being the only protection, he shoulders the wardrobe – the largest piece of furniture, practically unused by him – and shoves it in front of the window, blocking it as best as he can.
He sits in the center of the bed, pulling the blanket tight around himself. He checks his watch, shocked to see how late in the night it already is when the dream itself felt only minutes. Resting his head in his shaking hands, tucking himself onto his bent knees, he sees Crozier’s face – younger, clean-shaven, and less lined.
Thomas feels a certain amount of affection for the man, yes, but the dream felt different, an intimacy unfamiliar to Thomas, that felt dangerously like an invasion of something private. He remembers the looming dark figure, and as he shudders, his eye frantically follow the flickering light of each candle. He marks their progress as the flames eat away at the beeswax, and Thomas watches the walls and shadows for anything abnormal, anything unwanted.
He is alone. Agitation wins over the exhaustion, and he watches the candles, moving only to relight them when they flicker too strongly or to right them when they threatened to tip over.
His eyes burn and water, but no more tears fall.
“Will it hurt me?”
He pulls the blanket tight around his shoulders. He wills that the morning come with haste, before the last candle sputters out, before the thing forces him to retreat back to the maze of halls and windows outside his bedroom door.
“No, love, never.
This is a gift.
It can never hurt you.”
Chapter 3: chapter 3
they prepare for the doctor's visit.
as always, thanks to everyone reading this ❤️❤️
and tons of gratitude to vegetas for beta reading this chapter!
I know 'tis but a dream, yet feel more anguish
than if 'twere truth. it has been often so:
must I die under it? is no one near?
will no one hear these stifled groans and wake me?
samuel taylor coleridge
They grow like mold, limbs too long, heads bulbous and alien, on the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Like an infestation of roaches, one by one, the black marks litter the room with their filth as Thomas keeps vigil at his bed. Like paper dolls cut from black wool, they watch, eyeless and indifferent while he maintains the candles like the keeper of a lighthouse and while he tends the wounds on his neck. Time slithers by on a knife’s edge when he dresses and when he shaves away the growth on his cheeks, the razor trembling in his fingers, one eye always watching the walls for any sign of danger.
When he is not staring directly at the figures, they shift, hazy like mirages. The hours creep by, and Thomas’s eyes burn from the strain of watching, staring, waiting.
He is on his final candle when the dawn peeks around the edges of the wardrobe by the window. Thomas wastes not a second, and he travels the worn path up the stairs to the third floor. The journey itself lasts mere minutes, but every step he takes is akin to walking ankle-deep in mud, flies buzzing in and round his ears as whistling hunters haunt his every move, the stalking of their prey a joyful, dreadful game.
Thomas remembers to breathe again as he passes the short distance between Crozier’s room and Mr. Little’s, and the suffocating atmosphere of the hall devours the noise of his knuckles rapping against the door. He prays that Little is awake, belatedly realizing the man may not be in his room.
The hairs on his neck rise the longer he stands in the early morning darkness of the hall. He is hyper aware of the height of the ceilings and the wealth of shadows it hosts; its myriad spider eyes craning and peering with vicious curiosity at this frail butterfly caught in their web.
He raises his hand to knock again when he hears shuffling on the other side of the door.
The door opens with a rusty groan, and both men flinch when they come face-to-face; Little, struck by Thomas's bloodied and haggard state, and Thomas, surprised that Little was in the guest room and, judging by the pink crease along his cheek and rumpled clothes, had been asleep.
“Pardon me, Mr. Little,” Thomas breathes, distrustful of his voice, of any noise disturbing the thick air of the halls; “Edward.”
The bleariness vanishes from Little’s eyes, widening a fraction as they study the vibrant red lines criss-crossing on Thomas’s pale neck. The sting from the cuts has faded, the salve Thomas applied earlier having alleviated the pain.
Little gapes, mouth opening and closing, but Thomas interrupts before he can say anything.
“I’m sorry to disturb you this early, sir,” Thomas says, the words trudging mechanically from him, exhaustion pinching every nerve in his skin, “but I need to show you something.”
“Thomas, are you quite all right?”
Thomas shakes his head, not even registering the question, the look in his eyes nearly wild. Vaguely, he is aware of the sight he must be.
“Please,” he says, as he turns heel and walks back to the stairwell.
Without looking, he knows that Little follows. Despite the heavy carpeting, Thomas can feel — perhaps supernaturally so — the gentle rhythm of the man’s footsteps after the click of his door. The pace of his feet, solid and firm, helps to calm the fluttering of Thomas’s heart, its beat erratic with fatigue and fear. He breathes harshly through his nostrils, his jaw clenching, then unclenching when his teeth begin to grind.
Behind him, Little is silent and says not a word more until they are at Thomas’s door. It is then that his hand encloses Thomas’s elbow. His eyes are alert, the drowsiness from earlier replaced with acute concern.
“Thomas, what happened? Your neck looks terrible.”
“It’s the same as before,” Thomas dully replies. “I believe it's getting worse.”
He momentarily squeezes his hand on top of Little’s before he opens his door, and with a soft please and an inclination of his head, he stands aside and lets Little enter first.
Little’s shoulders press back as he goes rigid, his head slowly swiveling from side to side as he takes in the disarray of the room. The curtains billow around the edge of the wardrobe with every gust of wind; the gossamer fabric reaching like long pale fingers, clawing and scratching at the wood. Every flat surface on furniture or the floor is covered in used candles. Little sidesteps some of the tipped candles and their dried waxy pools to better examine the markings on the wall.
“Thomas, did these…” His voice trails.
“They appeared during the night,” Thomas explains as he steps into the room.
The shock of the blackened apparitions has not faded. Thomas feels weight in his stomach as he and Little assess each silhouette, the things distorted and burnt like the ugly remnants of a fire charring the unpapered walls.
There must be a dozen at least, lining the walls and ceilings. Some look to be standing, at attention and arms to their sides. Others appear in motion, arms raised, crossed, in threatening and warlike stances. Some are kneeling or curled in upon themselves, as though these spectral haunts are in great, grievous pain.
Thomas hugs himself, shuddering, and his reddened eyes water, from exhaustion and the frustrated threat of tears. He feels safer with Little at his side, instead of being separated from the house's other inhabitants by numerous walls, stairs, and locked doors. There are too many secrets, too many jeering whispers, oozing from each floorboard and doorknob that Thomas is grateful that he has the solidity of Little's presence to keep him calm.
“At first, I thought that they were a trick of the light,” Thomas says; “but they kept appearing, one after another, over the span of a few hours.”
Little looks at him. “In the evening or—”
“More the early hours of the morning.” At Little’s concerned expression, Thomas gives a strained smile. “I hardly slept last night.”
Little approaches him, one hand gingerly lifting Thomas’s chin to gauge the damage on his neck.
“And this? Did the…thing do this to you?”
“In a manner of speaking. Something choked me while I slept. I was wearing a chain. Foolish of me, really. I normally remove it at night.”
“Does the doctor visit today?”
Thomas removes his chin from Little’s grip. “Sir, please, I’m all right now...”
“Nonsense,” Little sharply interrupts, giving Thomas pause. “You were alone. It could have killed you.”
Little stops himself, frowning fiercely as he moves his heated gaze from Thomas’s face to the floor. The intensity of Little's anxiety cuts into Thomas, and he feels his face growing warm.
“It is growing stronger,” Little says, his voice soft even as the furrow between his brow deepens, “and I cannot guarantee your safety. I don't even know if Captain Crozier or I will leave this unscathed. But you are an innocent in this, and I won't idly stand by and watch it attack you.”
“Edward,” Thomas murmurs, moved by the man’s passion. “If it’s all the same to you, sir, I wish to help.”
Little winces at the statement, his eyes widening in shock as he looks at Thomas. “This is not your monster nor your battle. You cannot be serious.”
“I’m not a damsel, sir,” Thomas snaps, exhaustion fraying his nerves and patience. “I’m perfectly capable.”
Deflated, Little's voice is soft. “I would never call you incapable, Thomas.” He shifts on his feet, grimacing. “I only want to give you the chance to leave while you can.”
Thomas draws to his full height, and when Little meets his gaze, Thomas shakes his head, his lips set. “I will not leave Mr. Crozier.” Nor you, his mind adds insidiously; the emotion which evoked such a thought wriggling in the unnurtured space behind Thomas’s heart.
To Thomas’s surprise, Little smiles — a quavering, unsure thing, but a smile nonetheless.
“Of course, Thomas. I shan’t force you.” He gives a Thomas a shrewd look, the smiling widening ever so slightly. “He thinks the world of you, if you do not know. I’m beginning to understand why.”
Thomas lowers his head, the compliment bringing an unexpected lump to his throat as he finds the words to respond. “Mr. Crozier is too kind, I assure you.”
Graciously, Little turns away, allowing Thomas to compose his face. He leans close to the wall and reaches his hand to brush a finger against one of the ashy silhouettes, where it tarnishes the wall by the bed.
“It won’t come off,” Thomas says, watching Little’s movement.
Little’s fingers hesitate an inch from the wood before he places his finger against the mark and traces part of the outline.
“It feels a part of the grain itself,” he muses. “Hardly a difference in texture from the wall.”
Thomas stands beside him, crossing his arms, unwilling to touch the shadows again. “It’s like they sprouted from the wood.”
“There is a slight tackiness,” Little says, pulling his hand away and rubbing the pads of his fingers together. “Like sap.”
Thomas makes a non-committal noise. “I can’t help but fear they are….alive, somehow.” He starts, a chill tingling down his spine. “Do you believe more of these appeared in the house?”
Little moves his hand away. “I cannot presume anything of this creature’s habits or abilities, Thomas.”
His matter-of-fact tone belies the fear churning beneath his words, and Thomas quickly excuses himself and heads for the door, frantically pawing at his clothes, his breath coming in harried gulps.
Little’s voice trails after him, “Thomas?”
Nothing can deter Thomas as he races to Crozier’s bedchamber. How foolish he feels, now, nestled in the semblance of safety that daytime provides, that he has not once worried for the man in his care. He bites down a curse as he reaches the door and pushes it open.
Thomas sighs a breath of relief when he finds the room how he left it the previous night.
Crozier is propped against a mound of pillows, a book in his lap and the oil lamp beside him lit. He looks up to Thomas’s barging through the door, both eyebrows raised high on his forehead.
“Thomas,” he says, his voice strong and full of humor, betraying no sign of his earlier illness, “you look as if you’ve got the devil at your back. What is it, lad?”
Thomas hurries to his bedside. “Nothing important, sir. I was going to check your fever.” He presses the inside of his wrist to Crozier’s forehead and neck. “Cool to touch. Dr. MacDonald will be pleased.”
“Aye, that man may yet summon me from my deathbed,” Crozier jokes, though it hardly deters the rapid beating of Thomas’s heart.
“Would you like the curtains open, sir?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Crozier reaches to lower the wick of his lamp as Thomas draws back the curtains. Dull morning light spills through the window from a cheerless, overcast sky. Thomas returns to his side, securing the canopies to the bedposts and tying them.
“Would you like your breakfast in bed?” Thomas asks as he adjusts the blankets at the foot of the bed. “I can bring it with your tea.”
Crozier sets his book on the bedside table, smiling fondly at Thomas. “You spoil me, lad. But yes, that’ll do. I don’t trust my legs enough for stairs yet.”
Thomas smiles, bobbing his head. His collar falls open, and Crozier’s mouth falls open when his eyes settle on the raw cuts marring Thomas’s neck.
Little’s arrival at the bedroom door silences any worry from Crozier’s tongue, but his eyes follow Thomas as he pops up the fabric of his collar and crosses the room to meet Little.
“Edward,” Crozier says, a thin smile on his face, “it was not my intent to greet your arrival by languishing in bed, but these things have a way of happening.”
Little flounders. His eyes flit from Thomas to Crozier, before they drop to the floor. He inclines his head, shoulders and arms stiff.
“It was no inconvenience, sir. I’m glad to see you better. Shall we—"
“I’ll return with your breakfast, sir,” Thomas coolly says, maneuvering past Little. At Little’s questioning look, he drops his voice, more out of courtesy to Crozier than any real secrecy, “Dr. MacDonald will arrive promptly at nine this morning. We can talk with Mr. Cozier about…everything, once the doctor leaves.”
Raising his voice once more, “Is there anything particular you desire, sir? I doubt Mr. Diggle has finished cooking breakfast yet.”
“Nothing more than his usual fare, Thomas.”
“Very good, sir.”
His eyes meets Little’s before Thomas drops his gaze and returns to the hall. The shadows itch along his skin, and in a burst of panicked energy, Thomas briskly walks to where one of the tall windows is curtained and draws back the heavy drapes. Rain, again, but the scant daylight is preferable to the tangible darkness of the house. Thomas hears the soft vibration of Little’s voice saying one thing more; the words lost in the house’s maze of thick walls and carpets, and, much like a shepherd’s dog without a flock to herd, Little exits Crozier’s room and follows close on Thomas’s heel.
Thomas sends a questioning look over his shoulder, at which Little blanches and ducks his head, mumbling something about not leaving you alone again. The sentiment is sweet, if a bit opaque in its intentions. Thomas shakes his head to rid himself of any notion that Little’s protectiveness may mask ulterior motive.
He cannot harbor any resentment to Mr. Little, and the longer he is in Little’s company, Thomas cannot recall how he had found the man intimidating when he first arrived. Looking at him now, Thomas sees the quiet uncertainty in Little’s posture, the angled slope of his shoulders when some unspoken concern makes him sigh. His stoicism conceals a depth that Thomas has only now begun to fathom. Little’s dark eyes land on his face, interrupting Thomas’s scrutiny. Thomas turns away, clearing his throat.
“I know it’s early,” he says, desiring nothing more than to fill the silence between them as they descend the stairs toward the kitchen, “but I’ll feel better after some tea, myself.”
Behind him, Little makes a noise of agreement. At the kitchen door, Thomas pauses when he sees an unfamiliar figure, narrow-shouldered and short-haired, standing hazy in the dark kitchen. Silhouetted by the nearby fire and cooking stove, the figure is motionless as the seconds drag, Thomas staring unblinkingly. He glances at the lantern in the corner near the dim windows, thinking he may grab it and cast light on this bizarre apparition, to convince himself that it is only a trick of the eyes and not…
Can the figures remove themselves from the wall, free to roam the halls of the house, same as he?
Thomas gasps when Little’s rests his hand on his shoulder.
The figure in the kitchen turns, and relief sweeps through Thomas when he sees a ruddy, bearded face peering back.
“Oh!” the young man starts, from where he had been keeping vigilance over a pan of frying fish. “Begging your pardon, sir, John just stepped out.”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. You’re…” Thomas’s voice trails as he steps fully into the kitchen. “Peglar, is it? John has spoken of you.”
Peglar’s face lights up in an easy grin. “Aye, sir. You must be Mr. Jopson?”
“The same,” Thomas says. “Is Mr. Diggle here?”
Shaking his head, Peglar turns back to the pan, carefully flipping the filets. “His wife is doing poorly today.”
“Is it the baby?”
“John thinks so.”
The unexpected presence of Mr. Peglar is a soothing boon, and Thomas relaxes enough to begin making tea. Little hovers by the door, half-standing in the hall, his hands fidgeting with his coat pockets. Thomas feels a twinge of sympathy. He goes to the door, taking Little’s hand and pulling him into the kitchen.
Peglar speaks over his shoulder, “I hope that you don’t mind fish, Mr. Jopson. It’s fresh. Caught it myself only yesterday—“
His words stammer when he sees Thomas guiding Little toward a stool. Peglar gawks, the sudden presence of a gentleman in the kitchen amongst the servants knocking him off-balance.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Peglar repeats the same words from earlier.
“Never mind that, Peglar,” Thomas says, his hand lingering at Little’s elbow, “Edward is a friend. There’s no need for formalities.”
Thomas does not fail to notice how Little tenses and breathes in sharply at his introduction, but there is no discomfort on Little’s face, save a dusky blush at the tips of his ears and across the bridge of his nose. Little tries, failing miserably, to give Peglar a reassuring smile, but his effort is enough to put Peglar at ease and to utterly charm Thomas.
“I promise to stay out of your way,” Little says, the words directed more to the floor than either Thomas or Peglar.
“You’re fine here,” Thomas says, overlapping with Peglar’s cheerful not to worry, sir.
Peglar laughs, his eyes meeting Thomas’s. Little seems embarrassed by the attention to his person, but as Peglar goes back to his cooking and Thomas to his kettle and tea cups, he relaxes on the stool.
Bridgens enters, saving the trio from more stilted conversation; the man’s aura exuding such a strong amiability that any gloom in the kitchen is immediately eradicated. Bridgens grins happily when Thomas tells of he and Peglar’s introduction, and he swoops in to assist Peglar in the finishing touches of breakfast. Thomas notices Bridgens’s hand hovering by Peglar’s hip before he rests it fully on the small of his back. Bridgens has lowered his voice as he gives Peglar instructions of which serving bowls to grab, which utensils. He calls him Harry with such warmth and familiarity that Thomas feels his heart clench. He drops his eyes, concentrating on the tea leaves as he pours the water over the strainer, the swirls of golden liquid filling the teapot.
Sneaking a glance to Little, curious if he has also noticed the friendliness between Bridgens and Peglar, a part of him nervous to see if Little is disgusted by such an affectionate display, Thomas stops when he realizes that Little’s attention is squared fully on him.
The lid of the teapot lands with a sharp clatter. A muscle in Thomas’s cheek twitches, but he otherwise doesn’t wince at the noise.
“John, Mr. Crozier will take breakfast upstairs, ” Thomas says, an unwanted quaver in his voice making him frown, “Would you make a plate up for him?”
“Of course,” Bridgens answers, as he spoons up a generous portion.
Keeping his eyes firmly on his laden tray, Thomas adjusts the cup on its saucer so he may fit Crozier’s breakfast. With practiced grace, he hoists the tray onto his palm in time to see Bridgens handing a pair of full plates to Little, to whom he gives a conspiratorial wink.
Thomas thinks nothing of the exchange until he steps outside the kitchen and is stopped by Little’s voice.
Little stands there, the porcelain plates poised in his hands at chest-level. He looks strikingly young, Thomas thinks, when his eyebrows are not furrowed.
“My invitation from yesterday still stands, if you would like to join me for breakfast.”
Not wanting to be alone, not finding Little quite as aloof and frightening as he had when the man arrived, Thomas nods. “Yes. That would be nice.”
A surprised smile lights up Little’s face brilliantly, an image that burns itself into Thomas’s memory and serves to hasten his steps to Crozier’s room with his meal. Crozier is limber enough that he only needs partial help as he dresses.
His eyes, however, are glassy and distant, his earlier cheer disappearing into the mire of his melancholy. Thomas feels his throat clench as he retrieves his necktie.
“Did you sleep well, sir?” he ventures, taking no offense when Crozier lightly swats his hands away so that he may tie the cravat himself.
“As well as I can,” Crozier admits with a withering sigh.
He attempts a smile, his face still pale from his sickly episode. His eyes linger on Thomas’s neck, and Thomas has to resist the urge to fidget with his collar.
“I dreamt of old friends,” Crozier says, a wistful tone in his voice. “It’s both a pleasure and a torture.”
Thomas nods, returning Crozier’s tenuous smile. He arranges his breakfast on the desk.
“Is there anything else you need before the doctor arrives?”
“No,” Crozier says as he settles at the desk, “You’ve done plenty. Give yourself the morning. You look worse than I do.”
Thomas bites his tongue, his lips pursing before he gives a shallow nod. “Thank you, sir.”
As he returns to the hall, Thomas tightens the knock on his kerchief to better secure his collar, hissing when the fabric brushes against the raw skin. Near the stairs, he walks through an icy cold draft. He pauses, glancing over his shoulder to see if the window nearest him is open. The curtains are parted, as Thomas had left it earlier. Only light spills from the dusty panes. Thomas ignores the chill and continues down the stairwell, the exhaustion catching up with him, weighing down each of his limbs.
He hesitates near his bedroom. He left his mother’s locket, since he could not wear it without aggravating the scratches on his neck. However, he feels ill at ease without it, the small token anchoring him in day-to-day life as he floats through the house’s odd habits.
A well-deserved spike of fear courses through him when he lays his hand on the doorknob, but pride overpowers him and stamps the fear down. Retrieving the locket, more specifically the velveteen box holding it, will take seconds at most. Nothing can happen in that short amount of time.
He opens the door, and far more than chill stops his breath. The shadows are gone. A lone figure remains, standing erect by the window, as formidable as a watch dog. Thomas’s stomach clenches, heart beating fast, and he hastens to his bedside cabinet.
Were it not for the lingering figure standing in the corner and Edward’s examination of the figures this very morning, Thomas would have thought the shadows were the result of his insomnia, some twisted hallucination. He stashes the jewelry box into his trouser pocket, scanning the room for any sign of the other figures, but he finds none. He regrets having no exact count of the shadows, all rational thought lost to the stupor of his sleepless, anxious night.
Something moves in the corner of his eye. Thomas whips his head to stare at the figure by the window.
It is motionless, but fear is tricking Thomas’s senses into believing that it has shifted, farther from the wardrobe blocking the window, closer to the corner of the room where the walls intersect, and where it could have crawled over plaster and woodgrain to inch closer to Thomas.
Thomas takes a step backwards. He feels eyes upon him from all directions, crawling over his skin. He hurries from the room, his hand clenched tight around the velveteen box in his pocket.
As he reaches the hall beside the kitchen, he realizes too late that Little is likely in the breakfast room on the ground floor opposite the kitchen. It would have made more sense for him to have gone to the center of the house and descend the main staircase than to continue his habitual path of the servants’ stairwell in the back.
Bridgens hears him approaching, however, and stops Thomas before he can return to the main hall.
“Thomas,” he says, wiping his hands on his apron, “Mr. Little is set up in the parlor just up from here. The small one. He told me he’s already locked up the entire western wing, so he won’t be taking meals in the dining hall for now.”
Thomas blinks, slow to understand. His gaze flicks past Bridgens to see Peglar moving a large iron pot from the stove to the counter.
He thanks Bridgens, too far gone in his thoughts to notice the warmth in Bridgens’s face or the twinkle in his eye as he continues down the hall, turning to his left, travelling the short distance to the unused parlor.
The parlor faces north and is dismally shadowed. Its two lonely windows are like a pair of baleful, glassy eyes monitoring the inhabitants of the room like a stodgy sister in her habit; her piercing gaze ever watchful of misconduct. The room’s bleakness is offset by garish red couches and a golden brown pianoforte stationed by the marble fireplace. The room has a delicate, feminine air which leads Thomas to wonder, not for the first time, if the manor’s original owner had attempted to make the house comfortable for his wife, tried to lessen the immensity of the heavy stonework and too-tall ceilings with flowers, lush carpets, and pretty tiles in the washrooms.
Sitting on the table are their two plates and a ceramic vase of recently picked wildflowers, little bundles of lacy blooms and thorny leaves. Past the table and blindingly bright sofas sits Little at the pianoforte, his head bowed over the ivory keys as he single-handedly presses a few isolated notes that each waver into the stillness of the room like a question.
“Do you play, Mr. Little?”
Little starts, but he keeps his hand from hitting the keys, his fingers curling into a loose fist as he looks over his shoulder.
“No,” he says shortly, “but my sister does.”
He turns back to the keyboard, and Thomas seats himself on the side of the table nearest the pianoforte. He glances momentarily at the food, his interest more invested in Little than breakfast.
Little’s fingers draw out a hesitant, simplistic tune; one off-key stumble sneaking into the middle of it, Little quick to correct the offensive note.
“She tried to teach me, when we were children,” he says, voice distant as he attempts the same tune again, faster and with more grace; “She had a natural affinity for it and played beautifully. I didn’t take to it as well.” He chuckles, a sniff more than a laugh, and he splays his fingers across the white and black keys. “Then I joined the Navy, went to sea, and promptly forgot everything she taught me.”
“Are you close?” Thomas asks, thinking of his own brother.
“Yes, but what with my career and her own family, I haven’t seen her in years.” Little begins the melody again but stops mid-tune, his dark eyes peeking over his shoulder at Thomas, a smile playing at his lips. “You’re not hiding some grand talent of music and watching me make a fool of myself, are you?”
“No, never,” Thomas replies, picking up his fork and spearing one of the potatoes on his plate, “though my brother had a penchant for using our mother’s pots as drums.”
The laugh that pulls out of Little makes Thomas’s heart flutter.
“A musician in his own right,” he jokes as he joins Thomas at the table, grabbing the back of his chair and moving it close to Thomas.
“Or a terror, as the neighbors would say,” Thomas says, chewing his food slowly, staring at his plate as if fascinated by the blue painted landscape and peoples circling the rim. “My mother neither encouraged or discouraged. I suppose that was negligent of her.”
“Was it just you and your brother?”
“We kept our mother busy.” Thomas smiles around his fork. “And you?”
Little puts away the food easily, scraping up the crumbs with his fork and bread. “There are twelve of us, including myself.”
Thomas balks at the number.
“Your poor mother,” he says before he can stop himself.
Little barks a laugh at that. “No need to worry for her, Thomas. She has as loud a voice and as sharp a hand as she has a large, loving heart. She runs her household as efficiently as a captain runs his ship.”
“Would Mr. Crozier agree, you think?”
“Alas, he knows of my mother through legend alone.”
“And your father?”
At this, Little sobers; a smile still in place but much more subdued than earlier. “He passed, while our ship was beset in ice and our expedition proclaimed lost by newspapermen and the Admiralty alike. I learned of his death when I returned home.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Little shakes his head. “It was illness, unexpected and swift. I was told he died peacefully, my mother and several of my siblings at his side. There are certainly worse ways to die.” His plate clean, he picks up his glass, peering thoughtfully at the drink. “You also neglected to mention a father.”
Thomas swipes at his hair, sitting back, abandoning his half-eaten breakfast to nurse his cooling cup of tea.
“I never met the man,” he says, pausing to take a small sip from the cup. “My mother remarried, and my stepfather died when my brother was a babe. He also died suddenly and unexpectedly.”
“It was something in his brain. We heard him fall from the other room, and when my mother went to see what was wrong, he was already dead.”
Little’s face is pale in horror. The impact of the story is lost on Thomas, its tragedy faded enough that the retelling of it evokes nothing more than a dull twinge of grief. Bill Jopson bestowed upon Thomas his name and a short eighteen months of domestic bliss. Thomas feels toward him the disinterest of a child observing a stranger, his own sadness swayed more by the suffering inflicted upon his mother, alone and saddled with the care of two small boys.
“I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for you,” Little finally says.
“Mother bore the brunt of it, and I was old enough to work.”
“You were a child.”
“Yes,” Thomas agrees, with nothing else to add.
The distance between each of their childhoods is immense, a clear divide that Thomas has navigated his whole life, serving men and women who exist in the lap of luxury, eating and drinking and wearing things that Thomas would never dream to own. Little is only now realizing it, and Thomas regrets the reminder of the myriad differences separating them. Little has treated him as an equal, much like Mr. Crozier has. The attention is pleasant and addictive, and Thomas forgot himself.
Little looks as though he is struggling to think of anything to change the route of their conversation, but such valiant efforts are interrupted when Bridgens knocks on the door to tell Thomas that the doctor has arrived.
Dr. MacDonald hardly needs a guide, having made the biweekly visits to the manor during the entire time that Thomas has worked here, but the doctor’s arrival serves as an excuse for him to leave the room, removing himself from the intense scrutiny of Little’s compassion. Thomas is unaccustomed to labelling his past as anything beyond the typical struggles of a lower-class servant. He does not appreciate the examination of what he knows is a sad existence. He is not one to wallow and resents any invitation from those who do.
Little’s arm is at his elbow, the touch as electric as it was earlier. Thomas has enough self-control to not lean into the touch, but he turns questioningly to Little.
Little’s gaze is at some blank space on the wall. “When the doctor leaves, if Captain Crozier is well enough, we must make a plan for what we shall do.” He glances briefly at Thomas, a glint of worry leftover from souls laid bare by too much brutal truth, and away again. “You deserve more explanation than you’ve been given.”
Thomas nods, extricating his arm from Little’s grip when the man shows no signs of letting go. To his credit, Little’s face contorts, and he steps away, arms rigid and hanging straight toward his hips.
“The check-up will be quick. I’ll come get you when he’s ready,” Thomas says.
As Thomas walks down the hallway, the melancholic strain of the pianoforte follows him, the notes as clumsy as they were before, and Thomas cannot help the smile that grows on his face.
The doctor is standing at the base of the stairs, his coat damp from the fog outside, his hat tipped precariously over his graying chestnut hair. He gives Thomas a beaming grin, his cheerful disposition always a wonder in that oppressive house, with miles of empty fields and impenetrable woods surrounding her imposing façade. Thomas tries to match Dr. MacDonald’s demeanor. He finds that he is too weary, the muscles in his face haggard from the constant stress of living under the manor’s ghastly influence.
“Good morning, Mr. Jopson,” says Dr. MacDonald, “Always a pleasure.”
He shakes Thomas’s hand, before Thomas can even extend it. The first time Thomas met him, Dr. MacDonald surprised him with the long, firm grasp. The shock of his handshake never quite fades every time the doctor bursts into the manor like a ray of blinding sunlight.
“Same to you, sir.”
“How is our patient?”
Thomas picks up the doctor’s bag for him, dipping his head when the doctor ah’s and gives him a friendly wink as they begin to climb the stairs.
“He had a fever yesterday, but it’s broken now. He took a large dose of medicine one night when he was alone. I worry that it worsened the fever.”
“Goodness, that man. I would suggest keeping the bottles elsewhere if you fear he’ll try that again.”
Thomas shakes his head once they reach Crozier’s bedroom door. “He was likely in pain. I don’t want to treat him like a prisoner in his own home.”
MacDonald chuckles. The sound is warm, reverberating like the plucking of a cello string. “I doubt Francis sees you as his warden, Jopson. You’re far too genial for that.”
Thomas enters the room after a knock. Crozier sits at his desk, already looking healthier than he had an hour prior. The sight floods Thomas with relief. He hands the doctor his bag, and, barely registering the man’s thanks, he heads to the door.
“You don’t require my assistance for anything, sir?”
Crozier waves his hand. “No, we’re all right, Thomas. Enjoy your morning. I’ll ring for you when we’re done.”
Thomas nods and closes the door behind himself, the wood muffling the gruff laughter that tumbles from Crozier at some unheard joke the doctor made. Thomas knows that he should return to the parlor downstairs and help Bridgens clean up their breakfast plates, but he hardly wishes to subject himself to more of Little’s well-meaning, if misguided, concern. It was easier to define the beginnings of this friendship when Edward did not look at him as something that was damaged.
A song, like an echo from a dream, careens down the hall. Thomas blinks, cocking his head as he tries to discern the source of the sudden music.
It sounds like the pianoforte, the same that Little played earlier, but that is three floors down. The tune itself is cheerier, faster, played with an accompanying chord in the lower octave, by the hands of a dexterous and able musician. As if in a daze — the impossibility and surrealism of the music making Thomas question if he truly were awake or if he had fallen asleep amidst the shadows, surrounding him as a silent, judgmental audience in symposium, and that he is experiencing a most vivid and feverish dream — Thomas starts to walk back to the stairwell. The music fades in intensity the closer to the stairs he is.
When he retraces his steps past Mr. Crozier’s and Little’s room, the music grows loud again. It beckons him like the warm embrace of a lover, as enticing as a siren’s lullaby.
The door at the end of the hall, which should have been locked from Little’s diligence, stands open. The music bounces off the walls in the black hallway beyond.
A lamp lights halfway down the corridor, in an isolated circle of light.
Thomas wonders when the house grew so dark. There is a rumble of thunder overhead, signaling the arrival of another storm. Wind clatters the window behind Thomas, but the noise falls on distracted ears. The music hitches, falters, and starts again — tugging at Thomas’s middle like a knotted rope pulling and pulling.
From a distant spot in the back of his mind, Thomas feels like he needs to scream, that he has forfeited control of his body again, the same foggy sensation from two nights ago when his feet willed themselves to move and he became nothing more than a spectator to his own body.
The music grows stronger, more instruments joining in: a crooning fiddle, a meandering flute. Doors click open, doors that should have been locked. They swing open by invisible hands as Thomas walks down the hall, deeper into the quarantined wing, past curtained windows, deeper into the shadows.
He senses a presence behind him, their footsteps moving in time with his own. As much as he desires to look over his shoulder, he finds that he cannot. He continues the march, the music growing to a deafening volume once he reaches the double doors at the end of the hall.
He reaches a hand, as slowly as though he has a weighted chain wrapped around his forearm, and opens the door on the left.
It swings open with more force than he had given, the door to the right opening in tandem.
The room is a deep oval, a twinkling chandelier hanging in the center. It is intensely bright in the room, and Thomas squints at the sudden illumination. Standing at attention, their edges blurry, seemingly facing away from Thomas and turned toward the source of the ghostly and discordantly loud music, the shadowed figures stand independent of walls and ceilings. They sway like paper dolls in the wind, a mindless dance to the music. The music crescendos, the volume erasing any sweetness the melody may have once held.
Thomas realizes the room has no windows, but the walls are covered in small mirrors that reflect the candles from the chandelier and the gas lamps scattered in the room.
He has no memory of this room seemingly located at the heart of the house, and though he has just walked the path, he knows that he would struggle to find his way back to the hall by Crozier’s bedroom were he to turn back now.
The music crashes into a stop, the unseen musicians abandoning their instruments with gusto and fury. The silence is so immediate and heavy that there is a buzzing in Thomas’s ear that is equally deafening. He breathes fast, hard and silent through his nose as he watches, rapt and paralyzed, as each of the shadow figures turn to face him.
He lurches back, his eyes wide, watching every movement from the phantoms. He stumbles when his foot catches the edge of the carpet, and in a rush, all the shadow figures race past him and through him, each piercing him as sharp as needles. Following close on their shadowy heels, the house groans and cries, the familiar growl of the house thundering toward him. The now empty room twinkles with the cheerful, threatening aura of a house caught fire in the midnight hour.
The roar is closing in on him, and the paralysis finally lifts.
Thomas turns and runs, unsure where he is going. Anywhere away from the roaring monstrosity is better than staying to see what might happen should he fall in its path.
The doors that had eased opened now slam shut, one by one. Thomas digs his heels into the carpet, taking sharp turns that he does not remember, his hands grabbing at the edge of walls to propel himself forward.
After what feels like an eternity, his lungs burning from the exertion, Thomas passes rooms he knows, and he recognizes the closed door before him as the entrance to the original hall. He slides on his feet as he staggers to a stop, his shoulder slamming into the wood. He rattles the door knob, grunting when the door does not open.
Panic sets in, and as the roar fills the entire empty space behind him, the walls rattle and shake. Thomas is pressed tight against the door, his eyes squeezing shut, shoulders tensing, waiting for the inevitable impact, like a cornered animal awaiting the hunter’s bullet.
Then, silence once more.
The door opens, and Thomas stumbles forward, the door slamming itself shut with no assistance from him. Thomas sinks to his knees, breathing hard. He tries to quell the tremors racking his arms as the adrenaline drains from him like an upended pitcher.
He looks up to see Crozier, fully dressed in boots and an overcoat. He holds a cap in his hands and looks every bit like he has just returned from an excursion outdoors.
Incredulous, Thomas stares back, wondering if he is still trapped in a waking nightmare.
Crozier looks more alert, his cheeks full and ruddy, than in all the weeks Thomas has cared for him, and the man continues to take Thomas by surprise as he rushes forward and helps Thomas to his feet.
“Where have you been?” Crozier asks, his voice full of worry as he holds Thomas steady, leading him away from the western wing.
“Been, sir? I just left you and Dr. MacDonald—”
“The doctor? I haven’t seen him at all, either. Mr. Bridgens said he arrived, but neither of us saw hide nor hair of the man.”
“But,” Thomas weakly protests, the words coming from Crozier nonsensical, “that cannot be right, sir. I only now left. I’ve been gone…” He hesitates as they pass one of the windows, the glass painted black from the night outside. “Minutes.”
“Lad, it’s ten o’clock at night. You and the doctor have been nowhere to be found.” Crozier slows down his gait when they reach the stairs, and he keeps a firm hold on Thomas’s arm as they go down. “Edward has been beside himself.”
Dazed, Thomas says no more and lets Crozier lead him to the same parlor where he and Little had breakfasted that morning, a time that felt a short while ago. Somehow, to Thomas’s confusion and fear, the day has slipped through his hands like granules of sand.
The house has descended into a profound chill, courtesy of the day’s storm and the cold front which accompanied it. The parlor has ensconced itself in a bubble of heat, a large fire roaring in the fireplace, candles lit on the tables. Little paces by the windows, his face tightly drawn and pale. Bridgens stands by the fire and is the first to see them when Crozier opens the door for Thomas and leads him inside.
“Mr. Crozier?” His mouth hangs open as he takes in the appearance of both men.
Little rushes to Thomas’s side, hands clapping on either elbow.
“Thomas,” he says in a gusting sigh, directing his next question to Crozier while he brings Thomas to one of the settees and sits down with him. “Where was he?”
“If that is not the strangest thing,” Crozier says, “but he was upstairs, plain as day by the locked door to the western wing.”
“Any sign of the doctor?” Bridgens asks as he crouches to drop another log onto the fire.
Little’s panic is silent, as he rhythmically tightens and loosens his hold on Thomas’s hand, likely unaware that he is doing it. He steadies himself enough to ask, “Shall we presume he is dead?”
Crozier sighs and rakes a hand across his lower face. “I hope not, Edward. But the thing’s become roused enough I can’t predict what it might do next.”
Thomas places his free hand over Little’s, in an attempt to assuage his anxiety. Little starts, his dark eyes flitting to him, mouth parted and drooping. He wets his lips and drops his gaze, embarrassed that Thomas can sense his worry. Thomas has never been one to concern himself with misplaced pride and consolingly strokes his fingers over the back of Little’s hand.
“Mr. Crozier,” Thomas says, turning to look at Bridgens and Crozier where they frame the fireplace with their shadowed silhouettes, “will you please explain to me what is happening? Edward has only told me some of your predicament.”
At first, Crozier does not answer, his face burning orange from the light of the fire, the pits and wrinkles of his cheeks sharply wrought, undermining his outward return to good health . Now, he simply looks tired, as though he has dragged the weight of his concerns behind him for miles.
He sits in the chair opposite Thomas and Little. “Let’s begin in the Arctic, shall we?”
Little’s hand is still trembling in his grasp. Bridgens perks, his hooded eyes watching Crozier and Thomas and then Crozier once more.
“This all started in the goddamned Arctic.”