Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!
Herman Melville. Moby Dick
They had invited him to the wardroom, and once again, Doctor Stephen Stanley, the surgeon of Erebus , had declined. He took his meals alone; they knew that. He flipped another page and sighed, his exasperation stirring the vaporous tendrils rising from the cup of warm tea on his lap. Warmth, he felt it here, sequestered in his cabin where no porthole granted an unwelcome view of the frigid bleakness and desolation without; tucked under the covers and comforted by layers of cotton and flannel shirts. The skylight was smothered by snow, of course; shadows danced across a verglas veneer in accompaniment to thudding footfalls, but the whale oil lamp he had set on his desk was burning away with a sibilant hiss, diffusing a clear light throughout his insulated corner of the world, and he was enwrapped in a sullen contentment, feeling like a stuffed walrus in a gentleman’s homely study. He sighed once more, adjusting the raised pillows propping his body up, and stretched his legs, pressing against the wood at the end of his coffin bed. A steam engine, lead pipes filled with water heating the decks, preserved foodstuffs, Fraser’s patent stove, a retractable propeller, stalwart hulls reinforced with metal sheeting, and they were unable to add a few inches to the end of the officers’ cots. Lord in Heaven, what a farce! Was the whole ship constructed for Lilliputians? Perhaps he’d ask that old man Bridgens to sling a hammock in here, but that would mean running the risk of privately admitting he had once misattributed a Horatian verse to Ovid while in the presence of the steward who was busy serving all the officers in the wardroom (and the old bastard had the audacity to correct him in front of everyone! And Vesconte had even guffawed! This, in no small part, was a factor in his self-imposed exile from that part of the ship), and he’d be damned before conceding his prior ignorance to a doddering, boy-loving, grey-whiskered lintel brush.
Stanley was so beside himself in indignation that he lost his place midpage. Cursing under his breath, he started over again, silently mouthing the words as he went. It was a queer thing, this book, no less queer than a man-eating bear. He didn’t envy those on watch, and who was the officer on deck anyway? Vesconte or Fitzjames? And had the lieutenant informed his superior and friend of the good doctor’s faux pas in the wardroom? His scowl deepened, not that he was aware of doing so in the first place; long lines etched around his stingy lips told of tempered woe and an ingrained weariness. Damn Horace, damn Ovid, and damn Bridgens—a petty officer fancying himself an Oxford man...bah! And damn whatever rubbish this book was supposed to be. He had lost his place again. It was the most obfuscating work of literature he had ever seen; that yammering Scot Fergusson made more sense than what he now held between his white, abominably clean hands. Why on earth was he reading this? His old medical textbooks, dusty tomes written in latin and greek, were children’s primers compared to this dreck.
He nearly knocked his tea off balance when the rattle of the cabin door sliding open violated the sanctity of his domain, snapping his tenuous thread of concentration. Lose not a minute! they say in the service, and Stanley did not waste a second in slamming the book shut, grabbing the upset cup of tea and saucer, saving their fragile porcelain bodies from a calamitous fall to the hardwood floor, and twisting his body, turning to the door, barking, “What is it?!” All of this was accomplished within a second —a stunning series of maneuvers that would’ve made the crotchety Cochrane proud. But it was no xebec that he was confronted by, and indeed, he would’ve rather been confronted by a boatload of angry Spaniards than by the disarrayed visage of Henry Foster Collins, second master of the Erebus . The unwelcome guest’s heaving body dwarfed the doorway, blocking the view of the corridor outside, and his shadow across Stanley, obscuring the title of his book and robbing him of the delightful illusion of coziness, of safety. The good doctor was penned in. He could try and run out, but he knew he’d just bounce against Collins’s belly, as if it were made of rubber, and plop back down in bed. Ragged breathing disturbed the air: Collins’ eyes were wide open, twin glistening pools of ink threatening to dribble down his blanched cheeks, watering the unruly black growth running amok all over his neck, chin, and all over the sides, framing his face—a haunting portrait of woe and despair. His tufty brows were narrowed; his bloodless lips slightly parted, for a silent plea was being phrased, one that Stanley hated, because he knew what it was, and there was no way he could help.
Not when he couldn’t help himself.
Stanley feigned coolness by gulping down his tea and permitting an affected yawn; he stretched while doing so and quite unconsciously banged his feet against his cot, startling Collins, his bristles standing in alarm. Stanley held on to cup and saucer; now was the time to call in Bridgens and have him take his dishes out, creating an opening that would permit his escape, or obligate Collins’s departure. But Collins, for all his faults, wasn’t around to hear Stanley’s poetic blunder, and Bridgens might inform him of it if they were all to be in the room together. No, Stanley would have to take matters into his own hands. Stanley offered his utensils to Collins. “Would you be so kind as to deposit these on my desk, Mr. Collins?”
Collins made a noncommittal grunt and accepted the proffered instruments, and did as he was told. But he didn’t fulfill Stanley’s most ardent wish: that of his hurriedly absenting himself. Collins hovered over Stanley, his lips working again, the labyrinthine lungs within his mighty chest working like a billows.
The narrative of Stanley’s book was proving to be much more alluring than previously thought. He picked up the sizable volume and returned to his proper place. “Well, what is it?” he asked. His eyes never left the page.
“I can’t sleep,” Collins said gruffly, and, after a moment’s pause, added, “Goodsir is over on Terror .”
“Hmm...of course he is. Our young Fletcher is often absent in the evenings, isn't he?” Stanley pursed his lips. “I feel that a dose of laudanum is in order.”
“No.” Collins shook his head, his mane rustling vehemently. “No more. The stuff makes me costive.”
“But that’s the least of your problems, isn’t it?” Stanley harrumphed and turned a page.
“Yes, its...I’ve others...more pressing ones.” Collins crouched low, his paws gripping the edge of the cot, knuckles white between the fur. “I’ve been having bad thoughts, Mr. Stanley. Bad. I think about the ship, and the men in it—all of us going down. I dreamt about the ice opening up, Mr. Stanley, but there are no leads, except for the one below us. We all fall down, and there’s no telling whether we land or not, because its so dark, Mr. Stanley, so, so dark and we can’t tell where we are, but we are not alone. Silence’s father is there, and Sir John keeps us company, but he’s none too pleased because the beast’s swimming around us…”
“Damn your eyes, Henry!” Stanley exclaimed. “You must not give voice to such odious things.”
"I'm sorry," Collins said, his voice wavering, his red-rimmed eyes glancing down in shame, as though he had been reduced to being a boy on the verge of tears. "I don't want to be this way, but I can't help it. My nerves , doctor — they are in an incredible state of disarray."
Stanley checked himself. It wouldn't do to have Collins crying; his tears would get the pages all wet in this proximity. He had to get him out of here, but without getting up himself, of course.
"Report to the sick bay, Mr. Collins," Stanley said cooly, "and I will be with you in a short while. There we will endeavor, once again, to dispel these morbid fancies."
"Yes, doctor," Collins said in a resigned monotone. He rose to his feet and headed for the door.
Stanley watched the second master go, a curious fascination taking hold of him. What was it about this man that vexed him so? The surgeon's keen blue eyes flickered over his patient's considerable frame. He was wearing that loose white sweater again, the one with the slack neck that hung in creased folds about his sinuous neck, and the faded blue diving helmet stitched on the side. His back was facing him, and Stanley saw how his broad shoulder-blades stood out against the fabric, how his torso protested against the straining skeins of wool. There was no denying that Henry Foster Collins was a thick man, and in a manner quite different from the late Sir John's smug corpulence. If Franklin were a latter day incarnation of, say, Julius Caesar, then Collins was the maritime embodiment of Maximinus Thrax. Collins's corpus reflected a certain power which manifested itself in the grandiosity of its physical attributes; and Stanley wondered if this anatomical phenomena went on below his waterline, so to speak. In spite of their hushed whispers, Stanley could not resist listening in on his patients' clandestine conversations, and if the scuttlebutt were true, then Mr. Collins was quite the specimen...
July 1845, Erebus and Terror weigh anchor at the Whale Fish Islands, in Disko Bay, off the western coast of Greenland. Here, on the first rung to greatness, the very precipice of the civilized world where they despatched their final words, they transferred provisions from the supply ships, conducted magnetic observations, and mingled with the indigenous people. Doctor Stanley referred to them as Esquimaux, Commander Fitzjames praised them for being ‘hardy fellows’, and a divine dunce from Terror called them the ‘Children of Eden’ —but it was his precocious assistant surgeon , Harry Goodsir, who identified them as the Kalaallit , an Inuk people who lived on the western part of the landmass. Apparently, the Esquimaux, as Stanley adamantly maintained them to be, who lived in the north and east spoke different languages, and it was Goodsir’s aim to rebuild the ruins of Babel by putting together an Inuk dictionary. Fairchild (was that the Erebite lieutenant's name? He couldn’t quite remember…) was also interested, and the two of them went off to go larking with the natives.
Fitzjames also had an interest in local fare. After a kayak trip ended with an invigorating plunge, Fitzjames thought he’d repay the kayak’s owner by showing off an invention of his own. Fitzjames had done much travelling throughout the exotic East, as he was very fond of pointing out to anyone within earshot, and one such peculiarity he encountered were the steam baths he had encountered in Syria. Appropriating the talents of Misters Honey and Weekes, a wooden shack was constructed and a boiling pot of water taken from Wall’s galley was placed in the middle. Mattaaq, whose name meant ‘whale-meat’ according to Goodsir, was to be the guest of honor. It was Mattaaq’s kayak Fitzjames had borrowed, and duly capsized, and the genial commander sought to show his thanks. Also invited were Goodsir, Vesconte, Fairbody, Gore, Franklin, and Crozier from Terror (much to Stanley’s annoyance; why wasn’t he himself invited?) Franklin had to decline due to health reasons; the vaporous heat, he worried, would make him swoon in front of all the men. Crozier refused straight out of hand, without explanation. And so, perhaps to soothe the sting of rejection, Fitzjames invited Collins to join them. And thus, man is most often complacent in his own demise. Everyone undressed and went on in; the pot was already boiling over, and soon they were all enveloped in undulating tendrils of steam. It was here that the following scene purportedly took place:
“Where’s Mr. Collins?” Fitzjames had asked. “He said he’d be here.”
“Busy, most like,” Gore replied. “He’s been supervising the transfer of supplies from Blazer .”
“Either that or rearranging the casks in the hold,” joined Vesconte. “We’re still making room for everything.”
“But I expressly ordered Mr. Des Voeux to handle everything during our bath,” Fitzjames complained. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mattaaq, this isn’t like one of my men to be tardy. Apologize to our guest for me, Doctor Goodsir.”
Before Goodsir could translate, the very ground beneath their feet began to quake, glowing coals rolled out from underneath the pot, sending up bright sparks that stung their fleeing ankles, and the walls shook around them. “I’m here!” a loud voice boomed from outside, causing the flimsy door to rattle on its hinges. “Just a moment!” The door swung open, and the second master’s naked body was silhouetted against the blinding light, and everyone gasped in unison.
“Good God,” Goodsir said in hushed awe, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The rest were silent.
Collins, not in the least impeded by his audience’s stunned reaction, lumbered over to an open seat between Goodsir and Mattaaq. “Never thought I’d be this warm so far up north,” he said, and playfully elbowed Goodsir in the ribs. The surgeon was unresponsive. The only sound was the steady gurgling of boiling water intersped by a few awkward coughs. Gore appraised Collins obliquely, his eyes simmering with envy. Everyone else took an interest in their knees or feet, but some invisible force as ethereal as the swirling steam around them, an obscene magnetism, would drag their contrary gazes to Collins. Even in the low visibility of the steam room, they could well make out the breathtaking outline. (Stanley imagined it must've been like half-seeing a sculpted grotesque perched on the steeple of a papist cathedral during a fog-filled morning.) Collins wasted no time in proving himself to be more of a 'Brat from Eden' than the duskier fellow beside him. Like many men who never had the opportunity to refine their manners in the drawing room, Collins made the amateur mistake of trying to banish everyone's collective unease through ceaseless chatter. He sincerely possessed not the faintest idea that it was actually he who was the source of distress.
"I know I can't speak for everyone," he loudly announced, "but all these preparations have worn me to the bone." Collins turned to Mattaaq, who was trying to scoot away from the bigger man. "Did you hear that? I'm tired." When Mattaaq didn't answer, Collins said more loudly, "I...am...tie-er-ed, do you comprehend?" Mattaaq shook his head and continued sliding away until he bumped against the far wall, finding himself trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Collins, realizing that the Inuk probably didn't know too much english, gave him a knowing smile. Collins would have to communicate through other means. The Erebite mimed his exhaustion —leaning far back against the wall, emitting a bass yawn that caused the planks beneath everyone's backsides to vibrate, and tiredly spreading his legs like beat dog. These histrionics elicited another round of gasps from his captive audience. Fairhead lightly placed the tips of his fingers against his temples and rested his elbows on his knees, swaying uneasily. Gore coughed and looked away. Goodsir, ever the anatomist, appraised the sight objectively, much like how he would've examined a layer of tissue from the phylum mollusca under a microscope. Vesconte and Fitzjames huddled close together.
"If my hair was already grey, then it's going to turn bloody white," said Vesconte.
"This can't be real, Dundy," reassured Fitzjames, "this cannot be real."
“You will be pleased to know, sir,” Collins spoke to Fitzjames, “that our hold is absolutely stuffed with provisions, I went ahead and crammed everything in there. The casks, I assure you, are stacked.” Collins laughed, “Felt like I was a lord’s valet stacking chairs after a fancy ball, that’s what I was, yes.” Collins started wildly gesticulating in excitement, his arms, along with everything else, everything , were rising and falling and flapping and swinging to and fro. Goodsir and Mattaaq yelped and nearly fell out of there seats.
“Thank you for your report, Mr. Collins,” Fitzjames said stiffly. “I will return to Erebus and assess the situation. Thank you again for the kayak, Mr. Mattaaq. I will have to stop by and call when we come again on the return leg of our journey.” He abruptly rose and practically fled the room, parting the swirling clouds of steam before him. Vescone wore a poignant expression of forlorn abandonment.
At last, Mattaq refused to endure the ordeal any longer. While the steam still converged over the commander’s wake, the cornered man rose to his feet, pointed at Collins, and shouted, “ Kraken !” Before anyone could act, Mattaq was gone. Collins ceased his interminable prattle, staring at the vacant spot where the Inuk had been.
“An interesting choice of vocabulary,” Goodsir observed nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened. “An old Norse word, kraken . The Kalaallit must’ve heard it from the old Norse settlers who came here to hunt walruses for ivory, and the word was orally transmitted from one generation to the next. Quite fascinating, really.”
“Aye, that’s a sea monster...the kraken,” said Fairman.
“But why did he call me that?” asked a very befuddled Collins, his face screwed up in an earnest display of confusion. “Lord knows I’m no beast!”
Vesconte slapped his knee in frustration, filling the room with a wet smack . “Are we all going to ignore the elephant in the room or are we going to point out that Collins has a freakishly large —”
“Beard!” Goodsir ejaculated before matters could get out of hand.
“It’s not great, but it’s not terrible.” Gore sniffed. “It’s really not that big.”
“I’d like to see you grow a bigger one, Mr. Gore,” Collins said, relieved that the conversation had gone somewhere else. “My mother told me I came out with a full head of hair. Said I got it from my father.”
“That poor woman…”
“Your parents should be proud, Mr. Collins.”
“Thank you. They are.”
“Perhaps you should trim your beard,” Fairyman said very tactfully, “Sir John would be scandalized to see someone hairier than Neptune frequenting the deck.”
“But Mr. Fairbottom...my beard is trimmed!”
Jaws hit the floor; Vesconte uttered a blasphemy.
“But that’s...impossible,” Goodsir stammered, “it’s not at full length?”
“Goodness gracious, of course not,” Collins’s laugh came from deep within his chest. “It’s quite tame right now.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph...” Vesconte swore under his breath, then louder, for everyone to hear, “Henry Foster Collins, RN, I do not exaggerate when I proclaim you the biggest man in the service.”
Fairperson arose on unsound legs and almost foundered, the others in the room quickly reaching out to steady him; he brushed them off and staggered to the door, wobbling like a newborn calf, and then, on the verge of freedom, he collapsed, falling face first. He hit the floor with a dull thud.
“Don’t worry everyone,” said Goodsir, stooping beside the fallen man, “it’s just the heat.”
This aforementioned exchange was compiled from various hearsay gathered in the forecastle. What exactly happened, however, Stanley knew he would never know for sure, and accepted it. But subsequent events proved to be more concrete. In the days following this lurid revelation, the Esquimaux gave Collins a wide berth. The old ladies laughed at him, showing off their toothless gums and holding their hands up, wrinkly palms open, measuring some invisible object. Collins blushed and ignored them; but harder to shrug off were the young maidens who dropped whatever they were doing and screamed whenever he drew near, running for their lives, fleeing his baleful shadow. If Sir John had been worried about certain members of his crew enjoying ‘improper’ relations with the locals, then he had no need to worry about poor Mr. Collins. The second master, still baffled as to what was happening around him, retreated to Erebus and devoted himself wholeheartedly to his duties.
But it was John Morfin who received a very special duty, one specifically assigned to him by Commander Fitzjames. The Dong Shack — as it was already being called, always in whispers so grave that Golgotha could’ve easily been carried on the same breath —was to be dismantled. Viable timber, Fitzjames explained, was a rare resource indeed in frozen climes, and every scrap of wood would have to be recycled over and over again. Although Goodsir’s Kalaallit would’ve liked to have the building for themselves (in reality, they hardly dared to approach the place), Weekes was in greater need of the material. And so it fell upon Morfin to disassemble the structure and send every piece back to Erebus . Morfin did so without complaint, and in a timely fashion that brought great satisfaction to his superiors. But all was not well belowdecks. Weekes tallied the planks and beams and discovered that a prominent board was missing.
“Well, what’s this then?’ Weekes demanded. “Are you holding out on me? You give my board to a lady, eh? You rakehell!”
“No, that’s not it at all!” Morfin cried. “I forgot, ‘pon my soul, I forgot about the board. I’ve got a poor memory, you know. The board was left ashore, methinks, and a —a seal snatched it away while I smoked my pipe. Yes. That’s what happened.”
Weekes grumbled and stomped his feet. “Then get another board from Barretto Junior and get on it quick, or else you’ll be seeing the boatswain’s rattan stick.”
“I’ll oblige, mister, gladly.”
It was only in the safety of the for’ard quarters, among his fellow able bodies, through mouthfuls of salt pork and grog, that he sang a very different tune:
Hear my VOICE lads and I'll tell you what I saw at the DISMAL SHACK on yonder shore I took it all apart until nothing but its BASE CONSTITUENTS remained and I kept all the NAILS and put 'em in an important little pouch and gave every one back to Misters WEEKES and HONEY because I'm not like the man who went to tuh-hee-tee with COOK on account of me being a CHRISTIAN man Yes sir that's the truth But what I did not take back even though I knew the gentlemen carpenters would be counting everything like misers counting shillings was SCANDALOUS as they say in the papers Day-voh teaches us to read So I prise this board free and what do I see but the stained impressions of a gentleman’s big ol’ COCK and BALLS. Oh Lord I says to myself its just like the Shroud of Turin except I’m staring at Christ’s BOLLOCKS and that's not something you want to show off at DIVINE SERVICE no sir I tried rubbing the saucy stains off with my shirtsleeve but they wouldn’t go away just like the marks a convict makes on the wall of his cell before he’s taken away to the GALLOWS Nothing could scrub them off No sir I rubbed the board against the SHALE and I dunked the board in the WATER but the image of THICK thighs and goolies and p— would not go away I tried trading it with Mutag for some local scrimshaw but he wouldn’t have it KRAKEN he said and I agreed The balls made deep indentations in the wood that I ran my thumb along feeling the RISE and FALL and the p— was as long and wide as a big BELAYING PIN I swear the end of it went over the side No c— in the world is wide enough to receive this man I say and woe to the — who fancies a game of BACKGAMMON because this man carries a real MARLINSPIKE A f— arse sp— he is SIR JOHN must not lay his pious eyes on this I says so I COMMITTED the board to the deep where it’ll only bother fishies and mermaids and I’ll be d— if Goodsir fishes it up in a net and says it belonged to NEPTUNE’s throne — me I never want to see that b— wood again No sir and amen to all TRUE and HONEST fellows Let this be the end of it.
It was an interesting monologue, if not exactly Shakespearean, and the spirited words rang between Stanley's ears as he watched Collins's retreating bulk. Can such things be? he wondered, and suddenly, perversely, a thought, no, a course of action took shape…
Before the gross pestilence and gratuitous bloodletting of China banished what few vestigial illusions he held regarding humanity, Stephen Stanley had possessed a healthy penchant for mischief. All raw bones hastily bundled up in a hand-me-down frock, he was dropped off in grey Edinburgh, a half-hearted offering to Hippocrates. Edinburgh. Ed-in-burgh. Dreary Edinburgh, perpetually drenched, its desultory inhabitants passing along perspiring streets. The rain lifted; his heart did not. Deep within a coat pocket, crammed between a famished purse and a dull penknife, was a letter recommending him to Willliam Fergusson, who was then a big fellow at the College of Surgeons. Anatomy and surgery were old Fergy's specialties, and it was Stanley's hope to learn about the latter. Stanley the Elder—a stern disciplinarian who had served as a provost under Wellington; and who prosecuted his duties as a father with the same professional enthusiasm he had shown in his youthful occupation—got tired of seeing his flesh and blood lazing about the parlour and so delivered his firstborn an ultimatum: either his son would leave the house and go pursue studies in something worthwhile like medicine or law, or else his hard but loving father would send him on a slow boat to the Antipodes where he could try his hand at sheep farming. It was an easy decision: it was quite impossible for Stanley to become a lawyer, for he was too decent a human being, and he didn't much care for buggering sheep on the arse-end of the world for eternity, and so he devoted himself to the venerable and sometimes venereal field of medicine. It shan't be too hard, he reasoned, it will be like carpentry, well, except for the wood screaming and bleeding, but what can you do?
Indeed, what could he do?
Stanley was adrift in a sea of strange faces and unfamiliar facades, without a friend, bereft of anybody; he had strayed too far from Hadrian's Wall and now found himself in the depths of Caledonia. Fergy was civilized enough, despite all the rumours of necrophilia borne out of his often used dissecting room, and the two of them got on quite well. It was under (or over?) the auspices of a fresh corpse that they made their acquaintance, Fergy with a scalpel in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other, which he politely offered to Stanley who respectfully declined. Fergy was more than happy to have such a fine young man study under him, even if he was English, but, the anatomist admitted, no one was perfect, and thus began a fruitful, if unfulfilled, acquaintance. As always, however, it was the mundane problems that held him down. Stanley had neglected to make arrangements for room and board. Fergy, ever the considerate gentleman, had allowed him to sleep on a cot placed in the dissecting room. Problem was, he had to share the room with his teacher, who would spend the better part of a day contributing to mankind’s knowledge of anatomy, and Stanley’s studies were constantly harassed by the irritating accompaniment of sinewy carving (don’t mind me, lad!). Stanley endured for as long as he possibly could, but after Fergy requested that Stanley empty the chamber pot he kept under the table for his habitual use, Stanley judged the situation to be untenable. Choking on his pride, Stanley wrote up a pitifully-worded plea and sent it off to his father without delay. The response, when it finally arrived, was unsatisfactory. In an uncharacteristically apologetic tone, Stanley the Elder explained that he had lost a good deal of money in the rat pits; Salamanca Sally, that lazy bitch, couldn’t be bothered to chase after the rats despite her previous owner’s assurances, and so Stanley’s father had lost a fair bit of the family savings. Stanley the Elder concluded his letter by warning his dear son of the evils of gambling and how he had once cashiered an ensign for the crime of bringing loaded die to the officer’s mess, and how he later flogged a corporal who was pimping out his own wife to the Spanish peasants, and how...Stanley tore up the letter and swore violently in front of Fergy.
“Now, now, laddy,” admonished Fergy. “Don’t talk like that. The dead have ears, you know.”
The Scotch were, if anything, canny , and that canniness had rubbed off on him. The College of Surgeons greatly benefited from a host of donors—uptight burgher types who felt obliged to pledge their support, and Stanley sought them out, shook their hands, committed faces and names. The stuffed shirts probably thought they were doing him a great service when they invited him to their tables, allowing him to sup with their wives and daughters and sons, to smear his fingerprints all over their silverware and porcelain. They plied him with food and drink, and he dutifully sipped aged port and speared fresh gar (they were less partial to a filling pound of beef in these parts), and hemmed and hawed as the master of the house smacked his lips and made noises. They talked plenty of nonsense, for the most part. A few mentioned the Lord every once in a while, usually in a clumsy attempt to impress a moral lesson upon the young Englishman while embellishing their own souls in the process, and Stanley would nod, keeping mum about his benefactors’ shares in the plantations of the West Indies (This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe, indeed). Stanley’s interest in the conversation would marginally increase when the ladies withdrew to the drawing room at the end of a meal, and the men were left behind to converse more freely—it was here they shed all pretension. For all their pious airs and numbing platitudes, they really were a petty people. Their lives were rife with social jockeying: they competed with one another in purchasing commissions for their sons, but only for posts in prestigious regiments like the Scots Guards or the Black Watch, and they took an obscene pleasure in boasting of their acquaintances with prominent public figures; whenever they did so, they gave knowing looks to Stanley, smiling, as if those absurd names taken from some tawdry catalogue should mean something to him. Stanley would smile and shake his head, and his hosts would laugh—at him, the threadbare outlander who wore the same coat everyday and who was too ashamed to talk of his own family. And he’d sit there and take it, smiling and laughing, hating them all the while.
Toadying, much like the activity of prostitution, involves getting absolutetly fucked.
Looking back, Stanley couldn’t really tell when it happened, but something within him changed. No one had ever described him as pleasant, and he was the kind of man who saw flaws in others more often than naught, but it was among those vile, crustaceous-breathed Presbyterians that he learned the meaning of misanthropy. It wasn’t enough to feed on the upper crust; he wanted to devour them, he wanted to slice them open and inflame their insides.
Their were those who took a markedly different kind of interest in Stephen Stanley, those with taste . He had a full head of lank blond hair then, a single golden forelock hanging over his fair face, not yet etched with weariness, his expression resting in calm repose; his bearing was that rare combination of carelessness and composure, a heady mixture that made peoples’ heads turn whenever he took his evening stroll, and he smiled and nodded to the gentlemen and touched his forelock and bowed to the blushing ladies. He did not drink in excess, he never swore openly, and he never failed to attend the Sunday service, always leaving a generous offering in the collection bowl although he was but a struggling student. He was well-behaved, but not innocent; even then there was a severity to his features that only the perceptive picked up on. He met their furtive gazes, inviting them for a swim within his blue irises, and the ladies bit their lips and cocked their heads ever so slightly; some fanned themselves, loose strands of hair fluttering over their eyes, demure under the long ashes. He would permit a trace of a smile, a sly hint of what may be, and the ladies could well imagine what he offered while their husbands and fathers, their caregivers and moral guardians, peddled their usual drivel, so woefully ignorant of what transpired before them. Leah McGovern caressed his feet with her own under the dinner table while her father bemoaned the poor turnout to his birthday reception; Mary Campbell ran a soft hand up and down his thigh under the cover of damask, her spidery fingers playing around the fall-front of his trousers, running a pressing thumb around the buttons, and Stanley smiled and bobbed his head and praised her father’s good business sense. Other ladies played their own games—mere parlour games (a great deal of caresses transpired in that part of the house, actually), and Stanley was not a gaming man. He never left things to chance; what he wanted, he took.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into her,” complained James Dunn in regards to his daughter. “She stays in bed instead of going to church and talks back to her own dear mother! I don’t know what’s gotten into her, Stan. A girl like her should be pressing flowers in leather-bound books, not running off to your butchery school and watching those ghastly dissections!”
“But, sir,” Stanley murmured, speaking in that low, steady monotone the Scotchmen were so fond of, “ I invited her.”
“Only once, but now she goes of her own accord, and to even worse places too...like the waterfront! She brings home dead crabs and fish to her room, and the maid speaks of the most foetid odors issuing from her door. She says she’s interested in ickyology or somesuch. Rubbish! When I told her to throw those things away she shouted at me...at me, Stan!”
Stanley pursed his lips and nodded to himself. “I fear, Mr. Dunn, that your daughter suffers from what we learned men recognize as hysteria . Forgive me if I come across as untoward, but it’s quite a scandalous condition, you must understand. Such symptoms as you describe typically manifest before the onset of tribadism, and unless the proper measures are taken right away the condition may prove incurable. You can have a doctor treat it, but everyone will know, and you wouldn’t want those dreadful Argyll’s knowing about it, would you? Mrs. Argyll is such an irascible gossip…”
“Lord in heaven! What am I to do?”
Stanley’s smile threatened to split his face in two. He lifted his abominably clean hands and tickled the air. “I’m not sure whether I’m really qualified,” Stanley said modestly, “but you’ve been so kind to me...and I’d be remiss in not acknowledging your charity. I can treat your daughter, discreetly.”
Dunn shouted his assent and clapped Stanley on the back, pumping his hand and embracing him, calling him a ‘good lad’—high praise from a Scotchman.
“Please, Mr. Dunn, please.” Stanley pushed him off, but not harshly. “The pleasure is all mine.”
And indeed, it was.
In the span of a few days, Stanley discovered that the entirety of Edinburgh’s female population suffered from hysteria, and, being the good doctor that he was, he graciously offered to solve the problem for free, and in a discreet manner. His benefactors were more than welcoming; the ladies excessively so. Perhaps young Stanley was overzealous in his duties. Perhaps the routine pelvic massage did not need the complement of an insinuating tongue, followed by the curling fingers. Perhaps he shouldn’t have kissed their parted mouths with lips still moist with them, swearing his vacuous love and promising the long death of marriage. Perhaps their were ulterior motives when he insisted they wear their best stockings and press their thighs together while he attended to country matters. And if those actions were inappropriate, then surely he should not have laid beside them when all was done, taking their dainty hands in his and laying them on his lap, whispering into their ears, insistent in that singular moment of intimacy that comes after an invigorating session, encouraging, needling, prying —and in the same husky breath that had urged him on they whispered all of their families’ secrets, and unfortunately for them, Stanley had a very faithful memory. That was how he discovered the true nature of a classmate, a fellow dilettante of the flesh, but whereas Stanley preferred to spend his days with his head pressed between a warm silk vice, the Northumbrian’s sensibilities were those of a...Francophile! And it just so happened that Stanley was in dire need of French lessons…
A collection of empty bottles were glowing by candlelight in a rented garrett when Stanley laid a firm hand on the Northumbrian’s knee and asked him if it wouldn’t be nice if they called up a doxy and enjoyed what the frogs called a ménage à trois . His ostensible tutor and true friend readily agreed, and they enjoyed themselves immensely.
And it was by the end of the week they dropped the girl and all pretense between them.
“Mr. Collins, wait here a moment,” Stanley said, the book trembling in his hands, every syllable dribbling down his bloodless lips. He composed them into a twitching smile. "I think I've got something better than laudanum."
There was nothing logical about what He was going to do, nothing rational —he was inviting trouble. Polishing an AB's bedknob? Sure, no problem, how could a low rating like that act against the hand of an officer? What was a tar's word against that of a gentleman's? But Collins and him were on an equal standing—Navy-wise anyway—and anything disagreeable may lead to social embarrassment making the likes of Horace and Ovid out to be child's play. But this taboo, this improper relation, was what made the act so sweet! Illicit affairs are the best affairs, just as a stolen painting held ransom by a thief is lovelier than anything by a master's hand. Succulent meals are often saturated in sin, and Stanley has tasted many. The appeal of going down on all those women wasn’t derived from something so banal as physical pleasure—although there were no shortage of helping hands willing to make up for that deficiency—but the awareness that he may well be caught at any time, in flagrante delicto , and that his potential accusers were just outside the door, smoking a pipe or reading a book, so close yet so far from the outrage being committed. His gratification came in the dining room, where he’d watch a daughter or wife fidget in her chair, her thighs pink and raw and speckled with bite marks, while a father or husband or brother prattled on, so blissfully unawares. But the greatest wellspring of sensual release came within the nave of a church where, sitting off to the side and towards the back where he was afforded a favorable view, he’d pick out his patients in the pews, all decked out in their bonnets and Sunday best, hands he’d seen clenching the bed sheets now clasped in pious prayer, and the ladies’ lips silently carrying Chist’s name, and Stanley would smile, recalling the evenings before when they were screaming his name.
And His name was there too, but in a very contrary context.
“Sit beside me, Mr. Collins,” Stanley said, “and I will explain to you the nature of my new treatment.”
Come what may, this experience ought to provide more entertainment than this convoluted tome.