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A Traveller From an Antique Land

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Shortly before Thomas left it, a new master came to his little charity school in Marylebone. Young and good-looking, with soft hands and beautiful dark eyes, the man was a world away from the usual bastards who took more joy out of whipping the boys under their tutelage than even the most devilish sea captain with an errant AB. In addition to being kind, he even went so far as to try and teach them something. Years later, as Thomas emerged from Captain Crozier's bedside into the silence of the deserted great cabin, a snippet of one of that schoolmaster's beloved poems came to mind.

“'Round the decay of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.'” Sand was the least of their worries here—although looking out at the Arctic wasteland often felt like gazing at a desert—but remembering the cheer and optimism that had once filled this now-desolate room made the words feel depressingly apt.

“Shelley,” A voice put in. Thomas turned to see Lieutenant Little standing in the doorway. A sheepish look came to his face, although if anyone should have been embarrassed, it was Thomas. It was his duty to be steadfast, not to wallow in poetic misery. “Is it not?” The lieutenant added, as if Thomas would know better than he. As if there were nothing remarkable about Thomas quoting melancholy poetry to nobody.

“Yes, sir.”

The lieutenant nodded. Thomas expected him to ask after the captain, but instead, he said, “Have you seen it? The statue of Ozymandias that inspired the poem, in the British Museum?”

“No, sir. I have not.”

The sheepish look returned. “Of course. I do recommend taking a look when we're back home, should you be able to manage it. Fascinating. Really, ah, really quite remarkable.”

A wave of fondness flooded through Thomas, pushing his exhaustion aside and filling him with warmth. It was silly, not to say potentially disastrous, but he had long found himself inordinately fond of Lieutenant Little, of his endearing manners and uncertain charm, and of the way he had, of late, treated Thomas almost as if they were equals. His handsome looks didn't hurt either, although Thomas refused to indulge that line of thinking.

“I shall keep it in mind, sir.”

As much as Thomas would have liked to linger, there was much to do before the captain awoke again. He reached for the stack of soiled linens on the floor, but was stopped by a raised hand.

“Have you eaten recently, Mr. Jopson?”

That rather depended on one's definition of “recent.” “I just need to get these in to soak, sir.” And take the clean ones from the line, if they were dry, and update the doctor as to the captain's condition, and ask Mr. Diggle to start the process of heating water so that Thomas might offer the captain a shave when he woke, and ensure Gibson and the others had everything in hand for dinner service, and, and, and.

“You will be of no use to the captain if you exhaust yourself beyond all reason.” The lieutenant's tone was gentle, his expression firm.

This was nothing compared to what Thomas had endured with his mother. For a moment, he considered telling the lieutenant so, but just because they found themselves unlikely comrades-in-arms did not mean Lieutenant Little wanted to be burdened with tales of Thomas' past.

“I appreciate your concern, sir, but...”

“If I cannot convince you to have a proper rest, I will order you to take at least a moment for yourself.” The lieutenant held out a hand, showing Thomas half a dozen neat little cylinders. “I confess, I asked Mr. Gibson to roll them. I am a pipe man myself.”

Thomas blinked, unsure, for once, what to say. As the silence stretched, the lieutenant shifted uneasily. “Of course, if you don't...”

“It's very thoughtful of you, sir.” Too thoughtful. The wave of fondness returned with force, threatening to swamp him. In an attempt to quell the tide, Thomas took the cigarettes. The lieutenant struck a match, and Thomas, after a moment's hesitation, went against every fibre of his being and element of his training and sat down in the great cabin, with a cigarette in hand, in the presence of an officer.

An officer who suddenly seemed at a loss. Lieutenant Little extinguished the match, then glanced about, as if wondering whether he should leave. Thomas did not want that, and he did not want to keep the lieutenant here with talk of the captain, or the ship, or the expedition. For a moment, he wanted to selfishly pretend he and the lieutenant were friends, that such a thing were remotely possible. After all, he thought, with only the slightest twinge of guilt, he did order me to take a moment for myself.

“Are you very fond of poetry, sir?” Thomas asked, filling his lungs with sweet smoke. It was a foolish line of inquiry, perhaps. Thomas didn't know any more than “Ozymandias”–the schoolmaster had left after only a few months, and Thomas had missed him until he himself went to sea shortly thereafter—but he didn't regret it, not when it earned him a rueful smile.

“I cannot call myself a great scholar on the subject.” To Thomas' quiet delight, the lieutenant sat in the chair beside his. “Music, though, now that is a subject on which I could bore you for hours.”

“You wouldn't bore me, sir.” Of that, Thomas was entirely certain.

The lieutenant's smile grew less rueful, and even more dashing. “You may come to regret that assertion, Mr. Jopson.” Never, Thomas thought, and took another long drag on the expertly rolled cigarette.

Later, when everything truly had fallen to dust, Thomas remembered that encounter. He wondered what might have happened if, instead of smoking and listening to the lieutenant talk about Bach and Beethoven until the captain retched himself awake, Thomas had put aside his cigarette and kissed Lieutenant Little as he'd secretly wished to. He'd wondered the same about that beloved schoolmaster, after he'd gone.

“'Nothing beside remains',” he heard himself mutter, looking up at the canvas above him. He tried to recall the rest of the poem, but the words were gone from his mind, blown away by the winds that whipped across the frozen desert around him. Instead, he let out a sigh, wished he had a cigarette, and slept.