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The Stars, the Sea

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The ice holds a promise for the future, while posing a threat every single day until that. The thaw will come, both Ice Masters are sure; and then they will sail back to England, having accepted that finding the Passage is something that Man cannot reasonably pursue; and then, Dr Goodsir will take him to Edinburgh.

My brother will be thrilled to welcome a child, Mr Gibson, I have no doubt! And there’s always need for an extra pair of capable hands in a household, or maybe, instead of having you employed around the house, I may have you somehow assist me at the Museum?, so please stop worrying about earning your keeping, dear, now you must think only of the baby.

Every day the ice poses a threat to a man with an increasingly sizeable bump; Billy is careful not to slip when he walks on the ice, as he is careful when climbing up and descending down ladders. He never wants for assistance, though; and all the more so when walking to and from Erebus. Lieutenant Gore will smile his most charmingly reassuring smile and wink in playful gallantry as he offers his arm, Mr Morfin’s gloomy face will brighten up with tenderness, and Mr Collins’s gruffy sweetness will engulf Billy like a diving suit, the three of them taking turns in safely escorting Billy from Mr Diggle’s protective arms into Mr Bridgens’s, and back.

He spends plenty of time on Erebus with Mr Bridgens (Dr Goodsir taking advantage of that for checking on him and the baby; Dr McDonald on Terror is very kind, but Dr Goodsir, dear Lord, has another man ever existed who lived that up to his name?); they do their needlework and laundering and ironing together, seeing as Billy’s workload has now increased—he wants to have something at the ready should they still be icebound when the baby comes and, mostly, he has to refit his own clothes to accommodate a bump that seems to get bigger by the day (Ah, I know all about refitting one’s clothes, dear Mr Gibson: one grows a belly, when he gets old!). Mr Jopson would cut off his own arm before he lends Billy a hand; he throws harsh words at Billy everytime they happen to work side by side; and Mr Armitage will not dare to stand up against the Captain’s steward, to defy him by openly being on Billy’s side.

Sometimes it’s Mr Bridgens who takes Billy back on Terror; and Mr Diggle will whisper to him, any time it is possible, Go give your lad a kiss, it’s a quiet moment.

 

Mr Jopson, apparently, thinks that verbally abusing Billy as his Captain does is a sign of his devotion. Billy has no clue what the late Sir John’s opinion was on the matter of those rare men who can get pregnant (their private parts turning at the end of the pregnancy and reverting after the birth, their breast remaining flat yet somehow producing milk), but both Captain Crozier and Captain Fitzjames staunchly despise them as horrors of nature. “There is no such thing as that, dear Mr Gibson,” Dr Goodsir has softly told him. “Nature does always, always have a reason for everything, and you are part of God’s plan just like anyone else.”

Billy remembers the scene that has occurred on Erebus, he and Cornelius before the two Captains. He doesn’t remember what words were pronounced by Captain Crozier and what by Captain Fitzjames: in his memory of that day, the two merge into one merciless monster.

Is the child yours, Mr Hickey?

Yes, Captain.

Is it your wish to take responsibility so that the child be let live?

No, Captain.

Very well: the Articles grant you the right to choose so. Now, as per the Articles, it is upon the most eminent man of medicine in the expedition that the task falls of—

Billy hasn’t even realised that he has thrown himself at Dr Stanley’s feet. He has heard a voice screaming, vaguely knowing that the voice was his. YOU’RE A FATHER! YOU’RE A FATHER, SIR! HAVE MERCY! HAVE MERCY!

Something has flashed across Dr Stanley’s normally impassive features. He has raised Billy. Please, calm down, Mr Gibson, or you will harm the child. I am not giving you an abortion against your will: you have my word.

In the Queen’s name—the Monster has started growling threateningly.

Mr Gibson has appealed to me in my daughter’s name. She is my Queen.

God damn this abomination we have onboard and the Thing he’s carrying, all Terror has heard Captain Crozier bellowing in his cabin that evening.

God will not do anything of the sort, Lieutenant Irving has whispered, cradling Billy like a brother as the steward softly wept and violently trembled. He loves you and loves the child. Think of the child as a gift from Him and take heart, Mr Gibson. The arrival of a child is always something to rejoice in. All shall be well. Next to his legs, the Lieutenant has felt something nuzzling Billy, and he has looked down and has fondly laughed. Neptune! How did you get in there? See, Mr Gibson, you have a guardian angel. He felt that you were in need of friends. Which only goes to show once more that animals are Man’s betters.

Devoted to Captain Crozier as they both are, Neptune keeps proving himself Mr Jopson’s better again and again.

The three lieutenants are all so good to Billy, Lieutenant Hodgson exploiting his being Captain Crozier’s favourite to keep the man’s wrath curbed. They make sure their steward does not work too hard; they take a genuine boyish delight in his increasingly evident condition, always talking to the baby, always caressing the bump, putting their ear to it, pressing their face against it; You’ll get yourself a kick, sir, Billy warns with an indulgent smile, feeling so much older than them. What can they know of life... But it’s his turn to feel young and cared for, whenever (that is, all the time) it’s Mr Diggle who talks to the baby (“our laddie”), cradling Billy’s bump in his big, loving hands, kneeling down to kiss it, getting up to kiss Billy’s forehead.

Mr Diggle is Billy’s rock. Full of relief and gratitude as he is in the knowledge that he’ll soon be safe with the Goodsirs, Billy does also wishes that he could be able to put his newborn baby in the big arms of the man who perhaps more than any other gives him every day the strength to go on.

On Erebus, Mr Wall sneers at Billy; one time he gets handsy, and he is immediately slapped hard by Billy and, the next second, punched by Mr Morfin for good measure. (And the second after that, scratched by a furious Jacko. Oh, Lieutenant Irving is so right about animals).

 

Sargeant Tozer will flash Billy the odd smile; young Young smiles a lot, rushes to help Billy without being asked, has told him how wonderful it is that he can count on the Goodsir family and will not be forced to give his baby to the Foundlings.

Magnus Manson is a surprise. He, the giant-sized child, speaks to Billy with the calm and collected tenderness of an adult reassuring a small boy one time that Billy, overwhelmed by all that is going on in his body and his life, has a panick attack at seeing him and starts screaming, “Go away! Go away from me! You want to hurt my baby!”

“Oh, no, Mr Gibson, sshh...” Magnus pleads, sincere hurt and horror in his eyes at being thus accused. “Why ever would I want to hurt the little one?”

Billy is shaking. “Because you are his friend, and he must have told you to hurt him...”

“Whose friend? Cornelius’s? Oh, but Mr Gibson, Cornelius would never...”

The fit abruptly releases its grip on Billy, who stops screaming and starts to weep. “Please, Magnus... please... tell me you won’t hurt my baby... he has done nothing...”

“I would never hurt him, Mr Gibson, I swear to God. Please, don’t cry. He doesn’t want you to cry.”

“You won’t hurt him? Not even if he orders you to?”

“Not even if the Devil orders me to!” Magnus proclaims with passion.

Billy sniffs.

“Please, dear Mr Gibson, may I touch your belly? It’s so beautiful, reminds me of the sails when they are all nice and swollen from the wind blowing.”

Billy starts relaxing. “Well, no, sails in the wind can become quite pointed. My belly is round and wide, see?” He smoothes the fabric across his sides, and gestures to Magnus that he can touch.

The giant does, reverently, and the biggest smile splits up his face when the baby quickens under his hand.

“That was his foot!” he exclaims, excited.

Billy shakes his head, the expression in his eyes softening, the corners of his mouth just so slightly upturned in that little smile he has smiled so many times to his baby’s father. “His knee.”

 

Mr Bridgens’s smile is large and loving as he enquires, “Do you know, dear, what a bump this round mean?” He envelops Billy in the most gentle and careful embrace as he whispers in his ear, “It means it’s a girl you’re carrying...”

Billy gasps, his eyes widening. He’s quite fond of the idea of a daughter and has, in fact, been entertaining it. He has joked about it, at some times when the baby was restless, Oh, Lieutenant Little, it must be female. Whimsical and capricious! Just let me be while I see to the lamps, would you, little miss? “Oh!”

The good old steward laughs, embarassed. “It’s just a popular belief, dear, on no scientific basis. Dr Goodsir would tell us so, bless him, and Dr Stanley I’m afraid would call me an ignorant old man. But one thing we can be sure of, if it’s a girl, she will be as beautiful as Helen, and a new Trojan War will break out.”

 

Magnus does once again his best to have Billy calm down, one time when Billy is in hysterics at Cornelius sturdily refusing to touch his bump.

“Cornelius,” he says humbly, “Do you really not want, not even once? You have no idea how it makes you happy when the little one comes press against your hand and say hi!”

“But I’m not interested, Magnus.”

Magnus beams as if that were wonderful news. “Have you heard, Mr Gibson? Cornelius is not bad!, he’s just not interested!” Poor innocent soul. “Are you calmer, now, dear Mr Gibson?”

“Not interested, he is! This is your baby, you selfish bastard, you—”

“Manson,” Mr Peglar barks, materialising at Billy’s side in two long strides and sliding an arm around his waist in ferocious protectiveness, “take this fellow away before I smash his face!”

Magnus lifts up his hands as if asking for peace, as he worriedly replies, “Easy, easy, please, Mr Peglar, don’t raise your voice, or you will scare the little one! Come, Cornelius...”

 

And the next day, while on Erebus, already distressed by the unpleasant scene occurred, Billy is once again verbally abused by Captain Fitzjames, and he collapses in Mr Bridgens’s arms.

The look that Mr Bridgens gives his Captain before he hurriedly takes Billy to Dr Goodsir has Fitzjames cowering.

“Mr Peglar was so good to me, Mr Bridgens... I thought you’d be glad to hear it...” Billy croaks in a tiny voice after recounting the previous day’s facts to Mr Bridgens and Dr Goodsir in the sick bay, after Dr Goodsir has checked on the baby thoroughly and has assured Billy that all is fine.

(Dr Stanley, too, has come and checked, without being asked. Never before has he spoken that softly to a patient, smiled that reassuringly, touched that gently. He has then said to Dr Goodsir, You did a good work. He has then said, Someone please see to everyone on both ships being informed that, should anything happen to the child as a consequence of Mr Gibson being mistreated, I will drag the culprit before court as soon as we are in England, be it the Captains or the youngest boy.)

“Oh, yes, I’m so glad, dear boy,” Mr Bridgens murmurs. “And I was sure he would.”

All the men who care for Billy call by. On the expanse of Billy’s bump, Lieutenant Gore’s hand and Dr Goodsir’s meet.

 

Mr Bridgens has been doing a lot of sewing and knitting for Billy’s baby. “It’s a pleasure, dear. It’s such a joy. I am only sorry that I have to keep it so simple, from the materials I have here at my disposal. How I wish I could make beautiful little things fit for a little prince! Or princess.”

His large hands are lovingly folding a little chemise, a little blanket.

“Oh, Mr Bridgens! But have you had any time for reading?, I don’t want you to renounce what you most love doing...”

“My dear boy, while I work for our little one I quietly retell myself stories in my head, and I enjoy that so much, you know! There’s a tale I would love to tell you, if I may?, seeing as it features a baby.”

Billy smiles and nods.

“So, there was in ancient Greece a girl named Calisto, who was among the nymphs serving the goddess Artemis and was therefore sworn to keep her virginity. The god Zeus desired her, and he sneakily managed to have her; he was always coming up with plans to violate the mortal women who caught his eye, you know, and his wife, the goddess Hera, instead of getting mad at him for the evil he did, used to take her rage out on these women. Calisto had got pregnant, and Artemis, since she was visibily no longer a virgin, banned her from the holy wood were all her nymphs lived together. Calisto wandered, alone and rejected.

“When Calisto, in the woods, gave birth to a boy, jealous and furious Hera stroke. She turned Calisto into a bear. Imagine the scene, dear Mr Gibson! The female bear standing there, retaining her human thinking, her human feelings, the feelings of a mother!, near her human newborn baby... and then she heard footsteps, and ran to hide.

“It was a hunter, who saw the abandoned baby and immediately took him in his arms and ran home to his wife. They were good people, and they raised the boy just as if he were their own. And such a fine young man he became!, making them so proud and making Calisto proud as well, seeing as the bear was always keeping an eye on him from afar, her human heart filling with delight at seeing this healthy and beautiful boy who was the best among his friends, the most brilliant-minded and kind-hearted, and the bravest.

“One day that the boy and his friends were in the woods hunting, Calisto did not resist the temptation to get a little closer, to better see her son. A bit more closer... a bit more... and the boys saw the wild beast, and were understandably striken with fear.

“They all ran to hide but Calisto’s boy, who was the bravest of them all. He cried out to his friends, Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this, and let an arrow loose, killing the bear that was his mother.

“At that, Hera felt a pang of sorrow and piety. She turned both mother and son into a star: Calisto is now the Ursa Major, the boy is the Ursa Minor. Oh!, but I’m so sorry, Mr Gibson, my dear!” Mr Bridgens gives himself a slap on the mouth, his eyes filling with anguished worry. “What has possessed me, to tell you a tale this sad, all the more sad to someone in your condition! Ah, forgive a silly old man... it’s just that’s one of my favourites, and...”

Billy smiles and shakes his head, covering the good man’s hand with his own. “Oh, Mr Bridgens, I have loved it, really: it’s a beautiful touching story, and at the end of the day it’s about stars, isn’t it? We sailors, we love us a tale about the stars.”

 

Dr Goodsir, too, has told Billy something beautiful. He has explained him about the liquid in his belly that the baby swims in, concluding, “You’re the sea, Mr Gibson. You’re his sea.”

Billy is seven months along when he sets foot in the house in Edinburgh. John Goodsir is every bit as welcoming as his brother has assured Billy he would be, and the rest of the family proves just the same.

 

Billy’s waters break right at the onset of his labour, making it way more difficult and more painful than if they had broken halfway through it.

“CORNELIUS! CORNELIUS!”

He’s sure he can’t do this without him.

“Keep on like this, just like this, here it comes... here we go... HA! Ah, look, Mr Gibson! You made it. You have done so well. It’s a girl, Mr Gibson. You have a perfect little girl.”

“Cornelia.”

He’s in love.

The Goodsirs go crazy with joy—reverently careful not to disturb the baby, not to add to Billy’s exhaustion. They welcome the newcomer with the most sincere delight and awe, Cornelia, Cornelia, Cornelia, praising Billy for the miracle he has made, thanking him for the wonderful gift he has blessed them with.

 

He thinks of dear Mr Diggle and his anguish at not being able to feed Billy properly, his worry that the want for fresh food might result in Billy’s body not being in condition to make milk for the “laddie”; good, good Mr Diggle; should Billy ever have a son, he’ll name him John, he thinks, from the bottom of his heart, as the lassie, as it is, enthusiastically suckles at his breast, getting everything she needs.

John, definitely. On Cornelia’s adorable tiny feet (Cornelia Helen Gibson, because yes, she’s beautiful), Billy is putting soft booties that John Bridgens has knitted. Then, after kissing her squishy tummy, he changes her into a wonderfully embroidered chemise made of the best silk, one of the many expensive items that the Goodsirs have taken immense delight in buying, not with the airs of haughty benefactors, but with the genuine joy of honorary relatives. They have given Billy things that were in the family, too ("This must have been Harry’s!"), and other things the ladies have made with their own hands. And the household servants, too, have given Billy gifts for the baby, more humble but just equally heartfelt; working people, like Mr Bridgens and Mr Diggle, like him, though now, starting when Cornelia is weaned, he’ll be assistant to the Curator of the Royal College of Surgeons Museum.

A bonnet by one of the maids on Cornelia’s impossibly soft head. A cashmere blanket, purchased by Harry in one of Edinburgh’s finest shops, to keep her warm during this post-feed nap. She will have things from both worlds, just like Billy has had tales of both the stars above him and the sea his little bear was swimming in.

John. A baby by a good man, this time, a man who will love Cornelia with all his might, just like the hunter and his wife loved Calisto’s foundling. As they travelled to Edinburgh, Harry has told Billy about the stolen kisses and touches with Lieutenant Gore, about their mutual agreement that no, there wasn’t enough to it to make it worth being taken further. A final kiss, some last lingering touches; fond memories; a man free to move on. Will he and Billy move on towards each other?

It doesn’t matter. Time will tell. What matters is that, as a friend or as a lover, Harry will always be someone Billy will have no hesitation giving his life for; exactly like it’s obvious that Harry will be ready to do the same for the girl he has now come to watch sleep, encircling Billy with an arm, murmuring, "My babies, both of you."