It was a matter of some perplexity to Strange that he had never heard Major Grant singing before that morning on the hillside. Having once heard the Major's singing voice, however, he now found himself often listening for it, and much gratified by the sound. He had not asked Grant to sing for him again, since the request appeared to embarrass him, but he listened gladly to whatever Grant felt moved to sing.
Strange's own memory for songs had always been a good one, and his repertoire was insensibly increased in the weeks following that unexpected encounter. He often caught himself humming snatches of the Beggar's Opera, or some Scotch ballad that he had absorbed unawares from Grant's singing. Sometimes on these occasions he would look up from his work and find Grant regarding him with a friendly air that seemed increasingly common between them, and which gave Strange a pleasure he could not quite account for. Grant never said any thing at these times, though he often appeared to be on the point of doing so.
One evening after dinner, the officers had got up a small impromptu concert around the fire, in which Grant proved an unexpected proficient on the guitar, favouring the company with a lively Spanish air.
“Very good,” cried De Lancey when he was done. “Now give us your Tom Bowling!”
Grant demurred at this, alleging that it was not fitting for him to sing a naval song in a concert of soldiers, but this excuse being met with genial scorn and cries of “Shame!”, he complied and began to sing:
Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling,
The darling of our crew;
No more he'll hear the tempest howling
For death has broached him to.
His form was of the manliest beauty,
His heart was kind and soft;
Faithful below, Tom did his duty,
And now he's gone aloft,
And now he's gone aloft.
Strange had always considered Dibdin's song irritatingly sentimental, and it was many months since he had wept at any thing, but he found the water stood in his eyes as Grant sang. He stared very hard into the fire, watching the flames waver and blur, until the song was ended.
“If Major Grant has quite done lamenting departed seamen,” said Lord Wellington, breaking in on the applause that followed, “perhaps one of you gentlemen will be so good as to lift our spirits with a catch.”
Grant joined in the general laughter, seeming not at all discomfited by his commander's rebuke. Indeed, Strange thought, it was more in the nature of a tribute. De Lancey struck up a catch, and the mood was broken.
Strange did not find himself disposed to sleep after the concert; Grant's song echoed still in his head. He fell to thinking of the songs he had heard Grant sing over these past weeks, and that perilously agreeable melancholy that ran through so many of them. Grant was not usually a melancholy fellow, Strange thought, but the singing seemed to bring it out of him. True, he had joined in De Lancey's bawdy catch along with the rest, yet Strange felt that he had done so more out of duty than pleasure; such a song would not be his choice. Until tonight, he did not remember ever hearing Grant sing anything about the delights of the fairer sex. Yet he sang readily enough of Robin Adair and his charms, or of Tom Bowling's manly beauty. Strange recalled that morning on the hillside, when Grant had sung Over The Mountains, and it struck him that even this happy love song was about Love itself, not the love of a mistress or a wife. He remembered the way Grant had looked at him that first morning, and how that look had been there when he sang Tom Bowling, and again when he bade Strange good-night after the concert. It was a look that was neither a question nor a promise, yet had in it something of both.
If a pretty woman had looked at Strange in that way, he would have known what to think. He would not have acted on the invitation, of course, because of Arabella. But to see that look on Grant's face -
He felt an odd kind of explosion in his head, that seemed to come from very far off. It reminded him of nothing so much as the night he and Henry had gone star-gazing as boys with a new telescope borrowed for the occasion from their schoolfellow Andrew Forester, who was confined to his bed with a violent cold. At first they could see nothing clearly, and then, with a twist of the lens, the night sky was full of constellations both known and unknown. Strange felt again that sense of bafflement at the change of vision from one moment to the next, of astonishment at what he had not seen before, though it must always have been there.
Strange's education in the classics had taught him well enough that a man could be altogether a soldier, with nothing effeminate or freakish about him, and yet his greatest love might be for another man rather than for a woman. Like Achilles and Patroclus, he thought, a little dizzily. He was not at all sure he had it in him to be anyone's Patroclus, but then Grant had not asked him to be. Had not asked anything of him, only looked at him and sung.
He knew that men at war turned to each other for solace on occasion, a simple easing of a physical ache, and that it meant nothing, need trouble nobody. It seemed to him that Grant's look was of another kind, one that might disturb the order of things. He determined to put it from his mind, and succeeded so well in this that half an hour later he was still bolt awake, staring at the canvas walls of the tent as if that look was painted on them. The thought of it made him feel dazed and choked, a soft clutch at his throat. After all the months of waiting for letters from Arabella that did not come, there was a sweetness in the idea of being loved that he did not wish to examine too nearly, but which made him restless. He got up off the bed and dressed himself, determining to cool his fevered brain in the night air.
The sky was overcast - no stargazing tonight, Strange thought - and the night air was not as cold as he had expected. Nor was he alone; a man was sitting and watching the embers of the fire. Even before he spoke, Strange knew with a dull sense of inevitability that it would be Grant.
“You are up late, Merlin,” Grant said.
“You too,” said Strange, coming closer to the fire.
“I find sometimes that music makes me wakeful,” said Grant. “It is not at all the effect it is supposed to have.”
Strange laughed, a little awkwardly. “It seems to have made me wakeful also,” he said. “I was very much affected by your singing tonight.”
“It is a fine melody,” said Grant, as if brushing the compliment aside.
“It was not only the song,” Strange said before he could stop himself.
“Thank you,” Grant said. There was a warmth in his voice that Strange found he liked too much for comfort. This would not do.
Grant had been drinking, Strange saw; the glass in his hand was half empty. Strange was not sure what he would do if he asked him to join him and finish the bottle. It would be easy to go on drinking until they were drunk enough to do some thing they would deny in the morning, blaming the wine; he did not want that kind of cheat. He did not in the least know what he did want, so it was as well that Grant had now lapsed into silence.
“I still hope to hear you sing some day,” said Grant eventually, with an apparent attempt at lightness. “Or some night, perhaps.”
He got up from his seat beside the fire and came to stand by Strange, putting his hand on his shoulder.
“I find I am often humming your songs these days,” Strange said, rather breathlessly. “So perhaps you will get your wish.”
Grant leaned towards him, so close now that their faces were almost touching. Strange felt acutely aware of the air between them, as if a pane of glass that had been there before had melted away.
“Well, goodnight again, Merlin,” Grant said, letting go of Strange's shoulder and rocking back on his heels, as if conscious that he had overstepped the mark. “Pleasant dreams.”
Strange was not sure what he said in return; he felt as if it could have been the most arrant nonsense. He went back into his tent and lay down, trying to compose himself for sleep. But the soft feeling inside him disturbed him with its beating, and the touch of Grant's hand on his shoulder seemed to linger, spreading a warmth through his veins that kept him awake and wondering for hours to come.