Miranda had warned him.
Thomas stared blankly at the facing wall of the carriage. She had warned him again, and again, but he had never imagined, never believed his father would overreact in such a way. His father's men flanked him, one on each side, as if they feared he might try and leap from a moving carriage. It was an absurd notion. It was an absurd situation.
Once he reached his father's residence, he would try to make sense of matters, and persuade his father that they needn't follow this course.
The wheels of the carriage clattered on the cobbles.
The men had come while he and Miranda were taking dinner with Peter. They had not entered politely. They had come after him as if he were some manner of criminal, and as he rose from his chair, he saw Miranda's face bleach of colour.
The men took him by the arms, not even allowing him the dignity of fetching a travelling coat, and she rose, flew at them, beating at their shoulders and arms, trying to wrench them away. One of them had pulled a pistol and held it to her face and she had stared it down.
"If you are to take him," she'd whispered through white lips, "allow us a moment to say our farewells."
His arms were released and the men stepped back, giving them some little space.
He did not know what he was meant to say, even as she caught his hands. There were tears in her eyes, and he knew he ought to comfort her, but he could not gather his thoughts, his words, anything.
"James..." Their lover was gone, away to the Admiralty to try and argue their case. "You and he..." His voice trembled and he tried to gather himself. He lifted one hand to cup her cheek. "Take care of one another. Promise me. Promise me you shall."
She nodded, and the tears were rolling down her cheeks, hot against his fingers. "We will, I swear." She pressed close to him, kissing him urgently, until all he could taste was the salt and the sweetness of the wine from dinner.
His hands were shaking. "I will try not to be too long."
He could see she disbelieved him in the way her body was convulsing with stifled sobs. He looked imploringly to Peter, who approached and gently drew her back.
"I love you," she whispered, her fingers slipping from his.
He had only nodded as the men snared his arms again and all but dragged him from his home, leaving another two standing watch over Miranda and Peter. He should have said something. He should have told her the same, and now, it was far too late.
Somewhere beyond the carriage, he heard the rattle of gates being opened. The shutters were drawn up, but he knew that they had not travelled far enough to be at any one of his family's holdings in town.
"Where are we going?" he asked the man on his right, a broad, heavy-set fellow he thought might be called Henderson. The man kept staring ahead of him, as if he couldn't hear a word Thomas was saying, and a glance at his compatriot suggested he would receive much the same response.
It was only a moment later when the carriage came to a halt, and dread washed over Thomas like an icy tide.
"Please," he said, looking from one to the other. "Will you not tell me where we are?" It would not make much difference, he knew. The door would open and he would know, but it felt better to be aware, to be able to feign calm in the face of whatever was to come.
The door of the carriage was opened, and Henderson pushed him towards it.
It was dark already, and they were standing on the steps of a grand building, with beautiful facing and elegantly-carved doors. It almost seemed a reasonable place until he glanced upwards and saw the sculpted figures stretched over the lintel.
He knew the place at once and recoiled.
Surely never that.
His father was a cruel and spiteful man, but no...
Henderson and his companion took his arms again, and before them, the doors opened into the entrance hall of the building.
"No!" Thomas tried to set his feet against the ground, terror holding him fast, but the two men were both larger and far stronger.
Henderson's grip on his arm was bruising. "It would be better for your lady if you complied, my Lord."
Thomas stared at him, numb with shock. The threat was so direct that he knew he could not fight. For Miranda's sake, he let them escort him through the doors, into the lantern-lit hallway.
A man was waiting for them, plump and finely-dressed. "Mr. Hamilton," he said gravely. Not my Lord, Thomas noticed. "I am Mr. Sullivan, the proprietor of this establishment. We have a room arranged for you."
Thomas drew himself up as best he could. His heart was beating a fast as a hunted hare's. This was a place for madmen and the ill. If he could show that he was neither, prove his father's judgement was wrong...
"Sir, it appears there has been some misunderstanding." His voice was not as steady as he would have liked, but given the circumstances, it was the best he could do. "There is no cause for me to be taken into your care."
Sullivan regarded him solemnly. "I was told this may be your thought," he said. "I'm afraid many of our patients are unaware what is best for them."
Thomas stared at him. "But what cause have you to keep me here? I am neither ill nor mad. My wife is awaiting me."
"Your wife," Sullivan said carefully, as if measuring his words, "is not worth your care." He smiled benevolently. "We will help you recover from your loss. It shall be all the better for you, being rid of such a faithless whore."
All at once, Thomas began to see the shape of his father's plans for him. "I fear you have been ill-informed, sir." His mouth was dry and he felt quite dizzy, trying to put his thoughts in order. "My father, he was the one to speak of my dilemma, was he not?"
"Your father fears you may become a danger to yourself, Mr. Hamilton." He gestured to a young man standing a dozen paces away. "Nicholas will show you to your room."
Thomas had always prided himself on being a logical man, sensible, capable of thinking of all possible outcomes, but with the doors of the asylum closing behind him, and his life being shut beyond them, all reason and sense went from him.
"Mr. Hamilton," Sullivan said patiently, "we are doing this for your well-being."
Thomas shook his head. "No, I do not want nor need this." He jerked his arms against the grip of his father's men, but that only made them hold faster. His words were of no use in a place like this. They would not listen. He started to struggle in earnest, fighting desperately against their grip. "No, you cannot do this!"
If he had been James, he would have been able to break free. He would have dashed them to the ground and been out of the doors and across the yard before they could stop him. But he was not James, and James was not here, so he fought as much as he could.
He saw the look of impatience on Sullivan's face, saw his hand move sharply, and from behind him, someone struck him hard on the head.
He hit the marbled tiles of the floor, stars blazing behind his eyes. What fight there was in him shattered. As the world dimmed and blackened about him, he felt hands on his arms, and he was dragged onwards, into Bedlam.
Morning brought consciousness, but little clarity.
He was lying on a coarse straw mattress in a solitary chamber, confined by walls on all sides. There was a barred window, high up in one wall, and a door facing it in the other. Thomas knew he did not need to check whether it was locked. They would be thorough about keeping him where they had put him.
He sat up cautiously. Pain flared behind his eyes. He lifted his hand to the back of his head. There was a tender knot, and he could feel dried blood matting his hair. If they were so willing to strike him to imprison him, it did not bode well.
Gorge rose in his throat, burning and bitter, and he retched, folding over.
What little food that remained in his belly spattered on the stone floor.
Sweet Jesu, what had he done to bring about such wrath? Surely, it was not simply the pardon provision. Yes, he and his father had been fighting tooth and nail over it for months, but to have his own son and heir cast into an asylum? It was too far, especially if Thomas’s battle was lost as Peter believed.
He propped his elbows on his knees, pressing his face into his trembling hands.
If they had come after him for his plans for Nassau, then there was no telling what they might do to James who had supported him so vocally despite his misgivings, and Miranda, who his father had never cared for. She had promised they would take care of one another, but God only knew where they were, whether they were even able to stay together at all.
Somewhere beyond the door, he could hear someone screaming, shrill and repeatedly. It seemed to go on without end. Gradually other voices rose, until he could no longer tell one voice from the next in the cacophony.
When the ache in his head subsided, he rose and walked the breadth of the cell - why call it a ward, when its purpose was clear? The walls were cool to the touch, spotted here and there with mould and damp. A foul-smelling bucket was set in the corner. He forced himself to put aside his disgust to relieve himself.
The sun was tracking high across the wall, but there was no means to tell what time it was. He strained his ears listening for the bells that might tell him the hour, but if they rang, they were too far and too faint for him to make out.
Footsteps passed his door from time to time, and every time, he looked up, wary. He could not be sure what would be preferable: solitude or being drawn out to face the very real situation he was in.
By the time the door opened, he was seated upright on the low bed, his back straight, his head held high. They could part him from his loved ones and cage him like a madman, but he was still a man with a will and his dignity.
A broad, burly man was standing there. A heavy ring of keys hung from one hand. "Mr. Sullivan wants to see you."
Thomas got up, smoothing his rumpled coat as best he could. It was a small mercy that they had left him his own clothing, even if it was hardly suitable attire for a mad house. "Very well. Lead on."
The man kept a close on eye on him, as if he expected him to run wild, but Thomas knew good behaviour was far more likely to receive a favourable response. He walked alongside the man, taking in his surroundings and seeking any possible egress.
The corridor outside his cell was broad and spacious. The wall opposite the cells was line with tall windows that let daylight pour in. If not for the rows of doors with their heavy locks and small, hatched windows, it might have seemed a pleasant place.
A few other inmates were loitering in the corridor. Some were playing games with chips of mortar and pebbles. Others were sitting silently, staring. One was rocking by the wall, chewing on her fingernails that were ragged and bloody. A few of them glanced up at him, but most ignored him. There were others visible inside a few of the cells, where the doors were propped open.
He was, he realised, fortunate, to have been put in a cell himself. There were too many people for the number of doors. Whether that was for his own safety or because he was considered more of a risk, he could not be certain.
His warden unlocked a heavy wooden door, easily as thick as Thomas’s forearm, and into a well-lit hall. More wardens were loitering around. One of them had a heavy stick at his belt, and Thomas made a note of his face. That was one to be wary of.
Beyond the heavy door, the patients were muffled. It felt like he had stepped into another building entirely as he was led up a polished staircase. Maids were scrubbing at the stairs and ducked away from him as if he might be dangerous.
“Here,” the warden said, tapping on another door, finer this time, and opening it.
It was a beautifully decorated office, nothing like the cesspit he had been thrown in. The books, the furniture, the fresh, polished appearance. And the man who had him knocked unconscious to be caged like an animal.
Thomas swallowed hard, then stepped across the threshold. There was no place for fear here. He could not allow it. “Mr. Sullivan,” he said, bowing slightly at the waist. “I trust you are well this morning.”
Sullivan looked beyond him, then motioned for the warden to enter with him.
Thomas’s heart sank as he was bodily pushed further into the room. It was only when he stepped beyond the barrier of the door that he saw just why the warden might be required: his father was seated beside Sullivan’s desk, hands folded casually in his lap.
The world seemed to narrow about him.
“Father,” he managed. “Good morning.”
His father looked at him, lips twisted in contempt. Thomas felt the gossamer strands of hope tearing in his hands. There was no help to be found here. There was no freedom to be found here. There was no justice or mercy or kindness. “Sit.”
Thomas managed to hold himself upright, though his limbs felt like those of a stranger, as he made his way to the remaining chair and sank down on it. He laid his hands in his lap. They were shaking. With anger. With shock. With grief. He curled his fingers tightly in against his palms. He took a fortifying breath. “Am I to know why I am here?”
“You know damned well why.”
He wanted to laugh or scream or both. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, sir.” His voice felt unsteady. “To my knowledge I had a bill to be argued in Parliament and I was having dinner with my wife and my friend when I was brought here.”
His father’s cheek twitched. “Enough of this,” he snapped. “Why do you persist in acting the innocent, when I know about you and that damned Lieutenant?”
Thomas swayed in his seat. He was already light-headed, nauseous. “So you condemn me.”
“You condemn yourself.” His father’s eyes blazed. “Bad enough that you gadded about with that faithless whore, then you dragged our name through the dirt for your damned idealism, and this? This is just the pinnacle on a tower of disgrace. I find it-”
Thomas stopped listening. It was nothing he had not heard many times before, and he let the words wash over him like a tide. They were only words. They could not harm him. They only told him one thing: that this was his cage for as long as his father saw fit. His fate was sealed. That was certain. But James and Miranda…
He looked at his father, and said quietly over the diatribe, “What have you done to my wife?”
It cut off his father at once, then his father started to laugh. “Done? What have I done? I did not need to do anything to her. She was given the choice, as was your precious Lieutenant: they could have joined you here, or they could take freedom in exile, somewhere they will not-”
His father puffed up in indignation. “The devil you say!”
Thomas gazed at him coldly. “I say you are a liar, sir, and I would say so again. My wife would not abandon me. My lover would not abandon me. If you believe I am so easily fooled, then you do not know me at all.” He rose from the chair. “If you will excuse me, sir, I would rather be returned to my cage than spend another moment in your company.”
His father sprang to his feet in a fury. “Your insolence has gone on long enough,” he snarled. “I was patient. I was tolerant, but I have my limits and you have exceeded them by far. You have disappointed me for the last time, Thomas.”
Thomas stared at him for a long moment, then struck his father as hard as he could across the face. At once, the warden was on him, pinioning his arms behind his back and forcing him to his knees. Thomas did not fight, but he did look up at his father with contempt.
His father was apoplectic. His colour was high, his eyes ablaze, and he backhanded Thomas viciously. Thomas’s head snapped around, leaving his ears ringing. He could taste blood on his lips where his father’s seal had caught him. An irony, to lose his place in the family, but be marked with its seal and blood.
“Get that ungrateful degenerate bastard out of my sight,” his father snarled.
The grip on Thomas’s arms tightened and he was dragged back to his feet, but he kept his eyes fixed on his father. Blood was dripping down his chin, onto his shirt, and he knew he must look half-feral, but he did not care.
He had never felt such rage in his life. It was not for himself, but for James and Miranda, wherever they might be, for the lives he had ripped away from them all. Their hopes, their ambitions, their happiness, all stripped away for spite and malice.
He could taste blood on his breath and spat at his father’s feet as he was forced around and dragged from the room.
For many years, Thomas had been aware that he was a disappointment to his father, but for the first time in his life, he was starting to realise what it was to have Alfred Hamilton as an enemy.
For the first two days, he was left confined to his cell. Platters of thin gruel were slid through a hatch at the bottom of the door by the wardens, but otherwise, he saw no one. The only sounds were those of the other inmates.
Night time was worse than day by far.
To keep his thoughts from straying to grim paths, he recited passages from Aurelius to himself, trying to take comfort in the Emperor’s wisdom. The words had enlightened him so many times before, and with them, they brought the memory of James and the warm bed they had shared.
This trial, it could be survived. As Aurelius said ‘nothing happens to any man that he is not formed by nature to bear’. Let them punish him for his so-called sins. For the sake of James and Miranda’s freedom, he could and would bear it a thousand times.
Still, he was filthy, aching, and exhausted by the time they came for him on the third day. He had scarcely slept. His belly ached with hunger. His skin was a rash of fleabites from the straw mattress.
Out of pride and stubbornness, he rose as if he were entertaining in his parlour when they opened the door, because he was damned if his father would hear of him quailing.
"This way, Mr. Hamilton," one of the wardens said. "The baths are waiting.”
Thomas could not help feeling wary. He had, naturally, heard tales of Bethlem. Many of his friends had insisted he should visit. It made one feel better about one's self, they said, to see the poor mad creatures, even if it cost a few pennies. He had never been. There was enough to distract him without taking comfort in others’ misery.
He was led through the building to a small chamber. There was a metal bathing tub in the middle of the floor, and judging by the water pooled on the floor around it, it had recently been either filled or vacated.
“Remove your clothes.”
Thomas glanced at his wardens. “I can do this alone.”
“Remove your clothes,” the warden repeated.
Thomas set his jaw and complied, reluctantly laying himself bare. The air was chilly and damp, but if it meant easing the sting of the fleabites and the feeling of filth crusting his skin, he could bear it. The warden gave him a rough push down to the tub. Beneath his feet the floor was slick and cool.
The water looked clean enough, but the second he touched it, he recoiled. It was bitterly cold. “You cannot expect me to bathe in that.”
He expected an argument. He expected a reproach. He did not expect the wardens to take his arm and force him into the tub, pushing him down under the water. He thrashed, struggling, but in vain. The wardens were strong, and held him fast, held him until he stopped fighting, rasping for breath, vision grown cloudy and dark.
One of the wardens hauled his head up, and he retched over the side of the tub, too weak to even lift his arms. He could feel the cold seeping down to his bones, and when the warden dragged him from the tub, he slipped to the floor, numb and shivering.
He was given clothes. They were not his own, but coarse, crude things. He pulled them on with shaking hands, praying they might return some warmth to him. They clung to him like a second skin, just as cool and damp as the first.
He could scarcely stand, scarcely walk. He was dragged, stumbling, back to his cell, cast in as if he were no more than a piece of scrap to be disposed of. He fell to his knees, then forward, staring down at his hands. They were mottled and pale, too cold by far. He dragged himself to the bed and pulled himself up onto it, drawing his body in as tightly as he could, though it did little to assuage the chill that went right down to the bone. He wrapped his arms over his chest, shuddering, folding his hands inside the sleeves of the oversized shirt.
They meant to break him, he thought, shaken. Treating him like an animal, making him feel less than human. His father had never appreciated the man he had become, and so sought to destroy every trace of it.
Thomas drew a shivering breath between his teeth. “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break,” he said to himself, “but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” He was so cold and his body was aching with it, but the words. The words were the thing. “Be like the promontory,” he repeated quietly.
Water was only water. Cold was only cold.
What they wanted to take from him, he knew he would never relinquish.
Thomas did not know if his father had any say in the specifics of his so-called care within Bethlem. He suspected it was so. Some of the actions of the wardens suggested they had been warned how best to distress him.
Their first tool was solitude.
After his first visit to the baths, they closed him back in his cell and left him for days on end. He might have thought himself forgotten and abandoned, if the bowl of slop had not been pushed through the bottom of his door at intervals.
The wardens did not speak to him, and he had only the sound of the mad and the sick for company.
It wore down at him, like a file against steel.
He was by nature a social man. In his childhood, he had been surrounded by family. In his youth, he had his friends at Eton, then Cambridge. From there, he moved to circles in town, then wedlock, then his salons, and then…
Another room, another world, when things were right and warm and safe.
He could not sit still and silent. He could not curl up on the bed like the other inmates, rocking and waiting and staring into nothing. He could not allow himself to let the magnitude of his situation overwhelm him, for if it did, if he allowed it, then his father would have won.
So he walked in what little space he had, traversing the cell, back and forth at intervals throughout the day. Even when the chill that had taken him after the baths worsened and his legs shook, he would walk, one hand braced against the cold walls.
When he was not walking, he would meditate on the words of Marcus Aurelius, or recite as much Chaucer or Middleton or Marlow as he could recall. Provers and the wisdom of Solomon was some small comfort. It was civilised and it was human, to enjoy such things, to remember such things. If he could preserve the integrity of the man he was before the bars closed on him.
By and by, he knew the every measurement of his cell, the number of bricks in the wall, the number of slabs on the floor, the length of the room, the width, even the depth. He scratched marks in the grime on the walls where the sun hit, to try and give himself some semblance of time in a world that was ruled by day or night and nothing more.
He counted seven sun-downs and eight sun-rises and he walked again.
A pain knotted slowly in his chest, tightening and burning up his throat. He stumbled, hand braced to the wall. His eyes were burning, and he knew it was only adding fuel to their fire, but he could not contain it, not when he was used to a warm hand on his shoulder, a smile, a laugh, words and warmth and everything that was not here.
The stench of the overflowing bucket, the damp, the fever burning in his veins, the screams in the night, the constant gnawing hunger in his belly. That was what he had now. That was the gift his father had given him. The utter solitude, with no notion where the ones he loved might be, and none coming for him to offer him aid or comfort.
He sank against the wall, slumping to the floor, like a marionette with severed strings.
The chill of the wall seeped through the coarse shirt, making him shiver. He should return to the bed he knew, but he could not find the strength to move. His chest and throat were tight with grief and he could feel the heat of his tears as they hit his shirt.
The wardens found him there when they opened the door only a short while later. He was wrung dry of tears, but he had no doubt the signs of it were visible in his face. He raised his head as much as he could, daring them to mock him.
They did no such thing, only telling him he was to come with them. They took him by the arms and pulled him to his feet.
It was nothing, a scrap of contact, a handful of words, but the relief spread through him like blood in water. The pounding deafening silence of his own thoughts should not have been pushed back by the touch and indifferent words of careless, cruel men, but in the absence of anything else, Thomas knew he would take all that was given.
Christ above, his father knew him well enough to know how to hurt him best.
It was a Sunday.
Thomas had learned to recognise them.
Those were the days when the hall outside his cell was filled with people. They chattered and they laughed and they sounded too at ease and happy to be anything but visitors. No one who lived within the walls of Bethlem would laugh like that.
Sooner or later, they would peer in his door, through the little hatch used by the wardens.
He tilted his head back against the wall, turning his face away. It hurt to do so, but he was tired. He was so damned tired.
The coolness of the wall against his back was a balm, a respite from the constant ache of the marks left by the wardens’ hide. They had allowed him out of his cell for the first time only a week earlier - one-hundred and fifty-nine days marked into the wall - and that had proved to be a mistake.
He was not meant to speak to others, the wardens had snarled, when they dragged him away from the inmates he was talking to. He was not, he realised, meant to be himself. He was not meant to care nor offer comfort or friendship. He was not meant to be.
So the hide.
Not quite thin enough to be a whip. Not quite supple enough to be a belt.
Enough to split the skin of his back in half a dozen places.
There were voices at his door.
They called to him, shouted. One threw a pebble. It glanced off his shoulder. He kept his face averted, staring up at the window. It was a beautiful day outside. The sky was a clear, cool blue, and they had come into the walls of Bedlam for pleasure.
Who, Thomas wondered, were the madmen truly? Those who were caged, or those who paid for the privilege of seeing them?
It seemed his lack of response gave them no sport.
They moved on, and other faces peered in at him.
It was not unlikely there were people he knew among the throng, but whether they knew he was present and whether they would recognise him now was another matter. The weight had shrunk from him. His skin was pulled tight over his bones, pale and thin as vellum. Much of his hair was ash-white. He only knew because it grew ragged around his face. He had aged a dozen years in less than six months.
He shifted his feet against the floor. He had woollen stockings now. Autumn, it seemed, was when the good charitable ladies knitted and sewed clothing for the poor and the needy in the madhouse. It felt like an indulgence, which made him want to weep, if he’d had any tears left to shed. What manner of life was he living where a pair of stockings were a blessing?
By and by, the voices faded in the halls, and the usual bowl of food was slid through the door. Sundays were a marginal improvement, with bread and salt butter on a tin plate with a piece of some kind of meat.
Pain bloomed across his back as he bent to pick up the plate, and he sat back down as soon as he could, breathing hard. He gave thanks for the food, though it was more from habit than conviction now, and chewed and swallowed it all down.
He was still holding the cup of water when the door of his cell was opened. Light poured in, late afternoon and brilliant. He had to raise an arm to shield his eyes against it, too bright after the stagnant darkness.
“There must be a mistake.” The voice was so familiar, so wonderfully and perfectly familiar that Thomas was sure he had gone mad. “I asked you to take me to Thomas Hamilton.”
“Peter?” Thomas whispered. The cup fell from his hand, clattered on the floor. He rose, his back screaming in protest, and stared at the man standing in the door of his cell. “My God, Peter…”
Peter Ashe’s face was invisible, framed as he was by the light from behind him, but Thomas heard the sharp breath. Shock, no doubt. “Thomas?”
The warden put out a hand to stop Thomas coming any closer. “No touching,” he snapped.
“Leave us,” Peter said. His hand moved. Something glinted in it. The warden snatched at it and was gone.
Before Peter could even speak, Thomas stumbled forward, grasping at Peter’s hand, clasping it between his own. He wanted to say a thousand things, express his joy at seeing his friend once more, his regret at his state, his relief, his… sweet Jesu, his everything. He wanted to, yet it was all he could do to hold Peter’s hand between his, warm and familiar and loved.
Thomas’s lips were trembling. He wanted to smile, wished he could remember how. “I’m glad you came,” he whispered. His voice was too worn, too neglected to do much more these days. He pulled Peter’s hand to embrace it to his chest, trying to find words to express everything, but finding none. “So glad.”
Peter’s hand was shaking in his grip. “Thomas…”
Thomas felt the prick in eyes run dry with grief, but now it seemed joy had refilled them, and he bowed his head over Peter’s hand.
“Thomas, please.” Peter pulled his hand free and Thomas fought the desire to cry out at the loss of contact. “Please, I came here to say goodbye to you.”
Thomas stared at him, uncomprehending. Words were shuttling about in his mind, and pieces came together. “You… knew I was here? Before?” He shook his head. “Why did you not come sooner?”
Peter’s face was half-cast in shadow. “You know why.”
Thomas took a faltering step back, then another. The water on the floor soaked his stockings, but he could care less. “Ah.” He slowly sat down on the edge of the bed. “Yes. He was… unhappy with me.” He looked up at Peter. “But now, he allows it?”
Peter was clasping his hands in front of him, and nodded. “He- I am leaving for the Colonies in a few days time. I asked your father’s leave to come and speak with you. He knows I am unlikely to return.”
Thomas frowned in confusion. The world, it seemed, was moving fast without him. “Why the Colonies? I thought you were happiest in Parliament?”
Peter was silent for a time. Once, Thomas knew he could have interpreted the meaning of that silence, the reason, the emotion behind it. Once, when his world had not been reduced to screams and silence and the crack of leather on flesh.
“I am to be Governor of the Carolinas.”
Months without words had slowed Thomas’s mind. He understood. It was a simple sentence, but there were layers there, nuances, meanings that he knew he should understand, reasons why it was making his hands curl into fists on his knees.
Father was the Lord Proprietor.
Father would have the say in who was responsible.
The realisation struck him as hard as the warden’s whip. It must have shown on his face, for Peter fell to his knees, grasping for Thomas’s hands. Thomas stared at him, numb, blank.
“You told him.”
“Thomas, I had-”
“You told him. You told him.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” Peter’s voice was sharp on his ears. “Thomas, I have a family. I had to consider their well-being. I- your father, he’s a powerful man. He could have destroyed all of us. I had to.”
Thomas’s whole body convulsed and he folded over, vomiting his meagre meal between them. His friend, his friend, the man he had brought into his home, confided in, trusted as a brother, was the reason for the scars on his back and the blood in his mouth.
Peter’s hands were on his shoulders, holding him up.
A week, a fortnight, a month ago, he would have given anything to have someone touch him so, supporting him, but not like this. Not like this. Not when he had no doubt been sent in by his father to offer another blow.
He raised his face, breathing hard. His tongue tasted bitterness and his vision was blurring with hot tears. “You told him,” he whispered. “You betrayed all of us. For what? For the Colonies? Is that your prize?”
“My family,” Peter whispered. “I had to.”
Thomas shook his head. He tried to pull back, and the pain tore across his back. He could feel the wetness of blood on his skin. “You chose to.” He pushed his hands against his knees, sitting upright. “You came to tell me, didn’t you? You wanted me to know.”
Peter looked up at him. His face was twisted in shame. “I wanted to beg your pardon.”
“My pardon.” Thomas echoed blankly. “My pardon?”
“You’re a good man, Thomas,” Peter said pleadingly. “I know you are. You know your father. You know this is the least of the evils he could have inflicted on us.”
Thomas lifted one trembling hand to wipe his mouth. “On us.” He laughed, but it was a sharp, crackling sound. “Us. You walk out under the sun to claim a colony for your own, while I languish here, and God only knows where James and Miranda are.”
“They’re safe!” Peter blurted out at once. He grasped at Thomas’s hands again, a penitent seeking a benediction. “I promise you they’re safe. Your father did them no harm. He allowed them to leave, to go into quiet exile, somewhere they were not known.”
The flickering flames of wrath were smothered by the sudden tide of relief.
Sweet Heavens, they lived.
“Where?” he demanded urgently. “Where did they go? What are they doing? Do you know? Are they well?”
“I-I don’t know,” Peter replied falteringly. “They- west. They went west. To the Americas, I think.”
Thomas pressed his hands to his face to keep himself from breaking apart. Not in front of the man who betrayed him, who was in the pay and favour of his father. No. He could keep it a little longer, the relief and the anger and everything in between.
Peter was talking again, soft and urgent, as if he realised it was his last chance to plead his case, babble about his family, his need to shelter them from Alfred’s wrath, about having the choice of betraying them or seeing them all fall anyway, taking the only option where James and Miranda could at least have some kind of life.
“I never thought he would do this to you,” he finished, looking up imploringly at Thomas. “I never-”
“I know,” Thomas interrupted quietly. For all that he had longed for words, for conversation, for a friend for so many weeks and months, now, he wanted nothing more than the silence and the screams again. He reached out and patted Peter stiffly on the shoulder. “I understand why you did it.” The lie almost stuck in his throat, but Peter needed to hear it, and when he reported it to Thomas’s father, as he inevitably would, it would be another slap in the face to Alfred, and a reminder that his son remained who he was. “I forgive you.”
Time no longer had any meaning within the walls of Bethlem.
The days bled together, each just as bad as the one before. On the walls of his cell, there were five hundred of them marked, but there had been more since then, many more.
He had stopped keeping a tally days, weeks, months ago, when it became too much to look at the mass of lines on the wall, when it was no longer a countdown to liberation, but a reminder of all the days he had lost.
Thomas gazed at the ceiling above him.
The dawn was coming, the first traces of winter’s light playing across the moisture-slick stone.
Once, he had held onto a hope that his father's ire would be spent, and he would be able to join James and Miranda in exile. Once, he had believed that he would have the chance to walk abroad in the sunlight again and eat well and sleep in a soft bed and lie in the arms of the man who loved him.
Hope was a fragile thing. It could be broken.
He could hear the distant clatter of the wardens’ boots in the halls, the rattle of keys as the mild-tempered inmates were released into the corridor. It was likely just as warm on either side of his door, but when they unlocked his door, he sat up, rose, walked out to join the ranks of the mad and destitute.
Once, he would have spoken to them, tried to discern their stories, and how they might better be helped. Once, his back was smooth and unmarred. Once, he could uncover his wrists without flinching at the memories roused by the coarsened flesh.
Now, he did not talk to them.
He knew the wardens and keepers had conditioned him to silence, but he had felt the repercussions of rebellion too many times. He had endured it for as long as he could, but little by little, they chipped away at his resolve. As his strength diminished, so too did his tolerance for the keenly-administered pain.
He went to one of the tall windows with the thick-paned glass. It distorted the world beyond it, but to look out, even into a distorted world, was better than staring at a wall and waiting for the next bout of cruelty. There was frost forming on the pane, both inside and out.
Thomas touched his fingertips to it, a little sensation of the world beyond the walls.
Outside, the winter sky was grey. The scent of snow was in the air, even over the reek of his fellow-captives. It would be beautiful, he knew, but within these walls, it would also be deadly to many of their number.
The chills and fevers would come soon.
He had suffered more of them than he could recall, and more than once in his deliriums, he had prayed and hoped his body would release him, let him be somewhere where he would not be harmed or ill or scared or cold again.
Something swept across the sky, a bird of some kind, but the glass was too thick to allow him to see clearly.
Once, he had known poems about birds. Plants. Everything. So many words that had filled his mind. One by one, those words had left him. He had tried so hard to hold onto them, but they dripped through his fingers like his blood, his vomit, his sweat and shit and piss.
His mind was becoming an ill-filled shelf with empty places and filth and rot. In the spaces left by Shakespeare and Chaucer and Middleton, there were curses and profanities he had never heard before, but now knew well, from warden and inmate alike.
Someone screamed and he heard the crash of boots as the wardens ran.
Silence was better.
Silence meant they let him be, because they thought him cowed.
They did not know he still nursed his most precious thoughts, as fragmented and scattered as his mind was. They did not know he imagined running his hand over an expanse of freckled and sun-browned skin. They could not make him forget the way James’s breath would catch. They could not remove the joy and pleasure and rapture he had briefly had, no matter how many times they drenched him or whipped him or closed him away.
James, who was in Nassau now with Miranda. Peter believed they had gone to the Americas. Thomas knew better. James would finish what they had begun. He would do what Thomas’s father said they could not. James would do it, and what they had worked so hard towards would become a reality.
James would finish their work, for him, out of love for him.
That was his anchor. A port in a storm.
He drew his fingers back from the glass, leaving five ovals in the pale frost.
Someone was calling something that sounded like his name. He had learned too well what happened when the wardens called on him, and also what happened when he tried to ignore them. It was a choice of the lesser of two evils.
He turned to see one of the slighter men coming towards him.
Mr. Ruislip. Small. Rat-like. Dressed as if he were a station or two higher. Handy with the hide when it took his fancy. Always had to wipe his mouth and tug at his breeches afterwards.
Thomas’s fingers were curled into fists. His nails, bitten and ragged, scraped his palm. He said nothing, only looking at the man. He did not act as one mad, but some took his silence to mean that his mind was gone.
“You’re to come with me, Hamilton.” Ruislip’s voice was loud and wheedling. “Mr. Sullivan is waiting to see you.”
The question caught in Thomas’s throat. He could not recall the last time he had been taken to Sullivan’s office. His father had seen him there once, a long time ago, but after that, had there been any other occasions? He could not think.
He let Ruislip shackle his wrists, then he was led out from the corridors and halls that had been his narrowed world for so many weeks and months. The stairs felt a great challenge, and he was out of breath, head reeling, when he reached the office door.
Even as the door opened, he caught the reek of familiar wig oil, and his legs shook beneath him.
His father was waiting.
The chain between his wrists rattled, his hands trembling, but he raised his head as proudly as he could, and walked into the room was as much bearing as he could muster. Sullivan rose behind his desk, and Thomas swallowed hard before turning to meet his father’s eyes.
To his credit, his father looked shocked by his appearance, but it only lasted a moment. He indicated to the vacant chair with a twitch of his fingers. “Sit.”
Thomas considered refusing, but the chains were heavy and his arms were aching. He sank down without taking his eyes from his father’s face, and saw something like satisfaction and approval in his expression. No small wonder. It was the first time since he had attained his majority that he had done as his father had said.
It would, he decided in that moment, also be the last time.
“As you can see,” Mr. Sullivan said, “your son has responded well to our treatments. He is much more docile and compliant now.”
Docile. A man who stopped struggling when he was half-drowned because he was unconscious. Compliant. A man who was suspended by his wrists as he was doused in turn with scalding and icy water with no way to avoid it. Treatments. A man tied down and beaten for daring to speak out about the foul food more than once.
He kept his eyes on his father’s face.
“And you say he no longer speaks? Are his wits addled?”
Thomas knew he would have laughed, if he could remember how.
“We believe his temper has been curbed. If that has resulted in his silence, it is only a good thing.”
Alfred Hamilton looked back at Thomas, studying him as he would something soiled on the street. “And he’s harmless?”
“Yes, my Lord. He tends to sit by the window or rest in his ward. He has caused no trouble this six months past.”
His father grunted in approval. “Good. Better to have him out of the asylum now. The scandal has blown over.” He looked Thomas up and down. “We have attendants and a secure enough room in the country to keep him from harming anyone.” He smiled as if he was speaking in kindness, but it was a snake’s smile and never reached his eyes. “Despite his perversions, he is still a Hamilton.”
Thomas tried to piece together what his father was saying. He was to be taken home, to a much finer cage. Where he would have a bed and warmth and comfort. And all at the cost of his father believing him to be mentally crushed.
All he needed to do was to allow it, allow his father to believe him beaten.
“No.” It sounded more like the bark of a choked dog.
His father’s expression changed at once. “What did you say?”
Thomas was shivering, knowing what he was casting away, but knowing he could never, ever accept his father’s triumph, keeping him locked up as a trophy, the child he had managed to pacify and humble. His breathing was coming quick, burning in his chest, and he swallowed hard, trying to moisten his throat. “I said no,” he rasped. “I will not.”
His father rose to his feet, and it was all Thomas could do not to recoil from him. “Damn your pride,” he snarled. “You are coming home. You will rest placidly and quietly, and there will be no more of this nonsense. You are my son. You will do as I command.”
Thomas shook his head. He knew the punishments that would follow, but he knew he would take the honest cruelty of Bethlem a thousand times over than face his father’s mockery of hospitality. The words were coming together piecemeal, and they hurt his throat, but he knew they had to be said.
“You are not my father,” he whispered. “No father would do as you have done.” He struggled back to his feet. “I would rather have his name. The one man who gave a fuck about me.”
His father’s face was blotched with shock and rage. “You insolent little bastard.”
Thomas braced himself for the blow. It spun him and he fell to his knees, falling forward to catch himself on the floor. He heard Sullivan shout for the wardens. The last he saw of his father were the shiny buckles of his shoes.
The quiet was eerie.
They had placed him in a cell that was not his. There were no lines on the wall. There was no window. There was no piss-bucket in the corner.
He lay still and silent in the darkness, on his belly.
The beating had been severe. The wardens didn’t know why they were to beat him, only that they were, and that he was to be left helpless. His back was bleeding. He could feel trickles of blood, ticklish, over his ribs. Straw from the mattress was pricking at his face, and he stared, stared, stared into the dark.
“I told him,” he whispered. “I told him, James.” He wished he could weep, but the tears would not come. “I told him.”
If the world were just, he would not be alone. He had proved himself brave and resolute, and his heart had not quailed. If the world were just, James would come and tend his wounds for him, and they would smile over what he had said to his father.
Another trickle of blood ran down his side.
It hurt. Very much.
He tried to take refuge in the memory of those days, those warm, lazy summer afternoons in his study, or in his bed, or anywhere in between. He tried, but the softness was cut open by the pain in his back. It was so much worse than before, too sharp, too hard, and he could not think, and he could not see, and James’s face would not - could not - did not appear.
A sound that should have been a sob wrenched his chest. Fire spread across his back, and he had to press his face into the mattress to keep from screaming.
For the first time, he could not find a memory strong enough to push it down, away, back, anything to let him pretend all could be well. James’s face was a haze, his eyes pits, and he could not see him anymore.
No, they could not take that from him.
They could take his freedom. They could take his pride. They could take his body and do as they please with it. But not those memories, not those moments, the little breaths that gave him life and meaning and warmth and hope.
But they had.
James’s face was a blur, and the more he tried to recall every line, every crease, every freckle, the turn of his lips, the glint of his eyes… Jesu, were his eyes blue or were they green? Why did it feel so hard to remember?
He tried to ignore the pain, but with every beat of his heart, his back blazed anew, and with every surge of pain, it was harder to fix his mind on James. They had taken him. They had done what he vowed he would never let them do.
The sound caught in his throat was that of a wounded animal.
They left him there for some hours, until it was dark beyond his door.
Night, the time for sins and wickedness.
He heard the wardens’ boots, heard their voices carrying along the corridor.
“-get the bracelets on him first off.”
“Is he like to make mischief?”
“After the basting we gived him? Nay.”
The second man giggled. “D’you think he’ll piss all over the carriage? His Lordship’ll not be pleased if he pisses all over.”
Thomas’s heart felt like it had stopped in his chest. A carriage. A Lord. If they were coming for him, then his father’s word was law, and he was to be dragged, beaten and helpless, into a new cage of his father’s making.
He dragged his hands up and pushed himself upright on the bed. His back broke open and he bit down on his tongue to stifle the cry of pain. The blood was hot and thick, and his vision swam as he struggled to maintain a grasp on consciousness.
A key turned in the lock of his door, and a lantern shone into the room, dazzling him.
“Fuck me!” One of the men laughed. “Up already?”
Thomas blinked back the moisture from his eyes, the afterimage of the lamp making his head ache. “I am to go home, gentlemen?” His voice sounded like the scrape of a stone on metal.
“Ay, Mr. Hamilton.” One of the men came forward, holding the shackles. “Best put your bracelets on now.”
Thomas looked out of the open doorway. He could see the lantern’s light reflected in the glass of the towering windows that lined the corridor. The glass that had kept the world at bay. Too thick for a weak man’s hand to break it, he knew. He had tried. But a weak man with a weapon?
He held out his hands before him.
The shackles were a thick as two of his fingers, heavy too. They were meant to keep him passive and subdued, but his heart was racing now and he felt more alive and vital than he had in days, weeks, months, maybe years. It was incredible the strength anger, pain, and desperation gave him.
“May I walk unassisted?” he asked hoarsely. “It would look better for Lord Ashbourn if I did.”
By the sickly yellow lamplight, his wardens exchanged looks. The elder of the two shrugged. “If you like, Mr. Hamilton.” Anything, Thomas thought, for an easy life. Better than having to drag him kicking and screaming.
One of them stepped outside the cell with the lantern, illuminating the corridor, and the other held the door wide for him.
Thomas staggered. It was not as feigned as it might have been. The weight of the chains pulled on his arms, and he was in the middle of the corridor. Both men kept their eyes on him and he tottered another step or two, until he could brace his hands against the window ledge.
“Forgive me, sirs,” he whispered, keeping his voice faint. “A moment of dizziness.”
He saw them turn to one another, neither willing to be the one to take charge, and in that moment, he gathered all the strength he could and swung both his wrists as hard as he could at the nearest window pane.
It felt like the world stood still, and in that split-second, Thomas knew he had only two choices: escape or death. There was no other option anymore.
The metal hit the glass. The sound of the glass smashing echoed off the walls, and in the cells, the inmates clamoured to life, howling and shrieking. Screams and pounding sounded along the corridor, and Thomas was all glass shards and blood and the scent of the night’s air washed over him like freedom.
His arms already through the glass, Thomas wrenched at them and smashed more and more, trying to pull himself through, to be out, and failing that, to die as a free man, in the grass and the dirt of their oh-so-fine gardens, that were too good for the inmates.
The wardens had him by the arms, the shoulders, kicking at him, pulling him back and he was laughing and laughing, and the night air was glorious and fresh and for a moment, he had been free and it was marvellous.
Something struck the back of his head, enough to stun him, and he was dragged back through the broken window, dropped to sit on the floor.
“Run and fetch Mr. Sullivan!”
Boots pounding, and the world lit by a patch of yellow.
“Shit… Jesus Christ… shit shit shit…” The warden was on his knees by Thomas’s side. “What the fuck did you do that for?”
Thomas could feel warmth soaking through his shirt, warmer than he had been in years. He looked down at himself. His arms were laid bare. They were red, torn to ribbons. His shirt was growing redder by the moment. Not from the sleeves, but from the collar. He felt an ache in his neck. Raised his hand. Felt the trickle becoming a stream.
“Shit!” The warden was whimpering and pressed his hand over Thomas’s, trying to stem the flow of blood.
Let him. It was too late now. He could tell from the heat. His life pulsing between his fingers.
There was pain. He could feel it, but it no longer felt relevant.
He laid his head back against the wall.
Footsteps. People. More people. More lights.
Thomas opened his eyes.
Father staring. Father ashen. Father horrified.
Chained. Beaten. Starved. Shamed.
But never broken.
His hand was heavy. Fell from his throat. Blood thick.
“Thomas-” His father.
The lanterns were failing. Darker now.
“I still love him.” Thomas could see it now. James’s face. He laughed. Weak. Shaking. “You couldn’t take him. Not hi-”
The lanterns winked out.