Notes: This story was entirely inspired by Elijah's role as Ben Gunn (or maybe Ben Guh would be a better name!) in Treasure Island. Elijah speaks with a Cornish dialect; however I tried to write his dialogue so that the meaning of his words is apparent from the context.
Elijah witnessed the ship break up on the reef during the night. Flashes of lightning illumined her death throes, and great booms of thunder were punctuated by the crack of her splintering timber. Less loud, but still audible, were the agonizing cries of the men she carried as they drowned or were smashed to pieces on the rocks that protruded like jagged teeth from the churning water.
When all was silent save for the fury of the lashing wind and rain, he crept away to the cave that was his home, crawled into his makeshift bed and tried to sleep. But the howl of the wind was eerily reminiscent of the cries of the dying, and though he clamped his hands over his ears to block out the sound, as he rocked himself he could still hear their moans and wails in his head.
Because she wasn’t the first ship to founder on that reef. Another schooner had met her same fate, the Hispaniola. His ship, whose foundering left him a castaway alone on the deserted island for three years that might have been three lifetimes.
For the remainder of that terrible night Elijah cowered quaking and shaking, not from the storm’s fury but from the memories that yet haunted him. He finally dropped into an uneasy doze just before dawn, and by the time he awoke, the clouds and rain had long since departed and the skies were once more clear.
When he emerged cautiously from the shelter of his cave, blinking against the dazzle of the sun that was approaching the noon, he found the ground littered with palm fronds and windfall coconuts. He quickly gathered up the latter, even the unripe ones, and put them in a crude seaman’s chest he’d fashioned from pieces of shattered hull and some oiled rope he’d found coiled on the sand like a serpent. Keeping himself fed was a constant chore, and shinning up the trees to pick coconuts was not his favorite task, any more than climbing the ship’s rigging had been.
When he’d got the coconuts safely stowed away, Elijah relieved himself in the bushes, pulled on his ragged trousers and belted them with an old scarf. He wore no other clothes, for none were necessary in that warm climate, and his chest, arms and back had been burned deep bronze by the sun. Around his neck he set the yoke that held suspended four hollowed out gourds he used to carry water. Then he retrieved his spear, made from a length of bamboo and a sharpened butcher’s knife he’d bound to the haft with twine, and headed for the spring-fed pool about a quarter mile distant to bathe and replenish his drinking supply. Proximity to the pool, the island’s only sizable source of fresh water, had been his first priority when choosing a place to wait out the days that had turned to weeks, then months and then years, until someone found and rescued him.
He made his way cautiously along the path that he’d hacked through tangled thickets of agave and bay leaf and bamboo grass. The island teemed with animal life, and not all of it was friendly. His quick ears, attuned to every sound, immediately picked up a discordant note among the chatter of parrots, the screeching of green monkeys clambering in the treetops above him, and the rustle of palm fronds. He stopped dead. It was a human voice, a man’s voice.
Like him, someone had survived the shipwreck.
Perversely, the knowledge terrified him. Who was to say that the stranger, or strangers, for there could, he thought uneasily, be more than one, were friendly, any more than the venomous snakes, the scorpions or poisonous frogs? The circumstances under which he became a castaway had involved greed and treachery and mutiny and murder. They had never faded completely from his mind, though he’d tried to put them by like unwanted furniture in a lumber room.
Elijah carefully lifted the yoke over his head and set the gourds down in the sand before continuing on, crouching low and gripping the spear in both hands. His palms were sweating as they never did when he hunted the feral pigs that were his main source of meat - when he could catch them, that is, for they were wily and secretive creatures, and the sharp-tusked boars could be downright mean if cornered, as witness the ugly red scar on his right side from a charging boar that had nearly gored him.
But cornered people could be even meaner. He’d witnessed it first hand.
The spring and the roughly circular pool that it fed were screened from view by lush growths of ferns and wild grasses. Crouching even lower to avoid being seen, but with his spear at the ready, he crept forward until he was as close as he could be while still being concealed from view. His mouth opened on a silent ‘oh’ at the sight that met his wondering eyes. It was indeed a man, a living man; no corpse nor ghost this. Fear warred with a crazy urge to leap from the bushes with a whoop of jubilation. But Elijah remained in place, silent and still and watchful.
The man appeared to be alone. He was on his knees at the pool’s edge, scooping up water in his cupped hands and drinking it thirstily. Elijah recalled his own raging thirst when he’d found the pool after being washed up on the shore, more dead than alive. He hadn’t been able to get enough of the fresh water either.
Lank, salt-stiffened strands of chestnut hair fell about the man’s face, obscuring it from Elijah’s view. But he could see his clothes: buff breeches and a navy jacket with brass buttons and two gold bars on each shoulder. A Royal Navy uniform. The schooner had been no privateer or pirate’s vessel, but part of the British Navy’s fleet. More bitterly than ever did he regret her foundering. She might have picked him up and taken him home to England. England, which seemed ever more a distant dream belonging to someone else who had borne his same name.
Eventually, having drunk his fill, the man sat back on his heels. He wore no boots, only laddered stockings. Elijah scrutinized his face, visible now to his avid gaze, trying to judge what sort of man he might be, whether trustworthy or to be feared. The first thing Elijah noticed was that he had not survived the shipwreck unscathed. A purpling bruise discoloured the left side of his face and a smear of dried blood stood out lividly on his wide brow just below the hairline. What other injuries he might have were not apparent, but he’d managed the walk from the beach up the rocky slope to the spring unaided, which was a positive sign.
For the rest, it was, he thought hopefully, not the face of an evil or cruel man. There were laugh lines deeply graven at the corners of his eyes, and his features, though somewhat obscured by several days’ growth of beard, were rounded rather than sharp or pinched. Elijah flexed his hands around the shaft of the spear and wavered. Should he make his presence known? He would have to eventually. There was no possible way they could avoid each other. The man had found the path to the pool from the beach. He would undoubtedly find the path back to the cave, too, and the clear evidence that someone lived there. But it was a frightening proposition nonetheless, for if he was ill-intentioned Elijah had no means of escape, and he was not, nor ever had been, a fighter.
What happened next, however, drove fear and worry from his mind and replaced them with very different emotions. For the man climbed to his feet and his hands went to the buttons of his jacket. Elijah watched in rapt fascination as he undressed, swiftly shedding jacket and buff-coloured waistcoat, black cravat and muslin shirt, belt and breeches and small clothes, until he was stripped bare. The sight of the man’s hard-muscled compact body and the mat of bronze-gold hair on his chest set a pulse leaping to life at the base of Elijah’s throat, where it fluttered madly like a bejeweled hummingbird’s wings. He’d long understood that it was men, not women, whom he fancied, though he’d trod warily on board the Hispaniola, never forgetting the flogging the captain, a God-fearing, Bible-thumping man, gave two of the crew who were discovered engaging in buggery.
But the captain was long dead, dashed to pieces with the ship. There was no one to rail against ‘unnatural desires’ or to object if he stared, so stare he did, eyes travelling down the man’s chest to the thin line of darker gold hair, enticing as a line on a map showing the way to buried treasure, that led to his root, thick and ruddy, at the juncture of his thighs. Elijah swallowed hard. He’d been alone for so long with only his imagination and his own hands to bring him satisfaction, and nothing his mind conjured had ever come close to such beauty as this.
He didn’t have long to look, however, for the man, holding the cravat, waded into the water, letting out a relieved sigh as it enveloped him. The pool was no more than waist deep, but he lowered himself until he was completely submerged. When he reappeared, his face was twisted up in pain. He set one hand to the cut on his brow and frowned at his fingertips when he drew them away. What he saw there didn’t stop him from ducking his head again and again, though, sluicing the salt and sand from his hair. When he was done, he ran his fingers through the wet strands in a makeshift comb. Then he used the cravat and handfuls of sand to wash himself, and Elijah’s gaze followed each sweep of the cloth against tawny skin and his own skin tingled and tightened with imagined caresses.
Eventually the man rinsed himself one final time, wrung out the cravat and bound it over the cut on his brow, knotting it at the side of his head. Then he waded out of the pool, and Elijah found the view from behind of rounded buttocks glistening with droplets of water and well-muscled calves flexing as alluring as the view from the front.
Some hungry noise must have escaped his throat without his realising it, for suddenly the man froze.
“Is someone there?” He asked sharply, turning around to search the bushes with keen eyes.
Elijah held his breath as the man’s gaze passed over him. It didn’t falter or stop, for he was well concealed, and Elijah slowly exhaled. But the man seemed to sense Elijah’s presence, for he continued to stare in his general direction, frowning.
“If someone is there, show yourself,” he said at length.
The command in his voice was unmistakable and irresistible. His heart racing with mingled fear and anticipation, Elijah stepped out of hiding, the spear held at the ready.
Sean stared at the strange apparition that emerged from the bushes in response to his demand. For a moment he wondered if he was hallucinating the fantastical sight. His cut forehead and bruised cheek were throbbing viciously and he was utterly exhausted from the hours spent on deck with the rest of the crew trying to keep the Nonsuch afloat in the worst storm he’d ever experienced at sea. That had been followed by what seemed an eternity battling the waves that finally tossed him up on the shore like so much flotsam, after which he’d crawled up beyond their reach, wretched up the copious amounts of salt water he’d swallowed and then passed out. Enough to account for delusions, if delusion this were.
It was a man, young, naked save for a pair of faded, worn brown trousers. His hair and straggly beard and moustache resembled sheep’s wool, twisted into matted strands. A ragged bird feather stood up on one side of his head. Earrings adorned both ears, and he wore a crude necklace and bracelets fashioned from twine and sea shells and more feathers.
But that wasn’t the strangest thing about him. It was the ritualistic markings that decorated his sun-browned torso, arms, neck and face: circles and strokes of white paint. But he was no native, for he was possessed of the bluest eyes Sean had ever seen. Heavily outlined in black and white, they stood out in his tanned face, more brilliant than the costliest sapphires in the King’s Treasury.
What explanation there could be for his outlandish appearance Sean had no idea, but the spear that the young man held looked lethal indeed and Sean was unarmed. So he slowly raised his hands above his head. “I mean you no harm,” he said calmly. “I’m a castaway. My ship foundered on the reef during the night.”
The young man lowered the tip of the spear. He cleared his throat. “I knaw,” he said in a voice that sounded rough, almost rusty, as if little used. “I seed it.”
A distinctive accent, one Sean recognised immediately from sailors who had served under him during his career. He lowered his hands. “You’re Cornish?”
“Ess. Not ben home fer a longful time, though.”
Sean considered the implications of this. “Is there anyone on the island besides you?” he asked.
The young man shook his head; the feather in his hair quivered. “Theer be no one else. Only me.”
A world of loneliness inhabited his simple response. “And how long have you been here?” A long time, it seemed clear, but even so he wasn’t prepared for the reply.
“A longful time. Ovver three ears.”
“Sweet mother of God,” Sean breathed in disbelieving horror. There was a story here, that was plain, and it struck him with a force to equal that of the spar that had smashed his cheek that he would have all the time in the world to learn it. So he let the matter go, and instead said, “Tell me your name.”
“Elijah.” He hesitated, as if searching his memory for a word long forgotten. “Wood. Elijah Wood.”
“Sean Astin,” Sean replied. “Lieutenant on His Majesty’s ship the Nonsuch.” His face grew grim as images of her destruction and the death of her crew flashed through his mind. “Or so I was, until last night.” He bent and retrieved his breeches and pulled them on. His clothes were uncomfortably clammy and crusted with sand and salt. But for now they would have to do.
“I thoft narry one survived tha wreck,” said Elijah softly.
A laugh devoid of amusement escaped Sean. “I’ve no notion how I survived. By rights I shouldn’t have. We lost our main topmast first, and then the rudder sheared away and we had no control. She hit the reef broadside and I was thrown overboard and thought I was drowned for certain. But fate or God had other plans for me, and I was cast up on the beach more or less intact.” Sean pulled on his shirt, not bothering to tuck it in, and picked up the rest of his clothes. “But the others weren’t as fortunate, I fear. There were good men on the Nonsuch, Elijah, damn fine men, many with wives and children who will never see them again.”
A mist obscured Sean’s vision as he thought of the dead, some of them not only shipmates but friends; but no tears fell. Death was a constant companion on the high seas, whether by storm or illness, injury or punishment - or even murder. There was no profit to be had in crying over the deceased. You said a prayer for them, then consigned their bodies to the sea and their souls to God.
“Be ‘ee rannish?” Elijah asked, rather abruptly.
To his surprise Sean discovered that he was. “I’m famished.”
“I haave plenty of vittles if ee’d care to go weth me.” The offer was made diffidently, almost hesitantly, as if Elijah wasn’t certain how it would be received.
“I would care.” For the first time a trace of lightness entered Sean’s voice. “Thank you, Elijah.”
Elijah planted his spear’s butt end in the sand. “I come fer a turn of water. Best do it first.”
He disappeared into the bushes, and instantly Sean missed his presence. To be stranded on one of the many unoccupied small islands in the Caribbean, with no notion when rescue would ever arrive, was a fearsome proposition for even the stoutest hearted of men. He began to realise how fortune had favoured him, not only to have survived the shipwreck, but to have a companion, however fantastical his appearance, in his exile.Elijah reappeared a minute later bearing four large hollowed out gourds. Without a word he carried them to the pool, knelt, and filled them. He had a peculiar grace about him, thought Sean, and his body was lean and muscular like that of a wild cat. His eyes were drawn to the curve of the young man’s spine and travelled lower to the waistband of his trousers, gaping away from the strain of his kneeling position. A distinct line demarcated the sun-browned skin of his back and that lower down that was untouched by the sun. It was pale and creamy as an oyster’s pearl.
Elijah stood, straining against the weight of the water-filled gourds suspended from his shoulders. “‘Ee can taak the spear if ee’ve a mind to,” he said.
Sean tucked his clothes under one arm, pulled the spear from the sand and followed Elijah as he struck a path leading from the spring to wherever it was he lived.
“‘Tesn’t far,” Elijah said over his shoulder.
But very soon Sean was glad of the spear to aid him as he walked. The going underfoot was heavy after the torrential rains and the air was steamy and difficult to breathe in the closeness of the forest with its lush undergrowth. The raucous cacophony of monkeys and birds overhead set his skull to pounding, and he ached in every limb from the battering the raging sea had given him. Gritting his teeth, Sean ignored the pain and focussed on setting one foot in front of the other, leaning more and more heavily on the spear as if it were a staff.
He was nearly spent by the time the path emerged into a large open space dotted with palm trees. A grey cliff face reared its head on the right and to the left was a breathtaking view of limpid cerulean ocean and golden sand. But Sean was in no condition right then to admire the view or anything else.
Sean came to a halt, letting his bundled up clothes fall to the ground. He felt he couldn’t take even one more step without collapse. “Elijah...”
“Ay?” But then Elijah saw him and quickly set down the water and ran to him. “‘Ee look wisht,” he said worriedly, and put a steadying arm around Sean.
“I am. I think I’d better sit down.” Elijah helped him into the shade of a coconut tree and Sean sank down gratefully, resting his back against the trunk. He let out a sigh of relief and closed his eyes. Thankfully the pounding in his head started to ease.
He sensed rather than saw Elijah moving around; soon he heard the crackle of fire and smelled woodsmoke. It was too much of an effort to open his eyes, though he was curious about his surroundings and even more about the young man who was going to be his sole companion for the good lord alone knew how long. A relief ship from England would eventually come searching for the Nonsuch when no word of her reached Bristol, from whence she’d disembarked for a tour of duty in the West Indies. But that would take many weeks.
“Lieutenant.” Elijah’s voice roused him to instant wakefulness from the light doze he’d fallen into.
He discovered Elijah crouching beside him, a white pottery mug in his hand. It was chipped and stained, but still serviceable.
“Drink this. ‘Twill help tha pain.”
Sean pushed himself up a little on his hands and took the mug. It was half-filled with muddy brown liquid. “What is it?”
“‘Tes a root, but tha proper name I don’t knaw,” Elijah said. “I’ve tried jowders of moast everything here, and some of tha plants be right useful.” He grimaced. “Tothers left me palchy.”
Sean raised his eyebrows, regretted it as a shaft of pain lanced through his head. Well, he’d have to trust Elijah. He took a cautious sip. The brew was bitter but not unpalatable.
“I’ve het some tatie-rattle for ‘ee, zur. ‘Tes ready now.”
He rose as if to move away, but Sean said, “Elijah.”
He held Elijah’s gaze. “My name is Sean, not sir or Lieutenant. We will not stand on rank here. Understood?”
“‘Tes kind in ‘ee,” said Elijah. He didn’t move away, only continued to stare down at Sean, and a certain wariness in his eyes had turned to softness. The lot of a common sailor was often hard, and the distinction between them and the officers rigidly maintained. For the sake of discipline it was necessary on board, but here all that counted was surviving, and Sean had a notion that it would be Elijah who played the largest role in their survival. After all, he’d managed it alone for three long years.
The shared gaze lingered, and it took a supreme effort of will for Sean to break the hold of those mesmerising blue eyes. He managed it, though it left him shaken inside, and all too conscious of his private leanings. Elijah moved away and Sean tried not stare after him, tried not to think of the contrast and contradiction of smooth brown and cream skin and eyes bluer than the Caribbean sea.
Instead, while Elijah tended the stew, cooking in an iron pot suspended over the fire, Sean sipped at his drink and examined his surroundings.
A sturdy looking bamboo pen off to his left held a small herd of bleating goats. A hammock woven of sisal hung between two palm trees that stood close together. Bamboo poles stuck at intervals in the ground had torches bound to their tops. Oddments of all sorts littered the ground: empty coconut shells piled like skulls; stacks of palm fronds and piles of firewood; heaps of shells; bamboo of varying lengths; empty turtle shells; dried gourds. A dark opening showed in the face of the grey rock, undoubtedly leading to a cave; Sean guessed that it was the main reason Elijah had chosen this place to live.
As a temporary home, it had much to recommend it. It seemed that life as a castaway might not be as onerous and drear as he had feared. Or as lonely. But that was a potentially dangerous thought. He banished it, and finished his drink.
Whatever the root might be called, it was clearly efficacious. His aches and pains were dulling, and he felt more himself again, though fearsomely tired. Sean watched Elijah ladle stew into an inverted turtle shell serving as a bowl and his stomach growled impatiently.
Elijah brought him the food and exchanged the bowl for the empty mug.
“Thank you,” Sean said, and hungrily dug the wooden spoon Elijah gave him into the stew. After weeks of the staple salted meat, hard biscuit and sauerkraut served on board ship, any change in diet was welcome, but he was astonished at how tasty it was. No greasy lumps or gristle, but tender shreds of pork, well seasoned, and thickened with some kind of tuberous vegetable, likely wild yam. “This is very good.”
Elijah looked shyly pleased. “‘Tesn’t a proper tatie-rattle, but I wes cook’s assistant on tha Hispaniola and I larned to make do weth what’s to hand.”
“The Hispaniola? The privateer?” Sean was familiar with the ship’s name and reputation, which had not been of the highest. He recalled reading in the Bristol Gazette ages ago that she was feared lost at sea. Not many mourned the loss of her captain, a brutal man in a profession not known for coddling its own. “How long were you aboard her?”
Elijah sat down cross-legged opposite him. “Vower years,” he said. “Press gang took me in Falmouth whan I wes eighteen.”
Which meant he was now twenty-five, Sean thought. It was difficult to gauge his true age, looking as he did, and he would have guessed him to be younger.
“I wes a landsman,” Elijah went on. “Never sailed on aught larger than a skiff afore. They wanted me abew in tha rigging, being I’m so smale, but I’m afeared of heights.”
Sean nodded. You either had a head for heights or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, it was better not to be sent up and risk plummeting to your death from sheer fright or dizziness.
“Then Cook wes slight wath fever and I seed I’d taak his place. I’d tha nack of cooking from my mawther.”
“And they asked you to stay on as his assistant when he was well again?”
“Ess. He wadden best plaised, and many the whistercuff he goff me, but I dedn’t mind. ‘Twas gooder then goen aloft.”
After more than three years with no company but mute animals, it was plain that Elijah craved conversation. And Sean needed distraction from the events of the night past and the sorrowful duty that lay before him of giving what dead he could find a Christian burial so that their souls weren’t cast adrift.
“Tell me about your family, Elijah,” he prompted him.
While Sean ate, Elijah talked at length about his family. His father had been an innkeeper in Penryn, and after his death from apoplexy, his mother assumed the running of the inn with the help of Elijah and his older brother and younger sister. That they had been a close-knit family was plain. That Elijah longed to be reunited with them even more so.
“‘Tes likes they’ve gobben up hope,” he said, bending his head and tracing random patterns in the sand with a brown forefinger.
“No,” Sean replied without hesitation. “They won’t have given up hope, not though thirty years had passed instead of three. They’ll look for news of you every time a ship comes into port.”
Elijah looked quickly up, and Sean’s stomach plummeted as those startlingly blue eyes outlined in white met his. “Do ‘ee reckon so?”
“They’d be right glade to knaw I’m alive,” Elijah said. He ducked his head again. “Though sure ‘nough they’d not recognise me no more, I’m that changed.” He hurried on before Sean could speak. “And ‘ee, Sean? What about ‘ee?”
Sean set down the bowl that he’d scraped clean with his spoon, and raised one knee. He looped his arm around it and his gaze went distant and unfocussed. “My parents died when I was a child. I was sent to live with my uncle and his family in Ashbourne - that’s in the Peak District. They didn’t know what to do with me, I don’t think. I wanted to see the world, Elijah, and they were - are - content to remain quietly in Derbyshire.
“After I graduated from Eton, I begged my uncle not to send me up to Oxford but let me enlist in the Navy. It seemed the best way to fulfill my dream. I had no interest in the Grand Tour, but I’d always been fascinated by stories of sailors and the sea.” Sean chuckled softly. “I believe I wore him down with sheer persistence. He has connections in the Admiralty and bought me a commission as a midshipman when I was fourteen. Then six years ago I was promoted to Lieutenant on the Nonsuch. I should have had my own captaincy by now, but Captain Rupert was set to retire after this voyage and I would have taken over her command after our return to England.”
His mood sobered. The Nonsuch had been his home for so long, and Ned Rupert had been a just man and a fine captain, one Sean had hoped to emulate. But now both ship and captain were no more.
Elijah was describing random patterns in the sand again. “‘Tes sad I am for ‘ee, and tha Captain and all. Be ‘ee married?”
“No.” Sean hesitated, uncertain how much to say. Beneath grief, beneath pain and exhaustion ran an undercurrent of awareness unlike any he’d experienced heretofore in the presence of another man. He’d schooled himself to a rigid discipline when on board ship, never allowing so much as one improper word or look to escape him, even when he suspected a crew member of being a molly. He always waited until a return to port to indulge his proclivities in places where a man could safely and discreetly do so. It had been months since such an opportunity had presented itself, however, and he knew he must be on his guard. “It has never seemed fair to marry when I’m away at sea for such long stretches of time, and so many women end up widows and their children fatherless.”
He ran a weary hand over his face, thinking of Ned and the others whose death had left their families in just such a tragic situation, and winced as he touched the livid bruise on his cheek. He must look a sight, Sean thought, bruised and unshaven, his hair straggling about his face.
“I’d best tend to those hurts of yourn,” said Elijah, catching the wince. “‘That’s a nasty botham ‘ee have got.” He reached for Sean’s empty bowl and snagged it, then climbed to his feet. “And then ‘ee’d best taak some sleep. ‘Ee look fair done in, Sean.”
Well, there was no denying it. With a full belly and the worst of the pain dulled by the brew Elijah had given him, he could have closed his eyes and slept right where he was. But Sean didn’t yield to the insistent pull of weariness. Instead he watched Elijah as he moved about, pouring water from one of the gourds into a shallow pan and setting it over the fire to heat, and felt an immense gratitude.
The young man disappeared briefly through the dark opening in the cliff, reemerging with the supplies he’d gone to fetch. He cast some dried leaves into the pan, and within a few minutes was back at Sean’s side. He carried the steaming pan using a rag as a makeshift pot holder, and in his other hand he bore a large oyster shell.
Elijah set them down on the sand and untied the cravat that Sean had bound over the cut on his brow.
“How bad is it?” asked Sean.
“A edn bad,” said Elijah, narrowing his eyes as he examined the gash. “‘Tes well nigh stopped bleeding. I’ve nought to sew it closed, but I reckon ‘twill heal soon nuff wethout it.” He dipped the rag in the water, that smelled pleasantly of thyme among other herbs, and gently cleansed the wound. It stung, but the pain was bearable, dulled by the medicine Elijah had given him. The shell turned out to contain honey, and Elijah scooped out a large dollop with two fingers and packed the gash with it, and bound the cravat over it once more. “I den’t have fresh claths,” he apologised.
“Please don’t apologise, Elijah,” Sean said as Elijah dipped the rag again, wrung it lightly out and laid the soothing warmth against Sean’s bruised cheek.
The crashing exhaustion made it difficult for Sean to maintain his rigid hold over his emotions. He found Elijah breathtaking, from the shift of muscles in his whippet-lean frame to the shell-pink nipples that stood proudly at attention and seemed to beg for suckling, to the softly rounded stomach at variance with the rest of his physique that would, Sean thought, make a most excellent pillow for a tired head. And his eyes. Those soul-stirring eyes, narrowed now as Elijah bathed Sean’s sore cheek, that were so fathomless a blue their depths could never be plumbed, though a man died in the trying.
“Wilt haave a lie down in tha sawan now?” Elijah asked, sitting back on his heels.
“Yes, I’d best do that.”
Sean started to get up, but staggered. In a trice Elijah had an arm around him, and even the dizziness that assailed Sean and made him grateful for the young man’s support couldn’t completely distract him from the smooth warmth of his skin or its musky odour.
Thankfully, he was steadier on his feet. “I’m all right now,” he said, and the arm about him quickly dropped away. He followed Elijah to the cave’s entrance. He had to turn slightly sideways to fit through the narrow opening, but immediately inside it widened, opening into a sizable chamber. To his surprise the interior wasn’t pitch dark. Somewhere in the shadow-shrouded ceiling a small shaft allowed a little light to filter in, so that while it was dim, it was still possible to see.
“‘Tes a bra shelter,” Elijah said. “Dryth even when ‘tes lashing weth rain like issterday.”
Along one wall was a bamboo bed. A heap of dried grasses covered by a faded blanket served as its mattress. Elijah led Sean to it.
“I’ll taak yore clothes to clain if ‘ee like.”
Sean didn’t protest. He was deucedly glad to be shed of them. Dry, they were stiff with salt and chafed uncomfortably. He pulled off shirt and breeches and handed them to Elijah.
“Lie ‘ee down and sleep now,” Elijah said with a note almost of tenderness in his voice.
So Sean did. The grasses were soft and fragrant beneath him, and in moments, he dropped off to sleep.
Elijah stood for a time watching Sean sleep. He was lying on his right side, head tucked into the crook of his arm, left knee drawn up so that his genitals were hidden from view. In the dim light he might have been a phantom conjured by Elijah’s yearning imagination. Only he wasn’t a phantom, he was a living, breathing, entirely real man, and Elijah could almost believe that God had finally taken pity on him in his loneliness and delivered Sean to him.
For Sean was clearly a good man, a kind man, as different from Jakes, the captain of the Hispaniola, as chalk was from cheese. My name is Sean, not sir or Lieutenant. We will not stand on rank here. Understood? He was willing to treat Elijah as an equal, this lieutenant who had been schooled at Eton, whose family had wealth enough to buy him a commission, who spoke with the cultured accent of one of the gentry.
In its way, that was more of a miracle even than his presence.
After assuring himself that Sean was resting peacefully, Elijah left the cooler dimness of the cave for the scorching tropical sunshine. He felt reasonably certain that Sean would not stir for a good long while, and he had much to do. Sunrise to sunset Elijah didn’t dwell on his predicament; it required most of his resources simply to survive. It was the nights, lying alone in the pitch-black cave, listening to the mournful sough of the wind, that tried his soul and had driven him at times into the depths of despair. But now, assuming Sean didn’t choose to go his own way, and Elijah prayed that such would not be his choice, the despairing nights would become a thing of the past.
Gathering up the remainder of Sean’s clothes and a cake of soap, Elijah returned to the spring. With the ease of long familiarity, he wet Sean’s clothes, applied the soap, a mixture of lye, goat’s milk and coconut oil, and then pounded the salt-stained fabric with the beetle he’d made from a plank of ship’s timber. It was sweaty work, and when he was done, Elijah stripped and bathed, revelling in the sensation of cool water on his hot skin. His mind stubbornly strayed to what he’d seen earlier in this same spot and the feelings that it roused in him. He should be ashamed of his carnal thoughts, but he wasn’t. He couldn’t help what he felt. But he was keenly aware of the danger, especially if he and Sean shared the shelter of the cave together, and as he washed himself with soap and a clout, he resisted the urge to bring himself to fullness and spill with Sean’s image in his mind. He must be on his guard not to betray his feelings lest Sean be repulsed and he lose even the lieutenant’s companionship.
When he was dried and dressed again, Elijah carried everything back to the camp and spread Sean’s clothes out on the rocks in the sun to dry. It wasn’t a proper job of laundering, befitting a man of Sean’s high station, but the best he could manage. At least Sean would have clean clothes to put on, he thought, even if they were sadly wrinkled and slashed and torn in spots. Well, he could craff the worst of the damage but over the years Elijah had often wished for a proper needle and thread and spare buttons - among many other things.
While the sun beat down on the freshly washed clothes, Elijah carefully reapplied to his body the white paint that had washed off in the pool. This ritual had become as much a part of his daily dressing as putting on his trousers, and he gave it no particular thought. Then he let himself into the pen with the bleating goats and set about milking them.
By the time the sun, a giant ball of fire, started to sink toward the sea and turned the grey rocks all to flame, the chores were done, Elijah had gone down to the rocks to gather mussels for their supper, and Sean’s clothes were dry and mended. Elijah folded them neatly and took them into the cave and set them down where Sean would see them when he awoke. He hadn’t stirred, and his breathing was deep and even. Elijah lit a coconut oil lamp so he would have light to see by when he did wake, and stole away again.
It was nearly full dark when Sean at last emerged from the cave, wearing his breeches, shirt and vest and with his unruly hair pulled back into a ponytail. Other than the livid bruise on his face, he looked rested and remarkably well, and Elijah was relieved. He wasn’t skilled at doctoring. His resources were limited to such simple medicines as he could make from the herbs and roots that grew on the island, and his knowledge to what he’d picked up on the Hispaniola or from his mother.
“I apologise for sleeping the day away, Elijah,” Sean said, joining him at the fire. “And thank you for tending to my clothes. It was kind of you.”
“‘Ee don’t haave to thank me,” said Elijah. “Twadden nought.”
Sean crouched down and held out his hands to the flickering flames, though it was hardly cold. “What are you cooking?” he asked, as if he truly wanted to know.
“Mussels. I thoft ‘ee might like that,” he offered a little shyly. Surely a man like Sean was accustomed to eating fare far grander when he was on land.
“That sounds delightful.” Sean smiled at him. “After weeks at sea, there’s nothing like fresh food, and mussels are a favourite of mine.”
“‘Tes cooked weth coconut milk,” Elijah said. He dished the mussels, swimming in savoury broth, into a turtle shell then picked up a broad plantain leaf and filled it with fried plantains and goat cheese flavoured with herbs, the remainder of their supper.
“Cheese?” Sean remarked in surprise, as he took the makeshift plate. He immediately broke off a piece and tasted it.
“I do love cheese, Sean. ‘Tes like a snip of heaven to me. ‘Twas a puzzle to maak hum wethout rennet but I managed it.” He thought ruefully of the laborious trial and error and the numerous inedible batches he’d had to throw away. At least there was no lack of goats on the island to provide the milk for the cheese. Or of time to experiment.
“I can only say I’m glad you solved the puzzle. This is very good.” Sean stuck out his tongue to catch a crumb at the corner of his mouth and Elijah tried not to stare.
“How be tha head?” he asked, to distract himself from the improper thoughts running through his brain.
“Much better.” Sean sucked a mussel from the shell into his mouth, and made a humming sound low in his throat indicative of pure pleasure.
Elijah swallowed hard. Sean wasn’t making it easy on him. “I’ll tend to tha cut agen afore bed,” he said. “And make ‘ee more of tha brew for tha pain.”
Sean set the empty mussel shell on the sand and didn’t immediately answer. He seemed now to be lost in thought. “Elijah,” he eventually said, “all this is yours.” He indicated their surroundings with a sweep of his arm. “I don’t mean to barge in on you without so much as a by-your-leave and put you to so much work. If you’d rather I find my own shelter, my own food, please say so. After all, we’re chance-met acquaintances and you owe me nothing.”
“But I’ll not say it,” Elijah replied at once, anxious to allay any fears Sean had about his welcome. “‘Tes a grief to me that ‘ee be a castaway, too, but I be right glaad to haave ‘ee here.”
Some tension in Sean released its grip. “Very well. But I felt I must ask. And I intend to do my fair share of the work. You’re not to wait on me. I’ll wash my own clothes and help with the cooking and whatever else needs doing. Although,” he added with a humorous smile, “you will need to teach me how to milk a goat. It wasn’t included in the curriculum at Eton, I’m afraid.”
“‘Tes easy,” Elijah said, and he was warmed inside by Sean’s words. ‘’Ee will cotton-on soon.’
“But there will be grimmer work in the days to come, I fear,” Sean went on heavily. “I’d be grateful for your assistance with it, but I will not pressure you to accompany me.”
He didn’t have to explain what he meant. The remembered horror of the Hispaniola’s wreck and its aftermath came vividly to Elijah’s mind then.
For in the days following, a few bodies from the ship had washed up on the shore, bodies hideously bloated and battered and barely recognizable as human. He never went near the corpses but gave them a wide berth. Over time the rotting flesh was picked from the bones by the island’s numerous scavengers until nothing was left but shreds of cloth clinging to bleached skeletons half-hidden by windblown sand, and then even those pitiful remains were mercifully buried. Though his own clothes were reduced to near tatters, Elijah wasn’t one of the scavengers who took from the dead. He made use only of such things the sea gave up that weren’t human.
At low tide he could have reached the ship’s wreckage, but he never attempted it. It was dangerous, for one thing, to clamber around the rotting vessel, and for another like most Cornish he was deeply superstitious and he’d feared that he might encounter the ghosts of the drowned, vacant eyed and dripping with seaweed. They haunted his dreams as it was. So he hadn’t sought them out, but left them resting in whatever uneasy peace they might have found.
He felt a deep reluctance to relive that time, but he would be with another person, for one thing, and for another he wanted to help Sean with whatever he needed. In the space of less than one day, Lieutenant Astin had won his whole-hearted allegiance. On the high seas one soon learned to take the measure of a man, and Elijah already knew that Sean was that rarity: a leader who inspired devotion through fairness and kindness, not fear and intimidation.
“I’ll go weth ‘ee,” he said. “A edn oft for ‘ee to do alone.”
“Thank you.” Sean smiled, but it was a sad smile. Then he said, rallying himself with an effort, “You haven’t eaten anything yet. Your food will grow cold, Elijah.”
They finished their meal in a silence unbroken save by clicking sounds as they added empty mussel shells to the growing pile between them. Elijah, seeing the somber cast of Sean’s face in the firelight, understood all too well the emotions the other man was suffering. It was only after resting, eating, and beginning to heal in body that the shock that had left Elijah numb to all feeling retreated, and the stark reality of his situation took hold and grief for the dead overcame him. Clearly the same thing was happening to Sean.
He ached to offer Sean comfort, but the only comfort he could offer was in words, and of those he had but a poor store, inadequate to the moment.
And then it occurred to him that there were words he could use, those of another much wiser, better-spoken man. Softly Elijah said:
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
Sean stared at him in astonishment when he began to recite and the wonder in his eyes only grew the greater as Elijah continued.
“‘Tes Shakespeare,” said Elijah when he was done.
“I know it well, but how do you?”
“I larned it from a book I found opon the beach arter the wreck. I haave a Bible, too - ‘twas the Captain’s. Though, to tell ‘ee truth, ‘tes the Shakespeare I like gooder.” Elijah supposed he oughtn’t to confess to a preference for Shakespeare over the Lord, but he found in the Bard’s sonnets endless meaning, though it had sometimes taken him as long a time to puzzle it out as it had taken him to conquer cheese-making, and he was in a fair way to having every sonnet in the book memorised.
“You can read?” Sean sounded surprised.
“Ess, my faather taught me my letters.” It was a dim and distant memory: sitting at the scrubbed wooden table in the inn kitchen, laboriously sounding out the words in the hornbook his father used to teach him, while all around was the hustle and bustle of the guests’ meals being prepared by his mother and the servant lasses.
Sean was frowning. “I’m sorry, Elijah; that was terribly priggish of me, to assume you wouldn’t know how to read.”
“‘Tes nought.” Elijah flushed slightly, thinking on how unlearned he was next to an educated man like Sean. “I baant a scoland. But tha books have ben my soas.” He didn’t add that he often read them aloud to himself simply to hear the sound of a human voice.
“I imagine they have been your friends.” Sean’s voice was gentle, his eyes kind. “Tell me: has it been very wearisome, your sojourn here?”
Elijah wrapped his arms around his knees and stared out into the darkness. Countless nights he had sat like this, alone by the guttering fire, listening to the distant roar of the sea crashing on the reefs, or the eerie cries of nocturnal birds, or on the stillest nights the beating of his own heart.
“I waas bedoled,” he replied simply. But to his mind came the last two lines of the sonnet:
Already he thought of Sean as a friend and of the lonely days as a thing of the past. He only hoped that Sean would come to regard him as a friend in turn. Beyond that he did not dare to let his thoughts venture, especially when they retired to the cave for the night, Sean, still wearied from his ordeal, sleeping on a pallet a few arms’ lengths away.
Elijah lay awake a long time, listening to the sound of another’s breathing in a place where he had only ever heard his own, and it was enough.
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God, Edward Matthew Rupert. We commit his body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord maketh his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.”
“Amen,” said Elijah, bowing his head.
Sean closed the heavily foxed Bible that had belonged to the captain of the Hispaniola, though after enacting the graveside ceremony so many times he hardly needed to consult it, set it down and picked up a shovel. Together he and Elijah filled in the open grave, the gritty sand pattering on the shroud made from a length of canvas sail-cloth taken from the Nonsuch. When they were done, Sean crouched and set at the head of the grave the simple stone marker, etched with the deceased’s name, to mark the final resting place of the Nonsuch’s Captain.
He’d done the same for the other men that he and Elijah had buried: fifteen graves in three tidy rows in what had become a makeshift cemetery. But this final burial had been the most difficult. Though he remained stony-faced, Sean wept in his heart. When he returned to England, he vowed, however long it took, his first task would be to visit Ned’s widow to break the sorrowful news and give her what small tokens of her husband he had been able to rescue.
It had been back-breaking labour over the course of four days, and the wound on Sean’s head throbbed. He wasn’t fit yet, but in such heat waiting to bury the bodies they’d managed to recover was not an option. As it was, the stench had nearly overpowered him at times and entirely robbed him of any appetite. It had been all he could do these past two nights to choke down the dinner Elijah made before seeking out his pallet in the cave and tumbling headlong into exhausted slumber like a tree felled by a woodsman’s axe.
“Shall we go?” he asked Elijah when the stone was in place.
Silently they gathered up the shovels and the stretcher they’d used to carry the bodies to the burial ground Sean had chosen, at a considerable distance from the shore to ensure no waves, even storm-driven ones, could reach it, and out of sight of the pitiful remains of the Nonsuch.
As he trailed tiredly after Elijah, Sean battled feelings of grief and guilt. Why had Providence favoured him and not the others? He had no close family to mourn him, no children to grow up fatherless. Surely if there were justice in such matters, Ned Rupert would have survived in his stead. But it was pointless to question God’s will. He lived, and now he must set about the business of living, having done what he could to honour the deceased.
When they arrived back at the cave, Sean dropped the shovel and slumped onto the ground in the shade. Easy enough to say he must set about the business of living, but he was bone weary and sore at heart. Elijah, however, seemed unaffected by the wilting heat, and for that Sean was glad, because the grim work they’d completed was enough to sap the strength and heart of any man, and it had not set well with him to ask Elijah to share in it.
Sean gazed dully around him, thinking that he should get up and make himself useful. They had gathered more than bodies over the past few days, and the area outside the cave was crowded with a jumble of what the sea had thus far yielded in the wake of the shipwreck. They’d brought back what they could carry or drag and judged might be useful, from planks of wood, nails, lengths of rope and sail-cloth, to clothes, cooking gear, crockery and eating utensils.
The Nonsuch had been lightly laden as she had not yet reached her first port of call in Barbados, and food stores and other supplies were low after the Atlantic crossing. But they had found, bobbing like a cork on the water, a keg of rum. Sean eyed it now, and though he rarely took more than a glass of wine with a meal or of port afterward, yet the sickly smell of death lingered like a foul miasma that he couldn’t shake off, and he wished to wash it away with something stronger than water.
“Elijah,” he abruptly announced, coming to a decision, “I’m about to get drunk. Very drunk.” He pushed himself to his feet and walked purposefully to the rum keg. “Will you join me?”
“I’ve no heed for rum,” Elijah said with seeming regret. “‘Twill maak me retch. But I’ll haave a mug weth ‘ee.”
Sean filled two mugs from the keg’s tap. He handed one to Elijah, and then wasted no time in downing his, coughing a little as the strong spirit burned a path down his throat to his stomach. Immediately he refilled the mug and drained it again and then a third time. Ah, that was better. A welcome heat like the lick of fire scorched along his veins and already the horror and the grief were blurring, seeming distant as the echo of events long past.
“‘Ee will pay for it in the morning,” Elijah remarked, but not as if he was trying to persuade Sean out of having a good drunk.
So Sean simply shrugged and refilled his mug. “I know it well, and I’ll be cursing myself, no doubt. But so be it.” A thought occurred to him. “I’m a harmless drunk, or so I’m told. There’s no cause for worry, I won’t -” He stopped, aghast at what he had almost said: try to molest you. “- keep you awake all night creating a ruckus.”
Elijah smiled, his teeth a flash of white in his bronzed face. “I bean’t worried. ‘Tes plain the kind of man ‘ee be.”
Oh, but you are wrong, very wrong, Sean thought, and realised that he had been deceiving himself, at least in part. There were other means of forgetfulness apart from drink, such as the forgetfulness that could be found in another’s embrace, and the rum would serve a second purpose: to put that danger out of reach. His awareness of Elijah swirled just beneath the surface like a treacherous rip current that could snatch him unawares and drag him under. Even in the midst of their terrible labour, some part of Sean’s mind had been observing Elijah, his lithe grace, the flex of his muscles, the impossible blue of his eyes.
Quickly, he tossed back the rum; it went down smoothly now, with nary a cough. Then he hefted the keg under one arm and carried it to the nearest palm tree, wobbling a little as he did, for the world was already starting to tilt dizzily around him. He sat down rather more suddenly than he’d intended, but managed to keep one arm curved possessively around the oaken cask like a lover. He shoved the mug under the tap and filled it a fifth time.
Elijah, who seemed never to be idle, busied himself with starting the cook fire and then with organising the things they’d brought up from the beach. From time to time as he piled wood or looped rope into coils he glanced at Sean, but he didn’t speak, only went methodically about his work. Sean meanwhile worked just as methodically at getting drunk, losing count of how many times he filled and drained the mug. It helped. A delightful haze clouded his mind; he felt detached from every care, every worry, and rather inclined to hum. So he did, and his eyes never left Elijah and he thought with drunken sentimentality that the young man was the loveliest creature he’d ever set eyes upon, all golden skin and sleek muscle, like some white-striped jungle cat with eyes of sapphire blue.
But with that thought came a question nagging at him, like a prickling burr under a saddlecloth: a question he’d been meaning to ask Elijah. It seemed of utmost importance to ask it, if he could only remember what it was. Then it came to him.
“Elijah, what are those white markings?” he said, or meant to. It came out more like, ‘Elishush, whash thosh white mar- marsk-marskish?’ and he giggled helplessly.
Elijah, setting a pan over the fire, paused and bit his lip. Then he said, in a voice that trembled slightly as if with suppressed laughter. “I’ll show ‘ee on the marrow, Sean.”
“Show me whash?” Sean scratched his head in puzzlement.
But Elijah only said, “‘Ee will find out.” He added so lowly that Sean almost didn’t hear him, “If ‘ee survives.”
Sean was too anesthetised by the liquor now to pursue the matter of the white markings and what they meant. He wasn’t inclined to do anything but sit with his arm around the lovely keg, with its lovelier contents, and drink as much of it as he possibly could. Tomorrow, he decided grandly as he opened the tap again, could take care of itself.
“Oopsh,” he said, realising he hadn’t put the mug under the tap first. “Elishush, did you shee what I did?”
“Oh Sean,” Elijah said, shaking his head. “‘Ee be Piskey-laden fer sartain.”
“Sho I am, my lovely one, sho I am,” Sean drunkenly agreed, waving his mug wildly so that rum slopped over his hand, and then he started to sing grandly, in a very off-key and very slurred voice:Ohhhh, ships may come and ships may goAs long as the sea does roll.Each sailor lad just like his dad,He loves the flowing bowl.A trip on shore he does adoreWith a lad who's lean and strong.When the money's goneIt's the same old song,"Get up Jack! John, sit down!"Come along, come along, You jolly brave boys,There's lots of grog in the jar.We'll plough the briny oceanWith the jolly roving tar.When Jack comes in, it's then he'll steerTo some old boarding house.They'll welcome him with rum and gin,And feed him on pork scouse.He'll lend, spend and he'll not offendTill he's lyin' drunk on the groundWhen the money's goneIt's the same old song,"Get up Jack! John, sit down!"Come along, come along, You jolly brave boys,There's lots of grog in the jar.We'll plough the briny oceanWith the jolly roving tar.Jack, he then, oh then he'll sailBound down for NewfoundlandAll the lads fair in Placentia thereThey love that sailor man.He'll go to shore out on a tearAnd he'll find a lad in town.When the money's goneIt's the same old song,"Get up Jack! John, sit down!"Come along, come along, You jolly brave boys,There's lots of grog in the jar.We'll plough the briny oceanWith the jolly roving tar.When Jack gets old and weatherbeat,Too old to roam about,They'll let him stop in some rum shopTill eight bells calls him out.Then he'll raise his eyes up to the skies,Sayin' "Boys, we're homeward bound."When the money's goneIt's the same old song,"Get up Jack! John, sit down!"Sean tried to get up then, but immediately plopped back on his rump. “Sean shat down,” he said, and laughed uproariously, as if it was the funniest statement that he’d ever heard, and then the stars overhead started spinning dizzily round and round. The not-quite-empty mug slipped from his lax hand, and he passed into unconsciousness, not realising that nearby Elijah stood stock-still as if turned to stone by Sean’s singing.
The bleating of goats woke Sean next morning where he lay beneath the palm tree, and he clutched at his aching skull and cursed himself while he silently swore never to allow another drop of rum to cross his lips if he lived to be a hundred. The bright sunlight filtering through the leaves stabbed at his skull like an ice pick, his mouth might have been stuffed with cotton-wool and both his full-to-bursting bladder and his roiling stomach were protesting mightily.
Fool, Sean castigated himself as, using the tree as a prop, he pushed himself to his feet. He felt remarkably as he had after being cast up on the shore, only with far less excuse. I should have heeded Elijah’s warning, he thought grimly, and then, as if he’d conjured the younger man with his thought, Elijah appeared out of the cave, looking bright-eyed and alert.
“How be ‘ee?” Elijah asked.
Sean didn’t reply, just stumbled off into the bushes where he took care of both pressing problems. He reemerged feeling a fool, and worse, a drunken sot, with several days’ growth of beard and stinking of rum. A fine example of an officer in His Majesty’s Navy, he thought bitterly.He sank back to the ground, clutching his aching head between his hands.
“Taak this,” Elijah said, kneeling beside him and laying a gentle hand on his shoulder.
All the pent-up emotions inside Sean coalesced and burst forth almost violently. “Don’t touch me,” he cried, and flung Elijah’s hand away.
There was a dreadful silence and then Elijah said quietly, “I awnly wished to gov ‘ee some water.” He carefully set a mug down in the sand before rising to his feet and moving away.
“Elijah, I’m sorry,” Sean said at once, filled with remorse. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you. A fine way to repay your kindness to me.”
Elijah went still. “‘Tes no matter, Sean,” he replied. “Gaddle tha water. ‘Twill help ‘ee.”
Sean realised he was parched. He swilled out his foul-tasting mouth and then thirstily drank. Elijah might say it didn’t matter, but of course it did. Even feeling as rough as he did, or perhaps because he was unable to muster his defenses adequately, Elijah’s touch roused yearnings inside Sean that showed him clearly what danger threatened. Yet they were to be together, alone together, for God alone knew how long, and he couldn’t act the boor every time they came into physical contact. He had to do better, beginning now.
“I’m going to the spring to wash,” he said. “When I return, I want you to tell me what I can do to help. It’s time I started pulling my own weight.”
“A edn necessary,” Elijah said. “‘Ee shuddle rest.”
“It’s necessary to me,” Sean said firmly. “You helped me with the burials, now it’s my turn to help you.”
Sean wondered if he was imagining the sadness he glimpsed in Elijah’s expressive eyes as he said, “If ‘tes what ‘ee wants.”
Though he still felt wretchedly ill even after bathing, Sean held to his vow. He helped Elijah prepare a simple meal, gather fodder for the goats and then he learned how to milk them. They were docile, even friendly, and he quickly caught on to the technique. After, they fetched water from the spring and cut fresh ferns and grasses for their bedding.
In other circumstances Sean might have enjoyed himself, for the island was a place of tranquil beauty, without the bustling noise of the port cities with which he was most familiar. Jewel bright lizards basked on the rocks in the sun, motionless save for the rapid in and out of their ribcages as they breathed. Even more brilliantly coloured parakeets and parrots and other birds flitted through the canopy of the trees. The aqua sea shimmered to a cloudless horizon, and the thought occurred to Sean that even so might Eden have looked.
Yet the irony of that thought did not escape him.
The work benefitted him. He sweated away the alcohol and his head gradually cleared. Several times he caught Elijah staring as he plucked with thumb and forefinger at his damp shirt, stuck to his skin. He was probably wondering why Sean didn’t simply remove it and go shirtless as he did. Well, he’d like to, but he didn’t dare, and not for modesty’s sake.
The time passed swiftly, but not without awkwardness. He sensed in Elijah some change, what seemed to him a hint of reserve, and he didn’t know if it had to do with his intemperate behaviour earlier or with something that he’d done while drunk the night before. He had no memory of anything that occurred beyond the point at which he sat down with the rum keg. Had he made unwelcome advances to Elijah? Spoken some rude jest? The very idea sickened him, but it was impossible to ask, for if he hadn’t, he would be revealing a truth that might disgust the young man.
When the sun was high overhead and the heat oppressive they stopped for what Elijah called a titch-pipe, though they had nothing to smoke. Instead they cracked open a couple of coconuts and rested in the shade while they partook of the refreshing liquid and ate the sweet meat.
“‘Ee arst me laas naet about these,” Elijah said, gesturing at the white crescents of paint adorning his body.
“Did I?” Sean grimaced. “I’ve no recollection of it; I’m sorry. But I have wondered, it’s true. I thought at first that you might be a native, until I saw your blue eyes.”
“I seed as I would show ‘ee on the marrow. ‘Tes too het fer loustering work. I can show ‘ee now if ‘ee would like to co weth me.”
“Where?” Sean asked curiously.
“The cave? All right.” Sean was mystified but willing.
Although it was daylight, and therefore not wholly dark in the cave, Elijah lit a torch before leading Sean inside. He soon understood why, for Elijah walked past their sleeping area and continued on toward the rear of the cave that was swathed in darkness. Sean had not yet had either time or opportunity to explore it.
The shadows fled before the torch’s light and Sean caught a glint of gold. He stopped, frankly gaping. A large rusted iron pot was filled to overflowing with coins, both gold and silver.
“Elijah, where did this come from?” he asked.
Elijah glanced indifferently at the pot. “I found it.”
“But there’s a fortune here.” Sean was dumbfounded as much by Elijah’s indifference to the treasure as by the treasure itself.
“What use is tha cuyn to ussen? Theer be nought here to buy weth it.”
“You can live like a king when you return to England.” Elijah’s expression didn’t alter, however. After being shipwrecked for such a long time, Elijah likely no longer had any hope of being rescued. A deep pity filled Sean. “What is it that you want to show me?” he asked.
Elijah walked several paces further back and stopped. He held aloft the torch. “This,” he said.They had reached the back wall of the cave. It wasn’t straight, but sloped slightly toward them and the surface was irregular. The rock was pale grey in places with wider bands of copper colour or darker grey.
Sean stared at the wall, uncertain what he was supposed to be looking at, and then he let out a soft gasp of wonder as thin lines that he had at first mistook for veins of black threading through the rock resolved into lines drawn upon it instead. The wall was covered in paintings, made with simple but lively strokes, that depicted scenes of people and animals at work and play.
Without thinking he held out his hand for the torch and took it from Elijah. He walked slowly along the length of the wall, examining the paintings with rapt fascination. Fierce hunters armed with spears or bows and arrows chased wild boars or fowl. Exuberant dancers leaped through the air. Tender lovers exchanged kisses. Mothers cradled their babies or suckled them at their breasts. The men wore feathers in their hair, and faint, faded crescents of white adorned their faces and bodies.
“These look old, very old,” Sean said. He glanced over his shoulder at Elijah. “Whoever made them has long since vanished from this world, I fear, a people that shall forever remain nameless.”
“They bean’t naameless to me,” Elijah said softly.
“What do you mean?” Sean asked in surprise.
Elijah looked embarrassed. “‘Ee will think me a noggy if I tell ‘ee.”
“No, I promise I won’t. Come, tell me,” he urged
For answer, Elijah pointed to a man holding a spear. “I caal-un Daveth. This be his wife Rozen.” He indicated a woman tending a fire. “And theer is Elowen and Jory and their sonny Pawly.”
Without hesitation, Elijah named each of the people depicted in the paintings and told Sean about them as if he knew their life stories. The young man had created an entire world around these long-gone cave dwellers, Sean realised with astonishment.
“They’ve ben like my tribe,” Elijah confessed shyly. “And that is way I wear tha paint and feathers and all.”
These weren’t simply ancient drawings of some long-gone people to Elijah, but a substitute for the family he likely believed he would never see again. How many countless hours, Sean wondered, had he spent studying the paintings by the guttering light of an oil lamp while he invented stories to go with them? Sean was impressed by his vivid imagination, and strangely moved, but also saddened because it spoke so strongly of the profound loneliness Elijah had endured during his years as a castaway.
Sean had to swallow a constriction in his throat before speaking. “Thank you for sharing this with me, Elijah,” he said. “For introducing me to your tribe.”
“Than ‘ee don’t think me a noggy?” Elijah looked relieved.
“Not at all. But I hope that now I’m here, I can be a part of your tribe, too.”
At that Elijah smiled. “I’d be right glaad.”
They stared long at each other, and those extraordinary liquid blue eyes shone in the torchlight, wreaking havoc with Sean’s determination to behave above reproach, as befitted an officer and a gentleman. A treacherous thought snuck past his defenses: If he is willing, we could be together without fear or danger here. There is no one to know or care what we do.
“Elijah,” he said with an effort, resisting the allure of that thought, “a relief ship will come looking for the Nonsuch. You will not be stranded here forever. I promise you, you will see your family, your real family, again.” But he wasn’t certain if he spoke more for Elijah’s benefit or for his own.
He glanced at the pot of coins glimmering a short distance away, thinking to add that when Elijah returned, he would possess wealth enough for him and his family to live a life of ease and luxury forever. But that gleam seemed sullen and sordid compared to the gleam of sapphire blue eyes and skin honeyed golden by the sun.
About one month later...
Elijah shaded his eyes with his hand. In the distance, grey smoke rose in a thin column heavenward.
“The signal fire’s starting to die,” said Sean, following the line of Elijah’s gaze. He frowned. “I should have put more fuel on it before we left.”
“Do ‘ee want to go back?” asked Elijah.
But Sean shook his head. “No, we’ll take our chances.” He gave a small huff of laughter. “And hope that today is not the day a ship passes close enough to have seen the fire and investigate.”
“A edn like to happen, Sean.” Elijah was not nearly so sanguine as Sean about their chances for rescue, and with good reason.
For the first year or so, he too had built a fire daily and assumed that eventually someone was bound to see it. But as the months past he gradually lost hope and it seemed a wasted effort to continue so he gave it up. Though he did not want to discourage Sean, he had very little hope now. On the cave walls were more than paintings. There were strokes of charcoal, one for each day that Elijah had been shipwrecked, numbering well over a thousand now. The sight of them, covering a span taller and wider than Elijah could encompass with his arms outstretched was a cautionary warning against believing that rescue would ever arrive.
“Perhaps, but it could be months before the relief ship comes searching for the Nonsuch. If we can be rescued sooner rather than later, it will spare those at home who are waiting and worrying much grief.” Sean uncapped the water skin he carried and raised it to his lips. Tilting his head back, he drank several long swallows.
Elijah’s heart gave a queer little leap as he watched a trickle of water escape from the corner of Sean’s mouth and run down his chin, and he longed to dart in and lick it away, to know how it would taste on his tongue, warm from Sean’s skin. And that too served as a cautionary warning, but of another kind. Because if he was completely honest with himself, it wasn’t only the loss of any real hope of rescue that had him uncaring if a signal fire was lit.
Sean backhanded his mouth and pulled free his spear that he’d jammed into the sand when they stopped to drink. “Shall we go on?”
“Ess,” Elijah replied, and continued along the beach. Sean walked beside him with quick, decisive steps. He did everything quickly and decisively, Elijah had discovered. Once he was fully recovered from his head wound and the exhaustion of his ordeal, Sean appeared possessed of boundless energy. He soon expressed a desire to explore the island, and to that end, asked Elijah if he would be his guide. Elijah willingly agreed.
After more than three years, he knew it well from one end to the other, though in recent months he’d strayed less and less from the environs of the cave unless he was hunting or taking out the coracle he’d built for fishing. But there were places of exquisite beauty, and he was taking Sean to see one now, a waterfall in the mountainous, more inaccessible southern end of the roughly tear-drop shaped island.
They had cut across to the windward side where deep beaches of soft white sand made for tiring walking, but a more direct path to where they were headed. A brisk breeze raised whitecaps on the sparkling turquoise water and palm trees already bent by the wind swayed gracefully. The breeze also caused strands of sun-bleached golden hair to escape from the short clubbed ponytail at the base of Sean’s neck. They curled wildly about his face and Elijah had another temptation to fight, to reach out and brush them back.
Instead he gripped his spear tighter and kept his hands to himself. But it was increasingly difficult to hide his attraction to Sean, especially as his treacherous mind kept returning over and over to the night Sean had gotten drunk. He’d called Elijah his ‘lovely one’ and sung a familiar sea shanty, but using words that had left Elijah stunned. And wondering what it meant.
A drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts, or so the proverb went. Yet next morning, Sean had flung Elijah’s hand away as if disgusted by his touch, nor had he made any further sign that he favoured men over women, and what he was thinking, Elijah could not tell. That he avoided any bodily contact was clear, subtle though such avoidance was.
Each night they retired to the cave to sleep, and Elijah, seeing Sean’s naked body revealed golden in the lamplight as he undressed, longed to say, “‘Ee can bed weth me, Sean,” but he had never yet gained the courage to express his desire. The memory of that impassioned ‘Don’t touch me’ held him back.
“Good night, Elijah,” Sean would say, and cast himself down on his bed and quickly fall asleep.
But Elijah, after saying a soft, “Naet t’ee, Sean,” in return, rarely fell asleep at once. He remained long awake, staring up into a Stygian darkness that the light of the flickering oil lamp could not dispel, while he thought about the day gone by and contrasted it with all the days before Sean arrived. Sean’s presence was like a lamp, too, he’d decided, but one strong and bright enough to chase every shadow away. They worked together and laughed together and read Shakespeare together and they talked. Oh, how they talked.
Sean was naturally expansive, and as Elijah was starved for the sound of another’s voice, he encouraged him and listened avidly to all Sean could tell him. Truthfully, news of the Treaty of Paris, of a new Prime Minister and of revolution fomenting in the Colonies seemed remote to Elijah, and made little impression on him. What had he to do with politics and government, one unimportant, shipwrecked cook’s assistant? But any news of the world from which he’d been torn was welcome, and there was the added delight of watching Sean’s expressive face, clean-shaven now that his bruises had healed, and his equally expressive hands as he spoke learnedly of these weighty matters.
“I’ve sometimes thought that after I retire, I might pursue a political career,” Sean told him one evening as they sat by the fire. “Although in what borough is the question. My uncle is a died in the wool Tory, but I’m a Whig. There are reforms that are badly needed in England, Elijah, and I’d like to be a part of seeing them come to pass.”
Elijah did his best to hold up his side of the conversation, but he was in over his head and could offer little by way of an opinion, although Sean took all his comments seriously and never made him feel that his lack of knowledge was something shameful or to be despised.
He was far more interested in what Sean told him about his own life and adventures, of the places he’d sailed on the Nonsuch, of his childhood in the Peak District, of his family and friends. Never did he make mention of any sweetheart or lover, however, and it was impossible for Elijah to believe that a man like Sean wouldn’t be considered a catch.
He puzzled over it again now as they walked along the beach, and wished that he could get some signal from Sean that he had the same feelings towards other men as Elijah did. But the only signal with which Sean was concerned was the fire meant to bring them rescue.
The sunny day seemed to dim, though not a cloud was in the sky. Only happenstance had brought Sean into his life, and when they eventually did return to England, he would never see him again. Already, after only a few weeks, the idea was painful, for whatever Sean wasn’t, Elijah thought of him as a friend and even more, unlikely though it was, an equal. But between an educated gentleman’s son with political ambitions and a Cornish innkeeper’s son there could be no equality once they returned to civilization.
With determination, Elijah forced the gloomy thoughts away. Sean’s hopes for an early rescue aside, it might be months before any ship came, and didn’t the Gospel of St. Matthew say, Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof?
“‘Tes this way,” Elijah said after they’d walked about another mile along the beach. He led Sean away from the ocean and back into the welcome shade of the trees. The wind abruptly died when they were in the forest’s shelter and it was dim and quiet. There were no paths on this part of the island, or if once there had been, they were long since overgrown. Elijah picked his way cautiously through the dense foliage. The rising ground was strewn with rocks, and tangles of tree roots writhed through the undergrowth, making the going treacherous.
They climbed steadily for about an hour, using their spears as staffs to aid them where the terrain was especially rough or steep, and the higher they climbed, the more dramatic the landscape became. Towering kapok trees rose a hundred feet into the air and their outstretched branches formed a living canopy in which monkeys clambered or swung from branch to branch like tiny acrobats. Lianas thick as a man’s arm draped from tree to tree or twined around them in a spiralling embrace. Giant ferns twice a man’s height grew in great masses. Orchids and other rare blooms provided vivid splashes of color against the deeps green and rich browns. Strange looking mushrooms sprouted from the rotted remains of fallen trees. Rainbow-hued parrots and macaws squawked overhead, and hummingbirds with iridescent plumage sipped from scarlet flowers. Brilliant green anoles darted into hiding as they passed.
Sean’s reaction to the forest was all Elijah had hoped it would be. He stopped repeatedly to exclaim in wonder at the sights that met their eyes.
“Elijah, look,” he said once, pointing upward. A green iguana, the largest Elijah had ever seen, at least six feet long from snout to tail tip, was draped over a branch with his legs and tail dangling. He regarded them placidly, and unlike the anoles did not so much as stir at the sight of them.“That padgypaow es a rouser,” said Elijah, impressed. “And a edn afeared of ussen.”
“No, he’s not. Indeed, what has he to fear?” Sean added softly, “I thought when first I came to the island that so Eden might have appeared, and seeing this... well, I have no words to describe such beauty adequately.”
Eden. Yet Adam and Eve had fallen to temptation and been cast out of Eden. There were snakes here, too, fer de lances and boas, but it wasn’t fear of them that caused a shiver of unease to run through Elijah. It was the memory of two men stripped to the waist, struggling against their bonds, and the whistle of the cat o’ nine tails through the air... and their screams of agony as it lashed them.
“Elijah? Are you all right?” Sean asked. “Have we pressed on too hard? Do you want to rest?”
Elijah shook off his unease. “Nay, I be bra.”
Sean wiped his perspiring forehead with his shirt sleeve. The air was close and thick with humidity, though it hadn’t rained in days. “How much farther is it?” he asked.
“Not fer, a haaf-mile maybe,” said Elijah. “‘Twill be wuth it, I promise 'ee.”
They had crossed several freshets trickling down through the rocks during their climb, but they soon came to a larger watercourse, a fully-fledged stream this, wider and swift-moving. Here Elijah turned and walked upstream along its bank with Sean following close behind him.
The ground rose ever more steeply as they continued, and the stream rushed past them, foaming and frothing as it tumbled noisily over the rocks in its haste, but another sound, faint at first but progressively growing louder, rose above it. It was the distinctive roar of a waterfall.
Elijah scrambled up the final slope to where the ground at last levelled off. He stopped, panting, to wait for Sean who, less nimble, had fallen a little behind. It was many months since Elijah had last been here, and almost he had forgotten what an impressive sight the fall was, cascading in a froth of white and silver over a cliff forty feet high and into an oval pool.
Huffing with exertion, Sean clambered up beside him. “You were right,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the noise. “This was most definitely worth the climb.” He squatted and put his hand into the stream that flowed out of the pool through a tumble of grey-blue boulders and rust-coloured rocks. “The water is warm,” he remarked.
“‘Tes mineral water. See tha colour of tha rocks?” Elijah hesitated then added, hoping Sean wouldn’t notice the flush of heat rising to his cheeks, “‘Ee can taak a dip, if ‘ee wants. ‘Tes bra.”
Despite himself images of the first, and only, time he’d seen Sean bathe flashed through his mind. Though it had been a month ago, Elijah had not forgotten a single detail. Indeed, on several occasions when the ache of longing grew too great to bear and he needed to tame his wayward flesh, he found release in private by his own hand while picturing Sean’s, sweeping the wet clout across his tawny skin.
Sean stood and flicked the water from his fingers. “I’d like a closer look at the waterfall first,” he said, sounding noncommittal.
After setting down spears, water skins and food satchels, they picked their way around the pool. As they approached the fall, the air shimmered with a light mist that bedewed their skin and clothes and felt refreshing after the long climb. The noise up close was nearly deafening, so that Elijah raised his voice to a near shout. “Cummis-zon,” he said, gesturing to Sean to follow him.
“To where?” Sean looked mystified, for they were as close to the fall as they could be without jumping into the pool.
Elijah only gestured again, pleased by Sean’s mystification and the chance to surprise him.
Puzzled but compliant, Sean followed him and his eyes widened with amazement when Elijah brought them to the base of the thundering fall and then seemed to step directly into it.
“Elijah, where are you?” he called, and Elijah, laughing, poked his head out and said, “Here. Cummis-zon,” he added again. “A edn kicklish.”
He held out his hand, and after a moment’s hesitation Sean placed his in it. Elijah drew him behind the waterfall and onto the ledge, thrilling to the touch of his callused palm more than the beauty of the sheets of water that fell barely an arm’s length away and created a distorting veil, blurring the world on the other side.
“This is astonishing,” Sean said, squeezing Elijah’s hand almost painfully hard. “I’d never have guessed it was possible to walk behind a waterfall and not be drowned. How did you know this ledge was here?”
“‘Twas a monkey as showed me,” Elijah said. “I seed him clem down tha cliff and cross to tother side insye tha fall. But twadden soust, so I thoft theer med be a path, and I waas right.”
“I’m very glad you investigated. I’d not have missed this for anything. The colours are a marvel, Elijah! Look at how the light shines through the water.”
“Like standing insye a diamond,” Elijah said. “Leastways, ‘tes what I thoft from tha fust time I co insye here.” He flushed, hoping Sean wouldn’t think he sounded foolish.
“Yes, that is exactly what it is like. Only this is far more beautiful than any diamond I’ve ever seen.” Sean turned a face shining with delight to Elijah, and then seemed suddenly to realise that they were still clasping hands. He glanced down at their joined hands and up again... but he didn’t let go. The expression in his eyes caused Elijah’s heart to constrict as if it was that organ, not his hand, that Sean squeezed.
Sean moved closer so that they stood almost breast-to-breast in the narrow space. The thunder of the waterfall was no match for the thundering of Elijah’s heart as Sean raised his free hand to cup his cheek. He looked deeply into Elijah’s eyes.
Time stuttered and stopped, and if Elijah had been able to look away, he wouldn’t have been surprised to find the waterfall frozen in place as if it had been turned to stone. For nothing moved, nothing existed in that moment but Sean and the almost palpable longing in eyes gone dark and needy.
“Elijah,” Sean said, and the single whispered word was louder than if he’d shouted it and more telling than any confession.
Elijah’s tongue was tied in knots. Want, pure and simple, held him immobile and inarticulate. ’Ee daft Noggie, his mind scolded. Sayst somefin. Tell him how ‘ee feel.
But before Elijah could untangle his tongue, Sean said, “You look as if you’ve been crying white tears.” And he gently wiped away with his shirt cuff runnels of paint diluted by the mist.
It was his gentleness that defeated Elijah, and the persistent dread of misinterpreting his actions and taking an irrevocable step that might end in disaster. But when Sean was done, to Elijah’s surprise he didn’t move away, but took hold of his hand again. He said nothing and did not look at Elijah but gazed steadfastly at the shimmering curtain of water. So they stood in silence, hand-fasted, for a long time, and Elijah knew that until his dying day the memory would stay with him: the strength of Sean’s hand around his, the warmth his presence brought him, the closeness they shared, and oddly, the sense of hope he felt. Perhaps this could be an Eden for them, for a little time at least.
They did not bathe in the warm mineral water, but rested awhile and ate the food they’d brought. Sean was quieter than normal, but it might, Elijah thought, be only the difficulty of making himself heard over the roar of the waterfall.
“Thank you for bringing me here, Elijah,” Sean said when they finally gathered their belongings and prepared to leave. “This is a very special place indeed. I should like to come back again.”
“I’d like that, too,” Elijah replied, though he wondered if they ever would.
It was late afternoon by the time they returned to the cave. The signal fire had gone out, as Sean had feared, but Elijah could not bring himself to care if a ship had passed by all unknowing.
Elijah was roused from the depths of sleep by a voice crying out. Caught in the nether world between waking and sleeping, he thought for a moment that he was back aboard the Hispaniola during the wreck, but as he struggled to wakefulness and his mind cleared, he realised it was Sean. He was having a nightmare, and not for the first time.
By the light of the oil lamp he could see the other man tossing restlessly on his bed, one bare arm outflung, and his face looked tormented, twisted up with whatever terrible memory assailed him.
“No, no, no,” Sean repeated over and over in a rising crescendo that echoed eerily in the cave, and he thrashed as if fighting some invisible foe.
Elijah rose and went to him. He crouched down, wary of the flailing arms that might accidentally hit him, and said urgently, “Sean, wake up.” He reached out to shake Sean by the shoulder and a flying fist glanced off his arm. “Ud,” he exclaimed in pain. “Sean, ‘tes awnly a hilla. Wake up.” He shook him hard, and Sean started awake, his eyes wild and uncomprehending as they met Elijah’s.
“What-what is it? What’s happened?” he gasped.
“‘Ee waas dwaling,” said Elijah.
Sean sat up, his head in his hands. “I’m sorry. I had a bad dream.”
“Theer’s naught to be sorry fer.” Sean’s unbound hair fell forward, hiding his face, but his attitude spoke eloquently of his distress and Elijah’s heart smote him.
“God. I can see them - Ned, the others... They were drowning, and I couldn’t save them.” He raised his head and looked at Elijah from haunted eyes. “Do the nightmares ever end?” he said, not needing to ask if Elijah had them, too. “I want to forget.”
“I can help ‘ee to forget,” Elijah said softly, coming to a decision.
“You can? How?”
“Like this.” Not knowing if he were acting bravely or foolishly, but no longer caring, Elijah took Sean’s hand and wrapped it firmly around his shaft, dangling between his splayed thighs. “‘Ee can haave me, Sean, if ‘ee wants.”
The silence was so profound that Elijah could hear the beating of his own heart. He held his breath, feeling that if Sean rejected him, he might surely die.
“Elijah, are you certain? I would not force you.” But his fingers tightened around Elijah, and his eyes had gone heavy-lidded, sultry with desire.
“I haave wanted ‘ee since tha fust time I set eyes on ‘ee,” Elijah said.
“Then have you I will, for I will surely go mad if I don’t,” replied Sean in a husky voice.
He gave a tug on Elijah’s hardening shaft. Elijah let out a sharp cry and fell forward onto his knees. Sean shifted around onto his side until his face was only inches from what he still held in an intimate grip. He splayed his other hand across Elijah’s bare buttock and began to knead it, the sensation almost more than Elijah could bear, or so he thought until Sean tipped up his shaft and brought the head into his mouth. Loose strands of hair tickled Elijah’s thighs as Sean suckled him, and Elijah could only kneel there, hands fisted at his sides, head thrown back, while gasping whimpers were torn from his throat. Feverish prickles broke out all over his body; he shuddered helplessly. Never had he experienced such sensations, for never had anyone done to him what Sean was doing to him now, and nothing could have prepared him for how it felt: the velvety heat of Sean’s mouth, the rhythmic tug that sent lightning bolts of pleasure streaking along his limbs to his very finger and toe tips.
When it seemed that he couldn’t bear one more second of such exquisite torment, Sean released him. Then with a move so swift that it was no more than a blur, he had Elijah on his back beneath him, one muscular thigh resting between Elijah’s, pressing against his shaft so that Elijah couldn’t remain still, but rubbed cat-like against the hair-roughened hardness.
Sean was breathing hard; sweat droplets glinted as they ran down his temples. His shaft, thick and hot, burned against Elijah’s stomach. He held Elijah’s wrists pinioned beside his head, but only loosely circled; he held a most willing prisoner. Sean stared intently down at him, and his pupils were so dilated that his eyes appeared almost black.
“Never,” he said, his voice rough with need, “have I wanted anyone as I want you.” And then finally, finally he kissed Elijah, and as their lips met, it was as if flint was set to the driest tinder.
Elijah tangled his hands in Sean’s thick hair and kissed him back, and the memory of every endless hour he’d lived loveless and forsaken fuelled a desire that was almost frightening in its intensity. Sean angled his head and the kiss deepened; Elijah tasted the musk of his own flesh in Sean’s mouth and it only inflamed him the more. His hands began to move restlessly, stroking along the sweat-slick skin of Sean’s arms and back, until Sean abruptly pulled his mouth away and moved it to Elijah’s right nipple, lightly biting at it and then sucking. Elijah arched up with a cry and his fingers dug bruisingly hard into Sean’s biceps. Sean alternately bit and sucked first one nipple then the other, and Elijah nearly sobbed with the intensity of the pleasure it gave him. His shaft was painfully full now, weeping and near to spilling. He moved almost frantically against Sean’s thigh, seeking the friction that would bring relief.
But Sean shifted again, this time dipping his right shoulder and draping Elijah’s left leg over it, and then turning onto his left side so that they lay face to face. “Has a man ever had you before?” Sean asked.
“Never. I baant experienced, Sean.” However Sean might regard him, he had to be truthful. He’d spent so many years at sea and then alone on the island. No opportunity had come his way for more than fumbling encounters with other lads where no more was done than could be furtively accomplished with groping hands.
Something flared in Sean’s eyes at his reply, not scorn but satisfaction, and he said, “Then I shall be your first.” He spat several times into his palm and used the wetness to slick his shaft, that stood stiffly erect, fiery red and pulsing. He wasted no time, but pushed inside Elijah, not roughly but with authority, claiming him as his own.
He captured Elijah’s cry with his mouth, muffling it, and kissed him deeply as he withdrew slightly and pushed in again, and again. He turned Elijah onto his back again, and set up a powerful rhythm that gradually increased in tempo.
There had been more pain than pleasure at first, an uncomfortable burning stretch from the unfamiliar invasion. But Elijah’s body soon adjusted around it, and with every thrust his passage yielded and softened and in pain’s place grew a honeyed sensation that had him moaning into Sean’s mouth and clutching at his buttocks to urge him on. Sean pushed his hand between them, found Elijah’s shaft and gripped it.
A haze of piercing pleasure blurred Elijah’s vision as if he looked once more through the obscuring veil of the waterfall. Pressure built and built inside him; he lost all sense of self in the drive to find relief from the sensations tormenting him. Sean’s breath was harsh in his ear, his body shuddering as he moved no longer with smooth strokes but jerkily, like one on the verge of losing control. The climax came with stunning swiftness. Elijah stiffened as Sean stroked him over the edge and release swept through him, more gloriously shattering than he could ever have imagined. At almost the same moment Sean stiffened, too, and their twin cries of fulfillment reverberated through the cave.
They clung to each other in the aftermath like the castaways they were, tossed up this time onto a forbidden shore; but Elijah, holding Sean’s sweating, trembling body close in his arms, had absolutely no regrets. After what seemed eternity, Sean lifted his head. Elijah rejoiced to see in his eyes true peace, for the first time since he’d arrived on the island. Every nightmare had been chased away. As one that now had the right, Elijah brushed back the thick curling strands of hair and tucked them behind Sean’s ear. Sean caught his hand and, turning his face into it, kissed the palm.
“How are you?” he said, gazing intently into his eyes.
“Do ‘ee haave to ask?” Almost Elijah laughed at the question, though in truth there was soreness in an unaccustomed place. But it was easily ignored.
Sean did laugh, a rumble deep in his chest. “Then I’ll not ask if you will stay with me.” He rolled onto his back, drawing Elijah with him, and settled with a sigh of content and a jaw-cracking yawn. “Sleep well, my Elijah,” he said tenderly, and almost on the words dropped into a peaceful slumber.
My Elijah. Holding the words as close to his heart as Sean held him, Elijah, too, slept.
Elijah was up and dressed and cooking breakfast when Sean emerged from the cave next morning, rumpled and unshaven and with his shirt untucked. Elijah suddenly felt starving, but not for food. That Sean had woken in a different frame of mind became clear when he halted at the sight of Elijah, and stood looking at him as if uncertain of his reception.
Bugger that, Elijah thought, no longer willing for any doubt to fester. He ran and flung himself at Sean who, startled but not at all displeased, caught him up and whirled him around in a jubilant circle. It was quite a long time before they got around to eating.
At sunset, they sat together on the rocks, not talking but simply enjoying the new closeness they shared. Elijah leaned into Sean, resting his cheek against his shoulder, and Sean put his arm around him and they watched the sun sink below the horizon in a blaze of glory, as befitted the first full day they had spent together as lovers.
“Someday a ship will appear over that horizon,” Sean said softly. “We’ll return to England and you’ll see your mother and the rest of your family again.” His arm tightened and he added, “But however many weeks it takes for that day to arrive, I am content, Elijah.”
But Elijah said nothing, for all he could think to say was, I hope as it never does.
Nearly eight months later, they awoke one morning to find a frigate anchored offshore. It flew the flag of the British Navy.
The relief ship had arrived.
Elijah stared at the ship in stunned silence, as if it were a ghostly apparition or a figment of his imagination. But even at a distance he could make out the tiny figures of men walking back and forth on the deck or climbing in the rigging, and a longboat was being lowered into the water.
“They’ll be here soon, Elijah,” Sean said, and with none of the jubilation that might have been expected of one who had painstakingly lit a signal fire day after day for months.
Elijah didn’t reply. He couldn’t. So far was he from feeling jubilation that he was almost on the verge of tears.
“There are things we need to do before they arrive,” Sean added, and Elijah knew what they were, for they’d discussed the matter, or rather Sean had. If it had been up to Elijah, it would never have been mentioned.
Yet Sean didn’t move, but remained as one transfixed, his eyes upon the longboat that was now touching the water.
“We don’t have to go,” Elijah burst out. “We can hide up in the mountains until they leave, Sean. They’ll never find us there.”
But Sean looked steadily at him, and said, “Elijah, I’m an officer in His Majesty’s Navy. To do as you suggest would be desertion, and punishable by death if I were caught. But even if it were not, we cannot stay here. We both have a duty: you to the living and I to the dead.” He spoke quietly, but with finality. “Now come, we have much to do and little time.”
They went methodically about their tasks. Elijah freed the goats from their pen to return to their wild foraging existence. He washed the paint from his face and body, removed his adornments, put on the shirt and vest that had lain unworn in the cave for so many months and felt so odd on his body. He went to the back of the cave and said a silent goodbye to Daveth and Rozen and Eloweth and Jory and the rest of the imaginary family that had come to seem so real to him.
Then he gathered his few belongings, his extra clothes and the Bible and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and carried them outside. The pot of gold and silver he left behind, hidden in the shadows, save for a handful of coins he took to help to pay his way home to Cornwall. Sean considered the money to be Elijah’s, but Elijah had never thought of it as his. And so it would remain behind until perhaps some other benighted soul came upon it.
When Elijah left the cave for the final time, he found Sean in full dress uniform. He was straightening his shirt cuffs under the navy blue jacket, and he looked stern and severe, almost a stranger to Elijah. But his eyes were sad as he gazed around him, alighting last of all on Elijah, and Elijah wondered if he, too, looked like a stranger now.
“I shall miss this place,” Sean said. The next instant they were straining together in a desperate embrace. Both knew that it was the last they would share for many, many days to come. At length they separated, and without another word picked up their bundles and headed down to the beach where they waited side by side, but without touching, for the longboat, and rescue, to arrive.
The two and half month journey across the Atlantic was an ordeal that Elijah could barely bring himself to recall in later years. After the wholesome life he had lived on the island, the crowded conditions, the terrible food, the constant noise, were almost unbearable. And worst of all was the separation from Sean, which began the moment they set foot on board the Plymouth. The ship’s captain, Captain Nichols, welcomed Sean with an outstretched hand but had no more than a cursory greeting for Elijah. He invited Sean to join him for a glass of port, saying, “You’ll be eager for decent company and conversation, I’ll warrant.” Then he led him away, leaving Elijah behind unnoticed.
The rigid caste system on board ship meant that Sean ate, slept and socialised with the officers, while Elijah bunked with the waisters amidships. When they did meet, Sean maintained a formal attitude, betraying by not so much as a flicker of an eyelid the true nature of their relationship. His inquiries after Elijah’s well-being were studiedly impersonal, and he was careful never to touch him.
It hurt, even though Elijah understood the necessity. As it was, Elijah’s pretty looks led to ribald, if mostly good-natured, speculation about his relationship with Lieutenant Astin while they were shipwrecked. It was by no means the first time he’d been called a molly-candle, and he’d learned that the only way to deal with such gossip was to make light of it and return the insults with jests until, eventually, it died a natural death.
Only once, unexpectedly coming face to face in a narrow passageway with no one else close by, did Sean’s façade of formality crack. “This is intolerable,” he said in a low agonised voice. “Elijah...” For a moment matters hung in the balance, and Elijah was uncertain whether he most feared or longed for Sean to risk an embrace, then footsteps sounded on the floorboards behind them and the opportunity was gone. “It will be different after we are home, I promise,” Sean said, and left.
But Elijah could put little faith in Sean’s promise. Already the forces of an intolerant society were tearing them apart, and though he was looking forward to being reunited with his family, he wondered sadly if it would be worth the cost.
The Plymouth put into Bristol on a fine late September afternoon. Elijah bid farewell to his shipmates with small regret, and after inquiring of a passer-by the directions, made his way to the White Hart Inn. In the tumult of disembarking, Sean had found an opportunity to slip him a scrap of paper on which he’d written,Take a room at The White Hart. I’ll meet you there.
Elijah took the room, a small chamber at the rear of the building, and arranged for supper to be sent up an hour hence. Then he stretched out on the bed, arms behind his head, and let the silence wrap around him like a blanket. It seemed like forever since he’d been alone and he welcomed the solitude. His years on the island had changed him, he realised, in ways he was only beginning to understand.
A servant arrived with the food, and set the tray on a table. “You must be powerful ‘ungry,” he remarked, for Elijah had ordered enough for two, expecting Sean to have joined him by now. He made no reply, only gave the man a coin and sent him away.
He waited as long as he could before giving in to his hunger and eating. His first real meal literally in years should have been cause for celebration, but a gnawing anxiety made it difficult to enjoy. Had something occurred to delay Sean? Or was he not going to join Elijah after all? Perhaps he was already on his way to visit Ned Rupert’s widow in Bath, a small voice whispered inside him. He immediately felt ashamed, but as time passed and it grew later, it was hard to quell the fear that the note had been intended as a deception so that Sean might depart without Elijah’s knowledge.
Just when Elijah had almost given up hope, a soft knock came at the door. It opened and Sean came in. He set down his bag, shut the door and locked it. For a few heartbeats they stared at each other, almost as if disbelieving this moment had finally arrived, and then they whirled together like windblown leaves. So frantic was their need after the long weeks of separation that they didn’t even fully undress, only pushed down and aside what was necessary to couple.
Afterward, they shed their clothes and lay entwined under the blankets, savouring the intimacy they had been denied aboard the Plymouth.
“I’m sorry I was so late,” Sean said. “I was at the naval office giving them a report on the Nonsuch, and then Nichols dragged me off to his club to have dinner with him and a group of officers. I couldn’t find any graceful way to refuse, though I could hardly wait to be rid of the man.”
“‘Tes no matter,” Elijah said. “‘Ee be here now.” He tightened his arms around Sean, and perhaps something in how he held him told of the fears he’d harboured.
“Were you afraid that I wouldn’t come?” Sean asked softly.
Elijah bowed his head against Sean’s chest. “I waas afeared, Sean. I’m sorry.”
Sean slid a hand under Elijah’s chin and tilted his face up. “Elijah, I swear to you on all that I hold sacred that I will never forsake you. Never, do you understand?”
“A ess a longful time, never,” Elijah said, thinking of the many obstacles in their path.
But Sean only chuckled. “Ah, you Cornish, always so practical. But I won’t bandy words with you, dear heart. There are better ways to prove my point.” And he kissed Elijah, softly at first, but then pushed him onto his back and deepened the kiss. He pleasured Elijah with hands and mouth, taking no thought for himself, and turned every touch, every kiss, into an affirmation of his vow, so that Elijah, for the first time since leaving the island, had hope that never meant the same as forever.
They loved once more in the gray light of dawn, and when Elijah awoke some hours later, it was to discover himself alone. Sean had departed without waking him to say goodbye. But on the table he’d left a note in his decisive handwriting.
And remember, too, Shakespeare’s lines that you recited to me: But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restored and sorrows end.
Until we meet again,
Elijah stood at his bedroom window staring out at the rain. The inn yard cobbles were swimming with water from the relentless downpour. He shivered and wondered if he’d ever be warm again. He always seemed to be cold, for even the hottest days in Cornwall could not match the balmy warmth of the Caribbean. But now, in late November, he felt shrimmy, the raw damp seeping into his very bones. Perhaps later he could sneak a hot bath and soak away the cold, though the inn was crowded and opportunities for bathing limited.
If he was back on the island, Elijah thought wistfully, he could go down to the beach and lie in the warm salt water that was better than any bath in a copper tub. The irony of this thought didn’t escape him. For three years he’d dreamed of being rescued, of seeing his family again, but now that he was back in Penryn and reunited with them, he missed the island so greatly that at times it was almost a physical ache.
He traced a trickle of rain with his forefinger as it ran down the glass, and remembered how he’d traced lines in the sand the first time he’d met Sean. No, he thought sadly, it wasn’t really the island he missed, but the man whose arrival there had turned a lonely exile into happiness greater than any Elijah had ever known. Wherever Sean was, there would be warmth and light and hope, no matter how cold and dreary the weather.
’Don’t goath out fur,’ Elijah warned as Sean set foot in the sparkling turquoise water. ‘Theer be sharks. They can taak ‘ee waist deep.’ His eyes boldly caressed Sean’s naked body, his shoulders and back tanned golden by the sun and sprinkled with darker freckles, his shapely buttocks and powerfully muscled legs several shades paler.
Sean looked back over his shoulder and grinned. ‘Why don’t you try and stop me, then?’ he challenged, and started to run, splashing through the shallows.
Elijah gave chase and quickly caught him up, grabbing him around the waist from behind. Sean twisted in his arms, and they playfully tussled, laughing breathlessly, until laughter turned to another emotion, a passion that was ever present, bubbling just below the surface. Locked in each other’s arms, they sank into the water’s warm embrace and made love with abandon, knowing that there were none to see them, save the gulls high overhead.
Shutting his eyes tighter to block out the grey and gloomy reality, Elijah lost himself in the memory, sinking into a waking dream of sunlight dazzling on water, of gulls wheeling and crying, of wavelets hissing on the sand, and of Sean poised above him, his eyes, a brilliant emerald green in his tanned face, alight with desire as they stared into his. ‘Dear god how I love you,’ he’d said, speaking the words for the first time, and Elijah had replied, ‘As I love ‘ee. I am theese, Sean.’
Elijah swallowed a lump in his throat and fought against the despair that threatened to swamp him like a great wave whenever he thought of Sean, whom he had neither seen nor heard from since they parted in Bristol nearly fourteen months earlier. He did not need to mark each passing day on the wall of his bedroom with charcoal to keep count of the time; the strokes were inscribed in his heart as if carved there by a knife.
“Elijah, what be ‘ee about?”
Elijah started guiltily and turned away from the window to face his mother, who had entered the room unnoticed and was watching him with the expression of loving exasperation that increasingly characterised her dealings with him.
“Nawthen,” he said.
“So I see.” His mother set her hands on her hips and fixed him with a stern look. “‘Tes time and past fer ‘ee to stop thy woolgathering. ‘Ee bain’t a bearn now, Elijah, but a man full-growed.”
“I knaw,” Elijah replied.
“Do ‘ee?” Her voice softened as she added, “I need ‘ee to help Hannah set tha tables fer brukfast.”
But before Elijah could move, his mother came to him and put her arms around him and held him tightly. “I wish I knawed what ails ‘ee, my sonny,” she said, sounding sorrowful. “But ‘tes plain that ‘ee be miserable.”
“I’m sorry,” Elijah whispered, but he didn’t deny it. He was miserable.
His mother sighed and let him go. “I mun go and see to tha cooking, Elijah,” she said, and departed.
Elijah wished he might have answered her differently, confided in her as he once would have. But how could he explain, when what ailed him was a sickness of the heart, a longing for another man? He’d barely mentioned Sean in all these months for fear of revealing too much. She would never understand, and if he were cast out, where would he go? Back to sea? He had not chosen that life, the press gang had chosen it for him. The seafaring life did not call to him as it did to Sean. He supposed he could go to the colonies, work for his passage to the Carolinas; change was occurring in America, according to Sean. A man like him might find a safe haven there.
But if he departed and Sean came looking for him, what then? He couldn’t risk it, for he clung doggedly to Sean’s promise, however slender and frail a reed it now appeared.
So here he remained, miserable and cold but held fast by bonds invisible yet unbreakable.
Elijah went to his dresser and took a plain white cravat from the top drawer. He looped it around his neck and looked into the mirror as he knotted it. It still came as a shock to see staring back at him a pale, clean-shaven stranger with short hair and a face bare of paint. He had put on a loose fitting linen shirt and woollen vest, and though he’d grown accustomed to wearing them again, as well as shoes and stockings, he never felt quite comfortable. He sighed, and finished arranging the cravat, but when he was done, he didn’t move.
Instead, he reached for something draped over a corner of the mirror’s frame. It was a necklace made of twine and decorated with shells and feathers, one of the few mementos he’d brought with him when he left the island. He passed it gently through his fingers, as one might a rosary, and softly recited, But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restored and sorrows end.
Heartened, Elijah returned the necklace to its place on the mirror, and went below stairs to help his sister.
The dining room of the Anchor was abustle and Elijah was run nearly off his feet waiting at table with Hannah. The usual complement of able seamen who favoured the inn, many of them the worse for wear from carousing the night before, was augmented by a group of locals seeking refuge from the rain.
“Theer be another wanting brukfast,” said Hannah, blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Though wher he be a’goen to sit bumfoozles me.” She suddenly elbowed Elijah. “Eh, but this un’s eyable, edn he. A proper gentleman.”
Elijah turned to look at the newcomer, and the air whooshed out of his lungs as if he’d been punched in the gut. It was Sean, resplendent not in the uniform of His Majesty’s Navy, but a bottle-green frock coat, tan breeches and riding boots. He had a cocked hat tucked under one arm and his unruly hair was neatly combed and clubbed with a black ribbon.
“Marning, zur,” said Hannah, who had hustled over to greet him. She bobbed a curtsy and dimpled at him. “Aar ‘ee wanting brukfast?” she asked.
Sean looked straight at Elijah and said, “No. I’ve come for something that belongs to me.”
The beach was covered with crates and barrels and sacks and boxes and trunks. A dozen chickens and a rooster squawked from several wooden cages. A pair of soulful-eyed spaniels snuffled as they trotted to and fro on the beach, following intriguing scents.
Elijah plopped down on the sand, pulled off his shoes and stockings and tossed them exuberantly away. Sean laughed. “I should have known that would be the first thing you’d do.”
“And this be tha second,” Elijah said. He scrambled to his feet and launched himself at Sean, who caught him and whirled him around in a jubilant circle, as he’d done the morning after they’d first made love.
They shared a celebratory kiss then Sean set him down and said, “I have a surprise for you, but I’m going to have to blindfold you so that it will be a proper a surprise.”
“We haave to carr tha supplies to tha sawan,” Elijah said. “Shuddle we do that fust?”
“It can wait. This can’t, unless you prefer to see me run mad. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a very long time.” Sean pulled a black kerchief from his coat pocket, placed it over Elijah’s eyes then tied it at the back of his head. He turned him in a circle, this way and that, to disorient him before leading him away from the water.
“Wher be we a’goen?” Elijah asked.
“It won’t be a surprise if I tell you.”
“Hmph,” Elijah said. “‘Ee be clubbish, Sean.”
Sean gave him a pinch on the bottom, and Elijah yelped. “You see how cruel I can be. Now hush, and keep walking.”
They walked for some time, the spaniels, who were aptly named Dash and Dither, running in circles around them.
“Caan’t I look yit?” Elijah said plaintively.
Sean laughed. “No, not yet, oh impatient one. We’re almost there, though.”
“I hate zurprises, Sean.”
“So I gather. But I didn’t spend all these months preparing this one for you to let it be spoiled now.”
In truth, Elijah didn’t mind. How could he? From the moment Sean had appeared at the Anchor and swept him away to Falmouth, where a hired ship awaited the outgoing tide, life had been nothing but one joyful surprise after the other, beginning with the news that the ship was setting a course for the Windward Islands, in particular a small unnamed, uninhabited island that they both knew well.
At last Sean came to a halt. “Here we are,” he announced. “Are you ready?”
“‘Ee knaws tha answer to that question.”
“All right then. One, two, three...” He unfastened the knot and the blindfold fell away.
Elijah stared in open-mouthed astonishment. They were standing by the cave, but gone was the goat pen, gone were the coconut trees and the other vegetation. In their place stood a house, with its back to the cliff face and its front facing the beautiful vista of sand and sea. It was more a cottage than a full-sized house, of one story with a wide covered verandah on three sides and tall windows with sturdy wooden shutters.
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living in a cave, Elijah,” Sean said.
“But how did ‘ee do this?” Elijah asked. “‘Tes like a miracle.”
“I know you didn’t want to keep the money, but I found a good use for it, to buy materials and hire men to build the house.”
“And ‘ee did this fer me?” Tears started to course down Elijah’s cheeks.
Sean encircled him from behind with his arms and held him. “We did our duty, Elijah, but it was clear from the time we boarded the Plymouth that to imagine we could have a life together in England was a pipe dream. I don’t want to skulk in the shadows to be with you, or watch you be treated with scorn and feel helpless to defend you. Here we can be free to love each other as we choose, with no one to judge us.” He dropped his arms and took Elijah by the hand. “Now let’s go inside and I’ll show you around our house.”
“We’ll haave to think of a naame fer it,” Elijah said.
“I already have,” replied Sean, smiling. “We’ll call it Eden.”