This is a scene early on in the story, where Oliver and Jack have stopped for the night. Oliver is worried that they are being followed, but more, he’s worried about Jack, who has a fever and some yet-undetermined illness. (From Jack’s point of view.)
Leaving Jack in the dim entryway, Nolly hurried over to get the books, then came back, the weight of them in one arm, Jack’s hat dangling from his fingers. That Nolly could take charge as easily as Jack was made plain as Nolly stopped at the front counter to ask for a candle to take to bed with them. The clerk lit one for them, and this Nolly took.
Jack let Nolly lead him across the main room to the slender stairway at the far end, darkened by railings and slanting up into the half-beamed ceiling.
Feeling only a bit better, now that his stomach was empty, Jack felt in his pocket for the key. It was an ordinary brass key that would have been so easy to copy and a metal ring tag as well, which clattered in his hand as if he shook.
As they mounted the stairs, Jack could almost hear the concern in Nolly’s breathing as to whether the air in the room would be foul, if there were rats behind the wainscoting and, assuredly most concerning to Nolly, whether or not there would be water to wash with. There was nothing to be done about any of this, but since Jack wanted nothing more than to lie down, he held his tongue.
Toward the end of the passage, Nolly stopped, and Jack unlocked the door to open it upon the darkness that was banished but the circle of candlelight.
It was a narrow, white cell of a room. The floor was bare, but swept, the walls unadorned. There was no fireplace, but the window, a narrow, gray slice in the thick wall, seemed tightly hove to and did not let in the slightest errant wind, even though it was pelting rain just beyond the panes of glass. There was a small table to hold the candle, and the single low bed was tucked with the head of the bedstead against the wall, but shore-to from the wall on either side.
Jack could smell no rank scent that signaled an overabundant number of rats or other vermin, and as the bouncing candle-flame cast bright circles upon the walls and floor, he could see it was a dry and clean room.
Not that Nolly couldn’t sleep on old sacking; Jack had seen him do that often enough to know. But the fewer reminders of the harsh reality of the world, the better Nolly would do. They were on a mad plan anyway, searching for family that was long gone.
Nolly’s Aunt Rose would have written and found them, had there but been anyone to find. But Lyme Regis was as good a location as any, and would get them far from London and the threat of Noah Claypole. Jack didn’t think he’d ever get over Nolly and Noah having met before. Ever.
Nolly put the candle on the table, and then went to stand at the foot of the bed, the books in his grasp, a bit of rain glinting on his half top hat. Shaking the rain off his hat, Nolly put it and Jack’s hat at the foot of the bed, below the foot rail, along with the books, and straightened up, his attention drawn again to the bed.
Though the bed looked more comfortably appointed than the bed that they had shared at the Three Cripples, Nolly’s expression seemed to indicate that he thought the bed would bite him, were he to approach it.
“Nolly,” said Jack, as gently as he could manage, considering his head was pounding, and all he wanted to do was tear off his damp clothes and throw himself on the bed and not move for many, many hours. “It’ll be all right.”
Jack pulled the key from his pocket and locked the door. The lock was only stout in the most casual of ways, and would only keep out the less determined of intruders. He left the key in the lock, as once the tumblers were set, the noise of the tin tag alone would be the sharpest alarm.
Nolly was looking around for a washstand and basin, and would soon be confronted with a bed where there were no silken sheets nor eiderdown comforter, never had been, never would be.
Jack knew the signs and supposed he could go downstairs and ask one of the servants for a basin of hot water. He certainly had coin enough. But his head ached, and he couldn’t bear to. Instead, he took a breath to say something to soothe the worried look from Nolly’s brow.
“There’s nowt to worry about,” said Jack. “There’s only you and me, an’ no one followin’ after. Understand? It’s just you an’ me now.”
Jack tried to unwind the red scarf, to untie his neckerchief, but his fingers felt numb and kept slipping on the knot.
“Besides, you want sleep, an’ if you do that, I can lay my head down, which is all I want at this moment,” he said, giving up on the neckerchief. “Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow, eh?”
Nolly was looking at him as though he felt Jack was about to dole out some dire punishment. Therefore, Jack’s slightly scolding tone was not working. Something softer was on order, then.
Jack moved close to Nolly till a single circle of candle-lit shadow engulfed them both.
“The bed’s only to sleep in,” Jack said.
Nolly sighed deep from the center of his breast, shaking his head, as if remonstrating himself for some deep, untenable fault.
“Nolly, my dear,” said Jack, laying the softest of touches on the back of Nolly’s wrist. “Come along, then, ’twill be all right.”
He took a step, till his boots were touching Nolly’s and their chests almost touched. Now he had Nolly’s full attention, could see the flicker of his blue eyes in the half light, see the query in the lines of his brow.
“You’re damp through,” said Jack, as he touched Nolly’s jacket collar.
“So are you,” said Nolly, shivering at the touch of Jack’s fingers, which seemed to rouse him to the point where he was attentive to his surroundings, the room, the flickering candle, the distant sounds of the taproom below. The scent of dust and wood oil, and damp wool, the red scarf around Jack’s neck, curling as it dried.
Then Nolly flung his arms around Jack’s shoulders. Jack’s hands came up, a start of surprise making them jerk before he slid them around Nolly’s waist.
Nolly was saying something against Jack’s neck, his lips a warm softness against all the cold and damp. With a final tight press, Nolly tried to step back, but Jack held him fast.
“What’re you sayin’, Nolly?” asked Jack.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” said Nolly, barely meeting his eyes. “To bring you all this way with you feeling so ill, when I don’t half know what I’m doing.”
“I reckon nobody does,” said Jack, drawing the edge of his palm across Nolly’s brow. “Besides, we do know what we’re doin’. We’re for Lyme in the mornin’, an’ when we get there, we’ll figure it out, you an’ me.”
Though his head felt foul and his body felt battered by some unseen hand, Jack was rewarded by the small lift of Nolly’s smile.
“You and me,” said Nolly in return. He leaned in, as if to kiss Jack on the forehead the way a friend might, but Jack clasped Nolly’s face in his hands and gently kissed him on the mouth.
“There,” he said, rubbing his thumb along Nolly’s jaw. “That’ll send you to sleep right enough. Now, out of them clothes, quick as you can.”
The brisk order seemed to help; Nolly took the red scarf off Jack and draped it along the headboard. Then he helped Jack with his neckerchief, and together they took off their jackets, which Nolly spread out on the floor. Then their boots, putting them near the door to catch whatever passing draught might dry them.
They took off their trousers and waistcoats, which Nolly laid over the end of the bedstead to dry. Stockings were hung on the low rails of the nightstand.
Jack stood shivering in his shirt while Nolly pulled back the bedclothes, as hesitantly as if he were expecting something to jump out at him. As if for courage, Nolly turned to take Jack’s hand, but then he stopped.
“Jack,” said Nolly.
If Jack had felt better, he could have fully appreciated Nolly’s attention, and the hands that Nolly lifted to both sides of Jack’s face. The soft stroke of Nolly’s thumb, the tender, concerned expression in Nolly’s eyes. As blue as the southern sea—
“You must sit down. Here, come and sit down.”
Jack let Nolly lead him to the bed, and sat, the stiff edge of the mattress biting into his thighs. He felt numb, as though he was floating, as Nolly coaxed him to put his head on the pillow, to lie down, to be still.
He felt Nolly pulling the blanket over him, tugging at the sheet, and shifting the counterpane. It was delicious to be still, for once, and the sight of Nolly bending over him was all the medicine he needed.
“You’re so hot, Jack, your skin is on fire,” said Nolly, hurtling back into his trousers, his boots. “I’m going to go fetch some water. You’ll be all right till I get back?”
Jack closed his eyes, and listened to the clank of the key tag, the patter of feet in the corridor, and let himself drift, and tried to let go of the tenseness in his neck. He’d almost succeeded when he heard the door open, and Nolly’s breath. Beyond his half-closed eyes, the candle’s light flickered across the ceiling.
“I tried to hurry,” said Nolly.
There was a clunk, and a scrabble, and dripping water, and suddenly, quite gently, someone was laying a cool cloth on his forehead.
“Your skin is very hot, yet you are quite pale,” said Nolly’s voice. “I don’t know what to do, whether I should fetch—”
“Don’t fetch nobody,” said Jack. His mouth felt dry, but the cloth was nice. “Can I have a drink of water?”
Quickly, Nolly’s arm slipped behind his back and lifted him up a little. Nolly tipped a tumbler to his lips and Jack drank. Then, Nolly took the cloth away, and brought it back, cooler now, and laid it again on Jack’s forehead.
Jack sighed and let himself drift. He felt much better now that he was lying still.
“We can arrange to take the coach another day, when you’re feeling better.” Nolly’s voice came from a distance, as if muffled by a low hum.
“No,” said Jack. “We’ll get there all the sooner if we leave in the mornin’. Like we planned.”
“But what can I do to make you feel better?”
Jack opened his eyes, just a little way, to see Nolly on his knees beside the bed, half-lit by candlelight. If Jack had asked him to run into the street and sell his soul, he believed Nolly would do it, in that moment. That moment right there.
“Just be with me, now,” said Jack. “Put out the candle an’ come to bed. Let me rest my head on your shoulder, like we’ve done, you an’ I.”
With a quickness that rather gladdened Jack’s heart, Nolly snapped the wick with his fingers. The candle went out and there was a shuffling sound as Nolly took off his boots and his trousers. Then he slithered beneath the sheets, pulling the blankets up over them both. Pulling Jack to him with a gentle care.
When Jack’s head came to rest in the hollow of Nolly’s shoulder, and the sweet smell of Nolly circled all around him, like roses and ash, then Jack closed his eyes fully and tipped his head forward. Had he not felt so sore, his head dully pounding, this might have been the grand opportunity to pull Nolly into his arms and elicit a more pleasurable response. But the warmth of Nolly’s body, the beat of his heart beneath his slowly drying shirt, was enough for Jack. They had all the world to travel, with roads before them and adventures to be had.
They were well away from the stew of London and though Jack would miss it, for it was home after all, he was with Nolly. They were tucked into each other’s arms beneath the roof of a snug and dry inn, a proper inn, rather than the hedgerow that they would have been curled beneath, had Nolly had his way about the stealing.
“Ain’t you glad I still got the grace of my fingers?” asked Jack, low, in the dark.
Nolly turned toward Jack, sending ripples of kind heat that Nolly was now sharing, warm and slow. There came a kiss and a sigh.
“You are a wicked lad, Jack,” said Nolly. But he pressed his hand against Jack’s face to belie any sense of a scolding. “And I hope you never become any less so, for we would be freezing out of doors if not for you. Just promise me—” Here Nolly stopped to swallow. “Don’t ever get caught. I couldn’t bear it if you were taken from me.”
In the dark, it seemed that Nolly could speak what was in his heart, in the quiet dusk of night when there was no one to see or hear. Would that he had shouted the words in daylight, the sentiment could not have pleased Jack more. For it bespoke of the fact that of all his regrets, and it seemed that Nolly had many, being with Jack was not one of them.
This warmed Jack from within, and he shared that warmth by sinking a little lower in the bed until Nolly became his pillow and Nolly’s arms around him became his blanket. The night became dark and still, and he listened as Nolly’s heart slowed, and his breath leveled out. Jack was warm all through as he soaked it in and tried to ease the back of his neck and willed his headache to go away.
“You an’ I,” Jack said.