Jack saw Nolly grow still, and that Nolly was looking at him with wide eyes.
“What do you mean, Jack?” asked Nolly.
He stood up, scraping the legs of the chair back with a sudden, hard shriek, and came over to the table, his voice very clear in the sudden, utter stillness where only a moment before had been full of amusement and laughter. Jack couldn’t hardly bear to look, and knew, too late, that he should have left off the telling of the tale.
“Jack?” asked Nolly in a voice that had a sharpness to its edge, even while it trembled. “Did you know? Was Finley one of those little boys?”
“He was, Nolly,” said Jack, as matter-of-factly as he could. He rubbed the back of his neck to ease the tension there, and still couldn’t turn his head to look Nolly in the eyes. “Couldn’t be helped, we was havin’ such troubles ourselves.”
“But we left him in that horrible place.” Nolly stared hard at Jack, flushed and upset. “And if Chalenheim goes back, which he is sure to do, with such a richness of opportunity.”
It was too late for Jack to draw the words back, too late to pretend he’d not said what he’d said. Nolly turned on his heel and, with a hard breath, turned his back on all of them.
The air, hot and damp, even this late at night, was coiled with pipe smoke and the funk of a workingman’s sweat. Jack could not bear to see Nolly walk off like he was. Worse still, Nolly was not storming off, as though he were in a temper. Instead, he seemed to be heading toward the kitchen in a rather aimless shambling way, as though the kitchen might not be his final destination, that indeed, he’d no particular destination in mind.
This set the hairs on the back of Jack’s neck and along the backs of his hands into shivery sharpness. He shoved his pennies toward the center of the table and got up. He hurried after Nolly, his heart beating fast. Nolly was furious with him, both for the lack of revelation about what had happened to Finley, and about the telling of it in front of everybody now. The tale of the theft of the horse was of no consequence, it was plain to see, next to this sudden knowledge about Finley.
Jack hurried to catch up, almost jumping on Nolly’s heels as he went through the open doorway into the kitchen. As it was so late, there was not a single candle lit in the room, nor any smudge from the closed damper in the stove. Instead, all of the light came as an oblong gray glow through the kitchen door that had been propped open to catch any stray breeze that might happen to be passing along the alley.
“I mean to go and fetch him, Jack,” said Nolly. He did not turn his head to make sure of Jack’s presence behind him, for of course he knew where Jack was, just as Jack knew of the tension in Nolly’s shoulders, even without much light to see by. “I mean to go as soon as I may.”
“If it’s a rescue you want to be about,” said Jack, not denying, even to himself, as to why Nolly wanted to do this thing. “There’s thousands of boys right here in the City you could go an’ fetch.”
To give Nolly credit, and Jack would in a heartbeat, Nolly did not deny this truth but, instead, for a long moment, contemplated the dark fug rising from the yard, and the glitter of damp on the puddles of filth. Then Nolly shook his head.
“I don’t know those boys,” said Nolly. “I’ve avoided looking at them, thinking about them, ever since Uncle Brownlow took me in.”
“You could know them,” said Jack. He meant to convince Nolly that this was a mad plan, for whether or not the workmaster had returned to Axminster, the workhouse would hardly be handing over a pauper to Nolly’s care. “You could visit a nearby workhouse, an’ then get to know one of them.”
“You know that’s not true, Jack,” said Nolly, and the sadness in his voice seemed to come from a deep, dark place inside of him. “Besides, it’s not just knowing him. I fed this one, Jack. I fed him. With my own hands.”
That was the crux of it then, and Jack knew exactly what Nolly meant. More, he knew how Nolly had learned that when you fed someone, you became, somehow, responsible for them. As Jack had Nolly, after having fed Nolly beer and a ham sandwich in those days so long ago.
That Nolly had learned this lesson and was holding it to his heart did not surprise Jack, for back then, Nolly’s belly had been almost as empty as his heart. Jack had stepped up to fill all those empty places; Jack had been the one.
“How will you fetch him?” asked Jack. He kept his voice low as his heart sank a bit, for while this was no small matter, the tone in Nolly’s voice and the straight dark line his back and shoulders made against the faint light of the open doorway told Jack the decision had already been made.
“I will go by coach,” said Nolly, very faintly. Then he straightened up and blew out a breath. “I’ll take the Comet, as it travels directly to Axminster, but I need money.”
“I can’t go with you, or I’ll be sick all over the place.” Jack swallowed, hoping the declaration would not cause Nolly to be cross with him. “I can get you the coin.”
Jack waited, but Nolly was silent, still staring out of the doorway, as if transfixed. Certainly he knew that he could come to Jack for this, for anything.
Nolly turned to face him, his eyes glimmering in the dim light. His steps toward Jack brought him close enough so Jack could feel the breath from Nolly’s mouth, could smell the sweat that circled his neck. He half-cursed himself for allowing Nolly to neglect himself so, when he was usually so fastidious with his person.
“I should ask you first,” said Nolly, quite gently, his hands coming to rest on Jack’s forearms, circling around Jack’s elbows. “Ask to make sure you agree—will you be all right if I go and fetch him and bring him back? There’s hardly enough room in the bedsit as it is, but when I think of him being there, waiting for Chalenheim to return, or if he’s returned already—my heart beats so fast I feel it’s going to jump up my throat and choke me.”
“Yes, but hear me now.”
Jack tried to arrange the words on his tongue so they wouldn’t come out so harshly. It wasn’t that Nolly would be crushed by what he was going to say, but there was a tenderness in the gesture Nolly was about to make that came from a very gentle place inside of him, and this Jack wanted to be careful with.
“You couldn’t rescue Dick, or wee Martin, but you did rescue me, Nolly, you did. You got us out of the Scylla, an’ took care of me after I got back, with nary a cross word. But this has got to be the last. You can’t rescue every stray pup in the world, not when you’ve got your very own pup to take care of.”
Jack took one of Nolly’s hands and placed it over his own heart.
“You rescued me, an’ I’m yours to take care of. Ain’t that enough?”
“You are enough,” said Nolly, fiercely, blinking fast as if to clear some dust from his eyes that shone so darkly in the dim light. “You have always been, always will be, enough, more than enough. But this one—just this one, please Jack? I promise, just this one.”
If Nolly began to cry, not only would Jack feel damp-eyed himself, he’d be quite thrown, for he could not remember the last time Nolly had actually cried. Perhaps it had been the night Jack had told the tale of his mother leaving him on the edge of a damp fountain for the gypsies to find. But that had been ages ago, and Nolly, usually so ready to reveal his gentle emotions to the world, had been keeping a close guard on them recently. This might have been a good tendency with anybody else, but for Nolly? Was his heart forever locked in a shell?
“Just this one,” said Jack quickly, for with Nolly set on a course, there wasn’t anything else to do but allow it. “You need a fine suit, an’ you need money, so let’s open the Bank of Nolly an’ Jack, an’ make a nighttime withdrawal. Do they allow nighttime withdrawals at the Bank of England? Well, they don’t, do they, stuffy old bastards.”
Nolly, rather than replying to this, leaned forward to dip his head into the hollow of Jack’s shoulder and, without a word, drew Jack’s arms about him. As if Jack needed the help, as if he’d ever hesitate one moment in holding Nolly close to him.
“We’ll fetch you your lad, your wee Finley,” said Jack, his mouth moving against Nolly’s hair, his skin shivering as Nolly’s warm breath laced across the bare skin of his neck. “An’ you just wait till you come back, an’ I’ve made us a little home. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”
“By-and-bye, Jack?” asked Nolly, the hope in his voice making him sound quite young.
“By-and-bye for certain,” said Jack, petting Nolly’s back, long and slow. “Ain’t no better care he’ll get anywhere, but will you leave in the mornin’?”
“If I can,” said Nolly.
Jack felt Nolly’s breath start to quicken, could almost feel the thoughts start whirring in Nolly’s head.
“Then we better shift about somethin’ quick, an’ see which shopkeeper we can bribe to open his doors at midnight.” Jack put a smile in his voice to make the proposed plan a jolly lark, and not something that made him feel sad to think of it, his Nolly, so far away for so long.
“It’ll only be three days, Jack,” said Nolly. He pressed a kiss to Jack’s neck, then raised his head to Jack’s cheek. “One day’s travel there, one day in Axminster, then one day’s travel back. If I leave tomorrow, I’ll be back Thursday night.”
“You must take the first mornin’ coach, you must go straight there an’ fetch him home. The Comet leaves from the White Hart in Drury Lane,” said Jack, thinking aloud, and he felt his breath quicken as well. “You’ll go as a gentleman, Nolly, an’ hold your head high, an’ tell those bastards you want the young’n brought to you directly, an’ that you’ll suffer no nonsense. This’ll be your big shill.”
“My what?” Nolly raised his head; the faint light gleamed on his cheekbone and sliced his eyes with silver. “My big shill?”
“Your grand play,” said Jack. “You’ll go in bein’ somebody you’re not, an’ fool them. Tom White’s who you’ll be, a gentleman on an errand for his very wealthy an’ powerful gentleman boss. You see? It’s a game, an’ we’ll dress you up to play it smartly.”
“Yes, Jack,” said Nolly, and he was gentle as he kissed Jack softly.