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Minds of Winter

Ed O'Loughlin

Van Diemen's Land, 1841

It had been intended that they would take the carriage all the way to the ball, but the evening was so mild that Sir John gave in to Sophia's pleading to finish the journey on foot. These are the lieutenant-governor's botanical gardens, Sir John reasoned; I am the lieutenant-governor: why must I take a carriage to the end of my own garden?

So the party alighted at the magnetic observatory, that curi­ous new wooden building crowning the hill, and — defying convention — old Sir John Franklin, viceroy of Van Diemen's Land and famed Arctic explorer, set out on foot for a ball in his honour.

A footman with a lantern led them down the steep path to the Derwent, though it was still light enough to see through the trees. Sir John followed after him, a fat bouncing shadow on short sailor's legs. I ought to walk with Uncle, thought Sophia, who - her Aunt Jane being then absent, travelling in New Zealand — was accompanying Sir John tonight. But for now it did not matter. There would be time enough to adjust their order of march before they reached the ball, when the ladies would pause to unpin their dresses and change their shoes for satin slippers.

Checking her pace, Sophia moved close to her younger cousin Eleanor and took her by the arm. They had quarrelled again that afternoon, and although Sophia was not yet quite ready to forgive her uncle's daughter she needed her company now. Other­wise she might find herself walking alongside Henry Elliot, her uncle's private secretary; it was to escape Elliot's unwelcome proximity in the carriage that Sophia had campaigned to finish the journey on foot.

Eleanor, feeling her cousin's touch, turned her head and smiled up at Sophia. Their dresses whispered together as they walked side by side. In the darkness behind them Lieutenant Kay, who had taken leave of his magnetic duties to attend the ball, was attempting to interest Elliot in his science, his phrases syncopated by the tramping of their shoes. And young Henry Elliot, son of the Earl of Minto and destined for high service, responded to the eager naval scientist with a lack of interest so beautifully polite, so drily amused, that Sophia had herself only teased out its mean­ing that morning.

It pained her still to think of that instant of revelation. It had occurred very close to where they were now, as she had walked in the gardens with Elliot, confiding to him her opinions of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the winter sun bright on the Derwent Water, and she had glanced sideways for a moment, to assure her­self of his enchantment, and had noticed for the first time, truly noticed, that he had long since fallen silent, and that, as he looked away from her, back towards the town itself and his place in the governor's office, there was a curiously droll turn to the corners of his lips. She had herself fallen quiet, and to his credit Elliot had made every appearance of alarm and consideration when she had stammered an excuse — that she had left her book on a bench by Commander Crozier's magnetic observatory, which stood in a clearing nearby — and went back to look for it. She would fetch it herself; Elliot's duties must be calling him.

What a cold little person he was. Quite insubstantial and un-romantic compared to the officers of Erebus and Terror, lately returned from their glorious Antarctic cruise. But why should she concern herself with Elliot, or feel slighted in any way? It was not as if she had set her cap at him. He was known to have an understanding with a young lady in England.