Survivors

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Bleak House

Copyright: Charles Dickens' estate/BBC

Allan Woodcourt is sick of being called a hero. Not only does the shipwreck haunt his nightmares – the glaring sun; the bitter thirst surrounded by water; the bodies of the men he failed to save, lying on the raft with him and his fellow survivors for days until they were rescued – but even in the waking world, no one lets him forget it. He does not consider keeping calm, sharing his flask of rum, improvising bandages or praying over the dead to be any great service; it was no more than any self-respecting ship's surgeon should have done. (Besides, he is pragmatic enough to wish that, since his superiors do respect him, they would show it in a rather more tangible form than words. He has his living to make, after all.)

He has never felt less like a hero than in the moment Miss Esther Summerson takes off her veil.

Smallpox scars. Dear God, he would know them anywhere.

He is not squeamish, far from it. He has seen much worse in the course of his career. They are already fading, and it is easy to recognize her beauty shining through, like the moon emerging from behind a cloud. But the idea of her being ill – blind, fevered, delirious, close to death – at the same time as he was floating on the open sea – Esther, suffering, while he was miles away and unable to help her! – is enough to unbalance him completely, and betray all the unwanted pity he has been so anxious to disguise.

"There is no need to pity me," she said. "I am lucky to be alive."

Most people would have heard nothing in her words but humble resignation, but Allan is as clear-eyed an observer as Esther herself, especially where she is concerned. He sees the pride in the tilt of her head, the way she wraps her shawl around herself a little too tightly. She moves like a survivor, her wide blue eyes taking in every corner of the room and every inch of Allan's face and figure, watching with deep intensity to make up for the days when she could see nothing at all.

He knows that look, he knows it very well indeed. It takes a unique sort of spirit to respond to a loss like hers – it is a loss in spite of her pretenses, as they both know very well; at least his ordeal is over, while hers will continue for years to come – with such hope and courage. He has never loved her half so well as now.

She is his heroine … if only he could tell her.