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Godspeed, My Love (3)

As Stephen returned the pierced iron box with Sir Joseph's letter to its place beneath his hammock, his hand brushed the traveling case of that whimsical item Killick called the "article". At length he drew it out, positioning the purser's dip so that it gleamed from the dark wood surfaces and the curiously worked hinges, each polished against all need or reason by the ever-present Killick. His mind returned to the rain-soaked day he had boarded the packet for Gibraltar, scarcely feeling the whip that brought him reasonably dry-shod to the deck or appreciating the care with which he was led below and his few belongings arranged in what passed for the packet's gunroom.

It was at the gunroom table that the apprentice from the joiner MacDonald found him later, still in his rain-soaked clothes, utterly exhausted, softly repeating a single Latin phrase, scarcely aware of his surroundings. "Begging your pardon, sir, but be you Dr. Maturin?" the apprentice began, pulling off his sodden cap in the gloom and bending close to Stephen.

Stephen looked up at last, and nodded. His look was so appalling, so devoid of humanity, that the young man backed away, clearly flustered.

"Well sir, my name is Tom Wilkins. I'm a joiner, or as I will be one day. It is Mr. MacDonald as has sent me to bring you this here piece. He said I was to give to you personal. He said that your wife had made him promise to get it cleaned up and delivered before you left. And so, and so here it is, and we made a case for it and all."

As Stephen considered the piece, now, months later, he wondered if he had thanked the youngster, or paid him, and was distressed that he could not remember. He was strangely moved to look on Diana's gift again, after having had it struck down in the hold for all of these months. Finally he undid the latch, swung open the two halves of the case and withdrew the curious piece of furniture from its felted nest within.

Gently he unfolded the many leaves, marveling at the skill with which the scratches and cocoa stains had been removed. It was, he thought, darker and richer than before, the marquetry more complex than he remembered, the wood grain still more luminous, a smell of oils hung about it, linseed and a familiar but elusive scent he could not identify. At last he lifted the topmost lid, fitted cleverly as a final secret compartment, and pressed the places that would unlock it. With a soft click the outer shell of the top lid released from the hinge and he removed it to reveal the shallow inner compartment - and a single folded sheet bearing "Stephen" in Diana's hand.

After a moment, he opened the single sheet, clearly written in some haste. "Stephen - Aren't you amazed!" it read. "After all the times you've turned up unexpected, here's my Surprise for you. We'll be far apart when you read this, on another of your damned adventures, but when you return, I warn you that I shall never let you leave again." At the bottom she had scrawled "Godspeed, My Love, Diana." After a moment he folded the sheet and returned it to the compartment, locking it away again. A wave of most unwelcome feelings swept over him, and at last he began to cry, softly at first, for Diana, for himself, and for the days that she would never let him leave again.

© 1998 Warren Godfrey