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The Ox-eyed Lady

The long storm's aftermath had been finally dealt with and it was with a heavy throbbing at his temples that Stephen returned to the great cabin of the Surprise for sleep. The fact of Diana's death would only occur to him at rare moments like this, when he was weary and vulnerable, and lay him low. After an approving nod at the sight of his sleeping friend, noting that the bandage on Jack's arm was clean of blood and still secured seaman-like across his massive chest, Stephen turned towards his cot. The deck heaved gently and he stumbled, but Killick appeared in the moonlit cabin and held him aright, washed the dried blood from his hands – without a single rebuke at the sight of blood also on the front and cuffs of Stephen's best snuff-coloured jacket – put him into his hammock, and withdrew. Stephen lay wondering if Killick's silent service was part of the crew's general conspiracy of tenderness towards him since having learned of his loss, or instead a vestigial lack of moral authority because of the "accident" in which he had broken Stephen's prized narwhal tusk (though this had since been skillfully repaired by the eminent engineer James Wright). No, Stephen thought, Killick was only like all the rest. Why did these overt gestures of shared grief bother him so? He knew that he was, incredibly, numb to own grief. Diana, for whom he had waited so long through affair after affair (one even with Jack); a woman of indomitable spirit and excellent carriage was now gone forever, and he would not mourn her. He fought off a sudden recollection of her on horseback, her head held high in a way that promised eternal youth and spirit; he was helped in this by the distraction of Jack's snoring momentarily reached an alarming pitch. Even Jack, whose sensitivity to others was at most times so clumsy that its only comfort came from its obvious sincerity, had found an new manner so subtle that Stephen (upon whom subtlety was seldom lost) could recall instances of it only in retrospect; that Jack could achieve this somehow bothered most of all. What was this irritation, he wondered, and how could it be justified? Their behavior was perfectly appropriate, and he chided himself for a contrary human nature that returned such well-intended sympathy with insouciance, or contempt. Then, as his timepiece chimed the hour from deep inside the pocket of his trousers he listened, and knew. It was his instinct; a professional concern for keeping others from knowing his mind, an instinct that he understood to be a personal habit as well, and cultivated over a lifetime spent dissembling to others as a secret intelligence agent, which was alerting him with his irritation that he was being read about something he had wanted to conceal, perhaps even from himself. His secret grief and so the depths of his love that he had only openly shared with the dark-haired, dark-eyed Diana were now no longer secret. Here with Jack on the Surprise, he had become a walking open book, a center of unwanted attention. And, he hated it.

© 1998 Anon