Three Ways To End An Acquaintance
'It is odd enough,' said Stephen, in a low voice, 'that our acquaintance should have begun with a challenge, and that it should end with one.'
-- Patrick O'Brian, Post Captain
Dundas and Rankin watched on either side, silent and grim-faced; a surgeon stood waiting beside Jack's coach with a disinterested air, fiddling with a pair of tongs: he was often employed in affairs of this sort; on Stephen's side a priest, stiff and disapproving.
Stephen had taken off coat and shirt and folded them neatly on the ground; his bare skin was sallow in the fading light, his face unreadable and distant. Jack had loosened his neckcloth and nothing more, and stood stiffly in his best coat and breeches, ill and sad, all sustaining anger gone, leaving only a wretched pallor.
They had not looked at one another; now they moved to their appointed places. Only twenty paces lay between them; the morning was very clear and the sun was coming up but not yet striking them directly. By agreement, Dundas stepped forward, a white handkerchief ready, and with a last look at both principals he let it fall.
Two nearly simultaneous explosions: Stephen stood a moment, swaying, then fell. Jack stared, a trickle of blood running down his cheek from a small stinging cut; he had fired without much attention, and had been so expecting the shock of impact that its absence confused him. Then he looked to his side: a small rock, the only marked feature in the slope of the dune behind him, and a fresh chip showing pale precisely in its center; this only had struck him. Dundas was bending over Stephen with a pale grave face, the surgeon was shaking his head; he had not even taken out his instruments, and a dark red circle was spreading through the sand.
So he had killed Stephen. It did not seem real. Rankin had crossed to speak to Dundas, now he came back over. Looking at Jack's face, he did not offer congratulations, but said only that he was glad Jack had come to no harm, and that all would be taken care of.
Mechanically Jack returned to the coach. It carried him back to the squalid little ale-house where he had spent the night; Bonden and Lakey were waiting in the front room, and their expressions of relief on his entrance turned to dismay when they saw him clearly in the light. He went upstairs to the dark, close room and shut the door behind him. The second pistol was still in his case, and it was already loaded.
A single sharp crack; Jack's arm stabbed with sudden pain, lost its grip, and the pistol he had not yet fired slipped from his fingers and struck the ground. Rankin and the surgeon came over: the ball had lodged painfully against the bone, and blood was spilling freely.
Dundas joined them and asked urgently if honor was satisfied; Rankin impatiently agreed, not looking up, and at once Stephen was kneeling beside him, pushing aside the surgeon. A few moments of work and the ball came smoothly out, though both seconds looked on a little doubtfully.
Jack had been looking at him all this time, anxious and with a desperate kind of hope, but Stephen had not met his gaze, and his face, even while he worked, was closed. The wound cauterized and dressed, he stood at once, nodded to Rankin and Dundas, and left, so quickly that the words Jack had been trying to formulate in his mind had no opportunity to find expression.
He returned to his ship the next day, the wound already troubling him very little, to find a stranger waiting nervously in his cabin under Killick's eye. Dr. Thomes was a colorless, diffident young man with an appointment from the Sick and Hurt Board as the Polychrest's surgeon, and no information other than to say that Dr. Maturin had been obliged for certain reasons of which he knew nothing to withdraw from his post and resign the Navy.
Jack dismissed him to his station as quickly as he might and stood looking out the stern windows. The meaning was perfectly evident: Stephen had spared his life, but had no desire to see him again; his wishes had to be respected. After such an insult, anything else could scarcely be expected; it had been wholly unreasonable to think he could repair matters with an apology now, after Stephen had behaved with such generosity and he had played the scrub the whole way throughout.
He looked at the violin, leaning in the corner in its case; it looked small and lonely, and he felt a sudden sharp disgust at the idea of playing, so intense it made his stomach turn over; he picked it up and cast it very roughly into his sea-chest, and went on deck.
Silence: both men had taken up their stance, Jack very unprecise and presenting a great deal more of himself than was desirable, Stephen as close to perfect form as could be imagined; they were looking straight at one another down the barrels; neither gun spoke. There was a moment still when either one might have fired, then it was too late. Dundas and Rankin looked at one another blankly; they had never heard of anything like and had no idea how to proceed; then Jack's hand dropped and he took one step forward.
"Stephen," he said, struggling to give voice to an apology; Stephen did not wait for the words but crossed to him swiftly and embraced him. He came very close to tears, an enormous swell of relief breaking through him, a thousand intolerable possibilities vanishing like mist, but thankfully with Stephen in his arms the incoherently broken, "Forgive me -- I must have run mad -- God knows what possessed me --" did not need to be elegant, being only for his ears.
Stephen whispered, "Peace, brother, peace," in turn, and held him. They stood there in the middle of the field some time more, their heads together, until Dundas approached tentatively to ask, dubiously, if honor had been satisfied, and received an affirmative answer.
"It is certainly the most irregular meeting I have ever heard of, but may I take the liberty of saying that the resolution makes me very happy?" Dundas said, shaking both of their hands; he exchanged a few more words with Stephen, then went to speak with Rankin and pay off the attendants.
Jack could barely preserve his countenance; he had not known how unhappy he was, how very close to despair, until the cloud was lifted. His head swam very oddly, and Stephen had almost to lead him to the coach. "Will you come back with me?" Jack asked low; he was very reluctant to be parted from him, and it was a struggle not to clutch at his arm.
"No, my dear, you will come back with me," Stephen said, climbing in; Jack belatedly realized that he was in Stephen's coach, not his own. It rolled along and they were alone inside, Stephen putting his shirt back on, Jack staring blindly out the window in a sort of daze. He had never -- and it appeared strangely stupid to him now -- he had never recognized how completely his happiness had come to be bound up with Stephen; now he could not escape the realization.
Every sensation which he had been inclined to call love appeared in pale and sickly contrast. He looked at Stephen uncertainly. There was no way to ask a man if such feelings were reciprocated; there was no name that could even be given to them; but he felt himself almost suffocating with the need to speak.
The coach was stopping; they had reached Stephen's inn. He climbed out after Stephen and followed him upstairs to his private room. Pacing before the window in great agitation, he barely heard Stephen tell the landlady that total quiet was needed; then Stephen was leading him to the bed, drawing him down, and words were not needed at all.
- End -
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