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Small Secrets

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Stephen ate wolfishly for a while, and cutting himself another piece of cheese he said ‘Will you tell me about Diana? I mean, what you feel you can properly say.’ Clarissa looked at him doubtfully. ‘I do not mean lovers or anything you cannot tell of a friend. For you were friends, I believe?’ -- The Commodore

‘It is unfair,’ said Diana, not looking at her, ‘that you have had so much time with my Stephen, and I have not seen him in an age.’

‘Dr Maturin was very kind to me,’ said Clarissa. It was perhaps the fourth or fifth time she had said it in the past week, and the words were beginning to sound thin and hollow to her own ears, worn at the edges like a much-thumbed letter. If she hadn’t known the truth of it, she wouldn’t find it convincing; unsurprising that Diana continued to doubt.

‘So you keep saying. And yet you had your own husband on that ship. Why could you not take your kindnesses from him, and leave mine be?’

It was only that Diana was unhappy, she told herself. It was only her difficulty with Brigid, and her long separation from her husband, that made her speak so. And it was the friendship that had developed between them that gave her the freedom to give voice to these small complaints that were, at heart, confidences. It was the manner in which friendship deepened, by the exchange of small secrets. And that was the problem, Clarissa realised; that was why Diana kept harping upon this one matter. Diana had bared her heart, and Clarissa had not returned the gesture.

Clarissa could not share the things that she had told Stephen aboard the Truelove, of course; but perhaps she could share something else.

‘I was lonely, of course,’ she began. Diana still gazed out the window, but the angle at which her head was inclined shifted a little; she was listening. ‘I hadn’t thought it through, when I left my post in New South Wales. I had not considered that I would be the only woman aboard a ship full of men.’

‘I am certain they were pleased to alleviate your loneliness.’

‘No, that’s not – oh, I am going about this all wrong,” said Clarissa, laying a hand on Diana’s arm. Diana did not shake her off, so perhaps she hadn’t offended. ‘I mean that I had no other women with whom I could talk. I soon realised that if I made overtures of friendship to any of the men, he’d imagine I had interest in other matters. Which as I have already told you, I do not,’ she said firmly. ‘And that is why Dr Maturin’s conversation was such a comfort to me. His devotion to you was clear enough that I had no fear of being misunderstood.’

Diana turned her head, then, and was about to speak; but Clarissa did not give her that opportunity. Instead she squeezed her arm, and said, ‘So I beg you, let me return his kindness. In this house, it is you who are lonely.’

‘Not for the company of women,’ Diana said waspishly.

‘No,’ said Clarissa. ‘For the affection and attention that your husband is not here to give you.’ She slid her fingers down Diana’s arm to her hand, held it for no more than a heartbeat before turning her hand upwards and spreading her fingers, so that Diana’s hand was resting in her palm. It was Diana’s choice to take or decline.

It was a risk, of course, but knowing Diana’s character as she did, Clarissa did not think it a very large one.

‘Women are insipid creatures, in the main,’ mused Diana. ‘And yet much of that fault lies in ourselves, bound by men’s rules as we are.’

Clarissa did not quite manage to smother her surprised snort of laughter. ‘If there is any woman less bound by men’s rules than you, I should like to meet her!’

‘Then perhaps you should look in the mirror, my dear,’ said Diana.

If it was a dismissal, it was a kind one. She would not press, if she were not welcome, and so she made to drop Diana’s hand; but instead Diana curled her fingers around Clarissa’s hand, capturing it and bringing it to her lips.

‘I didn’t mean that you should do so at this very moment,’ Diana murmured into Clarissa’s fingers. ‘For I believe you made an offer, and I tell you, I am much inclined to accept.’

‘In that case, I shall put off any mirror-gazing until later,’ Clarissa promised, and let Diana draw her into an embrace.