Stephen remembered it clearly even after all these years; the evening had been cool but clear, just coming on to twilight as the day birds grew silent and the night singers awakened. They had come here simply to talk, but as fate would have it talk lead to much more. Here they had kissed for the first time on land. Their tentative relationship that had begun so long ago on the dear old Surprise had lasted the journey home from India and Jack’s marriage to be re-affirmed in the seclusion of this woodland. Those first unsure caresses had soon grown in confidence, ending up with them coming together in a breathless heap on the grass, shocked but deeply pleased with their ardour.
Even now at his age Stephen’s loins gave the faintest of shudders as he remembered that night; and here he was, once again in the ash grove that gave the house its name. They had been intimate before, but it was here, on home soil that Stephen had at last accepted they were indeed in love and that nothing would part him from Jack. Before at sea it had seemed like some pleasant dream; but here with the ground beneath them, the rising dew drenching their clothes and their hot breath misting the air he had awoken to the sweetest reality.
Stephen had always prayed that he would be the first to go. Diana’s death had pained him deeply, and he had lost so many of the people he loved throughout his life that if he should lose Jack he thought his heart would stop from grief alone. But to be honest, the passing of Admiral Sir John Aubrey, Baronet of Woolcombe, had not affected him so gravely as he had thought it might. He did miss Jack greatly, and the loss of his love and best friend would destroy any lesser man; however his world had not fallen apart as he predicted, he was not overwrought with guilt or unfulfilled longings, there was no aching void.
‘Perhaps,’ he reflected, as he made his way carefully down the grassy slope; his knees were not what they used to be. ‘Perhaps it is merely a matter of time. When Diana died we had spent so little time together – so many wasted years, so much left unsaid – however, with Jack the situation was completely different. We have spent the vast majority of our adult lives as friends and lovers, barely apart from each other for more than a few months at a time. My only regret is that I did not have a little more time with him. But what else could we have possibly said or done if he had lived even a day longer? It is very selfish of me to think otherwise; I have had more than my fair share of happiness with him, I should not begrudge what few years are left of my life.’
And Jack had died in the manner that he had always lived; cheerful, uncomplaining and completely unafraid.
It was wholly possible that the difference in feeling was merely linked to time. In their last few years together he and Jack had come to such an understanding as to be able to claim to know the other completely. He had not had the opportunity to cultivate such an understanding with Diana or Mona; but then they had been so different in temperament to Jack. Jack was all things Stephen was not; likewise Stephen was all things Jack had never been. Two completely different men who in all logic should never have become friends… and yet they had ended up lovers; perhaps he could even have gone so far as to say spouses in all but name.
He had begged Sophie to let him lodge at Ashgrove; the old tenant had long since died and Stephen had moved in with all his worldly possessions. It was at first strange to find the house so empty, devoid of domestic life or squealing children, but at Ashgrove he somehow felt closer to Jack than anywhere else on dry land, even Woolcombe. Often Brigid and Sophie would come to visit him, sometimes bringing George if he were home on leave, and he had been fortunate enough to have met his namesake, Stephen John; his and Jack’s grandson. The child pleased him in every way, and Stephen was delighted to see the first growth of disgustingly yellow hair on the infant’s scalp; but most of the time he was content to live alone in peace.
Killick had chosen not to stay at Woolcombe. The old steward must have been at least ten years the doctor’s senior, but he showed no outward sign of aging save his wrinkled face became more lined and his hair a uniform steely grey. He reasoned that it was his duty to see to the doctor’s welfare as long as he still lived, and if he should survive Stephen as he had Jack, then it was understood there would be a place for him in the Aubrey household as long as he drew breath. Which was indeed, for Stephen, something of a relief; as Padeen had long ago decided that his place was with Miss Brigid, now Lady Aubrey, and the hassle of engaging a new manservant and acquainting him with his habits had seemed too gruelling a task to face at his age. Especially now.
He had come upon the diagnosis with something of a grim satisfaction. He had of course sought a second opinion, but he knew before his colleague shook his head sadly that there had been no need. Three months at the most was what they had decided, and it was coming to the end of the second. He had of course informed his family; he wanted no languishing visits, no tear-stained cheeks on his account, no gathering round the death bed. He would send word of when there was to be no respite, and from that point no visits would be permitted; then a fortnight after that they were to come to collect his body and settle his affairs. They were of course all dismayed to hear this; but they agreed to respect his wishes. Yet this way he was able to spend his last days in quiet contemplation; walking amongst the wooded hills, re-classifying his collections and writing. The memory of Jack Aubrey dwelt with him here in this quiet bit of the English countryside, and that alone made him happier than he had been in many a long year of his life.