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Homecoming

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She had had no idea of running to Stephen until she had arrived in London and found him not there - no particular idea of running to anyone, only a wild frustration at the way nothing seemed to move forwards, and a vague unacknowledged unease at some of the ways it did move. Nothing more, until she was here and he was not, belying the fact that she had dreamt of him the night before they made landfall.

And after all, there had been no reason why he should be in London - even if not on the other side of the world (and she had last seen him in India), he could equally well be in Dublin or in Spain, now on Britain's side of these incomprehensible wars - or up to his knees in a bog somewhere. Nothing more than a dream, and the vague belief that where Jack Aubrey was, there would Stephen be.

And Jack Aubrey was certainly home - if not in London (although he had been there, and she had glimpsed him one day striding cheerfully towards St James' Street) then in England, laden with the gold of the African campaign, and from the little she had heard, spending it as fast as it had been gained.

(And home he was, finding that life by land with fame and plenty of money was a very different affair from scraping a life by land with nothing more than half pay and little hope - glorying in the idea that he would be able to provide for his family in any way they might desire, and full of plans to ensure their future prosperity and happiness.)

But from anything she could find out, Stephen was not.

---

So the greatest city in the world, with an odd hole at its heart. But that did not matter for long - London's memory was both long and short, and if there were those who looked askance at her there were others who did not.

And not only the rich and fashionable, although many of her circle were at least one or the other, but also clever men - and women too, not the blue stocking type, but people who talked about all the happenings of the day and of other days, and discussed more or less anything under the sun. A group which reminded her a little of her girlhood, when everyone was setting out to find their fortune and everyone was going to change the world - although perhaps more of the people here were content with the world as it was.

And one at least of her more recent circle, too - Louisa Wogan had been one her first routes into this circle, and one of her closest companions, and Diana finds it hard to remember when she last had a real female friend. Not since her girlhood, she thinks - Sophie perhaps, but that had been a matter mostly of propinquity, and Sophie had never been an entirely comfortable companion - or an exhilarating one. In any case, that was long ago.

She finds herself wondering, occasionally, what Stephen - or, with a wry smile, Sophie - would think of some of the wilder flights, but for the most part she is quite happy to be swept along. It is a long way from those barren days at Mapes.

---

And then Stephen at last, or something like his pale ghost - glad to see her, she thinks, but withdrawn, distracted, somehow behind a veil. From Ireland, he says, but in an unguarded moment he mentions a southern road, and she wonders at the pointlessness of the lie. Perhaps it is only Jack he is keeping from her, but she had not thought he would lie, or would need to.

And nothing is quite as she had imagined it to be, but then nothing ever is, not since childhood, and maybe that is just the way of the world.

He comes to meet her, again and again, so he must be willing - but he asks nothing more. Even in her fast talking crowd she misses his more serious, more sharply intelligent views - the first person since her girlhood who had talked to her about ideas, and not merely about people and the daily happenings of the neighbourhood.

She talks, still, of everything which interests her and everything which might interest him, and he replies, but in a way mechanically, still through this abstraction which sets him always at a distance from her.

She had not believed that he could be dull, or so little interested, and the odd mix of anger and concern makes her wilder - but her carefully placed barbs still do not seem to pierce, try as she might - not that she truly wishes to hurt him, but what could you do with a man who reacted to nothing?

"Tell me about Sophie," she says one day, kindly enough, wondering if that is where his mind is gone, but even there Stephen has little to say, merely a bare account of her health - a bad time with the birth, but better now - her pleasure at Jack's return and pride in his reception in London, great building works afoot (but she is left to imagine Sophie's gentle consternation, for Sophie had never much liked things being out of place).

He could have said more - Jack's joy at seeing his son mixed with his cautious fear of the nursery, ludicrously tiptoeing across the room, the problems from the start with the builders, always absent on other jobs (very like dockyard men in that respect, Jack announces, declaring that if the molehill would not come to the mountain, it must be the other way round, and setting off to find them) - but he refrains, less from any set policy than from a disinclination for the effort required to follow his mind down that path.

---

And now Stephen gone again - to visit Jack and Sophie, he says, or doesn't quite say, but he admits that as an address, and she directs her letters with an odd pang of interest in the house she has never seen and probably never will.

He was working up to a proposal, perhaps, but perhaps it would be as mechanical as all his actions seemed now. And that might be easier, in a way - she has always tried to offer fair return, but she is not sure that she has anything to offer for what Stephen would wish to give - or indeed anything to give in return for what he wishes to sell, for his last proposal had been very much on those terms. She had ended their engagement once because she had known that she could not fill the place he had made for her - had chosen a man whose needs were easy to understand. And it could be no easier now when he seemed to have no place for her at all.

And it had been foolish ever to come, perhaps - some childish idea of running home, but home had been India, and returning there had done no good. Impossible to return to what you had left, because it was never how you had left it.

You could never run back - only on. But at least she could still believe that there was always something new to find.