These days, when Harry would call on Jack, he almost invariably found his friend hiding in his dark-paneled study, quite often drinking, even if it was only mid-morning. That was when he deigned to rise from his bed.
This day Jack greeted Harry quietly as he announced his arrival in the study; their pleasantries faltered and soon lapsed into silence. Jack had been his dearest friend before their unit had been sent to the Sudan, and Harry missed the cheerful young man Jack had been. Harry had saved his life there, but Jack had lost his eyesight, putting an untimely end to what had been a promising military career.
The study reeked of stale gin, and Harry found it intolerable in comparison to the delicate, head-clearing moisture which hung in the air outside.
"We must go out for a walk, Jack, it's a lovely day. I can't tell you how wonderful these English mists seem to me after the desert."
"Is it foggy? I haven't been out."
"We're going out now, my friend."
"No, Harry, I can't keep up. I'll trip and break my leg. You'll have to put me down like a horse."
"Nonsense, Jack! I'll go slowly and keep a sharp eye out for holes. Besides, your gardener keeps the paths as smooth as a croquet lawn, there's no need for worry. We'll just toddle around the grounds a bit and work up an appetite for lunch. You haven't been eating well."
"I've been eating too well - I can hardly button my jacket."
His dissipation was taking its effect: his face had grown puffy; his suits, cut for a frame which had always been quite trim, were fitting tightly around the midriff.
"Then you need the walk, you can't argue. Come along, now."
Harry rang the bell for the maid and asked her to bring Mr. Durrance's coat to the door, and distracted his friend with news of the world outside while he pulled and cajoled at him to make him move. Jack gave in with some grumbling which became more good-natured as it became more clear to him that he had no choice, and eventually he was shrugged into his light coat and stepped out the door. Harry breathed in theatrically deeply, being sure to be quite noisy about it.
"Smell that air, Jack! It's grand!"
Jack obliged with a twist to his lips that attempted to be a polite smile and failed utterly, but he did at least breathe in, and as he let it out he relaxed a little. They moved slowly off down a garden footpath, arm in arm, Jack's steps hesitant and stiff-legged.
"I'm sure you're right, Harry, this will be good for me. It occurs to me now that I may not have been out of doors in the past week."
"Haven't you even been riding, Jack? Ethne said you had been exercising some of your horses 'round the paddock."
Jack's face darkened again, and Harry silently cursed himself for bringing up her name. Still, it was unavoidable. They had always had a friendly rivalry around Ethne, though Jack had always stepped aside in favor of Harry. When she'd thought Harry lost she had become engaged to Jack, but when Harry had returned to England Jack had again stepped aside in favor of his old friend. Ethne wanted to someday be a friend to Jack again, and that would never happen if all mention of her was impossible in their conversation. Besides, he was marrying Ethne - he couldn't very well talk for long with his friend and avoid all mention of his wife-to-be.
"No. No, I haven't been riding in a while."
"Oh, smell, Jack! Your roses are still in bloom! Here, we'll leave the path - watch your step."
They paused for a few moments in the damp grass by the rose bushes - the smell sharply sweet, reminding Harry of strawberries - and Jack reached out carefully to brush his hands across the flowers, preening the single row of pink petals between his fingertips. He sighed.
"Harry, I know you must despise me for my weakness. I'm disappointed in myself for it. But I really only bothered to try for her. I really can't think what the point is, now. I'm useless."
"Your sight was given honorably, fighting by the side of your friends."
"A nice sentiment, Harry. It's not so much my blindness which I see as my weakness, though, but my despair. I want to fade away here in this country house. I only wish people would forget me as I am, now."
"Don't say that. You're young, you should marry and have children to whom you can tell the tales of your adventures in the Sudan."
"I wouldn't want to. All idiocy. If we'd only listened to your messenger, so many needn't have died."
"Not just a messenger. Abou was a good friend to me. I can't tell you how many times he saved my life." Harry paused, then added, "He saved yours, too."
"You saved my life, Harry. I know that. I touched your face. I didn't know it was you at the time, but when I touched your face again, later, I knew."
"It was I whose face you touched, Jack, yes." Harry pushed the words out, slowly. "Do you remember your letters?"
"They had spilled from my jacket. Yes. And you gave them back to me. But..." His face went stiff, and he groped for Harry's arm. "Harry? You didn't...?"
Harry gripped Jack's upper arm, firmly, warmly. "Yes. I read a few words only. It tore my heart out to think that she didn't love me anymore, she loved you. Jack, I'm not proud of it at all, and I'd have regretted it forever if Abou had not stopped me, but... for a few moments there I seriously considered walking away from you. Leaving you, blind, to wander in the desert until you died of thirst. It was Abou who saved your life, really. 'Your friend needs you,' he said. And then to come home and have you voluntarily give her up to me... Jack. I'm ashamed of myself. You were always so much stronger than I."
"Oh... rot. Don't speak such rot, Harry." But Jack's face held a slightly warmer glow, now.
"Oh, Jack, you must marry. Marry and have children for me to be a doting uncle to, to whom I can tell tales of Abou."
The hint of a rueful smile flickered across Jack's face.
"You'll be busy with your own children, soon. No, Harry, there's really no point. It's not just a matter of finding someone who would have me. There's also the question of how I would meet a young lady at all. I can't go out."
"Of course you can go out. Why aren't you?"
"I can't, Harry! What shall I do, blunder into things until I find my way? Have someone lead me around? That would rather put the crimp in a romantic idyll, would it not? You don't realize, Harry - there are reams of unspoken communication in a conversation, multitudes of glances and movements of the face which tell one whether someone is interested in what one says, or bored to death. I'd never know - I never do, anymore. I can't tell right now if you are listening to me or not."
"Of course I am."
"I'd simply be a bore at a party. And dancing? No more of that."
"My dear fellow, don't say that. There must be some way for you to dance, again. We'll find a way. Ethne will be happy to help. Ethne misses you, too, you know."
"Don't be ridiculous. How could I lead when I can't see? And Ethne feels nothing but pity for me, now. With every right. I'm useless."
"No, it's you who are being ridiculous. You're far from useless. If you'd only apply yourself you'd soon find methods to work around you limitations, I feel sure. If Ethne feels pity it's because she's reflecting what you are feeling for yourself. When you decide to leave off with that and live again she'll remember that dashing young soldier she loved."
"I told you, I've long since faced the fact that she never loved me. She perhaps cared, but she never loved me. She simply settled for me."
"I... Let's walk a little more, Jack. Give me your arm."
"What's wrong, Harry?"
"What makes you think there's anything wrong?"
"The tone of your voice. The tension of your arm. What's wrong?"
"You see through me."
"And I can hear that smile in your voice," said Jack, with an answering smile.
"Not so helpless, then."
"It's you, Harry. I know you."
"God, Jack, I missed you so. Remember how we were? We're so different, now. We're all so different, now."
"What do you mean, Harry? What's wrong?"
"It's Ethne." He sighed, and knew he could hide nothing from his friend, who had now learned to listen more intently than he ever had before. They turned into the lane. The bleating of sheep could be heard from somewhere, nearby, but the curves of the road, the mists and the hedges served to muffle the sounds and concealed from Harry where they might be.
"She's not sick, is she?" The concern was plain in Jack's voice and face.
Harry attended to the gravel beneath their feet as they walked, then lifted his eyes and was caught, as he often was, by the fine, sharp line of Jack's eyebrows, which he could now stare at without fear of being caught by Jack. It gave him quite a queer feeling; a voyeuristic thrill. But he pulled his mind back to the topic at hand. "She's fine. Sometimes. But other times she just seems... so sad. I suspect it's when she thinks of you, and misses you. I'm not sure that you're correct when you say that you think she never loved you."
Jack scowled. "That isn't relevant, now. She missed you the entire time you were gone."
And then they rounded a corner, and the flock was upon them, pushing and bleating, a living flood washing the two men apart. The moment Harry lost his grip upon Jack's elbow, Jack noticed the absence and spun, reached for him, called for him, and Harry, mere steps away, could not fight his way back against the tide. Jack turned his head this way and that, verging on panic. He was trying to hear, Harry realized, over the clangor of bells, and disoriented by the insistent pushing of the woolly bodies.
"I'm here, Jack! Just wait a moment and they will pass!"
The shepherd bobbed his head politely to Jack, who of course did not respond. Obviously wondering if Jack was some sort of lunatic, the shepherd looked to Harry, who mimed covering his eyes and mouthed the word 'blind.' The shepherd's expression changed to one of pity, he nodded, and he moved on.
Harry found himself suddenly angry with the shepherd, and with the whole world, for pitying his friend. The press of the flock had passed and he made the few steps back and seized Jack's elbow again, feeling a slight tremble therein.
"Are you cold?"
"No, I..." A deep breath shuddered in and out. "Where are we now, Harry? Which way are we facing?"
"Turn a little to the left, and now we're headed back to the manor. And here's the gate, already. Let us take a seat here a moment." He steered Jack by the elbow, pulled him a step backward until the back of his knee felt the edge of the bench which nestled in the nook of the gate.
Jack sank to the seat with great care, and took another long, steadying breath.
Harry was pulled into an awkward perch on the edge of the bench, still holding Jack's elbow. He patted Jack's forearm with his free hand, and Jack's other hand caught Harry's and held it there, turning his face toward Harry.
"It's okay, Jack. It's only fear. I know that such a bold soldier as yourself is probably unfamiliar with it," Harry teased, hoping that making light of it would bring Jack around, "But I recognize the symptoms. Fear was my constant companion in the Sudan, even more constant than Abou."
"How did you bear it?" Jack muttered, his head hung forward.
"Sometimes I had no idea." He released Jack's elbow to slide that arm around his shoulders, and move himself more comfortably fully onto the seat, pulling Jack close and chaffing his other shoulder as though to warm him.
"But you kept going."
"Well, what can one do? We do what we must."
"I hate this, Harry. I hate this. I don't like feeling scared all the time."
"Of course not. But I'll tell you, it was easier for me when Abou was there. It was cold in the desert at night, but I shivered from fear as much as cold. I would wake in the middle of the night, whimpering, and he would curl around me and keep me warm like some great protective lion. Oh! How I miss him!"
"Why didn't you bring him back with you?"
"You speak as though he were a tame thing whose actions I could direct. Not so. I invited him to accompany me. He would not. He said that, just as I was like a helpless pup in the desert, so he would be unable to live where people layered themselves up in stiff clothes could not breathe enough to laugh out loud. Sometimes when I'm sitting at one of these garden parties Ethne brings me along to, all delicate china and light conversation, I imagine how it would be if he had. How they would shy like scared horses at his enormous laugh! And then at one point I almost thought I might stay there in the Sudan, with him. Knowing that you were marrying Ethne, in a moment of weakness I said that I didn't think I could go back to England and face that. Abou would not hear of such a thing. He said that he knew I loved you and Ethne both well, and that I would not be able to live with myself if I left you to fight this new enemy alone, nor ever see her again. And I knew that he was right. I had followed you all the way to the Sudan," Harry said, making his voice light and teasing. "Could I do less than follow you back again?"
Jack twisted in the curve of his arm, turning his face toward Harry, then lifting the hand which had covered Harry's own and reaching to touch Harry's face with it. The hand sought restlessly across Harry's brow and down the side of his face and back up again as Jack spoke.
"But surely you came to the Sudan to clear your name, to prove that you were no coward?"
"It's never entirely one thing or the other, is it? I carried those feathers with me every day, and knowing that people thought so ill of me was one spur."
Jack nodded, and his hand settled with fingertips just above the peak of Harry's eyebrow, half covering that eye, curved around his cheekbone.
"But, Jack. You and I had sworn to each other to fight by each other's shoulders. I needed to leave the Army because I was never cut out for killing people, but I could never desert you. Do you remember what you said when I asked you why you were going?"
"I said I was going because you were."
"And you said, 'There is no one I'd sooner trust my life with. You're all that matters.'
The arm Harry had around Jack's shoulders was tiring and slipping down, and Jack seemed distracted and calmed, now, so Harry dropped his arm, slid it out, and took Jack's elbow again. "Would you like to go back to the house, now?"
"Yes." Jack's hand slipped away from Harry's face, and he began to turn away, but then he paused in thought and turned back, reaching again to read Harry's expressions. "Harry?"
"I can't let you waste your time taking care of me. You'll get tired of it."
"Jack." Harry allowed a bit of exasperation into his voice. "I love Ethne, and I want her to be happy. Ethne loves you, and she won't be happy until you're back in our lives, again. Besides, I never tired of your company before, and I can't imagine that I will, now."
Jack smiled, something like a real smile. "I guess I have no choice in the matter."
"Not much," Harry said, moving Jack's hand to his lips so that Jack could tell he was smiling back.