Church bells toll in the distance, a deep, sombrous sound that reverberates in an enclosed glen at the rear of Ashgrove Cottage. The morning sun sparkles through the layers of naked grey branches encrusted with last night’s snow, falling to bathe in shadowy light a newly carved granite headstone.
Beside the grave marker stands a short, white-haird old man dressed in rusty black. He stands with shoulders hunched, head bowed and one hand resting on the top of the tombstone, as if leaning on it for support. A cane lies abandoned on the white carpet several yards away, thrown away in a moment of anger and frustration.
The other mourners have long gone. The grieving widow was led away by her children immediately after the ceremony for a cup of tea and a nap to alleviate her dying spirits. It is just him here now. Alone. Silent. Lost in contemplation of a past long gone, of a friendship forged in the midst of war and bloodshed. A friendship that then endured through the many decades of peace that followed.
Port Mahon, 1800
The lights in the Governor’s Mansion cast a rather homely glow on the furnishings, something Stephen would have appreciated if he were not so entranced by the sheer beauty and passion of the music being played. He almost sighed with disappointment when the interlude came. Yawning, he got up for a stretch and a stroll in grounds. Nights like this were to be treasured, even if he was in the most desperate of circumstances.
When he got back to his chair, he found its neighbour taken up by a fat red-faced young man in some kind of naval uniform. He paid him no attention – after all, what could an uneducated naval officer know about Locatelli?
During all those years of sailing with Jack, across the world’s oceans, there was nothing Stephen looked forward to more than musical evenings with the Captain. There was something sensual in bending over their respective instruments to coax out the most glorious, aching music. Very much like the act of intercourse, Stephen always thought. First was the preparation: the application of rosin upon their bows to bring out the sweetest responses in their instruments. Then came the music. Slow to start with and then becoming deeper and more meaningful as he and Jack communed with their bows. And finally, the climax: a frenzied and empathic conclusion to a wonderful session. Stephen always left feeling happy and content but wishing it could have continued all night.
Port Mahon, 1804
He is tired, so very tired. How many weeks has it been since he’d been captured? His fuzzy mind tries to make sense of all the times he’d blissfully fallen unconscious from the pain, only to be rudely jolted back to awareness when they toss icy-cold water over him.
And now they are starting again. Knives sears against his skin, across patches already broken and bruised. Sometimes cutting deep, sometimes barely scratching the surface. Then come the questions. They are always the same ones, repeated over and over again. The pain will stop if you talk, the voice keeps whispering in his ear. But he didn’t want to talk, did he?
And where is Jack? Dearest Jack, he must be so very worried by now. But it would be suicide to expect him to rescue Stephen. No! He must somehow send him a message and tell him to let Sir Joseph know…
Dear GOD! He screams as they pull out the fingernails in his right hand and felt unconscious overtake him again.
At the end of their seafaring lives, Stephen could proudly say that he’d retained half of what his dear friend taught him about Naval matters. Yet on the other hand, Jack had never attempted to understand Stephen’s passions. How many times had he tried to share the wonders of the natural world with Jack, only to find his dear friend smiling and nodding at him with a vacant expression in his eyes? Yet somehow, he found that he didn’t really mind, just as he never minded how Jack would often, in the middle of a serious conversation, start spouting those terrible puns of his.
Stephen’s menagerie vexed his friend, yet Jack rarely complained unless it directly affected the efficiency and operation of the ship. Whenever he and Jack came into conflict, like that instance with the sloth, their differences were soon forgotten and the incident relegated to memory until a dinner party or a late night’s conversation brought it up to much humour all around.
The Pacific, off the Coast of South America, 1817
The moment Amos gave him the message, Stephen wanted to leap for joy and run immediately to Jack with the news, propriety be damned! Instead he schooled his face into a mask of calm pleasure and ascended to the weather deck, bumping into Mr. Adams on the way.
He walked into Jack’s cabin and sat down heavily in his chair. So, it had finally come at last. How much of Jack’s worrying was warranted, he wasn’t sure, but it was certainly enough to prey on Stephen mind and cause him to make a few discreet enquires. He stood up again and headed towards the stern windows to stare out at the deep blue Pacific, his mind awhirl and his body in a state of restless agitation.
Stephen felt, rather than heard, heavy footsteps approaching the cabin. Clasping shaking hands behind his back, he calmed his heart to deliver the good news and his blessings.
That inevitable, fateful day had dawned overcast and foggy, mirroring the mood in all their hearts. Stephen was not surprised to wake and find Jack had already dressed and gone, his breakfast left cold on the table. Stephen knew, also, where he might find him, so after a word with Pullings and Mowett he too decided to forgo his breakfast and headed down to the docks.
He found Jack sitting on the floor of what used to be the great cabin, staring morosely at the wall. “She’s in her prime,” Jack had once said after barely escaping from a surprise attack by a bigger, heavier ship. Now, almost twenty years later, she was scarred and misshapen, a floating hulk. But even Stephen could still see traces of her former beauty and glory.
Or maybe they were just illusions - memories of an age long past, echoes in his mind that still refused to fade.
The moment was so long in coming that some even believed it was not going to happen at all. Stephen had seen Jack stand back in the shadows as one by one, his contemporaries got their honours and rewards. Some were justly deserved. Cochrane in 1809, Hornblower in 1811, Codrington, Hoste and many others when the war ended in 1815… Others not, in Jack’s opinion, so richly deserving, and his dear friend had spent many hours complaining to Stephen about what the recipients did, or failed to do.
But after all that he’d achieved, all the blood he had spilt for King and country, there was nothing for Jack. Nothing.
Until now, that is. Stephen smiled and looked up at his friend who sat talking animatedly to a few ladies of the court, a bright blue sash hanging across his body and the familiar star upon his chest.
Westminster, February 1832
Politics was not something that Jack did well in.
He was just too trusting of his colleagues and he also lacked that deviousness all politicians required to survive and make it to the top of the political ladder.
He was passionate, certainly. In fact, Stephen hadn’t seen Jack so passionate away from the sea as he was during the whole parliamentary reform crisis. From the moment Wellington resigned back in 1830, Jack had thrown himself into the debate against the Whigs with a vigour that astonished Stephen.
Stephen, of course, kept his own opinions on the matter to himself.
And now here he was, sitting in the public viewing room in the House of Commons, watching the continued debate on the Bill. Jack, who looked absolutely striking decked out in his full Admiral’s uniform and the symbols of his knighthood, stood speaking in the corner, his loud, booming voice projecting across the hall.
Stephen’s three days leave from the University could have been spent in more profitable and enjoyable pursuits, but here he was. Christine and the children could wait another day.
Two weeks ago Stephen had visited Ashgrove Cottage on the way to London. He was pleasantly surprised to also find Charlotte and Fanny there with their husbands and children. Jack was surprisingly nimble for a man of his age and weight, laughing and playing around with his grandchildren as though he had not a care in the world. Little Thomas – Fanny’s fourth – had demanded a ride and despite Sophie’s protests and Stephen’s disapproving frown, Jack had lifted the child onto his shoulders and marched steadily across the snowy field.
Stephen’s heart ached to see him so happy and carefree. On that beautiful December day, it was almost like being back on the dear old Surprise once again.
That was the last time. Yesterday the message arrived.
In 1836, over a decade ago, Stephen was called in by Lord Melbourne to consult the King. It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d been called to give his opinion on the royal family's state of health, and apparently his reputation, deserved or not, was so favourable that His Majesty had insisted his Prime Minister approach Stephen personally. That surprised Stephen. It was well known that the King and Lord M. weren’t on the best of terms.
That debacle last year didn't help matters, either.
“His Majesty has a very weak heart,” Stephen carefully replied to Melbourne’s polite query on the way back to London. He had been a little shocked when calling at the Prime Minister’s place that morning to find Melbourne lounging on his bed in a dressing gown. “He is very much overweight and has a most vile liver – due to, no doubt, his time in the Navy. I recommended to His Majesty’s physicians a daily regime of exercise and reduced food consumption.”
Melbourne only gave him a sardonic smile in response.
The figure sighs and slowly removes his hands from the gravestone. He limps slowly to pick up his cane and dusts off the snowflakes coating the handle. Taking a long steady glance around the glen, he notices something growing not far from where he stands. He smiles and bends down to pick it up.
“Galanthus,” he whispers, rubbing the stem between his fingers. “Also know as the snowdrop. Usually blooms in January, but sometimes known to bloom much earlier.”
He places the flower on top of the stone and stares gravely at it for a moment.
“Farewell, my dear friend.”
Without a backward glance, he walks off to rejoin the others at the house.
Admiral Sir John Aubrey
Born March 15th 1779
Died December 22nd 1848
He was a NAVAL officer and served during the GREAT WARS
A loving HUSBAND, FATHER and GRANDFATHER
He will be sadly missed