The last notes of the song faded away into the darkness, and all the men, soldiers and officers alike, were silent for a long moment. Then someone started to applaud, and others joined in, and for a moment the air rang with their appreciation of the beautiful sound.
Jim looked around to see Ashley not far away, and made his way over to join him. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw a handkerchief disappear into the officer's pocket as he joined him.
'That was nice,' he said awkwardly.
Ashley nodded. 'Like the birds, almost.' He delved into his pocket and produced his cigarette case, passing a smoke to Jim and lighting his own, swiping furtively at his eyes before he lit Jim's. The ends glowed brightly, beacons in the darkness of the château's orchard.
Two or three pairs of men slipped past Jim and Ashley, walking quietly but quickly, deeper into the orchard and the privacy of the trees. Jim's eyes followed them out of sight, wondering, and Ashley caught the expression on his face and laughed.
'Where...' Jim didn't know how to continue, or if he should continue.
'They're going to... well, there aren't many women around here, and some of them... they miss their wives too much,' Ashley half-explained, suddenly embarrassed. And suddenly missing his own wife, Julia, as well.
Jim understood immediately, though, and though he'd never thought of it before, this new concept seemed almost to fit right into his ideas of the world; neither good nor bad, but at the moment neutral -- a thought not really in place with what he knew. It was a new idea.
'What do they do?' he asked shyly, not confident that it was the right question.
Ashley cast the end of his cigarette to the ground and reached out for his former employee's hand. 'Come and I'll show you,' he said softly.
After, they walked back into the clearing with the piano; the rest of the men were still there, talking in low voices, some drinking, most smoking, and only a few becoming rowdy.
And soon, the various battalions began to break away, to begin the marches back to their billets.
Jim and Ashley stood for a moment off to the side, in the darkness, passing Ashley's last cigarette back and forth, until a voice rang out with Jim's name, summoning him impatiently back to the troop. Then they looked at one another uncertainly.
'See you later, then,' Ashley said, already turning back into the cool professional officer, not the warm, loving person that Jim now knew he could be.
Jim reached out and they shook hands, then Ashley stepped forward and briefly pressed his lips against the other man's. And Jim realised that the warmth was still there. Hidden, but there.
His battalion began to move. Jim ran to catch up with it. And, apart from his final fevered imaginings on his deathbed, he never saw Ashley Crowther again.
But he thought about him a lot.