'sed anima quae tristis est super magnitudinem
mali et incedit curva et infirma dat tibi
gloriam et iustitam Domino'
Carrying his cumbersome package, Stephen walked cautiously down the crooked, feeble path, often forced to check his pace and peer at the already dim ground as he threaded his way past the bracken encroaching on the damp track. Above him the sky was a vast, deep evening blue, seen through a swaying web of branches. High clouds moved slowly across its perfect bowl in clusters, gilded by the light striking them almost from below. Still higher, a lattice of wispy mare's tails reflected a more intense, red gleam. They seemed unimaginably remote; splinters of pure colour from another world. Amidst this shining twilit beauty his whole being sang with the words of Frei Cardoso's ancient requiem, and he felt himself suspended as it were between the Lisbon of two centuries past - part lost in the great earthquake of the last age, much of Cardoso's music with it - and the reality of his present journey.
Abruptly his thoughts returned to his destination, and his detached happiness faded, though never entirely quenched. It had been five years since he had seen Jack, and the parting had not been at all a civil one. Even now he wondered at his own daring, his willing exposure to gross insult and rejection, travelling like this to arrive at such an unexpected hour at a house where his welcome was at best uncertain, at worst cold in the extreme. Yet he had no option: he had come down from London with mere days to spare, and must depart for the coast in the morning if he were to return to Ireland in time to aid O'Connell in the crucial Clare election, so vital to his own dearest hopes for emancipation.
Ireland: the cause of the break. 'There is nothing so deadening, so deeply hurtful, as a broken friendship,' he reflected, remembering with piercing misery the harsh words, the cries of 'A man cannot serve two masters, sir; I never expected treason of you after so long in His Majesty's service'; his own icy fury and shock at such lack of understanding. He had always been entirely discreet about his sympathies; but this discretion, stretching back through the years as far as his first meeting with Jack - that early, startling encounter with Dillon and with him the ghosts of Stephen's own past - had gradually been overlaid with a complacent assumption that Jack must surely know the deepest truth: that Stephen merely had common cause with England, that his services were dedicated to the destruction of Bonaparte and not to the greater glory of the King. Perhaps their entire friendship had been grounded in a steadfast refusal to admit this to each other; a maintenance of tacit evasion. When the war had ended, some fundamental division had appeared and gradually widened, unnoticed at first. Yet all might have been resolved had it not been for his own, terrible rage, sweeping all wisdom and restraint before it. What had possessed him ?
'fecit potentiam in brachio suo:
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
deposuit potentes de sede:
et exaltavit humiles.'
As the sun sank, there came an instant when the light seemed to be gathered and directed earthwards by the embracing sky, now a huge mirror shading delicately from blue to a flaming orange, east to west: the margins of hue indefinable, and the whole canvas flecked by warm embers of cloud. All around him the trees and bushes, the air itself, became saturated in colour and shadow; transformed. On a morning long ago he had passed by, not far from here, and had paused enchanted by the early light. 'Do we unknowingly seek out the visions, the moods, most suited to our own stage of life ?' he wondered: he was older now, older and immensely weary after the years spent riding up and down Ireland, ceaselessly working for his cherished Catholic Association and for darker, lesser-known bodies. The sunset, the gathering mists, the ghostly presence of the gloom-wrapped branches around him; these seemed to him far more restful now, more desirable, than that bright glittering dawn, full of dewy potential, that had so captivated him so very long ago. 'I am tired; my inner essence is near exhausted,' he thought with a sudden shock.
The chill, haunting strands of the requiem wound their twisting, soaring paths in his thoughts; he remembered a distant moment when he had stood before an exquisite Annunciation altarpiece and had felt his soul entwined by the very same music: the clear, high sopranos creating flawless interlocking planes of purest sound in his mind while in front of him the flowing robes of the angel, the elegant curves of the sun-lit white lily, counterpointed the unbroken, sharply receding perspective of the square tiled floor: unearthly, unreachable crystalline perfection, almost palpably cold and sharp, and yet possessed of a beauty so transparent to the mortal heart as to wrench tears from the dullest of observers.
He was almost at the brow of the final hill, stumbling occasionally as he tried to balance his absurd, heavy burden. Why had he brought it ? Surely he had made himself ridiculous enough in his own estimation merely by coming here, by this pathetic and uninvited attempt at reconciliation; the parcel was nothing more than a means of heightening his inevitable mortifying humiliation. Yet he did wish to see Jack and Sophie again, even to risk the probable spurning. That last meeting had been a sad affair in the extreme, coming on top of everything else in the year after young George's death. It had been a most shocking blow: Jack had become a deeply wounded man, his mourning for a lost child compounded by the dashing of all his eager dreams and plans for a son to follow him into the Navy; while Sophie, who had for some time shown signs of inheriting her mother's shrewishness, now allowed it to overwhelm her sweet nature, drowned in the misery of her loss. Stephen earnestly desired to see them well again; his detour, this mis-timed unannounced arrival, was all in the hope that somehow time would have dulled the numerous pains of the last, so very hard, few years; dulled, too, their deathy pale resentment of his own hot words, fired by his disappointed anger and blazing beyond any hope of retraction, of decent apology. The friendship had weathered so many years, so many thousands of miles; he mourned its passing most intensely: and quite apart from Jack, he had cherished his acquaintance - such a rare sense of mutual trust - with Sophie, even in the difficult later days. Much of his life was now spent in dissimulation and evasion, sometimes verging on the downright treason whose naming had so vexed him; he longed for the distant days of relative innocence at sea. Yet even as he thought this he recognised his own falsity; he had hardly been wholly guileless, at that time.
He crested the hill. The huge sprawling crop of buildings beneath him still answered, ludicrously, to the name of Ashgrove Cottage. He left his parcel under a tree, on the driest ground he could find. As he strode down the path past the vegetables - the splendid profusion of vegetables, that had answered Jack's youthful dreams of domestic bliss - he grew more hesitant, his pace less urgent. From the house there came the sound of a violin, sweet in the evening air, the complex arabesques of sound curving their traces across the twilit garden. He could see a bulky shadow in an upstairs window, seeming to dance and waver in thrall to the flickering firelight behind it.
At last he knocked at the door, his breath catching in the newly chill air. For a moment his anxiety vanished as the familiar, utterly astonished form in the doorway gaped and mugged at him. 'Good evening, Killick,' he said, expecting that ugly head to turn and yell at the house in its old heathen way once its senses returned. But by some miracle Killick had been taught the basic rudiments of household decorum: after the initial stunned pause, followed by the most heartwarming obvious delight, a shadow of doubt and reserve descended; he mumbled 'which I'll tell 'em, sir' before shuffling off into the hallway, pausing to look back in evident disbelief.
The door had been left cautiously open: but Stephen walked the few steps out on to the path and watched the dim deadly form of a barn owl ghosting over the grass. The music, strangely, seemed by some trick of resonance to come from the garden itself, or from the ether, rather than from the vast looming house behind him. It did not falter.
A hangdog, bitterly embarrassed Killick: the words 'the Admiral is not at home, sir' hanging between them in the long silence: his own pathetic, hypocritical 'best compliments to be presented on the Admiral's return'; the last angering him in its weak acceptance of naked untruth, the anger at himself more acute for a moment than the pain which flashed and faded almost instantly. It would return, he knew. As he turned, Killick burst into a curious sort of sullen, defensive eloquence;
'If I may make so bold - it is right good to see you, sir'
'Thank you, Killick - God be with you now.'
Could those be tears in that ridiculous antique leather face ? He walked away rapidly, hoping to catch sight of the owl again. He had once feared that age had cost him his pleasure in the natural world, but travelling his Irish homelands had restored that often soothing, sometimes wild and savage joy that accompanied the deep wonder of finding new forms; the contentment of renewing old acquaintances. The owl had however long gone about its business, wafting towards some wretched prey.
Before he had gone more than halfway back to his package, the music had reached its natural delicate climax and stopped of its own accord. He continued to walk, trudging up the dark trace towards the woods for some moments. Then a sudden commotion behind him made him pause - raised voices, clear in the still air - the heavy door wrenched open - the stentorian bellow of 'Stephen - Stephen, are you there ? Stay, now' until he turned and walked back - the beaming sea-wrinkled visage of his friend - the wide-eyed, oddly panicked form of Sophie bobbing behind in the shadows of the hall.
'Stephen - I did not know, I would never have...' - a cough, the most fleeting of glances at the utterly white-faced Sophie - 'that is to say, there was a misunderstanding. But you will stay ? You will -'
Now she flew to him, frail and light: the babbled words amongst the deep, shuddering sobs; bitter remorse mixed with the utmost relief and joy: behind them Killick dancing a ponderous, gross jig: and most unexpected of all in this happy confusion of sounds, a baby's cry, so out of place in that house - a house where to his certain, professional knowledge love's physical expression had died long ago - that it cut through the happiness that was only now slowly thawing, welling up inside him.
'Give us joy, brother - we have a son.'
He looked sharply up at Jack, who had adopted a look somewhat reminiscent of Killick's when the latter had offered his hand on the doorstep. An instant before he spoke again, Stephen recognised the expression: a reluctant preparation to admit some evidence of affection, coupled with an extreme unwillingness to see it flung back; a mortal dread of exposure to rejection. He had felt it often enough himself, but it was a foreign thing to see on such a naturally open countenance.
'Come in and see him - his name is Stephen.' 'I will come. With all my heart I will come. But Jack, dear Jack - listen now: I have brought my cello. It is outside, under the elm.'
© 1998 Ganesh Suntharalingam