Invernessshire, Scotland, U.K.
Sir Stephenson watched as Lord MacDougal’s coffin was lowered into the ground.
MacDougal was found dead in his Highgate mansion by his wife. The medical examiner wrote it up as a heart attack, number three apparently one too many.
Despite MacDougal’s flirtations with Catholicism, he’d remained in the High Kirk of Scotland, and the funeral was held at St. Columba’s Church. Adjoining the MacDougals’ traditional lands, it was where the MacDougals had been buried for as long as there had been MacDougals, and old even at the start of their line. This particular house of God was said to have a history going back to Pictish times, when Stephenson’s own ancestors, Angle, Saxon and Norman alike, were still worshipping Odin and Thor.
The crowd gathered for the ceremony under the leaden Highland sky was a testament to the high places into which his friend was born, and to which he had attained. There were people from his Air Force days, from his time in the City, from Parliament, from the clubs of which he’d been a member and the schools he’d attended, and acquaintances he had come by through the Guardians (though that wasn’t the story they told when asked by anyone who didn’t instantly recognize them as such).
There wasn’t the least suspicion of foul play in the notice. Nor was there a murmur of such in the government, or among any of MacDougal’s friends and colleagues with whom Stephenson spoke, everyone accepting the death as exactly what it had been meant – no, Stephenson thought, what he had meant it – to look like.
This was all to the good, of course. Still, he had no sense of justice done, or a triumph won, or even relief at the aversion of a great danger. Stephenson knew full well that he had acted more because of his earlier failure to do what was necessary in the past than any threat his old friend might present in the future. All the same, it had been unthinkable not to act.
Now, though, the act was almost unreal, his sense of it a slender, fragile, nebulous thing. He had just asked for the thing to be done, and it was done for him, without his knowing how, without having confirmation that his call had been answered except in the result, almost as if he’d made a wish and some unseen deity had answered it.
Not that he believed in such deities. Despite all the Christian trappings of the funerary ritual (more pagan than the Bible-thumpers appreciated), he knew his friend hadn’t either, much as he’d spoken of the importance of ritual. There were just human beings living in an incomprehensibly vast universe of which they were a most miniscule part. Nor could they reasonably imagine that that tiny part would be eternal. As far as Stephenson was concerned, all the talk of an afterlife was merely a crude metaphor for the laws of thermodynamics that the ancient philosophers had surely intuited.
In front of him there was just the body descending back into the Earth, only the very latest in a long line of them going all the way back to the war in which he’d seen so many of his friends die (Brian and Henry and . . .), every one of them extinguished in all but the most abstract ways. The ease with which the explanation for this death was accepted was yet another reminder to Stephenson that his own time was running out, as was that of all the faces familiar from his youth.
There was Niall, captain of the rowing team back in school, who was now sitting in a wheelchair and being attended to by a nurse, a young pretty one whose attentions he was no longer fully capable of enjoying. There was Trevor, who’d been a year ahead of them at Oxford and joined the Navy a little earlier than Stephenson had, and looked like he’d been left in the water too long. And Alistair, who’d gone to Kenya to start a coffee plantation after being demobbed.
He was mindful, too, of all the faces that weren’t there, like Lachlan, claimed by cancer only three years earlier.
Stephenson paid his respects to MacDougal’s widow (in life, his wife more in name than anything else), and his son and heir (likewise mainly in name, if the rumor was to be believed). He said goodbye to his friends, too – to some of them, probably for the last time – and returned to his rented Mercedes.
Despite what he had been forced to do, Stephenson still thought of the man as his friend, and for all his flaws a figure of some substance with which he compared the younger MacDougal unfavorably.
Of course, he might have said that of any man his age, none of the Guardians’ younger cohort seeming quite up to their duties. He wondered if perhaps it was not just an old man’s forgetfulness of his youthful imperfections, and the unreasonable expectations that came with such forgetfulness; or in his case, a sense that he’d failed to prepare a successor as well as Lord Birkhead had prepared him; or a decay in the quality of the human material at hand such as Plato had talked about, children conceived under the wrong stars – a notion that may have been scientifically unsound, but which worked as metaphor nonetheless. Perhaps the blood had been thinning a long time, men in his own father’s generation already showing a loss of some of the instincts of rulership.
Regardless, his seventy-fourth birthday was fast approaching. He’d outlived his father by a quarter of a century and his mother by a time not much shorter than that, and buried his wife, and seen not just his children but his grandchildren grow to adulthood. By all rights, he should have retired from government work years earlier, accepted a more modest, advisory role in his other work, as Birkhead had gracefully done years before reaching Stephenson’s present age.
Stephenson set the thought aside for now, knowing that this wasn’t the best of times in which to try to work out the details of that course, however necessary or unavoidable it may have been. He turned his attention out the window instead, and happened to see the ruins of an old castle, a remnant of the country’s wilder days. Much as MacDougal had been attached to Classical lore and Mediterranean adventures, he had taken more than a passing interest in that history. He talked about it less than his other passions, but Stephenson still remembered watching him regale many a guest with stories of his ancestors’ battles against rival clans, tales more colorful than anything Stephenson remembered with such clarity and specificity from his own family’s history. (A typical view for a southerner like himself to take, he supposed.)
Perhaps MacDougal liked to imagine his ancestors as something like the Greeks of Agamemnon’s day, barbarians who would later build a civilization that awed the world. The Highland regiments were the great symbol of that for him, the hardy hill-men who’d once fought the English crown later fighting that crown’s battles all around the globe – many of the MacDougal men doing so personally in those units during the last two and a half centuries.
Stephenson read the road sign indicating their approach to Inverness Airport, from which he caught a flight back to London, and his routine. He knew full well that the world hadn’t stopped for MacDougal’s passing, and there was a great deal else requiring his attention, for as long as he had it to give.