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by Kate Goodheart about a year ago in history
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Death of a Spymaster

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

Among so many soldiers, he had expected songs and laughter and the noise of sportive fighting to come in through the window, but the night had been so quiet. Nothing broke his solitude in the little bedroom, and he was alone with his thoughts. His jailers had left paper, quill, ink, and plenty of candles; before dawn, the letter-writing was done. He had little to say, finally, and few loved ones to write anyway. The army had been his life, his passion.

He crossed the room to the washbasin. There was a razor, soap, and a cloth. There was a looking-glass above the basin, but he didn’t need it. On this day of all days, what could be more familiar than his form? The face in the glass had frightened eyes. He had seen that look on hundreds of boys and men before the battles began. Some of them never lost it: they would flee when the shooting began.

The soap spread slick under his fingers, rasped along the stubble on his cheeks and chin. He slowly opened the razor, watched the candlelight gleam along its polished edge. The blade waited at the throat of the man in the glass, standing afraid in his shirtsleeves. For the first time, he thought there might be another way out. The blade was steady in his hands, cool and intimate. In the bones of his jaw and brow, he saw his father’s face. He slid the blade up along his neck, scraping away the soap and hair. Each stroke came more easily.

Soon his face was clean and his eyes had steadied.

There was some paper still waiting, blank, on the tabletop. He tied the neck of the shirt, shrugged on the borrowed coat hanging over the back of the chair, pushed each wooden button through its placket, and sat at the table across from the looking-glass with a pencil in hand. Every movement of his hand was soothing. The paper’s tiny inconsistencies snagged the pencil’s tip as he sketched. The subject was still, his face composed. The clothing was problematic: he began to fill in the familiar lines of his uniform coat and felt its loss and consequence more keenly. A complicated expression darkened the face in the glass, and he smiled reassuringly at it. The pencil scratched at the paper again, steadily lining in the ruffled front of his cheap shirt. Because of the scale, he was spared filling in too many details. The sharp planes of the table met the rounded lines of his calves and thighs. Softness in the shoulders of the old velvet coat, square but resigned. As a last gesture, since there was still time, he gave the simple lines of the face a cheerful expression. This detail was a lie, but he would rather be remembered that way.

Morning dawned through the open curtains as he sketched. The candle on the tabletop flickered in a draft and he blew it out. The letters and sketch he piled neatly on one corner of the table. Later, someone would ensure they found their way.

He stood, stretched, the weakness in his knees and the twisting in the pit of his stomach familiar from many battlefields. Moving closer to the glass again, he adjusted his stock, re-tied the ribbon binding his queue. The face in the glass was pale in the silvery autumn morning light. The mouth trembled and he forced it into a line. Outside, drums beat reveille. He turned to the window to wait, hands clasped behind his back. Mist rose off the fields and through the trees, blinding. It wouldn’t be long now.

The sounds of the camp and town began to filter in. Men called out pleasantries and insults to one another as they went about their business. He stood still and absorbed every sound, keeping his own silence. There was little left to say; all his thoughts and hopes had been deposited on those paltry few sheets of paper and now he was empty.

The door, when it finally opened, did not startle him. He felt distant, and yet entirely steeped in the moment’s trivialities. One of the guards sent to fetch him hadn’t shaved in several days. Both wore severe expressions, whether of distaste for the task or for their prisoner he wasn’t certain. He saluted them in greeting. The unshaven one flinched as though he would return the salute, but restrained himself. There was to be no respect paid his rank, then. The guards moved to his sides. He walked one step ahead of them, refusing to be escorted. He would face the day unfettered. Each footstep echoed off the wooden floor and painted walls. One of the guards was slightly out of step. The bright, cold air met his face. A bird sang out. The mist had burned away, leaving behind the kind of crisp, clear day that only comes in October. He marched down the steps of the tavern to meet the fifes and drums. Encapsulating the fear now was a strange peace. After all the war and struggle it came down to this. There was nothing left to negotiate, no schemes to be played. Today all uncertainties were ended.

The band’s faces above their blue and red coats were so young. They didn’t look at him, and neither did his guards, but theirs were the only gazes fixed away. The street was lined with eyes. The mud in the street tugged at his white-topped boots, empty now of the dispatches that had damned him, as the band escorted him up the hill, through the center of town. He kept his face up and his back straight, watching the crowd pass by in a blur of bright dresses and indistinct faces. The melody of the fifes drew him on. He had heard it many times, never expecting it would play for his last walk.

Cresting the hill, his steps slowed unasked. His hands and feet were suddenly icy. Instead of the detail of marksmen he had earnestly expected, a cart and two placid draft horses waited beneath a tall tree. A coffin rested in the back of the cart, and above it hung a noose. The guards pulled him forward. He paused, swallowed hard, and fell back into step. The pressure on his arms eased. His final request had been denied, but no matter the method, he would walk to his death like the gentleman soldier he was.

The fifes fell silent, the crowd encircled the cart. A bird sang out from the branches high above his head. Now it was only a few more steps: one foot onto the hub of the cartwheel, the other onto its iron rim, then both down onto the coffin. He unbuttoned the coat but left it on. Reaching around under his tied-back hair, he unclasped the pin holding the stock close around his neck. The linen band came loose and he dropped it to the pine slats underfoot. Somehow, he had still expected it to be black; the white was startlingly bright against the faded wood. His shirt collar was next. The small trembling of his fingers as he untied it could have been excused as a shiver. The cold morning air struck his bared chest as the shirt fell open. The drumbeat continued, slower than his heart.

The hemp rope shed fibers on his hands. He remembered sailing, warm summer days on the pond back home. It was so far away. He brushed the palm of one hand, then the other, down his trouser legs. The rope loop had an unexpected weight. He slipped the noose over his head, moved his hair aside, and settled the knot under his left ear. Among all the watching eyes were the calm grey ones of the treacherous commander-in-chief. The drums stopped and there was silence. He took a kerchief from his pocket, knotted it behind his head. The brilliant noon sunshine dimmed and was gone. Behind the blindfold, he closed his eyes. Footsteps beside him; the cart wobbled underfoot. One of the guards tied his hands behind his back, looped another kerchief lightly around his elbows.

He stood firm. His racing heart beat in his throat, in the pit of his belly, but he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. The guard climbed down from the cart and the drums began again. He felt every fiber of the rope against his neck. The boards creaked beneath him as he shifted his weight, aware of every taut muscle down to his toes. The homespun shirt grazed his ribs; the sun was warm on his chest, and he felt very naked.

Someone clucked to the horses. It was a comforting, homely sound. The cart slid away from his boot soles, and he fought every instinct in his body not to scrabble for a foothold. It was too late for that.

It was but a momentary pang.


About the author

Kate Goodheart

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