It was only by the greatest good fortune that His Majesty survived. The lightning-swift rush by the sailor Lugwort, the almost imperceptible movement as he slipped the gleaming dagger from his jerkin – they still send a coruscating shiver through me. My own part in denying him his goal has, perhaps, been exaggerated - but we give thanks that the snuff blown into his eyes by my sneeze blinded him. I pray that the fourteen children of Mme. Beauvine find consolation in the fact that the blow that took their mother's life spared His Majesty's. I hear that her dress, though stained, may yet serve for one of the larger daughters.
Of course Lugwort, an illiterate whose tongue was severed in a bawdy-house brawl, could and would not name those behind his treason. Of no use to us, he was swiftly dispatched to justice, first in this world and then the next. But the agitation and frenetic demeanour of the Comte de Chiftie were plain enough to see. Word soon reached me that he had been seen the day before the assault, sketching the tunnels under the Guardhouse. He was denounced and put to the question.
Ah! The Comte, a man in thrall to those dangerous ideas so prevalent in today's young; vapid notions and dreams that would quite destroy the order and concord of the State. A vain and vainglorious man, but not without his virtues. He showed considerable fortitude in the Chamber of Answers. Though he soon laid bare his own part in those vile deeds – it was he who distracted attention from Lugwort's entry through the kitchen by dropping a live duck into a cauldron of boiling water – he refused time and again to name the conspirators. Zganov the Questioner used every repellent groat's worth of his skills, but to no avail. It became clear that, such had been the assiduity of Zganov and his acolytes, de Chiftie was not long for this life.
In all things the proper forms must be observed. To let de Chiftie expire in the dark squalor of the dungeon would have led only to his elevation to martyrdom. "Better to see him tried and sentenced for what he has admitted, and might yet admit to save his soul!" said the Duc de Scorreggio. One does not dispute the opinion of the Royal Chamberlain, so a trial was hastily convened. De Chiftie’s confession (as far as it went) was more than sufficient for their august lordships to confirm what the laws of Nature clearly decreed – the Comte slumped pathetically in the dock and grew visibly weaker during the short proceedings. Yet he refused to name his fellow plotters, even when the Archpatriarch himself elucidated the eternal torment his soul faced.
The grim business of execution was set in motion. The block, the axeman, the scaffold – the apparatus of despatch was assembled. A large and raucous crowd gathered to see the gruesome spectacle. Drums rolled, guards clattered swords and sidearms. The tumbrel carrying de Chiftie was pelted with the detritus of the fish market and other things I cannot bring myself to mention. It fell to me to offer him a last chance of saving his soul, if not his head, but he could merely snivel and twitch, and he did not name names.
The wretch! They placed his neck on the block and the wicked blade of the axe flashed as Zganov himself – sworn to avenge his one and only failure – raised it to the roared approval of the mob. If only I had not been half deafened by the infernal noise of the scene! Too late I saw the bruised lips and broken teeth of the Comte form the words "the Baron ..." – I heard no more as the blade cleaved its irreversible course.
And the moral of the story is: Don't hatch your Counts before they chicken.
Wednesday 28 November 2007