Pistols at Dawn
The light is slate grey studded with flecks of incremental pink against the black shadowed trees that fringe the park.
Standing under the great Oak, its’ long, knurled branches twisting and falling against the sky, Benedict’s hands tremble against the lacquered wood of the pistol box.
Beside him, he can feel Anthony’s composure beginning to unravel.
The memory of his gloved touch pressing their father’s pocket watch still burns across his palms, the watch that Anthony has guarded with a jealously akin to ferociousness pressed deep between his fingers.
Almost unconsciously his index finger rubs against the grooves of the watch’s screw, the familiar, worn inscription of the family crest rising against his nail.
Without warning, a long-forgotten memory of their boyhood stirs. A memory of being thirteen years old, and about to head off to Eton for the first time in Anthony’s footsteps, his heart a bundle of homesick nerves for the home he was about to leave.
His Father had been sitting in the drawing room; a rag and a jar of oil on a trestle table at his elbow, the watch to which all the clocks in the house were set, in pieces before him.
He had barely been able to breathe as he had watched each screw be slowly caressed through the oil and cloth and slotted into place, watching time itself being slowly resurrected.
And now, in the unthinkable event of Anthony’s life ending in the pre-dawn light, the watch is his.
Time itself, is his.
A lump catches in his throat at the thought and he swallows thickly, the pain throbbing against the knot of his cravat.
‘An additional task. In the top drawer of my desk, you shall find the name of a lady. If I die, you must ensure that she is provided for. Do you swear? Benedict, do-‘
His tongue had been hot and heavy as he had nodded, hating himself.
Hating the look of pleading love and pity that had burnt in his elder brother’s eyes.
Hating the way that he wished he could turn into Anthony’s shoulder and beg him to reconsider.
Hating the fact that he had not said something sooner. Had not spoken up when Anthony had pulled him and Colin into the drawing room and laid out the bones of the plan, of Daphne’s disgrace in Lady Danbury’s garden, of how he would need a second.
His mind had been too high and muddled with thoughts of Granville and the soft, shimmering curves of the models’ candle-burnt skin as they had dipped through the shadows of the drawing room to offer much protest.
The ground before them shines with dew, glittering like diamonds on Daphne’s throat at the palace.
At the other Oak, he sees Basset’s shoulders fall, his back straighten, his face set and resolute.
The doctor, hovering at the periphery, is stowing away the leather bag of coins that Anthony had pressed into his palm, turning his back to the scene to ensure his own deniability.
Overhead, a flock of crows rise up, their calls shattering the silence for just a moment, a black mass of shadowed nothing smudged across the slowly lightening sky.
Time is not on their side.
All the things that he wants to say are bundled in one tight knot in his throat, choking his voice so that he has to reach out to grip his Anthony’s sleeve to make him stop.
In his gloves, his fingers are trembling in the cold.
Dark eyes fall into his, a question burning in their depths.
What is it?
When they were boys, their parents, and later their school masters, had been known to jest that they could read each other’s minds and, selfishly perhaps, Benedict hopes that this could still be true.
Hopes that he doesn’t have to articulate what he knows must be said.
He stops, swallows.
‘I can’t do this.’
The smallest of eyebrow raises as his elder brother, the brother that he looks up to still, decades after they had grown out of slaying dragons in the nursery, stops his pacing.
In the quiet, he can hear his brother’s heart racing, thudding in time to the beat of their Father’s watch.
Reaches his free hand to rest again on Benedict’s shoulder, warmth and security and safety all at once.
Unwanted tears stab against the corners of his eyelids and he blinks fiercely, hoping Anthony hasn’t seen.
‘I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it, Benedict.’
The hand holding his shoulder squeezes ever so gently, lingering for a moment before Anthony turns to begin his solitary walk.
Ten paces, pistol raised, the white lines of his collar stark against the darkness.
Through suddenly sightless eyes Benedict watches Anthony stop. Watches the pistol rise into position, the lacquered butt and barrel almost an extension of his brothers’ coat, a picture of perfect marksmanship.
In the deathly silence, Benedict sends a prayer to whichever God is listening and does not close his eyes.