Edward Kane and The Letters of Comfort, Chapter 4: Dead Letter

Breakfast time. The cramped apartments of (struggling) Advocate, Edward Kane

Edward Kane and The Letters of Comfort, Chapter 4: Dead Letter.  Illustration: Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane
Edward Kane and The Letters of Comfort, Chapter 4: Dead Letter. Illustration: Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane

‘Have you ever killed a man, Mr K?’

‘Not recently, Mr Horse…’

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The young Advocate’s concentration could not be said to be entirely on his manservant, as he was trying to cut off the top of his boiled egg. This was an act of precision with which he was struggling.

The manservant looked up from polishing his master shoes: ‘What?’

Kane was pressing down the top of the egg in its cup with one hand and trying to slice it open with a knife in the other. To the objective observer, the words ‘heavy’ and ‘weather’ would come to mind. He looked up: ‘I’m sorry, Mr Horse, what did you say?’

‘I said: ‘Have you ever killed a man, sir?’’

Kane sighed and shook his head: ‘Mr Horse, you have been my manservant these many years. I wager that you have never seen me harm anything. Not even the maggots we found in that leg of lamb that you procured – albeit inexpensively – last week…’

It was the Cockney manservant’s turn to apologise: ‘Beggars can’t be choosers, sir. We done a wery good deal on that leg, though. And once we cut them little blighters out of it….’

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Kane put down his knife: ‘Mr Horse, I am rapidly losing my appetite here…’

‘I’ve killed men, sir, you know that…’

Kane nodded and nibbled on his buttered toast.

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Horse continued: ‘…at Waterloo, sir…’

The Advocate raised his teacup in salute: ‘God bless the Duke of Wellington…’

Mr Horse saluted: ‘God bless the Duke, indeed. So, it was one of them French soldiers come at me with a knife…’

This was a tale that Kane knew well. It was an interesting story. The first time around. He looked down at his blunt knife on the table: ‘On that subject, Mr Horse, would there be any prospect having these knives sharpened?’

But the manservant was undeterred in his telling of the tale: ‘So the French bloke – young, he was, maybe fifteen or sixteen – his name was probably something like ‘Shaun France-Waa’ – he comes at me and he makes a few passes with his own blade, but he don’t see that I’ve got me little chiv hidden in me hand…’ At this point, Horse produced a little short-bladed knife from his waistcoat pocket. ‘This one here – the one what I use to whittle wood and the like – and I catches him right under the left armpit…’ The manservant made a swiping motion with his little knife.

‘Is there any more tea in the pot, Mr Horse?’

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‘…and he don’t go down straight away, Mr K. He just stands there. He looks like a schoolboy in a uniform what has just been given a difficult sum to do in his head. And then he drops to the ground, like some old blanket what has just been dropped to the floor. So I goes over to the lad…’

‘To help him?’

‘To go through his pockets, sir.’

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Kane raised his hands, as if in surrender. Horse scowled: ‘Don’t look at me like that, Mr K. It was him or me.’

Kane stared at the reluctant egg for a moment, then: ‘And what did you find?’

‘You mean in the dead Frenchie’s pocket?’

‘Yes.’

Mr Horse leaned forward in his chair: ‘Well, that’s the thing, sir. Just a few coins – I think mostly them silver French francs, twos and fives. It weren’t a king’s ransom, but not to be sniffed at…’

Kane nodded: ‘To the victor, the spoils, I suppose.’

‘But it was another thing I found, sir.’

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The manservant. Looked troubled. This was a part of the story that Horse had never told before. Kane held the silence.

‘It was…it was…a letter, sir. I took it out of his pocket. I don’t read no French, but at the bottom of if – and I remember this as clear as day – it had the words ‘ta mere devouee’. I put it in my pocket, Mr K and it was only later, when I was, you know, getting friendly with one of those Belgian girls what follow the soldiers about – she read it to me and said that it was a letter from the boy’s old mum, wasn’t it. His old mum. Worried about him. She kept on talking about the glory of France and all, and all I could think of was the lad face down in the mud with the blood stain under his arm. Sometimes, sir, when I get a dose of the morbs, I sit and think of that young lad. Lying there. And his old mum, sitting at home waiting for him…’

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Silence for a time, then Kane spoke: ‘You did your duty, Mr Horse. You could do no more for queen and country.’

Horse corrected him: ‘It was the king, sir. In them days, the king…’

Kane put his cup and saucer back on the table: ‘Well, Mr Horse, as enjoyable as this reminiscence is…’

The manservant shook his head: ‘Sorry, sir, what I meant to say was this: if your Russian bloke says that he killed the architect fella, and you don’t know if he did or not, then ask him what he did straight after. See what that sounds like. Maybe it will ring true, maybe it won’t. But ask him anyway…’

At this point, Mr Horse made his way over to the young Advocate with the little knife. On reaching the table, the manservant picked up the egg in the eggcup and, with a single, sudden slicing motion, cut the top clean off.

He smiled and held up the blade: ‘Same knife, sir. Same knife what killed the boy.’

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For reasons upon which Edward Kane did not care to elaborate, the egg remained uneaten.

Tomorrow: Into the Toom