ALL THE KING'S MEN: A SHORT STORY
ALL THE KING’S MEN
Armand sighed and leaned against the door way. He was a tall, well built man, about 6’2 in height but his frame seemed to shrink when he met his long-time friend coming the other way. Jean stopped dead in his tracks. An unspoken barrier was felt between both of them. Jean nodded curtly, Armand pretended not to notice. Their hearts weighed down by unspoken desires and longings, they went their separate ways.
Emile drew closer to her husband. “Armand, aren’t you meeting Jean after two years? Why don’t you go and talk to him?” she whispered.
“I have nothing to say, Emile” he replied stubbornly.
“Listen Armand” began Emile patiently, “I do not know what transpired between the two of you in that courtroom but I do know you can’t let it come between you forever”.
“You’re right, Emile. You don’t know what happened in that courtroom, besides, I am sorry to tell you, it is none of your business knowing that” he replied beneath his breath.
“Shame on you, Armand! You sit here moping and feeling sad for yourself but you don’t go and speak to the one person you’ve wanted to speak to these two years” she put in, unabashed.
“Emile, I will say this once. It would suit you to leave this well alone” he replied. Emile took the handkerchief she’d laid on the table and went round the room as if she hadn’t heard him.
The sky seemed low and the setting sun looked wistful as it made way for dusk and the coming night. The backyard was flooded with a pleasant, mellow light. The young ladies grouped together for a short break before the next dance. Armand looked around discreetly for Jean. His heart throbbed within him, he longed to catch the eye of his friend and hold his stare for at least a minute, to see if he’d grown old in the time they’d been apart, to ascertain if he was well and most of all, to see if he were hurt even a bit as Armand was but he has nowhere to be seen. Armand drew in his chest at that. He would never be the first to apologize but despite his best efforts, he found himself reminiscing about the courtroom.
Armand had tried to save Sartre from prison. They had been friends for decades together and he had unwittingly counted on Jean for complete support. When Jean had finally arrived, Armand drew him aside.
“Listen, Jean. I should have asked you this earlier but I had no opportunity for you’d gone away to Paris?” he began.
“Before you tell me anything, Armand, I should tell you that I cannot humour you this once”.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that Sartre is a traitor. He is a deceitful, disgusting little vermin who deserves to be in hanged by the neck till dead. Fancy him trying to outsmart us all, it makes my blood boil to think of the sly devil plotting away-“
“Stop it, Jean. Sartre only did what he thought was right. He loved the Lady Corinth and would have gladly given his life for her. He was a fool crazed in love. You know how strange the Majesty’s been behaving. He almost forced the Countess to marry him. Sartre didn’t know what to do, he needed to honour his lady first. He would just as equally have laid down his own life for the King if he thought the King was worth it”.
“Do not talk that way about the King. Another word and I’ll have you arrested myself” Jean had said hotly.
“Will you do that, now? I tell you Jean, you will be sorry for this. This country’s going down and you along with it, your blind loyalty is of no avail, I tell you. There are forces at work that you dare not dream of and when the moment comes, you’ll see how futile and barren your efforts have been”.
“Another word, Armand, and that shall be enough. Save your breath for when you are not drunk. You speak like a fool” Jean had replied.
The two had stood there beneath the scorching sun, their eyes boring into one another’s. Their chests heaving with fears and worries for each other and they’d parted ways then, for what seemed like forever.
Now at the Duke’s ball, they could not avoid each other. Armand sat down heavily on the chair. Out of the corner of his eye, he still searched the surrounding for his friend. But he also felt sore about Sartre’s death. One testimony, one word from Jean would have vindicated him. But he also knew the scrutiny and danger that would have placed him under and felt secretly relieved that Jean had stuck by his King.
Now the Duke himself caught his eye. The Duke was a young man in his prime, he stood next in line to the throne. He had an easy smile on his lips and walked with a slight swagger. The armorial embroideries of fine gold looked splendorous on the red velvet of his cape. He had a bit of a reputation of a fop. Now he ran his fingers self consciously through the thick locks of golden hair, as if he was aware of how he looked in the tender evening light. His voice was a fine bass, but he tried to make it unnecessarily deeper by grumbling at everyone. He was a standing joke when it came to matters of intelligence, he was always all for war and valor but he could not keep still a moment when it came to the actual discussion of it. It was also notable that he was never on scene when situation demanded any real effort from him. He kept a fine house and paid due homage to every beautiful woman but beyond that he was nothing. But something about him attracted his eyes. The Duke seemed to be having trouble breathing. He’d always used his perfectly fine constitution as an excuse to escape from his duties. His lavishly paid physician too had always backed him but now he seemed to be really ill. Armand got up with a start. Immediately he felt someone tug him by the arm. He turned around, staggering to face Jean.
“Where do you think you are going?” Jean asked him in a low, voice.
“The Duke seems unwell” Armand replied curtly.
“Don’t… don’t tell me, Jean” he said, falteringly, his eyes widening with shock and betrayal.
“We know, Armand. We know all about the league’s plans. The Grand Duke fancies himself as an emperor, does he? He’s always been a joke and his death too will be a joke. He’s been complaining of breathing difficulties for years now, and today, he will finally prove his words”. Armand had started to move away, tugging against the vice-like grip of Jean’s fingers.
“Armand, if you go there now, you will be killed. Look around” he whispered and looking around, Armand caught the steady, steely glint of Cecil’s eyes who was lounging about in the shadows cast by the draperies. He held the unsheathed sword in his hands.
And still held back, Armand saw two men arrive to the help of the Duke and assisting him back into his own house.
“Tut, tut! Don’t worry, they’ll do nothing to him” said Jean sharply when Armand started trying to inch away from his grasp.
“They’ll lock him in his own bedroom and he’ll be dead in five minutes”.
“Jean” Armand cried in shock.
“Cecil would have killed anyone who got in his way. The King would have arranged for his release, coming up with some cockamamie reason in his defense but you’d have been dead by now”.
“Am I supposed to feel that you’ve saved my life? My God, Jean, this is murder you are talking about. How could you kill a man in cold blood?”
“By poisoning his drink. Listen and listen carefully, Armand. You don’t know what this is, you think you are trying to avenge Sartre’s death but you will only pull yourself into more and more trouble if you do not stop to think. And I won’t always be around-“
Armand shook himself forcefully free of his grasp.
“To save me?” he asked sarcastically. “I don’t need your saving, when my moment comes, I’ll take it like a man” he said defiantly.
“Well, your moment may be coming sooner than you think” Jean said quietly before leaving. Armand rushed upstairs the very next moment and found the Duke had already passed away.