Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
Paul Spalding-Mulcock
Features Writer
7:37 PM 11th March 2022

La Mort De Cèsar - A Hall Of Mirrors Story

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Image, courtesy of Pixabay
Image, courtesy of Pixabay
The fireplace crackled, its angry flames lasciviously licking that which it mindlessly yearned to destroy. Thick recalcitrant logs shown no mercy, splintering under the onslaught, their wordless cries a prelude to a dusty death. Despite the welcome heat radiating from the neo-Palladian hearth, beneath the permafrost of his professional countenance, his core remained utterly frozen. The fire’s light might reach him, but its heat could not. At that moment, he reasoned that standing on the surface of the sun would not arrest the gelid chill creeping through his bones.

He’d read the report for the eleventh time, his clearance allowing unfettered access to the irrefutable evidence supporting its conclusions. Before he could act, he needed to be convinced beyond all doubt. His department’s rigorous investigation had been both covert and necessarily meticulous. Keeping the damn thing quiet had required unprecedented measures and he’d signed off on these with uneasy hesitation. Machiavelli may have been right, but observing his advice called for an adamantine will and three fingers of thirty-year-old Laphroaig. The bottle was nearly empty.

He recalled Conrad, “They talk of a man betraying his country, his friends, his sweetheart. There must be a moral bond first. All a man can betray is his conscience”. His copy of Under Western Eyes was well thumbed. He’d smiled sardonically and uttered allowed, “Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose”.

His own heart had grown dark over the years, yet he’d preserved a faint flicker of fondness for those he trusted, its fluttering light only discernible in his most unguarded moments. In his position, a cold heart was a blessing lest he wished for eternal suffering.

Draining the tumbler, he scrutinized the report’s most damning section, applying his forensic mind to the invidious task with assiduous care. Nothing. Not a single contestable assertion. He’d cross-referenced fact after fact seeking a weakness in what was a watertight analysis. Minds as fine as his, but specialised in their application had robbed lies of the power to deceive, falsehoods slaughtered with empirical daggers. Every last lie had been hunted down and slain, their carcasses littering the reports grim pages like cannon fodder as it met the furious artillery of justice.

Sir Miles walked over to the fireplace and prodded the embers with his heavy bronze poker. A large, partially consumed log fell, and the flames grew wilder before resuming their disturbed duty. He placed one faintly trembling hand on the marble mantelpiece and pushed back his greying fringe with the other. He wondered if the report’s subject had ever pondered the lines he all too often recalled - “It is my belief that no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge”.

Three weeks earlier he had stood before it. Vincenzo Camuccini’s depiction of ‘The Death Of Caesar’. Commissioned in 1793 by Frederick Hervey, Fourth Earl of Bristol, the Italian neo-Palladian painter had created a work of sublime, visceral power. He’d studied the painting for most of one wet Sunday, his protection officers alert, but desperately bored. Naples had been a good venue to meet with his opposite number. The two men had ameliorated the distasteful assignation with a fine bottle of cognac, and a belief that neither had any choice but to act.

Standing there before the canvass, its ornate gilded frame struck him as a refined integument for the barbarism it surrounded. Opulence and brutality seamlessly conjoined as though a metaphor for deceit. He noted that Brutus had turned his face away from his friend as he raised his own pugio, hesitating under the enormity of his betrayal. He’d allowed himself a wry smile when noting that only Caesar’s toga was red. The elegance of the background incongruously juxtaposed itself against the abject fear in the victim’s eyes as his senators slashed his body with animalistic contempt. Their righteous indignation, reigning blow after blow upon the man they had once revered.

His thoughts had coalesced and run to his undergraduate days. He and the subject under investigation had been at the same college after leaving Eton. Their friendship had not been an easy one, for one of them was principled and the other was not, yet the two had an unbreakable sympatico forged in the crucible of establishment’s privilege. He’d risen diligently through the Service’s ranks as his friend had flittered like a gad fly from job to job, buoyed along on a sea of charismatic malfeasance, deceit and rapacity.

The irony of the situation was not lost upon him. They’d read Henry IV, Part II together, he as Hal and his friend as poor, ill-fated Falstaff. Hal’s pragmatism had measured his heart’s capacity for loyal fidelity and had found it wanting. Circumstances inexorably demanded that he cast Falstaff aside and assume a countenance prohibiting anything but blind allegiance to his duty.

Returning to his London study, he’d spent the last forty-eight hours pouring over the document before him now. William Joyce had gone to the gallows in 1946 and his dangling body catalysed an image of Philby in his disturbed mind. The thief had been sent to catch the thief and being caught himself, had slunk off into the shadows to die unmolested by either his conscience, or justice. He would not allow history to repeat itself and the painting once again loomed large in his consciousness, evicting all other thoughts like a ruthless conqueror putting his wounded adversaries to the sword.

Forster had something to say on the matter and he stared absent mindedly out of his window, his grey eyes tracing the ornate silhouette of the Palace of Westminster, shimmering Monet-like in the embers of the day’s fading sunlight. He cleared his throat and quoted the line, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. The words rang hollow, their moral weight just as intangible as the wisps of impuissant smoke being drawn into the chimney’s waiting maw.

He sat at his desk, took a large gulp from his whisky glass and hesitated. Interlacing his fingers he allowed his torso to recline, his back meeting the unforgiving solidity of the heavy leather chair. He pressed his fingers to his lips and took a deep, resigned breath.

Seconds passed like hours as he tentatively unscrewed the lid of his trusted fountain pen. Its green ink would soon be joining the other twenty-two signatures on the report’s final page. His friend, the Nation’s Prime Minister, a Russian spy ! His very own fountain pen, now a lethal pugio echoing Camuccini’s infamous artwork. History, if not repeating itself, then certainly rhyming …

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