The Sword of Damocles

Part of a much larger piece of work – The Great War has been over for two months…

He was a Captain in the Yorkshire Light Infantry. A young man of promise who spoke in the broad, generous accents of the West Riding. Boyd Withenstall, who laid siege to Marjorie Anstruther, and held the optimistic belief that he made progress in his pursuit. Knowing something of the man’s troubled history, she played along. The physical wounds which had first brought him were long healed. And yet he remained amongst the maimed and wounded long after the guns had fallen silent. He heard voices. Major Comerford at the hospital, felt that the voices had been with the Captain since before the war.`

`They took a picnic lunch to Picardy. His idea, both picnic and allusion. A warm day for late January, with the promise of pleasant Spring to come.`

`‘We should have sat on the riverbank you know?’ He sliced the fruit pie. The action was confident and competent. He sighted along the knife blade then raised his eyes to her. ‘The Somme is the best part of the place.’`

`‘Oh Boyd. You don’t mean that. It’s all for my benefit and I won’t rise to your bait.’ She shifted on the rough wood of the bench, her irritation lost on the Yorkshireman. ‘It’s a desolation. One enormous graveyard, it’s beauty destroyed by man and his ambitions.’`

`‘There’s still beauty there,Kat. You just need to know where to look.’`

`‘Who’s Kat, Boyd? A girlfriend? Someone from back home?’`

`‘Did I say Kat?’ His gaze shifted to the horizon. ‘I meant Marjorie… Lady Marjorie.’ In the following silence, he placed a piece of apple tart on her plate. ‘Have you ever seen the river? Close up, I mean.’`

`‘Yes…. More than once.’ She shifted again, pinned by his disconcerting gaze. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the place. Such tortured, ruined ground.’ `

`‘Oh Kat, Kat. You always were a moorland girl; your eyes no higher than Cargill’s Crag.’ He stood over her, smiling his soft reproof. The smile hadn’t reached his eyes. They had turned hawk-like; predatory.`

`‘I’m not Kat, Boyd. Remember?’ A soft whisper, like that of a mother. The man’s mouth hardened, stiffening like the eyes.`

`‘No you’re not. Not my dear, sweet Catherine.’ For a fleeting moment he looked pained, almost unmanned. ‘But you’ll leave me…. Just like she tried to.’ And then he smiled. That soft smile from the ward in Amiens. Marjorie watched in sick fascination as he took the knife to the apple tart once again. `


`Boyd gazed over a windswept desert of sod and scrap metal. He was at peace. He smiled into the emptiness; his home for so long, now filled with a deafening silence that brought his voices into stark relief. The Thiepval ridge towered over the Allied trench-line, and he relaxed on his elbows. There was comfort in the give of the sandbags as he sighted the fieldglasses on the open killing-ground. The Provost sergeant and his four men found him there in the early afternoon. `

`‘You’d best come along with me, sir.’ The voice soft, the tone respectful. ‘They’d like a word back in Amiens, if you’d be so good, Captain Withenstall.’`

`‘Of course they would, sergeant. An unfortunate business, no doubt.’ The Captain smiled. ‘Even in war-time, eh?’ The ring closed and they moved without fuss toward the waiting transport.`

`Provost HQ was in a corner of the wide square beneath the cathedral. People were drawn to the handsome English officer, pleased by his soft smile and polite manners. Glad that he had survived the war; fitting reward for a gentleman hero. The escort closed in a tight circle as they entered the building.`

`‘Ah, Major. You believe that what is before me can be any worse than what has hung above me for the past two years?’ He had shown no reaction when the Sergeant revealed the body beneath the sheet. ‘A casualty. Less worthy than the rest. She saw no virtue in the work we’ve been engaged in out here.’ He smiled his invitation to agree. ‘Couldn’t grasp the terrible beauty, d’ye see?’`

`‘Had I my way, Captain Withenstall, I would have you dragged outside and shot like the rabid dog you are.’ He thought he had seen it all, but the Major couldn’t wipe the strangled image of the attractive nurse from his mind. ‘Take him out of my sight, sergeant.’ Boyd strained to speak over his shoulder as he was hustled out.`

`‘Did you examine her, Major? Did you discover the knife?’ The Captain knew that, in that moment, even with his execution an inevitability, he had won.`

© franciman 2023
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critique and comments welcome.
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Stunning, in its concept and delivery. And SO you, I wish I could here you read it at the gathering in Edinburgh Jim.


Good writing that leaves much to the imagination. However, I can’t understand how he won. The poor man suffers from schizophrenia that leads him to murder two women and – whether rightly or wrongly – is destined to be executed. How was the reference to the knife a win for him? An esoteric piece if ever there was one. That is not a good trait for story writing. The reader wants to know and understand and if he does not, he turns away from it.

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