Sneak Peak: "Cortege" from My Father's Son by Penny Freeman
Although the morning was bright and clear, a thousand candles burned in the rotunda to ease the darkness, the windows shrouded as they were in crepe. The various hearths encircling the space blazed, the first time in a week the rotunda had not been purposely kept freezing cold. Across the vast floor, a full fifty gentlemen of intimate connection stood in ranks behind his father’s bier.
The ladies of the family all congregated on the mezzanine upon long upholstered benches and his mother’s best chairs. From where he stood, he saw them perched upon their seats all clad in mourning and the proper bereaved masks upon their faces, and thought of ravens in a rookery, howsoever silent they may be.
He stood deep in the shadows of the mezzanine, summoning up his courage to begin. His courage was slow to respond. Matlock stood on his left, Archer to the right of Sophia who gripped Piper’s hand in her own. They stood there, silent, tense, expectant, more than one hundred people utterly still and waiting for Piper’s appearance.
Sophia laid her opposite hand on his breast and looked up into his face. He blinked, nudged ever so gently from his own private torment. “You can do this,” she whispered. “We can do this.”
Sophia smiled for him, then drew her veil before her face, the pair stepped out into the muted light. The ladies rose to their feet. When they appeared, the commander of the honor guard called their maneuvers—the Welsh Dragon and Saint George’s cross positioned to lead, the colors of the regiments of Richard Durant’s youth, the colors of the Shadow Brigade, nebulous and nondescript, certain to excite no notice, the immense family crest unfurled in all its glory and held horizontal by a dozen guardsmen.
Piper stared at the casket and Sophia’s assurance of his father’s presence rang in his head. Are you here, Father? How can I do this without you?
Sophie squeezed his hand again, a gentle nudge forward prompted him, and together they stepped to the bier. Sophia placed a spray of roses upon Westmark’s breast and wept her adieus. Piper placed in his father’s hand a double miniature of recent date, on the left Sophia, on the right Cassandra. He knew the store his father set by it. “Rest in peace, da,” he whispered. “I gave you my word. I will not fail you.”
Together they closed the casket, then retreated. The color guard unfurled the Union Jack with snapping precision and draped it over the coffin, then an immense blanket of red roses and gold ribbons which fairly concealed it.
All things in readiness, the six pallbearers stepped forward: the Prince of Wales, the Earl of Dovedale, the Dukes of Stanhope and Westmorland. General Lord Stoneleigh and Sir Alistair, the two men who knew Richard Durant better than anyone, even Piper’s mother, went before all. They had come to bury their brother.
Each nobleman paired with a son—more or less—for it required at least twelve men could heft the mahogany and silver work of art in which his father lay. Each were counted among Piper’s closest friends and it gave him comfort: Matlock, Archer, Valor, Damon of Westmorland and the third Virgil of Stanhope, and Bartholomew, the Duke of Quartermont’s son, to stand with Mr. George.
The pallbearers lifted the casket from the bier, and jolted Piper from his brooding. With a look of reassurance from Sophia, the pair fell into step and followed across the vast, empty floor.
Piper hated that precious few even knew the true extent of his father’s services to the Crown, the sacrifices he made, the shadow wars he had fought, the risks he had taken and the innumerable times he put his life on the line for King and Country. Only a handful of the brigade he commanded even knew he did so. The entire nation believed he was naught but the major who had made a splash in the East Indies and returned to receive his murdered brother’s birthright. He could number on one hand the members of his family who did not believe the same. Piper would shout his praises to the sky if he could, but that was not the nature of a shadow.
No. Richard Durant was a respected and influential member of Parliament and trusted counselor to the Prince of Wales. He was Westmark, everything that had made that Great House so noble in the past. This the nation knew, and in his heart Piper honored him for all they did not: esteemed commander and brilliant tactician, consummate shadow warrior of unsurpassed skill, uncompromising of principle; devoted husband, beloved father, fiercely loyal to his friends, with an expansive heart that knew nothing of class or pedigree. That was his father and Piper vowed to continue the same.
Westmark is dead. Long live Westmark.
One foot in front of the other. Across the expanse of the rotunda, through the grand entry and out the door, the brilliant sun blinding and the cold bitter and relentless. Down the steps to the caisson waiting in the court, the double pair of black horses in battle tack. James at the head of Richard Durant’s stallion. His father’s boots polished to a high sheen, waiting for the son.
Piper thought he could do it. Setting the boots backward into the stirrups seemed such a simple thing. But he stood at the horse’s side, his hands trembling, the silver swimming through his tears.
Unacceptable. He was his father’s son. He would honor him with that symbol of a soldier’s noble death. He would behave like a man. The chore done, he yet stood and stared, lost in the desolation before him. “Come, lad,” Sir Alistair said gently, and the crack in his voice seemed to validate Piper’s splintering control.
Fight back the disorientation which engulfs him. Focus on the caisson. Focus on his father. Simply follow. One step at a time. Focus. Focus on his father’s cortege.
A rank of bagpipes playing ‘Amazing Grace’ as they wait beyond the pale, the honor guard mounted, the silence of hooves on snow and straw, his family crest filling the street, the riderless stallion, the caisson, himself and Sophia following solemnly through the port cochere. Everything precise and rigidly regimental. Just like his father, all right- and left-face.
At the gates, Piper paused and turned to his sister. The grief on her face mirrored his own. He bent to kiss her forehead, but she threw her arms about his neck and pleaded for him to let her attend him to bury their father.
Piper’s tears rushed him for he wanted nothing more, but he could not allow her to flaunt the proprieties nor expose her for so long to that cold. He gently pried her arms from his neck, dried her tears and kissed her, then surrendered her to Lady Olivia who had anticipated the scene.
Utterly alone, surrounded by a sea of strangers, Piper screwed up his courage and stepped out onto the street.