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Which deals, among other Matters, with the Ring of Steel
My anger toward Bentley, sudden though it may appear, was scarcely the outcome of the moment. I could not but call to mind the thousand little things he had both done and said during the past weeks that demonstrated the strange indifference he had shown toward the whole affair. Thus, as the day advanced, my feeling against him grew but the more intense. Looking back on it now, I am inclined to put this down partly to the reason already stated, partly to lack of sleep, and partly to the carking care that had gnawed at my heart all these weeks--though even now I am inclined to think that his conduct, as I then viewed it, justified my resentment.
I noticed as the day advanced that he seemed to be labouring under some strong excitement, and more than once he manifested a desire to speak with me aside, but I took good care to give him no opportunity. At length, however, Jack chancing to be out of the room for a moment, he seized me by the arm ere I could escape him.
"Dick--" he began.
"Sir!" I cut in, shaking myself free of him, "whatever explanation you may have to offer for your strange, and--yes, sir--utterly heartless conduct of late, I beg that you will let it stand until this most unhappy affair is over--I'm in no mood for it now." He fell back from me, staring as one utterly bewildered for a moment, then he smiled.
"If you will but listen, Dick--"
"Sir," says I, drawing away from him, "I have asked no explanation at your hands, and desire none--the callousness which you have shown so persistently of late has utterly broken down and severed once and for all whatever feeling of friendship I may have entertained for you hitherto."
"You don't mean it--you can never mean it," says he, stretching out an eager hand towards me. "Dick, do but listen--"
"Mean it, sir!" I repeated, "I tell you it is but the memory of that dead friendship which stays me from calling upon you to account to me with your sword."
"But," he stammered, "you--you would never--you could never--"
"Enough, sir," says I, "I have no desire for further speech with you--save that it would be well at least to keep up an appearance of the old relationship, until this affair is over and done with."
"Why, Dick!" says he, his lips twitching strangely, "why--Dick!" and with the word he turned suddenly and left me.
The duel had been settled for twelve o'clock, and it was exactly half after eleven by my chronometer when a servant came to warn us that the coach was at the door. So we presently descended and got in with never a word betwixt us. When men know each other so thoroughly, there is no need for the mask of gaiety to be held up as is usual at such times; thus we rode very silent and thoughtful for the most part, until we heard Purdy, the surgeon, hailing us from where he stood waiting at the cross roads as had been arranged.
"Well, sirs," says he, nodding and frowning at us in his sharp way as he took his seat, "and how is the foot?"
"Right as a trivet!" says Jack.
"I question that," says Purdy, dogmatically; "that tendon cannot be well for a full month yet--curse me if it can! They tell me," he went on, "that the other side has young Prothero--gentlemen, mark my words!--Prothero's a stark, staring fool--a positive ass!--A man breaks his leg--'Give him a clyster!' says Prothero. A child has teething-rash!--'A clyster! a clyster!' cries Prothero. A boy has the collywobbles or mumps--'A clyster!' says Prothero. Mark me, gentlemen, should Sir John here pink his man, depend upon it Prothero will finish him with a clyster!"
This journey, which I had made a thousand times and more, never seemed so short as it did upon this Christmas morning, yet I for one experienced a feeling akin to relief as we were ushered into the sanded parlour of "The Chequers."
We found Raikes arrived before us, seated at a table with Hammersley, Finch, and four or five others whose faces were familiar, and a heathenish uproar they were making. Upon our entrance they fell silent, however, and exchanged bows with us ere we sat down.
If the episode of the shirt was not forgot, 'twas at least accounted by most the wiser policy to let it so appear, though all Tonbridge--nay, all the country round--rung with the story behind Sir Harry's back, and indeed (as I well know) 'tis laughed over by many to this day.
And now being here, and noting the cleared floor and the other preparations for what was to follow, and looking at Jack beside me so full of strength and life, and bethinking me of what he might be so very soon, a deadly nausea came upon me, such as I had never felt before on such occasions, so that I was forced to sit down.
"Nay, Dick," says Jack, shaking his head, "I have no mind to wait; get it over for me as soon as may be."
"No, no," says Bentley, sharply, "at least let us have a bottle of wine first," and on this point he was so insistent that Jack was ultimately forced to give in to him, though even then Bentley seemed ill-content, for he fell to fidgetting awkwardly in his chair, and compared his chronometer with the clock full a dozen times in as many minutes.
The crowd at the other table grew uproarious again, and more than once I heard the Captain's high-pitched laugh.
"Bentley," says I, "'tis past twelve o'clock."
"Yes," says he, and began straightway upon "Lillibuleero."
Jack started and looked up.
"Come, Dick, let us begin at once."
"The wine's not all out yet," says Bentley, with his eyes upon the clock again; and now I noticed for the first time that his cheeks were devoid of all colour and his face seemed strangely peaked and haggard.
At this moment, Jack rising, I had perforce to do the same, seeing which the party at the other table ceased their uproar of a sudden and a deep silence fell as Captain Hammersley advanced to meet me, and having bowed, spun a coin in the air to decide choice of ground.
"Jack," says I, as I rejoined him, "you will fight with your back to the door, though there is little difference save that the wall is a trifle lighter there, and will make you less conspicuous."
Jack nodded, and with Bentley's aid, began removing his coat and waistcoat.
"Dick," says Bentley, in my ear, speaking in a strange, uneven voice, such as I had never heard from his lips before, while Jack busied himself untying his cravat--"Dick, they must not--shall not fight," and I saw that the sweat stood out in great drops upon his brow.
"In God's name, Bentley, what's to stop them now?" says I, whereupon he turned away with a strange wringing motion of his hands, and seeing how those hands trembled, I became aware that mine were doing the same.
"Be so good as to take your ground, gentlemen," said Captain Hammersley, advancing with the small-swords beneath his arm. Jack stepped forward at once, followed a moment later by Raikes. Each in turn took his weapon, saluted, and fell to his guard.
I was just holding the crossed blades and Hammersley had scarce begun the count, when there arose a sudden clamour without, the door was flung open, and Mr. Tawnish stood bowing upon the threshold.
"Ah!" says he, tripping forward daintily, in one hand his handkerchief, while with the other he gracefully waved his laced hat, "an affair of honour, I perceive. On my soul now, it gives me real pain to intrude myself thus--it desolates me, positively it does--but, gentlemen, this cannot go on."
"Cannot go on--the devil, sir!" broke in the Captain loudly, "and who says so?"
"I say so, sir," returned Mr. Tawnish, with his slow smile, "and should you care to hear it, I'll say so again, sir."
"On what grounds?" says Hammersley, frowning.
"On the grounds that mine is the prior claim to the sword of Sir Harry Raikes."
"Bah!" cries Raikes, with a short laugh, "give the count, Hammersley, and we will begin."
Mr. Tawnish closed and fobbed his snuff-box.
"I think not, sir," says he, very quietly.
"Mr. Tawnish," says Jack, "I have waited over a month to fight this gentleman."
"Sir John," says Tawnish, bowing, "your pardon, but I have waited even longer--"
"Whatever quarrel you may have with me, sir," Raikes broke in, "shall wait my time and pleasure."
"I think not," says Mr. Tawnish again, his smile more engaging and his blue eyes more dreamy than ever; "on the contrary, I have a reason here which I venture to hope will make you change your mind."
"A reason?" says Raikes, starting as he met the other's look. "What reason?"
"That!" says Mr. Tawnish, and tossed something to Sir Harry's feet.
Now as it lay there upon the sand, I saw that it was a small gold locket. For maybe a full minute there was a dead silence, while Raikes stared down at the locket, and Mr. Tawnish took a pinch of snuff.
"Who gave you this?" says Raikes suddenly, and in a strange voice.
Mr. Tawnish flicked-to the enamelled lid of his snuff-box very delicately with one white finger.
"I took it," says he, blandly, "from a poor devil who sat shivering in his shirt."
"You!" says Raikes, in so low a tone as to be almost a whisper--"you?"
"I," returned Mr. Tawnish, with a bow.
"Liar!" says Raikes, in the same dangerously suppressed murmur.
"As to that," says Mr. Tawnish, shrugging his shoulders, "I will leave you to judge for yourself, sir."
With the words, he slipped off his wig and turned his back to us for a moment. When he fronted us again, there stood our highwayman, his restless eyes gleaming evilly through the slits of his half-mask, the mocking smile upon his lips, the same grotesque figure beyond all doubt, despite his silks and laces.
"So, my masters," says he, in the same rough, half-jovial tone there was no mistaking, "I says to you, maybe we should meet again, I says, and I've kept my word--such being my natur'--d'ye take me?"
There broke from Sir Harry's lips an inarticulate snarl of fury as he leaped forward, but I managed to get between them, and Bentley had wrested the sword from his grasp in an instant.
"Damnation!" cries he, quivering with passion, "give us the swords."
"Sir," says Mr. Tawnish, bowing to the Captain, "you see, I was right, after all--the gentleman seems positively eager to oblige me."
And, having readjusted his wig, he proceeded in his leisurely fashion to remove his coat and high-heeled shoes, and to tuck up his long ruffles.
And now, all being ready, the thin, narrow blades rang together. Raikes was too expert a swordsman to let his passion master him a second time, and as the two faced each other there was not a pin to choose betwixt 'em: nay, if anything, Sir Harry would almost seem the better man, what with his superior height and length of limb. There was, too, a certain gleam in his eye, and a confident smile on his lips that I remembered to have seen there the day he killed poor Richards.
He opened his attack with a thrust in tierce, followed by a longe so swift and well timed that it came nigh ending the matter there and then, but it was parried--heaven knows how--and I heard Jack sigh behind me.
Indeed, on this occasion Sir Harry fought with all that impetuosity which, seconded by his incredible quickness of recovery, had rendered him famous. A very dangerous opponent he looked, with his great length of arm; and his face, with its menacing brow and gritted teeth, spoke his purpose more plainly than any words. Mr. Tawnish, on the other hand, preserved his usual serene composure, fencing with a certain airy grace that seemed habitual with him in all things.
Momentarily, the fighting grew but the fiercer, Sir Harry sending in thrust after thrust, with now and then a sudden, vicious longe which, it seemed, Mr. Tawnish had much ado to put aside; twice, in as many moments, Sir Harry's point flashed over his shoulder, missing his throat by a hair, and once it rent the cambric of his sleeve from the elbow up; yet the pale serenity of his face remained unchanged, his placid calm unbroken, save, perhaps, that his eyes were a trifle wider and brighter, and his chin more than usually prominent. And still they fought, fast and furious as ever, and though Raikes came dangerously near time and time again, his point was always met and parried.
Minutes passed that seemed hours--there were sudden pauses when we could detect the thud of feet and the hiss of breath drawn sharply between shut teeth. And now, to my amazement, I saw that Mr. Tawnish was pressing the attack, answering thrust with thrust, and longe with longe. The fighting grew to a positive frenzy; the shivering blades rang with their swift changes from quarte to tierce.
"Such a pace cannot last," says I, to no one in particular, "the end must come soon!"
Almost with the words, I saw Mr. Tawnish's blade waver aimlessly; Raikes saw it too, and drove in a lightning thrust. There was a sharp clash of meeting steel, a flurry of blades, and Sir Harry Raikes staggered back, his eyes wide and staring, threw up his arms, and pitching forward, rolled over with a groan.
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