Somehow they were confronting one another in the small saloon that led out of the ballroom, and Tom was cursing Jack, and Jack, instead of punching him in the ribs, or meekly apologizing for his clumsiness, was standing straight and stiff, white-faced and close-lipped, his pleasant grey eyes as cold and as hard as the granite of the country. Then Tom had uttered the words from which there could be no retreat. ‘I shall send my friends to wait on yours!’ he said, in a grand way that was only marred by his shaking voice of fury.
Dear, good Harry Denver, who had seen the encounter, and had followed the injured parties into the saloon, tried to make peace, urging them not to be gudgeons, to remember where they were.
‘Harry, will you act for me?’ demanded Tom.
Poor Harry stuttered and floundered. ‘Now, Tom, you know this is the outside of enough! Jack meant no harm! Jack, for God’s sake–!’
‘I am perfectly ready to meet Mr Crawley, when and where he pleases!’ replied Jack, in a chill, brittle voice.
‘Be good enough to name your friends, Mr Frith!’ said Tom, not to be outdone in formality.
‘Jack, you’re not three parts foxed!’ Harry said urgently. ‘Don’t be such a damned fool, man!’
Then he saw that they were no longer alone. The gentleman from London, who had been waltzing with Marianne, had come into the saloon, and closed the door behind him. All three young men glared at him, the hostility of the native towards the stranger patent in their eyes.
‘You must forgive me!’ he said affably. ‘An affair of honour, I collect? So much better to shut the door, don’t you agree? Can I be of service to either of you?’
They stared at him. Harry, in desperate need of an ally, blurted out the ostensible cause of the quarrel, and besought the gentleman from London to assure the sworn enemies that they were behaving like idiots.
Jack, who had been mentally passing in review his acquaintances in the district, and rejecting them all as being unsuitable candidates for the post of second, said haughtily: ‘I am persuaded no man of honour would advise another to refuse a challenge. Of course, if Mr Crawley cares to withdraw his rash words–’
This was a studied insult, as Tom well knew, for Jack was by far the better shot. He snapped out one word: ‘No!’
‘But they mustn’t fight!’ Harry protested, distress writ plain on his honest countenance. ‘Sir, tell them so!’
The gentleman from London said apologetically: ‘But I am in agreement with Mr Frith. A man of honour, sir, cannot refuse such a challenge.’
Jack looked at him with a certain approval, but said stiffly: ‘You have the advantage of me, sir.’
‘My name is Kilham,’ said the gentleman from London. ‘May I again offer my services? I shall be happy to act for you, Mr Frith.’
Three pairs of young eyes stared at him. One might live remote from London, but one was not such a Johnny Raw that one had not heard of Sir Gavin Kilham, friend of princes, member of the Bow Window set at White’s, amateur of sport, Nonesuch amongst whips, arbiter of fashion. No wonder the folds of his neckcloth baffled the closest scrutiny! no wonder his coat fitted him like a glove!
Jack, bemused at the thought of having such an exalted person for his second, swallowed, and only just managed to achieve a creditable bow; Tom ground his teeth in rage that Jack should yet again have all the luck; and Harry, in relief, supposed that Beau Kilham must know as well as any man what ought now to be done. He ventured to say: ‘I–I shall call upon you, sir, at your convenience!’
‘That might be a trifle awkward,’ said Sir Gavin, to whom the tragic situation seemed to be the merest commonplace. ‘I am only a guest in this house, you see. Let us settle it here and now!’
Harry, who had a dim notion that the correct behaviour of a second was to seek a reconciliation between the principals, looked doubtful, but the prospective duellists emphatically applauded the suggestion.
Sir Gavin, drawing out his snuff-box, flicked it open, and took a delicate pinch. ‘Since we, sir, have the choice, we shall elect to fight with pistols, at twenty-five yards, tomorrow, at an hour and a place which I shall ask you to suggest.’
Deep trouble was in Harry’s face, for the longer range gave all the advantage to the better shot. Before he could speak, Jack said, quite insufferably, Tom considered: ‘I prefer to fight Mr Crawley at a range of twelve yards, sir.’
‘Well, I won’t fight you at twelve yards!’ retorted Tom furiously. ‘Twenty-five, and be damned to you!’
‘Tom, do, for God’s sake–! Now, listen, you crazy fools, this is nonsense! The quarrel can be composed in a trice!’ exclaimed Harry.
They rounded on him, all their pent-up feelings finding expression in the loathing with which they commanded him to hold his tongue.
So there was nothing for poor Harry to do but to appoint the time and the place, both of which Sir Gavin accepted with the utmost amiability.
Then a paralysing thought occurred to all three young gentlemen.
‘The–the weapons?’ uttered Harry, exchanging an anguished glance with Tom.
For a moment no one said anything. Sir Gavin’s lazy eyes were lowered to the contemplation of his charming snuff-box, and if his lips twitched it was so tiny a betrayal that it passed unnoticed. Bitter reflections on the ways of fathers, who kept under lock and key their duelling-pistols (if indeed they owned such things) possessed the minds of Jack and Tom. Anyone would have thought that a prudent parent would have given his son a good pair of Manton pistols instead of a pair of shot-guns, and would have taught him how to conduct himself in such a situation as this. Neither Sir John nor the Squire had made the least push to be of real service to their heirs; and intimate knowledge of both gentlemen could only lead those heirs to face the disagreeable fact that an appeal to them now would end in nothing but the summary end to their quarrel.
Harry, anxious though he might be to stop the affair, was not going to allow the gentleman from London to suppose that his principal owned no duelling-pistols. He said that unfortunately Tom’s pistols had been sent back to the maker for a trifling repair. Jack was not going to be outdone by this sort of thing, and since he could not think of any reason that was not grossly plagiaristic for failing to produce a pair of pistols of his own, he said, with an odiously curling lip: ‘Strange that I should not have been permitted to see Mr Crawley’s weapons!’
‘You have none either, so be damned to that humbug!’ instantly replied Tom.
‘In that case,’ said Sir Gavin, restoring the snuff-box to his pocket, ‘I will be responsible for the weapons. And since the hour of the meeting is not far distant, may I suggest that you should both now retire from this party, and go home to get what sleep you can? Mr Frith, I shall call for you in my curricle at half-past five; Mr Denver, I should like a word with you before we part!’