When his thoughts had slid into unquiet dreams he did not know, but he must have dozed a little, for he opened his eyes to find that the moonlight was no longer sliding between the chinks of the blinds, but a disagreeable morning-light instead. His watch informed him that it was after five o’clock, so he sprang out of his tumbled bed in a hurry. By the time he heard stealthy footsteps on the gravel-walk below his window, he was dressed, and he leaned out to tell Harry so. Harry had been about to throw a handful of pebbles up, but he dropped them, and made signs indicating that it was time to be off.
Tom stole downstairs, and slipped out of the house by a side door. No one was stirring. He and Harry went in silence down the drive to where Harry had left his gig.
Harry said, unhitching the reins from the gate-post: ‘You know, I don’t like this above half, old fellow.’
One could not draw back from an encounter, particularly when it was one’s first, and one had never had the chance to prove one’s mettle. ‘Do you imagine I am going to cry off ?’ demanded Tom.
‘Well, I don’t know,’ said Harry, climbing up beside him into the gig. ‘After all, you and Jack – !’
‘Don’t waste your breath on me!’ recommended Tom. ‘Try what Jack will say to you! If I know him you’ll have a short answer!’
‘You couldn’t expect Jack to draw back,’ said Harry.
‘No, but I mean it wasn’t his challenge! You were foxed, Tom – you know you were!’
‘No, I was not,’ said Tom.
‘Dash it, to call a man out only because he jostles you in a doorway, without in the least meaning to –’
‘It wasn’t that,’ answered Tom. ‘And it’s no use to prose at me: I shan’t listen!’
So Harry said no more, and the rest of the drive was accomplished in silence. They came punctually on to the ground, just as a white-winged curricle with a pair of magnificent bays harnessed in the bar bowled up the broad woodland ride. Only two men sat in it, nor was there any sign of a doctor. Tom wondered if his stolid second would point this omission out to Sir Gavin. It was not, he decided, for himself to mention the matter. He stole one look at Jack, alighting from the curricle, and casting off the drab overcoat he wore, and then averted his gaze. Jack was still wearing his flint-face, and his eyes did not warm an atom as fleetingly they met his. Tom looked instead at those match-bays, thinking how much he would like to ask Jack if they were the sweet-goers they looked to be, and whether Sir Gavin had allowed him to handle the ribbons.
Sir Gavin was walking unhurriedly across the clearing to meet Harry. He wore top-boots polished till you might almost see your face in them; and a many-caped benjamin; and he carried an ominous case under one arm. He and Harry conferred together, and inspected the wicked-looking weapons in that case, and paced out the ground. Tom felt queasy, and rather cold, and a leaden weight seemed to have settled in his chest. He wished the seconds would make haste: they were being maddeningly deliberate. Another glance at Jack showed him that Jack was perfectly cool and collected, only rather pale.
Harry was coming towards him, to conduct him to his position. Sir Gavin was holding the pistols by their barrels; Jack took one in his right hand, and stood with it pointing downwards, his body turned sideways from his adversary.
Sir Gavin gave Harry the second pistol. He saw that it was cocked, and took it carefully, thankful to see that his hand was quite steady. He listened to what Sir Gavin was saying, about dropping his handkerchief, and nodded. Then Sir Gavin and Harry both stepped back, and he was looking straight at Jack, across, as it seemed to him, a vast stretch of greensward.
The handkerchief was fluttering aloft in the light breeze; it dropped, and Tom deliberately fired high in the air. His eyes were fixed on Jack, and even before he realized that his weapon had misfired he saw Jack’s hand jerk up, so that his gun too pointed skywards. Only Jack didn’t even take the trouble to pull the trigger, apparently, for nothing happened – not even a flash in the pan. Suddenly Tom was indignant with Jack for behaving in this heroic style, and he flung down his pistol, and strode forward, exclaiming: ‘What the devil do you mean by that? Shoot, damn you! Deloping – not even pulling the trigger – !’
‘I did pull the trigger!’ Jack retorted. ‘The curst piece misfired! It was you who didn’t shoot! You crazy fool, I might have killed you!’
‘You aimed in the air!’ said Tom. ‘Serve you right if I had killed you! I won’t have it! Damn it, it’s insulting!’
‘So did you fire in the air!’ Jack flung at him. ‘And you might as well have aimed at me, because you couldn’t hit a barn at twenty-five yards!’
‘Oh, couldn’t I?’ said Tom.
‘No – or at twelve!’
‘Oh?’ said Tom. ‘Well, there’s one thing I can do, and that’s draw your cork!’
‘You may try!’ said Jack, casting his own pistol from him, and putting up his fists.
They closed with enthusiasm, far too anxious to get to grips to waste time in taking off their coats. It was rather a scrambling fight, because the coats hampered them, and mingled relief and exasperation made them spar wildly, and soon fall into a clinch, each striving to throw the other a cross-buttock. Since Tom was the larger and the stronger of the two the outcome of that was never in doubt.
‘Damn you!’ panted Jack, picking himself up, and rubbing one elbow.
They looked at one another. Tom’s fists sank. ‘Jack,’ he said uncertainly, ‘we – we came to fight a duel!’
Jack’s mouth quivered. He bit his underlip, but it was to no avail. If Tom had not begun to grin, like the gudgeon he was, he might have kept his countenance, but Tom was grinning, and the huge bubble of laughter which had been growing within him burst.