The same thought occurred to both of them, as the gusts of mirth died, and they wiped their streaming eyes. ‘Neither pistol went off !’ Jack said.
‘By God, you’re right!’ Tom said, and swung round to confront the seconds.
Both he and Jack had forgotten the presence of the gentleman from London when they came to fisticuffs. Torn between wrath at his suspected falsity, and dread of his contempt for their schoolboyish behaviour, they glared at him, flushed, and still panting.
Sir Gavin, who was seated negligently on a tree-stump, rose, and strolled forward, saying approvingly: ‘Excellent! Rather glaringly abroad sometimes, perhaps, but I should like to see you both stripped. When you come to London you must tell me of your visit, and I’ll take you to Jackson’s Boxing Saloon.’
This gratifying invitation, from a noted Patron of the Ring, could not but mollify the injured feelings of the late combatants. Decency, however, had to be preserved. ‘Sir,’ said Jack accusingly, ‘neither my friend’s gun nor mine was loaded!’
‘Do you know, that notion has just crossed my mind?’ said Sir Gavin. ‘I have such a wretched memory! Really, I must apologize, but I am quite famous for my lapses, and you must forgive me.’
They had a suspicion they were being laughed at, but it was very difficult to pick a quarrel with the gentleman from London. Tom solved the problem by rounding on Harry, and saying sternly: ‘You should have inspected the weapons! You’re my second!’
‘I did!’ said Harry, going off into a guffaw.
It might be difficult to know how to deal with the gentleman from London, but there was no difficulty at all in deciding how to deal with Harry – who had had the effrontery to make fools of two persons who, out of sheer compassion, had suffered him to join them occasionally in their chosen pursuits. They eyed him measuringly, and they advanced upon him in a purposeful way.
The gentleman from London seemed to be in the path. He said: ‘The blame rests entirely on my shoulders. Er – did you wish to kill one another?’
‘No!’ said Jack. ‘And it was – it was dashed officious of you, sir, to leave out the ball, for we meant all the time to delope!’
‘My lack of tact often keeps me awake at night,’ apologized Sir Gavin. ‘You see, I was requested – by a lady – to intervene in your quarrel, so what else could I do?’
Jack looked at Tom, a little trouble in his face, as he recalled the events of the previous evening. ‘Tom, why?’ he asked.
Tom flushed. ‘It don’t signify! I dare say all’s fair in – in love and war, but it was the roses! I never thought you would use me so!’
‘What roses?’ Jack demanded.
‘Yours. The ones she carried!’
‘They were not mine!’ Jack said, his eyes kindling. ‘By Jupiter, Tom, I have a mind to call you out for thinking I would serve you such a backhanded turn! It passes everything, so it does!’
‘Not yours?’ ejaculated Tom.
Sir Gavin coughed deprecatingly. ‘If you refer to the roses Miss Treen carried last night, they were mine!’ They stared at him. ‘I hope you will not both call me out,’ he said, ‘but the fact is that Miss Treen has done me the honour to become my affianced wife. Our betrothal was announced at supper last night.’
This was shocking news. Each unsuccessful suitor tried to realize that his life was blighted, and failed. Tom said, with dignity: ‘You might have told us so last night, sir!’
‘I might, of course, but I had the oddest notion that it wouldn’t have been of the least avail,’ confessed Sir Gavin.
They thought this over. A reluctant grin overset Tom’s dignity. ‘Well, perhaps not,’ he conceded.
Jack executed his best bow. ‘We must beg leave to wish you happy, sir,’ he said nobly.
‘I am very much obliged to you,’ responded Sir Gavin, with great civility.
‘I suppose,’ said Tom, blushing, ‘you think we have made great cakes of ourselves, sir?’
‘Not at all,’ said Sir Gavin. ‘You have conducted yourselves with perfect propriety, and I am happy to have assisted in an affair of honour so creditable to both parties. Let us repair to the inn beyond this charming coppice, and partake of breakfast! I bespoke it half an hour ago, and I am sure it will by now be awaiting us. Besides, I do not care to keep my horses standing any longer.’
‘I should think not indeed!’ Tom exclaimed. ‘I say, sir, what a bang-up set-out it is! Real blood-and-bone!’
‘I am so glad you like them,’ said Sir Gavin. ‘Do, pray, try their paces as far as to the Rising Sun! If you will allow me, I will drive the gig.’
It was rather too much to expect two budding whips to nurse their broken hearts when offered the chance of driving a match-pair of thoroughbreds. Briefly but fervently thanking Sir Gavin, Tom and Jack hurried off to the curricle, arguing with some heat on which of them was first to handle the ribbons.
Sir Gavin, devoutly trusting that his confidence in their ability to cope with a high-couraged pair had not been misplaced, took his fellow-second by the arm, and pushed him gently towards the humbler gig.