An Affair of Honor
The snow lay deep over Hounslow Heath and the light was failing fast. They were already late, a double annoyance to Jack Absolute; not only was it considered ungentlemanly to keep people waiting for such an affair, but it also meant that by the time the ground had been reached, the Seconds introduced, the area marked out, and the formalities dealt with as to wills and burials, it would be too dark for pistols. It would have to be swords; and by the look of him, his opponent was in fighting trim. If he wasn't twenty years younger than Jack he wasn't far off and, as a serving cavalry officer, would be fencing daily; while it was five years at the least since Jack had fought in such a manner. With a variety of other weapons, to be sure. But a tomahawk or a Mysore punch dagger had a very different feel to them than the delicate touch required for the small sword. Of course, one could only be killed with the point; it had no cutting edge. But the point, as Jack knew all too well, was all that was required.
As his feet slipped yet again on the icy boot prints of those who had preceded him, Jack cursed. How large will the damned crowd be? The affair could hardly have been announced more publicly, and many would choose to attend such a fashionable fight. Money would already have been staked. He wondered at the odds. Like an older racehorse, Jack had form. He had "killed his man"-in fact, in the plural, several more than these gentlemen of London could know about. But his opponent was certainly younger, probably stronger, and above all, inflamed with the passion of wronged ardor. He fought for a cause. For love.
And Jack? Jack fought only because he'd been too stupid to avoid the challenge.
He sniffed. To top it all, he suspected he was getting a cold. He wanted to be warm in the snug at King's Coffee House, a pot of mulled ale in his hand. Not slip-sliding his way across a frozen common to maiming or a possible death.
"Is it five or six duels you have fought, Daganoweda?"
Jack, whose eyes had been fixed on the placing of his own feet, now glanced at the speaker's. Their nakedness seemed like vanity, especially as Jack knew his companion had a fine pair of fleece-lined boots back in their rooms in St. Giles. However, Até would never pass up such an opportunity to display the superior toughness of the Iroquois Indian. The rest of him would probably have been naked too had Jack not warned him that ladies might attend. The concession had been fawn-skin leggings, beaded and tasseled, and a Chinese silk vest that scarcely concealed his huge chest or obscured the tattoos wreathed around his muscles. Midnight-black hair fell in waves to his almost bare shoulders. Just looking at him made Jack shiver all the more, and he pulled his cloak even tighter around him.
"Six duels, Atédawenete. As I am sure you well remember. Including the one against you."
"Oh," Até turned to him, his brown eyes afire, "you count a fight against a ‘savage,' do you? I am honored."
The Indian made the slightest of bows. Iroquois was a language made for irony. Jack had had too much cognac the night before-the first error in an evening of them-and a duel of wits was one conflict he could live without today. So he reverted to English.
"What is it, Até? Homesick again?"
"I was thinking, brother, that if this young brave kills you-as is very likely since he is half your age and looks twice as vigorous-how then will I buy passage to return to my home across the water, which you have kept me from these eleven years?"
"Don't concern yourself with that, brother. Our friend here will give you the money. It's the least he can do. He owes me after all, don't you, Sherry?"
This last was addressed over his shoulder to the gentleman acting as his First-Second, as the hierarchy of duels had it. The dark-haired young man was struggling to keep pace with his taller companions, his face alternately green and the palest of yellows. The previous evening, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had drunk even more cognac than Jack.
"Ah, money, Jack, yes. Always a wee bit of a problem there." Though he had left Ireland as a boy, a slight native brogue still crept in, especially in moments of exertion. "But, of course, you'll be triumphant today, so the need will not arise. And in the meantime, can you and your fine-looking friend speak more of that marvelous language? I may understand not a word, but the cadences are exquisite."
Jack pulled a large, soiled square of linen from his pocket and blew his nose hard. "Careful, Até, you'll be in one of his plays next. And we all know where that can lead."
The playwright wiped an edge of his cloak across a slick brow, sweating despite the chill. "How many more times can I apologize? As I said, you were thought dead and thus your mellifluous name was free to appropriate."
"Well, I may be dead soon enough. So your conscience may not be a bother too much longer," Jack muttered. He had caught sight of movement through a screen of trees ahead.
If the crowd's big enough, he thought, perhaps even the incompetent Watch might have heard of it and turn up to prevent this illegality. Once he would have objected vigorously to any attempt by the authorities to restrict his right to fight. Once...when he was as young as his adversary, perhaps. Now he could only hope that the Magistrates' intelligence had improved.
But no reassuring Watchmen greeted Jack, just two dozen gentlemen in cloaks of brown or green, a few red-coated army officers, and, in the center of the party, wearing just a shirt, the man who had challenged him-Banastre Tarleton. Jack was again startled by his face. The youth-he could be no more than eighteen-was possessed of an almost feminine beauty, with thickly lashed eyes and chestnut curls failing to be constrained by a pink ribbon. But there was no hint of a lady's fragility in his movements, laughing as he lunged forward with an imaginary sword.
He looks as if he is on a green about to play a game of cricket, Jack thought, and he wondered if it was the cold that made him shrug ever deeper into his cloak. He glanced around the circle of excited faces that turned to him. No women, at least. Not even the cause of this whole affair, that little minx, Elizabeth Farren. The hour was too close to the lighting of the footlights at Drury Lane and her show must go on. Yet how she would have loved playing this scene. The sighs, the sobs wrenched from her troubled-and artfully revealed, carefully highlighted-bosom, as she watched two lovers do battle for her. She would be terribly brave one moment, close to fainting the next.
An actress. He was going to be killed over an actress. It was like one of Sheridan's bloody comedies, not dissimilar to the one in which the playwright had made him the unwitting star. It was an irony perhaps only an Iroquois could fully appreciate. For if Sheridan hadn't used his name in The Rivals, if Jack hadn't then felt it necessary to watch some posturing actor play "him," if he hadn't succumbed, yet again, to the effects of brandy and the actress playing the maid, and if she wasn't already beloved by this brash, stupid, handsome, young officer...
Até and Sheridan had moved across to commence the business, and Jack noted the two men with whom his companions were discussing terms. One, an ensign in the resplendent, gold-laced uniform of the Coldstream Guards, was talking loudly and waving his arms about. Yet it was the other, Tarleton's Second-Second, who held Jack's attention. He was standing behind and slightly to the side, his will seemingly focused, not on the details of the duel, but entirely forward onto Jack, just as it had been the previous night, when his soft whispers had urged Tarleton on. This man had the sober but expensive dress of a rich cleric, the long, pale face of a scholar. And looking now at the man he'd heard named the Count von Schlaben, even in the poor light of a winter sunset, Jack could see that this man desired his death as much as the youth who had challenged him; perhaps even more. And in that moment of recognition, Jack knew that there was more than actresses involved and that honor was only a small part of this affair.
If I am about to die, he thought, looking away and up into the cloud-racked March sky, the least I can do is to understand why.
Something had occurred the previous night at the theater, aside from the play and the challenge. Something that had brought them all here to this snowy common. So it was back to Drury Lane that Jack's mind went, in the few moments before the formalities were settled, and the dying began.