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Pistols for Two
In the end, the quarrel, smouldering for so many weeks, flared up over such a trifle that anyone, Tom reflected, would have laughed to have known the cause. Only they had not really reached pistol-point because Jack had stepped backward in a doorway, and cannoned into him, making him spill his glass of champagne, and treading on his foot. Nor had Jack turned pale and tight-lipped with anger because he had cursed him for being a clumsy oaf. If you had known a fellow from the cradle, had played with him, gone to school with him, shot, fished, and hunted with him, you could curse him with impunity, and either it ended in a bout of fisticuffs or in laughter: not in a meeting in the chill morning, attended by seconds. Even had they not been such close friends that sort of thing was out of date: rubbishing stuff, fit only for the stage! Tom's grandfather, of course, had been out five times, if the family legends were to be believed, on the most trifling provocation. He had once fought Jack's great-uncle George and very comical they must have looked, Jack and he had often thought, giggling over it, with their shaven polls (for they had worn wigs, both of them), and the absurd ruffles they affected in place of wristbands, and had to tuck up, and their bare feet probably much bruised by the unkind ground. Nowadays, if one fought a duel, one chose pistols, and one didn't make a cake of oneself over the business. But very few people did fight duels, and certainly not because they had been jostled in doorways.
Only it wasn't that. This unthinkable situation had arisen out of something far more serious. Not that one could call Marianne Treen serious: she was the gayest and most light-hearted of all possible causes of dissension.
Strange what changes a few years could wreak in a female! There had been nothing remarkable in little Marianne Treen before she went south to boarding-school: in fact Tom could distinctly recall that he and Jack and Harry Denver had thought her a silly creature, with freckles on her nose, and a tiresome way of intruding where girls were not wanted. Her departure from Yorkshire left their withers unwrung; and since she spent her holidays in London, with her grandmama, they were very soon able to forget her.
But she had come back to Yorkshire. She had enjoyed a brilliant London season, and when most of the haut ton had gone to Brighton, Mrs Treen had brought her home to Treen Hall, and the neighbourhood had renewed their acquaintance with her at one of the assemblies at High Harrowgate. A stunning shock that had been to all the young gentlemen for miles around, for who would have supposed that this dazzling beauty was none other than freckled little Marianne, who was used to whine: ‘Let me come with you! Oh, pray, let me come too!'
They rarely had let her, and now she had her revenge on them. Only she was too sweet and too gay to care for that, and if she did favour some more than others it was easy to see that she used her best endeavours to be impartial.
Jack and Tom were her favourites, as they were certainly the most assiduous, of her courtiers. Everyone laughed at this, and they were roasted a little for doing everything together, even when it came to falling in love for the first time. That did nothing to soothe exacerbated tempers. It was a strange and a deplorable circumstance that one's relatives were unable to see when one was in earnest, but, on the contrary, laboured under the delusion that if one had not yet come down from Oxford one was too young to think of marriage.
Each knew himself to be an eligible suitor. Perhaps Jack had a little the advantage over Tom, for his father was a baronet. But Tom's father was the Squire, which counted for something, and Tom was his only son, whereas Jack had two younger brothers to be provided for.
At first their courtship had been unattended by any rancour. They were agreed that Marianne was incomparable, and their rivalry had been conducted in the friendliest spirit. Perhaps neither knew when the change had crept into their relationship with one another. Perhaps Jack was jealous of Tom's superior height, and breadth of shoulder (sure to appeal to a female!); perhaps Tom envied Jack his air of elegance, and his handsome profile. Whatever the cause, the rift appeared between them. They had become hostile, each eyeing the other with suspicion, each on the watch for any cause for offence. A dozen times they had come within an ace of indulging in a maul; but never until this disastrous night had they considered the possibility of settling their quarrel at dawn, in Stanhope's Clearing by tradition an honourable meeting-place.
That Marianne would choose one or other of them before the summer ended neither doubted. The only question was which it would be, and this made it of paramount importance that neither should steal an unfair advantage over the other. After one or two squabbles they had agreed to this or so Tom had believed, until on this night of the Treens' Dress Party he had beheld with his own eyes the proof of Jack's perfidy. Both had meant to send Marianne a posy of flowers to carry at the ball, with a suitable message attached to the holder: which posy she chose would clearly indicate her heart's preference. Tom had bullied the Squire's head gardener into making up an exquisite bouquet of pink roses and sweet-peas. He had ridden over to Treen Hall himself that morning, to leave the tribute with the Treens' quelling butler, and the most shocking mischance had occurred. The mare had been stung by a horsefly, and Tom, that bruising rider, lost in some beatific dream, and riding with a loose rein and his head in the clouds, had abruptly parted company with Bess. Alas for the delicate bouquet grasped in his right hand! A shower of petals in the road, a dismal array of broken stalks in the filigree holder: that was all that remained of it.
He had only just caught Bess when, as ill-fortune would have it, Jack came driving along the road from Melbury Court in his smart new tilbury. A bouquet of yellow roses lay on the seat beside him, so that there was no need to enquire his errand.
Three months earlier Jack would have roared with laughter at Tom's mishap; today Jack was politeness itself, and not even the sight of that abject posy did more than make his lip quiver. Jack had had the infernal impudence to behave with magnanimity. He had said that since misfortune had overtaken Tom he should not present his own bouquet. This was precisely what Tom had been about to demand as his due, under the terms of their agreement. He said so, hating Jack for his punctiliousness. So Jack smiled in a slighting way, and had more than hinted that only a cork-brained fellow like Tom would have thought of offering pink roses to a goddess whose hair was a glorious Titian red.
Tom had brooded over it all the afternoon, but it was not then that the thought of calling Jack out had even remotely occurred to him. It hadn't really occurred to him when, on arriving at Treen Hall that evening, he had seen Marianne, adorable in a cloud of jonquil gauze over a white satin robe, holding in one gloved hand a posy of yellow roses. If any reasoned thought found room in his brain, it was merely a vague resolve to give Jack a leveller at the first convenient opportunity if (for Jack was a clever boxer) Jack did not first plant him a heavy facer.
It was a very grand party, with several London swells, who were staying at Treen Hall, much in evidence. At any other time, Tom, aspiring to fashion, would have taken careful note of the folds of the neckcloth worn by the Tulip talking to Mrs Treen, or regarded with envy the cut of the coat moulded across the shoulders of the gentleman from London who was dancing with Marianne. He would not have been jealous of this personage, for all his handsome face, and exquisite bearing, for he was quite old thirty at least, Tom judged and probably already the father of a hopeful family.
All his jealousy, all his seething rancour, was reserved for Jack, his closest friend. Mr Treen's excellent champagne did nothing to assuage it. Before an hour had elapsed it must have been a very obtuse person who failed to realize that the two handsome boys from the Manor and Melbury Court were itching to be at one another's throats.
And then Jack, stepping back politely for an elderly gentleman to pass him, trod on Tom's toes, and made him spill his champagne.
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!'
It was easy to talk of sleeping if you were only the second in an encounter, Tom reflected bitterly. He had slipped away from Treen Hall, and had driven himself home by the light of a full moon. The chill air sweeping over the moors cooled his head, and, to a great extent, his rage. By the time he reached the Manor, and had stabled the cob, he was finding it increasingly difficult to look forward with any pleasure to the morrow no, not the morrow: it was past midnight, he observed, as he entered the Manor, and saw the tall-case clock at the foot of the stairs.
His mother had gone to bed, but as ill-luck would have it, the Squire was still up, and called to him from the library. ‘Is that you, Tom?'
He was obliged to go into the room, and there was his father, and not alone either. He was playing chess with Sir John Frith. Tom regarded Sir John in the light of an uncle, and was much attached to him, but there was no one he wanted to see less tonight.
‘You are back very early,' remarked the Squire, shooting a look up at him under his bushy brows.
‘Yes, sir,' he said, in a careless voice. ‘It was such a squeeze and Harry and I mean to go out early, to fish the Brown Pool.'
‘Oh!' said the Squire, his gaze bent again on the board. ‘You have me, John, I fancy.'
‘I think so,' agreed his guest. ‘Jack going with you, Tom?'
Tom knew the tell-tale colour was rising to his cheeks. ‘Yes oh yes!' he stammered, feeling like a Judas only that it was more likely that it would be he, and not Jack, who would be brought home on a hurdle so few short hours ahead.
‘Glad to hear it!' said Sir John. ‘Better than dangling after a petticoat at your age, pair of young fools that you are!'
That was the way dotards of forty-five (and very likely even older) talked to one, so senile they had forgotten what it meant to be young, and in love! Tom said stiffly that he would go to bed.
‘Yes, you go,' agreed his father. ‘Good night, my boy: don't wake the whole household when you get up! The mistake I made, John, was in moving my queen's bishop when I did.'
Tom went away, quite unnoticed by the insensate old men, who were already playing their game all over again. The last thing he wanted was for either of them to suspect the truth, but somehow it made him feel ill-used and resentful that they didn't even notice that something was amiss.
When he got into bed he hoped that Harry would not oversleep. Harry was coming to fetch him in his gig, and it would be a dreadful thing if he were to be late on the ground, perhaps oversleeping himself. The gentleman from London would certainly bring his man punctually to the rendezvous.
He soon found that there was no fear of his oversleeping. He could not sleep at all. He tossed and turned; threw off blankets; pulled them over him again; punched his pillows all to no avail. He was wide awake, his mind so lively that his thoughts crowded in on it, jostling one another in a restless, worrying way he was not at all accustomed to.
He was not, he thought, afraid or, at any rate, not more afraid than one was before going out to bat at Eton; but he felt sorry for his father, who would in all probability come down to breakfast to be greeted with the pleasing intelligence that the hope of his house was either a lifeless corpse, or hideously wounded. His mother would never recover from the blow; and what a terrible thing it would be for Sir John and Lady Frith, with their heir obliged to fly the country, and all communication with the Manor severed from that hour! Poor, deluded Uncle John, asking so casually if Jack were going fishing too!
Suddenly, as that thought flitted into his head, it was elbowed out by another: if only it had been true, and he and Jack were going to tramp off through the dewy early morning, sandwiches in their pockets, rods in their hands, creels on their backs, and nothing between them but the comfortable, idle chat of close friendship! No need for Harry on that expedition; in fact, better without Harry, though he might come if he chose, for he was a good sort of a fellow a very faithful friend, really, though not to compare, of course, with Jack. He was apt to be a little in the way sometimes, as when he had gone with them when Tom checked that thought quickly. Fatal to remember all the things he and Jack had done together, and the sport they had had, and the scrapes they had plunged into! That was all over; and even if their encounter did not end in the death of one of them, nothing would ever be the same again between them. But he couldn't help remembering, and it didn't seem to be of any use to dwell on Jack's miserable double-dealing today, because whether Jack gave Marianne flowers behind his best friend's back, or whether he behaved as impeccably as one had been so sure he would, he was still the friend who had shared one's every thought, helped one out of tight corners, called on one for instant aid himself, so that one would as readily have doubted Father's loyalty as his.
And it was all because of freckled little Marianne Treen, who was a shocking flirt, when one came to consider the matter dispassionately, and probably didn't care a rap for either of them! One dance each and only country dances at that! had she granted them tonight, but she had waltzed twice with Sir Gavin Kilham, and had engaged herself to another town-buck for the quadrille. When one thought of the time one had wasted, trying to fix her interest yes, wasted was the word! All these summer months, when he and Jack might have been so much better employed, squandered on toadying a chit who had never been anything but a dead bore to either of them!
The more one thought of it the less vivid grew Marianne's present image, the clearer the memory of a tiresome little girl with freckles, spoiling one's sport by insisting on accompanying one, and then falling into the brook, or complaining that she was tired, or dared not cross a field with cows grazing in it. The idea that he and Jack Jack! should stand up to shoot at one another for the sake of Marianne Treen would have been a grand jest if it had not been so tragic. And just suppose that by some quirk of fortune it was not Jack's bullet that found its mark, but his? Why, if that happened he would blow out his own brains, because there would be nothing left in all the world for Jack's friend to do!
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.
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.