« ForrigeFortsett »
successful. Why did Windsor Forest look more beautiful, bathed as it was in that flood of sunshine, than it had ever looked before? Why had the hum of insects, the song of birds, the towering elns, the stately oaks, the massive shade of the deep woodland glades, a charm that, to my unawakened feelings, had never previously existed ? Could it be that life, in all its beauty, all its capacity for enjoyment, that life of which the sunny summer noon was so suggestive a type, had never been really appreciated, until the probability of its being hazarded, the possibility of losing it, had startled me into the consciousness of its innumerable blessings and delights ? Certainly I found myself becoming more and more keenly alive to the pleasures of existence, and contemplating with more and more disgust the disagreeable necessity to which I was reduced. Gradually I tasked my memory to recall in long and ghastly array all the traditions of duelling that I had ever read or heard of-how a certain English gentleman, of undaunted courage and unerring aim, had been insulted by a French Count, celebrated as a bully by preference and a duellist by profession ; how he retaliated by pulling the Frenchman's nose, and thus, placing himself in the position of the challenged, obtained the option of weapons, and chose pistols as placing him more upon a par with his antagonist than the small-sword ; how they fought at “the Barrier,” as it is called, beginning at twenty-five paces; how, ere one step was completed, both the pistols had been discharged, the Englishman being the least moment in advance, and shooting his adversary through the heart, at the same instant that the count's ball grazed his forehead
--the fact of receiving a bullet in the “ pericordium” only disturbing the Frenchman's aim to that extent. How, upon another frightful occasion, at one of these sanguinary “barrier'' duels, the younger combatant of the two, the hope and stay as he was the representative of his family, having failed in bringing down his antagonist at a long shot, was forced by the rules of the “duello," and the exigencies of “ honour,” to walk coolly up with his discharged pistol in his hand to be murdered in cold blood at the white handkerchief, placed on the ground half-way between the principals ; how his adversary-a fiend in human form-laid his hand upon the youth's person, to feel the exact spot where his heart beat, and pressing the muzzle of his weapon against that well-spring of vitality, immolated him then and there with the words—“I pity your poor mother !” How, in later days, men had been shot dead in duels, such as the customs of society made inevitable, and the survivors rendered amenable to the laws of their country, on the capital charge ; how, the option between being shot and hanged was by no means agreeable ; and how it was very possible that the events of the next four-and-twenty hours might give me my choice of either catastrophe. In short, by the time we drove up to the door of my villa, and my servant informed me “ that a gentleman was waiting to see me in the drawing-room,” I had worked myself up into a state of nervousness and agitation, the least calculated to get me well through the business upon which I concluded the gentleman “ had called.”
An interview of half an hour with Major O'Cleverley, who turned out to be my visitor, did not serve, as may be supposed, to tranquillize my nerves. As my prophetic soul had already taught me, the Major
had called on the part of Mr. Cotherstone, and was the bearer of a proposition, to which I felt it quite impossible to accede. I was to pay over the eighteen hundred immediately, as a proof of the most satisfactory nature that I had no accusation to make as to the manner in which it was won; I was to apologize for my intemperate behaviour the previous night, laying the blame on the quantity of wine I had drunk, acted upon by the excitement of high play, "and thus," concluded the Major, drawing himself up to his full height, with a bland smile, “having made the amaunde honorable' customary amongst gentlemen, me friend Mr. Cotherstone will be happy to look over this most unfortunate • fracar,' and will be ready and willing-Bedad ! he's a good fellow, Cotherstone!-to shake hands with yerself, Mr. Nogo, and say no more about it." I summoned up all my dignity to reply with becoming pomposity to the Milesian ambassador, and the upshot of it was, that I referred him for all further particulars to my friend Captain Raffleton, at that moment waiting in the next room. I thought this announcement rather staggered the Major, and I must do him the justice to say, that throughout the whole proceedings he was decidedly against warlike measures, if they could possibly be avoided ; and no doubt it would have suited the purpose of himself and his confederate better could they have succeeding in fleecing their pigeon quietly, as they had one and all been before the public quite often enough to make such a display by no means desirable.
Jack's interview with the Major soon came to a conclusion, my friend adopting a very high tone-distinctly refusing, on my part, to pay the money, or withdraw the charge of cheating at play, which I had made against Mr. Cotherstone, and expressing a perfect readiness on the part of himself and his friend to abide the issue of the ordeal of single combat, the preliminaries of which were duly settled in my drawing-room during the Major's visit-time and place arranged, and even a jocose allusion, on O'Cleverley's part, to trains and steamboats, which might allow of the survivor's escaping to the Continent. Jack's reasons for this decided line of conduct were sensible enough in their way, though I could not help thinking that, like all men engaged as seconds in a duel, he did not quite see the “last appeal” in so important a light as it appeared to his principal. “I do not think,” said he, as he walked up and down the lawn after the Major's departure, “that these fellows will come to the scratch at last : depend upon it, they do not mean fighting. Their object, of course, is to get the money, and they are trying to bully you into paying ; but we must be firm with them, and after all, if worst comes to the worst, we can wink and hold out iron' as well as they can—by the bye, can you shoot any, Nogo ?"
I was forced to confess that my pistol practice was by no means first-rate, and that, in fact, I had no idea of the weapon whatever ; had certainly never loaded one ; and very much doubted if I had even “ let one off.” It was accordingly agreed upon, that, if we heard nothing further from “the enemy” before four o'clock that afternoon, we should consider such silence tantamount to a declaration of war, and prepare accordingly, Jack binding himself to give me correct instructions, as to the most authentic manner of holding, levelling, and discharging my pistol, with all and sundry niceties and arrangements, peculiar to the What a long afternoon it was ! I thought the shadows on that shaven lawn would never lengthen : I could settle to nothing: the uncertainty of my position was worrying and annoying to a degree. I would have given anything to have the matter brought to a conclusion one way or the other, even if that way was to produce the dreaded encounter. I quite longed to take my ground, and fight it out like a man. I wandered in and out of the house like some unquiet spirit; smoked half a cigar, then threw it away ; glanced listlessly over the newspaper; even went to the stables to look at my solitary hack, and found myself wondering when I should ride him again, and unconsciously quoting “ the Arab's farewell to his steed.” Three o'clock had struck, and the last hour of suspense was drawing on towards its close. At four we were to consider ourselves “ booked," and to make all our preparations accordingly. Jack was even then up-stairs, arranging his pistols, and humming a whole opera through as he proceeded with his task, and I was wondering where I should be this time to-morrow, and whether the sun would be shining as brightly, and the birds warbling as gaily, though I might be blind to sunshine and deaf to song, when the train of my reflections was interrupted by the tramp of a horse cantering up the grass ride that led to the stables ; and ere I had time to conjecture whether this was “the Major," with some pacific proposal, or a chance visitor from the barracks unconscious of our dilemmas and ravenous for luncheon, Kate Cotherstone galloped into the stable-yard, pale and dishevelled with the speed at which she had been riding, and lovelier than ever in her agitation and distress. Ere I had recovered from my astonishment at her sudden appearance, she had jumped off her horse, put her arm within mine, and trembling all over like an aspen-leaf, had walked me through the French windows into the cool and half-darkened drawing-room, where she explained to me in broken sentences the object of her unusual visit. As far as I could make out—for Kate's nervousness, too evidently not assumed, made her at times rather incoherent- she had heard our voices raised as if in anger, when her father and I parted the previous night ; she saw in the morning, by Cotherstone's manner, that something was wrong ; and when the Major arrived, at so unusual an hour as nine o'clock, evidently in consequence of a summons from his friend, she felt satisfied from her previous experience in such matters that something serious was about to take place. Brought up in a school not overfastidious as to its ideas of honour, the young lady had small scruple in listening at her papa's door, and making herself mistress of the conversation going on within, from which she learnt the whole particulars of our disagreement, and the contemplated duel. She was obliged to pretend to be ignorant of everything till the time approached for her usual afternoon ride, when, dismissing her groom, and concealing her intentions from every one, she had galloped up over to my villa, in a state of mind not to be described.
“And promise me, Mr. Nogo-promise me, I beseech you! that you will not allow this frightful business to end in a duel. Heavens ! it is too horrible! Any sacrifice would be preferable. My poor father -a man twice your age, you never could lift your hand against him. If ever you cared for me—and there was a time-" said Kate, looking lovely beyond conception, and not acting now, “ There was a time that
you said my word should always be your law-if ever you cared for me, I entreat you not to fight with Papa ! Promise me that you will agree to a reconciliation, and the whole thing may be hushed up. What will people say to my riding over here alone? I have sacrificed my character-surely you can make the comparatively trifling sacrifice of foregoing this dreadful alternative!”
What could I do? Here was a young, handsome girl, one to whom I had certainly for a time been much attached, pleading with me for the sake of her father ; using all the advantages of her beauty, her position, and her distress ; employing all the arguments and sophistry that fall so persuasively from woman's lips, to induce me to forego this infernal duel, for which I had myself the smallest possible inclinationwhat could any man do? Of course I gave way, and promised her all and everything she required. She was, for once, honest in her purpose : there was no mistaking the daughter's eagerness and anxiety on her father's behalf for anything but truth, and I flattered myself I saw more into Kate's character, and liked her better, if I loved her less, during that painful half-hour, than in all our acquaintance and flirtations for weeks previously. The upshot of it was, that I put the young lady again upon her horse, after administering all the restoratives in my power-outward application of eau-de-Cologne, and inward consolation in the shape of a glass of brown sherry-happy in my assured promise, that come what might, no power on earth should induce me to harm a hair of her father's head, and pledging my honour as a gentleman, that no effort should be wanting on my part to avoid the proposed rencontre ; and I then walked back into the house to relate all that had taken place to Jack Raffleton, who had discreetly remained up-stairs during the whole time of Kate's visit. We talked it over again and again, but we could make nothing of it: as Jack said, I kad now succeeded in entangling the whole affair in such a manner that it required a wiser head than his to set things straight.
“In the first place,” argued my indignant friend, “we have an Irishman to negotiate with ; then, we have 'a leg' to deal with, whom we must either pay eighteen hundred, or fight. He is utterly reckless, and can shoot like blazes ! But that is neither here nor there. Then I have a principal to act for, who has never been concerned in an affair of this kind before, and who consequently depends or should depend wholly and solely on my experience. And last!y, just as I have screwed him up, and brought him to the scratch, a meddling little devil in ringlets comes poking her nose in, to make a mess of everything ; and my friend, whose honour imperatively requires that he should go out and be shot at, the first thing to-morrow morning, pledges his honour that he will do nothing of the kind, and I am expected to reconcile all these impossibilities and contradictions ! By Jove! it's enough to provoke a saint! I'll tell you what, Nogo-fight you must. I can't help what you have promised : the Major and I settled this morning, that unless certain terms were agreed to, there was only one course. You are now in my hands : it is my duty to see you through this without loss of character ; and, by heavens ! fight you shall !”.
Mine was the weaker mind—the more yielding spirit—and again I gave way. The events of that afternoon almost made ine doubt my own free agency. I seemed to be a shuttle-cock, bandied to and fro
between Jack, the Major, and Kate ; and the only privilege of self-will that I reserved to myself was a determination to shoot in any direction but that of Mr. Cotherstone, thereby redeeming my promise to his daughter, and careless whether, by such a course, I might or might not endanger the safety of his second with a stray bullet. Ere Jack's remonstrances were completed, and I had come to this conclusion, the hour for our quiet little dinner had arrived ; and just as we were sitting down, who should make his appearance, to add to the incon. veniences of the day, but Captain Clare, accompanied, as usual, by young Fitz-Arthur. We could not do less than ask them to join us in our early meal ; and the pair, who had been on horseback all day concocting some robbery, which they called “a good thing," were too happy to anticipate their usual dinner-hour, and do justice to our hospitality. The bottle of light claret, which Jack had so fondly anticipated, very soon multiplied itself into half-a-dozen. The new arrivals were both particularly agreeable men ; Jack himself, especially when he had anything on his hands, was one of the pleasantest fellows in England; and there I sat, in that cheerful room, with its open windows and its lovely view, enjoying myself to the utmost-aye ! incredible as it may appear, of all the merry gatherings it has been my luck to attend, that was the one at which my spirits were most buoyant, and my laughter wildest and most hilarious, to which I look back with a sense of the keenest, the most thrilling, enjoyment. Could it have been that the uncertainty-nay, the settled gloom-that made the future too forbidding to contemplate, enhanced beyond price the charm of the tangible present ? Was it, that the consciousness of peril and distress, of which two of my companions could form no idea, gave to me in that separate existence, which they were unable to appreciate, a superiority that in such society I had never felt before? Was it that something within told me the resolution I had formed for Kate's sake was generous, and true, and worthy of the days of chi. valry? or was it merely the sense of impending danger that had so bracing and exhilarating an effect? I cannot tell. Probably Damocles, who sat down to dinner every day with a sword suspended over his head by a single hair, might be able to analyze my sensations, and explain ny feelings. But the reaction came : our guests were bound for London by an evening train ; and as they lit their cigars, and mounted their horses to depart, the sun was still above the horizon, and oh! how beautiful was the world, in the mellow lustre of that calm June evening! How could we, reprobates as we were, dare to insult the majesty of nature, by the pursuit on which we entered, as soon as our guests had disappeared, and the coast was clear? We had now no time to lose in our preparations, and the deep blue sky, serene in its holiness, looked down upon the premeditated guilt of two mortals, perfecting themselves by practice to destroy the life of a fellow-creature. With an accuracy, that nothing but long experience could have attained, Jack had paced out the established twelve yards from the trunk of a giant elm, that shaded the lawn of our abode. A large sheet of white paper served as an excellent target, and, placed at duelling distance, I commenced my first lesson in the use of the pistol. Twelve paces is no very great interval between two gentlemen with arms in their hands; but to those who have never made the attempt, it is extraordinary how