The next day the seconds appeared.
I had expected to see two of the men with whom we had dined. To my astonishment, the visitors proved to be officers of the General's regiment. They brought proposals for a hostile meeting the next morning; the choice of weapons being left to Romayne as the challenged man.
It was now quite plain to me that the General's peculiar method of card-playing had, thus far, not been discovered and exposed. He might keep doubtful company, and might (as I afterward heard) be suspected in certain quarters. But that he still had, formally-speaking, a reputation to preserve, was proved by the appearance of the two gentlemen present as his representatives. They declared, with evident sincerity, that Romayne had made a fatal mistake; had provoked the insult offered to him; and had resented it by a brutal and cowardly outrage. As a man and a soldier, the General was doubly bound to insist on a duel. No apology would be accepted, even if an apology were offered.
In this emergency, as I understood it, there was but one course to follow. I refused to receive the challenge.
Being asked for my reasons, I found it necessary to speak within certain limits. Though we knew the General to be a cheat, it was a delicate matter to dispute his right to claim satisfaction, when he had found two officers to carry his message. I produced the seized cards (which Romayne had brought away with him in his pocket), and offered them as a formal proof that my friend had not been mistaken.
The seconds--evidently prepared for this circumstance by their principal--declined to examine the cards. In the first place, they said, not even the discovery of foul play (supposing the discovery to have been really made) could justify Romayne's conduct. In the second place, the General's high character made it impossible, under any circumstances, that he could be responsible. Like ourselves, he had rashly associated with bad company; and he had been the innocent victim of an error or a fraud, committed by some other person present at the table.
Driven to my last resource, I could now only base my refusal to receive the challenge on the ground that we were Englishmen, and that the practice of dueling had been abolished in England. Both the seconds at once declined to accept this statement in justification of my conduct.
"You are now in France," said the elder of the two, "where a duel is the established remedy for an insult, among gentlemen. You are bound to respect the social laws of the country in which you are for the time residing. If you refuse to do so, you lay yourselves open to a public imputation on your courage, of a nature too degrading to be more particularly alluded to. Let us adjourn this interview for three hours on the ground of informality. We ought to confer with two gentlemen, acting on Mr. Romayne's behalf. Be prepared with another second to meet us, and reconsider your decision before we call again."
The Frenchmen had barely taken their departure by one door, when Romayne entered by another.
"I have heard it all," he said, quietly. "Accept the challenge."
I declare solemnly that I left no means untried of opposing my friend's resolution. No man could have felt more strongly convinced than I did, that nothing could justify the course he was taking. My remonstrances were completely thrown away. He was deaf to sense and reason, from the moment when he had heard an imputation on his courage suggested as a possible result of any affair in which he was concerned.
"With your views," he said, "I won't ask you to accompany me to the ground. I can easily find French seconds. And mind this, if you attempt to prevent the meeting, the duel will take place elsewhere--and our friendship is at an end from that moment."
After this, I suppose it is needless to add that I accompanied him to the ground the next morning as one of his seconds.
WE were punctual to the appointed hour--eight o'clock.
The second who acted with me was a French gentleman, a relative of one of the officers who had brought the challenge. At his suggestion, we had chosen the pistol as our weapon. Romayne, like most Englishmen at the present time, knew nothing of the use of the sword. He was almost equally inexperienced with the pistol.
Our opponents were late. They kept us waiting for more than ten minutes. It was not pleasant weather to wait in. The day had dawned damp and drizzling. A thick white fog was slowly rolling in on us from the sea.
When they did appear, the General was not among them. A tall, well-dressed young man saluted Romayne with stern courtesy, and said to a stranger who accompanied him: "Explain the circumstances."
The stranger proved to be a surgeon. He entered at once on the necessary explanation. The General was too ill to appear. He had been attacked that morning by a fit--the consequence of the blow that he had received. Under these circumstances, his eldest son (Maurice) was now on the ground to fight the duel on his father's behalf; attended by the General's seconds, and with the General's full approval.
We instantly refused to allow the duel to take place, Romayne loudly declaring that he had no quarrel with the General's son. Upon this, Maurice broke away from his seconds; drew off one of his gloves; and stepping close up to Romayne, struck him on the face with the glove. "Have you no quarrel with me now?" the young Frenchman asked. "Must I spit on you, as my father did?" His seconds dragged him away, and apologized to us for the outbreak. But the mischief was done. Romayne's fiery temper flashed in his eyes. "Load the pistols," he said. After the insult publicly offered to him, and the outrage publicly threatened, there was no other course to take.
It had been left to us to produce the pistols. We therefore requested the seconds of our opponent to examine and to load them. While this was being done, the advancing sea-fog so completely enveloped us that the duelists were unable to see each other. We were obliged to wait for the chance of a partial clearing in the atmosphere. Romayne's temper had become calm again. The generosity of his nature spoke in the words which he now addressed to his seconds. "After all," he said, "the young man is a good son--he is bent on redressing what he believes to be his father's wrong. Does his flipping his glove in my face matter to me? I think I shall fire in the air."
"I shall refuse to act as your second if you do," answered the French gentleman who was assisting us. "The General's son is famous for his skill with the pistol. If you didn't see it in his face just now, I did--he means to kill you. Defend your life, sir!" I spoke quite as strongly, to the same purpose, when my turn came. Romayne yielded--he placed himself unreservedly in our hands.
In a quarter of an hour the fog lifted a little. We measured the distance, having previously arranged (at my suggestion) that the two men should both fire at the same moment, at a given signal. Romayne's composure, as they faced each other, was, in a man of his irritable nervous temperament, really wonderful.