- CHAPTER XXI The Challenge
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"'Do I indeed lack courage?' inquired Mr. Archer of himself, Courage, . . . that does not fail a weasel or a rat--that is a brutish faculty?'"—R. L. STEVENSON.
I DRANK my black coffee and smoked a cigarette. Then, a glance at my watch told me that it was time to keep the appointment at the Villa des Fleurs, five minutes' walk from the hotel. I expected the Contessa's party to be late, but somewhat to my surprise they had already arrived, and a quick glance showed me that, outwardly at least, the relations of all were still amicable.
"Signor Boy did not wish to come," said the Contessa to me, "but I made him. He says that he does not like crowds. Look at him now; he has wandered far from us already, probably to find some dark corner where he can forget that there are too many people. But then, it was sweet of him to come at all, since it was only to please me."
It was true. The Boy had slipped away from the seats we had taken near the music. He had gone to avoid me, perhaps, I said to myself bitterly. I need not have spoiled my dinner with anxiety for his welfare; he seemed to be talking very good care of himself.
"I was horribly worried at dinner," whispered Gaetà to me, the light of the fireworks playing rosily | | 244 over her face. "Those two--you know of whom I speak--weren't a bit nice to each other. It was Paolo who began it, of course, saying little, hateful things that sounded smooth, but had a second meaning; and Signor Boy is not stupid. He did not miss the bad intention, oh, not he, and he said other little things back again, much sharper and wittier than Paolo, who was furious, and gnawed his lip. It was most exciting."
"Did you try to pour oil on the troubled waters?" I asked.
"I was very pleasant to them both, if that is what you mean, first to one and then to the other. After dinner, I gave Signor Boy a rose, and Paolo a gardenia."
"How charming of you," I commented drily.
"If that didn't smooth matters, what could?"
The aëronaut was sitting on Gaetà's left, I on her right, with the Baronessa next me on the other side, and both were straining every nerve to hear our confidences, though pretending to be lost in admiration of the feu d'artifice.
When the Contessa laughed softly, her little dark head not far from my ear, the Italian sprang up, and walked away, unable to endure five minutes of Gaetà's neglect. She and I continued our conversation, though our eyes wandered, mine in search of the Boy, hers I fancy in quest of the same object.
Soon I caught sight of the slim, youthful figure, in its rather fantastic evening dress, the becoming dinner-jacket, the Eton collar, the loosely tied bow at the throat, and the full, black knickerbocker trousers, like those worn in the days of Henri Quatre. As I watched it moving through the crowd, and finally subsiding in a seat under an isolated tree, | | 245 I saw the boyish form joined by a tall and manly one. Paolo di Nivoli had followed his young rival, and presently came to a stand close to the Boy's chair. He folded his arms, and looked down into the eyes which were upturned in answer to some word.
We could not see the expression of the two faces. We saw only that the man and the boy were talking, spasmodically at first, then continuously.
"I do hope they're not quarrelling," said Gaetà, in the seventh heaven of delight.
"Of course not," I replied, annoyed at her frivolity. "They are too sensible."
"Let us make some excuse, and go over to them," she pleaded. "I am tired of sitting still."
There was nothing for it but to obey her whim. I took her across the grassy space which divided us from the two under the tree, and she began to chatter about the fireworks. What did Signor Boy think of them? Was not Aix a charming place?
But abruptly, in the midst of her babble, Paolo di Nivoli swept her away from the Boy and me, in his best "whirlwind" manner, which doubtless thrilled her with mingled terror and delight.
"Nice night, isn't it?" I remarked brilliantly.
"Yes," said the Boy.
"Did the Contessa give you a good dinner?"
"No--yes--that is, I didn't notice."
"Perhaps that was natural."
The Boy did not answer, but I heard him swallow hard. He was on his feet now, having risen at Gaetà's coming, and he stood kicking the grass with the point of his small patent-leather toe. Then, suddenly, he looked up straight into my face, with big dilated eyes.| | 246
"What's the matter?" I asked, when still he did not speak.
"Oh, Man, I'm in the most awful scrape."
"I should be thankful to tell you about it, and get your advice, if--you were like you used to be."
"It's you who have changed, not I."
"No, it's you."
"Don't let's dispute about it. Tell me what's the trouble. Has that bounder been cheeking you?"
"Worse than that. He said things that made me angry, and--then I cheeked him."
"Just now--under this tree?"
"It began at dinner, a little. But the particular thing I'm speaking of happened here. I couldn't stand it, you know.
"What did he say?"
"He asked me how old I was, at first--in such a tone! I answered that I was old enough to know my way about, I hoped. He said he should have thought not, as I travelled with my nurse. Then he wanted to know what was in Souris' pack, whether I carried condensed milk for my nursing-bottle. It was all I could do to keep from boxing his ears, before everyone, but I kept still, and laughed a little; presently I answered in a drawling sort of way, saying I needn't tell him that what Souris carried was no affair of his, because when I came to think of it, after all it was quite natural that a great donkey should be interested in a small one."
"By Jove, you little fire-eater!"
"Well, I had to show him that I was an American, anyhow."
"I suppose he was annoyed."
"He was very much annoyed. Man, he's chal- | | 247 lenged me to fight a duel. Only think of it, a real duel! He said I'd have to fight, or he'd thrash me for a coward. I--it's a horrid scrape, but I don't see how I'm going to get out of it with--with honour. Will you--if I do have to--but look here, I won't have him running me through with a sword, or anything of that sort. I'm afraid I couldn't face that. I wouldn't mind a revolver quite as much."
"The big bully!" I exclaimed. "But of course it's all rot. There can be no question of your fighting him."
"I don't know. I'd rather do that--if we could have pistols--than have him think an American--could be a coward. I'm not a coward, I hope, only--only I never thought of anything like this. He's going to send a friend of his to call on you, as a friend of mine, he said. I suppose that means a what-you-may-call-'em--a 'second,' doesn't it? If I must fight with him, Man, you will be my second, won't you, and--and act for me, if that's the right word?"
Gazing up earnestly, his eyes very big, his face pale, he looked no more than fourteen, and the idea of a duel to the death between this child and Gaetà's whirlwind would have been comic in the extreme, had I not been enraged with the whirlwind.
"I'll be your friend, and get you out of the scrape," I said. "But it will mean that you must give up the Contessa."
"Give up the Contessa!" echoed the Boy. "What do I want with the Contessa! I'm sick of the sight of her."
"Since the first day we met. I don't think she's | | 248 even pretty. What you can see in her, I don't know--the silly little giggling thing! There, it's out at last."
"What I see in her?" I repeated. "I like that."
"I always supposed you did. But I can't stand her."
"Well, of all the--Look here, why have you been hanging after her, if you--
"I didn't. I just wasn't going to let you make a fool of yourself over her, and then regret it afterwards. So I--I did my best to take her attention away from you, and I succeeded fairly well. It--vexed me to see you falling in love with her. She wasn't worth it."
"There was never the remotest chance of my doing so."
"You said there was."
"I was chaffing, just to hear myself talk. I should have thought you would know that."
"How could I know? You were always saying how pretty and dainty she was, and quoting poetry about her, while all the time I could read her shallow little mind, and see how different she was from what you imagined."
"I think I have a fairly clear idea of her limitations."
"But you told me that you'd planned to go down to Monte Carlo expressly to see the Contessa; and you said that it would perhaps be a wise thing for you to try and fall in love with her."
"If a man has to try and fall in love with a woman, he's pretty safe. You and I seem to have been playing at cross purposes, youngster. You thought I was in danger of falling in love, and I thought you were already in."| | 249
"You couldn't have believed it, really."
"I did, and supposed you wanted me out of the way."
"I was thinking the same thing about you. You did seem jealous and sulky."
"I was both; but it was because our friendship had been interfered with, Little Pal."
"Oh, Man, do you really mean that?"
"Every word of it. I wouldn't give up a talk with you for a kiss from the Contessa, of which, by the way, I'm very unlikely to have the chance. But you--"
"I've been miserable for the last few days. I--I missed you, Man."
"And I you, Boy."
"What an awful pity it is I've got to stand up and be shot, just as we're good friends again, and everything's all right!"
"You've got to do nothing of the sort. Le cher Paolo will, if he is really in earnest and not bluffing, send his friend to me, and matters will be settled, never fear."
"I don't fear. At least, I--hope I don't--much. Only I wasn't brought up to expect challenges to duels. They're not--in my line. But I won't apologise, whatever happens. No, I won't, I won't, I won't. I dare say it doesn't hurt much, being shot; and I suppose he wouldn't be so--so impolite as to shoot me in the face, would he?"
"He is not going to shoot you anywhere," said I.
"I am glad I told you. I was feeling--rather queer. What am I to do? Am I to go back to the villa as if nothing had happened, or--what?"| | 250
"'What' might mean coming to my hotel, but you seemed to find my society a bore."
"That's unkind. It was your own fault that I went to a different hotel at Châtelard."
"How do you make that out?"
I can't tell you. I don't suppose you'll ever know. But if you should guess, by-and-bye, remembering something you once said, you might understand."
"Something I once said--"
"Never mind. Please don't talk of it. I'd rather be shot at. But I want you to believe that my reason wasn't the one you thought. Now, tell me what you're going to do about Signor di Nivoli. Have you made a plan?"
"One has popped into my head," I replied. "It mayn't answer, but will you give me carte blanch to try? If it doesn't work, I'll get you out of the mess in another way. But this would give us a chance of making Paolo eat humble pie."
"Do try it, then. I'd risk a lot for that."
"As for to-night, on the whole I think the best thing will be for you to go back to the villa. Of course we mustn't let the Contessa suspect--"
"Little cat! I wouldn't give her the satisfaction."
"Upon my word, you're not very gallant."
"I don't care. I'm sick of the Contessa. A plague upon her, and all her houses. Yet, I wish her nothing worse than that she should marry Paolo. Ugh! A man with his hair en brosse!"
"Probably he is saying, 'Ugh! a boy with curls on his collar.'"
"May one of his old balloons fly away with him, before he shoots me. Anyhow, he shall find that | | 251 curls don't make a coward. Only--there's just one thing before you treat with him. I won't--I can't--be jabbed at with anything sharp."
"You shan't," said I.
With this, the Contessa beckoned from a distance, with news that she was going home. We followed, the Boy and I, allowing her to walk far ahead, with her triumphant aëronaut, the Baron and Baronessa, radiant with satisfaction in the success of their plot, arm in arm between the two couples.
Having seen my little Daniel to the gate of the Lions' Den, I shook hands cordially with everybody, Paolo last of all. He placed his fingers with haughty reluctance in my ostentatiously proffered palm, but I held the four chilly, fish-like things (chilly only for me) long enough to mutter, sotto voce: "I want a word with you on a matter of importance. I'll walk up and down the road for twenty minutes."
His impulse was to refuse, I could see by the sharp upward toss of his chin. But a certain quality in my look, clearly visible to him in the light of the gate lamp (I was at some pains to produce the effect), warned him that if his blood-thirsty plans were not to be nipped in the red bud, he must bend his will to mine in this one instance.
He answered with a glance, and I knew that I should not be kept long on my beat.
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