- CHAPTER XXII An American Custom
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An American Custom
"Oh, have it your own way; I am too old a hand to argue with young gentlemen, . . . I have too much experience, thank you."—R. L. STEVENSON.
FIVE minutes, ten minutes passed, after the farewells. Then, as I sauntered by on the other side of the way, I heard the sound of a foot on gravel, and Paolo di Nivoli appeared under the gate light. There he paused, expecting me to cross to him, but I allotted him the part of Mahomet and selected for myself that of the Mountain. Shrugging his square shoulders, he came striding over the road to me; and I had scored one small victory. I hoped that I might take it for an omen.
"I do not understand the nature of this appointment, Monsieur," began the Italian. "I intended to send my friend Captain de Sales to you to--"
"Ah, yes, that is the Continental way in these little affairs," I ventured to interrupt him coolly. "On our side of the Channel we are rather ignorant on such matters, I fear. But my young friend Mr.Laurence is an American."
"Do you mean that he will refuse to fight, after insulting me?" asked Paolo, bristling.
"Not at all. He is very young, and this will be his first duel. He may have misunderstood your intentions. But I gathered from him that you had | | 253 said he would have to fight; that you then requested him to name a friend to whom you could send a friend of yours--"
"This is the fact. There was no misunderstanding. He named you."
"Yes; but as I said, he is an American."
"What of that, since he will fight?"
"As a duellist yourself, no doubt a successful one, you must be aware that such matters are conducted differently in the States."
"I know nothing of that. I know only our own ways, which are good enough for me."
"But my friend, being the challenged party, has the right, I believe, to choose the manner of duel."
"That will be arranged between you and my friend, according to the choice of Mr. Laurence."
"I must ask you to go slowly, just at this point. In the States, it is against the duelling code to have the details arranged by the friends of the principals. It is the principals themselves who do all that, and for the best of reasons. But as Mr. Laurence is a boy, and you are a man, it is but right that I should speak with you for him. You needn't send Captain de Sales to me. We are man to man, and in ten minutes we can have everything settled with fairness to both parties."
"This is a new idea, Monsieur, and I confess it does not commend itself to me," said Paolo.
"I suppose, however, you are anxious to fight?"
"Sacré bleu, but yes. The little jackanapes called me a donkey, and he had the impudence to allude to my invention as a 'balloon,' adding that there was little to choose between it and my head. Ciel! Do I wish to fight?"| | 254
"Then, as you must grant him the privileges of the challenged party, I fear there is only one way of carrying this thing through. He is patriotic to a fault, and he will fight in the American fashion or not at all. I must say this is to the credit of his courage, as there is to me, an Englishman, something appalling about the method. I trust that I'm not a coward, yet it would take all my nerve to face such an ordeal. No doubt, however, with the fiery Latin races it is different."
"I shall be glad of your explanation, Monsieur. What is this method of which you speak?"
"There are several small variations; there are the bits of paper; there are the matches; there are the beans of different size."
"I am more in the dark than ever."
"My friend proposes the bits of paper. Two are taken, exactly resembling each other, except in length. Both are placed inside a book, with an end, say an inch long, sticking out. You and Mr. Laurence draw simultaneously, that there can be no question of cheating. The one who draws the long bit lives--the other stands up to be shot, without defending himself."
"Mon Dieu, how horrible! I would never submit to such a barbarous test. That is not a duel, it is murder."
I shrugged my shoulders as gracefully, I flatter myself, as Paolo himself could have done it. But for the moment Paolo was in no shoulder-shrugging mood. His very crest--it seemed to me--was drooping.
"Nevertheless," said I, "that is the American idea of a duel, as practised in the best society. My friend is a member of the Four Hundred, and | | 255 should it become known that he had been killed in an old-fashioned, butcherly duel, his memory would be disgraced."
"But what about my memory?" demanded Paolo, with open palms. "Monsieur does not appear to think of that."
"It was not on my mind. I am acting for my friend. You have challenged a boy, a mere child, to fight you to the death. He very pluckily accepts your challenge. There are those who would think that you had done a brutal, even a cowardly thing, in putting a youth of seventeen or eighteen into such a position. Then, surely your most lenient friends would say that the least you could do would be to give the child his right of choice in weapons. Very well; he chooses two bits of paper of different lengths."
Paolo shuddered, "I will not consent," he said, swallowing hard, after a moment's reflection.
"Very well. You have had my friend's ultimatum. Am I to tell him that this is yours?"
"It is not fair!" he exclaimed. "Monsieur Laurence has his friend to act for him. As yet, I have no one."
"He is eighteen at most. You are--perhaps thirty. Still, if you insist, I will see Captain de Sales, tell him my principal's idea, and perhaps he will be more fortunate in inducing you to consent--"
"No, no," cried the Italian quickly. "I would not have him or anyone know of this monstrous proposal. I should never hear the end of it, and there would be a thousand versions of the story."
I was not surprised at this decision on his part. Indeed, I had expected it with confidence.| | 256
"You will not reconsider?" I asked non-chalantly.
"Jamais de la vie!"
"Then the duel is off."
I smiled; but he did not see the smile. I was careful that he should not.
"I consider that you and your principal have taken an unfair advantage."
"That is between you and me. If you care to raise the question--"
"I have no quarrel with you."
"Then you and Mr. Laurence must treat the misunderstanding of this evening as if it had not been. This will not be difficult, as he will go with me on an excursion to-morrow, now that his--er--engagement with you is off; and the day after, he and I think of leaving Aix altogether, by way of Mont Revard."
This plan arranged itself spontaneously; but as the Boy had ungallantly called Gaetà "a little cat," and I was slightly blasé of her dimples, I thought that I might count upon its being carried out.
"What--he will go away? " exclaimed Paolo, all at once a different man. "He will leave Aix altogether, you say?"
"Yes. You see, we are on our way south. Mr.Laurence merely wanted a glance at Aix en route, and the Contessa was kind enough to invite him to her house. It was really nice of her, as he is such a boy."
"You think so? Yes--perhaps. Well, I consent on these terms to forget. You may tell your principal what I have said."| | 257
"I will," I returned. "He will be guided by me, and forget also; though I assure you, like most of his countrymen, he is a fire-eater--a fire-eater."
This time it was Paolo who volunteered to shake hands.
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