Chapter X: The Duel
SYME sat down at a cafe table with his companions, his blue eyes sparkling like the bright sea below, and ordered a bottle of Saumur with a pleased impatience. He was for some reason in a condition of curious hilarity. His spirits were already unnaturally high; they rose as the Saumur sank, and in half an hour his talk was a torrent of nonsense. He professed to be making out a plan of the conversation which was going to ensue between himself and the deadly Marquis. He jotted it down wildly with a pencil. It was arranged like a printed catechism, with questions and answers, and was delivered with an extraordinary rapidity of utterance.
“I shall approach. Before taking off his hat, I shall take off my own. I shall say, ‘The Marquis de Saint Eustache, I believe.’ He will say, ‘The celebrated Mr. Syme, I presume.’ He will say in the most exquisite French, ‘How are you?’ I shall reply in the most exquisite Cockney, ‘Oh, just the Syme—‘”
“Oh, shut it,” said the man in spectacles. “Pull yourself together, and chuck away that bit of paper. What are you really going to do?”
“But it was a lovely catechism,” said Syme pathetically. “Do let me read it you. It has only forty-three questions and answers, and some of the Marquis’s answers are wonderfully witty. I like to be just to my enemy.”
“But what’s the good of it all?” asked Dr. Bull in exasperation.
“It leads up to my challenge, don’t you see,” said Syme, beaming. “When the Marquis has given the thirty-ninth reply, which runs—”
“Has it by any chance occurred to you,” asked the Professor, with a ponderous simplicity, “that the Marquis may not say all the forty-three things you have put down for him? In that case, I understand, your own epigrams may appear somewhat more forced.”
Syme struck the table with a radiant face.
“Why, how true that is,” he said, “and I never thought of it. Sir, you have an intellect beyond the common. You will make a name.”
“Oh, you’re as drunk as an owl!” said the Doctor.
“It only remains,” continued Syme quite unperturbed, “to adopt some other method of breaking the ice (if I may so express it) between myself and the man I wish to kill. And since the course of a dialogue cannot be predicted by one of its parties alone (as you have pointed out with such recondite acumen), the only thing to be done, I suppose, is for the one party, as far as possible, to do all the dialogue by himself. And so I will, by George!” And he stood up suddenly, his yellow hair blowing in the slight sea breeze.
A band was playing in a cafe chantant hidden somewhere among the trees, and a woman had just stopped singing. On Syme’s heated head the bray of the brass band seemed like the jar and jingle of that barrel-organ in Leicester Square, to the tune of which he had once stood up to die. He looked across to the little table where the Marquis sat. The man had two companions now, solemn Frenchmen in frock-coats and silk hats, one of them with the red rosette of the Legion of Honour, evidently people of a solid social position. Besides these black, cylindrical costumes, the Marquis, in his loose straw hat and light spring clothes, looked Bohemian and even barbaric; but he looked the Marquis. Indeed, one might say that he looked the king, with his animal elegance, his scornful eyes, and his proud head lifted against the purple sea. But he was no Christian king, at any rate; he was, rather, some swarthy despot, half Greek, half Asiatic, who in the days when slavery seemed natural looked down on the Mediterranean, on his galley and his groaning slaves. Just so, Syme thought, would the brown-gold face of such a tyrant have shown against the dark green olives and the burning blue.
“Are you going to address the meeting?” asked the Professor peevishly, seeing that Syme still stood up without moving.
Syme drained his last glass of sparkling wine.
“I am,” he said, pointing across to the Marquis and his companions, “that meeting. That meeting displeases me. I am going to pull that meeting’s great ugly, mahogany-coloured nose.”
He stepped across swiftly, if not quite steadily. The Marquis, seeing him, arched his black Assyrian eyebrows in surprise, but smiled politely.
“You are Mr. Syme, I think,” he said.
“And you are the Marquis de Saint Eustache,” he said gracefully. “Permit me to pull your nose.”
He leant over to do so, but the Marquis started backwards, upsetting his chair, and the two men in top hats held Syme back by the shoulders.
“This man has insulted me!” said Syme, with gestures of explanation.
“Insulted you?” cried the gentleman with the red rosette, “when?”
“Oh, just now,” said Syme recklessly. “He insulted my mother.”
“Insulted your mother!” exclaimed the gentleman incredulously.
“Well, anyhow,” said Syme, conceding a point, “my aunt.”
“But how can the Marquis have insulted your aunt just now?” said the second gentleman with some legitimate wonder. “He has been sitting here all the time.”
“Ah, it was what he said!” said Syme darkly.
“I said nothing at all,” said the Marquis, “except something about the band. I only said that I liked Wagner played well.”
“It was an allusion to my family,” said Syme firmly. “My aunt played Wagner badly. It was a painful subject. We are always being insulted about it.”
“This seems most extraordinary,” said the gentleman who was decore, looking doubtfully at the Marquis.
“Oh, I assure you,” said Syme earnestly, “the whole of your conversation was simply packed with sinister allusions to my aunt’s weaknesses.”
“This is nonsense!” said the second gentleman. “I for one have said nothing for half an hour except that I liked the singing of that girl with black hair.”
“Well, there you are again!” said Syme indignantly. “My aunt’s was red.”
“It seems to me,” said the other, “that you are simply seeking a pretext to insult the Marquis.”
“By George!” said Syme, facing round and looking at him, “what a clever chap you are!”
The Marquis started up with eyes flaming like a tiger’s.
“Seeking a quarrel with me!” he cried. “Seeking a fight with me! By God! there was never a man who had to seek long. These gentlemen will perhaps act for me. There are still four hours of daylight. Let us fight this evening.”
Syme bowed with a quite beautiful graciousness.
“Marquis,” he said, “your action is worthy of your fame and blood. Permit me to consult for a moment with the gentlemen in whose hands I shall place myself.”
In three long strides he rejoined his companions, and they, who had seen his champagne-inspired attack and listened to his idiotic explanations, were quite startled at the look of him. For now that he came back to them he was quite sober, a little pale, and he spoke in a low voice of passionate practicality.
“I have done it,” he said hoarsely. “I have fixed a fight on the beast. But look here, and listen carefully. There is no time for talk. You are my seconds, and everything must come from you. Now you must insist, and insist absolutely, on the duel coming off after seven tomorrow, so as to give me the chance of preventing him from catching the 7.45 for Paris. If he misses that he misses his crime. He can’t refuse to meet you on such a small point of time and place. But this is what he will do. He will choose a field somewhere near a wayside station, where he can pick up the train. He is a very good swordsman, and he will trust to killing me in time to catch it. But I can fence well too, and I think I can keep him in play, at any rate, until the train is lost. Then perhaps he may kill me to console his feelings. You understand? Very well then, let me introduce you to some charming friends of mine,” and leading them quickly across the parade, he presented them to the Marquis’s seconds by two very aristocratic names of which they had not previously heard.
Syme was subject to spasms of singular common sense, not otherwise a part of his character. They were (as he said of his impulse about the spectacles) poetic intuitions, and they sometimes rose to the exaltation of prophecy.
He had correctly calculated in this case the policy of his opponent. When the Marquis was informed by his seconds that Syme could only fight in the morning, he must fully have realised that an obstacle had suddenly arisen between him and his bomb-throwing business in the capital. Naturally he could not explain this objection to his friends, so he chose the course which Syme had predicted. He induced his seconds to settle on a small meadow not far from the railway, and he trusted to the fatality of the first engagement.
When he came down very coolly to the field of honour, no one could have guessed that he had any anxiety about a journey; his hands were in his pockets, his straw hat on the back of his head, his handsome face brazen in the sun. But it might have struck a stranger as odd that there appeared in his train, not only his seconds carrying the sword-case, but two of his servants carrying a portmanteau and a luncheon basket.
Early as was the hour, the sun soaked everything in warmth, and Syme was vaguely surprised to see so many spring flowers burning gold and silver in the tall grass in which the whole company stood almost knee-deep.
With the exception of the Marquis, all the men were in sombre and solemn morning-dress, with hats like black chimney-pots; the little Doctor especially, with the addition of his black spectacles, looked like an undertaker in a farce. Syme could not help feeling a comic contrast between this funereal church parade of apparel and the rich and glistening meadow, growing wild flowers everywhere. But, indeed, this comic contrast between the yellow blossoms and the black hats was but a symbol of the tragic contrast between the yellow blossoms and the black business. On his right was a little wood; far away to his left lay the long curve of the railway line, which he was, so to speak, guarding from the Marquis, whose goal and escape it was. In front of him, behind the black group of his opponents, he could see, like a tinted cloud, a small almond bush in flower against the faint line of the sea.
The member of the Legion of Honour, whose name it seemed was Colonel Ducroix, approached the Professor and Dr. Bull with great politeness, and suggested that the play should terminate with the first considerable hurt.
Dr. Bull, however, having been carefully coached by Syme upon this point of policy, insisted, with great dignity and in very bad French, that it should continue until one of the combatants was disabled. Syme had made up his mind that he could avoid disabling the Marquis and prevent the Marquis from disabling him for at least twenty minutes. In twenty minutes the Paris train would have gone by.
“To a man of the well-known skill and valour of Monsieur de St. Eustache,” said the Professor solemnly, “it must be a matter of indifference which method is adopted, and our principal has strong reasons for demanding the longer encounter, reasons the delicacy of which prevent me from being explicit, but for the just and honourable nature of which I can—”
“Peste!” broke from the Marquis behind, whose face had suddenly darkened, “let us stop talking and begin,” and he slashed off the head of a tall flower with his stick.
Syme understood his rude impatience and instinctively looked over his shoulder to see whether the train was coming in sight. But there was no smoke on the horizon.
Colonel Ducroix knelt down and unlocked the case, taking out a pair of twin swords, which took the sunlight and turned to two streaks of white fire. He offered one to the Marquis, who snatched it without ceremony, and another to Syme, who took it, bent it, and poised it with as much delay as was consistent with dignity.
Then the Colonel took out another pair of blades, and taking one himself and giving another to Dr. Bull, proceeded to place the men.
Both combatants had thrown off their coats and waistcoats, and stood sword in hand. The seconds stood on each side of the line of fight with drawn swords also, but still sombre in their dark frock-coats and hats. The principals saluted. The Colonel said quietly, “Engage!” and the two blades touched and tingled.
When the jar of the joined iron ran up Syme’s arm, all the fantastic fears that have been the subject of this story fell from him like dreams from a man waking up in bed. He remembered them clearly and in order as mere delusions of the nerves—how the fear of the Professor had been the fear of the tyrannic accidents of nightmare, and how the fear of the Doctor had been the fear of the airless vacuum of science. The first was the old fear that any miracle might happen, the second the more hopeless modern fear that no miracle can ever happen. But he saw that these fears were fancies, for he found himself in the presence of the great fact of the fear of death, with its coarse and pitiless common sense. He felt like a man who had dreamed all night of falling over precipices, and had woke up on the morning when he was to be hanged. For as soon as he had seen the sunlight run down the channel of his foe’s foreshortened blade, and as soon as he had felt the two tongues of steel touch, vibrating like two living things, he knew that his enemy was a terrible fighter, and that probably his last hour had come.
He felt a strange and vivid value in all the earth around him, in the grass under his feet; he felt the love of life in all living things. He could almost fancy that he heard the grass growing; he could almost fancy that even as he stood fresh flowers were springing up and breaking into blossom in the meadow—flowers blood red and burning gold and blue, fulfilling the whole pageant of the spring. And whenever his eyes strayed for a flash from the calm, staring, hypnotic eyes of the Marquis, they saw the little tuft of almond tree against the sky-line. He had the feeling that if by some miracle he escaped he would be ready to sit for ever before that almond tree, desiring nothing else in the world.
But while earth and sky and everything had the living beauty of a thing lost, the other half of his head was as clear as glass, and he was parrying his enemy’s point with a kind of clockwork skill of which he had hardly supposed himself capable. Once his enemy’s point ran along his wrist, leaving a slight streak of blood, but it either was not noticed or was tacitly ignored. Every now and then he riposted, and once or twice he could almost fancy that he felt his point go home, but as there was no blood on blade or shirt he supposed he was mistaken. Then came an interruption and a change.
At the risk of losing all, the Marquis, interrupting his quiet stare, flashed one glance over his shoulder at the line of railway on his right. Then he turned on Syme a face transfigured to that of a fiend, and began to fight as if with twenty weapons. The attack came so fast and furious, that the one shining sword seemed a shower of shining arrows. Syme had no chance to look at the railway; but also he had no need. He could guess the reason of the Marquis’s sudden madness of battle—the Paris train was in sight.
But the Marquis’s morbid energy over-reached itself. Twice Syme, parrying, knocked his opponent’s point far out of the fighting circle; and the third time his riposte was so rapid, that there was no doubt about the hit this time. Syme’s sword actually bent under the weight of the Marquis’s body, which it had pierced.
Syme was as certain that he had stuck his blade into his enemy as a gardener that he has stuck his spade into the ground. Yet the Marquis sprang back from the stroke without a stagger, and Syme stood staring at his own sword-point like an idiot. There was no blood on it at all.
There was an instant of rigid silence, and then Syme in his turn fell furiously on the other, filled with a flaming curiosity. The Marquis was probably, in a general sense, a better fencer than he, as he had surmised at the beginning, but at the moment the Marquis seemed distraught and at a disadvantage. He fought wildly and even weakly, and he constantly looked away at the railway line, almost as if he feared the train more than the pointed steel. Syme, on the other hand, fought fiercely but still carefully, in an intellectual fury, eager to solve the riddle of his own bloodless sword. For this purpose, he aimed less at the Marquis’s body, and more at his throat and head. A minute and a half afterwards he felt his point enter the man’s neck below the jaw. It came out clean. Half mad, he thrust again, and made what should have been a bloody scar on the Marquis’s cheek. But there was no scar.
For one moment the heaven of Syme again grew black with supernatural terrors. Surely the man had a charmed life. But this new spiritual dread was a more awful thing than had been the mere spiritual topsy-turvydom symbolised by the paralytic who pursued him. The Professor was only a goblin; this man was a devil—perhaps he was the Devil! Anyhow, this was certain, that three times had a human sword been driven into him and made no mark. When Syme had that thought he drew himself up, and all that was good in him sang high up in the air as a high wind sings in the trees. He thought of all the human things in his story—of the Chinese lanterns in Saffron Park, of the girl’s red hair in the garden, of the honest, beer-swilling sailors down by the dock, of his loyal companions standing by. Perhaps he had been chosen as a champion of all these fresh and kindly things to cross swords with the enemy of all creation. “After all,” he said to himself, “I am more than a devil; I am a man. I can do the one thing which Satan himself cannot do—I can die,” and as the word went through his head, he heard a faint and far-off hoot, which would soon be the roar of the Paris train.
He fell to fighting again with a supernatural levity, like a Mohammedan panting for Paradise. As the train came nearer and nearer he fancied he could see people putting up the floral arches in Paris; he joined in the growing noise and the glory of the great Republic whose gate he was guarding against Hell. His thoughts rose higher and higher with the rising roar of the train, which ended, as if proudly, in a long and piercing whistle. The train stopped.
Suddenly, to the astonishment of everyone the Marquis sprang back quite out of sword reach and threw down his sword. The leap was wonderful, and not the less wonderful because Syme had plunged his sword a moment before into the man’s thigh.
“Stop!” said the Marquis in a voice that compelled a momentary obedience. “I want to say something.”
“What is the matter?” asked Colonel Ducroix, staring. “Has there been foul play?”
“There has been foul play somewhere,” said Dr. Bull, who was a little pale. “Our principal has wounded the Marquis four times at least, and he is none the worse.”
The Marquis put up his hand with a curious air of ghastly patience.
“Please let me speak,” he said. “It is rather important. Mr. Syme,” he continued, turning to his opponent, “we are fighting today, if I remember right, because you expressed a wish (which I thought irrational) to pull my nose. Would you oblige me by pulling my nose now as quickly as possible? I have to catch a train.”
“I protest that this is most irregular,” said Dr. Bull indignantly.
“It is certainly somewhat opposed to precedent,” said Colonel Ducroix, looking wistfully at his principal. “There is, I think, one case on record (Captain Bellegarde and the Baron Zumpt) in which the weapons were changed in the middle of the encounter at the request of one of the combatants. But one can hardly call one’s nose a weapon.”
“Will you or will you not pull my nose?” said the Marquis in exasperation. “Come, come, Mr. Syme! You wanted to do it, do it! You can have no conception of how important it is to me. Don’t be so selfish! Pull my nose at once, when I ask you!” and he bent slightly forward with a fascinating smile. The Paris train, panting and groaning, had grated into a little station behind the neighbouring hill.
Syme had the feeling he had more than once had in these adventures—the sense that a horrible and sublime wave lifted to heaven was just toppling over. Walking in a world he half understood, he took two paces forward and seized the Roman nose of this remarkable nobleman. He pulled it hard, and it came off in his hand.
He stood for some seconds with a foolish solemnity, with the pasteboard proboscis still between his fingers, looking at it, while the sun and the clouds and the wooded hills looked down upon this imbecile scene.
The Marquis broke the silence in a loud and cheerful voice.
“If anyone has any use for my left eyebrow,” he said, “he can have it. Colonel Ducroix, do accept my left eyebrow! It’s the kind of thing that might come in useful any day,” and he gravely tore off one of his swarthy Assyrian brows, bringing about half his brown forehead with it, and politely offered it to the Colonel, who stood crimson and speechless with rage.
“If I had known,” he spluttered, “that I was acting for a poltroon who pads himself to fight—”
“Oh, I know, I know!” said the Marquis, recklessly throwing various parts of himself right and left about the field. “You are making a mistake; but it can’t be explained just now. I tell you the train has come into the station!”
“Yes,” said Dr. Bull fiercely, “and the train shall go out of the station. It shall go out without you. We know well enough for what devil’s work—”
The mysterious Marquis lifted his hands with a desperate gesture. He was a strange scarecrow standing there in the sun with half his old face peeled off, and half another face glaring and grinning from underneath.
“Will you drive me mad?” he cried. “The train—”
“You shall not go by the train,” said Syme firmly, and grasped his sword.
The wild figure turned towards Syme, and seemed to be gathering itself for a sublime effort before speaking.
“You great fat, blasted, blear-eyed, blundering, thundering, brainless, Godforsaken, doddering, damned fool!” he said without taking breath. “You great silly, pink-faced, towheaded turnip! You—”
“You shall not go by this train,” repeated Syme.
“And why the infernal blazes,” roared the other, “should I want to go by the train?”
“We know all,” said the Professor sternly. “You are going to Paris to throw a bomb!”
“Going to Jericho to throw a Jabberwock!” cried the other, tearing his hair, which came off easily.
“Have you all got softening of the brain, that you don’t realise what I am? Did you really think I wanted to catch that train? Twenty Paris trains might go by for me. Damn Paris trains!”
“Then what did you care about?” began the Professor.
“What did I care about? I didn’t care about catching the train; I cared about whether the train caught me, and now, by God! it has caught me.”
“I regret to inform you,” said Syme with restraint, “that your remarks convey no impression to my mind. Perhaps if you were to remove the remains of your original forehead and some portion of what was once your chin, your meaning would become clearer. Mental lucidity fulfils itself in many ways. What do you mean by saying that the train has caught you? It may be my literary fancy, but somehow I feel that it ought to mean something.”
“It means everything,” said the other, “and the end of everything. Sunday has us now in the hollow of his hand.”
“Us!” repeated the Professor, as if stupefied. “What do you mean by ‘us’?”
“The police, of course!” said the Marquis, and tore off his scalp and half his face.
The head which emerged was the blonde, well brushed, smooth-haired head which is common in the English constabulary, but the face was terribly pale.
“I am Inspector Ratcliffe,” he said, with a sort of haste that verged on harshness. “My name is pretty well known to the police, and I can see well enough that you belong to them. But if there is any doubt about my position, I have a card,” and he began to pull a blue card from his pocket.
The Professor gave a tired gesture.
“Oh, don’t show it us,” he said wearily; “we’ve got enough of them to equip a paper-chase.”
The little man named Bull, had, like many men who seem to be of a mere vivacious vulgarity, sudden movements of good taste. Here he certainly saved the situation. In the midst of this staggering transformation scene he stepped forward with all the gravity and responsibility of a second, and addressed the two seconds of the Marquis.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “we all owe you a serious apology; but I assure you that you have not been made the victims of such a low joke as you imagine, or indeed of anything undignified in a man of honour. You have not wasted your time; you have helped to save the world. We are not buffoons, but very desperate men at war with a vast conspiracy. A secret society of anarchists is hunting us like hares; not such unfortunate madmen as may here or there throw a bomb through starvation or German philosophy, but a rich and powerful and fanatical church, a church of eastern pessimism, which holds it holy to destroy mankind like vermin. How hard they hunt us you can gather from the fact that we are driven to such disguises as those for which I apologise, and to such pranks as this one by which you suffer.”
The younger second of the Marquis, a short man with a black moustache, bowed politely, and said—
“Of course, I accept the apology; but you will in your turn forgive me if I decline to follow you further into your difficulties, and permit myself to say good morning! The sight of an acquaintance and distinguished fellow-townsman coming to pieces in the open air is unusual, and, upon the whole, sufficient for one day. Colonel Ducroix, I would in no way influence your actions, but if you feel with me that our present society is a little abnormal, I am now going to walk back to the town.”
Colonel Ducroix moved mechanically, but then tugged abruptly at his white moustache and broke out—
“No, by George! I won’t. If these gentlemen are really in a mess with a lot of low wreckers like that, I’ll see them through it. I have fought for France, and it is hard if I can’t fight for civilization.”
Dr. Bull took off his hat and waved it, cheering as at a public meeting.
“Don’t make too much noise,” said Inspector Ratcliffe, “Sunday may hear you.”
“Sunday!” cried Bull, and dropped his hat.
“Yes,” retorted Ratcliffe, “he may be with them.”
“With whom?” asked Syme.
“With the people out of that train,” said the other.
“What you say seems utterly wild,” began Syme. “Why, as a matter of fact—But, my God,” he cried out suddenly, like a man who sees an explosion a long way off, “by God! if this is true the whole bally lot of us on the Anarchist Council were against anarchy! Every born man was a detective except the President and his personal secretary. What can it mean?”
“Mean!” said the new policeman with incredible violence. “It means that we are struck dead! Don’t you know Sunday? Don’t you know that his jokes are always so big and simple that one has never thought of them? Can you think of anything more like Sunday than this, that he should put all his powerful enemies on the Supreme Council, and then take care that it was not supreme? I tell you he has bought every trust, he has captured every cable, he has control of every railway line—especially of that railway line!” and he pointed a shaking finger towards the small wayside station. “The whole movement was controlled by him; half the world was ready to rise for him. But there were just five people, perhaps, who would have resisted him... and the old devil put them on the Supreme Council, to waste their time in watching each other. Idiots that we are, he planned the whole of our idiocies! Sunday knew that the Professor would chase Syme through London, and that Syme would fight me in France. And he was combining great masses of capital, and seizing great lines of telegraphy, while we five idiots were running after each other like a lot of confounded babies playing blind man’s buff.”
“Well?” asked Syme with a sort of steadiness.
“Well,” replied the other with sudden serenity, “he has found us playing blind man’s buff today in a field of great rustic beauty and extreme solitude. He has probably captured the world; it only remains to him to capture this field and all the fools in it. And since you really want to know what was my objection to the arrival of that train, I will tell you. My objection was that Sunday or his Secretary has just this moment got out of it.”
Syme uttered an involuntary cry, and they all turned their eyes towards the far-off station. It was quite true that a considerable bulk of people seemed to be moving in their direction. But they were too distant to be distinguished in any way.
“It was a habit of the late Marquis de St. Eustache,” said the new policeman, producing a leather case, “always to carry a pair of opera glasses. Either the President or the Secretary is coming after us with that mob. They have caught us in a nice quiet place where we are under no temptations to break our oaths by calling the police. Dr. Bull, I have a suspicion that you will see better through these than through your own highly decorative spectacles.”
He handed the field-glasses to the Doctor, who immediately took off his spectacles and put the apparatus to his eyes.
“It cannot be as bad as you say,” said the Professor, somewhat shaken. “There are a good number of them certainly, but they may easily be ordinary tourists.”
“Do ordinary tourists,” asked Bull, with the fieldglasses to his eyes, “wear black masks half-way down the face?”
Syme almost tore the glasses out of his hand, and looked through them. Most men in the advancing mob really looked ordinary enough; but it was quite true that two or three of the leaders in front wore black half-masks almost down to their mouths. This disguise is very complete, especially at such a distance, and Syme found it impossible to conclude anything from the clean-shaven jaws and chins of the men talking in the front. But presently as they talked they all smiled and one of them smiled on one side.