A Question of Honour
Duelling had become so bothersome recently, such a hazard to life and threat to public order, that the regiment had been obliged to take measures. The captain was firm. Anyone found duelling without explicit permission risked a cashiering. There was general muttering about this when the men gathered in their usual drinking den that evening. It was no business of the regiment to interfere in a chap's private business like this. So high-handed. So petty. But it was the racing that night, and several of the men had bets on. So talk turned to more enjoyable matters—horseflesh, drink, and, inevitably, women.
"Do you know young Miss Henderby has taken up with Jackson?" said Mitchell after his fifth whiskey.
Morgan kept his head down. He had a horrible feeling his opinion about Miss Henderby's relationship with Jackson was showing in his eyes.
"Which one's Miss Henderby?" said Russel vaguely, shuffling the card deck. "You in, Morgan?"
Morgan nodded. He had won quite a lot of money on the horses and in the beer-fuelled warmth there seemed little more logical than throwing half of it away on cards.
"That connection of the Allertons," said Mitchell. "Niece, or whatever she is."
"Oh, that blue-eyed girl with the dowdy bonnet. I didn't know she had a beau."
Morgan didn't think. It was a whiskey-fuelled throwaway remark, but he was on his feet before he knew what he was doing, and lashed Russel in the face with his riding glove.
Russel blinked. The whiskey fug cleared out of his brain and he kicked back his chair and glared at Morgan.
"What is it to you?" His voice was icy.
"I happen," Morgan fought to keep his voice under control, "to be rather fond of Miss Henderson".
"I see." He did, of course. There was no question of his not seeing. If Morgan had declared himself in the privacy of his own mind the adoring servant of the wholly ignorant and uncaring Miss Henderby, he must defend her. And he, Russel, must avenge being slapped in the face with a glove. "Time. Place. Weapons."
Morgan inhaled. He was horribly aware that the room had gone very quiet. Mitchell, Taylor, Wright and everyone else round the table was staring at him. He ignored them and looked straight at Russel. "Tomorrow morning at five." Why wait? "Down by the river." Where they wouldn't be disturbed. "Sabres." He was confident with a sabre, but not so much better than Russel that it would be unfair.
"Morgan…" Taylor took hold of his elbow. "Morgan…" pleadingly.
Morgan didn't want to listen. He knew the things which Taylor would say, because they were the things every friend says before a duel. Mostly pleading with him to back out.
There was no point hanging round here. Taylor was his second, that went without saying, Russel could take care of his own arrangements, and he didn't want to sit there all night, listen to the others gossip. They could exchange stories of Duelling Deaths Gone By quite well without him.
He stalked outside, Taylor trotting after him, and took long gulps of cool night air. He was sweating.
"Morgan…" God, the soothing tone was grating. In a minute he'd punch Taylor, and then he'd have two duels to fight.
"Shut up," he hissed.
"Morgan, I suppose it's completely pointless of me to tell you not to do this-"
"You know it is. There's no redress for a blow."
"I know. I suppose you're going to ask me to be your second?"
"Where are you going?"
"Home. I need a drink." His head was pounding. "And I should probably get some sleep. I'm fighting a duel in…" He peered at his watch. "Six hours."
Ten minutes later they were back in Morgan's quarters. He eased off his boots, poured them both drinks and collapsed on his cot.
"Have you thought about what you're going to do afterwards?" Taylor knocked back his drink and held out his glass for a re-fill. "Assuming you live, of course."
"What do you mean, "do"?"
"When you're cashiered. Cast adrift. Penniless. A whaling ship? A travelling circus?"
"Do you think he'd really…?"
Taylor snorted. "Do you really have any doubts? He's called the dragon for a reason."
"Don't know. Go abroad, I suppose. Seek my fortune."
"I thought you'd come to the army to seek your fortune?"
Morgan shrugged. His future career was of limited interest when his future life was hanging in the balance. He looked out of the narrow, glassless window at the night sky. He wasn't afraid to die, but that didn't mean he relished the prospect. His increasing concern, however, was realising that Taylor would probably be held up to ruin and disgrace along with him.
"Er…" he began. "About seconds."
"I've already agreed to be your second."
"Oh, shut up." Taylor grinned and helped himself to more booze.
The local Duke was as proud as he was pious. And when rumour of the local goings-on reached his ears, as they inevitably did, he was not pleased. He was not in a good mood to begin with. It was one in the morning, and he was still not close to going to bed. He was going through tax forms—a difficult operation when most of the population are small-holders or tenant farmers, and can be very ambiguous when it suits them about whether they own a particular cow or merely herd it.
"What's this?" he demanded of the sheriff.
"It's the usual story. Some girl."
"The world is full of girls. These young fellows need to cool their heads and get a grip on reality."
"The age of Sir Lancelot is passed. Young ladies, these days, do not require champions."
"It's a foolish habit, sheriff. Blood-thirsty, vindictive, ungodly. Why can't they take it to court?"
"Perhaps they can't afford to?"
"Don't they read their Bible? Thou shalt forgive they enemies and all that business?"
"I don't think that's meant to mean suing him in the law courts."
"You're not a theologian, sheriff."
"No, sir." It was not often that the sheriff ventured an opinion in the Duke's presence.
"I refuse to endure these… ruffians, sheriff. It's not the Middle Ages any more. We can't go around stabbing each other like savages."
The Duke made a decision. "Issue an edict, sheriff. Issue it at once. Anyone surviving a duel will be hanged. Let the young gentlemen think on that. See if it cools their ardour."
The sheriff found a scroll and a candle and set to work at once.
Morgan didn't sleep, that night. He lay awake thinking about Miss Henderby and trying not to think about how Taylor, who was sound asleep, was digging his elbow into his stomach. At four 'o' clock someone knocked on the door.
The first lieutenant entered. "Captain wants to see you." He glared at Taylor. "At once."
"Wake up," hissed Morgan. "Wake up now."
Taylor was awake instantly, uncurling himself. "Morning," he said to the lieutenant.
"Good morning. I hope you're well." He dropped the professional manner for a moment. "I would not be in your boots right now. You're in deep shit."
Morgan collected his sabre, and Taylor collected the remains of the whiskey, and they followed him to the captain.
The captain was glaring. Not flushed and spluttering, which meant a thorough dressing-down but a brief one, but pale with a clenched jaw, which meant business.
Russel was looking out of the window, unconcerned and, if anything, faintly bored.
"Good morning, gentlemen."
"Morning, sir." Morgan was pleased with how cheerful he sounded.
"I'll get to the point. You deliberately, despite explicit warnings of the consequences, embroil yourselves in a sabre duel. You have no respect for army discipline, no interest in your careers and no concern for the law of the land."
Morgan let the words wash over him and ignored them. He had been expecting it. He would have liked to leave the regiment, which he was rather fond of, and the captain, whom he was despite everything also fond of, after many years of honourable service, rather than thrown out on the ear, but the demands of honour must be met. He had given his heart to Miss Henderby. He could not hear her be insulted.
"The law of the land, gentlemen, has decided to make itself felt. The penalty for anyone surviving a duel is to be hanged. It seems that the Duke has grown as tired as I am of these petty quarrels."
The words echoed round Morgan's brain. Hanged. It was certain death, then, now. Run through or dangling from a scaffold. He tried to keep his face expressionless. Russel raised one eyebrow.
"I suggest, gentlemen, that you think seriously about what you're doing."
There was nothing to think about. Looking at Russel, he knew that he felt the same way. Of course they had to fight. He felt briefly affectionate towards Russel. They both understood it had to be this way whatever the captain said about discipline, and whatever the Duke did to them afterwards.
Which wasn't to say it didn't hurt. Taking a gamble, however bad the odds, is one thing. Facing certain death is another. His stomach seemed to have fallen out of him, and his heart was hammering like a trapped parrot at the inside of his skull. But there was no question of what to say, even if his mouth was nearly too dry to say it.
"Sir, I thought about it all night. I have no further thinking to do."
Russel shrugged. "Consequences be damned." And he went back to staring out of the window.
The captain opened his mouth, to say something vicious, no doubt, then closed it again. "Gentlemen, I'm fond of you. Both of you. And I'm fond of this regiment. I don't want to see our name dragged through the mud. Have you thought of the head-lines if one of you were to be hanged, like a common murderer?"
"Sir," said Morgan. "I can't think of head-lines, even of the regiment, when Miss Henderby…" He flushed. He couldn't bear to explain his deepest feelings for Miss Henderby to the captain.
"God rot you then!" snapped the captain, in his best parade-ground manner. "Dismissed!" he added, when they hesitated. "Oh, and Mr Taylor, I want you out by sun-down."
The parade-ground was full of gawpers, the meadow by the river fuller. Gossip had done its work.
A gang of the Duke's men huddled under the oak tree on the river bank, and Morgan noticed their warrant without even caring. He had already accepted he was going to die.
Russel's second was waiting by the river. He had bags under his eyes and was scowling. It seemed as if Taylor was the only person who had slept last night.
There was just enough in the whiskey bottle for all four of them to have a sip.
The regimental chaplain detached himself from the onlookers and inserted himself between the combatants.
"What's up?" said Morgan. "I don't need last rights." He glanced at the Duke's men with the warrant. "Yet."
"Gentlemen, in light of how grave the consequences of proceeding with your quarrel are likely to be, is there no possibility of reconciliation?"
Morgan felt a sudden rush of anger against these people, the meddlesome busy-bodies who made it their business how other fellows conducted their affairs. "Did the dragon send you? Because I'd love to know what he thinks you can threaten me with. I've had cashiering, I've had hanging, go on, do better than that."
"I'm not here to threaten, son, but to reason. You know, as you have pointed out, the consequences. Is your animosity really worth your life?"
Morgan's anger melted. The poor man was only doing his job. But that didn't mean he, Morgan, wanted to listen to this lecture right now.
"Mr Russel and I are settling a perfectly private dispute. It does not need-" surveying the assembled onlookers "to become the social event of the season, and respectfully, it's none of your business whatsoever".
Russel piped up. "This is the only way to settle our differences. If one of us has to die…" he glanced at the Duke's men. "If we both have to die, then so be it. I'd rather die than live with my insults unavenged."
"The Lord tells us not to seek vengeance, child, but to forgive our enemies."
"And if I need vengeance?" said Morgan quietly. "What should I care for what the Lord tells us to do?"
The chaplain looked shocked. "The Lord will save-"
"I know what He promises." The wind was very cold off the river. "And I would rather duel—and feud and revenge myself—and be damned like a man than crawl around like a sheep and sit at the Lord's right hand."
The chaplain looked despairingly from one to the other. "Then, there is no hope of forgiveness?"
Russel looked up from glaring at the ground. "I'll forgive him, all right" he said calmly. "Forgive his dead corpse or with my last breath."
The chaplain sighed, shrugged and stared out over the river.
"Well." Taylor cleared his throat. "Good luck, and…" he looked at the Duke's men. "Not that it'll do you much good."
"Of course it does. It's the duel that counts, not what happens afterwards."
"Good luck, then, and… so long."
They shook hands.
One of the drummer boys announced he was refereeing. "It's all right. I'll get a place as cabin boy on a whaler. Always wanted to go to sea."
Morgan and Russel bowed, and arranged themselves in the correct posture. Morgan was completely calm. He wasn't afraid, for he knew that, win or lose, he was going to die. He felt only calm, cool determination to win.
Morgan adjusted his grip on his sword.
He lunged. Years of training and calm, mathematical precision. With just as many years of training, Russel knocked his blade aside and slashed him across the shoulder. He noticed the pain vaguely. He lunged again. Block. Counter-lunge. Faster and faster. Calm, ruthless, killing strokes. For what felt like years, but must have been a minute or maybe two. Morgan could see Russel tiring and supposed he was, too, but he didn't think about it. He just thought about winning. He wasn't faster or stronger than Russel, he'd have to make him make a mistake. He gripped his foil tighter, took a deep breath and lunged side-ways. Russel smashed his blade down triumphantly on his arm. He dodged, and had he been any slower, Russel's blade would have driven through his heart. As it was, his blade slashed Russel's arm to the bone and the point pierced his throat. He gurgled, spurted blood from his wounded neck, and fell dead.
Morgan wiped his blade reflexively. Then his wounded arm seized up and the pain burned. He bore no more grudge against Russel. The matter was settled.
He didn't care what happened now. Barely noticed the Duke's men pinion his arms to his side. He let himself be led away.
As soon as he was let into his dungeon he slept, and slept until sun-down. Nobody came to visit him. He supposed they weren't allowed to. But he had said goodbye to Taylor, who was the only person he had really needed to say goodbye to. The only thing which troubled him in his final hours was costing Taylor his career.
He was glad that Miss Henderby was going to marry Jackson. He was a good man, and would look after her as she deserved. And if he didn't… well, he would have the ghost of Jim Morgan to deal with. Anything else? he wondered as he sat in his cell in chains. No, nothing else. No regrets or discontents. Life well lived.
As the sun rose again, he stretched out on the floor and smiled and for a moment nearly went back to sleep. He was interrupted by the hang-man, who was unused to being kept waiting. He was chivvied, in such a blur as he barely had time to notice, out of his cell, out of the castle and up the ladder onto the gallows. The only audience for his final moments appeared to be a herd of cows.
"Mooo!" said one.
"Mooo to you too!"
"Excuse me!" said the prison chaplain—not the army chaplain—who was unused to being "moo"d at by prisoners.
Morgan ignored him. He ignored everyone. He had nothing to say anymore. He was vaguely aware that he was being asked to repent of his sins, but he didn't bother to answer.
"Do you?" The irritating twittering.
"No!" he snapped, without looking at the man. "Now, get on with it."
A long pause, while the gallows creaked in the wind and the cows made bovine digestive noises among themselves. Then the long drop. Then oblivion.