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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Black Robe - Before The Story - Chapter 5
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The Black Robe - Before The Story - Chapter 5 Post by :Priscilla Category :Long Stories Author :Wilkie Collins Date :May 2012 Read :3173

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The Black Robe - Before The Story - Chapter 5

BEFORE THE STORY
CHAPTER V

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. I placed him sidewise, in a position which in some degree lessened his danger, by lessening the surface exposed to the bullet. My French colleague put the pistol into his hand, and gave him the last word of advice. "Let your arm hang loosely down, with the barrel of the pistol pointing straight to the ground. When you hear the signal, only lift your arm as far as the elbow; keep the elbow pressed against your side--and fire." We could do no more for him. As we drew aside--I own it--my tongue was like a cinder in my mouth, and a horrid inner cold crept through me to the marrow of my bones.

The signal was given, and the two shots were fired at the same time.

My first look was at Romayne. He took off his hat, and handed it to me with a smile. His adversary's bullet had cut a piece out of the brim of his hat, on the right side. He had literally escaped by a hair-breadth.

While I was congratulating him, the fog gathered again more thickly than ever. Looking anxiously toward the ground occupied by our adversaries, we could only see vague, shadowy forms hurriedly crossing and recrossing each other in the mist. Something had happened! My French colleague took my arm and pressed it significantly. "Leave _me to inquire," he said. Romayne tried to follow; I held him back--we neither of us exchanged a word.

The fog thickened and thickened, until nothing was to be seen. Once we heard the surgeon's voice, calling impatiently for a light to help him. No light appeared that _we could see. Dreary as the fog itself, the silence gathered round us again. On a sudden it was broken, horribly broken, by another voice, strange to both of us, shrieking hysterically through the impenetrable mist. "Where is he?" the voice cried, in the French language. "Assassin! Assassin! where are you?" Was it a woman? or was it a boy? We heard nothing more. The effect upon Romayne was terrible to see. He who had calmly confronted the weapon lifted to kill him, shuddered dumbly like a terror-stricken animal. I put my arm round him, and hurried him away from the place.

We waited at the hotel until our French friend joined us. After a brief interval he appeared, announcing that the surgeon would follow him.

The duel had ended fatally. The chance course of the bullet, urged by Romayne's unpracticed hand, had struck the General's son just above the right nostril--had penetrated to the back of his neck--and had communicated a fatal shock to the spinal marrow. He was a dead man before they could take him back to his father's house.

So far, our fears were confirmed. But there was something else to tell, for which our worst presentiments had not prepared us.

A younger brother of the fallen man (a boy of thirteen years old) had secretly followed the dueling party, on their way from his father's house--had hidden himself--and had seen the dreadful end. The seconds only knew of it when he burst out of his place of concealment, and fell on his knees by his dying brother's side. His were the frightful cries which we had heard from invisible lips. The slayer of his brother was the "assassin" whom he had vainly tried to discover through the fathomless obscurity of the mist.

We both looked at Romayne. He silently looked back at us, like a man turned to stone. I tried to reason with him.

"Your life was at your opponent's mercy," I said. "It was _he who was skilled in the use of the pistol; your risk was infinitely greater than his. Are you responsible for an accident? Rouse yourself, Romayne! Think of the time to come, when all this will be forgotten."

"Never," he said, "to the end of my life."

He made that reply in dull, monotonous tones. His eyes looked wearily and vacantly straight before him. I spoke to him again. He remained impenetrably silent; he appeared not to hear, or not to understand me. The surgeon came in, while I was still at a loss what to say or do next. Without waiting to be asked for his opinion, he observed Romayne attentively, and then drew me away into the next room.

"Your friend is suffering from a severe nervous shock," he said. "Can you tell me anything of his habits of life?"

I mentioned the prolonged night studies and the excessive use of tea. The surgeon shook his head.

"If you want my advice," he proceeded, "take him home at once. Don't subject him to further excitement, when the result of the duel is known in the town. If it ends in our appearing in a court of law, it will be a mere formality in this case, and you can surrender when the time comes. Leave me your address in London."

I felt that the wisest thing I could do was to follow his advice. The boat crossed to Folkestone at an early hour that day--we had no time to lose. Romayne offered no objection to our return to England; he seemed perfectly careless what became of him. "Leave me quiet," he said; "and do as you like." I wrote a few lines to Lady Berrick's medical attendant, informing him of the circumstances. A quarter of an hour afterward we were on board the steamboat.

There were very few passengers. After we had left the harbor, my attention was attracted by a young English lady--traveling, apparently, with her mother. As we passed her on the deck she looked at Romayne with compassionate interest so vividly expressed in her beautiful face that I imagined they might be acquainted. With some difficulty, I prevailed sufficiently over the torpor that possessed him to induce him to look at our fellow passenger.

"Do you know that charming person?" I asked.

"No," he replied, with the weariest indifference. "I never saw her before. I'm tired--tired--tired! Don't speak to me; leave me by myself."

I left him. His rare personal attractions--of which, let me add, he never appeared to be conscious--had evidently made their natural appeal to the interest and admiration of the young lady who had met him by chance. The expression of resigned sadness and suffering, now visible in his face, added greatly no doubt to the influence that he had unconsciously exercised over the sympathies of a delicate and sensitive woman. It was no uncommon circumstance in his past experience of the sex--as I myself well knew--to be the object, not of admiration only, but of true and ardent love. He had never reciprocated the passion--had never even appeared to take it seriously. Marriage might, as the phrase is, be the salvation of him. Would he ever marry?

Leaning over the bulwark, idly pursuing this train of thought, I was recalled to present things by a low sweet voice--the voice of the lady of whom I had been thinking.

"Excuse me for disturbing you," she said; "I think your friend wants you."

She spoke with the modesty and self-possession of a highly-bred woman. A little heightening of her color made her, to my eyes, more beautiful than ever. I thanked her, and hastened back to Romayne.

He was standing by the barred skylight which guarded the machinery. I instantly noticed a change in him. His eyes wandering here and there, in search of me, had more than recovered their animation--there was a wild look of terror in them. He seized me roughly by the arm and pointed down to the engine-room.

"What do you hear there?" he asked.

"I hear the thump of the engines."

"Nothing else?"

"Nothing. What do _you hear?"

He suddenly turned away.

"I'll tell you," he said, "when we get on shore."

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BEFORE THE STORY CHAPTER VISECOND SCENE.--VANGE ABBEY.--THE FOREWARNINGS As we approached the harbor at Folkestone, Romayne's agitation appeared to subside. His head drooped; his eyes half closed--he looked like a weary man quietly falling asleep. On leaving the steamboat, I ventured to ask our charming fellow-passenger if I could be of any service in reserving places in the London train for her mother and herself. She thanked me, and said they were going to visit some friends at Folkestone. In making this reply, she looked at Romayne. "I am afraid he is very ill," she said, in gently lowered tones.
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BEFORE THE STORY CHAPTER IVIN consenting to receive the General's representative, it is needless to say that I merely desired to avoid provoking another quarrel. If those persons were really impudent enough to call at the hotel, I had arranged to threaten them with the interference of the police, and so to put an end to the matter. Romayne expressed no opinion on the subject, one way or the other. His conduct inspired me with a feeling of uneasiness. The filthy insult of which he had been made the object seemed to be rankling in his mind. He went away thoughtfully
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