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Better this way, thought Veldram as he drained his glass. There is no wine in the world can sour as quickly as secrecy in an affair of the heart. At first the letters hidden in a tree bole or behind the jardinière, the assignations, the flimsy errands to send the servants away, waiting for a flutter of a fan, a swish of her skirt – these are the happiest, most addictive games one can play. You both watch laughing as the whole stupid world blunders around in the gloom – meanwhile, you lie in the sunshine of infatuation, immune and omniscient.
[private]Best of all, you watch her husband as he stomps around the estate, bullying the stable boys, ever bad-tempered and base enough to see nothing more in his wife than a chattel, a fine piece of flesh to be draped in silk and set in the drawing room. You didn’t make the man a fool, but by Christ you revel in his idiocy and you want to show him to the world as the dense wretch he really is, despite his dukedom.
But that is where the problem begins. Soon your wit, your cleverness, is too much to keep concealed. You don’t become careless or clumsy – you become deliberately, even calculatedly, more obvious. You unveil more and more clues, before friends, before the man himself. You strut around his home, sit at his table listening to his brusque yet tedious conversation about stocking the game woods, the laziness of the labourers and his plans for the grazing land by the river – and when he is away, you woo his wife.
Delancey had told him not to be such a bloody idiot. Veldram had laughed. The most intelligent of his companions, his oldest friend and, as a distant relative of the Duke, the very reason he was a guest here in the first place, yet even Delancey was left bemused by this magical adventure. He had to be told very early – too close and too greatly loved, he could never be deceived. There was no danger of him talking – he was far too loyal – but he was uneasy and worried who else would notice. Through Veldram’s remonstrances and the Duchess’ pleas, he became part of the game.
It developed ever more complexity as the novelty wore off. No more notes. Delancey escorted the Duchess on long walks in the evening. In fact they went to an empty summer-house in a neglected corner of the landscaped gardens. What would the Duke do with such artistry other than ignore it? Veldram would wait, interminably, to meet her there, as Delancey left her, a quick turn in each direction being the sum of his sentry duty.
She started to pretend she was afraid. He knew her well enough to know she did not fear the Duke. They started to talk, their voices rising with passion, about the future. It soon became clear it was impatience, not fear, that drove her on. This affair would come out – they would have it no other way – and they would both be ruined. To the continent, then! Exiles, like Byron and Shelley, they would race madly through its capitals, mountains and plains, making love and carousing with fellow untouchables. And when they got old … well, they would not get old, and that was that. They would never stop floating over the planet and they would never again be anchored to it by estates, houses or duties.
They were not fools: in the cluttered majesty of her husband’s mansion stood Empire clocks of solid gold, salvers and goblets trimmed with stones that dazzled – dazzled all but the great boor, the man who didn’t even kick the dung from his boots before he charged though the gallery. He had read none of his glorious library, so how would he know when rare atlases and encyclopædias went missing? Delancey passed these to dealers, collectors and rogues: anyone with gold coin. The gold coin went into an unprepossessing deal box, and the husband was twice deceived.
The summer sped on. Their treasure trove grew ever more healthy, but needed to be considerably greater to sustain them in their new life. With the excitement of naughty children they planned a robbery. The dressing-rooms would be ransacked one night as the Duke lay snoring. To divert suspicion, the Duchess would lose some valuables too, though obviously these would not be sold. Into the sack went earrings, powder cases and a sapphire ring, the most precious of her possessions. Even though this was a game, she hesitated before handing it over.
Curiously, they had still had no plan for the revelation of their deception. Veldram thought of this now, fixing his gaze and mind on the glow of the candle. It had happened one evening when the air turned chill beside the lake. He had seen her tremble and draped his coat round her. They stopped to kiss, and so they were when the husband appeared before them. Delancey was with him: sensing the discovery, he must have tried to race over to warn them.
“You, sir? No, sir!”
“Indeed, it is I.”
“Damn you, sir!”
“Sir? Sir? I said damn ye. Damn your eyes! Cuckold me, would you?”
“Cuckold you, sir? Is it cuckoldry to want to take and worship what you so contemptibly ignore?”
The Duke’s eyes shrank to beads of black hate. A brute he was, and like a brute he prepared to charge. As he raised his cane, Veldram stepped forward – but it was Delancey who took control.
“Sir, I cannot permit you to engage my friend in a crude brawl. I therefore take responsibility in this situation and call on you to resolve this like gentlemen.”
The Duke turned his glare to Delancey. If anything it intensified. The fool would probably be more outraged by good manners than elopement. Veldram had nothing to say to the man and so he strode forward and expressed his desire to offer him satisfaction on the field of honour the next morning. Delancey led Veldram away. He would of course act as his second.
They were to exchange fire. Veldram found himself quite relaxed about this: the Duke was an acceptable shot with a field piece, but in the use of pistols he assumed them evenly matched.
That night he wrote letters and waited. The business of the morning was important, of course, but it was the future that concerned him most. He spoke with Delancey about arrangements and about old times until ten o’clock when his friend left, advising him to get some sleep. Alone, Veldram was preparing to retire when he saw a note bearing the Duchess’s monogram. What a subtle messenger Delancey was!
“There will be a carriage at the field tomorrow, in which I shall be waiting, with our treasure. When the madness is done, come to me. Tonight will be agony, but tomorrow bliss.”
He realised with shame that he had made no plans for them beyond the confrontation. He wanted her so desperately right then, but that must wait until victory was complete. And so he drained his glass and toasted the death of deceit.
The new day promised to be bright, but the dawn was misty. Keen though he was to get the matter over with, Veldram insisted they arrive five minutes late to agitate the Duke further. Delancey was not happy – his honour as second was compromised. The Duke may or may not have been angered – against his abiding apocalyptic rage at the humiliation he foresaw over the loss of his wife, it was a small margin. He stood and glowered.
Delancey stepped forward. The Duke’s second was obviously nervous, probably a stable lad pressed into service, and in no way capable of controlling this situation. In the absence of a surgeon, he carried what looked like a medical bag.
“Gentlemen, you will fight à la barrière.”
“Bastard,” murmured the Duke. Delancey paused, expecting further comment. None came.
“The seconds will take a sword each and drive them into the ground at an agreed twelve paces apart. The parties each walk ten paces beyond their assigned sword and take possession of their pieces.”
“I’ll kill the cuckolding bastard!”
“My Lord, I must ask you to preserve the decorum of the occasion. I shall continue. At the drop of my handkerchief, you will begin to walk towards the swords. You may fire at any time before you reach the markers – but whoever shoots first must stand and receive the fire of his opponent. It has been agreed that the affair will be concluded only by death, or an injury so severe as to prevent any further encounters. Is that all quite clear?”
“Get on with it,” grumbled the Duke, glaring at Delancey, almost oblivious to Veldram’s existence. The seconds paced out the arena, calling the numbers as they did so. Again, Delancey asked both parties whether they were satisfied. Both nodded. The pistols were presented and Veldram offered the Duke first choice. His contempt for the man had removed all fear – he would kill him and that was that.
The seconds paced beyond the fixed swords, again counting the number of strides. This done, each called his respective protagonist to the designated spot and returned to the side of the field. The handkerchief was raised and dropped.
The Duke seemed perplexed, but strode forward as if to wave a trespasser off his land. Veldram turned sideways to reduce his size as a target, advancing slowly and smoothly with his right arm up to shield his face. The Duke made no such attempt at self-preservation. He was nearly at the barrier and seemed to have no intention of stopping. Conscious by now of a thundering heartbeat, and mustering all the self-control he could command, Veldram started to level his weapon. There was no past and no future. Just this moment.
A crack and a scream. Veldram knew he never saw the Duke’s barrel levelled, knew he was not hit. The formality was over, and nature’s cruelty reasserted. There was a confusion of thrashing and yelling, and a great deal of blood. Delancey was shot. The idiot Duke had shot the wrong man! A rage filled him, a calming, cold rage and it guided him to put his bullet straight through the Duke’s head. The man dropped with a grunt, poleaxed like an ox in a slaughterhouse.
“Run! Get away! The law will be here!” It was the Duke’s own second, yelling at Veldram. And here was the truth of the whole matter – a nobleman dead, a friend dying and the real possibility of the noose. Could he leave Delancey? Affairs of honour were usually overlooked by the magistrate, but this was something more. He was a gentleman, certainly, but he had shot a nobleman, his only sympathetic witness was silenced and the circumstances showed he had not received his opponent’s fire. He must run.
The Duchess – where was she? He turned and turned, until with dreamlike clarity he saw a track leading behind a thicket. Following it round he found her carriage, and she holding the door open.
Something was wrong. Her expression was of horror and confusion, and she looked desperately beyond him as if willing something to happen, willing someone else to come. She jumped down and passed him, almost brushing him aside. She took in the scene and shrieked, then ran to dead Delancey and pulled from around his neck a sapphire ring.
They could hear a crowd approaching from the village. The Duke’s man pushed her back towards Veldram and the coach. She took her seat, her eyes dead, clutching the ring. Veldram knew now what the Duke had already known – he was the wrong man. How? Had a servant talked? Had this been going on before he even arrived, before the lovers realised they could hide behind his naïve trysts, laughing at him as he sat waiting in the summer-house?
She and Delancey would have left them blazing away at each other, the unwanted husband and the decoy. Had she cared who lived, died or was crippled?
Here, thought Veldram, was the real fool; driving away with his best friend’s lover into a cold and shameful future.[/private]
Simon Jones did his bit to help the Big Society last September by dropping out of it. Before then he had been a civil servant for too many years. Apart from articles in esoteric publications such as the Gothic Society, this is his first published piece of fiction.