THE CHALLENGE CAME while it was yet dark. Vine, who’d been drinking hard, knocked on the door with a leering grin just after four. He’d waited deliberately, guessing rightly they’d be too harassed to sleep.
‘I wish to see your brother,’ he growled when Nell answered. She’d seen the pistol at his belt, loaded or not she couldn’t tell, and the stout cudgel in his hand.
‘And if he doesn’t wish to see you?’
‘Wish has nothing to do with it,’ he said, ‘I am here and he will see me. You are back safe and well I see,’ he added, as she led him reluctantly across the hall.
‘No thanks to you, sir,’ she replied, which made his laugh echo in the empty spaces. ‘You thought you’d finished us but you haven’t. We have come home – all of us – to claim what’s rightly ours.’
‘I admire your mettle, Nell, you’re a real fighter. Even now I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. When this business is over, who knows what offer I might yet make you?’
‘And what business would that be I wonder?’
‘I think you already know,’ he said, as they entered the drawing room. Joe was on his feet waiting. He was struggling for his dignity, fiddling nervously with the lace at his throat.
‘This won’t take long,’ said Vine, strolling bodily towards him. ‘I may not stop, you know, I may keep walking, knock you over like a skittle …’ He halted abruptly, his face just an inch from Joe’s. Joe was trembling. ‘Oh you whelp, you puppy, this is hardly worth the trouble. I’ve killed better men than you and eaten them for breakfast.’
‘Wh…what do you require?’ Joe asked as he shuffled and sniffed.
‘What do I require?’ returned Vine, laughing wide-mouthed. ‘Why, everything kind sir, everything. Lock, stock and barrel,’ he said, aptly fingering the muzzle of his gun. ‘I didn’t think this would be necessary but never mind, so long as the Devil doesn’t mess with my well laid plans. I don’t like your girl’s face, sir, it revolts me in the pit of my stomach. It’s one of those faces a real man can’t help but strike.’
‘You damned ape!’ Nell cried when he’d clipped Joe twice across the mouth with the back of his hand. Joe, dabbing his bleeding lips, the blood so bright against his livid face, was on the brink of fate.
‘Come then, hit me back if you dare,’ coaxed Vine belligerently. ‘Stay where you are!’ he shouted when Robert hurried in with Olu. ‘Mistress here called me ape, she should have called you that,’ he said pointing at Olu. ‘But no matter, this little business is almost done.’ He placed a hand affectedly to his ear. ‘Did I hear the challenge I seek?’
‘You did indeed, sir,’ said Joe. ‘I will meet you at a place of your choosing. This minute if you wish.’
‘But it’s still dark,’ said Vine, with dark jest to suit. ‘Nay lad, dawn will do. The cold light thereof,’ he said, with a wink at Betty who’d come in at the other door. ‘Pistols or swords or don’t you care?’
‘Pistols,’ said Joe, as if he’d seen a glimmer there, however faint.
‘Pistols it is then, out there in the park – shall we say three hours from now?’ He had his timepiece flipped open, closing it with a click as he turned to leave. ‘Watch out!’ he joked, as a log spat loudly in the grate.
Nell sat with Joe the rest of the night, they all did, keeping him company in the study while he readied his guns. They were his father’s guns, the ornate pair Nell had watched with such interest that day, so long ago now it seemed like another life.
‘Aim true, Joe,’ she said, ‘it’s your only chance. You do know that Father used them at least once. Killed with them – at least once.’ She eyed them snug in their felt-lined box. ‘Shot some poor soul right between the eyes. Don’t know which one he used, don’t suppose it matters.’
‘He was a crack shot. What do I know about shooting?’
‘You know how to take aim,’ said Olu, her tone more warm than cold. A change had worked its magic of late; she accepted what they were in all but name – brother and sister. ‘You know how to pull a trigger and fire. I shall prime them and load them for you. I know how. Be thankful he allows you your own guns. Man like him act as his own cheating second, give you bad gun that blow itself open in your hand. Man like him give you short charge so the ball won’t carry.’
‘Good gun, bad gun – it’s all one I fear.’
‘Try to be a bit more hopeful – no?’ said Robert, his chin resting on his hands as he sat pensive at the table.
‘At least I shall stand firm and not run. You can tell the world how it was when I’m gone.’
‘Code Duello or not,’ said Robert, ‘the practice is still illegal. This doesn’t have to be, you know, we could have it stopped.’ But the same question was on all their lips: by whom?
‘No matter. I shall prove myself a man even if it kills me,’ said Joe, who forced a wry laugh. ‘As it will of course.’
Nell glanced at Olu; she couldn’t help thinking, no hoping! she still held a card up her sleeve. Robert too, looking at her gravely, was hoping the same thing. Hoping that the hope was not forlorn.