The Thirteenth Rule
Eric Peterkin was, under most circumstances, the most lawful of men: a fellow with a firm belief that the rule of law existed for a reason, even if that reason was as yet dark to him. He was perhaps a little less respectful of the law when he knew the reason and judged it unworthy; yet his tendency was to adhere to it even so. On one point, however, he held the law in contempt, and that was with regard to the ban on duelling: for he was also that rare and antiquated creature, a gentleman of honour.
Which was why he was sitting on a tombstone one Saturday night--or, more properly, Sunday morning--in May, 1931, waiting to be arrested.
The day had begun innocently enough. It was a bank holiday weekend, and Eric had thought to pay a visit to his sister Penny in the north of England. She was, at the time, enrolled at a teacher's college, and lodged at a boarding house nearby. This last was a modest brick building with a pair of towering elms shading its facade. The landlady, according to Penny's letter, was a twice-widowed and highly respectable matron by the name of Baker, who tolerated no nonsense from the girls under her roof. "I imagine that this is what living in a convent must be like," Penny had written. "You'll have to watch your step when you visit, Eric, or Mother Superior will have your head on a pike. Give my love to Daddy, etc. etc...."
Eric Peterkin generally had little trouble presenting an appearance of respectability, but he took the extra precaution of trimming his moustache down to less exuberant proportions before calling. And he evidently passed inspection, for the handsome, middle-aged matron who'd answered the door was quick to usher him into a sunny, if shabby, sitting room.
The only occupants of the room were a tall, angular young lady and a well-built gentleman with a moustache rather larger than Eric's had been before he'd trimmed it. The lady fixed Eric with a piercing eye as Mrs. Baker bustled off to fetch Penny, and Eric nodded a greeting in return. Then she said: "You took the train, I see. Penny will be disappointed. She thought you'd be motoring."
Eric blinked in surprise.
"There's a corner of a ticket stub sticking out of your waistcoat pocket," the young lady added by way of explanation.
"Ah. So there is. You're very observant, Miss Drake."
"Your sister told you about me, did she?"
"There's a bank of letterboxes outside, and, aside from Penny's, the one marked 'Drake' is the only one empty. Presumably the other residents are away for the bank holiday weekend and aren't around to pick up their mail." He turned to the other gentleman, who had been wordlessly following their exchange with an increasingly astonished air. "I'm aware that Mrs. Baker takes exclusively female boarders," he added. "And the monogram on your handkerchief is IM, not D. I'm Eric Peterkin."
"Dr. Iain Miller," said the gentleman, coming forward to shake Eric's hand. "You must be Penny Peterkin's brother. I must say, it's a jolly something-or-other to meet someone who can answer Miss Drake here tit-for-tat. Wouldn't you agree, Charlotte?"
When Penny Peterkin arrived a minute later, she found her brother seated with Charlotte Drake, engaged in an animated discussion of the methods of Scotland Yard; Dr. Miller seemed rather cut out from the discussion, but was following it with amused interest. Penny let out a sigh, folded her arms, and leaned against the doorframe in an exaggerated attitude of long-suffering patience; this was enough to get Eric's attention, and he hastily excused himself from the conversation. Charlotte gave him a bright smile, and turned back to Dr. Miller.
"Most people discuss health and the weather when they first meet," commented Penny as they descended to the street. "Only you and Charlotte Drake would think to discuss criminology."
"She is rather the intimidating intellect, isn't she? Do you know, she has an idea that it is not just one's fingerprints which are unique, but quite possibly every atom of the human body? From nail clippings to hair to drops of blood...."
"Well, you've made an impression on her, at any rate. She rarely smiles, and never at men. I'm not sure she likes men much. Poor Dr. Miller."
Eric, who never could understand what women saw in those lumpish, awkward creatures called "men", but who was nevertheless thankful that such an attraction existed, could only shrug. "I'm not sure Miller's interest in Miss Drake is romantic in nature. I rather got the impression that he was trying to push us together. I hope you've been keeping up with your studies, by the way, and not gallivanting about with wastrels and ne'er-do-weels. I would hate to have to come down and thrash somebody."
"I'm taking my studies very seriously, believe me. More seriously than you ever took Oxford."
Eric had come very close to being sent down from Oxford one year. "Had I known what was to come," Eric said ruefully, "I think I would have foregone Oxford in favour of some sort of technical institute. Robert Vane was very kind to offer me a secretarial job, but I can't take shorthand and I can barely type. We both know it was more charity than anything."
Recent developments in the financial sector had all but ruined the modest trust funds that the Peterkin siblings inherited from their grandparents. Once able to get by with not much more than a little prudence and economy, now it was absolutely imperative that they find salaried occupation. Eric had gallantly swept up the remnants of his share of the inheritance and given it to Penny to help pay for her training, in the belief that it would be easier for him, as a man, to find a job otherwise--though so far his best success had been with the afore-mentioned Robert Vane, a millionaire who was married to one of Penny's old school friends.
Penny swore she'd repay him one day, but Eric wouldn't hear of it. They'd last parted after a furious argument on the subject, though it was some comfort to each that the other's hard-headed foolishness was at least rooted in honourable intentions.
"Bother," said Penny suddenly, pulling her brother to one side. "Here comes old Bootleather. I don't want to talk to him."
A tall, gaunt man with a mass of snow-white hair had just turned the corner, and Penny took refuge behind a nearby elm. "Bootleather" limped past with the aid of a walking stick and startling alacrity, and Eric watched as he climbed the steps to the front door of the boarding house.
"I don't think you fooled him," said Eric as Penny emerged from her hiding place. "Is that really his name? 'Bootleather'?"
"It's Jock MacAndrew. He's--oh, you've heard of him, I see."
The name had cropped up on occasion at the military club to which Eric belonged. "Major Jock MacAndrew! He's been shot and stabbed and gassed, and he's been in any number of duels. He was captured by the Germans near the beginning of the War, and reported dead ... imagine his regiment's surprise when he showed up again three months later, bleeding from a hundred places. They say he's got more German metal lodged in him than all of the Ruhr Valley. They say he's virtually indestructible."
"And that's why we call him 'Bootleather'."
"Why don't you want to talk to him, Penny?"
"Oh, there's been a bit of a scandal at the house. I didn't write about it because, well, it was none of my business, really." Penny paused to gather her thoughts. "Two weeks ago, Mrs. Baker's stepdaughter Magdalen eloped with her young man, which was a bit of excitement. Charlotte was her usual tactlessly observant self, and she came to the conclusion--very well-reasoned, as it happens--that the happy couple had help from old Bootleather himself. Apparently he'd told them everything they needed to know about 'irregular' marriages in Scotland and how to go about getting one; and then he practically put them on the train to Gretna Green."
Eric whistled. He certainly hadn't expected someone with MacAndrew's reputation to play Cupid in someone's love affair.
Penny went on: "Mrs. Baker's other stepdaughter, Florence, came back as soon as she heard the news, and began kicking up an almighty fuss. It doesn't help that, apparently, that's how Mrs. Baker married her first husband; nor does it help that Bootleather MacAndrew seems to be aiming to be her third. The entire neighbourhood is beginning to divide up and form ranks. Some think Magdalen eloping was sweet and romantic, but Florence has her allies, mostly among the older neighbours, who think it was the height of impropriety and a testament to Mrs. Baker's inability to maintain a respectable establishment. Charlotte doesn't know the meaning of either romance or scandal, but Florence has been sucking up to her something awful. Meanwhile, old Bootleather holds the entire street in contempt for daring to criticise his part in it all."
"Silly thing to get upset about," said Eric loftily. "It'll all blow over in a week, I'm sure."
"Not with Florence Baker stirring up the waters every chance she gets. She believes that the house should have come to her--well, to her and her sister; and since there isn't a will to challenge, she's settled for making things unpleasant for her stepmother. If she were a man, Bootleather would challenge her to a duel on Mrs. Baker's behalf, I'm sure of it. I wonder if it's knowing that he can't that has him in such a temper."
"It wouldn't surprise me."
The Peterkins returned to the house after tea, but not quite late enough to miss Bootleather MacAndrew's visit. The old man was in the hall, just in the act of shrugging on his overcoat, and he met Eric's greeting with only a deepening frown.
"Gossip does not give up, I see," he said, addressing Penny. "Don't think I didn't see you earlier, filling up your gentleman friend's head with all sorts of nonsense."
"Really, Mr. MacAndrew! This isn't my 'gentleman friend', as you call it--"
"There ought to be a law," thundered MacAndrew, shaking his stick under Penny's nose and causing her to step back in alarm. "Poisonous harpies like you ought to be drowned at birth--"
"Now see here, sir," said Eric, as calmly as he could, interposing himself between his sister and the irate old man. "I must insist you apologise."
MacAndrew's response was, unfortunately, quite unprintable, and accompanied by forceful finger-jabs to the chest that nearly bowled Eric over. Eric had to remind himself that, for all his legendary toughness, MacAndrew was still a much older man, and lame besides; and after all, the world did not settle its disputes nowadays on the point of a rapier. And then MacAndrew, perhaps emboldened by Eric's prudence, slapped him.
Eric's eyes blazed. If he did in fact issue a formally-worded challenge, he did not remember it; certainly, he must have taken a step forwards, at least, because he was standing much closer to MacAndrew than is generally considered polite. MacAndrew's lips twitched and he said: "Pistols, midnight, St Richard's churchyard. I won't be insulted behind my back by a pack of simpering women, but you'll give me satisfaction at least."
"I haven't a second," said Eric, sobering slightly.
"Then get your damned sister to be your second! Drake? Drake!"
Charlotte Drake appeared at the sitting room door, a book in one hand. MacAndrew barely turned to acknowledge her. He said: "Miss Peterkin is going to be the second to my opponent in an upcoming duel. You are probably the only other woman in the county who knows anything about duelling, so you're to be my second tonight. Pistols, midnight, St Richard's churchyard. And we'll want Dr. Miller. Good day."
MacAndrew stormed out of the house, and Eric looked at his sister. "This seems highly irregular," he said. There was no question in the mind of either Peterkin that Eric should refuse the duel: they had both been brought up in that antiquated school that saw duelling as a legitimate means of resolving a dispute; and though each acknowledged that the world in general had moved beyond these things, neither saw any reason, beyond the lack of opponents, to turn their back on it.
Charlotte Drake, meanwhile, was quite fascinated by the prospect. "I don't believe I have ever heard of a duel between gentlemen in which ladies were called to be the seconds. I suppose this is meant to be exceedingly secret? A pity; I know a number of students of human social behaviour who would have loved to hear about it. I believe the last fatal duel in England was in 1852."
"The last that anyone knows of," responded Eric automatically, as he always did when the subject came up. "This shan't be fatal," he added, with more certainty than he felt. It would not, in fact, be the first duel he'd ever fought, though it would be the first fought with pistols. Pistols, he felt, did not leave much room for a "first blood" conclusion. On the other hand, it was hardly sporting or honourable for an able-bodied young man of thirty-one to insist on swords against a lame old man of sixty.
"Well," said Penny. "Ordinarily, Charlotte, this is where you and I attempt to settle matters diplomatically and convince our hard-headed gentlemen to shake hands and make up; then, failing that, we're to negotiate the terms of the duel. I doubt if Bootleather can be convinced of anything, and he's already laid down the law as to the terms of the duel. I wonder why he didn't dispense with the seconds altogether."
"This entire thing is irregular," grumbled Eric.
Eric's intention had been to motor back to London after his visit, perhaps stopping for a light supper at some inn along the way. There was no question of that now, not with the proposed midnight adventure looming ahead. He dined instead at the Baker house; Charlotte Drake had opted to dine with Dr. Miller, much to Mrs. Baker's displeasure, and Eric took her place at the table.
"It would be something else if Dr. Miller would finally pop the question," said Mrs. Baker. "It's obvious to everyone what's going on between them."
Eric forbore to express his opinion that their relationship was platonic in nature. He said, instead: "They do seem to be rather thick with each other. Have they known each other long?"
"Since the Christmas pantomime two years ago. Dr. Miller's very involved with the local theatre--wouldn't think it to look at him, would you?--and he called in Miss Drake on some sort of technical thing with the lights. The two have been inseparable ever since."
"Perhaps," said an icy voice at the other end of the table, "they should elope to Gretna Green and set up house with Magdalen and her young man."
The speaker was Miss Florence Baker, a strongly-built young woman with a head of startlingly black hair. She could not have been more than twenty-five, though she behaved with the superior, condescending attitude of a much older woman.
"Perhaps they should," answered Mrs. Baker. "They're old enough to know their own minds, which is more than I could say for some people."
Eric and his sister exchanged glances. It looked as though there might be another domestic storm in the horizon. Almost imperceptibly, Eric shifted his seat towards the stepmother while Penny shifted hers towards the stepdaughter. Eric thought he heard Penny ask a question about the local hunt club; he said: "This soup is really quite excellent, Mrs. Baker; I'm quite impressed. You've got quite a fine establishment here."
"Mr. Baker would have wanted it so," Mrs. Baker replied. "We only had the one room to let when he was alive and the girls were still at home. After he died, and both Florence and Dr. Miller moved out--"
"Dr. Miller? He was your lodger once?"
Mrs. Baker nodded. "A model lodger, if you looked past the theatrical folk he liked to keep company with. It's a pity he hadn't met Miss Drake yet at the time."
"It's a very fine romance," said Eric, casting a surreptitious glance back to where Penny was still keeping Florence Baker occupied with local society gossip. "Perhaps all they want is a push in the right direction."
Mrs. Baker lowered her voice and said: "I'll be honest with you: it was really my idea for my younger stepdaughter Magdalen to elope to Gretna Green. Romantic, and it saves on the cost of a wedding, you see? But it simply wouldn't do to suggest it myself, so I had Jock MacAndrew suggest it to her instead."
"Oh! I did think it a little odd that he would involve himself--I mean, from what I've heard about him, he didn't strike me as the sentimental sort."
"You'd be surprised." Mrs. Baker paused dreamily, then said: "My first marriage was a Scottish 'irregular' marriage. I see nothing wrong about it, except that you absolutely need a young man with a proper sense of honour, someone who'll stand by his word, and stand by you whatever happens. They're hard to come by, these days. Men of honour."
Eric followed Mrs. Baker's gaze to the pictures arranged on the dining room mantelpiece. He'd had a chance to look at them earlier, and had ascertained that they were all of the Bakers: Mrs. Baker's second family. There seemed to be no evidence of her first marriage among them. Unless ... the youngest Baker child, a young boy rather tall for his age, seemed to be of a different enough physiognomy from his sisters and father that Eric wondered if he were in fact a relic of that first marriage rather than a product of the second.
Eric said: "It's funny, but I don't think I ever caught the name of your first husband...?"
"It's not important," replied Mrs. Baker with a sudden crispness. "The Bakers are my family now, no matter what my stepdaughter Florence thinks."
And that, apparently, was that.
The churchyard of St Richard's was a quiet, lonely place, conveniently obscured from both the rectory and the road by a high stone wall. Eric and Penny arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, and settled down among the tombstones to wait.
"Cheery sort of place," said Eric, perching on one low monument. "Grim reminder of one's mortality and all that."
"Don't," replied Penny sharply.
Eric understood. There were not many defensive actions he could take in a pistol duel that would preserve his honour--he could not exactly parry a speeding bullet. He was uncomfortably aware that, whereas a sword was still a sword, a modern pistol was a far cry from the unreliable tools in use back when the duelling code was first formulated. Tonight might easily be his last.
"Look," he said, playing the light of his torch over one nearby tombstone. "Franklin Baker ... isn't that your Mrs. Baker's late husband? Passed away one year ago this July."
The grave immediately to the right of Franklin Baker was that of his first wife, Rosalind--died 1912--and there was an empty plot to his left. Presumably, the present Mrs. Baker expected to occupy that space. Further perusal of the graves revealed that they were waiting in a family plot, surrounded by generation upon generation of the Baker family, all packed as close as sardines. The monument on which Eric himself was sitting was that of a Richard Baker: born 1915, died 1923.
"Richard Baker was Mother Superior's own son," said Penny. "And she'll be worse than a dozen Bootleathers with you if she knows you've been treating his gravestone as a footstool."
Dr. Miller came stomping up as Eric scrambled off the monument. The doctor did not look particularly pleased to be involved in the night's adventure. He dropped his little medical bag on a conveniently flat tombstone and began laying out a few necessary supplies. "I'm here under protest, I'll have you know. If Charlotte hadn't persuaded me to keep mum, I'd have called the police and not shown up at all."
"It'll be over before you know it."
"That's what worries me." He sighed and looked around. "Charlotte explained how this would work. Still, not much room for it, is there? You and Old Bootleather will have to use the central avenue; the rest of us will try to find somewhere to stand that isn't smack on top of someone's final resting place."
"There's the empty plot beside Franklin Baker's grave."
"Tchah, you know perfectly well that an old churchyard like this one probably has people buried on top of other people. Very likely, you'll find some 16th century Baker lying six feet under that innocent-looking sod, and some poor blighter from the 11th century further down."
"You'll have to sit on the tombstones, then."
Dr. Miller grunted noncommittally. Then he said to Eric: "This wouldn't have happened with anyone else, you know. I remember when the subject of duelling first came up, when MacAndrew told us some of his history. Your sister was the only one, as I recall, who didn't find the whole thing abominable. She told us you'd fought a duel before--that scar on your jaw isn't a shaving accident, I can tell. Why can't you just turn the other cheek when some fool pushes you?"
"I thought it was all quite fascinating," said Charlotte, who'd arrived without their noticing. She was dressed in a dark tartan cloak, which flapped loosely on her thin frame. A short distance away, MacAndrew prowled about the tombstones, his white hair standing out from the darkness like a halo in the moonlight.
"There's something to be said for the exercise of physical violence," she said, addressing Dr. Miller. "It's catharsis, a relief of frustration. I suspect that may be the sole reason for Mr. MacAndrew's behaviour: he's been in a foul temper ever since Florence Baker began her complaint, and he leapt at the chance when he saw Mr. Peterkin here."
"So," said Eric, "does that mean I'm really fighting for Florence Baker's honour, now? That's nice to know." He remembered the sharp-tongued, superior manner of that young lady at supper earlier, and he did not relish the thought of championing her cause at all.
Charlotte shrugged. "I have reason to believe that Miss Baker has a legitimate complaint. But that's neither here nor there. It's nearly midnight, and I had better join Penny in examining the weapons."
MacAndrew had brought a pair of modern pistols, evidently from an extensive collection, and laid them out on a long, low monument near the middle of the avenue. Eric watched as Penny and Charlotte examined each pistol, then as Dr. Miller performed his own examination. This done, the girls loaded the pistols, and Eric and MacAndrew approached each other down the length of the avenue.
"I'll give you a last chance to apologise," Eric said as he drew close to his opponent.
"I struck you, as I recall. The code allows no verbal apology for that."
Eric nodded. He knew the duelling code. He solemnly extended his hand, and MacAndrew shook it with equal solemnity. The girls handed them their weapons, and retreated to the side. Eric turned to stand back-to-back with MacAndrew; he weighed the pistol in his hand--it felt somehow heavier than he expected, though he knew that it only contained a single round. He and MacAndrew were to fire three shots each, as prescribed by the duelling code for the particular infraction committed, with the pistols reloaded after each individual shot.
At Dr. Miller's signal, they began pacing out the distance between them. They came to a halt, roughly level with their seconds, and turned to face each other.
He's waiting for me to shoot first, thought Eric. Perhaps Charlotte was right--and Charlotte did seem like an exceptionally sensible girl, if not particularly sensitive. Perhaps MacAndrew had only wanted to vent his spleen, and had since come to regret his actions.
The thirteenth rule of the duelling code forbade deloping, the act of deliberately firing wide. It was not a rule that had bothered Eric much before, since he favoured the use of swords over firearms. But suddenly he understood all too clearly why it was also, perhaps, the most commonly flouted rule in the code. All this raced through his mind in a split-second, more in the form of impressions than as fully-articulated thoughts; then Eric swung his pistol to one side and loosed his shot into the ground.
Across from him, the gaunt figure of Bootleather MacAndrew seemed to relax. He, too, swung his arm to one side ... but to Eric's horror, this brought his pistol directly in line with Charlotte Drake. MacAndrew fired before Eric could even think of shouting a warning; his shot caught Charlotte directly in the chest, and she went tumbling over the back of the tombstone behind her.
For Eric, it was as if time had suddenly slowed; he remembered racing across the churchyard, vaulting over the tombstones, to get to the dead girl--for he was certain that she was dead. He was certain that death was all that had kept her from crying out in the moment when she was struck.
Eric was aware of Penny kneeling beside him, and Dr. Miller desperately trying to find some hint of a pulse, and of MacAndrew standing behind them, breathing heavily, pistol still in hand.
"It was an accident," said MacAndrew, his voice a hoarse shadow of the belligerent tone he'd adopted that afternoon.
"An accident," Eric echoed.
"It was impossible." Dr. Miller sat back on his heels, shaking. Even in the darkness, his face stood out white and ghostly-pale. "Impossible! The pistols were loaded with blanks!"
Three figures froze, then turned slowly towards him. The doctor looked wildly around at them, and said: "Of course I replaced the cartridges with blanks! Did you really think I'd let you fire three live rounds at each other? Charlotte showed me a copy of that ancient duelling code of yours: honour's supposed to be satisfied after three shots. I thought you'd assume that you'd missed, and think no more of it."
"Was Charlotte aware of this?"
"No. I don't think so. I made sure she'd gone before I made the trip over to the theatre. I have a friend who manages the stage...."
"Penny, what about you?"
She shook her head. "I know enough to load a pistol, Eric. Not enough to tell a blank cartridge from a live one."
"I wonder." Eric held out his hand for MacAndrew's pistol, saying: "I remember firing blanks with a rifle, once. I remember that it left rather an excessive amount of sooty powder all down the bore, more than you'd get from a normal round. I don't know if it's the same for a pistol, but I'd expect it to be. Here, bring the torch over."
It was difficult to tell by the wavering light of the electric torch, but, breaking open the pistols, there did seem to be somewhat more residue in Eric's than in MacAndrew's. Eric said to Dr. Miller: "Well, you were half successful, at least."
Dr. Miller was sitting with his back against a tombstone, his knees against his chest, and his head pressed tightly between his hands. "I don't understand," he moaned. "I made so sure...."
"That's all very well," said MacAndrew, clearing his throat, "but we really should decide what we're going to tell the police."
"The blanks are a good start," said Penny. "We can say it was all just a show, practice for a play or something of the sort, but somehow a live cartridge got mixed in with the blanks...."
"Hush!" Eric bent over the body of Charlotte Drake, patting over the folds of her cloak and her suddenly too-thin body. "Dr. Miller, if you did switch six live cartridges for six blanks, you should have all the live cartridges with you, am I right?"
The doctor nodded. "They're in my medical bag."
Eric sent him to fetch them, then continued his examination of the body. "If Dr. Miller finds one blank among the cartridges in his bag, then that's all right: it really was an accident. But if he doesn't ... well, if Miss Drake realised what Dr. Miller had done--and she was a very observant young lady--she could have switched a live cartridge in for the blank; which means she must have a blank cartridge somewhere on her. Or, perhaps, an identical pistol with a blank cartridge in it ... hello, what's this?"
Eric sat back and held up a small braid of flaming red hair. Penny gasped. "I recognise that! That belongs to Mrs. Baker, a sort of memento or keepsake. I came across it once, quite by accident. She told me that it had come from her dead son."
"Rachel told you that?" There was a queer note in MacAndrew's voice as he peered at the braid.
Dr. Miller returned. "I'd actually brought eight blanks, just in case. Here are the two extras, and here are the six live cartridges I took from you."
The fact that he had the six live cartridges was all that really mattered. Eric beckoned the doctor over, and handed him the braid. "Tell me, doctor, what do you make of that?"
"Charlotte used to say the same thing to me, all the time," said the doctor, with an agonised glance towards the crumpled body of his friend. "It usually meant that she'd drawn her own conclusions already, and wanted to see if I'd draw the same." He wiped his eyes, turned determinedly away, and peered closely at the braid. "Well. Red hair. Rather a distinctive shade of red. Quite coarse, even considering the age. Strange, that. I remember Richard Baker's hair as very fine..." He brushed a finger through his own luxurious moustache, and then his eyes lit up. "By Jove, this isn't Richard Baker's hair at all! It's not from anyone's head: it's from someone's beard!"
"Then I suppose it must have come from Richard Baker's father," said Penny lightly. At Eric's scandalised expression, she clarified: "Mrs. Baker's first husband. He was killed in the War."
"She was twice-widowed. I'd forgotten about that. This ... this rather clears things up, I'd say."
"What do you mean?"
Eric shook his head absently. He sat back and looked at the three living people before him, and the one dead girl lying between them. "Why does the thirteenth rule exist?" he asked.
Penny and MacAndrew exchanged startled glances, and Dr. Miller burst out: "Why does that barbaric code exist at all?"
"The code exists to keep us from descending into real barbarism. Penny and I learnt that from our father. And wouldn't you agree, Major MacAndrew?"
MacAndrew nodded. "It requires that the seconds work to negotiate a truce before violence. It suggests that the duellists not duel until the next morning, allowing them to sleep on it and perhaps settle down--though we could hardly do that, tomorrow being a Sunday. It sets down the extent to which a duel may be carried out, depending on the offence. In short, it aims to reduce the number of deaths that might result."
Dr. Miller gave a bark of laughter.
Eric ignored him and said: "What about the thirteenth rule, then, which forbids deloping?"
"Well," said MacAndrew slowly. "I suppose it means to reduce the number of duels by emphasising the seriousness of the matter. So you wouldn't let things go all the way to an actual duel unless you were certain you wanted it."
"Exactly. So why does a man delope? Perhaps he wishes to spare his opponent; or perhaps he wishes to forgive him. Perhaps he's calmed down since the challenge was issued, and has had second thoughts. Whatever the case, he had no opportunity to back out before the duel itself. MacAndrew, why did you delope?"
"As you say, I had second thoughts."
"Only then? I gave you an opportunity to back down, as I recall, right before. I know the code doesn't allow verbal apologies for striking a gentleman, but, as you know, it doesn't allow for deloping either. You had the entire evening to negotiate something through Miss Drake, but you did not. And here's another interesting thing: Dr. Miller here suggested that I was perhaps the only man around who would participate in a duel with you, and Charlotte told me that she believed that you'd leapt at the chance when you saw me. Is there evidence? When you insulted Penny at the boarding house, you began by referring to me as her 'young man', but later you called her my sister: you knew perfectly well what our relationship really was. You were deliberately goading me into challenging you--you'd been planning to do that from the moment you noticed us outside the boarding house this morning. There's no 'heat of the moment' in this for you: every part of it was thought out in cold blood."
A cloud passed before the moon. On either side, Penny and Dr. Miller seemed to be holding their breaths, while MacAndrew's white head bowed silently.
"As the challenged party, you were able to choose the weapons. You chose pistols. Pistols equalise the field for a man with a game leg, but they also do something else that swords do not. They allow you to delope. They allow you to swing your weapon away from your supposed opponent--and strike down someone else, under the guise of an accident."
"That's a bloody lie," began MacAndrew, but Dr. Miller had leapt to his feet and tackled him to the ground. MacAndrew had a surprising amount of wiry strength, and Eric wasted no time in leaping into the fray as well. Between Eric and the doctor, they soon had MacAndrew pinned.
"Check his pockets," gasped Eric to Penny. "If I'm right, you'll find another pistol, identical to the one he used, containing a single blank cartridge--the pistol that Charlotte loaded and handed to him at the beginning."
MacAndrew gave an inarticulate howl of rage, and redoubled his efforts to free himself; but Dr. Miller only tightened his grip. Penny, meanwhile, quickly located the afore-mentioned pistol in one of MacAndrew's pockets, and backed away with it carefully held between finger and thumb. Eric did not need to tell her to be careful: the presence of Charlotte Drake's fingerprints on the thing were all that stood in the way of any suggestion that they might have planted it on MacAndrew themselves.
"You suspected that either Dr. Miller or Miss Drake would attempt some sort of chicanery to render your pistol ineffective, didn't you?" said Eric to MacAndrew. "Dr. Miller here certainly doesn't seem afraid of letting the world know what he thinks of duelling. And you couldn't risk the possibility of all of this being for nothing."
"What I don't understand," said Penny, "is why? Major MacAndrew, what could you possibly have against Charlotte?"
MacAndrew glared at her, and then he seemed to deflate. He turned to Eric and growled, "you're so clever, Peterkin, why don't you tell her?"
Eric gingerly released his hold, assured himself that the good doctor was more than equal to the task of holding down MacAndrew, and got back to his feet. "I'm willing to guess that Charlotte knew something," he said. "She was an extraordinarily observant girl. She could spot the slightest detail, and extrapolate the truth from nearly nothing. More than that, she had a scientific mind, and she was interested in forensic science. Penny, do you remember what we were discussing when you walked in on us? Charlotte was talking about the possibility of identifying someone by the traces left behind: nail clippings, for example. Or hair."
He picked up the braid of red hair and held it to the moonlight. "We know this hair didn't come from Richard Baker. Penny, you suggested that it might have come, instead, from Mrs. Baker's first husband. That's very probable: if a woman keeps a lock of hair as a memento, it is usually cut from a man she loves. But if that first husband were dead, why would Charlotte be interested in identifying him through his hair?" Eric turned to MacAndrew, and said: "Sir, your hair is white; but I think it might once have been red. I think this braid of hair is yours, gathered from your beard when you shaved it off prior to setting off for Flanders. Why else would you fear Charlotte Drake, unless you thought she could identify you as Mrs. Baker's supposedly-dead first husband? I did notice that you called her by her first name not two minutes ago: I think you might be much better acquainted with her than you pretend to be."
The look on MacAndrew's face spoke volumes.
Eric said: "If you were positively identified as such, then Mrs. Baker's marriage to Franklin Baker would be known to be bigamous and therefore invalid. The house had come to her as Franklin Baker's wife, but if she was no such thing, then it would have gone to--the elder stepdaughter, whichever one that was."
"That would be Florence," said Dr. Miller. "By Jove. Charlotte did say that Florence had a legitimate grievance, didn't she?"
MacAndrew grunted. "Rachel was with child when the Germans got me. The Army told her I was dead, and she was terrified of raising a child without a father. And there was old Franklin Baker, with two young daughters, looking for someone to mother them...."
"Why didn't you say anything when you came back?"
"She was happy. Do you understand? Florence was always a handful, but Magdalen was a dear; and Richard was already growing to be the spitting image of me. Baker didn't care that Richard wasn't his, and he cared for Rachel ... perhaps better than I could have. I ... I thought it best to keep away. Until I saw Baker's obituary, and knew Rachel was free again...."
The fight seemed to have gone out of him, and Dr. Miller dared now to release his hold. Eric turned to Penny, and said: "You'd best fetch the police. Dr. Miller and I will wait here with MacAndrew, see he doesn't run off."
"What are you going to tell them?"
"The truth, I suppose. It's all going to have to go to trial eventually, and I'm not going to lie under oath."
"We can always hope that they'll let you off lightly for trying to fight a duel."
Eric, clambering up onto a tombstone to begin his vigil, smiled and shrugged. "If I can risk my life to avenge an insult," he said, "I think I can risk my freedom to get justice for Charlotte Drake."