“I’ve never challenged anybody. It would be fun. I’ve been challenged three times and fought twice; the third time the police butted in. I’m afraid that was because my opponent didn’t fancy my choice of weapon.... Thanks, Bunter.... A bullet, you see, may go anywhere, but steel’s almost bound to go somewhere.”
“Peter,” said Harriet, looking gravely at him, “I believe you’re showing off.” (Gaudy Night, ch. 19)
Port Meadow at Dawn
‘Christ, Flim!’ said Carruthers, struggling to extract his foot from the mire. ‘Why in hell did I agree to this?’ He staggered sideways on to dry land, his progress hampered by the large leather case in his right hand. ‘Look at my boots!’
‘It’s your own fault,’ said Lord Peter unsympathetically. ‘You had no business wearing those things. The rain it raineth ev’ry day since Sunday. You ought to have expected it to be a trifle damp.’
‘Do you think Marston will have expected it?’
‘I sincerely hope not.’
‘Besides, I couldn’t get to Ducker’s on a Sunday, could I?’ Carruthers continued. ‘You might have had the decency to quarrel with him on Friday night instead of Saturday, if you were going to drag us all out here.’
‘I didn’t do the dragging,’ said Wimsey mildly.
‘Oh yes you did. And where did you get those preposterous things you’re wearing, anyway?’
Wimsey directed a somewhat smug glance at his booted feet. ‘From the Lodge. Gave Earnshaw a promise of good behaviour in exchange for something guaranteed not to let in the damp. I don’t know where he got them from, but a bottle of whisky seemed a fair price. They’re jolly comfortable, too. Don’t pinch at all.’
Carruthers regarded his friend dyspeptically. ‘That’s all very well, but look at that. Ruined! You simply can’t get the marks out. I think I’m getting frostbite, I shall expire of pneumonia and my mother will weep, and then what will you say?’
‘That I warned you vanity would be the death of you.’
Carruthers paid this remark the attention it deserved, and continued. ‘Marston’s suffering will be some consolation, I suppose.’
‘Undoubtedly. Why do you suppose I refused the cricket ground?’
‘But a duel! It’s a bit much, Flim. Couldn’t you just have knocked him down at the time?’
‘Hardly,’ said Lord Peter. ‘He’s twice the size I am. Besides, this is much more fun.’
‘Is it?’ Carruthers blew on his hands and rubbed them vigorously together. ‘You wouldn’t think it was June, would you? Look here, Flim, why did you do it? You’ve never exchanged two words with Bessie Riley, and everyone knows it. You forced him to challenge you, and I’m wet, I’m cold, and you could at least have the decency to let me know why.’
Lord Peter, who had benefitted by the example of Charles I and was wearing two woollen vests and a pair of winter pants, shrugged. ‘I don’t care for him.’
By which Carruthers understood that Wimsey had indeed overheard Marston’s insufficiently sotto voce remark about his beautiful fiancé – that a mystery of its own to his fellow students who tended to regard the affair half as an inexplicable lapse of sense in the Great Flim, half as the most splendid romance since Tristan – and had chosen the present time to pay it back.
Apollo’s chariot moved grudgingly across the sky. Wimsey, lounging with irritating calm, watched as Carruthers returned from a short sprint across a drier portion of meadow.
‘Are you sure,’ said the latter, puffing a little, ‘that swords were a good idea? Marston’s pretty fit.’
‘A better idea than standing around to get shot at. Besides, he’ll be hampered by his footwear.’
‘It’s getting on a bit. Maybe he won’t show at all.’
‘I shouldn’t be surprised,’ said Lord Peter. ‘He wants to keep his pretty face. I don’t have that concern.’
The shadows, shortening and shifting, withdrew from the meadow towards the railway line and the rising sun revealed a third figure speeding towards the two men. Carruthers shaded his eyes with a hand.
‘Good God, it’s Trimble! Who’d have thought he could run like that?’
The unexpected athlete reached them a minute later, drew an enormous breath, released it, inhaled again, and burst out: ‘Quick! You’d better beat it! Marston’s been arrested, and the police’re coming here!’
‘What!’ exclaimed Carruthers. ‘Arrested? Whatever for?’
‘Intention to fight a duel, I expect,’ answered Lord Peter. ‘Isn’t that right?’
‘How did you know?’ said Trimble, and then with frowning suspicion. ‘I say! That’s a bit much, old chap.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Tug,’ said Wimsey. ‘It’s perfectly obvious Marston fixed it himself. He’s a bully and a coward and besides, I saw him yesterday with the station sergeant. If it’d just got about in coll, it’d be a proctor and the bulldogs, not the Strong Arm of the Law. If I’d been the one to set it up, I wouldn’t have made that mistake.’
‘Do you mean to say,’ said Carruthers in outraged tones, ‘that I got up at five o’clock, carted these damn things down here, ruined a good pair of boots, and have been shivering for hours and all the time you knew that Marston wasn’t going to show?’
‘Yes,’ said Wimsey.
‘Well! I must say you’ve got some bloody nerve!’
‘Oh do put a sock in it, there’s a good fellow. Early risin’s good for you, and I might have been wrong. Give those things to Tug if your feeble arms won’t bear it, and let’s go and have breakfast.’
For those now requiring an antidote to smug undergraduate Peter, a short commentfic on the subject can be found here.