April 15, 2010

Steel in the Morning


Steel in the Morning
by D. J. Cockburn

A knock on the door. Le Méridien rose from his chair and picked up the lantern from the floorboards. He turned it in a slow arc so the figures on the diagrams of fencing actions seemed to move with the shadows it cast. He buckled on his smallsword and paused by the door, breathing the aura of sweat that never quite left the air.

Le Méridien opened the door to Sarratt, who wore a smile that looked forced even in the flicker of the lantern.

"A fine morning for it," said Sarratt.

Le Méridien followed him down the stairs to the street. Sarratt knew better than to intrude on his mood.

Sarratt had a hackney carriage waiting, and Le Méridien's breath misted in the light of the driver's own lantern.

"'Morning, sirs!" The driver made to open the door, but Sarratt deftly placed himself between the driver's ebullience and Le Méridien. Le Méridien climbed in and arranged his cloak around himself. "Hyde Park it is, then," said the driver, "and seeing how it's such a fine morning, I think we'll make it a crown."

"That wasn't what we agreed." Sarratt's voice was as frosty as the April morning.

"That it weren't," said the driver, "but I didn't know why we was going there when we agreed it."

"You've no idea why we're going there, and it would be none of your business if you did," said Sarratt.

"Beggin' your pardon sir, but when a gentleman asks me to take 'im and 'is sword to Hyde Park this early in the morning, I don't have to ask for why. Also beggin' your pardon sir, I might agree that it's none of my business but his honor the justice o' the peace might not agree with me. So it's a crown."

Sarratt glanced at Le Méridien. "Very well. A crown." His voice came from between clenched teeth.

"Thank you kindly, sir." The driver shook his reins. The dull ring of horseshoes on cobblestones greeted the grey dawn that trudged between the rooftops.

Le Méridien allowed his eyes to close and his mind to wander. Fencing actions clamored for his attention, but he knew he must not heed them now. He must not allow the feel of a blade snared into counterquarte to occupy his mind lest it was still in possession when his life depended on his wrist turning into septime. Time enough to consider the moment when an opponent's parry would signal the second part of his une-deux when there was no danger of his anticipating it before it happened. He clasped his hands gently so his right hand would not stray to the hilt of his sword. How could a man who had gambled his life on the events of the next two hours think of anything but his gamble?

Le Méridien allowed himself to think of where the gamble began. He was handing a towel to a pupil sweating from his third lesson. "You've a good wind, Ensign Downe, but you mustn't let your body escape your mind."

Downe answered with a puzzled look that made him look much younger than his seventeen years.

"A fencer needs a quick body and you have that. But he also needs a strong mind, otherwise he becomes a brawler with a sword. I can train your body, but only you can keep it under your mind's mastery."

Downe bit his lip and nodded up at Le Méridien, whose six feet placed him a head higher. Le Méridien sighed. Downe learned the actions quickly enough, but there was something that prevented him from putting them together correctly.

"I'll make a pact with you," said Le Méridien, "I'll answer your question if you answer mine."

"My question?"

"The question you ask every time you flick your eyes at me. Like that." Downe looked away. "My father was Le Vicomte d'Arles. He took my mother as his mistress while on his plantations in Martinique, and took her back to France when she fell enceinte. I was born on their last day at sea, hence my name. My mother was born a slave, but the Jacobins raised her to the aristocracy when they guillotined her. I escaped to your own fair land, where I found that life on a country estate had taught me only one way of earning my bread." He tapped the button of a practice foil.

Downe's eyes were as wide as cannon muzzles. "You've hardly any accent," he said at last.

"Thank you. Now you must answer my question. Why do you wish to learn to fence?"

Downe's eyes wandered round the room, and Le Méridien saw a dozen lies rise to his lips and pass them by. They both knew he would tell the truth.

"I must kill my brother-in-law." He spat the word 'brother'.

"Why? Has he cheated you at bridge or merely spoken slightingly of your regiment?"

Downe's mouth hardened into a line that was beyond humor. "He seduced my sister."

Le Méridien almost asked whether she enjoyed it, but Downe's hands bunched into quivering fists and he held his peace.

"He slipped laudanum into her wine. She was only sixteen. She didn't know what was happening to her. My uncle found them…" Downe's voice tailed off, but left no doubt as to what he found them doing. "My mother paid him my father's legacy and ruined our family to make him marry her. I'll never forget Caroline's face the last time I saw her. She made one mistake and now her life is sold for our family's reputation."

"So now he must die?"

"Then Caroline can return to my mother with the legacy and her reputation. But I don't think I could kill him for those reasons alone. I must kill him for seducing her."

"And you'll all be a happy family again?"

A ghost of fear paled Downe's cheeks. "My regiment takes ship for Moore's army in the Peninsula in six weeks. I don't know when we'll come back."

Le Méridien paused for a moment to rue his question. He'd seen Downe as just another guinea-a-week pupil for the last time.

"Monsieur Le Méridien," said Downe, "I think this might be a fool's question, but is there–can you teach me—the perfect thrust?"

"Yes. Perhaps not today, but yes I think I can teach it to you."

Downe looked surprised. "Captain Fisher—the best fencer in my regiment—says it doesn't exist."

"It exists. A perfectly executed lunge with the correct disengagement at the ideal distance is impossible to parry."

Downe looked disappointed. "I've heard rumors of other actions. Secret actions."

Le Méridien smiled. "You've been listening to rumors of bottes secretes? Secret thrusts?"

Downe didn't meet Le Méridien's gaze. "They say my brother-in-law knows one."

"He's been out before then?"

"Several times. He's always killed his man."

Le Méridien raised his eyes to the ceiling. "I've met many swordsmen who strike with a favorite move that's difficult to parry if you're not anticipating it, but they all can be parried. The thrust that I shall teach you is known to every man who ever took lessons in fencing, and if any could execute it in more than one attempt of a hundred, fencing would be a dead art. Now to business. Is your brother-in-law right handed or left?"


"How tall is he?"

Le Méridien saw steel in Downe's eyes as he spoke of his brother-in-law, and began to believe that it might be possible to keep him alive.

* * *

A keen wind blew across London Bridge. Sarratt nudged Le Méridien and offered his hip flask. Le Méridien shook his head, as Sarratt must have known he would. Le Méridien felt a twinge of sympathy for Sarratt, who would much prefer a late night discussion on the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society to helping Le Méridien risk his life early in the morning.

The riding lights of barges moored near the bridge glowed like the eyes of beasts of prey, their bulk just visible in the twilight. The great dome of St. Paul's Cathedral loomed ahead, promising the judgment the morning would bring. Le Méridien closed his eyes again, and saw Downe's customary pensive look.

"Will you act for me?"

Le Méridien raised his eyebrows. "There must be officers in your regiment who know the conventions as well as I?"

Who wouldn't be mulattos, but there was no reason to labor the obvious.

Downe picked up a foil and practiced a few parries without looking at Le Méridien. His silence told the story of a friendless boy who could not tell his brother officers of his family's shame.

"I'd be honored." Le Méridien was surprised to find he meant it. "Smallswords, I presume."

"He always fights with smallswords." Downe's hand shot out to lead his body in a lightning lunge, bending the foil against the exact centre of a target.

"Downe, you may not thank me for saying this, but I must say it."


Le Méridien inhaled slowly. "The ball of a pistol usually misses, however deadly the aim. The edge of a saber cuts to the bone, but rarely deeper. The point of a smallsword needs only to enter a finger's length into a man's body, and if he doesn't bleed to death in an hour, he'll die of putrefaction in a week. Sometimes—often—the best choice is forgiveness."

Downe hit the target again and followed with a perfect recovery to the en garde position. "I must kill him."

"Then you had better tell me his name."

"William Olde."

* * *


* * *

Sarratt glared at the carriage driver and handed him a crown.

"I won't go far," said the driver, "It's only sixpence to go back."

"Damn your insolence," muttered Sarratt.

Le Méridien's feet were already crunching the morning frost as he strode into the park.

"Good luck, mate." The driver's voice sounded subdued as it floated after him. Le Méridien raised a hand in thanks, but did not turn back.

He strode the mile or so to the meeting place, feeling the exercise pump his blood around his limbs and drive out the cold and stiffness of the carriage. He'd need that blood flowing fast before long.

He wasn't surprised to find they were the first at the meeting place. Le Méridien felt a coldness that did not come from the air as he recalled that his challenger liked to appear late, to give his opponent time to nurture his fear. Today, Le Méridien vowed, he had mistaken his man. All he would nurture would be that coldness, and to do that he must not think of the last time he had waited for the same man in the same place. To do that would be to risk rage, which was as dangerous as fear. Yet he could not keep his eyes from straying to the grass where he fancied he could see the indentation of a body, and the memory of a bloodstain that would be revealed when the frost thawed.

He could almost see the footprints on the patch of ground where he had given Downe his last minute practice. Practice would not help Le Méridien now, but Downe was of a different temperament and it had kept him from dwelling on what was to come. There had been a mist that morning, and the four figures were only fifty paces away by the time they took shape. A man as tall as Le Méridien led with a much smaller woman on his arm. Her features were hidden by the hood of her cloak. Two fat men waddled behind. One carried a surgeon's bag and Le Méridien guessed the other was Olde's second. Le Méridien looked back to the tall man, who must be Olde. He was about forty, with the florid complexion and bulging midriff of a man who lived well, but there was a strength and quickness in his stride that belied his inelegant figure. He would be puffing like a grampus by the end of one of Le Méridien's lessons, but Le Méridien guessed his wind would last for the few minutes that the encounter would probably take.

The woman stopped dead, dragging on Olde's arm. He jerked her forward. "Come along, Caroline," he said as though to a disobedient dog.

Her hood slipped back from her head and Le Méridien saw she was barely more than a girl with the same wide eyes as Downe, on whom her shocked gaze rested as she stumbled after Olde.

Le Méridien turned to Downe and his heart sank. Downe's eyes and mouth gaped in an exact reflection of the girl's.

"Caroline," breathed Downe, then he called her name aloud. Olde's second glared at the breach of protocol.

Le Méridien knew that the reins he had taught Downe's mind to control his body with were tenuous at best, and he could see the girl's presence sawing through them. He guessed that Olde had told his wife she was coming to watch him fight, but not that he was fighting her brother. She looked as astonished as Downe.

Le Méridien stepped in front of Downe, blocking his view of Olde's party, and seized his shoulders. "Look at me Downe. Look at me! Now listen to me. Are you listening?"

Downe swallowed and nodded.

"Don't look at her. She isn't here. The only people here are you and him. Do you understand?"

Downe nodded again.

"You can fight for her, but don't look at her because she isn't here. Just you and him, and he's a dead man who still thinks he's alive. Isn't he?"

"He's a dead man."

"Good man. Now turn to face the tree behind you, and take your cloak off while I meet his second."

Downe's jaw tightened and he didn't look so young any more. "He's a dead man."

Le Méridien searched his mind for a way to postpone the meeting, but there was none. He could no more stop it than he could stop a falling stone pushed off a cliff, and the stone had been pushed before he even met Downe. It was too late now because he was face to face with Olde's second. Le Méridien imagined the man's doubled chin flapping with laughter when Olde explained his plan to unman Downe with the presence of his sister. Yet he had to offer the man his hand. "My name's Le Méridien. Your servant, sir."

The other man guffawed and pressed Le Méridien's hand as briefly as protocol allowed. "Servant? Look more like a slave to me. My name's Theobald Inkham. Are you really the best the pup could do?"

Le Méridien raised his chin. He looked down his nose at the cat's cradle of veins tangling across Inkham's face. "I acknowledge I'm a nigger, but I am at least a sober one."
Inkham snorted and his nose grew even redder. "I'll be sober when you're still a nigger."

"I'll wager you won't be sober for as long as I remain a nigger."

Inkham's jaw quivered, sending a wave of tremors across his chins. "Damn your eyes! Tell the pup we're ready as soon as he's got his nerve up. You can tell them to begin. See if I care!"

He turned and clumped back to Olde, who stood with a hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword. His posture was a study in nonchalance, and Le Méridien doubted anyone without his fencing master's eye would see the tension in his shoulders.

He got Olde and Downe en garde as soon as he could. He did not want to allow Downe any time to think, though he could see how taut his muscles were. It was a far cry from the fluidity that allowed the explosive movements he'd mastered over the last month, but there was no help for it now. "Allez!"

Le Méridien could see Olde's sneer was studied, but it probably looked confident enough to intimidate Downe. Olde tapped Downe's blade with his own a couple of times. Downe's sword jerked into an unnecessary parry. Le Méridien winced. He saw exactly what was going to happen, how Downe would try to follow his teaching and get it disastrously wrong.

It happened. Downe stepped forward into the perfect distance for the perfect thrust, and lunged. His point dropped to deceive Olde's parry and flicked up to drive into the torso. But Olde hadn't parried. Downe had anticipated a move that Olde hadn't made. His blade rang on Olde's and scraped harmlessly past his body. Olde riposted. Downe somehow managed to parry it as he stumbled back.

Olde stepped back to avoid a wild and mistimed thrust. They came back en garde and Le Méridien let out his breath. It was a miracle that Downe had survived that riposte.

Downe's lips were drawn back to reveal the bared teeth of a cornered animal that might run away or fight desperately, but couldn't think and so couldn't fence. A grim purpose that Le Méridien did not doubt was entirely authentic had replaced Olde's sneer as he advanced and beat Downe's blade. Downe parried wildly. Olde stepped back. Downe followed and Olde was flying back from him, but for all the apparent panic in his attempts to catch Downe's blade, Le Méridien saw Olde's feet fall exactly where they should fall. He saw Olde's back leg stretch behind him, take his weight, then snap straight like a spring. He closed his eyes so he didn't see Olde's perfect thrust impale Downe. A falsetto scream bored into Le Méridien's skull and tore his eyes open.

Downe's contorted body lay before Olde, who threw his head back, stretched his arms out to his sides and bared his teeth at the sky. Air rushed out of his lungs in a hissing roar of exultation. He took one more look at Downe, and turned on his heel. "Inkham! My cloak if you please!"

Inkham scurried forward, his congratulations stumbling over each other. Le Méridien realized that Inkham was here as much to do Olde's boasting for him in the drinking clubs of the gentry as to hold his cloak.

Caroline Olde's dull eyes moved from her brother to her husband. Her jaw hung as though she was unsure of what she had just witnessed.

"Caroline!" barked Olde. "Stop dreaming! Time to go!" He pushed his arm through hers and towed her after him. She turned back once more, and Le Méridien saw comprehension beginning to dawn. It was the face of a girl who had thought she had already lost everything, and just discovered that she had been wrong.

Le Méridien forced himself to look at Downe. Blood poured from a slash that ran six inches to the left from just below his sternum. Olde must have sliced his blade across after he drove it home. No wonder he always killed his man. The surgeon lifted Downe's head and tried to force a bottle between his lips, but Downe's mouth was clamped shut so tightly that he had bitten through his bottom lip. He was determined not to scream again.

The surgeon shrugged and took a pull from the bottle himself. "I loathe these encounters," he said to Le Méridien, "but it was a decent enough thrust in all fairness."

Le Méridien shook his head. "A man takes a bribe to make a girl his slave, kills her brother for loving her, and the only one who sees wrong in it is the dingy Christian."

It took Downe an hour to bleed to death. It took Le Méridien less than five minutes to decide another man must die.

* * *


* * *

There was no mist this morning; just the usual haze of smog, so Le Méridien saw the three men coming some way off. He shook off the memories, annoyed with himself for succumbing to them when he needed a clear head.

Olde strode in front, unencumbered by his wife today, and Inkham and the same surgeon scuttled behind him. Le Méridien forced himself to stand calmly. He would have preferred to sit, but the grass was wet from the recently melted frost. Le Méridien was a fencing master, but it had been years since he had last fought in earnest. Olde was a skilled swordsman who had earned his lethal reputation. Le Méridien closed his eyes and pushed the thought from his mind.

It had taken some finesse to bring Olde here. A direct insult from a mulatto would just invite him to break down the door with a riding crop in one hand and a pistol in the other, even if he had tacitly accepted Le Méridien as an equal by not objecting to his seconding Downe. Instead, Le Méridien had sent a letter to Inkham on the previous Saturday afternoon, asking if he was aware of Olde's conduct towards the Downe family. As Le Méridien had foreseen, Inkham thought it was a huge joke and spent the evening in his club blurting the contents of the letter to anyone who would listen. By Sunday morning it was the talk of the Fancy and Olde's reputation depended on sending a formal challenge.

Le Méridien opened his eyes as Olde strode to the same spot he had occupied when Le Méridien had last seen him. Le Méridien turned towards him but kept his eyes unfocused, allowing his mind to remain clear. Olde looked everywhere but at Le Méridien, but Le Méridien caught the occasional raking glance that Olde did not want him to see. Le Méridien smiled inwardly. A swordsman sees a man best when he does not look directly at him.

But the time for smiling was past. Sarratt was going to meet Inkham, and Le Méridien allowed himself a single sharp look at Olde. This man would die. No, not this man, for it's no easy thing to cut into a breathing, sweating man's body. This beast who had taken a defenseless girl. This thing.

Sarratt was coming back. His angry flush told Le Méridien that Inkham had not improved his manners. Le Méridien knew what the arrangements would be so he allowed Sarratt's explanation to wash over him while he took off his cloak. He unbuttoned his shirt to the chest to show he was wearing no amour beneath it, and felt the cold caress of the morning on his bare skin.

He drew his sword from his scabbard and raised it before him. He tilted it so the reflections of the wan sun chased each other up the Solingen steel to the point. Their smooth progress told him his hand was steady. His gaze lingered for a moment on the point, so sharp he could plunge it through an inch of cured leather with a good lunge. He took a deep breath, drawing sharp air into his nostrils and savoring the cleanliness of it, so different from the stink of too many people in one place that he could never escape in the city.

Le Méridien realized Sarratt had unbuckled his scabbard. He walked towards Olde, who was walking towards him. For a moment, Olde could have been his reflection in a looking glass as both men converged on the same point. Le Méridien felt the slight impact of his feet on the ground with a keenness that he welcomed as an old friend.

Sarratt stood between them, slightly to the side. "En garde."

Le Méridien's muscles slid his limbs into the stance as easily as putting on a well-fitting jacket. Sarratt passed his own sword between their points to show they were separated. Le Méridien looked at Olde's face for the first time. He wore the same sneer that he had worn against Downe. The sneer of an aggressive man with no fear of his opponent. A man who expected to attack, who would not retreat unless he found himself desperate.


Olde advanced immediately. Le Méridien let him, and kept his grip slack so he did not react when Olde tapped his blade. Olde tried a more aggressive attack, though without closing the distance. Again Le Méridien did not react, watching what Olde did without revealing anything of himself.

Olde attacked again, trying to take Le Méridien's blade aside. Le Méridien stepped back. Olde stepped forward in a way that announced he was ready to raise the tempo. Le Méridien stayed on the defensive, parrying and retreating. Olde's aggressive look may have been studied but it wasn't a sham, and there was a chance he would get carried away and over-commit himself.

The firm ring of a perfectly placed parry. Le Méridien's right hand shot out in an almost involuntary riposte. Olde sprang back and parried weakly. Le Méridien seized the initiative and advanced and suddenly Olde was flying backwards, his blade frantically seeking Le Méridien's.

It was the moment Le Méridien had been waiting for and he followed, waiting for the slight stiffening of Olde's posture there that warned him to stop his weight on the front leg there so he was in the right place to parry the thrust that killed Downe. He bound Olde's blade out of the way with a sweep of the wrist. Hurled himself into his own lunge. Olde's left arm shot in front of Le Méridien's point. Le Méridien swept his point up so it didn't touch Olde. He stepped back.

Olde was frozen, his blade out to one side, seemingly unable to believe he was not cut. His face was crimson and streaked with sweat and confusion. He raised his eyes to Le Méridien's. Le Méridien raised an eyebrow and nodded as he would to a pupil acknowledging his own mistake. Olde's mouth tightened as he realized that Le Méridien had pulled back because he did not want the encounter to end with a wound. He wanted a death.

Olde came back en garde and advanced, but the resolve was gone from his step. The sneer was trying to return to his face, but it was an insipid shadow of what it had been. The habit of aggression was still with him, and Le Méridien suppressed a surge of triumph as he saw Olde following him, unwittingly allowing him to set the distance.

Le Méridien continued his slow retreat. Back foot, front foot, back foot, front foot, back foot just a tiny way back and Olde fell for it. He made a full step forward. Le Méridien lunged. The merest twitch of the beginning of Olde's panic-stricken parry as he saw Le Méridien closer than he expected. Le Méridien dipped his point under the parry, dropped his left hand to his thigh, drove the point into the open line. The grate of a rib, the grudging yield of flesh. Le Méridien's right hand flew across to cover Olde's blade with his own before he had even withdrawn the point. Olde tried to step forward, the vestige of his sneer still on his face. Blood foamed from his mouth and poured down his shirt. He sank to his knees, his elbows, his side.

Le Méridien's legs, so supple he had not even been aware of them a moment ago, threatened to drop him to the ground. His fingers locked on the grip of his sword so hard his forearm ached, and he had to press the hilt against his hip to keep the blade from shaking. He felt a burning need to empty his bladder.

"Damn it all, Le Méridien, how do you manage to look so calm?" Sarratt's face swam before him, looking every bit as strained as Le Méridien felt. Sarratt offered his hip flask and Le Méridien took a pull. He shuddered with pleasure as the rum burned down his gullet.

He took another breath of the wonderful, clean air and looked down at Olde convulsing in the arms of the surgeon. Le Méridien's eye fell on the slash below the sternum. Had he intended to kill Olde with the same wound that had killed Downe, or had he simply returned to a position of defense before he fully recovered from the lunge? He knew he would believe both possibilities when he was in different moods, but now with the act fresh in his mind, no answer came to him.

Le Méridien took another mouthful of rum and handed the flask back to Sarratt. He smiled. "Thank you, my dear Sarratt. Now shall we to breakfast?"

Sarratt's grin broke through his furrows of worry. "Excellent idea. Before the justice asks if he may join us."

"Or if we may join him. I don't doubt that he's a man of parts, but I have a widow to return to her mother and I fear his company may be a hindrance."

* * *

D. J. Cockburn says: I have been publishing occasional stories for several years now, in between receiving a long monologue of rejections and earning a living through medical research on various parts of the African continent. Other phases of my life have included teaching unfortunate children and experimenting on unfortunate fish.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

They usually start with either an idea from something I read or a place I visit that strikes a particular resonance. I’ve been fascinated by the Regency period for a long time, which inspires me to read as much as I can about it and my reading tends to spin off story ideas. Most of what went into ‘Steel in the Morning’ came from Richard Cohen’s excellent ‘By the Sword’, which describes the history of the sword duel with vivid detail and introduced me to Le Chevalier de St George, the son of a Haiti plantation owner and one of his slaves who became one of the most renowned fencers, musicians, athletes and lovers of eighteenth century France. St George embraced the revolution when it came but did not shake of the stigma of aristocracy and was destroyed by the Terror. He was far too interesting not to base a character on, even if I did have to have him born a couple of decades later and let him escape to England.


Carol Hone said...

Lovely swash buckler of a story. You really sound as if you know how to fence!