What matter of honour?
This is the beginning of my novel Blood and Secrets. I set out my reasons for writing about the English Civil War in a previous post. This is also one of the short stories in my collection Geoffrey’s Historical Shorts, which I wrote about in another previous post. I hope you enjoy this short story. If so you might like to read the whole novel or some of the other shorts. Or just enjoy it.
A Matter of Honour.
Oxford, Spring 1642
“Are you a traitor, like your father?”
I was as shocked by the words as offended. I scanned the crowd of mocking faces to identify the speaker. The smuggest face drew my attention and my response, “Who wishes to know?”
The crowd laughed. My friend, Daniel Kelly nudged me, saying quietly, “Careful Ned, that’s Lord Winchester, a New College man, grandson of the Earl of Hampshire. He’s dangerous. Good with a sword and he’s got a lot of influence.”
I grunted and nodded in acknowledgement as I replied to the epitome of aristocratic arrogance in front of me. “I fear you are mistaken. I am Edward Stewart, son of Lord Rumney. We are both loyal subjects of King Charles. To whom were you intending to address yourself?”
“Oh, I know who you are. But whether you are a Welshman or a Scot eludes me. No matter. I know that you have spoken against the king, as your father has acted against him. Of course, Balliol is ever full of your sort.”
One of his lordship’s companions joined in. “He even keeps company with an Irishman. They’re as rebellious as the Scots, you know.”
It was Daniel’s turn to burn with anger as he stepped forwards. I knew his family had helped put down the last rebellion at great cost. I understood his ancestors had been loyal to the kings and queens of England since Norman times. I moved closer to him, saying, “Careful now, yourself. That’s only Steven de Vere, nephew of the Earl of Oxford. The living proof that empty vessels make most sound. He always agrees with the most important voice in his hearing.”
Ignoring him, and the chuckles coming from the others, Lord Winchester reminded me of his accusation. “Well, Stewart. Do you deny being a roundhead and the son of another?”
“I have merely agreed with many that there is much need of need of reform. I dare say my father has said much the same.”
“My grandfather, newly returned from London, tells me that Lord Rumney is one of those rebel lords who chose to support the Commons in their defiance of their sovereign.”
“I regret that I am unable to comment, not having the advantage of knowing exactly what has been said or why.”
For a moment my antagonist looked disappointed. Then he smiled and said, “My grandfather also tells me that your father is no aristocrat. Merely a climber who clung to the coat-tails of the late Duke of Buckingham to gain favour at court.” I wanted to knock that smile away.
Daniel nudged me again. “I can feel your anger. Rein it in before it gets you into trouble.”
I took a deep breath, clenching and unclenching my fists. “My father was indeed a friend of the Duke, but I assure you he was given his lands and titles for services in war and peace to the late King James.”
“In war? When?”
“He served as adjutant to Lord Seton when he went to the aid of the Elector of Bohemia.”
“My grandfather was there. As was my father, who was wounded in that campaign. Lord Rumney, or Sir Alexander Stewart, as he then was, merely kept account of the dead, the wounded and the missing, ensuring he became none of those.”
I took a step forwards, but Daniel grabbed me. His lordship’s entourage laughed. Daniel muttered, “Change the subject.” I couldn’t think how.
Lord Winchester stood confidently smirking. “Did not your father find a way of returning to England – or was it Scotland? Oh, no, Wales! That must be when he sired you. Perhaps he couldn’t keep away from your mother any longer. His duties had so little attraction for him. My father and grandfather both stayed for the duration.” Daniel whispered something to me.
I saw an opportunity to change the subject. “That is what has so long puzzled me.”
There were blank looks and whispers all round.
“What do you mean?” asked a slightly less confident Lord Winchester.
“If your father was away, how did he become your father? Or did he?”
Steven de Vere wrinkled his brow and replied, “He must have returned briefly, obviously.”
I looked pointedly at Lord Winchester. “Must he? Did he have a flying horse? Or did he let someone else fulfil his duties at home? Did your mother have many visitors that year? Or did one of the servants step up to it?”
He was no longer smiling as he stepped forwards and slapped me with a glove. “You’ll retract that and apologise or give me satisfaction in steel!” Cheers erupted from his sycophants.
When I could be heard, I answered, “If that is a challenge, I accept. But for one thing.” I paused. There were murmurs and puzzled looks again.
His lordship snapped, “Do not speak in riddles. Accept or refuse. What ‘one thing’ can you exclude?”
“Merely that as the respondent, I have the choice of weapon. You cannot assume it will be swords.”
“You mean that you choose pistols?”
Steven de Vere asked, “Why would you do that?”
I paused as long as I could, making them hang on my words. Twice Lord Winchester had to call for silence from the others. Twice he demanded my response. Once I pretended to be unable to hear. When I did reply, it caused an uproar.
“I do. Pistols!”
My antagonist’s face whitened. He departed quickly, leaving de Vere to make the arrangements.
Daniel was to be my second. As we walked away, he said, “That fellow’s a bully. Just because his grandfather’s got lands and power, he thinks he can get away with anything. And, like I said, he’s a good swordsman. It was clever of you to choose pistols. He’d have expected to cut you to pieces.”
“That’s what I thought. With pistols, you can never be sure, however good you are. Luck, or God’s Will, plays a big part.”
He nodded s we entered our college and made for the spiral staircase which connected with both our rooms, and said, “Pistols might be to your advantage. But there again, there’s the other side of it.”
I stopped, one foot on the bottom stair. “Remind me, if you please.”
“With a swordfight, people do get killed, but often as not the loser just gives up while he’s still alive, or the winner gives quarter anyway. Pistols aren’t so accommodating.”
I worried a lot for the next day and night, asking myself time and again if I could have found a more tactful way of answering the troublemaker, but coming back every time to the fact that that’s just what he was: a troublemaker. He would have kept on until he’d completely humiliated me, if I hadn’t stood up to him.
I also worried about what he had said to start with. What had my father said or done to make himself seem like a traitor? Yet everyone was arguing these days about the rights and wrongs of the king’s disagreements with parliament. It was hard to keep away from the subject. And harder still to remain friends with everyone. You had to take sides. Well, a lot of people wouldn’t let you be in the middle. If you weren’t for them you were against them. Being for them increasingly meant agreeing with everything the king said or did. For some other group it would mean disagreeing with it all. Daniel and I weren’t alone in wanting to stay in the middle and actually think about the issues – or choose not to – rather than following the crowd, but it was getting harder every day.
Early on the appointed morning, Daniel came to me saying, “I’ve seen his seconds. They’ll accept an apology only if you don’t demand one from their man. In other words, you’ll have to let him go around saying you’re a traitor and so is your father. I had to work hard to keep from challenging that fool de Vere to a duel myself. He thinks we Irish are all rebels like the Scots.”
“You know that my father came from Scotland to England, and later Wales, to serve King James when he was King of Scots and remained here, in his service, when he became King of England. King Charles himself was born in Scotland. But then de Vere knows nothing. Nobody will care what he says, I expect. Anyway, it looks as if I’m going to have to fight.”
I resumed studying the clothes spread over my bed as I tried to decide what to wear. I remembered my eldest brother, Henry, telling me to wear as little as possible in such circumstances unless it was armour. A thick coat wouldn’t save you from a shot from a pistol or a musket and merely hampered you.
Soon I was standing with Lord Winchester, our seconds, a doctor and the umpire, in a field, screened from the college by a row of trees. We selected our weapons and waited for our seconds to load them. Then we paced out the distance. The umpire asked for one last time if either party wanted to withdraw. I said nothing. I didn’t want to be killed and I didn’t want to kill Lord Winchester. This was foolish. However, I couldn’t abandon my family’s honour.
The umpire called upon us to take aim. I hefted the weapon and cocked it before taking aim. It felt heavier than I expected and it wobbled in my hand. I steadied it, wondering how long I could hold it firmly. I tried to concentrate on my target, Lord Winchester’s middle, while aware he was aiming at me. I stood sideways to him to make myself into as small a target as possible.
The umpire called, “FIRE!”
We fired. I felt a gust of wind and my hat blew away.
Lord Winchester fell sideways, letting out a cry. I went to step forwards but was reprimanded by the umpire, as it was not finished. The doctor examined us both and remarked that there was blood on top of my head. The wind that blew my hat off was caused by the shot that must have scratched my cranium without my noticing. My opponent was a better – or luckier – shot than I had expected. The doctor then reported to the umpire, who asked if either of us wanted to admit defeat, or alternatively to accept that honour was satisfied. To my astonishment, my adversary was keen to try again. The umpire ordered the pistols to be reloaded. Then we had to fire again. De Vere helped Lord Winchester to his feet. Or foot. One leg hung limp. He handed him a walking stick with which to support himself long enough to finish the duel.
The reloaded pistol that Daniel handed to me felt heavier than ever. I aimed again. My antagonist fired first. This time I felt more than the wind. My chest hurt as if something hot had been laid against it. I realised that my opponent’s shot had torn my clothes and the flesh across my chest. It did not seem to have gone very deep. I wondered if I would have been better off had I had more flesh there or less. As if it mattered! As I steadied my weapon again, Lord Winchester began shaking. “No! Please! For the love of God, have mercy!”
I lowered my pistol and looked at the umpire.
“Do you withdraw?”
“What? No. I want to give him the chance to do so.”
“You must either withdraw or take your shot.”
I fired into the ground somewhere between us.
We were then invited to withdraw or reload again, while the doctor examined us and declared us both fit to resume. My chest hurt so much I couldn’t endure it. At last, my opponent said his honour was satisfied. I need not apologise. We could put the matter behind us.
Lord Winchester and I were both reprimanded by the university authorities and obliged to make an outward show of reconciliation, at the insistence of the chaplains of both colleges. Soon after that, Daniel Kelly and Steven de Vere were both severely reprimanded for getting into a brawl. This somehow began with a visit by Steven’s older sister, Margaret, and ended when Steven broke Daniel’s arm after he had broken Steven’s jaw. Brawling was considered ungentlemanly as well as illegal, although Margaret said she thoroughly enjoyed it. I wondered if she was as pleased as I was that Steven was forced to keep his mouth shut for a while.