The trouble began at the time Earl Brady’s car passed the Divers’ car stopped on the road—Abe’s account melted impersonally into the thronged night—Violet McKisco was telling Mrs. Abrams something she had found out about the Divers—she had gone upstairs in their house and she had come upon something there which had made a great impression on her. But Tommy is a watch-dog about the Divers. As a matter of fact she is inspiring and formidable—but it’s a mutual thing, and the fact of The Divers together is more important to their friends than many of them realize. Of course it’s done at a certain sacrifice—sometimes they seem just rather charming figures in a ballet, and worth just the attention you give a ballet, but it’s more than that—you’d have to know the story. Anyhow Tommy is one of those men that Dick’s passed along to Nicole and when Mrs. McKisco kept hinting at her story, he called them on it. He said:
“Mrs. McKisco, please don’t talk further about Mrs. Diver.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” she objected.
“I think it’s better to leave them out.”
“Are they so sacred?”
“Leave them out. Talk about something else.”
He was sitting on one of the two little seats beside Campion. Campion told me the story.
“Well, you’re pretty high-handed,” Violet came back.
You know how conversations are in cars late at night, some people murmuring and some not caring, giving up after the party, or bored or asleep. Well, none of them knew just what happened until the car stopped and Barban cried in a voice that shook everybody, a voice for cavalry.
“Do you want to step out here—we’re only a mile from the hotel and you can walk it or I’ll drag you there. You’ve got to shut up and shut your wife up!”
“You’re a bully,” said McKisco. “You know you’re stronger muscularly than I am. But I’m not afraid of you—what they ought to have is the code duello—”
There’s where he made his mistake because Tommy, being French, leaned over and clapped him one, and then the chauffeur drove on. That was where you passed them. Then the women began. That was still the state of things when the car got to the hotel.
Tommy telephoned some man in Cannes to act as second and McKisco said he wasn’t going to be seconded by Campion, who wasn’t crazy for the job anyhow, so he telephoned me not to say anything but to come right down. Violet McKisco collapsed and Mrs. Abrams took her to her room and gave her a bromide whereupon she fell comfortably asleep on the bed. When I got there I tried to argue with Tommy but the latter wouldn’t accept anything short of an apology and McKisco rather spunkily wouldn’t give it.
When Abe had finished Rosemary asked thoughtfully:
“Do the Divers know it was about them?”
“No—and they’re not ever going to know they had anything to do with it. That damn Campion had no business talking to you about it, but since he did—I told the chauffeur I’d get out the old musical saw if he opened his mouth about it. This fight’s between two men—what Tommy needs is a good war.”
“I hope the Divers don’t find out,” Rosemary said.
Abe peered at his watch.
“I’ve got to go up and see McKisco—do you want to come?—he feels sort of friendless—I bet he hasn’t slept.”
Rosemary had a vision of the desperate vigil that high-strung, badly organized man had probably kept. After a moment balanced between pity and repugnance she agreed, and full of morning energy, bounced upstairs beside Abe.
McKisco was sitting on his bed with his alcoholic combativeness vanished, in spite of the glass of champagne in his hand. He seemed very puny and cross and white. Evidently he had been writing and drinking all night. He stared confusedly at Abe and Rosemary and asked:
“Is it time?”
“No, not for half an hour.”
The table was covered with papers which he assembled with some difficulty into a long letter; the writing on the last pages was very large and illegible. In the delicate light of electric lamps fading, he scrawled his name at the bottom, crammed it into an envelope and handed it to Abe. “For my wife.”
“You better souse your head in cold water,” Abe suggested.
“You think I’d better?” inquired McKisco doubtfully. “I don’t want to get too sober.”
“Well, you look terrible now.”
Obediently McKisco went into the bathroom.
“I’m leaving everything in an awful mess,” he called. “I don’t know how Violet will get back to America. I don’t carry any insurance. I never got around to it.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, you’ll be right here eating breakfast in an hour.”
“Sure, I know.” He came back with his hair wet and looked at Rosemary as if he saw her for the first time. Suddenly tears stood in his eyes. “I never have finished my novel. That’s what makes me so sore. You don’t like me,” he said to Rosemary, “but that can’t be helped. I’m primarily a literary man.” He made a vague discouraged sound and shook his head helplessly. “I’ve made lots of mistakes in my life—many of them. But I’ve been one of the most prominent—in some ways—”
He gave this up and puffed at a dead cigarette.
“I do like you,” said Rosemary, “but I don’t think you ought to fight a duel.”
“Yeah, I should have tried to beat him up, but it’s done now. I’ve let myself be drawn into something that I had no right to be. I have a very violent temper—” He looked closely at Abe as if he expected the statement to be challenged. Then with an aghast laugh he raised the cold cigarette butt toward his mouth. His breathing quickened.
“The trouble was I suggested the duel—if Violet had only kept her mouth shut I could have fixed it. Of course even now I can just leave, or sit back and laugh at the whole thing—but I don’t think Violet would ever respect me again.”
“Yes, she would,” said Rosemary. “She’d respect you more.”
“No—you don’t know Violet. She’s very hard when she gets an advantage over you. We’ve been married twelve years, we had a little girl seven years old and she died and after that you know how it is. We both played around on the side a little, nothing serious but drifting apart—she called me a coward out there tonight.”
Troubled, Rosemary didn’t answer.
“Well, we’ll see there’s as little damage done as possible,” said Abe. He opened the leather case. “These are Barban’s duelling pistols—I borrowed them so you could get familiar with them. He carries them in his suitcase.” He weighed one of the archaic weapons in his hand. Rosemary gave an exclamation of uneasiness and McKisco looked at the pistols anxiously.
“Well—it isn’t as if we were going to stand up and pot each other with forty-fives,” he said.
“I don’t know,” said Abe cruelly; “the idea is you can sight better along a long barrel.”
“How about distance?” asked McKisco.
“I’ve inquired about that. If one or the other parties has to be definitely eliminated they make it eight paces, if they’re just good and sore it’s twenty paces, and if it’s only to vindicate their honor it’s forty paces. His second agreed with me to make it forty.”
“There’s a wonderful duel in a novel of Pushkin’s,” recollected Abe. “Each man stood on the edge of a precipice, so if he was hit at all he was done for.”
This seemed very remote and academic to McKisco, who stared at him and said, “What?”
“Do you want to take a quick dip and freshen up?”
“No—no, I couldn t swim.” He sighed. “I don’t see what it’s all about,” he said helplessly. “I don’t see why I’m doing it.”
It was the first thing he had ever done in his life. Actually he was one of those for whom the sensual world does not exist, and faced with a concrete fact he brought to it a vast surprise.
“We might as well be going,” said Abe, seeing him fail a little.
“All right.” He drank off a stiff drink of brandy, put the flask in his pocket, and said with almost a savage air: “What’ll happen if I kill him—will they throw me in jail?”
“I’ll run you over the Italian border.”
He glanced at Rosemary—and then said apologetically to Abe:
“Before we start there’s one thing I’d like to see you about alone.”
“I hope neither of you gets hurt,” Rosemary said. “I think it’s very foolish and you ought to try to stop it.”