The Black Moth
by Georgette Heyer
Jack reined in his horse and rose in his stirrups to obtain a better view. Then his eyes flashed, and he whistled softly to himself. For the cause of all the turmoil was a slight, graceful girl of not more than nineteen or twenty. She was frenziedly resisting the efforts of her captors to drag her to another coach further up the road. Jack could see that she was dark and very lovely.
Another, elderly, lady was most valiantly impeding operations by clawing and striking at one of the men's arms, scolding and imploring all in one breath. Jack's gaze went from her to a still, silent figure at the side of the road in the shadow of a hedge, evidently the stage-manager. "It seems I must take a hand in this," he told himself, and laughed joyously as he fixed on his mask and dismounted. He tethered his mount to a young sapling, took a pistol from its holster, and ran softly and swiftly under the lea of the hedge up to the scene of disaster, just as the man who covered the unruly and vociferous pair on the box made ready to fire.
Jack's bullet took him neatly in the neck, and without a sound he crumpled up, one of his pistols exploding harmlessly as it fell to the earth.
With an oath the silent onlooker wheeled round to face the point of my lord's gleaming blade.
Carstares drew in his breath sharply in surprise as he saw the white face of his Grace of Andover.
"Damn you!" said Tracy calmly, and sprang back, whipping out his own rapier.
"Certainly," agreed Jack pleasantly. "On guard, M. le Duc!"
Tracy's lips curled back in a snarl. His eyes were almost shut. Over his shoulder he ordered curtly:
"Keep watch over the girl. I will attend to this young jackanapes."
On the word the blades clashed.
Jack's eyes danced with the sheer joy of battle, and his point snicked in and out wickedly. He knew Tracy of old for an expert swordsman, and he began warily.
The girl's persecutors retained a firm hold on either arm, but all their thoughts were centred on the duel. The men on the box got out their blunderbuss, ready to fire should the need arise, and the girl herself watched breathlessly, red lips apart, and eyes aglow with fright, indignation, and excitement. As for the old lady, she positively bobbed up and down shrieking encouragement to Carstares.
The blades hissed continuously against one another; time after time the Duke thrust viciously, and ever his point was skillfully parried. He was absolutely calm, and his lips sneered. Who it was that he was fighting, he had not the faintest idea; he only knew that his opponent had recognised him and must be speedily silenced. Therefore he fought with deadly grimness and purpose. Carstares, on the other hand, had no intention of killing his Grace. He had never liked him in the old days, but he was far too good-natured to contemplate any serious bloodshed. He was so used to Tracy's little affairs that he had not been filled with surprise when he discovered who the silent figure was. He did not like interfering with Belmanoir, but, on the other hand, he could no more stand by and see a woman assaulted than he could fly. So he fought on with the idea of disarming his Grace, so as to have him at a disadvantage and to be able to command his withdrawal from the scene. Once he feinted cleverly, and lunged, and a little blood trickled down over the Duke's hand. No sign made Belmanoir, except that his eyelids flickered a moment and his play became more careful.
Once the Duke thrust in tierce and Jack's sword arm wavered an instant, and a splash of crimson appeared on his sleeve. He, for the most part, remained on the defensive, waiting for the Duke to tire. Soon his Grace's breath began to come unevenly and fast, and beads of moisture started on his forehead. Yet never did the sneer fade nor his temper go; he had himself well in hand, and although his face was livid, and his brain on fire with fury, no trace of it showed itself in his sword-play.
Then Carstares changed his tactics, and began to put into practice all the arts and subtleties of fence that he had learnt abroad. He seemed made of steel and set on wires, so agile and untireable was he. Time after time he leapt nimbly aside, evading some wicked thrust, and all the while he was driving his Grace back and back. He was not panting, and now and again he laughed softly and happily. The blood from the wound on his arm was dripping steadily on to the ground, yet it seemed to Tracy to affect him not at all. But Jack himself knew that he was losing strength rapidly, and must make an end.
Suddenly he feinted, and fell back. Tracy saw his advantage and pressed forward within the wavering sword-point.
The next instant his sword was whirled from his grasp and he lay on the ground, unhurt but helpless, gazing up at the masked face and at the shortened rapier. How he had been thrown he did not know, but that his opponent was a past master in the art of fence he was perfectly sure.
My lord gave a little chuckle and twisted a handkerchief about his wounded arm.
"I am aware, m'sieur, that this is most unusual - and, in duels - forbidden. But I am sure milor' will agree that the circumstances are also - most unusual - and the odds - almost overwhelming!" He turned his head to the two men, one of whom released his hold on the girl's arm and started forward.
"Oh, no!" drawled my lord, shaking his head. "Another step and I spit your master where he lies."
"Stand," said his Grace calmly.
"Bien! Throw your arms down here at my feet, and - ah - release Mademoiselle!"
They made no move to obey, and my lord shrugged deprecatingly, lowering his point to Tracy's throat.
They still hesitated, casting anxious glances at their master.
"Obey!" ordered the Duke.
Each man threw down a pistol, eyeing Jack furtively, while the girl ran to her aunt, who began to soothe and fuss over her.
Jack stifled a yawn.
"It is not my intention to remain here all night. Neither am I a child - or a fool. Dépêchez!"
Belmanoir saw that the coachman had his blunderbuss ready and was only too eager to fire it, and he knew that the game was up. He turned his head towards the reluctant bullies who looked to him for orders.
"Throw down everything!" he advised.
Two more pistols and two daggers joined their comrades.
"A thousand thanks!" bowed my lord, running a quick eye over the men. "M. le Duc, I pray you be still. Now, you with the large nose - yes, mon ami, you - go pick up the pistol our defunct friend dropped."
The man indicated slouched over to the dead body and flung another pistol on to the heap.
My lord shook his head impatiently.
"Mais non. Have I not said that I am not entirely a fool? The unexploded pistol please. You will place it here, doucement. Very good."
His eye travelled to the men on the box. The coachman touched his hat and cried:
"I'm ready, sir!"
"It is very well. Be so good as to keep these gentlemen covered, but do not fire until I give the order. And now, M. le Duc, have I your parole that you will return swiftly from whence you came, leaving this lady unmolested, an' I permit you to rise?"
Tracy moved his head impatiently.
"I have no choice."
"Monsieur, that is not an answer. Have I your parole?"
"Yes, curse you!"
"But certainly," said Jack politely. "Pray rise."
He rested his sword-point on the ground, and watched Tracy struggle to his feet.
For an instant the Duke stood staring at him, with face slightly out-thrust.
"I almost think I know you," he said softly, caressingly.
Jack's French accent became a shade more pronounced.
"It is possible. I at least have the misfortune to know monsieur by sight."
Tracy ignored the insult, and continued very, very silkily:
"One thing is certain: I shall know you again - if I meet you!"
Even as the words left his mouth Jack saw the pistol in his hand and sprang quickly to one side, just in time to escape a shot that would have gone straight through his head. As it was, it caught him in his left shoulder.
"Do not fire!" he called sharply to the coachman, and bowed to his Grace.
"As I was saying, M'sieur - do not let me detain you, I beg."