The Friendly Foe

‘Not for a moment,’ said the Count, with great dignity, ‘did I suppose so.’

I thanked him.

He pressed my hand.

There followed one of those awkward pauses which are apt to follow on a supreme moment. He had just informed me that he did not for an instant suppose that I preferred any consideration before honour. The wind was driving the rain against my window as if it were a human thing that must be chased from the wide world without. The flames were leaping up the chimney, as if they owned some kinship with the wind and were rushing to meet him. I wanted to be alone, to enjoy the uproar in peace. How to get rid of the Count I did not know. Why the Count insisted on staying, I did not know. As he was going to shoot me, or I was going to shoot him, at eight o’clock the next morning, it seemed to me that this was waste of time; but you cannot make a remark of that kind to a guest, and he happened to be in my room.

‘Let me ask you one thing!’ said the Count. ‘You are a generous enemy. Though not in your first youth, you are younger than I am, and you have not been out before. I would not take you at a disadvantage. Do you believe in the soul’s future?’

‘A most unnecessary question,’ I said lightly. ‘In a few hours one of us will have answered it for good and all.’

He frowned.

‘You do not believe in it. I am reduced to a most unpleasant extremity. Unless you can reassure me upon this point, it is impossible for me to fight you. Unless I fight you, I am dishonoured.’

‘Why should it be impossible?’ I asked. But that the Count was by birth and breeding a perfect gentleman I might have suspected his courage.

‘It gives me an unfair advantage,’ he said, gazing steadily at me out of his deep-set eyes. ‘You fight, believing death is death. I fight, believing death is birth. I know something of your chivalrous nature. If I kill you, I, in my own opinion, set free a soul. If you kill me, you, in your own opinion, commit murder. I would not have you tortured in after life by this reflection. Once more I tell you, it is impossible for me to fight unless you give me some assurance. Once more I ask you, Do you believe in eternal life?’

‘I am fully sensible of your kind consideration for my feelings, but permit me to observe that I do not see what right you have to ask that question.’

‘You decline to answer it?’

‘I do.’

‘Then our affair is settled. I also decline to fight.’

He bowed, and walked towards the door.

‘Stay!’ I cried. ‘What are you going to do?’

He laid his hand upon a pistol.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Why?’

‘You leave me no other choice.’

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