FIELD OF MARS, FIELD OF VENUS
by Nene Adams
©2008 – All rights reserved
Rebecca Sparkes coolly observed her opponent standing at the other end of the clearing in London’s Hyde Park. Lady Chetwood was tall and dark as a Spaniard; she was well-read, intelligent, an ardent mathematician and astronomer who also ground precision lenses for fellow amateurs wishing to study the stars and planets through their telescopes. Her conversations were always fascinating. Under other circumstances, Rebecca might have remained on friendly terms with Elinor Chetwood, but not today.
Not today on the Field of Mars, the dueling ground where honor would be satisfied by blood or death if necessary.
“’Becca, are you certain this is the wisest course to take?” asked the gentleman acting as her second, a close cousin named Dennison. He was an Army major, his regiment recently home from the Peninsula. Although risking his reputation by participating in a scandal like a female duel, he had stood by Rebecca with admirable fortitude. “Cannot you and Lady Chetwood be reconciled?” he went on.
“Denny, I’ve not retreated from a challenge and I’ll not begin now,” Rebecca answered him, a renewed surge of anger making her grit her teeth. “Elinor Chetwood has ill-used and insulted me as well as my dear love, yet I did not offer offense in return. She challenged me. Her ladyship chose this infamous course of her own will; let her be the one who cries off and suffers the blemish for cowardice..]”
Dennison just shook his head and said no more.
Rebecca glanced to the side where her love stood waiting in the weak early morning sunlight, her face wan with apprehension. Miss Alice Titherington was nothing like Elinor, she thought. Alice was as pretty as an angel, all softness in her speech and manners, all golden curls and eyes as blue as a summer’s sky. Rebecca’s heart melted. Poor Alice, whose nerves were no doubt in shreds.
Last evening, Alice had trembled and demurred when Rebecca would have taken her into an embrace, protesting that she could not bear to see anyone hurt in a horrid duel, could not bear to be kissed at such a time, how could ‘Becca, had she no consideration—oh, oh, oh! In tears, Alice had squirmed away and taken her leave.
The recollection gave Rebecca pause. Had Alice’s affections cooled somewhat? Was it true, as Elinor had told her, that Alice was betraying her with another? No, it had to be a lie, a very damnable lie, otherwise Rebecca would not be here waiting to kill the woman whom she had once believed was her best friend.
A chill breeze ruffled her red hair. Rebecca tucked a stray lock behind her ear and shivered, wishing she had not put off her pelisse so soon. As a concession to the early spring weather she was wearing a flannel petticoat, as well as boots more suited to the country than Town. A clammy mist writhed ankle-high along the ground, dissipating where the sun was gaining strength. Rebecca rubbed her hands together to keep them warm as Dennison went to speak to Elinor’s second, a florid-faced, middle-aged gentleman dressed in somber black.
Elinor’s godfather, Rebecca believed, having a vague recollection of meeting the gentleman in the past at a whist party. She and Elinor had often been in each other’s houses in Derbyshire, where their families’ properties bordered on each another. The two of them had once been inseparable, but that was before Alice came into their lives.
The sickening hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach intensified.
Rebecca swallowed past the knot in her throat. The duel was really going to happen. It was Elinor’s fault, she told herself, tasting sour bile. Elinor’s lie, Elinor’s challenge, Elinor’s responsibility. Not hers.
Dennison returned bearing a rosewood case. “Are you truly certain this is your desire?” he persisted. “No blows were struck on either side. An apology from Lady Chetwood would suffice to satisfy honor.”
“An apology from her signifies nothing,” Rebecca replied, wishing she felt as adamant as she sounded. “The damage has been irrevocably done.”
“Then as the challenged party, you may choose your weapon,” he said, lifting the case’s lid to reveal a brace of exquisite dueling pistols nestled in red velvet.
Rebecca took one of the pistols. The weight in her hand, the smooth checkered walnut butt that fitted her palm, the smells of oil and gunpowder suddenly crashed in on her, a jolt of reality that could not be denied.
“Mr. Gerrard cleaned the pistols, drew and dried the charges, and knapped the flints in my presence,” Dennison said. The normally good-natured twinkle in his eyes was gone, replaced by a seriousness that struck Rebecca as wrong in such a merry young gentleman. “They’re very fine, made by Manton’s for Mr. Gerrard himself.”
“Thank you,” she managed to reply.
Dennison hesitated. “I wish the matter had not come to this.”
Rebecca nodded grimly, opening the frizzen to be sure the powder was dry. Her eccentric father had taught Rebecca how to hunt, how to shoot muskets, shotguns and pistols, leaving her well acquainted with handling firearms. She was aware that in the rare duel between females, their well-meaning male seconds often disabled pistols to prevent the ladies being hurt. With that in mind, she peered down the barrel to find the ball had been patched with rag to ensure it did not fire awry. After checking the sharpness of the flint in the cock with her thumb, she realized that Dennison had not resorted to such tricky. She did not know whether to be glad or sorry.
Mr. Gerrard came stalking forward, his disapproval clearly visible. “We are ready to begin,” he said, running a jaundiced eye over Rebecca and making her feel almost foolish. “There is a surgeon standing by in case of need.”
“Thank you, sir,” Rebecca said. Though her legs were leaden, she forced herself to walk out into the clearing towards the place where Elinor was waiting. She gave Alice a glance, trying to muster a reassuring smile. Huddled in a wool redingote, her hands hidden in a swan’s-down muff, Alice stared at her blankly and did not respond.
To Rebecca’s surprise, she spotted her brother, Frederick, in the act of clambering down from his high-flyer phaeton. Frederick was not supposed to know about the duel. What was he doing here? Did he intend to stop her? Rebecca was about to call out to him when she saw him hurry over to Alice, paying Rebecca no heed. What was he doing? She craned her neck to peer at them. Frederick was bent over Alice, talking in her ear. They seemed very cozy together, Alice’s golden curls brushing his cheek. Rebecca suffered a momentary doubt. Was Elinor right? Pride made her reject the notion out of hand, as she had done from the start.
“Take your positions,” Gerrard said, his voice booming overly loud.
Startled, Rebecca nearly dropped the pistol. She recovered her grip, scalded by Gerrard’s superior smirk Elinor was also a witness to her near humiliation. Seething, Rebecca made to turn around and stopped when Elinor put a hand on her shoulder.
“Please, I pray you listen, ‘Becca,” Elinor murmured. She appeared exhausted and shaken; her handsome face had a ghostly pallor, and the skin under her eyes looked bruised. “I meant you no harm. Regardless of what happens here today, I am still your friend.”
Rebecca wrenched her shoulder away. “You lied to me, you spewed that disgusting filth about Frederick and Alice… we are not friends, Elinor. It is obvious from your actions that we were never true friends. A true friend would not have spoken so about my love.”
The pain flickering through Elinor’s dark eyes was a good indication of how wounded she was by the statement. She stepped back a pace, the long lean lines of her body stiffening, her mouth tightening into a thin tense line.
Good, Rebecca thought meanly, let her stew in a pain of her own making,, even as I suffer. She would never forget the day Elinor had come to her bearing a tale about setting up a telescope on the roof of Broadshaw, her family’s country manor, in order to observe the dawn star. She claimed to have inadvertently overseen Alice and Frederick kissing in the garden. Rebecca refused to believe an obvious lie. Elinor had persisted, a bitter argument ensued which had carried on through the shooting season, Christmas, Twelfth Night and beyond, and now here they were in Hyde Park ready to kill each other over Alice’s honor.
Without her volition, Rebecca’s gaze strayed to where Frederick and Alice were deep in conversation. What topic had them so engrossed?
Gerrard coughed, a phlegmy sound. “Take your positions,” he repeated irritably.
Rebecca whirled about without hesitation, almost losing her balance when the heel of her boot caught on the muddy ground. Her face flamed. She straightened, staring forward.
From behind, she heard Elinor say in a low voice, “That chit Alice Titherington—who has no relations, no income and no prospects of any merit whatsoever, as you know—merely used you to get to your brother, Frederick. He is your father’s sole heir. He will inherit all your family’s wealth, which is no great secret. Neither is your attraction to your own sex, ‘Becca. Your friends,” she emphasized the word, “care naught for such things.”
“Be quiet,” Rebecca said, sucking in a breath that ached in her chest.
“Your friends,” Elinor continued resolutely, “and those who love you wish for nothing save your welfare. Miss Titherington has deceived you. Look at her! See how she dotes on your brother, how she simpers at him. Your own aunt, Mrs. Sparkes, remarked to me not a fortnight past on the apparent attachment, and said she expects Frederick will make an offer of marriage, though your aunt deplores the connection. He is besotted, I’m told. Tell me, ‘Becca, tell me plain: can you say in honesty that Alice returns the depth of your regard?”
Rebecca shut her eyes; she would not allow herself to look at Alice and Frederick. She trusted her brother, though to be fair he knew nothing about her past affairs with women, and could not have been conscious that she and Alice shared a connection that was more eros than platonic. Still, Frederick had not an ounce of malice in him. He was a bluff and honest fellow, slightly stupid, wholly loyal. Frederick would never hurt her. Neither would Alice.
Or would she? Rebecca recalled a few instances when she entered a room to find Alice and Frederick playing at billiards, or sitting close and reading novels out loud, or seen them riding together in his phaeton. She had supposed that Alice, young and spoiled and a little flighty, had been having fun without considering how it might seem to others.
Rebecca clenched her teeth together. Had she been blind to the truth? No, she decided, Alice was faithful. She clung to that fact. She could not do otherwise or she might go mad. It was better to believe that Alice was a foolish girl who had unthinkingly behaved in a way that made evil-minded people mistake her motives than that Rebecca herself was love’s fool, deceived by a calculating baggage who hoped to marry above her station.
Her hands were shaking, her fingers numb. An icy sensation rippled down her spine to pool uneasily in her bowels. She put it down to nervousness, not second thoughts. Opening her eyes, she muttered out of the side of her mouth, “I don’t believe you.”
Elinor’s sigh was deep and heart-felt. “Very well, ‘Becca. I have one last thing to say.I challenged you to a duel because you refused to see me. You sent back my letters unopened. You cut me dead at balls and assemblies. This was my way of ensuring that we would speak, as I was hoping you might see reason. However, I see you remain stubborn in your grievance. There’s no help for it, I suppose.” She paused. “You ought to know that I intend to delope.”
“What?” Rebecca blurted in shock. Almost at once, the surprise turned to rage.
“Take twenty paces forward and halt,” Gerrard instructed.
An infuriated Rebecca turned, heedless of the rules of combat. Gerrard gasped, probably believing she was about to shoot Elinor where she stood. Rebecca evaded his lunge. “Am I not worthy of a serious attempt to salvage my honor?” she spat. “Is your so-called regard for me so contemptible that you will fire into the air rather than at my person?”
Elinor remained calm. “I will not hurt you, not willingly,” she said, “because you have been my friend these five years, and I love you more than I love myself.”
The woman’s confidence and obvious affection made Rebecca hesitate, her anger smothered by recollection. Until Alice, she and Elinor had been the fastest of friends, closer than sisters, though they were never lovers. Rebecca always assumed it was because Elinor did not share her inclination towards the ‘game of flats,’ as it was vulgarly called.
Elinor could not be speaking of a romantic attachment—there had been plenty of opportunities for that, Rebecca thought, remembering all the nights they had shared a bed— but rather a familial fondness, a liking shared between two people who were drawn to one another in amiable accord. Rebecca wavered. Alice was her love, but Elinor was the one creature on earth whom she trusted with her secrets, her desires, her dreams.
Was it right to carry offense to so great an extreme? Was pride worth the price of losing Elinor forever?
Rebecca began to regret accepting Elinor’s challenge.
“Will you take your places?” asked Gerrard, his florid face grown even redder. “Or shall we go forego this nonsense and go home to our breakfasts?”
From his position on the sidelines, Dennison came hurrying over. “Have you decided to accept Lady Chetwood’s apology?” he asked Rebecca eagerly, glancing between her and Elinor, who stood in place without saying a word.
His question reminded Rebecca of the insult done to Alice and herself. To accept Elinor’s apology at this late hour meant that she believed Alice was deceiving her with Frederick. Such a notion was unacceptable. Despite the doubts that ate at her like acid on her soul, Rebecca answered, “The duel will continue as arranged.”
“’Becca, if Lady Chetwood withdraws…” Dennison began.
He was interrupted by Elinor. “I shall not withdraw. If this is the only way to prove the truth of what I saw and said about Miss Titherington, so be it.”
Once again, Rebecca found herself back-to-back with Elinor. At Gerrard’s curt instruction, she took the regulation twenty paces forward. The temperature had increased slightly, but though the air remained cruelly sharp, Rebecca was sweating as if it had become a sultry summer’s day. She shifted the flintlock pistol to her other hand, wiped her sweaty palm on a fold of her dress, and took a renewed grip on the butt. The increasing light made the gold touches on the pistol’s metal barrel and touch-hole gleam.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gerrard move to a safer distance, taking Dennison with him. Her cousin’s regimental Army coat was a splotch of bright crimson against the pale green of budding leaves, while Gerrard, with his spindly unpadded calves encased in black stockings, resembled a stork in mourning.
Gerrard raised a handkerchief.
Rebecca took a deep breath, held it, and blew it out in a gusty sigh. Her heart was thudding frantically against her ribcage, and her stomach threatened rebellion, the bread and cheese and ale she had choked down earlier with Dennison now sitting far too high for comfort. She feared she might disgrace herself by vomiting.
“Turn and face each other,” Gerrard commanded.
She obeyed, leveling the pistol at her opponent. It gave Rebecca an odd sort of relief mingled with apprehension to see that Elinor was aiming at her, not up into the air. So Elinor will not delope after all. The thought was dizzying. Did it mean that Elinor was belied?
I love you more than I love myself, she had said.
Rebecca wanted to cry. She bit her lower lip until she tasted blood.
A final glance at Alice confirmed that the girl was still with Frederick, although the two of them were watching the field instead of conversing. Rebecca reminded herself that she was doing this for Alice’s sake, to preserve her reputation. No one was allowed to malign the girl she loved, not even Elinor Chetwood.
Rebecca’s gaze shifted. Elinor stood a mere twenty paces away on the other side of the greensward, the wind snatching at the coquelicot ribbons on her hat. Her fur-edged pelisse was the very hue of primroses, reminding Rebecca that the flowers meant ‘first love’ when given in a posy. She had never given Alice primroses, Rebecca remembered, or hyacinths for constancy, only red roses to signify passion.
A passion, she abruptly realized, which was not returned. She had put Alice’s excuses and reluctant fumblings down to inexperience. Could it be that the girl had found Rebecca’s attentions distasteful but endured them for the sake of her plot to ensnare Frederick? Was it possible that Elinor was right? Her chest clenched.
Gerrard’s handkerchief was a white blur as it fluttered to the ground.
A starling let out a sliding note that seemed to go on and on.
Elinor frowned, her brows pulling into a ‘vee’ over the bridge of her nose.
It was too late to stop, too late to halt the progress of a tragedy that had been building for months. Rebecca’s mind was disconnected from her body. Trained to hunt and target shoot, her instinct surged to fill the gap. As if moving in a nightmare, she pulled the trigger, her wrist automatically stiffening in resistance to the pistol’s backfire.
The flint struck, fat sparks fell into the powder-filled pan, and there was a second’s delay before the pistol let out a shattering roar, bucking hard in her fist. Flames spurted and a cloud of sulphur-scented, acrid smoke wreathed about her face. The brimstone stink made her cough. Rebecca squinted, desperate to catch a glimpse of Elinor. Had she hit her? Was she wounded? She had not felt or heard a ball passing near her, so she could only conclude that Elinor had, indeed, deloped… while she had shot to kill.
Rebecca waited in an agony of impatience for the smoke to clear. At last, she was able to make out a heap of primrose yellow crumpled on the grass about twenty paces away. Gerrard was standing over the fallen woman, as was the surgeon. Shuddering in revulsion, Rebecca hurled the pistol away from her. She took several stumbling steps towards Elinor and was stopped by Dennison.
“No, ‘Becca, you mustn’t interfere,” Dennison said, grasping her upper arm. “Leave the surgeon to his work.”
Her mouth was dry but her eyes were wet. Rebecca let out a hoarse sob. “Oh God, how bad is it? Is she dead? What have I done? Tell me, Denny. I must know!”
Frederick broke in, exclaiming, “Thunder n’ turf! I never thought you’d really duel with Lady Chetwood!” He had come to stand next to her. Sucking air through his teeth, Frederick added, “I suppose she’s still alive, else the surgeon would be calling for a cart and the magistrate’s men, and we’d have to smuggle you out of England.”
“Freddie!” scolded Dennison.
“I didn’t… I didn’t really want…” Rebecca wished for nothing more than to collapse on her brother’s broad shoulder and weep. She did not because she needed to remain calm. Falling headlong into an hysterical fit would serve no purpose. Remorse burned inside her, hot coals lodged in her belly, welling up to scorch her throat.
“No, no, I’ve seen duels before,” Frederick said, paying no heed to Rebecca’s struggle to compose herself. “Acted as a second for Lord Sparrowdale last year. He was shot through the thigh but the surgeon didn’t have to amputate; the ball quite missed the bone.”
An image flashed through Rebecca’s mind — Elinor balanced on one leg, a crutch taking the place of her missing limb — and she suppressed a gag.
“Lady Chetwood is unhurt, I’m certain of it,” Dennison soothed.“It’s likely she just fainted from the excitement.”
“Listen, sister mine,” Frederick said, bending the necessary few inches to put his face on a level with hers. He beamed at her, his eyes crinkling. “I’d no knowledge that you and Miss Alice were that sort of particular friends… well, it was only a bit of fun between girls, eh? I’ve taken the Grand Tour, I’m a man of the world. Only now, you see, I’ve come to an understanding with Miss Alice, and I hope you’ll be the first to wish us joy.”
He was gazing at her so earnestly, Rebecca could not muster much annoyance. Frederick was a feather-witted booby of the first water. He was not the most intelligent man, but he was not cruel or selfish, either; merely sometimes oblivious to a point that strained credulity. Rebecca did not blame him for his actions. Alice was such a pretty thing, so clearly ripe for the marriage bed that any man might be tempted.
Elinor was right, she thought, numb with horror. The whole thing seemed very clear to her. Her mind had been clouded by lust, her judgment spoiled by stubborn pride. She had refused to see the truth. Alice had set her cap at Frederick from the beginning, and she had used Rebecca’s infatuation to get close enough to him to ensnare his affections.
A cluster of golden curls came into view. Rebecca realized Alice was hovering behind Frederick. Her numbness shattered into a thousand, razor-edged pieces, every one of them aimed at the girl whose perfidy had caused the rift between herself and Elinor.
“You hussy! You vile sniveling worm! How dare you show your brazen face to me!” A tinge of crimson crept into the edges of Rebecca’s vision. This despicable girl had made her harm, possibly kill, the best and most faithful friend she had ever known.
Alice shrank backwards, her mouth puckered in an ‘O’ of astonishment.
“Do not give yourself the compliment of believing that I remain in thrall to your charms, dubious as they are,” Rebecca said, her tone as frozen as her guilty heart. She turned to her brother. “Freddie, if you marry this shameful specimen, I will disown you utterly.”
“My darling Mr. Sparkes, you’ll protect me, won’t you?” Alice bleated, clutching Frederick’s coat sleeve. “Rebecca’s wits have clearly been unhinged. You can marry whom you choose; that’s what you told me, and you made promises, too.”
Frederick grinned at Alice. “Now, now, dear girl,” he said dotingly, patting her hand, “it will be well. I’m sure my father will consent once he knows you as well as I do.”
“Not while there is breath in my body!” Rebecca declared.
Alice’s pouting lips were not very attractive when they were twisted into a sneer, she observed. In fact, the expression made her ugly. Rebecca’s chagrin caused a hot flush in her cheeks. She itched to grab the girl by her long golden curls and slap her insensible.
How could have been so stupid? How could she have been so blind to Alice’s obviously feigned affections? It was as much a reflection on Rebecca’s own gullibility, her willingness to be fooled, as on the one who had taken advantage of her.
“But Freddie promised me marriage,” Alice retorted, her blue eyes filled with triumph. “I can sue, you know, for breach of promise. And what if I’m with child? I gave myself to him.” She caressed her flat stomach. “Freddie has to marry me.”
“Of course, of course,” Frederick replied, still patting her absently. “Worry not, my dove. We’ll be married before Michaelmas, does Papa agree.”
Rebecca was going to loosen her tongue and give Alice the blistering she deserved, but one glance at Frederick told her the sap-skulled idiot was well and truly caught. Nothing she might say would be sufficient to pry her brother loose from Alice’s claws. As he’ll have it, she thought bitterly. He’ll soon find out what sort of grasping harpy he’s allied himself with.
In the meantime, Dennison had gone over to consult with Gerrard and the surgeon. He came back looking easier. “The merest flesh wound,” he reported. “A graze on her arm that won’t even leave a scar. Lady Chetwood’s asking for you, by-the-by.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Rebecca flew across the clearing.
Elinor was sitting up, sipping brandy from a silver flask while the surgeon wound a bandage around her arm. “Dearest ‘Becca, do not fret, I beg. It was my own fault for jumping the wrong way,” she said, smiling wryly. “I’m not used to shooting and I was startled when my pistol went off, otherwise I vow you’d have missed me entire.”
“Oh! Oh, Elinor, I’m sorry,” Rebecca cried through renewed tears. She was too strangled by grief and guilt to say more.
Elinor passed the flask back to Gerrard and held out her hand. “And I’m sorry you were brought to such a pass. I’ve missed you dreadfully, you know.”
“Alice and Frederick are getting married,” Rebecca said, taking Elinor’s hand and sinking onto the ground beside her, heedless of grass stains. ‘I don’t mind.”
“I must wish them joy,” Elinor murmured, “and you as well, do you wish it.” Her dark eyes searched Rebecca’s face. “Do you wish it?”
“Yes.” Rebecca’s whole body felt raw, her skin tender as if newly healed. She realized that she loved Elinor more than a little. In fact, she loved Elinor a great deal, indeed. It was difficult to look back on her conduct over the last few months without shame. Rebecca was determined to make things up with Elinor in every way possible.
“Yes, I do. I don’t care about Alice,” Rebecca said. “I daresay she’ll lead Frederick a merry dance, but that is not my concern. Lord, I’ve been such a sap-skulled, addle-pated ninny!” She squeezed Elinor’s fingers. “Can you forgive me?”
Elinor put out her other hand and touched Rebecca’s cheek. “I’m too fond of you to be stiff-necked, and what’s more, how can a duel signify between good friends?” She paused. “We are still friends, aren’t we?”
Rebecca glanced around to see who might be watching them. Alice and Frederick were absorbed in each other. Dennison was examining the pistol she had tossed aside. The surgeon had gone back to the coach with Gerrard, no doubt to settle the bill. Even the coachman was preoccupied, flicking his whip at a buzzing fly. It appeared that the excitement being over, no one was much concerned about the women duelists
She drew closer to Elinor, so close she could feel the warmth of the other woman’s breath. “No, we are not friends,” she said, making Elinor inhale sharply. Rebecca went on, lowering her voice, “Do you wish it, we shall be more than friends. Do you wish it?”
Elinor’s smile was blinding in its beauty. “I’ve been waiting five years for you to ask me that question,” she replied, leaning forward to press her mouth against Rebecca’s in a kiss that was sweet and soft, the tenderest declaration of love Rebecca had ever received.
Her heart was buoyed on a swell of emotion when they parted. She stared in wonder at Elinor, understanding only at that moment what she really felt for the woman. The liaisons she had engaged in the past were nothing, mere ash and embers compared to the fire that burned ever steady, ever constant, untroubled by doubt or pain.
She had only to reach out and take what had always been offered.
Rebecca closed her eyes and fell in love.
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