by Maureen Frost
Margaret Island, Budapest, 1909.
Bela grasped the pistol – an elegant English piece from 1880 (or so he’d been told), the handle overlaid with filigree, more like the top of an imported cigar box than an instrument of death. He looked up at Mr. Csizmadia, his own pistol dangling in his hand. Possibly this had not been such a good idea.
But how much more could Csizmadia really know about all this than Bela; surely this was his first time too? He eyed the man – a merchant, a shopkeeper – as he looked down the barrel of his pistol, expertly gauging a mark. How many duels could such a man have actually fought?
“Gentleman, take your positions.” Hunyadi, Csizmadia’s Second indicated their places. Bela looked to Andras, his friend valiantly attempting the role of Bela’s Second, who looked back, eyebrows raised, shoulders lifted almost imperceptibly. Bela pursed his lips – some guidance would not be amiss.
Oh, Andras brightened: You take your position.
Well, it would all be so funny if there weren’t the distinct possibility that it would end with a fatality. Possibly Mr. Csizmadia’s, possibly Bela’s.
Csizmadia turned on his heel and walked to his position. He was wearing some kind of ornamental jacket Bela noticed now, he could just make out the design – black material with black thread embroidered through it – roses and rose leaves, a ribbon of fur around the edges, metres of brocade. He’d squeezed himself into it (a girdle no doubt playing a prominent role) all in preparation for his big moment.
Bela turned and walked to his position.
Csizmadia in front of him by twenty-five paces lifted his pistol and eyed Bela across the barrel again – He’d shoot me down like a dog, he’d said as much – Bela lifted his own pistol, aiming at a stunted bush that was just to Csizmadia’s right. He closed his eyes for a moment. Then immediately opened them. This was no time for introspection.
Dr. Durr, an old hand from Heidelberg stood on the sidelines. He took a pocket watch from his jacket and held it next to his ear; then delving into his black bag retrieved a tinted bottle full of a cloudy brown liquid and gave it a little shake. Not much left? Time for a top-up? This was his third duel this year he’d said as he arrived that morning, late and panting to the clearing on Margaret Island. But was it also Csizmadia’s third?
Csizmadia’s Second placed the empty black pistol box on the grass in front of him – the filigree on the outside matched the filigree on the pistols – F.H.C. monogrammed on the top – Florian H. Csizmadia. Monogrammed dueling pistols. No idea what the ‘H’ stood for.
Bela dragged his eyes upward from the box, the trees in the far distance blurring together, a watery impressionistic backdrop that was somehow merging with Csizmadia, no longer clear where trees ended and fat shopkeeper began.
And where was Ilona in all of this? Bela nearly tossed down his pistol, muzzle first into the muddy grass. He hadn’t even seen her for three months. That particular phase of this story was over – seems there was just this silly, sad residue left at the end to clean up.
“Gentlemen, prepare to fire,” Hunyadi was saying. A retired Colonel and member of the Casino, he liked to prove himself useful at times like this. “At my signal, Mr. Csizmadia – as challenger – will fire first. You,” he indicated Bela. “Will then return fire…if able. Ready!”
And Hunyadi began the count of ten.
Andras stood on the grass, turning a startling shade of cadaver grey.
Csizmadia closed one eye. Bela did not; the mashed pea-green that was the forest behind and to the right of Csizmadia had begun to march forward.
A shot rang out, followed by a loud explosion. Bela reeled forward, but did not fall. His pistol slipped from his hand and into the mud.
Andras running across the grass, arms waving above his head, began calling something out. Dr. Durr rushed his little black bag to Csizmadia and Hunyadi scooped up the shopkeeper’s pistol.
“You did it Bela!” He looked down; patted himself – no, no bullet holes – hadn’t accidentally shot himself. “You did it, it’s over.” Andras pumping his hand, his friend more relieved than he was.
Smoke wafted between the two and when it cleared, Bela could see the grocer prone on the ground, the muzzle of his English dueling pistol split open like the skin of a banana.
There was a black gash that ran all the way up his arm, rending his velvet jacket, ruining the design of the roses, the vines. The shopkeeper’s face was not visible to him.
Bela swayed slightly as Andras wrapped his jacket around him, and steered him toward the ferry – no time to waste here. Who could say when the gendarmerie would come riding down on them, sabres rattling? Bela kept straining his head, looking back at the grocer lying on the ground, searching for a sign, for any movement at all, but as the others knelt next to him (Dr. Durr had taken out that watch, and was holding Csizmadia’s wrist), all that he could really see were the man’s black riding boots pointing to the clouds, and nothing more. These were motionless.
Bela sat quietly at the corner table of the Crown and Eagle. He had been sitting there for some time, his long legs, usually able to stretch out so easily in front of him, refused to do so on this occasion and instead had curled themselves up beneath his chair, his calves cramping. He drained back another drink – he and Andras polishing off several bottles in the course of the morning and it was not yet half past nine. Not a sterling continuation to the day – but why expect a change in fortune now?
The door kept swinging to and fro as if at any moment news would come wafting in, clinging to the heels of the baker as he balanced trays of the morning’s bread, or tied to the tail of a stray cat. But so far nothing. Bela looked down and began to scratch a rose design into the split wood of the tabletop.
By ten a.m. however, the door opened, a damp spring breeze trailing after it. The pickle vendor had come, rolling in an oaken barrel with the week’s delivery; its briny contents sloshing loudly against the staves. He also brought an account of the morning’s misadventure on Margaret Island.
“Didn’t see it myself, of course. I always seem to miss these things. No matter when and where the party begins, I’m always at the other end of town.” Tobacco spilled from his pocket as he sat on the barrel, stuffing his pipe, his fingers yellowed and puckered.
“Such a shame. Anyone hurt?” the tavern owner asked, as he polished a glass with a grubby apron. Being so close to the island and to the barracks he’d lived through the after-effects of any number of duels and their sad endings – tales of Captain’s wives, now made widows, or cavalry officers left with wooden legs. God only knew how this one had ended. Still, for all that, he didn’t consider a duel to be a duel unless a little blood was shed, no matter how small – it was the price to be paid for ruining an otherwise beautiful day.
The pickle man lit his pipe and the tavern filled with the faint aroma of apple, a sweet blend that drove through Bela’s veins. Warming to his story, the man leaned forward. “Well, I’m just getting to that. Apparently, after much to do, one of them finally shot wild, firing way off into the trees somewhere and scaring the deer; while the other one – his weapon exploded, tearing through his jacket and burning his shoulder, but not doing much more than that.”
Bela’s legs unfolded themselves beneath the table.
The pickle man took another puff and he started to laugh. “Seems that the damn pistols had never even been fired before.”
“So no one was actually hurt?” the tavern owner asked, picking up another amber bottle.
The pickle man shook his head.
“Amateurs,” said the tavern owner, and poured Bela another glass of wine.
Maureen Frost loves books and writing. She lives in Toronto and is a retired book-seller, an occupation she thoroughly enjoyed for over 16 years . She is an enthusiast of all things Ancient Egyptian and of old movies. Any spare time she has she spends watching, researching and writing about classic films. Her latest work can be found in the online journal Eurynome.