How many years had it been since I had carved this frieze? Good heavens, had it really been sixteen years since Carnegie Hall had been erected? My knees trembled as the ladder shifted beneath me and an old complaint sent a spike of pain up my leg. A curse left my lips before I had the chance to stop it.
"Be careful up there, Erik!" Damrosch called from the cobblestones below. "For God's sake, it would be quite a fall. And you shouldn't be up there in the first place."
I gripped the stone and leaned until I felt the ladder stabilize again. I hated this state called aging. I swore nothing was worse then time catching up like a speeding freight train. "It is only slightly more than a single story. I assure you, I am perfectly capable of standing on a ladder, my dear Damrosch."
"Christine told me you had quite a tumble when you were checking on Reed's conservatory a week ago." He grasped the ladder and held it firm.
"The bruising healed swiftly enough so when I attended last night's concert no one was the wiser. The crowd was more than content to chatter on about how Charles is outshining his father on the stage." I glanced down to catch the director grinning up at me. "Besides, my lovely and over-protective wife is away from town at the Hartford Music festival for the rest of the week. I must take advantage of not being tended to like I am child in need of a dutiful governess."
"Don't begrudge Charles his talent. The boy is a virtuoso on the flute."
I laughed as I ran my finger over a bit of crumbling stone. "Begrudge him? Hardly. I am aware I am quite past my prime. If anything, I am rather pleased that the public is lauding his unique talents. I have had my time in the limelight. I would gladly bow out of it to leave my son in the place he has earned."
"As for Christine," his voice dropped as he looked away, "I must say that she only is looking out for you. You are retired, Erik. You shouldn't be climbing ladders anymore. This is the work of … "
"Oh hush." I narrowed my eyes. This little patch needed a bit of rework for preservation. But otherwise, the facade was holding up nicely. "It is not like I am up on scaffolding carving the stones as I did under Carnegie's commission. I am simply assessing how time is treating her." The twinge struck again and my grip tightened on the ledge. I inhaled sharply, catching my breath. Time had not been so kind to me. But I didn't dare utter a word to Christine about how much more I depended on my cane. She would wrap me in a comforter and install me on the couch in my study for the remainder of my days.
"Erik? Are you alright?"
"Fine." I forced a smile I hoped he caught beneath the edge of my mask. "I am fine. I just found some stone I must tell Grimaudo about, it needs redressing. Nothing serious. In essence, Carnegie Hall is holding up splendidly."
Every time I glanced down as I took a step to the next rung I saw him holding the shaking ladder and muttering, "Take your time."
I set foot on the cobblestones and kept one hand on the ladder. The twinge in my aching leg stubbornly persisted. "You can breathe again, my good man. It will not be necessary for me to climb up there again for another year or so." I poked him in the center of his chest and demanded, "Not a word of this to Christine. I do not wish to spend the next fortnight trying to get her to speak to me again. The last time I nearly plucked every rose from my garden, leaving them all around the house in apology."
The color returned to Damrosch's face as he exhaled. "I share her concern. Erik, you are not a young man anymore. Surely you must be … what, in your mid-seventies?"
Was anyone counting? I hardly bothered to even consider it. What was age other than a bothersome number. A meaningless thing that plagued many into trying to fight with time. I sighed and grasped my cane. "I'm retired, not deceased! Do you picture me one of those silver-haired men always sitting statuesque before the hearth, simply in tribute to some arbitrary number?"
He brushed the stone dust from the front of my dress coat. "No. I could never see you content in such a state. I know you too well. It's simply … well … Erik, you know she loves you. The last thing she wishes to see is you in pain … again." He tried to hide the slight cringe.
I fought the urge to scowl. A good handful of years passed now since the mansion had been the guardian of my dreadful secret. Inside those walls, society had for a time been oblivious to my dreadful war for my sanity. Though the tumor pressing against my brain had been discovered and removed, it had taken me ages to learn to walk again without betraying the infirmity. The harshest blow came when the surgeon decided to publish an article about his remarkable procedure. Society never looked at me the same again. Even now, my hands clenched into fists at the memories of the torment my family took at the scathing remarks of the public. The physical recovery had been hard enough. The shame was what had brought me to my knees.
"I know." I sighed and released my fist. "My dearest Christine only wishes the best for me. That is all the more why I have planned a splendid evening for the anniversary of our engagement. Bless her sweet heart. I only wish that my spirit could be content to remain the docile husband she desires to preserve. In truth, I confess that I do not even dare to ride Faust unless she is away. But, someone must tend to the spirited stallion. He is wasting away in the fields for want of someone who will let him take his head." I envied that horse.
"She's not the only one who wishes you would mind yourself a bit more." He lowered his gaze, fixing it on my hands. "Erik, there is no one I know who can command the pipe organ's throne greater than you. It was difficult enough when you decided you could no longer play the violin on the stage. Your Stradivarius … she is a voice missed by many in the orchestra who remember her glory at your fingers."
Slowly I pushed back the cuff of my shirt. The faint scars still betrayed my terrible secret, the chains in the cellar of my own mansion. The shackles that had held me back when the tumor had driven me to murderous madness. Fortunately, I was spared from vivid memories of that dark year.
"It has been nearly a decade now." I tugged the cuff back down and shook my head. "You know why I can not play."
He nodded. "Of course, of course. I wasn't suggesting that. Merely trying to remind you how much we value your presence here, Erik. If anything were to happen … "
"Oh, stop being so serious." I gave a rap of my cane on the cobblestone. "Now, if you will excuse me, I should go inform Grimaudo of the stonework that needs tending."
The scuff of shoes behind me interrupted my bow. "He may excuse you. But I won't."
I turned to find a vaguely familiar face before me. A face from some years back. An old building contract of mine, if I recalled correctly. An addition to a household that took place before my unfortunate ailment. What was this insufferable man's name? He had been a thorn in my side during the entire project. He had such a fitting name for such a vexing personality. Ah yes. Snodgrass. Mister Semore Snodgrass.
I bowed my chin ever so slightly. "Good afternoon to you, Mister Snodgrass."
He tugged on the fingers of his glove. His trembling gaze met mine through the eye-holes of my mask. "It is hardly a good afternoon, you wretch."
Wretch? Well, now that was hardly deserved. "My, what language. We have not conducted business in close to a decade. Pray, tell me what I have done to deserve such a greeting?"
Damrosch lingered behind my shoulder. I could feel him there.
"And yet you spoke ill of my business!" Snodgrass pulled one finger out of his glove. Then another.
Oh dear. I knew where this was going.
Heat rose to his cheeks. "Your vile whisperings have ruined everything. Society shuns me because of you. I am now destitute."
"Utter nonsense. I have said no ill words against you, nor any other of late."
"I have witnesses!" Snodgrass leaned, his half-ungloved hand a finger-length from touching me.
I had to fight myself not to chuckle at the flop of the empty fingers of his glove as he flailed. "Witnesses I daresay who are lying. I assure you. Up until this moment's accusation, I had hardly spared a passing thought about you."
"Then you deny it!" He sneered.
"Of course I do. This entire thing is preposterous. Now excuse me. I have better things to do."
Snodgrass freed the glove and threw it on the ground between my feet. Sweat gleamed on his brow.
I stared down at the challenge. What was he thinking? Duels were illegal. Sure, I had been involved in many, right here in Manhattan. A bit of a bribe and law enforcement could easily be persuaded to patrol elsewhere for a few hours. Men did it all the time. But still. Much ado about hear-say rumors.
"Pick it up!" Snodgrass growled. "Pick it up or you admit you spread lies about me!"
"Do you honestly know what you are doing?"
"Pick it up you honorless coward!"
In my periphery, people had begun to pause and stare at his tirade. This escalation was entirely intolerable. My fingers tightened into a fist. Damn this man's impertinence. Stiffly, I bent down and plucked the glove off the cobblestones.
Snodgrass took a step back. His jaw hung slack for a moment before he clamped it shut.
Merde. How was I going to do this? I didn't have much time. If Christine found out, she would forbid me to conclude this fiasco even at the expense of my reputation. There was only one way I could be certain she'd never know.
I pressed the glove into his hand and met his shaky gaze. "Pistols at late morning."
He blinked, the color flushing away. "Late morning?"
I tugged my own gloves on. "Late morning. My second is feeling his years and does not rise with the sun. I know the knoll. I trust you will be there to conclude your challenge. Now. Good day."
Without waiting for his reply, I turned with a tap of my cane and strode away. Damrosch swiftly appeared at my side, glancing over his shoulder. "Erik. What are doing?"
I didn't even pause. "What I always have. What I need to survive. Don't worry. I intend to let him live."
Faust's hooves marked my steady passage along the road to the hidden dueling knoll. An echo followed, the heavy steps of MehrzAd, Nadir's Morgan gelding. I stole a glance over my shoulder. He was tugging back on the reins, a ball of nervous energy. If he kept this up for too much longer, we would be late. A state I found more intolerable than having to attend this duel in the first place.
"Pistols, Erik?" The aged Persian murmured to my back. "Pistols. You hate firearms. Why did you even accept this challenge and choose pistols, for Allah's sake?"
Beneath me Faust grew restless and threw his head back at being restrained to MehrzAd's idle pace. I patted the stallion's shoulder to calm him. "For the former, because the cad left me with no choice. As for the latter, it is simply because I am aware in my current state I would hardly be a match to a younger opponent with a blade. It has been some years now since I have had the reaction time for a serious match. And nothing is more serious than a man risking his life in an illegal duel for honor. Now, speed up, or I shall proceed without a second."
"Christine will be livid if she learns of this." He let the reins go slack, but did nothing to spur his horse forward.
"Make haste, my good man, and she never shall be troubled by such word. We will be back before noon. She is not scheduled to return for a few more days."
He urged the gelding to my side, eyeing me sideways. "Erik, please don't do this. You know I hate to see you kill."
I chuckled. "You will not witness another death, Daroga. This impudent fool will be left to regret pestering me over a rumor. One quick shot and I shall have finished this."
Nadir tugged at the collar of his shirt. In the distance we could see the knoll through the surrounding copse of trees. Just enough coverage to ensure that casual passers-by wouldn't glimpse the goings-on. I had been here before. Too many times. With my reputation, it was astonishing that any dared to challenge me on these grounds.
We halted the horses and tethered them to the post at the bottom of the hill. In silence, we made our way through the tight path to the gathering of men waiting at the clearing. Snodgrass stood with a burly man in a bowler hat as his second. A wiry man held the wooden case with the pistols—the officiate. Two other men leaned on walking sticks at the edge. Every eye watched our approach. Nadir hung back, tugging on his collar as I gestured him to inspect the weapons.
Flint-lock pistols. A set made for this purpose. As identical as possible. They were even unloaded with everything prepared. We would be drawing powder from the same supply. The shot was about as round as possible. Indeed, this looked to be as fair in implements as could ever be made.
Of course, that spoke nothing of the men holding the triggers. But I could hardly be blamed for my opponent's folly.
The wiry man glanced to Nadir. "The second's inspection?"
"No need." I selected my pistol and proceeded to load it. "I am satisfied and that is all that matters." I spared a look at Nadir who pensively stared at the cane planted between his shoes. He was shaking, the poor thing. I felt rather guilty dragging him all the way here for something he no longer had a stomach for.
Once I finished loading my pistol, I turned my attention to Snodgrass. His trembling fingers dropped the shot. He bent down and rummaged around with a string of curses. The spring day was quite cool and overcast. And yet his coat was drenched with sweat.
I pointed the pistol in the air and clasped my hands over it, fingers flat across the grip, away from the trigger. We waited as he grappled with the lead ball, ramming it into the chamber. His eyes gleamed with fear. Did he realize what a fool he had been? Oh, he would not be walking from the knoll. I intended to make certain of that much. But he would live … by my hand.
At long last, he stilled his jittering. The officiate closed the case and set it aside. "Right. You gents know how this works. Count ten paces. Turn and fire. Any questions?"
Well, that was rather to the point. "Hardly." I came to the arbitrary line, my back to the official of the duel. "Shall we conclude this fracas?"
There was no reply from Snodgrass. Only the pressure of his shoulder blade against my back. He shook like a beaten dog. How odd. But I had no time to ponder why.
I took a step. And each one along with the official's count until he reached …
I stopped and turned. My back stiff, I stared straight down my left arm at the end of the muzzle pointed at the man's heart. It was a hard target. The man was visibly shaking.
His finger twitched on the trigger. He pressed against it with a hesitation. He shut his eyes and clamped his other hand on the gun. Two fingers pulled the trigger. The ball whistled past my left ear.
I smiled. He opened his eyes to stare down the barrel of my pistol still in hand.
"No!" He cried and dropped the gun.
At the last moment I lowered the muzzle and squeezed the trigger. It kicked back with puff of black smoke. I was rewarded with his cry and the thump of his body as he crumpled to the ground. When the smoke cleared, Snodgrass lay hugging his knee, blood welling between his fingers.
I threw the pistol on the ground. "You are fortunate I took only your knee cap. Remember that next time you choose to duel." I was fortunate the shot had traveled fairly straight. One never knew with pistols how true they aimed. Even with good ones.
I turned back to Nadir and offered him a slight nod. "Now, with that business dealt with, shall we return home before we are missed?"
Nadir wavered on his feet. I grinned and placed a hand over my heart. I had said I would leave my opponent alive and I always keep my promises after all. When I looked back up, his relief drained from his face. He reached up as if to point.
That instant the report of a pistol echoed in my ears.