The Duellists

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good pistol must be in want of a duel.

It was a sunny September afternoon of 1806 and the dashing Mr Richardson walked along one of London’s more fashionable streets, near Temple Bar, with two of his sisters, one on each arm. As they promenaded, pointing out Mr D- (“Ten thousand a year, my dear!”) or Miss W- (“I got it from Mrs P- she attempted a reckless elopement with Colonel S- from the Tenth Regiment…”) and admiring the latest fashions in hat shop windows, a burly, arrogant fellow approached the merry group, and tried to pass them without leaving the footpath.

The ladies stepped back a little in surprise at such effrontery, but Mr Richardson’s eyes narrowed. “Egad!” he exclaimed to himself, under his breath, so as not to alarm the ladies. “If it isn’t that popinjay Baron Hompesch! A dastardly character, well-known in the seedier gaming circles of the City.” Richardson, you understand, recognised the man from various acquaintances’ descriptions, rather than from ever having met him in such a den of vice. Obviously.

Richardson was determined to make the fellow wait and stood firm, while the ladies shrank modestly behind their brother. The Baron, determined to pass at any cost, jostled Mr Richardson in a provocative fashion. The ladies gasped, but Mr Richardson stood his ground.

With a ‘muttered imprecaution,’ the Baron was forced to step off the pavement and into the road, but as he did so, he knocked the gallant gentleman’s hat clean from his head. The ladies squealed.

Mr Richardson broke free from his sisters and stepped towards the saucy chap. As he did so, he struck out and knocked the blighter down.

The Baron was red with fury and shock. “I demand satisfaction Sir,” he exclaimed, as he picked himself up from the mire.

“I do not see why,” replied Richardson, readjusting his kid gloves. “I am perfectly satisfied with the result.”

The pair met the following Sunday morning, among the misty, murky, gorse-covered hollows of Blackheath, two hundred yards from the Green Man Inn. It was a favourite spot for such affairs. Their choice of weapons – pistol.

The distance between them was short, but on first firing, both men missed.

Ever the gallant, Richardson suggested a compromise, whereupon the Baron would lay a cane across his shoulders in token satisfaction for any discomposure. The Baron refused with a sneer.

Once again the distance was paced. Once again the pair fired. Once again both missed. It must be the fault of the pistols, they declared, nothing to do with any lack of gentlemanly prowess at the noble art. Fresh weaponry was sent for.

On the third firing, Mr Richardson’s shot missed again, but the Baron’s aim was, at last, true. The ball passed through Richardson’s body, a little above the hip.

My old friend the Reverend le Strange, who told me this story, fails to finish the tale and say whether or not the shot was fatal, but I’m guessing with Regency medical attention being as about accurate as Regency pistols the outcome wasn’t particularly positive for the rash young Richardson.

And there was me complaining about the odd pothole yesterday. In Regency times, people would rather die than get off the pavement…

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