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Title: The Foil
Author: Fred M White
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Language: English
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Title: The Foil
Author: Fred M White


Author of "And This is Fame," "A Dog's Life," "The Midnight Quest." etc,


Published in the Sunday Times (Perth, W.A.), Sunday 23 October, 1932.


A bitter twist of Gunfort's lips and an almost murderous expression on
his thin, saturnine features marked the intensity of his dark mood as he
read the letter which he held in his hand. Otherwise, he was a handsome
man carrying his profession in every line of him, and that profession
the stage. A fine figure, slender, but athletic, and that of one who has
cared for himself well and looking nothing like his close on fifty

The letter he was reading was short and to the point.

"Dear Gunfort (it ran), Barton tells me that you are at a loose end for
a month or so and has given me your address. We are at Barchester for a
fortnight's run in Shakespeare, and Melville is laid up in hospital here
pending an operation. Can you see your way to take his place? Our
leading line is 'Romeo and Juliet.' Will you come and play 'Tybalt' for
me--Forrest as 'Mercutio.' Wire me on receipt.--Yours,

Barry Openshaw."

Again the twisted bitterness on Gunfort's lips and the sinister smile on
his face. Then a long sigh as if some conflict had come to a successful
end. Gunfort rose, and crossing the room took from a locked desk another
letter the writing on which seemed to have faded with the passage of

"My dearest George (Gunfort read). By the time you get this I shall be
beyond all pain and suffering. I am writing this in St. Agatha's
Hospital in Melbourne, where I am well cared for and happy--that is so
far as one in my condition can be happy. It has been a hard struggle
since the man who promised before God to love and cherish me left me
penniless and starving all these miles from home. Nobody will ever know
how I have suffered and I struggled to starvation point until a good
Samaritan sent me here to die. Perhaps I was wrong to keep all this from
you, but a sort of pride sustained me. But so it was, and to this day
the man who so wronged his wife is still in ignorance of the fact that I
have a brother who is also on the stage and playing under the name of
'Gunfort.' My one prayer is that you will never meet."

There was much more in the letter, but Gunfort read no further--he knew
every word of it by heart. He locked the sheet up again and went out to
send a wire confirming to Barchester. The grim twisted smile was still
on his lips.

Barchester prided itself on being more or less of a cultivated centre
and especially on its appreciation of the finer points of the drama.
They had a saying that what Barchester thought to-day on matters
theatrical England thought to-morrow. Therefore, a longish visit from
the Barry Openshaw Repertory Company in Shakespeare was an event in the
social calendar.

As an old hand in legitimate drama, Gunfort was pretty well known to the
rest of the company. Not that he appeared on the stage too often because
he was a man with private means and thus in a position to choose his own
parts. Despite his talents and that picturesque appearance, he was not
popular, being prone to nurse grievances and quick in quarrel.

All the same, he seemed almost to go out of his way to show attention to
George Forrest, who played what the profession calls 'opposite' to him,
more especially in the favorite 'Romeo and Juliet,' where Forrest's
'Mercutio' was greatly admired.

"Rather strange that we have never played together before," Forrest
remarked during one rehearsal of the great love tragedy.

"Oh, I don't know," Gunfort replied. "You see I have never been out of
the country in the course of my work, whereas you seem to have played
all over the world."

"That's true," Forrest admitted. "Europe and Africa, also America and
Australia. Fine country, that."

"So I believe," Gunfort said. "I seem to have some sort of hazy
recollection that you married out there. An actress who went out with
some English company and stayed there."

Forrest shrugged his shoulders, indifferently.

"True enough," he declared. "Pretty little girl but could not act for
nuts. Finally went off on her own, and from that day to this I have
never set eyes on her."

"Then you don't know whether she is alive or dead?"

"Quite so, Gunfort. But that's years ago, dear boy. Only hope she
doesn't bob up serenely one of these days."

Gunfort's thoughts reverted to a certain yellow and faded letter which
reposed in a locked drawer at his lodgings. But the friendly smile on
his face did not relax as he turned the subject aside and began to talk
of other things.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was towards the end of the tour and Barchester was looking forward to
the second performance of 'Romeo and Juliet' which was to take place on
the Saturday night. The house was packed from floor to roof when the
curtain went up and the play began. A famous young actress had been
imported for the occasion and Barchester had risen in its might to
welcome her. And so for a time the play proceeded in almost breathless
silence whilst those on-stage waited for their calls. In the wings,
Forrest, looking wonderfully fine in the dashing attire of 'Mercutio,'
was passing the time with Gunfort as 'Tybalt' previous to the duel scene
and exchanging what appeared to be amusing confidences with him.

"This ought to go big to-night," Forrest was saying in the hearing of a
group of scene-shifters. "I never saw an audience more keyed up. A
little more fire, I think, Gunfort, old man. A few more minutes of
'business,' what."

Gunfort was playing with his rapier and apparently looking to the button
on the point. It was as if he was making sure that everything was on the
safe side.

"Righto," he said, casually. "I never much liked these real business
rapiers. There'll be a nasty accident with them one of these days, and
so I told Openshaw this afternoon. But he wouldn't hear a word of it.
When the old man gets worried over one of the big shows, it's better to
give him a wide berth."

"Worrying about me or yourself?" Forrest smiled.

"Both," Gunfort smiled. "But not really. Goodness knows what put the
matter in my head."

A few minutes later the two were on the stage together with 'Romeo' and
the rest of the followers and the scene began. In the theatre the
proverbial pin might have been heard to drop as 'Tybalt' flashed out his
rapier and the duel began. It was acting--acting of the highest type. A
fight to the death with a breathless audience hanging on every thrust
and parry. Then a small object seemed to rise from the stage and go
flying into the wings. And the fight went on.

A slight stumble by 'Tybalt' and a quick recovery; and then a vicious
thrust under 'Mercutio's' guard and the rapiers were knocked up as
directed just as the blade was withdrawn and 'Mercutio' fell to the

But not to utter what was in effect his dying speech, for he lay there
whilst 'Tybalt' gazed in a sort of dazed horror at the point of his
rapier. Almost in a flash the wild roar of applause was hushed as the
house sensed that something was wrong. For 'Mercutio' lay there as if
dead to the world. A thin stream began to trickle across the stage.

"My God, he's killed!" A voice broke the silence.

Shrieks and groans broke out all over the house. Then someone more
long-sighted than usual noted the sinister fact that the button on
'Tybalt's' foil was missing and proclaimed the discovery in a voice
harsh with emotion. Openshaw came dashing on to the stage and gave a
signal that brought the curtain down with a rush. A babble of voices
behind it and more wild bursts amongst the audience. After a pause that
seemed to last for ages there was a whisper for a doctor, and
immediately three men rose in the stalls and were dragged over the

Behind the curtain a small group of actors and stage hands gathered
about the still form of the man lying there as silent as the grave.
There had been no motion since he fell.

The first medical man bent over the body as if to listen for any sign of
life. He shook his head gravely.

"Dead, poor fellow," he whispered. "Pierced to the heart, if I am not
mistaken. What do you say, Clift?"

He turned to his colleague, and the other stooped only to give the same
verdict. Then the gaudy trappings were torn away and the bare chest

"Beyond a doubt," came the decision. "The heart has been pricked--not
deeply, but enough. Just as the real 'Mercutio' would have said a few
seconds later. How did it happen?"

For the first time all eyes were turned to Gunfort. He stood there like
one in a nightmare dream, a look of frozen horror on his face. His eyes
fascinated seemed to be glued on the red point of his rapier. Three
times Openshaw spoke to him ere any reply came. And then almost a

"I didn't know," he gasped. "I seemed to slip. Fell forward. Then the
button must have been broken off."

"It was," a stage hand interrupted. "I seen it myself. There it is.
Flew, it did, like a bird. Yonder."

Gunfort seemed to be fighting for breath.

"I tried to make it safe," he muttered. "I thought it was safe. That was
just before my entrance."

"That's right," the same stage hand went on. "I see Mr. Gunfort adoing
of it. Making safe, thinks I."

"Lamentable, most lamentable," the manager, Openshaw, almost wailed.
"But clearly an accident. A fortunate thing that the poor chap had
nobody depending on him."

"Or on me," Gunfort said. "Not that I matter much at the moment. When
you are friendly with a man----"

His voice broke and he turned away like a man who is suddenly stricken
with an overwhelming grief. It was Openshaw who first of all seemed to
realise that there were things to be done.

"There will be an inquest, of course," he said. "Now I must go and
dismiss the audience."

The theatre was cleared at length though what the real tragedy was would
be learnt later. A most unfortunate accident, Openshaw explained. But
one that prevented the performance from proceeding. And so on and so on.

There was nothing more to be done but to convey the body to the mortuary
and notify the police. And then the stricken body of players wended
their way home.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Naturally enough, the tragedy created a wide sensation in the town, and
when the district coroner opened the inquest proceedings in the Town
Hall the rush to find seats was sufficient to fill the building. No
relation of the dead man came forward to identify him, as it was
generally believed that he was colonial born and had no status in
England. Indeed, Openshaw had a sort of impression that Forrest was
merely a stage name. As everybody knew, there was nothing uncommon about
this, and, for the purpose of the inquest it mattered little.

The first witness called was the stage hand who had noticed the flying
of the button off the rapier which Gunfort had used.

"No, sir; I didn't think much of it at the time," he said, in answer to
the question. "They both seemed to be clever with the weapons, and the
fight was merely a stage one."

"I find in my notes that there was some suggestion of a slip on the part
of Mr. Gunfort," the coroner said. "Did you happen to notice anything of
the sort?"

"I did that, sir," the witness replied. "And it's my opinion that but
for a stumble the accident would never have happened. It were a most
realistic fight, and I were watching it closely, never having seen
anything to touch it before. Just thrilling, it were. Then Mr. Gunfort
he seemed to slip, and it looked as if he would have fallen. But he
recovered himself, and, as he did so, lurched forward, and the point of
his blade caught Mr. Forrest full in chest."

"That was shortly after the button flew off?"

"That's right, sir. Then Mr. Forrest, he falls forward and drops on the
stage all of a heap like. That's all I know."

"Is there anybody connected with the theatre who can give me any
information as to whether it was possible some person or persons to
handle those two foils? They appear to me to be formidable weapons with
the buttons off."

One, Speechly, the baggage man, entered the witness box.

"It was part of my business, sir, to see to all that sort of thing," he
testifled. "I always made it a point to see that such things were kept
under lock and key. I have seen more than one nasty accident happen in
my trade when actors begin to lark about with such things."

"Quite so," the coroner assented. "And in the present case you followed
your usual custom, I presume?"

"That I did, sir," the witness went on. "The rapiers were in my
possession until the dresser of the two gentlemen came to me for them."

"But during rehearsals, perhaps----"

"Walking sticks, or light canes, sir. No occasion for anything more
dangerous than that."

Gunfort came into the witness stand presently, and a deep hush held the
listeners spellbound. His face was white and drawn, and he had about him
the air of one who felt his position keenly. Just a pallid picture of
remorse and suffering. He spoke clearly and quietly though his voice
shook as he spoke.

"I am greatly to blame," he began, "though I did my best to guard
against any accident. I was particularly careful at the last moment to
see that the button on the point of the foil was secure. Moreover, I am
more or less an expert with the rapier. In addition, some days ago I
suggested to my manager that dummy weapons might be used."

"Quite true," Openshaw interrupted. "You see, sir, I am a confirmed
realist with regard to stage effects, and I much preferred the use of
real weapons."

"If I had not stumbled," Gunfort continued, "I feel quite sure that the
tragedy would never have happened. You see, I could not recover my poise
in time, and, had I fallen, the whole thrilling illusion of the duel
would have been lost. I lurched forward to regain my balance, at the
same time making a thrust and, as the button on my foil was off, my
weapon struck the deceased heavily on the left breast. If I could do

The witness stopped and buried his face in his hands. A wave of emotion
swept the room. Above it came the voice of the coroner addressing the

"A most distressing accident, gentlemen," he concluded, "and one that
could not be avoided. It seems to me that some at least of our sympathy
may go out to the last witness in his distress. I suggest a verdict of
'Death by misadventure.'"

"And that," said the foreman of the jury a few minutes later in a formal
voice, "is the verdict of us all."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Gunfort slowly and dejectedly made his way from the court to his
lodgings. He was quite alone. Once under cover he took out the faded
letter and burnt it to the last cinder. The thin, bitter smile was on
his lips once more.

"Death by misadventure," he murmured. "Yes, the misadventure of meeting
me. Little sister, you are avenged at last. That is a story that will
die with me."


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