Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, March 2000

The Sentiment of the Sword: A Country-House Dialogue, Part V

The Sentiment of the Sword: Part V.

By Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, K.C.M.G., F.R.G.S., edited, with Notes, by A. Forbes Sieveking, F.S.A.; and a Preface by Theodore A. Cook

London: Horace Cox, "Field" Office, Bream's Building, E.C., 1911

Ed. note: Paul Nurse, Ph.D, brought this text to our attention.

The Fifth Evening.

At the next smoke séance without further preamble I spoke as follows:



The assault is the fencer's life, after he has emerged from the chrysalis state of the plastronneur. It is a career full of dangers which incessantly repeat themselves; of rocks and shoals that must be weathered; of snares and pitfalls that must be avoided; of ruses and sharp encounters in which wit must be opposed to wit. It is the history of man with its illusions and disenchantments; its fortunes and misfortunes, its defeats and its victories.

Believe me, the innumerable counsels which fill your ponderous treatises, the preparation for all and everything that may occur, are as feather weights when actual experience sits in the other scale. Does a man ever profit from the experience of another man? The Spartan mother, when she buckled upon her son's arm his father's shield, only said to him, "Be strong, be brave, be prudent!" These words resume everything mental that can be brought to bear upon the subject.

All modes of strife for mastery essentially resemble one another, from the snowballing of the village green to the triumphs of strategical campaigns, and the might battle of life itself. All tuition and advice must inculcate in some form or another the elements which rule in the attack and the defence, namely energy and daring, prudence and stratagem. "Les qualités d'un bon tireur," says a first-rate authority, "sont les mêmes en effet, toute proportion gardée, que celles d'un bon capitaine, la prudence, la fermeté, la décision prompte, l'exécution rapide." Indeed, the comparison between the general and the fencer is one of the banalities of the fencing book.

To outwit your enemy, to attack when it suits your convenience, and not his interests, such is the secret of success in the fencing room, as in the field.

To suspect the ambuscade which he prepares for you; to unite the prudence which trips up his fraud with the energy and audacity which drives in his force, to inspire him with a rash self-confidence that makes him sure of success; to turn the obstacles which if attacked would render victory almost as fatal as defeat; to feint and manoeuvre upon the centre when you would mass all your strength to assault the flank; to show weakness where you are strong, thus inviting the enemy to bruise and break himself upon you; to defeat cunning by plain dealing, which is often the highest form of deceit, as honesty is, commercially speaking, the best policy; to dissimulate your approaches, so as to surprise and demoralise, by the sudden impetus of the attack, and, perhaps, the ne plus ultra of practical wisdom, to contrive a safe retreat when fortune does not think proper to favour you.

Are not these, and have they not been from time immemorial, the rules and maxims which have governed the great warriors of the world?

Such is the science of the field of battle; it is also that of man individually contending against man. And why? Simply because versatility of resources, stratagem, and science may change name, but must ever preserve nature.

These are the words of wisdom to be impressed upon the pupil's mind. The rest belongs to inspiration, to that subtle spirit of intuition which emanates from the grave of many a dead trial, which warns us, which guides us, and which ever redoubles itself by rising higher as the occasion demands.

But this "familiar" cannot be made a slave of the ring by the mere study of facts and forms; it yields only to the exercising of lucid intelligence devised by science and experience.

If the glorious gift of understanding, after being polished and perfected as far as teaching and training permit, be dealt out in such humble rations that it can divine nothing, cannot follow the course of events as they fly, cannot inspire itself with the opportunity before too late, then, I say, expect nothing form it. A deaf ear will be turned to your voice, and the words of counsel had better remain unspoken.

I find solid truth in these words: "L'escrime exige des facultés variés, celui-la seul y deviendra supérieur, qui sera d'une constitution physique avantageuse, qui à un morale solide unira l'intelligence, le coup e'oeil, l'à-propos, le sensibilité du toucher, qui joindra au sang froid, qui permet de prévoir et de concevoir, l'impétuousité reglée qui exécute et enfin, qui saura mettre d'accord toutes les facultés diverses pour en former l'ensemble de son jeu; quelques uns moins bien doués pourront devenir des tireurs difficiles, sans jamais être des tireurs sérieux; d'autres, enfin, selon le degré d'inferiorité de leurs facultés physiques, resteront plus ou moins dans la position du paralytique qui veut marcher. Lors même que le préjugé du duel aura complétement disparu de nos moeurs, l'escrime subsistera comme le plus noble exercise auquel puissent se livrer ceux qui aiment ce qui est beau, savant et utile."

Here is the point where the two methods, the two systems, the old and the new, the artificial and the natural, begin to branch off from each other. In the former, the presiding genius is routine, in the latter intelligence; that is provisional, this is perpetual. [FN1]

"Linnaeus and De Candolle," muttered Shughtie.



If I could lead you into a fencing school as it was some half a century ago, and show you the ceremonious assaults of that day, you would find that our present form, even amongst those who are careful to retain, as far as possible, its academical traditions, can only be described as revolutionary, as subversive.

"The International!" ejaculated Seaton.

Imagine what it was when every man wore, upon the breast leathers of his fencing jacket, a fine, big heart of red cloth, which told the world where the thrusts were to be and not to be. A point denting any other part of the garment was considered, not only a failure but a blunder; it was not merely condemned by the rule of arms, it was overwhelmed with contempt. Circles, equally limited, were traced out for everything in the shape of attacks, parries, and ripostes. And as the maître d'armes, although retired into bourgeois life, was almost invariably an old soldier, the discipline of the salle d'armes was in the hands of a rigid Sir Martingale Martinet; and its rules and regulations were kept sacred with that hieratic conservatism proper to old soldiers, shall I say of that day?

The assault without buttons was then, moreover, a far more popular way of whiling away a dull morning hour than it is now amongst Continentals, especially military men, lawyers, and writers for the press. Thus, many a disputed thrust, half in or half out of the fine, big read heart, was made a pretext for settling disputes whose true raison d'être was to be kept from the world. In those days also it was the habit to wear in the fencing salon a certain ruffling air, which said clearly enough "You have only to ask me!" or that even more unpleasant affectation of wildness which suggests "When roused, I am more dangerous than other men."

In the south of France it was the custom to make passes in the upper lines, easily done by holding the wrist higher than that of the adversary. Hence, when both touched one would exclaim "J'ai le haut, j'ai raison," and his claim was admitted. The same was the case throughout Italy.

On the other hand, in Paris there was a system to be resumed in these words: "J'attaque, j'ai raison, vouz deviez parer," and this was considered unanswerable in the case of a time thrust.

Presently the ace of hearts disappeared from the game. A thrust in the upper or lower chest, and even beneath the arm, was admitted -- under protest. Still a point in the stomach, especially in the lower stomach, was considered to be what the Germans call a Schwein-stoss or a Sau-bich. "Good heavens!" said the gallery, "where must we go to find his blade? The next thing he will do is to tilt at us between our shoulders."

"That's unfair," said Seaton, rousing himself after a cross kind of silence, "mere persiflage. The bull's-eye had its use, and we've lost by being laughed out of it. It directed eye and hand, it also made men aim at the centre. If they failed a little, the thrust was still good. In your modern school I'm obliged to keep a sharp look-out upon my left hip."

And why should I not disable your left hip if it can be done? -- which of course, it cannot be without exposing all my chest to you. What more fatal than a thrust in the bas ventre? And yet, curious to say, a point in the thigh or in the forearm was perfectly allowable on the field, whilst it was inadmissible to buttoned foils, to the combat à armes courteoises. Besides, how can you trace the line when and where not to touch? How many men have been killed by a pass in the back after "running in" to a corps-à-corps and then shrinking instinctively from the point?

This curious demarcation between the real thing and its shadow acted badly by leaving you unprepared against the blind and irregular onslaughts of unskilful hands. The sooner, therefore, it was abolished the better. The swordsman then, and then only, stood in readiness to resist ignorance, as well as to guard against the learned combinations with which he was familiar.

"And the old style acted well," said Seaton, "by teaching the pupil the superior necessity of guarding his vitals. Many a man has saved his life by allowing his antagonist's sword to entangle itself in his arm or leg whilst he returned the thrust in a more decorous place."



It was still evident that my auditory was only half convinced, if even so much, and that a second home thrust was required. As usual, I began with a feint, so as not to let them see the point.

How often you hear in the salles d'armes "I do this in an assault; I should never attempt it in the field."

Now this is playing, mere skylarking, with the foil. If the action be really good it is fit for both forms of combat, and vice versâ. On the other hand, you are right to encourage eccentricities of fence when dealing with a man whose peculiar style you would study. You are never thoroughly safe until you have learned to defend yourself against any attempt which might have a fatal result.

I cannot insist too strongly upon this point. So not to admit thrusts in the low lines from flank to stomach is, according to me, nothing but a vulgar error with the dangerous consequences common to all error. If we judge from the results -- and I do not see what other measure of value we can have -- this despised, this interdicted point merits something of our esteem.

"Who was it that said," asked Shughtie, "his plan was when wanting an original and interesting book to run his eye down the pages of the Index Expurgatorius?"

It is not that I have any theoretical fondness for low thrusts; they are in one point, at least, essentially vicious if they expose all the upper part of the body. But I fear them, and therefore I respect them. It has been my lot to cross swords with almost every kind of fencer, and experience has taught me the full risk of not being prepared for these dangerous exceptions.

"I suspect," said Lord B., "that you must bring more reason to bear upon Capt. Seaton before he consents to raise the excommunication."

Let me try. The many fencers who are in the habit of presenting the point when they break or step backwards almost always drop the hand so as to threaten the lower line of the adversary's body. The few, again, who lunge to the rear, and bend the body backwards, instead of retreating from your attacks, according to rule, are almost sure to do the same. I need hardly say that the man who is ignorant of the sword always beings by using it to stab underhand, with wrist low and perhaps in old tierce. He is probably right, whether he knows it or not. The skilful fencer, again, will certainly attempt to make a point by a low thrust when, judging from the academical elevation of his hand, you do not expect it.

The stomach, therefore, must be defended quite as carefully as the chest; and the same reasoning will show you the propriety of attacking in the low lines those who neglect to prepare for you.



I continued:

Ut silvae foliis pronis mutantur in annis

Prima cadunt; ita verborum vetus interit aetas

Et juvenum ritu florent modo nata vigentque.

And what is true of leaves and words applies equally to fencing. Old Girard Thibaust, of Anvers, who is one of the worthies of the rapier, consecrates whole pages (Académie de l'Espée, XDCXXVIII.) to a pleasant thrust, which he calls Le coup de point dans l'oeil droit, thereby distinguishing it from the slash, which would also bring about the same happy result. And his princely folio offers a multitude of illustrations to those who would master the proper way of blinding an enemy.

The adversary attacks you; you parry; he doubles himself up, as it were, and your ripost touches his mask, his back, or his arm. "The mask! the back! the arm!" says your antagonist, recovering guard indifferently, and airily denoting with his sinister finger tips the place of dishonour. And there are many who go on lunging as if nothing had occurred.

The mask, sir! But do you reflect that this thrust might have passed through your brain, which would have been quite as effectual as passing through your lungs? That other would have introduced six inches of cold steel into your back. The third would have pinned your arm into your breast. You place your face, your back, your arm where your breast should be. I touch what is before me, and I feel, you may be certain, amply satisfied with the result.

Do you really believe that were the buttons removed from the foils you would consider it equivalent to parrying or to escaping a thrust, this substitution of one part for another? That you are out of danger because you only expose your head, your back, or your neck to be drilled through.

Certes, it is the height of desperation to risk blow for blow when both you and your adversary suffer equally. To use such means as these shows that you have no others at your disposal; yet it must always be borne in mind that you must use what you have.

"All right," cried Seaton, with bitter irony, "introduce face blows, and presently we shall have occiput strokes. It is perhaps happy for reformers that, like revolutionists, they never know, and never can know, how far they're going; in fact, what they're really doing.


By way of an escape from a very ticklish topic, I pursued: And as we have mentioned the eye, it may be as well to lay down the proper use of it, before being subjected to Mr. Thibaust's process, bien entendu.

Some masters tell you to watch the adversary's eye, and to interrogate his every glance. But the man cunning of fence will soon find that you rely upon his look, and he will take advantage of your simplicity by looking at the precise place where he does not intend to strike. Others say, "Keep your sight fixed upon the button" on the point of the sword. But the sun may be shining upon the blade, or the morn may be somewhat dark for the button to stand well out. My plan has ever been to distribute my vision equally, so that my bow may have two strings, and long practice has made the process so natural that I cannot say what I am looking at.

"The eye for ever!" came from the proper quarter.



I now proceed with pleasure to another heresy of my practice.

"What ferocity of heresy?" Shughtie groaned, "the man might hail from Arabia Felix."

You will read in the fencing books; "Une fois en mesure, les vrais tireurs ne doivent marcher ni rompre d'une demi-semelle, mais de leurs places faire franchement des attaques qui peuvent être précédées d'engagements, et de quelques petites attaques au fer avec finesse, qui doivent finir par un coup tiré à fond."

My advice to every pupil is exactly the reverse.

Whenever you are attacked, retreat, if it be only a half pace. There is everything in favour of the practice, nothing against it, except in the bad opinion of your adversary. He certainly will find cause to complain.

Let us consider the many advantages which result from it.

Rompre n'est pas parer, I read. But by breaking -- that is to say, by retiring, I increase the efficacy of my parry. I am more assured about it, because it is not my only resource, my last card. And the retreat of the body doubles the vivacity of the hand.

If the attack has been made more rapidly than the parry, by retreating I parry twice; first, with my sword, which overtakes, if it cannot accompany, the enemy's blade; secondly, with my body, which by retiring, preserves its distance, and causes the thrust that would have reached me, had I stood still, to fall short of its aim.

The retreat is invaluable against simple attacks, because it takes from them their élan and rapidity of execution.

The retreat is invaluable against compound attacks, feintings, and so forth, because, by remaining in place, your hand often acts too fast, and your blade only beats the air. It is also the surest way to avoid the body stab delivered by shortening the arm. In the latter you may, it is true, stop the adversary by a time thrust, but in the field most probably both will fail, because it places him beyond reach of, and safe from, either surprises -- and tirer de surprise is a favourite plan with some men. It also saves him from those blind and savage attacks in which certain natures seek a chance of success.

This part of our system immensely increases the fencer's self-reliance. At the same time, it diminishes the confidence of his opponent; the latter, after successive failures, is likely to lose head, always a gain to you, and perhaps to rush forward with a compound attack. In this case you meet him hand to hand with a "Contre de Tierce" or "de Quarte," and if your wrist be strong and dexterous, you may make his sword strike the ceiling. Even if he does not rush, he is most likely to throw himself open in some way.

To advance upon the sword is always the most dangerous action and the most difficult part of the Art of Arms.

It loses time; it uncovers one side by covering the other, and it cannot be effected without somewhat shaking the play. It is only comparatively safe for a very short man against men much taller than himself.

Nor must you think the retreat, as some do, injurious to the ripost; on the contrary, it makes the latter at once surer and easier.

It often happens that after a lunge freely made the lunger remains for a time without recovering himself, attempting second thrusts, or remisces de main, straight thrusts on the side where the parry took place. The two adversaries are now at quarters so close that the ripost can hardly be made without shortening the arm and exposing the breast. A step backwards saves all this.

Nothing prettier, nothing more artistic, I freely own, than the parry and ripost, delivered with the feet motionless as a statue's. That tic! tac! movement is the height of art. But against fencers of different styles, perhaps dangerous withal, you must not often attempt such tours de force; otherwise, like the man who hunts tigers on foot, your discomfiture is only a matter of time. You may do it, as you may not bet, only when you are perfectly certain of your "coup." To make it the systematic base of your play is, I believe, unreasonable as it is dangerous.

"And if," said Charles, laughing, "the adversary do the same, you'll soon find yourselves not only out of sword reach, but out of pistol shot."

The result will be three advantages to you, a thing certainly not to be despised.

Firstly, if your opponent has had the same thought, or has received the same advice, it is a testimony in favour of the manoeuvre.

Secondly, his rapid retreat clearly shows you that he also dreads surprises and "closing-in" movements, that his chances of success will not be sought. In this order of ideas, and that his attacks will be prudent and reasoned.

Thirdly, and especially when preparing for actual combat, these few seconds of preamble allow you to settle your equilibrium, to draw upon your self-confidence, to face without emotion that sword point which threatens you, and to allay the first involuntary movement of anxiety which, in such cases, the strongest nature must endure for a moment. Moreover, you have been able to entrap your adversary in a comprehensive glance of observation, and to draw your own conclusions from his position, from his handling of the sword, and from the general way in which he offers battle.

This renders it worth your while to stand for a few minutes even out of pistol shot.


A low murmur received these remarks, so I continued them.

My mind has long been made up on this point, and my pupils must perforce do the same. It is the more necessary for me to impress it upon them, because the masters are against me almost to a man.

The highest honour is justly given by them, as by myself, to the parry without retreat. The retiring parry, on the other hand, is unjustly regarded by them as a resource in extremis, as a last refuge, a confession that the action wants quickness, or the judgment maturity. And many professors would, I am certain, rather see their pupils "buttoned" than escape by a pace backwards.

Perhaps there is a deeper cause for this prejudice than is usually suspected. In old duels men have been tied by the left foot, and even still in parts of Europe, Heidelberg, for instance, a line of chalk marks the ne plus ultra of retreat. The idea of "falling back" is always distasteful, and the single step to the rear in the rude and instinctive judgment of men represents the premier pas of flight. I once made a man an enemy for life by simply saying during a hand-to-hand "scrimmage," "Don't fall back."

Let me thus state my rule of contrary:

In general and on principle, accompany the parry with a retreat of either a full pace or a half pace, according to action of your adversary. Parry with firm foot only when, like the conjuror forcing a card, you have led the adversary to make the attack for which you are prepared.

If you see in the opponent a disposition to attack with firm foot within middle measure, without either advancing or retreating by sudden and irregular movements, never attempting to surprise nor to deceive by unforeseen combinations, then a tic! tac! or two may be allowed. But beware of the man -- especially if there is what hair cutters call a "thinness" upon the upper part of his head, or if the corners of his beard show a slight powdering of pepper and salt -- who tries to shorten distance between himself and you by stealthily gaining ground under the mask of some well-devised feint. Faenum habet in cornu.

Finally, I am strict with my pupils upon the manner of their retreat. Some shuffle the left foot, others take a succession of steps, or rather back stumbles, which seem really to be the beginning of flight. But above all things, I warn the learner never to stand within measure -- a position of endless and useless danger to himself or to the adversary; perhaps I should say to himself and the adversary.

"What answer have you to all this, Capt. Seaton?" the Marquis asked.

But Seaton threw up hands and eyes to the ceiling. This time indignation made him speechless. He was "not equal to the occasion," as said the Californian of a thousand oaths when his cart was bogged.

"I think," articulated Shughtie without removing his briar root, "that it would not be difficult to interpret our friend's thoughts. He would express something of this kind.

"This heresy, which strikes at the very root of all that is great and good in swordsman nature, doesn't gain dignity by being analysed. It's in the category of Royal Roads, of Something-made-easier, of This-and-that-without-a-master, of So-and-so-taught-in-a-month.

"Let us see what this person proposes to do. He would confine his attacks, simple and compound, to eight, and of these he holds only four to be absolutely necessary; in fact, he reduces the supremacy of the foil to the humility of the broadsword. He treats the parries as cavalierly, and he dismisses from the service callously, as if he were a Liberal Government, all but seven, characteristically allowing the only four good places to his especial friends. Total, eight movements out of what he himself stated to be twelve.

"After this you'll not be astonished to hear that his pupil learns the whole art and mystery, the tota res scibilis, in a month. We'll allow another week for this precious idea of retiring instead of parrying. We'll even be liberal and throw in seven more days for 'finishing lessons,' as the singers say -- for French polish, in fact. So that this individual proposes to do in six weeks what took our friend Seaton at least six years.

"Such things may be, but they're not probable. The world would have heard of them before. Men have fenced even before A.D. 1500, as we've been told with much erudition. The world, I don't doubt, will hear of it. It strikes me that, like a young member of the House of Commons who harangues and specifies and divides his orations into first, second, and third place at 'tea-fights,' you are talking like a book and for a book; but I fear lest the world will say allez vous promener.

"Didn't you vex the dull ear of a drowsy man one whole evening last week with crotchets about happiness? -- how every being, human or otherwise, comes into the world with a certain capacity for enjoyment which can't be increased and can't be decreased? -- how every being, human or otherwise, is equally blest absolutely in equal measure, though one's always in extremis and the other's not? -- how this results from creation being governed by an unknown x, proved only to exist by its efforts, the unconscious, or rather the non-conscious, thought and will which work out the world-process? -- how it's this form of instinct, not our vulgar reason, that makes all of us want to be richer, healthier, wiser, or more famous, when the same reason teaches that the possession of the globe wouldn't add a milligram to our happiness, and much of the same kind? And what did I reply? Sir, you see the whole world running after wealth and fame, and so forth. Well, then, are they all wrong and you all right? You may be clever as Voltaire, jeune homme, but, like him, you can't be cleverer than everybody. I say the same of the fencing crotchets. Go to, man! the world would have heard of this before."

It was a wondrous tirade, considering that he never withdrew his pipe, and actually puffed between the sentences. Hardly fair of him, however, to quote the philosophy of the unconscious and to mix up my lay sermon with fencing. This, I suppose, threw me off my guard.

Have I not said before that after a thousand, possibly a million, of failures and errors, one single intelligence -- some man who has never been heard of, a man whose name the world would most willingly let die -- strikes into the right path. Galileo --

A groan broke from every sitter, a well-defined and several groan.

I hastened to change the subject. The movement of the earth and the circulation of the blood are worn out. But I retain my own opinion upon the subject of happiness, ditto of simplifying the sword, ditto of retreating during the parry.



A bright thought struck me. I would show the benighteds who disagreed with me how the "seven days of French polish" so rudely sneered at could be turned to exceptional advantage.

But after such a rebuff a long exordium was necessary before coming to the point.

It is hard to believe, I continued, in a long concatenation of attacks and parries, riposts and counter-riposts, unless upon the stage or between two fencers who have previously settled what to do. And when I hear of duels that take half an hour before first blood is drawn, it is easy to see that the fight is only for first blood. The twelve fought in France in 1873 averaged only eight minutes each.

"Yet," said Shughtie, "I have read of an assault which took place in Naples between two first-rate men -- the Principe di Carusa and the Cavaliere Achille Cipriani -- who fenced without a thrust going home till they could no longer hold the foils."

Yes, I rejoined, but it was considered a miracle of skill, presence of mind, and prevoyance.

In swordsmanship all manner of pre-occupation is an additional weight. It is like wearing sabots instead of dancing bottines; hence another necessity for simplification. The fencer who first stands before his adversary is travailed in mind about the line of assault: is it the outer or the inner, the upper or the lower that is most likely to be chosen? He will probably wait till the antagonist clearly develops his intention, and thus he exposes himself to a disadvantage. If the attack be simple, and if the hand conduct it rapidly, the attacked gives away the chance that resides in a well-judged onset carried out with thoughtful ardour. We rarely find, even amongst the oldest swordsmen, that excessive tact which alone can divine the intention of the adversary, and enter, as it were, into his thoughts. The peculiar gift also often accompanies other and deteriorating qualities. So we sometimes note an artist, who can make a first-rate likeness, but who cannot paint a portrait.

What, then, is the remedy? We must evidently seek some parry which, mechanically traversing all four lines, cannot but meet the enemy's sword whatever direction this may happen to take. When such comprehensive defence is found, apprehension and anxiety calm down, and the wandering thoughts range themselves willingly under orders of the will; there is no more uncertainty; indecision is at an end.

The simplest and by far the most natural of the universal parries is the complete circle described by the sword point, which, in the language of the fencing schools, "picks up" every thrust. Of course, it is double, as it may be begun from tierce as well as from carte. It may be varied at times by compound counters -- for instance, contre de tierce and contre de quarte, or, vice versâ, contre de quarte and contre de tierce. As you must not allow the adversary to discover the mechanism of the parry, you will occasionally try a single counter, say of tierce, followed by an opposition in carte. I should advise you to reserve for your greatest needs that in which you succeed best. And kindly do not forget what I said concerning the relative facility of the contre de tierce (sur les armes) versus the contre de carte (dans les armes).

"After heresy," cried Seaton, "we now arrive at charlatanism in all its integrity. What can be easier than to evade such grind-organ, windmill-like action? Where is your circle if attacked by a circle and a disengagement?"

Of course, nowhere. Parries can be deceived -- what parry cannot? "L'escrime," says an author, "vit de loyales perfidies." What pass cannot be parried? If you should happen to invent an impossible thrust or an infallible parry -- mind, I do not doubt your power of so doing -- take out a patent at once, become one of the millionaires of the world, and found a Seatonville.

I said the other evening that a fencer's force consisted, according to me, far less in the variety of his play and in the combination of his feints than in the soundness of his judgment and in the quickness and vivacity of his hand. This is so true that almost all swordsmen, professional as well as amateurs, have certain favourite forms of attack, parry, and ripost. These are, as it were, bosom friends, to whom they ever recur in the hour of need. And it surely will not take more than a few lessons to find what movements are the most appropriate to the fencer's physique and morals.

Amidst the divers phases of an assault the same passes and parries often bear but a minimum of resemblance to one another. The fact is, they are varied in form and modified in action according to the individuality which uses them and that upon which they are used. Indeed, this is the main secret of their force.

I would address these remarks to any intelligent -- and unprejudiced -- student of arms.

Let us take as an illustration the simplest of all parries -- tierce and carte.

How many times does not this elementary movement vary? How many transformations cannot it assume?

Light as a feather with this man, sturdy and vigorous with that; idle and flaccid, or energetic and even violent; high or low, conforming itself to every exigency and responsive to every appeal.

Follow the movements with your eye. Now the blades part suddenly, as if severed by repulsion; then, magnetically attracted, the one holds down and dominates its opponent.

It is a proper appreciation of this endless variety in action, of these infinite nuances in the same movement, which constitutes the true swordsman.

I repeat to you: he who contents himself with reciting the burden of his memory, however fluently, however correctly, will never be anything but a pupil or a parrot -- let him choose between the two.

That thrust was severe. I resumed:


Amongst the old bouquins which sleep peaceably upon the upper shelves of the library I found one, dating from A.D. 1600, containing these lines:

"Car combien que la la loy de suivre les mouvements naturels doive estre inviolable, toute fois il faut entendre que la necessité n'en a nulle, et qu'elle enfonce toutes loys, quelque stables qu'elles puissent estre."

It would hardly be fair to abuse this unprejudiced maxim by enlarging and commentating upon it, as it has abused the old Latin proverb. But in the art of arms, methinks, we may use it, and use it well.

After treating of the parry, we come to the ripost. Upon this subject a few words suffice.

Remember that the parry and the ripost are sisters -- Siamese twins in fact, two-headed nightingales, which, once parted, would lose their vitality, their raison d'être.

The ripost must be so connected with the parry that it may be considered its second part, its continuation, its conclusion.

Therefore, as a general rule, make your ripost in the line where you have met the sword, inside or outside, above or below. The ripost by straight thrust, they say, soon becomes mechanical. Yet to change is to lose time, to waste in combination what had far better remain single. It also frequently allows your adversary to recover himself, or worse still, to make a remise de main. Above all things never shorten the arm, or your ripost will be lost -- it is throwing gold upon the pavement.

Avoid as a rule against half-lunges, because they are expected and prepared for.

If you suspect that the adversary, as often happens in the case of a cool, old, wary sworder, attacked you with the object of drawing you on, and especially if you remark that he covers himself well upon that side, leaving the other at all exposed, you may avoid the snare by a single disengagement or a cut-over in the direction which he does not expect. But never risk more than one.

Cultivate in the ripost the utmost possible simplicity, combined with all the quickness of which you are capable. The great secret of success here lies in the parry, to which nine pupils out of ten habitually apply double the strength required. And this fatal practice often becomes so engrained that when they would relieve their muscles the action becomes soft and slow.

A few words about the remise de main -- one of the most dangerous of passes if used by a skilful swordsman, one of the most objectionable in the hands of ignorance. It is, in fact, a form of redoubling -- that is to say, of multiplying thrusts before returning to guard. As a rule I teach it late in the course, because it is so liable to gross abuse, and often in inexperienced hands it results in coup pour coup, which, as the treatises say truly, dishonours a fencer. The legitimate form is when the adversary, after parrying your thrust, removes his opposition, either from futility or with the object of a ripost. You may then either make what is called a "false retreat," that is, return halfway to guard -- or, better still, deliver the remise from the full lunge. It is valuable against a man who hesitates about his ripost, and some fencers are so fond of it that they owe to it half their successes.


Will you allow me to take a liberty, I said to the dark youth in the corner, and ask you to sum up the case as it now lies before the jury?

He assented willingly and without mauraise honte.

"You've told us that the lesson is a preparatory study -- a copy of the master's style. The assault is the pupil's individuality brought out by himself -- the original poem which genius produces after its apprenticeship of imitation.

"The only general, fundamental, and universal rules that can be given are those which in all ages have governed the attack and defence.

"In the attack, energy controlled by prudence and reasoning; in the defence, firmness, astuteness, and self-confidence.

"And now, passing from the ensemble to the details of your new or natural system.

"The error of the salle d'armes has been to prohibit passes in the lowest and in the highest lines, debarring the pupil from the practice of defence, and exposing him perhaps to a thrust which may be fatal.

"On guard, as much relaxation of muscle as possible. In the attack, all manageable vigour and momentum. When parrying, the just amount of muscular force required, no more -- and not less.

"As a rule, parry with a step or a half step in retreat, so as to give the parry double security and the ripost more liberty of action. Parry with the feet firm only when you are certain of what is coming on, when you have learned that your adversary is easily managed.

"For greater freedom of thought and escape from preoccupation, usually employ a compound parry that covers all the four lines, and must meet the sword of the adversary whatever be its direction. At times change it, or the opponent will divine the mechanism of your action.

"Fix your eye upon the adversary's point and eye, not upon point or eye. Make your riposts in straight line, and avoid especially the complications which would admit remises and re-doublings.

"As a rule, don't attempt the remise de main unless the adversary neglects his opposition.


A murmur of applause was heard when the youth ceased to speak; he deserved it for interpreting my thoughts and resuming my words with so much ability and conciseness.

"The sooner you leave England the better," cried Seaton, meaning me, "or the noble art of fencing will be no more."

After this there was nothing to do but to separate for the night à l'aimable.

My rapid retreat upstairs did not quite save me from a sermon duly delivered by Shughtie.

"What is all this?" said he, with more than usual gravity.

"Are you again at what our Irish friend used to call your 'tricks'? Is this merely your common banter of what you modestly call feebly intellectual folks, and your fun in shocking what you look upon as their prejudices? Is Seaton to be brought low with insomnia, athumia, asthenia, and other things beginning with alpha priv., that you may make holiday for an hour? Or have these heresies, these perversions of judgment, actually affected your unhappy brain?"

"A curtain lecture is a comedy compared with this," I cried, rushing wildly down the corridor.

To be continued.


FN1. In the foregoing and hereafter Burton follows Bazancourt more closely than he has done before, and much of the dialogue is a free translation.

JNC Mar 2000