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 Seventh Evening.
The day had been rainy, too rainy for shooting, riding, and driving in anything but a shut carriage, and that is not amusing. We sought "indoor recreations," which at the Castle were manifold, and whilst the others "did" the picture galleries, the muniment [old document] rooms, and the library, besides the stables, the billiard-room, and the smoking-room, Seaton and I had a quiet talk and a peaceful bout of tierce and carte. Both preferred to be alone. When a "ring" is formed emulation is roused, and men fence, not for instruction, but for victory. We went through the regular lesson, whilst I showed him the modifications proposed for modern practice, and we tried the "best of twelve," he fencing as a Frenchman against me, a Neapolitan. That he was completely worsted, run through the body, riddled like beef piqué, was not his fault, but that of his school; moreover, being short armed, he was unprepared for the constant stop-thrust.
He carried his defeat like a man and a swordsman, only remarking, "That's all very well, but it's not fencing. You touch me, but you don't fence." I saw that this position could neither be assaulted nor flanked nor taken in the rear, so we said au revoir and promised each other a full amount of difference of opinion in the smoking room.
The number of guests was greater than
usual, so great, indeed, that the party naturally divided itself into two.
Those who took no interest in detached observations upon swordsmanship
were grouped on the left of the spacious fireplace. At times, however,
our party was reinforced by a stray secessionist, whilst the other was
The mind developed by an energetic and an intelligent swordsman who carefully cultivates his individuality, and who gives himself up to his inspirations, is practically inexhaustible. The details neither should nor, indeed, can be attempted; they belong to a man's intuition, his sentiments, his moral and physical organisation. It is simply impossible to provide a pupil with l'à propos, legénie des armes except by actual experience, but we may consider the subject as a whole.
I have spoken to you of parries and riposts. You know what can be expected from the tact of the sword -- the sentiment de l'épée -- and the electricity of the look. You are aware that the intelligence of man seizes upon Science, the fruit of his study and experience, and compels her to obey him; that in all the combinations which he invents, and the calculations which he meditates, he cross-examines here, he penetrates into her secrets, and he fashions her to his proper purpose until he has won the thing he wills. I have pointed out the secret of success -- self-confidence, wariness, and calm and calculated energy.
It remains now to say a few words upon attacks. Attacks made by advancing are more dangerous, let me repeat, than parries. You instinctively feel that you are exposed instead of making the enemy expose himself. The great difficulty, which only study and experience can solve, is to know how much may be risked and to proportion your venture to the gain expected. I need not warn you that in fencing, as in human life, Nullum numen adest si absit prudentia --a golden rule hardly enough applied to the many failures which seem to cumulate every condition of success.
"Ahem!" John Shughtie observed with an unpleasant laugh.
Nor is it necessary to point out that prudence directed by reason is not to be confounded with indecision, but to prudence you must add familiarity with swordsman life. It is indispensable to leave no style untried, even those which hardly deserve the name, or to speak more clearly, which are utterly undeserving of it; still, these bastards exist, and you must not allow them to boast of victory, or to enjoy well-founded confidence in their own results. It is this part of our art, without which no sworder should consider himself at the height of his organisation, that requires six years instead of six weeks.
It is due to the moral power of the sword that those who know nothing, or the mere elements of it, should not be permitted to fancy themselves capable, by means of mere energy or blind vivacity, of successful defence against a hand familiar with weapons. Confidence, the strength of strength, should not be left to the share of ignorance at the expense of knowledge. And ignorance can surprise only the one-sided man who has accustomed himself to nothing beyond the regular routine of passes and parries.
A general fault which I see in the Salles is the following: The habitués cross swords, fall on guard, and proceed without reflection to heap feint upon feint, pass upon pass, thrust upon thrust, attack upon attack, parry upon parry. I judge them at once. They may have rapidity of hand and fineness of execution, but only half the man, the so-called physical half, is engaged in the fray. It is inordinately rare to find a pupil who has taught himself (for the masters do not teach what we call malice) to keep out of measure, now refusing to give his blade, then giving it suddenly and oppressing that of his adversary with confidence and resolution; who has learned by indispensable tentative movements and cunningly devised demi-attacks to interrogate the swordsman opposed to him; and who by cumulating arguments -- by a Sorites, as the logic men call it -- so confounds the adversary that he can no longer conceal weakness or strength.
Man should imitate the cock and the bull, and be wise. See the former in its poultry yard, the latter in its pasture, how they both before beginning a fray observe and measure the foe, each seeking to secure some advantage, whilst their sparkling eyes and wandering looks prospect the place upon which to plant the deadliest blow.
Who taught them so to act, instead of rushing precipitately upon each other? What man terms instinct, another word for reason, the former being the lower, the latter the higher, action of a brain, or spinal marrow, or nervous system, or tout ensemble, or whatever the psychologist of the future shall determine to be the causa causans, with less grey matter, or fewer folds, or shallower convolutions, or, again, whatever make the difference. So Reason proudly looks down upon Instinct and says, "You are a lower order of being; you and I are not of the same flesh and blood. I -- "
"Metaphysics?" Shughtie interrupted?
A thousand pardons for so forgetting myself! Well, this Instinct, with a capital I, is the teacher, this love of life, this idea of self-preservation which exists in all organic nature. And from instinctives we reasonables may take a useful lesson.
You easily understand how much you disturb by this prudent reserve the movements of a man who is taught, "As soon as you are on guard, before your adversary has time to think, at him with a home thrust!" Or of this other, whose only thought is to throw himself like the avenger of blood upon his opponent.
However little such heads may be capable of reflecting, both will soon succeed in seeing that the distance between you and themselves, physical as well as moral, will prevent anything like a jeu de surprise. If they will attempt it, their movements will be disordered; they will run upon the extended sword, or, at least, they will show you that they are coming on to the attack.
"How many years do you think it'll take at this rate?" asked Seaton, before new theories'll overturn these so-called novelties, overturn and turn them into vicilleries?"
Such is the fate of everything. The form
may, perhaps, nay, certainly will, change, but the foundation, the ruling
idea, must survive, for the idea is immortal and eternal --
Primaeval Faith uplifts her changeful form,
Mounts from her funeral pile on wings of flame,
And soars and shines another and the same.
Here is a fair proof that the oldest system contained the embryo of the new, as the new contains that of the newer. It dates from some two centuries ago, and it speaks thus of the marches or advances:
"La raison pourquoy on observe cette inégalle quantité de pas est qu'on tient, par ce moyen, l'adversaire tousiours en suspens et incertain de ce que nous ferons. Car si nous poursuivons nostre action touiours d'une mesme manière et avec mesme quantité de pas, il pouroit estre que l'ennemy feroit bien son conte qu'il nous attraperoit, non seulement en la place où il nous void, mais ausei en cette où il sçauroit qu'il nous faudroit venir; ce qui lui est, par ce moyen, empeshé.
One would imagine that these words were written not in the seventeenth century, but in our own. Certainly, no professor, however first rate, could express himself more clearly or more concisely.
Yet, as I before remarked, the weapons
of those days were very different from what we use; they were heavy cut-and-thrust
blades, single or double-handed. But the rules of judgment and prudence
and stratagem were the same, and so will they be two hundred years hence.
I must here mention a fatal habit which is general in French salles d'armes, and universal in English fencing rooms. The latter may be excused because, as the negroes say, they are "fencing for fence," but not the former.
When a thrust has been driven home, the pupil who has been touched makes some sign of acknowledgment, and the victor, instead of sharply recovering himself and standing upon the defensive, either drops his point or slowly resumes guard. How often we see, even in assaults, a ripost follow a successful pass so quickly as to be almost simultaneous, and get home chiefly because there has been undue neglect in returning carefully and quickly en garde.
How often it has happened that a man mortally hurt has with his last thrust killed his antagonist, and, indeed, he is justified in so doing by all the laws of the duello. Remember that the wound leaves always a second or two before the effects show themselves in dropping the weapon, staggering or collapsing to the ground.
"Our soldiers soon found that out in the old Arabian and Afghan campaigns," said Shughtie. "Many a lancer lost his right arm after running through the body one of the Yownsmi pirates, as we call the Kawasim still. And the sturdy robber of the Bolan Pass will say to you, 'Adam bi yeb kurd na mi-uflad' -- a man doesn't (mustn't?) fall from a single knife stab."
"Yes, and in the 'Trucker Campaign,'" added Seaton, "how many poor fellows were cut down by the wild Baluch swordsman because they did not learn bayonet exercise; whilst some 'clubbed their muskets,' that is to say, used the pommel instead of the point of the sword, others thrust so violently that the weapon couldn't be drawn back without applying leg and foot as a lever."
Infandum jubes, &c. O Seaton! I was the first to point that out in my bayonet exercise published shortly after the "Affair of the Hills," and what was the result? A succession of official "wigs" from the "Hall of Lead," and when the system was forced into the Army by public opinion, a letter from the Treasury, large as an average portfolio, and with a seal the size of a crown piece. And what do you think it contained?
"An order for £100, I suppose," said Lord B.
No! A shilling.
After a decent and decorous pause enabling me to recover from the shock of such a reminisce, Seaton continued:
"You're more tractable this evening, which may come from having taken that shilling. I've heard you often talk of the stop-thrust; surely you must own that in your new and natural (?) system it is grossly abused."
Or rather misused, I replied, which means much the same thing. The fact is, the stop-thrust is rather instinctive than reasoned, and so it easily becomes the resource and the refuge of those who cannot parry. But, observe that it is a most dangerous position, from which it is very difficult to dislodge the enemy.
Speaking Science, I cannot for a moment support a style of play which is ever outstretching the sword without reason. But that does not render it less imperative upon us to study how to escape the difficulty. For which purpose let us analyse the matter.
The treatises divide the coup de temps, or time-thrust, into three; the coup d'arrêt, or stop-thrust, and the coup sur le temps. But as the latter is worse than useless, and generally ends in both fencers being touched, I will speak only of the coup d'arrêt and the coup de temps, the time-thrust proper.
The coup d'arrêt, or tension d'épée, is justified only when the antagonist advances upon you imprudently, when he indulges in long compound attacks, and when he shortens the arm -- in fact, generally when he exposes his body. Yet it is the pet movement of those who, on settled principles, cleave to the defensive. I admire this simple extension of the point when neatly done, because of the judgment and coup d'oeil which it requires. But my approval is given solely upon the condition that during the same assault there must not be, as often happens, a succession of failures. Otherwise it is clear to me that chance has been the only guide. Great sobriety is required in the use of this pass, unless your antagonist lays himself open by violent and disorderly attacks, by the jeu dur, and by convulsive movements which you have artfully exaggerated. As a feint, you may be less sparing of it, because it shows him that you are on the alert, and that he must not expect to charge you with good results.
The coup de temps is a parry and pass of opposition taken at the end of an attack, when you have divined the line which the sword will prefer. This anticipation of the opponent's lunge is taught in every school, but you rarely see it used except by a skilful sword playing with a beginner. It is the most dangerous of its kind, leaving you utterly undone if you have mistaken the adversary -- and who in such matters must not expect to make mistakes? Again, it often leads to double thrusts, when both are touched. I would willingly see this objectionable movement banished from the schools, even as an exercise. It never can equal the true parry which, if at first misjudged, can at any rate be continued or repeated. And for one time-thrust of intrinsic value how much false coin has been put into circulation?
An easy way of discouraging these feints is by the lunge backwards (se fendre en arrière). It is done by sharply retiring the left foot and inclining the body, so that the adversary's sword passes harmlessly over the head. This movement has been falsely reported to be an upstart, an innovation due to the system purposely decorated with the style and title of Romanticism. It is old, very old; and if it is not proved to have been used by the Greeks, it is not, therefore the more modern.
Briefly, whenever you find an opponent who is addicted to stopping you on all occasions, never attack him, without vigorously mastering his sword, by a croisé, a batement, a liement d'épée, a pression, or a flanconnade. This will reduce him to impotence, if, at least, he is unwise enough to give you the sword. Or you may proceed by a false engagement, your weak being opposed to his strong, or again by a demi-attack which is safe enough if freely marked. Either the adversary comes to the parry or he extends the sword; you then take possession of it, being careful never to quit it, and above all things, not to feint.
I am speaking scientifically, you will observe, of these various "stoppings." If a man says to me, "I know very little of fencing, but I defend myself as I can," he is welcome to all the faults he fancies; indeed, these are his right and his only science.
But the complete swordsman must not make
faults, or rather he must avoid them as much as possible.
"What is your opinion," said Lord B., "of what the French call les bottes secrètes, and why they are not taught in the schools?"
The latter part of the question is easily answered. If they were taught they would no longer be secret. But I hasten to say that I do not believe in botte segrete, any more than in the parata universale or in the Philosopher's Stone. Par parenthise, the word botte has lately been pronounced too trivial for the art of arms, and we are ordered to say coup; the Italians are not so fastidious.
"Yet there must be some foundation for their existence, as the idea is so generally received."
Perhaps I would rather say the possibility of their existence. It is a phantom which comes straight from the Hispano-Italian school, which, as has been said, is still, though notably modified, the base, the point de départ, of our modern system.
In France we often hear of a master who "possesses, they say, sword bottes secrétes." A challenge has passed, and one, perhaps both of the combatants will go to him for advice, and both probably learn the same.
These passes, improperly called secrets, are mere irregularities that do not belong to everyday practice. So far I admit them, but no farther. The ignotum is not only their sole strength, but their single chance of success. Remove this false prestige, and they will become not merely harmless to you, but proportionally dangerous to him who uses them.
I will divide them into two categories -- the attacks and those that oppose or follow the attacks. Sometimes an adversary will during the attack suddenly withdraw his arm so that you parry in the air, and then rush upon you, leaping to the side and thrusting at the flank. Or, after a false attack, he will bend to the ground so as to avoid the ripost which passes over his head and strikes you in the low lines because you are unprepared for this sudden disappearance. Old "dodges," these -- mere revivals and not survivals of the fittest.
Others, again, before the onslaught, make a resonant appel, utter a loud ha! ha! or a piercing and violent cry, an urlo like the houp-la or the Pistache in the hunting field, at the same time withdrawing the sword. The start perhaps causes an unwary adversary to stop involuntarily, and thus he is buttoned, no matter where, no matter how. Others, again, after mastering the blade, make a demi-volte to the fore by bringing the circolata left foot in front of the right, and thus reversing the position of the body. It is a venerable practice of the Italian school, at least three centuries old.
So much for the attack. If, on the contrary, these movements are directed against the attack they are simply inverted. For instance, I lunge freely at my adversary, who, instead of parrying, springs out of line to right or left. Nothing is before me; sword and body are both absent; my attack is lost in the void, and the opposite blade is in my stomach or my flank. This so-called "secret bout" was still taught during my boyhood in the French salles d'armes. Now it would be looked upon as irregular and almost as illegal.
Again, my adversary bends to the ground, supported by his left hand, allows my sword to pass over his head, and thrusts me in the low lines. This Sbasso, or Sprita, was also a favourite with the Neapolitan school, and, for aught I know, is so still. And, yet again, my adversary beats down my sword, makes a demi-volte to the front, and before I can spring backwards or recover my guard raises his hand in old tierce and thrusts downwards -- the venerable Imbroccata.
I could infinitely multiply such instances, but, as you see, all these "bouts" proceed almost by the same means, and differ only in detail. And you will understand without demonstration what a "neck or nothing" game it is -- how completely a failure plays into the opponent's hand. The sole danger of these movements consists in the resolution and the recklessness of one who risks all upon a single throw.
"Yet wouldn't they be doubly dangerous if used by a strong man against a weak?" asked Claude.
Doubtless, although I should hope that the strong man would not make use of them. If he stands before an ignorant fencer, what need has he of such stratagems? If, on the other hand, his opponent be of equal ability and sang-froid he cannot forget how much he throws away in case of failure.
I must again draw your attention to a golden rule in the study of the sword. The first preoccupation of the man who attacks should be never so to commit himself that if his attempt happen to miscarry he cannot once more return to safety. In other words, never attack in such a way that you cannot defend yourself against the ripost.
Want of faith, then, is one of the most essential points in our difficult art. It is equivalent to the study of your adversary; it not only removes a host of dangers from yourself, it also transfers them to him who opposes you.
We may fairly pronounce the "secret bout," like the churchyard ghost, to have been laid at rest for ever by Science, who goes her ways without another thought upon the subject. To revive the defunct would be a return to old traditions and to systems which were the property of past ages. In these days the botte secrète suggests a something of treachery, and no man of honour would purchase victory at such a price.
There are individual opinions, but honour is an individual code which a man draws up for himself according to his conscience and his sense of right. He certainly does not and should not borrow it from his neighbour.
In the world where we live there is a host of things which lie upon the debateable borderland, the frontier line between right and wrong, which are not cognisable by the law courts, but which are not the less subject to trial by public opinion. I knew a man who killed another in a duel by dropping his sword and looking behind the adversary as if the police were coming. The opponent fell into the trap, and received a thrust which caused his death within an hour. The manslayer could not be punished in the tribunals, but society took charge of the offence and excommunicated him.
If some fatality forces you into the field, sword in hand, your victory must not give rise to the shadow of a question. The thrust which prostrates your adversary must be loyal as the bosom which he presents to you. I am not even certain that a friend of mine was justified in looking fixedly at the low lines of his antagonist, and then by a flip of the point, a sudden jerk of the hand, wounding him in the fingers. But actions must be measured by results, and as nothing more serious than first blood occurred, the coup de Jarnac easily passed off.
"Please be good enough to set me right," said Charley. "Does a 'Jarnac blow' mean absolute treachery?"
Not quite. It is, properly speaking, a surprise, a something that does not sound "nice," a "dodge," neither quite fair nor absolutely unfair. The story is this: A certain Chabot de Jarnac and Vivonne de la Chataigneraie, a noted duellist, having quarrelled about a certain fair person, fought with sword and shield en champ clos before Henri II. and the ladies of the Court (July 10, 1547). Vivonne made an imbroccata, or binding of the sword, with thrust from high to low line. Jarnac, a man of humble birth, who had taken lessons from an Italian, got within measure and delivered two hamstringing cuts (fendente al poplite) right and left, and his opponent died of rage within two hours. The King, furious at the loss of a favourite, called it a coup de traître. He was followed by his courtiers, and the expression has passed into everyday use. But Marozzo (Chapter LXXXV.) had described the pass as un reviscio segato per le gambe, and in this very duel it was provided for and foreseen -- the seconds had settled that a dagger was to be carried by way of guard in the left borzacchino (jack-boot). Henri II., however, swore to forbid further single combats, and was accidentally killed in the same year by the Count de Montmorency.
The only loyal approach to a "secret bout" is some personal modification of a recognised pass. Such, for instance, are the so-called "retrograde movements," passes and paries with the forearm withdrawn instead of being extended as usual. The complete swordsman studies his own physical prowers and discovers the utmost use that can be made of them, thus technically called the jeu de tempérament. One man is strongly made in the upper works and fines off below the torso. This, the French shape, will require a different method from the opposite or English make. The short man gains by standing upon the defensive, by advances within measures, by battements, croisés, and parries in seconde. The tall man loses in attempting to imitate him; he should keep long measure and affect the time-thrust. You will easily see how far these considerations can be carried. I have, for instance, my own modification of une, deux, founded upon a heavy shoulder and an unusual supinator radii magnus, and it has more than once done me good service.
"Will you kindly let us see it?" asked Seaton.
No, my Seaton, I will not!
And now, having disposed of the botte secréte, I must confess my perfect disbelief in the many current tales anent maîtres d'armes killed by conscrits. Such events may happen; so in the street you may come to your death by a tile.
"And Abyssinian Bruce," said Shughtie, "died of a fall when leading a lady downstairs to dinner."
The stories have gained currency and credence through the ignorance of the narrator and the hearer. Nothing more appropriate for the brilliant, purposeless sea novels of Capt. Marryat than to make Mr. Midshipman Easy quite sure of success with the small sword, because he had never learned to use it. Nothing more natural for the exciting low-art military romances of Mr. Lever's first phase than to show the British Ensign, whose knowledge of weapons was probably limited to a bout with singlestick, triumphantly defeat the French captain, a finished swordsman. But a rule of proportion, a page of statistics, would at once, believe me, disperse the illusion which has been, and which still may be, mischievous.
When it does happen the fault is with the fencer who has not prepared himself for the occasion. Many men attend the schools for years and never take the trouble of trying the experiment how they would act if opposed to a vigorous and resolute man who has never had a sword n hand. The attack -- I would call it the wild-beast style -- when, as Tasso says, Toglie *** il furor l'uso del arte, may sometimes succeed by chance. I have heard of an English naval officer who, utterly ignorant of the foil, when placed before his opponent began to use it like a horsewhip, and succeeded. A cooler and warier adversary would have spitted him like a lark.
Another explanation, very patent and intelligible, especially after hearing Capt. Seaton's little accident, is the fatal facility with which the practised swordsman despises his ignorant adversary. And we must not forget that mortal weapons level to a small extent all distinctions. The sharpened point resolutely presented at the face or the breast is always a most intelligible threat. Science still holds her own, but prudence and sang-froid, energy and animal courage, count for much in the struggle.
This also is a good opportunity for a word about not misjudging your enemy. Perhaps he turns pale, his hand trembles, and his fingers begin to twitch and fidget. Amongst savages, barbarians, and even semi-barbarians, like the "valiant Figg," these would be simply signs and symptoms of cowardice. But civilised peoples, in whom the purely nervous, the nervo-bilious, and the nervo-sanguine temperaments predominate, are not so to be judged. The brain may be working violently and the heart beating with unpleasant force, yet the settled purpose is there, and the abnormal state will last only till real danger shows itself. And you will probably find your man far more to be dreaded than one of the impressionables who go to the ray as they go to the feast.
"How do you account for the strange fact," asked Shughtie, "that the bravest of men have been called cowards, Napoleon the Great, for instance, after the Bridge of Lodi, and the Duke of Wellington, the hero of a hundred fights. Possibly the same was said of Alexander and of Caesar by the freluquets of Athens and Rome."
You must allow much to envy, hatred, malice, and all manner of uncharitableness. Besides which, men of the higher and the highest temperaments, who do not show certain marks of what is called euphemistically "nervousness" and who are utterly destitute of physical fear, are exceedingly rare. I have seen only two who could sit amongst the pattering of bullets and the clattering of swords without a shadow of change, external or internal. Everyone remembers the story of the Crimean officer who, pale and trembling whilst leading his company to the breach, was laughed at by his comrades, and who turned the laugh against them by standing his ground when they fell back. There are many different kinds, not a single kind, of courage, and in one especially, constancy under physical pain and even torture, women are generally far braver than men. Again, the same individual will vary at different times of his life. Rochester, a wit and a hero in youth, ended with the reputation of a wit and a poltroon. The opposite case is the more common, when a timid boy, possibly depressed by bad health, ill treatment, or unwholesome conditions of life, develops like Abyssinian Bruce into a man of remarkable daring and sangfroid. A friend of mine always "contended," to use his own phrase, "against the effeminacy of civilised life" by acting upon an individual by-law: "Whenever you fear a thing, do it," and the "thing" ranged between a "teafight" and a combat à outrance. He had another more questionable maxim: "Always tell the truth when you are afraid of telling it." And doubtless familiarity with danger has so strong an effect upon some minds. In early youth I acted as "friend" to a brother ensign whose "nervous state" was such that he had to be assisted out of bed. This all passed away before his second "difficulty," and he eventually became, in fact, rather a troublesome fire-eater.
"That," said Lord B., "is the national value of [bird] hunting, of foxhunting; it keeps up the practice of incurring moderate danger."
"And Alpine climbing, glacier crossing, &c.," suggested Shughtie.
"And African travel," quoth Seaton with a smile.
I can hardly agree with the latter speaker, because what is gained in the habit of dangers is lost in health of nerve.
This led to a debate. As it again offered
nothing new, the process of reporting would be supererogatory.
I resumed when we had finished with nerves and nervousness.
It is a mistake of the modern schools not to make more use of the true rapier in the lesson as well as in the assault. The weight is different, the blade is broad, straight, and comparatively unelastic, and the change of weapons gives aplomb to the hand. In the present day there are many salles that have never seen a pair of rapiers, and even duels are mostly fought with French foils, which I have called mere bent wires.
"That wasn't the case with the old school," quoth Seaton.
True, and here the march of reform has been far too rapid. The style of rapier-fencing at once changes. You have more of the extensive movements, and especially the parries of contraction, indispensable to the Neapolitan school, but little used, or rather wholly disdained, by the French.
Place these weapons in the pupils' hands, and already the assault no longer resembles that of the familiar foil. One would say that the rapier-blade, though buttoned and consequently harmless, has preserved a something of the real combat, the strife between man and man, the point of steel against the naked breast.
It is no longer the careless exchange of thrusts, the tentative passes, the perilous ventures, often more brilliant and enterprising than reason permits. Both adversaries, without rendering an account to themselves, have looked upon the rencontre as a far more serious affair than usual, a sport approaching the earnest. Each, perhaps, says to himself, "Let's see how it would be if the swords had no buttons."
The different mounting of the weapons, the peculiar strident sound, the strischio, of the edges that meet, produce at once their effect. The adversaries watch each other, study the movements opposed to them, and preface execution by threatening approaches. The weapons reflect their hands, the hands their thoughts, and both seem to speak with lips. You cannot fail to make this remark whenever you happen to "assist" at a meeting of this kind.
If so great a difference is engendered by the mere change of harmless weapons, believe me the transition is far more abrupt from the buttoned blade to the pointed blade.
The eccentricities and arabesques of
the salles disappear, and with the rare exceptions of men who cannot keep
their tempers under any circumstances, a serious discretion takes the place
of that recklessness which risks nothing but a thrust in the leathern jacket.
This is a natural sentiment; the stakes are now of a very different kind.
And on such occasions it is that men congratulate themselves upon familiarity
with different styles of play, and do not think that time wasted which
has been spent in the study of the bad as well as of the good.
"You have not yet enlightened us," said Lord B., "upon the subject of the left-handed fencer, concerning whom we hear so much."
And I was about to neglect him because there is so little to say upon the subject. The Treatises, which are exceedingly prolix wherever they can be, here perforce fall back upon succinctness; there exists absolutely no rule which can be personally and exceptionally applied to the gaucher. All you have to do is to reverse your play with him.
"Then you do not think the difficulty so great as it is generally supposed to be?"
There is certainly a relative difficulty, easy enough to explain, but it is not that of the born blind who on some points can never thoroughly understand what they call "the sighted." One of my fencing friends, a left-handed man of course, used to declare that all the difficulty was the invention of right-handed men. The epigram was rather witty than wise; evidently so complete a reversal of the usual style is a serious obstacle to those who have not the habit of practising it.
The real and solid advantage of the gaucher is our being more familiar with right-handed men. Change this condition, and the pair are absolutely equal in their chances of victory. Two first-rate left-handed fencers are never at home with each other, and a droitier always fencing with gauchers would lose much of his skill against right-handed men.
On the other hand, the serious disadvantage of the left-handed man, and one impossible to remedy, is that he presents the more dangerous side to the sword. Again, I doubt whether the conditions which cause a man to be left-handed are not obstacles to perfect manipulation. It would be interesting to see a list of first- rate left-handed painters and sculptors, swordsmen and marksmen, billiard players, quoit players, and so forth.
The maître d'armes may always annul the incognito of the left-handed man by representing him at times in lessons to his pupils. Some do so, and they do right. The pupils also, should they have leisure, must not neglect to work both sides of the body.
"I think you advised the same in bayonet exercise," Shughtie remarked.
Certainly. The want became evident to me when a saw a number of men in every regiment with right shoulders permanently depressed by always carrying the musket on one side. And it is curious to feel how much good ten minutes with the left has done to the right, especially as regards the legs. Men are so apt to fit themselves into the grooves upon which they run smoothly, and to make habit something more than a second nature. I know dozens of good riders who would feel very awkward if compelled to mount a tall horse on the off side, like a tailor, as they say.
And from my youth upwards I have ever been at war with "habits." What makes a man old in what may be called the prime of life save habits, without the self-confidence, the pugnacity, and the animal spirits to oppose them? Why are my contemporaries of Alma Mater for the most part bochi e relli, with bald heads and grey beards, with paunched eyes and worn countenances? They have risen before 9 a.m.; they have broken their fast between that hour and noon; they have lunched about 2 p.m.; they have dined between 6 and 9, and they have found themselves in bed before midnight. Whence, therefore, this premature look of antiquity? All are under middle age, which however, supposes man to reach the century. The fact is that quiet domestic life --
"Shall we not," suggested Shugtie, "return to our gauchers?"
A thousand pardons! Can anyone tell me that the left-handed man has at his disposal a single pass or the shade of a parry which does not belong to the right-handed man? Certainly not. Only the latter, through want of practice, finds greater difficulty in adjusting his thrusts, for the simple reason that the inside of the arm becomes the outside and vice versâ. The gaucher also always attempts to draw you on in carte, where is quite at home, and if he be of fair force it is useless to attack him on that line or to encounter his counters of carte. His foible is in tierce, and he cannot defend his shoulder and flank like his breast; he is also more vulnerable in the high than in the low lines.
These are general rules known to every
teacher. But you must not believe those who assure you that the left-handed
man lacks variety of movements; this depends upon his individuality. If
all gauchers resembled one another like the fingers of the same
hand it would not be difficult to learn them by heart.
No one contradicts me, no one even "differs in opinion" with me. I shall not last long if you give me my head in this way.
I have tried not to omit anything which may please and interest those who love the sword, and those who feel that they might love it. My object has been to work out essential points and lines, and willingly to neglect that multiplicity of details which would overload the picture and sink the ensemble in its component parts. These details, I repeat, are the natural results of practice and experience; they are conquered, rather than learned, by the shock of steel with steel, by the variety of styles which offer themselves for study, and by the habit of meeting the sudden and unforeseen difficulties that may at any moment arise.
Look at that débutant entering life, emerging from the chrysalis state of school and college into the butterfly form called man of the world. How shyly he enters the room and acknowledges the hostess and mingles with the many. "Poor youth! He is modest," say the ladies with that pitying charity which makes the grande dame so especially delectable. By no means, milady! He is suffering from what, perhaps, his seniors have forgotten, from self-consciousness which haunts him like his guardian angel. He, the great unknown, to be so unknown! He, the macrocosm, to be so very microscopic! Society would worship him as a demi-god if it only dreamed of his real, his unappreciable value. But how teach it to the world? He owns with a flush that he knows not -- perhaps this is the only thing that he does not know. So he flushes alternately and turns pale when that audacious virgin looks straight between his eyes; he stammers and says the wrong thing, and he talks for talking sake, not daring to be silent, when that juvenile veteran of a matron amuses herself with drawing him out by way of keeping her hand in; and he helplessly offers his arm, hating himself and her all the more for such weakness, when that old soldier, that "widow who has seen better days," tells him that she would willingly "go down to supper."
Now see him after a single year. The virgin droops and drops her eyes before a steady glance which looks beyond her, which says, "I know something more than you do." The pretty matron begins to think of him -- the first point gained -- and owns to herself that he is "very nice," that she wishes he would call a little oftener. And the dowager, emboldened by her first success, tries the manoeuvre once more, and duly finds herself anchored upon the arm of a far younger young friend.
What has worked this marvel of transformation, of metamorphosis? Our débutant has entered into the struggle of life, and friction has begun the work of rounding off his angularities. He has associated with a host of fellow creatures, some better, many inferior -- for he is still young -- to himself. He has found a standing point, and is no longer wandering vagrant-like about the circle. And the world, which goodness knows! can look deep enough when the trouble is justified, contents itself with remarking that in ease and savoir faire he has become one of themselves.
It is the same with fencing. The art and finesse, the tact and à propos, come by themselves naturally and gradually, as feathers grow upon the young bird's wings. I will end with saying a graceful thing. Remember that the lesson and the plastron are your first masters, and never abandon them. This would be ungrateful, and ungraciousness and ingratitude is a flaw in the Perfect Swordsman.
To be continued.