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 Eighth Evening.
At this séance Lord B. was not present; he was dining at one of those feasts of plain roast and boiled and flow of heavy port and sherry, the prerogative and the high privilege of every English country gentleman who takes an intelligent interest in his party, his country, and his native land.
"What have we for our evening?" asked Charley, after the occupation for the several places and the usual half-hour of preliminary chat which Seaton, who still loves curries and cleaves to the Oriental Club, despite the 8 guineas a year, profanely calls "Gup."
I really cannot say; my budget is clean empty.
After a long pause there was a murmur, which gradually shaped itself into these words:
"If you are at an end, we shall not let you off so easily; we have listened, and now we will question."
Proceed, then, I replied.
"What do you think of the relative merits of sword and pistol in the matter of duelling?"
The answer would lead me far. In England we consider, or rather, we considered, powder and ball to be, upon the whole, a fairer way of settling a dispute than steel.
Possibly, I own; but listen to the view from the other part, the words of young France.
"It cannot be repeated too often that blind chance is not seldom the most powerful agent where we least expect its interference. It is this fact which makes the duel with the sword, in my opinion, the only equitable and honourable form; the single process, in which the feebler of two men has always something to expect from his own energy, courage, and resolution."
"In the duel with pistols what a melancholy part is assigned to both combatants!"
"Energy serves for nothing; courage becomes a useless weapon, and resolution only teaches a man to stand up like a target, and to await a bullet which he cannot stop. Under these circumstances, faint heart is equal to stout heart; softness and effeminacy, even cowardice itself, can triumph over the highest bravery, the incarnation of manliness. The finger touches a trigger, and all is said."
"The pistol duel has ever appeared to me a monstrous idea, and it is with joy that I see it disappear gradually, but surely, from amongst us, and lose root in our manners."
"After all," said Seaton, "this is merely repeating in new words the old French knight's dictum that gunpowder was the grave of honour."
Evidently, but the modern practice of France and of the Continent generally is to use the sword for lighter matters, the pistol for graver subjects of dispute.
Yet it must be owned that the greatest skill in arms does not make the fencer invulnerable. To believe the contrary would be a strange abuse of self-confidence and a dangerous error.
"Do you consider this an advantage or a disadvantage?" Seaton asked, evidently perplexed.
In my opinion, it is the only thing which exalts, which ennobles fencing in the hour of battle; even the feeblest find unforeseen chances of escape, protecting hazards, strokes of luck, which prevent the combat degenerating into manslaughter.
If the science of arms were exact and mathematical, admitting rigorous demonstration like a theorem of Laplace, if an unparriable pass could be invented, where is the man who, certain of conquering his opponent without running a shade of risk, would universally and loyally draw upon him?
"And what can an unhappy Englishman do," said Claude, alias "Jock," "who knows nothing of either sword or pistol?"
I see no difficulty. Do you remember the great Tom Cribb's answer to that parlous youth who asked him what was the best posture of defence: "Keep a civil tongue in your head!" Many Englishmen have lived abroad in the most troublous times, and yet have had the tact and good sense to keep out of quarrels. Of course, there are circumstances which make it absolutely and imperiously necessary for you to fight or to leave the town, in which case one of your compatriots will probably take your place. At -----, in my day, poor Charley S., the best of friends to everybody but himself, organised a little circle with the object of keeping up the national reputation. Whenever an Englishman was insulted by a foreigner, he was waited upon by the committee, and politely requested either to fight or to run away.
"And if he refused to do either?"
He was simply cut by everybody, which appears a sufficient penalty.
"Still, I want to know how my ignoramus manages to save his life," persisted Claude.
Some, like D.C., unhappily also gone, gallantly took the risk, and received a thrust in the arm. Others as a rule preferred the pistol, because every English gentleman shoots more or less, and the difference of a very few feet absolutely levels all distinction. At twenty-four paces everything is in favor of the practised shot; at twelve a large proportion; at six nothing.
"But what about choice of weapons?"
Everywhere the right resides with the challenged. A man, fixing a quarrel upon you insults you; you return it by a blow, pro formâ, as it were, with your glove, and when he sends you the cartel you prefer pistols.
Connected with their opinions upon providence and destiny, the duel became part of the national life. It then passed southwards throughout Europe, where neither council, nor Pope, nor priest could abolish it. A hundred times anathematised and punished with terrible severity, the duel as often revived, and reappeared under different shapes. If you ask me why, I answer, "Because it was necessary for the age."
At length, civilisation triumphed over the judicial or purely superstitious combat, and this ordeal became a mundane and secular thing, to be treated according to the fashion and the freak of time and place.
In some countries, and at certain epochs, those who revived the obsolete appeal to the God of Battle, which, however, sad to say, Christian Europe retains in time of war, were subject to long and cruel imprisonment, or were put to death often with tortures. The same was the case with the seconds, who, in the Judicum Dei, attended their combatants, and under certain casualties, protected them with their shields.
Elsewhere the dueller, abusing its impunity, especially in the ages when swords hung by all sides -- we see a survival in our Court Costume -- ran howling like a Bacchante through the streets and squares. It was good taste to mattre flamberge au rent, by way of filling up, as it were, a leisure hour, and dwelling for a day in the mouths of men. These rufflers drew under the lamps, in the parks, everywhere, in fact, for a word, a riband, a bet, an anonyma, a nothing. And the seconds, who yesterday might have been the best of friends, cut one another's throats to-day.
Every age seems to have its own follies and superstitions, its eccentricities and "white horses," its peculiar phase of that which in the individual we should call an "obscure disorder of the brain." But our times would look with anything but favour upon the "raffliné," the [eighteenth century London] Mohock, who took a pride in drawing his sword or notching his saw-handles, "the same which we shot Capt. Marker."
Yet what shows the ineradicable form of vitality residing in the personal appeal of the offended to the offender is this: almost throughout the civilised world, the duel, which arises about a point of honour pure and simple, which has for object not the death of the antagonist, but a man's self-approbation and self-esteem, and which cannot be traced in connection with anything unworthy or unfit for the eyes of the world, that form of obtaining satisfaction has outlived every phase of abuse, both the punishments threatened to it and the excesses which merited them.
Forgive me this long prologue, or, rather, be grateful to me for not making it longer. To condense so vast a matter into a few minutes of speech is not an easy task.
"Thanks!" was the general exclamation.
"Strange," said Shughtie, "that a custom so clearly un-Christian as the duello should obtain almost entirely amongst Christians. The old Greeks and Romans, the Hindus and Persians, the Egyptians and Chinese had their chance rencontres, like all semi-barbarians, they fought for 'best man,' but they had no regular duel. The Moslem, if obedient to his Apostle -- I won't say 'prophet,' a vulgar error -- will bear a slap of the face and run away rather than lift his hand upon a brother religionist. Against a Kafir, of course, the case is very different, but then the Koran says openly 'Slay them' (i.e., the unbelievers) 'wherever you shall find them.' The passage has been often glossed over, but there it stands."
It is rather, I replied, ante-Christian rather than anti-Christian; I can account for it only as a fragment of the Pagan temple, built up into the Christian Church.
"At any rate," said Charles, "we've got rid of it in England. What do you think will be the result at home?"
Simply nil. It had almost died out before the law was made so stringent, and, since the law has passed, there have, I believe, been as many duels between Englishmen as there were during the five years preceding it. Of course, they were fought abroad.
Upon such a subject there cannot fail to be differences of opinion. Our friends of the Manchester, utilitarian, middle-class school consider that the abolition has affected a pure and unmixed good.
"And no wonder!" cried Seaton. "These are gentlemen who are far from being nice or touchy upon the point of honour; 'mildew' and commercial morality are not dainty in such matters; an appeal for satisfaction is much more pleasantly passed on to a solicitor than settled by a second. They remind me of the timid burghers of certain foreign cities, who torment every dog with a muzzle for fear one in ten thousand should bide. These pékins, these mandarins wish to justify Napoleon's sneer about the nation of shopkeepers."
Which was fairly answered by Pitt's "nation of stage-players," I retorted, although the actor being an artist, would, abroad at least, rank himself before the épicier.
But there is still a moderate opinion upon the subject in England which speaks somewhat as follows:
The duel is one of those provisional arrangements which, like cannibalism, slavery, polygamy, and many others, belong to certain stages of society, and which drop off as decayed and dead matter when, no longer necessary, they become injurious excrescences upon the body social. Those who look only at the surface of things consider these temporary institutions as unmixed evils, forgetting the immense amount of good which they did in their own day.
It may be questioned whether we have not been premature in thus striking at the effect before we can reach the cause, in throwing away the empirical remedy before we have found the scientific cure. The duel has been abolished, but the "court of honour" has not become a part of our social system. And there are cases -- surely I need not specify them -- which defy all courts. Instead of absolutely forbidding duels, the law might allow a certain latitude by trying every case upon its own merits or demerits. For there are still many who look upon it as "To us a landmark of the times when Honour ruled the Land."
"They said that abolishing the prize ring would increase the use of the knife," remarked Claude, "but I don't see that it has."
Nor I. But that was simply a prize-fighter's argument against being abolished. The fact is that he abolished himself by a development of ruffianism and rascality which made him impossible.
If, however, novels be a reflection of life, I can only say that during the last few years, since duelling became rarer, the amount of "thrashing" that your six-foot-six and well-biceps'd heroes have to do is more startling than pleasing.
"And if they draw the rein tighter," said Seaton, "they'll make matters as they are in Russia, where no duel is allowed. It's only lately that an officer smarting under insufferable wrongs, and unable to call out his injurer, simply sabred him. And who does not remember how the two civilians in high positions settled a quarrel without scandal by tossing up [a coin], the loser to blow out his own brains."
"Yes," said Shughtie, "our 'Liberals' and Rads. borrowed a system of competitive examinations for their embryo Mandarins [e.g., civil servants] from China; the next thing will be to settle affairs of honour by the 'happy dispatch' [e.g., seppuku] of Japan."
We are getting on fast, I thought.
"And what claim has England," continued Seaton, "to say that what she does is right and that the rest of the world is wrong?"
Right and wrong, O Seaton!
"Oh, bother your metaphysics: Next we shall have ontology in the smoking room. Why should England be justified making duel murder, when at most it's manslaughter in France and Italy, in Germany and Austria? It's my opinion that the new law does no good at home. Abolish duelling and you introduce an extra pacific view of every question, public as well as individual. And the Englishman is naturally too long suffering. John Bull fights like a man when his blood is heated, but how hard it is becoming to raise the spirit of the British lion up to positive fighting point. He growls, and shows teeth and claws, and looks ugly; but the voice of the charmer whispers cabalistic words -- capital, commerce, cotton, corn, taxes. And behold he lies down, grumbling withal, but still he lies down."
Moral coercion, the public opinion of an enlightened nation, O Seaton --
"Don't," cried that irritable officer, "unless you wish to drive me mad!"
"And I am certain," said Shughtie, "that the working of the law will do us no good abroad. All the world knows how far it may go with John Bull before he rouses himself thoroughly, dashes his hat to the ground, pulls of hiss coat, tucks up his sleeves, and roars 'Come on!' He himself told his fellow creatures that he was about to become a very long-suffering man when, somewhere about 1850, he proposed a pax vobiscum to creation in general; he talked of paying off his army, of turning his navy into emigrant transports, and -- "
Shughtie, you exaggerate! I interposed.
"Not very much, certainly not the language of the peace-at-any-price party, before the nation took the alarm and volunteered to arm itself, greatly, I must say, against the grain of those who should have lent a hand. I also nearly managed to get into hot water by proposing a rifle corps, but that's neither here nor there. If you will abuse yourself, justly or unjustly, you must expect your friends to adopt the worst view of you. You can't object to being judged after your own estimate. All of us know how high a hand the French took in half a dozen national affairs -- look at the Recognition of the Empire, the Suez Canal, the 'Charles et Georges' business. And why? Do you believe they fancied that they could beat us? By no means! But they knew that a war is always more or less popular in France, rarely in England, now a financial rather than a commercial nation, except when it ought not to be so, like that fatal Crimean blunder."
"Well, we may say what we like," cried Seaton, "but whilst the present state of what the papers call 'unprecedented material prosperity' lasts we must expect to see John Bull below par in the political Bourse of the world. For my part I only wonder what will be the reaction. For it must come, and it'll be a 'caution.' And the first great 'shake' will bring it."
The remark seemed to give general satisfaction.
"But what," cried Shughtie, "can poor John Bull do without an army -- for regiments he has, army he has none!"
Seaton was on his hobby in a moment. "What can he do, you ask? Why one of two things. Reduce his force to half and double its prospects -- I don't mean £.s.d., but pension the old soldier and his family. So we shall get good men, not the skulkers who disgraced us in the Crimea by lying down in the Redan trenches. Don't I remember the French taunt, 'You, Johnny, Redan, no! no! Malakhoff, yes! yes!' [the reference is to an attack on Russian forts outside Sevastopol in September 1855, in which the French captured their goals but the British did not] and the growling reply, 'Waterloo, you beggars!' The other plan, which of course we shall come to, is a general conscription, the Prussian fashion modified. I'd begin with reviving the old militia law, and make every man serve in the second line [e.g., the Territorial or reserve forces] between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. At the first war I'd make service in the first line [e.g., the regulars] compulsory on gentle or simple. Please, somebody, stop me, or I shall go far into the small hours."
I offered him a Manilla.
"And now we can proceed with the judiciary combat," said Charles.
You wish me, in fact, to consider fencing with the point of personal utility, which naturally follows the assault, and which puts the colophon upon the art of arms?
I obey. The duel on one side is an assault composed of a series of passes and parries between men who are accustomed to the exercise of arms, in different degrees, it is true, but still proceeding after tolerably regular principles. On the other hand, it is a serious encounter with points which threaten one or two lives. A single home thrust only is wanted, no matter how, no matter where, rightly or wrongly delivered. Here, do not forget it, in addition to stratagem, address, and science, there are other and unknown factors -- surprise, brutal strength, savage ferocity, and the furious onslaughts of ignorance.
The face and those parts of the body whose defence in the assault we unjustifiably neglect have blood which your enemy may cause to flow. Your adversary is not picked out by yourself. The choice of chance, he may be short or tall, strong or weak, your inferior, your equal, or your superior in physique.
It is no longer a play in which pupils seek to display their brilliant science, a struggle of address in which you expose yourself voluntarily to be touched, perhaps twice or thrice, and thus inspire your enemy with a confidence which causes you to triumph in the end. We are far from the peaceful trial of strength executed under the master's eye, according to the rules of art and with arms of courtesy. This struggle differs from the assault even more than the latter does from the lesson.
The man who stands before you, who threatens you with his weapon, may be a consummate swordsman, fighting perhaps for the fifth or sixth time with all the advantages which an old campaigner must have accumulated; or he may never have taken a sword in hand, and rely solely upon his energy and upon his sang-froid, or even upon good luck, to serve and save him.
Are you about to engage an antagonist who calculates
his movements, and who ably keeps his distance, advancing and retiring
after the rules of art? Or perhaps the man opposed to you will count only
upon a supreme effort of audacity, of recklessness; he may defeat all your
calculations, and by making use of his sword with the mere animal instinct
of self-preservation he may trample under foot every received principle
of the art.
I need hardly speak of the part which the second ought to take before his friend is placed in the field. You will readily understand how imperative it is for him to exhaust all means of reconciliation, of preventing a hostile meeting, and how every chance of an honourable settlement should have been tried and found wanting before he consents to attend at the supreme arbitration of the sword.
There are men who have ignored the fact that they are guardians at once of another's life as well as of his honour, and who, fantastically to preserve the one, have foolishly or foully risked the other. But such things hardly belong to our times. The professional second, so brave with another man's skin, is all but extinct, except in comedies, and I only hope that we shall never see him again.
The chief muscle of a true man's arm is his firm belief in the goodness of his cause. All the power and, I may say, the religion of the second lie in the calmness and firmness, in the justice, loyalty, and conciliation which he brings to his most unpleasant duty. It is a task that will always win for him, not praise, but obloquy, and his main consolation will be found in the approval of his own conscience.
Speaking personally, if you allow me, gentlemen, when the duel becomes inevitable, after all my efforts to settle a difficulty, and when my conviction is that false vanity and dangerous amour propre are more concerned in the affair than wounded honour, I should not hesitate to express my opinion and to withdraw. Duels fought for the gallery are now considered either odious or ridiculous; they have passed out of our manners; they belong to the lumber-room of the past.
I shall differ from many, especially in the "Sister Island," upon the following point: In my opinion jealousy or rivalry for the affections of a woman is not a subject to fight about. If you want to see who is the "better man," ride stirrup by stirrup at a 6ft. wall, try the most of twelve tigers on foot, or go to the sources of the Congo River, but do not fight for the fair hand after the fashion of all the lower animals; such action simply degrades a man. You are always bound in honour to fight about her, not for her, to take up a woman's cause.
Said Shughtie: "One of the prettiest things in Afghanistan is a chivalrous custom, not taken from Europe. When a woman of rank is insulted or injured she sends her veil to the bravest chief of her acquaintance. His duty is to fight out her quarrel à outrance."
But -- need I say it? -- the more you avoid fighting, the better for her good name. She will feel that more strongly than you do, unless she belongs to that odious demi-monde which would add to her bad reputation notoriety and, let me term it, infamy, by causing blood to be shed about herself. And one of the difficulties we Englishmen find on the Continent is to avoid being drawn into the complications that are ever arising between our fellow-countrywomen and foreigners. The Continental considers it a duty when entering life to faire ses épreures -- in other and very blunt words, to prove that he is not a coward. We English assume every gentleman to be brave and every gentlewoman to be honest until the reverse is established. Your foreigner in love becomes extra pugnacious, and if he can win and wear la belle after a duel, tant mieux, c'est beau! I know nothing that offends my sense of delicacy more deeply than such affairs as these. My plan is at once to take up my hat and to make my last bow.
On the other hand, any assertion against character against character or conduct which tends to lower a man in his own esteem or in that of his kith and kin, his friends or his acquaintances, demands an apology -- or the alternative.
In proportion as the second shows himself yielding and conciliatory before the hour of action, so when that hour has come he must be decided and inflexible. His part has changed, but only to burden him with a new responsibility.
It is now that the "friend" must foresee everything, calculate all chances, fear everything, and provide for all contingencies in order that his partner may enjoy the tranquillity of mind, and especially the sang-froid, which he will need so much. Nothing, in fact, is trivial in the thousand and one details which precede a single combat. The most futile in appearance may suddenly assume abnormal consequences.
The stake is far too heavy to be thrown with careless hand and thoughtless head upon the green table of chance. In the first place the health of the combatant is highly important, and all the peculiarities of his eyesight, as well as his wind and training, must be carefully noticed. Familiarity with his habits may be means of avoiding a fatal mistake.
The ground also has its claims to study. It should be chosen because flat, uniform, and without rises and falls that might be dangerous. Observe narrowly the place where your man is about to stand, and do not trust him to observe for himself. A tree root, imperceptible to a rapid survey, might cause him to stumble and receive a thrust from the opponent before the latter can stay his hand. All this may appear puerile, but experts will know how easily that tuft of dewy and slippery grass, that small round pebble, which can cause a man to lose his balance and his life.
The light demands all your sagacity. The best position for the combatant, with sword as well as with pistol, is to stand against a dull foreground which does not define and throw out his figure. Never let the sun or the glare fall upon his face; it makes the blades sparkle, renders the coup d'oeil uncertain, and inevitably results in hesitation.
Remember that we fight with the look as well as with the sword. The look is thought; it warns us of danger, and it instinctively points out the adversary's weak side. Further still, the fixity of the glance, the eye which, like the olden god's, does not wink, the stead fast survey of the motionless pupil, the light of battle as it is called, have a fascination of their own. Whilst the steel menaces, the eyes discourse in questions and answers, and they convey to the brain information which it could not otherwise receive.
Never allow the shirt to be removed. The sudden effect of the air, especially in the case of one unaccustomed to it, may act upon the combatants in very different degrees, according as their constitutions are more or less impressionable.
"But if one of the two demand it?"
Refuse for the other. It is the habit of the French caserne, and it should not be tolerated beyond the barrack yard.
"May a glove be used?"
It is the custom, but custom is not law. Although many think it a right, it cannot claim all the privileges. Usually it is settled beforehand, whether fencing gloves may or may not be used. As a rule they are, because they grasp the grip with greater certainty and render disarming more difficult. Besides, the handle of a foil or rapier is hard enough tire or blister the delicate naked hand, and the fingers in contact with it suffer from every full-toned parry and from every shock of the swords.
If, however, one side refuse, the other cannot insist upon the glove being accepted, or upon claiming that advantage for itself.
An objection, for instance, might be started that
the glove, familiar to the practised fencer, is strange and useless to
one who has never worn it. This would rarely be done, because the man whose
palm has never touched a sword would feel its roughness more than his experienced
adversary. At all events, whether the opponent chose or refuse, you may
use a kid glove, well chalked to prevent slipping, or wind a kerchief about
your fingers, always, however, being careful not to let an end hang floating
so as to embarrass the action of the enemy's blade.
"May the left hand be allowed to parry?" asked one of the audience.
I reply, in the French school, positively, No!
"But if both combatants consent?"
It is a consent which ought never to be asked nor to be granted. I am aware that many professors are of a different opinion, and that the Comte de Chateauvillard, an authority upon the subject, has declared, "Que le fait de parer avec la main peut être l'objet d'un accord réciproque." Yet all that changes nothing in my opinion. I say clearly and once for all, "Since you have evidently the right of accepting or of refusing, invariably refuse."
In the first place, it does not belong to the school; it is now, if it has not been, foreign to its habits, to its manners, and to its practice.
It might, moreover, be dangerously unfair to one side, who like an enormous majority, had never heard of such a thing, whereas the other might have made it his careful study, with the ultimate view of using it in the field.
In the Italian school, as I have already explained to you, that form of parrying, or rather of putting aside, the enemy's pass had its raison d'être; in all others it becomes an imperfect and dangerous parody.
The French system throws back the left arm in order to profile the body and offer less surface to the enemy. It cannot use the left hand without compromising this position -- at least without subverting its principles.
Furthermore, I have visited most of the famous salles of the world, and no modern professor -- at least, after La Boïssèrre (1818) -- ever advocated parrying with the hand. In the numberless assaults witnessed by me no scholar ever attempted it, nor proposed it to his antagonist. Never, at least, that I am aware of, has maître d'armes taught it to his pupils, even as exception which might present itself, and against which it is wise to be forewarned.
Why, then, when the assault ceases to be sport, and when life is in question, should you offer or accept a convention which thus transgresses all received custom?
Years ago I was fencing at the rooms of my friend MacLaren at Oxford, and by way of surprise introduced this Italian style of parry. There was a peculiar expression upon the countenance of my adversary, and I asked him what he thought of it.
"To speak the truth," was the reply, "I see no reason, when you use your left hand in that way, why I should not come down upon your head with the pommel of my sword!"
And he was perfectly justified by the traditions of the old Peninsular masters.
I have quoted the dansi co pomi of the great swordsman Tasso. Rosaroll and Grisetti (1803, part 2, chap. 3) gives rules for the colpo di pomo in double short measure, and a blow on the temple would easily kill.
"You forget," quoth Seaton, "that the old term 'pommelling one's enemy' arose from this use of the heavy knobs on the antique sword guards."
If we admit this peculiarity of the Italian school, we can hardly object to the others, such as the parries of contention, the volta and the circolata (vaulting), the inquarto (spring aside), the sbasso (slipping down), and the sparita di vita, or effacement du corps, the incocciatura (hilt clashing), the imbroccata (dagger thrust), and the balestrata (tripping-up), which guard by the movements of the muscle, not by the sword.
Such a concession might also, without any counterbalancing advantages, lead to mortal errors and to fatal consequences.
Allow me to explain. Between the open hand which sweeps away the thrust and that nervous contraction of the fingers which involuntarily closes upon the blade, the difference is hard to define. The latter may be done almost without intention, and if the result be a thrust mortal to the adversary, it will be followed by life-long regrets, by vain repentance. The very possibility of such an accident taking place, even once in ten thousand times, should make us guard against accepting any convention that might lead to the fatality.
It is as bad for the seconds as for the principals.
It is difficult, not to say impossible, even where the practised eye is
concerned, to appreciate in the rapid rencontre of rapiers, in the lightning-like
exchange of passes, parries, and riposts, when the blades, sparkling in
the sun, intertwine as though they were things of life, the difference
of two movements, one being the result of agreement and the other a chance
which suddenly changes the duel into manslaughter. The question is so thorny
per se that with the best will it can hardly be so grasped as not
to produce two widely different interpretations -- and of the latter which
of the two is right? The fact upon which both repose has passed away, rapid
as a look, fugitive as thought itself. Terrible position in the presence
of a fellow creature stretched upon the ground, cold and inanimate, who
might still be in the vigour of youth and life! Who would accept a responsibility
so heavy as this?
I am exhausting your patience in describing the many duties of the second upon the field, and the minute appreciation of details which should ever be present in his thoughts. Yet, without going deep into the matter, it would be useless to attempt handling it.
Here is another point which demands extreme attention.
When the swords have crossed, the seconds, armed with foils or canes, should stand within reach of the combatants, ready to interfere in case of any irregularity. One of the two may, perchance, slip, stumble, take a false step, be disarmed, or be wounded. The latter accident is especially worthy of their vigilance, because two phases, both equally fatal, may present themselves.
One of the principals receives the thrust. The victor, in the heat of the action and excited by the natural animation of battle, is often unconscious that he has disabled his opponent. Before he sees the effect upon the latter, or even before he can stop his own impetuous career, he may strike him a second time unless the seconds beat down the swords.
The wounded man, on the other hand, may not immediately feel the effects of his hurt, and may risk, by continuing the encounter, one still worse. It might also happen -- and this perhaps is most to be feared -- that, blinded by rage, he throws himself madly upon his adversary.
Again, the combatant who feels his sword bury itself in the opponent's side stops instinctively, and hesitates to take advantage of a wounded man, although the latter may be continuing the attack. During this critical interval his antagonist, rushing in with senseless fury, may either run him through the body, or if he has calmly returned to guard, become the victim of his own impetuosity.
After the first wound the encounter should end, or at least be suspended. And the seconds will justly incur blame if, by want of vigilance, they have neglected to stop useless effusion of blood.
It is evident that sometimes, despite all our attention, the attack is so rapid and headlong that it cannot be arrested in time. But then we shall feel no self-reproach.
However rare, and happily so, are such contingencies, still they may occur. Thus it is of the highest importance for the seconds to follow with vigilant eye the conduct of the swords, and even to forecast their movements in case one of the combatants be hurt, however slightly.
If after inspection the wound prove of little consequence, and it be resolved to continue the combat, the two adversaries will at any rate have found time to recover their calmness and their self-possession.
This necessity of minute attention is one of the gravest points; it is also an absolute sine qua non. And here it is that the rôle of the second finds its highest difficulties, for here his responsibility is complete.
"It appears to me," said Charles, "without knowing anything of the matter, that the best second in the field would be an old fencing master."
If you can make it worth his while, I replied.
The usual practice of the day, especially when serious consequences are
anticipated, is to hire a couple of soldiers, privates in the line, at
the cost of their discharge and their trouble. And every year it becomes
a more serious thing to ask the assistance of a "friend" who has anything
to expect from society. The late Roumanian pistol duel between Prince Siretzo
and M. Ghika ended with the imprisonment of the seconds for two and three
years, when others escape with a few francs fine and a nominal imprisonment.
If this new view prevail the duello in France will go the way of the bowie
knife and black room in the United States.
"I'd like to hear," said Seaton, "what you think ought to be done in the case of corps à corps, when the principals meet body to body.
It is a most delicate point, which should always be previously arranged between the seconds. You cannot stop the fight except by agreement, and if you do not it generally ends with mortal wounds on both sides, which are called en partie double.
Here prudence, resolve, and perfect fairness are required.
If, for instance, one of the combatants has thrown himself violently upon the other, the blades should not be struck down before the side which has endured the attack shall also have used his right or ripost.
But there are questions and casualties of perpetual recurrence which can be resolved only by the presence of mind and by the just appreciation of the second.
In former days the case was otherwise. Now it is not too much to expect that the second will disdain to consult the interests of his principal by turning a convention, loyally offered and loyally accepted, into something favourable to his friend and unfair to the other side. Such would be, for instance, suddenly arresting the rencontre when a case specially expressed threatens to occur but does not occur.
"But if it happen?"
Then each man consults his judgment and his conscience upon what his conduct should be. Some might peremptorily demand that the rencontre cease; others that the combatants return to their places.
"And now let me ask you another question," said Shughtie. "I've often heard a man say 'If in a duel about a small matter a dead thrust were made at my principal's chest, my impulse would be to stop it.' Is he right or is he wrong?"
Evidently wrong. His motive is amiable, his action more natural than reasonable, but he has assumed the most crushing responsibility. Let us follow it out to its possible consequences; what is called Transatlantically "going the whole hog" is no bad test of principle, however opposed to our distaste for extremes. The mortal thrust has been stopped by the second, not parried by the principal. The fight continues and your "friend's" adversary is killed by the sudden change of that chance which at first stood in his favour. What now says your conscience?
The duel is a sad resource, but after you have honestly and honourably done all in your power to prevent it, allow fortune to pronounce between the principals. You may take any means in your power to diminish the fatality of the combat, but above all things fair play.
Shughtie persisted. "There are many who think that a point or two should be stretched in favour of a friend."
I am afraid that there are. But this is the emotional and feminine view of a man's duty. Once "stretch the point" and tell me if you can tell where it will end?
"It's clear to me," remarked Claude, "that nothing would persuade me to be a second with all these responsibilities."
Many say the same. The part is, in fact, one of the most serious that a man can assume; to take it up lightly is blameable in the highest degree. I do not envy the second who sleeps soundly and without sombre reflections throughout the night before the affair. His consolation must be the firm resolve never to transgress the strictest limit of absolute right -- for his friend as well as for the other party.
You will now see how many gifts are required for
a second in a duel of swords. The first is that tenacity of look and certainty
of coup d'oeil which result only from a long habit of arms. The
last is that energy of character which predisposes him to take an active
part; the purely passive conception robs it of all its force, all its nobleness,
all its dignity.
What do you say to the disputed question, "If one of the combatants wants to rest, can he be forced to go on?" asked Seaton.
That again should always be settled either by previous arrangement or by mutual agreement. Otherwise unpleasant discussions may arise. You have the right to compel him, but how to enforce it?
"Surely it would be repugnant to one's feelings not to give breathing time to a man who's sinking with fatigue, whose hand can't hold the sword and whose breath is gone?" said Claude.
Yet the right of insisting upon continuing the encounter is there, and for this reason. Why is he more exhausted than his adversary? Possibly, and I should say probably, because he has begun the fight with effort, with violence; he has used an imprudent activity without reserve and without consulting his strength. The other side has had to support these incessant shocks and attacks; it has better estimated its means and resources, and it has relied upon the result, despite the many risks incurred. The moment of success is evidently when the attacker, tired out by the number and impotence of his attacks, is able to offer the least resistance.
And what do you propose? That he should rest himself, recover breath, regain vigour, return to all his energy, and possibly renew his violent onslaught. Where is the reward of your prudence and husbanding strength if the danger which you have avoided the first time should be forced upon you the second?
"Still," Claude persisted, "one could hardly strike a man with a sword who can hardly hold his own."
Such is the feeling of every gentleman. Yet in the French barrière style of pistol duel a combatant, after receiving the adversary's fire, will not be ashamed of advancing and of discharging his own weapon. Here the opponent is even more unprotected; nothing can restore to the pistol the ball which it has discharged. In a rapier duel, on the other hand, however worn out a swordsman may seem, a supreme exertion of the will may rally his scattered sources, and enable him, dangerous still, to deal a death blow.
But custom is often stronger than truth. With the innate sentiments of chivalry, the essence of the pundonor, you will feel a repugnance, an incapacity for taking an advantage to-day, when to-morrow under identical circumstances you will claim all your rights.
"The difference appears to me," said Shughtie, "that with the pistol you may miss; with the sword you can't. There's something cold-blooded in wounding a man with a mortal weapon, whereas a pugilist has no scruple in giving the knockdown blow that ends the fight."
I pursued. My memory recalls another argument of a classical friend who quoted these verses of the Aenid:
Hic membris et mole valens; sed tarda trementi
Genua labant, vastos qualtit aeger anhelitus artus.
Here there are two wrestlers; one has every advantage of size, strength, and weight; the other has in his favour youth, suppleness, and agility. The latter evidently knows but one tactic, that of wearing out a superiority from which he has been compelled to run many a risk. Would it be fair in the first to require a suspension of the struggle, and thus deprive his opponent of an only chance?
Is it reasonable that one should be invited to sacrifice a part of his chances when the other would add to his own gain the loss of his adversary? The former, by calling for a halt, a truce, demands that the latter should give up the good resulting from his strength, "stay," and wind. But he himself at the same time has not renounced the benefits of his height, his skill, and his other gifts, and he will be careful not to renounce them when the combat shall be renewed.
We might pursue this subject far. The strength whose advantages you expect the combatant to sacrifice may be the result of short and heavy limbs, which, depriving him of elasticity and rapidity of movement, add greatly to his difficulty and his danger. The long-windedness of which you would disarm him, to the profit of his enemy, may be owing to the development of his lungs and breadth of chest, which presents the greater surface to the enemy's sword.
I have now shown what are the rights of the question according to justice and fair play.
"Fair play," interrupted Shughtie, "is one of the two new ideas in morality which have sprung from the British brain. What the other is you will all guess. When we pass away we shall leave this legacy to the world."
The exceptions can depend only upon individual considerations, such as constitutional feebleness, sickness, a disposition to faint, and so forth. All are cases which should previously have been foreseen and provided for.
I have treated this point at full length. Of capital
importance, it is subject to very different appreciations. In conclusion,
allow me to say that such questions must, as a matter of delicacy, always
be debated between the seconds, and never reach the principals. In this
case one of the latter might seem to crave a favour which the other has
a right to refuse.
"A last word," said Charles. "Can a man be compelled, as one reads of in books, to fight two or more duels in succession?"
In these days certainly not. Formerly all the officers of a regiment would call out a man who was supposed to have insulted the corps. I knew an Englishman who almost in his boyhood shot three adversaries in one morning; and there have been horrible instances of combined assassination even in our day. But now we should look upon such an accumulation of cartels as murder pure and simple.
Once the duel finished the combatant should be inviolable to all, and in no case can he be compelled to cross swords a second time. Remember that I am not speaking of the pistol duel. Fatigued as he is, or as he may be, by the first encounter, the chances of a second would not be equally distributed between him and his adversary.
If another rencontre be inevitable, and be honourably settled upon by both sides, it can take place only after many hours of rest, or, better still, on the morrow. At the same time, should the "party interested" -- that is to say, the man who has fought -- demand an immediate settlement of the question, there is no moral reason for not conceding it. I should never allow my "friend" to accept it, save under very exceptional circumstances, such as the absolute necessity of a journey, for if successful he would certainly be misjudged by the world.
But there is one precaution which is absolutely necessary. Under no circumstances whatever should the man who is about to become and adversary be allowed to be present, either as spectator or as second, at the combat which precedes his own. The primary law, equality of chances, would be thereby utterly violated. The simple act of looking on has given him a real, an incontestable advantage. With eyes sharpened by necessity he has watched his enemy, at a time, too, when most probably the latter was the least capable of concealing his play.
"Explain!" was the word.
In a rapier duel there are two important points to be learned. The first is the adversary's style and knowledge of the sword; the second is the nature of his moral organisation upon the field. It is evident without argument how much you gain by knowing whether the man before you is impetuous and fiery or calm and cold; if he will stand upon the defensive or resolutely proceed to the attack; whether his plan is to parry the pass, to retire, or to extend the sword -- in fine, if he is energetic or "dawdling," skilful or unskilled, "difficult" and dangerous or tame and phlegmatic.
By the mere act of being present at a first rencontre you know all that as though you had fenced with your adversary a dozen times. Your confidence increases with your knowledge, your energy redoubles; your presence of mind, untrammelled by doubt, preoccupation, or the necessity of study, belongs to you in its entirety. You have read the book, you have surveyed the country.
Though you be completely ignorant of arms, and even though a study of the sword, more or less superficial, may not enable you amply to take advantage of the occasion, as a practised student would do; still, the simple fact of having witnessed the rencontre is enough to lay the terrible phantom which we call the Unknown, to point out to your intelligence the line which it should follow, and to show you the certain way to success.
Your adversary, on the other hand, ignores all this. He is uncertain whether you are practised or unpractised; whether he should attack you or await your attack; if your nature is receptive and impressionable or stolid and aggressive, cool or liable to be carried away. He walks like one blindfolded; you are the book with uncut leaves, the unexplored region. It remains for him to divine everything, to learn everything.
And as but lately I claimed for the man who, in default of study or acquired science, enjoys such advantages as well-developed lungs and abnormal resources of muscle the plenary right of using his superiority had not failed to do so in the situation which we now consider I unhesitatingly reject anything that may destroy the equality of chances and may make the scale incline to one side or to the other.
Under these circumstances, were I a second, my first step would be an absolute refusal to be present at a rencontre so irregular and so unequal.
To be continued.
Footnotes (use your back button to return to the text)
FN1. Sections VI. to XI., besides exposing Burton's
own ideas, embody most of Bazancourt's remarks in the Seventh to Ninth
Evenings of his Secrets of the Sword (Clay's translation, pp. 153-172).