Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, March 2000

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

The Sentiment of the Sword: Part IV.

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 Fourth Evening.


It was easy to see from the first aspect of the smoking-room that it was again to be soirée, when pipes would predominate. The first half hour was passed, naturally enough, in talking over the events of the day. What added animation to the dialogue was the fact that one elderly gentleman, a visitor from town, evidently considered himself half shot in consequence of a country friend having fired across him [while bird hunting]. When giving my reasons for not joining in the English battue, I forgot to mention the chance of losing an eye or the use of an ear. So before the days of the iron horse in India, a friend accounted to me for his longevity by the fact that he had never been exposed to railway travel. His idea suggested the man who refused to take such hot and rebellious liquors in his blood as tea and coffee, but never refused whisky, toddy, or iced punch.


Invited to "address the assembly," I lit my weed and spoke as follows:

We will continue, O Signori, the mode of instruction whose first page only is known to you -- that is, to most of you. I enter, it will be observed, into the minutest details, without which, in fact, you might as well consult a treatise.

My pupil -- I regret that the Reverend Mr. O'Callaghan is not here -- already knows the different positions of the body, and has practically learned to appreciate the results to which their use leads.

During the very next séance I would put a foil in his hand -- always supposing that his intelligence equalled that of the average Church militant -- and teach him the thrusts and the simple parries. Every day's work would be divided into three sections, each of eight to ten and even fifteen minutes, and later on I should even allow the patient to sit down before this term has elapsed. In the fencing schools you see men who think they are "blown" after a third of the time. The best fencers always save themselves during the assault before they become thoroughly tired, and the play becomes wild' the repose of the guard, properly understood, gives great relief, and allows much longer continuance of exertion.

"Would you give your half hour at once, or separate it by long intervals?" asked Shughtie. "I'm certain that the latter is the best plan when learning the elements of a language -- a pure work of memory. A man who labours two or three successive hours at his vocabulary is to me like a school lad of eight, who studies throughout a third of the day."

Your rule is good for languages, and you have founded it upon the best of reasons; but swordsmanship has little to work the memory. My practice is never to let the pupil go on fencing when I see that he is fatigued. But I also never let him sit down till he requires rest. The thrusts and simple parries are, I venture to remind you,

Straight thrusts,

Disengagements and cuts over (coupés) in tierce and in carte,

Parries in tierce and in carte,

Circles and demicircles.

The passes develop the regularity of bodily action, the parries give force and suppleness to the wrist. You must be careful, however, not to depend only upon the wrist; in the circles especially there should always be a slight rotatory motion of the elbow. In fact, you should feel that you have an elbow. A man in perfect health never feels that he has anything; we recognise our limbs only when there is something unsound about them.

I make my acolyte advance and retire till he finds it easy as walking, skating, or waltzing. From his dêbut I demand from him the utmost vivacity of movement and rapidity of execution. It must always be well understood that slowness is the one sin which cannot be endured; it is the implacable enemy of anything like excellence; it is the infâme which must be crushed. The best way to punish a lazy lunge or a "dawdling" recovery is a stiff thrust in the lower ribs, with the hand low, so as not to allow the blade to bend. This should be repeated each time the fault occurs. Whatever the professors may say -- and they all say the same thing! -- I prize exact regularity far less than rapidity of execution, and I strongly object, except in special matters, to what is called "decomposing the movements." My object is to make even the first lessons so lively, so emotional, that the learner has not time for the ennui which attends the beginning of studies. It is, of course, necessary to point out the rocks upon which he may dash, and to save him from the wildness and extravagance of movements which must accompany unskilled quickness.

I would be more urgent upon this point of rapid execution among Englishmen than amongst Frenchmen or Italians, because a certain ponderousness of movement, "the stately lounge of the English gentleman," slowness decorated with the Order of the Garter, has become an insipid national boast, a Dundreary manner of superiority. I accustom my pupil to spare himself when tired, by relapsing into the repose of the guard, so as to be better prepared for rapid action when required, and above all things, I never speak to the intelligence at the cost of bodily activity.

Then I pass to the parries and compound attacks. I have named them to you, and you will know both how they are composed and how few they are.

And here allow me to remind you once more that the modern or natural system has introduced an important simplification in what used greatly to "exercise" pupils and retard the quickness of their movements. The old method made the hand, in tierce, as in prime and seconde, turn the knuckles up and the nails down, whilst carte reversed the operation. These movements appear to us mere complications, the inevitable effect of the maître d'armes. We now make the same position serve for both, only remembering to offer more opposition to the opposing blade. We never turn the hand in the style of our fathers, except when we would master and force through the enemy's guard by a kind of dagger thrust. You will bear this in mind, especially when fencing with a left-handed man. If you attack him in carte, you run your head against his wall; always attempt him by his feeble side -- tierce.

"I dislike the change very much," cried Seaton, who appeared this evening a trifle more excited than usual. "You take away one of the beauties of the guards. This is another step from the simple to the silly. Such levelling doctrines may tend to make all men equal -- before the sword. I can't say that they suit me."

"I hope," suggested Shughtie quite gravely, "that you are not doing to swordsmanship what the Japanese propose to do with English -- to reduce everything irregular to the regular; to say, for instance, 'I catch, I catched, I was catched,' et hoc genus omne. I'm sure that irregularities, like exceptions, are the most piquant beauties of language, especially of ours."

Your dislike, O Seaton, is an affair of sentiment. The change has been made, and has been accepted.

To resume. The counters, the double counters, and the turns of the sword are the most useful of exercises, because they work, or, as the French say, they "break," the wrist in all directions, giving it at once suppleness and strength. I would also remind you that, though carte is the easiest and the most natural parry, the contre de quarte, from left to right, is far more difficult, because it requires more opposition than the contre de tierce, consequently it demands much longer practice. I should advise the aspiring swordsman to give it five minutes to one of the other. In the former the muscles seem to act against the grain, in the latter they play naturally. This is not the case, but we are more accustomed to draw the arms towards the body than to the reverse movement.

At the end of the lesson I call the serious attention of my pupil to the faults which each half hour has developed. I show whence they arise, the dangers to which they must inevitably lead, and the easiest method of present cure and future prevention. He may then practise alone if he pleases and bring me his results.

If, for instance, he inclines, as many do, towards the irregular practice of suddenly dropping the hand or of drawing back the arm, as for a stab, I should make him attack and ripost in the high lines, even in the heights of the classicists, until his wrist is forced to acquire a certain amount of elevation, and vice versâ. The perfect swordsman may, it is true, take such liberties with his art as the poet introduces a hiatus, the musician a discord. These blemishes in places become beauties, but the greater the artist the more prudently he will use them.

And, in the matter of the high right hand, held above the head, French pedantry has done its worst. The old position of the Italian, or, rather, the Neapolitan, lunge was on a plane with the right shoulder. The "mixed school," again, trims between the two. Every French maître d'armes will insist upon what he calls "elevation," as if it were a sine qua non in good fencing. Ask him why? Because with a low hand you expose the upper part of the body. Tell him, with my compliments, that you do nothing of the kind.


Here, then, is the whole of the lesson which has been made such a bugbear to the uninitiated.

"I saw," Shughtie said, quoting the Arab proverb, "a monster from afar; nearer it became a man, and presently I found it to be my brother."

Yet professors still lose themselves in a daedalus of attacks, parries, and riposts, through which nothing but the Ariadne's clue of lifelong labour can guide the unhappy wanderer. Go to any continental fencing school of the old style and you will find the more advanced pupils passing through a half-hour's course of combinations, mere trials of ingenuity, simple multiplications for the purposes of multiplication, of which a tithe is never used in the assault, nor a fifth in actual combat. The master will tell you that they have their merits, and this is true to a limited extent. "Hopscotch" may do some good to the embryo opera dancer. But the serious disadvantage is that they leave no time for repeated practice of the small number which is really wanted, and in which I try to perfect my pupils. One of the most successful sportsmen with big and dangerous game ever known to me used to work with steel-tipped bullets at fifty paces, never farther, and for good reason, till he was certain of a shilling. And you will know who wins at billiards -- not the man who now and then makes a brilliant stroke that delights the gallery, but he who never misses an ordinary pocket and cannon. Moreover, a very limited number of movements greatly facilitates their execution to the beginner and sinks deep in the matter of his mind. When he has passed into the advanced stage he may please himself, and even win the praise of the world by the variety and the mobility of his play. It is enough for me to see that my pupil understands thoroughly what he does, and that his hand becomes the faithful echo of his thought. The young idea so taught cannot fail to shoot straight and to shoot far.

We now approach another section of my subject, upon which I am in complete disaccord with almost every teacher and every treatise. The latter will not even reason with the pupil during the first month, and actually refuse to teach him the names of tierce and carte, lest, like the recruit, he should confound his right hand with his left, and the idea of anything beyond the plastron lesson seems to give them the horrors. One well-known Traité (La Böessière's) gives fifty-four lessons before coming to the loose fencing, and supposing that each takes a week to master, you end the year. We are, even so, warned against the faults arising from des leçons trop précipitées. The Frenchman is not the only one who has written a chapter "upon the danger of premature assaults" -- anglicè, -- of fencing loose too soon. Briefly, I begin my pupils within a month or six weeks.

Seaton had sniffed the fray from afar; hence probably the unusual restlessness which had been remarked.

"I expected this hideous heresy!" he cried. "More than once I've seen it come and pass by. In my day we were taught to believe that the professor, who even allows, much more who encourages, loose fencing in beginners destroys a career. It's the worst form of condescension, to use a dainty word. It spoils good gifts; it wastes preliminary studies; it stands in the way of all progress. Are you speaking in parables, Sir? Or, perchance you are qualifying for a line in the Budget of Paradoxes. After a dozen riding lessons you do not send a boy to play polo, or to dance a quadrille the week after he puts on his first skates, do you? And what did you yourself say about the bravura song and the practice of painting, of art in general? You should be sent as consul to Trieste, or any other place of discipline, before you've thoroughly corrupted the youth of this unhappy land!"

A noble rage had made him forcible, facetious, prophetical.

Du calme, I suggested. Let us avoid attributing evil motives and forecasting highly unpleasant contingencies.

Permit me to resume my sentiment in very few words. I do not allow my pupil to fence loose before he knows tierce and carte, but with me he learns them easily. I do not cram him without consulting his intelligence; and I do not -- as you do -- keep him back when he longs to go forward. My system introduces him to the assault as quickly as possible, yours as slowly. That is the main difference.

I am at war with you to the knife upon this point, having suffered much and long from what I will take the liberty to call a prejudice. In mere childhood two brothers used to hide themselves in the garden and fence loose because the masks were locked up. One suffered severely from a thrust in the palate, and this would not have taken place, my Seaton, had not the master been of your school -- shall I say your form?

"You both deserved a good flogging, and so ends that matter!" was the natural rejoinder.

But to speak more seriously, I find the professional opinion utterly inapplicable, even to those who would study arms professionally, and who by obstinate toil would rise to the heights of our difficult art. How much less, then, can I apply it to the generality of men for whom a modicum of skill suffices.

Masters, especially masters after a certain age, will not, or rather cannot, comprehend this. They look back through the mist of years at the long life journey which it has been theirs to make. They see in the dim and fading vista the boy with his little foil, the lad, the youth, the adolescent, and the man -- always, ever, foil in hand. They exaggerate the difficulties of beginning an art whose end they have reached. It seems monstrous to them that a pupil of yesterday should venture, as it were, to attack them. See the nervousness with which the grey-headed clerk allows the young quill-driver to make his first entry in that awful ledger. You, John Shughtie, do you not feel a certain softness of heart when some Orientalist in embryo, and just out of jacket, brings you his Arabic alphabet and begs you to bind him upon that fiery gridiron? If you do not, I do.

Thus, observe. I well understand what lies at the poor maître's heart, and what obscures his understanding. Sentimentally he is right; logically he is wrong. And there is still a something eating at his feelings. In all the fine arts, as in literature, a man leaves, or may leave, traces behind him; the pictures and statues survive the painter and statuary; the poet bequeaths to posterity his poem; the musician his music. But it is not so in the personal, corporeal exercises, such as equitation, dancing, singing, acting, and fencing. These exist only in the memory of contemporaries, and, whatever be the excellence of the expert, a name, and nothing but a name, floats down the stream of time.

The science of arms -- by which, of course, I mean the methodical knowledge of the small sword -- is subject more than any other to different appreciations, and especially to divers degrees of study and proficiency.

Are you sure, then, MM. the professors, that these "premature assaults," as you agree to term them, exercise such pernicious effects and sow the seeds of so many faults? Right or wrong, I persist in thinking that if they do harm, the harm comes from you, the masters. And it is my conviction that, properly directed, they do good.

Excuse me if I quote my own case. After months and sometimes years of exile, when my sword play has been confined to a bout at broadswords with a capering Hindu or to a trial of singlestick with a muck-running Malay, it has been my fate to return to this world. Religiously, each time, I begin the lesson and the mur, which is le fond et la base des armes, like a little child, and shun the temptations of the assault for a month or so, till right and left hand have remembered their former cunning. But there is some moral courage in this process, se remettre aux armes, as the French say; do not doubt it. The dreariness of the leçon reminds me of that one road in some Brazilian town which the necessity of walking exercise compelled me conscientiously to tread day after day, and it requires no little perseverance to persist in the constitutional when you know the face of every rut and the form of every pebble upon your beat. And why should I expect the average man to do what is irksome even to the old practised hand?

In short, I make no difficulty about indulging my pupil as soon as possible. All vary in capacity for work and in capability of progress. But as a rule, after a month, more or less, of regular study, when my acolyte has learned to understand the small number of movements which have been described to you, and when he executes them with vivacity and relative regularity -- why, I put on my mask and plastron, and bid him come on and do his best. As the ladies are not here I may confide to you that acolytes of that "persuasion" have sometimes insisted upon attacking me within the week, and have shown themselves aught but grateful -- indeed, most recalcitrant, almost threatening to call me out -- when debarred of such enjoyment. This is the bravura song without knowing the scales.


I need hardly say that we must expect the first attempts at loose fencing to be loose indeed, awkward as are all the early efforts of an intelligence which has just freed itself from the shell. It will be a rudimental affair, faulty, and full of extremes, not unfrequently grotesque, violent, or feeble. But why is the master there except to set matters right? And what is the use of the lesson, unless it gives the opportunity of so doing?

Moreover, one advantage must not be concealed. The pupil has been left to himself -- not Scotticè, I hope; he has been released from the trammels of a system; he has come out in his own and proper colours. If the maître d'armes deserve the name he will carefully note the germs of future gifts and defects for encouragement and correction. He will hardly learn this so well from the behaviour of the acolyte under the lesson.

Our rude beginner, like the young bird trying its wings, sets out clumsily upon his first journey; still he has started in life. Already he shows what part of the lesson has become part of himself and what portion has been thrown aside as lumber; we observe that this thrust is of his predilection, that parry is only troublesome to them. His individuality appears, rash or prudent, slow or petulant, steadfast or wavering. You are studying his instincts, his character, which he does not dream of concealing, and which, perhaps, he could not conceal if he would.

Let me quote a great master and a distinguished amateur upon this subject:

"Les effets d l'escrime donnent lieu aux plus curieuses observations. Buffon a dit (by the by he did not) [FN1] 'Le style c'est l'homme.' On pourrait presque dire aussi qu'en escrime 'le jeu c'est l'homme.' Le caractère s'y révéle tout entier -- franchise ou mauvaise foi, nonchalance ou activité, timidité ou audace, orgueil ou modestie, finesse, astuce, ruse, en un mot, toutes les nuances du caractèrie, même les plus faibles, se font jour au milieu des péripéties de la lutte…

"L'escrime a aussi sa moralité. La lutte des amours propres n'est pas moins vive que la lutte matérielle de épées, et les caractères se modifient, en bien et en mal, à ce contact et à ce frottement. Sous l'empire de la sur excitation nerveuse produite par les exercises violents, l'esprit oublic souvent la politesse apprise et accoutumée: les gens bien élevés restent toujours convenables sans doute, mais eux-mêmes subissent l'influence de ces courants passionnés. Le défauts de chacun deviennent beaucoup plus apparents. Le moraliste et l'observateur, qui n'ont vu au dehors que des gens revêtis d'un vernis uniforme les trouvent là transformés: plus beaux, plus grands, plus petits, ou plus laids: tels qu'ils sont réellement. Le suns, dominés par une sorte de furia irréfléchie, se précipitent en aveugles sur la lame immobile du tireur qui leur est opposé; d'autres, calmes, modérés, pleins d'une ardeur réfléchie mais inébranlable, ne donnent rien au hazard, recherchant pour les déjouer les projets de leur adversaire, les devinant parfois à l'aide d'un calcul intelligent, souvent par une sorte d'intuition qui est le privilége des vrais tireurs."

And the pupil's gain is this. No amount of plastroning will do for him what that quarter of an hour has done. He sees now what he is learning; he at once appreciates the benefits of judgment, of regularity, and of quickness; he feels the thrill of emulation, the joys of victory, the griefs of defeat; he knows that instead of grinding on in his dull round he is moving forward. And dimly he realises the presence of that Unforeseen which falls as a shadow upon every pace of his path, whilst he recognises the necessity of training his mind to meet it like a man and a swordsman.

"We are not approaching the Sublime and Beautiful, I hope," said that most practical Shughtie.

The assault is, in fact, I continued, disdaining his sneer, the lesson by the side of the lesson, and no one can doubt that it is a most beneficial change.

For what do the Arabs say? "The lecture is one; the talk about the lecture" (that is practice) "is a thousand."


"Do you know," asked Lord B. with a smile, "that you are not only a heretic, that you are a downright infidel?"

Certainly, as regards these old and obsolete traditions. And so, allow me modestly to observe, was the mighty Bacon. I once heard of an Anglo-Indian officer who, having read for the first time a translation of the Novum Organum in Persian, asked who could be the impertinent fellow who had dared to fall foul of "Aristú," as he called Aristotle. But in my turn allow me to question you. Must not the right always begin with one man? Do you find anything wrong in my reasoning?

"I cannot say that I do."

Have you not felt all this yourself, and do you not believe that the protracted lesson adds another sting to the bitterness of beginning, causes the Art of Arms to look irksome, which is worse than terrible?

"You must not make Captain Seaton consider me your abettor in Radicalism."

"Communism!" ejaculated that officer with sententious brevity.


Permit me to borrow an anecdote from the brilliant but discursive pages of one who thinks as I do. [FN2]

"In a series of witty and humorous articles, M. Desbarolles, one of the most artistic and life-full natures that ever belonged to my acquaintance, recounts how, after having studied the sword with a French maître d'armes, in Germany I believe, he returned to Paris. There he at once repaired to the salon of perhaps the most celebrated professor of his day, M. Charlemagne, [FN3] to whom he brought letters of introduction. As usual, the rooms were crowded with amateur sommités.

"M. Desbarolles was politely asked to take a foil and provided with a vis-à-vis. He went through the assault in presence of the great man, and, having acquitted himself, as he supposed, in superior style, he quietly awaited the compliments his due.

"'Sir,'" said the authority, 'will you permit me in virtue of my age to offer you a word of advice?'

"'Certainly; I shall be grateful.'

"'Very well! Work at the plastron for a whole twelve months before you allow yourself a single assault.'

"M. Desbarolles pleasantly describes the shock of revulsed feeling which these words caused, but -- he adds -- the counsel appeared sincere and possibly good; he followed it, and he never found cause for repentance.

"I should have hoped from him more originality than to have taken such advice au pied de la lettre; and in all cases I affirm that the process itself only delayed the great artist in becoming the admirable swordsman he was known to be."


Captain Seaton will probably urge against me something as follows:

You own that for the assault you want suppleness of wrist, quickness of execution, activity of body, and presence of mind. Well, then, you will learn them best under the hands and by the lessons of an able preceptor. He has only to measure out his instructions according as you require them, and, above all things, not permit you to run before you can walk.

"Don't appeal to me," said the person alluded to. "For the sake of saving time and trouble, I here join issue with you upon your opinions, private and public, one and all."

Fortified by this assurance, I shall take the liberty of thus replying to Captain Seaton, or rather to my own idea of Captain Seaton:

Thanks for your generosity! I want bread, and you give me boiled rice. Gramercy for your offer of factitious energy; of quickness by word of command; of merging my individuality into another's; of pinning my faith upon the verba magistri. Truly I shall go far by this training of an intelligence, which is unerring only because it walks in leading strings under the master's hand, and it depends upon the indications, always just, always true, of his sword. It will be a pleasure to resemble the man who, safe in his swimming belt, peacefully studies his own movements, his specific gravity, his style and form of swimming, caring little for the fact that if you remove the corks he would at once disappear under the waves.

Far from me to deny that the plastron takes an important part in forming a fencer. It gives all the mechanism of material execution. But our friend Plastron claims to be so high and puissant a seigneur that his flag must precede all others, that his rights are universal, and that he may trespass with impunity upon the estates of his neighbours.

What we reply to him is once for all. You are base, being mechanical; your very intelligence is that of a calculating machine. What you have never done, cannot do, never will do, is to nerve heavy heart and brain against that King of Terrors, the Unknown, that spectre which, omnipresent and Protean in form, often melts away with its cold breath the most beautiful theories and the wisest combinations of mankind.

"Are you haunted by L'Imrévu? Is it your Fylgja or following spirit?" asked Shughtie. "Surely it's not fair to call up one ghost twice in a single evening!"

Whereas the assault is for the sword what to a young man first entering life are light and air and rich horizon, and journeys promising the excitement and the adventures for which his soul has long sighed. It calls upon him to bring his personality to the front, to inspire himself with his own individuality; in a word, to be himself, and not to recite page after page from the dulled lessons of others.

And yet out of deference to my friends I say this much for the plastron. Most fencing masters neglect one of its most important uses. As soon as the pupils have made a modicum of progress towards the necessary regularity, let each in his turn put on the leather jacket and give the lesson to his fellows. It will teach them tolerance for those who are feebler than themselves. I presume the fencing schools neglect this useful practice because it is wasting time, and because the parents who have paid the master expect all the teaching to come from him. It is wonderful how a few hours of giving lessons will fix the mechanism of fencing in your memory. I can compare it only with writing, which makes a man exact, after he has filled himself by reading a language.

"Yes," said Charles, "and there is at Oxford a sharp-witted undergrad -- they say there is always one -- who has made that system pay. His college tutor advised him to take a private coach, and so he took a private pupil."

At any rate, in the fencing salon, vive the Lancastrian [e.g., free; the allusion is to freestyle wrestling] system for ever! I have only one caution for the young master, which, indeed, is often equally necessary to the old master. Avoid advancing the chest to receive the thrust: it is injurious, because it trains the eye to errors of distance.


The smoking-room showed a positive unwillingness to agree with me. Possibly Seaton, having long been the only authority upon the subject, had succeeded in inoculating the hearers with his ideas. I had spoken quite enough about the assault -- indeed, far more than would have been necessary elsewhere -- yet, in view of the said mute opposition offered to my favourite theory, I determined not to spare a single detail.

Perhaps you will find this iteration -- well, unpleasant, and this presenting every facet and angle of the question the reverse of amusing. But my objection is amiable; I would imbue your thoughts with that conviction which is in mine, and I would induce even the most obdurate to try the question fairly in his mind.

Seaton only fixed his eyes upon me. He reminded me of another Anglo-Indian friend whose characteristic was combativeness and whose chief mental pabulum was contradiction. I was momentarily puzzled to know what he would do when a bad sore throat arrested the action of his vocal chords. He looked at me and nodded -- that was enough.

If you knew, I continued, how many striking instances of my assertion being true have passed before me! Hardly a fencing school in a great European city but presents the edifying spectacle of several advanced scholars still working at the plastron. It is a pleasure to see these gracile youths courting the warlike goddess; they are universally pronounced to be superbes. They have balance of body, elasticity of limb, accuracy of hand; all is in the highest state of training. They follow the professor's blade through a learned series of feints and counter-feints, attacks and demi-attacks, parades trompées, ripostes and contre-ripostes. Not a fault, not a deviation from line! They are walking treatises of the Art, which their master, justly vain, turns over to you to admire.

But when it comes to the real struggle, the lively image of war, these scholars are no longer the same. Their superiority in the lesson degenerates in the assault. Their mechanical dexterity, no longer having the same base, the accustomed point de départ, is paralysed. They know too much and they do not know enough.

For the assault is no longer the lesson. The adverse blade no more presents itself with the precision to which the scholar is accustomed; the contact of the swords has not that delicacy which was reflected in the pupil. Consequently he is in popular parlance "all abroad." He vainly seeks the regular graduation of passes and parries so long familiar to him; he finds here well-organised attacks, there extravagant movements, while in fact he is quite unprepared for either one or the other.

Instead of the straight macadam, the king's high road, along which the scholar was wont luxuriously to roll, he suddenly debouches upon a goat path, narrow, rough, stony, and often so obscure that he must grope his way without self-confidence to support his steps. Yet perhaps even in the assault the "plastrooner" is correct and graceful by mere force of habit. He must, however, despite his science and his abilities, which have in certain points been over-cultivated, expect frequent defeats at the hands of many a less erudite swordsman, the tireur malin trained to the habit of combat, accustomed to face its péripéties, and familiar with that strange tongue which speaks equally well the idiom of every individuality.

These remarks have been made by everyone familiar with the salles d'armes, though men are often too indolent or incurious to hunt out the causes of such things. I am persuaded that such show scholars, such pattern pupils, such gold and silver exhibition medals of the master have simply been spoiled by over-lessoning. If, instead of cultivating to the highest degree the monotonous mechanism of the plastron, they had inured themselves to the changing fortunes of the mask, they would have become at the same time correct theorists and dangerous practicians.

I will not pretend to say that chance, or whatever you please to call it, has not made certain and sundry exceptions, but we cannot found a rule upon what is not subject to rule.


We have now passed through the long avenue which led to the building, and we tread freely and firmly upon the vast arena which men call the assault; that is to say, the image of battle, the trained and gladiatorial struggle; difficult, full of fever and passion, between the men who bring to their aid everything that they know, and whatever they think likely to turn in their favour the scales of combat.

As regards myself, I never take up a foil for a serious assault, especially to meet a stranger, without a real emotion, a sensation that makes the heart beat quicker and the brain "look alive." And I do not doubt that all men of the same temperament as myself feel something of the kind. [FN4] It is no disadvantage, although perhaps for the first minute the foil may not be quite so steady as usual. Possibly, it is a greater advantage than is usually believed. I envy the unimpressionable being who, without an additional pulse-beat, without the least sensation of chill in hands and feet, stands up to address the Chambers, the theatre, the banquet, or the Christian Young Man. But it is he whose head throbs and whose heart thumps against his ribs who hurries the hearer along with him, and who brings down the house in thunderous cheers.

In this arena we shall find the two methods to which I have already alluded, the natural and the artificial, drawn up facing each other in hostile array. I will go round the ranks with you, and subject to a rapid review the multiplied phases which are likely to strike your glance.

The pupil, who began by standing before you ready for the goose step has now become a fencer. He has laid aside the plastron, and he has assumed the mask, prepared to do battle with all comers. Will you assist in the spectacle which is prepared for you?

"Willingly," said Lord B, "and I think that I can answer for these gentlemen to-morrow night."

To be continued.

Footnotes (use your back button to return to the text)

FN1. What Buffon did say was Le style c'est de l'homme même. But he is generally misquoted even by leading French writers, and I cannot but think that the constant adoption of this mis-version by Buffon's own countrymen shows either that there is very little difference in meaning between the two versions, or that the misquotation corresponds more clearly to the right definition in the minds of those best able to judge. Some of the editions suppress the de from the passage in Buffon's Discours de réception à l'Académie, and thus, according to some critics, make Buffon say exactly the opposite of what he intended, viz., that what is a man's own in his writing is the "order and the movement which he puts into his thoughts." All the rest may be borrowed, but this lucidus ordo or style is the man's own. (See Vapereau's Dictionnaire universelle des Littératures: art. Buffon.)

FN2. Viz., Bazancourt (cf. Clay's translation, p. 67).

FN3. Charlemagne, b. 1759, d. 1857, was professor of fencing in Paris from 1815 to 1841. His portrait, showing a certain resemblance to Lamartine, is given in L'Escrime Française (July 5, 1889).

FN4. Burton might have placed this passage between inverted commas (cf. Clay's Bazancourt, p. 73).

JNC Mar 2000