Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, March 2000

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

  The Sentiment of the Sword: Part VI.

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 Sixth Evening.
 
 

I.


 
 

The last discussion had been stormy, and I confess to having felt somewhat nettled by the obstinate ris inertiae of the moribund school, that mass of artificiality, the gift of tradition and authority. It reminded me of a certain old man of the (Central African) sea.

During the forenoon I was asked what would probably be the subject for the evening, and my reply was the tyranny and usurpation of le sentiment du fer. Perhaps the seductive antithesis or oxymoron had its effect, for the Marchioness signified her high will and pleasure to be present with her two daughters -- a sentimental foil, sounding in English somewhat like an oyster in love. On the other hand, Capt. Seaton declared solemnly that he washed his hands of the whole affair, and that whatever horror of heresy might issue from my mouth, he would not be induced to utter a word. I suspect that he had constituted as his spokesman John Shughtie, whose temper was more tranquil, more sage.

At the accustomed time I took my wonted place, and spoke as follows:

We will begin by defining le sentiment du fer, which can hardly bear translation as "the sentiment of the sword." The word d'outre manche expresses a something between sense and sentiment which we do not possess. Perhaps le tact du fer is a more intelligible synonym.

"The French is not only the natural language of the chase, but that of love and of war, in which ladies should be won and enemies defied." Without going so far as the misguided Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, we may, however, own that the Neo-Latin tongue has made itself at home in the fencing school, and we may use it without suspicion of "pedantry," the cry generally raised by ignorance against knowledge. Italian expresses the same things equally well, but, then, it is farther off than the French.

The sentiment du fer is that supreme art of digitation which is to the complete swordsman what the touch of the pulse is, or rather was, to the old physician who disclaims the newfangled thermometer. It begins to make itself felt as soon as the blades come into contact. Essential to the highest development of our art, it is the result of happy natural disposition, of long study, and of persevering attention. To the hand it gives lightness and that indescribable finesse which guide the cue of the billiard player; to the passes it communicates quickness directed by an appreciation of the case which can hardly be subjected to analysis. It is that mysterious résumé of delicate manipulation, of practised suppleness in wrist and forearm, and of precision in movement, which makes the adversary feel powerless before it, which startles at the same time that it commands him. No quality in a swordsman is more rarely found in any degree approaching perfection. To say that I have not the highest admiration of it would be to set myself down in the lowest ranks of materialism -- as the world understands the word. But its very potency suggests the absolute necessity of providing against it when we find so rare a gift opposed to us.

"A woman's wit would suggest that the easiest way would be to oppose it by equal sentiment," said Lady B.

And she would be right, supposing everything to be as it ought to be. But if the gift be seldom found, how can we expect to see it equally distributed between two swords? We must reason upon the generality of fencers and not upon the exceptions. The man who has mastered this supreme excellence of swordsmanship envelops, so to speak, within the circle of his will the hand and the point of his adversary; he attracts them alternately and repels them; he plays with them; he fascinates them as the serpent holds the bird with its glittering eye. It represents what the mesmeriser calls the power of volition; it is the aura megnetica of the sword. Where, then, shall we find the means of counteracting the influence? Evidently by withdrawing ourselves from it. I need hardly explain what our neighbours mean by donner l'épée. When two fencers, after falling on guard, have "engaged," that is, have crossed weapons -- the thing is done.

Here, then, is our only safeguard -- not to give the sword; to remove the blade from that of the adversary; rarely if ever, to permit the foils to meet. The professors, the schoolmen, and all who stand upon the ancient paths -- this was said with intention loudly declare that not to "give the sword" is a mere corruption of swordsmanship: that it means to thrust and tilt blindly and without judgment; that it exposes both fencers to passes driven home at the same time, to the affreux combat de gladiateurs oú les deux antagonistes sont blessis à la fois; that it leads to what is technically called plaquer (that is, to strike the antagonist with the flat blade, not with the point), and that it prevents the pupil ever reaching the apogee of his art -- namely the sentiment du fer.
 
 

II.


 
 

The idea of developing this defence was suggested by a comical dialogue in the rooms of an old professor, Constantin, of Boulogne, when a friend, who was quite of second-rate strength, had been placed opposite an older hand, and a far better fencer than himself. The latter, I should add, was also one of those many perverse people to whom custom and routine represent supreme law.

My friend fell into position, and after the foils were crossed, by way of signal to begin, withdrew his blade either purposely or by accident, and managed to touch his adversary several times in succession.

"Will you be kind enough," said the vanquished one, "to give me your sword?"

"Why so?"

"Because if you don't give me the sword how can you expect us to fence together?"

"We will fence as we can!"

"No! You ought to give me the sword."

"I see no 'ought' in this case. You're trying to touch me, I'm trying to touch you. My plan seems to succeed well-- all the better reason for keeping to it."

"Possibly," replied the routinist, "but this can't be called fencing when you don't give the sword."

"Let's sit down for a minute," said my friend, "and settle the question quietly. Allow me to ask whether you complain of my passes."

"Not at all!"

"Of my parries?"

"Not the least!"

"Have I retreated to much? Have I kept too much within distance?"

"Neither!"

"Have I attempted by strength to force in your guard?"

"No!"

"Have I attacked you out of my turn, or have I risked our both being touched at the same time?"

"Never!"

"Then what do you want more?"

"I want you to give me the sword!"

"In order to be agreeable to you? In order that you may touch me when I'm touching you?"

"I don't say that, but it's not fencing when you don't give the sword."

Some of the bystanders were of one opinion, others were of another. But it was impossible to drive the old hand from the position which he had taken up. Like the Hindu Yogi who stands ten years under a tree, he was not to be moved.

***

And thus it is, thus it ever has been, and thus it ever will be, fortunately in some senses for man, whenever the so-called sacrilegious hand touches the ancient traditions of anything in art, in science, or in anything else. The most obtuse cannot but feel that this is the signal for putting an end to the quiet life of Old Routine, and of turning him adrift, upon the wide, cold world of reform, of novelty, of progress. He resists, he struggles, he fights, because he feels that you are tearing him away from his line of placid successes, his pleasant habits, his occupations which have been learned by heart, and which are regulated, like a piece of music, phrase after phrase. We cannot, therefore, wonder that he loses temper -- again said with intention -- but that does not prove him to be right. And the mass of society hates new things; they introduce an element of discomfort.

"I think," said Shughtie, "that we have heard that before. O cobbler, do keep to your last!"

"A pun?" asked Lady Margaret.

Heaven forefend!
 
 

III.


 
 

By not giving the sword, you oppose an unexpected obstacle to this dangerous tact; you escape from the fascination; you break the spell. By never allowing the adversary his customary base of operations, you defeat his manoeuvres; you make him enter upon a new mode of tactics. An able general will alter his plan, and seek a triumph by beating you with your own arms. But he feels the difficulty; he is no longer upon plain ground, master of himself, and assured of every movement.

By giving the sword, you must always stand within distance of the point. That is to say, you must at all times be exposed to an attack de pied ferme, when it is most likely to succeed, we will say, by a strong straight thrust, or by a dégagement de vitesse. It is impossible, even for the most practised hand, to be certain of parrying such an attack, and, if the measure between the points be somewhat short, the best fencer may find himself "buttoned." Under such circumstances thought, which is ever on the alert, finds itself troubled and excited; apprehension and preoccupation work the brain, and it is vain to attempt maturing an attack.

When it happens you have been warned how rarely -- that two fencers equally matched meet to share the danger, then I say to them, "In this matter do as you think fit."

But in other cases, I say to the feeble one, The act of refusing to give your sword, combined with keeping your adversary out of distance, compels him to advance for the purpose of attack, a proceeding not only dangerous in itself, but also beneficial to you as betraying his intention. You are thus no longer in the presence of an imminent catastrophe, which takes from you all liberty of action, all coolness of judgment. You disquiet your adversary by leaving him in doubt as to which of the four lines you threaten; you can consult your own time and convenience, and, when it suits you to attack or to parry, you can sharply engage the enemy's sword.

Never lend ear to innuendoes about donner l'épée. You will find that it is an "inartistic ruse and weakness, a want of taste, dignity, and moral greatness." Reply that your object is to touch, and not to be touched, and that this is your mainstay of defence against coups de vitesse generally, and especially against a man who is strong in the straight thrust.

I find in this system one real and absolute good -- it guarantees your personal safety. The list of other advantages which it presents would be long to recite. Old and wary swordsmen delight in surprises, because they find such ruses easily passed upon young hands; so the aged lion and the worn-out tiger become man-eaters. The middle-aged fencer, whose arms are like iron, affects those passes which enable him, by mastering the centre of your blade, or by gliding from the strong to the weak kind, such as the liement de l'épée, the pression, the battement, the croisé, and what are called in general les attaques de l'épée, to force in your guard. These advantages on your adversary's side will not be annihilated, but their danger will be sensibly diminished; at any rate, their execution becomes more difficult, and it is accomplished by a far greater amount of risk.

Here, however, a word of warning! When I tell you never to give the sword, it is not meant that you should uncover yourself in order to keep your blade out of line. That would indeed by an error.
 
 

IV.


 
 

I must not leave you under the impression that this part of the New or Natural system, namely, not giving the sword, is useful only to a feeble fencer engaged with a skilful and experienced sword. There is no reason, at least that occurs to me, why skill and experience should not make equal use of an innovation against which so much clamour has been raised.

Its enemies, I have told you, declare that it utterly destroys the beauty and regularity of the play, that it leads to wild practice or practices; that the style becomes harsh, irregular, décousu, and that the danger of simultaneous thrusts is increased.

I pretend, on the other hand, that this is only the abuse, not the use of the change; that it enlarges the circle of the arena, gives far greater latitude to individuality; multiplies the action and the difficulties to be surmounted, and overthrows certain ideas which have been falsely admitted as inexpungable.

Why, may I ask, must my sword wander about in blindness and error because it is not incessantly glued to yours?

A hair's breadth may separate our weapons, which will still be in the classical and scholastic line of direction.

If you speak of the beginners, the bunglers, who blindly rush upon each other, they can certainly heap fault upon fault when giving as well as when not giving the sword. But why, when you raise to so giddy a height of excellence what you call le sentiment or le tact du fer, should you dethrone a rival sovereign of equal puissance, who may be called le sentiment du regard, le tact du regard? Why allow this tyranny, this usurpation? At any rate, instead of ranking the former absolute, and the latter a nonentity, allow them the respective tiles of Kaiser and King, and let them draw lots for the choice of precedence.

Do you want antiquity, do you want quarterings for the noble house which claims part of the throne and crown? Here, then, is an extract from one of the classical works (Thibaust).

"Il s'ensuit que tout l'avantage de l'art consiste en l'assurance de faire les approches, ce qui ne peut estre pratiqué sans avoir entière connaissance de l'importance du sentiment" (observe the tact or touch) "et de la veue" (remark the importance given to the look); "et croyez que ny la vitesse du corps ny la promptitude des bras ne sont rien auprès d'une bonne approche."

How wonderfully the old writer, allow me to remark, goes to the heart of the subject; how, speaking of attacks, he gives its own and its proper relative value to the judgment of distance, to the sentiment du fer, to the sentiment du regard, and to the rapidity of action. It is strange to see that the new is not seldom only the very old; it is sad to think how often when we deem ourselves inventors, we are only unconscious revivers. And the modern Italians are right. When speaking of a discovery they never say trovato, but ritrovato.

"And the Lakes of Central Africa?" asked Lady Mary.

Alas! some two thousand years ago they were navigated by the good pilot Diogenes.

"See Zanzibar, vol. I., chapt. 1, p. 5," said Shughtie; "it is too charming when an author talks his own books."

Yesterday evening I offered certain suggestions for the mechanical use of the eye. The great conjuror sent by the French Government to neutralise the mesmeric and the electrobiological semi-miracles of the Algerine and Moroccan Shayks had trained his glance to take in and his brain to remember the whole details of a furnished room at a single cast. His errand was hopeless; a single Pharaoh's magician against a host of Moses, his poor rod was soon swallowed up, and he narrowly escaped the silver bullet as the enemy of mankind was run through the body in Gil Blas. But his training of the eye was perfectly successful.

I remember unconscious homage to the look being rendered by a gunner on board the Griffon, an item of the West African Coffin-Squadron [e.g., a ship on slave patrol] long since sunk or burnt. Mr. Richards, who had trained in the Excellent, was teaching cut and slash to a very mild-looking specimen of the British lion, whose expression of countenance as he regarded his adversary was characteristic of benevolence and perhaps of being somewhat bored.

"Don't look in that way, man!" shouted the stentorian voice; "look at him as if you'd eat him!"
 
 

V.


 
 

Now see the swordsman who combines both "sentiments."

He keeps his adversary at a distance, threatening him with agile blade, which gleams like lightning before his glance, and throwing him into confusion with the calculated irregularity of its action. His watchful look, fixed equally on point and eye, questions the coming movement, divines the thought that would conceal itself, and peers into futurity with a something of prophetic strain. At the same time neither eye nor point betrays to hostile scrutiny aught of its secrets. In due time and at ease to himself, when everything has been weighed, disposed, and matured, this tireur roué wisely foresees both the attack and the ripost which is to follow it, presents his blade, and meets his adversary's; so that by bold and resolute action he wins the day.

"It appears to me," Lord B. said, "that you allow the poor adversary no quarter."

"Yes," Shughtie muttered, "as the Luck of Roaring Camp says, 'you see, it ain't no square game. They've just up the keerds on that chap from the start.' He hasn't the ghost of a chance, poor wretch! But, after all, you're bound to let us know what you do if in his turn the adversary will not give you the sword!"

The answer is easy. The great art of swordsmanship consists in laying successful snares, such as making your opponent expect the attack exactly where it is not intended. To deceive his expectations, to break up what he combines, to disappoint his plans, and to narrow his action; to dominate his movements, to paralyse his thoughts, represent the art, the science, the skill, and the power of your perfect swordsman.

I reply, "If the adversary will not give the sword, force him to give it." This is the proper opportunity for feints, threats, and half-attacks which would otherwise be misplaced. Either he parries them, or he attempts a time-thrust, or he proceeds to stop you by presenting the point. In either case he must offer you his blade, and you accept it as a base for the pression, the flanconnade, the battement, the croisé, the liement, the froissement d'épée, or any pass you see most appropriate to the occasion.
 
 

VI.


 
 

A word about these movements, which are most affected by short men, and which, powerfully executed, shake the antagonist's system, and sometimes reduce him to the weakness of a child. The pression, or weighing upon the adversary's blade, is becoming obsolete; but I do not see the reason for ranking it below its neighbours when carefully carried out. The flanconnade is the resource of a physically strong against a weak man; it may be used against a left-handed fencer, but then it must be inverted. The battement in the Romantic School was done by sharply turning the hand in old carte, or nails up, when engaged tierce, and in old tierce (nails down), when engaged carte. This only adds to the difficulty, and my system is, act by the elbow spring, which increases the leverage. The croisé is effected by turning the adversary's blade from carte to seconde or from tierce to demicircle; if the hand be not well elevated, the fencer runs the risk of a dérobement on the blade being withdrawn from him. I have seen the froissement followed by a disengagement, which is, of course, simply an abuse.

These movements do not belong to my system, but they must be studied and guarded against. And, remember, there is nothing bad in fencing, provided that it succeeds.
 
 

VII.


 
 

In the use of arms, as in war, you must expect nothing to be given to you. You must follow the good old plan of taking whatever your friend cannot keep, and when the lion's force fails, then, as the old saying is, follow the fox.

And now I will place before you two pictures, and crave your judgment of the contrast.

The first is an assault between two of those academical students so dear to the soul of our friend Seaton. Both are in the highest state of training, in art as in physique. They stand firmly upon their feet like "stone-gals," both equally disdain to retreat, and consequently neither need advance. In this perilous position feint follows feint, parry parry, pass pass; simple attack ends in compound attack, and vice versâ. The body, perfectly balanced, has never moved from the perpendicular; the admirably taught fingers and hand, wrist and forearm have added an extreme delicacy to the nice conduct of the sparkling blade. You follow the glittering flight of the point with a manner of marvel; you are at first lost in admiration. But this lasts only till the first few passes are delivered and parried. Then begins a sense of weariness. Nothing in this triumph of mechanism moves or excites you; there is nothing in these carpet knights to make your fingertips tingle or your hand feel for a sword. It is interesting as a game of chess between first-rate players, and that is all.

You have looked upon that picture, now turn to this. The pair is equally skilful and well matched, but the system is widely different.

Remark the style. Instantly when the swords are crossed within measure both place themselves in safety. Far from standing with firm foot and blade to blade, each chooses his own distance. With the eyes of the lynx and the glance of trained intelligence, they watch, they question, they examine each other. There is a slight approach, the swords meet, a lunge, quick as lightning, flashes past your look. The attack was cunningly contrived and forcibly carried out; but a sharp step backwards, perhaps a spring with both feet from the ground, ritrarse in stancio, as the Italians call it, and a parry which makes the weapons grind, defeated the thrust, and prepared for a return of compliment. It is a struggle between sturdy combatants, "rough customers" they would be called in the dialect of another exercise; supple and subtle, ardent and energetic as they are sturdy, calling to their aid all the resources of their art, the stores of their experience, the knowledge of their powers, and the suggestions of their individuality.

You will agree with me that this is fencing in earnest. What you have before seen is cunningly playing at fence.
 
 

VIII.


 
 

These innovations cannot fail to gain ground; they have suddenly enlarged, as modern science ever must do in all that she attempts, a field which formerly had narrow limits. As yet, however, they are recognised only by the general remark:

"Fencing has gained in difficulty what it has lost in grace. M. Un tel is a difficult swordsman."

May I ask why one of these qualities should exclude the other? Would you own that the graceful fencer is easy to conquer? I suppose that you mean by difficult, hard to touch, dangerous in his play. Well, then, with all my love of and admiration for the grace of an Antinous, I should much prefer, supposing that the combination were beyond my power, the vigour and "difficulty" that lack it.

But the whole idea is founded upon a mistake. Grace is the result of form; and manly grace, robust and energetic, that of the athlete, that which distinguished our doughty ancestors, is the progeny of strength united with shapely lines. The boor may have both, and be ungraceful withal; but we are not speaking of the untrained man, who bows servile over his mother earth.

I would risk martyrdom at the hands of the theorists, and still say, "Above all things, be dangerous, be 'difficult,' since that is the expression consecrated by use. Beyond this quality there is no salvation; all the rest is a mere fantasia, a weapon loaded with powder and lacking ball."

But my words must not be strained to mean more than they intend.

They exhort you to follow the instincts of your nature, the inspiration of your thought; to be, in a word, yourself, not a living lesson, the pale reflex of a master. Avoid the classical style -- a systematic, artificial, and acrobatic, without judgment or settled purpose. Shun as carefully the brutal style, which rushes upon the adversary like the bounding of a wild beast.

It would be as wrong to take such exceptions for our models as it is unjust to use them in attacking the innovations of the modern system.

The soi-disant fencer may touch a swordsman once or even twice by surprise or by chance -- for chance, I repeat, plays its part in fencing as in other affairs of life. But the art of arms cannot stoop to notice certain styles which may be termed the fisticuffs of the sword; eccentricities without value, the spawn of their own ignorance, which admit no principle, which belong to no system, and which have their roots nowhere. Still, you must never undervalue your enemy -- a saying worth repeating a thousand times; you must learn to conquer him and his irregularities; only after victory you may despise these vagaries.

Here, again, is one of the broad lines which separates the two systems. The new is admitted into certain houses of the Faubourg Saint Germain; but under a kind of protest, like a man whose place in "society" is not quite defined by the Peerage, the Baronetage, and the Landed Gentry. But I can assure you that, though it chooses to rank amongst the roturiers and the parvenus of progress, it comes from an old and noble stock. And if it did not, still, the garden rake cannot keep out the tide.

"Haven't we gone far enough into this part of the subject?" asked Shughtie. He was right. Progress is still a kind of war-cry, and not a few of the ancien régime not only deny its existence, but also look upon it as a polite invitation to tread upon the tails of the progressive man's coat.

I have said it once, and I say it again -- the device of the man who uses a rapier is the maxim consecrated by Molière. Let science teach him to touch well, to touch according all her rules. But above all things, let her show him how not to be touched, badly or well, by the first ignoramus who takes sword in hand.

To turn one's eyes from this point, which is the very end and aim of the Art of Arms, is equivalent to losing oneself in a chaos of darkness. The utile must come before the dulce. And he must be excused, even he who upon such a subject airs his Horace, in the presence of the other sex.
 
 

IX.


 
 

A few words upon the subject of our tools.

The origin of the foil is unknown. We can only say that it was first the Toledo or Spanish rapier with "bated" end; that it is popularly, and perhaps erroneously, attributed to Maestro Rocconi, of Siena; that it became general in the early part of the seventeenth century, and that shortly afterwards it was provided with a button. But this is a debated matter, of which I have treated elsewhere. The Plastron was begun as un petto di cartone; it is alluded to by Morsitato (1670), and a modern writer wonders if men did not perspire in those mediaeval times. Till the first half of the last [eighteenth] century the wire safe for the face had not been adopted. Let me quote what L'Encyclopédie of A.D. 1755 says upon the subject under the word "Masque":

"On a quelquefois poussé la précaution jusqu'à mettre un masque pour se garantir des coups qui peuvent être portés au visage, lorsqu'on s'exerce à l'art de l'escrime. Il est vrai que ceux qui sont encore peu vers dan cet art peuvent blesser leur adversaire en tirant mal, ou se faire blesser en relevant une botte mal parée. Cependant on n'en fait aujourd'hui aucun usage."

The article evidently re-echoes the ideas which were generally admitted at the time. To put on a mask was to show the adversary that you feared the result of his awkwardness; it was a precaution which bordered upon the offensive. Possibly, also, behind it lurked the instinct that it is not manly to take too much care of oneself; to Rareyfy [FN1] when you should break a horse. This was, in fact, what an African king said to me when I proposed a way of handling trade muskets which would prevent them from shattering his men's hands.

"The wretch!" said Lady Mary; "I should so much like to hear the story."

You shall be obeyed when I have got rid of the mask. In those days of the good old school, which perhaps, Lady Mary, you will be surprised to hear is so far from extinct that it shows many signs of vigorous life; in those antiquated times, still reflected by our own, fencing was a series of feints, of attacks, of parries, and of riposts, previously calculated and combined like "openings" in games of skill. One move inevitably brought on another. The man who during the early part of the performance, the manoeuvring phase, dared, instead of curiously following the labyrinth traced by the enemy's blade, to lunge with a home thrust -- in fact, to leap the hedge -- would have been held un tudesque, an ignare, an incremental form of the ignorant, and would have been ignominiously turned back to his ABC.

Another safeguard to both fencers was the classical and academic height to which the right hand was condemned by public taste. One of the greatest compliments paid to the far-famed Saint Georges by his favourite maître d'armes, M. la Boëssière, père, was upon the elevation of his hand, and the result -- that he never touched a man in the face. Yet towards the end of the Chevalier's short life (he died from neglecting his health at the age of fifty-four) the mask had gradually grown into fashion.

It was, however, only a thin plate, with peep-holes, recommended by the professors to the lower order of scholars. Presently it so happened that three maître d'armes lost one eye each in rapid succession. The wire face-safe was then adopted, and M. La Boëssière, fils, claims it for his father. But the old régime groaned over the degeneracy of those latter days. And still it groans. Now the fencing mask is -- shall I again say was? -- worn even at the Roman carnival to defend the face from sweetmeats of chalk and lime.

The origin of the leather jacket remounts to the days of defensive armour; it was the jerkin used under the coat of mail for comfort; so the Turkish tarbush [red hat], which my friend the good Shepherd of Cairo would call a "tarbrush," was the nucleus of the turban in the heroic age of the race.

I strongly object to the sandal, or fencing shoe, with a long projecting leather, which is supposed to assist the right foot in making a resonant sound. Practice does this with the common cricketing shoe easily and loudly enough, provided the sole is thin, but not too thin for protecting the foot. And those who wish to avoid a profligate waste of muscle should use the elastic connections between the heel piece and the sole invented (reitorato!), I believe, by the late Mr. Dowie. They say that he was not allowed to patent them because they might be useful to the army, so the army is left without its elastics and Mr. Dowie without his patent.

Finally, the heel of the left sandal should be somewhat higher than the right, as it saves fatigue and gives aplomb and mobility to the foot; yet many masters deprecate the use of it altogether.

The glove is mostly of two kinds, the common leather of the Italian school, whose foil has a shell hit, and the padded back rendered necessary by the double loops of the French weapon. Both may or may not have wrist pieces of stiff leather, and for broadsword these should extend to the elbow -- there are few things more unpleasant than a cut, even with a blunt edge, on the "funny bone." Do not think these matters trifling; I have seen bad wounds given by broken blades, when a little caution might have prevented regrettable accidents.

Having digressed so far without being recalled by public disapprobation, I will venture upon one farther excursus. Against the new system of small arms, which began with [French cartridge designer Claude-Étienne] Minié, body armour is held useless; possibly the same will eventually be the case with plated ships, which will be band boxes built in any number of compartments. But for the "white weapon" [swords] flexible coats of mail are still made in all the capitals of Europe, and there should be scant shame in using a precaution which the Duke of Wellington and Prince Bismarck, to mention only two of many, did not disdain. In the Franco-Prussian war plates of thick hide, literal cuirasses, with an angle to the fore, were found useful in deflecting the conical balls of modern warfare from the chest and stomach. For broadsword, especially in the East, where the crooked sabre never allows a thrust, a few curb chains may be so disposed as to make the wearer almost invulnerable. A pair should cross the head; one on each side should run from the top of the jacket or tunic collar to the shoulder and down the whole sleeve, and it would be better to have another line more in front, defending the collar bone; your Oriental [e.g. Indian or Arab] affects only two cuts, the shoulder blow and the "kulam," or leg slash. The latter is made vain by a chain extending from the hip to the foot.

Thus, the limbs are adequately protected against any average danger without the risk of splinters, or links of iron being driven into the wounds by stray bullets. I need hardly remind you that the chains to be of full use must be sewn inside the cap and dress, and that the less said about their presence the better. I have proposed these precautions, both the cuirass and the chains, half a dozen times, and some day they will be adopted.

The following paragraph appeared in most of the London papers:

"Capt. R.F. Burton suggests certain precautions in fighting the Ashantees [Asante, in 21st century Ghana] in the following terms: 'During the last Franco-Prussian war several of my friends escaped severe wounds by wearing in action a strip of hard leather, with a rib or angle to the fore. It must be large enough to cover heart, lungs, and stomach pit, and it should be sewn inside the blouse or tunic; of course, the looser, the better. Such a defence will be especially valuable for those who must often expose themselves in "the bush" to Anglo-Ashantee trade-guns loaded with pebbles and bits of iron. The sabre is hardly likely to play any part in the present campaign, or I should recommend my system of curb-chains worn across the cap, along the shoulders, and down the arm and legs.'"
 
 

X.


 
 

That portion of my audience, which may be called the Cigarette, had listened with exemplary patience to what could have offered but scant interest. I was sorry for it, but it was my "duty," as people say when they are preparing disagreeables, to apply the miséricorde to my ancient enemy the Old School at this last opportunity when the coup de grâce might be feasible.

I will not delay you longer. A few general remarks shall end this evening's conversazione.

Not many years ago the excessive use of feints, as you have already learned, was held in highest honour. But the whirligig of time now shows another face. The tacit convention between fencers, which made it a point of politeness for one to follow wherever the other led, has gone out of fashion -- that is out of the world. If you manoeuvre too much, I make an opposition of the sword, and lunge home without a word of apology; or I extend my arm and touch you with a stop thrust in the midst of your flourishes and arabesques.

These are passes which are now taught in the salles, and which appear in every modern treatise.

The old system possessed the merit of being well suited to its own formal age, when men had still to learn the art and mystery not of governing, but of being governed. The abuse led to strangely despotic theories, which, like the well-known front of brass and feet of clay, were obliged to succumb when the lieges succeeded in mastering the secret of its anatomy. It has been overthrown, perhaps, with some unnecessary violence; hence heart burnings, wrath, and quarrels, and, perhaps, the lingering belief that the old idol deserved a somewhat more tender treatment, prevents its being quite broken up, even to this day.

"And now that we know all about the sentiment of the sword," said Lady Mary, "I do wish you would tell me about the Amazons and that horrid King of Dahomi."

It was very kind and flattering. But nothing shall persuade me to repeat what I did say.

To be continued.

Footnotes (use your back button to return to text)

FN1. Rarey was a famous horse-tamer in the late [eighteen] fifties and early sixties, whose system was ridiculed in Punch.

JNC Mar 2000