Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, March 2000

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

The Sentiment of the Sword: Part IX.

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 Ninth and Last Evening.
 
 

I.



In consideration of the occasion -- the melancholy occasion -- were promised a visit in the smoking-room, but not so early as usual, as sundry Philisterines (feminine of the Philistines), who had been dining at the castle, might not order their carriages till late.

I am trying to remember, but I cannot, that the gathering in the Fumatory was at all remarkable for gloom or sadness. The séance began with the usual light talk about current topics, and when every cigar and pipe was under a full head of smoke, the subject of the final discourse was asked.

This evening I propose to speak of the combatants themselves and the means of attack and defence which offer them the most favourable chances. We will avoid anything verging upon the triste or the terrible, and do our roaring very gently. Indeed, the occasion is already sad enough to --

My sentimental attempt -- why will the hearer always mistake them? -- was nipped in the bud by a general movement of hilarity. Youth is so unpleasantly sanguine; the time before it is so interminable, and the years roll on so slowly. It is only after -- ahem! -- that man begins to find the stream gain swiftness, break into a torrent, and rush madly past its banks towards the sea, the eternal sea. It is only then that he realises and quotes:

Eheu fugaces Posthume! Posthume!

Labuntur anni.

It is only then that he begins to review the past, to think of what might have been, of all that he might have done, to recall to mind, to quote: And of the learned who with all his lore

Has leisure to be wise!

Perhaps, o poet! the truest wisdom for prosaic personal use, at least, if not poetical purposes, is never to look back upon the past, to ransack the present for every possible enjoyment, and even at eighty to anticipate the future, to begin building a house or a family or a fortune at the age of seventy or eighty with mental eyes fixed upon the long and brilliant perspective which spreads itself before them.

I have a young friend of eighty-four who hopes that someone will shoot him when he grows old. I was once dining at the house of another jeune homme of seventy, a statesman, a littérateur, and a man of the world, who had lived, as the saying is, every moment of his life. His sleep was so sound that no one ventured to ask him in the morning how he had passed the night, and his appetite, even at breakfast, was always of the healthiest.

But at that especial dinner I could not help remarking to my neighbour that the host was "hungry as a hunter," and in higher than his usual high spirits.

"Don't you know why?" whispered Meph. "I do; he has just received a letter announcing to him the death of one of his oldest and best friends."

The anecdote is not amiable -- like Fontenelle's "point de sauce blanche" -- and I hardly know why it has fallen from my lips. Yet it is true, true to the letter; my belief is that it portrays a really wise man. And did not the correct Archbishop of Cambrai, if we may trust his own madrigal, which, by the by, was suppressed par les nonnettes, record a similar sentiment>

Jeune, j'étais trop sage

Et voulais trop scavoir.

Je ne veux à mon âge

Que badinage

Et toucher àa mon dernier âge

Sans rien prévoir.

Fénélon also had evidently found leisure to be wise.

A long silence followed. I was preparing some final remarks.
 
 

II.



"What! positively in a brown study?" said that vexatious Shughtie. "One would almost suspect that the sweet youth's in love!"

Another burst of juvenile enjoyment, which had one good effect, that of rendering all further sentiment impossible. So I resumed in my soberest and most businesslike tones.

Yesterday we settled the vexed question of what a second is expected to do and not to do. I attempted to point out, as lucidly and as completely as possible, the qualities required in your "friends," their multifarious duties and precautions, the preliminary studies demanded of them, and the anxious circumspection which must preoccupy their minds at all times and upon every point. For the world will charge upon their shoulders the greatest part of the responsibility, and the world is right. Half the duels in the olden time arose from putting one's "affair" in the hands of Sir Lucius O'Trigger.

The preliminaries are all ended. Each combatant has received a blade of equal length.

"I have heard," said Lord S., "that on the Continent sometimes allowance is made for natural length of arm. Is it the case?"

An energetic second will occasionally try to secure that advantage for his principal, but it should never be admitted. The long arm is certainly in the fencer's favour, but it may be comparatively weak, or accompanied by feeble loins and legs, and surely one cannot think of handicapping on such occasions. Moreover, the longer the foil the greater practice is required to use it properly.

Both are no placed fronting each other. One of the friends stands between them; he turns alternately towards both principals and asks them:

"Gentlemen, are you ready to stand on guard?"

And upon receiving the affirmative reply he moves from between them, giving the word to begin.

Now the combat opens; both men, attentive and still motionless, feel that their lives are protected by the points of their swords -- nothing else.
 
 

III.



Under these circumstances only three hypotheses are possible. I will briefly examine them all.

The first is that in which a man who has never handled a foil or a rapier, or who has that dangerous thing a little knowledge, stands in presence of an adversary who is familiar with his weapon; this is perhaps the most usual case. The second is that in which both the combatants are equally "profane" in the Art of Arms; and the third is when both have a modicum of skill or are equal in swordsmanship. With respect to the last phase, I will somewhat extend what was said before about the levelling properties of the buttonless foil or rapier. In the field the degree of superiority as regards science, for which one of the combatants may be noted in the salle d'armes, often disappears, and is much more than compensated by the difference of organisation. Here, and I cannot repeat it too often, the object is not to touch often and brilliantly; the one thing needful is to touch once in any way you can.

We are no longer in the age when every gentleman who wore a sword was supposed to have learned its use, and was expected to draw it whenever opportunity offered. The beaux and the dandies of the Georgian era, like the raffinés on the other side of the Channel, considered it a mark of high breeding hot to disable the antagonist, except by a brilliant, scientifically combined pass. There is much to be said in favour of the practice; it was more graceful, more gentlemanly, more chivalrous, and it showed the old knightly quality of being perfectly familiar with the use of weapons. But, however that might be, the man who used his sword like a spit, even though he succeeded in passing it through his adversary's body, would have made himself the laughing stock of men and an object of contempt to women.

We have changed all that: the conditions of the age no longer admit it. Ours has become a workaday world, and England is fast teaching the rest of mankind to quote her peculiarly national and characteristic proverb, "Time is money." We attempted to introduce the Turkish bath, which, connected with ceremonial ablutions, in Turkey occupies the best part of four hours. What was the result? The City man drove off to Jermyn-street or elsewhere, undressed, sat five minutes in the tepidarium, rushed into the calidarium, oscillated between the two for a quarter of an hour, lay fidgeting for another fifteen minutes in the frigidarium, hardly waited till the first perspiration had passed off, rubbed himself down, re-dressed, and drove back whence he came, in nervous anxiety lest he should be too late for a business letter or a party of pleasure. After this can you wonder that he execrated the Turkish bath, and that his friends sometimes attributed to it his apoplexy, his epilepsy, or his paralysis?

And so it is with fencing. In these days young men have no time for it. Hence the art is neglected, and it is very rare that both combatants know how to make the best use of the arm which they hold in their hands.

I now proceed to consider my first hypothesis.
 
 

IV.



In France the man who knows nothing of the sword, whether he has never touched a foil, or he has, at rare intervals, beaten the air in the rooms of some young friend, when suddenly forced to fight goes straightway to a professor with the object of obtaining some notion which can enable him to defend his life. The laws of society permit him to haunt the salle d'armes; he may spend every moment of the interval in study, and, if the duel be with pistols, he may frequent the tir and get useful hints from the experts, who in France especially teach the art of shooting. In England we do not exactly consider such practice fair play.

You will here allow me a few words of digression. When a really good fencer is somewhat rusty of hand, after, we will say, from six months to a year of non-practice, I should advise him to do nothing of the kind. It generally happens that the first time he touches a foil his movements, though by no means so correct, become much more "difficult" and dangerous. The irregularities that manifest themselves and the rude vigour that breaks out more than compensate for the absence of closeness in pass and parry. Upon the same principle a man often shoots notably his best at the very opening of the season, on St. Partridge his day.

To return to my young man. He walks straight into the salle, and says to Mr. Professor, "I want you to teach me something of fencing. I'm to fight to-morrow."

"Do you know anything about the sword?"

"Half nothing, I may say."

"At any rate, you know that you must hold it by the handle and try to touch the enemy with the point -- that's about all, isn't it?" rejoins Mr. Professor, with a queer kind of smile. He then takes down two buttoned foils, hands one to his visitor, and begins the lesson.

As you imagine, this rapid course of instruction lacks variety; indeed, it cannot be, it should not be, otherwise. The whole point of the instruction now consists in its simplicity, in its being intelligible and practical. For the man who knows nothing the most indispensable conditions are calmness and sang-froid. These qualities acquire a greater value, because they will often be opposed in one combatant to excitement and temerity in the other.

What the professor must regard above and before all things is the natural position, the attitude, of his pupil. It should bed determined in a great measure by the person most concerned; it may not be modified, except for the indispensable necessity of action, such as a certain regard to balance and to facility of using the muscles. The main object is to give the improvised swordsman confidence in himself and to turn his faults and imperfections to the greatest possible advantage rather than attempt to correct him.

I attach the utmost importance to not putting the pupil "out of conceit with himself," as children say, but on the contrary, to increasing his self-reliance by word or deed. A little humouring will make him feel at home, and the effect will be a certain freedom of thought, of behaviour, and of action. The errors and irregularities which may lead to the greatest dangers should simply be pointed out, and the result must be left to himself.

The neophyte is sure not to sit straight upon his haunches; he will bend one way or the other, and happy for him if the inclination be to the front. He can then be taught in a few minutes to let the upper works -- that is to say, the bust -- impend over the lower. This, combined with the hand and the hilt, arm and shoulder, will serve as vanguard and shield to that part of the body where every thrust is almost always mortal.

You have been told that there is a something instinctive even in our modern and civilised style of fencing. This is so true that if all of you, even those who have never touched a foil, were to arm yourselves from that bundle in the corner and were to stand on guard, not in sport, but in real and terrible earnest, supposing that Indian mutineers were thundering at the door, your positions would greatly resemble one another, with only the light varieties resulting from differences of physique.

"I've never touched a sword!" cried Mr. X, taking up a foil, "and I'd like to see the result."

At that moment entered the Marchioness and her daughters, and after a general and comprehensive survey of the room took their accustomed seats.

"I hear that you are all fighting duels, gentlemen, under the peaceful tuition of Capt. Burton."

As usual, they malign me, Lady B ---.

"Then what is Mr. X doing? Where is his enemy? Who is the other desperado?"

Poor Mr. X sat down, foil in hand. I relieved him of his weapon and turned to Lady Mary. Pray hear my prayer! It is only a little discussion concerning falling on guard. You are going to take lessons. Do let this be the first. I will place myself as if about to attack you, and you will oppose me as you think fit. The charming blonde, grande et gracieuse danse ses moindres mouvements, like La Belle Hamilton, stood up at once, slightly flushing, and smiling kindly assent. I presented the weapon, which she took with that kind of hand which at once attracts eye and heart, when the stunted, etiolated extremities of the Hindu or Hindi Venus cause a cold shudder. Let us have full-sized hands of perfect shape, according to the Greek and Roman canon, not the dwarfed beauties of the Norman-Scandinavian model type. And how set free poor Fancy from those eyes of liquid blue, the turquoise of Sèvres porcelain, with the soft lights of youth and life and happiness shining within them. Again, what a contrast with the big, owlish orbs of the nearer Asiatic, the Turkish, Egyptian, and Syrian girl, which are large enough and black enough and dull enough for a "book of beauty"! And that wealth of golden hair which the good term flavescent and beurre frais, and the evil disposed "barley sugar"! We wanderers of the outer East adore every variety, from simple blond and blond-cendré to the fulvastre, coloured like the lion's mane; from the blond-fulvide, approaching the true rufous, and the Maryland, palest of browns, best worn rough and dishevelled, like the article which names it; to the rulide, which Raphael delighted to honour, and -- shall I own it? -- to the fiercest pelo rosso, which the wicked brand as "carroty." Compare that glorious tint that glitters as if borrowed from the morning sunbeam, which seems to shed light upon the features like a halo, an aureole, and which would only look dull if gold powdered, with the blue-black crinière of Southern Europe, the raven's wing of which men rave and write -- I think of the difference between the loveliest spring day and wintry night.

But the time of trial was come. I mastered my emotion with a mighty effort, and before the fair girl had time to prepare herself I stood straight before her, threatening with my point that loveliest of lovely bosoms. Instinctively the tender, graceful lines, wavy as those of the palmlet, lost much of their abandon; the stature grew to its full height, and a young Penthesilea stood before the delighted room. The guard was perfect.

Oh, remain so for a minute! The position might be photographed! Such, ladies and gentlemen, I resumed n my driest tone, is the living proof which will convince the most sceptical. Can you not see in that attitude of defiance the pointe de départ of the complete swordsman? And so it must be, because it results from the nature of our organisation, and of our offensive and defensive instincts.

"I hardly think that I can stand long so," said the adorable patient, who had remained scrupulously still. Oh that Titian could have seen her with that complexion "Making her white robe dull and wan," that colour heightened by exertion and by the novelty of the exercise!

Only one second more, I begged. You will tire yourself if the right arm is stretched too much. Shorten it a very little and hold the sword very lightly with the thumb and two first fingers, feeling the hilt somewhat more firmly with the rest; the right shoulder a trifle lower, and above all things, no unnecessary force, no rigidity of muscles in the shoulder.

"That is far more comfortable; it hardly tires me at all!"

You will find it still easier if you will not allow the waist to droop, the bust to bend carelessly a little forwards, the left foot do draw somewhat nearer the right, and the knees slightly to bend, ready for a rapid movement forwards or backwards.

"Now I feel the stiffness much less!"

Admirable! Only keep the right shoulder more effaced without effort or inconvenience. Place the left hand upon the waist, propped by the thumb and fingers. No you are all perfection. If I move towards you, resolutely extend the foil, pointing at my face, taking at the same time one step to the rear. So! Admirable again! And yet you have not yet begun your lessons! I can hardly believe it; you seem to have practised for months. Capt. Seaton is to be envied his most promising pupil. I shall always claim for myself the high honour of having first put the foil into your hand.

"Is the demonstration over?"

Yes; and a thousand thanks!" if another is wanted I can hardly venture to ask again. But ---

"I also have something to ask you, so we may be upon terms of equal concession," was the reply, accompanied by a too enchanting smile.

And the beautiful experiment sat down after showing us a tableau vivant -- a vision of grace -- a vision of grace, a personification of girlish loveliness -- which no man in that room will ever forget if he lives to the age of Mr. Parr, Senior.

It was no mere compliment to say that one would have supposed her not to have been a beginner. Here sex told. Women are so much less awkward than men, and their finer sense of the fitness of things, combined with superior powers of intuition, takes away so much of its gaucherie from the first steps in physical exercise. See the difference between boy and girl entering upon their first positions in the dancing room.

And in the use of weapons women, although deficient in bodily force, which to a certain extent is the root of all excellence, far surpass us as rule in strength of nerves, simply because their mode of life is not so trying to the system. I lately gave but a simple lesson with pistolets de salon to a fair friend at Florence. She had never touched the weapon before that morning, and in her next trial she made several bull's-eyes.

This same nervous strength and quiet life explain why so many of the sex, especially the blondes, in whom oxygen predominates over carbon, return home from India "fat, fair, and forty," when their husbands and brothers wear the light mahogany and maple tints which characterised the old "Nabob."
 
 

V.


 
 

What, then, is the sole lesson, the only salutary advice, which, according to me, a fencing master can give to the man who says, "In two hours or to-morrow, as the case may be, we fight"?

A short digression, before I reply to myself. The maître d'armes can hardly be expected to be outside and beyond the general run of his profession, but an exceptional man, who is somewhat a physiognomist and -- excuse the dreadful word! an anthropologist, it has nothing to do with anthropophagy -- may dive into the secrets of his client's organisation with results which enable him wonderfully to condense instruction; such a compendium, a multum in parro, will take the place of a dozen lessons given by an average, or what American citizens better call an "or'nary," man.

I once went through a course of lectures in phrenology, my deceased friend Dr. D. being the instructor, an able follower of Gall, Spurzheim, and Co.

"Excuse me if I interrupt you," said Shughtie. "I was never satisfied with that full-fledged invention of the German Geist, and lately, turning over old bouquins, I hit upon the Margarita Philosophica Fribourg, 1503; it contained a skull marked and mapped much as those were by Mr. De Veal -- who called himself Mr. de Weel. A curious question whether it was known to Gall!"

Possibly, but to continue. My friend's sharp Celtic wits, he was born a Galway "buckeen," had been prodigiously sharpened by the res augusta, and by a fine young family with fine young appetites. He was a perfect study in his professional studio, garnished with the usual lines of banal plaster busts, Michael Angelo and Mr. Rush, Mr. William Palmer and the Vertical Section of the Brain, Rev. Thos. Binney and Mr. Greenacre, Mrs. Manning and the Idiot Girl of Cork, Professor Owen and the Skull of the Black Monkey. He received tributaries seated before his table, where lay the compasses and callipers, the list of prices (fee 5s.) for disclosing to you the inner secrets of your soul, and the skeleton printed papers to be filled up with your passions, your sentiments, your perceptions, and your reflections.

His dissection of the victim commenced even before the door was opened. Some knocked loudly and decidedly, others softly and with protest, as it were. These turned the handle without preliminary, those apologised for intruding; one took off his hat when he came in, another wore it, and wore it on the side of his head. In fact, everything was noted by that old man's wary eye, from the first knock to the final arrangements about the cost of the "character." The biceps were of course, felt, measured, and made the subject of the usual commonplaces and generalities. But they were evidently the matter of the very least importance.

I remember once saying to him, after witnessing two or three of these scenes, in which he who consulted the oracle divulged everything that he wished to learn:

"Doctor, the man begins with the ends of his hair, and ends with the tips of his toes. Give me his boots, usual wear, and they will do my turn as well as the bumps do yours."

The old man subtly looked at me over the upper rim of his tortoiseshell spectacles, and replied, "My dear sir, every profession has its professionalities."

***

And now to answer myself. In the assault we obey certain rules previously laid down, accepted, and learned by heart; we do not attempt to touch the adversary, save under specified conditions. A mask covers the face, a plastron protects the chest.

But the faults which we would avoid in the salle d'armes are useful in the field to intimidate the opponent's practice, and to cause hesitation in his movements. For fencing, no matter what the masters say, is perhaps the science in which certain irregularities may, at a given moment, be of the greatest advantage to those who commit them. Otherwise, it would be a song to be committed to memory, more or less correctly, and he who knows it best would then have nothing to fear. If the maître d'armes attempt anything like beginning at the beginning, in working up to a knowledge of passes and parries, he is simply wrong. He must foresee that the undeveloped intelligence before him will be troubled by the natural emotion of the combat, and the lesson must not add to that trouble. All he teaches, in fact, should be clear, simple, and facile in comprehension as in action, taking its source in that instinct of defence which belongs to every nature.

"You're evidently qualifying for a professorship, or for the House of Commons," said Seaton. I regret to own that the "Cigarettes" enjoyed the remark.

It is a serious subject which must not be treated with lightness, I replied in my most dignified tones.

There are certain principles of prudence and personal security so invariable that to question them would be madness. They apply to one and all; they are the natural base of every struggle between man and man.

As soon as the seconds have given the word, the pupil must learn, by a sudden and rapid movement, to break backwards one or two measures, so as to guard himself against a possible surprise. And in the course of the combat he must break, incessantly break, but little by little, not covering too much ground, and not like one who fears, but like one who awaits.

Never forget the sole formula which at such supreme moment is at the disposal of the man who cannot call in science to his aid, the rule upon which he should concentrate his attention -- break and extend, which means defend yourself by threatening. There must have been something ludicrous in the idea of threat and menace connected with the bright vision that had just appeared to us, for John Shughtie indulged in a low laugh. As I looked at him reprovingly he covered his recklessness by remarking, "It's not so easy to threaten when one doesn't know how!"

Pardon me; the very act of presenting the point suffices. He who sees it glittering even motionless before his eyes must feel its presence preoccupying his thoughts; he dwells upon it the more when he knows that the hand which guides it is without training, obeys no law, seeks no feint, but is ever there like a watchful sentinel at his post.

To explain myself more clearly I will say: the retreat is your defence, the extension of the sword is your mode of offence -- the only mode permitted to those who have not studied in the schools.

By retreating you maintain full or long measure between yourself and your opponent, you prevent his easily mastering your blade by means of half attacks, and by remaining on guard you block up the way against surprises, against blind and furious onslaughts.

This extension of the sword arm was the only tactic of M. Admond About when he fought M. Hervé and of the naturalised Parisian M. Rob. Mitchell when in 1874 he met his "brother" journalist, M. Aurélien Scholl.

Nothing is easier to learn. The retrograde movement of the body facilitates the action. An hour's work, even for a man who has never handled a sword, will render familiar to him this change of line, which strengthens at the same time the defence and the offence.

And while making a neophyte repeat this simple exercise, I would also teach him to keep the sword point now at the height of the breast, then directed towards the flank -- that is to say, menacing the upper and the lower lines.

He is thus, by means of an extension of the arm, an upward and downward movement of the point, called in Italian a mezza-carazione, and a disengagement -- absolutely nothing more -- able to threaten and control the only four lines known to the attack and to the defence.

There was a movement of impatience, especially amongst the pipes, as if the instruction appeared too elementary.

Allow me to remark that I am simplifying my demonstration, perhaps to puerility. I am detailing and analysing each movement, and especially I am avoiding technical terms, for my lecture is mostly addressed to those whose lessons are still to come. On the other hand, even the practised swordsman will find some advantage in thus taking to pieces the mechanism of his art and in assigning to each item its relative value and significance.
 
 

VI.


 
 

"With permission of my future pupils," Seaton said, "I'd ask why you now avoid mentioning the lunge to the rear, se fendre en arrière?"

Simply because, according to me, this system, useful in exceptional cases, may become very dangerous to one applying it by chance or at inopportune times. It would most probably compromise his defence and throw him into the hands of the adversary.

The tactic which I advocate -- that is to say, the step backwards, the simultaneous extension of the arm, either in the same line or by disengagement, followed by recovering guard and shortening the arm, -- is far preferable to this hazardous movement. Whether you win or lose depends upon the skill and prudence of the adversary. But, at any rate, you are always firm in the defence, solid upon your legs, and in perfect equilibrium, ready to repeat the same movement whenever the opponent advances; and after wearying him out and inducing him to attempt some dangerous attack which thoroughly fails, this identical outstretching of the point will direct it to his arm, to his shoulder, or to his breast.

But if you lunge backwards -- that is to say, retire the left foot some 15in., whilst the right continues in position, and your body is thrown back -- what benefit do you expect?

You are unskilful in arms. What secret instinct points out to you the very moment of action? For after this movement you must recover yourself, and rapidly too; you must return to guard without a moment's loss, and this will be found by no means easy. Meanwhile the opponent, taking advantage of your inexperience and the disunion which cannot but arise in the use of your limbs, presses you vivacity, and perhaps secures your sword.

You escape, we will suppose, the first danger; and take warning not to repeat it, however sorely you are tempted by the attacks and the half attacks of your adversary. You resolve to reserve the lunge backwards for an opportunity. But you cannot do this, especially upon the field, without judging when it can be done safely, and judgment in arms implies knowledge. I am now concerned only with those who have neither one nor the other.

Therefore I should strongly dissuade a man who is not in the habit of using the sword from attempting to lunge backwards. It may be done by the trained hand, but he will use the movement sparingly, and rather as a hors d'oeuvre than a pièce de résistance. It is a reversal of the normal action, and consequently it is opposed to the first principles of fencing.
 
 

VII.


 
 

I was most anxious during that last evening to make the lecture as light as possible, and to introduce a few brilliant flashes of wit and humour, as those of silence were rendered impossible by the condition of things. Probably the will to do blocked the way; moreover, at this ninth séance no one seemed willingly to differ in opinion or even to interrupt me. I could only continue my subject doggedly, trusting to a contingency which -- alas! -- never came.

We have seen all that can be done for a man who knows nothing whatever of weapons, and whose only chance of safety, in presence of one who does know, consists in the extreme of simplicity. Let us now pass to the pupil who has already a slight acquaintance with arms. This is a very different case; the circle of the lesson greatly widens; he has learned something of the language, and we must show him how to make the best use of it.

To such a fencer I would say: Take the guard already advised, but play a little with the sword, changing freely from one line to the other, ranging inside and outwards, high and low, so as to discomfort the opponent. Offer now and then an attack in order to regain lost ground, but never commit yourself to a real offensive movement unless you are sure of success. It is throwing away the scabbard; it is burning your ships.

I would add: Sometimes, but always accompanying a half or a whole retreat, make a circle with the sword or a counter of tierce and carte simultaneously, so as to traverse all the lines; then again, "as you were," with the point threatening the adversary's face. If he attacks you freely, and in the higher direction, retire the left foot a little, without, however, attempting the lunge backwards, and withdraw the face and the upper part of the body. The best way of recovering or returning to guard after this is to spring to the rear with both feet off the ground before the opponent, if he has escaped your extensive movement, has time to push his advantage.

"Pray explain one thing," Seaton objected. "A few evenings ago you told us that the principal rule, the fundamental law of the sword, is to parry. Now you advise your pupils not to parry at all."

You are right, and I am not wrong. Remember, please, that we were then talking of fencing as the science, or rather as the study, of arms. Now, there is no question of the kind; we are speaking of those who cannot pretend to any but very moderate skill.

Permit me a comparison. The "odious" practice often illustrates new things, paints them like a picture -- oculis subjecta fidelibus.

Here is a man overboard. As usual with that provident being the British seaman, he is helpless in the sea; he cannot swim a stroke, and he is bound for the bottom as fast as possible. Do you thus address him: "Man, inflate your lungs gradually and fully; don't lose presence of mind; strike the arms outwards, and immediately follow with the movement of the legs"? No! you do not. You cry out to him: "Catch hold of the rudder or the rope or the patent life-saving apparatus," and you trust that something of the kind may keep his head above water till he is picked up.

This is exactly our position. The danger is imminent, and it is my duty to save you by any means in my power.
 
 

VIII.


 
 

Certes, this man who in a few hours will be upon the field of fight might learn from me a variety of new passes and parries, but they will hardly suffice him, except they be those which I have said traverse and cover all the four lines. What would be the result of over-instruction?

The adversary would find it child's play to deceive this "newly acquired knowledge" ever alternating between the two extremes, soft, slow, and "dawdling," or rash, violent, and erratic, sweeping in huge circles round the sword instead of lightly contouring its point. The neophyte's blade meeting nothing would beat the air, and, carrying with it his wrist and forearm, leave the chest, in fact the whole trunk, uncovered.

Supposing also that the opponent has not made use of the disorder which he caused. The neophyte, seeing his own importance, would ask himself the means of avoiding a similar danger on a new attack. This hesitation is usually fatal. When a man hesitates about what he is to do or not to do his mind becomes troubled and excited; he whips the wind with his blade as the drowning man beats the waves, and he ends either by exposing himself to the thrust which will end the combat or by throwing himself upon the adversary's sword at the risk of being run through the body.

This is the reason why I should never attempt to teach any but an experienced man movements which he is incapable of executing correctly. Now analyse the process which I have advised him to adopt.

By "breaking," or retiring, he escapes the thrust -- one great point gained. To escape the point, either by withdrawing the body, by retiring en règle, or by a spring to the rear, is not parrying, I own, but it is the equivalent of the parry, since the sword does not reach you; and even if it does the wound will be slight, for you have made the adversary lose by your retreat what he expected to gain by his attack.

Furthermore, feeling that your point is ever kept steadily opposite him, he does not venture to be impetuous and to assault you with all the freedom of which he is capable. If carried away by temper he does so at last; you have at least the chance of touching him, involuntarily and accidentally, it is true, but probably that would be a matter of little importance to you.

"I can't understand one thing," said Seaton -- "why that unhappy adversary doesn't master your sword, since you're offering it to him every moment."

Doubtless that is what he ought to do, and what he will try to do. Can you suppose that the man who comes to a fencing master for advice about to-morrow's duel, owning to his ignorance of his weapon, or that the pupil of a few weeks can be mad enough to expect the odds in his favour? This would be too convenient; this would make it more rational not to know the sword than to pass months and years in studying it. Ignorance would, indeed, be able to boast at the expense of knowledge and experience.

The man who has never been taught to handle, or who knows but little of the arm that must defend his life, can expect only to diminish the fatality of the chances opposed to him. The part of the master is limited to inculcating self-confidence, and to teaching the only path, prudent and defensive, upon which it is comparatively safe to walk.

By following these counsels, I repeat, the young fencer, even when over-weighted, will create serious difficulties for his adversary; will compel him to act with reserve, keep him out of measure, and oblige him to advance when attacking. You know the danger of the latter step, which may be further increased by neglect or loss of temper. But I am far from believing that the sang-froid, the science, and the experience of a complete swordsman cannot avoid the pit-traps placed in his way by ignorance and inexperience.

As regards mastering the sword, I have already said that the sole hope of safety is to keep the point in perpetual motion, and, whenever the attack is prepared, to meet it, so that the forte, and not the feeble half of the blade, is liable to be engaged. This, in fact, just conclude that momentous preliminary lesson or lessons.

And when all is said we can only resume our advice as follows: "Be prudent, be calm, be resolute, and -- Allah Karim!"
 
 

IX.


 
 

"I have heard some men assert," said Lord B., "that the best thing for a poor fencer to do is to attack his antagonist the moment both are on guard. What do you think of it?"

I think it is by far the best way of risking to be run through the body. Why suppose your opponent, who, like yourself, has been warned by the seconds, is unprepared to receive you, or likely to let himself be surprised? Either the man who stands before you is cunning of fence (and then he will hardly want your assistance in view of all contingencies), or he is skill-less as yourself, in which case the chances are equal. If, therefore, reasoning and forethought advise such an attack both are in error. If it is the result of an impatient, feverish, passionate organisation, which cannot wait with calmness or stand quietly upon the defensive -- this is quite another thing.

To the man of sanguine temperament and violent temper, constitutionally unable to act with coolness and prudence, I would say: "Follow your instincts; obey the impulse of your nature. It will certainly expose you to much greater danger, because your attack, your rush, your onslaught, will be haphazard, without calculation, and without the counsels of experience. Its sole chance of success, even in your own eyes, will consist in its dash, its suddenness, and its thoughtless impetuosity, which may astound the adversary and induce him to parry wildly with sword and arm. Only, before making your swoop, at least try to engage his sword by any means in your power, or to deflect it by a violent battement, for instance, up or down, inside or outside. In this way you provide against thrust for thrust and extension of the sword, and nothing remains, after feeling the opponent's blade, but to spring forward in right line without a moment's hesitation.

"Certes, even this simplest of movements is much easier to speak of than to execute."

It is possible that you may succeed. Chance and a man's star play such a capital part in the drama of life. But if you fail, the blade which touches you will inevitably bury itself up to the hilt, and this last consideration may, methinks, suggest a little reflection -- throw some cold water upon your fire.

Therefore I should never suggest this line of action; the perils are too serious and imminent to be incurred willingly. It is permissible only in the case of a man who knows nothing about the sword, but who uses his weapon with that energy and resolution which strong and fearless nations derive from the very imminence of the danger which assails them.
 
 

X.


 
 

The second hypothesis, in which both combatants are equally "profane" -- in the Italian, not the Ay-merican sense -- need hardly be considered; there is little to say about it which has not been said concerning the artless opposed to the artful fencer. It will be enough to remark that one or both must expect to suffer, perhaps to enferrer each other fatally. Concerning the third, which supposes both combatants to have a modicum of skill, or to be equal in swordsmanship, a few words will suffice.

This is no longer a case in which ignorance and experience seek in extreme measures a chance of safety. The struggle is now more or less equal, for, I repeat it, the sharpened blade, which brings out differences of organisation, often levels distinctions of skill. The first thing to be borne in mind is the well-known saying that in the affairs of this world man is saved not by faith, but by want of faith. Distrust and suspect your adversary -- such is your best guard.

I need not recall to your minds -- for the advice has often been given during the last few evenings -- the necessity of providing against surprise, which can be done effectively only by standing out of measure until you see the moment for advancing within distance.

If your adversary offers to shorten the space which separates you he must advance and place himself at a disadvantage. He may uncover himself to your profit; at any rate, you watch him, you harass him, and you sword point ever presented straight at his face, breast, or flank, always threatening of the four lines, renders his action tardy and uncertain. He must, by the very conditions of the case, forewarn you of his attack, and forewarned is, under these circumstances, forearmed. You cannot be surprised, and you will come to the parry more easily and more effectually. The advance and the action of the hand and arm which accompany it have already revealed to you what is the amount of the science which you have to encounter.

But if your opponent remain obstinately upon the purely defensive, showing you that he intends to await the attack, you feel that something must be done. Gain ground by half measures, masking the intention as much as you can with the body easily seated and every movement in equilibrium, so as to spring back if required with all your activity.

In order to diminish the danger, ever imminent, of gaining ground, embarrass the opponent, and preoccupy his thoughts by frequent menaces, which he may mistake for the forerunners of attacks. Thus you force him to guard himself, you prevent his taking the offensive, and you are able to shorten distance insensibly, without unnecessary exposure.

At times feint as though you intended to thrust home, in order to let him explain himself and divulge to you his play. Thus you will learn whether he intends to retreat, to parry, or to extend the sword. A man under such circumstances must be perfectly sure and master of himself not to betray his "little game" by instinctive and involuntary movements. This word of advice applies generally to the weak as to the strong, to the skilful and the unskilled.

You have banished from your minds the phantom called and miscalled bottes secrétes. As regards refusing the sword, a few last words may be added.

There are many ways of counteracting this absence of the weapon, but all are difficult, and each demands skill and practice. Most often the adversary, disquieted by a movement to which he is unaccustomed, and vainly seeking for a pointe d'appui, hesitates, and thus loses all his rapidity of execution.

If his play is complicated you extend the sword, retiring a half measure, and fatiguing, tormenting, and enervating the hand opposed to you.

If his movements are simple, the opponent will dread risking blow for blow. The more skilful he is the greater will be, or at least should be, his prudence. And, as I said when prescribing for the assault, you can always lessen the danger of a free attack by a sharp retreat, either of full or of half measure. Thus you render the parry easier, you increase the distance, and you oppose, by a double precaution, the rapidity of the adversary's offence.

You may be touched, but it will be lightly; at any rate, far more lightly than you would have been by parrying with firm foot. You may succeed, on the other hand, in the parry; you have thus saved yourself from the corps à corps, and the escape will give more security to your ripost.

Let us now assume the contrary hypothesis.

You attack, either because you rely more upon the agility of your hand than upon the certainty of your reply, or because the adversary, persisting in his defence, constrains you to take the initiative. Here, then, prudence is your only safety.

The first and last rule must be never to venture upon offence without having succeeded in mastering the weak part of the sword opposed to you.

Above all things, no feints; I have told you their dangers. This is the essential difference between the assault in play and the assault in earnest, the foil that "buttons," and the point that kills.

Allow yourself only the most simple passes, preceded by controlling the enemy's blade, either with mere pressure or with an engagement, or with a battement, whose strength must depend upon the amount of deviation required. This process will be greatly facilitated if the adversary gives you the sword.

If, on the contrary, he persistently refuses it, your only plan is to master the difficulty by agility and address, fairly compelling him to change tactics. Finish your attack when this takes place, or when the adversary, still anxious to avoid the engagement of weapons, exaggerates his precaution, and leaves himself exposed. In the latter case, simple straight thrusts almost always succeed.

Such is the general advice to which I would draw the swordsman's attention. At the decisive moment of a rencontre the thoughts should dwell only upon the salient points requiring attention, and these may be resumed in the words -- self-confidence, energy, and prudence.

"Well," said Charles, "I suppose you're right; but how about remembering it all?"

Remember only half, I replied, and you will do well. There are so many who remember nothing, who think of nothing.
 
 

XI.


 
 

My lady, my lord, and gentlemen, I resumed in the official lecturing style: -- You have mastered "The Sentiment of the Sword." Allow me to thank you once more, with grateful heart, for the exemplary patience and long suffering which you have brought to this séance and to those of the last week.
 
 

CONCLUSION


 
 

Noon, on the day after the last evening, saw the period of a visit which will remain indelibly fixed upon my memory.

Castle was in those days (186*) separated from its railway station by a drive of twelve miles, and the "Highflyer," a model specimen of the old English stage coach, drawn by a rattling team of dark bays, and tooled by a burly son of "Black Sam," used to draw up at the gate, the guard announcing his approval by too-tooing lustily upon his "yard o' tin."

John Shughtie and I, after heartrending adieus and au revoirs, which seemed only to amuse Seaton, the maurais plaisant, climbed up to our places outside. As he was known to be setting out upon one of his most perilous explorations, all the household collected upon the lawn to give him God-speed, and, whilst the windows showed a host of peeping faces, the juniors added a hearty British hurrah! not the degenerate "hooray." Cambric was also made ready to flutter gaily like wisps of morning mist in the fragrant breath of the clear blue sky.

***

The castle disappeared from view, then the grounds, then the porter's lodge. Presently came the cross-country road, wild and bare, the pretty bit of common dotted with firs and maples, and perspectives of ruddy autumnal glades, and yellow hills and dales, and straw-coloured plains, and the first glad glimpse of the pale green English sea. And so the dream dissolved into an airy nothing, leaving to me only the perfume of a Russian cigarette and the vision of a fair phantom extending a ghostly sword.
 
 

THE END



 

JNC Mar 2000