Francis Hall.

The Century, Volume 11 online

. (page 95 of 163)
Online LibraryFrancis HallThe Century, Volume 11 → online text (page 95 of 163)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

while they cost only forty cents a piece;
the fencer sometimes breaks three or four
new ones in as many minutes, if he falls on
a bad ''run" of foils; and, as the more foils-
that are broken, the more money the master
makes (he pays fifteen or twenty cents for
them), he is particular only about their bad
quality. Three or four dollars' worth of foils
are broken every month by the most careful
fencer. I have seen men break sixteen
dollars' worth a month. Pupils not only pay
for all they break, but for all the master breaks
fencing with them, and he takes care to shat-
ter as many as he thinks the pupil will pay
for without grumbling, or without ceasing to
take lessons. Fencing swords cost two dol-
lars each ; and such a fine levied on every
broken blade makes fencing an expensive

One of the most absurd scenes I have ever
witnessed in a fencing-room is the appear-
ance of a fellow who has stumbled or
been pushed into a duel, and who never in
his life saw a foil except in a gunsmith's

There is a current notion that every fen-
cing-master has a secret, by which the most
adroit adversary may be vanquished by the
rawest man who ever took sword in hand
for the first time. Everybody has heard
tell of the most experienced swordsmen
being killed by novices. There is no foun-
dation for such nonsense. The only way in
which this deed could possibly be done
would be, that the neophyte did but hold
his sword out straight, and the first-rate
swordsman spitted Smself on it As fen-
cers know this course of action is always
taken by novices, the former are on their
guard against it The action of stretching
forth the sword puts it absolutely in the
power of the antagonist, and nothing is
easier than to take possession of it and
inflict a mortal wound on its holder. True,
a novice, who actively attacks his opponent,
does embairass the latter.. Everybody knows
we all have our handwriting, and our gait,
and our style. The police are able to detect
the perpetrator of a crime (if it be commit-
ted by a notorious criminal) by the manner
in which it was done. Each rogue has his
style. It is just so in fencing. Each man
has his method, his logic, and a master of
fencing easily sees a few minutes after the
combat begins what is the logic of his adver-
sary. There is only a given number of things
which can be done, and, after a few feints^
an expert swordsman detects the order in

Digitized by




which his adversary does them. A novice,
however, is ignorant of these things; he does
not know (if I may use such an expression)
the rules of the game. He moves his pawn
as if it were a castle, and his bishop as if it
were a queen, and he is entitled to do so,
for the rules of fencing are not obligatory
out of the fencing-room. These rules are
but deductions from the skill of the most
accomplished swordsmen, and are designed
to lead men to acquire their skill. There-
fore, a fencer who has a neophyte before
him is doubly on his guard, because his
adversary is a creature of caprice and not
of logic. If a fencer be not wary, he may
be surprised by ignorance, and, in this way,
stories of tawness defeating maturity may
have gotten into currency.

Equally silly is the behef of the existence
of secret blows, whose magic defies the most
consummate skill. ** The commander's blow "
and " the Italian blow " are the most famous
of these secret blows. They are simplicity
itself, and cannot be successfully executed
if the adversary be a tolerable swordsman
and carefully on his guard. To explain
them here would oblige me to enter into
technicalities, which would be Greek to the
majority of readers. The only secret blow
which is certain of success is "the gen-
darmes' blow." The gendarmes are the
rural police. When your adversary is about
to attack you, assume a horrified expression
of countenance, cast a terrified glance at the
horizon back of him, shout : " There come
the gendarmes!" As he turns his head to
look, run yoin: sword through him, exclaim-
ing, as you do so, and this artfully, that the
whole sentence may seem to be one ejacu-
lation : " Let's make haste ! " It wrings
my heart to be obliged to add that judges
and juries are not disposed to consider " the
gendarmes' blow" as a legacy of the Cheva-
lier Bayard.

The piteous expression of face of an
ignoramus who has a duel on his hands,
and who comes to beg for " the commander's
blow," is extremely ludicrous. The fencers
in the room don't laugh ; Frenchmen look
significandy and roguishly at each other
where we laugh. Although the usual fee
for " coaching " a raw fellow in these perils
is fifty dollars, the fencing-master, if he is
honest, will frankly say he really can do
nothing ; his only secret blows are dexterity,
rapidity and precision, acquired by patience,
perseverance and thought. I have never
seen this answer accepted. The ignoramus
invariably insists upon being taught " some-

thing." The truth is " a little learning is a
dangerous thing," especially in fencing. It
confuses the fellow. Instead of trusting
to the brute that is in him to use the sword
in obedience to the instincts of self-preser-
vation, he attempts to execute the master's
suggestions, which he does not know how
to carry out, or he is confounded by the
slightest incident. For instance, the advice
commonly given is :

"Beat constantly in retreat whenever
your adversary thrusts at you; this will
fatigue him and he cannot inflict a wound,
or at all events a severe wound."

But it commonly happens, that the sec-
onds draw a line on the ground beyond
which there shall be no retreating, and when
the neophyte discovers this, his wits forsake
him and he does not know what to do.
The most sensible advice I have ever heard
given under these circumstances is that
which Robert always gives :

" As soon as you both are placed in posi-
tion, and the word *Go, gentlemen!' is
given, fall on your adversary as rapidly as
you may, and attempt to pierce his sword-
arm. You are apt to succeed, and the least
drop of blood drawn is sure to end the

There is something irresistibly comic
when one compares the solemnity of seconds
and the inanity of duels. The seconds (the
French code requires that each adversary
shall have two seconds) carry the chal-
lenge early in the morning. They come,
even during the dog-days, buttoned up to
the throat. They are grave, dignified, cere-
monious. Etiquette requires that they should
at once, and without discussion, be referred
to the challenged party's seconds. (Prince
Pierre Bonaparte's trial for the murder of
Louis Noir showed the good reason for this
rule.) The four seconds, after long nego-
tiations, settle the conditions of the fight.
The French rule of choice of weapon is
more equitable than ours, which gives it to
the challenged party, who is commonly the
aggressor. The French give the choice to
the party insulted ; so bullies know they are
insolent at their peril. A blackguard may
be bold on the strength of his skill with the
sword. His adversary, knowing this skill,
may insist on pistols for the weapons with
which the duel shall be fought Expert
shots are not rare. Pistol galleries have
their regular frequenters as well as fencing-

The conditions of the duel settled, the
six actors in the farce (and usually they

Digitized by




carry a surgeon with them, although this is
rather a useless precaution) repair to some
of the woods around Paris. An open space
in a secluded part of the forest is soon
foimd. Cautious men carry linen panta-
loons and low-heeled, low-gartered, ^ii/ shoes
with them. They remove all other clothed
and put on these. Seconds commonly insist
that shirts shall be taken off, because a stiff-
starched shirt bosom is apt to divert the
sword from its course. Moreover amulets
are frequendy worn here, especially in immi-
nent danger, even by those who " turn their
back on the Saint when once the bridge has
been crossed." Mons. Paiil de Cassagnac
always said (and no denial has ever been
given his assertion) that he should, in their
well-remembered duel, have killed Mons.
Henri Rochefort, had the latter not worn a
blessed silver medal. The pistol ball, aimed
unerringly at the heart, struck the medal
and glanced off. In the duel between
Messrs. Amed^ Achard and Charles Blanc,
the latter went on the ground with a five-
franc piece in his vest pocket Mons. Ach-
ard's ball struck it and was diverted from
the fatal course. Whereupon the inveterate
punster, Mons. Mery (who was Mons.
Achard's second), gayly exclaimed :

" That's what I call money well invested'^
If so slight an obstacle can avert a pistol
ball, it much more readily averts a small
sword's point ; and it may easily be imagined
how readily the latter would be turned aside
by a starched plait.

The principals having been stripped to
the waist, choice of position is decided by
tossing a coin : " Heads, or tails ? " He
who has choice of position elects one in
which his back shall be to the sun; his
adversary is placed opposite to him. It is
commonly agreed to make boards, beyond
which the respective opponents shall not
retreat This precaution is taken, partly
to save the reputation of a nervous princi-
pal who might retreat till doomsday, and
partly to prevent the duel from lasting too
long a time. The instructions given a prin-
cipal who b less skillfril than his adversary
are: "Always atUck and continually retreat"
The reasons of these tactics are, that it is
easier to attack than to parry feints and
blows, especially when they are rapidly
delivered. Retreat is made with long
strides; advance is slow and cautious, for
during the advance one is powerless even
for defense. The adversaries once in posi-
tion, they are armed. It is a tacit condition
of every duel that neither of the principals

shall have handled the weapons; one is
twice as expert with a familiar as with a new
sword. The swords are held straight, point
up and overhead, the arm outstretched to
frill length, until the second of the principal
who has won choice of position advances
half way between each adversary, when
swords are lowered till they cross. The
second holds both at the junction, and
asks each antagonist (his principal last):
"Are you ready, sir?" Upon receiving an
affirmative answer, he waits an instant, that
each adversary may feel on his guard ; then
removes his hand and exclaims: ^^AlUt^
Messieurs (Go, gentlemen)." Usually, both
principals spring in retreat at this word, in
order to guard against surprise. The more
confident or the more impatient adversary
soon advances cautiously, until swords are
joined again. He studies his adversary for
an instant (the uninitiated can scarcely
imagine how much is revealed by the feel
of an adversary's sword and the sight of
his hand), then gives one, two, three, four,
fiwt or six slight blows (varying the number
i^ath the/v/of his adversary's sword) to his
opponent's weapon, and then tries to get in
a good blow, unless his opponent has antici-
pated him, by taking advantage of his
change of blow fit)m four to six, to make a
rapid lunge just afrer he quits four and
befwe he reaches six ; and if the lunge be
made with cat-like rapidity and in the nick
of the proper time, it commonly reaches
its destination. The action once engaged,
lunge rapidly follows lunge for two minutes,
and then, if no blood be drawn, both parties
take rest, breathless and unable to hold up
their swords, which seem as heavy as the best
bower anchor of a man-of-war. When they
recover l»eath and strength the second
again crosses their swords, and the combat
recommences. A duel rarely lasts longer
than eight minutes, including all the restings.
At last a lucky blow produces an abrasion
of the skin of the littie finger. The surgeon,
by dint of hard and adroit pressure, con-
trives to squeeze out a tiny bead of blood.
The code is homeopathic. That drop suf-
fices to purge away smirch from escutcheon ;
" honor is satisfied." The adversaries shake
hands, and vow themselves to be desolated
that a misunderstanding should have occur-
red between them. Coffee is served.

Sometimes — ^rarely, but still sometimes —
the end is tragical. This commonly happens
when both antagonists are inexperienced, or
when one of them joins cowaidice to igno-

Digitized by







When Arthur Poinsett, after ao hour's
rapid riding over the scorching sand-hills,
finally drew up at the door of the Mission
Refectory, he had so far profited by his own
advice to Donna Maria as to be quite dry,
and to exhibit very littie external trace of
his late adventure. It is more remarkable
perhaps that there was very little internal
evidence either. No one who did not know
the peculiar self-sufficiency of Poinsett's
individuality would be able to understand
the singular mental and moral adjustment
of a man keenly alive to all new and present
impressions, and yet able to dismiss them
entirely, without a sense of responsibility or
inconsistency. That Poinsett diought twice
of the woman he had rescued — that he ever
reflected again on the possibilities or natural
logic of his act— -during his ride, no one who
thoroughly knew him would believe. When
he first saw Mrs. Sepulvida at the Point of
Pines, he was considering the possible evils
or advantages of a change in the conserva-
tive element of San Antonio ; when he left
her, he retiuned to the subject again, and it
fully occupied his thoughts until • Father
Felipe stood before him in the door of the
refectory. I do not mean to say that he at
all ignored a certain sense of self-gratulation
in the act, but I wish to convey the idea
that all odier considerations were subordi-
nate to this sense. And possibly also the

manner and refined bearing, he was unpict*
uresque and odd-fashioned in dress, snu£^
in the sleeves, and possessed and inhabited
a pair of shoes so large, shapeless, and incon-
sistent with the usual requirements of that
article as to be grotesque.

It was evident that Arthur's manner had
previously predisposed the old man in his
favor. He held out two soft brown hands
to the young man, addressed him with a
pleasant smile as " My son," and welcomed
him to the Mission.

"And why not this visit before?" asked
Father Felipe, when they were seated upon
the little veranda that overlooked the Mis-
sion garden, before their chocolate and

" I did not know I was coming until day
before yesterday. It seems that some new
grants of the old ex-Governor's have been
discovered, and that a patent is to be ap-
plied for. My partners being busy, I was
deputed to come here and look up the
matter. To tell the truth, I was glad of an
excuse to see our fair client, or, at least, be
disappointed as my partners have been in
obtaining a glimpse of the mysterious Donna

"Ah, my dear Don Arturo," said the Padre,
with a slightly deprecatory movement of his
brown hands, " I fear you will be no more
fortunate than others. It is a penitential
week with the poor child, and at such times
she refiises to see any one, even on business.
Believe me, my dear boy, you, like the

Digitized by




<:hievousness which was his habitual method
of entertaining the earnestness of others,
and which he could not entirely forego,
even with the Padre.

"So! sol Don Arturo— it is idle gossip I "
said Father Felipe, impatiently, — " a brown
TnHian girl with a cheek as tawny as the
summer fields.*'

Arthur made a grimace that might have
been either of assent or deprecation.

^ Well, I suppose this means that I am
to look over the papers with you alone.
JBuenoi Have them out, and let us get
over this business as soon as possible."

" Ihco tUmpOy' said Father Felipe, with a
smile. Then more gravely, " But what is
tbis ? You do not seem to have that inter-
est in your profession that one might expect
of the rising young advocate — the junior
partner of the great firm you represent.
Your heart is not in your work— eh ?"

Arthur laughed.

" Why not ? It is as good as any."

"But to right the oppressed? To do
justice to the unjustly accused, eh? To
redress wrongs — ah, my son I that is noble.
That, Don Arturo — it is that has made you
and your colleagues dear to me — dear to
those who have been the helpless victims
of )rour courts — ^your corregidoresJ*

"Yes, yes," interrupted Arthur, hastily,
shedding the Father's praise with an habit-
ual deft ease that was not so much the
result of modesty as a certain conscious
pride that resented any imperfect tribute.
** Yes, I suppose it pays as well, if not bet-
ter, in the long run. ' Honesty is the best
poUcy,' as our earliest philosophers say."

" Pardon ?" queried the Padre.

Arthur, intensely amused, made a pur-
posely severe and literal translation of
Fnmklin's famous apothegm, and then
watched Father Felipe raise his eyes and
hands to the ceiling in pious protest and
mute consternation.

" And These are your American ethics ? "
he said at last.

♦« They are, and in conjunction with man-
ifest destiny and the Star of Empire they
have brought us here, and — ^have given me
the honor of your acquaintance," said Arthur
in English.

Father Felipe looked at his fiiend in
hopeless bewilderment. Arthur instandy
became respectful and Spanish. To change
the subject and relieve the old man's evident
embarrassment, he at once plunged into a
humorous description of his adventure of
the morning. Tht diversion was only par-
VoL. XL— 36.

tially successful Father Felipe became at
once interested, but did not laugh. When
the yoimg man had concluded he approach-
ed him, and laying his soft hand on Arthur^
curls, turned his face upward toward him
with a parental gesture that was at once
habitual and professional, and said :

" Look at me here. I am an old man,
Don Arturo. Pardon me if I think I have
some advice to give you that may be worthy
your hearing. Listen then ! You are one
of those men capable of peculiarly affecting
and being affected by women. So ! Par-
don," he continued gently, as a slight flush
rose into Arthur's cheek, despite the smile
that came as quickly to his face. "Is it
not so? Be not ashamed, Don Arturo!
It is not here," he added, with a poetical
gesture toward the wall of the refectory,
where himg the painted effigy of the
blessed St Anthony, " it is not here that I
would undervalue or speak lightly of their
influence. The widow is rich, eh ? — hand-
some, eh? impulsive? You have no heart in
the profession you have chosen. What then ?
You have some in the instincts — ^what shall I
say ? — the accomplishments and graces you
have not considered worthy of a practical
end! You are a natural lover; Pardon!
You have the four S*s — *■ Sdno, soio^ soUdto y
secreto' Good ! Take an old man's advice,
and make good use of them. Turn your
weaknesses— eh ? perhaps it is too strong a
word ! — ^the frivolities and vanities of your
youth into a power for your old age ! Eh ? "

Arthur smiled a superior smile. He was
thinking of the horror with which the old
man had received the axiom he had recently
quoted. He threw himself back in his cluur
in an attitude of burlesque sentiment, and
said with simulated heroics :

" But what, O my Father! what if a de-
voted, exhausting passion for somebody else
already filled my heart? You would not
advise me to be false to that. Perish the

Father Felipe did not smile. A peculiar
expression passed over his broad, brown,
smoothly shaven face, and the habitual look
of child-like simplicity and deferential court-
esy faded from it He turned his small
black eyes on Arthur and said :

" Do you think you are capable of such
a passion, my son? Have you had an
attachment that was superior to novelty or

Arthur rose a little stiffly.

" As we are talking of one of my clients
and one of your parishioners, are we not

Digitized by




getting a little too serious, Father ? At all
events, save me from assuming a bashful
attitude toward the lady with whom I am
to have a business interview to-morrow.
And now about the papers, Father," con-
tinued Arthur, recovering his former ease.
" I suppose the invisible fair one has sup-
plied you with all the necessary documents
and the fullest material for a brief. Go on.
I am all attention."

"You are wrong again, son," said
Father Felipe. " It is a matter in which she
has shown even more than her usual disin-
clination to talk. I believe but for my
interference, she would have even refused
to press the claim. As it is, I imagine she
wishes to make some compromise with the
thief — pardon me ! — the what do you say ?
eh? the preemptorl But I have nothing
to do with it. All the papers, all the facts
are in the possession of your friend, Mrs.
Sepulvida. You are to see her. Believe
me, my fnend, if you have been disap-
pointed in not finding your Indian client,
you will have a charming substitute — and
one of your own race and color — in the
Donna Maria. Forget, if you can, what I
have said! — ^but you will not Ah, Don
Arturo, I know you better than yourself.
Come. Let us walk in the garden. You
have not seen the vines. I have a new
variety of grape since you were here before."
" I find nothing better than the old Mis-
sion grape. Father," said Arthur, as they
passed down the branching avenue of

"Ah! Yet the aborigines knew it not.
And only valued it when found wild, for the
coloring matter contained in its skin. From
this, with some mordant that still remains a
secret with them, they made a dye to stain
their bodies and heighten their copper hue.'
You are not listening, Don Arturo, yet it
should interest you, for it is the color of
5 client, the Donna Dolores."
g, and pointing out the vari-
t might interest Arthur, from
; boughs of a venerable fig-
:k made in the adobe wall of
the last earthquake. Father
aracteristic courteous formal-
young friend through the
of the Mission. By degrees,
»e and mutual confidence of
s returned, and by the time
elipe excused himself for a
o attend to certain domestic
on behalf of his new guest,
tiy had been restored.

Left to himself, Arthur strolled back untS
opposite the open chancel door of the
church. Here he paused, and, in obedience
to a sudden impulse, entered. The old
church was imchanged — ^like all things in
San Antonio — since the last hundred years ;
perhaps there was little about it that Arthur
had not seen at the other Missions. There
were the old rafters painted in barbaric
splendor of red and brown stripes; there
were the hideous, waxen, glassed-eyed saints
leaning forward helplessly and rigidly from
their niches; there was die Virgin Mary in
a white dress and satin slippers, carrying
the infiant Saviour in the opulence of lace
long-clothes; there was the Magdalen in
the fashionable costume of a Spanish lady
of the last century. There was the usual
quantity of bad pictures ; the portrait, fiiU
length, of the patron saint himself, so hide-
ou^y and gratuitously old and ugly that his
temptation by any self-respecting woman
appeared more mu^culous than his resist-
ance; the usual martyrdoms in terrible
realism; the usual "Last Judgments" in
frightful accuracy of detail.

But there was one picture under the nave
which attracted Arthur's listless eyes. It was
a fanciful representation of Junipero Sena
preaching to the heathen. I am afraid that
it was not the figur^ of that most admirable
and heroic missionary which drew Arthur's
gaze ; I am quite certain that it was not the
moral sentiment of the subject, but rather
the slim, graceful, girlish, half-nude figure of
one of the Indian converts who kndt at
Father Junipero Sena's feet, in child-like
but touching awe and contrition. There
was such a depth of penitential supplication
in the young girPs eyes — a penitence so
pathetically inconsistent with the absolute
virgin innocence and helplessness of the
exquisite little figure, that Arthur felt his
heart beat quickly as he gazed. He turned
quickly to the other picture — ^look where he
would, the eyes of the little acolyte seemed
to follow and subdue him.

I thmk I have already intimated that his
was not a reverential nature. With a quick
imagination and great poetic sensibility^

Online LibraryFrancis HallThe Century, Volume 11 → online text (page 95 of 163)