And without further ditherings or digressions, hand over once more to the fire-eating duellist and rapier-wit, the delver into the arcane mysteries of Steampunk weirdness, master of the Holmesian discipline of Bartitsu, Shakespearean thespian of the renowned pumpkin-bummed galligaskins–the one man known to have worn and used a codpiece in this century–friend of Bassets, destroyer of bicycles, pontificator, and protector of Italian virginity…
“He Cut Him Dead”
Smallsword Dueling in the Napoleonic Era, Part Two
Your present author can make few claims to privileged status, but I can boast (if such is the proper term) of one experience few others now living can.
I have been stabbed with a sword.
To be precise, I have been thrust through the hand with an actual hollow-ground smallsword blade.
Yes, it hurt.
At first I felt a hard blow between the index and middle fingers. The point, baited with a small flat nail head (for the record, that causes much more anguish than a needle-sharp one), punched through the webbing, travelled between the knuckles, and shoved tissue so far into my hand that to this day, over twenty years later, I can still feel that lump at the base of my thumb.
Plenty of blood flowed, naturally. It actually dripped down my blade and pooled upon the bosom of my opponent as he lay on the ground, vanquished.
Later on the entire hand turned black and swelled up to double its usual size. Every pulse beat felt like a hammer stroke from Thor. I grew dizzy with fever.
Mind you, this was not even a proper duel, but a carefully choreographed demonstration of rapier play for a festival in Germany. Accidents happen (which is how I received the sabre scar on my wrist, though in that case alcohol and stupidity were also involved).
It does not require a great feat of imaginative thought to envision just what would happen if two enraged duellists rush at one another hacking and stabbing. After all, a smallsword can be easily thrust through a heavy denim jacket covering a 60-lb. brisket and out the other side. There is a YouTube video of this very thing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txe5x9CduWA
That sort of image will be on your mind if you are about to duel a trained swordsman in 1805.
Both of you know that at arm’s length your blades are essentially machine guns with unlimited ammunition belts. The only difference is that your talent and training give you a chance to evade or deflect the other fellow’s bullets. This is the good news.
On the list of bad news is the near certainty that a combat of more than a few seconds will result in wounds to both participants. Also, any damage which is more than a superficial cut will cause infection and a lingering, agonising death from infection, peritonitis, gangrene.
Being skewered in the heart for instant demise is a consummation devoutly to be wished, in that case. Even a rapid exsanguination would be preferable.
Hollywood has corrupted our concept of the sword duel. It too often presents us with a pair of evenly-matched, exquisitely-talented, professionally-trained fencers whose icy demeanor never cracks as they thrust and parry with elegant abandon, like a pair of psychic ballet dancers.
While that makes for good theatre, it would not have been the norm in late Georgian England. Too many circumstances militated against it.
For one, a duel was a crime. Rulers did not like losing so many of the better sort in self-slaughter. In France during the reign of Henri III (1575-1589), some 4,000 aristocrats perished in duels, at a rate of nearly one a day. Thus, edicts were passed against it in all regions.
Granted, one’s likelihood of prosecution and conviction was not high, and that chance went rapidly downward the higher up the social scale one perched. Duelling was chiefly a game for the elite; the lower classes preferred immediate gratification at the point of insult via tavern brawls or outright assassination.
Baron Mohun had been prosecuted for murder and acquitted twice in the House of Lords before his final 1712 engagement with Hamilton. Nevertheless, the stealth required to arrange the duel and arrive at a secluded ground will have raised the anxiety before any crossing of blades even begins.
Then there was the matter of one’s family to consider. Wife, children, parents. They might be left destitute by your passing, or shamed. That would weigh heavily on the mind, robbing you of much needed concentration. Your focus is already being pulled hither and yon by fear of death, injury, capture, loss of reputation.
For ducking the duel had never been an option. If you did you would be publicly posted a coward, a fate literally worse than death for the upper-classes of the day.
The seconds are also a problem.
Many a duel ended up in a melee, the official spectators as bloodily involved as the main participants. Occasionally this was due to inflamed passions, but it might also be a deliberate strategy of one’s opponent.
You eye the pair of rogues accompanying Lord Scarface, who are snickering as you prepare yourself. Are they waiting until your mind is tunnel-visioned upon that deadly point before they rush in with their own blades, or even pistols?
Duellists were not often of equal experience or ability. Many were sword-schooled bullies who chose their targets carefully to enhance the odds of success. Their foes would often have been gentle souls who had to desperately seek a swordmaster’s guidance to simply survive the encounter.
Let us presume that you are the latter. In your cups you let slip an unguarded remark about the chastity of Lord Scarface’s long-suffering wife, an unfortunate lady who will someday contract the pox from her ne’er-do-well husband. Now you find yourself standing on slippery wet grass as the sun rises on a clearing in a chilly London park–Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park, somewhere away from the likelihood of being observed.
All attempts at reconciliation through your seconds have failed, for you erred twice that night. Besides unwittingly insulting Lady Scarface, you also took a few hundred pounds from the fellow at whist, money he had borrowed from his mistress.
Terror-fueled adrenaline makes you shake all over.
‘Your sensibilities increase tremendously,’ to quote the great fencer Aldo Nadi, who fought an epee duel in 1924. ‘ As soon as you are stripped to the waist, the chilly morning makes you think, “Even if I come out f this in good shape, it wouldn’t be a bit funny to die of pneumonia.”
…You are not at ease. Particularly when you see a couple of doctors in white shirts silently laying out a hideous assortment of surgical instruments upon a little table. “They may be for me in a few seconds”–and this thought is definitely unpleasant, even if the birds are singing happily in a beautiful sky…you cannot avoid a sensation reminiscent of nausea.’
All of your hasty training has fled. You can barely recall the proper en garde position, let alone disengagement, riposte, remise, coupe, patinando, or any of the other techniques of the smallsword.
The best you can do is extend your arm straight out and attempt to cower behind three square inches of coquille. Your vulnerable frame extends back as far as your joints will permit, leaving the weapon almost hovering in the air by itself.
Perhaps this shall be enough. The better swordsman has lost many a duel, after all, through arrogance or ill fortune. (In 1898 the capable Cavallotti rushed the outmatched Macola with an intimidating shout; poor Macola seized up and blindly thrust his sabre, fortuitously catching Cavallotti in his open mouth; the blade came out the back of his neck, with predictable results.)
Nothing is certain where swords are concerned. Blades break, men freeze, muscles cramp.
If only you could control your breathing, your pulse, the tremor in your arms and legs. You are near to soiling your fine silk drawers. Blood rushes in your ears, all but drowning out the command to engage. Your whole world narrows until it encompasses only that lethal three inches of stinger aimed at you. The list of Lord Scarface’s victims marches through your brain as it advances, an envenomed serpent’s tongue seeking your life.
Duels might be fought to first blood, or to a serious wound, or to the death. Most often the seconds would interrupt after every injury and enquire if honour had been satisfied.
How that played out depended upon the nature of the quarrel and the temperament of the participants. It might also turn to a significant degree on how much time had elapsed since the offence. If only minutes (more common than commonly supposed), a bad outcome could be presumed.
If many days had passed and brains had had time to cool, a minor pinking of a wrist could very well satisfy. The annals are full of duellists leaving the ground arm-in-arm to quaff carouses to one another at the nearest tavern, the air having been cleared with blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
But if that turned out not to be the case, if one or both men fell (mutual kills were tragically common), then the illegality of the proceedings would be reinforced. If the seconds were particularly unscrupulous and the watch was at hand, then they might very well quit the field and leave the bodies where they lay.
If only one man lay dead, or if one or both were wounded but ambulatory, then the seconds would spirit them off to a place of safety for binding of their hurts, safer from the prying eyes of the law. That meant no trips to doctors or hospitals, unless a close-mouthed surgeon could be brought to a private room in an inn.
Many a duellist breathed his last in such surroundings, comforted by brandy and the knowledge that his honour, if not his flesh, was intact.