The Duel by Unknown
I was educated, said a French gentleman whom I met in quarantine,
at Poitiers, though Lusignan is my native town.
Poitiers is well known to the antiquary as having possessed a
Roman amphitheatre, of which, however, when I was at that university,
only a vault, supposed to have been a cage for the wild beasts,
remained. This cage, from the solidity of the masonry, and the
enormous size of the blocks, seemed indestructible, but was not so;
for when I last visited Poitiers, and asked for the key of the cavern,
I found that it no longer existed, and that on the site had been constructed
the inn of the "Trois Pelerins."
It is a stone's throw from the Salle d'Armes, a place with which I
had been better acquainted than with the schools. To revive my
ancient recollection, I entered the salle, and found there an inhabitant
of the town whom I had known at college. He proposed that we
should dine together at the "Trois Pelerins;" and, after drinking as
good a bottle of wine as it afforded, he related to me what a few days
before, in the very room where we were sitting, had happened at a
dinner of the collegians. It was ordered for twelve; but, one of the
party having invited a friend, the number swelled to thirteen.
It is said that superstition supplies the place of religion; I have
observed this to be the case with the most sceptical of my acquaintance:
and thus this number thirteen occasioned some remarks, and
the stranger was looked upon with no very favourable eye, and considered
as a supernumerary, who brought with him ill luck.
One of the set at last summoned resolution enough to say,
"I do not dine thirteen."
"Nor I," said another.
"Nor I," was repeated on all sides.
The guest, naturally embarrassed at this rudeness, got up, and was
about to retire, when Alfonse, to whom he came as an umbra, proposed
an ingenious expedient for doing away with the evil augury,
"There is one way of annulling the proverb that threatens death
in the course of the year to one of a party of thirteen; that way is,
to decide which of us shall fight a duel this evening, or to-morrow
"Done!" cried all the students at a breath.
"Shall it be among ourselves?" said one of them.
"No," replied the author of the proposition; "for then two of us
would have to fight, whereas it ought to be the thirteenth."
"Right," said all the young men.
"Then let it be with one of the officers of the garrison."
"Be it so," said Alfonse; "we will make a pool, as usual, at the
café, all thirteen of us; and——"
"The first out," said the student.
"No," interrupted Alfonse, "that would be a bad omen; it shall
be the winner."
"Agreed!" replied all, and they sate down to table with as much
gaiety and insouciance as if nothing had been said.
The stranger, just as the soup was being put on the table, got up,
and with a magisterial tone of voice addressed the assembly. "Gentlemen,"
said he, "I feel suddenly inspired with a sublime idea. We
are about to eat and drink in the ruins of Roman greatness (alluding
to the amphitheatre). Let us imitate that people in every thing that
is great. Nothing could be more splendid than the games of the
gladiators which were celebrated over the tombs of the mighty dead,—nothing
more sumptuous than the festivals held at their funerals.
This is probably also a funereal fête; with this difference, that it is
held before, and not after death. Let Poitiers therefore rival Rome
in her magnificence; let this cena be in honour of the mighty remains
over which we are sitting; let it be morituro,—sacred to him
who is about to perish."
"Bravo!" exclaimed the guests one and all; "a splendid idea, by
Jove!—a splendid cena be it!"
"Open the windows!" cried Alfonse. The windows were opened.
As soon as the soup was served, smash went all the plates into the
yard, and shivered against the pavement. So, during the rest of dinner,
every plate as fast as it was cleared, every bottle as soon as emptied,
followed their fellows. One might perceive, by the practised
dexterity of this feat, that it was not the first time they had played
the same game.
During the first course nothing particular occurred to disturb their
harmony; but it so happened that the rôti, which is, as you know,
in France always served last, was burnt. Then there arose a general
burst of indignation.
"Send the cook!" exclaimed they all to the waiters.
"Order up the cook! Here, cook! cook!" was the universal cry.
But the chef was not forthcoming.
Alfonse, the president, then said, "Must I go myself and fetch
This menace had its effect: the pauvre chef, pale as death, and all
cotton cap in hand, crawled into the room. He was greeted with
"Come here!" said Alfonse. "Do you take us for the officers?
What do you mean by serving us in this manner,—eh?"
The man of the spit stammered out an apology. Alfonse looked
at him askance.
"If I served you right," said he, "I should make you eat this
detestable rôti of yours; but, as it is the first time of happening,
my chastisement shall be a paternal one. Hold out your cotton
The chef obeyed, and Alfonse turned out of a dish into it an enormous
clouted cream (omelet soufflé), and said,
"Come, now, on with the cap, and see you don't first spill a drop."
He was forced to comply; and the unhappy Ude (udus), his face
and white jacket streaming with the contents of the plat, was followed
out of the room with hisses and bursts of laughter.
Thus went on the dinner, and with it a concert of broken plates,
dishes, glasses, and bottles, accompanied by noises of all sorts, which
rose to fortissimo as the wine, of which they drank to excess, got
into their heads.
The dessert, which succeeded the second course, was ended by what
they called a salad. This salad was thus mixed. They turned up
the four corners of the table-cloth, and rolled therein all the fragments
that were left. At this juncture the waiters disappeared,
conjecturing shrewdly that, if they stayed any longer, the feast might
be too grand for them. In short, when all that remained of the dessert
was bundled well up, the collegians got on the table, and, at
the risk of cutting their feet with the fragments of the crockery,
and the splinters of the glass, danced thereon, till everything was
pounded, smashed, and broken. Then the table-cloth, with all it
contained, (the salad,) was thrown out of the window; after it the
table, then the chairs, then the rest of the furniture, and, when
there was nothing more to destroy, the frenzied youths thought
they could do no better than throw themselves out; and all the thirteen
"followed the leader," Alfonse, and jumped from the first floor
into the court.
There is a saying, that over drunkards watches an especial Providence.
But there are, it seems, two; for the students, on this occasion,
found one of their own, which doubtless befriended them in this
mad leap. Certain it is that none of the party met with the slightest
accident, and, gloriously drunk, they rushed out into the street, after
the most remarkable orgie that had taken place for some time at
They made a brilliant entrée into the café,—a general place of rendezvous
for the students and officers when they were not at daggers
Two of the latter were playing at billiards when they entered.
But Alfonse, without waiting till the game was ended, asked, or
rather demanded, in an authoritative tone, that the table should be
given up for a single pool to the thirteen.
Thinking that the object was, as usual, to decide who should pay
for the dinner, or the demi-tasse et chasse, the players did not seem inclined
to comply with this requisition; but when they learnt that a
more momentous affair, a duel, was on foot, they hastened to lay
down their cues. A duel! everything must yield to that!
There were but few military men present, for that very day there
was a soirée at the general-commandant's of the garrison; and those
few consisted of veterans, who preferred passing the evening at the
café to putting on silk-stockings and shoes, or of chenapans, who in
the regiment went by the name of crans, or bourreaux des cranes.
The old grognards, however, did not quit the room. The chenapans
interchanged glances with each other; and one or two of the sub-lieutenants,
who had come to take their demi-tasse before they went to
the ball, also remained. They had all more or less formed a shrewd
guess of what was to happen; and, for the honour of the service,
waited for the quarrel to break out.
In our schools and garrisons at Paris we are totally unacquainted
with that esprit de corps which engages a whole regiment, and an entire
body of young men, in a duel, when two only are concerned; nor
can we form a notion how slight a thing a duel is considered, when it
is the custom to decide all questions sword in hand. Habit is all in
all; and people soon learn to think no more of fighting than going
It becomes a general endemic; and a person who, lost in the
world of Paris, where he is unknown, might hesitate about demanding
satisfaction for an insult however gross, would, in that atmosphere, be
ready any day, or hour of the day, to call a man out for merely looking
The pool was begun. Never did a party, when a large sum of
money depended on the issue of the game, play with more care and
caution than those thirteen to decide which of them was to fight. By
degrees the players lost their three lives, and the number was at last
reduced to two; these two were the stranger guest and Alfonse.
The lookers-on watched anxiously every stroke. Those balls, that as
they rolled carried with them the fate of a man, were followed by
earnest looks. The officers came nearer and nearer, and ranged
themselves round the billiard. They were not a little interested to
know whether they, or rather one of them,—which they knew not,—was
to enter the lists with a freshman, no doubt unpractised in fencing,
or with the most adroit and terrible duellist of the university.
The chances were against them. The stranger lost.
A singular excitement was occasioned by the disappearance of the
last ball in the pocket. Some faces grew pale; but no one stirred
from the spot where he had been standing as a spectator. Alfonse
looked steadily round him, and made two or three times the circuit of
the room, as though he were in search, but in vain, of some one worth
quarrelling with. At last he perceived a sort of sub-lieutenant, originally
drum-major and maître-d'armes, and who boasted of having
killed his thirty pequins, sitting quietly in a corner. Alfonse walked
straight up to him, and, saluting him with a politeness that electrified
the company, said, in his cool way,
"Monsieur, I am exceedingly distressed at the situation in which I
find myself placed; but my honour is concerned, and you will allow
me to engage yours."
Without further preliminaries, he gave him a severe hit in the face.
The officer, who little expected so abrupt and unanswerable a mode
of provocation, sprang like a madman from his chair; and had not Alfonse,
with the activity and nimbleness of a cat, leaped with one bound
on the table, the ex-drum-major would probably have strangled him
on the spot.
He was quickly at the aggressor's heels, when his own comrades
stopped him of their own accord, saying,
"Come, come! no child's play or boxing! the thing is too serious!
C'est un combat à la mort!"
"Where shall I find you to-morrow?" said one of the officers, addressing
"Fix your ground," was the reply.
"No to-morrows!" said the officer who had received the blow;
"This instant be it, if you please," replied Alfonso with the utmost
"I shall not sleep to-night till that blow is avenged!" said the
other, foaming with rage.
"I, too, want to unnumb my hand. I have hurt my knuckles
against your cheek-bones," said Alfonse.
"Where would they fight at such a time of night as this?" observed
some of the officers.
"In the garden behind the café," cried the ancient maître d'armes;
"a sword in one hand, and a billiard-lamp in the other."
"But," said Alfonse, "I am tired. I know your style of fighting
men, Crane; you want to make me break ground, and drive me step
by step round the garden. Don't think it, my lad. Besides, the
lamp may go out. But, if you have no objection, the billiard-table
will be a good arena. We shall be well lighted, and there will be no
means of drawing back a foot.
"Be it so," said the other.
The doors were closed, and they laid hands on the waiters and the
proprietor of the café, who were going to the police. The swords
were then brought. The two adversaries cast lots for them, and then
pulled off their coats and waistcoats, and unbuttoned their shirts, to
show that they had nothing under.
Both then took their swords.
The officer wrapt round his hand a handkerchief, leaving both ends
dangling. Alfonse neglected this practice, the object of which was
to distract the attention of the adversary by the perpetual flutter of
their two white points, thus to turn away his attention from the
sword. But Alfonse had a manner of fighting of his own, and cared
little for these petty proceedings. He never looked at the steel; but,
fixing his eye on that of his antagonist, anticipated every motion that
The two wrestlers, or gladiators I might say, got on the table together,
and, according to the terms or conditions agreed on between
the students and the officers, rested their swords on the
toes of their boots. A traveller from a commercial house who happened
to be present, and could have no interest in the scene other
than what its novelty excited, was fixed on to clap his hands three
times, and at the third the swords were upraised in the air, and the
two combatants came to guard.
A terrible silence reigned through the room, and for some seconds
it was only broken by the clashing of the steel; for both parties, as
they skirmished, were well aware that a single faux pas was death.
The slightest stepping back, shrinking of the body, or leaping on one
side, must inevitably prove fatal.
The officer was a head and shoulders taller than Alfonse, and
looked as though he could crush him; but he little heeded this advantage,
if advantage it was, for he by degrees lowered his body till
he was right under the sword of his foe, and almost bent himself
down upon the bed of the table. No other change in his attitude
then took place.
All at once the officer, taking this posture for the effect of fear,
made a furious lunge, which was parried with the greatest sang froid
and skill, and Alfonse allowed the officer to return to his ground
without attempting to return it. His adversary was deceived by this
sort of timid defence, and, become more adventurous, attacked him
again with increased fury,—so much so, that, thrown off his guard,
his left foot quitted the cushion of the table, against which it
had been fixed. Then it was that Alfonse made a rapid lunge at
the officer's face. He endeavoured to regain the ground he had lost,
to resume his position. The student would not give him time, and
charged with impetuosity his disconcerted enemy, who could only
avoid his thrusts by keeping his body bent backwards. Alfonse
forced him to the edge of the table, when his foot tripped, and at that
moment drove the sword up to the hilt in his heart.
The unhappy officer cried out "Hit! hit!" Then he raised himself
to his full height, and fell backwards from the top of the table to
Awful was the sound that the weight of that body made upon the
boards of the room! There was mixed up with it a feeling—a dread
lest the dead man should hurt himself in falling. Never did I see,
for I was present, so dreadful a contest! Never did I experience
anything so frightful as the silence of those two men,—as the flashing
of their swords by the light of the lamps,—as the fall of the vanquished,
who, disappearing behind the table, seemed at once to have
been engulfed in a tomb that opened from behind to receive him!