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, and said,

"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 morning."

"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 him?"

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 deafening shouts.

"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 cap."

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 Poitiers.

They made a brilliant entrée into the café,—a general place of rendezvous for the students and officers when they were not at daggers drawn.

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 to breakfast.

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 at him.

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 Alfonse.

"Fix your ground," was the reply.

"No to-morrows!" said the officer who had received the blow; "this instant!"

"This instant be it, if you please," replied Alfonso with the utmost indifference.

"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 he made.

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 the floor.

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!