On June 5th, in the year 1867, a young man of some twenty-five to twenty-seven years of age, elegantly dressed, and wearing at his buttonhole a ribbon half red and half blue-and-white, had just finished his cup of chocolate at the Café Prévot, which was at the corner of the Boulevard and the Rue Poissonnière. He asked for the "Étendard" newspaper.
He had to repeat the name twice to the waiter, who, not having the paper on the premises, went out to the Boulevard for a copy and brought it to his customer. The latter cast his eyes rapidly over it, looking evidently for some article that he knew to be there. His glance settled at last upon the following lines:
"To-day, Wednesday, June 6th, the King of Prussia will enter Paris. We give a complete list of the persons who will accompany His Majesty:
"M. de Bismarck.
"General de Moltke.
"Count Puckler, Lord Marshal.
"General de Treskow.
"Count de Goltz, Brigadier-General.
"Count Lehendorff, Aide-de-Camp to the king.
"General Achilles Sturm—"
Doubtless the young man had seen all that he wanted to see, for he carried no further his investigations into the persons accompanying His Majesty.
But he tried, to discover at what hour King William was to arrive, and found that he was expected at a quarter-past four at the Gare du Nord.
He immediately took a carriage and placed himself upon the road which the king would have to follow in going to the Tuileries.
The king and his escort were some minutes behind their time. Our young man was waiting at the corner of the Boulevard de Magenta; he placed himself at the end of the procession, and accompanied it to the Tuileries, keeping his eyes particularly, as he did so, upon the carriage which contained General von Treskow, Count von Goltz, and General Achilles Sturm. That carriage entered the courtyard of the palace with the King of Prussia's, but came out again, almost immediately, with the three generals who occupied it, in order to go to the Hôtel du Louvre.
There the three generals alighted; they were clearly intending to lodge in the neighbourhood of the Tuileries where their sovereign was staying. Our young man, who also had alighted, saw a waiter lead them to their several rooms. He waited a moment, but none of them came out again. He got into his carriage again and disappeared round the corner of the Rue des Pyramides. He knew all that he wanted to know.
Next morning, about eleven o'clock, the same young man was walking in front of the café belonging to the hotel, and smoking a cigarette. At the end of ten minutes his expectation was satisfied. General Sturm came from the Hôtel du Louvre into the restaurant, sat down at one of the marble tables arranged just inside the windows and asked for a cup of coffee and a glass of brandy. This was just opposite the Zouave Barracks.
Benedict entered the barracks and came out a minute later, with two officers. He led them in front of the window and showed them General Sturm.
"Gentlemen," said he, "that is a Prussian general with whom I have so serious a quarrel that one of us must be left upon the field. I have applied to you to do me the favour of acting as my seconds, because you are officers, because you do not know me, and do not know my adversary, and consequently, will not have any of those little delicate considerations for us that fashionable people have towards those for whom they act as seconds. We will go in and sit down at the same table with him. I will reproach him with what I have to reproach him with, and you will see whether the matter is serious enough for a duel to the death. If you judge it to be so, you will do me the honour of being my seconds. I am a soldier like yourselves; I went through the Chinese war with the rank of lieutenant, I fought at the battle of Langensalza as orderly to Prince Ernest of Hanover, and, finally, I fired one of the last shots at the battle of Aschaffenburg. My name is Benedict Turpin, and I am a knight of the Legion of Honour and of the Guelphic Order."
The two officers stepped back a pace, exchanged a few words in a low voice, and returned to Benedict's side, to tell him that they were at his command.
All three then entered the café and went to seat themselves at the general's table. The latter looked up and found himself face to face with Benedict, whom he recognized at the first glance.
"Ah, it is you, sir," said he, growing rather pale.
"Yes, sir," answered Benedict. "And here are these gentlemen who are still unacquainted with the explanation that I am about to have with you and are here to hear what I say, and will be kind enough to assist me in our combat. Will you allow me to explain to these gentlemen, in your presence, the cause of our meeting, and afterwards will you give them details of our antecedents as we go together to the place decided upon? You remember, sir, that, nearly a year ago you did me the honour of writing to me that mountains did not meet, but that men did, and that whenever I had the honour of meeting you outside the kingdom of His Majesty, King William, you would put no difficulty in the way of giving me satisfaction."
The general rose.
"It is useless," said he, "to prolong an explanation in a café where everybody can hear what we say; you can give any explanations to these gentlemen of the grounds of complaint which you consider yourself to have against me, and which I am not in any degree bound to disclaim to you. I wrote to you that I was ready to give you satisfaction; I am. Give me time to go into the hotel and fetch two friends. That is all I ask of you."
"Do so, sir," said Benedict, bowing.
Sturm left the café. Benedict and the two officers followed him. He went into the Hôtel du Louvre. The three gentlemen waited at the door.
In the ten minutes during which they waited Benedict told them the whole story, and was just concluding it as the general reappeared with his seconds—two officers of the king's retinue. All three came towards Benedict and bowed to him. Benedict introduced his own seconds to those of the general by a wave of the hand. All four drew apart a little. Presently Benedict's seconds came back to him.
"You have left the choice of weapons to the general?" said he.
"Yes, sir, and he has chosen the sword; we are to go to a sword cutler and choose a couple of blades that neither of you will have seen before; then we are to go to the nearest convenient spot for the meeting. We suggested the fortifications, and these gentlemen have agreed; they are to take an open carriage, we are to take another; and, as they do not know the way and we do, we shall guide them along the boulevard, and at the first sword-cutler's we will buy the swords."
Everything was arranged accordingly. Two waiters were sent for two carriages. The seconds suggested that the surgeon-major of the Zouaves should accompany the party, and the suggestion being accepted, one of the officers went to fetch him. He joined Benedict and the two Frenchmen, while General Sturm and his seconds followed at some distance.
At the sword-cutler's—which was Claudin's, Benedict said in an aside to the shopman, whom he knew:
"The swords are to be charged to me; let the gentlemen who are in the second carriage choose them."
Three different swords were shown to General Sturm, who selected the one that best suited his hand, and asked its price; he was told that they were paid for. The two carriages went as far as the Étoile turnpike by way of the Maillot gate. Thence they followed the line of the fortifications for a short distance, then, when they had reached a tolerably deserted spot, the two Zouave officers alighted from their chaise, looked up and down the fosse, and finding it empty beckoned their adversaries to join them. In another minute the whole party was standing at the base of the walls. The ground was level and offered every facility for a combat of the kind that was now to take place.
The general's seconds presented the two swords to Benedict who had not previously seen them; he cast a quick glance at them and saw that they were montées en quarte, a circumstance which suited his designs admirably. Apparently it suited General Sturm's, also, since he had chosen the swords.
"When is the light to stop?" asked the seconds.
"When one of us is killed," answered the two antagonists together.
"Coats off, gentlemen!" said the seconds.
Benedict threw aside his jacket and waistcoat, displaying his shirt.
"Are you ready, gentlemen?" asked the seconds.
"Yes," replied both at the same time.
One of the Zouave officers took one sword and put it into Benedict's hands; one of the Prussian officers took the other and put it into General Sturm's hands.
The seconds crossed the two swords at a distance of three inches from the points, and, moving aside to leave the combatants face to face, said:
The words were scarcely uttered when the general swiftly made himself master of his opponent's sword by a double engagement, making as he did so a stride forward with all the usual impetuosity of a man who knows himself an adept in fencing.
Benedict leapt back; then, looking at the general's guard:
"Ah, ah!" he murmured, "a quick fellow on his feet. Attention!"
He exchanged a quick glance with his seconds, to tell them not to be uneasy.
But at the same moment, and without any interval, the general, while entangling the sword by a skilful pressure advanced in a crouching attitude, and lunged with so rapid a dégagement that it needed all Benedict's close handling to parry by a counter quarte, which, quick though it was, could not save his shoulder from a graze. The shirt tore upon the sword's point and became slightly tinged with blood.
The return thrust came so swiftly that the Prussian by luck or by instinct had not time to resort to a circular parry and mechanically employed the parade de quarte and was now on the defensive. The thrust was parried, but it had been given with such energy that General Sturm staggered on his legs and could not deliver his counter thrust.
"He is a pretty fencer, after all," thought Benedict. "He gives one something to do."
Sturm stepped back and lowered his point.
"You are wounded," said he.
"Come, come," returned the young man, "no nonsense! Here's a fuss about a scratch. You know very well, general, that I have got to kill you. One must keep one's word, even to a dead man." He put himself in position again.
"You? Kill me! Upstart!" exclaimed the general.
"Yes, I, greenhorn as you think me," replied Benedict. "Your blood for his, although all yours is not equal to one drop of his."
"Cursed rascal!" swore Sturm, growing crimson. And, rushing upon Benedict, he made as he came, two successive coups de seconde, so hasty and so furious that Benedict had barely time to parry them, by twice retiring, and then a parade de seconde delivered with such precision and energy that the loose shirt was torn above the waistband, and Benedict felt the cold steel. Another stain of blood appeared.
"What! Are you trying to tear off my shirt?" said Benedict, sending his enemy a high thrust de quarte, which would have run him through, but that, feeling himself in danger, he flung himself forward in such a manner that the hilts touched, and the two adversaries stood with their swords up face to face.
"Here!" cried Benedict, "this will teach you to steal my thrust."
And before the seconds could interpose their swords to separate them, Benedict, freeing his arm like a spring, drove the two hilts like the blow of a fist in his adversary's face, who staggered back, his face lacerated and bruised by the blow.
Then followed a scene which made those who beheld it shudder.
Sturm drew back for an instant, his mouth half-open and foaming, his teeth clenched and bleeding, his lips turned back, his eyes gleaming, bloodshot and almost starting from their sockets, his whole countenance reddish purple.
"Blackguard! Dog!" he yelled, waving his stiff-held sword and crouching back for his guard like a jaguar ready to spring.
Benedict stood calm, cold, contemptuous. He extended his sword towards him.
"You belong to me, now," he said in a solemn voice. "You are about to die."
He fell back to his guard, exaggerating the pose as a sort of challenge. He had not to wait long.
Sturm was too good a fencer to throw himself unprotected upon his enemy. He advanced sharply one pace, making un double engagement, of which Benedict turned aside the second by a dégagement fait comme on les passe au mur.
Anger had disturbed Sturm's guard, he was lunging with his head down—an attitude which, for this once at least, saved him. The dégagement merely grazed his shoulder by the neck. Blood appeared.
"A sleeve for a sleeve," retorted Benedict, falling back quickly to his guard, and leaving a great distance between the general and himself. "Now for it!"
The general found himself too far off, took a step forward, gathered all his powers, made a frenzied beating with his sword and struck straight, lunging at the full stretch of his body. All his soul, that is to say, all his hope, was in that blow.
This time Benedict, planted firmly on his feet, did not yield an inch; he caught the sword par un demi cercle, executed in due form, with his nails held upwards as though he were in a fencing school, and standing over the point of his sword inclined towards his feet:
"Now then," he said, delivering his thrust.
The sword entered the upper part of the chest and disappeared completely in the general's body where Benedict left it, as he sprang back—as a bull fighter leaves his dagger in the breast of the bull. Then, folding his arms, he waited.
The general remained standing for a second, staggered, tried to speak; his mouth became full of blood, he made a movement with his sword and the sword fell from his hand; then he, himself, like an uprooted tree, fell full length upon the turf.
The surgeon rushed to the body of Sturm; but he was already dead.
The point of the sword had gone in below the right shoulder blade, and come out on the left hip, after passing through the heart.
"Sapristi!" muttered the surgeon, "that's a man well killed."
Such was Sturm's funeral oration.
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