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Chapter 9

THE TWO DUELS


"Engage, gentlemen!" cried the colonel.

Von Bülow's sword swept through the air with a flash like lightning. But, rapid though it was, it descended in empty space. Warned by the instinct of a true fencer, the blades had barely crossed when Benedict sprang swiftly aside and remained standing unguarded, his point lowered, and his mocking smile disclosing a fine set of teeth. His adversary paused, perplexed, then swung round so as to face him, but did not immediately advance. However, feeling that this duel must be no child's play, he stepped forward and instantly the point of Benedict's sword rose menacingly against him. Involuntarily he retreated a step. Benedict now fixed his eyes upon him, circling round him, now bending to the right, now again to the left, but always keeping his weapon low and ready to strike.

The major began to feel a kind of hypnotic influence overpowering him. Determined to fight against it, he boldly stepped forward, holding his sword aloft. Instantly he felt the touch of cold steel. Benedict thrust, his rapier pierced von Bülow's shirt and reappeared on the other side. Had not the major remained standing motionless opposite him, an onlooker would have supposed he had been run through the body.

The seconds hastened up, but:

"It is nothing, I assure you," said the major.

Then, perceiving that Benedict had only intended to pierce his shirt and not himself, he added:

"Come, sir, let us continue this game in earnest."

"Ah!" said Benedict, "but you see, had I played in earnest, you would now be a dead man!"

"On guard, sir," cried von Bülow, furious, "and remember this is a duel to the death."

Benedict stepped back and saluting with his sword:

"Pardon me, gentlemen," he said, "you see how unfortunate I am. Although fully intending not to use my point I have nevertheless made two holes in my opponent's shirt. My hand might again refuse to obey my will, and, as I do not visit a country merely to rebel against its customs—particularly when they happen to be philanthropic—so—"

He went up to a rock which rose out of the little valley and, placing the point of his rapier in a crevice, broke off a good inch of the blade.

His adversary wished to do likewise, but,

"It is quite unnecessary, sir," said Benedict, "you are not likely to use your point."

Being now reduced to ordinary sword-play, Benedict crossed swords with his opponent, which necessitated their keeping close together. But he continually retreated half a pace and advanced again, thanks to which incessant movement the major merely made cuts in the air. Becoming impatient, he endeavoured to reach Benedict, missed again, and involuntarily lowered his weapon. Benedict parried a back stroke and touched von Bülow's breast with the broken point. Said he:

"You see I was right in breaking the point of my sword. Otherwise, this time something besides your shirt would have been pierced."

The major remained silent, but quickly recovering himself again stood on guard. He now saw that his adversary was a most skilful swordsman, who united French celerity with determined coolness and who was fully conscious of his strength.

Benedict, seeing that an end must be made, now stood still, calm but menacing, with frowning brows and eyes fixed on his enemy, not attempting to strike but retaining a posture of defence. It seemed as if he awaited the attack, but suddenly with the unexpected celerity which characterized all his movements, he sprang forward with a bound like that of a jaguar, aimed a blow at his adversary's head, and as the latter raised his arm in defence, drew a line with his blade right across his chest. Then, springing lightly back in the same instant he again lowered his sword as before.

Von Bülow's shirt, slashed as though cut by a razor, was instantly tinged with blood. The seconds moved forward.

"Do not stir, I beg," cried the major, "it is nothing but a scratch. I must confess the gentleman's hand is a light one."

And he again stood on guard.

Courageous though he was, he felt he was losing confidence, and, dumbfounded by his enemy's agility, a sense of great danger oppressed him. Evidently Benedict was keeping just out of reach, and was merely waiting until he should expose himself by an unwary advance. He understood that hitherto his opponent had simply played with him, but that now the duel was approaching an end and that his smallest mistake would be severely punished. His sword, never able to encounter Benedict's, seemed to become lifeless, and ceased to respond to his will.

His previous experience in fencing seemed useless here, and this flashing blade which he could never touch, but which rose constantly before him, alert, intelligent, as if endued with life, confused his senses. He dared not risk a movement before this enemy always just beyond his reach, so imperturbable and yet so alert, and who evidently intended, like the artist he was, either to finish with one brilliant stroke or else—which did not seem likely—to expire in a dignified pose like the "Dying Gladiator."

But, exasperated by his opponent's perfect bodily grace, by his elegant and masterly swordsmanship, and still more by the mocking smile which hovered on his lips, von Bülow felt the blood rise to his temples, and could not resist muttering between his teeth:

"This fellow is the very devil!"

And, springing forward, no longer fearing the broken point, he raised his sword and aimed a blow with all his might at his adversary, a blow which, had it reached its object, would have split his head as though it had been an apple. Again, the stroke only encountered empty air, for once more Benedict had effaced himself by a light, graceful spring, very familiar to Parisian fencing masters.

The major's raised sword had broken his guard. A flash, as of lightning, and his arm, streaming with blood, fell against his side. His sword dropped, but remained upright supported by the sword knot.

The seconds hurried to his side. Very pale, but with smiling lips, von Bülow bowed to Benedict and said:

"I thank you, sir. When you might have run me through the body you only wounded my shirt; when you might have cut me in two you let me off with the sort of cut one gets in shaving, and now, when you might have either cleft my head or maimed my arm, I escape with a ruined sleeve. I now ask you to extend your courtesy even further, and to complete the record like the gentleman you are by explaining why you have spared me thus?"

"Sir," said Benedict with a smile, "in the house of Herr Fellner, the Burgomaster of Frankfort, I was introduced to his god-daughter, a charming lady, who adores her husband. Her name was the Baroness von Bülow. When I saw your card it occurred to me that you might be related, and though, beautiful as she is, mourning could only add to her charm, it would grieve me to have been the cause of compelling her to wear it."

The major looked Benedict in the face and, stern soldier though he might be, there were tears in his eyes.

"Madame von Bülow is my wife," he said. "Believe me, sir, wherever she may meet you she will greet you thus: 'My husband foolishly quarrelled with you, sir; may you ever be blessed because for my sake you spared him!' and she will give you her hand with as much gratitude as I now offer you mine."

And he added smiling:

"Forgive me for only offering my left hand. It is entirely your own fault that I cannot give you the right."

And now, although the wound was not dangerous, von Bülow did not refuse to have it dressed. The surgeon promptly ripped up his sleeve, disclosing a wound, not very deep, but terrible to look at, which extended down the arm from the shoulder to the elbow. And one shuddered to think what such a wound would have been, had the swordsman struck with all his force instead of simply drawing his blade along the arm.

The surgeon dipped a cloth in the ice-cold spring which rose at the foot of the rock and wrapped it round the arm. He then drew the sides of the wound together and strapped them with plaster. He assured the major that he would be quite able to continue his journey to Frankfort in the evening.

Benedict offered his carriage to the major, who, however, declined, being curious to see what would happen to his successor. He excused himself on the score that courtesy required him to wait for Herr Georges Kleist.

Although Herr Kleist, having had time to see what sort of adversary he had to deal with, would willingly have been some leagues away, he put a brave face on the matter, and although he grew perceptibly pale during the first duel, and still paler when the wound was dressed, he was, nevertheless, the first to say.

"Excuse my interrupting you, gentlemen, but it is my turn now."

"I am quite at your service, sir," said Benedict.

"You are not properly dressed for a duel with pistols," interposed Colonel Anderson, glancing at Benedict's costume.

"Really," said Benedict, "I never thought about what clothes I was to fight in. I only wanted to do it with comfort to myself. That's all!"

"You can at least put on your tunic and button it!"

"Bah! It is much too hot."

"Perhaps we ought to have taken the pistols first. All this sword-play may have unsteadied your hand."

"My hand is my servant, dear colonel; it knows it has to obey me and you will see it does so."

"Do you wish to see the pistols you are to use?"

"You have seen them, have you not? Are they double barrelled or single?"

"Single barrelled duelling pistols. They were hired this morning from a gunsmith in the Grande Place."

"Then call my other second and see them properly loaded. Mind the shot is inside the barrels, and not dropped outside."

"I will load them myself."

"Colonel," asked the Prussian officers, "do you wish to see the pistols loaded?"

"Yes. I wish to do so. But how are we to arrange? Herr Kleist will only have one second."

"These two gentlemen may answer for Herr Kleist," said the major, "and I will go over to M. Turpin." And his wound being now bandaged, he went and sat down on the rock which gave its name to the glade.

Meanwhile the pistols were loaded, Colonel Anderson fulfilling his promise by putting in the balls himself. Benedict came up to him.

"Tell me," the Englishman asked gravely, "do you mean to kill him?"

"What do you expect? One can't exactly play with pistols as one can with swords or rapiers."

"Surely there is some way of disabling people with whom you have no serious quarrel without killing them outright?"

"I really cannot undertake to miss him just to oblige you! Think! He would naturally go and publish everywhere that I did not know how to shoot!"

"All right! I see I need not have spoken. I bet you have an idea of some sort."

"Frankly, I have. But then he must do his part."

"What must he do?"

"Just keep perfectly still, it ought not to be so very difficult. See, they are ready."

The seconds had just measured the forty-five paces. Colonel Anderson now measured off fifteen from each end, and to mark the exact limit which neither combatant was to pass, he laid two scabbards across and planted a sword upright in the ground at each end to decide the starting-point.

"To your places, gentlemen," cried the seconds.

Herr Kleist having selected his pistol, the colonel brought the other to Benedict, who was talking to the major, and who took the pistol without as much as looking at it, and still chatting with von Bülow, walked quietly to his place.

The duellists now stood at the extreme distance.

"Gentlemen!" said Colonel Anderson, "you are now forty-five paces apart. Each of you may either advance fifteen paces before firing, or may fire from where he now stands. Herr Georges Kleist has the first shot and may fire as soon as he pleases. Having fired, he may hold his pistol so as to protect any part of himself he wishes.

"Now, gentlemen!"

The two adversaries advanced towards each other. Having arrived at the mark, Benedict waited, standing, facing his opponent with folded arms. A light breeze ruffled his hair and blew his shirt open at the chest. He had walked at his ordinary pace.

Herr Kleist, dressed entirely in black, bare-headed, and with closely buttoned coat, had advanced slowly, by force of will overcoming physical disinclination. He halted at the limit.

"You are ready, sir?" he asked.

"Quite ready, sir."

"Will you not turn sideways?"

"I am not accustomed to do so."

Then, turning himself, Herr Kleist slowly raised his pistol, took aim, and fired.

Benedict heard the ball whiz close by his ear and felt the wind ruffle his hair; it had passed within an inch of his head.

His adversary instantly raised his pistol, holding it so as to protect his face, but was unable entirely to control a nervous movement of his hand.

"Sir," said Benedict, "you courteously asked just now if I would not stand sideways, which is unusual between combatants. Permit me in my turn to offer a piece of advice, or rather, make a request."

"What is it, sir?" asked the journalist, still protecting himself with his pistol.

"This; keep your hand steady, your pistol is moving. I wish to put my ball in the wood of your pistol, which will be very difficult unless you keep it quite still. Against my own will I might hit you, either in the cheek or the back of the head, whereas—if you keep your hand just as it is—"

He raised his pistol and fired instantly.

"There! it is done now!"

It was done so rapidly that no one could have supposed he had taken any aim at all. But, even as the report was heard, Herr Kleist's pistol was blown to pieces and he himself staggered and fell on one knee.

"Ah!" said Anderson, "you have killed him."

"I think not," replied Benedict. "I aimed between the two screws which hold the hammer. It is the shock of the concussion which has brought him down."

The surgeon and the two seconds hastened to the wounded man, who now held only the butt end of his pistol. There was a terrible bruise on his cheek, reaching from the eye to the jaw. Otherwise he was untouched, only the shock had knocked him down.

The barrel of the pistol was picked up on one side and the lock on the other. The ball had lodged exactly between the two screws. Had it continued its course unobstructed it would have broken the upper jaw and penetrated the brain.

The dressing was simple—the bruise was a very bad one, but the skin was only broken in two places, and the surgeon considered a cold-water bandage to be all that was required.

Benedict embraced the major, bowed to the journalist, shook hands with the seconds, put on his coat, and got into the carriage, looking less dishevelled than if he had come from a picnic.

"Well, my dear sponsor," he said to Colonel Anderson.

"Well, my dear godson," responded the latter, "I know at least ten men besides myself who would willingly have given a thousand pounds to see what I have seen to-day."

"Sir," said Lenhart, "if you would promise neither to hunt nor to fight unless I am there to see, I, my horse, and my carriage should be at your service for the rest of my life."

And indeed, Benedict returned as he had foretold, having fought his duels, vanquished his adversaries, and come off without a single scratch!

Alexandre Dumas pere