Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI [A Sport that Sometimes Kills]

The third duel was brief and bloody. The surgeon stopped it when he saw
that one of the men had received such bad wounds that he could not fight
longer without endangering his life.

The fourth duel was a tremendous encounter; but at the end of five or
six minutes the surgeon interfered once more: another man so severely
hurt as to render it unsafe to add to his harms. I watched this
engagement as I watched the others--with rapt interest and strong
excitement, and with a shrink and a shudder for every blow that laid
open a cheek or a forehead; and a conscious paling of my face when I
occasionally saw a wound of a yet more shocking nature inflicted.
My eyes were upon the loser of this duel when he got his last and
vanquishing wound--it was in his face and it carried away his--but no
matter, I must not enter into details. I had but a glance, and then
turned quickly, but I would not have been looking at all if I had known
what was coming. No, that is probably not true; one thinks he would not
look if he knew what was coming, but the interest and the excitement are
so powerful that they would doubtless conquer all other feelings; and
so, under the fierce exhilaration of the clashing steel, he would yield
and look after all. Sometimes spectators of these duels faint--and it
does seem a very reasonable thing to do, too.

Both parties to this fourth duel were badly hurt so much that the
surgeon was at work upon them nearly or quite an hour--a fact which is
suggestive. But this waiting interval was not wasted in idleness by
the assembled students. It was past noon, therefore they ordered their
landlord, downstairs, to send up hot beefsteaks, chickens, and such
things, and these they ate, sitting comfortable at the several tables,
whilst they chatted, disputed and laughed. The door to the surgeon's
room stood open, meantime, but the cutting, sewing, splicing, and
bandaging going on in there in plain view did not seem to disturb
anyone's appetite. I went in and saw the surgeon labor awhile, but could
not enjoy; it was much less trying to see the wounds given and received
than to see them mended; the stir and turmoil, and the music of the
steel, were wanting here--one's nerves were wrung by this grisly
spectacle, whilst the duel's compensating pleasurable thrill was

Finally the doctor finished, and the men who were to fight the closing
battle of the day came forth. A good many dinners were not completed,
yet, but no matter, they could be eaten cold, after the battle;
therefore everybody crowded forth to see. This was not a love duel, but
a "satisfaction" affair. These two students had quarreled, and were here
to settle it. They did not belong to any of the corps, but they were
furnished with weapons and armor, and permitted to fight here by the
five corps as a courtesy. Evidently these two young men were unfamiliar
with the dueling ceremonies, though they were not unfamiliar with the
sword. When they were placed in position they thought it was time
to begin--and then did begin, too, and with a most impetuous energy,
without waiting for anybody to give the word. This vastly amused the
spectators, and even broke down their studied and courtly gravity and
surprised them into laughter. Of course the seconds struck up the swords
and started the duel over again. At the word, the deluge of blows began,
but before long the surgeon once more interfered--for the only reason
which ever permits him to interfere--and the day's war was over. It was
now two in the afternoon, and I had been present since half past nine in
the morning. The field of battle was indeed a red one by this time;
but some sawdust soon righted that. There had been one duel before I
arrived. In it one of the men received many injuries, while the other
one escaped without a scratch.

I had seen the heads and faces of ten youths gashed in every direction
by the keen two-edged blades, and yet had not seen a victim wince, nor
heard a moan, or detected any fleeting expression which confessed the
sharp pain the hurts were inflicting. This was good fortitude, indeed.
Such endurance is to be expected in savages and prize-fighters, for they
are born and educated to it; but to find it in such perfection in these
gently bred and kindly natured young fellows is matter for surprise.
It was not merely under the excitement of the sword-play that this
fortitude was shown; it was shown in the surgeon's room where an
uninspiring quiet reigned, and where there was no audience. The doctor's
manipulations brought out neither grimaces nor moans. And in the fights
it was observable that these lads hacked and slashed with the same
tremendous spirit, after they were covered with streaming wounds, which
they had shown in the beginning.

The world in general looks upon the college duels as very farcical
affairs: true, but considering that the college duel is fought by boys;
that the swords are real swords; and that the head and face are exposed,
it seems to me that it is a farce which had quite a grave side to it.
People laugh at it mainly because they think the student is so covered
up with armor that he cannot be hurt. But it is not so; his eyes are
ears are protected, but the rest of his face and head are bare. He
can not only be badly wounded, but his life is in danger; and he would
sometimes lose it but for the interference of the surgeon. It is
not intended that his life shall be endangered. Fatal accidents are
possible, however. For instance, the student's sword may break, and the
end of it fly up behind his antagonist's ear and cut an artery which
could not be reached if the sword remained whole. This has happened,
sometimes, and death has resulted on the spot. Formerly the student's
armpits were not protected--and at that time the swords were pointed,
whereas they are blunt, now; so an artery in the armpit was sometimes
cut, and death followed. Then in the days of sharp-pointed swords, a
spectator was an occasional victim--the end of a broken sword flew five
or ten feet and buried itself in his neck or his heart, and death ensued
instantly. The student duels in Germany occasion two or three deaths
every year, now, but this arises only from the carelessness of the
wounded men; they eat or drink imprudently, or commit excesses in the
way of overexertion; inflammation sets in and gets such a headway that
it cannot be arrested. Indeed, there is blood and pain and danger
enough about the college duel to entitle it to a considerable degree of

All the customs, all the laws, all the details, pertaining to the
student duel are quaint and naive. The grave, precise, and courtly
ceremony with which the thing is conducted, invests it with a sort of
antique charm.

This dignity and these knightly graces suggest the tournament, not the
prize-fight. The laws are as curious as they are strict. For instance,
the duelist may step forward from the line he is placed upon, if he
chooses, but never back of it. If he steps back of it, or even leans
back, it is considered that he did it to avoid a blow or contrive an
advantage; so he is dismissed from his corps in disgrace. It would seem
natural to step from under a descending sword unconsciously, and against
one's will and intent--yet this unconsciousness is not allowed. Again:
if under the sudden anguish of a wound the receiver of it makes a
grimace, he falls some degrees in the estimation of his fellows; his
corps are ashamed of him: they call him "hare foot," which is the German
equivalent for chicken-hearted.

Mark Twain