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Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII The Great French Duel [I Second Gambetta in a Terrific
Duel]

Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it
is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since
it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure
to catch cold. M. Paul de Cassagnac, the most inveterate of the French
duelists, had suffered so often in this way that he is at last a
confirmed invalid; and the best physician in Paris has expressed
the opinion that if he goes on dueling for fifteen or twenty years
more--unless he forms the habit of fighting in a comfortable room where
damps and draughts cannot intrude--he will eventually endanger his life.
This ought to moderate the talk of those people who are so stubborn
in maintaining that the French duel is the most health-giving of
recreations because of the open-air exercise it affords. And it
ought also to moderate that foolish talk about French duelists and
socialist-hated monarchs being the only people who are immoral.

But it is time to get at my subject. As soon as I heard of the late
fiery outbreak between M. Gambetta and M. Fourtou in the French
Assembly, I knew that trouble must follow. I knew it because a long
personal friendship with M. Gambetta revealed to me the desperate and
implacable nature of the man. Vast as are his physical proportions,
I knew that the thirst for revenge would penetrate to the remotest
frontiers of his person.

I did not wait for him to call on me, but went at once to him. As I had
expected, I found the brave fellow steeped in a profound French calm.
I say French calm, because French calmness and English calmness have
points of difference. He was moving swiftly back and forth among the
debris of his furniture, now and then staving chance fragments of it
across the room with his foot; grinding a constant grist of curses
through his set teeth; and halting every little while to deposit another
handful of his hair on the pile which he had been building of it on the
table.

He threw his arms around my neck, bent me over his stomach to his
breast, kissed me on both cheeks, hugged me four or five times, and
then placed me in his own arm-chair. As soon as I had got well again, we
began business at once.

I said I supposed he would wish me to act as his second, and he said,
"Of course." I said I must be allowed to act under a French name, so
that I might be shielded from obloquy in my country, in case of fatal
results. He winced here, probably at the suggestion that dueling was not
regarded with respect in America. However, he agreed to my requirement.
This accounts for the fact that in all the newspaper reports M.
Gambetta's second was apparently a Frenchman.

First, we drew up my principal's will. I insisted upon this, and stuck
to my point. I said I had never heard of a man in his right mind going
out to fight a duel without first making his will. He said he had never
heard of a man in his right mind doing anything of the kind. When he had
finished the will, he wished to proceed to a choice of his "last words."
He wanted to know how the following words, as a dying exclamation,
struck me:

"I die for my God, for my country, for freedom of speech, for progress,
and the universal brotherhood of man!"

I objected that this would require too lingering a death; it was a good
speech for a consumptive, but not suited to the exigencies of the field
of honor. We wrangled over a good many ante-mortem outbursts, but I
finally got him to cut his obituary down to this, which he copied into
his memorandum-book, purposing to get it by heart:

"I DIE THAT FRANCE MIGHT LIVE."

I said that this remark seemed to lack relevancy; but he said relevancy
was a matter of no consequence in last words, what you wanted was
thrill.

The next thing in order was the choice of weapons. My principal said he
was not feeling well, and would leave that and the other details of the
proposed meeting to me. Therefore I wrote the following note and carried
it to M. Fourtou's friend:

Sir: M. Gambetta accepts M. Fourtou's challenge, and authorizes me to
propose Plessis-Piquet as the place of meeting; tomorrow morning at
daybreak as the time; and axes as the weapons.

I am, sir, with great respect,

Mark Twain.

M. Fourtou's friend read this note, and shuddered. Then he turned to me,
and said, with a suggestion of severity in his tone:

"Have you considered, sir, what would be the inevitable result of such a
meeting as this?"

"Well, for instance, what WOULD it be?"

"Bloodshed!"

"That's about the size of it," I said. "Now, if it is a fair question,
what was your side proposing to shed?"

I had him there. He saw he had made a blunder, so he hastened to explain
it away. He said he had spoken jestingly. Then he added that he and his
principal would enjoy axes, and indeed prefer them, but such weapons
were barred by the French code, and so I must change my proposal.

I walked the floor, turning the thing over in my mind, and finally it
occurred to me that Gatling-guns at fifteen paces would be a likely way
to get a verdict on the field of honor. So I framed this idea into a
proposition.

But it was not accepted. The code was in the way again. I proposed
rifles; then double-barreled shotguns; then Colt's navy revolvers. These
being all rejected, I reflected awhile, and sarcastically suggested
brickbats at three-quarters of a mile. I always hate to fool away a
humorous thing on a person who has no perception of humor; and it filled
me with bitterness when this man went soberly away to submit the last
proposition to his principal.

He came back presently and said his principal was charmed with the idea
of brickbats at three-quarters of a mile, but must decline on account of
the danger to disinterested parties passing between them. Then I said:

"Well, I am at the end of my string, now. Perhaps YOU would be good
enough to suggest a weapon? Perhaps you have even had one in your mind
all the time?"

His countenance brightened, and he said with alacrity:

"Oh, without doubt, monsieur!"

So he fell to hunting in his pockets--pocket after pocket, and he had
plenty of them--muttering all the while, "Now, what could I have done
with them?"

At last he was successful. He fished out of his vest pocket a couple
of little things which I carried to the light and ascertained to be
pistols. They were single-barreled and silver-mounted, and very dainty
and pretty. I was not able to speak for emotion. I silently hung one of
them on my watch-chain, and returned the other. My companion in crime
now unrolled a postage-stamp containing several cartridges, and gave me
one of them. I asked if he meant to signify by this that our men were
to be allowed but one shot apiece. He replied that the French code
permitted no more. I then begged him to go and suggest a distance, for
my mind was growing weak and confused under the strain which had been
put upon it. He named sixty-five yards. I nearly lost my patience. I
said:

"Sixty-five yards, with these instruments? Squirt-guns would be deadlier
at fifty. Consider, my friend, you and I are banded together to destroy
life, not make it eternal."

But with all my persuasions, all my arguments, I was only able to
get him to reduce the distance to thirty-five yards; and even this
concession he made with reluctance, and said with a sigh, "I wash my
hands of this slaughter; on your head be it."

There was nothing for me but to go home to my old lion-heart and tell my
humiliating story. When I entered, M. Gambetta was laying his last lock
of hair upon the altar. He sprang toward me, exclaiming:

"You have made the fatal arrangements--I see it in your eye!"

"I have."

His face paled a trifle, and he leaned upon the table for support. He
breathed thick and heavily for a moment or two, so tumultuous were his
feelings; then he hoarsely whispered:

"The weapon, the weapon! Quick! what is the weapon?"

"This!" and I displayed that silver-mounted thing. He cast but one
glance at it, then swooned ponderously to the floor.

When he came to, he said mournfully:

"The unnatural calm to which I have subjected myself has told upon my
nerves. But away with weakness! I will confront my fate like a man and a
Frenchman."

He rose to his feet, and assumed an attitude which for sublimity has
never been approached by man, and has seldom been surpassed by statues.
Then he said, in his deep bass tones:

"Behold, I am calm, I am ready; reveal to me the distance."

"Thirty-five yards." ...

I could not lift him up, of course; but I rolled him over, and poured
water down his back. He presently came to, and said:

"Thirty-five yards--without a rest? But why ask? Since murder was that
man's intention, why should he palter with small details? But mark you
one thing: in my fall the world shall see how the chivalry of France
meets death."

After a long silence he asked:

"Was nothing said about that man's family standing up with him, as
an offset to my bulk? But no matter; I would not stoop to make such
a suggestion; if he is not noble enough to suggest it himself, he is
welcome to this advantage, which no honorable man would take."

He now sank into a sort of stupor of reflection, which lasted some
minutes; after which he broke silence with:

"The hour--what is the hour fixed for the collision?"

"Dawn, tomorrow."

He seemed greatly surprised, and immediately said:

"Insanity! I never heard of such a thing. Nobody is abroad at such an
hour."

"That is the reason I named it. Do you mean to say you want an
audience?"

"It is no time to bandy words. I am astonished that M. Fourtou should
ever have agreed to so strange an innovation. Go at once and require a
later hour."

I ran downstairs, threw open the front door, and almost plunged into the
arms of M. Fourtou's second. He said:

"I have the honor to say that my principal strenuously objects to the
hour chosen, and begs you will consent to change it to half past nine."

"Any courtesy, sir, which it is in our power to extend is at the service
of your excellent principal. We agree to the proposed change of time."

"I beg you to accept the thanks of my client." Then he turned to a
person behind him, and said, "You hear, M. Noir, the hour is altered to
half past nine." Whereupon M. Noir bowed, expressed his thanks, and went
away. My accomplice continued:

"If agreeable to you, your chief surgeons and ours shall proceed to the
field in the same carriage as is customary."

"It is entirely agreeable to me, and I am obliged to you for mentioning
the surgeons, for I am afraid I should not have thought of them. How
many shall I want? I supposed two or three will be enough?"

"Two is the customary number for each party. I refer to 'chief'
surgeons; but considering the exalted positions occupied by our clients,
it will be well and decorous that each of us appoint several consulting
surgeons, from among the highest in the profession. These will come in
their own private carriages. Have you engaged a hearse?"

"Bless my stupidity, I never thought of it! I will attend to it right
away. I must seem very ignorant to you; but you must try to overlook
that, because I have never had any experience of such a swell duel as
this before. I have had a good deal to do with duels on the Pacific
coast, but I see now that they were crude affairs. A hearse--sho! we
used to leave the elected lying around loose, and let anybody cord
them up and cart them off that wanted to. Have you anything further to
suggest?"

"Nothing, except that the head undertakers shall ride together, as is
usual. The subordinates and mutes will go on foot, as is also usual. I
will see you at eight o'clock in the morning, and we will then arrange
the order of the procession. I have the honor to bid you a good day."

I returned to my client, who said, "Very well; at what hour is the
engagement to begin?"

"Half past nine."

"Very good indeed. Have you sent the fact to the newspapers?"

"SIR! If after our long and intimate friendship you can for a moment
deem me capable of so base a treachery--"

"Tut, tut! What words are these, my dear friend? Have I wounded you? Ah,
forgive me; I am overloading you with labor. Therefore go on with the
other details, and drop this one from your list. The bloody-minded
Fourtou will be sure to attend to it. Or I myself--yes, to make certain,
I will drop a note to my journalistic friend, M. Noir--"

"Oh, come to think of it, you may save yourself the trouble; that other
second has informed M. Noir."

"H'm! I might have known it. It is just like that Fourtou, who always
wants to make a display."

At half past nine in the morning the procession approached the field of
Plessis-Piquet in the following order: first came our carriage--nobody
in it but M. Gambetta and myself; then a carriage containing M. Fourtou
and his second; then a carriage containing two poet-orators who did not
believe in God, and these had MS. funeral orations projecting from their
breast pockets; then a carriage containing the head surgeons and their
cases of instruments; then eight private carriages containing consulting
surgeons; then a hack containing a coroner; then the two hearses; then a
carriage containing the head undertakers; then a train of assistants
and mutes on foot; and after these came plodding through the fog a long
procession of camp followers, police, and citizens generally. It was a
noble turnout, and would have made a fine display if we had had thinner
weather.

There was no conversation. I spoke several times to my principal, but
I judge he was not aware of it, for he always referred to his note-book
and muttered absently, "I die that France might live."

Arrived on the field, my fellow-second and I paced off the thirty-five
yards, and then drew lots for choice of position. This latter was but
an ornamental ceremony, for all the choices were alike in such weather.
These preliminaries being ended, I went to my principal and asked him
if he was ready. He spread himself out to his full width, and said in a
stern voice, "Ready! Let the batteries be charged."

The loading process was done in the presence of duly constituted
witnesses. We considered it best to perform this delicate service with
the assistance of a lantern, on account of the state of the weather. We
now placed our men.

At this point the police noticed that the public had massed themselves
together on the right and left of the field; they therefore begged a
delay, while they should put these poor people in a place of safety.

The request was granted.

The police having ordered the two multitudes to take positions behind
the duelists, we were once more ready. The weather growing still more
opaque, it was agreed between myself and the other second that before
giving the fatal signal we should each deliver a loud whoop to enable
the combatants to ascertain each other's whereabouts.

I now returned to my principal, and was distressed to observe that he
had lost a good deal of his spirit. I tried my best to hearten him. I
said, "Indeed, sir, things are not as bad as they seem. Considering
the character of the weapons, the limited number of shots allowed, the
generous distance, the impenetrable solidity of the fog, and the added
fact that one of the combatants is one-eyed and the other cross-eyed and
near-sighted, it seems to me that this conflict need not necessarily be
fatal. There are chances that both of you may survive. Therefore, cheer
up; do not be downhearted."

This speech had so good an effect that my principal immediately
stretched forth his hand and said, "I am myself again; give me the
weapon."

I laid it, all lonely and forlorn, in the center of the vast solitude
of his palm. He gazed at it and shuddered. And still mournfully
contemplating it, he murmured in a broken voice:

"Alas, it is not death I dread, but mutilation."

I heartened him once more, and with such success that he presently
said, "Let the tragedy begin. Stand at my back; do not desert me in this
solemn hour, my friend."

I gave him my promise. I now assisted him to point his pistol toward the
spot where I judged his adversary to be standing, and cautioned him to
listen well and further guide himself by my fellow-second's whoop.
Then I propped myself against M. Gambetta's back, and raised a rousing
"Whoop-ee!" This was answered from out the far distances of the fog, and
I immediately shouted:

"One--two--three--FIRE!"

Two little sounds like SPIT! SPIT! broke upon my ear, and in the same
instant I was crushed to the earth under a mountain of flesh. Bruised
as I was, I was still able to catch a faint accent from above, to this
effect:

"I die for... for ... perdition take it, what IS it I die for? ... oh,
yes--FRANCE! I die that France may live!"

The surgeons swarmed around with their probes in their hands, and
applied their microscopes to the whole area of M. Gambetta's person,
with the happy result of finding nothing in the nature of a wound. Then
a scene ensued which was in every way gratifying and inspiriting.

The two gladiators fell upon each other's neck, with floods of proud and
happy tears; that other second embraced me; the surgeons, the
orators, the undertakers, the police, everybody embraced, everybody
congratulated, everybody cried, and the whole atmosphere was filled with
praise and with joy unspeakable.

It seems to me then that I would rather be a hero of a French duel than
a crowned and sceptered monarch.

When the commotion had somewhat subsided, the body of surgeons held a
consultation, and after a good deal of debate decided that with proper
care and nursing there was reason to believe that I would survive my
injuries. My internal hurts were deemed the most serious, since it was
apparent that a broken rib had penetrated my left lung, and that many of
my organs had been pressed out so far to one side or the other of where
they belonged, that it was doubtful if they would ever learn to perform
their functions in such remote and unaccustomed localities. They then
set my left arm in two places, pulled my right hip into its socket
again, and re-elevated my nose. I was an object of great interest,
and even admiration; and many sincere and warm-hearted persons had
themselves introduced to me, and said they were proud to know the only
man who had been hurt in a French duel in forty years.

I was placed in an ambulance at the very head of the procession;
and thus with gratifying 'ECLAT I was marched into Paris, the most
conspicuous figure in that great spectacle, and deposited at the
hospital.

The cross of the Legion of Honor has been conferred upon me. However,
few escape that distinction.

Such is the true version of the most memorable private conflict of the
age.

I have no complaints to make against any one. I acted for myself, and I
can stand the consequences.

Without boasting, I think I may say I am not afraid to stand before a
modern French duelist, but as long as I keep in my right mind I will
never consent to stand behind one again.

Mark Twain