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 immortal.
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,
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?”
“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!”
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?”
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:
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.