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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter V

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter V


At the Students' Dueling-Ground
[Dueling by Wholesale]

One day in the interest of science my agent obtained
permission to bring me to the students' dueling-place. We
crossed the river and drove up the bank a few hundred yards,
then turned to the left, entered a narrow alley, followed it
a hundred yards and arrived at a two-story public house;
we were acquainted with its outside aspect, for it was
visible from the hotel. We went upstairs and passed into
a large whitewashed apartment which was perhaps fifty feet
long by thirty feet wide and twenty or twenty-five high.
It was a well-lighted place. There was no carpet.
Across one end and down both sides of the room extended a row
of tables, and at these tables some fifty or seventy-five
students [1. See Appendix C] were sitting.

Some of them were sipping wine, others were playing cards,
others chess, other groups were chatting together,
and many were smoking cigarettes while they waited for
the coming duels. Nearly all of them wore colored caps;
there were white caps, green caps, blue caps, red caps,
and bright-yellow ones; so, all the five corps were
present in strong force. In the windows at the vacant
end of the room stood six or eight, narrow-bladed swords
with large protecting guards for the hand, and outside
was a man at work sharpening others on a grindstone.
He understood his business; for when a sword left his hand
one could shave himself with it.

It was observable that the young gentlemen neither bowed
to nor spoke with students whose caps differed in color
from their own. This did not mean hostility, but only an
armed neutrality. It was considered that a person could
strike harder in the duel, and with a more earnest interest,
if he had never been in a condition of comradeship with
his antagonist; therefore, comradeship between the corps
was not permitted. At intervals the presidents of the five
corps have a cold official intercourse with each other,
but nothing further. For example, when the regular
dueling-day of one of the corps approaches, its president
calls for volunteers from among the membership to
offer battle; three or more respond--but there must not
be less than three; the president lays their names before
the other presidents, with the request that they furnish
antagonists for these challengers from among their corps.
This is promptly done. It chanced that the present
occasion was the battle-day of the Red Cap Corps.
They were the challengers, and certain caps of other colors
had volunteered to meet them. The students fight duels
in the room which I have described, TWO DAYS IN EVERY WEEK
DURING SEVEN AND A HALF OR EIGHT MONTHS IN EVERY YEAR.
This custom had continued in Germany two hundred and fifty years.


To return to my narrative. A student in a white cap
met us and introduced us to six or eight friends of his
who also wore white caps, and while we stood conversing,
two strange-looking figures were led in from another room.
They were students panoplied for the duel. They were bareheaded;
their eyes were protected by iron goggles which projected
an inch or more, the leather straps of which bound
their ears flat against their heads were wound around
and around with thick wrappings which a sword could not
cut through; from chin to ankle they were padded thoroughly
against injury; their arms were bandaged and rebandaged,
layer upon layer, until they looked like solid black logs.
These weird apparitions had been handsome youths,
clad in fashionable attire, fifteen minutes before,
but now they did not resemble any beings one ever sees
unless in nightmares. They strode along, with their arms
projecting straight out from their bodies; they did
not hold them out themselves, but fellow-students walked
beside them and gave the needed support.

There was a rush for the vacant end of the room, now,
and we followed and got good places. The combatants were
placed face to face, each with several members of his own
corps about him to assist; two seconds, well padded,
and with swords in their hands, took their stations;
a student belonging to neither of the opposing corps
placed himself in a good position to umpire the combat;
another student stood by with a watch and a memorandum-book
to keep record of the time and the number and nature of
the wounds; a gray-haired surgeon was present with his lint,
his bandages, and his instruments. After a moment's pause
the duelists saluted the umpire respectfully, then one
after another the several officials stepped forward,
gracefully removed their caps and saluted him also,
and returned to their places. Everything was ready now;
students stood crowded together in the foreground,
and others stood behind them on chairs and tables.
Every face was turned toward the center of attraction.

The combatants were watching each other with alert eyes;
a perfect stillness, a breathless interest reigned.
I felt that I was going to see some wary work. But not so.
The instant the word was given, the two apparitions
sprang forward and began to rain blows down upon each
other with such lightning rapidity that I could not quite
tell whether I saw the swords or only flashes they made
in the air; the rattling din of these blows as they struck
steel or paddings was something wonderfully stirring,
and they were struck with such terrific force that I could
not understand why the opposing sword was not beaten
down under the assault. Presently, in the midst of the
sword-flashes, I saw a handful of hair skip into the air
as if it had lain loose on the victim's head and a breath
of wind had puffed it suddenly away.

The seconds cried "Halt!" and knocked up the combatants'
swords with their own. The duelists sat down; a student
official stepped forward, examined the wounded head
and touched the place with a sponge once or twice;
the surgeon came and turned back the hair from the wound--
and revealed a crimson gash two or three inches long,
and proceeded to bind an oval piece of leather and a bunch
of lint over it; the tally-keeper stepped up and tallied
one for the opposition in his book.

Then the duelists took position again; a small stream of
blood was flowing down the side of the injured man's head,
and over his shoulder and down his body to the floor,
but he did not seem to mind this. The word was given,
and they plunged at each other as fiercely as before;
once more the blows rained and rattled and flashed;
every few moments the quick-eyed seconds would notice
that a sword was bent--then they called "Halt!" struck up
the contending weapons, and an assisting student straightened
the bent one.

The wonderful turmoil went on--presently a bright spark
sprung from a blade, and that blade broken in several pieces,
sent one of its fragments flying to the ceiling.
A new sword was provided and the fight proceeded.
The exercise was tremendous, of course, and in time
the fighters began to show great fatigue. They were
allowed to rest a moment, every little while; they got
other rests by wounding each other, for then they could
sit down while the doctor applied the lint and bandages.
The laws is that the battle must continue fifteen minutes
if the men can hold out; and as the pauses do not count,
this duel was protracted to twenty or thirty minutes,
I judged. At last it was decided that the men were too much
wearied to do battle longer. They were led away drenched
with crimson from head to foot. That was a good fight,
but it could not count, partly because it did not last
the lawful fifteen minutes (of actual fighting), and
partly because neither man was disabled by his wound.
It was a drawn battle, and corps law requires that drawn
battles shall be refought as soon as the adversaries are
well of their hurts.

During the conflict, I had talked a little, now and then,
with a young gentleman of the White Cap Corps, and he
had mentioned that he was to fight next--and had also
pointed out his challenger, a young gentleman who was
leaning against the opposite wall smoking a cigarette
and restfully observing the duel then in progress.

My acquaintanceship with a party to the coming contest
had the effect of giving me a kind of personal interest
in it; I naturally wished he might win, and it was
the reverse of pleasant to learn that he probably
would not, because, although he was a notable swordsman,
the challenger was held to be his superior.

The duel presently began and in the same furious way
which had marked the previous one. I stood close by,
but could not tell which blows told and which did not,
they fell and vanished so like flashes of light. They all
seemed to tell; the swords always bent over the opponents'
heads, from the forehead back over the crown, and seemed
to touch, all the way; but it was not so--a protecting
blade, invisible to me, was always interposed between.
At the end of ten seconds each man had struck twelve
or fifteen blows, and warded off twelve or fifteen,
and no harm done; then a sword became disabled, and a short
rest followed whilst a new one was brought. Early in the
next round the White Corps student got an ugly wound on
the side of his head and gave his opponent one like it.
In the third round the latter received another bad wound
in the head, and the former had his under-lip divided.
After that, the White Corps student gave many severe wounds,
but got none of the consequence in return. At the end
of five minutes from the beginning of the duel the surgeon
stopped it; the challenging party had suffered such
injuries that any addition to them might be dangerous.
These injuries were a fearful spectacle, but are better
left undescribed. So, against expectation, my acquaintance
was the victor.

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