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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter VI

A Tramp Abroad

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 lacking.

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 respect.

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.

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