They are all based on stories that flowed from the pen of one of
the world's most prolific writers, Raphael Sabatini.
He was born in Jesi, Italy in 1875 of an English mother and Italian
father, both of whom were opera singers who became teachers.
Sabatini was fluent in five languages by the time he was in
his teens, but chose to write in English &151;his sixth language.
Sabatini began writing short stories in the 1890's. His first
novel, The Lovers of Yvonne, was
published in 1902. But his first real success was not until Scaramouche in
1921, which held great appeal for a public still sour from the
dreary horrors of modern warfare, and became an international
best-seller. The next year, came his equally successful Captain
In all, Sabatini produced thirty-four novels, six non-fiction
books, dozens of short stories and a play. He died in 1950,
at the age of 85. Appropriately, on his headstone is the opening
line of Scaramouche: "He was born with a gift
of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."
Sabatini's work is often praised for
its vivid portrayals of historical characters, its profound
sense of time and place. But it should not be overlooked that Sabatini also had a solid
understanding of fencing, as evident in his Master-at-Arms (also
titled The Marquis of Carabas), published in 1940.
In the opening chapter
of the book, Sabatini treats the reader to a fencing match
between Morlaix and a professional competitor
named Rédas, who is none too pleased with the popularity of
the salle d'armes of a man whom he considers an upstart.
The author's description of the event and Morlaix's canny strategic
approach to the encounter, rings true for any fencer of experience:
This Quentin de Morlaix, whose peculiar mental equipment and
steady nerves enhanced the natural aptitude of his spare, vigorous
body for the exercise of arms, was encouraged by Angelo-too
well established and prosperous to be apprehensive of competition-to
adopt swordsmanship as a profession, so as to supplement the very meagre income of his mother.
But there were other masters-at-arms in London who could
not view a fresh arrival in their ranks with the same complacency;
and one of these, the well-known Rédas, carried resentment
so far as to publish a letter in the Morning Chronicle in
he held up to cruellest ridicule the youthful newcomer.
It was the more unpardonable because, Rédas himself was in
flourishing circumstances, and next to Henry Angelo's his
school was the best attended in Town. His criticisms were
of weight; and crushed by them, it might well have followed
that Morlaix would have accepted the dismissal from the ranks
of fencing-masters which that abominable letter was calculated
to pronounce. Fortunately, the generous-hearted Angelo was
at hand to inspire confidence and dictate a course of action.
'You will answer him, Quentin. You will not waste words. You
will accept his description of you as a bungling dilettante,
and you will inform him that this being so he will the more
easily defeat you in the match for a hundred guineas to which
you have the honour to invite him.'
Quentin smiled his regrets. 'It would be amusing so to answer
him if I disposed of a hundred guineas and dared to risk them..'
'You misunderstand me. That is the sum for which I will back
you against better men than Rédas.'
'It's a flattering confidence. But if I should lose your money?'
'You won't have done yourself justice. I know your strength,
and I know Rédas', and I am content.'
So the challenging letter was sent,
and its appearance in the Morning Chronicle produced a mild
sensation. It was impossible for Rédas to refuse that trial
of skill. He was caught in the trap
of his own malice. But he was so little
aware of it that his acceptance was couched in terms of scornful
insult and garnished with assertions of the phlebotomy he would
perform upon his rash challenger if his profession did not preclude
a meeting with unbuttoned foils.
'You will reply to this bombast,' said Angelo again, 'that
since he desires phlebotomy, you will gratify him by using the
painte d'arrét. And you will add the condition that the match
shall consist of a single assault for the best of six hits.'
The old master answered Morlaix's look of astonishment by laying
a finger to his nose. 'I know what I'm doing,
After this jactancy Rédas could
not refuse either condition without rendering himself ridiculous,
and so the matter was settled.
The courtly old Angelo, acting for Quentin, made the necessary
arrangements, and the meeting took place in Rédas' own academy
in the presence of his pupils, their friends, and some others
drawn by the correspondence, making up an attendance a couple
of hundred strong. The thrifty Rédas had been inspired to charge
a half-guinea a head for admission, so that whatever happened his
stake would be fully covered.
It was soon apparent that this fashionable crowd came with
intent to heap ridicule upon the presumptuous young fool who
dared to measure himself against so redoubtable a master, and
to embitter with their laughter the humiliation which they perceived in store for him. For there
was laughter and there were some audible jeers to greet his
appearance, in contrast with the applause that had hailed the
entrance of the formidable Rédas.
Added to the memory of the taunts in his opponent's published
letters, this insultingly expressed partisanship filled Quentin
de Morlaix: with anger. But it was of a cold and steadying kind, which determined
him in the scrupulous observance of the plan that Angelo had
laid down for him, the plan at the root of the insistence upon
a single assault without respite until the best of the six hits
had been delivered.
Old Angelo, still youthful of figure at sixty and a model of
grace and elegance in an apricot velvet coat above black satin
breeches, acted as his pupil's second, and
conducted Quentin to the middle of the fencing floor, where
Rédas and his second waited.
The audience, composed mainly of men of fashion, included also
a few ladies and some early French émigrés; for this happened in
the year 1791, before the heavy exodus from France. These spectators were ranged along the sides and at the ends of the long barn-like
room. It was a morning of early spring, and the light, from
four windows placed high in the northern wall, was as excellent
as could be desired.
As the two swordsmen faced each other, stripped to the waist
in accordance with the conditions Quentin had made, the general
chatter rippled into silence.
The advantages of wind and limb were certainly with Morlaix.
Lean and long, his naked torso, gleaming white above his black
satin smalls, seemed muscled in whipcord. Nevertheless Rédas,
for all that at forty-four he was twice the age of his opponent,
looked formidable: a compact, swarthy, hairy man of obvious
power and vigour. It was a contrast of mastiff with greyhound.
Rédas had discarded his wig for a black silk scarf in which
his cropped head was swathed. Morlaix wore his own hair, dark
chestnut in colour and luxuriant tightly queued.
Formally the seconds examined the
adjustments of the arresting point with which each foil had
been fitted. It consisted of a diminutive trident, strapped
over the button, each of its sharp steel points being a half-inch
Satisfied, they placed their men in position. The blades were
crossed, and for a moment held lightly by Angelo at the point
of contact. Then he gave the word and stood clear. 'Allez, messieurs!'
The released blades slithered and tinkled lightly one against
the other. The engagement was on.
Rédas, determined upon making an end so speedy as to mark
the contemptible inferiority of the rash upstart who ventured
oppose him, attacked with a dash and vigour that seemed irresistible.
That it should be resisted at all sowed
in the onlookers a surprise that grew steadily as the resistance
was protracted. Soon the reason for it began to appear. Morlaix,
as cool and easy as he was determined, ventured no counters,
not so much as a riposte that might give his adversary an opening,
but contended himself with standing on the defensive, concentrating
his play in the deflection of every thrust and lunge whirled
against him in fiercely swift succession. Moreover, by playing
close, with his elbow well flexed, using only his forearm and
the forte of his blade, he met an onslaught that was recklessly
prodigal of energy with the minimum exertion of strength.
The counsels of Angelo had determined these tactics, calculated
to avenge as signally as Morlaix's powers might permit the insults
of which he had been the butt. The aim was not merely to defeat
Rédas, but to make that defeat so utter as to leave him crushed
under a recoil of the ridicule which
he had used so lavishly. Therefore, whilst taking no risks,
Morlaix made use of his every natural advantage, the chief of
which were his youth and greater staying power. These he would
carefully conserve whilst Rédas spent himself in the fierce,
persistent attack which had been foreseen.
Morlaix calculated also that these tactics, and
his opponent's impotence to defeat them and to draw him into
counter-attacking, would presently act upon Rédas' temper, driving
him to increase the fury of his onslaught and thus hasten that
breathlessness and exhaustion for which Morlaix was content
maliciously to wait.
It came as he had calculated.
At first Rédas, whilst fencing with unsparing vigour, had
yet preserved the academic correctness to be expected in a maìtre d'armes
'What's this? Morbleu! Do we fight, or do we play at fighting?'
Yet even as he spoke he was conscious
that this verbal attempt to save his face did him no better
service than his fencing. Even if he should still prevail in
the end-and that, at least, he had not yet come to doubt-his
could no longer be that masterly overwhelming victory upon which
he had counted. Too long already had his crafty opponent withstood
him, and in the utter silence that had now
settled upon the ranks of the spectators he perceived as astonishment
that humiliated him.
Worse than this, there were actually
one or two who laughed as if in approval of Quentin's answer
to his foolish question.
'It is what I was asking myself, cher maìtre. Do not,
I beg you, be reluctant to make good your boasts, since I am
here so as to afford you the opportunity.'
Rédas said no more. But even through
the meshes of his mask the baleful glare of his eyes could be
discerned. Enraged by the taunt, he renewed the attack, still
with the same unsparing vigour. But it did not last. He began to pay for the hot pace he had
made in his rash confidence that the engagement would be a short
one. He began to understand, and enraged the more because he
understood, the crafty motive underlying the condition that
the combat should be limited to a single assault. His breathing
began to trouble him; his muscles began to lose resilience.
Perceiving this in the slackening speed and loss of precision,
Morlaix tested him by a sudden riposte, which he was barely
in time to parry. He longed desperately for that pause, be it
of but a few seconds, which the conditions denied him.
He fell back in an endeavour to try to steal it. But Moirlaix
was too swift to follow him. And now Rédas, halfwinded, weary, and dispirited, found himself giving ground
before an attack pressed by an opponent who was still comparatively
fresh. It broke upon him in answer to an almost despairing lunge
in which the master had extended himself so fully and with such
disregard of academic rules that he employed his left hand to
support him on the ground. A counter-parry swept his blade clear,
and a lightning riposte planted the prongs of the arresting
point high upon his breast.
A murmur rippled through the assembly as he recovered, with
the blood trickling from that superficial wound. He fell back
beyond his opponent's reach in another desperate hope of a respite
for his labouring lungs.
Actually Morlaix allowed it him, what
time he mocked him.
'I will not further tax your patience, cher maìtre.
Now guard yourself.'
He went in with a feint in the low lines, whence he whirled
his point into carte as he lunged, and planted the trident over
the master's heart.
'Two!' he counted as he recovered. 'And now,
in tierce, thus, the third.' Again the
points tore the master's flesh. But crueller far
were the words that tore his soul. 'Pah!
They told me you were a fencing-master, and you're but
a tirailleur de régiment. It's time
to make an end. Where will you have it? In carte again, shall
Once more Morlaix thrust low, and as Rédas, grown sluggish,
moved his blade to the parry, the point flashed in over his
And there, as the fourth hit went
home, so violently that Quentin's foil was bent into an arc,
the seconds intervened. The master's ignominious defeat was
complete, and from the spectators who had come to mock him Morlaix
received the ovation earned by his concluding supreme display
Rédas plucked the mask from a face that was grey. He stood
forth railing and raging whilst the blood streamed from his labouring chest. 'Ah ça! You
applaud him, do you? Quelle lâcheté! You do not perceive
how base were his methods.' Passion strangled him. 'That was
not to fight, that. He has the younger heart and lungs. He used
the advantage of those. You saw that he did not dare attack
until I was tired. If this coward had played fair-crédieu!-you
would have seen a different end.' 'And so we should,' said Angelo,
intervening, 'if you had fought with your tongue, Rédas, or
with your pen. Those are the weapons of which you are really
master. In swordsmanship Monsieur de Morlaix has shown
that he can give you lessons.'
It was the common opinion, as the immediate sequel proved. For after that assault-at-arms. scarcely a
pupil remained to Rédas. Those who had come to jeer at Morlaix
were the first to transfer themselves to his school, whilst
such was the stir made in Town by the affair, so swiftly and
widely did it spread the fame of the new fencing- master, that he found his academy overcrowded almost from
the hour of its establishment.
Few writers have demonstrated such a clear understanding of
the character of fencing as Sabatini. While all his books are
a guaranteed good read, Master-at-Arms stands out as
unsurpassed in offering a glimpse of swordplay that even the
rankest novice can understand and even the most expert can appreciate.