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Sabatini: The Prince of Swashbucklers

by Adam Adrian Crown, Maitre d'Armes

Captain Blood. Scaramouche.The Sea Hawk.

What do these three classic swashbuckling films have in common?

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 Blood.

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.

Master-at-Arms is the story of Quentin de Morlaix, a successful London fencing master during the height of the French Revolution who becomes involved in an effort to raise an army to overthrow the new Republic and restore the monarchy.

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 which 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 accounted 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, child.'

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 long.

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 to 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 we say?'

Once more Morlaix thrust low, and as Rédas, grown sluggish, moved his blade to the parry, the point flashed in over his guard. 'Thus!'

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 of mastery.

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.

Sadly, Master-at-Arms is currently out of print. Fortunately, many of Sabatini's other works are still available, and every bit as enjoyable. Some of his in-print titles include Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk, The Black Swan, Captain Blood Returns (aka Chronicles of Captain Blood), Fortunes of Captain Blood.

This article is an excerpt from "Classical Fencing: The Martial Art of Incurable Romantics," by Classical and Historical Fencing Master Adam Adrian Crown, Maìtre d’Armes.

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