Aldo Nadi and ‘The Duel’
Although the reasons for the duel impress me now as not being worth the risks involved, they appeared to be most serious at the time. My provocateur was the excellent fencing critic of the most important Italian newspaper. He was in his early forties; I was twenty-four. He had fought five successful duels; I, none at all. Although not a champion, he had considerable knowledge of the sport. With thirteen years of successful competitive fencing behind me, I had just won my first professional championships of Italy in the three weapons without suffering a defeat.
Personal implications and reputations were therefore in the balance once our duel had been decided. My position was pretty tough. Were I to be defeated, my professional career would be seriously jeopardized. Should I kill or seriously wound my opponent, public opinion would unjustly react against me. i was on the spot. I had to wound not too severely a man who knew much more about dueling than I, and who was by no means a third-rate fencer–an almost impossible assignment in the excitement and self-preservation of a duel. Little wonder that I could hardly think of anything else during the night preceding the encounter.
The rendezvous was at the famous Milan race track of San Siro (The police always manage to know in advance where duels take place, but as a rule they are inclined to rush to the spot only when the whole thing is over. Nevertheless, the chosen ground is secluded.) We were to fight in the paddock. Arriving there shortly after dawn with my seconds, I remembered that only a few weeks before the place had cost me money. This time something else was involved.
The first thing you forget “on the ground” is your fencing superiority. Your sensibilities increase tremendously. As soon as you are stripped to the waist, the chilly morning makes you think: “Even if I come out f this in good shape, it wouldn’t be a bit funny to die of pneumonia.”
A few yards away, you notice that your adversary talks leisurely with his seconds. You recall that he is also a racing expert, and it seems to you that he couldn’t behave any differently were he waiting for the morning training gallops. Since the war, however, you have never arisen so early–for gallops, or any other reason; moreover, this is your first duel. You are not at ease. Particularly when you see a couple of doctors in white shirts silently laying out a hideous assortment of surgical instruments upon a little table. “They may be for me in a few seconds”–and this though is definitely unpleasant, even if the birds are singing happily in a beautiful sky.
The four seconds are now measuring the ground. Both limits are marked with a pointed stick in the ground itself. Once on guard you may retreat about fifteen yards. if you overstep the limit behind you with both feet, you are disqualified–branded with cowardice for life. professional pride makes you decide instantly not to retreat an inch, no matter what.
Before putting on your street glove (dueling regulations) your seconds fasten a white silk handkerchief to your wrist. “What for?” “To protect the main arteries.” You don’t like the explanation.
You are now handed the same battered epee with which you have won so many different fights. Is it going to lose this one? Remembering that the old weapon has never borne defeat, you draw the rather optimistic conclusion that it must be lucky.
The extreme sensitiveness of the moment makes even the slight difference in the weight of the epee without the customary button on the tip very noticeable. The lightened and perfectly balanced blade suddenly makes you feel extra-confident. But such trust does not last: your eyes have fallen again upon that little table, and you cannot avoid a sensation reminiscent of nausea.
Then you look around. There is a small crowd of celebrated artists, famed writers and journalists, and great sportsmen. Also, several well-known fencing masters and amateurs. Among the masters you quickly detect the one who has trained your adversary. You could beat him all right, but you feel less sure about the pupil. The only member of your family present, a great fencer, appears to be terrified.
None of these people are supposed to be there. Believing this to be a strictly private affair, you do not fully approve of their presence. They all remain at a distance, but you can hear their whispers. it looks as though they were discussing some exceedingly important, mysterious, yet totally alien business. The scene reminds you of an assembly of conspirators singing sotto voce in an old-fashioned opera.
To break the heavy atmosphere, you turn to one of your seconds, and almost shout: “Had I known of such interest, I would have sold tickets!” it is partly braggadocio, partly they subconscious necessity of doing or saying something. As an echo to your words, you hear muffled laughter. You don’t dislike that–it sounds encouraging.
There is no fuss, however. Everything proceeds smoothly efficiently and quickly. Now, even the birds sound expectant. Suddenly, the dropping of a surgical instrument by your own doctor makes a terrific clatter.
The director of the combat tells you most politely that everything is set. Your adversary is in front of you. in your thoughts you had lost track of him, and you are almost surprised to see him standing there. You don’t look him in the eye as yet.
The doctors meticulously sterilize both weapons, and it is then, and only then, that you realize the other fellow too is armed with a blade exactly like your own. Despite its slender length, you know only too well that it is practically unbreakable. Positively unbreakable against your body! You cannot help looking at its fascinating point, and its needle sharpness reminds you that it can penetrate your flesh as easily as butter.
The shining blue reflections of the blade impress you still more ominously than its point. Suddenly you look up and see a pair of eyes glaring at you with defiance. They shine even more than the blade. They are bluer than the blue steel. The effective stare of the veteran. What can you do about it? Stare back, yes–but you know what you are, a novice….
While you try to listen to the last, short, sharp instructions of the director, hardly understanding any of them, you feel, oh, just for a little while, rather afraid. Of what? Difficult to tell. but the heart jumps up and down, fast and hard. maybe you are scared, after all.
Well, never mind the heart. let it jump. Not without a little effort, you succeed in pulling yourself together by taking a deep breath, actually whispering: “Just mind your own skin.”
As a cue, the director speaks his last sentence:
“Gentlemen, on guard!”
These, and none other, are the words you were subconsciously waiting for. You hear and Understand them. Automatically, you execute the order. The birds no longer sing.
You have gone on guard thousands upon thousands of times before, but never was it like this. In competition, the good fencer leisurely watches his opponent for a few seconds before starting the slightest motion. Here you are by no means allowed to do so because your adversary immediately puts into execution a plan evidently well thought out in advance: surprise the youngster at the very beginning; take advantage of his lack of dueling and bear upon his nerves and morale. Get him at once. to succeed, and regardless of risks, the veteran attacks with all possible viciousness, letting forth guttural sounds. Although probably instinctive, these may have been intended to increase the daring and efficiency of the attack, and your own momentary confusion as well. but the plan hits a snag. for the vocal noises instead, work upon you as a wonderful reawakening to reality.
You have heard shouts under the mask before, and you have never paid the slightest attention to them. why even without mask, this man is like any other. He is armed with a weapon quite familiar to you, and there is no reason why he should beat you–none whatever. When these few seconds of uncertainty and uncontrollable fear and doubt are over, you counterattack, and touch, precisely where you wanted to touch–at the wrist, well through the glove and white silk. but during the violent action of your adversary, his blade snaps into yours, and its point whips into your forearm. you hardly feel anything–no pain anyway; but you know that after having touched him, you have been touched too. “Halt!” shrieks the director.
Caring not for your own wound, you immediately look at your opponent’s wrist, and then up at his face. Why on earth does he look so pleased? Haven’t you touched him first? Yes, but this is no mere competition. He has indeed every reason to be satisfied for having wounded you–supposedly a champion–even if he nicked you after you touched him.
Young man, you must never be touched. Otherwise, the blood now coming out of your arm may instead be spurting from your chest…
The doctors take care of both wounds. What?… they bandage your own and not the other?…Preposterous! you feel perfectly furious with everything and everyone–above all with yourself. Silently, your lips move with a curse. You know best, however, and you keep as quiet as in competition; but, as in competition, you are eager to go at it again–the sooner the better–and in a spirit, now, vastly different from the original start.
The air vibrates with a great deal of low-toned, confusing talk. To many people speak at once. You care so little about it all that you cannot even grasp the meaning of a single sentence. The iodine stings. but what are they talking about anyway? This is no opera stage, and the tempo of the orchestra is certainly not one for sotto voce curses. What are they waiting for? Well, yes you let your point touch the ground, as in the Salle d’Armes–but it has already been cleaned, young man! And why does he, your surgeon, look and act so strangely? Why, you just told him, the blade has been sterilized–what does it matter anyway, pretty soon it’s going to be soiled again–red, not earthy, muddy brown–red–yes, all right, oh, let’s go, for God’s sake.
You are on guard again.
Successive engagements produce more wounds. While these are being disinfected, and the blade elaborately sterilized each time, my seconds repeatedly suggest tat I accept proposals emanating from my adversary’s seconds. “Shall we stop?”
My representatives were elder friends of long standing, expert amateur fencers, and knew me well. It was therefore easy for them to see that, in the first engagement, my professionally pride had been wounded far more severely than my flesh; that I intended to avenge it with ominous determination, and that my impatience was steadily mounting.
They were only performing their duty, however. Seconds have the moral responsibility of all that happens “on the ground.” All of them are liable to imprisonment in the case of death. yet, reading my mind clearly, my supporters were proffering their requests in an almost apologetic tone. I did not even bother to answer them.
After the fourth engagement, they again insisted. One can hardly say that I lost my temper then, for it was gone long before. Following the first double touch, I mean double wound, my adversary had not remained perfectly silent; evidently he had hoped–ad did everyone but me–that the whole thing would stop then and there, it was now my turn to breach the strict dueling etiquette. Quietly, but firmly, I replied: “Stop annoying me, I am going to stay here until tomorrow morning.” I was young.
Afterward I was told that at this point one of the spectators had muttered: “Now he is going to kill him.” he was a veteran duelist and friend. He had not heard my words, but had seen my left forefinger resolutely pointed at the ground. My own doctor, a young scientist bearing an illustrious name in medicine, was white as a sheet and looked about ready to collapse. That’s why he had acted so peculiarly after the first engagement. Now he was far too dazed to be of much help in case of real trouble. Disliking the idea entirely, he had finally agreed to assist a friend in need. After the duel, he warned me never again to request his services in similar circumstances.
Fortunately, my adversary’s surgeon seemed at home. he was an expert at such jobs, and it was somewhat heartening to see him, sleeves rolled up, going about his duties in the most efficient manner.
Doctors are forbidden by law to attend such meetings, and they too are liable to heavy punishment. They are, however, given almost dictatorial authority, and as a rule duels are stopped upon their advice. Eventually, after examination and medication of the latest wound, they enunciate and countersign that one of duelists “…was thus in a condition of physical inferiority. Declining all responsibility for any further fighting, the doctors declared him unable to continue”–the usual formula. They know, moreover, that a serious operation cannot be performed properly with the limited equipment they have “on the ground,” and that even if it were successful, the cold morning air would, in all probability, kill the patient. On the other hand, the doctors have to be careful before stating their indisputable decision, lest they offend the susceptibilities of either duelist by declaring an “inability to continue” when, actually, it does not exist yet (For all of these reasons the stiffness of the surgeons’ fees is quite understandable. My own doctor refused to accept a cent–what a friend! Duels are expensive affairs, what with fencing masters’ heavy fees, surgeons’ fees, gifts to the seconds, traveling expenses, banquets, champagne, etc.)
Nothing of the kind happened in this duel, but when they give the word, it becomes law, regardless of what anyone involved may think or say. At such a point no second would even dream of letting the duel proceed, and the whole business is over.
Now, at each wound, the surgeons’ silent looks were only too eloquent. Clearly enough, they wanted the whole affair ended as soon as possible. Even the veteran was beginning to look worried. They had heard my earlier reply to my seconds, however, and my continuously adamant attitude prevented them from stopping the combat. I had been brought up with the idea that duels should be avoided, but, were I to have one, ti should be fought seriously. I had not come here for pin pricks. Everyone knew there were not serious wounds as yet, and it was my right to go on. we went on.
In such moments man can consciously lose all understanding of pity, generosity, and of the meaning of life itself. He knows that his seditious will may spell death for a fellow man whom he has no well-founded reasons, nor definite wish, to kill. Through somewhat silly codes of honor and more or less ridiculous regulations created by his kind alone, he arrogates to himself the right of murder. Where is that part of God he pretends, boasts, and almost scientifically asserts to exist within his own being? Uncheckable and unchecked, Mr. Hyde comes in.
So far the slippery pebbles of the paddock, upon which my street shoes (dueling regulations) could not find firm foothold, had prevented the possibility of any well-determined movement. I had succeeded in not retreating at all, and had limited my footwork to the short, strictly necessary motions of the contretemps, parry-ripostes and stop-thrusts. Fearing the dependability of the ground, I had not yet attacked.
Now it was a different story. The pebbles ad been pestering me far to long. it was high time to stop this nonsense. I wanted to lunge, and I would lunge.
My left foot went to work at once. Pawing and pushing sideways in the manner of a dog after a rabbit, it cleared away the little stones, and entrenched itself in the sticky ground underneath. Now I could go. But first, a rather vicious curiosity compelled me to look up at my adversary’s face.
It was distorted, physically and morally. it displayed none of the defiance and self-control it had shown immediately before the fight. his glassy eyes appeared to be perfectly hypnotized by the point of my blade. he seemed confined in a world of fear of that point alone. A lowered vitality was barely sufficient to keep him on guard. All physical reserves were exhausted. He was in my hands. he could not escape. it was written all over him by the very blood which slowly but steadily was coming out in rivulets from his several wounds–not a chance. It was murder, plain murder–and the word itself blazed through my brain, dimming my eyesight for a second. But Mr. Hyde only grinned in his sureness of self. He would attack
Was it my though that flashed into my adversary’s mind, or did he receive some other perfectly timed warning? No one can tell–not even he. The fact remains that I saw him get up from his guard in an entirely unexpected, nonconformist and most dramatic manner, disarm his right hand quickly, and proceed briskly toward me, hand outstretched, just as fencers do at the end of a bout. “Oh! I have had enough! Thank You!”
This was not at all the expression of a vanquished, dejected man. Rather, that of a man who had regained his civilized sobriety miraculously fast–a human being already far more virile than in his fighting position. naturally, I was thoroughly astounded; but when he reached me, his hand found another that shook it warmly.
The duel had lasted less than six minutes. “Enough,” my adversary had said. Quite! the sun had melted the morning mist, and was now shining brilliantly.
My one wound was beginning to make itself felt. My valiant adversary appeared to be bleeding from everywhere. There were three wounds in his arm, two in almost the same spot, and three in his chest. how I reached his body without hurting him seriously is a mystery, or a miracle, which I have never been able to explain. That evening, he and I drank champagne together.
-Aldo Nadi (1923)