Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XV

Nice, January 3, 1764.

MADAM — In your favour which I received by Mr. M— l, you remind me of my promise, to communicate the remarks I have still to make on the French nation; and at the same time you signify your opinion, that I am too severe in my former observations. You even hint a suspicion, that this severity is owing to some personal cause of resentment; but, I protest, I have no particular cause of animosity against any individual of that country. I have neither obligation to, nor quarrel with, any subject of France; and when I meet with a Frenchman worthy of my esteem, I can receive him into my friendship with as much cordiality, as I could feel for any fellow-citizen of the same merit. I even respect the nation, for the number of great men it has produced in all arts and sciences. I respect the French officers, in particular, for their gallantry and valour; and especially for that generous humanity which they exercise towards their enemies, even amidst the horrors of war. This liberal spirit is the only circumstance of antient chivalry, which I think was worth preserving. It had formerly flourished in England, but was almost extinguished in a succession of civil wars, which are always productive of cruelty and rancour. It was Henry IV. of France, (a real knight errant) who revived it in Europe. He possessed that greatness of mind, which can forgive injuries of the deepest dye: and as he had also the faculty of distinguishing characters, he found his account, in favouring with his friendship and confidence, some of those who had opposed him in the field with the most inveterate perseverance. I know not whether he did more service to mankind in general, by reviving the practice of treating his prisoners with generosity, than he prejudiced his own country by patronizing the absurd and pernicious custom of duelling, and establishing a punto, founded in diametrical opposition to common sense and humanity.

I have often heard it observed, that a French officer is generally an agreeable companion when he is turned of fifty. Without all doubt, by that time, the fire of his vivacity, which makes him so troublesome in his youth, will be considerably abated, and in other respects, he must be improved by his experience. But there is a fundamental error in the first principles of his education, which time rather confirms than removes. Early prejudices are for the most part converted into habits of thinking; and accordingly you will find the old officers in the French service more bigotted than their juniors, to the punctilios of false honour.

A lad of a good family no sooner enters into the service, than he thinks it incumbent upon him to shew his courage in a rencontre. His natural vivacity prompts him to hazard in company every thing that comes uppermost, without any respect to his seniors or betters; and ten to one but he says something, which he finds it necessary to maintain with his sword. The old officer, instead of checking his petulance, either by rebuke or silent disapprobation, seems to be pleased with his impertinence, and encourages every sally of his presumption. Should a quarrel ensue, and the parties go out, he makes no efforts to compromise the dispute; but sits with a pleasing expectation to learn the issue of the rencontre. If the young man is wounded, he kisses him with transport, extols his bravery, puts him into the hands of the surgeon, and visits him with great tenderness every day, until he is cured. If he is killed on the spot, he shrugs up his shoulders — says, quelle dommage! c’etoit un amiable enfant! ah, patience! What pity! he was a fine Boy! It can’t be helpt! and in three hours the defunct is forgotten. You know, in France, duels are forbid, on pain of death: but this law is easily evaded. The person insulted walks out; the antagonist understands the hint, and follows him into the street, where they justle as if by accident, draw their swords, and one of them is either killed or disabled, before any effectual means can be used to part them. Whatever may be the issue of the combat, the magistrate takes no cognizance of it; at least, it is interpreted into an accidental rencounter, and no penalty is incurred on either side. Thus the purpose of the law is entirely defeated, by a most ridiculous and cruel connivance. The meerest trifles in conversation, a rash word, a distant hint, even a look or smile of contempt, is sufficient to produce one of these combats; but injuries of a deeper dye, such as terms of reproach, the lie direct, a blow, or even the menace of a blow, must be discussed with more formality. In any of these cases, the parties agree to meet in the dominions of another prince, where they can murder each other, without fear of punishment. An officer who is struck, or even threatened with a blow must not be quiet, until he either kills his antagonist, or loses his own life. A friend of mine, (a Nissard) who was in the service of France, told me, that some years ago, one of their captains, in the heat of passion, struck his lieutenant. They fought immediately: the lieutenant was wounded and disarmed. As it was an affront that could not be made up, he no sooner recovered of his wounds, than he called out the captain a second time. In a word, they fought five times before the combat proved decisive at last, the lieutenant was left dead on the spot. This was an event which sufficiently proved the absurdity of the punctilio that gave rise to it. The poor gentleman who was insulted, and outraged by the brutality of the aggressor, found himself under the necessity of giving him a further occasion to take away his life. Another adventure of the same kind happened a few years ago in this place. A French officer having threatened to strike another, a formal challenge ensued; and it being agreed that they should fight until one of them dropped, each provided himself with a couple of pioneers to dig his grave on the spot. They engaged just without one of the gates of Nice, in presence of a great number of spectators, and fought with surprising fury, until the ground was drenched with their blood. At length one of them stumbled, and fell; upon which the other, who found himself mortally wounded, advancing, and dropping his point, said, “Je te donne ce que tu m’as ote.” “I’ll give thee that which thou hast taken from me.” So saying, he dropped dead upon the field. The other, who had been the person insulted, was so dangerously wounded that he could not rise. Some of the spectators carried him forthwith to the beach, and putting him into a boat, conveyed him by sea to Antibes. The body of his antagonist was denied Christian burial, as he died without absolution, and every body allowed that his soul went to hell: but the gentlemen of the army declared, that he died like a man of honour. Should a man be never so well inclined to make atonement in a peaceable manner, for an insult given in the heat of passion, or in the fury of intoxication, it cannot be received. Even an involuntary trespass from ignorance, or absence of mind, must be cleansed with blood. A certain noble lord, of our country, when he was yet a commoner, on his travels, involved himself in a dilemma of this sort, at the court of Lorrain. He had been riding out, and strolling along a public walk, in a brown study, with his horse-whip in his hand, perceived a caterpillar crawling on the back of a marquis, who chanced to be before him. He never thought of the petit maitre; but lifting up his whip, in order to kill the insect, laid it across his shoulders with a crack, that alarmed all the company in the walk. The marquis’s sword was produced in a moment, and the aggressor in great hazard of his life, as he had no weapon of defence. He was no sooner waked from his reverie, than he begged pardon, and offered to make all proper concessions for what he had done through mere inadvertency. The marquis would have admitted his excuses, had there been any precedent of such an affront being washed away without blood. A conclave of honour was immediately assembled; and after long disputes, they agreed, that an involuntary offence, especially from such a kind of man, d’un tel homme, might be attoned by concessions. That you may have some idea of the small beginning, from which many gigantic quarrels arise, I shall recount one that lately happened at Lyons, as I had it from the mouth of a person who was an ear and eye witness of the transaction. Two Frenchmen, at a public ordinary, stunned the rest of the company with their loquacity. At length, one of them, with a supercilious air, asked the other’s name. “I never tell my name, (said he) but in a whisper.” “You may have very good reasons for keeping it secret,” replied the first. “I will tell you,” (resumed the other): with these words he rose; and going round to him, pronounced, loud enough to be heard by the whole company, “Je m’appelle Pierre Paysan; et vous etes un impertinent.” “My name is Peter Peasant, and you are an impertinent fellow.” So saying, he walked out: the interrogator followed him into the street, where they justled, drew their swords, and engaged. He who asked the question was run through the body; but his relations were so powerful, that the victor was obliged to fly his country, was tried and condemned in his absence; his goods were confiscated; his wife broke her heart; his children were reduced to beggary; and he himself is now starving in exile. In England we have not yet adopted all the implacability of the punctilio. A gentleman may be insulted even with a blow, and survive, after having once hazarded his life against the aggressor. The laws of honour in our country do not oblige him either to slay the person from whom he received the injury, or even to fight to the last drop of his own blood. One finds no examples of duels among the Romans, who were certainly as brave and as delicate in their notions of honour as the French. Cornelius Nepos tells us, that a famous Athenian general, having a dispute with his colleague, who was of Sparta, a man of a fiery disposition, this last lifted up his cane to strike him. Had this happened to a French petit maitre, death must have ensued: but mark what followed — The Athenian, far from resenting the outrage, in what is now called a gentlemanlike manner, said, “Do, strike if you please; but hear me.” He never dreamed of cutting the Lacedemonian’s throat; but bore with his passionate temper, as the infirmity of a friend who had a thousand good qualities to overbalance that defect.

I need not expatiate upon the folly and the mischief which are countenanced and promoted by the modern practice of duelling. I need not give examples of friends who have murdered each other, in obedience to this savage custom, even while their hearts were melting with mutual tenderness; nor will I particularize the instances which I myself know, of whole families ruined, of women and children made widows and orphans, of parents deprived of only sons, and of valuable lives lost to the community, by duels, which had been produced by one unguarded expression, uttered without intention of offence, in the heat of dispute and altercation. I shall not insist upon the hardship of a worthy man’s being obliged to devote himself to death, because it is his misfortune to be insulted by a brute, a bully, a drunkard, or a madman: neither will I enlarge upon this side of the absurdity, which indeed amounts to a contradiction in terms; I mean the dilemma to which a gentleman in the army is reduced, when he receives an affront: if he does not challenge and fight his antagonist, he is broke with infamy by a court-martial; if he fights and kills him, he is tried by the civil power, convicted of murder, and, if the royal mercy does not interpose, he is infallibly hanged: all this, exclusive of the risque of his own life in the duel, and his conscience being burthened with the blood of a man, whom perhaps he has sacrificed to a false punctilio, even contrary to his own judgment. These are reflections which I know your own good sense will suggest, but I will make bold to propose a remedy for this gigantic evil, which seems to gain ground everyday: let a court be instituted for taking cognizance of all breaches of honour, with power to punish by fine, pillory, sentence of infamy, outlawry, and exile, by virtue of an act of parliament made for this purpose; and all persons insulted, shall have recourse to this tribunal: let every man who seeks personal reparation with sword, pistol, or other instrument of death, be declared infamous, and banished the kingdom: let every man, convicted of having used a sword or pistol, or other mortal weapon, against another, either in duel or rencountre, occasioned by any previous quarrel, be subject to the same penalties: if any man is killed in a duel, let his body be hanged upon a public gibbet, for a certain time, and then given to the surgeons: let his antagonist be hanged as a murderer, and dissected also; and some mark of infamy be set on the memory of both. I apprehend such regulations would put an effectual stop to the practice of duelling, which nothing but the fear of infamy can support; for I am persuaded, that no being, capable of reflection, would prosecute the trade of assassination at the risque of his own life, if this hazard was at the same time reinforced by the certain prospect of infamy and ruin. Every person of sentiment would in that case allow, that an officer, who in a duel robs a deserving woman of her husband, a number of children of their father, a family of its support, and the community of a fellow-citizen, has as little merit to plead from exposing his own person, as a highwayman, or housebreaker, who every day risques his life to rob or plunder that which is not of half the importance to society. I think it was from the Buccaneers of America, that the English have learned to abolish one solecism in the practice of duelling: those adventurers decided their personal quarrels with pistols; and this improvement has been adopted in Great Britain with good success; though in France, and other parts of the continent, it is looked upon as a proof of their barbarity. It is, however, the only circumstance of duelling, which savours of common sense, as it puts all mankind upon a level, the old with the young, the weak with the strong, the unwieldy with the nimble, and the man who knows not how to hold a sword with the spadassin, who has practised fencing from the cradle. What glory is there in a man’s vanquishing an adversary over whom he has a manifest advantage? To abide the issue of a combat in this case, does not even require that moderate share of resolution which nature has indulged to her common children. Accordingly, we have seen many instances of a coward’s provoking a man of honour to battle. In the reign of our second Charles, when duels flourished in all their absurdity, and the seconds fought while their principals were engaged, Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, not content with having debauched the countess of Shrewsbury and publishing her shame, took all opportunities of provoking the earl to single combat, hoping he should have an easy conquest, his lordship being a puny little creature, quiet, inoffensive, and every way unfit for such personal contests. He ridiculed him on all occasions; and at last declared in public company, that there was no glory in cuckolding Shrewsbury, who had not spirit to resent the injury. This was an insult which could not be overlooked. The earl sent him a challenge; and they agreed to fight, at Barns-Elms, in presence of two gentlemen, whom they chose for their seconds. All the four engaged at the same time; the first thrust was fatal to the earl of Shrewsbury; and his friend killed the duke’s second at the same instant. Buckingham, elated with his exploit, set out immediately for the earl’s seat at Cliefden, where he lay with his wife, after having boasted of the murder of her husband, whose blood he shewed her upon his sword, as a trophy of his prowess. But this very duke of Buckingham was little better than a poltroon at bottom. When the gallant earl of Ossory challenged him to fight in Chelsea fields, he crossed the water to Battersea, where he pretended to wait for his lordship; and then complained to the house of lords, that Ossory had given him the rendezvous, and did not keep his appointment. He knew the house would interpose in the quarrel, and he was not disappointed. Their lordships obliged them both to give their word of honour, that their quarrel should have no other consequences.

I ought to make an apology for having troubled a lady with so many observations on a subject so unsuitable to the softness of the fair sex; but I know you cannot be indifferent to any thing that so nearly affects the interests of humanity, which I can safely aver have alone suggested every thing which has been said by, Madam, Your very humble servant.

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