Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
A German Fire-Eater
By Theodore Sedgwick Fay (1807–1898)
 
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1807. Died in Berlin, Germany, 1898. Norman Leslie. 1835.—Revised Edition. 1869.]

“I HAVE myself,” said Kreutzner, “witnessed many duels. But we Europeans are not so blood-thirsty as you moral Americans. A duel seldom occurs except among military men and students; occasionally among noblemen or high governmental officials. And when it does occur it is less inspired by a desire to kill. Even students take care to avoid fatal results. We students call it Paukerei, and look upon it as a sort of frolic. We don’t use the bowie-knife, scarcely the pistol. Our little matters are generally settled with the sword. Any poltroon may pull a trigger, but it requires courage and nerve to manage the steel. When I was at the University of Heidelberg, there used to be a duel nearly every day. The slightest cause, or no cause at all, and—crack! there they stood—plunge and parry, cut and thrust—till a cheek was laid open or a nose chopped off.”
  1
  “The ruffians!” exclaimed Norman.  2
  “Pooh!” said Kreutzner, “only fine young boys letting off their steam. The story I promised is a tradition of past times which had not yet been forgotten when I was at the University. There was once, says the tradition, a nobleman, Baron von Mentz, of high rank in the Empire, belonging to a family, so the story goes, all the male members of which had rendered themselves conspicuous by their brutality. His father was a particularly distinguished man—distinguished by the absence of every virtue and the presence of every vice. He had a strong castle near the University and made himself so formidable to the whole country round; and had, moreover, from certain causes, so great an influence with the Emperor that, either from fear of the consequences to themselves or to their friends, most people found it prudent not to offend him. There was, on the continent of Europe, but one ruffian who surpassed him in every attribute of a scoundrel—that was his son.  3
  “What the father was in public, the son was in private. What the old cock was in the Empire, the young cock was in the University. Disgusted by the proceedings of these two, many young men abandoned Heidelberg. None remained except a set who were willing to receive this boisterous and desperate fellow for their leader. He had thus long exercised his insolent despotism with impunity. His preëminence was maintained not only by boldness and personal strength, but by extraordinary skill in the art of fencing, and, like your friend Clairmont, a power to place a pistol ball, at any supposable distance, just where he pleased. This is a very awkward sort of fellow to meet in a quarrel. One—two—three—crack! and good-bye to you. Strange as it may appear, he was in great favor with the ladies. They found a beauty in the huge mustaches, half a foot long, twisted under his nose; they liked a certain air of homage which he always assumed in their presence. This fellow, who made every one bow down to him, they liked to see bow down to them. As he admired every handsome girl, it was rather embarrassing for any other student to have a sweetheart. One lady, above all the rest, was honored with his particular admiration—Gertrude, the beautiful daughter of the neighboring Baron von Rosenhain. That Mentz was her adorer he himself proclaimed on all occasions, and he did not conceal his opinion that his admiration was not likely to be wasted. As for a rival, no one thought of such a thing.  4
  “At last a young stranger entered the University, in every respect a contrast to Mentz. Slender, delicate, boyish, graceful, intelligent, very handsome—his quiet, shy habits caused many to think one might take a liberty without danger. He would rescue a fly from a cup of water, when he saw the little fellow in trouble. He would not let any one kill a bird, if he could help it. He seemed far more inclined to study than either to drink or fight. While devoting himself to philosophy and science, he had acquired the art of painting; and he had not long been at Heidelberg before it was ascertained that he had painted a most charming portrait of the lovely Gertrude; and had happily succeeded in giving to her large eyes an expression of tenderness which it was thought very strange they should exhibit during the tiresome process of sitting for her portrait to an insignificant student.  5
  “Suddenly a change was observed in Arnold. He became sullen, moody, melancholy. He plunged into debauchery. He then surprised every one by giving a splendid fête, inviting all his acquaintance except Mentz. The omission was significant. Mentz himself did not believe it, and sent a friend to say he presumed it was accidental. The answer was short and sweet—‘Not accidental—intentional.’ On receiving this information, Mentz discovered, but could scarcely believe his own ears, that the girlish youth intended to beard him. The dove about to attack the vulture! Ho! ho! ho!  6
  “‘By the bones of my father!’ cried the ruffian, ‘I will be present at his fête. And yet more! I will make him drink my health. And still more, if he hesitate, I will make him drink it on his knees.’  7
  “Arnold was informed of this threat.  8
  “‘Well,’ he said, ‘let him come. He shall find a welcome befitting such a guest.’  9
  “The company assembled. The table was filled with a single exception. One seat remained vacant. Upon it was a paper, inscribed: ‘For the uninvited guest!’  10
  “The fête was nearly concluded, when Mentz entered the hall. He occupied the vacant seat with a frown. Curiosity and interest rose to their height. Arnold calm and tranquil—Mentz with a thunder-cloud on his brow which grew darker and darker every moment. Arnold took no notice of the threatening intruder, but did the honors of the board with perfect ease and good humor. Suddenly a student, Carl von Klipphausen—one of Mentz’s minions—rose and said:  11
  “‘I propose the health of Baron von Mentz.’  12
  “The goblets were all quaffed except one. That of Arnold stood untouched.  13
  “‘One cup has not been emptied,’ cried Mentz. ‘I will make the owner swallow it, if I have to pour it down his throat with my own hand.’  14
  “Several friendly voices, in the neighborhood of the young Arnold, were heard recommending him to empty the cup; reminding him of the wonderful skill of Mentz both with sword and pistol. ‘Refrain thy foot from this brawl,’ was the general advice. ‘Drink the cup and be done with it. Drink! That is the best!’  15
  “While these suggestions were uttered in hasty whispers, the youth remained silent.  16
  “‘Gentlemen,’ he said at length, ‘I have not yet been long enough at your University to learn whether scenes of this kind are got up in earnest or in jest. If in jest, I have now enough of it. If in earnest, I will simply remark that no one but a ruffian would come to a banquet uninvited; and no one but a coward and a scoundrel would attempt to bully the host.’  17
  “‘Art thou speaking of me?’ cried Mentz.  18
  “‘I am speaking of thee,’ replied the youth in the mildest possible tone, ‘and I have yet more to say.’  19
  “‘By the bones of my father!’ said Mentz, resorting again to a favorite oath. ‘But stop,’ he continued, ‘I have pity on thy young head and inexperienced hand. Thou art heated with wine. Thou knowest not what thou dost. Take the goblet and drink. Why should I shed thy blood, poor boy!’  20
  “What was the astonishment of all, when Arnold, as if cowed by his deadly foe, rose, took the cup, slowly approached the seat of his insulter, and raised the goblet in the air as if about to pronounce the toast.  21
  “A smile of savage triumph distorted the features of Mentz. He shouted with a hoarse and drunken laugh:  22
  “‘Drink deep! Drink quick! Ha! ha! ha! Otherwise, thou knowest, I have made a vow to make thee drink on thy knees!’  23
  “Arnold did not drink. He waited a moment, till not a murmur broke the silence, and then said:  24
  “‘Thou drunken, bragging bully! Thou hast lorded it long enough over the weak. Thou hast trampled too long upon the defenceless. Thus I yield to thy threats. Thus I drink thy health.’  25
  “As he spoke he dashed the contents of his goblet full into the face of Mentz, then hurled the goblet itself at the same mark. Mentz staggered a few paces back. The shining liquor dripped from his clothes and features, and a stream of blood trickled down his forehead.  26
  “Never was an assembly more astonished. At first the act was greeted with an irrepressible applause, which, however, ceased almost as suddenly as it had arisen. For, though the unexpected drama had nobly commenced, it was uncertain how it might terminate. Mentz had inspired every one with such an idea of his courage and wrath that the instantaneous destruction of Arnold seemed the only possible denouement. Indeed some of the younger students almost expected that a bolt of real lightning would issue from his hand and lay his doomed enemy in ashes at his feet.  27
  “Nothing of all this. Mentz, bewildered and stunned with astonishment, grief, shame, cowardice and drunkenness, covered his face with his hands.  28
  “Arnold, tranquil as a marble statue, waited with folded arms.  29
  “The latent hatred which lurked in the students’ breasts flashed forth. A thrill of sympathy greeted the victim who had struck down the insolent oppressor in the moment of his triumph. Many exclaimed:  30
  “‘Brave Arnold! Noble Arnold! Canst thou fence? Hast thou skill with the pistol?’  31
  “‘No,’ replied Arnold. ‘I cannot fence. I have no skill with the pistol.’  32
  “‘Rash boy! what has tempted thee into this fury?’  33
  “‘Readiness to die rather than submit to insult.’  34
  “‘Die then thou shalt!’ thundered Mentz. ‘I challenge thee to mortal combat.’  35
  “‘I accept the challenge.’  36
  “‘It is for thee to name place and weapon; but let it not be longer than to-morrow night, or I shall burst with rage and impatience.’  37
  “‘Thou shalt not die so inglorious a death!’ replied Arnold. ‘I will fight with thee to-night.’  38
  “‘To-night be it,’ said Mentz; ‘though to-night my hand is not steady; wine and anger are no friends to the nerves.’  39
  “‘Dost thou refuse?’  40
  “‘No! but to-night is dark. The moon is down. The stars are clouded. The wind goes by in heavy puffs and gusts. Hear it even now. We cannot see to fight to-night.’  41
  “‘Good!’ said the youth; ‘then we will not go out. The moon and the stars thou shalt never behold again. We will lay down our lives here—in this hall—on this spot.’  42
  “‘There is no one here whom I choose for my friend,’ said Mentz.  43
  “‘No matter,’ said Arnold; ‘I will, for myself, also, forego that advantage.’  44
  “‘But—but—that is—we have no weapons,’ said Mentz.  45
  “‘Oh yes,’ replied Arnold, drawing a pair of pistols from his bosom. ‘I did not come here to meet an uninvited guest without providing means to give him a welcome. In all Germany there is not a better pair.’  46
  “‘Young man,’ cried Mentz, in a voice clouded and low, quite sobered by his new position.  47
  “‘Dost thou hesitate?’ asked Arnold.  48
  “Mentz desperately seized one of the pistols and said:  49
  “‘Name the distance.’  50
  “‘There shall be no distance,’ said Arnold quietly, ‘not even this table between us. Foot to foot—breast to breast. I came here to die, but not alone. Here I take the last leap. Here I throw away a life worthless and hateful to me; and here I drag down with me, into the black depths, this trembling, bullying coward. Now plant thy pistol to my bosom. I plant mine to thine. Thy puppet yonder—Carl von Klipphausen—shall call, one!—two!—three!—and at the third call we shall both be in the unknown world.’  51
  “He raised the pistol.  52
  “Mentz followed his example; but, oh shame! drew the trigger before the call commenced. His pistol hung fire, and, in his agitation, fell to the floor.  53
  “The self-possession of the bully was not increased by the deafening cries of ‘Shame! Shame!’  54
  “Arnold picked up the fallen weapon and placed it in the trembling, nerveless hand of his enemy.  55
  “‘Mentz,’ he said, ‘you are a base donkey in a lion’s skin. If you apologize for your uninvited presence you may walk out of the room a living man. If you refuse, you will be carried out a corpse.’  56
  “‘Had I not been heated by wine,’ growled Mentz, ‘I could—of course—never have intruded myself where I was not invited.’  57
  “‘Do you ask my pardon?’  58
  “A pause. Arnold cocked his pistol.  59
  “‘I beg your pardon!’ said Mentz.  60
  “‘One thing more,’ rejoined Arnold. ‘Can you favor me with the definition of a straight line?’  61
  “‘It is the shortest line between two points.’  62
  “‘Well, take that line between the point where you stand and yonder door. When I want you at my table, I will invite you. Good-night, sir! Pleasant dreams!’  63
  “Mentz disappeared amid uproarious shouts of laughter and numerous missiles hurled from the hands of his quondam admirers. He was never subsequently seen among the students.”  64
  “And Arnold?” inquired Norman.  65
  “The beautiful Gertrude had encouraged the boy with hopes which that morning she had confessed herself unable to fulfil. She had accepted the hand of a noble and wealthy general attached to the person of the Emperor, and would thenceforth sparkle as one of the brightest jewels around the throne. It was under the influence of this disappointment that the young man had resolved to destroy his existence with his own hand, at the conclusion of a fête to his companions. But Mentz’s message, arriving at that critical moment, suggested a new idea. He might turn his self-destruction to some account by confronting the audacious swaggerer, who with such impunity had trampled upon every opponent. The success of his scheme counterbalanced his despair, and restored his mind to its natural equanimity. Thenceforth he went on his way rejoicing, caring as little for the beautiful, faithless Gertrude as for the fire-eating, craven-hearted Mentz.”  66
 
 
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