Dispatch from the Austrian Court
Here is the second part of Jayne Barnard's wonderful post concerning a duel according to the infamous Hungarian Imperial Parasol Duelling Rules, popular in the Astro-Hungarian Empire.
An account of intrigue and death, by parasol duel, in the court of the Empress of Austria Hungary!
Part one is here.
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.
Ed: Warning to those of a sensitive nature that this document contains descriptions of possibly disturbing violence.
The Duel Begins
|A Hungarian Imperial Rules|
Parasol Duellist *
Ah! My fickle mind returns the question: was this to be a timed bout, as exhibitions were, and as I had seen the novices do? But no, my answer must wait upon events, for no word was uttered in all that vast, echoing room, so silent that the slip and pad of the leather-clad feet was clearly audible. The combatants moved around their perimeter, perhaps ten feet apart, parasols shifting in their hands, gliding through rudimentary Twirls or resting a fraction in a Plant. The first minute passed. I expected a chime, and a pause, but neither arrived. The silence, and the circling, continued, with a gradual decrease in the distance between the two. The tension was immense. I confess I would have daubed my brow with my handkerchief had I not feared to disturb the mesmerizing ritual.
By my estimate two and a quarter minutes had passed before the first contact was made. Fraulein F_’s parasol whipped neatly into an incipient Snub by Madame S_H_, leaving a two-inch slit in the fabric. Madame gave no ground, but followed up speedily with an attempted Ankling, which caused Fraulein to hop backward. More circling ensued, but faster, and with feints and parries almost a blur. My breath held for long moments, awaiting a decisive thrust, but still they continued. A Cut down Fraulein’s left sleeve exposed her sturdy forearm, and was returned to Madame’s thigh, leaving several inches of pale skin in view. (The woman has freckles there, Aubrey! What decent woman would expose that part of her anatomy to the sun?). Madame repaid that slash with one that drew blood – the Cut Direct – through the leather and into the skin of Fraulein’s meaty buttock. They fell back, circling.
When they closed again, Fraulein thrust out a truncated Snub. Madame Twirled into it, body and parasol both, and caught Fraulein a hefty smack on the cheek with the lead collar. Whether she was intent on a Cut Direct down the cheek, I cannot be sure, but by no change in demeanor did she betray either satisfaction or disappointment. Fraulein rubbed a hand over her cheek but briefly, before attacking once more, stabbing downward in a vicious Plant. Madame slid that foot neatly out of the way and, in a lunge that would have done credit to an Oxford fencing don, put the Coup into Fraulein’s upper left arm, to the full depth of the tip. Fraulein stepped unsteadily backward, clapping her right hand to the wound, bright red blood staining her fingers. The Doctor stepped forward.
I was more than ready to see it end there, for Fraulein was bleeding now in two places and her face was flushed, even sweating. This is no sport for ladies, dear fellow, and for a moment I seriously considered withdrawing from the hall. But the wounded Fraulein waved off the Doctor and saluted Madame across the circle, and the duel was on again. It was so fast I did not fully follow the events, a mere flurry of parasols before Fraulein fell to one knee with blood streaming from a second Coup, this to her right thigh. The Doctor rushed forward to examine her, but before he could reach Fraulein, she waved him off again.
Madame came toward her, hand out, and helped her to her feet in a gesture surely the equal of any honourable combat between men. For a moment the two stood, almost of a height, dark head close to burgundy one. Words were exchanged, I am certain, but what they might have been no spectator was close enough to hear. Fraulein’s face was grim as she retreated to the edge of the circle and saluted Madame a third time. She took two steps into the ring, parasol raised, and Madame, in a whirling motion unlike any I have seen this side of an Oriental jitsu combat, brought the rapier tip of her own parasol slicing along the exposed side of Fraulein’s neck. Blood spurted, a red rain across the polished wood of the floor. Fraulein slumped in mid-stride, crumpled to knees and thence to the floor, before Madame had completed her unorthodox Snub and come to rest lightly on her own two feet.
Around us no-one moved for a long, un-breathing moment. Then all the ladies got to their feet, myself with them, all looking to the Empress. That grand figure stood after a moment, walked forward and handed her cousin a flower. A white tulip, I think it was, and Madame accepted it in a hand that I was surprised to see was entirely unstained. The woman had just killed another before our eyes but the blood on her hands was invisible. Would that the blood spreading across the floor were likewise.
The Empress, careless of her fine linens, knelt by the body and unloosed the Fraulein’s dark hair. Taking a knife the Doctor held out, she cut one long lock and pulled it gently free of the net and the blood, and, rising, handed it formally to Madame SH, who bowed. Then the Empress rose and, with no evident distress at the horrifying loss of a long-serving Lady of the Bedchamber, walked out, trailed by her retinue.
With her departure, the remaining ladies stirred, breaking into clusters of whispers. I appealed to my previously informative neighbour but she all but thrust me into the grip of a different woman with a muttered command. She hurried off toward the body and began issuing gestured orders for its removal even while I was being hustled from the gymnasium.
To my relief, my new companion was one with whom I had enjoyed a long and satisfying dalliance a few years earlier. She was, indeed, a source for much of my understanding of the Empress’s ways. Once reaching the garden, and with the Empress well away, she loosed her grip upon my forearm and said, “I daresay you wonder at all that.”
I did indeed wonder. While men have been killed before my eyes ere now, never a woman. Aside to my shock and, I confess, dismay at the proceeding I had witnessed, I also wondered at the excellent pronunciation in English of my fair companion. When we were entangled, her spoken English was pleasingly broken and grammar variable. While I did not inquire as to whose pillow had supported her increase in command of my mother tongue, I did venture a favourable comment thereon. She only smiled, and walked on, drawing me with her.
As she was most forthcoming thereafter – verbally, that is – an unusual proceeding when speaking with a diplomat of a foreign power, I was further given to question what motive she might have for her unwonted candor. Herewith I render to you the conversation as best I can recall it, with the hope that you might discern from her words more of her hidden intent than was I able to at the time, being somewhat distracted by the preceding event.
I asked her if it was usual for a duel to be fatal?
She waved a negating hand. “The fatal Coup de Grace is legal, though rarely seen, and only after the opponent has waved off two lesser Coups in the same duel. Fraulein F_ in sight of us all waved off two killing Coups, and could have been in no doubt what Madame would do.”
“It is a shame, though,” she went on as we paced through the stiffly formal gardens toward the Hofburg, “for Madame must hereafter wear the Black Sash, and may never again offer a challenge save to another Black Sash. If one without the Sash dares to challenge her, Madame is obliged to inform them of the Sash and allow them to withdraw without penalty. But if they chose to go ahead, she has license to kill them if she wishes. Some choose that death, as indeed did Fraulein F_.”
This startling claim demanded further inquiry, which I was not long in supplying.
“She hoped to survive,” said my fair informant. “But I was with her during her preparations, while she wrote her final note to her lover. In it she said she would go silent to her death if need be, to give him time to flee.”
Why should her lover flee, I asked in much confusion. How did the Code concern the dear ones of the duelist?
The lady favoured me with a wry smile. “The Code says naught of lovers, but the Empire is not merciful to those revealed as spies. Especially Italian spies.”
Ah! She was spying for some Italian playboy. And Madame the cousin of the Empress must have discovered this. When I put this question delicately to my fair friend, she nodded, offering further confirmatory detail.
“The unwise remark Fraulein passed last week was only the pretext needed to silence her before she revealed considerably more serious matter.” My lady friend sniffed. “A fig for that Italian’s love. I do not look to see him at her funeral. He is doubtless halfway to the border by now, saving his own skin before hers is cooled. You will come to the funeral, won’t you? The Empress will present the Black Sash to Madame there.”
The Black Sash again. It is, as I learned at the funeral, an actual black dress sash, much like those worn by knightly orders and like them presented by the monarch, save that this one was embroidered at one end with black crossed parasols, and among the silken threads was woven the hair of the fallen foe. It is a visible symbol to all parasol duelists everywhere that they engage with Madame S_H_ at their own peril. I have never heard it mentioned in England; perhaps you could undertake inquiries there? Not that I expect any British miss or matron to make challenge to this foreign professor of applied botany, but one must not risk a bloodbath such as I have seen here to be perpetrated in England. Only think of the diplomatic nightmare if we were obliged to charge a cousin of the Empress of Austria with murder!
My convoluted diplomatic mind cannot but wonder, however, if the Fraulein’s grave offense was not strictly spying for an Italian, but whether she had, perhaps, uncovered evidence of a more concrete nature about the Empress and the Hungarian count, or some other man. That would surely account for the Empress’ lack of distress at seeing her brutally slain. If the Fraulein managed to share such a discovery with her Italian lover, it is a question whether he survived to reach the border. I may put myself to the exercise of discovering his name and whereabouts, if I can do so without pointing any needle of complicity toward my own abode. For what lever an Italian might find valuable, some day so might an English diplomat, although, in your ear alone, I would shudder to employ so crude a blackmail against any woman of rank.
Thus, dear Aubrey, an account of my recent shocking experience at this paralyzingly formal Austrian court. Attached in the usual cipher is the monthly report for HRH.
My love to Delia and the children,
*The Intrepid Rebecca Fogg (played by Francesca Hunt), one of the best spies of the British Intelligence. Cousin of Phileas Fogg. From the Secret Adventures of Jules Verne.
I'm sure Rebecca would have been an accomplished Parasol Duellist and likely a mistress of the Hungarian Imperial Rules as well.