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CHAPTER I L’ESTRANGE.
On the way East with his athletic team Frank Merriwell accepted the invitation made by Hugh Morton to stop off at Omaha and visit the Midwestern Athletic Association.

Morton, a young man of twenty-five, was president of the Midwestern. He and Merriwell, the former Yale athlete, had met and become acquainted by chance in Los Angeles some weeks before, and there seemed to exist between them a sort of fellow feeling that caused them to take unusual interest in each other.

Merry and his friends were invited by Morton to witness the finals in a series of athletic events which were being conducted by the club. These contests consisted mainly of boxing and wrestling, although fencing, which was held in high esteem by the association, was one of the features.

In explanation of the rather surprising fact that fencing was thus highly regarded by an athletic association of the middle West, it is necessary to state that a very active member of the club was M. Fran?ois L’Estrange, the famous French fencer and duelist, whose final encounter in his own country had resulted in the death of his opponent, a gentleman of noble birth, and had compelled L’Estrange to flee from his native land, never to return.

As fencing instructor of the Midwestern A. A., L’Estrange soon succeeded in arousing great interest in the graceful accomplishment, and he quickly developed a number of surprisingly clever pupils. In this manner fencing came to be held in high esteem by the organization and was a feature of nearly all indoor contests.

At first Omaha did not appeal to Frank; but he quickly found the people of the city were frank, unreserved, genial, and friendly, and after all, a person learns to like a place mainly through the character of its inhabitants.

At the rooms of the Midwestern, Merry and his comrades met a fine lot of young men, nearly all of whom made an effort to entertain the boys. The visitors were quickly convinced that they were welcome at the club and that they could make themselves at home there without offending any conservative and hidebound old fogies. Although the Midwestern was cautious and discreet in regard to admitting members, and it was necessary for visitors to obtain admittance in the proper manner, once inside its portals a person immediately sensed an air of liberty that was most agreeable.

“The forming of cliques in this club has been frowned down,” Hugh Morton explained. “I have visited clubs of similar standing in the East and found them full of cliques and restless with petty jealousies and personal dislikes. We hope to suppress such things here, although I regret to say that of late the club has seemed to be gradually dividing into two parties. Thus far everything has been good-natured and unruffled; but I fear that I see a pernicious undercurrent. I may be wrong; I hope I am.”

The morning after Merry’s arrival in the city the Bee noted the fact, giving him half a column and speaking of him as “that wonderful young American athlete who had maintained and added to his reputation since leaving college, yet who had persistently abstained from professionalism.” A list of his contests and victories during his Western tour was also given.

At ten o’clock that forenoon Frank and Bart Hodge met Hugh Morton by appointment in the reception room of the Midwestern. Morton rose and advanced to meet them, smiling a welcome.

“Look here,” said Frank, when they had shaken hands, “I don’t feel just right about this.”

“About what?” questioned the Omaha man.

“Taking you from your business this way. When I accepted your invitation to stop off here, I didn’t expect you to waste your time on us. Business is business, and——”

“Don’t you worry. My business is fixed so it will not suffer if I leave it. I’m delighted with this opportunity. Yesterday I gave you a look at the stockyards and the city. To-day, you told me, you wanted to take things easy and just loaf around. I’m more than willing to loaf with you. And my business will go on just the same.”

“All right,” smiled Frank. “You know your own affairs, and we’re glad to have you with us. Bart and I were talking about fencing on our way here. We’ve been wondering how much we have deteriorated in the art since quitting active practice. It has surprised us—and stirred us up somewhat—to find the sport features in this club. Bart has challenged me to give him a go at it. If we can have a set of foils and——”

“Just follow me,” invited Morton. “I’ll fix you out.”

As they were about to leave the room a tall, slender, dark man of thirty-six or thirty-seven entered. Immediately Morton paused, saying:

“Mr. Merriwell and Mr. Hodge, I am sure you will appreciate the honor of meeting our fencing instructor, Monsieur L’Estrange. Monsieur L’Estrange, this is Frank Merriwell, the most famous American amateur athlete of the present day.”

The Frenchman accepted Frank’s proffered hand. He was as graceful in his movements as a jungle panther. About him there was an air of conscious strength and superiority, and instantly he struck Frank as a person who could not do an awkward thing or fall into an ungainly pose. His training was such, that grace and ease had become a part of his nature—not second nature, but nature itself.

“Monsieur Merriwell,” he breathed softly, “it gives me ze very great pleasure to meet wiz you, sare. I have meet very many of your famous American athletes. Eet is ze grand passion in this country. Eet is good in some ways, but eet nevare make ze feenished gentleman—nevare.”

“I agree with you on that point, monsieur,” confessed Frank; “but it fits a man for the struggle of life—it prepares him to combat with the world, and you know the success and survival of the fittest was never more in evidence, as the thing of vital importance, than at the present time.”

The eyes of the Frenchman glistened.

“Very true, sare; but mere brute strength can nevare make any man ze fittest—nevare. You theenk so? You are wrong—pardone me eef I speak ze truth plainly.”

“But I do not think so, monsieur. It takes a combination of strength and brains to make a well-balanced man.”

“And skeel—do not forget skeel. Eet is ze most important of all, sare.”

“Brains give ability, strength gives power to exercise that ability.”

“And skeel defeats ze man with strength and brains. Oh, eet does! Ze man with too much strength, with ze beeg muscles; he ees handicap against ze man with just ze propare development and no more. His beeg muscles tie him, make him awkward.”

“Again I am compelled to agree with you,” smiled Frank; “and I confess that I consider fencing the most perfect method of developing ease, grace, quickness and skill—attributes essential to any man who desires to reach the highest pinnacle of development.”

“You have ze unusual wisdom on zat point, sare,” acknowledged L’Estrange. “Eet is strange, for seldom have I met ze great athlete who did not theenk himself superior to ze expert fencer. Eet is plain you know your weakness, sare.”

Bart Hodge opened his lips to say something, but Merry checked him with a quick look.

“I have fenced a little, monsieur,” explained Frank—“enough to get an idea of its value and importance.”

“Zat ees goode. You take eet up at school—at college?”

“Yes, first at Fardale, and later I followed it up at Yale.”

“Ah! but you could not have ze propare instruction—no! no! Ze American instructor he seldom know very much about eet. He ees crude; but he have ze—ze—what you call eet? Ze swell head. He theenk he knows eet all. Oui!”

“That is a fact in many instances,” acknowledged Merriwell.

At this point Morton whispered in Bart Hodge’s ear:

“L’Estrange is started and he will bore Merriwell with talk about fencing, unless we find a way to interrupt it and break away. We must be careful not to offend him.”

There was a strange, half-hidden smile on Bart’s lips as he turned to their host.

“Let the man talk,” he said, in a low tone. “Before he is through Merry will give him the call. You may not believe it, but I doubt if the Frenchman can tell Frank anything new about fencing.”

“Oh, L’Estrange is a graduate of Joinville-le-Pont, the great government school of France.”

Morton said this as if it settled a point, and Hodge knew the man thought him presuming in fancying Frank’s information on fencing was to be compared with that of the great French master of the art.

In the meantime, all his enthusiasm aroused, L’Estrange ardently continued:

“You speak of ze brain, sare. When you fence, ze brain ees prompted to act without a moment of ze hesitation. To hesitate means to make ze failure. Ze fencer must be readee with hees wit, skill, and action, like ze flash of lightning. So ze fencer fits himself for ze struggle of life. He is full of ze resource, he is queek to detec’ ze strength or ze weakness, of an argument or situation, and he acts like electricity, sweeft and unerring. Zis make him a bettair business man zan other men.”

“Every word of this is true,” nodded Merry.

“In societee he is at perfect ease; in business he can stand ze great strain. His blood ees fresh, his tissues are firm and he has ze grand enthusiasm.”

“And enthusiasm is absolutely necessary for a man to make the best of himself,” said Frank. “The man who goes at any task with indifference is inviting failure. No matter how well he may think he knows his work, he must keep up his enthusiasm unless he is willing to see that work deteriorate. Lack of enthusiasm causes thousands to fail and fall by the wayside every year.”

“True, true, sare. I see you have ze enthusiasm of ze boy steel with you. You have nevare met with anything to dull eet.”

“Not yet; and I hope I never may.”

“To keep eet you should fence, Monsieur Merriwell. Some time eet may safe your life. Oui! Once since I come to zis country I hear a noise in ze night. I rise and go to discovare ze matter. I find ze burglaire. He attack me wiz ze knife. He was beeg and strong—ze brute! I see ze umbrellare in ze corner. I seize eet. I keep ze burglaire off. I punish heem. I thrust, hit him in ze face. I give eet to him hard. Soon he try to get away. He rush for ze door. I sprang between. I continue to administaire ze punishment. I make him drop ze knife. Ze noise have aroused ze rest of ze house. Ze police come. Ze burglaire ees marched to ze jail. Ha! If I had been ze athlete, like you, zen with hees knife ze burglaire he cut me to pieces—he keel me.”

“That was fine work,” agreed Frank.

“Not yet you are too old to acquire ze skeel. You know a leetale about eet now. That help you. Find ze French master and keep at eet. Take no one but ze French master. Ze Italian style is not so good. That has been proved many time. Ze Frenchman is cool and he stands on guard with ease. Ze Italian he will move all ze time. He jump here, there, everywhere. He crouch, he stand straight, he dodge. Every minute he seem ready to jump. He makes strange sounds in hees throat; but he is not dangerous as he seem. Did you ever hear of Jean Louis?”

“Yes; he was a famous French duelist.”

“Oui, oui! When ze French army invade Spain, in 1814, Jean Louis keeled thirteen Italian fencing masters, one after ze other. Zat profe ze superiority of ze French method, sare. Ze Italian believe strength is needed to make ze perfect fencer. That is wrong. In France manee persons of ze highest rank are wondairefully skillful in ze art, yet they are not remarkable for strength. Eet is ze light touch, ze grace, ze art, ze composure, ze ready wit that count.”

“How about duels at German colleges, like Leipzig and Heidelberg?”

“Oh, no, no, no! The German have a mixture of ze French and ze Italian method. Zey are fightaires, but zey count on ze strength, too. Years ago fencing was ze study paramount at ze great German colleges; but too manee students they are killed at eet. Ze most peaceable never was he sure of his life for one day. Later ze method change, and now eet is to cut and scar ze face of ze adversary. Ze German never have ze grace of ze French.

“You stay here, Monsieur Merriwell—you see ze finals? Well, zen you see my greatest pupil, Fred Darleton, defeat his opponent. Of Monsieur Darleton I am very proud. Oui! He is a wondaire. I belief he can defeat any American in ze country.”

Hodge made a protesting sound in his throat; but again Frank shot Bart a glance of warning.

“I shall be delighted to witness the work of Mr. Darleton,” said Merry. “It has been some time since I have fenced, Monsieur L’Estrange, and I know I must be very rusty at it; but you have reawakened my enthusiasm for the sport, and I feel like taking up the foils again. If I were to remain in Omaha any length of time, I would seek to become one of your pupils.”

L’Estrange bowed with graciousness.

“Eet would give me pleasure to instruct you, sare,” he said. “Eet would give me delight to show you ze real superiority of ze duelist, ze fencer, over ze athlete. You watch ze work of Fred Darleton to-night. Eet will delight you.”

As Morton led them away, he said:

“You got off easy, Merriwell. Once get L’Estrange aroused and he can talk a blue streak about fencing for hours. He’s really a wizard with the foils, and this fellow Darleton, of whom he spoke, is likewise a wonder. Darleton is not popular with many members in the club; but I believe that is because of his remarkable skill at cards.”

“He is a successful card player, is he?” questioned Frank.

“Altogether too successful. He makes his spending money at the game.”

“What game.”

“Poker.”

“Do you permit gambling for stakes in this club?”

“It is permitted,” confessed Morton, flushing slightly. “Of course gambling is not open here. We have a private card room for those who wish to play for stakes.”

Merry said nothing more, but he was thinking that the practice of gambling was a bad thing for any organization of that sort. It was not his place, however, to express such an opinion.

A short time later Merry and Bart were fitted out with foils, masks, and plastrons, and they prepared for a bout, both eager to discover if they retained their old-time skill at the art.



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