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CHAPTER V THE FENCING BOUT.
“On guard, gentlemen!”

It was the voice of Fran?ois L’Estrange.

The regular finals were over. As a finish to the evening’s entertainment, the announcer had stated that, in order not to disappoint those who had expected to witness a fencing contest, an arrangement had been made whereby Frank Merriwell, a guest of the club, would meet the club’s champion, Fred Darleton.

Darleton had appeared first on the raised platform and had been greeted by hearty applause.

Then came Merriwell, and the applause accorded him was no less generous.

The preliminaries were quickly arranged.

L’Estrange was agreed on as the referee.

“On guard, gentlemen!” he commanded.

At the word the contestants faced each other, and then they went through the graceful movements of coming on guard, their foils sweeping through the air. Simultaneously they advanced their right feet and were ready.

“Engage!”

The foils met with a soft clash and the bout had begun.

The great gathering of spectators packed on the four sides of the raised platform were hushed and breathless. They saw before them two splendid specimens of youthful manhood. Between them it was indeed no easy thing to make a hasty choice. Both were graceful as panthers and both seemed perfectly at home and fully confident. Frank’s face was grave and pleasant, while Darleton wore a faint smile that bespoke his perfect trust in himself.

Frank’s friends were all together in a body. Among them Harry Rattleton was the only one who expressed anxiety.

“I know Merry could do that fellow ordinarily,” said Rattles, in a whisper; “but I fear he’s out of trim now. Darleton is in perfect practice, and he will bet the guest of Merry—I mean get the best of him!”

“Don’t you believe it!” hissed Hodge. “Don’t you ever think such a thing for a second! Merry may not be at his best, but he is that fellow’s master. He has enough skill to hold Darleton even, and he has the master mind. The master mind will conquer.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Harry; “but I’m afraid.”

“Don’t be afraid!” growled Browning, also aroused. “You make me tired!”

Thus crushed, Rattles relapsed into silence, but he watched with great anxiety, fearing the outcome.

At the outset the two fencers seemed “feeling each other”—that is, each tried to test the skill, technique and versatility of his opponent. Both were calm, cool and calculating, yet quick as a flash to meet and checkmate any fresh mode of attack.

Ordinarily the spectators might have become impatient over this “fiddling,” but on this occasion all seemed to realize the fencers were working up to the point of genuine struggle by exploring each other’s methods. Besides that the two displayed variety and change enough to maintain unwearied interest in these preliminaries to the real struggle.

The eyes of Fran?ois L’Estrange took on a light of keener interest as the bout progressed. He watched the stranger from the first, having confidence in the ability of his pupil, and silently praying from the outset that Merriwell would not be too easily overcome. Satisfaction, not anxiety, took possession of him as he began to realize that Frank possessed unusual knowledge of the art, and was capable of putting that knowledge to clever use. The Frenchman continued to believe that Darleton would finish the victor.

The two young men advanced, retreated, circled, feinted, engaged, disengaged—all the time on the alert for the moment when one or the other should launch himself into the encounter in earnest. The foils clicked and hissed, now high, now low. At intervals the fencers stamped lightly with the foot advanced.

“Mon Dieu!” muttered L’Estrange, still watching Merriwell. “Who taught him so much!”

Suddenly, like a throb of electricity, Darleton made a direct lunge—and the real engagement was on.

L’Estrange’s pupil was led into the lunge through the belief that Merry had exposed himself unconsciously in the line in which he was engaged.

Quick as the fellow was, it seemed that Frank had known what to expect. He made no sweeping parry, but, quicker than the eye could follow, he altered the position of his foil by fingering and turned Darleton’s lunge. Following this with almost incredible swiftness, Merry scored fair and full in quinte.

L’Estrange suppressed an exclamation of displeasure, for he realized his pupil had been decoyed and led to expose himself. Too much confidence in himself and too little regard for the skill of his opponent had caused Darleton to give Merry this chance to score.

“Touch!” exclaimed Darleton, with a mingling of surprise and dismay.

He recovered instantly, a bitter expression settling about his tightened lips.

“So you fooled me!” he thought. “I’ll pay you for that! It may be your undoing, Mr. Merriwell!”

He believed Frank would become overconfident through this early success; but he did not know Merriwell, whose observation and experience had long ago told him that overconfidence was the rock on which many a chap has stranded in sight of victory.

Darleton was in earnest, now; there was no more fooling. He sought for an opening. Failing to find it, he tried to lead Frank into attacking and leaving an opening.

Merry pretended to attack, but it was only a feint. When Darleton parried and tried the riposte, his thrust was met and turned. Then Frank attacked in earnest, and his button caught his opponent in tierce.

Darleton leaped away, but did not acknowledge the touch. Instead, he claimed that Merriwell had simply reached his right shoulder, which did not count.

L’Estrange’s pupil was white to the lips now. He could not understand why he had failed, and he felt that there must be many among the spectators who would maintain that he had been unfair in claiming he was not fairly touched the second time.

The dismay of the pupil was no greater than that of his instructor. L’Estrange was angry. In French he hissed a warning at Darleton, urging him to be more cautious and to try his antagonist in another style.

Frank understood French even better than Darleton, and he was warned of what to expect.

Therefore when the Midwestern man sought an opening by “absence,” Merry declined to spring into the trap and expose himself. To many it seemed that the visitor lost a chance to score, but all were aware that he prevented Darleton from counting when the latter followed the “absence” by a flashing thrust. This thrust was turned, but Darleton had learned his lesson, and he recovered and was on guard so suddenly Frank found no advantageous opening.

Although his pupil had failed to score, L’Estrange showed some satisfaction, for he saw that Darleton was now awake to the danger of failing to cover himself instantly after an attack of any kind. At last the Omaha man knew he would have to exert himself to the utmost to defeat the stranger he had held in scornful contempt.

“Now he knows!” whispered L’Estrange to himself. “Now he will defeat Merriwell with ease!”

A moment later Darleton met and turned a fierce attack. Then he counted cleanly.

“Touch!” cried Frank promptly.

Harry Rattleton gave a gasp of dismay.

“I knew it!” he palpitated. “You see I’m right! He’ll win over Merry!”

“You’d better go die!” grated Hodge. “Frank has counted on him twice already!”

“Only once.”

“Only once acknowledged, but Merry counted twice, just the same.”

“Either time,” declared Morgan, “would have ended the affair in a genuine duel.”

“Sure!” growled Browning.

“But not in this sort of an encounter,” said Harry. “Here a touch is a touch, and Darleton is on even terms with Merry now.”

After this none of them paid much attention to Harry’s fears, as he expressed them. They were wholly absorbed in the cleverness of the two young men on the platform, who were circling, feinting, attacking, parrying and constantly watching for an opening or seeking to create one through some trick or artifice.

Three times Darleton sought to reach Frank and failed, but each time he prevented a successful riposte on the part of Merry. He was at his very best, and for a few moments his skill seemed superior to that of the visitor.

The shadow that had clouded the face of L’Estrange passed away. Confidence came to him. Once he had feared that his pupil might be outmatched, but this fear troubled him no longer. Darleton was forcing the work, but he was keeping himself well in hand and effectually covered all the while.

Finally the Midwestern man made a flashing cut-over and scored.

“Touch!” cried Merry again.

“I knew it!” half sobbed Rattleton.

A bit later the timekeeper announced the expiration of two minutes, whereupon Merry and Darleton changed positions.

During the first half of the bout, according to acknowledged touches, Darleton had taken the lead.

The Midwestern man began the second half by pressing Frank. He was satisfied that he could win, although experience had warned him that he could not win as easily as he had fancied before the engagement began.

For at least thirty seconds he kept Merry busy, and in that time he secured another touch.

Rattleton was almost in tears. He felt that he must leave the room. He could not bear to remain and see Frank defeated.

Darleton believed he had sounded Merry thoroughly and knew his style. He was on guard for every method displayed by the visitor up to this point.

But now, of a sudden, Frank attacked in a new line. He seemed to attempt a “beat.” When Darleton parried the first light thrust following the “beat,” Frank quickly changed to another point of attack and made a “re-beat” as his opponent met him. He followed with a second stroke that was quicker and harder than the first and reached home effectively.

Darleton showed a slight trace of confusion, but he was compelled to acknowledge the touch.

They now engaged in tierce; but in a twinkling Merry executed a double. He feinted a disengage into quinte. Darleton executed a counter, upon which Merry lifted the point of his weapon and circled round his opponent’s counter with a counter disengage, which brought him back into quinte, the line from which it was intended that he should be shut. Only by marvelously swift work did Darleton prevent himself from being scored upon.

Right on top of this Merry again executed the “re-beat” and scored.

The face of the Midwestern man flamed scarlet and then grew pale. His eyes burned with a light of anger that he could repress only with difficulty. Twice he had been outgeneraled, and he knew it.

In a twinkling the cloud returned to the face of Fran?ois L’Estrange. His lips parted, but he did not speak.

“I knew he would do it!” muttered Bart Hodge, in satisfaction. “Keep your eyes on Merry! He’s getting there now!”

Darleton realized that he was losing his advantage. He sought to recover by feinting in high lines and attacking instantly in low lines. In this effort he placed himself at a disadvantage, for Merry seemed to read his mind and met him effectively.

Again Frank scored, but, in getting away, he appeared to lose his balance.

Darleton followed up.

Down went Merry, falling on his left hand, and Darleton uttered an exclamation of triumph as he attempted to count.

With a twist of his wrist, Frank parried the stroke. His left arm flung him up with a spring.

Dismayed and annoyed by his failure to improve such an opening, Darleton closed in and the fencers came corps-a-corps.

Immediately L’Estrange separated them.

Merriwell won a great burst of applause by the clever manner in which he had extricated himself from a position that seemed almost defenseless.

L’Estrange said nothing to his pupil, but their eyes met, and something in that glance stirred all the resentment in Darleton’s soul. It was a reproof. He saw that the fencing master was disappointed in him.

A concentrated fury took possession of Darleton. He went after Frank as if thirsting for his gore. The savageness of his attack would have overcome one less skillful and self-poised.

It did not overcome Frank. On the other hand, Merry turned his opponent’s fierceness to a disadvantage. He was not flustered or worried. He met every attack, and in rapid succession he began counting on the Midwestern man.

Darleton closed his lips and refused to acknowledge a touch.

Seeing this, L’Estrange finally began declaring each touch as two for the visitor.

The superiority of Merriwell was now apparent to every spectator who was not prejudiced, and round after round of applause greeted his beautiful work.

Darleton thrust furiously. Down went Frank, but he dropped lightly after having retreated. His right foot had made a long forward step, and barely two fingers of his left hand touched the floor. At the same moment he thrust and reached his opponent. In a twinkling he was erect and ready, if Darleton sought to secure a riposte.

From apprehension and fear Rattleton turned to delight and exultation.

“Frank is winning!” he exclaimed joyously. “He’s the best man!”

“Shut up!” hissed Hodge. “Don’t let everybody know you had any doubt about it!”

“Of course he’s the best man,” grunted Browning.

The real truth was that in mere knowledge of fencing Merry was not greatly Darleton’s superior, but in strategy, originality and mastery of himself he was far and away the superior. As well as a finely trained body, he had a finely trained mind. It was this master mind that was conquering.

Merry had not only probed Darleton’s weaknesses in the art of fencing, he had at the same time discovered his weaknesses in the art of self-mastery. And no man who cannot master himself can hope to master others of equal mental and physical equipment.

Merriwell had perfected his plan of campaign, as a great general prepares and perfects a plan of battle.

This he had done after sounding the strength and limitations of his antagonist. This plan in one or two details did not work out as prepared; but, like a successful general, he was resourceful, and when one style of assault was repulsed he changed swiftly, almost instantly, to another style that surprised and confounded the enemy and brought about the desired result.

In this manner he soon turned Darleton’s attack into defense, while he became the real assailant. He resorted to all the arts of which he felt himself the master. The failure of one method of assault did not lead him to permanently abandon that method, although he quickly turned to some other. At an unexpected moment he returned to the first attempted effort, making the change when least expected, and, in most cases, was successful the second time.

His success confounded and infuriated Darleton, who had entered into the contest in perfect belief that the outcome would be applause and glory for himself. The confidence of the Midwestern man fled from him and left him trembling with rage and chagrin.

At first on realizing that Merriwell was getting the best of the match toward the close, Darleton had fancied he might put up such defense that the visitor would be held in check to some extent, thinking if he did this that L’Estrange, out of self-pride and disinclination to confess his pupil outmatched, would give him the decision.

But when the spectators began to shout and cheer for Merriwell, Darleton realized that his case was hopeless. In the face of all this the fencing master could not give him the decision.

From this time to the finish, Merriwell seemed able to count on his antagonist at will. Frank gave the fellow no chance to recover, but pressed him persistently to the finish. Before the engagement was over Darleton quite lost his form and sought to score by stabbing and jabbing much like a beginner.

The timekeeper announced the finish.

Frank lowered his foil.

With savage fury, Darleton swung and slapped him across the mask, using such force that Merry was staggered.

From the witnesses a shout arose, followed by a volley of hisses and cries of, “Shame! shame! Dirty work!”

Fran?ois L’Estrange sprang forward and snatched the bent foil from his pupil’s hand. Then he faced the audience and made a gesture that silenced their cries.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I make not ze excuse for Meestare Darleton. He met ze defeat by Meestare Merriwell, an’ ze loss of his tempare made him forget to be ze gentleman. Meestare Merriwell is ze very fine fencer. He win ze match.”

Saying which, he wheeled and grasped Frank’s hand, which he shook heartily, while the room resounded with a thunder of applause.


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