They are all based on stories that flowed from the pen of one of
the world's most prolific writers, Raphael Sabatini.
He was born in Jesi, Italy in 1875 of an English mother and
Italian father, both of whom were opera singers who became teachers.
Sabatini was fluent in five languages by the time he was in his
teens, but chose to write in English ---his sixth language.
Sabatini began writing short stories in the 1890's. His first
novel, The Lovers of Yvonne, was published in 1902. But his
first real success was not until Scaramouche in 1921, which
held great appeal for a public still sour from the dreary horrors of
modern warfare, and became an international best-seller. The next
year, came his equally successful Captain Blood.
In all, Sabatini produced thirty-four novels, six non-fiction
books, dozens of short stories and a play. He died in 1950, at the
age of 85. Appropriately, on his headstone is the opening line of
Scaramouche: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a
sense that the world was mad."
Sabatini's work is often praised for its vivid portrayals of
historical characters, its profound sense of time and place. But it
should not be overlooked that Sabatini also had a solid understanding
of fencing, as evident in his Master-at-Arms (also titled
The Marquis of Carabas), published in 1940.
In the opening chapter of the book, Sabatini treats the reader to
a fencing match between Morlaix and a professional competitor named
Rédas, who is none too pleased with the popularity of the
salle d'armes of a man whom he considers an upstart. The
author's description of the event and Morlaix's canny strategic
approach to the encounter, rings true for any fencer of
This Quentin de Morlaix, whose peculiar mental equipment
and steady nerves enhanced the natural aptitude of his spare,
vigorous body for the exercise of arms, was encouraged by
Angelo-too well established and prosperous to be apprehensive of
competition-to adopt swordsmanship as a profession, so as to
supplement the very meagre income of his mother.
But there were other masters-at-arms in London who could not
view a fresh arrival in their ranks with the same complacency; and
one of these, the well-known Rédas, carried resentment so
far as to publish a letter in the Morning Chronicle in which he
held up to cruellest ridicule the youthful newcomer.
It was the more unpardonable because, Rédas himself was
in flourishing circumstances, and next to Henry Angelo's his
school was the best attended in Town. His criticisms were
accounted of weight; and crushed by them, it might well have
followed that Morlaix would have accepted the dismissal from the
ranks of fencing-masters which that abominable letter was
calculated to pronounce. Fortunately, the generous-hearted Angelo
was at hand to inspire confidence and dictate a course of
'You will answer him, Quentin. You will not waste words. You
will accept his description of you as a bungling dilettante, and
you will inform him that this being so he will the more easily
defeat you in the match for a hundred guineas to which you have
the honour to invite him.'
Quentin smiled his regrets. 'It would be amusing so to answer
him if I disposed of a hundred guineas and dared to risk
'You misunderstand me. That is the sum for which I will back
you against better men than Rédas.'
'It's a flattering confidence. But if I should lose your
'You won't have done yourself justice. I know your strength,
and I know Rédas', and I am content.'
So the challenging letter was sent, and its appearance in the
Morning Chronicle produced a mild sensation. It was impossible for
Rédas to refuse that trial of skill. He was caught in the
trap of his own malice. But he was so little aware of it that his
acceptance was couched in terms of scornful insult and garnished
with assertions of the phlebotomy he would perform upon his rash
challenger if his profession did not preclude a meeting with
'You will reply to this bombast,' said Angelo again, 'that
since he desires phlebotomy, you will gratify him by using the
painte d'arrét. And you will add the condition that the
match shall consist of a single assault for the best of six hits.'
The old master answered Morlaix's look of astonishment by laying a
finger to his nose. 'I know what I'm doing, child.'
After this jactancy Rédas could not refuse either
condition without rendering himself ridiculous, and so the matter
The courtly old Angelo, acting for Quentin, made the necessary
arrangements, and the meeting took place in Rédas' own
academy in the presence of his pupils, their friends, and some
others drawn by the correspondence, making up an attendance a
couple of hundred strong. The thrifty Rédas had been
inspired to charge a half-guinea a head for admission, so that
whatever happened his stake would be fully covered.
It was soon apparent that this fashionable crowd came with
intent to heap ridicule upon the presumptuous young fool who dared
to measure himself against so redoubtable a master, and to
embitter with their laughter the humiliation which they perceived
in store for him. For there was laughter and there were some
audible jeers to greet his appearance, in contrast with the
applause that had hailed the entrance of the formidable
Added to the memory of the taunts in his opponent's published
letters, this insultingly expressed partisanship filled Quentin de
Morlaix: with anger. But it was of a cold and steadying kind,
which determined him in the scrupulous observance of the plan that
Angelo had laid down for him, the plan at the root of the
insistence upon a single assault without respite until the best of
the six hits had been delivered.
Old Angelo, still youthful of figure at sixty and a model of
grace and elegance in an apricot velvet coat above black satin
breeches, acted as his pupil's second, and conducted Quentin to
the middle of the fencing floor, where Rédas and his second
The audience, composed mainly of men of fashion, included also
a few ladies and some early French émigrés; for this
happened in the year 1791, before the heavy exodus from France.
These spectators were ranged along the sides and at the ends of
the long barn-like room. It was a morning of early spring, and the
light, from four windows placed high in the northern wall, was as
excellent as could be desired.
As the two swordsmen faced each other, stripped to the waist in
accordance with the conditions Quentin had made, the general
chatter rippled into silence.
The advantages of wind and limb were certainly with Morlaix.
Lean and long, his naked torso, gleaming white above his black
satin smalls, seemed muscled in whipcord. Nevertheless
Rédas, for all that at forty-four he was twice the age of
his opponent, looked formidable: a compact, swarthy, hairy man of
obvious power and vigour. It was a contrast of mastiff with
greyhound. Rédas had discarded his wig for a black silk
scarf in which his cropped head was swathed. Morlaix wore his own
hair, dark chestnut in colour and luxuriant tightly queued.
Formally the seconds examined the adjustments of the arresting
point with which each foil had been fitted. It consisted of a
diminutive trident, strapped over the button, each of its sharp
steel points being a half-inch long.
Satisfied, they placed their men in position. The blades were
crossed, and for a moment held lightly by Angelo at the point of
contact. Then he gave the word and stood clear. 'Allez,
The released blades slithered and tinkled lightly one against
the other. The engagement was on.
Rédas, determined upon making an end so speedy as to
mark the contemptible inferiority of the rash upstart who ventured
to oppose him, attacked with a dash and vigour that seemed
irresistible. That it should be resisted at all sowed in the
onlookers a surprise that grew steadily as the resistance was
protracted. Soon the reason for it began to appear. Morlaix, as
cool and easy as he was determined, ventured no counters, not so
much as a riposte that might give his adversary an opening, but
contended himself with standing on the defensive, concentrating
his play in the deflection of every thrust and lunge whirled
against him in fiercely swift succession. Moreover, by playing
close, with his elbow well flexed, using only his forearm and the
forte of his blade, he met an onslaught that was recklessly
prodigal of energy with the minimum exertion of strength.
The counsels of Angelo had determined these tactics, calculated
to avenge as signally as Morlaix's powers might permit the insults
of which he had been the butt. The aim was not merely to defeat
Rédas, but to make that defeat so utter as to leave him
crushed under a recoil of the ridicule which he had used so
lavishly. Therefore, whilst taking no risks, Morlaix made use of
his every natural advantage, the chief of which were his youth and
greater staying power. These he would carefully conserve whilst
Rédas spent himself in the fierce, persistent attack which
had been foreseen. Morlaix calculated also that these tactics, and
his opponent's impotence to defeat them and to draw him into
counter-attacking, would presently act upon Rédas' temper,
driving him to increase the fury of his onslaught and thus hasten
that breathlessness and exhaustion for which Morlaix was content
maliciously to wait.
It came as he had calculated.
At first Rédas, whilst fencing with unsparing vigour,
had yet preserved the academic correctness to be expected in a
maître d'armes'What's this? Morbleu! Do we fight,
or do we play at fighting?'
Yet even as he spoke he was conscious that this verbal attempt
to save his face did him no better service than his fencing. Even
if he should still prevail in the end-and that, at least, he had
not yet come to doubt-his could no longer be that masterly
overwhelming victory upon which he had counted. Too long already
had his crafty opponent withstood him, and in the utter silence
that had now settled upon the ranks of the spectators he perceived
as astonishment that humiliated him.
Worse than this, there were actually one or two who laughed as
if in approval of Quentin's answer to his foolish question.
'It is what I was asking myself, cher maître.
Do not, I beg you, be reluctant to make good your boasts, since I
am here so as to afford you the opportunity.'
Rédas said no more. But even through the meshes of his
mask the baleful glare of his eyes could be discerned. Enraged by
the taunt, he renewed the attack, still with the same unsparing
vigour. But it did not last. He began to pay for the hot pace he
had made in his rash confidence that the engagement would be a
short one. He began to understand, and enraged the more because
he understood, the crafty motive underlying the condition that the
combat should be limited to a single assault. His breathing began
to trouble him; his muscles began to lose resilience. Perceiving
this in the slackening speed and loss of precision, Morlaix tested
him by a sudden riposte, which he was barely in time to parry. He
longed desperately for that pause, be it of but a few seconds,
which the conditions denied him.
He fell back in an endeavour to try to steal it. But Moirlaix
was too swift to follow him. And now Rédas, halfwinded,
weary, and dispirited, found himself giving ground before an
attack pressed by an opponent who was still comparatively fresh.
It broke upon him in answer to an almost despairing lunge in which
the master had extended himself so fully and with such disregard
of academic rules that he employed his left hand to support him on
the ground. A counter-parry swept his blade clear, and a lightning
riposte planted the prongs of the arresting point high upon his
A murmur rippled through the assembly as he recovered, with the
blood trickling from that superficial wound. He fell back beyond
his opponent's reach in another desperate hope of a respite for
his labouring lungs.
Actually Morlaix allowed it him, what time he mocked him.
'I will not further tax your patience, cher
maître. Now guard yourself.'
He went in with a feint in the low lines, whence he whirled his
point into carte as he lunged, and planted the trident over the
'Two!' he counted as he recovered. 'And now, in tierce, thus,
the third.' Again the points tore the master's flesh. But crueller
far were the words that tore his soul. 'Pah! They told me you were
a fencing-master, and you're but a tirailleur de
régiment. It's time to make an end. Where will you
have it? In carte again, shall we say?"
Once more Morlaix thrust low, and as Rédas, grown
sluggish, moved his blade to the parry, the point flashed in over
his guard. 'Thus!'
And there, as the fourth hit went home, so violently that
Quentin's foil was bent into an arc, the seconds intervened. The
master's ignominious defeat was complete, and from the spectators
who had come to mock him Morlaix received the ovation earned by
his concluding supreme display of mastery.
Rédas plucked the mask from a face that was grey. He
stood forth railing and raging whilst the blood streamed from his
labouring chest. 'Ah ça! You applaud him, do you?
Quelle lâcheté! You do not perceive how base
were his methods.' Passion strangled him. 'That was not to fight,
that. He has the younger heart and lungs. He used the advantage of
those. You saw that he did not dare attack until I was tired. If
this coward had played fair-crédieu!-you would have seen a
different end.' 'And so we should,' said Angelo, intervening, 'if
you had fought with your tongue, Rédas, or with your pen.
Those are the weapons of which you are really master. In
swordsmanship Monsieur de Morlaix has shown that he can give you
It was the common opinion, as the immediate sequel proved. For
after that assault-at-arms. scarcely a pupil remained to
Rédas. Those who had come to jeer at Morlaix were the first
to transfer themselves to his school, whilst such was the stir
made in Town by the affair, so swiftly and widely did it spread
the fame of the new fencing-master, that he found his academy
overcrowded almost from the hour of its establishment.
Few writers have demonstrated such a clear understanding of the
character of fencing as Sabatini. While all his books are a
guaranteed good read, Master-at-Arms stands out as
unsurpassed in offering a glimpse of swordplay that even the rankest
novice can understand and even the most expert can appreciate.