August 12, 2011

Illuminations: Billiard Balls at Twelve Paces


Go for the strings!

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our HybridBook series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

Throughout the history of dueling there have been some rather bizarre stories of uncommon duels. Sometimes these duels would involve combatants that thought the entire institution of dueling ridiculous (also known as: sanity) and so they would chose purposely unwieldy or ineffective weapons. Any duel at twelve paces involving fire bellows, pillows or herring would be both comical in appearance and 100% safe.

Sometimes a duel that was supposed to be more about spectacle than actual combat would yet result in deadly consequences. Two such duels can be found in the Illuminations for The Duel by Giacomo Casanova. One of them is a celebrated duel between two Frenchmen in hot air balloons. This airborne pistol duel stemmed from a desire to create a spectacle, but it ended in that essential presence of mind, or as Conrad put it in his Napoleonic dueling tale, “A homicidal austerity of mood.”

The sensationalism of a duel in hot air balloons is one thing but the stupidity of a duel with, well, let’s just say that one has to wonder about the purpose and aftermath of this duel.

Billiard Balls at Twelve Paces

On the 4th of September, 1843, in the commune of Maisonfort, France, two young men named Lenfant and Melfant, quarreled while playing at billiards, and agreed, at last, to settle their disturbance by a duel with billiard balls; after which they drew lots to see which one should get the red ball and throw first. Melfant won the red ball and the first throw, and the two at once took their positions in a garden at a measured distance of twelve paces from each other. Melfant, when the signal was given to throw, made several motions, saying to his adversary, “I am going to kill you at the first throw.” And then he hurled the ivory sphere with deadly aim and effect, for it struck Lenfant in the middle of the forehead and he dropped dead without uttering a word. The survivor was arrested and tried for willful murder, and convicted of manslaughter.

—from The Field of Honor: Being A Complete and Comprehensive History of Dueling In All Countries; Including the Judicial Duel of Europe, the Private Duel of the Civilized World, and Specific Descriptions of All The Noted Hostile Meetings in Europe and America by Benjamin C. Truman.

It is not hard to understand that a billiard ball can be a deadly weapon. They are heavy, hard, and perfectly shaped for throwing. Yet there is something of the fool’s folly in this story. Unlike a pistol or a sword, instruments expressly created to kill, the billiard ball probably never entered either man’s head as a potentially lethal weapon for their duel.

Oh dear… Sincere apologies for the morbid play on words.

Tomorrow we’ll move from the back half of the Illuminations for Casanova’s The Duel and spend some time on the great Venetian’s reputation.