THE LAST OF THE NEW ORLEANS FENCING MASTERS


By Lafcadio Hearn


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Editors' Note

*Denotes 2019 editors.

*The note below was provided as introduction to the story's printing in 1921:

A unique chapter in the romantic history of New Orleans was contributed by Lafcadio Hearn some thirty-five years ago to the Southern Bivouac of Louisville, soon after defunct, which we here reprint.

This item, for some reason, has escaped the eyes of the several editors who have industrially dug out from various periodicals and journals, vagrant matter of this now highly appreciated litterateur. No collected volume, so far as we know, of the many posthumous publications contains this very interesting example of Lafcadio Hearn done in his best style. The character of Llulla, fifty years ago, was a well-known celebrity of the Vieux Carre and in his old age ran a cemetery on Louisa Street, where he held court in the matters of the code duello dispensing service before or after as required.

*Text (re)printed below as it was (re)printed originally in 1921.

I.

SENOR Don Jose Llulla, or Pepe Llulla, as he is more affectionately styled by his admirers, is a person whose name has become legendary even in his life-time. While comparatively few are intimate with him, for he is a reserved man, there is scarcely a citizen who does not know him by name, and hardly a New Orleans urchin who could not tell you that "Pepe Llulla is a great duelist who has a cemetery of his own." Although strictly true, this information is apt to create a false impression of some connection between Pepe's duels, and Pepe's necropolis; the fact being that none of his enemies repose in the Louisa-street cemetery, which he owns, and that he has never killed enough men to fill a solitary vault. There is, in short, no relationship between the present and the past occupations of the cemetery proprietor; but before speaking of the former, I may attempt to give a brief outline of the career of this really extraordinary character who won his way to fortune and to fame by rare energy and intrepidity.

Pepe was born near Port Mahon, capital of Minorca, one of those Balearic Islands whose inhabitants were celebrated in antiquity for their skill in the use of missile-weapons, and have passed under so many dominations— Carthaginian, Roman, Vandal, Moorish, Spanish, French, and English. His own uncommon dexterity in the use of arms, however, does not appear due to any physical inheritance from ancient Balearic forefathers, as he traces back his family to a Moorish origin. This assertion, in view of Pepe's chestnut hair and bluish-gray eyes, would seem untenable unless we reflect that those desert horsemen who first invaded Spain in the cause of Islam were mostly Berbers, kindred of the strange nomads who still preserve their fair skins and blue eyes under the sun of the Sahara—the "Veiled People," who are known afar off by their walk, "long and measured, like the stride of the ostrich." I can not say that Pepe is really a Berber; but he possesses physical characteristics which harmonize well with the descriptions in Henri Duveyrier's "Les Toureg du Nord"; and Southern Louisiana is full of surprises for the ethnographer. The photograph, which obtained so much celebrity, was taken more than fifteen years ago, and Pepe has but slightly changed since then. He is only a little grayer, and remains very erect, agile, and elastic in his movements; a man about the average height, rather vigorously than powerfully built. He attributes his excellent physical preservation to his lifelong abstinence. No liquor ever passed his lips, and his nerves still retain the steadiness of youth.

Pepe's imagination was greatly impressed during early boyhood by the recitals of sailors who used to visit his father's home at Port Mahon; and his passion for the sea became so strong as he grew older that it required constant vigilance to keep him from joining some ship's crew by stealth. Finally, when an American captain—John Conkling, of Baltimore, I believe—made known in Port Mahon that he wanted an intelligent Spanish lad on his vessel, Pepe's parents deemed it best to allow their son to ship as cabin-boy. He remained several years with the captain, who became attached to him, and attempted to send him to a school to study navigation, in the hope of making a fine sailor of him. But the boy found himself unable to endure the constraints of study; ran away and shipped as a common seaman. He went with whalers to the antarctic zone, and with slavers to the West African coast, and after voyaging in all parts of the world, entered the service of some merchant company whose vessels plied between New Orleans and Havana. At last he resolved to abandon the sea, and to settle in New Orleans in the employ of a Spaniard named Biosca, proprietor of a ballroom and cafe. Being a very sinewy, determined youth, Pepe was entrusted with the hazardous duty of maintaining order; and, after a few unpleasant little experiences, the disorderly element of the time recognized they had found a master, and the peace of Biosca's establishment ceased to be disturbed.

Pepe soon began to visit the popular fencing-schools of New Orleans. He was already a consummate master in the use of the knife (what thoroughbred Spaniard is not?) but he soon astonished the best Tireurs by his skill with the foils.

At that time fencing was a fashionable amusement. It was the pride of a Creole gentleman to be known as a fine swordsman. Most of the Creole youths educated in Paris have learned the art under great masters; but even these desired to maintain their skill by frequent visits to the Salles d'Armes at home. Indeed, fencing was something more than a mere amusement; it was almost a necessity. In New Orleans, as Paris, the passions of society were regulated if not restrained by the duel; and the sword was considered the proper weapon with which gentlemen should settle certain disputes. But the custom of dueling prevailed in New Orleans to an extent unparalleled in France since the period of the Revolution. Creole society in Louisiana was an aristocratic and feudal organization based upon slavery. Planters and merchants lived and reigned like princes; the habit of command and the pride of power developed characters of singular inflexibility; passions, tropicalized under this strong sun of ours, assumed a violence unknown in calmer France and the influences of combined wealth and leisure aided to ferment them. Three or four duels a day were common; this number was often exceeded; and the young men seemed anxious to fight for the mere ferocious pleasure of fighting.

A friend tells me this queer reminiscence of the old régime: "A party of young Creoles, slightly flushed with wine, are returning from an evening entertainment. The night is luminous and warm; the air perfumed with breath of magnolias; the sword is smooth, level, springy as an English turf. Suddenly one of the party stops, feels the sod with his foot, and, leaping nearly to his own height, vociferates, 'quel lieu your se battre!' (What a place for a fight!) His enthusiasm proves contagious; a comrade proposes that the party shall take all possible advantage of the situation. Sword-play begins, at first jestingly; then some fencer loses his temper, and the contest all at once becomes terribly earnest, to end only with the death of several participants."

The demand for fencing-masters was amply supplied by foreigners and also by some local experts, Maitres d'Armes whose names are now remembered only by a very few venerable citizens. The most celebrated were L'Alouette, an Alsatian; Montiasse, also an Alsatian and Napoleonic veteran; Cazeres, of Bordeaux; Baudoin, of Paris; the two brothers Rosiere, of Marseilles; Dauphin, a famous expert (killed at last in a shot-gun duel which he had recklessly provoked). Behind these fading figures of the past, three darker ghosts appear: Black Austin, a free negro, who taught the small-sword; Robert Severin a fine mulatto, afterward killed in Mexico, and Basile Croquere (I am not sure that I spell the name correctly), also a mulatto, and the most remarkable colored swordsman of Louisiana. Those of my readers who have not seen Vigeant's beautiful little book, "Un Maitre d'Armes Sous la Restoration," may perhaps be surprised to learn that the founder of the modern French school of swordsmanship, and the greatest swordsman of this century, was a mulatto of San Domingo, that famous Jean Louis, who in one terrible succession of duels, occupying only forty minutes, killed or disabled thirteen master-fencers of that Italian army pressed into service by Napoleon for his Peninsular campaign.

II.

It was under L'Alouette that Pepe principally studied; and the fencing-master, finding after a time that his pupil excelled him, appointed him his prevôt or assistant. In a succession of subsequent encounters the young man proved that, though he might have one or two rivals with the foils, he had no real superior among the Maitres d'Armes. Then he began to study the use of other varieties of weapons; the saber, with which he became the most expert perhaps in the South; the Broad-sword with which he afterward worsted more than one accomplished English teacher. With the foil, which is only a training weapon and allows of a closer play, fine fencers have been able to make some good points with him but with the rapier or small sword he was almost invulnerable. With firearms his skill was not less remarkable. Pepe's friends were accustomed to hold a dollar in their fingers or a pipe between their teeth for him to shoot at. Twenty years ago he would often balance an egg on the head of his little son, and invariably break the shell with a Colt-ball at the distance of thirty paces; with a rifle he seldom failed to hit any small object tossed in the air, such as a ball, a cork, or a coin.

L'Alouette and his pupil became very warm friends; their intimacy was only once chilled by an unfortunate accident. At a time when the bowie-knife was still a novel arm in New Orleans, L'Alouette insisted upon a public contest with Llulla, the weapons to be wooden bowies with hickory blades. Pepe had no equal, however, in the use of a knife of any sort; and L'Alouette, finding himself repeatedly touched and never able to make a point, lost his temper and made a violent assault on the young Spaniard, who, parrying the thrust countered so heavily that the fencing-master was flung senseless to the floor with two ribs fractured. But the friendship of the two men was renewed before long, and continued until L'Alouette's death several years later. Llulla, in whose arms he died, succeeded his teacher, not only of fencing, but also of the use of fire-arms. He did not, indeed teach the knife, but he has often given surprising proofs of his skill with it. A gentleman who is quite expert with most weapons, told me that after having succeeded in persuading Pepe to have a sham contest with him only a few years ago, he received the point of Pepe's mock weapon directly in the hollow of his throat almost at the very first pass, and was repeatedly struck in the same place during five or six vain efforts to make a point. None of the serious contests in which Pepe has engaged lasted more than a few moments; he generally disabled his adversary at the very outset of the encounter.

Although remunerative in those days, the profession of fencing-master did not suit Llulla's energetic character. He kept his Salle d'Armes, but hired assistants, and only devoted so much of his own time to teaching as could be spared from more practical duties. He had already laid down the foundation of his fortune, had brought out from Minorca his mother and brother, had married, and commenced to do business on his own account. Few men have attempted as many different things as he has with equal success. He built slaughterhouses and speculated in cattle; he bought up whole fleets of flatboats and sold the material for building purposes (working all day up to his waist in water, and never getting sick in consequence); he bought land on the other side of the river and built cottages upon it; he built a regular Spanish bull-ring and introduced bull fights; he bought a sawmill and made it pay, and finally purchased the Louisa-street cemeteries, after accumulating a capital of probably several hundred thousand dollars. During the war he remained faithful to the Union, declaring that he could not violate his oath of allegiance to the United States. After the war he bought the island of Grande Terre, in the Gulf (excepting, of course, the government reservation on which Fort Livingston and the Barataria Light-house are situated) a wild, wind-swept place, to which cattle from neighboring islands sometimes swim in spite of the sharks. In summer it is a fine pleasure resort for sea-bathers, and Pepe could never wholly separate himself from the sea.

During all those years Pepe kept his fencing school, but rather as a recreation than as a money-making establishment. He is now the last of the old fencing-masters, and although he has practically retired from public life will not refuse to instruct (gratis) pupils introduced to him by personal friends. For nearly half a century he was the confidant and trainer of New Orleans duelists, and figured as second in more than a hundred encounters. The duello is now almost obsolete in the South; and Creole New Orleans is yielding in this respect to the influences of Americanization. It is fully three years since Pepe's services were last called into requisition.

While his formidable reputation as an expert often secured him against difficulties and dangers to which another in his position would have been exposed, it did not save him from the necessity of having some twenty or more affairs of his own. In half a score of these affairs his antagonists weakened at the last moment, either apologizing on the field or failing to appear at all, and only after having attempted to take every advantage attached to their privilege of the choice of weapons. One individual proposed to fight with poinards in a dark room; another with knives inside a sugar hogshead; another wanted a duel with Colt revolvers, each of the principals to hold one end of the same pocket-handkerchief; another proposed that lots should be drawn for two pistols—one empty and the other loaded; and a Cuban, believing no such weapons procurable in New Orleans, proposed to fight with machetes; but, to the horror of the man, Pepe forthwith produced two machetes, and proposed to settle the difficulty then and there, a proposal which resulted in the Cuban's sudden disappearance. Only once was Pepe partly thwarted by a proposition of this sort, when some Havanese filibuster proposed that both principals and witnesses should "fight with poisoned pills," lots to be drawn for the pills. Pepe was willing, but the seconds declared they would not take the pills or permit them to be taken. Several of Llulla's duels were undertaken in behalf of friends, while he was actually acting in the role of a second only, and when one of the principals could not fulfill the duties of the moment. On a certain occasion the second of the opposite side, who was a German fencing-master, declared his principal in no condition to fight, and volunteered to take his place. "We accept," replied Llulla instantly, "but in that case you shall deal, not with my principal but with me!" Ten seconds later the German lay on the ground with a severely gashed arm and both lungs transpierced. It was seldom, however, that Pepe cared to wound an antagonist so severely; and although he has had duels or difficulties with men of most European nationalities, only two men died at his hands, after having placed him under the necessity of killing or of being killed. In none of his duels, even at the time when the duel regulated society, was he actuated by other motives than friendship or pride; and the only gift he would ever accept from the man whose part he assumed, was a weapon of some sort. But his admirers have treated him so well in this respect that he now possesses a perfect arsenal, including all kinds, not only of swords but of rifles, pistols, revolvers, poniards, cutlasses, etc., which forms quite a curiosity in itself. Since the war Pepe has had no personal difficulties except those assumed in the cause of Spanish patriotism; but these affairs first made him really famous, and form the most interesting incidents of his singular career.

III.

After having long been the headquarters of the Cuban filibusters, New Orleans was violently convulsed in 1853, by the fate of the Lopez expedition, and serious outbreaks occurred, for the results of which the Spanish government subsequently demanded and obtained satisfaction from the United States. It was Pepe Llulla who at that time saved the Spanish Consul's life, by getting him out of the city safely to the plantation of a compatriot. Pepe's own life was then menaced; and though none ventured to attack him in broad daylight, his determination and courage alone saved him from several night-attempts at assassination. After the Lopez riots the anti-Spanish fury died down to be revived again in 1869 by another Cuban tragedy. But in 1869 the United States garrison was strong, and there was no serious rioting. The rage of the Cuban revolutionaries vented itself only in placards, in sanguinary speeches, in cries of death to Spain! and in a few very petty outrages upon defenseless Spaniards. Pepe Llulla challenged one of the authors of the outrages, who, failing to accept, was placarded publicly as a coward.

Then he resolved to take up the cause of Spain in his own person, and covered the city with posters in English, in French, and in Spanish, challenging all Cuban revolutionaries, either in the West Indies or the United States. This challenge was at first accepted by a number, but seemingly by men who did not know the character of Llulla, for these Cuban champions failed to come to time, a few declaring they respected Pepe too much to fight him; yet at the same time a number of efforts were made to assassinate him—some by men who seemed to cross the Gulf for no other purpose. Fortunately for himself Pepe has always proved an uncommonly hard man to kill; moreover, he had become so accustomed to this sort of danger that it was almost impossible to catch him off his guard. Even gangs bold enough to enter his house or place of business had been terribly handled; and a party of seven drunken soldiers who once attempted to wreck his establishment left five of their number hors de combat, felled by an iron bar. Again, a Mexican, who had hidden behind a door to attack Llulla with a knife, had his weapon wrested from him and was severely beaten for his pains. The Cuban emissaries and others fared no better in 1860. Two men, who concealed themselves in the cemetery at dusk, were unexpectedly confronted with Pepe's pistols, and ordered to run for their lives, which they proceeded to do most expeditiously, leaping over tombs and climbing over walls in their panic. Another party of ruffians met the Spaniard at his own door in the middle of the night, and were ingloriously routed. Once more, hearing that a crowd of rowdies were collecting in the neighborhood after dark with the intention of proceeding to his house, Llulla went out and attacked them single-handed, scattering them in all directions.

At last the Cubans found a champion to oppose the redoubtable Pepe, an Austrian ex-officer, who had entered the Cuban revolutionary service, a soldier of fortune, but a decidedly brave and resolute man. He was a good swordsman, but considering the formidable reputation of his antagonist, chose the pistol as a weapon more likely to equalize the disparity between the two men. The conditions were thirty paces, to advance and fire at will. When the word of command was given, the Spaniard remained motionless as a statue, his face turned away from his antagonist; while the Austrian, reserving his fire, advanced upon him with measured strides. When within a short distance of Llulla he raised his arm to fire, and at that instant the Spaniard, wheeling suddenly, shot him through both lungs. The Austrian was picked up, still breathing, and lingered some months before he died. His fate probably deterred others from following his example, as the Cubans found no second champion. The spectacle of a solitary man thus defying the whole Cuban revolution, bidding all enemies of Spain to fight or hold their peace, evoked ardent enthusiasm both among the loyalists of Cuba and the Spaniards of New Orleans. Pepe soon found himself surrounded by strong sympathizers ready to champion the same cause; and telegrams began to pour in from Spaniards in Cuba and elsewhere, letters' of congratulation also, and salutations from grandees. There is something particularly graceful and sympathetic in Spanish praise; and in reading those now faded missives, hung up in pretty frames upon the walls of Pepe's dwelling, I could not help feeling myself some of the generous enthusiasm that breathed in them:

"Felicitamos cordialmente y afectuosamente al pundonoroso y valiente Senor Llulla; ofriciendole, si necessario fuere, nuestras vidas" (voluntarios de artilleria) "Los voluntarios de Cardenas admiran y abrazan al valiente Senor Llulla" (el commandante la casa) ... "Felicitamos al Senor Llulla por su noble, generosa, y patriotica conducta, ofreciendole nuestra cooperacion en todos tiempos y lugares."

Such telegrams came fluttering in daily like Havanese butterflies, and solicitations for Pepe's photograph were made and acceded to, and pictures of him were sold by thousands in the streets of the great West Indian City. Meanwhile the Cubans held their peace, as bidden. And then came from Madrid a letter of affectionate praise, sealed with the royal seal, and signed with the regent's name, Don Francisco Serrano y Dominguez, el Regente del Reino, and with this letter the Golden Cross of the Order of Carlos III (Carlos Tercero), and a document conferring knighthood, libre de castos, upon the valiant son who had fought so well for Spain in far-away Louisiana.

But I have yet to mention the most exquisite honor of all. Trust a Spanish heart to devise a worthy reward for what it loves and admires! From Havana came one day a dainty portrait of Pepe Llulla worked seemingly in silk, and surrounded by what appeared to be a wreath of laurels in the same black silk, and underneath, in black letters upon a gold ground, the following honorific inscription: "A Don Jose Llulla, decidio sostenedor de la honra nacionat entre los traidores de New Orleans." But that woven black silk was the silk of woman's hair, the lustrous hair of Spanish ladies who had cut off their tresses to wreathe his portrait with! It hangs in the old man's parlor near the portrait of his dead son, the handsome boy who graduated at West Point with honors, and when I beheld it and understood it, the delicious grace of that gift touched me like the discovery of some new and unsuspected beauty in human nature.