Dumas as Musketeer

On this day in 1825 twenty-three-year-old Alexandre Dumas (Sr.) embarked on his self-proclaimed “career as a romantic” by fighting his first duel. Dumas’s memoirs are about as reliable as his historical fiction, but they tell the pants story in glorious, comedy-of-errors detail. He had issued his challenge to fight after quarreling with a soldier over billiards two days earlier. He confidently assured his seconds that he was adept with a pistol, only to find that swords had been chosen. Undaunted, he attended the appointed place and hour, and then a second hour, only to have his still-sleeping opponent postpone for a day. The extra day of preparation apparently did not help: because he had forgotten the braces for his trousers, they fell down. Angered and embarrassed before the bystanders, Dumas finally made his first pass only to see his opponent jump back, trip on a root, and somersault into a snow-bank. Feeling cheated, Dumas yelled, “I barely touched him!” — with which his shirtless opponent agreed, explaining that he had jumped in shock at the touch of the cold sword blade.

Dumas’s memoirs tell of other such episodes. Another duel was postponed for a day because his opponent had caught a cold while skating on the canal; a third had to be canceled altogether because his opponent lost two fingers in his previous duel. One quarrel with a politician resulted in a strategy that seemed sure to avoid misfiring: both sides agreed to draw lots, the loser pledging to shoot himself. Dumas lost and withdrew to another room, closing the door behind him. Long moments followed on both sides. Hearing a shot at last, the crowd rushed in to find Dumas unhurt and holding a smoking gun: “Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened. I missed.”

Dumas’s tales of The Three Musketeers seem to be inspired by his own frustrated or misfired romanticism. When we meet D’Artagnan we are told to imagine a young Don Quixote, and in his first attempt at dueling he, too, is humiliated: big-city toughs beat him to the point of fainting, break his father’s sword in half and tell him to ride his funny horse back to the farm from whence he came.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.