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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Frederick Marryat (1792–1848)

The Great Triangular Duel

From “Midshipman Easy”

JACK walked up to the boatswain, and, taking his hat off, with the utmost politeness, said to him:

“If I mistake not, Mr. Biggs, your conversation refers to me.”

“Very likely it does,” replied the boatswain. “Listeners hear no good of themselves.”

“It happears that gentlemen can’t converse without being vatched,” continued Mr. Easthupp, pulling up his shirt-collar.

“It is not the first time that you have thought proper to make very offensive remarks, Mr. Biggs; and as you appear to consider yourself ill-treated in the affair of the trousers, for I tell you at once that it was I who brought them on board, I can only say,” continued our hero, with a very polite bow, “that I shall be most happy to give you satisfaction.”

“I am your superior officer, Mr. Easy,” replied the boatswain.

“Yes, by the rules of the service; but you just now asserted that you would waive your rank: indeed, I dispute it on this occasion; I am on the quarter-deck, and you are not.”

“This is the gentleman whom you have insulted, Mr. Easy,” replied the boatswain, pointing to the purser’s steward.

“Yes, Mr. Heasy, quite as good a gentleman as yourself, although I ’ave ’ad misfortunes. I ham of as hold a family as hany in the country,” replied Mr. Easthupp, now backed by the boatswain. “Many the year did I valk Bond Street, and I ’ave as good blood in my weins as you, Mr. Heasy, although I ’ave been misfortunate. I’ve had hadmirals in my family.”

“You have grossly insulted this gentleman,” said Mr. Biggs, in continuation; “and, notwithstanding all your talk of equality, you are afraid to give him satisfaction: you shelter yourself under your quarter-deck.”

“Mr. Biggs,” replied our hero, who was now very wroth, “I shall go on shore directly we arrive at Malta. Let you, and this fellow, put on plain clothes, and I will meet you both; and then I’ll show you whether I am afraid to give satisfaction.”

“One at a time,” said the boatswain.

“No, sir, not one at a time, but both at the same time. I will fight both or none. If you are my superior officer, you must descend,” replied Jack, with an ironical sneer, “to meet me, or I will not descend to meet that fellow, whom I believe to have been little better than a pickpocket.”…

Mr. Biggs, having declared that he would fight, of course had to look out for a second, and he fixed upon Mr. Tallboys, the gunner, and requested him to be his friend. Mr. Tallboys, who had been latterly very much annoyed by Jack’s victories over him in the science of navigation, and therefore felt ill-will toward him, consented; but he was very much puzzled how to arrange that three were to fight at the same time, for he had no idea of there being two duels; so he went to his cabin and commenced reading. Jack, on the other hand, dared not say a word to Jolliffe on the subject; indeed, there was no one in the ship to whom he could confide but Gascoigne; he therefore went to him, and, although Gascoigne thought it was excessively infra dig. of Jack to meet even the boatswain, as the challenge had been given there was no retracting; he therefore consented, like all midshipmen, anticipating fun, and quite thoughtless of the consequences….

Mr. Tallboys addressed Mr. Gascoigne, taking him apart while the boatswain amused himself with a glass of grog, and our hero sat outside, teasing a monkey.

“Mr. Gascoigne,” said the gunner, “I have been very much puzzled how this duel should be fought, but I have at last found out. You see that there are three parties to fight; had there been two or four there would have been no difficulty, as the right line or square might guide us in that instance; but we must arrange it upon the triangle in this.”

Gascoigne stared; he could not imagine what was coming.

“Are you aware, Mr. Gascoigne, of the properties of an equilateral triangle?”

“Yes,” replied the midshipman; “it has three equal sides. But what the devil has that to do with the duel?”

“Everything, Mr. Gascoigne,” replied the gunner; “it has resolved the great difficulty; indeed, the duel between three can only be fought upon that principle. You observe,” said the gunner, taking a piece of chalk out of his pocket and making a triangle on the table, “in this figure we have three points, each equidistant from each other; and we have three combatants; so that placing one at each point, it is all fair play for the three: Mr. Easy, for instance, stands here, the boatswain here, and the purser’s steward at the third corner. Now, if the distance is fairly measured, it will be all right.”

“But then,” replied Gascoigne, delighted at the idea, “how are they to fire?”

“It certainly is not of much consequence,” replied the gunner; “but still, as sailors, it appears to me that they should fire with the sun; that is, Mr. Easy fires at Mr. Biggs, Mr. Biggs fires at Mr. Easthupp, and Mr. Easthupp fires at Mr. Easy, so that you perceive that each party has his shot at one, and at the same time receives the fire of another.”

Gascoigne was in ecstasies at the novelty of the proceeding, the more so as he perceived that Easy obtained every advantage by the arrangement.

“Upon my word, Mr. Tallboys, I give you great credit; you have a profound mathematical head, and I am delighted with your arrangement. Of course in these affairs the principals are bound to comply with the arrangements of the seconds, and I shall insist upon Mr. Easy consenting to your excellent and scientific proposal.”

Gascoigne went out, and, pulling Jack away from the monkey, told him what the gunner had proposed, at which Jack laughed heartily.

The gunner also explained it to the boatswain, who did not very well comprehend, but replied:

“I dare say it’s all right, shot for shot, and damn all favours.”

The parties then repaired to the spot with two pairs of ship’s pistols, which Mr. Tallboys had smuggled on shore; and as soon as they were on the ground the gunner called Mr. Easthupp out of the cooperage. In the meantime Gascoigne had been measuring an equilateral triangle of twelve paces, and marked it out. Mr. Tallboys, on his return with the purser’s steward, went over the ground, and, finding that it was “equal angles subtended by equal sides,” declared that it was all right. Easy took his station, the boatswain was put into his, and Mr. Easthupp, who was quite in a mystery, was led by the gunner to the third position.

“But, Mr. Tallboys,” said the purser’s steward, “I don’t understand this. Mr. Easy will first fight Mr. Biggs, will he not?”

“No,” replied the gunner, “this is a duel of three. You will fire at Mr. Easy, Mr. Easy will fire at Mr. Biggs, and Mr. Biggs will fire at you. It is all arranged, Mr. Easthupp.”

“But,” said Mr. Easthupp, “I do not understand it. Why is Mr. Biggs to fire at me? I have no quarrel with Mr. Biggs.”

“Because Mr. Easy fires at Mr. Biggs, and Mr. Biggs must have his shot as well.”

“If you have ever been in the company of gentlemen, Mr. Easthupp,” observed Gascoigne, “you must know something about duelling.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve kept the best company, Mr. Gascoigne, and I can give a gentleman satisfaction; but——”

“Then, sir, if that is the case, you must know that your honour is in the hands of your second, and that no gentleman appeals.”

“Yes, yes, I know that, Mr. Gascoigne; but, still, I’ve no quarrel with Mr. Biggs, and therefore Mr. Biggs, of course, will not aim at me.”

“Why, you don’t think that I’m going to be fired at for nothing?” replied the boatswain. “No, no, I’ll have my shot anyhow.”

“But at your friend, Mr. Biggs?”

“All the same I shall fire at somebody; shot for shot, and hit the luckiest.”

“Vel, gentlemen, I purtest against these proceedings,” replied Mr. Easthupp. “I came here to have satisfaction from Mr. Easy, and not to be fired at by Mr. Biggs.”

“Don’t you have satisfaction when you fire at Mr. Easy?” replied the gunner. “What more would you have?”

“I purtest against Mr. Biggs firing at me.”

“So you would have a shot without receiving one!” cried Gascoigne. “The fact is that this fellow’s a confounded coward, and ought to be kicked into the cooperage again.”

At this affront Mr. Easthupp rallied, and accepted the pistol offered by the gunner.

“You ’ear those words, Mr. Biggs? Pretty language to use to a gentleman! You shall ’ear from me, sir, as soon as the ship is paid off. I purtest no longer, Mr. Tallboys. Death before dishonour! I’m a gentleman, damme!”

At all events, the swell was not a very courageous gentleman, for he trembled most exceedingly as he pointed his pistol.

The gunner gave the word as if he were exercising the great guns on board ship.

“Cock your locks! Take good aim at the object! Fire! Stop your vents!”

The only one of the combatants who appeared to comply with the latter supplementary order was Mr. Easthupp, who clapped his hand to his trousers behind, gave a loud yell, and then dropped down, the bullet having passed clean through his seat of honour, from his having presented his broadside as a target to the boatswain as he faced toward our hero. Jack’s shot had also taken effect, having passed through both the boatswain’s cheeks, without further mischief than extracting two of his best upper double teeth and forcing through the hole of the further cheek the boatswain’s own quid of tobacco. As for Mr. Easthupp’s ball, as he was very unsettled, and shut his eyes before he fired, it had gone the Lord knows where.

The purser’s steward lay on the ground and screamed; the boatswain spit out his double teeth and two or three mouthfuls of blood, and then threw down his pistol in a rage.

“A pretty business, by God!” sputtered he. “He’s put my pipe out. How the devil am I to pipe to dinner when I’m ordered, all my wind ’scaping through the cheeks?”

In the meantime, the others had gone to the assistance of the purser’s steward, who continued his vociferations. They examined him, and considered a wound in that part not to be dangerous.

“Hold your confounded bawling,” cried the gunner, “or you’ll have the guard down here. You’re not hurt.”

“Hain’t hi!” roared the steward. “Oh, let me die! Let me die! Don’t move me!”

“Nonsense!” cried the gunner, “you must get up and walk down to the boat; if you don’t, we’ll leave you. Hold your tongue, confound you! You won’t? Then I’ll give you something to halloo for.”

Whereupon Mr. Tallboys commenced cuffing the poor wretch right and left, who received so many swingeing boxes of the ear that he was soon reduced to merely pitiful plaints of “Oh, dear! such inhumanity! I purtest! Oh, dear! must I get up? I can’t, indeed.”

“I do not think he can move, Mr. Tallboys,” said Gascoigne. “I should think the best plan would be to call up two of the men from the cooperage and let them take him at once to the hospital.”

The gunner went down to the cooperage to call the men. Mr. Biggs, who had bound up his face as if he had a toothache, for the bleeding had been very slight, came up to the purser’s steward, exclaiming:

“What the hell are you making such a howling about? Look at me, with two shot-holes through my figurehead, while you have only got one in your stern. I wish I could change with you, by heavens! for I could use my whistle then. Now, if I attempt to pipe, there will be such a wasteful expenditure of his Majesty’s stores of wind that I never shall get out a note. A wicked shot of yours, Mr. Easy.”

“I really am very sorry,” replied Jack, with a polite bow, “and I beg to offer my best apology.”