I place it here upon this oaken stool high enough to be within fair sword-sweep. Have at it, Junker, and let us see if you can leave your mark upon it!'
'Do you strike first, sir,' said I, 'since the challenge is yours.'
'I must bruise my own headpiece to regain my soldierly credit,' he grumbled. 'Well, well, it has stood a cut or two in its day.' Drawing his broadsword, he waved back the crowd who had gathered around us, while he swung the great weapon with tremendous force round his head, and brought it down with a full, clean sweep on to the smooth cap of steel. The headpiece sprang high into the air and then clattered down upon the oaken floor with a long, deep line bitten into the solid metal.
'Well struck!' 'A brave stroke!' cried the spectators. 'It is proof steel thrice welded, and warranted to turn a sword-blade,' one remarked, raising up the helmet to examine it, and then replacing it upon the stool.
'I have seen my father cut through proof steel with this very sword,' said I, drawing the fifty-year-old weapon. 'He put rather more of his weight into it than you have done. I have heard him say that a good stroke should come from the back and loins rather than from the mere muscles of the arm.'
'It is not a lecture we want, but a beispiel or example,' sneered the German. 'It is with your stroke that we have to do, and not with the teaching of your father.'
'My stroke,' said I, 'is in accordance with his teaching;' and, whistling round the sword, I brought it down with all my might and strength upon the German's helmet. The good old Commonwealth blade shore through the plate of steel, cut the stool asunder, and buried its point two inches deep in the oaken floor. 'It is but a trick,' I explained. 'I have practised it in the winter evenings at home.'
'It is not a trick that I should care to have played upon me,' said Lord Grey, amid a general murmur of applause and surprise. 'Od's bud, man, you have lived two centuries too late. What would not your thews have been worth before gunpowder put all men upon a level!'
'Wunderbar!' growled Buyse, 'wunderbar! I am past my prime, young sir, and may well resign the palm of strength to you. It was a right noble stroke. It hath cost me a runlet or two of canary, and a good old helmet; but I grudge it not, for it was fairly done. I am thankful that my head was not darin. Saxon, here, used to show us some brave schwertspielerei, but he hath not the weight for such smashing blows as this.'
'My eye is still true and my hand firm, though both are perhaps a trifle the worse for want of use,' said Saxon, only too glad at the chance of drawing the eyes of the chiefs upon him. 'At backsword, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, single falchion and case of falchions, mine old challenge still holds good against any comer, save only my brother Quartus, who plays as well as I do, but hath an extra half-inch in reach which gives him the vantage.'
'I studied sword-play under Signor Contarini of Paris,' said Lord Grey. 'Who was your master?'
'I have studied, my lord, under Signer Stern Necessity of Europe,' quoth Saxon. 'For five-and-thirty years my life has depended from day to day upon being able to cover myself with this slip of steel. Here is a small trick which showeth some nicety of eye: to throw this ring to the ceiling and catch it upon a rapier point. It seems simple, perchance, and yet is only to be attained by some practice.'
'Simple!' cried Wade the lawyer, a square-faced, bold-eyed man. 'Why, the ring is but the girth of your little finger. A man might do it once by good luck, but none could ensure it.'
'I will lay a guinea a thrust on it,' said Saxon; and tossing the little gold circlet up into the air, he flashed out his rapier and made a pass at it. The ring rasped down the steel blade and tinkled against the hilt, fairly impaled. By a sharp motion of the wrist he shot it up to the ceiling again, where it struck a carved rafter and altered its course; but again, with a quick step forward, he got beneath it and received it on his sword-point.