How a horse made an ass of his master. From The Witty Sayings and Doings of Mr John Wilkes, Esq.


In 1762, John Wilkes and Lord Talbot fought a duel in which, suspiciously, neither man was hurt. The ostensible cause was a particularly scurrilous libel written by Wilkes; that Talbot had in fact been the victim of one of his famous practical jokes was something neither man could admit to at the time. But in 1777, with the incident long behind him, Wilkes wrote a full account of the prank, meaning to publish it in The Witty Sayings and Doings of Mr John Wilkes, Esq. The complete manuscript has since disappeared, but pages from it are to be found randomly interspersed among the various family papers held in the British Library.


It has now been some fifteen years since Lord Talbot, earl of that name and one-time Lord High Steward of England, has ridden a horse. Just the mention of one will throw him into a rage, and his stables, once stocked with the finest horses in the kingdom, now lie empty. He will tell you that this is on account of his advanced age, but if you were to see him you would pronounce him one of the fittest men in the kingdom, fitter, in fact, than men forty years his junior. No, the real reason is an incident that took place at his Majesty’s coronation, and though Talbot blames me for the misfortune that befell him there, that is rather like the condemned man blaming the executioner for his sentence.


I should start by saying that Lady Talbot was a very proud woman and, as is often the case with such people, of an exceedingly reserved demeanour. Her husband’s infidelities were therefore a great trial to her, one that was rendered worse still by her having to bear them in silence. But she was also possessed of great cunning, and this, combined with an equal measure of patience, made her a most dangerous adversary. Talbot, then, should have been on his guard when his wife suddenly started to take a friendly interest in his career. The old king had just died, and Talbot’s first (and only) thought was how he might make a pleasing impression on the new king. Lady Talbot, in her new role as faithful helpmeet, had an idea: he should play as conspicuous a part as possible at the upcoming coronation, and it was thanks to her efforts that he secured the most conspicuous post of all: that of Lord High Steward.


As part of this office, Talbot was supposed to ride into Westminster Hall and announce the arrival of the king’s champion. Because all eyes, starting with their Majesties’, would be upon him, Talbot, not unreasonably, worried about the effect the hubbub might have on his mount. And so he chose the most placid horse in his stable: a young gelding that was, in its complacency, already going to fat. It was this horse he now began training for the grand entrance he was to make on it. Lady Talbot looked on, casting an appraising eye on his performance. “Yes,” she at last pronounced, “that’s quite adequate. But do you know what would be remarkable? If your horse were to withdraw from the royal presence by walking backwards—” “Like a proper courtier!” interjected Talbot, clearly very excited by the idea. “Exactly,” replied his good lady. Accordingly, Talbot spent the next several weeks training the horse to walk backwards, all the while picturing their Majesties’ delight at this pretty display of court etiquette.


The day before this performance was to take place I received a most unusual invitation. It was from Lady Talbot, begging me to come to her at once. I knew her only by reputation, but she already seemed to know a great deal about me, for when I presented myself she launched into a discussion of pranks, gradually narrowing the topic to the many I had already been known to play, and the even greater number that have been imputed to me. At last she came to her reason for summoning me: “What if I were to tell you that I intend to play such a trick on my husband that he will never live it down?” I begged her to take me into her confidence, which she now did. Tomorrow morning, just before Talbot set out, the stable boy was to add a peck of figs to the horse’s oats. “A whole peck!” I exclaimed. “But that will cause the poor brute to—” “Yes, I suppose it will,” she replied, smiling ever so faintly. “And if a certain faux-pas were to occur directly in front of their Majesties—”


“It would leave his Lordship in a decidedly bad odour—”


“Decidedly. But that is not all I have planned for him—” She went on to describe the singular trick the horse had been taught to perform and the use she meant to make of it: if someone—and here she looked fixedly at me—were to give the command to back up just as Talbot made his entrance, the horse would, in its confusion, wheel around and proceed rump first down the length of the hall. Naturally, she could not be that someone, as that would make her the sharer in her husband’s disgrace, but if someone else, someone who was renowned for his wit and who spoke perfect French besides, if that someone were to pronounce the word recule at just the right moment—the command, of course, had to be in French, and, because it was to a horse, in the familiar—if some clever prankster were to pronounce that word, very clearly and distinctly, mind you—


The following morning, then, I placed myself among the great throng in Westminster Hall, waiting for Talbot to make his grand entrance. When he at last arrived, he surprised us all by stopping just outside the doorway, as if uncertain of whether to go through with his part. The reason for this indecision soon communicated itself: the horse was producing a great fanfare of farts, squealing, rumbling explosions, as unstoppable as the sea and smelling (not unpleasantly) of figs. At last, plucking up his courage, Talbot spurred his horse on, whereupon I, having taken the precaution of concealing myself behind a pillar, gave the command Recule! just as her Ladyship had bid me.


They say that Prussian soldiers are so perfectly disciplined that when they are ordered to advance they will not stop until they walk straight into a wall, and so it was with Talbot’s horse: upon hearing the familiar command he wheeled around and proceeded to back his way straight down the hall, not stopping until he was within a few feet of their Majesties’ table. It was at that precise moment, with his backside to them, that the unfortunate animal emitted a fart for the ages, as loud and piercing as Dido’s lament, now in a major key, now in a minor, now pleading, now defiant, sometimes fortissimo, others piano, and, but for its source, strangely affecting.


Attend a meeting of the Royal Society, wait upon the king at his levĂ©e, enter the meanest gin shop in Bethnal Green, gather with the mourners at the funeral of your best friend, and you will find that people are still discussing that fart. It is the source of endless jokes, the staple of every wit’s stock of anecdotes, an object of endless speculation, a cause of controversy and faction. Some maintain that it was an act of God, others that it was an act of man. When the question of which man then arises, it is always my name that comes first. I admit to being more than a little flattered by the imputation, and if I have added to my reputation by saving Lady Talbot’s, are we not both the gainers?





On the dangers of underestimating one's adversary. A Domenico Angelo story




I, Domenico Angelo, universally acknowledged as the greatest swordsman of all times, have always considered myself to be a man blessed by Fortune, though it is equally true that I have not always been the first to recognise her blessings as such. And so when an Irishman called on me, demanding to match his sword against mine, I was merely annoyed and did not see his challenge for the opportunity that it in fact was. He gave his name as Keyes, as if that was all the introduction he needed, and being a great hulk of a man, he no doubt thought that he could make short work of a slight man such as myself. It is, I fear, a common misconception, and one I have never yet failed to correct with my sword.


I should add that the other thing that predisposed me against this match was its location, which was at the Thatched House Tavern, at the bottom of St. James’s Street. The place seemed more suited to a brawl than to a contest between two gentlemen, and so when I arrived, I was very indifferently dressed. Imagine, then, my surprise upon arriving to find that a small amphitheatre had been constructed for our match, and that the seats were already filled with men and women from the most brilliant circles of London society. My adversary—that great swaggerer!—was already there, swishing his sword back and forth and entertaining the ladies with descriptions of what he intended to do to the “presumptuous little foreigner.” He cast a disparaging look on my clothes, as if to say, “What else can you expect from his kind?” and ignoring my pleasantries demanded a bumper of brandy. Naturally, I refused to drink with him, not out of incivility but because it is a cardinal rule with me to keep all my wits about me when I fight.


The virtue of this rule was soon demonstrated. As my opponent was the challenger, courtesy demanded that I wait for him to make the first move. He immediately rushed at me, hacking at the air as if were attempting to cut a path through a thicket. I stood my ground, deliberately turning aside his lunges with the smallest possible movements of my sword, the point always aimed directly at his chest. I was egging him on—I will not deny it—and to show my complete contempt for him, I brought my blade closer and closer to his person with each riposte, but, what was even more insulting, I refused to hit him when I could. Then—and I also did this just to toy with him—I sent his foil flying with his next thrust, and picking it up, returned it to him with a bow. This was too much for the brute. Without waiting for me to resume my guard he made one last desperate lunge at me, which, naturally, I parried, and then, just as naturally, punished with a rapid succession of pinks—one! two! three! four! five! six!—one for each button on his shirt.


The applause! The rapturous cries of ‘Angelo! Angelo!’ The ladies wanting to touch my sword—

On the beauties of fencing. A Domenico Angelo story


Don Domenico Angelo (1717-1802) was by all accounts the greatest swordsman of his day. His travels took him from Livorno, where he was born, to Paris and finally to London, where he founded a fashionable fencing academy. His stories, which were legendary, were never recorded, but that does not mean that they do not exist.


You would be surprised how many people come up to me, the most accomplished swordsman of all times, and say: “I do not see the point of fencing.” To which I always say: “Not see the point of fencing! But perhaps you think it is nothing more than a way to kill someone? If so, there are better ways to do it. Your private soldiers, for example: their general lines them up, gives them muskets, and says, “See those stronzi over there? The ones that are pointing their muskets at you? Point your muskets at them and see if you can’t kill them first.” Bang-bang! Half the men on both sides fall down dead. Or perhaps the general gives his soldiers cannons instead. Again bang-bang! Again a massacre, only this time everyone’s blown to bits and there are heads and arms and legs everywhere but where they should be and you can’t go anywhere without stepping on brains and the pebbles that stick to your shoes aren’t pebbles at all: they’re some poor diavolo’s teeth.


But fencing! It is such a thing of beauty that no one ever objects if he happens to be killed as a consequence, provided only that the fatal thrust is made with proper elegance.


I myself once ran the Marchese di Montenero through with such art that his very last word, spoken even as the blood was spurting out of his mouth, was “Bravo!” Naturally, I accompanied the body back to the castle, where the marchesa was waiting. She examined the body in silence, not so much as a tear showing in her proud eyes, and afterwards, placing the shroud back over it, said: “Signor, I want to thank you. The wound you gave my husband, though fatal, was so clean, so perfect, that you have returned him to me as beautiful as when he left.” I bowed in acknowledgment of this pretty compliment. “Ah, signora la marchesa,” I replied with a sigh. “It is too true. Fencing is all about beauty.” Only the word I used was bellezza because naturally we were speaking in Italian. She, in turn, maintained that this was not always true: “What about the Spaniards? Their swords are nearly five feet long from hilt to point, and cut with both edges. A prodigious length, I am sure you will agree, and yet the men of that race always manage to keep them up, and it is to the face they invariably direct their first thrust. This, if successful, they follow with a thrust through the chest, which is instantly fatal. A mercy to the victim, perhaps, but not to the widow who is left to clean up afterwards.” “Ah, marchesa!” I cried, full of admiration, “I can see that you are a woman who knows her swords.” “Do I know my swords?” she asked, with all the loftiness that comes so naturally to a woman of rank, “if you will but show me yours—”


I should add that there is yet another reason why gentlemen should learn to fence: it does wonders for one’s stamina—