A Whitecliff Christmas
and "The Great Duel"

One of Selma and my hobbies is murder mystery weekends, several of which we've done with an informal group called "The Usual Suspects". The weekends tend to be very heavy on role playing and impromptu participatory theatre. Just about everyone who has been involved in The Usual Suspects plays fantasy role playing games. An awful lot of us are history buffs, costume buffs or both. As a result, most of the mysteries have been historical costume dramas, though a couple have been contemporary.

The mystery shown on this page took place on Christmas in a town called Whitecliff, near Dover, England in the year 1760. It was the scene of the one of the more notorious episodes in the Usual Suspect's mystery weekends: the great duel at dawn between Dave Scheifler and me. George and Roberta Berry who write and run the weekends often include some little spectacle for the entertainment of the players. Dave and I have more than once been foolhardy enough to star in these little escapades. The duel was our first match. (Perhaps some day I'll do a page on "THe Great Escape", our second.)

Ann Broomhead has supplied a few pictures, which I scanned and tidied up in Photoshop. Each of the GIFs here is linked to a larger JPEG. The GIFs are about 30K each, and the JPEGS range from 40 to 75K. The first JPEG is the largest.

The first picture shows Selma and me together, and is clearly posed as our characters had almost nothing to do with each other. Walking in the background, enjoying his pipe you can see Jon Callas, quite likely in character (as Geoffrey Acton). Since it was us, the players, that posed for the picture and not our characters, who must be assumed to be doing something else at the time, he is acting as if we and the photographer aren't even there. I believe this picture was taken quite early Friday evening, possibly before my character had even arrived.

The second was probably taken on Friday evening, as the make-up seems to be at its best. The first evening is typically when we see the best make-up jobs. It shows six of the cast members.

Back Row
Player Character
Rob Spence Dr. William St. Jean
Jim Burrows Patrick Mallory
Anton Chernoff Ezekiel Freeman
Patrick's friend from the colonies
Seated on the Couch
Player Character
Cathy Bence Amity Waltham, Patrick's beloved
who turns out to be his half-sister
Ann Broomhead Charity Goodbody
Marty Spence Honor St. Jean

Anton and I are standing at about the spot where Dave Scheifler and I staged the encounter that lead to the duel. As is often the case with pre-arranged bits of business, it went almost as planned. Dave's character, Jonathan Dashwood, was secretly a professional duelist who was supposed to trick me into a duel in which he could kill me. We were supposed to have a fiery argument ending in a challenge. As it turned out, we both gestured angrily with our "wine" glasses (which fortunately contained ice water) at exactly the same instant. They crashed together and shattered sending water, ice and glass shards flying all around us. We worked it into the exchange of insults making for a much more dramatic scene than had been originally planned.

Shortly after the challenge the first snow storm of the year took us by surprise, and when we rose at dawn for the duel (dawn in this case was played by 8:30AM, as it is vital that you get a moderate amount of sleep during a weekend) we found more than 4 inches of snow on the ground. We'd practiced the fight many times in the preceding two months, but never on this particular lawn and never on snow.

The fight is another of those bits of business arranged in advance. Unlike the argument that lead up to it, however, the fight had been carefully choreographed and practiced repeatedly. Dave had studied fencing, including two weapon work, but he was several years out of practice. I, on the other hand, had never fenced at all. For me the fight was basically a dance routine to be learned. Dave designed a notation that we could both understand for scripting the fight, and we rented a VCR with excellent single frame and slow motion capabilities and every adventure film with a sword fight that we could think of. We designed the routine together after a binge of TV-watching.

Scripting the duel turned out to be quite an endeavor itself. All we had been told is that it should result from his Friday night challenge, happen early Saturday morning and result in me being injured. Neither Dave nor I knew much about each other's character as they both had secrets in our pasts that would come out during the weekend and they had never met before. Dave admitted to me that Dashwood was an expert with the sword and could be the master of any weapon or style we wanted. My character, the Harvard-educated wild colonial boy Patrick Mallory, on the other hand, was quite inexperienced. To keep the fight interesting, we decide that he had a natural and intuitive talent and a flair that made up for his lack of experience.

When the fight starts, Patrick is not at all sure how to handle two weapons. He has fenced, and perhaps even dueled, but always with just a sword, never sword and dagger. At first he is very clumsy with the dagger. After a while he begins to use it effectively, then when Dashwood's dagger tricks prove to be dangerous, giving him first blood, Mallory knocks the dagger from his opponent's hand and casts aside his own, and the duel continues with swords alone.

Dashwood is the clear winner by any measure. He draws first blood, the fight ends with him running Patrick through, and of the five "points" we assigned the two, he takes the first, third (totally disarming Patrick as payback for the loss of the dagger) and last. Patrick's victories are depriving Dashwood of his dagger and trapping his blade to the ground. By alternating "points", showing Patrick's growing understanding and fear of the dagger, and having periods of both two- and one-weapon fighting, we were able to plot an interesting duel. In many ways, the duel was a small play of five acts.

Because the duel would be fought on the grounds of the White House, an inn in Wilmington Vermont, we practiced it in several places, most of them different parts of my yard and driveway. We didn't want to count on particular terrain for footing in any of the manuevers or even just for remembering the order of the action. The weekend before the duel we found that all of the places we had practiced had become familiar, and that we were developing specific variants for each. We decided we needed another practice field. Since we both worked for Digital at the time we chose a secluded spot behind a row of trees at one of the facilities.

While you couldn't see us from the road, it turned out that a security guard doing his rounds could. The one who spotted us decided that the better part of valor was to call his supervisor rather than confront a pair of sword-wielding combatants. When the head of security for the site arrived, he recognized us both, but approached with obvious caution. We apologized and explained what we were doing. He asked if we'd gotten permission, and we said we had not, not knowing who you should ask for permission to duel on this lawn. He said he had no idea himself, but that it probably wasn't him, so we agreed to move on, having already done the routine three full times. I suspect that in all of DEC's history, ours was the only sword fight ever broken up by security.

Thanks to having practiced it in several different locales and types of terrain, the snow didn't throw us off as much as it might. Also we learned during practice that change locales interfered with the cues that helped us recall the sequence of the exchanges. We prepared for that by inventing a simple gesture language. As I recall, it had four phrases: "Shall we try that again?" "Retry that pass." "Skip to the next one." and "Where are we?". Answering the last was left as a creative exercise. This turned out to be a wise move, as we used three of the four during the actual fight.

Despite having done the lion's share of the choreography, Dave completely lost track of where we were in the script a few passes after we started. He started a move from later in the script. Rather than responding to what he did, as I might've had I been a fencer, I started to parry the move he should have made. The whole exchange collapsed, and as agreed we broke off and began to circle. "Where are we?" he signalled. I responded by making a small gesture as if starting to do the parry that I would use in the next pass. He nodded, and a moment later we resumed. That little false start actually did wonders for our composure. We'd made a mistake, but we'd thought about that in advance, and had a contingency plan that worked. Knowing that gave us the confidence we needed to throw ourselves into the roles. I doubt anyone but Dave or I could spot the point where later on the roles are reversed and I'm the one that loses track and signals are exchanged.

Besides the poor footing due to the snow, we developed another problem. The moves we used in the duel owed as much to theatrical fencing and sabre or epee work as to fencing with a foil. We slashed and beat each other's swords aside and the decorative foils we used in the duel didn't stand up to the pounding as well as the foils we'd rented for practice. Between bent swords and slick footing we blew another pass in about the middle of the duel. "Shall we try that again?" he signed. "Retry that pass." I replied. No one noticed. A while later we sent for the sturdier practice foils and the fight continued.

By the end of the duel things were going almost too well. Despite snow, stage fright, and bent swords the fight was going great. The adrenaline was flowing and we were moving faster and more confidently than we ever had in practice. According to the script, the duel ends in a fast exchange. Dashwood presses me hard, beats my sword aside then spins around to attack me from my off side as I'm trying to recover. I parry too late to stop him and he runs me through.

Well, the way he did it was just a little different. Instead of merely beating my sword back he added a deft little flick of the wrist, disarming me. In the video of the duel the sword vanishes from my hand and is entirely off screen in a single frame. I didn't even realize it was gone until after I'd parried with an empty hand. (A parry, by the way, that was not late as it should have been, and might have interfered with the thrust had I had a sword. We were both very pumped.)

I doubt "The Great Whitecliff Duel" will go down in history as one of the best sword fight scenes ever staged, but it was a heck of a lot of fun, and turned out better than I had any right to expect.


July 14, 1996

Copyright © 1996, Jim Burrows. All Rights Reserved.