Anthony Egerton Castle (1858-1920) was a real Renaissance man; a multi-lingual scholar, historian and champion athlete as well as a prolific author of novels, short stories and plays, which often featured exciting scenes of swordplay.
During the late 19th century Castle, along with his longtime friend and collaborator, Captain Alfred Hutton, spearheaded a decades-long project to revive the forgotten styles of swordsmanship that had been popular in William Shakespeare's day. Learning from Captain Hutton's huge collection of antique fencing manuals, they reconstructed the swift, ambidextrous play of the rapier and dagger, the clashing fight of the broadsword and hand-buckler and correct use of the mighty two-handed sword.
As confirmed romantics, Egerton Castle and his wife Agnes co-wrote a number of successful historical novels in which fencing and dueling often played a prominent part. Here's an action-packed excerpt from one of their short stories, My Rapier and My Daughter, in which the Elizabethan-era swordmaster, Vincentio Saviolo, tests the fencing skills of his daughter's would-be suitor:
"Methinks," said the peerless swordsman, "I mind me now thou hast a very homely scorn for the newfangled rapier and its apish tricks. Despite all, shalt take lesson of Saviolo." Here with his dagger he parried a furious lunge; then, with equal ease, took a murderous cut upon his hilt. "Now, about those silken points of thine — it offends mine eye to see thee partly shorn. 'Twere neater to have none, or so it seems to me."
And, nimbly traversing right and left in front of his opponent, with the extreme edge of his blade he severed in quick succession the remaining points on the disordered doublet.
"These twain upon thy sleeve," he went on, bantering, "they have a lonely look!"
Now he evaded another stroke by the most unexpected incartade which placed him on his adversary's flank; and, upon the instant, sliced off yet another ribbon.
By this time Strange was beside himself with rage. The skill which could have traversed his body a score of times or more, which could have slashed his face and hands, was yet nothing to the skill which thus spared, yet left its scornful mark at every stroke and in touches as delicate as a lady's scissors. Better to lie weltering in blood than to be played with thus, defeated and yet protected!
"Draw blood, Saviolo! . . . Wound, kill!" he panted, "but leave these devil's pranks!"
Upon this cry he bounded like a panther — and would instantly have been impaled upon the despised foreign steel had not the master mercifully raised his point and contented himself with receiving on the joint blades of crossed rapier and dagger the cut that was meant to cleave him to the chine.
Then, in a trice, followed one of Saviolo's most precious "inclosings," the secret of which was imparted only in the inner sanctum and belonged not to the practice-room. Rapier and dagger were dropped, clattering on the floor; but, in the same second, the youth found himself disarmed and helpless, his own weapon, he knew not how, in his adversary's hand and its edge resting, thin and cold, on his own throat.
Castle's deep affections for the romance of "cold steel", the camaraderie of the fencing school and the works of Shakespeare also come together in his short story The Great Todescan's Secret Thrust. Set a few years after My Rapier and My Daughter, but much darker in tone, this tale plays upon the lore of the bottes secrete - supposedly infallible fencing tricks that were offered by many Elizabethan-era masters to those students who could afford to pay the very high price. The protagonist, Dick Wyatt, is a young English rapier fencer who travels to far-off Geneva in search of the mysterious Todescan, who is reputed to be the greatest living swordmaster:
The first impression was curiously unpleasant; and Dick was seized with an unexpected revulsion —a sense of resentment—as against something unnatural. He had grown accustomed to expect, oddly enough, a genial strain as inseparable from a great teacher of the murderous science. But here was a saturnine visage, with a vengeance! An unformed thought quickly took possession of the Englishman's mind: in practice with such an one, cunning strokes of fence would assume a new, gruesome complexion — would savour more of cruelty and treachery than of skill.
As a fact, Maitre Todescan's face displayed anything but cordiality at that instant. It was with the air of him who finds his time trespassed upon at a decidedly inopportune moment that he turned upon the visitor, looking deeply at him. Meanwhile with an engaging glibness, cultivated on repeated occasions, the youth fell to explaining his presence. For a spell Todescan listened in silence; then suddenly seemed to make up his mind to more graciousness. A smile found its way to his lips, without, however, reaching the eyes, that remained filled as with some dark and absorbing speculation: —
He was honoured. Yes; he would, on the morrow, offer his humble services to the gentleman. Now, however, he must go forth. He had charge to-night of the burgher-guards' watch. But to-morrow — He bowed. There came a furtive look into the close-set eyes. It was happy, was it not? For the stranger that he had just saved the hour of the setting of the watch. The days were of the shortest. Had he encountered any noticeable experience on his approach to Geneva? Which road had his been? From the Bern side? Ah, from the north! Maitre Todescan stood musing for a moment. Well, he must even crave the young master's leave until the morrow.
The man spoke with a conscious air, which betrayed the tardy grafting of courtly manners upon an original stock of camp brutality. And Dick Wyatt, escorted downstairs, politely but firmly shaken off at the kitchen door, as he watched the fencing-master wrap himself up scientifically in his great cloak and stride out into the night, had a fantastic impression as one who had just passed by an unknown personal danger.
Castle was a keen theatergoer and also occasionally choreographed sword fights for stage plays. In 1901 his student, the actress and swordswoman Esme Beringer, continued his legacy by writing and starred in a one-act play called At the Point of the Sword, effectively becoming one of the first female action stars ...