Leotychides II., of Sparta, was told by his augurs that his projected expedition would fail, because a viper had got entangled in the handle of the city key. “Not so,” he replied. “The key caught the viper.”
When Julius Caesar landed at Adrumetum, in Africa, he happened to trip and fall on his face. This would have been considered a fatal omen by his army; but, with admirable presence of mind, he exclaimed, “Thus I take possession of thee, O Africa!” Told of Scipio also.
When William the Conqueror leaped upon the shore at Bulverhythe he fell on his face, and a great cry went forth that it was an ill-omen; but the duke exclaimed, “I have taken seisin of this land with both my hands.”
When the Duke was arming for the battle, his squire by accident handed him the back piece before the
breast-plate, an evil omen, signifying flight. But the Duke, with ready wit, said, “Yes, the last shall be first” -
i.e. the duke shall be king.
Napoleon III. did a graceful thing to avert an ill omen. Captain Jean Coeurpreux, in a ball given at the Tuileries, tripped and fell; but Napoleon held out his hand to help him up, saying as he did so, “Monsieur le Commandant, this is the second time I have seen you fall. The first time was by my side in the field of Magenta.” Then, turning to the lady, he added, “Henceforth Captain Coeurpreux is commandant of my Guides.”
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894