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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903)

A Musical Duel

From “Meister Karl’s Sketch-Book”

“I KNOW a story,” suddenly exclaimed Count d’Egerlyn, one evening as we were taking supper at our parlor in the St. Nicholas, in New York. Now if the count had suddenly sung, “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,” he would not have excited more astonishment. For though the count was a gentleman of wit, a finished cosmopolite, and a thorough good fellow, and had moreover a beautiful wife, he was never known to tell tales of any description, either in school or out of it.

At the word up started Wolf Short and young C——, the latter declaring that he was, like Time, all ears, while the former, listening as if dreaming,

  • “—— heard him half in awe;
  • While Cabana’s smoke came streaming
  • Through his open jaw.”
  • In a calm, bland voice, our good count proceeded to narrate a curious incident, which I long afterward reduced to writing. As I remember it, the story would have been far better had it been given in the exact words in which it was originally told. But, alas! it was hardly concluded ere we had to scramble off to a party, and the next day we went all together to Boston; and it probably would never have been written out at all, had I not just been reminded of it by hearing “our nigger” Tom whistling through the hall, the air on which it is founded.

  • [Music.]
  • MENDELSSOHN was a great musician.

    Mendelssohn signifies “The son of an almond.” Had he been a twin, they would have christened him Philip-ina.

    But as he was a Jew, they could not christen him. And as he was not a twin, he consequently remained single.

    Which did not, however, prevent him from being wedded to Divine Lady Music, as amateurs call her.

    Mendelssohn composed “Songs without words.” Many modern poets give us words without songs.

    “They shouldn’t do so.”

    The story which I am about to relate is that of a duel which was fought as Mendelssohn’s songs were sung—without words. The insult, the rejoinder, the rebutter, the sur-rebutter, and the challenge were all whistled.

    But as, according to Fadladeen in “Lalla Rookh,” it is impossible even for an angel to carry a sigh in his hand, the reader will not find it strange that such an imperfect sinner as myself should find it difficult to whistle on paper or in print.

    I will, therefore, take the liberty of representing by words the few notes which were whistled upon this melancholy occasion. The which notes are given at the beginning of this story.

    And here the intelligent reader may remark that most authors put their notes at the end of their works. Mine, however, come before.

    An Englishman was once seated in solitary silence in the Café de France, solemnly sipping sherry and smoking a cigar. His reverie was unbroken, and his only desire on earth was that it should continue so.

    Suddenly entered (as from the Grand Opera) a gay Frenchman, merrily whistling that odd little air from “Robert le Diable,” so well known to all admirers of Meyerbeer and contemners of worldly wealth or sublunary riches:

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • Now the interruption vexed our Englishman. At any time he would have wished the Frenchman in Jerusalem. At present, the whistling so much disturbed him, that he wished him in a far less holy place. Mind! I do not mean New York, though it be, like Milton’s scaly sorceress, close by the “Gate of Hell.”

    Therefore, in a firm and decided tone (which said, as plainly as if he had spoken it, “I wish, sir, you would hold your tongue”), he whistled—

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • But the Frenchman was in high feather, and not to be bluffed. He had had a dinner and a gloria of coffee and brandy, and some eau sucrée and a glass of bruleau (which, like crambambuli, consists of burnt brandy or rum, with sugar). He had had a cigarette, or a four-cent government cigar (I forget which), had winked at a pretty girl in the opera, and finally had heard the opera and Grisi. In fact, he had experienced a perfect bender. Now a bender is a batter, and a batter is a spree, and a spree is a jollification. And the tendency of a jollification is to exalt the mind and elevate the feelings. Therefore the feelings of the Frenchman were exalted, and in the coolest, indifferentest, impudentest, provokingest manner in the world, he answered in whistling—

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • Which, being interpreted, signified, “I care not a fig for the world in general—or you, sir, in particular! Stuff that you are! Out upon you! Parbleu! BAH!

    “Do you think that because you are silent, all the world must be mum? Par-’r-’r-’r-’r-bleu! Am I to sneeze because you snuff? Par-’r-’r-’r-bleu! Ought I to blush because you are well read? Par-’r-’r-’r-’r-’r-’r-bleu! Tra-li-ra! Go to!”

    All these words were distinctly intelligible in the chimes, intonations, and accentuations of the Frenchman’s whistle. And to make assurance doubly sure, he sat himself down at the same tête-à-tête table whereon the Englishman leaned, at the opposite seat; and displacing, with an impudent little shove, his cigar-case, continued to whistle, with all manner of irritating variations and aggravating canary-bird trills, his little air—

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • What I now wish you to believe is that John Bull was in nowise either flattered or gratified by these little marks of attention. Drawing back in his chair, he riveted a stare of silent fury on the Frenchman, which might have bluffed a buffalo, and then, in deliberate, cast-iron accents, slowly whistled, as he rose from the table and beckoned his foe to follow, the air which had so greatly incensed him—

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • Now this last instrumento-vocal effort did not express much—but the little it did express went, like the widow’s oil or a Paixhan shot, a great way. It simply signified—

    “Coffee and pistols for two—without the coffee!”

    To which the Frenchman, with a bow of the intensest politeness, replied—toujours en sifflant—always in whistling—

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • Which was not much more, and certainly no less than—

    “Oh, if you come to that, two can play at that game. Poor devil! what a loss you will be to the worthy and estimable society of muffs and slow-coaches! What will that excellent individual, Milady Popkins, remark, when she hears that I have settled the account of her son without a surplus? After you, sir, if you please I will directly have the pleasure of following and killing you.”

    Out of the café, and along the boulevards, strode the Englishman, followed by his new acquaintance, both “whistling as they went”—certainly not “from want of thought.” Whether it was “to keep their courage up,” is not written in history.

    They soon reached a hall, where the Englishman offered the only weapons in his possession, excepting “maulies,” or fists—and these were a pair of rapiers.

    And here it would appear, gracious reader (if you are gracious), that either I, or the Frenchman, or both of us, made a great mistake, when we understood the Englishman, by the sounds he uttered in his challenge, to signify the whistle of pistol bullets. It appears that it was the whiz of swords to which he had reference. But the Frenchman, who believed himself good at all things in general, and the fleurette in particular, made no scruples, but—drawing his sword with a long whistle—struck a salute, and held up a beautiful guard, accompanying every movement with a note from the original air of—

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • And now, reader, had I the pen of the blind old man of Scio’s rocky isle, I would describe thee a duel in the real comme il faut, two-thirty style. Every note of the air was accompanied by a thrust or a parry. When the Englishman made a thrust of low carte seconde, the Frenchman guarded with a semicircle parade, or an octave (I forget which). When the Frenchman made an appel, a beat, or a glissade, the Englishman, in nowise put out, either remained firm or put in a time-thrust. Both marking time with the endless refrain—

  • “Oh, but gold is a chimera!
  • Money all a fleeting dream!”
  • At last, an untimely thrust from the Englishman’s rapier settled the business. The Frenchman fell—dropped his sword—and whistled in slower, slower measure and broken accents, for the last time, his little melody.

    Reader, I have no doubt that you have heard, ere now, the opera of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” and can well recall the dying struggles and perishing notes of Edgardo

  • “Se di-vi-si fummo in ter-ra,
  • Ne cong-iun-ga ne congiung-a il Nume in ciel!
  • Ne con-giun-ga, ah! oh!—Num’ in ciel—
  • I-o—ti-i—se-guo!—oh!—oh!”
  • And so it was with our poor Frenchman, who panted forth, game to the last—

  • “Oh—but g-’g-’gold is a chi-mera!
  • M-’m-’mon-ey but a fleeee——”
  • And here—borne on the wings of a last expiring whistle—his soul took its flight.

    Not a word had been spoken by either of the combatants!