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

Richard O’Monroy (J. de Saint Geniès) (1850–1916)

The Fugue

WISHING to keep the national holiday in some out-of-the-way corner of Normandy, I was striding up and down the hall of the Saint Lazare Station when I heard an inharmonious feminine voice address me—inharmonious but feminine.

“M. Richard! M. Richard!”

I turned round. It was my friend Mme. Manchaballe, in a traveling costume consisting of an old surah dust-cloak, trimmed with black lace that had formerly done duty at Aix with Rebecca (I knew it again), and a Leghorn hat with a heap of flowers and two pink ibis wings. However vivid your imagination may be, I defy you to present to yourself Mme. Manchaballe’s head adorned with two pink ibis wings. You ought to have seen it, for it is a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle.

“Where are you off to, my dear lady?”

“I’m going to join my youngest, Caroline, at Houlgate, where we have a little cottage on the Corniche.”

“Caroline? Ah, yes! she goes in for singing. Well, are the Conservatory examinations over?”

“They’re over,” groaned Mme. Manchaballe; “they’re over, but they never began for us.”


“Oh, sir, a piece of flagrant injustice! We did not even enter for them. And yet Caroline has a nice voice. Don’t you remember the evening she sang, from ‘Faust’:

  • “‘Ah, how I love to see myself look so nice in this mirror’?
  • and then the great recitative:
  • “‘I should much like to know who that young man was!
  • If he is a great noble, and how much he gives——’”
  • “Those are not exactly the words, Mme. Manchaballe.”

    “Yes, but it’s the meaning. In operas words are of no importance. Well, if you remember, you were surprised yourself, and cried, ‘The deuce! Your daughter has made great progress. I will recommend her to my friend Victorien Sardou.’”

    “Joncières, I said Joncières.”

    “Well, they’re both Victorien, so where’s the difference? I didn’t let the grass grow under my feet. Not only did I give her lessons from Mme. Saxe, but I made her call on all the members of the jury without me. At first I wanted to go with her, but she said I made her nervous, and that she sang better when I wasn’t there. So I did not insist.”

    “I think you were quite right, Mme. Manchaballe.”

    “Yes, yes. And, besides, I was busy. I went to the Concert Vatoire. A funny sort of concert, I must say! A queer room, half theater, half study. The stage, with its two chairs and one door, looked like a porter’s lodge, and a poor porter too. Not a decoration, not a piece of furniture, not an ornament on the bare walls, which were painted the color of raw beef. It seems that this plain, bare background is good for judging gesture, pose, and play of feature. Well, I didn’t mind. Instead of the usual boxes, there was a long table of severe aspect, behind which the members of the jury were seated, with the president in the center, all getting gray, short-sighted, and not handsome at all. Such beards, such heads of hair! Why do all musicians have such extraordinary heads of hair? Perhaps music is good for the hair.”

    “I think you are straying from the point, Mme. Manchaballe. I want to hear about Caroline.”

    “Just so, I’m coming to it. In short, one day I arrived late, at the end of the performance, and heard that Mlle. Terville had the first prize for her fugue, an unheard-of fugue, an extraordinary fugue, a marvelous fugue, that literally carried the jury away. And all round me I heard the critics exclaiming, ‘What a fugue! Ah, my dear fellow, what a magnificent fugue!’ In order not to seem out of it, I said the same, smiling like the rest. But in fact—don’t laugh at me—I hadn’t the least idea what a fugue was. So far, with Judith and Rebecca, I have only had to do with dancing. With pirouettes and the like I was quite at home, but I had never heard a mention of fugues. So that as soon as I got out into the vestibule I went up to Mme. Chapuzot, Stella Chapuzot’s mother, who was in the same class as Caroline—and Mme. Saxe had always said, ‘If Stella doesn’t make a success at the opera first, it will be Caroline.’ Well, Mme. Chapuzot was very jealous of us. I ought to have been on my guard, but I thought all would be right between mothers. So I went up to her and said, ‘Mlle. Terville had a great success with her fugue—that is to say, she’s certain of the prize. And,’ I went on, ‘since I wasn’t there, it would be very kind of you to tell me what a fugue is, because, you see, I’d make Caroline prepare one.’

    “Then Mme. Chapuzot began to laugh, and so loudly that everybody turned round to look at us. I laughed, too, for company’s sake, but without exactly knowing why. Suddenly Mme. Chapuzot became serious, and said, ‘A fugue, Mme. Manchaballe, is to make yourself scarce just at the moment when it would be least expected. Suppose you are to sing in the evening at the Opéra Comique: at eight o’clock, precisely, you decamp to Italy. That’s a fugue. Then the terrified directors, in order to bring you back, prefer either to increase your salary or to give you a prize. That is what was done in the case of Mlle. Terville.’

    “I thought it rather extraordinary. But the same evening I met by chance at the opera one of our former tenants, M. Jules Claretie, who is a member of the Academy, and consequently understands the French language, and I said to him, ‘M. Claretie, if a person had to sing at the Opéra Comique at half-past eight, and at eight decamped to Italy, would that be a fugue?’ ‘Certainly,’ replied the Academician with perfect politeness, ‘that would be a fugue.’

    “I hesitated no longer. I waited for the day of the competition, and then hey presto! without a word of warning, I packed Caroline off to Houlgate. She objected, but I said, ‘Leave everything to your mother; it’s for your own good.’ I went to the concert-hall, and when Caroline’s name was called I stood up and said, ‘She’s doing a fugue. She’s in her cottage at the seaside.’

    “‘Good,’ replied the president.

    “And he summoned the next, Stella Chapuzot. And she passed, and Caroline failed. Now, isn’t it disgraceful, sir? I ought not to have trusted Mme. Chapuzot; but, honestly now, could I suspect M. Claretie? Such a distinguished man! Put it into the papers, will you? It will prove to the government that, say what they like, there’s no equality yet; and that what spells success for one is fatal to another. But there’s my train. Good-by!”

    “A pleasant journey to you, Mme. Manchaballe!”