The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. IV: American
A Musical Duel
By Charles Godfrey Leland (18241903)
From Meister Karls Sketch-Book
I KNOW a story, suddenly exclaimed Count dEgerlyn, 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.
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.
The story which I am about to relate is that of a duel which was fought as Mendelssohns songs were sungwithout 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.
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:
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 Miltons scaly sorceress, close by the Gate of Hell.
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 generalor 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 Frenchmans 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
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, 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 wentcertainly not from want of thought. Whether it was to keep their courage up, is not written in history.
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, butdrawing his sword with a long whistlestruck a salute, and held up a beautiful guard, accompanying every movement with a note from the original air of
And now, reader, had I the pen of the blind old man of Scios 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
At last, an untimely thrust from the Englishmans rapier settled the business. The Frenchman felldropped his swordand whistled in slower, slower measure and broken accents, for the last time, his little melody.