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Avatar by James Huneker

    Somewhere; in desolate wind-swept space,
      In Twilight-land—in No-man's land—
    Two hurrying shapes met face to face
      And bade each other stand.

    “And who are you?” cried one agape
      Shuddering in the gloaming light;
    “I know not,” said the second shape,
      “I only died last night!”


Mychowski was considered by grave critical authorities, the best living interpreter of Chopin. He was a Pole—any one could tell that by the way he spelt his name—and a perfect foil to Paderewski, being short, thick-set and with hair as black as a kitchen beetle. His fat amiable face, flat and corpulent fingers, his swarthy skin and upturned nose, were called comical by the women who thronged his recitals; but Mychowski at the keyboard was a different man from the Mychowski who sat all night at a table eating macaroni and drinking Apollinaris water. Then the funny profile vanished and the fat fingers literally dripped melody. His readings of the Polish master's music were distinguished by grace, dexterity, finesse, pathos and subtilty. The only pupils of Chopin alive—there were only six now—hobbled to Mychowski's concerts and declared that at last their dead idol was reincarnated, at last the miracle had taken place: a genuine interpreter of Chopin had appeared—then severe coughing, superinduced by emotion, and the rest of the sentence would finish in tears....

The Chopin pupils also wrote to the papers letters always beginning, “Honored Sir,—Your numerous and intelligent readers would perhaps like to know in what manner Chopin's performance of the F minor Ballade resembled Mychowski's. It was in the year 1842 that—” A sextuple flood of recollections was then let loose, and Mychowski the gainer thereby. Still he obstinately refused to be lionized, cut his hair perilously near the prizefighter's line, and never went into society, except for money. He was a model business man; the impresarios worshipped him. Such business ability, such frugality, such absence of eccentricity, such temperance, were voted extraordinary.

“Why, the man never gambles,” said a manager, “drinks only at his meals”—“which are many,” interrupted some one—“and always sends his money home to his wife and family in Poland. Yet he plays like a god. It is unheard of.” ...

The Polish servant Mychowski brought with him from home sickened in Paris and died. Although the pianist was playing the Erard, he went often to the Pleyel piano warerooms and there told a friend that he was without a valet.

“We have some one here who will suit you. His father was Chopin's body-servant, who, as you must have read, was an Irish-Frenchman named Daniel Dubois. We call the son Daniel Chopin; he looks so much like some of the pictures of your great countryman. Best of all, he doesn't know one note of music from another.”

“Just the man,” cried Mychowski; “my last valet always insisted on waking me in the morning with a Bach Invention. It was awful.” Mychowski shuddered.

“Wait, then; I'll send upstairs for him,” said the amiable representative of the Maison Pleyel, and soon there appeared, dressed after the fashion fifty years ago, a man of about thirty, whose face and expression caused Mychowski to bound out of his seat and exclaim in his native tongue:

“Slawa Bohu! but he looks like Frédéric.”

The man started a little, then became impassive. “My father was Daniel Dubois, in whose arms the great master died. May he keep company with the angels! When my mother bore me she wore a medallion containing a portrait of the great master, and my father, who was his pupil, played the nocturnes for her.”

The speaker's voice was slightly muffled in timbre, its accent was languid, yet it was indubitably the voice of a cultivated man. Mychowski regarded him curiously. A slim frame of middle height; fragile but wonderfully flexible limbs; delicately formed hands; very small feet; an oval, softly-outlined head; a pale, transparent complexion; long silken hair of a light chestnut color parted on one side; tender brown eyes, intelligent rather than dreamy; a finely-curved aquiline nose, a sweet, subtle smile; graceful and varied gestures—such was the outward presence of Daniel Dubois.

“He looks just like the description given by Niecks,” murmured the pianist. “Even the eyes are piwne, as we say in Poland, couleur de bière.

“Yet you do not play the piano?” he continued. The man smiled and shook his head. Terms were arranged, and the valet sent to Mychowski's rooms.

“And the mother, who was she?” Mychowski asked later.

“Pst!” enjoined his friend discreetly. Mychowski smiled, sighed, shook his head, settled himself before a new piano and plunged into the preludes, playing the entire twenty-five without pause, while business was suspended in the ancient and honorable Maison Pleyel, so captivating, so miraculous, was the poetic performance of this commonplace and kind-hearted virtuoso....

Mychowski discovered in Daniel an agreeable servant. He was noiseless, ubiquitous. He could make an omelette or sew on a button with woman's skill. His small, well-kept hands knew no fatigue, and his master often watched them, almost transparent, fragile and aristocratic, as they shaved his rotund oily face. Daniel was admirable in his management of the musical library, seeming to know where the music of every composer had to be placed. Mychowski wondered how he contrived to find time to learn so much and yet keep his hands from the keyboard. After the first month Mychowski began to envy his servant the possession of such a poetic personality.

“Now if I had such a face and figure how much better an effect I should produce. I see the women laugh when I sit down to play, and if it wasn't for my fat fingers where would I be?” Mychowski sighed. He had conquered the musical world, but not his reflection in the mirror. He had made some charming conquests, but his better guides had whispered to him that it was his music, not his face, that had won the women. He was vain, sensitive and without the courage of his nose, unlike Cyrano de Bergerac. Nothing was lacking; talent, wealth, health, a capital digestion and success! Had they not poured in upon him? From his twentieth year he enjoyed the sunshine of popular favor and after ten years was enamoured of it as ever. He almost felt bitter when he saw Daniel's high-bred and delicate figure. He questioned him a hundred times, but could find out nothing. Where had he been raised? Who was his mother, and why did he select a servant's life? Daniel replied with repose and managed to parry or evade all inquiries. He confessed, however, to one weakness—insatiable love for music—and begged his master to be allowed the privilege of sitting in the room during the practising hours. When a concert was given Daniel went to the hall and arranged all that was necessary for the pianist's comfort. Mychowski caught him at a recital one night with a score of the F minor Ballade of Chopin, and warm and irritable as he was, for he had just played the work, he could not refrain from asking his servant how it had pleased him. Daniel shook his head gently. Mychowski stared at him curiously, with chagrin. Then a lot of women rushed in to congratulate the artist, but stopped to stare aghast at Daniel.

“Ah, M. Mychowski!”—it was the beautiful Countess d'Angers—“We know now why you play Chopin so wonderfully, for have you not his ghost here to tell you everything? Naughty magician, why have you not come to me on my evenings? You surely received cards!” Mychowski looked so annoyed at the jest that Daniel slipped out of the room and did not appear until the carriage was ready....

At the café where Mychowski invariably went for his macaroni Daniel usually had a place at the table. The pianist was easy in his manners, and not finding his man presumptuous he made him a companion. They had both eaten in silence, Mychowski gluttonously. Looking at Daniel and drinking a glass of chianti, he said in his most jocular manner:

“Eh bien, mon brave! now tell me why you didn't like my F minor Ballade.” Daniel lifted his eyes slowly to the other's face and smiled faint protestation. Mychowski would take no refusal. He swore in Polish and called out in lusty tones, “Come now, Daniel Chopin, what didn't you like, the tempo, the conception, the coda, or my touch?”

“Your playing, cher maître, was yourself. No one can do what you can,” answered Daniel evasively.

“Hoity-toity! What have we here, a critic in disguise?” said Mychowski good humoredly, yet at heart greatly troubled. “Do you know what the pupils of Chopin say of my interpretation?” Daniel again shook his head.

“They know nothing about Chopin or his music,” he calmly replied. A thunderbolt had fallen at Mychowski's feet and he was affrighted. Know nothing of Chopin or his music? Here was a pretty presumption. “Pray, Daniel,” he managed to gasp out, “pray how does your lordship happen to know so much about Chopin and his music?” Mychowski was becoming angry. In a stifled voice Daniel replied:

“Dear master, only what my father told me. But do let me go home and get your bed ready. I feel faint and I ask pardon for my impertinence. I am indeed no critic, nor shall I ever presume again.” “You may go,” said his master in gruff accents, and regretted his rudeness as soon as Daniel was out of sight. If any one of the managers who so ardently praised Mychowski's temperate habits had seen him guzzling wine, beer and brandy that night, they might have been shocked. He seldom went to excess, but was out of sorts and nettled at criticism from such a quarter. Yet—had he played as well as usual? Was not overpraise undermining his artistic constitution? He thought hard and vainly endeavored to recapture the mood in which he had interpreted the Ballade, and then he fell to laughing at his spleen. A great artist to be annoyed by the first adverse feather that happened to tickle him in an awkward way. What folly! What vanity! Mychowski laughed and ordered a big glass of brandy to steady his nerves.

All fat men, he thought, are nervous and sensitive. I must really go to Marienbad and drink the waters and I think I'll leave Daniel Chopin behind in Paris. Chopin—Chopin, I wonder how much Chopin is in him? Pooh! what nonsense. Chopin only loved Sand and before that Constantia Gladowska. He never stooped to commonplace intrigue. But the resemblance, the extraordinary resemblance! After all, nature plays queer pranks. A thunderstorm may alarm a Mozart into existence, and why not a second Chopin? Ah, if I had that fellow's face and figure or he had my fingers what couldn't we do? If he were not too old to study—no, I won't give him lessons, I'll be damned if I will! He might walk away with me, piano and all. Chopin face, Chopin fingers.

Mychowski was rapidly becoming helpless and at two o'clock the patron of the café sent a message to Daniel, who was hard by, that he had better fetch his master away. The pianist was lifted into a carriage, though he lived just around the corner, and with the aid of the concierge, a cynical man of years, was helped into his apartment and put to bed. It was a trying night for Daniel, whose nature revolted at any suggestion of the grosser vices....

From dull, muddy unconsciousness the soul of Mychowski struggled up into thin light. He fought with bands of villainous appearing men holding tuning forks; he was rolled down terrific gulfs a-top of pianos; while accompanying him in his vertiginous flight were other pianos, square, upright and grand; pianos of sinister and menacing expression; pianos with cruel grinning teeth; pianos of obsolete and anonymous shapes; pianos that leered at him, sneered at him with screaming dissonances. The din was infernal, the clangor terrific; and as the pianist, hemmed in and riding this whirlwind of splintered sounding-boards, jangling wires and crunching lyres, closed his eyes expecting the last awful plunge into the ghastly abyss, a sudden, piercing tone penetrated the thick of the storm; as if by sorcery, the turmoil faded away, and, looking about him, Mychowski's disordered senses took note of an exquisite valley in which rapidly flowed a tiny silvery stream. Carpeted with green and fragrant with flowers, the landscape was magical, and most melancholy was the music made by the running waters. Never had the artist heard such music, and in the luminous haze of his mind it seemed familiar. Three tones, three Gs in the treble and in octaves, sounded clear to him; and again and once more they were heard in doubled rhythm. A rippling prelude rained upon the meadows and Mychowski lay perfectly entranced. He knew what was coming and knew not the music. Then a melody fell from the trees as they whispered over the banks of the brook and it was in the key of F minor. A nocturne; yet the day was young. Its mournful reiterations darkened the sky; but about all, enchantment lay. In G flat, so the sensitive ear of the pianist warned him, was his life being borne; but only for a time. Back came the first persistent theme, bringing with it overpowering richness of hue and scent, and then it melted away in prismatic vapors....

“What is all this melodic madness?” asked Mychowski. He knew the music made by the little river and trees, yet he groped as if in the toils of a nightmare to name it. That solemn narrative in six-eight time in B flat, where had he heard it? The glowing, glittering arabesques, the trilling as if from the throats of a thousand larks, the cunning imitations as if leaf mocked leaf in the sunshine! Again the first theme in F minor, but amplified and enlarged with a spray of basses and under a clouded sky. Without knowing why, the unhappy man felt the impending catastrophe and hastened to escape it. But in vain. His feet were as lead, and suddenly the heavens opened, fiercely lightened, the savage thunder leaping upon him in chromatic dissonances; then a great stillness in C major, and with solemn, silent steps he descended in modulated chords until he reached an awful crevasse. With a howl the tempest again unloosed, and in screeching accents the end came, came in F minor. For many octaves Mychowski fell as a stone from a star, and as he crashed into the very cellarage of hell he heard four snapping chords and found himself on the floor of his bedroom....

“The F minor Ballade, of course,” he cried; “and a nice ass I made of myself last night. Oh, what a head! But I wonder how I came to dream of the Ballade? Oh, yes, talking about it with Daniel, of course. What a vivid dream! I heard every note, and thought the trees and the brook were enjoying a duo, and—Bon Dieu! what's that?”

Mychowski, his face swollen and hair in disorder, slowly lifted himself and sat on the edge of the bed as he listened.

“Who the devil is playing at this hour? But what's this? Am I dreaming again? There goes that damnable Ballade.” Mychowski rushed out of his room, down the short hall and pushed open the door of the music-room. The music stopped. Daniel was dusting some music at the end of the piano as he came in.

“Ah! dear master, I hope you are not sick,” said the faithful fellow, dropping his feather-duster and running to Mychowski, who stood still and only stared.

“Who was playing the piano?” he demanded. “The piano?” quoth Daniel. “Yes, the piano. Was any one here?”

“No one has called this morning,” answered Daniel, “except M. Dufour, the patron of the café, who came to inquire after your health.” “It's none of his business,” snapped Mychowski, whose nerves were on edge. “I heard piano playing and I wasn't dreaming. Come, no nonsense, Daniel, who was it?”

Just then his eyes fell on the desk; he strode to it and snatched the music. “There,” he hoarsely said, “there is damning proof that you have lied to me; there is the Ballade in F minor by Chopin, and who, in the name of Beelzebub, was playing it? Not you?”

Daniel turned white, then pink, and trembled like a cat. Mychowski, his own face white, with cold shivers playing zither-wise up and down his back, looked at the servant and, in a feeble voice, asked him, “Who are you, man?” Daniel recovered himself and said in soothing tones, “Cher maître, you were up too late last night and you are nervous, agitated. I ask your pardon, but I never did tell you that I drum a little on the piano, and thinking you fast asleep I ventured on the liberty, and—”

“Drum a little! You call that drumming?” said Mychowski slowly. The two men looked into each other's eyes and Daniel's drooped. “Don't do it again; that's all. You woke me up,” said Mychowski roughly, and he went out of the room without hearing Daniel reply:

“No, Monsieur Mychowski, I will not do it again.” ...

From that time on Mychowski was obsessed. He weighed the evidence and questioned again and again the validity of his dream, in the margin between sleep and waking. During the daytime he was inclined to think that it had been an odd trance, music and all; but when he had drunk brandy he grew superstitious and swore to himself that he really had heard Daniel play; and he became so nervous that he never took his man about with him. He drank too much, and kept such late hours that Daniel gently scolded him; finally he played badly in public and then the critical press fairly pounced upon him. Too long had he been King Pianist, and his place was coveted by the pounding throng below. He drank more, and presently there was talk of a decadence in the marvellous art of M. Mychowski, the celebrated interpreter of Chopin.

All this time Mychowski watched Daniel, watched him in the day, watched him in the night. He would prowl about his apartment after midnight, listening for the tone of a piano, and, after telling Daniel that he would be gone for the day, he would sneak back anxious and expectant. But he never heard any music, and this, instead of calming his nerves, made him sicker. “Why,” he would ask himself, “if the fellow can play as he does, why in the name of Chopin does he remain my servant? Is it because his servant blood rules, or—His servant blood? Why, he may have Polish blood in his veins, and such Polish!” Mychowski grew white at the idea. He could not sleep at night for he felt lonely, and drank so much that his manager declined to do business with him. Daniel prayed, expostulated and even threatened to leave; but Mychowski kept on the broad, downward path that leads to the mirage called Thirst.

One afternoon Mychowski sat at his accustomed table in the café. He was sick and sullen after a hard night of drinking, and as he saw himself in the mirror he bitterly thought, “He has the face, he has the figure, and, by God, he plays like Chopin.” A voice interrupted him.

“Bon jour, Monsieur Mychowski; but how can you duplicate yourself, for just a minute ago I passed your apartment and heard such delicious piano playing?”

“The devil!” cried Mychowski, jumping up, and meeting the gaze of one of the six original Chopin pupils. “No, not the devil,” said the other; “but Chopin. Surely you could not have been playing the F minor Ballade so marvellously and so early in the day? Now, Chopin always asserted that the F minor Ballade was for the dusk—”

“No,” interrupted Mychowski, “it was not I; it was only Daniel, my valet, and my pupil. The lazy scamp! If I catch him at the piano instead of at his work I'll break every bone in his body.” Mychowski's eyes were evil.

“But I assure you, cher monsieur, this was no servant, no pupil; this sounded as if the master had come back.” “You once said that of me,” returned the pianist moodily, and as he got up, his face ugly with passion, he reiterated:

“I tell you it was Daniel Chopin. But I'll answer for his silence after I've finished with him.”

Mychowski hurried home....


EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index