Avatar by James Huneker
Somewhere; in desolate wind-swept space,
In Twilight-landin 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 Poleany one could tell that by
the way he spelt his nameand 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 alivethere were only six nowhobbled 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 appearedthen 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
mealswhich are many, interrupted some oneand 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.
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
gesturessuch 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
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
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 weaknessinsatiable love for musicand 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'AngersWe
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
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. Yethad 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. ChopinChopin, 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
studyno, 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
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
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, andBon 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
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, orHis 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
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
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....