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The Red-Headed Piano Player by James Huneker


The two young men left the trolley car that carried them from Bath Beach to the West End of Coney Island, and walked slowly up the Broad Avenue of Confusing Noises, smoked and gazed about them with the independent air that notes among a million the man from New York. And as they walked they talked in crisp sentences, laughing at the seller of opulent Frankfurter sausages and nodding pleasantly to the lovely ladies in short, spangled skirts, who, with beckoning glances, sought their eyes. The air reverberated with an August evening's heat and seemed sweating. Its odor modulated from sea-brine to Barren Island, and the wind hummed. The clatter was striking; ardent whistling of peanut steam-roasters, vicious brass bands, hideous harps, wheezing organs, hoarse shoutings and the patient, monotonous cry of the fakirs and photographers were all blended in a dense, huge symphony; while the mouse-colored dust churned by the wheels of blackguard beach-wagons blurred a hard, blue sky from which pricked a soft, hanging star. An operatic sun had just set with all the majestic tranquillity of a fiery hen; and the two friends felt laconically gay. “Let's eat here,” suggested the red-haired one.

“Not on your life,” answered the other, a stout, cynical blond; “you get nothing but sauerkraut that isn't sour and dog-meat sausage. I'm for a good square meal at Manhattan or Sheepshead Bay.”

“Yes, but Billy, there's more fun here, and heavens knows I'm dead tired.” The young fellow's accents were those of an irritable, hungry human animal, and his big chum gave in....

They searched the sandy street for a comfortable beer place, and after passing dime-museums, unearthly looking dives, amateur breweries, low gin mills and ambitious establishments, the pair paused opposite a green, shy park of grass and dwarf trees, and listened.

“Piano playing, and not bad,” cried Billy. They both hung over the rustic palings and heard bits of Chopin's Military Polonaise, interrupted by laughter and the rattling of crockery.

“I'm for going in, Billy,” and they read the sign which announced a good dinner, with music, for fifty cents. They followed the artificial lane to a large summer cottage, about which were bunched drooping willows and, finding all the tables occupied, went inside.

A long room furnished for dining, gaudy pictures on the walls, and at one end upon a raised platform a grand piano. The place was full; and the tobacco-smoke, chatter and calls of the waiters disconcerted the two boys. Just then the piano sounded. Chopin again, and curious to know who possessed such a touch at Coney Island, the friends found a table to the right of the keyboard and sat down. As they did, they looked at the pianist and both exclaimed:

“Paderewski or his ghost!” The fellow wore a shock of lemon-tinted hair after the manner of the Polish virtuoso, but his face was shaven clean.

“Harry, he looks like a lost soul,” said Billy, who was rather plain spoken in his judgments.

“Let's give him a drink,” whispered Harry, and he called a waiter. “Whiskey,” said the waiter after a question had been put, and presently the piano player was bowing to them as he threw the liquor into his large mouth. Then the Chopin study in C minor was recommenced and half-finished and the two music lovers forgot their dinner. A waiter spoke to them twice; the manager, seeing that music was hurting trade, went to the piano and coughed. The pianist instantly stopped, and a dinner was ordered by Harry. Billy looked around him with a trained eye. He noticed that the women were all sunburned and wore much glittering jewelry; the men looked like countrymen and were timid in the use of the fork. When the music began they stopped eating and their companions ordered fresh drinks. Billy could have sworn that he saw one woman crying. But as soon as the music ceased conversation began, and the rattle of dishes was deafening.

“I say, Harry, this is a queer go. There's something funny about this place and this piano. It upsets all my theories of piano music. When the piano begins here the audience forgets to eat, and its passion mounts to its ears. Not like the West End at all, is it?” Harry was busy with his soup. He was sentimental, and the sight of kindred hair—the hue beloved of Paderewski—roused his sympathies.

“By George, Billy, that fellow's an artist. Just look at his expression. There's a story in him, and I'm going to get it. It may be news.”

They chatted, and asked the pianist to join them in another drink. Whiskey was sent up to the platform, and the musician drank it at a gulp, his right hand purling over the figuration of “Auf dem Wasser zu Singen.” But he took no water. Then making them a little bobbing, startled bow, he began playing. Again it was something of Chopin. On his lean features there was a look of detachment; and the watchers were struck with the interesting forehead, the cheeks etched with seams of suffering, and the finely compressed lips.

“I'll bet it's some German who has boozed too much at home, and his folks have thrown him out,” hinted Billy.

“German? That's no German, I swear. It's Hungarian, Bohemian or Pole. Besides, he drinks whiskey.”

“Yes, drinks too much, but it hasn't hurt his playing—yet: just listen to the beggar play that prelude.”

The B flat minor Prelude, with its dark, rich, rushing cascade of scales, its grim iteration and ceaseless questioning, spun through the room, and again came the curious silence. Even the Oberkellner listened, his mouth ajar. The waiters paused midway in their desperate gaming with victuals, and for a moment the place was wholly given over to music. The mounting unison passage and the smashing chords at the close awakened the diners from the trance into which they had been thrown by the magnetic fluid at the tips of the pianist's fingers; the bustle began, Harry and Billy ordered more beer and drew deep breaths.

“He's a wonder, that's all I know, and I'm going to grab him. What technique, what tone, what a touch!” cried Harry, who had been assistant music critic on an afternoon paper.

A card, with a pencilled invitation, was sent to the pianist, and the place being quite dark the electric lights began hoarsely whistling in a canary colored haze. The musician came over to the table and, bowing very low, took a seat.

“You will excuse me,” he said, “if I do not eat. I have trouble with my heart, and I drink whiskey. Yes, I will be happy to join you in another glass of very bad whiskey. No, I am not a Pole; I am English, and not a nobleman. I look like Paderewski, but can't play nearly as well. Here is my card.” The name was commonplace, Wilkins, but was prefixed by the more unusual Feodor.

“You've some Russian in you after all?” questioned Billy.

“Perhaps. Feodor is certainly Russian. I often play Tschaïkowsky. I know that you wonder why I am in such a place. I will tell you. I like human nature, and where can you get such an opportunity to come into contact with it in the raw as this place?”

Billy winked at Harry and ordered more drinks. The pale Feodor Wilkins drank with the same precipitate gesture, as if eager with thirst. He spoke in a refined manner, and was evidently an educated man.

“I have no story, my friends. I'm not a genius in disguise, neither am I a drunkard—one may safely drink at the seaside—and if, perhaps, like Robert Louis Stevenson, I play at being an amateur emigrant, I certainly do not intend writing a book of my experiences.”

The newspaper boys were disappointed. There was, then, no lovely mystery to be unravelled, no subterrene story excavated, no romance at all, nothing but a spiritual looking Englishman with an odd first name and a gift of piano playing.

Mr. Wilkins gave a little laugh, for he read the faces of his companions. As if to add another accent to their disappointment he ordered a Swiss cheese sandwich, and spoke harshly to the waiter for not bringing mustard with it. Then he turned to Harry:

“You love music?”

“Crazy for it, but see here, Mr.—Mr. Wilkins, why don't you play in public? I don't mean this kind of a public, but before a Philharmonic audience! This sort of cattle must make you sick, and for heaven's sake, man, what do they pay you?” Harry's face was big with suppressed questions. The pianist paused in his munching of bread and cheese. His fine luminous eyes twinkled: “My dear boy, I have a story—a short one—and I fancy that it will explain the mystery. I am twenty-seven years old. Yes, that's all, but I've lived and—loved.”

“Ah, a petticoat!” exclaimed Harry, triumphantly; “I was sure of it.”

“No, not a petticoat, but a piano was the cause of my undoing. Vaulting ambition and all that sort of thing. My parents were easy in circumstances and I was brought up to be a pianist. Deliberately planned to be a virtuoso. I was sent to Leschetizky, to Von Bülow, to Rubinstein, to Liszt. I studied scales in Paris with Planté, trills in Bologna with Martucci, octaves with Rosenthal; in Vienna I met Joseffy, and with him I studied double notes. Wait until later and I shall play for you the Chopin Study in G sharp minor! I mastered twenty-two concertos and even knew the parts for the triangle. Then at the age of twenty-five, after the best teachers in Europe had taught me their particular craft I returned to England, to London, and gave a concert. It was an elaborate affair. The best orchestra, with Hans Richter, was secured by my happy father, and after the third rehearsal he embraced me, saying that he could go to his grave a satisfied man, for his son was a piano artist. There must have been a strain of Slavic in the old man, he loved Chopin and Tschaïkowsky so. My mother was less demonstrative, but she was as truly delighted as my father. Picture to yourself the transports of these two devoted old people! And when I left them the night before the concert I really trembled.

“In my bedroom I faced the mirror and saw my secret peering out at me. I knew that if I failed it would kill my parents, who, gambler-like, were staking their very existence on my success. As the night wore white I grew more nervous, and at dawn, not being able to endure the strain a moment more, I crept out of doors and went to a public house and began drinking to settle my nerves.”

“I told you it was whiskey,” blurted out Billy.

“No, brandy,” said Mr. Wilkins, looking into his empty glass, “now it's whiskey. Yes; thank you very much. Well, to proceed.

“I drank all day, but being young I did not feel it particularly. I went home, ran my fingers over the piano, got into a bath and dressed for the concert. At eight o'clock the carriage came, and at eight forty-five, with one more drink in me, I walked out on the platform as bold as you please, and despite the size of the audience, the glare of the lights and the air, charged with human electricity, I felt rather at ease. The orchestra went sailing into the long tutti of the F minor Concerto of Chopin, and Richter, I could feel, was in good spirits. My cue came; I took it, struck out and came down the piano in the introductory unisons—a divine beginning, isn't it?—and my tone seemed rich and virile. I played the first theme, and all went well until the next interlude for the orchestra; I looked about me confidently, feeling quite like a virtuoso, and soon spied my parents, when suddenly my knees began to tremble, trembled so that the damper pedal vibrated. Then my eyes blurred and I missed my cue and felt Richter's great spectacles burning into the side of my head like two fierce suns. I scrambled, got my place, lost it, rambled and was roused to my position by the short rapping of the conductor's stick on his desk. The band stopped, and Herr Richter spoke gruffly to me:

“'Begin again.'

“In a sick, dazed way I put my fingers on the keys, but they were drunk; the cursed brandy had just begun to work, and a minute later, my head reeling, I staggered through the orchestra, lurched against a contrabassist, fell down and was shoved out of sight.

“I lay in the artists' room perfectly content, and even enjoyed the pinched chalky face of my father as he stooped over me.

“'My God, the boy's drunk,' he cried, and big Richter nodded his head quite philosophically, 'Ja, er ist ganz besoffen,' and left us to go to the audience. I fell asleep.... The next evening I found, on awakening, a horrible headache and a letter from my father. I was turned out of doors, disowned, and bade to go about my business. So here I am, gentlemen, as you see, at your service, and always thirsty.” ...

The friends were about to put a hundred questions, when a thin, acid female voice broke in: “Benny, don't you think you've wasted enough of the gentlemen's time? You'd better get to work. The people are nearly all gone.” Feodor Wilkins started to his feet and blushed as an old, fat woman, wearing a Mother Hubbard of gross pattern, waddled toward the table. The sad pianist with the flaming hair turned to the boys:

“My wife, Mrs. Wilkins, gentlemen!” The lady took a seat at Billy's invitation and also a small drink of peppermint and whiskey. She told them that she was tired out; business had been good, and if Benny would only quit drinking and play more popular music, why, she wouldn't complain! Then she drank to their health, and Billy thought he saw the husband make a convulsive movement in his throat. It may have been caused by hysterical mortification—the woman was undeniably vulgar—but to the practical-minded Billy it was more like an envious involuntary swallowing at the sight of another's drinking. Then the pianist mounted his wooden throne, where, amid the dust and tramplings of low conquests and in the murky air, he began to toll out the bells of the Chopin Funeral March.

“Funny how they all quit eatin' and drinkin' when he speels, isn't it?” remarked the wife with a gratified smile. “Why, if he was half a man he'd play all day as well as night and then folks out yonder would forgit their vittles altogether. I suppose he give you the same old yarn?”

Harry bristled: “What old story, madame? Mr. Feodor Wilkins told us of his studies abroad and his unsuccessful début in London. It's a beautiful story. He's a great artist, and you ought to be proud of him.”

The woman burst into laughter. “Why, the old fraud has been stringing you. Fedderr, he calls himself! His name is Benny, just plain Benny Wilkins, and he never saw London. He's from Boston way, took lessons at some big observatory up there, and he run up such a big slate with me that he married me to sponge it out. Schwamm d'rüber! you know. My first husband left a nice little tavern, and them music stoodents just flocked out after lessons was over to drink beer. Oh, dear me, Benny was a nice boy, but he always did drink too much. Then we moved to Harlem and I rented this place for the summer. I expect to make a tidy sum before I leave, if Benny only stays straight.”

There was something pathetic in this last cadence, and the two boys leaned back and listened to the presto of the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, which Wilkins took at a tremendous pace.

“Sounds as if he were the wind weaving over his own grave,” said Harry, mournfully. The boys had drunk too much, and the close atmosphere and music were beginning to tell on their nerves.

“He's a tramp of genius, that's what he is,” growled Billy crossly.

“But we've got a story,” interjected the other.

“Yes, and were taken in finely. Hanged if I didn't believe the fellow while he was yarning.”

“You gentlemen won't mind me leaving you, will you? It's near closing-up time, and I've got to be the boss. Benny, he sticks close to the pianner as it gits late. I reckon he feels his licker. Ain't he a dandy with them skinny fingers o' his?”

She moved away, giving her husband a warning not to leave his perch, and went barwards to overhaul her receipts....

The lights were nearly all out and the drumming of the breakers on the beach clearly could be felt. The young men paid their bill and shook hands with the pianist. He leaned over the edge of the platform and spoke to them in a low voice.

“Come again, gentlemen, come again. Don't mind what she tells you. I'm not her husband, no matter what she said just now. She owns me body and soul for this year. I swear to God it's not the drink. I need the experience in public. I must play all the time before that awful nervous terror wears off. This is the place to get in touch with common folk; if I can hold them with Chopin what won't I be able to do with an appreciative audience! Believe me, gentlemen, I pray of you; give me a year, only one year, and I'll get out of this nervousness and this nightmare, and the world of music will hear of me. Only give me time.” Feodor Wilkins placed his hand desperately on the pit of his stomach; his wife screamed:

“Benny, come right over here and count the cash.”

The boys got into the open air and scented the surf with delight, a moon enlaced with delicate cloud streamers made magic in the sky; then Harry growled:

“Say, Bill, do you believe that story?” ...


EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index