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A Chopin of the Gutter by James Huneker


    J'ai vu parfois au fond d'un théâtre banal
    Qu'enflammait l'orchestre sonore
    Une fée allumer dans un ciel infernal
    Une miraculeuse aurore;

    J'ai vu parfois au fond d'un théâtre banal
    Un être qui n'était que lumière, or et gaze,
    Terrasser l'énorme Satan;
    Mais mon coeur que jamais ne visite l'extase,

    Est un théâtre où l'on attend.
    Toujours, toujours en vain l'être aux ailes gaze.


They watched him until he turned the corner of the Rue Puteaux and was lost to them.

He moved slowly, painfully, one leg striking the pavement in syncopation, for it was sadly crippled by disease. He twisted his thin head only once as he went along the Batignolles. It seemed to them that his half face was sneering in the mist. Then the band passed up to the warmer lights of the Clichy Quarter, where they drank and argued art far into the night They one and all hated Wagner, adoring Chopin's morbid music.

Minkiewicz walked up the lower side of the little street called Puteaux until he reached a stupid, overgrown building. It was numbered 5, and was a shabby sort of pension. The Pole painfully hobbled up the evil-smelling stairway, more crooked than a youth's counterpoint, and on the floor next to the top halted, breathing heavily. The weather was oppressive and he had talked too much to the young men at the brasserie.

“Ah, good boys all,” he murmured, trying the door; “good lads, but no talent, no originality. Ah!” The door yielded and Minkiewicz was at home.

An upright piano, a bed, a shaky washstand and bureau, one feeble chair, music—pounds of it—filled the chamber lighted by one candle. The old man threw himself on the bed and sighed drearily. Then he went to the piano, lifted the lid and ran his fingers over the keyboard. He sighed again. He sat down on the chair and closed his eyes. He did not sleep, for he arose in a few moments, took off his coat, and lighted a cigarette in the flame of the candle. Minkiewicz again placed himself before the instrument and played, but with silent fingers. He executed the most intricate passages, yet the wind in the room was soundless. He sat in his shirt-sleeves, his hat on his head, playing a Chopin concerto in dumb profile, and the night wore on....

He was awakened in the morning by the entrance of a grimy garçon who grinned and put on the floor an oblong basket. Minkiewicz stirred restlessly.

“The absinthe—you have not forgotten it?” he questioned in a weak voice.

“Ah, no, sir; never, sir, do I forget the green fairy for the great musician, sir,” was the answer, evidently a set one, its polite angles worn away by daily usance.

The man grasped the proffered glass and swallowed, choking, the absinthe. It did him good, for he sat up in bed, his greasy, torn nightgown huddled about him, and with long, claw-like fingers he uncovered the scanty breakfast. When he had finished it he wiped his mouth and hands on the counterpane:

“Charge it as usual.”

The waiter packed up the dishes, bade a bon jour, and with a mocking gesture left the room. Minkiewicz always had his breakfasts charged.

At noon he crawled out of bed and dressed at a grave tempo. He wore always the same shirt, a woollen one, and his wardrobe knew no change. It was faded, out of fashion by a full half-century, and his only luxury a silk comforter which he knotted loosely about his neck. He had never worn a collar since Chopin's death. It was two of the clock when he stumbled downstairs. At the doorway he met Bernard the hunchback landlord.

“No money to-day, M. Minkiewicz? Well, I suppose not—terribly hard times—no money. Will you have a little glass with me?” The musician went into the dusky dining-room and drank a pony of brandy with the good-natured Alsatian; then he shambled down the Rue Puteaux into the Boulevard des Batignolles, and slowly aired himself.

“A great man, M. Minkiewicz; a poet, a pianist, a friend of M. Chopin—ah! I admire him much, much,” explained Bernard to a neighbor....

It was very wet. But the slop and swish of the rain did not prevent the brasserie of The Fallen Angels from being filled with noisy drinkers. In one corner sat Minkiewicz. He was drinking absinthe. About him clustered five or six good-looking young fellows. The chatter in the room was terrific, but this group of disciples heard all the master said. He scarcely spoke above a whisper, yet his voice cut the hot air sharply.

“You ask me, Henri, how well I knew Frédéric. I could ask you in turn how well did you know your mother? I was with him at Warsaw. I, too, studied under Elsner. I accompanied him on his first journey to Vienna. I was at his first concert. I trembled and cried as he played our first—his first concerto in F minor. I wrote—we wrote the one in E minor later. I proposed for the hand of Constance Gladowska for Frédéric, and he screamed when I brought back the answer. Ah! but I did not tell him that Constance, Constantia, had said, 'Sir Friend, why not let the little Chopin woo for himself?' and she threw back her head and smiled into my eyes. I could have killed her for that subtle look. Yes; I know she married an ordinary merchant. What cared I? I loved Frédéric, Frédéric only. I never left his side. When it rained, rained as it is raining to-night, he would tremble, and often beat me with his spider-like hands, but I didn't mind it, for I was stronger then.

“I went with him to Paris. It was I who secured for him from Prince Radziwill the invitation to the Rothschild's ball where he won his first triumph. I made him practise. I bore his horrible humors, his mad, irritating, capricious temper. I wrote down his music for him. Wrote it down, did I say? Why, I often composed it for him; yes, I, for he would sit and moon away at the piano, insanely wasting his ideas, while I would force him to repeat a phrase, repeat it, polish it, alter it and so on until the fabric of the composition was complete. Then, how I would toil, toil, prune and expand his feeble ideas! Mon Dieu! Frédéric was no reformer by nature, no pathbreaker in art; he was a sickly fellow, always coughing, always scolding, but he played charmingly. He had such fingers! and he knew all our national dances. The mazurek, the mazourk, the polonaise and the krakowiak. Ah! but then he had no blood, no fire, no muscle, no vitality. He was not a revolutionist. He did not discover new forms; all he cared for was to mock the Jews with their majufes, and play sugar-water nocturnes.

“I was the artistic mate to this little Pole who allowed that old man-woman to deceive him—George Sand, of course. Ah! the old rascal, how she hated me. She forbade me to enter their hotel in the Cour d'Orléans, but I did—Chopin would have died without me, the delicate little vampire! I was his nurse, his mother, his big brother. I fought his fight with the publishers, with the creditors. I wrote his polonaises, all—all I tell you—except those sickly things in the keys of C sharp minor, F minor and B flat minor. Pouf! don't tell me anything about Chopin. He write a polonaise? He write the scherzi, the ballades, the études?—you make me enraged. I, I made them all and he will get the credit for all time, and I am glad of it, for I loved him as a father.”

The voice of Minkiewicz became strident as he repeated his old story. Some of the clients of The Fallen Angels stopped talking for a moment; it was only that crazy Pole again with his thrice-told tale.

Minkiewicz drank another absinthe.

“And were you then a poet as well as a composer?” timidly asked young Louis.

“I was the greatest poet Poland ever had. Ask of Chopin's friends, or of his living pupils. Go ask Georges Mathias, the old professor of the Conservatoire, if Minkiewicz did not inspire Chopin. Who gave him the theme for his Revolutionary étude—the one in C minor?” Minkiewicz ran his left hand with velocity across the table. His disciples followed those marvellously agile fingers with the eyes of the hypnotic....

“I was with Frédéric at Stuttgart. I first heard the news of the capture of Warsaw. Pale and with beating heart I ran to the hotel and told him all. He had an attack of hysteria; then I rushed to the piano and by chance struck out a phrase. It was in C sharp minor, and was almost identical with the theme of the C minor study. At once Chopin ceased his moaning and weeping and came over to the instrument. 'That's very pretty,' he said, and began making a running bass accompaniment. He was a born inventor of finger tricks; he took up the theme and gradually we fashioned the study as it now stands. But it was first written in C sharp minor. Frédéric suggested that it was too difficult for wealthy amateurs in that key, and changed it to C minor. More copies would be sold, he said. But he spoke no more of Warsaw after that. Why? Ah! don't ask me—the true artist, I suppose. Once that his grief is objectified, once that his sorrow is translated into tone, the first cause is quite forgotten,—Art is so selfish, so beautiful, you know!

“I never left Frédéric but once; the odious Sand woman, who smoked a pipe and swore like a cab driver, smuggled the poor devil away to Majorca. He came back a sick man; no wonder! You remember the de Musset episode. The poet's mother even implored the old dragon to take Alfred to Italy. He, too, was coughing—all her friends coughed except Liszt, who sneered at her blandishments—and Italy was good for consumptives. De Musset went away ailing; he returned a mere shadow. What happened? Ah! I cannot say. Possibly his eyes were opened by the things he saw—you remember the young Italian physician—I think his name was Pagello? It was the same with Chopin. Without me he could not thrive. Sand knew it and hated me. I was the sturdy oak, Frédéric the tender ivy. I poured out my heart's blood for him, poured it into his music. He was a mere girl, I tell you—a sensitive, slender, shrinking, peevish girl, a born prudish spinster, and would shiver if any one looked at him. Liszt always frightened him and he hated Mendelssohn. He called Beethoven a sour old Dutchman, and swore that he did not write piano music. For the man who first brought his name before the public, the big-hearted German, Robert Schumann—here's to his memory—Chopin had an intense dislike. He confessed to me that Schumann was no composer, a talented improviser only. I think he was a bit jealous of the man's genius. But Freddie loved Mozart, loved his music so madly that it was my turn to become jealous.

“And fastidious! Bon Dieu! I tell you that he could not drink, and once Balzac told us a piquant story and Frédéric fainted. I remember well how Balzac stared and said in that great voice of his: 'Guard well thy little damsel, my good Minkiewicz, else he may yet be abducted by a tom-cat,' and then he laughed until the window-panes rattled. What a brute!...

“I gave my brain to Chopin. When he returned to me from that mad trip to the Balearic Islands I had not the heart to scold. He was pallid and even coughed in a whisper. He had no money; Sand was angry with him and went off to Nohant alone. I had no means, but I took twenty-four little piano preludes that I had made while Frédéric was away and sold them for ready money. You know them, all the world knows them. They say now that he wrote them whilst at Majorca, and tell fables about the rain-drop prelude in D flat. A pack of lies! I wrote them and at my old piano without strings, the same that I still have in the Rue Puteaux. But I sha'n't complain. I love him yet. What was mine was his—is his, even my music.”

The group became uneasy. It was late. The rain had stopped, and through the open doors of The Fallen Angels could be seen the soft-starred sky, and melting in the distance were the lights of the Gare Saint-Lazare. It was close by the Quarter of Europe, and the women who walked the boulevard darted swift glances into the heated rooms of the brasserie.

Minkiewicz drank another absinthe—his last. There was no more money. The disciples had spent their all for the master whom they loved as they hated the name of Wagner. His slanting eyes—the eyes of the Calmuck—were bloodshot; his face was yellow-white. His long, white hair hung on his shoulders and there were bubbles about his lips.

“But I often despair. I loved Chopin's reputation too much ever to write a line of music after his death. Besides who would have believed me? Which one of you believes in his secret heart of hearts one word I have spoken to-night? It is difficult to make the world acknowledge that you are not an idiot; very difficult to shake its belief that Chopin was not a god. Alas! there are no more gods. You say I am a poet, yet how may a man be a poet if godless? I know that there is no God, yet I am unhappy longing after Him. I awake at the dawn and cry for God as children cry for their mother. Curse reason! curse the knowledge that has made a mockery of my old faiths! Frédéric died, and dying saw Christ. I look at the roaring river of azure overhead and see the cruel sky—nothing more. I tell you, my children, it has killed the poet in me, and it will kill the gods themselves when comes the crack of doom.

“I dream often of that time—that time John, the poet of Patmos, foretold in his Revelations: The time when the Sixth Seal was opened. Alas! when the Son of Man cometh out of the clouds and round about the throne are the four-winged beasts, what will he see?

“Nothing—nothing, I tell you.

“Unbelief will have killed the very soul of creation itself. And where once burned the eye of the Cosmos will be naught but a hideous emptiness.

“Hélas! mes enfants, I could drink one more absinthe; my soul grieves for my lost faith, my lost music, my lost Frédéric, my lost life.” ...

But they went away. It was past the hour of closing and the host was not in a humor for parleying.

“Ah! the old pig, the old blasphemer!” he said, shaking his head as he locked the doors.

They watched him until he turned the corner of the Rue Puteaux and was lost to them.

He moved slowly, painfully, one leg striking the pavement in syncopation, for it was sadly crippled by disease. He did not twist his thin head as he went along the Batignolles. Then the band passed once more up to the warmer lights of the Clichy Quarter and argued art far into the night.

They one and all hated Wagner, adoring Chopin's magic music.


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