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A Son of Liszt by James Huneker

 

    It originated in the wicked vanity of Sir William Davenant
    himself, who, disdaining his honest but mean descent from
    the vintner, had the shameless impiety to deny his father
    and reproach the memory of his mother by claiming
    consanguinity with Shakespeare.

    —REED'S SHAKESPEARE.

Little Holland was very dry.

Little Holland is a shapeless stretch of meadowland pierced by irregular canals through which sluggishly flows the water at high tide. Odd shaped houses are scattered about, one so near the river that its garden overflows in the full of the moon. Dotted around stand conical heaps of hay gleaned from this union of land and water. It is called Little Holland, for small schooners sail by under the very nose of your house, and the hired girl often forgets to serve the salad while flirting with the skipper of some sloop. But this August night Little Holland was very dry.

As we stood facing the river I curiously examined my host. His face was deeply lined by life which had carved a quarter hundred little wrinkles about his eyes and the corners of his mouth. His eyes were not true. They shifted too much. His thick, brown hair was thrown off his forehead in a most exuberantly artistic fashion. His nose jutted well into the outer world, and I had to confess that his profile was of a certainty striking. But his full face was disappointing. It was too narrow; its expression was that of a meagre soul, and his eyes were very close together. Yet I liked Piloti; he played the piano well, sang with no little feeling, painted neat water sketches and was a capital host.

A sliced cantaloupe moon, full of yellow radiance, arose as we listened to the melancholy fall of the water on the muddy flats, and I said to Piloti, “Come, let us go within; there you will play for me some tiny questioning Chopin prelude, and forget this dolorous night.” ... He had been staring hard at the moon when I aroused him. “As you will; let us go indoors by all means, for this moon gives me the spleen.” Then we moved slowly toward the house.

Piloti was a bachelor; an old woman kept house and he always addressed her in the Hungarian tongue. His wants were simple, but his pride was Lucifer's. By no means a virtuoso, he had the grand air, the grand style, and when he sat down to play one involuntarily stopped breathing. He had a habit of smiting the keyboard, and massive chords, clangorous harmonies inevitably preluded his performances. I knew some conservatory girls who easily could outstrip Piloti technically, but there was something which differentiated his playing from that of other pianists. Liszt he did very well.

When we came into the shabby drawing-room I noticed a picture of the Abbé Liszt over the grand piano, and as Piloti took a seat he threw back his head; and my eyes which had rested a moment on the portrait involuntarily returned to it, so before I was aware of it I cried out, “I say, Piloti, do you know that you look like Liszt?” He blushed deeply, and gave me a most curious glance.

“I have heard it said often,” he replied, and he crashed into the master's B minor Sonata, “The Invitation to Hissing and Stamping,” as Gumprecht has christened it.

Piloti played the interesting work most vigorously. He hissed, he stamped and shook back his locks in true Lisztian style. He rolled off the chorale with redundant meaning, and with huge, flamboyant strokes went through the brilliant octave finale in B major. As he closed, and I sat still, a sigh near at hand caused me to turn, and then I saw the old housekeeper, her arms folded, standing in a doorway. The moonlight biliously smudged her face, and I noticed her staring eyes. Piloti's attention was attracted by my silence, and when he saw the woman he uttered a harsh, crackling word. She instantly retired. Turning to me, with a nervous laugh, he explained:

“The old fool always is affected by moonlight and music.”

We strolled out-of-doors, cigarettes in hand, and the rhythmic swish-swash of the river told that the tide was rising. The dried-up gullies and canals became silver-streaked with the incoming spray, and it needed only a windmill to make the scene as Dutch as a Van Der Neer. Piloti was moody. Something worried him, but as I was not in a very receptive condition, I forbore questioning him. We walked over the closely cut grass until the water was reached. He stopped, tossed his cigarette away:

“I am the unhappiest man alive!” At once I became sympathetic.

He looked at me fiercely: “Do you know who I am? Do you know the stock I spring from? Will you believe me if I tell you? Can I even trust you?” I soothed the excited musician and begged him to confide in me. I was his nearest friend and he must be aware of my feelings. He became quieter at once; but never shall I forget the look on his face as he reverently took off his hat.

“I am the son of Franz Liszt, and I thank God for it!”

“Amen!” I fervently responded.

Then he told me his story. His mother was a Hungarian lady, nobly born. She had been an excellent pianist and studied with Liszt at Weimar and Buda-Pesth. When Piloti became old enough he was taught the piano, for which he had aptitude. With his mother he lived the years of his youth and early manhood in London. She always wore black, and after Liszt's death Piloti himself went into mourning. His mother sickened and died, leaving him nothing but sad memories. It sounded very wretched, and I hastened to console him as best I could. I reminded him of the nobility of his birth, and that it was greater to be the son of a genius than of a duke. “Look at Sir William Davenant,” I said; “'O rare Sir William Davenant,' as his contemporaries called him. What an honor to have been Shakespeare's natural son!” But Piloti shook his head.

“I care little for the legitimacy of my birth; what worries me, oppresses me, makes me the most miserable man alive, is that I am not a second Liszt. Why can I not play like my father?”

I endeavored to explain that genius is seldom transmitted, and did not forget to compliment him on his musical abilities. “You know that you play Liszt well. That very sonata in B minor, it pleased me much.” “But do I play it like a Friedheim?” he persisted. And I held my peace....

Piloti was downcast and I proposed bed. He assented. It was late; the foolish-looking young topaz moon had retired; the sky was cloudy, and the water was rushing over Little Holland. We did not get indoors without wetting our feet. After drinking a parting glass I shook his hand heartily, bade him cheer up, and said that study would soon put him in the parterre of pianists. He looked gloomy, and nodded good-night. I went to my room. As the water was likely to invade the cellar and even the ground floor, the bedrooms were all on the second floor. I soon got to my bed, for I was tired, and the sadness of this strange household, the moaning of the river, the queer isolated feeling, as if I were alone far out at sea, all this depressed me, and I actually pulled the covers over my head like a frightened child during a thunderstorm.

I must have been sleeping some time when voices penetrated the dream-recesses of my brain. As I gradually emerged from darkened slumber I became conscious of Piloti's voice. It was pitched a trifle above a whisper, but I heard every word. He was talking savagely to some one, and the theme was the old one.

“It has gone far enough. I'm sick of it, I tell you. I will kill myself in another week. Don't,” he said in louder tones and with an imprecation—“don't tell me not to. You've been doing that for years.”

A long silence ensued; a woman's voice answered:

“My son, my son, you break my heart with your sorrow! Study if you would play like your father, study and be brave, be courageous! All will come out right. Idle fretting will do no good.”

It was the voice of the housekeeper, and she spoke in English. Piloti's mother! What family secret was I upon the point of discovering? I shivered as I lay in my bed, but could not have forborne listening though I should die for it. The voices resumed. They came from the room immediately back of mine:

“I tell you, mother, I know the worst. I may be the son of a genius, but I am nevertheless a mediocrity. It is killing me! it is killing me!” and the voice of this morose monomaniac broke into sobs.

The poor mother cried softly. “If I only had not been Liszt's son,” Piloti muttered, “then I would not be so wretched, so cursed with ambitions. Alas! why was I ever told the truth?”

“Oh, my son, my son, forgive!” I heard the noise of one dropping on her knees. “Oh, my boy, my pride, my hope, forgive me—forgive the innocent imposture I've practised on you! My son, I never saw Liszt; you are—”

With an oath Piloti started up and asked in heavy, thick speech: “What's this, what's this, woman? Seek not to deceive me. What do you tell me? Never saw Liszt! Who, then, was my father? You must speak, if I have to drag the words from between your teeth.”

“O God! O God!” she moaned, “I dare not tell you—it is too shameful—I never saw Liszt—I heard much of him—I adored him, his music—I was vain, foolish, doting! I thought, perhaps, you might be a great pianist, and if you were told that Liszt was your father—your real father.” ...

“My real father—who was he? Quick, woman, speak!”

“He was Liszt's favorite piano-tuner,” she whispered.

Dull silence reigned, and then I heard some one slowly descending the stairs. The outer door closed, and I rushed to the window. In the misty dawn I could see nothing but water. The house was completely hemmed in by a noiseless sheet of sullen dirty water. Not a soul was in sight, and almost believing that I had been the victim of a nightmare, I went back to my bed and fell asleep. I was awakened by loud halloas and rude poundings at my window. A man was looking in at me: “Hurry up, stranger; you haven't long to wait. The water is up to the top of the porch. Get your clothes on and come into my boat!”

It did not take me hours to obey this hint, and I stepped from the window to the deck of a schooner. The meadows had utterly disappeared. Nothing but water glistened in the sunlight. When I reached the mainland I looked back at the house. I could just descry the roof.

Little Holland was very wet.

 
 
 

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