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Whom the Gods Destroyed (collection)/Whom the Gods Destroyed (short story)

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WHOM THE GODS DESTROYED

 

 

WHOM THE GODS DESTROYED

I

THE most high gods have decided that too much power over the hearts of men shall not be given to other men, for then the givers are forgotten in the gift and the smoke dies away from the altars. So they kill the men who play with souls. According to an ancient saying, before they destroy the victim they make him mad. There are, however, modifications of the process. Occasionally they make him drunk.

As I came down the board-walk that leads to the ocean, I saw by his staggering and swaying gait that the man was not only very drunk indeed, but that he gloried in the fact. This was shown by his brandishing arms and tossing head and the defiant air with which he regarded the cottages, before one of which he paused, leaned forward, placing one hand dramatically at his ear, and presently executed a wild dance of what was apparently derision. A timid woman would have retreated, but I am not timid, except when I am alone in the dark. Also I have what my brother-in-law calls Bohemian tastes. As nearly as I have been able to understand that phrase, it signifies a great interest in people, especially when they are at all odd. And this solitary, scornful dance of a ragged man before the Averys' cottage was odd in the extreme.

So I walked quietly along. When I reached the man I heard him muttering rapidly to himself, while he rested from the exertion of his late performance. What did dancing drunken men talk about? I walked slower. My brother-in-law says that a woman with any respect for the proprieties, to say nothing of the conventions, would never have done this. I have observed, however, that his feelings for the proprieties and the conventions, both of them, have on occasion suffered relapse, more especially at those times, prior to his marriage to my sister, when I, although supposed to be walking and riding and rowing and naphtha-launching with them, was frequently and inexcusably absent. So I gather that the proprieties and the conventions, like many other things, are relative.

As I passed the man he turned and looked crossly at me and spoke apparently to some one far away behind me, for he spoke with much force.

"Did you ever hear such damn foolishness?" he demanded. Now there was nothing to hear but Miss Kitty Avery playing Chopin's Fourth Ballade in F minor. She played it badly, of course, but nobody who knew Kitty Avery would have imagined that she would play otherwise than badly, and I have heard so much bad playing that I didn't notice it very much anyway. I thought it hardly probable that the man should know how unfortunate Kitty's method and selection were, so I passed directly by. Soon I heard his steps, and I knew he was coming after me. While he was yet some distance behind me he spoke again.

"I suppose that fool of a woman thinks she can play," he growled as he lurched against a lamp-post. Then I did the unpardonable deed. I turned and answered him.

"How do you know it's a woman?" I asked.

"Huh! Take me for a fool, don't you?" he said scornfully, scuffling along unsteadily. "I'm drunk as an owl, but I'm no fool! No. I know it's a woman from the pawin' 'round she does. Bah! Thinks she's playin'. Damn nonsense!" He sat down carefully on the sand by the side of the walk and wagged his head knowingly. I looked cautiously about. No one was in sight. I bent down and untied my shoe.

"Perhaps you could play it better?" I suggested sweetly. His jaw dropped with consternation.

"Play it better! Oh, Lord! She says can I play it better! Can-I-play-it-better? Well, I'll tell you one thing. If I couldn't play it better, d'ye know what I'd do? Do you?"

"No," said I, and tied my shoe. He didn't talk thickly as they do in books. On the contrary, he brought out each word with a particularly clear and final utterance.

"Well, I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go off and drown my sorrers in drink! Yes, I would. Although I'm so drunk that I wouldn't know when I was getting drunk on principle and when I was just plain drunk. Le' me tell you somethin': I'm drunk now!" He announced the fact with a gravity so colossal as to render laughter impossible. I untied the other shoe.

"Can you really play Chopin?" I said. He shook his fist at the Avery cottage.

"What I can't play of Chopin you never heard played! So that's the end o' that," he said. The folly of the situation suddenly became clear to me. I hastily tied my shoe and turned to go. He half rose from the sand, but sank helplessly back.

"Look here," he said confidentially, "I'm tired, and I need m' rest. I got to have rest. We all need rest. If you want to hear me play, you come to the old hulk of a barn that's got the piano in it. They call it the auditorium—au-di-to-ri-um." He pronounced the syllables as if to a child of three. "I'll be there. You come before supper. I'll be rested then. I'd like to shoot that woman—thinks she can play—damn nonsense—" I went on to the beach.

 

II

My brother-in-law came down on the afternoon boat, and of course he occupied our attention. His theories, though often absurd, are certainly well sustained. For instance, his ideas as to the connection between genius and insanity. He says—but I don't know why I speak of it. I defeated him utterly. At length I left the room. I hate a man who won't give up when he's beaten. I found the Nice Boy on the piazza, and we sat and talked. Really a charming fellow. And not so very young, either. He told fascinating tales of a shipwreck he'd experienced, where they sat on the bow as the boat went down and traded sandwiches.

"I gave Hunter two hams for a chicken, and it was a mean swindle!" he said reminiscently. "Speaking of sandwiches, I gave a chap ten cents to buy one this afternoon. Awfully seedy looking. Shabby clothes, stubbly beard, dirty hands, not half sober, and what do you think he said?" I remembered and blushed.

"I don't know," I murmured.

"He invited me to a recital—a piano recital! He said he was going to play at five-thirty in the auditorium, and I might come if I liked, though it was a private affair! How is that for nerve? He didn't look up to a hand organ."

My curiosity grew. And then, I had a great consciousness of not liking to disappoint even a drunken man. He evidently thought I was coming. I sketched lightly to the Nice Boy the affair of the morning. He was not shocked. He was amused. But my brother-in-law says that nothing I could say could shock the Nice Boy. In fact, he says, that if I mean nothing serious, I have no business to let the Nice Boy think—but that is a digression. It is one of my brother-in-law's prerogatives to be as impertinent as he cares to be.

"Shall we go over?" said I. "He is very probably an accompanist, stranded here, with his engagement ended. Perhaps he even plays well. These things happen in books." The Nice Boy shook his head.

"We'll go, by all means," he said, "but don't hope. He's not touched a piano this long time."

So we gathered some shawls and cushions and went over. The building was all dusty and smelled of pine. As we stumbled in, the sound of a piano met us. I own I was a bit excited. For one doubtful second I listened, ready to adore. Then I laughed nervously. We were not people in a book. It was Mendelssohn's "Spring Song," played rather slowly and with a mournful correctness. I could feel the player's fingers thudding down on the keys—one played it so when it was necessary to use the notes. The Nice Boy smiled consolingly.

"Too bad," he whispered. "Shall we go out now?"

"I should like to view the fragments of the idol!" I whispered back. "Let's end the illusion by seeing him!"

So we tip-toed up to the benches, and looked at the platform where the Steinway stood. Twirling on the stool sat a girl of seventeen or so, peering out into the gloom at us. It was very startling. Now I felt that the strain was yet to come. As I sank into one of the chairs a man rose slowly from a seat under the platform. It was the stranger. He nodded jauntily at us.

"Good thing you come," he announced cheerfully. "I don't know how long I could stand that girl. I guess she's related to the other," and he shambled up the steps. His unsteady walk, his shaking hand, as he clumsily pushed the chairs out of the way, told their disagreeable story. He walked straight up to the girl, and looking beyond her, said easily, "Excuse me, miss, but I'm goin' to play a little for some friends o' mine, an' I'll have to ask you to quit for a while." The girl looked undecidedly from him to us, but we had nothing to say.

"Come, come," he added impatiently, "you can bang all you want in a few minutes, with nobody to disturb you. Jus' now I'm goin' to do my own turn."

His assurance was so perfect, his intention to command obedience so evident, that the child got up and went slowly down the stairs, more curious than angry. The man swept the music from the rack, and lifted the top of the piano to its full height. Then with an impatient twitch he spun the music-stool a few inches lower, and pulled it out. The Nice Boy leaned over to me.

"The preparations are imposing, anyhow," he whispered. But I did not laugh. I felt nervous. To be disappointed again would be too cruel! I watched the soiled, untidy figure collapse onto the stool. Then I shut my eyes, to hear without prejudice of sight the opening triple-octave scale of the professional pianist. For with such assurance as he showed he should at least be able to play the scales.

The hall seemed so large and dim, I was so alone—I was glad of the Nice Boy. Suppose it should all be a horrible plot, and the tramp should rush down with a revolver? Suppose—and then I stopped thinking. For from far-away somewhere came the softest, sweetest song. A woman was singing. Nearer and nearer she came, over the hills, in the lovely early morning; louder and louder she sang—and it was the "Spring Song"! Now she was with us—young, clear-eyed, happy, bursting into delicious flights of laughter between the bars. Her eyes, I know, were grey. She did not run or leap—she came steadily on, with a swift, strong, swaying, lilting motion. She was all odorous of the morning, all vocal with the spring. Her voice laughed even while she sang, and the perfect, smooth succession of the separate sounds was unlike any effect I have ever heard. Now she passed—she was gone by. Softer, fainter, ah, she was gone! No, she turned her head, tossed us flowers, and sang again, turned, and singing, left us. One moment of soft echo—and then it was still.

I breathed—for the first time since I heard her, I thought. I opened my eyes. It was all black before them, they had been closed so long. I did not dare look at the Nice Boy. There was absolutely nothing for him to say, but I was afraid he would try to say it. He was staring at the platform. His mouth was open, his eyes very large. Without turning his face towards me, he said solemnly, "And I gave him ten cents for a sandwich! Ten cents for a sandwich!"

Suddenly I heard sobs—heavy, awkward sobs. I looked behind me. The girl had dropped forward on to the chair in front and was hysterically chattering into her handkerchief.

"I played that! I played that!" she wailed. "Oh, he heard me! he did, he did!" I felt horribly ashamed for her. How she must feel! A child can suffer so.

But the man at the piano gave a little chuckle of satisfaction, and ran his hands up and down the keys in a delirium of scales and arpeggios. Then he hit heavily a deep, low note. It was like a great, bass trumpet. A crashing chord: and then the love-song of Germany and musicians caught me up to heaven, or wherever people go who love that tune—perhaps it is to Germany—and I heard a great, magnificent man singing in a great, magnificent baritone, the song that won Clara Schumann's heart.

Schubert sang sweetly, wonderfully. I cry like a baby when one sings the Serenade even fairly well. And dear Franz Abt has made most loving melodies. But they were musicians singing, this was a man. "Du meine Liebe, du!"—that was no piano; it was a voice. And yet no human voice could be at once so limpid and so rich, so thrilling and so clear. And now it crashed out in chords—heavy, broken harmony. All the rapture of possession, the very absolute of human joy were there—but these are words, and that was love and music.

I don't in the least know how long it lasted. There was no time for me. The god at the piano repeated it again and again, I think, as it is never repeated in the singing, and always should be. I know that the tears rolled over my cheeks and dropped into my lap. I have a vague remembrance of the Nice Boy's enthusiastically and brokenly begging me to marry him to-night and go to Venice with him to-morrow, and my ecstatically consenting to that or anything else. I am sure he held my hand during that period, for the rings cut in so the next day. And I think—indeed I am quite certain—but why consider one's self responsible for such things? At any rate, it has never happened since.

And when it was over we went up hand in hand, and the Nice Boy said, "What—what is your—your name?" And I stared at him, expecting to see his dirty clothes drop off, and his trailing clouds of glory wrap him 'round before he vanished from our eyes. His heavy eyebrows bent together. His knees shook the piano-stool. He was labouring under an intense excitement. But I think he was pleased at our faces.

"What—what the devil does it matter to you what I'm named?" he said roughly.

"Oh, it doesn't matter at all, not at all," I said meekly; "only we wanted, we wanted——" And then, like that chit of seventeen, I cried, too. I am such a fool about music.

"Now you know what I mean when I say I can play," he growled savagely. He seemed really terribly excited, even angry. "I'll play one thing more. Then you go home. When I think o' what I might have done, great God, I can't die till I've shown 'em! Can I? Can I die? You hear me! You see"—his face was livid. His eyes gleamed like coals. I ought to have been afraid, but I wasn't.

"You shall show them!" I gasped. "You shall! Will you play for the hotel? We can fill this place for you. We can——"

"Oh, you shut up!" he snarled. "You! I've played to thousands, I have. You don't know anything about it. It's this devil's drink that's killin' me. It ruined me in Vienna. It spoiled the whole thing in Paris. It's goin' to kill me." His voice rose to a shriek. He dropped from the stool, and from his pocket fell a bottle. The Nice Boy gave a queer little sob.

"Oh, it's dreadful, dreadful!" he whispered to himself. He jumped up on the platform and seized the man's shoulder.

"Come, come," he said. "We'll help you. Come, be a man! You stay here with us, and we'll take care of you. Such a gift as yours shall not go for nothing. Come over to the hotel, and I'll get you a bed."

The man staggered up. He was much older than I had thought. There were deep, disagreeable lines in his face. There was a coarseness, too—but, oh, that "Spring Song"! Now, how can that be? My brother-in-law says—but this is not his story. The man got onto the seat somehow.

"You're a decent fellow," he said. "When I've done playing, you go out. Right straight out. D'ye hear? I'll come see you to-morrow morning."

Then he shut his eyes and felt for the keys, and played the Chopin Berceuse. And it is an actual fact that I wanted to die then. Not suddenly—but just to be rocked into rest, rocked into rest, and not wake up any more. It was the purest, sweetest, most inexpressibly touching thing I ever heard. I felt so young—so trustful, somehow. I knew that no harm would come. And then it sang itself to sleep, and we went away and left him, with his head resting on his hands that still pressed the keys. And we never spoke. I think the girl came out with us, but I'm not sure.

At the door the Nice Boy gulped, and said in a queer, shaky voice, "I'm not nearly good enough to have sat by you—I know that—you seem so far away—but I want to tell you." And I said that he was much better than I—that none of us were good—that I thought it would be all right in the end—that after all it was being managed better than we could arrange it—that perhaps heaven was more like what we used to think than what we think now. There is no knowing what we might have said if my brother-in-law had not come down to see where I was. And then I went to sleep like a baby.


III

I should like to end the story here. I should like to leave him bowed over the keys and remember only the most exquisite experience of my life in connection with him. But there is the rest of the tale, and it really needs telling.

I didn't see the end. The Nice Boy and my brother-in-law saw that, and I only know as much as they will tell me. The Nice Boy went over and got him the next morning. He said his name was Decker. He said that he had spent the night in the solemnest watching and praying, and he had held the bottle in his hands and never touched a drop of it. They gave him a bath and clothes, and fed him steadily for two days. He grew fat before our eyes. He looked nicer, more respectable, but more commonplace. He refused to touch the piano because it gave him such a craving for drink.

He hated to talk about himself. But he let slip occasional remarks about London and Paris and Vienna and Leipsic that took away one's breath. He must have known strange people. Once he told me a little story about Clara Schumann that implied more than acquaintance, and he quoted Liszt constantly. He was an American beyond a doubt, we thought. He spoke vaguely of a secret that even Liszt had missed. I guessed it was connected with that wonderful singing quality that made the instrument a human voice under his fingers. When I asked him about it he laughed.

"You wait," he said confidently. "You just wait. I'll show you people something to make you open your eyes. I know. You're a good audience, you and your friend. You make a good air to play in. You just wait."

And I have waited. But never again shall I hear that lovely girl sing across the hills. Never again will my heart grow big, and ache and melt, and slip away to that song, "Du, Meine Leibe, Du." Oh, it was not of this earth, that music. Perhaps when I die I shall hear the Berceuse echo—I think it may be so.

Well, we got them all together. There must have been a thousand. They came from across the bay and all along the inlet. The piano was tuned, and the people were seated, and I was just where we were that night, and Mr. Decker was walking behind the little curtain in a new dress-suit. He had shaken hands with me just before. His hands were cold as ice and they trembled in mine. I congratulated him on the presence of Herr H—— from Leipsic, who had been miraculously discovered just across the bay; and Mr. J—— of New York, who could place him musically in the most desirable fashion; and asked him not to forget me, his first audience, and his most sincere friend and admirer.

In his eyes I could swear I saw fright. Not nervousness, not stage fear, but sheer, appalling terror. It could not be, I thought, and my brother-in-law told me to go down. Then he stepped to the front and told them all how pleased, how proud and delighted he was to be the means of introducing to them one whom he confidently trusted would leave this stage to-night one of the recognised pianists of the world. He described briefly the man's extraordinary effect upon two of his friends, who were not, he was good enough to say, likely to be mistaken in their musical estimates. He hoped that they all appreciated their good fortune in being the first people in this part of the world to hear Mr. Decker, and he took great pleasure in introducing him.

At this point Mr. Decker should have come forward. As he did not, my brother-in-law stepped back to get him. He found the Nice Boy alone in the room behind the stage, looking distinctly nervous. He explained that Mr. Decker had gone out for a moment to get the air—he was naturally a bit excited, and the room was close. My brother-in-law said nothing, and they waited a few minutes in strained silence. Finally they walked about the room looking at each other.

"Do you think it was quite wise to let him go?" said my brother-in-law, with compressed lips. The Nice Boy is horribly afraid of my brother-in-law.

"I'll—I'll go out and—and get him," he gasped, and dashed out into the dark, cursing himself for a fool. This was unfortunate, for in five seconds more Mr. Decker had reeled into the room. He explained in a very thick voice that he had never been able to play without the drink; that a little brandy set his fingers free, but that he had taken too much and must rest.

When the Nice Boy got back—he had brought two great pails of cold water and a fresh dress-shirt—it was too late. The man lay in a heap on the floor, and my brother-in-law stood, white and raging, talking to the heap. The man was drunkenly, horribly asleep. The Boy said that the worst five minutes he ever spent were those in which he poured water over the heap on the floor and shook it, my brother-in-law watching with an absolutely indescribable expression!

Then he got out on the platform and said something. Mr. Decker had met with an accident—would some one get a doctor?—was there perhaps a doctor in the audience?—they could realise his position—and more of that sort.

I knew well enough. When the doctor went in he found the Boy shaking the drunken brute on the floor, and they told the doctor all about it, and then went out by the other door. And they got a carriage and took Decker to the hotel. I don't know—it seemed not wholly his fault. And his face showed that he had suffered. But the men would hear nothing of that. My brother-in-law says that for a woman who is really as hard as nails I have more apparent and æsthetic sympathy than any one he ever knew. And that may be so.

The people took it very nicely. They cleared the floor, and the younger ones danced and the older ones talked, and the manager sent over ices and coffee, and it turned out the affair of the season. And they were all very grateful to my brother-in-law and his friend, and quite forgot about the strange artist.

Whether he ever fully realised what the evening had been we never knew, because when they went in the next morning to see how he was, they found him dead. The doctor said that the excitement, the terror, the sudden cutting off of liquor, with the sudden wild drinking, were too much for an overstrained heart, and that he had probably died soon after he was carried to his room.

It seemed to me a little sad that while they were dancing, the man whom they had come to see——. But my brother-in-law says that I turn to the morbid view of things, and that that was the very blessing of the whole affair—that the crowd should have been so pleased, and that the horrible situation should have ended so smoothly. Because such a man is better dead, he says. And of course he is right. Life would be horrible to him, one can see.

But I have noticed that the Nice Boy and the girl who heard him play do not feel so sure that his death was best. For myself, I shall always feel that the world has lost its musical master. I have heard the music-makers of two generations, and not one of them has excelled his exquisite lightness and force of touch, and that wonderful singing stress—oh! I could cry to think of it! And when we go abroad next I shall find out the name of the man who played in Leipsic and Paris and Vienna—for he must have played there once; he said he had played to thousands—and see if any one there has heard of his secret, his wonderful singing through the keys.

For, though my brother-in-law says that the musical temperament in combination with a Bohemian tendency gives an emotional basis which is absolutely unsafe and therefore untrustworthy in its reports of actual facts, I know that the most glorious music of my life gained nothing from my imagination. For there were three of us who saw the spring come over the hills that night. Three of us heard the triumph-song of love incarnate, and thrilled to it. Three of us knew for once a peace that passed our understanding, and had the comfort of little children in their mother's arms.

And though it is not true, as my brother-in-law insinuates, that a man need only be able to play my soul away in order to be ranked by me among the angels, I shall continue to insist that somewhere, somehow, the beautiful sounds he made are accounted to him for just a little righteousness!