A Story on the Color-Line
MY friend the musician dropped into my den, the other afternoon, for our annual talk.
“ I read that last book of yours,” said he. “ It’s the best thing you’ve done. How’s it going ? ”
I suppose my gesture must have been expressive of small financial success.
“ Ah ! ” he exclaimed commiseratingly. “ I don’t understand that.”
“ I do,” said I. “I killed the hook by making the hero a colored man.”
“ But he was n’t! ” cried Storson.
“ I let people think so for a dozen chapters. It’s the same thing.”
“ But, hang it, that was just where the art came in ! That uncertainty was precisely the point of the story.”
“ Thank you. Would you have had me say that in the preface ? ”
“ Say it in the preface to the next one. Take the very same theme, old fellow, — the color-line in the North, — and hammer away. There’s an Uncle Tom’s Cabin in it for somebody.”
I shook my head. “ Not for me. I’m no crusader. And besides, a year’s work is all I can afford to lose. I’m going back to the old thing: that sells very decently.”
“ Yes, I know,” he flung in impatiently ; “ genial banter, a knack for description. and a romanticism that you don’t quite dare own. It’s delicate, and it’s well done. But in that book you spoke out,—you cut to the bone, man. And I want to see you do it again.”
I smoked in silence.
“ If you will,” lie went on, “ I ’ll give you a plot, here and now.”
“ That does n’t tempt me,” I said. “ There are plots enough, Heaven knows. But go ahead. Do you begin with a sort of overture, lights turned down, pianissimo ? ”
“ I’m quite serious,” replied Storson. “ It’s about a fellow I know very well ; white as the man in your story, and the grandson of a United States Senator to boot. He was a pupil of Reif, in Berlin. I met him there, and afterward at the Conservatory at Leipsic. He had studied music for two years at Oberlin before be went abroad, and he thinks now that that was his ruin.”
“ Why ? ”
“ They Heated him as they treated any other student, and it fooled him. It gave him the feeling that there was a professional future for him. He went to Europe on that idea.”
“ But the color - line could n’t have troubled him over there ? ”
“ No. He might have stayed there and been happy. But the foreign market is terribly overcrowded, and when his money gave out he had to come home.”
“ Well ? ”
“ I want you to understand,” said Storson deliberately, “ that this fellow was, and is, a genius, in the full sense of that spoiled word ; and that he has a sound musical education, and a physique that permits him to practice eight hours a day. I 've seen darkies enough with a marvelous knack at picking out a tune. Generally they never get any farther. This man is different. I 've known pretty nearly a thousand pianists — fellow students and pupils —since I began myself, and not more than two are in that fellow’s class.”
“ Now for the plot,” said I. “ Your gifted ' might have been ’ is a rather conventional character.”
“ Very well. Where do you suppose he is to-day ? ”
I waited, watching the musician’s leonine face darken.
“ I see him whenever I play in Chicago,” he went on. “ Four years ago he had just come back from Leipsic. He made an engagement as church organist in a little town out on the Burlington road, and had a dozen pupils on the piano. He was radiant; but the game lasted just sis weeks. Then it got abroad that the organist at the Methodist Church was a colored man, and the music committee forced him to resign. His pupils stopped taking lessons, and he had to leave town. Then he tried giving concerts in colored churches, at ten cents admission ; two years ago he was starving at that. A year ago I gave a concert in a college town in Michigan, and who do you think waited on me at the hotel table ? My fellow student at Reif’s ! He came up to my room, after the hotel was quiet, and we had a talk. He was absolutely discouraged. He had no money. It had been a choice between waiting on the table and the Potter’s Field. Well, I gave him letters to some musical people in Chicago, and lent him fifty dollars to try his luck once more. He had not touched a piano for months.”
“ And you have n’t heard from him ? ” I asked.
“ He called on me last week at the Auditorium,” said Storson, tossing away his cigar nervously. “For a long time I could n’t get out of him what he was doing. Then he told me that he was playing the piano at a dance-house. He was well paid, well dressed, and he gave me my fifty dollars. He plays Bach there, do you know, Bach and Beethoven, transposed and the time changed into the devil’s own gallop, and nobody knows the difference. They don’t draw the color-line on him. It’s a very democratic place. He has found out at last, he says, what an American colored man with a gift for music is expected to do with it. He ’ll shoot himself some day, but he is n’t going to starve any more.”
I stared out of the window into the twilight. For a whole year, once, I had brooded over such tragedies as this, fancying that one of them might be turned into art.
“ There’s your story,” Storson said.
“ And after all,” I replied, “ what’s the use ? If you announced that your musician was colored, nobody would read the story. If you made him of doubtful blood, they would like it less still: I’ve tried that, you see. In fact, the whole thing is too unpleasant to the contemporary American public. If it were far enough away, — in Mashona Land, for instance, —or a couple of hundred years ago ” —
“ Uncle Tom’s Cabin ? ” argued Storson.
“ Or if I were Mrs. Stowe,” I admitted. “But suppose I wrote it out just as you have told it, without changing anything, — a story based on the colorline, — do you know what it would be worth, as copy ? It would n’t be worth the stamps for returning the manuscript. Editors know the public taste too well.”