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"Lynnette" (2016), by Letitia Huckaby. Courtesy of the artist and the Art Museum of Southeast Texas

My Dear Master Liszt

My Dear Master Liszt!

I have become a slave owner. Yes, like you I believe in the freedom of all men—your Hungarians, the Poles, the Rumanians!—and in the role we artists must play—light-bringers, revealers of passion, sympathizers with the oppressed! But I have become a slave owner. It is a stain, a mark of rot. How many stains have I come to bear in these last weeks? They are countless. 

I beg you, my dear Master Liszt, read this letter. 

Fifteen years have passed since I was your student. Do you remember me? At the beginning of September, 1845, I came to Baden-Baden. I had learned from a newspaper that you were there, resting after seasons of touring and the disastrous festival at Bonn, and I presented myself, a graduate of the new conservatory at Leipzig. I called Leipzig a stifling place, pleaded with you to teach me, you who had always been so generous with students. A shining Érard stood in your rooms, and you commanded me to play. When I finished you told me to visit you each afternoon, promptly at three. Overjoyed, I did. I played, and you encouraged me. I treasure those hours, my dear Master Liszt. After two weeks of visits, though, I arrived and you were not there. Belloni, sitting at his usual desk and tending to your letters, told me you were late returning from the baths. As I waited I saw, on the Érard, a book. Curiosity stole over me. I seized it, discovered inside a list of all your students. I raced through the pages, searched for my name, found it at the list’s very end. What had I most wanted, when I came to you? A kiss, like that which Master Beethoven once placed upon your forehead. Genius welcoming genius. What did I find? These words, which ache still in the deepest chambers of my very being: “Languid and mediocre. Fingers good enough. Posture at the piano good enough. Enough ‘enoughs,’ the grand total of which is not much.”

You returned, found me, my eyes red from too many tears, the book open on my lap. 

“I am a mediocrity,” I said. 

You hung your head, placed a consoling hand on my knee, said it was true. I was a kind young man, but, yes, I was a mediocrity. 

One who is not an artist—such a one does not understand. But you and I, my dear Master Liszt, we understand. The pronouncement was death. That instant I became like those poor gamblers I’d seen haunting the steps of the Kurhaus, ruined by a single turn of the wheel. What had I lost? All that I’d dreamt of. I would give no concerts before emperors. I would receive no cheering crowds. I would taste no sweets made in my honor by a city’s foremost bakers. Trifles all, perhaps, but the outward sign of my true damnation: Never from my fingers would come true grace.

At last I looked at you. “What am I to do?” I said.

You smiled. Join my father’s wheat business, you said. Marry a sturdy woman with pink rolls of flesh. Mediocrity is a gift. I would be happy.

I said, “No.” 

“Go over the wide seas then,” you said. “Perhaps there your mediocrity will be taken for genius.”

Do you remember any of this?

Irritated by my importuning, my dear Master Liszt, you meant your words as a rebuke. But I returned to Leipzig, sold all that I owned save for my collection of music and the clothes I could fit in a bag. Then I hurried to Hamburg, leaped onto the first boat I found, and crossed the wide seas to Cuba. 

There, for two months, I played on the pianos at opera houses, in the villas of grandees. It was no good. In Cuba, too, my mediocrity showed. I thought to attempt another island. But at the ship offices I learned of Texas. Open country, just admitted to the United States. I needed a remote place, my dear Master Liszt, this I knew. I sailed to Galveston, port city of Texas, a buggy island with beaches of mud, and there I bargained for passage with a man going up country, and there, too, I bought my piano. No Érard, but a battered Tomkison, the best I could find, the best I could afford. We crossed the bay to the city of Houston and traveled north, north, north through thick forests of pine. Our road was a dirt track, and as we bounced on its ruts my poor Tomkison jangled in the back of its wagon. I thought it might well fall apart before our journey ended! But no. It and I reached Henderson, Texas, the town I settled in, newly risen in those remote wilds, and the town from which these pages come.

Only in a place such as this, you said, might I be accepted as a genius—an ambassador of light!—a bearer of art, stirring passions in every breast! And, indeed, my dear Master Liszt, for fifteen years, in this far spot, it has been so. 

Henderson has an academy, and for these fifteen years I have been its music teacher. To my students I proclaim emotion and the spirit as guiding stars, and for all the town I am a wonder, with my long hair, my twenty bright cravats, and my white gloves that, like you, I pull from my fingers and toss whenever I play. My townsmen consult me on the revolutions of ’48, the fashions of Europe, the duties of the heart. Once each month, the owner of the finest plantation in the county, Mr. Tatum, feeds me the bear he hunts. Imagine this speck of rare opulence in our wilderness, his slaves waving peacock fans while we drink French wines and chart the fates of each figure in his bound Shakespeare! And Tatum has been but one of my regular dining companions, my dear Master Liszt. Here I am sought. Here I am regarded!

Here, too, I have been a man of romance. I fall in love with every young lady student, even those with pitted faces and sunken chins. I write poems on their music, slip kisses onto their hands, and when they ask me to put my fingers onto theirs, to show them the keys, I always oblige. 

Is this not genius? How we act and are perceived? It is not. Fifteen years, my dear Master Liszt. For fifteen years I have pretended to genius, only pretended. For this I have been punished. For this I have been made to pay.

Do you know of the current great debate in this country, my dear Master Liszt? The unrest since the nomination of Lincoln? All summer, abolitionists have been riding in secret through Texas, setting fires, distributing guns and blades, preparing the slaves to revolt. Such, at least, have been the rumors printed in our newspapers week by week. I myself ignored them. Whenever Tatum, treating me to bear, leaned to me and asked what I thought, I would shake my head and tsk. Perhaps it has been one of my failings, a rot of my person, but I never spoke on matters touching slavery. Slavery is a contract between men, I would say if pressed, let it be what it will be. It is outside me.

Well—and then our town burned, my dear Master Liszt.

It happened on a night at the beginning of this month. I woke to shouting, looked out my window, and thought it dawn. Fire, I soon realized. I dressed quickly and helped my fellow townsmen carry water. When the true dawn came, we had mastered the flames. My house was spared. Most houses were spared. It was the shops in the center of town that were lost. 

I stayed to help two Jews comb through the ashes. Brothers from Erfurt, they owned a shop where once a week I visited them to talk German while their women fried me potato pancakes. Some of their metal goods survived. Our hands wrapped in cloth, the metal hot still from the flames, we picked free what we could find. 

Meanwhile, behind us, men gathered in the square. Principal men of the town, planters in from the county, a host of common folk. We had ignored the abolitionist threat, they said. We hadn’t set up a watch. Now the abolitionists had struck. They were here, they must be uncovered, and they must be stopped. 

Tatum called to me. “You’re needed,” he said, and before I could answer, he enrolled me in the Vigilance Committee. Griffin, a lawyer whose pig-eyed daughter has been both my student and a recipient of my poems, put a rifle into my hands. 

In these circumstances, with fears running of abolitionists, I could not refuse. If I had—me, Miszner, who speaks of beauty and freedom—my own life would have been risked. So I believed. So I still believe, though now I count that thing, my life, worthless.

Whatley, a planter near in stature to Tatum, and with whom I have also dined, began to speak (over choice hams, we discoursed on Goethe and the passions that reside in all men, my dear Master Liszt). A Northerner lived in our town, he said. Bert Scofield. 

I knew of this Scofield, though I’d never met with him. He owned a dirty tavern, of the kind I did not visit. 

Whatley said it was a known fact that Scofield bought goods from slaves, goods stolen from their masters. Perhaps it was he who set the fire. The Committee marched to Scofield’s tavern. It too had burned, and Scofield had fled. His absence was taken for admission. He was a secret abolitionist, the Committee soon declared. He’d hoped to lead the slaves into revolt. Horses were found, and half the Committee mounted them, galloped off to search the roads. I have no horse, and I am no rider. I stood with the rest and we idled, uncertain, in the August sun. 

Then Hodges, the town’s post clerk, from whom I have collected my sheet music, and with whom I have sometimes drunk iced lemonades at the Brick Hotel, said that Scofield had a slave woman. Missy May, a cook in his tavern. She should be questioned, he said. Tatum agreed. On his orders we broke up and looked for her.

I found her, my dear Master Liszt, I and my searching partner, Vansickle, the Latin teacher at the academy. Missy May was in the Presbyterian preacher’s garden shed, hiding among his rakes. We told her to come out, and she did. Her skin was black as coal, and she was big with child.

The Committee brought her to the square. Tatum and Griffin put questions to her. At last she confessed: she herself had set the fire, on Scofield’s orders. 

The riders returned. One dragged something behind him. Scofield. The Northerner made a noise, my dear Master Liszt, that I cannot describe. The horseman, young Birdwell, one of my former pupils, a steady student with a good understanding of Chopin, dragged Scofield around the square—through the ashes—over the burned wood. I don’t know how Scofield lived. The rope bound his neck. But there was that noise, that indescribable noise.

Even so, Scofield was dead when they untied him. Young Birdwell and a few others hung his body from the courthouse oak. The Committee shot at it. The body turned and danced with the bullets. At last I thought it done. But then all the Committee looked at me. For I had not fired. 

I raised my rifle, my dear Master Liszt, and I shot. My bullet struck Scofield’s bloody corpse and made it swing.

Now I thought it was done. But, no, it still was not done. There remained the matter of Missy May, Tatum said. He called for a vote. The Committee decided—death. 

To this Dr. March objected. “Her baby,” he said. 

Dr. March is the town’s chief physician, a man of true intellectual gifts. With him I have had a running debate over which is the true master, spirit or flesh. I had strong hope of merciful words. Dr. March told the Committee that Missy May would give birth within weeks, that we could not kill her. 

The Committee was dumbfounded. They stared. 

“Let the baby come,” Dr. March said. “Then kill her.” 

It was a blow, my dear Master Liszt. Missy May was guilty, I believed it. But this was brutality.

The Committee approved Dr. March’s recommendation. Missy May was put in the jail. It was now past noon and we had been awake all night and all morning. Tatum told us to go to our homes and sleep.

And did I sleep? I was distraught by what I had witnessed, by what I had been made to do. Vile. Yes, vile. Already I felt these stains. But, too, I was exhausted.

Over the next days the town settled. People came in from the country to see the ruins. I gave lessons to my private students. One of my maiden aunts—I have a whole collection of maiden aunts—asked if it was true that I had shot Scofield’s body, then blushed with desire when I admitted it. A few nights after the fire I returned again to Tatum’s. As we dined he talked of slave revolts in Virginia and South Carolina, of how it was a mark of honor, of bravery, to say that we too had put one down. 

In this time, I took turns guarding Missy May. A handful of us in the Committee shared the work. Nearly everyone else, including the jailer, Smith, had hired themselves out to rebuild, and yet others were seeing to their crops. My first turn I brought sheet music, some of the new Wagner I’ve seen you touting in your essays—for even here, my dear Master Liszt, I can get the leading European papers—a little Berlioz, your Transcendental Études. (So flowing, my dear Master Liszt! The way the notes glide from stately progressions to tumblings that surpass the most agile of acrobats!) I wanted only to pass the time. I skimmed the music, stopped at certain intriguing passages to sing notes. I pretended Missy May was not there. I did not want to look at her, to think of her, to think of what was to become of her. 

I concentrated mostly on your Études, and my second time through “Harmonies of the Night” I heard Missy May hum the notes with me. I turned to her. She stopped. 

“Please, no,” I said, “continue if it brings you happiness.” 

My dear Master Liszt, she had confessed to burning the town. And yet she was a fellow being. More! A mother, the light of two souls in her. I did not know what else to say. So I sang, and she hummed.

A mistake, perhaps, for it was a binding. Our voices are but instruments of our spirits, and these we joined. Our music was crude and reedy—it’s true. But it was ours, and as we made it I looked at Missy May and saw her beauty, the ripe beauty of motherhood, the mournful beauty of a wild creature condemned. By the end of your “Harmonies of the Night,” I loved her. 

I feel too deeply. I know it. But you yourself loved the doomed Marie Duplessis, loved her because she was doomed. My love for Missy May was much the same. And greater, I dare say. Your Duplessis died of consumption, while my Missy May was to hang, and I—yes, I own it—among those sending her to the noose. Which love-agony is the more tragic I leave it to you to decide.

Of course I said nothing to her. On my second turn as guard I brought your Études. Again I sang, again she hummed. But on my third turn as guard, after we went through your Études, Missy May spoke. 

“Let me out,” she said. “Let me run.”

I shut away the song sheets. Angry! Yes, angry! Had it been a trick, my dear Master Liszt, her gentle humming? Was the passion she put into me only a coin with which to pay her way out, a cheap bribe to her jailer? So, in that moment, I wondered. So, in that moment, I thought. I felt myself abused. I told her she had confessed her guilt. 

She had done nothing, she said. She had been frightened. She had told the Committee lies. I was not like the others. I sang to her.

All this she said to me, and my soul raged. I put my forehead to that copy of your Études. The Committee had voted, I told her. I must abide by the Committee. 

We made no more music. 

On my fourth turn as guard, she again said, “Let me out, let me run.” 

I did not answer. The rest of the time we passed in silence.

And then my fifth turn came. My fifth turn, my dear Master Liszt. At the writing of each of these words my hand has trembled. Now it shakes—riots—tries vehemently to refuse! As I approached the jail I heard laughter. A jail is not a place of laughter. I entered, saw men. Young men from out in the county, six of them, boys truly, boys I did not know. They had gotten into Missy May’s cell, had bound her mouth, had pulled her clothes from her. 

Need I detail the outrage? 

They invited me to join them. I ran out, a coward, and waited for them to finish. 

In Baden-Baden, when you showed me my mediocrity, I feared there was no life after, that I had as much as died. But no. This is when I died, my dear Master Liszt. From here there is no life after. 

I sat with Missy May once the boys were gone. I sang the notes of your “Mazeppa.” She did not hum. 

My soul stormed, then and through all the hours after. That night I plotted to free Missy May. I purchased a jug of whiskey, brought it to the jail. I would get the guard drunk. I would let her out. I too would flee. That simple.

This time, as I approached, I heard a cry of pain and I saw men. Not like those boys before—these stood outside the jail. Ten, twenty of them. One was the lawyer Griffin. He grinned at the sight of the whiskey, called me a good fellow, and took the jug and passed it around. The baby was coming, he said. Two of his own slave women were in the jail with Missy May. I stayed and listened. Past midnight the cries calmed and I heard the sharp protest of a being new to the world.

The jug made its final round. “Noon,” Griffin said to us.  

Noon, my dear Master Liszt. 

At noon the next day, the Committee gathered before the courthouse oak. Tatum and Whatley walked Missy May from the jail. Young Birdwell and Wiley Tipps—another of my students, a sensitive player with the slenderest fingers and a proclivity for Bach (what a waste, you see, all my fifteen years, what a waste!)—put the rope around Missy May’s neck and lifted her. She fought, my dear Master Liszt. She jerked. She twisted. Then she hung dead. 

I returned to my home, sat at my Tomkison, attempted “Harmonies of the Night,” that étude to which she first hummed. I thought to mourn Missy May. But the notes came in rattling bursts. At last I stopped. I tore the songsheet and wept.

How many stains does my soul bear? How many failings do I count? And this is not yet the end, my dear Master Liszt. Read on, I beg you.

Missy May’s baby was a girl and she was to be auctioned off, the money earned to be put in a relief fund for those who had suffered losses in the fire. I decided I would buy her, raise her, and in this way earn a measure of forgiveness. 

The auction was held under that same courthouse oak, just one day after Missy May was killed. The bidding started at twenty-five dollars, rose to fifty. A female infant commands a low price, my dear Master Liszt. This I had learned in my years among the practice of bondage. I shouted two hundred. All looked at me. My townsmen wanted an explanation. I had prepared for this. In my blue suit and brightest cravat, my long hair washed and combed, I stood among them as Miszner the artist—the genius! It was my experiment, I said, to mold a perfect servant from her first suckling days. 

A few of my townsmen chuckled. The auctioneer waited for more bids. A formality. I was overpaying for the baby and no one would challenge me. The auctioneer called “sold.” The baby was mine.

I named her Anna, my dear Master Liszt, that name my mother and your mother share. I rented a wet nurse from Tatum. At night we three sat together. The nurse put Anna to her breast, then I held Anna. The nurse said I was natural with her, though I do not know if this was true or simple flattery. What does it mean, to be natural with a fresh-born soul? Anna spat her milk on me. She grunted. She fell asleep in the crook of my arm. 

When I left those men inside with Missy May, I myself died. It is true. And yet I look back on these days with Anna and count them among the sweetest I have ever lived.

By now, my dear Master Liszt, you have surely guessed. At the end of the week Anna sickened. I sent for Dr. March. He said Anna had a fever. It was this hot summer. “Maybe if her mother had lived,” Dr. March said. “No substitute for a mother.” At these words he showed not an ounce of compunction. He told me Anna had one day left. 

Her death was awful, my dear Master Liszt. I will not pretend otherwise. She vomited black vomit. She sweated. She cried and would not be comforted. Her mouth dried. By the end, her lips were flaked white. 

I held her. I spoke to her in German. I told her sweet stories. I said her mother was waiting for her, that she was lucky, that this was no world for her. And I did not lie, my dear Master Liszt. For what life could she have here? I am not foolish. She and I living in harmony, father and child, in this Texas, this Rusk County? I owned her, my dear Master Liszt, but I could not guard her from the cruelties of this world, from its lusts. 

Anna made it through to the dawn, and then she cried her last.

I did not know where Missy May had been buried. Two members of the Committee had taken her body out of the town, disposed of it someplace unmarked. So I petitioned Tatum to let me bury Anna among his dead slaves. He agreed. I had a little coffin made, and I dug the grave myself. I paid fifty dollars for a white stone angel. It shines in that poor, grim yard.

Thus ended my brief tenure as a slave owner. 

Now mere days have passed, my dear Master Liszt, and already no one speaks of Bert Scofield, of Missy May, of Anna. When I left your rooms in Baden-Baden fifteen years ago, I dreamed of transmuting my mediocrity into genius, of leading my fellow men as a noble artist, of living above the world like a heralding comet or star. Now I am stained with these guilts, these failings uncountable. Have you read on, my dear Master Liszt? I pray you have. It is why I write to you who taught me falsely, who sent me to this Texas. These stains, these guilts, these failings, they are mine. Yes, I own them. But you have a share, and my words—they have brought that share to you. 

J. S. Miszner

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Ben Stroud

Ben Stroud is the author of the story collection Byzantium, which won the 2013 Story Prize Spotlight Award and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, Zoetrope, and One Story, among other publications, and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South and Best American Mystery Stories.