The Violin

Jennifer R. Hubbard

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It was April and all Monticello was stirring, but in their cabin Mama had just put baby Maddy down to sleep and she told Beverly and Harriet to be still.

Beverly did not want to be still.

Harriet reached under the bed for the box where she kept things and pulled out the sampler Mama was teaching her to sew. Beverly knew what would happen next. Harriet and Mama would talk sewing, and ignore him. He aimed a kick at his little sister. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Let’s do something fun.”

Harriet sat down on the stool beside the hearth. She beamed at Mama with what Beverly called her good-girl smile, like she was trying to show off how sweet she was. Harriet was almost four years old. She was not a sitting-still little girl, but sometimes she took a mood to act like one. Beverly reached out with his foot again. His toe grazed the end of one of Harriet’s braids. Harriet screeched.

“Beverly,” Mama said, not even looking up, “don’t wake your brother.”

“I didn’t yell,” Beverly said. “Harriet did.”

“You’re the one looking for trouble,” Mama replied. “Do you need something to do?”

Beverly knew better than to say yes. Mama would make him do chores. “No, ma’am,” he said. “I guess I’ll go visit Uncle Peter.”

“Don’t you bother him, neither,” Mama said, but she let him go.

Beverly went out the cabin and down Mulberry Row. The spring wind whipped the still-bare branches of the mulberry trees. The packed dirt road felt cool and firm beneath his bare feet.

Beverly spread his arms into the wild wind. He felt wild too.

The kitchen was halfway down the row, in the basement of a little brick guesthouse. Uncle Peter, one of Mama’s brothers, was the cook. Uncle Peter didn’t hand out treats very often, but you never knew. It was midmorning. If the folks in the great house hadn’t been hungry at breakfast, there might be muffins left over.

Beverly slid through the open door. On the hearth Dutch ovens steamed in a row over piles of coals. Uncle Peter and the two girls that helped him stood behind the long table, chopping vegetables. Uncle Peter gave Beverly an eye. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Beverly said. He edged closer to the table. There were muffins left, and slices of ham too.

Uncle Peter whapped Beverly’s hand with the end of a towel. The girls laughed. “Get out of here, Beverly!” Uncle Peter said. “Two hours since breakfast, you can’t be hungry yet!”

“Can too,” said Beverly, but he went.

Outside, the wind still howled. Beverly stopped and thought about what he wanted to do. He was too little to have a real job. Most days he helped Mama while she sewed in the cabin, or visited his aunts and uncles, or ran around the gardens or the orchards. Sometimes he walked with Mama to the great house, where she checked to see that everything in Master Jefferson’s room was all right. Master Jefferson spent most of the year in Washington. When he was gone the great house stood empty. Besides taking care of Beverly and Harriet and Maddy, Mama didn’t have much to do.

Now Master Jefferson was home for a month and everything had changed. He’d brought his grown-up daughter and all her children with him, and invited friends to visit, so the house was full to bursting. Mama worked and worked.

What’s more, she stayed up at the great house every night.

Beverly didn’t mind the bustle. But whenever he thought about Master Jefferson, his stomach gave a little twist, almost like he was hungry. It twisted now. He wished Uncle Peter had given him a muffin.

He looked to his left, toward the woodshop. His uncle John worked there, learning fancy carpentry from a white Irishman named Mr. Dismore. Beverly loved Uncle John, and he loved watching him make things out of wood, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about Mr. Dismore. Unlike the overseers, Mr. Dismore was cheerful and funny, but he also sometimes said things like, “I don’t want you pickaninnies hanging around my shop.”

Beverly hated the word pickaninny. It sounded like something you’d stomp on if you saw it running across the floor.

He was not, he thought, a pickaninny.

Straight across the road was the smokehouse, locked so the hams couldn’t grow legs and wander away. To the right was the blacksmith’s shop. Beverly often went there to watch the nail boys work. He knew he’d be a nail boy himself when he was older. The nail boys made nails all day long, tap, tap, tap! They cut nail rod into short pieces, then hammered one end of each piece long and pointy and the other square and firm. The nail boys’ muscles stood out on their arms. Master Jefferson was proud of them.

The only problem with visiting the blacksmith shop was Mr. Stewart. He was head blacksmith, a white man, and mean when he was drunk. Lately he stayed drunk all the time. Only yesterday, Master Jefferson’s daughter, Miss Martha, said it was about time she took matters into her own hands and showed Mr. Stewart the door, before he grew careless in his inebriation and burned the blacksmith shop down. She said it was a good thing they had Joe Fossett, or that place would be a ruin.

Beverly’d heard her. He was good at hearing things. “If you’re smart,” Mama often told him, “you’ll keep your mouth shut and your ears open. You’re a smart boy, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he’d say, proud that it was true.

Beverly loved the word inebriation, even though Mama said it was just a fancy name for drunk. Beverly savored beautiful words. They were like music in his head. He didn’t care what words meant nearly as much as how they sounded. He loved it when Mama and Miss Martha spoke French together, even though they only did it so no one else could understand them.

“Teach me,” he begged Mama. “Teach me how to talk like that.”

Mama taught him a song in French, and how to say “I love you, Mama,” but she said she didn’t have time to teach him more, and besides it would upset Miss Martha. No good ever came from upsetting Miss Martha.

Miss Martha’s full name was Mrs. Martha Randolph. She was the only one of her mama’s children still alive. She loved to come to Monticello and act like the boss of everything.

But she wasn’t the real boss—Master Jefferson was—and she wasn’t there very often. Beverly didn’t care if he upset her or not. When he said so, Mama shook her head. “Trust me,” she said.

“It’s better to stay on her good side.”

“Does she have a good side?” asked Beverly.

For a moment Mama looked like she might laugh, but then she set her lips together and told Beverly not to act like he was too big for his britches. She said everyone had a good side, even if with some folks you had to look mighty hard to find it. She told him again that smart boys kept their mouths shut, was Beverly listening?

Beverly was. He wondered where Miss Martha kept her good side. On the sole of her left foot, maybe, safe inside her shoe.

Miss Martha was two years older than Mama. Once upon a time, after Master Jefferson’s wife died, but when Miss Martha was still just a girl, Master Jefferson and Miss Martha went to live in France. After a few years they sent for Master Jefferson’s other daughter, Miss Maria, who was still alive back then, but little and scared. Beverly’s mama was just fourteen years old, but she got the job of taking Miss Maria on a ship across the wide ocean to France. They all lived in Paris for three more years. That was where Mama learned French.

Miss Maria grew up, married a nice man, had a son, and died. Mama told Beverly that. Miss Martha grew up, married a loud, angry man, and had too many children. She walked around looking like she’d just tasted sour milk. Mama didn’t have to tell Beverly that; he could see it for himself.

Beverly had two dead sisters and one dead brother. He couldn’t remember any of them, but Mama told him and Harriet about them because she said it was important to keep their stories alive.

Family counted, living or dead. Baby Madison seemed healthy, Mama said, but you never knew for sure. One of the dead sisters had lived for over a year, walked and talked and everything.

Beverly looked out over the blacksmith shop, past the gardens and down the mountainside. He sighed. There was only one place he wanted to go. He knew it, and he might as well go there. He lifted his chin and tried to look like a boy with an important errand to do, not one sneaking off where he didn’t belong.

He went to the great house.

It was in pieces. It had been a fine big house, but not fine or big enough to suit Master Jefferson. He’d hired workmen to rip the walls open and add rooms off the long sides, and remove the roof to add a third floor. Right now the work was about half-finished; to live there you had to not mind dust and dirt and no roof and holes in the walls. Master Jefferson didn’t mind.

Miss Martha did, but she was there anyway, because she preferred a house with no roof away from her husband to one with a roof and her husband inside.

Beverly’s grown cousin Burwell was the butler whenever Master Jefferson was at home. Burwell hated mess even more than Miss Martha did, but he didn’t have any say. He just had to cope the best he could. Master Jefferson expected a fancy dinner on a clean tablecloth with china and silver and lots of good wine, every afternoon at exactly three o’clock, whether there was a roof over the house or not. Burwell always managed to make everything right.

I’ll go see Burwell, Beverly told himself. He’ll let me polish spoons. But he knew Burwell wasn’t the person he wanted to see.

He slipped between the poplar trunks supporting the unfinished porch roof and through the back door into the great house. Upstairs a baby wailed. Beverly heard footsteps hurrying across the hall. Burwell’s dining room was to the left, but Beverly turned right.

There in front of him stood a wide-open door.

Beverly stared. His breath came quick with happiness and surprise. It was open—the door to Master Jefferson’s room was open! Beverly’d been inside many times with Mama, but never, ever when Master Jefferson was home. When Master Jefferson was home, he kept the door locked. He did not want his papers or books or self disturbed. Only Burwell and Beverly’s mama had keys to the door. Even Miss Martha had to stay out.

Beverly peeked inside. Nobody. The fire had burned down, but a new pile of wood waited by the swept hearth, so Beverly knew Burwell had come and gone. The curtains at the open windows fluttered in the breeze.

Beverly took a cautious step. The room sure looked different with Master Jefferson home. When he was gone Mama kept the desk swept bare and all the books shut up safe in cabinets behind glass. Now piles of books covered the floor and tables. Some had scraps of paper or ribbon sticking out of their sides, and one lay upside down on the polished wooden desk, with half its pages cut, and the paper knife lying beside it.

Then Beverly saw, beside the half-cut book, the violin.

He sucked in his breath, fast. His heart hammered. Oh, that violin! How he loved the sound of that violin! Master Jefferson had brought it with him from Washington, and sometimes in the evenings Beverly could hear its music all the way down Mulberry Row, sharp quick notes, long dancing bits, ta-dum-dum-ta-dee. He had never heard anything like it. Better than inebriation or the sound of words in French was the glorious music from Master Jefferson’s violin.

Beverly crept forward. He’d never seen a violin up close before. Now he stood over it, admiring the shiny honeycolored wood. Next to it was the stick thing you drew across the strings.

Beverly reached out and touched the stick, just once. His fingers kept moving and brushed the smooth wood of the violin itself. He thought he could feel the music inside.

Right on the bottom was the dark spot where you were supposed to put your chin. He’d watched Mr. Jefferson through the open windows one night.

Quick as a flash, before he could think hard enough to make himself stop, Beverly tucked Master Jefferson’s violin beneath his chin. He pushed on the strings beneath the fingers of his left hand, and curled his right hand around the stick. He told himself not to make a sound. Burwell would hear—Miss Martha would hear—he would be in a heap of trouble, and Mama would be upset.

But he couldn’t stop. He raised the stick in the air.

Right behind him a soft voice said, “You’re not holding the bow right.”

Beverly jumped. His hand clutched the violin. He knew that voice. Master Jefferson. Beverly’s heart beat faster; his mouth went dry from hope and fear. He wanted to set the violin down, tell Master Jefferson he was sorry, and run home as fast as his legs would go, but he couldn’t move. His feet had frozen to the floor.

Master Jefferson’s smooth, long-fingered hand came from behind Beverly, and carefully covered Beverly’s hand on the stick—on the bow. Master Jefferson plucked at Beverly’s fingers to loosen their grip, and then curved around them. Master Jefferson held the bow like it was something alive. His other hand covered Beverly’s hand on the strings. Softly he drew the bow across the strings. It made a sound.

Master Jefferson said, “Hold it gently. You’ve got to coax the music out.”

Beverly turned and looked up at him. The last time he’d been close to Master Jefferson had been at Christmas, months ago. Master Jefferson was tall and thin and loosely put together, his joints floppy like the ones on Harriet’s wooden doll. His gray hair hung untied around his shoulders. He wore old gray breeches and a red waistcoat Beverly’s mama had made last year.

“Hello, Beverly,” he said.

“Hello,” Beverly whispered.

“How old are you now?”

“Seven,” Beverly said. “Seven years and one day. Yesterday was my birthday. April first, that’s the day I was born.”

“I remember. Happy birthday.” Master Jefferson smiled. The lines around his eyes crinkled. “It’s good to see you again. I like having children around. In Washington Miss Martha’s
been keeping house for me, and her children stay with us there.”

“They’re here now,” Beverly said.

“Yes,” said Master Jefferson. “Aren’t I lucky?”

“But Miss Edith and the new baby had to stay behind.”

Master Jefferson raised an eyebrow. “Miss Edith?”

“Miss Edith,” Beverly said, “that went with you to Washington.”

Master Jefferson looked puzzled, so Beverly explained.

“Miss Edith that’s married to the blacksmith, Joe Fossett. Miss Edith that lives with you. She just had a baby, right before Mama had Maddy, and it was a boy and they named him James.”

“Oh. You mean Edy? The cook? My apprentice cook?”

“Yes, sir.” Beverly nodded. “Joe Fossett’s real sorry they didn’t come home with you. He understands, ‘cause the baby’s so little, but he wanted to see them. He misses them. We all do.”

“I see.” Master Jefferson pulled a chair closer and sat down. He turned Beverly around to face him and held him lightly between his knees.

Beverly smiled. He touched the side of Master Jefferson’s face. “Your eyes are gray,” he said. “Just like my baby brother’s. Maddy has eyes just like yours.”

“Is that what you’re calling him?” Master Jefferson sounded amused. “Maddy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“His name is James Madison. He was named after the patriot James Madison, a good friend of mine.”

“Yes, sir. Mama said so. But she calls him Madison so we don’t get him mixed up with Miss Edith’s baby James, and Harriet and I call him Maddy because Madison’s too long to say.”

“I see. And do you call Harriet Harry?”

“No, sir,” Beverly said. “She smacks me if I do.”

Master Jefferson laughed. “You don’t smack her back, I hope.”

“No, sir,” Beverly said. “Mama said I can’t ’cause she’s littler than me, and a girl. But it’s not fair. She’s little, but she hits hard.”

“Little sisters are never fair,” Master Jefferson said.

Beverly thought about this. “Do you have a little sister?” he asked.

“I do. I had four of them when I was growing up.”

“Did they smack you?”

“I don’t recall.” Master Jefferson poked the top of Beverly’s nose. “But I do know that I never, ever smacked them back. Neither must you. A gentleman never hits ladies. Nor sisters either.”

Master Jefferson had patches of sunburned skin on his cheeks, and a dark spot on his waistcoat that looked like ink. Beverly touched it.

“Mama’ll have a job getting that out,” he said.

Master Jefferson looked at the spot too. “I write so many letters, I’m always covered in ink.” He looked back at Beverly. “So, why are you here? Did your mama give you a message for me?”

Beverly bit his lip. He wished he could say yes. “No, sir.”

“Did Burwell, or someone else?”

“No, sir. I just sort of came by myself.”

“My bedroom’s private. Do you know what that means?”

“Yes, sir. It means I’m supposed to stay out.” Beverly took a deep breath. “I just wanted—I wanted to see—” He looked around. How much could he say? His hand came down on the violin.

“You wanted to see the violin?”

“Yes, sir,” Beverly said. It wasn’t all of the truth, but it was a piece of the truth. “I love this violin.”

Master Jefferson looked surprised. “You do?”

“Yes, sir,” said Beverly. “I like—I sure like to listen to you play.”

Master Jefferson held up his right hand and slowly flexed his fingers. “I used to play for hours on end,” he said. “A long time ago. I played in string quartets before the war. But I broke my wrist; it doesn’t bend very easily, and it aches after a while. So I don’t play as often or as well. You know about the war, don’t you? The Revolution? How we started a new country?”

“No, sir,” Beverly said.

“You must learn about it. It’s important. We broke away from England and . . .” Master Jefferson paused, and smiled again. “You’re young, I forget. My grandchildren don’t understand it yet either.”

He lifted the violin and set it into place beneath Beverly’s chin. “But seven years old might be old enough for this. Give it a try. Be gentle.”

Beverly didn’t know which strings to push or how hard to push them, but he moved the bow the way Master Jefferson had. The violin screeched. Beverly stopped. “Did I break it?” he asked, alarmed.

Master Jefferson laughed. “No. It always sounds like that at first.” He seemed to be thinking about something. After a moment he asked, “Are you a hard worker? Would you work to learn to play the violin?”

Beverly’s eyes widened. “Oh, yes! Yes, sir!”

Master Jefferson smiled. He cupped his hand around Beverly’s face, so quickly Beverly barely felt it, then rose and went to a cabinet built into the wall. He came back with a small wooden case. “I have several violins,” he said. “The one you’re holding is my best. Italian. It’s not an instrument for a boy. But this one”—he took the Italian violin away and put the case he was holding into Beverly’s hands—“this is what they call a kit violin. You can strap this onto the back of a horse to travel and bounce it around without hurting it. It doesn’t sound as pretty as the Italian violin, but it’s a good deal harder to break. Mind, you’ll still have to be careful.

“I’m going to give you this violin,” he continued. “Do you know Jesse Scott, down in Charlottesville?”

Beverly nodded. Jesse Scott’s wife was Joe Fossett’s sister.

“He’s a good fiddler, and a good teacher,” Master Jefferson said. “You go down to him with this violin, and tell him I said he’s to give you lessons. Once a week. And in between you practice. I’ll expect to hear progress by the time I come back here this summer. All right?”

Beverly clutched the wooden case tight to his chest. He swallowed hard. “Sir?”

“What’s wrong? You need lessons, in order to learn.”

“Yes, sir, but—” Beverly bit his lip. “Couldn’t you teach me?”

Master Jefferson looked away. “No,” he said. “Jesse will suit you better.”

“Yes, sir.” Beverly knew he shouldn’t have asked.

Master Jefferson patted his back. “Go on home. Your mama will be wanting you, and I have work to do.”

Beverly was halfway to the door when Master Jefferson spoke again. “Beverly—”

Beverly turned.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, sir,” Beverly said. He smiled. “You’re the president. President of the United States. Mama says it’s a very important job.”

An odd expression flitted across Master Jefferson’s face. For a moment he almost looked sad. Beverly wondered if he’d said the wrong thing. But the look faded. Master Jefferson said,

“That’s right. You go on home.”

Beverly walked quietly out of the great house, but as soon as his feet hit dirt he ran. He tore into the cabin and didn’t care if he woke the baby, not one bit.

“Mama, Mama!” he shouted. “Papa gave me a violin!”


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By Miciah Bay Gault

Miciah Bay Gault is the editor of Hunger Mountain at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's also a writer, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, and other fine journals. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and children.

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