Every author eventually learns that backstory is NOT the story; it is the supporting character, the convenient warehouse of props available to the author when she needs to set the stage, enhance the character, create mood.
The following chapter was included in the original prologue, in fact it preceded it, explaining what Grandpa Bekker told his son-in-law Robert that made Robert return home with vengeance in his heart. But with extensive editing, I discovered that the novel was tighter when Robert’s inner agony was alluded to. This chapter was one of my favorites and I dreaded cutting in. Maybe when you read it, you’ll understand why.
1815, twelve years later. Winter. Williamsburg, Virginia.
“Robert, come quick! Do not bring Hannah. Only you. Hurry!”
Such was the entire note. Robert turned the stationery over, past the broken wax seal. Richmond, Virginia, his in-laws’ return address. The handwriting, shaky and uneven, bent downward as the writer reached the page’s edge. Odd. Friedrich Bekker was always punctilious in his script. It was as if a swindler had grabbed Bekker’s hand and forced it into a perverse trail. And the message. Bekker never begged for Robert’s assistance. If Bekker had a request, he always made it with suave forethought. This note was the plea of an unlucky man.
Frowning, Robert folded the note and tucked it inside his frock coat pocket. The note had to be obeyed, even though he dreaded its insistence. He feared leaving his family behind. Hannah was tending to their sick younger son, Richard. The typhus had ravaged Williamsburg, claiming a third of the populace. It claimed Poole’s wife.
The typhus infected Richmond. Robert had to be careful who came near him. His snuffbox was full. His handkerchiefs were clean, in case he needed to throw one over his mouth and nose from stench. It pained him that George suffered its ravages, only three weeks before. Praise God the eleven-year-old boy survived. The doctor held hope for Richie as well. “The little ones usually survive this,” the doctor said.
Robert was unsure. Short, plaintive moans rumbled from Richie’s throat, when Robert bent over him. “My son, I must leave. When I return, I will see your smile again.”
He watched for Richie’s response. The boy, covered in spotty rashes, breathed hard through his congested lungs, and barely nodded. Sweat plastered his flaxen hair to his forehead. He puckered his parched, cracked lips: “Pa,” he struggled to say. Only five years old, too soon to feel his own mortality! George had suffered, too, but not like this.
With his valise full of clothes, snuff, and toiletries, Robert went down the narrow stairs. George waited for him at the bottom. Worry creased his young face. Tall and lanky in his youth, George’s health was slowly returning to full bloom, even though his dark hair and big brown eyes contrasted starkly against his pale skin. George always contrasted against the rest of his family, who were fair-haired and blue-eyed.
“Pa, I want to go with you.”
“No, George. You must be the man of the house now. Your mother and brother need you.” Robert stroked his hair. “Your mother especially.”
He went to the front door, but George hung close. “When will you return?”
“I hope not to be away for so long.”
“What does Grandpa Bekker want? Why is he taking you away?” George sounded desperate.
Robert took the boy’s chin. “I don’t know, George. But whatever it is, we will all get through it.”
As he left the house and walked down the snow-patched street for the post office where a coach would be, Robert could feel George’s longing eyes bore into him.
When a man leaves his family in such a vulnerable way, he does not notice the corduroy paths that rock coaches and jerk his innards into stew, or slam to a halt at an iced tree blocking the road. He does not care if a war is raging somewhere – New Orleans, Robert last heard of it. As long as the British were not riding his tail, and his coach whisked him to Richmond, he could take comfort in worrying about his family.
The coach rumbled through Richmond and stopped in front of an elegant brick building. The Bekker’s townhouse, a few blocks from the downtown canal, usually buzzed with serious businessmen or festivities with their lively wives. Robert had enjoyed Richmond, whenever the Bekkers invited his family for a summer’s visit or during Christmas. With his knowledge of city infrastructure and civic engineering, Friedrich Bekker was successful in this growing state capital that desperately needed his expertise. He never became wealthy, but prosperous enough to own a Negro cook, a gardener, and three housekeepers. Robert was glad that his wife’s parents realized their fortune. They had so many bumpy starts and dead ends in Williamsburg.
But when Robert pushed through Bekker’s unlocked door with his luggage and laid them upon the floor then draped his coat on the stair railing, he sensed the air breathing with dread. No one greeted him. The windows in the parlor had not been washed in weeks. Lines of dust trails betrayed that furniture and rugs were moved in a hurry. The rooms appeared ransacked.
Then there was that fetid vapor . . . . like his sons’ room that bore the smell of watery feces and black vomit.
“Father?” Robert called out.
A moan came from upstairs. Robert hurried up to the master bedroom, where Bekker and his wife lay. Robert would have walked in, had not a stench pushed him back to the doorway. Nearly retching, he fumbled for the snuffbox in his jacket pocket and thrust some scented tobacco up his nose. He took out his handkerchief, smothered it over his face, and breathed in deeply. Lavender and mint. Still, Death’s rancid smell lingered stubbornly.
Like his sons’ bedroom, blankets covered the windows to deaden the outside light. Two candles burned in their wall sconces; one lit candle burned brightly on a night table by Bekker’s bed. Another bed had been pushed against the right wall. It was meant for guests, but Frau Bekker was in it. Her eyes gazed up at the ceiling, her mouth gaping wide as if frozen in a scream. Odor rose from her putrefied body.
“She’s given up her ghost,” came a woeful cry from Bekker’s bed. “I will join her soon.”
Robert started to go forward.
“No! Come no further, my son. You must be healthy for your family.”
Robert squinted through the dimness to distinguish the form of his father-in-law, covered in soiled sheets and heaving his last breaths. “Where are your Negroes?” was all Robert could say.
“Gone, gone! All gone,” Bekker mourned. “I sold them. We needed medicine. What good it did. I have no money. But that is not why I’ve sent for you. You must listen to what I say.”
Robert leaned forward.
Bekker’s chest heaved with cavernous wheezes, much advanced from what Richie was suffering. “I have lied to you most horribly. I ask your forgiveness.”
Bekker struggled to raise his head from his pillow to look at his son-in-law. “Your son, George. There was no Captain Mälzel. Hannah never married before you.” Bekker fought for more breath. “She was an ardent girl. So trusting . . . . taken in by a rogue. Still she loved him, I know not why. Forgive her, my son. Forgive me. Forgive us all, we have deceived you.” He dropped his head to the pillow. His eyes widened as if seeing something horrible.
“Who is George’s father?” Robert demanded to know.
“What does it matter? It is done.”
Robert strode into the room and grabbed a simple wooden chair, and sat at bedside. “Tell me, who is George’s father?”
“Please, Robert, leave my side. You must not catch my affliction –.”
Robert grabbed Bekker’s hand with such force, Bekker gasped and stared at him. A flicker of anger enlivened Robert’s expression.
Fearfully, Bekker pleaded, “Do no harm to my daughter and my grandson, I beg you. Have mercy on them, and me!”
“No harm will come to them, only release the burden of your soul. Be truthful with me. What must I know?”
“Her paramour. George’s father.” Bekker let out a great breath, as if relieved that this struggle was done. “She was in awe of the man. Dreadful. We feared he ruined her.” His voice cracked, and Robert leaned in closer to understand him. “They called Beethoven the Lion of Vienna. Haydn called him the Great Mogul.”
Robert frowned in contemplation. “Beethoven was arrogant and powerful,” he guessed.
“Yes! He seduced my little girl into his rooms, in the suburbs. I found them together. I shoved him to the floor, struck him good. I threatened his life, but that was not good enough. I wanted him to suffer. I visited the prince. He was my business partner, Beethoven’s benefactor. I complained about Beethoven to him.
“The prince was amused! He excused Beethoven. Said, ‘He’s a man, after all. Our Creator molded him.’ He compared my Hannah to the emperor’s prized stallions, as she and Beethoven were prizes to the prince.”
Bekker grasped Robert’s sleeve as he struggled from his pillow, and leaned his weight upon his elbow. His angry regrets empowered him like a boat in full sail. “The prince warned me to stay away from Beethoven. ‘For several years, I have promoted the best pianists and composers,’ he says. ‘Of them all, Beethoven stands upon Olympus. I give to him. He gives to me. It will continue that way.’ I could not believe what I was hearing. I said to him, ‘And what do you give Beethoven? Young girls under the guise as ‘students’? Was this your intention with Hannah?’And do you know what the prince said to me?” Bekker’s face screwed with anguish. “‘Feeding the gods with the vine’s nectar is nothing new under the sun.’” Bekker’s body shook with weeping. “For years I have kept his words to myself. All I wanted was a music teacher for my Hannah. Instead, I delivered her to wolves.”
Sickened by this tale, Robert wanted to flee. But he shook off Bekker’s words like a dog throwing varmints off its back. “It does not matter,” he said emptily. “What’s done is done.”
“Yes, yes!” Bekker gasped. “Praise God you are a wise man with a good heart.” His pitiful gaze betrayed he said this with more hope than belief. “But take care to guard yourself. Do not harm George. He is a good boy and deserves no wrath from you. Oh! Do you remember those Sunday music soirees with your neighbors? Who were they again?”
“Benjamin Rathburn, and Phineas Poole and his wife Rachel,” Robert replied, distressed that his father-in-law’s most pleasurable memory had faded. “Ben owns the newspaper in town. Phineas is my dearest friend.”
“Oh, those were great days, weren’t they?” Bekker smiled wide. His teeth, once straight and white, had rotted to brown and bent like a rickety fence. “You at your violin, Hannah at the pianoforte. That Poole fellow singing. Rathburn losing himself in his Madeira. George would play the pianoforte with his mother. Little Richie would imitate him.” Bekker’s thin laughter tried to break through his rasping. “Remember George’s baptism? You took that baby in your arms, away from us all, and prayed to our Lord. There you were, the three of you in church: father, son and the greater Father. When I saw you, I knew the babe could have no greater guardian.”
Ten thirty that night, Bekker took his last breath.
Robert wrote a hasty note to Hannah. Delivering the news of her parents’ death was not difficult. Oddly, this did not bother him. His quill flowed with ease. It was as if he were reporting about strangers. He told her he needed to remain in Richmond to handle her parents’ remains and their estate. He posted the townhouse for sale, but the typhus scared away any buyers. The citizens were too busy fleeing from the infected, or disinfecting their homes.
Two weeks later, Robert thought it strange that his wife did not write. What of Richie’s welfare? Robert knew he could not sell the townhouse. He could not remain in Richmond.
Robert took the last coach out, a night’s ride in a moonless void. Alone and entombed inside the coach’s blackness, Bekker’s confession forced itself upon Robert with disturbing clarity. Still, he refused to believe his father-in-law. He chose to remember happier days, as when he took Hannah, with George still in her belly, to the deserted Thompson plantation. The great house had been boarded up for twenty-one years. It belonged now to the county. “We will live in this one day,” Robert had pledged to her, and reached for her hand to squeeze it. She pulled it back. No matter. “And I will buy you a fine ring with a diamond, and etch our initials onto one of the windows.” He gazed upon the symbol of his carefree childhood like a sentimental woman. He adored the way she gazed at the house with him in wonder.
Their marriage matured as George grew into a hearty little fellow. Robert had perfected his Guten Tags and auf Wiedersehens. Hannah practiced her English upon his copy of America’s Bill of Rights. Robert delighted in the way she tried not to wince at the local music – the rumble of rough Celtic drums, the flute’s whine or the fiddle bleating its Scotch-Irish tunes. “No, Mrs. Thompson, these are not Viennese operas,” he cooed in her ear.
Robert smiled as he remembered teaching George to steer their new riding chair with the gleaming red leather seat, so that father and sons could ride to the plantation house. How excited the boys were, frolicking upon the grounds and splashing in the James. It warmed him to hear his boys shout out, “Pa!” as George buried his wet, salty cheek into Robert’s ribs and Richie squeezed his tiny arms around his leg like a possessive squid.
Those sunlit Sunday afternoons, full of music and laughter. George and Richie clasping hands and dancing in the middle of the rug. Hannah weaving her charms around Poole and Rathburn, playing Haydn, Mozart, Palestrina, Beethoven –.
Robert’s body jerked. His brow darkened. A demon crept inside him and gripped. His memory took a darker turn.
Hannah enraptured whenever Beethoven’s music arrived from her relatives in the old world. This sonata, that sonata, this trio, that quartet, more than a dozen Beethoven works laid like love letters in a box she prepared. The box shared no space with any other composer. It even nudged away Robert’s three bibles on the book shelf. The “Beethoven box,” George called it, and giggled. Even a mere boy recognized his own mother’s infatuation.
Robert pulled out his bible from his valise, desperate for spiritual comfort. Although he couldn’t read it in the dark, he knew his three book markers by heart. The first bookmarker was about forgiveness. The second, Jesus’s quotes about love. The third, verses about God-approved vengeance. An eye for an eye.
“There is no composer who compares to Beethoven,” Hannah had declared to their musical friends. She caressed his manuscripts against her breast, her hand stroking the name “Beethoven.” Radiance beamed from her countenance. She never shared that light when she and Robert were alone, together, in their bedchamber.
Robert slapped the book shut. “I am a good man. I am a good man,” he repeated, praying that the loaming darkness of his soul would disappear. Answers to every mystery about his wife were breaking free, like an ugly bug writhing out of its cocoon. Why, whenever he mentioned Captain Mälzel, did she turn her back to him? Why, whenever he reached to hold her hand, did she pull it away? What color were Hannah’s eyes again? He could never discern such: One day they were green, the next, hazel. Even the hue of her eyes deceived.
Beethoven. Ludwig van Beethoven. The “devious rogue.” Hannah “in dreadful awe of the man.” Surrendering her precious chastity to “the Great Mogul,” he ravaging the helpless lamb who cried out. . . cried out in her ecstasy of his body pounding into hers . . . And what did the townsfolk used to say about Robert? Nothing robust – because flaccid, pasty, nondescript Robert Thompson could easily disappear in a crowd of three people.
A chill shook him. Robert bundled himself more tightly in his woolen coat. The jerking ride pummeled him against his side of the coach. “Stupid, stupid man,” he chided himself. His nostrils puffed out clouds of white condensation like a horse racing in the cold.
The baby George in Robert’s arms. Tears in Robert’s eyes as he bestows the paternal names of his Virginia peerage upon the child. A bastard child! Conceived by a bastard.
“Damn them to hell.” This was all Robert Thompson uttered until he arrived home.
© L.A. Hider Jones. All rights reserved.