She was the only girl child among seven boys, the least likely to get a taste of honey when the owner of the farm presented his working families with a jar for a special holiday treat. The brother assigned to watch her on any given day was sure to see her as a burden and a fun killer.
She was no less ready with her blushes when her boisterous aunt brought over her three cousins for a visit. All three were proper ladies with silk dresses and colorful bonnets. When Auntie's attention was drawn away from the youths, they always gave her the look one might offer a friend's ill-behaved lap dog.
Beet was just shy of ten when she was introduced to Grand. The wealthy widow's fashionable tastes had rapidly depleted her former husband's fortune but she wouldn't hear of maintaining less than three carriages. Even Grand could not ignore reality forever. She knew that she would soon be living on a widow's wage. She was determined to indulge the granddaughters she so rarely saw before the chance was lost.
Beet's mother made little ceremony of presenting her in her faded blue church dress. Veronica and Matilda were in gowns just delivered by the tailor and even little Lydia had a new ribbon for her hair. Frightened and longing for the quiet of her little attic room, Beet began to cry.
Grand took pity on the child, tempting her to take a seat on the sofa with a small peppermint. The other girls were too well-mannered to complain of unfairness, though Lydia in particular shot her cousin many dirty looks. The youngest sister's fondness for mints was well known.
Grand would hear none of her daughters' objections. She simply must take the children to see the Fortunato Grand Orchestra.
First she treated them all to new gowns. As the older three bickered over who would be seen in rose pink, Beet was running her fingers over the soft fabrics presented, wondering that anything made by people could be soft as the skin of a newborn calf. The magnificent horses that pulled the carriage and the bustling city streets were no less wonderful to a simple country girl.
Such feelings paled next to the wonder on her face when the music began to play in the grand old hall. A few simple notes could make her feel she was dancing on the arm of the emperor's son, fleeing the teeth of wolves in the never-ending evergreen forest, or being lulled to sleep by the soft voices of faeries right out of a bedtime story. Nothing seemed impossible beneath the dimmed theater lights.
Grand missed nothing. The remnant of her fortune was split four ways to settle each girl for life.
Veronica delighted in the attentions of a young baronet who was the grandson of her dearly departed grandfather's best friend. Matilda was no less satisfied with the young clerk whose passion for raising doves nearly outdid her own. There was no husband for Lydia but there was a fine cottage by the sea where she could paint to her heart's content.
Grand couldn't help feeling she'd saved the best gift for Beet. She'd always known there was good reason not to lose her connection to Maria Onivori. The master pianist had played for the royal family not once, but twice!
Beet's parents were grateful for one less mouth to feed. The three boys still beneath their roof were thrilled to rid themselves of a pesky sister. Nobody thought to ask Beet's opinion but she would have raised no objections. To make sounds as glorious as those heard beneath the velvet curtains...she could hardly wait!
The first thing Maria did was to inspect the girl's hands.
"Bony, but well-formed and they have good length. She is underfed but so are most. Whether she has the dedication and discipline...we will see. Are you sure you want this for her, Agatha? You know the girl will not be cozened."
Grand nodded. "A chance to make something of herself is all I can give. Such things shouldn't come easy." Grand gave Beet's shoulder an affectionate pat. "I know Beatrice will not fail to write often."
Agatha's passing three months later would not allow many letters to be exchanged. Beet was always grateful that she had worked up the courage for a parting kiss on the cheek.
Maria was not one to waste time. After showing the girl her boarding room and the washroom, her first lesson began.
By the end of the hour, Beet was in tears. Every time her traitor fingers wandered away from proper alignment, a hard tap with the correction rod would set them right.
She was so terrified of being cast out of the house in disgrace that first week that she could barely touch her food. She would lay awake long into the night, tossing and turning, only to fall into a fitful sleep. Nightmares left her crying into her pillow in the early morning hours.
She knew she could not live like this for long. She was trying to work up the courage to quit when Henry came into her life.
He startled her awake, studying her with a critical eye as she blushed and tried to hide beneath her thin quilt. He looked to be about twelve, the same age as her most unbearable brother. He only added to her mistrust when he cracked a smile.
"You've nothing to hide, certainly. I've seen real women in the big city. My last tutor was such a bore that he put himself to sleep reading about wars nobody cares to remember. He gave me plenty of chances to wander."
She had never been spoken to in such a way. His face fell when she started to cry.
"Mother takes me in on holiday but she always finds a way to get rid of me soon enough. I'm not such a bad sort, really. I just can't stand the way she makes me sit for hours. I sure am glad I've no taste for music."
It was perhaps the only topic that could surprise her into speech. "How can anyone not like music?"
That ready grin popped back into place. "I never said I didn't like music, only that I have no ear for it." He wiggled his ears at the maid when she entered, chuckling at her dirty look. "Don't give me the evil eye, Irene. I only wanted to pay my respects to the lady."
Irene shook her head as she helped Beet to dress. "Little Miss will do well to avoid that one. He has none of his mother's refinement."
Beet very nearly poured tea over her porridge instead of cream, distracted by her thoughts. She had never in her life been called a lady.
Henry began to attend her recitals every day. Maria always found something to criticize while her son looked for something to praise. Her posture was atrocious but such movement of the fingers was uncommonly graceful. The squeak her voice made on high notes was made up for by the mellow smoothness of the lows. Henry's fingers twitched at every undeserved complaint. Most of his mother's students were the pampered daughters of nobility in need of a good life lesson. This girl was not.
"Are you simple, girl? Did I not specify the Key of C?"
After three years under Maria's care, Beet had enough musical knowledge to know she'd done wrong. She hesitated. Henry stepped in before Maria could complain about the pause.
"How can you expect her to get the key right when you can't decide the perfect pitch? Perhaps you should allow her to practice a real composition, rather than one of your pet pieces."
Maria shot her son a scathing look. It was not maternal affection that kept him beneath her roof at a time when many young men were discovering the wider world. It was a deep-seated fear of her proud name being dragged through the mud. He was well aware of her fears and delighted in opposing her on every point.
Beet began again, finding the rhythm she'd been seeking and smiling despite the ugly looks exchanged over her head.
It was shortly after Beet's fifteenth birthday that the lady came to stay with Maria. Her name was Kathleen Rose Evansfort and she was a vision in white lace.
Her movements were graceful, her voice was a sweet chime, and every look she levelled at Henry was full of admiration. Worst of all, she was a former student of Maria's with high connections and a talent for playing lighthearted tunes.
Beet made more mistakes than ever in the lady's presence. She could not stop darting looks across the room, wondering what Kathy was whispering in Henry's ear.
Her worries were misplaced. Henry was bored with his new companion after five minutes of listening to the latest fashions and gossip surrounding the parties of the year. When Kathy hinted at her hope of a carriage ride in the country, she was met with a look of such cold revulsion that she fell silent for a full ten minutes.
He'd taken Beet out in the carriage only twice. She delighted in every new sight and added eagerly to his descriptions. He had never once found her boring.
Lady Kathleen departed after only a week beneath Maria's roof. Henry recruited his village friends in the scheme of distracting and driving away those ladies his mother tried to introduce as suitable companions. Lady Bridget was the seventh and final prospect, declaring Henry a hopeless tease after only two days and demanding her carriage be called to take her home.
Beet was sixteen when Maria deemed her ready for her first solo concert. Her audience was small, consisting only of the household servants and a few of Henry's closest friends. Maria was cool in accepting praise for her student. Beatrice had played a little too well, perfecting a piece Maria had struggled to complete at that age.
Maria was slow in attending the next day's lesson, her aching head pounding with every step. She was determined to find something wrong with Beet's playing right from the start, to pin fault on the girl rather than her own increasing frailty.
Henry held Beet in a fond embrace and there was no mistaking the fact that the girl was kissing him back. The guilty couple sprang apart at the sound of Maria's sheet music fluttering to the floor.
Maria's aches were forgotten in the intensity of her fury. She took up her rod and set to beating Beet over the shoulders. Henry earned a few whacks of his own when he tried to interfere. Maria ran the girl out of the room, down the garden path and beyond the border of her property. When she was convinced the Beet would not attempt to return, Maria ordered her servants to burn everything in the girl's former rooms.
"Everything she had, everything she was, it was all because of me! Ungrateful! Disgraceful! Take note of this, Manfred. If that...temptress ever tries to return here, you are to set the dogs on her! Phillips, see to it that my son does not take a step outside his quarters. I will send him to one of the colonies, where he will earn his bread and get over this madness!"
Beet's dress was soon reduced to rags. She ate scraps of bread given by kind farmers and the occasional relation of Maria that had felt the woman's temper though many curled their lips and closed their doors in her face.
She took work as a washerwoman, her hands rubbed raw by harsh soap and freezing cold water. Winter added a chill to her burdens. She could rely on at least one burst of coughing breaking the peace of her sleep each night. The woman she worked for began to fear for the three young children in the house and turned her out.
The beggars on Salt Street were used to hardships. The strongest Salts scavenged for food, bringing back whatever half-rotted scraps they could find to share with the group. They took Beet in with no questions or sideways looks. They couldn't offer much comfort but there was always a warm hand ready to wrap around her fingers when she cried. One toothless old woman even gave her a little bracelet of wooden beads.
All eyes were firmly fixed on the ground when the gentleman came among them. Every now and then a firstborn son would attempt to locate some younger sibling fallen from grace. The object of such quests was rarely found.
Beet was too weak to protest when she was plucked from the gutter. The man was a stranger but the night was cold and his carriage was warm. The gentle sway of the box soon put her to sleep.
She was attended by a kind doctor and a housekeeper who never let her lift a finger though she did not meet the family of the house for many days. A girl near her own age burst into the room with a wide smile. "It's so good to see you awake. This old house gets so dreary and none of Papa's servants know any stories worth hearing more than once. Oh, I'm Julia. Papa always says my tongue runs like a colt in spring but it's been ages since we had a visitor, other than our dreadful neighbor Miss Norrigan. All she ever cares to talk about are her chickens and those awful postcards she paints."
"She's only been awake for one day, Julia. Allow the poor girl to take in her surroundings before you give the neighborhood report."
The gentleman's smile took the sting from his words as he seated himself near the bed. Julia blushed but could not remain silent for long. "I only wish I knew what was taking him so long. How much time does it require to settle affairs?"
"Patience, Child. Why don't you take a stroll in the garden and bring us back a few of your roses? I'm sure Miss Willington would enjoy them."
Julia hurried to comply. Beet's eyes widened though she could not work up the courage to ask how this stranger knew her name. He read her silent question.
"Henry would spare no expense in locating you, my dear. He is quite persistent when he wishes to find someone lost to him. So it was with my Julia and so it is with you. I am so delighted to have him know the truth of his history at last that I could deny him no happiness within my power."
"Maria was not always the bitter woman you have known. We both married at a young age to benefit our families but neither of us had known love. Had we been introduced sooner, I believe she could have led a life of love and laughter." He sighed and shook his head. "She wanted a son but her husband was unable to oblige her. My own wife was much too frail to risk such a strain on her health. My only consolation was the fortune her death would bestow upon me, one that was thrice the value of my personal income."
"Maria came to me one night and I gave into weakness. She looked so beautiful in the light of her carriage lantern...but I digress. When the twins were born, she gave her husband claim to the boy and told him with a heavy heart that the girl had died. My wife raised no complaints over the presence of Julia when I swore all the girl's needs would be seen to by me. I think she was secretly relieved that I had another person to lavish with attention. My wife died when Julia was only three."
Beet tried to mutter a condolence but could not find the words.
"Do not feel sorry for me, Child. Life has given me all I desired and the arrival of my son has made my satisfaction complete. His mother may disown him, if she likes. I will see to it he wants for nothing."
Henry's respect for his true father bordered on worshipful. His delight in the sister who so perfectly understood his sense of humor soon gained him a lifelong ally.
He rarely left Beet's side for more than an hour. He provided a shoulder for her to lean on as she regained her strength and he worked to keep her mind engaged on those days when foul weather made a stroll through the garden impossible.
Maria's letter arrived a week after the doctor took his leave. Bitterness dripped from every hastily scrawled word and though it was addressed to her son, there were plenty of hidden barbs directed at Beet and even Henry Senior. Her son burnt the pages without showing anybody their contents.
It was on Beet's seventeenth birthday that she had the first true birthday gift of her life. Henry led her to a section of the house she'd never seen, keeping his hand over her eyes. She started a bit when Julia threw the velvet curtains, greatly increasing the light in the room.
Beet could only stare at the magnificence of the grand piano at the center of the music room.
Henry had been working with her for weeks, helping her to remember the hand exercises Maria had insisted she practice every morning. Beet had never suspected his kind attentions might have a motive.
Julia strummed a few strings on her precious harp, tuning until she found the pitch she wanted. Beet knew the tune. It was one often played (badly) back in her home village, whenever a wedding ceremony took place. She did not miss its significance, or the way Henry's hand trembled as much as her own when he helped her take a seat on the bench.
Beet's fingers found the pattern of notes, weaving a perfect complement to the cheery voicings of the strings. Beet was lost to the confines of the world. She wasn't just playing the music, she was music. Her bones were notes, her muscles the bars that set the mood and her skin was the great treble clef that tied it all together.
She never did get the chance for another solo concert, but she had no regrets. Her restive spirit found much greater joy in composing soothing melodies to lull her little children to sleep.