The piano looked out of place. Shoved into a corner of the room, the instrument seemed to be a poor excuse for decor, with no actual direction or organization. A vase of fresh lilies sat on the lid.
Tricking Birdie was never considered an easy feat by those closest to her, but claiming that someone splattered paint all over the great hall had caught the girl's interest, and she had rushed to the room in question.
Having now realized the fib, Birdie fumed alongside Marietta in the pristine, paintless hall. Her chin was raised so high, so exaggerated, that she could no longer see over the length of her nose. "I think I'm experiencing what they call 'déjà vu,'" she said. "I distinctly remember telling you I am not learning to play this ridiculous thing."
Sympathy bled through her mother's beauty as she removed the vase and propped the lid of the piano open. She implored, "Please give it a try, mon amour. You may start to enjoy it. And Oncle has generously offered to—"
"I will not have anyone – especially that man – teach me."
"I am just about at my wit's end with your brickbatting. That man is part of your family whether you like it or not."
Sighing, Birdie hiked her skirts up and plunked herself down onto the wooden bench. Fighting was beginning to turn tiresome. Resignation seemed like the best option at the moment. "Very well. I don't see the harm in it. But then again, according to you, I don't see the harm in most things."
"I appreciate the honesty, ma fleur," Marietta beamed, which Birdie returned with a scowl. She ran an index finger across the keys and frowned at the noise. "Hm, it has been a while. I'll have to ask your père used to hire to tune it. It shouldn't be difficult to correct."
"If I must do this, I will teach myself. I'm certainly smart enough."
"Wonderful! You won't regret it, I assure you."
A thick textbook was planted in her lap. Though not old in any sense, it was evident that the book was loved by the previous owner. The pages were yellowed and limp from years of being turned, and the stitching was frayed. The faded letters of the title said, Grand Theoretical and Practical Piano-School for Systematic Instruction .
"For systematic instructions in all branches of piano-playing, from the first elements to the highest proficiency," Birdie quoted the subheader. She raised a questioning brow.
"It belonged to Antonia," was her clarification.
With a nod, Birdie set the book to the side and tested the keys for herself. The twang that echoed off wasn't necessarily offensive to the ear, although it wasn't right; she had attended many a concert to know the difference. "Leave me be, Mother," she ordered.
"Oh, if Auntie Agatha could see you now, she would be proud."
She watched Marietta close the doors behind her, and almost didn't register the sound that followed. Locked in, that was what she was. An involuntary shudder shot through her spine.
Sparing a glance at the sheet on the music rack, she read, 'Sonata Pathétique, Op. 13' by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Birdie sneered, "Fitting."
The Liddell's had refused to have their children attend school with the locals. They had employed instructors at the manor instead. It had been a very rudimentary program, consisting only of reading and writing. The tutor, Mrs. Roberta Meadows, had taught all five girls, starting once Marie turned five years old.
As the children grew older, their education had expanded by only a little. Mathematics, which included arithmetic and multiplication tables, had been added to their daily agenda. American geography had been instituted at age twelve.
There had been a time where Tallulah ignited an interest in philosophy. But when she asked Mrs. Meadows to suggest an instructor specialized in the subject, she was told that "Philosophy is for lazy men who ask too many questions," or, in other words, "No student of mine is going to become a nonsensical dreamer."
Needless to say, philosophy had not become a part of their curriculum.
The years had passed with little to no issue. That was until Birdie had become a student. Her antagonism had pushed Mrs. Meadows close to abandoning her practice. From ignoring homework deadlines to deliberately writing in print instead of script, Birdie had established herself as Mrs. Meadows' worst-behaved pupil.
Conduct aside, Birdie had surprised everyone when she consistently received high marks on her examinations. Her scores had even rivaled her older sisters'.
Birdie was aware of her intelligence and intended to use it to her own advantage, notably in situations wherein she had the high ground. She knew the reason Marietta wanted her to learn the in's and out's of piano-playing, and it wasn't to improve her self-esteem or broaden her mind.
Antonia had played the piano.
Her grandparents on her mother's side had produced ten sons and a pair of twin daughters, Marietta and Antonia. Growing up on an estate much like the Liddell's had made for a pleasant upbringing. Every child had wanted for nothing.
If Marietta was the tar, then Antonia was the feathers, for they had been inseparable in spite of being absolute polar opposites. While Marietta welcomed the role of a quiet homemaker, Antonia, who always struggled with adhering to rules, rejected it.
Their brothers had been encouraged to leave the estate in order to find a willing bride. One by one, the boys had packed their belongings and started their lives outside of Alabama. Marietta and Antonia remained, waiting to be courted, with their ailing parents and servants.
On their fifteenth birthday, the twins had been enrolled in piano lessons. Antonia, in particular, had adapted quickly. She had claimed it was her nimble fingers that made her so skilled. "A bit o' bourbon helped too," she had added.
Soon, it was apparent that she had fallen in love with the instrument and wanted to revolve her entire life around it. This had caused her to experience an epiphany of sorts. She had been determined, against her family's wishes, to pursue a career in piano-playing. And she had done exactly that.
Antonia had toured across the states with a theater company, performing on Indianapolis stages and on riverboats in Jefferson City. She had been credited under the name of 'Juliet Miller' to spare her family of the embarrassment.
She had never taken a man's hand in marriage with all of her travel, citing that commitment, childbearing, and – in her words – "cuntin' monotony" were not ideal for a woman like her. Her heart had room exclusively for the piano and nothing else.
"Your aunt is a rare breed," Marietta had said.
"You mean like a horse?"
Her father had replied, "Precisely. She resembles one enough."
Tragedy had struck when Antonia died from malaria. She had contracted the disease through a mosquito bite and succumbed to it not long after. By the time the theater company had reached Huntsville, her skin was cold to the touch.
Birdie had been nine years old when she attended her aunt's funeral. Not a lot of people had been in attendance, except for Antonia's fellow musicians.
The fact that Marietta was unable to properly say her good-byes to her sister had tormented her. "She should have been home in bed, not in some wagon," Marietta had lamented before the coffin. She had to be pried away once it was time to bury the body.
Weeks had gone by, and then months. This new reality had looked so terrifying and different. The change had been hard to accept. Birdie had often felt stuck, with nowhere to go and no one to see.
In an attempt to control at least a smidgen of her life, she had tried to hold onto who she was. Nobody could take Birdie from Birdie – not the doctors, not the locals, not her parents' stories of who she was supposed to be.
She could do it, not for herself but for the sake of Antonia's legacy.