would entertain composers, scholars and musicians at their table. He would teach Belle the violin, and she would amuse their guests. Scott tutored her, of course. She had never played a note. One day, he and the children would form a quartet. They could play the way he and his family played in Texarkana; his father on his fiddle, his mother on the banjo, Robert on cornet, Will singing strong, and him on the piano his mother had bought him when he was thirteen. And none of his children would wear burnt cork as minstrels, or dream of it. They would keep their own faces.
Belle was uncharacteristically shy in Louis’s presence at dinner, answering everything with pretty good . She thought their flat was pretty good. She liked this neighborhood pretty good. St. Louis was pretty good, as crowded cities went. Across the table, Scott could see Louis’s eyes turning muddy while he tried to engage himself in conversation with her.
“Mr. Joplin’s a big man since that ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’” Louis said. “He’s caused such a stir the white folks put an article about him in their paper. They say he’s gonna tour in Germany next year. First we got Booker T. Washington eating lunch at the White House, and then our own Scott Joplin playing ragtime over in Europe. Won’t that be something?”
“Scott loves his music pretty good,” Belle said.
“Enough about me, Louis,” Scott said.
But Louis wasn’t finished with Belle. “Won’t that be something, though?” This time, oddly, Scott heard no sarcasm from Louis. Louis stared at Belle intently, waiting.
Belle shrugged, an unattractive gesture that made Scott cringe. “I’m not much for music,” Belle said. “But Scott makes a pretty good living with it.”
Louis’s eyes went to Scott’s and held them. For the first time, he looked entirely sober.
T he habañera Louis was playing at the parlor piano cascaded like a melodic waterfall, and it was only a piffle to him. His fingers flounced carelessly across the keys, the way a child might play with a toy. Yet, it was breathtaking. Each time Scott heard Louis play, he cursed Louis’s lack of discipline. What if Chopin had only tossed his creations to the wind? Louis had an enviable singing voice, too, like a cherub’s, and his dancing was dizzying. He was a born performer. A lesser man would loathe him, Scott thought. The piano, a black Kohler & Campbell upright grand, had come with the apartment and was worth the monthly rent now that Scott had heard Louis make it sing.
Scott walked to the parlor window, staring down. Outside, gas lamps were an exhibition of bright white light, rows of full moons on poles. Wet snow fell gracelessly from the darkening sky. Even with his window closed, Scott heard a passing woman’s ribald laughter below.
“Belle is Scott Hayden’s sister-in-law? I can’t believe it,” Louis said as he played. “She’s a bore. No wonder her first husband dropped over dead. She don’t like music? Dog my cats, old man. That’s like Joseph married to Mary, saying he don’t much like Jesus.”
“I wish you’d lower your voice.”
Louis only played more loudly, changing to the key of G. Lovely. “We ain’t all whisperers like you, Scotty. Why’d you have to marry such an old lady? You could have your pick of those young ones. Shit, any one of Mother’s girls would make you a better wife. That new singer at the Rosebud, Leola, keeps askin’ after you.”
Scott felt blood rush to his face, although he tried to hold his expression fixed. A drink and conversation two weeks ago with the comely nineteen-year-old singer from Kansas City had turned into an offer to walk her home, and he’d found himself kissing her in the shadows of her doorway. She had taken his hands and guided them across her pliant bust. Despite being a widow, Belle behaved like a virgin, always expecting to be led, and she had never once guided his hands that way. Scott thought about Leola more than he wanted to.
1 The Outstretched Shadow.3