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Authors: Eleanora E. Tate

The Minstrel's Melody

BOOK: The Minstrel's Melody
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T
HE
M
INSTREL'S
M
ELODY

Eleanora E. Tate

To Evelyn Morgan, Merlyn Bruce Hamlett,

Gwendolyn Brooks, and Mary Carter Smith

C
ONTENTS

Chapter 1     The Stone Shed

Chapter 2     Punished

Chapter 3     Marvelous Madame Meritta

Chapter 4     The Stowaway

Chapter 5     Perform with Passion!

Chapter 6     A Close Call

Chapter 7     The Dixie Palace

Chapter 8     A Crazy Idea

Chapter 9     Orphelia's Last Chance

Chapter 10     The Grand Finale

Going Back in Time

Author's Note

About the Author

C
HAPTER
1

T
HE
S
TONE
S
HED

Orphelia Bruce raised her hands to an imaginary piano keyboard and wiggled her slender fingers in the warm Missouri spring air.

“Pearl, are you ready now to sing?” she said over her shoulder to her older sister. “We have got to do better this time. Cap, I see you're ready on your, uh, drum.” She glanced at the tall, light-skinned boy beside her, two sticks in his hands, beating on a school-book that swung on a strap around his neck. “All right! And one and two and three and four and—Pearl! You missed your cue again!”

Turning around, Orphelia saw Pearl bent over in the tall grass, examining the hem of her long muslin skirt. “I must have caught it on the fence back there,” she said. “You know I can't sing in a raggedy skirt. So unprofessional. We got to call off practice.”

“Girl, you're always tearing something.” Orphelia tried not to let her face frown up too much. “Come on, Pearl, we have got to rehearse. You're not getting up on that stage tomorrow night singing every which way with me and Cap.”

“Oh? Well, maybe I just won't go at all.” Pearl smiled wickedly. “Then we'll see who else'll get to be in Madame Meritta and Her Marvelous Traveling Troubadours Talent Show. How about that?”

Orphelia put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth, but Cap broke in. “You know your momma said if Pearl can't be in it, you can't either, so just be quiet, Orphelia. I'm not gonna look a fool banging out ‘Listen to the Mockingbird' on a drum by myself.”

“You mean banging on
my
book,” Pearl said. “I don't think you got a real drum anyway I bet you plan to fix up a sorghum bucket.”

“Don't worry about my drum,” Cap shot back. “You better worry more about getting another hole in your stocking.”

“Did I? Where?” Pearl hitched up her skirt and examined her black cotton stockings.

Orphelia snatched at her sister's skirt. “Put your skirt down, you ninny! Look, I'll mend your hem good as new, all right? Stockings, too, if there's a hole. All right?”

Darn Pearl. So vain! Orphelia lifted her hands again to her pretend piano and tried to look as pitiful as she could at Pearl and Cap. “Now, please, please, please, please,
please
can we try it one more time?”

Pearl smiled at Cap, who turned red up and down his neck. She cleared her throat, patted her reddish brown hair upswept in a pompadour, and clasped her plump hands before her. She fluttered her long eyelashes and gazed into the sky. “All right. I'm ready. Proceed.”

Pearl's raspy voice scraped out the opening words of “Listen to the Mockingbird.” To help her stay in tune as much as possible, Orphelia added her own strong contralto voice. Good grumpety gracious, but Pearl was so off-key! She sang like that even when they practiced on the real piano at school.

And just where Cap was going to find a real drum in one day was something Orphelia told herself
not
to worry about. It was stupid to have a drum playing with them anyway, but that was another of Sister Pearl “Miss in Charge” Bruce's ideas. Orphelia had wanted a tambourine, but nobody she knew had one.

She sang louder to try to keep Pearl on key and tried not to wince when her sister hit another wrong note. Even though Pearl couldn't sing, Momma insisted that Pearl be part of Orphelia's performance. This was the price one paid to reach fame, Orphelia reminded herself.

Cap was not from around here. He'd dropped off of a train into their Calico Creek community a couple of months ago. He said he was twelve, but with that height and barrel chest, he looked a good fifteen or sixteen. Big old boy! Living by the Mississippi River in northeast Missouri, in that corner where Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa came together, Orphelia had seen a lot of hobos who had passed through from steamboats, barges, and boxcars. The river and the railroad were natural highways for transients. She hadn't seen many as young as Cap, though.

The minute Cap saw Pearl, who was fourteen, he fell smack “in love” with her. Now he followed her around like somebody's pet goat.

Not that Orphelia minded much that boys seemed to like Pearl more, and that at first glance, folks told Orphelia to her face that Pearl was prettier than she was, and that Pearl was Momma's favorite. Well, she minded, but she refused to let any of it bother her, put it that way Orphelia was rather pleased that her braided hair made her look dignified, that she was slender and athletic, and that Poppa said her chocolate skin, like his, was as smooth as a piece of fine furniture.

Best of all, she could sing and play piano better than anyone else in Lewis County, even including most of the adults. She was church pianist-in-training for their Calico Creek Missionary Baptist Church. She sang solo and played piano at all the school and church events. Once she even sang at the Emancipation Celebration way over in Hannibal. She had perfect pitch and practically a photographic memory, which meant that she could play any song after hearing or reading the music just once.

It stood to reason that she was going to be a star one day. Everybody said so. Well, Momma wouldn't say so. Momma would only say that Orphelia's voice was “sufficient” for religious music, that singing sassy songs was a sin, and that no daughter of hers would ever perform professionally onstage. She and Momma had had more than one fight about that.

“Mockingbir-r-r-r-r-d,” Pearl shrieked, spreading her chubby arms. “Okay, I'm through. We don't need to sing more than two verses, anyway. C'mon, let's go home.”

Orphelia sighed, dropped her hands, and followed Pearl down the road. Better this short practice than none at all. “Maybe we can come to school early tomorrow so we can use the piano,” she said. Neither Pearl nor Cap answered.

“Remember, we can win first place, you all. Remember St. Louis and the World's Fair! Cap, ever been to St. Louis? Yes? No? We haven't, yet. But if—when—we win, we'll get to play during Madame Meritta's program at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—the St. Louis World's Fair—next week! I love the sound of that. We'll be famous, you hear me? She's never brought her talent show to this part of Missouri before, Cap, so that must be a sign!”

“Orphelia, shut up. You're yapping so much I can't think,” Pearl said.

Orphelia ignored the impulse to ask Pearl when did she ever think, and went on, “And maybe I could join up with Madame Meritta and Her Marvelous Traveling Troubadours show and travel all around the world. I'd wear furs and boas and diamond necklaces and sparkling dresses and a feather in my hat just like she does. Maybe I'd even get a beautiful gold tooth like she has. People would cram into her shows and swoon over me playing and singing. They'd throw money and roses at my feet.”

“And when your daddy heard about it, he'd make them throw you out,” Cap cracked.

“No, Poppa wouldn't,” Pearl giggled, “but Momma would. Poppa'd just stand there and watch ol' skinny Orphelia go flying out through the tent door. Listen, Cap, when Momma's going to switch Orphelia, Poppa'll just go to the front porch or the outhouse and stay there until it's over.”

“Oh have mercy heavens, Pearl, now
you're
the one flapping your lips,” Orphelia said. She didn't want Cap to know that she still got switchings. “You keep falsifying like that and you'll give me heart palpitations. And I'm not skinny!”

“Kids from all over the state have been competing in that woman's talent shows for nearly a year,” Cap reminded Orphelia. “This is her last stop anyway. She's probably already got the winner picked out, probably from Kansas City or Jeff City. She don't want no hicks around her. You and Clementine and Ambrose and anybody else from school who's gonna be in this thing's fooling yourselves. Don't even think about winning first place and going to St. Louis.”

“You don't know that, so don't be so negative.” Orphelia lifted her head and thrust out her chin. She picked her schoolbag up from the ground. Forget Cap.

As they walked past the Stone Shed, Orphelia stopped to scan the back-porch wall for new posters. The Stone Shed was a dilapidated old building set near the road, where people posted handbills, posters, broadsides, and other printed announcements. It wasn't actually made of stone but of wood. Everybody said it had been used once as a jail for colored people. But now it was like Calico Creek's community newspaper. And it was where, a whole year ago, Orphelia had first seen posters announcing the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—the World's Fair-starting April 30, 1904, in St. Louis.

Since then, news of the World's Fair had kept her thumbing through the newspapers that came to the school. Madame Meritta's poster, however, had appeared only a few weeks ago. The poster's announcement had made Orphelia almost faint with joy. The real Madame Meritta, coming to little Calico Creek, Missouri? Orphelia didn't care if Madame Meritta sang or not—if she could just
see
her! Well, if she
did
decide to sing, that would be even better. But it was a talent show for kids, after all.

BOOK: The Minstrel's Melody
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