Thomas Willoughby’s Murder Ballad, or How I Incorporated an Ophecleide into My Novel
Like every author I know, I cut a huge amount of narrative from my novel before it reached its final form. On my computer’s desktop, if you follow me down the rabbit hole I’ll call “writing –> atw –> drafts –> cuts,” you will find about a zillion little docs. Each one contains a scrap of text that I just couldn’t bear to delete. I mean, zeros and ones don’t take up any physical space, so why shouldn’t I hoard them? Anyway, I recently dived into that no man’s land, and found a folder titled ‘tom trouble.’ All of a sudden, after about six years of not really thinking about it, I remembered that Thomas Willoughby, the disheveled pianist who plays on the balcony of Barnum’s museum, used to be a main character in Among the Wonderful. I loved him that much. So, it is with fondness that I post a previously unseen selection of scenes featuring my favorite Tom Waits-inspired nineteenth-century musician. Oh yes, it’s no coincidence that their names share initials. Enjoy.
Among the Wonderful deleted scenes, take 1
Thomas Willoughby’s Murder Ballad, or How I Incorporated an Ophecleide into My Novel
Thomas Willoughby heard laughter coming from inside Emile Guillaudeu’s office. He’d been summoned, but he didn’t know why. Reluctantly, he pushed open the door.
It was the other three members of the band he was to lead. Thomas himself had only been hired three days ago. He was surprised the others had been hired without his knowing about it. The men stood in a clump near Guillaudeu’s desk.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” offered the man with the viola, his voice a warm baritone. “I heard you play at Vauxhall Theatre. A real honor.”
“You’re going to play on the balcony, according to Barnum,” said Guillaudeu, the museum taxidermist. “Why don’t you go up there and get set up.”
The terms of Thomas’s contract with Barnum included the use of a piano, but now, as he approached the balcony at the far end of Gallery Five, he saw an instrument. Even though a white cloth covered it he knew it wasn’t a piano. When he looked he found a small harpsichord underneath. He brushed his hands over the five octaves. The instrument had rickety wooden legs and was painted in a garish gilt-and-scarlet pattern of curlicues and vines. No one played the harpsichord anymore. It was Italian-made, but in the old Flemish design. He plucked a few keys and cringed at the instrument’s mechanical ping.
Barnum’s narrow balcony wrapped around two sides of the building. Visitors often leaned against the wrought-iron railing of this promenade to watch the constant parade of traffic on Broadway as if it were another one of Barnum’s exhibits. The horsemen and cart drivers looked up from below at the strolling couples on the balcony with equal curiosity.
Once outside, Thomas breathed the cold March air. Only a handful of people walked along the narrow promenade, and the three musicians walked straight to the railing and stood in a neat row, all three propped on their elbows. Thomas meant to locate the ideal place for the band and talk with the musicians about their repertoire; he meant to stay on track and appear fully in charge, but, as was usual for him, he became severely distracted.
The street was alive with patterns. He heard singing and searched the street below until he found its source: a girl with a brown basket hooked in one arm. Her voice was a warm alto with a bit of a two-tone rasp at its edges. Flute, maybe. Perhaps clarinet. Her voice ranged across the same octave again and again as she repeated her song: Hot corn for sale, fresh roast corn right here ten cents! She averaged four steps along Broadway for each iteration of the tune. Thomas tapped his foot to match her cadence. A carriage passed in a clamorous barrage that quickly faded to a percussion of stone-against-wood. Thomas’ eye caught on the rhythms in a bicyclist’s legs pumping and the yip of the dog at his side. Three boys ran up the street, shouting to each other in high baritone: horns, yes. French? A storm of pigeons in the sky collectively turned, flashing their white bellies and turning again. Again. Again. Syncopating his heartbeat.
On the street a shiny black carriage passed. Inside it, a man in an elegant suit sat next to a lovely lady. Except for the presence of a lady, Thomas thought, that man in the carriage could have been him three months ago. He was a man like that, a fancy man with a carriage and driver, tuxedoed, accompanied at all times by the muted tap of his fine leather soles. He had been a prodigy, after all.
But after the debacle that had thrown him from his velvet-cushioned seat of relative fame, and after his stipend was cut off and he’d sold all of his pretty things, after he’d returned from the mercantile to find a mysterious padlock blocking him from his home, he was set adrift.
Now he lived in a peeling tenement on Hester Street. He rented a room on the top floor and became one of twenty-eight inhabitants. The room had no window. The walls didn’t reach the ceiling and pigeons lived among the rafters. He tried to figure out what to do. Being an introvert, he knew surprisingly very few people. He couldn’t even recall the names of the dozens of people he’d met at receptions and post-concert receptions. He was afraid of each passing sound, from the clatter on the street to footsteps in the hall. These sounds told him how forgotten he was, how the city swallowed him up and roared on. He knew no one and could not think what to do. Concert piano was not a skill he could survive on now.
A woman lived in the room next to his. He never saw her but could hear her skirt swishing as she walked across her room. She took in laundry during the day. Each morning Thomas awoke to the sounds of her carrying water to her room, heating it and scrubbing. He began to rely on the framework of these sounds. They became his most familiar rhythm. He imagined her a stalwart and entrepreneurial woman, perhaps doing all the laundry of the building, or even the block. As the days went by, he grew less willing to venture outside. He spent his time pacing in his room, reading the books of sheet music and biography he had brought from his former life. He watched the pigeons building nests above him and played the table-edge like a piano. He thought about how to manifest his new ideas about the piano and the music he would like to play. He must envision the piano not just as keys and pedals but strings, echo, vibration. Each note had corresponding vibrations, vibrations that hinted at the notes above and below them. The notes could blend into new sounds, if only he knew how to access them. When he was certain his neighbor was out of the building he began to make sounds. Not singing, but more like humming. He felt he was making progress on his new idea. Soon he dreaded leaving his room even for the few moments it took to empty his chamber pot out the back window of the hallway.
One afternoon he awoke from a nap into unusual silence. He sat up on his cot. Usually this time of day Thomas could hear his neighbor busy with her sizzling iron. Instead, as he listened, Thomas heard a man’s sounds. He thought the man might be helping the woman lift something heavy, a new stove, perhaps, or a larger table for her work, but the grunts and scuffings seemed too continuous for that, and the woman herself wasn’t speaking at all. Thomas stood. The hairs on his arms prickled. A man was attacking her! A man had tricked the woman into allowing himself into her room and now he was strangling her! He was certain of it. He lunged out of his own room and burst into hers headlong.
They were not moving a table. He was not strangling her. The man, a white-haired gentleman wearing a silk top hat and a striped vest, stood behind the woman, who was bent over on the bed, her face buried in bedquilts. Her skirts were hiked. There was no question what was happening.
“Oh, no.” Thomas murmured. These were the first words he’d uttered to another person in two weeks.
“Oh no you don’t!” The gentleman shouted. He pulled back from the woman, and before even buttoning his trousers he lunged for his jacket. “You will not rob me, you miserable rat!” The gentleman yanked his coat off the chair and shoved Thomas to the floor. “You’d like to think life was that easy!” He gave Thomas a swift kick in the ribs. The man addressed the woman. “You thought you could get away with this!” And he disappeared down the hall. Thomas rose shakily to his feet. The woman was now standing near the bed. She was not the ruddy-cheeked entrepreneur of Thomas’ mind. She seemed to be fifty years old, thin and hawk-nosed with blotches on her bare arms.
“I’m sorry, miss,” Thomas said, making a silly little bow. He backed out of the room. He shut himself in his own room again and leaned against the door, breathing raggedly. He had never seen two people engaged in the carnal act. His heart raced and the image of the man gripping the woman’s haunch from behind imprinted in his mind. He stumbled to his cot and laid his head in his hands, both excited and horrified by what he had seen.
Within a minute someone rapped on his door. He imagined a constable, come to arrest him for breaking into the woman’s room.
“I know you’re here.” It was the woman. His neighbor.
“I’m sorry Miss,” Thomas repeated from his cot. The woman opened the door and stepped inside. She was smiling.
“I came to thank you.”
“I guess sometimes life is that easy, love.” She held out a small leather purse.
“What do you mean?”
“He was in such a hurry he didn’t notice this fell out of his pocket.”
“What is it?”
“His wallet. Come down the pub with me to celebrate. What’s your name?”
“Thomas. But I don’t want to-”
“Thomas. Come on, then.” And the woman reached out and pulled him to his feet. “I insist.”
Thomas hadn’t been out of the house in fourteen days and he approached the street with dread. He stayed close to Hyacinth, which was what his neighbor called herself. “Not my real name, you know. If my old ma only knew…but it’s a name I always fancied. Coming here was a good opportunity to give it to myself.” She moved quickly through the night-time bustle on Hester Street, and Thomas kept his eyes down, avoiding the glares and scowls he was sure he received from the passersby. Even though he’d been wearing his oldest suit for four days, without washing it or himself, even though his hair was matted and oily and his face grimy, he knew he stood out next to the rag-patched and bare-armed citizens of the Seventh Ward.
Hyacinth ducked down a short flight of wooden stairs, to below street level. “Follow me, now. Come with me.” Fear pinged against Thomas’ ribcage. He suspected Hyacinth of luring him into a trap. He stood at the top of the stairs as she heaved open a cellar door and disappeared into a den of voices. The door slammed shut behind her.
As afraid as he was of walking these streets at night, he was even more afraid of standing still. A lack of purpose, which is exactly what he had, would attract attention here. Already a group of boys came toward him on the street. Either turn around and run back to the pigeon-roofed room or follow Hyacinth. He heard glasses clinking and shouts from the pub. In his room he would be alone again, with only the impulses of his mind. What more did he need? He heard a crash and laughter from inside the pub. He ducked down the stairs in his own flurry of feet.
The pub was low-ceilinged and smelled of unwashed bodies and hair. Thomas pushed his way in, past a couple sitting on the dirt floor, past a group of men in a tight circle. The pub had no chairs or benches. A narrow window ran along the top of one wall. During the day, Thomas imagined it let in light reflected off the sidewalks. Small open flames hung from the ceiling in metal bowls of oil. The din was constant and indecipherable. A white-haired man played a fiddle way off in a corner, but Thomas couldn’t hear it at all. Two barrels sat on a table near the back and Thomas saw Hyacinth taking a cup from the hand of a fat man in an apron. He pushed his way there.
“Here, Thomas, here’s one with my gratitude,” Hyacinth shouted into his ear and pushed the cup into his hands. “Another one, Owen!” She gave the man two coins from the gentleman’s purse. “To Thomas!” She cried; Thomas reluctantly raised his cup. He couldn’t identify the thick, opaque substance filling his mouth and he choked on his first drink. Not beer, certainly. And not wine either, though it was the sweet aftertaste that made him nearly retch.
“What is this?” He called out to Hyacinth. She shook her head. “Just drink it.” The second swig tasted less offensive and after the third he decided it wasn’t so bad. Two men argued next to him, one waving his hands, the other looking down. At first Thomas couldn’t make out their words, and then he realized they weren’t speaking English.
“Irish,” Hyacinth told him. “You’re new to the city, then.” She looked at him strangely.
“Not so new.”
“Welcome to New York,” she said, cackling and swilling. A thin brown stream dribbled down her chin. Thomas felt a tingling sensation like the top of his skull was gently lifting off. He did not tell Hyacinth he was familiar with another New York, one that placed him on a chandelier-lit stage six nights a week.
Three crouching men threw dice on the dirt floor. A whole family including two children and a baby sat in the corner with the father asleep. The fiddler dipped and danced on the other side of the pub. Thomas walked toward the music.
The fiddler’s jig bobbed up the scale in triple time, its phrases repeated like dance steps and the melody uncoiling like strings to the sky. The old musician only had an arm’s length of room, and the handful of drunken dancers bumped him regularly but the player didn’t seem to mind, just played to the end with people, including Thomas, stomping in time.
“Go raibh maith agat!” The fiddler cried at the end of his song. “Sláinte agus saol aga,” he went on. “Bean ar do mhian agat. Leanbh gach blian agat. Agus bás n Éireann!”The crowd gave a great shout after that, and everyone drank, including Thomas.
“What did he say?” Thomas spoke to no one in particular.
“He said good health to you,” said a red-faced man next to him. “The woman of your choice for you. A child every year for you, and may you die in Ireland!”
“An Cantaireacht!” The fiddler pointed to a man sitting on a bench in back of him. The crowd roared. This other man got to his feet. He waited until the crowd quieted before he began a song:
There were three old ravens sat on a tree
Down a down, hey, down down.
They were as black as black might be,
Down a down hey, hey down.
The man’s voice was a high tenor, not a beautiful voice. Not even a strong voice, Thomas thought. Tightly wound. The fiddler played a low note for each verse of the song. E minor, Thomas thought.
The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?
With a down, derry down, hey a derry, a derry down.
Down in yonder green field, said the bird,,
There lies a knight slain beneath his shield,
With a down, a down derry, down down.
The crowd around the singer grew quiet. Some sang the chorus, but the others had stopped their conversations. Thomas’ head began to spin. The fiddler added half-notes and a mournful wail to the tune.
Down there comes a fallow doe
As great with young as she might go
She lifted up his bloody head,
And kissed his wounds that were so red,
Down, a down hey, down down,
She got him up upon her back,
And carried him off to the earthen lake,
With a down, derry down, hey a derry, a derry.
Thomas leaned against the wall. This was an old music. He could feel it. All his music, the music of Europe, came out of the gilt parlors in which he had played. The emotions that carried it were those of tortured drama: the artist. But this music. The way everyone in the pub understood it already, as if it was just a snippet of one ancient song.
She buried him before the prime,
She was dead herself ere even song-time,
With a down, a derry down, hey a down.
May God send every man, in his time,
Such a field, such a doe, and such a leman.
With a down, derry derry, down down.
The singer gave a small bow when he finished and went back to his bench. The song reminded Thomas of something. The fiddler stepped out and began a new song, a reel that sounded like clockwork, and the recollection flitted away, into the darkness of Thomas’ forgetting. He took a few steps and found himself stumbling. Someone caught his arm. “There now, lad. Go easy.” The top of Thomas’ head seemed to be somewhere near the ceiling. He wanted the raven’s song to come back, but the pub was thick with new noise. People clapped and danced and drank. Their noise began to suffocate him so he stumbled out the door into cold air. He climbed the steps to the surface of the street and stood there swaying in a cold wind, suddenly connected to the world again. It was a few days after this that Thomas saw Barnum’s ad in the paper. He was looking for musicians.
“Come on, lads!” he called to the musicians on the balcony. “Someone give me a hand with this harpsichord.”
“Harpsichord?” The men responded in unison. Thomas shrugged.
The musicians set up their instruments in one corner of the balcony. Thomas positioned the harpsichord at the outer edge so he could see the street while he played. The balcony was so narrow they had to orient themselves in a line along the railing. Thomas sat on his fingers to warm them, and watched the other men. The horn player pulled his ophicleide from its case and wiped a cloth across the instrument’s brass coil. He set the horn on his shoulder and danced his fingers across the buttons in a silent prelude.
“Did you men know each other before?” Thomas asked.
“No, sir. We met for the first time downstairs.”
“Ah.” Thomas was relieved. Even though he knew these men respected his skill and renown, he was concerned that they might already be a band and he would be the intruder. He thought he would very much like to lead them into a new kind of music. The dark-grained viola now came out of the case with its graceful bow. Thomas had always been partial to two-piece instruments, and goosebumps rose as the man pulled a note soft as a velvet ribbon over the strings.
The third man had found a stool somewhere and now opened up his small square instrument case. It was the only one Thomas hadn’t been able to identify, and the man pulled out a hexagonal squeezebox with leather bellows.
“Concertina?” Thomas had only seen the instrument in the hands of a court musician in Dublin. Certainly he’d never heard of the concertina accompanying viola, or piano.
“Yessir,” the man said. “My brother taught me to play.”
On the street, a horseman trotted over cobble. “Can you hear that, men? The hooves give us a waltz rhythm. One, two-three, one two-three.” Thomas picked out a few measures of melody to accompany the beat. The other musicians laughed and joined in.
“We don’t need drums,” the concertina player said. “We’ve got them down there.”
“The street noise will keep us on our toes,” said the ophicleide.
“We have our own orchestra down there,” Thomas agreed, pinging a few notes on his small keyboard. “Do you know ‘Hail Columbus, Happy Land’?” And they were off, the ophicleide blasting, viola fretting, concertina hopping, and the harpsichord singing pretty as a mechanical nightingale.