The year is 1986. It’s been four years since Albert fell off the edge of the world; a world he wished would forget about him; forget he ever existed.
He hadn’t really existed though, had he? The School had sheltered him in an academic womb – its winner of a specially-created Nobel Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, seven Grammy Awards and two Pulitzers – hustled around the planet from concert stage to concert stage, seeing only fleeting glimpses of life from the back of stretch limousines and penthouse hotel rooms.
Then murder entered his life.
For six months after that, one hideous death led to another, like a string of blood-red pearls, trailing Albert to the edge of the abyss; forcing him out of the womb, naked and exposed. Finally, he’d fled to a place of safety, where even Death couldn’t find him.
But it did.
by David A. Crossman
London – 1986
ooooThe distinction between a mausoleum and a museum was too fine for Albert to grasp. To him, they were both places for storing dead things. Yet the people in charge of his life—those who picked him up at airports in limousines and took him to hotels, and made him meet people he didn’t want to meet, and talk to reporters he didn’t want to talk to, and gave him medals and ribbons for which he had no room in his life—always seemed to assume he had an insatiable need to see whatever museum was the pride and joy of their particular city. Albert knew what to do; stand in front of whatever work of art they were trying to get him excited about and tilt his head this way and that, and nod at it. Smile. Nod some more and say something like, ‘oh,’ or ‘ah’, to make it seem like he got it.
ooooBut Albert didn’t get it. In fact, apart from music, he didn’t get much of anything. The horrible events of recent memory had only made him realize how much he didn’t get. His ignorance of people—their motivations, their compulsion to do what, to him, were extraordinary things—turned out to be far more profound than he’d ever imagined; mostly because he’d never have imagined them if he tried, but partly because, when events finally forced themselves upon him, they were completely alien to him.
ooooAlien. From another planet, like Clark Kent—living in constant anxiety lest the Earthlings find him out. That was Albert. Of course, that was stretching the comparison. If push came to shove, Clark Kent could always turn into Superman and fly away, or melt something with his eyes.
ooooAt least Superman knew what planet he was from. Albert had been told, more than once, that he must be from another planet. Perhaps he was. But he hadn’t been told which one. His mother and sister were from Maine. He probably was, too. Maybe Maine was another planet. That would explain a lot.
ooooMaybe he shouldn’t tell people where he was from.
oooo“This is my favorite,” said the lady with hoops hanging from her ears who had been escorting him since lunch. Why she was escorting him, he didn’t know. Maybe there had been a drawing and she’d lost.
ooooThat was probably it.
ooooNo one had told him to follow her after the media event that afternoon at the BBC, everyone seemed to assume that he would, so he did.
ooooThey were very big hoops. Albert had seen something similar in a birdcage once, and wondered what the lady would look like with a parakeet hanging from each ear. That would make her more interesting to look at. She was holding a purse in both hands and kind of shaking it in the direction of a painting. “Jackson Pollack.”
ooooAlbert looked at the thing in the frame, beside which was a little black card that said, in white print, ‘Yellow Island.’ This time, he tilted his head in earnest, but tilt as he might he couldn’t find the naked lady, which is what most of the art in that particular museum was about. Nor, apart from obvious little mistakes in yellow, could he see an island.
ooooA Pollock was a fish. Maybe there was a fish in all that mess somewhere.
ooooHe tilted the other way. No. No fish.
oooo“One of your own, of course,” said the lady.
ooooWhy did people say things like that? She seemed to think he should know what she was talking about. What did it mean? One of his own what? Whatever it was, he didn’t have one, at least not as far as he knew. Especially if it was a naked lady.
ooooHe thought of Miss Bjork, the only real–live female – apart from his sister – he’d ever seen naked. Well, he hadn’t actually seen her. He’d been in her apartment once when she was naked—in the shower—while he was in the living room. But he could hear the water running, and he imagined what she must look like. What he imagined, actually, was the Venus de Milo in the rain, but with arms. That’s about as far as his experience of naked ladies extended. Not that there weren’t examples all around him; magazines and things, you know. He’d just never been interested. Naked ladies weren’t music.
ooooUntil Miss Bjork. He tingled unexpectedly.
ooooShe was dead now.
ooooAlbert stopped tingling and squinted at the picture. Once upon a time, before Mrs. Gibson arrived to take over housekeeping chores in his apartment, he might have had something like this—under a carpet, or lost among his laundry or wrapping something that was giving off an offensive odor—but he didn’t think so. In any case, if Mrs. Gibson had unearthed such a thing in her excavations, it wouldn’t have stood a chance.
oooo“American,” said the lady, who’s name was Lady something–or–other. That made it easy to remember. She was accompanied by a man who seemed to be dressed in something too tight whose name, like that of a lot of Englishmen, was Sir. That, too, was convenient. Albert had been called ‘sir’ during his recent sojourn in Tryon, South Carolina. He’d also been called ‘honey’, ‘sweetheart,’ ‘sugar,’ and ‘pissant,’ but he didn’t think any of those would apply to this man, who seemed happy with just the one name. Sir.
ooooSir didn’t say much. He nodded at paintings, too. And quite often looked at the silver watch that hung from a chain on his vest pocket.
ooooAlbert liked that watch and chain. If someone gave him one, he’d have to go to the vest store so he’d have something to hang it from.
oooo“Yes,” said Albert, recalling that Lady had asked if he was American. “From Maine.” He hadn’t meant to say that, now she’d know.
oooo“Maine?” said Lady. “I thought he was from Wyoming.”
ooooWho was she talking about? Albert didn’t know anyone from Wyoming, though he knew where it was, and that the capitol of Wyoming was Cheyenne. He’d never thought about the people who lived there. Someone must, else they wouldn’t need a capitol. Let her think what she wanted, he was off the hook. “Okay.”
ooooLady looked at him much the same way he’d looked at the picture and tilted her head. It was a Familiar Look.
ooooAlbert squirmed a little and pretended to study the painting. His sister had gotten into the cans of paints on the handyman’s workbench and done something much like it on the floor of the barn once and Mother had sent her to her room. He suspected a similar fate had befallen the person who did this. How it got into a frame and how the frame got into a museum, and why people would stop and look at it were all part of Life’s Great Mystery.
ooooLike everything else.
ooooUnless it was a Morality Tale. A kind of visual nursery rhyme. Albert could imagine mothers dragging their children to the Museum and—planting them in front of this painting—threatening them with whatever fate befell the perpetrator of this particular crime. Perhaps his had been a Famous Consequence that everyone but Albert knew about.
oooo“It almost makes me want to weep,” said Lady.
oooo“Yes,” said Albert, pleased, at last, to find something they could agree on. “Me, too.”
ooooSir—seeming to read something into Albert’s reply that escaped Lady—looked at him sideways and, making a kind of constricted giggle, if a man of such imposing Dignity could be said to giggle, at the back of his throat, and smiled. It was a nice smile. Albert liked him.
oooo“Did you say something, Lawrence?” said Lady, though her attention seemed fixed on whatever it was about the painting that made her want to weep.
oooo“Lawrence,” Albert said aloud. He couldn’t recall ever having said the word before.
oooo“Yes?” said Sir. Maybe that was his last name. Sir Lawrence.
ooooAlbert shook his head dismissively. “I was just listening to it.”
ooooIt was Sir’s turn to tilt his head. “Listening? To what?”
oooo“Lawrence,” said Albert, whose attention was drawn to an adjacent room by the sound of a man saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, the museum will close in five minutes.”
ooooTo Albert it was as if Satan had said, ladies and gentlemen, Hell is closing. You may make your way to the exit.
oooo“Please make your way to the entrance hall and be sure to collect your belongings,” said the disembodied voice.
ooooAlbert should have brought some belongings to collect. Nobody told him.
oooo“We have to go,” he said, hopefully, wondering why they were being directed to the entrance hall if they were supposed to be exiting, and wishing he’d brought Jeremy Ash with him to explain things like that.
ooooJeremy Ash knew everything Albert didn’t, primarily, as far as Albert could ascertain, from having spent much of his life locked in a closet under the stairs and watching television through a crack in the door. But Jeremy had had a bad afternoon and had to stay at the hotel. They’d had to amputate his other leg, too, and what was left hurt. He never said as much, but he made faces that made Albert think it probably did.
ooooAs far as Albert was concerned, the Good and Evil of legs pretty much balanced one another out; they were the Twin Judases who had brought him here, they were the Angels of Deliverance that would carry him away.
oooo“Oh, that’s not for us,” said Lady. “Lawrence is on the Board.”
ooooAlbert looked at Lawrence but couldn’t see a board. Maybe it was on his back, under his jacket, which would explain the way he was standing—and why his clothes seemed so tight.
oooo“For someone of Your Stature, the Museum is always open.”
ooooAlways open. Like hell. Albert felt the urge to run for the exit, but what if he got there and the doors were nailed shut, or had disappeared altogether? He imagined eternity in the Museum, wandering from room to room while Sir cleared his throat and Lady wept and made Albert look at the paintings that seemed to scream “Don’t tell Mother I did this!” He choked back the panic the rose to his throat.
ooooHe looked toward the adjoining room. There were pictures of people in there. Real people with one eye on either side of their nose, and buttons, and hats and fluffy white collars. “What’s in there?” he said, trying to sound casual, but wishing desperately to escape the vortex of swirls in Lady’s Favorite Painting that seemed to be trying to suck him in to that haunted dimension in which such swirls made sense.
oooo“Ah!” said Lady, detaching her retinas from the vortex. “The Masters!” She chortled, but the subject of the chortle was, apparently, personal and secret. Sir didn’t ask. Neither did Albert.
ooooAlbert had recently heard, or read, or seen the phrase “she swept from the room.” The image that came to mind at the time was, quite naturally, of a woman, broom in hand, sweeping her way toward the door. But, for some reason, the term applied to what Lady was doing at the moment, and it had nothing to do with a broom. Probably it was a metaphor, which was another thing Albert never got, unless this was one, in which case he did. Lady was sweeping from the Room of Meaningless Dribbles, toward the Room of Discernible Faces and he and Sir were being dragged along like puppies on invisible leashes.
ooooAlbert was glad to go. He cast a quick backward glance to make sure the Vortex wasn’t following. In Hell, you could never be sure. That’s why they called it Hell.
ooooLady was speaking. “That’s Reubens on the far wall. So is that,” she said, pointing to the portrait of a lady whose head seemed to be trying to escape from a giant cupcake wrapper.
ooooThey were both Reuben’s? Did that mean they were brother and sister? One was clearly a man—though he seemed to have been dressed by someone who wasn’t sure; he had a beard anyway—and the cupcake picture was clearly a lady; all the bumps and things. Or did they both belong to Reubens? Or did they possess some inner quality that made them Reubens? Like a ham sandwich which, whatever kind of bread it was made with, was always a ham sandwich.
ooooWhich reminded Albert that he was hungry.
oooo“And this portrait will, of course, be of especial interest to you.”
ooooWhy ‘of course?’ People were always saying that. What did it mean? Albert flushed. He hated flushing. He hated not knowing what everyone else knew—even if what they knew had nothing to do with music or Miss Bjork and, therefore, didn’t really matter.
ooooWhy ‘of course?’ Was looking at this painting of a man, apparently in his pajamas—blue pajamas—supposed to remind him of something? Was he supposed to know something about him? Recognize him? Albert didn’t know any Englishmen that he could recall. That is, he’d shaken hands with a few thousand English men and women who stood in line in the rain—which was the only weather they had in England—for the purpose of looking at him in that strange way people looked at him, perhaps guessing that he was an alien, and telling them how much they’d loved his music.
ooooThe Queen said the same thing when he went to her house and played for her. He’d met her husband, too, and wondered why he was only a Prince and not a King. He’d met Princelings, and Princelettes and Lords and Dames, but he didn’t know them like he’d know a picture of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, and looking at the picture, none came to mind.
ooooMaybe he should have paid attention.
ooooWhy ‘of course’?
oooo“Lord Tiptoft” said Lady. “On loan from Oxburgh Hall. That’s where you’re staying the weekend, to rest up after your engagement.”
ooooThe mention rang a bell. Something Huffy, his agent at William Morris, had said when discussing the itinerary for the European Tour. “Oxburgh, yes,” Albert echoed in the way that made people think he was listening. “Near King’s Lynn.” He wanted to be convivial, and place–names touched upon one of his only areas of knowledge apart from music– geography; maps had always held a particular fascination for him, and he knew where Norfolk, England was without even looking. “And will he be there,” he said, nodding at the painting with a different nod than the one he’d employed looking at the painting in the other room.
ooooSir made that ruptured giggle noise again, and smiled in a friendly way. “He’ll, ah, well, not exactly. This portrait was painted long ago by a chap name of Lossburgh.” He waggled the stem of his pipe at a smudge in the corner of the painting. “The man in the painting is Lord Robert Tiptoft. Long dead now, of course.”
ooooThere it was again. How was Albert to know Lord Robert Tiptoft, much less that he was dead? Nobody told him. Or, if they did, he hadn’t been listening. He didn’t read newspapers.
ooooPresident Lincoln was dead, of course, and John Kennedy was dead, and his brother, what’s-his-name. And Martin Luther King. Probably there had been others. And now Lord Robert Tiptoft.
oooo“I’m sorry,” said Albert with as much sincerity as he could muster. That’s what you said when somebody told you that somebody else had died, and he wondered what the friends of the man had called him when he was a boy. ‘Lord?’ Probably Lordy. Kids abbreviate names. He remembered having been called ‘Al,’ but not by anyone who knew he played the piano. It made a difference, apparently. Huffy called him Al sometimes. But no one else. Jeremy Ash called him ‘A’. That would be difficult to abbreviate.
oooo“Great mystery about this painting,” said Sir, who seemed to infer from noises his wife had made that he had permission to speak. “About a treasure of some kind.”
oooo“Treasure?” said Albert, to whom treasures were things that were buried. Tewksbury would be interested. He was an archaeologist and they enjoyed digging things up, and a treasure at the bottom of a hole might make such a tiresome chore seem worthwhile.
ooooBut Tewksbury was dead, too. A treasure himself, waiting to be dug up.
oooo“And murder,” said Sir.
ooooAlbert turned his gaze from the portrait and stood looking at Sir as if he’d been cudgeled on the back of the skull.
oooo“I say,” said Sir. “Are you quite all right?”
ooooOf all the terms that could be used to describe Albert at that moment, ‘all right,’ was not among them. A cavernous void was rushing at him from all directions. He was dizzy, spiraling downward, nauseous and groping for the edge of the well into which he was falling.
ooooMurder had found him again.
ooooEveryone has an opinion of England’s National Health Service. Every two–year old on the street who was brought into the world at government expense. Every pensioner who lives in the hope that the System’s bankruptcy and his demise will be concurrent events. Every Hyde Park anarchist, every dole–recipient of dubious national extraction, every member of the privileged class who is able to afford “real doctors rather than NHS pill–pushers,” no doubt the Queen and would–be kings in descending order all had an opinion. Whatever those opinions might be, however varied, one thing was unanimously agreed, the Sisters, which—for reasons Albert couldn’t ascertain—is what they call their nurses, were generally efficient, terse, and expected to be obeyed without question.
ooooThis particular nurse, who was currently doing things of a highly personal nature to Albert, exemplified each of these characteristics without compromising the other. Albert watched her with interest and listened to the lilt of her accent as she talked, which she did without ceasing as if her next breath depended upon it. Most of the monologue was addressed to the various electronic or mechanical components that monitored or supported his person in some way and her observations and remarks were not always flattering. In the course of several minutes she had condemned the manufacturer of the IV bag to an untimely demise, preferably ‘by drowning after having been hung, eviscerated, and drawn–and–quartered.” This opprobrium was delivered with some emphasis as she slammed the second of two faulty plastic bags into a bedside bin. By the time she got around to asking a question to which he might be expected to respond, Albert had mentally traced her accent to the Lake District.
ooooAccents were the second and terminating item on the list of Albert’s extra–musical interests. They involved sound and, to him, that meant they more–or–less belonged under the same heading as music. He could parse their vibrations as easily as a food critic from a prominent newspaper could enumerate the ingredients in the most famous dish of a trembling chef, and upon whose verdict hung the receipt or deletion of a coveted Michelin Star.
ooooThe Sister bustled, and while she bustled, Albert studied her – practicing those skills of observation that unwonted experience of recent memory had awakened in him.
ooooA white plastic tab on her chest proved helpful insofar as it stated her name: Sister Edna. Information beyond that it was reticent to divulge. So, her name was Edna and she was from the Lake District which meant that, like himself, she was not native to London. What else? She was about his height which meant that, when he stood up, he would have someone with whom he could see eye–to–eye.
ooooHe snickered. Albert had made a private joke. At forty–three he had lost his comical virginity.
oooo“You alright, then love?” said the Sister in response.
ooooShe did some other things to him in areas that seemed, in his untrained medical opinion, to have little to do with the fainting spell that, as far as he knew, had landed him in her care. Her hands were cold. That was something Albert had observed about nurses and he wondered if they kept their hands in ice until they were needed. Probably something to do with freezing blood flow.
ooooShe was plumpish, he supposed, with a bit more than necessary of everything that made her female. Her blue dress was crisp. Though it might be a kind of green. Or olive. Or beige. Albert wasn’t sure about colors. He knew that if you shined light on them in a certain way, they changed, and there was a point at which one color became another. Apparently no one else minded, so he generally ignored subtle distinctions. Now though, with time on his hands, he decided to pursue the problem. Perhaps he could come to a conclusion through the process of elimination. The dress wasn’t yellow, he was sure of that. Reasonably certain. He was equally sure, after some consideration, it wasn’t white, or black, or red, or orange.
ooooThat left the possibility that it might be some color he’d seen in the ocean once. Or maybe the picture of an ocean. Or the sky. Or the little round disc at the bottom of the urinal.
ooooWell, he’d narrow it down some more later.
ooooHe learned, in the course of her commentary, that she had a brother, Benny, who had ‘gone to Hell with the IRA.’ Albert pictured a male version of Edna in the Museum, staring eternally at the wall of blotches and swirls. His plastic name tag read: Poor Benny.
oooo“So, you’re a piano player,” said Edna. That was a question he could answer.
oooo“My Aunt Mimi played piano at my wedding. Come Thou Font of Every Blessing. Lovely, that.”
ooooAlbert was willing to be conversational. “Is that a song?”
ooooEdna shot him a skeptical glance, as if ignorance of the song cast doubt upon both his claim to be a piano player and his theology. “‘course it is.” She’d stopped arranging him for a moment and gave him a quick visual examination. “American,” she said.
ooooAlbert, unable to determine by the tone in which it was delivered whether the diagnosis was a question, an observation, or condemnation, bobbled his head about in a non–committal way. Whatever he guessed would be wrong, so non–committal was the best way to go in situations like this.
oooo“Ah, well,” she said, and began to fold a sheet that she seemed to have summoned from thin air. “Aunt Mimi was a real piano player.” The implication was clear, though lost on Albert. “Church music, My Wild Irish Rose, Jenny O’ the Islands, The Charleston. You name it, she could play it. Even Rhapsody in Blue.” She started to hum something that could be part of any of these, for all he knew—titles were as obtuse to him as the Dorabella Cipher—and danced around his bed with a pillow tucked under her chin as she struggled to wrestle it into a pillowcase.
ooooThere were very few musical pieces Albert knew by name. He’d had occasion to learn The Volga Boatmen and My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, recently. Beyond that, his memory for song titles was a bit iffy.
ooooMore than a bit.
ooooAlmost completely iffy.
ooooIf Iffy were the name of a song, he might know it. But probably not.
ooooTitles were like your appendix, something that could be removed without anyone really noticing. His sister had had her appendix out and he had watched carefully to see if she looked different, or walked oddly, or leaked, or did anything that she didn’t normally do, but she didn’t. Not that he noticed. Of course, she was always doing odd things, but they were ordinary odd things. She was a female.
ooooWhy titles, anyway? Why not just hum a bar or two? Humming was a language that made sense, and from which he could extrapolate the composition in question.
ooooTitles were for books.
ooooMiss Bjork would laugh to hear him say things like that. He wasn’t sure why. But that was okay. He’d liked the sound of her laugh, especially if he’d been the one to make her do it.
ooooThat was music.
ooooSome people could to that on purpose. Make people laugh. He’d seen them in the teacher’s lounge at the School. Someone would say something, and everyone else would laugh. This baffled Albert. He had pretty good hearing. Exceptional, in fact. He could hear every single syllable that came out of the mouth of whoever was telling the joke, but could never hear whatever it was about whatever was said that made it funny. Somewhere in the sounds was a Hidden Meaning. That’s what he didn’t get.
ooooHe’d wished he could have made Miss Bjork laugh on purpose. She’d have laughed at that one about seeing eye–to–eye with Edna. But that wasn’t something funny Albert had thought of. It just came to him from somewhere, as if he’d managed to read it on a bubblegum wrapper as it blew by in the street.
ooooHe wished she wasn’t dead. He wished that so hard that his heart bled.
ooooDead. Death. Murder. That’s why he was here. Someone had said something about murder, and everything had just gone blank. It was Sir, talking about the man in the blue pajamas. Lord Something or Other. Had someone murdered him? He looked healthy enough in the picture, but it was probably painted before he was killed.
ooooFor most of his life, Albert had been kept in a bubble because, he was told, he was special. He was nine when some people convinced his mother he was so special that he should go to Julliard which is where he met Rudolf Firkušný, the only person who had ever seemed to understand him, or at least to understand that he couldn’t be understood. After three weeks, he’d called Albert’s mother and told her to come collect him. Albert had found the letter explaining the whole bizarre episode on his mother’s nightstand the night she and his sister had brought him home from South Station in Boston.
ooooDated Monday, October 17th, 1949, it began politely with her first and last name, then, without preamble, addressed The Problem. ‘In all my experience, ma’am,’ it said, ‘and among all the gifted people I have known, Albert stands alone. Unique’
ooooAlbert had looked up the word. It was just another way of saying ‘special.’ He might have known. People had always called him that. The same way they described Marky Lingus who came to church in a wheelchair. Whose head bobbed and dropped and rolled as he played an imaginary instrument in the air, and laughed and guffawed at all the wrong times, and drooled on the bib he wore around his neck. Marky, who Albert wanted to heal with an embrace, as Christ would have.
ooooHe knew then what people thought of him, of both he and Marky. They were special. Except Marky was happy. He possessed some deep knowledge that eluded Albert.
ooooMaybe it was Albert who needed healing.
oooo‘I have known many gifted composers and performers, Madam.’ Albert could hear the professor’s gravelly voice, his thick Czech accent. ‘Your son’s gift is beyond any of these. It is supernatural. I have sat on the bench beside him for hours on end as music poured fourth. Music? Not just music – the language of Heaven, Ma’am! Those who know me best would say I am not given to hyperbole. Quite the opposite. But sitting there at his elbow, watching his tiny fingers coax music from those keys – the same keys I play, to such sad effect, I realize now. I weep. I sob like a baby! But I watch his face, and there is nothing there. Utterly expressionless, he plays on, as if his hands – those marvelous little machines – are wired to the Mind of God, and he merely watches what miracles they perform, as if they’re of no interest to him.
oooo‘How can he be so unaware, so flawlessly mechanical while this fluid of genius flows with such tender expression? How can he be so detached?
oooo‘Albert is a void, ma’am. A void in command of a raw creative energy that cannot, must not, be disciplined by instruction or confined by education, here at Julliard, or anywhere else.
oooo‘Were I not a practical man, madam, I might suspect you, like Mary, of having been overshadowed by Providence, for I cannot think of any other union that would have produced such prodigy. Forgive me. I overstep myself.
oooo‘Yet, there it is. I am frightened to think what continued residence here would do to him, what intercourse with this world might do to him. I cannot imagine he will fare well, but he is better with you who knows him, than here with us. What is to become of him, I cannot say, but I cannot bear the burden of his gift.
oooo‘Truth be told, those of us of long experience have come to feel like hypocrites calling ourselves pianists when the conceit is humbled in his presence.
oooo‘I have no suggestion, ma’am, beyond that you let him play. Let him write, and let the world make of the results what it will.
oooo“Albert is not an ordinary mortal.
ooooYours with humblest respect,
ooooReading those words, at nine years old, Albert read ‘special,’ like Marky. ‘A void’ – a hole with nothing in it, he’d looked that up, too, just to be sure. ‘Unnatural,’ ‘not ordinary.’
ooooHe needed no definition for that one.
ooooNo wonder they’d sent him back home. No wonder his Mother bought the farm, way out in the country, where she could keep her little freak out of sight. Still, at the urging of experts whom she trusted, she had shipped him off from time to time. To Vienna, to Moscow, to Milan, but always he came back. Always those appointed to instruct him expressed their inability to do anything with him.
oooo‘He is an idiot,’ said Francisco Ferimi of (italian music school), ‘in all things but music. A savant. Brilliant but utterly unteachable. I have nothing for him.’
oooo‘Nothing for him here.’ Or there. Or there.
ooooMeantime, his reputation among those at the highest levels of the professional concert community grew to almost legendary proportions. ‘He’s an old man compared to Mozart,’ was a common comment. Nevertheless, it was Mozart he was compared to.
ooooSuch notoriety among the cognizenti couldn’t elude the pariahs for long, and soon an agent showed up on the porch of the farm, and presented Albert’s mother with the Solution to The Problem. A world tour. All the best care, of course. All the best hotels. Limousines. First–class airfare. A private tutor. ‘Like van Cliburn! Only the best. Plenty of veggies and fish. What? Allergic to shellfish. Well, certainly, no shellfish! and we’ll have a certified English nanny with him twenty–four hours a day. Every day.’
ooooNot clearly mentioned in the contract was that Albert would be driven to exhaustion by the agent’s hunger to squeeze every possible penny from him while he was still young enough to be a marketable curiosity, and not just another teenage prodigy. They were a dime a dozen.
ooooOn one promise the agent had made good, though. He had catapulted Albert to the heights of international fame and, to the extent that he could, shielded him from the press and the public; though this was more a marketing tactic than arising from genuine concern. The mystique generated interest. ‘Albert does not grant interviews,’ got more press than fifty interviews. And press sold tickets.
ooooThe Nanny’s name was Jane. She called Albert ‘Pinhead,’ and ‘Big Chief Little Fingers,’ and she didn’t like him because he was stupid and she didn’t like ‘his kind of music.’ She preferred Atom Ant and Ziggy Stardust and other names she apparently made up from some fairytale menagerie in her head.
ooooIn public, though, she was the model Nanny, and always had a wonderful smile for the press, and would walk demurely behind Albert with her hands protectively on his shoulders on the way into and out of theaters, auditoriums, and studios. She had an uncanny instinct for the cameras and could always tell when they were on or off.
When they were off, she’d cuff him on the back of the head and ask him what made him think he was so wonderful.
ooooAlbert had never thought of himself as wonderful. He only thought of himself as special. A void. Unnatural.
ooooJane refused to bathe him, ‘he’s too old for that, even if he is an idiot’ for which he was most grateful, not grateful that he was an idiot, that couldn’t be helped, but that she at least allowed him privacy of the bath. But Jane wasn’t remiss in her professional duties. She saw that he was well fed – though was often exasperated by his unwillingness to declare what he liked. It was only food. He needed it to stay alive. What did he care what form it took?
ooooShe took care of his clothes and dressed him whatever way she thought would reflect best on her if they went out for dinner or to ‘diddle royalty’ as the agent put it. It was he, the agent, who determined how Albert would dress for concerts. A pint–sized tuxedo with a Davy Crockett t–shirt was one of his favorite combinations. ‘Keep him young as long as we can,’ had been his motto.
ooooThen the collapse, and Albert found himself in a hospital, much like the one he was in now and for much the same reason – fainting.
ooooAnother bubble. And so he’d gone, from bubble to bubble, ending up in the bubble of the Ultimate Enabler, academia; Trophy Genius of a small college in western Massachusetts that guarded him jealously and allowed his eccentricities broad scope and, truth be told, subtly publicized examples of their expression.
ooooHaving an athletic department whose only claim to fame was a third–place LaCrosse trophy from 1926, the Alumni loved throwing money at a genuine Genius of international renown. Especially one who was as much a mystery to the world as the world was to Albert.
ooooThe thing about bubbles, Albert had learned when his had been burst by the sudden, tragic deaths of people close to him, was that, being self–contained ecosystems, they had not prepared him to live and breath the air of the Real World, a world of expected responses and unspoken meanings in which he was a Stranger.
oooo“There’s a boy wants to see you when visitors are allowed,” said Edna, intruding upon Albert’s bittersweet reverie.
ooooAlbert’s heart skipped a beat. “Does he have legs?”
oooo“Legs?” said Edna, as if someone had given a mighty and unexpected upward tug to her underwear. “Well, now that your mention it, I can’t say as I know. He’s in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees.”
oooo“That’s Jeremy Ash,” Albert declared. “Will you show him in, please?”
oooo“Can’t, love” said Edna, looking meaningfully from her watch to the clock on the wall above Albert’s bed. “Not for seven minutes.”
oooo“What’s happening in seven minutes?” Albert asked, suspecting that she’d tell him he should know.
oooo“Visiting hours start at 5:00.”
oooo“What’s happening between now and then?”
oooo“What do you mean?”
oooo“Why can’t he come in now?”
oooo“I already told you. Weren’t you listening? Visiting hours start at 5:00 sharp.”
oooo“It makes a difference?”
oooo“Of course it does,” said Edna, who seemed to be getting flustered, but was not forthcoming with an explanation.
ooooEdna tapped her watch with her finger and the floor with her toe – in an irregular syncopation. “Five o–clock. Is it five o’clock yet?” she asked, holding the watch so close to his nose that Albert couldn’t focus. He wasn’t sure, but probably seven minutes hadn’t passed.
oooo“No. That’s right. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted in our tiny little brain.”
ooooAlbert decided to wait for seven minutes.
oooo“Well, look at you!” said Jeremy, when he came wheeling in at 4:58. “I’ve seen you look a lot worst than this.”
oooo“You can’t come in here,” Edna objected. She attempted to interpose herself between her patient and the Intruder – he wouldn’t be a Visitor for two minutes yet.
oooo“That’s Jeremy Ash,” said Albert proudly, by way of explanation.
oooo“I didn’t think it was Dudley Moore,” said the nurse, as if Albert would know who that was. “He still can’t come in for,” once more she consulted her watch and the clock, which nodded in agreement, “two minutes.”
oooo“Are you finished in here, lady?” said Jeremy.
oooo“Well, yes, but…”
oooo“Then clear out before I run over your toes.” Jeremy pivoted threateningly.
ooooAnd Edna left the room and their lives with a lower opinion of Americans than she had theretofore entertained, and that was saying something.
ooooAlbert wanted to hug the boy; his Rock and Foundation, his Interpreter of the World, his Guardian, his Only Friend. But one was enough; another would be surplus blessing. There was no situation, or individual Jeremy Ash couldn’t handle, whether Albert’s housekeeper, the formidable Mrs. Gibson, or the formidable Sister Edna. They were putty in his hands. He’d have been able to sort out all that business in Tryon, South Carolina, with his eyes closed. Even without legs.
ooooBring it on, thought Albert on behalf of Jeremy Ash, but not in so many words.
oooo“Passed out, huh?” said Jeremy Ash, wheeling close to the bed and looking around to see if there was anything to eat. There wasn’t, but, no stranger to disappointment, he took it in stride.
oooo“Those two you were with, they’re outside.”
oooo“Don’t ‘oh,’” said the boy. “They want to see you. Make sure you’re still in one piece.”
oooo“Tell them I’m okay.”
oooo“I’m not doing your dirty work for you,” said Jeremy Ash. “You want ‘em to buzz off, tell ‘em yourself.”
oooo“Yeah, sure you will,” said Jeremy Ash, and then, as always, wheeled away to do his master’s bidding. “Just this one time.”
ooooAlbert loved Jeremy Ash just a little bit more, and thought he’d like some toast, but couldn’t find the button to beckon Edna. Not that he was sure she’d give him toast if she was up to her neck in it.
ooooWas that another joke? He smiled, just in case.
oooo“They want to come back in an hour or so,” said Jeremy Ash as he wheeled back in the room, going much too fast and coming to an abrupt stop just short of the bed frame. He made a sound like brakes squealing. “They said they want to move you to a Proper Hospital,” he said, sticking his nose in the air and mimicking BBC English on the last two words. And pretty well.
oooo“What’s wrong with this one?” said Albert, looking at the plastic band on his wrist. “University College Hospital,” he read.
ooooJeremy Ash shrugged. “Who knows? They said you need to be in private care. I guess you’re only here because it was the nearest place to the Museum where you passed out.”
oooo“I think I’m okay now. I don’t think I need to be in any hospital. Let’s go back to the hotel.”
oooo“Fine by me,” said the boy. “But they’re gonna piss nails they see you walkin’ out.
ooooOf course, Jeremy Ash and Albert had long–ago mastered the art of Leaving Hospitals Unseen.
oooo“Huffy’s not gonna be happy with you,” said Jeremy Ash over his shoulder as Albert wheeled him across the Graftson Street intersection onto Tottenham Court Road, still wearing his paper hospital slippers. They were comfortable.
ooooHuffy was rarely happy with Albert. He was always wanting him to be somewhere he wasn’t, or didn’t want to be, wanting him to do something he didn’t want to do for people he neither knew nor cared about. “Huffy,” Albert’s mother had said, “is your cross to bear, Albert. A necessary evil. Some endure ulcers, or boils, like Job. You must endure Huffy.”
oooo“Sounds like a disease, don’t it?” Jeremy Ash had said after meeting Huffy for the first time. “I got a horrible case of Huffy.”
ooooAlbert had gotten that, and he had laughed, despite the fact that’s just what he had, and, apparently, there was no remedy.
ooooHuffy, however, was – in the School’s eyes – a vast improvement over his previous agent, the one who had made him famous and, according to the School in the lawsuit it filed on Albert’s behalf, proceeded to turn most of the Albert’s share of the proceeds to his own advantage, thereby usurping the School’s prerogative, apparently. Albert didn’t care. He’d always had enough for cigarettes and Dunkin’ Donuts. Still, the School had insisted.
ooooThe result, lawyers for the School informed him gleefully, was that he was a millionaire several times over.
ooooAlbert—having little use for folding money, since it was useless in cigarette machines, and he had no room for it in his apartment—told the School to keep it. Which they were happy to do, in the form of a tax–free endowment in his name.
ooooThe School loved Albert very much, and if he was eccentric, well, love is blind.
ooooThey split the interest on the endowment 60/40 – in the School’s favor – and, for the last few years, had paid his portion to Mrs. Bridges at the Bank who made sure he always had quarters for cigarette machines and had set up some sort of magical arrangement with stores in town where he could get anything he wanted, and all he had to do was autograph a piece of paper!
ooooMrs. Bridges loomed large in Albert’s life. She was one of those people who Knew Everything and could Do Anything. The anti–Albert. He wished she was in London to do it now. Fortunately, Jeremy Ash was here.
oooo“So,” said Jeremy Ash, when Albert didn’t seem eager to talk about Huffy; not that he was ever very eager to talk about anything, but some things he was more prepared to pretend to be listening to than others. Jeremy Ash, one of those people who couldn’t let silence go unmolested, had developed the habit of fishing ‘til he caught something, “what did you faint about?”
ooooThe question took Albert by surprise and the response brought laserlike focus to his cognitive apparatus. Consequently, he brought the wheelchair to a halt in the middle of a pedestrian crossing; a maneuver that didn’t go unnoticed by drivers to either side. “Murder,” he said.
oooo“Cool!” said Jeremy Ash. “Whose?”
ooooAt the subconscious level, Albert became aware that nearby horns were tuning up for a recital. “I don’t know. I think a man in a picture.”
oooo“In the museum?” said Jeremy, who was enjoying sitting still in the middle of the crosswalk and causing the Great Disturbance of London, 1986.
oooo“Yes. I think somebody killed him a long time ago.”
oooo“I don’t know. There was a treasure.” The ambient noise finally reached the critical mass necessary to breach Albert’s consciousness. He looked at the faces behind the wheels to the right and left, all of which seemed prepared for battle of some kind. He thought it best to get Jeremy out of harm’s way and wheeled him to the little park across the street.
oooo“What kind of treasure?”
ooooAlbert had, very early in their relationship, resigned himself to the fact that Jeremy’s conversation dealt almost exclusively with questions for which he, Albert, had no answer. This was merely the latest in a long line.
oooo“Why did you faint?”
oooo“Something to do with blood rushing to my head,” said Albert indefinitely as he swung the wheelchair into the pedestrian stream.
oooo“But why would it rush to your head when someone says something about murder?”
oooo“I don’t know,” said Albert. This was the answer Jeremy got to most of his questions in spite of which he seemed to come up with the right answer eventually. This time, though, Albert had an inspiration. “Could hate make blood rush to your head?”
oooo“Why not? Fear can. Too much exercise can. Love can.”
ooooLove could make you faint? Why hadn’t Albert fainted when he was with Miss Bjork? He’d been so sure he’d loved her. But he had nothing to compare that emotion to. He would have sworn it was love.
ooooStill, he hadn’t fainted.
ooooJeremy Ash was talking – which, to Albert, was much like saying ‘the air is full of oxygen.’
oooo“Why did you say that about hate? Did you hate the guy in the painting?”
Something heavy squatted at the juncture of Albert’s eyebrows and twiddled its thumbs while waiting for him to make sense of what he was hearing. “I don’t know the man in the painting.”
oooo“Then who are you talking about?”
ooooGood question. Albert turned quickly to avoid a paperboy who was waving a newspaper at them and shouting the same thing over–and–over again. “Macca cleared of paternity charges! Get your Sun today!”
ooooThen he remembered. “Murder. That’s what I hate.”
ooooJeremy Ash – more aware than perhaps anyone of the trail of murders that had recently intruded on Albert’s hermit–like existence, most especially that of Melissa Bjork, the public defender who had died in his arms – understood.
oooo“Then yes. I’d say hate could make you faint.”
oooo“Let’s talk about something else.”
oooo“Suits me. Shoot.”
ooooAlbert realized that he should have been more specific. What he meant to suggest was that they stop talking altogether. “My lips are tired.”
ooooLondon cabbies are required to know all the streets in London by name and location. In consequence of which, they are reputed to have prodigious memories. Albert didn’t know this when, his mind occupied with trying not to think about the murder of the man in the blue pajamas, he stepped off the curb and onto the zebra crossing with Jeremy Ash foremost. At that moment, a cab bearing two Canadian tourists was approaching the crossing at considerable speed. Upon seeing a legless boy thrust into his path, the cabby whipped the wheel sharply to the left and swerved, mostly on two wheels, down one of the tiny little alleys that his prodigious memory must have suddenly reminded him was there.
ooooJeremy Ash, only momentarily at a loss for words, had discovered something else that could cause the blood to flow to the head: imminent demise. He looked around to see if Albert had fainted.
ooooAlbert, only dimly aware of unfolding events, nevertheless, was propelled forward by a nebulous impetus to be elsewhere. The cabby had ground his vehicle to an abrupt stop – seemingly not willing that the Doppler Effect should diminish the impact as he delivered himself of his feelings with a vocabulary every bit the equal of his memory. Upon this verbal tide, which reminded him of something out of Shakespeare, though he couldn’t remember exactly what, never having read Shakespeare, Albert and Jeremy Ash were washed to the far side of the intersection.
ooooAs the sound and fury retreated behind them, Jeremy Ash regained mastery of his tongue. “You’ve gotta be more careful, A. You could’ve got me killed.”
ooooAlbert was sorry for that. The boy was right. Mental note: henceforth, do not step off the curb without looking both ways to make sure no one was coming.
ooooHe knew better.
ooooHe knew that he knew better.
ooooIt’s just, you have to think about this kind of thing all the time. Even when your brain was busy with something else.
oooo“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. “Are you all right?”
oooo“I’m thankful I don’t have any legs,” said Jeremy Ash.
ooooThis struck Albert as a novel comment. “Why?”
oooo“Because if I’d had ‘em, I’d’ve just lost ‘em.” The boy laughed but Albert, feeling that it was probably a private laugh, since he couldn’t see anything funny in it, didn’t.
oooo“That man was very angry.”
oooo“Scared is all.”
ooooScared? Albert, in a quick backward glance, had seen the face of the cabby. It hadn’t seemed scared at all. It had been like the face of Mongol Hordes descending on a small unprotected village of widows and orphans. However, the two Canadians in the back seat – identified as such by their maple leaf T–shirts – seemed genuinely terrified. “You think so?”
oooo“Sure. He was startled. When that happens, your adrenaline kicks in and it’s gotta have somewhere to go, so you do and say things you wouldn’t normally. It’s like an emotional fart; noisy and unpleasant but it goes away pretty quick. Can’t say as I blame him. I’d’ve had something to say, too, but it ain’t polite to talk with your mouth full – and mine was.” He was referring to his heart, which Albert might have picked up on had he been listening.
oooo“People do things when they’re startled,” Albert repeated. This was one of those revelations that Jeremy Ash dispensed at irregular intervals, like a legless little Indian guru. Sometimes they were big revelations, sometimes small. But revelations nevertheless. This was probably a big one. Time would tell.
ooooDid people really go ‘round ready to erupt at any time like that? Were people nothing but balloons, ranging the earth with all that emotional gas trapped inside, just waiting for some sharp remark or unanticipated incident to poke a hole in them?
ooooThat would make the world a scary place.
ooooAlbert resolved that, in addition to not pushing Jeremy Ash into traffic any more, he would examine his words for sharp edges before he spoke them. The thought of people blowing up to the right and left was unsettling.
oooo“So, anyway,” said Jeremy Ash, “Murder’s been going on since Cain. You can’t go fainting every time you hear the word, else you’ll be up and down like one of them punchy dolls.”
ooooIt was curious, Albert thought, how he seldom understood what Jeremy Ash was saying, but always knew what he meant. The image that sprang to mind at the mention of ‘punchy dolls’ required a bit of head–shaking to dispel, and while he was doing that, Jeremy Ash continued speaking. “It’s got nothing to do with you, this time,” he said comfortingly. “Some guy in a painting. Everyone in paintings is dead. That’s why they get painted, so family won’t forget ‘em.”
ooooAlbert spotted a flaw. “They must have been alive when they were painted.”
ooooJeremy Ash amended his theory on the fly. “Of course they were, but the reason they got painted is ‘cause they’re afraid family will forget ‘em when they’re dead. They want something for prosterity.”
oooo“Prosterity,” Albert echoed. That was a new word to him. He’d have to remember it; then find out what it meant. The fellow in the painting hadn’t looked particularly old or unhealthy, as Albert recalled. Perhaps he knew he was going to be murdered and wanted to make sure his portrait was done in time.
ooooThere was something else strange about that man, besides that he was wearing sky- blue pajamas. His body was turned to his left, but his neck was turned to the right. His eyes seemed to be looking at something over the viewer’s left shoulder.
ooooMaybe he was looking at his murderer.
ooooPainters. Who knew? Some of them seemed to object to reality, maybe the fellow who painted the picture of the man in his pajamas was one of those. Maybe the man hadn’t really been in his pajamas at all. Maybe the painter just did that as a joke.
ooooIt wouldn’t have mattered to the man in the pajamas; he’d be dead pretty soon.
ooooA red, double–decker bus pulled noisily to the curb not three feet away, reminding Albert that he’d best keep his mind on negotiating Jeremy Ash safely across the upcoming intersection where he would turn from Mortimer Street onto Regent Street, which was busy with shoppers.
oooo“We should hail a cab,” said Jeremy.
ooooThat would never have occurred to Albert any more than to hail a space shuttle. “I’ve never done that.”
oooo“You just step out in front of one and hold your hand up.”
ooooA series of miracles that would have strained the resources of even the most ingenious and adaptable Guardian Angel, found Albert and Jeremy Ash ultimately deposited in the lobby of the Cadogan, in time for afternoon tea. People who drove on the wrong side of the road, and went the wrong way, and taxi drivers who seemed not to comprehend the art of hailing as described by Jeremy Ash, Albert didn’t understand. He didn’t understand blood pudding or spotted Dick. He didn’t understand Guinness stout, his only sip of which had made him think his mouth had died. He didn’t understand bubble and squeak, potted rabbit, or eel pie – all delicacies Huffy had thought it imperative to inflict upon his Client in the interest of ‘making you a bit more cosmopolitan, Albert.’
ooooHuffy was English. More specifically, he was from the East End of London, where these abominations were heart and soul of the dinner table, and probably accounted for the fact he was nearly unintelligible; his tongue must be in constant rebellion.
ooooThe gastronomic appraisal of someone like Albert whose meals – prior to sitting at Miss Grandy’s table in Tryon, South Carolina, and Mrs. Gibson’s ‘home–cookin’ that’ll hold you down in a stiff breeze, you Popsicle stick’ – often consisted of sardines dipped in peanut butter, Twinkies, and frozen corn, straight from the box, rang hollow with Huffy.
ooooAfternoon tea at the Cadogan, was one of the few traditions the world had to offer that made sense to Albert. You sat in a comfortable seat in a quiet room where nondescript music played like the surf in the background and young people in uniforms brought you sandwiches and tall trays of pastries and tea and coffee without even being asked!
ooooIt was a custom to which Albert had been introduced on his first European tour, and the one that had made the Cadogan his home–away–from–home ever since. The doorman, concierge, and desk clerk all knew him by name, and it was they whom Albert and Jeremy Ash left behind in a little knot of consternation dealing with the cabbie, two bobbies, and a small cross section of British pedestrians as they wheeled toward the Drawing Room, which is what they called the place they served tea. Why they didn’t call it the Tea Room, Albert couldn’t fathom. But they called Magdelane College Maudlin, and Worchestershire Woostersheer, so who knew.
ooooSomeone should teach them English.
oooo“Everybody’s lookin’ at us,” said Jeremy.
Albert became conscious of his hospital slippers.
ooooFlies were not permitted on the walls of the Cadogan – nor in any of its precincts. If, however, one had managed to evade expulsion over the years, and grown to a ripe old age, it would have stories to tell about the night Oscar Wilde was arrested in his rooms, or the midnight visitations to the rooms of Lily Langtry by Bertie, Prince of Wales and, no doubt, a list of scandals and mini–scandals such as the privileged despise among the common population, but themselves practice with brio.
ooooEven the fly in question, however, would find it difficult to maintain his ennui at the sight of the world’s foremost concert pianist – even more disheveled than was his custom, sporting, as he did, fragments of hospital attire, paper slippers, considerably the worse for wear, and a plastic wrist band – bouncing the wheelchair of his legless and voluble teenage companion noisily from one to the other of the many padded chairs and linen–draped tables of the hotel’s sanctum sanctorum, like a pinball.
ooooAlbert, as a rule, didn’t like to be stared at, and couldn’t imagine why people spent so much time doing it. Often they would point, as well, making him feel they expected him to say or something, or break into song. But what do you say or do to someone who’s pointing at you? As for singing, that was something he’d never done. He wondered what his voice would sound like if he tried and, in following that train of thought was soon oblivious to the watching eyes.
oooo“I think we went the wrong way down that street,” Jeremy said, when he was situated at the table.
ooooThat would explain a lot, thought Albert. All those little arrows painted on the pavement saying ‘Look Left’ were helpful to an extent, but they needed clarification.
oooo“Good afternoon, Maestro,” said the girl with Spanish eyebrows. Albert didn’t know why he thought she had Spanish eyebrows, he just did. The concierge had said she would be taking personal care of you and Mr. Ash, sir and that’s what she did. “Mr. Ash,” she said, giving a kind of curtsey to Jeremy which, for some reason, made Albert happy. “Usual today, gentlemen?”
ooooAlbert nodded. “Yes, please.”
oooo“You got them biscuit things?” Jeremy wanted to know.
oooo“Scones. Yes, sir. I think we might have just one or two left,” said the girl with a smile.
oooo“Grab ‘em, will ya? With some’ve that strawberry jam.”
oooo“Consider it done,” said the girl and she made a small, unobtrusive gesture to some uniformed subordinates at the far end of the room and the wheels were set in motion. “Could you be tempted to add some fresh Devon double–cream?”
ooooAnd so it went and Albert settled into the deep cushions of his chair and closed his eyes, and breathed deeply and slowly, and lit a cigarette, and waited.
oooo“What do you think of that girl?” Jeremy asked.
oooo“She has Spanish eyebrows,” said Albert. He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and knitted his fingers on the stomach that would soon be full of funny little sandwiches and cakes.
ooooThe remark got nothing more than a queer expression from Jeremy, which went unnoticed by Albert, who had his eyes closed. “She’s pretty.”
ooooAlbert supposed she was, but not so much that it overwhelmed the impression that she had Spanish eyebrows.
ooooUnable to generate conversation on that tack, Jeremy Ash, undeterred, chose another. “What kind of treasure was in that painting?”
ooooAlbert had developed the ability to extract from recent memory the subject to which Jeremy Ash was referring at those times he seemed to be referring to nothing in the present. “I don’t remember. Sir and Lady just said something about a treasure.”
oooo“Probably crown jewels,” said Jeremy, eyeing the approaching tower of comestibles as if they were the jewels in question. “That’s what it is in all the movies.”
ooooJewelry didn’t interest Albert so he devoted his attention to buttering his scones and sugar–and–creaming his coffee as Jeremy Ash dipped deeply into his catalog of trivia and came up with numerous examples of people wishing to make off with the crown jewels.
oooo“He didn’t have a crown,” said Albert with his mouth full when Jeremy lapsed into silence necessitated by eating and drinking.
ooooJeremy Ash asked ‘who are you talking about?’ with his eyes.
oooo“That man in the picture. He didn’t have a crown.” Hence, Albert deduced, no crown jewels. Simple deduction.
ooooThis observation drew a shrug from the boy. He cleared his throat with a sip of tea. “Well, there are lots of kinds of treasure. Gold, money – even secrets.”
ooooAlbert’s ears thought this was an important remark, and nudged his brain to pay attention. He mentally replayed the statement. “Secrets? You mean like blackmail?”
oooo“I knew someone who did that.”
oooo“I know,” said the boy, to whom Albert had – over the years – related in dribs and drabs all his experience in Tryon, North Carolina, including incidents not mentioned in magazine and newspaper accounts. “Anyway. I’m just sayin’, treasure can be anything. Something you and me don’t think’s worth anything might be worth everything in the world to someone else.”
oooo“Maybe the painting is a treasure.”
ooooJeremy Ash tilted his head a little bit to let the comment sift in. “Somebody killed the man in the painting because the painting was a treasure? Nah. Paintings only get to be treasures when the guy who painted ‘em dies. Not the people in ‘em.”
oooo“Then, maybe the artist was murdered, so the painting would become a treasure.”
oooo“But you said the guy in the painting was the one who died.”
ooooSo he had. “Maybe they both died.”
oooo“Maybe it was a self–portrait.”
ooooJeremy Ash’s brain was a possibility machine that could go on conjecturing and ‘what–iffing’ long after Albert’s had decided to take a long, leisurely nap.
ooooThe voice was not that of Jeremy Ash, yet it was instantly, heart–stoppingly familiar. Albert’s eyes flew open and fixed upon a ghost of the recent past. “Heather?”
oooo“Angela,” the girl corrected. “Remember?”
ooooAlbert had known her by both names, back in Tryon, three years ago. He tried to get up, but the gravity of the plush chair wouldn’t release him, and he fell back.
oooo“Don’t get up,” she said.
ooooGood. He wasn’t sure his legs, startled as they were, could support him even if he did manage to get to his feet. “Angela,” he said.
ooooShe lightly touched the back of a vacant chair Albert hadn’t noticed before. “May I?”
ooooAlbert looked quickly at Jeremy Ash, as if the sight of him would restore reason. Jeremy returned a look that said ‘who the hell is this?’
oooo“Yes,” said Albert, and Angela sat. “This is Jeremy Ash.”
oooo“Hello, Jeremy,” said Angela, extending her hand.
ooooThe boy looked at it for a second, then took it, shook it a little sheepishly, and let it go. “Heather or Angela?”
oooo“Angela,” said Angela. “The Professor knew me as Heather, back in America.”
ooooJeremy Ash made the connection. “You’re the one who was drivin’ the car when…” he made a sweeping gesture illustrating a car going off a cliff.
oooo“Jeremy, don’t…” said Albert. but it was too late.
oooo“What? This ain’t her?”
ooooIt was. She had been driving and her best friend, Heather Antrim, whose car it was, had been in the passenger seat when it went over the cliff. She had managed to jump out at the last instant. Heather had not.
ooooSo much effort was spent trying to close doors on the past, but the mechanism that held them in place was so easily sprung. Jeremy Ash was an excellent springer.
oooo“Yes. It’s me,” said Angela, her eyes on her hands which had begun to strangle a napkin.
oooo“I thought you was in jail.”
oooo“Jeremy,” said Albert. He wanted to say ‘shut up,’ but his mother had raised him better. “Please don’t.”
oooo“It’s okay, Professor.” Angela turned to Jeremy Ash. “Yes. I was in prison – until about three months ago.”
oooo“Did you break out?” Jeremy cleared space on a higher shelf of his estimation.
oooo“No,” she said with a little smile. “My sentence was for five years. I was granted early release for good behavior.”
ooooAlbert wondered to what authority he could apply for early release from his prison, the one whose walls were defined by hurt, the gaping loss of Miss Bjork, who had died in his arms, and all the noise and confusion of a world in which he didn’t belong. Hadn’t he been well–behaved?
ooooThen he thought of Jeremy Ash, whose prison had been the worst of all, a tiny closet under the stairs with a little crack in the door through which he had watched television – his only companion for the first seven years of his life. The physical deprivation he had undergone during that time was still consuming him – most recently ingesting his remaining leg from the knee down. In all that time he had experienced nearly total abandonment.
ooooBut he’d learned more through that crack in the door than Albert had from the world through which he traveled from cocoon–to–cocoon.
oooo“I heard you were giving a concert. It’s in all the papers, of course. I decided to risk if you’d see me.”
ooooHow could he help it? She was there in front of him. His eyes were open.
ooooWhy would she want to see him? Why would anyone want to see him? “Why?”
oooo“I’m not sure. I guess . . . all the time I was in prison, I thought about you. Remember the night we sat on the porch and talked and – everything came out?”
ooooAlbert remembered. It was one of many things he’d tried to forget, and those were the things he remembered best.
ooooNot that he’d tried to forget her as a person. She was pleasant to listen to and much nicer to look at than those pictures in the museum, and she was alive, which made it better. But she was surrounded by a miasma of violent death and it had shattered her innocence, as his own had been shattered. Together, they were mismatched glasses, leaking sorrow.
ooooShe hesitated. “This is going to seem really strange,” she said at last.
ooooWhat didn’t? thought Albert, sitting in the Tea Room of the Cadogan in the shredded remains of his hospital slippers, across the table from legless Jeremy Ash and a woman who, until the night she’d been talking about, had assumed the identity of her dear, dead friend.
ooooJeremy Ash seemed about to say something, but this time he read ‘shut–up, Jeremy’ in Albert’s eyes and, for the first time in over three years of companionship, he did.
oooo“In prison, you have a lot of time to think,” Angela continued. “Sometimes you fixate on things, I guess. Like an anchor to hold on to. And that’s what I fixated on – that night, the time we spent together. I wondered what it was about you that made me open up to you like I did, when I’d worked so hard, so very hard, to be Heather.
oooo“I still don’t know what it was. But, over time, I realized that night was the closest I’ve ever been to anyone, apart from Heather. I guess I’ve come to think of you as a friend. A confidant. Family, in a way.”
ooooJeremy Ash arched a meaningful eyebrow or two in Albert’s direction. He started to make the space–ship sound that always preceded ‘beam me up, Scotty,’ one of several phrases he used often but Albert didn’t understand. Seeing it coming, Albert preempted him.
oooo“What about Heather’s family?”
ooooShe was genuinely startled. “The Antrims? I hardly think…”
oooo“That’d be too weird, A,” said Jeremy. “They don’t want to see the girl who was impersonating their dead daughter – who was drivin’ the car that …” he repeated the fatal gesture. “You gotta think.” He tapped his temple. “Think.”
ooooAlbert thought he had been thinking. Where had he gone wrong? Why did he always go wrong? “What do you want me to do, Angela?”
ooooThe girl hadn’t been prepared for his directness but, almost instantly, realized that she should have been. “I don’t know.”
oooo“You want him to adopt you?” said Jeremy, always happy to move things along. “You’re a little old for that.”
oooo“Well, no. Of course not.”
oooo“You want him to marry you?”
oooo“Jeremy!” said Albert at the same time Angela said, “Of course not!”
oooo“You want him to give you money?”
oooo“Jeremy!” said Albert again, wishing, painfully wishing, impotently wishing he would be inspired by that magic combination of words that would render the boy mute. Temporarily, at least.
ooooAngela smiled. “I hadn’t even thought of that.”
ooooJeremy Ash looked at her slyly. “I bet if you give her some money, A, she’ll go away.”
oooo“I will go away if you want me to, Professor,” said Angela. “All you have to do is say the word and I’ll never darken your door,” she flashed an angry glance at Jeremy Ash. “No money involved.” She turned back to Albert. “I was just hoping, I guess I was hoping we could be friends.”
ooooAlbert already had a friend. Were two allowed? He looked at Jeremy Ash, who looked back and, after a moment, shrugged. It was a gesture Albert could interpret any number of ways, so he picked one.
oooo“You were lonely in prison?”
ooooThe girl shuddered visibly. “You do one of two things in prison, Professor; you either fight every day to remember who you are, to be true to yourself, or you become someone else. Something else. I was lonely, yes. Because I want to be good. Good through and through. Clean. Free from this . . . this tremendous guilt I feel. And I could only do that by separating myself from all the other women.”
oooo“Sounds like you want Jesus,” said Jeremy, who had seen more than his share of Sunday morning sermons through the crack in his door. “He comes in to your heart.”
ooooThat must be why so many people wrote music for Him, Albert thought. It made sense that you’d want to make music for someone who lived in your heart. At that moment he had an idea; he would create something for the resident of his heart; Symphony for Miss Bjork.
oooo“Perhaps I do,” said Angela, intruding on Albert’s Idea.
oooo“Do what?” he asked, hoping the answer would remind him where he was, who he was with, why he was there, and what he was supposed to be doing.
ooooAngela played with the hem of the tablecloth. “Need Jesus in my heart.” She smiled as if she meant it. “That’s not a English concept. I would have laughed at the notion before Tryon. Going to church with Miss Grady and all the folks at her house just seemed a quaint custom, so I joined in. Then I realized it wasn’t a custom, it was real to them, all that talk about Christ’s atonement for our sin – bridging the bottomless chasm between ourselves and God with the cross. I began to wonder if it applied to me.”
oooo“That’s why He died,” said Jeremy, matter–of–factly, “That’s what Miz Gibson says. So you wouldn’t have to carry all that around with you. ‘Far as the east is from the west,’ “ he said, mimicking one of those Sunday morning preachers. He held his hands as wide apart as he could reach. “That’s how far away He puts your sin, so far He can’t even see it no more. Which must be pretty far, ‘cause He’s God.”
oooo“Then He can do what three years in prison couldn’t,” said Angela.
oooo“‘course, He might have to stretch some in your case.”
ooooAlbert had been thinking. “What about your sister?” He knew her only living relative, an older sister, had raised her when their parents had died.
oooo“She and her husband emigrated to New Zealand. He’s got some kind of job with the government there. I’m not sure what. She’s a stranger to me.”
The one thing that Albert knew, apart from music, was geography. So he knew that, much like the east and west to which Jeremy Ash had recently referred, New Zealand was about as far from wherever you were as it was possible to get. Angela’s sister might as well be in – well, New Zealand.
oooo“Christchurch,” she added.
ooooJust a little beyond as far away as it was possible to get. Sister was out of the picture. Albert would have to think of something else. Meantime, his mouth decided to talk. “Where are you living now?”
oooo“Oh, I’ve got a bedsit in Croydon. I share it with another girl, Gloria. She was released the same day as I and we decided to go halves with what little we had. Bit of a party girl, so I don’t see her much.”
oooo“Do you have a job?” Jeremy Ash wanted to know. The girl’s answer was accompanied by an expression Albert couldn’t interpret.
oooo“I busk.” She smiled. “I’m a busker.”
ooooAlbert’s eyebrows twisted into question marks.
oooo“She’s a hustler,” Jeremy interpreted.
oooo“Not a hustler,” Angie corrected. “A street performer.”
ooooJeremy made a noise that embodied his opinions on the merits of street performers. “Doing what?”
oooo“I play violin. Sing a bit.”
ooooFor Albert, this simple exchange presented novelty at several levels, the first of which was that he didn’t know Angela was a singer. Second, he didn’t know she played violin; nothing of his previous experience of her hinted at a musical side. The third novelty was the notion that those people caterwauling at passersby on street corners were making a living somehow. He began to voice these observations in sequence.
oooo“I trained for it once,” she said. “A long time ago. Now, I just like to play and sing a bit. It’s something to do until I can get a proper position. I quite enjoy it, really. There’s a kind of anonymity to it, which is nice – after prison. Most people go out of their way to ignore you.” She laughed a hollow laugh. “Once in a while someone will stop and listen and drop 50p in my cup.”
oooo“I’m so sorry, Maestro,” said Mr. Quiggly. The hand he placed on Angela’s shoulder seemed gentle, but it made her start up from her chair. “I didn’t see her come in. Come along, miss. We don’t want to bother Mr. . . . ”
oooo“I’m not bothering him,” said Angela, wilting beneath the stares from those around her. “Am I, Professor?”
ooooThe unexpected insertion of a fourth voice – that of the concierge – into the trio, had a jarring effect on Albert who cast an appeal at Jeremy Ash.
oooo“You want her to stay?” said the boy.
ooooAlbert looked from Quiggly, who seemed about to cast Angela into the outer darkness, to Angela, who had ceased her brief struggle against the firm restraint and was staring at the floor as if she’d been beaten, back to Quiggly. “This is Angela,” he said. “I think she’d like some tea.”
ooooQuiggly let his captive go immediately. “Of course. Of course. I’m so sorry, miss,” he said. He brushed the back of her chair and held it for her. She subsided slowly. “The Maestro’s privacy is very important to us here at the Cadogan. I was unaware that you were of his acquaintance. Please accept our apologies.”
oooo“Thank you,” said Angela. “Please don’t trouble yourself on my account.”
oooo“No trouble at all,” said Quiggly. “May I atone by persuading you to accept a late luncheon as our guest, miss? Perhaps some of chef’s excellent champignon au gratin and sandwiches?”
ooooQuiggly, as much a part of the Cadogan as the wallpaper in reception and the little crack in the lentil over the front door, was the voice of the place. In the ten or so years he had known him, Albert had always loved to listen to him talk, which he likened to music without notes. “May I atone by persuading you to accept luncheon as my guest, miss?” He repeated aloud. The words stuck to his tongue like salt water taffy. They tasted good.
ooooFor a moment, all eyes turned to him for some reason. “That would be nice,” he said. Quiggly bowed deeply and sincerely, and melted silently away. Albert had heard about someone who worked in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. They must have been talking about Quiggly.
oooo“How do you do that?” said Albert.
oooo“That busking thing.” Albert’s words scraped across his eardrums like sandpaper, and he winced their inadequacy. He envied Quiggly, whose every utterance seemed somehow premeditated; weighted with meaning and dipped in some kind of verbal oil so they slid easily into the auditory canal, diddling the cilium in a pleasant way.
“You just find an unoccupied spot at a well–traveled intersection, or in a park and,” she shrugged, “start playing. The tube, too. Wonderful acoustics down there, but the Bobbies are forever hassling you to move along.”
oooo‘Just start playing.’ The words were like magical spell, summoning a curious yearning in Albert; no limousines, no hotels, no posing for photographers, or interminable, squirm–inducing interviews with people whose eyes and whole attention were always fixed on the second hand of the studio clock and the little list of questions they seemed to pass among themselves around the world and across the years. “Just play,” he echoed.
oooo“Not too practical in your case, of course,” said Angela with her little laugh. “A piano’s not the kind of instrument that lends itself to busking.”
ooooAnd so Albert’s newly–forming career ambitions were throttled in the crib. He sighed a little requiem at their passing. “I’d like to hear you sometime.”
oooo“Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly play with you around. Much less sing.”
ooooWhy? Was there some little portable weather system that followed him around, sucking the oxygen from the atmosphere? Perhaps that’s why people behaved the way they did around him.
oooo“I’d be so self–conscious,” Angela continued. “However,” she added, “if you’re determined to subject yourself to the abuse, I’m booked for an exclusive engagement at the District Line turning of Sloane Square station in,” she held up her arm and looked at a watch that wasn’t there, “an hour?”
ooooAlbert looked from her to Jeremy Ash. “She wants us to go listen to her sing.”
oooo“In a tunnel in the ground,” said Albert, whose most recent experience of a tunnel – the one connecting the cellar of Judge Antrim’s home to that of Mrs. Grandy’s boarding house – had nearly ended in his immolation.
oooo“That’s where they keep ‘em,” said Jeremy Ash. Apart from whatever obligation Albert felt as the result of his previous relationship with the girl, he had never shown the slightest interest in any music other than his own, or in any other musician – from Bach to Beatles – and Jeremy, who made a pastime of studying Albert’s enigmatic, tortured thought processes, was curious to see what he would decide.
oooo“Do you know how to get there?”
oooo“We’ll figure it out, if that’s what you want to do.”
oooo“It’s not far,” said Angela, immediately realizing she sounded too enthusiastic. “It’d be a lark for you. Something different.”
ooooEverything was something different for Albert. He turned to Jeremy Ash. “When am I supposed to do the sound check?”
“That’s not ‘til Friday.”
oooo“Then we have time?”
ooooJeremy smiled. “Just over seventy–two hours. If we get lost, we’ll have plenty of time to get found.”
ooooAlbert nodded. “I don’t have anything else to do today?”
oooo“You’re supposed to have a press conference here at 4:00.”
ooooAlbert shuddered visibly.
oooo“But the concert’s been sold out for months, so there’s not really any point in it.” Jeremy pictured Huffy waiting and pacing and trying to suppress an uprising among an increasingly restive roomful of photographers and reporters. “Huffy will explain it to them.”
Angela caught the devil in Jeremy’s eyes when he winked at her.
oooo“Only if you’re sure,” she said, unsurely.
ooooAlbert was sure. At least he was sure he’d be happy for any excuse to miss the press conference. Huffy always did all the talking at them anyway, so as long as he was there . . . “I’m sure.”
ooooQuiggly brought comestibles and Albert, Jeremy, and Angela ate and thought, and if their thoughts magically took on flesh and dressed in lime–green leisure suits, none would recognize the other. Fifteen minutes later, with a final assurance that they would attend the subterranean performance, Angela left the Cadogan and Albert and Jeremy went to their respective rooms.
ooooAlbert looked in both the wardrobes, but couldn’t find any shoes other than the ones that went with the tuxedo he wore to perform in. As he slipped them on he wondered, not for the first time, why they made him wear the tuxedo for his concerts. Although he’d been assured the costume had been made especially to his measurements, it was uncomfortable and tight and smelled like chemicals and made him feel like his legs were developing creases. And these shoes . . . to the best of his knowledge, they had never been outside.
ooooThe wonderful thing about the Cadogan, it occurred to Albert when he arrived in the lobby half an hour later, was that there were people there who did things. One of the things they did was Jeremy Ash. There he was in his wheelchair, waiting by Quiggly’s little podium with its ‘Concierge’ sign. Apart from his hair, which always looked to Albert as if it had been caught in the act of trying to escape his head, he looked like he’d been polished. Albert felt a momentary flush of something or other when he recalled that he had told the boy he’d come to his room and collect him, but here he was, so that was okay. At the Cadogan, if you forgot to do something like collect Jeremy Ash, there was always someone else who would do it. As he strode across the reception area, he wondered why whoever ran the Cadogan didn’t run the rest of the world.
ooooThe notion evaporated at Jeremy’s greeting. “Hey, A. Ready for the freak show?” He spun his wheelchair toward the door.
oooo“We’re going to hear Angela sing,” Albert corrected as his hands found the familiar grips of the chair’s handles.
oooo“Different words, same meaning,” said Jeremy. “Let’s see if we can get where we’re going without one of us gettin’ killed this time, okay?”
oooo“Okay,” said Albert, reminding himself that, henceforth, caution was to be his watchword.
ooooQuiggly cleared his throat which meant that he was about to say something, usually something he didn’t want anyone else to hear except the person he was clearing his throat at. This time it was Jeremy Ash, so Albert was eavesdropping.
oooo“Oh, yeah,” said the boy. “He wants me to tell you there have been people looking for you.”
ooooPeople often looked for Albert, and he wondered why. It must be some kind of hobby, like going to the freak shows Jeremy mentioned, or those races where people ran into each other’s cars. Of course, some people listened to music. “Who?” said Albert, not really interested, whoever it was, he didn’t want to see them.
oooo“Two policemen,” said Jeremy, “not the same ones that chased us here before. A couple of reporters, somebody from the hospital, and those two you went to the museum with.”
oooo“Lord and Lady Crawly,” said Quiggly. “They were most solicitous of your health. I informed them that you were well, but indisposed. I trust I didn’t overstep my bounds.”
oooo“They went away?” said Albert.
oooo“Yes, sir, with my assurances as to your well–being ringing in their ears.”
oooo“Then that’s good.”
ooooAlbert turned Jeremy’s wheelchair toward the door, but was unable to make his escape before Quiggly cleared his throat again, this time at Albert, who stopped.
oooo“There is one other gentleman who wishes a word with you.”
oooo“Did he go away?”
oooo“Well, no, sir. He . . . he’s someone of my acquaintance and, being that he’s in your line of work, more–or–less, I thought you might not mind a minute or two with him.”
oooo“Where is he?”
ooooQuiggly had been ready to answer ‘who is it?’, so was required to clear his throat again while modifying his reply. “You’ll find him in the smoking room, sir. He’s alone.”
ooooThe smoking room, that was another thing Albert loved about the Cadogan, it had a whole room dedicated to his favorite pastime. He knew where it was and, without further small talk, guided his footsteps and, therefore, Jeremy’s wheelchair, to it.
ooooThere was a man seated by the fire reading a paper. He was about Albert’s age and height, with dark hair and brows, like Albert and, Albert noticed, clothes of some kind. But, unlike Albert, his parts all seemed comfortable together. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but Albert couldn’t place it. The man rose, tossed his cigarette casually into the fire, smiled, and held out his hand.
ooooAs they shook, Albert’s eyes were on the cigarette butt, smoldering on the hot coals. That was an amazing thing, to him, the way this man had just flung it from him with a little flick of the fingers, and it had landed right there in the fireplace, where it wouldn’t burn the carpet, which is what would have happened if Albert had tried that. And he’d done it so casually, without even looking, as if he didn’t have to think about it, or aim, and all the while he was holding out his hand and smiling and looking somehow familiar. The cigarette butt burst into flame.
oooo“Whoosh!” said Albert.
oooo“I know you,” said Jeremy Ash. “You’re what’s–his–name. Ringo!”
oooo“Close,” said the man. “I’m the bloke on his right. Paul.”
ooooAlbert’s brow bent. How were Ringo and Paul close? They didn’t rhyme. They didn’t have the same number of letters. In fact, the names didn’t share any letters. Yet this man and Jeremy Ash shared some secret knowledge. No matter how long he lived, Albert found life full of secrets no one had told him about.
oooo“That’s right!” said Jeremy. “I prefer the Stones, myself.”
oooo“Everybody does,” said Paul.
ooooHad it not been already bent to its nadir, Albert’s brow would have bent some more.
oooo“I’m Paul McCartney,” said the man, who seemed oddly bemused, as if he didn’t often have to introduce himself.
oooo“I’m Albert . . .”
oooo“Oh, I know who you are, mate. I know,” said the man. “I’m a big fan.”
ooooAlbert was expecting the man to produce a piece of paper and ask for an autograph, so he began looking around for something to write with. With a quick scan of the room, his eyes lighted on the clock. “I’ve got to go to a concert.”
oooo“A concert? This time of day?” said the man. “Who’s playing?”
oooo“Heather,” said Albert.
oooo“Angela,” Jeremy Ash corrected.
oooo“Angela,” said Albert. “Yes. Angela. This is Jeremy Ash.” He shook the wheel chair in the man’s direction.
oooo“Pleased to meet you young Jeremy,” said the man. “Even if you prefer the Stones.”
oooo“Not really,” said Jeremy. “I was just wanting to get a rise out of you.”
oooo“Well, you did that, me lad. I’m seethin’ inside.” He turned to Albert. “Mind if I tag along? I’d love to see whoever it is. I’d heard you weren’t the concert–going type. She must be amazing.”
oooo“She must be,” said Albert. “She plays violin in a tunnel.”
oooo“The Tube,” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“She’s a busker?” said the Beatle as he fell in beside Albert as they wheeled and walked across the reception area. Quiggly, perceiving the trio approaching, was discreet as always, arranging an impromptu announcement to direct elsewhere the attention of those mulling about the lobby and, at the same time, summoning the Girl with the Spanish Eyebrows to usher Jeremy and company to the door. There, unnoticed by anyone but the doorman, they slipped out of the hotel into a side street.
oooo“I’ve got a driver,” said Paul as, after looking carefully in both directions, Albert struck off across the zebra crossing.
ooooStrange the announcements people made. His mother lived half the year in Florida and, in their monthly phone calls, she sometimes referred to a driver she played golf with. What the connection was Albert had never expended the energy to imagine. Usually his mother talked and he pretended to listen until she said, “Albert, my dear, are you listening? I want you to concentrate on what I’m saying. This is important.” Then she would talk some more and he would try, he really would, but her’s was the voice that had sung him to sleep as a child. It still had that effect.
oooo“So does my mother,” Albert said, attempting to be conversational.
ooooIt was the McCartney’s turn to crinkle his eyebrows, which he did at Jeremy, who was enjoying the entertainment. He produced a well–worn cloth cap and a pair of sunglasses from his pockets and, for the remainder of their stroll to Sloane Square station, it was Jeremy Ash who commanded most of the attention as people went out of their way to avoid seeming to look at him.
oooo“I’ve got to get me one of these,” said the Beatle to the maestro. He jerked his head toward Jeremy Ash. “I don’t remember the last time I walked this far without someone stopping me for me autograph. Wouldn’t loan him to me for a bit, I don’t suppose?”
ooooAlbert was brought up short. “People ask you for autographs?”
oooo“Now and again.”
ooooAlbert would have to think about this. He had always assumed the reason people asked him for his autograph had something to do with his piano playing. He tilted the wheelchair back so the front wheels were on the sidewalk then, with a practiced lift and thrust, was among the foot traffic. “Do you play piano?”
oooo“Well, yes and no,” said Paul. “Compared to someone who doesn’t play at all, I’ve got a knack. Compared to you? Not much.”
ooooHappening to look up at that moment, Albert caught sight of himself and his companions in a shop window and, somehow, there were piano keys in the reflection. Only after a blink or two and a subtle shake of the head did he realize the window belonged to a store that sold musical instruments, and that the keys were on the other side of the window. He stopped and looked. It wasn’t a piano. It was just the piano keys.
oooo“What is that?” He looked at Jeremy Ash, who knew everything.
oooo“Synthesizer?” Albert repeated, looking at the object. He felt like he was lisping. “Synthesizer,” he repeated. “What does it do?”
oooo“It’s a lovely little instrument, really,” said Paul. “It plays like a piano, but the sounds are produced electronically, and can mimic almost anything – violins, guitars, trombones, trumpets . . . dog barks.”
ooooAlbert had abandoned his companions on the sidewalk by the time McCartney finished speaking.
oooo“Anything I can help you with, at all?” said a person whose hair had been twisted and, apparently shellacked, into tall purple spikes atop their head. It might have been a male, it might have been a female. Fortunately, Albert didn’t care.
oooo“I’d like to play that,” he said, pointing simultaneously at the keyboard and Paul McCartney who was on the other side of the window, holding Jeremy’s wheelchair and trying very hard to look like someone else.
oooo“Of course. It’s a Roland D454 with weighted keys,” said the person as they covered the few steps separating them from the device. “MIDI in and out, of course. Quarter–inch jack for sustain and speaker out. Eighth–inch jack for stereo headphones. Operates on both mains and batteries.”
ooooThe person turned it on. Nothing happened. “Dead quiet, too.”
oooo“Can I . . .?” said Albert, moving into intimate contact with the instrument.
oooo“Of course, here old fellow, let me help,” said the clerk, and pulled out the stool. “Now, this little wheely thing here selects the voice.”
oooo“The kind of sound. Violins, for instance,” the individual twiddled the dial, “are here. Number twelve.” He played a C–chord and the sound of violins issued from the little speakers. Not good sounding violins, but violins. Albert was amazed. “Bass guitar is, let me see,” said the clerk, “fifteen, I think. There.” The machine made a flute sound. “Oops, wrong one.” Another twiddle. “Here, try this.” Another twiddle, still no bass, but a pretty decent Wurlitzer.
oooo“I like that one,” said Albert, before the person with purple hair could twist any more knobs. He sat down.
oooo“We offer lessons,” said the androgynous individual. “Five pounds the half–hour, and . . .”
ooooThat was the last thing he said for quite a while. Albert had begun to play. Within a minute someone had turned off the record that had been littering the background, and the room had fallen silent. ooooA small crowd began to gather, and one of them pointed at a poster on the wall – announcing Albert’s upcoming concert at the Albert Hall. Then whispers began to spread. Very quite whispers. Someone unwittingly helped the Beatle in his disguise negotiate Jeremy Ash in his wheelchair into the store.
ooooMale or female, purple hair or not, the clerk was a capitalist. As whispers swept out onto the pavement, and people started oozing in, crowding the aisles, he, she, or it, very quietly plugged one end of a chord into the jack on the back of the keyboard, and the other end into a speaker that was affixed outside for occasions such as this.
ooooOf course, there had never been an occasion like this.
ooooSome time later, as the last note rang out, a tear slipped quietly from the pierced nose of a girl with unnaturally red hair and black lips.
ooooBefore he he looked up and became aware that he’d become the center of attention, Albert said. “I’ll take it.”
ooooFor a moment nothing happened. The clerk discretely coiled the cords and tucked the instrument in a zippered case, which he handed to Albert, who laid it in Jeremy’s lap. “I’ll pay you for it some day,” said Albert and, at the moment, that was his sincere intention. The clerk, knowing the store had just been gifted with several thousand pounds worth of free publicity, was not concerned.
ooooThe crowd parted as the mismatched threesome made their way to the door. No one approached them. No one followed. No one recognized the Beatle. Not one of the dog–collared punkers, derby–hatted bankers, or under–dressed ingenues nudged another at the sight of the legless boy. The oil with which they had been anointed was too thick a substance for so feeble a thing as human expression to swim through.
ooooEventually, each shuffled his or her own way encased in a small, tight cocoon in which questions they’d long ago stopped asking, bubbled and roiled to the surface, demanding attention.
ooooMcCartney studied Albert, whose full attention seemed to be on negotiating the wheelchair through foot traffic and he realized there was no hope of fulfilling the mission he’d set out to accomplish, which was to persuade the famously eccentric maestro to play on the album he was working on. It had been a long shot; a lark, really, but one he’d felt worth taking. However, as it had already been a remarkable afternoon, and he had the feeling it was about to become more–so, he decided to tag along. So it was he who led them to Sloane Square station, through the turnstile, and through the maze of corridors until, echoing from the distance, they heard the strains of a violin concerto.
ooooAngela smiled as they rounded the corner. “You’ve come!” she said, lowering her instrument. Albert and Jeremy Ash and the Beatle in disguise stutter–stepped toward her across the river of people too hurried to notice the event that was spontaneously taking shape. “And you’ve brought my biggest fan.’ She lowered a glance at Jeremy Ash. “And a keyboard?” She flashed hopeful eyes at Albert. “Are you going to jam with me?”
ooooAlbert supposed he was. No press. No interviews. No advance publicity. Just unpack the piano and play. Music unbound. “This is called a synthesizer,” he said, unzipping the case on Jeremy’s lap. He studied it for a moment. “It makes different noises.”
Toooohe girl looked frantically around for something she knew wasn’t there. “I’m afraid there’s no place to plug it in.”
oooo“It’s got batteries!” said Albert, pushing the button as the store clerk had shown him. The little screen lit up.
oooo“This is fantastic!” said Angela. “But how can you play? There’s no stool.”
ooooAlbert hunkered down on his haunches and, adjusting the piano on Jeremy’s lap, stretched his fingers and pressed a C chord to make sure the device was functioning properly. It was set on ‘flute’. He twiddled the dial as he had seen the store clerk do and, after producing a library of sounds from violins to bird chirps, finally landed on Grand Piano.
oooo“What do you want to play?” said Angela.
oooo“Whatever you want.”
oooo“I wish I’d known . . . we could have rehearsed something.”
oooo“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said McCartney. “He seems to pick things up fairly quickly.”
ooooAngela’s attention had been so focused on Albert and Jeremy and the unexpected unfolding of events, that she’d been only peripherally aware of the third member of the party, who seemed to have taken over the task of driving Jeremy. “Who’s your friend?”
ooooBefore Albert could remember the name, Jeremy Ash spoke up. “Mr. Stone.”
oooo“Well, welcome to the show, Mr. Stone.”
ooooMr. Stone gave Jeremy Ash a playful poke in the back, at which the boy smiled. “Pleased to meet you, miss.”
oooo“Angela,” said Angela, extending her free hand.
oooo“Rock on,” said Mr. Stone.
oooo“Well, I’ve been practicing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, but I’m not sure a piano will . . .”
oooo“Just play,” said Mr. Stone, in anticipation of something remarkable. “Before his knees give out.”
ooooAngela was unconvinced. She looked at Albert, who was fiddling with the volume control. “Do you know the piece?”
oooo“Probably,” said Albert. He didn’t know music my title or my composer, only by sound. He was blessed/cursed with what some doctor in his past had called a musical photographic memory: having heard a piece once, he could replicate it note–for–note on the piano. A human tape recorder.
ooooIf he had ever heard the piece, it would come to mind again when he’d heard the first few notes. Which proved to be the case; by the time Angela had reached the end of the second measure, Albert’s hands, if not his heart, were accompanying her as if they’d been rehearsing for months. Angela, it turned out, was a reasonably good instrumentalist, so he left the melody to her while adding countermelody, harmonies in 3rds, 5ths, 7ths and 9ths, and their respective inversions, weaving previously unknown threads through the fabric of the score in a way that gave it new and unexpected texture.
ooooMr. Stone was tingling from head–to–foot, as were the bystanders who seem to have entered a puddle of aural treacle that arrested them in their tracks. Many trains were missed. Then someone recognized Albert. And someone else recognized Paul McCartney.
oooo“This is fantastic, Albert!” said Huffy in Albert’s ear. “This is what I been tryin’ to get you to do along. You and Paul Mc-freakin’-Cartney in the Tube. Who’s idea was that!? Brilliant! That crowd! I heard nobody’d leave the Tube ‘til you finished playin’! Man, I wish I’d been there. Why didn’t you tell me? I’d’ve had a TV crew there. Reporters. The works. Oh, well, nevermind. You’re the talk of London. Hell, you’re the talk of England. What a stunt! Brilliant!”
ooooAlbert’s practice with Huffy, especially on the phone like this, was to let him talk and rant and curse and carry on to his heart’s content, because that’s what Necessary Evils did. It wasn’t unheard of for Albert to put the phone down, very carefully, and go make some tea, which usually took about five minutes. Which meant Huffy still had about three minutes of air left in him by the time Albert came back to the phone and made a listening noise.
oooo“I could book another two months on this, Albert. Hell, three months! How’d you pull it off? How’d you get Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney to come listen to you play with that broad in the subway!? Hidden depths, Al. Hidden depths.”
oooo“He was at the Cadogan and just came along.”
oooo“Just came along. I love it! Paul Mc–freakin’–Cartney just comes along! To the Tube. To listen to some broad play a violin.”
oooo“Angela,” said Albert. “She’s a girl.”
oooo“Yeah, yeah. Right. Listen, you think there’s any chance he’d do it again? Her, too. I mean, could we set it up again and this time I could have a TV crew there, and . . .”
oooo“No? What, no? You haven’t heard me out.”
“It wasn’t like that,” said Albert, searching his fingers for an unbitten cuticle. “Angela wanted me to hear her play, and when we were on the way we found a piano in a store, and –” which reminded him. “You need to pay that man for the piano.”
oooo“Sure, sure thing. No problem. Just tell me the name of the store and where it’s located, and I’ll tell Bridges to care of it.”
oooo‘No problem’, to Huffy was apparently something different than it was to Albert. He knew there was a person with purple hair at the store. But remembering the name and address of the establishment was a task for some huge government spy agency. Or . . .
oooo“Jeremy Ash will tell you,” said Albert.
oooo“Great, great. But listen, if you could get McCartney to . . .”
ooooHuffy had been a manager of talent for many, many years. To him, ‘No,’ meant, ‘What a wonderful idea. Please tell me more!’
oooo“But he’s Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney, Al! He’s a Beatle!”
ooooAlbert’s eyebrows went to war with one another as his brain tried to sift sense from what he’d heard. He’d thought the man’s name was just Paul McCartney. Not that it would have made any difference if he’d known it was Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney, he didn’t know either gentleman. But he was sure of one thing, the man was not a beetle. He was a man. Maybe Huffy had been spending too much time at his favorite pub, which was any pub nearby, and in London, there was one on every corner.
oooo“He’s not a beetle. I don’t know what you mean by that.”
oooo“Not a beetle as in bug, Albert. Beatle as in John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Come on!” He hummed a few impromptu bars of Yesterday.
oooo“I’ve heard that tune,” said Albert. At last, Huffy was speaking his language. This could be a turning point in their relationship. A Necessary Evil that could sing!
oooo“Of course you do. Everybody does. He wrote it. Paul McCartney.”
oooo“Mc–Freakin’–Cartney,” Albert corrected. Once he got a thing in his head, he got it.
ooooHuffy laughed for some reason. “That’s right, Al. Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney!”
ooooSo it wasn’t just piano players who had to sign autographs. Songwriters did, too. And all they did was make music. Imagine the demand for autographs on people who did important things, like build houses and fix toilets!
ooooHe’d have to remember to pray for them.
oooo“Well, anyway, it was a hell of a stunt,” said Huffy. “Wish I’d thought of it. You’re sure you’re all right now, with that hospital business. They say it was just hypertension. That’s like too much stress. You stressed, Al?”
ooooHe wouldn’t be as soon as he could get off the phone. “No,” he lied, but it was a lie in service of the Greater Good, which was getting Huffy to say ‘good–bye’.
oooo“You should’ve stayed in the hospital, though. There’d’ve been hell to pay if anything had happened to you.”
ooooHell would have to wait. “Nothing did.” Albert thought Huffy was not the person in whom to confide the fact that he’d nearly gotten Jeremy Ash run over. Perhaps a priest. Some day.
oooo“Mention of murder did it, Jeremy tells me.”
ooooAlbert didn’t want to talk about it.
oooo“Yeah, well, you’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. Just you stay at the Cadogan. Let ‘em tend out on you. You need anything, just ring Quiggs and he’ll see to it, even to ‘alf ‘is kingdom’, as the bloke says. Don’t forget your sound check Friday. ‘Til then, you’re free as a bird.”
oooo“What’d he have to say?” said Jeremy Ash from his chair beside the window.
oooo“He wanted us to do it again.”
oooo“The impromptu concert.”
oooo“He wants to plan an impromptu concert?” said McCartney, who caught the tail end of the conversation as he emerged from the bathroom. “Sounds like Epstein. Nice bloke, as managers go, but . . .”
Jeremy and Albert stared out the window.
oooo“Yeah,” said McCartney. “Well, it’s been fun, but Linda’s going to be expecting me home in a few.”
ooooAlbert turned and escorted him to the door. It was the least he could do for a fellow musician. “I like your song.”
ooooAlbert hummed a little of the tune, the title of which had already eluded him.
oooo“I heard it today,” said Albert, not wishing a misunderstanding to arise.
ooooMcCartney chuckled to himself, and a little bit to Jeremy Ash, but it was a nice chuckle. “Yesterday’s the name of the tune.”
oooo“Oh,” said Albert. “It’s nice to have a song about that.” He wondered what his music was about, and if he should be inventing names for it. That would be hard.
ooooJeremy Ash could do it.
oooo“Well, cheers, Albert. Thanks much. I’ll have to see if I can crank out another one, one of these days.” He winked at Jeremy Ash, who smiled.
oooo“Good,” said Albert, packing the word with as much encouragement as four letters would allow. “But I hope people leave you alone.”
ooooAnd, with that enigmatic comment, they parted company. It seemed unlikely they would ever meet again; though the McCartneys were among those standing in ovation at the conclusion of the Albert Hall concert two nights later.
ooooAlbert didn’t notice. By the time the applause subsided, he was in a park across the street, sitting on the lip of a granite ledge that surrounded the statue of a large man smoking a cigarette. Jeremy Ash was beside him. The fact that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Princess Diana and a glittering host of bejeweled and beribboned British aristocracy done up like Christmas crackers were, even now, waiting in vain for him to be presented to them, did not occupy his thoughts. ooooThey were Huffy’s problem.
ooooThat individual was presently behaving as if he was deeply embarrassed, strolling up and down the line of notable well–wishers being as obsequious as possible, explaining that ‘the maestro is often unwell after a performance. His passion, as you may happreciate, takes its toll.’ Secretly, though, he loved it when his client snubbed the great and near–great. He was from the East End, after all, and hated the aristocracy (but loved the Queen, ‘Go’bless’er’), so any chance to rub their collective nose in it held greater appeal than jarred hare. And, of course, the anomaly of someone like Albert in a world gone mad with folks licking their way through the droppings for their fifteen minute suckle on the elusive teat of fame, simply added to the mystique already surrounding ‘the Maestro’ as a result of his eccentricities – as did the aura of murder and mayhem that inexplicably followed him of late.
ooooAlbert was a self–marketing commodity. ‘The Oddity Commodity,’ Huffy called him privately.
oooo“You did good tonight,” said Jeremy Ash.
ooooAlbert took a deep drag on his cigarette. He was thinking that, when he finished it, he would try flicking it away, using his thumb and forefinger as Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney had done. Which led to consideration of the possibilities of what might happen when it didn’t work. Which it wouldn’t. Somehow a burning coal would end up in the cuff of his tuxedo pants, or amid the folds of the blanket in Jeremy Ash’s lap, or among the dry leaves in the flower bed surrounding the statue of the large man and everything, and everyone, would go up in flames.
ooooEarlier in their career together, Huffy had insisted on taking Albert on a tour of London and, in considering the likelihood of such a conflagration, he was reminded of a plaque on a monument he had read at the time indicating that London had experienced a Great Fire, in 1666.
ooooThey’d need another plaque.
ooooHe dropped the butt and ground it out with the heel of his shiny black shoe, as always. Better safe.
oooo“The chauffeur’s gonna be waitin’ to take us to that castle.”
ooooAlbert had forgotten he was going to go Norfolk. He’d been ready to wheel Jeremy Ash back to the Cadogan and had imagined going to the Drawing Room and staring at the fire for a while and waiting while Quiggly had the girl with Spanish eyebrows bring him an American beer. Cold.
ooooMention of the alternate arrangements shattered that brief, blissful dream.
ooooAlbert knew that at some time in his personal past, he had done something terrible and the Universe, which had been watching at the time, was determined to make him miserable as a consequence, so it had people always interfering in his life and hauling him off to Places he Didn’t Want to Go. But it never occurred to him to say no.
oooo“Oxburgh Hall,” he said. He wondered what number Earl would be hosting him. If they were up to twelve ‘several hundred years ago,’ as Sir had said, there would probably have been thousands by now.
ooooHad all of them had their pictures made? he wondered. He imagined thousands of men in their pajamas staring at him from huge golden frames littering the walls of the halls of Oxburgh Hall.
ooooWould they all be looking the wrong way?
ooooHe took the handles of the wheelchair and pushed Jeremy Ash toward the parking lot. “I wonder what that man wanted.”
ooooJeremy shrugged. “He lost a friend a while ago. Maybe he’s looking for a new one.”
ooooThat’s one of the reasons it was important to have Jeremy Ash nearby, he thought of things off the top of his head that wouldn’t have occurred to Albert in a billion years. “He wants me to be his friend?”
ooooThough he saw it coming, and he tried to block it out, he could hear what his mother would say if he’d lost a friend. She had some very crisp opinions about people who lost things. He remembered the time he came home with just one mitten.
ooooHow do you lose a whole friend?
ooooIt made Albert glad he didn’t have any, present company excepted. At that very moment, for the first time, he realized how important the boy had become to him. He certainly didn’t want to lose him. He didn’t even want to think about it. He gripped the handles a little more firmly and looked both ways before crossing the street.
ooooNeither Jeremy nor Albert had any first–hand acquaintance with castles though, of the two, the one who had grown up in a tiny darkened wedge under a set of stairs probably had the fuller picture. Palaces and Castles were familiar backdrops in the television programs he would watch through a crack in the door. Into those vast expanses of mahogany, marble, and shimmering surfaces his searching soul would expand to the very fringes of his imagination.
ooooEven so, the sheer immensity of Oxburgh Hall presented vistas even Jeremy’s imagination had never plumbed.
ooooAlbert, however, was architecturally neutral. The edges of his awareness took in the fact that there were walls and floors and very likely a ceiling that were presumably held in place by brown, the predominant color. Beyond that, his surroundings passed unnoticed; rendering unrequited the vision, the love, the determination to impress, the boundless expenditure in pounds sterling and sheer man–hours lavished upon them by generation upon generation of Bedingfelds, the family that had called the castle home since it came into being in 1482 .
ooooAlbert was no more uncomfortable in Oxburgh Hall than he was everywhere else, apart from his apartment or Dunkin’ Donuts – where most surfaces were speckled with powdered sugar, a practical contribution to the decor he could appreciate on the moistened end of his finger, and the air was redolent with the heady nectar of coffee and cigarette smoke in concert.
ooooHis appreciation for his surroundings diminished by this perpetual cloud of unknowing, the limousine took him across the moat, through the massive gates, into the inner courtyard, and deposited him and Jeremy Ash at the entrance, where they were greeted by a woman who introduced herself as Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton, the housekeeper, a preface she delivered, to Albert’s amazement, without misplacing the dentures that were a bit too large for her mouth.
ooooHe thought she must have a very strong jawbone.
oooo“I’m Albert,” said Albert, holding out his hand – at which she stared for a moment as if he’d just produced a white rabbit from his sleeve. She cast a quick, nervous–seeming glance at an assortment of uniformed people, all but three of whom were women, who had appeared on either side of the short flight of wide stairs leading to the front door and, giving his fingers a limp little shake, conducted them into the house.
ooooThe sturdiest of the men flanking the stairs carried Jeremy Ash–complete with wheelchair–up the steps. Another man, who seemed as old and gray as the castle itself, watched attentively, as if there were nothing in the world he’d rather do than be of help in the situation, but was prevented due to the fact his bones had, for some time, been in the early stages of decomposition, no doubt anticipating the day – not long now – when they would be blissfully horizontal in perpetuity.
oooo“I regret to inform you that Lord and Lady Bedingfeld have been called to the continent ,” said the Housekeeper as they ascended the steps. She inclined herself slightly in his direction. “He’s in banking,” she said. Apparently it was something she didn’t want anyone to know.
ooooAlbert had been at Oxburgh Hall less than a minute and already he knew a secret.
ooooMrs. Bridges was a banker, too, but she didn’t seem especially embarrassed by it. Albert was reminded of Mrs. Bridge’s bras which – admittedly only on the evidence of a single accidental sighting – seemed to be identified by the names of weekdays embroidered on one of the sections that held the lady bits in place. He’d read the word ‘Tuesday’ on the one she was wearing the day she leaned over the counter to tell him he had too much money in the bank. On the same counter, nearby, a calendar verified that it was, in fact, Tuesday.
ooooHe’d meant to see if they made briefs with days on them, and thought that would be useful. It was always unpleasant to have to smell underwear when he picked it off the floor to see if it was wearable. Days of the week, clearly printed in English, would help.
ooooThis is what Albert was thinking while the Housekeeper was explaining something. He was confident that Jeremy Ash was listening, and would tell him about it later if any of it was important.
“They’ll be in Switzerland for, well, there’s no telling really. You know how it is with all this international finance.”
ooooAlbert had no clue how it was with international finance, but he knew it was all about money and, in his world, that meant Mrs. Bridges would handle it. Maybe he should tell the denture–lady about Mrs. Bridges, and she could tell the Bedingfelds so they wouldn’t have to go to Switzerland.
oooo“Well, we can go back to the Cadogan,” he offered. He didn’t like the idea of taking up residence in someone’s house when they weren’t there. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as if they had been. There, as Mrs. Gibson frequently reminded him, was always a bright side.
oooo“Oh, my goodness, no! I didn’t for a moment mean to suggest . . . no. Please, the Hall is at your disposal entirely.”
ooooAlbert looked around. It was a big hall. He wondered what they expected him to do with it, but but before he could raise the point, Jeremy Ash piped up. “We get the whole place?”
ooooThe woman smiled, revealing previously concealed vistas of unnaturally white enamel. “Well, all but the east wing, of course. That’s the Bedingfeld’s private residence. Otherwise, yes, it’s all yours.”
ooooAlbert didn’t want it. He preferred small spaces where everything was in easy reach; cigarettes, beer, the piano, a refreshing box of Quik. Nothing in the hall was within easy reach, which is probably why the Bedingfelds needed all those people; to help them find things.
“You know,” said Jeremy Ash, who had been looking at the Himalayan sweep of the semi–circular staircase, “if some of those guys in the monkey suits could put a coupl’ve mattresses right there,” he indicated the broad expanse of marble–tiled space at the foot of the stairs, “that bannister would make a wicked slide!”
ooooA pained expression swept briefly across the Housekeeper’s face, as if her dentures had shifted suddenly. “I hardly think the Bedingfelds would countenance . . .”
oooo“Is there a piano anywhere?” Albert asked, because he wanted to know.
ooooAs if they had never existed, the Housekeeper abandoned the Bedingfelds and what they would or would not countenance. “Two, actually. A Steinway grand in the conservat’ry – through there,” she unfurled a graceful hand toward the darkened recesses to her left, Albert’s right. “Last door but one on the north side.”
ooooAlbert was going to need a compass.
oooo“The other, a spinet, is in your room. That is, the King’s Chamber. It was brought in especially for your visit, and has been professionally tuned, of course.”
ooooThere it was again. “‘Of course’”, Albert echoed, meaning none of what the Housekeeper inferred.
oooo“I’m sure you will find it most satisfactory,” said the woman. She gestured slightly at one of the uncomfortably–dressed men in black and white who were standing at attention near the door by which they had entered. “This is Balfour,” she declared as the man descended upon them. “Your gentleman’s gentleman. He’ll be attending you during your stay.”
ooooOddly enough, Albert knew about gentleman’s gentleman. His mother had been a fan of a writer whose name he couldn’t recall who wrote about a man whose name he couldn’t remember who had a gentleman’s gentleman whose name he couldn’t recollect, but he gathered, from some things he overheard his mother telling his sister about the two of them, that he was like a butler whose job was to make toast, and pour drinks, and to keep his master out of trouble. Like Jeremy Ash, but with legs and a suit with creases so sharp they could slice cheese.
ooooAlbert imagined this craggy individual with his expressionless face standing over his bed at night, watching him, staring; waiting blankly until the need for toast or tea should arise. A shiver chased the thought up his spine.
ooooHe turned to his companion. “You can have him.”
ooooJeremy had other plans. “Nuh–uh. I’d rather have one’ve those,” he said, jerking a thumb at three parlor maids in a row. “Better a plum than a prune.”
ooooAlbert had noticed, over time, how the mind of Jeremy Ash had seemed to a Tewsburyian turn relative to the female sex. He was reminded of a similar obsession among classmates at various schools he’d attended. He’d never really understood until Miss Bjork came into his life. He doubted his feelings had been quite the same, but he understood.
ooooThe Housekeeper made a noise into the back of her hand that, despite its brevity and lack of any discernible vowels or consonants, was both an eloquent commentary on Jeremy’s suggestion, and an unarguable termination of that particular hope. Albert wondered if there was some combination of notes on a piano – one he’d never found or heard – that could convey so much complexity with such stark economy.
oooo“Hello,” he said, feeling he should say something.
oooo“A great pleasure, sir,” said Balfour. “Allow me to say, it is an honor to serve you. An honor indeed.”
ooooWas he waiting for permission? “Okay,” said Albert.
ooooIf the butler was in the least non–plussed, he didn’t show it. That won him points in Jeremy’s book. “This is Hicks, Mr. Ash,” said Balfour, referring to the man who had materialized behind Jeremy’s wheelchair. “He will attend the young gentleman, if that is acceptable. He’s a sturdy young fellow from one of the farms on the estate who assists us here at the house from time–to–time. He’ll have no trouble carrying you up and down the stairs,” he continued, addressing himself to Jeremy. “If you permit.”
ooooJeremy scanned Hicks quickly and had no doubt as to the young man’s ability to carry him up the stairs, or to throw him twenty yards in any direction, for that matter. “Sure,” he said, holding out his hand. Hicks gave a quick look of appeal at Balfour who nodded almost imperceptibly. Permission being granted, the country lad pumped Jeremy’s hand heartily, nearly lifting him clear of his chair one on or two of the upwards tugs.
oooo“I think Master Ash is sufficiently shaken,” said Balfour, with a light touch on Hick’s shoulder. “Hicks is mute, Master Ash, but he hears perfectly and comprehends well. Please, this way, gentlemen.”
ooooIn less than five minutes on the premises, Albert had come into possession of four things he didn’t want: the hall, a gentleman’s gentleman, the secret about Mr. Bedingfeld being in banking, and a mute.
ooooHe turned to take his leave of the Housekeeper, but she was no longer among those present. Balfour, Hicks/Jeremy, and a young woman who was, at the moment, nameless and had folded Jeremy’s wheelchair as quickly and skillfully as if she did it every day of her life, were ascending the stairs. With another backward glance at the now–empty hall, Albert fell in behind them.
ooooThe stairs were long and Albert counted the steps unconsciously. Thirty–four. At each of these the hips of the young woman in front of him swung in a particular way – despite the awkwardness of her burden – that reminded Albert of a metronome. Tick, tock, tick, tock. He’d never thought of a metronome as having male or female characteristics. This one was definitely female. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Thirty–four steps. Albert was so transfixed by the metronome that he was, at some level, disappointed to reach the second floor landing, just as a tune was beginning to develop to the rhythm.
ooooIt evaporated at the sound of Balfour’s voice as the little parade came to a stop at a large wooden door. “The King’s bedchamber,” he said, opening the door. “I trust you’ll find it to your liking.” Albert was about to ask if the King would mind when Balfour, as if reading his thoughts, added, “It’s so–called because King Henry the Seventh and his queen, Elizabeth of York, visited the Hall on at least two occasions, in 1487 and 1503.”
oooo“A long time ago,” said Albert, stepping tentatively over the threshold and taking in the room. It, too, had walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Also a bed and some other pieces of furniture, as well as a spinet piano, as the Housekeeper had said, and a little box with a handle about which there was something familiar.
oooo“A very long time, sir,” said Balfour.
ooooThe maid had unfolded the wheelchair and popped all the mechanisms into place. Hicks lowered Jeremy Ash into it as gently as if he were made of glass.
oooo“Who needs legs?” said the invalid. “I could get used to this. You never carry me anywhere.”
oooo“I’ve taken the liberty of asking Cook to provide a plate of cold comestibles,” said Balfour, pointing to a silver tray, laden with food, that resided on a small table by the fire.
oooo“Comestibles,” said Albert. “We call that food.”
oooo“To be sure, sir,” said Balfour with a slight inclination of the head. “As you say, food. I hope you will find something there that commends itself to you.”
oooo“Do I get one, too?” said Jeremy Ash, who suddenly realized how hungry he was.
oooo“Of course, sir. In your room, just across the hall.”
oooo“Let me guess, the Queen’s room?”
oooo“In honor of her majesty’s visit, yes, but in no way pejorative of subsequent residents.”
oooo“You hear that, A? I’m Queen for a Day.” Albert was wandering toward the sandwiches. “He’s not listening. Let’s go see what the Queen’s up to.” Jeremy expertly spun the wheels of his chair and the shrinking retinue followed him across the hall and deposited him by the fire, where he immediately tucked into a plate of watercress and cheese sandwiches. Balfour, Hicks, and the girl watched him for a moment. He looked at the plate, which held enough small pastries and sandwiches to feed an invading army, then at the staff. “Help yourself,” he said, thrusting the plate toward them. “No way I’m gonna get through ‘em.”
ooooHicks eyed the plate hungrily, as did the girl.
oooo“Oh, I’m afraid we must decline the offer,” said Balfour. “The mistress would frown upon . . .”
oooo“That’s the one in Switzerland?”
oooo“Yes, sir, but…”
oooo“Then who’s gonna tell ‘er? Dig in.”
oooo“But, Ms. Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton.”
oooo“Another missing person. You gonna tell her, Hicks?”
ooooHicks shook his head vigorously.
oooo“You, miss . . . miss . . .”
oooo“Blake,” said the girl, with an attractive curtsey. “Brigit Blake.”
oooo“You gonna tell, Brigit?”
ooooBrigit, too, shook her head.
oooo“There you go, Mr. Gentleman.”
oooo“Balfour,” Balfour corrected.
oooo“Balfour,” said Jeremy Ash, raise his eye brows and talking through his nose. “Get this straight right away, me and the Maestro are Americans. We’re not your Dukes and Dukettes.”
oooo“Duchesses,” said Balfour into the back of his gloved hand.
oooo“Whatever. We’re just company is all. You feel you gotta bow and scrape when we’re around that lady downstairs, that’s fine, but here,” he said, gesturing around his room, “let’s just be friends. Now, take a load off and dig in.”
ooooBalfour, it seemed, was much too stiffened by long experience to sit in the presence of a guest, but he did condescend to take a little sandwich. Hicks and Brigit, however, adopted democracy with a will and arranged themselves around the little table, she on the floor and Hicks on the arm of Jeremy’s chair.
oooo“So, a place like this must be pretty old,” said Jeremy with his mouth full of something that tasted like vegetables. He stopped chewing and swallowed. It was either that or spit it out, and that didn’t seem polite. He was more discriminating with his next selection which he supposed to be, from the smell, something fishy. Better. Not peanut butter, but better.
oooo“The Hall was completed in 1482, by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, Master Ash,” said Balfour, not without a trace of pride, “and the family has been in residence ever since.”
oooo“That’s a long time,” said Jeremy instead of what he was thinking, which was ‘have you been with them the whole time?’
oooo“Even before America was discovered,” said Jeremy, taking a thoughtful bite of shrimp and cream cheese sandwich, which is what it was. “That was 1492 when Columbus sailed ocean blue.”
oooo“That rhymes!” said Brigit. “Two and blue!”
ooooHicks nodded approvingly, his cheeks bulging happily.
oooo“Mm,” said Jeremy, trying to squelch an uncharitable thought relative to his suspicions about Brigit’s intellect. At least she was pretty. “Any ghosts in the place?”
oooo“Oh, aye!” said Brigit, her eyes wide enough to fall into.
oooo“Miss Blake,” Balfour said – the weight of his tone sufficient to crush her momentary enthusiasm.
oooo“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
oooo“Sorry about what?” Jeremy wanted to know. “What were you gonna say? There is a ghost?”
ooooHicks nodded and chewed at the same time, nearly choking himself.
oooo“Any house as old as the Hall,” Balfour said, “has many idiosyncrasies – sounds that occur as the result of changing temperatures and seasonal settlings – that may, to the over–active mind, suggest phantasmagoria. I, myself, have seen very little out of the ordinary.”
oooo“Very little?” said Jeremy Ash, who had forgotten to chew.
oooo“Tell him about Anna Maria!” ooooThoughtlessly Brigit put her hand on Jeremy’s knee, and removed it at once when he winced. “Oh, sorry, sir. So sorry!” she said, jumping up and brushing crumbs off herself. “Oh, sorry, Mr. Balf’r, sir. Sorry!” She collapsed to her knees and began sweeping the crumbs – which were largely imaginary – into her hand. Hicks held out a hand and helped her to her feet. “Tell him about Anna Maria.”
ooooJeremy’s eyes begged to be told, but his ears were unsure.
oooo“Anna Maria is the sobriquet – nickname, if you will – of a kind of smudge that has been seen, from time to time, floating about the Hall. I have told the staff, and not once, I might add, that it is merely a miasma arising from the moat in certain seasons, but . . .”
oooo“Oh, go on, Mr. Balf’er. You seen ‘er yerself. You said so.”
ooooBalfour stood to his full height and swaddled himself in butlery dignity. “I said,” he said, “that I saw the smudge. . .”
oooo“Ghost, you called it then. Din’t he Hicks? Ghost you said!”
oooo“Apparition,” said Balfour, “and I said I could understand how, given indistinct light, and certain contortions in the motion of the air, it could be mistaken, by those of a susceptible turn of mind, as seeming not unlike a woman of Latin descent.”
ooooJeremy Ash swallowed hard. He’d only asked about the ghost conversationally. He didn’t for a moment expect an answer in the affirmative. He swallowed again. “How could you tell she was Spanish?”
oooo“Latin, Master Ash,” said Balfour. “I said Latin.”
oooo“Latin,” said Jeremy Ash, not altogether sure what that meant.
oooo“Certain elements of the smudge,” said Balfour, “tuned this way and that in the moonlight, in a darkened hallway, suggest accoutrements peculiar to Spanish women.”
oooo“Latin,” Jeremy corrected.
oooo“Latin. Yes. That is what I had meant to say.”
ooooJeremy didn’t want to know the answer to the next question. “Just . . . just where, exactly has this smudge been seen?”
ooooBridgit was inhaling to answer when Balfour cut her short. “Really, Master Ash, you needn’t trouble yourself about it. There is no ghost. The phenomena is readily susceptible of rational explanation and . . .”
oooo“Right here in this room, we seen her!” said Brigit. “Din’t we Hicksy?”
ooooHicks read Balfour more keenly. His head, which was bowed already, bowed some more and he seemed to be focusing his attention on his sandwich.
oooo“We did, even if he won’t say so.”
oooo“Here?” said Jeremy Ash weakly, squeezing the air out of the remains of the sandwich he held in his hands.
oooo“Master Ash, I assure you . . . “
oooo“Right there, by the wardrobe!” said Brigit, pointing at the oak monstrosity looming in the corner on the opposite side of the room.
ooooIf ever a piece of furniture was created to house the undead, Jeremy thought – trying not to think it – that was it.
oooo“Miss Blake!” Balfour said sharply. “You best go back about your duties at once. I shall wish to speak with you before you retire.”
oooo“Yes, sir,” said Brigit. “Sorry sir. I only thought as he should know how me an’ Hicks seen ‘er come out’ve the closet and walk, real slow and airy like . . .” She mimicked the ghost of the late Latin femme, tip–toeing in place and crooking her wrists as if she were about to strangle someone.
oooo“Miss Blake. That is quite enough. Can’t you see you’re upsetting our guest? I really must apologize, Master Ash. There is simply no excuse . . .” As he spoke, he was shuttling the maid from the room. Once in the hall he could be heard whispering to her sharply and, a moment later, she burst into tears and fled down the stairs.
ooooBalfour returned. “Young ladies, as you are no doubt aware, are not disinclined to let their fancy get the better of them,” he said. “I’m afraid Miss Blake is very much a case in point. Last week she imagined she saw someone hanging in the barn and once, not long after she came to us, averred that she heard a horse and carriage on the gravel drive in the middle of the night.
oooo“Now, may I suggest we talk no more of . . . of the supernatural? You are no doubt fatigued after your journey up from London, and Hicks and I have much to do before we retire so . . .”
ooooHe gestured at Hicks who hovered for a moment during which he seemed wracked with indecision as to whether he should eat the rest of the sandwich on which he’d made a good start, or return it to the plate.
ooooBalfour made a meaningful noise in the back of his throat and Hicks stuffed the remainder of the sandwich in his mouth and, nodding several times in the process, made his way to the door and down the hall. Balfour stopped on the threshold. “I don’t wish to intrude in matters of an intimate nature, sir, but do you require . . . that is . . .?”
oooo“Oh, no,” said Jeremy, who was trying mightily to keep his eyes from drifting toward the hulking wardrobe. “The Maestro and me got it down to a science.”
oooo“Very good,” Balfour replied, placing a gloved hand on the doorknob. The sound of relief in his voice was evident, and Jeremy didn’t blame him. “Should you require anything, please just give the bell a pull,” said Balfour, with a nod toward the rope–and–tassel arrangement hanging near the pillow on the newly–made bed.
oooo“I’ve seen Upstairs, Downstairs,” said Jeremy, with a good deal more airiness than he was feeling at the moment.
ooooBalfour smiled. “Very good, sir. Breakfast is served at 9:30.”
oooo“You don’t eat ‘til nine!” Jeremy exclaimed, the Spanish ghost, for the moment, a distant abstraction.
oooo“9:30, sir. The family and house guests come down for breakfast at nine-thirty. The staff, of course, eat much earlier. Six thirty or seven.”
ooooJeremy Ash was relieved. “That’s where I’ll be. Him, too, probably,” he said with a jerk of his thumb in the direction of Albert’s room. “He starts practice at nine.”
ooooBalfour’s attention meandered dreamily across the hall. “One doesn’t think of an artist of his gifting as having to practice, does one? Of course, he must. How fortunate you are to be able to listen to him, day after day.”
oooo“Yeah. Right. We’ll talk again when he’s been at it for three or four hours. Then he’ll start to write. That’s when me and Mizz Gibson go shopping; even if we don’t need anything. ‘Weather be damned,’ she says.
ooooJeremy knocked on the door. Albert knew Jeremy’s knock; always three quick raps followed by a silent beat, then a last tap. He didn’t say ‘come in’, because Jeremy would come in anyway, and he did.
oooo“Did you know there’s a ghost in this place?” said the boy, shoving aside the door with his left hand and propelling his chair forward with the other. “A dead Spanish lady.”
ooooGhosts held no particular fascination for Albert. Jeremy may as well have announced that a saxophonist or an encyclopedia salesman wandered Oxburgh Hall at odd hours. His mind, for some reason – as he transferred clothes from his suitcase to the bureau that loomed beside his bed – was fixated upon the painting of the man in his pajamas – a painting that had once hung on one of the walls in this very building.
ooooWhy was the man looking the wrong way? Even if the subject persisted in looking that way, why would the painter not have had him looking at the viewer anyway? The painting came from an era when the world was all about appearance, conformity, and order. The eyes were an aberration.
ooooIt was as if a composer had inserted a jazz riff in a requiem.
ooooIt didn’t fit.
ooooMost important, thought Albert, why should his brain care? Why did it insist on returning to the same subject over and over and over again? It had music to write. Why, now, was it exercising a mind of its own? The man in the pajamas was a long time ago. He was dead. So, too, was the painter. And everyone else who had been on the planet at the time.
ooooLike Melissa Bjork.
oooo“These are yours,” he said, throwing a pair of one–legged jeans at Jeremy.
oooo“How’d they get in there?” Jeremy wondered aloud, holding up the jeans and turning them this way and that. “The maid at the Cadogan packed for me, the girl with the ring in her nose. She must’ve seen the leg and figured they were yours. Mizz Gibson must’ve missed these when she was cuttin’ up my pants after the operation.
oooo“What’re you doing?”
oooo“Hm?” said Albert distractedly.
oooo“You’ve taken those shorts out three times, and put ‘em back three times. What’s on your mind?”
oooo“The man in his pajamas,” said Albert, taking the shorts out again.
oooo“What about him?” said Jeremy, who was not really interested in the man in the painting, and would much rather have worked himself into a delicious fright over the ghost of the Spanish – or Latin – lady. He wheeled across the room and took charge of unpacking Albert’s suitcase as if he’d been asked to.
ooooAlbert sat on the edge of the huge bed and leaned on one of the twisted wooden pillars that sprouted from each corner, forming a forest to support the heavy–looking hand–sewn canopy that had once looked down upon the father of Henry the Eighth, and would soon look down upon Albert the Piano Player. His eyes entertained themselves watching Jeremy take things from the suitcase and wheel them to the bureau or the wardrobe and fold or hang them neatly away, but conveyed nothing of the domestic exercise to his conscious brain, which was – as Jeremy discerned – otherwise occupied. Recent mention of ghosts brought an analogy to mind. “He’s haunting me.”
oooo“The man in the pajamas.”
ooooWhy? Wasn’t that a question to ask the haunter rather than the hauntee? “I can’t stop thinking about him. Why was he looking the wrong way?”
oooo“Who says he was?”
ooooAlbert had an answer for this. In fact, he had two. “No one in the other pictures was looking the wrong way and,” he said, as Jeremy was inhaling to reply, “it doesn’t feel right.”
ooooJeremy had no answer for that. “That painting came from here, right?”
oooo“That’s what Lady said.”
oooo“Then maybe that woman with the stiff lips knows.”
ooooSomehow Albert knew he was referring to Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton. She did seem to have stiff lips. In fact, she seemed stiff in general, as if her clothes were made of cardboard. His experience of women was that they had soft parts, both physically and emotionally – sometimes one or the other in great abundance. Not so the housekeeper. He imagined her crinkling as she walked. She didn’t, he was pretty sure, but it wasn’t hard to imagine. Perhaps, rather than going to bed at night, one of the servants hung her up in a closet – as Jeremy Ash was doing now to Albert’s shirts – so as not to crease the cardboard.
oooo“You can ask her in the morning.”
oooo“Yes. I will. Or maybe you can.”
oooo“I’m gonna ask her about the Spanish ghost. You can ask her about the guy in his pajamas.”
ooooOne of the things that drove Jeremy crazy about Albert was that he couldn’t take a hint. Nothing would induce the boy to come right out and say he was scared to go back to his bedroom, where he knew he’d sit staring at the wardrobe, waiting for the Spanish Lady to come out and suck his brains out through his nose or whatever dead Spanish – Latin – ladies did, but he hurled hint after hint at the battlements surrounding Albert’s awareness, becoming increasingly frustrated as each splintered into dust and sifted into the moat that separated Albert from the world.
ooooAlbert’s brain was completely in the thrall of the man in the blue pajamas.
ooooMechanically, in a routine that had become a not unwelcome habit, Albert tended to Jeremy’s needs and put him to bed. He had sat a while at his bedside, at Jeremy’s request, to talk – which meant to listen – for a while. Then he had rung for tea. Then he had gotten water. Then he had helped him to the bathroom again. Then he had checked the wardrobe ‘to make sure nobody left nothin’ in there.’
ooooNone of the hints made it through. ooooFinally Jeremy gave up, which he knew he might as well have done much earlier. “G’night, A.”
oooo“Good-night,” said Albert, and he left the room.
ooooOutside, in the hall, an immense silence seemed to congeal around Albert, stopping him in his tracks. He listened. A brisk wind had risen and was pressing against the brittle windows which complained in creaks and groans. The water in the moat, so placid a few hours earlier, was lapping at the castle walls, as if trying to gain entry like the peasants of old at the threat of some Protestant invasion. The ticking of a clock somewhere in the deep, deep darkness carved regular little slices off the night. Albert’s brain left off obsessing for a moment, and, returning to its customary occupation, began to compose a melody for the rhythm of the seconds.
ooooHis fingers needed a piano. Not the one in his bedroom, that would wake people up.
ooooHe went downstairs and waded into the narcoleptic little halo of light cast by an electric sconce the sole purpose of which seemed to be to conserve energy. He felt his way along the wall toward ‘the last door but one on the north side.’
ooooNorth. Was he coming from the east, or the west? It would make a difference. He recollected, from a brief sojourn with the Cub Scouts when he was seven or eight, that moss grew on the north side of trees, which was a handy way to find your way around in a forest. The principle apparently didn’t apply to woodwork in general, as there was no moss in evidence. Perhaps there had been some on the massive, twisted posts on his bed, but he hadn’t noticed. He could go see, but even if there were, he’d have gotten all turned around by the time he got back down the winding stairs, so he’d still be where he was, wondering which way was north.
ooooWhat he needed was one of those ‘you are here’ signs he’d seen at the train station.
ooooHe stood completely still, perhaps he would hear something that suggested north. What sound did north make? There were the northern lights, he’d seen them once, but they didn’t make any sound, and they were probably only in Maine anyway. Oxburgh Hall was a long way from Maine.
ooooEverything was a long way from Maine.
ooooThe wind eddied and swirled from all directions, prompting a lot of inanimate objects to tell it to pipe down.
ooooWhich way did wind come from? That would he a Helpful Thing to Know.
oooo“I thought I heard someone afoot,” said a voice behind him. Albert turned into a beam of light that nearly blinded him. He threw up his hands to cover his eyes. “Oh, sorry, sir,” said Balfour, for that’s who it was. He pointed the light at the floor. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
oooo“I was looking for the, for the . . .” He’d forgotten what Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton, whose name he remembered for some inexplicable reason – had called the room. He mimed playing the piano.
oooo“Ah! The conservat’ry! You wish to play the piano!” Balfour had, in fact, been one of Albert’s most devoted fans since he’d first heard one of his pieces on the BBC, though he was doing everything in his power to maintain a decorum in their relationship that was suitable to his profession and their relative social standing. Nevertheless, he was intimately conversant with all the literature on the subject of the Maestro and fully aware of his eccentricities and what was regarded in the popular press as his unique perspective on and tenuous relationship with the world around him.
There were also those critics, he was aware, who had interviewed Albert at length and concluded – after much frustration – that they were not in the presence of genius, but of a musical apparatus, like a pipe organ, an intellectual cipher whose atoms were constituted in such a way as to resonate to some otherworldly vibration; the way, he had read, that some people pick up radio stations with their fillings, and that he had no more awareness of the music that flowed through him than a jukebox did of Willie Nelson or Bo Didley. He had been called retarded and an idiot savant with a brain too leaden to appreciate the gold that his fingers spun so effortlessly. This was not an opinion to which Balfour subscribed. He had heard the Maestro play, and not merely the notes, but the soul within them.
oooo“This way, sir,” said Balfour, leading the way with his flashlight. He pulled to a stop in front of a massive double pocket door, half of which he pulled aside revealing a dome of darkness at the outer boarders of which were windows or mirrors or some kind of glass that reflected the light from the torch.
ooooBalfour reached behind a large potted aspidistra on his left and flipped a switch. A couple of soft lights awoke from their slumber and blinked at the darkness as if to say, ‘huh?’
ooooAlbert didn’t notice. All he saw was the Steinway concert grand in the middle of the room; not so much an instrument as a musical landscape of highly polished rock maple, the underside of its yawning top a mirror that, even in the subdued lighting, reflected row upon row of golden strings, cork mallets, and red velvet mute pads.
oooo“Marvelous, isn’t it?” said Balfour. “The Mistress had it imported from Vienna, especially for you.”
oooo“It’s nice,” said Albert, situating himself on the bench. “Do you mind if I play?”
oooo“Mind, sir!? I should be . . . I . . .” Balfour’s ears were watering. “No, sir. I shouldn’t mind at all.”
ooooAlbert played a light arpeggio under the butler’s watchful eye. That’s all he did, touch a couple of keys – an augmented chord – in an off-handed way that suggested he was trying out the tone. But as the notes left the strings, they seemed somehow to wrap themselves around one another in a way that suggested the opening notes of Quasi una fantasia, a portent, a prelude to something . . .
oooo“Thank you, Balfour,” said Albert without looking up from the keyboard. “You can go back to bed now.”
oooo“Yes, but . . .”
ooooAlbert raised his eyes. “Thank you.”
oooo“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. I shall see that you’re not disturbed.” Balfour backed from the room. “There’s no one in this wing of the house, so play as long and as . . . as enthusiastically . . . as you wish.” And, with a broken heart, he closed the door quietly. Which is not to say he left. For a long time, he stood in the corridor, his forehead resting against the door, and listened, until something strange happened. His sponge was full, and his ears could hold no more.
ooooSlowly he walked toward the pathetic little island of light cast by the wall sconce in the entrance hall and up the stairs to his room, aware that something in his emotional entrails had been pierced. The wound would be fatal to something, just what remained to be seen.
ooooAlbert wouldn’t have disagreed with those critics whose appraisals Balfour had silenced. He often felt like plumbing, his fingers mechanically responding to something that emptied through him from somewhere else. But to sit in the presence of whatever that was, with his hands finding the keys to translate that hidden language, that was good. It was healing. And if he was plumbing, that was fine, he would strive to be plumbing without blockage. He would practice and practice and practice so that his ability would be equal to that creative impulse whenever it chose to pull his tap.
ooooNow, as he played, he thought about the man in the blue pajamas. About the eyes that looked the wrong way. Sad eyes. Eyes now long dead. Long, long dead, like Melissa Bjork, and Tewksbury, and the people in the apartment building that Professor Strickland had set afire, and Judge Antrim, and everyone from the past, and . . .
ooooSo many dead and, for an hour or so, he played for them.
ooooSlowly he became aware that there was someone else in the room. He looked up, expecting that Balfour had returned, probably to tell him to quiet down. But it was a woman, barely visible, wrapped in shadow and staring at him with soft, dark eyes.
oooo“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone could hear me.”
oooo“I could,” said the woman.
ooooAlbert detected an odd accent in the two simple words, one he couldn’t quite identify and, at the same time, a curious perfume. Crushed flowers?
oooo“Did I wake you.”
oooo“Yes” said the woman, so softly he strained to hear. ‘Joo did’, she said. She was Spanish.
ooooAlbert, as far as he knew, had never seen a ghost before, which is what he suspected this was, given what Jeremy had said earlier. He was unsure what came next. “You’re the ghost,” he said. Best to begin with the obvious.
oooo“Am I?” said the woman. “I thought you were.”
ooooAlbert was not inclined to argue, he’d probably lose.
oooo“That music,” said the woman, gently tracing the nether reaches of the piano with her fingers, “it is like blood.”
ooooAlbert had never thought of music as blood but, inasmuch as it was life, she was right. “Yes.”
oooo“One would not think it to look at you,” she said enigmatically.
oooo“What I’m thinking. The thoughts your music brings to mind.”
ooooAlbert let his expression beg the question, but no answer was forthcoming. They looked at one another for a full half-minute, almost motionless, then she turned and dissipated into the shadows.
ooooSo that’s a ghost, Albert thought.
ooooHe decided it was time to go to bed. Who knew what else his playing might disturb?
oooo“The man in the blue pajamas?” said Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton as she cleared a space on the sideboard for the coffee urn, which was being carried in by a girl Albert hadn’t seen before; at least hadn’t noticed. He made an effort to notice her now. She was female, that much his initial instincts had gotten right. He couldn’t decide if she was tall or short; so much depended on what you compared her to. She was taller than the aspidistra, but shorter than the ceiling.
ooooAlbert’s eyes drifted toward the ceiling. Who knew how high that was. Fifteen feet? A hundred? How tall was he? If he knew that, he might be able to imagine how many of him, stacked one atop the other, it would take to reach the ceiling.
oooo“How tall would you say I am?” he asked, without directing the question at either of the other three inhabitants of the room – Jeremy Ash, Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton, or the serving girl – by name.
oooo“You’re five-foot ten and a-half,” said Jeremy Ash with a mouthful of kippered herring, for which he’d acquired a taste since his arrival in England. “It’s on your passport.”
ooooAlbert hadn’t taken his eyes off the ceiling. “About five of me, then,” he estimated aloud.
ooooDierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton leveled a bemused look at Jeremy Ash. Jeremy shrugged, shook his head and resumed eating. “Don’t even try,” he advised.
ooooFive Alberts would be five times five-feet ten and a-half inches.
ooooLike almost everything else, math was not one of Albert’s strong suits, but it helped to reduce everything to musical terms, in this case, inches to whole notes. There were twelve whole notes in a foot, and each inch added to that was another whole note. Five feet would have sixty whole notes. Ten and a half more would make seventy whole notes and a half note. Times five of him, would make – whatever seventy times five is plus five more half notes.
ooooHe’d need a pencil.
ooooWhy was he thinking how high the ceiling was? Something had nudged him onto this train of thought, but he couldn’t remember what it was. Anyway – knowledge being a good thing – it was nice to know the height of the ceiling.
oooo“He’s talking about that painting we saw in the National Gallery, the one that came from here.”
oooo“Oh, yes,” said the housekeeper, straightening the jam. “Annabella’s Whimsy.”
oooo“Who’s that?” said Jeremy, only half-way curious. His attention had, for several seconds, been inclined to linger on the serving girl, about whom there were several things to commend as an object of observation, not least of which was the little smile she flashed at him whenever their eyes met.
ooooAlbert was reminded that he was the one who had asked the question that precipitated the housekeeper’s comment. He waited to hear how she would respond to Jeremy, it might help him to remember what he’d asked.
oooo“Lady Annabella Scrope Howe – she had it made.” The housekeeper made either a laughing or disapproving sound. “It is, ostensibly, of Robert Tiptoft, founder of her family fortune. But he had been dead and gone several centuries by the time she had the painting made and, as there is no known contemporary likeness of that gentleman, the artist was told to paint himself.”
ooooAlbert wanted to make sure he understood what Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton had just told him. “So, the man in the pajamas is supposed to be Robert . . .”
oooo“Sir Robert Tiptoft,” said the housekeeper. “Yes.”
oooo“Who was dead when the picture was made?”
“Yes,” she said, as her fingers busied themselves with some recalcitrant flowers. “For the better part of three centuries.”
ooooThen what, thought Albert, had prompted Lady Annabella to have the painting – of a man who wasn’t Robert Tiptoft – painted? Without being aware of it, he had voiced the thought aloud, and was a little surprised when Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton replied. He wondered, for a fleeting moment, if she’d been reading his mind.
oooo“Nobody knows, for sure, sir. It’s one of those little mysteries that gather ‘round ancient families like the Scropes and the Bedingfelds, and places like this. Not unlike dust.” Her eyes briefly toured the room. “Makes one feel a part of it all, just by being here, don’t you find?”
ooooAlbert was reminded what Lady had said in the museum, about the man in the picture. “But the real man – the artist – died?”
ooooDierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton stopped what she was doing and looked at Albert in surprise. “Why, yes. As a matter of fact, he did. Harvest Lossburgh, a local fellow. One of those names you never forget. Painted mostly prize bulls and horses for the gentry, legend has it. He was murdered.”
ooooAll of a sudden Jeremy was attentive, fearing that mention of the dreaded word would send Albert off again into a faint. Albert showed not the least sign of inner turmoil. His brow had wrinkled slightly, forcing his horn-rimmed glasses down his nose a quarter-inch or so, but otherwise he seemed completely in control of whatever emotions the wretched subject elicited. In fact, he seemed almost thoughtful. Why was that? Jeremy wondered. A few days earlier the word had sent him to the hospital.
ooooThe housekeeper continued. “The very day the portrait was completed, as a matter-of-fact. The story goes that he was found on the floor in front of his easel with a knife in the back of his neck, and a paintbrush clutched in his hand.” She clutched her hand as if it held the paintbrush.
oooo“Dead,” said Albert.
oooo“Dead,” Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton affirmed.
oooo“Who killed him?” Jeremy demanded, stabbing the air with an imaginary knife.
ooooThe housekeeper lifted the silver lid of a warming plate on the sideboard and rearranged the bacon in an orderly regiment. “Another of those little mysteries.”
ooooAlbert didn’t think murder a little mystery. Especially not for the victim; even if he did paint cows. For one horrible moment he imagined a bovine canvas wandering the countryside festooned with the blotches to which he’d been subjected in the museum.
ooooIt would have to put it down.
oooo“What if he killed himself?” Jeremy Ash wondered.
oooo“Would someone stab themselves in the back of the neck?” This seemed, to Albert, an uncomfortable way to go about an already gruesome task.
ooooJeremy demonstrated that it was physically possible. Which it was, still, such a feat of mild contortion in the face of death would, at the very least, make Harvest Lossburgh a very original thinker. Perhaps an artist has a lot of time to think while he’s painting cows.
The Manor House, Castle Combe, England. 1662
oooo“You’ve captured yourself to perfection, Mr. Lossburgh!”
ooooLossburgh stepped back from his canvas, his gaze bouncing back and forth between the self portrait and the image of himself in the mirror positioned awkwardly against the wall to the right, where his patroness had directed it should be placed.
oooo“Thank you, your ladyship,” said the painter, his voice tinged with hesitance. “I still don’t understand why . . .”
oooo“Let us refrain from further comment upon the subject, shall we?”
ooooLady Annabella’s voluminous skirts, as she maneuvered through the little forest of artist’s paraphernalia, rustled like a murder of crows coming to roost on the branches of a dead tree. She stood behind him, studying the portrait over his shoulder.
He felt her warm breath on his neck.
oooo“Really quite remarkable,” she said. “You have missed your calling, Mr. Lossburgh.” Her words, barely above a whisper, were spoken directly into his ear and made his blood rise and his forehead suddenly bead with perspiration. She may be six months gone–it seemed she was always, to some extent, with child–but her feminine allure was, if anything, augmented by the glow of her milky skin, the fullness of her breasts, signs of fecundity that overflowed the borders of his senses.
oooo“Have you ever painted a woman, Mr. Lossburgh?” she continued. Her fingers rested lightly on the edges of his ruff.
ooooLossburgh swallowed deeply and tipped his brush toward the still-fresh canvas. “Beyond simple sketches, this is my first attempt at a human of either sex, ma’am. You will recall I mentioned the fact when you commissioned me.”
“And what do you think of your effort?”
“Well, not wishing to be falsely modest, I must say I surprise myself.” The ruff seemed to be tightening around his neck, the whole ridiculous costume of druid-blue silk embraced him in sweat.
oooo“Are you familiar with Reubens?” said Lady Annabella, speaking now in his left ear, her voice wet with a sensual conspiracy that stirred feelings completely foreign to him. He turned slightly to look at her, but she had already returned to his opposite side.
oooo“Yes, I know of him. He is . . . that is, his work is . . . excessive.” That wasn’t the word he was looking for, but it was the only one that came to mind.
ooooThe woman giggled. “‘Excessive?’ Really? I’d have said he was a voluptuary, Mr. Lossburgh. His portrait of Venus at the Mirror, for instance. . . “
Looooossburgh was scandalized. The painting to which she referred was, no doubt, the talk of fashionable salons in London–hotbeds of debauchery that they were–but to hear mention of it from the lips of a lady! He flushed an even deeper shade of crimson and began occupying himself with cleaning his brush. “Really, your ladyship, it is beyond my station, to say nothing of common etiquette, for me to so much as allude to such a, such a work, in the presence of a lady.”
ooooHe was bending toward the little bouquet of brushes that protruded from a well in his paintbox. Lady Annabella leaned against him, allowing the full weight of her body to press upon his back and buttocks. He staggered slightly, stunned by the action but, at the same time, found her surprisingly light for one in such an advanced state. The little knoll of the next Lord Scrope laid its foot in the hollow of his back and gave a kick.
oooo“Seeing you have managed so singular a debut,” she whispered, her lips nearly brushing his trembling earlobe that seemed, of its own volition, to stretch toward them like a flower toward the sun, “I am almost persuaded to have you make a similar portrait of me. Lady Annabella Scrope, Venus of Wlitshire!”
ooooThe suggestion shocked the painter bolt upright with such force that his female burden was flung from him toward the wall, from contact with which she was preserved by a last-minute grasp at a curtain framing the tapestry with which the wall was hung. Rather than flying at him in a fury, as he half-expected, she laughed merrily as she collected herself from near-catastrophe and sorted her skirts, an act that had her bent slightly toward him, daring him to divert his eyes from the private vista thus presented. His instinct was to offer her his hand and draw her out of the shadows to the accompaniment of his apologies, but he was constrained by the fear that such a gesture, however well-meant, might be construed as a liberty. She was clearly alright and did not require his assistance.
oooo“I beg your pardon, your ladyship! I was . . . I do not know what came over me . . . Please, please forgive me.”
oooo“I rather think I came over you,” said Lady Scrope. She stepped toward him, placed her hands on his sides, and looked up at him, her eyes sparkling with mischief. oooo“You find the prospect repugnant, Mr. Lossburgh?”
oooo“Your ladyship,” said Lossburgh, who had begun sweating profusely, much to the lady’s delight, “if someone should discover us . . .”
oooo“The door is locked,” said Annabella, her eyes searching his in a dance prescient with peril.
ooooLossburgh felt his Adam’s apple proclaim his discomfit as he swallowed again. Suddenly all the intimations, insinuations, and gossip he’d heard–and attempted to ignore–concerning his patroness tumbled over one another in his brain with cries of warning. Who else but the vixen she was reputed to be could have made such a suggestion? Who but a woman of indifferent morals would have placed herself in such a compromising position, or have so expertly drawn from his body its present response, completely overwhelming his will, mocking his determination to mute his own biology?
ooooShe was, he knew, the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Sunderland and his kitchen maid, Martha Janes, but she had married Sir John Howe, a Baronet and, whatever she had been, she was now his wife. A lady!
ooooThis, he decided, was a momentary aberration; an atavistic impulse born of her maternal heritage erupting briefly through the veneer. Even the noblest of women in her condition were, he knew from personal experience–his wife had borne him seven live children–susceptible to emotional outbursts, to exhibitions of their feminine frailties and felt, sometimes desperately, the need for affirmation that impending motherhood had not robbed them of their desirability.
ooooBut how did any of that account for her determination to have him paint such an oddly-positioned portrait, to paint across himself, as it were, his body and head turned one way, and his eyes another; forever staring at the mirror she had placed against the wall?
As gracefully as possible, he extracted himself from her and, somewhat distractedly, was regarding his blushing visage in that curious mirror when the point of a thin, sharp object emerged unexpectedly from his throat, accompanied by an electric pain at the base of his neck. A curious place for a hairpin, he thought. His Adam’s apple suddenly ceased its animation.
ooooLord Scrope stood abruptly as the door to his wife’s bedchamber opened and, after what seemed hours, the doctor emerged. His lordship had inhaled to speak, but the physician held up his hand. “She’s sleeping now. That’s the best thing.”
ooooHis associate – Witheridge the barber – closed the door quietly and sidestepped into the shadows to await his master’s summons. “I’ve sedated her with lemon balm; my man here has bled her, of course,” the doctor continued. “She’s pale. Deathly pale. And nearly breathless with shock, but I have no doubt a good sleep will be a mighty palliative.
oooo“Yes,” Lord Scrope agreed. He had returned from an unsuccessful hunt to find his home in an uproar. From fragments of testimony sobbed out by his overwrought female staff – there were no men at home at the time, worse luck – he was able to assemble a narrative of events in which, though failing to satisfy logic in every particular, nevertheless presented a skeleton of facts: a burglar had gained access to the house in and, attempting to abscond with a sack of family silver, had found it necessary–presumably to avoid detection– to secret himself behind a drapery in the drawing room. From this position he had bounded when his nerve could stretch no further and had stabbed Lossberg in the neck before flying out the window toward the terrace and gardens.
Lossberg had died on the spot – he was found clutching at his throat, a look of stark surprise frozen in his eyes – Lady Scrope had fainted, collapsing in the pool of the artist’s blood, where she was discovered by her maid not long thereafter.
ooooA sack of silver and other portable items – indifferently selected from nearby shelves and cabinets – had been found on the threshold letting onto the terrace.
ooooApart from the burglar, nothing was missing.
ooooA servant had brought a bowl of water, in which the physician was dipping his fingers. “That portrait, your lordship; have you seen it?”
ooooThe look with which he responded left no doubt that he had.
oooo“Mm,” said the doctor. “Unusual.”
ooooLord Scrope agreed. “Emphatically.”
oooo“It is of himself. The artist?”
ooooThe doctor dried his hands. “Mm.”
oooo“He’s meant to be an ancestor of her ladyship’s, I understand. Robert Tiptoft, founder of her family’s fortune. No one knows what the fellow looked like.”
“So, she had Lossberg paint himself as a stand-in for this ancestor?” He handed the towel to the bloodletter.
oooo“So it would seem. I could never make sense of the project. But Lady Annabella is a woman of – a woman of decided – a determined…”
ooooThe doctor had attended Lady Scrope in times of extreme. Once, in his youth, he had sailed to America and, about mid-Atlantic, encountered a hurricane of such force that it stripped all but the mainmast from the deck and nearly capsized the vessel.
ooooThe experiences were not above comparison.
oooo“Yes,” he said.
ooooHis lordship nodded.
oooo“The pose is – unconventional. Her idea?” It certainly hadn’t been the brainchild of the pedantic, unimaginative painter of cows.
oooo“No doubt. I never saw it ‘til just now,” said Lord Scrope. “She wouldn’t let me. Said it was for her grandchildren.”
ooooThe comment raised the doctor’s eyebrows. “Grandchildren? That’s still a few years away!”
ooooHis lordship shrugged, a patented response to many of his wife’s activities. “Her fortune is her own, so she can with it as she pleases.” He walked the doctor to the door, Witheridge following close behind. “Can’t imagine the old man would have been caught dead in that outfit.” He chuckled. “Still, she’ll be alright, you say?”
oooo“I have every reason to be confident of her full recovery, your lordship. Good day.”
ooooFor Albert, walking was a way to convey his fingers from one piano to the next. His response, therefore, to Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton’s suggestion during breakfast that he take a stroll around the grounds, was: “Stroll?”
oooo“A nice leisurely walk. The lawns and gardens really are quite lovely. Meanwhile, I’ll see if I can’t turn up a genealogy or family history that might help you appreciate the place. I know Americans aren’t typically interested in the past – always rushing forward, aren’t you? Still, you might find it entertaining.”
ooooAlbert didn’t know that Americans weren’t interested in the past. Maybe that’s because it was full of dead people.
ooooAnd so, later that morning, at forty-six years of age, Albert took his first on-purpose stroll. It was Jeremy’s first stroll, as well, if being pushed along a path in a wheelchair could be called a stroll. Much to their mutual surprise, they were both enjoying it. So much so that, for several minutes, Jeremy hadn’t said a word. “This is nice,” he said at last, inhaling deeply. “You smell those flowers?”
ooooThey had just past a row of bushes bursting with large yellow and pink blooms. Albert sniffed and a church full of elderly women came to mind. He said so.
ooooJeremy shook his head silently. “If you say so. I wonder what kind they are.”
ooooThere was more than one kind of woman?
oooo“Maybe they’re magnolias. I heard magnolias smell pretty strong. Or hydrangeas. You ever hear of a hydrangea?”
ooooJeremy was talking about the flowers. “Yes,” said Albert. His mother had hydrangeas on the farm in Maine. Miss Bjork had died in the shadow of one. “That’s not what these are.”
oooo“Then what are they?”
oooo“Yellow,” said Albert. “And pink.” That was an unequivocal statement for someone to whom colors never seemed quite static enough identify with absolute certainty.
ooooJeremy was willing to accept that. “That’s what they smell like,” he said. “Yellow and pink.”
ooooThey strolled a little further and drew to a stop at the edge of a lake. Or pond. Or river.
ooooThere were no seagulls, so it wasn’t the ocean.
ooooThere was a little island in the middle of the water, with a few trees on it. Weeping willows. That was Albert’s favorite tree. It was also the only one he knew for certain. That and apple trees. And pear trees. He knew those if it was the right time of year and they had fruit on them.
oooo“I like strolling,” said Jeremy.
ooooAlbert liked it, too.
ooooThe peace was stabbed by a sudden intake of breath. Albert could feel Jeremy Ash wincing. He patted his shoulder.
oooo“How can somethin’ hurt that ain’t even there anymore?” Jeremy Ash demanded rhetorically. “I wish I had it back, just so I could scratch it.”
ooooThe twinge or pang or whatever it was would pass in a minute or two. It always did. Albert waited; patted Jeremy Ash on the taut muscles of his shoulders some more and waited. Before long the boy relaxed, the tension drained from his aura and the air abandoned his lungs with a sigh.
ooooAlbert sat down on the little slope of soft grass at Jeremy’s feet. “What do you think he was looking at,” he said when a little time had passed, “the man in the painting?”
oooo“That’s a swan,” said Jeremy Ash.
ooooThis wasn’t the response Albert was expecting; not that he was sure what he was expecting, but that wasn’t it. He looked up and saw Jeremy pointing at something on the lake. Albert was not surprised to find that it was a swan.
ooooThere were swans on the lake in Boston Common. Some were made into boats you could get in and ride. This was smaller than that.
oooo“Swans have teeth?”
oooo“Did you ever get pinched by a swan?”
ooooSuddenly Albert wasn’t sure. He had been chased by a large bird once, but maybe it was a goose. It wasn’t an ostrich or a turkey. Probably a goose. Maybe swans don’t pinch.
oooo“I think it was a goose.”
oooo“They pinch!” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“Then that’s probably what it was,” said Albert. “A goose.”
Jeremy Ash nodded toward the animal on the lake. “That’s a swan.”
oooo“It must have been something she wanted him to look at.”
oooo“Lady Annabella,” Jeremy Ash affirmed. “If she had him paint the picture, she must have wanted him to look like that.”
oooo“What do you think it was?”
ooooJeremy Ash shrugged. “Who knows?”
ooooAlbert was looking at the swan, because his eyes found interesting the way it bobbed and nodded its head, dipping his bill in the water and splashing itself with droplets that, caught by the sun, turned momentarily into diamonds, but he was thinking about the painting. “If we could find the room where it was painted, we could see what he was looking at.”
ooooJeremy Ash didn’t think that likely. “That was about a billion years ago, A. Those old castles and things are all ruins now. Like the pyramids. Did you know they used to be white?”
oooo“The pyramids?” said Albert who had found, over the years, that conversation with Jeremy Ash was like a roller coaster ride – or what he imagined a roller coaster ride must be like. A kind of mental seatbelt was advisable and a well-timed question now and then could fix you, more or less, in space and time; at least until the next turning; which always took you the opposite of whichever way you were leaning.
oooo“Yea. White plaster all over, with a little gold tip at the very top, shining in the sun.” He, too, was looking at the swan – which now and then flapped its wings and rose up until only the webbing of its feet danced lightly on the water – but his mind’s eye was upon those massive, blindingly-white walls rising from the parched desert into the bright blue sky, conjoining in those golden apexes as they startled to life at the sun’s first rays, reflecting brief, luminous fingers at their corresponding stars on Orion’s belt. Home.
ooooAll Albert knew about the pyramids was that they were in Egypt, and they were very old. “They must have used a lot of paint.” He shuddered to think what Jackson Pollack would have perpetrated with so vast a canvas. “Painting,” he said, reminding himself what they had been talking about. “It wasn’t painted here. The background is all different.”
ooooJeremy Ash didn’t find this a convincing argument. “Artists don’t always paint what they see with their eyes,” he said.
ooooAlbert’s expression said, ‘They don’t?’
ooooThe boy tapped his forehead. “Sometimes they paint what they see in their mind.”
ooooIf that was the case, Albert thought, the paintings at the museum in London were troubling in the extreme.
oooo“Maybe he just made it up.”
ooooThat may be with a someone like Jackson Pollack, but Albert didn’t think it held true for Harvest Lossberg. “He was a cow painter. Why would cow-painters need to make things up? There’s a cow, you paint it.”
ooooJeremy thought about that. Cow painters might fall into a special category of artist. He didn’t say anything.
oooo“I bet he was painting exactly what he was looking at,” said Albert. “I bet he was wearing those blue pajamas and that cupcake paper, and he was looking in the wrong direction like that, because that’s where Arabella wanted him to look.”
oooo“Annabella,” said Albert, consciously attempting to wedge the name in the Teflon folds of his brain. “Annabella.
oooo“If we could find that room . . .” Jeremy inhaled to reiterate his argument, but Albert plowed ahead. “if it still exists, then we could find out what he was looking at?”
oooo“Why does it matter, A? That was so long ago. Who cares what he was looking at?”
ooooGood question. Why did Albert care what Harvest Lossberg was looking at while he was painting himself pretending to be Robert Tiptoft? But he did. He cared mightily, and he had no idea why. The world was full of other things to think about. He had another concert in a week or two. He should think about that. He could think about Jeremy Ash, or Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton, or lunch, or whatever war was going on. There probably was one somewhere. Or that swan, preening and cavorting and celebrating its life. Or he could think about the swelling host of dead littering his own.
ooooBut he didn’t want to think about them.
ooooMaybe that was why he was curious about that strange painting. ooooIt was a harmless curiosity; a puzzle that had nothing to do with him. Whatever secrets his search might disinter, none would touch him or the dwindling population of those he cared about. No one would die in his arms. No one would threaten him. No one would lie to him. No one fear the truths those secrets revealed or send the world up in flames. It was an exercise to beguile his mind from its constant forays into his own past.
ooooAnd that all made so much sense.
ooooAnd it was such a lie.
ooooHe was becoming obsessed, and he knew it, and there was nothing he could do about it.
oooo“I know!” said Jeremy suddenly, startling the swan who seemed to notice for the first time that she was being watched, and turned her tail feathers toward them with a squawk of indignation. “He was looking at a mirror!”
oooo“Must’ve been. He was painting a self-portrait, right?”
ooooAlbert accepted this.
oooo“Then he must have been looking at himself,” Jeremy Ash deduced. “A mirror.”
ooooIt was so obvious. Of course he was looking at himself in a mirror, how else could be paint a self-portrait? “Of course.”
oooo“Mystery solved!” Jeremy Ash pronounced.
ooooUpon reflection, Albert didn’t think so. Why was the mirror not in front of him? It would be like sitting down at the piano and trying to read music taped to the wall off to the right somewhere. “Why didn’t she put the mirror in front of him?”
ooooThe swan twisted her long neck for a backward glance at Jeremy as if to say, ‘Well?’
oooo“She was weird,” he snapped. “Who cares?”
oooo‘Who cares?’ was Jeremy’s response to most things he didn’t understand. Albert ignored him and resumed their stroll in the direction of a boathouse further along the path, at which point they were joined by Balfour, emerging from the long, shrubbery-lined path to the house. His forehead was bejeweled with sweat of his effort, which he mopped with a handkerchief.
oooo“Ah, Maestro!” he panted. “I’m so glad to have found you.”
ooooAlbert hadn’t known he was missing.
oooo“There’s been a call for you – from London. A Mr. Huffsey?”
oooo“Huffy,” Jeremy corrected.
oooo“Huffy? Yes, that may have been the name. At all events, he wants to speak to you.”
ooooThere were very few people who Albert enjoyed speaking with: Jeremy Ash was one. And Heather-Angela, and Maylene and Cindy. It was a short list, and Huffy wasn’t on it. If there had been a list of people he didn’t want to talk to, Huffy would have been on that; at the top.
oooo“He’ll call back.”
oooo“Yes, sir,” said Balfour. “But, if you’ll permit, he seemed most adamant.”
ooooAlbert had never known Huffy to be anything but adamant. He was one of those finger-twitching individuals for whom everything was a crisis; one requiring Albert’s immediate attention.
oooo“He’s an adamant person.”
oooo“What did he want?” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“He didn’t confide in me in any detail, master Ash,” said Balfour with a slight bow in the boy’s direction, “but I infer from his comments that the maestro visited a hospital recently and that they wished to confer with him regarding an x-ray they had made.”
ooooTalk of hospitals and x-rays made Jeremy instantly nauseous.
October 13, 1216 – The Castle, Castle Combe, England
oooo“She will see you now,” said the maid with a curtsey. The Poitouese French in which she delivered the command evoked for Ralph de Rodes an image of thick cream in a cool barrel so visceral he could almost dip his finger in and taste it. He tucked his helmet under his arm and, bending low, banged his head on the lentil anyway as he entered the queen’s bedchamber. He swore.
ooooIsabella laughed. “That is your reward for being so tall, Rodes.”
oooo“I beg your pardon,” said Rodes who, already ruddy from his long ride from King’s Lynn, reddened some more. He dabbed at his scalp and looked at his fingers to see if he was bleeding. “Height is a curse.”
oooo“So it would seem,” said Isabella as she brushed the hair of one of her numerous children, which one it was impossible to tell. She and the king had been blessed with five prospective contenders for the throne and, despite long acquaintance, they all seemed much the same to Ralph. It was even impossible to tell if the one on the receiving end of the queen’s present ministrations was a boy or girl, though its willing submission to grooming suggested female. “You have news from my husband?” She purposely said ‘from my husband’, and not ‘of my husband’.
ooooThe shoulders of the tall, tired, newly-wounded warrior sagged like a field of dead sunflowers.
ooooThe queen stood abruptly, relinquishing the child at hand to the care of one of her lady’s maids. “Leave us!” The command startled a flock of skirts into motion as her attendants hastened to obey, crushing, in their haste, the last remains of fragrance from the hyssop and lavender rushes carpeting the floor.
ooooUntil the last woman left, Isabella stood at regal attention, her hands clutching one another; clinging to an emotional cliff. As soon as the lever settled into the latch she deflated to the edge of her bed and turned the full intensity of her remarkable blue eyes on the knight, to whom it seemed–though he towered over her–he was being looked down upon from a great height.
ooooAware that he was the bearer of bad tidings, he had resolved to resist the sheer animal power of the beauty of this woman that had even brought the randy old king to a fidelity of sorts. Determination failed. It was not for nothing she had won the old man’s hand and heart when she was little more than twelve, or that she had since come to be called Helena. He shook off a fleeting frisson of chivalry that suggested falling on his sword might be a nobler act than to bring tears to those eyes.
ooooZig-zagging his way across miles and miles of open country, in peril of the rebellious barons at every crossroads and river shallows, he had pillaged his brain for an arrangement of words with which to swaddle the news. One horse had died under him and the one he had stolen to take its place now lay in the courtyard, its mighty heart struggling for life, much like its former master who lay beside a field in some obscure valley fifteen miles to the east, attempting, with porous hands, to staunch the blood oozing from the gash in his side. His struggle would soon be over.
ooooDe Rode was smitten by the notion that, perhaps, the souls of the man and his borrowed beast would ride to heaven together, but the news he bore allowed no leisure for poetical notions. He drew a breath to speak when Isabella preempted him. “He’s been killed?”
ooooThe knight looked away. “No, your majesty. The king is alive.”
oooo“Then what, de Rode? You’ve obviously come a great distance – at what risk to yourself I can only imagine – to what purpose if only to tell me the king is alive and well?”
ooooDe Rode breathed deeply, and delivered his burden on the exhale. “The king is alive, but only just.”
oooo“Wounded?” said the queen, twining her fingers, their white knuckles portraying the force of emotion she was restraining.
oooo“He’s ill, your majesty.”
oooo“Ill? Ill how? With what?”
ooooRelief burst from the queen in a single syllable. “Flux!” She laughed. “He’s had the flux before. He’s prone to it!”
oooo“But . . .”
ooooThe queen stood and began pacing across the foot of her bed. “He eats too fast, that’s his problem. Always has . . . fruit out of season, peaches and . . .”
“Your majesty . . .”
oooo“And sweets! You tell him I said he oughtn’t have so many sweets! It’s lard, you know, that’s what seizes his bowels. The goose.”
oooo“It’s not the same thing this time,” said de Rode quickly. “He’s bleeding badly, and it’s affected his mind.”
ooooDe Rode sank to a nearby chair, even though he hadn’t been given permission. “He’s become irrational. Paranoid.”
oooo“Paranoid! Of course he’s paranoid; he’s the king, de Rode! A king who’s not paranoid is soon a corpse!”
oooo“Granted, caution is a wise course for the head that wears the crown, your majesty, but this is worse. He trusts no one, even those of us who have remained loyal to him through it all! He thinks we’re poisoning him.”
oooo“And are you?” Isabella snapped, and at once relented. “Forgive me, de Rode. Ralph. I don’t question your loyalty. But can you say the same for all his companions? Loyalties change like the tide. Look at his own brothers!”
oooo“William is back with him now.”
oooo“My point exactly! First with him, then with Louis, then back with him, on his knees no doubt. It’s impossible to tell whom to trust. Who’s his physician?”
oooo“He has none, majesty.”
oooo“What do you mean. What of Father Confrere? Or Langburne, he’s a good man with leeches.”
oooo“He’s sent them away. He even had Langburne flogged, for no reason other than that he objected to the man’s breath which, said his majesty, reminded him of a donkey. He had a saddle put on the man and rode him across a bridge which exertion made the old fellow collapse, spilling the king in the mud. So he had him flogged for insult to the royal person and turned loose in the fens.”
ooooIsabella sat again. Her voice fell to a whisper. “Langburne has been with the family forever.” The eyes she raised to de Rode nearly stopped his heart. “What attempts have been made to restore his humours?”
ooooDe Rode shrugged. “He won’t allow anyone near him. He’s fixated upon his treasures.”
oooo“He has them all?”
ooooDe Rode nodded. “Yes. His personal collection he keeps with him, and the Crown Jewels, of course, for fear lest they fall into the hands of the barons. The household plate is in a separate wagon traveling with the Marshal, but he treats even that faithful old graybeard with suspicion; couriers are going back and forth between his own train and that of his household at all hours, day and night, taking never-ending inventories – and that with the barons nipping at their heals, storms pushing the sea up the Wash so it’s hard to tell the highway from quicksand, and reports that Alexander has broken his treaty and left Scotland, heading south to London with three or four thousand troops to lift the siege. Meaning their paths are likely to cross as the King pushes to Lincoln.”
ooooThe queen allowed De Rode to vent his feelings without interruption. “What is your opinion of his condition?” she said at last.
ooooDe Rode’s impulse was to take the woman in his arms, as he would have his daughters, or his wife, or sister, and comfort her against the blow he was about to deliver; but experience had taught him that Isabella was not merely a woman, but a queen, and not simply a queen, but a thunderbolt; notoriously volatile at the best of times. Who knew how she might interpret such an action if he were to forget himself so far? He folded his hands behind his back. “Not good, your majesty. Not good at all.”
oooo“Who sent you? Surely not the King.”
oooo“William Marshall, your majesty. He sent me to protect – to ensure Henry’s safety in the event. . .”
oooo“This is the king’s wish, to secure the throne for my son should the King die?”
oooo“Yes, your majesty. That is what the Marshall said.”
ooooThe queen studied her hands. “This is just too ludicrous, to think the King might succumb to the flux, when half the swag-bellied tosspots of England have had their swords drawn against him these last four years!” She seized the canopy of her bed as if it was a lifeline. “Where is he now?”
oooo“He was near Bishop’s Lynn, near the Millfleet when I saw him last. According to the Marshal, the king is determined to make it to Newark castle. He seems convinced the monks at the priory can cure him.”
ooooDeath must be imminent, then, for John to have sought the aid of clergy, a population he had assiduously avoided – except when required by ceremony – for the better part of half a century.
ooooThe horrible pronouncement was pregnant with consequence; were John to die, the children – if they survived – would lose a father and she a husband, but of more immediate import, the nation would lose its king and she, at the ripe old age of twenty eight, would become a dowager queen, relegated to a life of carefully circumscribed luxury – sequestered away in some country estate, her future entirely in the hands of a King’s Council who would have it in their power to determine when, where, who, and if she would marry again.
ooooShe was twenty-eight years old!
oooo“Do you think he may be dead already?”
ooooDe Rode bowed his head. “As you say, the king has recovered from flux in the past.”
ooooThe knight held his tongue.
oooo“We have to get Henry to Gloucestershire!” The tears de Rode had anticipated were not forthcoming. What, in his experience of her, had led him to imagined they would be? The queen, by turns petulant, provocative, vain, and frighteningly capricious – and why not, for no one had ever said her ‘no’? – was not a shrinking violet. She rose like a tongue of fire from the ashes of her private bereavement with but one goal, hasten to the nearest cathedral and, there, have her eldest son crowned king.
ooooHenry the Third.
ooooHe was still a child; malleable, and she, if she could have the church recognize her as regent until he came to his majority, would have ample time to make him the king she needed him to be. Meantime, the power inherent in her position would place her beyond the reach of anyone attempting to orchestrate her life or circumscribe her activities.
ooooThe sound of hoofbeats striking sparks from the stones in the courtyard tore her from consideration of possibilities.
oooo“The barons!” said De Rode, leaping to his feet. “Where are the children!?”
oooo“In their beds, please Lord,” the queen replied. She ran to the door and, flinging it open, held a hasty conference with her ladies-in-waiting who scattered in various directions to fulfill her commands. Isabella returned to her bedside where, from a massive oaken table, she lifted a small casket of jewels and, in a single fluid motion, emptied it into a pillowcase, together with her crown – a delicate circlet of gold – that sat atop a silken pillow. “The barons will not be allowed in. Whether fealty will bar them from beating down the door and slaughtering my household depends on who is their leader.” She rifled through her wardrobe and drew out a dark blue cape which she flung about her shoulders. “If it’s Louie’s treble-faced pathicus Beauchamp, God help us.”
ooooShe tossed the sack of jewels at De Rode. “Guard those with your life, de Rode. You understand? We’ll need them. Whether for ransom or to purchase an army depends on your getting us to Gloucestershire before those brutes overtake us!”
ooooDe Rode, mesmerized by the scene unfolding before his eyes – one that must have been rehearsed many times, for it was flawless – inclined his head, but said nothing. Had the moment not been captive to terror, he would have been embarrassed by the intimacy of watching the queen strap the barbette around her neck and, gathering the cascade of golden hair from her shoulders, fold it so expertly under her crespine that it was all but invisible except at the very back of her neck.
ooooShe had made herself a shadow.
oooo“Close your mouth, de Rode. A slack jaw does not become you.”
oooo“Your majesty,” said de Rode, snapping his mouth shut.
ooooIsabella scanned the room with a careful eye then, without a word, swept into the hall. De Rode, as was expected of him, fell in behind her, but had the presence of mind to shut and lock the door. Should the barons gain access to the castle and find the door to the queen’s bedchamber locked, the process of arguing amongst themselves as to the protocol of breaking it in and the deed itself would buy a precious minute or two.
ooooHe followed her through a dizzying warren of hallways lit only by a mildly curious moon, which peeked in, now and then, at arrow slits and other chinks in the castle’s stony armor.
ooooAs surely as if she were following a string laid for the purpose, the queen made her way down the spiral stairs of a northwest-facing tower to a room at its base where the King’s offspring were huddled, trembling, amongst the skirts of their nurses and other females of the queen’s retinue. All but Henry, the eldest at nine, who stood a manly distance from the women, dimly aware that ancient forces were at work in the chaos of the moment, and that their demands would transform him either into a king, or a corpse.
ooooHe drew his shoulders back. “What are we going to do, mother?”
ooooThe queen took a quick, meaningful survey of her attendants, then dropped to her knees before the boy. “The women and the other children will make their way to Langar. This man . . .”
oooo“I remember de Rode.” He and the knight exchanged a nod of recognition.
oooo“Yes, of course you do. He will take us to Gloucester.” She pulled his tunic tightly around his neck and tied it.
oooo“Why to Gloucester? Why not to father?”
ooooIsabella placed her lips by her son’s ear and whispered. “You must be strong, Henry. The other children must not know, your father . . . is very ill. He may even be dead.”
ooooHenry understood now the immediacy of the peril which he, in particular, was in from the barons who, even now, were converting the sturdy oak of the castle door to kindling.
oooo“What’s out this way, your Majesty?” asked de Rode, pointing at the door toward which everyone was being herded.
oooo“The kitchen gardens,” Isabella said. She tented her children with her cloak and swept them before her, all but the infant Eleanor, who, through all the tumult, sucked contentedly at the breast of her wet nurse. “Then the peasant’s path through the forest and down to the village..”
ooooDe Rode at once saw the sense of this. The castle was built on a wedge of land overlooking the valley, surrounded on two sides by steep cliffs – down one of which they would be descending to the village – and which only a madman would attempt on horseback. The third side led through an ancient motte and bailey to the highway; in times of peace the easiest route to Gloucester.
ooooClearly not an option.
oooo“I’ll go first,” said de Rode, forcing his way through the little crowd toward the door.
ooooThe queen, with a touch on his shoulder, detained him as surely as if he’d been struck by lightning. “No, Isomene will go first.”
ooooThe girl toward whom she nodded at been hovering excitedly at the fringe of de Rode’s awareness. Not much more than ten or eleven, he reckoned, she stepped to the small vacancy into which the queen beckoned her. “Now, my little Judas. You understand what needs to be done?”
ooooIsomene’s curtsey of response was awkward but sincere.
oooo“What do you mean, Judas? Where is she going?”
ooooThe queen watched after the girl as she fled into the shadows on her errand. “Judas was God’s right-hand man, de Rode. Without him there would never have been an arrest, a trial, a crucifixion, a Resurrection. No Christ to redeem us all.”
ooooDe Rode, a man whose spiritual impulses had been drowned long ago, by too much blood, bent his brows at the queen’s speech. “Isomene is Henry’s little Judas. She will open the door to the barons and, if she is as good a liar as she has always proved herself, convince them that we have fled through the cellars where a door gives way through the western wall. There is a footpath along the top of the ridge, paralleling the highway and separated from it my a thick copse. A logical escape for a frightened gaggle of women and children.”
oooo“Thus saving our future king,” said de Rode. His estimation of Isabella, rising from the foundation of her overpowering beauty and domineering will – which he had always taken as selfish and childish – crumbled in an instant. Here was a woman whose mind was every inch the equal of a warrior. Even better, for to hers’ was added the subtlety, duplicity, and craft of which only a woman or a king was capable. Her’s was the reptile blood of true nobility.
oooo“Now, see that the way is clear, de Rode,” she commanded, standing aside to clear his path to the door.
ooooThe Damascus steel of his blade sang a brief, deadly note as he drew his sword from its sheath. He stepped forward, wedging his boot a few inches from the bass of the door in the event someone was on the other side, waiting for their chance. He quietly lifted the bolt and gave Isabella one hasty backward glance. She breathed deeply and nodded, pressing her children against the wall.
ooooThe moon, which had tracked them in fleeting glances on their flight through the castle, regarded them with undiluted intensity as, one-by-one, the silent parade emerged into the kitchen garden. The air was still and, even this time of year, supported a mixed salad of scents; rosemary, thyme; meadowsweet and marjoram; germander, hyssop, and mint, the last leaping to prominence as its vines and leaves were trod upon.
ooooThe searching moon found the blade of de Rode’s sword and struck it a glancing blow that sent shards of life splintering into the night.
oooo“Put that down!” Isabella commanded in a sharp whisper. De Rode had done so before the words died.
oooo“Which way?” he said under his breath.
ooooIsabella pushed a serving girl to the fore. “This is Hermione. She’s from the village. Follow her.”
ooooDe Rode stepped into the thicket of dead grasses bordering the narrow path, and gestured the girl forward. When she had passed, he fell in behind her.
ooooSuddenly a girl’s scream cleaved the night.
oooo“Isomene!” Isabella rasped. She turned just in time to see the shadow of the girl running from the castle toward her as if demons were at her heals. Her screams continued, if anything intensifying as she caught sight of her queen. She burst into the open, with her arm upraised, a fountain of blood made blue-black by the moonlight where her hand had been.
ooooExcepting De Rode, everyone in the little party was transfixed with horror. The knight ran at the girl and, with a single, swift motion, ended her suffering and her screams.
ooooIsabella, her eyes wide with disbelief as they absorbed the sight of Isomene’s head slowly titling from her neck and tumbling to the ground at her feet. For what seemed a long moment, her body remained standing – its arm upraised as if there was something she had meant to say but couldn’t think what it was, then, at last, the knees buckled and the little female edifice settled to earth, gently enfolding the head whose servant it had once been.
ooooIsabella nearly choked with fury. “De Rode! What have you done!”
oooo“What was needful,” said de Rode unapologetically, but his words were punctuated by the striking of iron horseshoes on stone, and the unmistakable tinker’s wagon’s clash and clatter of men in armor rounding the castle from the south.
ooooThe threat from that quarter, however, was mitigated by a more present, if unaccountable danger. In that startled instant, de Rode couldn’t believe his ears; someone had pursued the girl through the castle on horseback! There was no other accounting for the frenzied chorus of cascading metal and thunderous hoofbeats–at once muted by and tripling from the castle’s interior walls–that belched through the door from which the unfortunate Isomene had so recently tumbled into the fate of Judas.
ooooIsabella and De Rode caught one another’s astonished eyes. Only one horseman could be so possessed by bloodlust to make such a mad attempt. “Beauchamp!” they said in unison; the one man at whose hands they would receive no quarter.
oooo“Go!” Isabella screamed, and Hermione, who needed no further coaxing, vanished through the tiny gate leading from the kitchen garden to the footpath that dove perilously through the forest of the ravine toward the river below and its tiny stone bridge into the village.
ooooFlight would have been in vain had it not been for the fact that Beauchamp–or whoever it was–had to dismount and drag, push, or coax his terrorized steed through the opening of the tower door that wouldn’t accommodate both of them at once.
ooooThe little group of exiles, like a menagerie of Lot’s wives, momentarily heedless of the peril to themselves, looked back at the tumult and seemed suddenly transfixed by the sheer impossibility of the scene unfolding before their eyes. “Henry!” De Rode shouted. “Follow Hermione!”
ooooHenry stood his ground, trying to detach his fascinated gaze. “See to the safety of the others, de Rode,” he said, the words sounding girlish in his nine-year old throat. “I’ll follow.”
oooo“A noble gesture,” De Rode replied. “And foolish.” He seized Henry by the shoulder and pushed him down the slope, at which point gravity took over and Henry had no choice but to comply. De Rode swept two of the younger, slower children up in his arms. “Now you,” he ordered Isabella, and, without hesitation, the queen obeyed, followed by the others who plunged behind her in a screaming wave.
ooooOnly De Rode was left to witness the birth of the arabian steed from the castle door, an opening only slightly larger than its startled eyes and, immediately behind it, the unlikely midwife: Prince Louis’ bloodthirsty henchman Guilliam de Beauchamp.
ooooFor an instant, their eyes locked, then Beauchamp swung himself up on the horse. By the time he settled in the saddle and looked up again, de Rode was gone. He dug his heels into the animal’s sides. The horse nearly sprang out of its skin and would have spilled its rider among the herbs had not the knight maintained a death’s grip on its mane. Once all four hooves thudded to the ground in a nervous tattoo, the space between the castle and the garden wall was bridged in an instant, but Beauchamp pulled up short at the opening; too narrow for the horse.
ooooIt seemed to de Rode, in a brief backward glance before hurling himself down the slope, that, for an instant, Beauchamp – atop his wildly pirouetting steed – might attempt to jump the wall which, given the weight of the horse’s own armor and that of its rider, would be fool-hardy in the extreme.
So captive was Beauchamp’s reason to bloodlust, however, that he wheeled the horse around, spurred it to the farthest eastern extent of the garden and charged the wall.
oooo“Impossible!” de Rode told himself.
ooooHuffy had made good on his threat to ‘come up there and deliver the news in person, ‘cause this ain’t the kind of thing you talk about on the phone.’ For the occasion he had rented a sporty European car that seemed to Albert, watching it pull up the long gravel drive, as if something very heavy must have sat on it. He wondered how Huffy, not a small person, had gotten into such a low car.
ooooThe real entertainment, which lasted some thirty seconds, was watching him get out; a contortive rearrangement of flesh that Jeremy proclaimed belonged in Ripley’s Believe it Or Not. At last, having overcome both physics and gravity, the agent, his brow beaded with sweat, stood before Albert, waving an envelope in his face. “You’ve got to see this, my boy, my boy,” he said, barely able to get the last word out for want of breath.
ooooHuffy only called Albert ‘my boy, my boy’, when Something Had Gone Terribly Wrong; which is to say quite often, owing to some defect in Huffy’s corpuscles that magnified everything to either a crisis or an emergency.
oooo“Your shoe’s untied,” Jeremy Ash observed. “Careful you don’t trip and break your neck.”
oooo“Ain’t my neck worries me, Tinpan,” said Huffy, nevertheless–handing the envelope to the boy–he bent to thread the wayward lace. Why, and at what point in their relationship Huffy had taken to calling Jeremy ‘Tinpan’, no one could remember. Jeremy had been called worse, so he didn’t mind. He called Huffy ‘Huffsey’ to his face, as if he couldn’t quite remember his real name. That’s just the way their intercourse had developed.
ooooJeremy Ash was a mystery to Huffy. Albert was an enigma, of course, but agents expect–in fact encourage–enigmatism in their clients. Time and again it had been proved to his satisfaction a highly marketable commodity, especially when manufactured on behalf of those in his stable whose talents were either waning or did not bear close critical scrutiny in the first place. Albert was not a member of that group, but the fact that his enigmatism was genuine made him marketable by several factors of X.
ooooTruth be told, fame baffled Huffy as much or more than it did Albert. Greed he could grasp. Quite easily, in fact. That was something you could convert into a nice sofa for the front parlor. Lust, too, was an appetite to whose appeal he could testify from personal experience. Gluttony, ditto; put him in front of a nice, fat Cornish pasty with lard sweating from its pores and he’d amen that sin with sauce on. The rest of the mortal sins, whatever they were, he imagined equally reasonable. But fame? He just didn’t get it. Time and again, it had been revealed to him as a beast that ate its offspring in small, cruel bites, and danced on their bones.
ooooYet those children, that desperate, pathetic breed of human for whom fame was oxygen, surged toward it like a drowning swimmer clawing toward the surface from an impossible depth. No sacrifice–especially of others–was too great to make to break through that surface tension and into that rarified air.
ooooOnly to find that the atmosphere was of an inhospitable world, and corrosively acidic. There was something metaphysical in that.
ooooHuffy, being part Irish, was inclined to become progressively more metaphysical and poetic as his Guinness got shallow enough to see through. However poetic or prosaic, this is what Huffy thought of most of his clients. The task that formed the bedrock of his profession was to latch on to the teat of fleeting success and wring every drop from it before it ceased to lactate. If he could siphon off even a small percentage of his client’s ephemeral fortune and, in their name, stuff it into interest-bearing investments before it went up their noses or into their veins, there might be enough to see them through the dismal years of their decline.
ooooThat was part of what he did for his clients, because he knew what his clients could never seem to grasp; there comes a point when the world will cease to throw money at them.
ooooThen there was Albert.
ooooHe was different from his other clients. The aura that surrounded him was genuine. He had never sought nor wanted fame. It had sought him, lured by the siren’s call of the gift, laid upon him like a mantle he was forever trying to shrug off. Albert’s talent left even Huffy’s considerable gift for hyperbole wanting.
ooooThat udder would be forever engorged, so Huffy handled it with kid gloves lest it developed blisters.
ooooBut Jeremy Ash? He was no more creative than a box of cockles, and more nuisance than a bag of cats. Why Albert had taken him to his bosom, Huffy couldn’t fathom, why he tended out on him like a nursemaid–or servant, even–Huffy just couldn’t make out, any more than he knew what to do with him.
ooooHe stood and, retrieving the envelope from Jeremy Ash, turned to Albert. “It’s yours.”
oooo“Well, your health.” He waved the envelope some more. “You need to see this.” He opened the folder and removed two slips of paper, joined to one another by a paper clip. “Let’s go inside somewhere I can lay these out.”
ooooMoments later Albert and Huffy were seated in mismatched high-backed chairs with soft seats, staring down at the two pieces of paper which Huffy had placed on the table. One looked like a contract of some kind. There were places where blank lines had been filled in, some with his name and other particulars and others filled in with handwriting even more indecipherable than his own.
ooooAlbert was concentrating on seeming interested. The top of one page had a shield on it, and some scrolly words in Latin under the logo of St. Thomas Hospital, London.
oooo“That’s the hospital I was in.” He pointed at the crest.
oooo“That’s right,” said Huffy, “an’ before you scarpered off like the monkey what remembered where he stuffed the nuts, they done tests on you, din’t they?”
oooo“One of which was to put your head in a little box and push the button.”
ooooAlbert remembered that. He’d felt claustrophobic at the time, but had apparently too drugged to move. Come to think of it, it seemed he’d been under some kind of restraint at the time. The box had made a whirring noise, like electronic cicadas all having their tails pulled; if cicadas had tails. He’d learned about cicadas in Tryon, North Carolina which was where God apparently kept them.
oooo“That’s what this is,” said Huffy, tapping the other paper. “An MRI. You know what that is Al?”
oooo“Magnetic resonance imaging,” said Albert, to which Huffy didn’t know what to say, except, “Right the first time. It’s like a picture inside your head.”
oooo“Yes,” said Albert. “This is my brain?”
oooo“Right you are.”
ooooRather than picking the picture up, Albert bent over the table and studied it carefully. He was surprised there was no music in it. Perhaps the MRI hadn’t been working properly that day. “Is there something wrong?”
oooo“That’s what the doctors wanted to see you about, but when I told ‘em as how you wouldn’t see ‘em on no circs, they said I had to show you this.” He leaned in close beside Albert and pointed at an aerial view of a little black island surrounded by a white beach on the picture of the negative. “You see that little bit there?”
ooooJeremy leaned in as far as he could without upsetting or falling out of his wheelchair.
oooo“Island,” Huffy echoed. “That’s right. An island in your brain. You know what that is?”
ooooSomething in Huffy’s tone made Albert feel he didn’t want to know, even if he did; which he didn’t.
oooo“They think it’s a tumor. You know what a tumor is?”
ooooAlbert had an idea it was something like a red balloon that grew where it wasn’t supposed to, and then burst. That’s what he said.
oooo“That’s as good an explanation as any,” said Huffy. “Well, as to red, I can’t say, but this here balloon you got . . . they say it might have been there years.”
ooooAlbert put his fingers to his forehead. “I didn’t know that.”
oooo“No,” said Huffy. “Now, he says to tell it you that if it’s been there as long as may be, it prob’ly hain’t goin’ to burst, least not anytime soon.”
oooo“What would happen if it did?” Jeremy Ash wanted to know.
ooooHuffy made a pistol of his hand, held it to his temple and pulled the trigger, together with the appropriate sound effects.
ooooAlbert winced and wondered if he was wrong not to have spoken to a doctor.
oooo“But it’s not going to do that, right?” said Jeremy, taking the words out of Albert’s mouth.
ooooHuffy holstered his pistol in his vest pocket. “Not likely.”
oooo“So, they can take it out, right?”
oooo“Well, that’s the thing, Tinpan. That’s the thing. You see, something shifted that tumor, didn’t it? A blow to the head, more likely, says the doctor.” He tilted his head and examined Albert through the lop-sided horizon of his granny-glasses. “You had a blow to the head recently, Al?”
ooooAlbert shook his head then, considering the possibility that doing so might shift the tumor even further out of place, stopped shaking. “I don’t think so.”
oooo“Oh, you’d know,” said Huffy. “No doubt. A great ruddy whack it would take, the doc says. You’d know if you’d been on the receivin’ end of a great ruddy whack, wouldn’t you Al?”
ooooAlbert was about to say that yes, probably he would, when Jeremy Ash – he of the prodigious memory–spoke up. “How about when that guy beat you up down in South Carolina.”
ooooNow, that was a thought. “Tryon,” Albert said, more specifically.
oooo“Yeah, you remember that?”
oooo“Somebody beat you up?” said Huffy
oooo“Jimbo,” said Albert. Even the memory was painful. “He hit me.”
oooo“Kneed him in the face, is what he did.”
ooooHuffy was impressed. If someone asked him to make a list of everyone he knew who might be kneed in the face, his most cherished client would not have been among those present. “You got kneed in the face?”
ooooAlbert didn’t want to talk about it.
ooooJeremy Ash did. “By this guy about seven feet tall, built like . . .”
oooo“I don’t want to talk about that,” said Albert.
oooo“A was tryin’ to take him down ‘cause he was hasslin’ this girl.”
oooo“Cindy,” said Albert, who, in saying that he didn’t want to talk about it had meant that he didn’t want anyone to talk about it. He was reminded that Abraham Lincoln, writing a letter of consolation to a Mrs. Bixby on the loss of her five sons in battle, had said ‘I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.’ It was one of those occasional worddocks that stuck in his brain and tumbled out at unexpected times. Why it should do so now was obvious; Albert was realizing – once again – how weak and fruitless must be any word of his which should attempt to silence Jeremy Ash. As long as he was going to have to listen to the story anyway, he wanted to make sure those with speaking partss appeared in the credits.
“Her name was Cindy.”
oooo“Cindy. Right. Whatever,” said Jeremy.
oooo“A regular knight in shining armor, is our Al!” Huffy slapped Albert on the back. “Savin’ a damsel in distress! Fancy that! Quite a jolt, was it?”
ooooIf having one’s head jerked from one’s neck by sheer force could be considered a jolt, then yes, it was a jolt. Albert didn’t want to think about it. “What does the doctor say about this?” he tapped the picture.
oooo“And he got clocked before that, too. At the School. Remember, A?”
ooooThat particular banshee had since taken up residence in Albert’s dreams where, from time to time, it descended upon him yet again through carefully bundled parcels of moonlight that sliced an otherwise darkened hallway (which, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, students had christened Albert Hall) into neat segments; nor had the impact when his head hit the floor, long-since carpeted, diminished beyond the point of acute recall. “That’s what got him put in the hospital, and that’s where he met me. Right A?”
oooo“So this little island,” said Albert, feeling, with renewed vigor, how weak and fruitless his words were, “is what a tumor looks like.”
oooo“You got hit twice!?” Huffy was doubly impressed. He hadn’t realized that piano players – apart from those who played for tips in a certain class of bar – were such vortices of violence. “What happened that time?”
ooooAlbert was determined to make himself clear this time. He leveled a meaningful glare at Jeremy Ash. “We’re not going to talk about that.”
ooooJeremy felt like he was failing in his duty to his public not relating such a juicy tale, but sometimes the maestro had to have his way and this, judging from that indecipherable look in his eyes, was one of those times. “Too bad.”
ooooHuffy figured he could coax the facts from Jeremy Ash without too much trouble; some other time.
oooo“Anyway, if one of those blows – or both of ‘em – jogged that little island loose, well, that’s why he wants to see you.”
oooo“Right. I have his card, and his number. You want me to make an appointment?”
oooo“Let me rephrase,” said the agent to his meal ticket, “you’re going to see him. When would be convenient?”
ooooAlbert’s rationale on the subject was, to him, unassailable; and boiled down to a simple Socratic statement: doctors deal exclusively in bad news. People who made appointments with doctors got bad news. “Ergo,” he said aloud in response to his thoughts.
oooo“I’ve seen too many doctors lately. I don’t want to see him.”
ooooHuffy seldom had difficulty bending Albert, however reluctantly, to his will. “But he’s got something important to tell you…about your tumor.”
ooooWhich is exactly why I don’t want to see him, Albert thought. He was left with a choice between two evils: go to the doctor and get the bad news, or put up with Huffy’s whining at him which would continue until he went anyway. “I can go Friday.”
oooo“You’ve got a concert in Rotterdam Friday.”
oooo“Then–what month is it?”
oooo“How about spring? We could come back in spring. Maybe it will be gone by then.”
oooo“And maybe it’ll have taken you with it!” Huffy tapped the photo with an emphatic finger. “This is not somethin’ to play about with, lad. You’re going to see him tomorrow. He’ll come up here.”
ooooThat, at least, was a relief. Recent experience had convinced Albert that hospitals were places people congregated to exchange one disease for another, or to have parts of themselves removed. He looked at Jeremy and shuddered. “Okay.”
oooo“I’ll double check the time and let you know,” said Huffy, who hadn’t made an appointment. In fact, having the mountain come to Mohammed hadn’t occurred to him until his own words were ringing in his ears. He was pretty sure he could pull it off.
oooo“Aren’t they supposed to do something?” said Albert, looking at the picture. “Tumors?”
ooooHuffy shrugged. “Different things. Sometimes they’re terminal, sometimes they give you headaches, or make you forgetful, dizzy.”
oooo“They can eat your brain,” said Jeremy Ash added helpfully.
oooo“Can they?” asked Albert, for whom the possibility was not without appeal. It was his brain that was so full of unpleasant memories. Maybe if parts of it could be selectively eaten, leaving him just the part he needed to make music; but that was probably his heart.
ooooThe face Huffy turned at Jeremy, seeming undecided about what expression to form in response to the suggestion, filtered through the wide selection at its disposal. He’d never heard of tumors eating the brain, but he’d never heard they didn’t. His mouth was waiting for him to say something, so he said: “You’re a strange boy.”
ooooHis physiognomy settled into place as he turned it toward Albert. “He says it, that tumor . . .” He nodded at Albert’s forehead, “might be what made you faint. Wouldn’t take much. Just a little change in blood pressure from, oh I don’t know, surprise or shock to the system, something like that, and . . .” bending his elbow at a right angle, he illustrated the effect by slapping it to the horizontal, again with sound effects. “Wham!”
oooo“Wham,” Albert echoed. “I faint.”
oooo“In fact,” said Huffy, speaking on no more authority than that he’d been eavesdropping on the doctor and nurse involved in the evaluation of Albert’s test, “it could be responsible for any number of things.”
ooooAlbert had lost interest. His attention had drifted out the window but his mind, once again, was painting Harvest Lossberg in the guise of Robert Tiptoft. “I wonder where it was painted.”
oooo“Where what was painted?”
ooooJeremy wasn’t about to let the thread of the conversation slip through his hands. “Oh no you don’t.” He tapped Albert on the knee. “What other things are you talking about?”
oooo“Well, I hain’t exactly a medical person,” said Huffy, “but it could cause hallucinations, seizures, mood swings, all that kind of thing.” He twirled his finger suggestively in the vicinity of his left temple for Jeremy’s benefit.
ooooAlbert wasn’t looking. “It wasn’t painted here.”
ooooThat was a bold assertion Jeremy Ash could not allow to stand unchallenged. “How do you know?”
ooooAlbert had been wondering the same thing. He wasn’t sure.
oooo“It’s not right.”
ooooIt Albert wanted to say. “The walls. There are no walls in this house that are like the walls in that painting.”
oooo“Which was painted like five billion years ago,” said Jeremy. “Things change, A.”
ooooAlbert looked around; he wasn’t sure that wisdom applied in places like this. In England. They still had a royal family and horses and things.
ooooJeremy knew what Albert was thinking. He had a point. The pores of the dark oak paneling oozed a primeval mustiness that would have made a dinosaur lie down and take a nap, feeling himself right at home. “Even here,” he said unsurely.
ooooSomething told Albert he was right. He Albert, not he Jeremy Ash. It was an unusual sensation. “It wasn’t painted here,” he declared, something he seldom did. By way of appendix he added: “It was painted Somewhere Else.”
oooo“Oh, you’ll want to go to the west country, I should imagine,” said Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton as she, together with Albert and Jeremy Ash, watched Huffy away, his squashed-looking little sports car flinging gravel into the hedges, startling such wildlife as made their home there. By the time the vehicle turned out of sight, Huffy – having delivered his line – had become a footnote and would soon be relegated to the appendix of Albert’s mental Rolodex until such time as his intervention was required to move the story along with some other Cause For Alarm.
ooooThe housekeeper had spoken in response to Albert’s query as to where the portrait of the man in the blue pajamas might have been painted. “That’s where Annabella’s family was from.”
oooo“The lady who hired the cow-painter to paint it,” Jeremy said. He had become accustomed to keeping Albert abreast of the program, and Albert had become accustomed to trying to keep up.
oooo“Oh. Yes. She didn’t live here?”
oooo“No, no,” said Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton, turning toward the house, drawing the little retinue along with her. “She was west-country stock. Out in the Cotswalds, as I recall, but don’t quote me on it.”
oooo“I know where that is,” said Albert, who thanks to some little trick in his cognitive apparatus, knew where most places were on a map, and what the people who lived there sounded like, but had only a foggy notion of his own position in relation to them.
oooo“You know your trouble, A?” said Jeremy Ash, performing wheelies on the parquet. “You’re a guy tryin’ to figure out why a girl did something.” He alighted with a thud and looked hard at Albert. “Can’t be done.”
ooooThere were times when living in the orbit of Jeremy Ash was illuminating. This was one of them. “You’re right,” said Albert. “I need a woman.”
ooooThe words tasted strange on his tongue, and his lips looked up at him in disbelief. Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton was going through some mail that sat on a silver tray by the door. Either she hadn’t heard the comment or chose not to nominate herself for the position, which was just as well, since Albert didn’t think of her as a woman. Not in the way Melissa Bjork had been a woman. Or Angela McLauren. The association gave birth to an audible burp.
oooo“Angela? The . . .” Jeremy Ash mimed a violinist.
oooo“She’s a girl,” said Albert. “A woman,” he amended, though, frankly, the distinction wasn’t at all clear to him. “Female.”
oooo“You want her to come up here?”
ooooAlbert had been surprised by the mention of Angela’s name, even though he was the one who made it. He had just been holding it up for a closer look when, from nowhere, Jeremy made this suggestion.
oooo“I’m asking if you want her to come up here. You said you wanted a woman to help you figure out that painting, and you said her name, and she’s a woman, and . . .”
ooooTo Jeremy Ash these were links in a chain, each leading, logically, to the next. To Albert, they were unrelated, indeterminate objects strewn on the floor.
oooo“It’s Socrates again, A. You want a woman. She’s a woman, ergo…”
oooo“I want Angela?”
ooooPut that way, it made sense. “Yes,” said Albert. “But not here. I want her to go to the museum and see the painting, and tell me why she thinks that woman . . .”
oooo“Yes. Annabella. Why she had it painted.”
ooooJeremy Ash was skeptical. “I don’t think she’s gonna be able to help you with that, A. My bet is Annabella was loopy. Must’ve been to have a cow-painter make a picture of himself as some old dead guy in blue pajamas, with eyes looking the wrong way. I mean, she had to be, right?”
ooooAlbert knew something about Angela McLauren that Jeremy Ash didn’t know. “She’s loopy.”
oooo“Angela.” What better way to get inside the thoughts of a loopy woman than with another loopy woman? “She’s loopy, too.”
ooooJeremy Ash suddenly stopped spinning in his wheelchair. “What makes you think that? Because she plays her violin in the subway?”
oooo“She told me so,” said Albert. “When we were in Tryon, she wasn’t just pretending to be Heather Antrim. She really started to forget that she wasn’t. Isn’t that loopy?”
ooooJeremy Ash was forced to agree. “She really did?”
oooo“So you think that because she’s nuts, she’ll be able to tell you why another nut did something?”
ooooAlbert almost smiled at his own ingenuity. “And they’re both women.”
ooooIt wasn’t so much the logic, as the illogic of Albert’s logic that intrigued Jeremy. “I’ll call Quiggs and have him track her down.”
October 13, 1216 – The Wash, road to Bishop’s Lynn, England
ooooWilliam Longspear’s hands were hot inside his chain mail gloves. He clenched and unclenched them as he watched a little tragedy unfold across the fens; the North Sea was slowly, relentlessly consuming the wagon containing the King’s household treasury. Already it had lent over into the sand that would presently form its grave.
oooo“Those were good horses,” he said, morosely as the team of four, unable to gain a purchase on mud that gave way beneath their frantic stamping and thrashing, sank further and further beneath the inrushing tide. Unable to break free of the yoke by which they were bound to the wagon, they were dragged, wild-eyed, to their deaths.
oooo“They’re not going to make it,” said his companion, Foss, the King’s jester, over whom Longspear towered like a menhir. At six and a half feet, Longspear towered over everyone, but none more than Foss, a dwarf less than half his height, even including his constant companion, a raven, that sat on his head.
ooooHaving seen all he could stomach, Longspear turned away and began walking north, toward the bridge to Bishop’s Lynn. “Horse’s like that are not easily come by.”
ooooFoss pendulumed along behind in that fashion common to his kind, neither of his legs seemed quite long enough to reach the ground. He had to run to keep pace, but he was accustomed to that. At such times, the raven hop-scotched ahead, keeping mostly to the ground, as a congenital dearth of feathers constrained it to flights of no more than three or four feet in altitude. “Not the horses,” he said on an exhale. “The men. They’re not going to get to shore before the tide. . .”
ooooMen, woman, and children – dead, dying, and in every obscene contortion between the two – formed an endless, grotesque parade arising from the depths of Longspear’s memory. Their companionship is all he had known since first going to battle for Henry the Second, his father – though neither of them had known it at the time. After that, the first Crusade with his half-brother King Richard, Coeur de Leon.
ooooRivers of Christian and infidel blood surging through the wadis of the Holy Land.
ooooHe had been with Richard on the return when they were shipwrecked on Corfu, and was one of the four who, in the guise of pilgrims, accompanied their liege lord across the wilds of Europe where bandit kings and murderers reigned. Those rare fortified cities that could claim a semblance of order were presided over by hostile royals, self-styled kings and emperors, most of whom Richard had offended in one way or another and now had a predatory eye out for him, and the ransom he would command. To say nothing of the chance to rub his celebrated nose in it.
ooooIt was Leopold, of all people, whose flag Richard had besmirched at Acre, who won that lottery. A king’s ransom, indeed, levied by John and Eleanor through crippling taxes on noble and peasant alike across that island kingdom Richard regarded as personal treasury, his to plunder at will.
ooooWhen at last the Lion was freed and set about the business of subduing lands he felt were gifted him by God – and in no small part to reconstitute his treasury – his blood lust knew no bounds.
ooooAnd Longspear had been the strong left arm at his side, cutting an indiscriminate swath through whatever flesh came within reach of the edge of his blade.
ooooThat’s the way it was with kings; their command was God’s command. And so, when Richard was sent to the grave by the chance bolt from baker-boy’s crossbow as he circled the walls of miserable little Château de Châlus-Chabrol, that, too, was God’s will. Or His judgement.
ooooArriving back in England half dead, Longspear pledged himself to his remaining half-brother, the new king, John. Then Louis had invaded and, with the aid of the barons who had set themselves against their natural lord, seemed, for a season, about to carry the day.
ooooThat is when, in a lapse of judgement and forgetting the fact that John was never more resourceful than when pressed to extremes, he defected to the French King.
ooooAnd suddenly the world flipped on its head as, in one inexplicable victory after another, John began to regain his kingdom. Soon the trickle of defectors from Louis to John became a flood and Longspear realized that, unless he wished to be lost in that flood, he had best renew his allegiance to his brother. To do so, he must be seen to be not merely in of the flood, but its motive force.
ooooSo, imperiled by the threat of discovery by either side, he made his way across the geographical, spiritual, and political no-man’s-land separating the two, wading through that haunted region and its peripatetic population of the half-dead; traitors, cowards, opportunists, deserters, spies, whores, assassins and camp followers, with no idea whom he could trust.
ooooWhen in doubt, he dealt a swift death.
ooooWhat was another face or two, upturned in supplication, among the thousands in the menagerie that plagued his dreams with the memory of the look in their eyes when they awoke to the realization that mercy would not be forthcoming? They had long ago ceased to be ghouls and become his only companions, always willing to make way for a few more.
ooooSo he had debased himself, fallen at John’s feet and begged clemency, and wily John, who saw the wisdom in keeping one’s enemies close – even if they were only imagined enemies – granted it, and bundled with mercy the return of properties that had been confiscated.
ooooBut all gifts from John came wrapped in packages to which he held the strings. It was a tug on one of those strings that had brought Longspear to this unhappy shore. Even from so great a distance, with his back to them, and above the howl of the wind, he heard the cries of the men as they battled the waves; a battle they would not win. And Foss, John’s faithful eyes and ears, was there to record that the deed was done.
oooo“What was the point?” the giant said, without turning around.
ooooFoss’s shrug went unseen. “Who knows? Maybe he figures he can come back for it someday.”
ooooLongspear cast a quick, sidelong glance down at the jester. “Out there?” He tore the glove from his right and and jerked a thumb back over his shoulder, toward the ocean.
oooo“Or maybe he just wants to make sure it doesn’t fall into Louie’s hands,” said Foss. “Who knows?”
ooooThey walked on for a few minutes in silence, soon falling in behind the troop of foot soldiers Marshall had assigned to accompany them and who wearily and warily parted for them as they made their way to the head of the column.
oooo“What are you thinking?” said the dwarf.
ooooLongspear made a sound that might have been a laugh, if so, there was no humor in it. “From my lips to the King’s ears! I think not.”
oooo“I can keep a secret!” the dwarf protested.
oooo“Oh, I don’t doubt that. I’m sure there’s any number of secrets you keep – but they’re the King’s secrets.”
ooooThat was a compliment. Foss smiled.
oooo“And no man can serve two masters,” Longspear continued.
oooo“Oh but there’s no distinction, my lord! To me, you and my lord the King are one and the same. Both my masters. After all, hasn’t he put me in your charge?”
oooo“My charge!” This time Longspear laughed outright. “Such flattery! The truth is the other way ‘round. I don’t delude myself.”
ooooFoss smiled again. He was enjoying himself.
oooo“However, since any one of these men at our backs may turn traitor and have our heads at any moment, I may as well make you my confessor,” said Longspear. “I was thinking how odd, how incomprehensible it is that someone as fond of his trinkets as the King – it might be argued that they possess him rather than otherwise . . .” He arched an eyebrow at Foss who betrayed nothing in his returning gaze. “How inexplicable then, that he should dispense with half his fortune like that. As if it was nothing but a burden to him.”
oooo“Perhaps the flux has constipated his brain,” said Foss, who is the only one who could say something like that of the king in the hearing of a king’s man. “He’s not himself. He doesn’t even trust me! Threw me in the fire night before last. You were there! You saw!”
oooo“You overstepped yourself with that crack about his beard. He’s vain about his beard.”
oooo“His beard! I’ve criticized his balls before, but never got more than a box behind the ear for that!”
oooo“Besides you weren’t long in the flames. I’ve never seen you move so fast!”
ooooA couple of soldiers who were in earshot of the exchange guffawed, but Foss silenced them with a glance.
oooo“One little ball of fire. Didn’t even singe your hair! No lover ever moved faster at the sound of the cuckold’s footsteps on the stairs!”
oooo“Not the point,” Foss retorted. “The point is censorship. If I suddenly have to start watching my words around the King, I might as well close up shop. My job is to pull the King’s beard on behalf of the populace. Defuses their frustrations.”
ooooLongspear swept Foss up in his arms and strode purposefully forward until there was some distance between them and the foot soldiers. “Those men . . .”
oooo“Them?” said Foss, pointing behind him.
oooo“No, the one’s with the wagon.”
“Oh, the late lamented.”
“They were the only ones who knew what was in that wagon, weren’t they?”
“What do you mean? It was the household jewels. That’s the only thing ever kept in that wagon. It’s the wagon the King’s got with him that has the crown jewels.”
oooo“Is it?” said Longspear softly. “Why did the King have me destroy it?” but the wind tore the words from his lips and ran away with them. The dwarf wouldn’t have heard them anyway; having just stepped in a steaming pile of horse dung he seemed otherwise occupied.
ooooThe crow found this amusing.
Castle Combe, that night
ooooBeauchamp’s horse, despite the weight of its armor that that of its rider, cleared the wall of the kitchen garden by several inches, so dumbfounding de Rode that, for half a second, he stood rooted to the spot. By the time he got possession of his senses, Beauchamp was nearly upon him and it was too late to run, so he threw himself down the slope in a tumbling, clanking mass of chain mail, his gambeson bound to him by two thin strips of rawhide and a silent prayer.
ooooHe slammed to a stop against an oak sapling, which offered just enough resistance to cushion the blow of the limestone outcropping from which it grew. With no small effort, he struggled to his feet which, of themselves, seemed animated by the desire to slide, together with loose leaves and soil, down the steep slope toward the valley below.
ooooDirectly above him, almost free-falling through the forest, he glimpsed the massive underside of Beauchamp’s steed, framed by flailing stirrups. Instinctively he grabbed at the scabbard slapping at his side, but it was empty. There was no time to feel for his sword among the leaves, though he was sure it was there somewhere. There was no time to grab a rock, or a branch so, as the horse fell within reach, he grabbed blindly in the direction of its right foreleg and, seizing upon it more by chance than design in the near-pitch darkness, dove beneath the animal, twisting the leg backward with all his might.
The horse whinnied in shock and pain and crashed with its full weight into the limestone ledge, nothing abated by the sapling. Beauchamp was thrown from his saddle with such force that his impact with the ground compressed him like a metal ball and hurled him down the hill, toward the fleeing women and children.
ooooDe Rode, whose helmet now bore the imprint of a horseshoe, righted himself and, steadying himself hand-over-hand from trunk to trunk as gravity dragged him down the hill, made his way to the edge of the river and where he clattered to a halt.
ooooThe little congregation of escapees was arranged in a semi-circle around the fallen warrior over whom the young Henry was bent. De Rode caught Isabella’s eyes and was about to speak when she held up a silencing finger which she then pointed at her son. De Rode looked at the boy and, as he stood from whatever labor he had been about, saw that he had a knife in his hand and, at the same time, discerned what that labor had been.
ooooThe cut wasn’t clean, and most of the internal business that held Beauchamp’s head to his body was still in place, but a respectable start had been made to hack through it so that there would be no more threat from that quarter. Henry handed De Rode the knife. “See to that, would you, de Rode? Let’s get these women and children across the bridge and safe at the manor house, so we can be on our way, shall we?”
ooooDe Rode dropped quickly to one knee. “Your majesty,” he said, with all his heart. As he stood, he cast a glance at Isabella, knowing that he had presumed too much, but she said nothing. “The rest will be coming along the ridge and down the road. We have no time to lose.”
ooooThere was no need for further explanation. Even now the unmistakable clash and clamor of horses and armor could be heard in the far distance. “Quickly!” said the queen, ushering her frightened flock across the narrow wood and stone bridge. “Henry, now boy. Quickly.”
oooo“You go first, mother. I’ll cross when everyone’s safe.”
ooooIsabella hesitated for only an instant then, perceiving that the undefinable spirit of kingship – in the presence of which she had only felt herself once before, with her father-in-law – had descended upon her son, did as she was told.
oooo“Now you,” Henry said when the others had made the path on the opposite banking.
oooo“My job is to keep you safe, your majesty. Let’s not argue lest our nobility cost us all our lives.”
ooooHenry looked down at Beauchamp. “I think he was dead before I . . .”
oooo“I’m sure he was,” said de Rode.
oooo“I just had to make sure.”
oooo“You were right to do so.”
ooooHenry turned toward the bridge.
oooo“Wait!” said de Rode. He dropped to his knee beside the fallen warrior and, removing his gauntlet, dipped a naked finger in the wound around his neck. Then he stood up and held the bloody digit up for the boy to see. “May I?”
ooooHenry smiled and closed his eyes as de Rode made a dot of blood on the boy’s forehead. “May all who wish harm to you or your kingdom, share the fate of this man.”
ooooOnce again Henry made for the bridge, and once more he stopped, staring at the water that coursed over the riverbed in a silver blanket. “Do you think the King is dead?” he asked, without turning around.
oooo“I don’t know,” said de Rode. “If not already, I’m afraid soon.”
oooo“They won’t let me rule, will they?”
oooo“Not until you’re of age, your majesty.”
oooo“Don’t call me that. Just call me Henry; at least until we’ve heard. . .”
ooooDe Rode inclined his head. “As you wish.”
oooo“How long have we be the barons make their way down?”
oooo“Not long enough.”
ooooHenry stared for a moment in the direction from which the assault would come, ignoring the rain that had been threatening for some time, and now began in earnest. “We’ll have to hide, then. In one of these houses.”
ooooDe Rode was too familiar with the results of such a course of action. “I’d advise against it. If they think the village is shielding you, they’ll put it to the torch.”
ooooThe possibility had never occurred to Henry. “They would?” But he knew, even as he spoke, the truth of de Rode’s words. “What do we do?”
oooo“You’re not going to like this.”
ooooHenry steeled himself. “I’ll do as you suggest, de Rode. Whatever it is. I put my trust in you.”
ooooDe Rode was honored, but he also knew the odds against the likelihood of his plan working, and the consequences if it did. “Two things need to happen, your maj . . . Henry. First, and most important, you and your mother need to get to Corfe Castle, together with your brother and sisters, if possible. It’s the safest place for you until we can notify Cardinal Bicchieri and Lord Marshal to meet us at Gloucester.”
oooo“The rest of us need to draw the barons off.”
oooo“Yes. We need to get them to follow us in the opposite direction, to give you as much of a head start as possible.”
oooo“But what if they catch you? Find you out?”
oooo“That’s the part you’re not going to like.”
ooooHenry was perplexed for a moment, but his eyes widened as realization dawned. “I won’t allow it, de Rode! These people, all of you, are under my care!”
oooo“No, Henry. We’re in God’s care.”
oooo“But . . .”
oooo“No more. I pray not, but if a sacrifice must be made to preserve the throne, so be it.” He placed his finger beneath Henry’s chin and tilted his head up so their eyes were locked. “But remember, Henry; and rule in a manner worthy of it.”
oooo“It’s really the most curious thing I’ve ever heard,” said Angela, having settled herself behind a cup of tea. “According to the curator at the museum, Lady Annabella Howe was in Castle Coombe, in the Cotswolds, when she commissioned the painting.”
oooo“Is the castle still there?” asked Albert, his thought being that, if it was, one of its walls might be recognizable as the one in the background of the painting.
oooo“It’s not a proper castle,” said Angela. “That’s the name of the village. Castle Coombe.”
ooooLeave it to the English.
oooo“There’s a manor house. Belongs to a local nib, I should imagine, besides which, itw was built long after Annabella’s day. But the castle is just a nub and ruins, according to the curator. Been that way for years.”
ooooAlbert was confused. “So, there is a castle?”
oooo“Well, more like a place where a castle used to be. Ruins. There’s not really a proper castle anymore.”
oooo“Was it a ruin when the picture was painted?” asked Albert.
ooooAngela didn’t know.
ooooJeremy Ash was unable to contain himself any longer. “What’s the curious part?”
ooooAngela looked at him through the veil of steam rising from her tea cup. “The curious part is that Annabella imported the painter, just for that painting. The curator says he’s pretty much an unknown – he painted. . .”
oooo“Cows,” Jeremy interjected.
oooo“. . . livestock,” said Angela, surprised. “Yes. He was from Lincolnshire where, as you say,” she inclined her head toward Jeremy, “he painted portraits of prize livestock for the local gentry. One of whom was Lady Annabella’s father, Emanuel Scrope.”
ooooThis didn’t seem an economical arrangement to Jeremy Ash. “So, there were no painters in this castle place?”
oooo“Not so. The painters are to the Cotswolds what fleas are to a dog and, to my know-ledge, there’s never been a shortage of them. Some of them pretty good – hung in the National Gallery.”
oooo“Lossberg is hung there,” said Albert.
oooo“Well, yes, but because of the subject matter, not the painter.”
oooo“Yes. His only known portrait. He was a pretty big wind in his day.”
oooo“But the man in the painting is Lossberg, not Tiptoft.”
ooooAngela felt she had to sit down, which she did. “Yes, but it’s supposed to be Tiptoft. That’s what makes it important.”
ooooIn a world where a supposedly reputable museum would allow to be hung on its walls the pigmentary abuses Albert had seen in London, nothing needed to make sense.
oooo“I need to say some things out loud,” said Albert, out loud, sitting at the back-up piano.
oooo“You’re on,” said Angela.
oooo“Shoot,” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“These are things I need to say so I can hear them,” Albert clarified. “They’re questions, but not the kind you have to answer.” He brushed with notes above middle C with the tips of his fingers, but didn’t press.
oooo“They’re rhetorical, you mean,” said Angela.
oooo“Questions you ask without expecting to have them answered.”
ooooAlbert’s fingers danced silently on the piano, one note for each syllable. “Rhe-tor-i-cal.” He looked at Angela’s inverted reflection on the piano cabinet. “That’s what this is going to be.” He looked down again. “Robert Tiptoft lived more than two hundred years before Annabella. Why did she want a painting of him?”
ooooThe little congregation maintained its silence.
oooo“And why did she have it painted by a man who painted cows and horses instead of someone who painted people?”
oooo“And why did she bring that man all the way from Lincolnshire to the Cotswolds to paint it, when there were plenty of people-painters already in Castle Coombe?” Albert’s mouth was overfilling his ears and for a moment he got what Jeremy called his ‘my head is about to explode’ look in his eyes.
ooooJeremy jumped in to alleviate the pressure, and nudge Albert back on track. “And why is the man in the picture looking in the wrong direction?”
ooooAlbert looked at him, as if he’d awaken from a long, not-very-refreshing nap. “And why was Lossberg murdered after he finished the painting?”
ooooAngela rejoined the conversation. “And, lastly, who did the deed?”
ooooHearing his questions out loud hadn’t helped, as Albert had hoped they would. “Annabella had a connection to Lincolnshire,” he declared at last.
oooo“What makes you think that?” Angela would be please for anything that made sense.
oooo“Lossberg painted for her father. You said so. That must be how she knew about Lossberg, or knew about him. She must have visited the area, and that’s how she found out about him. She must have stayed with someone. Maybe they had one of his pictures of a cow.”
oooo“Or horse,” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“Or horse,” said Albert, for the first time since he began his rumination, looking up from the keys. He looked at Angela. “Can you find out?”
oooo“Me? Why me?”
oooo“You’re a woman,” Albert explained.
ooooWasn’t that enough? “Annabella was a woman.”
oooo“And so is Mrs. Clause,” said Angela, pouring another cup of tea, more for something to do with her hands than because she was thirsty. “What has my being a woman, and Annabella being a woman to do with anything?”
ooooAlbert had been looking at Jeremy. “And, you have legs,” he said in summation.
ooooAngela sighed deeply. “I’ll find out, but from here on out, call me Watson.”
oooo“Watson,” Albert echoed in that way that said he didn’t get the joke. “Okay.”
oooo“I’m just kidding,” said Angela, standing. “You know, Watson, Sherlock Holmes?”
ooooHaving read the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories one night at the school library in the not-to-distant past – in connection with his efforts to extricate Professor Tewksbury from a murder charge, Albert recalled Watson. “Oh. Yes. I see. You’re comparing yourself to Watson because I asked you to do something, the way Sherlock Holmes asks Watson.”
ooooThe gaze Angela returned to him was heavily tinged with disbelief. “Nevermind, Albert. You tell me what to do, and I’ll do it, how’s that?”
ooooThat was just what Albert wanted. “That’s good,” he said then, reading in her eyes that she wanted something more, he added. “Perfect.”
oooo“Then you’re gonna need to pay her something,” said Jeremy Ash.
ooooAngela flushed. “Oh, no! I couldn’t possibly. . .” she said, though it was evident the suggestion was not without attraction.
oooo“I am?” said Albert, who was aware of one thing, if nothing else, this being that Many Things didn’t occur to him, which was one of the reasons Jeremy Ash was so valuable.
oooo“Of course. You drag her up here from London, get her to run to museums and now you want her to track down Annabella’s connection to Lincolnshire, you pay people when they do things for you, A. That’s capitalism, fair and square.”
oooo“Okay,” said Albert. “But I don’t have any money.” He patted his pockets, just because.
oooo“I’ll take care of it,” said Jeremy, who, over time, had by default become Albert’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.
oooo“Really, I couldn’t. . . ” Angela protested feebly.
oooo“You can’t busk up here, can you?”
oooo“Well, no, but. . .”
oooo“How much do you make in your average week of busking?” Jeremy asked pointedly.
oooo“Well, I don’t know, really. I mean, the response is so inconsistent. And of course, one’s always in danger of being chased of a patch by the police.”
oooo“Mark this, A,” Jeremy said. “What she’s doin’ is called ‘hemmin’ and hawin’. In negotiations like this it’s what someone’s mouth does while their brain is trying to catch u p to the situation.”
ooooHe turned a sly eye on Angela. “Let’s use your best week, as an example, then. What did you make on your best week ever?”
Reluctantly, she told him.
oooo“Alright then,” said Jeremy Ash. “We’ll triple it. Fair enough?”
oooo“Well, that’s very generous, and I can’t say it won’t be welcome,” said Angela. “But I’m no detective, you know. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to find what you’re looking for.”
oooo“You helped Heather with research,” said Albert, recalling the painful episode in Angela’s life that had resulted in her incarceration.
oooo“Yes,” she said, flatly. “I did.”
oooo“Then you’ll find out,” Albert said. “Finding out things is what they do.”
oooo“Ergo,” said Jeremy Ash, concluding negotiations.
oooo“Ergo,” said Albert, and played a C#dim 7 +11.
ooooAlbert couldn’t get to sleep. Usually, when that happened – which was often – it was because there was music in his head and it wouldn’t stop nagging him until he’d gotten it out. He lay there, on his side, and listened expectantly for the introduction of the theme.
ooooThere was none.
ooooThe room’s two large windows framed twinkling swatches of dark blue sky with darkness. What little light that darkness permitted entrance traced soft rectangles on the floor. Albert was looking at the rectangles and wondering why the carpet they illuminated, so colorful in the light of day, was now just shades of blue and gray. Like a quilt from the Civil War. Somehow nighttime stole color from the day.
ooooSomeone should look into that.
ooooThe carpet intersected the light and darkness obliquely, leaving a triangle of carpet-less floorboards, polished to a soft sheen by years of traffic, on the side nearest him. Into that triangle, unexpectedly but not surprisingly, a foot stepped from the shadows. A foot in some kind of slipper with a bow on it. A woman’s foot.
oooo“Have you seen John?” said the woman.
ooooAlbert shook his head. “I don’t know John.”
ooooWhy was his heart pounding like that?
ooooThe woman seemed to accept this. “You’d know if you did.
oooo“Your thoughts are keeping you awake?”
ooooAlbert felt as if he should sit up. Something told him that’s what you did when a woman came into your room and started talking to you, even if she was a ghost. But he didn’t sit up. His eyes were on the foot of the Spanish woman which, as he watched, was joined by the other as she stepped into the light, silhouetting herself against the window.
ooooHe looked up. He couldn’t see her face, but the moisture in her eyes now and then caught an errant beam reflected by some object in the room. “Where you do go?”
ooooShe seemed to understand the question. “I’m not sure. I’m like a fog in a little hollow. It is there at dawn, then gone, then back again, but it never really goes anywhere.”
ooooAlbert reached for his glasses from the bedside table, but, suddenly struck by the thought that he might not be able to see the woman if he put them on, left them where they were. “I have something in my brain,” he said, “that makes me see things that aren’t there. Hear things.”
ooooThe woman walked across the light, and into the shadow. He heard her footsteps as she rounded his bed and came to a stop. She was behind him now. He felt the blankets retreat across his skin as she raised them, and the rustle of the sheets as she lay down. He felt a frisson in the air as she reached toward him, and the hair on the back of his neck rose to meet her fingers.
oooo“Perhaps it is the thing in your head that let’s you see things that are there,” she said.
ooooThis was a new thought. What if, all his life, he’d been surrounded by things he couldn’t see because he hadn’t had this thing in his brain? And, now that he did, what other things might come stepping out of the shadows?
ooooHe knew she was going to touch him. He knew she was going to lay her hand upon his shoulder, and stroke the back of his neck. He knew her fingers would be cool. A ghost’s fingers would be cool, wouldn’t they?
And it happened as he knew it would.
ooooThen she began to sing. Just above a whisper. A Spanish lullaby; and he felt her breath upon his ear.
ooooHe liked the song, and wanted to stay awake to hear it, but as her voice seeped through his senses, sleep drew down his eyelids like a shopkeeper’s curtains at the close of business. And he dreamed Spanish dreams, and somewhere a guitar played.
ooooHe didn’t often dream in guitar.
oooo“What’s amazing,” said Angela as, two days later, she buttered her toast enthusiastically, “is that not only is there a connection between Annabella and Lincolnshire – therefore, as you suspected, Lossberg, but there’s also a connection between old Robert Tiptoft – the reputed subject of the painting – and Emanuel Scrope, Annabella’s father!”
ooooCalling Angela had been a Good Idea, thought Albert. As he listened, he studied the photo Angela had taken of the painting of the man in the blue pajamas, and saw something he hadn’t seen before, a little rectangle, painted faintly on the wall over the man’s right shoulder, that framed some indistinct letters: F-O-S-S.
oooo“And that’s just the beginning, it has to do with the sudden good fortune that turned old Bobby Tiptoft from a nobleman in name only, to just about the richest nibs in all of Lincolnshire . . .”
ooooButter had a lubricating effect on Angela’s storytelling apparatus, and in the tale that unfolded history, legend, conjecture, and wishful thinking vied for the spotlight.
oooo“Local history has it that he discovered the crown jewels King John supposedly lost in quicksand out in the fens nearly a hundred years earlier. There’s a place not too far from here called Langar Manor that figures into the story – having been owned by all the major players; King John, Robert Tiptoft, and Roger le Scrope at one time or other.”
oooo“As in Annabella Scrope?” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“One of her ancestors, yes. Annabella inherited the manor – during the reign of King Charles – through her father Emanuel Scrope, the last male of his line.”
oooo“So, she would have known Lossberg,” said Jeremy, while Albert was busy forming the same thought.
oooo“Curious, don’t you think?” said Angela.
oooo“Can we see this place?” Albert wanted to know.
oooo“Oh, well,” said Angela. “It’s not a manor as is manor house. It’s manor as in region, or area.”
oooo“No building?” said Albert. This was beginning to become a pattern.
oooo“Not per se, no. No castle or anything like that, if that’s what you mean. The only thing of any antiquity still in existence from that time is the abbey.”
oooo“A church?” Albert asked hopefully. Churches in England tended to be very old, dating, as they did, from the days when English people believed in God.
oooo“Yes. I can’t speak with any authority, but I seem to recollect it’s been rebuilt over the years.”
oooo“But some of the old building – from this time,” said Albert, poking the table to indicate the time they’d been talking about, “is still there?”
oooo“Yes, I’m sure.”
oooo“I want to go there.”
oooo“It’ll have to wait ‘til next week,” said Jeremy. “You’ve got that concert in Rotterdam.”
oooo“Call Huffy and tell him I won’t be there,” Albert commanded, another thing that felt fuzzy on his tongue. “We’ll do it some other time. Today we’re going to Langar Abbey.”
ooooThen a practical thought occurred to him. He looked at Angela. “Do you have a car?”
Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire, October 18th, 1216
ooooFoss had had a bad experience with peaches as a child. Not so much the peaches themselves, as the larvae that inhabited the one he had stolen and, huddled in the darkened loft of a hay barn, eaten half of. Ever since, he maintained an aversion to the smell of peaches; the same aroma with which the King’s bedchamber was redolent, mixed with that of plums, sweat, and vomit.
ooooThe king was dying and, in Foss’s experience, dying people – certain saints, perhaps, excepted – rarely made a positive contribution to the atmosphere, partly for that reason, and partly to beat a hasty retreat should the King start flinging sharp objects in his direction, which he was known to do, the dwarf didn’t shut the door all the way.
oooo“Your majesty?” he said, just loud enough to be heard if the King was awake, but not so loud as to awaken him if not, nor so soft as to be accused of not making his presence known.
ooooJesters had to think this way.
ooooThe bedclothes moved; the King was alive. “Who’s there?”
oooo“Foss, your Majesty.”
ooooThe name had an animating effect. John struggled to a lopsided sitting position. “Come here, you little piss.”
ooooFoss took a few steps toward the bed.
oooo“And close the door.”
ooooFoss retreated toward the door and, hooking it with his heel, kicked it shut with a satisfactory thud. He went to the bedside, his eyes just below the level of the feather mattress, and waited.
ooooThe King’s eyes were liquidy, and drifted about as if in search of something to focus on. With the exception of a tankard of ale that sat on a bedside table, all traces of food had been taken away. The vomit to which a sniff in the King’s vicinity testified had been cleaned up, but its memory was fresh. Having lived all his life so close to the ground, Foss had built a sort of olfactory immunity to life’s natural aromas, despite which he was nearly overcome by the perfume peculiar to the room. He took a little bundle of the King’s excess sheet in his hand, held it to his nose and continued to wait.
oooo“Foss?” said the King at last. “Are you there?”
oooo“Still here, your Majesty.”
oooo“Majesty,” scoffed the King. “You think my majesty’s going to get me into heaven, my short subject?”
oooo“You’re God’s chosen,” said Foss. “That makes you His fault. So, I guess He’ll have to take you in.”
ooooJohn laughed and coughed and spat. “I feel like shite.”
oooo“That would explain the smell,” said the jester. That’s the kind of thing he was expected to say, despite the fact that, at present, he wished he could say a few words of comfort. John wasn’t much loved, especially in this part of his kingdom. His reign had been, in his own words, ‘just one damn thing after another’. And now, judging from the smell, he was going to die at any minute, alone, on the run from his own subjects, his wife and children far away, probably, even now, being rounded up and imprisoned by those same enemies.
ooooImprisonment meant the Tower, and the Tower meant death.
ooooAll those little golden heads, floating in the moat, banging up against the Traitor’s Gate with the rising and falling of the tide. ‘Let us in! Let us out! Let us in! Let us out!’
ooooFoss shivered. John was avaricious and self-centered beyond the point of simple myopia; if he mourned the twenty seven hundred and forty-nine men, faithful soldiers all, who had, like his empty treasure wagon, been lost in the Wash, he was far too noble to mention it. But that’s the way it was with kings, wasn’t it? Things that might disturb the equanimity of a mere mortal were, to those of royal blood, events of which, from time-to-time, they needed reminding.
ooooJohn had also been capable of occasional lapses into genuine nobility; the Magna Carta business, for instance. He’d been forced into it, admittedly, and recanted the document before the ink was dry, but there had been that moment, hadn’t there, when an angel had troubled the waters with at least the hope of healing?
ooooAs for war, the King was no coward, as many said he was. He was a big man, and gave every inch of himself to the battle, but he was always fighting uphill, always on the low ground, and every time he gained a decent foothold the earth would give way beneath him. That was the work of the Fates. They hated him, preferring his brother, Richard, upon whom – though less deserving as both a monarch and a human being – they heaped their favor by the butcher’s bushel.
ooooExcept that he was dead.
ooooApart from Isabella – who for some inexplicable reason bore in her heart (and a lovely heart it was, Foss had noticed; quite often) a genuine affection for her husband – John was not much loved and never had been, as far as Foss was aware; and he’d known the man since the cradle, having served as jester in the court of John’s father, Henry the Second.
ooooFoss couldn’t see things getting much better for the King in heaven.
ooooNot that the man had gone out of his way to court the Lord’s favor or affection. Quite the contrary. Some of the comments he’d let slip over the years were so blasphemous that it made it likely he wasn’t a Believer at all. Disbelief, Foss reckoned, would be a hard argument to maintain in the presence of the Lord of Hosts.
oooo“You don’t have that damn bird with you.”
oooo“I left him bothering the horses.”
oooo“What? Speak up!”
oooo“I said I left Pike with the horses, your majesty.”
oooo“I hate that bird,” said God’s chosen King of England. “He knows too much.”
oooo“He’s very discreet, is Pike, sire.”
oooo“How did it go?” said the King after what might have been a little stroke, or just a nap preparatory to the arduous journey through the valley of the shadow of death.
oooo“Just as you wished, your Majesty. The thirteen executors have been notified, as you directed. As for the wagon, Magnus, it is at the bottom of the Wash, about twelve furlongs beyond Wisbeck.”
ooooWith wheezing effort, John propped himself up a bit closer to the vertical. “Completely gone?”
oooo“Completely,” said Foss through the sheet.
oooo“Burned. Apparently set fire by some local ne’er-do-well with incendiary proclivities. In other words, disposed according to your command, your Majesty.”
ooooThe exchange was interrupted by another coughing spell, at the end of which John gathered his sheets beneath his chin and leaned across the bed, so his face was more or less on the level just above that of the dwarf, who looked at him with large eyes that could easily have been exchanged with those of a particularly obsequious dog. The king lowered his voice. “And everything else? All is done exactly to my designs.”
ooooThe royal breath was vile, and the knot of sheet Foss pressed to his nostrils was not proof against it. “Exactly, your majesty.”
oooo“And no one suspects?”
oooo“All who could do so are . . . are beyond the cares of this world, your Majesty.”
ooooJohn drew himself back to the middle of the bed and stared into a darkness only he could see. His eyes danced with the reflection of the candles that flickered on either side of his bed, but that was a reflection from without, there was none within. “Then I shall be joining them shortly. I don’t expect they’ll be pleased to see me.”
oooo“Oh, they were good and faithful men, your majesty. You don’t need to worry yourself about running into them where you’re going.”
Laughter seized the king like a fit and took a while to run its course.
oooo“You know, little piss, when a King of Egypt died, his whole household would be killed, embalmed, and buried with him to serve him in the afterlife. I find that a commendable tradition.”
ooooFoss was unperturbed. “Why add another to a long list of poor policies, your majesty? Or do you fail to grasp the fact that such an arrangement would place me and Pike eternally in your presence, for I simply refuse to be sacrificed without him?”
ooooJohn didn’t laugh this time. The shadows were drawing closer. “You have a point.”
ooooIn the brief apostrophe of silence that followed, the King inhaled and exhaled deeply a few times. “If I don’t survive this. . .”
oooo“Heaven forbid,” said Foss, a little too perfunctorily.
oooo“At least the baron’s won’t get their hands on my treasure, either Magnus or Utique.”
oooo“No, they won’t.”
oooo“And you have seen to it that my son. . .?”
oooo“Don’t fret yourself, your Majesty. In the unhappy event of your demise – heaven, as I say, forbid – the bishop is under orders to acquaint the Queen with the facts.”
ooooJohn whispered the name of the only woman ever to have conquered his heart. “Isabella.”
oooo“That’s the one,” said Foss. He couldn’t resist.
oooo“De Rode is with them?”
ooooThe likelihood that de Rode, already exhausted from endless hours of weary travel after the battle to snatch London from the Barons, had made it safely across two hundred miles of hostile country was remote in the extreme. Though he was a man with an elevated sense of duty; couple that with a sense of Divine mission, there’s no telling what so deluded an individual might accomplish. Still, Foss reasoned, in the absence of any surety why not send his employer to hell with whatever succor the thought that his son would succeed him to the throne might provide. “You couldn’t have sent a more faithful servant, your Majesty.”
oooo“Remarkable how many servants have revealed themselves faithful since Louis’ reversal of fortune,” John ruminated. “What news of Alexander?”
ooooThe Scottish King had, not a month gone, bent his knee to Prince Louis of France in return for assurances from that Pretender, that he could keep his kingdom once, if all went according to plan, John had either been defeated, beheaded, or fled into exile. “He’s being a pain in the ass, your Majesty. But Marshall will soon scratch it.” Foss was accustomed to being neck-deep in lies, and, early on, had developed a facility for keeping track of them for, unlike many less-adept liars, he never confused them for the truth in his own mind.
ooooHis nasal cavity had nearly reached its capacity for insult, but the King didn’t seem ready to dispense with his company. So Foss stuffed the sheet a little further up his nose and waited to be spoken to, the one rule of courtly etiquette he was not permitted to breach.
oooo“The workmen have been paid?” said John at last.
oooo“A very pretty euphemism, your Majesty,” said Foss, who had personally supervised the poisoning of the trio of craftsmen who had been pressed into service to construct – to specifications over which John had huddled long hours with his chief architect; recently deceased due to an excess of some highwayman’s blade in his belly – an invisible place of concealment and certain mechanisms in the walls of Langar chapel. “You may take comfort in the knowledge that they’ll never complain of their wages.”
oooo“And the letter?”
oooo“Committed to memory,” said the dwarf, tapping his temple and allowing the King to make of the gesture what he would. “And, in the regrettable event something of a terminal nature were to happen to your diminutive servant,” Foss performed what might have been a bow, or merely a mild attack of gas, “the Bishop will, through a certain agent, come into possession of it. As for that holy relic, he has sworn upon his soul, and will see that a church courier personally puts it in the Queen’s hands, should the worst come to pass. Heaven, as I said earlier, forbid.”
oooo“Good. Very good, my little piss,” said John as, amid a storm of hacking and expectoration, he gathered the energy to die. Foss waited.
ooooOnce again, with tremendous and, Foss thought, touching effort, the King inclined or collapsed in the direction of his retainer who, once again, found himself uncomfortably intimate with royal emanations. He dropped the sheet from his nostrils, lest he give offense.
oooo“Am I excommunicated at present? His Holiness is so capricious with my soul, I can’t keep track.”
oooo“Not last I heard,” said Foss. “It takes time for news of the Pope’s most recent infallible change of mind to reach us here at the fringes of his consideration. But this is not among the issues with which you need to concern yourself. As I indicated earlier, I believe your standing with the church is moot relative to your standing in heaven.”
ooooJohn laughed and spit in the direction of an oaken bucket on the floor.
oooo“You’ve done well,” said John.
ooooThe words, though foul on the air, were not without a certain sweetness in the ear. Foss had never received a sincere compliment from his master, and was not altogether sure how he should respond. He bowed his head slightly, suspicion blooming from the froth of praise. “It is my pleasure to be of service, Majesty.”
oooo“Just so,” said John quietly, thoughtfully. “Just so. Upon consideration,” he added, “I find those services far too valuable to do without in the next life.”
ooooThe words had an ominous ring to them. Foss looked up sharply at the same instant a tiny golden spark of alarm flashed from the blade in the King’s hand. Even had John been in his prime, though, Foss would have had a good chance of evading the attempt – so practiced was he, because of his size, at evading sudden and unexpected dangers. As it was, the King had, in the attempt, expended all the energies he’d reserved to present a dignified corpse to whomever should find it. The result was not dignified. Finding none of the anticipated resistance from the thrust – which he relied upon to maintain equilibrium – the King was unbalanced and slid indecorously from his bed to the floor; a considerable distance, with a royal thud and an impromptu chorus of curses.
ooooThe King looked up at his underling. “I must stop underestimating you.”
ooooFoss reached down and retrieved the knife from the floor. “It’s common among those handicapped by surplus height, your Majesty, to look down upon those who must, of physical necessity, look up to them.” He put the knife on the bedside table.
ooooOnce again John’s eyes, briefly enlivened by the enactment of the last desperate act in his plan, dulled at its lack of fruition and began to loll again. “The idea was to leave no witnesses,” he said.
oooo“I gathered as much. A wise stratagem. But you needn’t have worried, sire. I swore an oath to you many years ago.”
oooo“One forgets the currency of oaths to people of your station.”
oooo“Currency, yes,” said Foss. “Not to be confused with commodity.”
ooooThe walls of the bedchamber were paneled with ancient oak, made porous in the distant past by endless English winters and the burrows of worms seeking shelter from them. These orifi inhaled this fleeting moment pregnant with historical significance.
oooo“I’m dying,” said the King at last, as if it was a condition he expected Foss to rectify.
oooo“I’ve known others to make quicker work of it, your Majesty. I commend their example. Less talk, more action. Another peach?”
oooo“Surprises await,” said the King, and died.
ooooWhat greater reward for a jester?
ooooIt struck Albert, as he watched her go about her work, that Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton was as busy as her name. The flowers she had spent several minutes straightening drooped, as if in exhaustion, when she moved on. Albert could almost hear little horticultural sighs. Even the dust she flung her duster at startled a moment, like a flock of microscopic pigeons, danced briefly in a wayward shaft of sunlight, and resettled in the same place.
ooooA wonder occurred to Albert and it tilted his head to one side as he watched her activity; nothing seemed improved by her efforts. It was as if she was a very talkative ghost, who bustled through the atmosphere without making any discernible impression upon it.
oooo“Do you know someone named John?” he asked.
ooooDierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton was making at effort at pretending not to be looking at herself in the mirror. She tucked some rebellious hairs into the bright blue band around her head. “John? You mean here are the house?”
oooo“No. No Johns in the family. Mostly Henrys, Richards, and Georges,” she turned toward Albert and, in the mirror, he saw the hairs that had been wrestled into place pop out from under the blue band. “The only John with any connection to Oxburgh, as far as I know, is John Blanke.”
oooo“Is he still here?”
oooo“What’s left of him is in the churchyard. He died in 1511, assuming the date on the tombstone is correct. Why do you ask?”
oooo“Somebody’s been asking for him.”
oooo“Well,” said the housekeeper, “should they ask again, the church is next door but one down the lane at the left turning. Direct them there.”
oooo“I will,” said Albert.
ooooDierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton, who never thought to ask to what individual or group Albert might be referring, given that he hadn’t left the property since his arrival– made a little laugh through her nose. “If they ask for his wife, though. Well, that’s a different story.”
oooo“A Spanish woman.” Animated to be talking about Oxburgh history, she sat down in the chair opposite Albert by the fireplace. “The story, as far as anyone knows, is that John Blanke was one of the household musicians for Catherine of Aragon, when she came to England to marry poor Prince Arthur. Played this sort of trumpet arrangement they had in those days, I believe.”
oooo“No, no. John Blanke. He was the first black African to appear on these shores, at least as far as history knows. Anyway, he brought his wife, the Spanish woman I mentioned. I say wife, to be polite. She may have been his mistress, or inamorata, or what-have-you. Legend has it her soul wanders these halls.” Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton leaned across the little table that separated them. “Every respectable English country home has its ghost, of course. She’s ours.”
ooooAlbert was just about to say he’d met her, when the housekeeper continued. “Nonsense, of course, but it goes a long way toward adding interest to an otherwise fairly colorless history for a place as old as this. Tourists love to hear it.”
oooo“You’ve never seen her, then?” Albert ventured.
oooo“Me? I should think not,” said Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton, standing in emphasis and dusting her immediate vicinity with a flourish. “I am not the sort of person who goes around seeing ghosts.”
ooooWhich meant that Albert was. This could be Helpful Information. “Did something happen to her here?”
oooo“Nobody knows. Between you and me, well, what happened is that when the ghost was first reported – centuries ago now – they started calling her the Spanish Lady, I have no idea why. . .”
ooooAlbert interrupted, which he had never done before. “Maybe she looks. . . looked. . . Spanish.”
oooo“Well, I suppose whatever blob or fog it was might have appeared so to a fevered imagination. In any case, someone turned up this story of John Blanke and his wife amongst the family archives and, being Spanish, she became the ghost by association.”
oooo“Ergo. . .” said Albert.
oooo“Ergo,” said Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton.
oooo“Does she have a name?”
oooo“Curious you should ask that. The short answer is no, not on evidence that an historian would credit. There is mention, among tenant lists in those same family records, of a woman of the name Esperanza, but it’s not in direct association to John Blanke’s wife or the ghost.
oooo“Its the only Spanish-sounding name in the records, though, so. . .”
oooo“Esperanza” Albert repeated, fixing the name in his brain. “You never know.”
ooooDierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton, assuming, correctly, that this was a rhetorical observation, renewed her assault on the flowers.
The Road to Langar Chapel, Nottinghamshire, May 8th, 1285
ooooThe burden of being the only one who knows where a treasure is buried forms a heavy mantle about the shoulders of the possessor of that knowledge. The weight of such a mantle is trebled when the wearer is a dwarf, and trebled again when that dwarf, able to take no one into his confidence for fear of treachery, is riding a donkey laden with a second portion of treasure across nearly two-score miles of relatively flat country that he knows to be swarming with mercenaries, turncoats, spies, tatterdemalions, ruffians, soldiers with fluid allegiance and, not unlikely, the unsettled shade of a recently departed sovereign.
ooooFoss would have found nothing in the foregoing statement to disagree with. In fact, were he to express his personal sentiments between huffs and grunts as he clambered, tripped, and tumbled ass-over-scuttle down yet another of many dry-laid stone walls that seem to have been constructed for the sole purpose of impeding his progress, his description would have been vivid in the extreme, salted with terms borrowed heavily from the lexicon of his Anglo-Saxon forebears.
ooooThese terms were not unfamiliar to his traveling companions; the donkey – at whom they were mostly directed – and Pike, a raven, who rode, alternately, between Foss’s head and the donkey’s rump.
ooooNor were the dwarf’s invectives confined to colloquialisms. Having escorted the former king, John’s brother Richard Couer de Leon, on two crusades to the Holy Land, he had acquired a considerable vocabulary of colorful terms that mingled much more easily on his tongue than the cultures from which they sprang did in geographical proximity. Arabic, he had found, was especially fecund with expressions of opprobrium reserved exclusively for donkeys.
ooooHe had just unburdened his tongue of the choicest of these and was pausing to catch his breath. The donkey champed noisily on a little nest of nettles and Pike, his eyes locked on Foss, cocked his head this way and that as if expecting the dwarf to do something interesting.
ooooInstead, Foss sat, planting his walking stick in the ground and gripping it with both hands, and studied the horizon.
ooooWell off to the northwest, a handful of furlongs or more, a long cloud of smoke rose from the forest to a certain height then spread horizontally as if smudged by a finger of God.
oooo“Look yonder, Pike,” said Foss, poking the air with a stubby finger. “Alexander’s army.”
ooooPike followed with his eyes, as if he understood.
oooo“He knows by now that John’s dead.”
ooooPike dipped and nodded and anyone who saw him would be hard-pressed to argue that he wasn’t doing so in response to the comment.
oooo“Aye,” said Foss thoughtfully.
ooooThe king was dead; the only situation more precarious than when the king was alive. Especially for a diminutive individual whose allegiance to that king was a fact established beyond a doubt. Should such a person fall into the hands of that king’s avowed enemies, it would not go well.
ooooOthers in his situation might affect a disguise; cut or even color their hair, trim their beard, cut off their nose, or assume an alias. ‘Name’s Smith,’ sayeth Jones. “No idea who this Jones is you’re on about. Never heard of him, her, or it.’
oooo“There’s no disguise for Foss,” said Foss to the raven Pike. “No name so beguiling to conceal from the viewer this misshapen bag of bones.”
Only two options remained: faithfully follow through with his master’s dying demands and damn the consequences – or throw himself on the dubious mercy of Alexander. Not that the Scottish King would have any interest in him, as such; but the knowledge Foss and Foss alone carried about the disposition of John’s treasure was hard currency that, if meted out in small, suggestive portions, might buy him at least a few days in which to compound a plan of more permanent benefit.
oooo“The question is,” said Foss, turning over yet another stone in his mental garden, “what of Alexander now that John is dead?” Would the barons maintain their felicity toward a northern usurper; or toward Prince Louie of France, for that matter? Or would one of them attempt to set himself up as king?
oooo“And what,” Foss continued, addressing Pike with the most likely scenario, “if they all turn on one another? Leaving yours truly between a number of rocks and a veritable marketplace of. . .other rocks.”
ooooThese were the thoughts Foss entertained as he attempted to incubate both respite and perspective from the cold stone upon which he sat, but the only crop forthcoming was more questions. What if de Rode had managed the impossible task of making it to Castle Combe and snatching young Henry from the talons of the Barons?
oooo“That would make the boy the rightful king.” The donkey looked up, his large eyes swimming in a heavy liquid of doubt. “Yes, yes. Inasmuch as any of ‘em are rightful,” said Foss. “Goes without saying.”
ooooAnd who would be regent until the boy attained majority? The queen? Possible, but not a result the Church would likely sanction. De Rode or one of the other loyal barons? “William Marshal,” he pronounced. But what if two or more of the barons contended that coveted position? “More war.”
ooooThe donkey shifted under the weight of the crown jewels. Foss shifted under the weight of indecision. All roads held both promise and peril. Which to choose?
ooooWhichever way the Fates badmintoned fortune, only one thing was apt to secure Foss’s continued existence in the near-term; his knowledge of the whereabouts of the crown jewels. Getting them to safety, therefore, was of paramount importance, which meant to Langar Abbey and the hidey-hole John had prepared for them there; the elegant little treasury-cum-tomb where, even now, worms were merrily ingesting the mortal remains of the three gifted masons – cathedral builders all – who had devised its enigmatic mechanisms to their Lord’s exacting, if unfathomable specifications and now waited to accompany its contents into eternity.
ooooFoss declared this intention aloud to see how Pike responded. The raven was looking attentively at the columns of smoke rising like prison bars from the forest to the northwest with an unappreciative eye. “I agree,” said Foss. “To Langar.” He grunted himself upright, kicking the circulation back into his legs. “Assuming we can stay alive that long.”
ooooPike flapped his wings and squawked, and in the squawk Foss read a warning in response to the residue of treasonous thoughts that whispered at the fringes of his conscience. “Torture. Yes, there’s always that.”
ooooHe doubled his pace toward Langar.
ooooAlbert had never ridden a public bus through the English countryside. He enjoyed the ride. He enjoyed watching the people who got on and off the bus and didn’t give him a second glance; gossiping old women laden with bags, solitary old men who peaked over the tops of their newspapers at squadrons of uniformed schoolboys unruly as their shirttails, unemployed teenagers of indeterminate sex – members of the same tribe to which the young person at the music store belonged and whose clothing was accessorized by dog collars and sharp objects of the type his mother used to tell him to stay away from, mothers with children, and dogs. Lots of dogs.
ooooJeremy Ash, overcome by a chivalrous urge not to deprive Brigit Blake of the pleasure of his company, had relinquished oversight of Albert to Angela for the afternoon.
ooooShe talked much less than Jeremy Ash, Albert observed, which drew his attention to her. This, too, made the journey unexpectedly pleasant. For the first time in their acquaintance, he saw her as Other. Not Other as the rest of humanity was Other – meaning that which was not he – that mass that responded to different, mysterious, and unfathomable motivations and rhythms which found no resonance in his being, but Other as Melissa Bjork had been Other.
ooooHe was completely confused by the feelings his observations engendered, but more inclined to entertain them than shut them out.
ooooTaken geometrically, Angela went in and out at appealing angles.
ooooSo did Esperanza, if that’s what her name was.
ooooMaybe all women did, and he was just beginning to notice. He decided he would make an effort to notice more.
oooo“What?” said Angela, who had suddenly awaken from the reverie that had thus far kept her looking wistfully out the window most of the time. She was looking him, and had caught him looking at her.
oooo“I was looking at you,” said Albert, mindful that confession was good for the soul.
oooo“Yes. I was watching you.”
oooo“You were watching me looking at you?”
oooo“Yes. I felt your eyes on me.”
ooooAlbert understood this. It had happened to him before when he’d been quietly eating his soup in a restaurant and, feeling as if someone was looking at him, looked up to find that that was just what was happening. “Yes.”
oooo“Did you enjoy the view?”
ooooThis was one of those instances Albert felt it was important to know what someone was talking about before he responded. “You mean do I enjoy looking at you?”
oooo“You never looked at me like that before?”
oooo“You were looking at my ‘lady bits’ as they say.”
oooo“I never noticed before.”
ooooAngela laughed. “Well, I don’t know how I should take that! They’ve been there all along.”
ooooAlbert looked at her eyes for a moment. The sensation they produced was much different than that provoked by contemplation of her lady bits. For one thing, they looked back, and they seemed to be talking to him in a language he didn’t understand.
ooooHe looked out the window. “How far is it to the church?”
oooo“Langar Chapel?” Angela glanced at her watch. “Three more stops. Maybe fifteen minutes?”
ooooThey lapsed into quiet contemplation. It was Angela’s turn to study Albert, whose turn it was to let his eyes drift over the blur of countryside. She was sorting through her feelings about his visual exploration of her. What had he been thinking when his eyes lingered unabashedly on her breasts like that? Had she awaken in him that insatiable carnal appetite that creative people claimed their birthright?
ooooThe notion awoke a physical response which she tried, immediately, to suppress with her awareness that this was not a normal man, that she was not equipped to get inside his brain and imagine what he might have been thinking – oblivious to her inner turmoil as he looked out the window – or how he might interpret whatever response she might make.
ooooShe decided the best response, for the time being, was none at all.
oooo“You know what I like?” Albert said unexpectedly after a long silence.
ooooShe expected his forthcoming comment would have something to do with his observation of her. “What?”
ooooShe hadn’t expected that.
ooooWithout warning he looked at her with such force that she had to catch her breath. She, too, was seeing for the first time something that had been there all along. Something for which she had no name. Had he not looked away, she might have drowned.
oooo“Are you a religious person, would you say?”
ooooAs with most old English churches, the dead were a prominent feature of the decor at Langar Chapel. For several minutes, Albert and Angela had been strolling in the direction of the church through the field of lop-sided little menhirs marking the graves of the forgotten. Time had muted the bold declaration of the names they bore to vague whispers, most of them unintelligible.
ooooThey brought Albert to a standstill in front of the grave of Miriam, beloved of Esau, departed this life in ye Year of Our Lord 16. . . something or other. His hands were cold and he thrust them a little deeper into the pockets of his overcoat.
oooo“Religious,” he said, as if saying the word aloud would provoke a reply. It didn’t. “What does that mean?”
oooo“Well, I guess it means what do you think about God?”
ooooThe question bent Albert’s brows. What did he think about God? What did he think about God?
oooo“I mean, do you believe in Him?”
oooo“Of course,” said Albert, without hesitation. Very early on, somewhere, he had heard God referred to as the Creator. God, then, was where the music came from. It certainly didn’t come from Albert. No one was more aware than he that he was just fingers.
ooooAngela, who had never heard Albert make even the most oblique reference to God, hadn’t anticipated such an unequivocal response. “I’m not sure I do.”
ooooThis struck Albert as odd. He cocked an interrogatory eyebrow at her.
oooo“I have trouble believing in a God that could allow all the pain and misery there is in the world. Like this,” she said, indicating a little tombstone with her foot, ‘William, their fourth child, who died January 4th, 1839. Aged 6 months’. Imagine the sadness of her parents, whoever they were.”
ooooAlbert read the rest of the head stone aloud. “ ‘In faith of him who calleth little children to come unto him. Thomas Butler, Rector of this parish, and Fanny his wife, sorrowing, but not with bitterness, nor without hope; have placed this stone in memory.’ Those were his parents, Thomas and Fanny.”
oooo“See what I mean? What’s the point?”
ooooAlbert’s eyes drifted toward the grave of Miriam, beloved of Esau. “So you punish Him?”
oooo“Punish who?” said Angela, looking up.
oooo“God,” said Albert, meeting her gaze over the heads of the dead, who listened with interest. “You punish Him by not believing in Him.”
oooo“Punish God? No, I . . . mean all the wars, and sickness, and . . . ”
oooo“If you can disbelieve Him out of existence, you won’t have to face Him. . . about Heather.”
ooooAngela burst into silent tears, staring at the little stone of Elizabeth, precious daughter of someone, and Albert left her to cry.
ooooLabels were a nice thing about England. They were everywhere, and among those in Langar Chapel dedicated to the dead were a couple indicating the exact parts of the building that had been in existence in the early 13th Century, which wasn’t much, just the tower, part of an obscure arch, and a slice of wall.
ooooA wall with a little rectangular memorial marker.
ooooA memorial marker with a name.
oooo“FOSS,” Albert read aloud.
oooo“Curious that,” said a Voice that Suddenly Appeared.
oooo“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the man.
ooooAlbert wanted to tell him that creeping silently up on people and talking out of nowhere was not a good way to keep from startling them, but his mouth had a mind of its own and said the most foolish thing it could think of. “Oh, I wasn’t startled, I was just. . .”
oooo“I’m James Simon,” said the man, extending his hand, “Vicar. I was up in the pulpit tucking my cheat sheet into Ruth when I saw you.”
ooooAlbert looked up, expecting to see Ruth, but she had apparently gone somewhere, presumably to remove the article the man had tucked into her. He turned to the pastor and took his hand noncommittally. “I’m. . .”
oooo“Oh, I recognized you clear across the crossing,” said the vicar. “I hate to seem like a blubbering teenager, but I’ve admired your music for years.”
ooooAlbert had heard this before, so he knew exactly what to say. “Thank you.” He turned again to the marker. “‘Foss’,” he said. “What does that mean?”
oooo“Nobody knows. It’s called the Foss Wall for obvious reasons, but, as the sign says, it was moved here from the ruins of the original church, upon which this one was built. It might have marked a burial niche at one time. No one really knows, though, if the word refers to a person, or was a place name, boundary sign or what-have-you. There’s the old Roman road, of course, called Fosse Way, but that passes well west of here. Nothing to do with Langar Manor that I know of.” The vicar shrugged. “One of those little mysteries we British are so fond of.”
oooo“I’ve seen it before. In a painting.”
oooo“A painting? Of what?”
oooo“A man,” said Albert. “Robert Tiptoft.” But it wasn’t really Robert Tiptoft, was it? It was Harvest Lossberg. He produced Angela’s now-crumpled photo of the painting and handed it to the vicar.
oooo“Ah, yes! Tiptoft. He owned the manor at one time. I believe I saw this painting once at a place called Oxburgh Hall, about two hours east of here.”
oooo“I’m staying there.”
ooooThe vicar was taken aback. “Oxburgh? Well, what a remarkable coincidence.”
ooooAlbert didn’t think it was, but he didn’t say so. “It’s in a museum in London now.”
oooo“Is it?” Simon looked closely at the photo and there, just above the subject’s left shoulder, extremely faint but undeniable, was the little marble oblong bearing the letters F-O-S-S. “Remarkable,” he said, but ensuing thoughts led his mouth elsewhere. He returned the photo. “Curious fellow, old Tiptoft.” He interpreted the look Albert gave him as a question. “Came into a fortune, it seems, but no one knows how. Descended from minor nobility. His father was a soldier under Henry the Third. Then a minor official in Wales or some such place, and Robert seemed likely to follow in his footsteps. Then. . .” the vicar made a gesture with his hands that seemed to indicate some kind of explosion. “Presto! He’s suddenly the richest man northeast of London. Bought up scads of land from Cornwall to Lincoln.”
oooo“Including this,” said Albert, indicating the abbey with a nod.
oooo“Very likely. There’s no record of an outright purchase, but he did come into legal possession of the manor – meaning the region hereabouts – apparently as a gift from a fellow named Gerard de Rode, to whom it had been granted as payment or reward, if you will, for services rendered Henry the Second. Son of wicked King John.”
oooo“King John,” said the vicar. “Robin Hood? Maid Marion?”
oooo“Made her what?”
oooo“I, uh. I, well. . . ‘Foss’. Hm. Nobody knows what it means. And right here in the painting all this time.” He returned the photo to Albert.
ooooA female shadow intruded on the conversation, followed almost immediately by its three-dimensional counterpart. “There you are.”
ooooThis was one of those statements, Albert felt, that required no direct response. “This is Angela,” he said, by way of introduction. “My friend.”
ooooAngela shook the vicar’s hand as he introduced himself. “It’s a lovely church.”
oooo“Thank you,” said the vicar. “More a monument to a former movement of God than a church these days I’m afraid. But a lovely place to serve.”
oooo“Not doing a booming business, then?”
ooooThe vicar demurred. “The giant slumbers,” he said, “but will awaken at the Trump.” He smiled. “Would I be wrong in supposing you’re not a regular attender?”
oooo“Not really my cup of tea.”
oooo“You’ve thought a lot about it, then? About Jesus? About man’s fallen state? About grace and salvation?”
ooooAngela blushed. “Well, certainly not in what your church would call a traditional way. A one-size-fits-all faith is a little restrictive, isn’t it? I prefer to think there are many ways to God and none is more valid than the other.”
ooooAlbert, who had been studying ‘Foss’, was drawn into the conversation by a dissonance of logic. “You said you don’t believe in God.”
oooo“Yes. Well, I don’t. Not really; I don’t think. But, if I were to believe, it wouldn’t be in an exclusive God, but a more universal God. You know? One who embraced all believers, Muslims, Stoics, Hindus, Buddists, athiests. . . No devil, or hell, or all that.”
oooo“Your theology has many adherents,” said Simon, “even among my flock.”
ooooMrs. Gibson would have something to say, if she was here, Albert thought. He didn’t know what, exactly, but it would be very definite. “The picture was painted here,” he announced.
oooo“What picture?” Angela asked, happy to change the subject.
ooooHe waved the photograph.
oooo“I thought you said it was painted in Castle Combe.”
oooo“Yes.” Albert nodded. “That’s where he was when he painted it. But this is the place Lossberg had in mind.”
oooo“That makes no sense.”
oooo“No,” Albert agreed.
oooo“Lossberg?” said the vicar. “Harvest Lossberg?”
oooo“Yes,” said Albert. “Do you know about him?”
oooo“A bit, yes. He was one of the first to make a living painting livestock. The art form eventually caught on among the nobility and what-not. One or two of his paintings were up at the Langar Hall. I expect they’re tucked away somewhere these days; but when I was a boy one, at least, hung in the entrance hall, just to the right of the door, and another at the first landing of the stairs. Both bulls, as I recall. I remember being impressed with them at the time. I wonder if I’d feel the same if I saw them now.
oooo“I’ve never heard of his painting a human subject. He’s buried out in the churchyard.”
ooooSomething like a jolt of kinetic energy shot through Albert’s system. “He is?”
oooo“Yes. Not sufficiently famous to find a place with the Howes and Scropes in here out of the weather, poor fellow. His stone can’t be read, but it’s location is mentioned in the church records.”
oooo“Scrope? No. Oh, you mean Howe.”
ooooAlbert thought he’d meant Scrope.
oooo“Annabella Howe. I guess you could say she was born Scrope, or Scroope, more or less. Daughter of the little fellow you see over there, kneeling at the feet of the effigies of his mother and father.”
ooooThe vicar drew them toward the sarcophagus in question, marble statues of a man and wife recumbent and, at their feet, a little statue to which he directed their attention. “Emanuel. Last of the Scropes, hence his diminutive stature.”
oooo“Shot blanks, did he?” said Angela, a remark that was, to Albert, highly enigmatic.
oooo“Oh, hardly. The old fellow followed the command of Genesis 1:28 with a vengeance,” said the vicar with good humor. “Just not with his wife.”
oooo“Oh! I see,” said Angela, with a wink at Albert, who didn’t.
oooo“He had three or four daughters by a maid named Martha Janes, or James, one of whom was Annabella.
oooo“He adopted her?” Angela asked. “That would have been unusual in those days, wouldn’t it?”
oooo“Not according to the records, he didn’t,” said Simon.
oooo“Then, how did she become a Scrope?”
oooo“Another of those little mysteries the maestro and I were talking about earlier.” He inclined his head toward Albert, but kept his eyes on the little statue of Emanuel Scrope. “At some point she – Annabella – petitioned the King, Charles the Second, to recognize her as the legitimate daughter of an earl which – and this is where the mystery comes in – he did.”
oooo“Why a mystery?”
oooo“Well, by no stretch of the imagination was Charles a republican. The likelihood of his acceding to such a request, especially from someone at the loosest edges of the aristocracy, was improbable in the extreme. The landscape was littered with the illegitimate offspring of nobility.
oooo“Pure bull-headed snobbishness aside, such an action would set a potentially hazardous precedent, both pragmatically and politically.”
oooo“But he gave her what she wanted?”
oooo“That, young lady is the mystery.”
ooooAngela’s feminist corpuscles bridled at being called ‘young lady’, especially by someone no more than ten years her senior, and one for whose profession she had no particular respect.
ooooThe Marines, in the guise of a middle-aged piano player, arrived at that moment. “Is she buried here?”
oooo“Who? Annabella? No, no,” said Simon. I’m not sure where she ended up. Very likely somewhere much more grand.”
oooo“How about Robert Tiptoft?”
oooo“Also not among those present. As far as I know he’s interred in the chapel at Nettlestead, over in Suffolk. I believe one of daughters, Millicent or Margaret, is buried there, but I couldn’t swear to it.”
ooooAlbert wandered back toward the Foss memorial; Simon and Angela followed, whispering among themselves.
ooooThe little marble plaque was set into the wall at something less than shoulder-height. Albert stationed himself roughly where Tiptoft/Lossberg had been situated in the painting, facing right, looking left.
ooooWhat was he looking at? A pillar. He pointed at it. “Is that part of the old church?”
ooooSimon slapped the cold stones of the pillar. “This? No. It’s part of the 19th Century renovation. All of these piers were replaced about the same time.”
oooo“What was there before, when Annabella Scrope was alive?”
oooo“The 1600s? Goodness. I should imagine another pier, very similar to this. Must have been; they hold up the roof, you see.”
ooooAlbert remained standing while his brain sat down to think. In the 16th Century, Annabella Howe, illegitimate daughter of Emanuel Scrope, brings Harvest Lossberg, painter of her father’s cows, to Castle Combe, to paint a portrait of Robert Tiptoft; who had been dead for four hundred years. And, because he’d been dead for so long and there were no contemporary portraits of him, she had Lossberg paint himself as Tiptoft. And, for some reason, he had either imagined or Lady Annabella had told him to imagine himself here, in front of this very wall in Langar chapel. Proof? The little FOSS cartouche.
ooooHe studied the photograph.
ooooWhen Lossberg had stood there, all those years ago, what had he been looking at?
ooooBut that wasn’t right, was it? Lossberg hadn’t actually been here when he did the painting. He’d been in Castle Combe. So, had he, in the portrait, been looking at something that had existed there, or was he looking at something he imagined he would have been looking at had he actually been here at Langar chapel?
ooooAlbert’s brain felt like a particularly old engine recently removed from deep water into which – at some time in the distant past – it had fallen from a great height.
oooo“Albert?” Angela’s voice threaded the fraying borders of his consciousness.
oooo“And then he was murdered,” said Albert, as if waking from a dream.
ooooAlbert gathered his wits and focused on the speaker. “Lossberg.” He waved the photograph slightly. “Wherever he was when he made this painting, he was pretending to be here. Why?”
ooooAngela took the photo from him and studied it. “And why was he looking across himself like that?” She handed the photo to Simon, who regarded it minutely.
oooo“Odd, that,” said the vicar. “May I?” Albert stood aside and allowed the vicar to take his place. “If he’d been standing here, facing this way,” he positioned himself as Albert had done, “and looked across himself like this,” he consulted the photo again, “he’d have been looking, as you said, at nothing but a pier – not this one, of course, but the one it replaced.”
ooooAlbert walked to the pier and examined its circumference from the ground up to a height of about six feet. It consisted of cut stones stacked one on the other, all the way to the ceiling, where they fanned out in support of an arch. Nothing out of the ordinary. Not that he expected there would be, given the pillar’s relatively recent construction, but he’d hoped for at least a whisper of inspiration. That hope was not realized. He hunkered to his knees and, with a forefinger, traced the groove around a flagstone in the floor which countless feet had, over the centuries, polished to a sheen.
oooo“Robert Tiptoft had owned this chapel in the 13th century.” He looked up at Angela and the vicar. “And Emanuel Scrope – Annabella’s father – had owned it in the 17th Century.”
oooo“Not only Emanuel,” said the vicar. “Annabella herself came into possession of it, after Emanuel died and she was legitimized by Charles the Second.”
oooo“And she owned Castle Combe,” said Albert, standing.
oooo“So,” said Angela. “What’s the connection?”
oooo“And why would she have had Lossberg, who was already in Langar, come to Castle Combe to paint a scene set here – at Langar?”
oooo“Of someone dead four hundred years,” Angela reminded.
ooooSimon made an ironic sound. “‘A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, hidden in an enigma,’ paraphrasing the late, lamented Mr. Churchill.”
ooooWhoever the late, lamented Mr. Churchill was, Albert thought, he was a hitter of nails on the head. But he, Albert, could have added one more level of complexity to the equation, why did it matter? Why did he care? Why was he seeing ghosts? Who or what was FOSS and, not least of all, were the strange seas that lapped the shores of that little island in his brain washing him away?
ooooHuffy was a gambling man, and what he’d gambled on most recently was that Albert would forget that he had asked him to cancel the concert in Rotterdam. Doubling down, he had arranged for the limo to appear at Oxburgh Hall as previously scheduled, collect the mastro and take him to the airfield at Langar where a private jet would convey him, together with Jeremy Ash, of course, to the continent, where another limousine would spirit him to Rotterdamse Schouwburg concert hall in Rotterdam.
ooooThe limo was waiting dutifully when Albert and Angela returned from their excursion to Langar. “I have to go play somewhere,” said Albert. That’s what a limo meant. “Do you want to come with me?”
oooo“Me? I don’t have my passport.”
oooo“That’s alright,” said Albert. He didn’t have his passport, either. “Huffy will take care of it. The driver will call him.”
ooooThe driver, the one the limousine company had assigned exclusively to Albert during his visits for the last decade, had picked the last few words from the wind and, having ensconced his charges in the rear seat with a nod, made the call on from the radio in his driver’s compartment.
ooooAlbert greeted Jeremy, who was sitting in his favorite place by the driver’s side window, and thought no more of arrangements.
oooo“I haven’t a thing to wear,” said Angela, a thrill of excitement tickling the fine hairs in the hollow of her back. Huffy would take care of that, too.
ooooThat afternoon, during the drive, the flight, the drive, the three hours at the hotel, the Creator had been busy, pouring music into Albert’s brain, there to be storehoused for future transmission to his fingers.
ooooMiriam Shtump, relict of the late Heinricht Shtump – survivor of Auschwitz, but not the disillusionment attending his return to Holland – gleaned awareness of the world outside her second floor apartment at 77 Provenierssingel street in Rotterdam exclusively from the Trouw, which she purchased for a gilder at the newsagent’s across the canal. This daily trek required her to cross the trolly tracks that punctuated the pavement outside her house and marked the spot, vivid in her memory, where her dog, Kern, had met his end some twenty years earlier owing, she was convinced, to the negligence of the trolly operator.
ooooThe morning following Albert’s concert at the large theater of the Rotterdamse Schouwburg, Miriam sat on the uncomfortable iron bench in the pocked-sized park on the corner where the Provenierssingel met the footbridge and, having spat at the trolly as it passed, as was her custom, unwrapped her breakfast sausage from its scrap of waxed paper. As she ate, she smoothed a section of the Trouw across her lap and read to herself aloud:
oooo‘There are but three primary colors, yet they mingle in a palette that, in the hands of a master, produce the translucent beauty of Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, the transportive power of Michaelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, the transformative imagery of the crucifixion by any number of inspired hands, the sheer profligate bombast of the ultimate Creator with which the universe is ablaze to the fringes of eternity.
oooo‘What then, can be made of twelve notes?
oooo‘Until last night I would have said the question had been settled in full by Beethoven, Pachelbel, Rimsky-Korsakof, Paganini, Mozart: any of a host of luminaries in the musical firmament.
oooo‘Then, at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg, I met God. I awoke, or, more aptly, was startled, shocked, shaken from a stupor of which I had been unaware. My being was filled with a liquid light. I cursed the inadequacy of my ears to absorb such a magnificent, elemental fury of sound and silence.
oooo‘A beggar dipping my poor, dented, leaky thimble in a river of gold, I was baptized.
oooo‘And I was not alone. Sixteen hundred and ninety-seven of my fellow citizens, though anticipating the kind of programless musical heresy for which the performer is renown, little suspected we were about to embark upon so savage, so primeval, so visceral a trek across a tumultuous Jordan.
oooo‘My editorial commission is to document that brief voyage in twelve hundred words. Then I must describe what I saw, because I have no words for what I heard. In fact, I’m confident there are none.
oooo‘Allow me to take you there, then.
oooo‘Every seat is full and the murmur of conversation among those that fill them is curiously constrained, awaiting a supernatural troubling of the waters. The lights dim, resolving to a single pinpoint of spotlight on the stage which, through some trick of the eye, seems adrift in the void.
oooo‘The minutes pass but the murmur, rather than increasing with impatience, falls silent. Even the coughs, sneezes and errant guffaws that typically season anticipatory silence are absent.
oooo‘Still another minute passes until the restless silence becomes absolute. Then, into that stark little sphere of light, rolls a wheelchair, and in the wheelchair the boy who, in recent years, has become the maestro’s constant companion.
oooo‘The silence, rather than being broken by the appearance of the boy, is heightened; his delicate white hands cross in his legless lap and he seems to be waiting for something, perhaps to be animated by a puppet master somewhere in the shadows overhead? I would be hard-pressed not to believe the auditorium itself inhales sharply, then holds its breath.
ooooAt last the boy speaks.
oooo‘’Albert doesn’t want anyone to applaud,’’ he says. “So please don’t.’’
oooo‘Then he rolls out of the spotlight.
oooo‘The walls echo a wave of whispers as the comments are translated, mouth-to-ear, mouth-to-ear around the theater.
oooo‘Slowly, the spotlight widens, revealing a Steinway grand piano, at which the maestro is already seated.
oooo‘Despite the injunction, an habitual smattering of spontaneous applause erupts, but is quickly silenced with sibilant shushes.
oooo‘Then the first note. A C#. That’s all it was. A C#. Any monkey with a finger can play a C#. Any puling infant. Any madman, dog, or vertebrate can press the necessary key to produce at C#. A herring thrown from the gallery at the keyboard on just the right trajectory could produce an unmistakable C#.
oooo‘How, then, is this a C# like no other?
oooo‘But it can be described no other way. The maestro played a C#.
oooo‘He holds the note and it races around the room like ball lightning, etching shadows on the silence and, diminished by each retelling, draws we mortals down, down, down, into the maelstrom to come.’
ooooMiriam looked at the picture of this miracle-worker who, with a single note, had so enspelled an audience of those who, every day, passed her on the street without taking the least notice.
ooooShe wasn’t impressed.
ooooThere was more, but she flipped the page and read the closing paragraph.
oooo‘I know from personal experience, as do many of my readers, that the silence following a prolonged fusillade of cannon fire presses almost more painfully on the eardrums than the concussions themselves. It’s a poor and tongueless comparison to my experience last night as the last note rang, like a single line tossed from land by which we were dragged to shore having long since been cast from whatever vessel we had set sail in. We were a host of Peters, unable to maintain our footing, reaching with muted cries for the hand of the Messiah to take our hand and calm the storm.
oooo‘I read my words and cannot believe myself capable of them. I have lost all objectivity. I have ceased to function as a critic and become a disciple. I offer no excuses. You have my twelve-hundred words, but twelve-hundred times twelve-hundred from this feeble pen would fail to capture the perils and the ecstasy of the voyage that began with a single C#, played by a man possessed; whether by angels or demons, only the hearer can decide. As for me, I am born-again, freed to believe the impossible.’
ooooMiriam heard the clang of a familiar bell – which may or may not have rung a C# – and looked up to see the trolly approaching. She quickly balled the greasy waxed sausage paper, crumpled it in the newspaper and stuffed the little bundle in a nearby bin.
ooooShe sucked saliva from her cheeks and prepared for the assault.
ooooMid-afternoon of the day following the concert the limousine returned Albert and his little entourage to Oxburgh Hall where an agitated vicar awaited, pacing in the gravel in the courtyard.
oooo“That’s James Simon,” Angela observed.
ooooAlbert had been napping to the pleasant cadence of the wheels and the genial banter and teasing that had developed between Jeremy Ash and Angela. His sleep-shrouded eyes drew the vicar into focus.
oooo“Who?” Jeremy wanted to know.
oooo“We met him yesterday at Langar Chapel. He’s the vicar,” said Angela.
ooooThe car pulled to a stop and Balfour, who had approached at the double to open the door, thrust his head in. “I’m so sorry, sir. The gentleman,” he cocked his head in the direction of the vicar, “has been most persistent.”
ooooAlbert got out of the car, by which time Balfour had grown another head, that of Simon the vicar, which loomed over the butler’s left shoulder. Despite his propinquity, he called out Albert’s name rather more loudly than necessary.
oooo“That’s all right,” said Albert, sensing Balfour’s dilemma. “I know him.”
ooooRelived, Balfour stepped aside and redirected his energies to helping the driver with Jeremy’s wheelchair.
oooo“I’m sorry to be a carbuncle on your butler’s backside,” said the vicar, wrestling a piece of paper from his overcoat pocket. “But you have to see this.” He thrust the paper at Albert, who opened it. Angela looked over his shoulder.
The paper was a printed copy of an apparently ancient document, written in a language of which Albert recognized only a few words, and these held no meaning. His expression indicated as much.
oooo“After you left yesterday, I couldn’t stop thinking about that FOSS business. I mean, it’s been there all along, hasn’t it, in my church? But I never really gave it the time of day until you expressed an interest. Well, that train of thought put me on to an old school chum of mine,” said the vicar, retrieving the paper as the trio walked toward the steps leading to the front door, “more than a chum, actually, if you know what I mean. Corliss, her name is. Gloria Corliss. ‘Gloris’, we used to call her. Well, I did.
oooo“In all events,” he continued as they climbed the steps, “she’s a great scholar; lives with one foot in the Middle Ages. So I rang her up and asked if she’d any idea what this word meant, this FOSS.”
ooooThey entered the great hall and intersected Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton as she emerged, somewhat flustered, from a room to the left. “I beg your pardon. I was on the phone and simply couldn’t ring off. Lord and Lady Bedingfeld, you know.”
ooooAlbert was about to remind her that he didn’t, when she continued. “I heard your concert on the BBC last night. Simply, well, I was going to say ‘smashing,’ but that doesn’t do it justice, does it? Simply breath-taking?”
ooooShe seemed to be asking a question. “I don’t know,” said Albert, relieved that she seemed to be breathing without difficulty at present.
ooooThe Housekeeper smiled and ignored him. She lobbed a glance at his companions. “Shall I tell cook to expect another for dinner?”
ooooAlbert loved questions he could answer. “Yes. This man is. . .a minister.”
oooo“Vicar,” said Simon, leaning forward with an outstretched hand. “Vicar of Langar Chapel.”
oooo“Langar, yes. I didn’t recognize you without your collar, vicar. I’ve attended your services. Last Easter’s I found . . . provocative.”
ooooIt was not an appraisal for which Simon had a ready response, but he smiled with a good will. “May I hope it didn’t send you to the Mohammedans, as they used to say?”
ooooFor the first time in Albert’s brief experience of her, the housekeeper smiled genuinely, meaning the full battalion of her dentures were advanced for inspection. “One can only hear so many Christmas or Easter sermons, Mr. Simon, without anticipating them somewhat and, therefore, not listening as carefully as one might? Yours dispelled any such lethargy. Most stimulating. I am reminded of it still.”
ooooThe vicar inclined his head. “Lost two families that night. Haven’t seem them since.”
ooooDierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton led the way to the sitting room, where a warm fire crackled in the fireplace. “Some plants have fragile roots that don’t respond well when an axe is taken to them.”
ooooThe exchange passed Albert by entirely, but he was enjoying himself, nonetheless. He liked the vicar. He liked Angela and Jeremy Ash and was pleased that they had taken a liking to one another. He liked Balfour and Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton and the maid, what’s-her-name, and the large man who helped Jeremy with his wheelchair and ate sandwiches. And he liked that no one was talking to him, and he wondered, as he walked with his hands behind his back at the rear of the little parade, if the Spanish lady would sleep in his bed again that night.
ooooDid ghosts sleep?
ooooIn time, Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton had arranged everyone about the fireside to her satisfaction, made sure they all had tea and a bit to nibble on, and left.
oooo“So,” said Simon, as the door closed behind her, “back to Gloris — Gloria. She, well, she was a good deal more interested in that word FOSS than anything else I’d ever had to say, and within an hour had faxed me this.” He flattened the document on a little round table.
oooo“I can’t read it,” said Albert, for whom a second-reading proved as opaque as the first.
oooo“No, well, no. Of course. It’s a mish-mash, a little old French, old English. Some Latin for good measure. Not uncommon for documents dating from the 1200s, as this one does.”
oooo“What does it say?” Angela asked, catching a crumb of watercress in the palm of her hand as it escaped her lips.
oooo“As to that,” said the vicar, “it’s frankly a bit enigmatic, even for Gloria who, as I said, is a scholar with particular interest in those days, and widely regarded as an expert in its language. But this,” he said, tapping the paper, “is recognizable to one and all.”
ooooAngela and Jeremy Ash nearly bumped heads as they bent in for a closer look.
oooo“Foss!” said Angela.
oooo“Foss?” said Albert, suddenly interested.
oooo“Foss,” declared the pastor with satisfaction.
oooo“But what does it say? Why enigmatic?” Jeremy Ash wanted to know.
oooo“Gloria wrote it out for me,” said the vicar, withdrawing another piece of paper from his pocket and unfolding it, “with the caveat that it is a rough translation with numerous lacunae. I quote:
oooo“‘My dearest lady. I fear the Fates have, at long last’—something or other, Gloria speculates ‘overtaken’—‘me. My breath comes’ something. ‘Labored’ perhaps? ‘and this ancient heart, ever your faithful servant, bleeds with’ something, something, ‘of my children. With great reluctance I have’ something , something ‘to Foss, ever their companion, and compelled him to swear their safe disposition as’ something, something, something ‘where you will find them, both Magnus and Utique. Your Lord, your servant, your slave.’ Johannes.”
oooo“Johannes,” Angela repeated. “John?”
oooo“And not just any John,” said Simon. “King John.”
ooooAlbert had heard the name recently. “Wicked King John?”
oooo“The same,” said the vicar, as proudly as if he’d just discovered that monarch’s bones beneath the coffee table.
oooo“Who was he writing to?” asked Angela.
oooo“Given that he refers to his children, probably his second wife, Isabella, as he’d had no issue by his first wife, Isabel.”
ooooAlbert took the translation from Simon and studied it, hoping some hidden meaning would leap from the pages, and it did, after a fashion. “He was dying,” he said.
oooo“So it would seem.”
ooooApparently the meaning hadn’t been as obtuse as Albert had imagined. He resumed his inspection. “Foss was a servant?”
oooo“Of some kind. Very likely.”
oooo“And he was supposed to take care of these children, Magnus and. . .and this other one?”
oooo“Magnus and Utique,” said Simon. “Latin for greatest and least. I think he’s referring to something else, something he put this Foss in charge of. Possibly for delivery to Isabella and the children?”
oooo“Depends on how you read ‘ever their companion,’ said Angela. “Was he ever the companion of the children, or of Magnus and what’sit? Who were John’s children, anyway?” Angela asked.
ooooIt was such a logical question, Albert thought. But it wouldn’t have occurred to him in a decade. He wondered, not for the first time, how he could be so completely insensible to things that, in retrospect, were so blatantly obvious?
oooo“They were quite an illustrious bunch, actually,” said Simon. “In no small part because their mother — by all accounts one of the great beauties in Europe at the time—was one politically savvy and, not to put too fine a point on it, ruthless woman, as well. However, it’s the eldest son that’s of most interest from an English perspective. Henry. Who became king, of course. Henry the Third.”
ooooThe obvious question that now occurred to Albert was, ‘why was the son of John the First called Henry the Third instead of John the Second, or John junior?’ and he was just about to put air behind it when Angela spoke. “This Magnus and Ubiquitous. . .”
oooo“Utique,” Simon corrected.
oooo“Utique. You’re saying it’s some kind of code?”
ooooSimon seemed impressed. “As a matter of fact, that’s Gloria’s theory.”
ooooSo vividly was Albert reminded of a code he’d stumbled upon in Tryon, North Carolina, that he could almost taste the sulphur in the fire that resulted from its interpretation. He sipped his tea to clear his palate.
oooo“Code for what?” Jeremy Ash demanded.
ooooThe curate shrugged. “That’s the question. What two things might John, on his deathbed, be sending—via this Foss—to his wife and children?”
ooooOnce again it was Angela who asked the obvious question. “Where was the letter sent from?”
oooo“Well, unfortunately there were no such thing as postmarks in those days,” said Simon, smiling as if he’d made a joke, but the smile faded into a little cough when a quick scan of the faces around the table made it evident he hadn’t. “One can make an argument, given the fact that John died at Newark Castle, that that’s where it was sent from, on or shortly before the day of his death; October 19th, 1216.”
ooooA particular cluster of words stood out for Albert, and he said them aloud. “‘Where you will find them’. Foss didn’t take those things, that big and little, to the queen. The king was telling her that Foss had put them somewhere safe.”
Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton entered the room with a fresh pot of tea and began, unobtrusively, warming everyone’s cup.
ooooJeremy was growing restless. “Doesn’t your friend know what those words mean?”
ooooSomething Sir or Lady had said about the painting of the man in the blue pajamas chose this particular moment to return to Albert’s memory. “Treasure.”
oooo“Treasure?” Angela and Jeremy Ash echoed simultaneously.
oooo“What makes you think that?” Simon asked.
ooooAlbert told them.
oooo“Are you talking about King John’s treasure?” asked Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton, brushing the crumbs of Albert’s scone from the coffee table into her palm.
oooo“Crown jewels?” said Albert, reminded of Jeremy’s earlier speculation.
oooo“So the story goes,” said the housekeeper. She brushed a hair from her forehead. “One of those legends of dubious provenance fueled by commercial interests in the area. Like King Arthur and Tintagle. Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest.”
oooo“I remember now!” said Simon. “King John lost the treasury wagon when he tried to cross a river. . .”
oooo“The Wash,” said Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton, “near Wisbeck.”
ooooSimon leaned over Albert’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. “That’s about thirty miles west of here.”
oooo“Vicar’s right,” the housekeeper affirmed. “And, because the course of the river, as well as the shoreline itself, have wandered over the years, hordes of treasure-seekers have perforated the countryside for miles about over the years looking for it; meaning tinkling coffers for local trade. That’s the real treasure. King John’s unintentional bequest to the economy hereabouts.”
oooo“I was right!” said Jeremy Ash excitedly, slapping his missing knee. “I told you it was all about crown jewels, remember?”
“So, it’s never been found?” Angela asked.
oooo“Heaven forbid!” said the housekeeper. “Half the businesses between Swaffham and Swineshead would have to close their doors.”
ooooSomething occurred to Albert. “But there were two things, Magnus and Utique. If Magnus is the Crown Jewels. . .”
ooooJeremy picked up the thread. “Then what’s Utique?”
ooooNo one hazarded a guess.
ooooAlbert didn’t know he’d fallen asleep, but he must have. He hadn’t heard the lady approach, or noticed her get into bed. But now he felt her breath on his neck; the rhythm of a very slow waltz.
ooooHe’d been thinking of King John, and Foss, and Magnus and Utique; and his thoughts of them—though as indistinct as fog—were still warm. But if he’d fallen asleep, their thread must have been severed at some time, or maybe they’d followed him to that realm where reality had no dominion, and now, in the indistinct shadows of night, were reluctant to empty from their basket of illusion whatever they’d gathered there. His temples hurt.
oooo“I thought you’d never wake.” The woman put her arms around him and squeezed. She was surprisingly strong for a ghost, Albert thought.
oooo“Esperanza,” he said softly.
ooooFor a moment she said nothing, then the breath on his neck ushered her reply. “It means hope.”
ooooAlbert hadn’t thought of names having meaning. What did his name mean? Probably hopeless. Better not to ask. What did Melissa Bjork mean? he wondered.
oooo“What do you want?”
ooooHe hadn’t meant to ask the question out loud, for fear it might make her evaporate or wilt or whatever specters do when they’re offended. But there it was.
oooo“Warmth,” she said. She didn’t seem offended. “I’ve been so cold.”
oooo“Because of that little island in your brain,” said said, her lips brushing the little hairs on his ear.
ooooHe thought that was probably what it was that let him see and hear her. Maybe that’s where he heard the music, as well. Who knew what other worlds, what other parts of himself, that little accidental island in his brain was portal to?
ooooHe suspected it wasn’t an altogether friendly place.
oooo“Annabella Howe,” he ventured. “Do you know her?”
oooo“She’s dead, too.”
oooo“I think not all the dead inhabit the same place,” said Esperanza. She was guessing. “Besides, I’m not convinced I’m dead. If I am, it’s not like any death I ever imagined.”
ooooAlbert had no trouble believing that death, when it came, wouldn’t be like anything he imagined. To him, life was unimaginable. Unimaginably crowded. Unimaginably cruel. Unimaginably beautiful. Unimaginably complicated. Unimaginably confusing. Unimaginably unexpectable, if that was a word. It was from all those depths, all those interweaving layers of unknowing that his music welled.
ooooHe massaged his temples, but he couldn’t reach deep enough to settle the restless climate of that little island.
oooo“Maybe that’s why you’re still here,” Albert theorized.
ooooShe nestled into him. “I don’t want to think about it,” she said. “I just want to be here with you. Just to . . . be.”
ooooThat was alright with Albert. He was thrilled at the feeling of all the parts of her that came into contact with him, it was a sexual arousal, he suspected; he’d felt something much like it in the presence of Melissa Bjork; but it was different. It was sexual arousal at a spiritual level, awaking parts of him that had never been explored, surprising little clusters of lethargic neurons with sudden explosions to which they could formulate no response other than to run into one another, shouting. Some laughed in delight. Some screamed in terror.
oooo“She hired a man name Lossburgh. . .” and he recited the whole story and fell asleep to the sound of his own voice.
ooooIt wasn’t to Esperanza that Albert woke the following morning, but Angela. And she wasn’t in his bed, she was beside it, holding a silver serving tray with, judging from the smell, breakfast on it. His hope that it was for him was realized when she set it on his lap.
oooo“Sleep well?” said Angela. She sat on the edge of the bed.
ooooShe buttered a piece of toast and took a bite of it. Maybe it was her breakfast after all, and she was just using him as a table. He sat especially still. She held the piece of toast, with a piece missing, to his mouth. He took a tentative bite. “The vicar’s friend, Gloria, that he was talking about yesterday? She’s downstairs.”
ooooAlbert swallowed. “Why?”
oooo“Says she has something to show you. Something about that Foss person.”
ooooAlbert was looking at the other side of Angela in the mirror on the wall behind her. “What do you think of ghosts?” he asked.
ooooThe comment arrested a piece of toast half way to her mouth. “Ghosts? You mean like. . .” she held up her hands in imitation of an overly dramatic phantasm and made a butter-scented moan.
ooooNot exactly what Albert had in mind. “Just, ghosts. Spirits.”
oooo“Not really, no,” she said, consigning another bite of Albert’s breakfast to the abyss. “I mean, I’m not saying such a thing is impossible, but I’ve never seen one. That’s what it would take.”
oooo“You’d have to see a ghost to believe in it?” asked Albert. This was an interesting thought.
oooo“Yes. I guess. I’m not very metaphysical, I guess. You should eat that egg. It’s very good.”
ooooAlbert took a bite of egg and wasn’t surprised to find that it tasted just like. . .egg. “What about wind?”
oooo“What about it?”
oooo“You believe in it?”
oooo“But you can’t see it.”
oooo“No, of course not. But you can feel it, see its effects in the trees, the flowers, you know.” Her following enactment of foliage in the breeze had much in common with her imitation of the phantasm, but without the sound-effects.”
Albert would think about this. Later.
ooooBetween them, they ate his breakfast in relative silence during which he looked at her in the mirror. He liked that he could look at her without making her uncomfortable. He liked studying her while she ate his egg and toast.
ooooWhen the plate was clean, Angela got up from the bed, brushed her hands over the silver tray, picked it up and walked to the door. “Don’t keep the lady waiting too long, Albert.”
ooooAlbert had forgotten he’d been keeping a lady waiting. He got out of bed, put on his robe and slippers, and went downstairs.
oooo“Ah, sir!” said Balfour, rather than the suit of armor in a little niche at the bottom of the stairs Albert first thought had spoken, “Miss Angela said she told you of your guest. I’ve installed her in the morning room—that’s the one just this side of the one with the piano.” He nodded helpfully in the direction of the room with the piano, then made an untranslatable noise in the depths of his person. “Do you require suitable attire, sir?”
ooooAlbert looked down and took a quick inventory; slippers? Check. Robe? Check. No trousers, so no fly to worry about. He looked at Balfour with a smile. oooo“No.”
ooooBalfour, who had been alerted by previous knowledge of the maestro, was girded against non-plussment. “No, sir. Of course. Please walk this way.”
That’s what the world was lacking, Albert thought as he followed the butler along the richly carpeted corridor, people Who Knew Where Things Were and would say, ‘walk this way’ and take you there.
ooooA lot of paintings of people lined the walls. Presumably they were all of people who had had intimate connection with Oxburgh Hall through time. None of them were looking furtively or enigmatically in the wrong direction. In fact, they were all looking directly at him, following him with their eyes as he walked down the hall. Perhaps their lips were moving, as well. If so, there was no doubt—judging from their expressions—what they were whispering. “Who or what is that and where does he think he’s going?”
ooooBalfour came to a stop in front of a door Albert had never noticed—like all the others—and, opening it, preceded him into the morning room. “Ms. Corliss, Mr. . . .”
oooo“No introduction is necessary,” said a high-backed woman who had been seated in a high-backed chair and now stood, extending her hand. “Your picture was the front of the Arts section of yesterday’s Times.” She waited, more or less holding his hand, and waited for him to say something; in vain. “Yes. Well. . .” She let go of his hand and reached into her purse.
oooo“Please forgive my dropping in unannounced like this. Terribly presumptuous, I know.” For some reason she glanced at Balfour—who stood at attention just inside the door—and either saw or imagined in an almost imperceptible twitch of his eyebrow his tacit agreement with the statement. “But it has to do with this Foss that James. . .Vicar Simon. . .asked about.” As she spoke, she withdrew two sheets of paper from her purse. They were stapled together in the upper left-hand corner and, even at a glance, Albert could see that the type-written words were in normal English.
oooo“I was up half the night trying to remember where else I’d heard that name before. Then, in the middle of the night, it came to me.”
ooooA lot of things apparently came to people in the middle of the night. In Albert’s case it was a Spanish woman named Esperanza. He wondered what shape whatever it was that came to Ms. Corliss had taken. “What did it look like?”
ooooUnlike Balfour, Gloria Corliss hadn’t been pre-prepared for Albert and, therefore was forgivably non-plussed. She knew next to nothing of Albert other than that he was a famous piano player. She hadn’t much use for music, herself. She couldn’t see the point in it; just a bothering of the air that was there and then was gone. A diminishment of the silence that was, by far, preferable. Those thoughts didn’t occur to her at the moment. She was suddenly aware of the depth of his eyes, so dark they were almost pupiless, and was overcome by a kind of vertigo. She clutched at the back of the Queen Anne chair in which she’d been sitting. “What did what look like?”
oooo“The thing that came to you in the middle of the night.”
ooooShe cast a look of appeal at Balfour, as if throwing him a line from her quickly floundering punt in hopes he’d catch it and draw her to the riverbank. This time, not so much as the fluttering of an eyelash indicated anything but sublime, almost other-worldly butlery equanimity. She sank back into the chair. The document in her hand flapped non-committally and seemed to be wondering what, if anything, it should do.
oooo“What I thought of. . .was reminded of was this,” she said, waving the papers, which crackled importantly. She gave them to Albert and he read the first few lines aloud. It was one of those times, not infrequent, when he was grateful to Mrs. Doughty, his first grade teacher who, with great patience, had taught him and his fellow classmates to read; the only skill of any value he recalled having learned in twelve years of public education.
oooo“‘The memory of Arthur, that most renowned King of the Britons, will endure for ever. In his own day he was a munificent patron of the famous Abbey at Glastonbury, giving many donations to the monks and always supporting them strongly, and he is highly praised in their records.’
oooo“King Arthur?” Albert had the sinking feeling that the introduction of another king could only muddy waters in which he was already well over his head.
oooo“This document, called Liber de Principis Instructione, written about 1193 by a monk named Giraldus Cambrensis,” said the woman. ooooAlbert thought how embarrassing it must have been for young Giraldus to have his name called by his mother when he was late for dinner. His own mother used to call him by his whole name at such times, even his middle name which, beyond the fact that it was embarrassing in the extreme and had something to do with a great aunt, or uncle, he’d thankfully forgotten. “More commonly, Gerald of Wales.”
ooooAlbert knew where Wales was. He could even pinpoint Pwllheli on a map, and knew that Dolgellau was pronounced Dolgethlee. This was because, he remembered having been told, the Welsh enjoyed annoying the English which was, according to the same source, the reason the Scots had invented golf.
oooo“Read on,” said the woman.
ooooAlbert looked at the document suspiciously. “It’s very long.”
oooo“I think you’ll find it worth your time.”
ooooThis was doubtful. One thing Albert enjoyed less than people talking to him was the sound of his own voice. He looked appraisingly at Balfour, who looked back. “Sir?”
oooo“You read it,” said Albert, extending the document to the butler.
oooo“With pleasure.” Balfour removed a pence nez from his waistcoat pocket and, with a flick of the wrist, opened the paper. “I shall resume where you left off, shall I?”
ooooAlbert nodded, seating himself in the chair opposite Gloria Corliss.
ooooThe butler cleared his throat and began. “‘More than any other place of worship in his kingdom he,’ Speaking here of Arthur, I believe, sir,” Balfour explained. ‘He loved the Church of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, in Glastonbury, and he fostered its interests with much greater loving care than that of any of the others. When he went out to fight, he had a full-length portrait of the Blessed Virgin painted on the front of his shield, so that in the heat of battle he could always gaze upon Her; and whenever he was about to make contact with the enemy he would kiss Her feet with great devoutness.
ooooAlbert sat up as Balfour inhaled to continue. “Wait.”
oooo“Does that make sense?”
ooooThe woman waited without comment while the butler perused what he had just read. “I see nothing to which to object, sir.”
ooooAlbert didn’t know much of knights and armor and shields, but he knew something. He’d seen pictures. “How do you hold a shield?”
ooooBalfour equipped himself with an imaginary shield.
oooo“So, the front of the shield is facing me?”
oooo“Then, if Arthur painted a picture of Mary on the front of his shield. . .”
oooo“He wouldn’t be the one gazing at it!” said Gloria Corliss.
oooo“It would be facing his opponent,” said Balfour, studying the shield he held as if it was really there. “Meaning the Blessed Virgin would be the last thing that poor unfortunate saw before being perforated.”
ooooThe three of them exchanged meaningful looks.
oooo“I can’t see what difference it makes,” said the archaeologist finally. “But it’s an interesting observation – one I’ve never heard in connection with this document in all my years of study.”
oooo“Shall I continue, sir?” Balfour asked, hoping he would be allowed to do so.
oooo“‘In our own lifetime, when Henry II was reigning in England, strenuous efforts were made in Glastonbury Abbey to locate what must have once been the splendid tomb of Arthur. It was the King himself who put them on to this, and Abbot Henry, who was later elected Bishop of Worcester, gave them every encouragement.
oooo‘With immense difficulty, Arthur’s body was eventually dug up in the churchyard dedicated by Saint Dunstan. It lay between two tall pyramids with inscriptions on them, which pyramids had been erected many years before in memory of Arthur. The body was reduced to dust, but it was lifted up into the fresh air from the depths of the grave and carried with the bones to a more seemly place of burial. In the same grave there was found a tress of woman’s hair, blond and lovely to look at, plaited and coiled with consummate skill, and belonging, no doubt, to Arthur’s wife, who was buried there with her husband.
oooo‘The moment that [he saw],this lock of hair, [one of the monks], who was standing there in the crowd, jumped down into the deep grave in an attempt to snatch hold of it before any of the others. It was a pretty shameless thing to do and it showed little reverence for the dead. This monk, then, of whom I have told you, a silly, rash and impudent fellow, who had come to gawp at what was going on, dropped down into the hole, which was a sort of symbol of the Abyss from which none of us can escape. He was determined to seize hold of this tress of woman’s hair before anyone else could do so and to touch it with his hand. This was a fair indication of his wanton thoughts, for female hair is a snare for the feeble-minded, although those with any strength of purpose can resist it.
oooo‘Hair is considered to be imperishable, in that it has no fleshy content and no humidity of its own, but as he held it in his hand after picking it up and stood gazing at it in rapture, it immediately disintegrated into fine powder. All those who were watching were astounded by what had happened. By some sort of miracle, not to say. . ., it just disappeared, as if suddenly changed back into atoms, for it could never have been uncoiled and examined closely. . .this showed that it was even more perishable than most things, proving that all physical beauty is a transitory thing for us to stare at with our vacant eyes or to grope for in our lustful moments, empty and availing nothing. As the philosopher says: oooo‘Physical beauty is short-lived, it disappears so soon’ it fades more quickly than the flowers in springtime.
oooo‘Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British people maintain that he is still alive. Now that the truth is known, I have taken the trouble to add a few more details in this present chapter. The fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known, so that what really happened must be made crystal clear to all and separated from the myths which have accumulated on the subject.
oooo‘After the Battle of Camlann. . .killed his uncle. . .Arthur: the sequel was that the body of Arthur, who had been mortally wounded, was carried off by a certain noble matron, called Morgan, who was his cousin, to the Isle of Avalon, which is now known as Glastonbury. Under Morgan’s supervision the corpse was buried in the churchyard there. As a result, the credulous Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress called Morgan had removed Arthur’s body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there. According to them, once he has recovered from his wounds this strong and all-powerful King will return to rule over the Britons in the normal way. The result of all this is that they really expect him to come back, just as the Jews, led astray by even greater stupidity, misfortune and misplaced faith, really expect their Messiah to return.
oooo‘It is worth noting. . .just as, indeed. . .placed by all, as. . .are called islands and are known to be situated in salt water, that is to say in the sea. It is called Avalon, either from the Welsh word ‘aval’, which means apple, because appletrees and apples are very common there, or from the name of a certain Vallo who used to rule over the area long ago. In remote times, the place used to be called ‘Ynys Gutrin’ in the Welsh language, that is the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows round it in the marshland. As a result, the Saxons who occupied the area later on called it ‘Glastonia’ in their language, for in Saxon or English ‘glass’ corresponds to the Latin word ‘vitrum’. From what I have said, you can see why it was called first ‘the Isle of Avalon’ and then ‘Glastonia’. It is also clear how this fantastic sorceress came to be adopted by the story-tellers.
oooo‘It is worthy of note that the Abbot called. . .also from the letters inscribed on it, although they had been almost obliterated long ago by the passing of the years, and he had the aforesaid King Henry to provide the main evidence.
oooo‘The King had told the Abbot on a number of occasions that he had learnt from the historical accounts of the Britons and from their bards that Arthur had been buried in the churchyard there between two pyramids which had been erected subsequently, very deep in the ground for fear lest the Saxons, who had striven to occupy the whole island after his death, might ravage the dead body in their evil lust for vengeance. Arthur had attacked them on a great number of occasions and had expelled them from the Island of Britain, but his dastardly nephew Mordred had called them back again to fight against him. To avoid such a frightful contingency, to a large stone slab, found in the tomb by those who were digging it up, some seven feet. . .a leaden cross had been fixed, not on top of the stone, but underneath it, bearing this inscription:
oooo‘ ‘Here in the Isle of Avalon lies buried the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere, his second wife.’ ‘
ooooThey prised this cross away from the stone, and Abbot Henry, about whom I have told you, showed it to me. I examined it closely and I read the inscription. The cross had been attached to the under side of the stone and, to make it even less easy to find, the surface with the lettering had been turned towards the stone. One can only wonder at the industry and the extraordinary prudence of the men of that period, who were determined to protect at all costs and for all time the body of this great man, their leader and the ruler of this area, from the possibility of sudden desecration. At the same time they ensured that at some moment in the future, when the troubles were over, the evidence of the lettering cut into the cross might be discovered as an indication of what they had done.
oooo‘. . .it had indicated, so Arthur’s body was discovered, not in a stone sarcophagus, carved out of rock or of Parian marble, as would have been seemly for so famous a King, but in wood, in an oak bole hollowed out for this purpose and buried deep in the earth, sixteen feet or more down, for the burial of so great a Prince, hurried, no doubt, rather than performed with due pomp and ceremony, as this period of pressing disturbance made only too necessary.
oooo‘When the body was discovered from the indications provided by King Henry through the dwarf Foss, jester of Rye,’”
oooo“Foss!” Albert exclaimed, something he’d never done in his life. He looked at Gloria Corliss. “Our Foss?”
oooo“I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty,” said the woman, “but it must be. He was a servant of the King—Henry and, more than likely, his services would have been retained by the King’s son, John, when he became King.”
oooo“He was a dwarf?”
oooo“Which, to the thirteenth century mind, would have made him doubly amusing as a jester.”
oooo“That’s something like a clown?”
oooo“In effect, yes,” said the woman. “The king’s personal practical joker, you might say. An extraordinary study, in fact, these jesters. Some were known to be impervious to retribution of any kind from the king. They could say things that would have cost even the noblest courtier his head without a second thought.”
ooooIn the half-a-moment during which conversation flagged and thought prevailed, Balfour cleared his throat again. “There is another paragraph. . .”
oooo“Read on,” said the woman.
ooooBalfour inclined himself toward her, and concluded his presentation. “‘His most trusted servant, the Abbot whom I have named had a splendid marble tomb built for it, as was only proper, for so distinguished a ruler of the area, who, moreover, had shown more favour to this church than to any other in his kingdom, and had endowed it with wide and extensive lands. By the judgement of God, which is always just and which in this case was certainly not unjustified, who rewards all good deeds not only in Heaven above but on this earth and in our terrestrial Iife. . .’
oooo“There are some other words, but. . .”
oooo“Don’t bother with them,” said Gloria Corliss. “Too many lacunae to make sense of them.” She turned to Albert. “Well, to my knowledge, you now know all history has to say about Foss the Dwarf. I hope it’s been helpful.”
ooooAlbert wished he could say that it had but, in fact, it had just added a further unknown ingredient to the soup of his ignorance. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s very interesting.”
ooooSensing the interview had ended, the woman got to her feet. “The grave itself was demolished by zealots during the Reformation, and the remains destroyed.” The trio made their way toward the entrance hall, Balfour in the vanguard. “Today there’s a plaque in the ruins of the cathedral marking the place where the bodies had been found.”
ooooJeremy Ash was waiting in the hall and watched as Balfour helped Gloria Corliss to her car. She drove away. “What was she all about?”
oooo“She found out who Foss was,” said Albert, and explained.
oooo“A jester?” said the boy. “Like me.”
ooooThe tone of Jeremy’s voice tugged Albert by the ears. oooo“You?”
oooo“Every superhero has a sidekick. Like a jester. Batman and Robin, Holmes and Watson. You and me.”
ooooAlbert couldn’t allow this misconception to stand. “I’m the jester” he said, and left Jeremy Ash to think about that.
ooooAlbert felt the need to walk. Perhaps the motion of his legs could somehow lubricate his brain.
oooo“Where are you going?” said Angela as she joined him, threading her arm through his. He liked that a lot, but he doubted her presence would help him think.
oooo“For a walk.”
oooo“Mind if I join you?”
ooooIf she joined him any more closely, they’d be fused. He continued walking and she continued holding on.
oooo“Anywhere in particular?”
ooooAlbert’s mind was elsewhere. “What?”
oooo“This walk. Are we going anywhere in particular?”
ooooAlbert didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to have anywhere particular in mind. In fact, it occurred to him, he might not be able to find his way back to the Hall from wherever his walk took him. It was a good thing Angela was coming along. She was the type of person who would know. She’d been to prison, and everything. Those people knew how to find their way.
ooooOf course, Tewksbury had been in prison, but he didn’t seem any wiser for the experience. He was thinking about exceptions to rules when Angela spoke.
oooo“There’s a lovely little copse just ahead there.” She nodded toward a bundle of trees on the other side of the field. “It’s called the Lady’s Wood.”
oooo“Is it alright if I walk there?”
oooo“Of course, why wouldn’t it be?”
ooooWe hold these truths to be self-evident, Albert thought. “I’m not a lady.”
ooooAngela laughed, beginning on Bb above middle C – a very high starting point – and ending on F# below middle C. “Like the ladie’s loo! No, this isn’t a wood for ladies. It’s assumed that it was created for the enjoyment of the lady of the manor, years ago—back in the day. There’s a larger wood over that way,” she pointed to the southwest, “called Lord’s Wood, for the lord of the manor. He and his cronies would hunt there.”
ooooThe Lady’s wood, a little island of trees in a sea of grass and stone walls that took about ten minutes to circumnavigate on foot, was just the right size for a place to think. But, as he suspected, Angela’s presence interfered with the kind of thoughts he had intended to be thinking.
ooooThey had walked across the wood once and around it twice, in silence, before coming to roost on a little wooden bench that apparently hadn’t been sat upon in a very long time, in proof of which it sighed and creaked in receipt of their bottoms. It overlooked a pond, or puddle just about big enough for a duck to take off from, which a duck attempted to do as they sat. At the last moment, having sized up the intruders, it folded its wings and splotted back into the water, just short of the fringe of reeds marking the pond’s eastern extremity.
oooo“I’ve learned there’s more to the story,” said Angela, looking dreamily at the water, her voice soft, embroidering rather than disturbing the silence. “Tragic. Sad. Romantic.”
ooooAlbert looked at her.
oooo“The story goes that there was this trumpeter, an African named John Blanke, who came to England in the household of Catherine of Aragon. He ended up serving in the household of Henrys Seven and Eight. It was as part of the household of Henry the Eighth—somewhere about 1502—that John and his wife came to Oxburgh Hall. By slim accounts, she was a beautiful Spanish woman—probably a Moor—named. . .”
oooo“Esperanza,” said Albert.
oooo“Oh. You know the story?”
ooooAlbert smiled enigmatically. “Probably not the same one. Go on.”
oooo“Well, yes. Well . . . anyway, it seems one of Henry’s drinking buddies took a fancy to her, and made his wishes known.
oooo“She’d have none of it, though. Well, his nibs wasn’t accustomed to taking no for an answer and, one night, pressed his point, if you take my meaning.”
ooooIt was impossible to tell from Albert’s expression whether he took her meaning or not. A fleeting intuition arched her eyebrows; was it possible, in this day and age, that this man, who must be several years upwards of forty, was sexually inexperienced? So powerful was the thought that it nearly precipitated the question, but at the last minute she drew it in at the insistence of her better judgment.
oooo“Esperanza cried out, her husband heard and, from wherever he’d been, ran to her rescue. There were shouts, cries, and screams, as you might expect. Anger rose, swords were drawn and, in the melee that followed, Esperanza came between them, presumably to protect her husband who, as a trumpeter, probably wasn’t much of a swordsman. To no avail. John was stabbed through the side and she thought he was dead.
oooo“You can still see the marks of the swords in several places about the room—the one I’m in. That’s how I came into possession of the story. Brigit, the maid, felt it her duty to explain things to me, in the event I was awaken by ‘strange noises in the night’.” She parenthesized the concluding phrase with her hands, and spoke it in a very good imitation of maid’s accent.
oooo“In Brigit’s telling, Esperanza, defiled, despondent, and believing her husband dead, ran to one of the towers and threw herself off.
oooo“As fate would have it, John Burke survived his injuries and went on to serve the King for many years. Very Shakespearean, don’t you think? There’s a picture of him in a famous tapestry somewhere.
oooo“Anyway, Esperanza wasn’t buried at the local church—which is why they think she might have been a Moor—but here, in what was then a field. This place grew up around her grave. In those days it was called Spanish Lady’s Wood. But over time that was abbreviated to Lady Wood, and people assume it refers to the Lady of the Manor.”
oooo“But it doesn’t,” said Albert thoughtfully. “It’s her’s.”
ooooAlbert’s eyes drifted from one to the other of the little risings and hillocks in the clearing. One of them was probably Esperanza’s grave. And somewhere, in those regions of his mind where the eldil dwelt, the story told itself as music.
oooo“Tragic,” said Angela after a while. Her legs were crossed and her head was buttressed by a configuration of her elbow, arm, and palm, on which her chin rested.
oooo“Speaking of things long gone,” she said. “Any more news of our little friend Foss?”
Conery Lane, Nearing Langar, Nottinghamshire, May 8th, 1285
ooooFoss was not happy. He was hungry. The fog that soaked his leggings made it feel like he was wading through fields of long-tongued cadavers. He was tired. He was sore from one-too-many falls down several of the host of holes that grew legs in the dark and wandered the English countryside seeking whom they might devour.
ooooThe donkey was being even more obstructionary that usual and ignored motivation in any form; cajolery, curses, beatings, beggings, pleadings, trickery, or flattery. Both it and Pike found ample sustenance either underfoot or in the surrounding countryside—in fact, Foss wondered whether it was a trick of the eye, or were they actually growing fatter before his eyes? In any event, their satiety rendered bribery useless.
ooooHe sat on a stone, or stump, or cadaver, he couldn’t tell which and didn’t particularly care, and looked up at the donkey and its burden. The irony did not escape him. He was sole possessor of the greatest treasure in England: not the crown jewels alone—including the scepter which, it might be argued, conferred kingship upon its holder—but a personal horde King John, rest his soul if there was such a thing, had spent a lifetime. . .hoarding.
ooooHe was not more than two furlongs from the village of Aslockton, in fact could see lights in one or two distant windows; one of which, very likely at this time of night, belonged to the Old Grayhound, a tavern of no little renown, the delights of which were not confined to potables and comestibles. He licked his lips. “A nice mug of cider wouldn’t go amiss,” he said in the direction of Pike, who seemed indifferent to the allure of fermented libation. “A bit of cheese, p’rhaps. A slice of bread and butter. A nice egg.” Foss smacked his gums several times. He cast a reproachful eye at the raven “Good thing Elijah didn’t have you to rely on, you black-hearted heathen, or he’d’ve starved.”
ooooThe dwarf turned his attention to the bulging pack on the donkey’s back, and his belly diddled his conscience. “Who’d miss a farthing or two?”
ooooBut there were no farthings amidst the King’s treasury. In fact nothing at all that could be called currency. Only jewels. Should he slap one of these on the counter in exchange for a gulp of cider and a hunk of bread, well, brows would arch.
oooo“And who might those brows belong to?” He asked himself. “Loyalists or rebels?” That was the question.
ooooFoss stood up and slapped his hands, as if brushing from the them the crumbs of a troublesome conscience, and turned his face toward the south. “Langar,” he said. He drew his sword from its sheath and held it up for the donkey’s inspection. “And if you don’t get a move on, I’ll plant this where flowers don’t grow.”
ooooSeeing himself reflected in the blade in all his obduracy, the donkey repented and heaved himself up the other side of the ditch with such uncustomary alacrity that Foss was, for a moment, without, and upon, and looking like, an ass. Even Pike, who had been taking in the entertainment from the perspective of his perch between the donkey’s ears, was startled to flight; a frantic little cloud of hypocrisy looking for a place to settle.
ooooFoss got to his feet and, by the reins to which is hands were fused, hauled himself out of the furrow with imprecations that the donkey perform acts both unnatural and physically impossible upon itself and the surrounding scenery and soon he, and the donkey, and Pike settled into the rhythm that had brought them safely thus far and would, if maintained, deliver them to Langar before sunrise.
oooo“Never give your promise to a dyin’ king,” he instructed Pike. “For one thing. . .” Foss held up one finger in the dark as he stumbled over a hillock of burned hay, “the likelihood that even a livin’ king will remember long enough to repay is remote. Dead, impossible. But it don’t lighten the moral burden by so much as spit. I mean, what if he really is God’s chosen? Not likely, I grant, but it’s a strange universe, Pike. And God, as I read ‘im, enjoys using folly to confound the wise. And so, you might find yourself having gone and made a promise that’s as good as to God Himself!”
ooooHe allowed Pike time to digest his soliloquy. “What then?”
ooooThe question trailed off, together with his interest in it, as a distant sound subsumed his attention. “Foragers!” he gurgled, recognizing their signature sound of singing metal, throttled chickens, and screaming maidens. A nearby farm was being raided, probably by Alexander’s men.
ooooFoss clambered into the cover of a nearby hedge and peeked through the tightly woven branches, to which he quickly tied the donkey. Among the wickerworks of horrors he had witnessed and been party to over the years, and that had become as much a part of him as sinew and bone, the act at which he shied was that of the strong running rough-shod over the helpless. This formed his earliest memory, when the little hovel in which he had been born and raised for five-odd years had been reduced to cinders by a marauding band of mercenaries for the unforgivable crime of having nothing worth stealing.
ooooHe had watched from beneath the hayrick as his father had been cut down in the attempt to rescue his mother and sister, who shared his fate but not until. . .
ooooIn the space of half an hour, Foss’s family had been reduced to, Foss. Nothing living remained of those who had loved him neither because of or in spite of his stature, but because he was of them. Their’s.
ooooThe farmhouse was a field away. Maybe two hundred yards.
ooooIn the vague intersections of men and light, he made out three men, all on foot. One of them held a torch, in the light of which their patchwork armor and swords glinted.
ooooOne of the acts of jesterism King John had always enjoyed most was when Foss affected the airs of a knight on horseback, riding to the rescue of a damsel in distress. Every act of chivalric mimicry was lampooned for the vanity that, at heart, it was. The King would howl with laughter seeing in the dwarf’s performance his brother Richard, that Crusading buffoon who had cost the royal treasury nearly all it had in ransoming him from the situations his vanity got him in. That great king who seldom set foot in his kingdom.
ooooYet everyone loved him!
oooo“Poor John,” said Foss, crawling though the hedge, adding “poor Foss.” For he knew what he had to do, as well as the likely consequences. It was a question of whether life would be worth living if he did nothing.
ooooOf the five year-old dwarf who had emerged from the hayrick to stand over the bloody remains of his mother and sister, bathed in the steam rising from their corpses that cold winter morning, conscience made no demands. There was nothing he could have done but die, and he had been too frightened to present himself to the blade.
For a middle-aged man with a perfectly good sword and sufficient wits to have outlasted two kings—failure to act would betray him a dwarf within as well as without; a knowledge that would, in time, congeal into a demon of self-loathing from which no angel could rescue him.
ooooThat he knew.
ooooHaving clawed his way through the hedge, he stood for a moment to consider the situation. From nearby, Pike offered advice that, though untranslatable, conveyed a plan to Foss. “Right you are, Pike!” With the words warm on his lips, he scrambled back through the hedge, quickly loosened the thong that held the bag of the King’s jewels closed and, rummaging therein, felt out two large gems which, as he held them up, sparkled even in the near-absence of light.
oooo“Three gulls,” he said, smiling to himself. “Two herring.
ooooBack through the hedge he crawled, scarcely minding the nettles that snatched at his cloak, and ran—or as nearly ran as his tiny, aged legs would allow—across the open field, over the stile, and under the fences to the half-opened Dutch door of the cottage and there beheld the situation was very much as he’d imagined. There were three females, two of whom were each being held by a thief while the other was being prepared for ill-use.
ooooA boy, not more than six or seven — was bound to one of the posts comprising the loft ladder. If there was a man of the house he was nowhere to be seen. So far, it seemed, no blood had been shed, a status, Foss suspected, that would not remain quo for long.
oooo“Well, well,” said Foss, leaning on the doorpost, fiddling a diamond in his fingers, “I see the Scots are as chivalrous as the French. Shortage of sheep up north, is there?”
ooooFoss knew foragers, as a rule, were the lowest of the low in the military hierarchy, with an intellect reflective of their status. He had, accordingly, calculated that his appearance in the midst of their activities would cause consternation. He had under-estimated.
ooooThe two bystanders were hard pressed to maintain control of the writhing, screaming girls to whom they’d affixed themselves. The third man had recently unsheathed the weapon with which he came into the world for an assault upon the lady of the house, who was, tooth and nail, spurning his advances.
ooooAt Foss’s announcement, all activity ceased, with the exception of the tuft-headed man bent over the woman. He sprang back as if stung in his member, the instrument with which he had expected to manifest his intention suddenly limp as a punctured bladder. “It’s the devil!” he said, tucking himself into his tunic. He reached for his sword.
oooo“That’s Foss. The King’s fool!” said one of the others.
ooooFoss recognized the speaker as Welf the Potter’s son, a man, until his recent desertion, employed in the King’s stables, being mentally ill-equipped for anything more taxing that shoveling shite.
oooo“The King’s dead,” said the man with the sword. His intended victim had wrenched herself from his grasp, but he scarcely noticed as his attention was now on the dwarf, and the diamond he was teasing with his fingers. He stepped toward the middle of the room, malice swarming in his eyes, but was immediately cudgeled from behind by an iron cooking pot which glanced off his skull, across this shoulder, and down several vertebrae. For a moment, he tottered, and seemed about to swoon but, apparently no stranger to blows about the head and shoulders, suddenly righted himself and turned on the woman in fury, grabbing her by the throat, and raising his sword.
oooo“Leave her!” said Foss, trying his best to sound much more in command than he felt. “Or the King will hear of it.”
oooo“How so, if his ears is full of dirt?” said the man, still holding the woman by her throat. She gurgled at him and attempted to spit, but his hold was too tight and she began to choke on her own saliva.
oooo“Well, I won’t argue the point. Makes no difference, really, does it? There’s no end of Kings,” said Foss calmly. “Like the deprived little pillicock you were recently brandishing about, they’re a curse, passed from father to son . . .”
oooo“He’s talking about young Henry!” said the man who had thus far remained silent. He threw the girl he’d been holding into the corner, where she struck her head and fell silent.
oooo“You shut your pie hole, Larky! Alexander’s going to make short work of him,” said the first.
ooooFoss held the diamond up to the light. “And there’s always the Queen to consider. Not a lady to whom I’d like to explain the abuse of her property—which these folks are, whether the King’s dead or not. But let’s not talk politics,” he said. “I’m tired of ‘em. Whether for the King or the Queen, I’m prepared to pay handsomely to secure the safety of what belongs to ‘em, so let’s open negotiations.”
oooo“Let me see that!” said tuft-head.
oooo“By all means, to show I’m a man of good faith,” Foss tossed the stone in the forager’s direction and, as it fell among the crushed meadowsweet and marjoram on the floor, the man released the woman from his mortal grip and dove for it.
The woman gagged and sputtered, gulping air. She threw a desperate look at Foss who, almost imperceptibly, shook his head, in which she read his warning against further action. She stumbled toward her unconscious daughter in the shadows.
oooo“Man? You’re no man at all,” said tuft-head, plucking the gem from the straw. He held it up. “but a changeling swapped for a proper human at birth. And, now that I have your jewel,” he secreted the diamond among the folds of his costume, “I’ll consider negotiations successfully concluded once I’ve relieved your neck of its burden, and helped myself to the gems this little fief has to offer as well.” The gesture with which he punctuated his comment underscored his intentions.
oooo“I suppose you may, if you wish,” said Foss. “Assuming your friends don’t object. By the way, I happen to have another bauble here somewhere.” He groped exaggeratedly in the little leather pouch that hung from the cord about his waist. “Ah! Here it is!” The gem glistened as it arced through the air toward Potter, who still held a girl, with the expected result: the former stables-sweeper turned loose the bird in hand and fell upon the treasure as it rolled to a stop against a rush mat. The girl ran to her mother and sister, who, slightly bloodied, was reviving with sobs in the shadows.
ooooTuft-head took a sudden step toward his companion who, in a flash, drew his sword and, clambering to his feet, slashed meaningfully at the air. “You want to try me on, Larky? You got yours. I got mine. I’m all for callin’ it a good night’s work and lettin’ the little fella have his deal.”
ooooThe third member of the trio took exception. “Hey!” he said, which gave him time to conduct a brief calculation by which, from any angle, he came up short. “Hey! No so fast, Red! What about me?”
ooooAt once, as if my unspoken accord, his companions took up threatening positions on either side of him, their swords drawn.
oooo“Oh, gentlemen!” Foss intervened. “Please, no! I cannot countenance unnecessary bloodshed! With an eye toward these negotiations, I put another stone in the crotch of one of the yew trees at the southern edge of yonder field. I’m not sure which, it being dark, but I’m sure. . .”
ooooHe hadn’t time to finish before he was plowed down by the trio as, palpitating with treasure-lust, they flew out the door.
oooo“Woman, release your son there.” Foss, no stranger to gathering himself from the floor, brushed himself off. “Are you alright?”
ooooThe woman untied her son, who promptly began to seethe and fume in his impotence. “Shush now,” said the woman. She looked at Foss. “They’ll be back.”
oooo“Not all of them, if so,” said Foss. He spied a tankard of something on the table and pulled himself up onto the bench for a better look. “Beer?”
ooooIf he was disappointed, it was only for a moment. “May I?”
oooo“Of course. Of course. Anything we have. You . . . you’ve saved our lives!”
oooo“That is so,” said Foss with pleasure. He look a long pull at the milk, which gushed through him like balm. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “That is so. And it was a pleasure.”
oooo“You don’t think they’ll be back?”
oooo“As I said,” his eyes fell upon a half-eaten loaf of bread and asked permission of her.
oooo“Of course. Please, anything. Help yourself.”
ooooHe ate hungrily as, one by one, the family gathered around the table with the exception of the boy who, with a pitchfork, took up a defensive position, fully prepared to puncture any intruder. “No. I doubt they’ll be back tonight. No more than one of them, at any rate, as I said. I rather expect there’ll be bloodshed when they finally give up the search for the third jewel.”
oooo“You don’t think they’ll find it?”
oooo“That would be a miracle,” said Foss, his voice echoing in the tankard, “as it doesn’t exist.” He looked up and smiled. “We shall let nature take its course, shall we? The nature of those three, in particular. I’m thinking you’ll have none of them to contend with—that the strongest and loudest of them will end up slitting the throats of the other two and making off with the booty while he may. That’s the way it is with such as those. I know them well.”
ooooHaving eaten his fill, to a chorus of thanks—and assured by the passage of time that none of the foragers would be returning—Foss stood in the door and prepared to make his farewell.
oooo“The King,” said the woman, piercing the eye of a dried eel she had taken from the wall with a pin, and stringing it over his shoulder, “he’s really dead?”
oooo“To paraphrase our Savior, ma’am, kings you have with you always. Taken in aggregate, they’re a resilient crop; rest assured another will be divinely appointed shortly. Whether to bless or punish us, God knows.”
ooooFoss turned to leave. “Mr. Foss,” said the woman, dropping to her knees before him, from which perspective she looked down on him by six inches. He turned. She held out her hands and, somewhat unsurely, he laid his own upon her upturned palms. “What that fellow said; he was wrong.”
ooooFoss cocked his head, trying to sift meaning from her words.
oooo“That you are no man,” she reminded. “He was wrong. You are ten times any of those men.” She turned to her son. “But for your dear, dead father, this is the man I pray you to be,” she said, shaking the stunted fingers she held in her own.
ooooWhen he was five years old, standing over his mother whose sightless eyes, still warm with the liquid of life, stared up at him, Foss hadn’t cried. Nor had he once cried through the countless taunts, abuses, kicks, and calumnies heaped upon him buy all and sundry in over fifty years of existence. But he suspected the surgings tugging at his innards, shoveling a strange, burning brew into his tear ducts were about rectify the imbalance.
ooooHe turned quickly away. “I have friends waiting,” he said and, without a backward glance, stepped into the night.
ooooNot until he had put fifty paces between himself and the cottage did the dam burst. He collapsed to his knees and watered the earth with the treasury of tears he’d acquired over five decades.
ooooThe voice, that of a girl, came from the direction of the cottage and stunned the sobbing silence, prompting Foss to quickly dab his eyes and push himself to his feet. Turning, he saw silhouetted against the light of the door, one of the daughters of the cottage, running toward him. His immediate expectation was that he’d forgotten something, and that she was coming to return it.
ooooBut, aside from the jewels with which he’d intended to part, he’d brought nothing with him.
oooo“Where you goin’?” said the girl, slowing as she drew closer.
oooo“On the King’s business,” said Foss, a bit warily. Largesse, in his experience, was often met with requests for more. “What can I do for you, miss?”
oooo“You saved our lives, you did. What more could we ask?”
oooo“You have a point,” Foss replied cagily. “What more, indeed?”
oooo“Ma wonders if you might need help.”
oooo“Is there something in my acquittal of your salvation from those three fozdiks that makes her think me unable to take care of myself? Perhaps my size . . .”
oooo“Oh, no! No such a thing. She jus’ wonders if, well, I know the country good as anyone, that might be useful to your . . . whatever it is you’re doing.” She was beside him now, towering over him and, as if it was a natural thing to do, tying the strings of his collar snugly about his neck. “It’s cold.”
ooooFoss looked from the girl, a sturdy individual rather abundant in womanly promise and not unattractive, from what he could see in the foggy dispersion of light, in a rustic, cow-eyed respect. His eyes drifted beyond her to the cottage, from which he half expected the mother to emerge at any moment, and tell her to ‘get away from that little freak and back into the house this moment!’
ooooReading his thoughts, the girl said, “No one’s comin’. She’s the one sent me, did Ma. Says I’m to keep of you long as you please, right up to Judgement Day. Willy wanted to come, but he’s too young, and the only man she’s got since Pa died which, for all he’s only six, is all she’s got.
oooo“So she sent me.”
ooooFoss suspected that the mother, with nothing to lose, had taken the off-chance of an opportunity to diminish by one the number of mouths she had to feed, and if, at the same time, she could assuage her guilt by making it seem an act of gratitude, so much the better. Feeding that mouth, should he accept the gift of the girl’s companionship, would fall to him.
ooooTo say nothing of her defense.
ooooAnd presumably the girl’s clothing wouldn’t grow with her.
ooooWeighed against these inconveniences were certain obvious benefits, which—together with the novelty of a sentient fellow-traveler—ultimately, argued in favor of the arrangement.
oooo“Are we going to find your friends?”
oooo“My friends?” said Foss, his thoughts recalled from unfamiliar regions. “Oh, yes. Pike and . . . yes. They’re over the hedges there to the north.”
ooooThey made a circuit to the rear of the house and struck off across the field. “How are you called, lass?” said Foss.
oooo“Means happy,” said the girl. “Pa’s name for me, it was, on account of I come out Ma’s soeaÞ laughin’.”
ooooFoss ventured a tentative query. “And, you’ve been happy since?”
oooo“You know what makes me happy?” she said, in lieu of a direct answer. “I like when things ain’t the same, day-after-day.”
ooooFoss considered this. “Gird yourself to be benumbed with bliss,” he said, holding aside some low-reaching brambles and gesturing her through the hedge. “Your new family awaits.”