Sunday, October 13, 2013

If I Should Live So Long -- Excerpt from a Work In Progress (10/13)

    My name is Julian Plectrum and I am but a fool in love, they tell me. I guess I should begin by telling you about myself, but I am not that interesting, really. I would prefer to tell you about my prized possession, Luisa, my lute, and how I got her, for starters. Because I would not be who I am today, had I not had the good fortune to have her placed in my hands, by a noble benefactor. And so I shall tell you of how that happened, and what I have done with her. Luisa goes wither I gambol, and all of my minstrelsy would be paltry, had I not her advantage.
I was ten and four years of age, when it happened. I had been spending a day swimming in the Dee. There was a group of older lads up the stream a way, who were also swimming. It was a hot day in July and there were many bluejays in the air as well as many blackbirds on the banks. I floated in the river upon my back.
I heard a shout, a yell, what sounded most like a cry of distress. As I looked toward the group of older boys,  I noticed one of them had gone under the water, or was struggling with something in the water, and was not able to keep his head up above it. He was crying for help, but his companions were doing nothing but laughing, and his head would keep disappearing. It was as if he were being held back by something deep in the water.
Since his friends were not helping, I came to his aid.
As I reached him, he noted to me that he was caught- his cloak, in which he swam, had been snagged by some sort of tree-stump, and it was not possible for him to unravel the kink or to find the spot on the cloak which was fast held. It was the manner in which he had been swimming, and the direction, as well as the speed of the current, but he was fighting to keep his nose out of water.
I told him to be quiet, since an open mouth invites only more water inside, and he was silent.
I struggled with the cloak. The snag had actually wrapped the cloak in such a way that a knot in his belt was the source of his distress. This was, actually, easily remedied. But he was overjoyed when I helped drag him from the water.
“I cannot really swim,” he told me.
“Why then do you seek refreshment in the water?”
His companions had fallen silent at the riverbank.
“Because- I must keep up- with them.”
He nodded in the direction of his companions, who, falling back, now began to grab their other garments from the bank and began to scatter, back in the direction of Chester, our large town and the fief of the great Earl. Chester was where I was born, and have sometimes lived. Nowadays I live in the forest, though, and go where I will. As I hoisted him out and he flopped onto the bank, he thanked me, and told me his name (Stephen) and said that he was the son of a traveling merchant, who was now gone on another journey over to France. He wanted to thank me, somehow, in such a way that would express much gratitude for saving his life. So he asked me to go with him to the manor of his father.
This was a large home located still yet outside the city, on many acres of pasture, with great expanse of wheat and rye and oats, as well as many stock of sheep and also much fowl. There were also apiaries and pens for bees and for geese, and there were many servants at the manor. I wanted to wait outside at the door, but he bid me enter, so I followed.
Inside the great home was like few places I have seen. It was not like my father’s home, as that was but a two-room cottage covered with a ceiling of straw, but that it had oaken beams for its roof, great gables that extended all the way down so far as I could see, and many hallways, and even more upper floors than one.
As I hesitated out at the door, he indicated that I should follow, and told me that as his father was well away there was no need my worrying over that I might be welcome there.
“I want to thank you so much for saving my life,” Stephen told me again. “I can think of only one way to repay you, which is to give you something of such value to me that it would never be thought nor said that I do not regard you most fondly.”
At that point, I was flabbergasted, as he placed in my hands Luisa.
“This is an instrument which my father  gave to me after his last visit to the Amiens Fair. It comes from a land far south of the Spanish- indeed, they call it a Moorish oud. In France it is called “l’oud” and so here, we call it the lute. Do you know music?”
I told him, yes, indeed, I did know music, I had studied music and the great works of Homer and the Lay of Arthur and Merlin and that his gift would be most fondly appreciated. How much more, I could not then say, but then, Luisa has now become my best friend of all, and as I said, goeth with me everywhere.
“The trip he went on, he brought this back for me, and he gave it to me as a trifle, perhaps. I can play it only some. It has strings of gut in eight courses, as you see, but to get new ones you must go to Chester and see Earnest on the street of Blodwyn and pay to have more. But they cost not more than a ha’penny. These are all good as new, for I hardly play it.”
I told him much in the way of my thanks.
He bid me to stay for the meal of the evening. The servants would wait on him, and myself as his guest, and I could eat my fill of his father’s goose and the many fruits which would be brought to table. This we did, and he told me more of his father’s line of trade.
 Like me, he had lost his mother in the Plague- but mine was killed earlier, when I was but four. His mother just died three years ago, when the Plague last came to Cheshire but spared both my own father and myself. I saw many people laid waste, and everone wondered just what anyone may had done to deserve this. It was even said many great noblemen and their ladies had died. Somehow for my father and myself that Pale Horseman passed us by. I still shudder to think of the things we saw, and the carts piled full of the dead.
But anyway, Stephen told me of his father’s work. He traveled across the Channel to Calais, Harfleur, to Belgium, to Amiens, and Provence, gathering various bolts of fine cloth, which he sold to nobles and rich persons both in Chester, and on his way to and fro. He often left on his trips from the South country, travelling overland until coming to Penzance, where he had friends who owned cogs, and which holds he would fill high with these rolls of cloth, gathered from his travels in France and Belgium. He would rent a cart to convey them back from Chester. Often he rode with a guard he would hire, a man named Roger of Wirral, who lived in Chester, and would sometime accompany him the entire journey. Stephen told me that he hoped to go on his father’s journey next year. But he was expected back by mid spring, and by then, the older man might have decided to remain in Chester. So it was expected.
I thought of these places he described, in France and Belgium. While they seemed far away, in many ways we lived under the same economy. I do not like to spend a lot of time thinking about economy- I would rather study the world of nature and the creatures and the plants which grow about us. But for Stephen business and economy was his prime thought.
While Stephen had lost his mother recently, my own mother was but a far memory. In fact for most of my life all I have known for a family was my father. My father is just a crofter, and makes his money selling the wool of our sheep, and working for the Earl sometimes in the fields. In fact Stephen tells me that perhaps my father’s wool sometimes goes with his own father down to the coast and to Europe! This was news to me, and set us another reason for becoming friends.
I played a game of chess with him after we had supped, and had our dessert of stewed cherries and pears. a servant brought us wine, which was very pleasant, and I had a pair of henaps of that. But still, I beat him at the chess game! For that, he was very gracious, and said, he would work to learn the game better, and do me better next time for it.
Then he gave me another surprise- he said that in the event of my having saved him from the river, he would grant me a boon in the absence of his father- that so long as I lived, I would be able to journey at my leisure on his father’s lands, which one day would become his. That I would be welcome to enjoy the fish of the streams and the coneys I caught- and take the firewood I wished form his forest- provided that I show a special seal to the woodward. I was still only 14 and still bound like my father and older brother to the fief of the Earl, but I had a great plan- I was going to leave Cheshire and head to another city. Maybe to London, but now that he had mentioned it, Penzance! If I might stay uncaught for a full year, I might return as a freeman to Cheshire. If I could win money somehow (and the lute beside me might well be my ticket!) I could purchase lands of my own- perhaps, right beside my father’s! And that would do me better than my brother..
My brother, Thomas, was born three years afore me. He actually was very lucky, our mother had borne twins, but neither lived, three years before Thomas. So we were long hoped for. Only I am the disappointing one. I showed my father I was bright, and full of talents, but he only wanted me to work the crofts and the fields, lend the sheep a shearing, and my heart has never been in that. My learning of Homer and of Aurthur and Merlin, and of late, the recently buried great Bard Chaucer, has encouraged me to think on new things, and of the Muses. Now it came to my hands, this wonderful machine! I swore to Stephen that I would do him right by his gift, and learn and master it, and that in a year I would return to Chester.
Stephen was disappointed, and told me, one of the catches to his boon was that, I must return to help with the yearly harvest, and so, my journey to Penzance must of needs end before that year. However he promised he would help to keep me from the learning of the shire Reeve in that event, and keep me hidden, and I would be at liberty on his lands, in any case! I wondered how his father would feel about all that, but, for the nonce, I had my work cut out for me. If I could travel south to Penzance and thence return in time for the harvest, then indeed, I could fulfill all my obligations.
And that was three years ago. I will tell more of that journey, and of others, quite soon.
Before I left his manor that night, to sleep on my own out under the open sky, he gave me the seal that was to be my signature of liberty walking his lands, and also a cord, with which I might sling Luisa over my shoulders as I traveled. I thanked him most graciously for all his kindnesses, and felt I had done so little to deserve all this great new good, but he demurred, and told me that his friendship and gifts were sincere, and that I should never doubt of our friendship. On those things I pondered as I headed for sleep, and when I woke in the morning with the birds a'singing by me, I filled my heart and mind with new ideas.
When I took Luisa home to my father’s cottage, he was well disturbed to find her sitting in my seat at his table. “How did such a thing come into your hands?” he asked. He seemed incredulous that such could befall me, but I told him. I suppose it was then a mistake I also mentioned Stephen’s boon to him, for then he only thought of what I might to do for his increase by it, and not my own. “And you shall be able to catch game and to fish and to bring home firewood? This is much to praise!”
But then I found myself to argue with him, as my older brother Simon had already the favor of my gaining father’s inheritance, and I was to go into the world with nothing. I spoke sharply to him, in such a fashion as that I meant for him to understand I was going to be my own man, and sooner than later, that I would leave his lands and go to a faraway city, to make my own life, but that I should return for each harvest, for Stephen had my word of that.
“So you see, Father, that this new boon is for me a means to my freedom and wellbeing! And I shall take leave of you, and this house on the morrow and you and Simon will be all so much the better for the loss of me!” 
Surely I spoke with anger and sharp tongue and at the time no regret, for I knew that his not favoring me over Simon otherwise could mean I should end up a conscript in the army of the Earl. And the Earl was foresquare allied with the new King Henry, and would be for some long time to come as he was, indeed, his own son. Yet it would surely be death to join an army, for I have no patience for that type of toil, nor the stomach for mayhem. Simon himself would be lucky that he would not end in the Earl’s army either, if he were not careful, and not set out himself to learn a trade. Peace would not be long in our lands because of the quarrel between the Earl, his arrogance with the Welsh, and with Percy of Northumberland, who for the nonce marched against the Scots and the Welshmen of Owyn Glyndwr, who still rode roughshod and free in the marches, calling on those who would to join him for a fight for free Wales.
All of that, added up in my decision, of course, to leave for the south, and to go from Father’s house, that I need be no longer a burden on he or Simon. And filling my pack with a number of victuals off the pantry shelf, I set forth that very next day, walking the high street south, south towards Penzance.

When I left Father’s cottage, I took a few things along with me. Surely I looked quite burdened, but these were what they were: the lute, of course, on its cord over my back. I even found that I could play whilst I walked along, which made for more pleasure in my going. A blanket, which I also wore rolled over my shoulder and within, one change of clothing. A wineskin, over my other shoulder, in which I kept either water or wine, or whatever I should come across for drink. In my pouch on my belt I kept a few things: A knife, and a whetstone, a flint stone and magnifying lens, that I should have fire in light or darkness, a folding spoon, a handful of extra lute strings Stephen gave me as well, a comb, and two smaller bags: one for my chess pieces and the other for my coins. I took all I had in that way, [some 16 shillings worth, all I had saved in my life up to that time, just less than one mark.]
In this fashion I found by walking I might cover one, to two leagues per day, keeping to the roads, and if I were lucky perhaps before I had left Cheshire I should have avoided being caught by the reeve or his men. That is, of course, how it happened, and I kept on my path, for a week or two, until I came to Penzance. Before I reached Penzance though, I had had many adventures and met many people. Some of them were good, and kind, and invited me into their lodgings, where I found succor and a place to lie me down. When I could not, I ate from fruit trees, and slept out in the fields.  I would pay if I must for food, when I hit a town, or for drink, but often as not if I came upon a tavern I would be welcome, for where there are taverns there are carousings, and where there is merriment or carousing, there must be music.
It was in this fashion I learned to master Luisa: I knew my chords and I knew my notes, my breves and quavers. What I knew not was how to slip my fingers round her neck most graciously and expeditiously. This however, I forced myself to learn as I walked. The more I played, the better I became. I also tuned her to a tone which I kept in my own head, this would not be the intonation of the expert, I learned later, but just an instinct I had. Nonetheless, it helped me to learn the frets and to work my fingers well upon it.
The carousing that took place the night I reached the tavern at Wroxeter was perhaps the worst of it. Without meaning to, I nearly found myself robbed, by men who thought me miserable and oafish.
That however does not describe me or my mind. These men thought to deceive me at my game of chess, for I set out the pieces in the tavern on a board which was a tabletop. There is really no way one might escheat at chess, save that, one might fain to move a piece while his opponent does not look. But it is a bad chessman who does not know wither he left a piece. One cannot then cheat at chess as one might at cards or dice, since there is little honor and little to gain by such.
And I found them out, and they were ready to strike me, but the taverner came to the table, and ousted them by the scruff of their collar, and bid me to play on the lute, and I sang them the story of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, which earned me a trencher of stew and another tankard of ale. This was most agreeable, and the taverner bid me to stay for several more days, and at the end of that time I was weary to move on, and so I did.
Outside of Wroxeter I met a man traveling who would tell me he was escaped of late from the dungeons at ­­Stafford Castle where he had been shackled, for speaking against King Henry. He was to have been pilloried, but somehow had managed to break his shackles (“These men of Staffordshire do not know how to work iron so well. There was a flaw in the seam of one of the links. I fairly broke it quite easily”) but to travel with him was disagreeable, and I made some excuse, and went on alone.
It was after a month’s travel I made it to Penzance. Being a port, it was full of sailors, and wherever sailors be, there are carousings and merriment, and of course, there be music as well.
I made my way to the shop of a maker of instruments where I might find more catgut strings. This man became a great friend in my year in Penzance. His name was Clarence and his shop was located in a most out of the way area, the southern harbor of Mousehole. He took me aside and showed me the proper tuning for my lute, and gave me lessons of songs and melodies. I soon developed my own presentation of these. Some have said I am a great improviser, but I only am because I had to learn so much of what I do on my own. While there are minstrels like John the Jester of Exeter, of whom I have heard much talk, who are boring and uncouth, and farters, there are also those like me who value cleanliness and honesty and virtue. This I represent as my gift of music, that I keep this vision of Luisa and my muse on its true and proper course beneath the Lord’s stars- I have no use for the scatological and crude.
Yet I was forced in Penzance to earn my keep by writing at least one bawd. This was my original adaptation of the tale of Oddysseus and Penelope. Homer tells of her as the faithful beseiged woman who fight off the temptation of conducting herself unseemly with any suitors, who have made claim upon her as Oddysseus has been gone so many years, such as to be dead. But this,she saith, was not so.  In my version, however, she behaves much more like a common woman, and welcomes in each suitor in his turn, and has her way with each. As such Odysseus returns, to find himself a cuckold, and kills the suitors, one by one. “What would you have expected me to do?” she asks at the end. This caused much mirth and jollity with my hearers in the taverns, and soon I was being sought after by more than one taverner, and paid a penny, even more, for a night of song. In such a way I gathered much to my purse, and soon had many shillings to speak of. Each night I slept with my head on the coin sack, with Luisa beside me, her cord slung round me. In such a way  I hoped to cheat the spirit of ill-fortune, and did so, week by week, month by month. When autumn had come, I began to make my way in return to Cheshire and the lands of Stephen’s father, that I would fulfill my pledge to him and help in the harvest. The road back took less time, in fact, it seemed I traveled at a much quicker pace than I had before, even with my purse so full. Mayhaps it was the colder air that put a push in my step, but the further north I came the colder it grew, and my blanket was loth to warm me in the fields. Often now I awoke encrusted with dew, and only the honor of my oblige to Stephen was cause for my travel.
Stephen welcomed me, and bid me out among the others working in the wheat. He gave me leave to work with the gleaners and winnowers- this was quite welcome, and honestly I was able to do him justice, filling more than two bushels a day, and he paid me my eight-penny in wages just as he would the others. I buried my purse in a spot secret and known but to myself, deep in a wooded copse, beneath a tree with a squirrel hole. While some might have just placed their sack in the hole itself, I had presence of mind to dig a burrow of my own beneath the stump to secure it. When I returned on my next journey back from Penzance I would yet find it there.
But this is to move ahead quickly too. The quandary was how to keep myself from discovery by the reeve as the harvest continued. Stephen had set me in a part of their manor barn apart from the horses and sheep, where I could hide during hours not in the fields. He brought me good foods from the manor and oft sat with me and shared good talk. He wanted to know more of the carousing sailors of Penzance- he had been there, but only on his journey with his father. In fact it was in such a manner of being social that his father came upon us one of those nights, and demanded to know who I was, and why food had gone missing from pantry and table, and why I was hiding out, there in the barn.
“Father,” he said, “this is Julian, the son of Davis the Crofter in Upton. He had saved my life from drowning last year. I told him in favor of that I would grant him free leave on our lands in perpetua, and did give him that fine lute, which I cannot play upon in any way. For such it was, my other firends had fain to laugh at my distress, but Julian, a stranger, came forth and freed me from a wood in the water, and kept me from being drownt.”
“But that is outrageous, that he should take of our table and fields, yet! The son of a crofter?
Well I know Davis of Upton and his other son, Simon, who works hard to bring the woolsacks for his father. Of this son I never heard.”
I spoke up.
“Sir, my father is not so proud of me as he is my brother Simon, who though he be more dutiful, it yet less clever than I.”
“And Julian is not taking from your table, Father, he is helping with the harvest, and has pledged to do so en perpetua, that our boon to him be fairly compensated.”

At hearing that, his father then smiled on me, and leaned over to me, and said “I will help keep you safe, then. Such shame as might come from my helping you will fall upon me as it may. For you have saved Stephen’s life, and that to me is no small matter. Feel free to do as you choose when on our lands... I feel this to be a good and fair reward. That the reeve should not learn of you we must make our concern, but rest assured then Julian Crofter, we are in your favor and debt.”
I said to him I am no longer called Julian Crofter, but Julian Plectrum, for this was the name I had chosen, and now what the men of Penzance called me, and he laughed.
“Then so be it. Penzance, eh? You have been there and back?”
I said that I had, and that I planned to return after the harvest.
“Then you shall come with us. We will leave after harvest too, for I have more sacks to trade for bolts in France, and Stephen will be coming along with me this time. You will ride with us. So be at ease.”
The next two weeks were very happy ones, and all I did was take a care not to let many of the others working the wheat to know my name or face. I made me a pole with which I might fish, using one of my spare lute strings for a line, and a hook from the kitchen which Stephen gave me. The stream that bordered their manor land was full of perch and trout, which were good to eat, and these I cooked out in the barn where the wheat-workers did not see. So long as I kept the fire safe and free from the stock feed, Stephen’s father paid no mind. And the days flew past! So quickly that, before I knew, the harvest had been all in and the wagons set with goods, and we were traveling on our way back south, to the sea.

We rode in the back of the large cart as Stephen’s father drove, two horses he did have which both were tall and handsome and strong. Roger of Wirral made a stern companion and was not so much friendly, but Stephen and I arranged the sacks of wool that we could each sit upon one with room for our legs outstretched upon another if we chose, and we rode in the center of the cart, such that none might see us from the road, unless they should stand in the saddle to peer over its edge. And Roger of Wirral could not make bother with us, so far back we were from the lead. I made up many new songs of my own on this trip, mostly they were but melodies, but they were all fine, and I strove to put within them all the gladness of my heart at the sights passing around me- what birds, what trees, what wind, what clouds! For the storms were now coming, and in just a month or two would be Christmastide.
This time my journey took much less time, but a fortnight, for it was aided by the strong horses. We passed three leagues and a half each day, and never were we burdened by accosters. In the city of Wroxeter where I had stayed before, we took abed at that same tavern, after I had played some of these new songs, and both Stephen’s father and the taverner were quite pleased, for I lent to each of them word of their fame and their honesty in coin.
His father’s name was Richard, Richard of Westchester, and he had been a freeman all his days himself. The lands he owned had been passed down by his own father, and the villeins who worked them, such as I met on the harvest-wain, were in thrall to the Earl more than to he. But each year all took part in the haying and wheating, and he paid them all fair, and was not quite like the Earl, in that the Earl took their work as his due, but he paid a wage. He also gave them generous of food and drink, and on the feast of Mary the Magdalene (which was my birthday) promised me the next year he would feast me alone, myself. Lest I grow too proud of my associations with Richard and Stephen, and took too much pride in their bounty, I resolved that I would keep these things between us, and never speak of them, and return each year, once I was free, for the birthday feast and the harvest and that I would labor for them honestly. For many there are who pray feel that minstrels know not any honest toil, such that their wealth grows but from their wits, not their hands.
On our trip Richard continued his most generous ways with me, faring me well with bread, and with stew, and also tankard of my favorite drink, which is perry. Along the way at times when weather was fair he would halt the horses and wagon, and leave Stephen and I to fish, where we might. These we would share with him and our manner of travel was leisurely but measured. We came to Penzance on the 18th of October. I remember because it was the Feast of Saint Luke. I have always liked the Gospel of Luke most and there is not an association in my mind with the other apostles, who seem reluctant to be of forgiveness as they are sure of their place by the Lord’s side.
    I took Stephen with me to meet with Clarence of Mousehole. He was charmed by the older youth with his fine speech and manner. Stephen garnered amongst all the instruments hanging in the shop, looking for one which he might easily choose to play upon. He bought him a small flute, of the type that blow straight through the tube, and when he had it, we both went out on the streets ourselves to make songs. We collected a number of ha’pennies and farthings, and this we took to Richard, who pronounced us fine clever lads. I told Richard that I would take me a room for lent someplace nearby, such that I could leave my pouch and my lute and be of more assistance, as Stephen was called on, to move the great number of woolsacks from the cart onto the drayage dock at the ship they would be taking across to France. It took us the better part of a day to move them all, but at say’s end, Richard again treated us to perry, ale, and cider. But the combination of all three gave me a bellyache, and my head was sore in the morning. When the ship sailed, the next day, and Stephen and Richard were departing, I stood at the dock and waved farewell. It would be another quarter year before I would see either again, and during that time, I had to make do how I might with the winter of Mousehole and Penzance.

My little room was above a street full of shops. There were always men coming and going with market carts, there was always a stray cat in need of milk, there was always a cry in the street of the mussel woman and the fishmonger. Here, life was not expensive to live, but one must be careful. When I went out to the street to busk, I needed to watch my cap, for there were rogues who would fain to rob me of my earnings when my back might be turned. They often sat by the side as I played, offering their weak comments on my playing. Sometimes I would get tired of them, and brush them aside, calling them drunkards and layabouts, for that they were. I had to be careful however- sometimes they would follow me to a tavern, thinking to steal my lute, or to talk me into standing a round of ale on their behalf, but I said I only would drink with friends, and they were as strange to me as none by Adam.
At the end of the first winter week I made a new friend, Ranulf, who was a piper. He played a bagpipe made of cloth and skin, with several pipes and a chanter, and he played in what he called the Breton style, of the northern French coast. There were many songs which he taught to me, the melodies, at least, for he could not sing while he blew the pipes, but he knew many. These if I could recall so many I turned into my plainsong, without a lyric, and performed in the taverns when they were open to me. Some nights I would be sent early on my way, being so young, but then there were also taverners who enjoyed my playing so much that they would set me at a high table with a good meal, and all the perry or ale I might regard for myself, if I would but play all night for the publicans. Sometimes they would offer in a penny as well, and again, the more pennies I earned, the more I saved them, until the pouch in my little room where I kept my sleep was fat with silver.
Ranulf came from France, and as such, spoke both his tongue and mine. Where we could communicate best was on our instruments, where speech was not needed. I would accompany him, or he I, and in so doing, we reckoned ourselves to be more profitable by two than we were each by one. The best night of all came when we had been heard by a local noble Sir Anselm at the Bracken Eel, a dank tavern of the Penzance dock;  and he took us aside that we should spent the Christmastide at his manor, which was at the far north end of Penzance, and entertain all the fine knights and ladies who would make their way to his table fair.  These knights were all loyal to King Henry of Bolingbroke, and I made it a secret that my own loyalty would be to the Earl of Chester, as I also wanted no one to know I was keeping my way alone, that the Shire Reeve of Chester should not come to know my leaving Cheshire. Were I to be found out I might be dragged back in chains and irons, and forced into vassalage. So therefore I was no longer Julian Crofter of Chestershire but Julian Plectrum, of the country of Bristol,  my name I took from the bright, flat greenstone which Clarence of Mousehole gave me for my plucking the strings of Luisa. Green is my lucky color, and happy were the days and nights we spent at the hall of Sir Anselm.

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