As we entered a long passageway between rows of stalls, amidst the hubbub and the clamor of the merchants and their customers, I heard dimly a familiar sound— the sound of a lute. It was accompanied by a chanting voice, in a language I had not ever heard before. I decided that I must take leave of Stephen, and follow the sound to its source. Mary accompanied me with Theuderic and we wound our way along, turning one or two different ways before we came upon it.
He sat on a barrel, at a place where he might command a crowd. He was dressed in white from head to toe— on his head was wrapped a strip of cloth which I immediately recognized marked him for a Moor. His feet were clad in open sandals, and beside him was a bedroll and pouch much like my own. On his turban, however, was the scallop of Saint James. This was indeed rather curious of itself. On his neck he wore a string of beads, bright turquoise and green, and he played the lute, himself, with a plectrum.
He sang as he played and the crowd nearby him were clapping in rhythm in time to his strumming. It seemed they were enjoying themselves, so I stood apart from them and Mary and I watched the reactions of the crowd to the changes of meter he sometimes threw in. At times he would be strumming faster, and the crowd about would begin to sway, and some to quick-step apart. At other times, he would slow his pace, and his voice took on a rather mournful quality.
And when he had finished the piece, the crowd applauded, and tossed him coins, collecting in a hollow on his bedroll. He bowed, nodding gracefully, acknowledging their favor. He took a sip from a flask which he bore along his chest on a cord. When he seemed sufficiently refreshed, I caught his eye.
Noticing Luisa, who hung upon my back as ever she were a part of my own skin, he brightened up and smiled. Seeing as I was a lutist myself he motioned for me to come near.
“Bonjour, Buenos Dias” he said.
Pointing to my breast, I introduced myself. “Julian Plectrum, of Penzance England.”
“Abu al Sayyad, from Granada, in Andalucia, Emissary of the Sultan Mohammed.”
He spoke an excellent French, but he was not so good with English. Best I thought I should bring Theuderic closer so that if there were some point he could not express, Theuderic might be the go-between.
“You are a lute player, yes, I can see. Why don’t we sit here together and play together for a time? The crowd, they are enjoying it. What say you we try to make something of nothing?”
I pulled Luisa round to my chest and began to tune. He used a rather different tuning from me, so I was not going to match that. Better I should tune in my accustomed way, and match it to what he did. And soon, yes, we worked through a progression of chords in A minor, with passing tones of B and C minor. I rather enjoyed what he was playing it was melancholy, but each time he returned to the C minor, he pulled it toward a major G, and only returned to the A minor when he wanted to show “that was my statement, now, let us begin anew.”
We played for some six or seven minutes, and the crowd began to grow. I do not know whether it were because of this sheer oddity- an Englishman and a Moor sitting side by side playing lutes, or whether it was our music, which of itself was rather tentative and halting, but I saw some nodding heads, and one or two of the French people who had gathered began to shuffle feet and seem on the verge of dancing, although none so brisk such as they had while he sat alone.
As we played I could notice him at times looking over toward Mary, and smiling. I had never before had any pause to consider the effect her beauty may have on men of strange character to us. I was never jealous in this manner- I had little reason to be, for I had found a faithful companion. But what I knew and what some stranger may assume of course were two different things. So it was that I just noted his interest in her. But we played on, until we came to a place in our playing where it felt the conclusion was imminent, and he brought it to a close with a flourish that ended on a strong beat.
“That was quite interesting, Englishman! Let me tell you- I have been here all morning playing and have been fasting since last evening. I want some food now to make my stomach stop rebelling on me. Let us find a meal! We shall talk, and we shall learn more about our common ways.”
So he took up his bedroll, gathered all his coins into a purse, and we four all set off among the stalls seeking, he said he hoped he might find, smoked lamb and good hearty bread. Theuderic, as yet accompanying us, seemed to be unconcerned with the conversation and indeed, I noticed he was looking intently at each stocky merchant he passed who stood apart from the stalls, eyeing their purses. I had grown a bit tired of his cozening way of ingratiating himself with us, but I tolerated him because I did not want the Moor to think there were things he could not put into words I would miss. At least Theuderic, while being a cozener and a pickpocket, would at least have had the language to save us distress.
There was, in fact, a stall where a huge and greasy looking French farmer cooked lamb on skewers, which as Abu expressed was much in the manner he was used to taking it. He bought three more of these and passed them to each of us, and the French farmer ladled us out small bowls of a sauce which we could use to flavor it. The sauce was very creamy and indeed, added so much to the dish that I could not imagine the roast lamb doing without it! It was delicious. Abu drank from his skin flask (of what it was, I was not sure, whether it had been water or wine), but the Frenchman passed us mugs of ale, which we took in gratitude.
“This will be an obvious question, Abu. But how does a Moor come to be in Northern France? All the way from Granada, and so far from home? And of what purpose are you an emissary?”
He relaxed, and smiled.
“Happy I am to find a man I might tell my story to! How do I come to be here? Well, I might take all day to tell you...”
“We have the time.”
“I left Granada five months ago, traveling north, to Compostela. My master, Sultan Mohammed, had told me that he would like me to take this trip in order to learn better the ways of the Christians, and the mind of the kings and princes of the lands of Asturia, Galicia, Navarre, Gascony and Occitan. I had already gone on just such a mission three years ago, into Catalonia and Provence, and on that journey had a great deal of pleasure, as I met many performers and poets, and came back with songs abundant with ideas of love and grace. I found on that trip, for him, that while Christians had some reserve when it came to our own faith, when faith was not made a matter of dispute, but agreement, that then discussions could begin as to anyone’s grand design. And so the Sultan learned from me, as best I could give him, which of those princes was favored of him, and which were not. He wanted to learn the same of the northerners there in Spain, for it’s well known, they have waged wars upon our people for centuries now. But I was to keep this mission as secretive of itself as I might, and make myself a diplomat of culture. by spreading the music of my land I could win hearts and minds at court. And this, of course I endeavored to do.
But I have only met two of these princes, the one of Galicia, and the one of Navarre. The others would not even see me, as I wandered the pilgrim’s trail up along the coast of Spain and through the Basque lands, into France. Indeed, as I was headed in the complete opposite direction from most of the Christians headed for Compostela, I often found them hostile and cold. Even though I wore this—“ (he touched the scallop on his turban) “they wanted to reproach me for my dark skin, they would often call me heathen infidel, and they would at times harass me on my way, if they happened to beheaded in my direction, they would trod alongside and seek to convert me to their ideas.”
“And have you found anything in the word and way of our Lord that might do so?”
“Not so much as those travelers had hoped!” he laughed. “For our prophet may not be your prophet, but your prophet is prophet to us as well. Indeed all the peoples of the book can live together in my master’s lands. It is outside our lands there is such great distrust of us. Where your prophet taught all of us are brothers, as does ours, his followers resolve that there is no other road to Allah but through him alone, and by my being an infidel I have no such a knowledge. I am unsaved and I shall go to hell. It is rather sad, actually.”
“I would not wager you should be sent to Hell, Abu. I know too many good lute players who have a bit of the angel inside them. For spreading joy is to be like an angel upon the earth, is it not?”
He nodded, and continued.
“Outside of Bordeaux I met a monk who was on his way west. He came with a servant boy who was highly skilled at picking purses, whom I caught one morning doing just that. While in my land he would be called thief and lose his hand for it, the monk just laughed in my face and said “Well what did you expect, blackmoor! You walk in the ways of idolatry, and the Lord will deal fairly with a pagan...”
“What he had said made no sense, but I came to see that there are many in these northern lands who think there can only be this one message. Although the Prophet teaches that God is one, and yours that God is three, or three-in-one, I think one of them tried to tell me, we all are as one in his eyes. Is not a sparrow sold for a farthing, as your teacher said, and you not worth so much more?”
“Well, while most of the pilgrims just gave me hard stares and went their way, there were one or two times between Navarre and Paris in which I needed resort to pulling forth my letter of ambassadorship to some knight of the road or another who took offense at the idea of a Moor crossing Christian lands. I have never encountered such behavior as these men of Central France seem to hold. Perhaps the time of the Crusades, and the lamentable loss of their Jerusalem lies heavy yet on the generations here. But if we can set aside these matters and learn music together, I see no reason that you, Julian, cannot be my brother.”
He was silent, and ate from his lamb, dipping the pieces of meat with one hand into the sauce, and occasionally, swigging from the skin flask.
“Tell me if you would of these princes you had met!” I said. I was more curious in how such a man as Abu would be taken at court than how common pilgrims or monks might treat him.
“Ah! Well, the first of them, the King Henry of Castile, who rules over Compostela, was surprised that a Moor might come in peace to his city. After all, Sultan Al-Mansur had once taken the away the bells of this city to the south for a trophy... But The King took me in for two days and queried me over my master’s own designs, which I said, were to remain peaceful in so far as Christians would cease from invading and harassing our towns on the border. If travelers like myself could be granted safe passage, seeing as we bear no weapons, but only the weapons of music and song, perhaps while these exceptions were made, for minstrels and for traders, there could be guarantees there would be no invasions north on our part. But he seemed to take offense of course in reminding me the old matter of the bells. Even though they now hung again in his church! And purely as a matter of dogma, of course, that we Moors are “as bad as the Jews!” in our refusal to take the Christ as the One sent by Allah to the world.”
“What of the other one, the King of Navarre?”
“Ah, him! What a fine fellow, actually, he possesses less the intensity of the one in Galicia! He has a fine eye for women, I might say! He also has an ear for song, and taught me the Song of Roland, which was what I was reciting as you walked up this morning. He likes to hunt with his falcon and he likes to swim in his rivers, and he gave me word that he has, at this time, at least he said, no thought of joining in any attacks on al-Andalucia. And that is the word I will take back to Sultan Mohammed— If, of course, I actually make it back. Even so, I am left with dark feelings, as though the word of this man is less something to trust than I first suspected. Sometimes I feel as if I were being trailed by spies, and that my life may worth less the farther east and north I travel. For after I left Occitan I headed in this direction, which has been a journey almost as long and trying. Paris, what I saw of it, was large, but I found no shelter there, and slept on the roads, and kept on my journey. I have played my lute in many places, for kings and peasants both, between here and Compostela. But here, it may be said, here I have been for yet a week, and there has been no trouble. The French see me as a curiosity but are timid, and I have kept my peace. I shall go back of course, in a matter of days, when the fair has ended. I have seen enough of Picardy, I hope to return in a southerly fashion, and see Catalonia and Provence again. My friends there would be completely surprised!” He clapped his hands, laughing, and it seemed a good place to stop for the moment.
In the fading light of afternoon, all of us made our way back to the Inn of No Questions, and I kept up my questioning of Abu. Because we were now at a place where there would be many drinking, and Abu was a Moor, would he not be put out to be in such company, I asked? Abu demurred. He said that it was not a binding matter, not least, for him, for in Andalucia, there is much wine made, and there is wine made on the islands of Madiera, and in the fields of Zhiraz, and that even if the Emir, the Sultan, the Imam and the mendicant Sufi foreswear themselves the pleasure, many common men partake just the same, for they all feel it quite a worthy pleasure. Had the Lord not made all things beneath the sun to be for our pleasure? How much greater then, the pleasure of paradise, if we should know what we might of that fair isle ourselves?
“Although there are many in my faith who believe the prophet told us all to swear ourselves away from wine, I do not believe he did this. For there is a great poet from Persia who says this, as to wine! He says:
“They say there is Paradise with the houris and the River
Wine fountains, milk, sweets, and honey
Fill the wine cup, put it in my hand
Cash is better than a thousand promises”
“And so, Julian, I will drink the wine with you, but none so much as might take me away from my reason, nor cause me to fall drunken on the floor. A man must keep his head! And to do so is unseemly, and shows a man has not control over his beastliness. And so it is, if I am in any danger of losing my head, that I must admit to you, I am taken much by the beauty of your wife.”
This said, it unnerved me, for I had been suspecting that his glances had been overreaching, and I had set aside suspicion, for I was beginning to like him, but here, he had come forth and admitted it!
“Yes, Julian my brother, I am taken by her. She is like the fair roe running through the forest, and her hair, the color of dawn’s morning light, reminds me too of the bright star Altair, and she herself, a maid on a castle wall. a castle which I cannot surmount, nor should I dare...”
“I should say not, that you might dare! For I shall defend her to my last breath!”
“I do not mean to offend you, Julian. But I spent time in Provence, where the troubadours taught me, that true love often comes at the price of nonrequital. In fact, such love, courtly love as they term it, must always be directed to one who belongs to another! To them we pledge our duty and our ideal, and by that measure, we reap our fame and our glory— not to take what is of another man, but recognize the beauty in the maiden, for a maiden’s beauty is... the measure of our angelic properties... Don’t you want to live like an angel? Then you must love an angel, and love like an angel...”
This indeed was strange talk, but I wanted to know more about these troubadours.
“Well, here we are in France, we are none so far from Provence, yet by some hundreds of miles, and still, it could behoove us both well if you tell me more about these ideas. For they are odd to a man of the north, who loves his lady, and who won her love by my own good deeds and finesse of heart, and as I said, I should warn all comers—- any other man who should be so bold as to attempt to make her anything other than what she is, my wife! I should take that man down upon the land, and strike him hard with my sword, should he disturb what fair love we wreak together, her and I!”
“Oh, no, Julian, please, you must not think it jealousy! This is a tradition, and it is not meant to be taken as invitation to break the laws of Allah, and to take someone else’s love away from them, nor anything more than a knight, so it might be said, should show his ability and loyalty and mettle, by holding at his arm’s length that which he can neither possess nor inflict on, but as a means of extending his grace in this world and the next.”
“We should talk of this some other time, Abu. It disturbs me, but for now, I shall sheath my sword and keep you in trust. But should you break my trust...”
“Then I myself would be like the ass on the business end of the plow! And I would be driven deep beneath my own shame! Just hold off, fair sire, and allow me my range of poetry and song, to think of things and ways which may entertain both she, and thee, and keep my heart open and pure.”
While it was a bit of a throw for me, to have someone telling me how wonderful my wife Mary was, all this I knew for myself already, and it were a wonder that one could seem so forward with his ideas, right unto me. But he had tried to explain himself. Such ideas were not so welcome, and yet, he said, they explain so much about what some consider to be chivalry.
Well, for me, chivalry was all a bunch of bombast, lain by noblemen for noblemen, and passing by fair above the heads of common folk such as I. Yet if there were chivalrous poets, and men of song, yet perhaps may there be hope for the race? In Abu’s mind, of course there was. So it was that I would need to take it hard into account, he was a stranger walking in a strange land, and he would carry ways about him and in his mind which were bound to be different, and as foreign as he, wherever he might go outside his own country. Perhaps if I traveled to the south of France myself, I might discover more of these, and know better these odd customs of which he spoke so nobly.
All the same. We spent another hour at the lutes, together, and passed back and forth a conversation of them which made both of us glad, glad enough that another flagon of wine could not hurt, nor could the chance to indulge one of my own favorite games— chess.
We found what made a good chess table, and I pulled my pieces from my pouch. I had not had a chance to use them for some months, and yet, I carried them about with me ever yet, hoping once enough that I could have the chance to play them. Stephen had been my own game partner in some time, and Stephen, sick of losing to me, had begged me himself to put the pieces away, or, find other men who were better gamers. Therefore I felt relieved to discover that Abu knew the game. As I was to learn he even knew it better than I! But I strove on, sure of myself in some matter of folly, for a man who wins his matches is a man who is full of confidence, if not beans.
We sat at the back table in the Inn of No Questions Asked, and I set out the pieces, I taking the white, he taking the black, as befit the coloration of our own skin.
I opened with my King’s pawn advancing two squares. He countered with one square of his Queen’s. I moved two more pawns ahead. he countered the first with a knight. Then another pawn. I moved a knight also, but he countered that with a bishop, immediately he had me in check. one more move- I tried reversing my knight, unfortunately, now his bishop took my king.
I was astonished.
“How long have you been playing this game, Julian?” he asked.
“Almost eight years!”
“That’s all well, but, you made a very common mistake. In trying to set up one flank without protecting it. The obvious course would have been to lead from your Queen’s side, and leading the attack with all pawns... It’s so common. You’ll not do this again?” His question was more an affirmation than a query, and I nodded.
“Let me tell you a few other things about this game...”
He explained that the eight by eight square layout of the board itself was highly mystical and symbolic, with each side representing a cardinal direction, and that the tradition had been handed down from centuries past in India.
“The middle four squares themselves reflect a mandala of negative and positive forces of the universe. And the four seasons. The twelve squares that surround them represent the signs of the zodiac...”
That I found rather astounding. But I kept quiet and listened.
“Originally the pieces represent the four divisions of types of troops- foot soldiers, cavalry, elephants and chariots. The white pieces represent the djinn or angels, devas as they are known in India. And the black, demons or the dark spirits, in India called apsuras.”
“is there some value attached to which color we choose to represent us?”
“Only in that there must of course be two sides to any battle. You— or I—- are no more or less virtued by which side we chose. As you chose white, of course, that is no immediate indication that you, yourself, act on behalf of Allah’s good, nor do I disqualify my own goodness in choosing black. There must be this offset, in order we can have a game! —and as such, there must be evil or darkness, if only to allow the whiteness and the Good to be shown to have a value. What good would it do for us to have a universe in which all value was the same? That would also influence our ability to choose for ourselves. And if we have no free will, and all is only what Allah has destined for us, then how are we to better ourselves, or anything else under Allah’s sky.”
“You make a lot of sense, Abu.”
“Yes, but even in my own land, just as you say you are, I am often called a fool. Those who feel that all is as Allah and only Allah has chosen or willed it that it must be so do often not take the natures of men into account. This is a mistake that leaders often make of we who entertain their pleasures. They would be wise to keep their own counsel on all that. There are many, many foolish princes and kings in this world. But only one ultimate winner, which is Allah.”
I did not wish to go farther on this manner of talking- to instigate an argument with my friend would not have served the friendship. I too had my own ideas about the Lord and these were I suppose both conflicted with his religion and my own! We could worry ourselves over that another day.
I did not worry so much over our difference on religion, however, as I felt I might, being a new (and somewhat jealous and protective husband) of his growing ardor, as he had expressed it, for Mary.
Mary, I could trust completely. This I had learned in the time I had kept with her, and in speaking with her on many, many ideas. But Abu was still new to me, and who knew— I could misjudge him as well. It being the nature of courtly love itself that a man should choose an unavailable woman as his mascot, his inspiree, and his ideal, the thought of my Mary inspiring Abu to these particulars was not comfortable. And after all, men had died for their mistakes on just such a point. I did not wish him ill. But I was glad that Mary had chosen the time of our chess game to go and work some portion of the tavern with her poppets. I could hear laughter over my shoulder, as the crowd felt some point she had made with a gesture. Theuderic was serving to be the interpreter of her story, (for once, doing what he had promised the rest of us he might) and it was of him I worried over Mary more then Abu. For what might prevent Theuderic from making his own profit off of her work? He was a crafty sort and apparently not at all beneath cutting her purse himself and running out with whatever she had gained from her work.
So while we set the chess pieces back up, for another game, I decided changing the subject back to music would make some difference. I decided to try and explain some of the idea that Porcull had talked about when we journeyed to London.
“Abu, are you familiar with any ideas of music and specific place?”
“How so? I am aware of some ideas from India, about music and time.”
“ My teacher, Porcull, although not a musician, but an astrologer and alchemist, gave me this sense. That is that each place we venture to has written into its landscape some particular music. If one is sensitive and one listens and looks and senses it, one becomes aware of it. It cannot be sense just by looking, or listening- rather, it is something which grows upon our observing it and being open to it.”
“I think I might know, but, go on.”
“Well he told me this idea, and then went along with me pointing out places where this was almost painfully obvious, as we traveled along the road from London back to my home, in Cheshire. I have been watching all along my way, here in France, actually, and everyplace I go, since he woke my eyes open. I feel this is something that the ancient ones were aware of, perhaps, when they chose particular places to call them holy.”
“Little in this world is truly holy, Julian. Some feel this world itself to be the work of the Devil!”
I did not know what to say to that. But I went on, regardless.
“It seems to me that this world has its share of wickedness, yes, but the world itself is neither good nor wicked. As you were just saying, it takes both the black and the white to show us the path between, along which we call life. What did you just say, about time?”
“Well in India, they say that music itself must be in a proper specific key for a particular time of day. That to play in the wrong key for that time of day is to create disharmony from the cosmic order. I sometimes fall astray of that, myself, as I am sure all of us who play a tune often do. But it sounds almost similar. That if there is a specific mode to play upon at a certain time of day, or time of year, then there might be specific music to go with any particular place. I see no contradiction really, but I would not know how to look (or listen!) for it. Yet! maybe you can teach me, for I too am but a fool in love.”
There he went, perhaps if I changed subject again, he wouldn’t be thinking so much on my wife.
For her part, she finished up the poppetry, and then, giving a gold piece to a bowing and scraping Theuderic, she brought me and herself flagons of ale from the bar, and stole up on a stool beside me, to watch our game. Theuderic then took up his drinking with Roger, of which I had spoken already.
I had led with the queen’s pawn, cautiously, of course, as he had suggested I might be best served by. I also knew that he had expected me to do just that. So when he began his moves with his own queen’s knight, I countered by moving up from the Queen’s castle end. He had taken the first pawn with a jump from the knight, but after I moved a bishop’s pawn and freed my bishop, and after he began his second line by advancing his other knight, I rid the board of that first knight, with my bishop, “a mighty man being he.”
We were something at an impasse as he considered what he wanted to do next. Finally, he sent up a pawn two squares, and began driving with his remaining knight toward the side of my king. I countered by setting two pawns up in a row running as a block, and as he took one, I used my bishop again to take his other knight. He laughed, seeing that I was catching on, but he still had his own bishops, his castles, and his queen with which to do me dirty.
I slopped at my ale, and wiped aside the froth.
“Abu, I am determined not to lose this time. Let us see what happens now!”
I moved that bishop another square along, and now, it was Abu who was in check.
He took the bishop with his pawn. How could I not have thought of it? My pride was turning out to be my downfall again.
Now there was long silence. Mary looked at me, and nudged me, whispering.
“Use your rook from that side (the queen’s) and move on up toward his squares...”
Of course! The rook I had left to protect my queen was better served in helping the attack. With my other knight I drew out his pawns and took two of them- now there was a hole, and his rook would need to challenge mine, if h were to keep his king safe. And with two more moves, my free knight took his rook, and then, it was check again, and checkmate, because of my own rook being free to move on from the end of the board.
“I resign, Julian. You got me this time. I will pass on anther game. Let us play once again, not the game, but on the lutes. We will get beyond the battling, and find the place where we meet as brothers, again.”
That was, indeed, a most wise choice, for I felt it time for us to capture more of the attention of the crowd, and hopefully, keep some of them from falling prey to Theuderic’s cunning. And so I took up Luisa, and h took up his own lute, and we began an improvisation in minor D. One of my favorite keys for such a thing, the passing notes of B flat and F having, themselves, some resonance with me.
I wished I had had more knowledge of the music of Picardy, for all I really knew of French music I had learned from Ranulf, who after all was a Breton. But in as much as I used little teases of Breton melody, I noted a few nods, and eyes closing, listening. I was managing somehow to reach into the guests here. And Abu countered all of my passages with some brilliant flourishes of his own. Mary collected tips. We split them up and we went out of the tavern and back to the inn where Stephen had given us all rooms, on his own coin.
“I must say good evening to you, Master Julian! I go to sleep, and to dream of the gardens of Allah. May you and your lady sleep sound and well!” There was a smile on his face that dissolved my fears of his other nature. And we did, indeed, sleep well that night in that strange place in the strange land of Amiens.
.On the morrow, we all made our way out to the booth, and Mary made deals for the chests which now put her in possession of some manner of good florins, to her pocket, that she might take home with her, and which would one day make it back to her mother. Julian sold four fulled rolls of his wool cloth, which left but another five, and it really looked as if we could go home having little if anything to return, but for the manner of spices we had promised to Anselm, and to seek out more fine Flemish silks, and other such, that Stephen would bring to his merchant friends in Chester.
Panoptes ran hither and thither, for we had let him off his little lead, and he stayed near to the booth, and was no trouble. Once in a while some larger dog would stroll past, accompanied by its French master, and he would stand his ground, and bark at it, and make a big bluster for his size. It was a quality which more endeared him to me. Truly he was somewhat fearless, and if not, brave, foolishly so. Most of the time he sat by Mary, watching the passersby, and now and then running off to piddle at the wheel of the cart.
We had broken fast at the Inn with some eggs and bread, but Roger emerged from the aisles carrying a large basket of fruit, which we all fell upon with pleasure— apples, quinces, pears, and some odd berries, which I knew not, but seemed to be common to the Somme valley. There were also some grapes, too sweet for the vintage, but fine for raisining, and which were yet firm and not gone soft with the season. After the fruit we shared a flagon of wine together, and Abu and I played our lutes, not for the crowds, but just as friends, sitting upon stools in the back of the booth. This was probably one of my favorite moments of the whole journey to France. For the light was fine, and the weather was clear, at least it was on this day, and warm, and there were no need for overcloaks, nor for hats, and there was no wind, and all was peaceful. The banners of colored cloth flew up above the fair, above the tented stalls, and the sounds of merchants jibing and bickering, and of children playing, and sweet birdsong in the nearby trees all proposed to my memory a time and a place that in later years could give me comfort. Of course, there were no better comfort either than that my love were beside me, patient in her manner, and gracious toward all who came her way, and wise she was becoming, in the ways and means of Stephen and Roger, and knowing how best to cut a deal.
Because Abu could not come to England he began asking me ever more questions about Cheshire. How had I come to be in France, what I had known of the musicians in Cornwall, what had it been like to see the awful destruction at Shrewsbury, what did I think the future held for Cheshire, and for Cornwall and Wales, if I were not held fast-loyal to Henry IV?
I told him, that I was sore for hoping that there could not be war. The warlord Glyndwyr was trying to set Wales free, and had gathered many into an army of his own, and was set to besieging castles, and harrying those forces of King Henry as where he might find them. I knew little of this, because all I really knew was what I heard in the taverns, and on the tongues of sailors, and of those who had been impressed to Henry’s army, who had been given leave, until his new campaign could begin, in spring.
I spoke of how some of our minstrels were of good mind, and well-versed in bardic lore. And of how some others were gross, and denominative, and crude, and relied upon coarse subject and manner to pull laughs. How much there was to learn, indeed, on the subject of music, but little of it to be had outside of the schools, that one takes what one learns where one finds it.
I told him how much of Cheshire looked, indeed, like a lot of this country— that it was green, and spotted with the fields of farmers and shepherds, that the lands were divided with hedges, much like these here, only perhaps not quite as tall, and some hedges were faced with stones set upright, and others, stones lain flat upon each other, how there were many of the same type of trees, and that the rivers ran, as all rivers do, toward the sea, that the Dee and Severn ran west, and the Thames ran east, and that people were people everywhere, even though their customs could be strange to each other, and even superficial.
Abu spoke then of a place fond to his own memory.
“I know a place in Spain where music rings as true as bells, a space where rippling blue water reflects the presence of the sky, and just the sight of which brings stillness and coolness to the mind on even the hottest of days...”
“Where is this?”
“It is the palace of our Emir, the Alhambra, in Granada. Such beauty for the eyes, such a paradise garden. Here in France are many gardens but none yet so true to a man’s vision of paradise as I have seen.”
“The weather is too cold here?”
“Perhaps. But it also is the grace of the architects. Here everywhere is stern and forthright, like you God. There, angles smooth to rounded arches, towers are rounded and taper, and many-colored tiles —such as to delight the eye— are inscribed and patterned with the words of Allah.”
“In England we have great cathedrals, such as approach the one even in this town. Our monuments to God seek the sky and to touch heaven, in spire and bell tower.”
“We have minarets that the muezzin might call the umma to prayer. And in every mosque is a corner dedicated to the holy city, and gives us the direction in which we must beseech our prayers.”
“Most of the great cathedrals are sited to the east as well, but more to catch the light of the sun through windows of colored glass.”
“We must see this cathedral here, ere we leave Amiens, then, Julian. Why don’t we go soon?”
“I should indeed like to see more of this city besides its fine Fair, myself,” I agreed.
For I had to have more time in the place. The Fair was good and pleasant, yes, but if I were to come all this way and not see what places this town were famous for, how could I tell my children in any wise that they could believe I had seen it?
And so, that was to be our next plan, I would go with he and Mary and together we should see the town of Amiens, in the time we had left allotted.
That afternoon, we went forth from our accustomed stall where Stephen and Roger still yet bickered and dickered and haggled and bargained for more and better and finer things to bring on the trip back to England, to the great cathedral of Amiens.
The canals some spoke of in the town were something of a disappointment. Yes they were canals, but they were oft bounded on each side by tall houses, and the sun but barely shone on them, although they all ran to the Somme, and the Somme itself was something of a canal, and there were some good bridges about it, but for the most part, it was hard to think of anything but traveling when one would be on the water there. It was as though some streets were of good stone, and others were of water, and heaven help he who had no coin to hire a bargeman to drag him about.
Stark, tall, foreboding, impressive... words could hardly do it justice. The cathedral stood in such a contrast to the plebian and brick-sided canals. The great transepts inside the nave swept like the wings of great bats up above so that one raised one’s eyes in ever dizzying curves. Statues of saints brightly painted stood in an honorary around the upper reaches of the outer entry—a great stained glass rose was set above thee huge doorways at the center of the front entrance- two tall towers of white stone, the same stone which made the entire building, were yet to be completed, although but one of these seemed finished, the interior looked close to being done. There were scaffolds on the outer layer of the building, and men assessing them up and down with ladders, and masons yet laying brick, and stone carvers were chiseling away at places even now. The inside of the cathedral was so tall, it made you dizzy.
The Chester cathedral, in contrast, was not so tall inside, and there was more furniture and such about inside. All I wanted to do was find me a pew to sit at, and yet Abu wanted to poke about the different niches. I suppose he was seeking some manner of comparing his mosques to this. The crucifix above the altar caused him to grimace. He said it was wrong to worship such a symbol of torture and punishment. I told him that we of the Christian faith believed God had put Jesus in place of the scapegoat, that there need be no more scapegoats, that he paid the ultimate in punishments to redeem us all.
Abu was not having any of that.
“What redeeming? If a man is righteous, then he is righteous. Allah will punish him for his wickedness either in this life or the next. But only he can answer to Allah for his acts. Why must Jesus pay for those acts, since Jesus was so far beyond sin, and he was a prophet of great grace?”
I told him there were things I did not quite all swallow whole about the faith of my fathers, or of the faith as it was attested by the Church, but that I could not speak of these things inside the cathedral, at least, lest some one of the priests hear me and cast us out for speaking heresies!
When we had come back out of the cathedral, and did this after Mary place an offering of a rose by the altar, as she said she was praying for her fathers safe return from Wales, Abu and I returned to our “arguing?” It was less an argument than it was a discourse upon things which I had given a little thought to, at least I knew I had none too well developed my arguments against his own, as to the truth of what the priests teach.
Finally, I came out and said it.
“Abu, I am not so all beholden to the monks friars, priests, and cardinals. In Cheshire we have a movement, which it is hoped will bring the word of God into our own language, rather than it remain only to those of the clergy, learned of Latin, and speakers of a foreign tongue, who blat at us with what they say are holy words, but which we not yet understand nor comprehend. We want to see the word of God in plain print, in our own common tongue, because it was said to be set down for all- if it were set own for all, why must it only be spoken of by a few?”
“Ah, but it is not so fine as our Quran, Julian. After your Jesus was killed by the Romans, the Angel came to our prophet, Muhammad, and peace upon them both, and gave the word which was to become our law. That it is yet our law and it rules over the seven nations of Arabia and Palestine ever yet shows how superior it is and how well it surpasses the work of Jesus and all the sons of Abraham and Zion. That is not to say that there is no holiness in the faith of the Jews or Christians— there is! But that all our faiths see fit to war upon each other, over slight differences in what Allah means when he said—whatever it is Allah says!- Is this not a sign in itself that human beings all are short of Allah’s grace? I think your Jesus said it, “all have sinned and fall short of the Glory?”
“We are all yet to be reckoned on the day of Judgment, Julian. And lest you worry that your soul be condemned, I think not, do not fear. For it is better to question the work and the words of fools than it is to swallow their lies all full and nourish thyself upon evil.”
“Is it not ever more evil what was done to the Baptist? We passed the resting place of his head, in there.” The reliquary said to hold the head of Saint John had a place of honor near the altar, and I shuddered to think of the manner in which the Baptist had died. Having watched three such deaths, the goriness of it was not lost on me.
“Ah, but is it truly the head of the Baptist? Who knows, Julian, some charlatan could have slipped in some skull someplace back there. The Crusades were not a good time for your faith or mine. And so many came back from Jerusalem claiming to have this, or that- a piece of the cross, a bone from Saint Peter, the head of the Baptist... you see?”
I could see. I knew there were many things to contemplate about the Church of Saint Paul, and how little some said it resembled what Jesus had left behind. But at this point, I was questioning less the propriety of those things I had been taught, than I was their manifestations in light of those things Porcull had set my head aflame with. This music of the cosmos— the music of the earth— what place did that have in any of the words of the Apostles? It was seeming to me even more a revelation, than the revelation of John the Revelator, but even so, it seemed to me so much truer. What could be more true than what we see with our eyes, our ears, our hearts?
He threw a rock upon the water of the canal we were passing, and it skipped three times on a flat side, and he began to whistle.
“It is a tune from my homeland Andalucia. It is a melody sung by maidens as they come to draw water at the well.”
I began to pluck it out on the strings of my lute. He then drew his own lute from his back, and we played together, walking down the narrow tall streets with Mary and our little Panoptes scampering beside. Some people looked out from their windows, but when they saw Abu and his turban, they disappeared inside their homes, and slammed closed the shutters. I did not care to hear what things they could have thought, for I was but passing through, as were we three, after all.