CHAPTER EIGHT

 

The next morning

 

Well, well! Bless me, ‘tis glad I am to see thee up and about!”

John crowed as Ariana and Rosemary reached the bottom of the staircase and entered the pub. He wiped his wet hands on a dishtowel from behind the sideboard where the ale barrels were kept, and hastily discarded it to step through the swinging hinged door of the sideboard and seize Ariana’s hand. He pressed it reverently to his lips, kissed it as gallantly as any courtier, and added, “You gave us all quite a fright yesterday morning and no mistake!”

John called to his wife Sarah and young daughter Amy that their guest had arisen, and they heard the clang of a pot hastily being set down. Sarah’s shiny, round, freckled face positively glowed with pleasure as she emerged from the kitchen at the far end of the room, and Amy smiled shyly as she trailed behind her mother’s stout body. The landlord and his family formed an intimate circle around her, and stood grinning and nodding.

To Ariana’s right, Rosemary stood rocking on her heels and beaming as if presenting the prize-winning pie at the county fair. Ariana’s bright eyes darted in nervous happiness from one smiling face to another. Never in her life had she been the object of such unanimous warmth and acceptance, and she was quite overwhelmed by it. John still held her tiny hand in his, patting it as though she were a favored daughter rather than a supplicant meekly seeking employment. Even as he continued speaking, he clung steadfastly to her hand.

“If thy performances are half as dramatic as the scene thou didst cause earlier, then thou shalt be worth more than I can pay thee! I have no doubt that Rosemary - who is finally coming to recognize the worth of her own talent – has bragged to thee that my business has doubled since she came to play for me?”

“Tripled,” Rosemary sniffed, putting her nose in the air and causing John to shout with laughter.

“Aye, she hath indeed,” laughed Sarah, fondly patting Rosemary’s arm.

“’Tis all Amy and I can do to keep the men’s glasses full since she arrived! She has got us running back and forth, that one has, tending to so much custom that I may have to take in the seams in my dress! Why, I do not think Auld Robb hath missed a night in nearly a month, an’ he only used to come once or twice a week! Knows all her songs by heart, he doth, and never tires of hearing them! Staggers home half drunk and still singing her tunes most nights, but bless his soul, ‘tis more coin in our pockets!”

“I would wager that adding you will increase our business four-fold,” John said, finally letting Ariana’s hand go and moving back behind the sideboard to continue his washing. “Sarah and I have been thinking that we might wish to expand ourselves, make the pub a place both men and women feel comfortable coming to drink and hear a bit o’ music. With good music to listen to, a man might bring his lady here to court, or even if he be alone he will surely stay longer than if there is no diversion for him!”

John raised his bushy brows and caught Sarah’s eye, and she nodded.

“So what wouldst thou say to starting at the same salary as Rosemary, three pence a night? ‘Tis not as much as thou art worth, to be sure, but many of our patrons tip a ha’-penny or two, and of course thou and Rosemary will split that betwixt thee. Shall we clasp hands upon the bargain?”

John extended his slim, work-roughened hand over the bar.

 Ariana glanced at Rosemary, who crossed her arms under her breasts and smilingly tilted her head at Ariana, her look plainly saying that a girl would be daft to refuse such a delicious offer. Indeed, Ariana could scarcely believe her good fortune, but there was John’s hand still outstretched, and Sarah looking at her expectantly with her hands clasped hopefully beneath her chin. Biting her lip to keep from crying out in her excitement, Ariana took John’s hand and he pumped it enthusiastically as Rosemary clapped her on the shoulders, Sarah sighed and rolled her merry brown eyes heavenward, and Amy bounced happily on her toes.

               The next few minutes were a blur to her as Rosemary gently steered her to a table, and Sarah brought out two steaming bowls of porridge and some brown Carter’s bread. Whilst John and Amy continued the preparations for the day (for they rarely had any custom within the pub before two or three of the clock), Sarah pulled up a chair and engaged Ariana in conversation, asking about her childhood and how she came to be a musician. Speaking between bites of the porridge – for though it looked to be a mostly-gray mass of lumps, it was actually quite tasty – Ariana told her that many in her camp were self-taught musicians, although as an only child, she had turned to her music more oft than most out of loneliness.

With a laugh, she recalled that the only temper tantrum she had ever thrown was in request for a flute; she had sworn to her mother that if she did not return from market with a flute that she would hold her breath until she fainted and she would never, ever, ever wake up! She had been four at the time.

Ariana paused suddenly, her eyes straying toward the crossbeams in the ceiling, and she became engrossed in thought. Looking back upon it now, she wondered for the first time what exactly her mother had traded from their meager assets in order to get her that flute, for Dunicha had indeed returned from market that night with the instrument that Ariana still treasured. Her heart suddenly hurt for her mother, who must have sacrificed something terribly precious to satisfy a child’s whim. And yet she also felt tremendous gratitude for her mother’s understanding of a daughter’s need, for that “whim” had become an integral part of her identity.

              Ariana’s consciousness returned to the present as she heard Rosemary pick up the conversation’s thread, sparing her the embarrassment of awkward silence. She was saying that she had not needed to cause a scene to get her harp; her father’s love of music spurred him to procure the instrument for his daughter almost before she was grown enough to play it. However, he had confiscated it for a week as punishment for some middling infraction, causing his daughter to wail as though to crack the heavens open.

“I believe I pitched an unholy fit that day,” she was saying, her hands waving animatedly and her green eyes gleaming with amusement. “I’ faith, I felt he was fair to punish me, for I had known I was being naughty e’en as I had acted. But the method…! To take away my harp was belike cutting off mine arm for a week! I do not think I spoke a word to him for two days,” she laughed, and she and Ariana exchanged looks of understanding.

So enraptured was Ariana with the turn of conversation that it was not until Sarah heaved a sigh and bit her lip that Ariana realized that the woman had not spoken in the past few minutes. Ariana caught Sarah’s eye, and was surprised to see there a look of sadness, and if she was not mistaken, befuddlement?

              Wistfully, Sarah smiled, patted Rosemary’s hand, and wordlessly rose to leave, her ample rear swinging like a metronome as she made her way back to the kitchens. Ariana watched her unexpected retreat, then turned quizzical eyes on Rosemary.

“She left so sudden… did we offend?”

“Nay, rest thee easy. She is not offended… but confused, mayhaps. Methinks she is sad, for our passion for music is incomprehensible to her,” Rosemary said quietly, looking off towards the kitchen into which her employer had disappeared.

“I understand you not,” Ariana said, and Rosemary stared at the ceiling for a moment, pensively running her fingertips over her lips and assembling her words before replying.

“I have seen such a look as that which she had ere now, when I have told someone of music and song, and it hath given me pause.”

She was quiet a moment further, then added, “It seems to me that there are two sorts of people in this world. Those who have tremendous passion for something – art, music, science, what have you – and those who are more… balanced in their humours. Those who are more even-tempered in their blood lead much more pleasantly simple lives, and more oft escape the monstrous highs and oceanic lows of life than I know I do – and I do suspect ‘tis the same with thee?”

Ariana nodded, laughing at her admittedly dramatic tendencies as Rosemary was laughing at her own, and Rosemary continued.

“But I also think they sometimes look at one such as you or I with envy. They see the depth of our emotion and desire and the passion with which we frantically pursue what we love – and though they are at once frightened and confused by it, I think they often are sad as well, wondering what it is that they are missing.”

Ariana looked from Rosemary’s earnest gaze to the door of the kitchen, and both women sat in silence as they digested that thought. Ariana pondered Rosemary’s words, and knew that even despite the torment that such relentless worship of music can bring, if given a choice, she, like Rosemary, would surely choose to remain one of the people willingly disarmed by such passion. She looked back to Rosemary, and knew that her friend’s thoughts were as her own.

               “Come,” said Rosemary, breaking the silence. “Let us return these dishes to Sarah, collect Morley from whence thou hast hidden him, and adjourn upstairs to my room. If thou art to play with me tonight, we must rehearse to combine what we know!”

And smiling, each anticipating the rehearsal with relish, they cleared the table of their dishes, thanked Sarah for the hearty meal, and ran like young girls out of the pub.

 

 

 

         Ariana led Rosemary to the back of the pub and through a winding path deep into the woods beyond. Rosemary – relatively comfortable but wholly unaccustomed to traipsing through forests - was utterly enthralled, and took in each detail with wonder and awe. Her first thought was that she had never realized that forest trees were so big before! Some had trunks so thick that four men could have easily hidden behind them. Others were skinny but towered over her, their pointy tops like hounds’ noses sniffing at the sky, their vast height a testament to the vitality and strength within. The crunch-rustle-crunch of her feet upon the earthen forest floor and the swish-swoosh of her skirts as they brushed against low plants and fallen branches seemed altogether different from the smooth dirt roads and cobbled streets to which she was accustomed.

          Other sounds assaulted her ears as well: the deep, repeated cackling of some unseen flock of birds, the whizzing and squeaking and chirping of various insects and rodents. Even the wind through the treetops created an ever-present hiss of sound. Rosemary felt as though she were totally enveloped by the noise crowding the wooded expanse of land. Though its volume was fairly low, its presence was all-encompassing; it came from above, below, and all sides, swirling about her like a mischievous ghost, teasing her by switching sides as soon as she turned her head towards it.

She had always thought that forests were silent things, and she commented upon this to Ariana in a near whisper, for the dignified, indifferent, non-human-ness of the place seemed to discourage idle chatter. Ariana confirmed that such was more the case at night… not that it was silent, but that the noise was different: more muted, more predatory. By night, the forest was still except for the whisper of wings from nocturnal birds preening upon swaying branches and crickets sawing their night songs upon spindly, bent legs. But in the daytime, all those creatures who did not have to fear an owl’s sharp talons until nightfall came to find food and build shelter and screech their mating calls to one another. Rosemary thought to herself that it was much like a London marketplace, where many of the same games were played out by human creatures, and where it was every bit as alive and cacophonous.

               Ahead of her, Ariana carefully brushed branches out of her path as she picked her way sure-footedly across the forest floor. Before too long, they approached a small clearing, and even as they drew near they could hear Morley, who – as he sensed their presence – stomped upon the ground and whinnied with impatience. As soon as Ariana squeezed through the thick shrubbery and caught sight of the horse, she greeted him with a happy call.

“Ho there, old friend! Didst thou miss me?”

Morley’s hooves danced upon the grass and his tail twitched to and fro as she reached up a hand to affectionately pat his soft nose. The horse eagerly bobbed his head up and down against his mistress’ palm, and then turned his great brown head towards Rosemary, clearly glad to see her again, too. Rosemary stepped up to where he was tied in order to scratch his ear, but Morley thrust his nose into her hair and began snuffling loudly.

“What art thou doing, thou silly thing?”

Rosemary giggled as the horse sniffed animatedly at her ear, all around her head, then at both sides of her neck. She squealed as his velvety nose and hot, horsy breath tickled her chin and collarbone, and laughingly threw up her hands to ward off the amorous attack. But when Morley poked his nose inside the edge of her bodice and began snuffling at the top of her bosom, Rosemary shoved his huge head away, laughing,

“All right, give over, thou great brute! ‘Tis private property, that is!”

Morley stepped back and chuffed a loud sigh, and as Ariana took his reins in hand, she knit her brows bemusedly at Rosemary.

“He likes my new soap, I expect,” Rosemary said by way of explanation.

“I asked Sarah to pick me up a pot of scented soap when last she went to market, and she brought me back this scent. She said it was whispering my name.”

Rosemary lifted her wrist to her nose to see if she could still detect the smell of the soap upon her skin. It was no longer apparent to her, but no doubt the horse had a more sensitive nose than she.

“’Tis quite lovely, actually, sort of a combination of blackberries and roses. But mayhaps next time I shall use something more delicate if I am to be around him,” she added, gesturing with her head towards Morley and smiling playfully into his huge brown eyes.

Ariana nodded silently, but the wheels were turning in her head as she wrapped the reins around her hand and the three began to make their way back to the pub. Actually, she thought, now that I am employed I may ask Sarah to bring back some scented soap for me, too.

 Such luxuries had been rare in the gypsy camp, and now that she thought upon it, she was dreadfully weary of living without. Not that she had any intention of frittering away her salary on frivolities. She knew enough about the fickle nature of wealth not to fall into that trap, and she would most likely save the majority of her earnings for a time when she truly needed it. But she felt quite strongly that one or two little luxuries - just small ones - were long overdue for her, and she resolved to treat herself nicely just once before the opportunity passed her by.

After they had returned to the pub and given Morley fresh water and hay, Rosemary and Ariana spent the next several hours in rehearsal. Indeed, Ariana had a lovely voice – less classical in nature and huskier than Rosemary’s perhaps, but equally as pleasing. After only a few songs, they began to match their voices to each other, experimenting with the vibrato and timbre until their blend was quite close. Ariana was exceedingly adroit in picking up Rosemary’s melodies, and added her flute or guitar quite easily to Rosemary’s repertoire, enhancing the tunes without altering them so dramatically as to require extensive rehearsal. The combined efforts were not perfect; the songs would require a great deal more rehearsal before they were of a caliber that truly satisfied either of the discriminating women. But the melodies were lively, moving, and seemed far better for the harmony and additional instrumentation that had been added to them.

Ariana introduced Rosemary to some of her favorite gypsy melodies, and though Rosemary was not quite as speedy in mastering them, she did manage to add some rolling chords and sweet harmonies to several of them before John rapped lightly on the door to tell them that a few of Rosemary’s regulars were already beginning to assemble in the pub and were settling in with their drinks.

Just as Rosemary stood to lift her harp and carry it down the stairs, Ariana turned pale and sat down heavily on the bed. Many times she had played in her own home, and once in a great while she had joined in at a camp gathering where anyone who played an instrument was free to participate. But never had she been the primary act, one of only two to whom people would be directing their attention. The very thought made her stomach sink to somewhere near her kneecaps and a strange buzzing sound to hiss in her ears. Rosemary looked in amused surprise at her friend and chirped, “Do not tell me thou art nervous!”

Ariana swallowed hard and nodded, her blue eyes huge and childlike. Rosemary laughed softly, and set her harp aside to pull Ariana to her feet.

“Now attend to me, and well,” she said gently, as she placed both hands on Ariana’s shoulders and looked her directly in the eye. “There is nothing to fear. Thou art a fine musician, and within three seconds of hearing you play, I wager that thou wilt be holding those men in thrall. Trust me. Now! Gather thy things and let us go and show you off!”

Rosemary’s supreme confidence calmed Ariana. Rosemary knew these men – “regulars,” John had called them. As long as Rosemary was there, she had nothing to fear.

She took a deep breath, gathered her flute and guitar, and followed her friend out of the room and down the steps to where she could already hear the masculine chatter within the pub. Several of the men greeted them warmly as they appeared, and one gallant took Rosemary’s stool from her and set it in her accustomed place. Ariana could feel the men’s questioning eyes upon her as she and Rosemary set up in the corner reserved for them, and soon Rosemary was standing to address the twelve or so men already seated with their drinks.

“Good gentles all,” she was calling in a clear, strong voice. “It is truly mine extreme pleasure to announce that tonight, I am joined tonight by my dearest friend Ariana. She is a wonderful musician who is most certain to enchant thee. Pray assist me in welcoming her!”

There was a smattering of polite but reserved banging of mugs upon the tables, and Ariana could see that though Rosemary’s regulars were pleased enough to welcome such a pretty stranger to the pub, they were a bit dismayed to find that the music they had specifically journeyed to hear was about to change.

Her eyes fell on a table directly in the front, and she noticed that the man Rosemary had greeted on their way in as “Auld Robb” was looking particularly skeptical. But Rosemary just winked at her as their eyes met and softly counted off a measure to set their tempo. Ariana lifted her flute to her lips, and the introductory strains of one of Rosemary’s favorites, “Star of the County Down”, was begun.

Ariana’s heart was still pounding, but the sweet music of her flute rose to entwine itself with Rosemary’s evocative soprano, and they were not half a verse in before Auld Robb’s foot began to tap softly beneath the table. By the instrumental verse a whole leg was wagging in time, and as they played the last note, Auld Robb hastily drained the last bit of ale in his tankard in order to thump it loudly upon the table in appreciation. The other patrons quickly followed, no longer skeptical – and over the din, Rosemary leaned in to Ariana’s ear and whispered,

“Well, Auld Robb is already sold on thee, and he was my most stern judge my first week! If thou canst win him, thou canst win anyone!”

Seeing the truth of Rosemary’s words written on the faces of the men still cheering them, Ariana grinned broadly and dived into their next number with zeal. With each successive song their blend sharpened, and they grew more accustomed to each other’s musical nuances, so that they began to give and take focus with a more adept silent communication. As they became increasingly comfortable playing together, they relaxed and even bantered with their listeners, with the result that each new song was met with louder and more enthusiastic cheers. Eventually the cheers grew so loud that John ran to the stout double doors of the pub, throwing them open to let the sound of the music spill out into the streets.

 As the honey-sweet strains of the two perfectly matched voices and the driving rhythm of Ariana’s guitar floated out of the pub, first one passerby poked his head in, then two, and then there was a steady stream of patrons coming in to hear more of the music that had called to them outside the pub. Within an hour, all the tables were filled to capacity, and newly arrived patrons were forced to crowd into the back, standing on tiptoe to see the musicians and waving frantically to get the landlord’s or his wife’s attention in the hopes of purchasing a draught of ale or wine. With all the bodies packed into the pub, the heat in the room increased dramatically, and poor Sarah’s face was red and glistening with sweat as she rushed to bring a patron his drink. But she smiled and nodded happily at Rosemary and Ariana as she passed, and they both knew she was not feeling put out in the least.

               When at length it came time for last call, John’s declaration was met with boos and hisses, and he was forced to shout over the jovial but unruly crowd.

“Have you lads got no homes to go to? Thou shalt be welcome back for more of the same tomorrow, but my family needs must sleep sometime! Last call, I say!”

Though it felt to Ariana like they had only been playing an hour or so, she could see by the darkness outside the open doors that it was nearing ten o’clock, and all too soon they finished their very last song. Rosemary winced and stretched as she rose from her stool to join Ariana in curtsying their thanks. The patrons responded as never before, and the din from their banging and shouting and stomping upon the ground was deafening in its intensity. Rosemary had left her habitual vail-cup in front of the harp upon the floor, and those patrons nearest to it soon had it brimming with coins. A few patrons standing in the back of the pub even tossed coins over the heads of those seated, which landed with a delicious clatter at the women’s feet.

Auld Robb pulled them both at once into a huge bear hug, and Ariana gave a strangled hiccup as she felt the breath being squeezed out of her. She heard Rosemary giggle at her discomfort, for no doubt she herself was used to Auld Robb’s enthusiastic displays of appreciation by now.

John and Sarah were doing their best to encourage the orderly exit of the other men, and were clearly being taken to task on it. After much pushing and prodding the last patron finally shuffled out the door, and as John swung the great wooden bolt across the double doors, Sarah collapsed with a huge whooshing sigh into the nearest chair. Little Amy, pushed beyond exhaustion, had been sent to bed nearly an hour before. Too tired to speak, John walked to where Rosemary and Ariana still stood, and gathered them both into a gentle, if sweaty, embrace. Joyfully he kissed each of them upon the forehead and then helped his beaming wife to her feet, slipped his arm around her shoulder, and bid the girls a grateful and weary goodnight as he labored up the stairs to his bed. As he ascended out of sight, they could hear him yawning that the washing up could wait until the morning, just this once.

Not wanting to break the almost magical spell, neither woman spoke as they gathered their instruments and trudged up the stairs to Rosemary’s room. Wearily they put down their things and stretched, Rosemary running her thumbs over her sore fingertips and making wide chewing motions to ease the tired muscles in her face. After a few seconds she went to bolt the bedroom door, then turned and leaned against it, crossing her arms beneath her breasts and twinkling at Ariana with a barely concealed smile.

“Well?” she asked quietly, her pale face glowing. “Art thou pleased?”

Ariana looked up from where she was still staring at her guitar, which she had propped up against the wall near the bed.

Pleased?” she breathed, then catapulted herself across the room into Rosemary’s arms, laughing and trying to speak at the same time. “I am… I cannot… Rosemary, I think this is the happiest night of my life!”

The dam broken, she found she could no longer bear to stand still, and she pulled out of the embrace to pace excitedly about the tiny room.

             “Didst thou hear them? They adored us! All that shouting and banging… hast thou e’er heard such a racket? Oh, Rosemary, prithee tell me this is no dream!”

Rosemary smiled with understanding and shook her head.

“Nay, this be no dream, though I felt as much on my first night here, too. In sooth-”

“Rosemary!” Ariana interrupted, running back to her friend and seizing her hands, a thought suddenly engulfing her whole body with its clarity. “Rosemary, I am meant to do this! I was born to this! This… this is why I am alive!”

Rosemary touched her forehead to Ariana’s, squeezing the hands that still clasped her own.

Aye,” she whispered, utter conviction giving weight to that one word of assent. Finding her voice again, she added, “We both were. For better or worse, this is our path, one I feel we are destined to take. I am honored to share it with you.”

Ariana threw her arms around Rosemary’s neck and whispered tearfully, “Gramercy. Gramercy. The honor is surely all mine.”

                For a few moments both women simply rocked back and forth in their embrace. Then in mutual exhaustion they slowly disengaged, and, further words seeming superfluous, began sleepily removing their bodices and skirts. Yawning, Ariana half-heartedly smoothed the wrinkles in her long chemise, and Rosemary unhooked her night rail from the post of the bed, slipping it over her head and tangling the long earrings she had nearly forgotten to remove in its lace collar. Carefully she extricated the dangling points of her earrings from the lace, slipped them off, and laid them on the dressing table as Ariana sleepily scrubbed at her face with her palms.

Shivering slightly in the night-chill, Rosemary waited until Ariana had slipped into bed before blowing out the candle and feeling her way past the bedpost in the dark. Grateful for the warmth of the straw-stuffed mattress and feeling that they had both truly earned the rest, she crawled in beside Ariana and pulled the quilt to cover their weary bodies.

               Just at the dividing edge of sleep and wakefulness, Rosemary felt Ariana take her hand beneath the covers and give it a soft squeeze. Drowsily she squeezed back, then rolled onto her side and drifted, sleeping more sweetly than she had in weeks.