Chapter Twenty

 

London! At last! Pete thought as he saw the small sign pronouncing the road he approached from a narrow side street as “St. Giles Street”. Turning onto St. Giles, he found himself flanked by sturdy buildings on both sides, and noticed other street signs such as “Charing Cross” pointing to his direct right and “Fleet Bridge” pointing to his diagonal right.

Trying to decide which way to go, Pete rocked back on his heels and stretched his back a bit. Just knowing he was in London made the air feel different, as if the energy level and importance of everything had suddenly increased by half. And as if to prove the point, the sound of clattering hooves behind him alerted him just in time to avoid being flattened by a great cart that was moving at an urgent speed. Pete leaped out of the way, hugging the guitar to his side to protect it as the cart flew past and the driver turned to shake a fist at him.

“Watch where yer standin’, then!” the man shouted, and smartly turned around to lightly slap his horse’s back with the reins.

Keeping a bit closer to the buildings on the sides of St. Giles, Pete headed further into town, stopping only once to ask a lad carrying a pair of freshly-killed geese, a rabbit, a pail, and heavy sack of some dry good or other,

“Which way to th’ Thames?”

Pete had always wanted to see that great river, and quickened his pace as the young man thrust his chin in the proper direction, saying, “Just pas’ Temple Bar, straight on,” and staggered off with his unwieldy load.

Pete was nearly there when the sound of cheering from a street to his left caught his attention. Turning down the lane, he saw a group of passers-by crowded around a light-haired woman and a dark-haired man, both in orange tunics, standing with their backs to Pete. The woman played marvelously on a fiddle whilst the man was dexterous upon a large bass viol. Though he was not yet close enough to hear the music well, Pete could tell simply by their movements that the piece was highly technical and difficult.

 Moving closer, Pete could see that the man’s eyes were closed in concentration and a beatific smile wandered about his face as his fingers thumped and pulled upon the long strings of the bass viol in a way Pete had ne’er seen the instrument played. The sound was electrifying, and Pete was mesmerized.

The woman too showed great virtuosity, swaying from foot to foot as she drew forth quick runs of melody that sounded Eastern in origin with her bow. The pair played through two more startlingly good pieces afore the man held up his hand to signal that they were finished, and offered his small wooden chest around for vail. Coins clinked as they filled the chest, and the people who were gathered there chattered noisily about which bits had been the best or had pleasantly surprised them.

Pete saw that as the pair turned to leave, their wood chest heavy with coins, the crowd made to disperse. Without taking time to think, Pete threw his muffin hat onto the ground in front of him and launched into an up-tempo De Rore madrigal taught to him by his uncle. As he began to play, the crowd turned towards him, the woman with the fiddle tilting her head quizzically at Pete and whispering to her companion as they walked away.

Most of the crowd listened for a few seconds, but quickly wandered off when it was clear that the music was not of the caliber they had just heard. Madrigals were not shown to their best advantage with only a guitar (which he had not stopped to tune) and one barely-used voice.

Pete did not see them leave; he sang loudly and with his eyes closed, mimicking the intense concentration and fervor of the man in the orange tunic. With a flourish, Pete finished the song and opened his eyes. To his dismayed surprise, there was no adoring crowd, merely one matronly woman of the merchant class who nodded slowly at him but did not smile. As Pete’s face went slack and his eyes frantically searched for the remainder of the crowd, she fumbled about in her purse and extracted a coin, which she tossed into the upturned hat at Pete’s feet. Pete stood numb until she turned and left, then hastily picked up his hat and looked hopefully at the coin.

A groat? Th’ other bloke must ‘ave gotten nearly twenty shillings, and all I got was a single groat?

Angrily, Pete stuck the coin in his boot and crammed his muffin hat back on his head. It must be this street corner. No good, this one. I just need to find th’ right place.

He turned away from the Thames and headed north. He walked until he arrived at Fleet Street, and had just found a likely spot when a woman’s voice rang out, “Pie thief!

“What?” gasped Pete, looking wildly about him for his accuser. The last thing he had nicked was an apple! He hadn’t touched a pie since the last town!

Pie thief!” the voice shouted again, and a pair of washer women walking by with their loads looked oddly at Pete as he swung about in frantic circles, crying, “What? Nay! I ’ave taken nothing! I -”

“He thinks we can do naught against him whilst he practically nicks the pies from our very windows,” the voice continued, and now he saw a woman with a guitar strapped about her body addressing passersby (most of whom glanced uneasily at her as they quickened their steps) from atop a large wooden crate. The woman waved her arms as she continued, “But it is time for us all, good people, to rise up against this rotund monarch and keep safe our pastries, our daughters, our land! None are spared from the evil clutches of the King!”

From several paces away, Pete watched in morbid fascination as the woman rescued a hank of dirty blond hair from the wind and tucked it behind her ear. She then began to sing as she strummed her guitar with abandon.

Oh, the King’s been caught stealing pies from the window! But what can we do when he’s King of us all? Let’s take the crown from his head; he might as well be dead…”

“Pardon me,” said a rough voice behind Pete, and two guards wearing the royal colors brushed against Pete as they passed him. The guards surrounded the singing woman and, each taking an arm, began to lead her away as those passing by tried their best to look small and uninvolved. Pete watched with a combination of frank admiration and embarrassed horror as the woman, making an odd sign with her fingers, still shouted as she was dragged off, “Revolution against the Monarchy! Kill the king!”

Pete stood unmoving until the woman’s cries could no longer be heard, then looked about him. Now that the protesting woman was gone, the corner opposite the one she had recently vacated looked like a decent enough spot in which to play.

With great ceremony, he leaned his guitar on a wall whilst he slid the strap of the wineskin off of his shoulder and delicately placed it beside him. Thinking twice, he again picked up the wineskin and took a long draught, the better to moisten his throat in preparation to sing. Setting it down once again, he pulled the strap of the guitar over his head and made a big to-do of adjusting it just so and carefully tuning each string.

Pete flexed his fingers, popped a few knuckles, and cleared his throat so as to sing over the sound of the wind. Firmly grasping the neck of the guitar, he drew a long breath, and had just released the first note when the wind died and he heard soft music to his right.

His mouth still open, Pete saw the source of the sound: a man with a simple red shirt had commandeered the crate left behind by the woman, and had a guitar propped classical-style upon his left knee. The music played by the man was exquisite, and already several people had stopped to listen. Pete watched with envy as a pretty flower girl gazed at the man with adoring brown eyes, and lifted a blossom from her basket to present to him as he completed the song.

Disgusted by the man’s quiet skill and his own envy, Pete grabbed the wineskin and stomped off further down the street. When he finally found a rickety bench by the side of the busy thoroughfare, he plopped himself down upon it as if daring anyone to object. When no one did, he yanked the wineskin off and slapped it forcefully upon the bench, then picked up his guitar and strummed a chord, looking about murderously and daring anyone to interfere. When still no protest was made, he put his hat on the ground before him and began to play.

For several hours, Pete played. He saw a few coins tossed into his hat, but the people seldom stayed for more than a minute or two – which was fortunate, since he had only six or seven songs in his repertoire and he had been cycling through them and back all afternoon.

Pete sighed heavily and stopped strumming, as there was no one presently standing by to care whether the song was finished or no. It seemed he had enough skill to make them stop and listen for a moment, and occasionally e’en to leave him a small tip, but not enough to interest them in staying, not like the other musicians he had heard play.

Pete shut his eyes as he realized the truth: he had a good musical ear (witness Ariana’s and Rosemary’s reaction to his playing), but his voice was sorely suffering from lack of use. And he was a very good player indeed when accompanying a group of instruments at a play-along, but he was so long out of practice that he had not the dexterity to play the guitar alone and make it sound interesting. Like the rest of his life, music was something he had taken for granted, never really putting forth any effort to hone his ability or become master of his craft.

Profoundly dejected, Pete folded his arms across the guitar and wearily propped his chin upon them. He felt something stirring inside him – sort of a brother to the feelings he had had after nicking the pies. It felt like… ambition.

He did not want to be mediocre anymore. Music pleased him in a way nothing else ever really had, and suddenly it was not enough to be “good”. He wanted to be great! He wanted pretty girls to throw flowers at him; he wanted to have people argue over which song was his very best. And he wanted to walk away with his hat brimming with coins, and to buy his own dinner instead of stealing it from a cart.

He looked up from his musings to find that it was already dusk. There were very few people about, and most of the shops along Fleet Street were closed. As he watched, a weary youth in fancy livery carried a hammer and a proclamation of some sort over to a tall wooden pole and began listlessly hammering the parchment to the wood. The lad finished hammering, rubbed at the back of his neck, and walked exhaustedly off.

There was still just enough light left to read by, and Pete slowly approached the pole. At the bottom of the parchment were an official-looking seal and a loopy signature of the name Lord Roget, Master of His Royal Highness’s Revels. Squinting in the rapidly disappearing light, Pete made out the gist of the proclamation: a call to entertainers! Hurriedly, Pete skimmed the parchment for a date.

Three weeks… ‘ave I got enough time?

Pete counted the coins he had gotten that day. Not enough for a place to stay, but enough to get bread and ale for a day or two. If he could feed himself and find shelter in some stable, he could put off looking for manual work and use the time to practice the guitar and strengthen his voice. And mayhaps, if he went busking for tips in the morn and practiced in the afternoon and eve, in three weeks he just might be ready.

            Pete felt a surge of excitement. A chance t’ play before the King of all England! Does a chance like tha’ come twice in a lifetime, and to th’ son of a tavern wench? Nay!

With that realization, Pete marched off to find a barn in which to sleep. He wanted to rise bright and early the next morn in order to warm up his voice and practice a few scales before finding a street corner on which to play. He was going to play before the Master of the Revels, and he had only three weeks to prepare.