Chapter

Twenty Three

 

Strange, Rosemary thought, for all that he appeareth soft, Pete is surprisingly strong.

Rosemary had been standing at her window for forty minutes. She was watching Pete as he chopped wood, having borrowed an axe from the blacksmith whose forge stood just a few blocks down the way.

Rosemary watched Pete with an emotion she could not exactly define. If she had to give it some sort of description, she would venture to say that it was more positive than negative, but that was as far as she could manage. She could not say why she desired to watch Pete as he toiled, unless it was just that he seemed an enigma to her. She could not get the same sort of grip on the “who of Pete that she generally could on most people.

Pensively, she allowed the window curtain to hide her from Pete’s view as she leaned against the wall and stared down absently at a streak of dirt on Pete’s arm. Pete had discarded his muffin hat whilst he worked, and she wondered if he knew that he was developing a small bald spot just at the top of his head. She watched as he swung the point of the axe into a spare piece of wood, and bent to collect the cords he had already cut.

Surprisingly strong, and unexpectedly resourceful, Rosemary mused - and a small frown furrowed her brow. The wood had been his idea. For the past three weeks, ever since the audition, Pete had met the girls every afternoon at their small apartment, with Ariana’s old guitar in tow. They worked soberly and without conversation, focused mainly on learning each other’s strengths and creating a common repertoire. Though they were not what anyone might call friendly with each other, they were cordial, and managed to be respectful enough to form a sort of musical trust with one another. By unspoken mutual agreement, they were politely distant with one another, working out the particulars of each piece with as much diplomacy and as little talking as possible. They would rehearse together for a few hours or so, and then without much ceremony, Pete would take his leave.

It had not occurred to either of the girls to ask where he went when he left. They assumed he had rented an apartment like they had, or perhaps a small room in an inn. Every couple of days one of them would see him on the streets of London as he played for tips. At such times, they would nod politely to one another and the girls would quickly move on so as to avoid the need for awkward conversation. But a few days ago, Rosemary had gotten close enough to see Pete’s vail-mug, and though there were several coins inside, it seemed unlikely to her that he was earning enough to afford both a room and his meals.

She judged that he certainly could not be making as much as she and Ariana were when they played at various inns in the evenings, for at the inn they had a captive and beer-happy crowd. And even they themselves had needed to rely upon supplementary work for their sustenance.

Rosemary thanked G-d for the discovery of a nearby seamstress whose apprentice had just fallen quite ill. Whilst the young girl was bedridden, Rosemary had offered her services to the seamstress on a pay-by-the-job basis, and by embroidering a stack of linen handkerchiefs, taking in the seams on two gowns, and adding some beadwork and trim to a noblewoman’s overskirt, she had earned enough to pay their rent for a week. Ariana had earned them a day’s worth of meals by repainting the sign which adorned the cobbler’s shop above which they lived, and twice had gone out into the streets with her guitar to collect what vail she might whilst Rosemary was engaged in her sewing.

Both were feeling the pinch of looming poverty, and were ever on the lookout for any opportunity to do an odd job for someone. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings they played at the Boar’s Head Tavern, a rowdy little pub in Eastcheap, and were developing enough of a small following to be sure of feeding themselves the next day off of the vail earned.

And if all came to naught, they still had the cloth in Rosemary’s dower trunks and Ariana’s myriad jewelry to sell or pawn – but only as a last resort. Therefore, even with all of the work they could scrounge there was very little coin to spare, leaving Rosemary to wonder just how Pete was managing.

Two nights ago she had finally found a polite way to ask. They had begun their rehearsal quite late, and it was dark and cold by the time Pete was ready to leave. As he was collecting his things, Rosemary made a show of shivering from the draft by the window and asked if he had far to walk in the cold. Pete shook his head.

“I usually kip behind th’ blacksmith’s yonder… ‘is shed faces west and blocks most of th’ wind.”

“Is there… is there no place indoors thou canst sleep? ‘T’will be ever so much colder tonight than it has been.”

“No’ unless you ‘ave a spare bit o’ floor right ‘ere.”

“Certainly not!” Ariana bristled, and Rosemary blushed.

“Nay, nay, I cannot see how that should work,” Rosemary murmured quickly. “But… Ariana, may I speak with thee for a moment?”

The two girls had huddled into a corner, turning their backs on Pete.

“Prithee tell me thou art not considering letting him sleep in this room with us,” Ariana whispered, and Rosemary shook her head emphatically.

“Of course not! Beyond it being highly improper, I… well, I just cannot see making that work. But… we do still have the wagon.”

To Rosemary’s great surprise, Ariana had thought for only a moment before nodding. “Why not? ‘Tis not like he hath not slept there before. I cannot see what harm that would do.”

So it had been decided. The girls offered Pete the night-time use of their wagon, and after looking at them both as if trying to decide if the offer were some sort of trap, Pete had reluctantly accepted. For two nights he had slept curled in the wagon, but it was hardly comfortable. One of the wheels had broken just after the girls had arrived in London, and since they had not had enough money to purchase a new wheel, the wagon leaned sharply to one side if any weight was put on it at all.

Fearing that he would cause further damage to the wagon if he should roll to the side in his sleep and tip the thing over, Pete had hit upon the idea of bracing the wheel-less side by stacking cords of wood underneath it whilst he worked out how to make them a new wheel himself. He relayed this idea to Ariana, who had returned from the bakery that morning to see Pete sweatily hauling what looked like half a small tree behind the shop. Ariana had told Rosemary, who since then had been staring out the window watching Pete work.

“What is he doing now?” Ariana asked as she sat on the floor, tuning her guitar in preparation for their afternoon practice.

“He has got the wood stacked underneath the side, and now he is bouncing around in the wagon to see if it will hold. It seems to be.” Rosemary pulled the curtain a tiny bit wider. “Did he really say he would make us a new wheel?”

Ariana crinkled her brow. “He said he would try. I did not get the impression that he hath done such a thing before, so I shall not hold my breath for the result.”

Rosemary did not reply, but turned back to the window. There was every reason to be skeptical about Pete’s ability to build a wheel, and yet…

Rosemary watched as Pete climbed out of the wagon and wiped his brow with his forearm, leaving a smear of dirt on his forehead. There was much that had surprised her about Pete in the past three weeks.

Firstly, even when they had been on good enough terms back at the Scots-Arms Inn to pre-dispose her to thinking well of him, Rosemary had rather gotten the idea that Pete was a bit lazy, and that he avoided physical labor when he could. He did not appear to have the muscular arms or chest of one who labors for a living and his hands had seemed too smooth to indicate that he worked much with tools. Yet watching him now, she thought that e’en had that been true at one point, he certainly had not complained about chopping the wood today. Rather, it had been his own idea, and he seemed surprisingly adept at it. That was something she had not expected.

Secondly, though his appearance suggested a rudimentary education at best, it had become apparent to her that Pete could not only read, but also write. Upon reflection, Rosemary vaguely remembered him saying something about an uncle who had taught him languages, but Pete himself gave off such an aura of… well, of being a sort of common tavern slouch that it had quite slipped her mind.

Two nights ago, Rosemary had been struggling to remember the precise sequence of the verses to a French madrigal he was teaching them. At the next night’s rehearsal, Pete had presented her with a small scrap of well-scraped parchment on which the words were written in a strangely watery, pinkish ink. When Rosemary had blinked in astonishment, Pete initiated one of their few conversations since the audition, mumbling that he had seen the book of poetry resting on her harp stool the day before. Realizing that she could read, he took the liberty of writing down the words for her.

To cover up her astonishment lest Pete think she believed him too ignorant to read, she asked him where he had come by the parchment and ink. Might he be willing to loan her his quill? Rosemary had been wanting to write to John and Sarah, for John could read a little bit if the words were simple enough, but she could not afford the necessary implements to do so.

“I ‘ave no quill,” Pete had scoffed, pulling a face at her. “Wha’ do you think I am, Lord of th’ Manor? A quill is too dear fer me! Nay, I jus’ use a chicken feather; y’can find one a’ any old farm.”

“And the ink?” Rosemary had asked, knowing that ink was even more costly than a quill.

“A bit o’ wine mixed wi’ some ashes. Took me a couple tries until I got it th’ right consistency. ‘Tis no’ the best quality, but ‘tis readable enough fer wha’ we need.”

Rosemary could devise no reply in the face of such ingenuity, and so had let it pass without further comment. But like several other small things she had discovered over the past few weeks, it had festered in her brain, for it belied everything she thought she had understood about Pete. Each time Rosemary thought she finally understood what her new band mate was about, Pete did or said something that did not fit with what she had previously thought. And so she found herself standing at the window, staring at Pete as he worked and lost in her thoughts.

“Thou hadst best clear away from that window,” Ariana said. “’Tis nearly time for rehearsal, and if thou dost not wish him to know that you have been watching him, you ought not to stay there much longer.”

“I’faith,” sighed Rosemary, drawing the curtain over the window. Pensively, she moved her stool to the center of the small room, pulled her harp towards her, and began to tune the strings.

Ariana let her sit in peace for a few moments before venturing, “Why do you watch him like that?”

Rosemary tuned two more strings before she replied. “Sooth, I do not know. I do not understand him. He surprises me.”

“Because he hath kept his word and attended rehearsal?” Given a different tone of voice, Ariana’s words would have seemed accusing, yet Rosemary sensed that there had been no such intention.

“Nay… because…tsk! I know not. Because...”

A knock at their door preempted her explanation.

“’Tis open,” Ariana called, and Pete stuck his head in. His hair was wet and the smudge on his forehead was gone; evidently he had cleaned up as best he could in the rain barrel.

Ariana shifted so that he could get past her, and Pete gave a short nod of greeting as he stepped through and chose a spot opposite them, slipping his guitar strap over his head and beginning to tune.

“Whither did we leave off?” Ariana addressed Rosemary.

“We were still working on Parting Glass, methinks.”

Rosemary moved her harp aside and reached for her tambourine. Ariana looked down the length of her flute with one eye closed to check its tuning, and Pete quietly strummed a few of the chords to refresh his memory.

Looking at Pete to determine that he was ready, Rosemary took a breath and began the initial, a capella verse. Pete and Ariana came in with their harmonies, and Rosemary listened carefully as they sang, checking their blend and intonation.

In sooth, she had to admit that they sounded good together. Pete’s voice had responded well to regular use, and was really quite pleasant. Warm, even. And despite the cool formality with which they treated each other in between songs, all three of them had started to behave like members of an ensemble. During the songs, they would all make regular eye contact, conscientiously reading each other to be sure that they not only sang in time, but sang with the same feeling and nuance.

Rosemary was grateful for that. It would certainly have been nice if their rehearsals had been filled with the same laughter and sense of excitement that she and Ariana alone had shared, but still… musically, their collaboration was shaping up into something quite presentable (if not inspired) much more quickly than she had thought it would.

Rosemary gripped her tambourine in preparation to play as Pete swung his guitar to the front and Ariana raised her flute to her lips. All other versions of Parting Glass that Rosemary had e’er heard were sung slowly until the end, but Rosemary had always thought that it might be nice to take the second verse at a sprightly clip. True, it was a song of fare-thee-wells and death, but it was also a song of a life well-lived, with friends and sweethearts and toasts all ‘round. Having made that suggestion to the other two, they had tried starting slowly and then speeding up during an instrumental in between the first and second verses. All of them seemed pleased by the effect, and Rosemary was excited by how things were turning out.

During today’s rehearsal though, she noticed that Pete winced several times when shaping particular chords on the guitar, and kept shaking his left hand out each time a song was over.

Finally, just after the second hour, Pete asked, “D’you girls mind if we call it a day? M’ a bit sore from this mornin’ an’ I do no’ think tha’ I am good for much more.”

“Nay, ‘tis all well,” replied Ariana, rising from the floor and stretching her legs. “I ought to go feed Morley, in any case.”

Giving her ankles a small shake-out, Ariana laid her flute against the wall and went out the door. She left it open, and her footfall was audible on the stairs. As Rosemary stood and moved her harp, she saw Pete examining his left hand, blowing on his raw-looking palm and poking with a fingernail at several large blisters, no doubt caused by that morning’s use of the axe.

“Don’t poke,” Rosemary admonished gently, retrieving a short strip of cloth from her sewing basket.

Wordlessly she picked up his hand, and for a moment she and Pete just looked at his palm as Rosemary carefully tied the cloth over the blisters. But then, just as Rosemary drew a breath to say “there,” she and Pete looked up at the same time, and their eyes met.

To Rosemary, his eyes seemed warmer; softer than she recalled ever having seen them. Gone was the flat, emotionless surveyance with which he had addressed her and Ariana of late. Now there was an odd mixture of gratitude and… heat? Rosemary felt an unexpected alertness running through her limbs and making her stomach feel fluttery, as though a family of mice were having an argument in her innards.

Suddenly aware of how closely she stood to him, holding onto him, Rosemary let Pete’s hand drop and took a step backwards. Pete stayed where he was, curling his palm closed around the strip of cloth. When Rosemary met his eyes again, his expression had changed. The heat had been replaced by something more tender, a look that was not quite fondness but was perhaps its predecessor.

Something passed between them; some moment of tranquility or mayhap just a quiet recognition that, for better or worse, they were in this thing together and therefore they would look out for each other. Whatever it was, Rosemary’s next breath seemed to expand her lungs more deeply than any she had taken since the night of the audition.

It seemed to her that Pete had drawn a longer breath than normal, too. Then he exhaled and nodded. But like his look, that gesture had also softened. It was not the curt nod of leave-taking that had ended most of their previous rehearsals; it was more a nod of agreement - an acknowledgement of whatever unspoken truth they had just discovered.

The sound of Ariana’s feet on the stairs broke Rosemary’s reverie, and she turned to put up her harp whilst Pete swung the guitar around to his back, taking care with his newly-bandaged hand and moving away from the door to make room for her entrance.

“All done,” Ariana sighed in reference to Morley’s evening feeding, and flopped down onto the bed. Suddenly remembering that Pete was in the room, she blushed a bit and hastily rose from the bed, as though embarrassed to draw attention to that intimate piece of furniture in a man’s presence.

“G’night, Pete,” she said, to cover her actions.

“’Night,” he replied and made to leave, but turned in the doorway. “Er… good rehearsal, ladies. Parting Glass is sounding really… good work.”

Ariana’s surprise showed on her face. “Why, gramercy, Pete. Um… you too!”

“Right then,” Pete said, and looked betwixt Ariana and Rosemary for a long moment before quietly shutting the door behind him.

“Er… what was - ?” Ariana turned to Rosemary, intending to ask what that had been about, but the words died in her throat as she caught sight of her friend hiding a small, enigmatic smile behind her hair as she turned to straighten a chair.