Archive for February, 2011

Time’s Bending Sickle

February 27, 2011

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17.  Time and Outward Form

 

Back in Dallas, Jean was, if anything, more remote than ever.  She was playing a game–“Space Witches,” I think–and hardly spoke until I gave her the new game I brought from Wizardware.  She gave me a nice smile and thanks, but then started playing it immediately.  She was still at the keyboard when I went to bed after midnight.

Howell also seemed preoccupied when I tried to talk to him about our California trip and the ideas I had for Wizardware.  He kept shuffling papers while I talked, and finally said, “Fine. Try whatever you think will get the sales up.  Just be sure the sales in your other departments don’t lag.  Keep the troops on the move.”  He waved abstractedly and I left.

More months passed, full of work, but not much worth reporting.  I played quartets occasionally with Perry, John, and Myron, but not as much as I liked;  I did get to practice more at home, for Jean did not mind so much when she was absorbed in a game.  I also did bits and pieces of reading about Elizabethan life and music, and continued to have vivid visions of the life of Tobias Hume.  I had come to accept these visions as a normal part of my life, like sleeping and eating.  Now and then I worried when I would slip and let them spill over into my ordinary life.  It wasn’t a problem when Jean stumbled across some of my notes, for she knew I had odd research interests in old music.  But Janelle was confused when some of them got loose in my business papers.  “Are you writing some kind of novel?” she asked; I had to confess that I was.  Sometimes if the vision were especially rich, I wouldn’t snap out of it as quickly as I ordinarily would; I’ve gotten some odd looks from cab drivers and waiters on the road, and I was once late for an important appointment because I was with Toby during some crisis of his life.

My own world stumbled on through time.  The Reagan administration dropped the antitrust suit against IBM that the government had been building for ten years.  But the judge wouldn’t let them drop the suit against AT&T, which was settled with the company divested of its regional companies, but allowed to go into computers and data processing.  The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated.  Time named the computer Man–rather, Machine–of the Year.  The highest unemployment rate in decades was recorded in November 1982, and more businesses failed that year than any since 1932.  The Coleco video game comapany saw its stock rise from $6.87 to $36.75.  The Space Shuttle had its first successful flight.  Artur Rubenstein and Brezhnev died.  San Francisco banned handguns; Kinnesaw, Georgia passed a law requiring a gun in every household.  In October 1983, some American Marines were blown up in Lebanon, while others invaded Grenada.  1984, the year George Orwell had imagined as full of oppression of thought and feeling, rolled in to the accompaniment of complacent comparisons and dire warnings based on his book.  Since I was one of the few American males who didn’t watch the Superbowl, I missed Apple’s stunning Orwellian commercial announcing the Macintosh and challenging Big Blue, IBM.  But I saw it several times later.  Much was smashed that year in addition to the screen showing Big Brother.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  A few things happened in 1983 on the home front that had reverberations later.  One was that Callie Warren came from California for a visit.  Callie, as I have said, was probably Jean’s closest friend from Dallas.  She had come on family business, so she stayed with her family, but managed to spend a good bit of time with Jean.  They went out to lunch, did a bit of shopping, and sat around the apartment talking one whole day while I was at work.  We had her to dinner the next night, and Callie was highly entertaining.  Jean laughed more than she had in quite a while.  Callie was especially good at giving a commonsensical Texan’s reaction to the nuttiness of California fads and cults, but she did so in such a generous, lightly self-deprecating way that she never seemed mean-spirited.  Callie on rolfing: “I’m just an old gal from Grapevine, and it just seems wonderful to me that those folks could get such pleasure from getting beat up on.  But I guess them boys in the honky-tonks on U.S. 81 must get into some of the same thang on Saturday nights.  Only they’ll fix you up for free.  Or maybe for a few beers.”

I was surprised to get a call at work from Callie the next day, since we had said our goodbyes that night.  Sounding more serious than I thought she could be, she urged me to meet her for lunch.  I agreed, and found myself waiting at a very modest Mexican restaurant near the office.  Callie breezed in with a smile for a familiar face on the staff, then sat down across from me with a concerned frown and got straight to the point.

“Tony, I’m worried about our Jean.  She’s changed.”

“I guess we all change.  What specifically worries you?”

“It ain’t easy to put your finger on.  She seems sad, then angry, then vague, in ways she didn’t used to.”

“She seems to laugh a lot when you’re around.”

“I try to jolly her up when I can.  But we did some serious talking the other day, and she’s not the same.  Do you know of anything that’s bothering her?”

I didn’t know exactly how to answer her.  On the one hand, Callie was an old, close friend.  But was I at liberty to discuss Jean’s psyche behind her back?  I had talked to Marina somewhat along those lines, true, but they didn’t know each other; besides, I was talking mainly about myself.

“She has her ups and downs.  What do you think it could be?” I asked Callie.

Now Callie hesitated.  “Damn!”  She looked away.  “I hate having to tiptoe around something, like crossing a field full of cow pies in your Sunday shoes.”  Finally, “What has Jean told you about her life before she knew you?”

“Not a lot in detail.  Growing up, going to school.  Friends, family.  A couple of old boyfriends.”

“She mention Thump Wofford?”

“Hard to forget that name.  But the name is about all I ever heard.  I didn’t want to know much about old boyfriends.”

“How did she take her father’s death?”

“Pretty well.  No tears.”

Callie nodded.  “She ever depressed?”

“Sometimes.”

Callie thought silently for a while.  “Tony, as far as I can tell, you’re a pretty good old boy, and I think you wish Jean well.”

“I do.  I love her.”

“I think we both don’t want to break confidences.  I respect that, and hope you do.  If there’s anything I’m not telling you, it’s not anything that ought to make you think less of her.  So don’t hold it against her.”  She took out a notebook and wrote, then tore out a page and gave it to me.  “Here are my numbers–the second one is work.  If you ever think Jean is in any kind of trouble, give me a call.  I want to help her if I can.”

“I will.  Thanks.”

I thought about that meeting a good bit.  Since Callie had not seen Jean in some time, she may have seen changes that were too subtle for me to notice since I saw her every day.  I felt guilty, too; in my preoccupation with work and my crazy hallucinations, I guess I hadn’t been giving Jean the attention I should.  On the other hand, she was sometimes almost hostile, and often seemed to prefer playing computer games to accepting my attention.  But was my attention just a selfish gambit for sex?  Well, sometimes.  I vowed to be more attentive and sensitive.

My vow was almost immediately challenged.  For a few days after Callie’s visit, Jean was cheerful and sociable.  Then she began to retreat into the fantasy world of the computer games.  One day I discovered a disc of birth control pills in the bathroom.

“What’s this?  I didn’t think we needed these.”  I was casual, not accusatory, just making conversation.  I guess I wasn’t thinking sensitively enough, for Jean blew up.

“What business is it of yours?  It’s my body.”

“I thought we were trying to have a baby.  I know our luck has been bad, but I didn’t know we had given up.”

“What makes you assume that I’m just going to be a breeder?”

I was taken aback.  It was a topic that hadn’t come up in a while.  I guess I thought that if we stopped obsessing and trying so hard, it might happen.

“I don’t assume that.  I just didn’t know you’d changed your mind.  Couldn’t we discuss it?  It involves us both.”

“Oh, right.  You carry the fetus for nine months, get stretch marks, take care of it for years.”

“I had looked forward to taking care of it, if we got lucky.”

“Lucky!  We’re lucky I didn’t get pregnant.  You have no right to tell me what to do and what not to do.  You have no right to expect anything of me, or to assume anything about me.”

I was getting pissed off.  At the moment, I couldn’t see that this might be coming from somewhere else, for it was aimed at me.  “Can’t I assume you want what you say you want unless you tell me otherwise?”

“You never hear me.”

“You never say anything.  You’re always playing games.”

“Well, hear this.  I don’t want a baby.  And I don’t want sex.”  She turned back to the screen and punched the keyboard.

I caught my anger before things could escalate further.  “Jean.  Please.  I’m listening as hard as I can.”  I tried to hold her hand, but she jerked it away.  “I wouldn’t presume to dictate to you, but I’m involved with you, I love you, I’m married to you.  We share things.  Please tell me what’s wrong, what I’m doing wrong.  I want you to be happy with me.”

“Go away.  Leave me alone.”

“OK.  But I’ll talk whenever you’re ready.”  She didn’t answer.  I was upset, but hoped to try to talk seriously when she was calmer and I was more prepared.  That occasion did not come for days, and in the interim Jean maintained a hostile silence.  I thought of Toby searching for his lost son, and thought of my own prospects for fatherhood.  I had been attributing all the concern about having a baby to Jean.  Now I realized that I too had hopes and plans.  A child might give some depth to our marriage, might bring us closer together.

Eventually we edged cautiously into a conversation about some of these topics.  I came home to find Jean cooking dinner for a change.  We had a civilized meal.  Then Jean calmly and plausibly told me that since she had gotten interested in the business and had taken on the responsibility of representing the family interests on the board, she didn’t think it would be a good time for starting a family, and that she thought I realized that.  She added that she was taking the pill to prevent an ectopic pregnancy, which might further hurt her chances of a normal conception.  Also, the pill might increase her fertility when she stopped taking it.

I agreed with her arguments, and said that I was sorry if I had been too preoccupied to anticipate them.  While we were talking without anger, I tried to broaden the conversation.

“Jean, you’ve seemed out of my reach for a good while.  I don’t just mean sexually.  What can we do to get close again?  What can I do?  Should we go to a counselor?”

“No.”  That came quickly.  Then she hesitated.  “Don’t worry.  You might take me out once in a while.  I think I play games so much because I’m bored.”

“Whatever you want.  What would you like to do?”

Jean thought a moment.  “Well, I haven’t been to a gallery opening in a long time.  Mother passed this invitation along; it’s this Saturday.”  She dug a card out of the desk.   It was an exhibit of woman painters at the Artemisia Gallery.

“Sure.  We’ll go out for dinner afterwards.”

That night, Jean was in bed before me, and reached for me when I lay down in a way that I had sorely missed.  Later, she said softly, “Maybe I will try to find a therapist of some sort.”

“Good.  Everybody needs some help now and then.”

The opening was at one of the less pretentious galleries near University Park, but it gave some of the more arty members of Dallas society a chance to dress up, shmooze, and sip white wine.  Jean ran into a few old acquaintances who cooed and complained about her being invisible.  Where had she been?  I began looking at the paintings, not all of which were abstract impressionist.  Some suggested to me an almost musical sense of rhythm.  Then I turned a corner and saw something startlingly familiar.  It was a horse, a hawk, a woman, and Clio’s face emerging from twisting colors.  Next to it was another, similar in style, and somehow familiar, but different.  I didn’t need to check the card to know that it was also by Clio.  Emerging from the patterns of color was a golden shape, a cello.  Could the back and arms embracing the cello be mine?

 

Toby stood in a modest-sized church, contemplating the flat brass effigy of a knight.  The knight wore chain-mail; his crossed feet rested on a dog, who bit on the tip of his sheathed sword.  The knight’s palms were pressed together, and the shield covering his left arm bore the figure of a trumpet.  An old man in a black cassock approached, scratching the gray stubble on his chin.

“Good old Sir Roger,” he said, gesturing toward the brass. “A crusader, he was.  There is something military about you too, young sir, if I be not mistaken.  Shall I show you the other monuments of our church?”

“Thank you sir, but not today.”  The old man looked disappointed.  “But you may be able to help me.  I was indeed a soldier.  I have just come from the Low Countries.  I arrived to find my wife dead of the plague, and my child I know not where.”

“God save them.”

“Amen.”

“How may I help, young sir?”

“Do you know of a Pernis family?”

“Oh, aye.  Look here.”  He pointed to another brass, a smaller figure of a woman kneeling.  “That is the monument of Agnes Perneys, buried here in my father’s time.  Her grandson lives yet in the grange cottage.”  Here the old man laid his finger aside his nose and spoke conspiratorially about an old local scandal.  “Her son was a prodigal, though he avoided lying with swine.  He left his own son little more than the cottage.”

“Would the present Master Pernis have a son named Harry, apprenticed in London?”

The old man frowned and shook his head.  “I cannot recall a Harry.  But you may ask Master Pernis himself.”

 

I did not see this meeting, but next found Toby, sad and weary, riding along a muddy road approaching a town.  The fields on either side of the road were covered in the stubble of recently harvested grain.  As he continued into the town, it became clear that the handsome buildings flanking the street were institutions of some sort, but it was not until I saw the magnificent perpendicular gothic of King’s College Chapel that I recognized Cambridge.  Opposite the chapel was another church, behind which was a marketplace where Toby followed a group of people.

A crowd had gathered in a corner of the market around a wooden platform resting on barrels that stood in front of a curtain hung from a scaffold.  Toby dismounted and led his horse to the edge of the crowd.  A man emerged from behind the curtain, blew a trumpet, and retired.  Then a group of colorfully costumed actors entered, two crowned like a king and queen, the latter a young man made up like an old woman.  These two sat in chairs, the only props on the stage, and the other four men arranged themselves so that three stood by the royal thrones while the fourth, whose costume was especially ornate, stood as the focus of the others’ attention.  The king spoke in a well-projected and articulate voice: “Now say, Chatillion, what would France with us?”  Chatillion replied that France would go to war unless the king handed over the English crown to his nephew, Arthur.  The king then refused with dramatic defiance, and dismissed the Frenchman.  Toby’s horse stamped restlessly, but his master stared at the play, enraptured.  In a private moment, the queen, the king’s mother, actually admitted that justice might not be on the side of the English king.

Two new characters entered and faced the king.  One was thin and moved awkwardly; the other was stout and confident.  The thin one professed to be the heir of Sir Robert Faulconbridge, and claimed that his brother was illegitimate, and could not claim his land.  The confident one made witty replies that drew laughs from the audience.  The king and queen conferred and decided that the confident one must be the bastard of Richard the Lionhearted. The queen offered the witty young man a choice: would he rather be the legitimate heir of Sir Robert and get his land, or would he rather be the bastard of Richard Plantagenet?  He chose the latter, and the king knighted him and recruited him for the war with France.  The bastard continued the scene with a soliloquy which delighted the crowd.  Toby, in spite of the loss of his Joan and the so far fruitless search for his Will, laughed with them when the bastard said,

 

A foot of honor better than I was,

But many a many foot of land the worse.

Well, now can I make any Joan a lady.

 

Again the horse stamped and shook his head, and Toby reluctantly led him toward an inn near the marketplace.  After leaving his horse with the ostler and his bag and viol with the landlord, he hurried back to the play.  He missed most of the second act, but arrived in time for another soliloquy by the bastard, in which he began by condemning “commodity,” expediency or self-interest.

 

And why rail I on this commodity?

But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:

Not that I have the power to clutch my hand

When his fair angels would salute my palm,

But for my hand, as unattempted yet,

Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.

Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail,

And say there is no sin but to be rich;

And being rich, my virtue then shall be

To say there is no vice but beggary.

Since kings break faith upon commodity,

Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

 

Toby stood attentively as the play rolled out scenes of courtly intrigue in France and Italy, smiled with anticipated pleasure every time the bastard entered, shook his head at the duplicity of King John, scowled at the evil papal legate, drank in the rhetoric of Lady Constance, and wept at the scene in which the boy Arthur persuades his reluctant executioner not to burn out his eyes.  He joined the crowd in cheering the bastard’s heroic and patriotic boasts.

After the play, Toby returned to the inn and ordered supper. As he was eating, the actor who had played the bastard entered the inn and called for wine.  He was a handsome, muscular young man with a square face.  Several of the patrons complimented his performance, and offered to treat for the wine, calling him “Master Sly.”  Toby listened closely to some of their conversation.

“Tis an ill wind that blows no good, as they say,” said one young man.  “The plague is bad for London, but it has blown you and your fellows to Cambridge.”

“Good for you, mayhap,” said Sly, “but tis hard to be from London.  Our theater there is new and convenient, and we get enough custom to keep us from beggary.  Why, we sometimes perform before two thousand.  But here in the country, tis hard going. This house has fair wine, but I am lousy from the bedclothes.”

“Or the chambermaid,” said another young man, to general laughter.

“Nay, never!” said the actor with a straight face, as if gallantly defending the maid.  “The bedclothes provide the lice; the chambermaid fleas and the pox.”  This sally brought almost as much laughter as his lines in the play.  Toby looked disappointed, as if he expected better from the royal bastard.

 

Toby approached his mother-in-law’s cottage in Lincolnshire.  When he saw a stout man with a halberd standing in front of the door, he pulled down his hat and passed on down the road.  He caught up with a man in patched leather breeches and a frayed smock driving a cow.

“Good neighbor,” he said.  The man turned, and Toby and I could see that it was Rafe, the young villager who had been at Tilbury with Toby.

“Toby?  Master Tobias I should say?”  Rafe was pleased, but seemed disconcerted by Toby’s prosperous appearance.  Toby got down from his horse and shook Rafe’s hand.

“Well, met friend Rafe.  I was a lieutenant, but always Toby to old friends.”

“Sir James is away, else I should counsel you to ride on.  Will you come and sup for old time’s sake?”

“With all my heart.  I have many questions.”  They walked on, Toby leading his horse, Rafe switching the cow’s rump.  Toby told him of Joan’s death in the plague and of his search for his son.  Rafe shook his head in commisseration, and in answer to Toby’s question as to whether his son had been seen in the village.

“Why was the constable at Mother Crane’s door?”

Rafe looked around nervously.  “God save us, she’s a witch.  She’s before the magistrate e’en now.”

“A witch?  Why is she accused?”

“The miller’s daughters, Nell and Frances, say she bewitched them, and makes them fall into fits.”

“And her trial is today?”

“E’n now.”

“Good Rafe, I must go.  She is but a poor old woman.  I cannot think it of her, that she could be a witch.”

“They say she has confessed.”

“Was she tortured?”

“No more than ordinary.  The vicar bent her fingers, and they ducked her twice in the millpond.”  I remembered her gnarled, arthritic fingers and shuddered.  Toby thanked Rafe for his information and hospitality, mounted, and rode toward the village hall.  The hall was next to the jail, the place where he began his military career.  He gave it a frowning glance as he passed into the hall.

The benches were crowded with people.  At the far end of the hall, an old man in a black gown and flat cap sat at a table. Mother Crane stood nearby behind a rail, a constable with a halberd standing between her and the audience.  A girl of about fourteen sat in a chair on the other end of the magistrate’s table.  She was speaking in hesitant tones, her eyes on her writhing fingers in her lap.

“She made her dog talk to me,” she said.  “He would snuff at me and then speak.”

“What did the dog say?” asked the old man in black.

The girl twisted in her chair.  “He–he said he would lick my privities.”

“Jack did no such thing!” interrupted Mother Crane.

“Quiet, woman!” said the old man.  “Now, Nell, when did this start?”

“Three weeks ago Saturday.  I remember that the Devil came to see her that day.  He had a big black hat pulled down to hide his horns.”

Toby glanced down at his broad-brimmed black hat and his eyes widened.

“How did you know twas the Devil?” asked the old man.

“Why, I saw his hoof.  And– and I smelled sulphur.”

A man on a front bench spoke up.  “What color were his boots?”

The girl closed her eyes.  “Black,” she said.

“How could you see his hoof, then?” asked the man from the bench.  The audience murmured.

“She lies!” shouted Mother Crane.  “I’m no witch.  I defy the Devil.  May God strike me if I be a witch.”

The old man turned to quiet her, and the girl fell out of her chair and began wailing and jerking convulsively.  A man and woman rushed forward and carried her to a bench.

The old man called for silence and the constable banged on the floor with the butt of his halberd.  Consulting a piece of paper from the table, the old man  said, “Mary Crane, you have confessed to carnal knowledge of the Devil in the form of a dog, to casting spells on Frances Hornsby and Nell Hornsby and causing them to fall in fits.  And you have also confessed to causing the death of Sir James’s son, young Simon.”

“I never!” shouted the old woman.  Toby looked at her in shock.  She turned toward another man in black on the front bench.  “You tormented me!  You put words in my mouth!”

This man rose.  He was younger than the magistrate, and wore a pointed beard.  Turning halfway to Mother Crane and halfway toward the audience, he began to speak.  “Would that Sir James or Mistress Audrey were here.  They would testify as to how young Master Simon called out in his fever, saying how he was bewitched, and how his head and neck hurt him.  But the torments that poor Master Simon suffered, and much less the small pains you experienced, will be as nothing to those eternal torments you will suffer, Mary Crane, unless you repent of your evil traffic and beg for Christ’s mercy.  Think on your soul, woman, and its never-ending burning!  Confess your sins, so that you may abjure the Devil and his works and repent, for unless you confess, your repentance is of no worth.”

During this speech, Mother Crane drooped, leaned back against the wall, and began to weep.  A man on one of the rear benches turned and looked at Toby with a flicker of recognition. He nudged his neighbor and whispered in his ear.  The neighbor turned and looked at Toby, then nodded to the first man.  Toby slipped out the door at the back of the hall.  A man was piling branches at the foot of a stake in the square.  Toby mounted and rode south.  He had ridden about three miles when he topped a steep hill and looked back.  A plume of smoke rose in the distance.

 

Jean enjoyed the art show, made dates for other outings with some of her old acquaintances, and seemed to be in good spirits for some time after.  We were actually friendly toward each other.  Afraid of rocking a boat that seemed to be sailing well enough, I didn’t return to the topics of our past conversations or discuss my meeting with Callie.  Jean actually went several whole days without playing a computer game.  But in a few weeks her depression returned.  Since she had agreed to the possibility of seeing a therapist, it was not as much of a struggle as it might have been to convince her that now was the time to do so.

One night when I came home from work, Jean greeted me with an intense, excited air.  “I just had my first therapy session today.  I think it’s going to be good for me.”

“Great!  Was this with the guy Dr. Bassett recommended?”

“No, this is someone Gigi goes to.  I had heard good things about her, and she seemed very sympathetic and easy to talk to.”

“Good.  I’m glad to hear you feel good about it.  I want to help if I can.  If she wants me to participate, let me know.”

“I don’t think that will come up.  She says that it’s just between us, and that I shouldn’t discuss our sessions with anyone.”

“Including me?”

“Especially you.”  She smiled and patted my cheek.  “Don’t be threatened.”

“I’ll try.  Can you tell me her name?”

“Jenkins.  Dr. Barbara Jenkins.  She’s about forty, sort of glamorous.  I feel as though I’ve known her a long time.”

I was pleased that Jean was seeing someone who might help her avoid her depressions.  I wondered about trying to find someone who might help me with my weird hallucinations.  But I had so compartmentalized them by then that I didn’t worry about them much.  Besides, I rather enjoyed them–they were my private late movie.  I was almost eager to find out what Toby was going to do next.

 

Toby continued to wander, asking after Harry Pernis and Will Hume.  Eventually his  horse disappeared–sold, probably–and Toby trudged, his viol on his back.  Instead of ordering a room at an inn, he would sneak into a barn or crawl into a haystack.  Instead of roast beef, he would order bread and cheese at poor taverns and alehouses.  He grew thinner and his clothes more worn.  Once a hunter fired a gun near a haystack where he was sleeping, and he woke staring and crying out for Captain Hall.

In one town he was stopped by two men with staves and badges.  He showed them his passport.  One handed it back, shaking his head.

“This be old, if it be true at all.  And it only permits you to go to Lincolnshire and back to London.  This be Hampshire.  Get you back on the road to London.  If we find you here again, it will be the stocks or worse.  There be too many of you sturdy beggars about.”

Toby tried to explain that he was searching for his son, but the officers were not buying.  He had to turn back toward London.  That night he found a country tavern where he earned a few pence and a meal with his viol.

 

Another day Toby approached a large inn in a town, probably hoping to play for his supper.  The inn had a sign depicting St. George slaying the dragon.  From the graceful spire dominating the other buildings of the town, I guessed it to be Salisbury.  When Toby tried to enter the innyard, however, he was asked to pay, for the players were performing.  He found a smaller alehouse and played for the few customers there; they tried to ignore him, and paid him nothing.  After a while he returned to the George, where he found the performance over and the players packing their wagon.  He recognized them as the troupe that performed in Cambridge, and approached the one named Sly, who was lashing some timbers to the side of the wagon.

“Master Sly,” Toby addressed the actor, who seemed only mildly surprised.  “I saw you perform in Cambridge.  May I buy you a pint of ale?  I would offer you wine had I the money.”

Sly looked more annoyed than grateful.  “Thank you, but we must be off at first light in the morning, and we have much packing to do.”

“Allow me to help with the packing, then, and we shall have a better relish for our ale.”

“Suit yourself.  Put down your fiddle and help Harry with those timbers.”

Toby ran to help a young man dragging two large timbers.  He picked up the other ends and asked Harry if he were kin to the Pernis family of Cambridgeshire.  Harry answered that his name was Bolton.  Toby lifted and hauled with a good will until the wagon was loaded.  Then Toby joined Harry, Sly, and the six other members of the company in the common room of the inn.

“I wish I could offer you all a cup of ale,” said Toby to the group, “but I have only sixpence to my name.  I have promised Master Sly–”

“Nay, friend,” interrupted Sly, “we’ll stand you a cup for your help.”  The others nodded.

Toby made a thankful gesture, and spoke.  “You may do me an even greater service, and ’twill be cheaper than ale.  Hear me.”  Toby explained his mission, and the difficulty he had been having with watchmen and magistrates.  Several of the company nodded with understanding.  “I suppose you have license from some nobleman to travel with your plays.  Might I go along with you, and help you pack?  You need not pay me, and I will not hinder you.  I can usually earn bread and beer with my music.”

Sly looked at his fellows, who nodded in consent.  “You are welcome, friend.  Our company is much reduced, for we barely earn our victual in the country; we cannot pay for your help except with our company–though that’s not so cheap a commodity.”  Here all smiled.  “Nor can I promise that our license will keep us from all difficulties.  Some towns welcome us, give us meat and drink, and open their guildhalls for our plays; others pay us for not performing; and others drive us away with contempt.  But you may share our fortunes if you wish.”

Young Harry spoke up.  “Mayhap he could fiddle for the dances and between the acts.”

Sly looked skeptical.  “We shall see.”

Toby thanked them all and shook their hands, introducing himself.

 

Another montage: Toby carefully fitting his viol onto the wagon, and singing along with the others as they set out on a clear, warm morning; Toby slogging in the mud, putting his shoulder to the wagon toiling through the ruts; Toby watching a performance, mouthing his favorite lines; Toby on stage with his viol, playing a sprightly tune as three of the players danced; Toby being asked to share a good meal with the actors after a profitable performance.

For a few weeks the troupe performed in several different villages, but returned every few nights to a country inn at the hub of their activities.  The hostess was a middle-aged widow of ruddy complexion and wide but patchy smile who seemed to enjoy the lively actors and gave them good value.  She was especially welcoming to one of the actors, a stout, bluff man a few years older than the others, named Matthew Whitbread.  He played the parts of Hubert and the papal legate Pandulph in King John and Haleb, Guelpio, and Basilisco in Soliman and Perseda-–like almost all the players, he took more than one role.  Whitbread paid special attention to the widow, leading his fellows to make bawdy jibes at his expense.  Whitbread accepted them in good humor, and began reciting his jucier lines, punctuated with broad gestures, to the blushing widow:

 

I have rejected with contemptable frowns

The sweet glances of many amorous girls,

But I am captured with the reflecting eye

Of that admirable comet Perseda.

I will place her to behold my triumphs,

And do wonders in her sight.

 

Here Whitbread kissed the giggling widow’s hand.

One morning as Toby was helping the actors pack the wagon, Whitbread ambled out with a smug turn of his lips, and addressed them with mock bombast.  “My brothers,” he began with a sweep of his arm.  “Here ends my road.  I take my leave of you.  Cupid hath bound my feet with adamantine chains, and here I stay.”

“Pack your gear, Matt,” said Sly without looking up from his work, “and stop rehearsing.  We play in Yattendon tomorrow.”

“I speak true writ, friends.  Here I stay.  This widow has thirty pounds a year, and loves me body and soul.  We wed tomorrow.”

Sly and Toby both stopped and looked at Whitbread.  “Are you in earnest indeed?” asked Sly.

Whitbread put his hand on his heart and rolled his eyes upward.  “Never moreso.”

“You whoreson striking jack,” Sly declaimed.  “You cracked bell with a leaden clapper.  You would maim our company for thirty pieces of silver and the savor of stale ling on your finger.  A stinking pox on you.”

“Let us not part in anger, friends,” said Whitbread, still in heroic character, soothingly spreading his palms down.  “I forgive all debts owed me.  And the company may keep Basilisco’s sword, rightfully mine though it be.”

“We should circumsize you in earnest with that same sword,” Sly said.  (The character Basilisco turns Turk and is circumsized in Soliman and Perseda.)

All the company stood around at a loss.  Finally, Harry said, “Let’s leave this tapster to his trade, fellows, and be off.  We can cobble together his parts among us.”

The others sullenly agreed, and without a word or backward glance, Sly struck the cart-horse and headed down the road.  Toby and the others followed.

“Fare thee well, gallants,”  called Whitbread to their backs.  “Go forth and ride in triumph through Persepolis for my sake.”

The troupe trudged in silence for a good while, then Sly and the other actors began discussing how to distribute Whitbread’s roles.  There was much head-shaking, frowning, and cursing of Whitbread.  Finally, Sly turned to Toby.

“Friend Toby, could you con a part?”

Toby looked surprised, then pleased, then a bit frightened.

Seeing his hesitation, Sly went on.  “You may take a quarter share.  You have a bit of the soldier about you yet, and might make a plausible Basilisco.  Your speech tangs of the north, but that might suit Basilisco well.”

Several of the others voiced agreement.  Finally Toby said, “I shall try.”

 

Time’s Bending Sickle

February 21, 2011

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16. Time’s Scythe

 

Toby was still in the Low Countries.  It was spring, 1592, and Prince Maurice’s army was preparing to besiege Steenwijk, a town southeast of Groningen, important for the control of Friesland.  Toby and his company were building earthworks, and Captain Hall himself joined Toby and the others in working with spades and wheelbarrows.  Prothero was not to be seen.  One of the soldiers came to Toby with a request and addressed him as “lieutenant.”

Steenwijk, in the distance, looked somewhat different from other cities Maurice had attacked.  The walls were sloping and appeared to be very thick, stone backed with earth, and were configured according to the Italian principles Felix described to Toby at Berwick.

When the earthworks were complete, cannon began firing away at the city.  Toby stood with his hands over his ears, watching the shot kick up dirt, but do little damage to the walls.  Another battery fired heated shot over the walls.  Now and then a plume of smoke followed, but did not last long.  One shot knocked the steeple off a church, to general cheering among the gunners.

Captains Hall and Balfour joined Toby.  “The Spanish,” began Balfour, “call cannon espanta-vellacos, scare-cowards.”

Hall grunted.  “They’re doing no good here.  God’s jawbone!  If we could get the villains out to measure pikes with us, we should see who the cowards were.  All this dikers’ and ditchers’ work makes me wonder about the future of our mystery.”

After what must have been days of cannonading, a delegation came from the town to negotiate.  They filed into the prince’s tent; later they filed out and returned to the town.  The word rapidly spread that the prince would not accept the surrender terms they offered.

The cannon fire from the attackers did not resume, though the forces in the town fired intermittently.  But digging continued in earnest.  A series of protected trenches began creeping toward the main bastions.  Captain Hall picked up a spade full of dirt one afternoon, then dropped it with a cry of pain and clutched at his back.  He fell to the ground in immobilized agony.  Toby and some soldiers put him in a wheelbarrow and carried him, cursing, to his tent.

One dawn, when the diggers had resumed work and were focused on their task, a band of soldiers slipped out of the town and attacked before the guarding troops could respond with sufficient force.  Toby and his company were eating when they heard cries from the trenches.  Flinging aside his dish and plopping his morion on his head, he grasped his pike with his right hand and steadied his sword with his left, and led his men toward the fight.  As he ran, Toby could see men in the ditch trying to ward off pikes with spades, and the small guard force retreating under heavy attack.  Several men lay motionless near the ditch.  The popping of small arms fire increased as the prince’s musketeers ran forward and brought their weapons into play.  A party of the attackers was already dragging some prisoners back toward the town.  Toby scrambled over an earthwork, and several of the Dutch and Spanish soldiers from the town turned to meet him.  One raised a pistol, but it failed to fire.  Toby caught him under the chin with his pike, and blood washed over his breastplate.  Toby barely had time to parry a pike thrust from another soldier with the butt of his own pike.  Toby’s fellows then caught up with him and engaged the enemy with vigor.  Eventually more of the prince’s forces joined the fight and, at a whistled signal, the attackers began retreating to the town.  Toby and his company pressed their opponents until the fire from the walls became too threatening.  As they approached the gates, the members of the sortie turned and taunted the prince’s soldiers.  A panting Dutchman standing near Toby said, “They call us peasants, plowhorses, ditchers.”

Among the many dead and wounded being carried off the field after this encounter Toby saw Sir Francis Vere, grinning in pain and holding his bloody leg, surrounded by distraught Englishmen, one of whom was Sir Francis’ younger brother Horace.  Several of Toby’s company were wounded, and when they were seen to, Toby returned to assist others.  When he got to the part of the trenches where the assault first hit, he stopped and gasped.  There were at least a hundred men lying bloody and still in the trenches or along their banks.  I saw only a handful of dead I recognized as Spanish.

When Toby and another man helped a wounded Englishman they addressed as Captain Buck back to the camp, they saw Hall standing in front of his tent, leaning on his sword, twisted with pain which must have been emotional as well as physical.  He was cursing loudly, invoking various parts of God’s anatomy and his own back.

 

A later scene was curiously quiet.  It was dawn, but no one was digging, and Toby’s company, including a recovered Captain Hall, stood poised just out of range of one of the bastions.  Other units of the prince’s forces stood expectantly.  Hall turned to Toby.

“Hume, which bastion is to go first?”

“I didn’t hear, sir.”

“Well, run back quickly and ask Captain Balfour or Captain Lambert.  We need to be ready.”

Toby dutifully ran back toward a company that would be part of the second wave of what looked like an imminent assault.  He approached Captain Balfour.  “Sir, Captain Hall”–

At that moment a terrific explosion sent the bastion heaving and flying into the air.  Toby and the others flinched.  Toby turned to see an enormous billowing brown cloud flecked with red. On the edge of the cloud one could see several human limbs floating upwards, some of which moved convulsively.  A shoe was flung off one twitching leg.  Dirt and blood began raining down on the upturned faces of Toby and Balfour.  The smell of gunpowder mingled with that of freshly turned earth.  Toby glanced back at his company and screamed as he saw only mound of dirt. Balfour groaned.  “Och, mercy!  The mine blew outward!”  Three other explosions followed rapidly as mines lifted another bastion and a section of the wall into the air, along with fragments of their human occupants.

Toby ran toward the spot where he had left Hall and his company.  He could see a foot moving at the edge of the pile of earth, and began frantically digging with his hands.  In the meantime, drums and trumpets could be heard signalling an attack, and troops shouted and rushed forward.  Toby continued to dig, uncovering a leg, which he grasped and pulled.  The leg was not attached to a body, and Toby dropped it with a horrified expression.  He then saw a hand, the fingers of which made desperate beckoning motions.  Toby dug and pulled until he uncovered the man’s head.  He brushed the dirt from his face and blew in his mouth.  The man showed some signs of life, and Toby resumed digging.  The noise around him rose and fell.  Finally, he dragged the soldier from the mound.  When the rescued soldier indicated that he was breathing on his own, Toby turned back to the mound, searching for another survivor.  The mound was huge, and nothing moved.  After scrabbling here and there, Toby returned to the soldier, who lay on one elbow, spitting and rubbing his eyes.  Toby fell to his knees, covered his face, and sobbed.

 

Toby knelt on one knee before Prince Maurice.  They were in some building in the town.  The plaster on the walls and ceiling was cracked, and through the broken windows one could see several seriously damaged buildings.  The prince urged Toby to rise, and began speaking to him in French, his speech slightly inhibited by a bandage covering his left cheek.  He said, in effect, that he had great sorrow for the loss of Toby’s gallant captain and his company, that Toby’s request for a passport back to England would be granted, that he would send letters with him, and that his services would be welcomed if he chose to return.  Toby thanked him profusely in English, French, and Dutch, then left the room.

 

Toby knocked on the door of Jan van Meergen’s house in the city where he had spent the winter the year before.  The sleepy servant admitted him, and Van Meergen soon greeted him warmly, dragging him into a parlor that looked like something out of Vermeer and calling for wine, bread, and cheese.

“I missed our music this winter,” said Toby.  “I tried to send you letters, but it proved too difficult.”

“We missed you as well, my dear Hoom.  But I have taken care of your viol, and kept it in fresh strings.”

“Thank you.  I wish I could stay and make music with you and your friends, but I am carrying letters for England, and must move as quickly as I can.”

“Of course.  When shall you return?”

“I cannot tell.”  Toby looked down and stammered.  “I . . . I may try to make my way with music in London.  I was once a tutor, and may be again.”  He spoke very softly, still looking down.  “I have lost much in these wars.”

Ja, ja, war is bad, bad, bad,” said Van Meergen, shaking his head.  “But can you truly not  lodge here tonight?  And maybe play a very little music?”

“Thank you, I wish I might, but I must try to gain Flushing by nightfall.”  Toby drank his wine and rose.  “Thank you for your kind hospitality, and for taking my viol as a guest.”

Van Meergen rose and called for the servant to fetch Toby’s viol.  Toby hesitated.

“One favor I shall beg of you.  May I see Merlin’s glass once more?”

“Of course.”  They mounted the stairs to the “wonder chamber,” and Van Meergen drew out the crystal and handed it to Toby.  Toby looked into it for several minutes, frowning in concentration.  Then he shook his head, sighed, and returned it to his host.

 

Toby was mounted on a large old horse, his viol case thumping gently on its flank.  It was warm but a wet cloud was on the horizon.  At the edge of a village, two men carrying staves and wearing badges on their coats stopped him and asked, in English, for his passport.  He handed them a paper and showed them a packet.  “These are letters from Prince Maurice to my Lord Burghley and her Majesty’s Privy Council.”  The men looked at him skeptically, laboriously read over the passport, and returned it to him.

“You may ride on,” said the older of the men.  “But the word is that the plague is in London, and it is like that the lords have removed themselves.  Have a care.”

 

London, Visscher’s view.  Toby rode up a hill overlooking Southwark, the square tower of St. Mary Overie, and to the right, London Bridge.  Across the river, one could pick out the Tower east of the bridge, and the imposing bulk of gothic Paul’s to the west.  Toby rode on until he was on the broad street called Long Southwark leading to the bridge.  As he rode up to the arched gateway to the series of five- and six-story buildings that covered the bridge, he looked up at several dark, round objects stuck on poles above the arch.  Toby did a shocked double take at the same time as I recalled that these were human heads, placed there after their owners lost them for treason or some other felony.  As Toby passed along through the arch, the passage narrowed because of the shops on the lower floors of the buildings.  It was also rather dark, because the buildings, except for an occasional gap, covered the main passage.  Most of the shops sold cloth and miscellaneous goods, gloves, hats, stockings, though I did see a grocer and a saddler.  If the plague was present, there were no signs of it yet, for the street was full of people, and the shopkeepers stood by their doors and urged them to buy their wares.

Toby emerged from the bridge, and perhaps remembering that the Tower was on his right, turned down Eastcheap.  He would occasionally lean down from his horse and ask directions of the citizens, with varying results.  Some brusquely said they had no time, some laughed contemptuously, others offered to guide him for a fee.  Eventually he saw several men I recognized as soldiers by their jerkins or short coats with sleeves.  One wore the tangerine cloak of the earl of Essex’s men; he kindly told Toby that the court was at Greenwich.  He continued with directions, for which Toby thanked him and rode off, occasionally looking around at the crowded streets and the showy clothes of the citizens, as he retraced his steps and crossed the bridge, following the road east.

 

Toby rode up to the turreted gates of Greenwich Palace.  On his left flowed the Thames, and the impressive stone building stretched along the bank.  He showed his passport and packet of letters to one of the guard, while another held his horse, studying the viol case with curiosity.  The guardsman sent him on through several further gates and doors.  Gaudily dressed courtiers hastened or idled through the corridors.  Out one door he could see a bit of geometric garden alive with brilliant flowers and brightly painted carvings of lions, unicorns, and griffins atop tall poles.  A haughty middle-aged steward in elegant black velvet with a chain about his neck led him down yet another corridor, asked him to wait, and after a few minutes ushered him into a room where an old man sat at a table reading papers.  A younger man, a secretary, sat further down the table, writing.  Lord Burghley was a spare, neat man with a forked gray beard, prominent nose, and sunken lips suggesting a lack of teeth.  He was dressed in a black gown and cap, a pleated white ruff around his neck.  He looked up with an alert glance.

“You have letters from the Low Countries?”

“Yes, an it please your lordship.”  Toby handed over the packet.

“Please be at your ease.  Your name, lieutenant?”

“Tobias Hume, your lordship.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Hume.”  He broke open the packet and began to read.  After a while he looked up.  “Your company was killed at Stenwick?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“How did you escape?”

“By hap, my lord.  My captain sent me to question another officer just before the mine was sprung.”

“Your captain’s name?”

“Captain Hall, my lord.”

“Captain Hall’s company was in the pay of the prince, and not her majesty, as I recall.  A sad loss, in any case.  Was the prince’s wound serious?”

“It did not appear to be so, my lord.  I was told he removed the bullet himself.  It did not seem to give him pain.”

The old man nodded and resumed reading.  After a time, he picked up his pen gingerly, as if his hand were sore, and made some notes.  Then he looked up at Toby with an appraising gaze.

“When do you return?  We must send some of our English companies from the Low Countries into France.  They need experimented soldiers.”

Toby hesitated.  “An it please your lordship, I have been given leave to see to some business I have in England.”

“Well.  If that be the case, you may go.  Thank you for your pains.”  The old man nodded to the steward, who gave Toby a small purse, and gestured toward the door.

Toby hesitated, and then spoke.  “Begging your pardon, your lordship.  If I may be so bold, I would trouble your lordship for a passport.  To Lincolnshire and back to London.”

The lord looked up at Toby for a second.  “Very well.”  He nodded to the secretary, who found a fresh sheet of paper, wrote a few moments, sprinkled sand on the paper, and handed it to Burghley.  The old man signed it and pressed a seal into a blob of red wax.  “I had rather this were for France.  Fare you well, lieutenant.”

“Thank you, my lord.  Your grateful servant.”

 

It was dark when Toby approached London Bridge for the third time.  A number of buildings along Long Southwark had signs hanging over their doors–I noticed a spur, a buck, a bull, and one old house with a sort of sleeveless coat on its sign. Perhaps it was the Tabard, from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set forth; Stowe mentioned it in his Survey of 1598.  Toby stopped at the Bull.  He led his horse into the courtyard, where he was met by a boy of about twelve, who took the horse’s reins and pointed toward the common rooms.  Toby unpacked his viol and a leather bag.  Soon he was seated at one end of a long table with a foaming tankard and a plate of roast beef and mustard, boiled greens of some sort, bread, and cheese.  As he ate, using a spoon, his own dagger, and his fingers, he listened to a group of men at the other end of the table discussing the news.

One, a portly man with a thin beard and a grease-spattered doublet, smoked a white clay pipe, one of the few Toby had seen since coming from the Low Countries.  “I hear,” he said, “that there were two died of the plague in Billingsgate on Tuesday last.”

“I heard that the two died of a surfeit of eels,” said a lean, skeptical-looking man.

A third, an older man in black, said, “But do you know it to be the same two?”

The first man puffed on his pipe and said complacently, “Let it come.  I shall smoke it away, and if it get too hot, I shall go lie at Guildford at my brother’s.”

“If it come,” said the lean man, “I shall away to Cambridge. Mayhap it will carry off that traitorous Jesuit, Southwell.”

“But not Sir Walter Ralegh, who lies in the Tower also,” said the first.  “He is the patron saint of all tobacco-drinkers.”

The old man said dryly, “Who gives the grace of pride to his worshippers.”

The maid who led Toby to his chamber was not exactly pretty, but she was young and shapely.  She gave a number of coquettish glances and wiggles which Toby seemed to ignore.  Her parting question, “Will that be all, sir?” implied that she had many interesting services to offer, but Toby dismissed her with thanks and a small tip.  Toby crawled into bed and seemed to fall asleep, when he sat up with a start and a cry: “Captain Hall!”

 

Toby appeared on the outskirts of the Lincolnshire village he had left four years before.  He cut a more substantial figure now, with his military jerkin and boots, rapier, and horse.  His beard was fuller, and he was a bit heavier.  His sloping eyebrows still gave him an innocent look, but they also seemed to reflect some of the loss and pain he had experienced.  He stopped at a farmhouse and bargained with the tenant to feed and water his horse and keep him safe for a few hours.  Then, pulling his hat low over his face, he set out walking in the direction of a mill about half a mile away.  Looking at once eager and anxious, he approached a poor cottage near the mill.  The wattle and daub walls were cracking, and the thatched roof was old and patchy.  A dog ran out and barked at him, and an old woman came to the door.

“Mother Crane?  It’s Toby.”

The old woman peered at Toby and spat.  “I be no bastard’s mother.”

“Where’s Joan?”

“In Lonnon.”

Toby looked both worried and exasperated.  “I came from London.  Where in London is she?  What does she there?”

“No thanks to you, she is in service.  Sir James found her a place.”

“Where?  I want to be with her as a husband ought.  Did you get the money I sent?”

“We’ve seen no money, not since the captain was here.”

Toby looked distressed.  He took out a purse, withdrew a coin, and pressed it in the old woman’s hand.  “This should give you some relief.  Now where is Joan?”

The old woman looked at the coin and allowed two upper teeth to be seen.  “She and the child left a year ago Candlemas.  She went to serve Master Finch, an oil merchant at the sign of the Golden Hind in Cornhill.”

“The child?  Is it a manchild?  Its name?”

“Why, tis Will.  A froward little lad, he is.  Did you not know?”

“No.”  Toby’s looks reflected a complex play of feelings. “Is there news of Sir James and his family?  Are they well?”

“Alas, no.  The young master died of a fever this past winter.  Mistress Audrey keeps house for Sir James since Mistress Jane married her knight.  I know not where she lives now.”

“Do you recall the knight’s name?”

“Sir Andrew.  Sir Andrew–I cannot tell what.”

 

Toby’s ride back to London seemed more intense, more in haste.  He crossed London Bridge in such a hurry that several citizens cursed him for jostling them.  He rode up Bridge Street, into Gracechurch Street, and, after asking directions, turned left onto Cornhill.  He noticed that a few houses had crosses or “Lord have mercy on us” chalked on closed doors.  The street was quiet except for the barking and howling of a dog behind one of the doors.  At the sign of the Golden Hind, Toby dismounted and stopped abruptly at the door, which bore a large white cross.  He pounded on the door, but got no answer.

Just then, a man with a gray pointed beard came out of a house two doors down, and began fussing with the lock.  He had on boots and was carrying a large bag of coarse cloth.  He looked at Toby standing before the closed door, then called out, “You’ll get no answer there.  They have either perished or gone away.”

Toby approached the man, who gestured that he should keep a certain distance.  “Who has died here?”

“Master, mistress, and maid.”

“Did a woman named Joan, with a child, live here?”

“Aye, God rest her soul.”

“She’s dead?”

“Aye, just after Mistress Finch, Friday last.  But the child may be yet living.”

“For God’s sake, good sir, help me.  I am that child’s poor father.”

The man shook his head in sympathy.  “He went to the country with the apprentice just day before yesterday.  We can pray that they escape the infection.”

“Where did they go?”

“I know not, to my sorrow.  The apprentice I know only as Harry.  He is a tall lad of fifteen or thereabouts, black hair, with a scar just here.”  The man touched his right cheek.  “The lad has a good heart, and was fond of the child.”

“Can you or any neighbor tell me more that I might find them?”

The man shifted his bag and frowned in thought.  He shook his head.  “I am just leaving, as you see, and so have our neighbors opposite.  Mistress Finch had a quarrel with Mistress Hunter next door, so there was little talk between their houses.  Mayhap Master Barton at the Bear could tell you something.  Or the vicar at St. Peter’s church may know where the lad might go.  His speech tanged somewhat of the north, but not so much as yours.”

Toby thanked the man, and with pale and pained face, hurried toward the house with the sign of the Bear.  The mistress, a worried-looking woman who looked forty but who was probably not thirty, also knew the apprentice only as Harry.  She offered little other help.

At the church, he found the vicar, a fat, youngish man with a wisp of beard and rosy cheeks; he had a sleepy expression and yawned several times while telling Toby that Harry’s name was Pernis, and that he was from no further north than Cambridgeshire.

“How bad is the plague?” asked Toby.

“Not bad yet, thank God.  Some have fallen on Cornhill and neighbor streets, and some have left.  But I hear of few other deaths in other wards.  Many Londoners would not leave if the plague had visited at every other door, they are so tied to their business and fearful of losing a farthing in trade.”   He yawned again.  “I have watched all night with one of my parishoners. God has blessed me by allowing me to survive the plague as a child, so now I am a safe person.  I may not die of the plague, but I may of watching.”

Toby thanked the vicar and mounted his horse.  His viol case still bumping behind him, he rode out through Bishopsgate, then west along the city wall till he got to Cripplegate.  Then he struck out to the north, not seeming to notice that, on his left, he was passing the Charterhouse.

Time’s Bending Sickle

February 5, 2011

For previous chapters, scroll down or go to the archives.

15. To Entertain the Time

“No more punch cards?” The Hopkins registrar’s assistant was incredulous. We had signed the contracts, and I was walking some of the staff through the new system.
“No more. One more run will put the stuff you have on cards onto the discs. Then you won’t have to punch another card.”
I handed out manuals, ran over the contents briefly, and emphatically pointed out the toll-free number printed in large figures on the front and back. “Your time is valuable, and you are paying for ours. So don’t hesitate to use this number if you can’t find the answer to your question in the manual in two minutes.”
Marina looked on this session with a smile that reflected those of the staff. Some of the latter had been unhappy at the prospect of taking on a new procedure, but they got happier as they learned what it could do for them. Even the fussy registrar seemed satisfied.
I repeated my invitation to the members of the committee to dine with me at Cullen’s expense. Again, all declined but Marina.
“Actually, there are other plans afoot,” said Marina. “Of course I arranged for a quartet session at Clio’s. She insisted on having us all for dinner first.”
I remembered all the serious equipment in Clio’s kitchen and accepted with pleasure. We agreed to meet at Clio’s at seven. I stopped by my hotel and called home and office, then picked up a nice bottle of Beaujolais nouveau and one of Sancerre. I pulled up before the wedge-shaped house a little before seven.
The face that met me at the door was like that on the painting, but it moved. Clio had a very expressive face, and for the rest of the evening it was rarely in total repose. I described the face in the painting as “strong.” I suppose I meant it was not conventionally pretty, for the features were generous rather than delicate. Her green eyes were large and her lips were full. She wore no makeup, and her straight brown hair was held back with a clip. She wore a chambray shirt and jeans. I guessed her to be about thirty.
“You must be Tony. I’m Clio Novak. Come in.” Her voice was an alto with rich overtones, and her handshake was strong.
“Thanks. It’s good to meet you, though I feel that I met a bit of you when I was here before.”
“That’s right, you were my watchdog when I was gone. You sure didn’t leave any tracks.”
“I hope you didn’t mind my crashing here. I felt lousy, and Marina and the others insisted that I stay.”
“I’m glad you did.”
We had been standing inside the door. I held out the wine I had brought. “I tried to cover the possibilities.”
“Oh, thanks. Love them both, but I think the Sancerre will be best tonight. I’ll get it cold and finish up a few things in the kitchen.” She took the wine and started toward the kitchen, then stopped and smiled knowingly. “Would you like to get the cello out and warm it up?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
She pouted. “No one loves me for myself alone and not my yellow cello.”
“It’s a wonderful cello. Your father’s?”
“Yes,” she called out from the refrigerator.
“Was he a professional?”
“No, but he could have been.” She went to the closet and pulled out the cello case. “He didn’t get to play this very much. He was a lawyer, and hated most of his work. But he made a lot of money, and when he was sixty, he bought this cello. When he was sixty-six, he died.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Me too. But he had a good six years. His other cello wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sing like this one. Here,” she said, pushing it toward me. “Let’s hear it. I’ve got to cook.”
I took it carefully out of the case, adjusted the end pin, tightened and rosined the bow, and took a few tuning strokes. Suddenly I was nervous and self-conscious. I felt as if I were auditioning. I began playing the Bach suite I knew best, the third, the one that begins with a descending C-major scale. The cello seemed to jump in response, and I soon forgot everything but the music. When I looked up, Marina, Doreen, and Alice had arrived and Clio was leaning out of the kitchen door, wiping her hands on a plain white apron.
“If you can tear him away,” called Clio, “we’re about ready to eat.”
Dinner was delicious. There was fresh sole in a subtle sauce, wild rice, homemade rolls, and a salad of avocado, grapefruit, and poppyseed dressing. A killer dessert of intense but light chocolate mousse came with rich, dark-roasted coffee. The conversation was lively and jolly. It wasn’t until days after that I realized that there might have been anything unusual about being the only man among four women, for I felt perfectly comfortable. There was some in-group conversation, but also deliberate efforts to annotate it for me, and include me in the discussions. Alice asked Marina about someone named Barbara, and then told me she was Marina’s housemate. Somehow they got me to tell about Wizardware and Tom Backscheider’s attitude toward paté.
Clio contributed easily and naturally, but mainly listened. As we finished our coffee, she rose and said, “Now go play while I get my paint going. I can clean up when I’m painted out.”
We obliged, and plunged into Beethoven’s opus 18, the first one with the drawn-gold slow movement, moving on to the first of his opus 59. We hit a few snags in this one; Alice, who was playing first, repeated what almost every first violinist says about that part, that it was harder than the concerto.
Between movements I could see Clio painting away. When we finished the Beethoven, she called out, “How about a Shostakovitch?”
We obliged with the eighth, the powerful, tragic piece Shostakovitch dedicated to the victims of fascism and war after visiting Dresden; it was also a reflection on his own life, quoting from several of his earlier works. We were pretty much wiped out when we finished that. Clio had opened the other bottle of wine I had brought, and had split and toasted the leftover rolls with a kind of olive and garlic spread. We managed to find room for more food and drink.
I stopped eating long enough to speak to Clio. “You’ve distracted me so successfully with food and that cello, that I haven’t had a chance to ask to see your paintings. The one you were working on when I was here has lingered in my mind.”
“The one with the horse and hawk?”
“Yes.”
“I finally let that one go to the gallery. I’m not sure I have any here that are fit to be seen.”
“Come on, Clio,” said Doreen. “Give us a peek.”
“Well, there is this one I’m working on. Everything else is at the gallery. There’s not much there yet, but you can see what there is.”
She turned on the studio light and rolled the big easel around. There were swirls of color, but no recognizable forms.
“I don’t quite know what’s going to emerge,” said Clio. “I like to work out some composition and color basics first, and then sometimes forms sort of creep out. Nothing here yet.”
“Where’s your gallery?” I asked.
“In Georgetown,” she said with a deprecating turn of her voice, as if embarrassed to be in such a predictable area. “It’s called ‘A Studio of Her Own.’ The owner’s a Virginia Woolf fan.”
“They have only women painters,” Marina said.
“What’s the latest on the New York branch?” Doreen asked Clio.
“They’ve just about closed a deal on the space. Maybe they’ll open in another few months. They won’t have to do a lot of remodeling.”
“They must be doing a good business,” I said.
“Not bad,” said Clio. “For the first time I can afford to take an unpaid leave from my teaching job. Then I can really get some work done.”
The group finally broke up. As I was leaving, Clio shook my hand and said, “I enjoyed hearing you play Dad’s cello. You know where to find the sweet notes. Come again when you’re in town.”
Although I was physically tired, it took me a while to fall asleep when I got back to the hotel. The music, food, and conversation had been stimulating, and my mind raced for some time, though I didn’t have any visions. Finally, the colors of Clio’s painting spun around and my dreams emerged. I don’t remember the dreams, except for one bit about playing Clio’s cello: I was playing a Bach suite, and the cello seemed warm and pliable, bending with the music.

I didn’t have any visions on the flight back to Dallas, and arrived to find Jean up to her ears in boxes and packing material. She had just bought an Apple computer. “I should have talked to you about it, but I didn’t think you’d mind. I used my own money, anyway.”
We still had some debts, and were trying to save for a house, but I can’t say I minded. “I won’t complain if you’ll let me play with it some.”
“Sure, I thought we could both use it. If you’ve got to sell games, you might want to try them out.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Through the company. We got a good deal. Say, where do you think this cable goes?”
We managed to get the computer set up and turned on. It was like a new pet. I got “Dragonbreath” booted up and showed Jean how to play. She really got into it, pounding the table in frustration when one of her dwarves got incinerated. The only problem was that I couldn’t get her away from the computer and into bed.
For the next few months, things rocked on uneventfully. We reached an agreement with Wizardware, and began working on the packaging and marketing. Profits for Cullen were small at first, but promised to grow. Everybody seemed pretty happy with the deal. Tom Backscheider hacked out some clever new games, enjoying his new freedom from management. Howell griped about Tom’s rejection of some of the packaging art and about the high royalties paid the game writers. He had agreed to these provisions of the deal, but he hated to have anything out of his control, so he complained. The board also rejected his idea for taking over a hardware manufacturer, and that put him in a foul mood for weeks.
Jean fretted over the board’s decision both before and after their action. Her mother, in a rare instance of involvement, agreed with the majority, and insisted that Jean vote their shares against Howell’s proposal, but it clearly went against Jean’s own wishes. I didn’t inject my own opinion very strongly, but I didn’t think it wise to go into debt for a hardware company when many were dropping in the wake of the new IBM PC. It’s true that because of that situation the company was cheap, but it seemed to me that we would do better to invest in more R and D. Perry and his group were complaining about the need for more programmers.
Jean had a bout of depression after that vote, and even stopped playing games on the computer for a while. She would sleep for hours during the day, but would be up in the middle of the night, staring at inane stuff on the TV.
One day I came home after work and found her just as I had left her that morning, watching TV in her pajamas. It was clear that she hadn’t bathed.
“Have you had anything to eat?” I asked. She waved a hand in an ambiguous gesture. “Want to go out for dinner?”
“Not really,” she sighed.
“What can I fix for you?”
“I’m not hungry.”
I sat down beside her and took her limp hand. “Talk to me. What’s the matter?”
“Too much trouble.”
“How do you feel?”
She sat silent for a long while. Then she closed her eyes and whispered “Empty.”
“That’s because you haven’t eaten.” I tried some half-hearted jocularity. It didn’t work. I spoke more seriously. “Don’t you want to talk to someone? Get the doctor to check you out?”
“No.”
This sort of thing went on for some time. I tried everything I could to cheer Jean up, to interest her in something. I called Callie, got her to call Jean, but she had no luck. Tillie had little patience or sympathy for her daughter’s problem, so she was no help–if anything, talking to her mother seemed to deepen Jean’s depression. Nothing seemed to work. Our sex life, not too good before, was a blank. I was getting seriously worried. I suggested joint therapy, despite my fears about my visions, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
But eventually she got interested in one of the new Wizardware games I brought home, and gradually returned to what passed for normal life.
Jean’s routine since the company went public was something like this. She got up, showered, dressed, ate a bowl of cereal, checked the stock market, called her mother, did the crossword, went shopping, read the financial pages and some business magazines, did a little cleaning and straightening, watched TV, and, after getting the computer, played games. We had always shared the cooking, but during her depression I took over, and Jean never got back to it. We began to eat out more, despite the expense.
Jean never seemed to call her old friends anymore. She did not seem to have really close friends in Dallas, though there were a few that she had gone out with from time to time until her depression. And she seemed reluctant to call Callie after resisiting her efforts to cheer her up. Except for her comment about feeling empty during her depression, she never mentioned her inability to get pregnant, or the possibility of having a baby.
Fortunately–or perhaps unfortunately–there was no board meeting while she was depressed. She took her position on the board, limited though it was, very seriously. As soon as she got the agenda for a meeting, she began studying the issues diligently. If she hadn’t fully developed a position on a topic, she at least had a set of probing questions ready. She would even call Howell and pump him for information; I was surprised that he patiently gave her lots of time whenever she called. Days before the meeting she would go through her wardrobe carefully, planning every detail of what she would wear. I don’t think she went to a single meeting without first buying some piece of clothing or accessory.
We fell into a kind of polite, gingerly coexistence. Since she took every gesture of affection as a ploy for sex–which still didn’t interst her–I retreated to a manner which I hoped was open but not intrusive. Jean sometimes complained that I didn’t talk to her. But when I tried to make conversation, she rarely made any effort to respond. Some talk about the business interested her, but not always. “You tell me more than I want to know.” She said this after spending twenty minutes on the phone with Howell on the same topic.
“Well, stop me when you’ve had enough.”
“OK, enough.”
She did seem interested in my Baltimore music friends, especially since I had met Marina in London. She asked a lot of questions about them all. I did pretty well on what they looked like, how they played, what their jobs were, but there were a lot of questions I couldn’t answer.
“Are any of them married?”
“I’m not sure. Marina and Clio are not, but I think Doreen mentioned a husband.”
“Have the others been married?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did they mention children?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are they in relationships?”
“I don’t know. It didn’t come up. Should I have asked?”
Jean snorted in disgust. “Men!”
At work, competition seemed to be picking up. After Apple’s VisiCalc spreadsheet program became more popular, and IBM’s PC hit the market, many of our smaller customers bought a computer and did their own work. And the big companies could afford to squeeze us for the big jobs. Howell began taking on the job of selling our services to the really big customers. I continued to push our records and hospital services, and was assigned the job of getting more profit out of the games. The pressure got pretty intense on all fronts.
It occurred to me that the small personal computers, which were eating into one part of our business, might be used to repair another part of our business. Games could be a start, but perhaps our programmers could work up clever things to do on the personal computers that were more practical. I would keep my ears open for ideas while I talked to the games people. Maybe they could write a game that could teach a young player to use a spreadsheet.
Although I talked on the phone occasionally to Tom Backscheider, and though he tried to answer my questions and be helpful, I felt I was not quite getting the picture of the games business. I got permission to go to California, taking Perry Fein along as a technical translator, to see if we couldn’t find out something that might help increase our sales. I called Tom to schedule some times to meet and tour. And another possibility had occurred to me.
“Tom, do you know anyone out there with a cello I could borrow?”
“Gee, no. What for?”
“Perry Fein is a good violinist. I thought we might play some trios with you.”
“Bummer. I’ve never played trios, and I don’t know anyone with a cello. Might’ve been cool. I just play Bach, myself.”
I told Perry to forget about taking his fiddle. “In that case,” he said, “there are things I really need to do here. Why not take Hiro? He’s all the technical help you’ll need, and he knows games better than I do. He’s even written one.”
“Really? Has he sold it?”
“I think so. Ask him.”
I did. Hiro Watanabe was eager to go, and proud to tell me that he had sold his game to one of Wizardware’s competitors. “But they’re a good outfit. I’ll be interested to meet Backscheider–I’ve heard a lot about him. All those games makers out there know each other.”
“What’s your game?”
He laughed. “It’s called ‘Secret Agent Sushi.’ It involves getting bad fugu, the dish made from blowfish. If it’s not made right, it can kill you.”
“Sounds like fun.”
We landed at LAX, rented a car, and Hiro drove us to Wizardware headquarters, which I soon learned was called “the zoo.” It could have been more accurately called “the jail,” for it was in a building that used to be a county sheriff’s office. It was an old adobe building, complete with barred cells, in a recently repopulated mining town north of Los Angeles. A colorful sign outside said “Wizardware” in gothic letters surrounded by stars, half-moons, and astrological signs. Inside was a nicely remodeled and furnished space drowning in mess. The old west atmosphere had been preserved in the woodwork and sandy plastered walls, but the litter was modern. High-grade office hutches and conference tables were covered with piles of paper, floppy discs, empty pizza boxes, beer and soda bottles and cans. There was a lingering whiff of marijuana in the air; if Tom didn’t do grass anymore, there were those who did. A long-haired, hefty young woman wearing a kind of denim mumu sat near the door at a desk containing a phone bank, a typewriter, and an Apple computer.
“Hi,” she said. “Are you the dudes from Dallas?”
“Yes. I’m Tony Maclean and this is Hiro Watanabe. Tom should be expecting us.”
Tom entered at that moment, squinting his eyes with his benign smile. After introductions and elaborate handshakes, Tom took us on a tour. Down the hall from the large front room was a row of four barred cells. “Here’s where some of the animals work,” said Tom. Inside one of the cells, a young man with stringy black hair was banging out code on an Apple. The other three cells were also equipped like offices, but they were unoccupied.
“Most of our writers and programmers are on night mode, but Gary here is on wraparound. He’s due to crash in a couple of hours.”
“Do they ever object to working in jail cells?” I asked.
“Naw. One of our guys actually wanted us to lock him in until he finished a job.”
Hiro laughed. “These would be more appropriate for the Cullen front office.” He glanced at me to see how I took it. I smiled.
“Yeah, Tony,” said Tom, a note of irritation jangling his serenity. “Howell’s getting to be a four-star asshole. Can you get him off our case?”
“What’s he doing?”
“I sold out because I wanted fewer hassles. Now I’m getting hassled to get more corporate. Polish our image, wear suits, cut out the weekend parties, where Howell has heard people”–here he gasped in mock horror–“smoke dope.”
“Is he trying to force you?”
“Naw, but he sends memos, policies, articles, stuff like that. Our customers would think we were trying to rip them off if we wore suits.”
“Maybe he thinks we should cultivate a greater variety of customers.”
“They don’t exist! We’ve never sold a game to anyone over thirty. I’ll bet you that anyone who owns an Apple only wears a tie for weddings and funerals.”
Although I sympathized, I had to disagree. “Lots of Apples are used by small businesses. Some of those folks might buy a game if they saw one. Look, I don’t think you should have to wear suits, but we all have to do what we can to sell the games.”
Tom frowned. “OK, but Howell wants me to pay new writers a lower royalty. He can’t make me, because that’s in the agreement. But he keeps bugging me about it.”
“Would a lower royalty keep you from getting the best games?”
Hiro spoke before Tom could answer. “Absolutely. I would never offer a game to an outfit that paid lower than the going rate.”
Tom looked at Hiro with new interest. Playing devil’s advocate, I asked, “Even if you would make more in volume because of the company’s marketing?”
“Sure. That’s just hypothetical. The higher royalty is real, and if the game is any good, it will get sold.”
Tom and Hiro got sidetracked talking about Hiro’s game, which Tom knew and admired. While they talked, it occurred to me that if we really increased volume, we could pay even higher royalties. We talked more about marketing and advertising. I knew Wizardware advertised in Softalk and a few other computer magazines, and sold its products out of west coast computer stores as well as by mail. We needed more outlets, more visibility.
Tom interrupted my thoughts. “Another thing. Howell doesn’t want us to talk to the guys at On-Line or Sirius. What does he think we are, freaking IBM?”
“Aren’t they competitors?”
“Yeah, but we’re all friends. We share ideas and try not to duplicate efforts. The result is we get out a lot of neat games. We also tell each other if we get stiffed by a particular store. We’re not trying to conspire to jack up prices or restrain trade, as the lawyers say.”
“Look at what’s happening to Atari,” said Hiro. “Since a towel maker and his lawyers started running that company, their good games people have all left. They even stopped giving the writers credit for their games, much less a reasonable royalty.”
“Tell Howell if he wants to make anything on games, just leave us alone and let us hack.”
Tom took Hiro and me to a good local Italian restaurant, and then to his house for a spell in his hot tub. It was very relaxing, with piped-in Bach and cold fruit drinks. Hiro seemed right at home, even when Tom’s wife, a small, pretty blonde, joined us. It was a bit harder for me to relax after that point, because we were all naked.
I learned a lot from the visit, but not what I expected to learn. I became convinced that if we tried to limit the creative freedom of the hackers, we’d kill the goose that laid the golden egg. On the other hand, they were limited in their view of the marketing possibilities.
Hiro and I talked a lot about these issues on the way home. Hiro was impressed by the technical skill displayed in the games, the efficient use of assembly language, the potential for improved graphics. But shortly after the in-flight meal, Hiro dozed off, and I began to have visions.