“Tobias Bennet is the greatest composer of my realm. Music such as his cannot be inspired by this mortal world; although whether it is from Heaven or from Another Place I fear to ask.”
Attributed to James I.
“He came to Shrewsbury by boat, on his shoulder was a black crow who whispered to him all sorts of spells and incantations as he rowed along.”
The rest of the choir had heard the story before, not just from Ezekiel, many of the conversations in the pubs and inns in the town were about Tobias Bennet and his alleged conversations with the devil in the shape of a crow, the satanic symbols supposedly in his music and more mundanely his consorting with various wanton women. He was stood in front of them now, talking with an underling from the Abbey, and the choir eyed him fearfully but also with respect because whilst he might be wicked he had the air of a genius about him.
“His poor, sweet wife.” Ezekiel continued in tones less hushed than he imagined that they were “I remember when she was Miranda Sikes, the curate’s daughter. How could her family allow her to marry such a Sorcerer?”
The other members of the Choir agreed; until she had married, Miranda had been a sweet and happy girl unblemished by her poverty, but now she always looked pale and over-burdened and with rarely a smile on her face. But who could be surprised with such a husband?
There was a harsh tap on the abbey’s stone floor and the choir stood to face their Master; small and dark, his faced pocked but he was dynamic with his eyes, dark brown and unknowable.
“O Lord, Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?”
They sang, the setting Bennet’s own, dark, and solemn, but also with a power and strength; and the more impressionable of them thought they felt the disturbance of a crow’s wings above their head, and a swirl of black climbing into the roof of the Abbey.
“Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.”
He comes in wig askew and sweating, and then he hurries to the chamber pot and pulls down his britches. The children giggle at the noises that he makes.
“I have so much in me, but I cannot expel the half of it” he mutters later, as he emerges pale, and then the house smells of faeces and something rotten for hours afterwards. With sweat still running down his brow he sits down, and I give him meat to eat and watch him devour what is in front of him without his paying it any attention. Oftentimes he scribbles as he eats; those black notes that in the hands of the choir or in front of the organ make such a haunting noise. The pieces he composes are short, perhaps in case he has the gripe again and needs to rush off, however his trouble does not seem have harmed him; he has written such music and everywhere is full of his praise, even as far as London and the Court. He is a man in demand, as difficult and harsh as he is.
He is off now; to cavort with women or other low-life, or to walk along the river, talking to himself. Everyone that he meets seem to feed his music; everything is secondary to that, me, the children, even God; it is as if we are of no account despite the sacrifices that we make. When he came to this town he lodged with my father and mother who were grateful for the money he gave us for rent, and my father was happy for someone learned and clever for him to talk to. But even then he was rarely in; either in the Abbey or in the Low Parts of Shrewsbury, and there were the rumours about him; conversing with crows and other familiars of the devil, seen dancing naked in a grove with strange women and his music written to conjure up spirits, although what I heard was full of beauty and a frantic energy that was unlike anything that I had heard before.
One day I sat pensively by the river, the ground was cold and damp and I watched the water flow past the town and out, away, somewhere fresh and new. And then he was standing above me, his shadow making him look taller.
“Well mistress” he murmured, “the water inspires me too. The onward flow of it. It is an open invitation to sail on.”
“Don’t fly yet awhile” I told him, “or if you do, take me with you.”
He gazed down at me, for the first time seeming to be startled, as if I was something new. Soon we were married, and then he had money enough to rent a house of our own close by the Abbey, where he disappears ever day, when he is not drinking or frolicking.
In bed, I smell his body of cinnamon and wild garlic, and he holds me tight, so that I am part of him; all that talent and power contained within me, at least for a few moments. And when I stand in the Abbey and hear his music crashing out on the organ or sung by young and old in the choir, then I am proud, and I don’t care if he is of God or of the Devil, he is mine and I am his.
He is Evil. The smell of him is from the Pit, and the music he writes, Discordant and Strange. The Devil and his minions are everywhere, even in the Holiest of places, and he is of their number. I can sense him as I walk through the doors of the Abbey; at times I have to hold onto something as the smell of him Overpowers me. And when he looks at me; there is such contempt in his eyes, but there is fear too. He knows that I perceive him and see beyond his music making. I Know Him.
Once walking around the graveyard, I saw him, he was muttering to the Devil as he walked, and there were crows high above his head. He looked up and saw me, giving a most contemptuous look.
“How are you old man?” he asked most saucily.
“Begone out of this Holy Place” I told him, “you don’t belong here. Go back from whence you came.”
He laughed, and then studied me most carefully, as if he were measuring me for my Grave, and after a few moments he turned away and left me, but I knew that he was shaking with Anger and Fear, and now he avoids me, and so he should.
I spoke out against him at the Chapter. I am nothing in the Abbey, just a minor Canon, old but undistinguished. And they distrust me because I used to belong to Rome before Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. Many of us changed our allegiances back then, had no choice. But I am a true member of the Church and loyal to God and his Holy Son, Our Lord Jesus.
“That Man is Evil” I thundered, but they ignored me.
“He is known to the King, and his music brings us Fame and Glory.” One spoke, and another told me to hush, “you are just an old man, with the taint of Rome about you.”
And Bennet looked at me, his eyes dark and brooding. But I looked back most steadily. I Know Him. I Know Him Well. And his Wickedness that seeps into our Church.
He comes to me in the evening. Comes into the house with stealth and laughs at my fright. When he first came to Shrows-bury I saw him from the shore as he rowed, even from a distance he seemed strange and attractive, and then a few nights later he was there at my house and so I gave him drink and took him to my bed. He sensed my lonely-ness, that was like a cloke, and that pervaded my very being; I had had lovers, but they deserted me when I wanted more than sex. And Tobias was the same; he married that plain Curate’s daughter, but he still came to me.
I heard him shit outside and then a few moments later he was with me.
“Your enemy is dead” I told him, “that clergyman who hates you.”
“Yes I have just come from the river,” he told me, “Reverend Thomas Garrett, who thought I was from the devil”.
“Aren’t you?” I asked, “you seem devilish.”
“Don’t believe what you hear” he told me, and then kissed me, so that I knew he did not want talk but rather my body, and as ever I obliged, as if I could say no.
“Did you kill him?” I asked, as he lay, next to me, spent, at least for a little while.
He laughed, “he was always drunk, he must have fallen in the river.”
“But the townspeople say that he did not drink and that there was a bruise on his head, and bites as if was attacked by a crow.”
“You are fool to listen to the people of Shrows-bury. They gossip and pretend virtue; you are better than such nonsense. One day we will leave this town you and I, go to London where you will be at home, and I will have a more discerning audience.”
They talk about him all the time; gossiping. When I am out and about people I have known all my life look away with scorn or embarrassment. I visited my father, and he suggested that I come back to them, they did not mind his having other women or conversing with the devil but now this silly story about him killing that old fool from the cathedral, they are worried.
“Rev Garrett was seen fighting with a man dressed in black” I was told, or “a crow drove him into the river.” They think my husband cursed him or killed him himself. And yet Tobias is oblivious; his mind full of music and possibly women. The children are just playthings to him, something to amuse him whilst he is at home, and I suspect that I am the same; someone to clean the chamber pot and to feed him.
Will he leave now this trouble has come upon him? I would go with him to anywhere, but would he think to ask me? Does he even perceive me, or the children? Does he care about any of us?
“Lord, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.”
We sing and we look at the conductor, austere and pale. The music is divine, but he, he looks like a man possessed. In front of us there is the empty seat where Rev. Garrett sat, often his mouth mumbled like someone in their second childhood, but he was a saint in his way; humble and spoke out against evil even though it frightened him.
We are getting old, and soon others will take our place, and the Abbey will change too and all that goes on in here will be forgotten. Can it be that Tobias Bennet, that self-regarding man will be the thing that men remember of this place, not the good that was done, the quiet good and acts of kindness? Can a few beautiful phrases and harmonies excuse wickedness and selfishness? Do we bow before the gifted as if they were gods?
We sing and the harmonies rise above our head and spread throughout the town and out, out into the countryside for the rich and poor alike, and then out over this country; from the Tacksmen in Scotland, to the places of learning in Oxford and Cambridge and even to the Court where the King, a flawed but learned man sits and governs his holy people.
They say he came from Shrop-shire; a small man with the darkest of eyes, and rather ugly of mien, but a rare musician; I heard him before His Majestie and he was most impressed, although his hands shook with nerves or fever, and he sweated all the time that he played. He has a woman with him, Regan she is called, a fine red-haired woman, but rumour has it that she is a common whore and that he left his wife back home.
There is scandal about him; that he sups with the devil, that he killed the dean of the cathedral, that he is possessed. But all crimes are forgiven at court so long as there is wit and talent, and although he has none of the former he has what passes for the latter, at least amongst the king and his sycophants. And yet he smells of faeces. When he played that is all I could notice; his awful smell, and I tried to catch the King’s eye, but he either could not smell it, or he paid it no account. But then we all machines that masticate, defecate and, if we are lucky, fornicate.
But the King loves him and so for the moment the world is his oyster, let us pray that he makes the most of this royal favour and saves his coins and does not rely too much on this most fickle of monarchs.
He disappeared; was gone when I awoke, and that evening he did not return home. I enquired at the Abbey, but they looked at me with pity and sadness and so I walked away. No doubt I will return to my father with my children, but I suspect I am accursed, no-one will touch me and in truth I want nobody else.
The rumours grew, perhaps that is why he left, or maybe his Demon told him to go, to go and leave his wife and children. Wherever he goes he will be writing music and performing. They still sing his music at the Abbey; his settings of psalms and hymns will outlive us all. Perhaps we are not a Christian people, not really, but we recognise the Divine, whatever form it takes, and he was a channel for something unearthly and everlasting.
Sometimes when we sit together in our rooms, tired he asks me.
“Are you happy Regan?”
“Of course my lord.”
He looks at me sadly, “do you not miss Shropshire?”
I live in the centre of the world, I have met the King and the Queen as well as the ladies of the Court. I have money and dress well. Every day is an adventure, but always an adventure with a happy ending. Do I miss those ignorant men and those doltish men? I have found my home at last. Yes I know that some of the Lords and Ladies sneer at me and whisper, but then they did that in Shrows-bury and at least they are polite to my face.
The King is most languid, but he is kind, one look into his eyes shows that, and he appreciates my love’s music and will often have to play when he is weary and cannot sleep. A servant is sent and Tobias hurries over, wig in his hand, jacket half-off his shoulders, and then he returns in the early hours of the morning full of tales of a melancholy king with various favourites disporting themselves whilst Tobias plays and sings to help my king sleep.
His bowels ache constantly, and some days he is on the chamber pot for hours when he should be elsewhere, and then he emerges pale and I wonder if he is dying of the plague, but soon he is back to what he once was and once clean he is off out somewhere to make music or to wait upon his majesty. Perhaps if his stomach was right then he would be happier, but I think it is just a sign of his turbulent spirit.
Tobias earns and saves. He has written music for the theatre, for All Hallows Church and sometimes songs for the King or his children.
“This is the best part of me” he says when he plays me something that he is written, “all else is naught, just this music.”
But it sounds dark to me and unsettles me. How can it help the King relax when I hear it I want to run out into the streets and see the common people of London. Oh Tobias, enjoy your life; all of us might die from one day to the next. Enjoy your fancie clothing, your visits to the King and your patronage by the great and good.
Live and be happy Tobias.
I came into Shrewsbury by boat, just as I did last time, over thirty years ago. No Regan on the shore this time, alas she is dead of Flux, which is why I returned, with nothing to stay for, just the false praise of kings and courtiers. The Abbey was still there, in fact the town looked the same; the same grey Shropshire faces, and oh the everlasting mud and water.
I walked to the house, where I bred two children and made my wife unhappy, but it is empty now, as if cursed. At the curate’s house where we met; a harried but comely woman (oh does lust still yet master me) answered my knock.
“Does one Miranda Benet live here?”
“The murderer’s wife? She is long gone. Her father died and she married a clergyman who took her to a village in the north. Her children were dead and so she was happy to go.”
“Of the damp, both within a week. Poor deserted lambs. I was but a child myself and I remember the funerals; such tiny coffins. The whole family is dead or gone.”
She gave me some water and she asked me about myself.
“I am a wandering musician” I told her, I had my violin with me and played her some popular ayres I had picked up in London and she offered me payment, but in the end it was I who gave her money as she rented me a room, the same room where I lived before and which is still as cold and dark as it always was.
Fortunately, I am frugal and I have saved some money from my time of fame in London, and I make more from playing in the streets and teaching the children of gentry. Nobody recognises me; sometimes there is a strange look when I hurry down the streets, but the person will be old and they shake their heads and carry on, perhaps with a shiver, and when they get home they think of the past and their mortality, and sleep less soundly that night.
And often I sit in the Abbey on hard wooden pews facing the choir, rather than looking down on the congregation as I used to do. Sometimes I recognise a piece of music, a setting, or a voluntary on the organ that I wrote so many years ago, although they are not as I played them. And I listen intently as the choir’s voices sing praises to someone I barely glimpsed and I feel my soul reach out for a better self, a self in touch with the beautiful and divine and then I cry knowing that for a moment that I have seen God’s face and that is all we can hope for as we strive through the mud and shit that we call home.