By JAMES GALLANT
SINCE MY RETURN from Naples to the palace at Whitehall, my guitar classes have not resumed, and I intended today to work on my passacaglia. I had only just begun when the note from the Duke of Buckingham arrived. He’d written some doggerel. I was to compose before sundown a little tune to accompany it.
If all the world were paper,
And all the sea were ink;
If all the trees were bread and cheese,
What would we have for drink?
If all the world were sand-o
What would we not lack-o?
And if, as they say, we had no clay,
How should we puff tobacco?
Buckingham’s whims are underwritten by His Majesty Charles, so I did not feel I could ignore this request. I tossed off a little melody about as stupid as the lyric. What was he going to do with it? It seemed less likely to serve his philandering than the music I had written for “On a Girdle” when he was chasing Lady Shrewsbury:
A narrow circle, and yet there
Dwelt all that’s good and all that’s fair;
Give me but what this girdle bound,
Take all the rest the sun goes around!
Etcetera. But when I delivered my little melody to him this afternoon I learned that the new song was, in fact, to serve a similar purpose. I was informed that my guitar and I were to participate tonight in a serenade of “La Belle Lily,” the Queen’s new maid of honor who has arrived from Paris to considerable éclat. She is fifteen or sixteen, tall and straight, delicate Roman nose, alabaster complexion, violet eyes, chestnut curls falling to her shoulders. Apparently she was raised at the French court during the exile of the English nobles. They say Louis XIV couldn’t take his eyes off her.
I appeared with my guitar in the garden below Lily’s window at dusk, as commanded. Buckingham apparently regarded his nonsense verses as the way into a girl’s affections. He sang them, I plunked away on the guitar. Lily’s angora cat peered down at us disinterestedly from a windowsill. When the girl appeared, she did not seem more amused by “If all the world were paper” than the cat was, so Buckingham was reprising “On a Girdle” when an errant tomcat–a burly, puffy-cheeked old boy with a swagging gut–came loping down the garden path, spied Pussy in the window, and set up a caterwauling of his own. La Belle Lily giggled, and pulled a curtain across her window.
The disappointed Buckingham gazed upward with furrowed brow and gaping mouth.
Tom vented a short, irritated meow and lumbered off down the garden path. Buckingham followed after. My guitar and I brought up the rear.
I HAD JUST settled down to work on the passacaglia again today when the young man my patron Sir Samuel Tuke has hired to make copies of my handwritten scores appeared at my door. The copies will be used in making engravings from which my collected compositions are to be printed. The copyist was having trouble interpreting some of my scrawls. As we were attending to them, I looked through what he’d copied already. There were a number of errors that were a result of his carelessness, not my handwriting, so we dealt with those, too. All the while I was aware of time and life being squandered in the equivalent of funeral arrangements.
The morning was lost. Afternoons and composition do not agree with one another in my experience, so I sat at my fireplace and contemplated how I might convince Tuke that my youthful compositions should not be included in the collected works. I should never have mentioned them. When I did, Tuke seemed to feel it critical to my Eternal Fame that they be included in the collection along with my mature work. I think he envisioned a hoary pedant in some dusty archive pouring over my juvenilia centuries hence and detecting elements foreshadowing my mature production. (I wonder how much pleasure the Eternally Famous but eternally dead composer would find in such discernment.) At the time, rejoicing in Tuke’s unsolicited offer of patronage, I was inclined to agree with anything he proposed. I told him that my youthful works– those that had survived–would be in various hands at Naples. He insisted that I go there at his expense and hunt them up. He arranged for my absence from the English court. Off I went.
Alas, a number of my youthful works had survived. While staying with my old friend Niballo, I played through them. They are quite worthless, an embarrassment if included in the collected works. I must convince Tuke of this.
MY NEIGHBOR MADAME Labouche’s sense of my presence in the building is uncanny. I was tip-toeing past her apartment door en route to mine this afternoon when she popped out. The atmosphere of cinnamon that hovers always about her person emanates, I think, from her ratty, high-piled auburn periwig. She alluded again today to her Stuart ancestry as she has a way of doing every time we converse. A host of lumpen nobles like her reside here in the backwater of the palace complex, I am told. I have no idea who most of them are. They blend seamlessly with the royal porters, scullions, gardeners, harness-makers, and musicians.
Although I try to stay out of Labouche’s way, once she has me in her clutches I often find her revelations concerning people at court I know engaging. How she comes by her information is a mystery. She never seems to leave her rooms. I used to think she must be making up what she told me, but then I would hear others at court speaking of the same matters.
Today she asked if I knew that during my absence in Naples the inebriated Earl of Rochester had shattered with a club King Charles’s crystal sundial in the Privy Garden. I hadn’t. Charles was so distraught, she said, that he rushed off to Plymouth with Harry Saville and debarked in the royal yacht. There were reports that a gale had blown them off course and the King was drowned. These proved to be false when he turned up on the Isle of Wight.
It occurred to me that Labouche might know more about of Sir Samuel Tuke’s background than I do. I asked her about him. She said she would make inquiries with her “sources.”
TUKE KNOCKED ON my door today to inform me that we have been betrayed: One of the two engravers preparing the plates of my collected works has, without permission, contributed several of my pieces to an anthology being offered for sale by a commercial music publisher.
It escaped me why he was so upset. I pointed out that having a few of my pieces in an anthology might enhance the market for my collected works when they appear. This pacified him, and I hoped he would soon depart, but he had a second concern. Before I went to Naples we had agreed upon an order of the pieces to be included in the collected works. Further reflection since had convinced him that a more artful order was possible, and he described at length his rationale.
I could not see that one arrangement was more desirable than the other, but wanting to get to work on the passacaglia, I nodded my head in agreement with everything he said. This pleased him obviously, and the moment seemed right to mention that I did not believe it would serve our interests to include my juvenilia in the collected works. I gave my reasons. I sensed that it was my having accepted his proposal concerning the order of the pieces that now secured his agreement to omit the juvenilia.
I had opened my door to encourage his exit when he mentioned that he would like me to compose a letter of appreciation for his patronage that would appear in the front material of the collection– “I wish to acknowledge my appreciation for the patronage of Sir Samuel Tuke, without whose support and critical judgment the publication of this work would have been impossible”–that kind of thing.
Finally, he was gone. I placed my youthful compositions in the fireplace and nudged them with a poker repeatedly to assure all were thoroughly ashen and vaporized.
MADAME LABOUCHE WAS providing today a lavish account of the ball celebrating Duke of Monmouth’s wedding last night, when I interrupted her to point out that as a member of the musical consort I had been there. This did not slow her down, and while performing I had as a matter of fact seemed to miss most of what was of interest.
According to Labouche, King Charles had hovered about “La Belle Lily” all night, while his mistress Barbara Villiers (pregnant by him, or someone) looked pale and unsavory by comparison. If Charles wasn’t chatting up the girl, Buckingham was. Labouche speculated the two men may intend to share the girl. Apparently Villiers has taken Miss Lily under her wing and become her confidante and adviser.
Why, I asked, would the older woman befriend her competition?
“Oh, she’s very wily, you know. How better fan the flames of love than trying to smother them?”
A confusing metaphor, but I took her meaning.
“She may fancy the girl herself,” Labouche added. The English court seems intent on reviving pleasures forgotten since the fall of Rome.
Labouche has learned that Samuel Tuke was a major in Duke of York’s regiment in his youth. Thereafter, he wrote an English version of a Spanish comedy which was received well when produced in London. He had promised more literary production to follow, but his only literary production since had been an article on the nurture of green Colchester oysters which the Royal Society published. This information, coupled with my knowledge that Tuke had recently become a guitar enthusiast and nominated himself as my patron, completed the portrait of a court dilettante. They are a multitude.
There is little or nothing these lords and ladies have to do, or wish earnestly to do. Like children, they distract themselves with various toys, taking up one for a while, then dropping it for something else. Those of the Roman Catholic persuasion pass the time of day imagining Protestant plots and conspiracies. When those don’t materialize, they gamble at hazard or whist, or devise costumes for the next masquerade. (Currently there is great fascination at court with country dances like “Cuckolds all in a row” and “Gathering Peasecods.”) For the younger court women, the avoidance of disfiguring childbirth is a sort of purpose in life. They discuss contraceptive procedures as openly as dinner menus. However, they are elaborately attentive to the nurture and training of lapdogs: “Now Cerberus that was not nice!”
The King, bored equally by politics and religion, is rapt in the presence of a beguiling décolleté or some ingenious new mechanical contrivance. I am told that lately he spends long nocturnal hours peering through the telescope at Greenwich, and then sleeps far into the afternoon.
FIREWORKS OVER THE Thames last night—whiz, bang, boom, sparkle—spiders, horsetails, sunbursts– a heavy scent of gunpowder in the humid summer air. The royal barges were on the river, and in the light of one aerial explosion I glimpsed Buckingham and Frances Lily on the deck of a boat. A third figure, I realized when he turned my way, was King Charles, and I recalled Labouche’s speculation that the two men might intend to share the girl.
I took a wherry upriver, and made my way on foot to Covent Garden. After days of periwigs, silk-swathed women, and perfumed lapdogs, rubbing elbows with sweaty humanity, and inhaling the honest odor of garbage was a pleasure. I hopped over the carcass of a rotting hound, and exchanged a soulful look with brother rat crouching by a wall. It was almost like being back in Napoli.
I had never before failed to locate Doll Sweet at The White Swan. Nob the taverner told me she’s become an actress. Women in various states of undress now appear on the English boards, replacing the boys who played female roles formerly. Nob said Doll’s elevation to the stage has not prevented her from continuing with her former line of work, though. He recommended that I wait, since she usually came in after her nightly performance. She did, and we had a pint together while she blathered about the new painted stage sceneries Davenant is creating.
In her room over the tavern, she showed me some newfangled condoms made from sheep’s intestines.
I think the experience would have been more exhilarating had she not been describing throughout the plot of The German Princess, but ‘twould do.
A NEW ORDER from Buckingham today: My guitar and I were to appear at two-thirty this afternoon in La Belle Lily’s private chambers.
Lily is the only attendant of the Queen except the king’s mistress Villiers who enjoys a private apartment. Its main room features an Italian silk bed canopy, and settees with velvet cushions laced with gold thread. There is a large hour glass on the fireplace mantle. A tapestry on one wall depicts the divine huntress Diana looking on nonchalantly, arms akimbo, while her hounds chew on the bloody Actaeon metamorphosed as a stag.
When I arrived, Buckingham, Lily, and two of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting sat in a circle on an Oriental carpet. “Your arrival is timely, Francesco,” Buckingham said. “We need another player for Hunt the Slipper. Put down your guitar and join us. ”
I have felt an aversion to all kinds of games from childhood. I told Buckingham, I did not know how to play Hunt the Slipper.
“Tosh, there’s nothing to it, come join us,” he insisted.
I joined the circle. Lily’s long-haired cat, perceiving my lap as an excellent cushion, curled up on my thigh and began purring contentedly.
Lily smiled at me. “Minerva’s a good judge of character.”
“What kind of character attracts a cat, though,” Buckingham put in.
“He’s jealous,” Lilly said, “because he doesn’t get along with Minerva.”
“Nor with any cat. But dogs like me.”
“Birds of a feather flock together,” Lily replied.
Buckingham’s assertion that there was nothing to Hunt the Slipper was correct. The seated players are “cobblers.” The person standing is the customer who says, “Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe/ Get it done by half-past two.” The customer hands a shoe to one of the cobblers, turns away, and counts to ten, while the cobblers pass the shoe behind their backs one to another. When the customer turns back around, he or she discovers the shoe is not ready, and says, “Then I must have it back.” The cobblers say in unison, “To have it back you must find it.” The customer then attempts to guess which one has the shoe, and if the guess is correct, the cobbler becomes a customer, the customer a cobbler.
Apparently Buckingham thought Lily would find this game amusing, but her reaction to Hunt the Slipper resembled her earlier response to “If all the world were paper/And all the sea were ink.”
Buckingham ordered one of the servant women to fetch decks of playing cards. I now feared being implicated in a game of basset, or trente et quarante. I was told, instead, to remove myself to a chair in a corner and play my guitar while Buckingham and the girl built a card house. Gladly! I am always trying to find time from my duties at court in which to practice. I played several preludes, a fantasia, a bouree, and the new chaconne to be included among the pieces I am dedicating to Louis XIV. As I finished the chaconne I glanced toward the construction site. Buckingham was on his knees, eyes narrowed, tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth as he added a card delicately to the top story of the structure.
Lily was staring with open-mouthed fascination at my guitar. Noticing this, Buckingham said, “Why haven’t you and your guitar assisted in rearing our house, Francesco? You know, Amphion made the stones of Thebes rise into place with his lyre.”
Lily pointed at Minerva who lay on the carpet at my side, paws the air, belly exposed. “But like Amphion, he has tamed the wild animal.”
ALL THE SEATS in the Banquet Hall, even those in the balcony, were filled for my concert last night. Two years ago when I first came to London from France there was little interest in the guitar as a solo instrument. Now aspiring players and aficionados abound. I pass by open doors and hear lords and ladies flailing away at the exercises I have provided. The pleasure I find in these scenes must resemble that of mothers watching their children mimic adult behavior.
The presence of La Belle Lily was in the front row at the concert was conspicuous because while others would be applauding and nodding approvingly to one another after one of my performances, she would be staring at me as if she’d just seen a ghost.
Labouche’s gossip du jour: Young Lord Hamilton had made a gift of a miniature horse to La Belle Lily and taken her to a remote corner of St. James Park to instruct her in its management. “He’s a dead man,” Labouche said.
“You speak figuratively?” I remarked.
“He’s a dead man.”
Hamilton may not be dead, but he was not at court today, and his whereabouts are evidently unknown.
The best of my guitar students, young Lord Arran, has excellent musical instincts, and large, slender, strong, wonderfully coordinated hands. He and I had concluded playing a duet this afternoon when I noticed Frances Lily standing in the open doorway to our chamber, Later, he and I were conversing in the hallway before parting when she approached and announced her desire to study guitar.
I mentioned my women’s class in accompaniment techniques (Arran refers to the students in this class as the Dumber Strummers).
No, this was not what Lily had in mind. “I want to play as you do,” she said. Arran was standing behind her, and his eyebrows went up and down in response to this remark.
As guitar instructor at court, I am not paid by the head, and I have more than enough would-be guitarists to deal with as it is, but I could not deny her request outright, considering her standing with the King and Buckingham. I would have to find ways to discourage her that were less direct. I asked about her previous musical experience. She said she had taken singing lessons from the nuns at the Feuillants convent in Paris during the exile of the English court.
“But no instrumental experience?”
Her brow furrowed. “Is that a problem?”
I smiled in a way to suggest it probably was. “What you say you want to do will be very difficult. It would require a great deal of your time, a great deal of sacrifice.”
She appeared undaunted by the prospect of sacrifice.
She has the guitar Buckingham played a few times before giving it up for other amusements. I taught her how to tune it, and gave her a copy of Giovanni Foscarinis’s guitar method. Foscarini makes assumptions about a student’s general musical background probably not to be assumed in her case. I told her to study the introductory chapters and memorize three short exercises before our next meeting.
“Memorize them?” she said, frowning.
“Yes, one can’t pay sufficient attention to what the left hand is doing while reading a score,” I lied.
THE PIECES I am dedicating to Louis XIV are nearly finished. I double-checked them today to make sure there is nothing in them that might challenge his limitations as a player that I recalled from my days at Versailles. The dedication will hopefully sustain his memory of me, which might prove valuable, should the cabal of Bible-and gun-toting Drury Lane barrel-makers, carpenters, and grave-diggers who regard King Charles as the Antichrist remove his head from his shoulders—in which case the royal musicians would be put to flight.
Labouche tells me that Tuke is going about court and town soliciting subscribers for my collected works these days. I had understood that he was to finance the publishing out of his own pocket. Perhaps he has discovered the costs of production are greater than he had imagined, or maybe he just enjoys hustling about playing merchant.
LA BELLE LILLY’S first guitar lesson today.
I demonstrated the correct position of the right hand which requires a twist of the wrist approximating a ninety-degree angle.
“It doesn’t feel natural,” she said.
“It can be quite painful,” I agreed.
“Does it become easier?” I did not answer. “If my hand had been positioned correctly, would the exercises have been easier?”
“Exercises are difficult because they are exercises,” I pointed out. “The more of them one plays, the better.”
“They’re kind of boring.”
“Good medicine often tastes poorly.”
“How long before one can play actual music?”
“Months–even years,” I lied.
“No.” I showed her the claws of my right hand. “As for the left hand, the nails should be shorter than yours are now lest they cut into the strings.”
“Very long nails on one hand, very short on the other?”
“Yes.” This seemed guaranteed to offend female vanity.
I asked her to play the exercises I had assigned.
“I tried to memorize them, but I couldn’t.”
“Well then, read the music.”
Even with Foscarini’s pages open, she floundered. The exercises are too difficult for any beginner. She wanted hear me to play them. I played them at breakneck speed. She looked at me as if I were a wizard. I put my guitar back in its sack, and prepared to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“The lesson is concluded.”
“But we have just begun.”
“We can go no further until you have mastered the exercises.”
Her lip quivered, and she looked contrite. “I’ll try harder,” she promised.
It was not the response I had anticipated.
THE RUSSIAN AMBASSADORS arrived at Whitehall this week. They entered the palace grounds in a grand parade of fine coaches, with retainers following on horseback and in wagons bearing gifts to the King. These included six ostriches and two caged lions. Charles ordered the ostriches set free in St. James Park.
“What does one feed a lion?” he inquired.
“Quakers,” Buckingham suggested.
The court having departed with the Russians to Hampton for the horse races, I have been at liberty the past few days to continue polishing the pieces for Louis, and to enjoy long, uninterrupted hours of guitar-playing. This afternoon I had gone off to wherever it is the guitar takes one when a knocking at my door brought me back abruptly to Whitehall. La Belle Lily was standing in the hall, guitar in hand.
At first I did not recognize her. She had her long hair tucked up under a montero cap of the kind hunters wear, and she wore boy’s breeches and a vest. Madame Labouche was peering at us from her doorway, I noticed. I invited Lily inside, but left the door open for Labouche’s benefit. Lily surveyed my antiquated furniture, my old oak music stand scarred by age and travel, my unmade bed, my wash basin, and the unswept fireplace.
“You didn’t go to Hampton with the others?” I asked.
She had, she said, but she had been eager to get back to her guitar.
“How did you get back?”
That would have required passing through some unsavory neighborhoods, I observed. She shrugged it off. She had been working hard on the Foscarini exercises, and she wanted me to hear what she had accomplished.
“I understood we were not to meet again until later this month.”
She ignored my remark and seated herself on the stool before my music stand. She had mastered the correct right hand position, more or less, and trimmed her left hand nails severely as I recommended. Surprisingly, she had memorized the exercises which she did not play very well, but that she played them at all was remarkable.
“I was better when I was alone,” she said.
I nodded. “One usually is.”
Madame Labouche glanced into my room as she passed by. I waved to her.
“Did you see any improvement?” Lily inquired.
I said significant improvement took longer than she had been playing.
She was downcast. “I’ve wasted your time, I’m sorry.”
Her diligence, and the progress she had made, were touching, and I was on the verge of saying she hadn’t wasted my time, but held my tongue.
She put her guitar back in its sack. I accompanied her to the door. She looked me in the eye. “I will try harder,” she said. As I watched her making her way along the corridor to the stairs, it occurred to me that her deepest longing perhaps was not to be adored and petted, but disciplined.
Madame Labouche, who was peering around the edge of her doorway, caught my eye.
“She’s the new maid-of-honor from Paris,” I said.
Madame Labouche smiled knowingly. “Yes, she’s very pretty, isn’t she? I wonder why she isn’t at Hampton for the races.”
IT HAS BEEN four months since I made my last entry here, I discover. The litigation my brother was pursuing in Naples to recover our parent’s house vandals had seized during the plague of 1656 required my presence. I had anticipated being away from London only a few weeks, but delays in the legal process prolonged my visit.
Madame Labouche has informed me that during my absence “your Miss Lily” had disappeared from court, causing King Charles to lapse into melancholy, then into poetry. Labouche had somehow secured a copy of one of his efforts which she showed me:
TO FRANCES LILY
O gods above how am I undone!
A heavenly goddess made her way to London
Our hearts to o’erwhelm. What’er she be,
She peerless is, as all men will agree.
In her are found as in Eve before the Fall
Beauty, virtue, innocent delight–
And absent now, absent too my light.
Believing Lily must have been kidnapped, Charles had enlisted the services of investigators who had succeeded recently in locating the girl living in a decrepit building at Aldgate whose other tenants were, in Labouche’s words, “widows and other inconsiderable persons.” Her neighbors had taken Lily for a young man, because she had cut her hair short and always wore men’s clothes. Residents of the building said she had done nothing but play the guitar at all hours of the day and night. A night watchman’s hearing her playing at three in the morning had led to her discovery. She had not been kidnapped. She was living there of her own volition. The Duke of Richmond owned the building. His son the Earl, who managed the property, smitten by Lily, had honored her request to occupy a flat secretly. He had been delivering meals to her there personally.
King Charles went to Aldgate and pleaded with Lily to return to court. Her curt refusal led him dispatch Dr. Hodgkinson to examine her, and to determine if perhaps she were suffering only an imbalance of humours that a bloodletting might remedy. Hodgkinson found no natural explanation for her condition, and believed that only a witch’s spell could account for her aversion to human society and her obsession with the guitar. (As Labouche imparted this last bit of information, she studied my reaction intently.)
NOTES MADE AT Dover as I await the Channel crossing:
I had not seen La Belle Lily since my return to Whitehall when she appeared at my door late last night, guitar in hand. The transformation in her appearance was remarkable. She had, indeed, very short hair. She wore loose, pleated britches, a short coat and a slouch hat. She looked like a boy. More than her hair and attire had changed. Her lips that had been full and rather pouty seemed to have contracted. The masculine firmness in the expression of her eyes, and the set of her jaw, intimated prolonged, willful effort. That, as the doctor had speculated, a witch’s spell might have produced such a transfiguration, did not seem impossible.
I glanced down the corridor. Labouche was not on the qui vive for once, so I led the girl into my room and shut the door. Without saying a word, she seated herself on the stool in front of my music stand and began playing from memory, with precision and finesse, music I had composed in Venice years ago. That in so short a time she could have accomplished was scarcely imaginable I could not conceal my surprise or withhold expressions of admiration. The smile my approval evoked was the sun coming from behind a cloud. I was standing by my window when she lunged toward me in an appreciative hug that caught me off balance and thrust me back against the window. Then she packed up her guitar and left my room.
I was watching from the window as she entered the dusky courtyard below, guitar in hand. She had gone only a short distance when second figure issued from the shadows to confront her. When he pointed toward the window where I stood and fixed me with a keen look. I realized he was King Charles. I departed the palace under the cover of darkness with only my guitar, my manuscripts, and a few personal items in a carpetbag, and if all goes well I will soon be aboard the ferry to convey me onto French soil. I can only hope that the pieces I have dedicated to Louis XIV meet with his approval.
James Gallant is an independent scholar and the author of The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta. He has also written a collection of items about historical classical guitarists. This is one.