Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Grave And The Gay: Chapter One

Well, folks, here we go. Here's the first chapter of my first novel. As discussed many posts ago, the title of my book is The Grave And The Gay, and it's a retelling of a 17th-century English folk song known by various titles, perhaps the most popular being "Matty Groves," performed masterfully in the previous century by Fairport Convention. It's a classic tale of adultery and murder between the classes, revolving around the roguish hero, Matty Groves (in my version, as in much older variants, his name is Matty Musgrave), and the unhappily married Lord and Lady Barnard. For more information on the song and its variants, click here.

And now, as a sneak peek at my work, and in the fervent hop of attracting comments and critiques, here is the first chapter of my story. Please don't be shy; your input can only make the story better and, of course, one that someday you would want to buy for yourself. However, do also please be gentle, as this is my first time offering such a major work of mine up for public comment. It's not long, and the action picks up as the story goes on, but what I want to know is whether or not, after reading Chapter One, your curiosity is sufficiently piqued so as to want to read more.

The Grave And The Gay
By Jason M. Rubin

Chapter 1

Even as the morning sun dried the dew on the exterior of her bedroom window, Lady Barnard’s exuberant breath created a moist fog on the interior-facing pane. It was the first morning of spring, and she looked out with hopeful eyes on the servants in the yard and, more particularly, the townspeople passing her grand home on the street. Instead of white, the endless, hopeless still white of snow drifts, there were colorful figures in motion against a deepening green and grey background.

With her face still close to the glass, Lady Barnard used her hands to work the wooden bolts that had kept the window closed tightly against the winter chill. When they were loosened, she flung open the window and into her face flew the insistent, long-awaited guest: that southwesterly wind that clipped the green fields of Dublin, carried the moist, mossy aroma of peat over the ocean and round the Isle of Anglesey, at last depositing this timeworn trace of spring to the thawing English county of Lancashire, and into Lady Barnard’s room.

It had been a brutally hard winter – dozens had died of exposure or illness – and this much-anticipated sign of change was as welcome to the Lancastrians as the sight of Noah’s dove had been to the survivors of the great deluge. Together with the increased chatter of returning birds and the reappearance of tight green buds on vines and shrubs, these heralds of the new season inspired a restless euphoria in all. Never mind that one’s breath was still clearly visible at dawn and in the evenings, or that fires as much for warmth as for cooking still burned in hearths. No, impatience prevailed, and folks were already out and about, planning and preparing for the Eastertime celebrations to come.

At this season, in taverns, on porches, in fields, and even in the rear pews on Sunday mornings, small bands of enterprising young men enlisted like-minded merry-makers to join their pace-egging troupes. Outsiders may be unfamiliar with this tradition and confused by its name. Yet those of you who learned your Latin will know that “pace” is from pacha, or spring. And eggs, of course, are the season’s primary symbol of rebirth. The pace-eggers journey from town to town each Easter Sunday in wild costumes and with a song of entreaty, requesting favors – usually eggs boiled in onionskin or coins of any value – which they repay with a farcical play.

The dramatis personae of this play includes such characters as the Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave, and, of course, the notorious Old Tosspot, whose coal-blackened face gapes and guffaws above the basket he waves to hold the aforementioned favors. In his other hand, the stronger one in fact, he holds a straw tail stuffed with pins, which he swings madly towards those who either are slow in paying into the basket or who have the temerity to try and steal its contents.

Following the play – not the Passion narrative as such, although it is typical that a death and rebirth of sorts transpires – Old Tosspot again bullies the crowd for favors. The eggs, then, are eaten (and shells crushed, lest witches use them as boats) and the coins shared and pocketed, or else tendered in exchange for mugs of ale. The pace-eggers then make their way to another village and the entire act plays out again. By the end of the holiday, the pace-eggers would have consumed enough eggs and ale to keep them in their beds well into the following day.

Yet even as the men were organizing their bands; even as the women were cleaning their houses and making room in their kitchens for the game they would pluck and cook, and the pies and cakes they would bake; even as children dreaded the clean, newly knit clothes they had to wear to church, and the switch they knew would be taken to them if they misbehaved during the service, even with all this activity at high pitch, still Easter was half a fortnight away.

Perhaps a milder winter would not have inspired such impatience to greet spring and all its wonders. Yet in truth, rarely is spring met with indifference, especially here in Lancashire, still a Catholic stronghold, where the faithful greet this time with hope, for we all have the capacity to change, to grow. And we, too, if the sun finds us and we strengthen in the warmth of its light, we, too, may be reborn in an eternal spring.

It was in this optimistic atmosphere that Lady Barnard drew the new peaty air deeply into her nostrils, and in exhaling released a winter’s worth of loneliness and frustration. The crisp, invigorating breeze felt good on her pale, oval face, framed by dark hair tightly drawn at the back in a bun. She closed her eyes so only the lids could know the lake-green circles underneath.

I bid you welcome, spring, she thought to herself, and may winter not soon return. In truth, as cold as it had been out of doors the past few months, it had been just as frigid within her stately home – and for an even longer duration. Though she was not a prisoner in her home, her comings and goings were carefully controlled by Lord Barnard, who had an odd, seemingly irrational dislike of people gossiping and sharing information about what went on in each other’s lives and homes. Clearly concerned that Lady Barnard would talk as such, he severely limited her trips into town; though in truth, not much at all went on in their home.

After ten years of marriage to Lord Barnard, there had yet been no children. Furthermore, it had been far too long, in Lady Barnard’s opinion, since the act of conception had even been attempted. Now, with the advent of spring, Lord Barnard would resume his hunting trips. She would be left alone, which, after all, she found preferable to being ignored. This day, however, as nature’s insistent cycle moved one-quarter turn, Lady Barnard decided she would like to spend more time among the townspeople, go free of the servants more frequently (for well she knew that servitude chains both slaves and masters), and even see if there might still be more to her appeal than that overly familiar visage which appeared in her looking glass.

Then a scowl formed on her face, as she turned away from the window. O, that I could ever be like the girls I see on the street, fluttering about and flirting in plain view, with no care nor shame, she thought. Lady Barnard sadly turned back to the window, continuing to spy enviously on those who have fewer means yet far more freedom than she. It may not be a good life they lead, she thought, but it is a life they own, a life they control. I am no more in charge of my destiny than these French draperies are of theirs. In truth, she admitted, I am much like the draperies, the furniture, the china and silver. We all are affectations, decorations for my Lord. We are that, all that, yet nothing more.

With that distressing thought, her focus became distracted and though she continued to look out the window into the yard below, in truth she saw nothing; or rather, her mind did not acknowledge what was within her view. Thus it was that she took no notice of the figure passing into the scope of her vision, the man known affectionately as Little Musgrave. To his long-deceased mother, he was Matthew Musgrave. To his friends, and he had many, he was Matty. He was Lord Barnard’s stable hand, and had Lady Barnard truly seen him she would have thought him familiar-looking yet been unable to identify his name or place. The stable was but one of many places to which she never ventured. Matty, however, looked towards the grand home as he walked and could see Lady Barnard’s eyes facing his direction. He assumed she was looking at him, but as she did not appear about to give an order, he continued on his way.

Fewer than twenty paces hence, Matty came upon Alexandra McLean, who was doing the Barnards’ laundry. A red handkerchief held back her straw-colored mane. Beautiful even in damp, loose-fitting work clothes, she stood chest-high to her visitor. As Matty approached, she gladly suspended her work and placed a lid on the tall pot of water that sat on an open fire beside her.

“Good morning, Alexandra,” said Matty, with a knowing grin on his strong and pleasant face.
“And to you, Matty,” Alexandra replied, dabbing her moist forehead with her apron.
“Will I see you in the loft tonight, fair maiden?”
With mock incredulity, she said, “Oh, is it my turn again so soon, then?”
“Whatever could you mean?” came another mock-incredulous reply.
“I shan’t promise you. I don’t see myself finishing before nightfall, unless I collapse where I stand. The Lady has me cleaning all the quilts and carpets today.”
“Odd thing. She was just staring at me from her window as I passed along from the stable.”
“It’s not so strange for a woman to stare at you, now, is it, Matty?”
“Well, she’s not just any woman, is she? I doubt she even knows my name.”
“Ah, but I’m sure she knows a pretty face. And I believe she has been lonely,” Alexandra added.
“What makes you say that?
“I wash the bed linens,” she whispered. “Many a tale is told in soiled sheets. The Lord and Lady’s are unusually clean, if you understand my meaning.”
“Perhaps they employ that long dining table in place of a bed,” said Matty.
“I would prefer hard wood or even cold marble to straw.”
“Then accept this offer. Tonight you will ride me like a horseman and I will take the quills in my backside.”
“You are a true gentleman, Little Musgrave. A true –”

And at that moment, the occasional lovers were interrupted by Darnell, the Barnards’ personal assistant. Such position made him a “house” servant, a more prestigious role than those like Matty and Alexandra, who toiled out of doors or in other quarters.

“Matty Musgrave,” Darnell called.
“I am here,” replied Matty.
“Lord Barnard wishes to see you immediately.”
“For what purpose?”
“I neither wish to know nor need to know,” Darnell replied, without the disinterest he would wish to display. “It is my Lord’s desire to speak with you and while I do not comprehend the affection he seems to have for you lately, I am merely fulfilling my duty in informing you of his request.”

Looking down at Matty’s feet, Darnell added, “Might I suggest you change your shoes so as not to track manure into the home?”
“The Lord loves his horses and he loves me,” teased Matty. “How, then, can he be upset if my shoes bring both his loves to him?”

As Darnell stifled a shout and Alexandra muffled a laugh, Matty bid them good day. When the strutting stable hand neared the house, Darnell said to Alexandra, “He is a disgusting brute.”

“Yes, though you have to admit he is honest about it,” she replied.
“You’re too good for him, you know.”
“So you’ve told me. Thank you for your concern, Darnell. Now if you don’t mind, I need to attend to the washing.”
“I can do better by you.”
“Can you, then? How? You work in the house, but you are not master of it.”
“Alexandra, you know I have feelings for you. I am a decent man. I have a good position. The Lord and Lady treat me well. As my wife, you would improve your standing with them.”
“Is that your offer, then? That I should be a servant’s wife? Am I to be servant to a servant?”
“Well, what can Matty offer you?”
“Laughter, Darnell. Laughter and passion. And nothing more because I desire nothing more. You know Matty. He’ll not be chained to a wife, nor I to a husband. It’s enough for me that I can sit out on a spring morning and earn a wage and a meal.”
“You’re a lovely girl, Alexandra. But you have no sense. I will not stop courting you, not until I have saved you from yourself and your demeaning relationship with that, that…stable hand.”

Suddenly, a bell rang, it’s jingle emanating from the open window above.

“That’s Lady Barnard,” said Darnell. “Remember what I have said. Remember that I love you, Alexandra.”

And with that, Darnell followed the same steps that Matty took into the house, looking down all the way to check for traces of manure. Alexandra watched him walk away, then returned her attention to the pot and placed another log in the fire beneath it.

© Copyright 2008, Jason M. Rubin. All Rights Reserved.

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