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
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 curates 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
There was a harsh tap on the
abbeys 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
O Lord, Hath the
rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
They sang, the setting
Bennets own, dark, and solemn, but also with a power and strength; and
the more impressionable of them thought they felt the disturbance of a
crows 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.
Dont 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 every day, when he is not drinking or
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 dont 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
How are you old
man? he asked most saucily.
Begone out of this Holy
Place I told him, you dont belong here. Go back from whence
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
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 Curates 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.
Arent you? I
asked, you seem devilish.
Dont 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
he 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
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
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
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. 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 Kings eye, but he either could not smell it, or he
paid it no account. But then we are 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
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 curates house where we met; a harried but comely woman (oh does
lust still yet master me) answered my knock.
Does one Miranda Benet
The murderers 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
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
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 often I sit in the Abbey; a
large empty building and 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 choirs 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 Gods face and that is all we can hope for as we
strive through the mud and shit that we call home.