The Quarrelsome Piper
Like burrs old names get stuck to each other and to anyone who walks among them.
--Paul Hazel, from Undersea
There were two things Janey Little loved best in the world: music and books, and not necessarily in that order.
Her favorite musician was the late Billy Pigg, the Northumbrian piper from the northeast of England whose playing had inspired her to take up the small pipes herself as her principal instrument.
Her favorite author was William Dunthorn, and not just because he and her grandfather had been mates, though she did treasure the old sepia-toned photograph of the pair of them that she kept sealed in a plastic folder in her fiddle case. It had been taken just before the Second World War in their native Mousehole—confusingly pronounced “Mouzel” by the locals—two gangly Cornish lads standing in front of The Ship Inn, cloth caps in hand, shy grins on their faces.
Dunthorn had written three book-length works of fiction, but until that day in the Gaffer’s attic when Janey was having a dusty time of it, ferreting through the contents of old boxes and chests, she knew of only two. The third was a secret book, published in an edition of just one copy.
The Hidden People was his best-known work, remembered by most readers with the same fondness that they recalled for Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and other classics of their childhood. It told of a hidden race of mouse-sized people known as the Smalls, reduced to their diminutive stature in the Middle Ages by a cranky old witch who died before her curse could be removed. Supposedly the Smalls prospered through the ages, living a hidden life alongside that of more normal-sized people right up to the present day. The book was still in print, in numerous illustrated editions, but Janey’s favorite was still the one that contained Ernest Shepard’s delightful pen and ink drawings.
The other novel was The Lost Music published two years after the first. While it didn’t have nearly the success of The Hidden People—due no doubt to its being less whimsical and the fact that it dealt with more adult themes—its theories of music being a key to hidden realms and secret states of mind had still made it a classic in the fantasy field. It too remained in print, though there were few children who would find a copy of it under their Christmas tree, illustrated by whichever artist was currently the nadir of children’s book illustrating.
Which was really a pity, Janey often thought, because in the long run, The Lost Music was the better book. It was the reason that she had taken up with old things. Because of it, she went back to its sources, poring over folktales and myths, discovering traditional music and finding that the references between old lore and old tunes and songs went back and forth between each other. It was a delightful exploration, one that eventually led to her present occupation.
For while she had no interest in writing books, she had discovered, hidden away inside herself, a real flair for the old music. She took to playing the fiddle and went wandering through tunebooks tracked down in secondhand bookshops, the tunes sticking to her like brambles on a walk across a cliff-side field. Old tunes, old names, old stories. So Dunthorn was partially responsible for who she was today—a comment that made the Gaffer laugh when she mentioned it to him once.
“Wouldn’t Billy smile to hear you say that now, my robin,” her grandfather had said. “That his writings should turn a good Cornish girl to playing Paddy music for a living—not to mention traveling around by her ownsel’ with nothing but a fiddle and a set of Scotch small pipes to keep her company.”
“You like my music.”
The Gaffer nodded. “And I don’t doubt Bill would have liked it too—just as he liked his own writing. He’d sit up and scribble by the lantern till all hours of the night sometimes—took it all very seriously, didn’t he just?—and he’d have admired your getting by with the doing of something you love.
“He always wanted to live by his writing—writing what he pleased, I mean—but all the bookmen wanted was more fairy tales. Bill…he had more serious stories to tell by then, so he worked the boats by day to earn his living and did his writing by night—for himself, like. He wouldn’t give ’em another book like the one about the Smalls. Didn’t want to be writing the same thing over and over again, was what he said.”
“The Lost Music has fairy-tale bits in it.”
“And doesn’t it just, my beauty? But to hear him talk, they weren’t made-up bits—just the way that history gets mixed up as the years go by. The Lost Music was his way of talking about the way he believed that old wives’ tales and dance tunes and folktales were just the tangled echoes of something that’s not quite of this world…something we all knew once, but have forgotten since. That’s how he explained it to me, and very serious he was about it too. But then Bill had a way of making anything sound important—that was his gift, I think. For all I know he was serious about the Smalls too.”
“You think he really believed in things like that?”
The Gaffer shrugged. “I’m not saying yes or no. He was a sensible lad, was Bill, and a good mate, but he was a bit fey too. Solid as the ground is firm, but ever so once in a while he’d get a funny look about him, like he’d just seen a piskie sticking its little brown head around the doorpost, and he wouldn’t talk then for a while—at least he wouldn’t say much that made sense. But I never heard a man not make sense so eloquently as Bill Dunthorn could when he was of a mind to do so, and there was more than once he had me half believing in what he was saying.”
Dunthorn had also written essays, short stories, travelogues, and poetry, though none of those writings survived in current editions except for two of the short stories, which were constantly being reprinted in storybook collections for children: “The Smalls,” which was the original version of The Hidden People, and “The Man Who Lived in a Book,” a delightful romp about a world that existed inside a book that could be reached by placing a photograph of oneself between its pages. Janey could still remember all the times she’d put pictures of herself between the pages of her favorite books, in the very best parts, and gone to sleep, hoping to wake up in one of those magical realms.
“I could use that trick now,” she murmured to herself as she brushed the dust and cobwebs from a chest that was thrust far back under the eaves of the attic.
She still couldn’t believe that Alan had left her in the lurch, right on the eve of a new tour of New England and California.
Things had not been going well between them this past summer, which just went to show you that one should pay more attention to the old adages because they were all based on a kernel of good solid common sense.
Never mix business and pleasure.
Well, of course. Except having a relationship with one’s sideman seemed too perfect to not take advantage of it. Instead of leaving your lover behind, he went on tour with you. What could be better? No more lonely nights while your sideman went out with some guitar groupie and you were left alone in the hotel room because you just wanted to be away from the crowds for a change. Away from strangers. Away from having to put on a smiling face when you just wanted to be silly with a friend, or slouch in a corner and simply do nothing at all, without having to worry about what kind of an impression you made or left behind when you traveled on.
But relationships tended to erode if they weren’t worked on, and Alan’s and hers had been no exception. They’d become grouchy with each other on their last tour of the Continent. Complaining, not with each other, but about each other. Mostly it was just little things, dissatisfactions and petty differences, but it began to affect the music until it got to the point where they couldn’t work up a new arrangement of any sort without a row.
Argumentative was how Alan described her.
Perhaps she was. But she wouldn’t see the music compromised. Improvising was fine, but not simply because he couldn’t bother to remember an arrangement. And banging his guitar strings like they were horseshoes and his pick the hammer, that was right out. It was still her name on the tour posters. People came to see her play the music, and she meant to give them their money’s worth. They hadn’t come to see her sideman evenings where he made the Pogues sound like brilliant musicians.
And that was the real heart of Alan’s problem. They hadn’t come to see Alan MacDonald; they’d come to see her.
“Oh, sod him,” she said as she dragged the dusty chest out from under the eaves.
Her voice rang hollowly in the attic. She wondered what the Gaffer would think to hear her sitting up here, talking to herself, but she had the house to herself. He was up in Paul, at the King’s Arms, having a few pints with his mates. Perhaps she should have gone. Chalkie Fisher would be there and if he’d brought along his box, they could have had a bit of a session. And after a few tunes, Jim Rafferty would take out his wee whistle and ask quietly, “Do you know this one, then?” just before he launched into the version of “Johnny Cope” that was his party piece.
But for once Janey knew she’d find no solace in the music. Not with the tour still looming and her without a sideman. She had an advert in a couple of the papers, but she’d have to go back to Jenny’s flat in London for the auditions. If anyone even bothered to call. Knowing her luck, she’d end up being stuck with some three-chord wonder that she’d have to teach to play his bloody instrument before they could even start to work on their sets. Because everybody who was decent wasn’t available. Unless she wanted to go begging Alan to at least finish this one tour with her.
She creaked open the wooden chest and sneezed at the musty odor that rose from its contents. It appeared to be stacked, from top to bottom, with old journals. She took one out and flipped through the pages, pausing when she came to a familiar byline. “Tom Bawcock’s Eve in Mousehole” by William Dunthorn. The article was a brief description of the traditional festivities in Mousehole on December 23rd, when the fishermen gathered to eat “Stargazy Pie”—a pie made with whole fish, their heads sticking out through the crust.
She looked through more of the journals and found brief articles by Dunthorn in each one. Most she’d already seen—the Gaffer had kept all of his mate’s writing that he could lay his hands on—but there were one or two she’d never read before, and many of them were in manuscript form as well as published.
Well, this was a find, wasn’t it just? Wouldn’t it be perfect if down by the bottom there were manuscript pages of some uncompleted novel? Or, better yet, a completed novel, just aching to be read’
Her breath caught in her chest as her scrabbling hands came up with a leather-bound book right at the bottom of the chest.
Be still my heart, she thought.
There was some mildew on the cover, but it came off when she rubbed it with the sleeve of her shirt, leaving only a faint smudge. What made her breath catch, however, was the title of the book.
The Little Country. A novel by William Dunthorn.
Fingers trembling, she opened the book. A folded slip of paper fell out onto her lap, but she ignored it as she flipped quickly through the thick parchment pages.
My God. It was a novel. A complete, published Dunthorn novel that she’d never heard of before.
She turned to the copyright page, not quite taking in the phrase “published in an edition of one copy” until she’d read it a number of times.
This was the only copy.
What was it doing here?
Slowly she put the book down on a stack of journals and manuscripts and picked up the slip of paper that had fallen to her lap.
“My dear friend Tom,” the letter began.
Her gaze traveled down to the signature. It was a letter from Dunthorn to her grandfather. Blinking once, she went back to the top of the page and read the letter through.
* * *
Here is the book you promised to keep for me. Read it if you will, but remember your promise—it must not leave your possession. It must not be published. Not ever!! Its existence must remain secret—not simply the tale told in its pages, but the book itself.
I know you think me mad sometimes, and God knows I’ve given you reason enough (a good solid bloke, am I?—I smile whenever I hear you describe me so), but you have my eternal gratitude if you will humour me this one last time.
I have a sense of foreboding for this coming year—yes, that famous Mad Bill Dunthorn Gypsy prescience strikes again!—so it is with great relief that I turn over the possession of this book to you and know that it will remain safe with you.
Godspeed, my friend. I wish there was more time.
* * *
Janey reread the letter, then her gaze settled on the date under Dunthorn’s signature. He’d written the letter just two months before his death.
A secret book?
Thoughtfully she folded the letter and stuck it back into the book between the front cover and endpaper. Then, sitting there in the Gaffer’s dusty attic, she turned to the first page and began to read. Within the first few paragraphs, all her troubles had melted away and she was caught in the spell of Dunthorn’s secret story.
Copyright © 1991 by Charles de Lint