The Grasshoppers' Library
How Ranulph le Provençal Ceased To Be a Minstrel and Became a Troubadour
O N a hillside above a stone-terraced oval hollow, a youth lay singing softly to himself and making such music as he could upon a rote. The instrument was of the sort which King David had in mind when he said, "Awake, psaltery and harp; I myself will awake early." It was a box-shaped thing like a zither, which at one time had probably owned ten strings. The player was adapting his music as best he might to favor its peculiarities. Notwithstanding his debonair employment, he did not look as if he were on very good terms with life. His cloak and hose were shabby and weather-stained, his doublet was still less presentable, his cheeks were hollow, and there were dark circles under his eyes. Presently he abandoned the song altogether, and lay, chin in hand, staring down into the grass-grown, ancient pit.
It had begun its history as a Roman amphitheater, a thousand years before. Gladiators had fought and wild beasts had raged in that arena, whose encircling wall was high enough to defy the leap of the most agile of lions. Up here, on the hillside, in the archways outside the outermost ring of seats, the slaves had watched the combats. The youth had heard something about these old imperial customs, and he had guessed that he had come upon a haunt of the Roman colonists who had founded a forgotten town near by. He wondered, as he lay there, if he himself were in any better case than those unknown captive, who had fought and died for the amusement of their owners.
Ranulph le Provençal, as he was one day to be known, was the son of a Provençal father and a Norman mother. In the siege of a town his father had been killed and his mother had died of starvation, and he himself had barely escaped with life. That had been the penalty of being on the wrong side of the struggle between the Normans of Anjou and their unwilling subjects in Aquitane. At the moment the rebellious counts of Aquitane were getting the best of it. Ranulph knew little of the tangled politics of the time, but it seemed to him that all France was turned into a cockpit in which the sovereign counts of France, who were jealous of their independence, and the fierce pride of the Angevin dukes who tried to keep a foothold in both France and England, and the determined ambition of the King who sat in Paris, were warring over the enslavement of an unhappy people. He himself had no chance of becoming a knight; his life was broken off before it had fairly begun. He got his living by wandering from one place to another making songs. He had a voice, and could coax music out of almost any sort of instrument; and he had a trick of putting new words to familiar tunes that made folk laugh and listen.
Neighborhood quarrels had drained money and spirit out of the part of the country where he was, and he had almost forgotten what it was like to have enough to eat. The little dog that had followed him through his wanderings for a year foraged for scraps and fared better than his master; but now small Zipero was hungry too. The little fellow had been mauled by a mastiff that morning, and a blow from a porter's staff had broken his leg. Ranulph had rescued his comrade at some cost to himself, and might not have got off so easily if a sudden sound of trumpets had not cleared the way for a king's vanguard. As the soldiers rode in at the gates the young minstrel folded his dog in his cloak and limped out along the highway. Up here in the shade of some bushes by the deserted ruins, he had done what he could for his pet, but the little whimper Zipero gave now and then seemed to go through his heart.
Life had been difficult before, but he had been stronger, or more ignorant. He had made blithe songs when he was anything but gay at heart; he had laughed when others were weeping and howling; he had danced to his own music when every inch of his body ached with weariness; and it had all come to this. He had been turned out of his poor lodgings because he had no money; he had been driven out of the town because he would not take money earned in a certain way. He seemed to have come to the end.
If that were the case he might was well make a song about it and see what it would be like. He took up the rote, and began to work out a refrain that was singing itself in his head. Zipero listened; he was quieter when he heard the familiar sound. The song was flung like a challenge into the silent arena.
"So you believe that, my son?" asked a voice behind him. He sat up and looked about; an old man in a long dusky cloak and small flat cap had come over the brow of the hill. He answered, a trifle defiantly,
"Perhaps I do. At any rate, that is the song."
"Oh, it is true," the old man said quietly as he knelt beside Zipero on the turf. He examined the bandages on the little dog's neck and forelegs, undid them, laid some bruised leaves from his basket on the wounds. The small creature, with his eyes on his master's face, licked the stranger's hand gratefully to show that he was more at ease. "Man alone is free. This herb cannot change itself; it must heal; that one must slay. Saturn is ever the Greater Malignant; our Lady Venus cannot rule war, nor can Mars rule a Court of Love. The most uncertain creature in the world is man. The stars themselves cannot force me to revile God."
Ranulph was silent. After months and years among rude street crowds, the dignity and kindliness of the old man's ways were like a voice from another world.
"I can cure this little animal," the stranger went on presently, "if you will let me take him to my lodgings, where I have certain salves and medicines. I shall be pleased if you will come also, unless you are occupied."
Ranulph laughed; that was absurd. "I am a street singer," he said. "My time is not in demand at present. I must tell you, however, that the Count is my enemy—if a friendless beggar can have such a thing. One of his varlets set his ban-dog on us both, this morning."
"He will give me no trouble," said the old man quiety. "Come, children."
Ranulph got to his feet and followed with Zipero in his arms. At the foot of the hill on the other side was a nondescript building which had grown up around what was left of a Roman house. The unruined pillars and strongly cemented stone-work contrasted oddly with the thatch and tile of peasant workmen. They passed through a gate where an old and wrinkled woman peered through a window at them, then they went up a flight of stairs outside the wall to a tower-room in the third story. A chorus of welcome arose from a strange company of creatures, caged and free: finches, linnets, a parrot, a raven which sidled up at once to have its head scratched, pigeons strutting and cooing on the window-ledge, and a large cat of a slaty-blue color with solemn, topaz eyes, which took no more note of Zipero than if he had been a dog of stone. A basket was provided for the small patient, near the window that looked out over the hills; the old servingwoman brought food, simple but well-cooked and delicious, and Ranulph was motioned to a seat at the table. It was all done so easily and quickly that dinner was over before Ranulph found words for the gratitude which filled his soul.
"Will you not tell me," he said hesitatingly at last, "to whom I may offer my thanks—and service—if I may not serve you in some way?"
"Give to some one else in need, when you can," said his host calmly. "I am Tomaso of Padua. A physician's business is healing, wherever he finds sickness in man or beast. Your little friend there needed certain things; your need is for other things; the man who is now coming up the stairs needs something else." Taking a harp from a corner he added, "Perhaps you will amuse yourself with this for an hour, while I see what that knock at the door means, this time."
Whoever the visitor was, he was shown into another room, and Ranulph presently forgot all his troubles and almost lost the consciousness of his surroundings, as the harp sang under his hand. He began to put into words a song which had been haunting him for days,—a ballad of a captive knight who spent seven long years in Fairyland, but in spite of all that the Fairy Queen's enchantment could do, never forgot his own people. Many of the popular romances of the time were fairy-tales full of magic spells, giants, caverns within the hills, witches and wood-folk hoofed and horned like Pan, sea-monsters, palaces which appeared and vanished like moon-shine. When they were sung to the harp-music of a troubadour who knew his work, they seemed very real.
"That is a good song," said a stranger who had come in so quietly that Ranulph did not see him. "Did you find it in Spain?"
Ranulph stood up and bowed with the grace that had not left him in all his wandering life. "No," he said, his dark eyes glinting with laughter, "I learned it in the Grasshoppers' Library. I beg your pardon, master,—that is a saying we have in Provence. You will guess the meaning. A learned physician found me there, studying diligently though perhaps not over-profitably upon a hillside."
"Not bad at all," said the stranger, sitting down by Ranulph in the window and running over the melody on the harp. His fingers swept the strings in a confident power that showed him a master-musician, and he began a song so full of wonder, mystery and sweetness that Ranulph listened spellbound. Neither of them knew that for centuries after they sat there singing in a ruined Roman tower, the song would be known to all the world as the legend of Parzifal.
"I too have studied in the Grasshoppers' Library," said the singer, "but I found in an ancient book among the infidels in Spain this tale of a cup of enchantment, and made use of it. I think that it is one of those songs which do not die, but travel far and wide in many disguises, and end perhaps in the Church. You are one of us, are you not?"
"I am a street singer," Ranulph answered, "a jongleur—a jester. I make songs for this,"—he took up his battered rote and hummed a camp-chorus.
"Do you mean to say that you play like that—on that?" asked the other. "Your studies must have led you indeed to Fairyland. You ought to go to England. The Plantagenets are friendly to us troubadours, and the English are a merry people, who delight in songs and the hearing of tales."
Ranulph did not answer. Going to England and going to Fairyland were not in the same class of undertaking. Fairyland might be just over the border of the real world, but it cost money to cross the seas.
Tomaso came in just then, his deep-set eyes twinkling. "It is all right," he said, nodding to the troubadour.
"I have been telling our friend here that he should go to England," said the latter, rising and putting on his cloak. "If, as you say, his father was loyal to the House of Anjou, Henry will remember it. He is a wise old fox, is Henry, and he needs men whom he can trust. He is changing laws, and that is no easy thing to do when you have a stubborn people with all sorts of ideas in their heads about custom, and tradition, and what not. He wants to make things safe for his sons, and the throne on which he sits is rocking. The French king is greedy and the Welsh are savage, and Italian galleys crowd the very Pool of London. I remember me when I was a student in Paris, a Welsh clerk—he calls himself now Giraldus Cambrensis, but his name then was Gerald Barri,—had the room over mine, the year that Philip was born. We woke up one night to find the whole street ablaze with torches and lanterns, and two old crones dancing under our windows with lighted torches in their hands, howling for joy. Barri stuck his head out of the window and asked what ailed them, and one of them screamed in her cracked voice, 'We have got a Prince now who will drive you all out of France some day, you Englishmen!' I can see his face now as he shouted back something that assuredly was not French. I tell you, Philip will hate the English like his father before him, and these are times when a troubadour who can keep a merry face and a close tongue will learn much."
As the door closed the physician sat down in his round-backed chair, resting his long, wrinkled hands upon the arms. "Well, my son," he said in his unperturbed voice, "I find somebody yonder is very sorry that you were thrown out of the gates this morning."
Ranulph glanced up quickly, but said nothing.
"He had no idea that you were here, of course. He came to get me to ask the stars what had become of you, as you could not be found on the road. When he found that you would not serve him in the matter of the dagger and the poison, he never intended to let you leave the town, but as you know, your dog, seeing you mishandled, flew at his varlet, and the thick-headed fellow drove you out before he had any further orders. By such small means," old Tomaso stroked Zipero's head, "are evil plans made of no account."
Ranulph drew a long breath. He had lost color.
"But you," he faltered, "you must not shelter me if he is thus determined. He will take vengeance on you."
The physician smiled. "He dares not. He is afraid of the stars. He knows also that I hold the death of every soul in his house in some small vial such as this—and he does not know which one. He knows that I have only to reveal to any minstrel what I know of his plans and his doings, and he would be driven from the court of his own sovereign. He can never be sure what I am going to do, and he does not know himself what he is going to do, so that he fears every one. By the twelve Houses of Fate, it must be unpleasant to be so given over to hatred!"
"Now, my son, let us consider. You heard what Christian said but now of the need of the House of Anjou for faithful service. A trouvère can go where others cannot. He knows what others dare not ask. He can say what others cannot. Were it not for that prince of mischief and minstrelsy, Bertran de Born, Henry and his folk would have been at peace long ago. Know men's hearts, and though you are a beggar in the market-place, you can turn them as a man turns a stream with a wooden dam. You shall go with Christian to Troyes and thence to Tours, and I will keep your little friend here until he is restored, and bring him to you when I come to that place. If search is made for you it will be made in Venice, where they think you have gone."
Ranulph, with the aid of his new friends, went forth with proper harp and new raiment a day or two afterward, and repaid the loan of old Tomaso when he met the latter in Tours some six months later. He did not give up his studies in the Grasshoppers' Library, but the lean years were at an end both for him and for Zipero.