Feast of Fools

Feast of Fools

by Bridget Crowley

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Overview

People say that John is lucky to be taken in by the choir school, but it's hard to be grateful for the cold and the hunger, the bullying and punishments. But John's friendship with another chorister, Hugh, makes life seem a little less bleak. On the night of the Feast of Fools, a canon is found murdered, and Hugh disappears. Only John, the outsider, dares to probe the dark heart of the cathedral to discover the truth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780340850824
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.
Publication date: 05/03/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 214
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 5.48(h) x 0.61(d)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

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Chapter 1

Under the frozen moon, a great bell began to toll, shattering the icy air, making the stars dance in the black sky. On and on until, across the square, the door of a wooden building squeaked open and the boys, sleepy, struggling into their long, blue woolen gowns, tripping over their feet in their wooden clogs, tumbled out and staggered toward the great cathedral. Icicles hung from its pinnacles. Frost glittered on its windowpanes and snow dusted its steep, gray roofs. The long, brittle shadow of its twin towers seemed to reach out and gather them in, till a door at the side opened and swallowed them up. Inside the house across the square, three boys remained.

"Wash! Go on. Now. Wash your face, you mangy, crooked little bastard...." Matthew spat out the words, and John felt the spittle on his cheek. He stiffened.

"I'm not a bastard, and I won't."

"I say you will, Peg-leg."

"My name's John. And I will not be washing in that."

Outside in the dark, the great cathedral bell still tolled, making the thin wooden walls tremble. Matthew's hand was like steel as it landed on the back of the new boy's neck with a crack and pressed him closer and closer to the basin. A thin layer of ice covered the dirty water within.

"Break it."

"No!"

But the arm and the hand were too strong. The fingers squeezed and, inexorably, John's nose neared the ice. Quickly, he put out his hands to brace himself on the basin, but Matthew's other arm knocked them away and his face splintered the ice and hit the water. He spluttered, clawing the air to rid himself of the hand on his neck, but Matthew held on. Coughing, choking, red and gasping, John pulled up from the basin and swung round, flailing about with his arms, but Matthew dodged aside too swiftly and stood with his legs apart under his long, blue gown, a sneer on his broad, red face.

"That'll teach you, Peg-leg. And don't try landing one on me. I'm bigger than you, I'm stronger than you, I'm straighter than you, you gimp, and I'll tell you what to do and when to do it. I'm head chorister and I'll see you don't forget it. Now wash your face, weed, get dressed, and be down before I kick you down."

He swung round and swaggered down the wooden stairs. Below, the door opened and the deafening boom of the great bell surged in with the icy draft. Matthew clattered away across the cobbled square. Eyes still full of icy water, John felt around him for the damp, gray cloth that did them all for a towel. He felt it put into his hand.

"Here, Peg, dry your face," said Hugh.

"My name's John. That's my God-given name. John. Not Peg, nor anything else. John."

"I know. But letting him get under your skin won't make him stop. He'll just get worse. It was the same with me when I first came. He called me a weed and a runt in that voice of his, till I wanted to batter his face to nothing, but..." He heaved a sigh. "He is bigger and stronger, and he likes to prove it."

John sniffed and shook his head.

"And he gets in a state because his voice is going," said Hugh. "He's afraid it won't come back when it steadies -- sometimes it doesn't. He wants to be a canon, and you can't be a canon if you can't do the chant."

"Huh," said John. "Some canon! A canon's a priest, Hugh; he doesn't just chant, he's supposed to be...well...good...."

Hugh grinned and nodded.

"Aye. Still, he's head chorister, and that gives him a bit of power. The Magister seems to think he does the job all right. And the others are afraid of him. They've most of them had their turn at the end of his tongue or his fists. So I thought, well...Little Hugh wasn't the worst thing he could call me. So Little Hugh I am."

"And you don't mind?"

Hugh shrugged.

"Well, Peg. What do you think? Will you run with it as we all do, or do you want more of the same?"

"It doesn't sound so bad when you say it. Peg. Not Peg-leg, but Peg, like that. My name's still John, though...."

"Aye, aye. Steady."

Hugh held up a cautioning hand, clapped him once on the shoulder, and jumped up. "Come on then," he said. "Little Hugh and John Peg, one a runt and one a gimp, down to greet our Maker. Clean and tidy and not quite late, but nearly...." He jerked a thumb up to heaven. "And it's not Him that'll beat us if we are."

They hurried across the yard, their clogs ringing on the cobbles, Hugh's pattering along double time to keep up with John's pa-dum pa-dum pa-dum. Their breath puffed smoky balloons into the crisp air, ahead of them still the sound of the single bell. The yard opened out into the wide square, where buildings -- houses and workshops, shanties and animal pens -- loomed from the frosty shadows on either side. People were already about, hard at work by candlelight or lantern or, in one fortunate case, by firelight. A cobbler hammered away at a pair of boots; a tailor blew on raw hands as he pulled on his leather needle pad; a man passed them lugging heavy tools, giving them a brief nod as he went. Other men set up market stalls with a laugh, a curse, and a clatter.

In the distance, a blacksmith's hammer clanged on the anvil and a rook cawed from a skeleton tree that dripped crystal petals of frost. John caught a whiff of the stink left behind by the night-soil man's cart as it trundled away toward the frozen fields stretching away along the ridge of the hill to the open moors. As they neared the cathedral, John slowed down and glanced up at the towers clustered round them, soaring up to the stars.

"Come on, we haven't got time for stargazing."

John looked at Hugh and chewed his lip.

"Don't worry. You just have to stand still most of the time. Just copy what I do. Come on."

They crept into the vestry and closed the heavy door carefully, holding their breath as it clicked. It was almost as cold inside as it was outside. They pushed off their clogs and wriggled their icy toes in their thin leather shoes. They slipped into the line of boys waiting to go out into the choir. At the head, Matthew stood aloof, holding a tall candle that cast shadows round the low stone vault of the ceiling. The boys shuffled their feet, rubbing their f ingers on their legs, shoulders hunched up round their ears, trying for a little warmth. They fixed their eyes straight ahead, but managed a whisper to the two latecomers.

"Whoa, that was close."

"Where have you been?"

"Has he noticed?" That was Hugh.

"No. Well, he's said nothing."

Then a giggle and a snigger. "Face clean, Peg-leg?"

John whipped round, but Hugh, behind him in the line, pushed him back.

"The name's John," said Hugh in a low voice. "But Peg will do."

"Silence!"

With a swish of his cane against his red gown, the magister turned on them. Black hair curling about his lean face under a round cap, dark eyes darting everywhere, he leaned forward from his huge height, measuring his words.

"You will be silent. You will watch and listen and learn for Christ Jesus. What do you say?"

"We will watch and listen and learn for Christ Jesus," they said in chorus.

"Again."

"We will watch and listen and learn for Christ Jesus," they said again, louder.

"Very well."

He passed down the line, lifting a chin here, tapping a backside with his cane there. The boys stood still as carved statues. He stopped at John.

"New boy. Fortunate new boy. Fortunate to be here. Remember that. Not everyone would have..." He hesitated, glanced at John's foot, and turned down his thin mouth. "Well, let us just say, fortunate boy. You must watch and listen and learn for Christ Jesus, boy. And be obedient and alacritous to do well. Do you understand?"

"Aye, sir."

"Good. It had better be so."

He swished his cane again, then turned as a short, fat cleric waddled into the room, wheezing a little as if out of breath. The Magister took a small step back and bowed his head.

"Good morning, Canon Gwyllim," he said.

"Good morning, Magister. Young gentlemen..." The canon nodded at the boys. "Are we all ready to give thanks to God for the new day?"

There was a mutter of "Sir," but the boys' heads remained bowed.

"Excellent. Excellent. Obedience and...humility. That is as it should be. Obedience and humility..." -- he said the word once in English and once in Latin -- "...and silence."

The Magister gave a brief nod and, with a little smile, Canon Gwyllim rubbed his silky hands together and gave Hugh the ghost of a pat on the shoulder. John noticed one or two boys glance at each other with a lift of the eyebrow as the canon turned at the head of the line, the pink flesh of his tonsure gleaming in the candlelight.

Another canon, immensely tall and immensely broad, with a face like iron, came into the line behind him. The boys shrank back a little, though the man ignored them.

"Canon Senan, good morning."

Even the Magister's greeting drew no reply. Hugh made an "o" of his lips, widened his eyes, and gave his head an infinitesimal shake. This man was not to be messed about with.

Canon Gwyllim hoisted a heavy, gilded cross high above his head, leading the little procession as it began its slow, measured journey into the cathedral choir. The voices of the men choristers already echoed, seemingly to heaven, among the delicate tracery of the towering columns, where carved angels, in robes of different brilliant colors, their gold wings and faces glistening, their gold hair streaming, flew among the golden stars that dappled the deep blue ceiling.

John gazed up. Not so long ago, he had seen those angels in the making and had never tired of looking at them, holding them. Now they were up there, newly painted and gilded, clinging to the distant ceiling. Carved angels carrying trumpets, carrying fiddles and garlands and books, each watching across the vast, vaulted space as if waiting for some great event that had been promised but had never arrived.

He glanced from one to the other, searching for one angel in particular, the last angel to be made, the angel that had brought him here....That day when the angel had been taken from the workshop to be put into place, he'd never dreamed he would be looking up like this, standing with these boys, his foot mangled, his father -- his father gone. And having to be grateful for -- for what? Everything had seemed so safe before, ordered, secure, but now...And yet, if it was God's will, as the brothers in the hospital had said...

But before he could find his angel, the line halted in the choir stalls. John cannoned into the scrawny figure of Fitz in front of him. Hugh lurched into John from behind. The Magister, behind them, seemed not to have noticed, and they turned to face the center aisle, heads bent, trying not to grin.

The grins faded as they stood and stood and stood, sometimes secretly shifting their weight, longing to scratch under their rough shirts, stifling a yawn. Occasionally one or two of the boys would join in a part of the ritual they knew. The rest stayed silent. The canons up at the altar went about their business with a certainty not unlike that of the angels above. Would he ever get to learn all this? John watched anxiously, but the service seemed to go on forever and after a while his head drooped. Tiny bells tinkled, then suddenly the great bell tolled from the tower. John started awake just as Hugh nudged him with a sharp elbow.

A sharp, vicious pain shot through his injured foot and he cried aloud. Hugh looked at him, horrified, then stole a glance at the Magister. Again, he seemed not to have noticed, and Hugh breathed again. But John was still leaning to one side, his eyes closed in agony, trying to move his foot to ease the pain. Hugh edged closer.

"You all right?"

An almost imperceptible nod with tight lips.

"Nearly done."

Another nod. He'd get to the end somehow. John gritted his teeth, breathing hard. Canon Gwyllim and Canon Senan led the boys forward to make obeisance to the altar two at a time, first Matthew alone, then Simon and Edward Longnose, the one as short and jolly as the other was lean and lugubrious, Peter Holt and Fitz, then John and Hugh. John shuffled forward. Hugh put out a hand to steady him and they both nearly went down. The Magister was upon them in a moment. He grabbed John's arm, turned, and almost manhandled him down the aisle and into the vestry, where he collapsed to the floor, rubbing his foot, blinking away tears. The Magister turned and shooed the other boys away.

Suddenly a hot blob of candle wax dropped onto his bare hand. John gasped and looked up. Matthew stood over him.

"Get up, you gimp, you cripple. What are you mewling about down there for? Why are you here when you can't even walk properly? You'll disgrace us all. You're not wanted here, Peg-leg."

His voice was low, but the Magister heard him.

"Matthew, my son, be patient. Remember your own first days here. You know the history of this boy and you know your Scripture. We must have charity or we are as nothing. You must find it in your heart to help him."

"But, sir, he should be in the hospital with the beggars and the other cripples, not here in God's house. It's unnatural. People are made crooked for a reason. Crooked things are -- are evil."

One or two of the boys started to murmur. John couldn't tell if they were agreeing or not. The Magister started to remonstrate but Matthew went on quickly.

"And anyway, sir, he'll be useless in the services, limping and staggering about...."

"He was not born crooked -- "

"It was sent to him to be crooked. God willed it. There must be a reason. That's worse."

"Don't interrupt me, Matthew. The boy can walk reasonably well. It is not always given to us to know God's will, but the fathers of the church have given their word and we do know that it is God's will that we keep promises. The boy stays here," said the Magister. "Now, boys. Go and find your food and break your fast. Be quick now. We must begin school."

Matthew flushed angrily but turned to put the

candle away in a recess behind a heavy curtain. He and the other boys began to leave, and Hugh bent over John.

"Are you fit?"

"Aye. All that standing made my foot go to sleep, that's all. I forgot to keep it moving and it hurt like the fires of hell when it began to come back to its senses."

Matthew whipped round at the words "fires of hell" and his eyes widened. He opened his mouth to speak, but the Magister intervened.

"Do not mention hell in this place -- it is not fitting."

His eyes flicked toward Matthew, then down at John.

"Whatever the reason, you cannot continue to create such a disturbance in that way. If there is to be trouble of this kind, then I'm afraid after all you will have to return to the hospital."

Behind him, Matthew gave a self-satisfied little nod.

"No," said John, not sure which would be worse, to return to the hospital like a beggar or to stay here, suffer through the services, and be bullied by Matthew. "No, I'll find a way to keep my foot awake. Don't worry."

"Your pardon?" said the Magister, sharply.

John looked up at him.

"You will call me 'sir.' Always."

"Sir," said John.

"Very well. Now. You know you must beg your food from one of the canons?"

"Yes...sir. They told me at the hospital."

John felt the same flush of anger as when he had first heard. What would his father have thought of his begging for food? The Magister looked at his reddening face.

"Come, John. It is the same for all the boys. They each go to one of the canons. It is the rule. Do you know to which canon you must go?"

Rules, rules. He tightened his fists. "Yes, sir, they told me that, too."

"Then away with you, and be at school on time."

The pain in his foot was subsiding, but not his temper. Limping worse than usual, John went out into the square.

Copyright © 2003 by Bridget Crowley
First published in London in 2003 by Hodder Children's Books, an imprint of Hodder Headline Limited

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