All in a Garden Green | Paul J. Willis

All in a Garden Green

The following is an excerpt from All in a Garden Green by Paul J. Willis. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

Context: Thirteen-year-old Erica has traveled in time to the year 1578 in Hengrave Hall in Suffolk, England. There she trades places with the elder daughter, Meg, of the Catholic Kytson family, who are hosting the Protestant Queen Elizabeth on a three-day visit. Now, after a banquet in the great hall, Erica is asked to perform for the Queen on the virginal, a forerunner of the harpsichord. Everything about the visit has gone very wrong thus far; it is up to Erica to save the fortunes of the family.

Erica walked to the virginal in the midst of a precarious silence. She was conscious of the eyes upon her, especially those of Charles Cavendish. As she approached the dais she could clearly see that Queen Elizabeth wore a smile perhaps more playful than proud. The Queen seemed to nod her head. Erica felt suddenly heartened, and dropped a curtsy before the dais as elaborately as she knew how.

At the double virginal she took her seat on the empty bench and found her music propped before her. Strange—she had not even thought to worry about having or missing the musical score. Perhaps she even had it by heart. But no, she had the music and she would use it. She straightened the bench, straightened the score, and put her hands to the keys—or jacks. Pedro had told her they were jacks. But why was she thinking of keys and jacks? She was supposed to be playing now. Would she sing too? She hadn’t thought about this, either. Perhaps she would. But what was a madrigal with only one voice? She would only sing if the playing went very well, perhaps the second or third time through.

Here—she had considered enough. It was time to begin.

Her fingers pressed down on the jacks. For the first few notes they felt numb and thick and terribly wrong. But then the very tips of her fingers suddenly remembered themselves. The strings sounded, humming and plucking in quick succession, the playful formality that was the essence of madrigal, the then that was now. She felt the hall fill with the sureness and lightness of the music, the quick-and-gone delight of it, and as she went on, she approached each passage more daringly, more trippingly, until she did not think of the possibility of hitting a single note in error. She felt a smile grow on her face, knew for certain that what she enjoyed, others were enjoying. She felt regret when she realized she was almost halfway through the score. She was flying, she was soaring, she was playing dancing maidens and golden apples and blonde-haired gods and gardens of goodness and—

“Stop!” cried the Queen.

Erica could not believe her ears, but her fingers fell from the virginal and landed trembling in her lap. What oh what oh what had she done?

“Is that not a double pair of virginals thou playest?” asked the Queen, looking directly at Erica.

“Yes, your majesty,” Erica whispered.

“And is that not a score for two pair of hands that thou playest?”

“Yes, your majesty,” Erica tried to say again, but her throat was dry, and all she could really do was nod.

“Hast thou no one to play it with thee?” the Queen asked.

“Yes—I mean no, your grace,” said Erica, finding her voice. “I was supposed to play with my sister, but she fell in the moat, and now she is very ill. Which is my fault, really, because I sort of pushed her, because she made so much fun of me after I forgot what to say to your majesty when we were fairies, if your majesty remembers.”

A light ripple of laughter had begun to cross the hall as she spoke. Some people, when they are nervous, say too little, and others, sometimes, say too much. Erica suddenly realized what she was doing and blushed with shame. But the Queen held up her hand, and the laughter stopped.

“Thou hast no one else with whom to play?”

“Well,” said Erica, unable to help herself, “Master Edward, of course, my teacher, but he jumped in the moat to save my sister this afternoon and almost drowned, so now he is sick too—because of what’s in the moat, I guess—and I’m trying to do the best I can all by myself because, well, you are the Queen, you know, and you don’t come to Hengrave every day and we want to make a good impression.”

She stopped when she heard the tittering begin again. She looked out and saw Meg’s father bending down with his face in his hands.

“Thou dost excellently alone,” the Queen pronounced, and everyone was silent again. “But thou wouldst do even more excellently with a partner in practice. I think I recognize the piece. It is ‘All in a Garden Green,’ is it not?”

Erica nodded.

“Very well,” said the Queen. “We our royal self shall join you.”

We? thought Erica. Who is we? But then she saw the Queen herself, and no one else, arise from the dais and step down to the virginal. Everyone in the hall stood up, and Erica did too, to be safe. No one sat down again until the Queen took her seat on the bench next to Erica.

“Be seated, child. Be not afraid.” The way she said it, and even something about the way the Queen looked, reminded Erica instantly of Sister Julian, and filled her with a sudden courage.

She sat elbow to elbow with the Queen, her spring green gown against the royal red velvet and white satin sewn with dozens and dozens of pearls, and thought to herself, she’s just a woman. She’s just a woman about to play the virginal, as I am. Erica took the sheaf of music and propped it directly in front of the Queen. “I don’t need it,” she whispered. “I pretty much know it by heart.”

The Queen studied the music attentively, and Erica studied the Queen. Close up, her eyes looked even more quick and intelligent than from a distance. She watched them scan the notes in a knowing way, learning them in quick glances. Her red hair looked thin and brittle, her forehead frail. And yet, and yet, this was the Queen.

Praise for All in a Garden Green

“One of the pleasures of the young is dress-up, imagined time-travel, and participation in events more significant than life has afforded them thus far. All of these elements abound in All in a Garden Green. Based on a real castle-like estate house in England and a historical visit by Queen Elizabeth I, the novel’s protagonists find themselves in unasked-for adventures that both define and stretch them. And readers will greatly enjoy the ride.”
Daniel Taylor, author of Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

“Fling together a girl about to leave childhood behind, an ancient house filled with chapels and towers and chambers and hidden staircases, lutes and virginals, Queen Elizabeth I, a wise and knowing mentor, and two huge St. Bernards–and then mix them with the slipperiness of time, and you have this rollicking novel that speeds its way to its nick-of-time ending. This is a playful book, spanning four centuries of a changing language, and undergirded by the lovely certainty that what lies ahead will always be better.”
Gary Schmidt, Professor and Department Co-Chair of English, Calvin College, and author of Okay for Now

“All in a Garden Green is a journey both real and fantastic. During her family’s stay at Hengrave Hall, Erica discovers a portal to England’s late sixteenth century. Abruptly, history explodes into fascinating and well-researched detail—altered language, antiquated musical instruments, secret rooms and hidden staircases, even a visit by Queen Elizabeth I. Erica’s piano lessons were never like this! The story gives young readers a fresh take on resonances between past and present. Highly recommended.”
Ellen Chavez Kelley, author and poet

“In an old English manor house a young girl enters into history in a way that entices readers to suspend disbelief and take delight in sharing her journey across time. Skillfully drawing upon his own semester with students in England and upon records of a royal visit to Hengrave Hall, Paul Willis has woven a tale that deserves to be read aloud and enjoyed by adults and children old enough to wonder about time past. Ancient customs, young romance, a courtyard, a moat, a mysterious nun, and two St. Bernards are only a few of the features that give this story its singular charm.”
Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

About the Author

Paul J. Willis

Paul J. Willis s a professor of English at Westmont College and a former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California. Born in Fullerton, California, he grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. Paul earned a BA in biblical studies from Wheaton College in Illinois and a PhD in English from Washington State University. His dissertation explored the topic of the forest in Shakespeare. Paul’s passions for teaching and the forest merged in his work as a mountain guide in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. After teaching part-time at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, and full-time at Houghton College in western New York, he arrived at Westmont in 1988.


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