High up in the tower, the church bells began to toll.
“D'you want to leave, Tam? If we hurry we might just be able to sneak past the choir.”
They were all at the back of the church now, and Neal could hear the scuffling of many pairs of feet, and a few excited whispers as they jostled one another into formation. Already, from the corner of his eye, he could see one small boy stepping forward. Once the bells had ceased, the first hymn would begin.
Tamlin shook his head. “After they've gone t' th' front, if I find I canna stand any more, then we might slip out quietly. But fer now- ” Tamlin broke off as the treble soloist began to sing.
“'Once in royal David city stood a lowly cattle shed- '”
Tamlin, Neal, and the congregation rose as one and turned towards the sound, gazing at the child.
The boy's good-natured, freckled face shone into heavenly beauty above the starched white ruff of his vestment, and his pleasure at being the chosen soloist was evident. Pride and spirit intensified the sparkle in his bright brown eyes. When the solo verse had ended, he paired up with another boy, and they began the slow, solemn procession up the center aisle as the congregation joined in the singing.
Tamlin leaned down and spoke softly in Neal's ear. “So, did ye ever get t' do th' solo?”
“Twice, but I did it from the front.”
“Why no' th' back?”
“I couldn't walk.”
“No. Not without crutches. I thought I told you that.”
“Och, aye, ye did, but I'd fergotten. So, ye sang from th' front?”
“Yes. The crutches made me look like hell in a procession, and I felt so self-conscious, the way people would stare whenever I tried to participate. Finally, once I'd lost my temper about it a few too many times, the director realized how much it bothered me. We talked about it at great length one day, and after that, I never took part in the procession again. I turned pages for the organist, then slipped discreetly into my place when his piece was done. I had a voice, and that was what mattered most, not whether my legs worked properly or not.”
“I wish I could've heard ye.”
“You can hear me now. I still sing.” Neal listened for a moment, found his place in the hymn, and began to sing from memory, blending his voice with the rest of the congregation.
Tamlin smiled. Neal's singing voice was pure and clear, but it bore little resemblance to that of a boy treble. It had the strength of an adult body behind it, and the depth of manhood, and it was one of the sweetest tenors Tamlin had ever heard, even when held back for discretion's sake.
Tamlin's singing voice was a flawed and small-ranged bass. The only time he allowed it to be heard was when he was conducting his ensemble's rehearsals. Otherwise, his bass viol supplied his true voice. With it he could make sounds as poignant as those Neal was now producing, but it was not something he could easily incorporate into a church service, unless he'd been invited to do so.
Listening to Neal, his heart beat a little faster. He reached for Neal's hand and squeezed it.
Neal turned, regarded him with questioning eyes and raised brows.
“Come,” Tamlin insisted.
“You want to leave?”