Drayton and Shaxper were roughly the same age, bonded by the geographical fate of having been born in Warwickshire County. When practically everyone in London began talking about Shaxper’s illness, Drayton felt obligated to go and see him. While he was lucky to be in good health, he felt sorry for the scribe, whose old acquaintances were betting on how long it would take him to die. No one seemed the least bit interested in paying him a call.
And that wasn’t altogether unexpected. For years, the writers had watched as Shaxper hid under his famous pseudonym and gorged on applause he didn’t deserve. They couldn’t understand why the Earl of Oxford had been so generous with him, when he was so inflated and unworthy. Shaxper had feathered his nest with the profits from Lord Oxford’s scavenged works, like an upstart crow stealing objects that glittered. Robert Greene had accused him of that by using the term “upstart crow” when he called him a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide. New Place itself was evidence that his greed had worked in his favor.
“Anyone home? It’s Michael Drayton. I’ve come to visit you, William.”
Ben Jonson bolted down the stairs. “Drayton! Well, I’ll be damned!
You horse’s arse! What the devil brings you here?”
The two men pounded on each other like a couple of high-spirited tavern rowdies.
“I’ve come to pay my respects to Shaxper,” Drayton said.
“Aw, there’s no need for that. He’s always been paid more respect than he deserves. Don’t wake him up. He’s sleeping in the next room.”
“Yes,” Drayton whispered, “but I’ve heard that he’s dying . . .” “What’s the big deal? It’s not as if he invented Death, although he might try to take credit for that too, the way he’s taken credit for everything else. Sit down and have a drink. It’s not my liquor, so help yourself and be sure to drink as much as you’d like.”
“Always the perfect host, generous to a fault with another man’s liquor.”
Stools scraped across the floor as the men sat in the kitchen and filled their goblets.
“Of all things,” Jonson said. “I never thought I’d see you here.” “Nor I, you. I can’t believe our old friend is dying. Did you come to cheer him up?”
“Are you crazy? I came to cheer him on! But never mind that. Is it true, what I’ve heard about you?”
“Bless you, that all depends on what you’ve heard.”
“That you’ve just published thirty-thousand lines of poetry on the feminine pulchritude of English geography! Do you think it’s nearly long enough?”
“Actually,” Drayton blushed, “I do plan on revising Polyolbion . . .” “You haven’t changed a bit,” Jonson laughed.
“I can’t say the same for you. You seem to be everywhere these days. I know you didn’t come here to counsel the scribe on the fate of his immortal soul.”
“You know I’d be lying if I said I cared one whit about that immortal jackass. Actually, I’m editing a folio of Shake-speare plays and I’m trying to collect the missing manuscripts. I thought I’d start here.”
“A reasonable choice.”
“Don’t be so sure. I haven’t found anything yet.”
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