A red-faced youth accosted Michael Drayton as he tied his horse to the fence post outside New Place.
“What is it, boy?”
“You can’t leave your horse tied up in the street like that.” “Why not? I’m visiting the man who lives in this house.”
“We may be a small town, sir, but we have laws in Stratford protecting the cleanliness of our common areas. You’ll have to put your horse in the village stable. I’ll take him there for you and save you the trouble of a hefty fine. I’ll only charge you a penny and I’ll see he’s well cared for.”
“You should be a lawyer, with your ‘stop, sir’ and your hot pursuit of money,” Drayton grumbled, as he rummaged through his pockets and paid the youth.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll consider the opportunity, if it ever presents itself.
I’m always in favor of improving my lot.”
“The man I’ve come to see first improved his lot by bringing plays from London all the way out here.”
“That must have been before my time, sir.”
“Do you know him? His name is William Shaxper.” “Oh, yes. He’s a bit of a recluse these days.”
“Is he famous around Stratford?”
“Infamous would be a better word. He abandoned his wife and chil- dren to work for an earl in London.”
“So he could become a writer?”
“He was already a writer. He wrote usurious bills for grain while the rest of us were starving.”
“Is he a famous playwright?”
“We have plenty of wheelwrights in Stratford, but no playwrights,” the boy laughed. “Wait! Come to think of it, we do have a playwright stopping here now, and he is rather well known. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name is Ben Jonson and he’s visiting the very man you’ve come to see.”
“Yes,” the boy answered. “He left his horse tied up here overnight, and when I confronted him about it, he had to pay me a whole lot more than a penny for cleaning up the mess.”
“I’m glad you stopped me. You’ve proven very helpful, my boy.” “It’s all in a day’s work, sir. When you’re ready to leave, come to the stable and fetch your horse. He’ll be brushed and watered and ready.”
Drayton nodded and walked towards the front door. He knocked, and when no one answered, let himself in. The sound of his boots echoed in the empty hall.
“Hello, is anybody home? William Shaxper? Are you here?”
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.”
“I assume you think the scribe knows where they are.”
“If he knows, he’s not telling. He just talks rubbish and plays the part of a senile old man.”
“What did you expect? You’ve ridiculed him for years. I’d be surprised if he talked to you at all.”
“Right. Maybe now that you’re here, you can pry the information out of him.”
“I could try loosening his tongue with this,” Drayton said, waving the bottle of sack they’d helped themselves to.
“You’ve forgotten. Shaxper doesn’t drink sack. Only small beer.” “Well, if he’s senile, chances are he’s forgotten that, too.”
“Very funny. But it won’t work.”
“I happen to know that tomorrow is his birthday. That’s why I’m here. The talk around London is that it might be his last. So what’s wrong with pouring him a sacred libation as he crosses the Stygian Lake on the way to Hades?”
“Nothing, I suppose, as long as he drinks religiously. I don’t want to waste any more time with that old fool.”
“I promise, you won’t. I’ll get him to tell me where the manuscripts are. That’s the least I can do for a friend.”
“Thank you, Michael. And by way of our friendship, I’d like to invite you to compose a poem for the folio, something touching Lord Oxford’s literary talent and bountiful patronage. You write it and I’ll publish it, however long.”
“I’d be honored, Jonson.”
“Of course I’m writing something too, as are several associates of the de Vere family. There’s Thomas Freeman, half-brother of Oxford’s son with Lady Vavasor, William Barkstead and Hugh Holland, former boy actors from Oxford’s troupe at St. Paul’s, William Basse, retainer to the Earl’s daughter Bridget, and his old friends James Mabbe, Leonard Digges, John Marston and some others.”
“I’ll write something, as long as your folio doesn’t perpetuate the authorship hoax. That’s gone on long enough.”
“I quite agree.”
“I don’t,” an elderly voice called out from the other room. “What are you two talking about in there? It doesn’t matter what you say, Ben Jonson. I can hear every word, you wretched scoundrel, and don’t deny it! You’re plotting against me, all of you. Well, I won’t have it, do you hear me? Don’t think I’m a mayfly. I wasn’t born yesterday . . .”
“Who in the hell is that?” Drayton asked.
“That’s the scribe. He’s hallucinating again – happens every hour or so when he wakes up from a long nap. It doesn’t mean anything. Ignore it.”
“Ignore it? How can you ignore it?”
“Michael Drayton, is that you? I know that voice as if it were my own. Come in here. Pay no attention to that pismire who calls himself a playwright.”
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