Shaxper’s home at New Place sat on a level plot of land. The heavily beamed façade crossed over white plaster, joining with large timbers to support its sturdy structure. Two outbuildings and a small barn stood alongside it, and a well-kept garden bordered the grounds. At the time of its purchase twenty years earlier, Shaxper had boasted that it was the second best house in Stratford, and that he’d acquired it with the proceeds from the ticket sales of Hamlet.
Jonson had cringed at those words, and he did so now at the sight of the imposing roof. New Place looked down on its neighbors with the same palpable contempt as its owner. According to his fellow writer Michael Drayton, Shaxper was famous in Stratford primarily for gouging the price of grain during a famine. Rumor had it that members of his own family had never seen him write anything more complicated than a receipt for barley – and an overpriced one at that.
Jonson dismounted, tied his horse to the fence and knocked on the front door. No one answered. He tried even more forcefully the second time as a crowd of children thundered down the lane chasing a big yellow dog. Still no answer. He jiggled the door but the lock held tight.
He walked around back and peeked through the window. Dark timbers lent the kitchen a dreary feeling. Dried herbs hung from the ceiling and a fire smoldered in the hearth. A skinned rabbit, seasoned and ready for roasting, lay on the table. Yet despite these modest signs of domesticity, the house seemed unwelcoming.
He pressed his nose against the glass and was startled by the sudden sensation of hot breath against his cheek. He turned and saw the yellow dog on its hind legs, panting and whining beside him. The hound dropped down and padded over to the back door, pawing it until it opened. It cocked its head at Jonson, inviting him to act as its accomplice.
Humored by the silent request, Jonson grinned and patted the dog. He followed it into the kitchen and watched as the four-legged burglar seized the rabbit from the table. Without so much as a nod in Jonson’s direction, the dog ran off, escaping beyond the garden fence with its prize dangling from its jaws.
The playwright chuckled and closed the door. Immediately, he smelled a hearty stew simmering in a large kettle suspended over the hearth. He recalled that he hadn’t eaten since daybreak. Seduced by the idea of satisfying his hunger, he stirred the kettle. Closing his eyes, he savored the aroma and raised the ladle to his lips.
He was suddenly distracted by a soft moan from the other room, and peered through the doorway to find its source. He saw an old man lying on a couch by the window, laid out like a corpse. Wisps of gray hair billowed from his bald head across his pillow. Was this gaunt apparition the scribe who had once been so bloated with brag and bluster? The jeweled rings on his scrawny fingers confirmed it. Jonson recognized the gaudy trophies of Shaxper’s salad days when the impostor had flaunted them as symbols of his wealth and influence.
Given his condition, it was a miracle no one had stolen them.
Jonson rested the ladle against the kettle. He walked over to the couch and leaned down for a closer look. An angry voice shouted at him from behind.
“Who are you? I demand to know what you are doing here.”
“I-I’m Ben Jonson, sir,” he stammered, turning towards the doorway. “ I’m a playwright from London, and an old associate of William Shaxper’s, come to see him on a matter of the utmost importance. But if this is he, I’m afraid I may be too late.”
“Too late? What, is he dead?” The gentleman rushed to the couch and knelt beside it. He rummaged through his leather bag and produced a small mirror. He held it under the old man’s nose. The surface clouded with faint breath.
“Thank God, he’s alive. You had me very worried, sir. I’m Dr. John Hall, William Shaxper’s son-in-law. I recall his speaking of you, Jonson, and regret that my father-in-law cannot rise to greet you himself.”
If he did, he’d spit in my eye, Jonson thought. Instead he said, “The kitchen door was open, so I walked in.”
“We needn’t lock our doors in Stratford. It’s not like London. We don’t have any thieves. And I’m sure you haven’t come to steal anything, have you, Jonson?”
“Why, no. Certainly not,” the playwright replied, thinking of the yellow dog who’d raced off with its plunder; and on the subject of thieves, he asked, “How is Mr. Shaxper?”
“Sad to say my father-in-law is very ill. That’s why I insist that he must have absolute quiet and no visitors. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I must ask you to leave.”
“But I’ve come all this way to speak with him.”
“Speak with him?” the doctor chuckled. “About what?”
“I want to prepare the Shake-speare plays for publication and I need his help.”
“Oh, that’s impossible. His days as a scribe are long past. He hasn’t enough strength to scrawl his name, let alone sit up and copy out that endless content.”
“Just give me a few moments to ask him if he knows where the original manuscripts are.”
“Let me understand – you want to publish a complete folio of Shake-speare plays, but you don’t know where the manuscripts are?”
“It does sound odd, doesn’t it?” Jonson blushed. “We can’t account for all of the plays – not yet, anyway. But your father-in-law’s recollections could be of great help to me in finding them.”
“I must say, he isn’t always coherent.” “Still, I’d like to speak with him.” “He won’t say much . . .”
“Perhaps. But at the very least I’d like to let him know that I came to Stratford out of respect to see him – for old times’ sake.”
“Don’t toy with me, sir. We all know how you feel about my father-in-law. He used to regale us at the dinner table with the most shocking stories about you, and I’m sure every detail was true.”
“No doubt,” Jonson grinned, “a true reflection of William Shaxper as the natural child of honesty.”
Hall completely missed Jonson’s double meaning. “Very well, you may speak to him,” the doctor concluded after a moment. “But don’t upset the poor man with any talk of the public theaters. His days for that promiscuous nonsense are over. I’ll have my man throw you out if he hears even one foul note of discord between you. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I understand. I promise not to upset anyone.”
“My father-in-law is prone to hallucinations. You must choose your words carefully.”
“Yes, I’m a writer, I can do that. He’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
“I have other patients to look in on,” Hall said. “Go and have your little talk with my father-in-law, Jonson. See if you can get anything sensible out of him.”
“I will, Doctor, thank you. I’ll be Wisdom and Tact personified, I swear.”
“Never swear in vain, Jonson,” Hall said. “I’ve heard that you possess neither of those qualities.”
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