Early in the morning, Michael Drayton found Ben Jonson asleep in the hen house behind Shaxper’s barn. He gently kicked the playwright until he rolled over and woke up. Jonson growled like an ill-natured bear.
“You never give up, do you?” Drayton chuckled. “In case you don’t remember anything from last night, Dr. Hall threw us out and told us never to come back.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Jonson yawned. “I know that, and I’ve obeyed his every word. But since I never really left the premises, I haven’t actually come back, have I?”
“Only you could devise logic like that.”
“At The Peacock, just down the road.”
“Well, you might have come back to fetch me. I’d have preferred a nice warm bed to sleeping with these damned chickens.”
“What, and offend Doctor Hall even further? Not on your life. Good physicians are hard to find. It’s not as if they grow on trees.”
“That’s right – they usually bury their patients under them. Say, if you were so intimidated by the good doctor, why did you come back?”
“Because my visit with the scribe wasn’t the honorable farewell I intended. I need another chance to make my peace with him before . . . well, you know, before he dies.”
“That ham actor never did know how to make an exit,” Jonson said, as he stood up and dusted himself off. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now. They’ve probably locked me out of the house, and I’ll never get a chance to coax that old impostor into telling me where the plays are.”
“I might be able to get you inside for a price.”
Drayton paused for a moment to let the offer sink in.
“Speak up,” Jonson said, impatiently. “I’ll pay your price, whatever it is. Well, stop looking like the cat that ate the cuckoo and tell me, how do we get back in the house?”
Drayton was interrupted by a lady calling from the yard.
“Oh, Michael. Michael Drayton, where did you go, my love?”
“Who the hell is that?” Jonson whispered hoarsely. “Did some whore follow you all the way back from The Peacock to collect her fee? What an ass you were, giving her your real name!”
“She’s not a whore,” Drayton smiled. “She’s the key to this house. Watch this.”
He walked over to the door and called outside.
“I’m in the hen house, darling. Come and get me, my little turtledove.”
“Are you insane?” Jonson said. “We’re not supposed to be here!”
Within seconds, Anne Hathaway Shaxper stood in the doorway, blocking the light.
“There you are,” she said coquettishly. She sauntered seductively towards Drayton. “I’ve been looking all over for you, Michael. My featherbed is so much more comfortable than this old dirt floor, even if it is the second best bed in the house. Willy won’t even know we were up there. He spends his days at death’s door, but I’m still vibrant, and you know how I have my needs. I’ve missed you so much. I’ve been without a man for so long it hurts, and there’s only one cure – hey, who is this lug? I thought we were alone.”
“Don’t be alarmed, Anne. He’s a friend of mine.”
“How on earth did I miss seeing him? He’s a big one, isn’t he?”
“Big enough,” Jonson said, squaring his shoulders.
“Who are you?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of him, my dear. This is Ben Jonson, a playwright from London.”
“Sure, I’ve heard of you. My husband once called you his worst nightmare.”
“Yes, that would be me.”
“He said you were the bane of his existence.”
“See how well he knew me? We’re practically brothers.”
“Ben, this is Anne Shaxper,” Drayton said. “She’s the scribe’s wife. They’ve been married forever, if you know what I mean.”
“Charmed,” Jonson said. He kissed her hand like Fastidious Brisk, the foppish courtier from his play, Every Man Out of His Humour. She seemed highly impressed with what she took for his impeccable manners.
“Now I have two strong gentlemen to entertain,” she said lasciviously, as she took his arm. “Won’t you come inside, where it’s warm?”
“Oh,” Jonson said. “Yes, that would be nice, wouldn’t it, Michael?”
She offered her other arm to Drayton and the two men escorted her to the house. She removed the key from her bodice and unlocked the back door. Jonson exchanged triumphant glances with his friend as they tiptoed into the kitchen and closed the door behind them.
“Would you care for some breakfast?” the housewife asked, still clinging to Jonson.
“Yes,” Drayton replied. He was free to sit down at the table. “Breakfast would be wonderful. Wouldn’t it, Ben?”
“Yes, wonderful. Thank you, Mrs. Shaxper,” he said, trying to gently extricate himself.
“Call me Anne,” she said, feeling his beefy muscles. “My, you’re strong. You don’t seem at all like those pale and monastic writers Willy always told me about. You must do a lot of physical work.”
“When the theaters are closed, I sometimes work as a bricklayer.”
“Bricklaying! Well, that explains it. All those lucky bricks.”
“Where’s your husband, Mrs. Shaxper?”
“Call me Anne. Willy’s sleeping on the couch in the front room. That’s all he ever does, unless he’s raving like a maniac about some injustice from the past.”
“Dr. Hall must be out visiting patients.”
“That’s right. We have the house all to ourselves.” Her voice trailed off as she walked towards the pantry. “But first, we’ll eat. What a challenge, serving two such ravenous men.”
“I hope she’s referring to food,” Jonson whispered.
“Don’t be too sure,” Drayton replied. “She has insatiable appetites.”
“Then what’s she doing, being married to a milquetoast like Shaxper?”
“Not much. She said so herself. You remember; he always said she was lusty.”
“Let’s just say I’m an old friend of the family.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Someone had to look in on her while William Shaxper was in London all those years.”
“I came back to beg his forgiveness.”
“His forgiveness? Look at her! You were probably doing him a favor.”
“I don’t think the Lord God will see it that way, when my time comes.”
“Look here,” Jonson said, rising from the table, “maybe you’ve got time for a tearful confession and an erotic tumble on a featherbed, but I need to find those play manuscripts. Take her upstairs while I talk to the scribe.”
“Not so fast, Ben. I got you back into this house, didn’t I?”
“You said you’d pay my price, whatever it was.”
“Oh, all right,” Jonson groaned, sitting down again. “You did me a tremendous favor, getting me back in here. So go ahead, name your price. What do you want?”
“You take her upstairs while I talk to the scribe. Please, Ben, it’ll start me on my path to atonement, and I’ll find out for you where the manuscripts are —”
“Now wait just a minute! You had this whole thing planned, didn’t you?”
“What if I did? You couldn’t have gotten back into this house without me.”
“Yes, but who’s going to help me get back out?”
“Quiet!” Drayton hissed. “She’s coming back.”
Anne Shaxper returned carrying two large bowls of food. She leaned over and placed them on the table, lightly brushing her ample breasts against Jonson.
He turned in the doorway to see a look of dismay on Jonson’s face as Anne led him up the back staircase.
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