Stratford-on-Avon was a provincial town, much like the peasant scribe Jonson had traveled to see. The village buzzed with the incessant drone of work, offering little joy or frivolity. Farmers rose early to work the fields as tradesmen unlocked their shops for business. Carts groaned under heavy loads, mocking the muscular oxen that pulled them. Boys not yet apprenticed to the trades attended Stratford’s grammar school, hoping to do more than sign their names with an anonymous mark. Mothers shared traditions of homemaking with their daughters: baking bread, sweeping hearths and tending vegetable gardens.
Only the graves at Trinity Church promised eternal peace and serenity.
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.”
“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 Shakespeare 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.”
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.”
Jonson grinned awkwardly and tried to look reassuring.
Dr. Hall clutched his medical bag and went outside. Jonson saw him whisper to the brawny man pitching hay by the barn. The ruddy-faced servant wiped his sweaty brow and sat on a bench in the shade, fixing his eyes on the house as the doctor left to visit his patients.
Jonson turned and leaned over the scribe’s pale body to assess his frail condition.
Suddenly, Shaxper’s eyes fluttered open. The ghostly figure trembled and sat bolt upright. He stared at Jonson for a moment, recognition flickering in his cold eyes. He gasped and struggled to breathe. He gripped the playwright’s shirt with his bony fists, pulling him down on top of him. The old man’s rancid breath made him gag. Jonson’s voice strangled in his throat and he wrenched away, his heart pounding.
Shaxper wheezed and calmly looked into the eyes of his nemesis.
“It was worth risking a fit of apoplexy to scare the piss out of you!” he laughed.
“God damn it! You whoreson pimp!” Jonson shouted. “Was that supposed to be funny? Your man is ready to cudgel the piss out of me.”
“I know, I heard. Now that would be entertaining,” Shaxper said. “But I suppose you don’t think so.”
“You miserable ham! Trust you to have the bad taste to overact your own demise.”
“What, have you no applause for my death scene?”
“It was mildly entertaining. Too bad it wasn’t real.”
“You were always jealous of my talent,” Shaxper said, feigning a yawn. “Actually, it was a brilliant dress rehearsal; but alas, I’m not acting. I wrote my Last Will and Testament a month ago. I had to revise it when my daughter Judith ran off with that scoundrel Thomas Quiney, so I cut her out of it. I’ve left everything to my oldest girl Susanna – she’s the doctor’s wife – and to her mother, the untamed shrew – with one or two bequests for my theatrical friends. But don’t count your money, Jonson. You’re getting nothing. You’re not even mentioned.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. You’d take everything with you, if you could arrange it with The Almighty. But you say you wrote your own Last Will and Testament – or did you steal the wording from someone else and clap your name on it?”
“Go to, Jonson! The legal language is common, and in my youth I prepared such documents when my father was alderman. You can spout better insults than that, you old carbuncle.”
“Let’s call a truce then. Tell me, what ails you, Shaxper? Why are you ill?” Jonson asked. “Has venereal disease finally caught up with you?”
“Well, then. That confirms the long-standing opinion of England’s literary men.”
“God’s blood, I thought we had a truce. Or shall I summon my man from the barn?” Shaxper prepared to shout.
“No, don’t. We’ve had our differences in the past, but if you want my opinion, you’re much too young to die. You’re only fifty-two years old, younger than Thomas Lodge, George Chapman, Anthony Munday –”
“Ah, my contemporaries, England’s great literary men,” Shaxper said, sarcastically. “Are those hacks still alive?”
“Those playwrights are still alive, yes.”
“Do they still hate me?”
“None of them would write you a glowing epitaph.”
“They were always jealous of me.”
“Jealous of you? They were outraged! You were trafficking in stolen manuscripts.”
“I had Lord Oxford’s permission to do what I did.”
“Yes, during his lifetime. But we all know how you profited from his plays after his death.”
“I had to earn a living. He was taken from us so suddenly.”
“Aye, indeed; murdered like Marlowe,” Jonson sighed.
“At home, in his own bed,” Shaxper said, mournfully. He looked Jonson in the eye. “So, why did you come all the way from London to Stratford? There’s always been bad blood between us, so I know you didn’t come here to inquire about my health. You told my son-in-law there’s a publishing venture in the works, and you need my help to accomplish it. Let’s talk like businessmen. There must be some compensation in it for me.”
“The Countess of Montgomery never said anything about paying you---“
“Ah, the Countess, Lord Oxford’s daughter. Well, she wouldn’t begrudge me a gratuity after all these years. I’ll wager her husband and his brother have already contracted a publisher. The Herberts are so well connected in the literary world. There must be some money in it for me.”
“Money! Is that all you ever think about? You weren’t content with simply pirating Oxford’s plays, but you also bought The Second Maiden’s Tragedy from Thomas Middleton and copied it in your own hand so you could sell it as a Shakespeare play and fetch a high price. All of the writers found out what you did, so you’re not in any position to make demands.”
“Perhaps the Countess will allow me to make a few personal appearances as Shake-speare. I need the money. Upcoming funeral expenses, you know.”
“Absolutely not. It’s time for us to reveal the truth about the authorship.”
“Powerful men in the government will fight you on that point,” Shaxper said. “Are you ready to die with a noose around your neck?”
“The Countess has hired me to see her father’s plays into print, and she believes you know where they are,” Jonson said.
“She has misled you then. Too much time has passed. I know nothing.”
“You stashed the papers somewhere—”
“What does it matter? The playhouses only show Pericles nowadays.”
“I am prepared to acknowledge your unique contribution to Lord Oxford’s work in our folio,” Jonson bargained. “After all, you were his most faithful confidante.”
“More important than his wives, his lovers, his children or his beloved Queen,” Shaxper added. “I guarded his darkest secrets, any one of which could have toppled the nation when he was angry; and oh, he was angry so often! I always managed to calm him down and remind him that our secret work on behalf of England was more important.”
“God’s blood, he needed no reminder of that from the likes of you. Your audacity makes my head spin.”
“Very well, Jonson; spin this – to hell with you and the Herberts and your Shake-speare folio. I won’t summon my man, but I’ll not say another word. I’ll take my secrets to the grave.”
Shaxper folded his arms and pursed his lips like a spoiled child.
“Forgive me,” Jonson pleaded anxiously, realizing he’d gone too far. He gently grasped Shaxper by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. “I was wrong to offend you, sir. After all these years, you do deserve a proper hearing for everything you suffered as Lord Oxford’s front man. I’m sure it would lighten your spirit to reveal those secrets, even to an old fire-eater like me. Let’s close the rift between us. Perhaps it would mend your ailing heart to bring you to some confession of your true state, as it were.”
“Yes, a deathbed confession would ease my mind,” Shaxper said. “But I must warn you – the truth will be far more burdensome than you think.”
Jonson ignored the warning. He sat down to listen and visualized the manuscripts drifting closer.
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