Ben Jonson spurred his horse headlong into the wind with reckless fury. The roan gelding summoned its strength, kicking crusts of dirt into the face of its portly rider, blurring his view of the countryside.
The perfunctory tone and imprecise wording of his patron’s summons had caused him to rush off from London on the fastest horse he could find. Had he provoked the official censors again? He had done so before and suffered for it. In the eyes of the government, he was a troublemaker and a known recidivist. Although King James had named him poet laureate, he wasn’t one to be deceived by royal honors, for he had lived long enough to see the mighty fallen and even the weapons of war perished.
As a playwright, he was considered a dangerous person, and he had plenty of reason to believe he was being watched at all times.
Riding frantically to Wilton House, Jonson shuddered to think that King James might be punishing his patrons for some inadvertent offense in one of his theater pieces; and that as its author, he would be the next in line at the gallows.
As he reined his horse to a halt in front of Wilton House, Jonson surveyed the former Benedictine convent, reborn as a magnificent estate. Decades ago, King Henry VIII had given Wilton to the Herbert dynasty as a reward for their loyalty after his split with Rome. While it glowed with elegance now, the sacking and dissolution of the convents and monasteries led the cynical Jonson to see it as nothing more than the spoils of war transferred to flatterers by an arrogant king.
Thank God the two incomparable Herbert brothers, Lords Pembroke and Montgomery, could not read his thoughts!
A servant appeared and ushered the playwright to a nearby tent while a stableman tended to his horse. A youth approached with a pitcher of water and a towel. Jonson grinned at the proffered nicety. It wouldn’t do to appear slovenly before the patrons who paid his salary and held his prospects in their hands. He scrubbed his face and checked himself in the mirror for any telltale signs of the road. Even the servant seemed satisfied with the hasty renovation of his appearance.
The playwright’s heavy boots echoed uncomfortably on the polished floors of Wilton. Although he’d been in the great house dozens of times, the pedestaled marble busts and oil portraits of unyielding ancestors made him nervous as they glared down from their gilded frames. He would have preferred meeting Pembroke and Montgomery in a public house like the Boar’s Head, where he could relax and let his guard down; but he was sure neither nobleman had ever frequented such a place.
The library door opened onto a courtly tableau. Instantly, Jonson felt the bristly snag of his abrasive nature threatening to ruffle Lord Pembroke’s smooth demeanor. He weighed Lord Montgomery’s lighthearted temperament against his own choleric impatience. The nobles were ephemeral, glittery and polished where he was harsh, big-boned and hewn of peasant stock.
Lord Pembroke stood facing the window, perusing a folio of maps. He seemed startled by Jonson’s presence, as if he’d forgotten his terse summons. Lord Montgomery stepped forward to greet the playwright, as if the differences in their ranks meant nothing, as if they were old friends or comrades-in-arms on an equal social footing.
Jonson wouldn’t have it. He bowed low, knowing that when all was said and done, they were his superiors and expected his deference.
His gaze fell on Countess Susan. He wasn’t sure why she was there to witness his imminent peril, but her radiant smile lightened his mood. She had been an attractive child, favoring her father’s chestnut hair and silver eyes over her mother’s pale complexion. Time had enriched her delicate features with an exquisite grace.
“My lady,” he smiled, kissing her hand.
Jonson remembered his very first glimpse of her. Too young to know her father’s secrets, Susan had nevertheless been old enough to eavesdrop as he helped Jonson revise the earliest version of Sejanus. With the Earl’s hand added to his work, the novice playwright had assumed they would share credit. But when Lord Oxford insisted that Jonson publish it under his own name, the former bricklayer bristled. He hadn’t understood the ban against publication by noblemen. It seemed unfair, not giving credit where it was due, since the play had been a collaborative effort. He wasn’t a pirate, he said; he wanted to be known as Honest Ben Jonson.
He must have raised his voice a bit (actually, he had shouted) and frightened little Susan. She ran to her father and flung her arms around him. Jonson was dumbfounded as the Earl described the Queen’s literary ban while his daughter entwined herself around his neck – and Jonson’s heart.
Now the years had passed, and he stood before her, waiting for his patrons to speak. Lord Pembroke cleared his throat.
“We all want to compliment you on your fine work in editing your folio of plays, Ben,” he said.
“It is I who must compliment you, my lords,” Jonson replied. “Not every writer has the chance to see his life’s work printed in a single volume. I will always be grateful to you both for sponsoring its publication.”
“The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson is the first collection of its kind, is it not?”
“Yes, the first of its race ever begotten in England, I’m proud to say.” Jonson paused. “Why do you ask? Has there been some trouble with it?”
“Not at all. Merciful Heavens! Should we expect any?”
“No, but the tone of your letter –”
“Oh, that,” Pembroke said, waving his hand dismissively. “Well, perhaps I should have been softer in my choice of words. What I meant to say is that we have a similar project in mind, and my sister-in-law here has convinced me that you’re the only writer in England with the skill, education and honesty to accomplish it.”
“Thank you for your confidence, my lady,” Jonson said, with a bow.
“But time is of the essence,” Montgomery added curtly. “We want to publish a volume similar to yours featuring the complete works of another deserving author. And, since you have done so well with the volume of your own works, we want you to act as editor.”
“I am honored, my lord. But where is the author? Why can’t he edit his own collection?”
“Nothing would have pleased him more -- if he were alive to do so.”
“We’re prepared to pay you a goodly sum in advance,” Montgomery added.
“I’m flattered, my lords, and place myself once again at your service.”
“In all fairness, Ben, you might want to think it over before you accept,” the Countess said. “Publishing this particular volume could be a most dangerous assignment.”
“How so, my lady?”
“We are asking you to edit a folio of my father’s complete works.”
Jonson looked uneasily at Pembroke and Montgomery.
“Is that permitted, Your Lordships? Has the King granted license to publish plays bearing Lord Oxford’s name?”
“His Majesty knows nothing about it,” the lady said.
“Not yet anyway,” Montgomery added.
“How do you propose to accomplish it? And why now, after all this time?”
“The timing has never been more favorable,” Pembroke said. “The King has granted me the title of Lord Chamberlain, giving me full authority over every manuscript that passes through the Stationers’ Register. And with our friend George Bucke as Master of the Revels, we will control the publication and production of every play in England. For the first time, we can associate Lord Oxford’s name with the famous plays.”
“And what will the King say to that?” Jonson asked.
“I’m sure His Majesty will have some misgivings – he always does – but everyone knows he loves the plays.”
“Maybe so, but does he love the author? The real author – not that scribe from Stratford.”
“Aye, my lady,” Jonson nodded, breaking an awkward silence. “I haven’t thought of him in years.”
“You must admit, at least he was useful.”
“A sponge is useful too, my lady; but oh, what filth it collects!”
Jonson read his patrons’ disapproval. He discreetly changed his tone.
“It would be a great tribute to see your father’s complete works published under his own name after all these years, my lady,” he said. “I would be honored to oversee this great task. The Star of England deserves a stellar monument.”
“Your primary task will be to find the plays, and it won’t be easy,” Montgomery said. “In this case, our author is dead and therefore inconveniently silent on the matter. You must collect as many manuscripts as possible, but God only knows where the originals are! After all this time, I fear they may be scattered all over England, lining baking pans or wadded up to stop bungholes. Perhaps some of the actors still have them, but whether they’re foul papers or fair copies, I’m sure only you can tell.”
“We’ve already secured the Earl’s longtime friends Leonard Digges and Hugh Holland to contribute some dedicatory verses,” Pembroke added. “You might want to ask Michael Drayton to pen a short tribute.”
“I will, my lord.”
“Well, however you manage it. And by all means, throw in some of your own verses. As editor, you can do as you wish in that regard.”
Jonson grinned at the prospect.
“One other thing,” Montgomery added. “We suggest that you journey to Stratford to see Mister Shaxper. Perhaps he can enlighten you on where to find the plays, and favor us with some of his own verses.”
Jonson sank back into his chair. Did no one care about casting pearls before swine? Shaxper had once boasted that he could versify while butchering a calf. All Jonson could picture was the bloody cleaver.
“Pardon me, my lord, but William Shaxper is incapable of poetry,” Jonson said. “It’s true that he’s written one or two epitaphs for tombstones since his retirement; and, well, actually, that’s a good line of work for him because dead men can’t ask for their money back.”
Montgomery snickered. Pembroke looked baffled. Jonson tried again.
“What I mean to say is that his verses won’t be in the literary style one would expect in celebrating the memory of Lord Oxford as the great Shake-speare.”
Jonson knew it wasn’t going to be easy, avoiding impolitic remarks that would confuse and anger his patrons. And of course, even His Majesty had no appreciation whatsoever for such clever repartee, especially on forbidden matters.
Countess Susan gently touched Jonson’s hand.
“We all know how you feel about William Shaxper, Ben, but you must search everywhere for the plays. Surely the scribe knows where some of them can be found. He was entirely devoted to my father, right up to the end. We believe he might have taken some of them back to Stratford with him for safekeeping.”
Jonson doubted that precise motivation, but he swallowed his opinion in deference to the rank of his benefactors. He was determined that the great plays would not suffer the same fate as Shake-speare’s sonnets, purloined and published by a beguiling impostor.
He had to admit that he knew his patrons were right. The best place to look for the plays was in the home of the scribe who had made fair copies from foul papers – claiming the author’s labor as his own. Perhaps he had taken some of them there after all.
Jonson bowed obediently.
“I shall leave for Stratford first thing in the morning, my lady.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish