As the afternoon wore on and business became less hectic, Shaxper invited Meg to join him at his table.
“Ah, at last a chance to rest these old bones,” she said, as she wiped her hands on her apron and arranged for one of the serving girls to take her place behind the bar. With a heavy sigh, Meg plunked herself onto the bench and brushed the hair from her eyes. “It’s been quite a day, as you can see,” she said, fanning herself with her hand.
“Is it always this busy in here?” Shaxper asked.
“Oh, aye. There’s seldom a moment’s peace. Mind you, we’ve been in business since Noah’s Flood, and I’ve always been given to believe that it was my father who stepped up to the Old Navigator as he left the Ark and offered him the first drink he’d had in 40 days and 40 nights. Well, sir, is our food to your liking? Is there anything else we can get for you?”
“Not much for strong drink, are you?” Meg laughed. “The Vine & Fig won’t be making much money on you, I’ll warrant; not with a child’s drink.”
“I-I know small beer is for children,” Shaxper stammered, “but I can quench my thirst as often as I like and never get drunk, and that should keep my money flowing into your till, shouldn’t it?”
“Upon my honor, sir, forgive me. My tongue is ofttimes quicker than my brain and I deserve your gentle rebuke. I meant you no offense,” Meg said.
“I am not offended, madam, but I have every reason to be sober and keep my wits about me.”
“As you wish, sir. But madam-me-not, for it makes me feel old. Call me Meg, as everyone else does. Is this your first time in Hedingham?”
“Yes. In fact, I’ve come all the way from London to see your husband, hoping he would teach me about the art of comedy. Is it true that he was the jester to Lord John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford?”
“Aye, Pinch was his household fool. People said he was the funniest man in England once . . . well, more than once, I’d say. He also led Lord John’s company of players. But that was long ago, back when Pinch claimed he had the best hire-and-salary in the world.”
“I would agree with him. I myself am looking for work in the London theaters.”
“Mark you, Pinch used to say it – you won’t hear such talk from him anymore.”
“It was the talk of the village that he was mightily abused by Lady Margery, Lord John’s widow. She dismissed the players after His Lordship’s death and Pinch was so despondent over her cruelty, he threw himself off the tower. A hay wagon broke his fall, and I stepped in to nurse his wounds. We’d known each other as children, you see, and that sort of love never dies. Pinch would not recommend serving as a player in a noble household to anyone. He would quickly disabuse you of the notion that it’s a marvelous life.”
“I’m not sure even a man of his talents could do that,” Shaxper said.
“Ah, but you do seem like a such a level-headed youth,” Meg said, reaching for his hand.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m reading your fortune,” she said, studying his palm. “I can see in an instant whether your true heart’s desire lies within your grasp, or whether you’re deceiving yourself . . . you see, the palm is called the table because your destiny has been set and all things rest upon it and – oh, yes. I see. It’s partly what you’ve said, but not exactly what I expected to see.”
“What do you see? Is it my death?”
“Yes,” she smiled, “but not yours alone, for we’ll all die someday, sooner or later. I do see that you have a heroic purpose ahead of you, receiving great fame and fortune for creating illusions. And from the looks of it, you’re not alone in that either.”
“Then the playhouses truly are in my future.”
“Indeed they are, but there’s a darker side – pretense, I’d say. Fame and Fortune are written on your palm, but I also see an old man burdened by a terrible secret.”
“What old man? Is it me?”
“That’s a mystery, too,” she said, as Shaxper gently slid his hand away from hers. “There’s only so much we poor mortals can see, but it would be a shame for you to condemn yourself to a player’s life when there’s no glory in it. That’s what Pinch would say.”
“But by reputation, he was funnier than Will Somers, King Henry VIII’s fool. Pinch must have found some glory in that fame.”
Shaxper raised a curious eyebrow.
“You see,” Meg continued, “no other jester in England at that time ever commanded a cry of players. Most noblemen were entertained by dolts or dwarfs that were mocked for their imbecilities and deformities, a practice that I find most cruel.”
“But noblemen also maintained musicians as their servants.”
“Aye, but they didn’t maintain resident companies of actors - men who were literate, able to understand and learn their lines. Lord John was different from other noblemen. His castle had a chapel and a theater in it. It was that very thing that captured his son’s attention.”
“By his son, you must mean Edward, Earl of Oxford, patron of the London theaters,” Shaxper said, delighted at this turn in the conversation.
“Aye, that’s him,” Meg nodded. “I remember when he was born, a little lordling-viscount with a whole string of titles to his name. He was a precocious child, and once terrified Pinch by dancing barefoot on the bulwark of the old tower with no regard for his safety. Pinch gave him scenes to translate from the comedies of Terence and Plautus, and soon the lad took parts in them. Edward was so well disguised, his parents never knew they were applauding their own son among the players. They wouldn’t have approved if they’d known, especially Lady Margery. Pinch took a big risk by indulging the boy.”
“Why would his mother care if her son took to the stage in private?”
“Because Edward was wild and impetuous, like a stallion that defies his paddock and bolts haphazardly to distant pastures. He refused to be tethered and constrained to give up writing and acting because of his noble rank.”
“I always thought a nobleman could do whatever he desired.”
“Not so,” Meg said, with confidence. “You and me, we can muck about in life all we want, and no one cares if we get dirty. But if we were titled nobility, our actions would be grist for the gossip mills. Edward always said that the plainest commoner enjoyed more freedom than he did, and he was twelve when he said it, and he was probably correct. But look, here comes Pinch now, and he can tell you the rest.”
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