A red-faced youth accosted Michael Drayton as he tied his horse to the fence post outside New Place.
“What is it, boy?”
“You can’t leave your horse tied up in the street like that.”
“Why not? I’m visiting the man who lives in this house.”
“We may be a small town, sir, but we have laws in Stratford protecting the cleanliness of our common areas. You’ll have to put your horse in the village stable. I’ll take him there for you and save you the trouble of a hefty fine. I’ll only charge you a penny and I’ll see he’s well cared for.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll consider the opportunity, if it ever presents itself. I’m always in favor of improving my lot.”
“The man I’ve come to see first improved his lot by bringing plays from London all the way out here.”
“That must have been before my time, sir.”
“Do you know him? His name is William Shaxper.”
“Oh, yes. He’s a bit of a recluse these days.”
“Is he famous around Stratford?”
“Infamous would be a better word. He abandoned his wife and children to work for an earl in London.”
“So he could become a writer?”
“He was already a writer. He wrote usurious bills for grain while the rest of us were starving.”
“Is he a famous playwright?”
“We have plenty of wheelwrights in Stratford, but no playwrights,” the boy laughed. “Wait! Come to think of it, we do have a playwright stopping here now, and he is rather well known. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name is Ben Jonson and he’s visiting the very man you’ve come to see.”
“Yes,” the boy answered. “He left his horse tied up here overnight, and when I confronted him about it, he had to pay me a whole lot more than a penny for cleaning up the mess.”
“I’m glad you stopped me. You’ve proven very helpful, my boy.”
“It’s all in a day’s work, sir. When you’re ready to leave, come to the stable and fetch your horse. He’ll be brushed and watered and ready.”
Drayton nodded and walked towards the front door. He knocked, and when no one answered, let himself in. The sound of his boots echoed in the empty hall.
Drayton and Shaxper were roughly the same age, bonded by the geographical fate of having been born in Warwickshire County. When practically everyone in London began talking about Shaxper’s illness, Drayton felt obligated to go and see him. While he was lucky to be in good health, he felt sorry for the scribe, whose old acquaintances were betting on how long it would take him to die. No one seemed the least bit interested in paying him a call.
And that wasn’t altogether unexpected. For years, the writers had watched as Shaxper hid under his famous pseudonym and gorged on applause he didn’t deserve. They couldn’t understand why the Earl of Oxford had been so generous with him, when he was so inflated and unworthy. Shaxper had feathered his nest with the profits from Lord Oxford’s scavenged works, like an upstart crow stealing objects that glittered. Robert Greene had accused him of that by using the term “upstart crow” when he called him a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide. New Place itself was evidence that his greed had worked in his favor.
“Anyone home? It’s Michael Drayton. I’ve come to visit you, William.”
Ben Jonson bolted down the stairs. “Drayton! Well, I’ll be damned! You horse’s arse! What the devil brings you here?”
The two men pounded on each other like a couple of high-spirited tavern rowdies.
“I’ve come to pay my respects to Shaxper,” Drayton said.
“Aw, there’s no need for that. He’s always been paid more respect than he deserves. Don’t wake him up. He’s sleeping in the next room.”
“Yes,” Drayton whispered, “but I’ve heard that he’s dying . . .”
“What’s the big deal? It’s not as if he invented Death, although he might try to take credit for that too, the way he’s taken credit for everything else. Sit down and have a drink. It’s not my liquor, so help yourself and be sure to drink as much as you’d like.”
Stools scraped across the floor as the men sat in the kitchen and filled their goblets.
“Of all things,” Jonson said. “I never thought I’d see you here.”
“Nor I, you. I can’t believe our old friend is dying. Did you come to cheer him up?”
“Are you crazy? I came to cheer him on! But never mind that. Is it true, what I’ve heard about you?”
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