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.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish