The Scene: The Vine & Fig,
Village of Castle Hedingham
“O, how full of briers is this working-day world!”
– As You Like It
Confident now that he could succeed by forging a powerful connection with his illustrious (and somewhat infamous) cousin, William Shaxper set out for Lord Oxford’s ancestral home.
He marveled at Hedingham Castle’s ancient keep and its expansive view of the countryside, its narrow windows peering like watchman’s eyes at the village below. That same tower had protected the castle against King John’s siege of 1216 after he had been forced by the 3rd Earl of Oxford and twenty-four other powerful barons to sign a document granting them new rights and protections from royal abuses. The Magna Carta inspired a radical sense of freedom in the land, causing men of all social rank to consider rising above their stations. Success could be achieved if a man worked hard, planned well and, as William Shaxper knew, attached himself to the right patron.
He asked around the village for a man named Pinch, the former jester in the household of Lord Oxford’s father. Several townspeople pointed to The Vine & Fig, a venerable old inn staunchly planted below the castle; and ready to mark the end of their workday with a few drinks, they escorted him there. They told William all about the inn, and how it had come down to Meg Bucklesbury as an inheritance from her father. Pinch, they said, had also claimed the inheritance by marrying Meg and settling into his new career as a tavern keeper.
Shaxper thanked them for the information and found himself a table by the hearth. He ordered something to eat and watched Meg from a distance. Her eyes sparkled with mischief as she poured drinks for her customers and leveled soft jests at them. In the ebb and flow of the neighborly banter that criss-crossed the bar, Shaxper heard the country pleasantries he knew so well. He realized they were as abundant in Hedingham as they were in Stratford, but they were absent, he thought, from the hustle-bustle of city life.
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.”
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