Gonna be gone until Monday, peeps, so I’m dumping the weekend’s whole stinking load on you in one big push.
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And thanks for reading along.
I arrived back at the theater just as the afternoon performance had concluded, the crowd streaming out and seeming in good humor, my fellows still in their costumes and paint making me much welcome with both their usual insults and their honest sympathies, my having had no occasion to see them prior to departing for Stratford, nor since, my day being spent first with Heaton, then at Somerset and then with Carey, and it much buoyed my soul to be back in their company.
Jenkins, being still in his womanly garb, curtsied and gestured toward my sword. “I see my fair charms hath made thy steel firm, good sir.”
Burbage overspoke the general laughter. “I would suffer you not to endure such little injury as that narrow blade might inflect, my lady, when you should instead be penetrated by my broader sword.” And more laughter, but then Burbage to me, “Pray tell me, though, Will, that your rapier be mere ornament for your dealings with Carey, and not carried in true need?”
And so I related such events as had transpired since I had made their company last, all being much aghast to hear how near death I had passed, and much intrigued with such news as I had from Heaton and from Somerset House.
“We can at least consider Carey’s favor true,” Burbage said, “him taking such risk on your behalf.”
“Having beheld this contest,” I said, “I think Carey at little risk in any matter settled with swords.”
“We would be advised,” added Heminges, “to remember our Lord’s martial talents before we next perform for him, for should he make stern critique is seems as like to cost us our heads as his patronage.”
Burbage produced a bottle of the sack he so favored, the bottle making the rounds of the company, and I was some surprised to see Jenkins, who had only recent made the bottle’s acquaintance, drink from it so lusty.
“In drinking at least, I see Jenkins is your good pupil,” I said to Burbage.
“Such good pupil that we either must increase his wage that he may pay for his drink, or increase mine that I can continue to supply him, as he current does much abuse my charity.”
“Take care, boy, that drink does not become your master,” I said to Jenkins.
“I have served worse,” he replied.
“And so he is Burbage’s good pupil,” said Heminges.
“I do not call drink my master, sir,” said Burbage in pretend umbrage.
“Perhaps your scourge?” asked Heminges,
“Oh, scourge, to be sure,” replied Burbage.
“We need another bottle,” said Jenkins, having taken chance in the conversation to have finished the first.
Burbage smacked Jenkins sound behind the head and laughed. “The fetch it, boy, for you know well where it is stored.”
As Jenkins made his unsteady way across the stage, Burbage spoke to me.
“What news as to our lease?”
“Heaton was to meet Miller today, and was optimistic for our interests. I should have word tomorrow.”
“Since we know at best our respite will be limited, we have continued our search,” Heminges said, “and have found a bating ring in Bankside for sale that can be had cheap, as it is in sorry repair, but its foundations at least are solid and would suit such structure as this well.”
“And we could buy it outright, Will,” said Burbage, “so as to avoid such mischief as our lease has caused us in future. We discussed the matter brief with Heaton in your absence, and it is his sense we could have this place right quick.”
“This seems a wise course,” I answered. “But what of any temporary stage, should we have need?”
At this, their faces soured. “Henslowe is at some mischief, Will. At every venue where we inquire, he already has claimed each available date. As his troupe already has a stage, I can’t think why he would so empty his purse, save to do us ill.”
“Which would require that he knows our ills,” I said.
“And know them before us,” Burbage said. “At the Rose, at least, he did buy dates some weeks ago.”
That night for the first time in my remembering, I made sleep easy, wearied, I suppose, by the week’s travels and trials and the day’s long business; however, I awoke not to dawn, but in still full dark and from the grasp of a dream. In my sleeping, I relived the attack – not that which Carey had so conclusively thwarted, but that first attempt – and relived it complete, in every detail. The scrape of feet behind me, the sight of the blade passing above me as I spun and turned beneath it, my foe’s awkward steps past me, that pregnant moment where we both stood, blades extended. But in my dream, he did not turn and flee into the darkness, but instead reached up and lowered the cowl that had hid his features from me complete, and I watched, expecting to see that ruined nose with which I was now over-familiar, but instead that space that would hold a face yawned full black and empty, as complete a hole as had been my son’s grave, and the hole seemed to spread, as if it gave off dark the way a candle gave off light, and I somehow knew that this dark did not obscure such that it covered, but instead consumed it, and I this time turned to run, and while there was no sound, could somehow still hear this dark at my heels, gaining, ever gaining, And it was then that I awoke.
It is not much my habit to dream, but such dreams as I have had, at least those that rise above that simple litter of sleep that are the half-remembered station of most nightly musings, those oft seemed hold for me some portent, some knowing, that I had in my conscious thinking ignored. And I puzzled hard at this, but could take no meaning beyond my own peril, which I did now suspect was only little and perhaps not at all diminished with the death of the single foe felled by Carey’s blade. And for a moment I was sore tempted to return to Carey and accept that offer to explain what mischief we present knew to the Queen and leave its disposition to her good ministry. But if truth be my god I could little expect its service to require less sacrifice than any other, every god of my acquaintance thirsting hard for human blood, those gods that did not spur their believers to kill some others in that god’s name, asking instead that their believers offer their own blood to sate such holy appetites.
I returned uneasy to my slumber, wishing for my late youth where, with unstuffed brain, golden sleep did reign.
“And what brings such a fine gentleman like yourself to these parts this good morning?”
My sleep troubled, I had risen early and made to those districts nearest the river where the chambermaid thought Mary Norton’s father lived. The woman asking after my presence was less than my own years by some margin, but such years as she had lived had marked her dear, her teeth most evident in their absence, her eyes much dulled, the skin of her face sallow beneath its rouge and powder, and the tops of her breasts, pressed up for display by her tightened corset, had a slackened aspect, like sacks of flour half emptied.
I bowed with some theater. “Why to make the acquaintance of the city’s good people, mi’lady, so as to gain their console on a matter of some consequence.”
She laughed, seeming honest, and her features, to be true, were some improved in what I suspected was for her an uncommon moment of mirth.
“You have a mouth on you, you have,” she said. “As have I, and I can put it to such use as I promise you will well enjoy for two pence, which I am sure you would not deny me, you already having had my acquaintance for free.”
“I will pay your two pence glad,” I said, holding out the coins, “if I can have use of your mouth in conversation for some minutes instead.”
She eyed me with much suspicion, then pursed her lips and took the coins. “I will take thy offer, sir, if we might sit for our talk, as I spend my waking hours on either my feet, my knees or my back, and so to take some leisure on my ass instead during my working day is a small luxury.”
And so we sat on a wall along the river’s bank, and her face softened as she lifted it to the morning sun, quiet a moment spent in some joy known private to her alone.
“I thank the, sir, for pretending at least to think I deserve your courtesy. I was not always thus and am not now by choice. But a child’s hungry mouth consumes what it will and made snack of my dignity long ago.”
“Madam,” I said, “I have no such claim to virtue by which I would stand judge of another. But I am surprised that you work your trade this side of the river, having thought our increasingly Puritan city fathers would have all entertainments off to Bankside or Shoreditch or the other liberties.”
She snorted. “Entertainments? Dear God, at least have such mercy as not to compare me to the bear baiters and actors. What little reputation I might still have I would keep.”
“Actors madam? Having known them long and you only little, I know already not to make such claim, for you are too much a lady to keep such company.”
“And Bankside sir? Where I would need compete with ladies less long in my trade and more fair in their charms and for clients more used to their custom? While here I am oft alone to serve those Puritans who are much shamed to find that their human need do oft o’ermount their spiritual zeal, so that, in their shame, they do conclude their business quick and pay for it most dear, thinking it some rare evil and not some common urging.”
“And so you are as wise in business as you are rich in beauty,” I said.
“And you, sir, are a kind liar, and are wasting your two pence, for you have already lasted longer in conversation than a Puritan does in lust.”
“Then I will ask you plain. I am looking for a young girl some years short of twenty, dark haired and of some considerable beauty, who did until recent work in service at Somerset House, known by name as Mary Norton. I am told she lived close near the water in this district, with her father.”
My companion drew a breath and blew it out, pursing her cheeks in the doing. “I did know a Norton, a John,” she said, “who had a room near, and who, I remember, until recent, had a daughter such as you described, but well short of twenty, I should think fifteen. He died in winter. A Yorkshireman I think, by his accent.”
Yorkshire, as the chambermaid had mentioned.
“Have you seen the daughter since?”
“What more do you know of him? What work did he do?”
“Most common, he begged alms. He had but one hand, the other supposed lost at war in his youth.”
For two pence more, she agreed to show me the building holding the room where he had lived, and I marked its place that I might return later and ask after Mary in those locales where she would be best known, pressing a final two pence on the woman in thanks for her service. I wondered more at the nature of the city and our place in it. For me, it had been the stage on which I had acted a new self, only imagined in my youth in Stratford, but here made real in service of the city’s appetites. And as London had been the fount of my fortune, I had pretended it such for all, although every sense made plain the city’s ills as clear as its glories – the sight of the poor – dirty, poxed, and of too much bone and too little flesh – begging alms; the smell of the squalor that, in truth, did affect all, but that I noticed this morning much strong as, in this district of estates meaner than my custom, people lived in such close congress that the stench which does always accompany human enterprise was oppressive thick. The sounds in this district, too, falling harsher on the ear – the calls from the keepers of such poor shops as this area’s custom could support being in tone more desperate from those nearer my rooms, for a shopkeeper strives for the coin that brings that same day’s bread far more urgent than he does to add just another to an already fattened purse. Children’s cries, too, some in that innocent insistence of infancy, their cries being their only tongue, but that tongue being much fluent so that on others I could hear tales of hunger, of illness of a despair for which they did not yet know the word, but that they like would know full well in experience long before they could speak its name.
And I made my way from this district towards that of the courts and my appointment with Miller, sudden knowing that this city I had thought a kind of jungle was indeed such, and that its luxurious green and its many wonders that did flower constant and in joyous color did have their roots sunk deep into the soil of those tens of thousands of the poor, sucking from them their natures and humors to sprout this vainglorious display and returning to them nothing except their brown and discarded leaves from which the poor must hard derive their sustenance, knowing any excess will almost immediate be claimed by the roots of those finer flowers that they serve but whose glories they will never share. And on that dark forest floor, a woman whose soul had no less claim to grace than my own would sell her virtue cheap in private unto those who would at her expense in public revile her trade; and yet she willing accepted their dishonest congress if only in hope that one mouth, a mouth that likely already cried full fluent in that despair that did somehow seem dim even such sun as tried to light these narrow lanes, that it would at least live and perhaps one day climb this tangled foliage sufficient high to bloom.
Meanwhile, we creatures that lived in those higher branches considered our debts and fortunes in congress with each other, ignoring complete that larger debt – that our lofty perch was owed to those soiled thousands that did faithful support its roots, even while those same roots did use them so foul. I realized sudden and in shame that what we called charity was only a late and partial payment to parties we had much abused and who had no hope in law to make claim, as the law was a creation of us finer creatures, and we used it plain to hold the poor to their station and us to ours so that, as we shat our waste to the forest floor, we could call it charity and congratulate ourselves on our generous exercise of God’s mercies.
“We can reach what accommodation we will with Miller,” said Heaton, us seated in his rooms, when I asked concerning the lease. “But that accommodation would only last some few days.”
“We shall need more than a few days,” I answered.
“This matter seems mischief to its core,” Heaton said, “for the more I uncover the more I find beneath. I met with Miller and full explained what of this Shoreditch scheme I knew, and implied what I did not. It was clear in his reacting that he knew only some little of the larger plan, and not at all of the persons involved, being also clear that, as we surmised, the matter of your lease was not one of conscience, but rather of commerce, and that his delay was simply a small cruelty to satisfy his distaste, which seems to be as much for your person as for your art.”
While I have been, in my dealings with Miller, perhaps some sharp in tongue, as I find his manner near as offensive as his philosophy, I was some surprised to hear that he focused his animus on me direct. “Why at me?” I asked.
“You are, for him, the embodiment of all he does despise. An actor and playwright, both, and thus you both author and display such evils as he imagines. But it upsets him, too, that you have arisen to a status near equal to his own from what he sees as common routes, for this does dispute that Calvinist thinking that Puritans do much embrace – the faith that men are born each to their station, that station reflecting that favor in which God holds them. For you to have reached this status and by means of such art as he views sinful, means that either his religion is false or your means are Satanic. Few thoughts will push a man more toward evil than an argument that the God he imagined good be otherwise.”
I could only agree. “A man will in the name of God do ready such ills that he would never consider of his own accord, and I do true believe that many hear God’s voice in what are in fact the whisperings of the darker chambers of their own hearts, so as to excuse such evils that they cannot admit are sprung whole from the cauldron of their own appetites.”
Heaton patted his desk with his hand. “The matter of Miller’s conscience aside, it is commerce that drives his hand. My having made plain what cause for damage we could bring against him, his delay in notice being clear fraud, he did ready agree that you may remain in the theater for so long as he is its master, but those days are short numbered, as he has agreed to sale, such sale scheduled to conclude in just one week hence.”
“Giving us eight more days than we had, but not nearly so many as we need. What of the property’s new owner? If we assume the theater sold as part of these conniving speculations, then the new owner sure has no true purpose for it, save to sell it soon again. Would they not, then welcome also such rents as we could compel Miller to pay so that we can remain in residence sufficient long as to make an orderly retreat?”
“An inquiry I already did make, and was much surprised to have it so quick rebuffed, until I learned who the new owner would be. Henslowe. And not owner of the theater alone, as he is one of those agents the Somerset Company employs in its purchases, for he has bought three other parcels in Shoreditch, having already sold two at profit, and is entertaining offers on the third. ”
“What of the threat of disclosure? If Henslowe is in league with Somerset, then he knows the stature of its players and what ills might befall him should their plot be thwarted through cause of his actions?”
“I tried such tack, but he replied that any knife we hold to his throat we hold equal to our own, or even more so, as the disclosure would come by our hands, not his.”
“And yet he holds the theater instead of selling it.”
“Of those properties he holds,” Heaton said, “it is the largest and will thus fetch the dearest price, so by holding it some weeks longer as this scheme unfolds, he can not only enrich himself, but impoverish your company by denying you access to its stage, which some new owner would sure lease to you most ready, and thus with one mischief he can cause another.”
This new knowledge of Henslowe’s hand even tighter around my throat bubbled so angry in me that I could not stay seated, but instead rose and paced in Heaton’s room, an idea forming that I would have whole before speaking it, so that, when Heaton tried again to speak I rose a hand to still his tongue.
Finally I answered him.
‘ “I learned but yesterday that Henslowe had, some weeks ago, made such payments so as to block every stage in Bankside from our use, and so I already knew that he had knowledge of our misfortune in advance, but by this we now know that he not only had knowledge of it, he was in truth its architect, as he schemed first to drive us from our own stage, and then to keep us from any other.”
“This would seem true,” Heaton said.
“Answer me this. Some weeks or months hence, the Somerset Company’s final properties sold and so the false infection of this speculative fever stayed, what then becomes of Shoreditch?”
Heaton sat back for a moment, tapping a finger against his chin. “Those leases that will concentrate much commerce within its boundaries already in force to support the fiction giving fire to this speculation, Shoreditch will be new home to more shops than current, though, Somerset having sold them all out of its inventory as part of their company’s scheme, they will be held by varied owners, all of whom will have paid dear, so that they will strive hard to increase the area’s commerce in hopes that prices might at least one day equal those they paid, and justify such rents as will allow them to afford those mortgage they may have secured to buy them.”
“So this mall of shops that was created as a myth will become a fact.”
“It will, and, in truth, for those owners patient may well in time be a worthy investment. Not the sort of investment that the Somerset Company would prefer, though. For why breed your cow and take the risk and trouble to raise a calf when you can instead steal your neighbor’s herd and sell it whole?”
“But, Shoreditch being outside the city’s walls, and thus its laws, and thus at liberty, we can expect that this now more thriving district will see traffic much swelled in those entertainments that are to the liberties confined?”
Heaton’s finger stopped tapping his chin, and instead pointed at me straight. “And be the ideal site for a theater, especially one bought not at the height of any speculative frenzy, but instead at its start, and, thus, owned free by its company.”
I slumped once more into my chair, the energy derived from discerning Henslowe’s plot exhausted by having realized its end. “And so I find myself already mated in such game as I had not known begun.”
“Take heart, Will,” said Heaton. “The solution to any ill is found only after its diagnosis. Give me some time to reflect on this matter now that we know it more whole, and I may well find unbarred some door that Henslowe has forgotten.”
“And if no?”
“Why, then we make a new one.”
It was short past noon only, but I was considerable wearied by the morning’s adventures and by the night’s interrupted slumber, and so, instead of returning toward the river to inquire further after Mary, decided to return to my rooms, to reflect, too, on my company’s dangers, for the plot that was now shown as a direct attack at me held more currency at the moment then that which had felled my dead patron.
And, in walking to Bishopsgate, I saw the city now not as a jungle, but instead as an abstraction, its buildings and lands as props only, their meaning most clear in a web of deeds and ownerships and shares and mortgages that tied all in an unseen web at whose center new and malevolent spiders did pluck and spin such strings as did hold or loose our lives at their pleasure and did wonder how we had become enslaved to such mysteries as did now seem hold us all in thrall, for we had taken that simple world of God’s giving, which in its fruits did all our needs meet and under whose sun we had once stood all equal and made from it in our society a machine of such complex devising and unclear purpose that some were careless ground within its wheels while others were by it ascended to true dizzying heights, the cause of either fortune or calamity seeming so random in its nature and arbitrary in its cause that while we imagined we worked each to our own benefit, we did oft instead simply toil, perhaps to our ill or perhaps to no end at all, our labors leaving us wearied, but a weariness giving birth to no dreams by which to divine any purpose to either our sleep or our waking.
That afternoon, for the first time since drawn by Carey into this strange service, I took stage with my fellows for our company’s performance, and was much comforted to have lines that required only my remembering, to have my steps and actions foretold, and that my agency caused none harm, but instead, as we were performing a comedy of considerable antic confusion in which some of us men were dressed as women, who were in fact men, who for purposes of the story were pretending to be woman, and so I spent some hours lost in the easy practice of my art, lit with laughter, and dear glad of my circumstances if only for those brief instants, for such rare blessings as life offers cannot be saved or horded but must be ate complete in their moment, and we must find in that meal sufficient mercy to sustain us until we find its kind again..