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The next morning, I scarce beat the sun’s first light to the theater, but there did find Burbage, Heminges, Jenkins and some of our hired actors already at their work.
“Will,” called Burbage in feigned surprise, “I thought you made this hour’s acquaintance only on your way to bed, and never out of it.”
“Recent events have made me strange in my habits,” I replied. “Stranger still is that I must beg your leave as I am to church.”
“To church, sir?” Burbage answered. “Does your sloth drive you even there to avoid such true work as to which we real men do already lend out backs? I can think of many acts on which the church much frowns that are common in your custom, but I do not count keeping holy the Sabbath among them.”
“But, as it is the Sabbath, we must all tend to our spiritual duties,” I said. “Mine, in this case, owed to Carey. If I am to find this Mary Norton, I fear I must use God as the snare.”
“Then be to your holy office, sir, for your service to Carey weighs as heavy on our fortunes as does mine to this pile of wood. Your wits will be your tool and my strength will be mine, and so we will each work with such as by which we are best served.”
“But I will first to our costumes,” I said, “for it seems such company as Carey’s service requires I keep is always either above or below my station, my own garb being in turns either to fine or to foul.”
“To fine, for today I shall be of London’s poor.”
Burbage face turned some to concern. “London’s poor, by their station, not being allowed to carry arms.”
I nodded. “And so today I must make do with my dagger only, but as it is Sabbath and daylight, I shall have to trust myself to those mercies granted all conducting their commerce plain in God’s sight.”
“You make light, Will, but I remind you that you were recent at St. Paul’s, which, night or day, should be plain enough in God’s vision, and he choose a spectator’s role, unless you count Carey his angel.”
“Come, sir,” I said, clapping a hand to his back and sounding braver in my tone than I felt in my spirit. “Are we not bold men, and thus in fortune’s favor?”
Burbage nodded, him, too, now choosing that bluff courage with which we mask our concerns. “We are that. And with you in costume, then your mission becomes theater, and as you are unsurpassed in theater’s arts, you will best any foe.”
Burbage returned to his labors and I to our store of costumes. But as I attired myself in such beggar’s garb as would suit this morning’s adventures, I did know that my costume did not make London a stage, and would serve poor armor against any actor bearing both real malice and real steel.
I returned to the district near the river, me thinking that, if the district was in fact much peopled with Catholics, John Norton having been a faithful one and, by accounts, well loved by his daughter, then she, too, might keep their company. Having observed my parents habits these many years, knowing how they would on any Sabbath when a priest was near take pains to secretly make their sacrament, I assumed that the baker and his wife, who I thought Catholic sure, would do likewise if some priest did serve in this district. And so I watched their door from an alley some distance south. I had not waited long before I saw them leave, but not together, instead the wife first, walking those few doors to the building where John Norton had lived and entering, not through the main door, but instead into the cellar. Perhaps a minute later, another man rounded the far corner of the building, entering also into the cellar. Now the baker left his door, scurrying quick up the street and into the same door, along with some ten others in the minutes I watched. When some time had passed and no others appeared, I walked up the street and made a circuit of the building, finding no other door from which this congregation might exit, and could hear faint from a small window to the rear the congregation respond entire in what, in those few words I could some discern, sounded Latin.
After watching the building for same time, the door again opened and, one by one, those present made their way from the building, though never in company. The baker’s wife was second to leave, the baker some persons later. When none had left for some minutes, I was about to leave my station at the alley’s mouth thinking I might press the baker and his wife harder, having now such certain knowledge as would likely compel them to be more true. Then the door opened a last time, a girl stepping out, her black hair streaming beneath her head piece and her being so fair in form and aspect and of that slight and budding build that immediate recalled to mind that girl that I had late and so sorely used, that I knew it must be Mary Norton. She stood in the door, seeming in conversation with some other who I could see only in shape behind her, he being more into the dark, but then a man’s hand reached out, tracing the cross’s sign on her forehead in blessing in that manner for which Catholics are well known. Mary left, turning north, the door closing behind. Staying some distance back, I followed, hoping to mark those quarters where she now lived.
She made her way quick through the narrow lanes, as, her being a young woman alone, even on a Sabbath morning, this was, I was certain, an uncomfortable business. She continued north some farther than I had suspected she would, the nature of the district increasing in station as she left the stench of the river behind, the shops growing finer, then finer still, such that soon the costume I had picked so I would seem part of that meaner area where she had late prayed, now marked my person instead of hiding it, and I was thankful that, it being Sabbath, these finer shops were all shuttered closed, and the streets were light in traffic. Still, I made ready obeisance to all I passed, bowing and doffing my poor cap, trying to mimic as best I could the manner of some minion about a master’s business.
At last she opened a door to the side of a mercer’s shop, such as would lead to the quarters above that housed its keepers. I made note of its sign and street, so as to return tomorrow, when the shops would be open, and I would be dressed in the neighborhood’s habit, and I turned for Shoreditch and the theater, only to find my way blocked by two Puritan gentlemen I had passed only some short moments previous.
“The girl does make a sight, but not one meant for such eyes as yours,” said the man to my right. Though you could tell him Puritan sure by the nature of his dress, you could tell him a gentleman also, and one who could not squelch entire his vanities, for his dress while plain was careful tailored and of rich fabric. And a gentleman too, at least, by virtue of the sword on which he rested his right hand.
I snatched off my cap and made a short bow. “I beg pardon sir?”
“I’ve no doubt you make common habit of begging,” said the second man, dressed in similar station to the first, and similarly armed. “Which, on its own does breach the Queen’s peace and might require a bailiff. But it is your fouler habits we current question.”
“Fouler habits, sir?”
The first man scoffed a snort, than rapped me hard across the face with the back of his gloved hand. “To think you might play at wits with me offers clear insult, and no man insults me without answer. Count yourself blessed that you are not allowed a sword, or I would rinse clean my honor with your blood on my steel. The girl to which you had such clear intentions, you poxed sack of filth.”
Which he answered again with the back of his hand, my nose now running blood.
“That child whose passage you have marked with such interest. And if you answer again with your unschooled attempts at clever, I will next respond with my blade.”
I looked down, feigning shame but not having to feign fear, wringing my cap in my hands. “I did see the girl, sir, and will admit to admiring her, but I had no ill intent, save what sins of thinking I might make in my heart.”
I now felt the glove of the second man hard across my face. “I call your thinking on her insult enough to her honor,” he said.
I had to tamp down the spark of anger that flared at this treatment, finding the flame not squelched but instead triple hot as the single flame of anger kindled now its twins in shame and humiliation. But having chosen my role, I had to keep to it.
“And I do ready apologize, good sirs, as I am wifed and do dishonor both her good name and God, and even on this day, it being Sabbath. I am weak in my will, sirs, but do say true that I sin only in my mind, but true, too that that be sin enough to God’s eyes.”
This answered held them for a short moment, they having hoped to strike some spark of outrage by which to justify my further abuse, and they now thought hard after some new tack.
“By what business are you even present here? It being Sabbath and the shops being closed? Or do you common wonder in such quarters as you cannot afford, so as to lust after both the flesh and the goods? Perhaps it is theft on your mind, and not rape. What are we to presume but mischief? I think we should have thee to the bailiff.”
“Prithee sir, hold,” I answered. “It is Sabbath, true, but a man that I do sometimes serve on errands has sent me hence to the stationers not far distant, Master Jaggard’s shop, as my master had ordered done some handbills that he would have passed tomorrow early, and, having not been able to fetch them previous, he has sent me to have them now, him telling me that he and Master Jaggard have sufficient commerce that the printer will suffer him this service, even it being the Sabbath.”
He first man wrinkled his nose. “And who is this master that would make so light of God’s day?”
“Why Master Henslowe, sir. He finances the Admirals’ Men? The theater company?”
At which he slapped me twice across the face, the back of his hand, and then the front. “You can pass that on to your master, if you be man enough. I had wondered at your stench, thinking it remarkable for even a man of your standing. I should have noted the odor of the theater at its bottom.” He turned to his companion. “We waste our time here. The girl is safe indoors.”
The second man gave me a parting blow. “I have marked your face, and should I see it again you will count this meeting gentle. Should your errands for your corrupt master bring you this way in future, divert your route so as not to foul our street with the foul miasma of your wake.”
And in reply to this final insult, I simply bowed again, thanking these gentle sirs for their understanding and mercy, knowing I had had but a taste of that diet that many in this city did eat daily, and I wondered at the strength of the constitutions that could stomach this treatment as their regular fare, and what diseases of mind or spirit its sustenance must engender.
The two men continued on their way, and I now diverted toward Jaggard’s shop, thinking it best to maintain my false mission so long as I might remain in their seeing, which route took me directly past that mercer’s shop above which Mary Norton now stayed. I noted that the goods displayed in its window were not the woolens of English manufacture, but were instead silks and such fineries that must be had from abroad and, being thus more scarce, were more in favor with noble and royal patrons, they being among the few that might afford them. And I saw, for just a moment, the rustle of a curtain in the upper window that o’erlooked the scene of my recent humiliation.
Upon returning back to the theater, I was much shocked at our company’s progress, the stage gone entire, the stands now reduced to bare timbers only, and even those being part down, the boards of each section in sorted stacks and numbered so that each could be quick returned to its place at our new site.
Burbage strode toward me, his clothes and person streaked in dirt and sweat, shouting across the yard, “Will, you lazy ass. Methinks you did tarry some in your . . .” and then stopped short, seeing the blood that streaked my shirtfront, the swelling about my nose and the bruising beginning to show about my eyes. “My God, sir. I beg pardon. For it seems you too have suffered in your labors.”
“My pride more than my person,” I said, and I relayed my tale.
Burbage shook his head, looking away for a moment, his jaw clenched, but then smiled. “And yet you thought to put what stink you might on both Henslowe’s and Jaggard’s names?”
“In truth, we were not many streets from Jaggard’s shop, and as I suppose he does still much hope to regain our favor, I said his name in case I was taken hence in either their company or a bailiffs, thinking he might support my claim in his own interest. But Henslowe? Yes, I spoke him from spite alone. And in that speaking, it did occur to me that Henslowe was the author of the pamphlet that late did cause me such grief, for he would easy have with Jaggard such weight of business that could explain Jaggard’s company in his mischief. Not that such matters now, Henslowe’s other mischiefs being clear known and of heavier consequence. But it speaks true to the depth of his conspiring.”
Burbage shook his head in recognition of this new insult. “I am true sorry for this abuse you suffered in your pretend role as Henslowe’s messenger, and can only hope that some ill will befall him in result of your clever use of his name.” He paused, drawing from inside his shirt a paper folded and sealed in wax with what I now recognized as Carey’s signet. “On the subject of messengers, it seems some can be about their master’s affairs without fear of insults, Sabbath or no, as Carey’s man delivered this for you not an hour past.” The paper was much soaked in Burbage’s sweat so that I held it by its corner shaking it some to at least a little dry the page.
“Have you read it, and should I take your musk as your edit?’
‘Read? No. Think on my sweet perfume only as true proof of my affections.”
I smiled, broke the seal, opened the letter and read it’s brief contents. My face must have fallen as clear as my heart, for Burnbage asked immediate.
“What foul news now?”
“Carey will send a coach for my company on Tuesday evening, as we are off to visit Topcliffe,” I said.
At which name not only Burbage, but also those within earshot fell silent, Burbage now looking hard into my eyes, his mouth some agape.
“Richard Topcliffe? The Queen’s inquisitor and priest hunter?”
“Make with your time as you like, Will, and consider your duties in these petty labors forgiven. I would sooner have my part in this affair than yours. For just to hear the name Topcliffe shrivels my sack and pud such that I should sooner play Jenkins’ roles.”
I nodded. “The same for me. And so I will stay in hopes that these honest labors might occupy me sufficient that I will forget tomorrow’s evils until tomorrow, for I fear it would do me ill to have the leisure to reflect on them alone.”
I would be safe enough with Topcliffe in Carey’s company, Carey being current in the Queen’s good favor, but Topcliffe had practiced his unholy arts at torture often enough on such as the Queen had once loved, her favors being tossed by the currents of history and thus fickle in their objects. Topcliffe’s reputation was that he better loved his art at pain than the information it produced, and so he was always in search of some unfortunate for whom he could invent such cause as would make them subject to his unkind ministrations. I had already those enemies I knew, and could sense lurking others I knew not, and between the City’s Puritan fathers who did despise me for my art and the masters of the Somerset Company to whom I was in comparison a flea but one they might, for whatever itching I had caused, have squashed, I feared I might have congress enough with such as could whisper my name into Topcliffe’s ear, and, that name now being known to him, my next invitation to his presence could be both more fearsome and less gently delivered.
I considered for a moment the observation of the baker’s wife, and her reluctance to be party to any above her station out of fear of how heavy their attentions might fall upon her household, and realized she was in her way wiser than I, for it had been my ambition since the day I made London to rise ever higher, in both accomplishment and acquaintance, thinking only on such view as the lofty heights toward I strove might offer and never on the safety of such perch, or the distance it left to fall, and not for the first time in the days recent past I thought with some envy on the simpler life I had spurned in Stratford and the quieter charms I might have known. But I quick put that thinking to side, for my station was what I had made it and I could not by imaging make it any other, and as I had now sworn to serve truth, or at least to know it, I had also to admit that my ambitions were true part of me, for both their good and their ill they were my nature, and had I remained in Stratford to play the simple glover I might on this one day be happier there than here, but in almost every other day prior would have hated my station and my work and my fellows and my family, such hatred being really sole for myself for having denied my own longings out of fear of their risks and having instead settled to march circles in that rut to which I had been born.
Whether Catholic or Protestant, our religions call constant on our humility and call it sin for man to want greatness, but my thinking is that these mental fetters are for the safety of those who have put themselves in such place as to define those rules by which they would have others live, and that, by locking us to our lesser labors in such shackles that they had decided to call sin they did both protect their own claim and ensure the unquestioning labors that made easy their comforts. I say if God did true make us in his own image, then it be in our duty to strive to be as near to him as we can manage, yes in good, too, and in that I oft had failed, but also in glory, for he would not have a world of his making stuffed full with men and yet remain unadorned by such wonders as human hands and minds might make, but would prefer instead in the full and chaotic flower of our varied and marvelous efforts, for it is his stage and he would have acted on it such best theater as we can imagine, if only for his own amusement.
And so I would arm myself with my own pride, for I consider myself any man’s equal in wit, and I would embrace full what challenges lay before me, even knowing now that should my efforts end in my agony, whether in private at such hands as Topcliffe’s or in public on some scaffold, I would then ready call my current thinking folly, but knowing too that such final regret would be a blasphemy coerced by pain and not achieved by reason. And so, whether Carey or Topcliffe, I stood any man’s equal, but equal, too, to a Mary Norton or a simple baker. I will honor any man in accord to such honor as he has earned and no more be their station great or no less be there station mean, but instead true to their worth as I know it. And if that be pride, and if that pride be sin, I will serve no God that calls it so.