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We toiled long that night, past the sun’s setting, the theater’s reduction being so near complete come dark that we were like hounds on the scent and could not be satisfied until it were done, and we had down the final beams by torchlight so that, come morning, all was ready for transport to Bankside, such papers giving us right to commence construction fresh delivered by Heaton, along with the signed agreement from Miller giving us claim to the theater’s materials and those teamsters Burbage had hired standing ready at an early hour.
Burbage made to Bankside to oversee our actions there, while I remained in Shoreditch tending to the loading, having from Burbage a list of those materials needed first, and then second, and so on. The day’s work had gone smooth, the theater’s timbers and woods some two thirds carted away, when Henslowe appeared with Miller in tow, Miller looking much discomfited.
We had just loaded a cart when Henslowe strode up to the horse foremost, grabbing its halter and calling across its back to me.
“Shakespeare, I will have you jailed and hanged, for this is theft plain and of goods to which I have claim. I have the bailiff on his way.”
I whispered to Jenkins to fetch Heaton immediate, and as he ran off, I went to meet Henslowe at the cart, speaking not to him, but to the teamster.
“Why do you tarry?”
“That gentleman has hold of my horse, sir.”
“And does he pay your wage or do I?”
“You do, sir.”
“Then be off. Use your whip if you must, on the horse or the ass that holds it. And when you reach Burbage, bring him hence.”
The teamster snapped his whip once, to the flank of the horse on which Henslowe had hold, but near enough to Henslowe that he released his grip and the cart was away. With the impediment between us gone Henslowe advanced on me, sputtering in his rage, waving his arm back at Miller.
“I have bought this property in good faith, and from this honest man here, only to learn this very morning that your . . . your . . . COMPANY,” which he tried in tone to make into some curse, “has torn down my property in the night and now tries to spirit it away. Not believing that even you could be so audacious, I fetched Miller and made hence and am here stunned to see this offense be true.”
“Try to spirit it away, sir? It would seem at current we have more than half succeeded.”
“Then you admit to the crime?” Spittle flew with his words, and I made show of pulling a kerchief from my sleeve and dabbing the offending fluids from my face.
“As you are not among your company’s writers, and as those that you employ fall some short of my art, I will forgive your mistaken thinking, as you evident hold little command of your own language and, language being the stuff of thought, thus think false. I will instead offer such schooling as you clear require, in particular in the matter of tenses, there being many – past, present, future, and then those each being either simple or perfect, the past being sometimes pluperfect, and there being the additional complication of conditional phrasing – but I see by your slack expression that I already have taxed your limited faculties, so I shall simplify my instruction. Tenses in simple terms allow us to tell those things that have happened from those that are happening and those that will or might yet happen, and this seems to lie at the heart of your confusion. You say you have bought this property, which would be true, were your transaction complete, in which case you could produce title and make this conversation moot, when what you should say is that you will buy this property. You say you have claim to these materials when, again, you mean to say you will have claim at such time as you do hold title, or rather should say would have had claim, the conditional now raising its troubling head, as, by such time as you do hold title, the question of these materials will be settled in our favor.”
Henslowe was now much red in his face and opened his mouth as if to speak, but articulated nothing beyond some grunts.
“Being unable to discern any meaning in your utterance, I will assume you now clear as to those matters of tense that concern this instant case and shall shift our lesson to matters of law, in which I claim no special schooling, but some simple facts of which I think I know complete; namely, that law is at heart a matter of contracts, and that I have in hand a contract with this land’s current owner, that owner not being you as we having already demonstrated that this sale on which your claim hinges has not yet occurred, that contact giving our company full right to remove all improvements to this property for our own use. This owner being here present and speaking no protest on the matter, and you already having called him honest, I can see no dispute. And, I have also such lease that said owner has agreed remains in force until such date as this sale, the temporal attributes of which seem to have you so troubled, is in fact final, making us this property’s legal tenants and putting you, sir, in trespass. So your bailiffs, in my view, cannot arrive soon enough, as I will have you off my land, of your own accord or in irons, though I do admit to preferring the latter.”
Henslowe turned now on Miller. “Does he have such documents as he claims?”
Miller stammering now. “Recent days have seen much confusion in this matter, my addressing both your issues and such as Shakespeare’s lawyer has raised both at once, and I think I may have granted such right as he claims, but only in confusion and through some trickery, as his lawyer did much cloud the air with his contesting.”
“Then I call fraud!” Henslowe shouted.
“Fraud is the one word about which neither you nor our friend Miller requires instruction,” I said, “and the meaning and consequences of which I would advise you each to hold close in mind.”
There was then some shouting and general tumult, little said by any party being heard by any other until Heaton arrived with Jenkins on foot from one direction, Burbage and the teamster on his cart from another, and Henslowe’s summoned bailiff on horseback from a third, the bailiff finally gaining some control by saying the next to speak without his assent would be the first to jail. He then heard from each in turn, and read those documents available, and then turned to Henslowe.
“This sale you claim, do you have any proof for it? Any title?”
“It completes some few days hence, so as yet no. But I did contract for both this land and this theater.”
“Having had chance to read your contract,” Heaton said, “I would suggest you have your next drafted so as to reflect the facts and not just your wishes, as your contract is at best unclear concerning this property’s improvements, and, said contract being drafted by your own lawyer, such ambiguity will, by law, be read in your opponent’s favor. But in any case, that contract is with Miller, as is ours, and so your quarrel is with him at such time as your sale is concluded, while we have no quarrel, our contract being clear and in force now.”
The bailiff nodded, holding up our agreement with Miller. “Having only this to read and it being plain in its meaning, I can conclude only that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are within their right to remove these materials, There is no matter of theft here, at least not of any kind I can rightly judge to breach the Queen’s peace.”
‘No theft you can rightly judge?” Henslowe now screaming close into the bailiff’s face. “When carts bearing my property make such plain and regular exit? I know not whether to think you blind or simple!”
The bailiff looked hard at Henslowe. “I will once forgive your temper, sir, you being clear distressed. But such property as you think yours is by all evidence theirs, and I can be of no further service to you in this matter. You have need of a court and not of me, and so I will retire and leave you . . . gentleman,” the last spoke with some edge, “to settle your matters as you will, trusting that my return will not be required, Good day.”
The bailiff swung quick back astride his horse and spurred it off.
Henslowe stamped in a narrow circle, cleared shamed that this foray that he had envisioned would end in my arrest did now in his shame.“Oh, I will to court,” Henslowe raged. “With you,” looking at us, “and you,” now at Miller.
“And I welcome the contest, sir,” said Heaton, “you having had these many weeks to concoct your scheme, which, I warn you, stinks plain of fraud and is rotten at its heart, and having used varied lawyers to fashion in papers such trap as you considered inescapable. And yet I took but a day to find ways fully legal to deflate it entire, leaving you here blustering your empty threats in an attempt to win now by acting what you have already lost. But the present company knows an actor’s art full well and can see in both the poor quality of your lines and in your faithless delivery your admission of defeat. I do warn you to remember, Henslowe, that your plot as to this theater is but a small wart of fraud on a larger cancer rich with it, one by which you already have profited. I would suggest you make home and lick those wounds you have, for, should entangle your Somerset friends in your failings, you like will find the next wound that your lies have brought upon you mortal.”
Henslowe sputtered, his voice growing louder as his faith in its contents shrank. “Lies? Do you now call me a liar, sir?’
“Now?” said Heaton. “I thought sure I had previous, but to be plain, yes.”
“A liar and a coward, sir,” I added. “As you could not defeat us in the open combat of commerce you tried instead to undermine us with guile, and you have failed flat in both attempts. We have bested you on stage, we have bested you in law, and even, reluctant, as we hold our honor more dear than do you, we being better acquainted with its virtues, have bested you in scheming.”
“Honor sir?” He stepped close to me, puffing out his chest, drawing himself to his full height, him being some few inches taller than am I. “You dare question my honor?”
“To question it, I would first have to find it,” I said. “It being smaller even than that worm you hide in your codpiece.”
“You go too far, sir!” Henslowe shouted, his spit flying once again onto my face and its small weight tipping final some balance in me that had quivered too long between caution and action. The chests of our store of costumes lined the road, those being the last load that we would send to Bankside. I kicked open the lid of the chest that held our stage armory, snatching out quick two swords and tossing one at Hemslowe, which bounced off his chest and fell to the dirt.
“If your too little honor is too dear offended, then there is your remedy. Pick it up and be a man or let it lie and be that foul coward we have long known. Defend the honor to which you pretend, or scurry back under the skirts of the law, where my lawyer will carve you up instead of my steel. But enough words today. Be a man or be gone.”
Henslowe glanced down at the sword a short moment, but then turned to leave, calling back. “This matter is not at its end.”
“Because you lack the spine to end it,” I called to his back..
Miller now stood alone, seeming in such pose he had held the entire time, his mouth agape.
“Well?” I asked him.
“I . . . I feel I have been ill used.”
I slide the tip of my blade into the hilt of the sword that Henslowe had left on the ground, lifting it up to Miller in invitation.
“If you have been used ill, I invite you to use this better.”
He held out his hands, shaking his head, backing away many steps before turning into a mincing run.
Burbage threw back his head in rich laughter, and then clasped me by my shoulders. “By God, Will, you do act the lion well, but methinks you were perhaps too sure of Henslowe’s nature, for what if he had taken up that blade?”
“Then I would the lion be,” I answered.
He looked hard on me a long moment. “And in your eyes I see the truth of that. Can it be that this heart we have long known wise is now in equal measure stout? Your recent adventures have made you into a lion! Jenkins!”
Jenkins stood to the side, slack jawed.
“My God lad,” Burbage cried. “You pick this moment to be without a bottle?”
I looked down Bishopsgate toward the receding Miller, knowing that road would be the route from which, in one day’s time, Carey’s coach would fetch me to our meeting with Topcliffe, and, while my earlier resolve did hold, it was flavored with a sick tickling in my belly that seemed to foretell the path of some future blade.
“Be quick with the bottle, boy,” I said. “For I am soon a lion into the lion’s den, and I must fortify my newly fierce nature.”