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By the morning next, the theater and our stores entire were at Bankside, and such small work as was needed to adjust the foundation to fit our design was complete, so that, in the early hour at which I did arrive, Burbage was already in his element, directing the raising of the timbers that would frame our stands, I watched for some minutes, marveling at that easy congress he made with any, whether our own actors or the simple tradesmen he had contracted for this raising, being all at once cajoling and profane and a happy companion and a stern master so that each party was to his task and most willing. As skilled as he was in an actor’s art, he seemed almost happier in this role. I remembered suddenly fond those days in my youth when I was under my father’s tutelage at his glover’s shop, and that unalloyed satisfaction that came when first I made whole a product he deemed worth sale. They were simple gloves of only little adornment as would suit the purse of one mean in station, which were sold quick to a man who worked at the livery, and I still note, each time I arrive at Stratford and there board what horse I have rented for that passage, whether he wears them still, always disproportionate happy to find them continuing in good service. I think there is some joy attendant to such real things as we do make with our hands that I cannot find in the more abstract products of my work, as my words can please only the mind and thus leave the body wanting.
Burbage finally noted my presence. “Gads!” he shouted, “It seems even the foreman of this enterprise falls under some eyes,” and he walked over to my place.
“It seems goes well,” I said, “not that you’ve had much benefit of my sweat, nor am I sufficient schooled to know.”
He nodded. “Most well. We will have it this day complete, even if we most again work into the night. Jaggard was by, and offered free printing of such bills as we might need to promote our first performance at this new location. While we will sure tell him yes, I told him I had first to seek your consult, as it is your offense to forgive.”
“I find myself of late so burdened with insult that I think it will lighten my load to be rid of one. And so yes, and my blessing.”
I heard a high, sweet voice singing, and noted Jenkins perched light atop the highest beam and pounding hard at such peg as would join it to its cross member. “I had not known his ear for music,” I said.
“Like a bird, he seems happiest high up, and, once there perched graces us constant in song. Had I not grown fond of the boy, I would make him a eunuch and preserve both that voice and those womanly charms for which our stage has use.”
“His new fondness for the bottle does not put him at risk at such heights?”
Burbage drew a key and dangled it before me. “I have the sack under lock until our work is done, for fear the boy might take wing either in accident or in liquor’s fancy.” He slipped the key back into its pocket. “So, will I have use of your hands today, or must the Lion of Shoreditch again be on the hunt?”
“To the hunt,” I said, “and will have you know that I must some deplete the company’s purse in the effort, though such will be spent on costumes, which we must refresh before we next appear at court in any case.”
He nodded his agreement. “I pray this means your own costume today will be more fine, and so you also will be armed? For I would not have my lion lose amongst the jackals without his claws.”
I smiled. “I shall wear both our finest clothes and our finest sword, but fear I shall not return hence until after tonight’s congress with Topcliffe, at which time I will like find the theater complete and ready for my benefit, it having benefitted only little from my labors.”
Now adorned well, I made the mercer’s shop with the morning still only little past, some other shops in the lane just taking down their shutters, but the mercer’s being ready for commerce. Such early hours were still unusual in my custom, and, while I doubted, once this matter settled, that I should now play the rooster where I had long played the owl, I did recognize in the morning a certain fresh charm, for each day, like a child, seemed, in its fashion, to greet the world unmarked and lend some faith to the heart, though I did still the evening prefer, for in its darker confines I could better see those scars and blemishes that marked the day’s passing, the hours from dawn until dark taking the day entire through the sweep of human experience, so that in the night I could commune with those conflicts and sufferings and even comedies that were meat to my quill. I made my way into the mercer’s shop.
I had to admire his art at costume, for his was dressed much fine, so as to display such wears as were his to offer, and yet those clothes being cut in such way as did make him seem clear your servant and not your master, although that was as much a matter of his manner as his attire.
“A good morning to you, sir,” he said, “I assume you come on some other’s behalf, as I cannot hope to improve on your appearance with my humble wares, though in truth you are a man of such fine form as to compliment any garment.”
I smiled and bowed, thanking him, though noting some concern as his eyes passed over those injuries I still bore on my face.
“I assure you, sir, that my face is usual as fair as my form, except that I made unfortunate acquaintance with some of our fair city’s lesser beings just recent past.”
The man tisked, his face sour. “You did suffer dear at their unkind hands.”
“Not so dear as they,” I said, putting my fist firm to the hilt of my sword, thinking it best that he hold some little fear of me.
He nodded. “But it is too fine a day to dwell on your travails, sir.” He swept his hand graceful in an arc over his offerings. “Prithee, how can I make your world more beautiful?”
The shop was arrayed such that the counter displaying samples of his wares cut this room in half, the floor on my side covered with a fine carpet, and there being several chairs richly carved and dressed in fine fabric. The wall behind the mercer opened on my left to a room behind, where I presume he kept his stores, and where his cutting and tailoring were done. A curtain well embroidered in reds and golds hung in that opening, which would be as fine a sight as such opening could hope offer, except that Mary Norton’s face did brief appear at its edge, in that moment making the curtain seem just a painted harlot
“I am an owner in a troupe of players which does perform regular at court for our good Queen, and as we have just received notice of several new performances there, we will refresh our costumes to include such as appropriate to this occasion,” I said.
The mercer bowed slightly. “I do common make attires for nobles at court and am well versed in such styles current to their liking. And as our shop is mercer and haberdasher both, you can secure both such fabrics as you have need and have them shaped to your design.”
I nodded. “Then I place myself in your skilled hands. Prithee, give me some sample of such that current pleases my noble audience.”
The mercer bowed, and then called into the room behind. “Lucy, bring out such goods suited to court as we have near done. And Mary, be so good as to model for this fine gentleman that gown that awaits the young duchess, for whom you have proven such a fit example.”
An older woman came out immediate, and laid forth on the counter several doublets, blouses and gowns of varied design, but all rich in fabric and ornament, and then took her leave to help young Mary into that gown he would have modeled. I passed some minutes complimenting the mercer on his wares and inquiring as to ways in which they might be made seem both older and more foreign, as our plays were usual set in times past and in lands distant.
“This last doublet, sir, may be of particular interest, as another of the exact same save in color and detail will be for the Queen herself, her household having commissioned their making for some pageant soon upcoming. I would show you hers, sir, but such ornaments that on this are made through embroidery or bauble are on hers made with actual jewels, and so I keep it well secure.”
And then the curtain parted and Mary came forth, and while it was the dress the storekeeper would have me notice, her beauty seemed steal all light from the room, as if each beam was jealous to alight on her person instead of his product. On her fair face, which though almost alabaster pale seem somehow also dusted as if with some spice that made that fine skin more rare, or on her eyes, which were a rich hazel flecked with emerald and some little exotic in their shape, or on the pursed bow of her lips, her mouth being small making the impression of a waif, yet her lips being such full as to make any man wish they made congress with his own. She was past average tall for a woman, her shoulders being just broad enough to make perfect the proportion of her frame, but still of that lean and willowy grace that blesses the young, her breasts, pushed into prominent display by the nature of the garment, waking in my both hunger and shame as I remembered that girl now dead whom, in form, Mary did much resemble, and making it too easy for me to picture what wonders this dress did conceal.
“Sir,” I said, “I would have this dress exact as seen on this form, except I fear that I am so moved by the model that I will find the dress some faded when seen on any other.”
I noted a slight blush color Mary’s features, and even the rich hillocks of her breasts, as the mercer smiled and made a slight laugh.
“Mary is only recent in my employ and, while some skilled, is still learning her art as seamstress, but I can sell off her back any clothing of my design to any woman that sees it, each imagining that it is the gown and not the girl by which they are so moved, and all too embarrassed to later say so. And so the child is more dear to me than gold, though I would thank you not to say so to the man who recommended her.”
“You mean some man had such in his clutches and instead looked to place her elsewhere?”
“A cleric at some parish more near the river. She had lost her position in some household and was orphan, and so he made from shop to shop asking if any had need, and as our commerce is some grown, and, frankly to be rid of him, for he was most persistent, I agreed to meet her, and having met her, well . . .” and he turned up his hands as if to conclude his argument, its logic being plain.
He turned to the girl. “Mary, do come around the counter so this good sir may admire the gown more close.”
At which I saw some little shame flicker in her features, for while she was not in this made whore, she was clear used as an instrument to inflame in men lust and in women jealousy, in either case to gain their commerce. But she moved dutiful to the end of the counter, although some awkward, likely being unused to such involved costume. She caught a shoe on the edge of the carpet and stumbled, so that I reached out and took her hand to steady her progress, surprised to feel a small square of paper pressed into my palm as she righted her balance.
“I thank you, sir,” she said, looking into my eyes direct and communicating more.
And I made good show of examining both gown and girl, this clear being the mercer’s intent, and left his shop only after placing such order as would deplete the company’s purse by many pounds.
Back on the street, I opened the small paper the girl had passed to me. It bade me meet her one hour hence near the market two streets north.
Even from a street’s distance and dressed now in such plainer garb as did fit her station, I could mark Mary easy as I waited at the edge of the market.
She walked to me direct. “Prithee, sir, walk with me as I buy my master’s supper, as it is my daily duty and I have little time.” And so we made into the crush of stalls, and she performed her office.
“You are Shakespeare,” she said.
“I am, and would like to think my fame such that you know this, but suspect other.”
She shook her head. “I did see you brief at Somerset just short after the Lord Chamberlain’s passing as you were admitted to meet with the new Baron, and immediate after we were all by him informed that we should talk plain with you concerning his late father as you would draft some work to his honor.”
“That is my charge,” I said.
“I must mark you most diligent in its execution.”
“To take such pains so as to talk with a woman only short in the late Lord’s service, for I cannot count your appearing in such shop where I am only one week employed as an accident.”
As she seemed suddenly some hostile, I thought to make her mood other with flattery.
“Blessed with such beauty, I should think you well used to men taking pains to make your acquaintance, be it their charge or no.”
She reddened again, her skin being such fair that it would color easy, but by her face I took this blush to be in anger.
“Blessed sir? So that I feel the crawl of every man’s eyes across my body like a corruption of spiders? So that I can think no man’s intention true, but only such false designs by which they might gain access to my favors? So that every woman sees me first as threat? Is this how you mean blessed?”
I remembered hard my Anne’s harsh speaking in which she had colored my lordship over words that I had always thought my blessing instead as my curse, and felt now some ashamed at having tried to ply this girl with flattery.
“Every gift we have comes at some cost. I do know this true.”
She calmed, the red gone from her face. “But how can I know you true? When you are today yourself, or some version of it, but were just yesterday a beggar who gained my pity as I watched you suffer hard at the hands of some brutes just below my window?” She looked to my face. “For I know how you gained your injuries sir.” And then a weak smile, “And how dear you made suffer those who caused them.”
“In truth, I do think they suffer for them in their souls,” I said.
“Their souls being God’s province, such suffering is not of your agency.”
“But I am told he oft works in mysterious ways, so could we not, any of us, be each day his instrument?”
She smiled light again, but this time with some little mischief. “I fear conversation with you sir, as I think I might find myself lead into some maze from which I would have to rely on your mercies to be out. And, in truth, I doubt your mercies. And so I will be plain so that I can remain clear on the bounds of our discussion.”
I nodded in invitation for her to continue.
“I believe you have some mission from Baron Carey, but that a play is not the thing. And I will ask you plain to tell me that mission and my place in it, for I am a young woman alone and by that station already at some peril, If I face some other, it is best that I know it.”
I thought careful on my words next, for while I was not at liberty to reveal Carey’s mission, I was charged to learn what truths I could and by what means I may, also having learned at the cost of not little recent suffering that my duty had to be to truth first if I hoped to serve faithful myself or any master second.
“I do make inquiries on the Baron’s behalf,” I said, “and will ready admit that my fortunes and those of my company do much depend on his favor, so I am diligent in that office. I swear to you that that be true and will have you know that I have recent resolved to serve truth better, but, now trying to be better true, must also admit that I have served it poorly in the past and am only little acquainted with its practice.”
“That may be as true as I have been spoken to by any man. And in hopes our congress can remain true, I will ask how, given the family Carey’s august circles and circumstances, I came to be such a spur to your curiosities?”
“My lady, I have found much curious in these few weeks past, so do not imagine yourself alone in that circumstance. But the manner and timing of your leaving from Somerset, coming at just such moment as to put you past my questioning, this did give me pause.”
“As if no lady has before left a household’s employ upon her master’s death?”
“Or was made leave.”
She colored again. “Made leave, sir? By who’s word? For my leaving was of my choice and for my reasons alone.”
“The Baron’s brother told me he had you transferred to his service on his father’s passing, as he found you lovely and, to be plain, planned to use his station to have use of you, but that you bore some pox that made him fear for his health and so discharged you.”
Her color deepened, and she took some moments to answer. “I must guard my tongue, sir, for such as the Baron’s brother can say of me as they will and at no consequence, while such as I must either speak false of not at all. And while you may have only late made truth’s acquaintance, I do hold my virtue most dear. Men have much to claim in this world and can pick their treasures, but for a woman, virtue is all she is granted.”
“I have no affection for the younger Carey, I assure you, and even his own brother holds him in low regard. While you might imagine me of some station, sure you realize that I am no more at liberty to impugn a Carey than are you. And even so I will call him vile and beneath my contempt.”
Which seemed to calm her some. “I will call your words again true, and will have you know this plain. The younger Carey did on my very first day in his charge, trap me in his rooms and attempt to press himself on me, at which I drew has dagger, not in threat, but instead did hand it to him and tell him that, would he have my honor, he would need take it immediate and from my corpse, for, if I lived, I would immediate leave those rooms and that household’s employ, and so I did.”
“But what of this pox? For the chambermaid did mention it, too.”
“You mean of my hand?’
“I am at least by that relieved, for I thought from your telling that Carey had claimed to see such portions of my person that no man has, and such seeing would imply my assent to his advances, or at least my insufficient resistance.”
“Then I am sorry for your alarm, as even Carey claimed the hand only.”
She turned both arms up to me. “I am very fair of skin, and, while this is seen most beautiful, my skin is tender and easily offended. I am frequent with some rash, and was so often at Somerset, such lyes and other agents as they use in their laundries and cleaning being much hard on me. So yes, my hand was that day some reddened, but hardly poxed.”
She seemed now vexed. “Sir, I am past my time and must be back to the mercers. I have answered you plain and do pray this can conclude your interest.”
Time being now short, I had to make best use of it.
“You are Catholic,” I said.
At which, instead of coloring, she looked somehow more pale.
“You attended this Sunday morning past a mass held secret in the cellar of that building where your late father had lived. It was from there that I marked your progress.”
She regained herself quick. “And so your costume as beggar, as it better fits that district where I live than this one where I work.”
“Which does not answer my question.”
“Which question you have not asked, but only for yourself answered.”
“Then I will ask it plain. Are you Catholic?”
“And now having been asked direct, I will answer. I am. I do not brag my faith for my peril, but I will not deny it for my virtue.”
“Having been so raised by your father?”
“He did teach me to be true in all but in my faith most.”
“And your mother?”
“She died at my birth, so I have only the example of her sacrifice and not her teaching.”
“And your brother?”
“I have ever seen him only little and not for some years, for he does not hold true in his faith, and did thus sore disappoint my father, who could no longer bear his company.”
“And is the mercer, also, in secret, Catholic?”
She made a small laugh. “The mercer sir? He has no God but his purse. Why would you think thus?”
“Him saying you were hired through the intercession of a cleric. You being Catholic, I thought perhaps the cleric so, and the mercer part of his company.”
She shook her head. “Services to the poor are run by the Queen’s church through its parishes, as you know, and I considered it no insult to God to ask help there to find a position, me seeing it my duty to God and Queen both to find work for my hands.”
I could think of no question further.
Her face was now set hard stern. “So we come final to the truth of your mission. It seems, sir, you hold my life in your hands, and that of my congregation. Did you suppose you would have something for it? Use of my person? For I will grant nothing. I do not pursue martyrdom, but neither will I dodge it. If my virtue cannot be my shield, then it will instead by my reward. ”
I shook my head at her. “I ask nothing, for my office is only as I have claimed, To make such inquiry as I see fit and to report to Carey that which pertains to his cause. I see no cause in your faith, nor, in truth, harm in it either. In truth, I see in your character such better person as I might be and in your beauty a reminder of some past sins that do haunt me deep. So go. As you have been true to me, so I will be true to you .I will trouble you no further.”
She stopped, turning to face me and drawing close near. “Do you know God, sir? For I sense in you such man who does seek good but has no map by which to find it.”
“I’m afraid he does elude my understanding.”
“There is peace in his company, sir, and if you would have it, I prithee seek me again. Know that what I do now, I do not in lust, but in his name and in blessing.”
She leaned forward and kissed me gentle on my cheek, and then stepped back, gracing me with her full smile, and then turned and was gone.
Having sent word to Carey that I would be near to Somerset on his business, and so would meet his coach at that junction near where we did confer upon my return from Stratford, I made my way there slow, having still some time, when I saw ahead two men in rough congress with a cripple who begged alms, and recognized those same Puritans who had me so sore abused the Sunday just past.
Drawing near, I could hear the same threats of bailiff, these courageous fellows also slapping this fellow as they had me, him having to accept their blows on his knees, as it was there his legs ended.
“What trouble here, good sirs?” I asked, now immediate behind them. And they turned brief, seeing only my dress and manner and taking no note of my face, turning immediate back to their rough work.
“Trouble sir? None. We are just making plain God’s lesson to this sinner so clear out of his favor. For God would have all earn their keep and not beg it.”
“The earning being some complicated when one’s legs end at one’s needs,” I said. “Though so blessed I can imagine he does better pray than do you, being all day on his knees, and may thus know God’s lesson already in full. And so, as he requires no school, perhaps you will instead offer it to me.”
The two turned, now looking at me full.
“As I am today in my true garb and armed, you seem less keen to threaten your steel,” I said. “Perhaps your honor is only a Sunday thing.”
“As you are a gentleman and thus in God’s love, I will forgive your short temper, sir,” said that man who had first struck me on our last meeting. “And will not even ask on what business you were late in these quarters and in disguise, as I will assume your honor and pray that you assume mine.”
“What business? Why the crown’s business, sir. Topcliffe’s business. But not your business. Except that Sunday you did choose make it so and as I could not at the time offer you full chance to make whole that honor that you did then swear I had much aggrieved, I do so now.” It seems, in some company, my recent commitment to the truth did ready fail me.
At the name Topcliffe, they did both blanche, knowing well he did have some agents who worked disguised and in secret.
“For such offense as we did unwitting offer, we do sincere apologize,” said the second man.
“To me only?”
I nodded to the beggar they did current accost. “What of my fellow agent whose report I am here to take, and to whom you have now drawn such unwanted attention? Does he, too, not deserve your apology?”
They looked to the cripple and then back to me. “Him sir?”
“Do you question my word? For, like you, I would have such insult answered immediate.” I put my hand hard to the hilt of my weapon.
“Question no, sir. We are but surprised.”
“Then gather yourself and offer your apologies. For you see, this fellow does in fact earn his keep and not beg it.”
At which they turned to the beggar, both now fulsome in their apology.
“As our congress here has draw such attention to our presence as we do not welcome,” I said, “your actually making gift of alms might some explain your interruption and reinforce his disguise. Consider it a donation to the Queen’s service.”
At which both men dropped a crown into the beggars cap and beat a hasty retreat. Them gone, I added tuppence to the man’s hat, and he looked up at me with a toothless smile.
“I know you, Shakespeare,” he said. “For I did see you perform many times when I still had use of one leg.”
I smiled back. “And how do you rate my performance?”
“Your finest, sir,” he said. “For I have never before been paid to watch theater.”