A Story of Shakspere's Time
ILLUSTRATIONS BY REGINALD B. BIRCH
ALL THAT NICHOLAS ATTWOOD'S MOTHER WAS TO HIM, AND MORE, MY OWN MOTHER HAS BEEN TO ME AND TO HER HERE I INSCRIBE THIS BOOK WITH A NEVER-FAILING LOVE
I THE LORD ADMIRAL'S PLAYERS II NICHOLAS ATTWOOD'S HOME III THE LAST STRAW IV OFF FOR COVENTRY V IN THE WARWICK ROAD VI THE MASTER-PLAYER VII "WELL SUNG, MASTER SKYLARK!" VIII THE ADMIRAL'S COMPANY IX THE MAY-DAY PLAY X AFTER THE PLAY XI DISOWNED XII A STRANGE RIDE XIII A DASH FOR FREEDOM XIV AT BAY XV LONDON TOWN XVI MA'M'SELLE CICELY CAREW XVII CAREW'S OFFER XVIII MASTER HEYWOOD PROTESTS XIX THE ROSE PLAY-HOUSE XX DISAPPOINTMENT XXI "THE CHILDREN OF PAUL'S" XXII THE SKYLARK'S SONG XXIII A NEW LIFE XXIV THE MAKING OF A PLAYER XXV THE WANING OF THE YEAR XXVI TO SING BEFORE THE QUEEN XXVII THE QUEEN'S PLAISANCE XXVIII CHRISTMAS WITH QUEEN BESS XXIX BACK TO GASTON CAREW XXX AT THE FALCON INN XXXI IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE XXXII THE LAST OF GASTON CAREW XXXIII CICELY DISAPPEARS XXXIV THE BANDY-LEGGED MAN XXXV A SUDDEN RESOLVE XXXVI WAYFARING HOME XXXVII TURNED ADRIFT XXXVIII A STRANGE DAY XXXIX ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"MASTER SKYLARK, THOU SHALT HAVE THY WISH," SAID QUEEN ELIZABETH
THE LORD ADMIRAL'S PLAYERS. THE TRUMPETERS AND THE DRUMMERS LED, THEIR HORSES PRANCING, WHITE PLUMES WAVING IN THE BREEZE
"WHUR BE-EST GOING, NICK?" ASKED ROGER DAWSON
"WHAT! HOW NOW?" CRIED THE STRANGER, SHARPLY. "DOST LIKE OR LIKE ME NOT?"
"NICK THOUGHT OF HIS MOTHER'S SINGING ON A SUMMER'S EVENING—DREW A DEEP BREATH AND BEGAN TO SING
"NOBODY BREAKS NOBODY'S HEARTS IN OLD JO-OHN SMITHSES SHO-OP," DRAWLED THE SMITH, IN HIS DEEP VOICE; "NOR STEALS NOBODY, NOTHER"
"DICCON HAD OFTEN MADE NICK WHISTLES FROM THE WILLOWS ALONG THE AVON WHEN NICK WAS A TODDLER"
NICK PUT ONE LEG OVER THE SILL AND LOOKED BACK
"OH, NICK, THOU ART MOST BEAUTIFUL TO SEE!" CRIED CICELY
"THAT VOICE, THAT VOICE!" NAT GILES PANTED TO HIMSELF
NICK GAVE THE SILVER BUCKLE FROM HIS CLOAK TO A BOY WHO STOOD CRYING WITH COLD AND HUNGER IN THE STREET
SO NICK RODE HOME UPON THE BACK OF THE EARL OF ARUNDEL'S MAN-AT-ARMS
"WHY, SIR, I'LL SING FOR THEE NOW," SAID NICK, CHOKING
"DO NA THOU STRIKE ME AGAIN, THOU ROGUE!" SAID NICK
"OH, NICK, WHAT Is IT?" SHE CRIED
MASTER SHAKSPERE MET THEM WITH OUTSTRETCHED HANDS
THE LORD ADMIRAL'S PLAYERS
There was an unwonted buzzing in the east end of Stratford on that next to the last day of April, 1596. It was as if some one had thrust a stick into a hive of bees and they had come whirling out to see.
The low stone guard-wall of old Clopton bridge, built a hundred years before by rich Sir Hugh, sometime Mayor of London, was lined with straddling boys, like strawberries upon a spear of grass, and along the low causeway from the west across the lowland to the town, brown-faced, barefoot youngsters sat beside the roadway with their chubby legs a-dangle down the mossy stones, staring away into the south across the grassy levels of the valley of the Stour.
Punts were poling slowly up the Avon to the bridge; and at the outlets of the town, where the streets came down to the waterside among the weeds, little knots of men and serving-maids stood looking into the south and listening. Some had waited for an hour, some for two; yet still there was no sound but the piping of the birds in white-thorn hedges, the hollow lowing of kine knee-deep in grassy meadows, and the long rush of the river through the sedge beside the pebbly shore; and naught to see but quiet valleys, primrose lanes, and Warwick orchards white with bloom, stretching away to the misty hills.
But still they stood and looked and listened.
The wind came stealing up out of the south, soft and warm and sweet and still, moving the ripples upon the river with gray gusts; and, scudding free before the wind, a dog came trotting up the road with wet pink tongue and sidelong gait. At the throat of Clopton bridge he stopped and scanned the way with dubious eye, then clapped his tail between his legs and bolted for the town. The laughing shout that followed him into the Warwick road seemed not to die away, but to linger in the air like the drowsy hum of bees—a hum that came and went at intervals upon the shifting wind, and grew by littles, taking body till it came unbroken as a long, low, distance-muffled murmur from the south, so faint as scarcely to be heard.
Nick Attwood pricked his keen young ears. "They're coming, Robin—hark 'e to the trampling!"
Robin Getley held his breath and turned his ear toward the south. The far-off murmur was a mutter now, defined and positive, and, as the two friends listened, grew into a drumming roll, and all at once above it came a shrill, high sound like the buzzing of a gnat close by the ear.
Little Tom Davenant dropped from the finger-post, and came running up from the fork of the Banbury road, his feet making little white puffs in the dust as he flew. "They are coming! they are coming!" he shrieked as he ran.
Then up to his feet sprang Robin Getley, upon the saddle-backed coping-stones, his hand upon Nick Attwood's head to steady himself, and looked away where the rippling Stour ran like a thread of silver beside the dust-buff London road, and the little church of Atherstone stood blue against the rolling Cotswold Hills.
"They are coming! they are coming!" shrilled little Tom, and scrambled up the coping like a squirrel up a rail.
A stir ran out along the guard-wall, some crying out, some starting up. "Sit down! sit down!" cried others, peering askance at the water gurgling green down below. "Sit down, or we shall all be off!"
Robin held his hand above his eyes. A cloud of dust was rising from the London road and drifting off across the fields like smoke when the old ricks burn in damp weather—a long, broad-sheeted mist; and in it were bits of moving gold, shreds of bright colors vaguely seen, and silvery gleams like the glitter of polished metal in the sun. And as he looked the shifty wind came down out of the west again and whirled the cloud of dust away, and there he saw a long line of men upon horses coming at an easy canter up the highway. Just as he had made this out the line came rattling to a stop, the distant drumming of hoofs was still, and as the long file knotted itself into a rosette of ruddy color amid the April green, a clear, shrill trumpet blew and blew again.
"They are coming!" shouted Robin, "they are coming!" and, turning, waved his cap.
A shout went up along the bridge. Those down below came clambering up, the punts came poling with a rush of foam, and a ripple ran along the edge of Stratford town like the wind through a field of wheat. Windows creaked and doors swung wide, and the workmen stopped in the garden-plots to lean upon their mattocks and to look.
"They are coming!" bellowed Rafe Hickathrift, the butcher's boy, standing far out in the street, with his red hands to his mouth for a trumpet, "they are coming!" and at that the doors of Bridge street grew alive with eager eyes.
At early dawn the Oxford carrier had brought the news that the players of the Lord High Admiral were coming up to Stratford out of London from the south, to play on May-day there; and this was what had set the town to buzzing like a swarm. For there were in England then but three great companies, the High Chamberlain's, the Earl of Pembroke's men, and the stage-players of my Lord Charles Howard, High Admiral of the Realm; and the day on which they came into a Midland market-town to play was one to mark with red and gold upon the calendar of the uneventful year.
Away by the old mill-bridge there were fishermen angling for dace and perch; but when the shout came down from the London road they dropped their poles and ran, through the willows and over the gravel, splashing and thrashing among the rushes and sandy shallows, not to be last when the players came. And old John Carter coming down the Warwick road with a load of hay, laid on the lash until piebald Dobbin snorted in dismay and broke into a lumbering run to reach the old stone bridge in time.
The distant horsemen now were coming on again, riding in double file. They had flung their banners to the breeze, and on the changing wind, with the thumping of horses' hoofs, came by snatches the sound of a kettledrummer drawing his drumhead tight, and beating as he drew, and the muffled blasts of a trumpeter proving his lips.
Fynes Morrison and Walter Stirley, who had gone to Cowslip lane to meet the march, were running on ahead, and shouting as they ran: "There's forty men, and sumpter-mules! and, oh, the bravest banners and attire—and the trumpets are a cloth-yard long! Make room for us, make room for us, and let us up!"
A bowshot off, the trumpets blew a blast so high, so clear, so keen, that it seemed a flame of fire in the air, and as the brassy fanfare died away across the roofs of the quiet town, the kettledrums clanged, the cymbals clashed, and all the company began to sing the famous old song of the hunt:
"The hunt is up, the hunt is up, Sing merrily we, the hunt is up! The wild birds sing, The dun deer fling, The forest aisles with music ring! Tantara, tantara, tantara!
"Then ride along, ride along, Stout and strong! Farewell to grief and care; With a rollicking cheer For the high dun deer And a life in the open air! Tantara, the hunt is up, lads; Tantara, the bugles bray! Tantara, tantara, tantara, Hio, hark away!"
The first of the riders had reached old Clopton bridge, and the banners strained upon their staves in the freshening river-wind. The trumpeters and the drummers led, their horses prancing, white plumes waving in the breeze, and the April sunlight dancing on the brazen horns and the silver bellies of the kettledrums.
Then came the banners of the company, curling down with a silky swish, and unfurling again with a snap, like a broad-lashed whip. The greatest one was rosy red, and on it was a gallant ship upon a flowing sea, bearing upon its mainsail the arms of my Lord Charles Howard, High Admiral of England. Upon its mate was a giant-bearded man with a fish's tail, holding a trident in his hand and blowing upon a shell, the Triton of the seas which England ruled; this flag was bright sea-blue. The third was white, and on it was a red wild rose with a golden heart, the common standard of the company.
After the flags came twoscore men, the players of the Admiral, the tiring-men, grooms, horse-boys, and serving-knaves, well mounted on good horses, and all of them clad in scarlet tabards blazoned with the coat-armor of their master. Upon their caps they wore the famous badge of the Howards, a rampant silver demi-lion; and beneath their tabards at the side could be seen their jerkins of many-colored silk, their silver-buckled belts, and long, thin Spanish rapiers, slapping their horses on the flanks at every stride. Their legs were cased in high-topped riding-boots of tawny cordovan, with gilt spurs, and the housings of their saddles were of blue with the gilt anchors of the admiralty upon them. On their bridles were jingling bits of steel, which made a constant tinkling, like a thousand little bells very far away.
Some had faces smooth as boys and were quite young; and others wore sharp-pointed beards with stiff-waxed mustaches, and were older men, with a tinge of iron in their hair and lines of iron in their faces, hardened by the life they led; and some, again, were smooth-shaven, so often and so closely that their faces were blue with the beard beneath the skin. But, oh, to Nicholas Attwood and the rest of Stratford boys, they were a dashing, rakish, admirable lot, with the air of something even greater than lords, and a keen knowingness in their sparkling, worldly eyes that made a common wise man seem almost a fool beside them!
And so they came riding up out of the south:
"Then ride along, ride along, Stout and strong! Farewell to grief and care; With a rollicking cheer For the high dun deer And a life in the open air!"
"Hurrah! hurrah! God save the Queen!"
A dropping shout went up the street like an arrow-flight scattering over the throng; and the players, waving their scarlet caps until the long line tossed like a poppy-garden in a summer rain, gave a cheer that fairly set the crockery to dancing upon the shelves of the stalls in Middle Bow.
"Hurrah!" shouted Nicholas Attwood, his blue eyes shining with delight. "Hurrah, hurrah, for the Admiral's men!" And high in the air he threw his cap, as a wild cheer broke from the eddying crowd, and the arches of the long gray bridge rang hollow with the tread of hoofs. Whiff, came the wind; down dropped the hat upon the very saddle-peak of one tall fellow riding along among the rest. Catching it quickly as it fell, he laughed and tossed it back; and when Nick caught it whirling in the air, a shilling jingled from it to the ground.
Then up Fore Bridge street they all trooped after into Stratford town.
"Oh," cried Robin, "it is brave, brave!"
"Brave?" cried Nick. "It makes my very heart jump. And see, Robin, 'tis a shilling, a real silver shilling—oh, what fellows they all be! Hurrah for the Lord High Admiral's men!"
NICHOLAS ATTWOOD'S HOME
Nick Attwood's father came home that night bitterly wroth.
The burgesses of the town council had ordered him to build a chimney upon his house, or pay ten shillings fine; and shillings were none too plenty with Simon Attwood, the tanner of Old Town.
"Soul and body o' man!" said he, "they talk as if they owned the world, and a man could na live upon it save by their leave. I must build my fire in a pipe, or pay ten shillings fine? Things ha' come to a pretty pass—a pretty pass, indeed!" He kicked the rushes that were strewn upon the floor, and ground the clay with his heel. "This litter will ha' to be all took out. Atkins will be here at six i' the morning to do the job, and a lovely mess he will make o' the house!"
"Do na fret thee, Simon," said Mistress Attwood, gently. "The rushes need a changing, and I ha' pined this long while to lay the floor wi' new clay from Shottery common. 'Tis the sweetest earth! Nick shall take the hangings down, and right things up when the chimley 's done."
So at cockcrow next morning Nick slipped out of his straw bed, into his clothes, and down the winding stair, while his parents were still asleep in the loft, and, sousing his head in the bucket at the well, began his work before the old town clock in the chapel tower had yet struck four.
The rushes had not been changed since Easter, and were full of dust and grease from the cooking and the table. Even the fresher sprigs of mint among them smelled stale and old. When they were all in the barrow, Nick sighed with relief and wiped his hands upon the dripping grass.
It had rained in the night,—a soft, warm rain,—and the air was full of the smell of the apple-bloom and pear from the little orchard behind the house. The bees were already humming about the straw-bound hives along the garden wall, and a misguided green woodpecker clung upside down to the eaves, and thumped at the beams of the house.
It was very still there in the gray of the dawn. He could hear the rush of the water through the sedge in the mill-race, and then, all at once, the roll of the wheel, the low rumble of the mill-gear, and the cool whisper of the wind in the willows.
When he went back into the house again the painted cloths upon the wall seemed dingier than ever compared with the clean, bright world outside. The sky-blue coat of the Prodigal Son was brown with the winter's smoke; the Red Sea towered above Pharaoh's ill-starred host like an inky mountain; and the homely maxims on the next breadth—"Do no Wrong," "Beware of Sloth," "Overcome Pride," and "Keep an Eye on the Pence"—could scarcely be read.
Nick jumped up on the three-legged stool and began to take them down. The nails were crooked and jammed in the wall, and the last came out with an unexpected jerk. Losing his balance, Nick caught at the table-board which leaned against the wall; but the stool capsized, and he came down on the floor with such a flap of tapestry that the ashes flew out all over the room.
He sat up dazed, and rubbed his elbows, then looked around and began to laugh.
He could hear heavy footsteps overhead. A door opened, and his father's voice called sternly from the head of the stair: "What madcap folly art thou up to now?"
"I be up to no folly at all," said Nick, "but down, sir. I fell from the stool. There is no harm done."
"Then be about thy business," said Attwood, coming slowly down the stairs.
He was a gaunt man, smelling of leather and untanned hides. His short iron-gray hair grew low down upon his forehead, and his hooked nose, grim wide mouth, and heavy under jaw gave him a look at once forbidding and severe. His doublet of serge and his fustian hose were stained with liquor from the vats, and his eyes were heavy with sleep.
The smile faded from Nick's face. "Shall I throw the rushes into the street, sir?" "Nay; take them to the muck-hill. The burgesses ha' made a great to-do about folk throwing trash into the highways. Soul and body o' man!" he growled, "a man must ask if he may breathe. And good hides going a-begging, too!"
Nick hurried away, for he dreaded his father's sullen moods.
The swine were squealing in their styes, the cattle bawled about the straw-thatched barns in Chapel lane, and long files of gabbling ducks waddled hurriedly down to the river through the primroses under the hedge. He could hear the milkmaids calling in the meadows; and when he trundled slowly home the smoke was creeping up in pale-blue threads from the draught-holes in the wall.
The tanner's house stood a little back from the thoroughfare, in that part of Stratford-on-Avon where the south end of Church street turns from Bull lane toward the river. It was roughly built of timber and plaster, the black beams showing through the yellow lime in curious squares and triangles. The roof was of red tiles, and where the spreading elms leaned over it the peaked gable was green with moss.
At the side of the house was a garden of lettuce; beyond the garden a rough wall on which the grass was growing. Sometimes wild primroses grew on top of this wall, and once a yellow daffodil. Beyond the wall were other gardens owned by thrifty neighbors, and open lands in common to them all, where foot-paths wandered here and there in a free, haphazard way.
Behind the house was a well and a wood-pile, and along the lane ran a whitewashed paling fence with a little gate, from which the path went up to the door through rows of bright, old-fashioned flowers.
Nick's mother was getting the breakfast. She was a gentle woman with a sweet, kind face, and a little air of quiet dignity that made her doubly dear to Nick by contrast with his father's unkempt ways. He used to think that, in her worsted gown, with its falling collar of Antwerp linen, and a soft, silken coif upon her fading hair, she was the most beautiful woman in all the world.
She put one arm about his shoulders, brushed back his curly hair, and kissed him on the forehead.
"Thou art mine own good little son," said she, tenderly, "and I will bake thee a cake in the new chimley on the morrow for thy May-day-feast."
Then she helped him fetch the trestles from the buttery, set the board, spread the cloth, and lay the wooden platters, pewter cups, and old horn spoons in place. Breakfast being ready, she then called his father from the yard. Nick waited deftly upon them both, so that they were soon done with the simple meal of rye-bread, lettuce, cheese, and milk.
As he carried away the empty platters and brought water and a towel for them to wash their hands, he said quietly, although his eyes were bright and eager, "The Lord High Admiral's company is to act a stage-play at the guildhall to-morrow before Master Davenant the Mayor and the town burgesses."
Simon Attwood said nothing, but his brows drew down.
"They came yestreen from London town by Oxford way to play in Stratford and at Coventry, and are at the Swan Inn with Master Geoffrey Inchbold—oh, ever so many of them, in scarlet jerkins, and cloth of gold, and doublets of silk laced up like any lord! It is a very good company, they say."
Mistress Attwood looked quickly at her husband. "What will they play?" she asked.
"I can na say surely, mother—'Tamburlane,' perhaps, or 'The Troublesome Reign of Old King John.' The play will be free, father—may I go, sir?"
"And lose thy time from school?"
"There is no school to-morrow, sir."
"Then have ye naught to do, that ye waste the day in idle folly?" asked the tanner, sternly.
"I will do my work beforehand, sir," replied Nick, quietly, though his hand trembled a little as he brushed up the crumbs.
"It is May-day, Simon," interceded Mistress Attwood, "and a bit of pleasure will na harm the lad."
"Pleasure?" said the tanner, sharply. "If he does na find pleasure enough in his work, his book, and his home, he shall na seek it of low rogues and strolling scape-graces."
"But, Simon," said Mistress Attwood, "'tis the Lord Admiral's own company—surely they are not all graceless! And," she continued with very quiet dignity, "since mine own cousin Anne Hathaway married Will Shakspere the play-actor, 'tis scarcely kind to call all players rogues and low."
"No more o' this, Margaret," cried Attwood, flushing angrily. "Thou art ever too ready with the boy's part against me. He shall na go—I'll find a thing or two for him to do among the vats that will take this taste for idleness out of his mouth. He shall na go: so that be all there is on it." Rising abruptly, he left the room.
Nick clenched his hands.
"Nicholas," said his mother, softly.
"Yes, mother," said he; "I know. But he should na flout thee so! And, mother, the Queen goes to the play—father himself saw her at Coventry ten years ago. Is what the Queen does idle folly?"
His mother took him by the hand and drew him to her side, with a smile that was half a sigh. "Art thou the Queen?"
"Nay," said he; "and it's all the better for England, like enough. But surely, mother, it can na be wrong—"
"To honour thy father?" said she, quickly, laying her finger across his lips. "Nay, lad; it is thy bounden duty."
Nick turned and looked up at her wonderingly. "Mother," said he, "art thou an angel come down out of heaven?"
"Nay," she answered, patting his flushed cheek; "I be only the every-day mother of a fierce little son who hath many a hard, hard lesson to learn. Now eat thy breakfast—thou hast been up a long while."
Nick kissed her impetuously and sat down, but his heart still rankled within him.
All Stratford would go to the play. He could hear the murmur of voices and music, the bursts of laughter and applause, the tramp of happy feet going up the guildhall stairs to the Mayor's show. Everybody went in free at the Mayor's show. The other boys could stand on stools and see it all. They could hold horses at the gate of the inn at the September fair, and so see all the farces. They could see the famous Norwich puppet-play. But he—what pleasure did he ever have? A tawdry pageant by a lot of clumsy country bumpkins at Whitsuntide or Pentecost, or a silly school-boy masque at Christmas, with the master scolding like a heathen Turk. It was not fair.
And now he'd have to work all May-day. May-day out of all the year! Why, there was to be a May-pole and a morris-dance, and a roasted calf, too, in Master Wainwright's field, since Margery was chosen Queen of the May. And Peter Finch was to be Robin Hood, and Nan Rogers Maid Marian, and wear a kirtle of Kendal green—and, oh, but the May-pole would be brave; high as the ridge of the guildschool roof, and hung with ribbons like a rainbow! Geoffrey Hall was to lead the dance, too, and the other boys and girls would all be there. And where would he be? Sousing hides in the tannery vats. Truly his father was a hard man!
He pushed the cheese away.
THE LAST STRAW
Little John Summer had a new horn-book that cost a silver penny. The handle was carven and the horn was clear as honey. The other little boys stood round about in speechless envy, or murmured their A B C's and "ba be bi's" along the chapel steps. The lower-form boys were playing leap-frog past the almshouse, and Geoffrey Gosse and the vicar's son were in the public gravel-pit, throwing stones at the robins in the Great House elms across the lane.
Some few dull fellows sat upon the steps behind the school-house, anxiously poring over their books. But the larger boys of the Fable Class stood in an excited group beneath the shadow of the overhanging second story of the grammar-school, talking all at once, each louder than the other, until the noise was deafening.
"Oh, Nick, such goings on!" called Robin Getley, whose father was a burgess, as Nick Attwood came slowly up the street, saying his sentences for the day over and over to himself in hopeless desperation, having had no time to learn them at home. "Stratford Council has had a quarrel, and there's to be no stage-play after all."
"What?" cried Nick, in amazement. "No stage-play? And why not?"
"Why," said Robin, "it was just this way—my father told me of it. Sir Thomas Lucy, High Sheriff of Worcester, y' know, rode in from Charlcote yesternoon, and with him Sir Edward Greville of Milcote. So the burgesses made a feast for them at the Swan Inn. Sir Thomas fetched a fine, fat buck, and the town stood good for ninepence wine and twopence bread, and broached a keg of sturgeon. And when they were all met together there, eating, and drinking, and making merry—what? Why, in came my Lord Admiral's players from London town, ruffling it like high dukes, and not caring two pops for Sir Thomas, or Sir Edward, or for Stratford burgesses all in a heap; but sat them down at the table straightway, and called for ale, as if they owned the place; and not being served as soon as they desired, they laid hands upon Sir Thomas's server as he came in from the buttery with his tray full, and took both meat and drink."
"What?" cried Nick.
"As sure as shooting, they did!" said Robin; "and when Sir Thomas's gentry yeomen would have seen to it—what? Why, my Lord Admiral's master-player clapped his hand to his poniard-hilt, and dared them come and take it if they could."
"To Sir Thomas Lucy's men?" exclaimed Nick, aghast.
"Ay, to their teeth! Sir Edward sprang up then, and said it was a shame for players to behave so outrageously in Will Shakspere's own home town. And at that Sir Thomas, who, y' know, has always misliked Will, flared up like a bull at a red rag, and swore that all stage-players be runagate rogues, anyway, and Will Shakspere neither more nor less than a deer-stealing scape-gallows."
"Surely he did na say that in Stratford Council?" protested Nick.
"Ay, but he did—that very thing," said Robin; "and when that was out, the master-player sprang upon the table, overturning half the ale, and cried out that Will Shakspere was his very own true friend, and the sweetest fellow in all England, and that whosoever gainsaid it was a hemp-cracking rascal, and that he would prove it upon his back with a quarter-staff whenever and wherever he chose, be he Sir Thomas Lucy, St. George and the Dragon, Guy of Warwick, and the great dun cow, all rolled up in one!"
"Robin Getley, is this the very truth, or art thou cozening me?"
"Upon my word, it is the truth," said Robin. "And that's not all. Sir Edward cried out 'Fie!' upon the player for a saucy varlet; but the fellow only laughed, and bowed quite low, and said that he took no offense from Sir Edward for saying that, since it could not honestly be denied, but that Sir Thomas did not know the truth from a truckle-bed in broad daylight, and was but the remnant of a gentleman to boot."
"The bold-faced rogue!"
"Ay, that he is," nodded Robin; "and for his boldness Sir Thomas straightway demanded that the High Bailiff refuse the company license to play in Stratford."
"Refuse the Lord High Admiral's players?"
"Marry, no one else. And then Master John Shakspere, wroth at what Sir Thomas had said of his son Will, vowed that he would send a letter down to London town, and lay the whole coil before the Lord High Admiral himself. For ever since that he was High Bailiff, the best companies of England had always been bidden to play in Stratford, and it would be an ill thing now to refuse the Lord Admiral's company after granting licenses to both my Lord Pembroke's and the High Chamberlain's."
"And so it would," spoke up Walter Roche; "for there are our own townsmen, Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, who are cousins of mine, and John Hemynge and Thomas Greene, besides Will Shakspere and his brother Edmund, all playing in the Lord Chamberlain's company in London before the Queen. It would be a black score against them all with the Lord Admiral—I doubt not he would pay them out."
"That he would," said Robin, "and so said my father and Alderman Henry Walker, who, y' know, is Will Shakspere's own friend. And some of the burgesses who cared not a rap for that were afeard of offending the Lord Admiral. But Sir Thomas vowed that my Lord Howard was at Cadiz with Walter Raleigh and the young Earl of Sussex, and would by no means hear of it. So Master Bailiff Stubbes, who, 'tis said, doth owe Sir Thomas forty pound, and is therefore under his thumb, forthwith refused the company license to play in Stratford guildhall, inn-yard, or common. And at that the master-player threw his glove into Master Stubbes's face, and called Sir Thomas a stupid old bell-wether, and Stratford burgesses silly sheep for following wherever he chose to jump."
"And so they be," sneered Hal Saddler.
"How?" cried Robin, hotly. "My father is a burgess. Dost thou call him a sheep, Hal Saddler?"
"Nay, nay," stammered Hal, hastily; "'twas not thy father I meant."
"Then hold thy tongue with both hands," said Robin, sharply, "or it will crack thy pate for thee some of these fine days."
"But come, Robin," asked Nick, eagerly, "what became of the quarrel?"
"Well, when the master-player threw his glove into Master Stubbes's face, the Chief Constable seized him for contempt of Stratford Council, and held him for trial. At that some cried 'Shame!' and some 'Hurrah!' but the rest of the players fled out of town in the night, lest their baggage be taken by the law and they be fined."
"Whither did they go?" asked Nick, both sorry and glad to hear that they were gone.
"To Coventry, and left the master-player behind in gaol."
"Why, they dare na use him so—the Lord Admiral's own man!"
"Ay, that they don't! Why, hark 'e, Nick! This morning, since Sir Thomas has gone home, and the burgesses' heads have all cooled down from the sack and the clary they were in last night, la! but they are in a pretty stew, my father says, for fear that they have given offense to the Lord Admiral. So they have spoken the master-player softly, and given him his freedom out of hand, and a long gold chain to twine about his cap, to mend the matter with, beside."
"Whee-ew!" whistled Nick. "I wish I were a master-player!"
"Oh, but he will not be pleased, and says he will have his revenge on Stratford town if he must needs wait until the end of the world or go to the Indies after it. And he has had his breakfast served in Master Geoffrey Inchbold's own room at the Swan, and swears that he will walk the whole way to Coventry sooner than straddle the horse that the burgesses have sent him to ride."
"What! Is he at the inn? Why, let's go down and see him."
"Master Brunswood says that he will birch whoever cometh late," objected Hal Saddler.
"Birch?" groaned Nick. "Why, he does nothing but birch! A fellow can na say his 'sum, es, est' without catching it. And as for getting through the 'genitivo' and 'vocativo' without a downright threshing—" He shrugged his shoulders ruefully as he remembered his unlearned lesson. Everything had gone wrong with him that morning, and the thought of the birching that he was sure to get was more than he could bear. "I will na stand it any longer—I'll run away!"
Kit Sedgewick laughed ironically. "And when the skies fall we'll catch sparrows, Nick Attwood," said he. "Whither wilt thou run?"
Stung by his tone of ridicule, Nick out with the first thing that came into his head. "To Coventry, after the stage-players," said he, defiantly.
The whole crowd gave an incredulous hoot.
Nick's face flushed. To be crossed at home, to be birched at school, to work all May-day in the tannery vats, and to be laughed at—it was too much.
"Ye think that I will na? Well, I'll show ye! 'Tis only eight miles to Warwick, and hardly more than that beyond—no walk at all; and Diccon Haggard, my mother's cousin, lives in Coventry. So out upon your musty Latin—English is good enough for me this day! There's bluebells blowing in the dingles, and cuckoo-buds no end. And while ye are all grinding at your old Aesop I shall be roaming over the hills wherever I please."
As he spoke he thought of the dark, wainscoted walls of the school-room with their narrow little windows overhead, of the foul-smelling floors of the tannery in Southam's lane, and his heart gave a great, rebellious leap. "Ay," said he, exultantly, "I shall be out where the birds can sing and the grass is green, and I shall see the stage-play, while ye will be mewed up all day long in school, and have nothing but a beggarly morris and a farthing May-pole on the morrow."
"Oh, no doubt, no doubt," said Hal Saddler, mockingly "We shall have but bread and milk, and thou shalt have—a most glorious threshing from thy father when thou comest home again!"
That was the last straw to Nick's unhappy heart.
"'Tis a threshing either way," said he, squaring his shoulders doggedly. "Father will thresh me if I run away, and Master Brunswood will thresh me if I don't. I'll not be birched four times a week for merely tripping on a word, and have nothing to show for it but stripes. If I must take a threshing, I'll have my good day's game out first."
"But wilt thou truly go to Coventry, Nick?" asked Robin Getley, earnestly, for he liked Nick more than all the rest.
"Ay, truly, Robin—that I will"; and, turning, Nick walked swiftly away toward the market-place, never looking back.
OFF FOR COVENTRY
At the Bridge street crossing Nick paused irresolute. Around the public pump a chattering throng of housewives were washing out their towels and hanging them upon the market-cross to dry. Along the stalls in Middle Row the grumbling shopmen were casting up their sales from tallies chalked upon their window-ledges, or cuffing their tardy apprentices with no light hand.
John Gibson's cart was hauling gravel from the pits in Henley street to mend the causeway at the bridge, which had been badly washed by the late spring floods, and the fine sand dribbled from the cart-tail like the sand in an hour-glass.
Here and there loutish farm-hands waited for work; and at the corner two or three stout cudgel-men leaned upon their long staves, although the market was two days closed, and there was not a Coventry merchant in sight to be driven away from Stratford trade.
Goody Baker with her shovel and broom of twigs was sweeping up the market litter in the square. Nick wondered if his own mother's back would be so bent when she grew old.
"Whur be-est going, Nick?"
Roger Dawson sat astride a stick of timber in front of Master Geoffrey Thompson's new house, watching Tom Carpenter the carver cut fleur-de-lis and curling traceries upon the front wall beams. He was a tenant-farmer's son, this Roger, and a likely good-for-naught.
"To Coventry," said Nick, curtly.
"Wilt take a fellow wi' thee?"
Poor company might be better than none.
Roger lumbered to his feet and trotted after.
"No school to-day?" he asked.
"Not for me," answered Nick, shortly, for he did not care to talk about it.
"Faither wull na have I go to school, since us ha' comed to town, an' plough-land sold for grazings," drawled Roger; "Muster Pine o' Welford saith that I ha' learned as much as faither ever knowed, an' 'tis enow for I. Faither saith it maketh saucy rogues o' sons to know more than they's own dads."
Nick wondered if it did. His own father could neither read nor write, while he could do both and had some Latin, too. At the thought of the Latin he made a wry face.
"Joe Carter be-eth in the stocks," said Roger, peering through the jeering crowd about the pillory and post; "a broke Tom Samson's pate wi' 's ale-can yestreen."
But Nick pushed on. A few ruddy-faced farmers and drovers from the Bed Horse Vale still lingered at the Boar Inn door and by the tap-room of the Crown; and in the middle of the street a crowd of salters, butchers, and dealers in hides, with tallow-smeared doublets and doubtful hose, were squabbling loudly about the prices set upon their wares.
In the midst of them Nick saw his father, and scurried away into Back Bridge street as fast as he could, feeling very near a sneak, but far from altering his purpose.
"Job Hortop," said Simon Attwood to his apprentice at his side, looking out suddenly over the crowd, "was that my Nick yonder?"
"Nay, master, could na been," said Job, stolidly; "Nick be-eth in school by now—the clock ha' struck. 'Twas Dawson's Hodge and some like ne'er-do-well."
IN THE WARWICK ROAD
The land was full of morning sounds as the lads trudged along the Warwick road together. An ax rang somewhere deep in the woods of Arden; cart-wheels ruttled on the stony road; a blackbird whistled shrilly in the hedge, and they heard the deep-tongued belling of hounds far off in Fulbroke park.
Now and then a heron, rising from the river, trailed its long legs across the sky, or a kingfisher sparkled in his own splash. Once a lonely fisherman down by the Avon started a wild duck from the sedge, and away it went pattering up-stream with frightened wings and red feet running along the water. And then a river-rat plumped into the stream beneath the willows, and left a long string of bubbles behind him.
Nick's ill humor soon wore off as he breathed the fresh air, moist from lush meadows, and sweet from hedges pink and white with hawthorn bloom. The thought of being pent up on such a day grew more and more unbearable, and a blithe sense of freedom from all restraint blunted the prick of conscience.
"Why art going to Coventry, Nick?" inquired Roger suddenly, startled by a thought coming into his wits like a child by a bat in the room.
"To see the stage-play that the burgesses would na allow in Stratford."
"Wull I see, too?"
"If thou hast eyes—the Mayor's show is free."
"Oh, feckins, wun't it be fine?" gaped Hodge. "Be it a tailors' show, Nick, wi' Herod the King, and a rope for to hang Judas? An' wull they set the world afire wi' a torch, an' make the earth quake fearful wi' a barrel full o' stones? Or wull it be Sin in a motley gown a-thumping the Black Man over the pate wi' a bladder full o' peasen—an' angels wi' silver wingses, an' saints wi' goolden hair? Or wull it be a giant nine yards high, clad in the beards o' murdered kings, like granny saith she used to see?"
"Pshaw! no," said Nick; "none of those old-fashioned things. These be players from London town, and I hope they'll play a right good English history-play, like 'The Famous Victories of Henry Fift,' to turn a fellow's legs all goose-flesh!"
Hodge stopped short in the road. "La!" said he, "I'll go no furder if they turn me to a goose. I wunnot be turned goose, Nick Attwood—an' a plague on all witches, says I!"
"Oh, pshaw!" laughed Nick; "come on. No witch in the world could turn thee bigger goose than thou art now. Come along wi' thee; there be no witches there at all."
"Art sure thou 'rt not bedaffing me?" hesitated Hodge. "Good, then; I be na feared. Art sure there be no witches?"
"Why," said Nick, "would Master Burgess John Shakspere leave his son Will to do with witches?"
"I dunno," faltered Hodge; "a told Muster Robin Bowles it was na right to drownd 'em in the river."
Nick hesitated. "Maybe it kills the fish," said he; "and Master Will Shakspere always liked to fish. But they burn witches in London, Hodge, and he has na put a stop to it—and he's a great man in London town."
Hodge came on a little way, shaking his head like an old sheep in a corner. "Wully Shaxper a great man?" said he. "Why, a's name be cut on the old beech-tree up Snitterfield lane, where's uncle Henry Shaxper lives, an' 'tis but poorly done. I could do better wi' my own whittle."
"Ay, Hodge," cried Nick; "and that's about all thou canst do. Dost think that a man's greatness hangs on so little a thing as his sleight of hand at cutting his name on a tree?"
"Wull, maybe; maybe not; but if a be a great man, Nick Attwood, a might do a little thing passing well—so there, now!"
Nick pondered for a moment. "I do na know," said he, slowly; "heaps of men can do the little things, but parlous few the big. So some one must be bigging it, or folks would all sing very small. And he doeth the big most beautiful, they say. They call him the Swan of Avon."
"Avon swans be mostly geese," said Hodge, vacantly.
"Now, look 'e here, Hodge Dawson, don't thou be calling Master Will Shakspere goose. He married my own mother's cousin, and I will na have it."
"La, now," drawled Hodge, staring, "'tis nowt to me. Thy Muster Wully Shaxper may be all the long-necked fowls in Warrickshire for all I care. And, anyway, I'd like to know, Nick Attwood, since when hath a been 'Muster Shaxper'—that ne'er-do-well, play-actoring fellow?"
"Ne'er-do-well? It is na so. When he was here last summer he was bravely dressed, and had a heap of good gold nobles in his purse. And he gave Rick Hawkins, that's blind of an eye, a shilling for only holding his horse."
"Oh, ay," drawled Hodge; "a fool and a's money be soon parted."
"Will Shakspere is no fool," declared Nick, hotly. "He's made a peck o' money there in London town, and 's going to buy the Great House in Chapel lane, and come back here to live."
"Then a 's a witless azzy!" blurted Hodge. "If a 's so great a man amongst the lords and earlses, a 'd na come back to Stratford. An' I say a 's a witless loon—so there!"
Nick whirled around in the road. "And I say, Hodge Dawson," he exclaimed with flashing eyes, "that 'tis a shame for a lout like thee to so miscall thy thousand-time betters. And what's more, thou shalt unsay that, or I will make thee swallow thy words right here and now!"
"I'd loike to see thee try," Hodge began; but the words were scarcely out of his mouth when he found himself stretched on the grass, Nick Attwood bending over him.
"There! thou hast seen it tried. Now come, take that back, or I will surely box thine ears for thee."
Hodge blinked and gaped, collecting his wits, which had scattered to the four winds. "Whoy," said he, vaguely, "if 'tis all o' that to thee, I take it back."
Nick rose, and Hodge scrambled clumsily to his feet. "I'll na go wi' thee," said he, sulkily; "I will na go whur I be whupped."
Nick turned on his heel without a word, and started on.
"An' what's more," bawled Hodge after him, "thy Muster Wully Shaxper be-eth an old gray goose, an' boo to he, says I!"
As he spoke he turned, dived through the thin hedge, and galloped across the field as if an army were at his heels.
Nick started back, but quickly paused. "Thou needst na run," he called; "I've not the time to catch thee now. But mind ye this, Hodge Dawson: when I do come back, I'll teach thee who thy betters be—Will Shakspere first of all!"
"Well crowed, well crowed, my jolly cockerel!" on a sudden called a keen, high voice beyond the hedge behind him.
Nick, startled, whirled about just in time to see a stranger leap the hedge and come striding up the road.
He had trim, straight legs, this stranger, and a slender, lithe body in a tawny silken jerkin. Square-shouldered, too, was he, and over one shoulder hung a plum-colored cloak bordered with gold braid. His long hose were the color of his cloak, and his shoes were russet leather, with rosettes of plum, and such high heels as Nick had never seen before. His bonnet was of tawny velvet, with a chain twisted round it, fastened by a jeweled brooch through which was thrust a curly cock-feather. A fine white Holland-linen shirt peeped through his jerkin at the throat, with a broad lace collar; and his short hair curled crisply all over his head. He had a little pointed beard, and the ends of his mustache were twisted so that they stood up fiercely on either side of his sharp nose. At his side was a long Italian poniard in a sheath of russet leather and silver filigree, and he had a reckless, high and mighty fling about his stride that strangely took the eye.
Nick stood, all taken by surprise, and stared.
The stranger seemed to like it, but scowled nevertheless. "What! How now?" he cried sharply. "Dost like or like me not?"
"Why, sir," stammered Nick, utterly lost for anything to say—"why, sir,—" and knowing nothing else to do, he took off his cap and bowed.
"Come, come," snapped the stranger, stamping his foot, "I am a swashing, ruffling, desperate Dick, and not to be made a common jest for Stratford dolts to giggle at What! These legs, that have put on the very gentleman in proud Verona's streets, laid in Stratford's common stocks, like a silly apprentice's slouching heels? Nay, nay; some one should taste old Bless-his-heart here first!" and with that he clapped his hand upon the hilt of his poniard, with a wonderful swaggering tilt of his shoulders. "Dost take me, boy?"
"Why, sir," hesitated Nick, no little awed by the stranger's wild words and imperious way, "ye surely are the master-player."
"There!" cried the stranger, whirling about, as if defying some one in the hedge. "Who said I could not act? Why, see, he took me at a touch! Say, boy," he laughed, and turned to Nick, "thou art no fool. Why, boy, I say I love thee now for this, since what hath passed in Stratford. A murrain on the town! Dost hear me, boy?—a black murrain on the town!" And all at once he made such a fierce stride toward Nick, gritting his white teeth, and clapping his hand upon his poniard, that Nick drew back afraid of him.
"But nay," hissed the stranger, and spat with scorn, "a town like that is its own murrain—let it sicken on itself!"
He struck an attitude, and waved his hand as if he were talking quite as much to the trees and sky as he was to Nick Attwood, and looked about him as if waiting for applause. Then all at once he laughed,—a rollicking, merry laugh,—and threw off his furious manner as one does an old coat. "Well, boy," said he, with a quiet smile, looking kindly at Nick, "thou art a right stanch little friend to all of us stage-players. And I thank thee for it in Will Shakspere's name; for he is the sweetest fellow of us all."
His voice was simple, frank, and free—so different from the mad tone in which he had just been ranting that Nick caught his breath with surprise.
"Nay, lad, look not so dashed," said the master-player, merrily; "that was only old Jem Burbage's mighty tragic style; and I—I am only Gaston Carew, hail-fellow-well-met with all true hearts. Be known to me, lad; what is thy name? I like thy open, pretty face."
Nick flushed. "Nicholas Attwood is my name, sir."
"Nicholas Attwood? Why, it is a good name. Nick Attwood,—young Nick,—I hope Old Nick will never catch thee—upon my word I do, and on the remnant of mine honour! Thou hast taken a player's part like a man, and thou art a good fellow, Nicholas Attwood, and I love thee. So thou art going to Coventry to see the players act? Surely thine is a nimble wit to follow fancy nineteen miles. Come; I am going to Coventry to join my fellows. Wilt thou go with me, Nick, and dine with us this night at the best inn in all Coventry—the Blue Boar? Thou hast quite plucked up my downcast heart for me, lad, indeed thou hast; for I was sore of Stratford town—and I shall not soon forget thy plucky fending for our own sweet Will. Come, say thou wilt go with me."
"Indeed, sir," said Nick, bowing again, his head all in a whirl of excitement at this wonderful adventure, "indeed I will, and that right gladly, sir." And with heart beating like a trip-hammer he walked along, cap in hand, not knowing that his head was bare.
The master-player laughed a simple, hearty laugh. "Why, Nick," said he, laying his hand caressingly upon the boy's shoulder, "I am no such great to-do as all that—upon my word, I'm not! A man of some few parts, perhaps, not common in the world; but quite a plain fellow, after all. Come, put off this high humility and be just friendly withal. Put on thy cap; we are but two good faring-fellows here."
So Nick put on his cap, and they went on together, Nick in the seventh heaven of delight.
About a mile beyond Stratford, Welcombe wood creeps down along the left. Just beyond, the Dingles wind irregularly up from the foot-path below to the crest of Welcombe hill, through straggling clumps and briery hollows, sweet with nodding bluebells, ash, and hawthorn.
Nick and the master-player paused a moment at the top to catch their breath and to look back.
Stratford and the valley of the Avon lay spread before them like a picture of peace, studded with blossoming orchards and girdled with spring. Northward the forest of Arden clad the rolling hills. Southward the fields of Feldon stretched away to the blue knolls beyond which lay Oxford and Northamptonshire. The ragged stretches of Snitterfield downs scrambled away to the left; and on the right, beyond Bearley, were the wooded uplands where Guy of Warwick and Heraud of Arden slew the wild ox and the boar. And down through the midst ran the Avon southward, like a silver ribbon slipped through Kendal green, to where the Stour comes down, past Luddington, to Bidford, and away to the misty hills.
"Why," exclaimed the master-player—"why, upon my word, it is a fair town—as fair a town as the heart of man could wish. Wish? I wish 't were sunken in the sea, with all its pack of fools! Why," said he, turning wrathfully upon Nick, "that old Sir Thingumbob of thine, down there, called me a caterpillar on the kingdom of England, a vagabond, and a common player of interludes! Called me vagabond! Me! Why, I have more good licenses than he has wits. And as to Master Bailiff Stubbes, I have permits to play from more justices of the peace than he can shake a stick at in a month of Sundays!" He shook his fist wrathfully at the distant town, and gnawed his mustache until one side pointed up and the other down. "But, hark 'e, boy, I'll have my vengeance on them all—ay, that will I, upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour—or else my name's not Gaston Carew!"
"Is it true, sir," asked Nick, hesitatingly, "that they despitefully handled you?"
"With their tongues, ay," said Carew, bitterly; "but not otherwise." He clapped his hand upon his poniard, and threw back his head defiantly. "They dared not come to blows—they knew my kind! Yet John Shakspere is no bad sort—he knoweth what is what. But Master Bailiff Stubbes, I ween, is a long-eared thing that brays for thistles. I'll thistle him! He called Will Shakspere rogue. Hast ever looked through a red glass?"
"Nay," said Nick.
"Well, it turns the whole world red. And so it is with Master Stubbes. He looks through a pair of rogue's eyes and sees the whole world rogue. Why, boy," cried the master-player, vehemently, "he thought to buy my tongue! Marry, if tongues were troubles he has bought himself a peck! What! Buy my silence? Nay, he'll see a deadly flash of silence when I come to my Lord the Admiral again!"
"WELL SUNG, MASTER SKYLARK!"
It was past high noon, and they had long since left Warwick castle far behind. "Nicholas," said the master-player, in the middle of a stream of amazing stories of life in London town, "there is Blacklow knoll." He pointed to a little hill off to the left.
Nick stared; he knew the tale: how grim old Guy de Beauchamp had Piers Gaveston's head upon that hill for calling him the Black Hound of Arden.
"Ah!" said Carew, "times have changed since then, boy, when thou couldst have a man's head off for calling thee a name—or I would have yon Master Bailiff Stubbes's head off short behind the ears—and Sir Thomas Lucy's too!" he added, with a sudden flash of anger, gritting his teeth and clenching his hand upon his poniard. "But, Nicholas, hast anything to eat?"
"Nothing at all, sir."
Master Carew pulled from his pouch some barley-cakes and half a small Banbury cheese, yellow as gold and with a keen, sharp savour. "'Tis enough for both of us," said he, as they came to a shady little wood with a clear, mossy-bottomed spring running down into a green meadow with a mild noise, murmuring among the stones. "Come along, Nicholas; we'll eat it under the trees."
He had a small flask of wine, but Nick drank no wine, and went down to the spring instead. There was a wild bird singing in a bush there, and as he trotted down the slope it hushed its wandering tune. Nick took the sound up softly, and stood by the wet stones a little while, imitating the bird's trilling note, and laughing to hear it answer timidly, as if it took him for some great new bird without wings. Cocking its shy head and watching him shrewdly with its beady eye, it sat, almost persuaded that it was only size which made them different, until Nick clapped his cap upon his head and strolled back, singing as he went.
It was only the thread of an old-fashioned madrigal which he had often heard his mother sing, with quaint words long since gone out of style and hardly to be understood, and between the staves a warbling, wordless refrain which he had learned out on the hills and in the fields, picked up from a bird's glad-throated morning-song.
He had always sung the plain-tunes in church without taking any particular thought about it; and he sang easily, with a clear young voice which had a full, flute-like note in it like the high, sweet song of a thrush singing in deep woods.
Gaston Carew, the master-player, was sitting with his back against an oak, placidly munching the last of the cheese, when Nick began to sing. He started, straightening up as if some one had called him suddenly out of a sound sleep, and, turning his head, listened eagerly.
Nick mocked the wild bird, called again with a mellow, warbling trill, and then struck up the quaint old madrigal with the bird's song running through it. Carew leaped to his feet, with a flash in his dark eyes. "My soul! my soul!" he exclaimed in an excited undertone. "It is not—nay, it cannot be—why, 'tis—it is the boy! Upon my heart, he hath a skylark prisoned in his throat! Well sung, well sung, Master Skylark!" he cried, clapping his hands in real delight, as Nick came singing up the bank. "Why, lad, I vow I thought thou wert up in the sky somewhere, with wings to thy back! Where didst thou learn that wonder-song?"
Nick colored up, quite taken aback. "I do na know, sir," said he; "mother learned me part, and the rest just came, I think, sir."
The master-player, his whole face alive and eager, now stared at Nicholas Attwood as fixedly as Nick had stared at him.
It was a hearty little English lad he saw, about eleven years of age, tall, slender, trimly built, and fair. A gray cloth cap clung to the side of his curly yellow head, and he wore a sleeveless jerkin of dark-blue serge, gray home-spun hose, and heelless shoes of russet leather. The white sleeves of his linen shirt were open to the elbow, and his arms were lithe and brown. His eyes were frankly clear and blue, and his red mouth had a trick of smiling that went straight to a body's heart.
"Why, lad, lad," cried Carew, breathlessly, "thou hast a very fortune in thy throat!"
Nick looked up in great surprise; and at that the master-player broke off suddenly and said no more, though such a strange light came creeping into his eyes that Nick, after meeting his fixed stare for a moment, asked uneasily if they would not better be going on.
Without a word the master-player started. Something had come into his head which seemed to more than fill his mind; for as he strode along he whistled under his breath and laughed softly to himself. Then again he snapped his fingers and took a dancing step or two across the road, and at last fell to talking aloud to himself, though Nick could not make out a single word he said, for it was in some foreign language.
"Nicholas," he said suddenly, as they passed the winding lane that leads away to Kenilworth—"Nicholas, dost know any other songs like that?"
"Not just like that, sir," answered Nick, not knowing what to make of his companion's strange new mood; "but I know Master Will Shakspere's 'Then nightly sings the staring owl, tu-who, tu-whit, tu-who!' and 'The ousel-cock so black of hue, with orange-tawny bill,' and then, too, I know the throstle's song that goes with it."
"Why, to be sure—to be sure thou knowest old Nick Bottom's song, for isn't thy name Nick? Well met, both song and singer—well met, I say! Nay," he said hastily, seeing Nick about to speak; "I do not care to hear thee talk. Sing me all thy songs. I am hungry as a wolf for songs. Why, Nicholas, I must have songs! Come, lift up that honeyed throat of thine and sing another song. Be not so backward; surely I love thee, Nick, and thou wilt sing all of thy songs for me."
He laid his hand on Nick's shoulder in his kindly way, and kept step with him like a bosom friend, so that Nick's heart beat high with pride, and he sang all the songs he knew as they walked along.
Carew listened intently, and sometimes with a fierce eagerness that almost frightened the boy; and sometimes he frowned, and said under his breath, "Tut, tut, that will not do!" but oftener he laughed without a sound, nodding his head in time to the lilting tune, and seeming vastly pleased with Nick, the singing, and last, but not least, with himself.
And when Nick had ended the master-player had not a word to say, but for half a mile gnawed his mustache in nervous silence, and looked Nick all over with a long and earnest look.
Then suddenly he slapped his thigh, and tossed his head back boldly. "I'll do it," he said; "I'll do it if I dance on air for it! I'll have it out of Master Stubbes and canting Stratford town, or may I never thrive! My soul! it is the very thing. His eyes are like twin holidays, and he breathes the breath of spring. Nicholas, Nicholas Skylark,—Master Skylark,—why, it is a good name, in sooth, a very good name! I'll do it—I will, upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour!"
"Did ye speak to me, sir?" asked Nick, timidly.
"Nay, Nicholas; I was talking to the moon."
"Why, sir, the moon has not come yet," said Nick, staring into the western sky.
"To be sure," replied Master Carew, with a queer laugh. "Well, the silvery jade has missed the first act."
"Oh," cried Nick, reminded of the purpose of his long walk, "what will ye play for the Mayor's play, sir?"
"I don't know," replied Carew, carelessly; "it will all be done before I come. They will have had the free play this afternoon, so as to catch the pence of all the May-day crowd to-morrow."
Nick stopped in the road, and his eyes filled up with tears, so quick and bitter was the disappointment. "Why," he cried, with a tremble in his tired voice, "I thought the free play would be on the morrow—and now I have not a farthing to go in!"
"Tut, tut, thou silly lad!" laughed Carew, frankly; "am I thy friend for naught? What! let thee walk all the way to Coventry, and never see the play? Nay, on my soul! Why, Nick, I love thee, lad; and I'll do for thee in the twinkling of an eye. Canst thou speak lines by heart? Well, then, say these few after me, and bear them in thy mind."
And thereupon he hastily repeated some half a dozen disconnected lines in a high, reciting tone.
"Why, sir," cried Nick, bewildered, "it is a part!"
"To be sure," said Carew, laughing, "it is a part—and a part of a very good whole, too—a comedy by young Tom Heywood, that would make a graven image split its sides with laughing; and do thou just learn that part, good Master Skylark, and thou shalt say it in to-morrow's play."
"What, Master Carew!" gasped Nick. "I—truly? With the Lord Admiral's players?"
"Why, to be sure!" cried the master-player, in great glee, clapping him upon the back. "Didst think I meant a parcel of dirty tinkers? Nay, lad; thou art just the very fellow for the part—my lady's page should be a pretty lad, and, soul o' me, thou art that same! And, Nick, thou shalt sing Tom Heywood's newest song. It is a pretty song; it is a lark-song like thine own."
Nick could hardly believe his ears. To act with the Lord Admiral's company! To sing with them before all Coventry! It passed the wildest dream that he had ever dreamed. What would the boys in Stratford say? Aha! they would laugh on the other side of their mouths now!
"But will they have me, sir?" he asked doubtfully.
"Have thee?" said Master Carew, haughtily. "If I say go, thou shalt go. I am master here. And I tell thee, Nick, that thou shalt see the play, and be the play, in part, and—well, we shall see what we shall see."
With that he fell to humming and chuckling to himself, as if he had swallowed a water-mill, while Nick turned ecstatic cart-wheels along the grass beside the road, until presently Coventry came in sight.
THE ADMIRAL'S COMPANY
The ancient city of Coventry stands upon a little hill, with old St. Michael's steeple and the spire of Holy Trinity church rising above it against the sky; and as the master-player and the boy came climbing upward from the south, walls, towers, chimneys, and red-tiled roofs were turned to gold by the glow of the setting sun.
To Nick it seemed as if a halo overhung the town—a ruddy glory and a wonder bright; for here the Grey Friars of the great monastery had played their holy mysteries and miracle-plays for over a hundred years; here the trade-guilds had held their pageants when the friars' day was done; here were all the wonders that old men told by winter fires.
People were coming and going through the gates like bees about a hive, and in the distance Nick could hear the sound of many voices, the rush of feet, wheels, and hoofs, and the shrill pipe of music. Here and there were little knots of country folk making holiday: a father and mother with a group of rosy children; a lad and his lass, spruce in new finery, and gay with bits of ribbon—merry groups that were ever changing. Gay banners flapped on tall ash staves. The suburb fields were filled with booths and tents and stalls and butts for archery. The very air seemed eager with the eve of holiday.
But what to Nick was breathless wonder was to Carew only a twice-told tale; so he pushed through the crowded thoroughfares, amid a throng that made Nick's head spin round, and came quickly to the Blue Boar Inn.
The court was crowded to the gates with horses, travelers, and serving-men; and here and there and everywhere rushed the busy innkeeper, with a linen napkin fluttering on his arm, his cap half off, and in his hot hand a pewter flagon, from which the brown ale dripped in spatters on his fat legs as he flew.
"They're here," said Carew, looking shrewdly about; "for there is Gregory Goole, my groom, and Stephen Magelt, the tire-man. In with thee, Nicholas."
He put Nick before him with a little air of patronage, and pushed him into the room.
It was a large, low chamber with heavy beams overhead, hung with leather jacks and pewter tankards. Around the walls stood rough tables, at which a medley of guests sat eating, drinking, dicing, playing at cards, and talking loudly all at once, while the tapster and the cook's knave sped wildly about.
At a great table in the midst of the riot sat the Lord High Admiral's players—a score or more loud-swashing gallants, richly clad in ruffs and bands, embroidered shirts, Italian doublets slashed and laced, Venetian hose, gay velvet caps with jeweled bands, and every man a poniard or a rapier at his hip. Nick felt very much like a little brown sparrow in a flock of gaudy Indian birds.
The board was loaded down with meat and drink, and some of the players were eating with forks, a new trick from the London court, which Nick had never seen before. But all the diners looked up when Carew's face was recognized, and welcomed him with a deafening shout.
He waved his hand for silence.
"Thanks for these kind plaudits, gentle friends," said he, with a mocking air; "I have returned."
"Yes; we see that ye have, Gaston," they all shouted, and laughed again.
"Ay," said he, thrusting his hand into his pouch, "ye fled, and left me to be spoiled by the spoiler, but ye see I have left the spoiler spoiled."
Lifting his hand triumphantly, he shook in their faces the golden chain that the burgesses of Stratford had given him, and then, laying his hand upon Nick's shoulder, bowed to them all, and to him with courtly grace, and said: "Be known, be known, all! Gentlemen, my Lord Admiral's Players, Master Nicholas Skylark, the sweetest singer in all the kingdom of England!"
Nick's cheeks flushed hotly, and his eyes fell; for they all stared curiously, first at him, and then at Carew standing up behind him, and several grinned mockingly and winked in a knowing way. He stole a look at Carew; but the master-player's face was frank and quite unmoved, so that Nick felt reassured.
"Why, sirs," said Carew, as some began to laugh and to speak to one another covertly, "it is no jest. He hath a sweeter voice than Cyril Davy's, the best woman's-voice in all London town. Upon my word, it is the sweetest voice a body ever heard—outside of heaven and the holy angels!" He lowered his tone and bowed his head a little. "I'll stake mine honour on it!"
"Hast any, Gaston?" called a jeering voice, whereat the whole room roared.
But Carew cried again in a high voice that would be heard above the noise: "Now, hark 'e; what I say is so. It is, upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour! And to-morrow ye shall see, for Master Skylark is to sing and play with us."
When he had said that, nothing would do but Nick must sit down and eat with them; so they made a place for him and for Master Carew.
Nick bent his head and said a grace, at which some of them laughed, until Carew shook his head with a stern frown; and before he ate he bowed politely to them all, as his mother had taught him to do. They all bowed mockingly, and hilariously offered him wine, which, when he refused, they pressed upon him, until Carew stopped them, saying that he would have no more of that. As he spoke he clapped his hand upon his poniard and scowled blackly. They all laughed, but offered Nick no more wine; instead, they picked him choice morsels, and made a great deal of him, until his silly young head was quite turned, and he sat up and gave himself a few airs—not many, for Stratford was no great place in which to pick up airs.
When they had eaten they wanted Nick to sing; but again Carew interposed. "Nay," said he; "he hath just eaten his fill, so he cannot sing. Moreover, he is no jackdaw to screech in such a cage as this. He shall not sing until to-morrow in the play."
At this some of the leading players who held shares in the venture demurred, doubting if Nick could sing at all; but—"Hark 'e," said Master Carew, shortly, clapping his hand upon his poniard, "I say that he can. Do ye take me?"
So they said no more; and shortly after he took Nick away, and left them over their tankards, singing uproariously.
The Blue Boar Inn had not a bed to spare, nor had the players kept a place for Carew; at which he smiled grimly, said he'd not forget it, and took lodgings for himself and Nick at the Three Tuns in the next street.
Nick spoke indeed of his mother's cousin, with whom he had meant to stay, but the master-player protested warmly; so, little loath, and much flattered by the attentions of so great a man, Nick gave over the idea and said no more about it.
When the chamberlain had shown them to their room and they were both undressed, Nick knelt beside the bed and said a prayer, as he always did at home. Carew watched him curiously. It was quiet there, and the light dim; Nick was young, and his yellow hair was very curly. Carew could hear the faint breath murmuring through the boy's lips as he prayed, and while he stared at the little white figure his mouth twitched in a queer way. But he tossed his head, and muttered to himself, "What, Gaston Carew, turning soft? Nay, nay. I'll do it—on my soul, I will!" rolled into bed, and was soon fast asleep.
* * * * *
As for Nick, what with the excitement of the day, the dazzling fancies in his brain, his tired legs, the weird night noises in the town, and strange, tremendous dreams, he scarce could get to sleep at all; but toward morning he fell into a refreshing doze, and did not wake until the town was loud with May.
THE MAY-DAY PLAY
It was soon afternoon. All Coventry was thronged with people keeping holiday, and at the Blue Boar a scene of wild confusion reigned.
Tap-room and hall were crowded with guests, and in the cobbled court horses innumerable stamped and whinnied. The players, with knitted brows, stalked about the quieter nooks, going over their several parts, and looking to their costumes, which were for the most part upon their backs; while the thumping and pounding of the carpenters at work upon the stage in the inn-yard were enough to drive a quiet-loving person wild.
Nick scarcely knew whether he were on his head or on his heels. The master-player would not let him eat at all after once breaking his fast, for fear it might affect his voice, and had him say his lines a hundred times until he had them pat. Then he was off, directing here, there, and everywhere, until the court was cleared of all that had no business there, and the last surreptitious small boy had been duly projected from the gates by Peter Hostler's hobnailed boot.
"Now, Nick," said Carew, coming up all in a gale, and throwing a sky-blue silken cloak about Nick's shoulders, "thou'lt enter here"; and he led him to a hallway door just opposite the gates. "When Master Whitelaw, as the Duke, calls out, 'How now, who comes?—I'll match him for the ale!' be quickly in and answer to thy part; and, marry, boy, don't miss thy cues, or—tsst, thy head's not worth a peascod!" With that he clapped his hand upon his poniard and glared into Nick's eyes, as if to look clear through to the back of the boy's wits. Nick heard his white teeth grind, and was all at once very much afraid of him, for he did indeed look dreadful.
So Nicholas Attwood stood by the entry door, with his heart in his throat, waiting his turn.
He could hear the pages in the courtyard outside shouting for stools for their masters, and squabbling over the best places upon the stage. Then the gates creaked, and there came a wild rush of feet and a great crying out as the 'prentices and burghers trooped into the inn-yard, pushing and crowding for places near the stage. Those who had the money bawled aloud for farthing stools. The rest stood jostling in a wrangling crowd upon the ground, while up and down a girl's shrill voice went all the time, crying high, "Cherry ripe, cherry ripe! Who'll buy my sweet May cherries?"
Then there was another shout, and a rattling tread of feet along the wooden balconies that ran around the walls of the inn-yard, and cries from the apprentices below: "Good-day, fair Master Harrington! Good-day, Sir Thomas Parkes! Good-day, sweet Mistress Nettleby and Master Nettleby! Good-day, good-day, good-day!" for the richer folk were coming in at twopence each, and all the galleries were full. And then he heard the baker's boy with sugared cakes and ginger-nuts go stamping up the stairs.
The musicians in the balcony overhead were tuning up. There was a flute, a viol, a gittern, a fiddle, and a drum; and behind the curtain, just outside the door, Nick could hear the master-player's low voice giving hasty orders to the others.
So he said his lines all over to himself, and cleared his throat. Then on a sudden a shutter opened high above the orchestra, a trumpet blared, the kettledrum crashed, and he heard a loud voice shout:
"Good citizens of Coventry, and high-born gentles all: know ye now that we, the players of the company of His Grace, Charles, Lord Howard, High Admiral of England, Ireland, Wales, Calais, and Boulogne, the marches of Normandy, Gascony, and Aquitaine, Captain-General of the Navy and the Seas of Her Gracious Majesty the Queen—"
At that the crowd in the courtyard cheered and cheered again.
"—will, with your kind permission, play forthwith the laughable comedy of 'The Three Grey Gowns,' by Master Thomas Heywood, in which will be spoken many good things, old and new, and a brand-new song will be sung. Now, hearken all—the play begins!"
The trumpet blared, the kettledrum crashed again, and as a sudden hush fell over the throng without Nick heard the voices of the players going on.
It was a broad farce, full of loud jests and nonsense, a great thwacking of sticks and tumbling about; and Nick, with his eye to the crack of the door, listened with all his ears for his cue, far too excited even to think of laughing at the rough jokes, though the crowd in the inn-yard roared till they held their sides.
Carew came hurrying up, with an anxious look in his restless eyes.
"Ready, Nicholas!" said he, sharply, taking Nick by the arm and lifting the latch. "Go straight down front now as I told thee—mind thy cues—speak boldly—sing as thou didst sing for me—and if thou wouldst not break mine heart, do not fail me now! I have staked it all upon thee here—and we must win!"
"How now, who comes?" Nick heard a loud voice call outside—the door-latch clicked behind him—he was out in the open air and down the stage before he quite knew where he was.
The stage was built against the wall just opposite the gates. It was but a temporary platform of planks laid upon trestles. One side of it was against the wall, and around the three other sides the crowd was packed close to the platform rail.
At the ends, upon the boards, several wealthy gallants sat on high, three-legged stools, within arm's reach of the players acting there. The courtyard was a sea of heads, and the balconies were filled with gentlefolk in holiday attire, eating cakes and chaffing gaily at the play. All was one bewildered cloud of staring eyes to Nick, and the only thing which he was sure he saw was the painted sign that hung upon the curtain at the rear, which in the lack of other scenery announced in large red print: "This is a Room in Master Jonah Jackdawe's House."
And then he heard the last quick words, "I'll match him for the ale!" and started on his lines.
It was not that he said so ill what little he had to say, but that his voice was homelike and familiar in its sound, one of their own, with no amazing London accent to the words—just the speech of every-day, the sort that they all knew.
First, some one in the yard laughed out—a shock-headed ironmonger's apprentice, "Whoy, bullies, there be hayseed in his hair. 'Tis took off pasture over-soon. I fecks! they've plucked him green!"
There was a hoarse, exasperating laugh. Nick hesitated in his lines. The player at his back tried to prompt him, but only made the matter worse, and behind the green curtain at the door a hand went "clap" upon a dagger-hilt. The play lagged, and the crowd began to jeer. Nick's heart was full of fear and of angry shame that he had dared to try. Then all at once there came a brief pause, in which he vaguely realized that no one spoke. The man behind him thrust him forward, and whispering wrathfully, "Quick, quick—sing up, thou little fool!" stepped back and left him there alone.
A viol overhead took up the time, the gittern struck a few sharp notes. This unexpected music stopped the noise, and all was still. Nick thought of his mother's voice singing on a summer's evening among the hollyhocks, and as the viol's droning died away he drew a deep breath and began to sing the words of "Heywood's newest song":
"Pack, clouds, away, and welcome, day; With night we banish sorrow; Sweet air, blow soft; mount, lark, aloft, To give my love good-morrow!"
It was only a part of a madrigal, the air to which they had fitted the words,—the same air that Nick had sung in the woods,—a thing scarce meant ever to be sung alone, a simple strain, a few plain notes, and at the close one brief, queer, warbling trill like a bird's wild song, that rose and fell and rose again like a silver ripple.
The instruments were still; the fresh young voice came out alone, and it was done so soon that Nick hardly knew that he had sung at all. For a moment no one seemed to breathe. Then there was a very great noise, and all the court seemed hurling at him. A man upon the stage sprang to his feet. What they were going to do to him Nick did not know. He gave a frightened cry, and ran past the green curtain, through the open door, and into the master-player's excited arms.
"Quick, quick!" cried Carew. "Go back, go back! There, hark!—dost not hear them call? Quick, out again—they call thee back!" With that he thrust Nick through the door. The man upon the stage came up, slipped something into his hand—Nick, all bewildered, knew not what; and there he stood, quite stupefied, not knowing what to do. Then Carew came out hastily and led him down the stage, bowing, and pressing his hand to his heart, and smiling like a summer sunrise; so that Nick, seeing this, did the same, and bowed as neatly as he could; though, to be sure, his was only a simple, country-bred bow, and no such ceremonious to-do as Master Carew's courtly London obeisance.
Every one was standing up and shouting so that not a soul could hear his ears, until the ironmonger's apprentice bellowed above the rest; "Whoy, bullies!" he shouted, amid a chorus of cheers and laughter, "didn't I say 'twas catched out in the fields—it be a skylark, sure enough! Come, Muster Skylark, sing that song again, an' thou shalt ha' my brand-new cap!"
Then many voices cried out together, "Sing it again! The Skylark—the Skylark!"
Nick looked up, startled. "Why, Master Carew," said he, with a tremble in his voice, "do they mean me ?"
Carew put one hand beneath Nick's chin and turned his face up, smiling. The master-player's cheeks were flushed with triumph, and his dark eyes danced with pride. "Ay, Nicholas Skylark; 'tis thou they mean."
The viol and the music came again from overhead, and when they ceased Nick sang the little song once more. And when the master-player had taken him outside, and the play was over, some fine ladies came and kissed him, to his great confusion; for no one but his mother or his kin had ever done so before, and these had much perfume about them, musk and rose-attar, so that they smelled like rose-mallows in July. The players of the Lord Admiral's company were going about shaking hands with Carew and with each other as if they had not met for years, and slapping one another upon the back; and one came over, a tall, solemn, black-haired man, he who had written the song, and stood with his feet apart and stared at Nick, but spoke never a word, which Nick thought was very singular. But as he turned away he said, with a world of pity in his voice, "And I have writ two hundred plays, yet never saw thy like. Lad, lad, thou art a jewel in a wild swine's snout!" which Nick did not understand at all; nor why Master Carew said so sharply, "Come, Heywood, hold thy blabbing tongue; we are all in the same sty."
"Speak for thyself, Gat Carew!" answered Master Heywood, firmly. "I'll have no hand in this affair, I tell thee once for all!"
Master Carew flushed queerly and bit his lip, and, turning hastily away, took Nick to walk about the town. Nick then, for the first time, looked into his hand to see what the man upon the stage had given him. It was a gold rose-noble.
AFTER THE PLAY
Through the high streets of the third city of the realm Master Gaston Carew strode as if he were a very king, and Coventry his kingdom.
There was music everywhere,—of pipers and fiddlers, drums, tabrets, flutes, and horns,—and there were dancing bears upon the corners, with minstrels, jugglers, chapmen crying their singsong wares, and such a mighty hurly-burly as Nick had never seen before. And wherever there was a wonder to be seen, Carew had Nick see it, though it cost a penny a peep, and lifted him to watch the fencing and quarter-staff play in the market-place. And at one of the gay booths he bought gilt ginger-nuts and caraway cakes with currants on the top, and gave them all to Nick, who thanked him kindly, but said, if Master Carew pleased, he'd rather have his supper, for he was very hungry.
"Why, to be sure," said Carew, and tossed a silver penny for a scramble to the crowd; "thou shalt have the finest supper in the town."
Whereupon, bowing to all the great folk they met, and being bowed to most politely in return, they came to the Three Tuns.
Stared at by a hundred curious eyes, made way for everywhere, and followed by wondering exclamations of envy, it was little wonder that Nick, a simple country lad, at last began to think that there was not in all the world another gentleman so grand as Master Gaston Carew, and also to have a pleasant notion that Nicholas Attwood was no bad fellow himself.
The lordly innkeeper came smirking and bobbing obsequiously about, with his freshest towel on his arm, and took the master-player's order as a dog would take a bone.
"Here, sirrah," said Carew, haughtily; "fetch us some repast, I care not what, so it be wholesome food—a green Banbury cheese, some simnel bread and oat-cakes; a pudding, hark 'e, sweet and full of plums, with honey and a pasty—a meat pasty, marry, a pasty made of fat and toothsome eels; and moreover, fellow, ale to wash it down—none of thy penny ale, mind ye, too weak to run out of the spigot, but snapping good brew—dost take me?—with beef and mustard, tripe, herring, and a good fat capon broiled to a turn!"
The innkeeper gaped like a fish.
"How now, sirrah? Dost think I cannot pay thy score?" quoth Carew, sharply.
"Nay, nay," stammered the host; "but, sir, where—where will ye put it all without bursting into bits?"
"Be off with thee!" cried Carew, sharply. "That is my affair. Nay, Nick," said he, laughing at the boy's, astonished look; "we shall not burst. What we do not have to-night we'll have in the morning. 'Tis the way with these inns,—to feed the early birds with scraps,—so the more we leave from supper the more we'll have for breakfast. And thou wilt need a good breakfast to ride on all day long."
"Ride?" exclaimed Nick. "Why, sir, I was minded to walk back to Stratford, and keep my gold rose-noble whole."
"Walk?" cried the master-player, scornfully. "Thou, with thy golden throat? Nay, Nicholas, thou shalt ride to-morrow like a very king, if I have to pay for the horse myself, twelvepence the day!" and with that he began chuckling as if it were a joke.
But Nick stood up, and, bowing, thanked him gratefully; at which the master-player went from chuckling to laughing, and leered at Nick so oddly that the boy would have thought him tipsy, save that there had been nothing yet to drink. And a queer sense of uneasiness came creeping over him as he watched the master-player's eyes opening and shutting, opening and shutting, so that one moment he seemed to be staring and the next almost asleep; though all the while his keen, dark eyes peered out from between the lids like old dog-foxes from their holes, looking Nick over from head to foot, and from foot to head again, as if measuring him with an ellwand.
When the supper came, filling the whole table and the sideboard too, Nick arose to serve the meat as he was used at home; but, "Nay, Nicholas Skylark, my honey-throat," cried Carew, "sit thee down! Thou wait on me—thou songster of the silver tongue? Nay, nay, sweetheart; the knave shall wait on thee, or I'll wait on thee myself—I will, upon my word! Why, Nick, I tell thee I love thee, and dost think I'd let thee wait or walk? nay, nay, thou'lt ride to-morrow like a king, and have all Stratford wait for thee!" At this he chuckled so that he almost choked upon a mouthful of bread and meat.
"Canst ride, Nicholas?"
"Fairly? Fie, modesty! I warrant thou canst ride like a very centaur. What sayest—I'll ride a ten-mile race with thee to-morrow as we go?"
"Why," cried Nick, "are ye going back to Stratford to play, after all?"
"To Stratford? Nay; not for a bushel of good gold Harry shovel-boards! Bah! That town is ratsbane and nightshade in my mouth! Nay, we'll not go back to Stratford town; but we shall ride a piece with thee, Nicholas,—we shall ride a piece with thee."
Chuckling again to himself, he fell to upon the pasty and said no more.
Nick held his peace, as he was taught to do unless first spoken to; but he could not help thinking that stage-players, and master-players in particular, were very queer folk.
Night came down on Stratford town that last sweet April day, and the pastured kine came lowing home. Supper-time passed, and the cool stars came twinkling out; but still Nick Attwood did not come.
"He hath stayed to sleep with Robin, Master Burgess Getley's son," said Mistress Attwood, standing in the door, and staring out into the dusk; "he is often lonely here."
"He should ha' telled thee on it, then," said Simon Attwood. "This be no way to do. I've a mind to put him to a trade."
"Nay, Simon," protested his wife; "he may be careless,—he is young yet,—but Nicholas is a good lad. Let him have his schooling out—he'll be the better for it."
"Then let him show it as he goes along," said Attwood, grimly, as he blew the candle out.
But May-day dawned; mid-morning came, mid-afternoon, then supper-time again; and supper-time crept into dusk—and still no Nicholas Attwood.
His mother grew uneasy; but his father only growled: "We'll reckon up when he cometh home. Master Brunswood tells me he was na at the school the whole day yesterday—and he be feared to show his face. I'll fear him with a bit of birch!"
"Do na be too hard with the lad, Simon," pleaded Mistress Attwood. "Who knows what hath happened to him? He must be hurt, or he'd 'a' come home to his mother"—and she began to wring her hands. "He may ha' fallen from a tree, and lieth all alone out on the hill—or, Simon, the Avon! Thou dost na think our lad be drowned?"
"Fudge!" said Simon Attwood. "Born to hang'll never drown!"
When, however, the next day crept around and still his son did not come home, a doubt stole into the tanner's own heart. Yet when his wife was for starting out to seek some tidings of the boy, he stopped her wrathfully.
"Nay, Margaret," said he; "thou shalt na go traipsing around the town like a hen wi' but one chick. I wull na ha' thee made a laughing-stock by all the fools in Stratford."
But as the third day rolled around, about the middle of the afternoon the tanner himself sneaked out at the back door of his tannery in Southam's lane, and went up into the town.
"Robin Getley," he asked at the guildschool door, "was my son wi' thee overnight?"
"Nay, Master Attwood. Has he not come back?"
"Come back? From where?"
Robin hung his head.
"From, where?" demanded the tanner. "Come, boy!"
"From Coventry," said Robin, knowing that the truth would out at last, anyway.
"He went to see the players, sir," spoke up Hal Saddler, briskly, not heeding Robin's stealthy kick. "He said he'd bide wi' Diccon Haggard overnight; an' he said he wished he were a master-player himself, sir, too."
Simon Attwood, frowning blackly, hurried on. It was Nick, then, whom he had seen crossing the market-square.
Wat Raven, who swept Clopton bridge, had seen two boys go up the Warwick road. "One were thy Nick, Muster Attwood," said he, thumping the dirt from his broom across the coping-stone, "and the other were Dawson's Hodge."
The angry tanner turned again into the market-place. His brows were knit, and his eyes were hot, yet his step was heavy and slow. Above all things, he hated disobedience, yet in his surly way he loved his only son; and far worse than disobedience, he hated that his son should disobey.
Astride a beam in front of Master Thompson's house sat Roger Dawson. Simon Attwood took him by the collar none too gently.
"Here, leave be!" choked Roger, wriggling hard; but the tanner's grip was like iron. "Wert thou in Coventry May-day?" he asked sternly.
"Nay, that I was na," sputtered Hodge. "A plague on Coventry!"
"Do na lie to me—thou wert there wi' my son Nicholas."
"I was na," snarled Hodge. "Nick Attwood threshed me in the Warrick road; an' I be no dawg to follow at the heels o' folks as threshes me."
"Where be he, then?" demanded Attwood, with a sudden sinking at heart in spite of his wrath.
"How should I know? A went away wi' a play-actoring fellow in a plum-colored cloak; and play-actoring fellow said a loved him like a's own, and patted a's back, and flung me hard names, like stones at a lost dawg. Now le' me go, Muster Attwood—cross my heart, 'tis all I know!"
"Is't Nicholas ye seek, Master Attwood?" asked Tom Carpenter, turning from his fleurs-de-lis. "Why, sir, he's gone got famous, sir. I was in Coventry mysel' May-day; and—why, sir, Nick was all the talk! He sang there at the Blue Boar inn-yard with the Lord High Admiral's players, and took a part in the play; and, sir, ye'd scarce believe me, but the people went just daft to hear him sing, sir."
Simon Attwood heard no more. He walked down High street in a daze. With hard men bitter blows strike doubly deep. He stopped before the guildhall school. The clock struck five; each iron clang seemed beating upon his heart. He raised his hand as if to shut the clangor out, and then his face grew stern and hard. "He hath gone his own wilful way," said he, bitterly. "Let him follow it to the end."