O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/The Spring Flight
THE SPRING FLIGHT
THE first chilling shadows of the April dusk had settled over London when Shakspere drew rein in front of the wigmaker’s. The day had been untimely hot. His horse was in a lather and he too was dusty and tired; fretted. The city smells caught him; and in that mood he was prepared to dub Silver and Muggle the foulest corner in London. For a moment, nobody within seemed to take note of his arrival and then a sudden babble burst. “’Tis Will, husband! ’Tis Will Shakspere!” he caught the characteristic tinkle of Mistress Montjoy’s voice, turned shrill with delight. In an instant both the Montjoys were hurrying through the doorway on to the cobbles; Mistress Montjoy, an azure dart, swift and sure and smooth as a swan; the long side-ruffles of her white muslin overdress shearing the air, her iron-gray curls maintaining their perfect alignment. Montjoy himself, big-nosed, mottle-faced, dull-eyed, the puce of his suit the exact shade of his hard cheeks, not a hair of his glossy brown wig disturbed, moved more slowly from force of weight, bulk, or perhaps from his instinctive dislike of Shakspere. Behind, the doorway filled for an instant with crop-headed ’prentice lads, gaping; then emptied precipitately as Montjoy threw his heavy glance back on them. But by this time, Mistress Montjoy had Shakspere’s hand; had smacked him heartily.
“Well, well, lad!” she exclaimed. “Welcome and plenty! We did not expect thee for a month yet. How camest thou to London so early?”
Shakspere shook hands with his host. He laughed, but not mirthfully. “Upon my word, mistress, of that you know as much as I. A whim! An impulse! I work not well these days. I’ve worked not well for months. There’s a strange slowness to my mind. And then of a sudden, Stratford sounded dead and London smelled fresh. Is my chamber vacant, mistress? I can go a dozen places else.”
“'Tis vacant and aching for thee, Will,” Mistress Montjoy asserted. “But why stand we here for all London to jibe at? Come ye in, lad!”
Montjoy unstrapped the saddle bags, handed them to a boy whom he summoned by another heavy glance, and led the horse away. Shakspere followed his hostess into the house. A half-dozen apprentices, sorting or stringing hair, were making, now that the master had disappeared, but a pretense of work. They gaped; cast slant glances. At one side, a trio of Montjoy’s master assistants, their weaving-needles stuck in wigs fitted to featureless, head-shaped blocks on the long table, idled openly. A girl’s face, set with two stark, blue O’s of eye and one wondering soft red O of mouth, peered through a door.
“A jug of water, Nan!” Mistress Montjoy called shrilly after her. “And fresh face linen, Joan, for the guest chamber! Ink, a quill, and paper! Candles! Hurry, wenches! Fetch the saddle bags, Con!”
Close on her words came clatter and clash from the kitchen. Mistress Montjoy ran nimbly up the stairs and Shakspere followed close on the heels which flittered like stripes of red out of the azure petticoat. They entered a wide, low-ceiled room at the back of the house. Talking volubly, Mistress Montjoy threw open the casements of the two windows. Coolness, alternately staled by the stenches from the city streets and freshened by odours from Mistress Montjoy’s early-blooming garden, flowed into the unaired languor of the room. Came also the twilight sounds: the near shouts of children at play—boys at ball, little girls singing, “London Bridge Is Falling Down”; the far, faint cry of the apprentices on Cheapside, “What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack?” The flood of the silvery-umber twilight, stained scarlet from the sunset, oozed into the room, filmed the fine polish of the floor as with a visible wetness. A low, wide bed, a broad, use-blackened table, two stools, a carved chest, made black hulks in this rose-argent sea. Shakspere stood in the centre of the room, a little dazed, staring about him. He was conscious alternately of a sense of fatigue . . . relief . . . release . . . fatigue . . . something like peace . . . fatigue. . . .
“Thou’rt tired, lad,” Mistress Montjoy commented, compassionately. “Yet how comest thou worn with that sun-blackened face? Thine eyes are lacklustre too.”
It was true that though country tan had turned his olive colouring almost black, Shakspere’s eyes were hollow. The faint luminosity that lay in their hazel depths seemed to come, not from within, but from without—as though the force back of them had died down, leaving them to reflect mere light. Nevertheless, his moustached lips were firm and full; and they produced a smile whose quick glint gave to his face all the candid pleasantness which had distinguished its old-time mirth. The flash of smile lasted but an instant. The look which was normal to him—of a quiet, a reserve almost enigmatic, and touched now with weariness—blanketed it completely.
Mechanically Shakspere sat down; extended his feet for the boy to pull off his boots. Mechanically he watched Mistress Montjoy rummage in his saddle bags until she found his shoes; as mechanically he watched the boy draw them on. “Tired!” he repeated. “Tired. Aye. My body’s tired. I’ve ridden four days. But that’s not the whole tale. My mind’s tired. In truth, I’m staled by country life and country folk and country thought. The quiet . . . the damned, dead, dull quiet. . . . And maybe by age . . . I know not.” He laughed out again, mirthlessly. “By Lady, thou’ll not believe it, mistress, but I, Will Shakspere, the industrious apprentice—’tis weeks since I have writ a line. Hours I’ve sat, my head in my hands, my brain stewing, festering. Then five days agone, on to my horse I leaped; turned his nose Londonward—and here am I. How I came, or by what roads, or what degrees, I know not. One night at Oxford at St. George’s Inn comes clear; beside that naught but long days of dust and rain.”
Mistress Montjoy’s brisk glance played a gleam of blue obliqueness upon him. “And Mistress Davenant,” she asked in even tones, “how goes it with her? And thy godchild?” She removed his cape; took his hat from his unresisting fingers.
“Well, well; both well,” Shakspere answered. His tone was absent. And when the two maids entered—Nan, blue-eyed and flaxen-curled with the full hips of the country; Joan, dark and waxy, shapely too, though only a slim bit of cockney flesh—he considered their movements but absently. Nan placed candles on the table; took Shakspere’s cape and hat; disappeared. Joan put a pewter ewer and basin on the stand, wiped up a slop of water; disappeared. Nan returned with a slender sheaf of paper, a pewter inkstand, a quill; Joan with linen. All the time, Shakspere was answering Mistress Montjoy’s inquiries about his family.
Yes, Anne was well. And Sukey and Judy were well. Joan was well. And her three boys, Will and Tom and Michael, were well. Sukey’s little Betty—for the first time Shakspere’s jaded face gleamed brilliantly as he talked of his only granddaughter—bloomed fairly. Yes, Betty was a great girl for her age, a gay, winsome, lovesome child, the pet of the family. Outwardly, Mistress Montjoy seemed to take no note of the perfunctory quality in Shakspere’s answers. But she finally interrupted the flow of her own interrogations with orders to the two maids for supper: “Fish to be fried . . . a meat pie . . . a gooseberry tart, Joan. And plenty of ale, Nan . . . and cakes. . . . Now hurry, wenches!” And on the instant of their departure—had Will heard of the new theatre, the Hope? The town was full of the talk of it. It was to be an addition to the Paris Gardens. Henslowe and Meade—surely Will remembered Meade, the great roaring, hairy bear of a waterman!—were building it. There would also be a new inn built in the Gardens, The Dancing Bears, and there Meade would live. It was to be the finest theatre in London, so they said. . . . Yes, for plays. Oh, and, of course, for bear- and bull-baiting too. They were a shrewd pair, those two! Had he heard they were opening the old Swan? And indeed London was play mad. Surely Shakspere knew that the unreputable country parson, Daborne, whom astute old Henslowe had rescued from a debtors’ prison, was going to have a company of acting children. Fletcher’s Faithful Shepherdess had proved a poor thing. And for her own part, she considered that Fletcher would never hit the public taste alone. But with Beaumont——It was true enough that their Maid’s Tragedy had scantly pleased. But consider the Scornful Lady, which the town had well liked, and their Philaster, over which it had gone mad! Chapman had deserted play-writing; was away somewhere, Southampton’s guest, translating the great ancient Greek poet Homer, a task that would take months. Permitting her guest to extract what comfort he might from this schoolmanly preoccupation of his rival, Mistress Montjoy veered swiftly away from talk of Chapman, but so skilfully that, in another moment, they were discussing Jonson’s latest success as though it flowed as a matter of course from the talk of Chapman and Homer. Ben’s Alchemist, according to Mistress Montjoy, had positively fired London. Burbage, as usual, was playing the lead and according to Mistress Montjoy, with rare spirit. She confessed to as great a liking for Burbage as a misliking for his rival, Field. Compare Burbage with Field. She had seen his Richard—here Mistress Montjoy pulled herself up short as though suddenly remembering that her guest was a playwright—and Will’s Richard Third—three times. Burbage stirred the blood, whereas Field—— She herself had slept listening to Field’s slow, cold chanting. She favoured the Silent Woman above all Ben’s work—oh, yes, far beyond the Alchemist. But for an afternoon’s entertainment, give her the Woman Killed with Kindness or the Shoemaker’s Holiday. The woman did not live whose heart could not respond to the sadness of the one and the gaiety of the other. She had always said and would always maintain that Ben knew naught about women. She considered that the Silent Woman proved this contention. Had not Epicœne, his best woman, turned out to be a man? For herself, she liked plays that dealt with people like those about her; women she could have been and in scenes she might have known. Not for her the bloodless nymphs of the Faithful Shepherdess or Philaster on the one hand, the strange walking dolls that Ben made on the other. As for the Woman Killed with Kindness—there was a heroine might have been her own sister, Bess, so natural was she! And so on, and on, and on until Montjoy’s grating voice called from below, “Aho there! Shall we never eat? ’Tis well said, ‘A woman’s tongue. . . .’”
The slow spring twilight had settled into complete darkness when Shakspere at last pulled away from the Montjoys. A long, slim new moon had slunk almost to the horizon. Yet it shed light enough to reveal a faint wet wash of street; blank parallel stretches of half-timbered walls; black rectangles of street signs. The night had turned chill; a sharp and knifelike wind searched out the openings in his cape. He drew it closer about him as he turned in the direction of Cheapside. Physically, the bath, the delectable hot supper, the delicious cool ale had refreshed him. But mentally——! He could not say that Mistress Montjoy’s chatter had inspired him; at times, even, it had hurt: but at least for a while it t had ousted from his mind the accumulated melancholies of the last three months. Now that her cheerful presence had gone, those humours flowed back in a sinister black flood. And indeed, one or two of Mistress Montjoy’s remarks had pricked into faint being a dead desire, a lost regret. . . . Southampton and Anne . . . For an instant the old pain seared a fiery trail across his heart. Women named Anne had played important parts in his life, he reflected; Anne, his sister, the playmate of his childhood—pink-and-white, doll-faced, dead ere she had matured. Anne Hathaway, the sweetheart of his boyhood! Sleek-haired was Anne Hathaway and dove-eyed; the brown of the country sun struggling with the pink of the country air for the mastery of her cheeks. Anne, as round and warm as a pigeon—and as unthinking. And then Anne Davenant, the passion of his maturity. What had there been about Anne Davenant that could make a half-decade of agony in a sane man’s life? She was not beautiful. He himself, in one of his bitter rebellions against her spell, had avowed that in verse. But there was something—— No, her face was not beautiful; it was the colour of whey and it kept, except at the creeping-in of her silver smile, a strange, still look. And her little flat figure was not beautiful, though it was so delicate that she moved like a shadow. Nor her jet-black, straight, coarse hair. Nor her rather slitted, heavily lidded eyes, so shadow-smooched, so vivid and sparkless. But the combination of all this with her mouth! Surely no woman had ever owned a mouth like Anne’s—so wide-centred and deep-cornered, so cool and so warm, so lusciously crimson that, flaring out of the pallor of her face, it was like a blood-hot signal to the senses. Southampton and Anne . . . The image of his friend—and rival—suddenly hung clear in his mind: the lithe, long, white-skinned youth with his chestnut curls and his brilliant colour; his brown eyes shot with red lights; his dashing aspect and his dreaming look; his profundities of thought; his elegances of expression. Well, at least now he could put the two names together in his mind without a sense of utter spiritual annihilation. And even as his pain dulled, their images vanished irom his mental vision. His real problem lifted its gaunt face there.
Should he ever write again? Had it gone for good—that rushing, flooding impulse which, on command, had turned his youth to a creative orgy, had sometimes evolved and finished a play in a week? Was this paralysis but a temporary mental deadness or was it old age . . . the flickering out of the creative faculty? He had accommodated himself to many things in a lifetime of work. Once he had created the dramatic mode, had led. Now he followed, aped other men’s efforts and at, it seemed, a slower and slower pace. Those younger blades of the drama—Beaumont, Fletcher. . . . How they poured it forth, and in what variety and with what felicity! Well, he must follow where their star led. Aye, he was content to follow, if he could only produce a big thing in the new mode. But he could produce nothing. What had happened to him or what was the fault in him? Always he had wondered—and now he considered the problem afresh—if a man’s work were so closely engaged with a man’s life that he must live a life especially constructed for that work. For himself, try as hard as he could to disengage himself from mortal tangles, he had had to live long segments of his life as though his work had not even existed. Southampton had, of course, dominated such a segment; Anne Davenant another. And whatever the cost of his work, he would not part with even the memory of that magic madness. Long living it had been with him at first and short working; then longer and harder working, shorter and shorter living; until now life was all working. Perhaps that was the flaw in him—that very concentration may have marred his quality.
Yet there was Ben! No man had worked harder than Ben; and Ben had for decades lived a life that was but pendant to his work. Of course, Ben’s youth had sown vigorous wild oats . . . that interval in the Low Countries. For that matter, Ben had killed his man and gone to prison. . . . But he had chosen London for the scene of the major portion of his work and in filthy, greasy, stinking London he had stayed, dominating the literary life of the town as indeed—there had never been an atom of jealousy in Shakspere’s admiration for Ben—he deserved to dominate it. On the other hand—Marlowe! At his youth’s peak, Kit had thrown himself into the flaming abyss at the very centre of life, had let its fires eat his vitals; had died of his love of life; had died at the hands of life itself. Did Marlowe have the right of it? And Kyd and Greene—those wasters of heydey? “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium?” God, it was worth going out in one hell-hot stab at joy to have written those lines. They too—the whole trio—had stayed in the city, had drunk deep of its poison. Was, after all, the swift thrust at life the wiser way? However, it was useless now to regret that he had not followed other men’s paths, led they to sanity or madness; for he could not stay in the city, try as hard as he would. Just as London had held him in hot enchantment in the beginning, she had released him frost-cold in the end. And then the country had begun to pull on him. He had deafened his ears to the luring plea as long as he could. But in the end, it had haled him back to Stratford—that low, wild-dove call. Another motive came in here—in honesty he had to admit it. He wanted to write the Shakspere name strong on Stratford life again. It was a sacred duty; his father had laid it on him. That was one of the things a man must do; he had no choice there. And yet again—doubt. Should a poet engage in commerce with sacred obligations? What had he to do with that pale-blooded wench, Duty? Was not the poet his own law? Well, like the oaf he was, docilely, without question, he had followed the incitement of the Shakspere blood. He had returned to Stratford. He had made the Shakspere strain a power. New Place was pointed out, gaped at. . . . And Anne had risen in importance as his position increased. Of course, there had been the old wound of his years of absence in London, but that wound had healed. Anne was a placid woman whose heart held its own tenderness, rejected its own bitterness. And fate had brought her fair social fortune in her two daughters. Sukey had made a notable match; Judy had been bridesmaid at the Harvard wedding. . . .
Perhaps it was because he was not entirely of the city nor entirely of the country that he wrote well of neither. The Woman Killed with Kindness . . . the Shoemaker’s Holiday . . . Mistress Montjoy’s babble again. . . . No, he never could equal either Heywood or Dekker in their chosen fields, he told himself. Once in an attempt to rewrite Three Ladies from London, he had essayed to paint the town and once, in Cardenna, the country. But he had failed; failed so lamentably that he gave over the blurred, confused, half-written things, the one to Heywood, the other to Fletcher. He himself liked to write of lands so far away, of times so long ago, or of countries and ages so entirely imagined that no critic could dispute his fancyings. Such a fantasy his new play was to be! If ever it came into existence at all . . . God, how tortured he was with its formlessness and vagueness! An island. Somewhere? No, nowhere. An island floating between sea and sky. An island as airy and gossamer as a cloud, as delicately imagined as a vision. And on it three beings. A maiden. A slim, pure, virgin thing, Mirandola? Mirala? Mironda? No, Miranda. Yes, that was it, Miranda. And an old man, a wiseacre, a sage—Prospero. An old man who had exorcised that island in a breath, could banish it in an eye-wink! “We are of such stuff as dreams are made of and our little life is rounded with a . . . sleep.” Already some of the lines were drifting into his head. And then for contrast with those two, unnamed as yet, unbodied—for, strain mind and soul as he would, he could not see him—an ugly, misshapen creature, hobgoblin, leprechaun, gargoyle. The whole thing should be a film of faery—a work to make the Night’s Dream seem of the earth and clodlike. The name was clear, A Summer’s Tale.
And that was all!
That had been all for three months. The island and the three people on it and the name, A Summer’s Tale. Perhaps it was too much of faery. At any rate, it hung impalpable, shapeless and colourless in the high, dry ether of his mind. Months, months, months, it had been since that fiery up-rushing torrent of the spirit had made precipitation. Nothing he had done would produce more. Not thinking until his brain turned. Not reading until his eyes ached. Not walking the lanes about Stratford until his legs cramped. Not talking until he hated the town and every soul in it. Not dreaming. Not cursing. So now to see what London would do—the London which, at his appearance, had opened her gate, tempted him with the clue to success, and then, by the mere poisonous hap that Anne Davenant visited there her sister, fed like a cold-crazed, thirst-crazed monster on the fires and dews of his youth.
It seemed to Shakspere that he had been walking a long time, so fast and so painfully had his thoughts sped. Yet, in reality, it had been but a few moments from Silver Street to Cheapside and along Cheapside to the Mermaid Tavern. Only an occasional figure now and then had passed him on the street, and now he entered a silent courtyard. Hooded wagons made vague, looming shapes under a sprinkle of stars. In the shadows, horses fretted with hoof-pawings and tail-swishings. A white cat flashed from under his feet. But no human stirred, and the Inn was quiet. He made off at an angle toward the left, and at a corner room on the first floor, knocked with a peculiar and vibrant tattoo. Without waiting for a summons to enter, he opened the door and stood on the threshold of a fair-sized room, light in colour, heavily raftered, with big casement windows on two walls and a vast fireplace at one end.
His appearance produced an instant of petrifaction among the half circle of men sitting about the fire. Then, “By God, ’tis Will!” exclaimed the huge creature who was the keystone of their arch. He raised his unwieldy bulk off the double-sized stool which supported it and paddled like a hurrying bear toward the door. It was a bear-hug, too, to which he subjected Shakspere, and after the embrace was over, he patted him on shoulders, arms, and back with his monstrous paws. “God’s wounds, I’m glad to see you. Marry, you smell of the country, lad—clover and new-mown hay.”
The others, except one who sat writing in a corner, crowded about Shakspere. That other was a tall, lean, yellow fellow of a cadaverous and moustached mien. He made a sudden gesture, and instantly they all chanted in unison: “An upstart crow, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you!” They ended with a vigorous “Hail, Will of Avon, hail!”
Shakspere grinned as he shook hands with them—Burbage and Beaumont, Fletcher and Hemminge.
“How beats the tiger’s heart?” the man in the corner asked cheerfully, still bending to his work.
“Fiery as of yore,” Shakspere averred, shaking his disengaged hand. “On my word, Tom Heywood,” he declared to his interlocutor, “and be God my witness, when I departed for Stratford last spring, I left you scribbling in this corner and on my return, I find you busy at the self-same spot. How many plays have you writ in these twelve months?”
“Five!” Heywood declared laconically, stopping to twist his long, thin, out-standing yellow moustaches and to impale Shakspere with a humorous glare from his cadaverous face. “And acted in all of them—and I’ve turned some verses besides. And according to my wont all writ on tavern bills.”
“Not another heroic poem, I pray thee, Tom!” Shakspere said with the out-handed gesture of one fending off offence.
Before Heywood could reply, the rafters rang with the long-sustained, boisterous derision of his companions. And so, instead of answering, he kept on tranquilly writing until they had stopped. “Keep up those alarums,” he threatened, “and I write an epic to-night.”
“Come close to the fire, Will,” Ben Jonson ordered, “and let’s see how the rural air likes thee.” The company resumed their places in a crescent about the blaze. Hemminge placed a stool for Shakspere at Jonson’s right. “We lack cheer!” Jonson exclaimed, first peering into the depths of the enormous tankard which he held in a colossal paw and then shaking it with a circular motion. “What ho, boy!” he called. As there was no immediate response, “Boy! Boy!” he boomed in successive roars. And when the door opened on a peaked, smirched slice of scared boy face, “Bring us on wine, boy, Canary now, of the best and plenty of it. At once! You hear? I’ll cut your gizzard out before your eyes and roast it at this very fire else.” As the door precipitately closed, he turned on Shakspere an enormous visage, all rounded leathery contours from which emerged at the chin a straggle of black beard, picked with white, and above the forehead a scratch of hair, black and stiff as wire. Somewhere between the two and in the deepest folds of the leathery skin were set the mere black twinkles that were his extraordinary eyes. “Tell us of Stratford, Will. By God, bully boys, I long for green fields. The city tires and drags me. Some day, Will Shakspere, I’ll take you at your word and come to Stratford on a visit. ’Twas but yesterday Drayton and I spoke with longing of that future junket.”
“Come, Ben, do!” Shakspere entreated. “New place has rooms we use not. Come, all of you!” He smiled about the circle, now sitting on stools before the fire, their empty mugs beside them, their eyes on him. Then the smile crooked, shrank, disappeared as another consideration, more acerb, curdled it. “But talk we not of Stratford, I pray thee. It’s yon accursed country quiet I’ve run away from. Give me talk of London. Odds, how I’ve thirsted for it! What’s new here? No pretty chatter of court and politics an it please you, lads! I yearn for gossip of hussies and harlots, cutthroats and cutpurses, gulls and conies.”
“Would you had but come a moment since,” Dick Burbage answered. “The two Toms, Dekker and Middleton, were here and full of their new comedy the Roaring Girl. Knew ye ever Moll Frith, Will?”
Shakspere nodded dissent. “But ever I’ve heard talk of her,” he added.
“Well, yon twain have spent long days—and longer nights, ’tis likely—studying the ways of that fair filthy dame—their Roaring Girl. By Lady, Will, she’s unpaired in my experience. Full of strange oaths and stranger talk. And tales! Man, she pours adventure as others pour out dullness.”
“How looks she?” asked Beaumont’s voice from the other end of their row. And, “Before God, Frank, we’ve seen the jade!” came Fletcher’s comment from the same quarter. Burbage turned and crossed his legs in the direction of the query. As ever, when Burbage was present, Shakspere followed his motions. How could a man so fleshed melt movement into a grace so exquisite? Just as on the stage, though tallow-faced and thickly featured, he transformed himself into a god. And as inevitably as Shakspere watched his friend’s motion, he listened for his friend’s voice—that sleek, silky voice that could make thunder of a whisper and turn every woman in the pit white with the stilled passion of its love-sighing. What a Romeo he had been—the beautiful noble face of him! And then his Richard, which had turned the affrighted city madams faint; had made them forget who wrote that Richard. Acting in the same play with Burbage, Shakspere reflected whimsically, he had often acted better than he could—that voice had made him. Dick, Shakspere reflected, had had his problems too. Should he have acted or painted? And had he chosen acting—Shakspere had often pondered this—because of that old debt, or because it was easier drifting. . . .
Beaumont, on the other hand, presented always one aspect to the world, albeit a noble and beautiful one. He was the handsomest man of them all, tall and fair, golden-bearded, with wide-opened, strangely set green eyes; statuesquely cut as to figure. No one of them really knew Francis Beaumont, except it be Fletcher; and Shakspere had his moments when he doubted if even John knew his partner and collaborator. It was not his university education that held them off from Beaumont or him from them; for both Fletcher and Jonson had equal learning. Or his court connections, for the Mermaid circle had the imperviousness to rank which associated genius often begets. No, it was a quality of remoteness from which nothing in life or any degree of living could ever free Beaumont. . . . What had dragged Beaumont down from those mental mountain fastnesses to go to play-writing?
Fletcher was as different from Beaumont as he well might be; little, dark, tousled-looking, effeminately made; of an extraordinary silver-wittedness, mental warmth and, above all, creative fecundity. John spawned plots as he talked. It was a perfect collaboration, Shakspere had always thought; for Beaumont supplied judgment, taste, a sense of proportion, constructive ability, workmanlike scrupulosity, and a real poetic quality. Fletcher, on the other hand, brought to their work a virgin forest of thought and idea, plot and plan. Shakspere admired and respected Beaumont, but he had a strange mental affinity with Fletcher.
“You’d remembered Moll Frith, had you seen her, John,” Burbage informed Fletcher, dryly. “She’s as tall as Frank and I’ll not say as big, but bigger. She can hold two lads with her one hand while she murders them with the other—a fist as big as the hoof of a horse. A handsome wench besides—red-headed and yellow-eyed. Her hair comes to her heels and sometimes it pleases her to wear it in that fashion. ’Tis a blaze then, running from her head to the ground. She’s fought her way, every inch, to her bawdy throne. No woman loves her, nor would dare cross her, but would give her soul to be chosen as her friend. No man crosses her, nor would dare love her, but would give his ears to be picked as her swain. She’s fleeced more gulls and conies—— Not at all unlike,” he added, dryly, “although their spheres be far separate, our late noble virgin majesty, Elizabeth.”
“’Tis pity, Will, you saw her not first,” said Hemminge.
And at that, the room filled with ribaldry. The adoring reverence, the admiring worship that poor stupid John Hemminge held for Will Shakspere was the jest and butt of the Mermaid Club. Ben, especially at this moment, shook like a mountain of jelly. Hemminge was placidly aware of his derision and as placidly indifferent to it. He turned now his big gray eyes—save for their love as expressionless as those of a hound—upon the object of his solicitude. He was a big, bulky creature—Hemminge. Beside Beaumont he was as a farm stallion to a knight’s charger. Yet on their trips through the stews of the town, it was to John Hemminge, not to Beaumont, that the Dolls and Molls and Polls shot their first lewd welcomes of glance and greeting.
“True, John!” Shakspere applauded, dryly. “’Tis pity I saw her not first. ’Tis pity—I know you think, and I agree—that any of these poor scribblers here was ever born to take from me dramatic share of the romance and poetry that lies bound in merry England.”
“Oh, Will”—Fletcher turned the talk—“hast heard of Daborne and his new children’s company? More ‘little eyases’ to make us trouble. Of the new theatre near the Paris Gardens. . . .”
The talk went on. The smoochy waiter lad—his scared eye scuttling at Jonson’s every move to Jonson’s face—filled their tankards with Canary again and again and again. The big fire died down at intervals, but someone always replenished it from a pile of logs at the side. When the flames burned high, they turned the little rounds of opaque glass in the casements to files of glaring eyes; the room seemed crowded. They illuminated the farthest corner, except that one, already illumined by the flame of a candle, where twinkling Tom Heywood wrote steadily on, despite the talk—wrote steadily on even though he joined in that talk. The big plain room had an aspect of home to Shakspere; for it had housed thousands of wine-bedewed, discussion-ridden nights whose talk had touched the stars. Every drawing on its walls was familiar to him, every ribald couplet. And the men in it were his friends, true and tried. Not that he had not had his differences, major and minor, with them; not that he liked them equally. But no one among them but was linked in some picturesque or glorious way into the chain of his London existence. And when the blaze died down to a softer glow that failed to pick out faces, its gleam on pewter tankards, on laughter-filled eyes, companioned the room again for him. Shakspere listened and drew them out for stories; listened and, if the talk threatened to run into one of their uproarious duels of wit, drew them out again. But that did not happen often. By sheer force of will, he made it a night of anecdote and reminiscence. There was plenty of talk. There were the latest tales of Henslowe’s niggardliness—no Mermaid night was a success without a Henslowe interval. From Beaumont there were stories of the production of the Knight of the Burning Pestle; from Fletcher, of the handsome way Tom Heywood had helped them in their satire on him; from Ben, of the production of the Alchemist and of the difficulties he was having with a new play, Cataline—“a damned dull drama of desperation!” he described it. So dull had it become, indeed, that he had begun a new, highly contrasting one. When the talk turned to the past, Jonson spun a long yarn of the week he and Marston and Chapman spent in prison the time Eastward Ho! was produced. Burbage told of his acting experiences as a child—those reminiscences went as far back as Hieronimo—interspersed with such bits of impromptu acting as made his auditors hold their breath. . . .
As long after midnight Shakspere turned into Montjoy house, it was with a sense of perfect calm. All his melancholies had vanished in the high, clear wind of London talk. To-morrow he would sit him down and write, write—oh, God, how he would write!
But next morning, although the day was rare and the sun poured its heartening gold over the entire London world, though quill and white paper were close at hand, though Mistress Montjoy by whispered bribes or threats held the entire household under the spell of a quietude like death itself, write he could not. Eyes closed, mind held taut, he tried to relive last night’s rapturous mood; to distill it into the day’s expression. All useless! He scribbled half-lines and broken phrases, drew strange amateur pictures, thought hard with his down-bent head clutched in his hands; thought hard, pacing the room the while, thought hard, face-down upon his bed. All useless! Anything else he might accomplish. But of a certainty one thing he could not do—and that was write. It added to his sense of gloom that out of his early-morning talk with Mistress Montjoy he had gleaned a coming trouble in the Montjoy family. The old dispute in regard to their daughter Juliet, and her dowry. . . . Montjoy and his son-in-law no longer spoke; there were whispers about a suit at law. Of course, in that case, he’d be summoned as a witness. Well, he’d stand with Juliet—the pet of his long years of living with the Montjoy family. This phantom care kept coming between him and his thought. Maddened at last by his ineptness and deadness, he seized his hat and cape; sallied forth. Automatically he made toward Cheapside.
It was a fair London scene, the day clear, the wind flawing but brisk; and in other times or in another mood, Shakspere’s heart would have leaped to the colour and bustle and gaiety of it all. Cheapside was crowded with shoppers and strollers; housewives with baskets; gallants in plumes and laces; homespun gawks from the country, pop-eyed with amaze. The shops were wide, and the brilliant sun caught on diamonds and jet, on taffeta and linsey-woolsey, on silver and leather, on feathers and laces. Above, swinging vigorously in the wind, the shop-signs made a moving aërial frieze, painted in violent scenes with colours equally violent. Horsemen passed with an imperious swiftness through the crowd which edged off to give them room. Once, one of the decade’s new-fangled riding-contrivances—a coach—drove leisurely, with its span of horse, into their midst. Still a rarity in that busy district, it provoked all the ridicule, ribaldry, and raucousness of which the ’prentices of Cheap were capable, notwithstanding the lovely lady inside, who, displaying a rosy indignation, hastily put on her mask. In the midst of all this, an inquisitive fellow lolling at his work, an idle eye raking the street, got glimpse of Shakspere. Immediately his shrill cry, “Ho, lads, ’tis Will Shakspere! Will of the Globe! Will of the King’s men!” was caught up by his fellows till all about the streets rang with “Hi, Will!” and “Ho, Will!”
Shakspere doffed his hat and waved it with his most professional—and mechanical—smile. How his heart had jumped the first time Cheap had cheered him! He had not written, on that long-ago thrilled day, a single word—but it was not from mental sterility, only from surplusage of charmed emotion. Now that chorus was as hollow to him as the beating of a child’s hand on a drum. He was conscious only of the city stinks and, for the first time, of a longing for the sweet freshness of the Warwickshire air. “Hi, Will! Ho, Will!” The cry ran down the street as successive lines of shopmen took it up. Shakspere continued mechanically to smile, gracefully to wave his hat. Presently the cheers ran down. He turned on the bridge, slowed down his brisk walk to a saunter. Now the scene, though less gay, was more beautiful. He stopped and listlessly surveyed it. The Thames—it was the brief interval between tides—stretched like a vast carpet of satin, taut except where now and then, as though insecurely fastened, it rippled in the breeze: and blue save where the sun—— His mind made little flicker at verse. “Faint, gilded pools where yet the——” And then it caught with violence on that oral snag, gilded, and ceased. Was ever poet haunted by a single word as he by gilded? A cold, stark disgust with certain crystallized habits of expression added its burden to his mood. Apathetically he continued to gaze on the scene.
Boats were gliding from shore to shore over the suave river surface, and the cries of the boatmen, “Eastward ho!” and “Westward ho!” came in a faint music to his ears. Close to the banks swans drifted. Along the north shore—flower gardens linking them softly with the river and the velvet lawns holding them rigidly apart—stretched the splendid pile of palaces which was the haughtiest element in the city’s many-faceted beauty. Along the same bank, but back of him, nondescript shops and dwellings ran to the square, geometric gray hulk of the Tower. Between them, as though offering sacred barricade against social admixture—huge as a great ship, but anchored—bulked St. Paul’s. Beyond them all, made soft by the city’s spire-pierced smoke, rolled vivid green hills. Across the river, the theatres and gardens, the stews and bagnios huddled together as though in a desperate effort to conceal the true quality of their entertainment. And apart from them all, wrapped in austerity, St. Mary’s Overy mourned and meditated. The breeze flawed. One moment it brought strongly to his nose the odours from the palace gardens; another it carried faintly to his ears the roar of the lions in the Tower.
After a while, he moved—almost without direction—on. His professional eye, sweeping the South Bank, had noted that no flag hung out at the Globe. No performance that day. He wondered vaguely why. In the same apathy, but following his habit, he looked up as he passed off the bridge to the superstructure which topped it. Yes, his luck symbol of other days—the skull of some poor long-dead, traitorous devil which had always seemed, most amiably and encouragingly, to grin on him—still stuck to its pike.
He had thought he would continue on to the Globe, but the absence of the flag changed his mind. After a moment of indecision, he turned to the left, plunged into a maze of tiny streets. They grew broader and more residential in character as they pulled away from London Bridge. Finally, he came to a trim little common. On the daisy-specked grass, children were playing. A line of geese drew a white streak over the green as they rocked toward the watering trough in the centre. At one of the small houses, half-timbered and of a smiling domestic appearance, Shakspere paused, knocked.
“Why, it’s Master Shakspere!” exclaimed the black-eyed, warmly hued woman who opened the door to him. And frankly she held up the bursting bloom of her lips to his kiss. “How now, Mistress Harvard,” Shakspere answered, saluting her. “How dare’st flower so in the London air? Or is it Stratford roses that still glow in thy cheek? And how fairly you are placed!” he added, as she conducted him inside.
The room they entered was bigger than, from the outside, the house seemed able to contain. High casements were partly open to the breeze and, burning through their bulleyes, the sun had flecked the floor with its own marquetry. At one side, a bunch of spring posies filled a pewter bowl; and the bowl lay beside a big volume that nearly covered the table. Mistress Harvard drew a chair—high-backed and carved—for Shakspere, seated herself in another, the hand of each arm clasping the dimpled elbow of its fellow. “Tell me of Stratford,” she begged, her big eyes, a trifle too full for real beauty, dancing; the warm colour flooding and receding. Shakspere conscientiously told her the news of the town. That was what interested her most, though she made perfunctory inquiries as to his work, ending with—was it a new play had brought him to London? To Shakspere’s great relief, however, she did not ask its name, nor what it was about. Adroit as he was in conversation—and he had enough instinctive sympathy and sense of humour to produce unlimited volume of even Mistress Harvard’s kind—he was conscious of a feeling of relief when her husband appeared.
John Harvard was one of the few of the younger generation in Stratford with whom Shakspere had a real mental clutch. He was a big, raw-boned man; his broad shoulders in perpetual stoop; his gray eyes always gaunt with his midnight studying. Harvard had none of the poet in him; but he was a student of an inspired order.
Shakspere had often gone to him when, in his work, he struck snags of history, science, medicine, or the law. The big book on the table, a recent purchase which he immediately displayed to Shakspere, was an evidence of a scholarly rather than a religious trend in him. It was that new version of the Bible, of which for months there had been so much talk. The two men drew up to the table, lost themselves in examination and discussion. “We have it not yet at Trinity,” Shakspere said.
In the meantime, Mistress Harvard slipped out of the house. When she returned she was carrying a struggling, lusty, round-cheeked urchin whose eyes—as big and black as his mother’s—were pouring tears at being yanked untimely from his play. “’Tis young John Harvard!” Mistress Harvard interrupted the two men to announce, “and you may tell them all, Will Shakspere, when you go back to Stratford, that you had to come to London to see a child who was born a man.”
He had called on the Harvards—Shakspere admitted it frankly to himself—not so much for old friendship’s sake as in the hope that talk with Harvard would set those diamond-sharp creative wheels in motion. But no such phenomenon manifested itself. Their talk, enthusiastic on Harvard’s side, perfunctory on his own, had resulted in nothing—that is if you called that sudden burning desire, unexpected as it was uncontrolled, for Stratford nothing; that sudden avid itch for the country quiet, the large lustred country stars, the dew-wetted, cooling dark, the country sunshine with its flower smells and summer colouring, nothing. . . .
The game was up!
London had failed him. To-morrow he would go back to New Place.
He did not know—so long and aimlessly had he wandered the Bankside streets—how he came to arrive at the Globe. Habit, of course, he reflected, wearily. He had gone like a homing horse straight to the familiar stall. But once at the Globe, he suddenly found himself fatigued. He went in.
Ah, that was the reason the flag was not up! And, of course, now he remembered that in the course of a long droning talk from his point of view as secretary of the Globe, Hemminge had told him last night-that the theatre was closed temporarily! Some unexpected repairs after the ravages of the winter storms had suddenly become necessary. A pair of carpenters—rough fellows enough—were pulling up the rotten boards in the centre under the big blue patch of open sky. At the side was a pile of fresh boards; tools. Shakspere seated himself on a second pile of boards, surveyed with the lacklustre eyes the empty boxes, the long stage protruding into the body of the house. The carpenters gave one look in his direction; accepted him apparently as a part of this strange theatrical world; went on with their talk. Low-voiced at first, it presently ignored him, rose to a normal tone. The sun lifted higher and higher. An agreeable wood smell emanated from the boards which made his seat. Shakspere fell into a muse that was so without thought that it was almost without consciousness. It was as though his will, exhausted by his efforts, had dropped her hand from the wheel of creative impulse; had gone to sleep. The younger carpenter had been talking about his strange adventure for a minute or two before his words began to penetrate to Shakspere’s hearing. For that interval, vaguely soothed by his own mental quiet, Shakspere tried not to hear him. Then one detail more acid than the rest broke into that void, roused all his sense of life to sudden ravenous sensitiveness. He listened.
“Aye, Rafe,” he was saying, in answer to his companion’s question; “I be sailor ever since I was lad. Aye, I was one of Sir Jarge Summer’s men. Aye, I took that voyage into the new western sea. Aye, I seen and heard things thou’d not believe, man!”
Rafe was older and dry: a hollow-cheeked, dull-eyed, lantern-jawed yokel—Shakspere knew the type well enough—full of yawning buffoonery and ribald skepticisms. “Aye, Stephen,” he commented, with a burst of laughter. “Well, I know you sailormen and your tales and your lies. I mind me, my wife’s brother went with Raleigh to Ginny. What he told—— We doused him well in the horse-trough one morn, and after that, his tales grew smaller.”
Stephen laughed too—and not ill-naturedly. He could afford to laugh. He was a big, black-browed, thick-bodied lad with a neck like a bull’s. As he tore and lifted, Shakspere saw through his ragged shirt the swift play under the skin of muscles netted with blue and red tattoo. He had a long, sea-cleared gray gaze that now took quiet measure of his fellow. Perhaps it was the certainty that he could have thrown the skeptic over his head that made him answer mildly: “Aye. ’Tis true. Sailormen do oft make romance where the plain truth would seem more strange.” And then he followed this statement by an irritating—but beguiling—silence.
For a moment no sound fell but the splintering of planks, the hammering home of wooden nails.
“Tell thy tale, Stephen,” Rafe suddenly burst out. “For aught I know, ye be the first truthful sailorman that e’er I met. Tell thy tale in peace. I’ll give thee my ears.”
“’Tis strange,” Stephen answered. “’Tis passing strange—this tale of mine. And I ask no man to put his faith on’t. Yet ’tis no lie! I give ye but God’s truth and there’s an end on’t. We sailed from London—as good and strong a crew as e’en the queen, good Bess, God rest her soul, could e’er have wanted. Englishmen all—save one. And that one, a black-avised fellow—not blackamoor, you understand; yet hairy as an ape with a face so gnarled and strange ’twould frighten children. ’A was humped a little in the back and ’a swung in’s walk. And’a had arms so bulged with strength ’a could squeeze a man to death like a bear. Rings ’a wore in his ears, of gold, and a kerchief on’s head, red and yellow, gay as a fairing and a knife in’s belt as had a curving blade would carve a man’s guts out at one stroke. His name was some outlandishness we ne’er could twist our tongues to . . . so called we him Cal.”
“Those little twisty men be fearsome powerful in the wrestle,” Rafe declared.
“We sailed with fair weather and the fair weather sailed with us. The sea—’twas as smooth as—smooth as—smooth as the top of the mug when the foam’s settled. ’Twas a glad crew we were at first, too; full of japes and jests and the strange talk of land and sea all sailorfolk know. But one thing we lacked—drink. ’Twas a skipper that knew the sea and a brave trouncer of men, but a niggard of grog. The days crept by and still no grog. Came more days and still none. The men fretted and murmured. But the sun kept with us and there was no real crying out until we struck the islands——”
“What islands, Stephen?” Rafe asked.
“The Bermoothes, man. Hast not heard what Sir Jarge Summers found? A group of little islets, some no bigger than your hand, some bigger than all London town, spread out on a sea, green and blue, like a peacock’s tail. We hove to there and rested. Sir Jarge and his fellows went ashore to see if there might perchance be treasure of gold or precious stones——”
“And were there treasure?” Rafe cut in, eagerly.
“Not that I have heard. But once they’d gone, among us crew, the murmurs grew for grog. Grog we asked—grog! If not—plain beer or ale. But whene’er we asked—polite and civil though we were—plain no was all we got. So one night, late, this hairy man, this Cal, he steals him a firkin of wine from the ship’s stores and three of us—me and him and old frosty gaffer, Trink—we three slipped over the side of the ship into a boat and rowed us to the shore.”
“’Twas fair venturesome,” Rafe commented.
“Venturesome. You’d say venturesome, indeed, knew ye all. But list! Over the island we went, stopping to gaze at all about us and drinking as we gazed. ’Twas passing fair, that scene; flowers like jewels and sweet-smelling shrubs; no high trees but bushes that were mountain-size and all a-bloom and birds that sang most hurtsome sweet. And the air so glad and soft. . . . We gazed and gazed, and the more we gazed, the more we drank and the more we drank, the more we gazed. . . . And then the dusk came on and still we gazed and drank. But once ’twas dark, by God, fear caught us. For lights began to come, to flash in the air, to dance; lights so thick and big and bright as though the stars had fallen, and always a-dance, here, there, everywhere. . . .”
“’Twas glowworms!” Rafe skeptically announced.
“Man, I say ’twas dancing lights; there, low on the ground; here, higher than a man’s head. They sparked and went out and sparked again. We tried at first to catch one—as well try to catch and hold the sunshine. And then a great fear came across us for, on a sudden, we saw—not far off, yet so near we could have touched him—a little minnikin. . . .”
“A little minnikin? What mean ye?”
“A little man-thing, no taller than my arm. It danced before us—all wound up in white, mist-like, with shining jewel eyes and mouth that smiled, beguiling, like a maid’s. And ’a beckoned! We chased it. Cal, Trink, and me, in the fairy light we chased it, over hill and brook, through briar and bush; but still we catched it not. ’Twas, fairy too—it floated with unfair aid from wind and breeze. But on we ran, and on and on. And as we ran a tempest came—tempest with roaring thunder as broke my ears and such lightning as split the sky in twain, twin sheets of fire. And rain—’twas like a monster fagot pack beating us on backs and faces. And in that tempest, all the fairy lights went out; the minnikin leapt away. But fright had sucked the very guts from out us! We ran in that pouring sea till we could run no longer; fell; raised up; ran once more, staggering-like, till we all three dropped on our faces—slept, with the tide of rain pouring on us; slept till noon. . . .”
“And what came of it?” asked Rafe.
“Naught! When we woke ’twas bright blue day, the sun shining round in the sky. The minnikin—we saw it not again. But through it all, Trink holds him fast to the firkin. And when we two, Cal and me, woke chatter-toothed, ‘Here’s my comfort!’ says Trink; and pulls long at the wine.”
“And how came you back to the ship?” Rafe demanded.
“Oh, they put out from the ship a gang who searched until they found us.”
“And what punishment gave they you?”
“Irons for sennight and bread and water in the hold. But Sir Jarge—too pleased he was a’d found the Bermoothes to hold his anger long—so soon on deck we came and made our voyage fair and safe to England.”
“How now—did Cal and Trink mind them of that minnikin after their drink had passed?” Rafe asked, shrewdly.
“Never came we twain together without talk of it,” Stephen asserted, gravely. “I see him now—the little misty wight, with eyes a-mock like elves, lips smiling, beguiling like a maid’s, and wee hands beckoning. . . .”
Shakspere arose from his seat as from a dream. He moved so quietly that Stephen and Rafe took no note of his departure. He walked slowly at first, then swiftly across the bridge, up Cheapside to Silver and Muggle. As he neared the Montjoy house, he broke into a run. Once indoors, “What’s happened to thee, Will Shakspere?” Mistress Montjoy asked. “Thy eyes are coals; thy colour fever-high.”
Shakspere did not answer her query. “Send up paper to me, mistress,” he begged. “All thou hast and then send out for more!” He ran, light as a lad, over the stairs. Once in his room, he seated himself at the table; drew a blank sheet to him. Writing swiftly, he inscribed, A Summer's Tale. Then he drew a line through the title; wrote
A storm with thunder and lightning.