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How in the year 1585 a certain Master
William Halifax set forth to win
fame, fortune and fair lady; and how Will Shakespeare pointed the way.
THE manuscript of this story was discovered in the cellar of a house in Bloomsbury, London, in course of demolition. Such learned authorities as have seen the document are unanimous in denying its historical value, on the reasonable ground that its author is otherwise wholly unknown and his statements are at times apparently in conflict with recorded facts. Furthermore, they say, that period of which he writes produced more literary hoaxes than almost any other, and they add, that many of his statements, though not actually contradicted by the files of history, are not susceptible of proof.
The manuscript is therefore hardly sacrosanct, since men of such authority and learning have denied it credit; it has accordingly been edited, its more archaic phrases being rendered into modern English, and for words that have dropped out of common use or whose meaning has changed in the course of centuries, more modern words have been substituted to convey the writer's apparent meaning. Many phrases, also, have been modified or totally omitted out of deference to modern taste—a taste that would have seemed inexplicable in the days of Good Queen Bess.
Due to dampness, rats, and the indifference of the workmen who came on the manuscript, some pages from the beginning and from the end are missing or so damaged as to be undecipherable, but the remainder is clearly written in an upright hand that certainly suggests its author may have been the man of character he represents himself to be.
SO I made up my mind I would leave Brownsover for good and all, for it offended me that such a coney-catching louse as Tony Pepperday should own my father's mansion. But I will say this for the chuff: ill-favoured caitiff though he was, he had the gift of self-advancement. He had married first into the gentry, which was marvellous enough; and then he served as bailiff of my father's estate until in the end he possessed the whole of it, and that so legally that none, not even his Grace of Leicester, could deny him right. There was not a horn-book printed that could teach him anything.
But in those days I had so much yet to learn, that now, after a lifetime spent in courts and tented fields and on the sea, and where not else, I am left wondering how so raw a youth as I ever made my way. I was so callow, I expected gratitude, and that from Tony, of all people in the world:
I had risked my father's anger (not a light thing, as they knew who ever gave him cause) by asking his leave to be betrothed to Mildred, Tony's wife's daughter by a former husband, Robert Jackson, who had lost his head and most of his estates befriending the Princess Elizabeth while Mary was Queen. I had brought my father to my view of it, and he a knight, though Tony was no better than a hind until Mildred's mother married him for the sake of protection for her child. Tony had been one of Bonner's men in Bloody Mary's reign, but now he was all for the new religion and the death of Jesuits.*
(* The Bishop of London who was responsible for the burning of many "heretics" in Mary's reign. He died in the Marshalsea prison and was buried at midnight to avoid a hostile demonstration.)<(p>
Tony, you may doubt not, was well pleased to marry the daughter to me for the sake of my position in the county—until my father fell by a violent death and it transpired that Tony had bought up liens on all his land and goods.
And now word reached me through the village barber that the banns might be forbidden, and much mystery about it. But to Tony's house I went, in my second-best suit, on my good roan horse Robin, and I told ham again how I loved his daughter Mildred, and she me. Nor did I forget to jog his memory of how my father had befriended him; and I spoke with such rein on my temper that I said no word at all concerning how he had deprived me of my heritage (since in truth there was little I could say reasonably, my father having incurred great debts that Tony lawfully had bought up).
Had I been a little wiser in the world's ways I might have wasted less breath and have been less astonished. Having all my father's lands, that miserable caitiff coveted my horse, too, knowing that the beast was mine, although he could not prove it. He beshrewed himself to think that anything of value had escaped his clutches. Me and my good name he valued now not at all, so swift is a pick-thank's somersault. First he visited his cellar to drink cordials, for he was naturally timid unless liquor fortified him; and when he came up into the room where he kept his books and papers, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand and stamping on the flags to warm his feet (for it was winter), he began to make too free with the name of Halifax, that but a week ago had been enough to make him doff his cap at mention of it.
"Will Halifax," said he, "you are a worse squibbe and a spendthrift than your father was, although Sir Harry was a brave enough knight, which I doubt you will ever be. I tell you, you shall have no girl of mine, nor any of my money."
I was sitting in a chair my father gave him, looking through a window at the good fat beeves he had acquired by virtue of a lien that he began to enforce the very day my father died. The hobbinoll's audacity so took my breath away that I could hardly answer him.
"I fear me, you will come to no good end," he went on, taking courage of my silence, "and shall I give my daughter to stand weeping at a gallow's-foot?"
Whereat, much wondering that such a coney-catching ban-dog should have bettered his station in life while many an honest gentleman went limping on a broken cause, I decided that patience no longer was seemly:
"If honesty is a cure for sin," said I, "you are like enough to roast in hell-fire, Tony Pepperday, when your time comes!"
I would have walked out there and then to keep my fists from drubbing him, which I had promised Mildred I would not do, even though he should vex me out of countenance. But where he thought a bargain might be had he recked little of hearing truths about himself, and doubtless he believed that all men itched after money as he did. He stayed me.
"I pity your need and will buy your horse," said he. "I will pay you a good price, although I doubt not you will squander it.
But I was not in mind to walk to London or to mince my speech.
"It puzzles me," said I, "that such a long-faced, shamble- smelling miser as yourself could foster a sweet maid like Mildred!
I had looked to get back by marriage part of what you cozened from Sir Harry. You may set that rashness to my youth's account and against it credit me a lesson learned; for by the stomacher of Good Queen Bess, when I have Mildred it shall be without your leave or your endowment! My father Sir Harry always told me gold is not a gentleman, and I perceive it keeps low company!"
With that I left him, honouring him too much with hot words wasted on ears that listened only for the chink of coin. He went hopping in a hurry to the milk-room by the cow-byre, crying to his daughter she should no more see me, and to keep herself within doors.
Not finding her, he followed footprints in the snow around the copse behind the house, until he came on Madge Ambleby the maid- of-all-work. And her tongue was brisker than his. As I mounted my horse in the yard I could hear the two of them hard at it, he swearing she had purposely decoyed him and she bidding him remember his years and behave more seemly. Might an honest wench not go, forsooth, to see that her master's geese were out of reach of foxes, without that old fox of a master risking his ears boxed for pursuing her like a horse after a mare? 'Od's teeth! the frosty morning rang with the clap-clapper of their tongues.
I rode along the hedgerow, where the horses had trodden the mud of the lane and there was no snow left to show a footstep, only cat's-ice in the holes. And when I reached the clump of beeches by the frozen pond where the lane turns into the high road, there was Mildred waiting for me in her new red cloak with its hood drawn up over her hair. She wore the Flemish stockings I had bought for her from Will o' Bruges last fairing time, and she had done on the little gold necklace that had been my mother's—something I had set aside before the sheriff's bailiffs came; and that, if Tony knew of it at all, had irked him little, since it came within his reach in any case.
By the whistling wind that blew across the common and shook the crisp snow from the elms, her hood was not much redder than her lips and cheeks. I lifted her up in front of me, and that which followed fired my blood. I bade her look her last on Tony Pepperday (for we could see him in the distance pegging around the yard with his stick and slamming shed doors, looking for her). I told her she should come with me to London, two of us on one horse. I would make her my lawful wife as soon as might be.
But she set a hand across my mouth to stop such talk. And when she had done twisting at the little new moustache that I had grown to cut a figure with in London, and when I had boasted myself dry of lover's oaths and arguments (for love makes lawyers of us all) she slipped a purse into my hand. But whence she had the money she would not say, only this:
"All's fair in love, Will Halifax! My father cozened yours, and what he doesn't know won't rob sleep. Haste and win a fortune! Ride straight, fight hard, and remember me!"
Forgetfulness was likely to come limping after such a speech in any event, I take it, but I loved her, as I do yet. With her lips on mine I swore to myself not to be faced out of my livelihood by Tony Pepperday—nay, nor by fourtune neither; I would answer her challenge with deeds that should make England know me!
What with my horse Robin feeling the chill wind and kicking, and what with her pressing her fingers against my ribs where I am ticklish, she managed to free herself then, and right bravely she stood, smiling and waving to me, though the tears were like dew on her lashes and she trusted herself no more to speak.
So I rode away, with very fierce determination, thinking of the Dons whom I would beat to their knees and hold for ransom, and of the knighthood that Queen Elizabeth should presently bestow on me (for it was common talk that Queen Bess loved a man of mettle, and I had no doubt that I should bring myself by some means to her notice). But what was passing in Mildred's mind I knew not, neither greatly cared, provided she were true to me, not having learned yet that a woman's wit has several sorts of merit. I loved, but without that disposition to be fore-horse to a kirtle that has robbed some men I know of self-esteem—aye, and of the esteem of others.
I could see her standing there, her red cloak bright against the grey pond ice, until I topped the brow of the hill and paused to wave to her a last time. Then I turned my horse toward Walter Turner's house to get my saddlebags.
For I had stayed with Walter Turner since my father's death, which was how it happened that I had a good new suit and new hat preserved from the sheriffs men. Walter had begged the loan of them to wear at his cousin's wedding, and by the same good stroke of fortune he had borrowed my horse Robin. Whether the sheriff's men ever heard of it and looked the other way from loving- kindness, or whether they really believed my horse and German suit and hat were Walter's, is something that the Lord God will determine at the Judgement Seat.
There was another reason, besides his being beholden to me, why Walter Turner was a comfortable friend to leave behind, he being recently betrothed to Ann Guest and much enamoured of the girl as well as eager to pocket the rents that should come with her. It was with no small measure of confidence that I commended Mildred to his and to his sister's care, bidding them pass the time of day with her whenever an occasion offered and to lend her their encouragement against old Tony Pepperday's attempts to marry her to someone else.
With good cheer then, when they had buckled on my saddlebags, and Kate, at risk of greasing my best suit, had stuffed in two fat capons along with other eatables, I turned Robin's head toward London, malting no more speed (because the road was long) than was enough to keep the frost out of his joints and mine.
I felt as full of spirits as the good horse capering under me though, reckoning Mildred's purse which I was minded to keep against dire extremity, I had little enough money. "Naked and without a purse I came into the world," thought I, "and that journey may have been longer than this one, though I don't remember it. It shall go hard if I don't win fortune, and the Queen herself shall have to use her very sceptre to prevent me." (But I little knew the strength of Queen Elizabeth in those days, nor would I have believed her courage, nor the skill with which she reined men to her uses.)
I had a good short English sword, which my father began to teach me how to use before I knew my alphabet, and, notwithstanding I had heard the new Italian long-swords were all the rage in London, I had no doubt of giving a handsome account of myself in that particular.
Nor did I lack for schooling, as so many did who went to seek their fortunes at the court. We have a school at Rugby, near Brownsover, which Master Laurence Sheriff, the alderman, endowed before he died. And if the frequent soreness of my hams from caning is the measure of my scholarship, then few youths ever set forth better versed in Latin, to say nothing of French and Spanish that had cost me no pain, having learned them from my father and from the servants whom he had brought with him from foreign parts and kept until they died of old age and too much eating.
Circumstances had unfortunately robbed me of the favour of the Earl of Leicester, who was Lord-Lieutenant of our county and a great man at court, but I thought there could be few things more likely than that I should find service in some nobleman's retinue. It was common talk, too, that the Queen welcomed young men of good looks and breeding, to serve as pages, and I knew I did not lack for manners or appearance. Did not Mildred love me? That should put conceit in any man.
It suited me to be alone that morning; for a good horse snorting at the frosty air, his ears a-twitch to catch the roadside sounds, is better company than any chattering companion when a man sets forth to win his spurs and dreams of all the vanquishments he will accomplish. If a dream had only substance in it I was general of armies, admiral of fleets, and Mister Secretary Halifax, Lord Councillor of Queen Elizabeth, that minute!
So it sorrily displeased me when I saw a horseman resting at the signpost where the road turns in from Stratford. He had saddlebags like mine, and a bulging roll of blankets that looked as if a farmer's wife had packed them full of all the stuff she had for market. He was dressed in good stout woollen cloth, and wore an old felt hat with a goose-wing feather in it, so I took him for a farmer on his way to London.
I did not hail him and he let me ride abreast before he spoke, swinging himself into the saddle and smiling whimsically, as I noticed with the corner of my eye. I had a better horse than his, and I was better dressed. He had no right to speak to me.
"Well met, Sir Venturer!" quoth he. "I ride the same road. Though your horse's rump is comelier, maybe, than mine, 'tis not so comely that I yearn to see it all the way to London!"
It was his voice that pleased. It softened the edge of impudence. He was rather a swarthy fellow with a little chin- beard and upturned moustachios, much shorter than myself, but of the same age. He had brown eyes, wondrous dark and mocking, with a sort of sadness brooding in their depths.
I yielded room beside me and he drew abreast, gnawing a red apple. Presently he drew another from his saddlebag and offered it. Not willing to be churlish on a merry morning I rubbed the apple on my sleeve and bit deep. There was a worm in it. I showed him and he laughed.
"What, again?" said he. "There is a canker at the heart of all things. God made apples, but the devil used one to tempt Adam. Adam ate it, and the worms ate him. Which had the best of it, God or worm? Or did God win, who made the worm, so to win whichever way the die falls?"
I had no answer ready, being neither Puritan nor papist, but a man of sense, moreover, well on guard against such dangerous talk with strangers; for the land was full of Jesuits and of spies out watching for them, so that far too many honest men were rotting in the prisons for a word let fall by way of hasty jest. I asked his name instead, and whence he was.
"Will Shakespeare," he said, "of Stratford."
Then I placed him in memory. He was the lad who had married Ann Hathaway, a woman older than himself, in such haste that there was talk of it on all the countryside. Some said he had been made to marry her, but I doubted that tale. He was used to being whipped and stocked, for killing deer and for writing saucy doggerel, which sort of man is neither easy to compel nor usually reckoned a good catch. He could have run away, there being nothing to prevent since his father had come to poverty in old age, after being alderman. If what I had heard was true, his home, like mine, had been sold for debt, and there was no more to keep him in Stratford than me in Brownsover.
I took another view of the Ann Hathaway affair, the more so as I looked into the fellow's eyes. He was a man such as women throw their hearts at and go any lengths to snare—a witty-wise, good-looking fellow with a devil-may-care spirit on occasion and a way of mocking at himself that gave the clue to catching him into the hands of any wench whose reputation was worth gossip. Ann Hathaway had tempted him, I did not doubt, and had blamed him for it afterwards; and he, with a mixture of self-mockery and dignity, had put his head into the noose to make her an honest woman.
But though I had a feeling for a fellow in adversity I did not care to condescend to him too much.
"Stratford," I said, "is but a village by the Avon, where the middens stink in mid-street and the plague kills elders faster than the brats are born. No wonder you should leave the place!"
My words offended him. If I owned Stratford I would trade the whole place for a hundred rods of Brownsover, but I liked the fellow nonetheless for being angry. Good dogs love old kennels, though they stink. A good man boasts his township, even if the pigs lie ham-deep in the main street mud.
"From which Elysium are you?" he asked. "Do the dungheaps smell o' roses where you come from? I can see your horse drops much like any other animal."
I told him, Brownsover. He laughed.
"None ever heard of Brownsover," said he, "until they started Rugby School—and such a poor school, and poor scholars, that a pair of barns was reckoned good enough. In Stratford we use the Town Hall—all the upper story."
"Aye," I answered, "where the beadle can better observe you, lest you go a-poaching sooner than learn your conjugations."
So we bickered for a while in mutual disparagement, each, cock-a-doodle-do-ing his own dunghill, and not either of us offering his scholarship in proof. And in truth I was afraid to do | that, having absorbed the most part of my schooling from a peeled ash sapling, which is excellent for horsemanship, making the roughest saddle easy, but not sweetening irregular Greek: verbs.
But by noon we were friends and sat together on a rail beside: the road to feed our horses and ourselves. So better was my capon than the venison he carried that I could not help but offer him a drumstick; and when he had made short work of that I broke off a wing for him, whereafter we slaked our thirst with icy water from a nearby brook and by and by we grew so friendly that when we reached a tavern called "King Harry's Head" we had to stop to pledge each other in canary wine. Then on, again, as chattersome as wenches at a maying.
We told each other all there was to know about ourselves. His wife Ann, so he said, unlike good wine, was hardly mellowing with age. She loved to sit in church o' Sundays and quote sermons at him all the week, so that he knew by heart so many sins as it would take a lifetime to commit the half of them. For himself, he better loved to rest him merry and to write such airy nothings as imagination conjured into words, whereas Ann tolerated no such nonsense, as she called it, in the house, but used his scribbled sheets to light the oven fire.
"And it's bad bread that she bakes, Will." We already called each other Will and Will. "Bread as much resembling belly-comfort as the unoathed, funless Heaven that she prates about resembles good cheer for a hospitable soul."
He had a thought go into the butcher-trade, having learned that, for he had to kill his father's calves when the family fortune dwindled, and not knowing much else except how to shoot deer and dress the venison, which he confessed he could do far better than his wife could cook the meat, she burning it, he said, as if the hell she prated of were something near at hand.
But he was gentle-minded and not hankering for the Smithfield shambles.
"Ludd knows, Will," he said, "it is a pity we must kill the poor brutes with pleading eyes that look at us so soft and melancholy."
I thought him likelier to make a parson than a butcher, but I learned a little more of him that evening and changed my mind about the parsonage. We bedded at the "Three Wise Men," a roadside tavern, and a good one, kept by a one-legged rogue named Bellamy, who had owned a sixty-fourth share of a privateer that fell in with a Spanisher from the Americas, all loaded down with silver bars. So, though he lost a leg, he sold it for a high price, and he had married as buxom a wench as ever sliced a loaf against her bosom. She was all the way from Bristol and, having neither kith nor kin to weep with when old salty timber-toe was in his cups, she laughed instead with any merry traveller who came along. Both I and Will were merry, being young.
So while we stalled our horses and scraped the mud from them (to save a hostler's fee next morning) I saw fit to drop a hint or two to friend Will. For it is a strange thing how a lover's loyalty can make him jealous of another's peccadillos. I have learned to rest well satisfied if my own behaviour offends me not too much, and other men's incontinencies vex me not at all. But I was young in those days.
"Will," I said, "our hostess hath a hospitable eye and you, a married man, must of necessity act seemly, being not so far from home but that a rumour might reach Stratford."
For a while he scraped his horse's fetlocks, whistling to himself to keep the dust out of his teeth.
"Women," he answered presently, "resemble rhymes and tunes in this: the easiest to catch are they that, as it were, impatronize themselves until they seem more inescapable than empyreal destiny. Those are the sort that lose their zest, and like the ale left in a tankard over-night they bear not later scrutiny. When yesterday's sour ale has dulled the drinker's wit doth he not charge his belly all anew with vintage to restore the vibrance of his brain. 'Tis even as with tunes: the dull ones so obsess the memory that not the very lark's excited welcome to the spring can drive their limping measures out of mind. Shall a man steep himself in merry music to forget care—in the joy of living and he love not death?"
"Then shrewish wives," said I, "excuse incontinence?"
"Excuse," said Will, "is coward's courage. He who makes excuse defends himself against another's conscience like a school-boy stuffing pigskin in his breeches to defeat a teacher's cane. To be in love with wisdom is to follow precept; but to love and yet be wise is to invade the province of the angels, which is trespass. Foolishness and love go hand-in-hand to many a hey-day that the dry-wise never know. Did you not tell me on the road, in words as red and white as roses, of a maid named Mildred? Do her grey eyes fade so soon from memory?"
I was offended, so I combed my horse's tail a while, with an eye to his heels, he not loving to be handled when his nose was in the manger.
"Which has the better," Will asked presently, "the gallant with a rosebud out of reach, or he who treads a blown bloom underfoot?"
Whereat he went into the inn ahead of me, and when I reached the hearthside he was seated in the best chair, with a mug of sack beside him, and the woman on her knees at the fire making toast, which any of the kitchen wenches might have done—and done better, for she burned it, what with listening to Will and looking sideways at him.
I had lingered at the pump to wash myself and polish up my brass spurs, sticking the pheasant-feather in my new hat at an angle that matched better with my smart moustachios. But Will had let the woman wipe the road-muck from his boots before she made the toast, and presently she sat on the arm of the chair to stitch his sleeve where he had torn it, giving me her back to gaze on.
'Od's blood, how the fellow talked! I soon began to change my mind about Ann Hathaway: though she had been as virginal inclined as Queen Elizabeth she must have lost her head and heart to him. I thought of old King Solomon, who had a thousand wives, and understood how he conducted all that courtship!
Will could make a verse offhanded when the sparks flew upward from a faggot; when the gusty wind blew smoke out of the chimney- mouth he likened that to dead men's spirits coming back for one last look at comfortable earth before they soared amid the melancholy loneliness of starry space; he likened scraping muddy boots to the forgiving care of angels probing underneath men's scabby sins to find the virtue that redeems them.
She was as drunk with honeyed words ere long as Titus Bellamy, her man was drunk with spiced canary in the inner room. Bellamy's brain remembered feats of daring he had heard of, and, if anyone believed him, he had sent more Dons to roast in hell-flame than the Smithfleld butchers had killed Christmas beeves since the Lord Harry himself was King of England. If he believed himself he should have slept ill, thinking of his end.
When Will and I had supped, Dame Bellamy attending on us and loading a board before the hearth with fare that would have watered the mouth of a prince to smell of it—cold pigeon pie, there was, with eggs, and fat ham, and a chine of pork, and sausage, and honied apple dumplings soused in cream, and Leicester cheese, and pickles—I forget what else—I went into the back room to sit facing Bellamy before the fire to listen to him.
I would rather have listened to Will, but I was envious, and Mistress Bellamy thought nothing of my new moustachios. Nor had I any gift of speech to take the wind out of Will Shakespeare's sail and keep him from the port he had in mind. I would have liked the woman's flattery, and I would have liked the smug feeling of virtue to be won, perhaps, by skating over thin ice. But I was young; and if we came into the world with as much good sense as living teaches us, this world would be another kind of place, or so I think.
Besides, good Will was even then fumbling at the doorway of her virtue where she offered such warm welcome to the stranger at her gate.
Will Halifax becomes the owner of a "gimcrack"
in a red box and Will Shakespeare acquires a mare.
THAT whole night long I listened to Titus Bellamy. He grew more talkative the more he drank. And so I have no knowledge of what Will did, not though vinegary Ann should hale me before judges for a questioning.
In addition to me and Bellamy there were five men on the settles on either side of the fire in that back room, and by midnight four of them were snoring, doubtless having heard his tales an hundred times but preferring to sleep before the fire because it cost less than a bed.
He who sat beside me was a leathery-faced and leather- jacketed, sharp-nosed fellow with a pair of merry blue eyes, Jeremy Crutch by name, whom I remembered to have seen at Coventry Assizes, where they tried him for some felony and let him go for lack of evidence. I knew his reputation well. Some said he was a Jesuit, although my father had gone bail for him when he was charged at Coventry, which I think he would never have done had he thought him a Jesuit—rash though my father sometimes was, and ready to befriend even masterless men.
That had been the first time that a masterless man found bondsman while awaiting trial in our part of England, and there had been plenty to advise my father that a knight should risk his substance in a worthier cause. Truly enough, if Jeremy had chosen to abscond my father must have fallen into bankruptcy, he being already deep in debt, as I discovered when he died.
However, Jeremy made no bid that night to claim acquaintance on the strength of my father's charity; nor had he the indecency to speak about my father's death, although he must have known the circumstances, which had been a nine days' gossip on all the countryside. He was thoughtful to give no offence, and he drank no more than I did—very sparingly, that is, since I take no pleasure in a next day's ride when half a merry morning goes to drive off fumes of wine.
Only when old Bellamy paused in his talk or lost the thread of reminiscence Jeremy Crutch would break his silence to ask questions—with a by-your-leave or if-your-honour-will-permit to me—to start the old ruffian off again describing doings on the Spanish Main or off the Portugais or on the road to India. For he claimed he had ventured all over the globe.
It was talk to make a young man's blood go galloping if anything but ice were in his veins—tales of strange seas, and the Inquisition, and of gold and silver bars in heaps—of fighting out of sight of land for galleons deep-laden with the plunder of Brazil—of Captain Francis Drake, whom all the world had heard of, and of mermaids and sea-monsters, and of John Hawkins and his traffic in blackamoors stolen from the Portuguese off Africa and sold, as many as lived the voyage out, to merchants in the New World.
No man ever heard more exciting tales than that old timber-toe could reel out through his shaggy beard; and not the half of them were half-true because they lacked, as I discovered later, half the fact—of suffering as well as deed. There were tales, too, of the past when the Lord Harry had beheaded a wife or two to show his independence of the Pope, and the men of Devon had begun to copy his example, privateering against any ship that carried the Pope's blessing.
He told, too, of the days when Mary, our great Queen's sister, wished to take Philip of Spain for husband—as indeed she did eventually, she being a Tudor, who would have her own way, cost what it might; and the men of Devon put to sea to keep Philip out of England, filling him so full of dread (for he is timorous) that he stayed away until the Devon men grew weary and turned to plundering elsewhere, so that Philip dared the voyage at last and married her, to England's misery and shame.
And though Bellamy lied, as having been foremost in all the exploits he recounted, he did no more than magnify himself into the boots of men who stormed over land and ocean, havocking more capably than he could talk. For I met many of those captains in the days to come, yet know not now which was the stormier, Don or English—aye, nor not alone they, but the French and Flemings, Turks, Venetians and Genoese—and a host of others. Under Gloriana men have had to carry bold blades who would leave their mark on memory.
Jeremy Crutch and I sat sleepless, hardly noticing each other, covering the pot-mouths with our hands when the yawning tavern- wench made shift to fill them. But Bellamy drank as a drain takes water and then roused the girl with a sailor's oaths because she nodded in a corner when his mug was empty.
There was word once or twice of a robbery, one Joshua Stiles, a London merchant on his way to Bristol, having yielded up his purse to someone in the dusk, three nights gone; and old Bellamy bragged loudly of the gibbet at a cross-roads nearby, where he swore such miscreants as did on land what honest men might do at sea with God's approval, ought to hang in chains for an example to the others. And he said something of a geegaw or a gimcrack that the merchant prized more highly than his purse, having been sorely grieved to part with it to a thief who would never know its value.
"Master Stiles swore to me," said Bellamy, "that he would rather have that geegaw back than hang the thief, though I forget how he described the thing. It may have been some box for sibbersauces for a woman, or a crucifix perhaps—some bauble. But he's no Papisher, not Joshua Stiles! He's a good, God- fearing, loyal subject of the Queen's most gracious majesty—I heard him say it!—saving, I don't doubt, when her excisemen stick their pimply noses in among the bales."
He would have talked more of the gimcrack, only that Jeremy turned him off to boasting of the loot he had seen in strange ports. Towards morning he grew stupid in his cups and returned to the gimcrack and the tale of the robbery, but then Jeremy got up and left us and by that time it behoved me to go out and feed the horses.
There was a heavy frost and thick white fog, so I found a lantern first and trimmed the wick before malting my way to the stables; and Jeremy, who seemed to know his way too well to need a lantern, rode off like a spectre as I crossed the stable-yard, none giving him God-speed nor he so much as whistling. He wore a hood like a friar's drawn up over his bead. The mare he rode was shrouded in the fog, but she looked like a beauty picking up her feet over the mixen.
It was warm within the stable, so, I took my time, and what with watering and feeding both the horses and repacking my two saddlebags, the cocks were crowing when I came out and there was a right goodly smell of eggs and bacon frying. I was wondering what all that good fare would be like to cost us when Will Shakespeare put his head through the kitchen door and catching sight of me came out to meet me. Whereat I told him what was in my mind about the reckoning.
"I have paid the shot for both of us," he answered, with that merry-winsome smile of his.
I demurred, well knowing he had little money in his purse and not yet realizing how any empty poke can sharpen wit. Will took my arm and answered:
"Study to live courteously, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's, but to them whose hearts are golden seek to add no gilt, lest Satan mock thee! Vulgar and immodest jangle-bags are they who flout such trash as money in the face of kindness! Only they who know no other measure should be paid in minted money, that an hostler spits on or a toss-pot flings into the sawdust on a tavern floor! There is such hospitality as only loving-kindness can requite."
We lined our bellies well with eggs and bacon rashers fried by Mistress Bellamy, who bussed us both and thrust good bread and cheese into our saddlebags, beseeching us to come again; though me she urged, I knew, to keep herself in countenance.
She stood and watched us ride into the fog until we turned the corner of the road, her breath uprising like a kettle's, and I, to keep myself from asking questions, looked to my pistol priming, thinking that the night air might have damped it. It was well I did. Dry priming has emboldened more men to preserve themselves than ever bullets slew.
Most of that country was open common, but here and there was a hawthorn hedge seen dimly either side the road, soft-grey under the hoar-frost, with now and then the breath of a group of steers uprising on the far side. Trees loomed now and then like ghosts. There was hardly a sound except the ringing of our horses' hoofs on the frozen highway.
We came before long to a gibbet that was used for signpost where a road turned southward, and from there on, perhaps because the gibbet lent a melancholy hue to thought reminding us how cold it was, we let the beasts trot, cuffing our ears and clapping hands to make the blood flow,* wishing that the struggling sun might suck the mist.
(* Although Harvey is credited with the discovery of the circulation of the blood—which he announced in 1619—there is plenty of evidence, as for instance in Shakespeare's plays, that long before that time the blood was commonly understood to circulate. See Julius Caesar III i and Coriolanus I i.)
And of a sudden my horse shied, so unexpectedly that I was hard put to it to keep in the saddle. I almost unhorsed Will by bumping into him.
A man had come spurring from behind a hayrick set close to the road where there was a wide gap in the hawthorn hedge, and no rail, or else the rail was broken, or perhaps he had removed it. He drew rein nigh on top of us and I could see his pistol- muzzle—that and his mare's head, not much more, for the fog was thick.
"Buy your lives!" he bawled out.
I knew his voice. I recognized his mare's head. I bethought me of dry pistol-priming. Also I was envious of Will for last night's victory, and minded to persuade him there were times and places where my prowess might surpass his.
Priming nerved me, but my sword came first to hand. I was at the fellow, point first, sooner and more sudden than he looked for. He drew trigger and the flash and the report scared Will's ill-humoured horse into the ditch, but the bullet missed me, though I felt the wind of it. The next the fellow knew my point was at his throat and my left hand had his mare's head by the bridle.
Then in turn he knew me. "Halifax!" he muttered.
"Jeremy Crutch," said I, "that name of yours rings ominous! Belike you'll need a pair of crutches if I break your bones! Is this your gratitude for what my father did?"
"Unhand me," he answered, and there was more than disappointment in his voice. He felt shame. "Had I known it was you and your crony you should have passed and never seen me."
I took his sword and, grasping it between thigh and saddle, passed his rein over my arm, not having all that confidence in men's professions that had wrecked my father.
"I expected two of the Earl of Leicester's men," said Jeremy. "Such capons travel well lined."
"All that desperate?" I asked. "You'd better rob the Queen's men. She might send to bid the Lord Lieutenant do his duty, but the Earl would clap a hundred riders after you for saucy interference with his pig-stye cleaner."
He laughed. "Let come a thousand," he retorted. "They should never find me. There is a ship in Plymouth Harbour, ready to weigh for the Spanish Main, and my mother's cousin sold me a place on board and one quarter of a sixty-fourth share, but it took all the money I had. A purse or two, to buy my share of liquor for the ship—"
"You might have sold this mare," I answered, eyeing her. She was a beauty. "Be you minded, Jeremy, to walk to Plymouth?"
"No," said he, "for by the rood I'd rather hang! I'll give you better though."
With that he put his hand inside his leather jacket, squinting down his sharp nose at my sword-point, for I trusted him not at all.
"There was mention of this last night," he said, and pulled out something in a leather pouch, of a size to lie snugly on the flat palm of the hand. "I risked my neck for it," he went on, "and you heard what Titus Bellamy said about its owner putting a high value on it. 'Od's blood, I would liefer have a purse of money, gallow's risk and all! Have it. It has brought me ill- luck. It may serve you better."
I took it, hardly looking, needing one hand for my sword and both eyes for Jeremy's face, although Will Shakespeare had dragged his horse out of the ditch and was standing near. Will had drawn his hanger, but I had my doubts that he could use the weapon half as well as Mistress Bellamy had used a toasting- fork.
"Now let me go," said Jeremy, "and I will make all haste to Plymouth."
But I saw that Will's horse had been lamed by falling in the ditch—a sorry beast, more eager for oats than work, and one that I doubt not had lazied many a league through knowing that Will's compassion was his weakness.
"You are like to miss your ship, Jeremy," said I, "for you have lamed the lazy beast that you shall ride. Get down off the mare and change saddles."
He made a wry face, offering me money rather, so that I knew it was a lie about his wanting to buy liquor for the ship. I quoted to him Will's words concerning knaves who measure kindness by its weight in coin, and then, discovering I lacked Will's gift of making words fit circumstance, I changed my argument:
"If I spare the hangman trouble, as my father already did once in your case," said I, "I think the hangman will hardly thank me, since he needs bread like the rest of us."
Whereat he got down and began to change the crupper buckles, his mare being smaller than Will's sorrel; however, I bade him leave the bridles as they were, his being the better and its bit more suited to the mare's mouth.
Then I took away his powder-flask and bullets, but I let him keep the empty pistol to shoot Dons with on the Spanish Main, assuring him that the Dons would live an hundred years apiece unless he practised to aim straighter. As for his sword, it was more like a butcher's knife than any proper weapon, so I gave that to Will Shakespeare, for use if he should go to sticking beeves in Smithfield.
Then I bade Godspeed to Jeremy, he needing it, or the devil might set the hangman on him after all. And when we had watched him ride away on Will's lame horse, toward the crossroad where the gibbet was, we rode on toward London, I well satisfied with having repaid Will the tavern reckoning. It pleased me mightily, and I began to whistle "Mary Ambree, which was a tune much favoured at the time.
Will said nothing until I piped a false note—something he endured less meekly than the bruise he had from falling in the ditch.
"That's a sharp wind, Will! Save it for the Puritans!" he said then, sucking at his teeth as if he had just bitten a sour gooseberry. "You have made an enemy. Why whistle up the devil with a witch's discord to avenge him?"
"Enemy?" said I. "I spared a rascal, though the law of England would have let kill."
"Leave law to lawyers," he retorted. "Those have made trouble enough without your aid. You shamed a rogue, and he will bear so dark a grudge against you as shall gnaw until he thinks he does God's service by ridding your soul of its body some dark night."
"Then would you have killed him?" I asked.
"He should have had my purse," Will answered. "God knows, there is not much in it—yet enough, maybe, to buy a laissez passer from a thief."
I mocked him at that for a lack-spunk who would spare a louse for fear the louse might call him to account. I said that shame, and plenty of it, was the proper physic for whatever remnant of a soul a cut-purse had.
He answered: "Are we preachers, Will, and ride we two to London to beg benefices, greedy for the burial fees and tithes, proposing to ourselves to live in dread of hell-fire while we prate about a sour-swill Heaven?"
"Give him back the mare then!" I retorted angrily.
"Why, how so?" he answered, smiling. "I am not offended that you took his beast, for faith! he staked it on the play of destiny and lost. But did you wisely when you stripped his self- esteem and left him naked to the frosty winds of conscience, that will freeze a merry fellow's soul until it better fits a caitiff's rind? You might have had the rogue's mare and his goodwill with it."
"Sweeter his spite than his love!" I retorted. "Do you choose your friends among the highwaymen?"
Whereat he told me the old nurse's tale about the fox and sour grapes—a silly enough fable, since a fox eats meat, nor never have I seen the fox that would as much as sniff up-wind for cabbages or any other fruit, were it ripe or out of reach or not.
"All life's a mirror," he went on, his hand upheld as if he were an actor and the whole world watching. (He could mock at angels like a small boy stoning geese and yet I think he seldom spoke but that he felt his words were being written in the Book the Angel of the Judgement keeps.) "The men and women we behold are but ourselves as we ourselves might be, should other influences sway us. Would we change the image? The grimaces that the glass throws back at us are answerable,* patterning their apish twistings to a moment's mood. And as a woman sets a bauble in her hair to grace the poor reflection that she sees, and, smiling at the erstwhile unadorned, beholds her mirror smile again, so all earth changes at a merry fellow's bidding. Look you how you pasture leaps out of a mist and sparkles its responses to the sun! A fair example yields more harvest than a gallows-tree, Will Halifax. The whistling urchins start the birds a-singing in the very shadow of a hawk's wing."
(In the English of the period—capable of answering—obliged to answer.)
Who could answer him? The man had music in his marrow and it flowed forth to a tune that made the hearer dumb, so, whether he were right or wrong, he seemed to have the right of it. He did not rant, as did the strolling players I had seen in Brownsover, when we boys all played truant at the price of caning and helped afterwards to pelt the players out of town. The player who could rave the loudest was the most admired, and the first, too, to be smeared with rotten eggs when the burgesses gave the whole troupe marching orders (as they said, because plays were an offence to morals, but, to tell plain truth, because they took too much money at the door).
But Will spoke honiedly, as if the import of his words were not in need of bellowings and windmill posturings to lend it weight. He spoke as to an universe (yet just as he had talked to Mistress Bellamy), seducing it to share his views by seeming to uncover to, the hearer's mind such thoughts as secretly had lain there.
Nonetheless, he made my vanity shrink small in me, and that is discontenting of a frosty morning when a man rides hoping to win fortune for himself. I drew the little leather package forth that Jeremy Crutch had parted with, and opened it, thinking to change the flow of talk into a shallower channel wherein haply I might hold my own.
Inside the bag there was a small flat box with what I took for golden hinges, though it may be they were brass. The wood was harder than my nail's edge, lacquered with a sort of carmine- coloured glaze as smooth to the feel of a finger as windowglass. There was a knob to press on, causing it to open like an oyster, and within was silk, more yellow than the rarest gold, whereon there lay a little figure of a demon, marvellously wrought of green stone, smooth and soapy to the touch of my hand.
It was a comic gimcrack, making us both laugh, although I thought of witchcraft on the instant. It had the trunk and features of an elephant, and yet the posture of a seated man, withal fat-bellied and seeming to ooze benevolence.* Before he had more than glanced at it Will pulled out his purse and offered to buy the thing.
(* The Hindu god Ganesha.)
Whereat when I had quoted to him in contempt of money his own words, he offered me the mare instead, which led to bantering, he saying that the better of the morning's bargain had not forfeited his right to trade again that day. I told him he should not be reckless, since the catechism teaches frugal living, but he answered that the catechism is the solemn and unlovely censure of the men who wrote it seeking to restrain in others generosity that they had lacked themselves.
I let him hold the thing, he turning it to make the sun's rays glimmer on the green stone, showing cloudy depths in it like shoal-water off the Devon coast in summer, and revealing all its skill of workmanship. He sighed at last and gave it back.
"There, pouch it again, Will," he said, "for I have seen too much."
Thereafter for a while he rode in silence, turning something over in his mind, his forehead bowed, now frowning and now smiling as he moved his lips—in the way, it might be, that his father used to taste ale* at Stratford.
(* Shakespeare's father's first public office was that of ale-taster.)
Presently he spoke as having strained the essence of his thought through judgement's mesh until its flavour suited him. He hardly looked at me. He might have been addressing crowds imagined in his mind and seen with inner eye:
"There is a virtue in a woman's eyes," said he, "that, looking, lures into a lover's soul until, though he be earthy of the earth, he will acquire him wings and soar up in an empyrean of such fiery ambition as shall purge his soul of dross. Yet he may look too long into that mystery, and too much see. Though Daedalus flew safe, incautious Icarus, greedy of attaining, winged into a realm where the increasing fervour of the orb of day o'ercame the very strength that lifted him and he was flung into such seas as swallow all who have not modesty.
"And so, as Homer sang, none other shall accomplish; though the frog-like singers swell themselves in emulation of the bull, they burst, nor leave more reputation than a shrunken bladder and a wind gone back to vacancy the fouler for their use.
"Such skill of handicraft, such mastery of medium and tool he had, who wrought that bauble, that I grow as green with envy as the stone is fashioned. Never envy aided. It is cankerous, ungodly rust that eats imprisoned virtue from a tempered blade, consuming and all viler for the stolen feast. That gimcrack stirs me marvellously, Will, for there was magic in the hand that wrought it such as lifts a veil and lets us glimpse a moment's godliness."
His speech was like an angel's, though I write it lamely. Memory be blamed. He made me set such value on the thing as superstition fastens to an heirloom and my mind went roving amid tales of talismans. I felt that gimcrack was a key to merry fortune.
And in truth, that morning, now the sun had sucked the mist away, was such as I have never seen except in England, with the hoarfrost sparkling and the crisp air breathing life into a man, the hedgerows soft-grey underneath their covering of rime, and all such weather as I fancy, breedeth kings—and men, too, to go earth glorious where jewelled grass in movement caught the sun: sailing forth and flout them in their teeth!
It was a magic morning. We began to sing, we two; for Will's moods were as changeful as our English weather. He could take the baritone and carol that against my booming bass until the horses ambled with a rare will and the frozen blackbirds chirruped back to us.
And he could make a song to any olden tune—such foolishness as lovers sing or nurses put the children off to sleep with, until we wearied of an air and Will set new words to another.
How Halifax and Shakespeare lodged at Roger Tunby's house near Cheapside.
WE slept that night at Oxford, at the Crown Inn, kept by a merry man named Davenant whose wife, I thought, was as like to lose her heart to Will as Mistress Bellamy had been. But Davenant had not been married over-long, so that his wife was foremost in his mind as yet and there was nothing to arouse Ann Hathaway's jealousy—not that time.
After supper Will called for my gimcrack to amuse them, and he wove such tales around it as put all the chapbook writers out of countenance. I vow there never was such tongue as Will's, nor such imagination—no, nor such a voice to pluck at heartstrings, conjuring a sudden smile from tragedy and cloaking laughter with the mask of grief, until we knew not whether we should laugh or cry.
And so to bed at midnight, sheeted, nor no extra penny for the laundry, thanks to friend Will's entertainment.
So well we liked the Davenants, and they us, that we would have dallied at Oxford but for the shallowness of our exchequer, which persuaded us to journey on to London in one day, by way of Uxbridge, where it was market-day, and a host of people. There, because all men were in fear of horse-thieves, there being a ready market for stolen horses in Antwerp, we earned enough to pay for the bait for our own mounts by standing guard over about twenty others while their owners did Sunday errands; and by that means there entered a thought into Will's head that served him to good purpose later.
We lingered not long by the triple tree of Tyburn, where felons hung in chains from all three beams and great ravens perched above. There was an inn nearby, with benches from which whoever chose to buy ale at a penny more than custom might watch the hangman do his work.
Will grew gloomy, I remember, at the sight of that grim fruit on Tyburn Tree.
"Heaven looked on," he exclaimed, "nor took their part, nor pitied them!"
And so, nigh sunset, to the house of Roger Tunby, where I made bold to expect such hospitality as oftentimes my father had received from him, and he from us (for it had been my father's wont to entertain such reputable merchants as might come to Warwickshire from London).
Nor were we disappointed of good victuals, though the old chuff put the two of us to sleep in one bed and had us send our horses to a baiting stable, where we must pay the reckoning. But as it transpired later, that was fortunate, although at the time I thought a pox on such a starving tyke of a niggard host.
Old Tunby had been used to buy his wool in Warwickshire, and had made for himself such a name for honest dealing that he had as good as a monopoly without paying fee to the Crown. But growing old, and too fat to endure the journey, he had not been seen in our parts for a year or two, so that I hoped he might not have heard the scandal of my father's death. But London has long ears.
The old man bade me welcome and accepted Will as being friend of mine; but even his apprentices could see the spice of hospitality was lacking and that he no longer thought it a privilege to have a Halifax of Brownsover beneath his roof, but thought the cat now jumped the other way. He made short work of telling me it had been common talk in Paul's, and in all the taverns, these many days, how my father had slain one of the Earl of Leicester's followers and himself had been slain by another.
"And they say, Will Halifax," said he, "that Sir Harry slew his man to silence a witness who might have tipped the scale against him in a lawsuit for recovery of debt."
I wasted no breath on denial, though I knew my father's innocence of such foul motive. It was not his nature to act cowardly, nor had he ever cared enough for money to besmirch his knighthood on account of it. The shoe was on the other foot. The Earl of Leicester had despatched two men to seek a quarrel with him, knowing that my father had been privy to certain doings that it were highly inconvenient should reach the Queen's ears. Nevertheless, I had no proof of that, and he who had slain my father had been sent in great haste by the Earl into the Low Countries. Nor did I know exactly what the secret was that had cost Sir Harry his life.
I said to Roger Tunby while we sat at meat:
"I will clear my father's name in good time, he having given me a good enough one when he caused me to come into this world. And I have his kindness to remember, which shall spur me to the duty that I owe him. Nor will I reckon that debt paid before I make the author of foul rumour eat his words."
The old man screwed his mouth up. He was used to domineering his apprentices and took it ill that I should offer to him in his own house what might sound like a reproof. He drummed his knife- butt on the table-cloth. But the serving-wench mistook that for a summons, and when she came he changed his mind about answering me scurvily.
"More ale, Jane!" he commanded. "Less attention to a guest's good looks than to his comfort, or the 'prentices will take you for a vulgar trullibub! A pox on your curiosity, girl! Remember I am an host, and shame me not! Such slovenly neglect! More ale—more ale! And pour it handsomely! Not too much foam, as if, forsooth, this were a pickpenny roadside tavern! Just enough to fill the nostrils pleasantly with good smell while the palate takes the flavour!"
When the maid had served to turn his temper he addressed me fatherly:
"Will Halifax, you will best let bygones be. My own son Edward thought to merit fortune by being, as it were, the echo of myself, even as you aspire to be your father's echo and to do as he did. My good reputation was to be son Edward's stock-in-trade; my knowledge, his credit on 'change; my accomplishment, his boundary of what was worth the doing. He was so satisfied to be the son of Roger Tunby that my faults, which the Lord knows are more than enough, were as much virtues in his eyes as what small quality I have. He'd sooner be at breaking pates about some 'prentice-talk against me than advance himself by giving rumour manful deeds to bruit abroad. He'd sell what I "'Like father, like son, Edward,' said I, 'is a mare's nest. It's a sucked egg. It's as good as boasting that a man's son is his shadow on the wall. God forfend me from the sin o' blasphemy. The Holy Scripture says the children's teeth shall be set on edge, so that's the way of it and, sinner though I may be, I will not o'er-reach myself to break the Lord's Commandments. Powder-beef and pease-pudden,' said I, 'are more suitabler to make you feel your teeth than the brewis and pancakes you're getting. So to sea you go, and face the wrath o' man and nature for your own good name! My own name's good enough for me,' said I, 'and if I lose it lacking you to cudgel the pates of 'prentices, you may make a new name for yourself!' And to sea I sent him under Master Hezekiah Greene, bidding him bite Spanishers if his teeth should get too sharp on the ship's food for endurance. 'Bite 'em, Edward,' says I, 'in the Lord's name, not mine, and bring portuguese and angels* home with you. I'll add you two for each one, and thereto I'll give you this house o' mine to marry in so soon as men on 'change look envious at me because my son is lustier than theirs!'"
(* Gold coins worth about $17.50 and $1.70.)
I have no doubt but that was good enough advice, but Will Shakespeare spied a hole where he could drive his wit in, so he piped up:
"Marry! Will you add two to every one that Will Halifax brings home? If so, I'll go to sea with him!"
"Is he my son? Are you?" old Tunby answered. "I have made him welcome for his father's sake, and I gave him some good advice for his own. But he is too old for a 'prentice, and I have no doubt he isn't old enough to let the maids alone, on top of being too well born to stomach trade. He must shift for himself. But this I will do. For his father Sir Harry's sake I'll speak a word for him to a master-mariner whose ship lies in the Thames by Greenwich."
Now I knew I should make him my enemy an I said no to that offer; yet I doubted it were wise to say yes, and by the look in Will's eyes I made certain he thought as I did. Old Tunby's offer was too sudden-kind. If he were seeking to get rid of me, as was not impossible, then it might be that he owed my father money, of which, indeed I had long entertained a suspicion, although I had no proof.
So, affecting a gratitude I did not altogether feel, I asked how soon he could arrange the matter. He answered it might need a few days, he not caring to take boat to Greenwich while the ague lingered in his bones, but that he looked to see the ague leave him with the first warm sunshine. Will and I might stay with him meanwhile if we would lend a hand among the 'prentices.
But I had seen men with the ague. If he had it, then I had it, too, and so had my horse Robin. Therefore, I began to feel sure that he hid some matter from me, since a reputable merchant would be hardly like to lie to a guest in his own house concerning such a simple matter unless his mind were on a greater and more complex issue, one lie leading to another.
So I made a show of doubt that a merchant-adventurer would accept my services on board ship without a few score pounds to boot to balance inexperience. He did not mislike that, mistaking it for modesty on my part—a virtue in which he declared too many youths were lacking.
After supper by the fireside he began to drink tobacco (which I thought a filthy habit until later on I met Sir Walter Rawleigh and from admiration of him learned to do the trick myself). When we had talked a while old Tunby's married daughter, Mistress Atkins, with a guard of noisy 'prentices, came from her own house half-a-mile away to pay her duty to him and to find fault with the serving-maids, since Tunby kept no woman in the house to manage them, being not so long a widower that he wished to replace his wife's tongue with another that might clack louder.
(* The Elizabethan term for pipe-smoking.)
After she had finished devilling the wenches, Mistress Atkins sat with us before the fire to do her sewing, deeply curious to learn how Will and I had come and for what foul purpose.
Presently I spoke to her about my Mildred, thinking that a youngish woman with her second child due about May Day might admire a tale of lovers' constancy. But she liked neither me nor my story and read me a shrew's sermon on it, vowing that young men who defied their elders ended by marrying ne'er-do-wells, the more bitterly to regret it the longer they lived.
I wished I had been silent about Mildred, but Will Shakespeare took the scolding merrily enough. He told her of his own wife in Stratford; whereat Mistress Atkins made bold to ask him how many pounds the year Ann had for keeping house the while her husband ruffled it in London.
Will's answer drew her anger as a good dog draws a bear: "Whoso puts," said he, "a burden on a horse should feed him. Should the poor brute haul the wain up heavy hills and feed his owner likewise with the very juices of his strength?"
The mean shrew flew into a passion, storming at her father that he wasted substance entertaining squibbes come begging with their hose patched on their heels. Masterless men, she called us, runagates, who should be haled before a magistrate and smartly whipped back to the parish where we shirked work; vagabonds, who might be spies for all an honest woman knew—Papish Jesuits, mayhap, in league against the Queen's grace, fattening ourselves on English beef in English homes the while we plotted with the Scotch Queen and the French!
In choler I rose from the settle to take my leave, late though the hour was. But Will stood up and nudged me until I caught his eye. There was such mischief there as gave me pause and he was smiling, although as for me the turkey-red went flaming up my temples and I could not speak for the wrath that boiled in me. Will pushed me back into the corner:
"Mistress," he said, "it were better done thus."
He struck an attitude, so sudden that she quailed. I, too, thought he would curse her. Tunby struggled to his feet, but sat down; I think he was not sorry to see his shrew-tongued daughter taken down a peg or two.
And of a sudden Will began to pour forth words that stung and bit like summer horse-flies. They were like a whip's crack. There was steel in them. Laden, they were, with the freight of a curse impending, all the dreadfuller because he never launched it; and his gestures, like a master-swordsman's, terrified by their restraint suggestive of a passion leashed and ready to be loosed, yet held in check.
For a minute—aye, more than a minute—I believed his venomous invective was assailing her; and so thought she, recoiling from him like a souse-wife* in a back-street broil.
(* A woman who pickles pigs' heads and feet.)
But it presently appeared that he was teaching her a better way to void her spleen, not voiding his on her. With subtlety beyond my cunning to detect, when she was browbeat into speechlessness, he passed her by, as floods go rolling by a broken dam, and left her, as it were, behind him wondering to watch him overwhelm all levels lower than herself. We three became the audience, and he the player showing us how virtue triumphs over vice.
And in time he paused—in good time. Subtle gesture changed him. He became the very creature he had overwhelmed with eloquence! He trembled and began to answer—stammered—tried to summon dignity—then turned away, recovering, to cloak his shame beneath a show of anger, coveting a passion that he could not feel, his very venom turned to water by the magic of his former speech. He seemed to try to gather new resources from the empty air, then hung his head and answered—nothing!
Presently he smiled, and seemed to take us into confidence; now he was Will of Stratford, we his hosts.
"All men," he said, "play many parts. And that which we think worthy in us often shows itself weak wretchedness when nobler presences appear. Vainglorious Goliath falls before a David's sling. A David cowers at a weak old man's rebuke. Our chiefest powers glow but in comparison with lesser; in the flame of higher genius they fall like dross into the ashes of our self- contempt—inestimable—ugly—oh, oblivion shall swallow no more proper food than weakness that we thought was strength and self-esteem that we mistook for godliness!"
He changed again. He took his seat, and like a cat before the hearth, drew comfort out of hospitality, contenting others with the spirit he exuded. Then he told us tales, so full of magic and the mystery of interest as kept us wakeful, until midnight saw the fire die low and Mistress Atkins had to beg grace of her father's roof. She sent two 'prentices to warn her husband she would not be home that night, old Tunby bidding the 'prentices tread slyly lest the night-watch catch them and the magistrates impose a penalty next day for being out when honest lads should lie abed.
Of the meeting with Benjamin Berden by chance, and of the opportunity that came of it.
I ROSE at dawn, leaving Will Shakespeare in the bed, and I was in the street before the 'prentices took down the shutters, finding my way to Burbage's mews where we had left the horses overnight. Will meant to follow custom and sell the nag that carried him to London, and we had heard the day before, along the road from Uxbridge, how good horses were in fine demand since so many knights and gentlemen had gone to the Low Countries at their own costs to help Dutchmen fight the King of Spain.
But what with the purse my Mildred gave me, and Will Shakespeare's impudence having saved us so much tavern expense, I was not feeling so bankrupt after all, and the thought had found lodging in my head that two good nags would make a better showing than one.
So I aroused the drunken hostler, and he, thinking I would pay my reckoning, summoned Burbage from his bed, most scurvily ill- tempered to be called to pocket those few pence. I bade him offer me a price for Will's mare, and what with his mislike of being up so early, and with his thinking I could not afford the charges and would therefore sell the mare cheap, he bid low. Whereat I cried a pox on his Jew's avarice and came away before he could better the offer.
Then I returned to the house and wakened Will, who was a lusty sleeper, and I offered him the same price for the mare that Burbage bid me. Will accepted it without ado, it being nearly twice as much as he had hoped to get for his old sorrel that he started with from Stratford, although much less than the mare was worth. I paid him there and then, he smiling as I counted out the money.
"You will die rich or be hanged poor, one way or the other," he said, pulling on his hose, "but if you always leave your victims richer for the chousing, you will not lack mourners."
I grew half-ashamed of having paid him such a low price, although the mare was in a way part mine, since it was I who had forced the exchange with Jeremy Crutch, but Will read my humour.
"Rest you merry," he adjured me. "Let me not know what the proper price is. In the good enough our true contentment lies. The better, unattained, frets disposition. I am only happy when I see no summits out o' reach, nor no flights of imagination missed."
We ate our breakfast with the 'prentices, Mistress Atkins being gone betimes in great dread that her household might have fallen into sloth for lack of clacking tongue. But ere our meal was done old Roger Tunby came among us in his nightcap, with a great red shawl about his shoulders, to admonish the 'prentices and to bid me help them. He was full of spleen in the forenoons, showing whence his daughter had her sharpness, but methought he snailed and swounded* more than natural, as if he spurred a discontent to covermotives. I was more than ever sure he hoped to keep me occupied until he could send me long leagues out of reach.
(* Snails! and Swounds! were favourite oaths.)<(p>
The while I hesitated how I should avoid him without risking enmity, considering a lie about the horses, or a cousin's cousin to be found, or some such subterfuge, Will Shakespeare stole my privilege, like Jacob robbing Esau. He proposed himself in my place, vowing he could sell two bales of merchandise to my one and declaring I was likelier to quarrel than to lure new custom or retain the old.
Good shopmen, it appeared, were growing scarce, what with the war in Flanders and so many thoughts of our English volunteers going over there to fight the Dons. Our English merchants were harvesting a mint o' money selling good cannon and poor wool cloth to both sides, but they were having to pay high prices for ill-trained shopsters. So old Tunby hesitated, doubting Will and yet remembering the magic of his tongue that certainly might serve in wooing custom. While they argued I went up and mucked on my best suit with the pointed sleeves, made by Fugger of Augsburg.* I did don, too, my new short cloak of blue French velvet.
(* The famous German house of Fugger did a considerable business in ready-made clothing, whereas English woollens were getting a bad reputation abroad.)
When I came down Will was chaffering already with a purchaser of wool. Apparently he understood that trade (and by the rood, I have found little that he does not understand, except how to use weapons and act churlish). The 'prentices, who were sweeping out the kennel* before the shop, were in two minds, whether to listen to Will or to the common cryer, who was serving notice of an execution to be held at noon that day. I made my way to Cheapside unobserved (I thought) by any of them, and for a while I was hard put to it to bear myself with proper arrogance, so entertaining was the scene.
(* A gutter down the middle of the street.)
Adown the middle of Cheapside rode gentry, picking their way through crowds of 'prentices and loiterers of many nations.
There was a constant movement, wondrous pleasing to the eye, enhanced as it was by the colours of men's and women's costumes against the painted woodwork of the houses and the heaps of soiled snow. When I stepped aside to dodge a horseman I was seized by half a dozen 'prentices, who were like to tear my cloak off, so eager they were to drag me into their master's shop and sell me I know not what extravagances at double or treble the market price.
I was irked to think they took me for a country lout, being flattered that I carried myself already with a proper townsman's air, yet it was worth a man's life, almost, to incur their enmity. I saw one instance of their storminess. While I was giving and taking repartee right merrily, to hide my anger and to rid myself of the rogues who picked me for an easy prey, a horseman, spurring in his haste, knocked down a 'prentice.
Instantly there was a cry of "Clubs! Clubs!" The clamour sped up Cheapside until the whole street rang with it. The 'prentices left me, and swarms of others, like angered hornets, surged out of the shop-doors with their cudgels swinging. He on the horse made shift to gallop through their midst and faith, he sent a dozen of them down like ninepins, but he might have spared himself some drubbing had he put another face on it. They dragged him off his horse and cudgelled him until he lay stunned, whereafter they held him under a pump and soused him back to consciousness with his high boots full of water and his fine clothes muddied, mocking him for one of the Spanish ambassador's men and telling him his master, and his master's king to boot, were like to be hanged ere long with the other quartered Jesuits on London Bridge.
Yet they were merry rogues, right eager to be friendly in their own way, not intolerant, but liking not at all stiff manners in a stranger. They who had made a sort of prisoner of me were well contented when I gave them money to buy ale, and when I asked where the house of Joshua Stiles might be they sent one of their number to escort me. He was named Jack Giles—a stocky, bull-necked lad in a yellow jerkin that matched his freckles and a flat green cap that seemed to have been used for many purposes.
The place where Joshua Stiles did business was a great house built of brick, containing offices of more than a dozen merchants, close to the new Exchange that had been built by Sir Thomas Gresham. The house had a yard in its midst, in which scores of messengers and porters, and some sailors, warmed themselves at sea-coal fires that burned in iron pots. The snow, grey and sombre with soot, had been piled up in heaps that did not melt because so little sunshine came into the yard, but the firelight shone on the snow right handsomely.
A pompous jackanapes in livery stood at the entrance-gate and asked my business, seeming to take it ill that I was guided by a city 'prentice and not followed by a servant of my own, nor not on horseback; and while I pondered whether to bestow a largesse on the churl to change his humour I felt my cloak pulled from behind.
Marry, but I did not want to see Will Shakespeare then! There he stood, as pleased to find me as if I owed him money. His old- fashioned country suit looked shabby, and I wanted to ruffle it handsomely, not show myself to an important stranger for the first time in a bumpkin's company. I stepped back to the street to learn what brought him, masking my displeasure.
"Willy," he said, smiling, "Roger Tunby takes it ill that you should leave his house all raw, uncounselled and alone. He fears that you may fall among trim-witted fellows who will spoil you of that finery! He bade me follow you, and, if I would keep his goodwill, not to return without you. Marry! but he set no limit to the venture."
"How so?" I demanded, not exactly comprehending, though I read the mischief in his eyes and by the rood it softened my ill humour.
"Why, as day in search of night, and night of day, let mutual pursuit not cease until we meet in gloaming at our host's door," he retorted.
I could see that he had news for me, but he proposed to tell it in his own way, mocking-my impatience with an air of having all eternity to browse in.
"Let us steal a march on destiny," said he, "and for the moment be the fortune's favourites that hope accredits us. Insane ambition was the bane of Lucifer, but we're not angels, Will. A bird may whistle where a mitred abbot were ashamed to speak. So let imagination pluck that pheasant's feather from your hat and fly for both of us. I'll borrow wings from you. We'll both go looking for Will Halifax—yourself the genius of what he shall be, looking for the runagate that is, to make a man of him—and I, the counsellor, contributing such ill advice as Satan uses to keep homing souls from Heaven!"
It was half an hour before I had the story from him. I had hardly left old Roger Tunby's house that morning, it appeared, before the common carrier drew rein with letters out of Warwickshire that Tunby bore into the closet at the shop's rear with an air of secrecy. That left Will free to exchange a word or two of gossip with the carrier, who told him that one letter was from Tony Pepperday.
Remembering that Tony was my Mildred's lawful guardian who, by unhappy chance and monstrous, misliked me, Will plied the carrier with questions. And it seemed that the carrier, like many other folk, well understood what I knew not at all, that Roger Tunby wanted Mildred for his own son Edward, knowing what a comfortable dowry she should have and being so involved with Tony Pepperday in dealings that might otherwise turn to his disadvantage.
"Quoth the carrier," said Will, "the devil himself would need a long spoon should he sup with either of them."
"Can they marry a couple when one is abroad and the other unwilling?" I asked Will.
"Nay," said he, "but ships come home, and absence has a way of ending in the course of time! As for the maid's unwillingness, they say it is a woman's heritage to change her mind. You are not so puritanical, I take it, that design might forge no scandal for your Mildred's ears?"
For that speech I cursed him—albeit something gently, for I loved the man, although he could think of more ingenious disasters in a moment than the devil might invent in half a lifetime, and he aggravated discontent by watching like a groundling at a play to see the outcome. Yet he was the friendliest observer.
"I have heard," said he, "that this man Joshua Stiles, whom you seek, is after the Spanish fashion, more solemn than wise. Nay, I know no more than rumour—what the 'prentices have told me."
I did not want Will with me when I should meet Stiles, but neither did I wish to lack his friendship, so I thought of a way to be presently rid of him and at the same time to advantage both of us. I bade him bring the horses and to meet me where we stood as soon as might be, saying I would let him ride my roan. (For, I thought, if he should ride the mare again so soon he might forget the change of ownership.)
Then I bade that churl in livery at the gate to conduct me forthwith to Joshua Stiles's presence, he insolently answering that I might cool my humour in the yard along with the other petitioners until it should please his honour to send for me. And while we bandied words so loudly that the porters left the fires to come and watch us, Joshua Stiles himself came fuming through a doorway, pompous and important, to discover what the scandal might be. All they in the yard saluted him with a "good morning, Master Stiles," but he took no notice and I judged his temper reasonably well.
He was a hard-faced man with a pointed grey beard, tall and muscular, his hair nigh whiter than his starched ruff. From under shaggy brows his pale-blue eyes looked old with worry, although alertness glimmered in their depths, and he had a way of standing with both hands on his hips and his paunch thrust out, that he may have thought lent him importance. He was very richly dressed. He had a harsh voice.
"How now, sirrah?" he demanded. "You mistake this for the fish-wharf? Shall I order you thrown in the Clink for a disturber of the peace?"
I answered soberly that I had news for him. He asked me roughly, what news? I replied, such news as he might not wish bruited. He demanded to know whence I came and whether my name was entered on the Lord Mayor's list of strangers in the City; to which I answered, he himself might write such informations as he pleased when he had heard what I would tell him privily. Whereat he stood a moment fingering the gold chain that he wore around his neck, and I judged him a sheep in a wolf-skin.
"Come," he said, leading the way.
I followed him into a room wherein a bright fire burned in an iron grate and two clerks wrote at a table. There were documents in racks and boxes.
"Now then, sirrah. To the point, and briefly!" he commanded. But I said nothing, looking sideways at the clerks and from the clerks again to him.
So he dismissed them from the room and took his stand, with hands on hips again and his back to the fire, leaving me in the light. I took care he should read self-assurance on my face.
When we had tried to stare each other out of countenance, I asked him whether he had lost aught on the road from Bristol lately; whereat he put his hand to his beard and hesitated in a way that put me thoroughly on guard against him. There was a great square key-hole in the door that led into the next room; I would have wagered a clerk was listening.
"What have you of mine?" he demanded.
But I was not so country-raw as all that.
"I know," I said, "a man who found a red box with a green stone figure in it. I can get the thing if I can find its proper owner."
"Will you sell it?" he demanded. "How much?"
"No," said I. "For shall I sell you what is not mine? But I am minded that it might be such a talisman as sets its finder on the road to fortune."
"It will lead you on the road to Tyburn Tree," he answered. "If you have my property, surrender it before I have you clapped in fetters!"
But though he was reputed rich, and an alderman to boot, it crossed my mind that he might have more will than ability to execute such malice. So I said I was mistaken, having heard the owner of the gimcrack was a civil enough gentleman:
"Whereas you, sir," I said, "seem somewhat lacking in that particular. I will take my information to the Lord Mayor, who will know what should be done."
I knew I had him then. He was in six minds all at once.
"I have a toothache and the chill air frets me, shortening my temper," he said at last. "I should have perceived you are of gentle breeding and I beg you to forget my hasty rudeness, that offends me more than it did you.
"I suspect the toy of which you speak is mine," he said, "and truth to tell, I will be glad to get it back without such bruiting of my foolish fondness for the thing as might stir ridicule. If you will bring it to my house in Spitalfields, to- night at eight o' the clock, I will be at leisure to discuss what influence I can exert in your behalf."
To put a better face on it he questioned me about my name and parentage, pretending he had known my father Sir Harry.
Nevertheless, I let him hold me there in conversation, he turning over in his mind, I did not doubt, the while he talked, alternatives for my discomfiture.
It was an hour, and he summoned by his clerk to the Exchange, before he took my arm and walked with me to the gate where already Will Shakespeare sat on my horse Robin, holding the led mare.
Will and I rode westward, for it was time that the walking in Paul's should begin, of which I had heard my father tell so often, and of how all the favourites at court who had the Queen's ear could be seen there promenading, as well as all those who wished to seem important or who sought an opportunity to press their suits by getting word with someone of influence.
Avoiding Cheapside, lest one of Roger Tunby's 'prentices should recognize us, we had turned along a street nearby the river when a circumstance befell that ushered me on to the stage of great events, though through a back-door, as it were.
There began a clamour of all the church-bells and a din of shouting—then a surge of people out of by-lanes toward Cheapside. Women leaned from upper windows. I thought haply Queen Elizabeth herself were coming, which, if it were so, was a sight that neither Will nor I would have missed, not though we lacked a meal for looking—although Will told me he had seen her once at Kenilworth what time the Earl of Leicester entertained her with unnumbered strange conceits. (But Will was young then.)
So we turned up a lane into Cheapside and waited, realizing presently that all that clamour of bells was something other than a festival. For dignity we forbore questioning, but we were puzzled by the crowd's behaviour, which seemed to me expectant rather of a good bear-baiting than the passage of the Queen's grace. And presently, from the City, came a great roar our way, increasing until it almost drowned the clangour of the bells. Then I saw a group of horsemen and behind them, yeomen from the Tower in bright red liveries with black hats—bearded, handsome fellows armed with halberds, forcing the crowd to either side to make a passage through the midst.
Then followed he who was the instigator of the whole commotion. Came an old grey horse that drew a hurdle, whereon lay a man so tied by legs and wrists that he could raise himself a little on his elbows. He was clothed in sacking, and his arms and the calves of his legs were blue with the cold—a middle-aged man who, I thought, might look right gently bred in other circumstances.
Never had I seen a man so howled at and so execrated; nor never have I seen a poor wretch so resentful of the fate that he had brought down on himself, nor more undignified in his attempt to win the people to his way of thinking. Many and many a man I have seen die, some of whom were caitiffs, but none have I seen that feared his death and clamoured his complaints as that one did.
He would raise himself until the cords cut deep into his arms, and cry out that he called on God to hold Queen Elizabeth guilty of his blood. For a moment the crowd would listen. Then it drowned his cries under a roar of mockery and execration, so that you would think he would know how little use it was to make appeal to them. But he cried out the more; and all the while he kept glancing over his shoulder at the executioners, who walked behind him dressed in black, wearing black masks, the one carrying a hempen rope and the other the great quartering knife with its edge toward the culprit.
Behind the executioners were other yeomen of the guard to keep the crowd from harming the poor wretch; and, indeed, I think, if it had not been for the yeomen and their halberds, there would have been no work left for the executioner to do, so savage was the crowd's mood. There were some who threw stones and vegetables, although not many, having scant time to procure the ammunition. One yeoman was struck by a stone and left the ranks to punish him who threw it; not discovering the man, he struck another with his halberd, and so shrewdly that the rest took warning of the broken head.
The procession passed and I looked for someone to tell me who the poor wretch was who rode the hurdle. There was a dark-faced fellow almost at my saddle-bow—a man with clever-looking hazel eyes, clean-shaven, well dressed in a dark green suit that might be some nobleman's livery, although it bore no cognizance. He seemed right eager to address me, so I looked the other way to test his eagerness, and presently he touched my knee.
"I saw you having speech with Joshua Stiles, the alderman," he said. "Will you troll the bowl with me awhile in yonder tavern? We will drink a fathom-health to Good Queen Bess."
He took my mare's rein, smiling confidently when I bade him let go.
"I am Benjamin Berden," he said, "in the service of Mister Secretary Walsingham."
He might have been speaking falsely, but he claimed high influence, so I held my tongue and followed him into the tavern, leaving Will to mind the horses; but the lad Jack Giles had followed us and took the reins from Will, who was nothing loth to bear us company. So we three took seats at a table in a corner and were served with ale and cheese by a wench who took such interest in Will that she spilled ale on my cloak.
Berden seemed in no haste to unfold his business. He told us that the wretch we saw drawn on a hurdle was Doctor Parry of the Queen's household and a member of the parliament now sitting. He had been convicted of plotting against the Queen's life, having agreed with one Neville, a relative of the Earl of Westmoreland, to blow her up in bed with gunpowder. But Neville had betrayed the plot, and Parry had confessed under threat of torture; whereat, such indignation had there been in parliament that Sir Thomas Lucy had proposed a bill to authorize a form of execution worse than that provided by the statues. But Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Rawleigh and a few others protesting, word of it had reached the Queen's ears, so that she herself prevented it by a message to parliament, declaring that the present penalties were ample—as indeed whoever witnesseth can testify.
"But there are many who think otherwise," said Berden, "since, if the Queen were killed, she would leave no heir of her body to rule the realm. The Scottish Queen—aye, and the King of Spain, and the Duke of Guise, would surely contrive to lay this kingdom low under the Pope's heel, of which we had a-plenty in Queen Mary's reign. There be many," he said, "who have heard how the Pope offers a good round sum of money and his blessing to whoever murders her. Such hold to the opinion that it might be wisdom to revive King Harry's medicine for traitors—boiling them alive in oil, although the oil costs money and is not good for much else afterwards."
But I thought that a dreadful death could hardly terrify a man of courage, and Will Shakespeare added that whatever Sir Thomas Lucy might invent would be a poxy method to procure unquietness, since wisdom does not brew itself in fools' heads. We were like to have begun an argument, Will having no love for Sir Thomas Lucy, who had stocked him more than once for killing deer, but Berden stayed that, coming to the point at last:
"What know you of Joshua Stiles?" he asked me.
I told him I thought the alderman a sheep's head in a wolf's shift. One word led to another and at last, divining that this Berden was a man whose confidences might prove useful to me, I related to him how the gimcrack in its red box came into my hands, and how Joshua Stiles coveted the thing, it being doubtless his.
Berden asked to clap eye on the gimcrack, but I was minded to discover first what underlay his interest. So he asked, would I show it to a secretary of Sir Francis Walsingham?
"Aye," I answered, "if he will present me to Sir Francis afterwards, since I lack present means of having access to the Queen's grace."
"You aim high," said Berden. But he thought a while, and presently he put me to a deal of questioning.
It tickled him, I thought, that I should speak unkindly of the Earl of Leicester, but warned me of discussing high personages.
"There are spies," he told me, "whichever way a man turns. Spies for the French and Spanish embassies, and for the Scottish Queen, and for the Privy Council—aye, and for the Queen herself, if only the truth were known; so that what a man says privily this morning may be bruited in the Queen's ears in the afternoon."
I said I doubted it, to make him say more, although I believed him well enough.
"I myself am a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham," he said. "I will stand your friend before Sir Francis if you will do the like by me. He recks too little yet of my discretion. I could summon guards and hale you to him, but he might reward me or he might blame, and I better like the thought of bringing you before Lord Burghley, who is liker to employ you, and by the same good service to yourself I fasten two strings to my own bow."
He told me then a long tale of his doings: how his father was a preacher of the new religion, who had fled from England when Queen Mary married the Spanish King, and no man's life was safe who refused to acknowledge the Pope. How, consequently, he himself had learned Italian and French and German in Geneva, not returning to his own land until she whom men call Bloody Mary died, with Calais written on her heart (for so they tell), and her sister, our great Elizabeth, came out of durance to be Queen, at which time Berden was a boy of fourteen years.
He told how he became a servant to Sir Francis Walsingham, with whom he lived in Paris at the embassy, and how Sir Francis had employed him chiefly to spy on the Spanish ambassador and on a man named Morgan, who was agent for the Queen of Scots.
"And I tell you," he said, tapping again on the table, "we who ferret out the news by which the statesmen guide their practices, receive small wages and less praise, even as those statesmen themselves get poxy treatment from the Queen. A man does well to look to his own chances."
I thought him a zany, notwithstanding, so to talk to me, who was a stranger to him; and I thought Will Shakespeare, glancing at him darkly now and then, gave little credit to his talk.
I was eager to be taken that hour to Lord Burghley, or to Sir Francis Walsingham; indifferent, indeed, which member of the Council should be sponsor of my fortune, so be I missed no opportunity. But Berden told me neither of them could be seen that morning, since the parliament was sitting and the Lords held council in the morning to be ready for the session in the afternoon.
"Moreover," said he, "matters such as this are better deftly- managed, such a pick-thank lot they are at court, each studying to claim all credit for himself."
Of many famous men, and of the meeting with
Thomas Phelippes which took Will to Westminister.
BERDEN found me not so ignorant as he imagined. Princes and their ministers seek safety for the state in preserving that very ignorance that constitutes its gravest danger; whereas, it seems to me, that if men were all equally well-informed it must inevitably follow that the greater part would rally to lawful government, but in ignorance lies such uncertainty as stimulates sedition.
And who shall preserve ignorance, that is like a mist dispersable by every wind of truth that blows? We of the shires and counties were kept more or less informed by the members of Parliament returning to their homes between the short sessions.
So what I did know certainly was mixed with false and ridiculous tidings, but I had a sort of general knowledge that made me able to hold my ground with Berden. I knew, for instance, that the Scots Queen was now at Tutbury in the custody of Sir Ralph Sadler, a man advanced in years, who some said favoured her; though that I doubted, knowing the Lord Harry had employed him in suppressing monasteries, and how he had fought against the Scots, rallying the cavalry at Pinkie Cleugh, and what not else. And I knew it was common talk that there was more than one French priest in the Scots Queen's household in disguise; nor was there doubt in anybody's mind that she was practising against the realm, with secret messages to Parma in the Low Country, and to the Duke of Guise in France, and even to Phillip, King of Spain; as it was also known that many in England favoured her and looked to see her on the throne before long.
I had heard even my father Sir Harry say, and more than once, that it were well to keep Mary Queen of Scots alive and in good countenance, in order that England might not lack a queen if God should see fit to remove Elizabeth, by a murderer's hand or otherwise. My father was one of the first in our part of England to sign the Association Bond for the protection of the Queen's life, but it was understood, nevertheless, that her life hung by a pack-thread since the Pope had excommunicated her with promises of wealth in this world and salvation in the next for her assassin.
It was common rumour, too, and well-known to us country gentry, that Percy, Neville, Arundel, Throgmorton, Paget, and others of our nobility who had escaped to foreign parts, were planning invasion to set Mary of Scotland on the throne. The Duke of Guise should go to Scotland to invade us from the North, and the King of Spain should send his troops to land in Ireland. Nor had England any army to resist them.
There were also stories that the Queen would marry the Earl of Leicester, to raise an heir to her own body and to set all rivalries at rest. But there were few who liked that prospect, since the Earl was but a Dudley and ill spoken of—under suspicion, moreover, of having murdered Amy Robsart, whom he had married secretly and then wished dead.
So there was much to talk of, and no little mutual understanding, as Berden and I rode toward Paul's yard, where the printing shops lie cheek by jowl beneath a wooden colonade, alongside houses of the better class of merchants and the shops of sword-smiths, ruff-makers, glovers, and what not else. That 'prentice lad had followed us; he seemed vastly taken with me, so I let him hold the horses, but I wondered what trouble his master would make for him when he should return to that shop in Cheapside.
Mighty entertainment had I watching how the grave and venerable men who stood at corners measured the young gallants' swords and brake them if they passed a lawful length. For all were aping the Italians in those days, but an Order in Council had set limits to the fashion, and many a cock-feathered gallant I saw well mocked and impotently furious because his costly new Italian blade was snapped into a business for the blacksmith. Glad I was that none had coaxed me to Italianate myself. My sword was good old English, short and heavy, that a Halifax had borne on Flodden Field that time the Scots had sought to take advantage of King Harry when his back was turned.
And when we had seen all the shopkeepers' daughters, I wondered a while at Paul's, which is a building that I doubt not makes the foreigners put tongue in cheek when they speak of us as barbarous pirates.
There I first set eyes on men who are the very marrow of the spine of England, Berden naming them as he and I stood watching from a corner near the main door. Some I would have recognized from hearsay. Sir Francis Drake, Fulke Grenville, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Richard Grenville and Lord Howard of Effingham were all of one group, filling up the aisle in two lines as they strolled up and down, so that others had to turn when they turned, they setting the pace for the whole procession that flowed back and forth like a tide up the mouth of a river.
Of them all Lord Howard of Effingham, the Queen's Lord Chamberlain, was by far the handsomest; but Sir Philip Sidney, already Master of the Ordnance although not greatly older than myself, was next to him in good looks. But the man who made my heart leap as I watched him was Sir Francis Drake. He was dressed in a suit of red and white, with a velvet cloak that showed off the breadth of his shoulders and depth of his chest. He had a thick neck that looked fit to bear a cannon-ball, and a cannonball was what I thought of as I stared at his high forehead and the brave blue eyes beneath.
And this I marked: that though he neither raised his voice nor gestured forcibly, his speech came out of him like gun-shot; so that all men listened to him, though he seemed not to care that they listened.
Came a man in a russet suit, whom at first sight I liked not at all—a spare, impassive, pock-marked fellow, red-haired, something over thirty, who passed through the crowd adroitly and tapped at Berden's shoulder from behind.
"What have you?" he demanded.
He was owlish. I perceived that Berden feared him; and indeed there was nothing about him that a man of merry humour might regard with liking, though he stirred curiosity, Nor was he altogether mean to look at; there was something of enthusiasm in him, as if in secret he pursued a steadfast aim, and it leaped into my mind as I observed him that an alchemist or a sorcerer might look as he did.
"I have Joshua Stiles as good as caught," said Berden and presented me, naming the man Master Thomas Phelippes. His strange brown eyes changed vaguely, as if mayhap he knew my name by hearsay; and I learned later that he never forgot whatever he had once heard.
He led the way into a corner near Duke Humphrey's tomb, where the low ruffians and broken gentlemen who could be hired for any venture stood around in groups, and Berden told him in a low voice all about my ride to London.
Phelippes asked to see the trinket. He returned it to me after one swift glance.
"Yes, we have him now," he said quietly, "and another besides, if no fool blunders."
Berden flinched at that, so I knew there was discontent between them. For a while they whispered with their backs toward me, so I turned to watch Sir Francis Drake again, who had brought all the walkers in Paul's to a standstill by pausing in converse with Sir Thomas Hawkins and Lord Howard.
Phelippes touched me on the shoulder. "Ride," he said, "with Berden to the Palace Yard and await my coming."
So we rode to Westminster, where a crowd stood struggling to see the quartered wretch whom they had dragged up Cheapside earlier in the day. But we threaded our way around the edges of the crowd and rode under an echoing arch, where halberdiers admitted Berden without challenge.
The inner yard was smoothly paved, with a great well in the midst that seemed to serve no purpose, since there were neither buckets nor beam, although there was a stone arch over it with hooks to which we fastened our reins. There we waited, watching the comings and goings of many messengers, some of whom from their liveries I knew to be followers of the Earl of Leicester.
Very tardily came Phelippes. He brought with him a certain Captain Jaques, who looked like an Italian but was not, though I never learned in what land he had first seen daylight; he rode, and he stood like a soldier to be counted on for fierceness, and behind him rode four others not less dark and desperate of aspect than himself. Phelippes threw his reins to Berden and went in through a door in the shadow at a corner of the yard. The rest of us stood staring at one another. It was a long time, and we half- frozen, before Phelippes came out through the same narrow door and beckoned me.
I followed him up steps into a narrow corridor from which oaken doors opened on either hand. There was a weight of silence and a chill gloom, as if we were entering a dungeon; but we went up stone stairs to a wider corridor and at the end of that a bright fire of sea-coal was burning in an iron grate at which a dozen saucy pages warmed themselves. There Phelippes left me for a while.
The good comfortable glow of sea-coals warmed me finely, and the need to stare those pages out of countenance restored my self-assurance, what with being chilled to the marrow in the yard and waiting like a serving man at Phelippes's beck and call. I recalled to myself that I was being much more fortunate than I had reason to expect, and by the time Phelippes opened a door and beckoned I felt ready to make my bow to Queen Elizabeth herself.
Of meeting with Lord Secretary Burghley.
I FOLLOWED Phelippes into a room in which sat four venerable-looking secretaries in black suits, who wrote studiously by the dim light from narrow window's. At the far end was a door by which a man sat on a stool, holding a black rod tipped with ivory; he tapped on the door with his stick, not opening until he heard a voice within, which brought my heart to my mouth.
Phelippes led into a dim room sumptuously furnished, lined with shelves on which were boxes, many of them covered with red leather. At a table in the midst two secretaries sat, their quill pens squeaking on the parchment. Neither of them glanced up. But he who sat in a great armchair by the fireside stared at me, and I had no eyes thereafter for whatever else was in the room, so curiously stirring was his presence. Since that day I have come to think him great, and I have thought him mean; I have despised his underhandedness (the more since I have had to play my part in it! ) and I have admired his sagacity, his loyalty and courage, even while offended by his treacherous unfairness; but I have never overcome that feeling in his presence of being face to face with forces that are not exactly of this world—forces both good and evil, and all terrible.
"My Lord Burghley," said Phelippes, "this is the son of Sir Harry Halifax of Brownsover, of whom I spoke."
He was long past middle-age, grey-bearded, growing bald and wearing a black silk cap. He had the gout and his right foot was in a great felt slipper resting on a cushion.
He was dressed all in black with a white lawn ruff, very dainty and stiff, and he wore a long gold chain, curiously wrought. I took him for a man of rather less than middle height, though that was not so easy to determine, because of the chair and the way he sat in it; but he was not one to be feared for his physical strength; what power he had undoubtedly resided in the massive forehead. His face smacked of a kind of incredulous wisdom, as if nothing could happen that should surprise him, he having tasted of all disappointments—an irascible man and, I doubted not, given to brooding, chin on chest—pallid and far heavier of paunch than looked good for his health.
"You have a trinket?" he said suddenly, in a sullen voice, as if he made an accusation that he dared me to deny.
I gave him the red box and he studied it a long while, stroking the gimcrack with his thumb as he watched the firelight playing on the green stone.
"Dangerous spoil to be caught with!" he said, staring at me. "What do you seek in London?"
"Fortune," said I, hoping I might make him smile; but he only stared, as if wondering what treachery might underlie my frank appearance—so that even I myself began to think me treacherous.
He bade me tell him how I came to London.
"How now, sir!" he demanded. "Have you told the half of it? Who is this Mildred Jackson whom a follower of the Earl of Leicester tells me you have dared to covet?"
So I told him, and he questioned me narrowly as to her age and how her mother, being gently bred, had come to marry such a rat as Tony Pepperday. Then he asked me about the Earl of Leicester's quarrel with my father, and of my father's death. I told him all I knew, which was not much. Seeing him apparently displeased, I added how my father had let me sign the Association Bond, setting my name beneath his on the parchment, father and son united in a just cause.
He grunted. "Talk must be tested," he said, staring at Phelippes, and I noticed that his old grey eyes were wondrous thoughtful. "I commend none to Her Highness of whose integrity I lack experience."
My heart leaped to my mouth. I felt such sudden triumph as I did the day I beat my father to his knees at sword-play. I stammered something—I forget what.
"You stand foully with the Earl of Leicester, sirrah!" he said suddenly.
I felt my heart sink down into my boots. The Earl of Leicester was a member of the Privy Council, even as Lord Burghley himself, and I did not understand that he spoke for Phelippes's benefit, intending that Phelippes should report to others how he had rebuked me for the Earl of Leicester's sake. I stammered I had done the Earl no wrong.
"He will himself be judge of that," Lord Burghley answered. "How is it you were silent until questioned? Do you come to London looking for vengeance?"
I answered: "Broken causes are ill mended by hasty speech; nor was my father, Sir Harry, one who looked for other vengeance than God visits, having taught me that whoever serves his God with zeal and his lawful prince with honesty may look to God to recompense him."
"Most men look to the Queen's purse," said Lord Burghley and I saw a thin suggestion of a smile escape him. "Will you forget the wrong the Earl of Leicester did you?"
"Forgetfulness," I said, "is not a quality we Halifaxes shine in. My father Sir Harry was a loyal knight, and I should fall short of my duty an I strove not to restore his good name and to make another for myself, the better to continue his. However, a revenge were poxy service to a gentleman in Heaven, who is doubtless too contented there to care for bickerings in this world."
"You have a smooth tongue, sirrah. I have seen how ready speech too often hides unreadiness," he answered; and, thinking I had said too much, I was silent, biting my tongue with anger at my lack of wisdom. For a while he stared at me again. Then suddenly:
"There is a warrant for the seizure of the person of Joshua Stiles, an alderman. Keep tryst with him in Spitalfields to-night as Phelippes says you have appointed. Berden shall have the warrant. Take with you Captain Jaques and the four men that he has. See to it that Joshua Stiles is in the Marshalsea by midnight, and when you have the signature of the keeper of the Marshalsea, return with it to my house, no matter at what hour, bringing with you Berden and the others."
Many a question leaped into my mind: as whether I should order Berden or he me; whether I should expect payment for the service; whether or no I was now in the Queen's employment, or might look for that if the outcome were successful. But he perceived my will to question him and gestured. Phelippes plucked my sleeve.
Of the standing on terms with Berden.
I HAVE learned since what all who deal with courtiers, aye, and with princes, have to learn: that it is the use of statecraft to keep all men eager in uncertainty, rather than by flattering importunity to sharpen appetites.
But I did not understand at the time, and when we were outside the door I sought to question Phelippes.
"'Steeth and nails!" he answered, "my master is Sir Francis Walsingham, and one is enough! My trade is reading ciphers, but marry! I have never guessed right when I tried to read Lord Burghley's mind. That which is written in cipher is written and stands to be read; but a minister's thoughts, I doubt not, are a secret that the minister himself would give a fortune to unravel."
He took the warrant from the secretary in the outer room and handed it to Berden in the yard, saying Berden might borrow his horse, and then left us, entering the building by another door. Whereat Captain Jaques decided he would ride my mare, making use of outlandish oaths to make me timorous. He swaggered up and stood between me and the mare, his four men grinning. Berden watched me with the corner of his eye, knowing no more than I did how I stood yet with Lord Burghley; I was minded to give him a good impression as well as to discover how much substance of authority was in myself, which later on the outer semblance of authority might fit, in the way that a good glove fits a strong hand.
"You will do my bidding," I answered. "Mount that knacker's meat that brought you!"
Jaques looked like having at me there and then with his long rapier, he being choleric and used, I doubted not, to snatching trifles like a bully rooster among chickens. But I turned my back. I looked at my horse's girths. As I expected, he tried to turn his disappointment with a mocking laugh, so I turned on him again.
"For a soldier you are not so ready with obedience as suits my mood," I said. "Have I to show you who is master?"
"Show me your commission," he retorted.
Having none, though I meant to set my foot that minute on the first rung of the ladder of promotion, I strode toward him, with my hand clear from my sword-hilt, though he touched his. I scorned to show fear of him.
"I know a 'prentice," I said, "who can take your place and do the duty better. Which is it—mount and obey, or to the devil with you to ask the Lords in Council for a copy of my orders? Haply they will waste their time feeding your curiosity!"
So he summed me up and, being a braggart, he added too high: "You might have told me in the first place that you have a Queen's commission," he said, toothing and lipping the words outlandishly. "If I had known—"
"You know or you don't know. What do I care? Mount!" I ordered; and he swung into the saddle, shrugging his shoulders and showing a grin to his men, as much as to say they should judge bye and bye of the upshot.
Then "Up tails all!" I shouted; and we rode out of the yard like a duke and his escort, even Berden keeping half a horse's length behind me, though that may have been because he wished me not to see the smile that flickered at the corner of his mouth; but I saw it and knew Berden was yet to deal with. I rode the mare and one of Jacques's men led my roan.
At the yard gate who should run towards me but the 'prentice lad Jack Giles. I found out afterwards that he had clacked his tongue dry, questioning the halberdiers who I might be. Not knowing, they had naturally filled him full of lies for their own amusement. They had not said I was Emperor of Tartary come seeking the Queen's hand in marriage, nor the Pope's legate with a bill of deposition, but there was little else they had not thought of, so the lad had notions about me like a tall ship sailing through the ocean of his dreams. I bade him mount the roan, suspecting he might save me the necessity of asking Berden the way to Spitalfields and Alderman Stiles's house.
I soon learned it was no far cry to Spitalfields, where we were likely to arrive too soon unless we dallied. Nevertheless, if I should dally in Westminister my bob-tailed following might learn I lacked the Queen's commission.
Having to pass through London City I decided to get that done with and to beguile the time where distance should prevent my rascals from overworking curiosity. It was the first taste I had ever had of clattering with a troop behind me and I made the best of it, though we were only seven, all told, and the 'prentice rode like an ape on a stick. I led so smart a pace that people fled to right and left of us, until Berden at last spurred up abreast of me:
Softly!" he said. "Softly! You are not Lieutenant-General of England yet!"
I neither answered nor slackened speed, suspecting that now was my chance to deal with Berden. Presently he asked me:
"Shall I tell these men you hold a Queen's commission or shall I tell Lord Burghley that you make pretence of it?"
Then I was glad that the noise of our hoofs prevented the others from hearing.
"Tell him," I answered, "whatever you please. But I will tell him this night whether you have helped or hindered."
"You will go far, Will Halifax. When I was your age, if I had held a Queen's commission I would have shown it to the first who asked."
We rode between the counting-houses of the richest merchants in the world, and between the warehouses of the India merchants and the Easterlings, spicey with strange smells, and with here and there a dark-skinned heathen staring at us from under his comical cloth hat, until we came to London Bridge. And there the stench was so abominable that the horses shied at it and we all held our noses in hand or handkerchief. There was a man's head on a spike above the arch at our end, and all the way along the bridge there were the rotting quarters of about two hundred Jesuits, all done to death since Candlemas.
"It comes of not minding their own business," said Berden, "so serve 'em right!"
I agreed with him there, so I set my mind to thinking of the alderman whom I must hale into the Marshalsea.
We rode around the Tower moat, I marvelling at all that pile of masonry against the afternoon sky, shuddering a little, too, as I remember, at the thought of how many noblemen—aye, and a queen—had lost their heads behind that grim wall. What with one thought leading to another it began to dawn on me that I was in the midst of such treasons as had cost wiser men than me their heads, and that haply mere audacity were insufficient for the night's work. And the more I thought of it, the more I saw that Berden was of like mind; he was making such grimaces to himself as a yokel makes through a horse-collar at a country fair for a prize of bacon and ale.
"Have you saddle-boils?" I asked him, and he tried to grin a little, misliking that I should think him fearful. But I had Berden's measure.
When we came to a tavern such as we might enter without too much comment I drew rein to order bait for the beasts and for ourselves such supper as the mean place could provide. Our host came into the yard to look us over—a flinty-eyed, furtive rogue with a St. Anthony's fire in his nose that I doubted not he kept well slaked; and before he would give us as much as a drink for man or beast he demanded to know who would settle the reckoning.
So I roundly cursed the fellow for a poxy cone-catcher and flung a coin into the mixen at his feet, declaring I would pay such reckoning as passed my scrutiny. Whereat my ruffians went into the inn to swill and gorge themselves at my cost. So I smelt another danger than the heavy draught on light purse. Extravagance, I thought, will certainly appear to them a weakness, as it will also make them pot-house brave and uncontrollable.
"Bread, cheese and beef," I ordered, "and for each hour that we tarry here one mug of ale to the man—nor not a drop beside, not though they offer payment. If a man of mine is drunk when I require his services, I'll have your licence confiscated and yourself whipped at a cart-tail. For you look to me, mine host, like a skullful of lousy purposes!"
"Who loosed this ban-dog?" he grumbled. But he understood his risk too well, and my predicament too little, to defy me and I heard him repeat my order to the 'prentice potman.
In the tap-room the borough coroner was holding inquest on a corpse; the room was crowded with the jury and a throng of witnesses. I went into the inner room and bade the lad Giles follow me, he walking wryly, being unused to the saddle and as galled already as a tripe under a good-wife's scraper.
"The smallest fishes make the biggest splashes now and then," said I, "so I will try you first. Eat—drink—then slip away unseen and bring me word what passes near the house of Joshua Stiles the alderman. Keep silent and report to nobody but me."
Presently came Berden, his imagination full of human entrails he had seen uncovered and his appetite no better for it.
"'Swounds! But this is no night's work for honest men!"
I told him we had lousy enough rogues with us for any undertaking. "Jaques and his blackguards will never see angels except in the shape of minted money, and that stolen."
"Aye," he answered, "lousy rascals who will leave us in the lurch! There are too few of us. Nor are the men we have much better than a pack of curs to catch a falcon with. What know you yet of Stiles and how he keeps himself?"
I knew nothing. I was careful, therefore, to appear wise, looking at Berden as if doubtful how far I could trust him. But he was not so taken by my air of secrecy as not to have his doubts.
"I see," he said, "you are already chief adviser to Lord Burghley, so I pay you my humble respects. But are you aware that Joshua Stiles is plotting to deliver the Queen of Scots from Tutbury?"
"So far you shoot middling straight," I answered.
"And have they told you that the green thing in the red box, that you showed to Phelippes, is the Queen of Scots' own talisman that the Lords in Council have been hunting for these many months? The sight of that thing was to warn the disaffected men to hold themselves in readiness. It has been sent around the country, and the Council has heard of it scores of times, but none knew who the leaders are, nor how ready they are. It is easy enough to hang half-wit yokels or to make a carrier or two hop headless, but that uncovers no conspiracies.
"Who in the City of London is behind it all?—and how many?—and how prepared? to take Joshua Stiles by daylight might start a tumult. What then, my bully night-rider? Why does my Lord Burghley pick a hot-pate such as you to do his errand? You shall have your crack at Stiles, you shall; and if his fellows crack your pate, so" much the worse for you—but who else suffers? Nobody. If you catch him, and if the City of London takes his part, what then again? Why pittikins and God-amercy! You are nothing but an addle-witted knight's son new to London, who did a decent alderman a gross indignity and may be thrown yourself into the Marshalsea in place of him!"
"'Od's teeth, you have the warrant," I retorted.
"Aye," he said, "I have it, which is, so to say, you have it not. If all goes well, good Benjamin Berden, a proper person, frequently employed in such particulars, has served a warrant issued by the Lords in Council. If not, aforesaid Benjamin Berden, a scapegrace oftentimes entrusted with ticklish treasons that were best not talked about, returns the warrant whence it came, he knowing which side uppermost his bread is buttered. Where is the warrant then? Who shall produce it? Who shall save Will Halifax from the vengeance of Stiles and others?"
"I am doubtless not so deep in the Council's confidence as you are," I retorted, "yet it seems I am trusted more than you are, and apparently with cause."
"Well crowed, my bully rooster," he said, laughing. He was no churl, though a life of playing spy had changed his natural courage into a cunning not so admirable. "But hear me first," he went on, "for your own good. If we all went tails up and heads down into any trap the Lords in Council tallyho us into, how long should we last? Yet dare we not refuse, since bread and cheese depends on it, and pickings. Therefore, sometimes we avoid the danger and the man escapes us, yet we bring back to our masters such reports as mollify their hard conceits.
"All England is full o' treason. If six of us and a 'prentice lad go after Joshua Stiles we are like to leave our carcasses for the crowner here to hold his quest on; but if we fill our noses full o' new hot scent and cry it to the Lords in Council, we provide ourselves a suitabler employment and live longer."
It was a weighty argument, because I saw he lacked the spunk for the night's work and I knew that Jaques and his men were even less dependable.
"By God's beard," I answered, "I will carry such report of you as you deserve this night, and you shall do the same by me, so let us look to it that each may praise the other!"
By his eye I knew he liked me better for that speech than if I had yielded to his persuasion. Rather ruefully but with a grin he struck hands on the bargain and then went to the tap-room to draw Dutch courage from the hogshead.
There had come a fog down-river, thickened by the smoke from chimneys, and it was no evening to tempt men outdoors.
I began to fear my 'prentice-lad had lost himself and when he lingered until after six o'clock, as I knew by the cry of the watchman in the street, the doubt crept into me that I had acted like a country fool to trust him.
But he came at last beckoning in the doorway, his snub nose twitching and his freckles all awork with news. I followed him out to the stable, noticing as I went that Jaques and his men were none too sober; they had found fools ready to buy drinks for them in exchange for tales of foreign parts—all lies, I doubt not. Women had arrived to tempt them after they should grow too drunk to know a wanton from an honest wench. Jaques was putting pepper and Holland spirits into his ale and was in a fair way toward picking quarrels.
'Prentice Giles waited for me where the fog and the steam from the yard dung made a nimbus around the stable lantern, and by the way he grinned I knew he had chanced on something that should set me by the ears. So I wore my best air of indifference, although he well-nigh robbed me of it with his first words:
"Master, there are twenty sailors lying in wait for you behind a garden wall near Alderman Stiles's house. Stiles has a boat on the river and is on the way to it now, with two men. There the twenty sailors are to find him after they have killed you and whoever comes with you. I heard Stiles give his orders, for it was easy in the fog to creep close without their knowing it. They are to take the trinket in a red box from your person and then to make all haste to the boat, which is already loaded with Stiles's luggage. They are to row the boat down-river to a ship that is bound for Flushing."
He knew where the boat was and swore he could find it, fog or no fog. So I bade him put the bridles on my mare, on the roan, and on Berden's horse, and to have all three ready in the stable- yard against my coming.
In the tap-room Jaques sat with a slattern on his knee, his busy fingers fidgeting her shift, what little remained to guard her easy virtue. He kicked his rapier-point to bring the hilt well forward as a hint to me to govern myself shrewdly; so while I paid the tavern reckoning with my back toward him I was thinking more of him than of the money and I doubt not I was cheated. But so was Jaques—of his drunken hope of making me the target of his ill-will. I needed just such a spur to my waning courage as Jaques provided.
I turned on him right suddenly and tripped the chair he sat on; he and the slut went sprawling in the sawdust. She was on her feet first, screaming to him to avenge her, making more fuss than an honest wench about the offence I had done to her modesty. She dubbed me a young springald, so as Jaques made shift to draw his rapier I fetched her a back-hand clout across the ear that sent her staggering into him. He gave her a shove that sent her sprawling on the floor again out of his way, but that was too late: I had him by the sword-wrist, and if he had not let go the rapier I would have rendered his arm an object lesson for that drunken surgeon's 'prentices.
"'Twould serve you right," said I, "if I should snap this toy off to its proper length and thrash you with the half of it for making yourself a whoreson spectacle. You serve a gentleman, and God's teeth, you shall serve him mannerly!"
With that I threw his weapon in a corner and bade him go fetch it. I knew I had hurt his wrist more smartly than should make him eager for a fight just then, so I turned my back to him and, after spilling his men's ale (they had drunk more than I ordered) and parting them from the toss-pot trulls they fondled, I went in to speak my mind to Berden, who had stood at the crack of the inner door to watch what happened.
"That fellow Jaques will stick you in the back like a Michaelmas hog," he warned me, and I waxed sarcastic:
"Not with a brave, bold lad like you to stand beside me!" I said; and that was the last I ever had to say to Berden in such vein as that; since that night Berden and I have been in many a tight place together and I have never known him either to flinch or spare himself.
I told him I had work enough to keep Jaques otherwise engaged than stalking me. "Get six yards of good stout cord," I urged him. "Cut it in three and bring it. You and I and the 'prentice- lad will catch our man while Jaques and his ruffians draw the ambush."
"Dare you trust Jaques?" he demanded, for he realized that I had news, though he knew not yet how I had it.
"Look you well to your report concerning me and never mind Jaques," I answered, whereat he laughed, for he was braver when he had no choice than when he thought his luck presented him with opportunity to run out and around an issue. So I let him know I bore no malice, taking him by the arm that Jaques and his men might see the two of us in open amity. I ordered Jaques to take his men and up-tails in the yard.
Of the taking of Alderman Joshua Stiles.
HORSES and men were like ghosts in the fog by the light of the stable lantern and there was opportunity for Jaques and his men to have revenge on me. But fortune seems to me to flow into the channel of men's moods and Jaques's mood was offensive to the lady, if she is a female, as the ancients seem always to have maintained, with what warranty I know not. I found him standing on the mixen, very angry with his horse that would not let him mount. I came up like a phantom and the horse took fright at me. It threw him on his back and would have kicked him and dragged him by the stirrup if I had not caught the rein and set his foot free. When I had helped him to his feet, and before he had time to make up his mind to dirk me, I gave him another set of thoughts to think about.
"Jaques," I said, "I will thank you to turn your malice against him who merits it. We hunt an alderman, who has set an ambush for us, and your fortune as much as mine must depend on the outcome, for I will as surely give you credit for your true share in this night's work as I will forget your ill-will if you let me."
I could feel his ill-will meditating treason, but I affected such confidence in his reasonableness as might seem natural in one of my youth and inexperience, and I gave him an opportunity to play the man if he should see fit.
"Ride, you and your men," I said, "to Joshua Stiles's garden gate and cry admittance, saying you are Master Will Halifax. But beware. When they open, be ready to retreat into the fog and draw the ambush after you, thus giving me the chance to ride in and find Stiles and seize him."
I could see he liked the plan. It smacked of not much danger to himself and offered him the chance to play a scurvy trick on me. I had small doubt that he had made up his mind there and then to help me to enter the grounds and then to warn the enemy to turn and kill me.
"How shall I find the house?" he asked.
I bade the 'prentice tell him, which was easy, since a road ran from where we were in one long curve until it passed the house and there was nothing to do but keep the ditch on one hand and a row of elm-trees on the other until Stiles's front gate should loom out of the fog. Jaques rode off with his men behind him. Presently Berden and I and the 'prentice followed, but not far; I wanted Stiles's twenty men engaged and occupied while Berden and I should do what they were ambushed to prevent.
My father Sir Harry had seen to it that I was taught in all the gentlemanly arts of field and stream, so that I could find my way in darkness all over our countryside—aye, or in such light fogs as we have in Warwickshire; but it needed London eyes to penetrate the shroud that over-hung the river and the hamlets hereabouts. At that I think the 'prentice smelled the way as much as conned it. We could not even see the great light burning on the Tower, nor yet the glow that should have overhung the City from the lamps at doors and from the link-boys' torches.
The 'prentice led along lanes toward the river and it was like a journey into some infernal region, though they say that Hell is hot and that was a night so cold at first as to make it difficult to hold the reins. There were no sounds. Now and then a dim light, sickly in the fog and deepening in loneliness, suggested where a house might be. Walls loomed up here and there and I remember gates that seemed to go by dripping in the dark, as if we were motionless and all the world were drifting on an unseen tide. The frosty ghosts of elm-trees looked as if their tops were bent beneath a weight of Heaven that had fallen in.
The very dogs were silent. Once a donkey, unseen in a hollow like a witches' coven, brayed at us so sudden and affrighting that the skin went snaking up and down my spine; and, when the brute ceased, silence was as terrifying as the godless clamour had been. I was in a state to flee from my own shadow. Berden was no better, only he denied it afterwards lest I should hold him in disparagement. All that kept either of us going was the thought that we must not let Jack Giles the 'prentice see us cowardly, and I doubt not that Jack, who knew his way in a London fog as rats know cellars, would have been scared out of his wits, nevertheless, if he had not thought we two were bold.
So we three fortified each other with a bankrupt credit. None spoke—not even I and Berden when we waited and the 'prentice scouted in the fog for landmarks, finding his way back to us by listening for our horses' stamping on the frozen mud.
But at last we heard the river sucking and sobbing at rotten banks and I felt more at home, having heard such music along Avonside at the end of a long day's otter hunting when I found myself thirty miles from Brownsover and only river noises for a guide. But there is mystery along the Thames by night that transcends any I have met with, even at the seashore, and I might easily have believed with Berden that the ghosts of dead men were awalk, had I not feared my own fear more than any other danger and so dared not think of anything except the task in hand.
And then I thought of this, that often has given me a sort of counterfeit of courage when the true stuff failed: mine enemy feared equally with me, and thus I stood on terms with him. It is a mean and ungodly humour that another's difficulties can encourage; yet, if meanness is, why blink it? I was cousin that night to all the cowards since the world began, yet not hugging my cowardice. I loathed it. And in truth, I met a worser coward, along with two brave fellows whom I was loath to upset with such scant ceremony.
We could not see our horses' ears for the thickness of the fog, but at last we heard the sound of water lapping against the bilge-strakes of a moored boat and knew by that we had found Stiles. He heard us. In a voice that sounded far-off, though it was close at hand, he cried out:
"Willy! Hey there, Willy!"
He believed we were his own men coming, and I heard him bid the two he had with him go show us where the plank lay between boat and shore. I heard the plank squeak as they set their weight on it and came to look for us. They chose the wrong direction, thinking we should come along the road from Stiles's house.
"Did you get the springald, Willy? Did you take the token from him?" Stiles called out.
But by that time I had given the reins to Jack to hold and Berden and I were feeling our way on foot along the bank. I fell in once and climbed out dripping, for the bank was parlous and not frozen deep enough to bear my weight. The ducking angered me, so that it helped Stiles not at all. I found the plank at last, groping on hands and knees, and rushed it, Berden and I jumping for the boat's hold blindly at the peril of our lives.
I fell on baskets wrapped in canvas, and the next thing I had Stiles by the throat, he stabbing at me with a Spanish dagger. But he only cut my coat. Berden, struggling up from where he had fallen, rapped him with the folded parchment warrant and said something about lawful custody; then, stuffing the warrant away in haste, he caught Stiles's elbows from behind—something that if he had done it first and thought of ceremony after, might have saved me a bruise or two.
Stiles was not so stalwart as he looked, nor half so valiant as he tried to seem that morning in the City. He used his dagger petulantly like a woman with a bodkin and cried quarter before he was hurt. Nor had he dignity. He went down on his knees to us. He cried out he would pay a rich man's ransom, as should make us independent of Queen's wages. When I took one of the short cords from Berden's sword-belt and tied his arms behind him he screamed like a hare, although the rope no more than bit his skin. Berden, fumbling in the fog, was too late gagging him with a forearm thrust between his teeth, and he screamed a second time, as though we might be killing him. I heard his two men come running bade Berden cried: "Throw the plank into the river!" I did that without thinking, realizing too late that now we had no proper means of reaching land. It occurred to me to cut the boat adrift and take our chance of friend or enemy down-river, only I did not care to lose the horses and I thought of Jack the 'prentice. So I stood with one foot on the boat's edge and, aspiring to a gruffness that my voice refused, I shouted:
"Stand in the Queen's name!"
Two sturdy figures loomed out of the fog and one of them heaved a lump of frozen mud at me that missed and made a great splash in the river. I had brought no pistols, nor had Berden, but I bade him take one from the prisoner, if such he had, and in a moment Berden fired, but purposely aimed high, hoping to scare the men away. But they were bold men. One of them came leaping from "the bank legs foremost and I might have had him on my sword-point, which would have split him like a herring. Even now I rather wonder that I spared him in that excitement, having challenged fairly in the Queen's name and having, moreover, the right to preserve our prisoner from the rescue. But I have seen much wonderfuller sparings since then, aye, and in the heat of battle when the culverins were belching, so I think God had a hand in it, although there are so many differences these days about doctrine that I doubt a bishop could explain the truth of it to anyone's satisfaction. I only know I might have killed, and had excuse as well as lawful right, yet did not.
The man landed on the boat's edge with a sailor's cunning, and on such a rage as if he stormed a Spanish galleon. It was an easy trick to shove him overside. He went down splashing like a porpoise in a net, as splutterful of blasphemy as fish afrying. Like any sailor, he loved risk of sword-thrust better than a wetting.
Then the other came, as gallant as the first—a shadow hurled out of the fog, his hanger whistling as he aimed at me. Him I had to handle roughly. He had fought in many a sea engagement. Later I learned from him the trick of falling on the shoulder-blades and kicking upward at an adversary—a trick that the Dons say shows our barbarous ill-breeding.
I was jealous of that seaman's ardour and I bear him no ill- will for having kicked me half-a-boat's length, though I carry a scar yet underneath the short hair, where my head struck smartly on a thwart. He followed up with spirit and we fought, we two, like catamounts among the luggage, each with a hold on the other's wrist and our faces set so close that we could dimly see each other's in the fog. I liked him, and I tried to break his neck, and he mine.
I had the better of him at last and bade him yield, my knee thrust in his belly so that he could hardly swear for lack of wind. And by that time Berden had the alderman so trussed that he could safely leave him, so he came and tied the sailor's arms when he had kicked his hanger overboard. Then he was all for drowning him along with his fellow.
"Time presses," said Berden. "There will be another score such hellions down on us as soon as they have done with Jaques. We can't take prisoners. We have no spare horse."
But I could hear the other fellow gasping, with his grip on the edge of the boat as he tried to climb in, and I bethought me that a gentleman in London lacking servants of his own might better have been born into another's service, since then lacking breeding also, he should feel dishonour less. And I suspected that such loyal fellows as those two seamen might haply change their colours if they should understand that their erstwhile master was a traitor to the Queen's grace. So I pulled the other fellow in and threw him down beside his mate, which was no light task, he fighting all the while. And when I had breath enough again I spoke them fairly.
"My honest men," I said, "I'll spare you for your courage because England needs such merry men. And if you still think Stiles worth following when you know the truth about him, you shall both go free—or else with him into the Marshalsea to share his punishment. If not, you shall have your choice of serving me or finding a master better to your liking. Joshua Stiles lies under warrant of arrest."
They gave in sulkily, the wet one swearing brimstone oaths. But they passed their words. They struck hands on it when I had untied the other one's arms. The one gave his name as Futtok and the other Gaylord—Sussex and Lincoln. There and then I bade them show us how to reach the river-bank dry-shod and they made a gangplank of the boat's thwarts, bringing the boat closer in- shore by easing the warp that held her nose upstream.
Then I bade them show me where the alderman had stowed his documents (though Berden was all for hurrying away at once before the twenty should descend on us). It was well I thought of it. The alderman had got a canvas bag, stuffed full of treasonable matter as it transpired later, between his knees and was writhing as he lay, trying to heave the bag overside. I guessed rightly that it held the evidence that the Lords in Council needed. That thought bringing forth its like, I presently suspected that the boat held other treasonable luggage; so before we left I opened a good gap between the seams, at risk of breaking off my sword- point, for the oak was tough. I thought the evidence might lose no authenticity by lying under water for a while; and when we were all ashore I loosed the warp and threw that in the river on top of the sunken boat, so that when the twenty seamen should come to report their brush with Jaques they should look for the warp and, not finding it, should suppose that the alderman had run away and left them to their fate.
We gagged the alderman with one of his own stockings that I cut away above the shoe, and I gave him the roan to ride, taking up Giles the 'prentice on the mare behind me. Berden had to take the two seamen up behind him, and Giles carried the bag of papers, so we were better than well loaded and in no shape to make speed. Besides, the horses were restive from having stood so long in the cold, and the sailors could not ride, so we made slow progress toward the Marshalsea, the lad Jack picking the way for us with senses that no other than a Londoner possesses, recognizing waymarks that to me were only blots of deeper fog.
Presently Stiles made shift to bite the stocking through and to spit it forth, and when he spoke I listened to him with curiosity, warning him that he should fare ill if he cried for rescue. He had got back some of his assurance, having noted our lack of a following and our fear of pursuit. I suspected he knew who Berden was, although he did not speak to him by name.
"Lad," he said, spitting the wool from his teeth, "I am a widower and childless. Bear that in mind. You do an honourable man injustice, and yourself no good thereby, for though they may lock me in the Marshalsea they will hardly keep me. My friends are powerful. The Lords in Council will beshrew you, after I shall have won forth. They will not like to let live the lad who wrought their underhandedness. They offer you now, it may be, a handful of pence for a dirty treason—but what thereafter? Were it not wiser to deal handsomely with me and win a fortune?"
But the trimmest tongue in England could not have persuaded me that night.
"You seem to me a likely enough youth," he said when he had spat forth a few more strands of wool. "No knowledgeable man would blame you, lad, for not knowing you are being gulled. But you will be a Paul's man presently, when they have cast you off—a penniless adventurer, dining more often than not with Duke Humphrey, at anybody's beck who has a shabby stroke of work to offer—a bravo, ready to be bought to riot—a cajoler of drinks and broken bread in taverns—later in the pillory, your ears nailed. Last of all, the gallows. Dozens have met that fate, who started by doing treasonable work for Burghley or that caitiff Walsingham."
I was curious to learn the price at which he thought me purchaseable. "I have a love and I would marry her," I answered.
"Dowerless, I doubt not," he retorted. "Set me on my ship down-river, and you shall marry your love and make her fortunate."
I let him talk on, glad to keep my thought on anything except how wet and cold I was.
"You told me," he said, "you are the son of Sir Harry Halifax. But he is dead. Where is your home in London?"
Without giving that a thought at all I answered I lived at the house of Roger Tunby.
I think that was the greatest surprise of all that night, both to him and to me and Berden. "Zounds!" he exclaimed. "Has Tunby betrayed us? Then we are indeed undone!" For a few minutes after that he was silent, but he was a weak man, he could not contain his anger, which indeed had carried him already out of bounds. "Tell Tunby this from me," he blurted suddenly, "that though he ruins me, and it maybe others, there are others yet who will bring him to a dire end!"
Berden contrived to nudge me, encouraging me to tempt the alderman to say more. But truth, I did not know how to go about it, and after a silence Berden offered to befriend him for a good round sum of money. But the alderman could see through that pretence as easily as I did: Berden would have pocketed the bribe, if he could get it, without selling more than his civility. The Queen had no more trusty servant when it came to final issues, and though he liked to line his pocket, no more than semblance of his friendship was for sale.
"Small need to cozen you with money. I will have you hanged!" Stiles answered.
That uncivil speech brought silence on us all, I full of thought of Roger Tunby, wondering about the old chuff, marvelling that he should act so loyal to the Queen yet be so treasonable, and admiring such great subtlety of Providence as could toss me at my first essay into this whirlpool of intrigue, to make my own way or drown. I' faith, it seemed to me, nor have I ever changed my thought on it, that Nature herself is in league with all of us to prove our merit and to purge our rottenness. If we have stuff in us of the sort of which Drakes and Effinghams are made, lo, opportunity lies greedy at our feet; and be we miserable caitiffs, endless chains of unpredictable coincidence ensnare us to our end. But most of us, I think, are made of good and bad, of cowardice and courage, so that we now act manly and now meanly according to which side of us is prevalent.
The fog shut down on us more thick than ever, so that even Jack Giles nigh lost his reckoning and I began to weigh alternatives: as whether we should seek warmth and shelter in a tavern to await the morning, or go forward at the risk of footpads. But I thought of Sir Francis Drake again and shelter seemed not so tempting, nor the footpads so fit to be dreaded.
And I suppose we looked more capable of fighting than we were, since none molested us, although I saw men lurking in the fog and once or twice our alderman appeared to think of slipping from the saddle to take his chance among the lurking rogues, planning to buy their aid, no doubt, with promises. But I warned him:
"Dead or alive," said I, "the warrant reads! Dead or alive you shall reach the Marshalsea!"
He dreaded death. So, what with riding headlong for a while, and young Jack spying a tavern signboard that he recognized, we found the Marshalsea at last and drew rein by a great gate, where the fog was so dense that we could hardly see the iron bars. A watchman with a halberd and a candle-lantern challenged and appeared more fearful of the guard we bade him summon than of us, for he ordered us away to hell or any other bed we favoured.
Him we made afraid of us with most uncivil speech until he called the guard at last. But their officer was clamorous indignant at our demand that he should go and wake the Keeper of the Marshalsea. We had to threaten him, too, and it was long after midnight, and we frozen, when the Keeper came at last, not over-sober and as quarrelsome as any toss-pot at the summons from his warm bed. Berden was afraid of his authority, but I had not had Berden's long experience of such men's spite. Said I:
"You do your duty or you'll learn what wrath is; for I'll hale Lord Burghley from his bed to take you to task for this night's insolence!"
He made small trouble after that, although he spoke me scurvily and tried to send us off without his signature; but Berden would not let him have the warrant otherwise, and so we rode away at last, myself well satisfied with having angered him, but Berden anxious and not pleased with me for having boasted I would pull the Keeper's beard were the gate guard not too many to make that sport profitable.
We had no warrant for the seamen, so we brought them with us, two on the one horse that the alderman had ridden.
Of Berden's Reliability.
THEREAFTER we found Lord Burghley's house with even greater difficulty than we had found the Marshalsea, because a light wind, chilling our bones, disturbed the fog into swirling fumes around us. The mud grew slippery and our horses afraid of falling, so that we were as bewildered as cattle on market- day.
But we reached a great iron gate at last and rang a bell that tolled with a comforting mellowness within the lodge. The porter, with a glance at Berden, admitted us into a courtyard wherein horses stood, and servants at their heads, but we could hardly see them in the foggy link-light. A man came close to scrutinize us and I marked the Earl of Leicester's badge on his shoulder. Then I recognized the fellow, and he me.
"By the rood, it's Will Halifax!" he exclaimed. "How do you like London, Will?"
Before I could think of a retort to match his insolence he turned away and by the light about the porch I saw him enter the great house. Something about his manner of entering stirred dread in me. We waited, Berden having sent our names in by the porter's underling, and it may have been half an hour, we standing between our horses for the warmth, before the Earl of Leicester came out. I knew him instantly. The link-light glittered on his gold chain, for his cloak was undone. He was followed by his master of the horse and several others. At the foot of the steps I heard him ask: "Where is the fellow?" He who had first recognized me pointed.
The Earl mounted such a wonder of a chestnut horse as made the heart leap at sight of his movement. He rode toward me, until I could see his handsome face under the link that burned against the wall near where I stood.
I wondered that the Queen could love him, as rumour proclaimed that she did, though he was the prettiest man in England, were the surface all. He looked too like a foreigner for my liking, and many a mean counter-jumper I have seen possessing the same manner of asserting gentleness where none was. He mistook his insolence for courage and his arrogance for brains.
"How now, Master Will Halifax?" he exclaimed in his hectoring voice, scowling at me darkly. "You dare to mow foul faces at me, sirrah? I will have you well whipped for it! I'll learn you to ape and grin at me because your brawling father drew his sword unjustified! Look sharply to your manners!"
I forbore answering. A hot retort would have invited all his men to have at me, although I doubted he would dare to have me slain in Lord Burghley's yard; but though I might have escaped a dagger thrust, I should at least have ended in the kennel with a broken head. He waited, hoping I would give him an excuse; then, since I did not, gesturing to show his scorn he rode on. But one of his followers, thinking me a block on which to tread to his own preferment, stayed to pick a quarrel.
"Turn your face to the wall," he ordered, "when his Grace the Earl of Leicester rides by! By the rood, your very glance is insult! 'Od's blood, you insult his grace by living!"
I took a step toward him to discover whether it were spunk or vapour that inspired the fellow, who began to feel himself embarrassed by his loneliness, for the gate was open and the Earl and his party were cantering through. He reined away from me, but not soon enough to escape my answer:
"Tell your master the Earl," I said, "the next time he lets you fasten up his breeches, that if he fears the truth about himself as I look forward to the revelation of it, he may well mislike me!"
It was a rash speech and Berden chid me for it, but I felt myself already high in Lord Burghley's favour, and I was young in those days.
"He will repeat that to the Earl, who will have you silenced with a dagger in your back," said Berden.
Then a servant came and ordered Berden into Lord Burghley's presence. I supposed that I should go, too, but the servant said he had no orders to admit me. So Berden, with a nod to me, went in alone and I stood shivering with cold (not knowing until then how cold I was) and thoroughly dejected. I had imagined myself telling my own story, studying to speak with modesty and yet omitting nothing that should give a good conceit of me; for to tell truth I was vain of the night's performance. I had imagined myself saying a good word for Berden. But I doubted Berden would accredit me with more than should increase his own repute. He was liker, at that, to damn me out of jealousy.
I laid it to the Earl of Leicester that I was left there shivering And then gloomier foreboding fell, and something like terror in the yard, he having had time to accuse me to Lord Burghley, seized me. I perceived that caitiff Jaques, his head in bandages, his manner shrouding him in stealth, seeking to avoid my recognition as he crossed the yard. I tried to overtake him, but he mounted and I heard his horse go slipping on the cobbles through the front gate.
It gave me no grief that his head was hurt. I would have loved to open up a wider crack, not doubting he had told such tales as should forever harden Lord Burghley's face against me. I was heartsick to believe that he who stood first with the Queen should be so purblind as to credit a kernel in so foul a nut as Jaques. The fellow's soul was on his face, all void of honesty. It was a foul pass that a Lord in Council should lend ear to that rogue and leave standing without in the yard the son of as loyal a knight as ever lived.
And as I stood there, stroking the horses for the sake of the comforting feel of their faithful nuzzles on my cheek, there came a last thrust to my vanity that seemed to strike the very ground from under me and leave me outcast. Came a footman, heavy-eyed with sleep and surly that the errand took him outdoors in the murk, picking his way mincingly across the cobbles lest he soil his buckled shoes.
"Are you Master Will Halifax?" he demanded. "Benjamin Berden sends word that his Lordship has no further use for your services to-night, and if it pleases you to tell what roof you will patronize I am to take the message."
I was too disgusted to return a civil answer. Likelier than not, I thought, they will inform the Earl of Leicester where I sleep, that he may pursue his feud and rid himself of inconvenience. They will use Jaques for a witness that I claimed a Queen's commission when I had none. Failing the Earl of Leicester's dagger, they will throw me in the Marshalsea. I answered, I would send word in the morning where I lodged, thus opening my mind to new perplexity; for the two seamen and Jack the 'prentice were sitting against the wall, chins on their knees, not as wretched as I, because they thought me able to provide for them, but wet and cold and looking to me for comfort.
However, the thought of them put new spirit in me, since it set me pondering how to rise to such a difficult occasion. Thought of Mildred's purse, with money still remaining in it, brought her confidence to mind, which stirred in me enough lees of manhood to cause me to act steadfastly before my followers. I beckoned to them and they followed me out of the yard on foot, young Giles leading the horse, having chafed himself so sore against the saddle that the courage failed him to mount and try to ride again, although I dubbed him Sir Meacock; and the sailors swore that, being seamen, God had not intended them to ride, nor would they, not though Christ and a whole company of angels, or the Queen herself, should come and bid them.
So we were a slow procession. And oh, the loneliness of London, with a grey fog melting into cold rain, and the drip of water from the eaves, and road-stones slippery with thawing mud, nor no friends, and a life's hope spilled (I thought forever) on the thankless flags of a Queen's minister's front yard!
Fear makes men see more devils than all hell could ever hold. Each moving pool of mist, each shadow between house-lamps, seemed to us to be the lair of murderers; my discontent had spread like a contagion and the others, aye, and the horses no less, shuddered at every sound as I led the way not caring whither, careful only to lead on lest they, overtaking me, should ask me more than I could answer.
'Od's misery! I 'did not know whither to lead. I thought of Roger Tunby's house and then I remembered how the old chuff was a suspect. Should I return to him and spy on him—my host who had done me a kindness? Should I warn him rather? That were tantamount to treason against the Queen! I knew not what to do, and I bethought me of making for the coast and Flushing, to lend hand in the Dutchmen's quarrel with the King of Spain. With two good horses, two good seamen and a bright-wit 'prentice-lad I thought I might be welcome.
'Twas the mare that saved us from I know not what calamity. The streets were all alurk with wounded soldiers from the Dutch war, starving and in wait for any passenger worth stripping, afterwards to fight among themselves like animals for scraps of booty. There was not a dawn that year but that saw naked bodies lying in the street; and for reprisal they were hanging two—three dozen at a time on Tyburn Tree. We were running away from danger rather than in search of anywhere to sleep.
But the mare remembered where I bedded her knee-deep in straw near Roger Tunby's house. She picked her way by some inhuman sense toward that mews again. And suddenly, as I began to recognize the street, or thought I did, there came a shout, and a mass of darker fog than ordinary shaped itself into a group of men who rushed toward us. I drew sword and it was only by the grace of God that I did not kill the man who came first. I should have been the enemy of the whole world if fortune had not caused my mare to slip and stumble on a slimy cobble-stone and so turned aside my point that otherwise had slit Will Shakespeare's throat.
"Why, Will!" he panted, smiling. He was badly out of breath. "Such poxy welcome to a friend? Are you grown rich, that you cry 'out' on me, as Roger Tunby does? Or are you sworn for Flanders and seek practice ere you have at Parma's infantry?"
The men who were pursuing him turned tail when they saw us ready to defend ourselves. I jumped down from the mare and hugged Will, never realizing until that moment how inward we had grown toward each other.
"Will," I said, "I'd sooner this than pots of gold! You give me comfort!"
"Echo it then. I need it, too!" he answered. "I have watched here at the risk of being cudgelled, hoping you might pity your dumb brutes and bring them back to the stable.! am like them, sans bed, sans supper."
I asked him if he had no money, for it seemed strange he was supperless.
"Marry, yes and no," he answered. "I am locked out like the house cat and imprimis for returning without finding you. Secundo, Tunby saw the housemaid smile at me, and such old bawds are ever puritans forbidding cakes arid ale because remorse had made them fearful of their latter end. Where bed we, Will?"
He had left his purse with Tunby in the morning to be kept safe. I, too, had left my second-best suit, pistol and some other valuables in the house. So the old chuff had a magnet that must draw us to him. He could safely play the tryant. I would have clamoured at his door to force an issue, only there were now my three men to be bedded; and there came, too, the thought that if Roger Tunby were involved with Stiles it might be hazardous to visit him at that late hour.
So there seemed nothing for it but the mews, where there was warmth at any rate for us and better comfort for the horses. We roused a sleepy hostler, and when he had helped us to clean and feed our beasts I made him fill an empty stall with good clean pea-straw, he protesting that his master Burbage was not an inn- keeper and would as like as not send him vagabonding the morning, nor new employment not be found so readily in London.
Whereto Will told him he was no worse off than his betters, and we lay down on the straw, all five of us. And for a while we talked, because sleep withstood our wooing, the seamen and Jack Giles adding their accounts to mine of our adventure and of the scurvy trick I had been played in Lord Burghley's yard, I grumbling that we ought to look at princes and their ministers for example of such open dealing as should put us all in countenance.
Said Will: "Whoever kept a book of all that princes and their ministers do, Will, were wiser if he kept it under lock and key—aye, wiser if he burned it, lest the angels overlook a page or two and drown the world in tears. That man unsecret to himself," said he, "need never wonder if the world goes gossiping his priviest imaginations; and a prince has more need than the rest of us to keep his very left hand ignorant of what his right hand does. Marry, it were time to villify Queen's ministers when we were sworn in of the Council and so privy to their needs. Our suitabler employment is to vex our spirits for the cozening of Tunby, who will else out-cozen us."
I cried a pox on Tunby, and the 'prentice began telling us the reputation that the man had in the City—honest in some little matters but a rogue in great ones:
"So that they trust him with a bill of wool, but they elect him to no aldermanship."
Heavy-hearted, I suggested we should get our odds and ends from Tunby in the morning and then set forth to the war in Flanders. But Will had no stomach for that:
"I hear that Dutch maids are like plough-mares, big o' hoof and quarter—and such full-moon faces as offended the Lord Harry when they brought Ann o' Cleves to bed with. Fog, too, and we have enough o' that in England. Wet feet, taxes and the plague—what need to travel farther?"
So I spoke of deep-sea venturing, the sailors urging me with tales of gold and of decks all slippery with Dons' guts, declaring that was God's work for an Englishman. We fell asleep at last to dream of gold bars taken from the Dons, and of Dutch sea-beggars hove to in the Channel looking to steal honestly-won booty homeward bound, counting on the speed of hulls new sanded, whereas homebound English ships wore weeds like women's kirtles from the warm seas and were easy to come alongside.
"And though the Dons are brave, they're easier to fight than Dutchmen, because the Dons crave glory, whereas the Dutch are like us English, on the sea for profit," were the last words I remember, until whinnying of horses woke us after daybreak and we all went out to wash our faces at the yard pump.
Later we held consultation in a tavern, where a good meal and a quart apiece of French wine stiffened us, and Futtok swore he would rather go to sea against the Dons and risk the Inquisition than take his chance of sitting in the Marshalsea with Stiles:
"Because it irks less, masters, if a foreigner does cruelty, they being Papishers and ignorant, as it might be fish or animals. But to be shackled and starved and beaten by fellow countrymen would break the stoutest heart that lives."
However, Will Shakespeare favoured brawling in no sort, being minded there are gentler ways of growing fortunate. And he was owlish wise in that mood.
"On the long straw of our discontent such grains of wisdom grow," he said, "as, if we let them ripen, help us to avoid old errors. Go you, Will, in search of Berden. He will not provoke you too far, since he has judged your mettle, and you might snatch back that credit he has stolen from you. And he may not be an ingrate after all. Have you had proof of it?"
He would go himself, he said, in search of new employment, liking Tunby not at all, but first he would get his purse from the old chuff, making the excuse to him that he would look for me all over London, nor knew how long the business might take. We would meet at the mews.
Jack Giles the 'prentice, having had a taste of venturing, vowed he would follow me now to the world's end. But Futtok and Gaylord could not ride and were afraid of horses; furthermore, my horses needed rest; and I knew the reputation London had for horse-thieves, and for exchanging good horses for bad ones while the owner's back was turned; so I arranged with Burbage for my two seamen to stay at the mews and muck out horse-stalls for their dinner and no money. (And a mean meal, they told me afterwards, it was—"worse than on a Queen's ship in the days before John Hawkins did the victualling.")
Then I hired two horses from the mews and forth we rode, Giles and I, he groaning at the blisters on his hams and I not greatly wiser for the yesterday's adventure. London in the rain was such a murk of wet and dirt as made a man feel old before his time. It was an indoors day, for gossiping in ingles, and the stench of house-trash rotting in the kennels made me homesick for the country smells and for the sight of hedge-rows. I had not an inkling where to look for Berden; but I thought of Paul's, where all men met o' mornings; and since the streets were half-empty because of the rain, Berden might see me if he were stirring.
And presently the moody music of the street-cries, the housewives putting shawled heads through the windows, chattering, and the pedlars making tents of pitched cloth to protect their wares from the rain and the drip from the eaves so entertained me that I rode on marvelling, not caring whether I were seen or not.
"Hot codlings—who'll buy hot codlings!—Onions—white St. Thomas onions!—Green brooms—new brooms!—Shoone—old boots—old shoone!—Steel and tinder-boxes—buy a light- oh!—Tinker, tinker! Pots and pans, oh, pots to mend! Knife- grinder—knives to grind!—A mouse-trap—buy a mouse- trap—catch 'em all alive-oh!—Any wood to cleave?—Oh, hot fine oat-cakes!—Whiting—smelts or whiting!—Any whitebait—Greenwich whitebait—all fresh!"
Such a medley of appealing noises as aroused new humour, making the heart merry in despite of weather.
I rode slowly along Fleet Street, where the prison stands, and saw the prisoners in shabby clothing begging from the passers-by through the iron bars of the entrance gate. Supposing they might fare ill when the weather kept the citizens indoors I watched a while, observing that the pedlars fed them, scraps of this and bits of that, perhaps not pitying so much as thankful not to be behind the bars—a fate that any man might share if debt grew deep and creditors importunate.
A while I watched the market around Charing Cross and then turned back again toward Paul's yard where men and women were crowding one another in the rain to watch a trained bear. Its owner had intruded the great brute into the covered pulpit in which the preachers hold forth on sunny days, to the crowd's great satisfaction but to the scandal of Paul's beadle and some officers who were crying sacrilege and scandal; so that what with the crowd trying to prevent them, and their indignant efforts to arrest the owner of the bear, who was a merry fellow well used to winning the crowd's suffrage, there was much worth seeing and broken pates to laugh at.
There Berden found me.
"By the Saviour, I thought you lost!" he shouted, elbowing his way toward me and nigh pulling me out of the saddle, so glad he was to find me. I thought his manner over-demonstrative for such short acquaintance, so I drew on caution (not that the sight of his ugly visage did not make my heart leap).
"Last night you wished me well lost," I retorted. "What now? Shall I snatch another chestnut for you?"
"Hot-pate! Berden is your friend," he answered; and he led into a tavern where about a hundred cockscombs rustled it and diced for bare-bubbied tavern wenches' kisses, or for Spanish jewellery, or to see who should throw mud at the Spanish ambassador on his way to an audience with the Queen that afternoon. We found a quiet place behind an oaken screen in a corner, but the tavern maids were too distracted by being kissed, fondled and shouted at to notice us, so we drank nothing.
"God preserve you, Will Halifax, if I'd not been there last night you were no man's lucky penny!" exclaimed Berden. "Marry! If an Earl should mislike me as his grace the Earl of Leicester mislikes you, I'd run for it! He had been striving until midnight to win over my Lord Burghley in advance of the morrow's meeting of the Lords in Council, and had withdrawn at last into another room—to sulk, I daresay; he is given to it. But his servant told him he had seen you in the yard, and he came in again fuming, brushing past me, who was waiting by the door until Lord Burghley should see fit to speak with me. He was ramping hot- indignant, black with anger.
"'Gramercy and God's boots!' says he. 'What foul treachery is this, Lord Secretary, that you play hob with a Halifax in your yard? By the Lord's teeth, if the Queen should hear of it she'd rate you for a practiser not fit to sit at table!'
"Plenty more he roared, and all to the same tune, Lord Burghley looking owlish at him, twitching with the gout and saying nothing, waiting to let him spill himself before laying match to his own long cannon—which is my Lord Burghley's method always; he's a great one to let t'other do the talking. You'd have thought, to see him sitting there with one leg on a trestle-rest and brandy-wine in a glass beside him, that he was at a sermon from the household chaplain.
"'Sir Harry Halifax was a pick-thank knight who drew sword against two of my gentlemen,' says my Earl of Leicester. 'And for no more cause,' says he, 'than that I sought to assume the guardianship of a maid named Mildred Jackson, whom he had the insolence to wish to marry to his lack-grace son—that lout who stands without there in your lordship's yard. Doubtless he hoped with the girl's fortune to discharge his own debts, since she will inherit large estates from her mother's side ere long, being last of her line.'"
"Mildred is no ward for any man. I' faith she has a stepfather who is her legal guardian," I interrupted.
"Wait. I am coming to that," said Berden. "Lord Burghley sipped some brandy-wine, but not a word he answered, no, not even nodding, chin on chest, and anyone who did not know him might have thought him drunk. The Earl of Leicester went on raving at him: 'That young jackanapes who stands without there dared to have the banns of marriage read three Sundays running, but by the grace of God I heard of it. I warned her stepfather—a hind named Pepperday, who has strangely advanced himself by shrewish practices—I warned him to forbid the marriage lest I cancel the land-holding that he has from me. I also sent word to the parson not to marry them. Sir Harry Halifax met my gentlemen and picked a quarrel on the strength of it. And now, I doubt not, the young squibbe without there comes practising to win your lordship's influence. I warn you: have him whipped out of the yard unless you wish to lose my friendship, my Lord Secretary!'"
So now at last I knew the secret of my father's death. I had never doubted his having fallen in an honourable cause; but it rendered me speechless—aye, it choked me to know he had fallen quarrelling in my behalf. A generous and merry-hearted knight my father was, as full of hot speech as a kettle is of steam, and yet as kind as Christmas, without an ignoble thought to mar his disposition.
But Berden did not notice my agitation, he was too full of his story. He went on:
"My Lord Burghley looked up at last and his eyes lit on me where I stood by the door. He looked choleric. I thought he would dismiss me from the room. But instead he ordered: Send one of the servants, Berden, and dismiss that lad Halifax. Bid him begone and not darken my door again!' But as he spoke he made a sign with his fingers—thus—so that I understood he was talking to impress the Earl of Leicester and was not so set against you as it seemed. Therefore I tried to couch my message to you so that you might not say where you lodged, lest it should reach the Earl of Leicester's ears but might understand that I meant to find you, but I doubt that the servant—a sleepy and dull-witted fool-delivered my message properly.
"When I returned to Lord Burghley's presence my Lord of Leicester passed me on his way out, looking mollified, and now there stood Jaques in the room with his head all swathed in bandages. He did not see me, for he stood facing Lord Burghley; and 'Od's onions! the knave was telling his own story of the night's adventure, he not knowing we had lodged Stiles safely in the Marshalsea. He was singing his own praises, telling how he rode with his men to take the alderman while you and I sat swilling in a tavern. He made a long tale of how he fell into an ambushment of sailors and how he got his head well broke. He tried to mend his head and fortune by beshrewing us two, saying it was our fault that Stiles had escaped and, moreover, that you had claimed to hold the Queen's commission, of which he thought you unworthy if in truth you held it and it were not a false pretence, he having seen no document. Whereat Lord Burghley finished his glass of brandy-wine and sent him to the buttery to have his head examined by the steward, he passing me on his way out and looking liker to die of agitation at the sight of my grin than of his hurts.
"Lord Burghley was eager for his bed by that time, so I had to make short work of my story of how you and I took the alderman, but I gave him the receipt from the Keeper of the Marshalsea and told him how Jaques had behaved. When I had done, he asked me:
"'Did Halifax pretend to hold the Queen's commission?'
"'By the rood,' I answered, 'he pretended nothing, but he showed good courage and a ready wit.'
"'But did he claim that I had given him appointment?" Lord Burghley insisted. He was sharp on that. So I answered you had made no claims of any kind, neither to me nor to anyone else.
"'That lad may go far,' said his lordship. 'Does he quarrel readily?'
"I said: 'He fights like a flash o' lightning, but to pick a quarrel with him a man might have too act deliberate and show him where the profit lay in not avoiding it.' I told then how Stiles had offered you a fortune to let him escape, and what answer you made. Whereat he nodded. And presently he said to me:
"'The Earl of Leicester slew that lad's father for the sake of a guardianship that he can never get unless he slays a profitable tenant likewise. So I believe that he will seek to slay the tenant, whose name is Pepperday. And it so happens that circumstances favour the Earl of Leicester's motive, which nevertheless may be prevented if we make speed; and I think young Halifax may gain preferment, though he come not by the wench, who is a rich prize.'
"For a long while after that he sat still, chin on hand, the firelight playing on his crafty face. There are spies—spies everywhere. I doubt not he was meditating how to take me in his confidence and yet to keep what he should tell me from Sir Francis Walsingham, whose servant in truth I am. He, Sir Francis Walsingham and the Earl of Leicester vie with one another for the Queen's influence, and it is strange how Lord Burghley employs so few agents of his own, preferring rather to borrow them from either of the other two, thus learning something of their practices at risk of letting them be privy to his own. But me he has found silent both ways, so he trusts me more than he does some folks, nevertheless not trusting me more than the Queen trusts any of them, which is to say piecemeal and by fits and starts with ever something in reserve. At last he looked up, staring owlish at me, and said:
"'Berden, there is a City merchant by the name of Roger Tunby, a dealer in wool, affected to the Queen of Scots, who receives a deal of correspondence from the Earl of Leicester's tenant Pepperday, most of it by the hand of the common carrier. It is known that Tunby has been in league with Stiles and others to give comfort and, it may be, treasonable service to the Scots Queen. Tunby involves Pepperday, and we will take the lesser foremost in the hope the Pepperday in fear of torments may betray his principals, that thus we may catch many disaffected men. But it must be done before the Earl of Leicester learns of our purpose. He is swift and passionate. And if he should slay this rogue Pepperday for his own ends, he might not only get the girl to ward but he would thereby also break a valuable chain of evidence. It must be done swiftly and in silence. None must know of it until Pepperday is safely in the Tower and racked for testimony.'"
"Said he nothing further about Mildred?" I demanded.
Berden laughed. "No more than this: that if the wench has substance and is nicely born the Queen herself may like to dispose of her in marriage. That would put her out of your reach, Master Will! He bade me lodge the girl in safety without the Earl of Leicester's knowledge and to watch shrewdly that you have no intimacy with her. For I am to take you with me down to Brownsover, and as few men as we can manage with because of the risk of talking. I have the warrant,"
"For Mistress Mildred Jackson?" I asked.
"Nay, for Tony Pepperday."
So my feelings were mixed of relief and new anxiety. By a stroke of fortune I was given leave to save my Mildred from the Earl of Leicester's clutches, which would nevertheless bring us no whit nearer to the state of man and wife. And I was now unarguably Berden's man, not he mine. I could not pretend this time to have a Queen's commission in my pocket, and it called for wits and goodwill unless he and I were to fall foul of each other's disposition.
"Berden," I said, "I did you an injustice. When that serving man brought me your message in the yard last night I thought—"
"Pish! Tush!" he interrupted. "Any greenhorn would have thought me treasonable to a friendship. Any -old hand would have sworn it was so. If you were a practised hand at court I could never convince you this minute that I lie not. But the truth is, that I like you; and another truth is that a like or a mislike couldn't mend inevitables. An I liked you twice as well, we'd be of small use to each other but for fortune that throws us together. Count on Berden!"
I sat silent, seeing he was turning over in his mind how he might turn me to his own use under a cloak of amity. For my own part I was puzzled to know how to manage him. Suddenly he shot a question at me across the table; "Tell me about the Popish plot in Brownsover!"
I laughed. It sounded clownish in my ears that little Brownsover should make a stir in London. All our countryside might possibly have raised an hundred men, not counting the Earl of Leicester's following; and of the hundred more than half would take the Queen's side of whatever quarrel. Moreover, the Earl of Leicester being reckoned chief of all the Protestants in Warwickshire (though little he cared for religion and was only serving what he thought the strongest cause), and he being Lord- Lieutenant of the county, there was not much chance of Popish plots succeeding, not though the wandering priests were many, as all men knew.
"I only know," I said, "that Tony Pepperday was formerly a Papist and recanted."
"With his face," said Berden. "How about his heart?"
"He has none." I was confident of that.
"Well, I will tell you this," said Berden. "There is many a port in England by which foreigners might land to set the Scots Queen on the English throne. One is Plymouth. Another is Bristol. Brownsover is nigh the main road to them both. A man in Brownsover might busy himself cozening the yokels to receive such strangers with a goodwill. Once a Papist, always a Papist. Tony Pepperday, you mark me, will cry for a priest and unction and a Mass or two to save him when the Tower rack tightens his sinews and loosens the truth!"
The thought of Tony on the rack was no more satisfying to my mood than the knowledge that I was now subordinate to Berden. But I saw my way to overcoming Berden's advantage, just as I hoped to save Tony the pain, not giving credence to the story of his plotting, for which I judged he lacked the needed spirit, nor not considering the rack a reasonable instrument of justice.
"Berden," I said, "I have three men and two good horses. Need we more men?"
"Nay," he answered, "not with you and me to lead. The fewer the merrier!"
Whereby I knew I should not be too long his subordinate.
Of the plight of Roger Tunby and the restitution that he made.
BUT I had yet to learn the inwardness of Berden's news. Lord Burghley had unbosomed to him more, of urgent import, than he chose to repeat to me; Lord Burghley trusting him because he knew, I doubted not, particulars of Berden's past and choosing me for this new errand because the Earl of Leicester's enmity was likely enough to make me strive to come between him and his quarry; also because my love for Mildred, spoken of by Berden, made me sure to try to rescue her from any other mortal's clutches; and because I knew scarce anyone in London, which should make me clap my tongue less than another might; and because I did know Brownsover; and not least because I had my own horses, so saving expense to the Queen.
Concerning which, I may as well write this now as later: in the more than fifteen years that I have served her with brain and blade and at the risk of life and limb, I have never once received from the Queen in full my wages or expenses; nor am I a rare instance of her parsimony, as I hope to tell. So that, seeing with how great success she has governed England, and how rarely any servant of the Crown has had his just dues, unless indeed he merited the axe or prison, I am left now wondering whether it is politic in rulers to be generous, or even just, and whether it is not wiser to be patterned after Nature, niggard and extravagant and unpredictable, all things by turns to all men, nor never the same to anyone twice running.
Himself the Queen's chief minister, Lord Burghley never knew from day to day what sudden change of policy might leave him beached on the rocks of ridicule or see him scolded like a thief for daring to oppose some scheme of Leicester's or of Walsingham's—they three plotting each against the other and united in nothing except jealousy of lesser ministers and zeal to preserve England from a foreign yoke. Never one of them knew which other might forfend him in some policy or, by reaching the Queen's private ear, might gain a personal advantage.
They knew each other, those three men. They understood each other's motives, and I think they took as much delight in damaging each other's fortunes as in serving the Queen, though of the three the Earl of Leicester had the greater malice and the lesser genius.
"This poor caitiff, Tony Pepperday," said Berden, "is but a straw man, whom the Earl of Leicester will accuse of treason for the sake of obtaining the Jackson girl to ward, and whom Lord Burghley will likewise accuse for the sake of forestalling the Earl of Leicester, whose ways he knows and I know also. Burghley will wait on the law. Leicester will take law into his own hands, sending his men to pretend to catch Pepperday red-handed and to slay him in the act, then hurrying to the Queen in person to brag of his care for her Grace's safety and to beg for the rich girl's guardianship. Burghley is no man's friend, but Leicester is all men's enemy, especially yours, and none can trust him overnight. Our business is to spoil the Earl of Leicester's, game in Burghley's interest. It is dog eat dog, in London Town."
But if that were so I was minded first of all to look to mine own profit. Willing though I was to serve the Queen and to obey her ministers, I was likelier to be useful—aye, and in higher matters—were my purse well lined. I made up my mind that instant to see Roger Tunby first of all, and in spite of Berden's urgency, he pleading we should spur for Brownsover within the hour. He tried to hector me:
"Will Halifax," he said, "you ride at my behest. You must obey me!"
But I answered I was sworn as yet neither to secrecy nor obedience and he could ride without me if he saw fit. Whereat he grew silent and I understood that either Lord Burghley had commended me or else he judged me to stand higher in his lordship's| favour than as yet was advertised. I was encouraged of his silence.
So we rode to the mews, where I was careful to choose horses such as sailor-men might ride with risk of nothing worse than chafing of their hams. Will Shakespeare was there. He had won his way into Burbage's crabbed graces and the two were chaffering. Burbage, it appeared, beside the mews was owner of a theatre out in the fields across the river and did a double business, hiring out horses to the gentry who rode to the plays, where his son James Burbage was the great tragedian. Will had a plan to make a little substance for himself by caring for the horses while their riders saw the plays; Burbage was to give him the monopoly, and in return he was to rest assured that the horses were well blanketed and neither horse nor blanket stolen. Burbage, in return for the monopoly, demanded money surety and there negotiation hung, Will having neither money enough nor bondsman.
I drew Will aside and told him what I had in mind regarding Roger Tunby. Presently he and I went on foot together to the old chuff's house and found him in a great rage, bullying his 'prentices for no reason that they or anybody else could understand; but knowing what I now did, and guessing what I guessed, I thought it likely enough that his own forebodings agitated him. He would have kept us standing in the rain the while he lectured us anent our dallying and gadding. Noticing my cloak was torn he called me toss-pot and accused me of tavern brawling, saying he did not doubt I had found me a bawdy shrew already who would drag me down to beggary, and serve me right. But when I told him I bore word from Joshua Stiles the alderman he changed his tone of voice and invited us into the counting- house at the rear of the shop. It was too dark in there for us to see each other's faces readily.
I let Will Shakespeare talk first, and he made a drama of it, so far better than any argument that I could have invented that I was glad to sit still.
"Tunby!" he said. "Roger Tunby! Age hath no such privilege as maketh ill-faith honourable. Neither doth a friendship die with buried bones. Those ears that death hath sealed heard promises now written on a page the soul may read, and spiritual, changeless records hold you to accounting in the highest court that writes no writ of error! None may challenge that engrossment of a contract 'tween the living and the dead. Nay, Tunby! Destiny commands fulfilment or the penalty, nor no alternative!"
"What do you mean?" Tunby stammered.
"Did Sir Harry Halifax not formally—yet too informally—entrust into your hands his money to be profitably used, the profit added to the principal, and both anon to be returned to him fully and fairly reckoned?"
"Nay!" said Tunby. "Nay, nay!"
"Did that in all things else unfrugal and too careless gentleman not charge you with the payment of the money to his son if death's untimely scythe should sweep himself into the realm whence none returns?"
"Nay, nay!" said Tunby. "Never. There was no account between us."
"None? Then no dilemma faces young Will Halifax? No compact, honourably kept—accounted—timely paid, obliges him to stand between you and the axe of justice? Does he owe you no consideration? Gratitude imposes no concession?—validates no claim on generosity?—appeals not to his manhood, that may otherwise command him in the service of the law, inexorable, ruthless, to uncover treason and see grey hairs, Roger Tunby, go in sorrow to a traitor's grave?"
"Nay, nay!" said Tunby. "What do you mean, sirrah? Talking to me of treason in my own house! I am a loyal subject."
"So said Stiles, a miscreant now lodging in the Marshalsea."
"In the Marshalsea? Stiles in the Marshalsea?"
"Aye, taken thither by Will Halifax on royal warrant and accused of treason—blubbering in the Marshalsea—accusing others—naming his accomplices—in terror of the rack and Little Ease awaiting him, and of a cheerless dawn on Tower Hill where traitors to the realm pay forfeit! Better a debt repaid to kindly memory, than the closing of life's long credit in a bankruptcy of shame!"
Roger Tunby gazed in terror at us, gaping, with the spittle drooling from his lip. It was dark where he sat in the corner shadow, but I could see his eyes wide with horror wavering unsteady as he tried to summon dignity, clutching the table to keep his hands from shaking.
"You—and a royal warrant?" he said, staring at me. "So soon?"
"Soon on the westward road, to Brownsover again, whence Tony Pepperday must come to answer for his practices," said Will. "The warrant reads that he and others are conspiring to set Mary Queen of Scotland on the throne."
"And you—you say nothing," said Tunby, leaning forth out of his corner to stare wide-eyed at me. He was nigh choking.
"The less said the better," I answered. "But I will say this: that I give you opportunity to play the honest man, which if you do I will not hold earlier lapse of memory against you. How much did you owe my father?"
Suddenly he yielded, like a bladder pricked; so suddenly that I doubted his performance, though his words were suitable.
"Willy," he said, "Will Halifax, your father Sir Harry entrusted a thousand pounds to me to put out at a venture, principal and profit to be kept against your future need and nothing to be said of it to you lest the thought of the money should whet your recklessness ere years have taught you money's value. I was to pay it to you at my own discretion."
"How much is it now?" I interrupted.
"Fifteen hundred, and a few odd pounds."
"Then pay me," I demanded, laying my hand on the table, palm up. I had no doubt he was cheating me, but fifteen hundred pounds in minted money with which to start life was a stroke of fortune better than any I had dared to dream of, and I blessed my father while I waited, watching Tunby's face, which was a picture of cunning, relief, anxiety and disaffection towards me.
"I have no such sum of money in the house," he said.
"Then neither have I hope to offer you," I answered. "From the Marshalsea to Tower Hill—"
He interrupted: "Treasury bills, Will Halifax, for fifteen hundred pounds, and gold and silver for the balance, is the best that I can manage. But a treasury bill is mandatory, payable on due date and therefore readily convertible into money in the City at a discount."
I would have preferred the minted money, but I took the parchment and the few gold coins and wrote him a receipt in full, which Will Shakespeare witnessed. Tunby locked the receipt in his iron chest, then turned to me and said slyly:
"Know you what it means to compound felonies? You are involved now in the same conspiracy, to stand in the same dock, plead to the same offence and suffer for it with the rest of us if we stand convicted!"
Ludd knows I was not a lawyer, but I saw a hole in that indictment! So I set my fist under his nose and spoke him sharply, for his own good:
"Get you out of England ere I overlook your one night's hospitality! You sought to steal my father's money, doubtless for your son, along with Mistress Mildred Jackson, whom you also coveted for him at my cost! Get you out of England! Get you to that ship whereon you boasted you would send me out of mischief's way! Get you swiftly out o' reach of the Queen's messengers and warrants! Get you gone before nightfall—before Joshua Stiles can tell his story on the rack and you and others follow him to groan forth all you know! The rack hurts old men worse than young ones, Roger Tunby!"
And with that I left him, caring not much whether he should run away abroad or stay to suffer questioning (for they put them all to torture on a charge of treason, and no favours shown to old age).
Presently, Will Shakespeare and Benjamin Berden witnessed a receipt that Burbage gave me for the treasury bills. I staked a hundred pounds on Willy Shakespeare's honesty—aye, and on Burbage's also, for we drew no written contract, lacking time: Will was to have the horse-monopoly and Burbage was to hold the hundred pounds as warranty. The rest he was to keep for me until I needed it, but fifty pounds I drew to carry in purse and saddlebags, in great part for my own conceit, but partly, too, for the sake of the effect on Berden.
Burbage agreed to keep my best suit at the mews and to have it cleaned and mended against my return, he having in employment tailors who were used to furbishing the actors' finery. Then we wasted no more time but took the road in order to defeat the Earl of Leicester, who, said Berden, was a swift one in his own devices though a laggard enough in affairs of state.
And Ludd! how the Londoners laughed to see my following! Futtok and Gaylord rode like honest seamen, and the 'prentice hardly better, only lacking their determination because there was no skin where he chiefly needed it and he swore that the saddle was red-hot. So I bought him goose-grease. But he whimpered all the first day's journey. And the seamen used such oaths as if their patient mounts were Spaniards whom they sought to restrain from laying waste all Merry England. So that Berden and I had much amusement, albeit Berden was not flattered to be the butt of strangers' ridicule.
But I know of no better way to teach the rudiments of horsemanship than to mount your man on a baggage animal and trot him until he learns in self-defence, though that is not so good for horses and I was thankful that the beasts were Burbage's, not mine. That night, when we lodged at a wayside inn, I understood a little of why England's name is such a terror on the seas; for though those sailors, aye, and the 'prentice, too, were wearier than the horses and as sore as questioned felons, there was no complaint beyond such cannonading blasphemy as sailors use, nor not a word of flinching in the cold dawn when they had to mount and face another long day's jolting with their rumps afire. Discomfort only angered them; it strengthened rather than reduced their spirit. They were good men and it pleased me that I now had the means to pay them wages, never doubting that I would find an opportunity to profit by their steadfastness.
But by the time we came to Brownsover, near midnight of the second day, and set the dogs abarking in the yard of Walter Turner's house to rouse him out of bed, we were a rag-tag-looking crew and Kate, Walter's sister, had to stir the wenches to bring simples from her closet and perform all manner of such intimate accomplishments as women understand. And by the rood, the horses needed caring for no less, so that Walter's whole establishment was taxed of its resources and it was an hour before Walter and I had private word together.
How Jeremy Crutch escaped the gallows- tree.
"SO soon from London?" Walter asked me, when Berden and I had finished eating mightily of cold fowl and fried eggs and bacon and cheese, with copious draughts of good Warwickshire ale to wash good victuals on their way. My men were still guzzling in the kitchen shamelessly, as if I never fed them, and Walter and I were at last alone together.
"And a following already?" he said. "And money to jingle? Never lived a Halifax who hadn't a sword-hand and a head to guide it, but this is swift work, Will!"
But I demanded news of Mildred ere I would tell him anything, and what he answered set me in such an agitation that I forgot my manners and kept him for a while on equal tenterhooks.
"You didn't know? You haven't heard?" he stammered. "Didn't you meet them on your way down? Pepperday has gone to London, and she with him. They left yesterday. And they were hardly gone afore John Gable, one of the Earl of Leicester's captains, and a following of five, came hunting for Tony Pepperday. He was all a- mud and in a hurry. Not finding Tony and Mildred he was in a fine fury, I can tell you. He came here questioning, but I knew nothing. So he went back and searched the house. He took all the papers—aye, and the bills and receipts, in a sack, and Madge Ambleby the maid-of-all-work, and rode to Kenilworth, cursing the day I was born because I knew nothing and would tell him less. He would have taken me, too, had he dared; but an Englishman's house is his castle, and he knows my aunt is Mistress of the royal pantry."
"Said Tony why he went to London?" I demanded.
"Not he. Tony was never a talker, unless to accuse someone. They rode attended by two of Tony's farm louts, Mildred astride on the black mare between them, and Tony alone in front with the blunderbuss across his knees, peering to left and right as if he expected highwaymen at every corner. Mildred wore a mask, a man's clothes under a long cloak, and by the rood she looked more manful than the other three together. I was looking for a stray pig down by the spinney; and having seen her so often in boy's clothes I thought nothing of it until I saw the pack-horse following. She called to me but the wind was blustery. Not having my horse I could not come near enough to hear more than that they were on their way to London; but she said something about you, so I supposed you knew of it."
Slow-witted friends are better than sagacious enemies, but I could have struck good Walter Turner as he sat there yawning. We had come so fast and halted by the way so seldom that we might easily have ridden past some inn where Mildred and Tony rested without me knowing or they either. I believe what saved me from venting my spleen ill-mannerly on Walter Turner was the thought how dull of wit myself had been.
There were horses enough in Walter's stable. I could borrow his plough-team for my men. But the men were as good as half dead and I doubted they could ride another furlong without a night's sleep. I went into the kitchen to look them over, and by my face they knew there was ill-luck uppermost. They were still stuffing themselves with ham and what not else, but they stood when I entered and I learned that minute something I have never since forgotten—nay, but have seen proven fifty times.
"Stand by for a squall!" said Futtok, gobbling food out of his mouth.
"Aye, aye!" Gaylord answered, and he used his thumb to jerk out of his mouth what he could not swallow fast enough.
They two were reckless of themselves in an emergency, but the 'prentice, being a landsman who had never seen the sea, thought first of his own unwillingness to suffer the road again until his skin ceased burning; he drew a long face and began feeling his hams to remind me. And so ever: they who have faced the sea have learned that Nature waits not on a man's convenience, and though a seaman is a child in many ways, and a poor gull oft-times when the landsmen cousen him, he is a very culverin to go off sudden when the match is laid.
"We must turn back toward London. We go now," I said. "Master Walter Turner will lend us fresh horses."
"Aye, aye, master," said Futtok, and he and Gaylord began pulling on their coats. They shamed the 'prentice by taking pity on him, so that he put a brave face on it and cursed them for a pair of Gravesend Billyboys, all tide-wise and no oaring.
Berden was already three-parts drunk. He had been mixing ale with some of the geneva that Walter Turner had from a friend in the fetching trade from Holland. He was snoring on the settle. When I shook him awake he swore he would ride no further that night, not though the Earl of Leicester and a duke or two to boot came clamouring. And since he fell asleep again I let him lie. But I bethought me of how we were on the Queen's business, and it were a pity not to link that importunity to my own need. So I took the warrant from the pocket inside his shirt and asked Walter Turner to horse him and send him forward as soon after dawn as he should wake.
I told Walter as much as I could think to tell him, in the yard while we saddled the horses, he holding the lantern and Kate crying out from the attic window to me to come in and change my sweaty underwear before I took the road; and when I would not, she threw me a change of Walter's, that I stuffed into the saddlebag. I had Walter's new horse that he had bought while I was gone and had not yet ridden: a fiery, ill-tempered beast he proved to be, but road-wise and as nigh impossible to tire as a wild goose on the wing.
And so away again, good Walter calling to us to watch the puddles at the cross-roads rather than waste time questioning innkeepers who might have been paid to keep their knowledge to themselves; for it was as clear to Walter as it was to me that Tony Pepperday had got word somehow that the Earl of Leicester's men were after him, and he was likelier than not to take a side- road. Why should he go to London? Why not Plymouth—Portsmouth—anywhere rather than London? HE might have told Mildred—aye, and Madge Ambleby, too, that he was bound for London, being likely not to trust a woman's tongue; but he might head northward after a while, toward Chester, where I knew he had a relative.
And why was Mildred so apparelled? She and I, when we were young, had ridden all our part of Warwickshire together, she clad like a boy and I glad of it, because that saved me from having to fight the lads who would have mocked me had they seen me riding with a girl; and though I never refused to break a pate on challenge, there was no sense in always fighting. As my father used to say: "Enough to keep the hand in and the fear out—enough to keep the churls respectful and his equals courteous—is all the fighting that a gentleman should do until a public enemy needs sending to the Lord God's Judgement Seat."
But why should Mildred take the road to London now in man's apparel? Whose was she wearing? Not Tony's. She could never have worn Tony's; he was too small. Mildred is nigh as tall as I am, and as strong and healthy as Tony was pinched and poisoned looking. Had she known she would ride to London and so made preparation for it, buying man's clothes? If so, how had she not told me? She could not have bought such apparel in haste in Brownsover, and it was several years since she had worn the boy's suit, which now would be much too small for her.
I hate a mystery. It may be that is why the Lord God has inflicted such a number on me to unravel, trying, I suppose, to reach me patience, which has been a hard task even for Omnipotence to do, and not yet nearly finished. Ludd! but I lacked it that night, turning ever and anon to listen through the wind-shriek and the swishing rain for sounds of my three followers, who lacked as much of horsemanship as I did of consideration for the honest fellows plodding along on smarting bottoms in the murk behind me. And nothing I gained, except to fret my horse, having to wait for them at every cross-road.
But as money spurs an old man's zeal, so love exaggerates a young one's vanity; and I was very young, no less in years than in experience. I visioned, as I rode into the rain, myself sole rescuing my Mildred from a cut-throat crew, attacking her for no known reason on the London road. Tony, I remember, I left in that dream in a ditch, discomfited in several separate ways all due to my own virtue and his own incorrigible vileness.
I knew that dawn was due because I could hear the kine at a farmhouse nearby lowing to be milked—and presently I saw the milkmaid's lantern, that made me shiver the more for the thought of the warmth within the byre. But it was so dark that I could scarcely see the hedgerows and the wait seemed endless; I was minded to ride back along the road, supposing my three might have met with accident, when I heard their plodding splash at last—and then voices beyond them, and the noise of at least a dozen horses overtaking us.
I spurred. Those weary men of mine were not in fettle for incivilities. It flashed across my mind that the Earl of Leicester's men were on Tony's trail, too. They would claim the privilege of Lord-Lieutenant's men, warrant or no warrant, and it was likely to fare ill with anyone they chose to suspect, or to bully for the love of the display of their authority. There was no law against our being on the road at night, but not much reason for not doubting us if we should give an unready account of ourselves.
My men thought me a highwayman, so suddenly I came on them, not daring to raise my voice. I turned their horses, that were eager enough to follow mine through a gap in the hedge, since hedges mean barns nearby, and a bam means shelter, hay and oats. That I managed it without hurt from my seamen's hangers was enough evidence of the condition they were in. And when they recognized me, they were as silent as I could wish, from very weariness. Dismounting, I muzzled my horse in my cloak to prevent his neighing, and I was just in time to make them muzzle theirs before the overtaking horsemen drew abreast and halted on the far side of the hedge. There was barely enough dawn light yet to show them like ghosts on horseback, me peering through the briars: thirteen men, and in another moment I knew certain that they were the Earl of Leicester's.
"A foul lie, Dodson!" said their leader's voice. "A trick o' yours to turn me toward you farmhouse! You heard eggs a-frying in your dream, you glutton! A fine greeting his Grace will give us if he learns we missed our quarry by turning after every smell o' bacon that tickled sleepy Dodson's snout! Horses, you say? You heard 'em splashing. 'Twas but an echo—of your fancy. Ride on!"
Twelve rode forward, but the thirteenth stayed, and he their leader. I could sense him more than I could see him nosing through the hedge-gap. He would come through if he heard the least sound, and he could not help but hear one, since the horses, weary though they were, would not stand still for ever. I slipped bridle and saddle off Futtok's beast that was closest to me, and he cried out, for he heard that, careful though I was.
"Who lurks there? Come out and show yourself!"
I pricked the horse towards him, using my sword-point, and the beast went to the gap to nuzzle the new-corner, both of them wickering.
"'Od's passion! A plough-horse!" I could hear him stroke the horse's muzzle. "Left you straying on a night like this, eh, Dobbin? Such a master should ride at a horse's tail and hop headless!" He struck our plough-horse to prevent his following, and rode on.
Thinking myself well rid of that party, but wondering how, now they were ahead of me, I could keep them from capturing Tony and Mildred, I caught and re-saddled the horse for Futtok, he being unable as much as to attempt it in the dark, although at sea he could find his way aloft at midnight and attend to rigging of whose existence not a landsman dreamed. And after a while I led the way along the high-road, slowly because it was growing light. I showed a bold enough back to my men, but felt unpleasantly unlike the valiant hero of my previous imagining.
Anon we came to a by-road, leading northward, where I noticed tracks that were not those of the Earl of Leicester's men. There was one place close to a tree, where a horse had stood a long while, and not far beyond it was a place where the mud was stoached up and a horse had gone in hock-deep. It was hard to judge how old the tracks were since the rain lay deep in them, but I judged they might have been made the evening before, or later.
Seeing that the Earl of Leicester's men had ridden on not noticing those hoof-marks in the dawning light—and in truth, if I were not a huntsman I should not have seen them either—I turned along the by-road to discover what they might mean. And I remember, I was glad of the excuse. I liked not at all the thought of following those thirteen all the way to London, nor no advantage to be had by it that a man could foresee, since if they should pounce on Tony Pepper day and Mildred, mine would be nothing but mortification and theirs the profit I drew back to a walk to spare my men and horses, and I had not ridden far when I saw smoke rising from a hole in a thatch of what might be a shepherd's cabin—but no sheep near, for there was neither dog, nor smell, nor bleating; nor was there much smoke. We were following the tracks of six horses, of which one was lame and had turned aside across the fields toward that hut; and at the place where he had left the lane there was a confusion of marks, as if the riders of all six horses had paused there holding conference. There I left my three men and rode alone along a hedgerow toward the hut, picking the way along the headland carefully so as to make no noise; and dismounting when I reached the farther hedgerow that ran north and south, I tied my horse and approached the hut on foot.
It was a small hut, with a door at one end and a window, or rather a hole in the midst of the side that faced toward me. There was a nag's head sticking through that hole. The creature whinnied to my animal, who answered; and even while I cursed that ill-luck I recognized the ungainly lazy sorrel on which Will Shakespeare had commenced his ride to London. In another moment Jeremy Crutch came through the door, a flute in one hand and a pistol in the other. He was noticeably no more pleased to meet me than I him.
"How now, Jeremy?" I said. "Not in Plymouth yet? Would the nag not carry you?"
"By the rood, have you come to make me fair exchange again?" he answered. And with that he drew aim at me, squinting along the barrel of his pistol. But I remembered he had missed me once, and I had taken away his powder; true, he might have bought or stolen more, but there was a chance that his pistol was as empty as the flute he carried in the other hand.
"Which weapon will you shoot me with?" I asked him, walking forward. "Down your weapon, Jeremy. I am here to talk, not to quarrel." Then I remembered Will Shakespeare's speech about my having robbed the fellow of his self-esteem. "We may end by being friends," I told him, remembering, too, how my father had thought him worth running a risk for at the Coventry assizes.
He was glad enough to stick his pistol in the holster, and I held it in his favour that he did not think me treacherous, my father having taught me, and I myself having seen, that the least trustful men are the least to be trusted. He who can recognize good faith in others has that quality himself in some degree.
He went into the hut where he had made a fire of bits of sticks and thatch and what not else; and what with the horse being in there, and the dung smoking on the floor, it was warm. I was glad to sit down on a stool by the hearth. I left Jeremy standing.
"That old skate," he said, making the horse stand over out of his way, "would ruin anyone. Not even a woman is feared of a highwayman so mounted, and at the inns they bid me begone. I'll hang next." And he played a few piteous bars on his flute.
"What woman worsted you?" I asked him.
"Master Will," he said, "I'm not worth a King Harry groat no more since you took that mare o' mine."
"I have her yet," I answered, and he cocked an eye at me. I thought him thin and melancholy, with a merry spirit trying now and then to peep through.
"It's more than a mare you lack," said I, "and it isn't manhood, for you have it. Would you turn honest?"
"'Od's bones, try me!" he retorted. "But they've given me a bad name, Master Will." He played a few more measures on his flute, the while I watched him.
"The Earl of Leicester's men are riding," I said. "Twelve of them and a lieutenant."
"Near?" he asked. "Then it's all up. That lame sorrel couldn't show tail to a tortoise. Better leave me, Master Will, or they'll swear we're partners and they'll hang you to the self-same gibbet. Seems I heard somewhere that the Earl of Leicester does not love you as they say the Queen loves him." And he went on playing melancholy music.
"I'd expect good service, Jeremy," said I. "Good loyal service and no naughty manners."
"And the mare?" he asked, stopping the music midway of a note to cock an eye at me again.
"She's in a mews," said I, "in London."
"And how many gibbets between here and London?" He shook his head and smiled. I thought him sorrowful. "It's no use, Master Will. I'd like it. But they'll hang me to the nearest gallows- tree."
"What woman worsted you?" I asked him again. "Was it down there near the high-road where I saw the mud all stoached up?"
He nodded. "That brute," he glanced at the sorrel, "stuck a hind foot in a mud-hole. And a maid that I thought was a man clapped pistol to me—and then saved me a trouncing from a pair o' hinds. She mocked me something shameful. I'd rather ha' had the broken pate, and if she weren't a maid, I'd ha' slain her."
"Maid?" I said. "Heard you her name?"
"Mildred." He began to play the flute again right prettily. Then: "I wasn't the only lack-spunk. One with a blunderbuss rode ahead, and I let him pass before I rode out on the other three. When he heard me (it was too dark: to see much) he went spurring up the lane. He had a cracked voice. When he was out o' pistol shot he called 'Mildred! Mildred!' The two hinds had bolted the other way, but they came back when they heard the maid laugh. There was nothing I could do. She had a pistol against my face—and mine empty since you took my last powder—and she too merry for a merry man like me to have at. 'Let him alone,' she says, 'unhand him,' when the hinds swung their cudgels. And then she said some more that weren't so welcome from a merry maid. I'm red yet, back o' the ears."
"How long gone?" I demanded.
"Two hours. They'll be resting at the farmhouse a mile up the lane, for the lane goes nowhere else but to Tibbetts's place."
"Good," I said. "Mount the sorrel and we'll ride to breakfast, Jeremy. Does Tibbetts keep decent table? I'm famished."
"I don't know," he answered. "I've fed the flute the wind I'm full of. If grace and fasting are the same I'll go swift to Heaven when they hang me."
"They shan't hang you, Jeremy," I said, "if you look after that mare rightly and deliver me good service. You're a masterless man no longer, but remember to deserve good treatment."
He was too starven to argue, having lived, I did not doubt, on air and wishes longer than his stomach liked. He led the sorrel until we both mounted where I had left my horse, and then rode limping along behind me until Futtok and Gaylord looked him over, jealous, feeling themselves already old retainers and him new. But he smiled his way into their favour. Every bit of the sourness of his features vanished when he laughed.
Of John Coningsby, and rumour of rebellion.
TIBBETTS'S was an olden house, still standing from one of the Edwards' reign, I know not which. It had a floor below the level of the ground, and no upper story, so that at first sight it looked like a monstrous pig-pen and a mounted man could wellnigh see over the roof to the far side. And Tibbetts was what might be looked for in a friend of Tony Pepperday's, who loved such coney-catchers as himself.
Zachary Tibbetts came out toward us with a hayfork in his hand the moment the curs began barking. He had on a broad-brimmed leather hat and a leather smock reaching to his knees. His skin was of the same dark-walnut hue, so that he looked like one of those Egyptian corpses that the wandering showmen let you see for a penny. Only he had more to say, and that uncivil.
"Men and horses! Will ye eat me out o' barn and cellar? There's a good inn nine mile on the London Road," he shouted.
He could have kept a bull out of his house more easily than me. I could see Mildred's mare through the barn door, the white stocking of its near hind showing through the mud. I could have picked that mare out of a thousand. I shouted and Mildred looked out of the house, framed from the knees up in the open doorway, looking like a handsome gallant in her velvet suit and gilded sword-hilt; only her hair was down over her shoulders; I suppose she had been drying out the night's rain.
In a moment she and I were in each other's arms, Tony, trying to separate us, scolding like a cur-dog for another's bone. I pulled the warrant out and rapped him with it, saying: "Tony, I arrest you in the Queen's name!"; nor knew I whether he or Mildred was the more astonished.
Then in the Queen's name I commanded Tibbetts to bring food for all of us, and I sent Jeremy out to see the horses baited and to choose for himself a mount from Tibbetts's stable in place of his own useless sorrel. Tibbetts objecting, I asked him whether he would like thirteen of the Earl of Leicester's men and horses to provide for, too, adding they were not far up the road and would be glad enough to rest o' their long ride. So Tibbetts put a better grace on it, ordering his ill-favoured hag of a wife to spread a table—nor not bad viands either.
While the table was laying I took Mildred into the room beside the pantry, where I thought none could hear us and was equally sure we were unseen, for I like not lovers' talk or deed before an audience. And presently I asked her where she had the velvet suit. She answered, it belonged to a friend of Tony's, who had left it at Brownsover, on his way from Bristol; but I thought from the way she answered that she had not told all.
It was a new suit of good French velvet. She said she did not know its owner's name, but that Tony had insisted on her wearing it so that they might be in less danger from the footpads on the way to London. Then she said: "Will, it must be we are destined for each other. How else could you have found me—you not knowing I had left home? Tony was for taking me out of England, to be far from your reach and the Earl of Leicester's.
I never even guessed it until about an hour ago, when I overheard him whispering to Tibbetts; he had told me we were to visit Roger Tunby. But what is this about a warrant? You were jesting? Playing a trick on Tony?"
I let her read the warrant and examine the great seal, she marvelling that I should so soon ride on royal business. But she was angry—Lord God, she was angry! I loved her so, showing her spirit, although she dubbed me pick-thank for having sought my own advancement at Tony's cost; aye, and she used less honourable names.
"A scurvy, underhanded way of winning me, Will! Never, they say, was a Halifax who hadn't more ability than most men, but aren't you the first of them to act like David, who sent Uriah to his death that he might have Bathsheba? What would your father Sir Harry have said? I know what I say: you shall never have me boughten in that market!"
It was a long time before I could persuade her I was saving Tony and herself from the Earl of Leicester's clutches. I had to tell her all my story, she not singing Tony's praises, since she knew him for the crooked little caitiff that he was, but bitter against what she supposed had been my underhanded dealing. She rested at last content with me, although I could offer no assurance as to Tony's fate, but she made me promise I would do my best for him, which indeed I would have done in any event unless Tony himself should make me impotent to forfend evil that his own devices caused. I said the only hope that I could see for him was that the Lords in Council, who were men of dignity, might possibly not deign to smirch their feet by crushing such a cockroach.
When I told her I had fifteen hundred pounds, and how I came by it, she was ready enough to marry me if I could find a parson who would dare to take the responsibility; for neither of us understood what risk we ran, nor had more than an inkling yet of what influences were arrayed against us. Nor knew we how to go about it by other means than publishing of banns against three Sundays running, those already published having been forbidden, which I did not doubt would invalidate our marriage unless we should have them repeated. I thought of publishing the banns in London, where our names might be read in church unrecognized.
And then, by some mischance, I found my hands testing of the stuffs of her velvets, trying the buttons till, in truth, they were undone, and she called me no more graceless; but pressed her lips to mine in very passion.
Then, bannless and without nuptials, Mildred became my wife to spite heaven and her caitiff stepfather under Queen's warrant arrest a wall's-breadth apart.
They summoned us to table, but I turned back, remembering the wet cloak I had hung on a hook and being minded to spread it to dry before the fire, where Mildred's cloak was. And as I took my wet cloak from the wall I heard a voice, as of someone hidden there who had thought me gone already. But the wall seemed solid, of oak as old as England. It was not panelled but of stout boards running up and down, well fitted, nor no crack between them that would have taken a knife's edge without forcing. Nevertheless, my ears are not so easily mistaken; and I was vexed that someone might have overheard our confidences. I remembered Berden's warning—spies—spies everywhere! And I knew of many a priest-hole in which we country gentry, aye, and my Protestant father not least, made no bones about hiding the poor devils of wandering Papists, who brought us news of foreign parts and set us all a-laughing (when we were safe hidden in the holes) at the ambitious malice of tire enemies of England's Queen. There had been such a hole in our house and I knew no cursory search could find the opening.
So I stamped on the floor with my feet as if leaving the room, but in truth I made no progress, only less noise, and less, so that it should seem that I walked away whereas I stood still on the same spot. Presently I heard the sound again, as of a man who stretched himself in darkness, not seeing the wall but feeling of it, easing the discomfort of his long restraint. Yet I could see no crack through which such sound could come. But now my wits were working.
So I went into the kitchen, which was the only room beside the bedrooms that the farmhouse boasted, and there Tony was shivering between Futtok and Gaylord. Nor was it the cold that made him shiver. If ever I saw a man whose conscience carked him and filled him with dread, it was Tony thinking of the warrant I had rapped on his shoulder and of the hopelessness of persuading me to befriend him since the unkind speeches he had made me and his forbidding of the banns.
Said I: "Tony, you are like to forfeit to the crown on the count of treason all those heritages that you won from me by cozening my father; so neither of us richer—and you headless for the love o' vanity. For it is naught but vanity that led you into treason with the Scots Queen."
He sat still, working his jaws as if he chewed on something. If there was speech in him he could not bring it forth.
"Tony," I said, "you little miserable caitiff, did you ever spare a debtor because he did you a service not included in the count? Nay, not you! Waste no thought on it. But see you that some other, less ungodly than yourself, might act magnanimous and spare you for the sake of loyalty that offset treason? You have seen the warrant. I must surrender you in London. Will you ride with the chances all against you in the one dish o' the balance? Or will you fill the other dish to weigh the beam back to the level, and mayhap tip it to your favour?"
"You may have Mildred," he said, working his jaws like a nut- cracker.
"I fear me," I said, "you are too late, Tony, to make that amend. Your treason, if they prove it, oversets all gifts of yours. And that is only me you have made your bid for. Lords in Council look for substance in an offer ere they meditate on terms."
"What will you?" he demanded.
"Who else is in the house?" I asked him, sharp and sudden.
He blinked at me.
"Whose suit is Mildred wearing?" I demanded.
His flinty old eyes looked cunning and afraid, but he made no answer.
"Why did you leave the high-road and come to Tibbetts's, though you were in haste to reach London and shipping?"
"Breakfast," he mumbled, "and rest. No good inns, not hereabouts."
"Who else is in the house?" I asked again. "Whom came you hither to talk with?"
He was weakening. My own fear was that Mildred, taking pity on him, might put word in that should restore his obstinacy, but she trusted me and said nothing. Tony was thinking of Tibbetts, as I judged by the use that he made of his eyes, and I could see old Tibbetts trying to make signals to him from a corner, where he pretended to be sorting sheepskins. I moved in such way as to mask that signalling.
"Tony," I said, "no man worries about weasels when a fox is in the barnyard. Haply if you show where the fox is, such weasels as you and Tibbetts might go scot-free. Clap me on the scent of him, and I will give you credit."
Still he hesitated. Treacherous as an adder, he did not dare to trust me. I had to threaten him.
"Tony," I said, "if you force me to look for the man—and I know where he is, for I heard him—I can save you neither from the rack, nor from the axe."
He yielded then, but as he did, some straying whisp of manliness found lodgement in his thought:
"And Zachary?" he asked. "Will you speak for Zachary? Old Zachary needed money for the cess. He has done nothing. He knows nothing, poor old Zachary."
He was likely enough lying, but I let it pass, saying Zachary was no affair of mine, nor naught else so be I captured a Queen's enemy. If Zachary were trap, and Tony trapper, well and good; they should share the credit. And I pulled the warrant out for extra suasion, they not knowing what was written on it.
There was a race then which should be the first to bring the stranger forth, I fearing he might prove after all to be only a wandering priest with a price on his head; though I might have spared myself that moment's discontent by remembering that such a velvet suit as Mildred wore hardly should come from a wandering priest's wardrobe.
I did not watch them open the priest-hole, being minded they should bring their man forth and tell their own tale, so that later I might say on oath that they brought him forth, free- willing. The sailors and the 'prentice-lad, I was confident would confirm my testimony, but of Jeremy I was not so sure; his tale might differ from mine unless some means were found of so impatronising myself upon his humour as to make him loyal in the face of fear or profit. However, as I looked at him he took his flute and played a tune right comically, which I took to be a good sign; and indeed it gave me a thought how signalling might be accomplished between him and me without anyone else the wiser. Many a time since then we have used that simple trick to excellent advantage and the ultimate discomfort of the Queen's foes.
Zachary and Tony were a long time bringing their man forth; doubtless they were instructing him as to the story he should tell, which troubled me not at all, since he should tell it later, I supposed, in a place where lying calls for a degree of stubborn fortitude that few possess. And while I waited, gazing at Mildred, turning over in my mind expedients for lodging her in some safe place before even Berden could learn of it, I marked not only her silence. She was troubled—nor not troubled about Tony; for, had it been Tony's plight that vexed her she would have told me. She was trying to answer my fond looks with equal warmth, yet wanting success, her true affection being bridled by another thought; or so it seemed.
"Sweetheart," I said, "we start life ill together with a confidence half-given. Speak or be silent; it is all one, so only that you know I trust you and that trust is mutual between us."
I had hit the mark. She looked as grateful at me as if I had salved some smarting injury. And truth, I would have added kisses to the salve before my men, not given though I be to letting others know my inwardness, nor liking to see others making public show of what is best done privily, nor not from shame but because of sacredness; but then Tony and Zachary came, with their man between them, and I knew why Mildred had been troubled.
He was dressed all in black, without sword or jewellery, and he lacked a barber; but there were reddish whiskers curling on his face. But he was handsome. And he was so of a size with Mildred, and so resembled her in outline, that in a half-light, and if they were dressed alike, he almost might have been her shadow. There resemblance ceased. He was a foxy-looking fellow with an actor's gift of playing parts, so that as he walked toward me I could see him studying me and drawing on the character that he thought might suit my mood. By the time he reached me he was a brave man looking to me for magnanimity. I thought it clever, but it threw me more on guard than if he had made frank use of the craftiness that I first detected.
Tony and Zachary stood back. The stranger bowed to Mildred, then to me. He had a courtly manner, faintly suggestive, it might be, of France, and for a moment I think he hesitated as to whether he should speak to me in French, but I could see he was English, and he had a subtle gift for reading thought, so that he made not that mistake.
"They tell' me," he said, "you are Master Will Halifax. I am John Coningsby at your service."
The name meant nothing to me. I was bent on hiding my perplexity. His name was not written on Berden's warrant. I ad no commission that entitled me to take him prisoner. But suddenly I recalled how I had signed the Association Bond, which bound me in solemn covenant with every honest man in England to do justice against the Queen's enemies wherever I might meet them. Parliament had recognized the Association Bond. I was within my legal rights. I was superior to Berden. Nor had I need of the warrant for the taking of Tony Pepperday. Until that minute the Association Bond had not meant more to me than loyal sentiment, since nothing much came of the Bond but talk and drinking of the Queen's health and a dog's death to the King of Spain, wherever gentlemen might meet.
"From whom are you hiding, Master Coningsby, and why?" I asked him.
"Have you the right to demand that of me?" he retorted, his eye estimating me and my men and the distance to the open door beyond us. But he had no chance to escape.
I answered, I was not for standing fully on my rights, but that he should come with me to London and there give such account of himself as his respect for Queen's ministers might cause to seem advisable.
"Will you ride free-willing, or with your feet tied under a horse's belly?" I asked him. Then, since he did not answer: "Is your horse in Zachary Tibbetts's barn?"
He nodded. I sent Jack Giles to confirm the truth of it. Then:
"Tony," I said, "do you denounce John Coningsby?"
"Aye," Tony answered; and I saw Mildred bite her lip, to think that Tony should so promptly save his own neck at another's cost. But there was no other way for Tony to have saved himself. I did not doubt now that by accident I had uncovered a treason greater than any that Tony had devised. "I denounce him," said Tony, "as one who escaped abroad with the Lords Neville, Percy, Arundel, Throgmorton, Paget and others. He has come back practising to help them to invade the realm in the King of Spain's behalf, and on behalf of the Scots Queen. The Duke of Guise is to land in Scotland. Neville, Percy, Arundel, Paget and the others are to land at different places on the south coast."
I turned to Mildred. "Sweetheart," I asked her, "knew you aught of this?"
She shook her head, and I guessed the truth was that she had taken pity on the man. Doubtless he had told her he was hiding from his private enemies. I saw it all now: Tony, growing frightened, had planned to flee the country, but as usual he was playing both sides, and he had come thither trying to convince John Coningsby that he was only going to London for a visit, hoping Coningsby might never learn of his flight but should procure reward for him afterwards, if rebellion and invasion should succeed. But Coningsby was reading Mildred's face and mine. He had overheard our confidences and he thought he saw me in a fine dilemma.
"Mistress Mildred Jackson," he said, bowing, "hesitates between the truth and untruth. I will aid her memory, since she has aided me—aye, with full knowledge of her father's motive and mine also; she is wearing my velvet suit, in which she would have escaped to Flushing, in order that they who chance to see her, and who know me, may report that I am no longer in England."
Mildred touched my arm. "Do you believe him, Will?" she asked me.
I was half-offended that she thought she had need to ask. But John Coningsby mistook my shake o' the head for a sign of doubt and tried to press advantage.
"Your sweetheart will look pretty on the rack!" he said. "They will question her in turn when they have done with Tony. Aye, and they will rack you also, when I tell how she was in league with me, and you with her!"
I bethought me of the Earl of Leicester—a Lord of the Council who might sway the others and accept that simple means of venting his displeasure of me. Men said he slew Amy Robsart, who had done him no worse wrong than to marry him secretly. I thought him unlikely to hesitate to use malice on me, against whom he had the bitter sort of grudge that such as he, flattering themselves they ape Almighty God, cherish against the sons and grandsons of the men they quarrel with.
Nevertheless, though I did not doubt his promise to accuse both Mildred and me, and though Mildred turned white with dread and indignation; aye, and Tony pricked his ears, as ready as a spring to turn the tables on me, I thought I would rather suffer racking than play the meacock before Mildred and my own men. I laughed.
"You shall learn whether your threat has spoiled our appetites," I said, and took seat at the table, urging Mildred to do likewise. "Eat!" I said to him. "Eat heartily. For as you draw near London thinking of the headsman's block on Tower Hill you are like to take small comfort of the wayside victualling!" I might have spoken him less in the Lord Harry style if I had foreknown how sharp my own discomfort was to be.
How Jeremy proved loyal and Benjamin Berden fell to second place.
NOW the difference, as I see it, between noble and common natures is in essence that though either may accomplish any given task, the former will avoid indignity to others if he can, whereas the latter will assert his own importance by inflicting shame. And though I have sometimes failed through my own fault, as I propose to tell before these memoirs are all written, in order that whoever reads may profit from this confession more than others may have suffered at such times as I forgot in momentary heat my father's counsel and my own respect, nevertheless I have sought all my life long, without many lapses, to keep myself included in the former category.
I have done a long tale of secret errands for the Queen, not all bloodless nor void of scandal, because princes are not choosers but must counter treachery in equal sort. And I have learned this, in which Sir Francis Bacon, aye, and the Queen herself agree with me: that when abhorrent deeds are necessary, as in affairs of state must happen now and then lest worse should come to pass, it is the highest statecraft to employ thereon an individual of kindly and noble character; else what is bad enough already will develop into something far worse.
The common hangman is not to be trusted even at the hangman's trade. It needs a gentleman to do ungentle business, who will accept no bribe, nor take one lawless step too many.
Thus when I explain why, knowing this John Coningsby was something less than honest, I accorded him as civil conduct as I might without inviting jeopardy. I gave him Jeremy's sorrel horse to ride, nor no indignity of trussing, though my seamen could have used such rope-work as the devil and all his angels could have hardly undone. But the sorrel was no such nag as a desperate man could gallop on to freedom, and I am no glutton for assurance; reasonable safety is enough. I was minded to ride slowly so that Berden might come up with us.
Futtok, Gaylord and the 'prentice lad I was confident were my men wholly. If I should continue worthy to be their master, they would follow me on courses howsoever perilous. Their lack of livery and a month or two's hard training in the saddle were all that lay between them and my satisfaction—matters I could remedy in London, since I now had money.
But of Jeremy I was not so sure yet. He appeared grateful, and gratitude is an open channel into which fidelity may pour. But I thought it without the pale of probability that luck should furnish me with four good servants in as many days; and though a proverb warns us not to look a gift horse in the mouth, I had had caned into me a line of Vergil—Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes*—that has always seemed to me to hold a mint of wisdom. I was minded to put Jeremy to further test without his knowing it.
(* Beware of the Greeks, especially when they bring gifts.)
Two other thoughts I had in mind: I would test mine intuition that assured me of Coningsby's importance to the Lords of the Council, I judging him to be a culverin well-loaded with intrigue against the realm and likely to betray the nature of his charge if given opportunity, since he was desperate. The second was, that I would ride alone with Mildred for mine own contentment.
So I ordered Tony to ride foremost along with Futtok and Gaylord. But to the lad Jack Giles I gave the following instructions: he should ride with Jeremy and Coningsby a short while, making opportunity to mention, as it were at random, how that Jeremy had only been my man an hour or two. He should then speak of my having had from Jeremy a token, possibly the Scots Queen's, which Jeremy might have to account for to the satisfaction of the Lords in Council; he should ask how Jeremy came by it, accepting by way of answer any lie that Jeremy might please to tell. Thereafter he should spur forward and ride with the other three, leaving Jeremy and Coningsby to ride alone together.
I brought up the rear with Mildred, happy as larks to ride together out of earshot of the others, she as confident as I that life was dawning rosy for us both. We chatted of the future, she deciding I should ultimately be the Lord High Admiral of England, since she liked the sound of it. But I liked better the title of Lord Secretary Halifax, since I had seen Lord Burghley like a spider at the centre of the web of state. And so laughing, there were passages of love between us; but it was hard to believe that she had coiled her hair up under her green hat with the feather in it, and wore her riding mask, and now that the long cloak covered her figure; it was only her hands and feet, and something sweet about the corners of her mouth, that told she was a woman.
We kept well to the rear, for I knew that if Coningsby should try to escape on the sorrel I could catch him easily. And remembering how often Mildred and I when we were younger had ridden our countryside, reading it aloud to one another as we rode and better liking Nature's book of green leaves than the dryer school-books, I reminded her how often she had viewed an otter, or a curlew's nest, or a vixen slinking home with somebody's fat capon for her cubs, more unerringly than I could. And I challenged her for sake of happy memory to match her quickness against mine that morning.
"Sweetheart," I said, "watch Coningsby. Mark whatever passes between him and my man."
So we rode as to a Maying, she and I, she full of confidence in me because I had come to her like a prince in a fairy tale, with a magic warrant in my hand that touched men and made them prisoners. She trusted me to save Tony's neck for him; nor spoke we any more of that, I being not so confident and therefore averse to touching on the matter. Truth was, I let trouble take care of itself, for the rain had ceased and I was merry; all the birds were singing; it was a fresher morning than when I rode beside Will Shakespeare, albeit marvellous muddy, and every puddle likelier than not to be a hole in which a horse could flounder to his girth. So it was she, not I, who saw John Coningsby draw something from inside his doublet and pass it to Jeremy Crutch, who hid it in his saddlebag; my horse had set a foot wrong and was floundering out of a hole, but Mildred told me of it instantly.
I was two-minded then, whether or not to ride alongside Jeremy and make him show me what he had. He had a good horse; he could easily escape. But I decided presently that he was making too much of a show of confidence with Coningsby, which I judged he would have been too shrewd to do if he had contemplated treachery to me. It was Coningsby, I thought, whom he was cozening, and if he overplayed it Coningsby, nevertheless, had no alternative but to trust him now that the package, or whatever it was, had changed hands. I decided to wait, to give Jeremy an opportunity to prove fidelity to me. 'Twas well I did.
As we rounded a bend in the road I saw that the worst had happened that could possibly be shaken out of fortune's bag! The Earl of Leicester's men were coming back toward us, cantering. Doubtless they had learned that Tony's party had not passed that way and they were now bent on seeking him in Tibbetts's or some other farmhouse on the road from Brownsover. They had already seen us. They had counted us. There was no way of avoiding them, nor any use in trying to hide Mildred.
Jeremy fled then like a bird from an opened trap. One of the Earl of Leicester's men let fly a bullet at him. As he set his horse to leap the hedge beside the road Jeremy laughed gaily, and waved his hand, which I took for insolent contempt of me. I could have shot him; he was within easy range and the shot not difficult, but I saved my dry powder and bullet, foreseeing trouble with the Earl of Leicester's men.
They had dragged Tony from his horse before I could ride up. They had Coningsby next. One of them struck down Futtok with a cudgel; another had a sword at Gaylord's throat; another had Giles in chancery—the lad was helpless.
"'S'death! John Coningsby!" cried someone. "What ho, there, Master Clintock!"—Clintock was their leader—"here's John Coningsby that fled to France what time the Earl was after him! And by the rood, who's this? Will Halifax, by Godfrey! And who's with him?"
We were surrounded. But I had drawn my sword and I flourished the warrant under Clintock's sharp nose.
"How now!" I retorted. "Are the bear's whelps grown so insolent? Flout ye her Grace's warrant?"
"Let me read that!" he demanded; and I let him, but when he sought to snatch it from my hand he slit his sleeve on my sword- point.
"'Sblood!" he shouted. "Do you show teeth at the Earl of Leicester?"
They had not broken fast and they were weary, which is to say ill-tempered. I had heard how, twice since Michaelmas, the Earl had punished Clintock for remissness, tardiness and what not else; the man was eager to re-establish himself in the Earl's good graces.
"Is John Coningsby's name writ on that warrant?" he demanded. "How is it you ride with Coningsby? I smell treason!" He had a nose long enough to have smelt it in another county, and I said so. Furthermore, I promised him a clout on the ugly end of it an he thrust it any closer into my affairs; and I bade him unhand my prisoners. His men had already tied them with a rope around the elbows.
"I charge you with treason and with harbouring John Coningsby, whom all men know to be a traitor to the realm!" he shouted. "Ho, there, lads! Search Coningsby! I'll lay a wager we'll find on him all the proof a hangman needs!"
They stripped Coningsby nigh naked, but all they found was a little English money and a dagger hidden in his trunks. Disappointment angered Clintock more than ever. He spurred his horse again towards me.
"Who's here?" he demanded. "Unmask!"
He would have stripped the mask off Mildred, but he was foul of my sword again; nor did he dare to draw on me since I held a Queen's warrant and there were witnesses.
"My orders are to take Mildred Jackson to the Earl of Leicester's house," he shouted. "You's a woman, or my name's Queen Elizabeth! Who is she?"
"My prisoner," I said; and again I shook the warrant at him. "This calls for Tony Pepperday and such members of his household as are discoverable, along with papers and all such evidence. I hear the Earl of Leicester has the papers. Let him answer for it, and we will see then who pleads to treason!"
He was in a quandary, and so enraged against me for having forestalled him that I feared he might have at me with twelve stout fellows at his back in spite of the Queen's warrant. He might slay me and my men (though he would have to fight to do it) and then trust his followers to lie about it afterwards. But I think he was not too well liked by his own men, so that he hardly dared to trust them; and he had seen Jeremy leap the hedge and ride away, so that he feared an awkward witness might be in hiding to appear against him and he told too many lies. I added nothing to his equanimity; I bade him loose Gaylord and help Futtok to his feet, who was recovering from the cudgel-blow.
"You have molested the Queen's messengers," I told him. "You shall answer to her for it!"
"A fine tale!" he shouted. "Let me see the date on that warrant! Well—is Coningsby's name writ there? Well and good, I take him! Ho lads! One of you take up Coningsby behind your saddle. We'll put John Coningsby in the Marshalsea and see what tale he has to tell about you, Master Halifax—with your Queen's warrant, and your green cross-country galloper and your woman prisoner in a man's suit—no, and her sword not taken from her neither!"
Whereat John Coningsby laughed at me and Mildred, lifting his lip like a fox that throws the hounds off-scent. I knew there would be a fine tale told about me ere I could come to London Four against thirteen was a shade too long odds; there was no way I could rescue Coningsby. They lifted him behind a rider on their stoutest horse, and before Gaylord could help Futtok to his feet they were gone. I thought myself fortunate that they had not taken Mildred, too, and slain me, as they would have had to do to accomplish that.
Futtok's head was not badly broken, and Mildred bound it for him with a wetted neckerchief that brought him a world of comfort (for it is the magic of a woman's fingers and her kindness that heal hurts; the very pride of being tended by a lady in a velvet suit made Futtok feel like conquering Spain that morning). But I could make no speed with horses and men already weary and with less skin left on my men's rumps than on as many poached eggs. Furthermore, it would not be right to leave Berden too far behind, for I was conscious that I owed him, in part at least, for such advancement as I already had.
So I set a slow pace with a heavy heart, now wondering what chance I had of hiding, Mildred from the Earl of Leicester, and now what Berden would have to say to my letting them take Coningsby. He might think me a coward. And what would Lord Burghley have to say to it? I wondered: should a man not die rather than let go a prisoner whom he had taken in the Queen's name? Nor was I pleased that Mildred should have seen me worsted, having been a hero in her eyes so lately. Deeply I doubted that Sir Francis Drake, were he in my shoes, would have let the Earl of Leicester's men—or any others, aye, and twice their number—take a prisoner from him.
I was out of conceit with myself when I saw Jeremy Crutch come riding toward us down the road; nor was I in any mood to treat him civilly, he having deserted me at the first pinch. I was minded rather to wreak my discontent on him, nor was I wholly foreign to the thought of making him my prisoner in place of Coningsby, he having been a highwayman, whose resolution to turn honest was not stiff enough to hold him in the road. I did not doubt he had hidden whatever it was that Coningsby had passed to him, but a taste of the rack might presently induce him to betray the hiding-place.
However, he was smiling and he greeted me as gaily as if no cowardice had come between us, pulling off his pea-green hat to Mildred and as saucy to me as an old friend.
"Master," he said, wheeling his horse to ride beside me, "I've no proud stomach, and the Earl of Leicester's men have hunted me so often that I jump at sight of 'em. I know 'em, and they know me. They'd ha' swung me high as Haman in the Good Book. And they'd ha' plucked me first. So they'd ha' had this, that I took from Coningsby!"
He handed me a little package wrapped in silk and sealed; nor had the seal been broken. There was no address on it, but the seal was impressed with the arms of the Duke of Guise, that any man in England who knew aught of heraldry could recognize at the first glance.
"I told Coningsby," he said, "that I was deep affected to the Scots Queen; for I guessed you had ordered Giles to broach that barrel o' circumstances, and when the lad fell silent and rode forward I was sure of it. Coningsby put me through such a questioning as the Inquisition might, me lying like a lawyer at assizes, until I satisfied him I knew Fotheringay, from having delivered many a message to the Scots Queen's servants.
"'Swounds! That was a lucky chance: I remembered the names o' two o' them from having sat in Bellamy's back-parlour listening to tales and wondering which traveller had the fattest purse. I told him I followed you for the sake of scraps o' news, so that the Scots Queen might be informed of any steps now being taken to suppress rebellion that all men knew was coming. I don't know whether I convinced him in the end. Maybe he was desperate, and so out of his wits, as had happened to me now and then. But he gave me that package at last and bade me promise to slip away with it to-night toward Fotheringay and deliver it to one of the Scots Queen's servants. He said I should receive a token in return, and an address to which to take it, where someone in high authority would pay me heavily."
"Said he aught else?" I demanded, and Jeremy filled my ears with tales of how the Duke of Guise and many an expatriated Englishman were planning to land on the South Coast, and in Scotland, aye, and in Ireland, too, to raise a rebellion and, rescuing the Queen of Scots from Fotheringay Castle, to impose her on the throne of England.
"What should happen to our rightful Queen?" I asked him.
"Oh, the Pope has promised a hundred thousand crowns and everlasting life to anyone who slays her," he said cheerfully. And at that he brought his flute forth, making merry music as he rode beside us.
That night, when we lodged at a roadside inn, came Berden overtaking us—a mess of sweat and mud, on a foundered farm- horse out of Walter Turner's stable, nor in no good humour, taking umbrage at my having made free with the warrant and vexed at my good fortune in having found Tony and Mildred. He made a scandal, so that the inn was all agog with it. I had already given Mildred in charge to the innkeeper's wife, to be bedded in her chamber, but Berden swore there should be a guard by the chamber door to boot because his honour was touched in the matter.
He was cold-discourteous to Jeremy, whom he dubbed a gallows- bird and promised him trial by jury, so that I had no fear of Jeremy prattling to him about the packet we had from Coningsby. When he demanded the warrant back and I refused he threatened to draw sword on me, which was a silly gesture, he having no right by virtue of his birth to fight with me on equal terms; Futtok and Gaylord would have disarmed him in a minute. It was time to have it out with Berden, and to settle which of us two was master, so I led him aside to where a dim lamp shone on whitewash in a passage corner and none could hear us—unless, indeed, he shouted as I was minded he should not do.
"Berden," I said, "I'll play you fair and you shall trust me to it. I'll play you fair an you treat me foul. I'll not forget past friendship, not though future enmity should dye you blacker than a Moor. So if you think you have aught against me, come out to the stable where I'll thrash you and we'll get that over with. I like not to shame you before strangers, nor in the presence of my men."
He grew less choleric, but he was obstinate about the warrant, vowing he must have it or lose standing with the Lords of the Council.
"Berden," I said, "none loses without another gaining. And if I gain, who am your friend, and who can go high, being the son of as true and gentle a knight as ever lived, you will gain more than if you had the warrant back and I took place as your subordinate. And in truth you have forfeited the warrant through your own sloth. And had I not taken it, we had both lost standing through not catching Tony Pepperday; but I the more, since being higher I may fall the farther; and because so, too, I should have lost my lady-love."
"Whom certes you will lose in any event," he answered. "One or t'other—Leicester or Burghley will have her to ward, and you're out. She'll marry him who pays most for her dower."
I could have struck him, that thought so maddened me, but I held anger in rein.
"Leave Lords in Council to their own conceits," I answered, "and stick to the question. Do you yield the warrant? There is nothing written concerning who shall serve it. And who did serve it? Which of us slept? If you'd rather, then tell your own tale to Lord Burghley and I'll tell mine. But if you're my subordinate I'll see you come by no discredit for a draught too many of ale and hollands."
"You gentry are all alike," he grumbled.
"Aye," I said, "we aim upward. But we draw stout-hearted fellows up behind us."
"If I could trust you," he began, but I interrupted.
"If you couldn't 'twere a pity. There are more than you shall trust me ere my sun sets. But why should I trust you unless you act fair? And you envious?"
So he yielded, being not a man of mettle though a worthy enough fellow in his way. We took a glass of ale together, and Berden has been my fairly loyal subordinate and moderately amiable ally ever since.
Wherein Will Shakespeare offers inspiration.
IN the morning Berden rode with me and Mildred, she so changing his disposition with her kindness that, although he started with an envious resentment, he was ere long proffering his aid to solve our difficulty, whose intricacies she and I understood hardly better than the birds do a net that catches them.
We rode slowly, having no taste for the issue—nay, not one of us; Giles was afraid of the drunken master-merchant-tailor to whom he had been bound apprentice, and who might hale him before the magistrates; Futtok and Gaylord feared the press, that was said to be looking for seamen for the Queen's ship (though that turned out to be a mere innkeeper's gossip); Tony trembled for his life, each yard of the London road to him a step nearer in imagination to a dreadful death; Jeremy, his face half-hidden in a neck-cloth and his hat drawn down above his eyes, looked askance at every gallows that we passed, and when we came at last to Tyburn Tree, he was as lily-white as the goosewing feather in his green hat. Berden, softening toward us two, lamented our hard case, knitting his brows as he sought a remedy until at last, turning to me with an oath, he urged on me a counsel of despair.
"Master Halifax, 'Od rot me if I'd stand it! see what will happen: my Lord Burghley, acting on information from his spies, charges Tony Pepperday with treason. The Earl of Leicester has Tony's papers, and what isn't writ thereon will be so in time for the trial; for the Earl has secretaries who could forge an Act of Parliament, let alone Tony's hand o' writing. Tony is as good as dead this minute, since his property can't be forfeited unless they convict him o' treason. And then what?
"Such forfeited estates, and such guardianships of marriageable girls as go along with them, are fat prizes that the Queen gives to her favourites. My Lord Burghley will claim both. So will the Earl of Leicester. They'll neither of them stop at straws and thistle-down. The Earl of Leicester will claim prior right as having produced most evidence—such as Tony's papers; and he has Coningsby, too, who will swear to any tale that the Earl's men put into his mouth if such will save him from the rack. 'Sdeath! What a calamity that you let 'em poach that partridge! He was a Queen's commission in your pocket, had you brought him safe to London. Now he's death's own evidence against you! Such runaways as Coningsby don't face the rack; they blab—and a blabber o' lies, I warn you, such as brings to grief whoever has a name they can remember!
"One quarrel with you were enough for the Earl of Leicester, but now he has two. And my Lord Burghley will not lightly overlook your letting Coningsby fall into the Earl of Leicester's hands. 'Tis a pity of a business! And you without a friend at court!
"Stood I in your shoes, Master Halifax, and with fifteen hundred pounds to boot, I'd hie me across salt water, and my mistress with me! I'd woo fortune in Flanders or in France. For what else is there?
"Say you face it out. Say you face the charges of the Earl of Leicester. Say for the sake of Christ's mercy that you win free, with no more than Leicester's malice stored against you for the next opportunity. Then what? You've lost maid Mildred, since they'll make her a court ward, and you're worse off than you were before! I'd run to Holland, I would."
He was thinking of the warrant that he would have liked to coax me to return to him. But I think, too, he was giving me the best advice that his head could invent. Disinterested friends are rare and if a man has two, three in a lifetime he is lucky. However, he set me cudgelling my brain, and by the time we drew near Tyburn I had thought of a key to the riddle that only a greenhorn new to London would have wasted a minute's thought on. And by the grace of God, it fitted!
I turned aside near Tyburn Tree, bidding Jack Giles lead us by mean streets, at risk of foot-pads; for if the Earl of Leicester's men were waiting for us it were well to steal that march and circumvent them, which was all the simpler since it was dusk and there was fog again. I have blessed the London fog a hundred times, but never more than that night, though the men returned from Flanders lurked like starving wolves and we rode all of a cluster surrounding Mildred, to protect her.
So we came into the City by a narrow lane unnoticed, at an hour when honest citizens were all within-doors. Unchallenged we reached Burbage's, where we stalled the tired horses and fed them, the yardman saying he knew where Will Shakespeare lay. So I bribed him to go in search of Will, who came walking wondrous stately, as if he were an alderman already, but so feared of foot-pads, nevertheless, that he breathed like a fat man. Marvelous polite he made himself to Mildred, bowing to her beneath the stable lantern, saying that her beauty and her gentle manner, in a gallant's clothes, so fervered thought that he could think o' nothing else.
"Mildred? 'Od's pity! That's a cow-byre name! It should be Rosalinda! Mistress," he said, "you stir me. The delights we're heirs to fade away in shadow, as a dream at daylight, when appears—oh, happy eyes!—some new, revealing vision of a virtue we had thought we knew! A woman? All the world knows how a woman looks, does, curtseys; in a moment coy, and in the next a vixen, constant only in the constancy of change's limits! Custom that commands her infinite variety to veil—poor Adam's rib in pond'rous farthingale!—so uses us as seasons dull a ploughman's senses, until Nature is all sameness and the sweets of spring lie viewless in monotony! Oh, dull, dread repetition! And oh happy eyes, when Nature changes, burgeoning her secrets! Lo, look you now—Diana, chaste yet chastely daring—modesty apparel'd in a gallant's hose, redeeming gallantry! A maiden adding to herself such attributes as goddesses in armour claimed of old on tented field! You stir me, mistress! You awaken me to spiritual knowledge and I see all Nature infinitely lovable, nor nothing dull!"
He would have mouthed for her a play that minute, had I let him. He was fertile of phrase, and he could sweeten discourse with his honied humour; he could comment on all he saw with wiser and more critical discernment than I have heard from the lips of anyone; but he was like a sheep that kept within the hurdles when I asked his counsel. He could think of nothing new, except new ways of doing old deeds.
"Hide her?" he said. "She is hidden! But can you hide a flame in darkness? Mistress" (he turned again to Mildred), "those bright eyes burn away my sorrow."
If he knew what sorrow was he gave no sign of it just then. I shook him until he must have seen at least a dozen of us, and then asked him how far to where he lodged? And who kept the place? And whether it was fit shelter for a maiden jealous of her good name?
There was nothing to be won by pressing Will; he tried to hide under a mask of phrases that his house was nothing estimable; and when I told him I needed a place where Mildred might take suitabler adornment from the packs and come forth presently in woman's clothes—and why she should—and why the haste, he mocked me:
"To the Queen?" he said. "At this hour? And does the Queen so love a dairymaid that you would change your fairy princess into a wench from Brownsover in country woollens to delight her? Is the Queen so weary of romance? I have heard it said of her, she loves the players better than a bishop's sermon. All the world's a stage, Will, if the groundlings only knew it! Play an actor's part, and you shall smile your way through every ambuscade that envy sets, so be you act romantic and not add your increase to the drabness of a life already wearisome enough."
If I had known the court—if I had lived a year in London—I would have laughed at his conceit; but I knew nothing save that I was desperate and had scant time in which to steal a march on the Earl of Leicester. And it seemed to me Will had the right of it.
"They tell me," he said, "there are great doings at the Palace of St. James's to-night, where the Queen shall dance a minuet and give the lie to rumour of her having the gout like Secretary Burghley."
I can be quick enough when another's genius has given me my cue. I turned on Berden, who was waiting sulkily to see what error I would make next.
"Berden," I said, "you are known to the guards? Will they admit you at St. James?"
He nodded. If he said he had a message for the Lords in Council none would dare to turn him away, not at any hour. "But at my risk," he added. "An I enter on a false excuse I am like to pay for it."
"Nay, it is I who will pay," I told him. "If you obey me and the plan miscarries, I will forfeit a hundred pounds to you in minted money. And if not, then we are all winners, for you will share my credit."
I bade him take a fresh horse from Burbage's stable and ride post-haste to the palace, where he should cry great urgency and secrecy. He should find Lord Burghley. And if Lord Burghley were not there he should demand admittance to the Queen herself (for I knew not yet how difficult it was to come into the Queen's own chamber). And to Lord Burghley, or to the Queen herself, he was to report my coming with a secret of such import as brooked no delay.
"And say that to the Queen herself," said I, "if you can manage it. But the essence of the plan is this: that when we arrive, soon after you, Mildred and I and Tony are to be taken straight in, either to the Lords of the Council in the Council Chamber, or into the Queen's own presence—and the latter best."
He thought me mad, as in truth I may have been; but I have seen many a stroke of madness win where shrewdness was a loser.
"And God pity us all," he exclaimed, "when your secret turns out to be of lesser import than its promise! The Lords of England are not lightly to be summoned to hear trifles at this hour o' night."
It was a long time before I could browbeat Berden to obedience. He wanted me to rehearse to him my message that should justify his importunity and save him a rebuke. But I bade him have confidence that I would not risk Mildred's safety on a hopeless chance; and again I promised him a hundred pounds if failure should come of his doing exactly as I bade him. So he rode away at last, in pouring rain that washed the fog away but inspired no man's zeal, so that I began again to dread the outcome, hardly daring to believe that Berden would play his part manfully. I thought him likelier to turn against me.
Will Shakespeare offered comfort, in the moment he could spare from praising Mildred, whose mannish suit of velvet stirred his imagination much more than my peril did:
"One touch," he said, "of the romantic, the unusual, and Nature—aye, the very stars and planets, heaven's elements, and forces of the unseen mystery, are leagued in cordial alliance to preserve it! Life knows no more grateful joy than novelty. Old orders, barricaded custom, jealousy and envy trenched within the fortalice of habit, yield, Will, to that touch of newness that is Nature's jewellery emblazoned on the brow of time! So rest you merry. There is not a venom brewed in hell's worst cauldron, spat forth from the mouths of politicians, that shall harm you an you bring new humour to an ageing Queen by cares of state perplexed!"
Ludd knows he had long profited by following his own advice. His words encouraged me, although I thought them nonsense; and as for Mildred, she was so delighted with him as to pay me no thought at all to danger when I left my men at Burbage's and, choosing the three best horses I could find, rode off into the dark with her and Tony, leaving Will waving his hat to us beneath the lantern in the rain.
How Will met Gloriana.
THROUGH drenching rain and splashing mud we rode, until by the time we reached the palace of St. James we resembled water-rats, and we were none too cordially-welcomed by the guard, whose captain was half-beside himself because the rain fell splashing from the arch and spoiled his starched ruff.
There were evidently doings at the palace. There were carriages—new-fangled, gaudy things from France—and litters, and a swarm of servants taking shelter where they might. I marked about two hundred armed retainers in the liveries of perhaps a score of noblemen. The Earl of Leicester's men were better clad than most and being in greatest force they took the wall of the others for the shelter it afforded. In among them limped the cripples from the war in Flanders, pitiable fellows, Pegging alms.
"What are you? Chimney sweeps?" the captain shouted at me. "Away with you to the back entrance!"
However, I leaned forward to whisper my name to him and it was evident at once that thus far Berden had done his business. He waved us forward, after a man had held a lantern on a pike-end that he might examine our faces, and we rode under the arch into a yard where two or three score horses stood under a cloister. We found space for our own nags, but there was no sign anywhere of Berden; nor did I know which was the proper entrance until I spied, by the light of a spluttering link, a strip of crimson carpet underneath a sail-cloth awning. Thither I led the way.
There were liveried footmen in the entrance and they let us pass. But within the door there was a group of pages, impudent as magpies, who laughed at us; and doubtless we did look countrified and shabby as compared to their crimson daintiness. However, I boxed the ears of one of the pages, ordering him to do his duty and to hang our wet cloaks where they should be found when we needed them; and that stir brought a gentleman in crimson velvet, marvellously ruffed, and two others behind him whom I could clearly see because of the shadows in the long hall.
"How now? What scandal now? I'll have no brawling!" said he in crimson. "Who are you, sirrah?"
I gave him my name in a loud voice, hoping that Berden might be somewhere within hail. But instead of Berden the two other gentlemen stepped forward, and I recognized in one of them Sir Francis Drake, all in white velvet. Sir John Hawkins was beside him, clad in crimson. My heart leaped. I forgot my indignation at the pages.
"Did I hear the name of Halifax?" Sir Francis Drake asked. "Are you the son of that Sir Harry Halifax of Brownsover, who lent me money for my first ship? By the road, you favour him! Then you are grandson of Sir William Halifax, who rallied the King's cavalry at Flodden?"
I showed him the hilt of the sword I wore, that has been borne on Flodden Field. (Sir John Hawkins all the while was staring at Mildred, trying to scan the face beneath the mask, but Sir Francis Drake took hardly any notice of her.)
"And they named you Will for your grandsire? Carry the name gallantly then! That was lamentable when Sir Harry wrecked himself on such a rotten reef as men say. Howso, he was my friend. John" (he turned to Sir John Hawkins) "this is a chip off the old West Country block, who should help us to make a hot fire for the King of Spain. This lad's father sheltered me when I first came out of Devonshire."
I made the best bow I could muster. But I could not see. Mine eyes were wet.
"How is it that you did not come and tell me you were in London?" asked Sir Francis.
I could have shouted for the joy of being spoken to by the stoutest heart in England, but when it came to speaking the words choked me, so that I stammered:
"Why, sir," I said, "an my father lived, and knew I claimed repayment on account of friendship, he would disinherit me."
"'Od's mains'l, how do you like that, John?" Sir Francis asked, and Sir John Hawkins looked steadily at me—a red- faced man, with honest blue eyes—blunt, bold, seamanly—a bit incongruous in velvet.
"If God made Dons, it looks as if he bred a stock to master them," he answered. "'Od's death, Drake, the lad looks manly in the middest o' this pish-pash. But look to your privileges! They are no sooner weaned, these latter days, than they look to start by being admirals! Ship him, and see how he shapes in a storm with the Dons to windward."
"I take the weather gauge o' them as a general thing, John," said Sir Francis. "Dons up-wind are devils. Down-wind, they're fish for the frying."
Sir John Hawkins laughed, with a noise that began like dampened cannon priming spluttering at the match, and ended in a Ho-ho-ho! with his head up.
"Well, he's good timber, Drake—good timber," he said. "If he can lay a culverin as smartly as he minds his manners, ship him. They look different when they're sea-sick. But who's this?"
He stared again at Mildred. But she and I had agreed between us how she should keep silence until we knew what the Lords in Council had to say.
"By your leave, Sir John, and Sir Francis," I said, "we are on the Queen's business, and the less said about it the better until all's done."
"Aye," said Sir Francis Drake, "the less the better. There was a man named Berden awhile since, who sought my favour for you, else I had not known you were in London. Sir John Hawkins and I, as it chanced, had business o' the Queen's new ships to talk on, so we talked here where I could watch for you. You are to go in at once to Lord Burghley. I will see to it."
He took Sir John Hawkins's arm, nodding to us to follow, and the two went chesting into a great room, bowing right and left to jewelled and bedizened ladies, I remarking that some of the ladies answered with an air of patronage, as if they thought such men not altogether fit for courtly company.
We caused a fine stir, what with our muddy clothes, and Mildred in a man's suit. I was glad she had her mask on, for I doubt not she was distresed by the staring, though she walked beside me with a good enough show of confidence. Sir Francis beckoned a page in crimson plush and made him walk ahead of us crying: "Matter of urgency! Make way, my lords and ladies!"
There was music in a gallery, and beneath the gallery were seats and chairs on which the flower of England sat. I had never seen such sumptuous surroundings. In the country we were used to rushes on the floor—aye, there were rushes in Kenilworth Castle, and that reckoned one of the noblest homes in England; but here, on the wide stairs at the end of the great room, and for any foot to tread that passed along the corridor to which the stairs ascended, there lay a carpet woven of such coloured patterns as employed the eye far more than did the portraits hanging on the walls, right entertaining though they were and, I suppose, well painted. There was no dirt anywhere. The palace was as spick and span as if a thousand housemaids had that minute finished sweeping it, so that I felt ashamed of my good, muddy Augsburg suit, and even my sword felt shabby amid all those dainty rapier hilts. But Mildred, I knew, was in a sort of seventh heaven because Sir Francis Drake had praised me.
Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins left us at the stair- foot, having done their part so excellently that there was no fear now of anyone refusing us admission. By dint of elbowing our way along the corridor, and very sharply sworn at, we arrived at last before a door where a gentleman-in-waiting wished to examine me as to my business. But the page said that Sir Francis Drake had spoken about us to Lord Hunsdon, and at that we were admitted.
I strode almost into the arms of Phelippes—him whom I had spoken with in Paul's that day I first met Berden. It appeared he waited for me.
"What news have you?" he asked.
"Secret, for Lord Burghley's ear alone," I answered.
He looked sour at that. But he was so well used to secrecy that he could well endure a little more of it. I shut my mouth tight, and he led the way into an ante-room, where several men sat glooming and restless, others appearing to stand guard over them, keeping their backs to the three doors and holding their hilts well forward. In a shadow in a corner I saw Coningsby, but I made him no sign of recognition, nor he me; and while we waited one came from the inner room, who led him away.
There we left Tony at Phelippes's bidding, and presently, through the farther door we passed into a second ante-room, where secretaries worked by candle-light in solemn quiet. Thence we passed into a corridor that had no window, lit by a row of candles set in sconces on the panelled wall; the candles guttered when a door moved, and I wondered how the Queen should live in so grave peril of her house afire, for the oak was burned black where the candle-smoke had been forced against it by the draught.
Thence, knocking on an oaken door, we were admitted into a chamber whose furnishings are beyond my power to describe, such gilt there was, and such mirrors, and luxuriance of tapestry. At one end, with a door on either hand, was a gilt chair like a throne, set on a dais beneath a crimson and gilt canopy, with the royal arms of England woven on a curtain at the back.
Below the dais, down the middle of the room, there was a richly carven table, at which sat men who, at the moment, subject to the Queen, held England's destinies in keeping. Instantly I marked the Earl of Leicester, and he me, scowling, but he said nothing.
On the right hand of the throne and nearest to it sat Lord Burghley, and beside him, on his right, Sir Francis Walsingham, who none could have mistaken who had even only heard of him, so like a fox he looked, and yet unlike a fox; for he was venerable looking and in ill-health—lean and learned—dark of complexion, having brown eyes of a sort of smoky hue that seemed indifferent to all enthusiasm. It was, I think, the essence of his nature peering through the mask that made men at the first glance liken him to the fox that in appearance he resembled truly not at all.
Beside him sat Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Him I knew not at the time. And facing them, with their backs toward us, sat three others whom I knew not: Lord Hunsdon, Sir Christopher Hatton, and Sir James Crofts. The Earl of Leicester sat at the end of the table that faced the throne, and none except he so much as glanced up when he came into the room.
They were examining the documents they took from leather- covered boxes, making notes on them and writing their endorsements. Now and then the squeaking of their quill pens was interrupted by subdued speech, but there was almost silence for an hour—aye, longer, by the hour-glass that Lord Burghley had beside him and that he turned when the sand had run.
But at last there came a lord-in-waiting through a door beside the throne, holding in his right hand a black stick tipped with ivory. Then instantly all they at the table rose and dropped their cushions to the floor.
"Down on your knees!" Phelippes whispered. Everybody knelt, on both knees, except Lord Burghley, whose gout prevented so that he kept one foot forward; and I held my breath, for then came the Great Elizabeth, our Gloriana, of whom we in the shires had heard so much but actually knew so little.
"Drop your eyes seemly!" Phelippes whispered. But I could not help but stare, although I bent my head a little.
She was so magnificently dressed that for a moment I saw nothing except her wide skirt, and the stomacher, and then her necklace and the wondrous collar of lace and jewels. She came as it were sailing, like a tall ship before a light breeze. Then, when awe gave place to curiosity and I beheld her face, I thought her like the portraits of her father the Lord Harry, only it might be something wiser and less human.
She had red hair—good, if God made all of it; but I believe the skull on which the greater part of it had grown lay long since in a sepulchre. Her face, it seemed to me, was sadly wrinkled underneath the paint, and her lips were drawn tightly as if she suffered bravely but with sharp impatience. I should have guessed her older than I knew her age to be; but she stood straight and royal, appearing capabler of wielding rapier than bodkin.
What I noticed most particularly, when I had done wondering at her wise, bright, serpent's eyes, were her lily-white hands, long-fingered and as lovely shapen as I think their Maker ever can have turned out from his workshop where the kings and queens are fashioned; not even the great fantastic rings she wore could spoil their shapeliness, but rather drew attention to it, and she held them in a manner that suggested pride as well as strength of purpose.
Six sweet ladies waited on her, and when the Earl of Leicester, rising from his knees unbidden, went hurrying to offer her his hand as she mounted the dais, she preferred her ladies and looked, Robert." So that he returned to the far end of the table to kneel I thought, scornful at him, saying: "This is no place for a minuet, again, favouring me as he passed with a dark scowl, as if it had been my fault.
When she had sat down on the throne and her ladies had done arranging her skirts and the footstool, she dismissed all except two of them, they curtseying out backwards. The two sat one on either side of her on low chairs.
"Lord Secretary, you may rise," she said then. "Pray be seated, all of you." But Phelippes continued kneeling, so I did the same, and Mildred also, I wondering how one lone woman—nay, nor she not even healthy to the eye—should so impatronize herself on men whom all the world feared. They were neither cowards nor yet dull-witted men who trembled at her bidding; they were men self-proven capable.
Presently the Queen's quick, brilliant, cold eyes looked steadily at me and my courage went into my heels. I felt she was seeing through me to the patch o' my shirt-tail, and I wished I had worn my other shirt that had not yet needed mending. Then she eyed Mildred.
"Whom have we here?" she demanded. "Girl dight like a man? Stand up and let me see you. Unmask."
Mildred stood, and I beside her holding her hand, which I could feel trembling. And when she pulled off the mask the Queen stared at her long and critically, until the Earl of Leicester rose at the end of the table and said: "Madam—"
Sharply she rebuked him, showing such a flash of anger as they say the great Lord Harry used to when his will was challenged:
"Robert, lately you presume too much on patience! I will brook no impertinence from you! An I let you have your way my Privy Council would become a cockpit, every man speaking out of his turn and the loudest crower the victor! Truth, they tell us that we lend our ear to you too often for our country's good." tie sat down. I could not see him, since I faced the Queen, but I could see Lord Burghley with the corner of my eye and there appeared, I thought, the shadow of a smile, though he was studying a paper.
"How come you in a man's clothes?" the Queen demanded, staring again at Mildred.
I squeezed Mildred's hand and she answered in a voice so vastly gentler than the Queen's—so sweet it was and musical—that Sir Christopher Hatton and Sir James Crofts turned sideways in their seats to watch her.
"Madam, it is not my choosing. I obeyed my guardian, nor did I know into whose presence I should come."
"Whose clothes are they?" the Queen asked her.
Mildred hesitated, and the Earl of Leicester rose to his feet importunate.
"Most dread sovereign," he exclaimed, "she is wearing the clothes of the traitor Coningsby, of whom I spoke to you, whom my men took from the company of the culprit standing there beside her. And he, Madam, is the William Halifax whose father fell in a quarrel, as I told you, that he forced upon two of my gentlemen. The guardian of whom she speaks is a lout named Tony Pepperday, accused of treasonable practice and now doubtless missing, since this Master Halifax was sent in search of him. I accuse Halifax of having harboured Coningsby, whom my men had to take away from him by force; and I have here John Coningsby's deposition, duly sworn, in which he avers that William Halifax did promise for a price to carry a certain message to the Scots Queen at Fotheringay."
"What of it, sirrah?" the Queen asked me. "You have heard the accusation. Answer sharply to the point."
So I told her how I was sent in search of Tony Pepperday, and by whom; and how I found him; and how Tony had free-willing brought forth Coningsby, whom I—a loyal signatory of the Association Bond—arrested in the Queen's name; which, if it were a presumption, I begged might be excused on the ground of my reason for so doing, which was loyalty.
"I accuse him of lying!" said the Earl of Leicester. "I demand that he be put on oath. The depositions here of thirteen men, as well as Coningsby's, aver that he and Coningsby are cronies well affected to each other. It is charged, too, that he assaulted my men on the London Road."
"Assaulted thirteen of them?" the Queen asked him. "No wonder Sir Francis Drake came hurrying to commend him to our notice! Are you the son of Sir Harry Halifax?" she asked me.
"A brawling miscreant," began the Earl of Leicester.
"Silence, I tell you, Robert!" she commanded. "An I credited all slanders of your ready tongue, God pity me, I would not know whom to trust! Whosoever falls foul of Robert, Earl of Leicester, for a moment is a traitor to the crown and against our person; and yet I have found some of these traitors reasonably loyal men!"
She glanced around the table, nodding, as though not one of them but had suffered accusation.
"Speak," she commanded, looking steadily again at me. So I brought forth the sealed package.
"This," I said, "I took from Coningsby, or rather my man did, before the Earl of Leicester's men took Coningsby from me."
I offered her the package, kneeling, and one of her ladies took it from me, passing it to the Queen, who looked at the seal, and then at me, and at the seal again, turning the package over and over in her two hands. Lord Burghley stared at it, and then at me, then met the Queen's eyes, and she nodded.
"This is the same young man," Lord Burghley said, "who caught Joshua Stiles and lodged him in the Marshalsea."
"Nay," I interrupted, "Berden had a share in that. And Berden helped me with Tony Pepperday."
"What's that?" the Queen exclaimed. "Did I hear aright? Is the world at an end, that I hear speech in favour of an absent man?" She looked sharply at me, as if she thought me guilty of a treason—to myself, it might be.
"I but spoke the truth," I said. "I need no man's credit."
I thought that angered her, she looked so sharply at me, but her next words were to Lord Burghley:
"Yes, Madam," he said, standing, "Berden confirms the words of Halifax in every detail. He describes him as a loyal gentleman; and he confirms, too, that it was Tony Pepperday who brought forth Coningsby from hiding, though he denies having witnessed it, being absent at the time on other matters."
"'Od's faith! Then it looks like collusion between them!" said the Queen. "Each one praising the other! Is Berden to be trusted?"
Lord Burghley nodded. The Queen looked at Mildred.
"The Lord Secretary says you are a daughter of that Master Robert Jackson who lost his head in the reign of my late unhappy sister. Is it so?"
"An it please you, he died for your Highness's sake," said Mildred.
"Nay, it never pleased us that an honest man should die a mean death. And it pleases us as little," said the Queen, "that such a matter as this should so long have been kept hidden from me. As we understand it, the Lords Leicester and Burghley are in rivalry as to who shall have this maid to ward. 'Od's faith, it irks me that such envious contentions should have brought the daughter of good Robert Jackson to this pass. Where is this Tony Pepperday?"
"Without, Madam," I answered. "Shall I summon him?"
"God's mercy, no, sir! Is this a stable? You say there is a warrant for him? Who signed it?"
I held out the warrant and she saw Lord Burghley's signature. She scowled at him, but he seemed well used to it.
"Write a release from Pepperday of all his claims as guardian, if any, and make him sign it before witnesses. Then destroy that warrant," she commanded. "I will take this maid into my own keeping, for Robert Jackson's sake." She turned to the lady on her left hand. "Take her to the wardrobe now and clothe her decently!"
The lady rose and, beckoning to Mildred, led her, curtseying and walking backward, through the door by which the Queen had entered, Mildred smiling at me. But I was not so pleased. I felt suddenly lonely, as if more than a palace door were being shut between us.
"And now you, sir?" the Queen said to me. "What will you? By an accident—I doubt not it was accident—you have brought us papers of more value to the realm than any hundred squabbling country gentry! Look to it that you hold your tongue and spread no rumour of it! And now what will you? Do you reckon yourself fit to be sworn of our service?"
"I am the son of Sir Harry Halifax," I answered, "as true and loyal a knight as ever lived."
"I care nothing for your beginnings," she retorted. "It is your latter end I look to! God ha' mercy on us, but I lack a secret courier since Parma's men slew poor Guy Mannering in Flanders."
"Madam," I said, "I have two good horses and such blood in my veins as I inherit."
"See that he has allowance for two horses. Let him put them in our stable," she commanded.
"And four men," I added.
"Bumpkins, doubtless, who will drink us out of beer and be in everlasting trouble with the scullery wenches! They shall be smartly whipped an they behave not! But you may show them to Lord Hunsdon and if he approves them let them be victualled with the palace servants. What else?"
"Mistress Mildred Jackson," I said. But I said no more, for the Queen's face froze, as it were, against me and her bright eyes stared as if I were an enemy. I understood. No words were needed. I must earn my Mildred. The Queen would keep her from me, and forbid our wedding, until I should have paid for that privilege with the utmost ounce of zeal and loyalty—as in truth has happened.
"God's death!" she exclaimed suddenly. "Take him away, Lord Hunsdon, before he asks us for our crown and sceptre! Have him sworn of our service. And mark you," she commanded, frowning at me, "next time that you come into our presence, let me see you dressed as becomes a courtier. No country louts at court!"
And me in a good suit made by Fugger of Augsburg! So I bowed my way out, side by side with Lord Hunsdon, understanding something of how the Queen ruled England. And now that I at last have Mildred, though I dare not let these memoirs see the light of day, I will set down step by step as I remember them the perils of land and sea, and of the court no less, that I have been thrust into whether I would or not, and that have brought me at last to this opinion: that Queen Elizabeth is the greatest and the bravest monarch, though the meanest mistress, who ever in all history has saved a half-rebellious country from its foes. I give her all the credit; since, without her mastery and meanness, I believe the land had fallen of its own internal bickerings.