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Master Skylark by John Bennett

Part 5 out of 5

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men say, do foster forlorn children. Take my point? Good, then; let us
ravenous vagabonds take these two children for our own, Will,--thou one,
I t' other,--and by praiseworthy fostering singe this fellow's very
brain with shame."

"Why, here, here, Ben Jonson," spoke up Master Burbage, "this is all
very well for Will and thee; but, pray, where do Hemynge, Condell, and I
come in upon the bill? Come, man, 'tis a pity if we cannot all stand
together in this real play as well as in all the make-believe."

"That's my sort!" cried Master Hemynge. "Why, what? Here is a player's
daughter who has no father, and a player whose father will not have
him,--orphaned by fate, and disinherited by folly,--common stock with us
all! Marry, 'tis a sort of stock I want some of. Kind hearts are
trumps, my honest Ben--make it a stock company, and let us all be in."

"That's no bad fancy," added Condell, slowly, for Henry Condell was a
cold, shrewd man. "There's merit in the lad beside his voice--_that_
cannot keep its freshness long; but his figure's good, his wit is
quick, and he has a very taking style. It would be worth while, Dick.
And, Will," said he, turning to Master Shakspere, who listened with half
a smile to all that the others said, "he'll make a better _Rosalind_
than Roger Prynne for thy new play."

"So he would," said Master Shakspere; "but before we put him into 'As
You Like It,' suppose we ask him how he does like it? Nick, thou hast
heard what all these gentlemen have said--what hast thou to say,
my lad?"

"Why, sirs, ye are all kind," said Nick, his voice beginning to tremble,
"very, very kind indeed, sirs; but--I--I want my mother--oh, masters, I
do want my mother!"

At that John Combe turned on his heel and walked out of the gate. Out of
the garden-gate walked he, and down the dirty lane, setting his cane
down stoutly as he went, past gravel-pits and pens to Southam's lane,
and in at the door of Simon Attwood's tannery.

* * * * *

It was noon when he went in; yet the hour struck, and no one came or
went from the tannery. Mistress Attwood's dinner grew cold upon the
board, and Dame Combe looked vainly across the fields toward the town.

But about the middle of the afternoon John Combe came out of the tannery
door, and Simon Attwood came behind him. And as John Combe came down the
cobbled way, a trail of brown vat-liquor followed him, dripping from his
clothes, for he was soaked to the skin. His long gray hair had partly
dried in strings about his ears, and his fine lace collar was a
drabbled shame; but there was a singular untroubled smile upon his
plain old face.

Simon Attwood stayed to lock the door, fumbling his keys as if his sight
had failed; but when the heavy bolt was shut, he turned and called after
John Combe, so that the old man stopped in the way and dripped a puddle
until the tanner came up to where he stood. And as he came up Attwood
asked, in such a tone as none had ever heard from his mouth before,
"Combe, John Combe, what's done 's done,--and oh, John, the pity of
it,--yet will ye still shake hands wi' me, John, afore ye go?"

John Combe took Simon Attwood's bony hand and wrung it hard in his stout
old grip, and looked the tanner squarely in the eyes; then, still
smiling serenely to himself, and setting his cane down stoutly as he
walked, dripped home, and got himself into dry clothes without a word.

But Simon Attwood went down to the river, and sat upon a flat stone
under some pollard willows, and looked into the water.

What his thoughts were no one knew, nor ever shall know; but he was
fighting with himself, and more than once groaned bitterly. At first he
only shut his teeth and held his temples in his hands; but after a while
he began to cry to himself, over and over again, "O Absalom, my son, my
son! O my son Absalom!" and then only "My son, my son!" And when the day
began to wane above the woods of Arden, he arose, and came up from the
river, walking swiftly; and, looking neither to the right nor to the
left, came up to the Great House garden, and went in at the gate.

At the door the servant met him, but saw his face, and let him pass
without a word; for he looked like a desperate man whom there was
no stopping.

So, with a grim light burning in his eyes, his hat in his hand, and his
clothes all drabbled with the liquor from his vats, the tanner strode
into the dining-hall.



The table had been cleared of trenchers and napkins, the crumbs brushed
away, and a clean platter set before each guest with pared cheese, fresh
cherries, biscuit, caraways, and wine.

There were about the long table, beside Master Shakspere himself, who
sat at the head of the board, Masters Richard and Cuthbert Burbage,
Henry Condell, and Peter Hemynge, Master Shakspere's partners; Master
Ben Jonson, his dearest friend; Thomas Pope, who played his finest
parts; John Lowin, Samuel Gilburne, Robert Nash, and William Kemp,
players of the Lord Chamberlain's company; Edmund Shakspere, the actor,
who was Master William Shakspere's younger brother, and Master John
Shakspere, his father; Michael Drayton, the Midland bard; Burgess
Robert Getley, Alderman Henry Walker, and William Hart, the Stratford
hatter, brother-in-law to Master Shakspere.

On one side of the table, between Master Jonson and Master Richard
Burbage, Cicely was seated upon a high chair, with a wreath of early
crimson roses in her hair, attired in the gown in which Nick saw her
first a year before. On the other side of the table Nick had a place
between Master Drayton and Robert Getley, father of his friend Robin.
Half-way down there was an empty chair. Master John Combe was absent.

It was no common party. In all England better company could not have
been found. Some few of them the whole round world could not have
matched then, and could not match now.

It would be worth a fortune to know the things they said,--the quips,
the jests, the merry tales that went around that board,--but time has
left too little of what such men said and did, and it can be imagined
only by the brightest wits.

'Twas Master Shakspere on his feet, welcoming his friends to his "New
Place" with quiet words that made them glad to live and to be there,
when suddenly he stopped, his hands upon the table by his chair,
and stared.

The tanner stood there, silent, in the door.

Nick's face turned pale. Cicely clung to Master Jonson's arm.

Simon Attwood stepped into the room, and Master Shakspere went quickly
to meet him in the middle of the floor.

"Master Will Shakspere," said the tanner, hoarsely, "I ha' come about a
matter." There he stopped, not knowing what to say, for he was

"Out with it, sir," said Master Shakspere, sternly. "There is much here
to be said."

The tanner wrung his hat within his hands, and looked about the ring of
cold, averted faces. Soft words with him were few; he had forgotten
tender things; and, indeed, what he meant to do was no easy thing
for any man.

"Come, say what thou hast to say," said Master Shakspere, resolutely;
"and say it quickly, that we may have done."

"There's nought that I can say," said Simon Attwood, "but that I be
sorry, and I want my son! Nick! Nick!" he faltered brokenly, "I be wrung
for thee; will ye na come home--just for thy mother's sake, Nick, if ye
will na come for mine?"

Nick started from his seat with a glad cry--then stopped. "But Cicely?"
he said.

The tanner wrung his hat within his hands, and his face was dark with
trouble. Master Shakspere looked at Master Jonson.

Nick stood hesitating between Cicely and his father, faithful to his
promise, though his heart was sick for home.

An odd light had been struggling dimly in Simon Attwood's troubled eyes.
Then all at once it shone out bright and clear, and he clapped his bony
hand upon the stout oak chair. "Bring her along," he said. "I ha' little
enough, but I will do the best I can. Maybe 'twill somehow right the
wrong I ha' done," he added huskily. "And, neighbors, I'll go surety to
the Council that she shall na fall a pauper or a burden to the town. My
trade is ill enough, but, sirs, it will stand for forty pound the year
at a fair cast-up. Bring the lass wi' thee, Nick--we'll make out, lad,
we'll make out. God will na let it all go wrong."

Master Jonson and Master Shakspere had been nodding and talking together
in a low tone, smiling like men very well pleased about something, and
directly Master Shakspere left the room.

"Wilt thou come, lad?" asked the tanner, holding out his hands.

"Oh, father!" cried Nick; then he choked so that he could say no more,
and his eyes were so full of mist that he could scarcely find his father
where he stood.

But there was no need of more; Simon Attwood was answered.

Voices buzzed about the room. The servants whispered in the hall. Nick
held his father's gnarled hand in his own, and looked curiously up into
his face, as if for the first time knowing what it was to have a father.

"Well, lad, what be it?" asked the tanner, huskily, laying his hand on
his son's curly head, which was nearly up to his shoulder now.

"Nothing," said Nick, with a happy smile, "only mother will be glad to
have Cicely--won't she?"

Master Shakspere came into the room with something in his hand, and
walking to the table, laid it down.

It was a heavy buckskin bag, tied tightly with a silken cord, and sealed
with red wax stamped with the seals of Master Shakspere and
Master Jonson.

Every one was watching him intently, and one or two of the gentlemen
from London were smiling in a very knowing way.

He broke the seals, and loosening the thong which closed the bag, took
out two other bags, one of which was just double its companion's size.
They also were tied with silken cord and sealed with the two seals on
red wax. There was something printed roughly with a quill pen upon each
bag, but Master Shakspere kept that side turned toward himself so that
the others could not see.

"Come, come, Will," broke in Master Jonson, "don't be all day about it!"

"The more haste the worse speed, Ben," said Master Shakspere, quietly.
"I have a little story to tell ye all."

So they all listened.

"When Gaston Carew, lately master-player of the Lord High Admiral's
company, was arraigned before my Lord Justice for the killing of that
rascal, Fulk Sandells, there was not a man of his own company had the
grace to lend him even so much as sympathy. But there were still some in
London who would not leave him totally friendless in such straits."

"Some?" interrupted Master Jonson, bluntly; "then o-n-e spells 'some.'
The names of them all were Will Shakspere."

"Tut, tut, Ben!" said Master Shakspere, and went on: "But when the
charge was read, and those against him showed their hand, it was easy to
see that the game was up. No one saw this any sooner than Carew himself;
yet he carried himself like a man, and confessed the indictment without
a quiver. They brought him the book, to read a verse and save his neck,
perhaps, by pleading benefit of clergy. But he knew the temper of those
against him, and that nothing might avail; so he refused the plea
quietly, saying, 'I am no clerk, sirs. All I wish to read in this case
is what my own hand wrote upon that scoundrel Sandells.' It was soon
over. When the judge pronounced his doom, all Carew asked was for a
friend to speak with a little while aside. This the court allowed; so he
sent for me--we played together with Henslowe, he and I, ye know. He had
not much to say--for once in his life,"--here Master Shakspere smiled
pityingly,--"but he sent his love forever to his only daughter Cicely."

Cicely was sitting up, listening with wide eyes, and eagerly nodded her
head as if to say, "Of course."

"He also begged of Nicholas Attwood that he would forgive him whatever
wrong he had done him."

"Why, that I will, sir," choked Nick, brokenly; "he was wondrous kind to
me, except that he would na leave me go."

"After that," continued Master Shakspere, "he made known to me a sliding
panel in the wainscot of his house, wherein was hidden all he had on
earth to leave to those he loved the best, and who, he hoped,
loved him."

"Everybody loves my father," said Cicely, smiling and nodding again.
Master Jonson put his arm around the back of her chair, and she leaned
her head upon it.

"Carew said that he had marked upon the bags which were within the panel
the names of the persons to whom they were to go, and had me swear,
upon my faith as a Christian man, that I would see them safely delivered
according to his wish. This being done, and the end come, he kissed me
on both cheeks, and standing bravely up, spoke to them all, saying that
for a man such as he had been it was easier to end even so than to go
on. I never saw him again."

The great writer of plays paused a moment, and his lips moved as if he
were saying a prayer. Master Burbage crossed himself.

"The bags were found within the wall, as he had said, and were sealed by
Ben Jonson and myself until we should find the legatees--for they had
disappeared as utterly as if the earth had gaped and swallowed them.
But, by the Father's grace, we have found them safe and sound at last;
and all's well that ends well!"

Here he turned the buckskin bags around.

On one, in Master Carew's school-boy scrawl, was printed, "For myne
Onelie Beeloved Doghter, Cicely Carew"; on the other, "For Nicholas
Attewode, alias Mastre Skie-lark, whom I, Gaston Carew, Player, Stole
Away from Stratford Toune, Anno Domini 1596."

Nick stared; Cicely clapped her hands; and Simon Attwood sat down

"There," said Master Shakspere, pointing to the second bag, "are one
hundred and fifty gold rose-nobles. In the other just three hundred
more. Neighbor Attwood, we shall have no paupers here."

Everybody laughed then and clapped their hands, and the London players
gave a rousing cheer. Master Ben Jonson's shout might have been heard in
Market Square.

At this tremendous uproar the servants peeped at the doors and windows;
and Tom Boteler, peering in from the buttery hall, and seeing the two
round money-bags plumping on the table, crept away with such a look of
amazement upon his face that Mollikins, the scullery-maid, thought he
had seen a ghost, and fled precipitately into the pantry.

"And what's more, Neighbor Tanner," said Master Richard Burbage, "had
Carew's daughter not sixpence to her name, we vagabond players, as ye
have had the scanty grace to dub us, would have cared for her for the
honour of the craft, and reared her gently in some quiet place where
there never falls even the shadow of such evil things as have been the
end of many a right good fellow beside old Kit Marlowe and
Gaston Carew."

"And to that end, Neighbor Attwood," Master Shakspere added, "we have,
through my young Lord Hunsdon, who has just been made State Chamberlain,
Her Majesty's gracious permission to hold this money in trust for the
little maid as guardians under the law."

Cicely stared around perplexed. "Won't Nick be there?" she asked. "Why,
then I will not go--they shall not take thee from me, Nick!" and she
threw her arms around him. "I'm going to stay with thee till daddy
comes, and be thine own sister forever."

Master Jonson laughed gently, not his usual roaring laugh, but one that
was as tender as his own bluff heart. "Why, good enough, good enough!
The woman who mothered a lad like Master Skylark here is surely fit to
rear the little maid."

The London players thumped the table. "Why, 'tis the very trick," said
Hemynge. "Marry, this is better than a play."

"It is indeed," quoth Condell. "See the plot come out!"

"Thou'lt do it, Attwood--why, of course thou'lt do it," said Master
Shakspere. "'Tis an excellent good plan. These funds we hold in trust
will keep thee easy-minded, and warrant thee in doing well by both our
little folks. And what's more," he cried, for the thought had just come
in his head, "I have ever heard thee called an honest man; hard, indeed,
perhaps too hard, but honest as the day is long. Now I need a tenant for
this New Place of mine--some married man with a good housewife, and
children to be delving in the posy-beds outside. What sayst thou, Simon
Attwood? They tell me thy 'prentice, Job Hortop, is to marry in
July--he'll take thine old house at a fair rental. Why, here, Neighbor
Attwood, thou toil-worn, time-damaged tanner, bless thy hard old heart,
man, come, be at ease--thou hast ground thy soul out long enough! Come,
take me at mine offer--be my fellow. The rent shall trickle off thy
finger-tips as easily as water off a duck's back!"

Simon Attwood arose from the chair where he had been sitting. There was
a bewildered look upon his face, and he was twisting his horny fingers
together until the knuckles were white. His lips parted as if to speak,
but he only swallowed very hard once or twice instead, and looked around
at them all. "Why, sir," he said at length, looking at Master Shakspere,
"why, sirs, all of ye--I ha' been a hard man, and summat of a fool,
sirs, ay, sirs, a very fool. I ha' misthought and miscalled ye foully
many a time, and many a time. God knows I be sorry for it from the
bottom of my heart!" And with that he sat down and buried his face in
his arms among the dishes on the buffet.

"Nay, Simon Attwood," said Master Shakspere, going to his side and
putting his hand upon the tanner's shoulder, "thou hast only been
mistaken, that is all. Come, sit thee up. To see thyself mistaken is but
to be the wiser. Why, never the wisest man but saw himself a fool a
thousand times. Come, I have mistaken thee more than thou hast me; for,
on my word, I thought thou hadst no heart at all--and that is far worse
than having one which has but gone astray. Come, Neighbor Attwood, sit
thee up and eat with us."

"Nay, I'll go home," said the tanner, turning his face away that they
might not see his tears. "I be a spoil-sport and a mar-feast here."

"Why, by Jupiter, man!" cried Master Jonson, bringing his fist down upon
the board with a thump that made the spoons all clink, "thou art the
very merry-maker of the feast. A full heart's better than a surfeit any
day. Don't let him go, Will--this sort of thing doth make the whole
world kin! Come, Master Attwood, sit thee down, and make thyself at
home. 'Tis not my house, but 'tis my friend's, and so 'tis all the
same in the Lowlands. Be free of us and welcome."

"I thank ye, sirs," said the tanner, slowly, turning to the table with
rough dignity. "Ye ha' been good to my boy. I'll ne'er forget ye while I
live. Oh, sirs, there be kind hearts in the world that I had na dreamed
of. But, masters, I ha' said my say, and know na more. Your pleasure
wunnot be my pleasure, sirs, for I be only a common man. I will go home
to my wife. There be things to say before my boy comes home; and I ha'
muckle need to tell her that I love her--I ha' na done so these
many years."

"Why, Neighbor Tanner," cried Master Jonson, with flushing cheeks, "thou
art a right good fellow! And here was I, no later than this morning,
red-hot to spit thee upon my bilbo like a Michaelmas goose!" He laughed
a boyish laugh that did one's heart good to hear.

"Ay," said Master Shakspere, smiling, as he and Simon Attwood looked
into each other's eyes. "Come, neighbor, I know thou art my man--so do
not go until thou drinkest one good toast with us, for we are all good
friends and true from this day forth. Come, Ben, a toast to fit
the cue."

"Why, then," replied Master Jonson, in a good round voice, rising in his
place, "_here's to all kind hearts!_"

"Wherever they may be!" said Master Shakspere, softly. "It is a good
toast, and we will all drink it together."

And so they did. And Simon Attwood went away with a warmth and a
tingling in his heart he had never known before.

"Margaret," said he, coming quickly in at the door, as she went silently
about the house with a heavy heart preparing the supper, "Margaret."

She dropped the platter upon the board, and came to him hurriedly,
fearing evil tidings.

He took her by the hands. This, even more than his unusual manner,
alarmed her. "Why, Simon," she cried, "what is it? What has come
over thee?"

"Nought," he replied, looking down at her, his hard face quivering; "but
I love thee, Margaret."

"Simon, what dost thou mean?" faltered Mistress Attwood, her heart going
down like lead.

"Nought, sweetheart--but that I love thee, Margaret, and that our lad is
coming home!"

Her heart seemed to stop beating.

"Margaret," said he, huskily, "I do love thee, lass. Is it too late to
tell thee so?"

"Nay, Simon," answered his wife, simply, "'tis never too late to mend."
And with that she laughed--but in the middle of her laughing a tear ran
down her cheek.

FROM the windows of the New Place there came a great sound of men
singing together, and this was the quaint old song they sang:

"Then here's a health to all kind hearts
Wherever they may be;
For kindly hearts make but one kin
Of all humanity.

"And here's a rouse to all kind hearts
Wherever they be found;
For it is the throb of kindred hearts
Doth make the world go round!"

"Why, Will," said Master Burbage, slowly setting down his glass, "'tis
altogether a midsummer night's dream."

"So it is, Dick," answered Master Shakspere, with a smile, and a
far-away look in his eyes. "Come, Nicholas, wilt thou not sing for us
just the last few little lines of 'When Thou Wakest,' out of the play?"

Then Nick stood up quietly, for they all were his good friends there,
and Master Drayton held his hand while he sang:

"Every man shall take his own,
In your waking shall be shown:
Jack shall have Jill,
Nought shall go ill,
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well!"

They were very still for a little while after he had done, and the
setting sun shone in at the windows across the table. Then Master
Shakspere said gently, "It is a good place to end."

"Ay," said Master Jonson, "it is."

So they all got up softly and went out into the garden, where there were
seats under the trees among the rose-bushes, and talked quietly among
themselves, saying not much, yet meaning a great deal.

But Nick and Cicely said "Good-night, sirs," to them all, and bowed; and
Master Shakspere himself let them out at the gate, the others shaking
Nick by the hand with many kind wishes, and throwing kisses to Cicely
until they went out of sight around the chapel corner.

When the children came to the garden-gate in front of Nick's father's
house, the red roses still twined in Cicely's hair, Simon Attwood and
his wife Margaret were sitting together upon the old oaken settle by the
door, looking out into the sunset. And when they saw the children
coming, they arose and came through the garden to meet them, Nick's
mother with outstretched hands, and her face bright with the glory of
the setting sun. And when she came to where he was, the whole of that
long, bitter year was nothing any more to Nick.

For then--ah, then--a lad and his mother; a son come home, the wandering
ended, and the sorrow done!

She took him to her breast as though he were a baby still; her tears ran
down upon his face, yet she was smiling--a smile like which there is no
other in all the world: a mother's smile upon her only son, who was
astray, but has come home again.

Oh, the love of a lad for his mother, the love of a mother for her
son--unchanged, unchanging, for right, for wrong, through grief and
shame, in joy, in peace, in absence, in sickness, and in the shadow of
death! Oh, mother-love, beyond all understanding, so holy that words but
make it common!

"My boy!" was all she said; and then, "My boy--my little boy!"

And after a while, "Mother," said he, and took her face between his
strong young hands, and looked into her happy eyes, "mother dear, I ha?
been to London town; I ha' been to the palace, and I ha' seen the Queen;
but, mother," he said, with a little tremble in his voice, for all he
smiled so bravely, "I ha' never seen the place where I would rather be
than just where thou art, mother dear!"

The soft gray twilight gathered in the little garden; far-off voices
drifted faintly from the town. The day was done. Cool and still, and
filled with gentle peace, the starlit night came down from the dewy
hills; and Cicely lay fast asleep in Simon Attwood's arms.

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