plum-colored cloak; and play-actoring fellow said a loved him like a’s own, and patted a’s back, and flung me hard names, like stones at a lost dawg. Now le’ me go, Muster Attwood–cross my heart, ’tis all I know!”
“Is’t Nicholas ye seek, Master Attwood?” asked Tom Carpenter, turning from his fleurs-de-lis. “Why, sir, he’s gone got famous, sir. I was in Coventry mysel’ May-day; and–why, sir, Nick was all the talk! He sang there at the Blue Boar inn-yard with the Lord High Admiral’s players, and took a part in the play; and, sir, ye’d scarce believe me, but the people went just daft to hear him sing, sir.”
Simon Attwood heard no more. He walked down High street in a daze. With hard men bitter blows strike doubly deep. He stopped before the guildhall school. The clock struck five; each iron clang seemed beating upon his heart. He raised his hand as if to shut the clangor out, and then his face grew stern and hard. “He hath gone his own wilful way,” said he, bitterly. “Let him follow it to the end.”
Mistress Attwood came to meet him, running in the garden-path. “Nicholas?” was all that she could say.
“Never speak to me of him, again,” he said, and passed her by into the house. “He hath gone away with a pack of stage-playing rascals and vagabonds, whither no man knoweth.”
Taking the heavy Bible down from the shelf, he lit a rushlight at the fire, although it was still broad daylight, and sat there with the great book open in his lap until the sun went down and the chill night wind crept in along the floor; yet he could not read a single word and never turned a page.
A STRANGE RIDE
Rat-a-tat-tat at the first dim hint of dawn went the chamberlain’s knuckles upon the door. To Nick it seemed scarce midnight yet, so sound had been his sleep.
Master Carew having gotten into his high-topped riding-boots with a great puffing and tugging, they washed their faces at the inn-yard pump by the smoky light of the hostler’s lantern, and then in a subdued, half-wakened way made a hearty breakfast off the fragments of the last nights feast. Part of the remaining cold meat, cheese, and cakes Carew stowed in his leather pouch. The rest he left in the lap of a beggar sleeping beside the door.
The street was dim with a chilly fog, through which a few pale stars still struggled overhead. The houses were all shut and barred; nobody was abroad, and the night-watch slept in comfortable doorways here and there, with lolling heads and lanterns long gone out. As they came along the crooked street, a stray cat scurried away with scared green eyes, and a kenneled hound set up a lonesome howl.
But the Blue Boar Inn was stirring like an ant-hill, with firefly lanterns flitting up and down, and a cheery glow about the open door. The horses of the company, scrubbed unreasonably clean, snorted and stamped in little bridled clumps about the courtyard, and the stable-boys, not scrubbed at all, clanked at the pump or shook out wrinkled saddle-cloths with most prodigious yawns. The grooms were buckling up the packs; the chamberlain and sleepy-lidded maids stood at the door, waiting their fare-well farthings.
Some of the company yawned in the tap-room; some yawned out of doors with steaming stirrup-cup in hand; and some came yawning down the stairways pulling on their riding-cloaks, booted, spurred, and ready for a long day’s ride.
“Good-morrow, sirs,” said Carew, heartily. “Good-morrow, sir, to you,” said they, and all came over to speak to Nicholas in a very kindly way; and one or two patted him on the cheek and walked away speaking in under-tones among themselves, keeping one eye on Carew all the while. And Master Tom Heywood, the play-writer, came out with a great slice of fresh wheat-bread, thick with butter and dripping with yellow honey, and gave it to Nick; and stood there silently with a very queer expression watching him eat it, until Carew’s groom led up a stout hackney and a small roan palfrey to the block, and the master-player, crying impatiently, “Up with thee, Nick; we must be ambling!” sprang into the saddle of the gray.
The sleepy inn-folk roused a bit to send a cheery volley of, “Fare ye well, sirs; come again,” after the departing players, and the long cavalcade cantered briskly out of the inn-yard, in double rank, with a great clinking of bridle-chains and a drifting odor of wet leather and heavy perfume.
Nick sat very erect and rode his best, feeling like some errant knight of the great Round Table, ready to right the whole world’s wrongs. “But what about the horse?” said he. “We can na keep him in Stratford, sir.”
“Oh, that’s all seen to,” said the master-player. “‘Tis to be sent back by the weekly carrier.”
“And where do I turn into the Stratford road, sir?” asked Nick, as the players clattered down the cobbled street in a cloud of mist that steamed up so thickly from the stones that the horses seemed to have no legs, but to float like boats.
“Some distance further on,” replied Carew, carelessly. “‘Tis not the way we came that thou shalt ride to-day; that is t’ other end of town, and the gate not open yet. But the longest way round is the shortest way home, so let’s be spurring on.”
At the corner of the street a cross and sleepy cobbler was strapping a dirty urchin, who bellowed lustily. Nick winced.
“Hollo!” cried Carew. “What’s to do?”
“Why, sir,” said Nick, ruefully, “father will thresh me well this night.”
“Nay,” said Carew, in a quite decided tone; “that he’ll not, I promise thee!”–and as he spoke he chuckled softly to himself.
The man before them turned suddenly around and grinned queerly; but, catching the master-player’s eye, whipped his head about like a weather-vane in a gale, and cantered on.
As they came down the narrow street the watchmen were just swinging wide the city gates, and gave a cheer to speed the parting guests, who gave a rouse in turn, and were soon lost to sight in the mist which hid the valley in a great gray sea.
“How shall I know where to turn off, sir?” asked Nick, a little anxiously. “‘Tis all alike.”
“I’ll tell thee,” said the master-player; “rest thee easy on that score. I know the road thou art to ride much better than thou dost thyself.”
He smiled quite frankly as he spoke, and Nick could not help wondering why the man before them again turned around and eyed him with that sneaking grin.
He did not like the fellow’s looks. He had scowling black brows, hair cut as close as if the rats had gnawed it off, a pair of ill-shaped bandy-legs, a wide, unwholesome slit of a mouth, and a nose like a raspberry tart. His whole appearance was servile and mean, and there was a sly malice in his furtive eyes. Besides that, and a thing which strangely fascinated Nick’s gaze, there was a hole through the gristle of his right ear, scarred about as if it had been burned, and through this hole the fellow had tied a bow of crimson ribbon, like a butterfly alighted upon his ear.
“A pretty fellow!” said Carew, with a shrug. “He’ll be hard put to dodge the hangman yet; but he’s a right good fellow in his way, and he has served me–he has served me.”
The first loud burst of talk had ceased, and all rode silently along. The air was chill, and Nick was grateful for the cloak that Carew threw around him. There was no sound but the beat of many hoofs in the dust-padded road, and now and then the crowing of a cock somewhere within the cloaking fog. The stars were gone, and the sky was lighting up; and all at once, as they rode, the clouds ahead, low down and to the right, broke raggedly away and let a red sun-gleam shoot through across the mist, bathing the riders in dazzling rosy light.
“Why, Master Carew,” cried Nick, no little startled, “there comes the sun, almost ahead! We’re riding east-ward, sir. We’ve missed the road!”
“Oh, no, we’ve not,” said Carew; “nothing of the sort.” His tone was so peremptory and sharp that Nick said nothing more, but rode along, vaguely wishing that he was already clattering down Stratford High street.
The clouds scattered as the sun came up, and the morning haze drifted away into cool dales, and floated off upon the breeze. And as the world woke up the players wakened too, and rode gaily along, laughing, singing, and chattering together, until Nick thought he had never in all his life before seen such a jolly fellowship. His heart was blithe as he reined his curveting palfrey by the master-player’s side, and watched the sunlight dance and sparkle along the dashing line from dagger-hilts and jeweled clasps, and the mist-lank plumes curl crisp again in the warmth of the rising sun.
The master-player, too, had a graceful, taking way of being half familiar with the lad; he was besides a marvelous teller of wonderful tales, and whiled away the time with jests and quips, mile after mile, till Nick forgot both road and time, and laughed until his sides were sore.
Yet slowly, as they rode along, it came home to him with the passing of the land that this was country new and strange. So he began to take notice of this and that beside the way; and as he noticed he began to grow uneasy. Thrice had he come to Coventry, but surely never by a road like this.
Yet still the master-player joked and laughed and pleased the boy with little things–until Nick laughed too, and let the matter go. At last, however, when they had ridden fully an hour, they passed a moss-grown abbey on the left-hand side of the road, a strange old place that Nick could not recall.
“Are ye sure, Master Carew,” he ventured timidly–
At that the master-player took on so offended an air that Nick was sorry he had spoken.
“Why, now,” said Carew, haughtily, “if thou dost know the roads of England better than I, who have trudged and ridden them all these years, I’ll sit me down and learn of thee how to follow mine own nose. I tell thee I know the road thou art to ride this day better than thou dost thyself; and I’ll see to it that thou dost come without fail to the very place that thou art going. I will, upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour!”
But in spite of this assurance, and in spite of the master-player’s ceaseless stream of gaiety and marvels, Nick became more and more uneasy. The road was certainly growing stranger and stranger as they passed. The company, too, instead of ambling leisurely along, as they had done at first, were now spurring ahead at a good round gallop, in answer to a shrill whistle from the master-player; and the horses were wet with sweat.
They passed a country village, too, that was quite unknown to Nick, and a great highway running to the north that he had never seen before; and when they had ridden for about two hours, the road swerved southward to a shining ford, and on a little tableland beyond he saw the gables of a town he did not know.
“Why, Master Carew!” he cried out, half indignant, half perplexed, and thoroughly frightened, “this is na the Stratford road at all. I’m going back. I will na ride another mile!”
As he spoke he wheeled the roan sharply out of the clattering file with a slash of the rein across the withers, and started back along the hill past the rest of the company, who came thumping down behind.
“Stop him! Stop him there!” he heard the master-player shout, and there was something in the fierce, high voice that turned his whole heart sick. What right had they to stop him? This was not the Stratford road; he was certain of that now. But “Stop him–stop him there!” he heard the master-player call, and a wild, unreasoning fright came over him. He dug his heels into the palfrey’s heaving sides and urged him up the hill through the cloud of dust that came rolling down behind the horsemen. The hindmost riders had plunged into those before, and the whole array was struggling, shouting, and wrangling in wild disorder; but out of the flurry Carew and the bandy-legged man with the ribbon in his ear spurred furiously and came galloping after him at the top of their speed.
Nick cried out, and beat the palfrey with the rein; but the chase was short. They overtook him as he topped the hill, one on each side, and, leaning over, Carew snatched the bridle from his hand. “Thou little imp!” he panted, as he turned the roan around and started down the hill. “Don’t try this on again!”
“Oh, Master Carew,” gasped Nick, “what are ye going to do wi’ me?”
“Do with thee?” cried the master-player, savagely clapping his hand upon his poniard,–“why, I am going to do with thee just whatever I please. Dost hear? And, hark ‘e, this sort of caper doth not please me at all; and by the whistle of the Lord High Admiral, if thou triest it on again, thy life is not worth a rotten peascod!”
Unbuckling the rein, he tossed one end to the bandy-legged man, and holding the other in his own hand, with Nick riding helplessly between them, they trotted down the hill again, took their old places in the ranks, and spattered through the shallow ford.
The bandy-legged man had pulled a dagger from beneath his coat, and held it under his bridle-rein, shining through the horse’s mane as they dashed through the still half-sleeping town. Nick was speechless with terror.
Beyond the town’s end they turned sharply to the northeast, galloping steadily onward for what was perhaps half an hour, though to Nick it seemed a forever, until they came out into a great highway running southward. “Watling street!” he heard the man behind him say, and knew that they were in the old Roman road that stretched from London to the north. Still they were galloping, though long strings dribbled from the horses’ mouths, and the saddle-leathers dripped with foam. One or two looked back at him and bit their lips; but Carew’s eyes were hot and fierce, and his hand was on his poniard. The rest, after a curious glance or two, shrugged their shoulders carelessly and galloped on: this affair was Master Gaston Carew’s business, not theirs.
Until high noon they hurried on with neither stop nor stay. Then they came to a place where a little brook sang through the grass by the roadside in a shady nook beneath some mighty oaks, and there the master-player whistled for a halt, to give the horses breath and rest, and to water them at the brook-pools. Some of the players sauntered up and down to stretch their tired legs, munching meat and bread; and some lay down upon the grass and slept a little. Two of them came, offering Nick some cakes and cheese; but he was crying hard and would neither eat nor drink, though Carew urged him earnestly. Then Master Tom Heywood, with an ugly look at Carew, and without so much as an if-ye-please or a by-your-leave, led Nick up the brook to a spot where it had not been muddied by the horses, and made him wash his dusty face and hands in the cool water and dampen his hair, though he complied as if in a daze. And indeed Nick rode on through the long afternoon, clinging helplessly to the pommel of his saddle, sobbing bitterly until for very weariness he could no longer sob.
It was after nine o’clock that night when they rode into Towcester, and all that was to be seen was a butcher’s boy carting garbage out of the town and whistling to keep his courage up. The watch had long since gone to sleep about the silent streets, but a dim light burned in the tap-room of the Old Brown Cow; and there the players rested for the night.
A DASH FOR FREEDOM
Nick awoke from a heavy, burning sleep, aching from head to foot. The master-player, up and dressed, stood by the window, scowling grimly out into the ashy dawn. Nick made haste to rise, but could not stifle a sharp cry of pain as he staggered to his feet, he was so racked and sore with riding.
At the boy’s smothered cry Carew turned, and his dark face softened with a sudden look of pity and concern. “Why, Nick, my lad,” he cried, and hurried to his side, “this is too bad, indeed!” and without more words took him gently in his arms and carried him down to the courtyard well, where he bathed him softly from neck to heel in the cold, refreshing water, and wiped him with a soft, clean towel as tenderly as if he had been the lad’s own mother. And having dried him thoroughly, he rubbed him with a waxy ointment that smelled of henbane and poppies, until the aching was almost gone. So soft and so kind was he withal that Nick took heart after a little and asked timidly, “And ye will let me go home to-day, sir, will ye not?”
The master-player frowned.
“Please, Master Carew, let me go.”
“Come, come,” said Carew, impatiently, “enough of this!” and stamped his foot.
“But, oh, Master Carew,” pleaded Nick, with a sob in his throat, “my mother’s heart will surely break if I do na come home!”
Carew started, and his mouth twitched queerly. “Enough, I say–enough!” he cried. “I will not hear; I’ll have no more. I tell thee hold thy tongue–be dumb! I’ll not have ears–thou shalt not speak! Dost hear?” He dashed the towel to the ground. “I bid thee hold thy tongue.”
Nick hid his face between his hands, and leaned against the rough stone wall, a naked, shivering, wretched little chap indeed. “Oh, mother, mother, mother!” he sobbed pitifully.
A singular expression came over the master-player’s face. “I will not hear–I tell thee I will not hear!” he choked, and, turning suddenly away, he fell upon the sleepy hostler, who was drawing water at the well, and rated him outrageously, to that astounded worthy’s great amazement.
Nick crept into his clothes, and stole away to the kitchen door. There was a red-faced woman there who bade him not to cry–‘t would soon be breakfast-time. Nick thought he could not eat at all; but when the savory smell crept out and filled the chilly air, his poor little empty stomach would not be denied, and he ate heartily. Master Heywood sat beside him and gave him the choicest bits from his own trencher; and Carew himself, seeing that he ate, looked strangely pleased, and ordered him a tiny mutton-pie, well spiced. Nick pushed it back indignantly; but Heywood took the pie and cut it open, saying quietly: “Come, lad, the good God made the sheep that is in this pie, not Gaston Carew. Eat it–come, ’twill do thee good!” and saw him finish the last crumb.
From Towcester south through Northamptonshire is a pretty country of rolling hills and undulating hollows, ribboned with pebbly rivers, and dotted with fair parks and tofts of ash and elm and oak. Straggling villages now and then were threaded on the road like beads upon a string, and here and there the air was damp and misty from the grassy fens along some winding stream.
It was against nature that a healthy, growing lad should be so much cast down as not to see and be interested in the strange, new, passing world of things about him; and little by little Nick roused from his wretchedness and began to look about him. And a wonder grew within his brain: why had they stolen him?–where were they taking him?–what would they do with him there?–or would they soon let him go again?
Every yellow cloud of dust arising far ahead along the road wrought up his hopes to a Bluebeard pitch, as regularly to fall. First came a cast-off soldier from the war in the Netherlands, rakishly forlorn, his breastplate full of rusty dents, his wild hair worn by his steel cap, swaggering along on a sorry hack with an old belt full of pistolets, and his long sword thumping Rosinante’s ribs. Then a peddling chapman, with a dust-white pack and a cunning Hebrew look, limped by, sulkily doffing his greasy hat. Two sturdy Midland journeymen, in search of southern handicraft, trudged down with tool-bags over their shoulders and stout oak staves in hand. Of wretched beggars and tattered rogues there was an endless string. But of any help no sign.
Here and there, like a moving dot, a ploughman turned a belated furrow; or a sweating ditcher leaned upon his reluctant spade and longed for night; or a shepherd, quite as silly as his sheep, gawked up the morning hills. But not a sign of help for Nick.
Once, passing through a little town, he raised a sudden cry of “Help! Help–they be stealing me away!” But at that the master-player and the bandy-legged man waved their hands and set up such a shout that his shrill outcry was not even heard. And the simple country bumpkins, standing in a grinning row like so many Old Aunt Sallys at a fair, pulled off their caps and bowed, thinking it some company of great lords, and fetched a clownish cheer as the players galloped by.
Then the hot dust got into Nick’s throat, and he began to cough. Carew started with a look of alarm. “Come, come, Nicholas, this will never do–never do in the world; thou’lt spoil thy voice.”
“I do na care,” said Nick.
“But I do,” said Carew, sharply. “So we’ll have no more of it!” and he clapped his hand upon his poniard. “But, nay–nay, lad, I did not mean to threaten thee–’tis but a jest. Come, smooth thy throat, and do not shriek no more. We play in old St. Albans town to-night, and thou art to sing thy song for us again.”
Nick pressed his lips tight shut and shook his head. He would not sing for them again.
“Come, Nick, I’ve promised Tom Heywood that thou shouldst sing his song; and, lad, there’s no one left in all the land to sing it if thou’lt not. Tom doth dearly love thee, lad–why, sure, thou hast seen that! And, Nick, I’ve promised all the company that thou wouldst sing Tom’s song with us to-night. ‘Twill break their hearts if thou wilt not. Come, Nick, thou’lt sing it for us all, and set old Albans town afire!” said Carew, pleadingly.
Nick shook his head.
“Come, Nick,” said Carew, coaxingly, “we must hear that sweet voice of thine in Albans town to-night. Come, there’s a dear, good lad, and give us just one little song! Come, act the man and sing, as thou alone in all the world canst sing, in Albans town this night; and on my word, and on the remnant of mine honour, I’ll leave thee go back to Stratford town to-morrow morning!”
“To Stratford–to-morrow?” stammered Nick, with a glad, incredulous cry, while his heart leaped up within him.
“Ay, verily; upon my faith as the fine fag-end of a very proper gentleman–thou shalt go back to Stratford town to-morrow if thou wilt but do thy turn with us to-night.”
Nick caught the master-player’s arm as they rode along, almost crying for very joy: “Oh, that I will, sir–and do my very best. And, oh, Master Carew, I ha’ thought so ill o’ thee! Forgive me, sir; I did na know thee well.”
Carew winced. Hastily throwing the rein to Nick, he left him to master his own array.
As for Nick, as happy as a lark he learned his new lines as he rode along, Master Carew saying them over to him from the manuscript and over again until he made not a single mistake; and was at great pains to teach him the latest fashionable London way of pronouncing all the words, and of emphasizing his set phrases. “Nay, nay,” he would cry laughingly, “not that way, lad; but this: ‘Good my lord, I bring a letter from the duke’–as if thou hadst indeed a letter, see, and not an empty fist. And when thou dost hand it to him, do it thus–and not as if thou wert about to stab him in the paunch with a cheese-knife!” And at the end he clapped him upon the back and said again and again that he loved him, that he was a dear, sweet figure of a lad, and that his voice among the rest of England’s singers, was like clear honey dropping into a pot of grease.
But it is a long ride from Towcester to St. Albans town in Herts, though the road runs through a pleasant, billowy land of oak-walled lanes, wide pastures, and quiet parks; and the steady jog, jog of the little roan began to rack Nick’s tired bones before the day was done.
Yet when they marched into the quaint old town to the blare of trumpets and the crash of the kettledrums, all the long line gaudy with the coat-armour of the Lord High Admiral beneath their flaunting banners, and the horses pricked up their ears and arched their necks and pranced along the crowded streets, Nick, stared at by all the good townsfolk, could not help feeling a thrill of pride that he was one of the great company of players, and sat up very straight and held his head up haughtily as Master Carew did, and bore himself with as lordly an air as he knew how.
* * * * *
But when morning came, and he danced blithely back from washing himself at the horse-trough, all ready to start for home, he found the little roan cross-bridled as before between the master-player’s gray and the bandy-legged fellow’s sorrel mare.
“What, there! cast him loose,” said he to the horse-boy who held the three. “I am not going on with the players–I’m to go back to Stratford.”
“Then ye go afoot,” coolly rejoined the other, grinning, “for the hoss goeth on wi’ the rest.”
“What is this, Master Carew?” cried Nick, indignantly, bursting into the tap-room, where the players were at ale. “They will na let me have the horse, sir. Am I to walk the whole way back to Stratford town?”
“To Stratford?” asked Master Carew, staring with an expression of most innocent surprise, as he set his ale-can down and turned around. “Why, thou art not going to Stratford.”
“Not going to Stratford!” gasped Nick, catching at the table with a sinking heart. “Why, sir, ye promised that I should to-day.”
“Nay, now, that I did not, Nicholas. I promised thee that thou shouldst go back to-morrow–were not those my very words!”
“Ay, that they were,” cried Nick; “and why will ye na leave me go?”
“Why, this is not to-morrow, Nick. Why, see, I cannot leave thee go to-day. Thou knowest that I said to-morrow; and this is not to-morrow–on thine honour, is it now?”
“How can I tell?” cried Nick, despairingly. “Yesterday ye said it would be, and now ye say that it is na. Ye’ve twisted it all up so that a body can na tell at all. But there is a falsehood–a wicked, black falsehood–somewhere betwixt you and me, sir; and ye know that I have na lied to you, Master Carew!”
Through the tap-room door he saw the open street and the hills beyond the town. Catching his breath, he sprang across the sill, and ran for the free fields at the top of his speed.
“After him!–stop him!–catch the rogue!” cried Carew, running out on the cobbles with his ale-can in his hand. “A shilling to the man that brings him back unharmed! No blows, nor clubs, nor stabbing, hark ‘e, but catch me the knave straightway; he hath snatched a fortune from my hands!”
At that the hostler, whip in hand, and the tapster with his bit, were off as fast as their legs could carry them, bawling “Stop, thief, stop!” at the top of their lungs; and at their backs every idle varlet about the inn–grooms, stable-boys, and hangers-on–ran whooping, howling, and hallooing like wild huntsmen.
Nick’s frightened heart was in his mouth, and his breath came quick and sharp. Tap-a-tap, tap-a-tap went his feet on the cobblestones as down the long street he flew, running as he had never run before.
It seemed as if the whole town bellowed at his back; for windows creaked above his head, and doors banged wildly after him; curs from every alley-way came yelping at his heels; apprentices let go the shutter-bars, and joined in the chase; and near and nearer came the cry of “Stop, thief, stop!” and the kloppety-klop of hob-nailed shoes in wild pursuit.
The rabble filled the dark old street from wall to wall, as if a cloud of good-for-naughts had burst above the town; and far in front sped one small, curly-headed lad, running like a frightened fawn. He had lost his cap, and his breath came short, half sobbing in his throat as the sound of footfalls gained upon his ear; but even yet he might have beaten them all and reached the open fields but for the dirt and garbage in the street. Three times he slipped upon a rancid bacon-rind and almost fell; and the third time, as he plunged across the oozing drain, a dog dashed right between his feet.
He staggered, nearly fell, threw out his hand against the house and saved himself; but as he started on again he saw the town-watch, wakened by the uproar, standing with their long staves at the end of the street, barring the way.
The door of a smithy stood open just ahead, with forge-fires glowing and the hammer ringing on the anvil. Nick darted in, past the horses, hostlers, and blacksmith’s boys, and caught at the leather apron of the sturdy smith himself.
“Hoo, man, what a dickens!” snorted he, dropping the red-hot shoe on which he was at work, and staring like a startled ox at the panting little fugitive.
“Do na leave them take me!” panted Nick. “They ha’ stolen me away from Stratford town and will na leave me go!”
At that Will Hostler bolted in, red-faced and scant of wind, “Thou young rascal,” quoth he, “I have thee now! Come out o’ that!” and he tried to take Nick by the collar.
“So-oftly, so-oftly!” rumbled the smith, tweaking up the glowing shoe in his great pincers, and sweeping a sputtering half-circle in front of the cowering lad. “Droive slow through the cro-owd! What hath youngster here did no-ow?”
“He hath stolen a fortune from his master at the Three Lions–and the shilling for him’s mine!”
“Hath stealed a fortune? Whoy, huttlety-tut!” roared the burly smith, turning ponderously upon Nick, who was dodging around him like a boy at tag around a tree. “Whoy, lad,” said he, scratching his puzzled head with his great, grimy fingers, “where hast putten it?”
All the rout and the riot now came plunging into the smithy, breathless with the chase. Master Carew himself, his ale-can still clutched in his hand, and bearing himself with a high air of dignity, followed after them, frowning.
“What?” said he, angrily, “have ye earthed the cub and cannot dig him out? Hast caught him there, fellow?”
“Ay, master, that I have!” shouted Will Hostler. “Shilling’s mine, sir.”
“Then fetch him out of this hole!” cried Carew, sniffing disdainfully at the low, smoky door.
“But he will na be fetched,” stammered the doughty Will, keeping a most respectful distance from the long black pincers and the sputtering shoe with which the farrier stolidly mowed the air round about Nick Attwood and himself.
At that the crowd set up a shout.
Carew thrust fiercely into the press, the louts and loafers giving way. “What, here! Nicholas Attwood,” said he, harshly, “come hither.”
“Do na leave him take me,” begged Nick. “He is not my master; I am not bound out apprentice–they are stealing me away from my own home, and it will break my mother’s heart.”
“Nobody breaks nobody’s hearts in old Jo-ohn Smithses sho-op,” drawled the smith, in his deep voice; “nor steals nobody, nother. We be honest-dealing folk in Albans town, an’ makes as good horse-shoes as be forged in all England”–and he went placidly on mowing the air with the glimmering shoe.
“Here, fellow, stand aside,” commanded Master Carew, haughtily. “Stand aside and let me pass!” As he spoke he clapped his hand upon his poniard with a fierce snarl, showing his white teeth like a wolf-hound.
The men about him fell back with unanimous alacrity, making out each to put himself behind the other. But the huge smith only puffed out his sooty cheeks as if to blow a fly off the next bite of cheese. “So-oftly, so-oftly, muster,” drawled he; “do na go to ruffling it here. This shop be mine, and I be free-born Englishman. I’ll stand aside for no swash-buckling rogue on my own ground. Come, now, what wilt thou o’ the lad?–and speak thee fair, good muster, or thou’lt get a dab o’ the red-hot shoe.” As he spoke he gave the black tongs an extra whirl.
“Come,” growled the blacksmith, gripping his tongs, “what wilt thou have o’ the lad?”
“What will I have o’ the lad?” said Master Carew, mimicking the blacksmith in a most comical way, with a wink at the crowd, as if he had never been angry at all, so quickly could he change his face–“What will I have o’ the lad?” and all the crowd laughed. “Why, bless thy gentle heart, good man, I want to turn his farthings into round gold crowns–if thou and thine infernal hot shoe do not make zanies of us all! Why, Master Smith, ’tis to London town I’d take him, and fill his hands with more silver shillings than there be cast-off shoes in thy whole shop.”
“La, now, hearken till him!” gaped the smith, staring in amazement.
“And here thou needs must up and spoil it all, because, forsooth, the silly child goes a trifle sick for home and whimpers for his minnie!”
“But the lad saith thou hast stealed him awa-ay from ‘s ho-ome,” rumbled the smith, like a doubtful earthquake; “and we’ll ha’ no stealing o’ lads awa-ay from ho-ome in County Herts!”
“Nay, that we won’t!” cried one. “Hurrah, John Smith–fair play, fair play!” and there came an ugly, threatening murmur from the crowd.
“What! Fair play?” cried Master Carew, turning so sharply about, with his hand upon his poniard, that each made as if it were not he but his neighbor had growled. “Why, sirs, what if I took any one of ye out of your poverty and common clothes down into London town, horseback like a king, and had ye sing before the Queen, and play for earls, and talk with the highest dames in all the land; and fed ye well, and spoke ye fair, and lodged ye soft, and clad ye fine, and wrought the whole town on to cheer ye, and to fill your purses full of gold? What, sir,” said he, turning to the gaping farrier–“what if I promised thee to turn thine every word to a silver sixpence, and thy smutty grins to golden angels–what wouldst thou? Knock me in the head with thy dirty sledge, and bawl foul play?”
“Nay, that I’d not,” roared the burly smith, with a stupid, ox-like grin, scratching his tousled head; “I’d say, ‘Go it, bully, and a plague on him that said thee nay!'”
“And yet when I would fill this silly fellow’s jerkin full of good gold Harry shovel-boards for the simple drawing of his breath, ye bawl ‘Foul play!'”
“What, here! come out, lad,” roared the smith, with a great horse-laugh, swinging Nick forward and thwacking him jovially between the shoulders with his brawny hand; “come out, and go along o’ the master here,–’tis for thy good,–and ho-ome wull keep, I trow, till thou dost come again.”
But Nick hung back, and clung to the blacksmith’s grimy arm, crying in despair: “I will na–oh, I will na!”
“Tut, tut!” cried Master Carew. “Come, Nicholas; I mean thee well, I’ll speak thee fair, and I’ll treat thee true”–and he smiled so frankly that even Nick’s doubts almost wavered. “Come, I’ll swear it on my hilt,” said he.
The smith’s brow clouded. “Nay,” said he; “we’ll no swearing by hilts or by holies here; the bailiff will na have it, sir.”
“Good! then upon mine honour as an Englishman!” cried Carew. “What, how, bullies? Upon mine honour as an Englishman!–how is it? Here we be, all Englishmen together!” and he clapped his hand to Will Hostler’s shoulder, whereat Will stood up very straight and looked around, as if all at once he were somebody instead of somewhat less than nobody at all of any consequence. “What!–ye are all for fair play?–and I am for fair play, and good Master Smith, with his beautiful shoe, here, is for fair play! Why, sirs, my bullies, we are all for fair play; and what more can a man ask than good, downright English fair play? Nothing, say I. Fair play first, last, and all the time!” and he waved his hand. “Hurrah for downright English fair play!”
“Hurrah, hurrah!” bellowed the crowd, swept along like bubbles in a flood. “Fair play, says we–English fair play–hurrah!” And those inside waved their hands, and those that were outside tossed up their caps, in sheer delight of good fair play.
“Hurrah, my bullies! That’s the cry!” said Carew, in his hail-fellow-well-met, royal way. “Why, we’re the very best of fellows, and the very fastest friends! Come, all to the old Three Lions inn, and douse a can of brown March brew at my expense. To the Queen, to good fair play, and to all the fine fellows in Albans town!”
And what did the crowd do but raise a shout, like a parcel of school-boys loosed for a holiday, and troop off to the Three Lions inn at Master Carew’s heels, Will Hostler and the brawny smith bringing up the rear with Nick between them, hand to collar, half forgotten by the rest, and his heart too low for further grief.
And while the crowd were still roaring over their tankards and cheering good fair play, Master Gaston Carew up with his prisoner into the saddle, and, mounting himself, with the bandy-legged man grinning opposite, shook the dust of old St. Albans from his horse’s heels.
“Now, Nicholas Attwood,” said he, grimly, as they galloped away, “hark ‘e well to what I have to say, and do not let it slip thy mind. I am willed to take thee to London town–dost mark me?–and to London town thou shalt go, warm or cold. By the whistle of the Lord High Admiral, I mean just what I say! So thou mayst take thy choice.”
He gripped Nick’s shoulder as they rode, and glared into his eyes as if to sear them with his own. Nick heard his poniard grating in its sheath, and shut his eyes so that he might not see the master-player’s horrid stare; for the opening and shutting, opening and shutting, of the blue lids made him shudder.
“And what’s more,” said Carew, sternly, “I shall call thee Master Skylark from this time forth–dost hear? And when I bid thee go, thou’lt go; and when I bid thee come, thou’lt come; and when I say, ‘Here, follow me!’ thou’lt follow like a dog to heel!” He drew up his lip until his white teeth showed, and Nick, hearing them gritting together, shrank back dismayed.
“There!” laughed Carew, scornfully. “He that knows better how to tame a vixen or to cozen a pack of gulls, now let him speak!” and said no more until they passed by Chipping Barnet. Then, “Nick,” said he, in a quiet, kindly tone, as if they had been friends for years, “this is the place where Warwick fell”; and pointed down the field. “There in the corner of that croft they piled the noble dead like corn upon a threshing-floor. Since then,” said he, with quiet irony, “men have stopped making English kings as the Dutch make dolls, of a stick and a poll thereon.”
Pleased with hearing his own voice, he would have gone on with many another thing; but seeing that Nick listened not at all to what he said, he ceased, and rode on silently or chatting with the others.
The country through Middlesex was in most part flat, and heavy forests overhung the road from time to time. There the players slipped their poniards, and rode with rapier in hand; for many a dark deed and cruel robbery had been done along this stretch of Watling street. And as they passed, more than one dark-visaged rogue with branded hand and a price upon his head peered at them from the copses by the way.
In places where the woods crept very near they pressed closer together and rode rapidly; and the horse-boy and the grooms lit up the matches of their pistolets, and laid their harquebuses ready in rest, and blew the creeping sparkle snapping red at every turn; not so much really fearing an attack upon so stout a party of reckless, dashing blades, as being overawed by the great, mysterious silence of the forest, the semi-twilight all about, and the cold, strange-smelling wind that fanned their faces.
The wild spattering of hoofs in water-pools that lay unsucked by the sun in shadowy stretches, the grim silence of the riders, and the wary eying of each covert as they passed, sent a thrill of excitement into Nick’s heart too keen for any boy to resist.
Then, too, it was no everyday tale to be stolen away from home. It was a wild, strange thing with a strange, wild sound to it, not altogether terrible or unpleasant to a brave boy’s ears in that wonder-filled age, when all the world was turned adventurer, and England led the fore; when Francis Drake and the “Golden Hind,” John Hawkins and the “Victory,” Frobisher and his cockleshells, were gossip for every English fireside; when the whole world rang with English steel, and the wide sea foamed with English keels, and the air was full of the blaze of the living and the ghosts of the mighty dead. And down in Nick’s plucky young English heart there came a spark like that which burns in the soul of a mariner when for the first time an unknown ocean rolls before his eyes.
So he rode on bravely, filled with a sense of daring and the thrill of perils more remote than Master Carew’s altogether too adjacent poniard, as well as with a sturdy determination to escape at the first opportunity, in spite of all the master-player’s threats.
Up Highgate Hill they rattled in a bracing northeast wind, the rugged country bowling back against the tumbled sky. Far to south a rusty haze had gloomed against the sun like a midday fog, mile after mile; and suddenly, as they topped the range and cleared the last low hill, they saw a city in the south spreading away until it seemed to Nick to girdle half the world and to veil the sky in a reek of murky sea-coal smoke.
“There!” said Carew, reining in the gray, as Nick looked up and felt his heart almost stand still; “since Parma burned old Antwerp, and the Low Countries are dead, there lies the market-heart of all the big round world!”
“London!” cried Nick, and, catching his breath with a quick gasp, sat speechless, staring.
Carew smiled. “Ay, Nick,” said he, cheerily; “’tis London town. Pluck up thine heart, lad, and be no more cast down; there lies a New World ready to thine hand. Thou canst win it if thou wilt. Come, let it be thine Indies, thou Francis Drake, and I thy galleon to carry home the spoils! And cheer up. It grieves my heart to see thee sad. Be merry for my sake.”
“For thy sake?” gasped Nick, staring blankly in his face. “Why, what hast thou done for me?” A sudden sob surprised him, and he clenched his fists–it was too cruel irony. “Why, sir, if thou wouldst only leave me go!”
“Tut, tut!” cried Carew, angrily. “Still harping on that same old string? Why, from thy waking face I thought thou hadst dropped it long ago. Let thee go? Not for all the wealth in Lombard street! Dost think me a goose-witted gull?–and dost ask what I have done for thee? Thou simpleton! I have made thee rise above the limits of thy wildest dream–have shod thy feet with gold–have filled thy lap with glory–have crowned thine head with fame! And yet, ‘What have I done for thee?’ Fie! Thou art a stubborn-hearted little fool. But, marry come up! I’ll mend thy mind. I’ll bend thy will to suit my way, or break it in the bending!”
Clapping his hand upon his poniard, he turned his back, and did not speak to Nick again.
And so they came down the Kentish Town road through a meadow-land threaded with flowing streams, the wild hill thickets of Hampstead Heath to right, the huddling villages of Islington, Hoxton, and Clerkenwell to left. And as they passed through Kentish Town, past Primrose Hill into Hampstead way, solitary farm-houses and lowly cottages gave way to burgher dwellings in orderly array, with manor-houses here and there, and in the distance palaces and towers reared their heads above the crowding chimney-pots.
Then the players dressed themselves in fair array, and flung their banners out, and came through Smithfield to Aldersgate, mocking the grim old gibbet there with railing gaiety; and through the gate rode into London town, with a long, loud cheer that brought the people crowding to their doors, and set the shutters creaking everywhere.
Nick was bewildered by the countless shifting gables and the throngs of people flowing onward like a stream, and stunned by the roar that seemed to boil out of the very ground. The horses’ hoofs clashed on the unevenly paved street with a noise like a thousand smithies. The houses hung above him till they almost hid the sky, and seemed to be reeling and ready to fall upon his head when he looked up; so that he urged the little roan with his uneasy heels, and wished himself out of this monstrous ruck where the walls were so close together that there was not elbow-room to live, and the air seemed only heat, thick and stifling, full of dust and smells.
Shop after shop, and booth on booth, until Nick wondered where the gardens were; and such a maze of lanes, byways, courts, blind alleys, and passages that his simple country footpath head went all into a tangle, and he could scarcely have told Tottenham Court road from the river Thames.
All that he remembered afterward was that, turning from High Holborn into the Farringdon road, he saw a great church, under Ludgate Hill, with spire burned and fallen, and its massive tower, black with age and smoke, staring on the town. But he was too confused to know whither they went or what he saw in passing; for of such a forest of houses he had never even dreamed, with people swarming everywhere like ants upon a hill, and among them all not one kind face he knew. Through the spirit of adventure that had roused him for a time welled up a great heart-sickness for his mother and his home.
Out of a bewildered daze he came at last to realize this much: that the master-player’s house was very tall and very dark, standing in a dismal, dirty street, and that it had a gloomy hallway full of shadows that crept and wavered along the wall in the dim light of the late afternoon.
Then the master-player pushed him up a narrow staircase and along a black corridor to a door at the end of the passage, through which he thrust him into a darkness like night, and slammed the door behind him.
Nick heard the bolts shoot heavily, and Master Carew call through the heavy panels: “Now, Jackanapes, sit down and chew the cud of solitude awhile. It may cool thy silly pate for thee, since nothing else will serve. When thou hast found thy common sense, perchance thou’lt find thy freedom, not before.” Then his step went down the corridor, down the stair, through the long hall–a door banged with a hollow sound that echoed through the house, and all was still.
At first, in the utter darkness, Nick could not see at all, and did not move for fear of falling down some awful hole; but as his eyes grew used to the gloom he saw that he was in a little room. The only window was boarded up, but a dim light crept in through narrow cracks and made faint bars across the air. Little motes floated up and down these thin blue bars, wavering in the uncertain light and then lost in the darkness. Upon the floor was a pallet of straw, covered with a coarse sheet, and having a rough coverlet of sheepskin. A round log was the only pillow.
Something moved. Nick, startled, peered into the shadows: it was a strip of ragged tapestry which fluttered on the wall. As he watched it flapping fitfully there came a hollow rattle in the wainscot, and an uncanny sound like the moaning of wind in the chimney.
“Let me out!” he cried, beating upon the door. “Let me out, I say!” A stealthy footstep seemed to go away outside. “Mother, mother!” he cried shrilly, now quite unstrung by fright, and beat frantically upon the door until his hands ached; but no one answered. The window was beyond his reach. Throwing himself upon the hard pallet, he hid his eyes in the coverlet, and cried as if his heart would break.
MA’M’SELLE CICELY CAREW
How long he lay there in a stupor of despair Nick Attwood never knew. It might have been days or weeks, for all that he took heed; for he was thinking of his mother, and there was no room for more.
The night passed by. Then the day came, by the lines of light that crept across the floor. The door was opened at his back, and a trencher of bread and meat thrust in. He did not touch it, and the rats came out of the wall and pulled the meat about, and gnawed holes in the bread, and squeaked, and ran along the wainscot; but he did not care.
The afternoon dragged slowly by, and the creeping light went up the wall until the roofs across the street shut out the sunset. Sometimes Nick waked and sometimes he slept, he scarce knew which nor cared; nor did he hear the bolts grate cautiously, or see the yellow candle-light steal in across the gloom.
“Boy!” said a soft little voice.
He started up and looked around.
For an instant he thought that he was dreaming, and was glad to think that he would waken by and by from what had been so sad a dream, and find himself safe in his own little bed in Stratford town. For the little maid who stood in the doorway was such a one as his eyes had never looked upon before.
She was slight and graceful as a lily of the field, and her skin was white as the purest wax, save where a damask rose-leaf red glowed through her cheeks. Her black hair curled about her slender neck. Her gown was crimson, slashed with gold, cut square across the breast and simply made, with sleeves just elbow-long, wide-mouthed, and lined with creamy silk. Her slippers, too, were of crimson silk, high-heeled, jaunty bits of things; her silken stockings black. In one hand she held a tall brass candlestick, and through the fingers of the other the candle-flame made a ruddy glow like the sun in the heart of a hollyhock. And in the shadow of her hand her eyes looked out, as Nick said long afterward, like stars in a summer night.
Thinking it was all a dream, he sat and stared at her.
“Boy!” she said again, quite gently, but with a quaint little air of reproof, “where are thy manners?”
Nick got up quickly and bowed as best he knew how. If not a dream, this was certainly a princess–and perchance–his heart leaped up–perchance she came to set him free! He wondered who had told her of him? Diccon Field, perhaps, whose father had been Simon Attwood’s partner till he died, last Michaelmas. Diccon was in London now, printing books, he had heard. Or maybe it was John, Hal Saddler’s older brother. No, it could not be John, for John was with a carrier; and Nick had doubts if carriers were much acquainted at court.
Wondering, he stared, and bowed again.
“Why, boy,” said she, with a quaint air of surprise, “thou art a very pretty fellow! Why, indeed, thou lookest like a good boy! Why wilt thou be so bad and break my father’s heart?”
“Break thy father’s heart?” stammered Nick. “Pr’ythee, who is thy father, Mistress Princess?”
“Nay,” said the little maid, simply; “I am no princess. I am Cicely Carew.”
“Cicely Carew?” cried Nick, clenching his fists. “Art thou the daughter of that wicked man, Gaston Carew?”
“My father is not wicked!” said she, passionately, drawing back from the threshold with her hand trembling upon the latch. “Thou shalt not say that–I will not speak with thee at all!”
“I do na care! If Master Gaston Carew is thy father, he is the wickedest man in the world!”
“Why, fie, for shame!” she cried, and stamped her little foot. “How darest thou say such a thing?”
“He hath stolen me from home,” exclaimed Nick, indignantly; “and I shall never see my mother any more!” With that he choked, and hid his face in his arm against the wall.
The little maid looked at him with an air of troubled surprise, and, coming into the room, touched him on the arm. “There,” she said soothingly, “don’t cry!” and stroked him gently as one would a little dog that was hurt. “My father will send thee home to thy mother, I know; for he is very kind and good. Some one hath lied to thee about him.”
Nick wiped his swollen eyes dubiously upon his sleeve; yet the little maid seemed positive. Perhaps, after all, there was a mistake somewhere.
“Art hungry, boy?” she asked suddenly, spying the empty trencher on the floor. “There is a pasty and a cake in the buttery, and thou shalt have some of it if thou wilt not cry any more. Come, I cannot bear to see thee cry–it makes me weep myself; and that will blear mine eyes, and father will feel bad.”
“If he but felt as bad as he hath made me feel–” began Nick, wrathfully; but she laid her little hand across his mouth. It was a very white, soft, sweet little hand.
“Come,” said she; “thou art hungry, and it hath made thee cross!” and, with no more ado, took him by the hand and led him down the corridor into a large room where the last daylight shone with a smoky glow.
The walls were wainscoted with many panels, dark, old, and mysterious; and in a burnished copper brazier at the end of the room cinnamon, rosemary, and bay were burning with a pleasant smell. Along the walls were joined-work chests for linen and napery, of brass-bound oak–one a black, old, tragic sea-chest, carved with grim faces and weird griffins, that had been cast up by the North Sea from the wreck of a Spanish galleon of war. The floor was waxed in the French fashion, and was so smooth that Nick could scarcely keep his feet. The windows were high up in the wall, with their heads among the black roof-beams, which with their grotesquely carven brackets were half lost in the dusk. Through the windows Nick could see nothing but a world of chimney-pots.
“Is London town all smoke-pipes?” he asked confusedly.
“Nay,” replied the little maid; “there are people.”
Pushing a chair up to the table, she bade him sit down. Then pulling a tall, curiously-made stool to the other side of the board, she perched herself upon it like a fairy upon a blade of grass. “Greg!” she called imperiously, “Greg! What, how! Gregory Goole, I say!”
“Yes, ma’m’selle,” replied a hoarse voice without; and through a door at the further end of the room came the bandy-legged man with the bow of crimson ribbon in his ear.
Nick turned a little pale; and when the fellow saw him sitting there, he came up hastily, with a look like a crock of sour milk. “Tut, tut! ma’m’selle,” said he; “Master Carew will not like this.”
She turned upon him with an air of dainty scorn. “Since when hath father left his wits to thee, Gregory Goole? I know his likes as well as thou–and it likes him not to let this poor boy starve, I’ll warrant. Go, fetch the pasty and the cake that are in the buttery, with a glass of cordial,–the Certosa cordial,–and that in the shaking of a black sheep’s tail, or I will tell my father what thou wottest of.” And she looked the very picture of diminutive severity.
“Very good, ma’m’selle; just as ye say,” said Gregory, fawning, with very poor grace, however. “But, knave,” he snarled, as he turned away, with a black scowl at Nick, “if thou dost venture on any of thy scurvy pranks while I be gone, I’ll break thy pate.”
Cicely Carew knitted her brows. “That is a saucy rogue,” said she; “but he hath served my father well. And, what is much in London town, he is an honest man withal, though I have caught him at the Spanish wine behind my father’s back; so he doth butter his tongue with smooth words when he hath speech with me, for I am the lady of the house.” She held up her head with a very pretty pride. “My mother–“
Nick caught his breath, and his eyes filled.
“Nay, boy,” said she, gently; “’tis I should weep, not thou; for _my_ mother is dead. I do not think I ever saw her that I know,” she went on musingly; “but she was a Frenchwoman who served a murdered queen, and she was the loveliest woman that ever lived.” Cicely clasped her hands and moved her lips. Nick saw that she was praying, and bent his head.
“Thou art a good boy,” she said softly; “my father will like that”; and then went quietly on: “That is why Gregory Goole doth call me ‘ma’m’selle’–because my mother was a Frenchwoman. But I am a right English girl for all that; and when they shout, ‘God save the Queen!’ at the play, why, I do too! And, oh, boy,” she cried, “it is a brave thing to hear!” and she clapped her hands with sparkling eyes. “It drove the Spaniards off the sea, my father ofttimes saith.”
“Poh!” said Nick, stoutly, for he saw the pasty coming in, “they can na beat us Englishmen!” and with that fell upon the pasty as if it were the Spanish Armada in one lump and he Sir Francis Drake set on to do the job alone.
As he ate his spirits rose again, and he almost forgot that he was stolen from his home, and grew eager to be seeing the wonders of the great town whose ceaseless roar came over the housetops like a distant storm. He was still somewhat in awe of this beautiful, flower-like little maid, and listened in shy silence to the wonderful tales she told: how that she had seen the Queen, who had red hair, and pearls like gooseberries on her cloak; and how the court went down to Greenwich. But the bandy-legged man kept popping his head in at the door, and, after all, Nick was but in a prison-house; so he grew quite dismal after a while.
“Dost truly think thy father will leave me go?” he asked.
“Of course he will,” said she. “I cannot see why thou dost hate him so?”
“Why, truly,” hesitated Nick, “perhaps it is not thy father that I hate, but only that he will na leave me go. And if he would but leave me go, perhaps I’d love him very much indeed.”
“Good, Nick! thou art a trump!” cried Master Carew’s voice suddenly from the further end of the hall, where in spite of all the candles it was dark; and, coming forward, the master-player held out his hands in a most genial way. “Come, lad, thy hand–’tis spoken like a gentleman. Nay, I will kiss thee–for I love thee, Nick, upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour!” Taking the boy’s half-unwilling hands in his own, he stooped and kissed him upon the forehead.
“Father,” said Cicely, gravely, “hast thou forgotten me?”
“Nay, sweetheart, nay,” cried Carew, with a wonderful laugh that somehow warmed the cockles of Nick’s forlorn heart; and turning quickly, the master-player caught up the little maid and kissed her again and again, so tenderly that Nick was amazed to see how one so cruel could be so kind, and how so good a little maid could love so bad a man; for she twined her arms about his neck, and then lay back with her head upon his shoulder, purring like a kitten in his arms.
“Father,” said she, patting his cheek, “some one hath told him naughty things of thee. Come, daddy, say they are not so!”
The master-player’s face turned red as flame. He coughed and looked up among the roof-beams. “Why, of course they’re not,” said he, uneasily.
“There, boy!” cried she; “I told thee so. Why, daddy, think!–they said that thou hadst stolen him away from his own mother, and wouldst not leave him go!”
“Hollo!” ejaculated the master-player, abruptly, with a quiver in his voice; “what a hole thou hast made in the pasty, Nick!”
“Ah, daddy,” persisted Cicely, “and what a hole it would make in his mother’s heart if he had been stolen away!”
“Wouldst like another draught of cordial, Nick?” cried Carew, hurriedly, reaching out for the tall flagon with a trembling hand. “‘Tis good to cheer the troubled heart, lad. Not that thou hast any reason in the world to let thy heart be troubled,” he added hastily. “No, indeed, upon my word; for thou art on the doorstep of a golden-lined success. See, Nick, how the light shines through!” and he tilted up the flagon. “It is one of old Jake Vessaline’s Murano-Venetian glasses; a beautiful thing, now, is it not? ‘Tis good as any made abroad!” but his hand was shaking so that half the cordial missed the cup and ran into a little shimmering pool upon the table-top.
“And thou’lt send him home again, daddy, wilt thou not?”
“Yes, yes, of course–why, to be sure–we’ll send him anywhere that thou dost say, Golden-heart: to Persia or Cathay–ay, to the far side of the green-cheese moon, or to the court of Tamburlaine the Great,” and he laughed a quick, dry, nervous laugh that had no laughter in it. “I had one of De Lannoy’s red Bohemian bottles, Nick,” he rattled on feverishly; “but that butter-fingered rogue”–he nodded his head at the outer stair–“dropped it, smash! and made a thousand most counterfeit fourpences out of what cost me two pound sterling.”
“But will ye truly leave me go, sir?” faltered Nick.
“Why, of course–to be sure–yes, certainly–yes, yes. But, Nick, it is too late this night. Why, come, thou couldst not go to-night. See, ’tis dark, and thou a stranger in the town. ‘Tis far to Stratford town–thou couldst not walk it, lad; there will be carriers anon. Come, stay awhile with Cicely and me–we will make thee a right welcome guest!”
“That we will,” cried Cicely, clapping her hands. “Oh, do stay; I am so lonely here! The maid is silly, Margot old, and the rats run in the wall.”
“And thou must to the theater, my lad, and sing for London town–ay, Nicholas,” and Carew’s voice rang proudly. “The highest heads in London town must hear that voice of thine, or I shall die unshrift. What! lad?–come all the way from Coventry, and never show that face of thine, nor let them hear thy skylark’s song? Why, ’twere a shame! And, Nick, my lord the Admiral shall hear thee sing when he comes home again; perchance the Queen herself. Why, Nick, of course thou’lt sing. Thou hast not heart to say thou wilt not sing–even for me whom thou hatest.”
Nick smiled in spite of himself, for Cicely was leaning on the arm of his chair, devouring him with her great dark eyes: “Dost truly, truly sing?” she asked.
Nick laughed and blushed, and Carew laughed. “What, doth he sing? Why, Nick, come, tune that skylark note of thine for little Golden-heart and me. ‘Twill make her think she hears the birds in verity–and, Nick, the lass hath never seen a bird that sang, except within a cage. Nay, lad, this is no cage!” he cried, as Nick looked about and sighed. “We will make it very home for thee–will Cicely and I.”
“That we will!” cried Cicely. “Come, boy, sing for me–my mother used to sing.”
At that Gaston Carew went white as a sheet, and put his hand quickly up to his face. Cicely darted to his side with a frightened cry, and caught his hand away. He tried to smile, but it was a ghastly attempt. “Tush, tush! little one; ’twas something stung me!” said he, huskily, “Sing, Nicholas, I beg of thee!”
There was such a sudden world of weariness and sorrow in his voice that Nick felt a pity for he knew not what, and lifting up his clear young voice, he sang the quaint old madrigal.
Carew sat with his face in his hand, and after it was done arose unsteadily and said, “Come, Golden-heart; ’tis music such as charmeth care and lureth sleep out of her dark valley–we must be trotting off to bed.”
That night Nick slept upon a better bed, with a sheet and a blue serge coverlet, and a pillow stuffed with chaff.
But as he drifted off into a troubled dreamland, he heard the door-bolt throb into its socket, and knew that he was fastened in.
Next morning Carew donned his plum-colored cloak, and with Nick’s hand held tightly in his own went out of the door and down the steps into a drifting fog which filled the street, the bandy-legged man with the ribbon in his ear following close upon their heels.
People passed them like shadows in the mist, and all the houses were a blur until they came into a wide, open place where the wind blew free above a wall with many great gates.
In the middle of this open place a huge gray building stood, staring out over the housetops–a great cathedral, wonderful and old. Its walls were dark with time and smoke and damp, and the lofty tower that rose above it was in part but a hollow shell split by lightning and blackened by fire. But crowded between its massive buttresses were booths and chapmen’s stalls; against its hoary side a small church leaned like a child against a mother’s breast; and in and round about it eddied a throng of men like ants upon a busy hill.
All around the outer square were shops with gilded fronts and most amazing signs: golden angels with outstretched wings, tiger heads, bears, brazen serpents, and silver cranes; and in and out of the shop-doors darted apprentices with new-bound books and fresh-printed slips; for this was old St. Paul’s, the meeting-place of London town, and in Paul’s Yard the printers and the bookmen dealt.
With a deal of elbowing the master-player came up the broad steps into the cathedral, and down the aisle to the pillars where the merchant-tailors stood with table-books in hand, and there ordered a brand-new suit of clothes for Nick of old Roger Shearman, the best cloth-cutter in Threadneedle street.
While they were deep in silk and silver thread, Haerlem linen, and Leyden camelot, Nick stared about him half aghast; for it was to him little less than monstrous to see a church so thronged with merchants plying their trades as if the place were no more sacred than a booth in the public square.
The long nave of the cathedral was crowded with mercers from Cheapside, drapers from Throgmorton street, stationers from Ludgate Hill, and goldsmiths from Foster lane, hats on, loud-voiced, and using the very font itself for a counter. By the columns beyond, sly, foxy-faced lawyers hobnobbed; and on long benches by the wall, cast-off serving-men, varlets, grooms, pastry-bakers, and pages sat, waiting to be hired by some new master. Besides these who came on business there was a host of gallants in gold-laced silk and velvet promenading up and down the aisle, with no business there at all but to show their faces and their clothes. And all about were solemn shrines and monuments and tombs, and overhead a splendid window burned like a wheel of fire in the eastern wall.
While Nick stared, speechless, a party of the Admiral’s placers came strolling by, their heads half hidden in their huge starched ruffs, and with prodigious swords that would have dragged along the ground had they not been cocked up behind so fiercely in the air. Seeing Master Carew and the boy, they stopped in passing to greet them gaily.
Master Heywood was there, and bowed to Nick with a kindly smile. His companion was a handsome, proud-mouthed man with a blue, smooth-shaven face and a jet-black periwig. Him Carew drew aside and spoke with in an earnest undertone. As he talked, the other began to stare at Nick as if he were some curious thing in a cage.
“Upon my soul,” said Carew, “ye never heard the like of it. He hath a voice as sweet and clear as if Puck had burst a honey-bag in his throat.”
“No doubt,” replied the other, carelessly; “and all the birds will hide their heads when he begins to sing. But we don’t want him, Carew–not if he had a voice like Miriam the Jew. Henslowe has just bought little Jem Bristow of Will Augusten for eight pound sterling, and business is too bad to warrant any more.”
“Who spoke of selling?” said Carew, sharply. “Don’t flatter your chances so, Master Alleyn. I wouldn’t sell the boy for a world full of Jem Bristows. Why, his mouth is a mint where common words are coined into gold! Sell him? I think I see myself in Bedlam for a fool! Nay, Master Alleyn, what I am coming at is this: I’ll place him at the Rose, to do his turn in the play with the rest of us, or out of it alone, as ye choose, for one fourth of the whole receipts over and above my old share in the venture. Do ye take me?”
“Take you? One fourth the whole receipts! Zounds! man, do ye think we have a spigot in El Dorado?”
“Tush! Master Alleyn, don’t make a poor mouth; you’re none so needy. You and Henslowe have made a heap of money out of us all.”
“And what of that? Yesterday’s butter won’t smooth to-day’s bread. ‘Tis absurd of you, Carew, to ask one fourth and leave all the risk on us, with the outlook as it is! Here’s that fellow Langley has built a new play-house in Paris Garden, nearer to the landing than we are, and is stealing our business most scurvily!”
Carew shrugged his shoulders.
“And what’s more, the very comedy for which Ben Jonson left us, because we would not put it on, has been taken up by the Burbages on Will Shakspere’s say-so, and is running famously at the Curtain.”
“I told you so, Master Alleyn, when the fellow was fresh from the Netherlands,” said Carew; “but your ears were plugged with your own conceit. Young Jonson is no flatfish, if he did lay brick; he’s a plum worth anybody’s picking.”
“But, plague take it, Carew, those Burbages have all the plums! Since they weaned Will Shakspere from us everything has gone wrong. Kemp has left us; old John Lowin, too; and now the Lord Mayor and Privy Council have soured on the play again and forbidden all playing on the Bankside, outside the City or no.”
Carew whistled softly to himself.
“And since my Lord Chamberlain has been patron of the Burbages he will not so much as turn a hand to revive the old game of bull- and bear-baiting, and Phil and I have kept the Queen’s bulldogs going on a twelvemonth now at our own expense–a pretty canker on our profits! Why, Carew, as Will Shakspere used to say, ‘One woe doth tread the other’s heels, so fast they follow!’ And what’s to do?”
“What’s to do?” said Carew. “Why, I’ve told ye what’s to do. Ye’ve heard Will say, ‘There is a tide leads on to fortune if ye take it at the flood’? Well, Master Alleyn, here’s the tide, and at the flood. I have offered you an argosy. Will ye sail or stick in the mud? Ye’ll never have such a chance again. Come, one fourth over my old share, and I will fill your purse so full of gold that it will gape like a stuffed toad. His is the sweetest skylark voice that ever sugared ears!”
“But, man, man, one fourth!”
“Better one fourth than lose it all,” said Carew. “But, pshaw! Master Ned Alleyn, I’ll not beg a man to swim that’s bent on drowning! We will be at the play-house this afternoon; mayhap thou’lt have thought better of it by then.” With a curt bow he was off through the crowd, Nick’s hand in his own clenched very tight.
They had hard work getting down the steps, for two hot-headed gallants were quarreling there as to who should come up first, and there was a great press. But Carew scowled and showed his teeth, and clenched his poniard-hilt so fiercely that the commoners fell away and let them down.
Nick’s eyes were hungry for the printers’ stalls where ballad-sheets were sold for a penny, and where the books were piled along the shelves until he wondered if all London were turned printer. He looked about to see if he might chance upon Diccon Field; but Carew came so quickly through the crowd that Nick had not time to recognize Diccon if he had been there. Diccon had often made Nick whistles from the pollard willows along the Avon below the tannery when Nick was a toddler in smocks, and the lad thought he would like to see him before going back to Stratford. Then, too, his mother had always liked Diccon Field, and would be glad to hear from him. At thought of his mother he gave a happy little skip; and as they turned into Paternoster Bow, “Master Carew,” said he, “how soon shall I go home?”
Carew walked a little faster.
There had arisen a sound of shouting and a trampling of feet. The constables had taken a purse-cutting thief, and were coming up to the Newgate prison with a great rabble behind them. The fellow’s head was broken, and his haggard face was all screwed up with pain; but that did not stop the boys from hooting at him, and asking in mockery how he thought he would like to be hanged and to dance on nothing at Tyburn Hill.
[Illustration: “DICCON HAD OFTEN MADE NICK WHISTLES FROM THE WILLOWS ALONG THE AVON WHEN NICK WAS A TODDLER.”]
“Did ye hear me, Master Carew?” asked Nick.
The master-player stepped aside a moment into a doorway to let the mob go by, and then strode on.
Nick tried again: “I pray thee, sir–“
“Do not pray me,” said Carew, sharply; “I am no Indian idol.”
“But, good Master Carew–“
“Nor call me good–I am not good.”
“But, Master Carew,” faltered Nick, with a sinking sensation around his heart, “when will ye leave me go home?”
The master-player did not reply, but strode on rapidly, gnawing his mustache.
MASTER HEYWOOD PROTESTS
It was a cold, raw day. All morning long the sun had shone through the choking fog as the candle-flame through the dingy yellow horn of an old stable-lantern. But at noon a wind sprang up that drove the mist through London streets in streaks and strings mixed with smoke and the reek of steaming roofs. Now and then the blue gleamed through in ragged patches overhead; so that all the town turned out on pleasure bent, not minding if it rained stewed turnips, so they saw the sky.
But the fog still sifted through the streets, and all was damp and sticky to the touch, so Cicely was left behind to loneliness and disappointment.
Nick and the master-player came down Ludgate Hill to Blackfriars landing in a stream of merrymakers, high and low, rich and poor, faring forth to London’s greatest thoroughfare, the Thames; and as the river and the noble mansions along the Strand came into view, Nick’s heart beat fast. It was a sight to stir the pulse.
Far down the stream, the grim old Tower loomed above the drifting mist; and, higher up, old London Bridge, lined with tall houses, stretched from shore to shore. There were towers on it with domes and gilded vanes, and the river foamed and roared under it, strangled by the piers. From the dock at St. Mary Averies by the Bridge to Barge-house stairs, the landing-stages all along the river-bank were thronged with boats; and to and fro across the stream, wherries, punts, barges, and water-craft of every kind were plying busily. In middle stream sail-boats tugged along with creaking sweeps, or brown-sailed trading-vessels slipped away to sea, with costly freight for Muscovy, Turkey, and the Levant. And amid the countless water-craft a multitude of stately swans swept here and there like snow-flakes on the dusky river.
Nick sniffed at the air, for it was full of strange odors–the smell of breweries, of pitchy oakum, Norway tar, spices from hot countries, resinous woods, and chilly whiffs from the water; and as they came out along the wharf, there were brown-faced, hard-eyed sailors there, who had been to the New World–wild fellows with silver rings in their ears and a swaggering stagger in their petticoated legs. Some of them held short, crooked brown tubes between their lips, and puffed great clouds of pale brown smoke from their noses in a most amazing way.
Broad-beamed Dutchmen, too, were there, and swarthy Spanish renegades, with sturdy craftsmen of the City guilds and stalwart yeomen of the guard in the Queen’s rich livery.
But ere Nick had fairly begun to stare, confused by such a rout, Carew had hailed a wherry, and they were half-way over to the Southwark side.
Landing amid a deafening din of watermen bawling hoarsely for a place along the Paris Garden stairs, the master-player hurried up the lane through the noisy crowd. Some were faring afoot into Surrey, and some to green St. George’s Fields to buy fresh fruit and milk from the farm-houses and to picnic on the grass. Some turned aside to the Falcon Inn for a bit of cheese and ale, and others to the play-houses beyond the trees and fishing-ponds. And coming down from the inn they met a crowd of players, with Master Tom Heywood at their head, frolicking and cantering along like so many overgrown school-boys.
“So we are to have thee with us awhile?” said Heywood, and put his arm around Nick’s shoulders as they trooped along.
“Awhile, sir, yes,” replied Nick, nodding; “but I am going home soon, Master Carew says.”
“Carew,” said Heywood, suddenly turning, “how can ye have the heart?”
“Come, Heywood,” quoth the master-player, curtly, though his whole face colored up, “I have heard enough of this. Will ye please to mind your own affairs?”
The writer of comedies lifted his brows, “Very well,” he answered quietly; “but, lad, this much for thee,” said he, turning to Nick, “if ever thou dost need a friend, Tom Heywood’s one will never speak thee false.”
“Sir!” cried Carew, clapping his hand upon his poniard Heywood looked up steadily. “How? Wilt thou quarrel with me, Carew? What ugly poison hath been filtered through thy wits? Why, thou art even falser than I thought! Quarrel with me, who took thy new-born child from her dying mother’s arms when thou wert fast in Newgate gaol?”
Carew’s angry face turned sickly gray. He made as if to speak, but no sound came. He shut his eyes and pushed out his hand in the air as if to stop the voice of the writer of comedies.
“Come,” said Heywood, with deep feeling; “thou canst not quarrel with me yet–nay, though thou dost try thy very worst. It would be a sorry story for my soul or thine to tell to hers.”
Carew groaned. The rest of the players had passed on, and the three stood there alone. “Don’t, Tom, don’t!” he cried.
“Then how can ye have the heart?” the other asked again.
The master-player lifted up his head, and his lips were trembling. “‘T is not the heart, Tom,” he cried bitterly, “upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour! ‘Tis the head which doeth this. For, Tom, I cannot leave him go. Why, Tom, hast thou not heard him sing? A voice which would call back the very dead that we have loved if they might only hear. Why, Tom, ’tis worth a thousand pound! How can I leave him go?”
“Oh, fie for shame upon the man I took thee for!” cried Heywood.
“But, Tom,” cried Carew, brokenly, “look it straightly in the face; I am no such player as I was,–this reckless life hath done the trick for me, Tom,–and here is ruin staring Henslowe and Alleyn in the eye. They cannot keep me master if their luck doth not change soon; and Burbage would not have me as a gift. So, Tom, what is there left to do? How can I shift without the boy? Nay, Tom, it will not serve. There’s Cicely–not one penny laid by for her against a rainy day; and I’ll be gone, Tom, I’ll be gone–it is not morning all day long–we cannot last forever. Nay, I cannot leave him go!”
“But, sir,” broke in Nick, wretchedly, holding fast to Hey wood’s arm, “ye said that I should go!”
“Said!” cried the master-player, with a bitter smile; “why, Nick, I’d say ten times more in one little minute just to hear thee sing than I would stand to in a month of Easters afterward. Come, Nick, be fair. I’ll feed thee full and dress thee well and treat thee true–all for that song of thine.”
“But, sir, my mother–“
“Why, Carew, hath the boy a mother, too?” cried the writer of comedies.
“Now, Heywood, on thy soul, no more of this!” cried the master-player, with quivering lips. “Ye will make me out no man, or else a fiend. I cannot let the fellow go–I will not let him go.” His hands were twitching, and his face was pale, but his lips were set determinedly. “And, Tom, there’s that within me will not abide even _thy_ pestering. So come, no more of it! Upon my soul, I sour over soon!”
So they came on gloomily past the bear-houses and the Queen’s kennels. The river-wind was full of the wild smell of the bears; but what were bears to poor Nick, whose last faint hope that the master-player meant to keep his word and send him home again was gone?
They passed the Paris Garden and the tall round play-house that Francis Langley had just built. A blood-red banner flaunted overhead, with a large white swan painted thereon; but Nick saw neither the play-house nor the swan; he saw only, deep in his heart, a little gable-roof among old elms, with blue smoke curling softly up among the rippling leaves; an open door with tall pink hollyhocks beside it; and in the door, watching for him till he came again, his own mother’s face. He began to cry silently.
“Nay, Nick, my lad, don’t cry,” said Heywood, gently; “’twill only make bad matters worse. _Never_ is a weary while; but the longest lane will turn at last: some day thou’lt find thine home again all in the twinkling of an eye. Why, Nick, ’tis England still, and thou an Englishman. Come, give the world as good as it can send.”
Nick raised his head again, and, throwing the hair back from his eyes, walked stoutly along, though the tears still trickled down his cheeks.
“Sing thou my songs,” said Heywood, heartily, “and I will be thy friend–let this be thine earnest.” As he spoke he slipped upon the boy’s finger a gold ring with a green stone in it cut with a tall tree: this was his seal.
They had now come through the garden to the Rose Theatre, where the Lord Admiral’s company played; and Carew was himself again. “Come, Nicholas,” said he, half jestingly, “be done with thy doleful dumps–care killed a cat, they say, lad. Why, if thy hateful looks could stab, I’d be a dead man forty times. Come, cheer up, lad, that I may know thou lovest me.”
“But I do na love thee!” cried Nick, indignantly.
“Tut! Do not be so dour. Thou’lt soon be envied by ten thousand men. Come, don’t make a face at thy good fortune as though it were a tripe fried in tar. Come, lad, be pleased; thou’lt be the pet of every high-born dame in London town.”
“I’d rather be my mother’s boy,” Nick answered simply.
THE ROSE PLAY-HOUSE
The play-house was an eight-sided, three-storied, tower-like building of oak and plastered lath, upon a low foundation of yellow brick. Two outside stairways ran around the wall, and the roof was of bright-red English tiles with a blue lead gutter at the eaves. There was a little turret, from the top of which a tall ash stave went up; and on the stave, whenever there was to be a play, there floated a great white flag on which was a crimson rose with a golden heart, just like the one that Nick with such delight had seen come up the Oxford road a few short days before.
Under the stairway was a narrow door marked “For the Playeres Onelie”; and in the doorway stood a shrewd-faced, common-looking man, writing upon a tablet which he held in his hand. There was a case of quills at his side, with one of which he was scratching busily, now and then prodding the ink-horn at his girdle. He held his tongue in his cheek, and moved his head about as the pen formed the letters: he was no expert penman, this Phil Henslowe, the stager of plays.
He looked up as they came to the step.
“A poor trip, Carew,” said he, running his finger down the column of figures he was adding. “The play was hardly worth the candle–cleared but five pound; and then, after I had paid the carman three shilling fip to bring the stuff down from the City, ’twas lost in the river from the barge at Paul’s wharf! A good two pound.”
“Hard luck!” said Carew.
“Hard? Adamantine, I say! Why, ’tis very stones for luck, and the whole road rocky! Here’s Burbage, Condell, and Will Shakspere ha’ rebuilt Blackfriars play-house in famous shape; and, marry, where are we?”
Nick started. An idea came creeping into his head. Will Shakspere had married his mother’s own cousin, Anne Hathaway of Shottery; and he had often heard his mother say that Master Shakspere had ever been her own good friend when they were young.
“He and Jonson be thick as thieves,” said Henslowe; “and Chettle says that Will hath near done the book of a new play for the autumn–a master fine thing!–‘Romulus and Juliana,’ or something of that Italian sort, to follow Ben Jonson’s comedy. Ned Alleyn played a sweet fool about Ben’s comedy. Called it monstrous bad; and now it has taken the money out of our mouths to the tune of nine pound six the day–and here, while ye were gone, I ha’ played my Lord of Pembroke’s men in your ‘Robin Hood,’ Heywood, to scant twelve shilling in the house!”
“Nay, Tom, don’t be nettled; ’tis not the fault of thy play. There’s naught will serve. We’ve tried old Marlowe and Robin Greene, Peele, Nash, and all the rest; but, what! they will not do–’tis Shakspere, Shakspere; our City flat-caps will ha’ nothing but Shakspere!”
Nick listened eagerly. Master Will Shakspere must indeed be somebody in London town! He stared across into the drifting cloud of mist and smoke which hid the city like a pall, and wondered how and where, in that terrible hive of more than a hundred thousand men, he could find one man.
“I tell thee, Tom Heywood, there’s some magic in the fellow, or my name’s not Henslowe!” cried the manager. “His very words bewitch one’s wits as nothing else can do. Why, I’ve tried them with ‘Pierce Penniless,’ ‘Groat’s Worth of Wit,’ ‘Friar Bacon,’ ‘Orlando,’ and the ‘Battle of Alcazar.’ Why, tush! they will not even listen! And here I’ve put Martin Gosset into purple and gold, and Jemmy Donstall into a peach-colored gown laid down with silver-gilt, for ‘Volteger’; and what? Why, we play to empty stools; and the rascals owe me for those costumes yet–sixty shillings full! A murrain on Burbage and Will Shakspere too!–but I wish we had him back again. We’d make their old Blackfriars sick!” He shook his fist at a great gray pile of buildings that rose above the rest out of the fog by the landing-place beyond the river.
Nick stared. _That_ the play-house of Master Shakspere and the Burbages? Will Shakspere playing there, just across the river? Oh, if Nick could only find him, he would not let the son of his wife’s own cousin be stolen away!
Nick looked around quickly.
The play-house stood a bowshot from the river, in the open fields. There was a moated manor-house near by, and beyond it a little stream with some men fishing. Between the play-house and the Thames were gardens and trees, and a thin fringe of buildings along the bank by the landings. It was not far, and there were places where one could get a boat every fifty yards or so at the Bankside.
But–“Come in, come in,” said Henslowe. “Growling never fed a dog; and we must be doing.”
“Go ahead, Nick,” said Carew, pushing him by the shoulder, and they all went in. The door opened on a flight of stairs leading to the lowest gallery at the right of the stage, where the orchestra sat. A man was tuning up a viol as they came in.
“I want you to hear this boy sing,” said Carew to Henslowe. “‘Tis the best thing ye ever lent ear to.”
“Oh, this is the boy?” said the manager, staring at Nick. “Why, Alleyn told me he was a country gawk!”
“He lied, then,” said Carew, very shortly. “‘Twas cheaper than the truth at my price. There, Nick, go look about the place–we have business.”
Nick went slowly along the gallery. His hands were beginning to tremble as he put them out touching the stools. Along the rail were ornamental columns which supported the upper galleries and looked like beautiful blue-veined white marble; but when he took hold of them to steady himself he found they were only painted wood.
There were two galleries above. They ran all around the inside of the building, like the porches of the inn at Coventry, and he could see them across the house. There were no windows in the gallery where he was, but there were some in the second one. They looked high. He went on around the gallery until he came to some steps going down into the open space in the center of the building. The stage was already set up on the trestles, and the carpenters were putting a shelter-roof over it on copper-gilt pillars; for it was beginning to drizzle, and the middle of the play-house was open to the sky.
The spectators were already coming into the pit at a penny apiece, although the play would not begin until early evening. Those for the galleries paid another penny to a man in a red cloak at the foot of the stairs where Nick was standing. There was a great uproar at the entrance. Some apprentices had caught a cutpurse in the crowd, and were beating him unmercifully. Every one pushed and shoved about, cursing the thief, and those near enough kicked and struck him.
Nick looked back. Carew and the manager had gone into the tiring-room behind the stage. He took hold of the side-rail and started down the steps. The man in the red cloak looked up. “Go back there,” said he, sharply; “there’s enough down here now.” Nick went on around the gallery.
At the back of the stage were two doors for the players, and between them hung a painted cloth or arras behind which the prompter stood. Over these doors were two plastered rooms, twopenny private boxes for gentlefolk. In one of them were three young men and a beautiful girl, wonderfully dressed. The men were speaking to her, but she looked down at Nick instead. “What a pretty boy!” she said, and tossed him a flower that one of the men had just given her. It fell at Nick’s feet. He started back, looking up. The girl smiled, so he took off his cap and bowed; but the men looked sour.
At the side of the stage was a screen with long leather fire-buckets and a pole-ax hanging upon it, and behind it was a door through which Nick saw the river and the gray walls of the old Dominican friary. As he came down to it, some one thrust out a staff and barred the way. It was the bandy-legged man with the ribbon in his ear, Nick looked out longingly; it seemed so near!
“Master Carew saith thou art not to stir outside–dost hear?” said the bandy-legged man.
“Ay,” said Nick, and turned back.
There was a narrow stairway leading to the second gallery. He went up softly. There was no one in the gallery, and there was a window on the side next to the river; he had seen it from below. He went toward it slowly that he might not arouse suspicion. It was above his head.
[Illustration: “NICK PUT ONE LEG OVER THE SILL AND LOOKED BACK.”]
There were stools for hire standing near. He brought one and set it under the window. It stood unevenly upon the floor, and made a wabbling noise. He was afraid some one would hear him; but the apprentices in the pit were rattling dice, and two or three gentlemen’s pages were wrangling for the best places on the platform; while, to add to the general riot, two young gallants had brought gamecocks and were fighting them in one corner, amid such a whooping and swashing that one could hardly have heard the skies fall.
A printer’s man was bawling, “Will ye buy a new book?” and the fruit-sellers, too, were raising such a cry of “Apples, cherries, cakes, and ale!” that the little noise Nick might make would be lost in the wild confusion.
Master Carew and the manager had not come out of the tiring-room. Nick got up on the stool and looked out. It was not very far to the ground–not so far as from the top of the big haycock in Master John Combe’s field from which he had often jumped.
The sill was just breast-high when he stood upon the stool. Putting his hands upon it, he gave a little spring, and balanced on his arms a moment. Then he put one leg over the window-sill and looked back. No one was paying the slightest attention to him. Over all the noise he could hear the man tuning the viol. Swinging himself out slowly and silently, with his toes against the wall to steady him, he hung down as far as he could, gave a little push away from the house with his feet, caught a quick breath, and dropped.
Nick landed upon a pile of soft earth. It broke away under his feet and threw him forward upon his hands and knees. He got up, a little shaken but unhurt, and stood close to the wall, looking all about quickly. A party of gaily dressed gallants were haggling with the horse-boys at the sheds; but they did not even look at him. A passing carter stared up at the window, measuring the distance with his eye, whistled incredulously, and trudged on.
Nick listened a moment, but heard only the clamor of voices inside, and the zoon, zoon, zoon of the viol. He was trembling all over, and his heart was beating like a trip-hammer. He wanted to run, but was fearful of exciting suspicion. Heading straight for the river, he walked as fast as he could through the gardens and the trees, brushing the dirt from his hose as he went.
There was a wherry just pushing out from Old Marigold stairs with a single passenger, a gardener with a basket of truck.
“Holloa!” cried Nick, hurrying down; “will ye take me across?”
“For thrippence,” said the boatman, hauling the wherry alongside again with his hook.
Thrippence? Nick stopped, dismayed. Master Carew had his gold rose-noble, and he had not thought of the fare. They would soon find that he was gone.
“Oh, I must be across, sir!” he cried. “Can ye na take me free? I be little and not heavy; and I will help the gentleman with his basket.”
The boatman’s only reply was to drop his hook and push off with the oar.
But the gardener, touched by the boy’s pitiful expression, to say nothing of being tickled by Nick’s calling him gentleman, spoke up: “Here, jack-sculler,” said he; “I’ll toss up wi’ thee for it.” He pulled a groat from his pocket and began spinning it in the air. “Come, thou lookest a gamesome fellow–cross he goes, pile he stays; best two in three flips–what sayst?”
“Done!” said the waterman. “Pop her up!”
Up went the groat.
Nick held his breath.
“Pile it is,” said the gardener. “One for thee–and up she goes again!” The groat twirled in the air and came down _clink_ upon the thwart.
“Aha!” cried the boatman, “’tis mine, or I’m a horse!”
“Nay, jack-sculler,” laughed the gardener; “cross it is! Ka me, ka thee, my pretty groat–I never lose with this groat.”
“Oh, sir, do be brisk!” begged Nick, fearing every instant to see the master-player and the bandy-legged man come running down the bank.
“More haste, worse speed,” said the gardener; “only evil weeds grow fast!” and he rubbed the groat on his jerkin. “Now, jack-sculler, hold thy breath; for up she goes again!”
A man came running over the rise. Nick gave a little frightened cry. It was only a huckster’s knave with a roll of fresh butter. The groat came down with a splash in the bottom of the wherry. The boatman picked it up out of the water and wiped it with his sleeve. “Here, boy, get aboard,” said he, shoving off; “and be lively about it!”
The huckster’s knave came running down the landing. He pushed Nick aside, and scrambled into the wherry, puffing for breath. The boat fell off into the current. Nick, making a plunge for it into the water, just managed to catch the gunwale and get aboard, wet to the knees. But he did not care for that; for although there were people going up Paris Garden lane, and a crowd about the entrance of the Rose, he could not see Master Carew or the bandy-legged man anywhere. So he breathed a little freer, yet kept his eyes fast upon the play-house until the wherry bumped against Blackfriars stairs.
Picking up the basket of truck, he sprang ashore, and, dropping it upon the landing, took to his heels up the bank, without stopping to thank either gardener or boatman.
The gray walls of the old friary were just ahead, scarcely a stone’s throw from the river. With heart beating high, he ran along the close, looking eagerly for the entrance. He came to a wicket-gate that was standing half ajar, and went through it into the old cloisters.
Everything there was still. He was glad of that, for the noise and the rush of the crowd outside confused him.
The place had once been a well-kept garden-plot, but now was become a mere stack of odds and ends of boards and beams, shavings, mortar, and broken brick. A long-legged fellow with a green patch over one eye was building a pair of stairs to a door beside which a sign read: “Playeres Here: None Elles.”
Nick doffed his cap. “Good-day,” said he; “is Master Will Shakspere in?”
The man put down his saw and sat back upon one of the trestles, staring stupidly. “Didst za-ay zummat?”
“I asked if Master Will Shakspere was in?”
The fellow scratched his head with a bit of shaving. “Noa; Muster Wull Zhacksper beant in.”
Nick’s heart stopped with a thump. “Where is he–do ye know?”
“A’s gone awa-ay,” drawled the workman, vaguely.
“A’s gone to Ztratvoard to-own, whur’s woife do li-ive–went a-yesterday.”
Nick sat blindly down upon the other trestle. He did not put his cap on again: he had quite forgotten it.
Master Will Shakspere gone to Stratford–and only the day before!
Too late–just one little day too late! It seemed like cruel mockery. Why, he might be almost home! The thought was more than he could bear: who could be brave in the face of such a blow? The bitter tears ran down his face again.
“Here, here, odzookens, lad!” grinned the workman, stolidly, “thou’lt vetch t’ river up if weeps zo ha-ard. Ztop un, ztop un; do now.”
Nick sat staring at the ground. A beetle was trying to crawl over a shaving. It was a curly shaving, and as fast as the beetle crept up to the top the shaving rolled over, and dropped the beetle upon its back in the dust; but it only got up and tried again. Nick looked up.
“Is–is Master Richard Burbage here, then?”
Perhaps Burbage, who had been a Stratford man, would help him.
“Noa,” drawled the carpenter; “Muster Bubbage beant here; doan’t want un, nuther–nuvver do moind a’s owen business–always jawin’ volks. A beant here, an’ doan’t want un, nuther.”
Nick’s heart went down. “And where is he?”
“Who? Muster Bubbage? Whoy, a be-eth out to Zhoreditch, a-playin’ at t’ theater.”
“And where may Shoreditch be?”
“Whur be Zhoreditch?” gaped the workman, vacantly. “Whoy–whoy, zummers over there a bit yon, zure”; and he waved his hand about in a way that pointed to nowhere at all.
“When will he be back?” asked Nick, desperately.
“Be ba-ack?” drawled the workman, slowly taking up his saw again; “back whur?–here? Whoy, a wun’t pla-ay here no mo-ore avore next Martlemas.”
Martinmas? That was almost mid-November. It was now but middle May.
Nick got up and went out at the wicket-gate. He was beginning to feel sick and a little faint. The rush in the street made him dizzy, and the sullen roar that came down on the wind from the town, mingled with the