tramping of feet, the splash of oars, the bumping of boats along the wharves, and the shouts and cries of a thousand voices, stupefied him.
He was standing there motionless in the narrow way, as if dazed by a heavy fall, when Gaston Carew came running up from the river-front, with the bandy-legged man at his heels.
“THE CHILDREN OF PAUL’S”
An old gray rat came out of its hole, ran swiftly across the floor, and, sitting up, crouched there, peering at Nick. He thought its bare, scaly tail was not a pleasant thing to see; yet he looked at it, with his elbows on his knees, and his chin in his hands.
He had been locked in for two days now. They had put in plenty of food, and he had eaten it all; for if he starved to death he would certainly never get home.
It was quite warm, and the boards had been taken from the window, so that there was plenty of light. The window faced the north, and in the night, wakened by some outcry in the street below, Nick had leaned his log-pillow against the wainscot, and, climbing up, looked out into the sky. It was clear, for a wonder, and the stars were very bright. The moon, like a smoky golden platter, rose behind the eastern towers of the town, and in the north hung the Great Wain pointing at the polar star.
Somewhere underneath those stars was Stratford. The throstles would be singing in the orchard there now, when the sun was low and the cool wind came up from the river with a little whispering in the lane. The purple-gray doves, too, would be cooing softly in the elms over the cottage gable. In fancy he heard the whistle of their wings as they flew. But all the sound that came in over the roofs of London town was a hollow murmur as from a kennel of surly hounds.
Cicely Carew was calling at the door. The rat scurried off to its hole in the wall.
“What there, Nick! Art thou within?” Cicely called again; but Nick made no reply.
“Nick, _dear_ Nick, art crying?”
“No,” said he; “I’m not.”
There was a short silence.
“Nick, I say, wilt thou be good if I open the door?”
“Then I will open it anyway; thou durstn’t be bad to me!”
The bolts thumped, and then the heavy door swung slowly back.
“Why, where art thou?”
He was sitting in the corner behind the door.
“Here,” said he.
She came in, but he did not look up.
“Nick,” she asked earnestly, “why wilt thou be so bad, and try to run away from my father?”
“I hate thy father!” said he, and brought his fist down upon his knee.
“Hate him? Oh, Nick! Why?”
“If thou be asking whys,” said Nick, bitterly, “why did he steal me away from my mother?”
“Oh, surely, Nick, that cannot be true–no, no, it cannot be true. Thou hast forgotten, or thou hast slept too hard and had bad dreams. My father would not steal a pin. It was a nightmare. Doth thine head hurt thee?” She came over and stroked his forehead with her cool hand. She was a graceful child, and gentle in all her ways. “I am sorry thou dost not feel well, Nick. But my father will come presently, and he will heal thee soon. Don’t cry any more.”
“I’m not crying,” said Nick, stoutly, though as he spoke a tear ran down his cheek, and fell upon his hand.
“Then it is the roof leaks,” she said, looking up as if she had not seen his tear-blinded eyes. “But cheer up, Nick, and be a good boy–wilt thou not? ‘Tis dinner-time, and thy new clothes have come; and thou art to come down now and try them on.”
When Nick came out of the tiring-room and found the master-player come, he knew not what to say or do. “Oh, brave, brave, brave!” cried Cicely, and danced around him, clapping her hands. “Why, it is a very prince–a king! Oh, Nick, thou art most beautiful to see!”
And Master Carew’s own eyes sparkled; for truly it was a pleasant sight to see a fair young lad like Nick in such attire.
There was a fine white shirt of Holland linen, and long hose of grayish blue, with puffed and slashed trunks of velvet so blue as to be almost black. The sleeveless jerkin was of the same dark color, trellised with roses embroidered in silk, and loose from breast to broad lace collar so that the waistcoat of dull gold silk beneath it might show. A cloak of damask with a silver clasp, a buff-leather belt with a chubby purse hung to it by a chain, tan-colored slippers, and a jaunty velvet cap with a short white plume, completed the array. Everything, too, had been laid down with perfume, so that from head to foot he smelt as sweet and clean as a drift of rose-mallows.
“My soul!” cried Carew, stepping back and snapping his fingers with delight. “Thou art the bravest skylark that ever broke a shell! Fine feathers–fine bird–my soul, how ye do set each other off!” He took Nick by the shoulders, twirled him around, and, standing off again, stared at him like a man who has found two pound sterling in a cast-off coat.
“I can na pay for them, sir,” said Nick, slowly.
“There’s nought to pay–it is a gift.”
Nick hung his head, much troubled. What could he say; what could he think? This man had stolen him from home,–ay, made him tremble for his very life a dozen times,–and with his whole heart he knew he hated him–yet here, a gift!
“Yes, Nick, it is a gift–and all because I love thee, lad.”
“Why, surely! Who could see thee without liking, or hear thy voice and not love thee? Love thee, Nick? Why, on my word and honour, lad, I love thee with all my heart.”
“Thou hast chosen strange ways to show it, Master Carew,” said Nick, and looked straight up into the master player’s eyes.
Carew turned upon his heel and ordered the dinner.
It was a good dinner: fat roast capon stuffed with spiced carrots; asparagus, biscuit, barley-cakes, and honey; and to end with, a flaky pie, and Spanish cordial sprinkled with burnt sugar. With such fare and a keen appetite, a marvelous brand-new suit of clothes, and Cicely chattering gaily by his side, Nick could not be sulky or doleful long. He was soon laughing; and Carew’s spirits seemed to rise with the boy’s.
“Here, here!” he cried, as Nick was served the third time to the pie; “art hollow to thy very toes? Why, thou’lt eat us out of house and home–hey, Cicely? Marry come up, I think I’d best take Ned Alleyn’s five shillings for thine hire, after all! What! Five shillings? Set me in earth and bowl me to death with boiled turnips!–do they think to play bob-fool with me? Five shillings! A fico for their five shillings–and this for them!” and he squeezed the end of his thumb between his fingers. “Cicely, what dost think?–Phil Henslowe had the face to match Jem Bristow with our Nick!”
“Why, daddy, Jem hath a face like a halibut!”
“And a voice like a husky crow. Why, Nick’s mere shadow on the stage is worth a ton of Jemmy Bristows. ‘Twas casting pearls before swine, Nick, to offer thee to Henslowe and Alleyn; but we’ve found a better trough than theirs–hey, Cicely Goldenheart, haven’t we? Thou art to be one of Paul’s boys.”
Carew lay back in his chair and laughed. “Paul who? Why, Saint Paul, Nick,–’tis Paul’s Cathedral boys I mean. Marry, what dost say to that?”
“I’d like another barley-cake.”
“You’d _what_?” cried the master-player, letting the front legs of his chair come down on the floor with a thump.
“I’d like another barley-cake,” said Nick, quietly, helping himself to the honey.
“Upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour!” ejaculated Carew. “Tell a man his fortune’s made, and he calls for barley-cakes! Why, thou’dst say ‘Pooh!’ to a cannon-ball! My faith, boy, dost understand what this doth mean?”
“Ay,” said Nick; “that I be hungry.”
“But, Nick, upon my soul, thou art to sing with the Children of Paul’s; to play with the cathedral company; to be a bright particular star in the sweetest galaxy that ever shone in English sky! Dost take me yet?”
“Ay,” said Nick, and sopped the honey with his cake.
Carew played with his glass uneasily, and tapped his heel upon the floor. “And is that all thou hast to say–hast turned oyster? There’s no R in May–nobody will eat thee! Come, don’t make a mouth as though the honey of the world were all turned gall upon thy tongue. ‘Tis the flood-tide of thy fortune, boy! Thou art to sing before the school to-morrow, so that Master Nathaniel Gyles may take thy range and worth. Now, truly, thou wilt do thy very best?”
The bandy-legged man had brought water in a ewer, and poured some in a basin for Nick to wash his hands. There was a green ribbon in his ear, and the towel hung across his arm. Nick wiped his hands in silence.
“Come,” said Master Carew, with an ugly sharpness in his voice, “thou’lt sing thy very best?”
“There’s nothing else to do,” replied Nick, doggedly.
THE SKYLARK’S SONG
Master Nathaniel Gyles, Precentor of St. Paul’s, had pipe-stem legs, and a face like an old parchment put in a box to keep. His sandy hair was thin and straggling, and his fine cloth hose wrinkled around his shrunken shanks; but his eye was sharp, and he wore about his neck a broad gold chain that marked him as no common man.
For Master Nathaniel Gyles was head of the Cathedral schools of acting and of music, and he stood upon his dignity.
“My duty is laid down,” said he, “in most specific terms, sir,–_lex cathedralis_,–that is to say, by the laws of the cathedral; and has been, sir, since the reign of Richard the Third. _Primus Magister Scholarum, Custos Morum, Quartus Custos Rotulorum_,–so the title stands, sir; and I know my place.”
He pushed Nick into the anteroom, and turned to Carew with an irritated air.
“I likewise know, sir, what is what. In plain words, Master Gaston Carew, ye have grossly misrepresented this boy to me, to the waste of much good time. Why, sir, he does not dance a step, and cannot act at all.”
“Soft, Master Gyles–be not so fast!” said Carew, haughtily, drawing himself up, with his hand on his poniard; “dost mean to tell me that I have lied to thee? Marry, sir, thy tongue will run thee into a blind alley! I told thee that the boy could sing, but not that he could act or dance.”
“Pouf, sir,–words! I know my place: one peg below the dean, sir, nothing less: ‘_Magister, et cetera’_–’tis so set down. And I tell thee, sir, he has no training, not a bit; can’t tell a pricksong from a bottle of hay; doesn’t know a canon from a crocodile, or a fugue from a hole in the ground!”
“Oh, fol-de-riddle de fol-de-rol! What has that to do with it? I tell thee, sir, the boy can sing.”
“And, sir, I say I know my place. Music does not grow like weeds.”
“And fa-la-las don’t make a voice.”
“What! How? Wilt thou teach me?” The master’s voice rose angrily. “Teach me, who learned descant and counterpoint in the Gallo-Belgic schools, sir; the best in all the world! Thou, who knowest not a staccato from a stick of liquorice!”
Carew shrugged his shoulders impatiently. “Come, Master Gyles, this is fool play. I told thee that the boy could sing, and thou hast not yet heard him try. Thou knowest right well I am no such simple gull as to mistake a jay for a nightingale; and I tell thee, sir, upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honour, he has the voice that thou dost need if thou wouldst win the favor of the Queen. He has the voice, and thou the thingumbobs to make the most of it. Don’t be a fool, now; hear him sing. That’s all I ask. Just hear him once. Thou’lt pawn thine ears to hear him twice.”
The music-school stood within the old cathedral grounds. Through the windows came up distantly the murmur of the throng in Paul’s Yard. It was mid-afternoon, quite warm; blundering flies buzzed up and down the lozenged panes, and through the dark hall crept the humming sound of childish voices reciting eagerly, with now and then a sharp, small cry as some one faltered in his lines and had his fingers rapped. Somewhere else there were boyish voices running scales, now up, now down, without a stop, and other voices singing harmonies, two parts and three together, here and there a little flat from weariness.
The stairs were very dark, Nick thought, as they went up to another floor; but the long hall they came into there was quite bright with the sun.
At one end was a little stage, like the one at the Rose play-house, with a small gallery for musicians above it; but everything here was painted white and gold, and was most scrupulously clean. The rush-strewn floor was filled with oaken benches, and there were paintings hanging upon the wall, portraits of old head-masters and precentors. Some of them were so dark with time that Nick wondered if they had been blackamoors.
Master Gyles closed the great door and pulled a cord that hung by the stage. A bell jangled faintly somewhere in the wall. Nick heard the muffled voices hush, and then a shuffling tramp of slippered feet came up the outer stair.
“Pouf!” said the precentor, crustily. “_Tempus fugit_–that is to say, we have no time to waste. So, marry, boy, _venite, exultemus_–in other words, if thou canst sing, be up and at it. Come, _cantate_–sing, I bid thee, and that instanter–if thou canst sing at all.”
The under-masters and monitors were pushing the boys into their seats. Carew pointed to the stage. “Thou’lt do thy level best!” he said in a low, hard tone, and something clashed beneath his cloak like steel on steel.
Nick went up the steps behind the screen. It seemed cold in the room; he had not noticed it before. Yet there were sweat-drops upon his forehead. He felt as if he were a jackanapes he had seen once at the Stratford fair, which wore a crimson jerkin and a cap. The man who had the jackanapes played upon a pipe and a tabor; and when he said, “Dance!” the jackanapes danced, for it was sorely afraid of the man. Yet when Nick looked around and did not see the master-player anywhere in the hall, he felt exceedingly lonely all at once without him, though he both feared and hated him.
There still was a shuffling of feet and a low talking; but soon it became very quiet, and they all seemed to be waiting for him to begin. He did not care, but supposed he might as well: what else could he do?
There was a clock somewhere ticking quickly with its sharp, metallic ring. As he listened, lonely, his heart cried out for home. In his fancy the wind seemed rippling over the Avon, and the elm-leaves rustled like rain upon the roof above his bed. There were red and white wild-roses in the hedge, and in the air a smell of clover and of new-mown hay. The mowers would be working in the clover in the moonlight. He could almost see the sweep of the shining scythes, and hear the chink-a-chank, chink-a-chank of the whetstone on the long, curving blades. Chink-a-chank, chink-a-chank–’twas but the clock, and he in London town.
Carew, sitting there behind the carven prompter’s-screen, put down his head between his hands and listened. There were murmurings a little while, then silence. Would the boy never begin? He pressed his knuckles into his temples and waited. Bow Bells rang out the hour; but the room was as still as a deep sleep. Would the boy never begin?
The precentor sniffed. It was a contemptuous, incredulous sniff. Carew looked up–his lips white, a fierce red spot in each cheek. He was talking to himself. “By the whistle of the Lord High Admiral!” he said–but there he stopped and held his breath. Nick was singing.
Only the old madrigal, with its half-forgotten words that other generations sang before they fell asleep. How queer it sounded there! It was a very simple tune, too; yet, as he sang, the old precentor started from his chair and pressed his wrinkled hands together against his breast. He quite forgot the sneer upon his face, and it went fading out like breath from a frosty pane.
He had twelve boys who could sing a hundred songs at sight from unfamiliar notes; who kept the beat and marked the time as if their throats were pendulums; could syncopate and floriate as readily as breathe. And this was only a common country song.
But–“That voice, that voice!” he panted to himself: for old Nat Gyles was music-mad; melody to him was like the very breath of life. And the boy’s high, young voice, soft as a flute and silver clear, throbbed in the air as if his very heart were singing out of his body in the sound. And then, like the skylark rising, up, up it went, and up, up, up, till the older choristers held their breath and feared that the vibrant tone would break, so slender, film-like was the trembling thread of the boy’s wild skylark song. But no; it trembled there, high, sweet, and clear, a moment in the air; and then came running, rippling, floating down, as though some one had set a song on fire in the sky, and dropped it quivering and bright into a shadow world. Then suddenly it was gone, and the long hall was still.
The old precentor stepped beyond the screen.
Gaston Carew’s face was in his hands, and his shoulders shook convulsively. “I’ll leave thee go, lad,_–ma foi_, I’ll leave thee go. But, nay, I dare not leave thee go!”
Some one came and tapped him on the shoulder. It was the sub-precentor. “Master Gyles would speak with thee, sir,” said he, in a low tone, as if half afraid of the sound of his own voice in the quiet that was in the hall.
Carew drew his hand hastily over his face, as if to take the old one off and put a new one on, then arose and followed the man.
[Illustration: “‘THAT VOICE, THAT VOICE,’ NAT GYLES PANTED TO HIMSELF.”]
The old precentor stood with his hands still clasped against his breast. “_Mirabile_!” he was saying with bated breath. “It is impossible, and I have dreamed! Yet _credo_–I believe–_quia impossibile est_–because it is impossible. Tell me, Carew, do I wake or dream–or, stay, was it a soul I heard? Ay, Carew, ’twas a soul: the lad’s own white, young soul. My faith, I said he was of no account! _Satis verborum_–say no more. _Humanum est errare_–I am a poor old fool; and there’s a sour bug flown in mine eye that makes it water so!” He wiped his eyes, for the tears were running down his cheeks.
“Thou’lt take him, then?” asked Carew.
“Take him?” cried the old precentor, catching the master-player by the hand. “Marry, that will I; a voice like that grows not on every bush. Take him? Pouf! I know my place–he shall be entered on the rolls at once.”
“Good!” said Carew. “I shall have him learn to dance, and teach him how to act myself. He stays with me, ye understand; thy school fare is miserly. I’ll dress him, too; for these students’ robes are shabby stuff. But for the rest–“
“Trust me,” said Master Gyles; “he shall be the first singer of them all. He shall be taught–but who can teach the lark its song, and not do horrid murder on it? Faith, Carew, I’ll teach the lad myself; ay, all I know. I studied in the best schools in the world.”
“And, hark ‘e, Master Gyles,” said Carew, sternly all at once; “thou’lt come no royal placard and seizure on me–ye have sworn. The boy is mine to have and to hold with all that he earns, in spite of thy prerogatives.”
For the kings of old had given the masters of this school the right to take for St. Paul’s choir whatever voices pleased them, wherever they might be found, by force if not by favor, barring only the royal singers at Windsor; and when men have such privileges it is best to be wary how one puts temptation in their way.
“Thou hadst mine oath before I even saw the boy,” said the precentor, haughtily. “Dost think me perjured–_Primus Magister Scholarum, Custos Morum, Quartus Custos Rotulorum?_ Pouf! I know my place. My oath’s my oath. But, soft; enough–here comes the boy. Who could have told a skylark in such popinjay attire?”
A NEW LIFE
And now a strange, new life began for Nicholas Attwood, in some things so grand and kind that he almost hated to dislike it.
It was different in every way from the simple, pinching round in Stratford, and full of all the comforts of richness and plenty that make life happy–excepting home and mother.
Master Gaston Carew would have nothing but the best, and what he wanted, whether he needed it or not; so with him money came like a summer rain, and went like water out of a sieve: for he was a wild blade.
They ate their breakfast when they pleased; dined at eleven, like the nobility; supped at five, as was the fashion of the court. They had wheat-bread the whole week round, as only rich folk could afford, with fruit and berries in their season, and honey from the Surrey bee-farms that made one’s mouth water with the sight of it dripping from the flaky comb; and on Fridays spitchcocked eels, pickled herrings, and plums, with simnel-cakes, poached eggs and milk, cream cheese and cordial, like very kings; so that Nick could not help thriving.
The master-player very seldom left him by himself to mope or to be melancholy; but, while ever vaguely promising to let him go, did everything in his power to make him rather wish to stay; so that Nick was constantly surprised by the free-handed kindness of this man whom he had every other reason in the world, he thought, for deeming his worst enemy.
When there were any new curiosities in Fleet street,–wild men with rings in their noses, wondrous fishes, puppet-shows, or red-capped baboons whirling on a pole,–Carew would have Nick see them as well as Cicely; and often took them both to Bartholomew’s Fair, where there was a giant eating raw beef and a man dancing upon a rope high over the heads of the people. He would have had Nick every Thursday to the bear-baiting in the Paris Garden circus beside; but one sight of that brutal sport made the boy so sick that they never went again, but to the stage-plays at the Rose instead, which Nick enjoyed immensely, for Carew himself acted most excellently, and Master Tom Heywood always came and spoke kindly to the lonely boy.
For, in spite of all, Nick’s heart ached so at times that he thought it would surely break with longing for his mother. And at night, when all the house was still and dark, and he alone in bed, all the little, unconsidered things of home–the beehives and the fragrant mint beside the kitchen door, the smell of the baking bread or frying carrots, the sound of the red-cheeked harvest apples dropping in the orchard, and the plump of the old bucket in the well–came back to him so vividly that many a time he cried himself to sleep, and could not have forgotten if he would.
On Midsummer Day there was a Triumph on the river at Westminster, with a sham-fight and a great shooting of guns and hurling of balls of wild-fire. The Queen was there, and the ambassadors of France and Venice, with the Duke of Lennox and the Earls of Arundel and Southampton. Master Carew took a wherry to Whitehall, and from the green there they watched the show.
The Thames was fairly hidden by the boats, and there was a grand state bark all trimmed with silk and velvet for the Queen to be in to see the pastime. But as for that, all Nick could make out was the high carved stern of the bark, painted with England’s golden lions, and the bark was so far away that he could not even tell which was the Queen.
Coming home by Somerset House, a large barge passed them with many watermen rowing, and fine carpets about the seats; and in it the old Lord Chamberlain and his son my Lord Hunsdon, who, it was said, was to be the Lord Chamberlain when his father died; for the old lord was failing, and the Queen liked handsome young men about her.
In the barge, beside their followers, were a company of richly dressed gentlemen, who were having a very gay time together, and seemed to please the old Lord Chamberlain exceedingly with the things they said. They were somebodies, as Nick could very well see from their carriage and address; and, so far as the barge allowed, they were all clustered about one fellow in the seat by my Lord Hunsdon. He seemed to be the chiefest spokesman of them all, and every one appeared very glad indeed to be friendly with him. My Lord Hunsdon himself made free with his own nobility, and sat beside him arm in arm.
What he was saying they were too far away to hear in the shouting and splash; but those with him in the barge were listening as eagerly as children to a merry tale. Sometimes they laughed until they held their sides; and then again as suddenly they were very quiet, and played softly with their tankards and did not look at one another as he went gravely on telling his story. Then all at once he would wave his hand gaily, and his smile would sparkle out; and the whole company, from the old Lord Chamberlain down, would brighten up again, as if a new dawn had come over the hills into their hearts from the light of his hazel eyes.
Nick made no doubt that this was some young earl rolling in wealth; for who else could have such listeners? Yet there was, nevertheless, something so familiar in his look that he could not help staring at him as the barge came thumping through the jam.
They passed along an oar’s-length or two away; and as they came abeam, Carew, rising, doffed his hat, and bowed politely to them all.
In spite of his wild life, he was a striking, handsome man.
The old Lord Chamberlain said something to his son, and pointed with his hand. All the company in the barge turned round to look; and he who had been talking stood up quickly with his hand upon the young lord’s arm, and, smiling, waved his cap.
Nick gave a sharp cry.
Then the barge pushed through, and shot away down stream like a wild swan.
“Why, Nick,” exclaimed Cicely, “how dreadful thou dost look!” and, frightened, she caught him by the hand. “Why, oh!–what is it, Nick–thou art not ill?”
“It was Will Shakspere!” cried Nick, and sank into the bottom of the wherry with his head upon the master-player’s knee. “Oh, Master Carew,” he cried, “will ye never leave me go?”
Carew laid his hand upon the boy’s head, and patted it gently.
“Why, Nick,” said he, and cleared his throat, “is not this better than Stratford?”
“Oh, Master Carew–mother’s there!” was the reply.
There was no sound but the thud of oars in the rowlocks and the hollow bubble of the water at the stern, for they had fallen out of the hurry and were coming down alone.
“Is thy mother a good woman, Nick?” asked Cicely.
Carew was staring out into the fading sky. “Ay, sweetheart,” he answered in a queer, husky voice, suddenly putting one arm about her and the other around Nick’s shoulders. “None but a good mother could have so good a son.”
“Then thou wilt send him home, daddy?” asked Cicely.
Carew took her hand in his, but answered nothing.
They had come to the landing.
THE MAKING OP A PLAYER
Master Will Shakspere was in town! The thought ran through Nick Attwood’s head like a half-remembered tune. Once or twice he had all but sung it instead of the words of his part. Master Will Shakspere was in town!
Could he but just find Master Shakspere, all his trouble would be over; for the husband of his mother’s own cousin would see justice done him in spite of the master-player and the bandy-legged man with the ribbon in his ear–of that he was sure.
But there seemed small chance of its coming about; for the doors of Gaston Carew’s house were locked and barred by day and by night, as much to keep Nick in as to keep thieves out; and all day long, when Carew was away, the servants went about the lower halls, and Gregory Goole’s uncanny face peered after him from every shadowy corner; and when he went with Carew anywhere, the master-player watched him like a hawk, while always at his heels he could hear the clump, clump, clump of the bandy-legged man following after him.
Even were he free to go as he pleased, he knew not where to turn; for the Lord Chamberlain’s company would not be at the Blackfriars play-house until Martinmas; and before that time to look for even Master Will Shakspere at random in London town would be worse than hunting for a needle in a haystack.
To be sure, he knew that the Lord Chamberlain’s men were still playing at the theater in Shoreditch; for Master Carew had taken Cicely there to see the “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” But just where Shoreditch was, Nick had only the faintest idea–somewhere away off by Finsbury Fields, beyond the city walls to the north of London town–and all the wide world seemed north of London town; and the way thither lay through a bewildering tangle of streets in which the din and the rush of the crowd were never still.
From a hopeless chase like that Nick shrank back like a snail into its shell. He was not too young to know that there were worse things than to be locked in Gaston Carew’s house. It were better to be a safe-kept prisoner there than to be lost in the sinks of London. And so, knowing this, he made the best of it.
But Master Shakspere was come back to town, and that was something. It seemed somehow less lonely just to think of it.
Yet in truth he had but little time to think of it; for the master-player kept him closely at his strange, new work, and taught him daily with the most amazing patience.
[Illustration: “NOBODY BREAKS NOBODY’S HEARTS IN OLD JO-OHN SMITHSES SHO-OP,’ DRAWLED THE SMITH, IN HIS DEEP VOICE; NOR STEALS NOBODY, NOTHER”]
He had Nick learn no end of stage parts off by heart, with their cues and “business,” entrances and exits; and worked fully as hard as his pupil, reading over every sentence twenty times until Nick had the accent perfectly. He would have him stamp, too, and turn about, and gesture in accordance with the speech, until the boy’s arms ached, going with him through the motions one by one, over and over again, unsatisfied, but patient to the last, until Nick wondered. “Nick, my lad,” he would often say, with a tired but determined smile, “one little thing done wrong may spoil the finest play, as one bad apple rots the barrelful. We’ll have it right, or not at all, if it takes a month of Sundays.”
So, often, he kept Nick before a mirror for an hour at a time, making faces while he spoke his lines, smiling, frowning, or grimacing as best seemed to fit the part, until the boy grew fairly weary of his own looks. Then sometimes, more often as the time slipped by, Carew would clap his hands with a boyish laugh, and have a pie brought and a cup of Spanish cordial for them both, declaring that he loved the lad with all his heart, upon the remnant of his honour: from which Nick knew that he was coming on.
Cicely Carew’s governess was a Mistress Agnes Anstey. By birth she had been a Harcourt of Ankerwyke, and she was therefore everywhere esteemed fit by birth and breeding to teach the young mind when to bow and when to beckon. She came each morning to the house, and Carew paid her double shillings to see to it that Nick learned such little tricks of cap and cloak as a lady’s page need have, the carriage best fitted for his place, and how to come into a room where great folks were. Moreover, how to back out again, bowing, and not fall over the stools–which was no little art, until Nick caught the knack of peeping slyly between his legs when he bowed.
His hair, too, was allowed to grow long, and was combed carefully every day by the tiring-woman; and soon, as it was naturally curly, it fell in rolling waves about his neck.
On the heels of the governess came M’sieu de Fleury, who, it was said, had been dancing-master to Hatton, the late Lord Chancellor of England, and had taught him those tricks with his nimble heels which had capered him into the Queen’s good graces, and so got him the chancellorship. M’sieu spoke dreadful English, but danced like the essence of agility, and taught both Nick and Cicely the latest Italian coranto, playing the tune upon his queer little pochette.
Cicely already danced like a pixy, and laughed merrily at her comrade’s first awkward antics, until he flushed with embarrassment. At that she instantly became grave, and, when M’sieu had gone, came across the room, and putting her arm about Nick, said repentantly, “Don’t thou mind me, Nick. Father saith the French all laugh too soon at nothing; and I have caught it from my mother’s blood. A boy is not good friends with his feet as a girl is; but thou wilt do beautifully, I know; and M’sieu shall teach us the galliard together.”
And often, after the lesson was over and M’sieu departed, she would have Nick try his steps over and over again in the great room, while she stood upon the stool to make her tall, and cried, “Sa–sa!” as the master did, scolding and praising him by turns, or jumping down in pretty impatience to tuck up her little silken skirts and show him the step herself; while the cook’s knave and the scullery-maids peeped at the door and cried: “La, now, look ‘e, Moll!” at every coupee.
It made a picture quaint and pretty to see them dancing there. The smoky light, stealing in through the narrow casements over the woodwork dark with age, dropped in little yellow chequers upon old chests of oak, of walnut, and of strange, purple-black wood from foreign lands, giving a weird life to the griffins and twisted traceries carved upon their sides. High-backed, narrow chairs stood along the wall, with cushioned stools inlaid with shell. Twinklings of light glinted from the brass candlesticks. On the wall above the wainscot the faded hangings wavered in the draught, crusted thickly with strange embroidered flowers. And dancing there together in the semi-gloom, the children seemed quaint little figures stepped down from the tapestry at the touch of a magic wand.
And so the time went slipping by, very pleasantly upon the whole, and Nick’s young heart grew stout again within his breast; for he was strong and well, and in those days the very air was full of hope, and no man knew what might betide with the rising of to-morrow’s sun.
Every day, from two till three o’clock, he was at Master Gyles’s private singing-room at the old cathedral school, learning to read music at first sight, and to sing offhand the second, third, and fourth parts of queer intermingled fugues or wonderfully constructed canons.
At first his head felt stuffed like a feasted glutton with all the learning that the old precentor poured into it; but by and by he found it plain enough, and no very difficult thing to follow up the prickings in the paper with his voice, and to sing parts written at fifths and fourths and thirds with other voices as easily as to carry a song alone. But still he sang best his own unpointed songs, the call and challenge of the throstle and the merle, the morning glory of the lark, songs that were impossible to write. And those were the songs that the precentor was at the greatest pains to have him sing in perfect tones, making him open his mouth like a little round and let the music float out of itself.
Like the master-player, nothing short of perfection pleased old Nathaniel Gyles, and Nick’s voice often wavered with sheer weariness as he ran his endless scales and sang absurd fa-la-la-las while his teacher beat the time in the air with his lean forefinger like a grim automaton.
The old man, too, was chary of his praise, though Nick tried hard to please him, and it was only by little things he told his satisfaction. He touzed the ears of the other boys, and sometimes smartly thumped their crowns; but with Nick he only nipped his ruddy cheek between his thumb and finger, or laid his hand upon his shoulder when the hard day’s work was done, saying, “_Satis cantorum_–it is enough. Now be off to thy nest, sir; and do not forget to wash thy throat with good cold water every day.”
* * * * *
All this time the busy sand kept running in the glass. July was gone, and August at its heels. The hot breath of the summer had cooled, and the sun no longer burned the face when it came in through the windows. Nick often shut his eyes and let the warm light fall upon his closed lids. It made a ruddy glow like the wild red poppies that grow in the pale green rye. In fancy he could almost smell the queer, rancid odor of the crimson bloom crushed beneath the feet of the farmers’ boys who cut the butter-yellow mustard from among the bearded grain.
“Heigh-ho and alackaday!” thought Nick. “It is better in the country than in town!” For there was no smell in all the town like the clean, sweet smell of the open fields just after a summer rain, no colors like the bright heart’s-ease and none-so-pretty, or the honeysuckle over the cottage door, and no song ever to be heard among the sooty chimney-pots like the song of the throstle piping to the daisies on the hill.
But he had little time to dream such dreams, for every day from four to six o’clock the children’s company played and sang in public, at their own school-hall, or in the courtyard of the Mitre Inn on Bread street near St. Paul’s.
They were the pets of London town, and their playing-place was thronged day after day. For the bright young faces and sweet, unbroken voices of the richly costumed lads made a spot in sordid London life like a pot of posies in a window on a dark street; so that both the high and the low, the rich and the poor, came in to see them play and dance, to hear them sing, and to laugh again at the witty things which were written for them to say.
The songs that were set for Nick to sing were always short, sweet, simple things that even the dull-eyed, toil-worn folk upon the rough plank benches in the pit could understand. Many a silver shilling came clinking down at the heels of the other boys from the galleries of the inn, where the people of the better classes, wealthy merchants, ladies and their dashing gallants, watched the children’s company; but when Nick’s songs were done the common people down below seemed all gone daft. They tossed red apples after him, ripe yellow pears, fat purple plums by handfuls, called him by name and brought him back, and cried for more and more and more, until the old precentor shook his head behind the prompters-screen, and waved Nick off with a forbidding frown. Yet all the while he chuckled to himself until it seemed as if his dry old ribs would rattle in his sides; and every day, before Nick sang, he had him up to his little room for a broken egg and a cup of rosy cordial.
“To clear thy voice and to cheer the cockles of thine heart,” said he; “and to tune that pretty throat of thine _ad gustum Reginae_–which is to say, ‘to the Queen’s own taste,’–God bless Her Majesty!”
The other boys were cast for women’s parts, for women never acted then; and a queer sight it was to Nick to see his fellows in great farthingales of taffeta and starchy cambric that rustled as they walked, with popinjay blue ribbon in their hair, and flowered stomachers sparkling with paste jewels.
And, truth, it was no easy thing to tell them from the real affair, or to guess the made from the maiden, so slender and so graceful were they all, with their ruffs and their muffs and their feathered fans, and all the airs and mincing graces of the daintiest young miss.
But old Nat Gyles would never have Nick Attwood play the girl. “The lad is good enough for me just as he is,” said he; and that was all there was of it.
THE WANING OF THE YEAR
In September the Lord Admiral’s company made a tour of the Midlands during the great English fairing-time; but Carew did not go with them. For, though still by name master-player with Henslowe and Alleyn, his business with them had come to be but little more than pocketing his share of the profits; and for the rest, nothing but to take Nick daily to and from St. Paul’s, and to draw his wages week by week.
Of those wages Nick saw never a penny: Carew took good care of that. Yet he gave him everything that any boy could need, and bought him whatever he fancied the instant he so much as expressed a wish for it: which, in truth, was not much; for Nick had lived in only a country town, and knew not many things to want.
But with money a-plenty thus coming so easily into his hands,–money for dicing, for luxuries, for all his wild sports, money for Cicely, money for keeps, money to play chuckie-stones with if he chose,–there was no bridle to Gaston Carew’s wild career. His boon companions were spendthrifts and gamesters, dissolute fellows, of whom the least said soonest mended; and with them he was brawling early and late, very often all night long. And though money came in fast, he wasted it faster, so that matters went from bad to worse. Duns came spying about his door, and bailiffs hunted after him around the town with unpaid tradesmen’s bills. Yet still he laughed and clapped his hand upon his poniard in the old bold way.
September faded away in wistful haze along the Hampstead hills. The Admiral’s men came riding back with keen October ringing at their heels, and all the stalls were full of red-cheeked apples striped with emerald and gold. November followed, with its nipping frost, and all St. George’s merry green fields turned brown and purple-gray. The old year was waning fast.
The Queen’s Day was but a poor holiday, in spite of the shut-up shops; for it was grown so cold with sleet and rain that it was hard to get about, the gutters and streets being very foul, and the by-lanes impassable. And now the children of Paul’s gave no more plays in the yard of the Mitre Inn, but sang in their own warm hall; for winter was at hand.
There came black nights when an ugly wind moaned in the shivering chimneys and howled across the peaked roofs, nights when there was no playing at the Rose, but it was hearty to be by the fire. Then sometimes Carew sat at home all evening long, with Cicely upon his knee, and told strange tales of lands across the sea, where he had traveled when he was young, and where none spoke English but chance travelers, and even the loudest shouting could not serve to make the people understand.
While he spun these wondrous yarns Nick would curl up on the hearth and blow the crackling fire, sometimes staring at the master-player’s stories, sometimes laughing to himself at the funny faces carved upon the sides of the chubby Dutch bellows, and sometimes neither laughing nor listening, but thinking silently of home. Then Carew, looking at him there, would quickly turn his face away and tell another tale.
But oftener the master-player stayed all night at the Falcon Inn with Dick Jones, Tom Hearne, Humphrey Jeffs, and other reckless roysterers, dicing and flipping shillings at shovel-board until his finger-nails were sore. Then Nick would read aloud to Cicely out of the “Hundred Merry Tales,” or pop old riddles at her puzzled head until she, laughing, cried, “Enough!” But most of all he liked the story of brave Guy of Warwick, and would tell it again and again, with other legends of Arden Wood, till bedtime came.
In the gray of the morning Carew would come home, unshaven and leaden-eyed, with his bandy-legged varlet trotting like a watch-dog at his heels; and then, if the gaming had gone well, he was a lord, an earl, a duke, at least, so merry and so sprightly would he be withal; but if the dice had fallen wrong, he would by turns be raving mad or sodden as a sunken pie.
Yet, be his temper what it might, he was but one thing always to Cicely, and doffed ill humor like a shabby hat when she came running to meet him in the shadows of the hall; so that when he came into the lighted room, with her upon his shoulder, his face was smiles, his step a frolic, and his bearing that of a happy boy.
But day by day the weather grew worse, with snow and ice paving the streets with a glassy glare and choking the frozen drains; and there was trouble and want among the poor in the wretched alleys near Carew’s house: for fuel was high and food scarce, and there were many deaths, so that the knell was tolling constantly.
Cicely cried until her eyes were red for the very sadness of it all, since she might do nothing for them, and hated the sound of the sullen bell.
“Pshaw, Cicely!” said Nick; “why should ye cry? Ye do na know them; so ye need na care.”
“But, Nick,” said she, “_nobody_ seems to care! And, sure, _somebody_ ought to care; for it may be some one’s mother that is dead.”
At that Nick felt a very queer choking in his own throat, and did not rest quite easy in his mind until he had given the silver buckle from his cloak to a boy who stood crying with cold and hunger in the street, and begged a farthing of him for the love of the good God.
Then came a thaw, with mist and fog so thick that people were lost in their own streets, and knocked at their next-door neighbor’s gate to ask the way home. All day long, down by the Thames drums beat upon the wharves and bells ding-donged to guide the watermen ashore; but most of those who needs must fare abroad went over London Bridge, because there, although they might in no wise see, it felt, at least, as if the world were still beneath their feet.
At noon the air was muddy brown, with a bitter taste like watered smoke; at night it was a blinding pall; and though, after mid-December, by order of the Council, every alderman and burgess hung a light before his door, torches, links, and candles only sputtered feebly in the gloom, of no more use than jack-o’-lanterns gone astray, and none but blind men knew the roads.
The city watch was doubled everywhere; and all night long their shouts went up and down–“‘Tis what o’clock, and a foggy night!”–and right and left their hurrying staves came thumping helplessly along the walls to answer cries of “Murder!” and of “Help! Watch! Help!” For under cover of the fog great gangs of thieves came down from Hampstead Heath, and robberies were done in the most frequented thoroughfares, between the very lights set up by the corporation; so that it was dangerous to go about save armed and wary as a cat in a crowd.
While such foul days endured there was no singing at St. Paul’s, nor stage-plays anywhere, save at Blackfriars play-house, which was roofed against the weather. And even there at last the fog crept in through cracks and crannies until the players seemed but moving shadows talking through a choking cloud; and Master Will Shakspere’s famous new piece of “Romeo and Juliet,” which had been playing to crowded houses, taking ten pound twelve the day, was fairly smothered off the boards. Nick was eager to be out in all this blindman’s holiday; but, “Nay,” said Carew; “not so much as thy nose. A fog like this would steal the croak from a raven’s throat, let alone the sweetness from a honey-pot like thine–and bottom crust is the end of pie!” With which, bang went the door, creak went the key, and Carew was off to the Falcon Inn.
* * * * *
So went the winter weather, and so went Carew; for there was no denying that both had fallen into a very bad way. Yet another change came creeping over Carew all unaware.
Nick’s face had from the first attracted him; and now, living with the boy day after day, housed up, a prisoner, yet cheerful through it all, the master-player began to feel what in a better man had been the prick of conscience, but in him was only an indefinite uneasiness like a blunted cockle-bur. For the lad’s patient perseverance at his work, his delight in singing, and the tone of longing threaded through his voice, crept into the master-player’s heart in spite of him; and Nick’s gentle ways with Cicely touched him more than all the rest: for if there was one thing in all the world that Gaston Carew truly loved, it was his daughter Cicely. So for her sake, as well as for Nick’s own, the master-player came to love the lad. And this was shown in queer ways.
In the wainscot of the dining-hall there was a carven panel just above the Spanish chest. At night, when the house was still and all the rest asleep, Carew often came and stood before this panel, with a queer, hesitating look upon his hard, bold face; and stretching out his hand, would press upon the head of a cherub cut in the bevel edge. Whereupon the panel slipped away within the wainscot, leaving a little closet in the hollow of the wall, in which a few strange things were stowed: an empty flask, an inlaid rosewood box, a little slipper, and a dusty gittern with its strings all snapped and a faded ribbon tied about its neck.
The rosewood box he would take down, and with it open in his lap would sit beside the fire like a man within a dream, until the hearth grew white and cold, and the draught had blown the ashes out in streaks across the floor. In the box was a woman’s riding-glove and a miniature upon ivory, Cicely’s mother’s face, painted at Paris in other days.
One night, while they were sitting all together by the fire, Nick and Cicely snug in the chimney-seat, Carew spoke up suddenly out of a little silence which had fallen upon them all. “Nick,” said he, quite softly, with a look on his face as if he were thinking of other things, “I wonder if thou couldst play?”
“What, sir?” asked Nick; “a game?” and made the bellows whistle in his mouth.
“Nay, lad; a gittern.”
Nick and Cicely looked up, for his manner was very odd.
“Why, sir, I do na know. I could try. I ha’ heard one played, and it is passing sweet.” “Ay, Nick, ’tis passing sweet,” said Carew, quickly–and no more; but spoke of France, how the lilies grow in the ditches there, and the tall trees stand like soldiers by the road that runs to the land of sunny hills and wine; and of the radiant women there, with hair like night and eyes like the summer stars. Then all at once he stopped as if some one had clapped a hand upon his mouth, and sat and stared into the fire.
But in the morning at breakfast there was a gittern at Nick’s place–a rare old yellow gittern, with silver scrolls about the tail-piece, ivory pegs, and a head that ended in an angel’s face. It was strung with bright new silver strings, but near the bridge of it there was a little rut worn into the wood by the tips of the fingers that had rested there while playing, and the silken shoulder-ribbon was faded and worn.
Nick stopped, then put out both his hands as if to touch it, yet did not, being half afraid.
“Tut, take it up!” said Carew, sharply, though he had not seemed to heed. “Take it up–it is for thee.”
“For me?” cried Nick–“not for mine own?”
Carew turned and struck the table with his hand, as if suddenly wroth. “Why should I say it was for thee? if it were not to be thine own?”
“But, Master Carew–” Nick began.
“‘Master Carew’ fiddlesticks! Hold thy prate. Do I know my own mind, or do I filter my wits through thee? Did I not say that it is thine? Good, then–’tis thine, although it were thrice somebody else’s; and thrice as much thy very own through having other owners. Dost hear? Well, then, enough–we’ll have no words about it!”
Rising abruptly as he spoke, he clapped his hat upon his head and left the room, Nick standing there beside the table, staring after him, with the gittern in his hands.
TO SING BEFORE THE QUEEN
“Sir Fly hangs dead on the window-pane; The frost doth wind his shroud;
Through the halls of his little summer house The north wind cries aloud.
We will bury his bones in the mouldy wall, And mourn for the noble slain:
A southerly wind and a sunny sky– Buzz! up he comes again!
Oh, Master Fly!”
Nick looked up from the music-rack and shivered. He had forgotten the fire in studying his song, and the blackened ends of the burnt-out logs lay smouldering on the hearth. The draught, too, whistled shrilly under the door, in spite of the rushes that he had piled along the crack.
The fog had been gone for a week. It was snapping cold; and through the peep-holes he had thawed upon the window-pane with his breath, he could see the hoar-frost lying in the shadow of the wall in the court below.
How forlorn the green old dial looked out there alone in the cold, with the winter dust whirling around it in little eddies upon the wind! The dial was fringed with icicles, like an old man’s beard; and even the creeping shadow on its face, which told mid-afternoon, seemed frozen where it fell.
Mid-afternoon already, and he so much to do! Nick pulled his cloak about him, and turned to his song again:
“Sir Fly hangs dead on the window-pane; The frost doth wind his shroud–“
But there he stopped; for the boys were singing in the great hall below, and the whole house rang with the sound of the roaring chorus:
“Down-a-down, hey, down-a-down,
Hey derry derry down-a-down!”
Nick put his fingers in his ears, and began all over again:
“Sir Fly hangs dead on the window-pane; The frost doth wind his shroud;
Through the halls of his little summer house The north wind cries aloud.”
But it was no use; all he could hear was:
“Down-a-down, hey, down-a-down,
Hey derry derry down-a-down!”
How could a fellow study in a noise like that? He gave it up in despair, and kicking the chunks together, stood upon the hearth, warming his hands by the gathering blaze while he listened to the song:
“Cold’s the wind, and wet’s the rain; Saint Hugh, be our good speed!
Ill is the weather that bringeth no gain, Nor helps good hearts in need.
“Down-a-down, hey, down-a-down,
Hey derry derry down-a-down!”
He could hear Colley Warren above them all. What a voice the boy had! Like a golden horn blowing in the fresh of a morning breeze. It made Nick tingle, he could not tell why. He and Colley often sang together, and their voices made a quivering in the air like the ringing of a bell. And often, while they sang, the viols standing in the corner of the room would sound aloud a deep, soft note in harmony with them, although nobody had touched the strings; so that the others cried out that the instruments were bewitched, and would not let the boys sing any more. Colley Warren was Nick’s best friend–a dark-eyed, quiet lad, as gentle as a girl, and with a mouth like a girl’s mouth, for which the others sometimes mocked him, though they loved him none the less.
It was not because his voice was loud that it could be so distinctly heard; but it was nothing like the rest, and came through all the others like sunshine through a mist. Nick pulled the stool up closer, and sat down in the chimney-corner, humming a second to the tune, and blowing little glory-holes in the embers with the bellows. He liked the smell of a wood fire, and liked to toast his toes. He was a trifle drowsy, too, now that he was warm again to the marrow of his bones; perhaps he dozed a little.
But suddenly he came to himself again with a sense of a great stillness fallen over everything–no singing in the room below, and silence everywhere but in the court, where there was a trampling as of horses standing at the gate. And while he was still lazily wondering, a great cheer broke out in the room below, and there was a stamping of feet like cattle galloping over a bridge; and then, all at once, the door opened into the hallway at the foot of the stair, and the sound burst out as fire bursts from the cock-loft window of a burning barn, and through the noise and over it Colley Warren’s voice calling him by name: “Skylark! Nick Skylark! Ho there, Nick! where art thou?”
He sprang to the door and kicked the rushes away. All the hall was full of voices, laughing, shouting, singing, and cheering. There were footsteps coming up the stair. “What there, Skylark! Ho, boy! Nick, where art thou?” he could hear Colley calling above them all. Out he popped his nose: “Here I am, Colley–what’s to do? _Whatever in the world!_” and he ducked his head like a mandarin; for whizz–flap! two books came whirling up the stair and thumped against the panel by his ears.
“The news–the news, Nick! Have ye heard the news?” the lads were shouting as if possessed. “We’re going to court! Hurrah, hurrah!” And some, with their arms about one another, went whirling out at the door and around the windy close like very madcaps, cutting such capers that the horses standing at the gate kicked up their heels, and jerked the horse-boys right and left like bundles of hay.
Nick leaned over the railing and stared.
“Come down and help us sing!” they cried. “Come down and shout with us in the street!”
“I can na come down–there’s work to do!”
“Thy ‘can na’ be hanged, and thy work likewise! Come down and sing, or we’ll fetch thee down. The Queen hath sent for us!”
“The Queen–hath sent–for us?”
“Ay, sent for us to come to court and play on Christmas day! Hurrah for Queen Bess!”
At that shrill cheer the startled horses fairly plunged into the street, and the carts that were passing along the way were jammed against the opposite wall. The carriers bellowed, the horse-boys bawled, the people came running to see the row, and the apprentices flew out of the shops bareheaded, waving their dirty aprons and cheering lustily, just for the fun of the chance to cheer.
“It’s true!” called Colley, his dark eyes dancing like stars on the sea. “Come down, Nick, and sing in the street with us all! We are going to Greenwich Palace on Christmas day to play before the Queen and the court–for the first time, Nick, in a good six years; and we’re not to work till the new masque comes from the Master of the Revels! Come down, Nick, and sing with us out in the street; for we’re going to court, we’re going to court to sing before the Queen! Hurrah, hurrah!”
“Hurrah for good Queen Bess!” cried Nick; and up went his cap and down went he on the baluster-rail like a runaway sled, head first into the crowd, who caught him laughing as he came. Then all together they cantered out like a parcel of colts in a fresh, green field, and sang in the street before the school till the people cheered themselves hoarse to hear such music on such a wintry day; sang until there was no other business on all the thoroughfare but just to listen to their songs; sang until the under-masters came out with their staves and drove them into the school again, to keep them from straining their throats by singing so loudly and so long in the frosty open air.
But a fig for staves and for under-masters! The boys clapped fast the gates behind them, and barred the under-masters out in the street, singing twice as loudly as before, and mocking at them with wry faces through the bars; and then trooped off up the old precentor’s private stair and sang at his door until the old man could not hear his own ears, and came out storming and grim as grief.
But when he saw the boys all there, and heard them cheering him three times three, he could not storm to save his life, but only stood there, black and thin, against the yellow square of light, smiling a quaint smile that half was wrinkles and half was pride, shaking his lean forefinger at them as if he were beating time, and nodding until his head seemed almost nodding off.
“Hurrah for Master Nathaniel Gyles!” they shouted.
“_Primus Magister Scholarum, Custos Morum, Quartus Custos Rotulorum_,” said the old man softly to himself, the firelight from behind him falling in a glory on his thin white hair. “Be off, ye rogues! Ye are not fit to waste good language on; or, faith, I’d Latin ye all as dumb as fishes in the depths of the briny sea!”
“Hurrah for the fishes in the sea!”
“Soft, ye knaves! Save thy throats for good Queen Bess!”
“Hurrah for good Queen Bess!”
“Be still, I say, ye good-for-nothing varlets; or ye sha’n’t have pie and ale to-night. But marry, now, ye _shall_ have pie–ay, pie and ale without a stint; for ye are good lads, and ye have pleased the Queen at last; and I am as proud of ye as a peacock is of his own tail!”
“Hurrah for the Queen–and the pie–and the ale! Hurrah for the peacock and his tail!” shouted the boys; and straightway, seeing that they had made a rhyme, they gave a cheer shriller and longer than all the others put together, and went clattering down the stairway, singing at the top of their lungs:
Hurrah for the Queen, and the pie and the ale! Hurrah for the peacock, hurrah for his tail! Hurrah for hurrah, and hurrah again– We’re going to court on Christmas day To sing before the Queen!”
“Good lads, good lads!” said the old precentor to himself, as he turned back into his little room. His eyes were shining proudly in the candle-light, yet the tears were running down his cheeks. A queer old man, Nat Gyles, and dead this many a long, long year; yet that night no man was happier than he.
But Master Gaston Carew, who had come for Nick, stood in the gathering dusk by the gate below, and stared up at the yellow square of light with a troubled look upon his reckless face.
THE QUEEN’S PLAISANCE
It was a frosty morning when they all marched down to the boats that bumped along Paul’s wharf.
The roofs of London were white with frost and rosy with the dawn. In the shadow of the walls the air lay in still pools of smoky blue; and in the east the horizon stretched like a swamp of fire. The winking lights on London Bridge were pale. The bridge itself stood cold and gray, mysterious and dim as the stream below, but here and there along its crest red-hot with a touch of flame from the burning eastern sky. Out of the river, running inland with the tide, came steamy shreds that drifted here and there. Then over the roofs of London town the sun sprang up like a thing of life, and the veil of twilight vanished in bright day with a million sparkles rippling on the stream.
Warm with piping roast and cordial, keen with excitement, and blithe with the sharp, fresh air, the red-cheeked lads skipped and chattered along the landing like a flock of sparrows alighted by chance in a land of crumbs.
“Into the wherries, every one!” cried the old precentor. _”Ad unum omnes_, great and small!”
“Into the wherries!” echoed the under-masters.
“Into the wherries, my bullies!” roared old Brueton the boatman, fending off with a rusty hook as red as his bristling beard. “Into the wherries, yarely all, and we’s catch the turn o’ the tide! ‘Tis gone high water now!”
Then away they went, three wherries full, and Master Gyles behind them in a brisk sixpenny tilt-boat, resplendent in new ash-colored hose, a cloak of black velvet fringed with gold, and a brand-new periwig curled and frizzed like a brush-heap in a gale of wind.
How they had worked for the last few days! New songs, new dances, new lines to learn; gallant compliments for the Queen, who was as fond of flattery as a girl; new clothes, new slippers and caps to try, and a thousand what-nots more. The school had hummed like a busy mill from morning until night. And now that the grinding was done and they had come at last to their reward,–the hoped-for summons to the court, which had been sought so long in vain,–the boys of St. Paul’s bubbled with glee until the under-masters were in a cold sweat for fear their precious charges would pop from the wherries into the Thames, like so many exuberant corks.
They cheered with delight as London Bridge was shot and the boats went flying down the Pool, past Billingsgate and the oystermen, the White Tower and the Traitors’ Gate, past the shipping, where brown, foreign-looking faces stared at them above sea-battered bulwarks.
The sun was bright and the wind was keen; the air sparkled, and all the world was full of life. Hammers beat in the builders’ yards; wild bargees sang hoarsely as they drifted down to the Isle of Dogs; and in slow ships that crept away to catch the wind in the open stream below, with tawny sails drooping and rimmed with frost, they heard the hail of salty mariners.
The tide ran strong, and the steady oars carried them swiftly down. London passed; then solitary hamlets here and there; then dun fields running to the river’s edge like thirsty deer.
In Deptford Reach some lords who were coming down by water passed them, racing with a little Dutch boat from Deptford to the turn. Their boats had holly-bushes at their prows and holiday garlands along their sides. They were all shouting gaily, and the stream was bright with their scarlet cloaks, Lincoln-green jerkins, and gold embroidery. But they were very badly beaten, at which they laughed, and threw the Dutchmen a handful of silver pennies. Thereupon the Dutchmen stood up in their boat and bowed like jointed ninepins; and the lords, not to be outdone, stood up likewise in their boats and bowed very low in return, with their hands upon their breasts. Then everybody on the river laughed, and the boys gave three cheers for the merry lords and three more for the sturdy Dutchmen. The Dutchmen shouted back, “Goot Yule!” and bowed and bowed until their boat turned round and went stern foremost down the stream, so that they were bowing to the opposite bank, where no one was at all. At this the rest all laughed again till their sides ached, and cheered them twice as much as they had before.
And while they were cheering and waving their caps, the boatmen rested upon their oars and let the boats swing with the tide, which thereabout set strong against the shore, and a trumpeter in the Earl of Arundel’s barge stood up and blew upon a long horn bound with a banner of blue and gold.
Instantly he had blown, another trumpet answered from the south, and when Nick turned, the shore was gay with men in brilliant livery. Beyond was a wood of chestnut-trees as blue and leafless as a grove of spears; and in the plain between the river and the wood stood a great palace of gray stone, with turrets, pinnacles, and battlemented walls, over the topmost tower of which a broad flag, blazoned with golden lions and silver lilies square for square, whipped the winter wind. Amid a group of towers large and small a lofty stack poured out a plume of sea-coal smoke against the milky sky, and on the countless windows in the wall the sunlight flashed with dazzling radiance.
There were people on the battlements, and at the port between two towers where the Queen went in and out the press was so thick that men’s heads looked like the cobbles in the street.
The shore was stayed with piling and with timbers like a wharf, so that a hundred boats might lie there cheek by jowl and scarcely rub their paint. The lords made way, and the children players came ashore through an aisle of uplifted oars. They were met by the yeomen of the guard, tall, brawny fellows clad in red, with golden roses on their breasts and backs, and with them marched up to the postern two and two, Master Gyles the last of all, as haughty as a Spanish don come courting fair Queen Bess.
A smoking dinner was waiting them, of whitebait with red pepper, and a yellow juice so sour that Nick’s mouth drew up in a knot; but it was very good. There were besides, silver dishes full of sugared red currants, and heaps of comfits and sweetmeats, which Master Gyles would not allow them even to touch, and saffron cakes with raisins in them, and spiced hot cordial out of tiny silver cups. Bareheaded pages clad in silk and silver lace waited upon them as if they were fledgling kings; but the boys were too hungry to care for that or to try to put on airs, and waded into the meat and drink as if they had been starved for a fortnight.
But when they were done Nick saw that the table off which they had eaten was inlaid with pearl and silver filigree, and that the table-cloth was of silk with woven metal-work and gems set in it worth more than a thousand crowns. He was very glad he had eaten first, for such wonderful service would have taken away his appetite.
And truly a wonderful palace was the Queen’s Plaisance, as Greenwich House was called. Elizabeth was born in it, and so loved it most of all. There she pleased oftenest to receive and grant audiences to envoys from foreign courts. And there, on that account, as was always her proud, jealous way, she made a blinding show of glory and of wealth, of science, art, and power, that England, to the eyes which saw her there, might stand in second place to no dominion in the world, however rich or great.
It was a very house of gold.
Over the door where the lads marched in was the Queen’s device, a golden rose, with a motto set below in letters of gold, “Dieu et mon droit”; and upon the walls were blazoned coats of noble arms on branching golden trees, of purest metal and finest silk, costly beyond compare. The royal presence-chamber shone with tapestries of gold, of silver, and of oriental silks, of as many shifting colors as the birds of paradise, and wrought in exquisite design, The throne was set with diamonds, with rubies, garnets, and sapphires, glittering like a pastry-crust of stars, and garnished with gold-lace work, pearls, and ornament; and under the velvet canopy which hung above the throne was embroidered in seed-pearls, “Vivat Regina Elizabetha!” There was no door without a gorgeous usher, no room without a page, no corridor without a guard, no post without a man of noble birth to fill it.
On the walls of the great gallery were masterly paintings of great folk, globes showing all the stars fast in the sky, and drawings of the world and all its parts, so real that one could see the savages in the New World hanging to the under side by their feet, like flies upon the ceiling. How they stuck was more than Nick could make out; and where they landed if they chanced to slip and fall troubled him a deal, until in the sheer multiplication of wonders he could not wonder any more.
When they came to rehearse in the afternoon the stage was hung with stiff, rich silks that had come in costly cedar chests from the looms of old Cathay; and the curtain behind which the players came and went was broidered with gold thread in flowers and birds like meteors for splendor. The gallery, too, where the musicians sat, was draped with silk and damask.
Some of the lads would have made out by their great airs as if this were all a common thing to them; but Nick stared honestly with round eyes, and went about with cautious feet, chary of touching things, and feeling very much out of place and shy.
It was all too grand, too wonderful,–amazing to look upon, no doubt, and good to outface foreign envy with, but not to be endured every day nor lived with comfortably. And as the day went by, each passing moment with new marvels, Nick grew more and more uneasy for some simple little nook where he might just sit down and be quiet for a while, as one could do at home, without fine pages peering at him from the screens, or splendid guards patrolling at his heels wherever he went, or obsequious ushers bowing to the floor at every turn, and asking him what he might be pleased to wish. And by the time night fell and the attendant came to light them to their beds, he felt like a fly on the rim of a wheel that went so fast he could scarcely get his breath or see what passed him by, yet of which he durst not let go.
The palace was much too much for him.
CHRISTMAS WITH QUEEN BESS
Christmas morning came and went as if on swallow-wings, in a gale of royal merriment. Four hundred sat to dinner that day in Greenwich halls, and all the palace streamed with banners and green garlands.
Within the courtyard two hundred horses neighed and stamped around a water-fountain playing in a bowl of ice and evergreen. Grooms and pages, hostlers and dames, went hurry-scurrying to and fro; cooks, bakers, and scullions steamed about, leaving hot, mouth-watering streaks of fragrance in the air; bluff men-at-arms went whistling here and there; and serving-maids with rosy cheeks ran breathlessly up and down the winding stairways.
The palace stirred like a mighty pot that boils to its utmost verge, for the hour of the revelries was come.
Over the beech-wood and far across the black heath where Jack Cade marshaled the men of Kent, the wind trembled with the boom of the castle bell. Within the walls of the palace its clang was muffled by a sound of voices that rose and fell like the wind upon the sea.
The ambassadors of Venice and France were there, with their courtly trains. The Lord High Constable of England was come to sit below the Queen. The earls, too, of Southampton, Montgomery, Pembroke, and Huntington were there; and William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, the Queen’s High Treasurer, to smooth his care-lined forehead with a Yuletide jest.
Up from the entry ports came shouts of “Room! room! room for my Lord Strange! Room for the Duke of Devonshire!” and about the outer gates there was a tumult like the cheering of a great crowd.
The palace corridors were lined with guards. Gentlemen pensioners under arms went flashing to and fro. Now and then through the inner throng some handsome page with wind-blown hair and rainbow-colored cloak pushed to the great door, calling: “Way, sirs, way for my Lord–way for my Lady of Alderstone!” and one by one, or in blithe groups, the courtiers, clad in silks and satins, velvets, jewels, and lace of gold, came up through the lofty folding-doors to their places in the hall.
There, where the Usher of the Black Rod stood, and the gentlemen of the chamber came and went with golden chains about their necks, was bowing and scraping without stint, and reverent civility; for men that were wise and noble were passing by, men that were handsome and brave; and ladies sweet as a summer day, and as fair to see as spring, laughed by their sides and chatted behind their fans, or daintily nibbled comfits, lacking anything to say.
The windows were all curtained in, making a night-time in midday; and from the walls and galleries flaring links and great bouquets of candles threw an eddying flood of yellow light across the stirring scene. From clump to clump of banner-staves and burnished arms, spiked above the wainscot, garlands of red-berried holly, spruce, and mistletoe were twined across the tapestry, till all the room was bound about with a chain of living green.
There were sweet odors floating through the air, and hazy threads of fragrant smoke from perfumes burning in rich braziers; and under foot was the crisp, clean rustle of new rushes.
From time to time, above the hum of voices, came the sound of music from a room beyond–cornets and flutes, fifes, lutes, and harps, with an organ exquisitely played, and voices singing to it; and from behind the players’ curtain, swaying slowly on its rings at the back of the stage, came a murmur of whispering childish voices, now high in eager questioning, now low, rehearsing some doubtful fragment of a song.
Behind the curtain it was dark–not total darkness, but twilight; for a dull glow came down overhead from the lights in the hall without, and faint yellow bars went up and down the dusk from crevices in the screen. The boys stood here and there in nervous groups. Now and then a sharp complaint was heard from the tire-woman when an impatient lad would not stand still to be dressed.
Master Gyles went to and fro, twisting the manuscript of the Revel in his hands, or pausing kindly to pat some faltering lad upon the back. Nick and Colley were peeping by turns through a hole in the screen at the throng in the audience-chamber.
They could see a confusion of fans, jewels, and faces, and now and again could hear a burst of subdued laughter over the steadily increasing buzz of voices. Then from the gallery above, all at once there came a murmur of instruments tuning together; a voice in the corridor was heard calling, “Way here, way here!” in masterful tones; the tall folding-doors at the side of the hall swung wide, and eight dapper pages in white and gold came in with the Master of Revels. After them came fifty ladies and noblemen clad in white and gold, and a guard of gentlemen pensioners with glittering halberds.
There was a sharp rustle. Every head in the audience-chamber louted low. Nick’s heart gave a jump–for the Queen was there!
She came with an air that was at once serious and royal, bearing herself haughtily, yet with a certain grace and sprightliness that became her very well. She was quite tall and well made, and her quickly changing face was long and fair, though wrinkled and no longer young. Her complexion was clear and of an olive hue; her nose was a little hooked; her firm lips were thin; and her small black eyes, though keen and bright, were pleasant and merry withal. Her hair was a coppery, tawny red, and false, moreover. In her ears hung two great pearls; and there was a fine small crown studded with diamonds upon her head, beside a necklace of exceeding fine gold and jewels about her neck. She was attired in a white silk gown bordered with pearls the size of beans, and over it wore a mantle of black silk, cunningly shot with silver threads. Her ruff was vast, her farthingale vaster; and her train, which was very long, was borne by a marchioness who made more ado about it than Elizabeth did of ruling her realm.
“The Queen!” gasped Colley.
“Dost think I did na know it?” answered Nick, his heart beginning to beat tattoo as he stared through the peep-hole in the screen.
He saw the great folk bowing like a gardenful of flowers in a storm, and in its midst Elizabeth erect, speaking to those about her in a lively and good-humored way, and addressing all the foreigners according to their tongue–in French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch; but hers was funny Dutch, and while she spoke she smiled and made a joke upon it in Latin, at which they all laughed heartily, whether they understood what it meant or not. Then, with her ladies in waiting, she passed to a dais near the stage, and stood a moment, stately, fair, and proud, while all her nobles made obeisance, then sat and gave a signal for the players to begin.
“Rafe Fullerton!” the prompter whispered shrilly; and out from behind the screen slipped Rafe, the smallest of them all, and down the stage to speak the foreword of the piece. He was frightened, and his voice shook as he spoke, but every one was smiling, so he took new heart.
“It is a masque of Summer-time and Spring,” said he, “wherein both claim to be best-loved, and have their say of wit and humor, and each her part of songs and dances suited to her time, the sprightly galliard and the nimble jig for Spring, the slow pavone, the stately peacock dance, for Summer-time. And win who may, fair Summer-time or merry Spring, the winner is but that beside our Queen!”–with which he snapped his fingers in the faces of them all–“God save Queen Bess!”
At that the Queen’s eyes twinkled, and she nodded, highly pleased, so that every one clapped mightily.
The play soon ran its course amid great laughter and applause. Spring won. The English ever loved her best, and the quick-paced galliard took their fancy, too. “Up and be doing!” was its tune, and it gave one a chance to cut fine capers with his heels.
Then the stage stood empty and the music stopped.
At this strange end a whisper of surprise ran through the hall. The Queen tapped with the inner side of her rings upon the broad arm of her chair. From the look on her face she was whetting her tongue. But before she could speak, Nick and Colley, dressed as a farmer boy and girl, with a garland of house-grown flowers about them, came down the stage from the arras, hand in hand, bowing.
The audience-chamber grew very still–_this_ was something new. Nick felt a swallowing in his throat, and Colley’s hand winced in his grip. There was no sound but a silky rustling in the room.
Then suddenly the boys behind the players’ curtain laughed together, not loud, but such a jolly little laugh that all the people smiled to hear it. After the laughter came a hush.
Then the pipes overhead made a merry sound as of shepherds piping on oaten straws in new grass where there are daisies; and there was a little elfish laughter of clarionets, and a fluttering among the cool flutes like spring wind blowing through crisp young leaves in April. The harps began to pulse and throb with a soft cadence like raindrops falling into a clear pool where brown leaves lie upon the bottom and bubbles float above green stones and smooth white pebbles. Nick lifted up his head and sang.
It was a happy little song of the coming and the triumph of the spring. The words were all forgotten long ago. They were not much: enough to serve the turn, no more; but the notes to which they went were like barn swallows twittering under the eaves, goldfinches clinking in purple weeds beside old roads, and robins singing in common gardens at dawn. And wherever Nick’s voice ran Colley’s followed, the pipes laughing after them a note or two below; while the flutes kept gurgling softly to themselves as a hill brook gurgles through the woods, and the harps ran gently up and down like rain among the daffodils. One voice called, the other answered; there were echo-like refrains; and as they sang Nick’s heart grew full. He cared not a stiver for the crowd, the golden palace, or the great folk there–the Queen no more–he only listened for Colley’s voice coming up lovingly after his own and running away when he followed it down, like a lad and a lass through the bloom of the May. And Colley was singing as if his heart would leap out of his round mouth for joy to follow after the song they sung, till they came to the end and the skylark’s song.
There Colley ceased, and Nick went singing on alone, forgetting, caring for, heeding nought but the song that was in his throat.
The Queen’s fan dropped from her hand upon the floor. No one saw it or picked it up. The Venetian ambassador scarcely breathed.
Nick came down the stage, his hands before him, lifted as if he saw the very lark he followed with his song, up, up, up into the sun. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes were wet, though his voice was a song and a laugh in one.
Then they were gone behind the curtain, into the shadow and the twilight there, Colley with his arms about Nick’s neck, not quite laughing, not quite sobbing. The manuscript of the Revel lay torn in two upon the floor, and Master Gyles had a foot upon each piece.
In the hall beyond the curtain was a silence that was deeper than a hush, a stillness rising from the hearts of men.
Then Elizabeth turned in the chair where she sat. Her eyes were as bright as a blaze. And out of the sides of her eyes she looked at the Venetian ambassador. He was sitting far out on the edge of his chair, and his lips had fallen apart. She laughed to herself. “It is a good song, signor,” said she, and those about her started at the sound of her voice. “_Chi tace confessa–_it is so! There are no songs like English songs–there is no spring like an English spring–there is no land like England, _my_ England!” She clapped her hands. “I will speak with those lads,” said she.
Straightway certain pages ran through the press and came behind the curtain where Nick and Colley stood together, still trembling with the music not yet gone out of them, and brought them through the hall to where the Queen sat, every one whispering, “Look!” as they passed.
On the dais they knelt together, bowing, side by side. Elizabeth, with a kindly smile, leaning a little forward, raised them with her slender hand. “Stand, dear lads,” said she, heartily. “Be lifted up by thine own singing, as our hearts have been uplifted by thy song. And name me the price of that same song–’twas sweeter than the sweetest song we ever heard before.”
“Or ever shall hear again,” said the Venetian ambassador, under his breath, rubbing his forehead as if just wakening out of a dream.
“Come,” said Elizabeth, tapping Colley’s cheek with her fan, “what wilt thou have of me, fair maid?”
Colley turned red, then very pale. “That I may stay in the palace forever and sing for your Majesty,” said he. His fingers shivered in Nick’s.
“Now that is right prettily asked,” she cried, and was well pleased. “Thou shalt indeed stay for a singing page in our household–a voice and a face like thine are merry things upon a rainy Monday. And thou, Master Lark,” said she, fanning the hair back from Nick’s forehead with her perfumed fan–“thou that comest up out of the field with a song like the angels sing–what wilt thou have: that thou mayst sing in our choir and play on the lute for us?”
Nick looked up at the torches on the wall, drawing a deep, long breath. When he looked down again his eyes were dazzled and he could not see the Queen.
“What wilt thou have?” he heard her ask.
“Let me go home,” said he.
There were red and green spots in the air. He tried to count them, since he could see nothing else, and everything was very still; but they all ran into one purple spot which came and went like a firefly’s glow, and in the middle of the purple spot he saw the Queen’s face coming and going.
“Surely, boy, that is an ill-considered speech,” said she, “or thou dost deem us very poor, or most exceeding stingy!” Nick hung his head, for the walls seemed tapestried with staring eyes. “Or else this home of thine must be a very famous place.”
The maids of honour tittered. Further off somebody laughed. Nick looked up, and squared his shoulders.
They had rubbed the cat the wrong way.
It is hard to be a stranger in a palace, young, country-bred, and laughed at all at once; but down in Nick Attwood’s heart was a stubborn streak that all the flattery on earth could not cajole nor ridicule efface. He might be simple, shy, and slow, but what he loved he loved: that much he knew; and when they laughed at him for loving home they seemed to mock not him, but home–and _that_ touched the fighting-spot.
“I would rather be there than here,” said he.
The Queen’s face flushed. “Thou art more curt than courteous,” said she. “Is it not good enough for thee here?”
“I could na live in such a place.”
The Queen’s eyes snapped. “In such a place? Marry, art thou so choice? These others find no fault with the life.”
“Then they be born to it,” said Nick, “or they could abide no more than I–they would na fit.”
“Haw, haw!” said the Lord High Constable.
The Queen shot one quick glance at him. “Old pegs have been made to fit new holes before to-day,” said she; “and the trick can be done again.” The Constable smothered the rest of that laugh in his hand, “But come, boy, speak up; what hath put thee so out of conceit with our best-beloved palace?”
“There is na one thing likes me here. I can na bide in a place so fine, for there’s not so much as a corner in it feels like home. I could na sleep in the bed last night.”
“What, how? We commanded good beds!” exclaimed Elizabeth, angrily, for the Venetian ambassador was smiling in his beard. “This shall be seen to.”
“Oh, it _was_ a good bed–a very good bed indeed, your Majesty!” cried Nick. “But the mattress puffed up like a cloud in a bag, and almost smothered me; and it was so soft and so hot that it gave me a fever.”
Elizabeth leaned back in her chair and laughed. The Lord High Constable hastily finished the laugh that he had hidden in his hand. Everybody laughed. “Upon my word,” said the Queen, “it is an odd skylark cannot sleep in feathers! What didst thou do, forsooth?”
“I slept in the coverlid on the floor,” said Nick. “It was na hurt,–I dusted the place well,–and I slept like a top.”
“Now verily,” laughed Elizabeth, “if it be floors that thou dost desire, we have acres to spare–thou shalt have thy pick of the lot. Come, we are ill used to begging people to be favored–thou’lt stay?”
Nick shook his head.
“_Ma foi!”_ exclaimed the Queen, “it is a queer fancy makes a face at such a pleasant dwelling! What is it sticks in thy throat?”
Nick stood silent. What was there to say? If he came here he never would see Stratford town again; and _this_ was no abiding-place for him. They would not even let him go to the fountain himself to draw water with which to wash, but fetched it, three at a time, in a silver ewer and a copper basin with towels and a flask of perfume.
Elizabeth was tapping with her fan. “Thou art be-dazzled like,” she said. “Think twice–preferment does not gooseberry on the hedge-row every day; and this is a rare chance which hangs ripening on thy tongue. Consider well. Come, thou wilt accept?”
Nick slowly shook his head.
“Go then, if thou wilt go!” said she; and as she spoke she shrugged her shoulders, illy pleased, and turning toward Colley, took him by the hand and drew him closer to her, smiling at his guise. “Thy comrade hath more wit.”
“He hath no mother,” Nick said quietly, loosing his hold at last on Colley’s hand. “I would rather have my mother than his wit.”
Elizabeth turned sharply back. Her keen eyes were sparkling, yet soft.
“Thou art no fool,” said she.
A little murmur ran through the room.
She sat a moment, silent, studying his face. “Or if thou art, upon my word I like the breed. It is a stubborn, froward dog; but Hold-fast is his name. Ay, sirs,” she said, and sat up very straight, looking into the faces of her court, “Brag is a good dog, but Hold-fast is better. A lad who loves his mother thus makes a man who loveth his native land–and it’s no bad streak in the blood. Master Skylark, thou shalt have thy wish; to London thou shalt go this very night.”
“I do na live in London,” Nick began.
“What matters the place?” said she. “Live wheresoever thine heart doth please. It is enough–so. Thou mayst kiss our hand.” She held her hand out, bright with jewels. He knelt and kissed it as if it were all a doing in a dream, or in some unlikely story he had read. But a long while after he could smell the perfume from her slender fingers on his lips.
Then a page standing by him touched his arm as he arose, and bowing backward from the throne, came with him to the curtain and the rest. Old Master Gyles was standing there apart. It was too dark to see his face, but he laid his hand upon Nick’s head.
“Thy cake is burned to a coal,” said he.
BACK TO GASTON CAREW
So they marched back out of the palace gates, down to the landing-place, the last red sunlight gleaming on the basinets of the tall halberdiers who marched on either side.
Nick looked out toward London, where the river lay like a serpent, bristling with masts; and beyond the river and the town to the forests of Epping and Hainault; and beyond the forests to the hills, where the waning day still lingered in a mist of frosty blue. At their back, midway of the Queen’s park, stood up the old square tower Mirefleur, and on its top one yellow light like the flame of a gigantic candle. The day seemed builded of memories strange and untrue.
A belated gull flapped by them heavily, and the red sun went down. England was growing lonely. A great barge laden with straw came out of the dusk, and was gone without a sound, its ghostly sail drawing in a wind that the wherry sat too low to feel. Nick held his breath as the barge went by: it was unreal, fantastical.
Then the river dropped between its banks, and the woods and the hills were gone. The tide ran heavily against the shore, and the wake of the wherry broke the floating stars into cold white streaks and zigzag ripplings of raveled light that ran unsteadily after them. The craft at anchor in the Pool had swung about upon the flow, and pointed down to Greenwich. A hush had fallen upon the never-ending bustle of the town; and the air was full of a gray, uncanny afterglow which seemed to come up out of the water, for the sky was grown quite dark.
They were all wrapped in their boat-cloaks, tired and silent. Now and then Nick dipped his fingers into the cold water over the gunwale.
This was the end of the glory.
He wished the boat would go a little faster. Yet when they came to the landing he was sorry.
The man-at-arms who went with him to Master Carew’s house was one of the Earl of Arundel’s men, in a stiff-wadded jacket of heron-blue, with the earls colors richly worked upon its back and his badge upon the sleeves. Prowlers gave way before him in the streets, for he was broad and tall and mighty, and the fear of any man was not in the look of his eye.
As they came up the slow hill, Nick sighed, for the long-legged man-at-arms walked fast. “What, there!” said he, and clapped Nick on the shoulder with his bony hand; “art far spent, lad? Why, marry, get thee upon my back. I’ll jog thee home in the shake of a black sheep’s tail.”
So Nick rode home upon the back of the Earl of Arundel’s man-at-arms; and that, too, seemed a dream like all the rest.
When they came to Master Carew’s house the street was dark, and Nick’s foot was asleep. He stamped it, tingling, upon the step, and the empty passage echoed with the sound. Then the earl’s man beat the door with the pommel of his dagger-hilt, and stood with his hands upon his hips, carelessly whistling a little tune.
Nick heard a sound of some one coming through the hall, and felt that at last the day was done. A tired wonder wakened in his heart at how so much had come to pass in such a little while; yet more he wondered why it had ever come to pass at all. And what was the worth of it, anyway, now it was over and gone?
Then the door opened, and he went in.
Master Gaston Carew himself had come to the door, walking quickly through the hallway, with a queer, nervous twitching in his face. But when he made out through the dusk that it was Nick, he seemed in no wise moved, and said quite simply, as he gave the man-at-arms a penny: “Oh, is it thou? Why, we have heard somewhat of thee; and upon my word I thought, since thou wert grown so great, thou wouldst come home in a coach-and-four, all blowing horns!”
Nevertheless he drew Nick quickly in, and kissed him thrice; and after he had kissed him kept fast hold of his hand until they came together through the hall into the great room where Cicely was sitting quite dismally in the chimney-seat alone.
[Illustration: “SO NICK RODE HOME UPON THE BACK OF THE EARL OF ARUNDEL’S MAN-AT-ARMS.”]
“There, Nick,” said he; “tell her thyself that thou hast come back. She thought she had lost thee for good and all, and hath sung, ‘Hey ho, my heart is full of woe!’ the whole twilight, and would not be comforted. Come, Cicely, doff thy doleful willow–the proverb lies. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’–fudge! the boy’s come back again! A plague take proverbs, anyway!”
But when the children were both long since abed, and all the house was still save for the scamper of rats in the wall, the heavy door of Nick’s room opened stealthily, with a little grating upon the uneven sill, and Master Carew stood there, peeping in, his hand upon the bolt outside.
He held a rush-light in the other. Its glimmer fell across the bed upon Nick’s tousled hair; and when the master-player saw the boy’s head upon the pillow he started eagerly, with brightening eyes. “My soul!” he whispered to himself, a little quaver in his tone, “I would have sworn my own desire lied to me, and that he had not come at all! It cannot be–yet, verily, I am not blind. _Ma foil_ it passeth understanding–a freed skylark come back to its cage! I thought we had lost him forever.”
Nick stirred in his sleep. Carew set the light on the floor. “Thou fool!” said he, and he fumbled at his pouch; “thou dear-beloved little fool! To catch the skirts of glory in thine hand, and tread the heels of happy chance, and yet come back again to ill-starred twilight–and to me! Ai, lad, I would thou wert my son–mine own, own son; yet Heaven spare thee father such as I! For, Nick, I love thee. Yet thou dost hate me like a poison thing. And still I love thee, on my word, and on the remnant of mine honour!” His voice was husky. “Let thee go?–send thee back?–eat my sweet and have it too?–how? Nay, nay; thy happy cake would be my dough–it will not serve.” He shook his head, and looked about to see that all was fast. “Yet, Nick, I say I love thee, on my soul!”
Slipping to the bedside with stealthy step, he laid a fat little Banbury cheese and some brown sweet cakes beside Nick’s pillow; then came out hurriedly and barred the door.
The fire in the great hall had gone out, and the room was growing cold. The table stood by the chimney-side, where supper had been laid, Carew brought a napkin from the linen-chest, and spread it upon the board. Then he went to the server’s screen and looked behind it, and tried the latches of the doors; and having thus made sure that all was safe, came back to the table again, and setting the rush-light there, turned the contents of his purse into the napkin.
There were both gold and silver. The silver he put back into the purse again; the gold he counted carefully; and as he counted, laying the pieces one by one in little heaps upon the cloth, he muttered under his breath, like a small boy adding up his sums in school, saying over and over again, “One for me, and one for thee, and two for Cicely Carew. One for me, and one for thee, and two for Cicely Carew”; and told the coins off in keeping with the count, so that the last pile was as large as both the others put together. Then slowly ending, “None for me, and one for thee, and two for Cicely Carew,” he laid the last three nobles with the rest.
Then he arose and stood a moment listening to the silence in the house. An old he rat that was gnawing a rind on the hearth looked up, and ran a little nearer to his hole. “Tsst! come back,” said Carew, “I’m no cat!” and from the sliding panel in the wall took out a buckskin bag tied like a meal-sack with a string.
As he slipped the knot the throat of the bag sagged down, and a gold piece jangled on the floor. Carew started as if all his nerves had leaped within him at the unexpected sound, and closed the panel like a flash. Then, setting his foot upon the fallen coin, he stopped its spinning, and with one hand on his poniard, peering right and left, blew the candle out.
A little while he stood and listened in the dark; a little while his feet went to and fro in the darkness. The wind cried in the chimney. Now and then the casements shivered. The timbers in the wall creaked with the cold, and the boards in the stairway cracked. Then the old he rat came back to his rind, and his mate came out of the crack in the wall,