The Jesuit Letter

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Chapter II

“By God’s teeth! Much, you pestilent capon, where’s my ruff?” shouted Oldcastle, flinging open one of the traveling chests, almost knocking his servant to the ground in the process.

“Sorr, if’n you kindly wait but a--”

“Stop banting about and find my ruff box. By Heaven, is it too much to ask for a servant who can remember where he left things? I should have you whipped, no--scourged, by God.”

Oldcastle’s empty tirade came to an abrupt halt when Much’s son, standing atop the wagon, pulled out the flat box from one of the chests and passed it down to his father.

Tyburn ignored Oldcastle’s endless bickering with his servants and concentrated on poking the loose threads on his embroidered doublet out of immediate view. The doublet’s stitching was parting down one side. Tyburn fingered it, doubting it would last much longer.

It was past mid-morning and the troupe had halted by a clutch of tall elms short of the town to prepare for their entrance. The sun was high and the skies warm, blue and cloudless. Several small farmhouses were scattered about, an easy distance from the road, and to the north a smaller hamlet was visible in the distance. The Stratford church spire stood stolid in the southeast, a yellow-gray mass of stone and wood that sat apart from the main avenues of the market-town, marking where the domain of heaven touched the realm of the mortal.

The road was steady with foot traffic as carts laden with local produce passed, plying their wares in the town. Several mounted riders passed by, including a small band of liveried retainers who trotted past without even turning their heads to glance at the troupe. A man herded a lone cow along the roadway, turning north to the smaller hamlet visible beyond the trees. A small group of children who had been playing on the hillside had gathered by a low stone wall, eyeing the troupe with fascination. As he bustled about with the troupes various accoutrements, Robbie kept a sharp jaundiced eye on their small filching hands.

The wagon had made slower progress than expected on the uneven and heavily rutted road, the jouncing and bumping doing little to mend Oldcastle’s sour temperament. At one point Oldcastle had begun calling out lines from the troupe’s play list. It was an old traveling memory game, allowing the players to work on recalling their character’s lines. The proper response was the next line of the play; however, Alec, irritated that Oldcastle was pressing them on a hot day, refused to cooperate and had insisted on bellowing bawdy lines from the many tavern songs in his repertoire in reply. After Alec worked his way through most of “The Three Drunken Maidens,” Oldcastle had given up and concentrated on the remaining players, leaving Alec free to whistle and contemplate the cheerful green hillsides.

Tyburn sighed and, his doublet problems having been rendered at least marginally acceptable, pulled out a long cylindrical object wrapped in some rough cloth from the bottom of a long chest. He undid the ties and unrolled the cloth to reveal. several long swords. Tyburn picked up two and turning to Alec, gave a low whistle. Alec turned and Tyburn tossed him one of the rapiers. Alec nodded his distracted thanks and went back to reshaping a large lavish hat that had been flattened in its travels.

Tyburn examined his own long blade. The pommel was worn with use and the silver damascened guard, although once ornate, was now nicked and dull to the eye, no longer the showpiece it had been in the hands of a young Spanish bravo. The blade however was well kept, a long, razor-edged piece of elegant Toledo steel, thirty-four inches of fatal grace.

It was one of the only blades the troupe carried that was kept sharp. The majority of the troupe’s weapons were intended for use in performances and were dulled and corked to prevent accidents. Tyburn insisted on keeping his own sword and had refused point-blank when Oldcastle suggested he dull the blade. Tyburn used a troupe weapon for the staged swordfights, although even Oldcastle acknowledged that Tyburn’s ability was such that he was the least likely to inflict any accidental damage on his opponents. One of the few ways that Tyburn had been able to pad his meager income had been to work with the other troupe members, chiefly Alleyn and Alec, on their swordplay. The result was that Worcester’s Men were now recognized by even jaded London audiences as being the best at on-stage mayhem.

Satisfied, Tyburn sheathed the weapon and strapped on the belt, settling the sword on his left. Alec grinned and pointed. Tyburn glanced down to see his colorful doublet split down one side. “Christ,” he muttered.

Alec laughed and tossed him an ornate yellow half-cloak, edged with delicate silvered needlework. “Here. That’ll help hide it from Oldcastle until you can get some innkeeper’s wife to mend it for you.”

Tyburn nodded his thanks and slung the half-cloak so it hung over the side with the split, donned his wide-brimmed hat, adjusted the feather and straightened. “How’s that?” He struck a particularly jaunty pose.

“The maidens of Stratford are quickening as we speak.” Alec swept his arm back and bowed grandly. “Although with you I fear their expectations will founder.”

The two apprentices were pulling a long brass trumpet and a small set of timbrels out of a cloth sack while Oldcastle and the three other sharers in the company arranged their appearances with care. Jacob Willens, the oldest player after Oldcastle, wore an outlandish selection of clothes, including an enormous oversized codpiece, a peasecod belly and a long trimmed gown with paneled breeches in white and red. He topped the outfit with a small round hat surmounted with a ridiculous oversized feather.

Willens role was Folly, the Jester, the Lord of Misrule, a master of jigs, buffoonery and morris dancing, activities many of the younger players derided as provincial but that were popular with audiences nonetheless. Tyburn rather liked the lively acrobatics of the morris dances, although he was dragged into them rather infrequently in his role as Vice. Oldcastle was a firm believer in using the fundamental stock characters and Tyburn, with his grim visage, was a perfect foil for Alec’s Virtuous Youth.

“Daniel and Mundy, bring up the rear with the wagon. I lead, Jacob follows me. Then Jack and Motely sounding the march and Robbie with the banner high. Alec--you, Alleyn and Tyburn provide some flash as we go, but don’t lag. No banter and no gammoning off with some doxy making sheep eyes at you,” Oldcastle instructed.

“Heads high now, by Christ’s bones, you’re the Earl of Worcester’s Men, so act it, you villains.” With that Oldcastle signaled the apprentices. Jack gave the timbrels a rattle and Motely blew hard on the old trumpet, sounding a discordant brassy note that floated across the summer air. The watching children on the hillside leaped up, calling and waving. Oldcastle stepped grandly out onto the road, held both arms skyward and shouted, “God’s Grace is upon our endeavors!” He turned, bowed to the company and resumed the march into the town, Worcester’s silver, blue and red blazon held high behind him, dangling from its cross-bar.

Alec slipped Tyburn a surreptitious wink and a grin as they set out after Robbie and the apprentices, Alleyn muttering to himself behind them.

The road the troupe marched along was cobblestoned along the sides, sufficient for the wagon wheels, with the uncobbled centre providing a soft, muddy trap for the unwary on rainy days. Today, with the midsummer sun overhead, the center of the road was dry, hard and dusty, trampled flat by the constant flow of commerce.

Jack thumped and rattled the timbrels in rhythm to their pace. As they passed through the line of elms bordering the road, a small flock of crows burst from the trees shading the road, circled twice at dizzying speed and vanished from sight.

Stratford-upon-Avon was an unremarkable Warwickshire market-town, bordered by the river Avon on the south and the edge of denuded remnants of the Forest of Arden to the north. The players could smell the town long before they reached the first set of buildings. The scent was a heavy mélange of woodsmoke, manure and slop heaps, urine, the acrid scent of tanning hides, sawdust, malt, cooking, animals and unwashed humanity.

Tall, timber-framed buildings rose on both sides of the road, interspersed like a set of uneven mottled white teeth. Topped with thick brown thatch and the occasional tile, the buildings varied in size and height, with a handful rising to up three storeys. As the troupe moved further along the street, the buildings’ cantilevered upper floors hung out over the lower storeys like a deep jutting brow. Most were plaster-covered, even to the thick timber beams themselves, and their windows were narrow with heavy shutters open to allow a thin wash of summer daylight to stream inside. The players kept a wary eye on the upper windows, watching for household slops and refuse being emptied onto passersby.

The road was busy with foot travelers, most of whom stopped to gawp at the vividly dressed marching troupe. Alec grinned as Oldcastle gestured and bowed grandly to various bystanders, his practiced eye judging by the cut and style of their clothing whether they merited a mere passing nod, an expansive wave or a deep bow.

The Evesham Road that the troupe had followed since before dawn gave way to Rother Street, the street that led to Stratford’s cattle market[1], the presence of which was apparent both underfoot and through the nostrils. The players threaded their careful way through patches of thick oozing cattle dung that caked the cobbles, with Willens exaggeratedly tiptoeing around a large repulsive deposit and then pretending to slip, catching himself at the last moment before breaking out in a quick and jaunty jig that made spectators laugh.

“Let’s wait till we clear the dung street, then we give them a little taste.” Tyburn murmured in an aside to Alec, who nodded in reply.

Alleyn broke out into a quick and lively song. “Sir Eglamore was a valiant knight Fa la lanky down dilly, He put on his sword and he went to fight, Fa la lanky down dilly . . .”

Several women carrying baskets stopped to listen, whispering to one another. A cooper scowled at the troupe as it passed. His pinched face suffused with distaste as he regarded the players. He spat once on the cobbles. Alec rewarded him with a beatific smile that in turn made Tyburn grin.

“And as he rid o’er hill and dale, All armed in his coat of mail, Fa la la la la la la lanky down dilly, There starts a huge dragon out of his den, fa la . . . Which had kill’d I know not how many men, Fa la . . .”

Motely blew hard on his trumpet, his round face pink and glowing. For once the sound blasted forth from the instrument rather than the usual muffled blare, to echo off the yellowing walls of the street.

Oldcastle paused amidst the small crowd and raised his arms grandly. “God Bless this noble town Stratford-Upon-Avon! We are the Earl of Worcester’s Men, players of the best and kindest patron, who has commanded us to pay visit to you and yours. May God’s Mercies be upon you!” At that, Oldcastle bowed with exaggerated courtesy to a hawk-nosed woman in a severe black dress and starched white cap. She sniffed and turned away to resume her market duties, her dark eyes harsh as she regarded the passing troupe. Oldcastle merely gave his performer’s smile and strode onward.

“Bloody Precisions…[2]” Robbie mumbled as he passed with the banner. Tyburn frowned. The Puritans regularly denounced what they called the bawdy nature of plays and other staged entertainments, one of the reasons that the London Court of Aldermen systematically harassed and restricted such entertainments in the city proper. The Puritans didn’t limit their venom to mere players, but reserved the majority of their spite for English Catholic recusants and, surprisingly for the queen herself and her ministers, who they felt were far too lenient in treating what they termed “Popish pomp and rags.”

The low sound of metal scraping on metal pulled Tyburn out of his pensive state. He turned, stepping rapidly backwards with his left foot, hand reaching for his rapier. Alec grinned, a quick flash of gleaming white teeth, as he lunged at Tyburn.

Tyburn’s blade slid from its sheath and flicked up, deflecting Alec’s sword neatly to one side. The two paused, and then Alec began to declaim.

“Foul spawn of strife and discord, face the blade of a true Christian gentleman!”

“Are you a swordsman or an antic[3]?” replied Tyburn, twisting his face into a vicious scowl.

“Your doom unless you yield, for mine is the righteous cause.”

“Methinks you are half-a-pack short[4]. Can you do more than mere sparrow-blasting[5]?”

“I speak with steel,” Alec intoned, his voice heavy with portentous emphasis. Stepping in smooth, he lunged the silvered blade towards Tyburn, moving for the opening Kit had left on the inside. Tyburn turned his blade, parrying Alec’s attack, and stepped in with a slow counter which Alec in turn deflected with a scraping clash that rang off the buildings.

Alec flung his arm forward again, thrusting the blade at his opponent, making Tyburn wince inwardly. Despite much coaching, Alec still had a tendency to throw his arm when making a thrust, a move that announced his intended line of attack in advance of the action. It didn’t matter when you were working the boards[6] but on the street or in a duel, it was a painful and potentially fatal mistake. Tyburn took the blow easily on the forte of his sword and stepped in close, grabbing Alec’s sword arm and hissing malevolence. The two stood en tableau for a moment before leaping back with a quick bow to the gaping market audience.

“I thank you gentlefolk, for your indulgence. If you are intrigued to know if Virtue bests Vice, please attend on the morrow!” exhorted Tyburn. He and Alec sheathed their swords with a flourish and rejoined Alleyn and a grinning Robbie.

“Did you see that?” breathed Richard. “He handles that stick like a Dunkirker[7].”

“That’s no veney stick[8], by Faith,” agreed Will. “Think we can see the performance?”

“Doubt it. My mother thinks plays are Devil’s work,” replied Richard in sullen tones, his face tight.

“Will’s seen a play!” piped Gilbert.

“Truly?” asked Richard, intrigued.

“In Coventry, we saw the Cycles, and the Mayor’s Play three years ago, when Warwick’s Men came through.” admitted Will.

“Well, your father’s an alderman. I expect you’ll get to spy this ‘un,” Richard observed, his voice envious.

“I won’t get to spy anything if Gilbert and I don’t get to home right quick,” Will said, shrugging. He felt bad that Richard’s staunch Protestant parents refused to permit him to see the troupes that passed through Stratford during the warm summer months. Will’s own father dubbed plays frivolous nonsense and considered them an unwelcome distraction but, due to his position on the town council, John Shakespeare was at least obligated to make an appearance with the other aldermen.

Will himself had vivid memories of the Coventry players marching in colorful procession along the narrow laneways. He remembered the elaborate embroidery of their costumes, the feathered hats and stylized horned masks that hid their faces. He recalled the glorious decorations on the oversized pageant wagons and how they gleamed with gold and red decorative motifs, the jostle of the excited crowds, the raucous cries of the hawkers, and the choking sulphurous stench of the Hell-mouth specially built in the Coventry marketplace[9]. More than anything he remembered the players themselves, drawing in the breathless attention of the audience, grasping it, building upon it and weaving an evocative tale from words and phrases, giving life to all the familiar stories that Will had learned by rote over the years at Stratford’s stony church and on the hard benches and within the airy recesses of the King Edward Grammar School.

It had been so utterly different from anything he had experienced before. The players’ measured oration tore away the pallid façade of recitation and drove the deeper meaning of the stories home with astonishing clarity. Will had been swept up, his thoughts caught like a leaf in the wind, soaring upwards and then eclipsed in turn by shadow as the story plunged in a new direction.

Gilbert tugged on Will’s arm to clear his head of the reminiscences. Richard grinned askance at Will’s distracted look and the three hurried down towards Rother Market to cut over to Henley Street and home.

The Earl of Worcester’s Men drew up their procession when they arrived at the Stratford guild hall. They had proceeded down dung-strewn Rother past the stone cross standing in Stratford’s main marketplace, down Wood Street and back across High Street. It was a leisurely route but one designed to maximum effect. By the time they had arrived at the guild hall, a small and expectant crowd had gathered and a collection of the Stratford aldermen had congregated on the steps of the building to greet the players.

The guild hall was an impressive structure for a small market town. A large stone chapel dominated one end, with a lengthy, two-floored, timber-framed building stretching the length of the street behind. The building had been plastered and lime-washed to a gleaming white and was roofed with tile rather than the usual thatch. A small recessed stone courtyard led to a second smaller, cantilevered structure. A number of laden wagons and carts with several oxen stood by the doors while men in loose smocks carried bundled goods into the building.

Two men waited on the stone steps leading into the chapel. Neither wore any badge of office but Oldcastle immediately recognized the impatient demeanor of authority. The Earl of Worcester’s Men drew up in a ragged line behind him as he stepped forward.

One of the men standing by the carts dusted his hands together and walked over to join the two on the steps.

“Master Oldcastle? I daresay you are looking well. It has been, what? Five years?” The man was tall, dusty from his labors, but under his grime he wore a deep blue jerkin and an ornate agate ring.

“My lord, I trust in God that you and yours are well?” returned Oldcastle, bowing deeply, an affable smile on his lips. The man nodded cordially. “My lords aldermen, gentlefolk of Stratford, may I present the Earl of Worcester’s Men, a troupe of players who gently request your kind permission to perform.” Oldcastle bowed again, then turned and gestured at Motely who stepped forward with stiff self-consciousness, holding a roll of vellum tied with an ornate silk ribbon. The tall man accepted the roll and without deigning to open it, passed it to one of the other men on the steps. He unrolled the document, gave the document with its ornate seals a cursory glance and passed it to the third man. He squinted at it, rolled it back up and handed it to Oldcastle.

“As you can see, we are fully licensed to perform and we beg your kind indulgence to permit our performances within your precincts,” Oldcastle intoned solemnly.

The men glanced at each other. One shrugged with indifference. “Very well Master Oldcastle, you may perform but first you must provide a play with no bar or cost on admission–The Mayor’s Play–on the morrow at the guild hall. You may enjoy the pleasure of the guild hall for an additional two performances, after which you may use an innyard if they will have you.” The speaker looked from Oldcastle to the troupe and then continued. “There will be no undue rowdiness, no Papist nonsense performed and no wild moriscos[10] in the streets. I’ll have no woodwoses[11] on my hands.”

Oldcastle bowed in acquiescence. “Indeed my lords, we are at your service.”

“Anything else needed? No?”

“Your pardon my lord, we have come a long way on the hard hoof with naught but old cheese and bread, mayhaps . . .” Oldcastle ventured.

The alderman glanced at Oldcastle from under his dark brows, and paused theatrically. “I recommend the Bear--good ale.” He gave the master player a sardonic grin and gestured to the other aldermen. “Gentlemen, let us sup.” The three passed into the small courtyard, disappearing through the open doors.

“Bastard merchants.” Oldcastle muttered balefully under his breath. Alec suppressed a grin at Oldcastle’s sour expression and the troupe turned back down stony High Street to find the Bear Tavern and some much needed drink.

“Bastards.” Oldcastle repeated. “Nothing but bloody curst bastards.”

[1] Rother is Anglo-Saxon for cattle

[2] Antagonistic term for Puritans

[3] Clown

[4] Measure of dry goods, in this case, not a full measure….

[5] Cursing

[6] Performing

[7] Reference to Dunkirk, a notorious pirate haven

[8] Heavy stick used for practicing sword-play

[9] The Coventry Mystery Cycles generally incorporated at least one stage location that represented the entrance to Hell, presided over by an elaborately costumed Devil and his demonic minions.

[10] Morris dancing

[11] Wildmen

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