John Shakespeare knelt over the wide, sunken puering vat and lifted out the soaked hides, draping them untidily over a long wooden pole he had propped against the log pile. The stench was vile, hanging like a thick blanket in the air, although it seemed not to trouble the buzzing mass of flies occluding the sunshine. Shakespeare studied the level of the putrid liquid within the container for a moment, gauging if it required additional supply. Not quite, he thought, but by the end of the week, he would again have to empty out the waste buckets into it.
With that, he stood and hefted the sodden, dripping mass of treated hides draped over the pole. Grunting with the weight, he maneuvered them over to a large barrel filled with milky-colored water and slid them in. With the pole, he pushed the hides to the bottom of the barrel, giving them a few quick stirs to release any trapped air bubbles. Satisfied, he leaned the pole against the back of the house.
He glanced at the small wooden drying barn behind the house. Two hired men were unloading a large cart laden with bundles of greasy sheepskins and thick bundles of shorn wool. Not officially licensed as a wool merchant, John Shakespeare knew he was violating the law in dealing with the fleeces but he was less than sanguine about the ability of the Merchants of the Staples to enforce their empty statutes. He had been trading in wool for more than ten years and had only one court appearance to show for it.
Shakespeare was a glover by trade, a profession he had apprenticed in almost twenty years before, laboring long hours cutting forms and patterns, mastering the delicate tracery of the glover’s stitchwork, assessing and selecting leather, learning the intricacies of tanning, the taste, texture and feel of hides. The rank, earthy tang of leather seemed to cling to him everywhere he went, permeating him, crowding about like a second skin.
A loud clatter from within the house drew his attention. Will and Gilbert never arrived anywhere quietly, even church, he thought, no matter how often their mother scolded them. He gave the yard a cursory survey, wiped his damp hands on his smock and ducked into the house. The boys’ arrival reminded him that it was time for the midday meal.
The sound of his wife remonstrating Will and Gilbert in the house’s sturdy kitchen brought a brief smile to his face, cracking the stern façade he maintained for the world at large. Shakespeare’s round, often jovial face masked a sharp and ambitious mien and a quick intelligence that made him a careful and cautious negotiator, an acumen that helped him navigate the often treacherous rural Stratford politics. Stratford had managed to avoid much of the sectarian turmoil that had unsettled other areas within Warwickshire, due to the collective determination of the Stratford aldermen and leading property owners to assiduously avoid any form of confrontation with the oft-shifting vagaries of the nobility and the throne. Stratford minded its business first and foremost, and protected its own.
He ducked under the low lintel into his small workroom. The narrow window shutters were flung wide, allowing natural sunlight to ribbon across the space, striping a battered worktable festooned with pale lengths of leather and hide, several battered wooden hand forms, scrapers, cutters and the distinctive fanned and hooked blades of the glover. Several tanned hides hung from the beamed ceiling, swaying minutely in the air currents.
Shakespeare hung his smock on a wooden peg. An abrupt knock at the door startled him, and he leaned past the dangling leathers to peer out the open window. A worried frown creased his face. Hugh Hall stood on his doorstep, impatiently staring at the portal.
John Shakespeare hesitated and then strode to the front door, waving a quick dismissal at the serving girl as she entered from the kitchen in response to the knock.
“Master gardener . . . may I be of service?”
Hugh Hall glanced past him, and then shifted his weight. “Good day, Master Shakespeare. I must speak with you with alacrity.”
John Shakespeare looked Hall in the eyes, not liking the pallid colour permeating his face or the tiny shift in his expression. Hall wasn’t supposed to come here. “I’m afraid the gloves are not ready yet, perhaps in a few weeks. . .” Shakespeare trailed off, hoping Hall might take his hint.
“No, this concerns, um . . . another task for you, master glover, some fitted gloves.” Hall glanced behind him, like a rabbit in expectation of a stooping hawk. “May we discuss this in your workroom?” Hall looked at Shakespeare, his eyes expressing the emphasis his voice dared not.
Shakespeare sighed and moved aside, gesturing to Hall to enter. After Hall ducked into the workroom Shakespeare pulled the door closed behind him.
“You’re not to call--” Shakespeare began in a low voice.
“I know, I know, my friend, but it could not be helped,” interrupted Hall, lowering his voice. “I have . . . a package, a letter, from our mutual acquaintance that must be sent on this instant. I cannot pass this message, it must go direct.”
Shakespeare stared. Damn the man anyway. It was unusual to have correspondence coming direct from Hall. The messages were supposed to come only through Jemmy Thomas, on his regular monthly journey to London. Jemmy plied his trade through the Midlands, carrying wool goods, fine cloth and specialities from the London markets to the Midlands of Warwickshire and Sussex.
“Jemmy won’t be through for another two weeks at least. If you want to wai--” Shakespeare began.
“No!” Hall said, his voice sharp. He continued in a quieter tone, “I’m sorry, my friend, but it cannot wait. My master is bound for Kenilworth but this reply must be sent anon. It is critical that our acquaintance receive it and . . .” Hall lowered his voice even further. “I fear it is not safe.”
Shakespeare’s eyes narrowed under his dark brows. “You fear pursuivants and yet you come here--to my home? Directly? Why not just hire a beadle? Sir, you are a fool.”
Hall stared hard at Shakespeare, meeting his eyes with a level gaze. “I am on errand for Master Arden. I will be calling on several other tradesmen over the course of the day. There is no possible connection that can be made to this business.”
Shakespeare stared with bleak eyes at the disguised priest, his mind racing. “I cannot deliver it.” He spoke in soft emphatic tones. “There can be no connection between the priest and myself. My wife is a known recusant--I pay the fines. I am a man of status, of office. You know this. I walk a sharp path in my position.”
“Time is short. I would not ask except in dire necessity. The letter must be delivered. It is in the service of God and the Church.” Hall continued to stare in expectation.
Shakespeare glanced around the room. All of this, all he had built--the properties on Greenhill and Henley, the land in Snitterfield, his position in the community, his very life--all hung on a slender and tenuous thread.
“Consider it a penance for your past sins.” Hall’s voice was ice.
Shakespeare laughed, the sound hollow, refusing Hall’s eyes, remembering his role in presiding as the Stratford chamberlain over the destruction of the guild chapel’s rood loft, hearing the pointed snapping crackle of the broken gilded wood in the bonfire, and smelling the thick pungent lime wash shrouding the pious saints on the defaced frescos. Burning the symbols of the True Faithwas enough of a sin to stain any man.
“I had little choice, as you well know.” He glared back at Hall then looked down, resigned. “Very well, leave the letter. I will pass it along with all due haste.”
Hall eyed Shakespeare with cold satisfaction, and then nodded. The disguised priest left the glover’s residence without a backward glance, proceeding down Henley Street before turning into the market. Hall did not deign to notice the hunched form of a shambling farm laborer trailing behind, carrying a non-descript bundle on one shoulder. The laborer pushed back his limp hair from his face, noting the building that Hall had departed with its small wooden glover’s sign hanging beside the doorway. The man inclined his head, nodded to a shorter man in a greasy apron seated on a bench on the corner by a small alehouse and continued down Henley Street, following Hall.
John Shakespeare sat on his bench staring at the neat oil-skin-wrapped letter. With Jemmy not due for two more weeks, Shakespeare would have to pass the letter on himself. He grimaced. He was well known enough that trekking out to Shottery to deliver the letter would be noted. Like as not, someone would ask what the alderman was doing traipsing through the elms and hayfields. The letter needed to be delivered, but he pondered how to do it with circumspection and care, and without garnering notice.
He stood and rummaged on his workbench. Retrieving a pair of delicate lady’s gloves, he laid them beside the letter.
“Will,” he called. “Will!”
Will ducked his tousled head around the corner. ”Sir?”
“I need a note.” Shakespeare’s voice was gruff.
“Yessir,” replied Will, stepping into the room. He retrieved a single sheet of parchment, a wooden board, quill and ink from the sideboard and knelt on the floor.
John thought for a moment, and then quickly dictated:
“Honored Sir, I deliver to you this pair of gloves and a correspondence from our learned friend. Please pass the gloves as a gift onto your goodwife. The correspondence must be sent on forthwith to our visitor. This must be circumspect, yet swift. I remain your loyal servant, under God,”
Will paused and then wrote the note without pausing, the quill stroking in careful curlicues, dipping like a bird on the wind.
“How’s that, sir?” Will held up the thin parchment to his father. “Would you need any verse for the package?”
John squinted at the paper, then taking the quill from Will made a ragged and careful initial on the page. In truth, John Shakespeare had few letters, but for the sake of pride and position, both the father and the son tacitly never acknowledged that fact.
“That’ll do.” He patted the boy on the shoulder. “No verse needed today, but after you finish supping, I have a task for you. I need you to run this over to Sturley’s place in Shottery.”
Will stared at his father, curious, noting the oilskin-wrapped letter on the table, sealed with red wax. “And school?”
“Not today. If they have any humours about it, tell Master Hunt to speak with me. You can help with the wool afterwards.” He gestured towards the barn behind the house.
Will grimaced but the expression vanished just as fast as it materialized. His father did not appear to have noticed, lost in thought.
“Let’s not keep your mother waiting.” John Shakespeare laid one hand on Will’s shoulder and guided him out of the workshop. Will glanced back at the letter and gloves on the table, his curiosity piqued.
A short, wide man with a shabby hat, long, lank, greasy hair and granite eyes sat on the narrow wooden bench of the ordinary, sipping sour, hop-rich ale from a leather tankard, ignored amidst the morning bustle of the street. He eyed the glover’s tall house from under his hat. The man’s name was Cuttle.
Cuttle took a long draught from the tankard. He had been seated at the ordinary, unnoticed, for more than an hour. The presence of a day labourer drinking away his wages was neither extraordinary nor unusual and Cuttle had sat on this same bench during Hall’s last two visits to Stratford-on-Avon, watching the glover’s comings and goings with needled eyes.
The priest, Cuttle thought, was a purblind, arrogant fool. The glover was not. Hall seemed to think he could scuttle safe along a middle path, serving a dollop of treason here, a waft of gossip there and still continue to control his circumstances. The priest tried to sidle his way out of promises like a Bankside whore, speaking assurances and then prevaricating on others, as though treason could be a part-time occupation.
Cuttle hawked and spat into a puddle of urine at the edge of the road. He had followed the glover twice but the man was far more circumspect than the priest.
The spy felt the weight of his heavy, bone-hafted knife hanging from his belt. It would have been a pleasure to slit the priest’s throat and dump his body to rot in a ditch but his instructions were to grant him enough rope to hand himself and follow where the fool led them. Cuttle was disappointed. Myriad days of shadowing the bastard had given him a healthy dislike for the Papist scum. Immersed beneath that thought, in a very small measure, he was secretly relieved. Killing a man of God, no matter if he was a damned Catholic or not, was chancy business.
He had been born in London. Raised by his uncle in a desultory fashion, Cuttle had embraced the vicious underbelly of London life, disdaining efforts to apprentice him to a local farrier in favour of more sordid activities. He had begun as a petty thief, one of London’s roaring boys, before moving up to assume a role as the right-hand of one of Southwark’s leading filch-men. Even by London standards, Cuttle’s ambitions made him a marked man. When he stabbed one of the Upright Men in a tavern brawl, he found himself with the choice of a bitter death in a squalid rookery or a hurried flight to the countryside.
The choice was made easier by the opportunity for well-paid employment. The London street lords would not live forever, and Cuttle knew his exile was always only a knife’s edge away from ending. In the meantime, his current employer provided coin and some measure of vicious amusement.
Cuttle gulped warm ale and recalled his instructions. His employer had leaned back on his ornate carved chair. “Let Hall believe he has led us astray. Follow the letter. It will lead us to the Jesuit. Don’t lose the letter. It will be critical to the success of our endeavor. Once we know its destination, you may need to restore it to our possession.” Cuttle had nodded. As he turned to leave the man commented with off-hand diffidence. “Kill whom you need to but try not to make it too”--the man paused--”dramatic.”
That instruction had made Cuttle smile.
Kill whom you need, he thought. Kill whom you need.
He sipped his ale, humming to himself, content for now to watch the glover’s house.
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 Vat used for tanning hides, generally filled with a mixture of dung and urine.
 Herald or crier, a proclamation
 The rood loft & screen were common features in medieval churches, separating the nave from the choir or chancel of the church. They were often intricately decorated, gilded and lavishly constructed, often incorporating a gallery and an elaborate crucifix.
 Eating & drinking establishment
 Criminals or thieves, generally referring to an organized gang rather than an independent petty thief.
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