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Her Majesty's Will

Her Majesty's Will


Book excerpt

Scene One

Lancashire

15 July, 1586 

        In the long and amusing history of inauspicious beginnings, few can rival that belonging to young Will.

Let us for a moment ignore his humble origins, spotty schooling, and that early luckless brush with Law. If instead we focus upon his initial theatrical endeavor, we must agree that the likelihood of his ever attempting such a thing again was on a par with a Scotsman ascending the English throne. It happened, yes – but to this day no one quite believes it.

Which is all to say that Will’s first play was a mitigated disaster.

To begin with, Lysistrata’s balls were dropping, utterly ruining her song. What’s more, Myrrhine insisted on missing her cues, and Calonike kept pulling off her wig. When Will chastised her for the third and a half time (the half having been an involuntary expulsion of air rather than proper words), she threw down her wig and ground it under foot. “But Master Falstaff, I doesn’t wants to be a girl!”

“Fitting,” replied Will tartly, “as I’m fairly certain she doesn’t want to be you even more. But you’re not a girl – you’re a woman, a fine young woman that all the boys long for.”

All the boys giggled, and Calonike flushed. “Why doesn’t Booby-Tom play the girl?” demanded the boy in the dress, kicking the offending wig at Booby-Tom for further emphasis.

Booby-Tom wasn’t paying attention, as he was occupied at the window with his hands down his braes. Will chose to not call attention to this activity, as experience informed him this would only disrupt his class further. All at once he felt cutting despair invade his liver, thinking of all the long nights spent translating Aristophanic Greek for these incurious offspring of rural imbeciles.

It was not that he longed for the adventure that was about to claim him. But had he been given the choice of facing death in the unknown or eternal life among this tribe of dwarfish tormentors, his preference was undoubted. Teaching was not in his veins.

But it was, at present, his profession. Disregarding Booby-Tom’s self-abuse, Will decided to try reason. He stepped closer to Calonike, or Hemmings, as he was properly called. At once young Hemmings covered his bottom with his knuckles, thus hiding the two most often misused bits of him.

But Will did not use the cane. He tried words instead. “Master Hemmings, theatre is the gateway to understanding. It is not about story – stories can be told in a thousand ways: through song, through poetry, through prose, even through dance. But theatre is about character. It is the act of bringing people to life and keeping them alive. This play was written nearly two thousand years ago. Those who first peopled this story are long dead and buried. But each time it is performed, those people breathe again, as does the playwright. Can you imagine what a smith, a cobbler, a wainwright or carpenter would give to know that their craft would come alive again two thousand years from now? What has such permanence? Only God. As an actor you yourself become a god, performing an act of creation, breathing life into a statue and witnessing it quicken into being. You grant the people you portray, and moreover the playwright, a kind of immortality. The story may be silly, but the words are not. When they are spoken, given breath, these people become alive.”

“Death ain’t a person,” cried another objector. “Nor is Love, nor Hope, nor Chastity…”

“I hope she’s not real,” leered Hemmings, which had the cruder boys laughing and the younger ones looking perplexed.

“You’re quite correct,” said Will, flouting the laughter by agreeing with it. “Those plays are not about people, they’re about ideas. Which frankly is why they won’t last. No one likes ideas – at least, not the kind that they are forced to listen to. But men will always respond to plays about mankind.”

“This ain’t about men, is it?” asked another. “S’about women.”

Will could have argued further, drawing out the distinction between Man and Mankind. But he realized that he was growing guilty of the very thing he was objecting to – promoting ideas rather than people. He had to make this more personal. “Hemmings, think of it this way – theatre allows you to be something else, to pretend. Make free with your mind.”

Hemmings scratched at a louse. “Sounds like lepers and thems what don’t think well.”

Will sighed with an ironical smile. “It’s the ‘well’ that makes it art.”

“Eh?” Hemmings had found the louse, plucking it free and eating it.

“Eh?” echoed Will snappishly. Mastering his temper, he attempted one more assault against a willful won’t. “Isn’t it better than just memorizing Virgil and parroting it back?”

“Nay!” retorted Hemmings. “It’s just the same, only some of us gots to wear wigs and kits.”

“And kiss!” cried another protestant, eliciting a huge response from the rest of the class. Though, Will noted, one or two boys didn’t appear to object too strongly.

Stymied, Will unleashed his final weapon. “If you don’t perform your parts this moment, we shall perform this play again tomorrow – and invite your fathers.”

A tremor of fearfulness rippled through the room, bringing about a wonderful silence. Slowly Lysistrata began again to croak out her song. Myrrhine came in on cue, and Calonike recovered her wig.

Which left Will, lucky he, as the sole auditor to the travesty that was his first play. 

Yes, disaster was the word. The only thing that kept it from being an unmitigated disaster, indeed the sole bright spot of the whole sorry affair, was that he did not have to endure the totality.

Mitigation came in the form of a timely interruption.

“Master Falstaff,” said Booby-Tom, both hands now in sight. “There’s a wench being swived outside. May we go watch?”

Cheeky. Under normal circumstance, Will would have insisted they press on. But in truth he was as eager to end this thespianic night-terror as they. Rising and striking Booby-Tom’s pate as he passed, Will crossed to the door of the one room schoolhouse that was his abode. Home it could never be. His home was far away, and he was barred from it. Lord, did he hate being a schoolmaster. He often wished that some great plague would come and exterminate his bully pupils, or else a flood that would sweep him away from this place forever.

Little did he know, as he opened the door, that his wish – or at least a variation of it – was about to be granted.

Outside, it was indeed as Booby-Tom had described, at least at first glance. Not far from the door, just to the opposite side of the gravel path, it appeared as if two riders – one bald and squatty, the other bearing clear signs of the pox – had dismounted and were now groping and fumbling at a woman’s clothing. To the childish eye, it certainly looked as if they were making a clumsy attempt at disrobement. But Will knew that if fornication was the aim, there were simpler ways to circumvent a woman’s raiment. No, as he stood in the doorway watching it appeared, oddly enough, that the two men were searching for something hidden on the poor wench’s body.

Until this moment the girl’s face had been hidden from Will, turned away behind a curtain of curling midnight tresses. Suddenly her struggles and kicks turned her about to face him, and Will felt an ephemeral swordpoint enter his breast. Breath left him, his liver began to throb, his lungs turned to stone.

She should not have been beautiful. She was too dark, both in hair and eye. She was a raven, with the same mournful mockery in her eyes. Her skin was naturally fair, though recently burned by the sun.

This raven flicked a look to Will, who remained open-mouthed in the doorway, mere yards from where she stood protesting her molestation on the road. She did not cry aloud for aid, but a plea was present in her bottomless eyes.

The wise thing, Will knew, was to simply walk away. All that was required was a single backward step and let the door swing shut. In so doing, Will could banish this drama from his life and return to his promising career as a teacher.

“Hemmings, fetch my sword. Quick!”

The boys’ excitement, already aroused at the prospect of watching the unwilling dalliance in the road, grew Cathedral high at the idea of their schoolmaster intervening. No doubt they would see him walloped, then watch the conclusion of the raven’s rape. Better than the Christmas faire.

Waiting breathless for Hemming’s return, Will listened to the grunts and cries from the road. The woman’s words were curses, and those curses were far more creative and colourful than any Will had ever heard. The cries of “may the unholy angels bottle your filthy fiery farts and pour them down your throats” and “fut yourselves, you mewling doghearted flaccid-mouth wagtails” only made him respect this Dark Lady more. So too did her struggles, which were so far effective that only her bodice shoulder had torn and her over-skirt rent a little at the hip.

The accosters’ utterances, in contrast to hers, lacked all originality. Only they repeated, “Where be it?” though they varied it by occasionally adding “whore” to the end. They clearly lacked her panache.

Hemmings returned pink and glowing from the loft that housed Will’s truckle bed and basin. In his hands was Will’s rapier, the hard scabbard bruised and nicked. Accepting it, Will didn’t bother to fasten the sheath to his belt. Tripping lightly down the hill to the road, he removed the blade from its home. Unlike most scabbards, Will’s had a metal ring in the mouth, that the two metals might scrape together. Though the resulting sound of ready steel was pleasing, it was, he knew, foolish – such a theatrical device might damage the blade.

Holding the scabbard of leather-covered wood in his left hand, his right forefinger and thumb found the grip within the sword’s guard. It was a poor man’s guard, simple, with only flat quillons to and fro and a single arcing knuckle-bow. But the thirty-three inches of steel were keen, shiny, and far from neglected – Will never knew if the Law would succeed in tracing him to Lancashire, so he kept his sword well-honed.

Stepping high upon the short stone wall, Will landed in the road. Keeping the weapon’s tip down and the scabbard hidden behind his left leg, he said, “Release her, you varlets!”

It was said in his best voice, the one he had learned as a boy playing Aeneas in his own classroom plays – low but carrying, with the slightest edge of growl. He wished he were dressed for the part, instead of in his ugly master’s robe. But his stance was perfect, and his tone remarkably commanding.

Grasping the Dark Lady by her shapely hips, the poxier of the two scoundrels covered her mouth and pulled her close. The squatty hairless one turned to face Will, his hand dropping with alacrity to the double-ringed hilt of his own rapier.

At close distance, it was obvious to Will’s eye that these cads were something more than footpads. They wore fine if unmatched outfits of leather and rough silk, and their boots were tall. Not officers, but perhaps someone’s personal guard? Confidence melting, Will quailed in his slippers. Somehow he managed not to tremble openly. Alea jacta est.

The front man was bearded and bluff, with a shattered hedge of teeth and a carbuncle nose. He told Will to sod off, though in language a shade courser and far more vehement. The second, a lean fellow with thinning hair and waxen cheeks, was less voluble, only grunting his assent.

With forced ease, Will brought his blade up into the basic invitation – feet shoulder width apart, right foot forward, the left angled a trifle out, knees at demi-plie. His scabbard played the part of a dagger on high, while the rapier aimed loosely for the talker’s breast. “I say, release the lady and be gone.” His voice did not betray a tremor.

Having abandoned their feminine attire, Will’s young pupils drew closer to claim choice seats on the other side of the low wall. Some of them hefted stones and nocked them into the slings they were forbidden to carry. Will knew that he was just as likely a target for their missiles as his two opponents, but he chose not to share that intelligence.

The varlet that knew his tongue from his broken teeth said, “What does a schoolmaster know of fighting?”

“I may wear the schoolmaster’s gown today,” said Will, not in anger but again with that unconcerned combination of authority and growl, “but that is the fault of this blade – a blade that has skewered men for less insult that you have offered today. I swore never to raise it again in anger, but so help me God, if you do not release the lady in this breath, I will use the next to sing this blade through a measure of crimson music until my forte is cadent with your intermingled sanguinity.”

As they remeasured him, Will feared he was a trifle over-playing the casual nature of his deadliness. Or perhaps they were merely negotiating his language. That he had certainly over-played. As per usual.

“Leave off, master,” replied carbuncle-snout in a less strident tone. He was eyeing both Will’s stance and the number of slings (a quantity which, in all honesty, astonished Will more than the varlet). “We’re on orders to bring this thieving wench back to our mistress.”

Will’s arm was steady, his point unwavering. “Your mistress is no lady, to send such as you to retrieve such a woman in such a manner.”

Carbuncle raised his voice. “You know fut all! She’s a disloyal bitch, and has valuable property secreted on her person that does not belong to her.”

“That is for the law to consider,” said Will. “If you persist, it must perforce consider your deaths at my hand. I am content to have it so. Are you?”

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