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MASTER SKYLARK

A Story of Shakspere's Time

BY

JOHN BENNETT

ILLUSTRATIONS BY REGINALD B. BIRCH

1897






[Illustration: "'MASTER SKYLARK, THOU SHALT HAVE THY WISH,'
SAID QUEEN ELIZABETH."]



ALL THAT NICHOLAS ATTWOOD'S MOTHER
WAS TO HIM, AND MORE, MY OWN MOTHER HAS BEEN TO ME
AND TO HER HERE I INSCRIBE THIS BOOK
WITH A NEVER-FAILING LOVE




CONTENTS


CHAPTER

I THE LORD ADMIRAL'S PLAYERS
II NICHOLAS ATTWOOD'S HOME
III THE LAST STRAW
IV OFF FOR COVENTRY
V IN THE WARWICK ROAD
VI THE MASTER-PLAYER
VII "WELL SUNG, MASTER SKYLARK!"
VIII THE ADMIRAL'S COMPANY
IX THE MAY-DAY PLAY
X AFTER THE PLAY
XI DISOWNED
XII A STRANGE RIDE
XIII A DASH FOR FREEDOM
XIV AT BAY
XV LONDON TOWN
XVI MA'M'SELLE CICELY CAREW
XVII CAREW'S OFFER
XVIII MASTER HEYWOOD PROTESTS
XIX THE ROSE PLAY-HOUSE
XX DISAPPOINTMENT
XXI "THE CHILDREN OF PAUL'S"
XXII THE SKYLARK'S SONG
XXIII A NEW LIFE
XXIV THE MAKING OF A PLAYER
XXV THE WANING OF THE YEAR
XXVI TO SING BEFORE THE QUEEN
XXVII THE QUEEN'S PLAISANCE
XXVIII CHRISTMAS WITH QUEEN BESS
XXIX BACK TO GASTON CAREW
XXX AT THE FALCON INN
XXXI IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE
XXXII THE LAST OF GASTON CAREW
XXXIII CICELY DISAPPEARS
XXXIV THE BANDY-LEGGED MAN
XXXV A SUDDEN RESOLVE
XXXVI WAYFARING HOME
XXXVII TURNED ADRIFT
XXXVIII A STRANGE DAY
XXXIX ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL




LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


"MASTER SKYLARK, THOU SHALT HAVE THY WISH," SAID QUEEN
ELIZABETH

THE LORD ADMIRAL'S PLAYERS. THE TRUMPETERS AND THE
DRUMMERS LED, THEIR HORSES PRANCING, WHITE PLUMES
WAVING IN THE BREEZE

"WHUR BE-EST GOING, NICK?" ASKED ROGER DAWSON

"WHAT! HOW NOW?" CRIED THE STRANGER, SHARPLY. "DOST
LIKE OR LIKE ME NOT?"

"NICK THOUGHT OF HIS MOTHER'S SINGING ON A SUMMER'S EVENING - DREW
A DEEP BREATH AND BEGAN TO SING

"NOBODY BREAKS NOBODY'S HEARTS IN OLD JO-OHN SMITHSES
SHO-OP," DRAWLED THE SMITH, IN HIS DEEP VOICE; "NOR
STEALS NOBODY, NOTHER"

"DICCON HAD OFTEN MADE NICK WHISTLES FROM THE WILLOWS
ALONG THE AVON WHEN NICK WAS A TODDLER"

NICK PUT ONE LEG OVER THE SILL AND LOOKED BACK

"OH, NICK, THOU ART MOST BEAUTIFUL TO SEE!" CRIED CICELY

"THAT VOICE, THAT VOICE!" NAT GILES PANTED TO HIMSELF

NICK GAVE THE SILVER BUCKLE FROM HIS CLOAK TO A BOY WHO
STOOD CRYING WITH COLD AND HUNGER IN THE STREET

SO NICK RODE HOME UPON THE BACK OF THE EARL OF ARUNDEL'S
MAN-AT-ARMS

"WHY, SIR, I'LL SING FOR THEE NOW," SAID NICK, CHOKING

"DO NA THOU STRIKE ME AGAIN, THOU ROGUE!" SAID NICK

"OH, NICK, WHAT Is IT?" SHE CRIED

MASTER SHAKSPERE MET THEM WITH OUTSTRETCHED HANDS




MASTER SKYLARK



CHAPTER I


THE LORD ADMIRAL'S PLAYERS

There was an unwonted buzzing in the east end of Stratford on that next
to the last day of April, 1596. It was as if some one had thrust a stick
into a hive of bees and they had come whirling out to see.

The low stone guard-wall of old Clopton bridge, built a hundred years
before by rich Sir Hugh, sometime Mayor of London, was lined with
straddling boys, like strawberries upon a spear of grass, and along the
low causeway from the west across the lowland to the town, brown-faced,
barefoot youngsters sat beside the roadway with their chubby legs
a-dangle down the mossy stones, staring away into the south across the
grassy levels of the valley of the Stour.

Punts were poling slowly up the Avon to the bridge; and at the outlets
of the town, where the streets came down to the waterside among the
weeds, little knots of men and serving-maids stood looking into the
south and listening. Some had waited for an hour, some for two; yet
still there was no sound but the piping of the birds in white-thorn
hedges, the hollow lowing of kine knee-deep in grassy meadows, and the
long rush of the river through the sedge beside the pebbly shore; and
naught to see but quiet valleys, primrose lanes, and Warwick orchards
white with bloom, stretching away to the misty hills.

But still they stood and looked and listened.

The wind came stealing up out of the south, soft and warm and sweet and
still, moving the ripples upon the river with gray gusts; and, scudding
free before the wind, a dog came trotting up the road with wet pink
tongue and sidelong gait. At the throat of Clopton bridge he stopped and
scanned the way with dubious eye, then clapped his tail between his legs
and bolted for the town. The laughing shout that followed him into the
Warwick road seemed not to die away, but to linger in the air like the
drowsy hum of bees - a hum that came and went at intervals upon the
shifting wind, and grew by littles, taking body till it came unbroken as
a long, low, distance-muffled murmur from the south, so faint as
scarcely to be heard.

Nick Attwood pricked his keen young ears. "They're coming, Robin - hark
'e to the trampling!"

Robin Getley held his breath and turned his ear toward the south. The
far-off murmur was a mutter now, defined and positive, and, as the two
friends listened, grew into a drumming roll, and all at once above it
came a shrill, high sound like the buzzing of a gnat close by the ear.

Little Tom Davenant dropped from the finger-post, and came running up
from the fork of the Banbury road, his feet making little white puffs in
the dust as he flew. "They are coming! they are coming!" he shrieked
as he ran.

Then up to his feet sprang Robin Getley, upon the saddle-backed
coping-stones, his hand upon Nick Attwood's head to steady himself, and
looked away where the rippling Stour ran like a thread of silver beside
the dust-buff London road, and the little church of Atherstone stood
blue against the rolling Cotswold Hills.

"They are coming! they are coming!" shrilled little Tom, and scrambled
up the coping like a squirrel up a rail.

A stir ran out along the guard-wall, some crying out, some starting up.
"Sit down! sit down!" cried others, peering askance at the water
gurgling green down below. "Sit down, or we shall all be off!"

Robin held his hand above his eyes. A cloud of dust was rising from the
London road and drifting off across the fields like smoke when the old
ricks burn in damp weather - a long, broad-sheeted mist; and in it were
bits of moving gold, shreds of bright colors vaguely seen, and silvery
gleams like the glitter of polished metal in the sun. And as he looked
the shifty wind came down out of the west again and whirled the cloud of
dust away, and there he saw a long line of men upon horses coming at an
easy canter up the highway. Just as he had made this out the line came
rattling to a stop, the distant drumming of hoofs was still, and as the
long file knotted itself into a rosette of ruddy color amid the April
green, a clear, shrill trumpet blew and blew again.

"They are coming!" shouted Robin, "they are coming!" and, turning, waved
his cap.

A shout went up along the bridge. Those down below came clambering up,
the punts came poling with a rush of foam, and a ripple ran along the
edge of Stratford town like the wind through a field of wheat. Windows
creaked and doors swung wide, and the workmen stopped in the
garden-plots to lean upon their mattocks and to look.

"They are coming!" bellowed Rafe Hickathrift, the butcher's boy,
standing far out in the street, with his red hands to his mouth for a
trumpet, "they are coming!" and at that the doors of Bridge street grew
alive with eager eyes.

At early dawn the Oxford carrier had brought the news that the players
of the Lord High Admiral were coming up to Stratford out of London from
the south, to play on May-day there; and this was what had set the town
to buzzing like a swarm. For there were in England then but three great
companies, the High Chamberlain's, the Earl of Pembroke's men, and the
stage-players of my Lord Charles Howard, High Admiral of the Realm; and
the day on which they came into a Midland market-town to play was one to
mark with red and gold upon the calendar of the uneventful year.

Away by the old mill-bridge there were fishermen angling for dace and
perch; but when the shout came down from the London road they dropped
their poles and ran, through the willows and over the gravel, splashing
and thrashing among the rushes and sandy shallows, not to be last when
the players came. And old John Carter coming down the Warwick road with
a load of hay, laid on the lash until piebald Dobbin snorted in dismay
and broke into a lumbering run to reach the old stone bridge in time.

The distant horsemen now were coming on again, riding in double file.
They had flung their banners to the breeze, and on the changing wind,
with the thumping of horses' hoofs, came by snatches the sound of a
kettledrummer drawing his drumhead tight, and beating as he drew, and
the muffled blasts of a trumpeter proving his lips.

Fynes Morrison and Walter Stirley, who had gone to Cowslip lane to meet
the march, were running on ahead, and shouting as they ran: "There's
forty men, and sumpter-mules! and, oh, the bravest banners and
attire - and the trumpets are a cloth-yard long! Make room for us, make
room for us, and let us up!"

A bowshot off, the trumpets blew a blast so high, so clear, so keen,
that it seemed a flame of fire in the air, and as the brassy fanfare
died away across the roofs of the quiet town, the kettledrums clanged,
the cymbals clashed, and all the company began to sing the famous old
song of the hunt:

"The hunt is up, the hunt is up,
Sing merrily we, the hunt is up!
The wild birds sing,
The dun deer fling,
The forest aisles with music ring!
Tantara, tantara, tantara!

"Then ride along, ride along,
Stout and strong!
Farewell to grief and care;
With a rollicking cheer
For the high dun deer
And a life in the open air!
Tantara, the hunt is up, lads;
Tantara, the bugles bray!
Tantara, tantara, tantara,
Hio, hark away!"

The first of the riders had reached old Clopton bridge, and the banners
strained upon their staves in the freshening river-wind. The trumpeters
and the drummers led, their horses prancing, white plumes waving in the
breeze, and the April sunlight dancing on the brazen horns and the
silver bellies of the kettledrums.

Then came the banners of the company, curling down with a silky swish,
and unfurling again with a snap, like a broad-lashed whip. The greatest
one was rosy red, and on it was a gallant ship upon a flowing sea,
bearing upon its mainsail the arms of my Lord Charles Howard, High
Admiral of England. Upon its mate was a giant-bearded man with a fish's
tail, holding a trident in his hand and blowing upon a shell, the Triton
of the seas which England ruled; this flag was bright sea-blue. The
third was white, and on it was a red wild rose with a golden heart, the
common standard of the company.

[Illustration: THE LORD ADMIRAL'S PLAYERS. "THE TRUMPETERS AND THE
DRUMMERS LED, THEIR HORSES PRANCING, WHITE PLUMES WAVING IN THE BREEZE."]

After the flags came twoscore men, the players of the Admiral, the
tiring-men, grooms, horse-boys, and serving-knaves, well mounted on good
horses, and all of them clad in scarlet tabards blazoned with the
coat-armor of their master. Upon their caps they wore the famous badge
of the Howards, a rampant silver demi-lion; and beneath their tabards at
the side could be seen their jerkins of many-colored silk, their
silver-buckled belts, and long, thin Spanish rapiers, slapping their
horses on the flanks at every stride. Their legs were cased in
high-topped riding-boots of tawny cordovan, with gilt spurs, and the
housings of their saddles were of blue with the gilt anchors of the
admiralty upon them. On their bridles were jingling bits of steel, which
made a constant tinkling, like a thousand little bells very far away.

Some had faces smooth as boys and were quite young; and others wore
sharp-pointed beards with stiff-waxed mustaches, and were older men,
with a tinge of iron in their hair and lines of iron in their faces,
hardened by the life they led; and some, again, were smooth-shaven, so
often and so closely that their faces were blue with the beard beneath
the skin. But, oh, to Nicholas Attwood and the rest of Stratford boys,
they were a dashing, rakish, admirable lot, with the air of something
even greater than lords, and a keen knowingness in their sparkling,
worldly eyes that made a common wise man seem almost a fool beside them!

And so they came riding up out of the south:

"Then ride along, ride along,
Stout and strong!
Farewell to grief and care;
With a rollicking cheer
For the high dun deer
And a life in the open air!"

"Hurrah! hurrah! God save the Queen!"

A dropping shout went up the street like an arrow-flight scattering over
the throng; and the players, waving their scarlet caps until the long
line tossed like a poppy-garden in a summer rain, gave a cheer that
fairly set the crockery to dancing upon the shelves of the stalls in
Middle Bow.

"Hurrah!" shouted Nicholas Attwood, his blue eyes shining with delight.
"Hurrah, hurrah, for the Admiral's men!" And high in the air he threw
his cap, as a wild cheer broke from the eddying crowd, and the arches of
the long gray bridge rang hollow with the tread of hoofs. Whiff, came
the wind; down dropped the hat upon the very saddle-peak of one tall
fellow riding along among the rest. Catching it quickly as it fell, he
laughed and tossed it back; and when Nick caught it whirling in the air,
a shilling jingled from it to the ground.

Then up Fore Bridge street they all trooped after into Stratford town.

"Oh," cried Robin, "it is brave, brave!"

"Brave?" cried Nick. "It makes my very heart jump. And see, Robin, 'tis
a shilling, a real silver shilling - oh, what fellows they all be! Hurrah
for the Lord High Admiral's men!"




CHAPTER II


NICHOLAS ATTWOOD'S HOME

Nick Attwood's father came home that night bitterly wroth.

The burgesses of the town council had ordered him to build a chimney
upon his house, or pay ten shillings fine; and shillings were none too
plenty with Simon Attwood, the tanner of Old Town.

"Soul and body o' man!" said he, "they talk as if they owned the world,
and a man could na live upon it save by their leave. I must build my
fire in a pipe, or pay ten shillings fine? Things ha' come to a pretty
pass - a pretty pass, indeed!" He kicked the rushes that were strewn upon
the floor, and ground the clay with his heel. "This litter will ha' to
be all took out. Atkins will be here at six i' the morning to do the
job, and a lovely mess he will make o' the house!"

"Do na fret thee, Simon," said Mistress Attwood, gently. "The rushes
need a changing, and I ha' pined this long while to lay the floor wi'
new clay from Shottery common. 'Tis the sweetest earth! Nick shall take
the hangings down, and right things up when the chimley 's done."

So at cockcrow next morning Nick slipped out of his straw bed, into his
clothes, and down the winding stair, while his parents were still asleep
in the loft, and, sousing his head in the bucket at the well, began his
work before the old town clock in the chapel tower had yet struck four.

The rushes had not been changed since Easter, and were full of dust and
grease from the cooking and the table. Even the fresher sprigs of mint
among them smelled stale and old. When they were all in the barrow, Nick
sighed with relief and wiped his hands upon the dripping grass.

It had rained in the night, - a soft, warm rain, - and the air was full of
the smell of the apple-bloom and pear from the little orchard behind the
house. The bees were already humming about the straw-bound hives along
the garden wall, and a misguided green woodpecker clung upside down to
the eaves, and thumped at the beams of the house.

It was very still there in the gray of the dawn. He could hear the rush
of the water through the sedge in the mill-race, and then, all at once,
the roll of the wheel, the low rumble of the mill-gear, and the cool
whisper of the wind in the willows.

When he went back into the house again the painted cloths upon the wall
seemed dingier than ever compared with the clean, bright world outside.
The sky-blue coat of the Prodigal Son was brown with the winter's smoke;
the Red Sea towered above Pharaoh's ill-starred host like an inky
mountain; and the homely maxims on the next breadth - "Do no Wrong,"
"Beware of Sloth," "Overcome Pride," and "Keep an Eye on the
Pence" - could scarcely be read.

Nick jumped up on the three-legged stool and began to take them down.
The nails were crooked and jammed in the wall, and the last came out
with an unexpected jerk. Losing his balance, Nick caught at the
table-board which leaned against the wall; but the stool capsized, and
he came down on the floor with such a flap of tapestry that the ashes
flew out all over the room.

He sat up dazed, and rubbed his elbows, then looked around and began to
laugh.

He could hear heavy footsteps overhead. A door opened, and his father's
voice called sternly from the head of the stair: "What madcap folly art
thou up to now?"

"I be up to no folly at all," said Nick, "but down, sir. I fell from the
stool. There is no harm done."

"Then be about thy business," said Attwood, coming slowly down the
stairs.

He was a gaunt man, smelling of leather and untanned hides. His short
iron-gray hair grew low down upon his forehead, and his hooked nose,
grim wide mouth, and heavy under jaw gave him a look at once forbidding
and severe. His doublet of serge and his fustian hose were stained with
liquor from the vats, and his eyes were heavy with sleep.

The smile faded from Nick's face. "Shall I throw the rushes into the
street, sir?" "Nay; take them to the muck-hill. The burgesses ha' made
a great to-do about folk throwing trash into the highways. Soul and body
o' man!" he growled, "a man must ask if he may breathe. And good hides
going a-begging, too!"

Nick hurried away, for he dreaded his father's sullen moods.

The swine were squealing in their styes, the cattle bawled about the
straw-thatched barns in Chapel lane, and long files of gabbling ducks
waddled hurriedly down to the river through the primroses under the
hedge. He could hear the milkmaids calling in the meadows; and when he
trundled slowly home the smoke was creeping up in pale-blue threads from
the draught-holes in the wall.

The tanner's house stood a little back from the thoroughfare, in that
part of Stratford-on-Avon where the south end of Church street turns
from Bull lane toward the river. It was roughly built of timber and
plaster, the black beams showing through the yellow lime in curious
squares and triangles. The roof was of red tiles, and where the
spreading elms leaned over it the peaked gable was green with moss.

At the side of the house was a garden of lettuce; beyond the garden a
rough wall on which the grass was growing. Sometimes wild primroses grew
on top of this wall, and once a yellow daffodil. Beyond the wall were
other gardens owned by thrifty neighbors, and open lands in common to
them all, where foot-paths wandered here and there in a free,
haphazard way.

Behind the house was a well and a wood-pile, and along the lane ran a
whitewashed paling fence with a little gate, from which the path went up
to the door through rows of bright, old-fashioned flowers.

Nick's mother was getting the breakfast. She was a gentle woman with a
sweet, kind face, and a little air of quiet dignity that made her doubly
dear to Nick by contrast with his father's unkempt ways. He used to
think that, in her worsted gown, with its falling collar of Antwerp
linen, and a soft, silken coif upon her fading hair, she was the most
beautiful woman in all the world.

She put one arm about his shoulders, brushed back his curly hair, and
kissed him on the forehead.

"Thou art mine own good little son," said she, tenderly, "and I will
bake thee a cake in the new chimley on the morrow for thy
May-day-feast."

Then she helped him fetch the trestles from the buttery, set the board,
spread the cloth, and lay the wooden platters, pewter cups, and old horn
spoons in place. Breakfast being ready, she then called his father from
the yard. Nick waited deftly upon them both, so that they were soon done
with the simple meal of rye-bread, lettuce, cheese, and milk.

As he carried away the empty platters and brought water and a towel for
them to wash their hands, he said quietly, although his eyes were bright
and eager, "The Lord High Admiral's company is to act a stage-play at
the guildhall to-morrow before Master Davenant the Mayor and the town
burgesses."

Simon Attwood said nothing, but his brows drew down.

"They came yestreen from London town by Oxford way to play in Stratford
and at Coventry, and are at the Swan Inn with Master Geoffrey
Inchbold - oh, ever so many of them, in scarlet jerkins, and cloth of
gold, and doublets of silk laced up like any lord! It is a very good
company, they say."

Mistress Attwood looked quickly at her husband. "What will they play?"
she asked.

"I can na say surely, mother - 'Tamburlane,' perhaps, or 'The Troublesome
Reign of Old King John.' The play will be free, father - may I go, sir?"

"And lose thy time from school?"

"There is no school to-morrow, sir."

"Then have ye naught to do, that ye waste the day in idle folly?" asked
the tanner, sternly.

"I will do my work beforehand, sir," replied Nick, quietly, though his
hand trembled a little as he brushed up the crumbs.

"It is May-day, Simon," interceded Mistress Attwood, "and a bit of
pleasure will na harm the lad."

"Pleasure?" said the tanner, sharply. "If he does na find pleasure
enough in his work, his book, and his home, he shall na seek it of low
rogues and strolling scape-graces."

"But, Simon," said Mistress Attwood, "'tis the Lord Admiral's own
company - surely they are not all graceless! And," she continued with
very quiet dignity, "since mine own cousin Anne Hathaway married Will
Shakspere the play-actor, 'tis scarcely kind to call all players
rogues and low."

"No more o' this, Margaret," cried Attwood, flushing angrily. "Thou art
ever too ready with the boy's part against me. He shall na go - I'll find
a thing or two for him to do among the vats that will take this taste
for idleness out of his mouth. He shall na go: so that be all there is
on it." Rising abruptly, he left the room.

Nick clenched his hands.

"Nicholas," said his mother, softly.

"Yes, mother," said he; "I know. But he should na flout thee so! And,
mother, the Queen goes to the play - father himself saw her at Coventry
ten years ago. Is what the Queen does idle folly?"

His mother took him by the hand and drew him to her side, with a smile
that was half a sigh. "Art thou the Queen?"

"Nay," said he; "and it's all the better for England, like enough. But
surely, mother, it can na be wrong - "

"To honour thy father?" said she, quickly, laying her finger across his
lips. "Nay, lad; it is thy bounden duty."

Nick turned and looked up at her wonderingly. "Mother," said he, "art
thou an angel come down out of heaven?"

"Nay," she answered, patting his flushed cheek; "I be only the every-day
mother of a fierce little son who hath many a hard, hard lesson to
learn. Now eat thy breakfast - thou hast been up a long while."

Nick kissed her impetuously and sat down, but his heart still rankled
within him.

All Stratford would go to the play. He could hear the murmur of voices
and music, the bursts of laughter and applause, the tramp of happy feet
going up the guildhall stairs to the Mayor's show. Everybody went in
free at the Mayor's show. The other boys could stand on stools and see
it all. They could hold horses at the gate of the inn at the September
fair, and so see all the farces. They could see the famous Norwich
puppet-play. But he - what pleasure did he ever have? A tawdry pageant by
a lot of clumsy country bumpkins at Whitsuntide or Pentecost, or a silly
school-boy masque at Christmas, with the master scolding like a heathen


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