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Authors: Gary Blackwood

The Shakespeare Stealer

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THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER
THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER
Gary lackwood

DUTTON CHILDREN'S BOOKS

New York

Text copyright © 1998 by Gary Blackwood

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Blackwood, Gary L.
The Shakespeare stealer / by Gary Blackwood.—1st ed. p. cm. Summary: A young orphan boy is ordered by his master to infiltrate Shakespeare's acting troupe in order to steal the script of “Hamlet,” but he discovers instead the meaning of friendship and loyalty.
ISBN: 978-1-1012-0003-2
[1. Theater—Fiction. 2. Orphans—Fiction. 3. Actors and actresses—Fiction. 4. Great Britain—History—Elizabeth,
1558–1603—Fiction. 5. Shakespeare, William, 1558–1603—Fiction.]
I. Title.
PZ7.B5338Sh 1998 [Fic]—dc21 97-42987 CIP AC

Published in the United States by Dutton Children's Books,
a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

For Tegan,
my only collaboration—
and a masterpiece

THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER
1

I
never knew my mother or my father. As reliably as I can learn, my mother died the same year I was born, the year of our Lord 1587, the twenty-ninth of Queen Elizabeth's reign.

The name I carried with me throughout my youth was attached to me, more or less accidentally, by Mistress MacGregor of the orphanage. I was placed in her care by some neighbor. When she saw how small and frail I was, she exclaimed “
Och
, the poor little pigwidgeon!” From that unfortunate expression came the appellation of Widge, which stuck to me for years, like pitch. It might have been worse, of course. They might have called me Pig.

Of my life at the orphanage, I have made it a habit to recall as little as possible. The long and short of it is, it was an institution, and institutions are governed by expediency. Mistress MacGregor was not a bad woman, just an overburdened one. Occasionally she lost her temper and beat one of us, but for the most part we were not mistreated so much as neglected.

The money given us by the parish was not enough to keep one child properly clothed and fed, let alone six or seven. We depended mostly upon charity. When someone felt charitable, our bellies were relatively full. Otherwise, we dined on barley mush and wild greens. When times were hard for others, they were doubly so for us.

It was the dream of each child within those dreary walls that someday a real family would come and claim him. Preferably it would be his true parents—who were, of course, royalty—but any set would do. Or so we thought.

When I was seven years of age, my prospects changed, as some say they do every seven years of a person's life—the grand climateric, I have heard it called. That orphan's dream suddenly became a reality for me.

The rector from the nearby hamlet of Berwick came looking for an apprentice and, thanks to Mistress MacGregor's praise, settled on me. The man's name was Dr. Timothy Bright. His title was not a religious one but a medical one. He had studied physick at Cambridge and practiced in the city of London before coming north to Yorkshire.

Naturally I was grateful and eager to please. I did readily whatever was asked of me, and at first it seemed I had been very fortunate. Dr. Bright and his wife were not affectionate toward me—nor, indeed, toward their own children. But they gave me a comfortable place to sleep at one end of the apothecary, the room where the doctor prepared his medicines and infusions.

There was always some potion simmering over a pot of burning pitch, and one of my duties was to tend to these. The pitch fire kept the room reasonably warm. I took my meals in the kitchen. Though the situation was hardly what we orphans had secretly hoped for, it was more or less what I had expected—with one exception. I was to be taught to read and write, not only in English but in Latin, and not only in Latin but also in a curious abbreviated language of Dr. Bright's own devising.
Charactery
, he called it. It was, to use his own words, “an art of short, swift, and secret writing, by the which one may transcribe the spoken word as rapidly as it issues from the tongue.”

His object, I soon learned, was not to offer me an education so much as to prepare me to be his assistant. I was to keep his scientific notes for him, and to transcribe his weekly sermons.

I had always been a quick student, but I was never quick enough to suit the doctor. He had some idea that his method of stenography could be learned in a matter of mere months, and he meant to use me to prove it.

I was a sore disappointment to him. It was an awkward system, and it took me a full year to become reasonably adept, and another year before I could set down every word without begging him to speak more slowly. This vexed him, for once his ample mouth was set in motion, he did not like to stop it. To his mind, of course, the fault lay not with his system but with me, for being so thickheaded.

I never saw him write anything in this short hand himself. I am inclined to think he never mastered it. As I grew confident with the system, I began to make my own small improvements in it—without the doctor's knowledge, of course. He was a vain man. Because he had once written a book, a dry treatise on melancholy, he felt the world should ever after make special allowances for him. He had written nothing since, so far as I knew, except his weekly sermons. And, as I was soon to discover, not always those.

When I was twelve, and could handle a horse as well as a plumbago pencil, the doctor set me off to neighboring parishes each Sabbath to copy other rectors' sermons. He meant, he said, to compile a book of the best ones. I believed him until one Sunday when the weather kept me home. I sat in on Dr. Bright's service and heard the very sermon I had transcribed at Dewsbury a fortnight before.

It did not prick my conscience to know that I had been doing something wrong. We were not given much instruction in right and wrong at the orphanage. As nearly as I could tell, Right was what benefited you, and anything which did you harm was Wrong.

My main concern was that I might be caught. I had never asked for any special consideration, but now I asked Dr. Bright, as humbly as I could, to be excused from the task. He blinked at me owlishly, as if not certain he had heard me properly. Then he scratched his long, red-veined nose and said, “You are my boy, and you will do exactly as I tell you.”

He said it as though it were an unarguable fact of life. That discouraged me far more than any threat or show of anger could have done. And he was right. According to law, I was his property. I had to obey or be sent back to the orphanage. As Mistress Bright was fond of reminding me, prentices were easily come by and easily replaced. In truth, he had too much invested in me to dismiss me lightly. But he would not have hesitated to beat me, and heavily.

There was a popular saying to the effect that England is a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a hell for horses. Prentices were too lowly to even deserve mention.

Eventually our sermon stealing was discovered. The wily old rector at Leeds noticed my feverish scribbling, and a small scandal ensued. Though Dr. Bright received only a mild reprimand from the church, he behaved as though his reputation were ruined. As usual, the blame fell squarely on my thin shoulders. My existence there, which had never been so much to begin with, went steadily downhill.

As I had so often done in my orphanage days, I began to wish for some savior to come by and, seeing at a glance my superior qualities, take me away.

In my more desperate moments, I even considered running away on my own. As I learned to read and transcribe such books as Holinshed's
Chronicles
and Ralegh's
Discov
ery of Guiana
, I discovered that there was a whole world out there beyond Yorkshire, beyond England, and I longed to see it with my own eyes.

Up to now, my life had been bleak and limited, and it showed no sign of changing. In a new country such as Guiana, I imagined, or a city the size of London, there would be opportunities for a lad with a bit of wherewithal to make something of himself, something more than an orphan and a drudge. And yet I held no real hope of ever seeing anything beyond the bounds of Berwick. Indeed, the thought of leaving rather frightened me.

I was so ill-equipped to set out into that world alone. I could read and write, but I knew none of the skills needed to survive in the unfamiliar, perhaps hostile lands that lay beyond the fields and folds of our little parish. And so I waited, and worked, and wished.

If I had had any notion of what actually lay in store for me, I might not have wished so hard for it.

2

W
hen I was fourteen, the grand climateric struck again, and my fortunes took a turn that made me actually long for the safety and security of the Brights' home.

In March, a stranger paid a visit to the rectory, but it was not some gentleman come to claim me as his heir. He was, in fact, no gentleman at all.

The doctor and I were in the apothecary when the housekeeper showed the stranger in. Though dark was almost upon us, we had not yet lighted the rush lights. The frugal doctor put that off as long as possible. The flickering flames of a pitch pot threw wavering, grotesque shadows upon the walls.

The stranger stood just inside the doorway, motionless and silent. He might have been taken for one of the shadows, or for some spectral figure—Death, or the devil—come to claim one of us. He was well over average height; a long, dark cloak of coarse fabric masked all his clothing save his high-heeled leather boots. He kept the hood of the cloak pulled forward, and it cast his face in shadow. The only feature I could make out was an unruly black beard, which curled over his collar. A bulge under the left side of his cloak hinted at some concealed object—a rapier, I guessed.

We all stood a long moment in a silence broken only by the sound of the potion boiling over its pot of flame. Dr. Bright blinked rapidly, as if coming awake, and snatched the clay vessel from the flame with a pair of tongs. Then he turned to the cloaked figure and said, with forced heartiness, “Now, then. How may I serve you, sir?”

The stranger stepped forward and reached under his cloak—for the rapier, I feared. But instead he drew out a small book bound in red leather. When he spoke, his voice was deep and hollow-sounding, befitting a spectre. “This is yours, is it not?”

Hesitantly, the doctor moved nearer and glanced at the volume. “Why, yes. Yes it is.” I recognized it as well now. It was one of a small edition Dr. Bright had printed up the year before, with the abundant title,
Charactery: An Art of Short, Swift, and Secret Writing
.

“Does it work?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The system,” the man said irritably. “Does it work?”

“Of course it works,” Dr. Bright replied indignantly. “With my system, one may without effort transcribe the written or the spoken word—”

“How long does it take?” the man interrupted.

Dr. Bright blinked at him. “Why, as I was about to say, one may set down speech as rapidly as it is spoken.”

The man gestured impatiently, as if waving the doctor's words aside. “How long to
learn
it?”

The doctor glanced at me and cleared his throat. “Well, that depends on the aptitude of the—”

“How
long
?”

The doctor shrugged. “Two months, perhaps. Perhaps more.” Perhaps a lot more, I thought.

The stranger flung the book onto the trestle table, which held the doctor's equipment. A glass vessel fell to the floor and shattered.

“Now see here—” Dr. Bright began. But the man had turned away, his long cloak swirling so violently that the flame in the pitch pot guttered and smoked. He stood facing away a moment, as if deep in thought. I busied myself cleaning up the broken beaker, content for once to be a lowly prentice with no hand in this business.

The black-bearded stranger turned back, his face still shadowed and unreadable. “To how many have you taught this system of yours?”

“Let me see…There's my boy, Widge, here, and then—”

“How many?

“Well…one, actually.”

The hooded countenance turned on me. “How well has he learned it?”

Dr. Bright assumed his false heartiness again. “Oh, perfectly,” he said, to my surprise. He had never before allowed that I was anything more than adequate.

“Show me,” the man said, whether to me or the doctor I could not tell. I stood holding the shards of glass in my hand.

“Are you quite deaf?” the doctor demanded. “The gentleman wishes a demonstration of your skill.”

I set the glass in a heap on the table, then picked up my small table-book and plumbago pencil. “What must I write?”

“Write this,” the stranger said. “I hereby convey to the bearer of this paper the services of my former apprentice—” The man paused.

“Go on,” I said. “I've kept up wi' you.” I was so intent on transcribing correctly and speedily that I'd paid no attention to the sense of the words.

“Your name,” the man said.

“Eh?”

“What is your
name
?”

“It's Widge,” the doctor answered for me, then laughed nervously, as if suddenly aware how odd was the name he had been calling me for seven years.

The stranger did not share his amusement. “—my former apprentice, Widge, in consideration of which I have accepted the amount of ten pounds sterling.” He paused again, and I looked up. For some reason, Dr. Bright was staring openmouthed, seemingly struck dumb.

“Is that all?” I asked.

The man held out an unexpectedly soft and well-manicured hand. “Let me see it.” I handed him the table-book. He turned it toward the light. “You have copied down every word?” I could not see the expression on his face, but I fancied his voice held a hint of surprise.

“Aye.”

He thrust the table-book into my hand. “Read it back to me.”

To the unschooled eye, the scribbles would have been wholly mysterious and indecipherable:

Yet I read it back to him without pause, and this time I was struck by the import of the words. “Do you—does this mean—?” I looked to Dr. Bright for an explanation, but he avoided my gaze.

“Copy it out now in a normal hand,” the stranger said.

“But I—”

“Go on!” the doctor snapped. “Do as he says.”

It was useless to protest. What feeble objection of mine could carry the weight of ten pounds of currency? I doubted the doctor earned that much in a year. Swallowing hard, I copied out the message in my best hand, as slowly as I reasonably might. Meantime my brain raced, searching for some way to avoid being handed over to this cold and menacing stranger.

Whatever the miseries of my life with the Brights, they were at least familiar miseries. To go off with this man was to be dragged into the unknown. A part of me longed for new places, new experiences. But a larger part clung to the security of the familiar, as a sailor cast adrift might cling fast to any rock, no matter how small or barren.

Briefly, I considered fleeing, but that was pointless. Even if I could escape them, where would I go? At last I came to the end of the message and gave it up to Dr. Bright, who appended his signature, then stood folding the paper carefully. I knew him well enough to know that he was waiting to see the color of the man's money.

In truth, I suppose I knew him better than I knew anyone in the world. It was a sad thought, and even sadder to think that, after seven years, he could just hand me over to someone he had never before met, someone whose name he did not know, someone whose face he had never even seen.

The stranger drew out a leather pouch and shook ten gold sovereigns from it onto the table. As he bent nearer the light of the pitch pot, I caught my first glimpse of his features. Dark, heavy brows met at the bridge of a long, hooked nose. On his left cheek, an ugly raised scar ran all the way from the corner of his eye into the depths of his dark beard. I must have gasped at the sight of it, for he turned toward me, throwing his face into shadow again.

He thrust the signed paper into the wallet at his belt, revealing for an instant the ornate handle of his rapier. “If you have anything to take along, you'd best fetch it now, boy.”

It took even less time to gather up my belongings than it had for my life to be signed away. All I owned was the small dagger I used for eating; a linen tunic and woollen stockings I wore only on the Sabbath; a worn leather wallet containing money received each year on the anniversary of my birth—or as near it as could be determined; and an ill-fitting sheepskin doublet handed down from Dr. Bright's son. It was little enough to show for fourteen years on this Earth.

Yet, all in all, I was more fortunate than many of my fellow orphans. Those who were unsound of mind or body were still at the orphanage. Others had died there.

I tied up my possessions with a length of cord and returned to where the men waited. Dr. Bright fidgeted with the sovereigns, as though worried that they might be taken back. The stranger stood as still and silent as a figure carved of wood.

When he moved, it was to take me roughly by the arm and usher me toward the door. “Keep a close eye on him, now,” the doctor called after us. I thought it was his way of expressing concern for my welfare. Then he added, “He can be sluggish if you don't stir him from time to time with a stick.”

The stranger pushed me out the front door and closed it behind him. A thin rain had begun to fall. I hunched my shoulders against it and looked about for a wagon or carriage. There was none, only a single horse at the snubbing post. The stranger untied the animal and swung into the saddle. “I've only the one mount. You'll have to walk.” He pulled the horse's head about and started off down the road.

I lingered a moment and turned to look back at the rectory. The windows were lighted now against the gathering dark. I half hoped someone from the household might be watching my departure, and might wish me Godspeed, and I could bid farewell in return before I left this place behind forever. There was no one, only the placid tabby cat gazing at me from under the shelter of the eaves.

“God buy you, then,” I told the cat and, slinging my bundle over my shoulder, turned and hurried off after my new master.

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