An excerpt from Will at the Tower.
It is December 1580. Sixteen-year-old William Shakespeare is residing at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire, a Catholic house and hence subject to official scrutiny and possible persecution. The danger is enhanced because the Jesuit evangelist Edmund Campion is at large and being fervently hunted.
Will has been trained as a player, but he is also required to work as tutor and help with other domestic duties. Here he is in conversation with Jane, daughter of Thomas who fled to Europe leaving Jane’s uncle Alexander and his wife Elizabeth as custodians of the estate. Jane is unhappily betrothed to James Bradshaw the son of a neighbouring family.
Advent advanced gloomily. With the days at their shortest and the freeze biting again there was little that could be done out of doors save for the sawing and splitting of wood. Time was given to maintenance and repairs of tools, of garments, and of the indoor fabric of the buildings. There was talk of a second priest hole being made, but Elizabeth scuppered that idea as being too risky. The trees were naked now, sleeping but watching. Evergreens were pruned and coppiced at the solstice and wreaths of rosemary, bay, holly, ivy and mistletoe were made to decorate the great and small halls.
A reply came from Haigh. The Bradshaws would stay at home for Christmas itself but a deputation of James and two sisters, Alice and Mabel, would come for the New Year and stay until twelfth night.
Jane shared her relief with Will while walking the estate gathering mistletoe among a small party of woodsmen and some of their womenfolk. She’d selected one of her plainer cloaks, sage green. He didn’t hide his delight in meeting with her. The cold diluted the colour in their faces, and also worked its winter magic, so that the fainter the background hue the greater was the foreground blush of their cheeks.
“I don’t expect you can escape the marriage.”
“All decided before I was born, Will. Fate. We discussed that in our Greek lesson.”
“Were we always destined to have that discussion?”
“And this one.”
“So is that all we are ever at liberty to do, discover our predetermined destiny? Where is the test in that?”
Will tried to balance the long-handled billhook he was holding on one finger.
“The test is in the dealing with it.”
“How is that fair?”
The woodcutters reached high with their hooks. The mistletoe and a brittle branch of the host oak fell heavily, lashing one of their number. Laughter erupted.
“If we are all given different destinies where is the fairness in the test of how we deal with them?”
Will chuckled in admiration of her remark. “James Bradshaw is a lucky man.”
Jane’s cheeks swelled briefly as she first celebrated then mourned the sentiment. She collected an armful of the mistletoe. “So where is the test for him in dealing with his destiny?”
Shakespeare said, “I think I’m talking to it.”
Jane laughed a little. The men by the tree went to work again. No one objected that Will wasn’t helping. He used his billhook as a walking stick. Jane led him away from the others.
“I know I’m going to have to marry him,” she said. “Aren’t I?”
“Marriage is a contract,” said Will. “Love is . . .”
“A disease,” he said
“Never healed me yet.”
They had separated from the wooding party. Jane stopped and stared at the white and sapphire sky. “Maybe that’s because those who might administer it to you are too scared to do so?”
He turned to her but she stayed secured to the sky. “The problem with my mind,” he said, “is that it walks without bounds. I see several futures, all of which could happen, and none of which will.”
“Tell me the ones that won’t happen for they’ll surely be the most entertaining.”
They were edging around the south-eastern corner of the curtain wall. They could see the Darwen river and between them and it a thread of smoke rose from a hovel. Outside, a frail figure reorganised his pile of firewood.
“Have you met that fellow?”
Jane looked. “Everyone knows Poor Tom. Except Poor Tom himself.”
“He scared us half to death the first night I came here.”
“Quite mad. Sometimes in summer, when the water is low, he spends days on a tiny island in the middle of the river.”
“Have you ever been to an island?”
“Aren’t we on one?”
“I would like to go to another.”
“What would it be like?” she asked.
“Ruled by love, not by hate.”
“Is that what rules us? Hate?”
“It’s what governs us.”
“Does the Queen not love her subjects?” There was thread-of-gold sarcasm in her voice.
“When I get chance I’ll ask her.”
“Isn’t that what Frances Thursby promised you?”
“I didn’t believe her.”
“Perhaps it wasn’t a promise. Perhaps it was a prophecy.”
“She had powers. But so do you.”
Jane sniffed the scent of the mistletoe she held. “We all do,” she said.
“I wish to God that we didn’t.”
The solstice sun was sinking low. Dendritic shadows lengthened. Trees took light from the west. Soft voices giggled and harder ones laughed, a short distance away. Branches snapped and fell to earth. “We can harness our powers,” she said. “As Campion does.”
“God gave him more.”
Will shrugged. “Because he asked him to.”
“Would have been kinder to refuse.”
“Do you call God cruel?”
“Yes Will. I do. And if that damns me, then so be it. I see in Campion a lovely, loving, wise and giving man. He is a man without hatred, even of those who hate him. And do you know what Will? I don’t even think they do hate him. I think they fear him. They fear him because he loves and he creates more love. Love for the thing they fear. So God takes this lovely loving man, and he says – you’ll do. I’ll give you the power to love much more than others, and that love and that power will bring you more pain than you can imagine.”
“But think of the rewards.”
“If you are thinking of the rewards Will, it’s not love, it’s greed.”
Will shivered. “We should join the others.”
“I have love for you William Shakespeare.”
“But it cannot be shared, because I do not want the rewards. For me, or for you.”
He stepped closer to her. The sun was in the hedgerow. Her face was the hue of pale snow. Her lips a bay leaf. She held a cushion of mistletoe between them. She did not move away. He did not move nearer. The world waited.
A woodsman broke cover twenty yards away.
Will and Jane re-joined the party. Soon they were inside, sipping spiced wine. The longest night began.
The historical background to the book can be read in my previous post: Where there was a Will
The novel is available as an eBook and as a paperback from Amazon.
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