Drayton and Shaxper were roughly the same age, bonded by the geographical fate of having been born in Warwickshire County. When practically everyone in London began talking about Shaxper’s illness, Drayton felt obligated to go and see him. While he was lucky to be in good health, he felt sorry for the scribe, whose old acquaintances were betting on how long it would take him to die. No one seemed the least bit interested in paying him a call.
And that wasn’t altogether unexpected. For years, the writers had watched as Shaxper hid under his famous pseudonym and gorged on applause he didn’t deserve. They couldn’t understand why the Earl of Oxford had been so generous with him, when he was so inflated and unworthy. Shaxper had feathered his nest with the profits from Lord Oxford’s scavenged works, like an upstart crow stealing objects that glittered. Robert Greene had accused him of that by using the term “upstart crow” when he called him a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide. New Place itself was evidence that his greed had worked in his favor.
“Anyone home? It’s Michael Drayton. I’ve come to visit you, William.”
Ben Jonson bolted down the stairs. “Drayton! Well, I’ll be damned! You horse’s arse! What the devil brings you here?”
The two men pounded on each other like a couple of high-spirited tavern rowdies.
“I’ve come to pay my respects to Shaxper,” Drayton said.
“Aw, there’s no need for that. He’s always been paid more respect than he deserves. Don’t wake him up. He’s sleeping in the next room.”
“Yes,” Drayton whispered, “but I’ve heard that he’s dying . . .”
“What’s the big deal? It’s not as if he invented Death, although he might try to take credit for that too, the way he’s taken credit for everything else. Sit down and have a drink. It’s not my liquor, so help yourself and be sure to drink as much as you’d like.”
Stools scraped across the floor as the men sat in the kitchen and filled their goblets.
“Of all things,” Jonson said. “I never thought I’d see you here.”
“Nor I, you. I can’t believe our old friend is dying. Did you come to cheer him up?”
“Are you crazy? I came to cheer him on! But never mind that. Is it true, what I’ve heard about you?”
“Bless you, that all depends on what you’ve heard.”
“That you’ve just published thirty-thousand lines of poetry on the feminine pulchritude of English geography! Do you think it’s nearly long enough?”
“Actually,” Drayton blushed, “I do plan on revising Polyolbion . . .”
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Jonson laughed.
“I can’t say the same for you. You seem to be everywhere these days. I know you didn’t come here to counsel the scribe on the fate of his immortal soul.”
“You know I’d be lying if I said I cared one whit about that immortal jackass. Actually, I’m editing a folio of Shake-speare plays and I’m trying to collect the missing manuscripts. I thought I’d start here.”
“A reasonable choice.”
“Don’t be so sure. I haven’t found anything yet.”
“I assume you think the scribe knows where they are.”
“If he knows, he’s not telling. He just talks rubbish and plays the part of a senile old man.”
“What did you expect? You’ve ridiculed him for years. I’d be surprised if he talked to you at all.”
“Right. Maybe now that you’re here, you can pry the information out of him.”
“You’ve forgotten. Shaxper doesn’t drink sack. Only small beer.”
“Well, if he’s senile, chances are he’s forgotten that, too.”
“Very funny. But it won’t work.”
“I happen to know that tomorrow is his birthday. That’s why I’m here. The talk around London is that it might be his last. So what’s wrong with pouring him a sacred libation as he crosses the Stygian Lake on the way to Hades?”
“Nothing, I suppose, as long as he drinks religiously. I don’t want to waste any more time with that old fool.”
“I promise, you won’t. I’ll get him to tell me where the manuscripts are. That’s the least I can do for a friend.”
“Thank you, Michael. And by way of our friendship, I’d like to invite you to compose a poem for the folio, something touching Lord Oxford’s literary talent and bountiful patronage. You write it and I’ll publish it, however long.”
“I’d be honored, Jonson.”
“Of course I’m writing something too, as are several associates of the de Vere family. There’s Thomas Freeman, half-brother of Oxford’s son with Lady Vavasor, William Barkstead and Hugh Holland, former boy actors from Oxford’s troupe at St. Paul’s, William Basse, retainer to the Earl’s daughter Bridget, and his old friends James Mabbe, Leonard Digges, John Marston and some others.”
“I’ll write something, as long as your folio doesn’t perpetuate the authorship hoax. That’s gone on long enough.”
“I quite agree.”
“I don’t,” an elderly voice called out from the other room. “What are you two talking about in there? It doesn’t matter what you say, Ben Jonson. I can hear every word, you wretched scoundrel, and don’t deny it! You’re plotting against me, all of you. Well, I won’t have it, do you hear me? Don’t think I’m a mayfly. I wasn’t born yesterday . . .”
“Who in the hell is that?” Drayton asked.
“That’s the scribe. He’s hallucinating again – happens every hour or so when he wakes up from a long nap. It doesn’t mean anything. Ignore it.”
“Ignore it? How can you ignore it?”
“Michael Drayton, is that you? I know that voice as if it were my own. Come in here. Pay no attention to that pismire who calls himself a playwright.”
Drayton rose to his feet.
“Sit down,” Jonson grumbled. “It’s not a call to arms.”
“He knows I’m here. I’ve got to go see him.”
“Why? Isn’t hearing him bad enough?”
“Michael Draaaaaaaaayton . . .”
“Just tell me where to find him and I’ll get it over with.”
“He’s in there, on the couch over by the window. Well, what are you waiting for? Go and see him; but I warn you, it’s not pretty. And don’t forget this.” He handed Drayton the bottle of sack. The poet took it and left.
Shaxper didn’t look at all as Drayton remembered him. Ill health had changed every aspect of his body. In his heyday, he had always shown an apish devotion to style, having adopted foppish gestures to flaunt his gaudy jewelry. He had taken up smoking, a useful affectation that kept his admirers at a distance. As a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he had strutted like a peacock, giving the actors bad advice. In his yellowing nightgown, he looked small and frail.
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