Ill Met By Moonlight
Sarah A. Hoyt
Scene: A vague place, the stage fogged over with thick white clouds that veil the backdrop, turning it into mere shadows and shapes, half perceived as though in a dream.
Enter: An elegant young man, flawlessly attired according to Elizabethan fashion, in black velvet hose and jacket. The disarray of his auburn hair, his hand covering his left eye, the blood that trickles from beneath his fingers to drip onto his broad, fine white lawn collar, all give witness to recent calamity.
Yet, he speaks in the composed tones of an impersonal narrator.
“Between what happened and what didn’t happen, what could have happened exists like a dream, suspended halfway between the safe, dark night of illusion and the harsh dawn of wakening reality.
“To peaceful Stratford, where we lay our scene, let us then go, and, within Arden Forest’s ancient confines watch the drama about to unroll, the drama of treason, and love, and star-crossed intentions.
“There, two households exist, nay, two kingdoms, which side by side have subsisted these many centuries, with no strife. And yet, now, mutinity breaks between them.
“Two households, alike in dignity. And there, two young men chafe, each under his destiny, and curse the stars that have brought each to his subservient position.
“Will their travails change either? Can ill-will bring good? Does treason ever turn good to ill? Is there a price to pay for elven love? Does deceit leave its mark upon the mind? Or can power be won at no cost?
“Watch, kind ladies and fair gentlemen, the fearful clash of these two realms which is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage, the which, if you with patient ears attend, what here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”
Scene One: An Elizabethan town of white-washed wattle-and-daub buildings, nestled in the curve of the gentle-flowing Avon. Ducklings waddle in the current and pigs walk the streets. Tall elms grow amid the houses, giving the very streets the feel of woodland glens. In an alley at the edge of town a poorly dressed young man stoops to open a garden gate.
Will stopped at the entrance to the garden, his hand on the rickety wooden gate. A feeling of doom came over him, like a presage of some evil thing.
A young man of nineteen, with overlong dark locks that curled on the collar of his cheap russet wool suit, Will felt as if he were about to walk into a trap. He looked around, anxiously for what the trap might be, but saw nothing amiss. The green garden ahead of him lay undisturbed. A few bees, from the hives next door, buzzed amid the flowers. The reddish rays of the setting sun burnished the flowers and made the vegetables a deep green. A fat brown chicken walked along the garden path, pecking at the ground.
Will shook his head at his fear, yet his fear remained. With his feet, in their worn ankle boots, solidly planted on the mud of the alley behind his parents’ property, he looked into the sprawling garden for a hint of the great unnamed calamity that he knew awaited him just around the corner.
Half of him wanted to run in through the garden and the other half wished to hide, with animal cunning, behind the wall and spy… spy, he knew not on whom nor for what.
His mother’s stories must be getting to him, her dark muttering about the velvet-clad gentlemen who visited Nan in Will’s absence.
Will shook his head again and half chuckled at himself, but his chuckle echoed back strangely, visiting his ears like the cackle of a gloating demon.
He raised his white gloved hand to his face and stroked the nest of soft hairs that only a young man’s pride could mistake for a beard.
Nonsense. Sick fancies born of tiredness. It was all because of his job in Wincot, wearing him low enough that fancies preyed on his mind. His work, supervising the smallest children at their learning of the letters and numerals, would be dreary and arduous enough, but the two hour walk each way to Wincot and back made it crushing.
This very day, Will had left Stratford at the crack of rosy dawn, when the pink tints of morn were no more than a promise in the east. Now, he came back home with the sun turned to bleeding glory in the west and night closing in on all sides, like creditors surrounding a penniless debtor.
Little wonder, then, that Will’s mind should be filled with presages and wonders, with fears and unexplained dread. Little wonder.
He needed to rest and he longed for his bench by the scrubbed pine table; for the soft bustle his wife, Nan, made by the kitchen fire — her skirt kilted up on the left, displaying the length of her straight limbs and allowing her to move freely. Even now, she’d be clacking clay pans and stirring enticing smells from the poor vegetables and meager eggs, those homely, cheap ingredients, the best Will could provide for her. Will longed for his new-born daughter, Susannah, for her mewling cries, for her wriggling in his tired arms.
He opened the gate and trotted onto the beaten dirt of the garden path with new decision. “Nan,” he called.
This sound, too, returned oddly to his ears, like a long forgotten name, never more pronounced among the living. But Nan wasn’t dead, nor gone, nor forgotten. Will had left her sleeping in their marriage bed — the broad oak bed given to him by his Arden aunt — when he’d dressed in the half-dark before dawn.
Still, his trotting slowed to a reluctant walk and he dared not call her name again.
around him, the garden bloomed in green abundance. The neatly arranged patches of flax and herbs that Nan had planted in February, when she was already big with child, thrived. The roses Nan had brought with her from Hewlands, the Hathaways’ farm in Shottery, bloomed big and round, casting their perfumes into the summer air.
Their scent mingled with the heavy odor of boiled cabbage, wafting from the house of Will’s parents, next door. The two houses, built side by side, and both owned by Will’s family, shared a garden and, until recently, had been used by the one family. But, on Will’s marriage, his parents had made the house to the west private for him and Nan.
Will and Nan could only use the back and the top floor, since the front hall housed John Shakespeare’s glover shop. But at the back Will and Nan had their own kitchen, and, above that, their own chamber, and Will was as relieved not to have to share sleeping quarters with his siblings as his mother was glad not to have to share her kitchen with the woman she disdainfully called the Shottery girl.
Will’s relief at this separation increased, as the unsavory smell of cabbage washed over him, mingled with high-pitched screams from his three-year-old brother Edmund and the voice of his little sister, Joan, raised in childish anger.
His home would never be that way, he promised himself, as he walked the narrow cobbled path between the rose bushes. Rather it would be like the home he remembered from his own childhood: well ordained, with a few serving girls, and his Nan kept calm and rested enough to look after the children, who would be well fed and better dressed.
He had no idea how to manage this on his petty-schoolmaster allowance, but he was determined to manage it, somehow.
He rounded the corner of the garden path, beside the roses, and came into full view of his side of the house.
If only he didn’t have to use his earnings to prop his parents’ failing fortunes. If only– He stopped, his feelings of doom stronger than ever. Everything about this side of the house looked wrong.
The shutter on the window was closed, as was the door. Will frowned.
Nan never closed the door or the window, while the last remnants of light could be gotten from the day.
Will’s heart speed up like an unruly horse, and his feet raced upon the cobbled path.
The feeling of wrongness, of foreboding, overpowered him. Once, when he was very small, Will had seen a dog swept away by the raging Avon at the flood. He remembered the small brown and white animal paddling futilely against the current even as it dragged him on and on to his certain doom. So, now, did Will’s reason paddle against the current of dread that overtook it and pulled it on and on, unrelenting.
His running feet sped him to the door. Swinging it open, he peered into the dark, cool kitchen.
“Nan,” he called. His voice broke, as it hadn’t for years. No sound answered his call.
Blinded by the transition from daylight to dark, Will could see only vague shapes and dark shadows. He listened. No sound came from the kitchen or from upstairs. Nothing stirred. The close air reeked of wood smoke and the old mutton grease used for making tapers. But no tapers burned, no fire blazed in the hearth.
No blazing fire meant no supper. The young man’s stomach twisted in a hungry knot. For a heartbeat, he forgot his anxiety and thought disparagingly of his wife who didn’t even know enough to have her husband’s food ready when he came home from his weary toil.
These thoughts so resounded of his mother’s bitter voice, that Will frowned at them, reproaching the bitterness into silence. Nan was nowhere in sight. Perhaps she had fallen ill in another room, perhaps she was hurt, and yet Will, her wretched husband, could think only of his stomach. “Nan?”
He wished to hear Nan call back and name him a fool for his alarm. He wished it so hard that he almost fancied he heard it, very far away and faint. But he knew this for an illusion.
No matter how many times Will told himself that his fears were nonsense, that Nan must be nearby, that she must be well, dread leaped and danced in him like an obscene, mottled clown at a country fair, mocking his self assurance.
As his eyes became acquainted with the dark, he saw that the coals in the hearth remained banked, the ashes raked around them to protect the embers in the middle and reduce the danger of fire in the night. He’d done that the night before, and left all thus in the morning, when he’d walked out eating a slice of cold mutton and some day-old bread for his breakfast. But Nan would have needed to undo this and feed the fire to prepare her dinner, and bake bread. Had Nan not had a midday meal? Had she been gone or ill for that long?
The dread grew in Will, stronger than ever, and his hair rose at the back of his neck. “Nan?” Still half blind in the darkness, he pulled his gloves off, threw them on the table, and hurried down the narrow, shadowy corridor that separated the kitchen from the front hall.
The front hall-shop was darker even than the kitchen, but he saw, without remarking, the hanging pelts and the wide, scarred work bench of his father’s glover trade. His nose filled with the acrid smells of tanning — old meat, spoiled eggs and stale flour — familiar to him from childhood.
Though wooden shutters were fitted over both windows, and the door firmly closed, this was no cause for alarm. These days this was the normal condition of John Shakespeare’s glover shop. No doubt, Will’s father would be hiding in his room, muttering about those who wished to catch him and make him pay his debts, though — that anyone knew — despite his ruined business, his slackening enthusiasm for work, he had no outstanding debts and no one pursued him.
Will took a sharp turn left, to the almost vertical stairway at the corner of the room, and trundled up it, his feet accommodating themselves to the narrow steps by long habit.
The entrance to the top floor was a mere square hole on the planks at the top of the staircase and, through this hole, Will pushed his upper body into the top floor. The word “Nan” started but died on his lips.
Unlike the upper floor of the house next door, which had been partitioned into rooms to accommodate a large family, this one lacked any dividing walls to obstruct the view. Will could see the entire space at a glance, bathed in hazy light coming in through cracks in the wooden shutters that covered the three windows. Once those windows had been covered by shutters made of lead and tiny panels of glass, but such luxuries had long deserted the Shakespeare household.
The cheap woolen covers had been pulled neat and tight over the mattress of the good oak bed against the wall. On the bed, the fat black and white tom cat that Nan had brought with her from Hewlands, woke and stretched his paws in front of him, digging his claws into the bed covers. He looked at Will with an inquisitive eye and gave a little questioning murr. Beside him lay something, and, for a moment, Will thought he saw Nan, reclining there. He started to smile, when he noticed it was not Nan, not even anything close to Nan’s size, but a small twig, broken from a bush, with green leaves still on it. What it was doing on his bed, he couldn’t understand.
Will took a deep breath. The dread he’d felt in the garden returned, like a horse to an accustomed stable.
Slower, he climbed the rest of the way into the upper floor. On a peg on the wall hung Nan’s good shirt and bodice and her embroidered kirtle, the ones she wore to church on Sunday. His own good, black breeches and jacket hung on the other peg. Everything looked reassuring and accustomed, and yet the air felt heavy, impregnated with an odd floral scent.
Will nodded to him as to a respected acquaintance, while he went around to look in Susannah’s crib, beside the bed.
No sound came from the ancient rocking crib, that had belonged to Will and each of his siblings in turn. Not the soft mewling of Susannah’s cry, not even the sound of her breathing.
For a moment, in the darkness, he thought that Susannah was indeed in there, though so immobile that his heart skipped a beat while a noose of panic tightened around it.
But as he reached into the crib, he touched, not the soft velvet of his daughter’s skin, but something rough and harsh. Throwing the crib blankets back, he pulled the object out: a piece of a tree branch of sizeable girth on which some wit had carved a rounded top and painted eyes and a nose and face, all of it so crude it might well have been executed by one of Will’s five-year-old pupils. It did not look like Susannah at all and, even in the dim light, Will could not imagine how he’d ever come to mistake it for her.
Puzzled, he turned the wood over in his hands, blinking in wonder. Who had done this? And what was this thing? It wasn’t even a doll. What was it doing in Susannah’s cradle? If a joke, it was a poor one. Had Nan played it? Why would Nan do it?
Sometimes, in their scant six months together, Nan had hid herself in a far corner of the house when he got home, and made him hunt for her like a madman, until he brought her to ground in her hideout, desire and laughter interlacing in their embrace. But she’d never done it since Susannah had been born. And she’d never taken her joke to the point of leaving the fire unlit and a mannequin in his daughter’s bed.
Worry rounded on Will like a hunting mastiff, nipping at his heels, trying to make him take flight. But his sluggish brain lagged, turning round and round, like a blindfolded beggar within a circle of mocking villagers. Hemmed in by worry, it spun over the puzzle of Nan’s absence, and knew not what answer to fetch.
Will’s hands, working of their own accord, laid the mannequin back in Susannah’s crib and adjusted the small blanket over it, tenderly, as though it were Susannah herself. Why was Nan gone? And for how long? Could she have left Will for good?
She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. Oh, true, he’d not offered her a prosperous abode, nor did his teaching earnings — halved as they must be with his parents’ household — support Nan as he would like to support her. But then, Nan had known of his penury when she married him, had even known of it almost a year ago, when, sweet and laughing, she’d lain in the river-side fields with him, waiting no sanction of parents, or law, or church.
Yet, Nan was gone and Susannah with her. How to explain it?
Had Will’s mother been right, when she’d talked of Nan’s receiving visitors? Of velvet-suited dandies skulking around the garden paths?
Will couldn’t credit it.
He thought of Nan just the night before, Nan by the fire, Nan cooking supper, Nan warm and gentle in his bed. Nan couldn’t have left. Not Nan. Not unless those gentlemen had taken her with them by force, and who would do that? Who would kidnap a poor man’s wife and his new daughter? The shadowy persecutors of his father’s fancy?
Will grinned despite his misery. These fears of his, these fantasies of doom, were like a plot hatched from his father’s nightmares, his mother’s fancy.
No, no. The world was a reasonable place, not populated by old wives’ fears, old men’s fancies, nor by the dreams of poets or the nightmares of philosophers. In this rational place, there had to be some good reason for Nan’s absence.
Will’s feet sought out the steps of the stairs by feel, as he made his way down. Perforce, Nan’s absence must have a cause as solid as the wood under his feet.
Before he reached the bottom floor, his frantic, searching brain had found one. Nan’s sister-in-law, her brother Bartholomew’s wife, was due to deliver any day. How foolish of him not to have thought of this before. Nan’s kin would have come from Shottery to request her help.
Someone, probably Bartholomew himself, would have come from Hewland farm to fetch Nan, and he’d have brought his children, Nan’s older nieces, to get them out from underfoot in the house. This thing in Susanna’s cradle would be one of the children’s toys, probably made by the child’s own hand, which explained its crude imitation of human features.
Will smiled in the dark, musty workshop and sighed in relief. His mystery was solved, to his mind’s content. Now he must go to Shottery and fetch his Nan. At Shottery, his kin by marriage would give him food and ale, and he could stay the night with Nan, or walk Nan home.
True, his legs were tired, and this walk would take away from his well-merited rest. But he’d rather put himself to the trouble of walking to Shottery and there spend the night with Nan than spend the night here, alone, in his cold bed.
Will closed the front hall door behind himself, and squared his shoulders. After all, though only nineteen, he was a married man and married men had responsibilities. His wife would depend on him to come to her.
When Will stepped outside his kitchen door, the sun had fully set, its panoply of color hidden beyond the edge of the Earth. The sky spread over Stratford like a blanket: a deep, cloudless, blue dome with pinpoints of stars. Will blinked up at it. It looked like the velvet gown the Queen had worn when she’d come for the pageant the Earl of Leicester had put on for her at Kennilworth, when Will was less than seven years old. Will had gone to see the pageant with his parents.
In his mind, Will saw again the shows for the Queen: the dancers, the plays, and, best of all, the dolphin, surmounted by the merman, navigating slowly down the river. That dolphin and merman, that had fallen on young Will’s credulous eyes like supernatural manifestations, remained in his mind as a promise of a magical world that had never come true. The true world meant debts and hard work and short-lived pleasure purchased by long-lasting toil. He would never see the like of such wonders again.
An owl hooted from the barns at the other end of the Shakespeare backyard and Will jumped, startled. His foreboding returned, called by the ill-omened bird.
Along the garden path, a dark shape approached, an ominous shape, like a man with two heads.
Will swallowed and his breath halted, suspended, before the shape moved closer and a soft giggle revealed the imagined monster for a woman carrying a child.
“Nan, thank God,” he said, before he realized that the woman was too short to be Nan.
The shape giggled again, the childish giggle of Will’s sister, Joan, and, as it approached, the shadow revealed Joan’s still round features, obscured by her unkempt curly hair.
“Goose,” she said. “Your Nan is gone. Neither hide nor tail of her have we seen all day.”
“She’s gone to Shottery,” he said, speaking his wish as reality. “To help her sister at her labor.”
Joan stopped, on the path, a little to the side, allowing Will to walk by her. As he went past, his brother, Edmund, on Joan’s hip, three years old and almost as large as Joan herself, stretched out his hand to Will’s arm. Will caressed Edmund’s chubby face, glancingly, as he walked past.
“Mother says Nan is gone with the gentlemen as call on her while you’re at work.”
Will turned back. “Mother is like a witch poring over her cauldron, brewing lies and plots around Nan.”
With it said, he wished it unsaid, and bit his tongue in belated reproach. What manner of son called his mother a liar and a witch? Truly, the Bible warned of ungrateful children, their tongues sharper than serpent’s teeth. But on the subject of Nan, Will’s mother didn’t speak as a dutiful wife and mother, but as a raving hag, a lunatic spouting infamy. She claimed that Nan had entrapped Will into a marriage that was as ruinous to him as disgraceful to Nan, herself and more, that Nan cavorted with others while Will was away.
“Mother says she saw Nan go early morning, before the sun came up, amid a large company, with twinkling lights all around,” Joan said, behind him. “No Shottery people, for certain.”
“Mother knows not what she says,” Will yelled over his shoulder, and ran across the garden towards the gate, taking a short-cut through the rose bushes. The bushes prickled his skin and snagged his clothes, but he did not care.
At the gate, a last, fugitive look over his shoulder showed Will his sister, still in the middle of the garden. Though the distance didn’t allow it, he fancied he saw her amazed expression, wide open mouth, eyes round in shock. She’d be wondering why he ran. As though husbands should stand quietly and listen to slander heaped on their wives’ names.
And where had Joan come from, with Edmund, after nightfall? At any other time, Will would have gone back and scolded the little girl, but now his Nan waited him. The thought of her enveloping arms and warm body beckoned him on. The thought of her warm voice, calming his fears, called to him like water to a parched traveler.
Will found his way through the alley to the path that crossed the forest of Arden, the path he knew much too well from his courting days when he had taken it every evening for a year, as much to bask in Nan’s sweet presence as to escape the closed-in, vile atmosphere of home: his father with his fears, his mother with her fancies.
If only Will’s father had stayed the course he’d first set. When Will had been very young, and John Shakespeare’s business had thrived, John, himself, had been an alderman, an important man in the community.
Will walked the narrow path that countless generations of feet had beaten amid towering elms and sprawling oaks, and thought of his life and his family and the obligations that bound him. At nineteen, he was a married man, with a daughter. He’d married a woman with no dowry to speak of, and he had wed himself to an arduous, ill-paying career. He reproached his father’s mistakes, yet how could he hope to give Susannah a better start in life?
From behind him he heard the distant sounds of Stratford: the occasional cry of a baby, a woman calling for her son. From her voice, the woman would be Mistress Whateley. And, knowing the Whateley brat, Will suspected the boy was as likely as not to be out of the reach of even that shrill a call.
From farther away came the voice of a man, worse for drink, singing a mournful church song of papist times. Will caught the words “Dies Irae–” in fulsome, rounded Latin. That would be the Master of the Bear, the tavern where Catholics gathered to mourn the past.
Stratford was the only town Will had ever known, and he knew it well. Its embrace could be comforting and safe like a mother’s arms, but, like Will’s mother’s, perhaps it held on too tightly and crushed that which it would preserve.
Perhaps Will should take Nan and Susannah to London and there attempt to find a trade that would bring him better chance of fortune. But what trade? He had a good, logical mind, but a meager education and what could a mind alone do for a man of no fortune?
When John had been prosperous, there had been talk of Will’s attending University or one of the inns of the court. With his precise mind Will could have made short work of University learning. Had he but done that, he could have become a real schoolmaster, teaching older children their Latin, not the little ones their letters. He could have made enough money, then, to support a large family. Or perhaps he would have become a honey-tongued barrister, swift at unraveling legal knots. He could have supported his Nan, his sweet Nan, in style.
And even his mother would have been unable to spin stories about Nan’s consorting with mysterious gentlemen in velvet and jewels.
Little by little, the city sounds receded, as the forest surrounded Will. Human voices became fainter, replaced by the hoots and scrapings of things scurrying and flying amid the old oaks that remained of a forest that, in the distant times of Arthur, had covered all of Britain.
Every rough spot on the path, every stone, every twig, made itself felt through Will’s worn out soles. His legs ached with a dull fatigue. He should have had his supper and he should be going to bed. He should be lying beside his Nan. But Nan was gone.
What if she hadn’t gone to the Hathaways? What if she’d run away? She used to escape from her father’s strict household, he remembered. She’d dressed in her brother Bartholomew’s old clothes and gone tramping about the forest of Arden for whole afternoons. Will wondered if she missed that freedom.
After Susannah’s birth Nan had turned so silent. She no longer laughed at his jests. Waking up in the night to tend the baby made her look always tired. And there wasn’t ever enough food, either, only the meager white meat of egg and cheese, with the occasional bit of mutton. With her feeding the babe besides, Nan had grown thin and wraith-like. She didn’t seek Will’s pleasure as before, nor did her sight inflame him as it once had. The trees whispered ominously around him, disturbed by wind.
Things scurried and chattered in the undergrowth on either side of the path.
Ahead, some creature cried like a wounded child.
Could a gentleman really have been courting Nan? One of the richer merchants who came for the Stratford market, perhaps?
Will thought that Nan — Nan who labored nonstop, cooking and washing, mending and weaving and tending the garden — might well have taken the promise of a better life, had a gentleman offered it to her. What fool wouldn’t?
Yet Nan was a fool in love. Nan loved him. Will was sure of this. He remembered the soft look that veiled Nan’s deep blue eyes when she gazed on him. Yes, she loved him, too much and too well.
In the distance, a dog, or perhaps a wolf, howled to the moon.
Moonlight scarcely penetrated the deep darkness of the timeless forest, where each tree cast a whispering shadow, each bush resembled a skittering, squirming monster.
Sweet music sounded out of nowhere, rising like a river current, surrounding and enveloping him.
Will stopped, startled, at the sounds that were soothing, cool and harmonious and rousing all at once, gripping him in the tide of their smooth, sweet emotion.
Ahead of him, on his right hand side, a great flash of light surged, like a flame that suddenly catches.
Fire. He flinched in panic, and put up his hand to cover his face. Fire, now. Fire come out of nothing. The forest, dry with midsummer heat, would catch easily. Will was too close to run from it.
But, as his dazzled eyes adapted to the light, he realized the blaze shone too pale, too mild, to be a conflagration. He lowered the hand that had shielded his eyes.
The flash of light solidified into a tall, white castle. Because its walls had an uneven transparency like clotted milk, Will saw rooms within it and glittering servants and courtiers in velvet and jewels walking up and down white marble staircases. At the center of the castle, a vast salon sprawled, furnished only with a red carpet and a massive gilded throne.
Courtiers and fine ladies, dressed in silk and velvet, their jewels sparkling like rival stars, stood in groups on either side of the throne. Brightly garbed minstrels played sweet music on strange instruments.
In front of the throne, on the red carpet, stood Nan, her fair hair arranged in heavy coils braided through with pearls, her slim body garbed in fine cloth that gave off a sheen of silk.
Around her, lights sparkled and twinkled, like the blinking beacon of the firefly.