What Fools by Gillian Whitlock
The sky was virtually black, and the rain was hammering down, when Henley Street came into view on the horizon. The sense of home filled his head so that he forgot all thoughts of the dampness of his clothes or the constant dripping of raindrops onto his forehead. Home – safety, love, family – Will knew he needed to store those thoughts away in the back of his brain for future use. The children had no idea he was coming, neither did Anne although he did often arrive towards the end of April, in time for his birthday. Indeed, the every busy Will had hoped to send word but Burbage had been so demanding of his time that the day for departing from London crept up on him and now, four days later, he he was entering the yard of his own home.
Anne was in the garden as his horse approached and saw him dismount, a smile broadening as she realised who the rider was. Susanna was the first of his children to spot their father. In one swoop, she threw down the papers from which she was learning and ran outside as fast as she could, swinging the front door open with one almighty pull. Judith and Hamnet, the twins, two years her junior, shrieked and screamed as they saw they had a visitor. As Judith ran through the door, she pushed aside the blossoming lilac and made straight for the rider. Will watched with amusement and love as her look changed from excited curiosity to sheer delight, as she realised her father had come. Hamnet was far more cautious, hiding behind his elder sister and peering out from her pinafore. He had none of Judith’s wilfulness or Susanna’s intellect and wit but he was a gentle, caring, shy child who looked achingly like his father, much to his mother’s delight.
‘Well, well, if it isn’t the master playwright home from London,’ exclaimed Anne as she rounded the corner, ‘ Will, you might have sent word! For a wordsmith, you are lax in communicating with your own family.’ She grinned, mischief in her tone.
‘I just wanted to get home and surprise you all,’ murmured Will as he took Anne’s hand. Judith was pulling at his sleeve and demanding to be lifted. ‘Father, lift me up and hug me before I scream,’ demanded his youngest daughter, a look of consternation on her little round face.
‘ Though she be but little, she is fierce,’ murmured Susanna as Will planted a kiss on top of her head. Susanna was only ten but so bright and capable. She already had a way with words. Will wondered if she had inherited this from him or indeed from her mother, who was a marvellous poet and who had already contributed many sonnets for Will to use. Indeed, they had both laughed on many occasion when he had relayed to Anne that people had thought that the earliest of the sonnets were written by Will to his patron Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton when in fact they had been love poems from Anne to Will. Will had responded with his own sonnets to her – his dark lady – but had had to pass off all the sonnets as his own – Anne’s skill would never have been accepted by his peers for her gender precluded her from penship in her own right.
That evening, the fire was lit as the April rain still fell on the Warwickshire fields surrounding Will’s home. Susanna brought papers to her father to consider. Her parents had been keen that all their children should read and write and as Will’s income from his plays had grown, they had engaged tutors for the children. Some of their friends had disapproved of Judith and Susanna being taught to read and write but Will had been insistent. He knew so well the power of words.
‘Father, I have been improving my writing – Mother talked to me about rhyme and rhythm. ‘
She proudly waved a piece of paper at him; it was filled with a mix of poetry and blank verse. ‘Writing indeed, whatever next, ‘exclaimed a now exhausted Will. He could not believe the standard of her work.
‘Did you really write this Susanna, aged 10! I must mention this to Kit Marlowe. We worked well together on the Henry VI dramas but I will have no need of him – Susanna can be my new assistant.’ Will laughed as his daughter looked at him with such pride.
‘Will you take me to London to see one of your plays, father? I want to see the Lords and Ladies and to see Will Kemp perform.’
‘One day, Susanna, one day,’ murmered Will as he lifted Judith into his lap in an effort to calm down the wilful child, who had been in such a state of heightened excitement since his arrival that afternoon.
‘Susanna is going to outshine me with her words, Will,’ exclaimed Anne as she played with Hamnet and his spinning top.
‘I have a detailed plan for a piece, father. It includes fairies and spirits and magic potions. I have even thought of character names – Puck, Oberon, Moth,’ burst out Susanna, eager to tell her father all her ideas.
‘Please father, can there be a donkey in it too? I do so love donkeys,’ commented Hamnet, as he looked up at his father from underneath his fringe.
‘I think it is time for sleep now children, your father has heard quite enough for one day and he is exhausted.’ Anne rose and Will sat contentedly gazing at the flames.
He stayed some six weeks up in Stratford but the days were not as carefree as he had intended. About a month into his visit, he received word of Kit Marlowe’s death – stabbed in the eye in a tavern brawl. Anne was beside herself with shock and sadness.
‘But Will, he was such a talented writer and a good friend to you. How could this happen?’ She questioned, but Will merely raised an eyebrow.
‘All may not be as it seems, Anne. Kit works for the government. I have told you that i have long suspected he is a spy for our Queen. Disappearing abroad seems likely to me – he had no funeral, an unmarked grave and his killer has been pardoned. No – things may not be as they seem although how he will continue to write, I have no idea. I was relying on Kit to help with a new work I have begun – now I will need to leave soon to continue that work myself. I needed the quality of Kit’s writing and we need the income from a new play.’
Anne knew her husband was troubled as he left for London a couple of days after that conversation, telling his wife his mind felt full of scorpions.
Memories of Kit Marlowe’s alleged death filled Will’s mind as he made that same Spring journey home some years later. Will had moved his home to New Place in Stratford but the countryside was the same, the rain even seemed the same, however he had known such grief in recent times that his whole world had shifted. Hamnet’s death from plague had hit him so hard – it had hit them all. He could barely write a scene let alone a full drama yet Burbage kept on insisting that new material was needed. Anne had tried to help but she had not been well for a good number of years – life’s shadows had taken their toll on her both physically and emotionally. Marlowe had never been in touch and Will had continued on his own but he could not summon the energy or desire to write. His whole mind was in turmoil. The scorpions had overpowered him. His work ‘Hamlet’ had been widely acclaimed but but he had taken no pleasure in it. The tragedy had been in many ways a memorial to Hamnet but he was living a lie – he had been for some time. He had not written that play ; he had not written a full length piece for a number of years. He just couldn’t.
For so long, Will had not been able to think of a way forward to repay the debt he so clearly owed. Luckily , Anne had immediately agreed with his eventual plan and so his entire estates and monetary wealth would pass on his death to his eldest child, Susanna, for his daughter was the writer of all his recent works – his great tragedies. She had given him the scripts with love and had demanded nothing in return. Her joy at knowing her work was to be performed was enough and she knew the secret had to be kept for her family’s sake. He and Anne had even jokingly agreed that, in his will, he should only leave his wife his second best bed. Burbage was always declaring that Will would be known as the greatest playwright that had ever lived and his plays would be performed for centuries to come. Will always shook his head ruefully whenever the topic was raised.
Susanna, now Mistress Hall, and a mother herself of sweet, intelligent, Elizabeth, seemed at ease with her fathers intentions when he had discussed them with her; he explained the guilt he felt and the way in which he would repay her in his will. The world would never know of her genius but his daughter’s talent would be there for all to see in centuries to come. Susanna had smiled and thanked her father.
‘ I am deeply grateful but let us not think now of your will, father. We know the full truth and that is enough for me. If no-one ever realises that truth, in years to come – well… as I believe I have said before, what fools these mortals be!’
©Gilliam Whitlock & Tudors Dynasty