London, October 15, 1582
Will Shakespeare dashed into the Boar’s Head Inn, breathless and disheveled. This was the best day of his life and the worst.
“Meg, I have news. Dreadful news!” he called.
He made straight for the table in the public room where he did his best writing and dug papers and a pen from inside his jerkin. Time was not to be wasted.
“Meg? Come anon.”
There was no reply. Long Meg was not at the tap as usual, nor serving customers.
A fat man looked up from his cup and said, “Long Meg? She’s not here. And she’s what I came to see.”
“Then begone,” said Will. “She’s been known to thrash a man for gaping at her.”
Chewing the end of his pen, he searched his brain for the right words. Writing a court brief was nothing like writing a play, and the law handbook he had stolen was of little help. Will was no more cut out for the role of a lawyer than he was for a glovemaker, the trade he had left behind in Stratford along with the bewitching Hathaway sisters. But in escaping to London, he now saw, he had sailed from one sea of troubles into an even stormier one.
“Will, why do you look so desperate?” It was the serving wench Violetta, small and with a dark cap of hair like an acorn. She placed a cup of ale before him.
“Because my friend Mack is in prison for assaulting and robbing the notorious villain, Roger Ruffneck. He might be hanged, unless I can persuade the judge to free him.”
Violetta gave a sharp cry and turned pale. She was a fountain of feeling, able to move the most stoic of playgoers to emulate her tears.
“Do you know Mack? ” asked Will in surprise.
“Is he not. . . Meg’s brother!”
“Yes, and therefore she must be told. Can you find her?”
The wench shook her head slowly, as if dazed.
“Well, look upstairs!” pleaded Will. “By tomorrow I must have another witness who can attest to his good character. Who knows him better than his own sister?”
Violetta nodded and scurried away.
It was fortunate that Will had stumbled, quite literally, upon Thomas Valentine as he was returning to the inn. The young doctor had agreed to testify against Roger Ruffneck, having seen him assault Will. London was a violent place. Why had he been so eager to come here? He was likely to be killed before he published a single play.
But the doctor alone could not prove Will’s argument. He needed another witness. Why not the timid Jane Ruffneck, who was now hiding from her cruel husband at this very inn? No, Mack had insisted, wanting to protect her. Mack, hero to the downtrodden, now himself in dire need. Who would save him? It was up to Will.
He propped his forehead on his hands, not caring that the ink staining his fingers now marked his face as well. How unjust that Mack was in prison! Will longed to share Mack’s suffering, and thereby prove his true friendship. But having narrowly avoided that den of despair himself, he dreaded confinement. What did it lead to but starvation and death?—an early, tragic end to his fledgling dramatic career.
Not to mention his romantic hopes. The world of love was all before him. He thought of Ann Hathaway’s soft lips, of Long Meg, that strong and spirited maid with her nimbus of golden hair.
Oh, brave Meg! What would she think to see him scratching with his pen and fumbling in his handbook while Mack languished in jail? She would strap on a sword, a dagger, and a pistol and lay siege to the Tower itself, if her brother were held captive there. She dealt not in words, but in deeds. In all of England, there was no woman like her.
Will’s thoughts were interrupted by the approach of a no longer timid Jane Ruffneck, with Violetta trailing her, but no Meg.
“Let me help your friend,” Jane said, her eyes blazing. “I will swear my husband deserved every blow Mack dealt him. I know that monster all too well!”
“I shall be there also to weep for Mack; that must move the entire court to pity him,” said Violetta, wringing her hands.
Will groaned. It was reason, not passion, that must persuade the judge.
“I am gratified by your concern, “ he said. “But leave me now, that I may finish this writ. My friend’s fate lies heavy upon me.”
“And upon us as well,” said Violetta.
“Why?” asked Will, puzzled, but Violetta and Jane were already hurrying away.
Alone again, Will bent over his page, which left him unable to see the black-clad figure, narrow as a shadow at sunset, that crept around the edge of the room toward his table.
A wrinkled hand reached out and touched his arm. Will jumped.
“Will Shakespeare?” said an old man’s voice.
“And who are you?”
“One who makes his living by night,” he said.
A thief! Will drew back. “Why have you come here?”
“She bade me, but I do it for the sake of my boy.”
Was the old man a lunatic? Will didn’t ask him to explain. He hoped he would vanish as suddenly as he appeared, like a ghost from the grave.
“I know something about your friend, Mack,” said the thief, his voice like the rustle of dry leaves.
Will’s hopes revived. It seemed Providence had sent him a witness! He leaned closer.
The old thief spoke only briefly. He would not let Will question him. Nor would he be stayed. He finished his tale and slipped away. And when he had gone, Will sat motionless, his brow furrowed and his jaw slack with amazement. The pen dropped from his fingers, forgotten, and the handbook fell closed.
“By Jove, he speaks the truth,” Will murmured. “I was a fool not to see it before!”