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Excerpts - Shakespeare's Sweetheart

Chapter 7 – Breaking the Locks of Prison Gates

The Stratford streets were deserted next day, as I passed hurriedly along them on my way to the gaol. The play was progressing in the inn-yard, and all the town, apparently, had gone thither.

Here and there an old grandsire nodded in the sun; and occasionally I saw a young mother standing in a doorway, her baby in her arms. Otherwise, all the town, young and old, rich and poor, had gone to the play.

We had counted on this condition of affairs, the players and I, when we had made our plans the day before. It cheered me now to see how aptly circumstances were falling in with our schemes. In less than a half-hour, should all go well, Will would be free.

The glad thought put a spring into my step, and I gave a low, happy laugh. At the same moment I looked up and found that I was passing Will's home, and that Mistress Shakespeare was standing by the window.

When I had seen her last, she had carried herself in stately wise, and had looked at me with scorn and abhorrence. Now she did not see me, and her whole figure was drooping, as she leaned against the open window. One arm was curved listlessly above her head, the other rested carelessly on the sill. Her beautiful, hazel eyes, so like Will's, were wide and sad. Her exquisite, disdainful face looked pale and drawn.

My heart smote me at sight of her, so lovely and so sorrowful. Alas! what was I, to come between such a mother and such a son? Will was like her in stately figure and clear-cut features, and I could imagine how dearly they had loved each other. As I saw her drooping form, her sorrowful face, I paused involuntarily, and she glanced up and saw me. Instantly her expression hardened, and she drew herself erect.

All my impulse of pity vanished. I looked at her proudly, also. For one instant, without speaking, we faced each other thus -- Shakespeare's mother and Shakespeare's sweetheart. It was the indication of our lifelong attitude. Then she vanished from the window, and I went on down the street with even, leisurely steps, my head still high in the air. A few moments later, I reached the gaol.

It took hard knocking to arouse the custodian, and when he, at length, admitted me, he looked as if he had been sleeping.

He was grumbling to himself about his hard fate. Other men, he muttered, could go to the play; but he must remain to watch these lazy varlets who were in his charge.

“Well, here is consolation,” I said, after sympathizing with his complaint. “Dame Quickly, of the inn, was once servant to the Shakespeares in their better days, and she sends a pasty to Master Will. She bade me also give this one to thee, if thou wouldst let me take his to him.” This speech was a skillful mixture of fiction and fact. Dame Quickly had, indeed, been servant to the Shakespeares, but she knew nothing of the present plan.

He leered at me sleepily. “And why art thou messenger, pretty Nan?” he said, in what was intended for a fascinating manner.

I lowered my lashes as if it were indeed irresistible, and answered demurely: “I am maid at the inn for the nonce, and Mistress Quickly was kind enough to say that she trusted me.”

“Curse me, then,” he cried, growing even more sentimental, “but thou shalt do as she desires, and I will trust thee, too, on one condition. I will allow thee to take the pasty up to Will, if first thou wilt let me give thee a kiss;” and he leered at me again.

I hesitated, my face aflame. Then, I laughed deprecatingly.

“Why shouldst thou care to buss me, Master?” I said. “Thou knowest me well and hast seen me oft. Why this sudden wish to touch my lips?”

“Thou hast never seemed so fair before,” he answered, gazing at me amorously;” and, besides, thou art the only maid within reach. I'll have a kiss, I say, or thou shalt not take the pasty to Will Shakespeare.”

His tone was growing threatening, and what mattered it, after all? A kiss was but an ordinary interchange of civilities; only I cared not to have this red-faced knave bring his face so near to mine. However, that I should reach Will speedily was of the greatest importance; and so, without more ado, I lifted my mouth to the gaoler's and gave him his desire.

“Good!” he cried, smacking his lips, after having bestowed on me several resounding kisses; “now the pasty thou didst promise me, Gramercy! Ah!” and he began to bite into it.” Mistress Quickly 's hand hath not lost its old cunning. Here are the keys, wench. I cannot leave this dainty dish.”

This was more than I had hoped for. I seized the keys and fled up the stairs precipitately, leaving him busy with the pasty. I did not know in which room Will was confined, but I trusted to heaven to find out.

Meanwhile, the gaoler was devouring, in huge bites, the pasty which had been drugged with a powerful liquid provided by Master Burbadge. The effect of the same would be to put him in a stupor, but it would not harm him further. So, Master Burbadge assured me, or I would not have used it, even to free Will from his imprisonment.

I ran along the corridor, calling Will's name as loudly as I dared. Presently, I heard his voice reply in a tone of great surprise.

Fortunately, the keys were not many, and I speedily found the one that fitted. Then, half laughing, half in tears, I stumbled into his room, to be met with a cry of utter astonishment as he caught me in his arms.

Nan!” he cried. “Nan! whence didst thou come? What miracle is this?”

“Oh, hush!” I panted, laying my finger on his lips.” Here, here's the pasty. Thou must take it with thee to avert suspicion from me. I told the players; they are coming to free thee. O Will, I had to kiss the gaoler to get to thee. There, quick! Burbadge will explain all to thee afterwards. The door is open. Come!”

“But to what end?” he began, obeying me, however, as I urged him towards the door.” Sir Thomas Lucy--”  

“Thou wilt soon be far away from him,” I answered, impatiently. “Come, come!”

 He said no more, although he was evidently mystified, but obeyed, as I drew him with me. We ran lightly down the stairs together. The gaoler lay in a stupor, the half-eaten dainty beside him. I dropped the keys at his feet. We passed swiftly into the air, and there, Master Burbadge and Master Kempe were waiting for us, according to agreement.

 “Welcome, Will,” cried the latter, in a voice that was no less joyous because it was in a low key from caution. “Thank this brave lass that thou art free. Art thou ready to go to London with us? We start within the hour, before thy gaoler shall awaken.”

 "I am in darkness still, although I have left my prison,” answered Will, giving a hand to each of the players as we began to walk rapidly away from the gaol, “but I think light is dawning. Aye, Burbadge, I will to London with thee, although--”  he hesitated, and glanced at me.

“Fear not, Will,” I interposed; “none knows of my share in thy escape save the gaoler, and methinks shame at being outwitted by a wench will keep him silent. Besides, when it is found that thou art gone with the players, they will be suspected of having set thee free. Fear not for me. To London, and Godspeed!”

He stood still a moment in deep thought. Kempe looked around uneasily, but none saw us; not a soul was in sight.

“Stay,” he said, suddenly; “I would first Kempe, Burbadge, are your parts in the play over?”

“Aye,” Burbadge answered; “the rest are acting the last scene now. We came to do our part in setting thee free, but find thee no longer a prisoner. What wouldst say, Will? Speak quickly, for time presses.”

“How long before thou dost start for London?” said Will, who seemed curiously forgetful of his perilous position as escaped prisoner, although he walked on again in obedience to Burbadge's gesture.

“We have planned to do so within the hour; and so we must, if thou art to go with us, so that thy escape may not be discovered too soon.”

“Then,” cried Will, the light of a sudden resolve brightening his face; “I will ask one boon further, comrades. I will not join you now, but I will meet you tomorrow morn at Luddington. Go back to the players, and watch for me when you reach that town. I will join you there without fail.”

“But why?” began Burbadge, expostulatingly.  “‘Tis foolish, needless. Why not come with us now? I have a cloak and a wig ready, which will make thee escape recognition in Stratford.”

“Say what thou wilt,” answered Will, obstinately. “I will join thee at Luddington, or nowhere. Ah, comrades,” and his voice once more took on its usual winning quality, “believe me, I am not ungrateful. I have some business to which I must first attend, else I cannot to London with a free mind. Do as I desire, and I will meet you at Luddington.”

With ill grace, they consented at last and took their departure. Will seized my hand and drew me in the opposite direction. We had now nearly reached the outskirts of Stratford.

“Quick, Nan,” he said, “go seek Sandells and Richardson. They dwell about a quarter of a mile further. Most likely, they are not at the play, since they are sober-minded men. They are faithful friends of mine, and I think will do what I ask. Bid them come with me at once and we will all to Luddington together.”

“But why,” I began, in utter perplexity, “why wilt thou risk thy freedom?”

Then, indeed, his face relaxed. He laughed, and kissed me.

 “Dost not thou know, either?” he said, still laughing. We were now walking rapidly out of Stratford, in the opposite direction to the inn-yard, and towards the homes of Sandells and Richardson. “Because I would make thee safely my wife before I go to London, sweetheart..."

Shakespeare's Sweetheart or Anne Hathaway by Sara Hawks Sterling
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