Excerpt from Geoffrey Craig's SHAKESPEARE'S YOUNGER SISTER, Chapter 5
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"She Is No Strumpet"
It took her the whole of the next day and the better part of the following morning to clean the lodgings and wash the clothes. Despite the hard work in the malodorous lodgings and her fleeting thoughts the day before of retreating to Stratford, she felt no temptation to quit. She knew that, once she had thoroughly cleaned and aired out the rooms, keeping them clean would not be such a difficult task. She also knew that, were she to return to Stratford, she would never have another chance to leave. Her father would see to that. She would probably, post-haste, be married off to a fat merchant. Despite the stench, the offal and carcasses in the streets, the mad horsemen - and horsewomen - the jostling crowds and the sky-high prices, London was where she wanted to be. In just one day, she felt the excitement of the city coursing through her body.
"Compared to London," she thought, "Stratford is stale beer."
She would make mistakes, like forgetting the ale; but she would learn, and she would make Will's lodgings comfortable - whether he could ever afford a servant or not. With her free time, she would see London and find something suitable to her ambitions.
"What will it be? Who can tell."
Will had neither a broom nor a mop so when, on the morning after her arrival, he gave her money for food, she insisted that he add a few shillings so that she could buy basic cleaning equipment.
"I cannot clean this rotten sinkhole without those items as well as a tub for washing your smelly clothes and a basket for carrying them to the yard to dry. No, don't look at the grocery basket. I need a bigger one."
Reluctantly, he gave her a half pound and told her it had better be enough for the equipment as well as a few days' food or they would soon run out of money.
"They don't mint coins at the theater," he said petulantly.
After shopping, she began by sweeping out all three rooms. So much dirt had accumulated that she was forced to sweep it into the tub she had bought for washing clothes and then carry the tub down the stairs and into the garden where she dumped the contents into an unused corner. She then mopped the floors, laid down rush mats and sprinkled them with sweet-smelling rose petals, cowslips and chamomile. She wiped down the small, but glazed, windows after which she cleaned the furniture and turned her attention to the grimiest parts of the walls, which required several trips to the conduit for water. She stopped after three hours and shook her arms, which were aching so badly she thought they might fall off. All this time, Will had sat at his table scribbling away.
"Brother Will," she said, sweetly. "I could wish for some help with these walls, especially the places I have trouble reaching."
Will brusquely turned his chair around and stared at her as if he had seen a ghost or a witch or worse. "Certainly, you jest," he said and turned back to his papers.
"Not at all. This is hard work, and I am becoming sore and tired."
Will swung around again.
"Constance, do not trifle with me."
"I am far from trifling."
"I can only hazard a guess at what Father would say if he heard you, but allow me to supplement your obviously incomplete education."
"First lesson: curb your mockery and your tongue."
"It would seem I am lower than a strumpet, at least the fancy ones you must be accustomed to."
"I shall ignore that choice bit of impertinence. Second lesson: I am a man and men, at least in the England of tradition and manners, do not, I repeat, do not clean homes nor do washing nor prepare meals - and they should not, thinking of my own feeble attempts at that endeavor - nor ... nor ... perform any number of other domestic activities whatever they might be. Third lesson: I am working diligently at winning my fame and fortune. While fame alone will not put on our table a tasty stew like the incomparable one you made last evening for supper for which, by the way, did I not highly compliment you?"
Constance nodded and said: "Yes."
"So then, as I was saying, before I interrupted myself..."
Constance smiled but did not laugh at which Will looked disappointed.
"...while fame alone will not purchase our necessities, although it will be a valued first step, the fortune that is sure to follow will not only allow me to continue my work in some comfort but will also alleviate the harshest aspects of your burden. Both of our labors are, and will always be, important; and please remember that, when you are finished with yours, you may take your rest and entertain yourself as you will while mine are never done."
With that, Will picked up his pen again and bent, deep in concentration, over the script of Richard III. Constance glared at him, picked up the broom and made as if to hit Will over the head but thought better of it and put the broom in a corner. She finished the wall in two more hours and then prepared dinner. She roasted a haunch of pork over the fire and made a salad of leafy greens, cucumbers, onions, leeks, parsley and rosemary, tossed with a dressing of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
"Another excellent meal," said Will, smacking his lips. "You will make a very satisfactory housekeeper. I am sorry for the earlier harsh words, but there is much you need to learn about the world - things Mother should've taught you. Once I have become preeminent in the London theater, I shall endeavor to find you a suitable husband. The experience you are acquiring in taking care of what I admit are my less than lavish surroundings will serve you well as mistress of a home full of servants."
Constance wondered if she could stay seated while she profusely thanked Will or if she needed to genuflect to his august presence. She voted for staying seated.
"Thank you, Will. That will be most kind of you."
"Not at all."
Right after dinner, Will left for the theater.
Since it was a relatively warm afternoon, she decided to wash at least some of the clothes, giving them time to dry in the garden. Again, she needed to make several trips to the conduit. During none of them did she see Madge. Arriving home from the theater, Will expressed great satisfaction as he held a clean, sweet-smelling shirt to his nose. Rising at dawn the next morning, she finished the clothes and cleaned the walls in the back rooms. By then, it was time to turn her attention to dinner for which she fried sole, halibut and eels in a pan and roasted vegetables in a pot on the small brazier. As they were eating, Constance worried about meeting Madge on time and asked Will for the hour. He opened the cumbersome object dangling from his neck and said: "Getting towards two although this mechanism is rarely accurate. Why do you wish to know?"
Taking up and rinsing the now-empty plates, Constance explained that she had made a friend at the water conduit who had offered to show her around London.
"A young woman of substance, may I presume?"
"Yes, indeed. She manages a large household for her husband and father, who lives with them. I believe they are well-to-do tradesmen."
Constance smiled inwardly, well-pleased with another fabrication that circumstances required.
"Off with you then. You've worked hard these past two days and deserve a little promenading. Be sure to return in time to fix supper. I will be home from The Rose, where the play that fiend Henslowe is putting on is not worth a fig, and raging with hunger much like a bear in the bear-baiting arena near to The Rose."
She hurried as fast as she deemed lady-like, afraid that Madge would have thought she wasn't coming and left swearing at the rudeness of country girls. But Madge was waiting by the conduit and smiled at her. Constance apologized for being late.
"I'll wager that brother of yours kept you working. I'm my own master during the day as my men-folk take their midday meal at a tavern where they serve cheap food and cheaper ale. It's a miracle they don't turn over their boats and give themselves and their passengers a good soaking and a hard swimming. The currents in the Thames can be fearful."
Madge took Constance by the arm, and they started towards the river. They passed through Grace Church Market with its imposing columns that indicated stalls from various counties. Two horses pulled a cart filled with barrels across the square while two oxen pulled another cart loaded with baskets of fruit and vegetables.
"From the suburbs," explained Madge, "just outside the city gates. Still good farmland out there although more houses are going up every year. I wonder, before long, where our provisions will come from as they build on all the land. I grew up in a squalid village down in Kent. My father was a farmer; but after my mother died, he brought us children - the three remaining ones - up to London, looking to make his fortune. Being a waterman is better than farming a few strips of land but not much, I'll warrant you." Madge pointed to her left. "Our house, which makes it sound grander than it is, is a few lanes in that direction."
They continued down Grace Church and soon crossed Lombard Street passing The Bell Inn on the right.
"Perhaps we'll stop here," said Madge, "for a tankard of ale when we've finished our promenade."
"I have three groats with me."
"That'll do nicely."
They turned left on Little East Cheap; and Madge pointed out Butchers Hall, a large building in the Tudor style. Not much further on, they approached the immense stone walls of The Tower. They stopped near the outer wall, and Constance stared up in amazement at the imposing structure with its towers at each of four corners.
"That," said Madge, with not a little pride, "is the most famous sight in all of England, if not the world: The Tower of London. Traitors have lost their heads in The Tower, and monarchs have resided there. The Crown Jewels are kept there as well as wild animals and all sorts of armor. We won't be able to see any of that."
"They must be afraid we'd steal the lot and make ourselves rich," said Constance, giving Madge a nudge.
"We'd lose our heads if we tried," said Madge with a laugh.
"Not if we succeeded and ran off to France."
"Stop your foolishness."
"I was only jesting, but I'll stop. Who knows if there might not be spies in the neighborhood."
"You are such a piece of work," said Madge, taking Constance again by the arm, "as would make a dead man laugh."
They passed through a gate and strolled around the forecourt until Constance stopped abruptly, recoiling at the sight of a scaffold upon which stood several gallows. Her mind fled back to Tyburn and the bodies swinging from their nooses. Her stomach churned, and she made an involuntary gagging sound.
"Whatever's the matter?" asked Madge.
Constance pointed at the scaffold.
"Oh that," said Madge. "Nothing to be alarmed at. No one you know will ever swing from one of those." Madge laughed and gently pulled Constance, still speechless, along the fortress wall and through another gate. Now in the main enclosure, they wandered past the fortress and into a garden where Madge guided Constance to a bench.
"Feeling any better?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Why did a simple gallows upset you so?"
"I read a book once about a man who gets hung for committing a wicked deed, and I have occasional dreams about it."
"Lucky then that I can barely read."
"Also, on my way into London, I saw bodies dangling from nooses at Tyburn." Constance was briefly silent. "It sickened me. Both things together, I suppose. I had a friend in Stratford who snuck off against her father's wishes to see an execution. She was adventurous in more ways than one."
"I go to Tyburn from time to time. It's quite the sight. I was planning on inviting you but now I won't." Madge stood up. "Let's walk along the river."
"Splendid. I've not seen it."
They walked along Thames Street, catching glimpses of the river. They approached London Bridge, and Madge told her it might be better not to look at the far side. Constance glanced anyway in that direction and saw the numerous heads stuck on poles affixed to the top of a building.
"Oh," cried out Constance.
"I warned you."
"Are you to be sick?"
"No," said Constance in a weak voice. "They are sufficiently far away. At least, I cannot look into their eyes."
"Nor can they look into yours."
At that, both young women laughed and continued along Thames Street until Madge led them down a side street that ended at the river. There she hailed an oarsman in a wherry to take them across the river to Southwark. "Two pence," said the oarsman; and Madge agreed. As they crossed, Constance marveled at the river's width and all the boats plying up and down and across in each direction. Madge pointed out the fourteen-sided Rose, and Constance said that's where Will was performing.
"The theaters abound with strumpets, mingling in order to seek custom among the throngs of young - and not-so-young - men. You should never go alone."
"I am sure that Will would not allow it."
Madge also showed Constance the bear-baiting and bull-baiting arenas and said that, given her willingness to attend executions, it was strange how little she liked the baiting of animals.
"It's mostly the dogs that get killed. The bears squeeze them or batter them to death. The sport is excessively cruel." She pointed to the bridge. " I don't suppose you'd like to walk across?"
"I am not ready for that."
Madge sighed and led the way to the river where she signaled for a boat smaller than a wherry - known as a sculler and rowed by one man -who took them across for a ha'penny each. Madge instructed him to row upstream a ways before crossing. As they approached the north bank, Madge drew Constance's attention to a very large, brick mansion with multiple chimneys and a garden bordering the river.
"There be your Pennyford House. Mark where it is in relation to the bridge in case you've a mind someday to take a closer look."
"Why should I?" asked Constance, carefully noting how far it was from the bridge. "I can see it perfectly well from here. Thank you for showing it to me."
Madge had the waterman row along the shore towards the bridge so that the heads would be as far away as possible. As the tide was coming in, the current grew swift and turbulent. Shouting: "The arches ho", the waterman aimed his boat towards one of the bridge's middle arches and shot through at tremendous speed. Constance screamed with delight; Madge simply laughed. Pleased with his skill, the waterman smiled and directed the boat to a landing just below the bridge. Agreeing that they much deserved a glass of good ale, the two women linked arms and walked up Fish Street (not to be confused with Fish Lane where Will lived) to the crossing with Candlewick Street, where Fish Street became Grace Church Street. Just beyond stood the proud Bell Inn. They found seats at a table in the wood-paneled hall and, savoring their ale, talked amiably about the day.
"Excuse my curiosity," said Constance after a few minutes, "but have you any children, Madge?"
Madge looked away. Constance waited patiently. Madge turned back, brushing the tears from her eyes.
"Three, but they all went to God at a tender age." Constance put a hand on Madge's. "I am so terribly sorry." Madge allowed herself a thin smile. "Peter and I keep our hopes up. The vicar in our parish tells us that we must pray hard and that, if we do, someday God will hear us and bless us with a healthy child. Unlike my sister, who was always on her knees begging for sons and who was rewarded with five of them and four still alive, I care not whether it's a son or a daughter so long as the child lives past the two years that the oldest of our three reached and grows to be a fine man or woman and provides Peter and me with grandchildren. I would like more but will settle for one if that be God's wish, but I don't want to go to my grave without having raised at least one child to adulthood."
"I will pray everyday that God grant your wish."
The two women finished their ales in silence. They left the inn and, before parting company, Madge said: "Perhaps the sister of an important theatrical gentleman will come visit my home one day."
"Will is not so important, at least not yet, and I'd be happy to visit. I think we shall be excellent friends."
Over supper, Will asked her what she had seen and how she now liked London. Constance described her promenade, leaving out only the scaffold and gallows, and mentioned that she and Madge had passed The Rose.
"When," she asked, "will I be able to see you act, especially in one of your own plays?"
"Perhaps when I finish Richard the Third, which will be my best so far, and perhaps ever. I have a few more ideas but not that many. One thing is certain: do not go alone to The Rose. I shall take you when I deem it appropriate and not before. You can invite your new friend whose name is...?
Constance looked shocked and embarrassed.
"I don't know."
"You had best find out."
A week later, Will left right after dinner without even taking the time, as he often did, to smoke his pipe. Constance hurriedly washed the dishes and then put on the best of the two new outfits that Will had bought for her. She walked impatiently down Grace Church and, just past the Bell Inn, turned right on Candlewick, which she followed to Dowgate. Turning left, she passed the Tallow Chandlers Hall and the Skinners Hall - both imposing buildings. She had seen Madge twice in the last week: once at the conduit and once when they had walked, meeting at an agreed time, to Moorgate and, passing through the city wall, had strolled past the adjacent fields and along the pleasant lanes.They saw women laying out wash to dry and men practicing with longbows and muskets. Today, however, Constance hoped not to meet Madge by accident as she had another objective in mind. Turning onto Thames Street, she continued parallel to the river until she reached the brick mansion that she had seen from the boat a week ago.
She walked up a path to a huge wooden door and rang a bell suspended on a rope. She waited a minute and then rang again. The door slowly opened, and a liveried servant stood in the doorway, looking her over with undisguised contempt.
"Is Lord Edmund at home?" she asked, her voice wavering despite the many times she had practiced the line.
"Lord Edmund does not receive..."
"Who is there, Seyton?" sounded a familiar voice that made Constance shiver.
"No one, your lordship."
"Move aside, please," said the voice and, seconds later, Edmund was in the doorway. "Oh, my word ... Constance." He smiled broadly. "Do come in." He turned towards Seyton who was standing in the shadows behind the door. "That will be all, Seyton. You may go." Seyton glided out of sight.
"What a surprise! I should say: 'What a delightful surprise!" Edmund turned her slowly around in a full circle. "My dear, you look as ravishing as ever and, apparently, flourishing in those less than wholesome surroundings. How are you faring?"
"Well, my lord..."
"We are not in public."
"Of course." She rendered him a smile that sent a quiver up and down his spine. "I'm doing passably well, Edmund, considering my brother's lodgings." She paused. "I've made a friend: an excellent young woman who, sadly, lost all three of her children; not one reached even two years."
"All too common, I fear. It might help if we cleaned up the city. Dumping offal in the street and ... well, waste ... in the river is doubtless not the wisest course of action. But enough complaints. I didn't know if I would see you again."
"Nor I you but I had hopes."
"Isn't hope grand?"
She laughed and nodded in agreement. He took her hand.
"But come: I must show you the garden of which I'm certain I bragged enormously. It really is quite modest."
"You did not brag in the least."
She was amazed at the hall, having never seen anything like it. Her father's hall was puny in comparison. Three stories in height, the top two stories were veiled by wooden screens, occasionally punctuated by stained glass windows showing Biblical images as well as scenes from contemporary country and city life. Elaborately carved wooden columns topped by figures of men and women in various poses - some lewd, others devout, many satirical - circled the room. Such a plethora of decorations made Constance giddy. She would've liked to study each column, but Edmund led her towards the far end of the hall.
"This is quite astounding," she managed to say.
"Father's pride and joy, but I find it overly elaborate. My tastes in art..." He paused. "...and other matters tend to be simpler."
"Well, I've never seen anything like it so, please, let me look at one or two columns."
"Of course. I was being inconsiderate. Look at as many as you like."
Constance admired three columns and then walked on. Edmund again took her hand. They left the hall and entered the dining room, equally large but with far less decoration. In the center stood a table that, Constance guessed, could seat upwards of twenty. They passed through a doorway in the far left corner and walked down a hallway lit, even in daytime, by candles in wall sconces. They passed a door and Edmund explained that it opened into a room where all the dining utensils and linens were kept. Edmund opened the next door and motioned for Constance to look in. She saw a huge kitchen with a large stove, several long tables and two fireplaces, only one of which now had a fire in it. Two women were at work. One was preparing pies while the other was trimming meat. Edmund greeted the women who gave a quick bow of their heads, said: "Good day, your lordship" and returned to their work. Edmund closed the door.
"They pay scant attention to us. They are such excellent cooks that they can afford to virtually ignore us. They are irreplaceable. We have another kitchen below ground, but it is only used for important occasions when we have many guests. Father and Mother are in the country today and are not expected home until tomorrow or the day after so supper will just be me unless my sister decides to dine at home instead of with friends. You'd be welcome to stay."
"And who would fix Will's supper?"
"Ah, yes, Will."
A door at the end of the hallway opened onto the garden, a large area bordering the river and laid out in squares and rectangles separated one from the other by thick waist-high hedges. Edmund showed her where they grew herbs, flowers and vegetables. He took her to a stone bench overlooking the river. When they sat down, they were out of sight of the house.
"My friend, Madge, took me around part of London a week ago; and I saw this garden from the boat. I had asked her to point out Pennyford."
"This friend: is she a merchant's wife or daughter? How did you meet?"
"They are in trade and quite wealthy." She squeezed his hand. "No, Edmund, I won't fool you as I did Will. Her father and brother are watermen; and while I have not yet seen her dwelling, I imagine it is as humble as our lodgings or more so. We met filling our buckets at the conduit on Grace Church."
"Filling your bucket? What a different life from mine. Yet, perhaps, I adore you all the more because of it."
"If I may ask, Edmund, because I've thought a good deal about you, are you by chance married?"
"You were honest with me so I shall be with you. Yes, I am married - a political marriage as are most at my rank. My wife and two sons spend most of their time at our country home. I visit from time to time. My wife and I do not get along - in many ways."
He leaned towards her; and they kissed, at first tentatively and then with the passion she remembered from the inn, which seemed an eon ago. He put a hand on her bodice and then ran it along her thigh, albeit on the outside of her skirt. She caressed the back of his neck and then put a hand in his crotch, which gave him a frisson that flowed through his entire body. He stood up and guided her to her feet.
"The large bed in my room," he said, caressing her cheek, "has a feather mattress which will be ever so much more comfortable than either this bench or the ground."
"is it safe?"
"There is no one in the house but servants, and I tip them generously - more so than Father."
She was barely aware of her surroundings as Edmund led her back through the house via a different door from the garden and down a back passage and up a circular flight of wooden steps. They entered a long hallway. Edmund led her past an immense curved stairway that arched up from the ground floor. They continued along the hall until they turned into a smaller hall and stopped at the first door. Opening it, he showed her into a large, well-furnished room with a bed that was larger even than she had imagined. She hardly had time, however, to look around before Edmund was undressing her and taking off his own clothes. He lay her gently on the bed; and she sank into the feather mattress, which was every bit as comfortable as Edmund had indicated and so different from the thin pad on her bed at Will's. She would have liked to luxuriate, if only for a minute, but had not the chance as Edmund was on top of her, kissing her mouth, her breasts, her navel and, to her great surprise, her sex. He stayed there long enough for the feeling to rise and her moans begin. Then he slid back up her body, somewhat to her disappointment and blew gently in her ear.
It did not take long for their mingled cries to fill the room. They fell into a deep sleep in each other's arms.
The roar, "Edmund", accompanied by the sound of heavy boots stomping along the hall, caused them both to bolt upright. Terror in her eyes, Constance looked questioningly at Edmund who, grimacing, said only: "Father". The roar was heard again; it echoed throughout the hall. "Damn it. Home early," said Edmund as he leapt from the bed and began hurriedly dressing. Now there was pounding on the door.
"Edmund, you contemptible whoreson, get out here immediately."
Dressed in an unseemly fashion, Edmund gave Constance, who was frozen in place, the briefest of kisses and hurried out the door. Recovering her senses, Constance got out of the bed and, as fast as she could, threw on her clothes, leaving many of the buttons undone as she silently cursed women's complicated outfits. Desperate, however, as she was and even through the closed door, she could clearly make out what Edmund and his father were saying.
"How dare you, sir?" the Earl spoke in a fury and only slightly lower in volume than his roars.
"Father, please, lower your voice."
"Do not, sirrah, tell me what to do."
"Father, this must remain between us."
"I shall determine with whom it remains," the Earl growled. "I demand an explanation."
"I was entertaining a lady and wished to show her..."
"A lady?" interrupted the Earl, angrily. "A whore, you mean." Stunned, Constance stopped dressing for an instant, a horrified expression darkening her face. She heard the sound of a slap and gathered the remainder of her clothes into a bundle.
"Father,"Edmund exclaimed, bewildered.
"How dare you bring a strumpet into my home?"
"She is no strumpet."
Constance pulled back the door and saw Edmund facing a large, florid-cheeked man with a cropped beard that ran along the line of his chin and jaw. She burst through the partly open door, brushed past the Earl and, shouting over her shoulder: "I am no strumpet", ran down the hall. Turning into the main hall, she quickly came upon the broad staircase and, clutching her bundle, charged down the stairs. Smiling evilly, Seyton waited by the door, which he opened with a contemptuous bow.
"Farewell, Constance," he said with pleasure. "I don't expect we'll be seeing you here again. Unless, of course, the Earl invites you to a family supper."
Constance fled through the open door, which Seyton hurriedly closed behind her. As fast as possible, she put on the rest of her outfit before venturing onto Thames Street. Trying to attract as little attention as possible, she practically ran towards home, sobbing all the way. Where Grace Church crosses Lombard, she almost ran into Madge, into whose arms she fell, crying like a hurt child.
Seyton was right in one respect: she would not see the interior of Pennyford House again, but Edmund was a horse of an entirely different color.
"You need ale," said Madge and led her to the Bell, not twenty paces away. After taking a few substantial swallows, Constance related the whole story, leaving out only what Edmund did to her and she to him to cause them to make so much noise. Madge smiled and touched her hand.
"Did you climax?"
"Is that when your body is quivering so hard you feel the earth is going to break in two?"
"You certainly climaxed or came, which is another word for it."
"I couldn't help moaning. I was embarrassed."
"As I said, you came." Madge's expression became hard as stone, and she looked at Constance with cold, penetrating eyes. "And I warned you, did I not, to stay away from the Pennyford clan."