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An Excerpt from The Player's Boy

 

Time raced, because we were reading the scenes, and not acting them. Pity me, I prayed to Fortune, I am no counterfeit page, this is myself speaking, or that other, shadowy being in me, that I do not always recognise. We became absorbed into the pattern of the verse; phrase, movement and feeling fused into one, until the whole act glowed like the ruby that Prince Henry had worn on his helmet, riding in procession through London. My coldness could melt; until Mr Beaumont had given me the words I had not known that I was lonely. I, too, could conquer this stubborn art that until now had eluded me. We saw in dream, but hearing was the more immediate, it was the present compared with the past; yes, speech needed its own interpreters because few seemed to be aware of it, yet it had the power of flying, it could carry the ears above any murmur of the lute players, into the silence that was more important than the sound. And suddenly (although it was again the light upon the very word arras) two gold doors swung ajar in front of me, opening slowly, shutting once more, both of them the color of sunlight moving with the wind. Beyond them was Helicon, the new motions of the mind, the great masque that was outside our mortal limitations. Then, just as I was about to pass the gates, the unpracticed player King stumbled over his two final lines, the walls became solid, Mr Beaumont saluted the circle with a wide sweep of his hat, and the audience started to applaud, quietly at first as if they were still a little dazed, and lustily afterwards, as if we were at a hunt.

It was over. The glory was ended. They had listened to Bellario but not to me, whatever we had made was in an eternity of its own, it was not here. People pressed towards Mr Beaumont, and the squire’s son, his coif under his arm, minced over to his friends with the assurance of a practiced player. He had been the only one to dress in costume for the performance. “It ended just in time,” a servingman grumbled, coming in with fresh candles. “Another minute, and the room would have been in darkness. Not that the ladies would have taken that amiss,” he added in a rough whisper. The door was flung open; the old mastiff that had been shut up in the pantry lest he should snore came bounding in to snuffle round his master. “Will there be enough stools?” somebody queried. “Wait a moment, we can get the bench out of the tool shed.” A blue-coated servingman, lent by a neighbor, marched through the room towards the dining hall, carrying a huge platter of beef, and the younger men started to applaud him.

“It was a sad, pitiful tale,” the lady beside me murmured. “It reminded me of my first love. I would I were fourteen again.”

“Go to! By waiting a year thou hadst a knight of the shire, and thine own coach.” We all smiled at these indignant words, because the speaker’s ruff had wilted in the heat, and her stomacher was so pointed that she resembled the top half of a painted, wooden giant rather than a sober matron.

“All the same, he was a proper young man, and he died in Flanders,” the first woman affirmed, dabbing her eyes. “I remember…”

“Nay, good my lady, memories are dangerous.” It was the fat squire speaking, who was so famous for his hounds. “Yesterday is past, think instead of the posset that I see them bearing to the upper table. For my part, watching a play is a whet stone for my appetite. I’d as soon hunt otters till my boots were full of water, than sit on a stool for hours, listening to a tale I cannot follow.”

“’Twas a sweet child that played the page, though a trifle solid looking.”

“But to speak of riots, in these times! And against princes of the blood. Dost think…” My neighbour dropped his voice and muttered something that I could not hear.

“Nay, calm yourself, good sir.” His companion shook his head. “Whatever he may think in his study, our friend Beaumont is too witty a gentleman to jeopardize his freedom by a foolish word. Besides, I know these writers. What we have heard tonight is hot from his fancy, now he will send the piece to the players to be schooled.”

I shivered in spite of this reassurance. The world was upside down, as the broadsheets said, and a jest today could lead as easily to gaol as laughter. People whispered that Ralegh was imprisoned in the Tower because he was Lady Arabella’s champion, and she, in turn, was confined to a country estate, forbidden to marry or to come to Court. Yet although I had collected the pages of the play as fast as Mr Beaumont had written them, I knew no more than the squire’s mastiff about his political ideas, nor whether some deeper current ran beneath this apparently harmless story of young love. [pp.90–93]