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John Bennett

[Illustration]

Nicholas Attwood's Home

dropcap image ICK ATTWOOD'S father came home that night bitterly wroth.

The burgesses of the town council had ordered him to build a chimney upon his house, or pay ten shillings fine; and shillings were none too plenty with Simon Attwood, the tanner of Old Town.

"Soul and body o' man!" said he, "they talk as if they owned the world, and a man could na live upon it save by their leave. I must build my fire in a pipe, or pay ten shillings fine? Things ha' come to a pretty pass—a pretty pass, indeed!" He kicked the rushes that were strewn upon the floor, and ground the clay with his heel. "This litter will ha' to be all took out. Atkins will be here at six i' the morning to do the job, and a lovely mess he will make o' the house!"

"Do na fret thee, Simon," said Mistress Attwood, gently. "The rushes need a changing, and I ha' pined this long while to lay the floor wi' new clay from Shottery common. 'Tis the sweetest earth! Nick shall take the hangings down, and right things up when the chimley 's done."

So at cockcrow next morning Nick slipped out of his straw bed, into his clothes, and down the winding stair, while his parents were still asleep in the loft, and, sousing his head in the bucket at the well, began his work before the old town clock in the chapel tower had yet struck four.

The rushes had not been changed since Easter, and were full of dust and grease from the cooking and the table. Even the fresher sprigs of mint among them smelled stale and old. When they were all in the barrow, Nick sighed with relief and wiped his hands upon the dripping grass.

It had rained in the night,—a soft, warm rain,—and the air was full of the smell of the apple-bloom and pear from the little orchard behind the house. The bees were already humming about the straw-bound hives along the garden wall, and a misguided green woodpecker clung upside down to the eaves, and thumped at the beams of the house.

It was very still there in the gray of the dawn. He could hear the rush of the water through the sedge in the mill-race, and then, all at once, the roll of the wheel, the low rumble of the mill-gear, and the cool whisper of the wind in the willows.

When he went back into the house again the painted cloths upon the wall seemed dingier than ever compared with the clean, bright world outside. The sky-blue coat of the Prodigal Son was brown with the winter's smoke; the Red Sea towered above Pharaoh's ill-starred host like an inky mountain; and the homely maxims on the next breadth—"Do no Wrong,"   "Beware of Sloth,"   "Overcome Pride," and "Keep an Eye on the Pence"—could scarcely be read.

Nick jumped up on the three-legged stool and began to take them down. The nails were crooked and jammed in the wall, and the last came out with an unexpected jerk. Losing his balance, Nick caught at the table-board which leaned against the wall; but the stool capsized, and he came down on the floor with such a flap of tapestry that the ashes flew out all over the room.

He sat up dazed, and rubbed his elbows, then looked around and began to laugh.

He could hear heavy footsteps overhead. A door opened, and his father's voice called sternly from the head of the stair: "What madcap folly art thou up to now?"

"I be up to no folly at all," said Nick, "but down, sir. I fell from the stool. There 's no harm done."

"Then be about thy business," said Attwood, coming slowly down the stairs.

He was a gaunt man, smelling of leather and untanned hides. His short iron-gray hair grew low down upon his forehead, and his hooked nose, grim wide mouth, and heavy under jaw gave him a look at once forbidding and severe. His doublet of serge and his fustian hose were stained with liquor from the vats, and his eyes were heavy with sleep.

The smile faded from Nick's face. "Shall I throw the rushes into the street, sir?"

"Nay; take them to the muck-hill. The burgesses ha' made a great to-do about folk throwing trash into the highways. Soul and body o' man!" he growled, "a man must ask if he may breathe. And good hides going a-begging, too!"

Nick hurried away, for he dreaded his father's sullen moods.

The swine were squealing in their styes, the cattle bawled about the straw-thatched barns in Chapel lane, and long files of gabbling ducks waddled hurriedly down to the river through the primroses under the hedge. He could hear the milkmaids calling in the meadows; and when he trundled slowly home the smoke was creeping up in pale-blue threads from the draught-holes in the wall.

The tanner's house stood a little back from the thoroughfare, in that part of Stratford-on-Avon where the south end of Church street turns from Bull lane toward the river. It was roughly built of timber and plaster, the black beams showing through the yellow lime in curious squares and triangles. The roof was of red tiles, and where the spreading elms leaned over it the peaked gable was green with moss.

At the side of the house was a garden of lettuce; beyond the garden a rough wall on which the grass was growing. Sometimes wild primroses grew on top of this wall, and once a yellow daffodil. Beyond the wall were other gardens owned by thrifty neighbors, and open lands in common to them all, where foot-paths wandered here and there in a free, haphazard way.

Behind the house was a well and a wood-pile, and along the lane ran a whitewashed paling fence with a little gate, from which the path went up to the door through rows of bright, old-fashioned flowers.

Nick's mother was getting the breakfast. She was a gentle woman with a sweet, kind face, and a little air of quiet dignity that made her doubly dear to Nick by contrast with his father's unkempt ways. He used to think that, in her worsted gown, with its falling collar of Antwerp linen, and a soft, silken coif upon her fading hair, she was the most beautiful woman in all the world.

She put one arm about his shoulders, brushed back his curly hair, and kissed him on the forehead.

"Thou art mine own good little son," said she, tenderly, "and I will bake thee a cake in the new chimley on the morrow for thy May-day-feast."

Then she helped him fetch the trestles from the buttery, set the board, spread the cloth, and lay the wooden platters, pewter cups, and old horn spoons in place. Breakfast being ready, she then called his father from the yard. Nick waited deftly upon them both, so that they were soon done with the simple meal of rye-bread, lettuce, cheese, and milk.

As he carried away the empty platters and brought water and a towel for them to wash their hands, he said quietly, although his eyes were bright and eager, "The Lord High Admiral's company is to act a stage-play at the guildhall to-morrow before Master Davenant the Mayor and the town burgesses."

Simon Attwood said nothing, but his brows drew down.

"They came yestreen from London town by Oxford way to play in Stratford and at Coventry, and are at the Swan Inn with Master Geoffrey Inchbold—oh, ever so many of them, in scarlet jerkins, and cloth of gold, and doublets of silk laced up like any lord! It is a very good company, they say."

Mistress Attwood looked quickly at her husband. "What will they play?" she asked.

"I can na say surely, mother—'Tamburlane,' perhaps, or 'The Troublesome Reign of Old King John.' The play will be free, father—may I go, sir?"

"And lose thy time from school?"

"There is no school to-morrow, sir."

"Then have ye naught to do, that ye waste the day in idle folly?" asked the tanner, sternly.

"I will do my work beforehand, sir," replied Nick, quietly, though his hand trembled a little as he brushed up the crumbs.

"It is May-day, Simon," interceded Mistress Attwood, "and a bit of pleasure will na harm the lad."

"Pleasure?" said the tanner, sharply. "If he does na find pleasure enough in his work, his book, and his home, he shall na seek it of low rogues and strolling scapegraces."

"But, Simon," said Mistress Attwood, " 'tis the Lord Admiral's own company—surely they are not all graceless! And," she continued with very quiet dignity, "since mine own cousin Anne Hathaway married Will Shakspere the play-actor, 'tis scarcely kind to call all players rogues and low."

"No more o' this, Margaret," cried Attwood, flushing angrily. "Thou art ever too ready with the boy's part against me. He shall na go—I 'll find a thing or two for him to do among the vats that will take this taste for idleness out of his mouth. He shall na go: so that be all there is on it." Rising abruptly, he left the room.

Nick clenched his hands.

"Nicholas," said his mother, softly.

"Yes, mother," said he; "I know. But he should na flout thee so! And, mother, the Queen goes to the play—father himself saw her at Coventry ten years ago. Is what the Queen does idle folly?"

His mother took him by the hand and drew him to her side, with a smile that was half a sigh. "Art thou the Queen?"

"Nay," said he; "and it 's all the better for England, like enough. But surely, mother, it can na be wrong—"

"To honour thy father?" said she, quickly, laying her finger across his lips. "Nay, lad; it is thy bounden duty."

Nick turned and looked up at her wonderingly. "Mother," said he, "art thou an angel come down out of heaven?"

"Nay," she answered, patting his flushed cheek; "I be only the every-day mother of a fierce little son who hath many a hard, hard lesson to learn. Now eat thy breakfast—thou hast been up a long while."

Nick kissed her impetuously and sat down, but his heart still rankled within him.

All Stratford would go to the play. He could hear the murmur of voices and music, the bursts of laughter and applause, the tramp of happy feet going up the guildhall stairs to the Mayor's show. Everybody went in free at the Mayor's show. The other boys could stand on stools and see it all. They could hold horses at the gate of the inn at the September fair, and so see all the farces. They could see the famous Norwich puppet-play. But he—what pleasure did he ever have? A tawdry pageant by a lot of clumsy country bumpkins at Whitsuntide or Pentecost, or a silly school-boy masque at Christmas, with the master scolding like a heathen Turk. It was not fair.

And now he 'd have to work all May-day. May-day out of all the year! Why, there was to be a May-pole and a morris-dance, and a roasted calf, too, in Master Wainwright's field, since Margery was chosen Queen of the May. And Peter Finch was to be Robin Hood, and Nan Rogers Maid Marian, and wear a kirtle of Kendal green—and, oh, but the May-pole would be brave; high as the ridge of the guildschool roof, and hung with ribbons like a rainbow! Geoffrey Hall was to lead the dance, too, and the other boys and girls would all be there. And where would he be? Sousing hides in the tannery vats. Truly his father was a hard man!

He pushed the cheese away.