Time’s Bending Sickle

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18. The Fools Of Time

As the troupe continued toward the town where they would next perform, Sly and the others coached Toby in the part of Basilisco in Soliman and Perseda, a tragedy with a few comic roles. One of these was the braggart warrior role Toby was rehearsing. He had seen enough performances by this time to be pretty familiar with the part, but speaking the lines gave him some trouble. After a few tries at one of the longer speeches, he had the words, but delivered them in a rather mechanical and monotonous way.
“Toby,” said Sly, “Matt was a traitor and a rogue, but he could make our auditors laugh in this role. Think how he gestured, how he spoke.”
Toby tried the speech again, making some awkward efforts at mimicking the tone and movements of Whitbread. Some of the actors grimaced and shook their heads. Sly tried to be encouraging. “You grow better, but think on what you do. How shall I say? You must seem naturally unnatural.” Toby looked puzzled. Sly went on. “You have been a soldier in sooth, and have seen many soldiers. Basilisco is no true soldier, but a mockery of a soldier, and moreover a mockery of what people think belongs to a soldier. Did you know a soldier whose manner would be more natural to you, but which you might ape to fit this false soldier? Think on it.”
Toby reflected a moment, his face growing sadder than usual. “I would not mock the dead,” he said softly.
They had reached the town and had set up their stage in an innyard. Toby stood behind the curtain, wiping his sweaty palms on his bombast-stuffed breeches. He also wore enormous boots, a breastplate, a scarlet cloak edged with silver braid, a morion with an especially full plume, and a long, curved scimitar. His eyebrows had been darkened so that his usual look of innocent melancholy was obscured, and he wore a fierce false moustache that stuck out three or four inches on either side of his face. He had watched Sly perform the young hero, Erastus, with confidence and dash. Young Harry, though he had to shave, could hide in an elaborate gown and tune his voice to make a plausible heroine, Perseda.
Toby’s character had a long, fantastic speech in the third scene. The moment came, and Toby stepped on the stage along with all the rest of the actors except Sly and Harry. After several characters had spoken, Toby said his first line, laying his hand on his sword: “I fight not with my tongue; this is my oratrix.” He stumbled slightly over the last word, which came out something like “ostritch.” There were snickers, and a call from the audience, saying, “His tongue fights with him!” The players grimly waited out the laugh this brought and went on. Then Toby launched into his long speech, part of which went:

As I remember, there happened a sore drought
In some part of Belgia, that the juicy grass
Was seared with the sun god’s element:
I held it policy to put the men children
Of that climate to the sword,
That the mothers’ tears might relieve the parched earth.
The men died, the women wept, and the grass grew,
Else had my Friesland horse perished,
Whose loss would have more grieved me
Than the ruin of that whole country.

Toby’s reading had none of the sureness and flair of Whitbread’s, but it had a kind of intensity that carried him through, and the laughs he got were from the character, not his stumbles.
As the play continued, Toby slipped a few times, and seemed stiff, but he muddled along, getting heckled only occasionally. Near the end of the play, as the corpses began to accumulate, Basilisco had a long sololoquy, for which Toby again found some intensity. Erastus had been killed, and Perseda had just killed Lucina; Basilisco asked,

where is that Alcides, surnamed Hercules,
The only club man of his time? dead.
Where is the eldest son of Priam,
That abraham-colored Trojan? dead.

Several other ancient heroes were called for, and all found dead.

I am myself strong, but I confess death to be stronger:
I am valiant, but mortal;
. . . . . .
I love Perseda, as one worthy;
But I love Basilisco, as one I hold more worthy,
My father’s son, my mother’s solace, my proper self.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff was not yet born, but I couldn’t help thinking of him and his eloquently cynical speech on honor.
After the performance, the actors assured Toby that it would get easier and he would get better. They gave more suggestions for action and gestures. Toby drank his share of the ale that night, and laughed as much as the others.

When I next saw them on the road, I could see Toby walking apart from the others, moving his lips and gesturing. When I saw them perform again, Toby had improved. He was not as flamboyant as Whitbread, and still had not acquired the ease and confident movement of the others, but there was that intensity that gave even the comic role of the miles gloriosus a spice of credibility. The northern coloring of his voice had a kind of penetrating distinctness. Some of the gestures he used haunted me for a good while until I recognized that the way he touched up his moustache was one of Captain Balfour’s characteristics, the way he jerked his chin one of Prothero’s, and several of his expressions–widening his eyes, puffing out his lips, and cocking his head while squinting–recalled Captain Hall.
Toby soon took up the roles of Lewis, Dauphin of France, and various nameless lords and messengers in King John, as well as Whitbread’s other small roles in Soliman and Perseda. The troupe also performed Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, in which Toby played Usumcasane, Mycetes, King of Persia, the king of Arabia, and several nameless roles. At some point the actors discovered Toby’s expertise at fencing, for they had him coaching some of the fight scenes.
One winter day one of the actors reported that a travelling merchant had told him that the long plague had abated and playing had resumed at the Rose theater in London. This improved the spirits of the troupe considerably. They turned their wagon toward London, stopping for performances now and then. Finally one rainy, cold day found them cheering as the blunt tower of Paul’s appeared on the horizon. Before reaching the bridge, the actors turned left and continued until they could see two cylindrical buildings. They approached the first with growing excitement. It had a sign with a brightly painted rose hanging over the door, but the flagpole on the peaked part of the roof was empty. They burst through the door with boistrous shouts echoing in the tiers of seats surrounding the open yard. Rain dripped off the eaves and onto the stage, a platform at one end of the yard partly covered by a gabled structure. A figure emerged from a door by the stage, and was greeted noisily by the actors. Sly and a few of the others hurried up to him and shook him heartily by the hand. The small, balding middle-aged man, his sharp, dark eyes snapping from one speaker to the next, was much more restrained in his greeting.
“So, good Master Phil,” began Sly, “we hurried in from the country to save the Rose and show London what she has missed. What plays are forward? We are sharp as a case of Spanish razors. We have polished Soliman, Tamburlaine, and King John until they shine.”
“Peace, peace, good Will. I am glad to see you gallants, but times change.” He rubbed his hands, looking from face to face. “We have been starved for custom for so long that we can stage no new plays, nor hire more players.”
Here began a long, emotional argument carried out with many dramatic gestures and soaring theatrical voices; I couldn’t follow it very well. After Sly and the others had been shouting at the small man for some time, and he in turn had been stubbornly insisting that there was no money, a handsome younger man with a full dark beard emerged from behind the stage and entered the fray. His deep, penetrating voice was almost a match for all the rest. Sly at first tried appealing to him as “good Ned,” but eventually called him “a bloody tyrant, worse than Tamburlaine.”
Toby stood by perplexed as the shouts and gestures grew in volume and vehemence. Finally Sly stalked out, calling to his company, “I’m for the Cardinal’s Hat, join me if you will.” Toby followed.
Sly and one of the older actors, striding along the street, continued the discussion, their anger tempered only by the fact that they shared opinions. In a pause between indignant curses, Toby asked, “What must we do?”
“We must take thought,” said Sly. “We must find out some warm man who will build us a theater. But now we must quench our thirst.”

Sly and the older actor sat in earnest conversation with a well-dressed young gentleman in a tavern where Toby himself, viol in hand, was negotiating with two musicians. They were even more ragged than Toby. One carried a fiddle and the other a pipe like a pennywhistle and a small drum. They reached an agreement that left Toby frowning, but soon they were playing and collecting small coins from the other customers. One gallant at a table with a woman in bright colors made a show of ordering music and paying generously.
At this point Harry rushed in, calling “Will!” Sly looked up. Toby was nearby, and heard Harry say, “They’re closed again. No more plays for fear of infection.”
Toby drew near as Sly said, shaking his head, “It serves him right, that miser Phil–but we must suffer too. Good sir,” he said to the young gentleman, “be not dismayed. This cannot last. The plague will end and a new theater will be much in demand. But we must break off until then, for it seems we must go on our travels again.” After exchanging further polite reassurances, the gentleman departed, leaving Sly swirling his cup thoughtfully.
“Will,” began Toby, gingerly. “I would not betray the company as Matt did. You have been generous and helpful to me, and have given me apprentice work in a new trade. But if you know of another who could take my place, I would remain in London for a time.”
Sly smiled, then sighed. “Toby, you have been a good fellow, and you are making progress, like a good apprentice; but you are not yet a journeyman. If we had our theater, we could have found work for you. But as we are to travel, I confess I know a dozen actors more practiced than you who are clamoring to join our company. So I heartily wish you well in London. Look about you, avoid the plague, and beware of cony-catchers. What will you do to live?”
Toby seemed disappointed at the ease of his release, but he answered, “I shall try to live with this noise of fiddlers until I can case myself better; then I shall try to find a place in some gentleman’s family teaching music, and perhaps mathematics and letters.”
“You might find employment at a fencing school.”
“I would rather it were music.”

Toby, more ragged than ever, but still carrying his viol, approached the Rose theater. It was a warm spring afternoon; from the roof of the theater a flag was fluttering against a blue sky. Toby waited by the door as a noisy crowd filed out, then slipped in. A few people were bustling about, retrieving props and picking up orange peels from under the rows of seats. Toby asked one where he might find Master Philip; he pointed to a door behind the stage. Toby entered a cluttered area through which actors in various stages of undress passed, hanging up props on pegs on the wall. I noticed several pieces of armor, a trident, a caduceus, a boar’s head, a cluster of three dog’s heads–Cerberus, no doubt–a papier maché lion, a large pair of wings with straps, a lute, a trumpet, and several crowns. Toby went through another door into a room lined with chests and costumes hanging from pegs. The small man called Master Philip sat on one chest counting a stack of coins on another and making entries in a ledger. The younger man called Ned sat on a third chest, picking his teeth.
“Your business, sirrah?” intoned Ned.
“Sirs, I come in the hope you will let me be of service to you. I can play this viol very well, I can fence as well as any man, and I have done some acting. I have played Basilisco, Lewis the Dolphin, Usumcasane, Arabia, and sundry others. Can you give me employment?”
Master Philip interrupted his counting and looked at Ned. Then he narrowed his eyes at Toby. “What company did you play with?”
“My lord of Berkeley’s men.”
“Sly’s rabble?” Master Philip scowled and Ned stiffened.
“Patience, good sirs. I was with them, but had no part in your quarrel. I have not been with them since.”
Master Philip relaxed a bit, but shook his head. “I fear we have no places. We still have many debts from the plague time, and can hardly employ our own apprentices. Give you good day.” He returned to his counting.
Toby lingered. Ned looked at him curiously. “What now, sirrah?”
“I beseech you, good sirs, if you cannot employ me, you may be able to help me in another way, if I may presume on your patience.” Ned nodded; the other kept counting. “If I leave my viol as surety, might I borrow some clothing from your stock for a short time?”
Master Philip and Ned exchanged glances. “Play us a tune,” said Ned. Toby opened his case, tuned his viol, and played a lively tune, one he printed later as “Tickle me quickly.” He also played some popular dance tunes, “Woodycock,” and “Turkeyloney.” I could see Ned’s toes twitching to the beat. Master Philip scratched his chin. “Perhaps we can find you some presentable clothes. But you must pay us rent–a shilling a day, with your viol and your own clothes as surety.”
Ned smiled. “Aye. We may use them for a beggar’s part.”
“I have but threepence, though I hope to earn more. May I owe you for a time?”
“Aye,” said Master Philip, smiling dryly, “at twenty per cent a week.”
“May I work off the rent first? I’ll do what you will.”
“But we have no work that our company cannot do.”
Ned held up his toothpick. “What about Cutlack? His tunes would give some life to the dances, and the viol might suit the dream well. Martin Slaughter plays the lute only.”
“The lute will do.” Master Philip returned to counting. Ned raised his eyebrows at Toby and shrugged. Toby picked up his viol and left without a word.
Toby crossed the bridge and headed up Gracechurch Street, through Moorgate, and eventually reached another theater, this one somewhat smaller and older than the Rose. It was octagonal and had a thatched roof. It was almost dark; performances were over, and only a few people were about. One, a young man about his age with a large nose and expressive brown eyes, greeted him in a voice almost as resonant as Ned’s. Another man emerged from behind the stage when he heard the first one speak. It was Sly.
“Will!” cried Toby, and ran to grasp his hand, which Sly shook warmly. The first man Sly introduced as Dick Burbage. Toby repeated his desire for work, and was again discouraged, but this time Burbage and Sly showed genuine regret and a wish to help. They were much more receptive to the loan of clothing, especially when Toby offered to leave his viol as collateral. While Toby selected garments–some of which Burbage refused as too valuable–Sly told him of the events of the last tour and the disposition of the various actors. Sly professed to be very content with the company he now acted with, and was especially full of praise for the clown, Will Kemp.
“We have a poet among us, too. Will Shakespeare wrote a most admirable poem during the plague; tis printed. Have you read Venus and Adonis?”
“No, but I have heard it talked of in the taverns where I play.”
“He wrote our King John, you recall, and has written some plays on Harry the Sixth. He is at work on another, as I hear. Watch the bills and come to see it.” Here Sly came close to Toby’s ear and whispered, not too softly, “I shall get you in gratis.”
Soon Toby was clothed in a costume that appeared to have elements of the dress he wore as a soldier in the Low Countries and of the character of Basilisco. This time his cloak was fashionably short, and instead of a comic snickersnee of a scimitar, he wore a serviceable-looking rapier. He looked much better, and his posture seemed to improve.
Toby approached a house with a sign of crossed swords. I could see Paul’s in the background at some distance, so I guess he was still in a northern suburb. He entered the house and climbed the stairs to a large, open upper room, very much like that of Felix’s school in Newcastle. This room was also full of young men fencing. Toby stood in the doorway a moment, then swept his cloak off his shoulder in a rather exaggerated gesture, and let his left hand fall casually on the hilt of his sword.
“Who is master here?” Toby called out in a penetrating voice I had not heard him use off the battlefield or the stage. A lean, dark man in his middle thirties took off his mask and stepped forward. The other fencers stopped and turned their eyes on Toby.
“I am Vincentio Saviolo. Who are you, sir?” The master spoke with a pronounced Italian accent.
Toby swept off his broad-brimmed hat and bowed. “I am Lieutenant Tobias Hume, come to pay my respects to the famous Master Saviolo. I also come to offer my services as your assistant.”
Saviolo gave a faint smile, and spoke with courtesy tinged with irony. “Thank you for your kind offer, lieutenant. I do not need an assistant, but if I did, he must be a maestro di maestri. Who was your teacher?”
“I have studied Wedderburn, Bonetti, Marozzo, Agrippa, DiGrasso, Viggiani, and Carranza.”
“I know not this Wedderburn. Did you study their practice or their precepts only?”
“Both. I have experience of battle in the Low Countries, and have slain with sword, pike, and musket both Spaniards and–Italians.” Saviolo’s mouth drew tight. Toby thrust out his chin. “Let me put them to proof. Stand a bout with me, and judge yourself–you and these gentlemen.” He waved grandly at the staring students.
Saviolo stood silent for a moment, looking grim. I interpreted his looks as calculating the risks of fighting or not fighting. The consequences of not fighting would have been a certain loss of reputation; those of fighting would be less certain, but the risk would be higher. “Bene!” he said with a half-smile.
“Thank you, good sir. May I borrow a foil?”
“You have a rapier, I see. You use rapier, I use foil.” Saviolo’s smile widened.
“I would not hurt you, sir.”
“You will not. Begin.”
Toby threw aside his hat and cloak and drew his sword. They saluted and faced each other. The students watched with open mouths. I had not seen Toby fencing for some time, so I was not surprised that Saviolo quickly had him on the defensive. Then I realized that his apparently reckless gesture must have been a shrewd tactic to inhibit Toby’s offence. That at least was its effect. Toby parried the master’s thrusts, but could not find an opening for scoring a harmless hit. Toby frowned in concentration, while Saviolo smiled.
“God’s fist, signor,” called Toby, “I beg you, let me use a foil.”
“No, lay on if you can.”
Toby continued to back away and parry defensively. Saviolo pressed on. Finally, after turning away a thrust, Toby pushed forward, quickly sliding his blade along the other’s foil until the hilts clashed. Toby pressed down on his shorter opponent, preventing him from backing away, then with his left hand wrenched Saviolo’s foil away. He then tossed his own pointed rapier hilt-first to the Italian, and gripped the foil. The students gasped, and Saviolo’s eyes shifted uncertainly.
“Now lay on, signor, by God’s shin,” panted Toby.
Toby now became the aggressor. But Saviolo, perhaps seeing the risk to his reputation rising, was less inhibited about attacking than Toby had been. Soon Toby realized that his doublet had a small slash. He backed off, again becoming defensive. Saviolo grimly pressed on. Suddenly, with a stamp of his foot and a cry of “Ho!” Toby attacked, and with a quick twist, flipped the sword from Saviolo’s grasp, as he had done with Felix some years before. Two students flinched out of the way as the sword flew across the room and banged against the wall.
Toby touched the foil gently to the breast of the master. “A hit.”
The students began making admiring comments. Toby and Saviolo stood gasping. Saviolo seemed to be thinking as hard as he was breathing. Finally he stretched his mouth broadly, showing his teeth. “Bene. Gentlemen,” he said turning to the students and waving toward Toby, “ecco un maestro.”
Toby bowed low. “Grazie, maestro.” The students cheered and applauded.
“That will be all for today,” said Saviolo to the class; to Toby, he said quietly, “We shall talk.” The students stowed their equipment and gathered their belongings. Saviolo sat on one of the benches against the wall and mopped his face with a white handkerchief. Toby accepted his rapier from one of the students and returned it to its sheath. He picked up his hat and cloak, brushing them off as the students filed out. He moved to a place near Saviolo’s bench, and stood with exaggerated erectness, almost striking a pose. When the students had gone, Saviolo gave Toby an intense look, and said, “Tell me why I should take you as an assistant and share my modest earnings, when I can teach as well without you.”
“For two reasons,” Toby answered promptly and confidently. “I can bring you more pupils. Or”–he paused with a hint of menace–“I can take away those you have.”
Saviolo frowned while showing his teeth. “What are your terms?”
“I shall not burden you greatly. Five shillings a week, lodging, plus half the fees of any new pupils I bring to the school.”
The master rose, gave his neck and forehead a final pat and restored his handkerchief to his sleeve. “New pupils must be gentlemen. I want no apprentices and idle merchants’ sons.”
“Some of those may become gentlemen.”
Saviolo stared at this remark. “I insist on examining new pupils before they are admitted. But I accept your other terms. Benvenuto.” He extended his hand.
Toby shook it. “Agreed.”

Toby, still in his borrowed costume, was holding forth in a tavern before a group of four young gallants, none of whom could have been older than eighteen, but who wore velvet, gold lace, and fine linen. He was telling the story of the taking of Breda as if he had been on the boat, under the peat.
“We were wet and sore afflicted with the cold, which made us all rheumy. I told the captain to cut my throat if I could not still my coughing.”
“Did he?” asked one of the young men, with a wink at another, who nudged him with an elbow; all laughed.
“Nay,” said Toby, soberly, “nor has anyone so much as scratched me since.”
“Tis easy to avoid scratching if one avoids cats and battles,” said the wag.
Toby sprang to his feet, knocking over his bench, right hand on his sword. “God’s teeth! Do you give me the lie, boy?”
The young man flushed and stood as well. “You know the truth on’t. What reason do we have to believe you?”
“My word as a soldier. But before I proclaim you a coward or skewer you, I shall give you proof and a chance to make your apology. Come you to master Saviolo’s school at the Crossed Swords, formerly in Blackfriars, now in Gray’s Inn Lane. There you shall have either satisfaction or a fencing lesson.”
“We’ll all come,” said one of the gallants.
“The fee for a lesson is one shilling. Bring your purse.”

Toby and Saviolo were instructing a room full of young men, including three of the four from the tavern. These three paid close and respectful attention to Toby as he demonstrated a fine point of parrying. Toby was wearing plain but new clothes.

Toby and Saviolo were shouting at each other, both very angry and red in the face. I couldn’t follow the argument, but it seemed to be about money. Toby swore several times by God’s guts and lungs. Both were wearing rapiers and both put hand to hilt from time to time.

A road in the suburbs, fields on one side. Toby, brushing away tears, held the hand of a young man lying on a shutter which was being borne at a trot by two other young men. The man on the shutter was clutching at a wet red spot staining his shirt around the belly. He was one of the young men from the tavern, the one who was skeptical of Toby’s military narrative.

Toby and Saviolo were fighting furiously with real rapiers. It was gray and misty; I could make out the shapes of trees and a cow blowing steam from her nostrils. Through the clash of blades, grunts, curses, and heavy breathing, I could hear a rooster crow. That sound reminded me of mornings in Tennessee. I was tempted to end the vision and daydream about my peaceful youth on my grandmother’s farm. But I had to see the outcome. Both fighters were bleeding from small wounds in the arm, thigh, and side, but they fought on without slacking. Toby looked grim, but Saviolo was beginning to look desperate. After an exchange that was too quick for me to follow closely enough to say exactly what happened, Saviolo dropped his sword and raised both hands. They stood panting for a few seconds. Saviolo sat down heavily, like a toddler learning to walk. Toby sheathed his sword and pulled Saviolo to his feet, draping his arm around one shoulder and supporting him at the waist. They walked this way for a few yards until Saviolo collapsed limply. Toby let him down and felt his pulse. Then he stood looking folornly at the man on the ground. The rooster crew again.

I had not been thinking about Toby, but I had been pursuing general Elizabethan interests by reading Jonson’s plays. In the middle of Every Man in his Humor, Toby appeared, looking scruffy and seedy. He lay on a bench in a room empty except for a few masks and foils hanging on the walls. It was smaller than the room in Saviolo’s school. His head lay on a stained cushion and he was wrapped in a cloak. Turning from his back to his side with a groan, he opened his eyes wide and vomited into a basin on the floor. He spat and heaved, then rolled to his back.
“Hostess,” he called hoarsely. He cleared his throat and called again. A toothless woman, not very old, wearing a patched dress with a stained apron, opened the door. “A cup of your small beer, sweet hostess,” he croaked. “And be so good as to take away the basin.”
“I would rather take away the rent you owe.”
“Directly, in good time.”
“No time like the present, say I.” Wrinkling her nose, she took the basin and closed the door behind her. Toby groaned and sat up, holding his head. In a few minutes the woman appeared with an earthen cup.
“Master Sly is below with another gentleman.”
“Send them up, please you. What’s the gentleman’s name?”
“Master Sly called him Ben.”


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