by Frank Dickens
Perhaps something HISTORICAL is called
for? 'ACT of TREASON' is the answer. This incredibly well researched narrative
is guaranteed to make the mind boggle.
My name is George Bullen, and I set word to paper on this Tuesday, the second
of June, in the year of Our Lord 1598, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
I am, by profession, an amanuensis, that is to say a scribe, one who
writes letter for those unable to read or write, and my dwellings are to be
found in Deptford Green, London, above the premises of Mr. Trumble, the moneylender.
A great deal of my business is conducted through Mr. Trumble, since the lending
of money must entail documentation, as proof that such fiscal transactions as
takes place between Mr. Trumble and his customers needs be faithfully recorded,
and I am generally busy with this work.
My rooms above Mr. Trumble, which are leased from him for the sum of two guineas
a year, consist of this main room and one smaller, which is used as living quarters,
and contains a bed, a chair and a table. These quarters, seen by some as cramped,
suit my needs. My office holds only a desk and two comfortable chairs, one for
visitors and the other slightly higher and with a trifle more padding in which
to lower my ever increasing bulk of a body.
I live alone, some say frugally, but not to my face. I have a reputation for
mixing it, as they say, when in my cups and relaxing in the Cock of an evening.
This is not something I like to do, for my hands are my living and to damage
them is to harm this living. Some nights I attend the boxing in Kings Fields,
other evenings I visit the Bear Gardens or the cock fights for some sport with
friends and occasionally I go to the Theatre in Shoreditch, or the Rose, and
these last always alone, my wife, Nell, having been taken from me by the Plague,
five years since. But enough of that.
The events that follow are arranged in chronological order, set out so that
Mr. Trumble can see the detail of the time and pay according to rates, and are
a faithful account of the happenings at that time, and as accurate as memory
permits. This memory, praise be, still functions as well as that of a young
man's, although I am three score and five years. It began on the morning of
Tuesday, May 27th, when Mr. Trumble and I were sipping ale outside Mrs. Ball's
ale house close to the river and discussing an increase in my rent. I had complained
at this increase and at Mrs. Ball's place, with it's excellent views of shipping
on the Thames, we were on neutral territory.
" I have a matter I would like to bring up that concerns yourself and a soldier
in the employ of the Duke of Norfolk", he said, during a pause in the argument.
I said nothing, but waited for him to continue. Private armies (with the exception
of the royal bodyguard) have been outlawed since Henry V11 made them illegal,
but naturally most of them still continue and badges are still worn.
" He approached me for money, which he needs urgently, to enable him to go to
Portugal and from there to America." he went on. I must have shown some sort
of reaction, for he chuckled. " He is a man in fear for his life."
" Why else would he go?" I asked. Like everyone else, I knew very little of
this new continent, save that it was reported to be occupied by savages. There
was a silence, and I fear he was going into one of his whining periods, so well
characterised by Master Will Shakespeare, the playwright, in his play " The
Merchant of Venice", which, as everyone who has seen it knows, was based on
Mr. Trumble, and which, Mr.Trumble apart, had been well received. The pair had
done business over a loan to enable Shakespeare to pay the taxes and there had
been much ill feeling over the matter.
I, who drafted the contract, thought personally that the terms for the loan
were hard, even for Mr. Trumble, and were the reason for the play being written
in the first place, but I am not paid for my opinions, but rather for my talent
as a scribe and listener.
" He has no security or any form of collateral", Mr. Trumble continued, "and
when I raised the matter, replied the only thing he possessed was a story that
was worth a great deal of money."
I sipped my ale in another silence, wondering how much I should charge, for
if the soldier was in fear of his life, and I was to write this story down (
and that is the direction in which I felt this conversation was heading), then
maybe I could make some money out of it, particularly as Mr. Trumble was involved.
" I refused," Trumble went on, " but he persisted. I asked him to tell me something
of the story, so that I could ascertain whether it was something of value to
someone like Shakespeare, who are in the market for stories. He refused to discuss
the matter. I then suggested he approach your goodself, since he is not an educated
man, and have you write the story, since it needs to be put on paper at some
point. And I will rely on your much valued judgement as to whether this story
is worth money and how much. It would seem to me that he will accept these conditions.
He will naturally reimburse you out of his own pocket. I will not part with
a penny of my own money until I see your report. That is how it remains. He
will contact you at his convenience. I think it will be soon," he concluded,
finishing his ale, and standing to imply the conversation was at an end, " for
it seems to me that he has gone into hiding."
Mr. Trumble was right, as usual, for the very next evening, after six, as I
was finishing a letter, there was a scuffling sound ouside. This was followed
by a furtive tapping, as if the person on the other side of the door was afraid
to make too much noise.
" Enter" I said, but there was no reply. " You may enter." I said once more,
this time louder, lest whoever was on the other side was hard of hearing. Still
no movement. This necessitated my having to rise and cross the room, a movement
totally unnessary for a man of my size and age, and I was a trifle annoyed when
I opened the door. I was expecting the soldier, but I was not expecting anything
like the man who withdrew into the shadows. The rooms here are close together
and the ceilings are so low as to allow very little light into the building,
and it was with difficulty I could make out the cloaked figure of the man who
flattened himself against the other wall as the door opened. " I am alone."
I said. " If you are the man I am expecting you need have no fear."
" How do I know you are alone?" he replied.
As he spoke I caught a glint of steel beneath the cloak and realised he held
a sword. " I cannot allow weapons in my home." I said angrily, and withdrew,
as if to close the door.
" Stay." he replied, and there was fear in his voice. " I will return my sword."
" I will wait upon that." I retorted, and did not move until I heard the sword
returned. Only then did I step back and allow him entrance. " Please to make
yourself comfortable and be seated," I said, adding, with a certain amount of
sarcasm, for to my mind, he had made a bad start. " there is no one under the
"Hold your tongue, sir." he replied angrily as he shrugged off his cloak. "
lest I forget my real business and remove it."
I apologised, and sat down in my seat, the better to observe him. Under the
cloak he wore an earth coloured loose fitting shirt and green knee length breeches.
His age I took to be around twenty three years, and he sported a full beard.
His nose was flattened with a scar across it than ran down into the beard and
suggested a fighting man, certainly not one I should wish to tangle with, for
he was broad shouldered and moved with an easy grace. His face above the beard
was still very young, but his eyes sunk deep, through lack of sleep, I supposed,
but it was difficult to see. His voice, when he spoke, was musical, with a hint
of - was it Norfolk? He settled back in the chair, his hand near the hilt of
" You have spoken with him downstairs?" he asked, a trace of contempt in the
voice. " and are aware of my situation?"
"Mr. Trumble has asked me to receive you." I replied, "Of the situation I know
" I need to leave the country. I have very little money. I have only a story."
" You have money enough to pay for the writing, of course? " I said. " I do
not work for stories. Nor do I work for Mr. Trumble." He looked at me steadily.
" If the rates are reasonable we shall have no argument." he said.
" My rates are reasonable, " I replied, " but my time is valuable and I suggest
we start at once, and from the beginning, leaving out nothing, for I charge
for corrections. You would like to make yourself more comfortable?" I went on,
nodding in the direction of the sword.
He shook his head. " I cannot afford corrections." he said, his eyes still looking
around the room as if in search for uninvited guests." Let us begin." he went
" My story starts in the year 1592. I had been in the service of my Lord Norfolk
for five years."
I held up my hand to stop him. " This is a very long story?" I said, and saw
a flash of anger in his eyes. " A single sheet of paper costs more than a loaf
of bread. If it starts in 1592 it is a long story."
" It is a long story." he muttered, more to himself than to me.
" It is customary to start with a name." I said, picking up a newly sharpened
pen. " Lest for any reason the papers are mislaid."
" I trust that will not happen." he replied, " for both our sakes. And him downstairs."
he added grimly.
" My name is Gareth" he began, " Gareth Simmons. And until recently I was in
the service of the Duke of Norfolk" I started to write.
"It was in August of 1592 when Her Majesty the Queen decided to visit the Theatre
in Shoreditch," he said. " It was two days before we left for our summer travels.
She was accompanied by my Lords Essex, Kent, Chester, Buckingham,Warwick, and
Norfolk, and their ladies, and escorted by a small body of foot soldiers, including
myself. Our full party numbered thirty two.
After the Queen and members of her court took their seats in the theatre those
of us guarding their personages were allowed to seek refreshment elsewhere,
(a normal practice in times of peace) and a small group of us betook ourselves
to the Kings Head in Southwark. It was half empty, so many people not venturing
out because of the plague, (which some do call the'Sweats', no one knowing which
it is, or the cause) which is widespread over London and many hundreds dying
Whilst there, David Reynolds, a friend of mine, in the employ of my Lord Essex,
introduced me to his cousin, Septimus Skinner, a market trader, and his daughter,
Marion, (which I changed to Mary, preferring that name,) with whom I was much
taken, as she was with me. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,
with plaited auburn hair and violet eyes," he said, " and a tiny mole at the
side of her mouth." For a second his voice softened and he seemed almost happy.
It was with an effort he pulled himself together and resumed his normal pattern
" They, Mary and her father, were in the King's Head prior to visiting her brother
Rufus, an actor appearing at the Theatre in Shoreditch and, to my surprise and
delight, asked if I would care to accompany them. I naturally accepted this
invitation, not because I had any desire to meet her relative, but my desire
for her was so great I would have gone anywhere to be at her side.
She had a way of tossing her head back when she laughed -" he broke off again,
and I was glad, for every time he spoke of the girl his voice speeded up and
I had trouble in getting everything down. It is fortunate that over the years
I had developed a method of writing which is faster than the Italian style,
and enabled me to note salient points of a conversation and return later to
flesh them out. These are not counted as corrections and there is no charge.
Sufficient to say I had everything under control when he resumed his narrative,
and he, noting my slight confusion, slowed in his delivery, for which I was
most grateful. " Rufus, the brother, was a complete surprise. I knew nothing
of the theatre. I had never been to watch a play before and knew nothing of
theatrical people. I was born in Hoxne Eye, in Norfolk of farming stock and
brought up in the area, working on the estates of the Duke of Norfolk, before
I was seen by one of his recruiting agents and invited to become a soldier in
his private army. The theatre, with its unsavoury reputation, meant nothing
to me, and I was totally unprepared for the scenes that greeted us when we went
backstage. Conditions were quite primitive there, and there was much movement,
though comparatively very little noise, since we were told, upon our entering
the actor's crowded dressing room, that excessive sounds could be heard on stage.
Conversation was therefore limited and Mary and her father said very little,
confining their comments to enquiring of the condition of his health and general
Apart from being introduced I said nothing, having no desire to speak to a man
dressed in woman's clothing, for this is how we found him, seated at a rough
hewn table, dabbing white powder on his forehead, and cheeks reddened for the
performance. He was playing the part of a woman, Mary laughed, seeing the expression
on my face, and assured me this was common practice. I smiled, lest I offend
her, but in truth I was disgusted. We soldiers have a word for these people."
As I put my pen down his eyes flashed.
" Have I offended you?" he asked.
I shook my head. " I am tired" I replied, and indeed I was. " I have been writing
all day. I usually finish at six. It is past eight. That is ten sheets. Ten
sheets is three pence."
"How long will this business take?" he asked, setting the coins down.
" That depends on you." I answered. " If you come tomorrow at nine we can work
all day. For a long story it may take a week."
He bit his lip. " A week?" he muttered. " So long?"
" Perhaps we could start earlier in the mornings. Where are you living?"
" That is none of your business." he said, as I showed him the door. Then he
was gone. I shrugged. My fingers were beginning to cramp. But we had made a
© Frank Dickens 2000-2021