Reader, you may see how kind my sister is. I asked her to tell all, and she hath told you more than ever she told me. This tale of Trundletail's sister is as new to my ear as to yours.
I must confess I can scarce see to write, being blinded half by tears and half by a great scolloping Spaniel-tongue. For Trundletail, quite innocent of his own grief, is yet most feelingly aware of mine; and hath besides a great addiction to the savour of salt. To think how nearly there were two such creatures in the world!
Methinks a playfellow of his own kind would much have mended my dog's wits. For having been so much brought up with me, the simple beast believes himself a man, and a Brownley at that, and fairly breaks his heart with anguish that he may not dine beside us at high board. He hath such a speaking look that I have oft-times crept beneath the board to bear him company, though I was whipped for it. I think it strange justice that a dog may be whipped if he sit on a chair, and a boy if he sit on the floor.
But Tom, a demon as present upon my left shoulder as Trundletail upon my right, reminds me that all this is from our purpose, and I have scarred near a page of good paper with my 'dog-prate'. And though I would fain be revenged on her with a whole book of dogs, I fear you would not stay to read it; therefore I must to the matter.
I had, in truth, already written my beginning in thoughts while my sister laboured to set hers in ink; and though 'twill be something ungainly to begin thus now, having already once begun, I had rather waste good paper than good thoughts.
C'est icy un livre de bonne foy, lecteur - which is to say, reader, here is a tale told in good faith. And though I steal my words from one Montaigne of France, yet trust me, you shall find the English thief more honest than the honest Frenchman.
If you have read the essays of Montaigne, you will know how this great work begins: the author takes pains to tell you he writes not for you - unless you be one of his kinsfolk, or his friends, or the Lord G_d himself. And I say, reader, that this great philosopher, who hath been honest with you even as to the movements of his privy bowels, was liar yet in this: It was for you he wrote. Who addresses his life's work to one he hopes will never read it? What man writes to another, and seeks for no response?
Reader, I say it was for you. He was too proud to let you know he sought your love. True, he sought not to be loved as players are loved, in every fantastical character but their own; he desired a greater love from you than that. He wished for you to love him as a true lover, in his naked skin, and not only body-naked but soul-naked; all imperfections seen, and all forgiven.
And though I blush to acknowledge it, being but a timid boy, yet I confess that I too long for you to love me so.
I mean to be more honest with you than I have ever been with any save my sister; nay, since she shows me the way, perchance more honest still. And I fear this resolution will go hard with me, for I have sought all my life to be loved as players are loved, and there are some stage-tricks so deep-dyed in me that they will hardly be scrubbed out. Yet, for your love, I shall try the endeavour.
From my earliest memory, it was a kind of jest with my family that if Tom was the son of the house, then I was the daughter. My father said it with scorn, my mother with smiles and tenderness, so that I never quite knew whether to be proud of it or ashamed; but being more my mother's child than my father's, I was more proud than otherwise.
Until I was breeched (of which more anon), strangers took me for a maid almost as readily as they took my sister for a man; and even after, some still called me little mistress and pretty maid, thinking I suppose that all the Brownley women dressed in netherhose. But a womanish boy is nothing so strange a monster as a manly maid; and my sister oft hath called it most unjust that I was petted and made much of, while she was called a devil and a whore. (In truth, I think the name of whore hath lost its meaning now-a-days, for Tom hath not one drop of whore in her, though she hath alas some several pints of devil.)
Nonetheless, I was exceeding eager to get into breeches, chiefly for the promise of a grand breeching ceremony entirely devoted to me. And my heart (like my sister's) was easily won with fine apparel.
My mother (heaven rest her soul) kept me in my kirtle as long as she could; I believe she felt she must have one of her children in skirts. Finally, she told me I would get my new suit on my seventh birthday; but after my much pleading that to be breeched on one's birthday was worse than to have one's birthday on Christmas-day, she relented and set the date a month sooner.
For some months beforehand I was in great excitement, planning my suit in colours and fabrics that were lawful only for royalty to wear, and drawing more and more fanciful embroideries for my doublet. For a long time I believe I wanted greyhounds and grapes. Needless to say, my father and mother laughed merrily at all this but showed no sign of taking my designs to the tailor.
My sister's face darkened most horribly when I prattled of my new clothes, and as the day drew near she grew more violent in her enmity towards me. I began to fear that my new suit, with or without greyhounds and grapes, would not last the day; or at least that she would put fleas or nettles in it before I put it on.
I remember once she said I was not fit to wear doublet and hose, nor even to wear gown and kirtle, and if I were her child she would put a collar on me and make me sleep in the kennels. I believe she would not have said it had she known that I took her in earnest; for as heathens worship the lightning for its very power to harm them, so did I worship my sister. (For this perversity in my nature I have often been called spaniel, but in my observation your spaniel is a wise beast that is easier won with sweetmeats than with cruelty.)
In truth, my heart rose and fell in those days like a little bark upon a great ocean; for my nature is so lightly led, that as any one thinks well or ill of me, so well or ill do I think of myself.
I believe the ceremony might have passed off well enough, had it not been for a strange visitation upon the very day. It was a little after noon and we were upon finishing our dinner when I heard a great ragged noise of singing in the courtyard without.
"Oh!" I cried, jumping up. "Is this singing in my honour?
"Why in thy honour, whelp?" growled my sister.
"Why, for I am to be breeched today!"
"Sweet Kit, the world doth not revolve around thine arse." There was a roar of laughter; and I sat down much ashamed that every one at the table was now thinking upon my arse.
I have been much mocked for that piece of foppery to this day; and I blush at the bawdy quibbles some have made, concerning how the world shall revolve when my youth is a few summers riper.
It was a troop of players that were come upon the manor; and I must confess I felt myself torn betwixt joy and misery. These were such folk as I had never seen: such a jangling of bells, such a clashing of colours, such a madness of merriment as I had never dreamed. And yet to have them come upon this day was ten times worse than to be breeched upon my birthday; for I feared my breeching would seem beside this as a drab little mouse beside a great and gaudy dragon.
My father asked the captain of the players - a swarthy fellow with flashing eyes and a most fearsome beard - for some sport fitting the occasion.
"We have the very piece," said the player, bowing low; "an old device, but one all children love; and one most apt unto a breeching, for it tells how a little boy passeth from the arms of women into the world of men."
The day being very hot, we had the play upon the sward, and all the lesser folk of the manor crowded about to watch. The first personages to come upon the scene were a King and Queen.
I saw our King when I was very young, in London; a little pale man carried in a litter, with a weary, sickly, ordinary face between his great robe and his great crown. I liked him at once, and pitied him; but after he had passed I asked for hours when the real King was coming.
And now, here upon our very grass, the real King had come; or so he seemed. I knew him for the player that had bowed to my father; I knew his jewelled crown was paste and glass, and his purple cloak that whispered on the grass was patched with green; but oh, he was a king! He was cousin to the kings in stained-glass windows, a Biblical monarch, a great blazing bearded warrior angel. The little maids and pages and the brown farmgirls with their mud-splashed legs fell silent as a church in his most royal presence. It was witchery!
And his stately painted queen, as tall as he, seemed an angel too; one of the gilded ones that kneel at my grandsire's tomb, too lovely to be men, too noble to be women. In my young years, being too much called 'angel', I was convinced I would grow up to be an angel such as these; which made my parents fear that I was marked for death. Alas, it was not I, but they who were! But I digress.
The play was, I now realize, a bastard version of the Mid-Summer Night's Dream, though shorn of most of the poetry and half the plot. But some remained; some lines about the moon and liquid pearl, which made my body tingle cold all over and the hairs stand upright on my arms; and do so still, when I remember them. I know not why I should be thus affected; there was no great matter in the lines, no weighty sentiment; and yet it seemed a breath from another world. Tears come to my eyes as I write of this, my first taste of the magic that has held me in awe ever since.
But one thing bothered me about the play. Where was the boy? Here was the fairy queen, and there her jealous king; but where was the boy they talked of, the boy they warred over, the boy for whose love the whole kingdom of Faerie was divided? Some half way through the play I realized that no such boy was to appear; and standing up, called out: "I see you have no boy in your company" - whereat there was much laughter, of which I in my innocence knew not the cause. "Then let me play," I cried, "steal me, and let me be your changeling boy."
Both king and queen did seem most fain to steal me; but my mother cried, "Be still, and mark the play."
Mark I did, but I was not still; for methought I was the changeling boy, and my place on the stage stood empty, and I itched and burned to run forth and take my part.
At the very end of the play, for just a moment, I got my wish. When they players came forth to take their bow, the king and queen stretched out their hands to me, and like lightning I was there between them, bowing and flourishing my cap, for all the world as if I had been in the play.
I was most sore affrighted when the queen and the two young lady lovers plucked their heads of hair clean off, just as I plucked off my cap. "Why, you are all fellows!" I cried - and once again there was much laughter.
"Ay, but we are not yet breeched," said one.
"But you are such great lads, do not the other fellows mock you?"
"Pay him no heed," said the other, "these are but play-tires, like the ass's head."
"Ay, but there are no ass-headed men - but there are many maids, so wherefore -"
"Nay, there are many more ass-heads than maidenheads!"
"But wherefore do not maids play the maids' parts?"
"Why, it would ill beseem a maiden's modesty to be thus brazenly displayed upon a stage; and besides, no woman can play the woman so well as we."
"I well believe you," said I, "for no man can play the man so well as my sister."
From the players' faces it was clear that most of them had not thought Tom a maid; and once again the rafters rang with laughter.
"I did not think that men could be so fair," I said. "I hope I shall be as pretty when I am as old as you."
"Much prettier," laughed the boy-queen.
"Then I should be a good player?"
"Out o'question, a most rare one."
"Take me with you then!" I cried. "I fain would be a player!"
What a thing for the heir of Sir Christopher Brownley to say, before the whole household, upon his very breeching-day!
I knew not that to be a player was less than to be lord of an estate. What boy would not abandon a few acres of English dirt for the whole wild Kingdom of Faerie?
My father gave me the fiercest whipping of my little life for that remark, while my savage sister looked on and laughed. Indeed, it must have been a sore trial to her, to see me so disregard and flout my noble fortune; I knew well she would have given her one remaining arm to be our father's son and heir instead of me.
And so, when I came to put on my brave new man's attire, I wept. I wept partly with pain, for the stiff new-made doublet galled my tender back most sorely; but most I wept because I was no longer sure I wanted it.
It was a most rare suit, all of rich black velvet embroidered with seed-pearls like a midnight sky, with silvery shot silk peeping through the slashes like a moon through clouds, and with a real little dagger to hang at my belt. Every piece of it was strange, even the underthings, the short little boy's smock and the scratchy hose, which I kept tugging at all day; even the shoes were a boy's shoes.
And all I wanted was to be dressed as a girl, in a patched and gaudy gown and kirtle, and to be inside the painted wagon that was even now rattling away from me, pressed in close among that glorious company of gilded angels.
Howsomever, not being a boy to be kept down long, I resolved to make the best of the situation; I would have my own play, that very evening, at my breeching; and I would make it a masterpiece that would be graven in the memory of all who saw it.
That play, I fear, is indeed graven in the memory of all who saw it, but not for such lofty reasons as I had wished. I am sure that even the greatest playwright hath been guilty of some similar follies in his youth.
I decided that the play should depict the time when my sister got her own first suit of boys' clothes, and that I should play the lead, keeping one arm behind my back for the latter half.
I did not, alas, think to ask my sister what she thought of this design. It was, had she known it, a compliment; I think I saw her, woman though she was, as my ideal of manhood. It is no wonder, in truth, that I have grown up something queer and unusual.
My actors were mostly young servants, who were only too eager to be pressed into service. I gave the part of my mother to a young housemaid named Joan, chiefly because she had shown me a most sweet solicitude and tenderness after my whipping, and I thought it would be most delightful, when it came to the part where I fell sick of the fever, to have her sit beside me holding my hand and stroking my brow. It was one of the best choices I ever made, though I believe a parrot or an ape could have mimicked my mother better than Joan (meaning no disrespect to my mother's sacred memory), for it was the beginning of a friendship to which I owe my very life.
But I could find none who would consent to play Uncle Jude. They were, I believe, all afraid of him; they considered him the villain; and herein do children differ from actors, that children think the villain's part to be the very worst to play, and actors think it the best.
It was then that I approached my sister. This, as you may well guess, was one of the worser choices I have made; though she presented Uncle Jude to the life, most especially his hatred of children.
Perhaps fortunately, I remember nothing of the play's script now but one song, sung by the gentlewoman Eleanor as she seeks for a page to replace Ambrose. I will here reproduce that song, if only that you may judge for yourself how mightily my writing has improved since I was six summers old:
One little maid looking very grave and sad,
But all I want is a pretty little lad!
Two little maids looking very green and yellow,
But all I want is a pretty little fellow!
Three little maids looking quite bereft of joy,
But all I want is a pretty little boy!
(I had no idea why this song was so uproariously well received, but poor Lettice, who played Eleanor, did and blushed as scarlet as if she was being boiled.)
I believe I knew the play was not a masterpiece, but I was drunk with the delight of performing; and have been addicted to that strong drink ever since. It was for this reason that what my sister did to me half way through the play hurt me so keenly.
You will sans doubt remember that it was Uncle Jude that cut off my sister's arm. Reader, have you guessed? Would that I had done! As I lay with my eyes closed waiting for Tom to feign cutting my arm off, on a sudden I heard the ching! of drawn steel, and my eyes flew open to see Tom's scarred face leering into mine with a look that would affright the very devil. She held her Venetian bollock-dagger high above me, like the murderer in a revenge tragedy. With a savage grin, she pulled up my sleeve and brought the dagger swiftly down. I felt the cold edge of the blade touch my quaking arm, and cried out:
"No, no! Do not cut my arm off, Tom! Please, have mercy!" And I burst into tears.
And then I heard the audience laughing. And I was no longer a character on stage, drinking up the laughter, I was only myself, a paltry little thing with a running nose, quailing at the sound of a room full of people jeering at me.
Of course, once it was over, I knew she would not in very truth have cut my arm off. She would only have made a show of it, if I had let her. I and my cowardice alone had destroyed the play.
She was ever thus; she knew that shame had far more power over me than simple cruelty; when she most sought to grieve me, all she did was give me the means to betray myself.
Once Tom had had her revenge, she promised me that she would discharge the rest of her part strictly as we had rehearsed; but I would not trust her, and so the latter half of my first ever play was denied to the world. I wish now that I had trusted her; I think she would have been true to her word. She was not without love for me, even then, whatever she may say.
And now she is telling me that she was and is and if I do not hurry and finish my prattlings she will prove it upon my body. I love my savage sister most dearly, though I do wish she would not watch me write and scowl whenever I write fair things of her and smile when I write foul things.
In briefer sort, then, I shall conclude the tale of my childhood.
In truth, there is precious little to tell, until the dreadful day when our story truly begins. When I was seven, as you have heard, I gained two friends in one day, being my sister and my dog; and my life became on the whole a happy one, little troubled by any outward storms, though much beset with tempests of the heart and mind, which seemed great to me then, but small and foolish now.
My love of plays grew stronger as I grew older, and I became quite adept at devising masques, and more adept yet at pressing all and sundry into performing. I must confess I often cursed my gentle birth for barring me from the stage; and it seemed to me passing unjust, that the name of privilege should keep me from the one privilege I longed for. I often dreamed of running away from home, dressed as a poor lad out to make his fortune, and making my way to London, to the great theatres with their fairytale names: the Swan, the Globe, the Rose.
But I loved my family too well. My mother, gentle and intelligent, who taught me Latin and Greek and music and poetry and human kindness; my father, the great adventurer, distant and aweful as mountains, whom I would almost have died to please; my sister; even the servants; to leave them would have broken my heart. Alas, it was yet fated to be cracked by fire!
Confined as I was to dreams and wishes, poor halting snatches of the mighty music of Faerie, I began to fancy that I was in a play. A strange fancy; but one passing strong. There were times I believed almost utterly that I had an audience, invisible to my eye, who wept or applauded or laughed at all I did; when I felt sure I had an author, a playwright whose creation I was; not the Lord G_d, but a man, a boy like me; and that in some other realm, my own characters might be real, and speak to me.
This may sound impious, and perhaps it was; for without meaning to, I began to live as though I were in a play; to pay more heed to pleasing my invisible audience than to pleasing my true Maker; to see the story of my life as the plot of a most monstrously complex play, and to wish above all else to make it a splendid one, full of dazzle and flamboyance, music and melodrama, laughter, tears and that unearthly beauty, that breath from Faerie that made the small hairs rise upon my skin.
Alas, I fear my sister will pull the small hairs right out of my skin if I do not stop now, and Trundletail is dancing about me whining like a kettle and beckoning me to play; so I must stop now, and hand this book to the only one of us that hath sat quietly all this time, which is, our most devoted and excellent Joan.