William smelled London long before he rode through the gates of the city. He had never inhaled such a disgusting amalgam of sweat, excrement, and rot in his life. The noise emanating from the city was almost as jarring as the smell. Barkers along the road shouted out claims about their wares; sheep bleated as they were driven down the road; the click clack of carriage wheels echoed off the cobblestones as they rolled along. Urchins in rags ran in the streets and grabbed at William’s stirrups begging for food or coins.
Russell Northcutt had instructed William to meet him at the Tower Pub next to the Tower of London because he knew even a country bumpkin could find that imposing structure in the crush that was London. He stayed with the main flow of human masses and reined in Barbary. Barbary was even more alarmed by the chaos around him than his master was. His ears stood at attention, and he high stepped trying to avoid the rough stones under his hooves. He was startled by each carriage that passed and tossed his head as children rushed towards him.
William knew that the Tower of London stood along the Thames, and he sensed he was nearing the waterway as he passed more carts full of wares coming his direction, and as the smell of sea water and fish accosted him. As the road started to descend, William could see the spires of St Paul’s Cathedral to his right and the square-sided Tower of London to his left.
He dismounted Barbary and led him carefully, keeping the reins tightly grasped, so the horse would not bolt as he was jostled by the crowds of people in the street. William looked for the wooden board identifying The Tower Pub and finally found his destination.
He remembered Russell Northcutt’s detailed instructions, “Shout for Tom Knox when you arrive. Don’t leave your horse with anyone else. If a boy approaches you, ask him the name of his dog. If he doesn’t say Russell, wait. Tom will get there as fast as he can. Don’t trust anyone else.”
William had thought these instructions bizarre when he first read them, but now they made sense. Young boys surrounded him shouting, “Care for your horse, sir!”
“I’m the stable boy here, give me your reins!”
“He’s a liar. I’m the head boy here.”
William held tightly to Barbary and shouted, “Tom Knox!” as loudly as he could.
“I’m Tom Knox,” the ragamuffin boy who claimed to be the head boy at The Tower Pub declared.
“What’s your dog’s name, lad?” William asked.
The boy looked puzzled and said, “Bowser.”
“Tom Knox!” William bellowed as his eyes searched the street around the pub. He noticed a commotion to his left and saw a young man with a mass of unkempt blond hair pushing his way through the crowd. “Tom Knox!” William yelled.
“I’m Tom Knox,” the blond headed boy panted.
“What’s your dog’s name?” William asked with some trepidation.
“Why it’s Russell, sir.” Tom responded. “I will tend to your horse while my little brother runs to fetch Master Northcutt.”
Relieved and exhausted, William patted Barbary on his neck and removed his saddle bags which contained among other things, the manuscripts for King Henry VI, Part Three and The Taming of the Shrew. He handed Barbary’s reins to Tom and said, “I’ll be in the pub.”
The interior of the pub was dark and quieter than the street, but it was smoky and crowded with men. William finally found an unoccupied stool toward the back of the room. He was shocked by the contrast of what he had pictured London to be and the reality of what London was. Cambridge and Oxford had been bustling cities, but they had not pre- pared him for the onslaught of humanity that was London.
William was hungry and thirsty. He heard the men around him yelling, “Ale here,” and “Bring some bread.” He realized no one was going to come and ask him if he wanted anything, so he hollered, “cheese, bread, and ale” several times into the smoky room. To his surprise, a few minutes later a plump man with an apron tied around his waist set a platter of cheese, brown bread, pickles, and eggs down in front of him. Behind him, a young woman was holding a tray high above her head. She reached up, grabbed a tankard of ale, and slammed it down on the table in front of William. Then she was off to deliver the next drink on her tray.
William was on his second ale when he saw Russell Northcutt enter the tavern. With such a din and with so many people in the pub it was impossible for William to attract Russell, even by yelling and waving. Finally, William stood, put his fingers between his teeth and produced a horse whistle that caused many in the room to look his way, including his fellow player, Russell.
Russell held out his hand to William, and the two friends shook hands and then embraced. “Glad you made it safely, William,” Russell said warmly. “What do you think of London so far?”
William didn’t want to be negative about his friend’s home town, so he tempered his response, “It’s not exactly what I imagined.”
“Oh, it’s impossible to imagine London! You have to live in it, be a part of it, to understand the city,” Russell said enthusiastically.
“It might take me a few days,” William answered honestly.
“Let’s get you out of here and over to Bankside. I’ve found lodging for you there. Don’t worry about your horse. Tom has already taken him to a stable near the Rose where we will be rehearsing and performing.”
William followed Russell out of the pub and into the vortex of London. The food and drink had helped revive him and having someone who knew the city guiding him eased William’s fear somewhat. He still could not believe the number of people in the streets. Russell said over 100,000 people lived in London proper, and William felt that all of them were accompanying him toward London Bridge.
As the two men drew near the entrance to the bridge, William looked up and froze. The sea of people moved around him, and Russell Northcutt continued to walk assuming William was behind him, but William was stopped, stunned, for greeting him at London Bridge was not apple trees or roses, but rather human heads on stakes. William thought the ale had gone to his head or he was having some strange hallucination. The heads couldn’t really be there because the people pushing past him didn’t appear to see anything strange.
When Russell realized William was no longer behind him, he jumped up on a wall by the side of the bridge and searched the crowd for him. It wasn’t difficult to locate him. He was the one standing dead still gawking up at the Bridge. Russell pushed his way through the crowd and made it to William. “Are you trying to get trampled to death?” he shouted and shook William. Russell followed William’s gaze to the top of the gateway to the bridge and realized he was looking at the heads. He took William’s arm, dragging him forward. “Don’t worry, William. As long as you don’t write anything bad about the Queen, your head won’t end up there.”
So they were real. William wasn’t imagining them. He hardly saw the pubs and houses that lined the bridge because he couldn’t erase the image of the macabre heads. This was the place where he had suggested Anne and the children live.
Once they crossed the great London Bridge and turned down a narrow lane along the Thames, the crowds thinned, and William could look back and see the houses and shops packed together along the bridge, smoke coming from their chimneys. The Thames was huge, but there were row boats the size of the one William had taken Anne out in when they were courting on the Avon in Stratford. The little boats were dwarfed by enormous merchant ships loaded with cargo and fishing vessels heavy with nets. William was amazed that the Thames River was almost as busy as the London streets.
Russell Northcutt was walking rapidly, and William could not look fast enough to take in the sights around him. His head was spinning as he looked toward the river and then toward the tall, narrow houses crammed together along the street. Northcutt seemed to be leading William to a riot as he could hear a din ahead. He hurried to walk beside Russell and asked, “Where are you taking me?”
“We will stop by your lodging first, so I can introduce you to Mistress Witherington. I’ve secured a room for you in her home.”
“Is that horrible noise coming from where I will be living?” William asked with fear.
“What?” at first Russell wasn’t sure what William meant, then he said, “Oh, you are just hearing the crowds at the bear-baiting. I’ll show you.”
Russell turned onto a narrow street leading closer to the river, and William could see a tall, circular fence ahead near the banks of the Thames. Loud shouts and horrible roars and yelps were coming from the structure. Russell yelled something in the young boy’s ear at the gate and lead William inside the high fence for a view.
As William peered around the crowd by the entrance, he saw frantic spectators on bleachers which curved around inside the fence. Some were on their feet yelling at the action below. When William’s gaze followed the screaming spectators, he saw a round dirt pit serving as a stage of sorts. He was astonished to see a large brown bear standing on its hind legs, roaring. The bear was attached to a large stake by a chain which gave the bear about five feet of movement. As William watched in horror, a brindle Mastiff charged towards the bear, barking and growling. The bear swiped his huge paws and claws at the dog, connected, and the dog flew across the arena as the crowd cheered. Though the dog was bleeding, he charged the bear again. William turned on his heel and walked back the way he and Russell Northcutt had come.
William couldn’t breathe. He bent over with his hands on his knees and sucked the rancid air of London. Russell patted William on the back and said, “You’ve seen enough for today, William. Let’s get you settled at Witherington’s.”
Mistress Witherington was a widow close to Mary Shakespeare’s age. She had stooped shoulders, gray hair piled on top of her head, and a beguiling face that must have once been beautiful. William began to relax as she welcomed him to her home and explained that she had three boarders living with her. William would be her fourth. She led him up the stairs to a room at the top of the narrow three story structure. William expected to find a dark, low-ceilinged room, but was surprised to be able to walk into his room standing upright. The walls were shorter near the eaves of the house, but the room was wide enough that William had ample space to move about without crouching. A large window at one end of the room let in light and a fireplace on the left would provide heat. A simple table and chair stood by the window and Betty Witherington said, “Russell told me that you needed a good place to write, so I found that table for you. I hope it will do.”
“Oh, yes, it will do nicely. Thank you. I will be quite comfortable here.”
“Mr. Northcutt has paid me for your first month’s rent which includes a morning and an evening meal. If you don’t make it to the meals, there will be no refund. Once you taste my food, you won’t miss many meals,” Betty Witherington winked at William.
For the first time since his arrival in London, William was able to relax. Tom Knox had already placed William’s few possessions on the low bed which stood opposite the fireplace. He would easily find a place to stow things in the large, comfortable room.
“Where is my horse stabled?” William asked.
“Mistress Witherington doesn’t have a barn here, William. I will take you to your horse now if you are up for it,” Russell said.
“I want to see that he is okay,” William said. “Thank you, Mistress Witherington. I think I will be very content living here.”
Betty Witherington handed William a large black key and said, “You may come and go as you please, and you are welcome to use the main sitting room downstairs anytime you wish. Your meals will be served in the dining area with my other guests. Please don’t be loud and obnoxious, and we will get along just fine.”