Kettie and I crouched beneath the print-shop counter until all the men were gone.
The shop-cat joined us.
“What mean you by this insolencie?” he arrkst, bristling.
We kept our looks peaceable.
Kettie sayt, “I could make the page for the dedication.”
“Can you read?” I arrkst.
“No,” sayt he. “But the dedication’s not writ. You sayt ’twas in your head.”
That were a lie on my part, but I arrkst, “How can you make a page when you don’t know your letters?”
“I know where the little types are lodged,” sayt he. “And their names. Are they not letters? You name which you want and I’ll hook them out for you.”
“How will that make a page?” I arrkst.
“The types are set in sticks, you clown,” sayt the shop-cat.
“I believe I can do that too,” sayt Kettie.
The shop-cat turned fearful. He swore that none was permit to paw the types save they whose work it was. “And look to the door of the print chamber,” sayt he. “Shut fast.”
“I am a Turk,” cried Kettie. “I’ll not be defeated by a mere door.”
The latch was high, but I never before saw a cat leap so well and to such purpose.
He sprang twice before he caught the latch and hung from it. The door swung wide. Kettie swung with it.
“No!” cried the shop-cat. Too late. Kettie was in. I ran after him.
Kettie sayt, “Yonder by the window are the cases where the types lie.”
Kettie ran across the room, leapt onto a stool, and plucked off the cloth cast over the cases.
“Oh, harm nowt,” cried the shop-cat. “Else I am dead.”
“I shall go up a case,” sayt Kettie. “The better to balance me.”
He rose on his legs, stood against the case, and unsheathed his claws.
“Pick out a T. And an O,” sayt I, clean carried away.
He did, and dropped them to the floor.
I bethought me of how I might name my uncle. Gib? Bevis? The Earl of Southampton’s Cat?
No. That were not suttle.
“Next word,” sayt I. “T-H-E.”
“Keep the types orderly as I drop them,” sayt Kettie. “For the sticks.”
And a stick nigh struck my head.
“I’ll set the types,” sayt the shop-cat, bestirring hisself of a sudden. “Else you’ll be at it come dawn.”
“The words must be separate,” sayt I.
“Use these to keep them apart,” sayt Kettie to the shop-cat, and dropped more types.
“Onlie,” sayt I to Kettie. “O-N-L-I- E.”
“Next?” he arrkst.
“Begetter,” sayt I. They stared at me.
“Being maggot-brained is nowt to boast of,” sayt the shop-cat.
I let that pass. I sayt, “Snakes-Purr thieved my uncle’s verses to beget more. The onlie begetter of the sonnets is my uncle.”
“Or his maggot,” sayt the shop-cat.
“No maggot, no matter,” sayt Kettie. “Spell me Maggot.”
“I will not set it,” sayt the shop-cat. “Who’ll buy a book dedicate to a maggot?”
“B,” I began, “then E…”
When that was done Kettie sayt, “Who gives this dedication? Snakes-Purr?”
“Us,” sayt I. “Three honest cats.”
Kettie and the shop-cat wanted no part in it.
Kettie arrkst, “What do your Earl call you?”
That set me about. Greediguts or Pie-Face would not look well.
I sayt, “In the Tower all called me Mr Wrissole’s Harry. Here’s a word. M-R.”
I paused. I never could write Wrissole [Wriothesley] as my lord did. And to use my prison name were perilous.
“W for Wrissole and H for Harry will serve,” I sayt. “Now I wish to praise the venturesome fellow who, in setting forth these verses, will make the villainy of Snakes-Purr known to all.“
“Be brief,” sayt Kettie.
I spelled out, “Mr W H wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth all happiness and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet.”
“Is your uncle yet living?” arrkst the shop-cat, busy with the sticks.
“No,” sayt I, “Ever-living means never to be forgot.”
“That’s fool,” sayt he.
“Poetick,” sayt I.
We left all fair, and concealed ourselves beneath the counter to wait for morn.
True, the door to the print-room was open. The cloth that had covered the types lay on the floor with the sticks ranged upon it.
But the shop-cat was content. “None will blame me,” he sayt. “They will think fairies have been at work.”
For over 200 years there’s been scholarly speculation about who Mr W.H was, who might be “the onlie begetter”, and whether they were one and the same.
No wonder, considering the dedication was hastily dictated by one cat, and type-set by two. We know what Harry (Mr W.H) wanted. Here’s what he got, in “up a case”.
Did the shop-cat arrange the sticks of type wrongly? Did the printers add publisher Thomas Thorpe’s initials for the sake of their own credibility?
We don’t know.
Has anyone ever hinted at the possibility of feline involvement?
Well, over the early months of 1987 there was a hot debate in the Letters section of the London Review of Books. Barbara Everett, academic and literary critic, had suggested that Mr W.H. might be Shakespeare’s brother-in-law, William Hathaway. And that he and Mrs Shakespeare were behind the sonnets’ publication.
The author and journalist A.N. Wilson disagreed, but eventually declared, “By all means let her [Barbara Everett] believe that they [the sonnets] were addressed to Mrs Shakespeare, to the Earl of Southampton’s cat, to anyone she likes.”
He got close. We now know that the sonnets weren’t addressed to the Earl of Southampton’s cat, but were dedicated to him. Or his maggot.
What a Happy New Year!