71:  Of Reading, Writing, and My Greatness

I was not born great.  I first oped my eyes in the old Earl’s stable.  That’s why I do love a stable.  A place of scents and sounds most dear to me.

But my lord’s stable was not so peaceful after my little niece lodged there.  She oft told me that she longed to be akwaynted with a book.  I believe it was our play that put this maggot in her head.

A row of books, jumbled on a shelf.

One day when my house was quiet (most gone to a fair or somesuch) I offered to show her the book chamber.

My niece – unaccustomed to so great a house – was doubtful.  She crept in low-bellied, her eyes wide and dark.  I told her we would hear if any came.  She could hide herself while I feigned mouse-watch.

A close=up of the nose and squinting eyes of Gib's niece - a blacl, white, and orange cat.She whispered that she feared the books who sat so still.  “They mean to spring on us,” she sayt.

“They lack the power of motion,” I sayt, and plucked one from the shelf.

She sprang away, but then sat swivel-eared.  “It tells of nowt.  I cannot hear it, nor take its thoughts.”

When she grew bold enough to nose it, she sayt, “It tells of you, and of a man.  He had his hand on a dog not long since.”

I sayt, “Your nose tells who last pawed it.  If you could read, your eyes would tell of hawks.  This book is of falconry.”

Her innocent questions made me merry.  But I was mazed, too.

I entered my lord’s service before I was weaned.  I sat with him and his lady sister in the schoolroom and took my learning there.

I’ve lived long among great folks and forgot how strange all must seem to one reared in a barn.  I offered to show her another part of the house.  I arrkst if she would like to swing from a curtain, or see her self in a mirror.

She refused.  “I wish to know what reading is,” she sayt.

So I leapt onto a table where a soiled, sour thing lay.  Some knave had thumbed it in an alehouse before he left it here.  But it would serve.

“Now see,” sayt I, “these black marks?  Like to a host of little worms?  They are sounds imprinted.”

She joined me, and sayt she could see nowt.

“You’re too near,” sayt I.  “You must sit a way off.”

She drew back, then poked the page.  “They will not move,” she sayt.

“They’re not true worms,” sayt I.  “But they can creep from your eyes to your brain and grow wings there.  Look!  Here it says: tread on a worm and it will turn.  I believe that means a snake will bite you.” 

A page from Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit containing his famous attack on 'the upstart crow', generally believed to be Shakespeare.

I read a little more, and sayt, “Here it tells of a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.  I have a tiger’s heart, as do you, for all are cats.  But how came a mere player to have the heart of a cat? Perchance he thieved it.  We must read more to know. ” 

“Worms! Eyes! Tigers! Flies!” She struck the page four times.

“Have a care,” I warned her.  “If any page be clawed or torn, this chamber might be closed to me.”

Another lesson I learnt young.  But how learnt I to read?

Then it come to me.  First I learnt to write.  I listened to the sounds my lord made, and watched him make marks with his pen.

And after I could write these marks, I looked for them in books.

The marks in books are many, and oft unknown to me.  Some books are imprinted fair; others are foul and hard to read.

But I found a book of little tales I could read, and then I came upon the Bevis book.  From that I made my first tale.

I believe there are some in this world who can read what’s imprinted, but know not how to write. There are others who can hold a pen and make their names or another pretty mark, but cannot read.

I can do both.  “And that,” as I told my niece, “is why I achieved greatness as a poet.”

“And why my mother told me you never caught owt in your life save a jewel hung from our Earl’s ear,” she sayt.  “But now I know you watch for worm-words, not mice.”

I sayt, “If you are as witty [clever] as your mother was, I can teach you to write.  You need not trouble yourself with reading.”

“Good,” sayt she.  “For books are false.  I believe my nose, mine eyes, mine ears, and my whiskers.  And what my mother told me.  Nowt else.”

As I led her from the house I sayt, “I’ll fetch you when next I find all that’s needful for writing left readie.”

(She did not ask what was needful.  For which I offer thanks: I had not the strength to explain the use of quills, ink, and paper.)

She sayt, “Then I’ll have greatness thrust upon me.”

Saucie.  Like unto her mother.

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe first book Gib read “of little tales” was probably a collection of Aesop’s fables.  We know he read some of these, because his tale of The Fox and the Cat is derived from Aesop.

The “sour thing” – he means its smell – that he shows his niece is Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, first published in 1592 and attributed to the playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592).  It’s famous nowadays for its attack on an actor referred to as an “upstart crow” who, owing his success to the work of writers such as Greene, thinks he can “bombast out a blank verse” and is “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”  This is almost universally accepted as an attack on William Shakespeare.

However, astute readers of this blog have spotted that Shakespeare appears to have pilfered some of Gib’s work.  Oh dear.  Who wrote what is just so complicated. 


57:  More of Our Play

My pen flies along so speedy it makes my foot to ache.

I made a fine speech for Lion, heralding the return of the Earl of Ox-Foot, and praising the blood of cooks most high.  I never knowed the joy of lapping a cook’s blood before I writ of it.

Small wonder that my quill should aid my flights of wicked fancie, for whence come quills?  From cunning crows and ill-humoured swans.  Birds most dangerous.

A swan on a calm river.

Nero came by.  He, readying hisself to play Ox-Foot and devise his speeches, wisht to know more of his evil doings.  He seemed most apt to learn, then arrkst, “What of my tail?”

His tail?  Then I remembered that in every tale Nero tells he has a different explication for why he does not have one.  They who see our play will expect to hear another.

I sayt, “Ox-Foot loves all that is Italian.  Could you say tails are out of fashion in Italy, and you had yours cut off?”

“I’ll think on it,” sayt Nero.

Next, several kitlings came to us, saying they’d heared there was to be a performance.  They hoped they could take part.

Kitlings are wearisome.  They know all they should not, and nowt that they should.  But we spake of them at the next meeting of our Company.

The title page of Endymion by John Lyly, which was played before the Queen by a company of boys. Printed 1591.
A play by John Lyly for a company of boy actors.

Linkin sayt, “Be not hastie.  My master says the best players in the city are boys, not men.”

“But,” sayt my sister, “can our little asses carry it off?”

“We need not give them great speeches,” sayt Linkin.  “They could play attendants and the like.”

Nero sayt, “Ox-Foot must be accompanied by a pretty kit or two, if all you tell of him is true.”

I let that pass.  I sayt, “We’ll need a little maggot to accompany our Ghost.”

A dappled cat.
Gib’s Sister.

“What?” cried my sister. “We have the Ghost?”

 “We have,” sayt I.  “Hear this.  Actus Secundus.”

They pricked their ears.

“The Earl of Hamton is on the leads [roof] of his house, taking the air.  Then what do he see but the Ghost of his father, wailing: Hamton, Revenge.

“The Ghost says his wife (the Countess) was hot for Ox-Foot, so they hatched a plot against him.  While he lay inebriate, Ox-Foot dropped a maggot in his ear that ate his brains. Now he (poor Ghost) is in hell.”

“Was this,” arrkst my sister, “before or after Ox-Foot farted at the Queen and fled to Italy?”

“Before,” sayt I.  “Now Ox-Foot has returned, and the Ghost seeks his death.  The Ghost vanishes, but a little maggot stays to tell young Hamton that Ox-Foot, not the Ghost, is his father.”

“You was ever fond of maggots,” sayt my sister.  “I well recall when we were young – ”

Nero brake in.  He arrkst, “Why is Ox-Foot not in this Act?”

I sayt, “He’s there in his infamy.  All hear how he killed the old Earl of Hamton.  But he’s elsewhere with the Queen when the Ghost speaks to young Hamton.”

Nero sayt, “Ox-Foot could be shown in the shadows, gripping the Queen by her scruff.  Then all would know that.”

Title page-Tamburlaine- Christopher Marlowe
A play-book: Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great.

“That will not serve,” sayt my sister.  “For I’m to play both Ghost and Queen.”

“Who’ll play Hamton?” arrkst Linkin.

I sayt, “Our kitchen cat.”

“Better that she plays the Ghost,” sayt my sister.  “For she left us not long since.”

True.  The kitchen cat that friended me when first I came here is gone from this world.

“Her daughter has taken her place,” I sayt.  “And yesternight, when I went to the book-room to read plays, what did I see?”

“Play books?” arrkst my saucie sister.

“That same daughter.  Seated bold-arst upon a carpet that some knave had took from the table and left on a chair.  I was about to bid her go the way of all flesh, that’s to say to the kitchen, when it come to me that she could play the young Earl of Hamton.  She was willing.”

Linkin arrkst, “When does Lord Purrlie enter our play?”  (Linkin is to play old Purrlie.)

“Actus Tertius,” sayt I.  “Which, in English, means the Third Act.”

“I know that,” sayt Linkin.

A dark brown cat seated on a carpet in shades of burgundy, green, and gold.
The kitchen cat