The Complete Stories (Page 56)
"Yes. Great minds, but not flexible minds. Not universal. So I tried Shakespeare."
"What?" yelled Robertson. This was getting closer to home.
"Don’t yell, my boy," said Welch. "It’s bad manners."
"Did you say you brought back Shakespeare?"
"I did. I needed someone with a universal mind; someone who knew people well enough to be able to live with them centuries way from his own time. Shakespeare was the man. I’ve got his signature. As a memento, you know."
"On you?" asked Robertson, eyes bugging.
"Right here." Welch fumbled in one vest pocket after another. "Ah, here it is."
A little piece of pasteboard was passed to the instructor. On one side it said: "L. Klein & Sons, Wholesale Hardware." On the other side, in straggly script, was written, "Will1" Shakesper."
A wild surmise filled Robertson. "What did he look like?"
"Not like his pictures. Bald and an ugly mustache. He spoke in a thick brogue. Of course, I did my best to please him with our times. I told him we thought highly of his plays and still put them on the boards. In fact, I said we thought they were the greatest pieces of literature in the English language, maybe in any language."
"Good. Good," said Robertson breathlessly.
"I said people had written volumes of commentaries on his plays. Naturally he wanted to see one and I got one for him from the library."
"Oh, he was fascinated. Of course, he had trouble with the current idioms and references to events since 1600, but I helped out. Poor fellow. I don’t think he ever expected such treatment. He kept saying, ‘God ha’ mercy! What cannot be racked from words in five centuries? One could wring, methinks, a flood from a damp clout!’ "
"He wouldn’t say that."
"Why not? He wrote his plays as quickly as he could. He said he had to on account of the deadlines. He wrote Hamlet in less than six months. The plot was an old one. He just polished it up."
"That’s all they do to a telescope mirror. Just polish it up," said the English instructor indignantly.
The physicist disregarded him. He made out an untouched cocktail on the bar some feet away and sidled toward it. "I told the immortal bard that we even gave college courses in Shakespeare."
"/ give one."
"I know. I enrolled him in your evening extension course. I never saw a
man so eager to find out what posterity thought of him as poor Bill was. He worked hard at it."
"You enrolled William Shakespeare in my course?" mumbled Robertson. Even as an alcoholic fantasy, the thought staggered him. And was it an alcoholic fantasy? He was beginning to recall a bald man with a queer way of talking. …
"Not under his real name, of course," said Dr. Welch. "Never mind what he went under. It was a mistake, that’s all. A big mistake. Poor fellow." He had the cocktail now and shook his head at it.
"Why was it a mistake? What happened?"
"I had to send him back to 1600," roared Welch indignantly. "How much humiliation do you think a man can stand?"
"What humiliation are you talking about?"
Dr. Welch tossed off the cocktail. "Why, you poor simpleton, you flunked him."
Niccolo Mazetti lay stomach down on the rug, chin buried in the palm of one small hand, and listened to the Bard disconsolately. There was even the suspicion of tears in his dark eyes, a luxury an eleven-year-old could allow himself only when alone.
The Bard said, "Once upon a time in the middle of a deep wood, there lived a poor woodcutter and his two motherless daughters, who were each as beautiful as the day is long. The older daughter had long hair as black as a feather from a raven’s wing, but the younger daughter had hair as bright and golden as the sunlight of an autumn afternoon.
"Many times while the girls were waiting for their father to come home from his day’s work in the wood, the older girl would sit before a mirror and sing-"
What she sang, Niccolo did not hear, for a call sounded from outside the room: "Hey, Nickie."
And Niccolo, his face clearing on the moment, rushed to the window and shouted, "Hey, Paul."
Paul Loeb waved an excited hand. He was thinner than Niccolo and not as tall, for all he was six months older. His face was full of repressed tension which showed itself most clearly in the rapid blinking of his eyelids. "Hey, Nickie, let me in. I’ve got an idea and a half. Wait till you hear it." He looked rapidly about him as though to check on the possibility of eavesdroppers, but the front yard was quite patently empty. He repeated, in a whisper, "Wait till you hear it."
"All right. I’ll open the door."
The Bard continued smoothly, oblivious to the sudden loss of attention on the part of Niccolo. As Paul entered, the Bard was saying. ". . . Thereupon, the lion said, ‘If you will find me the lost egg of the bird which flies over the Ebony Mountain once every ten years, I will-‘ "
Paul said, "Is that a Bard you’re listening to? I didn’t know you had one."
Niccolo reddened and the look of unhappiness returned to his face. "Just an old thing I had when I was a kid. It ain’t much good." He kicked at the Bard with his foot and caught the somewhat scarred and discolored plastic covering a glancing blow.
The Bard hiccupped as its speaking attachment was jarred out of contact a moment, then it went on: "-for a year and a day until the iron shoes were worn out. The princess stopped at the side of the road. . . ."
Paul said, "Boy, that is an old model," and looked at it critically.