He was especially interested that winter in the Shakespeare-Bacon problem. He had long been unable to believe that the actor-manager from Stratford had written those great plays, and now a book just published, 'The Shakespeare Problem Restated', by George Greenwood, and another one in press, 'Some Characteristic Signatures of Francis Bacon', by William Stone Booth, had added the last touch of conviction that Francis Bacon, and Bacon only, had written the Shakespeare dramas. I was ardently opposed to this idea. The romance of the boy, Will Shakespeare, who had come up to London and began, by holding horses outside of the theater, and ended by winning the proudest place in the world of letters, was something I did not wish to let perish. I produced all the stock testimony--Ben Jonson's sonnet, the internal evidence of the plays themselves, the actors who had published them--but he refused to accept any of it. He declared that there was not a single proof to show that Shakespeare had written one of them.
"Is there any evidence that he didn't?" I asked.
"There's evidence that he couldn't," he said. "It required a man with the fullest legal equipment to have written them. When you have read Greenwood's book you will see how untenable is any argument for Shakespeare's authorship."
I was willing to concede something, and offered a compromise.
"Perhaps," I said, "Shakespeare was the Belasoo of that day--the managerial genius, unable to write plays himself, but with the supreme gift of making effective drama from the plays of others. In that case it is not unlikely that the plays would be known as Shakespeare's. Even in this day John Luther Long's "Madam Butterfly" is sometimes called Belasco's play; though it is doubtful if Belasco ever wrote a line of it."
He considered this view, but not very favorably. The Booth book was at this time a secret, and he had not told me anything concerning it; but he had it in his mind when he said, with an air of the greatest conviction:
"I know that Shakespeare did not write those plays, and I have reason to believe he did not touch the text in any way."
"How can you be so positive?" I asked.
"I have private knowledge from a source that cannot be questioned."
I now suspected that he was joking, and asked if he had been consulting a spiritual medium; but he was clearly in earnest.
"It is the great discovery of the age," he said, quite seriously. "The world will soon ring with it. I wish I could tell you about it, but I have passed my word. You will not have long to wait."
I was going to sail for the Mediterranean in February, and I asked if it would be likely that I would know this great secret before I sailed. He thought not; but he said that more than likely the startling news would be given to the world while I was on the water, and it might come to me on the ship by wireless. I confess I was amazed and intensely curious by this time. I conjectured the discovery of some document--some Bacon or Shakespeare private paper which dispelled all the mystery of the authorship. I hinted that he might write me a letter which I could open on the ship; but he was firm in his refusal. He had passed his word, he repeated, and the news might not be given out as soon as that; but he assured me more than once that wherever I might be, in whatever remote locality, it would come by cable, and the world would quake with it. I was tempted to give up my trip, to be with him at Stormfield at the time of the upheaval.
Naturally the Shakespeare theme was uppermost during the remaining days that we were together. He had engaged another stenographer, and was now dictating, forenoons, his own views on the subject--views coordinated with those of Mr. Greenwood, whom he liberally quoted, but embellished and decorated in his own gay manner. These were chapters for his autobiography, he said, and I think he had then no intention of making a book of them. I could not quite see why he should take all this argumentary trouble if he had, as he said, positive evidence that Bacon, and not Shakespeare, had written the plays.