Since matters of the heart never escaped a servant’s notice and he now served two formidable masters, Shaxper was aware that Southampton also yearned to receive favors in the Queen’s bed. At nineteen, the fair youth fancied himself handsomer and more favorable in demeanor than his friend Essex, and yet the Queen rebuffed all of his overtures. Southampton had been driven to tears over it; the Queen had always treated him like a son, but now she suddenly and inexplicably cut him out of her company altogether. His self-destructive behavior grew even worse when he and Essex became lovers. Essex taunted him with stories of his royal lovemaking, even demonstrating some of Her Majesty’s maneuvers on the young Earl himself.
When invited to join their pillow talk, Shaxper awkwardly acquiesced and continued to keep their secrets, acting as a voyeur during their encounters.
But oh, the stories he’d be able to tell if the time was ever right!
He wondered what Oxford would think of Southampton’s extraordinary lust for his monarch, and couldn’t even begin to imagine what the Countess would say about such matters. On his way upstairs, he passed by the front room and saw the new mother cradling her infant son in her arms. Countess Elizabeth was still new to the household and hadn’t yet confided in him, but Shaxper would soon prove his trustworthiness. He would craft some special flattery to win her confidence. One never knew when wifely opinions might prove valuable.
After glancing into the nursery only briefly, Shaxper bounded upstairs to Oxford’s study. As he prepared to knock, he was surprised to hear childish laughter on the other side of the door.
He hadn’t heard sounds like that in years, not since his last visit home. He was suddenly struck with an incredible longing to see his own children. How long had it been? He was ashamed to admit he didn’t know. How old was Susanna now, and the twins, Hamnet and Judith? He tried to recall their tender little faces, confident that Time had surely matured them. He wasn’t certain he’d recognize them, even if he passed them on Henley Street.
He hoped they appreciated his money. His wife had never bothered to ask Hamnet Sadler to write and thank him for it. Anne and his daughters couldn’t read or write, and his son Hamnet had been too ill to attend school. Unless his health improved, the boy would never receive an education and have the chance to forge a better life for himself.
The sound of Ben Jonson’s husky laugh cut into his thoughts like a knife.
What on earth was he doing here?
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