“How dare you turn your back on me!” the Queen shouted at Lord Oxford as he barged out of the room, limping slightly because of the old wound in his leg. He used his walking stick to push past the courtiers and ladies in the anteroom, leaving a trail of whispers in his wake. John Lyly had to run to catch up with him.
“My lord, wait! Where are you going?”
“I’m going to The Boar’s Head. I need a drink.”
“My lord, if you will only consider some way to obey her majesty’s command. . .”
“I will not let her treat me like a menial.”
“Her Majesty never called you that.”
“But she made you a much better offer, my lord.”
Oxford grabbed Lyly by the collar and shoved him up against a wall.
“Perhaps you didn’t understand,” he said, exaggerating every syllable, as if talking to a child. “Her subtle proposal was an insult. It’s outrageous, ordering me to write history plays for hire and salary, as if I were a tailor custom-making doublets!”
“But you can spend the money any way you wish. That’s the best part. The Queen has offered to sponsor your playwriting. She’s going to pay your production costs. All right, maybe she is asking you to write propaganda plays, and maybe you won’t be identified as the author, but everything else will be kept confidential, strictly off the record, without even so much as an accounting to the Exchequer. What more do you want?”
“It still reduces me to the level of a common tradesman. It’s an insult! Don’t you see what’s at the heart of her bargain? She intends to control everything I write for political purposes. She’s trying to silence me by offering me my heart’s desire . . . on her terms.”
“But she wants to sponsor your plays. What possible harm can that do?”
Oxford stared, appalled at his secretary’s naiveté.
“I’ll be at The Boar’s Head. You can either join me or go hang yourself.”
A week later, tired and hungry, Shaxper trudged into London with only a crumpled letter of introduction in his pocket. He was more determined than ever to succeed, having had plenty of time to convince himself that surviving the robbery was a confirmation of Divine Intervention.
Taking a deep breath, he joined the hurly-burly in the crowded streets, the familiar stench of the city once again filling his nostrils. He avoided looking at the severed heads on London Bridge, their jaws agape with death, a stern warning to all treasonous Catholics. He made a mental note to keep his mouth shut and emulate those who survived.
He bumped against the merchants who hauled their wares into the streets as he picked his way through the crowd. He overheard tidings of the New World wafting from the open windows of the taverns. Adventurers boasted about the exotic animals and spices they had seen on their travels. Musicians sang the latest songs, and the strange new smell of tobacco drifted onto the lane. Surrounded by the bustle of enterprise, Shaxper took heart. London still represented the brave new world of his dreams. By the grace of God, he would find ready employment with the Earl of Oxford and refill his purse as quickly as possible.
Feet aching, he sat down to rest in front of The Boar’s Head and watched as its intoxicated patrons stumbled out onto the street. Whores and pickpockets busily plied their trades, grateful for the easy commerce. A commotion broke out on the next block, and he craned his neck to see what was going on.
Curiosity overruled his pain. He rose to investigate. Moving towards the noise, he recognized John Lyly pushing aside the sea of flatterers that encircled the Earl of Oxford. The mob was loud and raucous, everyone making brazen attempts to get as close to the glittering celebrity as possible. Shaxper edged in, too, unwilling to miss his chance. He trailed the swarm of revelers into the pub and watched as every creature in the place – drunk or sober – hovered around the charismatic Earl.
At first Lord Oxford greeted everyone graciously, but as the riffraff pressed closer, he gripped his walking stick and deftly used it to distance himself. Smiling and nodding, he worked his way towards the stairs.
“Will it be the usual, my lord?” the barkeep called.
“Yes, yes. Send up a tray, and quickly, too.”
Then dashing up the stairs, he disappeared with Lyly right behind him.
“I used to enjoy these crowds at my tournaments,” he heard the Earl say, “but since the stabbing at Blackfriars, I feel like Julius Caesar on the steps of the Senate . . .”
The door closed behind them.
Shaxper looked over his shoulder and saw that the barkeep was busy tending to his customers. Veiled by smoke, he seized his chance and took the stairs three at a time. He halted on the landing, realizing he had no idea which room was Oxford’s. Whispering a prayer, he chose a door and put his ear to it. His heart soared when he recognized Oxford’s sonorous voice inside.
“God’s body, I wish Audrey would hurry up with that ale. My hands are shaking. I need to write, but my hands are shaking.”
“Perhaps you should lie down.”
“No. Go tell her to hurry.”
“But you only just gave the order —”
“If we’re having the usual, it should be ready by now!”
“It will come.”
“As much as I trust Audrey, you must remember to taste everything before I do.”
“I will. I always do. I haven’t died of poisoning yet, and neither have you.”
Hearing the serving wench on the stairs, Shaxper quickly moved away from the door. Affecting nonchalance, he pretended to gaze out the window and then turned as if heading downstairs.
“Aaaaauuudrey!” the Earl bellowed from inside the room. “Where the hell is my ale?”
“Here, my lord. Open the door.”
When the door flew open, Audrey quickly stepped inside as the eavesdropper ducked into an alcove. Within seconds, the door opened again. Lyly stuck his head into the hallway and looked around.
“Yes, sir, I will.”
The door closed. Shaxper watched as Audrey stuffed some coins into her apron and went downstairs. He once again took up his position outside the door. He could feel Oxford’s panic through it.
“Are you sure no one’s out there?”
“No one, my lord.”
“None of the Queen’s stooges or Burghley’s agents?”
“Not a soul, I swear.”
“God’s blood! This time the Queen has me by the balls! Do you know that?”
“Calm down, my lord. Have a drink.”
“And then what?”
“And then you’ll stop trembling. You’ll be able to work.”
“I can’t work today. And I can’t drink this stuff. It smells like horse piss.”
“Nonsense. It’s your usual.”
“Are you saying I usually drink horse piss?”
“Perhaps it’s royal piss. She’ll do anything to humiliate me now.”
“I don’t believe it. Her Majesty needs you to write history plays.”
“You don’t know that woman the way I do. She always says one thing and does another. What am I supposed to make of it?”
“For the moment, nothing, my lord. Have a drink.”
“Taste it first. What the hell do you think I’m paying you for?”
There was a long pause. A few unintelligible words were exchanged before Shaxper could hear again clearly.
“It’s not piss or poison,” Lyly said.“It’s ale, and quite good actually.”
“Well, are you going to drink the whole pitcher yourself? Pour me some.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You haven’t told me everything, have you, my lord? What did the Queen say when you two were alone?”
“She swears she loves me!” Oxford laughed. “Isn’t that rich? She’s been swearing that since I was twelve, but it really doesn’t matter. She swore the same oath to Seymour and Leicester and Hatton and a battalion of her other minions. I know that now; I’m not a dazed orphan anymore. Twice she’s made love to me before imprisoning me in the Tower. She practically swoons with passion every time she gives the decree. ‘Oh, my poor dear Oxford, once again your devilish nature has left me no choice,’” he mimicked.
“No choice? What does she mean?”
“Each time it means something different. This time it means that if I don’t comply with her order to write those damned history plays, she’ll brand me a traitor and stake my head on London Bridge. History will set me down as a villain. Does that sound like love to you?”
There was a brief silence. Shaxper flattened his ear against the door. He heard the sound of agitated pacing; then, Oxford’s voice: “I’m to be expelled from Court under a cloud of disgrace. That’s the cover story. I’m supposed to limp back to the countryside like a beaten dog, live under clouds of presumptuous gossip and scratch out reams of propaganda for the playhouses, and no one must know my mission. We’re at war, and England needs a fleet of ships.”
“So there really is no choice.”
“None at all. I’ll be little better than an anonymous pamphleteer hiding behind a pseudonym like our Martin Marprelate, and the Queen demands a huge volume of work – a whole series of plays to be performed one after another, in a short space of time, at each of the playhouses. It’s a Herculean task: writing plays in repertory, copying out rolls for the actors, training and rehearsing swordsmen, hiring musicians, sewing costumes, building sets . . .”
“And it carries a sentence of death, if I fail. There’s no escape. Unless . . .”
“Unless every playhouse in England suddenly and mysteriously burns to the ground. I’ll torch them myself —”
“That’s absurd. You worked so hard to create them.”
“But I must do something. I can’t write these plays alone; and under penalty of death, how could I ask anyone to help me?”
Shaxper knew it was time to make his entrance. His fate depended on it, danger be damned. He cleared his throat, squared his shoulders and knocked on the door.
“Yes? What is it?”
“My name is William Shaxper, sir. I’ve come to see Lord Oxford.”
“Not now. We’re busy.”
“But it’s a matter of urgency.”
“You didn’t really expect to see His Lordship, just by walking in off the street, did you?”
“Wait! I have a letter of introduction,” Shaxper said. He reached into his doublet and gave the letter to Lyly. The secretary skimmed it and handed it back.
“This is a letter from a dead man. Thomas Vautrollier passed away a year ago.”
“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t know.
“Then you weren’t as close to him as this letter suggests, were you? That’s not a very convincing recommendation.”
“I can get you a letter from Richard Field, if you want. He runs the shop now.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Lyly peered at Shaxper. “I must say, you look familiar. Have we met before?”
“Save your flattery. I’m a busy man, and so is the Earl of Oxford. Good day now.”
He started to close the door, but Shaxper’s foot was quicker. “It won’t be a good day for anybody unless you let me see the Earl right now.”
“Why, you impudent knave! Who do you think you are?”
Shaxper summoned his courage. “His Lordship and I are kinsmen. He won’t take kindly to your showing me the door this way.”
A voice came from within. “Who is it, Lyly? He sounds like he’s from Warwickshire. His accent’s as thick as porridge.”
The door swung open and the Earl of Oxford stood before him. Shaxper promptly forgot every rule of etiquette he’d learned, except for his well-practiced bow.
“My lord, it’s truly an honor –”
“Stop groveling, my good man. Don’t bob up and down like a gamecock. Lyly, give him alms. Don’t let the beggar go away empty handed.”
“I’m not a beggar, my lord,” Shaxper bristled. “I’m looking for work – gainful employment.”
“God’s blood, not another actor!” Lyly snorted.
Shaxper had to think fast.
“With all my heart, my lord, I am not an actor.”
“What are you then?”
“A copyist with fine penmanship, looking for work as a scribe, my lord.”
“What makes you think I need another scribe?”
“Perhaps not for your personal correspondence, but the theater business is booming. Surely you must need schooled and literate men to copy out scripts for the players.”
“Must I?” Oxford growled.
“Yes. It’s a lot of work. Anyone with half a brain could see that.”
His eyes darted around the room. It was spacious and richly furnished, lit by three large windows that overlooked the street. Two immense tapestries, one displaying a scene of falconry, the other showing jesters entertaining at a banquet, hung on opposite sides, stark contrasts seconded by dark beams and whitewashed walls. Several chairs with red cushions and clawed feet looked inviting. The tray of food sent by the barkeep rested on the table, overflowing with fruit, honey, bread and cheese. Beyond the hearth was a second room lined with bookshelves. In the center was a table cluttered with pens, papers, inkwells and opened books. Lyly closed the door as if guarding a secret.
“Sit down,” Oxford said. “Have Audrey bring up another flagon of ale for our guest, and let’s hear what this fellow has to say.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Shaxper said, “but I don’t drink ale. I prefer small beer.”
“Drinking a child’s drink? Now that’s a tragedy.”
“Actually, most of the tragedies in my childhood have been the result of drunkenness - but not my drunkenness.”
“That sounds like a riddle,” Oxford chuckled.
“I’ll have the ale, but only if it’s watered down.”
Lyly poured another drink for Oxford and himself. He grimaced while adding water to the ale and handed it to Shaxper.
“So you seek work as a scribe?” the Earl asked.
“Yes, my lord. That’s why I came to London.”
“I don’t believe it. Who sent you?”
“No one sent me. I came here on my own.”
“All the way from Warwickshire?”
“Yes, from Stratford-on-Avon.”
“Oh, there’s plenty of work in town, if you’re a farmer or a merchant or a grain dealer. But I’m better educated than most of the people there, so I’ve come to London to improve my prospects.”
“An admirable decision. You must be ambitious.”
“I am,” Shaxper said proudly, “but not dangerously so.”
“Have you ever seen a play?” Lyly asked.
“Yes. I’ve stood among the groundlings . . .”
“Oh, well, what further theatrical experience could a man need?” he snipped.
“I know what plays I like and what plays I don’t like,” Shaxper said, defensively.
“Really? And how many plays have you seen?” Oxford asked.
“How were they? Did you like them?”
“No. They were church plays – most of them about burning in Hell for one’s sins.”
Oxford burst out laughing. Shaxper blanched.
“My lord, this talk is rubbish!” Lyly sneered.
“Actually, I find his candor quaint. Since he’s a regular theatergoer, he knows what he likes. I seldom have a chance to hear unmitigated honesty. Well then, what kind of play holds your interest, sir?”
“The best play I ever saw was The Famous Victories. I saw it four times, twice in London and twice more when your company came to Stratford—”
Shaxper bit his tongue. Surely they’d recognize him now, as the village idiot, the one they’d held at knifepoint!
Oxford’s eyes widened.
“You saw The Famous Victories four times? Did you hear that, Lyly?”
The secretary nodded. Oxford leaned forward, flattered and intrigued.
“I’m actually reworking that play right now, polishing its historical accuracy at the Queen’s request, though I’m sure you can see it stands on its own, just as it is now. Tell me, what did you think of it? Better still, what did you think of William Browne?”
“Well, I –”
“Wait a minute!” Lyly exclaimed. “I know you! You’re the broker from Stratford who rented us the barn.”
“Yes, I did, but —”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Oxford asked. “Did we neglect to pay you? Is that why you’re here?”
“No, you paid me very handsomely, my lord. Thank you.”
The conversation came to a dead halt. Shaxper waited for Oxford or Lyly to throw him out. Could both men have forgotten how they’d tormented him? He summoned his courage and came in on cue, changing the subject.
“As I told Mr. Lyly, I worked for Monsieur Vautrollier a few years ago, on my last stay in London. His apprentice was my boyhood friend, Richard Field. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.”
“Yes, he’s making quite a name for himself. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he married Vautrollier’s widow and took over the publishing business.”
“That’s one way for a peasant to improve his prospects,” Lyly snorted. “Why don’t you ask Field for a job?”
“I’m not interested in printing, I want to work in the theater.”
“Can you imagine what would happen if publishers began printing plays?” Oxford speculated. “Every rude mechanical in London would try to put them on. Nothing would be sacred, not even the playwright’s good name.”
“Or the profits,” Lyly said.
“One worry at a time, please.”
“Money certainly worries me,” Shaxper sighed. “I have a wife and three children back home. I’ve learned that a man must seek his fortune, and not wait for his fortune to seek him. Theater is a golden cow waiting to be milked.”
Oxford winked at Lyly. “That sounds so mercenary. I always fancied theater to be an Art.”
“Oh, it is,” Shaxper replied, “but look at all those commoners building playhouses along the Thames.”
“Isn’t that strange?” Oxford laughed. “How do you suppose an ordinary man suddenly acquires that much money? You said yourself it isn’t easy.”
“I suppose if he’s desperate, he commits a crime,” Shaxper said.
“No. There are legal means.”
“He could find a patron . . .”
“Or the patron could find him,” Oxford said. “Money changes hands all the time.”
“Does it?” Shaxper said, his heart skipping a beat.
“Yes, take my word for it. A courtier can own a company of players, but if he owns a playhouse that charges a penny-a-head to see a play, even if it’s a classic virtuous epic, he’s considered lewd and amoral. I know because it happened to me.”
“Besides, virtue doesn’t sell,” Lyly smirked. “Audiences love corruption.”
“Just recently I signed my ownership of Blackfriars over to Lyly,” Oxford said. “He and several others own those playhouses on the Thames. I’ve had to become invisible by order of the Queen to avoid damaging my reputation. That’s why the actors call me their ghost. On payday, it’s become a tradition to say the ghost walks.”
“But you’ve been a theatrical sponsor for years; everyone knows it,” Shaxper said.
“My plays and playhouses are like bastard children,” Oxford replied. “I can father them and provide for them, but can never officially tell the world they’re mine. The Queen has forbidden it.”
“God’s blood!” Lyly leapt to his feet. “I’ve completely lost track of the time! The writers will be arriving any minute and I’d best get them settled before Marlowe and young Ben Jonson start arguing again.”
“Is Ben the bricklayer coming to repair the hearth?” Oxford asked.
“Yes, but I think he really wants to listen to the first reading of Tamburlaine.”
“Let him listen then,” Oxford said, as he turned to Shaxper. “We could use another scribe around the table, couldn’t we, Lyly?”
The secretary ignored the question and hurried away, leaving the noble playwright and the hopeful scribe in awkward silence.
“Did you have a good journey to London, Mr. Shaxper?”
“Not good at all, my lord. I was robbed by a band of highwaymen just outside Stratford.”
“You were lucky. At least the thieves let you keep your greatest treasure.”
“What’s that, my lord?”
“Why, your life, man. Your life.”
“Oh yes, I’m alive,” Shaxper moaned. “But I have no money, and without money, one might as well be dead.”
“How much did they steal?”
“They took my horse and my entire life savings, five pounds, everything I had on me.”
“Then replace it with this.” He tossed Shaxper a heavy purse.
“My lord, I – I can’t accept this money.”
“Yes, you can. I came by it honestly, and now so have you.”
“But I can’t accept charity.”
“It’s not charity. It’s a salary. I will need your help, but for more important work than scribing.”
Shaxper bowed modestly. It was the moment he’d been waiting for.
“How can I help you, my lord?”
“The Queen has asked me to perform a service . . .”
He waited for Oxford to disclose the dangerous life-or-death proposition he’d overheard on the other side of the door, but the Earl revealed none of it.
“As I said, Her Majesty has asked me to rewrite The Famous Victories. She demands that I make the play more historically accurate. But I won’t have time to read for details. Perhaps you could read a history book for me and make some annotations in the margins of my book to help me with the play’s unfolding. Then I can decide whether or not to hire you, based on the quality of your research. Would you be willing to try?”
“Gladly, my lord. What book shall I read?”
Oxford walked over to the window and slid a huge volume from the shelf.
“I’d like you to take a look at Hall’s Chronicles.”
“I’ve read it!” Shaxper cried excitedly. “That book and I are old friends.”
“Excellent! If you do a good job, you can keep it.”
“Thank you, my lord. I’m truly honored. I’ll be very thorough,” he promised. “You can depend on me—you’ll see.”
“I’m sure of it,” Oxford said, as he walked the newcomer to the door. “I’m sure of it. I’ll see you on Friday then with your notations. Good day, sir, I look forward to our sharing a long and profitable relationship.”
As if in a dream, Shaxper found himself back in the hallway, clutching the book and a purse full of money, more than enough to keep him in a boarding house for a good long time. The fact that he hadn’t pressed the issue of his kinship didn’t matter. It had suddenly become clear to him that being in the right place at the right time had deposited his future directly into his hands.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish