Shaxper was awakened from his dream by a distant noise. He lay in bed, listening to the dull thud of horse’s hooves pounding against the dusty road. He stumbled to the window and saw a cloud of dust hovering in the night air. Beneath the full moon, he saw royal soldiers in uniform riding towards King’s Place.
There was no time for anyone in Oxford’s household to react. The soldiers leapt off their horses and pounded on the heavy oak door. They forced their way inside with a battering ram, shouting and waving torches as they rummaged through the house.
At the top of the hallway, Shaxper cowered behind his bedroom door. Cracking it open, he saw the captain confront Countess Elizabeth downstairs. He grabbed her by the wrist and she slapped him in the face. The captain stiffened angrily, surprised by her boldness. One of the servants rushed forward to rescue her, but he was beaten to the floor.
Shaxper wanted to run to her defense, but he could not move. The shouts of the soldiers grew louder as they ransacked the house, overturning furniture, slicing tapestries and scattering the books in Lord Oxford’s library.
Shaxper saw the Countess struggle free from her attacker.
“This is an outrage!” she cried. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“We’ve been ordered to seize your husband’s private papers. Where is His Lordship?”
“Upstairs. He’s in bed. I pray you, don’t disturb him. His health is not good.”
“It will save your house a great deal of wreckage if you tell us where to find his papers. We’ve been ordered in the name of King James to seize them.”
Shaxper did not hear the Countess’ reply. The captain pushed her aside and ordered his men to search upstairs. Shaxper hurried into Oxford’s room. The Earl was awake and sitting up in bed.
“What is this riot?” he asked. “Has the King declared war?”
“He’s declared war on you, my lord,” Shaxper said, breathlessly. “They’ve come for your papers.”
“I’ll take care of that. You mustn’t be found here, Will. Get out, while you can!”
Before Shaxper realized what was happening, Oxford shoved him through a secret panel in the wall. Suddenly, he found himself engulfed in darkness. In all his years with Oxford, Shaxper had never known this passageway existed, most likely the legacy of Lord Vaux.
He heard the sound of heavy boots on the stairs. Shaxper fumbled and leaned forward in the direction of the noise, touching his palms gently to the wall and parting it slightly.
Suddenly, the soldiers burst into the room. They ignored Oxford’s protests and began opening doors and rummaging through closets and trunks. They scattered his clothing and papers, and ripped apart the manuscript he and Shaxper had been working on that afternoon.
With a fierce cry, Lord Oxford leapt from the bed with his dagger poised to strike. His eyes blazed, the need for self-defense overruling the pain in his leg.
A young soldier wrenched the dagger from Lord Oxford’s hand. It crashed to the floor as he was forced back onto the bed. A second soldier grabbed Oxford’s injured leg until the Earl howled like a wounded animal. Still fighting, Oxford rolled onto his back, and with his good leg, kicked one of the soldiers against the opposite wall. The man struck a second hidden panel and the wall opened slowly with a casual ironic squeak. A soldier seized the ebony box that Oxford had hidden and handed it to the captain.
“Get out of my house!” Oxford roared. “Do you know who I am?”
“We know who you were, Lord Oxford,” said the captain, in a low, threatening voice. He proclaimed that the papers were now the property of King James; and with a sinister glance, he removed a slender vial from his pocket and said it was a gift from Sir Robert Cecil.
Two soldiers held Lord Oxford while the captain poured the poison down his throat. With ghoulish fascination, they all stepped back and watched as Oxford coughed and sputtered. His breath stalled as his eyes grew wide and glazed over. As he stopped moving, an eerie stillness filled the room. Shaxper heard the empty vial roll across the floor.
“Won’t the coroner call it murder?” someone asked.
Covered in the darkness, Shaxper continued to listen until he heard the soldiers ride away. After what seemed an eternity, he crept out from behind the wall and walked over to the bed. Lord Oxford’s unfocused gaze fell upon him. He reached up, said a prayer and gently closed his master’s eyes.
His attention was suddenly drawn to Countess Elizabeth. She was downstairs, weeping, which made him think that she too had been hurt. He moved towards the door, but then stopped and surveyed Oxford’s room. He didn’t know how to tell the Countess that her beloved husband had been murdered in his own bed. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her with stories of her husband’s final bravery; but he knew she would only ask him why he had cowered behind the wall and done nothing.
He had no good answer.
A shaft of moonlight broke through the window, drawing his attention to the manuscripts strewn across the floor.
His thoughts of consolation were eclipsed by his need to run. He greedily gathered up the papers, setting aside his concern for Countess Elizabeth. His mind was overwhelmed, swarming with calculations of the precise monetary value of the plays, particularly Henry VIII, even though the headsman’s scene was still unwritten. With all his heart, he longed to play that role.
Then it struck him that there would be no more Shakespeare plays. How would he earn his living now? Could he return to Stratford and carry on as if nothing had happened?
Perhaps he could hire someone to write plays. He knew many playwrights, but none of them particularly liked him. And when the news of Lord Oxford’s death spread, they would all write tributes to him as the great Shakespeare. Shaxper would become a non-entity, reduced to the impostor that Ben Jonson had ridiculed.
He quickly reminded himself that he was a businessman, owning a ten percent share in The Globe. He was sure that the theater owners and publishers wouldn’t care who finished the plays, as long as Shakespeare’s name appeared on them. In that case, he could still collect his share of the receipts and his stock in the remaining plays for the future. He could copy out the plays and sell them as his own, just like before; or better yet, hire a lean and hungry youth to do it and sell the fair copies at a tidy profit.
Inspired by this vision, he returned to his room and gathered up the fair copy. Then he went to his master’s chamber and stuffed his portfolio with whatever papers he could find. He glanced at Lord Oxford for the last time. A final peace had descended upon the Earl, a calm he had never known in life. Shaxper crossed himself and said another prayer.
Then he slipped down the back staircase and out the door. He caught sight of Countess Elizabeth through the window, holding a candle as she entered her husband’s bedchamber.
The moon exited behind a cloud.
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