At Oxford’s nod, Lyly pulled Shaxper into the room and closed the door. Wary and uncertain, the Stratfordian upstart nonetheless congratulated himself for having come this far. He began to sweat.
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.
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