The letter summoning him to her bedside came into his hands in Stratford on a rainy Monday morning. Shaxper dropped everything and left his nephew in charge of the family businesses. Ignoring his wife’s tirade about the foolhardy expense, he hired a carriage and driver for the long journey to King’s Place. He packed a change of clothes in his satchel, knowing he would need to stop at an inn for one night or possibly longer, depending on the weather.
Countess Elizabeth was dying. He wondered if she was the victim of his neglect since he hadn’t seen her after that terrible night at King’s Place. Although he had traveled to London frequently to collect on his shares as a stockholder in The Globe, he had never been able to bring himself to visit the home at Hackney. The memories of that day made it impossible for him to pray at Lord Oxford’s grave or inquire about his widow.
Consumed with self-reproach, he couldn’t think what he would say to her now. Perhaps he should invent a series of plausible lies to whitewash the horrible ordeal eight years ago. Even in ill health, she was sure to question him about the grotesque piece of unfinished business. There were still moments when he felt emotionally trapped behind the wall in the house, with the soldiers advancing, hell-bent on murder.
He had never meant to stay away from Countess Elizabeth for so long. With his new wealth and coat-of-arms, perhaps he might have had a chance with her. In retrospect, as the days had passed in rapid succession, he’d lost track of them. He’d been busy brokering her late husband’s plays, raking in the money and cashing in on their longtime partnership as Shakespeare.
With the grinding of the carriage wheels, his mind raced back to Countess Elizabeth. He couldn’t imagine what the sweet lady would be like, now that she was so close to death. It seemed horribly unjust for God to take such a kind soul when thieves and murderers lived to ripe old age.
Raising a headstrong son like Henry de Vere all by herself could not have been easy. After Lord Oxford’s death, he had grown up surrounded by men of base inclinations. The Earl of Southampton was one of them. During his perilous stint as Southampton’s secretary, Shaxper recalled having been forced to witness various acts of perversion by members of the household that made him run to his room, bolt the door and vomit into a chamber pot.
Southampton had been a terrible influence on young Henry de Vere. When the latter came of age, the two carried on like savages in the public houses, drinking, whoring and raising hell all over London. They called themselves sworn brothers and behaved like animals. And yet when called upon to attend royal ceremonies at Court, they sobered up and presented themselves in the most genteel fashion, perfumed to the hilt, dressed in posh garments, prim and highly respectable. Shaxper often marveled at what chameleons members of the nobility could be. They were never trustworthy and reliable, like working people.
It was a sad commentary on the times that young Henry de Vere had never been accorded the glittering honors that were due him as the noble descendant of his lineage. With the upward social rise of Protestant commoners, the Elizabethan age had dulled the ancient Catholic family escutcheons. While Shaxper had profited by the new opportunities and kept his religious beliefs to himself, he was saddened to see the splendor of England’s ancient nobility fade into history. His master had often spoken of its lamentable disappearance. Perhaps it was best that he hadn’t lived to see the lackluster honors grudgingly offered his son.
After two days on the road, Shaxper arrived at King’s Place. The immense house hadn’t changed much, except that many of the items broken or destroyed that night had been repaired or replaced. Only its great human treasure had been obliterated beyond redemption. It was true that he and the Countess had survived – but they would never be the same. Even the house seemed resigned to accepting its tragic losses.
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