Since 1470, Lord Oxford’s house at King’s Place had kept a watchful eye on strangers, protecting its owners behind conspiratorial walls that framed an inner courtyard. Secret doors and hidden passages designed by its earliest builders led to tunnels that terminated in the distant fields. As it happened, Lord Oxford’s friend and fellow poet Lord Vaux, the previous owner, had used the underground avenues to help persecuted Jesuits escape the clutches of fanatical Protestant reformers.
Keenly aware of protecting his own secrets, the Earl of Oxford lay in bed with his leg painfully throbbing, and his mind filled with unfinished verses. He energized his hands by rubbing his palms together and remembered the first time he had ever held a pen. He had used a quill as a childhood toy, spiraling his inky thoughts on paper long before he had been schooled in language and literature. These days, his head swam with words and he found it impossible for his hands to keep pace with the rapid fire of his thoughts.
Scattered on his bed lay several scenes from the revision of Henry VIII he had promised the Queen before she died. He was in the middle of dictating it to Shaxper. He no longer left the house very often, except to go to the theaters or visit the King when summoned, but today his aching leg forced him to stay in bed even though he resented being shut in on a beautiful mid-summer afternoon. Shaxper had been expected hours ago to help him continue revising the play that he wanted to fashion into his greatest work, but for some reason he was late again. Unfortunately, this was becoming a tedious habit.
Ever since the name Shake-speare had come to signify quality in the minds of theater-going audiences, their working relationship had deteriorated. Oxford had noticed the condescending way Shaxper regarded his audiences, as if he were performing a public service by nodding in their direction. He mimicked the same haughty condescension the late Queen had shown him, as if that was proper etiquette for all social situations. Shaxper always had a problem that stemmed from confusing illusion with reality, perhaps the very quality that made him such a good impostor.
Beyond that, since the theaters demanded a steady supply of plays, Shaxper had become the master under the terms of their ruse. Oxford had evolved into his obedient servant, and he could do nothing to change the bitter arrangement.
He cast his anger aside when his eyes fell on a sonnet lying on his bed linen. He picked it up and remembered having written it to his royal mistress shortly after her death.
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired,
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired;
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see;
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo, thus by day my limbs, by night my mind
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
Since the Queen’s death, he hadn’t sought peace or quiet, but those qualities had found him in the gentle rhythms of country life and the calm serenity of his second marriage. He cherished his devoted wife Elizabeth, who had nurtured him and his work when so many others, many of them his family and closest friends, had abandoned him. Some of their exits had been so gradual that he had barely noticed them. Others, like the untimely deaths of Marlowe, Greene, Kyd and Watson had been excruciatingly painful.
For a moment he wondered if he had abandoned others, including his children, by closeting himself to write impassioned speeches that the Queen had forbidden him to claim. They would never know or understand the true nature of his words and actions, or why he had spent his fortune seeing other men’s lands, showing them to others in the wooden cockpits of the playhouses.
The Queen had abandoned him in death, but with all his senses he longed for her again: the regal countenance, the long, tapered fingers, the fragrant scent of roses in her hair, the passionate taste of her lips, the lilting laughter that was so often overshadowed by the dark tones of her discontent. He had known her since childhood and had fallen prey to her seduction, only to be scorned as her husband and the father of their son. He recounted the secrets they shared that lay buried with her, and felt that his own pockets would be so heavily laden with them that upon his death, his coffin would be a difficult burden for his pallbearers.
Like a character in one of his plays, he realized that the time and setting of his life had changed. New actors had taken the stage now that the Queen was dead and King James of Scotland was her successor. Commoners had overtaken the nobility, forging new riches and titles for themselves while the older and more illustrious families endured the fading of their fortunes. Lord Oxford was no longer summoned to Court on matters of national importance, even though King James held him in the highest regard.
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