When his mother casually revealed that her family was distantly related to the Earls of Oxford, William stared at her in disbelief.
She’d never spoken of it before, and never had cause to mention it, but his incessant chattering about the players must have raised the association in her mind. William was thrilled to discover that his Arden family tree bore a fruitful connection to Elizabeth Trussel, wife of the 15th Earl of Oxford, and thus Lord Oxford’s grandmother. Certainly, that would improve his chances of having his apology accepted in light of the frightening turn of events inside the tent. All he had to do now was declare his kinship, impress His Lordship with his unrivaled talent and his fortune would be insured, thanks to the unbounded blessing his mother had bestowed on him with a few casual words.
William wrote a letter to his old schoolmate, Richard Field. Originally apprenticed to the London printer George Bishop, Richard now worked for Thomas Vautrollier, one of the city’s finest publishers. His life had vastly improved since leaving Stratford, and William hoped some of that success would rub off on him. The next day he said a hasty farewell to his wife Anne and promised to return home as soon as possible. He rode to London in the hope of finding a job in Vautrollier’s shop at the sign of the white greyhound near St. Paul’s.
Clad in a former employer’s doublet, Shaxper walked down cobblestone streets until he found the proprietor’s shingle. He smiled, pushed open the weathered door and stepped inside. The bell above jingled a courteous welcome.
The shop was filled with morning sunlight. In one corner, pens, paper and parchment were wrapped and ready for sale and the smell of ink permeated the room. Books published by Vautrollier lined some tall shelves along one wall and a few scattered benches encouraged customers to sit and browse. Only the wealthy had the time and money to afford such luxuries. While he envisioned a glowing future for himself, at present William only had enough money to pay for his lodgings, unless Richard felt inclined to be generous.
He wandered to the back of the shop and peeked through the doorway. At the printing press he saw Richard receiving some instructions from a man, apparently his employer.
“There are too many errors on the last few pages, Richard,” he said. “You must always insist on perfection from the compositors. Each man must be accountable for his work. If we fail to be accurate, we must do the job again and that becomes far too costly. Comprenez-vous?”
“Yes, Monsieur Vautrollier, I understand.”
William heard the floorboards creak behind him. He turned to see a petite, businesslike woman offering him a welcoming smile.
“N-no, I-I’m not here to buy a book,” he stammered. “My name is William Shaxper and I’ve come to see my friend, Richard Field.”
“Ah yes, Richard told us all about you,” she said. “Your friend is a very hard worker.”
“He always worked hard, especially in school. But as for myself, I cannot say the same.”
“I’m sure you’re being modest, sir. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Jacqueline Vautrollier, proprietor of this shop.”
“You own this shop?”
“My husband and I are partners in marriage and in business. Why do you look so surprised?” she laughed. “I’m sure there are marriages in Stratford.”
“Yes, but no publishing partnerships. Most of Stratford’s women are housewives.”
“Most of London’s female publishers are widows, which is a fate we all hope to avoid since we are married to our work. Oh, but it’s time for Monsieur’s medicine. Richard!” she called. “Your friend from Stratford is here. Come and visit while Monsieur and I take our herbs.”
When the couple had gone, the two sworn brothers from the country school in Stratford greeted each other with friendly fisticuffs.
“Why, Willy Nilly!” Richard shouted. “I can’t believe you’re finally here!”
“I haven’t heard that nickname in years, Dickie.”
“But look at you. Where in God’s name did you get that doublet?”
“I stole it from a corpse.”
“God’s blood, you didn’t!”
“Well, that’s partly true. Mister Houghton left it to me in his will.”
“Alexander Houghton of Lea Hall, the man who hired us to sing?”
“The same. He stipulated that I make good use of it. Well, what do you think? Have I followed his wishes?”
“He certainly left you well suited,” Richard quipped. “Remember that secret maze of tunnels under his house and how we celebrated Mass underground? We were so young and foolhardy, toying with the authorities who would have arrested us in the middle of our prayers.”
“How true,” William sighed. “It seems like another lifetime. But since then, I’ve made some exciting new plans.”
“I know. I’ve been fascinated by your letters. Why the sudden change in your career? Will you be moving Anne and the family to London?”
“Not exactly. I’ll explain everything in a moment. But I can see you’ve been secretive, too. Your letters rambled on about your success, but you never mentioned anything about the beautiful Jacqueline Vautrollier.”
“She’s a good wife. She takes excellent care of my master. He hasn’t been well lately, but his condition is improving.”
“It sounded serious in your letters. Maybe you’ll get lucky and he’ll die and you can take over the shop.”
“Quiet, Willy, she’ll hear you. Show some respect. She’s my master’s wife, for God’s sake.”
“She told me herself that she’s married to the printing business. You may not have noticed, but I saw the way she smiled at you.”
“She’s grateful, that’s all,” Richard replied. “She has depended on me to run the shop during Monsieur’s illness. They have been very good to me over the years.”
“But you never know. It may only be a matter of time before you’re left to comfort the grieving widow – and this is a very profitable business.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, still the same vulgar mind,” Richard said, shaking his head.
“What you call ‘vulgar’ I call practical. Money is everything, especially when you don’t have it. Or have you forgotten our impecunious childhoods?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything.”
“Good. Then you’ve spoken to Vautrollier about a job for me.”
“Well, does he have a position for me or not?”
Richard rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at the floor. “The proper time to ask him hasn’t presented itself yet.”
“The proper time? I told you, Dickie, I’m moving to London and I need to find work.”
“I’m well aware of that. Your letters suggest that you think this shop will give you access to the Earl of Oxford. Even if you do manage to get his attention, you’re too unpolished to be employed by such a man, unless you want a job holding horses outside his playhouse.”
“All I asked was that you help me.”
“I don’t think Monsieur Vautrollier’s shop is the right place for you.”
“You don’t think –”
“You give the appearance of an upstart crow: plenty of squawk and no song.”
William felt the deadly sting of Richard’s words.
“I thought we were friends, Dickie. Thanks for nothing.”
He turned to go. Richard grabbed his arm.
“Listen, Willy, even if you go now, you won’t get far with that attitude. “Take a look at yourself in the mirror over there and tell me what you see.”
“I see a prosperous gentleman in a silk doublet,” he replied.
“Nonsense. You’re a straw man in a stuffed shirt. If you want to succeed among London’s nobility, you must walk, talk and act with a measure of dignity. You must educate yourself in all aspects of their society or no one will ever respect you.”
“What’s wrong with the way I talk?”
“You talk like a country bumpkin. And you’re about as tactful as that dunghill your father shoveled too close to the neighbors.”
“Oh, that,” William said. “That’s why I came here, Dickie, for you to tell me these things and give me your best advice. You’ve always known the right thing to do, even when we were children. It was like magic.”
“Listen, I need your help, that’s all. I can’t afford to starve to death while I’m unfolding my plans with Lord Oxford. At least introduce me to Vautrollier. I promise I won’t make any lewd remarks about his wife.”
“I don’t know if I can trust you . . . ”
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