Countess Elizabeth, Lord Oxford’s new wife, didn’t know it, but the impostor had continued to receive his high salary despite his master’s heavy losses on seafaring ventures. All things considered, Oxford’s commitment to the theaters might have been a bit grandiose, but at least he had his family fortunes to support his predilection and the royal stipend to satisfy his impostor. He had liquidated fifty-four ancestral estates in twelve years to endow London’s playhouses and sponsor elaborate productions for the Queen. Shaxper could scarcely believe the large sums of money that changed hands to pay tailors, carpenters, wig makers, actors, scribes, musicians and all of the other production costs a good play required. Because he kept the theatrical account books, he was aware of every penny.
Beyond that, he had observed Oxford’s restless ambivalence in trading his courtier’s doublet for a jester’s motley coat. He occasionally complained that he might have made a mistake in retiring from Court and abandoning the noble obligations entrusted to him at birth. He and the Countess were planning to make King’s Place their main residence after the plague lifted and it was safe to return to London. The secretive house was the most distant mansion from Court, yet it was close enough for the Earl to arrive quickly whenever the Queen summoned him to attend on her.
Unfortunately, such summons rarely came anymore. Masking sixty years of lust under layers of wax makeup, the aging Queen had taken another young lover. Thirty-three years her junior, the Earl of Essex wooed her with vain compliments and insincere flatteries that yielded him special favors and advancement.
Since matters of the heart never escaped a servant’s notice and he now served two formidable masters, Shaxper was aware that Southampton also yearned to receive favors in the Queen’s bed. At nineteen, the fair youth fancied himself handsomer and more favorable in demeanor than his friend Essex, and yet the Queen rebuffed all of his overtures. Southampton had been driven to tears over it; the Queen had always treated him like a son, but now she suddenly and inexplicably cut him out of her company altogether. His self-destructive behavior grew even worse when he and Essex became lovers. Essex taunted him with stories of his royal lovemaking, even demonstrating some of Her Majesty’s maneuvers on the young Earl himself.
When invited to join their pillow talk, Shaxper awkwardly acquiesced and continued to keep their secrets, acting as a voyeur during their encounters.
But oh, the stories he’d be able to tell if the time was ever right!
He wondered what Oxford would think of Southampton’s extraordinary lust for his monarch, and couldn’t even begin to imagine what the Countess would say about such matters. On his way upstairs, he passed by the front room and saw the new mother cradling her infant son in her arms. Countess Elizabeth was still new to the household and hadn’t yet confided in him, but Shaxper would soon prove his trustworthiness. He would craft some special flattery to win her confidence. One never knew when wifely opinions might prove valuable.
After glancing into the nursery only briefly, Shaxper bounded upstairs to Oxford’s study. As he prepared to knock, he was surprised to hear childish laughter on the other side of the door.
He hadn’t heard sounds like that in years, not since his last visit home. He was suddenly struck with an incredible longing to see his own children. How long had it been? He was ashamed to admit he didn’t know. How old was Susanna now, and the twins, Hamnet and Judith? He tried to recall their tender little faces, confident that Time had surely matured them. He wasn’t certain he’d recognize them, even if he passed them on Henley Street.
He hoped they appreciated his money. His wife had never bothered to ask Hamnet Sadler to write and thank him for it. Anne and his daughters couldn’t read or write, and his son Hamnet had been too ill to attend school. Unless his health improved, the boy would never receive an education and have the chance to forge a better life for himself.
The sound of Ben Jonson’s husky laugh cut into his thoughts like a knife.
What on earth was he doing here?
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