A week later, tired and hungry, Shaxper trudged into London with only a crumpled letter of introduction in his pocket. He was more determined than ever to succeed, having had plenty of time to convince himself that surviving the robbery was a confirmation of Divine Intervention.
Taking a deep breath, he joined the hurly-burly in the crowded streets, the familiar stench of the city once again filling his nostrils. He avoided looking at the severed heads on London Bridge, their jaws agape with death, a stern warning to all treasonous Catholics. He made a mental note to keep his mouth shut and emulate those who survived.
He bumped against the merchants who hauled their wares into the streets as he picked his way through the crowd. He overheard tidings of the New World wafting from the open windows of the taverns. Adventurers boasted about the exotic animals and spices they had seen on their travels. Musicians sang the latest songs, and the strange new smell of tobacco drifted onto the lane. Surrounded by the bustle of enterprise, Shaxper took heart. London still represented the brave new world of his dreams. By the grace of God, he would find ready employment with the Earl of Oxford and refill his purse as quickly as possible.
Feet aching, he sat down to rest in front of The Boar’s Head and watched as its intoxicated patrons stumbled out onto the street. Whores and pickpockets busily plied their trades, grateful for the easy commerce. A commotion broke out on the next block, and he craned his neck to see what was going on.
Curiosity overruled his pain. He rose to investigate. Moving towards the noise, he recognized John Lyly pushing aside the sea of flatterers that encircled the Earl of Oxford. The mob was loud and raucous, everyone making brazen attempts to get as close to the glittering celebrity as possible. Shaxper edged in, too, unwilling to miss his chance. He trailed the swarm of revelers into the pub and watched as every creature in the place – drunk or sober – hovered around the charismatic Earl.
At first Lord Oxford greeted everyone graciously, but as the riffraff pressed closer, he gripped his walking stick and deftly used it to distance himself. Smiling and nodding, he worked his way towards the stairs.
“Will it be the usual, my lord?” the barkeep called.
“Yes, yes. Send up a tray, and quickly, too.”
Then dashing up the stairs, he disappeared with Lyly right behind him.
“I used to enjoy these crowds at my tournaments,” he heard the Earl say, “but since the stabbing at Blackfriars, I feel like Julius Caesar on the steps of the Senate . . .”
The door closed behind them.
Shaxper looked over his shoulder and saw that the barkeep was busy tending to his customers. Veiled by smoke, he seized his chance and took the stairs three at a time. He halted on the landing, realizing he had no idea which room was Oxford’s. Whispering a prayer, he chose a door and put his ear to it. His heart soared when he recognized Oxford’s sonorous voice inside.
“God’s body, I wish Audrey would hurry up with that ale. My hands are shaking. I need to write, but my hands are shaking.”
“Perhaps you should lie down.”
“No. Go tell her to hurry.”
“But you only just gave the order —”
“If we’re having the usual, it should be ready by now!”
“It will come.”
“As much as I trust Audrey, you must remember to taste everything before I do.”
“I will. I always do. I haven’t died of poisoning yet, and neither have you.”
Hearing the serving wench on the stairs, Shaxper quickly moved away from the door. Affecting nonchalance, he pretended to gaze out the window and then turned as if heading downstairs.
“Aaaaauuudrey!” the Earl bellowed from inside the room. “Where the hell is my ale?”
“Here, my lord. Open the door.”
When the door flew open, Audrey quickly stepped inside as the eavesdropper ducked into an alcove. Within seconds, the door opened again. Lyly stuck his head into the hallway and looked around.
“Yes, sir, I will.”
The door closed. Shaxper watched as Audrey stuffed some coins into her apron and went downstairs. He once again took up his position outside the door. He could feel Oxford’s panic through it.
“Are you sure no one’s out there?”
“No one, my lord.”
“None of the Queen’s stooges or Burghley’s agents?”
“Not a soul, I swear.”
“God’s blood! This time the Queen has me by the balls! Do you know that?”
“Calm down, my lord. Have a drink.”
“And then what?”
“And then you’ll stop trembling. You’ll be able to work.”
“I can’t work today. And I can’t drink this stuff. It smells like horse piss.”
“Nonsense. It’s your usual.”
“Are you saying I usually drink horse piss?”
“Perhaps it’s royal piss. She’ll do anything to humiliate me now.”
“I don’t believe it. Her Majesty needs you to write history plays.”
“You don’t know that woman the way I do. She always says one thing and does another. What am I supposed to make of it?”
“For the moment, nothing, my lord. Have a drink.”
“Taste it first. What the hell do you think I’m paying you for?”
There was a long pause. A few unintelligible words were exchanged before Shaxper could hear again clearly.
“It’s not piss or poison,” Lyly said.“It’s ale, and quite good actually.”
“Well, are you going to drink the whole pitcher yourself? Pour me some.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You haven’t told me everything, have you, my lord? What did the Queen say when you two were alone?”
“She swears she loves me!” Oxford laughed. “Isn’t that rich? She’s been swearing that since I was twelve, but it really doesn’t matter. She swore the same oath to Seymour and Leicester and Hatton and a battalion of her other minions. I know that now; I’m not a dazed orphan anymore. Twice she’s made love to me before imprisoning me in the Tower. She practically swoons with passion every time she gives the decree. ‘Oh, my poor dear Oxford, once again your devilish nature has left me no choice,’” he mimicked.
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