So much for the nobleman’s gullibility!
Shaxper tried to dispel the look of horror on Richard’s face. “Oxford says it’s the government’s last-ditch attempt at literary censorship; and by ‘last ditch’ he means the grave. But I’ve been granted approval to publish Venus and Adonis, so not every writer in England is under suspicion.”
“Be careful, Willy. Publication can be a double-edged sword.”
“I look over my shoulder all the time, Dickie, believe me.”
And that was an understatement.
“What a world,” Field sighed. “If the plague doesn’t kill you today, there’s a rogue waiting around the corner to knife you tomorrow.”
“And with that cold comfort, I shall take my leave,” Shaxper said. He shook hands with his friend and exited the shop, relieved to be on his way. The tiny bell atop the door jingled after him.
A glow of street lanterns reflected against the fog. The air was dull and heavy. Shaxper could hardly wait to mount his horse and get out of London. He felt sick to his stomach as he walked past the homes of half-dead people writhing in agony as their loved ones wept and waited for Death to come, not as an avenging angel but as a peacemaker. He turned up his collar to protect his face from the hot breath of disease and rounded the corner towards the stables.
Suddenly he realized he was being followed.
Impersonating a man who thrived on living dangerously had made Shaxper sharply aware of his surroundings. He noticed the cadence of footsteps behind him, walking when he walked, stopping when he stopped. Taking a few more steps, he turned abruptly and caught the blur of someone ducking behind a fishmonger’s stall to avoid being seen.
For an instant, he thought about confronting the stalker, but Dickie’s farewell words echoed in his mind.
He began walking again, and the strident rhythm of boots reverberated behind him. He broke into a run and turned the corner at the end of the street, pressing flat against the doorway of a shop. He heard the stalker running towards him. He closed his eyes, held his breath and kept as still as he could, reliving the terror of his robbery outside Stratford.
His pursuer stopped at the corner. The rogue wheezed like a furnace, coughing and cursing the rancid air. He spat in the street and ran on. The sound of his steps disappeared in the distance.
Shaxper didn’t move. He trembled at the thought of Marlowe’s murder, and wondered if he had just escaped a similar fate. When he opened his eyes, the fog had lifted. He crossed the street, paid the hostler and mounted his horse, escaping the oppressiveness of London.
Robert Poley watched him as he rode out of town.
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