A blast of trumpets heralded the Queen’s arrival, jarring Shaxper from his thoughts. Everyone bowed as Her Majesty took her place on the shaded dais followed by her entourage. Lord Burghley’s disfigured son, 25-year old Robert Cecil, sat on her left, generating a flurry of whispers as she ordered his father to sit further off. Henry Wriothesley, the Queen’s adolescent ward, haughtily took his chair on her right.
Shaxper imagined himself sitting beside Her Majesty some day, soaking up honors like a sponge, but first he had to get through this presentation. He anxiously patted his doublet to be sure the poetic recitation he’d been given hadn’t fallen through the hole he’d neglected to mend. Oxford’s impassioned words threatened to burn right through it! Shaxper blushed and began to sweat. He wondered whether the Queen would be furious when she heard her lover’s words coming out of his mouth. He saw the smoke from the book burning rising above the fence and suddenly feared being punished for words he hadn’t written and didn’t understand. But then he nervously cleared his throat and regained his composure. He wasn’t about to let fear ruin his chance for advancement. He skirted the tilt-yard and waited in front of the Earl’s tent for his cue.
A crier stepped forward to announce the rules but was immediately interrupted by the din of trumpets. Hautboys from Blackfriars stepped forward dressed in Oxford’s livery, blaring a fanfare in front of his tent. The crimson flaps were drawn aside, and Oxford stepped onto the field wearing a suit of golden armor. The spectators cheered as he was hoisted atop Agincourt, his well-trained charger. Suddenly, the tent was collapsed to reveal a tall bay tree completely layered in gold. Oxford and Agincourt posed before it, giving the appearance of a scene from a medieval tapestry.
The crowd gasped and broke into cheers that resounded across the field. This was the cue Shaxper had been waiting for. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his script. He walked up the steps towards the Queen as musicians from the theater played an interlude.
He stopped respectfully just inches away, and found himself staring at her shoes. He trembled but summoned his courage, determined not to look foolish. Robert Cecil and Henry Wriothesley exchanged mocking glances and stifled their laughter. Shaxper looked up at Her Majesty, who smiled at him with anticipation. Instantly, he choked up again and in his protracted silence, the royal smile disappeared.
“Is this one of your son-in-law’s jokes?” the Queen asked, turning to Lord Burghley. “What does Oxford mean, sending a mute to deliver a speech?”
Burghley leaned forward. “Your Majesty, this is his secretary, William Shaxper. I’m sure he’s as articulate as you or I. Aren’t you, my good man?”
“Y-yes, my lord,” Shaxper stammered. “I sp-speak as well as you do.”
Henry Wriothesley laughed. The Queen slapped his wrist with her fan.
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