The Countess’ gentlewoman led him into the conservatory located in the mansion’s inner courtyard, an unusual innovation for its time. The warm temperature and heady fragrances of the flowers delighted his senses and almost made him forget the sad reason for his visit. The gentlewoman pointed to a chaise where her mistress rested, surrounded by the flowers she loved. Then she smiled and left them alone.
Shaxper walked in quietly. When he saw that the Countess was asleep, he pulled up a bench, sat down and waited for her to awaken.
Her honeyed hair had turned silver, but her serene smile and fine complexion made her beautiful, even in her illness.
She must have sensed his loving thoughts, for she awoke and turned towards him with her petal-soft blue eyes.
The irony wasn’t lost on him.
“No, my lady,” he said, as he kissed her hand. “It is I, Will Shaxper of Stratford, your husband’s scribe.”
“Oh, how good of you to come. How many years has it been?”
“Eight, my lady. Eight very busy and productive years.”
“And have you been well?”
“Yes, my lady, very well. And you?”
“Most unwell,” she said.
“That’s what brought me here. Oh, I wish I could do something to ease your suffering, my lady. Please tell me, what can I do for you?”
“Just stay with me, Master Shaxper, and talk for a while. What are you doing these days to earn your living?”
“Oh, I do some occasional acting and once in a while I sell a few plays to the London theaters. But you know how it is: times change and audiences change and tastes change; and lately, other men have taken over the playwriting business, so I don’t get much call for plays anymore. And thanks to His Lordship’s extreme generosity, I own shares in The Globe and Blackfriars, so trust me, I’m not starving. Far from it, I’m doing quite well.”
“I’m so glad to hear it. My husband always said that no one else could have carried off the authorship ruse as cleverly as you did. I understand you don’t spend much time in London anymore. How is life back in Stratford? I was sad to hear of young Hamnet’s death. How are your wife and dear little family managing?”
“My wife is the same, my lady,” Shaxper said. “Hamnet’s death was a terrible blow, but I’ve managed to marry off one of my daughters to a very respectable doctor. But how did you know I was living in Stratford?”
“Ben Jonson told me. When I asked him about you, he knew exactly where to find you.”
“Oh, did he?”
“I told him it was urgent. I wanted to tell you personally that I’m leaving you a bequest in my will.”
“My lady,” he said with astonishment. “I’m not worthy of such consideration.”
“Of course you are. You enabled my husband to become England’s great bard. He couldn’t have written the plays without you to pass them on to the playhouses and stand behind them as your own.”
“I was only doing the job he hired me to do.”
“And you did it well. Never regret a job well done.”
“Thank you, my lady. I’m proud to have been of service.”
“I’m telling you about my bequest because you aren’t mentioned by name in the will,” she continued. “I did that to protect you, should there be any more political danger associated with the plays or my husband’s name and service to the state. It’s not likely, since most of the play factory are dead. I suppose I’m to be next.”
“Don’t say that, my lady. You’ll live and be well for years to come.”
“That’s a lovely sentiment, but the doctors have pronounced otherwise.”
Again he felt like an idiot.
“My executor knows your name and where to find you,” she said, “but I wanted you to be aware of the bequest, in case something happened and you were compelled to come forward quietly and ask for it.”
“Thank you, my lady, for your kind remembrance.”
She waved away his gratitude.
“You said you wanted to do something to ease my suffering. I do believe there is something you can do for me, Master Shaxper.”
“What might that be, my lady?”
“Surely you must know what happened eight years ago, the night this household was ransacked and violated. You were with my husband when he died. Tell me what happened. I believe you saw the whole thing.”
“Why won’t you speak? You have it in your power to calm the mind of a dying woman. Please don’t refuse me this wish. If you know what happened to my husband, tell me. You owe me that much. Don’t let me go to my grave with this mystery gnawing at my heart.”
Even in old age, her eyes were like bluebells.
“I’ll never forget that night,” he said. “His Lordship died of a weakened heart.”
“A broken heart, more like.”
“He had been in bed all day. He told me himself his heart felt very weak.”
“I don’t remember it that way. He spent the day in bed because of his sore leg.”
Shaxper couldn’t frame the words to tell the Countess about her husband’s murder. She looked so frail and delicate, and the truth was so despicable, he could not inflict it on her.
“My lady, I do believe that in the midst of the terrifying invasion, it was his heart that worked against him.”
“Did you know that they officially listed his cause of death as the plague?” she asked.
“No,” Shaxper responded. It was as if he could still hear the empty vial of poison rolling across the floor.
“It’s quite remarkable, that story about the plague,” she said. “You served as one of my husband’s attendants at the coronation. You must remember the plague was still rampant back then, and that King James was terrified of it.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“A year before my husband died, he paid a long visit to King James after the coronation. I was terrified he’d catch the plague while traveling, but when he came home, he was fine. He laughed at me for worrying, but I worried nonetheless.”
“As any good wife would do.”
“It doesn’t take a year to die of the plague. No one in our household had it. None of our servants were ill, and they all came in close contact with His Lordship. You and I were both in and out of his bedchamber all the time, and we never caught it.”
“Perhaps we were lucky.”
“Good luck doesn’t accompany the plague. It was a terrifying night; perhaps his heart gave out on him after all.”
“Perhaps,” Shaxper whispered.
Weary from their talk, Countess Elizabeth closed her eyes and sighed deeply.
Guilt consumed him. This beautiful lady, the only woman he had ever truly loved since Anne Whatley of Temple Grafton, was fading before his eyes. Why had he abandoned her? Perhaps he could have stepped into her dead husband’s shoes, like the impostor he was, and eased her burdensome sorrows. Perhaps he could have protected young Henry de Vere the way Richard Field’s father had once protected him.
And then he looked at her, slim, poised and imperial, and recognized that in all ways she was a true lady, superior to him by her high birth and aristocratic nature.
She would never have accepted him.
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