“What secrets did he know?”
“Far be it from me to speculate.”
“Something about Henry, perhaps?”
“Who can tell? Like all men, I’ll bet he took his darkest secrets to his grave.”
Countess Susan probed his eyes as if mining for answers. Jonson shook his head and shrugged.
“Nevertheless,” Susan continued, “the King has commanded us to use the Shake-speare pseudonym in our book. We can make no direct reference to Father, his title as 17th Earl of Oxford, or the de Vere family name. Do you understand what that means?”
“Unfortunately, yes. It means that when we print the name Shakespeare, everyone will think that good-for-nothing scribe from Stratford is the author. William Shaxper, the rank impostor who posed in front of the playhouses, puffed on his pipe and couldn’t have written a love sonnet to a goddess if his life depended on it! My blood boils at the thought. That bogus bard is going to get away with it one more time, all because the King is haunted by ghosts from the past.”
“I’m sorry, Ben, but we have no other choice. Father would have surrendered his plays in an instant, if he knew it would save his son’s life.”
“Any father would do so,” Jonson said, thinking of his own lost children.
For a moment neither spoke. Jonson suddenly jumped up and started pacing.
“Jaggard’s going to kill me. Can you imagine what our publisher is going to say when I tell him he has less than one month to print the folio all over again?”
“Never mind, I’ll speak to him,” the Countess said. “Jaggard once dedicated a book to me, and he’d do anything to secure my patronage.”
“Still, it’s going to be a disaster. He’ll have to reprint whole pages. Why, the name change alone is going to leave visible gaps in the type. It’s going to be a publishing nightmare!”
“It’ll be difficult, but not impossible. At least Henry will be safe, even if Father’s name will be buried forever.”
Jonson looked pained. He started to speak, but she interrupted him.
“I know how you feel about it, Ben, but there’s nothing we can do.”
“I can do a great deal,” the playwright said. “I’ll commission a boy to draw a caricature of a man wearing a mask – that’ll serve to hide the identity of Shaxper and Shakespeare. I’ll write an inscrutable poem that’ll make the Oracle at Delphi sound sober. People will think I’m jealous, but have you ever known me to care what people think?”
“Not that I can remember.”
“I’ll praise the Sweet Swan of Avon and make it sound as if he had a tin ear for Latin and a mildewed ear for Greek. I’ll have Shaxper’s fellow shareholders Hemminge and Condell write a brash and annoying sales pitch to the reader. The whole thing will look like a hugger-mugger patch-up job, but if the folio looks common, people will think it’s the work of a commoner.”
“What a shame,” Susan said. “It was supposed to have been an enduring tribute.”
“Oh, it will be. Your father’s plays are immortal. I’ll just remind his readers of that fact, and tell them not to pay any attention to the picture or the introductory doggerel.”
“Michael won’t be pleased at having his poetry called doggerel.”
“Drayton? Well, I’ll give him a chance to withdraw from the project as a courtesy.”
“And the others?”
“Your father’s friends? We do need a little sincerity in the book. It can’t all be tripe and trumpery.”
“Whatever you do, please don’t harm my brother.”
“On my honor, I won’t. King James is too bland to understand riddles and subtleties, but I warrant you he’ll be very pleased with the finished product. I’ll even devise some convoluted drivel for that ridiculous monument in Stratford.”
“Isn’t that going too far?”
“Not at all. It’ll keep ‘em guessing about the authorship for generations.”
“I suppose,” the Countess sighed. “Still, it’s not the memorial I wanted for my father.”
“No, nor I,” Jonson replied. “But the truth will out. Who would be so foolish as to believe that a merchant from Stratford, with not one word of literary juvenilia or poetic practice to his name, could emerge from the ether to create the greatest plays ever written?”
In a corner of the home’s foundation, a gust of wind blew some ashes into a circle.
The long rain had begun.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish