“You think this drink has gone to my head, don’t you?” Shaxper cried. “Well, I’m telling you the truth. Midsummer night in 1604, Oxford’s house at King’s Place was attacked on all sides. They seized his private papers and poured poison down his throat so there’d be no wounds. I stuffed a good number of his plays into my portfolio and escaped that night, always fearing they would come after me. It took a while, but I reconstructed as many of the manuscripts as I could, and sold some of ‘em because I had to do it, with Lord Oxford dead and my livelihood gone. A man has to earn a living.”
While Shaxper spoke, his wife Anne tottered down the back staircase and went into the kitchen, carrying a bundle of papers. She set them down and ripped off one page at a time, balling them up and stuffing them between the kindling. She picked up a long piece of straw, held it to the torch and lit the fire in the hearth.
“Now I remember!” Shaxper said. “The plays are up in the attic. I put them in the old trunk, the one Countess Elizabeth gave me on her deathbed.”
Jonson leapt to his feet.
“How do we get there?”
“Go to the kitchen and take the back stairs. The trunk is at the top, to the left. I’d go, but I feel a bit dizzy. I need to lie down.”
“You go,” Drayton said. “I’ll stay with the scribe.”
Jonson raced into the kitchen. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Anne Shaxper ripping pages out of a bound manuscript and tossing them into the fire.
“What’s that you’re burning?”
“Just some old papers,” she sneered. “Why should you care?”
Before she could respond, Jonson grabbed them from her hands and instantly recognized the handwriting. He dove into the flames, burning himself as he tried to rescue the discarded pages. His screams brought Drayton running.
“Ben, what are you doing?”
“This is the sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Jonson said, his voice cracking. “Do you realize what you’ve done, you decrepit old harpy? You’ve burned an original Shakespeare play, written in Lord Oxford’s own hand!”
“I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t think it was important.”
“Not important? What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid?”
“I burn papers like this all the time.”
“She didn’t mean any harm, Ben. Stop badgering her,” Drayton said.
“Not on your life! She’s gone too far this time.”
“She couldn’t help it, it’s not her fault. She doesn’t know how to read.”
“She can’t read. No one in Shaxper’s family can read. She didn’t know what she was burning.”
Jonson was furious. He ran into the front room and shook the scribe back into consciousness.
“Why, you merchant of falsehood! You posed as England’s greatest playwright and kept your family uneducated and illiterate?”
“I was in London . . . they were in Stratford . . . I had to earn a living . . . there wasn’t time to teach them anything.”
“Your slovenly wife has just torched an original Shakespeare play because she can’t read. It’s as if she murdered Lord Oxford all over again!”
Dr. Hall opened the front door and stepped into complete pandemonium.
“And I told you I wasn’t leaving without the plays.”
“Calm down, Doctor,” Drayton said, trying to pacify him. “We just found out a moment ago that the plays Jonson has been seeking are up in the attic. I’ll help him get the trunk and we’ll be on our way.”
“Not so fast,” Hall said. “I knew it was a mistake to allow you access to my father-in-law, Jonson. Chaos has ruled ever since I let you into this house. Can’t you see my father-in-law is a very sick man? Look at him.”
“He’s fine. He’s resting.”
Dr. Hall lifted Shaxper’s limp hand.
“What on earth have you done to this poor man?”
“We haven’t done anything to him. We had a few drinks to celebrate his birthday.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Drayton seconded, “to celebrate his birthday.”
“You fed him my best sack?”
“I’ll gladly pay you for what we drank, if that’s what’s bothering you,” Jonson said.
“We didn’t force it on him. He drank it of his own free will,” Drayton added.
“He’s not supposed to drink. I swear, I think you both came to Stratford to kill him!”
“That’s not true,” Drayton protested.
“Give them the trunk, John, and let’s be rid of them,” Mrs. Shaxper said.
“Oh, all right, go get it,” Hall cried out. “Take it out of here, and then leave this house and never come back!”
Jonson and Drayton hurried to the attic before Dr. Hall had a chance to change his mind.
As the doctor solicitously examined him, Shaxper fell from his stupor into a dream.
A smiling Countess Elizabeth summoned him into an old churchyard, where she showed him two stone effigies. He leaned over and read the epitaphs closely, since it had once been his line of work to write them. One effigy was sacred to the memory of Lady Elizabeth Trentham, Countess of Oxford. The other was inscribed to the Honorable Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Viscount Bulbec, Lord of Sandford, of Escales and of Badlesmere, Lord Great Chamberlain of England, also known as the great bard Shake-speare, the appellation he loved best.
The Countess kissed Shaxper on the forehead and told him how well he had served her husband, and suddenly, a ferocious storm blew up. A hundred horsemen galloped in and smashed the effigies to pieces. The Countess wept and a marble obelisk grew from her tears. He marveled that it was decorated with flights of angels after the line in Hamlet. But the angels instantly turned into devils and set the obelisk on fire. All of the graves opened up and spread their contagion in the world, and Lord Oxford’s bones were scattered in the churchyard, crumbling into dust.
“For Jesus sake, forebear!” Shaxper screamed.
“He’s awake,” Mrs. Shaxper said.
“Father-in-law, what is it?” Dr. Hall asked.“What’s the matter?”
“What will they do to my bones after I die? I don’t want them scattered in the churchyard. If they think I’m Shakespeare, they’ll dig me up to dance on my grave.”
“What’s he talking about?”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Shaxper cried. “He’s not in his right mind.”
“Fetch me my quills and paper, John. I’ll write my epitaph now.”
The scribe took up his pen and began writing. His eyes could barely focus on his work.
“‘Good friend for Jesus’ sake forebear’— that’ll scare ‘em off. No one will dig me up if I mention Jesus. ‘To dig the dust enclosed here.’ — if I describe my remains as dust, they won’t see any point in digging me up, will they? — ‘Blest be the man that spares these stones,’ - they’ll be rewarded for leaving my grave in one piece. ‘And curst be he that moves my bones.’”
Jonson and Drayton set the trunk down in the front room. Shaxper reached out his bony arms towards them.
“Ben! Michael! Please help me!” Shaxper cried. “I don’t want my bones thrown around the churchyard! Don’t let them desecrate my grave. I heard you talking about how they dug up Lord Oxford. If they think I’m the playwright, they’ll do the same to me. Please help me. You’ve got to tell my story.”
He waved the paper frantically in the air and suddenly began gasping for breath. He fell back onto the couch and his breathing became shallow until at last, it stopped.
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