The Scene: Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire
“The toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier . . .”
Shaxper returned home to his wife bearing a wealth of determination and a purse full of savings. With an obstinate mixture of guilt and respect, he had come to deliver his hard-earned wages to Anne in person, rather than send them home in a tightly wrapped and coldly worded farewell letter.
It was the least he could do to spare her feelings, he thought, for he had no intention of staying in his accidental marriage any longer. He was impatient to get back to London but he didn’t want to seem cruel, so he lingered to say a proper goodbye to his children. Three year-old Susanna might miss him, he thought, for she was old enough now to sit on his lap and bury her face in his chest. He was sure that his colicky twins Hamnet and Judith didn’t care who he was or where he was. Still, he swore to return to them as soon as he was financially secure, and they were old enough to care who he was, and to understand how he had improved their lives by allying himself with his theatrical kinsman, Lord Oxford.
He promised to send Anne money regularly. He had expected her to be grateful for this boon, and for the reassurance by his presence that he wasn’t simply staying on in London and abandoning her and the children completely.
But Anne refused to make his departure an easy one. She wept in the doorway with the twins in her arms and pleaded with him not to go.
“I’ll be back before you know it, I swear,” he called over his shoulder “And I’ll return to you with a small fortune, I promise.”
“How can you leave me like this, William?” Anne cried. “What will the neighbors say?”
“It’s not my business what they say,” he replied, recalling their wicked gossip about his father.
“They’ll say you abandoned me because of the twins.”
“But I’ve assured you that’s not true. In London, I can earn a fortune. I can’t possibly do that in Stratford, and now we have two more hungry mouths to feed.”
“Dear God, what’s to become of me and the children?”
“God will take care of you. And Hamnet Sadler – I’ve asked him to look in on you.”
“At least leave me some more money.”
“I can’t. I need to pay my travel expenses. I’ll send you more money when Lord Oxford pays me my advance.”
“What advance? He doesn’t even know you. What makes you think he’ll ever know you?”
“He’ll know me . . . and he’ll need me, I’m sure of it. But I have to act now, I can’t wait any longer. I stayed until the twins were baptized and I must say, it’s been the longest month of my life.”
Anne stepped aside, revealing Susanna sobbing behind her skirts.
Shaxper sighed and knelt down. Susanna ran into his arms.
“I’ll make it up to her,” he said, as he kissed the little girl and handed her back to her mother.
“And how will you do that?” Anne asked. “Why in God’s name would the Earl of Oxford pay any attention to you? Because of some distant family kinship? That’s absurd!”
“I told you,” Shaxper said, as he tightened his satchel and mounted his horse. “I’ll send you my earnings as soon as I’m employed as a player in Lord Oxford’s Men. What more do you want?”
“I want you, William. I love you. Don’t you love me?”
Anne Whatley’s face flashed through Shaxper’s mind. She was the maiden he really loved, and if he hadn’t gotten Anne Hathaway pregnant and been hauled before the parish priest to marry her, his life would have been different. Anne Whatley of Temple Grafton would have understood his feelings about London. She might have joined him there, if he knew where she was after all this time.
“Be quiet, Anne” he scolded, “the neighbors will hear you.”
“You’ve got some whore stashed away in London, haven’t you?” Anne shouted angrily. “Go to her then! Go and make a fool out of yourself, but you’d better send the money you promised me or I’ll sue you for it!” Anne clutched the twins and kneed Susanna into the house. She slammed the door behind them.
Relieved to be quitting Stratford, he turned his horse towards London. He noted how sad it was that his harridan of a wife had no sense of Fortune or Destiny.
Anne Whatley would have understood.
Beyond the outskirts of Stratford, two men crouched in a roadside ditch concealed by low bushes. Engaged in the lucrative business of robbing travelers on the way to London, the highwaymen used a tall tree at the fork in the road to spot their victims, whose bulging satchels offered a tempting invitation to collect whatever booty they desired.
To dispel the afternoon’s eerie silence, Shaxper whistled Greensleeves as he rounded the bend. Just as he came under the tree, the screech of a crow pierced the tender melody of his tune. The villain hidden in the leaves let out a blood-curdling scream and dropped down onto Shaxper’s horse. His partners leapt up from the ditch and tried to wrestle the reins away from Shaxper. They grappled over the satchel. The terrified horse reared and galloped down the road.
Shaxper felt a searing pain rip through his shoulder. From the corner of his eye, he caught the flicker of a knife’s blade at his back. He felt dizzy, but the thought of losing his satchel and the money he’d earned emboldened him to fight. Roaring with anger, he kicked off his assailant and scrambled into the underbrush like an animal on all fours, frantically searching for a place to hide. With each step, thorny vines scratched and tore at his flesh.
As he stumbled into the brier patch, a shot rang out and a bullet grazed his leg. He could almost feel the thieves breathing down his neck. His shoulder throbbed and he was sure his life was over. He fell to the ground and lay on his back, eyes closed and teeth clenched. He thought of his mother Mary and little Susanna. He gripped his bag as if his life depended on it.
Hearing a rustling nearby, he opened his eyes to see the thieves towering over him.
“What do you want?” he quavered.
“Your money, sir, and quickly.”
“But this is all I have in the world,” he begged, as he clutched the satchel. “Please don’t take it.”
You might as well be dead, Shaxper told himself. You’ll never get to London now. You’ll never be famous. You’ll never make a name for yourself. No one will ever hear of William Shaxper except as the victim of an infamous murder on the highway . . . if your body is ever to be found in such a place.
“Here,” Shaxper said, thrusting the satchel forward. “Take my money, but please don’t kill me. Leave me in peace, I beg you.”
Someone laughed and yanked the satchel away. Shaxper felt a pistol at his head. He whispered a prayer as he heard the trigger being cocked. He wondered how long it would take for the maggots to devour his flesh once he was dead, and how far across the field the animals would scatter his bones. Would his soul be allowed to enter Heaven without a priest or a proper burial? He was a simple man, and didn’t know the answer to such questions. He prayed for Jesus’ sake that his death would be a quick and painless one.
He closed his eyes and heard his empty satchel landing in the bushes behind him. He heard the mocking laughter of his assailants as their feet crunched through the thicket and into the distance.
He felt a stunning blow to his head. A death-like sleep crept upon him in the warm sunshine.
He rolled over and let it come.
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