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.”
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