“Won’t the coroner call it murder?” someone asked.
“The official word is that Lord Oxford has died of the plague,” the captain replied.
Covered in the darkness, Shaxper continued to listen until he heard the soldiers ride away. After what seemed an eternity, he crept out from behind the wall and walked over to the bed. Lord Oxford’s unfocused gaze fell upon him. He reached up, said a prayer and gently closed his master’s eyes.
His attention was suddenly drawn to Countess Elizabeth. She was downstairs, weeping, which made him think that she too had been hurt. He moved towards the door, but then stopped and surveyed Oxford’s room. He didn’t know how to tell the Countess that her beloved husband had been murdered in his own bed. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her with stories of her husband’s final bravery; but he knew she would only ask him why he had cowered behind the wall and done nothing.
He had no good answer.
A shaft of moonlight broke through the window, drawing his attention to the manuscripts strewn across the floor.
His thoughts of consolation were eclipsed by his need to run. He greedily gathered up the papers, setting aside his concern for Countess Elizabeth. His mind was overwhelmed, swarming with calculations of the precise monetary value of the plays, particularly Henry VIII, even though the headsman’s scene was still unwritten. With all his heart, he longed to play that role.
Then it struck him that there would be no more Shakespeare plays. How would he earn his living now? Could he return to Stratford and carry on as if nothing had happened?
Perhaps he could hire someone to write plays. He knew many playwrights, but none of them particularly liked him. And when the news of Lord Oxford’s death spread, they would all write tributes to him as the great Shakespeare. Shaxper would become a non-entity, reduced to the impostor that Ben Jonson had ridiculed.
He quickly reminded himself that he was a businessman, owning a ten percent share in The Globe. He was sure that the theater owners and publishers wouldn’t care who finished the plays, as long as Shakespeare’s name appeared on them. In that case, he could still collect his share of the receipts and his stock in the remaining plays for the future. He could copy out the plays and sell them as his own, just like before; or better yet, hire a lean and hungry youth to do it and sell the fair copies at a tidy profit.
Inspired by this vision, he returned to his room and gathered up the fair copy. Then he went to his master’s chamber and stuffed his portfolio with whatever papers he could find. He glanced at Lord Oxford for the last time. A final peace had descended upon the Earl, a calm he had never known in life. Shaxper crossed himself and said another prayer.
Then he slipped down the back staircase and out the door. He caught sight of Countess Elizabeth through the window, holding a candle as she entered her husband’s bedchamber.
The moon exited behind a cloud.
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