The wailing of Hamnet Sadler’s mongrel bitch pierced the stillness of the midsummer night, increasing the terror of the exhausted rider who had just returned home.
William Shaxper slid from his horse and looked furtively over his shoulder as he clutched a leather portfolio to his chest. He fancied the full moon glowering down at him with a prosecutor’s scowl. He ran to the front door and pressed his cheek against it. He heard nothing except the incessant howling of his friend’s dog. His hands trembled as he rummaged for his key, found it and turned it in the lock.
Luckily, the King’s men hadn’t pursued him - or perhaps they had yet to arrive. He nervously unlocked the door and stepped inside, closing it behind him with the full weight of his anxiety. Breathing heavily, eyes darting wildly, he called out to his wife.
“Anne? Are you home?”
Silence. Relief. The house at New Place was empty.
It will be easier to hide the treasure this way, without any witnesses . . . Like a parent protectively shielding a child from harm, he hugged the portfolio to his chest. With the glowing embers in the kitchen hearth, he lit a small lantern and carried it up three flights of stairs to the attic. He locked the door behind him, just in case, and set the bundle down among the discarded family relics that lay barely illuminated by the scant moonlight. He rummaged for a place to hide his contraband and remembered the loose floorboards under the north window where he had hidden other manuscripts he had collected from his master over the years.
He crawled on all fours to the spot and frantically pried up the boards. He gently lifted the ink-stained coverlet from beneath them and loosened the girdling knot that held its treasures. He carefully removed the papers and held them up to the light. For a moment his eyes lingered over his master’s quaint penmanship. It pained him that he would see it no more, now that Death, with the help of a few assassins in royal livery, had silenced his master forever.
As if tucking his children into bed, he placed Henry VIII and Twelfth Night with the other plays. He tied the cord around them and replaced them beneath the floor. He vowed to keep them safe and crossed himself, desperate to secure God’s help. He would collect the remaining provocative scripts when things calmed down – if he lived long enough – when the King no longer cared about the true identity of Shake-speare.
May his name be buried where his body is . . . Exhausted, he sank to the floor and waited for the fearsome sound of horses. The King’s Men would surely be coming for him.
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