Meg stood up and waved at the dissipated old curmudgeon in the doorway. Several rowdy customers greeted him, and Pinch scowled back with feigned annoyance. He shuffled towards the table and lightly kissed Meg on the cheek.
Shaxper could hardly believe that the wretched man had once been a popular jester.
“It’s about time you arrived, my love,” Meg chided. “I was beginning to think you’d left me.”
“Nonsense, sweeting, whither would I go? And who have we here? One of your many admirers, I suppose.”
“Pinch, this is Mister William Shaxper, come all the way from London to see you. He wants to be an actor.”
“Accept my condolences, sirrah,” Pinch sneered. “I’d rather express them to you now, instead of to the audience, later.”
“Say what you will, sir,” Shaxper chuckled, politely, “but my feet are set upon the stage.”
“Well, don’t set your heart upon it,” Pinch grumbled. “I did that once, and look at me.”
“Mister Shaxper sought you out so he can learn comedy from a master,” Meg said. “It’ll do both of you good to let him apprentice his ears to you for a while. I’ll go tend to our customers and have one of the girls fetch you some ale.” Before Pinch could object, Meg kissed him on the cheek and toddled towards the bar.
Now that he was alone with Shaxper, the fool’s suspicion was palpable.
“You can drop all that rubbish about learning comedy from a master,” Pinch growled, as he drank his ale. “That’s not the real reason you came to Hedingham, is it?”
“You’ve been asking a lot of questions in the village. I’ve got big ears, and it’s easy to catch my neighbors in the act of gossip. I’m sure they’ve told you that the Earl of Oxford and I haven’t spoken in years, not since his wedding to Lord Burghley’s daughter.”
“You knew him as boy –“
“Has Meg been gossiping, too? She should leave the past where it is, dead and buried.”
“I’m willing to pay you for what you know,” Shaxper said, sliding a few coins across the table.
“Oh, I see - planning a bit of mayhem against Lord Oxford, are you? Well, your money’s no good here. Edward and I may be estranged, but I wish him no harm. Surely Meg told you that.”
“She did . . . and she also said you encouraged his acting.”
“Until his debauched mother drove us apart and sent him to live under Lord Burghley’s strict governance. My heart has never mended over Edward’s tragic departure. It was nearly the death of me.”
Shaxper wondered if that had caused the jester’s suicide attempt. Instead, he said, “The young earl was lucky to have lived with such a brilliant and powerful man as Lord Burghley.”
“Is that what you think?” Pinch glared. “Well, you’re right - Lord Burghley has unlimited power. That self-aggrandizing opportunist shifted political alliances every time the wind changed. He supported each one of King Henry VIII’s children, whichever one looked to be the next monarch. First, he supported the boy King Edward VI, and then his Catholic sister Mary and finally, our Protestant Elizabeth. It didn’t matter, as long as the situation yielded him advancement.”
“I intend to rise from the common ranks as Burghley did,” Shaxper said.
“What, by becoming an actor? Ha! If you believe that, you’re more fool than I am.”
“Did she? Well, never mind what she says. The poor woman’s illiterate. She seems wise, but her seams unravel quickly.”
Pinch signaled for another ale. When it arrived, he took a long drink, set his tankard down and stared into it, his face a portrait of self-pity. Shaxper felt he could almost see his tongue loosening.
“Some people don’t recognize treachery when they see it,” the old jester said. “Lord John was a fool in that respect, and perhaps a greater fool than I ever was.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Lord John should have worn the cuckold’s horns from the moment he let Charles Tyrell into his household,” Pinch said, his memories unraveling. “He arrived one day like a Greek bearing gifts. The Queen required her gentleman pensioners to be handsome, and Tyrell was no exception. Lady Margery soon fell under his spell and the two became lovers while Lord John was at Court. But there was more to it than adultery, more to it than simply alienating the affections of a husband and his wife.”
Shaxper’s heart beat wildly.
“History is full of kings and noblemen who murder to usurp a fortune,” Pinch said. “And poison is that monstrously convenient plague that breaks out among the nobility from time to time. Surely you recognize the name Tyrell from our country’s history as belonging to two different cold-blooded assassins. I know for a fact that Lord John was in good health when he left to attend the Queen, but when he came home, he was dead within a week. As I see it, there was only one cause for such a rapid decline. Lord John had been poisoned.”
“Poisoned!” Shaxper gasped. “And you still believe it, after all these years?” He searched the jester’s face. “Yes, indeed. I can tell by your eyes that you do.”
“Edward believed it, too. Imagine the dark thoughts that crossed his mind when one month after his father’s funeral, his mother married the suspected assassin. The entire village was stunned when food from the funeral was served at the wedding feast. Edward was packed off to London, and Lady Margery dismissed the players, saying we had destroyed the dignity of her household – as if she ever had any dignity, making the beast with two backs with her husband’s murderer! My heart broke when she refused to let me accompany Edward to London. Perhaps our lives would have been different if I had gone, for Edward was a vulnerable orphan at 12 who suddenly became Earl of Oxford.”
“But as his guardian, it’s well known that Lord Burghley gave him a fine education.”
“Ah, Lord Burghley made that known. But when Lord John was alive, he also provided his son with the finest tutors in England. Edward was raised in the noble traditions of chivalry and honor. He was not yet five years-old when he rode to the home of Sir Thomas Smith to begin his studies. Did you know that three of his uncles were poets and literary men?”
“I know that one was Arthur Golding, who translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin into English,” Shaxper said.
“You’ve read it then?”
“Yes, enough to know there are no Christian virtues in it.”
“It’s not exactly the Calvinist text one would expect from a Puritan like Golding, is it?”
“That’s because Golding didn’t translate it – Edward did,” Pinch said, his inebriated voice dripping with pride. “It took Edward several years to translate fifteen volumes of Latin ribaldry into rhyming couplets of English hexameter, but he did it. Golding admired the quality and Edward wanted to publish it, but Lady Margery insisted that her half-brother, as uncle-tutor, put his name on it to protect the dignity of her household, or some such nonsense. I always thought it was a shame that Edward hadn’t been born a commoner. He would have been a brilliant jester, if men of rank weren’t required to be so serious. Some of ‘em would rather kill you than endure a well-deserved mocking.”
“You said his other uncles were also literary men. Who were they?”
“The Earl of Surrey refined the sonnet form and wrote poetry that was published ten years after his death. And Sheffield was a poet, although none of his work has survived, most likely because it was never published. Both of these men died before Edward was born, but their private papers had a great influence on him. He took his degrees at Cambridge and Gray’s Inn, did you know that? Edward is fluent in six languages.”
“Oh, that’s as many tongues as the Queen has.”
“What do you mean by that, sirrah?”
“In terms of language, of course,” Shaxper said. “What else could it mean?”
“I thought you had a double meaning,” Pinch said, in an intoxicated whisper. “Everything has a double meaning. Edward told me so himself the night before his wedding, when he was drunk and railed whirling words about his affair with the Queen, who had arranged his match with Burghley’s daughter so they could continue their torrid affair in the royal bedchamber. But as far as I know, their passions faded quickly. I lost touch with Edward after the wedding, but by all accounts his marriage to Burghley’s daughter was a disaster. Still, the old man profited by it. He arranged it that way.”
“I don’t believe it,” Shaxper said. “You’ve had too much to drink.”
“That’s your opinion, sirrah. Take what you think is the truth, or leave your doubt where it lies, I don’t care,” the jester said, his face darkening. “Revenge, aye - now there’s the root of an engaging drama. It wasn’t just Lord Burghley stealing the orphaned earl’s money and titles. Edward’s own half-sister sued to have him declared a bastard, saying that Lord John and Lady Margery were never married. Edward stood to lose everything: his titles, his income, his good name. I remember, he wrote about his grief. It seemed like the end of the world, but the Queen protected him and the suit was dismissed. And when Edward accidentally killed a man during a fencing match, the coroner ruled it self-defense. Someone always protects the Earl of Oxford. He’s fortunate that way, unlike the rest of us.”
“I see,” Shaxper said, making a mental note about the special treatment accorded men of rank and privilege. “I hope to join his acting company in London.”
“Well, let me give you fair warning, sirrah. The Earl of Oxford has no patience for frauds and flatterers. He has great contempt for dissemblers. Remember that, if you hope to stay on his good side.”
“I’ll do my best. Thank you for the warning.”
“I think you’ve gotten what you came for,” Pinch said, squinting at Shaxper. “But I’ll wager none of it was funny. Edward and I may be estranged, but that’s how it is and it doesn’t bother me, as long as you don’t do him any harm.”
“No harm intended,” Shaxper said, holding up both hands as if to block danger itself.
Pinch rose unsteadily, nodded a gruff goodnight and meandered towards the bar.
Shaxper briskly rubbed his palms together, wondering why the room had suddenly gone cold.
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