Outside the Westminster tilt-yard, the hellish claws of a roaring fire tore at heaven. Shaxper and several others coughed at the smoke and stepped around the angry mob, which had been preached into a frenzy by a group of Puritan clergy. Men and women, their faces contorted with hate and prejudice, shrieked like demons as they furiously tore apart Catholic books and tossed them into the fire. Shaxper was certain that none of them could read the books they were intent on destroying. It then occurred to him that in all of his time in London, he had never seen a book burning before, and the mass hysteria of the violent rabble terrified him. Forgive them, he reasoned, for they know not what they do.
He was running late, too late perhaps to help Lord Oxford prepare for the joust or to quietly rehearse the lines he had been asked to present to the Queen. As he entered the tilt-yard, Shaxper was stunned by the fairytale pageantry before him. Trumpets blared as spectators climbed the nearest hillside to watch the tournament. Powerful horses richly caparisoned with heraldic symbols pawed at the ground, anxious for the contest. Banners rippled in the breeze as lords and ladies dined on the fresh delicacies for which he had only recently acquired a taste.
For several years, Shaxper’s recent employer had been England’s most celebrated tournament champion. At this, his final joust, he would face a number of challengers, including Sir Henry Lee, who had taken Lady Vavasor, Oxford’s former mistress, as his newest lover. With all of the animosity between the two men, Shaxper was concerned for his master’s safety – if he were to die on the field as jousters sometimes did, their partnership would come to an abrupt end and Shaxper would be thrust back into his bucolic obscurity. He would lose his income as the Earl’s scribe and front man, and never find his place as a player in the company.
During the past year, he had become Oxford’s most dependable servant. He had eased himself into the Earl’s good graces, replacing Lyly as his trusted secretary. The best boon was that Oxford had begun teaching him the art of oratory, a subject never taught in the simple country school in Stratford. Shaxper learned how to stand and emote with proper diction, how to pitch his voice and avoid distracting movements and facial expressions. He practiced often, thrilled at the new sensations he felt when reciting ancient speeches or epic poetry. It was a feeling beyond religious ecstasy, taking on the essence of other men’s thoughts and feelings and making them his own.
In the meantime, Shaxper earned his living by supervising other writers in what he called the play factory, copying out Oxford’s roles and manuscripts. Normally, he handed them over to the official censor before passing them on to the playhouses, but sometimes he was advised to skip that step. He was delighted when the theater managers also paid him for his deliveries, and he kept these gratuities without a word to anyone. Oxford had no interest in such fees; his concerns over the content of the history propaganda plays were more complex. He often defied the Queen’s explicit laws concerning publication, but time and again Her Majesty looked the other way, which saved him from arrest.
Shaxper sometimes quailed at his master’s lack of discretion and the risks he was asked to take as the middleman. The Earl’s latest piece of roguery, a play called Edmund Ironside, had Shaxper’s secretarial hand all over it. Unwilling to disobey his master, he had delivered it to the censor with Oxford’s name affixed as author and he hadn’t had a peaceful night since. The Queen’s command for anonymity was clear, but Oxford had simply ignored it.
To appease her, His Lordship had prepared a dazzling entertainment for the interval in today’s tournament. He had granted Shaxper the privilege of delivering the accompanying oration. With the bearing of a showman, Shaxper assured himself that he was impeccably well dressed and barbered. He hoped to make a good impression on the Queen and the other denizens seated on the royal dais. He had practiced classical rhetoric for weeks, but had been forced to rest his voice before he strained it.
Shaxper fancied that reciting Oxford’s verses was indeed an honor that no one else in the play factory could rise to. The rest of Oxford’s Men were rank scoundrels, men of grosser clay who tried to pass themselves off as poets. Not even Anthony Munday, Oxford’s earliest hire, had the requisite finesse to accomplish such a recitation. While Munday had taken down parts of Sir Thomas More strictly from Oxford’s dictation, he was no orator or actor. Shaxper, on the other hand, was a jack-of-all-trades, willing to perform any service for a price. He took it as a compliment when Oxford relied on him and called him his Johannes Factotum, even though the others mocked him for it.
Shaxper was sure his rapid advancement was the result of his ready compliance. He aped every aspect of the Earl’s finery, to the extent that his salary afforded, while Oxford’s Men, drinking and gambling a short distance away, didn’t care how they looked to the world. Shaxper watched as Kit Marlowe spat on the ground and tried to wrestle his ill-gotten winnings away from Robert Greene. A brawl broke out and the constables were called. Young Ben Jonson, the bricklayer’s son, quickly pocketed Marlowe’s crooked dice as Thomas Kyd dragged him away to avoid their arrests as well.
Shaxper wondered what Jonson was doing there anyway, when the youth should have been helping his stepfather earn a living. Ben had no talent beyond slapping loam and rough-cast with a trowel to build a wall, and yet Lord Oxford’s Men treated him like a mascot. He couldn’t understand why they encouraged the awkward youth’s feeble attempts at playwriting, which seemed as hopeless as breathing life into a corpse.
But there was no time to dwell on men of poor character. Shaxper turned his attention to the tournament commemorating Oxford’s transition into private life. Tomorrow he would quit his courtly duties and draw the cloak over his work, retiring to the countryside to conceal it. He hadn’t shared the truth of his secret service with anyone except Shaxper, the loyal scribe who had packed up his library and maintained a vested interest in his affairs.
Nonetheless, gossip about Oxford’s retirement buzzed on the breeze. Some suspected he had outraged the Queen once too often, while others wagered on the date of his execution. Still others said he’d squandered his inheritance and could no longer afford to pay the tributes demanded by the Queen. Sir Henry Lee and Lady Vavasor were confident that Oxford’s wounded leg made it difficult for him to stand for hours attending Her Majesty’s pleasure, making his service as a courtier impossible. Lee intended to take full advantage of his injury. Lady Vavasor herself knew the full extent of it: with a cry of revenge, her own cousin had stabbed Oxford in the alley outside Blackfriars and left him for dead. The Earl was lucky to have survived.
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