A dense fog had enshrouded London since early morning, disguising familiar landmarks and casting a pall over the city. Church bells tolled for the dead, and a few brave souls ventured into the streets, risking their lives to earn some money from those who had escaped the contagion.
Summer had gone dark along with the playhouses. The wooden cockpits on the Thames stood empty, disease having closed them down where Puritan disapproval had failed. Because of the plague, there was no way of knowing when, or if, the theaters would reopen; but that was the least of London’s worries. The stench-filled city was stifled by the large number of plague-ravaged corpses waiting to be burned. Not even a proper burial could insure that graves wouldn’t be robbed by thieves unwittingly spreading infection by selling items stripped from pocky corpses.
Those who could afford to escape the city traveled to their country homes where the air was free of contagion. Clad in black, William Shaxper anxiously waited to join the Earl of Oxford at Hedingham Castle. His horse was groomed and waiting in the stables to begin the long journey, as soon as he finished his business with Richard Field.
They were meeting to discuss the publication of Venus and Adonis, the erotic poem Shaxper had submitted to the Stationers’ Register a month earlier. At first, he wasn’t sure he could convince his old friend that he’d written it. But Field was so stunned that the censor had approved it, he had little need to ponder its authorship. Venus and Adonis told the story of an older woman’s seduction of a young boy. It steamed with sexual innuendos even the reprobate Ovid had not envisioned when he wrote his version of the ancient tale.
“Guaranteed to be a bestseller, Dickie,” Shaxper winked. “Even I was surprised when the Queen ordered the Archbishop to approve it, but I suppose that shows how much I underestimate my talent. Either way, if you agree to publish Venus and Adonis, it will be the first work of its kind bearing my name - by me, William Shake-speare.”
“But that’s not your name,” Richard said. “Look, it’s hyphenated in the manuscript. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of affectation?”
“I think the hyphen adds a touch of class, don’t you? Like my earring.”
“Foppish nonsense!” Richard sneered.
“It lends an air of mystery then.”
“It certainly does. It suggests a pseudonym, as if the author has something to hide. You don’t have anything to hide, do you, Willy?”
“Of course not. You said yourself the poem is piquant and saucy.”
“But you showed no signs of literary talent when you were a boy. I must say, working with the Earl of Oxford certainly has changed you.”
Field eyed the manuscript on the table and shook his head. “I don’t think it’s wise to print it with the romantic dedication you’ve given it.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You shouldn’t flaunt your private passions in public. These effusive attentions will embarrass the Earl of Southampton.”
“You’re making this very awkward for me, Willy, but I’ve got to ask. I know how ambitious you are, and I’ve heard rumors about lewd and perverted acts taking place in his household. You haven’t gotten yourself involved in anything like that, have you?”
“Of course not!” Shaxper laughed. “The truth is, I’ve been earning some extra money doubling as his secretary too, but there’s nothing indecent going on, believe me. It’s just that Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, has an insatiable appetite for erotica, that’s all, and I thought there’d be a big gratuity in it for me if I wrote him some, accompanied by a fawning dedication. So, here it is – take it or leave it.”
“And he paid you for this?”
“Yes, quite well in fact.”
Field wondered if pandering to the scandalous impulses of noblemen had reduced his old friend to trafficking in pornography.
For his part, Shaxper had no plans to tell his friend that Lord Oxford had written the poem and the dedication in honor of Southampton’s twentieth birthday. He said nothing about Oxford’s peculiar fondness for the young earl, or that he, Shaxper, would be allowed to keep the profits from Venus and Adonis to tide him over while the playhouses remained closed. It wasn’t his fault that men of rank were forbidden to profit through commercial enterprise. After all, proceeds from the sale of the poem had to go somewhere; and if not into Oxford’s coffers, what better cause than Shaxper’s own enrichment?
“Frankly, I find the poem offensive,” Field whispered. “Venus straddles Adonis and rides him like a succubus while he’s flat on his back. That’s sinful, an older woman forcing a young boy like that. No woman would behave that way.”
“Wake up, Dickie! That’s how my wife took me,” Shaxper snorted. “Not all of us were lucky enough to marry widows who inherited their husband’s print shops. Listen, our friendship goes all the way back to Stratford, and that’s why I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime. Trust me, Venus and Adonis is going to be a huge success. I’d like to share that success with you, but if you turn me down, I won’t hesitate to find another publisher.”
Field studied his friend for a moment.
“I’ll publish it,” he said, shaking Shaxper’s hand. “If the Queen and the Archbishop think it’s fit to print, who am I to argue with them?”
“You won’t regret it,” Shaxper grinned. “And now I’m off to Hedingham Castle at the request of His Lordship. He and his new wife have taken their children there to escape the plague, and they’ve offered me lodging so we can continue our work. I pray that the plague passes over your house, Dickie.”
“I’ll pray for you as well. And we must all pray for poor Christopher Marlowe, God rest his soul, being stabbed to death over a tavern bill.”
“Well, those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” Shaxper shrugged.
“Surely you must have more sympathy than that,” Field said. “Three young writers, all working with Lord Oxford, dead under mysterious circumstances within one year: Robert Greene, Thomas Watson and now, Marlowe. And from what I hear, Thomas Kyd was so gruesomely tortured, he could pass away at any time. He blames himself for Marlowe’s murder, but a man will confess anything when he’s broken on the rack.”
Shaxper didn’t tell his friend that he had seen the illegal pamphlets and bogus coins Marlowe had produced. Kyd’s only mistake had been living under the same roof with him. Lord Oxford hadn’t known about his clandestine activities, but his excitement over Marlowe’s “mighty line” eclipsed any dangers that might have arisen from his shadowy practices.
So much for the nobleman’s gullibility!
Shaxper tried to dispel the look of horror on Richard’s face. “Oxford says it’s the government’s last-ditch attempt at literary censorship; and by ‘last ditch’ he means the grave. But I’ve been granted approval to publish Venus and Adonis, so not every writer in England is under suspicion.”
“Be careful, Willy. Publication can be a double-edged sword.”
“I look over my shoulder all the time, Dickie, believe me.”
And that was an understatement.
“What a world,” Field sighed. “If the plague doesn’t kill you today, there’s a rogue waiting around the corner to knife you tomorrow.”
“And with that cold comfort, I shall take my leave,” Shaxper said. He shook hands with his friend and exited the shop, relieved to be on his way. The tiny bell atop the door jingled after him.
A glow of street lanterns reflected against the fog. The air was dull and heavy. Shaxper could hardly wait to mount his horse and get out of London. He felt sick to his stomach as he walked past the homes of half-dead people writhing in agony as their loved ones wept and waited for Death to come, not as an avenging angel but as a peacemaker. He turned up his collar to protect his face from the hot breath of disease and rounded the corner towards the stables.
Suddenly he realized he was being followed.
Impersonating a man who thrived on living dangerously had made Shaxper sharply aware of his surroundings. He noticed the cadence of footsteps behind him, walking when he walked, stopping when he stopped. Taking a few more steps, he turned abruptly and caught the blur of someone ducking behind a fishmonger’s stall to avoid being seen.
For an instant, he thought about confronting the stalker, but Dickie’s farewell words echoed in his mind.
He began walking again, and the strident rhythm of boots reverberated behind him. He broke into a run and turned the corner at the end of the street, pressing flat against the doorway of a shop. He heard the stalker running towards him. He closed his eyes, held his breath and kept as still as he could, reliving the terror of his robbery outside Stratford.
His pursuer stopped at the corner. The rogue wheezed like a furnace, coughing and cursing the rancid air. He spat in the street and ran on. The sound of his steps disappeared in the distance.
Shaxper didn’t move. He trembled at the thought of Marlowe’s murder, and wondered if he had just escaped a similar fate. When he opened his eyes, the fog had lifted. He crossed the street, paid the hostler and mounted his horse, escaping the oppressiveness of London.
Robert Poley watched him as he rode out of town.
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