From his special seat on the stage, Shaxper cast his eyes idly around the crowd. He remembered his first visit to London, when John Lyly had tossed him into the cockpit for sitting with the noblemen where he didn’t belong. Taking that empty seat had been an honest though brazen mistake, and he’d been publicly humiliated for doing it. How the audience had mocked him then. But now he was the object of applause.
As he surveyed their faces, he noticed that most of them were strangers to him. Almost all of the original patrons who had occupied the balconies had been replaced by a wealthier and younger class of theatergoers with more sophisticated tastes. At that moment, he realized that he had become a stranger to these new times.
Then he noticed a squinting man in a broad-brimmed hat, smiling and nodding at him. Shaxper politely nodded back, wondering how he knew this man with the long scar and where he’d seen him before. He couldn’t quite place him. He might have seen him on a crowded street or in a dimly lit tavern, or even at one of the plays; but he had the vague impression of seeing only his partially covered face and furtive eyes. He brought to mind the cur that had stolen his money years ago, near Stratford. He resembled one of the assassins accused of killing Marlowe in the tavern brawl. By the grace of God, could it be the same man?
The hautboys trumpeted the start of the show and the audience grew silent as the Prologue stepped forward to deliver his lines.
I come no more to make you laugh; things now
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe:
Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow,
We now present.
Twenty-seven years ago almost to the day, the Queen had commissioned the history plays from the Earl of Oxford. Henry VIII was one of the first history plays that Shaxper had helped Oxford prepare, but his lordship was not pleased with it and had long planned to rewrite it. After his death, a patched-together version of it had been performed twice. But this production of the long forgotten play had been newly retitled All is True, and had been billed as the most elaborate production The Globe had ever mounted. Burbage had spent several months fussing over the historical validity of the costumes, and it had been his idea to fire the cannon on the Act One entrance of John Lowin, who was playing King Henry VIII.
Shaxper looked nervously up at the cannon. He didn’t like the idea of such a heavy weapon firing over the heads of so many paying customers, but being a minority shareholder, he was outvoted by his partners. Still, as the first act progressed, it captured his attention and he began to relax.
Each scene proved more dazzling than the one before it. Shaxper was pleased at the audience’s reaction, even though he desperately wanted to go outside and relieve himself. The actors’ words resounded in his ears and he leaned forward to watch a scene that had proven difficult in rehearsals.
They were approaching scene four, the entrance of King Henry VIII. Burbage had argued that Lord Oxford would have enjoyed the rousing burst of cannon fire, and that audiences would be impressed with its real life grandeur. That, he said, would make the revival of All is True well worth the high price of admission, at least in their minds; and future ticket sales would soar. Shaxper couldn’t argue with the fact that those sales would indeed line his pockets with huge profits.
The audience had no idea what was to come. Shaxper saw Burbage stand back and instruct the stagehands to light the fuse. He covered his ears, and Shaxper did the same.
The audience screamed at the sudden violent explosion. The theater rocked on its foundation, and a mild panic ensued until the smoke cleared and everyone saw that the fiery salute had been part of the show. The audience applauded and cheered wildly. Burbage was overjoyed at their response. He winked at Shaxper as if to confirm this meant good money.
No one noticed the tiny spark that ignited the thatched roof of The Globe. It smoldered while the audience watched the play, completely spellbound. The flames crept around the dry roof until the ceiling caved in and the theater erupted into a conflagration. Screams pierced the air. The audience panicked as people pushed towards the exits, scrambling for safety. Wealthier patrons crammed the tight staircases, trying to escape. The surging crowd engulfed the exits at the street level and people were shoved and trampled in the chaos.
Flames encircled the wooden O like witches dancing in a coven. Burbage, having barely escaped with his life, ran back and forth begging for people to help him put out the fire, but the theater was rapidly becoming a holocaust. Several Puritans watched with delight at this Act of Divine Retribution and praised God for the demise of Satan’s house of worship, the unfortunate Globe.
Shaxper leapt to his feet. The back door where the prompter normally stood seemed like his closest avenue of escape. He pushed through the crowd and found himself in the tiring house, engulfed by smoke and trapped against a wall of flames.
He coughed, squinted and covered his eyes with his arm. Smoke filled his lungs. Through his clouded vision, he saw a man in a monk’s robe, his face partially covered with a hood, reach out and grab him by the collar.
Terrified, Shaxper fought him off. He struggled to breathe and his heart beat wildly. He thought of Lord Oxford’s warning, and knew that death had finally come for him. Smoke and heat overwhelmed his senses, and in his mind, he traveled the road back to Stratford where his wife and children would be waiting for him. Then he closed his eyes and prepared to concede to Death’s summons.
Two strong hands lifted him up. Within seconds, he felt himself flying through the air, propelled backwards. He saw nothing but blackness until he hit the ground; and then, stars.
Suddenly, the air was clean. He inhaled deeply and coughed and sputtered. He opened his eyes to see that The Globe was being devoured by the flames. Burbage and his actors sat in the lane, weeping like children bereft of their home.
And then Shaxper knew there would be no final speech to credit the true author of the plays. The theater was burning to the ground, along with his chance at redemption.
The hooded figure silently brushed past him. Shaxper opened his mouth to speak, but the smoke had injured his throat so badly, he was rendered temporarily mute. He reached up and tried to catch the monk by the hem of his cloak, but the stranger pulled away and strode towards a pillar of smoke. He turned and drew back his hood.
The warlike apparition of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, looked at him for a moment and then quickly dissolved into the inferno.
Shaxper trembled. He struggled to his feet and staggered over to his horse, which was tethered a safe distance away by the river. He didn’t see the stranger with the long scar until he stepped out from behind the animal and handed him the reins.
Poley used his dagger to point the way to Stratford.
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