IN THE HEAT OF THE EVENING, JUST AS DAYLIGHT began to drift into dusk, Joe Jaggard took Amy Le Neve's hand in his and pulled her willingly away from her wedding feast.
Amy was slight, little more than five foot and less than a hundredweight. Her fair hair shone in the last of the light, and her skin was as clear and soft as a milkmaid's. She was sixteen, yet her hand in Joe's great right hand was like a child's. He was eighteen years, six foot or more, lean and muscular and golden. In his left hand he clasped a wine flagon.
They ran on, breathless, until her bare foot struck a sharp flint and she faltered, crying out in shock and pain. Joe stopped and laid her down in the long grass. He kissed her foot and sucked the blood that trickled from the sole.
Tears flowed down her cheeks. Joe cupped her head in his hands, his fingers tangling in her tear-drenched hair, and kissed her face all over. He held her to him, engulfing her.
She pulled open his chemise of fine cambric; he pushed her wedding smock away from her calves, up over her flawless thighs, crumpling the thin summer worsted. It was lovemaking, but it was warfare, too: the last delirious stabbings in a battle they knew to be lost.
Joe took a draft from the flagon. "You know what, doll," he said, and his voice became high-pitched, "I do believe you are an abomination. Get you behind me, daughter of Satan, for you are profane and impure and as frail as the rib of Adam. Verily, I say you are fallen into corruption."
She jabbed him sharply in the ribs with her elbow. "I'll abominate you," she said, laughing with him. She sobered. "The funny thing is, though, he really talks like that."
"Winterberry? Winter-turd is what I call him. He's a dirty, breech-shitting lecher of a man, I do reckon. Puritans they call them. He's as pure as swine-slurry, steeped in venery and lewdness. He's got a face like a dog that's never been out of the kennel and a suit of clothes so black and stark they'd scare the Antichrist back into hell. He's buying you, paying for you as he might bargain for a whore at a Southwark stew."
They were silent a few moments. In the distance, they could just hear the occasional whisper of music caught on the warm breeze.
"We'll go," said Joe. "We'll go to London. I've got gold."
"I can't leave my family. They'll get the law on us. You'll be locked away and whipped. Strung up at Tyburn. I don't know what."
He turned to her, angry now. "Would you rather go to his bed? Would you have him play with you?"
"You know I don't want that! They forced me to marry him."
He turned his gaze from her. "I'll kill them all, Amy. I'll do for them--your kin, the lot. I'll scrape the figs from Winter-turd's arse and push them down his throat."
She kissed him. "It's hopeless. I'll have to go back there tonight. I'm a married woman now."
His eyes were closed. Then he opened them and smiled at her. "No, doll," he said. "There's stuff we can do. I can do. I promise you I can make it so we can be together forever. Trust me. Now kiss me again."
They kissed, long and lingering. It was the last thing they ever did. They had not heard the creeping footfalls in the grass.
The first blow killed Joe. He knew nothing of it. Amy had no more than two seconds to register the horror, before the second blow came.
JOHN SHAKESPEARE FOUND HIS WIFE, CATHERINE, in the oak-paneled school hall, teaching their four-year-old daughter, Mary, her alphabet from a hornbook. Catherine met his eye but she did not smile. She tossed back her long dark hair as if ridding herself of a fly. Shakespeare sensed her anger and did his best to ignore it. He knew what she wanted to discuss, so he deliberately avoided the subject and said, "Rumsey Blade is set on flogging Pimlock yet again."
"Yes," she said curtly. "I know. Six stripes. Blade has it in for the boy."
"Pimlock takes it with fortitude."
"Well, I don't, John. How can boys study when they face such punishments?"
There was nothing more to be said on the subject. It was merely another worry for Shakespeare to deal with as High Master of the Margaret Woode School for the Poor Boys of London. Like it or not, they were stuck with Rumsey Blade and his beloved birchrods; he had been inflicted on them by the fiercely Protestant Bishop Aylmer to ensure no Roman Catholic teachings burrowed their way into the curriculum. Catherine's Papist leanings were well known and disliked.
"But there was the other matter . . ." Catherine continued.
Shakespeare's neck muscles tensed. "Must we talk about such things in front of the child?"
Catherine patted her daughter. "Kiss your father and go to Jane," she said briskly. Mary, delicate and comely like her mother, ran to Shakespeare and stood to receive and give a kiss, then ran off to find the maid, Jane Cooper, in the nursery.
"Now you have no excuse to avoid the subject."
"We have nothing to discuss," Shakespeare said, painfully aware of how brittle he must sound. "My position is plain. You must not go to the mass."
Catherine stood up and faced her husband. Her blue eyes were cold and unloving. "I have surrendered to you on every aspect of our lives together," she said quietly. "Our daughter is brought up conforming to the Anglican church, we run a conformist school, and I entertain no priests under our roof. I even attend the parish church so that I incur no fines for recusancy. Do you not think I have played my part, John?"
"I know it, Catherine, but . . ."
"Then why forbid me this one boon?"
John Shakespeare did not like to cross his wife. Usually it was pointless to do so, anyway, for she had a stubborn way. Yet this request was one he would fight to the bitter conclusion. He could not have her putting herself and the family in jeopardy.
"You know why, Catherine," he said, his face set.
"No, John, I do not know why. I need you to explain it to me again, for I am but a mere woman and of simple wit."
It would be a secret Roman Catholic mass. Such events were fraught with danger; simply to know the whereabouts of a priest, let alone harbor one, could lead to torture and the scaffold. And this mass was yet more perilous, for it was to be said by the fugitive Jesuit Father Robert Southwell, a man Catherine Shakespeare knew as a friend. He had evaded capture for six years and was regarded by Queen Elizabeth and her Privy Council as an irritant thorn to be plucked from their flesh at all costs.
"Catherine," he said, trying to soften his voice--the last thing he wanted was this rift between them to escalate into an unbridgeable gulf--"I know you have made many compromises. But have I not done likewise? Did I not forsake my career with Walsingham to marry you?"
"So I must obey you?" Catherine said, almost spitting the words.
"I would rather you made your own--considered--decision. But, yes, I say you must obey me in this." He had never spoken to her like this before.
She glared at him. When she spoke, her words were harsh. "So, as Thomas Becon says in his Christian State of Matrimony, women and horses must be well governed. Is that how you are guided?" She laughed with derision. "Am I a mare to be so treated by you, Mr. Shakespeare?"
"I have no more to say on the matter, Mistress Shakespeare. You will not go to a mass, especially not one said by the priest Southwell. He is denounced as a traitor. To consort with him would taint you and the rest of us with treason. Would you give Topcliffe the evidence he needs to destroy us and send our child in chains to the treadmill at Bridewell?" An unwelcome image came to mind of his old foe, the cruel priest-hunter Richard Topcliffe. "Let that be an end to it."
Shakespeare turned and strode away. He did not look back, because he had no wish to meet her withering glare. He went to the courtyard and sat on a low wall, in the shade. He was shaking. This was bad, very bad. She was being utterly wrongheaded.
Behind him in the courtyard, he heard unequal footsteps and turned to see his old friend and assistant Boltfoot Cooper shuffling toward him, dragging his clubfoot awkwardly on the cobbled stones. It occurred to Shakespeare that Boltfoot was becoming slower in his movements as he neared the age of forty. Perhaps this quiet life as a school gatekeeper did not suit an old mariner and veteran of Drake's circumnavigation.
"You have a visitor, Mr. Shakespeare. A Mr. McGunn would speak with you. He has a serving-man with him."
"Do we know Mr. McGunn? Is he the father of a prospective pupil?"
Boltfoot shook his head. "He says he is sent by the Earl of Essex to treat with you."
Shakespeare's furrowed brow betrayed his surprise. He laughed lightly. "Well, I suppose I had better see him."
"I shall show him through."
"Not here, Boltfoot. I will go to the library. Show this McGunn and his servant to the anteroom and offer them refreshment, then bring them to me in five minutes."
As Shakespeare climbed the oaken staircase to the high-windowed library, with its shelves of books collected by the founder of this school, Thomas Woode, and, latterly, by himself, he considered Essex. He was famed throughout the land as Queen Elizabeth's most favored courtier, a gallant blessed with high birth, dashing looks, courage in battle, sporting prowess, and the charm to enchant a princess. It was said he had even supplanted Sir Walter Ralegh in the Queen's affections. What interest could the Earl of Essex have in an obscure schoolmaster like Shakespeare, a man so far from the center of public life that he doubted anyone at court even knew his name?
McGunn was a surprise. Shakespeare had half expected a livery-clad bluecoat to appear, but McGunn looked like no flunky Shakespeare had ever seen. He was of middle height, thick-set, with the fearless, belligerent aspect of a bull terrier about him. He had big, knotted hands. His face and head were bare and bald, save for two graying eyebrows beneath a gnarled and pulpy forehead. A heavy gold hoop was pierced into the lobe of his left ear. He smiled with good humor and held out a firm, meaty hand to John Shakespeare.
"Mr. Shakespeare, it is a pleasure to meet you," he said.
Shakespeare guessed his accent to be Irish, but from which part or class of that dark, forbidding island he had no way of knowing. His attire struck him as incongruous: a wide, starched ruff circled his thick neck, a doublet finely braided with thread of gold girded his trunk, and he wore hose of good-quality blue serge and netherstocks the color of corn. It seemed to Shakespeare that he had a working man's face and body in a gentleman's clothing.
The serving-man at his side was introduced merely as Slyguff. He looked no more the bluecoat of a great house than did McGunn, though he was less richly dressed, in the buff jerkin of a smithy or a carter. Slyguff was smaller and thinner than his master. He was wiry like the taut cable of a ship's anchor, with a narrow face and a sharp, gristly nose. Though smaller, he looked every bit as formidable as McGunn. One of Slyguff's eyes, the left one, was dead, and the other betrayed no emotion at all.
"I hope that Mr. Cooper has offered you some ale. It is another hot day."
"Indeed, it is and indeed, he has, Mr. Shakespeare," McGunn said, smiling warmly. "For which we are both grateful. To tell you true, I could have drunk the Irish Sea dry this day."
"How may I help you, Mr. McGunn?"
"Well, you could start by giving us yet more ale. No, no, I jest. We are here because we are sent by my lord of Essex to escort you to him at Essex House. He wishes to speak with you."
"The Earl of Essex wishes to speak with me?"
"That is correct, Mr. Shakespeare."
"Why should he wish to speak to an unknown schoolmaster, Mr. McGunn?"
"Perchance he wants lessons in Latin, or a little learning in counting. Could you help him with that, now? Or maybe you could show him how to command his temper, for certain he is as moody as the weather."
"Mr. McGunn, I fear you jest again."
"I do, I do. The truth is he wishes your advice on a particular matter of interest. But for certain you don't do yourself credit when you call yourself an 'unknown schoolmaster.' Who has not heard of the brilliant exploits of John Shakespeare on behalf of Queen and country?"
"Mr. McGunn, that is ancient history."
"Not in the Earl's eyes, it's not. He is mighty impressed by the tale of your fierce courage in the face of an implacable foe. As am I, may I add. You have done admirable work, sir."
Shakespeare accepted the compliment with good grace and bowed with a slight smile on his lips. "And what sort of advice is the Earl of Essex seeking, Mr. McGunn? He must know I am retired from my work as an intelligencer."
"That is for him to say, Mr. Shakespeare. I am merely his humble servant."
McGunn did not look at all humble, thought Shakespeare. Were it not for the fine clothes, he and Slyguff were the kind of duo an honest subject of Her Majesty might well cross the road to avoid. Yet for all his brutish appearance, McGunn seemed a good-humored fellow, and Shakespeare had to admit that he was intrigued. Who would not wish to meet the renowned Essex? "Well, then, let us make an appointment, and I will be there."
"No, Mr. Shakespeare, we are to accompany you to him now. My lord of Essex does not wait on appointments."
"Well, I am afraid he will have to wait. I have a lesson to conduct within the hour."
McGunn smiled and clapped Shakespeare on the shoulder with a hand the size of a kitchen wife's sieve. "Come now, Mr. Shakespeare, are you not High Master of this school? Delegate one of your lesser masters to take over your tutoring for the morning. The Earl is a busy man and I know he will make it worth your while to take the time to meet him. Here." McGunn took a gold coin from his purse and spun it in the air. He caught it and held it between thumb and forefinger in front of Shakespeare's eyes. "That's for starters. Take it. There's plenty more where that came from."
Shakespeare did not take the gold coin. He stared McGunn in the eye and saw only gently mocking humor. "Very well," he said. "I will come with you. But give me a few minutes to arrange my lesson and let my wife know where I am going."
As he spoke the words, he experienced a sense of dread; the battle with Catherine was far from done.
Excerpted from Revenger by Rory Clements. Copyright © 2011 by Rory Clements. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.