Shakespeare's Dark Lady
Daniel left the lab at the end of a long day, only slightly wearier than he'd been when he showed up that morning. The pavement was wet from a shower that made the air muggy .He took off his jacket as he walked past Keble College.
He checked his watch-a new one, expensive enough to make him regret not having had the one that vanished at Big Sur insured. Amelia paid half the rent on the flat, but money was tight. Clearly his wife wasn't inclined to subsidize him out of her own resources-which was as it should be.
He passed Keble College. If he'd been feeling more on top of things he'd have accepted the invitation to speak at the Oxford Union, in opposition to the motion that prostitutes should be registered and routinely tested for HIV. Obviously the idea was totally fascist, but they'd gotten another speaker now and all he'd gotten was to feel guilty for saying no.
But he couldn't have it both ways, work these long, long hours at the lab, and take on other commitments as well. The only break had been one half-day in the Bod--mercifully quiet now in the summer vac-spent poring over a priceless copy of the 1594 edition of Willobie his Avisa while a library attendant breathed down his neck.
He stopped for a moment at a shop window with a TV tuned to a program on AIDS in Africa. Those oh-so-familiar eyes: a child haunted by death. He couldn't even remember how old he'd been when he first felt certain that he was meant to make a discovery that would lessen the sum of human suffering. Certainly when AIDS came along in the 80s, it had seemed so familiar from the first that the search for a vaccine felt like a kind of homecoming. And soon¼
He wasn't getting the same range of HIV samples here that he'd had in America, but his time in Mendocino had taken care of that. Roderick Tillman was working the same long hours as he was, grabbing meals on the trot, increasing their odds of getting the vaccine first--"blowing the rest of the field away" was the way Amelia put it. God, she'd better be right. Only a handful of colleagues knew where he stood, but if he wasn't barking up the wrong tree he could be there with a vaccine in under a year. It would happen-- had to, despite not finding a Green Lamplighter to prove the connection between syphilis and natural immunity to AIDS through the weeping gene.
The light was fading. Marcus had made no attempt to prevent his return to the UK with a copy of his master database--much more valuable than the one he'd brought to Mendocino. At the end of Lonsdale Road he wondered, not for the first time, whether Lawrence might have had a hand in making it so easy for him. His death had left Daniel none the wiser about what had made the old bastard tick.
Why had he stayed away as soon as they'd married and virtually severed contact when he learned Amelia was pregnant? Gone and croaked without even saying goodbye, while his daughter flourished in England, away from him. She was more centered now, less of the traditional male and female extremes. It was as if she were growing into herself-even more so since getting pregnant and losing her father.
He reached the front door and went in, straight to the answerphone. The only message was from Drake, returning his call.
"I know you've reopened the file on my mother," Daniel said when he got through to him. "And I want to know why."
"Let's say I'll never be satisfied until I've worked out all the answers."
"Why the interest in Shakespeare's grave? Or, for that matter, in me?"
There was a long pause. Then, "I think it may have something to do with your mother's murder."
"Did it?" Daniel asked.
"I said may have."
"How? How, goddammit?"
Drake hung up on him and was "in conference" when Daniel called him back. Daniel swore at the sergeant on the other end of the line and slammed the phone down .
He turned on the TV in time to catch the early news on Channel 4, but his mind was focused more on the Tau cross than the replay of the day's disasters.
How had Mannering known there was a cross in the grave? And had he known all along that it was a Tau? Naturally Mannering was keen not to publicize the cross, but why had Amelia agreed with him? It would be powerful supporting evidence for her theory about Shakespeare and an ancient hermetic society. And Mannering was rumored to be writing about Shakespeare again in the same old vein, as if the cross had never existed in the first place.
Daniel had promised Amelia he wouldn't talk to anyone about the cross. But his promise didn't extend to Gillespie, since he'd seen it too. He shut off the news and picked up the phone.
"Undoubtedly it's a very early Christian symbol," Gillespie said when Daniel pushed him. "One the Christians borrowed from the pagan world, in much the same way they borrowed the pagan spring rite and called it Easter."
"Is it something you'd write about?" Daniel asked. Gillespie's field was the spread of Christianity up to the Middle Ages.
"I'd like to, but when Mannering got me involved in February I promised not to reveal anything found in the grave. Actually, he made me promise again after we refilled the tunnel."
"Why do you think he wants it kept secret?"
"It would make headlines if it got into the news, as would a Shakespearean descendant if you find one."
"Unlikely now that we've stopped looking."
"My theory," Gillespie said, "is that Mannering doesn't want much of his life's work made to look ridiculous, which of course it would be."
"In what way?"
He waited through a long pause at the other end of the line.
"Shakespeare the Hermetic and Shakespeare the Good Christian are two very different people," Gillespie said finally. "Your wife will know as well as anyone what that could mean to the Shakespeare business." His voice sounded very tired all of a sudden. "As a symbol appearing from a grave dated 1616, the Tau may have enormous significance to the historians of secret societies."
"Like the Freemasons or Rosicrucians?"
"Possibly something much older."
"Maybe older still."
"There were a lot of Gnostic sects," Gillespie said. "In spite of what we historians pretend, we don't really know very much about them. But if they did still exist today, they would be indescribably ancient. Perhaps even more ancient than Christianity itself."
"Gnosis. The direct knowledge of God." Something was percolating in Daniel's head, too vague to be an idea, too weak to be a feeling. "Look, I'd like to talk more about Shakespeare's cross and the Gnostics. Could we meet tomorrow?"
There was no mistaking the exhaustion in Gillespie's voice this time. "I can't meet anyone, Dr. Bosworth. Doctor's orders. I probably shouldn't even be talking on the phone, at least not about anything as exciting as the cross."
"What's the problem?"
"A brain tumor they thought was benign. I had an EEG in the spring. . . . shouldn't have been heaving stone slabs around, really, but it was too tempting."
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
"You're getting the best treatment, right?"
"They're doing what they can, X-rays and chemotherapy. Most days I go into the Radcliffe --in two weeks I'm moving there to live. So to speak."
Daniel muttered something about the unpredictability of cancer and expressed a hope for spontaneous remission. Miraculous remission was what he meant, and they both knew it. When he put down the phone he felt very mortal himself.
At Hungerford House he'd looked at a few books on the history of Freemasonry in America. It had started in Boston. Paul Revere had been a Freemason and was alleged to have stayed with the patriot Hungerfords in 1775. Not that this made Lawrence Hungerford a Freemason, let alone a Gnostic.
He had too much work to do at the lab in South Parks Road to get off on a secret society tangent now. To get off on any tangent, really. Like what really had happened at Big Sur. Or why Amelia and Lawrence "knew" her baby was going to be a boy-and why he believed them.
Something in his head was struggling to filter through but he couldn't make it out. What came to mind was a vivid image he thought he remembered from a dream the night before--a T-cross like Shakespeare's, but taller than a man. On it, crucified, a Christlike figure. . . .
Amelia's guess about their baby's sex was just that, a guess. Lawrence believed her because he believed in her sixth sense. Mannering didn't want the Tau made known for the reason Gillespie had just suggested.
Amelia's not wanting the cross made public, not giving him a straight answer? And Lawrence dropping dead within two weeks of the cross being reinstated? Amelia was Amelia, and Lawrence had never looked that healthy to Daniel. The nitro pills, for one. . ..
Hadn't Bendix said the will was changed a few days before Lawrence died? Could he have known he was going to have heart failure?
What was it he'd read about the Death of the Just? The final step toward true gnosis?
Amelia arrived back from America on the second-to-last day of September.
"I wanted to give you a surprise. Happy birthday from me and William." She flew into his arms, hugged him hard, then disappeared into the bedroom. "Have you eaten?" she called back to him.
"I've been starving without you. And for you."
He could hear her talking on the bedroom phone. Then she bounced back into the sitting room.
"Birthday surprise. Shut your eyes. . .Now hold out your hand." He opened his eyes to see what was going on. "There. It fits."
He found himself looking at a gold signet ring.
"Lawrence left it to you."
He stared at it. Matthew wore a signet ring with the Bosworth crest. Daniel had never been offered a ring by the Colonel and had never asked. He'd assumed an adopted son wasn't entitled to one.
"Thanks," he said. The funny thing was, he meant it. He decided there and then to keep the ring and wear it, as if the crossed keys were his birthright. He slipped it on and found it was a perfect fit.
"Another birthday treat," she said. "We're going to eat at the Quat' Saisons tomorrow night." She looked up at him. "You know, when you're rumpled like that, you look delicious. Any food in the kitchen?"
"No. I've had nothing to eat since you left." He grinned. "Seriously, I've been living on poached eggs--the ones I didn't manage to cremate."
"You'll have to make do with me for tonight," she said. "Hard boiled. "
Five minutes later she floated in through the bathroom doorway where he was shaving. He watched her reflection in the mirror.
"How did the Dark Lady go down?"
He waited for her reply but she'd gone off to the bedroom, where he found her lying on the bed staring at the ceiling. He repeated his question while he put on a clean shirt.
"The place was packed. Saul Lindenbaum came and sat with Bob Carr."
A day-old copy of the Times lay beside the bed. The Dark Lady was already a feature at the bottom of the front page: SHAKESPEARE'S DARK LADY MYSTERY UNCOVERED?
"And Lawrence's service? How was it?"
"As tedious as you might expect."
"A thousand of his closest friends?"
He was wishing he hadn't said it when, suddenly, she erupted into tears that soon came in floods. He put his arms around her and held her to him as she sobbed convulsively, at last. When her sobs turned to snivels, he pulled back to look her in the face and dried her tears with his handkerchief.
She snuggled against his chest, where she started sobbing again. This time it was shorter. She managed half a smile, went off to get some Kleenex, came back looking blotchy. In a shaky voice she told him that she had one final birthday surprise for him.
"Tomorrow we're going to Wiltshire to visit the Dark Lady. You don't get your birthday dinner till afterward."
A private road stretching two miles between tall ornamental trees and mature shrubs brought them into a lush parkland where black-faced sheep watched them go by. They stopped the car to get a good look at the house in the distance: Longleat, home of the seventh Marquess of Bath.
As they drove slowly down the hill toward the house, the surrounding landscape gathered up around them from its chill-soaked ground and steered them along. The sky was flat and wet with drizzle; the building had the look of one of those places that are more museum than home.
"Henry Willoughby lived over at West Knoyle, seven miles from here," Amelia said. "Charles Blunt's manor, Brook House, was eight miles from Longleat. Another piece in the Wiltshire puzzle."
He parked to one side of the forecourt and they bundled out. The place looked desolate--maybe half a dozen cars--but winter was coming on and the season for visiting stately homes winding down. Behind them another drive led almost a mile in a straight line from the front door to the original gateway. Amelia hadn't been there before but she seemed to know the place by instinct.
While she mounted the stone steps he was gazing up at the statues peering down at him from along the roof line. It was getting dark early.
The heavy front door needed the weight of both of them to open it. The lobby inside was gloomy, but there was no mistaking the smile of the woman behind the desk or the welcome of her Airedale puppy, who darted between Daniel's legs and almost sent him flying. They were clearly expected. Jill Bentley, Lord Bath's archivist, would be down in a minute.
While they waited he wandered around the Great Hall behind the receptionist, leaving Amelia to chat about the house. When he got back to the desk a woman in gold-rimmed glasses was offering Amelia her condolences on losing her father. Her name was Jill Bentley, and she seemed to have known the old boy fairly well. She looked at Daniel carefully and turned to introduce them to "one of our guides," a woman in her thirties named Alice.
She first led them to a portrait at the foot of the grand staircase "designed by Wyatville," Alice said. "And this is Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex."
Something bothered Daniel about the portrait. Hard not to imagine the blood dripping all over his fancy white outfit, if that was what the Earl had worn for his beheading in the Tower. He'd got his left hand on his sword and a blue ribbon around his neck with a kind of medallion showing the insignia of the Order of the Garter. And in case anyone missed the point, the garter itself--embroidered with the words Y pense --was around his left leg just under his knee.
Jill and Alice next led them through a door to the right into the so-called Red Library, a long room with bookshelves that almost reached the ceiling. "Haunted by an old man in black," Alice said in her best guide-voice. "He's been seen with some frequency, standing in the northwest corner. But I've seen another ghost in here-one nobody else has seen." She pointed to a spot a few feet away. "A King Charles spaniel stretching in front of the fire."
Daniel looked up at the mantel shelf supporting two statues, each holding a six-branch candelabrum that must have been switched from flame to electricity in the not too distant past. At the far end of the library, in the spot favored by the ghost of the old man, was a tall Italianate door dating from the 1870s, walnut with boxwood inlays. Jill pulled out a flashlight and shone it at a portrait of two Elizabethan women, some nine feet above the door. They all stood gazing in silence for at least a minute. To Daniel's untutored eye the picture looked technically outstanding.
"That's her," Amelia said at last "That's the Dark Lady. Penelope Rich."
He sucked in his breath. "Which one?" He knew which one he preferred. They both had eyes like jet and dark-gold hair and eyebrows.
"You can't see it from here," Jill said, "but there's a fine gold inscription at the top--obviously added later. On the right, it reads, Dorothy D'Evereux Countesse of Northumberland, and on the other side, The Ladys Penelope Counteese of Warwick." She spelled it out for them, mistakes and all. "Of course Penelope Devereux, who married Robert Rich and became Lady Rich, was never Countess of Warwick. She was long dead when Robert Rich became Earl of Warwick."
Both women were wearing necklaces studded with pearls. The woman on the right, much the prettier of the two, had a flower-and-pearl garland in her hair, a baroque pearl hanging at the summit of her brow. Her velvet bodice was claret red, the white slashed sleeves ruffled at the wrists. Her hair was the same tawny color as Robert Devereux's beard in the painting by the staircase.
She had to be their Dark Lady. But Amelia had said Penelope, and the inscription had Penelope on the left.
"Which is Penelope and which is her sister Dorothy?" Alice asked.
"The inscription starts with 'Ladys,'" Amelia said. "The elder-Penelope--had to take precedence and be written first As the elder of the two sisters she also had to be painted slightly in front of the younger. Apart from the Countess of Warwick mistake, there's no confusion. The Dark Lady is the woman on the right."
He breathed free again and took a step backward.
"The costumes would suggest a date around the early 1580s," Amelia said. "Penelope left the Earl of Huntingdon's home to get married to Lord Rich in 1581. She was eighteen at the time. Dorothy was sixteen. The painting is probably a prenuptial portrait to celebrate the occasion. Penelope was the prettier of the two women--that's clear from the portrait as well as the literary record, and it's not a stretch to see the figure on the right as older and more confident. I don't see any problem with identifying which is which."
The woman on the right was drawing Daniel into her. That kiss-and-tell smile, those Mona Lisa eyes. . .
"Penelope was remarkably well-connected," Amelia said. "She was the elder daughter of the first Earl of Essex, the elder sister of the second Earl of Essex out in the hallway, first cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth, ward of the Earl of Huntingdon, possibly the lover of Sir Philip Sidney, wife of Lord Robert Rich, and lover and husband of Charles Blunt, the eighth Lord Mountjoy and Earl of Devon. She was also related by blood and marriage to virtually every noble family within a hundred miles. The Elizabethan aristocracy were horribly calculating--and incestuous--when it came to marriage."
Alice was standing with her hands clasped in front of her in a pose that suggested rapture. By the time Amelia had finished even Daniel felt he had to whisper when he pronounced the Dark Lady's name. Here, then, were the famous dark eyes that Shakespeare and Sidney had gone overboard for. Given the standards of the sixteenth century, it was easy to see why everyone had raved about her beauty.
"No wonder some academics are up in arms," he said. "How could a bourgeois glover's son have bedded an exalted court beauty?"
Jill turned the torch off and they all faced Amelia.
"Penelope was first spotted as a Dark Lady candidate as far back as the eighteen-sixties," she said, "thanks to all the puns in the sonnets on her married name: Rich. But critics were quick to point out that the puns were the stock-in-trade of a dozen Elizabethan poets who were trying to ingratiate themselves with her. Constable's a prime example."
"They might have a point," Jill said.
"Long ago I looked at Penelope as one of the Dark Lady possibles and ruled her out for exactly the same reasons everyone else did," Amelia said. "Later on I began to change my mind, but I needed more concrete evidence. Now that we've identified Avisa, I don't see how there's any room for doubt left. Besides, Penelope was thirty-one--positively ancient in those days--and had undergone six pregnancies by the time Shakespeare came along. She was a good year older than him, too.
"Let's not forget Shakespeare was the up-and-coming poet to know in 1593, once Venus and Adonis turned into a blockbuster. Why shouldn't she fancy him for his reputation as a poet? Love's Labour's Lost shows how intimately Shakespeare was involved with Southampton's and Essex's circle. Anyway, the English aristocracy have always been the first to break the rules of propriety."
Jill shot her a look over the top of her glasses, as if to suggest that they might be overheard by Lord Bath.
"Penelope's mother Lettice Knollys made her reputation by flouting convention," Amelia said. "She usually got pregnant first and asked questions afterward."
Alice reminded them that the best-known portrait of Penelope's mother was in the house. That seemed to be a hint that it was time to leave the Dark Lady. Daniel cast a last glance at her portrait
In the music room they stopped for a look at another important portrait: Sir Philip Sidney, as arrogant in art as in life, standing there in his white ruff with his hand on his hip, hair cut short, clean-cut jaw thrust out. Daniel could see him on the cover of GQ magazine, minus the Elizabethan clothes, of course. No wonder women had gone wild over him. Among English literati, only Byron was fit to challenge him in that department. .
Ten minutes later they stood at the foot of the grand staircase saying their thanks to Jill and Alice and then he was steering Amelia toward the front door. After tripping over the Airedale puppy again, they headed out to the car and back to Oxford to change for dinner.
It was dark when they arrived at the fifteenth-century manor of the Quat' Saisons in Great Milton. As they drove through the gates the stone facade emerged from the autumn mist Swaths of late flowers, chrysanthemums and asters, decked the edges of the house.
In the drawing room, they sat by a fire over champagne and canapés. A waiter took their orders, including a rare Batailley Pauillac Daniel chose from the wine list The dining room was mostly pink, from napery to wall covering, relieved by lily-of-the-valley in the center of each table. As soon as they sat down, Amelia delved into her bag and with a little cry pulled out a parcel wrapped in green silk.
"Happy belated birthday from a Scorpio to a Virgo, even if you are a crypto-Cancer." She'd always insisted his real birthday was in July. More of her sixth sense.
There was no card. He started untying the red ribbon. If only his life could have come wrapped so daintily-- no, for that would have ruled out Amelia. He glanced up at her, glowing away in the candlelight, and was astonished afresh that she had actually married him.
"Go on," she said. "I can't wait."
The ribbon and paper fell away and he was looking at two Elizabethan miniatures painted on vellum, mounted in gilt frames. One depicted a man in green doublet with fancy points. On a background of midnight blue was the emblem of the Order of the Garter. The woman in the other miniature was good-looking by twentieth-century tastes and dazzling by the standards of the sixteenth. Now he saw why they'd gone to Longleat first
"I want you to have them. Lawrence left his whole collection of Elizabethan portraits to me instead of the Met. There were eight Hilliard miniatures, including these two."
Of course. In fact, considering Lawrence's vast art collection, why not? The king's ransom they must be worth would have been petty cash to Lawrence.
At that moment his confit de canard and Amelia's coeurs de palmier arrived, and they tackled their appetizers as if enjoying some kind of gastronomic foreplay.
"The other one's Robert Devereux again, Penelope's slightly wacky brother," she said after the dishes had been removed. "They're definitely by Nicholas Hilliard, though neither of them is catalogued. The one of Penelope was thought to have disappeared centuries ago--apart from the Longleat portrait it's the only authentic picture of her still around. This one of Essex isn't known to have existed in the first place. Lawrence had a flair for unearthing things like that."
He lifted Penelope out of the box, handling the little picture as if it might break at any moment. Here too her hair was tawny-fair to burnt gold, the eyes dark. There was the ghost of a smile in her slightly parted lips and, between them, a hint of teeth-- unheard of in an Elizabethan miniature. With a little imagination her expression said come hither. The picture bore Hilliard's monogram. And on the back, in a spidery hand: "Guarde la Foi."
"Keep faith," Daniel said softly.
"Keep the faith, actually. Here, take this."
She passed him a magnifying glass and he examined the tiny letters on faded paper Stuck to the back under the Rich motto: To Mr. Hilliard upon occasion of a picture he made of my Lady Rich.
Lines of verse followed. Amelia watched him as he strained to read through the glass.
"Henry Constable," she said, then whispered:
But think not yet you did that art devise
He looked at the portrait again. "I could fall for her right this minute."
"Lots of men did. After Sidney's Astrophel and Stella came out in 1591, poets didn't just allude to her by punning on her name; quite a few of them dedicated their work to her. The difference with Shakespeare was the lengths he took her name to. He started off using it as the standard quibble, but in the end it became personal. I haven't decided at what point yet. It depends on what order you think the sonnets were written in."
He signaled the waiter for a second bottle. "I did find her name in the sonnets, but the reference didn't seem all that personal--at least not in the early ones."
"The whole sequence was written over at least a couple of years. The early quibbles on 'rich' and 'blunt' were standard for the poetry of the day. At that stage he wasn't involved with Penelope. She was still Charles Blunt's mistress then and his alone. But mark ye well, the Rival Poet sonnets are addressed to Penelope, not Willoughby. Of course Henry Willoughby's the Friend and Fair Youth to whom, as Mr. W.H., the Sonnets are dedicated. By the time the Dark Lady sonnets were written, Shakespeare's relationship with Penelope was intensely personal."
"I still find it hard to believe she had an affair with him."
"It probably didn't last very long, but believe me, it happened. And I've found something else, apart from the motto, from the same 1596 poem:
Thou princely judge here mayst thou see
"More proof, wouldn't you say?"
"Well, there's the standard pun on William in 'willful,'" he said.
"Yes, but apart from that there are several allusions to the sonnets and Penelope, starting with 'envious pride'--Penelope's other motto was Virtutis Comes Invidia..'Envy is Virtue's Companion.' Then there's a quibble on Shakespeare's 'lying' sonnets, in that she's both telling lies and getting laid."
"Penelope's two dark eyes," he said. "The double darkness."
"You're catching on--apart from the 'blindness' theme. It comes up several times in the sonnets, as in sonnet a hundred and forty-nine:
She sat back and looked around the room. Nearby something flambe was attracting attention. "The class difference is always going to be the biggest problem, but why shouldn't we believe a woman out of society's top drawer would have stooped to a cross-class dalliance with a common burgher? Another point people are missing is that she wasn't marrying him. He was a fling, one of several to judge by the Avisa."
"Who were the others, besides Willoughby?"
"I don't know about the nobleman or the Frenchman, the first two of Avisa's six suitors, but I'd put my money on Sidney for the Caveleiro, and Sir Charles Blunt for Dydimus-Harco, the Anglo-German. The Blunts were descended from German nobility."
"Didn't Blunt's affair with her start much earlier?"
Amelia helped herself to a fresh roll from the basket. "Probably around 1590. She had a love-child with Blunt in 1592, but in 1593 he was overseas on military service. Enter Shakespeare and Willoughby, stage left. Penelope was a lot like her blue-blooded mother--a hot-blooded vamp who relished her reputation as a courtesan. Her mother is said to have danced naked on London Bridge. Quite a party girl."
"That still doesn't explain why she'd jump into bed with Shakespeare." He held the two miniatures side by side.
"Or why I jumped into bed with you." She grinned. "Rough trade, lover, as Victorian gentlemen used to call it."
"And Willoughby? He was certainly down-market for her."
"Still socially inferior"--she pursed her lips--"but a good cut above the Bard. Willoughby had other things going for him, like a sexy young body--eighteen to Penelope's thirty-one. Her sex life with Robert Rich died the death in 1591. In 1593 she was hot after the poet and his friend and had a quick thing with them to keep in shape till Blunt got back from Brittany."
"What year did he become Lord Mountjoy?"
"The year his brother died, 1594. The name was a godsend to the poets. Look at the puns on 'joy' and 'mounting' and the 'mounting phoenix' in The Victory of English Chastity."
"Crude, those Elizabethans ."
"Penelope Rich found her way to fame--horizontally. Anyhow there must have been good reason why King James called her 'a fair woman with a black soul.' She wasn't really dark. You've seen for yourself she was fair, apart from her famous dark eyes."
He looked through his wineglass at the flame of their single candle. "Poor Penelope," he said. "Maybe Shakespeare called her dark to disguise her identity."
"Vindictive irony, more likely. In the Renaissance dark eyebrows were a poetic conceit that signified a woman who enjoyed sex outside marriage, fair eyebrows the sign of a faithful wife or a virgin. Shakespeare made Penelope's eyebrows dark to suggest infidelity, but ever the innovator he extended the metaphor to the color of her hair and skin. It wasn't meant to be taken literally."
"He admits in one sonnet that she's really fair."
"Dark Lady sleuths who look for a swarthy woman are wasting their time." She smiled across at him. "Look, I'll tell you something sexy. See how her eyebrows are fair?"
He examined them under the magnifying glass. "Yes?"
"There's an esoteric tradition that you can tell the color and texture of a woman's pubic hair from her eyebrows."
He thought of the tuft of pubic hair she'd given him before the break-in. The wine was beginning to go to his head--they had already started on the second bottle, and the main course hadn't even arrived. Nor, what with pregnancy , should Amelia be drinking alcohol at all. He turned his attention to the Earl of Essex and read out the only words written on the back of his miniature, the now familiar Devereux motto: 'Basis Virtutum Constantia.'
"The English translation for every word in Penelope's three mottoes is found in the few stanzas of The Victory of English Chastity under the Feigned Name of Avisa," she said.
"I'm surprised she managed to fit Shakespeare in between all her noble lords."
"She fitted him in all right. He tells us so in Sonnet a hundred and thirty-five:
"The willing conceits on William and Willoughby again?"
"Not quite there."
"Is Shakespeare talking about sharing Penelope's . . " Now it was his turn to lower his voice. . .."pussy? with Willoughby? 'Will' is a pun for 'sexual part,' I know."
She smiled. "I meant you missed Philip Sidney. His pet name was Willy. If he's the Caveleiro in the Avisa then he probably did get laid by Penelope."
He noticed how lovely she looked in the low lighting-pinkish, of course--despite flight, fatigue and pregnancy.
"Shakespeare didn't stand a chance. . .. not in competition with so many willies."
"Not if size mattered in those days and was measured by your title. But it's no wonder the upper classes noticed him. People knew their station in the sixteenth century and not many got to rise above it. I'd say Shakespeare was in a hurry, socially, so he took a shortcut via Penelope's bed. And it worked until the Avisa succeeded in embarrassing everyone involved. It certainly cost Shakespeare the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, who was one of Penelope's closest friends. Blunt was luckier. He and Essex were buddies."
Daniel smiled. "I'd like to think he screwed his way up the social ladder."
"He certainly tried, and got the pox for his pains."
"Do you think he gave it to Penelope?"
"He may have gotten it from her," she said. "It's on record that she had smallpox, but it left her face unmarked. At least, so they say. For all we know she could have had syphilis as well."
"Don't you think it's still possible Shakespeare's attention to her was no different from all her other admirers?"
"I'm certain he went further than they did. The Avisa refers to them as 'Venus idolaters' - Penelope liked to dress up as Venus when she went to costume parties. Which reminds me. When she wasn't being likened to a phoenix, Penelope was always Venus, the 'pearl' of the ocean. Think of the droplet pearl in the Longleat portrait. A perfect pearl, like a piece of coral, was another symbol of the philosopher's stone. Shakespeare uses 'rich' and 'pearl' together in several places."
"But however much she may have fooled around, " he said, "in the end she went back to Blunt." Their candle, suddenly sputtering, was snuffed and whisked away and a new one put in its place. Their dinner arrived seconds later.
"They got back together some time in 1594 and stayed together until he died in 1606. Penelope died the year after. She had five children by Rich, one of whom died, and six bastards by Blunt, one of whom died too."
"Actually, I've been holding off on the big question. How did Penelope Rich relate to Dr. Dee and his happy hermetic band?"
"Well, there's the obvious link between Penelope and Mary Herbert through Sidney. She could easily have gotten to know Dee in his old age--especially given how chummy the Herberts and Devereux were with the intelligentsia . It's all but impossible to prove, but I'm sure the connection is there."
"Again, he was on the scene and probably met most of the characters."
"Do you think once your thesis is published critics will accept the theory?" he asked between mouthfuls of Norfolk squab.
"Maybe, but not before. Only I don't think Nancy ever will. For her it's a matter of principle regardless of evidence."
"Until then your critics will vilify you, I suppose."
"Vilify's a bit strong. Most of them are a bunch of pifflers and band-wagoners. Some are on my side, though. Like Lindenbaum." She stretched a hand out to him. Her sleeve knocked over her glass and wine spilled across the tablecloth, just missing Penelope's face-up miniature.
He seized the pictures and rewrapped them. Two waiters descended and covered the wet table with a half-cloth of pink linen while Amelia returned the miniatures to the safety of her bag. They ate in silence for a while, enjoying food that deserved all their attention. The boyish Raymond Blanc himself came by and in French exchanged a few flirtatious words with Amelia.
"There was one other child born to Penelope Rich," she said when the famous chef had departed.
"The child was born early in May of 1594 at Leighs Priory. It wasn't her husband's. Nor was it Blunt's--he'd been soldiering on the Continent nine months earlier. And there's a good chance the child wasn't stillborn, as she told people later."
"Am I meant to guess that this bastard child was Shakespeare's or Willoughby's?"
"Right. At about this time, there was a child adopted by Willoughby's family and named William. I'm confident William was Penelope's missing bastard. I'd be inclined to say no one at the time knew for sure whether Henry Willoughby or Shakespeare was the boy's father. Maybe they didn't know themselves. The Sonnets suggests there was a time when they were both boffing Penelope.
"But there was someone else who had inside information--Thomas Thorpe, publisher of the Sonnets. It comes back to that word 'begetter' in the dedication again. Henry Willoughby set forth for Virginia in 1609 as an 'adventurer of person' with the Virginia Company. Young William went with him. Henry procured the Sonnets for Thorpe and was also their primary inspiration. But Thorpe knew a thing or two and fancied he'd write a dedication in cipher to prove how clever he was. And to protect himself."
He ran the dedication through his mind. He'd read it so often he knew it by heart.
"Is 'begetter' the creator of the sonnets?" she said. "If not, it could mean 'father,' in this case William Willoughby's father. Rearrange Thorpe's word order to put 'begetter' with 'Mr. W.H.'and Henry Willoughby becomes William's father. But put 'begetter' with 'our ever-living poet' and it's Shakespeare who's the father. Thorpe probably didn't know which of the two of them it was, but I'll bet he knew who the mother was. It wasn't for nothing the Avisa was reissued in 1605, when Blunt became the Earl of Devon and married the recently divorced Penelope, or in 1609 when Thorpe brought out the Sonnets quarto."
"If William Willoughby sailed to America in 1609, what happened to him then?" They'd passed up the cheeseboard. As he tucked into fresh loquat and starfruit sorbet, a plateful of petits fours arrived.
"Henry Willoughby drowned on the voyage to Virginia," Amelia said. "William died a few years later, having fathered a son called Henry. I don't know the name of the mother--all we have to go on are two documents, one of which refers to the death of 'Henry his father Wm Wilobie.'" She spelled it for him. "It's dated 1622."
"And after that?"
"After that it's anybody's guess."
"I bet you'd like to know."
"I'm sure quite a few people would like to know."
"Lawrence, for one." Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. "Oh yes, Lawrence would like to know."
She said it as though Lawrence were still alive.