Shakespeare's Dark Lady
All of her that is out of door most rich!
Cymbeline, Act I, Scene 6
On a cold, clear morning in early March Amelia walked into her advisor's office without an appointment, just as the old academic was dabbing on a final puff of powder before heading off to some committee meeting or other. Nancy Bretton, who could have been any age from fifty to seventy, had the build of a square-rigger whose sailing days are over. As the most senior woman in Harvard's once notoriously chauvinist English Department she rated an elegant office in Warren House, a good step up from faculty of Amelia's rank who shared the annex on Kirkland.
Her special field was Shakespeare's sonnets, and fortunately for Amelia they both held that the most famous poetic sequence in the English language was largely autobiographical. Unfortunately the good doctor firmly believed that the Dark Lady was Emilia Bassano, also known as Emilia Lanier.
Time to set her straight, at least on one point. Amelia marched in and slapped down an advance copy of Nature--a proof copy direct from the editor.
"Take a look at this, will you?"
Nancy skimmed through the abstract of the article. "It seems to suggest that Shakespeare had syphilis. So have you come to cock another snook?" All over her face was her shock at the violation of the grave of the man she had esteemed in public and loved in secret for so many years.
"Not suggest. Prove. Dr. Bosworth has demonstrated --irrefutably--that Shakespeare had the disease. Probably died of it too, though we can't be sure."
"Well, you and this Dr. Bosworth may choose to believe--"
"Read the article," Amelia said. "It's all there. And not only that, but it may well be that Shakespeare fathered a few children outside his marriage. He may have direct living descendants whose descent can be proven. You certainly can't deny that he had the opportunity in London while that twit homemaker Anne Hathaway whiled away her days in her Stratford kitchen."
"I'm aware of your opinions about his--"
"Who knows, he might even have made the Dark Lady pregnant And she wasn't Emilia Bassano, that much I know."
Nancy stuffed her powder compact into her bag and rose from her desk. Despite her width she was not a tall woman, but she looked tall thanks to the stool she kept hidden at her feet. Since Amelia knew about the stool, the effect was wasted on her.
"The late Dr. Rowse has shown convincingly who the Dark Lady was and there's no evidence that she had syphilis. Or any illegitimate children, for that matter."
"With all due respect, bullshit," Amelia said. "Shakespeare probably had lots of women, only this one was special. All right, I don't know--yet--who she was, but I know she wasn't Emilia Bassano. Or Lucy Negro, or Mall Fitton or Mistress Davenant or Mistress Florio."
"At least we agree on four women it wasn't." At once the committee meeting was forgotten. Nancy Bretton sat down and Amelia took her chair opposite.
"This woman had to be special," Amelia said. "And it couldn't have been just sexual with Shakespeare. No, something else was going on that brought him into contact with the secret world of one of the courtly circles in the 1590s. And the Dark Lady is the key to what that circle was doing, I'm convinced of it."
Nancy brought her fist down on her desk. "Back to a secret society again? I suppose Shakespeare and his Dark Lady went for country weekends at Wilton and Longleat and Titchfield--"
"And Brook House in Wiltshire," Amelia said.
"That's right. Through his grandmother Anne Willoughby, Brook House passed to Charles Blunt, who became the eighth Lord Mountjoy. He had occupancy from 1593 to 1599."
Nancy seemed to be listening intently. At least prejudice was not among her long list of inadequacies.
"The old Willoughby manor was the scene of some pretty strange goings-on if I'm not mistaken," Amelia said, "even in 1593 when Blunt was overseas . . . perhaps especially in 1593. Blunt's interest in alchemy and hermeticism probably came from his father. He was a close friend of the nearby Herberts at Wilton."
Nancy, having delved into her bag, began deftly to apply a bright lipstick. Amelia couldn't help smiling at the thought of her advisor making up her mouth so many thousands of times she had no need of a mirror.
"You're going to want some pretty hard evidence if you go around telling people Shakespeare spent weekends attending seances at a place called Brook House or Wilton or wherever. I don't think for one minute he came close to dabbling in these things. There's not the slightest evidence, apart from a few alchemical allusions in the plays and a handful in the sonnets."
"What about The Tempest?" There was a streak of violence in Amelia's voice. "What lay full fathom five? A flesh and blood father? What's a sea change?"
"Shakespeare enriched our language in a thousand ways. A sea change is one of them. It's just a dramatic change, that's all, the way the sea can switch in mood from one moment to the next."
Amelia tried to compose herself, but her voice still came out thin and high.
"A sea change, dear Nancy, is an alchemical change at the level of sea. 'Sea' is a metaphor for the alchemist's materia prima, the matter with which the alchemical process begins. Why five fathoms? Because at the fifth level, beyond the four elements, lies the quintessence, the etheric element, the subtle astral plane. Shall I go on? Do you want to hear about the hermetic trinity all over again, the divine ambrosia, the philosopher's stone, the Holy Grail? Do you want the whole goddamn list again?"
Nancy's last dab of lipstick missed the mark, the jagged red line an insult to what was left of her dignity. Amelia tried not to laugh but only succeeded in turning the laugh into a snicker. And Nancy sprang-- quite nimbly, to Amelia's surprise -- to her feet.
"Get out of here," she yelled. It was not the first time and would not be the last. "Get out this minute! Stop trying to turn a lovely little lyric poem into something it isn't."
Amelia picked up Nature, made for the door and banged it shut behind her. Outside in the corridor she raised the magazine to her lips. Thank you, lover.
In the middle of Harvard Yard Daniel removed his sunglasses, scooped up a handful of not yet dirty snow, and crumpled the crystals into his face. The tingling sensation woke his jet-lagged body up, if only temporarily. Ahead lay the edifice of Sever Hall. Buoyed by the thought of seeing Amelia again after half a year, he took the steps three at a time amidst a swarm of bodies.
One thing he hadn't reckoned with when he planned this whole trip: Shopping Week after the four-day midwinter break. The chance to sample Harvard's best before signing up for their courses brought hordes of students into star professors' lectures. He peeked through the window in the door to Room 202.
Amelia stood on the podium in a plaid skirt, bulky sweater over a high-necked blouse, antique gold-rimmed eyeglasses she barely needed, and serious shoes. Not that her clothes could disguise the sweet curves beneath the layers. He couldn't hear what she was saying through the heavy closed door, but he could see enthrallment on virtually every student's face.
She had improvised a lectern: her attaché case, upended to form a wedge on top of the table. And she looked every inch the fast-track academic she'd billed herself as. She'd been a popular Teaching Fellow during the first two years of her Ph.D. program, she'd told him. The invitation to apply for lecturer had come from Professor Alexandra Hufstader, Dean of GSAS, with the full endorsement of Professor Robert Carr. The appointment was exceptional, her thesis being still more than a year from completion.
But as early as her first year in graduate school the "iconoclast of Shakespeare studies," as Carr had dubbed her, began to turn the accepted view of Shakespeare upside down. Not even jealous faculty colleagues doubted her ability to channel brains and flare into unconventional research. And now, she said, quite a few scholars were beginning to take a new look at the canon to find the writer, validating her totem-shattering revelations in the process.
He dismissed any idea that a man of thirty-eight might look conspicuous and wedged himself inside the door, as close as he could get.
She turned to the board and peeled off her sweater, and when she turned again to face her audience she glanced Daniel's way and the green eyes beamed out a glimmer of recognition. He nodded his head and she smiled conspiratorially for half a second. Then she took a piece of chalk and drew two symbols on the board, the first of which made him sit up straight as he recognized its resemblance to the artifact he'd taken from Shakespeare's hands.
"In hermetic tradition," she said, "the most powerful of all fertility symbols--the male pudendum--is commonly represented by the Tau cross, a capital T. The Tau is the symbol of Mercury the great confounder--Hermes in the Greek pantheon--Hermes 'who divideth not 'tween good and ill,' Hermes the Ithyphallic or Hermes with erect phallus who sows the seeds of cosmic confusion.
"The Tau can take a number of forms. The one drawn here is the astrological symbol of Aries the Ram, the herald of spring renewal."
There were sniggers from the front row.
"Let's look at another arcane symbol, the phoenix. Often the symbol of married love in Elizabethan poetry, the phoenix stands for resurrection through the golden elixir of the Holy Grail in alchemical mythology. This avis rara or rare bird that nests on top of a palm tree can also represent Venus, goddess of the vagina, which is why we can substitute the female cross I've drawn here for a phoenix. The Tau or palm is Mercury, ruler of Aries in the esoteric Zodiac. This she-Mercury, or Rebis--" she tapped the figure she'd just drawn-- "is an androgynous figure, male and female in gender. In the alchemical process Mercury holds the key to the freeing of white masculine spiritus from black feminine chaos. As we'll see in a later lecture, many of Shakespeare's sonnets to the Friend have a lot to do with the theme of truth and perfection, key aspects of the androgynous ideal in the late Renaissance.
"Let's go back briefly to Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, which celebrates love, the fourth fury, and love's power to resurrect. Mortal Adonis, preferring the hunt to dalliance with immortal Venus, is killed by jealous Mars in the guise of a wild boar. The red and white anemone that springs from Adonis's blood is a symbol of the androgyne and human perfectibility.
"The Hermetic Trinity is commonly represented by the trefoil, or triangle. With the point one way up the triangle represents Man. With the point down to form a delta it represents Woman. Combined in a hexagram or six-point star--the Kabbalists' Seal of Solomon--we get another symbol of androgynous Mercury, the Hermes Trismegistus so dear to Renaissance alchemists. Now let's look at another hermetic figure."
She turned and drew a hieroglyph on the board:
"The monas of Dr. John Dee: a symbol of the archetype we call the cosmos. It holds the Tau cross split in two and the female or Egyptian cross, the ankh, the most powerful symbol of the vagina. Notice the twin crescent moons and the sun . . . the dot in the center is an alchemical symbol to indicate transcendence of the world of duality: the sublunary world. We'll be discussing sun imagery and the sexually ambiguous role of Diana and her various moons in a later lecture.
"We're almost out of time." Her glance swung once more in Daniel's direction. "I'd like to remind you that in my final lecture I intend to take you over what still remains the most baffling mystery in English literature: who was Shakespeare's Dark Lady? See if you can identify her for yourselves. Remember, the Elizabethans loved to bury clues in word play, especially clues to names. Look in the Sonnets and Willoughby's Avisa and The Victory of English Chastity, which we touched on last week. If there are textual clues to the Dark Lady's name, that's where you'll find them. We'll be examining the half-dozen or so recognized candidates, so make sure you've read up on them. Any student cards still for signature, see me in my office Monday between four and five."
The lecture was over, but the clock on the wall showed six minutes to the hour. Daniel retreated outside the door while the class dispersed. When he reentered, Amelia was passing her attaché case to a girl in a woolly jacket. The girl hurried past him as he stepped onto the podium.
Amelia took his hand but kept him at a distance. Then, after a glance at the open door, she threw her arms around him, stopping his next words with a quick kiss.
"Where did you get the suntan?" he managed to say. Her teeth positively gleamed out of a tan complexion.
The exchange sounded so banal it brought him up short. Where had the epic language of love disappeared to at this of all moments? It had been six months, for God's sake.
"Vermont," she repeated, as if there were nothing more exalted in the world to say.
Collar up, he shouldered their way through the door to the Yard. It was frisky weather, but despite a biting wind that raked the Common, Harvard Square was noisy with the late afternoon throng. When they passed Out-of-town News and Tickets on Nini's Corner, it was Amelia who caught sight of the front page of the Boston Globe's night edition and the headline: SHAKESPEARE'S GRAVE VIOLATED.
He looked around the Square, then stepped forward to buy a copy, which he tucked under one elbow. As they swung onto Brattle Street she clasped his arm. A trail had been blazed in the slush along the sidewalk. When she slipped on an icy patch she steadied herself against him, laughing.
"Bodysnatcher!" she said and gave him a wicked poke in the ribs.
He snuffled at her ear until she giggled and tugged at his elbow.
"C'mon," she said.
On the corner of Ash and Brattle she halted and came around in front of him. She removed her mittens and reached into his pockets to draw out his gloveless hands, which she raised to her lips.
He noticed her fingernails. In Oxford they'd been erotically long. Now they were chewed to the quick.
For one frozen moment she was a shadow linked to him by fingers, then she was pressing his hands between flattened palms and palping each mound of Venus with her thumbs. She intercepted his gaze and tensed.
A dog barked. He freed himself and pulled her out of the way of a woman in a sweat suit and headband being dragged by an Irish wolfhound. His hands felt like parts of someone else's body. He started to chafe them together but she put her own hands around his and drew him closer.
"Take off those crazy sunglasses," she said, then reached up and did the job herself. She drew his head down and gave each eyelid a soft, soft kiss. "I love you,
They kissed-a real kiss, this time. "My sweet angel," he said before they broke the kiss, speaking the words directly into her mouth.
"Welcome to the ancestral home of my family of merchant scholars," she said when they reached the gate. "Robber barons, really."
He looked at a herringbone path leading up to Hungerford House and longed for a yellow brick road. The path ended at a short flight of steps over which loomed a tall black door crowned with a triangular fanlight.
From this prospect Hungerford House was a feat of eclectic craftsmanship. It dominated the neighboring Harvard and Radcliffe mansions along the former cart track that was Brattle Street--better known to early Cantabrigians, she told him, as Tory Road. Apparently of all the houses erected in old Cambridge by the town's merchant Brahmins, only Elmwood, the home of Harvard's president, was more grandiose.
It was a gaunt mansion on three floors, topped off with a cluster of chimneys. One wing had a gambrel roof. The place was a feast of windows: bay on the ground floor and casement on the next, panes in lead lattice, the kind that defied penetration by the world outside. An attic dormer jutted above the eaves. He stared up at it and it stared back at him, unblinking. Or was that a shadowed face passing across it?
A gust of wind knifed around the corner, sending a badly latched shutter crashing into the wall. Amelia fumbled with her keys. On the third attempt the right one went in and she pushed the doorknob, shaped after its designer's notion of a pineapple. Inside he took stock of a parquet floor and a dark oak-paneled hallway furnished in the style of the mid-nineteenth century and lit at one end by a stained-glass window. A grand staircase disappeared up to the second floor.
She took his coat and guided him through to the sitting room, where French windows overlooked the terrace and a desolate garden. A low table stood center of a group of seats in crushed velvet. Beyond these was a Sheraton chair and a rosewood desk. One half of the room gave pride of place to an ebony Bosendorfer grand with a fretted harp beside it.
She crossed to the desk and called her answering service, pen poised over a scratch pad. Daniel focused on an oil painting on the wall beyond the piano: a tropical dreamscape peopled by naked women. When she was off the phone he asked who the painter was.
"Me. In the Virgin Islands at Christmas."
"They're good. Very. . . erotic."
Other paintings covered the walls. He turned and looked at the sheet of music on the piano: a Chopin ballad.
"If there's anything you can't do, Amelia, I have yet to find out what it is."
She nodded, then offered to make him a drink. He looked across to the tantalus with its crystal decanters sitting on the music desk in the far corner, but she walked past it and out of the room. He picked up a photo album lying beside an ormolu clock on a console table. He stopped at one picture, taken in Gstaad: a very young Amelia standing in snow in front of a hotel he recognized as the Palace. Beside her was Lawrence Hungerford, in his late forties or early fifties. His eyes seemed darker, unlike Amelia's, but he saw the resemblance to her in other features, especially the commanding nose.
As Amelia returned with a bottle of Krug, the phone rang. "Let it ring," she said.
He poured her a glass and another for himself. "You know, angel, you're guilty of sheltering a felon."
"With saintly objectives and vigilante ethics."
"Do I look like a felon to you?" He brandished his glass, frowning. The scruples he'd thrown aside for her--for victims of AIDS--were never far away, hovering like ghouls at a window.
"Mmm, maybe," she said. "Your eyes are kind of manically intense."
She walked to the window with its bleak view, in the gathering twilight, of a sugar-icing lawn. He drained his glass and closed the space between them. Pinioned in his arms, she shut her eyes, rocking heel to toe until his mouth brushed the Bump. She murmured something, cupped his jaw in her hands . Her face turned up to meet his. Her eyes focused on his mouth. "Would you change me if you could?"
"Not a bit. I like you fine the way you are."
As he said it he realized it wasn't quite true any more. The haunting contradictions, the mixture of fey and feisty in her personality made her the most intriguing woman he had ever known. There was something about her that was out of place with time, out of sync, as if she belonged to another era. If children saw things that other people never noticed, Amelia sometimes seemed to see things no one else saw at all.
She kicked off her shoes, took his hand and led him to the sofa. She put a record on the stereo and Lucia Popp delivered strains of Mozart at his pastoral best, accompanied more softly by Amelia in the aria L'amero, saro costante. Just when he'd decided he liked her voice it tailed off, leaving Lucia to continue alone. When he twisted around to see why she'd stopped, she was standing motionless except for a slight nod of the head and up-curving of the lips into a smile.
She sat down beside him, rested her head against his shoulder and walked the tips of her fingers across his thigh, arousing him in seconds. His cheeks were burning as she made small purring sounds and kissed his ear: hot sharp kisses that left a burr of excitement.
She'd been gone for several minutes. When she sailed back in wearing a maroon spinnaker of a nightshirt, he was hunched over the Boston Globe.
"Front page, second section," he said as a clock chimed out in the hallway.
He took the pastrami sandwich and cup of strong black coffee she held out and kept reading without looking up. She spread an arm across his back and rested her chin in the hollow of his collarbone while she read over his shoulder.
"The vicar investigated the grave with a Scotland Yard detective, so obviously he got my letter," he said.
"Was it an apology?"
"And now this-- a press conference."
"About the time my flight took off. How's that for timing?"
He took a sip of coffee and studied the photo of the Reverend Mannering and the detective seated behind twin microphones. The detective's name wasn't given and the picture was on the fuzzy side, but he thought he recognized his face. When he looked at it harder his heart started pounding. Coincidence? He'd said nothing to Amelia about the fact that his mother was murdered--only that she was dead.
Reverend Mannering hadn't wasted any time. He wished to hell the vicar hadn't brought the police into it--this detective or any other. A lot of people would thank him in the end, maybe, but in the meantime he was a common criminal. They'd called him "the self-confessed grave robber" and set up an Incident Room at New Scotland Yard. No mention of his article in Nature or the weeping gene and its significance.
Amelia straightened up. "I suppose you know Mannering's the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust."
"You make it sound as if that's a crime."
"Oh, I don't mind him personally. It's what he writes that I can't stomach. He's got tunnel-vision, writes smart-ass articles about Shakespeare's 'orthodox' beliefs. He'd go to any lengths to prove Shakespeare was whiter than white."
He looked up and saw her expression, which didn't fit with what she'd just said.
"Back in a minute," she said. "I've got to go take a couple of Tylenols." Then, almost inaudibly, "I can feel a headache coming on."
He scanned the report a final time. The journalists had left angry and virtually empty-handed. Mannering had told them only that the Bard's body was still there after this outrageous escapade, that an archeologist called Gillespie from Daniel's own university's Institute of Archaeology had resealed the coffin, that the tunnel to the new-found crypt was being filled in. There was no description of the grave, the corpse.
He hadn't expected church authorities or police to take a philosophical view of his caper, but he hadn't expected the whole business to look more and more like a case for the Crown Prosecution Service, either..
Amelia slipped back into the room, rousing him from his thoughts with talk of the Shakespeare Search, its chances of success. One point was scored already--for Shakespeare's syphilis. Now Amelia needed a descendant.
"More than that," she said, "I need to know the Dark Lady's identity."
"So you've said. Any new ideas?"
"At least one good one, and plenty of circumstantial evidence. But nothing yet that constitutes proof."
The light green eyes were positively blazing. Curiosity, he sensed, was becoming obsession.
"So who is she?" he said. "What's your hunch?"
"Mind your own beeswax." A teasing, enigmatic look. "You'll just have to wait, like everybody else."
Three more hours passed before Tom Brokaw made the connection with the Nature report and broke the story of Shakespeare's possible descendants on NBC's Nightly News. The other networks covered only Mannering's press conference.
"I'm directing A Phoenix Too Frequent for the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club," Amelia said when Rather finished with Daniel. "Pity you won't see it. Fry's plot ties in nicely with today's lecture."
"So do I get to see less of you?"
"Most nights I've got readings at the Loeb, but they can manage with my assistant for a while. I've cleared a lot of my calendar. I had back-to-back appointments."
"You didn't have to change anything for me," he said . He could just see her bare feet tucked under her where she was kneeling. Their nakedness aroused him.
They ended the day on a crescendo, coupling in Amelia's bed until, as a clock outside the door struck 1:15 in the morning, he pleaded jet lag.
He could see her face pale in the moonlight pouring in the window. In their haste they'd forgotten to pull the curtains. He would have liked to make love with the lights on so he could watch her face, but Amelia preferred them off.
Didn't matter. Nothing mattered--except that in this foreign country he shouldn't even be in, he felt totally at home.
The next morning he watched Good Morning America on Amelia's bedroom TV while he shaved with his cut-throat razor--and nicked his chin when he glimpsed his face on the screen. Someone had found a photograph, probably the one from The Sunday Times feature on AIDS. Dr. Daniel Bosworth, they announced as he sat on the end of the bed and massaged after-shave into his skin, was a man much sought after in England. He pulled on chinos and suede brogues and after channel-hopping for a minute headed downstairs.
The kitchen was fitted out with white appliances and glass-paned cabinets dating back at least fifty years. Amelia held out a steamy mug of chocolate--real hot chocolate made the Spanish way, from a solid block--and a plate of fresh brioches from a neighborhood bakery. The snow flurries to which they'd awakened were gathering into a blizzard. A few inches had already built up on the sills.
"Come on," she said, "it's virtually the middle of the afternoon where you come from. Drink this for me. I've put off the Saturday Morning Club."
A cry of Dios mio! from the porch beyond the screen door announced the darting entry of a small, sharp-faced woman. Presumably this was Maria Guadalupe, Amelia's trusted housekeeper--the "real godsend" from Guatemala. The godsend was sixtyish, covered with snow and laden with shopping bags which she proceeded to bang down on the counter. She removed a waterproof hood to reveal a tight gray bun. Her teeth gleamed in a deferential smile. She stamped her feet to get rid of snow and said, "Encantada," bobbing and holding out her hand. He had a feeling this was as close as they would ever get to a conversation.
She hung her coat up to dry next to the stove, removed her overshoes, and returned to the porch, where scratching noises could be heard. A second later a snow-coated Saint Bernard with outsize jowls and a brindled coat bounded into the kitchen and jumped up to deliver a slobbering welcome. Daniel quickly put down his mug.
"I almost forgot," Amelia said, "this is Falstaff."
Falstaff knew a dog-lover when he saw one--Daniel had grown up with retrievers and labradors. Maria started unpacking the grocery bags, clicking her tongue as Amelia translated her complaint at having to carry the bags all the way from Sage's Market, through the snow.
He sipped his chocolate. This cozy, homey, old-fashioned kitchen was, thus far, the one welcoming room he'd seen in Hungerford House.
"Time to show you around this ancient pile," Amelia said with the sweetest of smiles. "Sorry there wasn't time last night."
Maria was on her way back outside to sweep snow from the front path with a birch broom. He put a hand on the newel post at the foot of the banister and followed Amelia up the burnished staircase. On the half-landing they passed a clock fixed to the wall beside a portrait of her mother. Below the clock's face swung a bob pendulum. He wondered if Maria could be trusted to keep their secret.
"Where does she live?" he asked Amelia.
"Here, in the servants' wing. Don't worry about her, she's utterly dependable--and discreet, she won't come barging in on us. Besides, she spends all her free time watching soap operas. There's also Cissy, my assistant on the play. She's a friend in GSAS, comes over for workouts in the gym upstairs. Cissy won't breathe a word either."
They'd reached the landing. She nodded to her left as they passed one door.
"There's a formidable Victorian water closet in there."
The floorboards creaked in the central corridor, lit only from a casement window at one end and a stained-glass window, an oriel, at the other. He noticed the fine moldings and deep cornices along the light-green walls.
Back in her room he threw himself down on the bed-no doubt called a marriage bed when it was made--and stared up at the ceiling. The mattress was about as modern as a charabanc seat and almost as hard. The sensation triggered memories fresh from last night.
He sat up. Amelia was sitting on her vanity bench, looking much like Sarah Hungerford in the portrait on the landing.
"Tell me about your mother," he said.
Amelia came and sat beside him. "Mummy died of cancer when I was twelve. I've got what's called 'traumatic amnesia,' so I don't remember anything about her except what Daddy and a few other people have told me."
"I had a brother once, too. He died almost as soon as he was born. What Daddy calls a chrisom-child."
He stroked her cheek and watched Falstaff, who was rolling on his back on the floor and woofing softly. The moment seemed at last to have arrived. So much had remained unsaid in Oxford.
He drew from the pocket of his jacket, draped over a chair, the dog-eared photograph the Colonel had given him that day so many years ago. She saw how carefully he handled the photo and took it from him just as gently. He watched her studying the grainy black and white snapshot of a slim woman in a black mid-calf coat with padded shoulders. One lapel adorned with a claw brooch, long hair swept up at the front. The eyes held a glint of fire above an elusive smile. He had almost no information about her other than the words written on the back of the picture: "Oxford, October 1956." That and the certain knowledge that she'd been murdered three years later.
"My mother," he said. "My real mother. It was in my pocket the day they found me."
Amelia touched her lips. "Tell me."
He rested his forehead in the palms of his hands. "I . . . hunted for her for years--most of my adult life, actually--and eventually found her in 1984. In an unmarked grave near Swindon. But even then I didn't really find her, because the police-well, Drake, that detective in yesterday's news story--said they never found out her name. She'd been discovered dead, murdered, smothered to death in some cheap hotel."
"Did you find out anything else?"
He turned to face her. Skin tight, mouth dry.
"That's all there is. Anonymous woman dies anonymous death in anonymous bloody hotel room."
"Please, Daniel, one last thing. How did you know for sure that she was your mother? You said something about genes the day we met."
"Oh, it isn't that hard--with the right credentials--to get a permit to dig up the bodies of people whose identity is unknown. It's called scientific research." A hollow laugh. "I disinterred five women who'd been buried around the right time. Who they were, nobody knew. All in Oxfordshire, Berkshire, or Wiltshire."
Amelia tried to put her arms around him, but he turned away and spoke with his back to her.
"Shakespeare's body was perfection compared with the skin and bones in the rotting coffin in that marshy graveyard. She'd been there a quarter of a century¼It was early days, genetic fingerprinting was just starting to happen. I'd done some work on the myoglobin gene with Geoff Alton, the guy who really got it started. I identified which woman was my mother by matching her genes to mine."
Now he turned to face her . "The police weren't exactly cooperative. They told me about their original report but wouldn't let me see it--so of course I filled in the lurid details with my imagination, and of course that made everything worse." A pause. "I still didn't know her real name. The police had closed the file years ago on the unsolved murder of an unknown woman. Now they opened and closed it again."
He couldn't go on, couldn't explain what the police had guessed about her. He wanted to tell her about that, too--about everything--but the words to say aloud that his mother had almost certainly been a prostitute stuck in his throat.
She extended a hand. "I'll take you around the rest of the house."
He followed her up to the third floor. She showed him her studio, cluttered with paints and an easel and a half-completed canvas--an art naif portrait of a very shapely young woman sprawled naked on her back..
At the end of the corridor she opened a door.
"This is how Cissy and I stay in shape," she said. "Lots of body work."
He looked at the array of Nautilus machinery.
"It's mostly for Cissy," Amelia said. "She's got this personal trainer who comes over from Le Pli. After her workout she gets a massage and a loofah scrub."
He noticed the rugs as they went downstairs. The house had no fitted carpeting except in the sitting room and the bedrooms. Everywhere else there were carpets: Persian carpets, Moroccan carpets, Afghan and Turkoman and priceless Aubusson. Amelia halted on the stairs to point out two more of the family portraits that seemed as ubiquitous as the carpets: Edgar and a youthful Lawrence Hungerford, her grandfather and father, not too many years ago. Lawrence Hungerford's portrait afflicted Daniel with a prickly feeling . Probably it was the resemblance to the photo.
He looked at her grandfather, a mustachioed young man with mutton-chop whiskers posturing in a wing collar and gold chain that disappeared into the fob of a brocade waistcoat. The inscription read : "Edgar Hungerford."
"Tell me about them," he said.
Amelia looked doubtful, but when she saw he meant it she sat down on the stairs, patted the place beside her, and delivered herself of a well-organized family biography covering the high spots over a two-hundred-year period.
Edgar Hungerford had inherited old Yankee money, then Rothschild money when his French wife died giving birth to Lawrence. After that he spent several years in Europe, where he kept a string of paramours, none of whom he married, though one was rumoured to have borne him a child. He also devoted much of his long life to art, writing the definitive book on Titian and numbering among his friends Bernard Berenson and, briefly, Joseph Duveen. A chairman of the New York Stock Exchange described him as the only man in America feared by J. Edgar Hoover.
Lawrence had belonged to Harvard's Class of '53. He spent summer vacations with Edgar in Europe, visiting art collections on the slowly recovering continent. While still a freshman he acquired a reputation for being headstrong to the point of irrationality-- Hungerford eccentricity, Amelia called it. Like his father, he was also a dyed-in-the-wool womanizer.
Sarah Barnard Carlton was a Cliffie with a pedigree that stretched back to the seventeenth century. She met Lawrence at a Harvard-Radcliffe Democratic Club dance and fell hard--right away and for keeps. It was not long before Lawrence proposed and Sarah accepted.
From Harvard he went straight to Brasenose, his father's old Oxford college. While his fiancee took care of her elderly mother in Boston, Lawrence was the house guest of some of the most prominent art-owning families in Europe, laying the ground for deals that would send scores of paintings-some of them Old Masters--across the Atlantic to find permanent homes in America.
Edgar died in 1955, the same year Lawrence took his Bachelor of Letters degree and accepted the research fellowship that Brasenose offered him. It was not until 1957 that Lawrence and Sarah finally wed.
Unlike his father, Lawrence was a collector. The Hungerford Collection was housed in his Dumbarton Street mansion which passed more easily for a museum than a family home in Washington's Georgetown district. In contrast, at his Long Island estate, now a hobby farm where he bred polo ponies, there were no Old Masters, only a valuable collection of early American furniture.
Though he never sought political office the scion of the Hungerford clan - as Amelia called him with a smirk on her face - grew into a Conservative Democrat lionized by the wives of politicians in both parties. Lawrence was on the A-list of every Washington hostess. His name appeared in the Washington Green Book among its handful of patrician families. His one-man lobbying firm specialized in the upper echelon of the art world. His reputation for integrity in a field notorious for its opposite gave him such an aura of respectability that new clients were never hard to find. By the early eighties his client list included not only the White House but also the National Gallery, the Getty Museum, and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. As a member of the Visiting Committee of the Fogg Art Museum Lawrence was assured a place for life on Harvard's Board of Overseers.
"He was also a piece of work," Amelia said when she'd finished this history, all of it recited with practiced ease.
Instead of answering she took his hand and led him off the steps to finish the guided tour of the rest of the house. First stop was the dining room nee ballroom--a vast space with a maplewood floor in marquetry, a minstrel's gallery at the far end, and a claw-foot American Chippendale table down the center. Daniel counted sixteen chairs.
"Why are there bare patches along the walls?"
"Albert Hungerford's trophies. My great-grandfather. He went hunting in Africa with Teddy Roosevelt." She stood arms akimbo. "So that's it, apart from the cellar. It's the only part of the old house that was saved when my great-great-grandfather James Hungerford built this one in 1857."
She rolled back the red wool rug beside a teakwood chest at the end of the hallway to reveal a trapdoor set in the floor with a brass ring for a handle. When he bent to help, the door came up easily, soundlessly assisted by a concealed counterweight. Amelia went down the first stone step and flicked a switch. A ruddy glimmer came from below.
He followed her shadow down the steps, unevenly worn.
"One legend has it the house was used to hide runaway slaves not long after it was built," she said. "The Hungerfords were out-and-out abolitionists."
For as moment he felt dizzy. Three Prozac and jet lag, still? The sensation was so strong that he hesitated, unsure of his footing.
Amelia, still talking, had already disappeared into the darkness below. "According to legend there's a passage that leads under the street to the church on the other side. If the story about the slaves is true, it must have been meant as an escape route. I've never seen it, though. There's even supposed to be a hidey-hole."
He managed to catch up with her.
"Houses like this always have stories attached to them," she said. "One goes that in April 1775 Paul Revere rode into Cambridge from Concord and spent the night in the old Hungerford House. Some of the Minutemen were billeted here-that, at least, is a fact. We've got letters to prove it. Adam Hungerford was a fanatical patriot, which wouldn't have made him too popular with his neighbors. This part of town was Loyalist."
There was a musty smell in the air. He put a hand to his head.
"Are you all right?" she said.
"Just felt a bit queasy. I'm okay."
She looked at him by the glow from the bulkhead light. "We can go back, you know. You don't look all that okay."
Her voice seemed to come from a distance. He thought he heard a footfall on stone, but when he turned there was only the long staircase. He alone seemed real. Other people? Marionettes in another sphere of existence. Even Amelia.
He went over to where Amelia stood by a walk-in fireplace with an iron stove inside it.
"In there you can see the baker's oven built into the side of the inglenook," she said. "See the oak chimney seat where the servants would have kept warm in winter?"
He steadied himself against the stove and followed her pointing finger. There was a dark hole in the brickwork above the snug. Now the musty smell was so strong it seemed overpowering. A flush of nausea threatened to sweep through him, then was gone.
He turned slowly to look at the rest of the cellar now that his eyes were used to the semi-darkness. Along one wall were rows of wine racks, most of them loaded with dusty bottles. Opposite was a four-poster mahogany bed with a dark bedspread and canopy embroidered with gold.
He went over and peered up at the underside of the canopy. It was like one of those eyesight tests where you could see the numbers if you relaxed . If you tried too hard all you saw were dots. He relaxed and saw in the faded purple what he recognized as the constellation of the Great Bear, woven in gold stars. Except for the gold embroidery, the bedspread was black as the pall over a funeral bier.
Behind him, Amelia pressed into his back and slipped her arms around him.
"My grandfather had it shipped over from Venice. Mummy and Daddy slept in it when it was in the master bedroom. . . . It's been down here ever since she died ."
He barely heard her. He had the odd sensation of being outside himself, pushing away her arms--but when he spun round to face her, Amelia wasn't up against him at all, she was facing him from several feet away.
He willed himself across the floor to look at two early-Colonial chests and a stack of horned and antlered trophies on ebony plinths--Albert Hungerford's spoils, presumably. Sure enough, in one chest he found two Purdey shotguns in mahogany cases. He peeped behind the duster near one wall and found a standing mirror.
The whole place had an out-of-time atmosphere. When Amelia again hugged him from behind--it really was her this time--he steadied himself against one upright of the mirror. He was numb with cold for half a minute, then the sensation faded and he unclasped her hands from around his chest.
"Did you feel it getting chillier just now?"
She gave him a peck on the lips. "Let's go up.".
Halfway up the stairs he was already feeling better. No doubt because he was leaving a part of the house so odd that it made the rest of the place seem opulent but relatively ordinary. When they reached the hallway the inviting smell of Maria's cooking--a gamey casserole--was wafting along the corridor. Amelia waved him toward the living room.
He hurried after her.
On the Monday after their descent into the cellar he spent the day alone in the library boning up on Renaissance alchemy and the Kabbalah, jotting down points of interest and, from time to time, wishing he had a laboratory. In genetics three weeks could be a lot of down time, but Marcus needed those three weeks to ready the Shakespeare Search for launch.
Daniel had assumed his time at Hungerford House would be three weeks in purgatory. Instead he found himself increasingly drawn into the objectives of Amelia's research, and attracted more often than repelled by the house's atmosphere. The pictures didn't talk back. He was already best friends with the mahogany seat in the Victorian loo, and there was an endless supply of good liquor in the library to wash down the Prozac.
The library was a bibliophile's heaven, books being one of the few things Amelia indulged in with her fortune. She bought regularly from Wordsworth in Cambridge, corresponded with antiquarian book dealers worldwide and had amassed a collection on sixteenth-century cosmology she guessed to be as valuable if not as extensive as Widener Library's. Many of her acquisitions were rebound in split calf and carried her ex libris bookplate inside the front cover.
A fire burned in the grate behind a screen. He pumped it with leather bellows and replaced them in the hearth beside a poker, slightly bent, and a pair of eagle's claw tongs supported by a blackened firedog. The sides of the fireplace were lined with ceramic tiles depicting New England whaling scenes from the early nineteenth century.
There was a family crest carved in the stone lintel over the hearth: two crossed keys and underneath, the Hungerford motto: De caelo per umbras. He raised his eyes to the portrait of James Hungerford hanging over a chimney piece hand-carved in maple with creeping dogwood and dainty scrolls. Amelia's great-great-grandfather, crippled with polio in his youth, had found fame as a philosopher. Allegedly the mentor of William James, he had endowed a Harvard chair of metaphysics shortly before his death at ninety-four.
No sign of polio there. The eyes of the man were hard with the same intensity he'd seen in the paintings of Edgar and Lawrence. "James passed away in the wing chair in l911," Amelia had told him. "They embalmed him and left him propped up in it for a year while his widow and Harvard debated the fate of his oddly deformed corpse he'd bequeathed to medical science. It finally found a more permanent home in the family mausoleum in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The Hungerfords were like that."
He moved away from the fire and unlatched the bay window over the box seat, but five minutes later the place was still stuffy. It made his throat dry. Over to the armoire in the corner, inside which were a small fridge and a liquor cabinet. He mixed himself a vodka martini and drank it while he watched the reflection of the fire in the mirror let into the paneling at the back of the cabinet.
On a nearby desk lit with a signed Tiffany lamp stood a huddle of daguerreotypes and a 1930's photo of Edgar by Man Ray. To one side was a silver-framed photograph of the young Lawrence next to the familiar face of Robert F. Kennedy. At the bottom someone had scrawled in black ink: "Lawrence and Bobby--Ida Lewis Yacht Club." Two go-getting men in striped sweatshirts with windswept hair.
He poured himself another drink before tacking back across the floor, careful to skirt Albert's polar bear rug.
He was dozing by the fire when there was a crackle and spit and the dying embers burst into flame, then just as suddenly subsided. A draft had sprung up from nowhere, a chill that seemed to move around between the legs of the furniture and his ankles. He could feel its nip going up and down some subtle channel in the back of his legs. Then, just as it reached the nerve fibers in his spine and radiated out to his shoulders, it was gone as quickly as it had come.
He spun around. It was Amelia, back from her Monday afternoon seminar.
"Good teaching?" he asked as he got to his feet.
"Horrendous. Everybody wanted my opinion on the so-called Shakespeare crisis."
A girl of nineteen or twenty stepped out from behind her. He recognized the nude woman in the painting upstairs.
"Daniel, this is Cecilia Wotherspoon." Amelia put her arm around her friend and gave her a squeeze. "Watch out, she's a Taurus."
She gazed at him through glasses that looked at odds with her child-woman's face.
"You can call me Cissy," she said in a slow, low voice. Southern, he'd be willing to bet.
"Why is Taurus so dangerous?"
"We're totally physical," she said.
He didn't like the way she prissed her lips.
"So what do you plan to do after Harvard?" he asked after an awkward silence.
"Twyla Tharp Dance, if they'll have me. I've got to get out before there's another pogrom in the English Department."
"Cissy's my assistant on the play," Amelia said. "We used to have our readings here, but we're in a practice room at the Loeb for the time being."
Cissy turned to Amelia. "I've got a dance rehearsal at the Agassiz. Must be going." She flounced toward the door.
Amelia followed, and he could hear the thrum of their voices in the hallway. A moment later they both returned.
"Cissy's got half an hour before rehearsals," Amelia said. Then, to Daniel, "Have I got something for you! I'll be right back."
"She's getting the press stories," Cissy said. The accent was still in place, but the tone was full of mockery.
Amelia came back with an armful of newspapers and magazines. "Dining room table," she said. "Let's spread them out."
Maria looked into the dining room, saw the papers, and headed back to the kitchen emitting odd noises Daniel assumed must be hispanic clucks or tsks. But she returned minutes later and set out coffee, hot chocolate, and cookies that bore no resemblance to English "biscuits"-nor, in fact, to anything he'd ever eaten. He was fairly sure that walnuts and white chocolate were among the ingredients and absolutely certain that they were delicious.
Cissy, having disappeared long enough to let her hair down and remove her glasses and cardigan, sauntered in and took the chair opposite Daniel. Her breasts swelled against a skinny blouse. He shot Amelia a dirty look she chose to ignore.
Most of the stories they clipped over the next half-hour covered the feasibility of finding someone carrying the atavistic gene. The few that mentioned the hunt now on for Daniel in England went into a separate pile. Overnight he'd become an invisible celebrity, a prospect he was disturbed to find did not upset him in the least.
Amelia opened a copy of Time magazine at an article on "the polymathic pundit of the new genetics." To judge by the photograph--a press handout from the Singapore colloquium on sexually transmitted diseases--he'd looked a lot younger in pre-Stratford days.
He stretched his legs under the table. One foot accidentally touched Cissy's, and he yanked it back. She gave him a look he felt sure was a come-on.
"I've been wondering how long we can go on keeping me unconnected with all this," Amelia said. "It just needs one nosy reporter or someone who's seen you and me together." She got up from the table. "I've got a vernissage at the gallery at seven."
"I'll walk some of the way with you," Cissy said.
As soon as they were gone, he returned to the library and stood with his back to the fire.
With his astrakhan collar turned up in a following wind, Lawrence Hungerford set out to walk the few blocks from the Olympic Tower to the Knickerbocker Club, stopping twice-for a brief foray into Bijan, and a seaweed cleansing masque at Gio's. When he reached the Knick, there was no time in hand to read the Wall Street Journal. He loathed Manhattan, especially Fifth Avenue, but the club was fairly close to the museums that consulted him.
He dismissed the chauffeur/bodyguard who had tailed him all morning, deposited his white silk scarf and black vicuna topcoat at the hat-check, and proceeded up the stairs to the dining room. Here the maitre d' showed him to his habitual table in the corner by the south window--from which, with his back to the wall, he had a good view of everyone who came and went.
Two elderly men at the next table gave him a nod, which Lawrence returned. The wine waiter arrived with an ice bucket that held a bottle from his private reserve. A little champagne was poured. He gave his preferred tipple a sniff, set down his flute, and summoned the waiter. Ten minutes later Marcus slipped into the opposite seat.
"Good to see you,"Lawrence said. "I've already ordered for both of us."
"That's fine, thank you," Marcus said.
"What the hell's that tie you're wearing?" Lawrence asked as their first course arrived.
Marcus looked down at its unusual emblem. "The Rostrum Training graduate tie."
For a while both men concentrated on their food.
"What I don't understand," Marcus said, "is why Bosworth agreed to Amelia's proposal in the first place."
Lawrence gave a short laugh. "Grade school chemistry. He fell in love with her. Plus his ambition. Either that or he's a saint."
He pulled out his cigar case and offered his guest the last Havana--Zino Davidoff's best, a personal gift. When Marcus declined, he moistened the head, sliced off the cap with a silver cutter, and placed the cigar next to his untouched lobster bisque.
"You do know everybody's going to be asking how they find out if they've got Shakespeare's gene--every white man in America and even a few of a slightly darker hue."
"Up to two thousand a week," Marcus said. "The research team's been busy working out what we can expect"
"I've been rather busy myself. You'll be pleased to know you now have the backing of the director of NIH , plus you're home free with NORA and the chairman of the FDA advisory committee on AIDS--and no one's ass was even kissed."
"That's terrific," Marcus said. "Everything's going great."
His voice sounded convincingly enthusiastic, but Lawrence wasn't convinced. Marcus's reputation for charisma was fully deserved. And like most gifted charismatics, including Jesus Christ, he believed in what he was selling. When he didn't, it showed.
"What's the problem?"
Marcus sighed. "I heard from the bean counters this morning. The cost of Bosworth's lab looks to be pushing four million. We'll be running short in six months unless the Shakespeare Search pays off."
Of course. Lawrence reached for his inside pocket and withdrew his billfold, from which he produced a Chase Manhattan check for five million dollars made out to the World Health Rostrum Shakespeare Search. Marcus's eyes widened only slightly.
"Think of it as a start-up gift from the IRS."
"Are you serious?"
"Damned right I am."
"Then thanks." This time the enthusiasm was genuine. "Some big gifts should be in the pipeline soon"--he touched the check--"on top of this one."
"I've got to hand it to you, Marcus. You may be the best goddamn publicist in the whole damn country."
"Do you think you'll be able to keep Bosworth's involvement a secret? Amelia feels the media will sniff out where he's hiding."
"Doing my damnedest. By tomorrow the Search will already be leaking out, but at first no one will know Bosworth's in it too. People will think we've capitalized on his idea."
"How's his competition?"
Marcus frowned. "That's not going to be a problem-not with our congressional pull, is it? You should know, there's serious influence behind outfits like Biocal and Technogen, too. Let's just say the likes of vaccine makers such as Bristol-Meyers and Hoffman la Roche."
"Are you referring to Greenberg and Sardou?"
"Afraid so." Marcus heaved his shoulders. Lawrence was better informed than he thought. The big vaccine-makers were all backing AIDS research via biotech proxies and their pet scientists: men like Robert Greenberg at George Washington University and Bernard Sardou at the Pasteur Institute.
Lawrence saw the same characters as Marcus but he placed them in a different setting. Daniel was the thoroughbred they were entering in a select race. He knew he could head off congressional hustlers aiming to stymie the Shakespeare search, whatever Marcus suspected to the contrary.
Marcus thought he could read people too, though admittedly Lawrence was harder than most. 'Everything's legally watertight,' he said. 'Especially the new releases that screenees will sign.'
'Whether they want to or not?' Lawrence was looking out the window as he spoke. Across Fifth Avenue in the Park two gangly black teenagers were aiming passes with a football across the head of an irate park attendant. One, whose white scarf sailed in the wind, laughed as the attendant saw the joke and leapt up to intercept the ball. He too was laughing. Lawrence envied all three of them.
Marcus nodded. "Either way."
"Are you still hoping Bosworth will split the royalties with the Rostrum if he finds his vaccine? Hard to count the millions it could be worth."
"Or more. Think of the billions that Wellcome's stock put on when they came up with Retrovir for AIDS victims."
"And lost half of it when it didn't work."
"Yeah. But Bosworth's just so full of rectitude when it comes to his vaccine--he's so sure he's going to find it, he's already given it a name."
"What is it?"
"Not bad. Not bad at all."
"But he said if he does pull it off, all the royalties will go to a special Oxford trust for medical research that he's going to set up in memory of his mother. I said, didn't the Rostrum deserve at least a share, being a medical trust itself? After all we were going to do for him?"
"And he said no way, right?"
"Basically, he said he didn't want any of the money for himself, just maybe a little bit of the glory."
"You can't argue with high principles," Lawrence said.
"Don't we have principles too, damn it?"
"You're on a different planet, Marcus. You can get all the influence in the world behind the Rostrum and it will still smell too commercial for someone like Bosworth." He could tell when Marcus was about to launch into one of his diatribes on risk, a pleasure he could forgo.
"Think I'll mosey over to the Met," he said.
Marcus was looking at the check for five million. "You didn't sign it."
Lawrence pulled out his fountain pen and signed, with his left hand. Marcus eyed his signet ring.
"Do you expect us to actually discover someone out there related to Shakespeare?".
Lawrence handed over the check and stood up. "Amelia seems to think so, and she ought to know. For all we know, there could be. . . .who knows how many descendants."
"What if Bosworth gets cold feet and pulls out early?"