LONDON, FEBRUARY 10, 1601
When I opened my door at mid-morn and saw the strange boy, I should have known something was wrong. I'd been on edge for three days, not only because of the aborted rebellion against the queen, but because Will and I were at such odds over it—and over our own relationship.
"You be Mistress Anne Whateley?"
My stomach knotted. The boy was no street urchin but was well attired and sported a clean face and hands. "Who wants to know?" I asked as he extended something to me. He must have a missive saying someone was ill. Or dead. Or, God save us, arrested.
"'Tis a tie from a fine pair of sleeves meant for you with other garments too, once adorning Her Majesty's person," he recited in a high, singsong voice as he placed a willow-green velvet ribbon laced with gold thread in my hand. In faith, it was beautiful workmanship.
"Didn't want me carrying all that through the streets," he added.
"'Tis all waiting for you at the Great Wardrobe nearby."
"I know where that is, lad, but have you not mistook me for another? I have naught to do with the queen's wardrobe."
"Three figured brocade gowns, two fine sleeves with points and ribbon ties, a butterfly ruff and velvet cloak for the Lord Chamberlain's players to use at the Globe Theatre. Since they be busy today, I am to fetch you to receive the garb."
Of late certain nobles had given me donated garments to pass on to Will's fellows. I'd done many things for the players behind the scenes, as they put it. I'd once helped with costumes, and that at court too. In the disastrous performance but three days ago, I'd held the book and prompted the players. I'd copied rolls for Will and his fellows as well as taken his dictation. Many knew I had helped to provide the fine cushions that padded the hard wooden seats beneath the bums of earls and countesses who graced the expensive gallery seats at the Globe. So mayhap the word was out that I was the Jack—or Jill—of all trades at the Globe.
Yet things from the queen's wardrobe? It was said she had more than two thousand gowns, so I supposed she could spare a few. The Shakespeare and Burbage company had performed before the court both at Whitehall and Richmond, but after the catastrophe of the Essex Rebellion, three days ago, Her Grace was donating personal pieces to them? Surely, she had heard that they had staged Will's Richard II, a play some whispered had intentionally incited the rebellion against her throne.
I'd told Will—another of our arguments—that promoting that tragedy at that time could be not only foolhardy but fatal, so thank the good Lord the Virgin Queen valued her favorite plays and players. The promised garments must be an olive branch extended to them. At least this would prove to Will once and for all something else I'd argued for years. Elizabeth Tudor was a magnanimous monarch, not one who should be dethroned or dispatched before God Himself took the sixty-seven-year-old ruler from this life. "One moment," I told the boy. "I must fetch my cloak, for the wind blows chill."
And blows ill, I thought, as I put away the pages of As You Like It, so-called a comedy, for it was larded with serious stuff. Will and I had been feuding over what was love, and I was looking at a copy of his role as Jaques, the part he'd written for himself. Like this character, Will had been "Monsieur Melancholy" lately and, looking closer at Jaques' lines, I'd been appalled by what I'd found. And though Will and I were not speaking right now, I meant to take it up with him too. More than once he'd stripped our tortured love bare for all London to see, devil take the man, and he meant to do it again in this play!
"We're off straightaway then," the lad called over his shoulder as I followed him out the door into the courtyard. I lived in the large Blackfriars precinct, but it was still a goodly walk to the Wardrobe. Ever since I'd set foot in London eighteen years before, I'd loved this area and Will did too. When we were young and even more foolish than we were now at thirty-six years of age, Blackfriars was our fantastical place. We'd oft pretended we owned a fine brick mansion set like a jewel in green velvet gardens among homes of the queen's noblemen and gentry.
And to think that Gloriana herself had dined at Blackfriars earlier this year in the Earl of Worcester's house! She'd been met at the river and carried up the hill on a palanquin, I recalled with a sigh. At Blackfriars too the queen's noble cousin, the Lord Chamberlain, the players' patron, lived in elegant style in Hunsdon House. Maybe, I thought, his lordship had put in a good word for Will and his men in this Essex mess, so the queen had decided not only to forgive them but to reward them.
Still hieing myself along apace with the boy down the public street edging the area, I had to watch where I stepped to avoid the reeky central gutter and the occasional pan of slop thrown from upper windows. Others were abroad, but the streets still seemed greatly forsaken in the wake of the ruined rebellion. The half-timbered facades and their thatched brows frowned down on us, making the narrow streets even more oppressive.
We entered through the eastern gatehouse I so admired. As ever, I craned my neck to savor the venerable grandeur of its three stories. Its diamond-paned windows gazed like winking eyes over the city with fine views of mansions and their great privy gardens, old Bridewell Palace across the Fleet to the west, the city walls and even the bustling Thames.
Will and I had once found the gatehouse's lower door ajar. Holding hands, we'd tiptoed up the twisting stairs. Standing stripped of goods, the rooms were being whitewashed for new owners. Such narrow but elegant, sunny chambers!
"Next time 'tis offered, I'll buy it for you," Will had promised grandly, though he had but three pounds to his name after sending money back to Stratford.
"Says you, the dreamer, my marvelous maker of fine fictions," I'd retorted. But our lovemaking had been very real, and I yet treasured the memory. Nor, I told myself, would I forget this one, for I'd never been inside the vast structure that housed the queen's wardrobe, that which was not of immediate need and kept at Whitehall Palace.
I'd adored Elizabeth of England from the first moment I'd seen her, gorgeously gowned, on a white horse, when I was but eleven and she'd come to visit her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, near my home in Warwickshire.
The boy led me round the corner into an alcove hidden from the street. He knocked thrice upon it.
"Do you serve Her Majesty?" I asked while we waited.
"I serve those who serve her," he said only.
I meant to question him further, but the door creaked open and an old woman with face wrinkles like cobwebs stood there with her sleeves rolled up. She wore a broadcloth apron as if she were tending a kitchen. "Follow me," she said, not waiting for introduction or comment. The boy did not enter with us but closed the door behind me. It thudded nearly as loud as the beating of my heart, which I told myself was only from our quick pace and my excitement to see this place.
"Farthingales here. Watch your head," the old woman muttered. I trailed her through a narrow alleyway of swinging metal hoops, like lonely bird cages, over which the queen's elaborate kirtles and petticoats would be draped. We plunged down an alley of sweetsmelling sleeves arranged by color, though the limited lantern light made the rich tawny, ruby and ivory hues all seem dusky. Boned bodices came next, then an aisle of fur-edged capes and robes. Of a sudden, the sweet scent of lime and lavender from the garments changed to some sharp smell that made me sneeze.
"Camphor to keep out moths," my guide said.
I jammed a finger under my nose to halt a torrent of sneezes. The maze deepened: swags of green and white Tudor bunting lined the way, then dusty, draped flags and battle banners. Suddenly, my stomach clenched with foreboding. Why would not the garments to be given me simply be ready at the door? We seemed to have passed from attire to military materials. As we rounded the next corner, my worst fears leaped at me from the shadows.
Within a dimly lit grotto of garments, behind a small portable table sat a man simply but finely attired all in black; his amber eyes shone flatly, like an adder's. It took me but a moment to realize I knew him—that is, I knew who he was. I had glimpsed him at court the time the players had taken me with them. His hunchback form was unmistakable. For months, the whole city had talked of naught but the bloodless battles between this man and the Earl of Essex. ...