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Karen Harper is a New York Times– and USA Today–bestselling author whose novels, both historical and contemporary, have been published worldwide. A former college and high school English instructor, Harper now lives in Columbus, Ohio, and Naples, Florida, and frequently travels around the country to promote her books and speak about writing.
LONDON, FEBRUARY 10, 1601
When I opened my door at mid-morn and saw the strange boy, Ishould have known something was wrong. I'd been on edge for threedays, not only because of the aborted rebellion against the queen, butbecause Will and I were at such odds over it—and over our ownrelationship.
"You be Mistress Anne Whateley?"
My stomach knotted. The boy was no street urchin but was wellattired and sported a clean face and hands. "Who wants to know?" Iasked as he extended something to me. He must have a missive sayingsomeone was ill. Or dead. Or, God save us, arrested.
"'Tis a tie from a fine pair of sleeves meant for you with othergarments too, once adorning Her Majesty's person," he recited ina high, singsong voice as he placed a willow-green velvet ribbonlaced 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 foranother? I have naught to do with the queen's wardrobe."
"Three figured brocade gowns, two fine sleeves with points andribbon ties, a butterfly ruff and velvet cloak for the Lord Chamberlain'splayers to use at the Globe Theatre. Since they be busy today, Iam to fetch you to receive the garb."
Of late certain nobles had given me donated garments to pass onto Will's fellows. I'd done many things for the players behind thescenes, as they put it. I'd once helped with costumes, and that at courttoo. In the disastrous performance but three days ago, I'd held thebook and prompted the players. I'd copied rolls for Will and his fellowsas well as taken his dictation. Many knew I had helped to providethe fine cushions that padded the hard wooden seats beneaththe bums of earls and countesses who graced the expensive galleryseats 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 morethan two thousand gowns, so I supposed she could spare a few. TheShakespeare and Burbage company had performed before the courtboth at Whitehall and Richmond, but after the catastrophe of theEssex Rebellion, three days ago, Her Grace was donating personalpieces to them? Surely, she had heard that they had staged Will'sRichard II, a play some whispered had intentionally incited the rebellionagainst her throne.
I'd told Will—another of our arguments—that promoting thattragedy at that time could be not only foolhardy but fatal, so thankthe good Lord the Virgin Queen valued her favorite plays and players.The promised garments must be an olive branch extended tothem. At least this would prove to Will once and for all somethingelse I'd argued for years. Elizabeth Tudor was a magnanimousmonarch, not one who should be dethroned or dispatched beforeGod Himself took the sixty-seven-year-old ruler from this life."One moment," I told the boy. "I must fetch my cloak, for thewind 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 hadbeen feuding over what was love, and I was looking at a copy of hisrole as Jaques, the part he'd written for himself. Like this character,Will had been "Monsieur Melancholy" lately and, looking closer atJaques' lines, I'd been appalled by what I'd found. And though Willand 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 tosee, 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 asI followed him out the door into the courtyard. I lived in the largeBlackfriars 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 thisarea and Will did too. When we were young and even more foolishthan we were now at thirty-six years of age, Blackfriars was our fantasticalplace. We'd oft pretended we owned a fine brick mansion setlike a jewel in green velvet gardens among homes of the queen'snoblemen and gentry.
And to think that Gloriana herself had dined at Blackfriars earlierthis year in the Earl of Worcester's house! She'd been met at the riverand carried up the hill on a palanquin, I recalled with a sigh. AtBlackfriars too the queen's noble cousin, the Lord Chamberlain, theplayers' patron, lived in elegant style in Hunsdon House. Maybe, Ithought, his lordship had put in a good word for Will and his menin this Essex mess, so the queen had decided not only to forgive thembut to reward them.
Still hieing myself along apace with the boy down the public streetedging the area, I had to watch where I stepped to avoid the reekycentral gutter and the occasional pan of slop thrown from upperwindows. Others were abroad, but the streets still seemed greatlyforsaken in the wake of the ruined rebellion. The half-timbered facadesand their thatched brows frowned down on us, making thenarrow 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 citywith fine views of mansions and their great privy gardens, old BridewellPalace across the Fleet to the west, the city walls and even thebustling Thames.
Will and I had once found the gatehouse's lower door ajar. Holdinghands, we'd tiptoed up the twisting stairs. Standing stripped ofgoods, the rooms were being whitewashed for new owners. Suchnarrow but elegant, sunny chambers!
"Next time 'tis offered, I'll buy it for you," Will had promisedgrandly, though he had but three pounds to his name after sendingmoney back to Stratford.
"Says you, the dreamer, my marvelous maker of fine fictions," I'dretorted. But our lovemaking had been very real, and I yet treasuredthe memory. Nor, I told myself, would I forget this one, for I'd neverbeen inside the vast structure that housed the queen's wardrobe, thatwhich was not of immediate need and kept at Whitehall Palace.
I'd adored Elizabeth of England from the first moment I'd seenher, gorgeously gowned, on a white horse, when I was but eleven andshe'd come to visit her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, near my homein Warwickshire.
The boy led me round the corner into an alcove hidden from thestreet. 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 andan old woman with face wrinkles like cobwebs stood there with hersleeves rolled up. She wore a broadcloth apron as if she were tendinga kitchen. "Follow me," she said, not waiting for introduction orcomment. The boy did not enter with us but closed the door behindme. It thudded nearly as loud as the beating of my heart, which Itold myself was only from our quick pace and my excitement to seethis 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 andpetticoats would be draped. We plunged down an alley of sweetsmellingsleeves arranged by color, though the limited lantern lightmade the rich tawny, ruby and ivory hues all seem dusky. Bonedbodices came next, then an aisle of fur-edged capes and robes. Of asudden, the sweet scent of lime and lavender from the garmentschanged 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. Themaze deepened: swags of green and white Tudor bunting lined theway, then dusty, draped flags and battle banners. Suddenly, my stomachclenched with foreboding. Why would not the garments to begiven me simply be ready at the door? We seemed to have passedfrom attire to military materials. As we rounded the next corner, myworst fears leaped at me from the shadows.
Within a dimly lit grotto of garments, behind a small portabletable sat a man simply but finely attired all in black; his amber eyesshone flatly, like an adder's. It took me but a moment to realize Iknew him—that is, I knew who he was. I had glimpsed him at courtthe time the players had taken me with them. His hunchback formwas unmistakable. For months, the whole city had talked of naughtbut the bloodless battles between this man and the Earl of Essex. Ifhe was here to see me—or I to see him—I dreaded to know why.
Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, the queen's closest councillorand chief secretary, was the avowed enemy of Elizabeth's former favoredcourtier, Robert Devereaux, Lord Essex, and his compatriotthe Earl of Southampton, the men who had led the rebellion againsther. It was through Cecil that the two earls had been arrested andrightly so. It was through Cecil that Will's patron, the Earl of Southampton,was being held prisoner in the Tower under the same terriblecharges as his friend Essex.
"That is all," Cecil spoke to the woman, who scurried away.I remembered to curtsy. I was pleased it was quite a steady onebecause my legs were starting to shake. I saw we were not alone; twomen—guards or secretaries?—sat at another table off to my left side.Had I been snared in a trap baited with the promise of royal garmentsonly to be summoned to an inquisition?
"I do indeed have the pieces of cast-off wardrobe for the playersyou were promised, Mistress Whateley," Cecil said as if he'd read mymind. "I do not speak untruths or half-truths, and I pray you will noteither. I must inform you that, since Her Majesty much enjoys thetalents of the Globe's players, I can only hope they will be able toremain at large to put the royal items to good use as costumes in theirdramas."
After that initial assault, I could scarce catch my air. The memoryof my dear, doomed girlhood friend Kat leaped into my mind's eye,for I felt like that—trapped, floating face up, exposed, bereft of help,hope or even breath.
"Fetch a seat for Mistress Whateley, Thompson," Cecil said, anda man jumped to obey. It was some sort of folding camp stool. Iperched poised on the edge, telling myself to sit erect and to showcalm and confidence no matter what befell. Oh, yes, I could be aplayer too. And I was not such a country maid that I did not knowthis was to be a war of wits, and that this one the rabble called RobertusDiabolus—Robert the Devil—had the upper hand.
I tried to buck myself up: however much at odds Will and I werenow, had I not been so close to him and the players that I was wellarmed with clever turns of phrase? I knew how to listen well for cuesbefore responding. Yet this was the man who had inherited Sir FrancisWalsingham's dreaded web of intelligencers, who had broughtdown the lofty likes of Essex and Southampton and had made mincemeatof lesser men and women like Will's kin.
"Thank you for your consideration, my lord," I said before hecould speak again. The words, too many, I warrant, tumbled from mymouth. "For the seat, I mean, but I am also grateful for the gift ofHer Majesty's cast-off garments to the Lord Chamberlain's Men, notonly for them but for myself—to be able to merely care for them. Weall honor our queen."
"Do we all?" he parried. "Mistress, I need straight answers fromyou. I have not hauled in the players themselves—yet—because Icannot abide prevarications or histrionics offstage. I have it on goodauthority you are forthright and have spoken your mind to the Globe'sactors. And I will have you speak plainly here."
"Of course, my lord, but I cannot see why we must meet in sucha place, away from others—"
"I did not think," he interrupted, "knowing Will Shakespeare asintimately as you do, a covert meeting was something new to you."My insides lurched. He knew about me and Will. How much didhe know, from how far back? He must be punning upon the wordknowing in the biblical sense and be aware that Will and I had metsecretly off and on for years. And worse, that I had been questionedonce before by someone from Her Majesty's government about whereWill Shakespeare's loyalties lay.
I fought to compose my features. Our eyes met and held. His facewas not uncomely, but he was so misshapen in bodily form it was saidthe queen called him her Pygmy. I knew of nicknames that couldsting, for I was of half-Italian blood and had oft been called Gypsyor Egyptian.
Cecil's enemies called him simply the Hunchback, and duringthe rebellion, someone had scrawled on his front door, in a nearquote from Will's description of the hunchback King Richard III,HERE LIES THE TOAD! I well knew that playwrights had been imprisoned,tortured and killed for slanders stuck on doors in London."Let me speak plain, mistress," he said when I did not flinch underhis gaze and did not respond again. "It is well known that Shakespeareand his fellow players performed The Tragedy of King RichardII, at the behest of the Earl of Essex and his dear friend-in-armsSouthampton, just before the recent rebellion. I am certain I need nottell such a devoted friend of the playwright that scenes are in thatdrama that advocate the overthrow of a sitting monarch by a favoriteof the English crowds."
"It's just a play, my lord, employing the past and hardly predictingthe future." I saw where he was going now but had no notion of howbest to navigate the dangers. "Indeed, the Lord Chamberlain's Menwere paid a goodly sum for performing it," I continued. "They hadno political statement to make, but simply needed the money, fortypieces of silver, so—"
"It should have been thirty pieces of silver!" he exploded, smackinghis palm on his table, making it jump and shudder. "They are Judases,as much favor as Her Grace has shown them! And, yes, mistress, Ihear you repeat the name of the Lord Chamberlain, as they bear thequeen's cousin's name as patron. But," he said thrusting up both handswhen he saw me ready to protest, "I know Will Shakespeare's breadis buttered on the other side too, for he's been cozy with Southamptonfor years, and the Shakespeare family has a convoluted, questionablepast as Catholics and rebels!"
I was dumbfounded. He knew about Will's beginnings, familyconnections, his life from the earliest days. Then he could ruin Willwith this—ruin me too.
"All I can tell you of my Warwickshire friend Will Shakespeare inall this," I said, fighting again to control my voice, "is that he praysthat your lordship and Her Gracious Majesty will spare the life ofhis friend and sponsor the Earl of Southampton. He merely did afavor for him and for the needed money. He meant no politicalstatement."
I was lying and I felt myself begin a fiery blush from the tip of myears to my throat. I could only pray that the tawny hue of my skinhid that. And here I was fighting for Will when I could have strangledhim with my bare hands but three days ago.
"Both earls' coming trials will decide all that," Cecil said, "but wecan hardly claim that poets and playwrights are above such politicalfrays, can we? Praying we forgive Southampton, that's what he's beenup to, eh? More like, London's favorite playwright has been writingsomething else to stir up sedition. Ben Jonson went to the Marshalseaprison five years ago for a slanderous play," he went on, jabbing afinger at me like a scolding schoolmaster. "Thomas Kyd was questionedunder extreme duress and, sadly, died soon after. ChristopherMarlowe—"
"Was supposedly accidentally stabbed in a tavern brawl," I daredto interrupt. My Italian blood was up; I could not help myself. Atleast he seemed not to know of my past with Southampton or Marloweeither. "And," I plunged on, "it was said Marlowe was an informerfor Sir Francis Walsingham, so I'm not sure what it behoovesone to be an informer, as it's whispered his demise could have beenan assassination and not an accident!"
"Ah," he said, and his mouth crimped in either annoyanceor amusement. "The beauty does have hidden fangs as well as aclever brain."
We stared at each other in a stalemate but hardly, I thought, atruce. Air from an unseen source shifted a battle banner behind hishead. One of Jaques' lines from As You Like It leaped through mymind to taunt me: "The worst fault you have is to be in love."With a shudder up my spine, I realized then what I said in thenext few moments could save Will or damn him to torture, imprisonmentor even death.
"But tell me," Cecil said, leaning on his elbows and steepling hislong-fingered hands before his mouth, "before we go on, exactly whatis William Shakespeare to you? Here you are, an exotic woman, atempting vixen, when he has a wife and family back in Stratford-Upon-the-Avon. Tell me true, Mistress Anne Whateley, what is theman to you?"
That, I thought, was the question. For nearly two decades, sinceeven before the day he'd publicly, legally wed Anne Hathaway, I'd notonly loved but loathed William Shakespeare to the very breadth anddepth of my being. What was he to me and I to him? God's truth, inmy pierced and patched heart, I, Anne Rosaline Whateley, was aboveall else, the first Mistress Shakespeare, Will's other wife.
THE HISTORY OF ANNE ROSALINE WHATELEY
I would not have anyone believe I am untutored nor ignorantof how one's life's story is commonly constructed. I admit theprevious scene of dialogue with Robert Cecil in London is nottruly a prologue, for much of what I will write next camebefore. After all, an old adage says, "What's past is prologue."But you see, that confrontation with Cecil caused me tosearch my soul to record my life. What, indeed, am I to Willand to others? What and who am I to myself?
Having inspired characters in Will's plays and workedclosely with him in many ways—ah, both of us love to rhyme—I have decided to arrange the events of my story as if it were afive-act play, that is, divided into the major parts of my life andstory. As Will wrote for a play last year, "All the world's a stageand all the men and women merely players." And since I havethe London playhouses and their people in my blood as fiercelyas does he, I shall relate my narrative in such a pattern.
This tale will reveal not only my life but Will's, so entwinedare our plots, so to speak. Sometimes I fear his rivals will consignhis work to oblivion, or that theatrical tastes may shift yetagain and judge him of no account, or that plague or the pratingPuritans will shut down the playhouses permanently. If so,I pray this account will let others know him and his work evenbetter—and justify my part in his life too.
The rendering of my thoughts, emotions and experiences ispart comedy and part tragedy as well as history, for life is sucha mingling. And so, I write this report of the woman bornAnne Rosaline Whateley, she who both detested and adored aman named William Shakespeare.