"Hsssssh! What are -- oh, stuck again?" Robin put aside the cloth donkey's head, and leaned down to loosen a bit of lace from a protruding nail.
Nick nodded his thanks. His long-curled wig bobbed, and he carefully pinned it to his own hair near his ears, beneath the front curls. "This damned farthingale catches on everything." His voice, too, was near to inaudible, as he leaned a little further back from the audience's view, still craning his neck forward. "She's there."
"Twopenny seats, second gallery center. In red and black."
Robin sucked in a breath. "Dangerous, to be so close to the Queen."
"Dangerous? For our Will's lady to sit near royalty? She's nobility herself, I hear, from near Inverness."
Robin raised an eyebrow. In his time with Chandos's Men and in his travels in Scotland as a poor performer alone, he'd found few north of Perthshire who might be counted as nobility if it were Englishmen totting up the reckoning.
"If nobility hath a face, may it be she."
"What, Nick, taking up the quill? Or misquoting our good playwright?"
Nick's hand flipped him off but stopped. The scene was shifting into Act III, and the stagehands stood with green boughs to portray the enchanted Athenian woods. He pushed his wig into position and went to lie down in the leafy bower so Titania could be discovered asleep.
Robin came in on cue, saying his lines, but thinking of Master Will's lady for whom this play had been made. Sure, he could see her if he glanced aside through the eyeholes in the donkey's head. Her pale face shone in the shadows, her dark eyes intent on the stage, her hand touching her cheek. In the fashion of the times, her hair had been gathered up into a snood in back but it seemed to glow, as she did, with some incalculable light. It was as if her presence dimmed the space around her. He found it hard to focus his eyes on the faces of the men on her left, or the women on her right.
No, that must be from the stage lights. He reminded himself to bray from the chest, not the throat, so as to keep his voice whole.
"The next play?" Will drank from his tankard and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "I'd thought another tragedy, to give us some range, but Her Majesty has asked for a history."
"A history?" Philip Henslowe nodded. "Another Henry, perhaps? There's a few left unwritten. Or William of Hastings?"
"It's one thing to stage a battle, quite another to set a sea invasion on the boards." Will caught the eye of a serving wench and gestured toward the table as a whole. "I've had a mind for awhile to write a Scottish play, something Pictish."
"Pictish?" Henslowe considered. "It's possible. Might wish to steer clear of the history of the current Scottish court. We'd like to keep our heads, you see."
Robin shivered and downed more ale. "How Pictish, Will?"
"The last Pictish king, MacBeth, had a good reign. Fourteen years, following the wars and so on. I think there's a story there. And certain, his lady wife, Gruagach --"
"Wasn't she also wife to Duncan, before him, and to young Malcolm afterward? A lady of experience, that would be." Robin grinned at Nick's bemused face. "Young Nicholas here would have to stretch his abilities to play her."
"If Master Will would write it I'd do my best," Nick said in his clearest Titania voice.
"Well, we'll see. Her Majesty might well wish to view a different aspect of the past."
The talk in the tavern turned to other subjects, but Robin was still thinking of the idea of a Scottish play when they left, when they walked out of the door in the early evening and down the alley toward the street only to find it blocked by a carriage at the end. As he started to dodge past the snorting black horses, he saw a woman's gloved hand reach past the burgundy curtains in the open half-door toward Will Shakespeare. Will's face changed, from the animation of thought and idea to entrancement, and he climbed willingly up into the carriage. As the horses stepped past them, hooves clattering on cobblestone, a strand of black hair trailed out the half-door, glowing oddly red in the lamplight.
"Alas, there goes MacBeth," Nick lamented, catching up with Robin. "We'll surely not hear of him again."
"Give our Will credit, lad. He can keep more in mind than the rough and tumble."
"Even when he worships a goddess?"
"Is that envy I hear, young Nick? There are no goddesses except our good Queen Bess, our true Titania, thou shouldst recall." Robin's voice cut more sharply than he had planned, but it was for both their goods; one of the royal spies was within earshot, just far enough back as to be out of Nick's view. "Let not thy drink make thee speak intemperately."
It was a good thing that young Nick was rooming nearby. Robin saw him into the care of his landlady -- or her daughter, or both -- and went home to his family.
"I fear for Will," Henslowe said quietly. "He's scarce to be seen nowadays." He was sorting through odd bits of garb and props, and checking them off on a list.
Nick, in a doublet and practice skirt, glanced up from where he was tinkering with a stage sword. "The plays are doing well."
"Aye, the last four or five have gone swimmingly, packed houses every night except during the plague. 'Tis as if he were enchanted. He cannot put a word wrong these days at all."
Robin, who had been pacing the stage, marking in his mind the blocking for his role as Dogsberry, promptly abandoned the task. "You know the old saw. If ever a man were more unlucky in love --"
"Unlucky? While he still rejoices in Milady Medeous's favor?" The sword cut through the air with an audible swish. Nick set it by and picked the next one to fix.
"Unlucky to be with her and far from home when his only son died. Unlucky that his goodwife Anne told him her mind about this as well, so that he cannot comfortably go home." Robin turned in place, observing the gallery. Was he standing far enough downstage on the thrust so that all the groundlings would see the way he poked his hip as he faked the dismount? "Unlucky that Milady will not let him go an he did wish it."
Henslowe nodded slowly. "Will's a torn man these days, I fear, despite his success. And speaking of success, have you learnt all your lines as Beatrice?"
Nick blinked large brown eyes at him and curtseyed in place, his fingers brushing his chin. "He that hath a beard -- ah, yes, I must shave before the performance -- he that hath a beard is more than a youth; and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me; and he that is less than a man. I am not for him --"
"Bravo, bravo!" Loud clapping rang in the empty theatre, as the lady Medeous stepped out from between the upstage curtains where she had been standing.
Robin turned his startlement into his most courtly bow, and Henslowe followed suit. Nick, no less courteous, swept his skirt aside to make a deep curtsy, but Medeous moved forward to take his hand.
"I am not Elizabeth, for you to give me such honors," she said, raising him. Nick swallowed hard. "Nay, I came to ask you all to a dinner to cheer your friend Will."
"How is he, madam? We have not seen him much of late," Henslowe said, "and have missed him greatly"
"He was ill for some little time while he sojourned at my country house," she told them, turning her brilliant eyes from one of them to another. "I thought perhaps some festivity with his friends might raise his spirits."
"Lady, if you require us to raise his spirits in your stead, he must be ill indeed." Robin did not realize he'd spoken aloud until Medeous's eyes came to rest upon him. "I cry you mercy, sweet lady, I did not mean --"
"'Tis well, sir. I take no offense." Her tone was mild. "Will it please thee to come now? All of you? My horses await us."
"I regret, lady, I cannot." How was it that Henslowe's smooth voice seemed as coarse as a tinker's cry for his wares? "I must stay for other meetings this day, related to our next performance."
"I am sorry you cannot come, then. But the rest of you?"
"The play's the thing, you see; we must return in good time for it," Robin found himself explaining. "The first performance is in a week."
"No problem with that; we go only to my house in the city for a little while."
"Then with great pleasure, I accept," Nick had untied the drawstring on the practice skirt, which dropped to the floor. He stepped out of it and kicked it aside, then went into a courtier's sweeping bow.
Don't overdo it, lad, Robin thought, his lips pressed together. In an instant he smoothed his mouth into a more acceptable shape and made his own bow, a more comic one as suited his stage persona. "I'll come with pleasure to any endeavor that aids our Will," he said.
And she swept them behind her out the back of the theatre and into her carriage. They stepped down from the carriage and up into an old house on the outskirts of the city,
Robin was never able afterward to recall exactly what they had eaten or drunk there, only that it tasted better than anything his wife's cook had ever devised. And surely Will had been pining for company, for his face had been wan and tired when they arrived, though in a moment he looked to be their good cheerful friend and in perfect health as well. He handed around ink-spattered rolls of foolscap, the draft of a new play, and urged them to read it. Within minutes they were pacing out the lines on the elegant flowered carpet.
"If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So, be sure will Rosalind.
Winter garments must be lin'd,
So must slender Rosalind --
Will, this is the very stuff of genius!" Robin was flushed with excitement. He turned too quickly and bumped into a slender woman with her own roll of foolscap. "I beg thee mercy," he said quickly.
"No matter. 'It is a device to call fools into a circle.' No, I have that wrong, don't I, Master Will?" She smiled at him, long brown hair from under her maid's cap sweeping her waist, and appealed to Will.
"It's well enough, Odile; it can be mended later."
"I see nothing that needs mending--" A dry spot in Robin's throat made him cough until Odile handed him a goblet of wine. "Many thanks, lady."
"You give the pale words on paper a true life, by my troth," said a tall, dark man, who smiled at him. "Jack Nichopolous at your service, sir."
"Robert Armin at yours." He raised his glass and Nichopolous raised his as well. He seemed a pleasant sort, if a bit intense; was he also a player, perhaps? If not, where had he seen the man before? He was about to offer a polite inquiry when Odile tilted her head toward him.
"Surely you are weary from your work. Would you care for more wine, or for something else? A sweet, perhaps?" She drew him aside, toward the table laden with food. He recognized marzipan and meat pies, gingerbread and apple dumplings, and roasts stuffed and ornamented. "If this be not to your liking, say so and other dainties can be found for you." She took up a marzipan shaped like a rose in her hand, and nibbled at with small, even teeth. "Would you have a taste?"
No, he wasn't imagining it. However married a man may be, he can see an opportunity when it walks up to him and presents itself.
God, he needed cheering as much as Will, what with reckonings to pay to shopkeepers and innkeepers, and the demands of family always in his ears. She was a little taller than he, so he flirted briefly to bring her down to his height before kissing her. His blood thundered in his veins, and distantly he could hear someone say, "Master Robin's occupied. Shall we say something, Nicholas, of your own prospects?"
She was sweet and willing out of bed, wily and uninhibited in it. Robin, pleasantly tired, dozed off, to wake and start again -- but had the bed grown larger? He blinked, trying to focus. Was that Nick and Jack sharing the favors of another woman who resembled Odile? That he could believe, for good large beds were hard to come by, even for the rich -- and by God's holy Grail, the lady Medeous had to have a wealthy patron to afford this house if she had not the gold herself.
But to see Medeous herself undone, her hair wild as snakes on the sunlit pillows, and Will, who took his amours privately, making sweet concord with her in the presence of the rest of them --
Odile stopped his mouth with a kiss, but he pulled back a little. "Who is --"
"My sister Cressida. Did you want her, I can ask her over."
"I am well enough occupied," he said, and forgot his other thoughts.
They were certainly back in time for the next rehearsal, with Will revived and happy to have suggestions for his new work. He told Robin afterward that he had written Touchstone for him expressly, because he so appreciated Robin's way with clowns, and Robin, tired without reason, smiled sweetly at him and said he'd do whatever Will wanted.
It took years before Robin was able to reconcile the amount of time they had been away -- only a few hours by the town hall clock -- with his memory of sundown, and sunup, and all the time in between, and all that they had done in that time.
Robin's Touchstone was a wonder and a triumph, Nick's Celia a spritely wench, though the play went unperformed until after Queen Bess died. With the ascension of James to the English throne, and the accompanying political and religious tensions, it was just as well that Will had put his Scottish play aside for a while.
It was late autumn, just after the Catholic-observed Feast of All Saints that was ignored by the ascendant Protestants, when he ran into Odile unexpectedly in the street near a stationer's shop. He asked politely after her health, and that of her sister Cressida, whom he had not seen attending Milady Medeous at the last play. She grew still as a stone for three long heartbeats.
"My sister has gone away on a dark road," she told him, then bit her lower lip as if she had said too much.
"I am grieved to hear it, lady. Is there aught I may do to relieve your distress?"
"No." Her gloved hand pressed his, and she went on, attended by a young page, a blond boy with sherry-brown eyes.
She had not spoken of that time they had spent together, but he had wondered, afterward, if he had given her cause for grief. Or, possibly, a child, which could be either joy or grief and did he not know that from his own? But she had never seemed, when he saw her, to lose that slender body long enough to bear one, so he had let that thought drift away as others seemed to do when Milady Medeous's court was involved.
"Pray do not, my lady. I cannot come with you."
"Thou mean'st thou will not." Milady Medeous's voice thrummed like water in a cavern underground, full of half-sensed echoes.
Robin sank back against the wall in the wings, his breath shallow, muffling his lantern behind his cloak. He had returned to the Globe so late because he was certain he'd left a small purse behind with the money he'd won at cards a few days ago, and he wanted it for another game. He had neither wanted nor expected to be audience to this.
If he were lucky, they would not notice him. He missed a few words murmured low, and strained to hear, if only to be warned when they might come his way. Then he realized they were speaking Latin, the formal language of royal diplomacy, not English.
"Thou knowest not what I offer, sweet William. Come, live thy life with me and write thy plays and when thou wish it we'll go abroad, out of this cruel country." She was using the familiar forms with him, the language of equals and of lovers.
Will was pacing the stage; his footsteps echoing back from the empty benches. "This land can be cruel; I'll deny it not. I know you suffer under them as well, though you have kept your sympathies private thus far. You cannot evade the laws forever. "
Robin frowned. Will was using the formal plural, not the informal singular forms with her, as one would speak to someone of higher rank. Well, there's no surprise, he thought, Will was ever the able courtier, but need he be a courtier with her even after all these years?
Will's pacing had stopped. He had moved into the narrow strip between curtain and wall that Robin could see. There he stood in the light of a lantern set downstage, backlit, in profile. "You are my dark lady," he said, in a voice Robin had never heard from him, not even onstage, in all the years of their friendship. "You are my muse, the delight of my heart, the inspiration for my work. But there are impediments even you cannot conquer."
"I am a married man."
"So truly married that thou spendest thy hours in my company, not hers. "
"Yet she remains my lady wife, and the mother of my girls." Will's voice seemed rougher. "And I was away when my Hamnet died. I cannot forgive myself that."
"And the other?" The dark lady had moved forward as well, so that they faced each other in profile. Her hair tumbled free over her shoulders like a girl's, only no girl Robin had ever seen had hair to her knees in which deep red strands like live rubies twined among the raven coils.
Robin shrank back even further into the wall, trying not to breathe loudly. A dark lady indeed. O fair queen of Elfland, your like I never did see.
"I am a Roman Catholic, my lady, as was my father and his father. I must be discreet about my faith while James rules, for the sake of my family and friends, but I will not forsake it."
She cocked her head as if curious. "Think'st thou I would or could keep thee from believing what thou would please? Have I ever said to believe anything but what pleased thee? Or to pray to anyone but thy chosen god?"
"No, thou hast not." Will's voice shook. He looked away, at the stage, at the pit that the groundlings had filled for him, and slipped into English. "Thou hast ever been kind to me and generous beyond measure, but thy ways are not like mine." A slow tear moved down his cheek. "Were I to go along, I would live in thy land at thy pleasure, subject to the laws of that place." His head came up and his eyes back to her. "And those whom thou must obey are no less cruel than my rulers."
"Sweet Will, you know nothing."
"What of Cressida, then?"
"That -- could not be helped."
"What price my life then? Or my soul?" Will's head shook slowly. "Ask me no longer, dearest lady, for that which I cannot give thee."
For a space, no one spoke. Robin gathered his wits and spied, on a bench a few steps away, his errant purse. He crossed the beam of light as quickly as possible, snatched up the purse, and took two steps when he heard footsteps onstage, and slipped into the deep shadows at the back wall.
"If 'twere a matter of money for thy family, 'twould be naught. Neither they nor their children need ever hunger, if thou wilt but say the word." She was almost crooning.
He shook his head again. "Please, my lady. Let it be."
"Thy mind will change ere the end." She was so certain, she had returned to Latin.
Robin could stand it no longer; he stepped sideways, a foot at a time, until he reached the doorway and fell through it. When he came to the tavern, he found a corner, ordered a bottle and drank it all, speaking to no one. And, in the morning, when he awoke in that corner, he got up slowly and went home. It was a week before he went back to the Globe.
London buzzed with intrigue and fright when King James unearthed the Gunpowder Plot. For a time all the players kept out of sight, fearing the humor of the crowds, but Will was summoned to the palace and returned full of energy.
"We are to do The Tragedy of MacBeth," he told them.
"When?" Nick asked.
Will's grin was wry. "As soon as I can finish it, quite carefully."
"Where?" Robin felt wary. The easy mood of London had given way, and many of the lesser nobility and the merchants who had flocked to the Globe had fled the city's uncertainty for more peaceable rural estates if they had them.
"Privately at the court, for the King. His Highness wishes a play about the evil that comes to those who commit treason and regicide."
So, the long-hidden scraps of play were brought out and polished, and they set to work to make it shine. Rather than assigning roles, Will gave his most experienced players their choice of parts. Nick read the play through twice and asked to be Lady Macduff, doubling as one of the Weird Sisters and as a serving man.
"It's a younger man's role," he told Will.
Will paused only briefly before nodding. "Have you an idea who should play her?
"One of the younger men," Nick said again. "Someone newer."
Robin swallowed hard. He knew he would not ask for MacBeth; his lack of height was against him. "I would essay Malcolm, or Banquo." Will nodded again.
The play was a success, though the players outnumbered the audience. No one who had been with the company since A Midsummer's Night's Dream pointed out, then or later, that the Macbeth they were putting onstage shared few if any attributes of Scotland's real last Pictish ruler, or that Lady MacBeth in the play was neither sweet nor named Gruagach.
Or that she resembled Will's former mistress at all.
The years rolled on, and the plays gave him more to work with. He jested with a skull in hand in Hamlet, sang and played the lute as Feste in Twelfth Night, and gave over whimsy to play a natural fool for King Lear. But his joints ached in the damp London weather, He began to stay longer and longer at the theatre, or the tavern nearby, because he hated to go home to an empty bed now that his wife had died.
"We're all gone older," Nick said to him one night at the tavern as they sat in the corner by the fire, their cold feet toward the hearth. "I'm no longer Beatrice; I'm fortunate if I can play Juliet's Nurse without starting guffaws in the crowd. Even Will is weary."
He shook his head. "Never mind me, Nick. My mind is a muddle of forgotten lines."
Nick nodded wisely. "You're thinking of the Lady Medeous, are you not?"
Why deny it? "It's an old man's folly, to wish to dwell again in the pleasant lines of the past. Selfish of me, I know, to wish she and our Will had not quarreled."
"Why did they? I've wondered that a while; I was on tour when it happened."
What was the harm in telling him? "She wanted Will to come away with her, to another country, and he didn't want to go."
Nick's smile was wistful. "A warmer country, God wot. This one's harsh in winter."
"I don't see a lack of merry Windsor wives in thy bed, Nick."
"I don't keep them for myself, Robin. I just warm me for a while when they pass by."
"Warm. I could be warmer."
A few hours later, as Nick walked with him toward home, arms about each other's shoulders to keep from falling on the ice, Nick began to sing softly, "Under the greenwood tree, who loves to lie with me?"
Robin chimed in, ignoring how his once-supple voice cracked and creaked in the cold wind. "…And turn his merry throat unto the sweet bird's note. Come hither! Come hither! Come hither!"
The carriage pulled up next to them, blocking the wind, and they stood in its shelter a moment, Robin catching his breath and grateful for the respite. Neither of them noticed the stamping black horses, or the open half-door until the woman's voice from within began to sing the next chorus.
"Here shall he see no enemy but winter, and rough weather."
It was Odile who sang, heavy cloak pulled warmly around her, as she reached out to invite him in, and without a thought he went, one small step up into the carriage and Nick with him. And across from Odile, who looked not a moment older than when he had first seen her in the gallery of the Globe, sat Milady Medeous, smiling at him with the warmth of the summer sunshine.
"Will it please you to come with us to another country?" she asked him.
Robin felt his bad knee creak. "A more temperate one, I'd hope?"
"As warm as you could wish for." Odile linked her arm through his.
"Then I will come with you, with heartfelt thanks." He thought of the bits and pieces of business awaiting him on his desk at home. "If I might stop first to bring some things with me?"
"As long as you like. And yourself, sir?" She addressed Nick. "You have obligations still, am I correct?"
"I do," Nick said, "but once those are concluded …"
"We'll come back for you, don't worry," Odile said.
"You won't lose me?"
"Never," she promised him.
The carriage stopped at Robin's house long enough for him to sign a few papers, leave a purse of coins atop them on his desk, and cram a few precious bits and pieces into a bag. Nick had bid him farewell with a rough hug, whispering, "Save a song for me when I come." Robin nodded and watched him slide away down the alley.
He was back in the coach within the hour, relaxing into the corner as if he belonged there. It felt blessedly warm there, sheltered from the wind. Robin drifted into sleep, rocking with the carriage, and felt Odile tucking a fur robe around him. When he woke, the carriage was still. "Are we there?"
"Yes, and everyone's waiting for you." Odile gently squeezed and released his hand. "Truly, Robin, all will be well, very well indeed." She stepped down out of the carriage and waited for him.
And he took a step down to the ground, in the warmth of a sun he'd never seen in winter, in front of a crowd that bowed before them all. As the horses were led away. moving as freshly as if they had never drawn the carriage for hours, he let Odile lead him forward along a path strewn with flowers, following his Will's Dark Lady through the glittering court wherever she would go.