She accepted another job of work from Mr Gibbons, knowing it to be the last. It was an heraldic panel on which she was to broider the arms and likeness of the duke who had commanded it. For many hours and days Margaret laboured upon the design that lay next to her embroidery frame: the sea swell, the furling waves that symbolised the nobleman’s distant voyages, the wild animal and the great fishes he had killed and brought back, anatomised, to England, and in one corner a portrait of his mother embodied as the goddess Juno. But in the central portrait of the duke, Margaret took certain liberties. She fashioned a fantastical body, half man, half beast, which being heroic and as virile struck Mr Gibbons as somewhat bombastic, though exquisitely stitched. ‘Fine work. Ill-judged.’ He paid her for the piece, but dismissed her. And thus she found herself more free and in greater need.
Her sister proposed that she work at the apothecary, offered to teach her how to prepare beautifying unctions, long-lasting perfumes, stimulating tonics, tinctures to relieve pain, and narcotics – the span and compass of the herbalist’s pharmacopoeia. As to expelling the sinful fruits of the womb, Jane alone would tend to such matters. Margaret consented to work there for one week when her sister’s sailor husband arrived home unannounced, his ship having lately docked in Portsmouth, eager to celebrate with his wife his recent preferment to the rank of boatswain. They travelled to the Lakes and, upon their return, the husband bade farewell and rejoined his galleon; Jane, for her part, seemed another woman, one of those same gentlewomen she ministered to with her sure hands. In that week, Margaret had versed herself in the many essences and had devised a receipt for a syrup of liquorice that provoked immediate laughter and, its effect passed, did not lead to prostration. Thus, finding herself contented, she resolved to remain in service at Mr Morgan’s apothecary shop, which welcomed her gladly.
One morning, towards midday, a carriage drawn by two horses in fine livery stopped outside the dispensary and there entered three men and a youth, the latter mewling and kicking. The boy did not wish to have his face powdered nor his cheeks painted with ladies’ cosmetics, but his father, the eldest of the men, commanded. He had paternal authority, the other two had money, and the younger of these, from what Margaret could surmise, was chief among The King’s Men who were presently to stage a new work. On seeing Margaret with the pomade in hand, the boy became calm as though a woman whitening the shadow of his downy beard was no threat to his manhood. He was a handsome lad, though graceless and surly of manner, but a lotion of milk and butter and a curling of his lashes gave him a gentleness that tempered his gaucheness. That very afternoon, he was to play the princess in a tragedy wherein a whole family would perish by reason of a foolish inheritance. In gratitude to Margaret for her patience with the boy, the leader of the company invited her to see the afternoon’s performance. ‘So you may weep free of cost.’ She demurred. She did not care for theatre. Nor for weeping.
She became a young woman who, according to the hours, hated and loved a man. At nightfall, her sister could make her forget her sorrows with waggish tales of what had happened in the day, since often the most notorious ladies among her customers received her in their chambers so that, in secret, she might display the full range of her beautifying potions; one duchess, frustrated by her duke’s faltering desire, and having heard tell from an Italian in Cambridge of a rare device, asked whether Jane could procure a simulacrum of the female genitals fashioned from wax and honey, which, when placed atop the real thing gripped the male member so firmly that its owner never wished to withdraw and would sometimes fall to sleep homo erectus.
Jane had never heard of such a thing, but invented a less extravagant version of the same, just as, to regale her sister, she invented incidents where soldiers returning from battle came to her so she might heal their privates, they having exposed the same – believing it to cure purulent infection – to the scorching sun of Portugal, which left many impotent, and the more pertinacious incontinent. On nights of such drollery, she would sleep often five or six hours at a stretch, only to wake before the day, missing the childlike breath of her husband; not hearing him next to her kindled such heartbreak as might be assuaged by tears dabbed with a handkerchief. Alas she could not weep. Not even at the tragedies of others.
Time did pass, and one afternoon when her sister’s work called her from London, she went again to the theatre. To brood in the theatre. She remembered that soon after their wedding day, Thomas had taken her across the river to see a comedy set in the impossible kingdom of Navarre, and when in the five years of their marriage they had returned to the Globe Playhouse once or twice each summer, how she had delighted to see those plays that unfolded on imagined isles or in lands so ancient they might well be counterfeit. In suffering or in joy, the strangeness of the characters, their fantastical attire, the conjured names of cities yet unheard all seemed to her the stuff of magic, of winter’s tales. So it was that she had allowed him to take her to the grand tragedy that they had seen on the day that Thomas marked thirty years, the day before he left their home never to return. She so despised that day she had forgot the name and the argument of that historic tale set in some far-off land. She remembered two words only: Egyptian puppet.
Where is Egypt?
The sun had emerged after five long weeks slumbering among the clouds that lour until springtime, and the crowds were beginning to gather on the esplanade before the playhouse where, when Margaret first arrived, there were but three beggars and a woman bringing the players’ garments. People came from north and south, by foot and in coaches that waited in the alleys for their masters or left once unburdened of their travellers. Riotous they were, all clamouring together. ‘A joyous rabble,’ she thought. ‘Today they play a tragedy of love,’ she heard a woman’s voice whisper in her ear. ‘A love that truly happened beneath an Orient moon that first blessed then doomed the lovers.’
Turning, she recognised beneath the high falsetto the peevish boy that she had painted, that pale skin she had flushed with red, those eyes that with her own hands she had made a wide and dazzling black with pencil. ‘Are you alone?’ ‘I am never alone. My ladies are with me. At first I did not like it, I played small roles, peasant women or nurses in rude garb. The day you painted me, I played my first young lady; the daughter of a foolish king who bequeaths his lands to her spiteful sisters. Since that day, I have been Juliet and Cressida, the ill-starred Venetian lass strangled by the Moor and bold Rosalind who feigns she is a man. And today . . . ’ ‘Today?’ ‘Today I return since, for the first time in two years, they will play the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Have you no husband to escort you? My name is Nicholas. Nicko, they call me.’
Margaret watched the performance alone, standing near the front of the unroofed yard, as though the story of these wayward lovers, these jealousies, these tricks, these wars fought in bedchamber and on battlefield were new to her. The actor playing Mark Antony was a handsome man who, as he whispered passionately to Cleopatra, gazed at the women in the crowd as though he would seduce them. This did not trouble her, nor did his Scottish accent. Margaret had eyes only for Nicko.
By now, Antony was dead, and Margaret felt it was just that he die by his own hand, by his own sword as the actor reeled and staggered so much among the candles he seemed about to set his tunic ablaze. The climax of the tragedy was yet to come. The grief of Cleopatra. The vanities of sovereigns. The boy actor spoke the words in a still, soft voice, arms by his sides, no waving or gesticulation, no queenly raiment but a plain white tunic like that worn by her maidservant Iras, to whom Nicko announced the humiliation the victors were preparing to visit on her and on her mistress.
Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shalt be shown
In Rome, as well as I. Mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers, shall Uplift us to the view.
This was the same Cleopatra who stood upon the stage, her bare feet those of a boy, showing herself to the people of Rome, to the scholars standing behind Margaret who had laughed at the words ‘Egyptian puppet’, to the rude peasant who fell upon the floor in fear when he saw Nicko pluck a writhing serpent from a basket of figs. Standing downstage, the queen allowed her maidservants to bedeck her with jewels, her robe of state, her crown; she seemed to hear Antony call to her. Husband, I come.
She saw how Cleopatra wept for love, and how she died for love, as Nicko pressed the sharp teeth of the viper to his false breast.
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired.
Margaret was the last of the much-moved spectators to leave, and she tarried in the playhouse by a stair. There was no one to be seen now. And so she dared ascend the steps, and draw back a curtain which gave onto a chamber with a door; this she opened, to the surprise of three naked boys, the three maidservants in the tragedy, tossing the basket of figs between them as though it were a ball. Nicko was not among them. She asked after him, but the jeering lads said they knew no one by that name. Perchance she sought Cleopatra of the tawny front? She tired of their foolishness and, leaving the chamber, found herself in a darkened hallway with young Nicholas before her.
‘I did not see you weep at my death.’
‘Did I play the scene so badly?’
‘I saw you weep. You played it excellently.’
‘And the words I spoke, did you understand them all? Egyptian puppet?’
‘Perhaps not all. I could listen to your words for hours.’ ‘I have forgotten them already. To me, they are a part of yesterday. Now I must learn those I will speak tomorrow. Look . . . ’
From a trunk he took a painted head with drooping ears.
‘Tomorrow I shall be a queen enamoured of a boor with an ass’s head.’
‘Tomorrow I shall not come.’
‘I shall give you a gift, that you might remember today.’
Nicko unbuttoned the beaded bodice of the queen in which the asp still nestled, with its broidered tongue and eyes of glass, he handed it to her, kissed her twice and, with a bound, vanished into the dressing chamber while Margaret, clutching the serpent, walked back towards the river which, at this hour, raged enough to sweep away the body of a desperate lover. Before she crossed the bridge, she tossed the snake of rags and tatters upon the waters, where it floated, following the current, and disappeared into the darkness.