The Merlin’s Wife
“When were you born?” asks Lady Howard.
“Born, my lady?” asks Jane as she comes in with the clean under-linen.
“Yes. What day, and what time?” Lady Howard looks up. “I need to know. Dr Dee has consented to cast our horoscopes.”
Jane feels a flutter of apprehension at the thought of it. Dr Dee is the queen’s astronomer, but she has heard other things about him – that he is a conjuror who practises unnatural magic.
She opens the lid of the coffer to fold away the linen and an aroma of sweet basil rises to tickle the back of her throat. She sneezes discreetly into the sleeve of her gown.
“What day?” insists Lady Howard.
“It was the twenty-second day of April.”
She deducts her age from the present date. “Fifteen fifty-five.”
“And I need to know the hour!” Lady Howard’s pen hovers over the paper spread on her table and the ink begins to pool into a droplet that will surely fall. Jane feels pressured to make an answer before the neat writing is spoiled.
She wrinkles her forehead and gazes at the leaping flames in the grate, as if they will give her an answer. “I think I was born at midday.” She knows it is important to be precise if her horoscope is to be meaningful. And in truth, she would like to know what the future holds.
The next day, as she follows Lady Howard and her two daughters across the courtyard to Dr Dee’s chamber, she looks up at the star that has lately appeared in the skies. It blazes so brightly that it can be seen during the daylight hours. There has been an air of unease around the court since its sudden appearance. After a summer spent at Greenwich to avoid the plague and yet another plot to kill the queen, they are all fearful of what it portends. It defies the accepted knowledge about the heavens, causing everyone to question what they know about God’s creation. The astronomers have always taught that the stars are fixed on the canopy beyond the seven planets. They are not supposed to move from their constellations. But this one has. And some are saying that it is the Star of Bethlehem, come again as a sign of Judgement Day. Jane hopes they are wrong. She is afraid of being judged by God and besides, she would feel cheated if the end of days were to come when her life has barely begun.
A door is opened and a man ushers them into the presence of the magus. Jane feels her heart pounding beneath her laced bodies as Dr Dee gets up from his seat at the large table. He is a tall man, and slender. His long beard is dark and so are his eyes. He wears a black gown and his hair is covered by a close fitting cap. He looks stern, but his face softens into a smile as he greets Lady Howard. Then his gaze turns on Jane as she hesitates in the shadows.
“Jane Fromonds,” says Lady Howard. Jane curtseys on trembling legs as Dr Dee nods then turns his attention back to his principal guest. He bids Lady Howard come closer and pulls out a chair at his table for her to sit down. Her daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, stand behind her, whispering into their hands and glancing at the great man as if they are afraid he might make them disappear in a waft of smoke.
“Tell us about the star,” says Lady Howard. “What is its meaning?”
“It is a sign of a cosmic re-alignment,” he says as he takes a seat beside her and reaches for his charts. “It will bring changes, but not disasters. It is nothing to be afraid of.”
He seems calm as he explains the birth chart that he has drawn for her, meeting her eyes now and again to be sure that she understands him. Her moon sign is Leo, he explains. It makes her decisive, but she must guard against a tendency to force her will onto others. Her daughters nod their heads. They know their mother.
Jane waits until last, wondering what Dr Dee will say about her. When she is summoned to the table, Dr Dee smiles and invites her to sit down. The chair is still warm from Margaret’s body.
As he reaches for her chart, his trailing sleeve brushes the back of her hand and she feels a jolt surge through her body as if she has touched a hot dish that has lately been taken from the oven. He sets the chart where she can see it and she stares at the symbols and lines that he has drawn. They mean little to her, although she recognises the images of the sun and the moon. He points out the positions of the planets as they were in the sky at her birth. Saturn in Aries; Venus in Pisces. His fingers are long and slender like the rest of him. His nails are trimmed and clean although there are mysterious colours stained onto the skin of his hands.
“Both the sun and moon are in Taurus,” he tells her. “It gives you strength of character.” She agrees. Her father tells her she is stubborn. “But the sun is only just out of Aries. You have a fiery quality too.” She knows that. There are times when she finds it difficult to curb her temper and her mother has warned that she will need a strong husband to rule her. “Jupiter in Scorpio is in retrograde. There will be obstacles to overcome.” His voice has a musical quality that she finds soothing. When she meets his eyes she sees that she is important to him, as if she is the only person in the room. It surprises her. She had not expected to find him so kind. “Mercury in Gemini gives you a quick mind. But you have a tendency to be idealistic.”
She suspects this is also true − especially in the matter of a husband. Several young men have been suggested to her, but she has wrinkled her nose at all of them. He is too short. He has a poor complexion. He is too stupid. Lady Howard has sighed and reminded her that the longer she takes the less choice there will be. But she has determined to wait until the right husband presents himself.
“Can you see my future?” she whispers as she stares at the intricate chart spread across the dark polished wood of the table.
The magus shakes his head. “I can only tell you what your future could be. What it will be depends on what you choose. These planets…” He waves a hand above the chart and Jane feels the flutter of air from his sleeve. “They influence us, but they do not govern us. We have free will, given by God. We must use it wisely.”
“Will I marry?” she asks him.
“Yes. You will marry,” he tells her. “You will marry soon.
When they are settled once again in Lady Howard’s chamber they discuss what Dr Dee has told them. They are excited and they repeat to one another what he said lest they forget the words. Margaret has been told to curb her pride. Elizabeth must rein in her temper. And Jane will marry.
“You must not be so choosy,” says Margaret. “What about Tom Lewis?”
“His bottom is too fat.”
Elizabeth laughs. The fashion for short doublets flatters only those with the most muscular figures. Nothing is left to the imagination, and the ladies like to look and compare.
“What did you think of Dr Dee?” asks Lady Howard. The chamber falls silent as the Howards wait for Jane to reply.
“He was kind,” she says.
“And a widower,” Lady Howard tells her. “He is looking for another wife.”
“She does not want to marry an old man!” protests Margaret.
Her mother frowns at her. “He is not so old and it would be a good match.”
Now Jane knows why Lady Howard included her in the readings. She wants her to be married to the magus.
“Did you like him, Jane?” she asks.
Jane does not reply straight away. Dr Dee was not so frightening as she had imagined, but his nose is overlarge and she would not welcome those stained hands on her body.
“I had thought to marry a younger man,” she says.
“You have refused all the ones I have suggested.”
This is true. She would like to refuse Dr Dee as well, but she owes a debt of gratitude to Lady Howard, who has taken her under her wing and treated her as a daughter and she does not want to appear ungrateful.
Even though it is cold, Jane has agreed to walk in the gardens with the magus. Lady Howard has chosen her gown – a bold green that is cut to reveal the rose-coloured kirtle beneath – although not much of it can be seen now that she has wrapped herself in her dark coat. On her head she wears a little high-brimmed hat with a feather, although she thinks it is too fussy for the magus and that he will want a wife with a linen apron and a plain coif.
He is standing in the doorway that leads to the garden. The leaves are almost gone from the trees. Just a few still hang there, reluctant to relinquish their hold. The ones that have fallen form a damp carpet beneath her boots and, as they walk, the leather darkens with moisture. Above them, the blazing star can still be seen.
“Does it trouble you?” he asks as she looks up.
“I do not understand where it has come from,” she says.
“There are many things in heaven and on earth that we do not understand,” he tells her. “The challenge is to decipher such puzzles.” Jane has heard that deciphering puzzles is something he does well. She has heard that there is no one more skilled than Dr Dee at breaking codes and it is the reason that he is tolerated by the queen’s ministers, who need to read the cryptic messages exchanged by Catholic spies in this country and abroad.
He holds out his arm and she puts her hand on it as he leads her down the steps into the knot garden. Pallid sunshine illuminates a spider’s web in all its detail and they spend a moment studying it, wondering at the skill that has gone into its making.
Jane knows that the magus wants her for his wife, but even though he is pleasant and courteous towards her, his is not the image that she has carried of a husband. He does not dress as the fashionable young men do. His beard is long, his hair is hidden beneath his cap. But his gravitas pleases her more than the flippancy of her other suitors with their overlarge ruffs and slashed sleeves in which they parade before her like peacocks. She finds that she likes him despite her fears.
“Are you cold?” he asks as she pulls her coat more tightly around herself. “Perhaps we should go inside.”
“Not yet,” she says. She feels safer in the garden. “It is so dismal indoors at this time of the year.”
“I have a house at Mortlake, overlooking the church,” he tells her as they resume their walk. “I have a library there, with many books. Perhaps you would like to see it when the court returns to the city, if books interest you.”
Books do interest Jane. She can read and she enjoys stories – in particular the legends of long-gone heroes like King Arthur Pendragon. She would be happy to marry a man like Arthur. Instead it seems that she is to be wife to the merlin.
“Yes,” she agrees. “I would like to see your library.”
Dr Dee sends a man to escort her. His name is Bartholomew Hickman. He brings a bay gelding that she is to ride whilst he walks beside her. He helps her into the saddle and keeps a hand on the rein as they go, as if she is a child. She finds it irritating. Her mood has not been good for days and she knows that it is caused by her uncertainty. Lady Howard has nagged her for a firm answer, her father has written to say that it would be a good match, but Jane cannot commit herself. She cannot dismiss the rumours that Dr Dee uses unnatural magic although she can find no evidence that he is a bad man. Besides, she worries that as soon as she marries him someone else will come along whom she could truly love. Lady Howard has accused her of talking nonsense and become impatient. Jane has been told that after her visit to the house at Mortlake she must make her decision.
The magus is waiting for her at the gate to his garden. He smiles and reaches up his arms to lift her down. His touch is firm and she puts her gloved hand on his arm as he walks her to his door, past the well-trimmed hedges of box and the herbs in the knot garden that are dying back with the frosts.
“Welcome,” he says and ushers her inside. It is an ancient house. The main hall has a beaten earth floor beneath the thresh and the roof is shaped as if there was once a central hearth. He leads her through another door that must have once opened into the pantry or buttery. She sees that building work has been done and what lies behind the frontage is newer. They cross a courtyard where a few stray chickens are pecking at some spilled grain and he opens the door of an adjacent building. “Here is my library,” he says.
Several pairs of eyes glance up before the boys return to the texts that they are studying at the oak desks. There is the scratching of a pen as one student resumes his copying. The walls are lined with shelves and Jane has never seen so many books in one place. She looks at the titles. They are on every subject from astrology to zoology. Dr Dee takes down a volume and opens it for her. It is about botany and the drawings of the plants are so exquisite that Jane wants to put her nose to the pages to see if she can smell them.
“This is my reading room,” he tells her, leading her through another door. “And over here is the globe that was given to me by Gerard Mercator.” Jane walks over to the sphere, cradled in a wooden stand, and peers at the images of all the countries on the earth. She finds it hard to imagine that the ground where she is standing is on a ball that hangs in space like the moon she sees in the sky. What holds it there, she wonders. “Here is England,” says Dr Dee. He points to a tiny island and Jane is surprised that it looks so small.
“Where is the New World?” she asks. Dr Dee points to a much larger mass of land on the far side an ocean. Jane can hardly believe that men have sailed their ships so far.
“And here,” he says, pointing to a place near the top of the globe, “is where I believe there is a passage that will allow ships to sail to China and the east.
“Yet, if that is true, they will be sailing west,” she observes.
Dr Dee nods. “If you sail in either direction you will arrive back where you began,” he says, “as the Spanish have proved.”
“If I began to walk,” says Jane, “and I walked on and on, would I arrive back here?”
“If you could find a way to cross the oceans.” He smiles. “And you would need these.” He shows her a quadrant, a cross-staff and a sea compass. “And this…” He smiles as he lifts a metal tube from its quilted box. “Look through it,” he tells her and Jane takes its weight in both her hands and raises the end to her eye.
“Oh!” She cries out in alarm as the books on the shelves at the far side of the room seem to fly towards her. She can read the lettering on their spines and she lowers the instrument to see if some trick has been played on her. But nothing has moved.
“Look through the window,” says the magus. Delighted with her incredulity he unlatches it and draws her towards the sill. She puts the glass to her eye again and sees the chickens as if she could reach out and touch each feather on their plump backs. He takes the glass from her and explains that the curved lenses can magnify the light’s rays so that objects appear to increase in size. It seems like magic, she thinks, and although it has a logical explanation it is one that she is struggling to comprehend.
He shows her more of the treasures he has collected on his travels and a mirror that appears to distort her reflection so that she seems to be standing beside her own twin. Then he takes her into another chamber where several stills are bubbling. It smells bad and there is a bucket of horse dung in the corner. It is essential to experiments in alchemy he tells her.
They pass a double door that is closed. He tells her that it is his private study and chapel. She wonders if she will be allowed in there when she is his wife. The thought takes her by surprise. At what moment, she wonders, did she decide that she would marry him?
“Well?” demands Lady Howard as soon as she returns. Jane has not had time to take off her coat and hat, so she does so slowly, forcing her mistress to wait for an answer. “I hope you agreed,” she adds, watching from her cushioned bench beside the hearth.
Jane runs the fronds of the soft feather through her fingers. “I agreed,” she says. She notices that the feather is trembling as she continues to hold the hat. She is reluctant to put it down, as if doing so will sever the last connection with the girl who rode to Mortlake unbetrothed. Has she made the right decision? She hopes she will not regret it.
“Her Majesty will be pleased!” beams Lady Howard.
Jane is astonished. She had no clue that the queen herself had expressed any interest. But she ought not to be surprised, she thinks. Her Majesty, who will make no choice concerning a marriage of her own, is always interested in the marital status of her courtiers. It troubles her to see a man unwed and she is fond of Dr Dee.