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Elizabeth of Bohemia

Elizabeth of Bohemia

A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen
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I woke the morning after the banquet from a restless sleep wondering at my brother’s condition and went at the earliest convenience to St. James’s to look in on him, expecting to find him still in bed, only to discover that he had long since left the confines of his bedchamber to see to preparations for a performance that evening. Henry had arranged for a production of Hamlet, which the Palatine was apparently very fond of, to be mounted by the King’s Men. I found him backstage, consulting with the playwright over some details of the dialogue. My brother was in the process of assembling his own court at St. James’s, and any number of musicians and poets, artists and entertainers were vying for appointment. The rivalry was intense and not without intrigues. In the case of Mr. Shakespeare’s theatre company, there were rumours that they should soon give themselves over to the Prince of Wales and call themselves Prince Henry’s Men thereafter, a move sure to infuriate my father.

When Henry saw me he raised one hand to signal he would be just a moment and resumed his conversation with Mr. Shakespeare, while I used the time to study his demeanour and appearance. I thought him far from recovered, for he was pallid in complexion and clearly labouring to bring energy to his actions. Now he excused himself and came to stand before me.

“Elizabeth.” He kissed me on the cheek. “What brings you here so early?”

“Surely you must know, I came to see how you’re feeling. I’m surprised to see you up and about. Do you really think it advisable?”

“I can’t see why not. Is something amiss?”

“Amiss? Henry, you fainted last evening. Are you pretending nothing happened?”

“I’m fine, I tell you.”

“You don’t look fine. Have you had breakfast?”

“I shall see to some lunch as soon as I’m finished here.”

“I don’t like the idea that you are going to all this trouble. I hope you’re not trying to impress the Palatine for my sake.” I took him by both hands and inspected his features closely. “You are such a brother as a sister can only hope for, and I do not mean to bring you undue worry, but I tell you in all honesty, Henry, you are not well.”

“I grant my strength is not yet entirely returned, but you must not concern yourself. I shall be fully recovered by tonight.”

“Not if you if you keep this up.”

“I appreciate your concern, but now I must ask that you allow me to get back to the business at hand.” He hesitated for a moment. “And for your part, shouldn’t you be entertaining the Palatine?”

“I intend to make myself as little available as our father shall allow.”

“But why should you do so? This Prince seems entirely decent, and not without considerable character.” He looked past me at Mr. Shakespeare, who was beckoning to him from the stage. “Yes, yes, one more minute, if you please,” he scolded, and turned back to me. “This playwright’s impatience speaks to his vanity. He seems to be under the impression that an artist’s talent dictates that he be treated as an equal.”

“I suppose it had been better to have lived in Roman times,” I said as we watched Mr. Shakespeare hold up the folio to Henry and poke at it with his finger, “when they contented themselves as the hired help.”

“But to the matter of Prince Frederick.” Henry gave me a pleading look. “I am not asking you to marry the man, only to give him a chance. Must you be so eager to dismiss him outright?”

“You know I have my reasons.”

“You mustn’t let your acrimony toward our father cloud your judgment.”

“If only it were that easy. But let that go. You are eager to get back to your preparations. Promise me you will get some more rest.”

“I promise.” He kissed me on the cheek and hurried back to the actors.

“And something to eat,” I called after him.

“I shall.”

I made my way back to Richmond, where I learned upon arrival that Count Schomberg was waiting for me in the antechamber, eager to convey an invitation from the Palatine to dine with him at lunch. I made my way down the hall and, finding the door slightly ajar, paused when I saw the Count seated in close conversation with Lady Anne.

“The Palatine assures me he has hardly met a fellow as splendid as your Prince Henry,” the Count offered, “and admires him greatly.”

“There can be no doubt the feeling is mutual. They certainly took to each other even upon their first meeting.”

“They have since had a second. Prince Henry came by early this morning to personally invite the Palatine to the performance of the play this evening at St. James’s, whereupon the two of them struck up a long conversation.”

My eavesdropping left me unable to decide which was the greater offence: that my brother should have gone traipsing about London after giving me such a scare only the night before, or that he should have seen fit to seek out the Palatine’s company and not mine.

“Prince Frederick did confide to me,” the Count continued. “He felt as though he had come upon the best companion of his life, or had a long-lost friend returned to him.”

“Remarkable that two people should strike up such an amiable acquaintance in so short a time. Who would have thought?”

“Tell me, Madam, what have your mistress to say about Prince Frederick?”

“Little, I’m afraid, but you will allow she was concerned for her brother’s health.”

“That was quite an introduction they had.”

“Indeed.”

“Lady Anne, may I pose a question to you?” Count Schomberg asked.

I had been about to show myself and make my entrance, but now I lingered a moment more.

“I hope it is within the bounds of my office to answer.”

“I grant the matter is somewhat delicate, for it concerns the matter of a man’s desire.”

“A man may desire what he likes, though desire and fulfillment are two different things.”

“I grant as much, but tell me, what does a man want more than anything from the woman he loves?”

“I might hazard a guess, but then, I am no man.”

“But cannot a maid know a man’s heart?”

“I am no maid.”

“I beg your indulgence. I only meant for you to consider the question from your woman’s point of view.”

“Speak plainly. What is your drift?”

“I have always thought, and it seems to me clearer of late, that more than anything a man desires that the woman he loves should think highly of him.”

“I will caution that My Lady’s favour is not easily won.”

“I meant not the princess but yourself?”

“Sir?”

“How might a man hope to gain your esteem?” The Count leaned in a little and looked into Lady Anne’s eyes.

At this I pulled the door wide and entered the room.

“Your Majesty.” Count Schomberg rose quickly.

“Madam.” Lady Anne followed suit, and the two of them stood facing me. “We were just talking about you,” she added stiffly.

“You seem a little out of breath,” I teased, “as though I might have caught you in some act of illicit indulgence.”

Lady Anne was clearly flustered and looked to the Count to intervene.

“I have come at the Palatine’s bidding,” said the Count. “He wanted to enquire after your plans for the afternoon.”

“I have none,” I answered, “but how for you two?”

“Madam.” Lady Anne became serious. “I am at your service.”

“As you, Sir, must be to your Elector,” I said to the Count. “Tell him thank you, but I must send my regrets, and shall at any rate entertain his company at this evening’s play.”

“Very well.” The Count bowed, then turned to Lady Anne, took up her hand in both of his, and placed upon it so lingering a kiss that she finally pulled her hand away and offered me an awkward smile.

“I think he may be enamoured of you,” I said when the Count had left the room. “Do you find him handsome?”

“I had hardly taken notice of his features.” Lady Anne glanced at me sideways, and when she saw that I was utterly unconvinced, added, “I suppose he has a good moustache.”

“Though not as fine as Sir Raleigh’s, you must agree.”

“Yes, yes, you have taken pains again and again to assure me he has the best moustache you have ever seen, but is it merely that which brings you to mention him just now?”

“He would surely have attended this play were he not confined to the Tower.”

“Indeed he has languished there for too long.”

“And yet my father will not relent.”

“I suppose you imagine Sir Raleigh devoting all of his attention to you at the expense of the Palatine.”

“It’s only that I should have liked for them to meet.”

“But to what end?”

“No more than for the three of us to be together in the same room.”

“You suffer yet from that same girlish infatuation,” Lady Anne scoffed. “The man is old enough to be your father.”

“As are most of the suitors my father would have me married off to.”

“And this one, this Palatine, he is too young, you think?”

“It matters little what I think, or so it would seem.”

“Your brother has certainly taken to him.”

“And not to his own bed, as like would have been wiser.”

“At any rate,” said Lady Anne, suddenly all business, “we have much in the way of preparation for this evening. Do you know what you’re going to wear?”

“And how for yourself?”

“Come, we have much to do.”

As much as I had witnessed Lady Anne’s composure unsettled by the Count, she had seen mine undone by Sir Raleigh. I had no explanation for it except to say that it seemed entirely out of my hands. His nearness would give me to entertain such thoughts, give birth to such cravings as I had not yet experienced in my young life. Granted there had been some interludes with boys by that time, of an exploratory nature, but nothing more. And now this young Palatine had come to seek me for his bride, and me a young woman utterly smitten with the fanciful and girlish dream of being swept up in the arms of an older man.

Evening found me at St. James’s, where a small audience was already assembled when I arrived with Lady Anne, and though Henry greeted me warmly, I saw at once in the tightness of his facial features, the struggle behind his eyes, that he was fighting off some intense discomfort. He was quick to dismiss my concerns, admitting only to a riotous headache that he insisted was already passing. I was soon seated between my brother and the Palatine, with Lady Anne in behind me next to Count Schomberg, and when Henry excused himself for some final consultation with the players we sat in an uneasy quietude for some moments before the Count spoke up.

“Madam, you’ve no doubt seen this play performed before?” he enquired of Lady Anne.

“Indeed,” she answered curtly.

“Prince Henry has arranged for Richard Burbage himself to play the title role,” offered the Palatine.

“One of the finest players in all of London, I’m told,” the Count allowed.

“We are fortunate, then.”

“And the playwright himself,” the Palatine turned to me, “shall act the part of the King Hamlet’s ghost.”

“Even better.” Lady Anne’s sarcasm continued unabated.

“You’ve seen him upon the stage, I take it?”

“I have.”

“And what say you for his acting?” the Count enquired.

“Much as I do for his writing.”

“By which you mean to give him high praise?” He smiled over at Lady Anne.

“By which I mean it were better he abstained from both.”

The Palatine leaned a little toward me and spoke in a stage whisper, “Your Maid of Honour is a harsh critic.”

“Of playwrights and princes alike.” I stared straight ahead.

Henry made his way back to his chair just as the last few ladies and gentlemen settled into their seats, while upon the stage the players shuffled about in their final preparations behind the curtains.

“I see this play is billed as a tragedy, but I confess I am not familiar with it,” said the Count. “What is the upshot?”

“A young prince comes to a bad end,” said Henry, rubbing at his temples. He spoke as though more to himself than the others, and there was an ominous tone in his voice that troubled me.

“It concerns a young woman who is torn between obedience to her father.” Lady Anne cast a sideways glance at me. “And her prospects for a relationship with a prince.”

“A Danish prince, no less,” I said.

“I dare say the Queen might know some of the history behind it, then,” said Count Schomberg. “She came from Denmark, did she not?”

“Just so,” said Lady Anne, “when she was yet two years My Lady’s junior.”

“We could ask her about it,” I offered, “if she were here.” My mother had not consented to sit for the play. She could not be bothered with such dramatics when they did not concern one of her precious masques.

“And the King?” the Count asked.

“Busy, as you can see,” I said. My father was seated on an elevated platform at the far end of the room, more interested in cavorting with the young men that fawned over him than the company of his children.

The Count turned to Lady Anne. “And what is your opinion of this play, Madam?”

“Only that it promises to unfold much the same as any other, namely that the lines spoken to greatest import shall be uttered by men, that the lion’s share of soliloquy shall likewise be so, and that those few utterances accorded the fairer sex, being spoken by lanky youths with milky voices, shall consist in the main of hand-wringing and general fretting about.”

“This sounds a harsh indictment,” said the Count.

“Perhaps an apt one nonetheless,” I offered.

The noise of the audience died to a gentle murmur as two pages with long-handled candle snuffers made their way around the room until the light grew dim.

“Do you not think Ophelia a role of depth and character?” the Palatine asked, turning to me.

“She does little else but rummage over Hamlet. Where he doth search his soul, she espouses naught but confusion at his alienation of her affection.”

“Because he will not have her and she would know the reason.”

“Sometime it may be so,” Lady Anne cast me a furtive glance, “only the other way round.”

“Perhaps it had been better to mount a production of the Scottish play,” I said.

“The King is descended from Banquo,” Lady Anne explained.

“Or so he would have us believe,” I said. “Our father is wont to take from history such particulars as suit his purpose, and dismiss others.”

“Much as this playwright,” Lady Anne added.

Now the curtains pulled apart at last, and the stage revealed a cloth backdrop upon which was painted a scene depicting the walls of a fortress. A man clad in armour stood at centre stage while another approached from the wings.

“Who’s there?”

“Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself.”

“Long live the king!”

At this line there was a barely audible smattering of murmurs through the crowd. When the apparition appeared clad all in armour, the audience gasped, and Count Schomberg leaned over to Lady Anne.

“He speaks not,” said the Count.

“He shall. Do but bide a little,” said Lady Anne.

The play had advanced well into the first act when the Palatine leaned in close to me and whispered, “Madam, what think you of this lengthy counsel Polonius would bestow upon his son Laertes?”

“He exhibits that same vanity my father suffers, which is to think himself wiser simply because he is older.”

Those friends thou hast,” Polonius was telling Laertes, “and their adoption tried, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.”

“He overshoots the mark,” said Lady Anne. “This might pass better for comedy.”

“There is something of the buffoon in him, I grant,” said the Palatine.

“I think he gives good counsel,” Henry insisted. “A man is known by his words and actions.”

“Yet many a man may fall victim to his own shortcomings.”

“A worthy man will overcome such,” I said.

“And never second-guess?”

“As Hamlet does, you mean?”

“I say he shows conviction in his deliberations.”

“Have your father spoken to you as this Polonius does?” the Palatine asked.

“I have suffered to hear him do so, yes. At the news of your coming he gave me instruction that I should offer up that which is best in a daughter, the better to become thereafter a compliant wife. Obedience, loyalty, and faithfulness; these, according to my father, are the highest virtues my gender can aspire to.”

“Madam.” The Palatine leaned in closer. “I do most humbly beg you may see fit to address me as Frederick, that we might enjoy some greater degree of informality.”

I thought him bold to come so near, and yet there was no offence in it, for his warm breath was not unpleasant.

“And I suppose you will want to call me Elizabeth.”

“If’t please, I should be glad for it.”

By the fifth act, a troubling drowsiness had come over my brother. I saw his head nod forward in sleep, after which he tore himself awake, only to fall again into slumber. I took up his hand in mine and found it cold as ice. When I examined it more closely, I discovered an unusual greenish hue at the base of his fingernails, at which he stirred and turned to look at me in surprised exhaustion.

“Hamlet is preparing for his duel with Laertes,” said the Palatine.

“They sense that tragedy is about to befall,” Henry murmured.

“Horatio counsels that Hamlet shall see fit to decline this challenge.”

The audience had grown strangely quiet.

You will lose, My Lord,” said Laertes.

I do not think so,” Hamlet replied, “since he went to France I have been in constant practice. I shall win at the odds.

“I have often witnessed our Prince Henry,” Lady Anne whispered to Count Schomberg, “in long and arduous practice with foil and lance.”

“What think you of this Horatio fellow?” the Palatine asked Henry.

“The two are good companions,” he answered. “Indeed he has been throughout the play Hamlet’s closest and perhaps only ally, steadfast in’s loyalty, and given to honest counsel always.”

“Just so,” said Count Schomberg.

“And yet am I not entirely certain Hamlet’s best interests lie at the foundation of his heart,” said the Palatine.

“Why do you say so?” Henry asked. “He bids Hamlet forgo the match.”

“But wherefore does he so?”

“For fear Hamlet shall come to harm, naturally.”

“But what reason have he to think so?”

“That Laertes is the better swordsman.”

“He knows otherwise. Hamlet himself is surprised to hear he think not so.”

“What is your meaning?”

“Perhaps Horatio knows more than he lets on.”

“You think him guilty of duplicity?”

“Is there a man incapable of betrayal?” said Lady Anne.

“I say such a man exists,” said the Count.

She turned to him. “Can you name one?”

“In all honesty, Madam, such a one is Prince Frederick.”

I looked past him at Henry, who sat ill and pale, but now utterly absorbed in the play. “Hamlet’s about to be poisoned,” he said.

“And by the man who is brother to the woman he loves, no less,” I added.

“Some would argue Laertes has just cause. Hamlet did greatly wrong his sister, Ophelia, even unto her tragic and untimely death.”

“Indeed, what can be more just,” the Palatine added, “but that a loyal brother should seek to defend the honour of his sister?”

“It’s a little late, if you ask me,” said Lady Anne.

“He feels remorse,” the Palatine looked at me, “and seeks to atone with revenge.”

“He chided her that Hamlet’s vow of love should not be trusted,” I said.

“Out of love for her did he so caution.” Henry’s eyes remained fixed upon the stage. “In fear for her heart.”

“Yet Hamlet did forsake her,” I said.

“Because he thought her guilty of betrayal.”

Henry spoke quietly. “Hamlet takes this duel for an entertainment.”

“He knows not that the tip of Laertes’s sword is poisoned,” Lady Anne whispered to the Count, “as is the goblet of wine set by for him.”

“Yet look how he stays yet a while.” Henry seemed to be speaking to himself now, as much as to anyone of us. “Sits in quiet apprehension of some unknown fate that awaits him.”

Up on the stage, Horatio strode toward Hamlet, knelt before him.

Hamlet lowered his head, placed his arm on Horatio’s as he spoke quietly to him, “But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart.”

Henry leaned forward, as though the actor upon the stage were speaking directly to him, and moved his lips along with the actor’s as the lines were spoken. “It is no matter. If it be now, ’tis not to come,” he mouthed; “if it be not to come it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all…”

I glanced in my father’s direction just as Hamlet’s mother drank the poison, and thought I saw there in his visage an expression not unlike that which came over the King in the play.

When the performance ended Henry came out of his trance and did his best to make himself as amiable as was ever his nature, but I was not convinced. He seemed to be in the clutches of some nagging augury that tortured him, and even as he managed to pluck up his energy and take his leave of us, it was plain to me he was putting up a false front, fighting to maintain his cheerful demeanour. Something was amiss, but even in my darkest misgivings I could never have imagined what it would come to.

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Motherhood
Excerpt

My mother cried for forty days and forty nights. As long as I have known her, I have known her to cry. I used to think that I would grow up to be a different sort of woman, that I would not cry, and that I would solve the problem of her crying. She could never tell me what was wrong except to say, Im tired. Could it be that she was always tired? I wondered, when I was little, Doesn’t she know she’s unhappy? I thought the worst thing in the world would be to be unhappy, but not to know it. As I grew older, I compulsively checked myself for signs that I was unhappy. Then I grew unhappy, too. I grew filled up with tears.
     All through my childhood, I felt I had done something wrong. I searched my every gesture, my words, the way I sat upon a chair. What was I doing to make her cry? A child thinks she is the cause of even the stars in the sky, so of course my mother’s crying was all about me. Why had I been born to cause her pain? Since I had caused it, I wanted to take it away. But I was too little. I didn’t even know how to spell my own name. Knowing so little, how could I have understood a single thing about her suffering? I still don’t understand. No child, through her own will, can pull a mother out of her suffering, and as an adult, I have been very busy. I have been busy writing. My mother often says, You are free. Perhaps I am. I can do what I like. So I will stop her from crying. Once I am finished writing this book, neither one of us will ever cry again.
     This will be a book to prevent future tears—to prevent me and my mother from crying. It can be called a success if, after reading it, my mother stops crying for good. I know it’s not the job of a child to stop her mother from crying, but I’m not a child anymore. I’m a writer. The change I have undergone, from child to writer, gives me powers—I mean that magical powers are not far from my hand. If I am a good enough writer, perhaps I can stop her from crying. Perhaps I can figure out why she is crying, and why I cry, too, and I can heal us both with my words.
 
~

Is attention soul? If I pay attention to my mother’s sorrow, does that give it soul? If I pay attention to her unhappiness—if I put it into words, transform it, and make it into something new— can I be like the alchemists, turning lead into gold? If I sell this book, I will get back gold in return. That’s a kind of alchemy. The philosophers wanted to turn dark matter into gold, and I want to turn my mother’s  sadness into gold. When the gold comes in, I will go to my mother’s doorstep, and I will hand itto her and say: Here is your sadness, turned into gold.

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Mayonnaise

Mayonnaise

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