Shakespeare's Dark Lady
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2, Scene 4
There are two ways into the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford's Old Town. The easy way is through the north entrance. The hard way is through the bank of the Avon. Seventy-four feet. Underground.
Daniel reread The Wooden Horse--escape from Colditz. He watched Steve McQueen in the video of The Great Escape. He considered phoning Geoff Alton, his old ally in genetic fingerprinting at Leicester University. Alton had become quite the celebrity since helping identify first the genes of Dr. Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Auschwitz," then the tsar of Russia, dug from a forest. The two princes murdered in the Tower of London by Richard III were rumored to be on his shopping list.
He was halfway through dialing Geoff's number when he stopped himself.
Friend or no friend. . .
Shakespeare, Geoff. This one's for me, okay?
Amelia's two-day trip to Stratford in the summer had taken care of basic logistics. Daniel did further research, rechecked the water table, the calculations of depth and distance. The point where they had to break in was on record from the seventeenth century: "They have laid him full seventeen foot deep, deep enough to secure him."
The north wall of the chancel had once had a charnel house built against it, a grisly edifice not demolished until the end of the eighteenth century. Here bones from the overcrowded graveyard had been piled in Shakespeare's day. Daniel read with a shiver of delight how someone in the eighteenth century, burrowing down through the floor of the charnel house, had broken into a secret crypt near the spot where Shakespeare would lie. He'd encountered something dark and unspeakable. Swept with terror at the thought of Shakespeare's curse, he had only just managed to fill his hole before retreating to the land of the living.
If his calculations matched Amelia's rough figures, they would make their breakthrough at exactly the same spot, in line with the bust of Shakespeare twenty-seven feet above.
There wasn't a soul around Holy Trinity at dead of night, apart from whatever ghosts populated the ancient churchyard. For three weeks and three days they tunneled like rats in a sewer, night after brass monkey's night.
The two diggers had found lodgings in Mallory Street, on the upper floor of a damp two-up two-down belonging to an absentee landlady . Number 14 was a few minutes' walk from the church. Daniel drove back and forth to Stratford from Oxford in just under an hour each way, making the trip well after midnight.
During the day Roy and Jake split their time between sleep, getting the mud out of their clothes at coin-op laundromats, and visiting local pubs, where they told any locals who asked that they were looking for handyman and building jobs.
They had one advantage over the prisoners of war who'd tunneled out of Colditz Castle. No guards, no guns, no barbed wire. They reckoned they were moving almost a ton of spoil each night, all sluiced away in the gently flowing Avon. Building a tunnel shored up with 2 x 2 pinewood turned out to be easier than expected. At least for Roy, who had once worked for six months in an opal mine in New South Wales.
Keeping in the right direction and at the right depth and angle was trickier. For that they had the help of Alistair Cunliffe-Jones, a molecular biophysicist from Oxford and Caltech. His expertise in biomolecular modeling and high-speed gene sequencing would be crucial if large numbers of DNA samples were to be tested for the gene in its Shakespeare format.
C.J. was sworn to secrecy, clearly smitten with the possibility of a stake in the fame-or infamy-that would follow if the Shakespeare gene were found in a living man. To him the technical challenges posed by the tomb break-in were easily surmountable, especially with the right instruments. In October he had flown to England and worked with another of Daniel's old research buddies, Roderick Tillman, on logistics for the break-in. Using an optical fiber camera on the end of a long probe, they'd managed to pinpoint the mysterious second crypt below the newer higher one in Holy Trinity.
Daniel's plan was for Tillman and Cunliffe-Jones to help him in the lab if the Stratford operation worked out, then rejoin him in America as the nucleus of a Rostrum-sponsored team working on an HIV vaccine. C.J. would also spearhead the laboratory search for a Shakespeare descendant in the US.
He came to Stratford five times. "If I go seven nights," he said, "do I make the rounds of the chat shows once you guys hit pay dirt?" The nights in the tunnel were long and hard, less so when C.J. was there and half the things he said made them laugh.
Not that the diggers had much time for talking. This was tough physical labor, picking away at the tunnel face and hauling baskets of debris to the entrance in the bank. They made the tunnel three feet wide and four feet high, not as narrow as Colditz. More space meant more work, but with a timetable of three and a half weeks they only had to advance three feet each night.
On their fourth shift they heard a cry from outside and thought they had been discovered. Jake crept to the tunnel entrance and disappeared.
"Couldn't see a soul at first," he said when he returned. "Not enough moonlight. Then I seen something moving on top of a grave-not more than fifteen feet away. So I ducked me head, can't see but I can hear, can't I? There's this grunt, then a cry like that first one we heard, only louder, like someone in pain. So I popped up for another peep and bugger me if I wasn't looking at some chick having it off stark naked on top of some bloke on top of the bloody grave."
Their only other scare came a couple of nights later, when a dog's bark sent Jake to investigate again. This time, he said, he was sure they'd blown it when a tall man came that close to where Jake crouched under a weedy outcrop that concealed their boat from view. He watched the figure walk along the bank--one shoulder, he noticed, was higher than the other--and breathed again only when the shadowy form was out of sight.
The rotten beam groaned, followed by a crack as it split across the grain. Death-watch beetle. Sweet Jesus, would the Church of the Holy Trinity, dead overhead, render the bones of William Shakespeare? Or just drop on them and bury them with him?
"They have laid him full seventeen foot deep," Daniel intoned. "Deep enough to secure him."
"Not quite deep enough, let's hope," Roy said.
Daniel caught the crease of a smile from Jake, just before the stench hit him. He fought a wave of nausea, then signaled the next beam with a jerk of one thumb. Jake went to work. By degrees the beam, also rotten, twisted back.
He found he could just breathe the chilly air in shallow breaths, though the fetid gases made him dry-heave.
A muffled gasp. "Bleedin' hell." Roy spat into the ground.
Daniel peered into the void, straining to support the weight of his kit. He reached into one pocket and fingered the sprig of tawny pubic hair tied with a ribbon, Amelia's parting gift and card, tucked under his pillow the day she left for the States: "For my Crusader from your own sweet angel, a little bit of down to remind you of where you like to go."
. Above him--in the "Weeping" Chancel, a few feet from the north wall--lay the chiseled stone with its malediction:
GOOD FRIEND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEARE
TO DIGG THE DUST ENCLOASED HEARE:
BLEST BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CURST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
He knew the doggerel lines by heart and mumbled them under his breath as the light from three helmets washed over the darkness. A buttress supporting oaken joists loomed into view.
Jake and Roy crouched under the dank tunnel roof and levered away two further beams that blocked the passage. Then they stepped back. Daniel coughed and straddled his tall frame over, paused and listened.
He looked back just as the others heaved their shoulders through the hole and craned their necks to follow his progress. He walked on ahead-until, with no warning, he thought he heard footsteps, fairly close behind him.
"Stop," he said softly. "Jake, aim your torch back there, about twenty feet."
They all stopped and listened. Silence. The light from Jake's torch played over the filthy space-empty space.
His skin crawled. The beam from his helmet picked out row upon row of chapless skulls that had lain here for centuries. He squared his shoulders and headed toward a stone sarcophagus, swept with one arm the top of a slab caked with dirt. It was unmarked.
A fine dust veiled the air like muslin drawn across his shaft of light.
God, this cramped necropolis seemed vast, this mortuary beneath another vault. And above it the Shakespeare family stones laid out in the chancel. Stones that offered no guide to the identity or whereabouts of anybody's remains, much less Shakespeare's.
He weaved his way from one filthy tomb to the next, more desperate with each failure to uncover a giveaway sign. How many were there? Fifteen, twenty cadavers in length-long repose?
Unmarked stones. Others bore lapidary cuts: coats of arms. He made out chiseled letters. Initials and more initials. Inscriptions.
Janey, give me a sign.
A rough outline. Another trick of arms hatched in stone. He supported himself on one shaky hand and traced the faint weapon's edge with his index finger.
"Gold on a bend sable," he whispered. "A spear of the first steeled argent, and for his crest of cognizance a falcon. Let it be, dear God."
With his fingernails he scratched the dust out of the rough outline.
". . . his wings displayed argent, standing on a wreath of his colours. . . " No longer a whisper, his voice boomed around in the space. "Supporting a spear gold. Shakespeare's gold!"
Grunting with the effort, the three of them hefted the slab that formed the top of the sarcophagus. It moved slowly, grinding its way around like a millstone.
"Shine your light here."
The vault ached with cold. His hand shook as he probed inside.
"It's lead, all right. Cast lead."
A cruciform casket lay in his light. He peered at the gabled lid.
He unzipped the bib of his overalls, tugged out a small case and laid it on top of the slab. From it came an implement like a miniature rapier with a serrated edge. When he plugged it into a handle and pressed a button, the blade whined. He prayed the lead had been sealed airtight in 1616--the place was damp as a witch's ass. Had Howard Carter felt this way when he came to his rendezvous with Tutankhamun?
At the first insertion there was a hiss of escaping gas. He held his breath against the odor.
His hands were steady now. Fancying himself a surgeon, he cut around the edges of the coffin and halfway down made an incision across the center. Jake produced a spade-shaped steel lever which he proceeded to wedge under the top end; Roy and Daniel brought out small crowbars and followed suite.
On the count of "three" they levered up a piece of Jacobean lead weighing over a hundred pounds and wrestled it to the top of the slab.
The ghoul before them made no answer but simply grimaced from ear to ear. Foul air wafted upward and clung to the roof of Daniel's mouth. Roy turned his back, and in seconds Daniel heard retching sounds.
Never mind. In color the Bard's grisly face was not unlike their own dirt-stained features, but with a hint of yellow. Only this face was bearded and mustached, hoary old, the cheeks sunken and pitted with deep ulcers. Scrawny lips were shriveled back to display three peg-shaped teeth, chipped and blackened. The head and body were wrapped around in a winding shroud that had begun to fall away as flesh shrank over time, culminating in the shroud's topknot lying tattered above a parchment pate.
William Shakespeare, face to face.
"Hold the bag open." He couldn't shake the notion that if he didn't move fast, the cadaver would crumble into dust.
He prodded the Bard's chest. Firm. The rise of the water table in the Avon basin hadn't filled the sepulcher with mud. That much he'd gambled on, though the Avon's surface lay only four feet below the floor level of the church. Down here only damp had entered.
The bone-cold tomb and the success of the funereal craftsmen in fashioning an airtight casket had saved the body from the worst ravages of bacteria, ensuring an almost perfectly preserved mummy. This was a man who believed in his undying reputation and invested in it with the best lead money could buy: a man with pretensions to gentility and all its trappings. The coffin could easily have taken a month to fashion. Perhaps he'd commissioned it on the same day he had summoned his notary to amend his will one last time.
The corpse fleered back at Daniel out of sunken eyes the color of dried olives. He registered the smoothness of the facial skin in those areas that were not ulcerated, the tracery of wrinkles in the leathery surface. A face barely touched by putrefaction.
But it was the nose--or what remained of one--that held his attention: two holes like a little florid trumpet, with the bridge flattened in a way that he'd seen often before. This disfigurement had nothing to do with decayed cartilage. It was the blazon of advanced tertiary syphilis. Hats off to Amelia.
Shakespeare had changed his will on March 25, 1616, declaring himself to be "in perfect health and memory"--obviously a whitewash, given what tertiary syphilis could do to your brain. At the time, he'd surely been bedridden and going downhill fast.
His signature on that will--a scribble--had led some experts to suggest he'd died of Bright's Disease. Amelia, of course, argued that locomotor ataxia caused by tertiary syphilis would account for the wobbly writing. But might it not have been something else, too? Like acute mercury poisoning? Mercury had, after all, been the period's favorite cure for syphilis--a cure that often finished off the patient before the disease did the job. It led to rashes, twitching, anxiety, unusual aggressive behavior; eventually to muscle spasms, fainting fits and confused thinking. The third and final stage of the illness, if untreated, took about four years to kill you, exactly the time between Shakespeare's last play and his death at fifty-two.
He tried to push back the remaining bits of cerecloth in which the corpse was wound, but the calico and wax of the withered shroud disintegrated as he touched them. Above the ears lay the fluff of a tonsure. The wizened face was totally unlike the plump bourgeois of the monument in the church. This ghoulish Shakespeare with the smile of the blissfully demented looked for all the world like a satyr transfixed at the climax of a maenadic revel.
On went the surgical gloves. He parted the shroud where it clung below the chin. The burial chemise underneath was crisp as a cracker and seemed to dissolve as he touched it. Over the midriff, hands seamed with their own grain and aged to an ebony hue clasped at something that gave off a dull glint.
"What in the name of God . . .?"
He stretched out his hand, slowly; coaxed the silver T-shaped cross from the poet's clutch . It was dull and heavy, the stem the girth of a thick phallus, with a bulbous end. He placed it in the bag.
The hands were laid on top of each other, at the groin. The body's soft tissue was dry but not brittle, with the texture of pemmican. He divided the shroud at thigh level and palped one bony leg still wrapped in scraps of pitted skin. A shriveled knot in a rope was all that remained of the sartorius muscle. He took a scalpel from the kit and excised a blackened strip. The blade touched bone. He turned and dropped the sample into a jar of formaldehyde held by Roy. A swift tug and a tuft of hair was tucked into a polythene bag and sealed.
As he withdrew his other hand, more calico crumbled and something broke away from the corpse just below its folded hands. He picked it up--a small desiccated lump that looked like a cross between a lugworm and a tumor--and carried it at arm's length to Jake's lamp.
It was a penis. But despite the condition it was in, the tell-tale scarring of syphilitic lesions was unmistakable. He fitted the Bard's manhood back into place, more or less where it had come from.
The lead top was replaced and the slab shunted back into position.
Bent double, they retreated the way they had come, past the struts shoring up their tunnel.
At 4:22 a.m. they emerged into the fog that enveloped Stratford-upon-Avon that January morning. They concealed the trapdoor entrance in the river bank, loaded their gear into the boat tied a few yards away, and pushed off for the opposite bank.
After that the rest was routine. Enough of the Bard's DNA survived for Daniel to carry out--over two weeks, working day and night--the painstaking job of cloning those cells in a culture. And coming up with gold: Shakespeare's gene mutated by syphilitic spirochetes, henceforth to be called the "weeping" gene, after the Weeping Chancel in the Stratford church.
"Do you know what time it is in Massachusetts?"
"We've cloned the gene! Two hours ago-four a.m.."
By the time he finished bringing her up to date, she was as excited as he was.
"Not a word, Amelia. It won't be a secret for long, but for now-"
"I'll only tell Daddy and Marcus--the sooner you meet with them in London, the better."
"I've talked to the editor of Nature Magazine-Neil McFadden, a friend of mine-and I'm doing an article for them. McFadden is tight-lipped where scientific scoops are concerned, and it will be a couple of months before the piece appears. It might just save my bacon."
"First I convince readers that a flesh-and-blood descendant may be walking the streets of England or the U.S. at this very moment, then I apologize for the violence committed against the Bard's remains. 'If I have disturbed, et cetera. . .I'm sure that Shakespeare, understanding my motives, will forgive, et cetera.'"
"How about this? 'The death of his son Hamnet left Shakespeare with no direct legitimate male descendant. The direct female line ended with his granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Bernard. However, by-blows--children born on the wrong side of the blanket--were common in Elizabethan times, et cetera.'"
"I have to say, the whole episode came as a bit of a shock to McFadden. He looked pretty hard at the ethics of it."
"So did you, lover. And you did it. I mean, YOU DID IT!"
"Don't go on about it. It still horrifies me to think about what I've gone and done."
"Hopefully your article will make everything all right."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Don't blame me, sweetie. It was you who said yes."
Soon there would be three weeks in hiding at Amelia's house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, followed by a strategy session with Lawrence and Marcus in New York.
"But first, lover, they want to meet with you in London."
The thought of Lawrence Hungerford made Daniel go tight in the throat. Amelia said she could "handle" her father--even though she also said, "he's totally barbaric, under that old-money patina."
"What does he do?" Daniel asked her. "I mean, other than collect art and bask in his reputation as an art historian?"
"Lobbies and advises. He handles congressional relations for the Rostrum-they're his only client from outside the international art world. And he's art advisor to the White House."
"With access to the Oval Office, may I assume?"
"Naturally. He's given the AIDS Campaign a lot of moral support and money," she added. "And he's backing the Shakespeare Search-that's what Marcus is calling it."
Nothing she told him really satisfied Daniel's curiosity about why, or how, her father was involved. But it was Lawrence Hungerford's involvement and presumed influence that stood between him and any repercussions of breaking into the grave.
A trip to America at this point, he knew, had all the signs of a bad career move. The request for a six-month sabbatical had come as a surprise to everyone. Not that he wasn't owed time off, but they did think it odd for him to be taking leave when the race to be first over the line with an HIV vaccine that actually worked was so heated, and Daniel so clearly a front-runner.. Of course, the move wouldn't make any better sense now if the truth were known. He could hear the stories going around with the port after dinner in hall, full of words like "fugitive" and "on the run."
None of which was as harsh as the judgments he passed on himself when he thought about what he was doing.
"Anything money can buy," Marcus said. "That's your lab."
Daniel looked across to where Lawrence stood with his back to the fire, huffed up to his sinewy six-foot two. They were in the lounge of Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, in a corner they had all to themselves.
There was a hard edge to Lawrence's jaw, set like stone in an irregular face. His skin was smooth and glowing, the complexion of a man who shaved with a blade, used a moisturizer, and got a facial twice a week. When Daniel hunted in the face for a rumor of warmth, he spied it in the bumpy nose that also gave Lawrence his air of breeding. The rest of the face all led there, as roads lead to Rome: the fine bridge with its parabolic profile, the flared nostrils, the good clear skin over it all.
Lawrence nodded in Daniel's direction and took a puff on his obscenely long cigar-which, by its aroma, was obscenely expensive. As were the signet ring, the silk stock, and the beautifully tailored hacking jacket.
"We're going to build the lab--fast and to your specifications--in northern California," Marcus was saying. "Mendocino, California, in a secure environment where you'll have peace and no interruptions from the media. A religious community, in fact."
"You're going to need seclusion after what you've done-and what we've got lined up on the public relations front as a result."
"What kind of religious community?"
"It's called the Order of the Resurrection. Run by an acquaintance of mine, the Reverend Joshua Smith. He's-"
"A cult leader even I have heard of," Daniel said. "Who changed his real name and takes all his followers' money."
"And who thinks the world's going to end with the millennium."
"I'm sure you'll be hell and gone out of there by then," Lawrence said, cutting in. "But in the meantime can you object to working safely in the precinct of a man of the cloth?"
Lawrence's face gave nothing away. Irritating--and intriguing.
"It's my reputation," Daniel said. "My gamble, not yours."
Lawrence's mouth softened a fraction. "I've met Reverend Joshua. Apart from a million-dollar-plus laboratory, you'll have plenty of freedom within the community's grounds and plenty of distance from prying eyes. Mendocino has a gentle climate. . .a little Xanadu, with a view of the sea."
Daniel sighed. "What about this publicity I'm supposed to generate?"
Lawrence drew on his cigar. "That's why you've got to have a really isolated place to work. You're the Campaign's trump card."
"Meaning what, exactly?"
"A hunt for this Shakespeare descendant without a scientist of your caliber wouldn't be the same, Daniel."
"I'm not following you. Are you saying that's good or bad?"
"Good for the campaign, at least. Look, they put you on television in America because you're a scientist, and suddenly you're famous for being famous."
"Ordinary people will want to know what brand of toothpaste you use," Marcus said. "Do you sleep nude, have you had a vasectomy? Believe me, when you're rich or famous--or both--you've got one hell of a cross to bear."
All Daniel associated with celebrity was money and sex, which surely couldn't be what he was doing all this for. To save the world from AIDS, yes. To get credit for it, even. But not just for money, sex and fame. When you were famous you still got forgotten in the end; it just took a little longer.
Lawrence finally managed a smile. "A successful man like you is going to get a lot of adulation. Marcus thinks this Shakespeare Search will benefit if you're more famous-for being the more elusive. If you're interviewed every which way, the whole thing could dry up in a few weeks. The Rostrum's going to need you longer than that. . . maybe six months."
"That's the bit that worries me. I have trouble seeing myself holed up that long, like some hermit in a cave."
"I'd hardly call it a cave," Marcus said. "Joshua's community is famous for its free-living attitude. You'll be out of sight of your eager public, that's all. If you find a new Shakespeare, fine."
"And if I don't?"
"If you don't find him, even better--at least for a few months. Keep the excitement going longer." To which he added hastily: "Of course I hope you find him in the end."
Daniel knew when he was being buttered up. What he didn't know, still, was why Lawrence was involved. Or whether Amelia had been-maybe even still was--involved with Marcus.
Lawrence was gazing into blue yonder. Marcus, refilling all three teacups, looked less like the gentleman he probably wished to appear than the chemicals salesman from Columbus, Ohio, he once had been.
Lawrence put a hand on Daniel's shoulder and gave it a barely perceptible squeeze. "You're going to find your vaccine, Daniel, and we're going to help you make it happen. For us and Amelia. . .and all those people out there suffering from AIDS."
"Other than help for the suffering," Daniel blurted out, "what's in it for you?"
For the first time Lawrence was visibly shaken, the effort to compose himself discernible. When he answered, Daniel knew he was lying.
"Marcus is my friend and the Rostrum is my client. And Amelia's my daughter. What's good for them is good for me."