June 28, 2017
“No! I won’t go!” Emilia shouted, kicking at the rushes on the floor.
“Stop that and come here, Emilia!” Her mother held out her arms.
Emilia stomped around the room, shouting, “No, no!” Stomp, stomp. “No, no, no, no, NO!”
“Stop!” implored her mother.
The little girl stood teetering as her mother began to cough. She stood on one foot, then slowly lowered the other to the floor. “Stop coughing, Mama!”
Her mother pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, swallow- ing hard, then sprang up and grabbed her daughter by the shoulders. “You are going to the Countess of Kent, and that’s all there is to it!” Emilia went limp and began to wail as her mother held her tight.
“Don’t cry, darling, please don’t cry!”
They clung to each other, sobbing. When they pulled apart, her mother sat on the stool and lifted her daughter onto her lap. She wiped Emilia’s cheeks with her apron and ran her hands over the little girl’s tangled curls. She smoothed the hair back from her small forehead and kissed it.
“You know I don’t want you to go.”
“Then I’ll stay,” Emilia said, snuggling close to her mother.
“No, you must go. You are seven years old now, and of an age to be fostered. The Countess has offered, of her goodness, to take you into her service and have you educated as a gentlewoman. It is a very great honor, and an opportunity for you.” Her mother drew a deep breath. “If I could give you all you need, I would never, ever let you go. But I can’t. So—yes, I want you to go.”
Emilia swallowed and nodded.
Her mother tightened her arms. “Go and show the Countess how we musician folk can strut and spout Latin with the best of them!”
Emilia put the forefinger and thumb of each hand on either side of her mouth and pulled the corners up into a smile like a pantaloon’s, as her father used to do. Then she pinched the corners of her mother’s mouth and pulled them up.
“You poppet, you rosebud, you sparrow!” Her mother tickled her, and Emilia wriggled away, laughing, before returning to climb onto her lap. Her mother circled her with her arms. “You’re my own mischievous girl, and always will be.”
“You’re my lovely mother and always will be, and you’re much prettier than any countess,” Emilia whispered.
They smiled into each other’s eyes.
Emilia leaned back against her mother’s bodice front and closed her eyes. She felt her corset, hard under the thick wools of her dress. Squirming to get more comfortable, the little girl closed her eyes and rested her head against the hollow of her mother’s shoulder. It was so warm and soft, curving and encircling. She could hear her mother’s pulse beat in her neck. Her cheek pressed against her much-laundered, starched, and ironed lawn collar. She could smell her mother’s hair—lavender, rosemary, and the smell that was just her mother that Emilia would know anywhere. She dangled her foot on the floor and dragged it through the rushes strewn on the wide planks. They smelled of dried hay still, a hint of summer fields.
The next day, Emilia stood still as her mother braided her thick, curly hair and covered it with a lace-trimmed cap, smoothed her best black kirtle that she was almost growing out of, and straightened her white linen ruff.
Her mother sat back on her heels. “There! You look fine as a princess. Take care you behave like one.”
“Yes, Mama.” An ache like a stone lodged in the pit of Emilia’s stomach.
Jenny, their maidservant, appeared at the door, looking scared, and announced Lord Hunsdon. A big, tall nobleman, red-faced and broad, burst into the room. Emilia slipped behind her mother. The big man extended his hand to her mother and murmured a greeting. Then he bent to Emilia, who shrank away. He looked like a dressed-up bear with his thick beard and eyebrows, his sharp, dark eyes, his fur-trimmed woolen cloak, his sword in its leather sheath, his deep voice. A royal bear, whose dark eyes under bushy brows looked into hers as he said in a gentle, rumbling voice, “Little Emilia, will you go with me to meet the Countess of Kent?”
“Yes, sir,” Emilia answered in a small voice. The bear took her small hand in his large, surprisingly gentle one, and she went with him.
When they reached the brown glinting river, Lord Hunsdon raised his hand and whistled, and a boatman oared his wherry to the water’s edge. The big nobleman put Emilia into the boat and settled himself beside her, and they were off down the river, leaving a foamy trail behind them.
It was a day of sun and white waves on the water that curled around the prow of the boat. Emilia moved closer to Lord Hunsdon, wrapped in his cloak against the chill of the morning. Earlier the sky had been soft pearl gray, and now it was streaked with scarlet, purple, and deep crimson.
She squinted at the great red ball that rose steadily, sending blinding streaks of light over the water. Like a carpet, she thought. Like a carpet I could step onto and walk right up to the sun. She closed her eyes and watched the yellow, green, and purple floating shapes that burned on the insides of her eyelids. She pulled her cloak tighter against the morning chill. Cool air prickled the skin of her face and hands. Dew beaded on the gunwales of the boat and the oarlocks, silvering the chipped paint and revealing rough, creased oak beneath.
She looked back at the shore they had just left. It was already so far away, just a line of buildings, docks, and tiny boats like this one drawing up and pulling away. Behind it, the street they had ridden down and the houses of Bishopsgate Street that had turned into Gracious Street and then the wharf and, too soon, the edge of the water. Her mother was back there, in their house, as Emilia had last seen her, standing in the parlor, a tight, bright smile on her face, her hands crumpled into her apron. Emilia felt the lump of tears in her throat swell.
She reached out and touched the splintery wood of the boat. It pricked her finger, and she jerked back and put her finger in her mouth. Her stiff ruff itched at her neck. She could hardly breathe, hooked and tied into the too-small bodice and kirtle. She glanced up at huge Lord Hunsdon, who had taken her away from her mother. When he reached his arm to steady her, she shrank away. Then a wave sloshed against the boat, and it rocked, and she clutched at his cloak in spite of herself. He put his large hand on hers. It felt warm and dry. His bearded lips smiled down at her. She didn’t smile back. They reached a wide sweep of stone steps leading up from the water, and the boatman stepped out and wrapped a chain about a metal post. Emilia saw a border of trees and vines hanging over a long wall that stretched along the river’s bank. Behind it were roofs and upper stories of a row of grand houses with diamond-paned windows glistening in the sunlight.
“We’re here,” said Hunsdon. “Come, child.” She didn’t move.
“Sir, where is the palace?”
Hunsdon swept his arm wide. “Why, here! This is the palace of Whitehall.”
“All these houses are the palace?”
“They are. Now come along.”
Emilia took a deep breath and stood up, trying to balance. Then a rush of light and shade, rippling water and tilting boat, and Hunsdon caught her under the arms and lifted her onto the landing stairs. Then they were off at a fast clip, through a gate, over cobblestones, past guards who saluted, through an archway where gentlemen bowed, past paintings and tapestries, over stone floors, up stairs, through chamber after chamber, each opening into the next until they reached a pleasant room where a fire burned in a stone fireplace and a wooden chest covered with a cloth stood against the wall.
“Wait here, child, and stay still.” Lord Hunsdon held up a finger and vanished through a door.
Emptiness and quiet washed over Emilia. She looked around the room. Everything was so still but for the fire crackling. She sat on a chest under the window.
The talk of sending her away had started after her father’s funeral. He’d lain still in the wooden box with high sides and a lid. People had whispered, broken into tears, and embraced, talking in low tones. They’d gathered in the chamber where he lay, praying in strange words. Then they’d gone to the churchyard and stood in the drizzling rain while he was lowered into the ground. When they’d left the churchyard to walk home, they’d passed the Dolphin Inn, a fish painted on a sign above the door. The sun had come out, making the cobblestones glitter. Emilia had watched the threads of rainwater running over and between the stones and thought of the island city her father had told her about—Venezia, where people went everywhere in boats.
He and his brothers, her uncles, had left there and come here to London to play music for the King, who had invited them because they were such fine musicians and could play and make all kinds of instruments. Emilia used to sit on his knee and lean against his linen shirt and leather vest, fragrant with oranges and sweat and leather, oil and wood and brass polish, ginger and coriander and garlic, a mélange of the court and the rich homes where he’d been and played. She would snuggle against him and he would twist one of her black curls around his forefinger—black like his, only his were streaked with gray. He had taught her to play the lute, positioning her hands and placing her small fingers on the strings. When she was able to pick out a simple air, he listened, his eyes half closed, his lips smiling, and her mother came to listen and lean her head on her husband’s, her arm circling his shoulder.
Emilia sometimes dreamed of riding in the narrow boats called gondolas through the canals of her father’s island city, where everyone wore gold and jewels and silks, and bells rang from the church towers and musicians played from every balcony, their music floating everywhere, over the waters, domes, and rooftops, mingling its sweetness with the sound of the sea that ringed the city all around.
Emilia climbed onto the chest and stood up, just to do something and not feel the hard lump in her chest that thinking of her father brought back. Before her face was a small picture on the wall of a pretty lady with large, dark eyes wearing a black cap that stuck out like wings from either side of her head. Emilia began to peer closer at the picture, but she heard footsteps in the outer chamber and scrambled down. Her heart thumped, and she gripped her hands in tight fists.
A young lady entered the room, outlined by the gold light from the window. She stood straight, her shoulders back like a soldier’s. Her slashed sleeves showed cloth-of-gold lining. Her dress was dark green velvet, like a forest, with the waist nipped in and petticoat flaring over a farthingale. The pointed stomacher over her bodice looked stiff as wood.
Lord Hunsdon stood beside Emilia and whispered, “Curtsey, child, and address the lady as ‘Madam.’”
Emilia curtseyed, wobbling. “Good morrow, Madam.”
The lady knelt and took Emilia’s hands. “So you are the minstrel’s little daughter.” Her face had high cheekbones and a light sprinkling of freckles. A small ruff rose to her chin, and her frizzy red-brown curls escaped from under an embroidered cap. She looked at Emilia with stern eyes, her mouth unsmiling. “Tell me your name, child.”
“Emilia Bassano, Madam.”
“Can you read, Emilia?”
“Yes, Madam, my letters and the Lord’s Prayer.”
The Countess studied her. “Is that all?”
“Is there more?”
“There is a great deal more, little Emilia, and you shall have to spend much time at your books to learn all you must know.” She stood up. “Mary!”
“Yes, Madam?” A gentlewoman in black stepped forward. “Take charge of Emilia. She will be educated with the other children.”
Mary took Emilia’s hand in a firm grip and pulled her out the door. The woman’s soft-shod feet made a slip-slip sound and Emilia’s boots went clip-clip, tap-tap as they went through one chamber after another, deep into the palace, away from windows, water, light, and familiar faces. Emilia bit her lips and thought about the sunlight on the water she had just come across.
CHARLENE BALL holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.
Adapted from Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, by Charlene Ball, Copyright © 2017 by Charlene Ball. With the permission of the publisher, She Writes Press.