Southampton trembled as the door to his cell slammed shut. Absent from his face was the youthful glow described in Shake-speare’s Sonnets. The fair countenance King James loved so much was sick and pale with grief, distorted by panic.
As one of his first official acts, King James had granted him a pardon. While it was true that he had committed treason back then, this time Southampton had no idea why he had been arrested. Somehow, he had jeopardized his preferment with the King, whose bed he had warmed the night before. He was innocent of any wrongdoing. Perhaps his rival Buckingham had aroused the King’s jealousies.
Within minutes, Cecil entered. Southampton tried to remain calm, but his voice cracked and his hands shook.
“Why have you arrested me?” he asked. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I love the King and he knows it. I’ve honored all our agreements.”
“As I shall honor mine,” Cecil said, sitting on the cell’s only stool.
“You violated our agreement,” Southampton cried. “Not once have I broken the terms of my release. I demand that you tell me what crime I’m charged with, and if you have no cause for this arrest, you must release me.”
“The King has sent me to make some inquiries.”
“Inquiries can be made outside the Tower. Where are your spies, Cecil? Where are your ruffians? You always have an audience when you stage these inquisitions.”
“Accept my assurance that we’re alone this time. It wouldn’t serve either of us to be overheard in this exchange.”
“I’ll set the terms for this interrogation. Of course, if you’d prefer to stay in this hellhole,” he said, getting up from the stool.
“Wait, don’t go,” Southampton pleaded. “I’ll answer your questions. What does the King want to know?”
“Your mother was a good lady, was she not?”
“Yes, very good.”
“She suffered mightily from your father’s cruelty, isn’t that so?”
“Yes. Theirs was a bitter divorce and everyone knew it.”
“She never recovered from it, did she?”
“No, but she put on a cheerful face. That was her nature.”
“So I’ve heard. And what of your father?”
“My father was a vicious monster. He used to beat her cruelly.”
“Would his beatings have enticed her to pay him voluntary conjugal visits while he was imprisoned in the Tower?”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“Oh, wouldn’t you?”
“No. I wasn’t born then. How would I know any of this?”
“Maybe your father wasn’t always cruel. Maybe he was occasionally kind.”
“I wouldn’t know about that either.”
“Did she ever speak of him as a loving husband?”
“Did she ever say that his beatings intensified with the difficulties of giving birth, and that their one struggle was in conceiving you?”
“Conceiving me? What, is my birth the crime for which I’ve been imprisoned?”
“I said no such thing,” Cecil cooed, in a mocking tone. “But were you aware that your father was confined to this Tower in January of the year you were born, and that he was unable to have intercourse with your mother, unless she chose to visit him of her own accord?”
“On the contrary, the record shows he was released in May. But perhaps he had lost track of time in his lonely cell. So many minds go to jelly inside these walls.”
“I was told I was conceived on his return home.”
“‘It is a wise child that knows his own father,’” Cecil sighed. “That’s a quote from Shake-speare, and I believe I have it right.”
“No, you have it wrong,” Southampton laughed. “The actual quote is ‘it is a wise father that knows his own child.’ And my father knew me.”
“And yet he knew not your mother, at least not in the Biblical sense. He wasn’t home to conceive you. Someone else had that pleasure and coupled with your mother in an adulterous bed.”
“That’s a lie!” Southampton shouted. “Are you calling my mother a whore?”
“Your mother wasn’t married to your father until after you were born – as you yourself have pointed out.”
“My mother was an honest and virtuous woman. Everyone has always said that.”
“Yes, that was the general opinion. But I have it on good authority that while your father was imprisoned, your mother took a lover and you were their issue.”
Southampton lunged at Cecil. The inquisitor leapt up, overturning the stool.
“My mother was no whore!” the prisoner cried. “You can do what you want to me, but don’t malign her memory. She was everything to me and when my father died, they took me away from her and made me a royal ward and I barely saw her after that. Take back your insults! She was a good and virtuous woman!”
“Calm yourself or I’ll summon the guards.”
“How do you think your father impregnated your mother from the Tower?” he whispered. “Did he copulate from a distance and send his seed flying through the air?”
“He must have been home at the time of my conception.”
“But the records show he was not released when you say he was.”
“How would I know? Maybe he escaped this dreadful place. Some men are lucky.”
“Not usually, and certainly not in your father’s case. The records show he was in the Tower when you were conceived.”
“Oh, why does it matter? Why do you torment me with these infernal questions?”
“You love your mother very much, and you’d do anything to protect her memory, wouldn’t you?”
“Any man would do the same.”
“How true it is,” Cecil said. “Such is the loyalty a son bears towards his mother. I feel that way towards my own dear mother. The mother is the queen of the family, is she not? As you say, your mother was an honest lady throughout her long life. A veritable queen. A queen among women. Was she not a queen?”
Southampton didn’t flinch. He wiped his tears on his sleeve.
“She was a great lady,” he said, mournfully.
“A great lady,” Cecil echoed, waiting for a telltale revelation. “I speak as honestly as I can and now I see that I must dispel the terrible rumors against her good name.”
“That you were a bastard, a changeling of undetermined issue, and that the Earl and Countess of Southampton were not your true parents.”
“That’s madness!” Southampton shouted. “Who dares to make such a claim?”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing. Who was it?”
“Edward de Vere, the late Earl of Oxford.”
“What, is Oxford dead? I saw him last week. He was recovering his health. What happened?”
“It seems he suffered an attack in the night.”
Southampton raised a curious eyebrow.
“Now why on earth would the Earl of Oxford say such things about me?” he asked. “When I became friends with his son Henry, Oxford treated me like a son, too.”
“Like a son?”
“Yes. He treated all aspiring playwrights and poets that way.”
“That’s true,” Cecil said. “I must say, I always found him to be a singularly odd man.”
“He must have been mad with fever to say such things about me.”
“Probably. At least you know the true identity of your parents, and that’s all that matters now. Someone must have dropped Lord Oxford’s poisonous gossip into the King’s ear, but I’ll cure him of it.”
“Why should the King care so much about my parents?”
Cecil didn’t answer. He strode towards the door and pounded for the keeper to unlock it.
“You’ve answered all my questions, and I promise to speak in your favor to His Majesty in regards to your freedom.”
“Thank you!” Southampton cried. He fell on his knees and kissed Cecil’s hand. For an instant, he gazed affectionately into his captor’s eyes, as if willing to go further.
“Speaking in your favor is the very least I can do, for one who enjoys the pleasurable delights of the King’s bedchamber,” Cecil said, turning away in disgust. “But before I leave, tell me again the names of your parents; their full Christian names and titles.”
“Any relation to William Browne, the actor?”
“I don’t believe so. Why?”
“I suppose it was before your time, but I once saw William Browne play the role of Banquo in that Scottish play, Macbeth. He was an excellent ghost, very silent and accusatory--”
“I pray you, Cecil,” Southampton pleaded, “speak to the King about my freedom immediately and tell him I love him more than ever, with all my heart.”
“Most certainly,” the interrogator replied.
The jailer unlocked the door. Cecil stepped into the hallway and spoke through the bars. “I promise to do whatever I can to encourage your speedy release.”
Several hours later, Southampton was set free.
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