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Here’s a short excerpt in which William Constable is with John Foxe at Leicester House inspecting the printed proofs of the fourth edition of Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs”. The Earl of Leicester has agreed to pay the printing costs of the book.
We have been poring over the text and woodcuts for some time when I hear the faint ringing of church bells signalling midday. I have found little of note in the printed pages, save a few broken characters and a blurring on one of the images. John is bent over a distant table with his eyeglass. Between us, we have completed four tables, leaving nine more for our attention. We will be here until late in the afternoon and will require more candles when daylight fades. I am walking towards John when a door opens and a lady enters. This can only be the Earl’s wife, Lettice Knollys. She is a woman of middle height, with fine features and shapely form, but it is her costume and ornamentation that startles. A gown of deep blue is trimmed with gold thread, and her billowing sleeves are slashed with crimson velvet. Her figure shimmers and glitters with jewels on her French hood, necklace and girdle belt.
John has not noticed her entry. She stands still, waiting for his attention. I take two paces towards her, bow deep and clear my throat to alert John. I hear him shuffle his feet and follow his greeting of, ‘My Lady’ with my own.
‘Doctor Foxe, it is a joy to welcome a man of exalted scholarship into my house.’ She toys with a golden pomander hung from her girdle and eyes me with curiosity. ‘And your companion here confounds my expectations.’
John says, ‘Lady, this is my good friend Doctor William Constable, noted physician and mathematician.’
‘Doctor Constable, so it is you who have cast Sir Peter under a dark cloud, scaring the servants with his stamping and cursing. I wonder what you can have said to him.’
‘My Lady… I was unaware of any offence in our conversation. I am…’
‘No, I am sure your words were blameless.’ She glides closer with a silky whisper of her skirts and stands two paces from me with an expression of amusement. Her scent is strong and sweet; of lavender and another I cannot bring to mind. ‘Perhaps it is your appearance that unsettled him. You are uncommonly handsome for a scholar. Replace your drab scholar’s vestments with finer dress, and you would turn the heads of many ladies at court.’
‘Thank you for your compliment, my Lady, which is welcome, though ill-deserved and surely spoken in jest. In return, I trust you will forgive my stare. My mind was filled with bookish thoughts, and I was not prepared to be dazzled by the grace of your entrance.’
As soon as my pretty words are out, I regret them. I should have stayed silent or mumbled an awkward response to put an end to her flirting. Closer up, she is older, with lines around her eyes that cannot be hidden by face whitening. She will be more than ten years my senior – but still a beautiful woman. A tilt of the head and faint puckering of lips reveal her pleasure at my flattery. She turns her head to the scattered manuscript, floats towards them and trails a finger down the tables until she reaches a mid-point. I recall the name of the other scent that shadows her; it is Egyptian papyrus. I have used this oil sparingly on patients to ease bruising and stiff limbs. I am not convinced by its healing properties, but the odour is delicate and pleasing.
She says, ‘This is dry and demanding work for even the bravest intellect. I understand you have not sought refreshment before this hour and my conscience will not rest without the offer of dinner to reinvigorate your efforts.’
I am thankful it is John who replies, ‘Your words and kindness are a great encouragement, my Lady. Unhappily, we are behind in this task, and I know Sir Peter is eager for a quick resolution.’ He clasps his hands and adopts a respectful pose. ‘Regretfully, we must decline your generous offer, but a small serving of meat and ale here, in this fine gallery, would be most welcome.’
This does not please her. She dips her head to John, turns to me as if to speak then gathers her skirts and leaves without further words. We are stilled, and it is some moments after the door has closed before John stirs himself and beckons me to his side.
‘William, you must take great care in your conversations with the Countess. Put yourself beyond her interest through a show of uncultured phrasing or indifference at your next meeting. She has a reputation for spite if disappointed, and the Earl has a jealous nature.’
I freely admit my error and promise that I will heed his advice.