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Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare;
Blest be ye man yet spares thes stones
And curst be he yet moves my bones.
I stood on the north side of the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, gazing at the slab of stone bearing this bit of doggerel. Beneath the stone lay the dust of the world's greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. By legend, the words are his own, and I found it passing strange that he, who had put such marvels of poetry into the mouths of his characters, should have done so poorly by himself. Yet the simple warning sent a tremble quivering up my spine.
I was moved, but I had no premonition that before many days, I would be digging up the bones of a long dead lady myself, that I was already set on a course that would irrevocably change my perceptions, and my life. When I look back on it all, though, it is that moment by Shakespeare's grave that I see as the beginning.
I had come to England to escape the memory of a death, yet I found myself strangely drawn to graves and graveyards. I called the visit a research trip, but in truth I was running away from the empty house where I had lived with my widowed father. For the three months since his death, I had sat at my word processor with no spark of an idea for my next historical novel. So when my April royalty check arrived, I grabbed it and ran away to lick my wounds, hoping England would inspire me.
My new book had a title, Rebel Heart, and a setting: seventeenth-century England during Cromwell's reign. The rebel heart beat in the breast of a Puritan daughter of one of Cromwell's officers. The Royalist who caused herto rebel against faith and father was the problem. I could not visualize him. He had no face, no name, no character or personality, no virtues or vices. Perhaps I had come to England to find him.
I had come to Stratford on a tour bus. When the group began wandering back to the bus, I went along with them, hurrying to get a window seat. The scenery was enchanting as the bus spirited us along. Sun glinted off the water; at the end of April the air already held the gentle warmth of summer.
When my seat-mate, Ellie Duncan, a retired schoolteacher from Ohio, suggested we open the window, I agreed. The unfurling leaves of lime trees formed a lacy umbrella of translucent green as the sunlight poured over them, dappling the roadway with shivering shadows. I breathed in the balmy air and gazed at the passing scene. Stratford had been exactly as I anticipated. Interesting, quaint, but not terribly exciting. The place where my heart beat faster had been at Shakespeare's grave. One thinks of the grave as final, the last stop. Death is not always the end, however. As I was to learn, it can even be a beginning.
I felt a sharp jab at my elbow. "Look at that!" Ellie exclaimed. "Our bus nearly hit that dog. The driver didn't even honk the horn."
I craned my head out the window. We had slowed down to turn the corner, but I didn't see the endangered dog. It seemed wrong, driving on the left side of the road. When the motorcycle came around the corner, I was afraid we would run into it. It was a black Harley, and the driver wore a helmet with a mask covering his face. He looked like some evil android. He turned to look at me, with my head craned out of the window. Perhaps he thought I was trying to call to him. His machine swerved dangerously toward us and nearly collided. I uttered one sharp, instinctive yelp of fear, then he was safely past, and the bus continued on.
"I wonder if he's an American," Ellie said. "He doesn't seem to be used to driving on the left."
Ellie and I had struck up one of those unlikely friendships that occur between people who have little in common, but are thrown together for a few days during travel. She was a comfortable grandmother in her sixties; I was a working woman less than half her age. Maturity brings a sort of compassion, and at that time I enjoyed her company more than that of younger people.
"I expect you'll rent a car when we reach the New Forest," she said. "Isn't that where you'll be staying?"
"Yes, I saw a real estate agent's ad in a travel magazine. She's trying to find me a cottage to rent for a few months."
"Maybe you'll get started on your new novel," Ellie said. I had confided my problem to Ellie, which is strange, because I hadn't told my closer friends about my writer's block.
"I think the change of scene will be a big help."
"There's so much history here, isn't there?" Ellie said. "Every little village has some historical home or museum. And we've had three days of sunshine. I'm looking forward to one of their pea soupers."
Between the scenery and Ellie's easy company, the trip passed quickly. We took our parting at Southampton, promising to keep in touch. At the bus stop, I looked around for the estate agent, Mrs. Romero, who was supposed to meet me. There was only one woman waiting, and she didn't look like a Mrs. Romero. I was expecting a dark-haired Latin type. The woman standing on the curb had a halo of frizzy Titian hair, a wide, pink map-of-Ireland face, and green eyes. She was built like a pumpkin on pegs, and wore a loose-fitting flowered dress.
"Miss Savage?" she said, bustling forward.
"Yes. You're Mrs. Romero?"
We shook hands. "Call me Mollie," she said. "I'm Irish, as you might have guessed. Romero's my married name. Miguel loped off on me a dozen years ago. Good riddance, say I, the shiftless bounder. I've got my car double-parked in front of the greengrocer, so we'd best scoot before the law finds me out." She peered at her car, which was in no imminent danger of getting a ticket.
She took up one of my cases, I took the other, and we crossed the road to the beat-up white Morris Mini double-parked in front of the greengrocer's shop. The car hardly looked big enough to hold her, let alone myself and two substantial pieces of luggage, but we managed to get bags and bodies stowed. The engine spluttered, and finally lurched away from the curb.
To put it kindly, Mollie was an inexpert driver. Until we were out of the city and driving through the lush countryside, it seemed best not to distract her with conversation.
When we hit a quiet spot on the road she said "I've found just the place for you, dear, a little cottage in Lyndhurst, the Queen Town of the New Forest. Two beds, modern plumbing, and a bit of a garden at the back. It's a lovely town, all kinds of arts and crafts and lots of pubs."
We drove into a town that did look very pretty, and just as she described. The buildings were ancient but well preserved. Some of the houses had thatch roofs. But when she took me to the cottage, I was disappointed to see it was just a modern little brick bungalow. I had been picturing something quainter. She read the disappointment on my face.
"I thought, you being American and all, you'd want your modern conveniences," she said. Her green eyes twinkled with something akin to mischief.
"It's very nice, but I pictured an older cottage, with maybe a thatched roof, or... I don't know. Just something older and more picturesque. Of course, I do want running water and a flush toilet."
"I know exactly the place you'd love. Quaint, but it's been modernized a bit. Unfortunately..."
"Somebody beat me to it, huh?"
"Devil a bit of it!" she said, and laughed merrily. "I can't unload it for love or money."
"What's the matter with it? Is it haunted?" I asked eagerly. I had been hearing of ghosts in a few tours of the stately homes of England.
"Worse. It's on the grounds of Chêne Bay. One of those rock-and-roll fellows bought up the entire estate. A grand old place with stables, a lake--all the extras. He'll make a shambles of it, I expect. The group calls itself Roarshock, and that's just what their music is. A shocking roar. They're what you call punk rockers. It's just the head honcho who lives there. He calls himself Ivan the Terrible. He isn't so bad if you can get past the purple spiked hair and the hardware hanging off his ears and the pin in his nose. He tells me his dad is a vicar, and his uncle teaches at Oxford. Quite a good family really. Can you beat that?" she said, and laughed.
"A rebel without a cause. Is the cottage close to the house?"
"There's a quarter of a mile separating them. Ivan isn't around much. He has a recording studio in London. Some of his friends are using the house to make a video at the moment. The movie crew seem quite decent. You'll see more short-haired businessmen around than anything else. Agents and such."
"Let's have a look at the cottage," I said, and we squeezed back into the Mini.
"It's just a mile beyond Lyndhurst. Actually an ideal location, a bit away from the town, but close enough to come into the pubs and flicks if you want company."
She chatted on about the New Forest as we drove to the cottage. "They call it the New Forest, but it's actually as old as the hills. William the Conqueror is the one who set it up as a hunting ground for himself. Nice to be king, eh? Part of it's privately owned. The ponies you hear about are called wild, but they all belong to people. If you see one wandering the street, don't get any ideas about putting a saddle on it."
The road was narrow and twisty--crinkumcrankum, Mollie called it. She nearly ran over a goose that had wandered into her path. Other than that, the drive was uneventful. In some places, the old forest grew right up to the road's edge; at others we had a view of meadows spangled with wildflowers. A few small, old cottages dotted the roadside, their privacy protected by those strips of mini forests the English call hedgerows. We didn't see any ponies.
"That's Chêne Bay ahead," she said, when we'd been driving for what seemed longer than a mile. Maybe it was the jiggling car or the poor roadway that caused it, or just that so many interesting things were squeezed into a short space.
I peered through the windshield to an ancient heap of gray stone perched atop a low rise. The house was done in the Palladian style with a classical portico and a dome on top. An incredibly green park, spotted with trees, ran gracefully down to the roadway. Sunlight sparkled off a winding snake of water meandering through the park. Mollie turned in at an iron gate. About a quarter of a mile farther up the rise stood Chêne Bay. She turned right almost immediately into a dirt road and parked in front of a stand of hornbeam and yews. We got out and went along to an opening in the bush.
"This is it," she said. "Chêne Mow. Pretty, isn't it?"
It wasn't half-timbered, or thatched, or any of the things I had been thinking I wanted. But it was perfect. A perfect little English cottage, built of flint with a slate roof that gleamed with a dull iridescence in the sunlight, like a pigeon's back. Blood-red roses climbed up the walls; the oaken door was rounded at the top and had a big lions-head knocker. Latticed windows twinkled a welcome in the sunlight.
"I'll take it," I said, before we even went inside. The speed of my decision surprised both Mollie and me. The minute I laid an eye on that cottage, I knew it was perfect for me. It felt like home. I liked the location, away from the city, and the privacy of it, crouching behind the hedge.
Mollie gave me a sharp, conning look. "I knew you would," she said. "I can always tell."
"Nothing like experience. You recognized me for a romantic."
"Oh no, dear. It's not the experience. I just know these things. I'm a psychic. Did I mention it?"