"So much so that the servants have been known to throw themselves down the well," Matthew observed pointedly.
"Yes. That was unfortunate. I doubt any such thing will happen during our visit," Henry muttered.
I didn't care what state the household was in. We were on the brink of being able to answer so many questions: why this book was so sought after, if it could tell us more about how we creatures had come into being. And of course Matthew believed that it might shed light on why we otherworldly creatures were going extinct in our modern times.
Whether for propriety's sake or to avoid his disorderly brood, Dr. Dee was strolling in his brick-walled garden as if it were high summer and not the end of January. He was wearing the black robes of a scholar, and a tight-fitting hood covered his head and extended down his neck, topped with a flat cap. A long white beard jutted from his chin, and his arms were clasped behind his back as he made his slow progress around the barren garden.
"Dr. Dee?" Henry called over the wall.
"Lord Northumberland! I trust you are in good health?" Dee's voice was quiet and raspy, though he took care (as most did) to alter it slightly for Henry's benefit. He removed his cap and swept a bow.
"Passable for the time of year, Dr. Dee. We are not here about my health, though. I have friends with me, as I explained in my letter. Let me introduce you."
"Dr. Dee and I are already acquainted." Matthew gave Dee a wolfish smile and a low bow. He knew every other strange creature of the time. Why not Dee?
"Master Roydon," Dee said warily.
"This is my wife, Diana," Matthew said, inclining his head in my direction. "She is a friend to the Countess of Pembroke and joins her ladyship in alchemical pursuits."
"The Countess of Pembroke and I have corresponded on alchemical matters." Dee forgot all about me and focused instead on his own close connection to a peer of the realm. "Your message indicated you wanted to see one of my books, Lord Northumberland. Are you here on Lady Pembroke's behalf?"
Before Henry could respond, a sharp-faced, ample-hipped woman came out of the house in a dark brown gown trimmed with fur that had seen better days. She looked irritated, then spotted the Earl of Northumberland and plastered a welcoming look over her face.
"And here is my own dear wife," Dee said uneasily. "The Earl of Northumberland and Master Roydon are arrived, Jane," he called out.
"Why haven't you asked them inside?" Jane scolded, wringing her hands in distress. "They will think we are not prepared to receive guests, which of course we are, at all times. Many seek out my husband's counsel, my lord."
"Yes. That is what brings us here, too. You are in good health I see, Mistress Dee. And I understand from Master Roydon that the queen recently graced your house with a visit."
Jane preened. "Indeed. John has seen Her Majesty three times since November. The last two times she happened upon us at our far gate, as she rode along the Richmond road."
"Her Majesty was generous to us this Christmas," Dee said. He twisted the cap in his hands. Jane looked at him sourly. "We had thought . . . but it is no matter."
"Delightful, delightful," Henry said quickly, rescuing Dee from any potential awkwardness. "But enough small talk. There is a particular book we wished to see-"
"My husband's library is esteemed more than he is!" Jane said sullenly. "Our expenses while visiting the emperor were extreme, and we have many mouths to feed. The queen said she would help us. She did give us a small reward but promised more."
"No doubt the queen was distracted by more pressing concerns." Matthew had a small, heavy pouch in his hands. "I have the balance of her gift here. And I value your husband, Mistress Dee, not just his books. I've added to Her Majesty's purse for his pains on our behalf."
"I . . . I thank you, Master Roydon," Dee stammered, exchanging glances with his wife. "It is kind of you to see to the queen's business. Matters of state must always take precedence over our difficulties, of course."
"Her Majesty does not forget those who have given her good service," Matthew said. It was a blatant untruth, as everyone standing in the snowy garden knew, but it went unchallenged.
"You must all take your ease inside by the fire," Jane said, her interest in hospitality sharply increased. "I will bring wine and see that you are not disturbed." She dropped a curtsy to Henry, an even lower one to Matthew, then bustled back in the direction of the door. "Come, John. They'll turn to ice if you keep them out here any longer."
Twenty minutes spent inside the Dees' house proved that its master and mistress were representatives of that peculiar breed of married people who bickered incessantly over perceived slights and unkindnesses, all the while remaining devoted. They exchanged barbed comments while we admired the new tapestries (a gift from Lady Walsingham), the new wine ewer (a gift from Sir Christopher Hatton), and the new silver salt (a gift from the Marchioness of Northampton). The ostentatious gifts and invective having run their course, we were-at long last-ushered into the library.
"I'm going to have a hell of a time getting you out of here," Matthew whispered, grinning at the expression of wonder on my face.
John Dee's library was nothing like what I had expected. I'd imagined it would look much like a spacious private library belonging to a well-heeled gentleman of the nineteenth century-for reasons that now struck me as completely indefensible. This was no genteel space for smoking pipes and reading by the fire. With only candles for illumination, the room was surprisingly dark on this winter day. A few chairs and a long table awaited readers by a south-facing bay of windows. The walls of the room were hung with maps, celestial charts, anatomical diagrams, and the broadside almanac sheets that could be had at every apothecary and bookshop in London for pennies. Decades of them were on display, presumably maintained as a reference collection for when Dee was drawing up a horoscope or making other heavenly calculations.
Dee owned more books than any of the Oxford or Cambridge colleges, and he required a working library-not one for show. Not surprisingly, the most precious commodity was not light or seating but shelf space. To maximize what was available, Dee's bookshelves were freestanding and set perpendicular to the walls. The simple oak bookshelves were doublefaced, with the shelves set at varied heights to hold the different sizes of Elizabethan books. Two sloped reading surfaces topped the shelves, making it possible to study a text and then accurately return it.
"My God," I murmured. Dee turned in consternation at my oath.
"My wife is overwhelmed, Master Dee," Matthew explained. "She has never been in such a grand library."
"There are many libraries that are far more spacious and boast more treasures than mine, Mistress Roydon."
Jane Dee arrived on cue, just when it was possible to divert the conversation to the poverty of the household.
"The Emperor Rudolf's library is very fine," Jane said, heading past us with a tray holding wine and sweetmeats. "Even so, he was not above stealing one of John's best books. The emperor took advantage of my husband's generosity, and we have little hope of compensation."
"Now, Jane," John chided, "His Majesty did give us a book in return."
"Which book was that?" Matthew said carefully.
"A rare text," Dee said unhappily, watching his wife's retreating form as she headed for the table.
"Nothing but gibberish!" Jane retorted.
It was Ashmole 782. It had to be.
"Master Plat told us about just such a book. It is why we are here. Perhaps we might enjoy your wife's hospitality first and then see the emperor's book?" Matthew suggested, smooth as a cat's whisker. He held out his arm to me, and I took it with a squeeze.
While Jane fussed and poured and complained about the cost of nuts over the holiday season and how she had been brought to near bankruptcy by the grocer, Dee went in search of Ashmole 782. He scanned the shelves of one bookcase and pulled a volume free.
"That's not it," I murmured to Matthew. It was too small.
Dee plunked the book on the table in front of Matthew and lifted the limp vellum cover.
"See. There is naught in it but meaningless words and lewd pictures of women in their bath." Jane harrumphed out of the room, muttering and shaking her head.
This was not Ashmole 782, but it was nonetheless a book I knew: the Voynich manuscript, otherwise known as Yale University's Beinecke MS 408. The manuscript's contents were a mystery. No code breaker or linguist had yet figured out what the text said, and botanists hadn't been able to identify the plants. Theories abounded to explain its mysteries, including one suggesting that it had been written by aliens. I let out a disappointed sound.
"No?" Matthew asked. I shook my head and bit my lip in frustration. Dee mistook my expression for annoyance with Jane, and he rushed to explain.
"Please forgive my wife. Jane finds this book most distressing, for it was she who discovered it among our boxes when we returned from the emperor's lands. I had taken another book with me on the journey-a treasured book of alchemy that once belonged to the great English magician Roger Bacon. It was larger than this, and contained many mysteries."
I pitched forward in my seat.
"My assistant, Edward, could understand the text with divine assistance, though I could not," Dee continued. "Before we left Edward in Prague, Emperor Rudolf expressed an interest in the work. Edward had told him some of the secrets contained therein-about the generation of metals and a secret method for obtaining immortality."
So Dee had once possessed Ashmole 782 after all. And his daemonic helper, Edward Kelley, could read the text. My hands were shaking with excitement, and I concealed them in the folds of my skirt.
"Edward helped Jane pack up my books when we were ordered home. Jane believes that Edward stole the book away, replacing it with this item from His Majesty's collection." Dee hesitated, looked sorrowful. "I do not like to think ill of Edward, for he was my trusted companion and we spent much time together. He and Jane were never on good terms, and at first I dismissed her theory."
"But now you think it has merit," Matthew observed.
"I go over the events of our last days, Master Roydon, trying to recall a detail that might exonerate my friend. But everything I remember only points the finger of blame more decidedly in his direction." Dee sighed. "Still, this text may yet prove to contain secrets of worth."
Matthew flipped through the pages. "These are chimeras," he said, studying the images of plants. "The leaves and stems and flowers don't match but have been assembled from different plants."
"What do you make of these?" I said, turning to the astrological roundels that followed. I peered at the writing in the center. Funny. I'd seen the manuscript many times before and never paid any attention to the notes.
"These inscriptions are written in the tongue of ancient Occitania," Matthew said quietly. "I knew someone once with handwriting very like this. Did you happen to meet a gentleman from Aurillac while you were at the emperor's court?"
Did he mean Gerbert? My excitement turned to anxiety. Had Gerbert mistaken the Voynich manuscript for the mysterious book of origins? At my question the handwriting in the center of the astrological diagram began to quiver. I clapped the book shut to keep it from dancing off the page.
"No, Master Roydon," Dee said with a frown. "Had I done so, I would have asked him about the famed magician from that place who became pope. There are many truths hidden in old tales told around the fire."
"Yes," Matthew agreed, "if only we are wise enough to recognize them."
"That is why I so regret the loss of my book. It was once owned by Roger Bacon, and I was told by the old woman who sold it to me that he prized it for holding divine truths. Bacon called it the Verum Secretum Secretorum." Dee looked wistfully at the Voynich manuscript. "It is my dearest wish to have it returned."
"Perhaps I can be of some use," Matthew said.
"You, Master Roydon?"
"If you would permit me to take this book, I could try to have it put back where it belongs-and have your book restored to its rightful owner." Matthew pulled the manuscript toward him.
"I would be forever in your debt, sir," Dee said, agreeing to the deal without further negotiation.
The minute we pulled away from the public landing in Mortlake, I started peppering Matthew with questions.
"What are you thinking, Matthew? You can't just pack up the Voynich manuscript and send it to Rudolf with a note accusing him of doubledealing. You'll have to find someone crazy enough to risk his life by breaking into Rudolf's library and stealing Ashmole 782."
"If Rudolf has Ashmole 782, it won't be in his library. It will be in his cabinet of curiosities," Matthew said absently, staring at the water.
"So this . . . Voynich was not the book you were seeking?" Henry had been following our exchange with polite interest. "George will be so disappointed not to have solved your mystery."
"George may not have solved it, Hal, but he's shed considerable light on the situation," Matthew said. "Between my father's agents and my own, we'll get Dee's lost book."
We'd caught the tide back to town, which sped our return. The torches were lit on the Water Lane landing in anticipation of our arrival, but two men in the Countess of Pembroke's livery waved us off.
"Baynard's Castle, if you please, Master Roydon!" one called across the water.
"Something must be wrong," Matthew said, standing in the prow of the barge. Henry directed the oarsmen to proceed the extra distance down the river, where the countess's landing was similarly ablaze with beacons and lanterns.
"Is it one of the boys?" I asked Mary when she rushed down the hall to meet us.
"No. They are well. Come to the laboratory. At once," she called over her shoulder, already heading back in the direction of the tower.
The sight that greeted us there was enough to make both Matthew and me gasp.
"It is an altogether unexpected arbor Dianæ," Mary said, crouching down so that she was at eye level with the bulbous chamber at the alembic's base that held the roots of a black tree. It wasn't like the first arbor Dianæ, which was entirely silver and far more delicate in its structure. This one, with its stout, dark trunk and bare limbs, reminded me of the oak tree in Madison that had sheltered us after Juliette's attack. I'd pulled the vitality out of that tree to save Matthew's life.
"Why isn't it silver?" Matthew asked, wrapping his hands around the countess's fragile glass alembics.
"I used Diana's blood," Mary replied. Matthew straightened and gave me an incredulous look.
"Look at the wall," I said, pointing at the bleeding firedrake.
"It's the green dragon-the symbol for aqua regia or aqua fortis," he said after giving it a cursory glance.
"No, Matthew. Look at it. Forget what you think it depicts and try to see it as if it were the first time."
"Dieu." Matthew sounded shocked. "Is that my insignia?"
"Yes. And did you notice that the dragon has its tail in its mouth? And that it's not a dragon at all? Dragons have four legs. That's a firedrake."
"A firedrake. Like . . ." Matthew swore again.
"There have been dozens of different theories about what ordinary substance was the crucial first ingredient required to make the philosopher's stone. Roger Bacon-who owned Dr. Dee's missing manuscript-believed it was blood." I was confident this piece of information would get Matthew's attention. I crouched down to look at the tree.
"And you saw the mural and followed your instincts." After a momentary pause, Matthew ran his thumb along the vessel's wax seal, cracking the wax. Mary gasped in horror as he ruined her experiment.
"What are you doing?" I asked, shocked.
"Following a hunch of my own and adding something to the alembic." Matthew lifted his wrist to his mouth, bit down on it, and held it over the narrow opening. His dark, thick blood dripped into the solution and fell into the bottom of the vessel. We stared into the depths.
Just when I thought nothing was going to happen, thin streaks of red began to work their way up the tree's skeletal trunk. Then golden leaves sprouted from the branches.
"Look at that," I said, amazed.
Matthew smiled at me. It was a smile still tinged with regret, but there was some hope in it, too.
Red fruits appeared among the leaves, sparkling like tiny rubies. Mary began to murmur a prayer, her eyes wide.
"My blood made the structure of the tree, and your blood made it bear fruit," I said slowly. My hand went to my hollow belly.
"Yes. But why?" Matthew replied.
If anything could tell us about the mysterious transformation that occurred when witch and wearh combined their blood, it would be Ashmole 782's strange pictures and mysterious text.
"How long did you say it would take you to get Dee's book back?" I asked Matthew.
"Oh, I don't imagine it will take very long," he murmured. "Not once I put my mind to it."
"The sooner the better," I said mildly, twining my fingers though his as we watched the ongoing miracle that our blood had wrought.