“Sonnet 126,” by Doug Trevor

Browse By

Fiction by Douglas Trevor excerpted from our Summer 2013 issue.

*

Theobald Kristeller settled into his chair in the early printed text room of the British Library. It was the second Tuesday of October, 2010. Theo preferred the reading desks closest to the circulation counter. He liked being right next to the bank of terminals one used to find and order books because he appreciated the relative bustle in that part of the enormous room. The rest of the early printed text reading area was deathly quiet and nearly void of distractions, save when one of the youngish, gung-ho librarians stumbled upon someone not using one of the book cradles properly, or writing notes in pen. Theo had himself once been upbraided for letting a first edition of Robert Persons’s De Persecutione Anglicana slip into his lap. “But it’s Persons!” he had exclaimed incredulously. “No one cares about Robert Persons!”

This transgression had occurred in 1990, when the BL was located in the British Museum and Theo had just arrived in London, having escaped—thanks to his mom leaving him more than a bit of money in her will—the awful prospect of spending his entire career as an English professor at Excellence University in the American Upper Midwest. He could still recall, after being caught with Persons in his lap, being led into the circulation office smack dab in the middle of the two reading rooms at the BL and reprimanded by the librarian, a withered man encased in worn tweed, the stench of pipe tobacco—Chartwell blend, Theo discovered soon thereafter—pouring from his mouth. “In the British Library, patrons handle the books properly or they don’t handle them at all,” the man had said, his voice dripping with disdain, his line of vision fixed above Theo’s head, as if he were too appalled to make eye contact. Theo had apologized profusely and left the library immediately, too embarrassed to return to his seat. Two hours later he emerged from Harrods, having purchased his own Harris Tweed blazer and his first of many pipes, all from salesmen who had looked down their noses at him. “I will never be accepted in this city,” he had thought as he walked down Brompton Road, the black taxis passing him on what would seem for years to be the wrong side of the street. “And I will never, ever leave.”

Skip ahead twenty years and Theo spent between three and four days a week at the British Library, depending on his teaching schedule at Roehampton, which was hardly laborious. He taught an introductory course on Renaissance literature, a class on research methodology, and—less frequently—a graduate seminar on paleography. More than proper research or proper teaching, though, Theo valued scholarly distractions. Since his teenage years, he had always had a romantic appreciation for the figure of the reader. He liked the look of intensity in his eyes: the tapping of fingers and toes while the rest of the body remained motionless, even languid. This combination of resignation and fierceness was what had drawn him first to the academic subject of early modern Catholic martyrs and then to the Anglican Church as a devout parishioner.

Theo had come to the British Library that day to look at a 1606 edition of Robert Southwell’s A Poem Declaring the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The poem—just a single quarto page—had been printed in Flanders. After its publication, some poor sop had smuggled the work into England, risking his life in the process. Southwell was an English Catholic, martyred in 1595. Possessing one of his poems would have attracted the interest of authorities and easily brought a charge of treason.

Southwell was also, without question, Theo’s favorite martyr. When he was hanged, having been arrested for celebrating a mass at Uxenden Hall, near Harrow-on-the-Hill in Middlesex, the Jesuit had not died right away because the knot that secured the rope had loosened when he fell through the scaffold. According to eyewitnesses, the hangman had been forced to pull down sharply on Southwell’s legs in order to finish him off. But Southwell was still breathing even when the rope was cut, and was said by some to have been mouthing last rites for himself just before he finally expired on the baseboard of the cart that had wheeled him to Tyburn in the first place. Whenever Theo pictured all of this, Southwell’s suffering, the savageness of the execution, the press of the crowd around the spectacle, he always came away ever more convinced that this martyr’s death was the most scintillating scene from the whole English Reformation.

While the years of his expatriation had flown by, encompassing several moves from one flat to another, a brief marriage to the inimitable Fiona Tartleton, and his seasonal retreats to Italy each August, Theo’s interest in Renaissance English Catholics had never really wavered, even if his progress on the book he had been intending all these years, Torture and Torment: the Question of Catholicism in Tudor and Stuart England, was nowhere near to being drafted, much less completed. Perhaps the examples of devotion and self-sacrifice that these subjects set forward were just too mesmerizing for Theo to comment on in prose. But that wasn’t even what he liked best about martyrs like Southwell. What really floored Theo wasn’t their commitment to God so much as their appreciation of culture. That was the real reason behind their willingness to offer up their lives on behalf of stained-glass windows and rosary beads. They believed that God inhered in these things, but they also knew that if such objects were destroyed, what remained in their wake would lose all beauty, luster, and vitality. Theo’s sympathy for just such a worldview, not to mention his fondness for blazers and vests, made his drift toward the Tory side of the political spectrum inevitable and now—in this, his fifty-fourth year as an animate being—irreversible.

When the light on his desk blinked, indicating that the book he had requested was now available at the circulation counter, Theo set down that day’s copy of the Daily Telegraph and ambled over to the queue. In less than a minute he was summoned to the counter by the nearly imperceptible nod of one of the clerks, a young man whom Theo didn’t recognize, with a thick head of curly black hair and a neck speckled with moles. Not until he had lived in London for more than a decade had Theo begun to pick up on all the subtle twitches and smirks of the English—that nervous, melancholy race. But once he could read the mysterious, subtle mannerisms of these pale-faced, painfully demure types, Theo began to notice how many people—on the Tube, in the public parks, and in the grocery stores—weren’t pale faced at all, not to mention demure. They were, rather, Indians and Pakistanis, Black Africans and Black Caribbeans. Theo didn’t feel nearly as confident intuiting their manners and sensibilities, although he often inferred muted rage and disdain when they returned his stares with their own. Then, in the wake of 9/11, the papers devoted so much attention to the radical mullahs preaching in and around London that Theo stopped taking public transportation, a choice validated when those horrible bombs went off in the summer of 2005. Not even the Tories had a credible immigration policy: just chatter about quotas, but no clearly articulated idea about how to maintain the integrity of British culture.

“Name please?” the boy asked.

“Kristeller.” Theo said his last name so softly he had to repeat it again. All these years and he was still a mumbler, still trying to hide his flat, Midwestern accent.

The young man nodded. He was halfway between readably British and unreadably other. He had the appropriate mannerisms, but that dark hair and mustardy complexion meant that either his mother or father was from somewhere swarthy. The boy retreated to one of the book carts behind him before returning with not one but rather two books in his hands. He withdrew the call slips and placed them on the counter. “Sir?” The boy squirmed with discomfort. “May I just say how I much I have learned from your work on Italian Humanism.”

“Oh, no, no!” Theo waved his hands. “You’ve learned nothing from me. That’s a different Kristeller: Paul Oskar. I’m Theo. No middle name. The chap you have in mind, he died in 1999.”

For his entire career, Theo had been regularly mistaken for the famed historian of Renaissance Humanism with whom he shared a last name and nothing else. This other Kristeller had authored ten books and dozens of articles and had taught at Columbia for thirty years. Fiona, his ex-wife, witnessing yet another one of these mix-ups, had once burst out, “For goodness sakes, why not at least claim him as a cousin? It couldn’t hurt.”

The boy, now undergoing the full, British response to embarrassment—head twitch, nervous biting of the lip, etc.—managed a hurried, “So sorry, sir,” but Theo quickly brushed it off. “No worries at all,” he replied.

His cheeks still flushed, the boy cleared his throat. “I noticed, sir, that there was another copy of the book you requested, so I took the liberty of bringing that one up as well.”

He must have been a brand new clerk; this kind of unprompted helpfulness would be thoroughly beaten out of him in another week or two. But of course, he had also thought that he was helping the foremost historian of Renaissance Humanism, not a fifty-something lecturer with two article publications to his name (one technically just a note).

“The same …”

“Sorry?”

He cleared his own throat, not that it had been obstructed. What a pair of human awkwardness the two of them were. “I said, is it the same edition, 1606?”

“Yes.”

“And this copy is not in the database?”

“No, I saw it when I was retrieving your item. We’re understaffed today so I was helping out in the stacks. It was right next to the volume you requested. Its card must have been misplaced at some point in the old British Library. Probably was misshelved too. Then, when they moved the books from Russell Square over here to Saint Pancras, someone no doubt corrected the shelf position but forgot to update the electronic database. It’s not that uncommon. I’ve made a note to let data processing know so they can update the computer file.”

Theo’s eyebrows had already perked up. If this book had been unaccounted for until now, that meant no one had seen the copy for quite a few years.

“Yes, by all means, I would like very much to take a look at it. Thanks for bringing it up.”

The clerk nodded and Theo lifted the books off the counter and returned to his desk. Upon sitting down, he placed his original request of Southwell’s A Poem Declaring the Real Presence of Christ off to the side and instead opened this other, more mysterious copy. The musty smell of the decaying rag paper wafted up to his nostrils. Oh, these pages had not been perused in a long, long time. Theo scanned for marginalia. He noted light annotation: clearly an early seventeenth-century secretary hand, although one with characteristics that made him pause. God, he did love old books: the feel of their paper, the fixture of their print. He turned to the back to see if the same annotator was inclined—as were many in the period—to take notes on the final leaf. Well, no markings per se, but this was interesting. Someone had apparently folded a loose leaf and then glued it between the back page and the binding.

Theo traced the rectangular shape of the protrusion with his index finger. Then he flipped the book over. Yes, the binding was early seventeenth century, contemporaneous with the poem; he should have noticed that right off the bat. So someone, in a rush to have the book bound, had neglected to remove this added leaf, which pressed now between the binding and the book. Or someone had deliberately bound the book with this leaf lodged within it. Someone with a secret, which anyone in possession of a poem by Southwell in England in the early 1600s was likely to have. And then, centuries had passed, and no one had noticed this protuberance until now? That seemed hard to fathom, although Southwell’s work had been quickly relegated—after his martyrdom—to the margins of the English literary tradition. No one had fussed over the poem for centuries, why would anyone have noticed a bump beneath the back leaf of a single copy?

Theo glanced around. No library monitor in sight, and no one seated near him, which was a real stroke of luck. He could make a request for this irregularity to be examined and the preservationists would get back to him in a few weeks. If they took the leaf out themselves he would hardly be the first to see it. He was thinking like a Philistine, really. The temptation was outrageous. Then again, if Fiona were here, presented with the same set of circumstances, what would she do?

He took a quick inventory of his possessions: two mechanical pencils and his legal pad. But there was also a nondescript metal paper clip affixed to the first page of the pad. Theo removed the paper clip and unfolded it. Once more, he surveyed his immediate vicinity. He would have to do this swiftly and quietly, and he could kiss his reader’s pass goodbye if he were caught.

With the end of the paper clip, he cut into the crisp paper, around the rectangular bulge, then rotated the book and carefully folded out the leaf in question. It was glued to the binding as he had suspected. Lest its provenance be questioned, Theo went to great pains to unfold the sheet without separating it from the vellum.

He knew what he had uncovered less than a minute later, as the blood rushed to his head and his hand started to shake. He read the lines once, then once again, all while his heart pounded in his chest. Finally, after he was done panting with wonder, he picked up his pencil and copied the last two lines of the scribbled text he had discovered onto his legal pad. He could barely read his own writing. Done with his copying, he hopped to his feet and returned the books to the circulation counter. The same boy as before called him forward—another bit of good fortune. How curious … the cards were really falling his way, after not lining up for him for years and years—decades, in fact.

“Could you put these items on hold for me, please?” he asked the young clerk. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Of course.”

Theo’s next request was highly unorthodox and he ventured it with some trepidation, leaning over the counter slightly, the chain of his pocket watch swinging out as he did so. “And perhaps … if you could put off letting your mates in data processing know about this other quarto just for a day or so, until I have another look. I’d be very grateful.”

He gave a hopeful smile. The boy paused. He had to know the impropriety of such an arrangement. But he had also committed that faux pas with Theo’s identity. So there was some guilt there, made all the more prominent by the boy’s wobbly status as a Brit. His mother, it was probably his mother … she was from someplace like Greece, and the boy had tried his hardest to be all the more British as a result: overcompensation. That meant he would either certainly help Theo. Or certainly not.

“For one day, sir?”

“A day, yes. Really just this afternoon. I wish to consult another expert on the matter. Once she confirms my hunch, which should be before lunch tomorrow, you might be a part of a rather significant little story—all the more significant if we keep things quiet today.”

The boy’s bushy eyebrows furrowed. He was thinking hard—too hard. Theo’s heart sank. But then the boy suddenly nodded. “Very well. No problem, sir.”

Theo thanked him curtly. If he appeared too grateful, his own questionable status as a scholar would be even more glaring and the gig would be up. He sauntered through security and rushed out of the library proper, nearly running back to his flat—just off of Euston Road on Endsleigh Street. He did have a call to make, to an expert, no less … in Renaissance British literature. All of that was true. But Theo didn’t need Fiona Tartleton’s expert opinion. He just wanted to share his bit of good fortune with her.

Once settled in his flat, with his slippers on and his pipe lit, Theo poured himself a large glass of Bowmore. Perfectly respectable Scotch, although not like the Macallan he used to keep around. Being forced to economize in the arena of alcohol … that was a sad state of affairs. Amazing that he had plowed through his inheritance the way he had, but living in London, and spending time in Italy every summer, wasn’t cheap. He picked up the phone and dialed Fiona’s number. Her phone rang and rang. She must have been out in the garden. He sipped from his drink. Really, he would let her number ring all afternoon if need be. Finally she answered.

“Fiona, how are you?”

“Theo! What a pleasant surprise.”

There was an uncomfortable pause, then some kind of rustling.

“Fiona?”

“Yes?”

“Was that you?”

“No, that was the line, darling. We have a bad connection. I’ve been tending to my peonies. Please hold on for a moment; let me wash my hands.”

He listened to the phone clank against the counter, then heard the water running, like a pleasant stream in the distance. Fiona had beautiful English hands—the fingers long, slender, and pale—and Theo pictured them now, beneath the tap, the soapsuds gathering on the delicate knuckles. Her kitchen was probably fantastic as well, although he had no way of being sure. He did know that she lived in a restored, seventeenth-century manor outside of Oxford with her second husband, Ian Teddleton, famed historian and cultural critic. Tartleton and Teddleton, what a pair.

“How are you, Theo? It’s so nice to hear your voice.”

“I’m fine. I’m actually calling on business. I wanted to ask you what you know about Sonnet 126?”

“Shakespeare?”

“Uh huh.”

“You’ve phoned to ask me about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126?”

“That’s right.”

“Have you reached the point in your premature dotage, Theo, when it strikes you as acceptable to call and ask me for help in preparing your lesson plans?”

“Indeed, I’m past that point, but I could never use in class what you say to me. You’re too clever; my students would see right through it.”

“Oh, you flatter me.” Fiona was a sucker for obsequious praise, always had been. “Well, let’s see, Sonnet 126. Of course, it’s the only twelve-line poem in the sequence, the last poem before the turn to the Dark Lady. It begins, let me see … ‘O thou, my lovely Boy, who in thy power / Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour …’” She did have a score of verse committed to memory, like so many Brits. Theo loved that. “Yes,” she went on, “I quite like it. Underappreciated, I should say, as far as the Sonnets go. ‘Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure.’ I quite like that line: the diminution of the addressee in the face of nature’s power. That’s an ingenious way to circle back to the topic of procreation, don’t you think? Without being too obvious.”

“I do, yes.” Although in truth, Theo wasn’t following her entirely.

“Why do you ask about the poem?”

“No reason. Well, that’s not true. I just thought you’d want to be the first to be set straight. It turns out the poem isn’t twelve lines, it’s fourteen.”

“Darling, it’s twelve. You’ve been confused by the 1609 Quarto printing, which places brackets at the end, implying missing lines. The printer was ignorant, see? He didn’t know that sonnet, while typically referring to a fourteen-line poem, could also be used in the Italian sense: sonnetto, or little song, in which the number of lines is irrelevant.”

“No. Fiona, I have found a manuscript version of the poem. It’s fourteen lines long.”

There was a slight pause. “Theo, my goodness.”

“And it’s in Shakespeare’s hand.” It was the one thing she wouldn’t dare question. As someone who could sense where the field of literary studies might turn next, and as a result which authors deserved renewed attention, Fiona was unmatched, but as a paleographer she was worthless. Theo, however, although incapable of either anticipating coming trends or producing scholarship that might attest to such trends, was nonetheless an excellent paleographer. And as was true for any scholar of handwriting who specialized in early modern British, he had first cut his teeth on Hand D from the Sir Thomas More play. Shakespeare’s hand. He knew the Bard’s handwriting as well as his own.

Fiona was silent.

“There’s more.” Theo was just beginning to process fully what had transpired in the British Library. Perhaps that was the real reason he had wanted to phone Fiona: telling her what he had found would make the discovery real. Although it was much too late to save their marriage, Theo still wanted to impress her.

“I’m waiting, Theo.”

“The missing lines confirm homosexual entanglement, I’m guessing with Henry Wriothesley, but that’s as much because of the Cobbe portrait as anything in the verse itself.”

“Theo, Theo, there are plenty of homoerotic suggestions in—”

“This is more, shall I say, pointed.” Theo finished his drink with a gulp.

Fiona sighed. “This is all terribly interesting, Theo, but my Yorkies are begging for a walk and I really must run along. Please ring again sometime. Lovely to hear—”

“Shakespeare was Catholic, Fiona. I have irrefutable evidence.”

He was hoping for a hushed silence, but instead there was the crackle of the line, combined with the unmistakable sound of her tongue clicking with disapproval. “My goodness, Theo. You simply must get out more, and not to the library. You need to find a pub to call your own, I’m afraid. You are the only adult male in England who needs to drink more, not less.”

That cheered him a little, her advice. Teddleton, her husband, was brilliant and famous but also a lush.

“Have a nice walk, then, Fiona. Great to hear your voice.”

“Likewise.”

He hung up and poured himself another Scotch. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as abstemious with liquor as Fiona thought. But he knew her well, even after all these years, and he was convinced she would ring him back sooner as opposed to later. He sat back down in his chair and cracked open his Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh. Not more than ten minutes later the phone rang.

“Theo?”

“Fiona, what a pleasure.”

“I was thinking here … Well, I don’t want you to do something rash with the press on this one. You know how they seize upon anything Shakespeare related and run with it. And you do not, I repeat you do not, want to be branded as one of those authorship loons. Perhaps, as a favor, I could swing down tomorrow and take a look at whatever it is you’ve stumbled upon. A second pair of eyes is usually a good idea with this sort of thing. But before I make the trip, do give me the context: the textual context.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.” He was too nervous to provide her with any paper trail whatsoever. What if she ended up scooping him? Not intentionally, but what if he became hopelessly stalled with his discovery—began wrestling with minor details, collating this and that—and she ended up publishing the material herself? No, Theo had to hold his cards very close to his chest.

“Well then, at least read me the lines. The two that you’ve found. Give me the end of 126 or I won’t be able to sleep tonight. I shall die.”

She was mocking him with her reference to another poem attributed to Shakespeare five years before. In the intervening years the case for its attribution had been systematically picked apart by a whole legion of scholars. Well, “Shall I Die?” was hardly Sonnet 126; Theo had the damn poem in Shakespeare’s hand. For once he would have the last laugh.

“Please, Theo.” She sounded quite desperate, at least by her incredibly high standards of cool. He exhaled slowly. He had thought it would feel good, the whole shoe-on-the-other-foot sensation. And it did, but it wasn’t quite as transformative an experience as he had hoped. He was still a failed scholar, and Fiona remained her indomitable self, just momentarily in the dark.

When he had first met her in 1994, Theo had been ahead of Fiona in terms of a first-book project. Fiona’s monograph idea, pedestrian in comparison to Torture and Torment, was a little study of Queen Elizabeth’s private chapels. Upon Fiona finishing her book, and securing a publishing contract, she and Theo decided to celebrate with a holiday in Italy. There, on the heels of an utterly fantastic meal on Lake Como (Theo, at the time, still flush with funds), the two of them decided, impulsively, to marry. When they returned to England, and to reliable gossip that Queen Mary, University of London would very likely be hiring in their field in the coming fall, Fiona declared her intention of writing another book over the course of the next five months so as to improve her chances of landing the position. Theo hardly paid her pronouncement any attention, but sure enough, Fiona did manage to complete a book on the Leicester Circle and Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, really not bad work at all. Before the winter lifted that following year, the job at Queen Mary was hers. Still, all remained just fine between them. Theo was now moving officially slowly on Torture and Torment, but it was a big book, and big books—they both agreed—took time.

Then, in that same calendar year, Fiona finished another book—on Francis Bacon and court intrigue. This one had sent her deep into archives all across England, places where the most prominent and esteemed early modern scholars spent their time. And now, just as it became clear to Theo that his wife was on her way toward the primum mobile of the academic universe, whereas he was just a disheveled, wandering star, word trickled back that Fiona was engaged in some improprieties with an academic far more successful than was he.

The news of Teddleton’s seduction of his wife, coupled with the avalanche of praise and awards heaped on Fiona’s book on Bacon, together made Theo panic and do something quite ridiculous. He abandoned Torture and Torment to write a monograph on Giambattista della Porta, an Italian scientist who had penned a book called Natural Magick in the 1550s. Natural Magick was a quasi-scientific treatise filled with absurd assumptions about the material world. Theo had imagined that a study of this book would serve as a kind of counterpoint to Fiona’s stately meditation on the birth of empiricism. He would win her back by countering her Bacon, her Teddleton, with a man who believed that frogs came into being when the sun’s rays mixed with mud. A small victory for the crackpots. Instead, Theo’s desperation made Fiona lose the last bit of respect for him. So when an offer from Jesus came down—that is, Jesus College, Oxford, where Teddleton, coincidentally, was chair of the hiring committee—Fiona accepted it immediately. A short time later, she served Theo with divorce papers.

Their divorce actually proceeded with little acrimony. At the time, what pained Theo more than his marriage crumbling was the status of his own academic career. Della Porta wasn’t quite the crackpot Theo had assumed; in the field of optics, for example, some of his theories ended up being accredited by subsequent experimenters, which Theo would have learned in a more timely manner if he had bothered to consult secondary materials on della Porta early on, instead of focusing exclusively on primary materials for months and months, as he always did. Feeling betrayed by the unanticipated legitimacy of his subject, Theo cast the scientist aside and returned once more to Torture and Torment. This return, though, was less the recommencement of a stalled journey than a sinking ship itself, turning around once more to strike the rock that had crippled it in the first place. Theo continued to poke around in archives, looking at books written by or about Catholics—most of which he had already examined—but he didn’t even attempt to turn any of his notes into academic prose. By that point, Torture and Torment referred in his mind less to those who suffered for their religious beliefs than to Theo’s own, unrealizable treatment of such figures.

“The missing lines, love. From the poem?”

“Sorry.” No need to check his scribblings for the couplet in question; he had memorized these two lines without any effort whatsoever. “Yet still I wait, one Will to thou will’s slight, / Whilst behind our dark love pricks nothing’s right.”

The pun on Will, not to mention the juxtaposition of the anus (behind) with the period’s slang for vagina (nothing) made it patently clear that Theo hadn’t made up the lines himself. They were far too clever for his talents, and far too bawdy for his taste. There was, he was quite certain, no more direct reference to sodomy in any of the other sonnets, nothing that so precisely pricked a “dark love” in the butt. Perhaps the closest one got to such tomfoolery was in Sonnet 20, where “nature” was said to have “pricked” the speaker’s male friend, but that was a female figure fiddling with a male, however indecorously. The end of Sonnet 126 was clearly man on man. Indeed, that last bit was probably punning on the homonym rite, which would juxtapose the sexual relation between the men with sanctioned, marriage relations. Of course the two lines spilled over with insinuation and meaning, like everything that dripped from Shakespeare’s quill.

“And you believe it is Wriothesley being referenced there?”

“It’s less the pairing that interests me than the context in which I discovered the sonnet.”

“The context that you refuse to provide for me?”

“Yes, at least for the time being.”

“Perhaps I will be able to convince you otherwise tomorrow morning?”

“Yes, perhaps. But for now, I must run along. I’m, uh, going to take your advice and meander over to a pub.”

“Oh, Theo.” He was a terrible liar and pictured her shaking her head at him. “Theo, Theo, Theo. I think I preferred your brief dabbling in early modern quack science to this devout, Tory phase of yours. It has really taken a toll, I’m afraid.”

“Please …” He wanted her to stop there but she didn’t. “I had always assumed—when you started going to church—that eventually you’d come out of the closet. But you really aren’t gay. Even though you read Evelyn Waugh. You actually believe in the whole Christian God business, don’t you? Choirs of angels and blest kingdoms and virgin births. That’s probably hardest for me to swallow, you gobbling up all that malarkey.”

“That’s a little intolerant, don’t you think?”

“I’m just being honest.”

What people got away with saying these days by virtue of claiming honesty appalled Theo. How he longed for a time when men and women kept their daggered words to themselves, even if it meant the occasional public execution.

“Give my best to Ian, Fiona.”

“See you tomorrow morning, Theo.”

“See you tomorrow.”

 

Theo awoke early the following morning, made himself a strong cup of tea, along with a piece of toast, and hustled off to mass. He was one of a handful of parishioners in attendance. Among the others was a woman who had to be in her eighties, accompanied by an oxygen tank. During the celebration of the Eucharist, the click of her breathing machine became oddly synchronized with the priest’s pauses, so that it sounded as if God were being asked to work his miracle of transubstantiation to the beat of a metronome. With each click, Theo would lurch in his pew, but he was alone among the congregation in acting perturbed. Even the priest seemed entirely unfazed by the interruptions. Everyone was so passive these days, so accommodating, which didn’t mean that people cared more for other people, or were more empathetic. It just meant that they cared less about everything than they once had.

When the doors to the British Library opened, Theo was among the very first readers to queue up. He dutifully removed his belt and placed it, along with his two mechanical pencils and legal pad, on the conveyor belt that ran beneath the x-ray machine. Then he stepped through the metal detector, just as it emitted a rather hideous buzz. The burly guard with the wan, freckled skin, red hair, and bushy sideburns stepped over to him and asked him to spread his arms.

With a gasp, Theo realized that he had neglected to deposit his Swiss Army knife keychain in one of the small lockers in the lobby. What an unprecedented oversight on his part, although—in his defense—he had never had anything like Sonnet 126 to distract him before.

He pulled the tiny pocketknife from his pants pocket, only to have the guard swipe it from his hand.

“What have we here?”

“Yes, so sorry about that. I neglected—”

“You can’t bring this into the library!”

Theo could hear the shuffling of impatient feet behind him. “Of course I didn’t intend…”

The guard had strode away from him. Now he folded out the miniature blade from one of the knife’s three small compartments and peered at it as if it were a very small Rosetta Stone. The seconds felt like hours. Finally he closed up the instrument. Theo prepared to bask in what would surely be a mortified reaction when this guard handed over the knife and realized how rudely he had treated him. It was, after all, Theobald Kristeller here, someone security had observed entering and leaving the library thousands of times. But as he returned the Swiss Army knife to Theo’s open palm, pointing back toward the lobby with his other hand as he did so, the guard betrayed no hint of familiarity.

“Hurry along now,” he said, waving him off. “You’re slowing down my line.”

Theo assembled his belongings and stepped once more through the detector, which buzzed again. He made his way to the lobby, past the now serpentine expanse of scholars, each of whom manifested supreme annoyance with him in one way or another: a sigh here, an upraised lip there, and so on. He locked away his keychain and then queued up once more. This time he made it through the detector without causing any problems. And the same burly guard, who watched as he reaffixed his belt for the second time that morning, said nothing at all.

For his workspace that day, Theo uncharacteristically chose a desk in the far corner of the enormous room. At the circulation counter, he asked for the two copies of Southwell’s Real Presence he had placed on reserve the day before. The boy wasn’t there; Theo’s items were retrieved by one of the miserably crabby older clerks—bespectacled, with a crooked moustache. Theo carried the books like a Communion chalice toward his desk. After placing them squarely in front of his chair, he sat down.

He began by rereading the sonnet. Like the venerable Samuel Johnson, Theobald Kristeller found himself irritated by the Bard’s incessant wordplay. “Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st,” line three of Sonnet 126, was surely playing around with the homonym grown/groan. Had Shakespeare been similarly disposed to such shenanigans in conversation? Must have driven his friends batty. With the poem now fresh in his mind, Theo peered at the lines themselves, looking for the telltale, paleographic features of Shakespeare’s rather shabby secretary hand: the bold, slightly loopy s in “glass” (line two), and the “show’st” of line three, although where the Bard’s handwriting most clearly distinguished itself was probably in line four: “Thy lover’s withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.” Whether or not anyone else had ever written as well as him was perhaps debatable (Donne was certainly as smart, and Cervantes’s prose style was admirable, although Theo’s appreciation was limited to the English translation), but no one had—strictly speaking—written like the Bard in early modern England. Those s’s were Shakespeare’s alone. Really not such a complicated paleographic case to prove, this one. Theo leaned back in his chair contentedly.

Then, for some reason, he thought of the security guard again. On the prowl for knives, the man should have been checking for paper clips. He had failed to recognize him, after all these years … Well, quite soon he would know Theobald Kristeller all too well. Theo would have his revenge on him.

He had rocked back in his chair imagining this man’s comeuppance, but now the wooden legs rested firmly on the floor. Would he really have revenge? The guard would certainly never admit as much. How could the discovery of Sonnet 126 really make up for all the time Theo had frittered away in the British Library?

With an unpleasant, nearly audible hiss, Theo felt the balloon of his rising expectations begin to deflate. What exactly was he supposed to do with this discovery of his? Hold a press conference? Then what? Well, he’d find himself mired in the high-stakes world of literary scholarship. The reading room would be an absolute zoo. Once they discovered he had butchered one of the books they’d snatch away his pass, probably get a search warrant to check his flat for pilfered items. And it wasn’t as if All Souls College would come calling: not for someone his age, with his résumé. No, regardless of what he did now, regardless of what he might have found, Theobald Kristeller was not going to get another chance at an academic career. He had had his career, or more accurately had missed his opportunity to have one. Not even Sonnet 126 could change that.

As he thought about his situation more, from this new, more earthly perspective, Theo realized the sheer magnitude of what he faced. Sonnet 126 did present opportunities for him, of course, but it also promised certain humiliations. For starters, he would never be able to pull off successfully some public unveiling of the poem. He would stutter and bumble; he would sweat and shake. Theobald Kristeller had always been a little shy, but he was more so now than ever, having failed to achieve the scholarly station he had once dreamt of, and having chosen to settle in London, where—even if he had grown up in one of the neighboring enclaves, like Amersham, rather than Missouri—he would have always been viewed as an interloper.

He slumped in his chair. Wouldn’t being a sudden cause célèbre just throw into greater relief how little he had accomplished as a scholar? Not to mention, it wasn’t as if he’d ever be able to follow up on something like the discovery of Sonnet 126. He would be a one-hit wonder, but his life would still be flipped upside down as a result. Much to his surprise, Theo found himself resisting the scenario he had first imagined the day before—getting the last laugh or however he had put it to himself. Perhaps he actually liked his little life more than he had assumed, save for the fact that he was lonely at night and felt like a loser during the day. Perhaps notoriety, what Fiona had always hungered for, really didn’t hold much appeal for him after all.

So what did he want, if not the fame of having discovered the end of Sonnet 126? Theo stared out across the library, adrift in the emptiness of thought. What a fool he had been to organize his life so that, when he wasn’t alone in his flat, he could be found either in a church or a library, places where interaction with others was more or less forbidden, unless one was being harassed for a penknife the size of a postage stamp. Far too much opportunity to mull over things. Yet again, he recalled the hostile gaze of the security guard, and next he thought—for some reason—of the elderly woman from mass that morning, the one with the clicking oxygen tank. He had wanted to scoff at her for being a nuisance, but like her, he was tethered thinly to life. Everyone was just one small accident, just one trivial misstep, from annihilation. And he was in his fifties now—certainly not getting younger.

Theo folded his hands on his desk. Ian Teddleton. What an ass. In these quiet enclaves, in naves and reading rooms, Theo had been stewing over that injustice all these years. That was his real problem. Being cheated upon, being left, had been so hard for him to accept. Not right at the time, but over the years that followed. All that blather in the media about adulterers being gnawed at by their guilty consciences, all the trumpeting of the merits of fidelity and monogamy, all of that crap was just intended to give solace to people like Theo. People who had been left behind. The truth was, adulterers were the ones who gained by virtue of their behavior. They remade themselves. They took charge of their lives. And, in the process, they had fun. Whereas the people who were dumped, they felt sorry for themselves. They withdrew from others, grew lonely, drank too much, watched too much TV. Their moral superiority garnered them nothing.

He rose to his feet, picked up the two copies of Southwell’s poem, and returned to the circulation counter. The boy from the day before had apparently just begun his shift. Theo waved along several patrons until he was able to approach him and set the books down on the counter.

“The scholar Fiona Tartleton shall be calling up these items in a little bit,” Theo announced stiffly. “Please permit her access to them. She’ll need a moment or two with your head preservationist as well.”

The boy nodded. If Fiona Tartleton’s name had impressed him, and Theo assumed it must have, he had kept it to himself.

“There is some interesting material here, which your industry helped uncover.” Theo placed his hand gently on the volumes. “You shall make a fine librarian.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He rapped the counter authoritatively with his knuckle and headed for the exit. After passing through security with utter anonymity, and retrieving his keychain from the locker in which he had deposited it, Theo decided to wait for Fiona in the foyer. He had calculated that she wouldn’t be on the first train down from Oxford—she’d begin the day fussing around with her dogs or what have you—but she would be on one soon thereafter. And sure enough, in no time at all he made her out, barreling across the concourse outside, a Burberry comet headed right toward him. Her raven-black hair. Plus, she had cuckolded him. Yes, of course, she was his Dark Lady.

She stepped through the glass doors and rushed over to him. “Theo!”

“Fiona.” He embraced her awkwardly. She tapped his back once with her flat hand. “Tea?” he asked her.

“No, thank you.”

She was all business. He stepped over to the side, away from the stream of readers flowing toward the library doors.

“The find has been confirmed,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Has it? By you alone, I suppose?”

He nodded. Fiona inhaled deeply, then adjusted the pearl brooch in her hair that didn’t need adjusting. “Theo, if we are to embark on this adventure, we must proceed in a highly systematic manner, which is to say, we’ll have to follow my playbook more than yours. To begin, we shall need to conduct a thorough chemical evaluation of the rag paper and ink to establish period authenticity, which means touching base with the head preservationist—”

“I’ve left word that you’ll need to see him.”

We, you mean. I’m not doing that grunt work on my own.”

From the moment he had phoned her, Fiona had just assumed that Theo was offering to partner with her in announcing the discovery of Sonnet 126. Even when he had claimed otherwise, she had ignored him, no doubt confident that he would recoil when faced with the prospect of confronting the media—not to mention other scholars—all on his own. He had told himself blithely that he had reached out to Fiona simply to gloat, but that was ridiculous. Deep down, he had known right away that he would need her guidance. And that was yet another problem with regards to Sonnet 126. Like everything from that blasted literary period, it anchored him to his ex-wife.

“I want you to claim the discovery, Fiona. On your own.”

Her small head, so birdlike and angular, rolled back on its neck. “What are you talking about?”

“You can have Sonnet 126.”

“Have it? But this could change your life, Theo!”

“In more ways than one. For example, I’m afraid I was not as orthodox in my handling of the book in question as I might have been. I used the end of a paper clip to liberate the poem from the back binding—”

“The means used to achieve your discovery do not mitigate the discovery. But desecrating a rare book! Good God.”

Perhaps, if presented with the same set of circumstances, Fiona Tartleton wouldn’t have behaved in a similar fashion.

“It was an impulsive—”

“You’ll be a marked man in libraries from now on, in more ways than one.”

“Precisely. And I don’t want to be marked.”

“You don’t want to be famous? After all the setbacks you’ve endured?”

Clearly she was thinking of their divorce as much as scholarly accomplishments, or lack thereof. “I don’t think I do want to be famous, in fact. Funny, isn’t it? I think I quite like my little life, although it does need some rather serious alterations.”

Fiona shook her head. He could see her slowly wrapping her brain around the tremendous opportunity being presented to her. The ambition colored her face like a drug. “To give this to me, Theo, after …”

“Your infidelity to me …”

“… It’s incredibly generous. Unusually so. I’m not sure if I can fathom entirely—”

“I’ve let the young boy at circulation know that you’ll be requesting the items reserved under my name. Do make sure he is appropriately lauded, as he found the book in the first place.”

“Slow down, Theo. Please. I’m dizzy. What is going on here?”

Theo breathed deeply through his nostrils. He did feel a little lightheaded himself. “I think, Fiona, that this uncovering of mine, this little book of wonders I’ve stumbled upon, I think it might open up other possibilities for me. Or bring to a close a very long … a very long chapter in my life.”

“Well of course it will, Theo! That’s why I came down from Oxford. To help you manage this opportunity. It’s a grand thing.”

“Yes, it is, but not in the way you think it is, Fiona. At least not to me. You see, I think I want more than books for my life. I think I want more than rag paper and ink. What you said about me finding a pub to call my own … Well, you were onto something—figuratively, if not literally. I want to bloom, Fiona. Like one of the flowers in your garden. I’m not too old to come alive. But not here—neither in this library, nor in the learned world it represents. So I’m going to leave you here, with Sonnet 126, catch a taxi, and go over to the Tate Modern. Even though I hate modern art, I’m going to go over there, meander around, and look for a woman whose appreciation of sculptures made of toilet paper rolls and canvases with cow dung smeared on them is as strained as mine. And, God willing, perhaps I will approach such a woman and ask her if she might want to have tea. I’m done with the business of old books, Fiona. I want to be done with it. Enough torture and torment.”

How remarkable. A tear had welled up in the corner of Fiona’s right eye. What sounded like rebirth to his ears must have rang like suicide to hers. Further confirmation that he was doing the right thing. Theo withdrew a handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose. “He just turned his back and left it all too, you know?” he added.

“Who’s that?”

“Shakespeare. The biggest mystery in all of literature. How could he have just retired to Stratford? Just left London and the theater behind? But, see, it was because he had given so much of himself away. That was why he could just stop. He wasn’t after eternity, not when he glimpsed the arc of his own life coming to an end. He just wanted, before he died, to enjoy his time on this distracted globe. If literature should teach us anything, surely it should teach us that literature is not the only thing that matters in life.”

He clasped her hand, a more genuine gesture of intimacy than that ridiculous hug he had attempted a few minutes before, and then made a move to doff his Ascot cap. But Theo wasn’t wearing an Ascot. He hadn’t worn a hat in years and years—since he and Fiona had first been married. What, were the muscles in his body taking him back in time so that he could be the first to leave the other behind? With a smile and an out-of-the-ordinary hop in his step, Theobald Kristeller bid adieu to Fiona Tartleton, then unceremoniously dumped his pencils and legal pad in the trash can just inside the front doors. Outside it was drizzling and a touch cold. He headed over to Euston Road and began to walk up the street, his hand extended above his head, waving for a taxi as he marched past bookshops and Indian restaurants. All he had needed to change his life, it turned out, were two lines of poetry. Granted, lines written by Shakespeare, but still—just a couplet did the trick. At long last, Theo was off to pastures new.

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This excerpt is featured content from the

Summer 2013 issue

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

%d bloggers like this: