When I first met Onix, he sayt he was so necessary in his employment he had scant leisure. I think the truth of it was, he had few friends. His scents were so uncatly.
Once he knew Linkin and I did not distain him, he came to visit us by day.
We three were sat peaceable in our yard when I saw two lean shadows creep along the wall.
“Greetings, friends,” they called. “We thought it time we was better akwaynted with the new stars in our fundament.”
Linkin and I let that pass.
“I call myself Picker,” sayt one.
And the other, “All know me as Stealer.”
Picker sayt, “We bring newes of your lord, the Right Honourable Earl of Southampton, Baron of Itch-Filled.”
“Titchfield,” sayt I.
“Cry you mercy!” sayt Stealer. “We meant no offence. You’re spoke of here as the Itch-Filled queen.”
Oh, I itched. I itched to have at the saucie sluts.
But I narrowed mine eyes most courteous, and sayt, “Titchfield is a hard word for they that have no education.”
Stealer sayt, “Not so hard as the thought of your new Countess lying in prison at the pleasure of Her Majestie and the expense of her cousin, the Earl of Essex.”
“That’s not newes,” sayt I. “All know Her Majestie hates any fair lady loved by a young lord.”
“Has Lady Essex a place at Court?” arrkst Linkin, rhetorickal. “Will old Lady Lester [Leicester] ever be forgiven?”
“Or Mistress Rawly [Ralegh]?” sayt Onix. “First she was in the Tower, now she molders in the country.”
“Who trod on your tail?” arrkst Stealer.
Picker continued, “We also hear your Earl makes as great of a fool of hisself in Paris as he ever did here. He does nowt but play [gamble] at games he rarely wins.”
“Surely, all know that lords love to play?” I arrkst. “I once did battle with a great rat in the court [courtyard] at Titchfield, while my lord and his friends hung from the windows and laid wagers on us. I earned my lord three hundred crowns.”
“Praise the day!” cried Stealer. “But he’s lost three thousand since.”
“Doing battle at tennis and ballon with French lords,” added Picker.
“My lord is suttle,” sayt I. “The more money he loses in France, the better their King will love him.”
They fell silent then. One clawed at her fleas, while the other cleansed her filthie paws.
Truth to tell, I enjoyed that bout of wits.
’Twas not long ere they came me again.
“Haply, you can answer this,” sayt Stealer. “A cat in the household of a learned doctor tells of another fair lady who’s hot for your Earl. How stands she in his affections now he’s wed?”
“Old newes,” sayt I. “Nigh on a year has passed since I heard she was pursuing him. Is one husband not enough for her?”
“Perchance she hoped her husband dead,” sayt Stealer. “And herself a widow rich enough to hook any Earl.”
Picker arrkst, “Did your lord tell of the letter she sent him before he went to France?”
Linkin cut in quick. “He did, and he chose not to answer her. You may guess why.”
“We can,” they sayt. “We do. Your lord is Essex’ creature to the core.”
And away they flew.
“When heared you of that letter?” I arrkst Linkin.
“Never,” swore he. “But if Picker and Stealer knew more than we, they would have put a different question to us.”
Then he rose and walked about our yard, setting his mark here and there to rid us of their presence.
I sayt to Onix, “I marvel that Paws, so sober and statelie, admits those dawkins to her parlement.”
“Did you not know?” he cried. “They’re her daughters, and her spies. Many fear them.”
Fear them? Not I. Like His Harryship, I loved to play.
When I was scarce more than a kit, I oft leapt into the yard where his hunting dogs lodged. Most were in their house. One or two might be free for exercise. I watched them from afar ere I entered.
Oh, the joy when I cleared the wall again with their hubbubs in my ears and their hot breaths behind me!
I guessed my love of excitations would serve me well in this citie.
He certainly didn’t seem to be doing much to help himself – apart from maintaining the position that he’d done nothing dishonourable, and his only error was to marry without Queen Elizabeth’s consent.
However, lingering in Paris and pleading poverty while losing huge sums of money wasn’t a good look. In late September 1598 Sir Robert Cecil had word from France that the Earl was making wagers of 2,000, 3,000, and even 4,000 crowns.
And what of Mrs Prannell (nee Frances Howard), whom Tricks last heard of in 1597? She had consulted astrologer Simon Forman again in early February 1598, when the Earl first left for France. She asked: Would the Earl like her any better? Did he tell of the letter she’d sent him? When would he return?
By late September many people must have been asking that last question.