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  The Aphra Behn Page


  Chapter 2

"Faith, sir, we are here today, and gone tomorrow."

         Aphra Behn, The Lucky Chance

Billie closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them again. Aphra Behn was still gazing at her in amusement, waiting for an answer. An imaginary Aphra Behn. Too much studying must have fried Billie's brains. No — too much studying was not an option. But she could swear she was backstage in a Restoration playhouse with the object of her research and a group of actors from the seventeenth century. If it was a hallucination, it was a dream come true that felt like winter and smelled like a horde of unwashed bodies doused in perfume.

How many dreams were olfactory?

Dream-Aphra pointed at the lute still tucked under Billie's arm and smiled. "Appears more a musician than an actor." As Billie continued to stare, Aphra's smile grew wider. "Stay, lad, we won't eat you. What's your name?"

Lad again. She didn't think she'd ever had a dream before where everyone assumed she was male. Maybe she was developing inferiority complexes about her flat chest. It couldn't be her height; she was 5'9" on a good day and 5'8" on a bad. But then, among the people populating her strange dream, very few were taller than she was, even among the men.

"Bi— uh, Will, Ma'am," Billie stuttered, for some reason playing along with the plot of her dream, responding as if she really were where it looked like she was. She wasn't sure if the nickname "Billie" existed in the seventeenth century. She knew "Will" did.

Aphra gave an almost imperceptible start. "Common enough name, but that's an uncommon accent."

"Definitely not a speaking role for the lad," the actress who had guided Billie to the stage added, and the other actors laughed.

"Where are you from?" Aphra asked.

"America," Billie replied, truthfully enough. At least it would be a good excuse for any mistakes she might make. But why was she worrying? This had to be some kind of dream, so it wouldn't matter what she did. She might as well just play along and enjoy the extravagance of her own imagination. Only if it was a dream, it was a very vivid one, and she had even incorporated her hated linguistics lessons in the concoction. These folks didn't speak any dialect Billie recognized, but in some ways their accent was closer to American than British English. Aphra had definitely pronounced the "r" when she said "where".

Aphra clapped her hands. "Why, Will, then welcome you are, accent or no. Another American! You must have been in the colonies much longer than I, to judge by your speech." Billie nodded and thought about the paper Professor Fogerty intended to give at the symposium, reviving the old theory that Behn had never been to the Americas. She had Behn on the brain.

"Must be the fashion among the savages," an actress murmured, glancing at Billie's black jeans.

"When we are done here, you must tell me of your travels," Aphra continued, ignoring the interruption. "'Tis been nigh on ten years since I left Surinam, but I remember it well. Might you be willing to play the music for a song or two, Will?"

Billie pulled the lute out from under her arm. "I could be persuaded, but I'm not sure if my instrument can."

Aphra examined the lute and laughed. "It does indeed look as if it has been to the Americas and back!"

"Farther," Billie said ruefully. She looked at the sketches on the wall. "What are those?" she asked, wondering where she might have gotten the idea that playwrights pinned scraps of paper to the wall of the theater.

"We're plotting scenes for The Dutch Lover," Aphra replied. The Dutch Lover — the play Billie had arranged under glass; the play Billie had recited from. What could that mean? No, she couldn't think that way, as if where she thought she found herself was real: all it meant was that The Dutch Lover was the last thing Billie had been reading before she passed out.

She tightened her hold on the actress's arm to keep from reeling. The actress returned the pressure, giving Billie a steamy glance and yet another complication to worry about. Billie disengaged herself from the over-friendly young woman and ran a hand through her hair, pulling it back from her forehead. She was having a nightmare with a sense of humor, that was it. But if this was a dream, its inner logic seemed more in tune with the conscious than the subconscious mind.

Aphra gave Billie and the actress a sharp look. "Perchance you could help out with the songs, Will, I'd be grateful," she continued. "The musician who was to play the lute came down with a case of the clap and is forced to spend his time in a sweat." She raised her eyebrows and shrugged.

The clap — seventeenth century lingo for venereal disease. And the common treatment was sweat-houses. But she knew that; her subconscious could have included those details.

"Don't forget the mistake you made with Otway, Mrs. Behn," an obese actor pointed out.

"I assure you I will determine if this youth knows his instrument before I engage him, Angel," Aphra said with a wink, and the actors surrounding her laughed.

Billie went wide-eyed: would she have thought up that kind of a joke on herself? On the other hand, she knew about the incident the actor referred to as "Angel" was talking about. In Aphra's first staged play, she gave an important role to Thomas Otway, an unknown aspiring actor, who totally flubbed the performance and proceeded to go down in literary history as a major Restoration dramatist, a position denied to Aphra Behn. Perversely, the thought made Billie feel a bit better. Vicarious resentment kindled her fighting spirit.

Besides, it was all a dream. She had to remind herself of that. She might as well enjoy this flight of fancy until she came to. She'd had dreams often enough where she was aware of her own dream-state. This had to be something like that. Just more vivid. And with smells — a few too many.

"After we're finished plotting, I'll give you a copy of the music, and you can tell me if you and your instrument are up to it." Aphra gave her a smile of dismissal, and Billie wandered toward the front of the stage, wondering what other odd details she had included in her fantasy. In one of her pre-academic incarnations, she'd done a stint as an actress until she realized it provided even less chance of making a living than poetry and song-writing. She knew the backside of a stage better than the frontside, but the layout in this place was totally unfamiliar. The long apron extending into the audience was a little like what she'd read about the Globe. She turned around to examine the main stage from where she stood. The proscenium arch had doors with balconies on either side of the stage, and together with the forestage it created an illusion of depth. It just didn't know what it wanted to be at the moment — a huge painting of a forest was pulled halfway across the stage, while behind it, another wing showing a street scene covered the rest of the back wall.

Above the arch were gaudy carvings of cherubs and a couple of female figures representing tragedy and comedy, to judge by the masks they held. Highly distracting, as far as Billie was concerned. The whole place was incredibly opulent, decorated to the ceiling and oppressive as hell. Who would watch the actresses with those larger-than-life females overhead?

Billie's attention shifted back to the stage. Aphra was pointing at sketches hanging next to one of the doors, a look of impatience on her face, while the obese actor stood off to the side, folded arms propped on his stomach. Apparently in her imaginary seventeenth century, playwrights also functioned as directors. No. It couldn't be a real detail, because none of this was real. She didn't believe in magic mirrors.

It all felt so real, though. It had none of the surreal quality of a dream or a hallucination, and it was cold, much colder than Blackfriars in October. Only how could she have ended up in a playhouse in the seventeenth century? Billie had to stop thinking that way. She had to just go with it for now and hope that she would eventually wake up somewhere that made sense. In the meanwhile, enjoy the vivid dream about her idol.

Aphra turned away from the sketches, the frown on her face changing to a smile. Three brilliantly dressed gentlemen were entering the stage from a door on the opposite side. Obviously, Billie had underestimated what it took to make a cavalier; her billowing silk shirt and bright satin vest were drab in comparison with the splendor of these gentlemen. Or perhaps the correct term would be Restoration rake — all three looked like they had the potential to be very rakish. The casual elegance of their rich attire produced exactly the right impression of strutting peacocks utterly assured that they would be watched wherever they went. Their long hair was elaborately coiffed in flowing waves and ringlets — either that or they were wearing elaborate wigs. Billie feared her own curly tresses looked rather limp in comparison. Two of the men wore lavish hats with plumes, while one went bare-headed. Long, aristocratic fingers rested on the hilts of swords slung at their waists. All three wore vests almost to their knees, with open coats slightly shorter over the vests. With their extravagant outfits, these men put the vast majority of women in the twenty-first century to shame. Billie was decidedly out of fashion. Fortunately, one of the men sported high leather boots resembling those she wore.

The one wearing boots strode across the stage to Aphra and gave her a proprietary kiss on the cheek while the darkest one, clothed completely in black and white, looked on with hooded eyes. Billie found herself staring at the play within the playhouse. As if he could feel her eyes on him, the dark one looked over at Billie and caught her fascinated gaze. She blushed. The hatless cavalier, watching the whole incident with an alert expression, laughed out loud at her embarrassment.

Billie gave him a murderous look and wandered to the back of the stage to inspect the scenery wings up close. In front of the painted forest were a collection of small potted trees and a couple of chairs, probably props. Did they even call them props in the seventeenth century? Examining the painted backdrop, Billie noticed that it slid on grooves in the floor and the ceiling to make changing scenes easier. She gave the wing a trial shove with her free hand; it screeched so loudly that the group gathered around Aphra looked up from what they were doing.

The hatless visitor separated himself from the group and sauntered over to where she stood, her cheeks hot with embarrassment. He bowed gracefully and Billie decided his hair was real. It wasn't thick enough to be horsehair.

"Edward Ravenscroft at your service. With whom might I have the pleasure?"

Billie imitated his bow to the best of her ability, the useless lute still clutched under one arm. Maybe in her dream she would make a cavalier yet.

"Will Armstrong, sir." This was apparently yet another research detail that had crept into her dream version of the Restoration: she'd read about Ravenscroft, a minor playwright and lifelong friend of Aphra's. Some sources conjectured that they'd been lovers, but most agreed they weren't.

"This your first time in a theater, Will?"

Billie started to shake her head but caught herself, falling into her role instinctively —acting as if all this were real. But wasn't that the way people always reacted in their dreams, as they were real?

"My direct experience is limited to American theaters, I must admit." At least her voice, a rich, deep alto, would be the last thing to betray that she was a woman in boy's clothing. And this was probably one of the few centuries in history in which her long hair wouldn't betray her either.

Wait, she didn't have to worry about that. This was a dream. A dream.

Ravenscroft's eyes, a warm brown with flecks of gold, glowed with amusement. "I didn't even know the Americas had 'em. Isn't life in the colonies little better than that of savages?"

"Surely the playwright has informed you otherwise," Billie said, nodding in Aphra's direction.

"Touché," Ravenscroft said, chuckling. "Tell me, how do you come to know so much about our fair author?"

"I admire her greatly," Billie said.

"As do we all, Will, as do we all." Ravenscroft's gaze wandered to where Aphra had been distracted from her duties by the attentions of his two friends.

Billie nodded, astonished at the way she was beginning to revel in the imaginary masquerade of her opulent dream. "Who are the two enjoying her attentions?" she asked, doing her best to sound the part of the jealous swain.

"The dark one's John Hoyle, and the other's Jeffrey Boys, Aphra's present beau. Gray's Inn lawyers, both," her companion informed her. Billie nodded. She'd read about Boys and Hoyle, and, as opposed to Ravenscroft, most sources agreed that the lawyers had been Aphra's lovers. Consecutively. Which meant it must soon be Hoyle's turn.

"Our fair charmer is Royalist through and through," Ravenscroft continued, "but her taste in men tends toward the Parliamentarian end of the scale. Unless you are a radical, you are out of luck, lad."

Suddenly the ridiculousness of the situation was too much for Billie, and she let out a ringing laugh. Hoyle looked up from the contemplation of Aphra's shoulder, sending Billie a hot stare out of intense dark eyes that were almost black. Billie felt her cheeks grow warm again.

"Pay Hoyle no mind," Ravenscroft said. "He chases everything on two legs, whether the legs are covered by skirts or not. They'll get him for buggery yet."

There, yet more proof she was making all this up. What she knew of Behn's biography fit right into what Ravenscroft told her; Hoyle was eventually arrested for homosexual acts, though not convicted.

She glanced at Ravenscroft under her eyelashes. He had the same heavy-lidded eyes as Aphra. She wondered why that feature was so common in the seventeenth century: did it have to do with some kind of prevalent vitamin deficiency? Not that Billie minded: she was very attracted to that particular feature. Richard had eyes like that. Ravenscroft's eyes were a different color and surrounded by more laugh lines, but it still gave him a vague resemblance to her boyfriend. But while his manner was friendly and open, his eyes seemed veiled.

A slow smile spread across his face. Billie looked away quickly, back at the group surrounding Aphra. She must have been staring. He was very pleasant to look at, though. She wished the men in her dreams were always so attractive.

Her dreams? Yes, her dreams. It had to be her dreams. The past wasn't an option.

"I hear you may replace Hendricks," Ravenscroft said. Billie looked at him, not following. "The musician who came down with the clap, man!"

"Oh. Well, I'd like to try."

Ravenscroft glanced at the lute clutched under Billie's arm. The dark hue of the aged wood didn't seem to impress him the way it had Billie. "If you are to be a part of the play, lad, we'd best get you a new lute." Ravenscroft's incredibly mobile eyebrows formed an "S" across his forehead. She could swear he was looking at her with desire — or maybe that was just the way Restoration rakes looked all the time. Or the way she imagined they looked. She hoped it wasn't her own confused wishes reflected in his expression. Perhaps Ravenscroft had even recognized that she wasn't a boy. On the other hand, Hoyle might not be the only one who indulged in "buggery."

And here she was, once again reacting as if Ravenscroft were real, as if Hoyle were real, as if she really had been transported to the seventeenth century, as impossible as that seemed. No! How could that be? And what was she supposed to do about it if it was true?

If it was true, Billie had just met Aphra Behn. In the flesh. The first professional woman writer in the history of English literature. The thought made her giddy.

If it was true, she was so far from home, she might never see Oregon again.

Her head swam. If she had to keep up with this much longer it would mean a serious headache. "I must see if this lute will even let itself be tuned anymore. Excuse me, sir, while I find a quieter spot."

Billie bowed as she'd seen Ravenscroft do and headed for the changing room. Once there, she closed the door behind her with one hip and leaned against it, her head sinking to her chest. Maybe she should start working from a worst-case scenario: she really was in the seventeenth century. And if she was in the seventeenth century, how the hell was she getting back to the twenty-first? To get here — assuming here was where she thought she was — she'd recited Behn's verses in front of a mirror. She had recited from The Dutch Lover, and she had ended up at a rehearsal for exactly that. So how were lines from The Dutch Lover, or anything else Behn wrote for that matter, supposed to get her back into her own time and out of this crazy dream (populated by dashing, debonair and highly sexy rakes)?

At least she could try the same thing that had gotten her here in the first place. Lute in hand, she approached the mirror, racking her brain for the verses she'd read from Behn. Pre-marital sex, that's what it had been about, she remembered that much. She'd have to reconstruct it.

Pulling a notebook and pen out of a back pocket of her jeans, Billie sat down at the table in front of the mirror. The little pocket-sized notebook was her constant companion, her resource for notes for all occasions. She liked to "collect images" as she called it; they were the raw material for her poems and songs.

Desperation made her memory especially clear, and she soon had a working copy of the lines to Clarinda.

Her stomach clamping painfully, Billie looked into the mirror and read the verses out loud. Nothing. She read the verses last line first. Nothing. She read them backwards, word by word. Still nothing. She stood up, gripping the lute, posed and pranced and tried all three methods all over, but the only feeling of nausea she experienced was from disappointment. She sat down again, her insides hollow.

She drew a deep breath, and another. It all had to be a dream anyway, so what did it matter? She wished she could force herself to wake up, but since she couldn't, she might as well acquaint herself with the lute. Unfortunately, she'd never played a lute before. She knew it was related to the mandolin somehow, but that didn't solve her problem of how to tune the damn thing. What was she supposed to do with the extra pair of strings or that last single string?

Simple: ignore them. The main thing was to get the instrument into some kind of working order so she could play it. She would tune the fifth to second courses like a mandolin and the others an octave higher. That way at least she'd know where to put her fingers.

Luckily, the strings appeared to be relatively new; the lute must have been restrung before it was stashed in the cellar. By the time she had urged the instrument into "G", "D", "A" and "E", she'd regained some of her usual equilibrium. But just as she almost reached the second "G", the string snapped with a loud twang. She jumped, the lute sliding out of her lap and onto the floor.

Billie put her head in her fists and burst into tears.

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The Aphra Behn Page, winner March 1996 of the Literary Research Award.

© 1995-2013 by Ruth Nestvold

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Villa Diodati Workshop | Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest | ECHO

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