Read an Excerpt
"Come, Mistress Catherine, a visit to the fair will do you good on this bright day. And besides, I do not like to see you downcast, sweet Cousin. My good Aunt Elizabeth would have driven you out into the sunshine before this, I dare swear."
Catherine Moor laid down her embroidery with a sigh. She would as lief have sat quietly over her work, though others had already left for the delights of the fair that had come to visit, but she knew only too well the determination of her cousin Willis Stamford. Both Willis and her aunt, Lady Helen Stamford, were concerned for her, believing that it was time she put aside her grief for her beloved mother. Lady Elizabeth Moor had died of a putrid inflammation of the lungs in the spring of the year 1560, and it was now September of that same year.
Catherine no longer spent hours weeping alone in her bed-chamber, but the ache of loss was constantly present and she had no real wish to visit a fair, even though she had always loved them when her parents had taken her. However, Willis would give her no peace until she acquiesced, which she might as well do with a good grace since she knew him to be a kind-hearted lad, some five years her senior. Most lads of his age would not have concerned themselves with a girl of barely eight years.
"Will you wait a moment while I fetch my cloak and purse, Cousin?"
"Martha has your cloak ready in the hall," Willis replied, smiling at her. "And you will have no need of your purse, as it is my pleasure to treat you to whatever you desire. You shall have sweetmeats, ribbons and trinkets, as many as you shall please."
"Then I can only thank you, Cousin."
Catherine stood up, brushing the stray threads of embroidery silk from her grey gown. Her dress was very simple, the full skirts divided over a petticoat of a paler grey, and the laced stomacher braided with black ribbon. More black ribbons attached the hanging sleeves to a plain fitted bodice and were her only ornament apart from a tiny silver cross and chain that her mother had given her just before she died.
Martha, her nurse and comforter since Lady Moor's death, was waiting to fuss over her in the hall, clucking like a mother hen with a chick as she tied the strings of Catherine's cloak and warned her not to stand in a chill wind.
"You take good care of her, Master Willis, and don't let her overtire herself."
"Trust me, good mistress," he replied and planted a naughty kiss on Martha's plump cheek. "I shall let no harm befall my cousin, I do promise you."
"Get on with you, you wicked boy!" cried Martha, blushing at his teasing. "Or I'll take my broom to your backside."
The threat was an idle one, as both Catherine and Willis were well aware. Martha's heart was as soft as butter straight from the churn, and Willis knew exactly how to twist her round his little finger. "I hope it will not tire you to venture as far as the village," Willis said after they had been walking for some minutes. He glanced anxiously at Catherine's pale face. She had been ill with the same fever that had carried off her mother, and though long recovered, he knew his mother considered her still delicate. "Perhaps we should take a short cut through the grounds of Cumnor Place?"
"Do you think we ought?" Catherine turned her eyes on him. They were wide and of a greenish-blue hue that made Willis think of a clear mountain pool he had drunk from on a visit to the Welsh hills as a young boy...deep and mysterious and deliciously cool. "Will the lady of the house not mind us using her grounds as a short cut?"
"Poor Lady Dudley never leaves her bed they say. She has a malady of the breast and is like to die soon enough..." Willis stopped abruptly, wishing he had cut his tongue out before saying those words to his cousin. He hastened to repair his slip. "Though I dare say that is merely gossip and the doctors will make her well again."
"You need not protect me, Willis." Catherine's serious eyes turned to him and he thought how lovely she was; the wind had whipped a few hairs from beneath the neat Dutch cap she wore so that they clustered about her face in dark red curls. "I know that people sometimes die when they are ill, no matter how hard the physicians try to save them, as my dear Mama did. If we take this short cut you know of we must be very quiet, for we do not want to disturb the poor lady."
"As to that, I daresay she would be glad of some company, for it is certain that her husband is often at court and seldom visits her...but it is this way, Catherine." Willis stopped and held out his hand to her. "See the gap here in the hedge? If we squeeze through it will save us half an hour of walking."
Catherine looked at the gap doubtfully. She could see that it was well used and realised that local people must often take this route rather than walking around the perimeter of the grounds. Willis was beckoning to her and she followed him through, looking about her guiltily as they began to walk across an open sweep of grass. The house was some distance away, and she was relieved to know that they could not possibly disturb the sick woman if she were resting on her bed.
Ahead of them was a small wood, and once inside it they would lose sight of the house altogether and would soon rejoin the common ground grazed by pigs and cows belonging to the village folk. Catherine glanced back at the house and paused for a moment, her eyes narrowing as her attention was caught.
What was that? She shaded her eyes, puzzled by what seemed to be happening close to the house. Something odd had occurred, causing an icy chill to fall over her. She could not see clearly enough to be sure, but it was like a creeping black mist that appeared to hover just above the ground. Where had it come from so suddenly? It had not been there a moment ago.
"Willis!" She called out to her cousin, pointing back towards the shadow, which had become more upright, looking almost like a man's form now but less defined, not quite substantial enough to be human. A shiver of fear went through her. She was not a girl given to superstition, though she knew the common folk believed in all kinds of evil spirits and demons that stalked the night, but this was broad daylight! "What is that...back there...near the house? Do look, Willis."
She tugged at his arm to make him look back. "What? I see nothing." 'There..." But she had taken her eyes from it and when she looked again it had gone. "It was by the house. I cannot describe it...a strange shadow. It was sinister, evil. I felt its evil, Willis."
"A trick of the light, no more. I can see nothing, cousin."
His eyes studied her with concern as she shivered. "Come, Catherine, you have let your imagination lead you astray. There is nothing there to disturb you. We must hurry or the pedlars will have sold all their best wares before we arrive."
She knew he was right, and yet for a moment her feet seemed almost glued to the ground and she felt as if she were unable to move. A sense of some evil having taken place here seemed to hang in the air, making her throat tight so that for a moment she could scarcely breathe. Catherine felt cold all over, her skin covered in goose-pimples. The feeling of terror was so strong in her that she was afraid she might faint. She had seen something that had frightened her but she did not know what it could be.
"Come along, Catherine!"
There was a note of impatience in Willis's voice. Catherine found that her feet were no longer leaden and she hurried after her cousin. Since whatever it was had gone, there was no point in trying to explain to Willis. Besides, all she wanted now was to leave this place.
She would make sure that they returned home by another route.
"Do not look so at me, Catherine," pleaded Sir William Moor as he saw the mutiny in his daughter's fine eyes. She was a beautiful girl of almost nineteen years, her long red hair flying about her face as she came in from some hard riding that morning. "Your aunt is determined on this trip to London, and, God forgive me, I have neglected the question of your marriage. It is time a husband was found for you, my dear child."
"Why must it be so?" Catherine asked, fire sparking in the bottomless depths of those green eyes. Her life had been so peaceful and serene these past years, and now it seemed that all must change. "Why may I not stay here to take care of you for always, Father? Why must I marry and leave all that is dear to me?"
"It is true that my estate is not entailed..." Sir William hesitated as he sensed the mutiny in his much loved child. He had put this same argument to his sister the previous evening and been roundly scolded for his trouble. "But it would be selfish of me to keep you here, Catherine. You must be presented at court—and a husband must be secured, if one can be found to please you." He looked at her doubtfully, knowing her stubbornness of old.
"You will not force me to a marriage I cannot like?" She seized on his hesitation like one of the little terrier dogs the bailiff used for chasing rabbits from their holes. "Promise me only that, dearest Father, and I shall go with a willing heart."
"When have I ever forced you to anything you did not like?" He gave her a chiding look, for they both knew that he had spoiled her these last years, never remarrying after his beloved wife's death as most widowers did to gain an heir. Catherine was child enough for Sir William and he would miss her when she married. "I swear I should not mind if you never married, my dearest Cat, but your aunt is determined you shall have the chance...and I believe my Elizabeth would have wanted this for you."
"Then of course I shall go," Catherine said, for any mention of her mother's wishes was sure to soothe her rebellion. Their mutual respect for a woman still loved and missed was a bond between father and daughter. "But I wish you were coming with us, Father."
"I shall join you soon enough," he promised, eyes warm with affection. His Catherine was a high-spirited girl with a temper upon her when she chose, but he knew the sweetness and goodness of her true nature. "Go up and tidy yourself now, Daughter. Your aunt awaits you in the best parlour."
Catherine nodded, walking slowly up the wide staircase of the manor house that was her home. It was a sturdy building erected in the early days of King Henry VII's reign by her great-grandfather: half-timbered, with overhanging windows above good red bricks, it had a large open hall with stairs leading to a gallery above. Some of the walls were hung with bright tapestry, which lent colour and warmth to the rooms. Recently, Sir William had had the small parlour and the principal bedchambers panelled with good English oak in the latest fashion, and the new wood glowed with a rich golden colour.
Catherine's own bedchamber was furnished with an elaborately carved bed, which had two posts and a tester overhead; below the tester was suspended a canopy of silk tied with twisted ropes. Heavy brocade curtains could be drawn about the bed at night if the room was cold, though she seldom used them, preferring not to be enclosed.
At the foot of the bed there was a planked chest, and there was a counter beneath one of the small windows. This was a plain chest on joined legs that had once been used by the stewards for counting and storing money; but having found it lying neglected in a store, Catherine had had it removed to her own chamber, because the extra height made it useful for her personal items. She had spread an embroidered cloth over its scarred surface, and her beaten-silver hand mirror, combs and perfume flasks lay on top together with gloves, a string of amber beads and some feathers for a hat. Inside the cupboard were stored gloves, hats and various articles of feminine attire.
A number of triangular stools stood about the room, one by a harp, another in front of a tapestry frame, her much prized table desk set on a board and trestle with yet another stool near by; these, her virginals, several items of silver set upon the board and rich hangings proclaimed this the chamber of a privileged and favoured woman.
Taking a few moments to wash her hands in cold water from a silver ewer stored in a curtained alcove, Catherine finished her ablutions and then glanced in her mirror to tidy her wayward hair. Her careful work had restored the damage of a mischievous wind, and she was now neat enough to meet her aunt. Lady Stamford was a fastidious woman who always dressed richly, as well she might, having survived three wealthy husbands.
She was standing before the fireplace in the best parlour when Catherine entered, holding her hands to the flames of a fire that had been lit for her benefit. It was now April of the year 1571 and fires were seldom lit until the evening once the worst of the winter was over, because Sir William and his daughter, being busy about the estate, had no time to sit here during the day.
"I hope I find you well, Aunt?"
Lady Stamford turned as she spoke. Eyes that had once been described as sparkling were a little faded now, as was the complexion she embellished with paint, and the sparse grey hair she hid beneath a wig as red as Catherine's own hair. Painted cheeks and lips were the fashion for ladies of the court who needed a little artifice to aid their looks, but seemed strange to Catherine, who was used to fresh-cheeked countrywomen.