Read an Excerpt
The blizzard took Nicholas Hurst by surprise and caused his spirits to plummet. He knew that if it continued snowing so heavily it would soon blanket out the unfamiliar Oxford-Witney road. Pray God, he would reach Witney before nightfall. He had made a promise to a certain lady and it was that, and the safety of his daughter, which were of the uppermost importance to him now. God only knew what Jane Caldwell would have to say when he arrived there with Matilda, although the vision of her that he had carried with him in the last few months had caused him to hope that she would welcome them both.
Nicholas still found it unbelievable at times that he had assisted at Jane's second son Simon's birthan event that he sometimes spent too much time thinking about. Even so he was flattered when she had asked him to be godfather to the child. But he was also confused by his feelings towards Jane; he certainly felt a responsibility towards her and her son that was almost as strong as that which he felt towards his new daughter, but there was something else During the three months he had been away in Europe, he had visualised the widow impatiently awaiting his return and had prayed that she would not tire of doing so. Yet surely he could not be in love with her? His feelings towards her were so different to how he had felt towards Louise, the Flemish mistress he had parted from last summer. Besides, he had vowed never to love again and had even considered joining the church. Jane was certainly no beauty like Louise and yet there was something about her that drew him and he wanted her in his life.
He remembered his first sighting of Jane in Oxford last year. He had travelled there in company with his brother, Philip, who was intent on visiting Rebecca Clifton, whom they had known since childhood and who lived with Jane. His younger brother had in mind that Nicholas should marry Rebecca, but he had soon made it plain that was out of the question. Soon after that meeting, though, Jane had come towards him, shouting and waving a stick, hellbent on frightening off the cur trying to reach the kitten cradled in the arms of her son, James, standing at Nicholas's side. Naturally, he had been doing his uttermost to defend the lad, despite suffering from a broken arm at the time after an attack on him in London. Her appearance had come as something of a shock for she was heavily pregnant.
That maternal aspect of her nature had been very much to the fore then, but it was during the birth of Simon that her strength and courage had hit Nicholas afresh. He had experienced emotions then that he had never felt before and when he had seen his baby daughter for the first time, he had felt overwhelmed by similar sensations. A baby was so frail, so precious. He had determined to provide for Matilda by whatever means lay in his power and Jane had formed part of his plan. Widowed the same day she had given birth, he had deemed that, given time, it was possible Jane might agree to what he had to say. He suspected that her first marriage had been one of convenience and although she might have grown fond of the husband, who had been twenty years her senior, he doubted she had loved him.
Whilst away from England, gathering information for King Henry's chancellor, Nicholas had imagined he had seen Jane's likeness in paintings and statues in every great house or church he had visited. Why he kept picturing her as the Madonna, a paragon of virtue, was curious, for she had cursed like a fishwife during Simon's birth. And yet from the little he had learnt of her from his brother, Philip, and Philip's wife, Rebecca, they believed her to be a woman of high moral standards.
Suddenly his conviction of Jane's warm welcome wavered. It was possible that he was mistaken. She might not approve of his actions in accepting responsibility for the daughter of his erstwhile Flemish mistress who had deceived him. He groaned inwardly. It would have been wiser if he had kept quiet about the passionate feelings he had felt towards Louise. He must have been crazed to speak of it to Jane, but he had thought to take her mind off the ordeal of childbirth at the time.
What must she have thought of him?
And then to have told her, too, of the pain and deep disappointment he had experienced after discovering Louise had deceived him! Jane had actually thought to ask what he would have done if Louise had informed him earlier that she was betrothed to a Spanish sea captain. Would he still have fallen in love with her or had she been irresistible?
Jane's question had taken him by surprise and he could only answer that he had no answer but that Louise's failing in doing so had resulted in a duel with the sea captain and several attempts on Nicholas's life after the Spaniard had died from the wounds inflicted during their duel, his younger kin having vowed vengeance. Nicholas sighed heavily. It would have been better for all concerned if he had refrained from visiting his own kin in Flanders after his travels to eastern Europe and the Far East.
A deeper sigh from the wet nurse behind him interrupted his thoughts. No doubt Berthe was wishing that she had never agreed to come to England with him due to the unseasonal spring weather. It was not that he had never experienced such a storm before, but his daughter's wet nurse had obviously not. She began to complain in high-pitched Flemish as the thick, white flakes whirled and swirled as if tossed by a giant hand. He managed to control his impatience. She had proved extremely satisfactory in caring for the child, but now he was concerned that Matilda might catch a chill.
'There is naught I can do about the weather, Berthe,' he said in Flemish, turning in the saddle to the wet nurse where she sat in a pillion seat, nursing the baby in a blanket. He saw the child blink rapidly as a snowflake landed on her pretty nose, and frowned. 'Pass Matilda to me and I will put her inside my doublet where she will be safe and warm,' he said abruptly.
Berthe's plump face fell and she shook her head and clutched the child more tightly and muttered something that he did not catch. 'Do what I say at once. We cannot afford to delay,' he ordered.
Still she clung to the child. He let out an oath and, gripping the horse's flanks with his thighs, let go of the reins and took hold of his daughter and forced Berthe to relinquish her. The woman let out a cry of anguish which took him by surprise, but he had Matilda safe now.
Opening his riding coat, he unfastened his doublet, kissing his daughter's cold face before easing her between his linen shirt and padded doublet. Then he drew his riding coat close about him and fastened it before reaching for the reins.
He urged the horse into a trot, aware that Berthe was cursing him in her own tongue, which was disconcerting. He had treated her well since hiring her in Bruges and she had seemed grateful, but since their arrival in Oxford, her behaviour had changed and she had grown sullen and more possessive towards the child, reluctant to allow him to handle her. He would be glad when he reached Witney and Jane.
He drew down the brim of his hat in a further attempt to shield his eyes from the falling snow and fixed his gaze on the road ahead, not wanting the horse to veer off into the ditch to his left. To his right the snow was swiftly concealing the grass verge, beyond which there were outcrops of rocks and budding trees.
As he rounded a bend in the road, the wind appeared to strengthen so that the flurry of snow that hit him in the face almost blinded him. For a moment he did not see the two figures on horseback that blocked his path. Then the two horsemen started towards him and instinctively he reached for his short sword. As he raised his sword arm and drew it back, there came a shriek from behind. He scarcely heeded it, too intent on defending himself from the attackers in front of him. Angry desperation enabled him to swiftly disarm one of them with a mighty thrust of his elbow and the force behind the blow dislodged the man from the saddle.
He wasted no time seeing what happened to him, but managed to jerk his horse around to face his other assailant. Aware of Berthe's screams as the beast's hooves slid in the snow, she must have accidently caught him a blow on the head with a flailing arm as she tumbled from the pillion seat. Then he was fighting for his life as the other man thrust his sword directly at his chest. Fearing for his daughter's life as well as his own, Nicholas succeeded in twisting his body in the saddle. A fist smashed into the side of his face and then he felt a blade go through coat, doublet and shirt into the hollow beneath his collar bone. The pain made him feel giddy and sick, but, summoning all his strength, he brought his weapon down on the man's forearm. The resulting agonising screech seemed to vibrate in Nicholas's head, but his attacker had fallen back, clutching his arm as his sword fell from his grasp.
Nicholas jerked himself upright in the saddle and dug his heels into the horse's flanks. At the same time he heard the babble of women's voices. As the beast started forwards, its hooves slithered in the snow and for a moment his heart was in his mouth; somehow the horse managed to get a grip with its hooves and the next moment they were off.
He heard the women cry out in Flemish, 'Stop him.
He's got the child. Stop him!' One was Berthe's, but he did not recognise the other.
Aware of blood seeping through his clothing and his daughter grizzling close to his heart, he dismissed the women from his thoughts. Dizzy still from the blows he had received, he could scarcely believe what had taken place in such a short space of time. He could only pray that Witney was near and they would arrive before the light faded.
'He should have been here by now,' said young Elizabeth Caldwell. She was kneeling on the cushioned window seat and in the act of rubbing the condensation from the diamond-shaped pane with her black sleeve. She put her eye to the glass in an attempt to see out.
'Master Hurst has a long way to come,' said her stepmother, Jane, trying not to betray the misgivings she felt and which gave lie to the outer calm she presented to the children. She laid her four-month-old son in his cradle and added, 'We might have to give Master Hurst a few more days to get here.'
'But he promised he would arrive in time for the fourth Sunday in Lent,' said nine-year-old Margaret agitatedly. She was the older sister, fair-haired and blue-eyed and more slender than Elizabeth, so that the black gown she wore hung on her spare frame. 'We cannot have the ceremony on that day without him being here.'
'That is true,' said Jane, picking up her darning. 'But he is Simon's godfather by proxy and it is but a matter of him repeating the vows your Uncle Philip made for him.'
Jane had almost convinced herself that she was a fool to believe that Nicholas Hurst would keep his promise.
She found it difficult to banish the Flemish woman, who had been his mistress, from her mind or approve of his actions in going in search of her last November. Yet who was she to judge his behaviour, having not always behaved as she ought? But she was not going to dwell on a period in her life that she deeply regretted.
She had heard naught since concerning whether Nicholas had found Louise or not. Before he had sailed for Flanders he had sent her a message, agreeing to be Simon's godfather and suggesting in the meantime that his younger brother act as his proxy, saying he hoped to be with her on the day in March set aside to venerate the Virgin Mary at the very latest. So Philip had taken Nicholas's place at Simon's baptism and his wife, Rebecca, Jane's sister-in-law, had filled the role of her son's godmother.
Due to the children's father, Simon Caldwell, having been killed in an accident the day of his son's birth, Jane and the children were very much in need of a man in their lives, despite most considering her a capable womanafter all, she had kept house for her brother, Giles, after their parents' deaths until her marriage.
It had felt odd at first being a widow and she had found herself wishing fervently that Nicholas Hurst had not gone away. She had thought when he had changed his mind about entering the church, having spent a short time with the Blackfriars in Oxford, that their becoming acquainted could have partly been the reason behind his decision. Then out of the blue he had decided to return to Flanders. It had come as a terrible shock. Especially when Rebecca, who had lived with Jane and her husband, had married Nicholas's brother, Philip, and accompanied him to the king's court at Greenwich.
Sad to say Jane missed Rebecca more than she did her husband. Simon had been a widower and stonemason when her brother had introduced them. Simon had had two young daughters in need of a mother and so her brother had arranged a marriage that was very convenient for both of them. It had worked out far better than she could have hoped, although her husband had spent a large part of his time away from home, working on various building projects. His death had been the result of a fall from scaffolding at a church in Oxford. She had spoken to him often enough about his being too old to do such climbing, but he had not listened.