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"You may rely on me," said Sir Nicholas Grantly to the man with whom he was sharing a flask of good French wine in his parlour. "Should Lady Hamilton find herself in need of assis-tance while you are in the north I shall be pleased to help in any way I may."
Sir Christopher Hamilton was some fifteen years younger than his neighbour, a tall man, powerfully built, with the look of an adventurer about him from his years at sea in the fleet of ships commanded by the great Sir Francis Drake. His skin had a slightly bronzed appearance, his mouth, harsh in repose, could be merry when he smiled, yet it was his eyes that some-times gave him away as a man of strong passions, for they could be as stormy as the Atlantic Sea. At the moment, however, they were soft and smiling.
"I knew I might rely on you, sir. You and Lady Grantly have been good friends to my mother these past years, and I believe I may speak plainly?"
"Of course. Something troubles you, Kit?' "As you know, I have spent the past five years sailing in Drake's fleet, and we have dealt the Spanish a bloody nose or two; a dangerous business but one that has brought both wealth and honours. The knighthood Her Majesty was pleased to bestow on me for services rendered, and the introduction to Sir Francis Walsingham, which you yourself effected, ' He paused, as if not quite sure how to proceed for the moment.
Nick nodded, understanding instantly. Having worked secretly for Walsingham in the past, he was instinctively alert as he guessed much that his friend might not say. "Tell me only as much as you feel right, Kit. I am aware that sometimes it is unwise to speak too openly of these things."
Kit nodded, his eyes darkening in thought. "While my father lived I did not need to concern myself overly with the estate, but his death has left my mother in some part vul-nerable. Neither Edward nor Jack are old enough to help her much, and indeed are sad scamps more likely to cause her worry than ease it. I think my late father's steward an honest fellow and I trust him, but I am uneasy, "
"You need say no more. I shall ride over from time to time to see all is well. How long do you expect to be away?"
"I am not certain."
Kit hesitated, unsure of how much he ought properly to confide in his friend and neighbour. He trusted Sir Nicholas as much as any man he knew, but Sir Francis had insisted that their interview remain a secret.
"For it seems that I find a new plot against Her Majesty at every turn,'Walsingham had told him. "And I believe that the girl's father may in some way be involved in a devious plan to rescue Mary of Scots and set her upon the English throne even now. With the discovery of the Babington conspiracy I have proved that Mary did indeed put her seal of approval on that devilish plot; she has been tried and found guilty of treason, and yet the Queen will not sign the death warrant, plead as I might for her to make an end to it."
Kit had realised he was being asked to spy upon the girl who lived with his mother's kinsmen as their ward. She had been sent to them as a child of a few years as a surety for her father's good behaviour, and Kit knew that Beth Makepeace had come to love her as a daughter. For himself, he had seen the girl only once on a long ago visit to Drodney with his parents, and could hardly remember herand yet it went against the grain to be asked to spy on someone who was almost family.
"You are to visit Mistress Makepeace at the castle of Drodney, I believe?" Nick asked, as Kit remained silent, ap-parently lost in thought.
"My mother thought the northern air might do me good.' "But your wound has healed?' "Aye, I am better, though the fever left me feeling low for a time. A change of air perhaps, "
Kit left the sentence unfinished, not liking to hide his true purpose from a man he respected. It was true that Lady Sarah Hamilton had suggested that a visit to her kinswoman might help her son recover his former zest for life, which had been dimmed both by the sad loss of his father and the wound taken in an encounter with a Spanish treasure ship. However, the real reason for his journey was very different.
"It will not seem strange that you visit your kinswoman,' Walsingham had told him in their private interview. "I am con-cerned that the girl is given more freedom than she should properly have, for she is hostage to her father's good beha-viour."
"Is that fair to the girl?" Kit had asked, his brows lifting. "If the father is the danger, surely it would be better to imprison him?' "Lord Angus Fraser is an important man among the Scottish nobility," Walsingham replied. "He is a Catholic and supported Mary after Darnley was murdered and she married that dangerous fool Bothwell. Had she not been so reckless she might even now be still upon Scotland's throne. If I could I would arrest Fraser, but it is beyond my power for the moment. He gave his bond that he would remain at his home in Scotland, but I know for certain that he has travelled to Spain at least twice in the past few years, and I suspect that he may have had a hand in the Babington plot, but was clever enough to keep his name out of it."
"But surely with Mary safely imprisoned there is nothing that he or any other can do?"
"If Mary were dead, 'Walsingham shook his head sorrow-fully. "But Her Majesty will not put her hand to the warrant and until the traitor is dead, we shall always have those who would use her for their own ends."
"You speak of Spain, I think?' "Aye, King Philip of Spain has always had an eye for England's throne," Walsingham replied. "He would make Catholics of us all and bring back the stench of burning to England's fair land."
"Not if Drake's band of sea captains have their way," Kit said grimly. His time at sea had brought him into contact with men who had suffered at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition and what he had learned from them had made him staunchly Protestant. He made up his mind to do as Walsingham asked. It was for the sake of England and of all right-thinking men. "But if you believe the girl represents a danger I will do what I can to help you in this matter."
"The girl is no danger in herself, but I think the father may try to get her away before whatever plot he is concerned in comes to fruition, and I would not have him succeed.' "I shall keep a watchful eye and send you word if I see anything that troubles me,'Kit had promised, and on that note they had parted, Kit to return briefly to his home to advise his mother of his intention to travel north to the castle of Drodney, which guarded the borders between England and Scotland, and to ask Sir Nicholas to keep a friendly eye on the estate.
"Should you ever need help yourself for whatever reason, you may come to me,'Sir Nicholas said, because Kit had been silent for some minutes and was clearly still bothered by something. "You may trust me in an emergencyon your own part or that of the State, for I have been in Walsingham's con-fidence in the past. Had I not had private reasons for retiring from public life, I might still be one of his couriers."
He might have said spies, for Walsingham was the great spymaster, and it was mainly due to his vigilance that so many attempts against the Queen's Majesty had been foiled these past years.
"Yes, I had suspected that might have been the case," Kit said. "I think there are many who have served in like cause. For the moment you will forgive me if I say nothing, but should the need arise I shall come to you, Nick."
"I shall be happy to serve if I can,'Nick replied and smiled. "And now you must stay to dine with us. Catherine would be happy to see you, I know, and young Lisa is over her fever at last. My boys are sad scamps, much like your brothers, Kit, but they would be thrilled to hear about your adventures. Young Harry has told me he intends to be like Drake when he is a man grown, and I believe he may, for he loves the sea. John is very different and I suspect that he may have a leaning to the intellectual, "
In good humour with each other, the two men went into the parlour where Lady Catherine Grantly sat with her needle-work. Seeing the way she smiled at her husband, Kit thought that he had seldom seen such love in a woman's eyes, and he found himself envying his friend. If he could discover such a woman then he might be content at last to give up his adven-turing and settle down. But a woman of Catherine Grantly's equal was not often met with, and Kit's own experience with women had not been a happy one. The woman he had offered for at nineteen had spurned him in favour of an older, richer man, and by so doing had set Kit's feet on the path to wealth and honour, for if he had married he would never have gone to sea.
His mouth curved in a wry smile as he recalled the spirited beauty he had loved as a youth. Madeline was married now to Lord Carmichael, a man much older than herself, and he believed that she took lovers to alleviate her boredom. She had hinted that she would not be averse to having Kit in her bed, and had his time not been promised to Walsingham he might well have taken her at her word!
His eyes sparkled with amusement at the memory. Madeline's chagrin at being turned down had wiped away any bitterness he might still have harboured over her rejection, for she had not been able to hide her disappointment.
The young Christopher Hamilton had been quiet and awkward, a very different man from the one who had returned rich, powerful and influential after his years at sea. Yes, had he been a vengeful man he might have taken pleasure from being the one to say no this time. As it was, he merely felt a fleeting regret for a pleasure that might have been.
His mind was occupied with the things he had discussed with Walsingham and wondering what he might find at Drodney Castle. What kind of a girl was Anne Marie Fraser, and would he discover that she was involved in some kind of secret plot against the Queen?