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Chapter One: The Power of Life and Death
The journey that took me from the Château Blanchepierre, on the banks of the Loire, to Vetch Castle on the Welsh March began, I think, on April 4, 1564, when I snatched up a triple-branched silver candlestick and hurled it the length of the Blanchepierre dinner table at my husband, Matthew de la Roche.
I threw it in an outburst of fury and unhappiness, which had had its beginnings three and a half weeks before, in the fetid, overheated lying-in chamber in the west tower of the château, where our first child should have come into the world, had God or providence been kinder.
I had begged for air but no one would open the shutters for fear of letting in a cold wind. Instead, there was a fire in the hearth, piled too high and giving off a sickly perfume from the herbs which my woman, Fran Dale, had thrown onto it in an effort to please me by sweetening the atmosphere.
The lying-in chamber was pervaded too by a continual murmur of prayers from Matthew's uncle Armand, who was a priest and lived in the château as its chaplain. It was he who had married us, three and a half years ago, in England. To my fevered mind, the drone of his elderly voice sounded like a prayer for the dying. Possibly, it was. Madame Montaigle had fetched him after using pepper to make me sneeze in the hope that it would shoot the child out, and then attempting in vain to pull him out of me by hand, which had caused me to scream wildly. She told me afterward that she had despaired of my life.
Madame Montaigle was my husband's former housekeeper. She had been living in a retirement cottage but she had skill asa midwife and Matthew had fetched her back to the château to help me. I wished he hadn't for she didn't like me. To her, I was Matthew's heretic wife, the stranger from England, who had let him down in the past and would probably let him down again if given the ghost of a chance. I did not think she would care if I died. I would have felt the same in her place, but I could have done without either Madame Montaigle or Uncle Armand as I lay sweating and cursing and crying, growing more exhausted and feverish with every passing hour, fighting to bring forth Matthew's child, and failing.
During the second day, I drifted toward delirium. Matthew had gone to fetch the physician from the village below the château but I kept on forgetting this and asking for him. When at last I heard his voice at the door, telling the physician that this was the room and for the love of God, man, do what you can, it pulled me back into the real world. I cried Matthew's name and stretched out my hand.
But Madame Montaigle barred his way, exclaiming in outraged tones that he could not enter, that this was women's business except for priest and doctor, and instead of pushing past her as I wanted him to do, he merely called to me that he had brought help and that he was praying to God that all would soon be well. It was the physician, not Matthew, who came to my side.
The physician was out of breath, for he was a plump man and Matthew had no doubt propelled him up the tower steps at speed. "I agree," he puffed to Dale and Madame Montaigle, "that this is rightly women's business. It is not my custom to attend lying-in chambers. However, for you, seigneur," he added over his shoulder, addressing Matthew and changing to a note of respect, "I will do what I can." He turned back to my attendants. "What has been done already?"
Madame Montaigle explained, about the pepper and her own manual efforts. Dale spoke little French and her principal task was to lave my forehead with cool water, smooth my straggling hair back from my perspiring face, and offer me milk and broth. The shutters made the room dim and the physician asked for more lights. I heard Matthew shouting for lamps. When they were brought, the physician, without speaking to me, went to the foot of the bed and began doing something to me; I couldn't tell exactly what. I only knew that the pain I was in grew suddenly worse and I twisted, struggling. The physician drew back.
"The child is lying wrong and it is growing weak. Seigneur..."
Matthew must still have been hovering just outside the room, for the physician was speaking to him from the end of my bed. He moved away to the door to finish what he was saying out of my hearing, and I heard my husband answer though I could not hear the words that either of them said. I called Matthew's name again but still he wouldn't defy convention and enter. I was left forlorn, bereft of any anchor to the world. I was dying. I knew it now. Here in this shadowed, stinking room, tangled up in sweaty sheets and with Uncle Armand practically reciting the burial service over me; before I was thirty years old; I was going to slip out of the world into eternity.
"I don't want to die!" I screamed. "Matthew, I don't want to die! I want to see Meg again!"
My daughter, Meg, was in England. I hadn't seen her for two years and this summer, she would be nine. Now, a vision of her, as vivid as though she were actually there, filled my overheated mind. I saw her, playing with a ball on the grass outside Thamesbank House, where she lived with her foster parents. Her dark hair was escaping from its cap, and her little square face, so like the face of her father, Gerald, my first husband, was rosy with exercise. I could see the gracious outlines of the house, and the ripple of the Thames flowing past. For a moment, it was all so real that I called her name aloud, but the vision faded. She receded from me and was gone.
"If I die now I'll never see Meg again and I'll never see England again!" I wailed. "Somebody help me!"
"Hush." Dale was in tears. "Don't waste your strength, ma'am. Take a little warm milk."
"I don't want milk!" I flung out an arm in a frantic gesture of rejection and sent the cup flying out of Dale's hand, spilling the milk on the trampled rushes and also on Uncle Armand. "I want to give birth and get this over and I wish I'd never married again!"
Uncle Armand, brushing white spatters from his black clerical gown, said reprovingly: "Hush, madame. All things are according to the will of God. Women who die in childbirth may, I think, receive martyrs' crowns in heaven."
"I don't want to be a bloody martyr!" I shouted at him. "I want to live!"
Peering through the lamplight and the red fog of my pain and fever, I saw the physician and Matthew anxiously conferring in the doorway. The fever seemed to have sharpened my senses for although the physician's voice was still pitched low, this time I heard what he was saying.
"It is a son, seigneur, but there is little chance of saving him, I fear, and if I try, we shall almost certainly lose the mother. If we try instead to save her, the chance of success is better, but it will surely mean the child's death. I cannot hope to save them both; that much is sure. It is for you to decide."
I cried out, begging for my life. I had wanted Matthew's child but in that moment it ceased to be real to me. Nothing was real except the threat, the terrible threat of extinction. Everything became confused. As delirium finally took over, I saw the physician come back to me but after that I remember very little. The pain became a sea in which I was drowning. Then came darkness.
When I became conscious again, I was still in pain but in a new, localized way. My body was no longer struggling. Its burden was gone. Dale and Matthew, very pale, were beside me and the physician stood watchfully by. Uncle Armand and Madame Montaigle had left the room.
"You're alive," Matthew said. "But there is no child. It was one or the other and I chose you."
I smiled. I thanked him. I held his hand.
I had rarely been so angry in my life.
The anger wouldn't go away and mingled with it was a bleak misery that refused to lift and which did not even seem to have much to do with my grief for the lost baby, although I did indeed grieve. I was glad when Matthew told me that Uncle Armand had managed to baptize him, and that he had been laid in consecrated ground. He had been called Pierre, after Matthew's father. Physically, I got better, and I let Matthew think that my silences, my inability to smile, were all on account of grief. I knew I was hurting him but I could not help myself. My mind was sick and would not heal.
But by the fourth of April, Matthew was growing worried because I was so remote from him, and over that momentous dinner table, he said so.
We were not alone. Uncle Armand was dining with us as he usually did, and the butler, Doriot, was waiting on us. So was Roger Brockley, my English manservant. Fran Dale was actually married to Brockley although I still called her Dale, because she had been in my service before Brockley joined me.
They were both well into their forties, solid people, very English — Dale a little too given to complaining and slightly marked by childhood smallpox, but handsome in her way and very much attached to me; Brockley, stocky and dignified, with a high, polished forehead, a dusting of pale gold freckles, a slight country accent, a gift for expressionless jokes, and a knack of combining respect with criticism which over the years had inspired me with trust and exasperation in roughly equal proportions.
Brockley had originally been my groom, but when we came to Blanchepierre, the stables were full of grooms, and he had carved out a highly individual niche for himself, acting as my personal messenger and serving me at meals. Doriot didn't like it, though Brockley tried to be generally helpful and not usurp the butler's authority.
Brockley was at the sideboard, spooning wine sauce over my fish steaks, when Matthew said: "I have asked the physician to call tomorrow, Ursula. You are not recovering your strength or your spirits as you should. We've had a sad loss, but it's not the end of the world, you know."
I gazed down the table, past the silver dishes and the very beautiful silver salt and the matching candlesticks. The day was bright and the candles weren't lit, but they were there as decoration. We always dined in this formal fashion, with the length of the table between us. Blanchepierre was a very formal place.
There he sat, my husband, Matthew, whose dark, diamond-shaped eyes and dramatic black eyebrows, whose tall, loose-jointed frame and graceful movements, had captivated me long ago. He was good-hearted, too; essentially kind. In the end, after a long struggle, I had chosen him and Blanchpierre over a life as a lady of Queen Elizabeth's Presence Chamber and an agent in the employ of her Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil. I had been willing to live with Matthew as a Catholic, here in France, even though I remembered all too well the cruelties wrought in England by Mary Tudor in the name of that same religion.
Matthew loved me, and I had thought I loved him, but at this moment, he looked like a stranger.
"I don't like the physician," I said. "I'd rather not see him."
"That's a little ungrateful, isn't it? He saved your life, after all. I'm sure he can prescribe something for you — a tonic, perhaps."
"Dale can make a tonic up for me," I said. "She is quite skilled in such things. Even I have a little knowledge of herb lore."
"The physician surely knows more than either you or Dale. Why don't you like him?"
Doriot and Brockley brought the fish steaks to the table and began to serve them. I tried to think of a way to answer Matthew, but couldn't.
"Well?" he said. "Ursula, I'm worried about you and these silences of yours are one of the reasons. What is the matter with you? If I ask you a question, why can't you reply?"
Sometimes, I knew, it was because I was too lost in depression to hear him. But at other times, and this was one of them, it was because I knew he wouldn't like the answer. I stared at him and then, without speaking, started to eat.
"What is wrong with the physician? Ursula, I mean to have an answer. So will you say something, please?"
He had never pressed so hard before, and in any case, the answer was festering in me. I set down the piece of bread with which I was mopping up the sauce.
"Very well," I said. "The last time he came here was to my lying-in chamber. He said there was a chance of saving me or the child, but not both, and he asked you which he should try to save. He asked you. But I was conscious. I was crying out that I didn't want to die. Why didn't he ask me instead? He never even spoke to me. I might have been just a log of wood."
"Ursula, for the love of God! A physician would always ask the husband in such a case. Naturally."
"I've just said, I was crying out that I didn't want to die. Why didn't he just set about saving my life without further ado?"
"And leave me with no say in the matter?"
"It was my life! I was terrified of dying — terrified!"
"That was needless," said Uncle Armand. "You had heard Mass and been shriven only an hour or two before your pains began. You had nothing to fear."
"Yes, I had!" I snapped at him. "I wanted to live!"
"I know," said Matthew. "And I wanted you to live too. I told him to save you. You know that. The child was a son but believe me, I cared nothing for that, if only I could have you back, safe."
"But where would I be now if you had chosen otherwise?"
"Ursula, what is all this? I saved your life!" Matthew thundered. "You're completely unreasonable."
"And unwomanly, I fear." Uncle Armand shook a reproving head. "What you should have done, my child, was declare that you wished your infant to be saved. Your husband would still have chosen your life instead, of that I feel sure. The very purpose behind asking the husband is to free the woman from the burden of choosing between her child and herself. But..."
"I didn't ask to be freed of it!"
"The last time you saw the physician," said Matthew, "you were delirious. I think, Uncle Armand, that Ursula cannot be blamed for anything she said at that time."
"Blamed!" I shouted.
"Calm yourself. I also think," said Matthew, "that you spent too long dancing attendance on that red-haired heretic queen in England. She used to raise her voice quite often, if I remember aright, and you are talking the kind of nonsense that she might very well talk."
"It isn't nonsense." I tried to speak more quietly. "I still greatly admire Elizabeth," I added.
"But you left her service because she and Cecil between them had betrayed you."
"It felt like that at the time. But since then, I've come to understand them better. I've had time to think."
"I would have expected," said Matthew, "that now you are here in my home, you could have left the thinking to your husband, as other women do. It is not a feminine occupation. But since you have been thinking — to what conclusions have you come? Do you regret staying with me?"
"It would be most shameful if you did," said Uncle Armand, signaling Brockley for a little more fish. Doriot and Brockley were continuing to serve as imperturbably as though we were all discussing the weather. "When one considers, after all, that the Seigneur de la Roche is of an ancient, most respected French family while you, madame, although you have served at a royal court, were penniless when you were married to him, and furthermore, cannot put a name to your father."
There was a breathless silence. I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach. Brockley froze in midfloor, the serving platter in his hands. Even Doriot looked embarrassed and became very anxious to make sure there were enough clean spoons ready for the next course.
"My wife's family history is of no importance to me," Matthew snapped, but if he was glaring at Uncle Armand, he was still glaring when he turned to me.
"I am beginning to think," he said coldly, "that perhaps, Ursula, you are once more planning to abandon me — as you have done in the past. Are you? Do you want to go back to England? If so, in God's name tell me. I'd rather know."
It was too much. It all hurt far too much. I had sat down to dine, not happily, but at least in the belief that my domestic world was secure around me. It had fallen to pieces in the space of a few minutes and I didn't know how it had happened. What I did know was that grief for my dead child and the memory of those horrible hours in the lying-in chamber had flooded over me together, reviving the fear and pain and helplessness, the sense of loss when I called for Matthew and he would not come to me. Even now, he was at the far end of a long table; I could not reach out and touch him.
I had no words, only a surge of emotion: nameless and wordless but too huge to contain. So I picked up the nearest candlestick, threw it at Matthew, and then leapt from my seat and fled headlong from the dining chamber.
I went straight to my own bedchamber, collapsed on the bed, and thereupon fell victim to one of the sick headaches which have plagued me for most of my life. When Matthew came after me, as he did before long, he found me groaning in semidarkness, and had the good sense not to try to talk to me, but to send Dale to me.
Dale did her best for me, but the chamomile potion which sometimes eased the symptoms this time had no effect. The malady ran its usual unpleasant course, and the headache did not subside until late that evening. Then I told Dale to let Matthew know I was better, and once again, he came to me. He sat down on the side of the bed and looked at me gravely, his face a blank mask. He waited for me to say something first.
There was only one thing I could possibly say. "I'm sorry I threw the candlestick," I whispered. "But I couldn't bear it — oh, Matthew, how could you believe I was plotting to leave you? Of course I'm not."
"I shouldn't have said that," Matthew told me quietly. "I too am sorry. And Uncle Armand shouldn't have made those comments about your family, either. As for the physician at your lying-in, he asked me a question and I gave him the answer I knew you wanted. I had heard you crying out for your life. It broke my heart to hear you."
"I didn't want the child to die," I said. "How could I? I was praying that somehow we could both live. But I was so afraid, Matthew, so afraid, and I felt so helpless."
"It's in the nature of women to feel helpless, but you should know that you can trust me to look after you." He paused and then said steadily: "But now you are longing for the child you already have, I think. In your delirium, you cried out for your daughter, and for England. You are missing Meg very badly, and you're homesick."
I nodded, with caution. The remains of the headache still throbbed.
"I'm sorry," I said again, miserably. Matthew and I had quarreled before, more than once. We had shouted into each other's faces and I had wept with rage and despair, and once, when we tried to settle our differences with passion, even our lovemaking had turned savage. But never before had any quarrel gone as deep as this. I wanted no more of it. In venting my rage with that candlestick, I had lanced the worst boil in my unhappy mind. Now, I longed for peace between myself and Matthew. "This is my home now," I said. "I know that. I ought not to be homesick; women aren't supposed to be. Aunt Tabitha told me that," I added. "You know — Aunt Tabitha, who brought me up."
"You must be really out of spirits if you're quoting your aunt Tabitha. I remember her well, and I didn't care for her at all. What did she say, exactly?"
"It was when my eldest cousin, Honoria, was betrothed. She was afraid of leaving home because she thought she would be homesick. Aunt Tabitha told her that a woman's home is where her husband is, even if it's Cathay or Ultima Thule."
"That sounds very like your aunt Tabitha. Poor Honoria."
"But most people would agree with my aunt, wouldn't they? The only one I know who might not is Queen Elizabeth. Her feelings for England run deep."
"So do yours, it appears. Oh, Saltspoon." We both smiled involuntarily, at the sound of the nickname he had given me, years ago, because he said I had such a salty tongue. "It seems long since I last called you that," he said now. "Dearest Saltspoon, why can't you love France in the same way as you seem to love England? Would it be easier, I wonder, if we fetched Meg over? I have always said she would be welcome. Didn't you once say that she should come after — well, after your confinement? Suppose I arrange it? You might feel more settled, then."
"I don't know," I said restlessly. "She is happy with the Hendersons. They are good people. They write quite often, and so does she. It's not that I don't have news of her."
I was choosing my words with care. I had spoken my mind at the dining table, but if I wanted peace with Matthew, I must not speak it now. I had hesitated to bring Meg to France because I did not want to separate her from England. I wanted England — the land, the language, the religion — to be hers by right.
If I said that to Matthew, he would be hurt anew, and he would begin to doubt me once again. He had been surprised to hear me quote my aunt Tabitha, but if my aunt were here now, much as I disliked her, I knew what advice she would give me and she might well be right.
She would tell me to repair my differences with Matthew by pleasing him, even if it meant hiding my own opinions. (Not that my aunt ever needed to hide hers, since they usually chimed to perfection with those of Uncle Herbert. My uncle and aunt were a pair of righteous bullies who worked together like a team of flawlessly matched coach horses.)
But Matthew and I were very different from Aunt Tabitha and Uncle Herbert, and very different too from each other. Yes. I would be wise, I thought wearily, to hide what I was thinking. I said no more, and then Matthew made up his own mind.
"You need more than news of your daughter," he said. "You need Meg herself." He stood up. "No more arguments, Ursula. I am sending Brockley over to fetch her."
"But he'll need the queen's permission and..."
"No, he won't. He will stay for a few days at Thamesbank — that's the name of the house, is it not? — as though to make a full report on her studies and her well-being. The Hendersons will get used to him and so will Meg herself. He can take her out, on the river, or for rides. Then, one day, he will slip away with her and take her to the south coast, where he will find a boat in which to cross the channel. I will give him the names of three skippers who will help if he carries a letter with my seal on it."
For a moment, I closed my eyes. It was still going on, then. France had been torn by civil war between Huguenots and Catholics and Matthew had been in the thick of it, but still, it seemed, he had found time to keep up his secret work in England, where he had agents constantly seeking support for Mary Stuart of Scotland, who in Catholic eyes was England's true queen, and who would bring the Catholic faith back to my country. Along with the Inquisition.
"I understand about homesickness," Matthew said. "And women are as prone to it as men. My mother was English, and she always missed her homeland. That was why I took her back when my father died. She died too, not long after, but she was glad to be in her own country and to know that she would be buried in her own soil. But I think, Ursula, that if Meg is here, you will feel better. Take some rest now. Your daughter will be with you very soon."
He kissed me and went away. I lay there, letting my headache fade, and wondering if he was right. I had lived abroad, in Antwerp, when I was married to my first husband, Gerald Blanchard, who was in the service there of the queen's financier, Sir Thomas Gresham. I had never felt homesick then. But of course, in Antwerp, I had had both Meg and Gerald.
Gerald was dead and gone and if he were to come back now, this moment, what would he find? Getting up from the bed, I went to my toilet chest and looked at my face in the little mirror which lay there. I still had the wide brow and pointed chin which Gerald had called kittenish, but there was little of the kitten about me now. The hazel eyes of that mirrored face had seen many things since Gerald last looked into them. Some of those things had been sad and some horrific. Mine were experienced eyes now.
Gazing more closely, I saw too that there were a couple of silver strands in my dark hair. My youth was passing. The Ursula that Gerald had known had changed. I was Madame de la Roche now, of Château Blanchepierre, by the river Loire.
One could not go back. But Meg was still part of the present, living and growing, and yes, I needed her, to fill the empty place which my dead child had left. How long, I wondered, would it take Brockley to bring her back to France?
Copyright © 2000 by Fiona Buckley
Posted October 27, 2013
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