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The year is 1560. The setting is the court of Queen Elizabeth. Ursula Blanchard, an impoverished young widow newly come to court, is sent to Cumnor Place to protect the queen's reputation by looking after Amy Robsart, wife of Sir Robert Dudley, courtier to the queen and prime subject of scandalous rumors swirling about the palace.
When Amy is found lying with a broken neck at the bottom of the staircase in her home, many suspect foul play. The queen, in love with Dudley, had a ...
The year is 1560. The setting is the court of Queen Elizabeth. Ursula Blanchard, an impoverished young widow newly come to court, is sent to Cumnor Place to protect the queen's reputation by looking after Amy Robsart, wife of Sir Robert Dudley, courtier to the queen and prime subject of scandalous rumors swirling about the palace.
When Amy is found lying with a broken neck at the bottom of the staircase in her home, many suspect foul play. The queen, in love with Dudley, had a motive. Dudley, ambitious to marry Elizabeth, certainly had reason to wish his wife dead. Indeed, in the months before her death, Amy herself believed she was being poisoned.
By the novel's end, the queen's spymaster and secretary of state has launched Ursula on a new career as one of his agents, setting the stage for the further adventures of one of the most enterprising and endearing heroines in historical mystery fiction.
Chapter One: Richmond Palace
John Wilton was a small man, knotted and wiry, with short, dusty brown hair which stuck up in spikes. He had a snub nose and discoloured teeth. I can't remember what colour his eyes were and I never knew his age. Men like John seem to be born in middle life, and there they stay. He had started out as a groom employed by my husband's family and become, eventually, my husband Gerald's manservant. Now, when Gerald was gone, he would gladly have become mine, except that I couldn't afford him.
He believed in hard work and honesty and sometimes carried the latter too far. John would speak his mind when he felt it necessary, regardless of risk, regardless of the other person's social standing. He was as plain and trustworthy as a loaf of good brown bread. In that April of 1560, when Queen Elizabeth had been on the throne for less than eighteen months, the sect we now call the Puritans had barely begun to emerge and I doubt if John had ever heard of them, but in a later age, he might well have joined them.
And I have done few things in my life harder than dismounting from his pillion and bidding him farewell that afternoon, at the landward gate of Richmond Palace.
Some people would have thought me ungrateful! I was there, after all, to enter the service of her majesty Queen Elizabeth, and Richmond Palace was one of the newest and most beautiful royal residences, a place of ample light and airy grace, with turrets and fountains and generous windows and singing weathervanes which made a melodious sound when the wind blew. It was a privilege to be allowed into it and it was rather more than a privilege to be doing so as one of the young quee messages, mistress, never fear, and I'll keep an eye on them for you. And if you ever need me, Mistress Blanchard, just you send word and I'll be there as fast as I can, on any nag I can get hold of."
"Thank you," I said shakily. "If I do need you, be sure that I shall call. Goodbye, John, and a safe ride home."
As he mounted his horse again, panic almost overtook me. At the age of twenty-six, I was virtually alone in the world, left to fend for myself in this place which was so beautiful and luxurious, and was also utterly unfamiliar and full of unknown demands, not to mention perils. The perils were not precisely unknown (I had learned about those from my mother) but they were no less alarming on that account.
However, I must not begin my service to the queen by giving way and making a fool of myself. Somehow I kept my countenance. As John clattered away from the gate with the two hired horses which had brought us and my personal belongings from Sussex, I didn't watch him go. Instead, I braced myself; not to forget my sore heart, which wasn't possible, but to ignore it, and to be alert and attentive as a queen's lady-in-waiting must be if she is to please her mistress.
Once through the archway, I realised that the porter and my baggage had disappeared completely. I could only hope to be safely reunited with my belongings in due course. The palace was immense.
I was quite used to fine houses. I had been brought up in a manor house, and with Gerald I had been part of the entourage of Sir Thomas Gresham, financier, whose way of life, divided between London and Antwerp, verged on the princely. Richmond, though, belonged to another order of dwellings altogether. I ha d expected to emerge into a courtyard, but I found myself instead being led along a sanded path through a formal flower garden, bordered with lavender. Few of the flowers were in bloom yet, but under the shelter of a wall, I saw patches of forget-me-nots and violets; and a bed patterned with the rich yellow and velvety purple of heart's-ease.
I made a conscious effort to take an interest in my surroundings. The garden was bounded by long two-storey buildings, guards' quarters by the look of them, and beyond those to the right, there must be an orchard; blossom-laden boughs were just visible above their roofs. To the left, where the River Thames flowed, the sky was empty and luminous. I couldn't see the river but I could hear the shouts of boatmen. The slim turrets of the palace proper were still far away ahead. It was no wonder that I had had to wait so long for my escort to appear. It was several minutes before we passed through another arch and came at last into the courtyard, where some saddled horses were awaiting their riders. Faintly, from a window on an upper floor, I could hear music.
We turned left and mounted a broad flight of steps up to an iron-studded main door. Inside, the palace was splendid, but bewildering, a maze of corridors and galleries. The sun poured in through slender mullioned windows. Once I glimpsed the sparkling river outside; a moment later I caught sight of a tiltyard from which came the sound of clashing weapons and drumming hoofs. We went out into an enclosed garden and across it, and then up more steps and in at another door.
There were people everywhere, strolling or standing in clusters to talk, or hurrying about on presumably urgent errands, or, in one case, in a rage. As we passed through a long gallery with a flat carved ceiling and some spectacular hangings depicting scenes from Roman history, we had to flatten ourselves against the assassination of Julius Caesar to make way for a young woman, dressed expensively in green and gold brocade with a great coneshaped farthingale and wearing, in addition, an expression sour enough to turn wine to vinegar on the instant, as she swept past us in the opposite direction with another young woman just behind her, frantically apologising about something and scurrying to keep up.
The page glanced back at them and let out a small, derisive snort. It was demeaning to question a page but when I was myself, not weighed down by sorrow, I was inclined to be inquisitive, a trait which Gerald had virtually encouraged, since finding things out was part of his business. Besides, I was still concerned with taking an interest and I could not too soon begin to learn about the court. So I ignored protocol and asked the page who the angry young woman was.
"Lady Catherine Grey," said the page. "I don't know the name of the other."
He said no more. But even if the Gresham household in Antwerp hadn't quite prepared me for the royal court of Queen Elizabeth, it had been a place where famous names were spoken and the political scenery surveyed. I had heard of Lady Catherine Grey.
Until the queen married and had her own children, her heirs were her cousins, descendants of her father's sisters. Catherine was one of them. In Antwerp, people called her the Protestant heir. So that was Lady Catherine Grey. She didn't look very regal, I thought, and wondered what the queen would look like.
The page, finding his way apparently by witchcraft, brought us at length to a room where a number of ladies were seated, stitching and gossiping. The room was tapestried but well lit through many large windows, and rosemary strewn on the floor filled the air with sweetness. Mingled with this was the characteristic smell of fabric, of silk and linen and fine wool. It came from the hangings and the numerous workboxes and also, I realised, from the brocaded and embroidered dresses of the ladies. I was instantly conscious of my plain dress, dark for mourning and without a farthingale because one can't ride a horse in one. I had better dresses with me, but none was really new and fashions were changing all the time.
The page led me up to one of the ladies. She glanced round enquiringly, needle suspended over an embroidery frame. He bowed, gracefully. "Lady Katherine, I bring you Mistress Ursula Blanchard."
Catherine was a common name, though people varied the spelling. We had thought of calling Meg by it but decided against it just because there were so many Catherines about. This one was older and more dignified than Lady Catherine Grey, refined of feature, her skin pale and clear. She was in a dress of dove grey, with blue embroidery which picked up the colour of her calm blue eyes. I curtsied to her and she smiled.
"Of course. You are expected. Thank you, Will."
I tipped the page and he took himself off. I stood nervously, aware that all the other ladies were looking at me with interest. Lady Katherine, however, patted an empty seat beside her, a velvet-upholstered stool, and I sat down gratefully.
"Thank you, madam."
"I'm sure you must be tired. We will go presently and look at your room. I am Katherine Knollys, cousin to her majesty on the maternal side. I am one of her principal ladies. Mistress Ashley is in overall charge of all the ladies but she is indisposed today, so I instructed that you should be brought to me instead. I intend visiting her this afternoon, however, and as I shall have to pass close to our quarters, I'll take you with me and show you myself where you will be sleeping. Later, I will present you to her majesty. She is closeted with some of her council members at the moment."
"And with Robin Dudley," remarked another lady, young, with a fragile build but very bright grey eyes.
"Very likely, Jane," said Lady Katherine repressively. "He is the Master of Horse, after all. I believe the queen wishes him to purchase some new riding horses. Jane, this is Mistress Ursula Blanchard, who has come to join us. Ursula, this is Lady Jane Seymour, niece to the queen of that name, the mother of poor King Edward who died so young."
I inclined my head to Lady Jane. For all her sparkling eyes, she didn't look much stronger than her cousin Edward, who hadn't lived to see his sixteenth birthday. I often gave thanks to God for my own good health.
Lady Katherine began to present me to the other ladies. I smiled and said the right things, and wondered how hard I would have to battle for my position in this private hierarchy. In Sir Thomas Gresham's house, I had had Gerald to give me status. Gerald was successful, an up-and-coming young man of breeding. He was respected and his wife automatically shared in that respect. Here, I thought forlornly, I would have to win recognition for myself. The queen's women were all so very elegant and confident. My looks would not help. Gerald had once said that he first wanted me because of my black hair and long hazel eyes and my pointed face which made him think of a kitten, but Gerald was never one to follow fashion. Most men preferred something more rounded and fairer. Brunettes went out of favour when Anne Boleyn's dark head was cut off, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Also, these ladies were all daughters or wives of important men. Most of them had titles.
And in addition, I thought wryly, they were probably all legitimate.
I wondered how much Lady Katherine Knollys knew about me. She was introducing me simply as the widow of Gerald Blanchard, gentleman. In turn, I tried to absorb what I was told about the others, but there were too many of them and, although some bore names as famous as Seymour, I knew I wouldn't remember more than one or two of them, not yet. I was indeed very tired, not only from the two-day ride from Sussex, but also from the strain of my farewells and my sadness. I was glad when, at length, Lady Katherine rose and took me off to my quarters.
"You feel dazed, I expect," she said as she led me through another lengthy gallery. "I know a little of your story. Sir William Cecil told it to me and Mistress Ashley. You have certainly had a troubled life, but you will be too busy to brood, I promise. Do you dance gracefully?"
"Dance?" The change of subject took me by surprise. "Well -- reasonably so, I think. But..."
"You are in mourning, but that won't be for ever," said Lady Katherine briskly. "The queen likes to dance and also to watch her ladies do so. Later, we must see what you can do."
"Does Lady Catherine Grey dance well?" I asked.
"Catherine Grey? Why do you ask?"
My inquisitiveness had surprised her. I might have to curb it if I wished to fit in at court. I said mildly that the page and I had met Lady Catherine Grey on the way through the palace. "I -- noticed her," I said. "She was so splendidly dressed. I asked who she was."
Katherine Knollys laughed. "Oh, I see! Splendidly dressed! I daresay she was in a splendid temper as well, only you are too discreet to put it that way. Am I right?"
"A foolish maid of honour mistook her for someone else and went through a doorway ahead of her. The queen will only allow her to be a Lady of the Presence Chamber and not of the Privy Chamber. It causes misunderstandings. Though it might help if Catherine were not in a perpetual sulk over it. Oh, I may as well be candid; you will soon hear all about it anyway. She is still a person of importance, of course. Lady Jane Seymour has lately become her close friend and will I hope be a steadying influence. Lady Jane is a dear girl, though perhaps a trifle too spirited. Here's your room. Here at Richmond, you can have your own, though you will have to share at some of the other residences."
The room into which she took me was in a corner of the building and it was a very odd shape, almost triangular, although it did have one very short fourth wall. It was panelled, with a leaded window overlooking the courtyard and it contained a small tester bed, a clothes press, a window seat with a storage chest beneath it, and a washstand. To my relief, I saw my panniers on the floor beside the bed.
"There's a truckle bed underneath yours, for your maid," said Lady Katherine. "Have you brought a maid or were you intending to hire one here in London?"
"I meant to do without," I said. "My means are -- well, modest."
"Do witho ut a maid?" Lady Katherine, who had been stooping to make sure that the truckle bed was there, turned to me, her finely plucked eyebrows rising.
"Yes. I can easily manage. It's quite all right."
"My dear Mistress Blanchard, it is not quite all right. A lady-in-waiting must have her own maid. It is not a question of whether or not you can manage; it's a question of how the other ladies will regard you. Especially when your -- well, your antecedents -- become known, as they will. The court is like that. Whatever else you go without, a maid, my dear, is essential."
Lady Katherine decided that my sudden quietness was because I was so tired. She sent for wine and cakes and said her own woman would help me unpack and dress for my presentation to her majesty. Then she left me alone while she went to give orders to her maid and I sat on the window seat, sipping white wine and nibbling cinnamon pastries and inwardly cursing in terms profane enough to scandalise a fishwife.
If only, oh if only, Gerald could have lived. I thought of his square brown face and his friendly brown eyes and longed for him as desperately as I had on the day he died. If you had to take his life, I said silently and furiously to God, couldn't you at least have waited until he could leave me a little better provided for? He had been doing well in Gresham's service, but he hadn't had his good salary for long enough. He had saved so little.
The Blanchards, neighbours of my own family in Sussex, were well-to-do, but Gerald was a younger son which meant he must make his own way. His father would have given him a present of money or perhaps in a small farm, if Gerald had taken a suitable bride, but I didn't qualify. Oh yes, the Faldenes were well off, too, high enough up the social scale to have a tradition of court service even though we were not titled. But Ursula Faldene was not a well-dowered daughter of the house. I was the unfortunate disaster which had befallen an earlier Faldene daughter when she went to the court of King Henry VIII to serve his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and misbehaved herself with a court gallant whom she would not identify. Or possibly, couldn't identify, my Aunt Tabitha had once, disagreeably, suggested. "How many of them were there, I wonder?" she had said to my mother.
"There was only the one!" my mother protested. "But he was married and no, I won't name him."
"Only one? Prove it!" retorted Aunt Tabitha.
When I married, Gerald's family consisted of his father Luke Blanchard, and his elder brother Ambrose, cold-faced men, both of them. I never saw Gerald's mother, but I know he took after her. His candid, merry countenance must have been her legacy. In my own family, my grandparents had died some years ago, leaving Uncle Herbert, his dreadfully virtuous wife Tabitha, and their children, my cousins.
There had been a scheme between the Faldenes and the Blanchards to marry Gerald to my cousin Mary but I ruined that. The two families weren't on speaking terms now. I would have been cut off without a dowry, except that I'd never had one in the first place. I wasn't expected, or supposed, to marry.
In bygone days, the Faldenes used to cope with surplus or embarrassing females such as my mother by depositing them in nearby Withysham Abbey, but all that came to an end when King Henry, because the Pope wouldn't grant him a divorce from his first queen and thus set him free to marry A nne Boleyn, thumbed his nose at the Holy Father, broke with Rome and divorced himself. While he was at it, King Henry also disbanded the monasteries and nunneries of England. Withysham was no longer an option. My grandparents therefore took my disgraced mother back. From then on she was little more than an unpaid servant in her own home, and I was reared to be the same.
I do remember, when I was small, receiving occasional signs of affection from my grandfather. I recall him giving me sweetmeats now and then and he let me learn to ride. I remember him walking beside me, the first time I was put into a saddle, and steadying me while the groom led the pony round the stableyard.
However, he died when I was eight and my grandmother followed within the year, and from then on my mother and I were at the mercy of Uncle Herbert and Aunt Tabitha, except that mercy was a commodity in short supply in their household.
In time, I came to see that they were a couple whose public life and private life were completely different.
Outwardly, they were respectable and kindly folk who gave to charity, entertained or were entertained by their neighbours in our part of Sussex, on the northern edge of the downs, and never failed to ask politely after the health of guest or host and the families thereof.
In private, Uncle Herbert's principal passion was money. He never bought anything without haggling over it; it hurt him to see anyone making a good profit out of him. Faldene tenants had to pay their rent to the last farthing on the exact day stipulated. Most households gave the servants lengths of clothing material at Christmas, and usually such materials were hardwearing and not too costly, but Uncle Herbert us ed to give the servants his cast-offs, and believe me, my uncle didn't cast anything off until the nap was gone and it had at least three patches. His favourite occupation was sitting in his study and going through his ledgers in the hope of squeezing another groat or two into the credit column of the estate transactions. Uncle Herbert, in fact, hated giving to charity, and in private, said so.
As for the punctilious enquiries over other people's well-being: if only Aunt Tabitha had been half so anxious about the health of those under her control!
Faldene House was in the modern style, with towers and crenellations which were impressive, but were there for ornament, not for use as lookouts or battlements. It had been built early in the century, replacing a much older house.
It was poised charmingly on a hillside overlooking Faldene Vale, a downland valley which was half-filled with woodland as a bowl may be filled with wine, while our cornfields and meadows lay spread over the sides of the valley. When the wind was fresh, cloud shadows would race across those hillsides, and ripening crops would ripple like water.
A splendid place, Faldene, but as a home, it was not happy. My uncle and aunt, so apparently concerned for the welfare of others, were petty tyrants.
Aunt Tabitha, thin and active and straight of back, was given to final pronouncements on all matters moral. She liked sitting in judgement on slacking maidservants and disobedient children, or on me when I had been caught reading poetry or playing with a ball when I should have been scraping carrots or mending sheets. Uncle Herbert was a contrast to his wife in appearance, for he was heavily built and grew more so as the years went o n. However, he was good at delivering victims to Aunt Tabitha's judgements, because indoors he wore soft slippers. For all his bulk, no one was better than Uncle Herbert at creeping up and catching people out. Once caught out, you could be casually struck or formally beaten, and the causes were often trivial.
Aunt Tabitha also resented anyone who fell ill. The fact was, that she never ailed a day herself and was apt to regard any child or servant who went sick as a malingerer. She was quite capable of pulling someone out of bed if she thought their headache or fever was imaginary. I know. After the age of thirteen I was subject at times to violent headaches, with nausea, and I suffered much from Aunt Tabitha's crude refusal to believe in this malady. My mother suffered, too, during the first stages of the lung-rot which killed her (though I believed then and believe now that the years of cold unkindness from her family had much to do with it). When it was clear that the illness was real, my aunt did let her rest in bed, but grudgingly, with much talk of her "charity" towards her fallen sister-in-law.
My mother died when I was sixteen. Until then, she did her best to protect me from my family. She was in their power and therefore always had to be humble and polite towards them, but she was essentially a clever woman and she did her best by me. Aunt Tabitha meant me to grow up into another dogsbody; fetching, carrying, stitching, skivvying. But my mother managed to teach me to play the lute and the virginals and persuaded my aunt to let me share my cousins' tutor by saying that I was over-lively and that this would keep me out of mischief. I had the sense to apply myself. Indeed, I was actually en couraged to study once Uncle Herbert had grasped that he could turn my education to advantage by using me as a clerk and secretary.
As I grew up I spent many hours in his study, learning how to maintain ledgers and write letters in an elegant hand. Whatever I learned, though, was for my relatives to use. When my mother was gone, it was made clear to me that I was expected to spend the rest of my life gratefully serving those who had so generously taken me in. Marriage? No, that was for respectably born young women.
When they discovered that I had supplied the deficiency for myself and stolen Cousin Mary's prospective bridegroom while I was about it, Aunt Tabitha hit me so hard that I fell down, Cousin Mary threw herself on the floor and pounded it with her fists, howling, and I thought Uncle Herbert would burst a blood vessel.
In other circumstances I might have pitied Mary, but I knew they would find her someone else fast enough, and she hardly knew Gerald. She didn't love him. Gerald and I already knew we would have to marry without the consent of either of our families and our plans were already made. I escaped from Faldene that night and we ran away together. We took refuge with a friend of Gerald's in the town of Guildford, on the way to London. We were married two days later in a nearby church, with the friend and his wife and parents as witnesses, and then went on to London, where Gerald was due to take up a post in the household of Sir Thomas Gresham.
I was soon absorbed into the life of the large, friendly Gresham establishment, attending dinners there and being asked to hawking parties. My childhood riding lessons came in useful. I hadn't ridden much since my grandfather died, but I had the basics, and soon developed some skill. It was much better fun than being dependent on a pillion. Gerald encouraged me. Gerald always encouraged me, in everything I did, just as I encouraged him.
Four years later, when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and sent Gresham out to Antwerp, we went too. With us went our little daughter Meg, her nurse Bridget Lemmon, and John Wilton. When he first decided to leave Sussex, Gerald had asked John to come as his personal man. John was willing, and signed on in our little ship of matrimony.
And then the ship foundered on a black, evil rock of disease and stranded me, widowed, in Antwerp, with a small daughter, two servants, some rather expensive lodgings and just enough money for a couple of months.
Sir Thomas had come to know that ours was a runaway match, and when he first heard of it, he questioned Gerald about it, but he had liked me from the start and apparently accepted Gerald's account of my unhappy life at Faldene. Now he was kind but seemed uncertain what to do with me. I had my pride. "I will write to my home," I said bravely.
In fact, I wrote both to the Blanchards and the Faldenes, explaining my position and asking their help, for Meg's sake, if not for my own. She was four years old and pretty. My father-in-law might be willing to do something for his own granddaughter, I thought.
I was wrong. Master Blanchard did not care if Meg and I died of starvation and nor, apparently, did Gerald's brother Ambrose. They wanted nothing to do with us and would prefer never to hear of us again. The letter in which Master Blanchard Senior expressed these unattractive sentiments contained the outrageous remark that he was being generous in even bothering to answer what he called my whining appeal.
The Faldene response was different. They were prepared to forgive my ingratitude and wilfulness and take me in, along with the fruit of my sin (that meant Meg, and since she was legitimate, the sin in question was presumably the theft of Gerald from Cousin Mary). And to Faldene I would have had to go, with Meg, to face a life of unpaid servitude, except that Gerald's work had brought him to the notice of the Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil. Sir Thomas had commended Gerald by name on occasion, it seemed, and thought of writing to Cecil to explain my plight. The ship which brought Faldene's answer to Antwerp also brought an offer for me to follow in my mother's tradition and come to court to wait on the queen.
There were drawbacks: that thirty pounds a year stipend for instance. The queen's ladies usually had families behind them to support them. Nor could I have my daughter with me. It was better than going home to Faldene, though, and I agreed.
I did go briefly to Sussex first, because I wanted to visit my mother's grave, and while I was there, I wished to find a cottage to rent for Bridget and Meg. It would be easier to find one, I thought, in a place I knew.
I stayed with John Wilton's sister, whose husband had a small farm there. I did not need or want to call at Faldene House, although when I went to look at the grave, I was close to the house and it seemed odd to see it and not go there. After all, I had been reared there, however grudgingly. I did not altogether escape seeing my family, though. I was placing a bunch of bluebells on my mother's sadly overgrown resting place, when Aunt Tabitha chose to walk through the churchya rd. She saw me, stopped short, and then came briskly up to me.
"Well, well. Ursula! What are you doing here? Are you intending to call on us?"
"I thought you might prefer it if I didn't," I said quietly. "I am paying my respects to my mother's memory, as you see."
She stared at me as if wondering whether she could still bully me and I stared back, determined that she should not. "This, I take it," she said, "is the child."
I was holding Meg by the hand. I told her to make her curtsy and presented her to my aunt, who looked at her disparagingly and said, "Are you taking her to court with you?"
"No. I am making arrangements for her elsewhere."
"Better leave her with us. We can see she is reared in the true faith and taught to be useful."
"In the true faith?" I said, and then realised that a faint tang of incense was clinging to my aunt's clothes. I knew the smell, for when I had lived at Faldene, Queen Mary was still on the throne and mass was not only legal but obligatory. "You still hear mass?" I asked sharply.
Aunt Tabitha looked offended. "We attend church regularly as the law enjoins," she said. "If, in private, we follow our own beliefs, it is no one's business but ours."
The conflict between the old Catholic religion and the new Protestant one was something that no one, noble or humble, could ignore. In the days of Elizabeth's predecessor Queen Mary, it had been, literally and hideously, a burning question.
Even after Elizabeth came to the throne and brought with her some semblance of calm, it was still the stream that drove the mill wheel of international politics and the cause of half the family feuds in the land. Elizabeth had made the land Protestant but some of her coun cillors were sympathetic to the old religion; most of them men who had served as Queen Mary's councillors. The queen could not afford to do without their experience and didn't try, and no one was being sent to the stake for Catholic sympathies. However, you could be fined or even imprisoned for hearing mass, or celebrating it. If mass was being said at Faldene now, it was illegal.
"You will of course do what you think right," I said, "but I most certainly will not burden you with Meg."
"You never did know the meaning of the word gratitude, Ursula. I can only hope you don't go the way of your mother. There'll be plenty of lusty, well-off gallants at that red-headed heretic's court, I don't doubt!"
I took my leave of her coldly and led Meg away.
Now, sitting on the window seat in my room at Richmond, I thought grimly that I would survive somehow. I would keep myself decent; I would make my way at court, and I would keep Meg out of Faldene's clutches, too.
But to prosper at court apparently meant hiring a lady's maid. Dear God, how was I to afford that? It would take half my stipend! Feverishly, I tried to think of ways and means. There was a small garden with the cottage I had found for Bridget and Meg. Bridget could read, though only just. I would write her a clear, simple letter, telling her to grow vegetables and keep hens, and try to sell things -- eggs, pullets, onions, lettuces. It wouldn't be enough, but I must just do my best.
The door opened and back came Lady Katherine Knollys, with her woman. "Would you believe it? I've already heard of someone who might suit you!" she announced. "One of the maids of honour is being sent home for being caught in compromising circumstances with a young man, and leaves court tomorrow. She comes from the North, but her tiring woman is a Londoner and doesn't want to go with her. She intends to seek another position. I suggest that you interview her in the morning."
"Thank you," I said tonelessly. "You are very kind."
I was presented to her majesty later the same day. I had changed into a black velvet gown, decorated only with a few seed pearls. The gown had a small farthingale and a little white linen ruff and with it I wore a silver net for my hair, and a silver pendant. It was a becoming ensemble, which was fortunate because it gave me confidence. Being presented to Queen Elizabeth of England was quite an ordeal.
To begin with, Lady Katherine gave me a terrifying list of dos and don'ts. I must curtsy thus, and speak only if invited to do so but then must speak clearly and without stammering. And although I was here, as much as anything, because my mother had served the queen's mother, I must not allude to Anne Boleyn in any way, or even to Kate Howard, Anne's cousin, who had also been married to King Henry, and had been beheaded, like Anne, for adultery.
"Her majesty never speaks of them. She may well think of them privately, especially her mother," said Lady Katherine. "She has shown great kindness to the Boleyns and their kin, of whom I am one -- my mother was Queen Anne's sister -- but the past is never mentioned. You must also..."
I felt positively frightened before I even entered the room where the queen was to receive me. With Lady Katherine, I had first to cross a crowded antechamber, and then pass through an inner door with guards who placed their pikes across it until Lady Katherine gave our names, when they let us pas s with a clash of pike-handles on the floor as they set their weapons upright again.
Inside, was a big room with an ornately painted and gilded ceiling and tapestried walls. This too was crowded, with courtiers male and female, and my sovereign was seated on a dais at the far side of an immense expanse of floor, across which I must walk, at Lady Katherine's side, under the eyes of what seemed to me like an audience of several hundred.
Quaking inwardly, I tried to keep my head up and my gaze fixed on the glittering figure of the queen. Viewed from afar, that was all she was: just a sparkling effigy on a chair with a high, pointed back. The odd thing was that as we approached, she did not become more human. Yet she was only a young woman, not yet twenty-seven, only months older than I was myself. It was extraordinary.
At the foot of the dais, Lady Katherine and I sank into our curtsies. A cool, even voice told us to rise, and as we did so, Lady Katherine began on a formal introduction, while I took my first good look at my sovereign.
An astounding dress of ash-coloured satin, iridescent with gold embroidery, the waist so tiny, so pointed, that it was hard to believe that a human body could be held within it. I saw many ropes of pearls; a close ruff of lace, with more pearls at the edges; matching wrist-ruffs; a pearl headdress; pale red hair crimped into a cap of curls.
Her clothes were like the outer defences of a castle. I had to gaze hard to see past them, to the shield-shaped face, the golden-brown eyes under faint, arched eyebrows; the well-defined mouth. These too were defences of a kind for they told one nothing: her face was truly a shield. The eyes were watchful, determin ed to reveal nothing of their owner's thoughts; the eyebrows were immobile; the shapely mouth devoid of passion. She looked more like a faery being than a human one.
A hand, long and slender, the nails softly burnished, the length of the fingers deftly shown off by jewelled rings, was extended to me to kiss. "So you are Mistress Ursula Blanchard, formerly Faldene, and your mother, Anna Faldene, once served -- at court."
I heard the faintest pause before the words "at court." Carefully, I said, "That is so, your majesty."
"You may address me as ma'am. We see that you are in mourning, Mistress Blanchard. That is for your husband?"
"We will do what we can to fill your days and heal your grief. Here at court it would be perfectly proper for you to relieve your black clothes with a little more white or silver. A white or silver under-kirtle, perhaps, with matching sleeves. You have our permission."
"Thank you, ma'am," I said, recognising, that this was an order in disguise.
"Black and white become you, however," said Elizabeth. "They are my colours: did you know?"
"N-no, your maj -- ma'am. No, I didn't know that," I said, stammering a little in spite of all Lady Katherine's strictures. I looked the queen in the face, hoping she hadn't noticed or at least was not irritated.
She hadn't and she wasn't. Suddenly she smiled, and fleetingly, I saw the girl beneath the satin and gold and pearls, the living, breathing princess inside the castle.
"Welcome to our court, Mistress Blanchard," said Queen Elizabeth.
The memory of that sudden, human smile stayed with me all the rest of that day, but when that night I retired alone to the tester bed in the corner room, sorr ow and anxiety overtook me again. I lay there, longing uselessly for Gerald and Meg, and on top of all that, desperately worried about money.
The magic of Elizabeth's smile was forgotten. I remembered instead that she had practically ordered me to buy white or silver sleeves and under-kirtles, which I couldn't afford, and that I must also, somehow, pay a maid I didn't want and still support my daughter.
And so it began, my slide towards unlikely adventures, down a slippery incline called economic necessity.
Copyright © 1997 by Fiona Buckley