July, 1579. Called upon to help a family friend who is horrified at the return of her errant husband after an absence of thirty years, little does Ursula realize that her involvement in the Harrison family’s domestic dramas will lead to a case of cold-blooded murder.
Matters become even more complicated when Ursula is summoned to court to assist in negotiations for Queen Elizabeth’s possible engagement to the Duke of Alençon. The proposed marriage between the queen and a French Catholic twenty years her junior is causing unrest throughout the kingdom. There are many who oppose the match – but would someone kill in order to prevent it?
Tensions increase when a prominent nobleman is accused of murder. Ursula is convinced the man is innocent – but can she prove it?
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A Deadly Betrothal
An Ursula Blanchard Mystery
By Fiona Buckley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Fiona Buckley
All rights reserved.
I have never greatly liked fir woods. They're too dark. In this one, except at one end, where some felling had been done and young saplings had been planted, there were only a few scattered gleams of light from the sky and there was no undergrowth to speak of, just a carpet of fallen needles. They were quiet to walk on, too quiet. The stillness and the heavy shadows were intimidating.
There was a woodland of the ordinary kind at my Surrey home, Hawkswood, where the trees, beech and oak and chestnut, arched over the paths and in summer the canopy of leaves gave a green, underwater tinge to the light beneath, and here and there the ground was strewn with golden dapples because in places the sunlight could shine through. In that woodland, the leaves rustled in the wind and birds sang and in spring, there were bluebells. One would not come to this fir plantation to look for bluebells.
The fir wood measured just over a quarter of a mile each way and was valuable to its owners, the Harrison family. They harvested the straight pine trunks for making ships' masts and furniture and tapped the silver firs for scented oils. It was their best source of income. The rest of the property consisted only of the house, which was just across the lane and was appropriately named Firtrees, three fields where wheat was grown and a few cows pastured, and a small parcel of land in Cornwall, which was looked after by a resident steward, and wasn't very productive.
I knew the family quite well but on that day, late in the summer of 1579, I was here without their knowledge or permission, trespassing, in fact. With me were my reliable manservant Roger Brockley, and one of our grooms, a taciturn but helpful young man called Joseph. We had come in a cart because Firtrees was several miles from Hawkswood and also we needed to bring a ladder and some rope and a small handcart which could be carried on board.
It was not the first time the wood had been searched, but the idea for this extra, unofficial visit had been suggested to me by my friend Christopher Spelton.
'Have you,' he said, 'thought of looking up?'
At the time, Christopher, Brockley and I were in the study at West Leys, the married home of my former ward, Kate Ferguson, and her husband, Eric Lake. It was a small, dull, workaday room, not a likely setting for discussions about the lurid or the dramatic. Christopher, however, was watching our faces seriously, his pleasant brown eyes asking for our reply. I was nonplussed at first, but Brockley was less so. He said: 'No. Come to think of it, we haven't.'
I demurred, saying that the wood had already been searched through and through. Brockley and I had helped on two occasions.
'You can't conceal anything much in that kind of wood; there aren't any thickets to hide things in,' I said. 'As for looking up - think how difficult it would be, hiding a body that way! I think he must have been taken away. If the poor lad is really dead ...'
'Do you truly think that he might not be?' Brockley's voice was gentle but his grey-blue eyes were grave. There were wrinkles in his high forehead with its dusting of gold freckles. He was an intelligent man.
'No,' I said. 'I think he probably is. But hidden thatway? Surely not.'
'There aren't many alternatives,' said Brockley, and standing there in that commonplace study, he explained why.
'Madam, you know that Firtrees isn't isolated. There's farmland beyond the wood and to either side of it, and when the boy disappeared there were men in the fields. There are two hamlets, one to the east and one to the west, and a well-used lane that passes through both, and no one, no one, labourer or villager, reported seeing a boy, dead or alive, in company or alone, along the road or across the fields, at the time in question. Some lone horsemen passed along the road but no carts that could have transported a body. At the back of the house, it's open heath and there's nowhere there to hide anything. Animals graze it; there are only a few scattered bushes, which were all examined. There were people about, too; someone was fetching a donkey in and someone else was milking goats. No one in the village on the far side saw anything, either. The wood is the only place.'
'I am strongly inclined to agree,' Master Spelton said.
'But if your idea is right, whoever did it would have needed a ladder!' I protested.
'That,' said Brockley grimly, 'could have been put in place in advance. At night, possibly. This was planned, I fancy.'
'I see,' I said.
It seemed almost ludicrous, to be discussing murder, and the ways in which bodies might be hidden, in that ordinary room with its desk and shelves, and the window with its pleasant view of low hills. We could hear sheep bleating somewhere.
But then, such incongruous occasions had been happening to me for most of my life. I continually longed for domestic peace, the normal life of a country lady, and I was continually being wrenched away from it, into unlikely and uncomfortable circumstances, where I had unlikely, uncomfortable and usually unfeminine duties to perform.
My name was – and is – Ursula Stannard. I was the widow of Hugh Stannard, my third husband, whom I had greatly loved. I had a married daughter, Meg, the child of Gerald Blanchard, my first husband. In addition, I had a son, Harry, a little boy of seven, who was the offspring of my second spouse, Matthew de la Roche. Also, I was half-sister to her majesty, Queen Elizabeth, since her father, King Henry the Eighth, had not been faithful to his queen Anne Boleyn but had had a brief liaison with one of her ladies in waiting, who became my mother.
Years after, I too went to court as a lady in waiting, to Queen Elizabeth. After Gerald's death from smallpox, I needed work, for I needed money. But my stipend was none too generous and when I had the opportunity of adding to it by undertaking a secret task, I seized the chance and so my unusual occupation began. Later, after I had learned of my relationship to the queen, I became trapped in that occupation, because a bond formed between us and when she called on me, as she and her councillors did now and then, to undertake tasks, sometimes even dangerous tasks, to help her, I could not refuse.
But this time, I was not acting under orders. Neither Queen Elizabeth, nor her Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, nor her Lord Treasurer, Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, had sent me to look for the body of a missing young boy. That had arisen quite differently. But somehow it seemed quite as necessary. Or that is how I put it to myself. Others, perhaps more perceptive, have told me that I am a natural adventuress, that I respond to the call of mysterious and secretive tasks as wild geese take wing in response to each other's haunting calls.
At any rate, after being urged by both Brockley and Spelton, I agreed to put the matter to the test. 'Not that I believe it,' I said to them. 'I don't. I can't. Would anyone really dispose of a body in such a way? It would be so awkward. But all right, let us make sure.'
So here we were. I had dressed for prowling in fir woods, by borrowing a pair of breeches and a shirt and jacket from Brockley. I had boots on my feet. I had a gown with me so that if we did find anything I could look respectable when we reported it but for the moment I had left it on the handcart. Only, what could we do this time that hadn't been done before?
Well, we could do what Christopher had suggested. We could look upwards.
It was the one thing no one had thought of trying. We and the searchers who were here before us had examined that wood one tree at a time, but had we ever raised our eyes? No, we had not. Yet, above us, the silver firs in particular had thick, dark foliage, layers of it, shutting out the sky.
'We must be methodical,' said Brockley. 'The previous searches weren't methodical enough, in my opinion. Nothing could be hidden among the new saplings; we must concentrate on the mature wood. We could do it as though we were ploughing a field. We should work in a row, moving forward in a straight line from one end of the wood to the other, searching a swathe, as it were, and then we turn round, move along to start a new swathe, and work back along that.'
It made sense. We left our horse and cart, with the ladder and rope and the handcart still aboard, at the edge of the trees, positioned ourselves at one end of the wood and began, the three of us walking abreast and looking constantly upwards. I at once bumped into a tree trunk because I was staring upwards instead of looking where I was going. I muttered a curse, and at the same moment, Brockley also growled something under his breath because the same thing had happened to him. Joseph, for once, had something to say.
'It's as well there isn't any undergrowth,' he remarked. 'We'd all be catching our feet in it and tripping over!'
'We'd best take care,' said Brockley. 'Even if it slows us down.'
It did. An hour later, I had become thoroughly disgruntled. In fact, I was on the verge of suggesting that we forgot the whole absurd business and went home, when Joseph suddenly stopped short, pointed upwards and once more, broke his habitual silence. 'Up there,' he said. 'Look.'
Brockley and I came to his side and gazed up to where he was pointing. He was right. Amid the thick fir branches above us, there was a darker, denser patch. 'And there's fallen twigs and cones hereabout,' said Joseph, pointing. 'Not new ones. But summat's broken bits off the branches up there at some time or other.'
We moved about, seeking a clearer view. 'There's something up there,' Brockley said.
I stayed where I was, to act as a marker while the two of them fetched the ladder and the rope. For a while, I was alone among the trees. It made me feel obscurely afraid, not of any definite danger, but in a vague, amorphous way, as though the trees themselves were aware of me and watching me inimically. Now and then I looked uneasily up at the branches above me, wondering if the darker patch really meant anything. After all, stowing it up a tree was a most improbable way to dispose of a body. Two particularly thick branches, one above the other, could create an illusion of something solid. Or it might be the nest of some large bird, a kite or a goshawk.
But if it were not ...
I was so nervous that I wanted to shout to Brockley and Joseph, to summon them back, but they were probably out of earshot and the silence of the wood was so solemn, so mysteriously powerful that I hesitated to break it.
At last I heard their voices, calling to me. I called back to give them my direction and soon they appeared, carrying the ladder between them. Brockley had the rope over his shoulder. They stopped beneath the dark patch, and Brockley, craning his neck, said that it was a long way up. 'We'll need the full length of the ladder.'
It was a double ladder, which could be extended at need to twice its original length. Joseph saw to it, firmly securing the bolts that held the join in the middle. Then he and Brockley heaved it into position and Brockley said: 'You're lighter than me and younger, Joseph. Will you go up? Have your belt knife ready. I hope it's really sharp. If not, take mine.'
'My knife's keen enough, Master Brockley,' Joseph assured him. Brockley gave him the rope, and he started up the ladder.
He had to push his way past a good many boughs, causing more twigs and fir cones to shower around us. Presently, he all but disappeared from view. We waited. Then his voice, slightly muffled by distance and fir foliage, came down to us.
'It's here! Or summat is – all wrapped in sacking and tied up with twine, like a parcel. Rammed into a fork. Can't get the rope round it. Need both hands for that. Only got one to spare! Daren't let go my handhold! Can use my knife, just about! I'll cut it loose and let it fall. Sorry!'
'If it's what we think, you're not to see it,' Brockley said to me. 'Madam, please move away.'
Manservants don't usually give orders to their employers but I had no quarrel with Brockley over this. I withdrew to a distance. High above, Joseph used his knife and freed what he had found. I heard it crashing and bumping down through the branches and then saw a dark mass tumble to the ground, to land with a thud at Brockley's feet.
We waited while Joseph came down the ladder and then he and Brockley, placing themselves between me and the thing on the ground, stooped to investigate it.
There were exclamations. Brockley said: 'There's more than one sack; there's four layers at least.' He and Joseph both worked together for a moment, and then Joseph stumbled aside and was sick.
'Brockley!' I shouted.
'Wait, madam! Just a moment!' He had risen to his feet with a sack in his hands. He was fumbling with something that seemed to be caught in the fabric. Then he came towards me.
'Brockley?' I said again.
'It was as we feared, madam. Poor lad. Well, he can have a decent burial now. I found this caught in one of the sacks.'
He held out his right hand and I looked at what lay in the palm. And then looked again, and after that, raised my eyes to Brockley's. 'So now we know,' he said.
I nodded, bleakly. 'We only suspected it before but now we're sure. What a vile business.'
To tell the truth, the matter wasn't only vile; it was also, in the end, embarrassing. Even Lord Burghley, who is an honest statesman and knows that I did nothing wrong, wishes I hadn't done anything at all. As for Sir Francis Walsingham, although he too knows perfectly well that I am innocent of any misdoing, was nevertheless so infuriated by the outcome of my meddling that he declared he wished never to see or hear of me again.
Only the queen is untroubled, and they're none too pleased with her!CHAPTER 2
On the face of it, I became entangled in the unsavoury events of 1579 through a series of coincidences, but they aren't as random as they appear. Surrey, like most counties, has a society of its own. Some of its principal families have been there since the Conquest (or even before) and through the centuries they have become very interconnected.
Oh, there are changes sometimes, of course there are. Families move out of the county and new ones move in. There are marriages which take young people - daughters mostly – elsewhere, or bring in brides from other places. County society isn't closed. But it is still cohesive enough to make it wise, when in the company of people one doesn't know very well, to guard one's tongue.
For instance, when dining out and encountering new faces, don't ask your neighbour who the fierce-looking lady at the far end of the table is, yes, the one in purple, with the vast open ruff and the high-bridged nose and the pursed mouth. She may well turn out to be the mother-in-law of your neighbour's sister. And when watching a tennis match at a gathering where, again, there are people you don't know well, or at all, don't enquire of a chance-met acquaintance if he knows who the noisy man over there is. Your new acquaintance is all too likely to say, oh yes, that's my second cousin.
That being so, there was nothing very strange in the fact that Eric Lake, who owned a small manor near Guildford and had married my ward Kate Ferguson, was the half-brother of a man called George Harrison, whose wife Marjorie had from girlhood been a friend of my Aunt Tabitha. Aunt Tabitha was an example of a girl who had left the county as a bride, for though she had married my Uncle Herbert and gone to live with him in Sussex, she had been born and brought up in Surrey.
I knew that Eric Lake had a relative called Marjorie Harrison but I didn't know of her link to my Aunt Tabitha until the grim business of that year began. There was nothing odd about that, either. Nor was there anything odd in the fact that a man who lived in Sheffield and whose business was buying fur pelts and turning them into cloaks and coverlets and the like should from time to time make the long journey to Penzance in Cornwall. Rare furs from the New World arrived at Penzance regularly. The only real coincidences in the affair were that two women, respectively called Catherine Parker and Alice Devine, chanced to die that spring – and that just then, Aunt Tabitha finally lost patience with Uncle Herbert's increasingly irritable temper.
She wrote to me, asking me to visit her at their Sussex home, Faldene, and I decided to go.
Excerpted from A Deadly Betrothal by Fiona Buckley. Copyright © 2017 Fiona Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Selection of Recent Titles by Fiona Buckley,
Chapter One: Looking Up,
Chapter Two: Interconnectness,
Chapter Three: A Glossy Black Pelt,
Chapter Four: Love in the Air,
Chapter Five: Catastrophe,
Chapter Six: A Marriage of Great Value,
Chapter Seven: The Frightened Queen,
Chapter Eight: Seeing Double,
Chapter Nine: A Wooer and a Will,
Chapter Ten: The Breaking Storm,
Chapter Eleven: The Only Possible Place,
Chapter Twelve: Proposals,
Chapter Thirteen: Streaks On A Wall,
Chapter Fourteen: A Shape Half Seen,
Chapter Fifteen: The Grievous Homecoming,
Chapter Sixteen: Lapis and Silver,
Chapter Seventeen: Royal Fury: Royal Plea,
Chapter Eighteen: Blockage,
Chapter Nineteen: Deceit in High Places,
Chapter Twenty: A Merry and Informal Party,
Chapter Twenty-One: One Careless Word,
Chapter Twenty-Two: Glass and Keg,
Chapter Twenty-Three: Wooden Spoon,
Chapter Twenty-Four: The Queen's Fiat,
Chapter Twenty-Five: The Rage of Spain,
Chapter Twenty-Six: Settles and Swords,
Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Haunted Wood,
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Coveted Gift,