July, 1573. Recently widowed, Ursula Blanchard is living a quiet life on her Surrey estate, caring for her infant son. But her peaceful existence is shattered when Ursula's neighbour Jane Cobbold is found dead in her own flowerbed, stabbed through the heart with a silver dagger - and Ursula's manservant Brockley is arrested for the crime. Determined to prove Brockley's innocence, Ursula seeks help from her old mentor Lord Burghley. But when a second death occurs and the queen's new spymaster, Francis Walsingham, gets involved, once again Ursula is reluctantly drawn into matters of espionage and affairs of state.
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A Traitor's Tears
By Fiona Buckley
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Fiona Buckley
All rights reserved.
It is possible to dislike someone quite heartily, without actually wishing them dead, let alone murdered. When in the July of 1573, a group of ladies walking in a sunny garden came suddenly upon a flowerbed with a corpse lying in the middle of it, the horror was not less because one of the sauntering group had every reason to detest the victim.
I was that one and the sight burned itself into my brain. It was the contrast that added the final edge to the shock; the contrast between the couch of bright gillyflowers on which the poor thing lay, and the hard glitter of the silver dagger hilt that jutted from its heart. The blade had been driven in viciously, all the way to that hilt, and the blood had spread in a wide stain across the cream silk bodice and run down to darken the pretty pink blooms below. I can see it now, and I still recoil from it.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The events of 1573, which caused so much trouble to me and to people I cared for, didn't begin in that garden in July. They began more than a year before, on 2 June 1572, on Tower Hill in London, when Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, met his end.
No one could say he hadn't courted it. He had harboured wild dreams of marrying Mary Stuart, the dethroned former Queen of the Scots, and becoming her consort if ever she regained the Scottish crown or – as she and her many supporters hoped – she managed to snatch the English one from the head of our own Queen Elizabeth. Norfolk had become involved in two successive plots concocted by a Florentine banker called Roberto Ridolfi. He was forgiven the first time. He was Elizabeth's cousin and she had a family feeling for him. But when he became entangled in a second such conspiracy, even Elizabeth's patience ran out, and besides, her advisers, especially her Lord Treasurer Sir William Cecil (by then Lord Burghley) and Francis Walsingham, who was her Ambassador to France but had come back briefly to help with the crisis of this new Ridolfi plot, would not agree to let him live.
She couldn't execute Ridolfi, who was safely abroad, and she refused vehemently to execute Mary Stuart, though Mary had known about the plot. Dethroned or not, Mary was an anointed queen and her person was sacrosanct. But when it came to signing Norfolk's death warrant, Elizabeth had no choice.
She didn't want to witness his death yet she seemed to need to know what happened, to be able to picture it, not for pleasure but, I think, because in some way she wanted to feel she hadn't abandoned her cousin but had tried to be with him at the end, if only in her imagination.
There were others, at court, who could have been witnesses on her behalf, but instead, she chose to call me from my quiet home at Hawkswood in Surrey, to attend the execution and report on it to her. It sounds like a curious choice, but it was not as strange as it may seem. Although it wasn't widely talked about or all that widely known, I was her half-sister. Her father, King Henry VIII, had had a roving eye. Elizabeth trusted me and I had carried out a number of secret assignments for her. But as a result of such an assignment, it was partly due to me that Norfolk's latest attempt at treason was foiled and her feelings about that were mixed, a tangle of gratitude and bitterness. I knew that perfectly well. She knew I would give her an accurate account but perhaps she also wanted me to see for myself exactly what I had done. I think so. I wasn't so very surprised when, at the end of May, her summons to London arrived.
I wasn't so very pleased, either.
'I don't want to go,' I said, standing in the small snug room that had once been a private parlour for me and my dear late husband, Hugh. 'I don't want to see Norfolk die. I can't!'
I then discovered that the three principal members of my household who were with me at the time were unanimously embattled against me.
Roger Brockley, my reliable manservant, who had been my resourceful companion in many times of danger, had a high forehead, lightly strewn with pale gold freckles, a receding hairline and very steady grey-blue eyes. At the moment, he was looking at me as one might look at a small child who was being difficult.
My tirewoman – who was Roger's wife although I still called her Dale as I had done before they married, when she was Fran Dale – had slightly prominent blue eyes and a scatter of pockmarks from a childhood attack of smallpox. The pocks became more noticeable if she was tired or frightened, and they were noticeable now. The idea that I might refuse a request from Elizabeth clearly alarmed her.
Also, I thought, looking at her with compassion, she wanted to agree with Brockley, whatever his opinion might be. They had recently been at odds with each other, and I was the reason. Dale was not a highly intelligent woman, but she had moments of perception and when she had become jealous of the friendship between Roger Brockley and me, it was not quite unjustified. He and I were not, never had been and never would be lovers, but we had come near it once and, more recently, during a time of shared danger, had formed a mental bond which was rare. Dale had sensed it, and that had caused trouble.
The third member of the trio was my gentlewoman Sybil Jester. Sybil had an interesting face, which looked as though it had been slightly compressed between chin and scalp, so that all her features were just a little splayed. The result, though unusual, was quite attractive but when she was worried or displeased, she would frown and then her somewhat elongated eyebrows drew together like a storm cloud. Glancing at her now, I could almost hear the thunder rumble.
I surveyed the three of them in exasperation. I felt outnumbered.
Brockley cleared his throat. 'It isn't wise to ignore the queen's requests, madam. Besides, I think that she has need of you. This will be a bitter business for her.'
'Roger's right, ma'am,' said Dale nervously. 'Saying no to the queen ... it wouldn't be safe!'
Sybil said, 'I agree. But we'll all come with you. We'll soon be home again, and then it will all be over.'
'Oh!' I said exasperatedly. 'If only I could be let alone and allowed to stay here! With my little Harry.'
'If you're away at court for a while,' said Sybil, 'it might help the gossip to die down. I'm tired of it. Last time I went to Guildford – you remember, I went to buy linen from the warehouse there – some other customers came in and one of them must have recognized me, because ... well, I overheard a comment. And it's not the first time things like that have happened. They've happened twice in Woking. I know where it starts from, too.'
'So do I,' I said. 'Jane Cobbold. Well, I knew it would be like this. It will die down on its own, eventually. I just have to see it through. Running away won't help. I want to stay here with Harry.'
I knew I sounded petulant.
Harry was my baby son, born the previous February, a good twelve months after my husband's death and the cause, therefore, of much ill-natured gossip, largely inspired by my conventionally minded acquaintance, Jane Cobbold of Cobbold Hall, near Woking. She was all the more offended because she wasn't allowed to ostracize me. Her husband, Anthony Cobbold, believed in cultivating people who were in high places or had relatives there.
He was proud to be a friend of the county sheriff, Sir Edward Heron; he had lately made friends with one Roland Wyse, who at the moment was working for Lord Burghley; and he also knew that the queen was my sister. He clearly hadn't been able to silence Jane's gossip-mongering, but he had compelled her to maintain social contacts with me – had indeed quarrelled with her on the subject. Their butler was the cousin of my chief cook, John Hawthorn. We had heard all about it.
Jane was not, obviously, mistaken when she went about saying that Harry couldn't be my late husband's son, but her assumption that during a visit to the Continent the previous year I had misbehaved myself as no lady, certainly not a recent widow, ought to do, was wrong. It hadn't been like that at all.
Now, though, her spiteful tongue was a nuisance, even worse than I had expected. It was true that a brief absence due to being invited to Elizabeth's court might do me some good. And could I, really, say no to the queen?
I felt my resistance falter. I couldn't refuse the queen. I would have to go to Tower Hill and watch Norfolk's execution, and that was that.
The door of the parlour opened and our little gathering was increased by one. Gladys Morgan had joined us, uninvited, but that was typical. Gladys was an aged Welshwoman who had attached herself to my household years ago, after we had rescued her from a charge of witchcraft. We had had to do it again since, for Gladys was just the kind to attract that sort of suspicion.
I had long since insisted that she should wash with reasonable regularity, but she detested it and in any case, she seemed to have a body odour whether she washed or not. Her teeth consisted of a few brown fangs, her laugh was a disagreeable cackle and her temper was short. She had a repertoire of blasphemous curses which in days gone by she had regularly hurled at people who annoyed her. She had done that much less since it nearly brought her to the scaffold, but it could still happen occasionally. She was also very skilled with herbal medicines, and nothing irritates a physician more than a woman who concocts more efficient potions than he does. Vicars and doctors had been among her accusers the last time she was arrested for witchcraft.
But Gladys had been part of our lives for a long time and we were used to her ways. That she should walk without knocking into the midst of our discussion neither surprised or annoyed us.
'This is to do with that letter from the court, ain't it?' she said, hobbling across the room and seating herself in a patch of sunlight. She had become very lame that year. 'Saw the seal, I did. From Lord Burghley. He wants you for something, mistress?'
'The queen wants me,' I said. 'To witness Norfolk's death on her behalf.'
'And told Lord Burghley to summon you on her behalf,' said Gladys, and snorted. 'Lord Burghley. Same man as he was when he was just Sir William Cecil. All these fancy titles! Folk don't change their natures. Whenever Cecil wanted you for anything in the past, or the queen either, it always led to trouble. Didn't it, now?'
'Not this time,' I said. 'Why should it? I don't want to go though I'm beginning to think that I'll have to. But it won't be anything worse than unpleasant.'
'You wait and see,' said Gladys ominously.
'No,' I said. 'This time you'll see.'
We were both right, in a way. Trouble did follow, but for once it wasn't because of any ulterior motive on the part of either Cecil or the queen. Quite by accident, they placed me where I would witness the beginning of the disaster, without at that time understanding what I had seen.
Gladys said, 'Don't want me to come along, do you? Don't feel like travelling, these days.'
'I shouldn't think you ever want to see London again,' I said, remembering her narrow escape at Tyburn. 'Very well! I'll do as the queen bids me. I'll take Sybil with me, and Dale and Brockley, of course. But I'll only ask Brockley to come with me to Tower Hill. If you will, Brockley. You've been a soldier.'
'Of course, madam,' said Brockley.
It was several hours' ride from Hawkswood in west Surrey to London, allowing for refreshment breaks at inns, for us and the horses. We set out early. There were five of us: myself, Sybil, Brockley, with Dale – who was no keen horsewoman – on his pillion, and John Ryder, the courier who had carried Lord Burghley's summons to me. He had not heard my protests and near rebellion because at the time, thirsty after his ride, he had been taking a tankard of ale with my steward, Adam Wilder. It was just as well. Ryder, grey-bearded and fatherly, was an old friend but I knew he would have sided with the others. He and Brockley had known each other long ago, when both of them were soldiers. It was bad enough to have Brockley looking at me as though I were a tiresome little girl; I wouldn't have liked to have John Ryder doing the same thing. I had immense respect for him. He had joined us on our last adventure, which had taken us into dangerous Spain. But for him, we might not have got out safely.
Not that he didn't understand what a sad business this execution was. He said as much to me as we journeyed. 'There'll be tears shed for that foolish man Thomas Howard of Norfolk tomorrow. I understand that because his family pleaded for him, he's been given a decent lodging in the Tower; he's not in a dungeon. There hasn't been an execution on Tower Hill for so long that the old scaffold wasn't fit for use when they went to make it ready, and it had to be rebuilt. It's a shame it's for Thomas Howard. He's been more silly than wicked, in my view.'
The queen was at Whitehall. I had seen all the queen's palaces in my thirty-eight years and Whitehall wasn't my favourite; it was too confusing. It was not so much a coherent building as a small-scale town, with numerous separate or nearly separate buildings, amid a maze of courtyards and little enclosed gardens. However, we were expected. Ryder was passed straight in to announce our arrival and we only had a short wait before one of the senior officials known as White Staves, with the white stick that was his badge of office under his arm, appeared to greet us, followed by three menservants and two grooms. Our horses were led away except for Ryder's. He belonged to Cecil's household and intended to return there for the night, since it wasn't far away.
Brockley, whose past career included being a groom as well as a soldier, would normally have gone to see for himself that our horses were properly cared for, but at court, he knew he need not worry. He came with Dale and me as we followed the White Stave to our own quarters.
Our lodging turned out to be three rooms at the top of a building that I remembered from the past as guest accommodation. They were comfortable if small, and there were attendants to bring us hot washing water and towels. Supper would be in three hours' time, we learned, and would be taken in the main dining hall across an open courtyard. At Whitehall, guests sometimes had to brave bad weather if they wanted to eat.
At dinner, the Brockleys were directed to a lower place but Sybil and I were together close to the top table. My position at court was never closely defined, even though court protocol was always stiff and over the years had grown stiffer. I had once been a Lady of the Bedchamber but was not so any longer; I was the queen's half-sister but not openly acknowledged; I had also at times been an espionage agent for her, but few people were supposed to know that. I had no claim to a place at the top table; nor could I be thrust down towards the salt, let alone below it. Every time I came to court, whoever planned the seating must have to worry over where, exactly, to put me. It amused me.
The queen was absent, presumably taking supper in private. Looking towards a table parallel with the one where Sybil and I were placed, I saw, in an equivalent position to ourselves, someone I knew. It was Anthony Cobbold's friend Roland Wyse, who was now one of Cecil's assistants, though I didn't know why, since he had originally been attached to Francis Walsingham. It puzzled me that he was not in France, where Walsingham now was.
I knew Wyse fairly well, since we had met last year during the process of unravelling the plot which tomorrow would bring Norfolk to the block. He had errands in Surrey sometimes and he usually seized the chance of calling both on Anthony Cobbold and myself. I rather wished he wouldn't for he was much given to boastful accounts of life at court, and would talk at length about his ambitions and his hopes for future advancement, and I found this tedious.
He was capable of charity; I had seen him giving alms to somebody in need which was a point in his favour, yet I could not like him and neither could Brockley. Wyse had sandy hair and a snub-nosed face that at first sight looked boyish, until you noticed his pugnacious jawline and the coldness of his stone-coloured eyes. Brockley had once said that Wyse looked like an assassin. He noticed me and bowed in my direction. I bowed back.
Seated at the top table were a number of dignitaries, and among them, to my surprise, was Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who I knew usually took meals in his own apartments. He was a man for rich and colourful clothing but today, though his velvet doublet was rich enough, if rather too hot for a June evening, it was dark blue.
I realized suddenly how muted was the atmosphere in the dining hall. It was usually lively with talk and very often musicians would play while the diners ate, but not this evening. Voices were quiet and not only Leicester had chosen a sombre outfit. I myself had instinctively chosen a dark brown dress, lightened only by a cream kirtle, while Sybil was in black and white. The impending execution was affecting everyone, I thought, and perhaps Dudley was here because in such circumstances, people draw together.
I could understand it. Norfolk was in his prime, and he had been popular. He had been married three times, though none of his wives were long-lived. His marriages had brought him three sons and two daughters, and three stepdaughters to whom I knew he had been a conscientious guardian. His third wife had died five years ago and it was after that that his romantic fantasies about Mary Stuart had begun. John Ryder had been right, I thought, to call him foolish rather than wicked.
Excerpted from A Traitor's Tears by Fiona Buckley. Copyright © 2013 Fiona Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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Table of Contents
The Ursula Blanchard Mysteries from Fiona Buckley,
Chapter One: Tower Hill,
Chapter Two: Gifts from a Queen,
Chapter Three: Spiteful Tongues,
Chapter Four: The Season of Abundance,
Chapter Five: Summons to Court,
Chapter Six: A Name for a Dead Stranger,
Chapter Seven: The Elusive Beginning,
Chapter Eight: The Faint Spoor,
Chapter Nine: Kenninghall,
Chapter Ten: The Last Hope,
Chapter Eleven: Unwanted Opportunity,
Chapter Twelve: Terror by Night,
Chapter Thirteen: The Missing Piece,
Chapter Fourteen: The Nature of Cats,
Chapter Fifteen: Encounter in a Second-rate Inn,
Chapter Sixteen: Wild and Impossible,
Chapter Seventeen: A Trap for a Dangerous Mouse,
Chapter Eighteen: Beyond Reason,
Chapter Nineteen: A Trace of Fragrance,
Chapter Twenty: Untimely Sunset,
Chapter Twenty-One: The Living Tool,
Chapter Twenty-Two: Queen of the Hive,