Authors: Fiona Buckley
“Buckley writes a learned historical mystery. Ursula, too, is a smart lass, one whose degrees must include a B.A. (for bedchamber assignations) and an M.S.W. (for mighty spirited wench).”
“Buckley describes vividly the difficulties of people living and competing with each other in Elizabethan England.”
High Praise for Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard Mysteries
A PAWN FOR A QUEEN
“Jam-packed with action, suspense, and court intrigue. . . . Cleverly plotted. . . . Buckley adeptly captures the spirit and the drama of the Elizabethan Age.”
“Ursula continues to tack as skillfully as ever between loyalties to her ruler and her family—a dramatic strength this sixth dose of Elizabethan realpolitik brings into especially sharp focus.”
QUEEN OF AMBITION
“Engrossing. . . . Suspenseful. . . . The challenging plot and winning heroine will satisfy existing historical fans and should attract new ones.”
TO RUIN A QUEEN
“An absorbing page-turner.”
“Buckley’s amusingly modern characters mesh successfully with the well-researched plot, and readers will be wrapped up in the sixteenth-century thrill of pitfalls lurking around every corner.”
“Now is a nice time for Tudor fans to light a flambeau, reach for some sweetmeats, and curl up with
“Quick pacing, a sympathetic and modern heroine, and political intrigue make this sixteenth-century mystery series as complicated and charming as an Elizabethan knot garden.”
The Tampa Tribune
is a fantastic historical fiction novel filled with royal intrigue. Renowned for her characterizations, Fiona Buckley is a creative storyteller who makes the Elizabethan era fun to read about.”
Midwest Book Review
“Satisfying and thought-provoking. Buckley well demonstrates the political and emotional tension between Protestant England and the Catholic states in the early sixteenth century.”
Over My Dead Body! The Mystery Magazine Online
THE DOUBLET AFFAIR
“An intricate tale rich in period detail and vivid characters. Among writers of historical mysteries, Buckley stands out for the attention and skill she brings not only to suspenseful plotting but to the setting that supports it.”
“Buckley’s grasp of period detail and politics, coupled with Ursula’s wit and intelligence, make the story doubly satisfying.”
The Orlando Sentinal
“A delectable novel that is must reading.”
Midwest Book Review
TO SHIELD THE QUEEN
“The debut of Ursula Blanchard, young, widowed lady of the Presence Chamber at Elizabeth I’s court, combines assured storytelling and historical detail. A terrific tale most accessibly told.”
The Poisoned Pen
“A lively debut that’s filled with vivid characters, religious conflict, subplots and power plays. Ursula is the essence of iron cloaked in velvet—a heroine to reckon with.”
“Buckley’s tantalizing re-creation of Elizabethan life and manners is told with intelligence and gentle wit. A noteworthy debut.”
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This book is for my East Anglian family:
Godfrey, Sandra, David, and Judy
It is my wedding day.
I think I have made the right decision. I hope I have. My dear Fran Dale, who has been my devoted (and often harassed and exhausted) tirewoman for so many years, doesn’t think so. Nor does her husband, Roger Brockley, my equally devoted though often critical manservant. They both wish I had chosen someone for whom I could feel deeply, as I did for my previous husbands, Matthew de la Roche and Gerald Blanchard.
As for old Gladys, the most ancient member of my household and certainly the most maddening, she has presented me with a love potion that she said, with a fanged leer, might be a help to my bridegroom, in case of any difficulty, mistress.
But Matthew and Gerald are both in their graves and I have had enough of passion. I will trade it gladly
for a life that is safe and settled. Yes, even now, though this is the month of May, and the air is full of birdsong and blowing blossom. Passion is beautiful but dangerous. There are many other things that I can share with my new partner in life, many tranquil interests that we have in common. I have made my choice and hope to be content with it.
I am dressed, brocade skirts gleaming, my hair brushed to a dark gloss and folded into waves in front of a white cap edged with beads of gold and crystal. I have put on the rope of pearls that is my bridegroom’s gift to me. He awaits me now, and the minstrels are ready to play for us as soon as we emerge from the church, and to escort us back to Withysham House, where the feast is laid.
Am I doing the right thing or the wrong thing?
I once told my friend Rob Henderson that I loved the call of wild geese as they flew. He replied, not altogether approvingly, that I had just said something about my nature. Just as I have said farewell to passion, I must also part with the wild side of my nature, now.
And about time, too. I’m so thankful.
At half past seven on a January morning, the dawn should have been breaking, but the sky was so overcast that to all intents and purposes, it was still dark and I had half a dozen servants standing about with flambeaux so that our little party could see to mount the horses.
Malton, the elderly former steward who had been called out of retirement to look after Withysham while the present steward, Roger Brockley, accompanied me on my journey, held one of the torches and another was in the unsteady grasp of ancient Gladys, who was even older than Malton and shouldn’t be out in this bitter northeasterly but had insisted all the same.
Gladys wasn’t exactly a servant, more a responsibility. She did what she could about the house and was good at doctoring hurts and fevers and also at milking cows, but I didn’t employ her. She had attached herself
to me, and Gladys, bless her acid tongue and good heart, was fond of me.
The chill wind, flowing over the downs of Sussex, carried a threat of snow. The breaths of people and horses alike smoked visibly in the torchlight. Brockley, who was also an experienced groom, had made sure that all the horses had warm saddlecloths, but as I mounted, I could tell by the droop of my gelding’s head that he would rather have stayed in his nice snug stall. I sympathized. I too was well clad but my teeth would have chattered if I’d let them. My tirewoman, Fran Dale, already in her saddle, was less restrained than I was, and her teeth really were chattering, audibly. My nine-year-old daughter, Meg, perched on her sturdy pony, was just a small, hunched shape beneath her stout cloak and felt hat, and her nurse, Bridget, waiting on the pillion of Brockley’s cob, Speckle, was a weird spectacle because she was a fat woman to start with and her defense against the weather consisted of a vast hooded mantle that Bridget had constructed herself using old blankets, because she said that they were thicker than conventional materials. As a result, Speckle looked as though he had a she-bear on his crupper.
I settled myself, gathering up my reins and gazing wistfully back at my house. Withysham Abbey was not modern. My home had no white plaster and black timbering, no tall ornamental chimneys or elegant imitation battlements. It had once been an abbey of nuns, until King Henry the Eighth dissolved the monasteries and sold off their buildings and lands, and even now, Withysham’s quiet gray stone walls, its low, pointed
doorways and slender leaded windows, had an outdated, ecclesiastical air.
But it was homely, too. The candlelight within the flawed medieval panes spoke of comfort indoors. At this moment, I wished with all my heart that I were back in the friendly shelter of those lit rooms. My earlier willingness for this errand had completely evaporated. I shouldn’t be doing this, I thought. I didn’t
to do it. The seventeenth of January, with snow in the wind, was no time to start a journey that would take me at least to Northumberland and might even compel me over the border into Scotland. Besides, I was worried about Meg.
As if she had heard me thinking, Meg edged her pony over to me. “Mother?”
“We’ll be on the move in a moment, darling. I hope you’re warm enough.”
“Yes, thank you. Only, I wanted to ask . . .”
“Yes, sweetheart?” I said, larding my words with endearments because I was so very anxious about her and so reluctant to face the separation that was now only a day away.
“Will it be all right? Will the Hendersons let me stay with them?”
“What makes you think they won’t, darling? They’ve always made you welcome before.”
“I know, but . . . once or twice, I’ve heard you talking to Dale and Brockley . . . I wasn’t listening on purpose. I just heard you.”
“Did you, indeed, little Mistress Bigears?” I said, trying to sound amused.
“Yes. I’m sorry, Mother. But—will it be all right?”
“I hope so!” I said.
Brockley was swinging into his saddle and checking his girth. Dale was muttering dismally that this was terrible, that she never could abide riding long distances and in cold weather like this . . . !
“Let be, Fran,” said Brockley. I still called my tirewoman Dale because that was her name when she entered my service but since then, she and Brockley had married. Strictly speaking, she was Mistress Brockley now, which was often an advantage because Brockley could sometimes check her habit of complaining, which I rarely managed to do.
“We’re on our way now, and that’s that,” Brockley said firmly. “You wouldn’t want to stay behind and neither the mistress nor I would want that, either. Madam?”
“Yes, Brockley,” I said. “We’re on our way.”
And so, calling good-byes to the shivering servants, we started out. As we reached the gates, I glanced back once more and noticed wryly that they had plunged back into the warmth of the house before we had fairly left the premises. The flambeaux were gone. Only the faint glimmer of candlelit windows remained. How long, I wondered, before I would see my home again?
I should never have agreed to this, but it was too late now.
• • •
My family, the Faldenes, had old-fashioned attitudes, and in more ways than one. They clung to the old Catholic religion despite Queen Elizabeth’s legislation against it, and their domestic life was similarly behind
the times. In modern households, it was now customary for the family to dine in private, separately from their servants. At my family home of Faldene House, where I was brought up, everyone dined together and the great hall was still the center of the household, just as it had been in medieval times.
It was also still decorated with the swords and pikes of bygone Faldenes who had fought at Agincourt and Crécy. According to my mother, when she came home in disgrace from the court of King Henry the Eighth, with child by a court gallant whom she would not name—presumably because he was married—her outraged parents and her brother, Herbert, marched her around the hall, pointing at these relics of heroism, and accused her of betraying them. Which was most unfair because many of the family’s bygone heroes had had careers that were as lively off the battlefield as on it, and we had plenty of unofficial relatives in Faldene village and beyond it, too, in the neighboring hamlet of Westwater and in the village attached to my present home of Withysham, five miles away.
I, Ursula Faldene, was the daughter born to my mother after her return home. When my grandparents died, the responsibility for my mother and for me passed to Uncle Herbert and his thin, sour wife, Aunt Tabitha. They discharged it dutifully, I suppose. We weren’t turned out to beg for our bread. That much, I admit.
I was even allowed to share their children’s tutor, and thus I did receive an education, though it was a grudging one. What I did not receive, however, except
from my mother, was kindness. When I was sixteen, she too died, I think worn-out by life in a constant atmosphere of disapproval. I might well have ended my days as unpaid dogsbody to my aunt and accounts clerk to my uncle (who eventually realized that an educated Ursula could be of more use than an illiterate one), except that I caught the eye of Gerald Blanchard, son of a neighbor.
Unfortunately, Gerald was betrothed to my well-dowered cousin Mary, daughter of Uncle Herbert and Aunt Tabitha. I suppose it was natural for our respective families to be enraged when we eloped.
We never regretted it, though. With Gerald, I traveled to Antwerp, where he worked for the queen’s financier, Sir Thomas Gresham, and it was Gerald who gave me my dark-haired daughter, Meg. When he died of smallpox, Meg and I came home to England and an uncertain future, because neither the Faldenes nor the Blanchards were willing to help us. Mercifully, we had other friends, including Gresham, who were more generous. Strings were pulled; arrangements were made. Foster parents were found for Meg, and Ursula Blanchard, impoverished widow, became a Lady of the Queen’s Presence Chamber, and after a time, married again, this time to a Frenchman, Matthew de la Roche.
That was a passionate union but a doomed one, for he was Elizabeth’s enemy, working against her, which too often drove us apart. Now Matthew too was dead, of a summer plague, and I was widowed once more, but by this time I was well provided for. I was the chatelaine of Withysham, dignified and comfortable, with profitable land attached to it. I had expected to
live there, retired from court life and united with my daughter at last, and—well, yes—to enjoy the chagrin of Uncle Herbert and Aunt Tabitha at having their despised and baseborn niece as a well-off, well-respected, and extremely well-dressed neighbor.
What I didn’t expect was to be hunted up by a distracted Aunt Tabitha and dragged, not by coercion but by pleading, back to Faldene and put in the position of one who could be their savior, if only I would let bygones be bygones and agree.
It had happened so quickly. Only twenty-four hours before that dismal dawn start, I had woken to what I thought would be an ordinary day at home. Before midday, I had been confronted in my own parlor by an Aunt Tabitha I hardly recognized, dressed in an old cloak that she must have snatched up without looking at, and with her gray hair escaping from a cap that didn’t even look clean and a desperate expression. Asked what the matter was, she said: “We need your help. Our son . . . your cousin Edward . . . he has gone to Scotland and . . . I think he’s gone to do something . . . something that people might say is wrong . . .”
“To do with Mary Stuart?” I asked sharply. Mary Stuart was Queen Elizabeth’s rival for the throne of England and she was in Scotland. And the Faldenes had conspired on her behalf on a previous occasion.
“Yes. Yes! He’s been before. Your uncle and I have been worried for a long time. I wanted to ask your advice in the summer, before you went off to court, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think I could trust you. Not after what you did to my husband. Only now . . . we’re all frightened. His wife is frightened too and . . . Ursula, you’re the only person now that we
trust. You’re family. We want you to go after him and bring him back and . . . stop him before it’s too late! It would be in the interests of the queen . . . yes, I know we’re Catholics, but we can’t let Edward risk himself like this . . . young people can be so passionate . . . Ursula, please help us!”
I asked her to tell me what she meant. “If it’s in Elizabeth’s interest,” I said, “I will help you if I can.”
be to the queen’s advantage,” said Aunt Tabitha earnestly. “We want Edward to stop what he’s doing—stop completely. Ursula, come back to Faldene with me. Your uncle’s there, and Helene, Edward’s wife. They want to talk to you too. Come
” Aunt Tabitha implored me. “Then I won’t have to explain it all twice.”
An hour later, I was in Faldene House, sitting by the hearth in the great hall. The fire was well made up against the cold and on a nearby table stood glasses and a wine jug, meat pies, and sweet cakes. A hovering servant girl was ready to refill glasses and offer the dishes.
Aunt Tabitha set great store by the social niceties. Her servants were so well trained that they were sometimes attentive to irritation point, and my aunt would always proffer refreshment to a visitor, no matter how odd or harassing the circumstances. When the Faldenes
went in for conspiracy before, Uncle Herbert had been arrested, and according to my kitchenmaids, who had kinfolk in service at Faldene, she had even offered food and drink to the men who came to do the arresting.
My uncle owed that unhappy experience to me. When I was at court, I had done rather more than walk, dance, and ride with Queen Elizabeth, and occasionally, as a privilege, carry her prayer book and hand it to her in chapel. I had also undertaken a number of confidential and sometimes dangerous tasks for her Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil. Withysham had been granted to me in payment for one of those tasks. It was my success in another that had led to Uncle Herbert’s removal, for several months, to the Tower of London.
In other words, I had first stolen his daughter’s betrothed and then sent my uncle himself to jail. It was hardly surprising that he detested me. Nevertheless, it was through the episode of the Tower that he and my aunt had learned of my secret other life. Now I sat sipping their wine and thinking that all this had an ironic side to it. In this hall, I had been shouted at and bullied and even beaten; in this hall I had wept with pain, trembled with fear, and seethed with rage that I dared not express. Now I was the one with the power. Today, they were in such desperation that they wanted to call on my services themselves.
• • •
It was plain enough, of course, that my cousin Edward was in some way breaking the law. That gave me a qualm, but if whatever was required of me really was in Queen Elizabeth’s interests, then surely I could do it,
and keep my family’s counsel as well. For one thing, although in the past I had suffered unkindness at their hands, I had not actually
to send my uncle to the Tower and certainly didn’t wish to do so again. Whatever pain he and my aunt had caused me in my childhood, I had already done them more than enough harm to outweigh it.
Also, like it or not, Aunt Tabitha was right: the Faldenes were family, and as I had never known my father, they were the only family I had. Big, fleshy Herbert Faldene, with his inborn stinginess and his gout, was nevertheless my uncle, my mother’s brother, and his son Edward, Helene’s husband, was still my cousin. Anyway, there were children involved.
When the rest of the family had joined me by the fire, Helene was the first to speak.
“You have come to see us at my mother-in-law’s plea. Does that mean you will help us? I beg you that you will, madame.” Helene had been brought up in France and had retained French mannerisms. Marriage, indeed, hadn’t changed her at all as far as I could see. She was still the same lanky young woman I had first met three years ago, with the same pale complexion, mousy hair, and round shoulders. “I have two little girls,” she said. “If anything befalls Edward, they will be fatherless.” She also retained the high-pitched and self-righteous voice that had always set my teeth on edge.
“It is a dreadful thing for children to be deprived of a father,” said Aunt Tabitha.
“He would be a martyr,” said Helene, “and that is noble—but . . .”
I couldn’t quite resist letting them know that old
hurts still rankled. “You feel that the substance might be better than even the most admirable shadow?” I said caustically. I turned to Aunt Tabitha. “I had no father,” I said. “And my daughter, Meg, lost hers and much you cared.”
“Please, Ursula.” It was extraordinary to hear that tone of appeal in my aunt’s voice.
My uncle was less restrained. “Your mother was always gentle in her manners, I’ll grant her that. You must take after your father—whoever he was,” he said. He leaned toward me as he spoke, his stiff, heavily padded red doublet creasing across his ample stomach. His right foot, sliding forward, bumped into the table leg. He yelped. “Damnable gout! It’s the curse of my life. Despite the fact that we didn’t know who on earth your father was, my wench, we gave you a home and an education. You owe us something. Without a good upbringing, you would not have been acceptable at court. Do you forget that?”
“Herbert, I beg you!” Aunt Tabitha protested, and Helene, taking out a handkerchief, wiped tears from her eyes. Her distress was obviously real, and in spite of myself, I felt sorry for her.
“You are our only hope,” she said tearfully. “Please don’t fail us!”
“I spoke my mind,” I said. “I admit I have a sharp tongue.” My second husband’s nickname for me had been Saltspoon. My saltiness was part of my attraction for him, although from the moment we were wed, he did his best to make me sweeter. Poor Matthew.
I would never hear him call me Saltspoon again.
No use to think of Matthew now. “Tell me the full
story,” I said. “My cousin Edward, I take it, has been dabbling in . . .” I was going to say
but checked myself “. . . in politics.”
“As did your French husband, Matthew de la Roche,” said Uncle Herbert. “In fact, they were in touch, working together.”
The story came out, told by first one and then another. Being Catholic, my family did not regard Queen Elizabeth as the rightful monarch since their Church didn’t acknowledge that her parents, King Henry the Eighth and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, were ever lawfully married. For Catholics, the true queen was Mary Stuart of Scotland, an undoubtedly legitimate descendant of King Henry the Seventh.
“As you well know,” said Uncle Herbert grimly, “I was imprisoned for the crime of helping to gather money for her and collecting information about English households willing to support her claim. Ah, that Tower! The cold! I confess it—when I was freed, I feared to go on with the work, but my son Edward volunteered in my stead and his contact was Matthew de la Roche.”
“I was so proud of him,” said Helene mournfully. “But . . .”
“I knew that Matthew was engaged in dealings of this kind,” I said. “But we never discussed them and I had no idea that he was still in touch with Faldene.”
“As part of his work,” said Uncle Herbert, “your husband compiled a list of households friendly to Mary and sent it to Scotland. Edward was one of his informants, one of many, of course. When the civil war broke out in France, the work virtually came to a halt,
but last year, after the war had ended, Edward went to France.”
“He didn’t go on . . . on political business, not at first,” said Helene. “His purpose, madame, was to sell my property there. We hoped to use the money to buy a house here.”
“Edward, as you know,” said Uncle Herbert, “is not our eldest son. Faldene will eventually go to his elder brother, Francis. Edward and his family are welcome here while we live, but they cannot stay here forever.”
“Edward managed the sale and brought the money home,” said Helene. “But while he was in France, he also called upon your husband, the Seigneur de la Roche.”
“Did he? I had no idea.” I spoke bleakly, thinking with sorrow how much Matthew and I had had to conceal from each other. “I suppose I had come back to England by then,” I added.
Matthew and I had lived together in France for a while, and my visit to England the previous spring should only have been a brief absence from him, to deal with a family matter. But first one thing and then another had intervened to keep me on this side of the Channel, and then the plague had come and taken Matthew’s life.
“I expect so,” said Helene. “It was in May.” I nodded. “Anyway, your husband was pleased to see Edward. Seigneur de la Roche wished to set the work going again and to prepare a new, up-to-date list.”
“The list would certainly have altered during the interruption of the civil war. Some people would have died and others would have changed sides,” said Uncle Herbert.
“Very often,” he added sourly, “those are the ones who are living in what used to be abbeys. They are afraid that if Mary Stuart were to come to power, she would want to restore the stolen buildings to the Church. I daresay you understand, Ursula. After all, Withysham was once an abbey.”
Aunt Tabitha rolled her eyes and I found myself giving her a reassuring smile. “It’s all right,” I said. “I am not going to take offense. Please go on.”
Edward had apparently agreed to communicate with some of Matthew’s sources of information in England. He would write to some and visit others personally. He had been educated in Northumberland and was acquainted with a number of the said sources in that district. He had agreed to visit these himself in order to coax worthwhile offers of support out of them. Having obtained as much information and as many promises as he could, he would send a report to Matthew, who would meanwhile have collected extra details from various other people with whom he was directly in touch. He would complete the updated list and dispatch it to Mary. “For the time being, we put off looking for a house of our own,” said Helene. “Edward had much to do. He had many letters to write and he had to take great care in choosing trustworthy messengers.”
“He dismissed his valet,” said Aunt Tabitha. “He found the man reading his correspondence and suspected that the man was a government spy. A shocking thing. Such a betrayal of trust.”
“There is more than one kind of treachery,” I said, and saw them flinch. “What happened next?” I asked.
“I became frightened, because of the valet,” said
Helene. “It looked as though Edward might be under suspicion . . .”
“To begin with,” said Aunt Tabitha, “Edward didn’t tell us of his meeting with your husband in France. We didn’t at first know that he had begun the work again or realize why he had sent the valet away.” She beckoned to the hovering servant girl. “The wine jug needs refilling. And go and make sure that my guest’s manservant has had proper refreshment.”
“Please, madam, do you wish for any further cakes or pasties?”
“Yes, yes, by all means.” Aunt Tabitha waved the girl impatiently away. “What was I saying? Just after the valet was dismissed, Edward traveled north to see his contacts there in person as he had promised to do. He told
—his parents—that he was simply going to see old acquaintances in Northumberland. But while he was away, we saw that Helene was very anxious over something. She was pregnant at the time and she was so worried that it made her ill.”
“I kept fainting,” said Helene miserably. “And weeping.”
“At length,” said Aunt Tabitha, “we persuaded her to tell us what was wrong and then we learned why he had really gone to Northumberland and also that he intended to visit Scotland as well—and that before he left, he had had reason to think that his valet was spying on him. We agreed with Helene that this must mean that someone somewhere suspected Edward. We were greatly alarmed. That was when we first considered coming to you—except that we were afraid to trust you.”
“I had never been easy in my mind about Edward’s work for Mary Stuart,” said Uncle Herbert. “But he was so eager . . .”
“And I encouraged him,” said Helene, sniffing. “As I said, I was so proud of him. But not after the business with the valet! I tried to dissuade him from going north and I was so thankful when he came safely back. I implored him to take no more risks. He said he wouldn’t. He said that he had learned some very useful facts. He had only to put them together with the reports he had asked for, from other people in different parts of the country, and then he could prepare his final document for Matthew and his task would be done. The other reports had mostly come while he was away, so he was able to get on with that without delay. And then . . .”
I interrupted. “How did Edward communicate with my husband? Or indeed, with his contacts elsewhere in the country?”
“We have reliable servants here,” said Uncle Herbert. “They carry messages within the country. For keeping in touch with Matthew de la Roche, in France, we used Matthew’s own couriers. There were two regular ones. They even kept to their normal schedule throughout the time of the civil war. They traveled back and forth between France and Scotland. One was an itinerant tooth-drawer and the other was a peddler. The tooth-drawer went on foot; the peddler had a mule. They were excellent couriers because they were so ordinary. They were the sort of folk no one ever notices.”
I said nothing but inwardly I sighed. Matthew and I
had disagreed about so much, but I had truly loved him, and curiously, one of the most endearing things about him had been a kind of innocence. Matthew genuinely believed that Mary Stuart ought to be queen of England, and that if she became so she could simply tell the English to return to what he called the true faith, and that would be that. The truth was that Mary would never gain the throne without a vicious and gory civil war, and if she won it, then England would be wide open to emissaries of the Inquisition with all its attendant horrors. I could never make Matthew see it. When I tried to point these things out, it was as though my words just slid off from him, turning away like beggars from a closed front door.
Now, I thought, my uncle and his family were displaying the same streak of innocence. From working with Sir William Cecil, I knew very well that ordinary men making commonplace but frequent journeys were the likeliest bearers of treasonable messages and that they were far from unnoticed. Cecil had a payroll on which literally hundreds of harbormasters, innkeepers, and ships’ captains were listed, and they kept him informed of who traveled on what routes and how often. I had no doubt that the journeys of the tooth-drawer and the peddler had been noted long since. What Helene said as she resumed the story confirmed it.
“I was afraid that Edward would be angry when he knew that I had told his parents what he was about, but when he came home, he just shrugged and said that he had expected them to guess, anyway, since he had used Faldene servants to carry messages back and
forth,” she said. “He made his report—it was in the form of a list of families and what each family had offered—and waited for one or the other of your husband’s couriers to arrive. The peddler usually came back from Scotland in early August and the tooth-drawer perhaps a week or two later. But they didn’t come, and then a messenger brought word of your husband’s death to Withysham, and as a matter of family courtesy, the news was passed to us by your steward, Malton. Edward was upset. He didn’t know what to do. He had no idea who had replaced Matthew de la Roche, if indeed anyone had! But soon after that, another messenger, a stranger from London, came to tell us that the tooth-drawer and the peddler had both been seized on their way south and were in prison in London. And then . . . then . . .”
“Edward became so anxious about his new list,” said Aunt Tabitha. “De la Roche had intended the information eventually for Mary Stuart in Scotland—in Edinburgh—but De la Roche was dead . . .”
“And Edward decided not to worry about the extra items of information that Matthew had collected and to take his own list to Scotland himself,” I said helpfully. “Am I right?”
“The man from London refused to carry it,” said my uncle. “He said it was too dangerous, that the arrest of the other two couriers showed that too much was known. But Edward left yesterday, despite all the pleading of his womenfolk.”
“Father-in-law, you yourself begged him not to go!” said Helene.
I glanced toward the tall windows that looked out
to the front of the house. The sky beyond was iron gray, and the ride from Withysham had been bitter. “Why so much haste? If it’s as cold as this in Sussex, the snow in the north is probably six feet deep.”
“It wasn’t haste, precisely. He didn’t mean to travel
ventre à terre,
” said Helene. “He said that if the weather slowed him down, it couldn’t be helped, but go he would, just the same, simply to be done with it. He promised to take care, and to call on his friends in the north, as before, as though he were just making social visits . . .”
“Such a likely thing to do, in January!” snorted Aunt Tabitha.
“. . . and just make a brief visit across the border, deliver the list, and come back,” Helene finished. “But . . .”
“The valet,” said Aunt Tabitha, “and the two couriers who were arrested, all this has made us sure that Edward is most likely being watched, has perhaps been followed. We did indeed argue against it, but he wouldn’t listen and set off yesterday, as your uncle says. We were up most of last night, fretting and worrying, and in the end, we decided. Someone must go after him, catch him before he crosses the Scottish border if possible—and make him see that it’s too perilous; he must come back and . . .”
“Tear the list up,” I said. “That is my price. On that, I insist. If necessary, I’ll steal the list and tear it up myself. I’ll probably have to. If he won’t listen to you, why should he listen to me?”
“He knows what you did to me in the past, for Queen Elizabeth’s sake. You can threaten him,” said my
uncle candidly. “None of us can because he knows we would never carry the threat out. You, on the other hand, might. You might also be better than any of us at such things as stealing lists. You’re our only chance, anyway. I can’t go. My gout won’t let me. My elder son, Francis, as Edward once did, is gaining experience of the world in an ambassador’s entourage and is in Austria. I can’t even inform him, let alone call on him for help. Your aunt isn’t strong enough and Helene has her children to care for.”
“One barely a year and a half old and little Catherine not yet three months!” said Helene. “If anything happens to Edward now, they won’t even be able to remember their father! Madame, he is not, as I told you, traveling in great haste, and he means to linger a day or two with more than one household in Northumberland. If you tried, we think you might be able to catch him up. Will you try? Will you?”
“It’s your kind of task, isn’t it, Ursula?” my uncle said. “I never thought I’d see the day when I had to ask you to use your curious and frankly, in my opinion, your dubious skills for us . . .”
wailed Aunt Tabitha.
I looked out of the window. The winter dusk was already gathering. I said: “Today is nearly over. But I can leave at first light tomorrow morning.”
I had better reasons for agreeing than they knew. I knew a good deal about the current political situation. A young man called Henry Lord Darnley, a Tudor descendant and a cousin of both Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, was due at any moment to start out for Scotland, ostensibly to see his father, who was visiting the family
estates there, but in reality to present himself to Queen Mary as a potential husband.
He was being allowed to go only because he was a slightly less lethal prospect than a marriage between Mary and some Catholic prince with armies at his command. Even so, a Mary Stuart reinforced by a Tudor-bred consort could be very interested indeed in having up-to-date details of people who might help her to raise an army on English soil. It was my duty to get my hands on that list if I could and destroy it.
And I had another reason for agreeing. I didn’t say yes simply because it was my duty or even because Edward was family (though I did have a glow of satisfaction over my own good-heartedness).
It was the excitement that drew me. I did not have the kind of nature that could be satisfied forever with well-planned dinners and linen rooms full of faultlessly folded sheets interleaved with dried lavender. Plenty of people considered that wrong in a woman—there were times, indeed, when I thought so as well—but it was the way I was made. Queen Elizabeth and Cecil had recognized it and made use of it.
This particular opportunity had come to me in a time of grief and loneliness like a summons back to life. It was like the call of the wild geese in the cold, wide sky, a sound that I loved.
Or so it seemed when I was sitting by the hearth at Faldene. The mood didn’t last through the cold early start next morning. Then, as I rode reluctantly through the gatehouse arch of Withysham, I wondered
at myself. On more than one occasion in the past, I had determined to give up my perilous way of life. Every time I made such a resolution, I seemed to break it five minutes later. A new task, a new set of challenges, would call to me, like the siren voices of the wild geese. It seemed that I would just never learn.
“I can give you money,” said my uncle Herbert. “A hundred and fifty pounds in sovereigns.”
An anguished spasm, which had nothing to do with gout, crossed his face as he spoke. My uncle hated broaching his coffers. His anxiety about Edward must be intense. “A horse could go lame,” he explained. “You might need to buy another. Or you might get into some kind of trouble and . . . need to bribe someone.”
Edward, annoyed at being pursued and alarmed at being threatened, might arrange for me to get into trouble, he meant. We both knew it but neither of us spelled it out.
“I’ll take it and return what I don’t need.” I was thinking rapidly. “I’ll have to make arrangements for Meg,” I said. Aunt Tabitha started to say that Meg could come to Faldene but I looked at her, and she fell silent.
She knew that I would never consign Meg or any other child to her.
“What I do need,” I said, “is all the information you have.
Everything that you can tell me about Edward’s journey and the people he intends to visit in Northumberland and Scotland.”
My cousin, it appeared, had not been indifferent to the risk he was running. His sense of duty had sent him northward but he too had been alarmed by the incident of the valet and the fate of the two couriers. His decision not to travel fast was partly because he wanted to be unobtrusive. For the same reason, he was riding his own horse rather than attempting to hire as he went along.