Late August, 1559
Steam rose from the marrow-bone pie until the old man's sharp beak of a nose wrinkled in delight. John Bexwith sat at the lord's place at the elegant refectory table, one the late Sir George had looted from a monastery at the time of the Dissolution. Sir George had taken two long oaken benches as well and now all three pieces adorned the dais at one end of the great hall at Appleton Manor.
Bexwith was convinced that Sir Robert, Appleton's present master, would neither know nor care what liberties his steward took. Sir Robert hadn't seen fit to visit his ancestral estates since his father's death two years past. In the interim Bexwith had usurped first one, then another of the rights and privileges of ownership. This was his boldest act to date. This day he dined in elevated splendor, with the entirety of the empty hall spread out before him.
He'd ordered a fire built in the open hearth at the center of the cavernous room, but that had been more for show than heat. Nothing warmed Appleton. Thick stone walls defeated even the most sizzling summer day. The chill from the previous winter, and all the winters before that, still permeated the place.
Accustomed to the discomfort, Bexwith did not notice that the peat burned fitfully or that very little of its smoke reached the outlet high in the heavy-timbered roof above. Neither did he see a flash of white at the opposite end of the hall, just where the stairs turned back on themselves to reach the solar above. He was too intent on savoring, eyes closed, the wonderful aroma given off by alternate layers of artichokes, currants, succulent dates and eryngo.
That smell fair made his mouth water, but Bexwith also relished his knowledge that the dried fruits, imported from the Levant by way of Portugal, were both rare and expensive in this part of England. So was the sugar, bought in Manchester in a great ten pound loaf. It had cost eightpence a pound, what with being sent for all the way to London. He'd been told it came originally from the Canary Islands.
"Bring me more ale," he ordered the buxom maidservant who'd just placed his meal in front of him. She did not object when he landed a playful swat on her nicely rounded bottom. "Enough for us both," he added with a leer.
As the wench scurried off to do his bidding, Bexwith returned his attention to the dish before him. He rubbed his gnarled hands together, anticipation lighting his faded blue eyes as he thought of the pleasures to come. Henceforth he could afford to eat meals fit for a lord every day.
He dipped his pewter spoon into the pie, piercing the crust, and frowned when one of the beef bones surfaced. He pushed it aside, probing for morsels more appetizing than edible marrow. If what he'd been told was true, eryngo both restored a man's youth and acted as a potent aphrodisiac.
Leigh Abbey, Kent
Two Weeks Later
Sir Robert Appleton swore under his breath. His fist clenched involuntarily, crumpling the parchment but doing little real damage to the letter he'd just read. With swift, precise movements he smoothed it out again, refolded it, and tucked it into the front of his doublet.
Seeing her husband's action, and sensing his growing agitation, Lady Appleton closed the herbal she'd been annotating and placed it on the writing table. Robert stood by the window, turned so that she could not see his face, but the bright morning sun danced on his hair, adding luster to the thick, dark curls he was so proud of. After a moment, he lifted his head, revealing eyes of a deep brown and an expression that was equally dark and brooding.
Her first inclination was to demand information. That something untoward had happened was obvious. Instead she waited, reining in a natural impatience. There was no need to prompt him. She had only to bide her time and Robert would tell her what was troubling him without being asked. That was but one advantage of his mistaken impression that servants were somehow inferior persons, incapable of carrying on intelligent conversation. When he needed to talk out weighty matters he was perforce obliged to turn to his wife.
A small, smug smile tilted Lady Appleton's lips upward as she waited for her husband to speak. Soon after they'd wed he'd been forced to admit that she was his intellectual equal. That hard-won concession had made her more resigned to the marriage, for many men would have tried to wean her of her addiction to scholarly pursuits.
It was all her father's fault, certes. Once he'd realized that she'd inherited a modicum of his intelligence, he'd given her the same education he'd have lavished on a son. Robert generally appreciated the result. At least he had, on occasion, made use of his wife's quickness of mind.
Lady Appleton readily acknowledged she had inherited three more things from her late father?his uncompromisingly square jaw, an unseemly height for a woman, and a sturdy build that did not lend itself well to the current fashion in farthingales. She sometimes wished that Robert thought her beautiful as well as clever, but all in all she was content.
The silence continued.
Frowning, Lady Appleton studied her husband's closed expression more carefully. Had he been asked to go abroad again? That seemed all too likely. In the ten months since Queen Elizabeth succeeded her half sister Mary to the throne of England, Robert's services had been much in demand.
Her effort to practice patience came to an abrupt end. "To what place do you travel this time?"
Instead of answering, Robert crossed the cozy study to the small, carpet-draped table. He filled a Venetian glass goblet with fine Rhenish from a crystal flagon, but he did not at once begin to drink. In brooding silence he stared at the huge mappa mundi which hung on the paneled wall.
France, Lady Appleton decided. The French king had recently died. Ever since, letters had been arriving at Leigh Abbey with increasing frequency. There had been missives from Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador there, or rather from Walter Pendennis, a courtier Robert had known for years who was now one of Throckmorton's secretaries. There had also been a cryptic note from Queen Elizabeth herself.
As she studied her husband's profile, Lady Appleton's concern grew more intense. He looked tired. He had not had enough time to recover from the rigors of that last mission abroad. Three times in the previous six months he had made the arduous journey to the Continent, sent to Strasbourg and Geneva and Basel to treat with English exiles who'd fled their homeland during Queen Mary's reign. Some he knew from his days in the service of the late duke of Northumberland. Others accepted him as a trustworthy friend of the New Religion because of Lady Appleton. It had been through her efforts that many of them had managed to escape England and the deadly persecution of a Catholic regime.
In negotiating with the radical Protestant faction, Robert provided an invaluable service to their new monarch. Lady Appleton knew how much he looked forward to each new opportunity to prove his worth to the crown. If he was spectacularly successful as an emissary he might hope, within a few years, to be offered a peerage as a reward for his diligent service. He'd misjudged once, assuming Queen Mary would be able to restore Catholicism to England on a permanent basis, but he'd taken pains since to study all the angles of a situation. And to listen to his wife's advice.
Apparently sensing her scrutiny, Robert turned slowly. He took a sip of the wine before he spoke. "I have no plans to leave here immediately, Susanna. In this case my presence elsewhere will serve no useful purpose."
His words confused her. "How can you refuse?" He looked startled, but before he could say more she rushed on. "I cannot imagine Queen Elizabeth will be pleased to hear you've refused a mission in her service. She expects unquestioning obedience from her subjects, now that she is in power at last. Whatever debts she may owe them are as naught compared to her sense of what is her due."
One glance at Robert's face told Susanna her tone of voice had revealed far more of her resentment toward the queen than she'd intended. Annoyed by her own lack of control, she rose from behind her writing desk and moved away from him. She stopped before the hearth. Though she was looking directly at them, she no more saw the marble chimneypiece or the firedogs or the grate than Robert had seen the map at which he'd been gazing a few minutes earlier.
Behind her, his voice sounded faintly amused. "The queen listens to my opinions. That is bitter as gall, is it not?"
Abruptly, Susanna turned away from the fireplace, moving restlessly past a table heavy-laden with leather-bound volumes. She tried to contain her irritation, but failed miserably. When her path took her toward the oak door that led to the rest of the house, she realized that a proper wife would make some excuse to leave, forestalling conflict. After all, it was not a woman's place to question her husband. In spite of that fact, or perhaps because of it, Susanna did not open the door. Instead she made her way back across the study to the window and ensconced herself on the broad wooden bench that stood in front of it.
"Bodykins," she swore, though 'twas but a mild curse, no match for Robert's. "If I must seem a shrew, so be it." Her chin came up defiantly. Her eyes blazed.
Robert sent an indulgent smile in her direction, which annoyed her all over again. She wanted neither his pity nor his disdain.
"My poor, put-upon wife." His voice bordered on the sardonic. "It does chafe you beyond reason that the queen chose to ignore your part in the effort to keep her friends safe during her half sister's reign."
Susanna rested her forehead against the glass and stared out at fields ready to be harvested and orchards ripe with fruit. "Are my thoughts treason, do you suppose?"
"Accept the facts, my dear. It is your sex that argues against her gratitude. Queen Elizabeth considers herself perfectly fit to rule, in spite of the fact that she was born a woman, but she will never acknowledge similar abilities in any other female. If men loyal to her and her religious beliefs found help here during Mary's reign, why then certes I must have been the one who ordered it given."
Susanna did not bother to reply. It was an old bone of contention between them. These days Robert conveniently forgot how furious he had been with her when he'd first learned what she was doing. At the time, he'd been at Mary's court, struggling to appear the epitome of a loyal, Catholic subject.
It had not been such a great effort, she thought resentfully. Like so many others of his generation, he'd been raised a Catholic until King Henry broke with the church at Rome. Although the New Religion and Robert Appleton both had flourished under Henry's son Edward, the moment Mary came to the throne and restored Catholicism and it had been politically expedient to embrace one's Catholic roots and attend mass again, Robert had averred he'd been a secret papist all along.
Younger than her husband, Susanna had been unable to make such a claim and had not wanted to. In her lifetime she had known but one faith and while Queen Mary wore the crown she'd done all she could to aid the men who'd been her father's friends and co-religionists. Every night of the five long years of Mary's reign, Susanna had prayed that Elizabeth would live to succeed her half sister and restore the New Religion.
When Robert realized that she would not be baited he abandoned his verbal sparring for cajoling tones. "Come, Susanna, you know you would dislike life at court and that you have no desire to accompany me when I travel abroad. Nor do you long to be sent thither in my place. Indeed, the shortest journey over water makes you most desperately ill."
"You are unkind to remind me of my weakness." Susanna seized one of the cushions strewn on the window seat beside her, plucking at the red and gold crewelwork that decorated its blue velvet cover. The intricate pattern of small roses was not her own handiwork. Susanna herself was the first to admit that she had only the most rudimentary skill with a needle.
"One of us must remain in England to oversee our holdings here."
Susanna's hands tightened until her fingers left deep impressions in the velvet. That was hardly an adequate reason to be left behind. Leigh Abbey, their principal residence, was completely self-sufficient, thanks to the efficient way she managed it. Very carefully, she set the cushion back in its accustomed place. She understood the importance of the work Robert did abroad, but she could not like his frequent, lengthy absences.
"When do you leave, if not immediately?"
"I do not know, although 'tis certain I will be dispatched soon. To France, as you must already have guessed. Matters are grave in that benighted land. There are some who think I can help right them."
"Why not think of my next absence as an opportunity to pursue the scholarly endeavors you began the last time I was away." Robert made the suggestion in an offhand manner that offended Susanna all over again.
"While you were on that last royal errand," she informed him in lofty tones, "I exhausted our entire supply of reading matter and added Spanish to the languages I already speak."
Their eyes met.
Her lips twitched first.
Laughter followed, full-bodied and cleansing. For all their differences, they had always shared this unexpected sense of humor.
"You now mangle Spanish as badly as you do French?" he asked, still chuckling.
The one ability Susanna had not inherited from her father was his fluency in languages. She could read Latin, Greek, German, and French, but her attempts to communicate aloud in any tongue but her own were haphazard at best.
"Here's a thought," Robert proposed. "You might follow the example of another learned lady of our acquaintance and fill your free hours by translating Latin texts into English and thence into Greek."
Susanna sniffed contemptuously, though she knew he was only teasing her. "In my opinion, the gentlewoman in question has become quite unsettled in her mind as the result of too much study."
Closing the distance between them, Robert rested one hand on his wife's shoulder while he used the other to catch her chin and lift her face toward his own. "Today's letter was not a summons to serve the queen."
"Then what was in it? Whence came it?"
"From Lancashire. John Bexwith, my steward at Appleton Manor, is dead."
Susanna frowned, surprised that this news should have affected him so strongly. "The man was quite elderly," she said hesitantly, "was he not?"
Robert looked surprised that she would know. He'd never taken her north with him to visit his late father's estates. Although she was the one who disbursed monies to pay for the upkeep of Appleton Manor, Susanna had never met John Bexwith. Robert had, however, mentioned the fellow once or twice, referring to him as Old John.
"Your memory is excellent," he told her, absently tucking an unruly lock of dark brown hair back up under her brocaded cap. Then, releasing her, he moved a little apart and drew the letter out of his doublet, perusing the message it contained one last time while Susanna waited, her eyes alight with curiosity. "He was found face down in a marrow-bone pie."
With that incredible statement, Robert placed the letter in his wife's outstretched hand.
Susanna blinked at him. Marrow-bone pie? She was not familiar with the dish. A natural curiosity asserted itself and was quickly repressed. A man had died. This was no time to collect recipes.
"Did his heart fail him?" she asked.
"A logical conclusion."
But other alternatives occurred to Susanna. How could they not when she was presently engaged in the writing of a cautionary herbal, a book designed to warn cooks and housewives what ingredients to avoid? She knew of at least a dozen poisonous herbs that could accidentally find their way into any dish, or be deliberately added with little fear of detection. Any odd taste could be masked by a generous use of spices.
"Do not let your imagination run away with you," Robert warned, just as though she had spoken aloud. In some few ways he knew her well.
"The news of his death troubled you for some reason," she argued. "What else am I to conclude but that you suspect he did not die of natural causes?"
"I am annoyed only. I have too many other matters to concern me to need yet another distraction. It is only your extensive knowledge of poisonous plants that leads you to jump to erroneous conclusions. Read the letter for yourself, Susanna."
She did so, then skimmed its contents again, just as he had in his reluctance to believe what was written there. "I am not the one you should be chiding for too much imagination. What nonsense this is!"
"I agree, and for that very reason I mean to let my man of law deal with the situation."
According to the letter, which had come from that very Manchester lawyer who handled Robert's legal affairs in the north, the serving wench who had found John Bexwith's body was insisting that he had been frightened to death ... by a ghost.
"Country folk are often superstitious," Susanna mused, "but not without reason."
Robert frowned. "I'd hoped you'd dismiss the incident as too absurd to pursue. I should have known better."
As she scanned the missive a third time her interest increased with a force that was almost palpable. "Master Grimshaw writes that the apparition is female and quite young, and that she was seen again by several other servants after John Bexwith's death. Grimshaw also claims he is having difficulty finding anyone willing to replace Bexwith as your steward."
"It will take a bit of time for such rumors to fade, but we pay our servants well. Someone will eventually agree to take the post."
"Perhaps we need to show a more personal interest in your Lancashire holdings," Susanna suggested. "A visit to Appleton now would?"
"You would not care for the place."
"What has that to do with anything? It is only good business to inspect the premises of any property we own. You have not been there since just after your father's death. Two years. That's far too long to neglect your?"
"Grimshaw is perfectly capable of hiring a new steward. There is no necessity for either of us to make a long and very uncomfortable journey north."
"If you were not here at Leigh Abbey to receive your orders from the queen, you might not have to go to France after all."
"An excellent reason not to leave."
"So, you are content to wait on the whim of a?"
"She is the queen of England, Susanna."
"I will go north alone, then."
"There is no need, and if you do not have enough to occupy you here while I am gone, then pay a visit to London. Look for new tapestries. Buy books, if you wish."
She continued to argue, but Robert remained adamant. Clearly, he had no desire to return to the place of his birth, but what Susanna could not understand was why he did not want her to go there, either.