March 26, 1575
Three shadows slipped silently past a small outbuilding and dashed across the open space separating it from New Hall. For an instant each was silhouetted against a moonlit sky before being absorbed by the greater darkness in the lee of the earl of Shrewsbury's fortified tower. It rose, brooding, above the marshy dale, square, solid, and forbidding.
"If anyone saw us, they will think us spirits of the night. No one will dare venture close enough to notice what we are about." Rosamond Appleton forced a note of confidence into her voice, determined to keep the others in line.
Physically, she could not compel them. Although she had her father's look about her--tall and slender, with dark brown hair, a narrow face, and a high forehead--and had inherited his ability to coax and cajole, Rosamond lacked both the muscle and the training at arms to force anyone to follow her into danger. Her only weapon was self-assurance, what her detractors criticized as an exaggerated sense of her own importance.
Although Rosamond was the instigator of all their acts of rebellion, she was the youngest of the three, only a few months past her twelfth birthday. At first her friends had been scandalized by her suggestion, but she'd overcome their objections, ignored their common-sense warnings, and convinced them, by virtue of forceful personality alone, to come with her.
"Are you certain no one is within?" Godlina Walkenden, the braver of Rosamond's two companions, sounded as if she were about to bolt. She glanced nervously at the upper levels of the stone tower. "The warden of the baths lives here all the year round, even when there are no visitors."
"Master Greves has gone to visit his family. You heard Sir Richard say he will not return until after Easter. No one else will venture out to catch us, not at the full of the moon." It hung low in the sky to the southeast, providing sufficient light to guide their steps without need for a lantern. Superstitious folk, of whom there were many hereabout, held it the time of the month when wickedness stirred abroad and good Christian souls should remain close to their hearths.
In spite of her bold words, Rosamond signaled for silence as they inched their way along a windowless outer wall. She trailed one gloved hand along the ashlar to orient herself, glancing up every few feet to determine if the windows of the tower were still overhead. The ground level contained household offices, but on the two floors above were sufficient lodging chambers to accommodate as many as thirty of the earl of Shrewsbury's invited guests.
After what seemed an endless distance at their cautious pace, Rosamond found the turning and a few moments later felt the difference as stone became brick. A nasal whine had followed her around the corner. "You said there was a way in." Dionysia Tallboys sniffled and swiped at her nose with a white handkerchief.
"It is here." Rosamond's searching fingers found a jagged break where the mortar had given way, tumbling several courses of bricks inward. The earthquake that had shaken all the Midlands just a month earlier had left a hole in the wall large enough for the three of them to scramble through. Thomas Greves was not so dedicated a servant that he'd rushed to make repairs. Buxton was the highest, coldest village in all of England. Like any sensible person, he'd left unnecessary outdoor work until the weather warmed.
In spite of bulky skirts, two lithe young bodies and Godlina, who was inclined to plumpness, squirmed through the opening and regained their footing amid the rubble on the other side. Dionysia gasped. Godlina giggled. Rosamond grinned.
"The First Chief Bath," she whispered in triumph.
They were in a walled courtyard that measured, at a guess, ten yards long and six wide. A rectangular pool took up most of the space, the largest of the thermal baths for which Buxton was famous.
"I cannot see what's in there," Diony complained, moving close enough to stare into the depths.
"Do you expect sea monsters?" Although the bathhouse had no roof, moonlight did little to reveal what might be hidden beneath the water.
A shiver of anticipation ran through Rosamond as she produced a small tinderbox from the pocket of her cloak and struck steel against flint to make a spark. From the tinder she ignited a brimstone match and used that to light the three candles she'd brought with her. The entire process took a nerve-wracking few minutes, and in the end the lights did little to add to the illumination. Shadowy corners lurked at every side.
Mysterious sounds issued from the western end of the bath itself. Although she could not see it, Rosamond knew there was a reservoir there, an ancient basin of gritstone. Water issued from the rock through a fissure more than a foot wide to be conveyed through lead pipes to other cisterns under the floors.
Curious about the area around the pool, Rosamond plucked up one of the candles to examine the small rooms opening off one side. Although they were empty now, she supposed they must be used for robing or storage. Opposite that series of doors stood a gigantic hearth. Fires were necessary, even in high summer, to offset the cold air of Buxton.
When Rosamond's circuit of the perimeter was complete, she returned to the pool and held the candle over the water. It had a faint blue cast but was passing clear. She could see what looked like paving tiles on the bottom of the bath, and benches had been built all around its sides. Submerged up to their necks, those who thought such treatment could cure them sat there in the thermal waters to let the healing power of underground springs work its magic. Rosamond had no difficulty imagining her mother sitting just so, her misshapen legs buoyed up by the warm water.
Eleanor, Lady Pendennis, had visited Buxton the previous summer. She had not been cured but she had succeeded in another area. She'd met important people. One who lived locally, Lady Bridget, wife of Sir Richard Hawley, had agreed to take Rosamond into her household.
Ignoring a faintly unpleasant mineral smell, Rosamond released the clasp that held her dark green wool cloak in place and let it fall to the stone floor. Then she undid the points holding skirt and bodice together, and removing both, tossed them carelessly away.
With less abandon, the other girls followed her example.
"A pity we could not bring Faith," Lina said as she and Diony helped each other undo ties and laces. At Bawkenstanes Manor the tiring maid they all shared assisted them with dressing and undressing.
"You know why we left her behind." Rosamond shivered as she discarded the last of her clothing but she counted the chill in the air small cost for an adventure of this magnitude. "If Faith knew our plans, she'd tattle." Her first loyalty was to Lady Bridget, who had hired her, her second to Lady Bridget's husband. The girls in her care placed a poor third.
"We should not be here," Diony whined. "It is not meet."
"Even an apprentice bound for seven years to the strictest of masters is entitled to slip away from his dull duties a time or two," Rosamond argued. "Boys in London frequent the brothels, or so I've been told. A visit to Buxton's healing waters, fed by the same springs that bubble up into the holy well of Saint Anne, cannot be half so wicked as that!"
On the heels of this defiant statement she strode, naked, to the very edge of the bath. Ahead of her stretched an expanse more than three times her own height and almost as wide as it was long. Rosamond knew her friends depended upon her to lead the way. Taking a deep breath and using two fingers to pinch her nostrils together, she jumped into the water with a loud and gratifying splash.
Her knees bent on landing and she submerged for a moment, but as soon as she surfaced again she realized the depth was not at all alarming. Besides, unlike most girls, Rosamond had been taught how to swim.
Lina peered down at her. "Is it truly the temperature of hot honeyed milk?"
"Come in and see for yourself." Rosamond flicked wet hands in Lina's direction and missed dousing her only by inches.
Giggling and hugging herself to keep warm, Lina ventured closer. After a moment, when she gathered enough courage to insert a toe in the pool, Rosamond seized her by one plump ankle and tugged. Lina tumbled into the water, sending up a large wave.
With a squeal, Dionysia retreated, all angles and gangly limbs, but she was back at the edge a few seconds later, in time to see her friend's dark head pop up. Lina sputtered only a little before she began to giggle again. "There are bubbles, Diony, and it is lovely and warm."
Frowning, moving with the awkward lack of grace of one as yet unaccustomed to newly acquired height, Dionysia closed her eyes and ran toward the pool. She tripped just as she reached the edge and fell forward with a shriek, landing on her belly and producing a geyser. Flailing wildly, she sent spray straight into Rosamond's face.
"You did that apurpose!"
"I did not!" Finding her feet, Diony scraped a pale lock of hair out of her eyes and glared.
Rosamond scooped up a handful of the tepid water and threw it, scoring a direct hit. "Did, too!"
A lively and protracted battle ensued until, exhausted by their frolic, Rosamond flopped onto her back to stare at the rectangle of moonlit sky above. The others followed suit and stillness descended.
The lukewarm, bubbly water felt strangely soothing on Rosamond's bare skin. Far off, she heard the gentle rush of the spring that fed the pool. Closer at hand the only sounds were water lapping against the sides of the bath and quiet breathing. She floated, lost in a dreamlike trance, until the peaceful interlude was abruptly shattered by a shrill feminine voice.
"This will not do. Allons, demoiselles! Ne restez pas dans la fontaine."
Startled, Rosamond tried to right herself but only succeeded in submerging. Nearby, Lina was in similar difficulty, but she sloshed about, gasping and swallowing copious amounts of tepid water until she was hauled upright by Diony. Once she regained her own footing, Rosamond spared them only a glance, enough to see that, mortified, Lina stood with head down, hiding behind the dripping mass of her hair. Wet, it was the color of ebony. Dry, it more closely resembled mud. Where she grasped Lina's arm, Diony's bony hand trembled.
Reassured that both would survive, Rosamond turned her attention to their discoverer. Madame Poitier, one of Lady Bridget's waiting gentlewomen, stood at the edge of the bath. Backlit by the candles, swathed all in black, as befit a widowed refugee who'd fled the wars of religion in her homeland, Louise Poitier's face was set in an implacable expression. One foot tapped impatiently on the stone flooring and her arms were folded across her chest. In this mood she seemed a formidable figure, but Rosamond hoped it was only a trick of the light. The tallow candles she'd brought were so old that they sputtered like rushdips, casting deceptive shadows and adding a sense of menace to everything about their surroundings.
Rosamond took her time wading to the edge of the pool. The other two girls had already scrambled out of the water and gathered up their discarded garments by the time she reached it. Since none of them had thought to bring towels, Diony used her chemise to dry herself before she put on any clothing. Lina, more anxious to cover her nakedness, simply pulled her undergarment over her wet and shivering body.
The night air felt harsh as well as cold, especially after the soothing warmth of the healing waters, but Rosamond refused to be hurried. Her movements slow, she dressed herself. All the while, her mind raced. She knew why she and her friends were here, but what had drawn Madame Poitier? When she dared meet Madame's eyes, the anxiety she saw there only confused her further.
"Return at once to Bawkenstanes Manor and contemplate your transgressions," the Frenchwoman said. "Say nothing of this to anyone. On the morrow, after church, you will come to me to work on your embroidery and we will speak further of your sins and how you may be absolved of them."
Lina and Diony bolted, glad of the reprieve. Rosamond hung back. "Do you mean to tell Lady Bridget you found us here?"
"Run along home, jeune fille," Madame Poitier answered, her smile enigmatic. "If you obey me now, this will remain our petit secret."