Murders and Other Confusions [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Kathy Lynn Emerson
eBook Category: Mystery/Crime/Historical Fiction
eBook Description: The Chronicles of Susanna, Lady Appleton, of the Face Down mystery series. Susanna, 16th century gentlewoman, herbalist and sleuth, solves mysteries and puzzles that baffle her contemporaries. These eleven stories conclude the Face Down series. Historical mystery short stories by Kathy Lynn Emerson; originally published by Crippen and Landru
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, Published: 2004
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2011
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Much Ado About Murder
"The vii day of March began the blazing [star] at night and it did shoot out fire."
Diary of Henry Machyn, 1555/6
An ominous portent first appeared in the sky over England on the same evening Robert Appleton brought Lord Benedick and his wife to Leigh Abbey. It was a blazing star with a long tail. Half the size of the moon, it much resembled a gigantic torch burning fitfully in the wind.
"A sure sign of disaster," muttered a maidservant, casting her baleful glance at the comet high above. She sent an equally suspicious look toward the new arrivals dismounting by rushlight in the inner courtyard.
Ignoring her tiring maid's comment, Susanna Appleton wrapped a wool cloak more closely around herself and went forward to greet her husband and his guests. Jennet could find evil omens and harbingers of impending doom in the twisted branches of a bush or the discolored grass beneath a mushroom. She relished dire predictions, though she always professed herself well-pleased when they came to naught. No doubt she imagined her own warnings had somehow prevented catastrophe.
The visitors were a richly-dressed young couple traveling with two elderly servants. As Susanna watched, the husband lifted his wife out of her saddle and set her gently on her feet on the icy cobbles. He lifted her gloved hand to his lips, then held it tight as he slipped the other arm around her waist to steady her. He was rewarded with a smile of such radiance that Susanna felt a twinge of envy. True devotion between spouses was rare and it was sadly lacking in her own marriage. Robert would always love wealth and position more than he cared for any woman.
"Lord Benedick comes to England from Padua," Robert said after he'd presented Susanna to that nobleman. "Padua is part of the powerful Venetian Republic, where he is held in great regard. And his wife here is niece to the governor of Messina."
Titles impressed Robert more than they did Susanna, but she was as well informed as he on the subject of various political alliances. He did not need to tell her that Messina was part of Sicily, or that Sicily was under Spanish rule. So, some would say, was their own land, ever since Queen Mary's marriage to King Philip.
Robert's reason for inviting Lord Benedick to visit his home was just as clear--he hoped a friendship with this well-connected young sprig of the nobility would ease him back into favor at court. He'd made the mistake of backing the Lady Jane Grey's attempt to take Mary Tudor's throne away from her and had spent several uncomfortable months in prison before being pardoned and released.
Susanna had also supported Queen Jane. Now her loyalty was to the Lady Elizabeth, Queen Mary's half sister, although it was not wise to say so. These visitors, she decided, must be looked upon as the enemy, a danger to certain clandestine activities practiced at Leigh Abbey during Robert's frequent absences.
Forcing a smile, Susanna gestured toward the passage that led to the great hall. "If you will come this way, Lady--"
Impulsively, Lord Benedick's wife took both Susanna's hands in hers. She spoke charmingly accented English. "Let us be comfortable together, Beatrice and Susanna. What need we with formality when we are destined to be great friends?"
Beatrice laughed. "'Tis written in the sky." She gestured toward the comet. "Under another such dancing star was I born. How can any doubt this new one is a sign of good things to come?"
With great ease, Susanna thought.
As she led the way into the house, she realized that Beatrice's "dancing star" must have been the one that streaked across English skies in 1533. Susanna had not been born until the following year, but she had heard the stories as a child. That particular portent, it was said, foretold the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon. To those of Susanna's religious upbringing, putting aside both Queen Catherine and the Church of Rome had been cause for rejoicing. Catholics viewed the matter in a different light.
The divorce of her parents had been one of the first things Queen Mary set aside when she came to the throne. Now it was her sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, who was accounted a bastard. And those who would not renounce the New Religion and return to the Roman Catholic fold faced arrest, even martyrdom, on charges of heresy. The plight of many of Susanna's late father's friends had driven her to devise a way to help them escape persecution.
When wine and cheese and dried fruit had been served, Robert spoke. "We have been granted permission to hunt in the royal deer park on the morrow," he announced. "We will retire early to be up betimes."
Seated before the fire in the great hall, Susanna shifted to allow the warmth to reach more of her. Because Robert wished to impress their guests, he kept them in the largest and draftiest of the rooms instead of retiring to one of the smaller, warmer chambers. While beads of perspiration formed on her forehead from the heat, her back felt cold as a dead man's hand.
"Do you go with them, Beatrice?" she asked.
"I take no pleasure in killing." Beatrice sipped from a glass goblet containing a Gascon wine.
"She prefers slow torture," Lord Benedick commented, sotto voce.
Ignoring him, Beatrice remarked upon the color of the claret. "Bright as a ruby, as it should be."
Susanna could not resist. "I am told that if a claret wine has lost its color, one may take a pennyworth of damsons, or else black bullaces, and stew them with some red wine of the deepest color and make thereof a pound or more or syrup, which when put into a hogshead of claret wine, does restore it to its original shade."
One foot resting on the back of a firedog, Robert stirred the fire with a poker. "The study of herbs," he confided to Lord Benedick, his manner implying a shared masculine indulgence of female weakness, "is my wife's little hobby."
"A very proper occupation." Lord Benedick lounged on a bench with a low back, his legs stretched out in front of him with the ankles crossed. He lifted his goblet in a toast to both women. "Mine delights in devising new uses for holy thistle."
"A universal remedy," Beatrice said with a smug smile. The twinkle in her eyes and the quick exchange of glances with her husband alerted Susanna to the play on words.
"Carduus benedictus," she murmured.
Belatedly catching on, Robert laughed.
Jennet hovered close by, ears stretched to catch every word, but she did not understand the pun. Beatrice's companion, an old woman named Ursula, also seemed oblivious, or else she'd heard the joke too many times before to find it amusing. She sat near the hearth, placid as a grazing cow, her gnarled hands busy with a piece of needlework.
"If you have an interest in herbs other than the one that shares its name with Lord Benedick," Robert said to Beatrice, "you must ask my wife to show you her new storeroom."
Concealed by her skirts, Susanna's hands clenched into fists. Trust Robert to focus attention on the one thing she wished to hide. "I fear it is most noisome," she protested. "I have been conducting experiments to determine which herbs are most effective for killing fleas and other vermin." She'd intended the pungent smell keep Robert at bay. Now she must hope the odor was also strong enough to deter curious visitors.
"Poison would never be my wife's weapon of choice," Benedick remarked. "No more than the bow. She prefers a blade."
"He means I speak poniards and every word stabs." Beatrice gave her husband a playful swat on the shoulder.
This couple bandied words like tennis balls, Susanna thought, and yet each one was served with affection. She glanced at Robert, then away.
Benedick grinned at his wife before returning his attention to his host. "I cherish the hope that this visit will allow me to gain some small understanding of English women, for I do find my wife a most puzzling creature."
"Your wife, sir?"
"Did you not know? Beatrice was born in England."
"My mother," she explained, "was Spanish. She came to these shores in the entourage of Queen Catherine of Aragon. But she married an Englishman."
"Have you family here, then?" Susanna asked.
"Alas, no. When both my parents died, Ursula there was obliged to take me back to Spain to be raised by my mother's sister."
Hearing her name, the old woman glanced their way. She sent a fond smile winging toward her former charge, then took up her embroidery once more.
The conversation turned to the delights of travel in Spain and Italy. To Susanna's relief, there was no further mention of the new storeroom she'd caused to be built in an isolated spot beyond her stillroom and herb garden.
Before dawn the next day, Susanna rose to watch the hunting party depart, then made her way to what she privately called "the mint room." It was well, she thought, that the three "heretics" she'd had hidden at Leigh Abbey a few days earlier had left before Robert and his guests arrived. And a great pity that another had turned up right on their heels.
She glanced over her shoulder as she turned the key in the lock. No one was in sight and the sun had yet to burn off a concealing early morning mist. With luck, she could spirit the fellow away before Beatrice or her servant rose from their beds.
About the members of her own household she had no concerns. None would betray her. They had been loyal to her father in his time and they were loyal now to her. Further, they regarded Robert as an interloper and doubtless always would. He'd gained legal control of Leigh Abbey only because he'd married her.
The near overwhelming scent of mint rolled out of the storehouse the moment Susanna opened the door. Inside the small, brick-lined, stone building were great bales of garden mint, watermint, and pennyroyal. Taking a deep breath of fresh air first, Susanna plunged inside, skirting the bales to reach another door, this one concealed by a panel in the back wall.
She did not see the body until she tripped over it.
Susanna knelt beside a man sprawled face up on the floor, an expression of agony on his face. She knew even before she touched him that she was far too late to render aid.
As her fingers found a lump on the back of his skull, her own head began to swim. Startled by her find, she'd forgotten to hold her breath.
Was this how he'd died? In fear of suffocation, his heart failing under the strain of trying to take in untainted air?
Eyes streaming, coughing fit to choke, she fled the storeroom. In the yard, doubled over, she inhaled in great gulps, all the while fighting for control of a roiling stomach. When someone took her hand to guide her to a nearby bench, she let herself be led. She assumed Jennet had come to her rescue, but it was Beatrice's voice that spoke, in calm, well-modulated tones.
"I have heard the odor of pennyroyal attracts fleas, then smothers them, but I'd not have thought it would work so well on a man. Was he your particular enemy?"
Susanna stared at the other woman in shock and horror. "I did not kill him!"
"He is dead." Beatrice looked distraught, as who would not, having come upon such a scene.
"A tragic accident."
"Yes," Beatrice murmured. But she did not sound convinced.
What else could it have been? Susanna buried her face in her hands, although she had no intention of giving way to tears. For just a moment, she needed to hide from Beatrice's too-perceptive gaze.
The odor in the mint room had been well nigh overpowering. If he'd dropped the key she'd given him, then panicked as he tried to find it and could not, confusion and the struggle to breathe could have caused him to stumble and fall, striking his head. On what? She had no notion, but she'd felt the lump. The blow alone might have killed him. Or, as she'd first thought, he could have had a weak heart and been snuffed out by sheer terror. She was certain of only one thing. The pennyroyal alone was not to blame. As Beatrice had implied, a man was a great deal bigger than a flea.
"Inconvenient, no matter how he died," Beatrice remarked. "If he is found here and can be identified as a heretic, his presence will endanger your efforts on behalf of the Marian exiles."
Startled, Susanna sat bolt upright. She felt a chill that had naught to do with the cold, damp morning. "What do you know of the work we do here?"
The calm, composed countenance above a sable-trimmed cloak of red velvet inspired confidence, as did Beatrice's words. "Benedick and I have many friends in the English community at Padua."
Susanna's head pounded, an after-effect of her coughing fit. She found it difficult to order her thoughts. Did she mean Benedick had befriended men driven into exile by Queen Mary's religious policies? Or that he was acquainted with Englishmen already there before Mary took the throne? The University of Padua had long drawn students from England, in particular those with an interest in medicine, but not all of them were followers of the New Religion.
"I see I must be blunt with you." Beatrice glanced around to make sure they were unobserved. "Some of the most recent arrivals reached Padua only because of your efforts on their behalf." She named three men Susanna had hidden at Leigh Abbey on their way out of England. "What you do here is of vital importance, Susanna. Benedick and I may not share your faith, but we approve of saving lives."
"Robert would not, if he knew." The bitter words slipped out before she could censor them.
"I am glad to hear that you have kept your ambitious husband in the dark."
"He is a loyal subject!" She stood up too fast, making her head spin.
"Aye, so loyal and so bent on advancement under your present monarch that he might be tempted to betray his own wife. There would be a risk. He might be blamed for your folly. But if you alone were found guilty, he would benefit from your downfall."
That Beatrice spoke the truth did not make her observations any more palatable, but her words also reminded Susanna that she had a more pressing problem. "I dare not call in the coroner. He would ask too many questions."
"Then we must remove the body from the premises at once," Beatrice said, "before anyone else comes along and sees it. Have you a barrel or a buck tub to hide him in while we transport him?" She glanced toward the dark interior of the storeroom, as if considering the dead man's size. "Or mayhap an empty wine butt?"
Susanna rejected Beatrice's more colorful suggestions in favor of a plain blanket to wrap him in. "There is one in the stable," she said. After closing and locking the storeroom door, she led the way there. "He rode in on an old bay mare. We can use her to carry him away again."
"Is there a river or stream nearby?" Beatrice asked. "If we leave him in the water, it will appear that he was thrown when he attempted to ford it and drowned after hitting his head on a rock."
"And the rushing water will wash away the smell of the mint." Susanna had to admire Beatrice's quick thinking. In spite of a tendency toward the over-dramatic, she had a practical bent.
"But what was he doing in your storeroom? Why did he come out of hiding?"
Susanna covered her hesitation by fumbling with the stable door. Beatrice appeared to be an ally. She knew Susanna smuggled heretics out of England and that one of them was dead. But she might not realize that the storeroom had a secret inner chamber concealed behind its back wall. She had no need to know of its existence, Susanna decided.
"You must have told him to remain out of sight," Beatrice persisted.
"When do men ever do what they are told?" Susanna felt a wry smile twist her lips when she heard the asperity in her own voice. "Had it been Robert, he'd have risked venturing out at night to make sure his horse had been cared for." He doted on Vanguard. "That, I think, is the most logical reason for the stranger to have been wandering about in the dark."
"Why go into your storeroom?"
"Do you know his name?" Beatrice fired questions in a barrage and Susanna volleyed answers back.
"I never ask for names."
The system had been devised with the help of Sir Anthony Cooke, a dear friend of her father's. He was himself in exile now, but one of his daughters had remained behind to maintain a station along an escape route for fellow "heretics" similar to the one at Leigh Abbey.
"Saddle the bay and two other horses," Susanna instructed Mark, one of the grooms. When he hurried off to do her bidding, she turned to her companion. "You must not involve yourself in this, Beatrice."
"You cannot manage the body alone."
"Mark will assist me. All else aside, you are scarce dressed for the task. And you can better serve me by staying here. It will help allay suspicion. You can pretend to be closeted with me in my study while I am gone."
Common sense warred with an overabundance of zeal, but in the end Beatrice agreed to Susanna's suggestion.
"Does he appear to have struck his head on a rock?" Susanna asked. Although the brook flowed fast and deep with spring run-off, a strong man in good condition, such as this one had been, might have been able to pull himself out if he had not been knocked unconscious.
Even with her stalwart young groom's assistance, it had been no simple undertaking to move the body. The deceased had been dead weight.
"He'll do, madam," Mark said, "and we must away before anyone comes upon us."
"Free his horse," she ordered. "Set her wandering in the woods." She was tempted to order Mark himself to "find" the bay and instigate a search for its rider, but she was loath to do anything to call attention to Leigh Abbey.
Had she thought of everything? She wondered as they rode home. Belatedly, she remembered that he'd had a pack with him when he arrived. That might contain some clue to his identity. All she knew at present, from his appearance, was that he had seen more than forty winters. The better to go unnoticed on his journey, he'd worn plain clothes that gave no hint of his occupation, but he'd had the speech of a gentleman.
The ride back took less than a quarter hour. She'd not dared transport the body any farther now that it was full daylight.
"Go you to the kitchen and dry off," she told Mark. He'd gotten soaked positioning the body.
Susanna went straight to the mint room, pausing only long enough to collect a lantern. When she'd locked herself in, she hurried to the inner door, her key at the ready. A moment later, she was safely inside the second room and had shut out the overpowering smell.
No one had disturbed the hiding place she'd had purpose-built to conceal refugees from Queen Mary's religious persecution. Long and narrow, it took up one end of the windowless storehouse and contained sleeping pallets, a chair and table, and a supply of food and drink stored in a tall, free-standing cupboard.
Suspicions had begun to nag at Susanna as soon as the initial shock of discovering a body had passed. In the aftermath, transporting it and throwing it into the brook, she'd had no time to ask herself questions, but now that she had leisure to consider them, she discovered a disconcerting dearth of answers.
Susanna contemplated her surroundings. The dead man had arrived with a pack. She remembered seeing it. Brown leather, of good quality. The type of bag that hung over a saddle. It must be somewhere.
So, too, should there be a key, a duplicate of the one she'd just used.
She began a methodical inspection of the chamber, end to end, floor to ceiling, but she reaped no more reward for her pains than a splinter in one thumb and sore knees.
Covering her mouth and nose with a cloth, Susanna conducted a quick but thorough search of the storeroom before she emerged into the crisp afternoon air. There was nothing in the mint room but mint.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she made her way to the stable. She glanced over her shoulder, certain someone was watching her, but there was no one in sight. Had he felt this way? She wondered. For all that Mark and the other grooms slept in the room above, the dead man could have gotten into the stables unseen and unheard. Then what? She studied the neat rows of stalls. Had he merely checked on his bay? Or had he come to hide something? More to the point, had he feared some enemy, someone who had, indeed, caught up with him?
As long as the duplicate key to the mint room remained missing, Susanna was forced to consider the possibility that the stranger had been murdered, that someone had trapped him in the storeroom, struck him on the head, and left him there to die . . . locking the door on the way out.
"Oh, there you are, madam!" Jennet exclaimed, rushing into the stable. "Mark said you were back."
Beatrice arrived a moment later, closely followed by Ursula.
"Can she be trusted?" Beatrice demanded, glaring at the tiring maid. "She got the whole story out of your groom before I could prevent it."
"I am obliged to trust you both," Susanna told her. "There is no time to waste. It will not do for Robert to return and find me here. I have never shown an interest in the horses before."
"Why are you in the stable?" Jennet asked.
"To search for the stranger's missing pack."
When she had described its appearance, they spread out. Beatrice spoke in rapid Spanish, giving Ursula instructions. The reminder that both women were foreigners, for all that Beatrice had been born in England, gave Susanna pause. It seemed odd to her that Beatrice was so determined to help.
For a short while, no one spoke. Susanna inspected the stall where the old bay mare had been kept, the one in the darkest corner, where its occupant had stood the best chance of escaping notice. Stabling the refugees' horses was the riskiest part of her enterprise. Robert paid little attention to people, but he was devoted to his cattle. There had always been a chance he'd notice unauthorized additions.
Mare's droppings aside, Susanna found nothing in the stall. She moved on to the next one.
Jennet's cry of triumph brought them back to the center aisle of the stable. She had found the missing pack in the tack room. She hurried toward Susanna, carrying it in one hand and waving a paper in the other.
"A letter!" Beatrice cried, intercepting Jennet and plucking it from her fingers. "This must be destroyed before it can be used against you."
But Susanna was too late. Beatrice had opened the nearest lantern and thrust it into the candle flame. By the time Susanna reached her, the paper had been reduced to ash.
"Now, then," said Beatrice, pulling at the pack, "we must do likewise with this."
Jennet tried to keep hold of her prize, but Beatrice was a strong woman. She tugged it free and, giving Susanna no chance to protest, swept out of the stable with it. Ursula trailed along in her wake.
"Is she mad?" Jennet asked.
"It is my hope that she is only overzealous. I intended to destroy the pack myself, but I had planned to examine the contents first."
"It is the fault of the star with the long tail," Jennet muttered darkly. "An evil omen. Did I not say so? Death and destruction. Terror and--"
"Enough! Nothing supernatural caused that man's death, or Beatrice's actions, either." She fixed Jennet with a commanding stare. "What did the letter say?"
"Oh, madam, how could you think that I--"
"What did it say, Jennet?" Susanna tapped her foot and waited. All Leigh Abbey servants were taught to read, and if Jennet had one besetting sin, it was an abundance of curiosity. She'd been caught more than once hiding behind an arras to listen to the private conversations of others. Susanna had no doubt that she'd skimmed the letter before announcing her discovery, or that she'd found it in the first place by searching the pack.
"It was a letter of introduction. I did not have time to read the whole of it." Jennet's affronted tone spoke volumes.
"Repeat the words you did see, exactly as you remember them."
"To Sir Anthony Cooke, Strasbourg. I recommend unto you Master William Wroth."
"That is all I saw, madam."
"What of a signature? Who sent it?"
"I could not make out the name, but the letter was written from Staines on the second day of March. Where is Staines, madam?"
Susanna frowned. "It is some fifteen miles west of London, along the way to Salisbury." Of more importance was the identity of the person in that place who'd sent William Wroth to Leigh Abbey.
"Fetch Mark," she instructed. "I've a message to dispatch. Then find quill and ink and paper and write down every item you noted in Master Wroth's pack."
"The dead man had no mark of violence upon him." Robert paused to refill his goblet with a sharp white wine from Angulle.
He and Lord Benedick and their servants had been stopped on the way home from the hunt by the coroner, who had been called in as soon as the body was discovered. Robert had been asked if he could identify the deceased. He claimed he'd never seen the fellow before.
"No mark at all?" Susanna asked as she and Beatrice exchanged a worried glance. Had no one noticed the lump on his head? This was a complication they had not foreseen.
"The fish had nibbled him," Robert said.
"He must have drowned, then," Beatrice murmured. "Will your coroner declare the death an accident?"
"He is reluctant to do so without knowing the identity of the victim. And he has some suspicion that the fellow may have taken his own life. He cannot be buried in hallowed ground if that is the case."
"What's to be done then?"
"The coroner has persuaded the justices to look more deeply into the matter."
Susanna's fingers clasped her wine cup so tightly that her knuckles showed white. They suspected murder. She was sure of it.
Beatrice did not seem to share her fears. "Officials are wont to fuss and fume and make themselves look important," she declared with a little laugh. "This will all turn out to be much ado about nothing."
The next morning, when Robert and Lord Benedick had left for a second day of hunting, Susanna, Beatrice, Jennet, and Ursula gathered in Susanna's study, a pleasant room full of books and maps, with windows that overlooked Leigh Abbey's fields and orchards to the east and the approach to the gatehouse on the north.
"The man's name was William Wroth," Susanna announced.
Ursula gasped, made the sign of the cross, and fumbled for her rosary.
"You know this man Wroth, good Ursula?" Susanna had not expected any reaction. She'd brought up Wroth's name as a preliminary to a discussion of how to convince the authorities his death was an accident.
The old woman's deeply-lined face crumpled further and her eyes, filmed with age, sought her mistress, but she did not speak.
Beatrice laid a hand on her arm. Her voice was gentle. "You must tell us if you know who this man was, Ursula."
"He was evil, mistress," Ursula answered.
Or, rather, that was what Beatrice told Susanna and Jennet they had said. She and Ursula spoke in Spanish, a language the others did not understand.
"Why does she think he was evil?" Susanna demanded.
Their incomprehensible conversation resumed. Beatrice asked questions and paused now and again to translate when Ursula answered, but it seemed to Susanna that the waiting gentlewoman took a great many words to convey very little. She began to wonder how much Beatrice was holding back.
"She knows nothing of help to us," Beatrice said at last, "only that when she was in my mother's service here in England, there was a man by that name who was well known for his hatred of all things Spanish. This was many years ago, for I was still a small child when my parents died."
"Did she ever meet William Wroth?" He'd have been a young man in his twenties then.
"She knew him by reputation. She says he was wont to pick fights with the servants of Spanish merchant families in London. And their sons."
"And no one stopped him?"
"Why should they, once Queen Catherine had been set aside? I remember a little of that time myself, for all that I was so young. My mother would cry herself to sleep over what had happened to her mistress. Once King Henry divorced her, men who felt as Wroth did had few restraints on their behavior. It was a popular belief that the only good Spaniard was a dead Spaniard."
"That must have made things difficult for your parents."
A great sadness clouded Beatrice's countenance. "Since I have been back in England, I have felt their loss the more, but when they were alive they knew great happiness. My father loved my mother as much as Benedick loves me and she returned his feelings tenfold."
Through the north-facing window, Susanna caught sight of an approaching rider. She knew him by his bright green cloak and dappled horse. By the time her neighbor, old Sir Eustace Thornley, who had served as a justice of the peace since Susanna was a girl, had been shown to the study, all four women were seated in a circle, applying their needles to a large piece of tapestry work.
"I am sorry to trouble you," he apologized after he'd been presented to Beatrice, "but I seek information about a man seen in the area of late." He gave particulars of William Wroth's appearance but did not say he was dead. Susanna suspected that Sir Eustace, who had never married, clung to the quaint notion that women should not trouble their pretty little heads about such matters as sudden death and coroner's inquests.
"That is a passing general description, sir," she said with flutter of eyelashes and a pout. "Has he no distinguishing characteristic?"
Flustered, Sir Eustace mumbled, "A faint smell of mint clung to his clothing and beard." He cleared his throat and pressed on. "It is not, I think, a common perfume."
"Mint has many uses." Susanna's voice was level but her heart raced triple time. She could scarce deny knowledge of the herb. Every woman received some training in the stillroom. "I steep the leaves of garden mint to make an infusion. Drinking one to two cups of this daily, but not for more than one week at a time, is an excellent remedy for sleeplessness and helpful to the digestion, as well. Mayhap the gentleman spilled his medicine."
"I prefer to distill mint," Beatrice said. "One must use freshly cut, partially dried plant tops, cut just before the plants come into flower. An over mature plant produces an oil with a sharp, bitter aroma, but if the process be done aright, it yields a hot, pungent aroma."
The justice's eyes began to glaze over.
Taking her cue from Beatrice, Susanna launched into a detailed description of the preparation of a stimulant using mint and other herbs. She gave up all pretense of stitching. She was not much of a needlewoman in the best of circumstances.
"Well done, Susanna," Beatrice said when Sir Eustace took his leave a few minutes later. "How quick men are to lose interest in domestic matters!"
"A pity. I so wanted to tell him that some mints are cultivated as an aid to love. Why pennyroyal, given to quarreling couples, is even supposed to induce them to make peace."
"It is also a protection against evil," Beatrice remarked.
"Well, then," Susanna said with a smile, "we have nothing to fear. With all the mint we have stored at Leigh Abbey, 'tis certain we are safe from further trouble from Sir Eustace."
The next day Susanna and Beatrice rode with their husbands to Canterbury to visit the cathedral. On the way back, Robert stopped at Sir Eustace's manor house, sending the others on ahead without him. Susanna had no opportunity for a private word with him until they retired to their bedchamber for the night.
"Do you hunt again tomorrow?" she asked.
"Aye." He sounded disconsolate. "Lord Benedick cares for naught but hunting, hawking, and dallying with his own wife. He has no intention of attaching himself to the court."
Concealing a smile, Susanna made a sympathetic sound and continued to take pins out of her hair.
"You are a clever woman, Susanna. Can you find a way to give Beatrice a dislike of you?"
She fought a sense of disappointment as she brushed her long, thick hair. Robert believed it was a waste of his time to entertain Lord Benedick any longer, but he did not want to be the one to offend him, just in case Benedick turned out to have some use, after all. Robert expected Susanna to do his dirty work for him.
"I see no reason to discourage her friendship. Beatrice is most pleasant company."
"What do you know of her family?"
The question surprised her. "Her mother was in the household of Queen Mary's mother. I'd think such a connection would be helpful to you."
"Any benefit is overshadowed by what happened afterward. Beatrice's mother killed her English husband, then took her own life."
Aghast, Susanna put down her hairbrush and demanded details.
"Their family seat was at Staines," Robert said. His voice was muffled as he settled himself for the night. "That is all Sir Eustace told me." Their neighbor was well known for his long memory and love of gossip. If he'd had more information, he'd have repeated it.
Susanna crossed to the bed and pulled aside the bright blue damask hangings to glower at her spouse. Staines. The location could not be a coincidence. "Did Wroth come here because of Lord Benedick and his wife?"
Just before his eyes shifted away from her unrelenting gaze, she read the truth in them. He recognized Wroth's name. Had he known all along who the dead man was?
The belligerent jut of Robert's jaw warned her he did not intend to answer questions, but two could play at that game. She did not intend to explain how she'd discovered Wroth's identity. She perched on the foot of the bed and deftly began to braid her hair.
"I am as anxious as you that you regain favor at court." How else could she hope to continue her rescue efforts? "But if I do not know as much as you do, Robert, then I may make some mistake or say the wrong thing. If this dead stranger, for example, is the same Wroth who had such a reputation for hating all things Spanish--"
"God save me from meddling females!"
"He sounds the worst sort of extremist." She could not regret that Wroth was dead, knowing the sort of man he had been, but neither could she continue to ignore the possibility that he had been murdered. "He brought no credit to the cause he claimed to espouse."
"Nor was he faithful to it."
"What do you mean?" Her hands stilled in her hair.
"When last I was in London, I heard a rumor that Wroth, who had been in prison under sentence of death, had agreed to do some service for Queen Mary in order to save his own skin."
The possibility that Wroth had come to Leigh Abbey as a spy made Susanna's blood run cold, but she did not dare ask Robert any more questions for fear of arousing his suspicions. Beatrice had been right. Susanna's husband would turn her in himself if he saw any profit in it.
Mark returned to Leigh Abbey the next day, bringing a reply to the message Susanna had sent to Sir Anthony Cooke's daughter. The verbal questions had been accompanied, as proof of the sender's identity, by a sprig of rosemary. Margaret Cooke's answers came back with a bit of rue. She sent word that no one in Staines should have known what went on at Leigh Abbey, but that Wroth himself owned property there. He'd bought the estate of a man--Margaret could not remember his name--who had been murdered by his wife.
"Good news," Mark added, unaware that his mistress had been obliged to take a tight grip on the arms of her favorite carved oak chair to quell the sudden trembling in her hands. "When I passed through the village, I heard that Sir Eustace took another look at the body and this time noticed the lump on the dead man's head. The death will be ruled an accident. No more questions will be asked."
"Good news, indeed," Susanna murmured, giving Mark a reward for his services and sending him back to his usual duties.
Sunk deep in thought, it was some little time before Susanna realized that Jennet, who had come into the study with Mark, had remained when he was dismissed. She had a talent for disappearing into the woodwork when she did not want to be noticed.
"What did Beatrice do with the dead man's pack?" Susanna asked.
"Cut it into small bits and burnt them."
Trust Jennet to know. The list she'd made had been helpful, too. Wroth's pack had contained only clothing. No papers. No key.
"Why do you think she did that, Jennet?"
"To protect you, madam?"
"It is possible I missed seeing a key in Master Wroth's pack." At Susanna's start of surprise, she rushed on. "I do not know how else she could have got hold of it."
Jennet nodded. "She must have been the one who sent old Ursula to get rid of it, since metal will not burn. I saw it clear when I followed Ursula to the fish ponds. The key caught the sun as she threw it in."
Susanna found Beatrice and Ursula in the small parlor. Beatrice had pulled the Glastonbury chair close to the window in order to read by the light streaming in through the panes. Ursula sat close to the fire, mending a stocking.
"Did you arrange to meet Master Wroth here?" she asked. If Robert wanted her to give the other woman a dislike of them, an accusation of murder should suffice.
Beatrice's demeanor remained calm. She marked her place in Liber de Arte Distillandi and met Susanna's eyes before she answered. "No."
"But you recognized him when you saw him?"
"No," she said again.
Susanna believed her, but she felt certain Beatrice was hiding something. "If you sought to trap Wroth in the mint room, intending to hold him there until Lord Benedick could deal with him--"
"Why all these questions?" Beatrice asked. "I thought you deemed Wroth's death an accident, even if Sir Eustace does not."
It was on the tip of her tongue to correct Beatrice, but at the last moment, she decided to keep the justice's most recent conclusion to herself. "Someone must have struck Wroth down, then locked him in the storeroom afterward," she said instead. "If he simply fell, I'd have found the key. Tell me, Beatrice, what is the connection between William Wroth and the death of your parents?"
With an abrupt movement, Beatrice rose from the chair and went to stand by the window and stare out at the bleak landscape. Her view encompassed the ornamental gardens, but at this time of year they showed no sign of life.
"You recognized Wroth," Susanna said in a voice she hoped conveyed her sympathy. "You locked him in, doubtless meaning to fetch Lord Benedick to deal with him, but by the time you returned, Wroth was dead."
"Benedick knows nothing of this!" As soon as the words were out she looked stricken, but it was too late to call them back.
If Benedick had seen the body, Susanna realized, it would have been long gone by morning. But if Wroth had not been locked in to await interrogation by Benedick, then Beatrice must have meant to kill him. Unless . . .
"Ursula," Susanna whispered. "Ursula was the one who recognized Wroth. She locked him in."
With obvious reluctance, Beatrice nodded. She returned to the chair. "I see I must tell you everything. Yes, she locked him in. Then she came to me. It took some time to sort matters out. It was the middle of the night. She had to extract me from my bed without waking Benedick, then explain who Wroth was and what she'd done and why. I had been told my parents were carried off by a fever. It was a great shock to learn that my mother had been accused of killing my father and of taking her own life. Ursula insisted that Wroth was to blame for both deaths."
"Has she any proof?"
"No. My mother took her aside one night at Staines, gave her money, and told her she must take me back to Spain without delay. Then she led Ursula to a window and pointed to a man--Wroth--and said we must avoid being seen by him when we left, that he was dangerous. Within the hour, Ursula and I were on our way to Calais. It was there that word reached us that my parents were dead."
"And Ursula did nothing?"
"What could she do? She knew Wroth's reputation. She was sure he had killed them, but she feared for her own life and mine if she remained on English soil long enough to accuse him. But now--now she is old. She no longer fears death." She smiled faintly. "And because she is old, her bones ache, preventing sleep. She was up in the middle of the night and chanced to look out a window. She recognized Wroth at once, for the situation was much as it had been when she'd seen him all those years ago. She went out for a closer look, followed him into the storeroom, caught him by surprise, hit him on the head, and took the key to lock him in. She reasoned that, together, she and I might be able to persuade him to confess to his crimes, but by the time I heard her explanation and dressed and went with her to the storeroom we were, as you have guessed, too late. He was dead."
"But why just leave him there? You must have known he'd be found."
"It was too close to sunrise to do anything else. As it was, I scarce had time to lock the door again and return to my bed before Benedick woke. I meant to go back and dispose of him as soon as Benedick left on the hunt, but you were there ahead of me."
Susanna wanted to believe her. If Wroth's death had been an accident, the matter was closed. And she'd had a narrow escape, for had he lived to be accused, the existence of the inner room and its purpose would have been exposed. She'd have ended up in gaol alongside Will Wroth. And although he might well have been acquitted, she'd have been certain to be executed for treason. She swallowed hard.
"We will say no more of the matter."
Beatrice frowned. "Benedick and I plan to return to Padua soon, where we will be safe from English law, but the smell of mint made Sir Eustace suspicious of you, Susanna. What if he continues to investigate? What if he discovers that Wroth died in your storeroom?"
"I am confident he will not." Had the return of the hunting party not interrupted her at that moment, Susanna would have gone on to share the verdict on Wroth's death with Beatrice.
"I thought they meant to leave this morning," Robert complained the next day. "What is Beatrice doing in your storeroom?"
"Stillroom, Robert. She's preparing her secret recipe for aqua vitae as a parting gift, using pennyroyal to add protective properties to the distillation."
"Do we need protection?" He sounded suspicious.
Susanna smiled. "No, my dear, but Beatrice took note of the way Jennet carries on, fearful of evil in the wake of the star with the long--"
She broke off, beset by a vague sense of alarm as she remembered that, as far as Beatrice knew, Susanna also had need of protection--from Sir Eustace. First they'd been distracted by the arrival of their husbands and then the bustle of preparations for Beatrice and Benedick's departure had occupied the rest of the afternoon and evening. Susanna's intention to tell Beatrice there was no longer any need to worry had completely slipped her mind.
Robert failed to notice Susanna's distraction. "She will not be at it much longer," he said after a few moments of consideration, "not with the goodly fire she had Benedick build for her in your storeroom."
"Stillroom," Susanna corrected. "And a stilling pot must be heated over a soft fire. Be patient, Robert. The day is young."
"Storeroom," Robert insisted, "and this was no temperate blaze."
Susanna felt her face drain of color. Aqua vitae had another name. It was called "burning water" because it so easily turned into flame.
"Storeroom?" she whispered.
No one heard her. The explosion drowned out all other sounds. It blew the storeroom walls outward as the fire, in one bright flash, consumed the incriminating bales of mint. It did not spread, nor was Beatrice harmed. She'd taken care to avoid both consequences when she planned this parting gift for her hostess.
"The fire was too rash." Benedick's cheerful wink told Susanna that he was now in his wife's confidence. His generous offer to pay for the damage mollified Robert and prevented him from asking awkward questions.
Beatrice, Susanna thought, had also been too rash, but only because she'd believed she owed it to Susanna to protect her from Sir Eustace's suspicions.
"Will you rebuild your storeroom?" Robert asked as they watched their guests ride away a few hours later. Jennet had come out too. And Mark.
"There is no need." From now on, she'd hide escaping heretics in the stable with their horses.
"But where will you store pennyroyal?" Jennet asked. "Won't you need a great deal more of it to keep Leigh Abbey safe from the star with the long tail?"
"No, indeed," Susanna assured her, "for Beatrice had the right of it all along. Your ominous portent, Jennet, is in truth a dancing star, and a sure sign of all the good things to come."
A Note from the Author
The idea for this story came out of a visit to the Celestial Seasonings "mint room," a side trip during Historicon II in Boulder, Colorado. As many mystery writers before me have observed, the strangest things can inspire someone to say "What a great place to hide the body!"
Although Sir Anthony Cooke and his daughter Margaret were real people, there is nothing in history to indicate that Margaret was part of a conspiracy to smuggle heretics out of England. She married a London merchant in 1558 and died soon after. Her four sisters, Mildred (Lady Burghley), Anne (Lady Bacon), Elizabeth (Lady Hoby and later Lady John Russell--she campaigned to keep the Queen's Men from building a playhouse in Blackfriars), and Katherine (Lady Killigrew), were far more famous, in part because of the men they married and in part for their learning. The education they were given provided me with a model for Susanna's schooling.
Several contemporary descriptions survive of the "blazing star" of 1556. Both Henry Machyn and John Stow described this comet, which could be seen over England in early March, 1555/6. The "double dating" stems from the fact that in those days the new year still began on March 25.
As for Beatrice and Benedick, they are the protagonists of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. This story was originally written for an anthology of mystery stories using Shakespearean characters as sleuths. Since Shakespeare gave no specific dates for his tale, there is no reason it could not have taken place in the sixteenth century, and there is no textual evidence in the play to disprove the possibility that Beatrice's father might have been an Englishman.
The Rubaiyat of Nicholas Baldwin
* * * *
The Rubaiyat of Nicholas Baldwin
(A Tale of Murder in the Year of Our Lord 1559)
A woman screamed.
A cat hissed.
Nick Baldwin forgot he was in a foreign land with strange customs and looked for a way over the wall that separated him from those sounds of alarm. Finding no convenient gate, he clambered up one side and dropped into a private garden lush with flowers and foliage, but he'd arrived too late. No more than a foot away from the spot he'd landed, lay a crumpled female form. The blood pooling beneath her head was as vividly red as the roses on the bush beside her.
Nick surveyed the quiet, sun-drenched enclosure for some sign of the person who had attacked her. He caught a glimpse of white out of the corner of one eye, but it was only a small animal darting into a doorway. He turned back to the victim.
She was the first female he'd seen since arriving in Qazvin who had not been completely enveloped in the light-colored robes Persian women wore when they ventured out of their homes. The knife that had slashed her throat had cut right through the lacework veil meant to shield her face and neck from masculine eyes.
Nick knelt beside her, moved to pity, regretting that he'd not been in time to save her. He had no warning, heard no approaching footsteps, before he was roughly seized and jerked to his feet. Exclaiming in horror and rage, apparently convinced Nick was the murderer, three men hauled him away from the body.
In the loudest voice he could manage, Nick bellowed a desperate demand for justice: "Let me plead my case before the Great Sophy!"
That he spoke their language gave his captors pause. Two released him and backed away. Nick glowered at the ruddy-faced young man who still clung to his arm. He repeated the demand. This was not how he'd envisioned obtaining a royal audience, but Nick felt certain Shah Tahmasp, known in other lands as the Great Sophy of Persia, would honor his plea. The only question was whether that powerful ruler would bestir himself to save Nick's life.
The young man did not loosen his grip.
A debate ensued. Nick stopped trying to break free and concentrated on translating the barrage of heated words exploding over his head. He'd begun to study the language four months earlier, when he'd resolved to journey to Qazvin and persuade the Persian king to open trade with England. Nick had a gift for foreign tongues, possessing the happy facility of learning to speak them with ease, but in the heat of strong emotion some of what he now heard was well nigh unintelligible. Nick comprehended only enough to know that Bihzad, the fellow with the terrier's hold on his arm, argued for his immediate dispatch.
"He must have killed her," Bihzad declared. "There is blood on his hands."
"And on your own." Nick pointed to the gore and noticed that a streak of red also marred the robe worn by another of his captors. "Where is the weapon? How did I slash that woman's throat without a knife?"
"Search him, Hamid," Bihzad ordered.
The man with the stained sleeve hastened to obey.
Concealed inside a series of hidden pockets in the elaborately slashed and puffed doublet that marked Nick as a foreigner, was a small fortune in gemstones--pearls, sapphires, and rubies--portable trade goods Nick had brought with him from Muscovy. He resisted Hamid's efforts until the third man rejoined the fray.
Their rough, inefficient probing missed the valuables, but Nick was relieved of his eating knife and his dagger. Neither showed any sign of recent use and both were free of bloodstains. It was only then, when he considered asking his captors to produce their own weapons for inspection, that he realized none of them seemed to be armed. A scar blemishing the third man's cheek might have been made by a knife, but Nick saw no other indication that they ever carried weapons.
Hamid brought his face close to Nick's. "Are you a Portugee?" His breath was rich with the scent of cloves.
Nick grimaced at both the question and the overpowering aroma. "I am a London man." As far as he knew, he was the first from his homeland to set foot in this exotic and dangerous country.
All three stared at him, the blank looks on their faces making it plain they'd never heard of London. Nick doubted the word England would mean more to them.
He tried to picture how he must appear to their eyes. He was nothing out of the ordinary at home, a short, sturdily-built man in his twenty-seventh year with broad shoulders, dark brown hair and eyes, and regular features behind a neatly-trimmed beard. Here, however, the paleness of his skin marked him as an outsider just as surely as his clothing did. His complexion had darkened during his travels, from exposure to the sun, but was still several shades lighter than what they were accustomed to seeing.
The scarred man's gaze shifted to the doorway of the house adjoining the garden. "Master!"
They turned as one to watch the newcomer, a man several decades older than themselves, inspect the body. When he had done so, he called to the scarred man, using the name Qadi, and spoke quietly to him. In short order, Qadi departed, several menservants arrived, and Nick was seized and stuffed into a small, windowless chamber. Left there under guard, he was unable to overhear further discussion of his fate.
Nick considered his surroundings. He was in a house typical of those he'd seen since coming to Qazvin. His prison occupied one corner of one of four large porch-like parlors surrounding a smaller private parlor at the center of the house. The door blocking his exit was no more than two thin, wooden leaves folded one over the other like window shutters. He could break through, overcome the guard, and escape into the street through the front of the house, which at best would be open and at worst shut with another fragile sash.
But then what?
Running would be seen as proof of his guilt. He'd be pursued. If they caught him before he could change from his English clothes into Eastern garments and darken his skin, he'd be dispatched without mercy. There would be no opportunity to plead his case before the shah, only a painful and ignominious death.
Nick leaned against the plain plaster wall, prepared to wait for the Master's decision. Well, here he was, he thought, in the land the legendary Tamerlane had conquered, and it was not at all like a play. He felt his lips twist into a wry smile and the smile turn into a grin as he remembered how captivated he'd been as a boy by scenes from "The Persian Knights" acted out on a makeshift wooden stage in an innyard. He'd longed to see the world even then . . . or at least to run off and join the troupe of traveling players.
Had he chosen the latter course and been in a situation like this, he'd have been able to call up a puff of smoke and a trap door to vanish through. Instead, after what seemed like hours, the old man's servants came for him. He'd been granted his wish. They took him to the palace.
The audience hall was redolent with rich fragrances--aloe, camphor, saffron, and frankincense. Large and sumptuous, its walls were colorfully painted and its floor covered with thick carpets. Impressively bearded royal guardsmen, armed with fearsome blades and wearing turbans wound around scarlet uprights, added an exotic overlay of menace to the splendor.
Shah Tahmasp did not match his surroundings. He was a small, wiry man with a pinched face and dark, haunted eyes. Nick had been told he was in his forty-fifth year. Although both his bushy whiskers and his hair had been dyed black, he looked far older.
Tahmasp regarded the captive Englishman with suspicion, then signaled the old man's servants to release him and dismissed them. Their master remained, though well in the background, to watch the shah solemnly stretch out one leg.
Nick took a deep breath, grateful he'd been coached in the proper way to greet the monarch. Dropping to his knees, he kissed the shah's extended foot with as much reverence as he could muster.
A little murmur of approval greeted the act and he was cautiously welcomed, even allowed to sit when the shah did. Praying the rest of the advice he'd been given was also accurate, Nick perched awkwardly, his buttocks resting on his heels and his knees close together. Such, he had been told, was the proper position to assume when one wished to show respect for one's betters. He was careful to keep his toes out of sight, since for a man to let them show when he sat was considered a great piece of rudeness in this culture.
Nick's mentor, Abd Allah Khan, a sensible, personable fellow Nick greatly admired, was also the shah's cousin and brother-by-marriage. As such, he had provided a letter of introduction, which Nick now produced, watching in anxious silence as Tahmasp examined the seals and read the contents.
After another considering look at Nick, the shah ordered rose water brought in a silver bowl. Nick duly washed his face and hands and, although the procedure seemed strange to him, dried off by bending over aloe smoke, which left its scent on his hair and beard.
The interrogation that followed was long, thorough, and, at times, difficult to follow. The Persian habit of choosing the most convoluted way to express a simple thought tested the limits of Nick's command of the language. In addition, the shah mumbled when he spoke. Some of his words were impossible to understand. Nick did not dare offer insult by asking him to repeat what he'd said. Instead he bluffed, giving the answers he thought Tahmasp expected.
On the matter of murder, the shah said little. After a search, a bloodstained knife had been found at the scene, but it had been identified as belonging to the victim. Tahmasp did not accuse Nick of killing the woman in the garden. He was more interested in London, a place he claimed never to have heard of, although he had had dealings with Russia and seemed to understand that Nick had come to Persia from Moscow.
Nick decided against trying explain that he'd been there as a stipendiary with the English Muscovy Company, or how a joint-stock company operated, or even why he'd struck out on his own after traveling as far as Bokhara with his friend, Anthony Jenkinson. With luck, Jenkinson was halfway back to England by now. It had been his plan to return to Moscow, then sail home while Nick investigated opportunities in Persia for trade in silk, spices, and other luxury goods. God willing, in a year's time they would both be back in Moscow.
As chief merchant of Persia, Shah Tahmasp held the monopoly on raw silk. Nick presented him with a pistol inlaid with mother-of-pearl. It had been concealed in his boot. Next came the emerald pendant shaped like a grape, which he'd worn around his neck.
The shah accepted both and waited for more.
Nick hesitated. If he gave away all he had, he'd have naught to bargain with and no means to pay for lodging and food. He chose his next words with care. He wished to convey a complex notion--that he had more of value to offer, but not just yet. He mentioned rubies.
The shah looked momentarily intrigued. Encouraged, Nick asked what Tahmasp wished to acquire from the west. The answer surprised him--London clothes such as Nick wore and also chain mail and suits of armor.
Nick assured him that such things could be provided.
"And a marriage alliance," Tahmasp declared, going on to ask who reigned in Nick's homeland and if there were unwed females in his house.
Nick hesitated. At the time of his departure from Moscow, the last news from England had already been months out of date. Did Mary Tudor rule there with her consort, Philip of Spain? Or had her half sister Elizabeth succeeded her? Or was Elizabeth dead, executed for her refusal to give up the New Religion established by her father and accept the tenets of the church of Rome?
"There are princesses in England yet unmarried," Nick told the shah. That seemed a safe statement. After Elizabeth, several other females stood in line to inherit the throne. Unless Mary and Philip had produced a son.
"Is London home to unbelievers?"
"Those who live there believe there is but one God."
It did not trouble Nick to call that God Allah. As far as he could see, Muslims and Christians worshiped the same deity. Abd Allah Khan had warned him, however, that Tahmasp was as extreme in his religious views as any supporter of the Inquisition. If he doubted Nick's expedient statement of faith, the mildest outcome was likely to be a demand that Nick prove he embraced all aspects of Islam by undergoing circumcision.
Abd Allah Khan had taken great delight in providing his honored guest with a detailed description of the process, one very painful for an adult. It was, he'd claimed, commonly a fortnight or three weeks before a man could walk again. The prospect did not bear thinking about.
Nick felt a rush of relief when Tahmasp once more changed the subject. He spoke at great length about a dream he'd had the previous night. Nick soon lost the sense of it, although he did catch the word rubai, which he himself had used when speaking of the gemstones he had to trade.
At the end of this oration, the shah fixed Nick with a steely gaze. "If you wish to become a merchant in Qazvin, you must first prove yourself innocent of murder."
Nick swallowed hard. He had no idea how to accomplish such a feat, yet he had no choice but to agree. Bowing low, he murmured, "My hand is on the skirt of the robe of the Shah Tahmasp," the standard phrase Abd Allah Khan had taught him. It meant he depended upon the shah for protection and was no less than the literal truth.
A short time later, the shah's guardsmen returned Nick to the scene of the crime. The old man was already there. Once they were alone in one of the parlors, he approached Nick, for the first time coming close enough to the London man for Nick to get a good look at him.
"The woman in the garden," he said, "was nursemaid to my youngest daughter."
He spoke in Italian.
"God's blood!" Nick exclaimed, startled into replying in the same language. "You are no Persian." The fellow's eyes were a bright, sapphire blue.
The old man gestured for Nick to sit on the thick carpet covering the floor. A servant brought refreshments. "I have lived here more than forty years now," he said, "but I was born in Venice. My name is Lorenzo Zeno."
"Nick Baldwin of London, at your service."
"Cherab?" He offered a wine of a deep purple color. "It is similar in taste to Muscadine."
Nick shook his head.
"Very wise. The punishment for drinking wine, unless one has permission--" he displayed his, with its special seal "--is to have your belly ripped open on the spot. A long poniard is plunged into you on the left side and drawn round to the back. It is not a speedy death."
Servants offered Nick a choice between a cup of barley water and a drink called sherbet, but he was distracted by his desire to ask Zeno questions. The old man waved them aside.
"By the king's sacred head, you have no time for inquiries into my history. You've two tasks to perform, neither of them simple."
"Two?" Taken aback, Nick almost choked on a swallow of barley water. "I know I must find the real murderer in order to clear my name. What more?"
Zeno grinned. "Tell me, Englishman, what is the meaning of rubai?"
"Ruby. The gemstone."
"The ruby that comes from Egypt, a very fine stone, is called yacut eeylani. The rose-colored ruby is balacchani. The carbuncle, said to be bred in the head of a dragon, is called the icheb chirac, or flambeau of the night. Then there are the cha mohore, the royal stone, and the cha devacran, the king of jewels."
"And a rubai?" Nick was no longer sure he wanted to know.
"A poem of four lines only, of which the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. It needs no connection to what comes before or after, but a collection of these poems is called a rubaiyat. That is what you agreed to give to the shah, after you find the person who killed my servant. An original composition. Verses. Have you any skill with poetry?"
Nick drank deeply of the iced barley water and helped himself to a handful of grapes from a platter that also contained dates and slices of melon. Grammar school Greek and Latin had introduced him to Petrarch and other classic poets, and as a young man he'd written his share of sonnets to a lady's eyebrows, but he'd long since abandoned such flights of fancy for life as a merchant.
"I appear to have overestimated my command of the spoken language of Persia," he admitted. "Poetry aside, I did not understand much of what the shah said when he spoke of dreams. Is it some superstitious belief on his part that dictates the tasks I am to perform?"
"Last night the shah, who sets great store by such things, dreamt of the coming of a poet who would make right a wrong and tell of it in verse."
Nick bit back a groan. He would not, it seemed, even have the freedom to choose his own subject. "Must these poems be written in the language of this land or may I compose in my native tongue?"
"You need not write them at all, only recite the verses."
"In Persian. And you must take care to avoid any suggestion of heresy in your words."
As he would in England, also, Nick thought.
"It is safest to begin with religious orthodoxy and a plea for forgiveness of any failings in the lines to come."
Nick contemplated his empty cup. "I cannot compose any poem until I know the identity of the murderer. First I must discover what befell that woman in your garden." Setting aside the drinking vessel, he rose and began to pace. "What alerted those inside the house to what had happened? It cannot have been the cry I heard. Had that been audible, those young men would have arrived before I did."
"A servant reported seeing someone climb over my wall."
"Who are the young men who seized me?"
"My students." A sweep of one hand indicated their surroundings.
Until that moment, Nick had been oblivious to the room's contents. Now he took note of gilded and burnished pages on which miniatures would be painted. Brushes, drawing boards, and a little shell full of silver paint gave further evidence of Zeno's profession. Nick lifted the brush a colorist would use to complete a painting-in-small that had been outlined but not yet filled in. It appeared to consist of a single hair tied into a quill handle.
"Kitten fur," said Zeno.
A memory flashed through Nick's mind at the comment--an animal in flight. "I saw a white cat in the garden just after the murder took place."
Frowning, Zeno rose from the rug. "There is no help for it. You must speak with Halima."
Nick had been in the East long enough to know that the women's quarters were forbidden to men outside the family. It was almost as unusual for a wealthy merchant or artisan's womenfolk to emerge from these private rooms to speak to a strange man. In a noble household, such activity would be strictly forbidden. Zeno's daughter Halima, however, was too young yet to be required to wear the veil.
She regarded Nick with undisguised curiosity through eyes as blue as her father's. Nick stared back, equally curious, noting that she wore a long shirt and a vest atop what appeared to be silk, ankle-length drawers. A small cap sat atop hair drawn back and woven into a great many thick wefts. The ends were trimmed with ribbons to make them long enough to reach her waist.
"Marta saw someone in the garden," Halima said in response to Zeno's questions. "One of your students, Father."
"I do not know." When she shook her head, the fragrance of civet, which here was called zabad, wafted toward them. "Marta said only that he appeared to be hiding a small object. She feared he'd stolen something from the house and that when its loss was discovered, the servants would be blamed. She went to retrieve it. She never returned."
"Perhaps," Nick mused, "this Marta surprised the fellow when he came back for his prize. He must have murdered her to keep her from telling anyone what he'd done."
"But why kill over that?" Zeno asked. "A woman's word against a man's--"
"You would have believed her, Father," Halima interrupted. "He must have known that. And she told me what she knew. That's two."
Noticing Nick's puzzled expression, Zeno explained. "The Koran requires the evidence of two women to match the testimony of one man, and even that is not accepted unless a man corroborates it."
"And if it was accepted?"
"The punishment for thieving is amputation of a hand. It is chopped off by repeated blows of a mallet."
"Certes, that would end a man's career as an artist!" To be hanged for theft, England's punishment for stealing any item valued at more than a shilling, was less violent and less painful, but it was more final. "What is the penalty for murder?"
"Killing a man is a capital offense. Murdering a woman is a lesser crime. Although a Muslim man who murders a Muslim woman must be executed, this cannot be done until the woman's guardian pays half of his blood money. This is negotiated with and given to the murderer's family."
"The sum the man would be worth if he were to live a normal life."
"There was blood on Bala's fur after Marta was killed," Halima said. "I think he must have been with her in the garden."
"Bala?" Nick asked. "A white cat?"
"A kitten," Halima clarified. "He was accustomed to ride tucked inside the top of Marta's vest."
"A pity he cannot testify." And an even greater pity, Nick thought, that there was not some simple way to narrow their suspects from Zeno's three students down to one.
When Halima had returned to the women's quarters, Nick and Zeno went into the garden to search the area around the rose bushes. "Tell me about those young men," Nick urged him.
"Qadi is the youngest. Only seventeen. He chafes at being given the task of coloring in a whole miniature outlined by a master. He must toil for months illuminating works that will be credited to another artist who spent far less time on the piece."
"How did he get that scar on his face?" Nick was sympathetic to the universal plight of the apprentice but more interested in Qadi's propensity for violence.
"A scuffle with another child when he was ten. He fell against a sharp metal edge."
"Has he a quick temper?"
"No. Nor do the others. Hamid is frustrated only by the requirement that he learn to paint the human form. He believes he will be happy as a gilder, only adding the arabesque ornaments--the designs of flowering vines which are necessary to any painting--and the framing rectangles that isolate text areas."
"And Bihzad? What of him?" The man's fingers had left impressions on Nick's neck.
"Bihzad has a sense of humor that may one day get him into difficulties. He likes to put the faces of prominent courtiers on his figures."
"Would Tahmasp punish him for that?"
"Who can say? Once our king was an artist himself. He appreciated all the pleasures of life."
Nick thought of the sour, stoop-shouldered old man in the palace. "What changed him?"
"Dreams. As you know, he takes his dreams most seriously. They make him moody. In good moods, he enjoys knowing others appreciate pleasures he denies to himself. But when the guilt and responsibility of his position are upon him, he suspects everyone, even those he loves. There are no more court artists. No more court musicians. One dream told Tahmasp to revoke all taxes not justified by religious law. The next day, he remitted all sales taxes and tolls." Zeno's lips twitched. "They have since been restored. But when he decided he would have all his subjects renounce wine and hashish and even sexual congress, since he equates any pleasure with sin, he closed down all the wine shops and brothels."
"Such eccentricity must be difficult for a subject to deal with year in and year out."
"Persia is more to my liking than any of the Italian states," Zeno averred. "I have been content here. Most Persians are open and friendly and would give their own lives before they would harm another."
Nick bent beneath a willow tree to examine a patch of earth in the failing light. It appeared to have been disturbed. "Someone did harm. What are the habits of your three students?"
"Their habits are like any other man's."
Which told Nick nothing. He brushed away a top layer of dirt and uncovered an odd-looking stone. "Bezoar?"
Zeno sighed. "So that is what was stolen. I'd hoped Halima was mistaken. In Persia it is called padzuhr."
"Stolen to sell?"
"Or because someone is ill."
Nick nodded. Westerners also knew of its powers. Taken internally or used externally, bezoar was popularly believed to be an antidote against most poisons, including the bites of snakes and other venomous creatures. Some credulous folk even thought it could cure the plague, falling sickness, fevers, and the pox.
"Where are your students now?" Nick asked as Zeno led the way inside. At this time of year, night fell with little twilight. Servants had already lit several tiny, odorless oil lamps.
"I sent them on errands, that we might talk uninterrupted, but they will return soon."
"What is their normal pattern?"
"Bed between nine and ten of the clock. Up at dawn."
"And if you were to give them a day of freedom?"
Zeno's eyes narrowed. "Do you think one of them may betray his guilt by running away?"
"That would be too much to hope for. I intend only to follow them, see where they go and with whom they speak. It may be that I will observe some behavior that will advance my quest, but even if no one does anything suspicious, I will be able to take the measure of each man."
Nodding and looking thoughtful, Zeno approved the plan.
In the morning, before the heat of the day came upon them, all three students set out for the bazarga. Nick, wearing Persian garments Zeno had found for him, trailed after them past houses of red brick and plaster and into the heart of the city. He moved with greater confidence as they neared the marketplace. Once there, he was certain he would go unnoticed by his quarry. There would be plenty of activity to hide his presence inside the vaulted-over gallery that contained the shops.
Qadi left the group when they came to the turning for the hamam. Nick hesitated. He doubted he could pass for a native in there. A pity, he thought with a wry twist of the lips. He'd have liked to bathe, but Moslem men did more than just cleanse themselves in the public baths. They also had all their body hair removed, usually with a lime and arsenic depilatory. He'd be noticeably hirsute in that company. The fact that the other men would all have had other bits removed, bits that did not grow back, would have made him even more conspicuous.
He continued on after Bihzad and Hamid. The former entered one of the shops. A quick glance inside showed Nick a customer accepting silver in exchange for goods he'd brought to sell. Nick frowned. He still had possession of the bezoar stone. Unless Bihzad had stolen something else from Zeno, he had nothing for the shopkeeper.
In order to keep Hamid in sight, Nick remained outside. He could not make out what was being said, but he was near enough to tell the shopkeeper was annoyed with Zeno's student. The young man's voice rose in anger. The other barked a sharp command. Then both adjourned behind a curtain that hid a back room.
In the distance, Hamid was accosted by a veiled woman. No, Nick corrected himself, not just a woman. A cahbeha. Her professional status was made clear by the broad embroidered border on her veil. Honest women, Nick had been told, displayed no borders.
But what was she doing out in broad daylight? Abd Allah Khan's instruction had been far-reaching. He'd explained to Nick that such women appeared in a certain place in Qazvin only when night fell.
"Many immoral women," he'd warned, "their faces concealed, stand in a long line and offer their shameful wares. Behind each is an old woman, known as the dalal, who carries a cushion and a cotton-filled blanket on her back and holds a lamp in her hand. When a man wishes to come to an arrangement with them, the dalal lights the lamp and with this the man sees each cahbeha's face and orders the one who pleases him most to follow him."
Shouts from within the shop drew Nick's attention back to Bihzad. The young man stormed out, nearly bowling Nick over as he made his escape. The shopkeeper hurled abuse in his wake, but made no attempt to follow. Nick caught only a few words, but they were sufficient to explain at least some of the animosity. The shopkeeper was Bihzad's father.
Nick remained in the marketplace several more hours, but learned little that seemed useful to him. He did not see any of Zeno's students again until supper, a strained meal filled with surreptitious looks in his direction. They alternated between suspicious and hostile.
After they'd eaten, he met with Zeno in private.
"The only way we can hope to discover the identity of Marta's murderer is to set a trap for the killer," Nick told him.
"With a dream, and a trick I learned in the innyard playhouses I frequented in my youth, and the rubaiyat I have been commanded to compose. And with the help, I do think, of that kitten."
A scheme had begun to suggest itself when they'd questioned Halima. In the course of the day, Nick had come to realize that the same thing that had almost gotten him killed on the spot, his foreign appearance and strangeness, might be just the thing that could save him. He explained what he had in mind.
Zeno pointed out the flaw in his plan. "It requires that you first compose your poem."
"I will work on it tonight," Nick told him, "and have it ready by morning."
"It is as well, then, that nights in this region and in this season are ten hours long."
The wind that came up every evening when the sun went down rattled the shutters and moaned like a tormented spirit. After the first hour, Nick wanted to wail along with it.
He had models to go by--rubai Zeno had provided that praised the beauty of a mole on a woman's cheek and the ugliness of having a nose as big as a gugglet--but he would indeed need every second of the darkness in order to complete his task.
The kitten, Bala, proved remarkable soothing to stroke when inspiration waned. The animal belonged to a breed Nick had first seen in Moscow. Highly valued for their long, silky coats, these cats were imported from Turkestan and Persia and sold to Russian noblemen, the only ones wealthy enough to buy them.
With Bala curled in his lap, Nick struggled through verse after verse. He wrote using the English alphabet and spelled Persian words by the way they sounded. He was rather proud of the figure of speech that proclaimed murder had as rank a smell as Muscovy leather, and of his use of the proverb "a black ox trod on my foot" to mean trouble had come upon him. On the whole, however, he knew his rubaiyat to be an awkward collection of verses in a flowery foreign tongue he had not yet mastered. Not a single one of the quatrains translated well into English.
By the time Nick finished, it was almost sunrise and the clove-scented candles had burned down to stubs. Persians did love that smell, he thought. Even the bezoar stone carried a trace of it.
As he'd promised, Zeno listened to Nick's composition and declared it free of heresy. He found a few errors in meaning. After Nick corrected them, he committed his creation to memory. That done, Nick left Zeno's house to make several purchases in the marketplace. Powder of vernis, he discovered, was more readily available in Qazvin than in London.
By mid-morning, all was in readiness. Zeno had collected the three students in his private parlor to await Nick's grand entrance. The plan was simple--prey on what Nick hoped was a universal fear of the occult. Everyone he knew, whether Englishman, Muscovite, or Hollander, believed in the power of spells and curses. He counted on Zeno's apprentices being every bit as superstitious as their English counterparts.
With as much dignity as he could counterfeit, he advanced into the room. Striking a pose, he began to recite his rubaiyat, the tale of a powerful western magician who called up the restless spirit of a murdered woman. There had been a witness, the verses claimed, to Marta's death, a kitten called Bala. With the help of Nick's spell, Bala would be the instrument of Marta's revenge.
He had concealed the small white feline in one of the hidden pockets of his doublet. With slight of hand with flint and steel and the powder of vernis, he produced a flash and a cloud of smoke at the moment when it would have the best dramatic effect. Seconds later, the haze cleared, revealing Bala in Nick's arms. Around the animal's neck hung the bezoar stone.
The theatrical trick startled all three students, but there was an added flicker of guilt in one pair of dark eyes. Thank God! Nick thought, and flung Bala directly at Hamid.
The young man scrambled backward with a cry of alarm. Covering his head with his arms to ward off attack, he began to babble. "Keep it away, master!" he begged. "Master Zeno, save me!"
"There was blood on your sleeve in the garden," Nick said. "And you had been chewing on cloves. Your breath reeked of them. The scent was on your hands, as well, and came off onto the bezoar stone."
Zeno reached out to his sobbing student, touching his shoulder. "Why, Hamid?"
"A woman," Nick murmured. "The woman in the marketplace."
"For Lilas," Hamid admitted. "She swore to refuse me if I did not bring her its magic."
"There was no need to steal the padzuhr," Zeno protested. "I would have loaned it to you, had you but asked."
"She did not wish to borrow it, master. She wants things for her own. She can command a great price, and most of her lovers give her rich gifts besides. She honored me with her favors. All she wanted was the padzuhr." At that, Hamid broke into loud lamentations.
Watching him, Nick felt a deep sense of sadness engulf him. He had succeeded in clearing his own name, but he could take no pleasure in this outcome. Nothing the authorities did to Hamid could change the senselessness of Marta's death.
Nick went to his second audience with Shah Tahmasp prepared to recite the collection of rubai and reap what rewards he could from the completion of his assignment. First, however, he was required to witness Hamid's punishment. The shah had decided to be merciful. Marta's killer would not be executed. Instead, with his own knife, Tahmasp cut off Hamid's lips, nose, ears, and eyelids.
Tahmasp turned next to Nick, running his icy gaze over Nick's Persian garb. "Do you adhere to the religious teachings of the Prophet?" he demanded.
Nick did not quibble over semantics. "I believe there is no God but God," he declared in ringing tones. "Muhammad is God's Prophet and Ali is God's Imam."
A long silence followed this avowal. Then, as if there had never been any question but that he would do so, Shah Tahmasp granted Nick permission to spend the next few months traveling throughout Persia. He would be allowed to negotiate the exportation of pepper, cinnamon, mace, jewels, silks, drugs, and alum. After that, Tahmasp declared, Nick would return to England to carry Tahmasp's royal gift to the English ruler. The shah produced a small, ornately carved ivory box. Within was a wondrous well-carved piece of jade of intense apple green, fashioned into the figure of a horse and measuring no more than six barleycorns high.
A week later, dawn found Nick Baldwin mounted on the good Arab horse Tahmasp had given him. Its trappings were of gold and turquoise. Behind him ranged twelve camels and five mules, also gifts from the shah. One of the mules carried yet another royal present, a large tent suitable for use when sleeping in the open.
Lorenzo Zeno, who had insisted Nick remain as a guest in his house during the remainder of his stay in Qazvin, came out to see him off. "I do not believe you will come this way again," he observed.
"It does not seem likely," Nick agreed.
"Halima sends you a parting present." Zeno offered up a basket. From within came feline sounds of protest.
"Bala. To remember us by."
Nick thought it unlikely he would ever forget this sojourn in Persia, although he intended to try his best to block out the memory of Tahmasp's swift and merciless punishment of Hamid.
As soon as he left Qazvin, his heart felt lighter. True, he would be returning soon to a country where heretics were burnt to death and traitors were hanged, drawn, and quartered, but he understood the complexities of life in England. English law, English political factions, and English religion were familiar to him.
He felt a grin overspread his features as he rode on. At home, he knew how to stay out of trouble. He was, after all, a London man.
A Note from the Author
Nick Baldwin's travels in Persia are loosely based on what really happened there. By 1553, England had an interest in finding a northern route to the wealth of the Indies. This led to trade with Russia, which was then called Muscovy. In 1558, Anthony Jenkinson set out from Moscow on a journey that was intended to retrace the footsteps of Marco Polo. When it took Jenkinson nine months to reach Bokhara, however, and he was told it would take another nine to reach China, he went back to Moscow.
This is the point at which I depart from history and let Nick go off on his own. To reach Qazvin, then the capital of Persia, he follows the route Jenkinson took two years later, crossing the Caspian to Derbent, meeting Abd Allah Khan, king of Shirvan and ruler of the Uzbeg people, then going on to meet Shah Tahmasp. Unfortunately, Jenkinson and the official delegation did not succeed in opening trade between Persia and England. He so offended the shah with his arrogance that at one point Tahmasp threatened to cut off his head and send it to Suleyman the Magnificent.
Lady Appleton and the London Man
* * * *
Lady Appleton and the London Man
"Folk hereabout call him the London Man." Jennet gestured toward the stranger at the far side of the gardens. "That is Master Baldwin."
Even as she wondered how Jennet could identify the fellow with such ease when this was his first visit to Leigh Abbey, Susanna Appleton had to smile at the sentiment behind the ekename. To country-dwellers who'd never traveled farther from their homes than Dover or Canterbury, London was as foreign a place as France or Spain. Wealthy city merchants like Master Baldwin aroused their darkest suspicions, especially when they purchased rural estates from the impoverished heirs of local gentry. Baldwin might now own a goodly parcel of land in Kent, but he was an outsider and would remain so.
"We will wait for him here," Susanna said, coming to a halt in the ornamental garden, a semi-circular space planted with shrubs, flowers, and a few fruit trees. Their visitor had not yet seen them, although 'twas plain one of the servants had told him where to look. The gardens on the south side of Leigh Abbey covered nearly an acre, far more extensive than the ones the monks had planted when the manor was, in truth, an abbey.
On this early August day, in the year of our Lord fifteen hundred and sixty-two, Susanna had suggested a mid-morning walk in pleasant surroundings in order to assure that Jennet, once her tiring maid, long her friend and companion, and now her housekeeper, did not wear herself out with work. Jennet would be delivered of her third child in a few months, several weeks before the second reached the one-year mark.
From a stone bench situated beneath an ancient oak planted on a little knoll, the two women had a splendid view. Susanna watched Baldwin pass through her herb garden and continue his advance between the long rows of parallel beds in the vegetable garden. He looked, she decided, like one of his own sturdy merchant ships under full sail.
Her new neighbor was stocky but not fat, with broad shoulders and surprisingly small feet. When he came closer, Susanna judged that he was a bit shorter than she was, but then she was tall for a woman, a legacy from her father. She'd also inherited his square jaw and his inquiring mind.
Baldwin appeared to be no more than thirty, though his brown hair had some white in it. He had regular features behind a fine beard, but at the moment, having spotted the two waiting women, they were much contorted by irritation.
She rose when he reached the base of the knoll, making her countenance as stern as a schoolmaster's. Why should a man she'd never met be so wroth with her? He seemed to be glowering at Jennet, too.
"Who are you, sir? And what business brings you to my home?"
Taken aback by her challenging stance, Baldwin hesitated, but only for a moment. "Good day to you, madam." He doffed his plumed bonnet, then replaced it with enough force to tell her he could barely contain some powerful emotion. "I am Nicholas Baldwin, your neighbor."
Had he been a dragon, Lady Appleton thought, he'd be breathing fire. She thought his scowling face and snapping eyes would look well on a carved wooden figurehead . . . if the piece graced the prow of a pirate's vessel.
"And your business here, Master Baldwin?"
He glanced at Jennet, then quickly back to Susanna. "It might be best if your husband were present."
"Impossible," Susanna informed him. "Sir Robert left five days ago on the queen's business. I do not expect to see him again for many months."
Gentleman, courtier, and sometime intelligence gatherer for the Crown, Sir Robert Appleton was often away for long periods of time. In his absence, Susanna ran his estates. In truth, she managed them even when he was in England. Though it galled Robert to admit it, she was better at such things than he was."
Again Baldwin looked in Jennet's direction, but this time his gaze remained fixed upon her. "I came here seeking this woman, Lady Appleton. I believe your servant stole something that belongs to me. Something of great value."
Deluded as one fit for Bedlam, Susanna thought, until she remembered that Jennet had been able to identify Master Baldwin before he introduced himself. And the look now overspreading the housekeeper's face might indeed be guilt. Jennet's eyes were wide and her skin had lost all color. For a moment, Susanna feared the younger woman might faint.
She should have known better.
Servant she might be, but Jennet had never been backward about speaking her own mind. Hands on her ample hips, she recovered in a trice from her shock at Baldwin's claim and returned his irate stare with one of her own. Her position atop the knoll allowed her to look down her nose at him.
"I never stole anything!" she declared. "I am innocent as a newborn babe."
Had the accusation not been so serious, Susanna would have applauded the show of bravado. Unfortunately, the law was clear. Theft of goods worth more than twelvepence was punishable by execution.
Baldwin looked unconvinced by the heartfelt protest. He shifted his attention to Susanna once more. "I must have my property back, madam. If it is returned to me without further ado, I will not bring charges against anyone in this household. Indeed, I will say nothing more of the incident to anyone."
If the claim that Jennet was a thief had been outrageous, this promise of leniency seemed more so. Master Baldwin, Susanna concluded, had something to hide.
"You are blunt, Master Baldwin," she told him.
"I am truthful, Lady Appleton."
"Why do you suspect Jennet?"
"She was seen in my house a week past, lurking in places she had no business, creeping about in a furtive manner."
"I did but pay a visit to Master Baldwin's cook!"
Susanna motioned for Jennet to remain silent, fearing she might say too much. Jennet did have a habit of listening at keyholes, but that was a far cry from stealing.
"You delayed long in coming here," she said to her neighbor, and met his eyes, unblinking.
Baldwin looked away first. "I did not discover my loss until this morning, but no one else could have taken it. Of all others, including mine own servants, only your own good husband even knew I had this particular object in my possession."
Susanna did not like the sound of that, but for the moment she let it pass. "What object?" she asked. "What does Jennet stand accused of taking?"
"You have no need to know."
Susanna's eyebrows lifted. She had heard that excuse too often from Robert and been obliged to accept it. She owed Baldwin no such obedience.
Under her steady glare, her neighbor's uneasiness grew until 'twas almost palpable. There, she sensed, lay a weakness she could use to advantage.
"I see no constable at your heels," she said. "No justice of the peace."
"You cannot want me to take the matter to law. Think, madam of the consequences."
Beside her, Susanna felt Jennet tremble, vibrating with a mixture of outrage and fear at this reminder of her danger. A convicted felon great with child might delay execution until she delivered, but afterward the sentence would duly be carried out.
"I will not permit such an injustice," Susanna declared. She slipped a comforting arm around the other woman's shoulders. Jennet might be adept at spinning tales and be able to lie without a qualm when necessity demanded, but she was no thief.
Baldwin looked thoughtful. "All I have heard of you, madam, from the vicar and from my servants, indicates you are a practical woman. This matter is easily settled. Allow me to search here at Leigh Abbey for what I have lost. I am certain I can rely upon your common sense to tell you this is a happy solution."
Flattery did not sway her, but neither did Susanna have any logical reason not to allow Baldwin to scour the premises. In truth, she could think of one very good argument in favor of permitting him to search.
"I will make a bargain with you, Master Baldwin," she said. "You may go through the entire house and all the outbuildings, look in any place you think Jennet might have secreted this stolen item. But when you have done, and have found nothing, you must grant me a favor in return."
"To be taken to the scene of the crime, where you will answer any question I pose about the theft."
Master Baldwin began to sputter a protest, but Susanna was spared the need to argue with him.
"Lady Appleton is the most skilled person in all England at reasoning out the truth of strange events," Jennet declared.
Baldwin did not look convinced, but he agreed to her proposal with a curt nod of assent. Likely he felt certain he'd find what he sought. Susanna was equally sure he would not.
"Shall we start with the stillroom?" She led him back through the gardens and up to the door of that separate building near the kitchen. "You may look, but not touch," she told him.
Baldwin hesitated in the doorway, taking in the sight of drying herbs surrounded by all manner of equipment for distillation and dozens of jars, pots, and other vessels, all labeled and dated. Apparently, he did know of her reputation on herbal poisons. When, after a thorough examination of the rest of the stillroom, his gaze fell upon the black chest in the darkest corner of the room, he did no more than request that she lift the lid.
"The thing I seek is not here," Baldwin admitted when he saw that it was full of papers, all the notes she had made over the course of many years of study.
In Susanna's company, Master Baldwin investigated every nook or cranny of Leigh Abbey, combing kitchen and bake house, snooping in the servants' quarters, and the stables, too. He found nothing, and at length the only room left to be searched was the study.
"A pleasant chamber," he remarked, taking in the hearth with the marble chimney-piece, the east-facing window, and the small, carpet-draped table holding crystal flagons and Venetian glass goblets. Susanna did not offer him refreshment. She had no desire to encourage him to linger.
A second table was heavy-laden with leather-bound volumes and the presence of so many books seemed to intrigue Baldwin. One by one he examined them with something bordering on reverence. Susanna did not think he was still looking for the missing object. Simple curiosity drove him now.
A copy of Variorum planetarium historia, written in Latin by a French physician and botanist, told him she was literate in more than one language. Then he found A Cautionary Herbal, being a compendium of plants harmful to the health. This small volume, printed by Master John Day of London two years earlier, bore only the initials S.A. to identify its author, but Baldwin, having just seen the papers in her stillroom, guessed the truth.
"You wrote this?" he asked.
She nodded. Remaining anonymous had been Robert's idea, not hers. It had allowed him to claim credit for her work.
Without comment, Baldwin abandoned the books and prowled the small room, stirring the rushes with every step to release the scent of the bayleaves strewn among them. He stopped in front of a large engraved map, mounted for hanging, which occupied a place of honor in the room.
Susanna felt herself tense. She forced herself to relax. "Mayhap you would care to look behind the mappa mundi?" she asked. "Doubtless there is a hidden panel in that wall."
"This, madam, may be a map of the world, but the term mappa mundi properly refers only to written descriptions."
"My husband calls it a mappa mundi."
"Sir Robert is a gentleman who dabbles in seafaring and exploration . . . in books and conversation." Baldwin's tone implied he himself was a participant in such things, and therefore an authority.
"Have you finished your search?" She heard the testiness in her voice and that annoyed her nearly as much as Baldwin's attitude.
"Aye, I have done what I set out to do."
"Good. I gave orders some time ago for my mare to be saddled."
A few minutes later, she was perched sideways on her horse, both feet resting on a velvet sling and supporting one knee in a hollow cut in the pommeled saddle, but there was a delay in setting out because Jennet insisted upon coming along and she required the help of two stout fellows to hoist her onto a pillion.
"You hate going anywhere on horseback," Susanna reminded her. "Even when you are not great with child."
"The journey is short," Jennet argued, grasping the waist of the man in the saddle in front of her.
Plainly, she did not intend to be left behind, and Susanna had to admit that she had every right to accompany them. There was little likelihood now that Jennet would be arrested or tried, let alone convicted and executed, since Baldwin had found no proof of her guilt, but neither had he rescinded his accusation. Jennet's honor was at stake.
Baldwin's house was less than two miles distant if one went by way of a footpath that ran through Leigh Abbey's orchards and a small wood and led straight up to his kitchen door. Master and servant alike had often taken this shortcut over the years. But by the road, the distance was nearly double, and because there had been rain during the night, going was slow.
So was pulling information out of Master Baldwin. He still refused to reveal the exact nature of the missing item.
"'Twas something meant to be presented to the queen," he allowed after considerable badgering on Susanna's part, "to be given to her once certain diplomatic goals have been met. I do but hold it in trust for someone else."
With further encouragement, he was persuaded to talk about his travels. A merchant adventurer, he'd only lately returned from Persia where, to hear him tell it, he'd been the first Englishman to set foot in that far-off land, arriving there a full two years ahead of the merchants of the Muscovy Company. He'd been to the court of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and that of Shah Tahmasp of Persia, and met someone called Abdullah Khan, King of Shirvan. In all, Master Baldwin had spent six and a half years out of England and come home a wealthy man.
When they at last arrived at his house, Baldwin escorted Susanna and Jennet to a private chamber on an upper floor. From Jennet's look of surprise, and by the way she peered with such curiosity into every corner, Susanna concluded that her housekeeper had not had an opportunity to explore this part of the premises on her earlier visit.
There were many charts and maps on the walls, and the London Man kept other treasures in chests and on tables. The display was comprised of an odd collection of objects, some of which Susanna could not identify.
"Navigational instruments I brought back from my travels," he said, noticing the direction of her gaze. "Your husband found them as fascinating as you seem to."
She was about to ask more about the occasion of Robert's visit when Jennet let out a shriek. Her face was bright red with embarrassment. "I did not think it was alive," she stammered, pointing toward a creature perched atop a silk-covered cushion on the window seat. "And then it opened one eye and stared at me."
"It" was a cat, larger that those Susanna was accustomed to. It was covered with long, white fur.
"His name is Bala," Master Baldwin said of the odd-looking beast. "I brought him back from Persia, too."
Bala continued to stare at them with baleful eyes while Master Baldwin retrieved a small, ornately carved ivory box from a chest and handed it to Lady Appleton. "The queen's gift was kept in this."
"Jewelry," she said. "Of what description?"
"What makes you think it was a jewel?"
"Simple enough. I watched you search Leigh Abbey, saw where and in what you looked. Together with the size of the box, I perceive the object you seek may be contained in a space no bigger than the palm of your hand. Add to that conclusion all you told us of your travels and my deduction is reasonable. Everyone knows that traders carry valuable jewels to exchange for other goods. The first Muscovy merchants took pearls and sapphires and rubies with them, and travelers to the East regularly bring back jasper and chalcedony."
"It is not a jewel, as it happens, but I cannot fault your logic. You are a most . . . unusual woman."
"Unusual enough to prompt you to tell me what was stolen?"
Baldwin came very near a smile. "'Twas a carved stone of great age and beauty. The like has never been seen in England ere now."
"Why do you think Jennet took this ornament?"
"She was the only one with opportunity, unless you wish me to accuse your husband."
Susanna did not.
She'd known for years that her husband had . . . flaws. It was possible, though it seemed unlikely, that he had removed something he should not have from Master Baldwin's house.
"I discovered the stone missing this morning," Baldwin continued, "The last time I lifted the lid of this box, Sir Robert stood beside me."
For a moment, Susanna thought she heard something in Baldwin's voice, a hint that it had not been Jennet he'd first suspected, but Robert.
"You did not check to be certain it was still there as soon as he left? How careless of you, Master Baldwin." To avoid meeting his eyes, she crossed the room to the window seat to make a closer inspection of the odd-looking cat. The fur was passing soft to the touch.
Her mild sarcasm had Baldwin blustering. "I had been advised, by someone high in Her Majesty's government, that the head of the household at Leigh Abbey could be trusted."
"Whoever told you that, he's more likely to have meant Lady Appleton than Sir Robert," Jennet blurted.
Baldwin trained his intense gaze on the housekeeper. "You are a strange sort of servant," he told her.
Deciding he'd had enough of a stranger's attentions, the cat Bala abruptly rose and leapt down from his cushion. A moment later, he began to play with a lightweight wooden disk. A checker, Susanna realized. Part of a set.
"I have been looking for that," Baldwin muttered, stooping to retrieve it. "This is yours," he told the cat, and tossed a square of canvas stuffed with pungent-scented catnip toward the center of the room.
Bala ignored the offering.
Susanna smiled. If Master Baldwin was the sort to make toys for a pet, there was hope he might yet learn to appreciate the advantages of individuality in servants and to value intelligence in women. The best way to convince him was to solve the mystery of his missing carving.
"What does your stolen stone look like?"
Still watching the cat, he answered her. "In color it is an intense apple green. No more than six barleycorns high, it has been wondrous well-carved and fashioned into a little figure of a horse."
Jennet would have no interest in such a thing, Susanna realized, but Robert was uncommon fond of horses. After a thoughtful silence, she began to muse aloud. What was most important at the moment was to clear her housekeeper of suspicion.
"Although I see no sign that anyone broke into this room," she said, "you must agree it is scarce secure. The window is an easy climb from the ground. The stone might have been taken at any time since you showed it to Robert. Tell me, was it in this chamber that he inspected the piece?"
"We took the box with us when we went down to the winter parlor near the kitchen, where my cook had set out a modest repast. It was there that your housekeeper was seen, Lady Appleton, though none of my servants thought to mention her presence to me until after I discovered the carving was missing and began to question them."
Master Baldwin led the way to the lower floor, with even Bala following after him, but the cat soon tired of their company and left the winter parlor by way of another open window.
"When is Jennet supposed to have had opportunity to steal the carving?" Susanna asked. "When was the box out of your possession?"
"I left it on the table when I bade Sir Robert farewell. I saw him off, through the front of the house, then returned here to collect the stone."
So, he had not looked again into the box. To clear Jennet, all Susanna had to do was accuse Robert.
Instead she asked for a few days to consider the problem, hinting that the local folk would confide in her, where to Master Baldwin they would plead ignorance. "You are a foreigner in their eyes."
"Aye," he agreed. "A London Man."
"Well, Jennet?" Lady Appleton asked when they were well on their way back to Leigh Abbey. They had sent the horses on ahead with the groom and taken the footpath. No one was in the wood to overhear what they might say to each other.
"I did not take the little horse."
"But you were at Master Baldwin's house the day Sir Robert visited him."
Reluctantly, Jennet nodded.
"And you were in the parlor."
"Aye. How could I not be curious when I heard Sir Robert's voice?"
"So you crept out of the kitchen and hid yourself, so that you might listen to whatever he said to Master Baldwin."
Jennet did not try to deny it. Susanna knew her ways too well. "When they left the little box behind, I wanted to see what was in it. I dashed across the room and opened the lid to peep inside."
"And was the stone there?"
"Oh, aye, but I scarce had time to admire it before I heard Master Baldwin returning. I closed the lid again and hid myself in the alcove behind the wall hanging until Master Baldwin collected his box and carried it away. Then I left his house and came straight home."
So, the carving had still been in the box when Robert left.
"What do we do now, madam? I find it passing unpleasant to be thought a thief."
And she did not like suspecting Robert, but she knew her husband well. Though she could not guess his motive, she accepted that it was within the realm of possibility that Robert had returned to Baldwin's house and stolen the stone from the upper chamber.
She would find the truth, she vowed. She was just not certain what she would do with it when she did.
Sir Robert Appleton had given his wife no reason to expect him to return to Leigh Abbey before he left the country on his latest mission for the Crown, but he was there when Susanna and Jennet reached home. Susanna found him in the study, just lifting down the mappa mundi to get at the wall behind it.
"I thought you were to set sail from London," she said as he removed a panel to reveal his accustomed hiding place for small valuables.
"I must cross the Narrow Seas to meet my ship off the coast of France." Leigh Abbey was on the road between London and Dover. To break the journey there was not suspicious in itself, but Susanna could not like this new development.
"You had best make haste," she advised, "before you are arrested."
The glance he shot at her over his shoulder conveyed annoyance. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, and although they managed as well as most couples, nowadays there was little love between them and less liking. "Have you some particular reason to think I will be?"
In clipped sentences she told him of Master Baldwin's visit and his search of the house. She did not, however, mention that it had been Jennet he'd accused of theft.
A furrow appeared in his high forehead, centered between an escaping lock of dark, wavy hair and equally dark brows. Something disturbed him in her report, but she was not certain that meant he had stolen the carving himself. Being accused was reason enough for worry.
"What was in that box was intended as a gift for the queen," Robert said after a moment. "It was to have been given to Her Majesty after the men of the Muscovy Company, with whom Baldwin was associated in his youth, make the first official contact with the Shah. Baldwin's visit to Persia was not authorized."
Susanna waited, letting the silence lengthen until he was driven to fill it.
"The theft of that piece could thwart a political alliance between England and Persia."
"Who would want to do that?"
"You have no need to know."
"I have every need if blame falls on anyone at Leigh Abbey. What was your business with Master Baldwin? Why did he show you the carving?"
"I tell you, madam, that is none of your concern."
As Susanna watched, unable to subdue the anger his attitude provoked, Robert removed a number of oilskin wrapped papers from the opening behind the panel and tucked them into the front of his dark green doublet. Then he reached in again for something smaller, which he likewise tucked away beneath the heavily embroidered velvet garment. She blinked. Had he just palmed the little horse?
She wished she'd looked behind the map before he returned. No woman wanted proof her husband was a thief, but not knowing one way or the other was far worse. Perhaps she had been too clever earlier, diverting Master Baldwin's attention from the map with her sarcastic suggestion that he might find a hiding place behind it. She had not suspected then that Baldwin might have his own doubts about Robert's honesty. Now she realized that by accusing the servant rather than the master, he'd achieved the same end, a search of Leigh Abbey, with far less opposition.
When Sir Robert's hiding place was once more concealed, he approached his wife. "Farewell, my dear," he said, and catching her to him for a rough, parting kiss before she could evade him. "I have no time to deal with our new neighbor. You must take care of the matter as you see fit."
He knew she took seriously the vows she'd made when they wed. She had sworn to obey him. Echoes of his taunting laughter lingered in the room long after he'd gone.
Susanna did follow after her husband to see him away on his journey. The days were long past when she'd felt obliged to offer the traditional stirrup cup and blessing.
Instead she stared at the map. In her mind, she saw Robert reaching into the wall that second time. To take something small out? Or to put something in?
Master Baldwin had said the little carving was no more than six barleycorns high. She glanced down at her own hand. Strong and work-hardened, the nails blunt, the skin stained with the residue of various herbal preparations, it was large enough to conceal a object that size. A hand half the size could do so. It followed that Robert might easily have concealed the little horse from her just now.
Susanna knew the nature of professional intelligence gatherers, her husband in particular. They tended to complicate matters which otherwise would have been most simple. It would be just like him, she decided, to put back the carving while trying to make her believe he'd removed it. Her mind full of possibilities, she took a step closer to the map.
Early the next morning, Susanna once again followed the footpath, this time walking from Leigh Abbey to Master Baldwin's property alone. She paused to examine several likely places along the way, the last just at the point where the path came out of the wood and plunged steeply downward toward the manor house.
Barely a quarter of an hour later, when Master Baldwin joined her in his winter parlor, she handed him the missing horse. His fingers curled tight around the apple-green stone, he waited for her explanation.
"You said, did you not, Master Baldwin, that you left the box containing that stone unattended while you escorted mine husband to the door?"
"Aye, I did."
"And the box was not locked?"
"No. I did not turn the key until I returned. You know already that I did not look inside."
"And Bala, I perceive, is a very clever cat."
"Bala?" He blinked at her in surprise.
"The cat took your little carved stone."
"Bala?" he repeated, thunderstruck.
"I found that carving along the footpath that runs between this house and Leigh Abbey," she explained. "It is small and lightweight. Easy enough for a cat to carry off in its mouth. When Bala tired of it, he must have dropped it there, where it could not be easily seen for the ruts and twigs and leaves."
"I did not search along any path," Baldwin admitted. "I did not realize there was one connecting our two properties until yesterday."
As she'd expected, Susanna thought.
Baldwin abruptly crossed the room to where the large white feline slept atop a carpet-covered table. There was no question in Susanna's mind that the cat could have done what she'd said he had. And she knew that he, in common with all cats, must roam far and wide in search of mice and other prey.
"This cat was well named," Baldwin muttered. "In the language of Persia, Bala means nuisance."
For a moment, Lady Appleton feared Master Baldwin might harm the animal. He picked Bala up and held him at arm's length, but all he did was give him a hard stare. Then, shaking his head, he cuddled him in his arms as he turned to face his neighbor.
The show of affection wrenched at Susanna's heart. She was suddenly very tired of cleaning up after Robert, of allowing him to take the credit for her accomplishments, of letting him shift the blame for his less honorable actions to others. And she had never liked lying.
Did she dare tell Master Baldwin that the carving had been behind the map? That Robert had by stealth entered the upper room of this house and stolen the stone? When he'd believed his theft discovered, he'd shown no remorse, only left his wife, as always, to clean up after him, to "take care of the matter" as she thought best.
Words came out in a rush. "Bala did not--"
"Mean to cause so much trouble," Baldwin finished for her. "I am well aware of that. Perhaps you will allow me to send a small gift to your housekeeper, by way of apology?"
"She would appreciate that, but I--"
This time he held up a hand to stop her. "The end result is the same. Through your involvement, your desire to protect those close to you, I have the carving back. 'Tis best we say no more about it."
The look in his eyes brought to an abrupt end any need to confess. It was a curious mixture of triumph and compassion.
For that brief moment, Lady Appleton and the London Man shared a perfect understanding of the truth.
A Note from the Author
"Persian" cats originally came from Turkey. They did not yet have the flat-faced look associated with the breed today. In the sixteenth century they were a popular export from Persia and Turkey to Muscovy, and although I do not know of any that made the journey to England that early, there is no reason someone associated with the Muscovy Company could not have brought one back with him.
* * * *
Lady Appleton and the Cautionary Herbal
A horn sounded to announce the arrival of a post boy at Leigh Abbey, a not uncommon occurrence since the manor house stood so near the main road from London to Dover, one of the most traveled highways in Elizabeth Tudor's England. He was gone again before Susanna, Lady Appleton, reached the gatehouse, but he had left a package. She eyed it with mild surprise. Although she was in regular correspondence with a goodly number of friends and acquaintances throughout the kingdom, they rarely exchanged anything but letters.
Puzzled, she hefted the parcel. Nothing on the outer wrapping, which was slightly torn, hinted at who might have sent it, but the size and shape left little doubt she'd find a book inside. Her fingers trembled as she undid the string that bound it. The world thought her a widow, but she knew in her heart that her deceitful, traitorous husband still lived. She feared this might be some sort of communication from him.
To her astonishment, the package contained an inexpensive, unbound, folio copy of the volume she herself had written. A Cautionary Herbal, being a compendium of plants harmful to the health was the result of many years of research. Susanna had been motivated to compile it by her younger sister's untimely death following the consumption of some harmless-looking berries that had, in fact, been poisonous.
As she retraced her steps to the house, Susanna tried to think who might have sent the book to her and why. It had not, she concluded, come from Sir Robert Appleton, who had disappeared just a year earlier. If he'd wished to communicate, he'd have sent a quite different book. But her relief was tempered by perplexity. That she was the author of this little herbal was no great secret, but on the title page the work was attributed only to "S.A." and her identity, or so she'd always believed, was not widely known.
Since no note accompanied the volume, Susanna carried it into her study and began to turn the leaves, looking for anything written in the margins. She found not a single annotation but she did make another sort of discovery--a jagged edge where a single page had been torn out.
The entries were alphabetical and each had a drawing opposite. The missing text had detailed the properties of hemlock, a particularly deadly poison. In ancient Athens it had been used for state executions.
"Most troubling," she murmured. Still carrying the book, she went to the window to stare out at fields, where the summer ploughing had begun, and orchards filled with apple trees in full flower and the last of the cherries. She found no solace in the peaceful vista, nor did the sight provide any answers.
A jangle of keys warned Susanna that Jennet, her housekeeper, had entered the chamber. She stopped short when she caught sight of her mistress's expression, then crept closer. She had to peer upward to see Susanna's face clearly, for the lady of Leigh Abbey was uncommon tall. She had inherited that characteristic, along with her intelligence, her sturdy build, and the square set of her jaw, from her father. Jennet, although of middling height for a woman, stood somewhat shorter. She was a blue-eyed, pale-skinned, fair-haired, small-boned individual who had gone from slim to plump in the course of giving birth to three children. She had never, in all the years she had served Lady Appleton, been shy about asking questions or expressing her opinions.
"What is the matter, madam? What has happened?"
Before Susanna could answer, Jennet caught sight of the herbal. She had no difficulty recognizing it or perceiving, as anyone in the household would, that it was not one of the copies housed at Leigh Abbey. Those were all bound in expensive hand-tooled leather.
"Someone sent this to me," Susanna said.
"It could have been anyone. It is not difficult to purchase a copy."
Indeed, it had been Susanna's hope when she wrote the slim volume that it would be readily available to all those who needed it. She'd collected information on poisonous herbs for the benefit of housewives and cooks, those most likely to mistake one plant for another and accidentally poison an entire household.
"Madam, what is it?" Alarm made Jennet's voice sharp. "Your face has of a sudden gone white as a winding sheet."
Susanna felt for a stool and sat. "I feared this might come to pass," she whispered as a wave of dismay and guilt swept through her.
She'd realized soon after her book was published than in her effort to do good, she had also gathered together a collection of recipes that could be used by an evildoer intent upon harm. This herbal designed to protect the unwary, in the wrong hands became a manual for murder. Did the package she'd just received mean A Cautionary Herbal, compiled in order to save lives, had been used to take one?
Susanna lifted the folio and stared at it, seeking in vain for answers. When she at last put it aside, she was determined to reason out who had sent it to her and why.
The postboy had come from London. She knew that much. And London was also the most likely place for her herbal to have been purchased. But was sending the book an announcement of a crime already committed or a challenge to her to prevent murder? If there was any chance she could do the latter, she knew she had to attempt it.
"We must go to London," she told Jennet. "At once."
John Day had printed Susanna's herbal. His premises in London were in Aldersgate. Literally. His printing house was set against the city wall. His shop and warehouse and his lodgings in the churchyard were attached to the gate. From the outside, he did not appear to have much space to conduct business but the buildings extended backward and Susanna knew, from a previous visit, that there was a fine garden hidden away behind them.
There were many such pleasant places in London, did one but know where to find them. On this bright mid-June morning, however, Susanna was only interested in answers. Accompanied by Jennet and one of Leigh Abbey's grooms of the stable, she entered Day's place of business.
The rattle and clash of presses assaulted their ears as soon as they stepped through the door. An inking ball stuffed with feathers brushed the top of Susanna's French hood. She wrinkled her nose at its pungent smell and took note of the location of several more of these offensive objects, which had been suspended from the ceiling in order to be in easy reach of Day's apprentices. A similar stench also emanated from the freshly printed pages draped for drying over lines strung between the presses.
As Susanna searched the huge workroom for Master Day, her gaze took in piles of quartos and pamphlets, already assembled and stacked on tables, and shelves piled high with boxes of movable type. The printer himself, a tall, thin man with a face like a basset hound's, was at his hand press, so engrossed in producing an ornate title page from a finely engraved copper plate that he did not notice Susanna until she called out his name.
At once, he abandoned his task. When she requested that they speak together in private, he escorted her to a comfortable parlor in his lodgings and settled her in his best chair.
"I came here, Master Day," she told him, "hoping you know what persons have of late bought copies of my book."
"I do not keep a record of the names of purchasers, Lady Appleton." With ink-stained fingers, he began to pleat the fabric of his long canvas apron. "And, indeed, my stock for the most part goes to booksellers."
Her question had made him nervous. She wondered why. "You do sell some individual copies. Do you remember if any recent customer behaved in an odd manner? Think, Master Day. Do you recall one who looked furtive? Or guilty? And was there someone, mayhap, who asked you to identify the S.A. who wrote my book?"
"I print many books, madam, and have many customers." The fabric of his apron was now as goffered as a ruff, convincing Susanna that he must know more than he would admit to.
"Well, then," she said with an exaggerated sigh, "there is no help for it. I must withdraw all remaining copies of mine herbal."
As she'd anticipated, Day was horrified by the possibility of lost profit. "You cannot be serious, madam!"
"My work may have been used to do murder, Master Day."
Shock, but no surprise, showed in his features. "Surely the good your herbal may do far outweighs its potential to cause harm."
Although Susanna had reached that same conclusion during the two-day journey from rural Kent to London, she was not inclined to let Day off the hook so easily. "Someone sent a copy of my book to Leigh Abbey with one page missing," she told him. "I believe that person intends to commit murder. Or has done so already. Have you heard of any deaths by poisoning here in London in recent days?"
"Indeed I have not!" Day sounded indignant, but he could not meet her eyes.
"Then mayhap I am in time to prevent one."
Susanna waited, saying nothing more, letting Day's own conscience prick at him. The printer's nervousness increased visibly, causing him to abandon the stool on which he'd been perched and begin to pace. He paused by the window, through which drifted the scents of roses and honeysuckle from the garden below, then turned to glare at his unwelcome guest.
"What profit to save one life at the cost of another?"
"Explain yourself, good sir. I do not wish to bear responsibility for any death and I would think you'd feel the same."
"You ask me to vilify a person who has done naught but buy a copy of your herbal."
So he did suspect someone! Elated, Susanna had to struggle to keep her voice level. "No crime has been committed yet. I would have that remain true. But you must see that I need to investigate. If my suspicions are correct, if that torn page means someone contemplates murder, then how can I do nothing to stop it and still hope to live with myself? Give me a name, Master Day. Let me pursue the matter. You have my word that I will be discreet."
Day looked everywhere but at her.
"The book was sent to me." Using her most persuasive voice, Susanna rose from her chair and crossed to him to place one hand on his forearm. When he reluctantly met her eyes, she added, "Someone wanted me to know . . . and to act."
Heaving a heavy-hearted sigh, Day capitulated. "Mistress Drood," he mumbled. "Wife to Ralph Drood the merchant. You will find his house on London Bridge, near the sign of the Golden Key." In his misery, his resemblance to a basset hound increased. "She is his third wife, Lady Appleton. Her predecessors died under most suspicious circumstances."
Once more accompanied by Jennet and the groom, Susanna went first to the church of St. Magnus, located near the north end of the Bridge. For some thirty years, all England had been required by law to register births, marriages, and deaths. Some did so more religiously than others but Susanna's luck was in. She found the entries she sought without difficulty. Day had been right. Drood had married his second wife only seven months after burying the first, and had wed the third within a month of the second's demise.
"A most unlucky fellow," said the rector who'd helped Susanna find the records.
"You know Ralph Drood?"
"Everyone knows Master Drood in this parish. He has given most generously to the church."
"A rich man, then?"
Further questioning elicited the information that Drood imported iron, wax, ginger, woad, Spanish asses, herring, beaver, and wine. He exported grain and cloth, and on occasion acted as a moneylender. He had a fine house on London Bridge, five stories high and filled with servants.
"Two maids and a cook among them," the rector bragged, "and Master Drood has property in the country, too."
"Why, then, do you say he is unlucky?"
"Two years ago, he had a wife and son. Then the boy was overlaid and so died."
Overlaid. Susanna winced. Someone had rolled on top of him and he'd suffocated. As a cause of death it was not uncommon, not when an entire family often slept in the same bed. She frowned. This family was wealthy. The child should have been sleeping in a cradle by himself.
"A few weeks after," the rector continued, "the bereaved mother died. Pining for her infant, or so 'twas said."
"Pining," Susanna recalled, had been written down as "cause of death" in the register. It was a useful term, sufficiently vague to account for all manner of symptoms.
"Master Drood remarried without the customary year of mourning," she remarked.
"Aye, that he did. Well, why not?" The rector's defensive tone of voice reminded Susanna that Drood was a generous contributor to the parish coffers.
"And the second Mistress Drood?"
"Stifled to death."
Another ambiguous term, thought Susanna. "Do you mean that someone held a pillow over her face?"
Taken aback by the suggestion, the rector made haste to clarify. "She fell asleep in a closed room after lighting a charcoal stove to keep it warm. That was what the searchers determined."
The searchers were old women who examined bodies in order to report a cause of death to the authorities. They were untrained and ill-paid. Susanna put little faith in their skill. They could easily have made a mistake. More likely, she thought as she thanked the rector for his help and bade him farewell, they had been bribed to accept Drood's version of his wife's death.
London Bridge was entirely covered with shops, taverns, and houses, nearly 200 buildings crammed together with room in the middle for carts, horses, and pedestrians to pass. At either end, one could see that a river flowed beneath the structures, but once upon the bridge it seemed to be just another long street.
For that Susanna was grateful. The mere sight of choppy water could make her queasy. She'd taken the precaution, en route from Day's premises to St. Magnus, of taking a preventative made of ginger root and peppermint.
An elderly maid answered the door at Master Drood's impressive dwelling. She led Susanna into a parlor, then took Jennet and the groom off to the kitchen. Jennet already had her instructions. She was to question the servants while her mistress spoke with Mistress Drood. Later, they would compare notes.
Left alone to wait for her hostess, Susanna took stock of her surroundings. The room was lushly furnished with turkey carpets and heavy, ornately carved furniture. One oak chest in particular attracted her attention. The front had been inlaid with other woods in a design meant to depict the exterior of some elaborate building. Nonsuch, perhaps, the palace King Henry had built after destroying the village that had previously occupied the site.
She strode closer, curious to inspect the details. Too late, she realized that the open window above the chest looked directly down into the Thames. Swallowing hard, she backed away. Foolish, she chided herself, to grow so overwrought at the mere sight of the river below. But she did not go near the casement again.
"Lady Appleton?" a meek voice inquired. Mistress Drood was a pale-faced mouse of a woman in rose-color taffeta too fine for her station. She was also rather older than Susanna had expected her to be. She looked frightened.
"Mistress Drood, I have come here to help you."
This comment seemed to surprise Mistress Drood. "I do not understand you."
"I believe you sent this to me." Susanna produced the herbal, which she'd brought with her in a pouch.
Mistress Drood's eyes widened, making it clear to Susanna that she recognized it, but she was still loath to admit anything. "Why would I do that?" she asked.
"Because I compiled this herbal. The initials S.A. represent Susanna Appleton."
"I did know that," Mistress Drood acknowledged.
Flustered, the woman wrung her hands and kept her eyes downcast. "Master Baldwin told us. He supped with us one day last month and mentioned that his neighbor in Kent had written a book. He was mightily impressed by your scholarship, Lady Appleton."
One mystery solved, Susanna thought. Nicholas Baldwin, merchant of London, owned lands adjoining the Leigh Abbey demesne farm. And he did know she was the author of the herbal. She hastily repressed the small burst of pleasure she felt at learning he thought well of her for it. She was not here to garner praise.
"I believe you then bought a copy of my book," she said. "This copy."
Mistress Drood's head lifted. Her eyes were wide. "Oh, no, Lady Appleton! I did not do that."
"You did," Susanna insisted. John Day had identified her and he'd had no reason to lie. "Why?"
Tears welled up in Mistress Drood's eyes. "It was Master Drood's idea. He sent me to the printer to purchase a copy."
"Oh, Lady Appleton. He taunts me with it. He plans to kill me using one of the poisons you wrote about." Mistress Drood began to sob.
It was as she had feared, and yet something about Mistress Drood's tale did not ring true. "Who tore out the page?"
"He did. Oh, he did! And let me see that he'd done it, too. He means to torment me, to make the last days of my life a misery before he acts."
Made even more skeptical of these histrionics, Susanna studied Drood's wife. Most peculiar behavior, she thought, but she could not deny the woman's obvious distress. She led her to the window seat and made her sit, careful to avoid looking out as she did so.
The words barely audible between sobs, Mistress Drood admitted to sending the herbal to Leigh Abbey and added that she'd done so because she wanted Susanna's help.
"But you sent no message with it, gave me no hint of who you were or what troubled you."
"I . . . I did send a note. It must have fallen out of the parcel."
Susanna frowned. Could a note have become detached? The wrapping had been torn.
"Why lie about it, then, when I arrived? If you sent for me, you must have hoped I'd come."
With a lacy handkerchief she'd fished out of one sleeve, Mistress Drood patted her damp cheeks. "I was not thinking clearly. I feared my husband might recognize you. I did not precisely send for you, you see. I wrote to ask what that page contained and to request the antidote for whatever poison was upon it. I . . . I thought you would send a reply."
Susanna considered that. "You might have done better to go to Master Day and purchase another copy of my book."
The tears had ceased, but Mistress Drood's voice still had a hitch in it. "I . . . I did not dare. Master Drood might have heard of it. Then he'd have acted at once. As it is, I think . . . I think he is waiting."
"Waiting for what?"
She made a fluttery gesture with one hand. "Midsummer's Eve. Less than a week away."
Nonsense, Susanna thought, but she kept that reaction to herself.
"Ralph Drood killed his first two wives and got away with it," Mistress Drood said. "He believes he can do so again and this time he means to employ poison."
Susanna had no difficulty accepting that Drood had gotten away with murder. Criminals with powerful connections often did, especially those who had sufficient money to pay bribes. What troubled her was the suspicion that Mistress Drood had plans to strike first--to kill her husband before he could murder her.
She felt a reluctant sympathy for the woman. Mistress Drood clearly believed her own life was at risk. Naught but desperation could have driven her to contemplate murder.
The woman did not look capable of harming a flea, but appearances could be deceiving. Even Susanna herself had once contemplated an act that would have brought about another's death. She had found the strength to resist in her deeply ingrained belief that anyone who exacted revenge by murder became as great a sinner as the person who'd committed the original crime.
She frowned at the memory.
Then again, Mistress Drood might be telling the simple truth. Had she sent to Leigh Abbey for an antidote? Perhaps, Susanna thought, that was all she wanted--the means to save herself.
"Let us discuss your husband," she said. "What profit to him in your death?"
"But he is already wealthy."
"To Ralph Drood, there is no such thing as too much money. He always wants more. That is the only reason he married me. When I'm gone, he can wed yet again, collect another dowry from some poor unsuspecting father burdened with a spinster daughter."
"Can you go back to your father's house?" That might buy time to conduct a proper investigation of Drood's actions.
Mistress Drood shook her head. "My father is as great a brute and bully as mine husband. He'd insist I return. And you need not suggest that I run away to friends. I have considered that. Master Drood would find me and force me to come back. He is too rich and has too many powerful friends. I am doomed, Lady Appleton, unless you can give me an antidote to keep always at hand."
Susanna had powerful friends of her own. One in particular might be able to help her prove it if Drood was a murderer. "How can you be certain your husband killed his first two wives?" she asked. "Both cases were written down as accidents."
"I know they were murders." Mistress Drood spoke with convincing fervor. "He bragged to me of his deeds. He smothered one with a pillow. The other he starved to death."
"The law! Neither sheriff nor justice of the peace will act against him. He has the money to pay the most exorbitant bribe. Please, Lady Appleton. I beg of you. Tell me how to keep myself from being poisoned. What was on that page?"
Susanna sighed. "Hemlock."
"How may I recognize it?"
"The seeds might be mistaken for anise, the leaves for parsley. All parts of the plant are deadly, but the most powerful poison comes from juice extracted just as the fruit begins to form. This usually occurs toward the end of June."
"Around Midsummer Day?" Mistress Drood asked.
"He will no doubt try to give it to me in a drink."
"It has a most bitter taste."
"Could that be disguised by herbs?"
"Perhaps. Hemlock also has a disagreeable odor. A sort of mousy smell."
"And the antidote, should I notice these warning signs too late?"
"There is no sure antidote. There may be some small hope of survival if you empty your stomach at once. Some say that nettle seeds, taken inwardly, can counteract the poison, but I am not convinced they would be of any use. Hemlock is very potent and acts quickly. Few people, Mistress Drood, have ever cared to experiment on themselves, or others, to determine the efficacy of an antidote."
"Would my death look like an accident?" Drood's wife seemed to grow more calm with each bit of information Susanna provided.
"Aye. It well might."
Before Mistress Drood could ask any more questions, the slam of a door below and a series of sneezes alerted them to the return of her husband. "You must go," she whispered, panic evident in every nuance of her voice. "Hurry! Leave before he sees you, before he hears your name. It will go hard on me if he finds you here."
"Do nothing," Susanna warned as she was hustled out the back way. "Trust me to find a way to help you."
From the street outside, where she waited for Jennet and the groom to join her, Susanna heard Master Drood berating his wife. The words were indistinct, but there was no mistaking his foul temper. It seemed to get worse every time he was seized by a fit of sneezing.
"The cook says Master Drood sneezes for weeks at a time at this season of the year," Jennet remarked, appearing suddenly at her mistress's side.
Inhaling crushed basil might help, Susanna thought, but she felt no inclination to offer that helpful suggestion. "Do the servants think he killed his first two wives?"
"None of them seemed to care if he had. They are well paid and have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Their loyalty is to Master Drood, not his wife." Jennet might have said more, but they had reached the end of the bridge, where boatmen waited to be hired.
Susanna had to make a decision.
From the upriver side of London Bridge it was but a short ride in a wherry to reach the water stairs at Blackfriars. Throughout this brief journey, Susanna kept her eyes firmly fixed on the shore. Not even her special ginger and peppermint mixture could completely quell the unquietness in her stomach, but at least she did not disgrace herself by being sick. It helped to keep her mind blank. Jennet, accustomed to her mistress's difficulty with travel on water, did not distract her with speech.
Sir Walter Pendennis had his lodgings in Blackfriars, an enclosed precinct in the most westerly part of London. Once it had been a monastery, but in King Henry's reign it had been broken up into shops and dwellings. Near the north end of the former cloister was a door leading to the narrow stairs to Sir Walter's rooms. He lived above what had been the monks' buttery.
"My dear," Sir Walter greeted her when his manservant showed her in. "May I offer you some wine?" He insisted she sit in the comfortable Glastonbury chair he'd just vacated.
"Something restorative would be most welcome." As she remembered from a previous visit, a table by the window held a variety of drink. Sir Walter looked well, she thought, as he filled a crystal goblet for her. If he was a few pounds heavier than when she'd last seen him, he was tall enough and so broad-shouldered that his love of good food had not yet rendered him obese. He served her, then topped off a large, brown earthenware cup with ale for himself.
Revived by a few sips of fine Canary, calmed by the pleasant scent of marjoram flowers and woodruff leaves rising from the rushes underfoot, Susanna sketched out the bare bones of her tale.
"I know something of this man," Sir Walter remarked when Susanna completed a concise summary of the facts as Mistress Drood had presented them.
"That you have heard his name is ominous in itself. Is Drood spy or smuggler?"
He might well be both if Sir Walter took an interest in him. Her old friend was the most prominent of the queen's intelligence gatherers, a man with considerable influence at the royal court. Susanna had decided to speak to him for that very reason, and because she knew he would not mock her concerns, as a constable or a justice of the peace or one of London's sheriffs might.
"I have no proof against him. Only suspicions." Sir Walter absently smoothed one hand over his sand-colored beard, dislodging a crumb of bread. "We want evidence."
"Evidence of what?"
To her surprise, he told her. "Clipping." At her blank expression, he clarified. "Clipping is a form of counterfeiting. For some men, there can never be enough wealth. They adulterate coin of the realm, scraping off some of the gold to sell, and then spend the clipped coins as if they had full value. In a case not long ago a woman clipped twenty half sovereigns, worth ten shillings each, by sixpence a piece."
"And Drood makes a practice of this?"
"Aye. He has done so for some time. Clipping was made a treasonous offense more than a century ago, but a loophole in the law has existed for the last ten years. It has only recently been closed and the Crown has been working ever since to apprehend those who profited in the interim."
Susanna did not need further explanation of Sir Walter's "loophole." She knew already that when the Catholic Queen Mary had come to the throne she'd nullified a great many laws, part of an attempt to overturn all that men of the New Religion had accomplished during the reigns of King Henry VIII and his short-lived son, Edward. As a result, the baby had often been thrown out with the bathwater.
"He is clever, our Master Drood," Sir Walter continued, "but if I can persuade Mistress Drood to help us build a case, we may catch him yet." He gave a wry chuckle. "A pity I cannot simply encourage her to poison her husband before he gets a chance to poison her. That would solve any number of problems."
Susanna gripped the arm of her chair so tightly that she left little pock-marks in the swath of blue velvet flung across it for padding. "How can you joke about such a thing? Murder is never justified! And you know as well as I do that Mistress Drood would at once be suspected if her husband died. At the slightest hint of foul play, she would be arrested for his murder, and tried, and executed, too."
With a courtly little bow, Sir Walter acknowledged her point, then resumed his former pose by the window, one shoulder negligently propped against the frame. "My apologies, my dear. You are right to admonish me. But what, then, would you have me do?"
"Prove Drood guilty of this clipping. As you suggest, Mistress Drood will be inclined to help you gather evidence against him. All you need do is explain the situation to her."
"I can offer her protection, and some sort of reward for her cooperation."
Encouraged, Susanna smiled at him. Clipping would be easier to prove than murder, and it carried the same penalty. "What can I do to help?"
When she started to protest, he held up a hand.
"Mistress Drood has already told you that her husband knows you wrote that cautionary herbal. To involve yourself further will only complicate matters, and possibly place you in danger. Besides, now that you have brought the situation to my attention, you may rely upon me to deal with it in the best manner possible."
Although his reassurances left her far from quiet in her mind, Susanna accepted the argument that she would get in the way of an official investigation. She might even compromise it. "You'll arrest Drood as soon as you can?"
"I swear it."
With that she had to be content, but she had no intention of going home until matters were settled. She returned to temporary lodgings at the Blossom Inn to await developments.
"Well, Jennet," Susanna said a short time later, kicking off her shoes and putting her feet up, "we have done a good day's work."
"Yes, madam," Jennet agreed. "Were you still wanting to know what the servants said?"
"We have not yet had the opportunity to compare notes, have we?"
Jennet had overheard Susanna's discussion with Sir Walter, but it was plain she was far from satisfied. In her effort to be brief and to the point, Susanna had left out a good many details. For Jennet's benefit, she now recounted her conversation with Mistress Drood in full. By the time she finished, Jennet was chewing industriously on her lower lip, a sure sign she was troubled.
"Perhaps nothing, madam. Servants do like to exaggerate their own importance." She had good reason to know that, being a mistress of the art herself.
"Let me decide. What did you learn from the maids?"
"One of them is an elderly woman named Joan. She came to the household with the first Mistress Drood and stayed on."
Susanna nodded, remembering the servant who had admitted them. "Nothing odd in that."
"She knew who you were. Said she'd been hoping you'd turn up. Said she was the one sent the herbal to Leigh Abbey. Said she knew you wrote it because she overheard Master Baldwin say so to Master Drood. Said she'd also heard you were clever at figuring things out."
"Did Master Baldwin say that, too?" Susanna thought it unlikely. He'd not have wanted to explain how he knew.
"Joan said she'd heard that from a certain . . . person in Southwark."
"Oh," said Susanna. She did have friends in Southwark . . . of the disreputable sort.
"Joan said she does not know how to write, so she sent the herbal without any message. She got the rector of St. Magnus to write your name and Leigh Abbey, Kent, on the wrapping. Said I could ask him, if I did not believe her. Said she hoped you would know what to do about Mistress Drood."
"Mistress Drood says she sent me the book." But at first she'd seemed confused about that, Susanna remembered.
"Joan said Mistress Drood bought the book and tore out a page, then discarded the rest. Joan found it. She cannot read, but she could see by the illustrations what the book was about. She thinks Mistress Drood means to poison her husband. Joan is not pleased by that. She fears she'll be turned out once Mistress Drood is in charge."
Susanna's feet hit the floor with a thump. Beset by a terrible sense of urgency, she donned her discarded shoes. "We must go back to Master Drood's house."
If Joan was telling the truth, if Mistress Drood had planned all along to kill her husband and not the other way around, then Susanna's unexpected visit, followed so closely by the one Sir Walter had by now paid, might provoke her to act precipitously.
If murder for gain was Mistress Drood's purpose, it would not suit her to have her husband executed. That would make her a widow, true enough, but in cases of treason the crown seized all the traitor's property. Mistress Drood would be left penniless.
They had most of the city to cross and as it was now late afternoon, progress was slow. The streets were thronged with people hurrying home to sup.
The house on London Bridge was in an uproar by the time they arrived. "My wife! My poor stupid wife!" Ralph Drood danced a little jig as he bellowed the words. There was nothing grief-stricken in his expression.
Neither was he a great hulking brute, as Susanna had imagined. Ralph Drood was a scrawny little man whose most prominent features were a bushy red beard and a nose and eyes made nearly as red by his fits of sneezing.
"We are too late," Susanna whispered to Jennet. "He has already poisoned her."
But there was no sign of Mistress Drood, alive or dead, in the house. Susanna returned to the parlor, this time noticing obvious signs of a struggle. Broken crockery and scattered papers littered the floor. The ornate chest she had noticed earlier, which had been centered beneath the window, had been shoved to one side.
Frustrated beyond caution, Susanna marched up to Drood and grabbed him by the front of his doublet. "What happened to your wife?" she demanded. "Where is she?"
For an instant she thought he would not answer. Then he laughed, a wild, triumphant sound, and pointed to the window. "She fell into the river and is surely drowned. A terrible accident."
"How long ago did this happen?"
"Just now. Just before you came in."
Without another word, Susanna released Drood and ran from the house, calling to her groom to follow. No one had searched the water for Mistress Drood. Why should they? Her own husband clearly wanted her dead. He had, in all likelihood, pushed her out that window. But if she had survived the fall, and if she had managed to stay afloat, there might yet be time to save her. More hope of it, Susanna thought, than if she'd swallowed hemlock.
Susanna put her own chronic fear out of her mind when she reached the end of the bridge. She signaled for a wherry. "Which way would the river carry someone who fell from up there?" She pointed toward the Drood house.
The waterman gestured downstream.
"Row that way, and quickly."
What followed was one of the most horrific journeys Susanna had ever endured. Her stomach in knots, her mind in equal turmoil, she had to force herself to scan the choppy water for any sign of Mistress Drood. All manner of watercraft moved with the tide. Among the larger crafts were barges of the type noblemen used and a "shout" that carried timber.
With the tide going out, Mistress Drood had not been swept into the giant pilings that supported the bridge, but there was plenty of debris in the water that might have been just as deadly. There were also dead dogs and cats and even a dead mule.
How could anything survive in this foul cesspit? Susanna wondered. At just that moment, she caught sight of a hand extending from a rose-colored sleeve and clinging to a piece of driftwood.
They hauled Mistress Drood's limp form into the wherry, but they were too late. She was no longer breathing and they could not revive her.
Sir Walter Pendennis was waiting at Drood's house when Susanna returned with the body.
"Can you find enough in a search to warrant his arrest for treason?" Tight-lipped, Susanna watched Walter's face as she waited for an answer.
"I will find proof."
His promise gave Susanna little satisfaction. She had failed to keep Ralph Drood from killing his wife. That he would be executed for other crimes would not bring back any of the unfortunate women who had been his spouses.
"Where is he?" she asked.
"In the room from which she fell. He has been drinking heavily since you left."
Drood looked up when they entered, never pausing in the act of broaching a new bottle and slopping wine into his goblet. He drank deeply, then waved the cup in Susanna's direction. "Most excellently spiced," he declared, and sneezed yet again.
Susanna's sense of smell was unimpaired. She had no difficulty identifying the contents of the goblet. Her heart began to beat a little faster.
Sir Walter Pendennis, royal intelligence gatherer, did not seem to notice anything amiss. His men had arrived. Instructing two of them to guard Drood, he led the remainder off to search the premises.
Drood continued to drink.
Susanna did nothing.
She estimated that a bit more than a quarter of an hour passed before Drood complained that his arm had gone numb. A little later, he began to feel pain in his muscles. Within an hour, he was barely able to move. He had lost all sensation in his limbs, as well as the ability to speak.
"Soon," Susanna told him, "you will also be blind, and yet your mind will function perfectly well. You will know what is happening to you. You will retain full consciousness until the last."
Sir Walter came quietly into the room as she was speaking, alerted to what was happening by one of the guards he'd left. "Did he kill the first two wives?"
"I am convinced he did." Everything pointed to it, even if the last Mistress Drood had lied about wanting Susanna's help.
Sir Walter bent over the dying man. "We'll never know for certain. He is past having the ability to speak. He cannot even move his head to nod or express denial."
"Mistress Drood was in no apparent rush to kill him," Susanna murmured, "until you threatened to arrest him and charge him with treason."
Sir Walter did not seem unduly disturbed by the notion. "She miscalculated when she provoked her husband's temper at just the wrong moment."
"She had the poisoned wine ready and waiting when they quarreled and he pitched her out the window. Then he celebrated her death by drinking the wine."
"A fine irony" Sir Walter stared down at Drood's almost lifeless body. "Such a death is just. A murderer should be forced to linger for many agonizing hours, to have ample time to understand that punishment has been exacted for his crimes."
Susanna sighed. She felt remorse, but no pity for the condemned man. "There will be an inquest, certes. I must--"
But Sir Walter held up a hand to silence her. "The searchers will give out that Drood died of a surfeit of drink. And you and I, my dear, were never here."
For just a moment, Susanna wondered if her old friend had done more than ask for Mistress Drood's cooperation. She decided she did not want to know. Neither did she have any desire to make public the fact that her book, written to save lives, could also be used to commit murder.
She had sought the truth. Belatedly, she had found it. Revealing it, she thought with a mixture of resignation and regret, would only make matters worse. Casting a last look at Master Drood before Sir Walter escorted her out of the room, out of the house, out of London, Susanna consoled herself with the only redeeming grace in all this tragedy.
Even without truth, there had been justice.
A Note from the Author
John Day (1522 -1584) was a real person. This Elizabethan printer had a print shop, house, and probably a warehouse in the Aldersgate ward of London in the 1560s. Later he had a shop in Paul's Churchyard. The most famous of the books he printed was what was popularly called "the Book of Martyrs." John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, first published in 1563, was a runaway bestseller for those days. It detailed the persecution of Protestants by the Catholic Queen Mary.
In the 1570s, Day's stock of unbound works was valued at over GBP3000 and he had bound stock worth between GBP300 and GBP400. To give you an idea of relative wealth, it cost about GBP500 a year to run two presses, which could produce about two thousand pages. That includes the expense of ink, wages, and overhead. Paper for an edition of one thousand copies cost GBP350. A halfpence per sheet was the standard price of paper at retail. If Day sold all the copies at twenty-four shillings each, that amounted to a substantial profit.
As often happens when I write one story, something in it sparks an idea for another. I mention the cause of death "overlaid" in this one. Look for it to reappear later in this volume in "Lady Appleton and the Cripplegate Chrisoms."
* * * *
The Riddle of the Woolsack
"Ho, there!" called a harsh voice. "A word with you."
A rook, startled by the sound, gave a hoarse caw and took flight.
Mark Jaffrey, steward for Leigh Abbey in East Kent, murmured a quiet command to his mount, then turned in the saddle to survey the scene at his left hand. He looked west across fields that undulated gently. Their golden-brown hue was in harmony with the bright, coral-colored leaves of the cherry trees in a small orchard near at hand and the yellow, scarlet, and umber of the wood beyond it. The old woman in dusty black, however, seemed out of place in the picture, and somehow ominous.
Mark patted the neck of his bay gelding, his fingers lingering on the smooth, warm horseflesh. Although he was as impatient as his horse to be off, he stayed put while the stooped, heavily-swathed figure trudged closer. There was nowhere he had to be in any rush. He had been bound for Eastwold, the nearest village, but without any pressing business to conduct there. What had driven him out of the house had been a sudden, fervent desire to escape the gloom that had eclipsed the manor following the departure of its owner, Lady Appleton, for foreign shores.
With Michaelmas just past and the harvest in, accounts had been rendered. It was a fallow time for fields and man alike. Mark knew he should be in the best of spirits. He and his family possessed good health. The estate had shown a profit. Instead, he had been discontent and had spent all this day sunk in a melancholy even the bracing, vaguely medicinal and bitter-sweet aroma of drying hops had not been able to dispel.
An encounter with a stranger would at least break the monotony.
The figure limping his way appeared harmless enough, but he had the sense to be wary. He fingered the pommel of the good, sharp knife he wore at his belt and had a moment's regret that he had not strapped a stout cudgel to the back of the saddle before he left home.
Of late the roads had become infested with beggars and vagabonds. Many of them were tricksters who painted on their sores and pretended to be crippled in order to cozen the softhearted out of more alms. Some traveled in packs, sending the weakest of their number to distract a traveler while the others got in place to attack him.
As steward, it was one of Mark's duties to offer aid to those in real need. He sent the other sort packing, and when sharp words were not sufficient to evict them from Leigh Abbey land, he used hard blows.
A faint odor of peppermint drifted up to him as the woman reached his side and pushed back the hood of her enveloping cloak. He stared down into narrowed eyes and a deeply-lined, scowling face.
"God save you, mother. What is your business here?"
"I came for to see Lady Appleton," the beldame declared.
"Then you made your journey to no purpose. She is gone from home and not like to return for some time."
Months, at the least, Mark reckoned, which was why his wife, Jennet, who was Leigh Abbey's housekeeper, had also been in a foul mood these last few weeks. Jennet had not wanted to accompany their mistress, but she did most bitterly resent being left behind.
Mark started to ease his mount around the old woman.
"Hold!" The crone moved with slow and ponderous steps but spoke with such purpose that it never crossed his mind to disobey. "Who might you be?"
"I am Lady Appleton's steward. I am in charge here in her absence." He grew hot under the old woman's steady scrutiny and the rising breeze did naught to cool his face. Instead it tossed locks of mole-colored hair against ears that were too big for his head, tickling the rims in a most annoying fashion.
"May be you'll do."
Mark frowned. He'd do? He was not certain he liked the sound of that. But before he could turn away and ride off, a hand swollen with age and infirmity closed around the horn of his saddle.
"Three days past, there were murder done."
Jennet Jaffrey had just finished setting the maids to work making candles when a groom brought word that her husband had returned to Leigh Abbey and wished to speak with her. Jennet frowned. He'd left but an hour earlier. If he was back already, then something must be wrong.
Her first thought was that there had been word from Lady Appleton. Or of her. Any journey by sea was perilous and after crossing to the Continent their mistress had meant to travel through the Netherlands, where England's enemies held sway. Heart racing, Jennet all but ran to the steward's office, where Mark had sent word he'd wait for her.
He was not alone. A stooped figure all in black stood next to him. Jennet blinked as she recognized the crone. At her sharp, indrawn breath, they both looked toward the doorway where Jennet stood.
"You!" the old woman exclaimed.
She was called Mother Sparcheforde and reputed to be a witch. The last time they'd met, she'd chased Jennet out of the grocer's shop she owned in Dover, hurling a curse after her. Now here she stood, bold as a Barbary pirate, just polishing off a cup of new-made perry.
"Why is she here?" Jennet demanded.
"Blessings upon you, Goodwife Jaffrey." There was a malicious gleam in Mother Sparcheforde's eyes as she, too, recalled their previous meeting. On that occasion, Jennet had not revealed either her name or her purpose. She'd visited the old woman's shop hoping to glean information about her daughter, Alys Putney.
Jennet seized the pitcher away from Mark before he could refill Mother Sparcheforde's cup and slammed it down hard on his writing table. The quills in their container rattled against the inkwell and a little of the perry splashed onto an account book, scenting the air with the aroma of pressed pears.
Mother Sparcheford tossed away her empty cup, drew herself up as straight as she could with her widow's hump, and clenched her misshapen fingers around the equally gnarled branch she used as a walking stick. She swung it upward, not to defend herself from Jennet or to strike her, but as if to cast a spell.
Mark stepped between the two women. "Never mind what happened in the past," he said to his wife. "Mother Sparcheforde has come here seeking our help."
"I'd not give her the time of day. Nor to her daughter, neither." To show her utter disdain for both women, as well as her lack of fear--for, after all, Mother Sparcheforde's curse had come to naught--Jennet plopped down in the room's only chair, bouncing a bit as her bottom struck a cushion well-stuffed with wool.
"Jennet, Alys has been murdered."
At Mark's announcement, Jennet blinked in surprise, then voiced the first thought that came into her head. "No more than she deserved."
"Jennet, she was beaten to death." Taking Mother Sparcheforde's arm, Mark guided her to a comfortable padded bench, eased her onto it, then retrieved her cup.
Alys Putney, Jennet thought, had been a venomous creature. Once, when Jennet had been great with child, Alys had given her a vicious shove that had sent her tumbling to the ground. It was a miracle young Rob had been born unmarked.
Mark knew that, but he propped one hip against the corner of the writing table, crossed his arms over his chest, and sent Jennet a stern look. "Lady Appleton believes in justice, even for the unjust. Were she here, she would insist upon accompanying Mother Sparcheforde to Rye, where both Alys and Leonard Putney were of late found slain."
Alys and her husband? For a moment, Jennet was bereft of speech.
"Crowner got matters twisted," the old woman muttered. "Must have. Could not have happened the way he says."
"According to what Mother Sparcheforde has told me," Mark said, "the coroner's inquest ruled Alys's death a murder by persons unknown, and further declared that her husband took his own life out of grief."
Jennet frowned. Leonard Putney had been a violent man. People had said for years that he sent Alys out to whore for him, then beat her when she came home. It was not difficult to imagine that he might have gone too far and beaten Alys to death himself, but the rest of the explanation made no sense at all. "Even if Putney killed her, he'd never have taken his own life afterward."
"He'd have felt neither remorse nor guilt," Mother Sparcheforde agreed.
"He might have taken that course to cheat the hangman," Mark suggested.
"There are better ways to escape execution than self-murder." Jennet chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip as she considered the situation. A sympathetic jury might even have ruled he'd acted upon provocation and should not be punished at all for an attempt to discipline his wife. Or he could have avoided trial altogether by hiding her body and saying she'd run off with a lover.
Mother Sparcheforde spoke into the silence. "Sir Robert Appleton abandoned my Alys at his wife's bidding." The old woman's smile was horrible to behold, revealing rotted teeth and blackened gums. "If he had not, my daughter would never have married Leonard Putney. She'd be alive today. I say Lady Appleton owes it to my girl to find out the truth."
Jennet marveled at her reasoning. Alys Sparcheforde, before her marriage to Leonard Putney, had been the late Sir Robert Appleton's long-time mistress. He'd set her up in a house in Dover, only seven miles from Leigh Abbey, all but flaunting his infidelity to his wife.
"She owes you nothing." Jennet glared at Alys's mother.
"I hear things, I do. They say Lady Appleton did put herself at risk to help another unfortunate woman who was once her husband's mistress."
Jennet stifled a sigh. Although Lady Appleton had no obligation to those Sir Robert had wronged, she did seem to make a habit of involving herself in matters that affected their lives, helping those who needed her assistance. She would expect Jennet and Mark to look into Alys's death and to do all they could to make certain justice had been served.
"What is it you think we can do?" she asked.
"Go to Rye on my behalf. Say I sent you to run Putney's inn there. Ask questions. Discover whether my Alys was killed by her husband or by someone else, someone who may yet be punished for what he did."
Jennet's eyes met Mark's. The spark of interest there reflected what she felt--the first tingle of excitement at the prospect of an adventure. Each time Lady Appleton encountered trouble, Jennet swore she wanted no part of it, but the sweet taste of a puzzle to solve, a wrong to be made right, was as tempting as Xeres sack and twice as addictive.
When Mark rounded the writing table and took out paper, quill, and ink, Jennet knew he'd decided to do as Mother Sparcheforde asked. Whether he'd take her with him, however, was another matter.
"Where was Alys's body found?" Mark asked.
"In the common room of an inn in Rye called the Woman and the Woolsack. Leonard Putney owned it. Bought it after he sold the Star with the Long Tail in Dover. It belongs to me now."
"How did you come to inherit?" Jennet asked the old woman before Mark could frame his next question.
"There are no other heirs. All that was my daughter's must come to me."
Jennet was not so sure of that. "Are you certain you want to prove Putney killed Alys? If he did, then all his goods and chattels are forfeit to the Crown. You will get nothing."
The old woman looked smug. "If that be the truth, I will not challenge the crowner's verdict. Why should I when my daughter's murderer is already dead? But if both were slain by someone else, I can demand justice for my murdered child and still keep all Alys and her husband owned."
The sound of laughter reached them from the inner courtyard. Jennet's two girls played there with Lady Appleton's foster daughter. Jennet's chest tightened at the thought of what it must feel like to lose a child. And it must be that much worse to suspect that the person responsible was still at large. No matter that something besides maternal affection drove Mother Sparcheforde, Jennet's heart softened toward the other woman.
Mark cleared his throat. "The coroner's inquest ruled that Alys was beaten to death?"
Mother Sparcheforde nodded.
"How did Putney die?"
"They say he stabbed himself. A single wound to the chest."
"Were there any signs he'd been in a fight?"
Before Alys's mother could answer, Jennet interjected a question of her own. "Were his knuckles bruised?"
"I know not," the old woman replied. "You must question the crowner when you get to Rye."
"There will be a record of the coroner's inquest," Mark mused, "but if there is aught irregular about it, they'll not show it to strangers." Of a sudden, his brow creased and his fingers tightened on the quill. "What do you know of your son-in-law's dealings with land pirates?"
Jennet leaned closer, beset by curiosity and trepidation in equal parts. Land pirates were those who disposed of goods illegally brought into the country. According to certain merchants of Dover with whom Leigh Abbey did business, their brethren in Rye provisioned the sea rovers who regularly preyed on Dover shipping.
Mother Sparcheforde seemed reluctant to answer, but at length admitted that Putney might have been involved in the distribution and sale of contraband when he'd owned the inn in Dover.
"Here in Kent sugar and wine from pirate loot are bartered for powder and shot, salt beef, and bacon, then sent by packhorse to London," Mark said. "A profitable business. No doubt a similar trade exists in Sussex."
"There's motive for murder, then." Jennet felt her excitement grow as she considered the possibilities. A falling out among thieves. A rival land pirate seeking to take over Putney's operation.
"There also is danger." Mark set the quill aside and addressed his wife. "Anyone who seeks to investigate a murder ends by threatening other secrets."
"Too late to waver now," Jennet declared. "This riddle must have a solution." Before Mark could object further, out of worry for her safety, Jennet turned to Mother Sparcheforde and took over the interrogation. "What particular enemies had Leonard Putney? Who hated him enough to kill him?"
"Everyone who knew him." Another rusty cackle issued from the black-swathed figure. "Even his own wife."
"Because he beat her?"
"Beat her. Bullied her. Belittled her. And you've only to look at the name of the inn to see how he regarded her. Go to a place called the Woman and the Woolsack," Mother Sparcheforde said with great bitterness, "and you expect the innkeeper's wife to be a whore."
Jennet's sympathy was once again engaged. The old, crude riddle was well known: When is a woman like a woolsack? When both are stuffed.
Two days later, Mark and Jennet stood staring up at the inn sign. He'd wondered what it would depict. A sack full of wool and a woman being tupped could not have escaped the censure of the church, but there were more subtle ways to suggest the same ribald theme. Leonard Putney's sign showed a woman holding an empty woolsack in one hand and a chastity belt in the other. A large key dangled from the gold chain around her waist.
"Hmpf," was Jennet's only comment.
They went inside.
"Leonard Putney did well for himself." Jennet planted herself in the center of the common room and turned in a circle to survey the premises.
Mark had to agree with her assessment. It was a fine establishment.
"We'll need fresh rushes." Jennet stared hard at the spot where both Putneys had died--just by the door to the cellar, Mother Sparcheforde had said--then shrugged as if to say she'd scrub the floor later. There was only a small bloodstain. Putney had stabbed himself with suspicious neatness.
Apparently undaunted by her knowledge that so much violence that had taken place here, Jennet set out to inspect every nook and cranny. Seeing the return of her natural enthusiasm, conspicuously lacking since Lady Appleton's departure for the Continent, Mark put aside his remaining doubts about the wisdom of this venture. He'd already half convinced himself that Putney had killed Alys. Rather than face trial and hanging, he'd committed suicide, for a bully could also be a coward.
This explanation of events pleased him. If it was the correct one, Jennet was in no danger. Mark could look forward to watching his wife enjoy herself while she came to the same conclusion he had.
"The mattresses will want airing, and--" Jennet broke off with a squeak as a section of wall moved under her hand.
"What the devil?"
"'Tis the devil's work indeed! There is a hiding place here." Jennet poked her head inside, then sneezed.
When Mark brought a candle, they saw footprints in the dust of the narrow passageway beyond the opening. A ladder gave access to the chamber above.
Further exploration of the common room revealed a revolving cupboard, allowing for a rapid retreat into the street, and a door into the adjacent building, bolted from the other side. In addition, the Woolsack's back exit opened onto one of the estuaries that emptied into Rye's tidal bay.
"Convenient for unloading contraband," Mark said. "No doubt Putney dealt with free traders as well as freebooters."
Jennet chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip, as was her wont when she contemplated any perplexing matter. "I have heard the same tales as you--tubs full of smuggled goods buried on the cliffs above coastal towns. Tunnels that run from certain houses into nearby woods."
"The sand and shingle coasts of Romney Marsh, near to Rye, are well suited to such activities," Mark said. "Local merchants can avoid export taxes by sending their wool abroad illegally. And the prospect of importing wine from France or Crete without paying duty on it would appeal to any innkeeper, even an honest one."
They continued their inspection of the Woman and the Woolsack. Leonard Putney's larder contained deep wooden meal-tubs, flour barrels, salting tubs, and earthenware preserving jars. In a storehouse separate from the main building of the inn were quantities of dried, preserved, pickled, and barreled food. And in the cellar, a cavernous space beneath the common room, they found roundlets of ale and several barrels of wine.
"The contents of the inn must have been inventoried at the time of Putney's death," Mark said thoughtfully. "If I ask for a copy from Rye's coroner, it may be I will also find out more about the circumstances of Putney's death."
Jennet agreed this was a sound plan and sent him off in search of that official while she donned an apron and set about disposing of the old rushes.
Mark stopped first at another inn, the Mermaid, which a merchant of his acquaintance had told him was the finest hostelry in Rye. There, he thought, he would find men who knew their way about the town, men who might be willing to set a newcomer straight.
A dozen customers occupied the common room, presided over by a prosperous-looking fellow with an enormous mustache and three gold teeth. "William Didsbury at your service," he said to Mark. "I own this place."
"Then you are a man I am glad to meet." He introduced himself as a distant cousin to Alys Putney, sent by her mother to reopen the inn.
"This is a good town," Didsbury said as he poured Mark a mug of ale. "Our merchant shipping is on a par with that of Bristol and we average more sailings a month than Plymouth or Southampton. In addition, some twenty-five fishing vessels go daily to sea year round and twenty-four more set out in the season for conger and mackerel. Our fish are sent to London the same day they are caught. Freshest of any in England!"
During his short walk along the High Street to Mermaid Passage, Mark had seen one such packhorse train about to set out. Large baskets called dossers had been slung over the back of each beast. He took a long pull of ale, wondering if Didsbury wished to make some particular point.
"There is a forty shilling fine," Didsbury said when he returned from serving another customer, "for accommodating any light person, harlot, whore, or common woman."
Mark frowned. "I do not understand you, Didsbury."
"Your predecessor had a certain . . . reputation."
"Ah, I see. Do not confuse me with Leonard Putney. I may share his profession, but I do not share my wife's favors with any man."
"Not a dutchman are you?" asked a patron with a shock of bushy white hair. He meant, Mark knew, not a man born in Holland but one with extreme religious views.
Mark considered his answer. If there were smugglers present, he did not want to alarm them. "Just an ordinary innkeeper," he replied after a moment, "but I am curious about the death of the one who came before me."
Several more tankards of ale had to be emptied before the men in the common room began to talk freely, but every one of them seemed to be in agreement as to what had happened. Alys Putney had been killed by an unknown villain.
"A vagabond?" Mark asked. That was what Mother Sparcheforde had been told.
"Or a drunken mariner. 'Twas during the time the ports were closed and the town was overrun with sailors."
"Not her husband? I am surprised he was not suspected of killing her."
"Might have been," Didsbury told him, "had the circumstances been different, but her body was found and the hue and cry raised before Putney appeared on the scene."
Mark wondered how they could be so certain. An easy matter, he thought, to slip out of that inn through one of the hidden exits and return by the main entrance.
"When the mayor's sergeant arrived, he found two bodies instead of one," Didsbury explained. "It seemed clear that Putney found his wife and took his own life in a fit of grief."
Heads nodded throughout the common room. Mark tugged on his ear, thinking hard. No one seemed to be lying, but he had to wonder if any of these men had known Putney very well. Mark remembered the fellow as the sort to keep to himself. "Who found Alys?"
"The ostler," Didsbury told him. "Jack, he's called. No doubt he'll come looking for his old job back when he hears the inn's to reopen."
"My wife fears we'll be murdered in our bed," Mark said, knowing Jennet would forgive him the blatant lie, "by the same killer who attacked my cousin, or by some other vagabond." He drank deeply. "Are there many random killings here?"
The rush to reassure Mark left him more confused than ever. According to the stories he now heard, there were few cases of murder in Rye and in those that did occur arrests were made in good time. Executions, however, were rare. In most cases, the killer pleaded benefit of clergy, was branded, and went free.
Leonard Putney would not have had reason to fear the hangman's noose, or to kill himself. Unless he already bore a brand from some previous crime. It was time, Mark decided, to talk to the coroner.
John Breeds was also Rye's mayor. It was simple enough to find him and procure a copy of the inventory. On other matters, however, he was less forthcoming. Mark's carefully phrased questions about bruises on Putney's knuckles or brands on other parts of his body yielded nothing but evasion. The man was not about to admit he might have made a mistake. He even claimed he still sought the illusory vagabond who'd killed Alys Putney.
"You are a stranger here," he reminded Mark. "Let Rye men tend to Rye business."
The morning after Mark's effort to find answers it was Jennet's turn to ask questions. She set off just past sunrise intending to buy fresh fish in the marketplace, make inquiries about the whereabouts of Leonard Putney's ostler, and keep both eyes and ears open for gossip.
When her purchase was wrapped safe in her market basket, she strolled along quayside. The customs office was plainly marked, she noticed, and she wondered how the smugglers dealt with the royal customer. Bribes, no doubt. That was the usual way.
She turned to walk back to the Woman and the Woolsack and let out a startled squeak when she all but ran into a dark-skinned man clad in fantastical garb. The cloth wound around his head and the evil-looking curved sword tucked into the sash at his waist had her eyes widening in alarm and her heart pounding faster. Unable to look away after he passed by, ignoring her, Jennet watched him until he was out of sight.
"Faith!" she murmured when she dared breathe again. "When did Rye turn Turk?"
A soft laugh drew her attention to a woman just letting down the shutter at the front of her shop to form a counter. "They are harmless enough in town," she said as she set out her wares, "but I'd not give odds for your life or your property if you met him at sea."
Jennet moved closer, sniffing appreciatively at the fresh-baked pastries. "Do pirates walk the streets of Rye unchallenged, then? For I swear that fellow sails on a Sallee rover."
"If you've taken over Putney's inn," the shopkeeper said, "you must know already that customer, controller, and searcher all know how to turn a blind eye."
Jennet had but a moment to decide between feigned innocence and a worldly acceptance of such matters. "Toward free trade, yes. But that fellow was surely a pirate."
"The local justices cannot try pirates. Even were they to catch one in the act of robbing a ship in the harbor, they'd be obliged to bind him over to the Admiralty Court." She grinned suddenly, showing a gap between her two front teeth. "Not that it is to anyone's advantage to curtail the activities of sea rovers . . . so long as they only prey on foreign ships."
Foreign, Jennet supposed, to a citizen of Rye, would include those setting sail from ports in Kent.
She lowered her voice, even though there was no one close enough to overhear. "The Woman and the Woolsack--was it popular with known pirates when Leonard Putney owned it?" That he'd done business with smugglers went without saying.
"It was popular with Frenchmen," the woman said.
Jennet frowned. "Religious exiles?" Was there a motive for murder in that? Politics? Intrigue? Intelligencers and secret messages in code? The ports had been closed when Putney died. Fear of invasion, she'd heard. But by whom? From where? Pray God, Jennet thought, that Alys and her husband had not been mixed up in that. She and Mark would never be able to sort out the truth if the Putneys had been involved in treason.
A woman came up to buy a loaf of bread, quickly followed by another goodwife. Jennet dug out a ha'penny and made her own purchase. Munching, she watched and waited until the shopkeeper was free, but by then she'd realized that any question she might ask would arouse too much suspicion. Better, she decided, to wait a bit.
"I must get back," she said instead, hefting her basket. "Frenchmen you say? I hope they like fish."
Even more, she hoped they'd have coin to pay for it. If Rye's immigrant population bore any resemblance to the poverty-plagued exiles who'd settled in Kent, they had no extra income to spend at an inn.
She got part of her answer as soon as she entered the Woman and the Woolsack. Putney's ostler had returned, a scrawny lad who had only enough English to understand orders that related to tending guests' horses.
"Did you question him about finding Alys's body?" she asked.
Mark gave her a look. "Unless your French is better than mine, I do not think we will learn anything useful from Jacques."
Jennet sighed, knowing he was right, and set about preparing food to serve their customers. They planned to reopen the inn in only a few hours time.
The first person through the door was a tall, broad-shouldered, big-bosomed female with lank yellow hair and a prominent mole on her cheek. She appeared just at noontide and demanded, in heavily accented English, the usual set meal.
"And that is?" Mark asked.
She looked down her nose at him. "A drink, a slice of boiled beef, and a portion of good wheaten bread for threepence."
"You'll have fish," Jennet told her, and served up the fillets she'd cooked. A rich, steamy aroma, redolent of garlic and basil, filled the air.
The common room filled slowly. A man with a shock of bushy white hair was the second person to arrive.
"He was at the Mermaid," Mark whispered to Jennet.
Soon after a chapman came in. "Almeric Horsey," he introduced himself. "What is the price for a room?"
"Twopence for a feather bed," Mark told him, "and another threepence a day if you need hay and litter for your horse."
Bushy-hair glanced up as a tall, thin man appeared in the doorway. "Rowland Weston, the resident undercollector," he muttered under his breath. With a grimace, he swallowed the last of his ale and left.
Mark studied the undercollector, not unduly surprised that he should come into the Woman and the Woolsack. He was taken aback, however, when Weston, after a single drink, produced a blank parchment with the seal of the port already affixed, and handed it over.
"My usual fee is thirteen shillings and fourpence," he said, "but as an introductory offer, I'm willing to exchange this one for a butt of your best imported sack."
When the two men adjourned to a back room, leaving Jennet to serve the inn's patrons, Weston boasted of the fact that he'd borrowed the authentic seal of the port long enough to have a cast made. With this duplicate seal, he'd set up his own private customs house to retail counterfeit cockets and customs clearances.
"I do not believe I have ever dealt with a villain so blatantly corrupt," Mark told his wife that night. He blew out the candle and climbed into bed beside her, glad to be done with the day's work.
Jennet nestled close to him on the featherbed in the inn's best chamber. "So many lawbreakers to choose from! Corrupt officials. Smugglers. Pirates. I must even wonder if Mother Sparcheforde somehow managed to murder Leonard Putney. By witchcraft, mayhap. 'Tis certain she is the one who gained most from his death." She sighed. "How are we ever to sort out the truth? Why, for all we know, there are two murderers."
Jennet was silent for a time, but he could almost feel her thinking. "If I'd killed someone in this inn, I'd want to make certain I'd gotten away with it. I'd have to take a look at the new innkeepers. Find out if we are any threat. Living here, we might stumble upon something the coroner's men missed when they made their inventory of goods and chattel."
"Well, then, we have only a few suspects. The murderer is the chapman or the undercollector or one of the Frenchmen." At least a dozen exiles had come in, even Nicholas le Tellier, minister of the French Church of Rye.
"Or the old man with the bushy hair," Jennet murmured sleepily.
"I like the undercollector myself. Mayhap Putney did not pay his fees."
"You forgot to list the Frenchwoman," Jennet said with a yawn.
The only female to come into the inn, she'd made Mark wonder if he'd misunderstood Didsbury's comment about whores. He had not mentioned the innkeeper's remark to Jennet. Now he reached for his wife and planted a resounding kiss on her mouth. "I have not forgot the Frenchwoman," he whispered, "but a bit of effort on your part might make me do so."
"Poor creature," Jennet murmured as she obliged. "If her face were but unblemished, she would be a handsome lass."
Mark did not answer. He had more pleasant matters on his mind.
The Frenchwoman came back the following day, again asking for the inn's set meal. As Jennet served her, she found it difficult not to stare at the mole. No doubt it was her imagination, but it seemed to have grown larger.
The woman lingered over her food and was still there when all the other customers had gone.
"A second cup of ale?" Jennet called to her.
"I'd have a word with you instead, now that we are alone."
Jennet glanced into the small room behind the hidden panel. Mark looked back at her, lifting a brow. He was out of sight, having gone into the little chamber to investigate a sound they'd thought might be a mouse.
Jennet shut him in and turned back to the Frenchwoman, heart pounding in anticipation. Whatever the woman wanted, there was no danger. Mark could open the panel from the other side if she screamed. Moreover, there was a knothole in the wainscoting. If he bent over and fixed one eye to the opening, he could peer out into the common room. The position would be passing uncomfortable, but would allow him to keep watch over her.
The Frenchwoman obligingly came closer, taking a stool that gave her a clear view of the entrance. The inn sign creaked as a breeze sprang up, but otherwise all was quiet.
"Will you hire chamberlains and laundresses?" the woman asked.
"With wages so high in Sussex, my husband and I must do all the work of running this inn ourselves," Jennet told her. "Just as the Putneys did."
"Just as they did?"
"What little I know of my husband's cousin tells me she did not rely upon selling food and ale for profit."
"You are in favor of making a profit?" It seemed to Jennet that the woman's French accent grew less pronounced as the conversation continued.
"Not the way she did. And yet, what sensible person is averse to becoming wealthy?" Jennet chose her words with care. She lowered her voice to add, "We came to Rye because we heard an inn situated here could . . . thrive."
"My husband is an important man hereabout." The Frenchwoman now spoke with the familiar cadence of a native-born Englishwoman, and one gently born, at that. "We will do business with you, as well . . . if you meet certain conditions."
"What conditions?" And Jennet wondered why the husband was not here, meeting with Mark.
She got no answer. The chapman returned just then and ended the chance for further private discussion.
"I will return when you have locked up for the night," the woman said, and left.
Mark opened the panel and came out, blinking against the sudden light.
The chapman gave him a curious look, then pulled a slim volume out of his pack. "A book of riddles for a pottle of ale?"
"Too few buyers, friend?" Mark accepted the trade and opened to the first page, chuckling at what he read. "What shines bright of day and at night is raked up in its own dirt?"
"The fire," Jennet answered, impatient with such foolishness.
"What runs but never walks?"
"What turns without moving?"
Laughing, Mark closed the book
"You are blessed with a clever wife," the chapman said.
A clever wife, Jennet thought, would have looked to see which direction the Frenchwoman took when she left the inn. Although it was doubtless too late, she went out into the street.
The only creature in sight was an old yellow dog.
A sea breeze caught Jennet's apron, making it flap, and caused the inn's sign to groan. She glanced up with a frown, wondering what they might do to stop the annoying sound. The board swung to and fro, but Jennet stood immobile, staring at the painting on the wood.
When is a woman like a woolsack? When she is used to smuggle contraband. The woman on the sign had a key, but it was too big to fit the lock of the chastity belt she held. Jennet's frown turned into a grin. How could she have missed something so obvious? That key unlocked the secrets of this inn. And the painted figure, by her dress a gentlewoman, had a mole on one cheek.
As soon as the Frenchwoman entered the common room that night, Mark closed and locked the door behind her.
She fixed him with a basilisk stare. "You have no call to hold me prisoner. My husband is prepared to offer you the same arrangement he had with Leonard Putney."
With a silent prayer that Jennet's solution to the riddle of the Woman and the Woolsack was correct, Mark went to stand at his wife's side. "I fear you are deceived, madam. We did not come to Rye to take Putney's place."
"What do you want, then?" She sounded impatient, but not alarmed.
"The truth about how Alys Putney died."
"For her old mother. She has doubts about the verdict of the coroner's inquest."
"Alys Putney's husband killed her."
"How do you know that?"
"I was there to witness it."
"And did not interfere?"
"Why should I?" She made herself comfortable on the bench beneath the window, regarded them steadily for a long moment, then shrugged. "If he had not killed her, I would have."
An icy finger crept up Mark's spine at her words. Jennet's fingers clenched painfully on his forearm.
"Leonard Putney sent his wife to seduce my husband," the woman continued. "I followed her back to this inn from his bed."
"Putney hoped for greater profits and thought that having his wife play the whore was the way to get them." Jennet exuded sympathy, but Mark's wariness increased.
"When Alys told him she'd failed, that her new lover was willing to enjoy her favors but would offer naught in return but bed sport, Putney flew into a rage. He beat her to death. I saw him do it. And he came after me when he realized I was a witness."
"So you killed him." There was no censure in Jennet's voice. Mark was not sure how he felt.
"I stabbed him," the other woman agreed, "and after Jacques sounded the hue and cry for Alys, I dragged his body out of hiding and left it by his dead wife's side, so that it would appear he killed himself when he found her."
"But he beat her to death," Mark protested. "Why try to hide his crime?"
The woman laughed. "Even if I had not had to strike him down to save myself, we could not have allowed a verdict of murder. If he'd been adjudged guilty, the Crown would have claimed this inn. We would have lost a valuable asset, and provoked an unwelcome interest in the place."
At that moment, the connecting door to the next building, the one that had been bolted on the other side, swung open. The man with the shock of bushy white hair strode into the common room. A wig, Mark realized, as false as the woman's mole, which changed not only size but location from day to day. The face beneath was further obscured by a bristly beard, but more ominous still, he carried a pistol in his right hand, primed and ready to fire.
The woman rose from the bench, smiling at the intruder.
Mark exchanged a glance with Jennet. If her deductions were correct, this was the husband. Further, they were members of the gentry engaged in smuggling. Were they willing to commit murder to hide their crimes? An uneasy silence lengthened as the two couples studied each other.
Jennet broke it. "A second set of owners found dead in the same inn will bring unwelcome attention to this place, as well, and if I could solve the riddle of the inn sign, so can others."
Bushy-hair grinned. "That sign was painted by a previous owner, a fellow who did much admire the lady's . . . virtues."
Mark said nothing, wondering what fate Putney's predecessor had suffered. It would be all too easy to kill someone here and dispose of the body in Romney Marsh.
Earlier, Jennet had insisted they could count on the gentry's need for discretion to keep them safe. Mark feared they'd misjudged the situation, lulled into thinking they had only to deal with a lone, unarmed woman.
She spoke next, and without any trace of a French accent. "Goodwife Jaffrey has a point, my dear."
"You told my wife you wanted the truth about how Alys Putney died," said Bushy-head. "Now that you have it, what do you mean to do with it?"
"Leave," Mark blurted.
The man laughed.
"With your permission," Mark added, glancing at the pistol. He cleared his throat. "We have promised to report to Alys Putney's mother, the new owner of this inn."
"She'll do naught to hamper your business," Jennet assured them. "Why should she? And she will not care that you killed Leonard Putney, either. Doubtless she will thank you for making it possible for her to inherit."
The two smugglers exchanged a look Mark recognized. A husband and wife who knew each other well could communicate without words, even when they were at odds.
Bushy-hair lowered the pistol. His smile seemed a trifle less menacing. "Leave Jacques in place as ostler. I'll provide a man to serve as tapster and keep the inn open."
Mark nodded his agreement. "We'll be off at first light." He managed a faint smile of his own. "Mother Sparcheforde is most anxious to hear our report."
It was only after the other couple had disappeared through the connecting door and he heard the bolt slide home behind them, that he dared breathe again.
"That went well." Jennet stepped into his arms, laughing up at him.
She was still well pleased with herself the next morning. As they left Rye behind them, she turned to him with a twinkle in her eyes. "Mayhap we should consider spending a few days away from home every year. I vow I feel most refreshed and invigorated after this adventure, full ready to take on the responsibilities of Leigh Abbey once more."
"A little less adventure next time would suit me better," Mark grumbled. But in his heart he knew she had the right of it. Thanks to their sojourn at the Woman and the Woolsack, his melancholy was well and truly cured.
* * * *
A Note from the Author
In "Much Ado About Murder," Mark Jaffrey is a groom of the stable and Jennet a tiring maid. These fictional characters marry at the end of Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie and take on greater responsibilities in the household. By the sixteenth century, it was fairly common for upper level servants to be literate. Others were taught how to read but not necessarily how to write.
An estate's steward was the most important position in a sixteenth-century household. Among other things, he managed the demesne farm, bought grain and cattle, supplied the household with all the necessities of daily life, and received and disbursed monies. The housekeeper was in charge of baking, brewing, making white bread and malt, and overseeing the indoor servants.
Records from one sixteenth-century household of approximately the same size as Leigh Abbey list what its servants were paid per annum. The steward received fifty shillings, the housekeeper, twenty-six. The cook, usually a man, was paid twenty shillings a year. A head gardener earned ten shillings and sixpence. The maid of all work was paid six shillings and eightpence. The entire payroll totalled GBP50 per annum for some twenty-five servants. Food for that household came to GBP200 for the year.
* * * *
Lady Appleton and the Cripplegate Chrisoms
"Goodwife Billings is proved a widow." Nick Baldwin announced.
Susanna, Lady Appleton, looked up from the herbal she'd been reading, a smile of welcome and congratulation lighting up the pale oval of her face. "Excellent. I was certain you would be able to find the correct parish with no trouble."
He sent a rueful grin in her direction and advanced a few more steps into the room, a private parlor on an upper floor of fair, large house near London's Moorgate. It was furnished with considerable luxury--glass in all the windows, floors of Purbeck marble and glazed tile, and thick arras-work hangings. "Aye. On the fifth try."
Light laughter eddied toward him as she rose from a high-backed elmwood chair inlaid with oak. "It might have been worse. There must be a hundred parishes in London." She went to the hearth, where a small pot sat keeping warm on a trivet near the flames, and ladled mulled wine into two goblets. She held one out to him.
"Gramercy," Nick murmured, closing the remaining distance between them. He took deep pleasure in his first sip of the hot, spiced liquid. After a long, cold day spent looking through parish records, both the drink and the heat from the crackling fire sent welcome warmth to his chilled bones.
"You found evidence, then, of the death of Mary Billings's runaway husband?"
Mary, the housekeeper at Nick's Northamptonshire manor, had been abandoned by her feckless spouse several years earlier. She'd heard rumors of his demise soon after, but she'd had no reason then to go to the trouble and expense of confirming them. Only when she'd expressed her wish to remarry and the vicar had refused to perform the rite until she could prove the new marriage would not be bigamous, had the question of when and where Billings died become important. Nick had offered to look into the matter. He'd been glad of the excuse to visit London while Susanna was in residence.
"Billings was buried on the sixth day of November in 1569, more than two years ago, in the parish of St. Giles without Cripplegate. The clerk there has made a fair and notarized copy of the entry in the parish records."
"All's well, then?" Susanna's sharp-sighted blue eyes fixed on his face, studying him with as much intensity as she'd been perusing the herbal when he arrived. She did not wait for him to answer. "There is something troubles you."
It did not surprise Nick overmuch that she could read his mood with such ease. They had known each other more than a dozen years and shared many adventures. If he'd had his way, she'd have long since become his wife, but Susanna refused to remarry and he had learned to content himself with what she would share--her affection, her friendship, her concern, and most of all, her clever, agile mind.
"Well?" Susanna prompted him.
Nick took another strengthening, warming, soothing sip of the mulled wine. "What Mary Billings knew of her husband's life led me to suspect he'd been buried in Cripplegate Ward, for we believed he died shortly after having been released from the Compter in Wood Street."
She nodded and drank from her own cup. The Compter, a prison, was used to hold those taken for offenses against city laws.
"Cripplegate contains five parishes. I started with the southernmost church, St. Mary Magdalen in Milk Street. I went on to St. Michael, and there came upon an entry in the register of burials that puzzled me. The cause of death was writ down 'overlaid.' Do you know what is meant by the term?"
Frowning, she set down her goblet. "I fear I do. It means to be suffocated, but in a very particular manner. You know that infants are wrapped in swaddling clothes, bound tightly in order to ensure that the limbs will grow straight?"
"Aye. I've always felt sorry for the child, unable to move."
"More helpless than you know. In theory a baby is unwrapped and washed two or three times a day, but far too many new mothers do not seem to know how to care for their offspring. Or else they do not wish to be bothered."
Nick considered that. Wealthy households employed nurses but poor women too busy to pay attention to their babies simply neglected them. "I fear you have the right of it. I have seen children hooked by the swaddling to a convenient wall or left in the cradle to cry all day."
"Either place is safer than being carelessly placed in the family bed to share sleeping space with several older, larger bodies. An infant 'overlaid' has been smothered because a bedmate rolled over on top of him."
"Not uncommon, then?"
'No, more's the pity. A goodly number of infants die in their cradles, for no apparent reason, but for those who sleep with others, when a cause is sought, it most often found that the mother or the nurse slept unnatural heavy due to drink or illness." She sighed. "Although I've never had any children myself, it is my belief such deaths could be avoided with a small amount of care."
Nick drained his goblet and abandoned it on a round table made of walnut. "How easily could such deaths be arranged?"
Eyes narrowing at his words, Susanna caught her breath. "What have you discovered?"
"Mayhap naught but an odd coincidence."
"And mayhap more. Tell me."
"It was at St. Michael that I first saw the word 'overlaid,' and although I was curious as to what it might mean, I took little notice of it then."
Restless, Nick crossed the chamber to stand at a window, looking out over the garden toward the wall that shielded this property from the sprawling city beyond. He knew Susanna well enough to predict how she'd react when he told her all he'd found. He had debated with himself all the way here. Even if what he suspected was true, naught would be done about it under the law. Only once had he heard of a charge of murder being brought against someone for the death of an infant, and that had been the case of a mother who'd stuffed her newly delivered baby into a privy and left it to perish. And yet, this was just the sort of wrong that Susanna relished righting. Besides, it went against all Nick himself believed in to do nothing, especially if by inaction he allowed more deaths to occur.
"I'd not have noticed the entry at all had it not been within the time period I'd resolved to search: 12 December, 1570. But there was another oddity about the entry, too. Unlike most, only the name of the mother was given."
Susanna sank down atop the domed lid of a trussing-coffer, a chest designed for use while traveling and suitable for storing anything from clothing to muniments to books to grain and bread. "So, the dead child was a bastard."
Most records of burials in parish registers identified the deceased by his profession, or sometimes simply as householder. Dead women and children were almost always listed in terms of their relationship to a man. "John, infant son of John Smith, householder" or "stillborn son of John Smith, carpenter" would not have caught Nick's eye, but "John, base-got son of Jane Johnson" had been another matter.
"I went on to St. Alban," Nick continued, "then St. Mary Aldermanbury, and finally to St. Giles Cripplegate, which lies outside the city walls, half of the parish in the county of Middlesex. At two of the three I came upon similar entries. Three children in adjoining parishes, all dead by cause of being overlaid, all base-got upon the body of one Jane Johnson. I had not thought to do so in the other parishes, but at St. Giles I also inspected the records of baptisms. That child died during the first month of life."
"A chrisom," Susanna murmured, sorrow and pity coloring her tone of voice. The name given to such short-lived infants derived from the fact that the same white chrisom cloth laid over the baby at baptism was customarily used as a winding sheet when only a few weeks separated christening and burial.
"Do you think it possible the mother deliberately killed all three children?"
"Possible? Oh, yes." She'd gone pale, but her chin jutted out at a determined angle and her eyes blazed. "And who knows how many more we will find if we delve deeper?"
He nodded. Her thoughts followed his. "I mean to discover if there are, and find out what happened to Jane Johnson. She may be dead."
"And she may be about to give birth to another child, to kill another infant." Spurred into action, Susanna hopped down from the chest and made her way to a writing table. "Tell me again of the parishes where you found records and the dates given. Then we must determine what other parishes border those in order to widen the search."
"There are, I believe, one hundred six churches in London, in some ninety parishes. Then there are the out-parishes."
"I do not care if there are a thousand! If what we suspect is true, it cannot be permitted to continue and it cannot go unpunished. We must find Jane Johnson and if she is again with child we must keep watch on her to prevent her from taking another life."
Three days later, Susanna Appleton's search brought her to the small church of St. Olave. Located in Silver Street, just where it turned to become the north end of Noble, St. Olave's was an unremarkable edifice, but the parish was adjacent to Cripplegate ward and worth the time to search. The clerk, who was the second most important figure in any parish and responsible for keeping the records, was even less impressive. A small, wiry fellow named Lawrence Whitney, he scowled over Nick's request that he remove the parish record book from its locked coffer to allow them to look at it.
"The register is taken out only on Sundays, when the week's new records are added."
"Must I roust a churchwarden, then?" Nick inquired. "I am certain one of them has the second key." This was regulated by law and had been since the time of old King Henry.
They were by now most familiar with the way the system worked. After three days of looking through records and asking for Jane Johnson by name, however, they were no closer to finding more information than they had been at the first.
Susanna hid a smile as Whitney buckled under Nick's steady regard, but the clerk hovered as they went through the entries, as if he feared they would criticize his diligence. Or mayhap his penmanship, for he had a near illegible hand.
"There," Susanna said, pointing to an entry on the page of burials for 1568. Elizabeth, daughter of Jane Johnson, "base got," had been buried on the last day of March. No cause of death was given. Susanna turned to the clerk. "What do you know of this woman?" She tapped the page.
Whitney sidled closer and looked at the name above Susanna's gloved finger. "Jane Johnson? A vagabond."
"She does not live in the parish, then?"
"We do not want such here. She'd have been escorted to the parish boundary and sent on her way." Contempt laced his voice. Bastards were a charge on the parish, all expense and little reward. Those who bore them were held in low regard, unless they would name the father and he could be forced to support the child.
"And the child--how did she die?"
Whitney looked at her askance. "It was close to four years ago, madam. How am I to remember?"
Susanna examined the record of baptisms and found Elizabeth Johnson. She'd been buried three weeks after she'd been christened. Another chrisom.
Further questioning of the clerk yielded nothing more of use and, thanking him, Susanna and Nick continued on to St. Mary Staining and St. John Zachary. They found no mention of Jane Johnson or her base-got offspring in either parish.
"Four children in four years." Nick shook his head. "Is that not enough?"
"But look at the dates," Susanna said, and produced the list she'd made.
St. Mary Aldermanbury--11 April, 1567
St. Olive--31 March, 1568
St. Giles without Cripplegate--5 November, 1569
St. Michael--12 December, 1570
Nick frowned down at the page. "You think there is a fifth, more recent than the others?"
"Or Jane is even now with child." Susanna pondered what to do. She had already put out word among those few midwives she knew in the city, asking them to notify her if they encountered a woman named Jane Johnson, but it was a common name, the city was large, and midwives were numerous. Susanna was known to some for the herbals she had written, but many others, who could neither read nor write, had no cause to do favors for a visiting country gentlewoman.
In the end, she could only think to revisit the parish where the most recent death had occurred. At St. Michael, the clerk could help them not at all, but he did give them the names of the parish searchers, two old women whose duty it was to repair to the place where a death had occurred and view the corpse, making enquiries and examining the deceased until they could determine what disease or casualty had caused the death. It was their report to the parish clerk that had resulted in "overlaid" being writ down in the register.
The searchers for St. Michael's were two elderly matrons, sisters who lived together in the garret of a sprawling tenement at the edge of the parish. Goodwife Mellon used a stick to help her walk, a slow, ponderous progress. Goodwife Frowley, all skin and bones, flitted birdlike throughout the interview, landing in one spot for a moment, then moving on, head bobbing as she spoke, not in a nod but as if she needed to move it about in order to see everything at once.
"The death of a bastard is a blessing," she informed them when they'd explained their interest in Jane Johnson.
"Nay, sister," Goodwife Melon objected. "Say not so."
"What? Preserve the child as a charge on the parish?"
"No. No. But it is not such a great sin to procure an abortment. Better the mother prevent the birth of the child altogether."
"Better she do so by not lying with the father," her sister snapped.
Susanna listened to the debate with mixed emotions. She could not help but feel sympathy for a young woman who found herself pregnant and unwed. A clever lass would leave home and go to a parish where she was not known. There she might claim to be a widow. But most girls tried to conceal their plight by a judicious arrangement of aprons and skirts, only to be ejected from their place of employment when they were found out. Pregnant women were an all-too-common sight on the outskirts of villages and towns, where some gave birth alone in a field or hedge, if they could not drag themselves to a church porch. Most, however, were not abandoned when they were "in the straw." Susanna had heard that even vagrant women banded together to help a birth proceed.
"Did she kill her own child?" Nick asked when the searchers gave him an opening.
"It was an accident," Goodwife Melon said.
"She was in a rare state by the time we got there," said her sister. "I am certain she did not mean the baby to die."
Susanna wondered whether she could trust what either searcher said. Neither dared admit she might have been wrong in declaring the cause of death, even though they disagreed about everything else.
"The woman was simple," Goodwife Frowley murmured thoughtfully. "That's the only reason I recall her at all."
"Nonsense, sister. She was a clever baggage. She did but pretend to be foolish so we'd ask no more questions."
They glared at each other, but neither had more to add.
"Who is the local midwife?" Susanna asked. If she'd delivered the baby, she might remember Jane Johnson and confirm whether she was simpleminded or not. The possibility that she was added a new dimension to the situation. Not child murder but ignorance? Either way, if Jane was with child again, that child was in danger.
The midwife lived nearby, two doors down from the apothecary's sign--a pill resting on a lolling pink tongue--but she was not at home.
"We will return tomorrow," Susanna decided.
"This is women's business," Nick remarked as they made their way back toward the house where Susanna was staying with friends.
She fought a smile. He was brave enough to slay dragons for her, but the possibility of encountering a woman in labor was enough to send him running for the hills. "I will talk to her alone if you wish."
He could not hide his relief.
The next morning, Susanna returned. The midwife was a plump, comfortable sort named Agnes Dane, and she remembered Jane Johnson.
"She has the mind of a child herself," Agnes confirmed. "No sense about men, either."
"Is she a whore?" Most brothelkeepers took care that their women did not bear children.
"Not to judge by the rooms she had." Agnes described the chamber where the child had been born and had died. "Long since vacated," she added. "A poet lives there now."
"Jane bore other children before the one you delivered. All of them were suffocated in their beds."
For a moment, Susanna thought the midwife unmoved, but then she stirred herself. "I have seen this Jane Johnson since then."
"Is she breeding again?"
"How far along?" Susanna had no doubt of the midwife's eye.
"The child is due any time now, if I am any judge."
"Did she name the father of the child you delivered?"
"Nay. Resisted all our efforts, she did." Agnes made a dismissive gesture. "Likely she did not know."
"Or she is not as simple as she seemed."
Susanna left the midwife's lodgings more determined than ever to find Jane. It was too late to help the others, but she still had a chance to save this new child.
Just as the church bells tolled nine at night, signaling that lights and fires should be put out, one of midwives who'd heard of Susanna's interest in Jane Johnson sent word that a woman by that name was in labor in the parish of Allhallows, Honey Lane. With Nick's help Susanna found the house in a narrow, dark street.
Jane's screams reached them even before they entered. She lay on a thin pallet, her face contorted with the intensity of her labor. When the pain passed, her features resolved themselves into the vacant stare of one who had given up on life.
Simple? Mayhap she was, Susanna thought, but that did not mean she lacked the power to communicate. "Has she named the child's father?" she asked the midwife.
"Not yet." Her attention fixed on her patient, she paid no mind to Susanna, but when Nick made to enter the birthing chamber she gave him a look over her shoulder that could have turned the sun to ice.
"I will wait below," he muttered, and vanished into the gloom outside. There was an alehouse two buildings along, Susanna recalled, and suspected she'd find him there if she had need of him.
At hand was women's work.
Three tortuous hours passed. The midwife, relentless in her effort to discover who had fathered Joan's latest bastard, denied the straining woman a mother's caudle, the special drink made of spiced wine or ale and given to keep up her strength and spirits. She wanted Jane weak enough to betray her lover, but weakness was not what Susanna saw.
Jane's flailing hand caught the midwife's arm. The midwife yelped in pain and it took Susanna's help to break the hold. Jane had gripped with such force that she'd left red finger marks on the midwife's skin.
"I've known women in the straw to squeeze hard," the midwife muttered, "but this one's got hands as strong as a man's." Her face set with grim determination, she resumed her efforts to goad Jane into telling the truth about her child's father, but she kept her distance from those powerful fingers.
Another half hour passed.
"What if she does not know his name?" No matter what Jane might have done, Susanna pitied her for the suffering she endured in order to give birth. There were herbs that could take away much of the pain and others to ease delivery, but Susanna did not carry such with her and the midwife, if she had them, held them back.
"She knows who he is, I warrant. Just because she is simple does not mean she lacks all sense." The midwife's face was set in a grim expression.
"What if he did not tell her his name?"
"Her lover will have given her some name to call him by, never doubt it."
Susanna had been watching the woman in the bed. Her eyes, open and glazed with pain, widened at the midwife's words. Fear? But of what was she afraid? Penance for bearing a bastard? She would have endured that already, for each of the previous children.
"It may not be mere stubbornness keeps her quiet," Susanna murmured. It was possible Jane was so stalwart in protecting her lover because she lived in terror of what he would do to her if she betrayed him.
Was he an important man in London? Someone who could order her disposed of if she spoke? Or was he simply a bully who'd threatened her often enough that she dared not risk his wrath? Either way, Susanna thought, Jane would not tell them. If she had kept her secret throughout the torture of those previous births, she'd maintain her silence now.
The pains continued for another hour before Jane at last produced a healthy girl child. The midwife tied and cut the umbilical cord, washed the babe, and swaddled her in new linen bands until she was trussed from head to foot. These tasks complete, she handed the newborn child to her mother. Jane smiled at the downy head and cooed and petted the baby.
Concerned for the tiny girl's safety, Susanna moved closer to the pallet. "May I hold her?" she asked, tucking her hands under the small, squirming body.
But Jane would not let go. With frightening ease, she resisted Susanna's attempt to ease the child away from her. Surprised, Susanna's gaze flew to Jane's face, wondering if she knew her own strength. Mayhap she had been wrong. How could such a powerful woman be cowed by a lover?
Another explanation for the deaths occurred to Susanna then. Jane might have killed her own children by accident. Had she hugged them each with such an excess of affection that they'd suffocated?
Vowing to keep a watchful eye on mother and child, Susanna abandoned her attempt to remove the baby from Jane's arms. She'd just turned back to the midwife, meaning to offer to pay her to stay with Jane until other arrangements could be made, when the local vicar arrived.
"Did she give up the father's name during childbirth?" he asked the midwife.
"No. Silent as a monk, that one."
"You were charged with obtaining that information."
"Was I to torture her?" the midwife inquired. "If she did not speak when her time was upon her, she will not."
The vicar's disdain for both Jane and the midwife hardened Susanna's heart against him. He fell lower still in her estimation when he began to rant about the charge this child would be on the parish. "Even if it dies," he grumbled, "it will cost 2s.9d. to bury."
"Enough, sir," Susanna protested. "I will support the child myself if money is all that concerns you."
The vicar, mollified, became effusive in his thanks. Then, duty done, he was about to take his leave when a cry from the baby drew his attention to Jane and he looked well at her for the first time.
"I have seen this woman before," he gasped, "and in similar circumstances! Whore! How many bastards have you brought into the world?"
Susanna prevented him from launching another diatribe by putting her hand on his sleeve. "There is more to this than you know, vicar. Where did you see her before?"
Her serious mein and somber tone had as much effect as Susanna's obvious wealth and gentility. He swallowed his outrage and replied in measured tones. "I was previously the curate at St. Mary Aldermanbury."
Where the first baby died. "Will you tell me what you recall of that birth?"
The vicar frowned. "It was my clerk," he said after a moment's thought. "Whitney showed a most unwarranted sympathy for this woman."
"Aye. These days he is the clerk at St. Olave, Silver Street."
Susanna found Lawrence Whitney alone, and for a moment her steps faltered on the stone-flagged floor of the chancel. She'd had the remainder of the night to consider what she should say to him, but now that the moment was upon her, she had second thoughts. True, it was strange that Whitney should remember Jane was a vagabond but not that she was simple. And his interest in her almost five years ago seemed suspicious, but the explanation that had made sense to her in the wee hours of the morning might be dead wrong.
He turned and, recognizing her, scowled.
"Good day to you, Clerk Whitney," she said, and decided to plunge ahead. If she wronged him, she would apologize. "I am come to tell you that you have a new daughter."
Face blank with astonishment, he gawked at her. Then he dropped the communion plate he'd been polishing and his expression changed to one of panic.
"Do not trouble to deny it," she told him with a grim sense of satisfaction. She had been right. He was Jane's lover. "This time Jane Johnson named her child's father."
"She has not the wit to know whether she's had one man or twenty."
"If that is true, sirrah, the more foul your actions in taking advantage of her. But tell me, if all her children were not yours, why go to such pains to hide their mother?"
He started to speak, then appeared to change his mind. Sullen-faced, he settled for glaring at her. Only when the silence between them stretched to unbearable lengths did he blurt out another accusation. "She's naught but a foolish woman. Much to be pitied."
"Foolish? Is that an excuse to have overlaid four young children?"
"What do I care for them? It was better so. She has not the wit to care for them. They'd have become a charge on the parish."
"Not if you married their mother."
Susanna despised weaklings. The fellow seemed incapable of giving up his mistress, yet he was unwilling to take any responsibility for the children she bore him. He'd rather move her around in the same general area of London, each time into a different parish, so that no one would notice she kept having bastard children and they kept dying.
"You can be required to marry her," Susanna reminded him. "Or do you prefer to sit in the stocks with a notice around your neck saying: 'Lawrence Whitney hath got Jane Johnson with child,' and then parade through this church on three consecutive Sundays wearing a penitent's white sheet and a placard saying: 'Fornicator.'"
"I am already wed." He spat out the admission.
"In that case, the placard will say 'Adulterer,' but having a wife will not spare you the obligation of supporting your child until she reaches her seventh year."
"Think you she will live that long? Such children do not thrive. Not with such a mother."
"All the more reason that you must take steps to protect the babe."
He heaved a deep sigh. "You meddle in matters that are none of your business, Lady Appleton. What will be, will be. It is in God's hands." The pious glance he cast upward was so patently false Susanna was surprised lightning did not streak out of the sky and strike him dead on the spot.
"The laws of God and man alike condemn you, sirrah. And I mean to do more than meddle."
"Report me to the church? Why trouble yourself?"
There was no remorse in him, for he knew as well as she did that no dire punishment awaited him for seducing a simpleminded young woman and repeatedly getting her with child. He'd avoided embarrassment with his machinations, nothing more. Even now, Jane would bear the brunt of the church's censure, not Whitney. He'd do penance and be forgiven.
In frustration, Susanna turned on her heel and stormed out of the church. She had friends. Mayhap one of them had enough influence to force Whitney to support his own child.
This child would thrive. Susanna intended to make certain of it. And Jane herself would be removed from her lover's influence. She would make a new beginning.
Susanna's first thought was to fetch Jane and take her into the household where she was at present a guest. Her hostess had no objection, but having birthed two children of her own, she suggested that it might be unwise to disturb a new mother just yet. Instead, Susanna returned to Jane's lodgings accompanied by a maidservant, a quiet girl content to sit in a corner and sew, and bringing with her an ornate wooden cradle.
The next time the exhausted mother awoke, she stared at Susanna in blank incomprehension. Then a smile blossomed on her pale face. "I remember you. You came with the midwife."
Susanna nodded. "Jane," she said in her gentlest voice, "how would you like to live in the country?"
The vacant expression returned, making Susanna wonder if she understood that any other place existed outside the slums of London.
"My friend Master Baldwin has a manor in Northamptonshire, near Rockingham Forest. He raises sheep there to make wool."
"Sheep?" Jane sounded doubtful.
"You need not have anything to do with them if you do not want to. I am certain there is plenty of other work--in the dairy and in the house. You'll have livery to wear and good food to eat. Master Baldwin's housekeeper and the man she is about to marry, who is steward there, will take good care of you and your child."
Tears welled in Jane's eyes. "My babies die."
"Yes, my dear. I know." Susanna moved to sit on the pallet and placed her hand over Jane's cold one. "But this child is different. See, she has her own cradle to sleep in." She set it rocking with her foot. Inside, the swaddled child was awake but not yet restless. A series of knotted bands kept her secured to knobs on the sides of the cradle. Even if it tipped over, the baby would not fall out.
Jane turned her face into the pillow. "It is always the same," she murmured. "I wake up and find them dead. He says I roll over on them in the night. Then he goes away, and the searchers come, and I have to leave the parish."
"Yes," Susanna said. "I have spoken to Lawrence Whitney. I gather that he found you new lodgings every time."
At the name, Jane's eyes widened. Fear? Again, Susanna could not be certain. "Tell me about him, Jane. Do you love him?"
Jane said nothing.
The midwife had been right, Susanna thought. Jane might be simple, but she was not stupid. She had the mind of a child of eight or nine. She was capable of deceit, of stubborn refusal to speak, of great loyalty, no matter how little deserved. But she could also be tricked into saying more than she realized about her own situation.
"This time your friend Lawrence Whitney will allow me to make the arrangements," she told Jane. He had better! "And it will also be my privilege to keep your daughter safe from accidents. You see, Jane. She has her own bed. No one can overlay her."
Still Jane said nothing.
"But we must talk about what happened before," Susanna continued, "so that it will never happen again." It might be beyond Jane's ability to explain what Susanna wanted to know, but there had been four deaths in a row, more than could be accounted accidental. The children could all have had some physical aberration, she supposed, a flaw in the lungs or heart, mayhap, that caused each sudden death, but Susanna still had to consider the possibility that one or more of the deaths had been deliberate murder.
Jane sniffled. "Will I be hanged?"
Susanna's breath stopped. She willed herself to be calm. Why should Jane think that a possibility? Had Whitney accused her of deliberately harming her own children? Had he threatened to report her if she did not continue as his mistress? Was that the cause of the fear she'd seen in Jane's eyes? With an effort she kept her voice level.
"No, Jane. You will be safe with me."
"Even if this baby dies too?" The child had begun to whimper. Susanna freed the infant from her cradle and handed her to Jane to nurse.
"No one will hang you," Susanna promised. She intended to remain with mother and child until they were safe in Northamptonshire. If the infant succumbed, it would not be to a murderous parent.
"He said I must hide. After. He said they'd think I done it apurpose."
"But you did not. You were asleep."
The beatific smile Jane wore as she looked down at her nursing babe vanished when she shifted her gaze to Susanna. Her face became a mask of horror. "The first one, I were suckling."
"In the bed?"
A few more questions elicited a clear picture. Jane had fallen asleep with her breast still in the child's mouth. When she'd awakened hours later, the baby had no longer been breathing. Susanna ruled it a tragic accident.
"Did the same thing happen with the next child?"
Jane shook her head. "I were careful, but the baby died anyway."
"You slept soundly and awoke to find your child overlaid?"
Jane frowned. "Seems like I dreamed." She continued to nurse the new infant, stroking the downy head with an absent motion.
"Dreamed what, Jane?"
Her voice puzzled, she murmured, "Pillows."
"You thought there were extra pillows? In the bed with you?"
Susanna leaned forward to take the sated girl child and replace her on her back in the cradle, which was closer to the charcoal brazier, the only source of warmth in the room. She did not take time to tie the strings. A new and troubling possibility sent her rushing back to the pallet to continue her interrogation of Jane Johnson.
"Did you sleep alone those nights, Jane?"
The young woman's forehead wrinkled with the effort it took to work out what Susanna meant.
"Was Lawrence with you?"
Face clearing, Jane smiled, glad to be able to answer Susanna's question. "He said I needed looking after with the new baby."
"So he was with you, each time, when you found your child had been overlaid?"
Tears sprang into Jane's eyes as she nodded.
Jane, Susanna thought, was not a murdering mother, but Lawrence Whitney might well have killed the infants. That explanation made more sense to Susanna than holding Jane responsible for four suspiciously similar "accidents." But what kind of man would deliberately smother his own children?
"Jane," she asked in a tentative voice. "Did Lawrence ever strike you?"
Once again eager to please, Jane bobbed her head. "Said I needed to know my place. Said it were his duty to punish me for what I done."
"For the deaths of your babies?"
"For getting with child."
The words Whitney had spoken earlier came back to Susanna, rife with ominous meaning: Such children do not thrive. A chill ran through her. With sudden clarity, she understood that the type of man who would beat his mistress and blame her for being pregnant was also the sort who'd dispose of that child without a qualm.
Would he dare do so again? The risk he might, and try to dispose of Jane, too, had her speaking in a sharp voice to the maidservant, who had fallen asleep in her chair. "Go at once to Billingsgate and fetch Master Baldwin. He must come here at once and bring with him a wagon, that we may take Jane and her child away."
"But madam, it is full dark!"
"Take a torch. Hire a link boy." Susanna thrust several coins at her. "Go quickly."
When the reluctant girl had left, Susanna contemplated the chamber. She had miscalculated. Staying here with Jane once she'd told Whitney she knew he was the child's father had been a mistake. There was nothing in the room to use to defend Jane and the baby if Whitney planned to kill again. Susanna longed for a stout cudgel. Even more, she wished she'd asked Nick to stay here with her.
A pair of sewing scissors was the only potential weapon Susanna had found by the time she heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. She slipped behind the door just as it opened.
Unaware of Susanna's presence, Lawrence Whitney strode straight to Jane's pallet. He seized her roughly by the shoulders. "Jezebel! You betrayed me."
Taught long since to fear his brutality, Jane cowered before his attack, whimpering as she tried to defend herself with words. "I said naught to midwife nor vicar."
"You talked to someone else."
Silently pleading for help, Jane looked past Whitney's shoulder, searching for Susanna. He released her and whirled, an ugly look on his face. "I thought you'd gone."
"You saw my maidservant leave. She will return with Master Baldwin at any moment." Whitney was a coward at heart, Susanna thought. Why else would he come at night when he could enter by stealth? Why else would he wait until he thought Jane was alone? "You have just time to flee before he arrives."
Whitney's features settled into a smile so false no one but an infant would be deceived by it. "How can I go, Lady Appleton? I have a duty here."
"Do you mean to assume your parental responsibilities? Make arrangements for quarterly payments mayhap?"
He glanced toward the cradle. "Ah, yes. The child."
Before Susanna could stop him, Whitney strode to the cradle and with a sudden kick of his leading foot against the rocker, flung the tightly swaddled infant out of her nest and straight toward the glowing coals in the nearby brazier. With a gasp of horror, Susanna rushed forward. Whitney tripped her before she'd gone a half dozen steps. The scissors she'd been holding behind her back flew from her hand and skittered out of reach under the chair.
"No!" Jane lunged from the bed as the linen swaddling bands began to smoke. With bare hands, she beat out the first tiny flames before they could spread.
The newborn screamed, indignant at having been ripped so precipitously from sleep. From the sound of those lusty yells, her flammable wrappings appeared to have protected her from taking harm in the fall. Susanna heaved herself upright to find Whitney, hands clasped to his ears, staring at his daughter through eyes that were wide and frantic.
"Make her be silent!" he bellowed. "Stop that noise!"
Jane stepped away from the baby and put her hands behind her back. Terrorized, confused, she suddenly seemed incapable of any action. The child on the floor wailed louder.
Whitney turned his wild-eyed gaze on Susanna. "This is all your fault. You meddled in matters that were none of your business."
With no more warning than that, he charged, striking Susanna across the face with the back of his hand. The blow sent her reeling into the wall. Pain lanced through her shoulder, joining the agony in her jaw, but she forgot both injuries when she saw that he'd overset the brazier. Within moments, the entire chamber could be afire. Whitney, a gleeful expression on his face, darted toward the door.
"Jane," Susanna screamed. "Save your child."
Staggering a little, Susanna herself ran toward the bed. She grabbed the heavy blanket and flung it atop the glowing coals, hoping to smother the flames aborning. Then, lifting her skirts out of the way, she used her sturdy boots to trample every escaping spark she could find.
The wails of Jane's infant continued unabated. Mercifully, she had been too far from the brazier to be burnt when it toppled over, for Jane had made no move to rescue her. Susanna gathered the baby into her own arms, soothing her with awkward pats and murmurs. Only then did she become aware of the sounds of a struggle behind her.
Jane's hands, those strong hands that had marked the midwife, were clamped tight around Whitney's throat. He staggered, flailing wildly, striking her repeatedly. She did not seem to notice the blows. Nor did she loosen her grip.
Susanna stood and watched as Whitney's face, already red, went purple as his struggles grew weaker. When he dropped to his knees, he took Jane with him, but still she did not let go, not until the man was limp and unresisting as a day-old fish.
Without a backward glance, Jane heaved herself off Whitney's body and reached for her baby. Susanna relinquished the infant, wincing as Jane accidentally bumped against her. Arm and face both throbbed, but she could not give in to the pain yet. First she had to make certain that the villain was dead. She knelt beside the body. No life pounded in the veins. No breath escaped those dead white lips. And all emotion had gone from the bulging eyes.
"He's escaped penance," she murmured, more to herself than to Jane. He would not have to endure the burden of supporting his daughter for the first seven years of her life. Instead he had been punished with a rough justice.
Belatedly, distracted from nursing her child, Jane seemed to realize what she had done. Her jaw went slack. "Will they hang me?"
"No." Susanna spoke with absolute certainty. "I can bear witness to all that happened here. This man tried to kill us--you, me, and your child. You prevented that, Jane. You saved all our lives. You will not be punished. Indeed, I mean to see to it that you are richly rewarded. Mayhap your own little cottage in Northamptonshire," she added, hearing a door slam below stairs and the familiar sound of Nick's voice. "You shall have a maid to help you with the baby and a generous stipend."
Jane made no response. Her attention had already shifted back to her child. The look on her face reflected naught but love and delight.
A Note from the Author
The "bawdy courts" of the sixteenth century grew in importance as the Puritan influence in government increased. They concerned themselves not with criminal behavior but with offenses against the community standard of morality. These ranged from flirting in church to adultery. The ultimate punishment was excommunication, which could lead to imprisonment on the criminal charge of failing to attend church. Most punishments, however, only involved some sort of penance, a subject I'll be touching on again in "Encore for a Neck Verse" and "Confusions Most Monstrous."
The churchwardens of each parish were responsible for detecting offenses and bringing them to the attention of courts set up in each deanery. Every diocese had several courts, each presided over by an archdeacon. It would have been almost impossible for an Elizabethan to avoid a brush with some church court, especially since they also heard "actions of defamation"--cases brought by those who felt themselves injured by gossip in the community or by charges unsuccessfully brought against them at an earlier church court.
* * * *
Lady Appleton and the Bristol Crystals
The stairs wound upward, narrow, steep, and uneven. Susanna, Lady Appleton had to brace one hand against a crumbling plaster wall to steady herself as she climbed. She was out of breath and her bad leg throbbed steadily by the time she reached the top floor of the George in Glastonbury. It smelt of disuse and mouse droppings.
"A moment," she said to Grace, her young tiring maid. The girl's pretty face was flushed and a strand of dark hair had come loose beneath her coif, but otherwise she showed no sign of exertion. The uncommon hot weather did not affect her as badly as it did her mistress.
The inn had been purpose-built more than a hundred years earlier to house pilgrims visiting Glastonbury Abbey. Susanna supposed those visitors had been more concerned with their spiritual well being than creature comforts, but for many years now, ever since the present queen's father, old Henry VIII, dissolved all the monasteries, the George had depended upon secular patrons for its custom. It seemed odd to Susanna that the innkeeper had undertaken so few repairs. True, Glastonbury was in a remote part of Somerset, but it was on one of the main routes westward from the midlands and what little she'd seen of it as they rode in had suggested a fair-sized market town.
The long, low room in which Susanna and her servant were to sleep, together with any other women spending the night at the George without a husband's company, was better swept but just as stifling as the landing. Narrow windows cut into thick walls, the shutters flung open to reveal the rooftops of the town, let in the only breath of air.
A tiny, tidily-dressed woman already occupied the chamber. She stood on tiptoe on a bench, looking out the far casement at the rapidly gathering dusk. Without turning her head to look at the newcomers, she spoke, her voice soft and melodious. "Lady Appleton, I have been waiting for you to arrive." She hopped down from her vantage point and pattered toward Susanna across the bare planks.
Susanna was certain they'd never met before. The woman stood no higher than Susanna's shoulder and even though Susanna was uncommon tall for a woman, that was surpassing small. Elfin features matched the stature--small chin and nose, narrow face, and ears that were just the slightest bit pointed.
"How is it you know my name, madam, when you are a stranger to me?"
"I am a seer," the little woman said, making the absurd claim in a matter-of-fact voice as she met Susanna's gaze. Her eyes were an unusual clear gray in color.
Young Grace, but newly trained in her duties, abandoned unpacking her mistress's capcase. With the eagerness of a puppy, she tugged at the stranger's sleeve. "Can you see my future? Will I marry well?"
The seer spared Grace a quick, pitying glance. "You are not my concern. It is Lady Appleton I've come to warn."
Susanna felt both brows lift. Ominous warnings from fortune tellers? What had she done to deserve this?
"I see you doubt me." The woman seized Susanna's gloved hand in a surprisingly firm grip and closed her eyes. "You are on your way to Cornwall."
"Easy enough to learn that from the ostler." Susanna tried to pull free but the seer was not yet done with her.
"You go to visit young Rosamond. It has been almost a year since you last saw her but for all that this will be a brief visit. You have allowed only two weeks for the journey, two weeks to visit, and two weeks to return. You do not wish to be absent longer because you have a houseguest--someone recently bereaved."
"You could glean all that by listening to servants' talk." But the woman was exceeding well informed.
The stranger had more to say. "A boy has been following your party since you left Leigh Abbey. He is in grave danger of suffocating in an ill-chosen hiding place."
This ominous prediction set Susanna's heart racing. She had no desire to risk a life. "Where?"
"In the cart with the furnishings you take to Lady Pendennis. He rolled himself into a tapestry. It shifted during transport, making it impossible for him to squirm free."
A quarter of an hour later, nine-year-old Rob Jaffrey stood before Susanna in the torchlit stableyard of the inn. Red-faced and disheveled, he kept his head down to avoid eye contact. He shifted his weight from foot to foot as he awaited her inquisition.
Thankful they'd been in time to rescue him, Susanna moderated her tone. "Account for yourself, my lad. Why did you stow away in that cart?"
She was annoyed with him but she was also very glad to have found him still alive. He was the child of two of her most loyal servants, her steward and her housekeeper. Jennet Jaffrey was also one of Susanna's oldest and dearest friends. She'd have been devastated by the death of her only son.
"I want to see Rosamond." Rob attempted to sound defiant but his high, piping voice defeated the effort.
So that was it. Susanna understood now why he'd stowed away. Jennet did not approve of her son's friendship with Rosamond. The two of them, together with Rob's two older sisters, had shared lessons at Leigh Abbey until Rob had gotten old enough to attend the village school instead.
Susanna acknowledged that the girl she had fostered for six years had been a bad influence on Jennet's son. Rosamond had led him into one scrape after another. But Rob had wept when she'd broken the news to him that Rosamond would not be returning to Leigh Abbey from Cornwall. She lived now with her mother and stepfather. Susanna missed her as much as young Rob did.
At Susanna's side, Nick Baldwin, her neighbor in Kent and sometime lover, fixed the lad with a steely glare. "You deserve a good thrashing. You'd get it if either of your parents were here." Nick had business of his own in the West Country and had suggested making the journey together. Susanna had not needed much persuasion. Aside from her pleasure in his company, she appreciated the addition of his two stout henchmen to their numbers.
By the way Rob's lower lip stuck out, Susanna judged he felt more put-upon than repentant, and he showed no fear of Nick. "Think of your poor mother," she admonished him. "Jennet must be frantic with worry."
"Mother thinks I've gone to cousins near Dover."
"When did you plan to reveal yourself?" Nick asked.
Rob dared peek at them through his lashes. Susanna fancied he was trying to gauge how much it was safe to tell them. "Soon."
"When you ran out of food?" By the mulberry-colored stain creeping up the back of Rob's neck, Susanna knew she'd guessed well. "Retrieve what you brought with you and go along with Master Baldwin's men. We will talk again in the morning." Simon and Toby would see to it that the lad had something to eat before the three of them bedded down in the stable.
Nick stood beside her, watching the boy walk away. "I wonder how he managed to stay hidden so long? And keep up with us without a horse? Resourceful lad." Reluctant admiration crept into his voice.
"Those are questions for another day. Just now we must send word to Jennet. I fear she may already have discovered he's not where he's supposed to be." She sent a sharp look in Nick's direction. "Do you intend to thrash him in loco parentis?"
He shook his head. "The lad is already suffering, afflicted as he is with a most painful ailment."
Alarm shot through her. "What did I miss?" With all her knowledge of herbal remedies, there was likely something she could do to help young Rob.
"There is no cure but time for unrequited love."
"Unrequit--! But he's only nine years old."
"As is Rosamond, but he's been her devoted slave since they first met at the age of three. Consider the situation from his point of view. He feels that if he is old enough to be sent away to school, he is old enough to undertake this journey."
"It is true he is to matriculate at the King's School in Canterbury at the beginning of the next term, but what has that to do with Rosamond?"
"To his mind, they've been separated by cruel fate. Now that he's to leave home himself, what chance will they ever have to meet again?" He took Susanna's arm to escort her back inside the inn.
"They can write each other letters. Indeed, they do already."
At sea with this mad notion of children so determined to be together that one would risk his life to reach the other, Susanna readily agreed to Nick's suggestion that they sup together in the common room before she retired for the night. By the time he'd secured a table, bespoken their meal, and given orders for food to be sent to Susanna's chamber for her maid, Susanna had realized that they had no choice but to take Rob with them on the morrow. She could scarce send him home. They could not spare anyone to accompany him.
"You reward him for his bad behavior by giving him what he wants," Nick said when she told him what she'd decided.
"What else am I to do with him? He and Rosamond can bid each other sad farewells. Then we will return the grieving child to his parents. What a cheerful journey home that will be!"
When Nick produced paper, a portable ink pot, and a quill, Susanna scribbled a brief message to Jennet. Not for the first time, she was grateful her father had seen to it that all Leigh Abbey servants were taught to read. When she'd finished, she used her signet ring and the sealing wax Nick melted for her to secure the flaps of the thrice-folded paper.
He tucked the letter into the front of his doublet. "I will see this dispatched by messenger at first light," he promised. "Do you want to send word ahead to warn Pendennis or shall we surprise him?"
Susanna made a face at him. Warn Pendennis indeed! As if she did not know full well the real reason Nick's journey had so fortuitously coincided with her own. He wanted to see for himself that Sir Walter Pendennis and his wife, Rosamond's mother, had reconciled, visible proof Walter was no longer his rival for Susanna's affections. Men! She would never understand how they could keep a feud going so long after all reason for it had lapsed.
The innkeeper brought bread and butter, eggs, boiled and roast mutton, pigeon pie and a flask of wine. As they ate, Nick asked the question Susanna had been avoiding. "How did you guess Rob was hiding in that tapestry?"
She hesitated, aware of how he felt about those he contemptuously referred to as "figure flingers," but after a moment she told him about the seer. His expression grew darker with every word she uttered.
Containing his anger with an effort, he drained his wine cup and set the vessel down with a resounding thump. "She wants something."
"You cannot believe she has the sight."
"No more than I believe in love potions or using magic to find missing objects, but I confess I am most curious to hear how she'll explain her knowledge of Rob's presence."
"Have no more to do with her, Susanna."
"I can scarce avoid it when we must share a chamber."
"Then promise me you will be careful. Such people are dangerous."
Some time later, when Susanna returned to her bedchamber, she found her tiring maid deep in conversation with the seer. At her mistress's entrance, Grace flushed and sprang to her feet.
"Have you had your fortune told?" Susanna asked. "Or have you been the one answering questions?"
The stranger laughed. "I have no need to ask. I simply know. You found young Rob Jaffrey hiding in the cart."
"I thank you for your timely warning."
"And yet you doubt my gift."
"There must be thousands of people who claim to tell fortunes. Certes some few predictions must come true."
"I see I must prove myself." She thought for a moment. "Do you recall the tales your grandmother was wont to tell of the time she spent at court?"
Surprised by what seemed to be a complete shift in subject, Susanna nodded. Her father's mother had been a waiting gentlewoman to the first of King Henry VIII's queens. In her later years, she'd loved to regale the household at Leigh Abbey with stories from those youthful days.
"She talked of the wife of one Robert Amadas," she seer said, "master of the king's jewel house. Mistress Amadas was a woman with a gift. She was much given to prophecy."
Susanna was blessed with a gift of her own, an excellent memory. Although it had been almost thirty years since she'd last heard the tale, she had the story whole within moments. "Mistress Amadas was also much given to hallucinations. And cursed with a sharp tongue. She got into trouble for spreading tales about Sir William Compton's scandalous behavior with Lord Hastings's wife."
"She had the gift of seeing what others could not," the little woman insisted. "And I inherited it from her. I am Elizabeth Amadas."
"Well, Mistress Amadas, do you mean to predict more details of my future? Or mayhap tell me what I am thinking, for you seem to combine more than one skill in this gift of yours."
Responding to Susanna's sarcasm with a glare, the little woman spoke with unexpected heat. "You do not deserve any more warnings." Then, without another word, she disrobed, climbed into bed, and pulled the coverlet over her head to block out the candlelight.
In the morning, after she had broken her fast with bread and ale, Susanna called Rob Jaffrey to her. They had the inn's common room to themselves. The others in their party were in the stableyard, preparing to resume their journey.
"You will accompany us to Cornwall," she informed him.
"Thank you, madam. I will not be in the way. You'll see. I'll earn my keep."
"I expect you to do so." His delight made a mockery of her firm voice and fierce expression. "You may begin at once. Go and help Master Baldwin with the horses."
In his hurry to obey he nearly knocked Elizabeth Amadas off her feet.
"Slow down, lad," she cautioned him. "You will do yourself an injury." Ignoring his stammered apology, she entered the common room and addressed Susanna. "Will it convince you of my gift if I am able to tell you something known only to you and Mistress Rosamond?"
"And what would that be?" Susanna asked.
"Your foster daughter does much admire certain stones called Bristol crystals. When she could not persuade her mother to share those she'd been given, she 'borrowed' two. She keeps them in the hidden drawer of the globe in her schoolroom."
Taken aback, Susanna stared at Mistress Amadas. "You know more than I do, mistress."
But Rosamond had spoken of these Bristol crystals in a letter. The glittering stones, also called Cornish diamonds and St. Vincent's rocks, were transparent rock crystal of little value but they were sometimes sold to the unwary as diamonds. Sir Walter Pendennis, Rosamond's stepfather, was a justice of the peace. A case had come before him the previous summer that concerned some of these baubles. He'd sent the malefactor off to gaol, charged with fraud. It appeared he'd then made a present of the evidence to Eleanor, Rosamond's mother.
Susanna frowned. An odd gift. There had been a time when Eleanor prized only the most expensive possessions. She must value these Bristol crystals for some private reason.
She thought over what else Rosamond had said in her letters. Rambling accounts of whatever struck the girl's fancy, they covered many close-written pages. She did not often refer to her mother, although she had provided Susanna with details of Eleanor's difficulty finding a suitable gentlewoman to employ as her companion.
The self-proclaimed seer gasped and clapped both hands over her mouth.
"What is it?" Susanna demanded. "What is wrong?"
Eyes squeezed tightly shut, the tiny woman swayed. Susanna grasped her upper arm to prevent her falling. At once the seer's lids lifted, but her gaze was fixed, as if whatever she stared at lay beyond the ken of mere mortals.
"Elizabeth!" Susanna said sharply, giving her a shake. "Come back."
The gray eyes blinked. "We must help her," Elizabeth whispered. And with that enigmatic statement, she rushed out of the common room.
Susanna hesitated, wondering if she should call for Nick. Then she remembered Rob, who had nearly suffocated. If this situation was as dire as Elizabeth's behavior indicated, they had no time to lose. She hurried after the other woman, reaching her side just as Elizabeth opened the door to an empty chamber and went in. She crossed directly to a wall hanging, twitched it aside, and began to descend the privy stair hidden behind it.
Again Susanna hesitated, but again she followed. The steps were steep, and increasingly uneven as they neared the bottom. The only light was what filtered down through the hanging.
As she went, Susanna fumbled in the pouch suspended from her waist until her searching fingers located the candle stub, flint, and steel she kept there for emergencies. At the foot of the stair, she lit the candle, illuminating a narrow passage. Six cautious paces brought her into a larger, vaulted space. There a single rush dip burned in a wall sconce, casting eerie shadows.
Had Elizabeth Amadas not seemed so agitated, Susanna would have balked at venturing farther into the murky underground room, but the other woman was already groping her way along one side of the cellar. "Here," she whispered. "A servant sent down for supplies. A fall."
Certes someone had left that torch burning, but although Susanna listened for groans or whimpers she heard nothing but her own breathing and that of the woman ahead of her.
"In there." Elizabeth pointed to a high stone step below an opening in the wall. It appeared to lead to a room of some sort, mayhap for storing wine, but the entrance was less than three feet high and the interior was unlit.
The hairs on the back of Susanna's neck prickled. She was already turning to retrace her steps, meaning to go for help, when pain lanced through the back of her skull. Stars burst before her eyes. Then there was only blackness.
"Where is she, Cowdrey?" Nick Baldwin slammed the innkeeper against the wall and tightened his grip on the fellow's throat. "A gentlewoman does not vanish without a trace unless she's been helped on her way. Tell me what you know and quickly or it will be the worse for you."
Through a red haze, Nick saw his host's contorted face work. Denials. Protests of innocence. Finally a confession to watering the wine. But he could tell Nick nothing about Susanna's sudden disappearance. Half an hour since, when Nick had gone to fetch her from the common room, he'd discovered she was no longer anywhere in the inn. Neither was Rob Jaffrey. A frantic search of every room had roused one unhappy pair of newlyweds from their nuptial bed but had otherwise revealed only inn servants and Nick's own party.
"What of the other woman who shared her chamber?" Nick's voice rose to a bellow and he gave Cowdrey another shake for good measure.
"I know naught of her!" But the brief flash of guilt in his goggling eyes was enough for Nick. He tightened his grip. "A bribe. That is all it was. I swear it. She bribed me to tell your party that I had but one room suitable for women travelers."
"The one she already occupied?"
Nick barely had time to absorb that information before he heard a flurry of activity at the entrance to the stableyard. Rob burst through the gathered servants, eyes wild and chest heaving from the speed of his run. His face was dirt streaked and marred with several small cuts. His clothing was disheveled and likewise dirty, especially at the knees. "They've taken her!" he cried. "They've kidnapped Lady Appleton."
One of Nick's big hands settled on the lad's shoulder, but he kept hold of the innkeeper with the other. "Who has, boy?"
"The seer. We must hurry. They have horses. They're taking Lady Appleton away."
Nick shoved Cowdrey aside. His men had been mounted and ready to go--with Grace on a pillion behind Simon--when they discovered Susanna's absence. "Leave the cart," he ordered now. "Rob, take your mistress's mare." He pointed a finger at the guide he'd hired to help them find the quickest route to the main road into Cornwall. "Do you know all the territory around here?"
"As well as any, sir."
"Then keep up with us. You'll be well rewarded for your service. Which way?" he asked the boy.
Following Rob, they forged a path through Glastonbury's early morning traffic. "There were four men," the lad said.
That explained why he'd not done more than run for help. "How did they get her away?"
"Through a tunnel." By the time he'd explained that he'd stopped outside the common room to listen when he'd heard Rosamond's name mentioned, they'd reached the gatehouse of an old abandoned abbey.
Not far distant from the inn but well-concealed by walls and trees, the ruined buildings covered more than thirty acres. "The tunnel came out there," Rob said, pointing.
Stumbling over his words, he told Nick how Susanna had followed the fortune-teller down a flight of hidden stairs at the inn to enter a cellar where a man with a cudgel had been waiting to knock her on the head.
"Then he and the woman dragged her into the tunnel. I followed them. I was afraid I'd lose sight of her if I went for help." Rob slanted a nervous glance at Nick. He had to swallow hard before he could continue. "They had horses waiting. And more men. Four in all. That's when I left her. To get help."
"You did well, lad." Calling out would have made the villains aware they'd been seen and most likely have lead them to capture Rob. Or kill him."Was Lady Appleton still unconscious when they rode off?"
Rob nodded. "They tied her onto a pillion, with her hands around the rider's waist so she'd not fall. Then they pulled her cloak around her to hide the ropes."
The image made Nick's blood boil but he contained his anger. Time enough to explode later. "Which way did they go?"
"The road to Meare," their guide said when Rob showed them the direction the riders had taken.
Nick dug his heels into his horse's flanks and set off, the others after him. He hoped they'd shortly overtake Susanna and rescue her, but although he kept a sharp watch all the while, he saw no sign of the party they pursued. They were well away from Glastonbury and into rough country before they came at last upon a man herding pigs who'd seen four men and two women pass by on horseback.
Encouraged, they pushed on, following narrow, meandering lanes that seemed to be bearing north and east. Only once, far ahead, did Nick glimpse a plume of dust that might have been kicked up by riders. He turned to the guide. "If those are the villains we seek, where are they headed?"
"They be bound o'er Zomerzet levels, into Mendip."
Mendip, Nick recalled, was a high, rough, rocky area, partially forested but full of cliffs and caves and swallets and underground streams, a landscape containing an untold number of places in which a woman could be concealed.
Susanna's awareness of her surroundings returned in fits and starts. The back of her head throbbed. The sting of a dozen cuts and scrapes was so intense it brought tears to her eyes. That she was in constant motion, jiggled and jostled about, occasionally slipping sideways into an even more uncomfortable position, added to her sense of unreality and the aches from the battering her limp body had already endured.
She tried to move and found she could not. Both her wrists and her ankles were tied. The left side of her face pressed into a thick wool surface, the hood of her own cloak. Beneath that layer of cloth she felt something solid yet flexible that smelled of leather and sweat . . . and horse. Bewildered, she concluded she was on horseback, riding on a pillion with both arms wrapped around the waist of the man in the saddle in front of her, but she could not think how she'd gotten there.
"She be wakeful." Susanna felt as well as heard the deep rumble of a male voice, since she was tied to him. The rope binding them both bit into her armpits as the horse, cursed with an uneven gait to begin with, began a steep ascent.
As her scattered thoughts regrouped, Susanna made a swift inventory of her situation. Her injuries seemed to be minor, if painful. Too late, she understood that what she'd thought was a room in the cellar of the inn had been a tunnel. Judging by the bruises and scrapes she'd acquired, they'd dragged her through it for some distance.
Listening hard, Susanna heard naught but the clop of hooves, the whisper of leaves, and the occasional murmur of a nearby stream. No voices. No sounds of commerce. Wherever they were, they had left Glastonbury well behind them.
In an attempt to dislodge the hood that had been drawn up over her face and tucked in so that she could see only a sliver of the passing countryside, Susanna moved her head. Pain speared through her, as much from holding her neck in one awkward position for too long as from the blow she'd taken.
"If you struggle, we will have to knock you senseless again," Elizabeth Amadas remarked in a pleasant voice.
Susanna stilled. She had not been gagged, but it was not easy getting words out through muffling layers of wool. "What do you want from me?"
"From you? Nothing. But from your friends, a great deal. You have value to them, I do think. They should be willing to ransom you for a goodly sum."
Susanna digested that information, then asked, "Where are you taking me?"
"To a place where no one will ever find you."
Unenlightened, Susanna fell silent. If she could determine her location, judge how far they'd come from Glastonbury, she might be able to use that information to escape. But concentrate as she might, she could gather only scattered impressions of the route they took. She knew when they crossed stone bridges or forded streams and she could tell the difference between a rough uphill track and the path into a deep valley. Once she smelled wild garlic growing nearby. Another time she caught a glimpse of butterflies in a field. But by and large her senses were of little use.
It was dusk when they stopped. They'd spent the entire day in the saddle. It was impossible to guess how far they'd come, although over such uneven terrain Susanna thought it unlikely they'd covered as much as twenty miles. Ten seemed more probable.
It might as well be a hundred if Nick had no idea where to look for her. That he would try to find her, she had no doubt, but Elizabeth's plan had been a clever one. Susanna had been spirited away without fuss. To those left behind, it must have seemed as if she'd vanished into thin air.
Susanna stumbled when she was untied and lifted from the pillion. Her feet had lost all feeling during the long ride. As she tried to stamp life back into them, she covertly surveyed her surroundings. They'd stopped under cover of trees. The last of the sun dappled the stony, downward-sloping path with shades of gray. It appeared to descend into a narrow gorge.
For the first time, Susanna got a good look at her captors. Elizabeth Amadas had four men with her, rough-looking brutes who'd been mounted on small, sturdy horses. One by one they led their animals toward an outcropping of rock. One by one, three of them disappeared into a hidden cleft.
Before Susanna could see more, the fourth ruffian seized her arm and hustled her after the others. The entrance to the cave was barely high enough to accommodate a riderless horse and the area just inside was passing narrow. The footrest on the pillion scraped against the side as the horse Susanna had been riding moved skittishly into the hillside.
They continued on for some two hundred paces in near blackness, descending all the while down a steep slope before emerging, of a sudden, into the upper level of a cavern. The flickering light of a torch revealed what at first appeared to be an immense void. Above her head, Susanna could not discern a roof. At her feet lay a chasm. To her horror, her captors produced a rope ladder and flung it over the side.
"Climb down," Elizabeth ordered.
Susanna balked at the idea of descending into the bowels of the earth but one glance at the other woman's face told her she that if she did not willingly obey, she'd be hauled down by one of the men.
It was slow going with long skirts to manage. If for no other reason than to keep her mind off the dark pit beneath her feet, Susanna tried to calculate how far she descended. The rungs were set apart by the distance from her knee to her ankle. Seven to a fathom, she reckoned.
Some two fathoms down, the rocks abruptly sheered away from the rope ladder. Susanna froze. With nothing to touch for balance or guidance, she succumbed to a momentary panic. Certain she was about to fall, she would have attempted to climb back up had the way not been blocked by the men coming down after her.
Anxious for solid ground beneath her feet, even if it was the floor of an underground cavern, Susanna resumed her descent. She counted twelve more fathoms and could hear the rush of water from an underground stream before her boot at last touched bottom.
Elizabeth's henchmen brought light with them. She followed, leaving the last man above with the horses. "Light a fire," she instructed, "and find the cookpot."
By the erratic beams of torches made of sheaves of reed sedge, Susanna saw piles of supplies stacked against the cavern wall, sufficient provisions to feed a small band of outlaws for some weeks. The tension in her shoulders eased slightly. It seemed unlikely they would leave her here alone.
The cooking fire flared up, spilling light into dark corners, revealing a river wider than Susanna had expected. Nearer at hand, the glitter of reflected light caught her attention. Curious, she stepped closer. A rock crystal. It could be nothing else, given its resemblance to a diamond.
All around the crystal were spherical balls of a reddish stone. One broke loose as Susanna fingered it. Fragile, so light that she imagined it must be hollow within, it reminded her of an egg. When Elizabeth called to her she slipped it, unseen, into the pouch that still held flint and steel. She'd lost her candle stub in the cellar of the George.
"You mocked my skill as a seer," the little woman taunted her, "and I readily admit that I cozened you, but there are those born with special gifts. My husband was a jowser."
The West Country pronunciation confused Susanna for a moment before she realized that Elizabeth meant her spouse had possessed the ability to locate things with the help of a dowsing-rod. "He found water?"
"He found calamine. No one could equal his talent."
Susanna did not reply. She'd never seen anyone work a dowsing-rod but she knew enough about the subject to realize that if a dowser grasped his hazel branch tightly in his fingers and held his arms close to his sides, he could make the rod seem to move of its own volition by pressing his hands together.
She was no expert, but she was widely read, and Walter Pendennis had talked to her a bit about mining a few years back. She remembered that calamine stone could be mixed with copper to make latten and that latten, brass compounded in specific proportions, could be used in turn in the manufacture of ordnance. Deposits of calamine stone, she recalled, were notorious difficult to locate in England. Most latten had to be imported.
Susanna knew one other thing about calamine, too. Rock crystals were often found near such deposits. When she was allowed a few minutes of privacy in the secluded corner of the cavern set aside as a latrine, she examined the "egg" she'd found more closely. It cracked open when she squeezed it, revealing a half dozen transparent crystals fixed all around the cavity.
Susanna was given a pallet and fed. After the meal, Elizabeth produced paper, ink, and a quill. All manner of supplies appeared to have been stockpiled in the cavern.
"The ransom is two hundred pounds, to be gathered and sent to the George in Glastonbury. Write that message. Say also that you are well and will remain so if they obey. Then make a copy."
When both missives had been sanded and sealed--Elizabeth had indeed thought of everything--Susanna sat on her pallet, leaned back against the cushions provided for her comfort, and considered what she knew about her captors.
Elizabeth was clearly in command here, the leader of this small band of villains. Her husband, by the way she spoke of him, was either dead or in prison. What Susanna could not understand was why the woman had chosen her as a victim. And why two hundred pounds? True, 'twas enough to keep a substantial household for a year, but Susanna was wealthy enough that they might have asked for much more.
"How did you learn so much about me?" She allowed a hint of admiration to come into her voice. "You presented most convincing details. I was halfway to believing that you were a seer in truth."
Elizabeth was not immune to flattery. "Diligence, Lady Appleton."
Hoping Mistress Amadas, if that was indeed her real name, would be unable to resist the temptation to boast of her own cleverness, Susanna encouraged her to preen. "You must have intercepted the letter Rosamond wrote about the Bristol crystals, but how did you learn of my impending journey to Cornwall?"
"You are well known in your part of Kent, Lady Appleton," Elizabeth said. "A subject of much speculation."
"Did you follow me when I left, hoping for a chance to arrange an accidental meeting?"
"Oh, no, madam. I left nothing to chance. I knew your itinerary in advance. I thought of everything, even this foolish attempt to coax me into saying more than I should. Sleep well, Lady Appleton. I intend to." With that, as she had at the inn, Elizabeth turned her back on Susanna, curled onto her pallet, and pulled a coverlet over her face.
Susanna dozed fitfully. Although she knew she needed rest if she was to outwit her captors, she also wanted to stay alert long enough to take note of their movements. When she concluded that the guard set on the upper level was relieved at regular intervals, she gave herself permission to drift off, but for a long time sleep eluded her. Dampness pervaded the cavern, making her glad of her wool cloak. Her hand, if she let it stray off the straw pallet, touched stone rough with lichen. And she was uncomfortably aware she was deep beneath the earth. She did not know how miners stood the sensation of being buried alive.
Morning came in the same degree of darkness as the night, harkened only by the stirring of one of Elizabeth's henchmen by the fire. Susanna stretched, winced, and levered herself to her feet, feeling as if she'd aged ten years in a night.
There was bread and ale with which to break their fast. While Susanna ate, Elizabeth dispatched two of her men with the ransom notes.
Why two? Susanna did not care for the logical answer. One to Nick. Another to someone else. To Cornwall? Did the Bristol crystals Walter had given Eleanor have something to do with this? Now that Susanna thought about it, she recalled that Elizabeth had known more about them than Rosamond had written in her letters.
She glanced at the rope ladder as she sipped, then blinked in surprise. No one was paying any attention to it. Or to her. Elizabeth had retired to the makeshift privy. The remaining henchman's attention was fully occupied by his efforts to dislodge crystal-bearing stones.
Susanna set aside her cup and eased to her feet, knowing she'd never get a better chance to escape.
Nick Baldwin studied the cliffs surrounding the gorge, pearly, pale grey rock for the most part, although they'd passed outcroppings of red sandstone on their journey. Just at dusk, they'd lost the trail and been forced to abandon the search for Susanna. They'd spent the night in one of the area's numerous small caves, after a colony of bats had left on their nocturnal hunt for food.
A peregrine flew across his field of vision. The birds nested hereabout, as did ravens. And butterflies, he'd discovered, were as common as blue damsel flies. But of the kidnappers and their victim, Nick found no trace. For all he knew, Susanna might be miles away.
No sooner had he entertained that possibility, when two men appeared on the track ahead. Rob's sharply indrawn breath was all the confirmation Nick needed to identify them.
"Pretend to give way," he ordered his men. "Then close in and take them as they ride past us."
There was a moment when all might have been lost. One of the villains reined it, recognition dawning on his bovine features. He'd have turned and fled had Nick not swiftly drawn his sword and borne down upon him with Simon and Toby at his heels. Seeing the desire to strike them dead for what they'd done to Susanna in his eyes, the miscreants gave up without much of a fight.
The message each man carried was enough to condemn him. Written in Susanna's own hand, the notes demanded payment of two hundred pounds. One had been addressed to Nick himself, at the George, the other to Sir Walter Pendennis, Priory House, Cornwall.
"I know these men," Rob said when the prisoners had been trussed up and deprived of their knives. "One I saw along the Harroway, the other after we turned toward Glastonbury."
Nick's hands curled into fists at his sides. Coincidence might account for two separate parties traveling along the ancient long-distance route from Kent to Cornwall, but it defied the odds that these fellows should also have taken the same detour, the ridgeway that bore northeast.
"Two nights past," Rob continued, "the second man and two others slept in the stable, as I did. They sat up late, drinking and dicing and telling tales. That one recounted the story of Cleopatra, who rolled herself up in a carpet in order to be meet Julius Caesar. I had heard of the trick at school, but I'd never have thought to hide myself inside Lady Pendennis's tapestry if he'd not reminded me of it."
Clever, Nick acknowledged. And if Rob had not taken the suggestion, they'd no doubt have devised some other scheme to incline Susanna to trust the seer's word. "Did he also roll that tapestry against the side of the cart so that you were trapped inside and near died?"
Rob frowned. "It was not until the cart stopped at the George that the tapestry shifted."
Nick drew the lad aside. "Tell me, Rob--were there others who endeavored to assist you along the way? People who helped you stay out of sight?"
Rob's answers confirmed Nick's suspicions. It seemed likely the boy had been watched over all the way from Leigh Abbey. These villains had known of his desire to be reunited with Rosamond and used it to capture Susanna.
"You are in a perilous position," Nick said, addressing his captives. "Holding a gentlewoman for ransom is a hanging matter."
Sullen silence greeted this statement.
"Fortunately for you, I am not the sort to hold a grudge, and 'tis obvious you do but obey the orders of the woman who employs you. So here is what I propose. You tell me all you know, including the location of your prisoner, and I will petition the queen herself for pardons."
He'd not wager money that they'd be granted, but that scarce mattered. Time was of the essence now. He needed directions and he needed them quickly, in case Mistress Amadas decided a living prisoner was more trouble than she was worth. Now that the ransom notes had been written, she might think she no longer needed Susanna in order to collect the money.
The bigger of the two prisoners turned to Simon. "Is your master a magistrate?"
"Not yet," Simon replied honestly, "but he'll be appointed a justice of the peace by the next quarter sessions. He got the letter about it before we left Kent."
There were no secrets from servants, and for once Nick was glad of it.
The bigger of the two prisoners offered to lead them to Susanna.
"How many more of you are there?" Nick asked a short time later, as they started down a path with delicate scree on either side.
"Two men and the widow."
"Lady Appleton do you mean?"
"Nay, the other one. Jowser's widow. She's the one come up with this plan. She's the one to blame."
"What has she against Lady Appleton?"
"Summat to do with Jowser dying in gaol," the second man said.
"But the woman at the inn was not named Jowser," Grace objected. She and Rob had been hanging on every word.
"Her husband called himself Jowser. That's all I know. He made us call the woman 'mistress.'" He hawked and spat, then grinned. "Had grand ideas, did Jowser, till he got himself sentenced for selling Bristol crystals for diamonds."
Bristol crystals--Rob had mentioned overhearing a reference to such stones in connection with Rosamond. The story still did not make sense to Nick, but at least he could now guess at the connection. "The magistrate in the case, I warrant, was Sir Walter Pendennis."
But further questions yielded no useful information. Their 'mistress' had given orders without explanations and paid them well to obey.
After a treacherous passage over on slippery rocks and a stretch of anemone-filled woods, they reached the entrance to a cave. It opened out into a cavern of immense proportions. An empty cavern.
"They 'ood never a-went," the bigger man objected.
"Took the horses, too," Simon pointed out.
Nick's first fear was that they'd killed Susanna and left her body below, but a quick descent and search of the cavern relieved that worry. "Was Lady Appleton bound?" Nick asked when he'd ascended the rope ladder once more.
The fellow revealed they'd untied her, thinking her naught but a woman, and getting on in years at that. He pointed out that Susanna had a limp.
Nick strode into the sunlight, a grim expression on his face. That old injury to her leg would not slow her down if she was determined to get away. She'd escaped. That much was clear. And her captors were doubtless in pursuit.
She'd go up, he thought. Out into the open rather than take the risk of being trapped. And she'd attempt to return to Glastonbury, hoping to find him still there. A rocky prominence rose above him, whence one could see out over the gorge and across all the low-lying Somerset countryside to the south.
"This way," he barked at his troops, and led them into mixed woodland.
Oaks, alders, and willows were native to the Mendips. White banks of ransoms broke the green of the trees. Once, he caught sight of a hare, a sandy, black-pointed creature most unlike his reddish cousins in Kent. Of signs that Susanna had passed this way he found none.
Then they were climbing in the open again. Almost at once, Nick caught sight of a flash of light ahead, then another. As he watched, the bursts continued, coming at erratic intervals.
He was no seer, but as the signal dazzled his eyes, he knew with a certainty that, somehow, Susanna was behind it.
Wary of remaining too close to the edge of the cliff, Susanna backed away, the Bristol crystals clutched in one hand. Many-faceted, without being shaped by a jeweler, they were as brilliant as real diamonds but without their inner fire.
She swayed a little in the hot sun. She needed to be in the open so she could see anyone who approached her, but the lack of sleep and the many injuries she'd sustained during the last twenty-four hours had left her weak and dizzy. She felt over-warm. It was only with difficulty that she kept her focus.
It had been a risk using the crystals to attempt to catch Nick's attention. The flashes would also have been clearly visible to Elizabeth Amadas and her henchmen. Susanna had no doubt they were pursuing her. They'd have come after her the moment the guard she'd knocked out revived enough to lower the ladder into the cavern once more.
Susanna would have taken it away with her if she'd had the strength, but it had taken all her energy to haul it up after her, then deal with the guard. Only the fact that he'd been intent on currying his horse, humming to the beast as he worked, had allowed her sneak up behind him, strike him with a rock, and get away. She'd considered taking the horses, but given the terrain she'd decided she'd make better time on foot. Too late, she'd realized she should have driven them off so her pursuers could not use them either.
The climb had been fraught with difficulty. For the most part she'd tried to ignore the dramatic view of the gorge below and concentrate on placing her feet safely on the steep, narrow path that took her up through trees and ferns, boulders and scree to the top of an escarpment. Pausing for breath, she'd looked off to the south, in the direction she supposed Glastonbury must lie. The only habitation she'd been able to make out were a smattering of pudding stone cottages. She'd been considering how to reach them when she'd looked back the way she'd come and there, far below, caught sight of a familiar green cloak. Nick. Searching for her.
Of Elizabeth, she'd seen no sign, but she was certain the other woman was somewhere nearby. Should she stay here, out in the open, waiting for Nick? He'd reach this point eventually, even if he had not seen her signal.
So might Elizabeth, in which case it would seem exceeding foolish to remain where she was, but Susanna was tired, hurting. She lacked the stamina to reach that village. Even though she was aware she was not thinking clearly, might be making a fatal mistake, she chose to walk to the nearest tree, a spindly ash, and sit down in the small pool of shade beneath its branches.
She watched butterflies and grasshoppers, and once caught sight of a roe deer, while enjoying the profusion of herbs and flowers that grew in the meadow. In the woods, even in flight, she had recognized lily of the valley and Solomon's seal. Now she had time to appreciate others--saxifrage and self heal, blue groomwell and ox-eye daisies. Birdsong soothed her. There were nests nearby--black-tailed godwit, lapwing, redshank, and bullfinches, who went by the local name of "whoops." A kestrel flew past, far overhead. Hunting.
With a start, Susanna realized she'd almost drifted into sleep in the warmth of the summer day. She struggled upright, bracing her back against the bark, just as the first party of searchers emerged onto the gruffy ground at the top of the prominence.
Face livid, Elizabeth Amadas drove her horse straight toward Susanna. She meant, mayhap, to run her down. Susanna willed herself not to flinch. She moved only at the last possible moment, opening her hand so that the crystals her fist had concealed caught the full light of the sun.
Blinded by the sudden glare, the horse reared in panic, throwing its rider. Before Elizabeth could recover, Susanna seized the smaller woman, using every bit of strength she possessed to jerk her erstwhile captor's arms behind her. Holding Elizabeth like a shield, Susanna faced the woman's henchmen, but by then they had no interest in helping their employer. Nick had arrived.
Held close in her lover's embrace a few moments later, Susanna felt a quiet elation fill her. She had survived. Triumphed. She stirred in his arms.
"Let me take care of you. I'll see to everything," he whispered.
She smiled up at him but shook her head. She needed to sleep soon, and for a good long time, and she hoped he'd be beside her when she did, but there was something else she had to settle first. It could not be delegated to anyone else.
Hands bound behind her, guarded by Nick's men, Elizabeth Amadas was not in a good mood. She cursed Susanna and spat at Nick. Standing out of range, they conferred. Nick told Susanna what he'd deduced. She shared with him what little Elizabeth had revealed to her in the cavern.
"But I believe I know the rest," she said, speaking loudly enough for the prisoner to hear every word. "When Elizabeth's husband died in gaol, she vowed to take revenge on Walter Pendennis, who had sent him there. To carry out her scheme, she became part of his household."
"Undetected by him?" Nick asked in astonishment. Sir Walter Pendennis had once been one of Queen Elizabeth's most formidable information gatherers--a master among spies.
"I doubt he knew anything about her. And Elizabeth would have used an alias. But one of Rosamond's recent letters included an account of her mother's search for a waiting gentlewoman. None of them stay long and Rosamond gave no names, but she described several of them. Tiny as one of the fairy folk, she said of that woman who held the post for the longest stretch."
"You can prove nothing," Elizabeth said.
Susanna met her fulminating gaze. "Shall we take you to Cornwall with us and see if Eleanor Pendennis recognizes you? I do not imagine you were there long, but you would have heard, from servants' gossip if not from observation, that Walter and his wife have a . . . tempestuous relationship. You feared that if you kidnapped her, he'd might just let you keep her. You'd get neither ransom nor the satisfaction of depriving him of a much-loved spouse."
Nick swore under his breath.
Susanna ignored him. There was little either of them could do about Walter's continued affection for her. Nor about what the Pendennis household thought of Walter's reconciliation with Eleanor. "You decided that Sir Walter would be more willing to pay for my release than for that of his own wife, and that by killing me after you had the ransom, you could hurt him more deeply than you would if you made him a widower. Mayhap you were correct. I cannot say."
The angry expression on Elizabeth's face had deteriorated into a sneer. Had she intended that Susanna die, her ultimate revenge on Walter for his responsibility in the jowser's death? "He'll suffer for a time," she hissed. "I dispatched one of my men to Cornwall with the ransom note."
"Did you indeed? Then I fear you have made a mistake. Despite appearances, Walter is reconciled with his wife. He'd be far more devastated to lose her than me."
A sly look came into Elizabeth's eyes. "A pity, then, that she is the one behind all that has transpired. Lady Pendennis wants you dead, Lady Appleton. It was her idea to demand you bring her that tapestry and the other household goods in the cart. We planned together how you could be obliged to return to Cornwall, to deliver those things to her yourself."
"I might believe you," Susanna mused, "but you have forgotten about Rosamond." The little girl was the real reason for this visit, and Eleanor knew that better than anyone.
"I forget nothing." It was very nearly a snarl.
"Ah, yes. You are a seer. You know everything."
"Curious, then," Nick murmured, "that she did not realize both her messengers have been captured. They are in a small cave along the trail, securely bound."
When they went to collect them, Susanna discovered the answer to her one remaining question. The smaller of the two men admitted he'd lived near Leigh Abbey for several months, sent there by his mistress to spy on the household. While there he had heard, by chance, some of the old stories Susanna's grandmother had been wont to tell. It had been the tale of Mistress Amadas, the one at the court of Henry VIII, that had inspired Elizabeth Jowser to pose as a fortune teller in order to lure Susanna away from the rest of her party.
"If she does have any skill as a seer," Susanna remarked, after they'd turned their prisoners over to the local authorities in Glastonbury, retrieved their cart, and made their way to another inn for the night, "mayhap she knows already whether she'll end her days in a house of correction or at the end of a rope." Dangerous as Elizabeth was, it disturbed Susanna to think that she might die for her crimes. She had not, after all, killed anyone.
"I do not have supernatural powers," Nick said with a rueful chuckle, "but I believe I can predict the outcome of her trial. She had controlled her temper by the time she came before the justice of the peace. He took one look, saw a delicate little flower of a woman, and did, in an instant, much pity her. By the time she comes before him for sentencing, she'll have him eating out of her hand."
"You think he'll let her go?"
"I would not be surprised," Nick said, "if he ended up marrying her."
* * * *
A Note from the Author
I've stayed at the George and Pilgrims in Glastonbury. It is reputed to have had, in its early days, a tunnel that led onto Glastonbury Abbey grounds. Unfortunately, if it ever existed, it is there no longer.
Bristol crystals are also called Bristol diamonds, Bristol stones, Bristowes, St. Vincent's rocks, Cornish diamonds, and Irish diamonds, depending upon where they were found. They are rock crystals, usually colorless quartz. In the sixteenth century they were described as "counterfeiting precious stones." The cavern I've described does not exist, but it could. The landscape north and west of Glastonbury is dotted with caverns, caves, cliffs, and old mines.
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Another Note from the Author (added for the ebook edition)
After I wrote this story, I discovered the truth about the original Mistress Amadas. My characters identify her incorrectly. Anyone interested in reading about the real woman should visit my "Who's Who of Tudor Women" online at KateEmersonHistoricals.com and look under "Elizabeth Bryce."
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Encore for a Neck Verse