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Authors: Emma Darwin

A Secret Alchemy

BOOK: A Secret Alchemy
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A Secret Alchemy

A Novel

Emma Darwin

In memory of my father

The type is cast in a mould that can be opened and shut very quickly. The metal, which is ladled into it, consists of lead, arsenic and regulus of antimony. At the same time as the metal enters the mould…a rapid movement is made by the hand holding the mould, which increases the pressure on the bottom where the actual letter is formed.

R. R. Angerstein on Baskerville’s type foundry

Contents

Prologue

What I have known, I shall not set down. My…

Part I
Beginning

Chapter 1

The road home to Grafton was always a merry one.

Chapter 2

This midsummer dawn is so early that the world seems…

Chapter 3

At least I am not chained. I have had my…

Part II
Middle

Chapter 4

I thought we might skirt York. In troubled times, in…

Chapter 5

As the highway narrowed toward Bow Bridge, such was the…

Chapter 6

When I remember that year of exile, it is for…

Part III
Middle

Chapter 7

Ahead, the air is still thick with heat rising from…

Chapter 8

Ned was three years old when we went to Ludlow.

Chapter 9

So near midsummer, so far to the north, the light…

Chapter 10

In the church of Saint Helen and the Holy Cross,…

W
hat I have known, I shall not set down. My habit is silence, and it is a habit that has served me well. Words set on paper are dangerous. Wise men will write no more than is needful, and give it into the hand of their most trusted messenger. No more, that is, than gains the messenger stabling for his horse and safe conduct into the hall, and a privy hearing with its lord. All else is a tale for the messenger to tell: arms and allegiances, open war and secret plans, love and hate and the safety of the realm. So it is with me. After a lifetime of such tales there is no house so safe they may be told within it, no castle so strong it may not be breached at the turn of Fortune’s wheel. At the hour of my death my memories, my tales, will die with me. The great men and their masters, whom I have served with so much diligence and secrecy, expect it.

There are men, and women too, who have witnessed these events and others that have not. Like pilgrims we have traveled the same road, stumbled over the same stones, knelt at the same shrines, yet each one of us has made a different journey and
met a different end. And what our journey truly was, what story each has to tell, none can discern until all journeying is done.

Even the one I loved above all others did not know everything that I have known. He was spared that much sorrow. I sang the “Chanson de Roland” and he spoke of Gawain. I held him in my arms while he wept for his father’s murder, and side by side we shed the blood of traitors and the infidel. We rejoiced in our love: body and soul together. Though seas and mountains and the enmities of princes kept us apart, there was no distance between our hearts. That I could do nothing for him when his boy was taken is the great bitterness of my long life. That he is dead is my great grief.

But my greatest secret he cannot know, and that is a mercy for which I thank God. For I know what came to his boy, and the younger one too. I know as few others do, for few others could have found it out. I could not tell my love, so I told the woman he loved most in the world, as he would have wished. She is wise, and discreet, and lives retired. She will not speak of it.

No human creature knows all. That is the power of God alone, and to God alone shall my story be told.

Louis de Bretaylles

P
ART
I
Beginning

MATERIA PRIMA
is that which has been stripped of every form by putrefaction, so that a new form can be introduced.

Sir Isaac Newton,
Index Chemicus

Elysabeth—the 31st yr of the reign of King Henry the Sixth

The road home to Grafton was always a merry one. That it was the
custom of families of our degree to send their children away, the better to learn the skills and lessons proper to their estate, did not make my childhood’s exile from Grafton to Groby any easier. Sir Edward Grey of Groby was kindly enough, but his wife Lady Ferrars was not. Besides, what girl of seven or eight would not miss her home and her sisters? Nor is the promise of a good marriage much comfort to such a child. When my sister Margaret joined me at Groby it was better, and as I grew older I learned discretion, so that Lady Ferrars could find no fault with my words or my duties, still less in my seeming submission to her in all things.

That year we lay for a night at Harborough, for Sir Edward Grey’s man that rode home with us from Groby said that with the snow threatening as it was, it would be folly to press on further
and perhaps find ourselves stranded at nightfall. As ever when journeying I slept ill, as much from the joy of being headed for home—and for the whole of Christmastide—as from the weariness and aching cold that seemed to have seeped into my bones with the ride and not let go. Our bed was warm, but more than once Margaret protested in a whisper that I had woken her with my restlessness. At last Mal, sleeping beyond her, was roused by her sighs. She propped herself on one elbow. “Are you sick, Mistress Ysa?”

“Yes, sister, are you sick?” said Margaret, poking me in the side. She was ever one of those who is always either wide-awake or dead-asleep. “Or do you just wish to keep us all from our rest?”

“If I could sleep, I would, sister,” I said. “And, no, I’m not sick. But it’s not given to us all to snore like a pig in shit as soon as our heads hit the pillow.”

“Mistress Ysa, if Her Grace your mother could hear you she would give you a box on the ear,” said Mal.

“Yes, but she can’t.”

“Have you said
Paternoster
and
Ave
?”

“Yes, Mal, many times.” Had I not said them wholeheartedly enough, or was God not listening tonight? I wondered. Mal would say that the words were enough, which set my sleeplessness at God’s door, but such a blasphemy mercifully stuck in my throat before I had uttered it, so that my penance would be that much less at confession.

The bed wobbled as Mal sat up and swung her feet to the floor. “I’ll make us all a posset. There’s some ale still in the jug, and the fire’s well enough.” She pulled her cap tight down about her ears, put on her shawl, and pushed her feet into her shoes, for even with the fire still alive it was very chill. I kept my shoulders well under
the covers, so that only the tip of my nose was cold, while she shuffled to and fro, kindling a taper at the fire to light the candle, then stirring up the coals and putting the poker into them. She swilled our cups out with washing water and tipped it into the chamber pot. We had thought this inn a slovenly place, for no servant had come to clear the dishes after we had supped, but now we could be glad of that carelessness. Honey and chamomile and cinnamon Mal conjured from somewhere in her baggage, and spooned into the ale jug.

Margaret rolled over and got out of bed to piss, complaining about the draughts as she sat on the pot. She got back in, with much uncalled-for flapping of the covers, and moved across so that the linen of her smock touched me like a cold hand, and she put her elbow on the plait of my hair, then protested when I pushed her off it.

Mal straightened up with the poker in her hand. For a moment I saw it, white-hot against the dim cold of the chamber, and then she put it into the jug as if it were a knife and she killing some beast. The crackle as it struck the ale made a little thrill run down my spine as it always did, and after a moment the scent of hot ale threaded through the cold air to warm my nose. I sat up and put my pillow behind me.

Mal gave Margaret and me each a cup, blew out the candle, and got back into bed with her own. The cups were wooden and no more than warm in the hand, but the ale was almost too hot to sip and rather than cool it by blowing I breathed in the fumes of honey and herbs and spice.

“Will Master Antony be at Grafton, Mistress Ysa?” asked Mal. “Oh, Mistress Margaret, your feet are like ice.”

“Yes, I think so. I hope so. I haven’t seen him for an age.”

“He said he would be,” said Margaret. “He told me so.”

“And what do you know of it?” I said. “In his last letter he was not so certain he would be let come home.”

“And what of Sir Edward and Master Grey?” said Mal, in the over-calm voice that seeks to dispel an argument. “It is said they come to Grafton for Twelfth Night, and we know what that means.”

“So you
are
to be married to John Grey, then?” said Margaret, before I could decide how to answer Mal, for I did not understand what I felt about the matter, still less what I was prepared to say. “Ooo, Ysa! What will it be like to be bedded by him? Will you like it?”

“Well, I shan’t tell
you
anything about it, you nasty, inquisitive brat! It’s my affair, not yours.” The ale had cooled a little, and it tasted like summer, sweet and heady.

“But such a match will be arranged for me in my time,” said Margaret. “I have a right to know!” Had we not both held our cups, I would have swatted at her as I would a wasp, more in irritation at her buzzing than in any hope of quieting her.

“Now, now,” said Mal, “there’s no need for you to be worrying about that yet, Mistress Margaret. Could Mistress Ysa not have been married two or three years ago, with her the most beautiful girl in all England like her ma before her? If your father had wished they could have sealed the bargain long since. She could be a mother herself. But no, they’ve waited till now. Sixteen’s a good age for wedding, and no doubt they’ll do the same with you. Now, you both drink up, and I’ll set the cups down and we can all go off to sleep. We’ve a long ride in the morning, and the snow thick too, like as not.”

We did as we were told, and snuggled down again. Mal leaned
over and set the cups on the floor, then pulled up the covers over all three of us. The ale and the chamomile together were making me sleepy, and Margaret too, I thought.

What would it be like? I wondered. I knew John, of course; when I came to Groby he was as kind to a homesick brat of seven as a grown young man of twelve will trouble to be, far kinder than Lady Ferrars, who had only ceased to call me a tiresome, froward child when Margaret arrived and played the part better than I ever could. Once John mended a toy that Margaret had broken, and sometimes he would let me watch him as he tried the paces of a new horse in the paddock, and when I stumbled and lost my place in a song, he would cease piping and start again at the beginning without a sigh. Lately he had lived at his manor called Astley Castle, which his father had given him, and I saw even less of him, for it was thirty or forty miles away. We both knew, though it was unspoken, that we were to be wed. But I could not really believe it would happen.

“Mal, what’s it like?” said Margaret.

“What’s what like?”

“Being bedded by a man. By your husband. What was it like for you?”

“That’s nothing you need to know about yet, Mistress Margaret, and I’m not going to tell you. ’Tis private, between a man and his wife. Have you never seen such things on the farm?”

“But it’s different for people, you know it is.” Margaret’s voice was slurring. “And Ysa needs to know, only she’ll never ask.”

There were times when I was almost grateful for Margaret’s shamelessness. She was right, I did want to know, and here was a better time to find out than most, in the warm dark where my face could not be seen, and told by Mal, who had been wed, and
borne a child that died of a fever. Her man was killed by falling in the millstream not long after.

“Well…” said Mal, slowly, as if she was considering what to say. She dropped her voice as she used to when we were little and she was telling us tales at bedtime of Robin Hood or Saint Francis or Queen Mab. “Of course, your father will pay for a Mass. You’ll go into church after the wedding, not like me and my man. Or maybe it’ll be private, in the chapel. And then you’ll have the feast. It’ll be a fine one your father’ll give for his oldest daughter’s wedding, you mark my words. And then the women will take you to your wedding chamber and help you to undress and put you to bed. And then his friends will bring him to you, with singing and pipe and tabor, and leave you together.”

She ceased speaking just where my mind always ceased to be able to imagine it. By my ear, Margaret heaved a big sigh that ended in a snore, and I knew that she slept.

Mal heard it too, and only then went on speaking, more softly still: “And then he undresses too, and gets into bed. And you kiss and hold each other and he touches you all over, wherever feels good to him. And it feels good to you too, you’ll see. And then when he’s ready, he lies on you and you open your legs and he puts his thing in you.”

I knew where she meant in me, for a faint, fearful excitement trembled there when I thought of such matters and made me run my hands secretly over my breasts and waist and thighs. “Does…How does he?”

“Oh, Mistress Ysa! He’s hard, you see, with all the kissing and the touching. And—and it hurts a little. That’s your maidenhead breaking. There’s blood like when you get your monthlies, only just a little if he’s kind, and I’m sure such a fine gentleman as Master
John will be very kind…And then you’re truly man and wife, till death takes one of you, and again in Heaven, so they say. I’m sure my man’s waiting for me…Now, we must both be off to sleep.”

Soon she, too, slept, but I lay awake for some time until I could help it no longer, but tried to feel through my smock what Master John would feel. The fear and excitement grew, though for a while I dared do nothing in case I woke the others. But I longed for more, and at last had to rub myself until I trembled all over as if at the edge of some abyss, then fell hot and sore into it, and slept at last.

 

It had indeed snowed in the night, we found, but by dawn it had stopped, and the wind had dropped too, so that although there was no sun, the ride from Harborough was more pleasant than we had expected. Still, it was slow enough going, Sir Edward’s man having Mal behind him, that we decided not to break our journey in Northampton to hear Mass, though it was the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle. The horses clopped over the bridge into Far Cotton. We were nearly home, telling the villages as we passed through: Blacky More, Collingtree, Roade, the turns to Ashton and Stoke Bruerne, the bridge, the turn to Alderton, and then the road lifting away from the river in fading light until we could just see the church and the roofs of the Hall.

At last we turned off the high road, at last we turned into the gate, and there was Jacquetta running through the yard. She had grown, I thought, but her face was red and tear-stained. At the sound of horses she turned and saw us. “Ysa! Margaret! John and Lionel took my poppet! They’re going to burn her!”

I rode toward the mounting block to get down, but Margaret kicked her foot free of the stirrup and slid down in the middle of the yard. Jacquetta seized my hand and dragged us to the rough
ground by the muck-heap behind the stables. The boys had built a bonfire of sticks too green to do much more than smolder and, sure enough, Jacquetta’s poppet Igraine, which had once been mine, was perched on top.

I boxed John’s ears. “Take her off now, you bad boy! And never do that again!” He’d grown too, but he was still too short to reach Igraine with the fire burning even a little. I looked round, and saw a branch they hadn’t put on. “Margaret, hold my gown.”

She kilted up my skirts and held them clear of the fire as I leaned forward with the branch and managed to knock Igraine off the top. She rolled down among the sticks and I snatched her up and gave her to Jacquetta, who cradled her and kissed her. Margaret grabbed Lionel by the shoulder and cuffed him soundly. He tried to shake himself free. “We were only playing the witch Jeanne d’Arc and Duke John of Bedford!” he said. “Jacquetta’s too old for poppets. I heard my lady mother say so! She’s going away soon.”

“None of your business!” I said. Lionel always heard more than he should. “How dare you take great Duke John’s name to be unkind to Jacquetta?” I looked round. Jacquetta was holding Margaret’s hand and sniffing into Igraine’s cap. “Now be off with you, before I decide to tell my lady mother.” The boys took to their heels and disappeared through a gap in the hedge, for all it was almost dark.

“Mistress Ysa!” It was Mal, calling from the yard. “Where are you?”

I shook out my skirts and straightened my back against the weariness of a long day’s ride. “Coming, Mal! Margaret, you’ve got ash on your nose.”

“Well, your hands are sooty, and the bottom of your gown, too,” she said over her shoulder, jogging toward the yard.

I followed. “Wash first or greet first?”

“Ask Mal,” said Margaret, rounding the corner.

Mal was standing at the top of the steps, and by the light of the cresset at the door I could see she was tired and cross. “Hurry now. Her Grace is in the Great Chamber.”

“How is she?” I said, when I had caught my breath.

“Her belly’s so great now, she looks as if she doesn’t sleep so well.”

Margaret and I glanced at each other, and spoke at once. “Wash first.”

My lady mother was sitting at the table in the Great Chamber with the account books spread out before her, and Master Wooton the clerk hovering at her shoulder. “We cannot hope that the revenues from France will recover…” she was saying, as we entered.

We knelt in the doorway, the draught making the candles on the table flicker. She heaved herself to her feet and, peeping upwards though my head was still bowed in proper obeisance, I saw that the frown cleared from her brow.

“Welcome home, daughters.”

“Madam, I greet you well,” I said.

“And I,” said Margaret.

My mother walked so heavy and slow that Margaret was swaying on her knees with weariness before she had reached us and we had each kissed her hand.

BOOK: A Secret Alchemy
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