Authors: Ann Swinfen
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Crime, #Mystery, #Thriller & Suspense, #Historical, #Thriller
Ann Swinfen 2014
Ann Swinfen has asserted her moral right under the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified
as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than
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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester: Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard
Contemporary drawing of the Armada engaged by the English navy
Cover design by JD Smith
Lucas and Theo
o you are determined not to work for Walsingham again?’ Simon said. In this cold February weather, the theatres were closed, so Simon Hetherington was without regular employment. Occasionally James Burbage’s company, Leicester’s Men, would be hired during the winter months to give a performance at some nobleman’s house, or even at court, but the cold weather meant hard times for them. I had invited him to sup with my father and me at our home in Duck Lane, a miserable, cramped little house which was provided with my father’s hospital employment at St Bartholomew’s. Simon had been looking hungry of late and he certainly wolfed down two helpings of Joan’s mutton hot pot, scarcely pausing for breath.
His fair hair and delicate features meant that he continued to play women’s parts, though at seventeen he was growing ever more impatient to take on men’s roles. In the last year he had grown taller than I. Burbage would need to yield to his demands soon. I loved the way his face glowed when he forgot about Walsingham and began to speak of the new play his friend Thomas Kyd had written, his hands sketching in the air the music of the lines he quoted:
‘My lord, though Bel Imperia seem thus coy,
Let reason h
old you in your wonted joy:
In time the savage bull sustains the yoke,
In time all haggard hawks will stoop to lure,
In time small wed
ges cleave the hardest oak,
n time the flint is pierc’d with softest shower;
And she in time
will fall from her disdain,
And rue the sufferance of your friendly pain.
His voice rose and fell like birdsong. It was the flavour of honey. I wanted to close my eyes and savour it.
‘Do you see, Kit, how he takes the simplest things – the taming of a bull or a hawk, the cleaving of a mighty oak by tiny wedges, the wearing away of stone by the softest of rain – and uses them to illuminate how people change? A woman may be cruel or indifferent, but with time and patience her heart may be won. He does not state this direct, like some schoolman, but suggests it, at a subtle angle, by implication. I wish I could write such poetry! I hope Burbage will let me play Bel Imperia, it’s a fine, complex part, not one of your milksop maidens.’
He did not really expect me to answer. Yet I loved to hear him speak, as I loved to watch him on stage. I leaned over to poke the fire, hiding my small private smile. I was hardly Bel Imperia myself. And I certainly did not disdain him.
‘So,’ he said, ‘remember these wise words of Kyd’s, if you should ever woo a lady who is cold and distant.’
‘Indeed I will.’ I laughed. ‘You are not yourself courting such a lady?’
He grinned back at me. ‘Not yet. I have not found any who could touch my heart, or understand the beauty of such lines.’
My father was still somewhat distant with Simon, for in his view a member of one of the players’ companies was not a suitable friend for the child of a distinguished professor from the
university of Coimbra. For myself, I was more aware than my father seemed to be that our social position had plunged mightily since we had come as refugees to England five years earlier. It left us with little reason to stand upon our dignity. Yet his reservations also had a more serious basis, since I carried a secret which could endanger my life.
However, my father had been courteous enough to Simon this evening, and now we had all drawn our chairs close to the kitchen fire. Joan, our housekeeper and general servant, was darning my father’s stockings, tilting her work to the fire for the benefit of the light. My father was reading by the dim glow of the only candle, while Simon and I talked quietly, so as not to disturb him. Firelight and candlelight played over the jars and bottles, mortars and alembics of my father’s profession. My profession too, for I had resumed my hospital work, turning my back on the dark and secret world contained within Sir Francis Walsingham’s house in
‘As for Walsingham,’ I said, stretching out my legs and clasping my hands behind my head. ‘I told you last month that I’d not go back.’
Soon after my seventeenth birthday, on Twelfth Night, I had confronted Walsingham and said that, now the Babington conspirators were dead, I felt he no longer needed my services. He had, however, extracted a promise from me that if another crisis arose, I would return to work within his service.
‘I know that was what you said.’ Simon looked at me quizzically. ‘But when Guy told us there was a rumour Robert Poley was to be released from the Tower, you seemed to change your mind.’
Simon was unaware of Poley’s ability to blackmail me and must have been puzzled by my alarm when Guy Bingham passed on the news. Locked away in the Tower, Poley was no danger, but if he were set free, that was another matter.
‘Ah, but it proved to be a rumour,’ I said. ‘Poley is still safely in the Tower.’
Simon opened his mouth to say something – something I might not want to hear – so I hastily went on.
‘Did you see the bonfires in the streets?’
‘Aye. Ever since word of the Scottish queen’s execution reached London, there’s been no stopping them.’
‘I think it is gruesome. They’ve been dancing and singing in the streets throughout this part of
London,’ I said. ‘And ringing the church bells. I know she was a party to murdering the Queen, but I don’t like it. It reminds me too much of what I saw in Portugal.’
‘You never talk about that.’
‘I’m not going to talk about it now.’
We sat for a while in a slightly uncomfortable silence, until Simon started to tell me more about Master Burbage’s plans for the company, once the playhouses opened again.
‘I truly hope this year I may be given men’s parts,’ he said. ‘I’ve grown too old to play the woman any longer.’
The old grievance had troubled him for some months, but Burbage valued his talent in playing women’s roles, which none of the younger boys could match. Besides, the company needed all the varied skills of its players, for times were hard now that the Queen’s Men were in the ascendant.
Leicester’s Men had already lost several of their best performers. Burbage was a shrewd businessman, but even he was hard put to it to turn a profit, despite having built London’s first real playhouse, the Theatre, and owning shares in its neighbour, The Curtain.
‘Even our costumes are growing threadbare,’ Simon said. ‘There’s no coin to replace them. Our new plays must make shift to use what costumes we have, not require new ones.’
I thought of the hampers of brightly coloured but somewhat tawdry clothes that occupied every corner of the Theatre’s tiring house. The last time I had visited the company there, at the time of their Twelve Night extravagance, I had noticed that many of the costumes were wearing thin and fragile.
Sidney’s funeral in two days’ time,’ I said to divert him, when he paused for breath. ‘Shall we go, to pay our respects?’
I meant to go myself, but I would be glad of his company.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘I’ll meet you by Paul’s Cross, early.’
‘Very early,’ I said. ‘Else there won’t be an inch of ground to stand upon.’
It had been in the cold dawning of that year, on the eighth day of February, that Mary, dispossessed Queen of Scotland, sometime Queen of France, and would-be Queen of England, was finally and quietly executed. That was weeks after she had been sentenced to death for treason at her trial, and everyone wondered why she lingered on for so long.
The day after Simon supped with us, I ran into Thomas Phelippes near the Royal Exchange. After fending off his attempts to lure me back into Walsingham’s service, I asked him if he knew why there had been such a long delay in carrying out the sentence on the Scots queen. Phelippes, being Walsingham’s right-hand man, was likely to be privy to secrets unknown to common citizens.
‘The Queen was reluctant to sign the death warrant,’ he said. ‘It was, after all, the death warrant of her own cousin, and a crowned queen. She would have preferred some other way. Some conveniently secret way of disposing of Mary. When she finally signed, so Sir Francis says, the Privy Council let no delay intervene to give her the chance to change her mind. They whipped away the warrant and rushed an executioner off to Fotheringhay at once.’
‘I know she was a traitor and connived at the Queen’s death, but . . .’
‘Don’t be a namby-pamby, Kit,’ he said brusquely. ‘The Scots queen knew what she was doing and she knew the penalty.
did not hesitate to conspire in the murder of
cousin. And don’t forget: you helped to uncover the plot.’
I avoided his eyes. I would not let Phelippes see my weakness. My own part in the machinations of Walsingham’s secret service still troubled me.
Now, eight days after the execution of the Scots queen, Sidney’s state funeral brought London to a standstill. I met Simon near Paul’s Cross soon after a freezing winter’s dawn and we found a place by the west door of St Paul’s to watch the sombre spectacle. The Lord Mayor and Aldermen attended, along with members of the liveried companies of the City. Children of Christ’s Hospital walked in the procession, together with three hundred citizens, and thirty-two poor men given livery for the occasion, one man for each year of Sir Philip Sidney’s age. It seemed that every citizen of London had abandoned his work and come to stand in the bitter cold to watch the cortège pass. And with them half the countryside from Kent to Oxfordshire.
‘There’s Walsingham,’ I said, ‘on horseback beside that carriage.’
‘He looks ill,’ said Simon.
‘He does. He’s often ill, but he drives himself mercilessly. He would never stay in his bed when it is his duty to see his son-in-law to the grave.’
I didn’t attempt to hide my admiration for Walsingham. He was a man of great abilities and unstinting dedication to his country. I would just prefer not to work for him any longer. Although I had started as a simple code-breaker and translator, I had found myself being trained as a forger and a spy.
‘That’s my horse he’s riding,’ I said.
I smiled. ‘I rode him a lot last year. He’s called Hector.’
‘Not a handsome beast.’
‘Don’t be fooled. He can run like a champion, for which I’ve been grateful before now.’
‘Sometimes I wonder what you were involved in, last year, working for Walsingham.’
‘It is all in the past now.’ I gestured towards Walsingham. ‘Look, that must be Frances Walsingham, Lady Sidney, in the carriage next to him, with the blinds drawn. I wonder whether she has the child Elizabeth with her. Poor little mite, to lose her father so young.’
Simon did not answer, and I remembered, uncomfortably, that he too had lost both parents at an early age.
‘Phelippes told me that Sir Philip had no money at all,’ I said. ‘Despite all his talents and gifts, he was poor. It seems strange, when his uncle Leicester is the Queen’s favourite, but I suppose Sir Philip was one of the few honest men at court, who would not stoop to taking bribes.’
‘Who is paying for all of this, then?’ Simon waved a hand at the procession which was making its way slowly into the cathedral. ‘The Queen?’
I laughed. ‘Not she.’ It was not to be spoken of, but everyone knew that
Elizabeth kept a tight grip on the royal purse-strings. ‘No, Walsingham has paid for it all. Phelippes says it will beggar him. That’s another honest man, Walsingham. Most of the service he runs to protect Queen and country is paid for out of his own pocket.’
A stranger arriving in
London that day would have thought the Queen herself had died. From where we stood, we heard them honour the soldier poet with a double volley of shot. All around us people were weeping, not only old women but young apprentices in their blue tunics, and rough sailors with their callused hands and tarred pigtails, and ragged urchins who could have dined for life on the value of just one of the rich garments in the procession. The melancholy at the loss of Sidney infected me, as it infected all England.
When the whole procession had passed inside the cathedral, some of the crowd pushed in behind, but Simon and I stayed outside. The horses had been left in the churchyard, in the care of grooms, and I noticed one of Walsingham’s stable lads holding Hector. I walked over to them.
‘Master Alvarez!’ The boy pulled off his cap and bobbed his head in an awkward bow.
‘Good day to you, Harry.’
I ran my hand down Hector’s neck and he butted his head against my shoulder with an affectionate snort.
‘He’s not forgotten me, then,’ I said.
‘Not he. Hector’s a grand fellow.’
Like everyone else in Walsingham’s household, Harry had a special affection for the ugly, clever piebald.
‘I’ll come to see him soon,’ I said, ‘and bring him an apple.’
‘You do that, Master Alvarez. We’ll all be glad to see you again. We miss you about the place.’
Simon had been watching my reunion with Hector, a look of amusement on his face. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘I’m frozen. Let’s find an inn and drink a cup of hot Hippocras to Sidney’s memory.’