Sample text for The fugitive queen : an Ursula Blanchard mystery at Queen Elizabeth I's court / Fiona Buckley.

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Chapter One: A Dowry for a Wayward Maid

I married Hugh Stannard in 1565, the seventh year of Queen Elizabeth's reign. I was thirty-one, a little younger than the queen herself, and Hugh was more than twenty years my senior, but this suited me very well. I had had enough of passion. I had felt passion for both of my previous husbands and it had brought me more suffering than joy.

Well, it was true that my dear first husband, Gerald Blanchard, had given me my daughter, Meg, who was a blessing to me. But I had nearly lost my life in bearing her, and I had lost Gerald himself to smallpox while Meg was still small. Now my second husband, Matthew de la Roche, was dead of the plague and although I had been deep in love with him, we had never had any peace or lasting happiness together. I bore him a stillborn son whose birth brought me even nearer to the grave than Meg had, so that I learned to fear childbearing. And also, I was loyal to Queen Elizabeth of England while he had continually plotted against her on behalf of Mary Stuart, who was Queen of Scotland and in the eyes of ardent Catholics such as Matthew should have been Queen of England, too.

If I were tired of passion, I was even more tired of conspiracy. For many years I had served Elizabeth as a Lady of the Presence Chamber but I had been more than that. I had also worked for her as a spy, seeking out plots against her. For a while, I found the excitement exhilarating. It had called to me in a voice like the cry of the wild geese, winging across the sky. When I heard the geese something in me always longed to bound up into the air and follow them. In the same way, I had responded to the summons of adventure.

But my work divided me from Matthew and willy-nilly, it caused me to send men to their deaths. It put me in mortal danger too, once or twice. I continually worried and frightened my two good servants, Fran Dale, my tirewoman, and Roger Brockley, my steward; I more than once risked leaving Meg alone without either mother or father, and when my adventuring finally brought me perilously close to being forced into a disastrous third marriage, I knew I had had enough.

In Hugh Stannard, I found a refuge from conflict combined with freedom from the perils of childbirth. He was a widower and hadn't spent his widowhood like a monk, which meant that he had had every chance of siring children yet he had never succeeded in doing so. With him, I could be fairly sure that I would not have to face pregnancy again. He was also a decent, honest man, interested in chess and gardens, an uncomplicated Protestant, and a trustworthy subject of the queen. Life as Hugh's wife might be dull, I thought, but it would be quiet. I was glad to settle for that. I could do without excitement. I could even do without happiness, as long as I could have some peace.

I hoped that we would make a good partnership. I would retire from court and conspiracy alike. Hugh and I would live together in amity, dividing our time between our two homes, my Withysham in Sussex and his Hawkswood in Surrey. I would educate my daughter, cultivate my herb garden, enjoy the society of my recently acquired woman companion Sybil Jester; let Fran and Roger enjoy each other's society, too. They were married, though Fran was still usually known as Dale, out of habit.

And so, in businesslike fashion, I ceased to be Ursula Blanchard, and became instead Mistress Hugh Stannard and if, for a while, I secretly grieved for Matthew, and cried in private because I had not been with him to comfort him at the end as once I had comforted Gerald, I only did so when I was alone.

And time erodes sorrow. Presently, my private fits of weeping ceased. Then I found that I had entered into more happiness than I would ever have believed possible. Hugh's lovemaking, if not frequent, was perfectly satisfactory, and his temperament was a pleasing mixture of the competent and the generous. He took a kindly interest in Meg and it was Hugh who achieved what I had not, and found a tutor, Dr. Lambert, who could teach her Greek as well as Latin. I was especially pleased, as I wished to study Greek and to improve my own Latin. Then, in the third year of our marriage, he was perfectly ready to welcome Penelope Mason, the daughter of my former acquaintance Ann Mason, into our home.

This pleased me, too. Years ago, I had uncovered a conspiracy that was brewing in the Mason household although the Masons themselves were not involved. It was an unpleasant business, though, and keeping up any kind of friendship with the family seemed impossible afterward. Ann Mason's letter delighted me.

I was less delighted however when, after Pen had been with us for a month and I was exchanging messages with the court, prior to taking her there, Hugh observed that romantically speaking, she was susceptible. "You should urge the matter of her court appointment on," he said to me, "and get her away from here. I think she's falling for the tutor."

"For Lambert?" I said in astonishment. Dr. Henry Lambert was about Hugh's own age and his hair was already completely silver. "He's too old to interest a young girl, surely!" I said.

"Don't you believe it," said Hugh. "He's a fine-looking man, and since Pen is studying Greek with you and Meg, she sees him every day. It won't do. Even if he were younger, it wouldn't do. He has no property beyond a cottage in the town of Guildford. And he's Protestant. Her mother wouldn't like that." Hugh had Catholic relatives and was tolerant of their creed. "Get her to court and under the eye of the queen, fast."

I did as he said. My happiness with Hugh was based as much as anything on his reliability. He was a clearheaded man and I trusted his judgment. It wasn't Hugh's fault that Pen's sojourn at court was less than successful. I certainly didn't blame him for that.

In all our life together, Hugh and I only quarreled once and that was for the most improbable of reasons.

Pen had only been at court for two months, when the letter came from Sir William Cecil to tell us that, having been removed from Dr. Lambert the tutor, she had now fallen in love with Master Rowan the interpreter and was causing embarrassment and would we come to court -- now at Richmond -- to deal with her.

"Oh, really!" grumbled Hugh. "And riding makes all my joints ache. I don't want to travel to Richmond. It's all of twenty-five miles. Why can't this Master Rowan fend her off without our help?"

I wondered, too. Among them -- Master Rowan, Queen Elizabeth, Sir William Cecil, and the mistress in charge of the Maids of Honor -- they really should have been able to call Pen to order. However, a summons from Cecil could not be ignored. Dutifully, we set out for Richmond Palace.

I had always liked Richmond. Of all Elizabeth's homes, it seemed to me the most charming, with its gardens and wind chimes, its delicately designed towers and its gracious rooms, so many of which looked out on the Thames. On days like this, when the sun was out and the gardens were full of scent and color, and the Thames sparkled under a mild breeze, it was at its most beguiling. I would have enjoyed this visit, my first in years, if only we hadn't had to cope with Pen.

Cecil had arranged lodgings in the palace for us and Pen was sent to us there. She stood miserably in front of us, and Hugh and I, enthroned side by side on a broad window seat, probably looked and sounded like a pair of judges as we took her to task over her behavior.

Penelope obviously felt both frightened and embarrassed. First of all she turned very red and indignantly denied the charge. Confronted by the evidence in the form of Cecil's letter to me and also the sonnet in her handwriting (it was technically rather good, as a matter of fact; Pen was a clever girl), she did the only thing left for her to do and burst into tears. Hugh, without speaking and with a most unsympathetic expression on his face, took a napkin from his sleeve and handed it to her.

Gazing at her as she snuffled into the napkin, I sighed. It is no light responsibility, taking charge of someone else's daughter.

As her mother had said, Pen was not a beauty. To be truthful, she was almost plain. Her forehead bulged too much and her chin was too square. Her hair, demurely folded into waves under a white cap with silver embroidery, was no more than mousey. Her best features were her dark gray eyes, which were beautifully set, and her complexion, which when not swollen with tears, was clear and pale. She held herself well, too, had good taste in dress, and she was intelligent, as that confounded sonnet demonstrated. I was sorry for her now but I hardened my heart. Pen was not going to spoil her reputation through girlish inexperience, or waste herself on the wrong man if I could save her, and I meant to do that for her sake as well as to please her mother.

"Dry your eyes," I said firmly. "And listen. You have fallen in love -- well, it happens. Few of us, though, marry our first loves and most of us realize later what a good thing that is..."

"You married your first love," said Pen mutinously.

"And what would you know about that?" Hugh inquired. Soberly clad in a dark formal gown, his blue eyes icy with annoyance, my husband looked particularly judgmental. He also looked tired, I thought. We had taken two days over the ride from Hawkswood and his mare was an ambler, thus providing a very smooth and easy pace, but the rheumatic pains in his joints had troubled him badly. It gave me an extra reason to be angry with Pen.

"I heard about it when I was with you at Hawkswood," she said in a resentful voice. "Dale told me. You ran off with your cousin Mary's betrothed. You pleased yourself. Why can't I?"

"That is enough. You will not address either of us in this pert fashion," said Hugh.

"I should say," I observed, thinking that Dale had talked too much and that I would have to raise the matter with her, "that my circumstances and yours, Pen, are not the same. I was not living as a welcome guest with my aunt and uncle, as you were at Hawkswood with us, but was there on sufferance -- a poor relation with questionable origins. No one was going to arrange a marriage for me. I had to make a future for myself."

"There's no need to justify yourself, my dear," said Hugh.

"One moment," I said. "I've a reason for talking like this. Pen, I ran away with Gerald Blanchard, but he was a suitable choice for me and he cared for me as I did for him. It was mutual. Master Rowan, on the other hand, is married already, with a family of children. He has no interest in you. You have been annoying him." I rapped the last two sentences out with deliberate brutality and Hugh, on the point of intervening again, raised his eyebrows and didn't.

"We noticed at Hawkswood," I said, "that you were gazing after Dr. Lambert, too. It is clear that you need to be watched. We understand that the queen has released you from your duties for the time being and returned you to our charge. For the moment, you will remain here in our rooms. I will send Dale to bear you company though not to gossip with you. Master Stannard and I are to have an audience with the queen, in which your future will be further discussed, I daresay."

"Oh no!" It came out in a wail. "It's're not going to tell the queen!"

"My dear girl," said Hugh impatiently, "she already knows. Mistress Stannard has just told you that she has released you to our care and your deplorable behavior is the reason why. I suspect that most of the court knows! It's hard to keep any kind of secret here and maybe it's time you began to understand that."

Dale was waiting in an outer room. Sybil Jester was not with her, having remained at Hawkswood to look after Meg, who was too young as yet for court. On returning to Dale, I eyed her severely. "You're to go in and keep an eye on Pen. You'd better both settle to some embroidery until we come back. And, Dale..."

"Yes, ma'am?" said Dale, scanning my face with her large, light blue eyes and realizing that in some way or other, she must have offended.

"In future," I said, "will you please not gossip to Pen about me! It seems that you told her how my first marriage arose. It's given her some very wrong ideas about the kind of behavior I will overlook!"

"Oh, ma'am! I'm sorry! I never expected...I didn't mean to gossip; I can't abide tittle-tattle. Only, nearly everyone that knows you knows about you and Master Blanchard and..."

"I know." I melted and smiled at her. I sometimes had to take Dale to task but I was at heart very fond of her and she of me. "It's just that Pen is so young. Be careful what you say to her, that's all. Only improving conversation, if you please!"

"Have a competition to see how many psalms each of you knows by heart," said Hugh, his normal sense of humor reasserting itself. "Meanwhile, we must attend upon Her Majesty."

"You almost frighten me sometimes," Hugh said as, having found a page to guide us, we made our way through the palace toward Elizabeth's apartments. "I thought for a moment that you were going to be too soft with Penelope. And then you descend on her like a stooping falcon. Master Rowan has no interest in you. You've been annoying him. It was more effective than if you'd thrown cold water over her. It will do her good, as of course you knew. But how you take me aback at times! You are so gentle, so compliant at home, that sometimes I forget what you've seen and done in your life -- and what depths you have, and what skills."

"I didn't like doing it," I said somberly. "It was necessary, that's all. I used shock tactics because I thought they might succeed, and I did it because I'm very annoyed with her -- but also worried about her. We're about to face the queen and I daresay she'll tell us that our ward is in disgrace and must be removed."

"Elizabeth is fond of you. She owes you much."

"She won't like this," I said.

The walk to Elizabeth's rooms took us through the lively bustle that pervaded all her palaces. Elizabeth was a human magnet who drew people to her. The wide passages and lofty galleries, the tapestried anterooms and winding staircases of Richmond were crowded. Page boys and servants hurried hither and thither and the Lord Steward's chief officials, carrying white staves as symbols of office, went hither and thither as well, in more measured fashion, transmitting orders and inspecting the work of underlings, ready at any moment to pounce on the page boy overheard being less than respectful or the maidservant caught dusting too carelessly, spilling the goblets on her tray, or getting out of her betters' path too slowly.

And, of course, there were the courtiers: queen's ladies and council members; the ever-present but ever-changing group of foreign emissaries (all moving as often as not in a cloud of their own clerks, secretaries, or interpreters such as Master Rowan); and numerous hopeful young men who had come to court to make their careers. By right of well-born or sometimes merely rich and influential fathers, they had the entre;e to the public rooms of the palaces, and came there daily at their own expense, hoping to be noticed by the queen or one of her great men, and thus obtain employment or a patron for their poetry and music. The court was a world to itself and as busy as an ant heap, full of well-dressed ants.

We found the queen in a thronged gallery. It had deep window bays, almost small rooms in their own right, and she was standing in one of them, talking to a couple of her councilors. We caught her eye as we came to the entrance to the bay, and with a faint nod, she let us know that in a moment, she would beckon us in. While we waited, lingering where she could see us, I looked with interest at the little groups of men and women, strolling or standing all about us.

I absorbed, as I always did, the byplay of it all, especially the cheerful smiles and studiedly confident stance of people who were not quite as richly dressed as those to whom they were talking, but were trying to give the impression of belonging to some worthwhile inner circle -- because to be an outsider is humiliating and besides, life is so perverse that it is easier to attract a patron if people think you already have one. Those who understood the signs could tell at a glance who really mattered and who did not.

A rich variety of perfumes scented the air and the whole gallery was full of murmuring voices and rustling silks. As my gaze moved around, I noticed a well-made man with a face both weather-beaten and intelligent, and a doublet cut differently from the doublets of the English courtiers, in earnest conversation with a dark-complexioned individual who had an agreeable smile and very good clothes, which I thought were in the Spanish style. I had been away from court affairs for so long that my memory of faces was rusty, yet I thought I had seen the weather-beaten man somewhere before and I was almost certain of his companion's identity, too. As I watched, I saw the probable-Spaniard attempt to detach himself, and then check politely as the other man laid a hand on his arm.

If I were looking about me, trying to recognize people, there were also those who recognized me. A tall and splendid figure in a mulberry taffeta doublet, the queen's friend Robin Dudley, now ennobled as the Earl of Leicester, bore down on us. When we had exchanged greetings, I indicated the pair I had noticed and said: "Who are those two? Is one of them the Spanish ambassador? I'm sure I remember him -- De Silva, isn't it?"

"Dear Ursula," said Dudley, his own gypsy-brown face lighting up with amusement, "you never change. You arrive at court after a long absence and instantly tease out the important threads in the complex tapestry of political life. The dark man is indeed De Silva. He is a charming, and fortunately, a sensible man. It's just as well, because the fellow who is talking to him and won't let him get away is Lord Herries, emissary from Mary Stuart. He came to England with her."

"I thought I'd seen him before as well. It must have been when I was in Scotland a few years ago."

"No doubt. Ah. Her Majesty is beckoning to us. Come."

"Beckoning to us?" queried Hugh.

"Yes. I am concerned in the matter, as it happens." Dudley saw my face and laughed. "No, no, Ursula. Your naughty Penelope hasn't been making eyes at me, not that it would have done her any good if she had. I have a reputation," said Dudley, "for being irresponsible, but I'm not that irresponsible. The queen prefers me to concentrate on her. Follow me."

As we joined the queen, Cecil also arrived. Every time I saw him, I thought that he had aged since the last time. On this occasion, the gap was nearly three years long and the change was very noticeable. There was far more gray in his fair beard and the line between his alert blue eyes was now a deep furrow. Like Hugh, I thought, Cecil was tired.

Elizabeth was informally dressed and had now seated herself in casual fashion on a broad window seat. From these subtle signals, I gathered that Hugh and I were not going to receive a blistering public condemnation for Pen's foolishness but I knew that we wouldn't escape quite unscathed, nor did we.

"My Cecil! Ursula! And Master Stannard! Sweet Robin, you are welcome." As we made our courtesies, Elizabeth gave each of us in turn her hand to kiss. Then she fixed her golden-brown eyes on my face and came to the point at once. "You know what this is about, of course. The girl Penelope Mason cannot remain at court. We understand that you know why."

"Yes, ma'am," I said sadly. Elizabeth too looked older. Her pale, shield-shaped face had settled into mature lines; her mouth was less vulnerable. She was no longer the young girl she was when I first met her.

"We expect the Maids of Honor to be lively," she said, "even if they sing and dance in their rooms and irritate people in neighboring apartments. After all, they are young. We even expect them to flirt a little. We watch them for their own protection but allow them some latitude. Not to this extent, however. This blatant pursuit of a married man -- sonnets pinned into his cloak, no less! -- such things will not do. We understand that the girl's mother wants to find a match for her. We would recommend that this is done without loss of time -- before she has a chance to misbehave again, perhaps disastrously for herself. And now," said Elizabeth, turning to Dudley, "my lord of Leicester has something to say."

Hugh and I looked at Dudley, puzzled. He smiled. "One of the problems the girl has is lack of dowry," he said. "We have inquired from her and from her mother, what her portion is likely to be and there is little to spare for her."

"The rents of one small sublet farm and the tiny hamlet that goes with it," said Cecil, speaking for the first time. "Not enough to attract a court gentleman unless he were to fall deeply in love with her -- and that doesn't seem likely."

"No," I agreed regretfully, thinking of Pen's unremarkable looks. "With Pen -- no, it isn't very likely."

"I, however," said Dudley, "am willing to help."

Hugh and I continued to gaze at him, but now it was with astonishment. Dudley was a very wealthy man and could be generous; he gambled a good deal but had a reputation for paying his debts on time. He was not, however, known as a philanthropist, and I had never heard before that he went about providing dowries for plain young women who had no connection with him.

"I have a parcel of land in the north of England, about fifteen miles from the castle of Bolton," he said smoothly. "It's on the edge of a wild place called Saddleworth Moor. I was left it by a former employee who had no family of his own to will it to. It's a fair-sized stretch of land, with arable fields, a big flock of sheep, and both meadowland and hill grazing for them. They're valuable. The wool is good. It all amounts to a very respectable piece of property or so I understand. I have had reports of it, although I haven't seen it myself. I have little time or, to be honest, inclination to travel north and inspect it personally. In fact, in many ways, it's a nuisance to me. I am willing, as it were, to donate it to a good cause. It might well help to attract a husband for the girl."

"We understand that her mother would prefer a household with Catholic beliefs," observed Cecil. "Provided, of course that he has a loyal reputation and attends Anglican services at least once a month, as the law states. There are many Catholic adherents in northern England. A suitable man might be easier to find there. Mistress Penelope should perhaps go to see her dowry lands in Yorkshire."

He finished on an odd, thoughtful intonation. I recognized it. I'd heard him use it before. I looked at Dudley. "The place is near Bolton, you say, my lord?"

"Reasonably near," Dudley agreed suavely.

As soon as the word Bolton was spoken, I had come alert. Mary Stuart was about to be moved to Bolton Castle. Something was coming; I knew it. There was more to this than just making arrangements to marry off a wayward Maid of Honor.

"Mary Stuart of Scotland will shortly move to Bolton," said Elizabeth, echoing the words that were already in my head. "You met her, did you not, Ursula, when you went to Scotland a few years ago?"

"I...yes, ma'am. I did."

"And I believe she liked you? You were her guest at Holyrood in Edinburgh for a while?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said with caution.

"No doubt she is finding life strange and limited in my northern castles, compared with life as a queen," said Elizabeth gravely. "Her representative, Lord Herries, is at Richmond now and would like us to receive her here but my good Cecil is much against the idea of bringing her to London."

"She has a charge of murder hanging over her. She is not a fit person to associate with the Queen of England until her name is cleared," said Cecil, his voice now quite colorless. The words over my dead body were not spoken aloud but hung in the air like an overripe ham from a ceiling hook.

"We think," said Elizabeth, smiling sweetly, "that it would be an excellent idea, Ursula, if my lord of Leicester's generous gift could be signed over to Pen at once, and if you took the wench north to inspect it. You could look for a husband for her in that district -- and while you are about it, you could visit Mary Stuart. We can arrange that Sir Francis Knollys, who has charge of her, will admit you, though I shall tell him only that you and she have met before, and that since you chance to be in the district because you are accompanying Mistress Penelope, I wish you to present my compliments to my cousin."

"I see," I said uncertainly. "Or -- do I?"

"Not yet but I am about to explain," said Elizabeth. "In fact, Ursula, I want you to pass a confidential message to Mary Stuart, from one queen to another. I said confidential -- it's more than that. It's personal -- on an unofficial level, if you understand me."

I did. There are strange rules in the world of diplomacy. A message passed on by an official personage may be confidential, but it is not personal. Personal means a far greater degree of secrecy. Personal means that no one will ever acknowledge that the message was ever passed at all.

"I know of it," said Cecil in a low voice, "and so does Leicester here..." "Because I trust your discretion as I trust my own," said Elizabeth. "And the same applies to you and your husband, Ursula. But I wish the matter to be known to no one else, not even to Knollys. He is a man with opinions of his own and they are not the same as mine. He will obey orders, but a man carrying out commands he doesn't agree with can dilute the message without meaning to. A mere tone of voice can make a difference sometimes. So, you will be my mouthpiece instead, Ursula," said Elizabeth. "Cecil advises it, and I have agreed."

I glanced at Hugh but he was looking at the queen. His face told me nothing. "The message has to be by word of mouth, I take it, ma'am?" I said. "Nothing written down?"

"Exactly," said Elizabeth. Her eyes met mine again and held them. "There will be an inquiry," she said, "into the facts of how Henry Lord Darnley, the husband of my royal cousin Mary Stuart, met his death. We have received an emissary from James Stewart, Earl of Moray, her half brother and at present the Regent of Scotland, requesting us to hold such an inquiry and we can scarcely refuse him.

" "The request is reasonable, in the circumstances," said Cecil.

"But..." Elizabeth's gaze was still fixed on mine. "There is a difficulty. Any such inquiry could well turn into something very like a trial. Representatives sent by Moray will attend and may demand that Mary give evidence herself and allow herself to be questioned. This must not happen. Knollys, who is an honest man but doesn't have the cares of kingship, believes that Mary ought to testify on her behalf to clear her name, but he is wrong. She must not. Mary is an anointed queen and if a monarch is treated like a subject and questioned like a felon, then it can happen to any monarch -- especially to one who permitted such a thing to be done in the first place. That is the message you are to take privily to Mary, Ursula. Tell her from me, her cousin, that the inquiry will probably have to proceed but that she must on no account whatsover agree to testify in person or to be questioned. That is all."

She smiled. "We will not demand an answer now, this moment, Ursula. Think about it." Her gaze moved to Hugh. "You must think about it, too. You and your wife must discuss it. Ursula can give me your answer tomorrow."

Copyright © 2003 by Fiona Buckley

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Blanchard, Ursula (Fictitious character) -- Fiction.
Great Britain -- History -- Elizabeth, 1558-1603 -- Fiction.
Elizabeth -- I, -- Queen of England, -- 1533-1603 -- Fiction.
Mary, -- Queen of Scots, -- 1542-1587 -- Fiction.
Women detectives -- England -- Fiction.
Courts and courtiers -- Fiction.
Queens -- Fiction.