Chapter One: In the Dark of the Morning
At half past seven on a January morning, the dawn should have been breaking, but the sky was so overcast that to all intents and purposes, it was still dark and I had half a dozen servants standing about with flambeaux so that our little party could see to mount the horses.
Malton, the elderly former steward who had been called out of retirement to look after Withysham while the present steward, Roger Brockley, accompanied me on my journey, held one of the torches and another was in the unsteady grasp of ancient Gladys, who was even older than Malton and shouldn't be out in this bitter northeasterly but had insisted all the same.
Gladys wasn't exactly a servant, more a responsibility. She did what she could about the house and was good at doctoring hurts and fevers and also at milking cows, but I didn't employ her. She had attached herself to me, and Gladys, bless her acid tongue and good heart, was fond of me.
The chill wind, flowing over the downs of Sussex, carried a threat of snow. The breaths of people and horses alike smoked visibly in the torchlight. Brockley, who was also an experienced groom, had made sure that all the horses had warm saddlecloths, but as I mounted, I could tell by the droop of my gelding's head that he would rather have stayed in his nice snug stall. I sympathized. I too was well clad but my teeth would have chattered if I'd let them. My tirewoman, Fran Dale, already in her saddle, was less restrained than I was, and her teeth really were chattering, audibly. My nine-year-old daughter, Meg, perched on her sturdy pony, was just a small, hunched shape beneath her stout cloak and felt hat, and her nurse, Bridget, waiting on the pillion of Brockley's cob, Speckle, was a weird spectacle because she was a fat woman to start with and her defense against the weather consisted of a vast hooded mantle that Bridget had constructed herself using old blankets, because she said that they were thicker than conventional materials. As a result, Speckle looked as though he had a she-bear on his crupper.
I settled myself, gathering up my reins and gazing wistfully back at my house. Withysham Abbey was not modern. My home had no white plaster and black timbering, no tall ornamental chimneys or elegant imitation battlements. It had once been an abbey of nuns, until King Henry the Eighth dissolved the monasteries and sold off their buildings and lands, and even now, Withysham's quiet gray stone walls, its low, pointed doorways and slender leaded windows, had an outdated, ecclesiastical air.
But it was homely, too. The candlelight within the flawed medieval panes spoke of comfort indoors. At this moment, I wished with all my heart that I were back in the friendly shelter of those lit rooms. My earlier willingness for this errand had completely evaporated. I shouldn't be doing this, I thought. I didn't want to do it. The seventeenth of January, with snow in the wind, was no time to start a journey that would take me at least to Northumberland and might even compel me over the border into Scotland. Besides, I was worried about Meg.
As if she had heard me thinking, Meg edged her pony over to me. "Mother?"
"We'll be on the move in a moment, darling. I hope you're warm enough."
"Yes, thank you. Only, I wanted to ask..."
"Yes, sweetheart?" I said, larding my words with endearments because I was so very anxious about her and so reluctant to face the separation that was now only a day away.
"Will it be all right? Will the Hendersons let me stay with them?"
"What makes you think they won't, darling? They've always made you welcome before."
"I know, but...once or twice, I've heard you talking to Dale and Brockley...I wasn't listening on purpose. I just heard you."
"Did you, indeed, little Mistress Bigears?" I said, trying to sound amused.
"Yes. I'm sorry, Mother. But -- will it be all right?"
"I hope so!" I said.
Brockley was swinging into his saddle and checking his girth. Dale was muttering dismally that this was terrible, that she never could abide riding long distances and in cold weather like this...!
"Let be, Fran," said Brockley. I still called my tirewoman Dale because that was her name when she entered my service but since then, she and Brockley had married. Strictly speaking, she was Mistress Brockley now, which was often an advantage because Brockley could sometimes check her habit of complaining, which I rarely managed to do.
"We're on our way now, and that's that," Brockley said firmly. "You wouldn't want to stay behind and neither the mistress nor I would want that, either. Madam?"
"Yes, Brockley," I said. "We're on our way."
And so, calling good-byes to the shivering servants, we started out. As we reached the gates, I glanced back once more and noticed wryly that they had plunged back into the warmth of the house before we had fairly left the premises. The flambeaux were gone. Only the faint glimmer of candlelit windows remained. How long, I wondered, before I would see my home again?
I should never have agreed to this, but it was too late now.
My family, the Faldenes, had old-fashioned attitudes, and in more ways than one. They clung to the old Catholic religion despite Queen Elizabeth's legislation against it, and their domestic life was similarly behind the times. In modern households, it was now customary for the family to dine in private, separately from their servants. At my family home of Faldene House, where I was brought up, everyone dined together and the great hall was still the center of the household, just as it had been in medieval times.
It was also still decorated with the swords and pikes of bygone Faldenes who had fought at Agincourt and Crécy. According to my mother, when she came home in disgrace from the court of King Henry the Eighth, with child by a court gallant whom she would not name -- presumably because he was married -- her outraged parents and her brother, Herbert, marched her around the hall, pointing at these relics of heroism, and accused her of betraying them. Which was most unfair because many of the family's bygone heroes had had careers that were as lively off the battlefield as on it, and we had plenty of unofficial relatives in Faldene village and beyond it, too, in the neighboring hamlet of Westwater and in the village attached to my present home of Withysham, five miles away.
I, Ursula Faldene, was the daughter born to my mother after her return home. When my grandparents died, the responsibility for my mother and for me passed to Uncle Herbert and his thin, sour wife, Aunt Tabitha. They discharged it dutifully, I suppose. We weren't turned out to beg for our bread. That much, I admit.
I was even allowed to share their children's tutor, and thus I did receive an education, though it was a grudging one. What I did not receive, however, except from my mother, was kindness. When I was sixteen, she too died, I think worn-out by life in a constant atmosphere of disapproval. I might well have ended my days as unpaid dogsbody to my aunt and accounts clerk to my uncle (who eventually realized that an educated Ursula could be of more use than an illiterate one), except that I caught the eye of Gerald Blanchard, son of a neighbor.
Unfortunately, Gerald was betrothed to my well-dowered cousin Mary, daughter of Uncle Herbert and Aunt Tabitha. I suppose it was natural for our respective families to be enraged when we eloped.
We never regretted it, though. With Gerald, I traveled to Antwerp, where he worked for the queen's financier, Sir Thomas Gresham, and it was Gerald who gave me my dark-haired daughter, Meg. When he died of smallpox, Meg and I came home to England and an uncertain future, because neither the Faldenes nor the Blanchards were willing to help us. Mercifully, we had other friends, including Gresham, who were more generous. Strings were pulled; arrangements were made. Foster parents were found for Meg, and Ursula Blanchard, impoverished widow, became a Lady of the Queen's Presence Chamber, and after a time, married again, this time to a Frenchman, Matthew de la Roche.
That was a passionate union but a doomed one, for he was Elizabeth's enemy, working against her, which too often drove us apart. Now Matthew too was dead, of a summer plague, and I was widowed once more, but by this time I was well provided for. I was the chatelaine of Withysham, dignified and comfortable, with profitable land attached to it. I had expected to live there, retired from court life and united with my daughter at last, and -- well, yes -- to enjoy the chagrin of Uncle Herbert and Aunt Tabitha at having their despised and baseborn niece as a well-off, well-respected, and extremely well-dressed neighbor.
What I didn't expect was to be hunted up by a distracted Aunt Tabitha and dragged, not by coercion but by pleading, back to Faldene and put in the position of one who could be their savior, if only I would let bygones be bygones and agree.
Copyright © 2002 by Fiona Buckley