Chapter One: Unlocking Secrets
"Gently, now, gently. That's the way. Let's take our time. Let there be nothing rough or crude, but only care and delicacy. Let us see with our fingertips. Aah! The word one might use," said Master Alexander Bone, creased face rapt, eyes closed, "is exquisite."
His movements were all finesse, his hands as tense and sensitive as a pair of pricked ears. Those same hands were also old and worn, with liver spots and prominent veins. Alexander Bone was old and worn altogether. His dust-coloured woollen gown was mended in several places and deplorably marred by foodstains, and the grey hair which straggled round his ears was in sorry need of trimming. He smelt musty. I didn't like being so close to him. Not for the first time, I asked myself what I was doing here with the likes of Master Bone. I would so much rather have been somewhere else. With somebody quite different.
There was a faint click from inside the little pewter casket he was holding, and he opened his eyes. Carefully, he drew out the wire device with which he had been picking the lock, and raised the domed lid.
"There!" he said. "There you are, Mistress Blanchard. Sweet as you please. You can lock it again -- " he demonstrated -- "as if nothing had ever happened." Master Bone gave me a grin which went further up one side of his face than it did the other. He handed me the wire lock-pick. "Try again. Remember: feel your way and go slow. You can't see the mechanism with your eyes, so close them. Work through your fingers. They'll make pictures in your head if you let them. They'll know when the lock-picks find the spring. Then you push it aside. It should resist first, and then yield to pressure. Press against it, steady and smooth."
It was February, and cold. Beyond the window, the Thames flowed sullenly under a leaden sky. The little room off Sir William Cecil's study in Whitehall Palace had thick curtains over the doors to keep out draughts, but although they made the air stuffy they didn't make it warmer. My waiting woman, Fran Dale, who was sitting in a corner of the room, had mittens on. My fingers were chilled and slow and I paused to rub them before I slipped the wire into the keyhole and made a fresh attempt to coax the lock to turn.
It would be interesting, I thought, to know where on earth the highly respectable and well-bred Sir William Cecil, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth, had found Alexander Bone. The man clearly had some education, and was an expert locksmith who, according to Cecil, had a shop in the City of London near London Bridge, yet Bone's acquaintance with wire lock-picks strongly suggested criminal connections. As I came to know Cecil better, however, I had learned that he had contacts in many unlikely places, acquired over the years as a provident farmer might acquire useful tools -- not despising battered third-hand items but repairing and burnishing them for future use.
I couldn't imagine why a skilled man like Alexander Bone should ever have sunk into the underworld in the first place, but he might well have been offered a financial leg-up back into the realms of virtue, in exchange for teaching Cecil's growing network of agents and informers how to get at the private correspondence of people suspected of plotting against the Queen.
It was a fact that there were those who wanted to end our peaceful Protestant days and turn back the clock to the time when all must be Catholic, or die most horribly. Some of them believed that Elizabeth was not legitimate and that Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland and also of France until her husband's recent death, should be on our throne instead. There was also one who wished to marry Elizabeth, and who was willing to invite a foreign army on to English soil to support him if the people of England rose against a king consort they disliked.
Thinking of that almost made me lose my grip on the wire because it made me so angry. Angry enough, in fact, to forget for a moment that if I had my way, I would be far away from here, in the company of my husband, sharing his home, leaving matters of state and the welfare of the Queen to men like Cecil, whose natural business such things were. Well, I had little choice about that. I had given up hope of hearing from Matthew again. I must perforce continue to make my living in my curious and unwomanly profession.
As it happened, I was the one who had found out what Sir Robin Dudley, the Queen's Master of Horse, was up to. I hadn't needed any illegal wire keys, either. While attending royal functions, the Spanish ambassador, Bishop de Quadra, sometimes changed his clothes at court and left his portable document case in the robing room, not realising that it had an unreliable attendant. Unreliable as far as Spanish ambassadors were concerned, that is. The attendant was loyal enough to England, and besides, I had arranged for him to be well paid to let me have a glimpse of that case whenever it was in his care. Usually, its contents were harmless and dull, but there came a day when the bishop was careless enough to leave something more interesting in it: a memorandum, in fact, of Robin Dudley's quite incredible plan.
Quadra's seeming carelessness probably meant that he didn't take the notion seriously, but Cecil and I were sure that Dudley himself did. The very thought of it gave me wild fantasies of seeing Dudley led to the block; even of wielding the axe myself, which was absurd. I, Mistress Ursula Blanchard, aged twenty-six, was no more than middle height, and slender, even though I had borne a child. I probably couldn't even lift a headsman's axe, let alone make an accurate swing with it. Private rage was replaced for a moment by private amusement.
Laughter, even when silent, is no more of an aid to efficient lock-picking than indignation. The wire in my hand shook, scratching uselessly at the invisible entrails of the lock, and Master Bone clicked a disapproving tongue. I steadied myself. Concentrating with narrowed eyes, I at last felt the firm resistance I sought and pressed against it. Despite the cold, I was sweating, and the linen ruff at my neck prickled annoyingly. Which way did the invisible assembly inside want to move? As bidden, I tried to picture in my head the mechanism which Master Bone had shown me. Then, softly, satisfyingly, came the click I was waiting for. I relaxed. "I think that's it."
"Not bad, Mistress Blanchard, but you got flustered, didn't you? It's no good, getting flustered. As I said last week, you need practice. I've brought you some boxes, with various kinds of lock. You can keep them to practise on. Here they are." He picked up a leather sack from the floor and put it on the table. "I advise you to work with them for an hour each day. Keep the lock-picks, too. I brought this set for you."
I thanked him, and he gazed at me wistfully.
"I'll come again if I'm wanted," he said in hopeful tones. "Any time. You tell Sir William. I'm always ready to help. All this must seem very strange to a lady like you."
"It certainly wasn't in my education when I was a child," I agreed, wondering what Aunt Tabitha and Uncle Herbert, who had brought me up, would have said if asked to include this unusual subject in my curriculum. My aunt's remarks would have been especially interesting. There was no more upright and virtuous woman in the realm than my Aunt Tabitha Faldene.
Bone was being paid by Cecil, but I realised that he was probably hinting. "Dale," I said. "My purse, please. Have a drink or two on me, Master Bone. Something to keep the cold out." I gave him a silver crown, which he seized gratefully.
"That's kind of you. Money never goes as far as it ought. Things were better long ago, when I was a boy. My thanks, Mistress Blanchard. Though drink's not my demon," said Bone. He looked round for his cloak, which Dale took from the back of a spare chair and handed to him. He wrapped it round him, over his disreputable gown. "There's a cockfight planned this afternoon, near where I live. I'm a man who just can't say no to a wager and that's the truth. That's where your crown'll go, and I'll hope to double it."
"I wish you luck," I said, ignoring the fact that he was still gazing longingly at my purse. If I had any more spare coins, I preferred to spend them on my little daughter.
"I'll be away to see the feathers fly, then," said Bone, accepting defeat. "I'm leaving my shop shut for the whole day, to come here and then attend the cockfight, so I hope I do a bit of good."
And that, I thought, as Master Bone took his leave, no doubt explained why a qualified craftsman had needed to get involved in crime. Gambling debts, for sure. Well, Cecil was making good use of the outcome. If Bone had stayed respectable, his skills with pieces of wire might not have been so polished.
I liked Cecil as a man, but he had his ruthless side. He did indeed collect people to use as tools. In the service of Elizabeth, he would use any tool that came to hand.
And that included me.
When Master Bone had gone, I made haste to return through Whitehall Palace to the small chamber which I shared with Dale five nights a week. On the other two nights I sent her to be with her husband, my manservant Roger Brockley. My quarters were not in the same building as Cecil's office, and Brockley, my stocky, reliable, dignified Brockley, was waiting in the porch to escort us back. He was well wrapped, with a stout felt hat pulled down over his ears, and a thick cloak drawn round him, but he looked cold. I wasn't sure of his age, but from what he had told me of his past life, and from the silver hairs mixed with the brown at his temples, he must be in his forties. Today, his high, intelligent forehead, with its sprinkling of pale gold freckles, was a little puckered as if with the discomfort of the weather.
"Brockley, you should have come inside and found a fire to stand beside. There's one in the servants' room downstairs."
"I might have missed you if I left the porch, madam." Brockley spoke good, almost prim, English in a country accent. "And you should have an escort in this warren of a palace," he said. "Palace! It's more like a town!"
This was true enough. Whitehall, Her Majesty was wont to inform us proudly, was the biggest royal palace in the whole of Europe. It was a maze of halls and galleries, staircases and courtyards, lodgings, guardrooms, outbuildings and gardens, with a road going through the middle as though it were indeed a small town instead of a residence. In wet weather, people who hadn't set foot beyond the palace precincts often arrived drenched for meals or meetings.
To reach my quarters, we had to cross two courtyards, climb two staircases and go down one, and then cross a public thoroughfare, where Brockley stepped in front of me and grabbed Dale's arm just in time to keep us out of the way as a couple of satin-clad horsemen with feathers in their hats and huge rowelled spurs on their boots, clattered by, riding far too fast.
"A fine sort of house," said Brockley disparagingly, "where folk can be ridden down inside the gates! By the way, madam, did your -- er -- lesson today go well? I understand from Fran that you are learning to open locks."
His voice was carefully bland. I smiled. Brockley did not approve of the means by which I kept myself dressed and jewelled as befitted a Lady of the Queen's Presence Chamber, provided extras for my small daughter, paid Brockley's salary and that of his wife, and maintained the two horses which I kept for us.
"The lesson was most successful, thank you, Brockley. I need practice now, that's all, and the gear for that is in the sack that Dale is carrying."
Blue-grey eyes as expressionless as his voice, Brockley said, "And what's it all for, madam? May we know?"
"I wish I knew the answer to that myself," I said, "but I shan't find out until I take dinner with Sir William Cecil and his wife tomorrow. Meanwhile, both of you, I am due to attend on the Queen. I must hurry!"
Brockley left us at the foot of my staircase and Dale followed me up to my tiny room. Sprawling Whitehall had enough little cubbyholes, hollowed out of the thickness of old walls or created by partitioning bigger chambers, for many of the Queen's ladies to have their own rooms, or at least cubicles. I had a patch of floor in what had once been a big anteroom, now divided by faded tapestries which had been retired from the royal apartments. I had just space enough for my bed, Dale's truckle bed, a clothes press and a toilet stand. I hurried in ahead of Dale and then stopped short in surprise, for awaiting me, seated on my bedside stool, was the plump, beruffed and brocaded figure of the Queen's principal lady.
"I will not ask where you have been," said Kat Ashley severely. "I understand from Her Majesty that you undertook an errand for her today and that I need not question you. However, you are supposed to be on duty and it will cause talk if you don't present yourself promptly. Her Majesty's errands shouldn't become subjects of curiosity and gossip."
"No, quite. Of course not." I thought with amusement that Kat Ashley would know all about curiosity and gossip. She kept the Queen's secrets, or anyone else's if Elizabeth so ordered it, but the fat little paws now hidden in the folds of her plum and silver brocade nevertheless belonged to a woman who loved to dabble her fingers in other people's business. Her protuberant blue eyes were at this moment avid to know what I had been doing and why. For all her dignity and her exalted position, there was something incurably blowsy about Kat. Not that I disliked her: I had a fair share of curiosity in my own nature. She and I understood each other.
"I didn't realise I was so tardy," I said, while Dale put the sack she was carrying quietly out of sight. "I am sorry that you had to come in search of me."
"Oh, I didn't come on account of your lateness," Kat Ashley said, "but while you were -- wherever it is you've been -- somebody came looking for you, from outside. A ship's boy, sent by a Captain Sutton -- a sea captain, apparently."
"A sea captain? Sutton?" I said in bewilderment.
"Just docked in the Thames, over from Calais, according to the boy who came asking for you at the river gate. The gatekeeper sent for me. The lad had a letter for you," said Kat Ashley. Her right hand had been hidden in her costly skirts, and now she withdrew it and held out to me a doubled sheet of paper, sealed.
"The reason the gatekeeper didn't know at once who you were, was that the boy didn't ask for Mistress Blanchard," she said. "He asked for Mistress de la Roche, one of the Queen's ladies. You would do better," said Kat, "to let your French correspondent, whoever he is...?" She waited to see if I would tell her, but although I knew she had seen how my eyes were shining, I said nothing. "...Better tell him," said Kat disappointedly, "that here, you still go by the name of your first husband. Here you are."
Kat was among the few people who knew of my second marriage. It was one of the secrets she had been allowed to know because of her position in authority over me, but had been ordered to keep to herself.
Taking the letter, I saw my name, my legal name, Mistress de la Roche, written on it in strong black ink. The writing was masculine and elegant, a little ornate; the seal showed the letter M within a circle. I knew the hand and I knew the seal, from notes sent to me in the past, millenia ago -- was it really only last year? -- when Matthew de la Roche paid court to me.
"You bade me make haste," I said. "Please leave me now. I will be with the Queen in a few minutes."
Kat Ashley sighed, and heaved herself to her feet with a grunt. "Too many stairs for my liking, to get to these rooms. You're spryer than I am, and just as well. You have ten minutes at most, Mistress Blanchard."
I sat down at my toilet table. "Do my hair, Dale. Quickly. While you're doing it, I'll read this."
"Oh, ma'am! Is it from your husband? I know you said you'd written to him. And quite right too, in my view. A woman should be with her husband. Even if she doesn't agree with everything he says or does, she still ought to be with him. I'd be lost without Brockley, now that we're wed."
I met her eyes in the mirror, and smiled affectionately. Dale, like Brockley himself, was over forty, and she was not beautiful, any more than he was conventionally handsome, but she had regular features which were pleasant in their own way. If she had a few pockmarks from a childhood attack of smallpox, this was a common misfortune, and Dale's pocks were not so very obvious. They had somehow grown less noticeable, and her features softer since she and Brockley married. Her correct name now, of course, was Mistress Brockley, but I was used to calling her Dale and she was used to being thus addressed, so we had gone on with it.
Brockley had done well by her, I thought. If not an Adonis, he was still well looking, with the co-ordinated movements and air of strength which can be more impressive than facial planes. He was resourceful, the kind of man whose wife can rely on him. He had been a groom before I took him on, but he had also been a soldier, in the days of King Henry, and had been to war in Scotland and France. He knew the world.
Dale, when I first knew her, had been inclined to complain too much, but she had improved since her marriage, although I had never been easy to work for, and this had certainly not improved.
For one thing, I was often short tempered out of sheer envy, because Dale had the company of her husband whereas I had parted from mine. My reasons at the time seemed good and honourable, but I had learned, through lonely nights and long days of empty busy-ness, that virtue is not only its own, but its only reward. No matter how often I told myself that I had been right to put the welfare of the Queen and the safety of the realm before my own private happiness, it could not comfort my longing or heal my grief. I wanted Matthew.
In the end, after much secret crying in the darkness, I had put my need into words and found a messenger -- a merchant travelling to the Loire valley where I believed that Matthew now was. I hoped to God that my letter would reach him, that it would bridge the chasm between us and that he would answer.
Until now, my only answer had been silence. I had tried to tell myself that my letter hadn't reached him, but it was all too probable that he didn't want me any more, and who could blame him? I had vacillated over writing to him again. Now, after all, the reply was here.
Though I did not yet know what was in it. As Dale took my hair, which was long and thick and very dark, out of its silver net and set about brushing it, I sat turning the letter over in my hands. When I first recognised Matthew's handwriting, I had been filled with joy, but it had now occurred to me that it was as likely to contain bitter rejection as impassioned invitation.
As I broke the seal, I was afraid.
Copyright © 1998 by Fiona Buckley