The Secret Keeper
Spring: Year of Our Lord 1542
St. Peter’s Church, Marlborough
Hungerford House, Marlborough
Brighton Manor, Marlborough
I entered the church on a May morn and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dim light and my body to the chill of the stone-cooled air. I sought Father Gregory, who caught my glance and smiled. I tried to return it in kind but my lips quivered. I waited in the back till he finished lighting the candles before the morning service.
Once he joined me, he immediately asked, “Daughter, what ails you?”
My face had betrayed my qualms. No others were around us so I answered him frankly as was my habit. “My mother believes I am a witch. And I fear that she is right.”
Father Gregory reflexively drew back a little and for the first time I tasted dread. If this man, who knew me well and trusted me to read aloud in his church, might consider the possibility that I was a sorceress, all was lost. All would be lost, whether it were true or not, if my mother had whispered her accusation to any but myself.
“’Tis not so,” he said soothingly, and then as he was about to say more the rough townsfolk began to pool in the church’s nave like motes on a ray of light. Father Gregory’s face registered surprise, and then humility, and then perhaps a tint of fear. I turned toward the door to look upon whom he’d fixed his gaze: a well-dressed man, the most finely dressed man I had ever seen. The man nodded and approached us.
Who was he? Was I to curtsey? Cast down my gaze? Take my leave? Before I could decide, the man was upon us and introductions begun.
Father Gregory bowed. “Sir Thomas Seymour, please allow me to present Mistress Juliana St. John.”
I decided, quickly, on a short curtsey and a brief, modest dip of the head. This pleased Seymour, who held out his right hand toward me. I took it and he did not wait afore softly kissing my slightly bent knuckles before speaking.
“I am well pleased to meet you, Mistress Juliana.” His deep brown eyes held my gaze with immoderate affection and I turned away from it. All knew that the Seymour family was the highest, richest, and most powerful family perhaps in the entire realm. Prince Edward, the long-awaited heir to King Henry, was also the son of their sister Jane, the lamented queen who had not lived long enough to enjoy the rewards of her greatest achievement. They flew high and we dared not offend.
“Mistress Juliana is one of our lectors. Her father, Sir Hugh St. John, God rest his soul, was a great benefactor of the church and also ensured that his children were well educated.” Father Gregory turned toward me. “Sir Thomas was an occasional associate and, er, friend, of your father.” He pointed toward the front of the church. “You’d best prepare for this morning’s reading, Mistress Juliana.”
I nodded toward Sir Thomas. “I am greatly pleased to make your acquaintance, Sir Thomas.”
“As am I,” he said, and then bowed toward me, a maiden not yet eighteen, who was well beneath his standing. I gathered my skirts and my courage and made my way to the front, where the chained Great Bible, which had been secured to the altar to forestall its being stolen, was already open.
Once I began to read out the Acts of the Apostles, I quit, for the moment, of my fears and lost myself in the resonant words of Saint Paul and the upturned faces of the crofters, the millers, and the goodwives, breathing heavily in their mean woolen garb. Sir Thomas remained for the reading but left before the townsfolk did. Afterward, Father Gregory called me back to a quiet closet shut off from hungry eyes and thirsty ears.
“And now, Juliana. Unburden yourself.”
I spoke immediately. “You know of my dream.”
He nodded. “I know a little. Would you like to share its entirety?”
“About a year ago, shortly after my father died, I began to have a dream. ’Twas not an ordinary dream, but it was powerful and left me in a sweat and fever with my senses vexed,” I said. “My maid, Lucy, would calm me afterward, though she was frightened too.” I forced my hands from twisting ropes of my fine skirts and continued.
“I saw a barn, a large barn, filled with wheat and livestock of all kinds. And of course the husbandmen and others who tended the flocks and fields. At night, something kindled within the barn and within minutes it was aflame. The livestock and grains were all burnt and the building was too.”
“Yes?” His voice was gentle but prodded me to continue.
“At first I had the dream only once, and then six months later it came back. Then after a month, and then a week. Each time the dream would grow more fervent. The heat peeled my skin like parchment and my ears could not refuse the desperate bleating of the animals and the screams of men. One night, I noticed that the doors to the barn looked exactly like the doors to my father’s warehouses. And then, ’twas pressed upon my heart, For this reason you have been shown the fire. After some nights I knew I must tell my mother. It was not a choice but a compulsion.”
He grimaced, as though swallowing bitter ale. “And she …”
“Disbelieved me at first. But I was insistent. As you know I am wont to be.”
We smiled together at that.
“At some point she said she would approach Sir Matthias about having the warehouses cleaned and sorted and the goods removed to temporary holdings for inventory. She did so. And then I came and told you that was her plan. Within weeks the goods in my father’s warehouses had been moved, and shortly thereafter those warehouses burnt down but the goods were saved.” I met his gaze. “She has had little to say to me since.”
“She had little to say to you before,” Father Gregory pointed out kindly, but bluntly. “The townsfolk said the inventory came at the right time because your blessed father had been a good man and this was our Lord’s way of taking care of his family.” He cleared his throat. “Sir Matthias said what of it?”
“He said nothing at all, which was disturbing. My lady mother has said no more. But lately, I … dreamt. And I know she heard me call out, though my maid sought to wake and still me as soon as she heard my unrest.”
“Is this another of the same kind of dream?”
“Have you told your mother?”
“I have told no one.” My voice made it clear that I would not be forthcoming, even to him, with the contents of this dream. “But she came to my chamber and saw my countenance. After my maid had left us she declared me a witch.” I swallowed roughly. “Is it true? Am I a witch?”
I looked at my hands, not wanting to see his face, nor how he might now view me, afore I heard his answer. I desperately wanted to keep his good opinion of me.
“No,” he said gently. “You are not a witch. Do not let that trouble you again.”
I sighed with relief, perhaps too soon, and looked up as he spoke. “But others could claim that you are one if they hear of your dreams or do not like the content of them. The penalty for witchcraft is death and forfeiture of all material wealth, no matter how highly born. Wait here.” He rose and left the room, his long black clerical robes sweeping the fine dust beneath them whilst I tried to quiet the worries that beset me.
When he returned, he handed me a book. “Tyndale,” I said, tracing my finger over the lettering.
He nodded. “’Twas in the warehouse afore it burnt. Your father was a good, honest man, importing cloth and rugs and tapestries from the Orient and transporting them to England. He also smuggled books.”
I looked agog at Father Gregory, as though he had suddenly started speaking a strange tongue. “My father? A smuggler?”
“Not for earthly profit, mistress; he had plenty of that. And he had friends in high places to protect him.”
My mind went to Thomas Seymour.
Father Gregory nodded toward the book he’d just handed me. “I knew these were hidden in the warehouses, and after you shared your dream with me I had them removed to the church. A new law will soon make them illegal. It will also make it illegal for women to teach or read Scripture publicly.”
I shook my head. “So the king reverses himself again?”
Father Gregory nodded. “Alas, yes. ’Tis never safe to act on what he says today, for that may be heresy tomorrow. I have already distributed the rest of these. A few I’ve held back, and this one seems intended for you.”
He took the book from me and opened it up to the Acts of the Apostles, just a few pages on from that morning’s reading. “It shall be in the last days, saith God: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And on my servants, and on my handmaidens I will pour out my spirit in those days and they shall prophesy.”
We sat there, time marked by a hundred quiet breaths. Then he took the book from me and slipped threads that he pulled from his vestments between various of the pages before handing it back to me.
“My dreams … they are prophecy?” I whispered, suddenly understanding why he’d chosen that passage.
“’Tis your gift.” His drawn face showed me that he knew it to be a heavy burden.
I stood up. “An unsolicited gift! An unwarranted trouble!” I pushed my hair back from my head and when I took my hand away it was wet with the evidence of fear and despair.
“Woe to the pot who tells the potter how she should be fashioned,” he rebuked me.
I sat down again, shamed. “I know it well. I am afraid.”
“God has specially chosen you, and He will be with you, Juliana.”
“And you, too? You will advise me?” I asked.
“I am returning to Ireland. ’Tis not difficult to disappear back into the fens, where we are free to minister as we like, well out of the reach and even the sight of His Majesty, whom I cannot refer to as Defender of the Faith. God loves no false oath. I shall serve the simple people I’ve come from and serve in the manner I long have.”
“What of me?” Cold seeped from the church walls and into my bones, which now felt very like those buried in the plot outside must feel.
“You must take care. There are laws against prophecies, too, if those who are in power or are noble or highborn are not pleased with the predicted outcome. The prophet or prophetess may be thrown into the Tower for such—and worse.”
He took my hand in his own again and I readily yielded it. “God Himself has opened your eyes. Many of the things you foresee shall be difficult and unwelcome, and the temptation will be to remain silent or run away. Some you must act upon in faith but may not learn the reason why during this lifetime. I shall pray for you,” he said gravely, “that you may be able to resist in the evil days that will surely come. And to stand.”
My servant waited for me outside of St. Peter’s, horses ready to transport us to Sir Matthias’s home to sup. Our estate was at one end of the town, and Sir Matthias, who had been my father’s business partner, lived at the other. On the way I grieved over the forthcoming departure of Father Gregory, who had been a comfort and guide to me
all of my life. I then ruminated in fear over my gift. When shall it next appear? To whom will I be compelled to speak, and of what? I’d drawn near to our Lord as I’d read from the Great Bible and had felt that naught could come between Him and me. Now I rather shamefully felt as if, given the right circumstance, I could easily imitate Saint Peter and deny Him thrice if it meant saving my life.
I urged my horse on, as I did not want Matthias’s family to delay the meal on my behalf. Lady Hurworth was always quick to find fault with me, though why she was I knew not, as I was always overly solicitous to her. I suspected she took her cues from my mother.
I urged my horse through the town, trying to ignore the stench and slick and muck, the smooth bits of bladder and spleen that had spilled into the roadway outside of the butcher’s as we passed. Children and adults alike stood aside as we rode through. “Godspeed, mistress,” they called out. We were not lords, but my father had been knighted and gentrified, and in our town that counted for much. His business employed many folk and they then had a bit more coin to spend on better bread and cloth because of his generosity. I smiled with true affection at those who caught my eye, knowing their goodwill was not based only on position but upon genuine fondness.
We arrived at Hungerford House, and while the horses were stabled I made my way up the set of smoothly polished stone steps toward the doors. My father had been the merchant traveler, sailing to foreign lands to barter for and buy tapestries, rugs, and other Eastern treasures coveted in the West. Sir Matthias had stayed in England and taken care of financial matters. As the great wooden doors opened up toward a grand and fine hall, paneled with oak and floored with marble, I wondered not for
the first time if the accounts had been balanced in Sir Matthias’s favor.
“Juliana.” Sir Matthias’s son, also named Matthias, came into the hall to greet me. He was a fine man, soft as a cushion, but mostly kindly. He took my hand and placed it in the crook of his arm before leading me into the dining chamber. “You look lovely,” he said. “As you always do.”
I ducked my head to hide a grin as a picture came, unbidden, from a story my father had told me before his untimely death. The franklin, a good man who ate well and constantly, was a lavish host who berated his cooks if the sauces were not fine enough or the fowl not fat enough. This franklin was a rich landowner who was well thought of in his town but had little desire to venture beyond it. Perhaps this franklin had been named Matthias?
“You are amused?” Matthias asked with a smile, but behind the smile, a sheathed demand that an answer should be forthcoming.
“Nay,” I said. “I am glad of your company.” Which was partially true. I took his arm and smiled sweetly, which allowed me to conceal my amusement and please him at the same time.
That appeased him and we sat at a table laden with everything that the franklin could have imagined and some foodstuffs I was certain he could not, like eels baked in pies and custard dishes spiced four or five ways. We then discussed the town.
“Sir Thomas Seymour is in Marlborough,” I stated. “He was at church this morning whilst I read as lector.”
All set down their knives. Matthias looked at me disapprovingly and his father cleared his throat before glaring. I sighed deeply. I should have waited for Sir Matthias to bring up important news, after which I could comment approvingly.
Matthias grunted and threw another greasy bone under the
table upon one of the fine carpets my father had conveyed back from Constantinople. “’Tis not proper for a woman to read aloud in church.”
“Father Gregory told me that the king will be changing the law soon. Mayhap next time Parliament sits. Women will no longer be allowed to lector nor teach Scripture even to their servants.”
“Good King Harry.” Sir Matthias tucked some partridge roasted with herbs into his mouth. “That is how it should have been all along.” He was either unaware that he had reprimanded me or had meant to. Young Matthias said nothing, but sat with a self-satisfied smile. He had oft voiced to me that he did not like my reading, or overeducating my mind, or speaking it. Poor qualities in a mother, he’d said. Mother of his children, he’d meant, though we’d never spoken of it, but that had softened me some because I loved children. My own mother would like as not begin negotiations soon, as Sir Matthias was now aware of the great dowry my father had left for me. My father had wanted different for me and had resisted that arrangement whilst he lived, but there were no other matches of consequence in our town and my mother rarely ventured out from Marlborough.
“Sir Thomas has already been to see me to check on our mutual accounts,” Sir Matthias said with a superior look in my direction. “We established some business together this year with his shipping interests now that, well …”
Now that my father was dead, he meant. I lost my hunger. I’d not yet recovered completely from the loss.
Lady Martha stopped chewing and spoke up with unexpected and unnerving news. “I too knew that Sir Thomas was about. Your lady mother sent a servant earlier, for fruit, which she knows my confectioner prepares to perfection. She will be entertaining
Sir Thomas and his retinue at Brighton Manor tonight upon his request.”
“Here, then, mistress. Some of the kohl tha’ your father had brought back from the far lands,” Lucy said, and brought to me a stick of kohl from a cupboard on the far side of my chamber.
I took it and then edged the tiniest amount of it round the frame of my eyes and at the base of my lashes. I had not worn kohl before, being young, and also because I knew Matthias would not approve. In any case, we rarely entertained.
Lucy helped me into a gown of deep green that set off my dark hair and eyes. She laced up the back and helped me into my slippers afore assisting with my hair. She had not been trained to be a lady maid but she had learned as I’d grown; her own mother had served my mother for many years—and my mother’s standards were exacting. At the last minute, Lucy fastened a small gold bracelet with an emerald around my wrist. It had been a New Year’s gift the year before my father died.
“You look beautiful,” Lucy said.
I grinned at her faithfulness in spite of the fact that my mother had made it very clear that I was nothing special to look upon. “I shall not have a maid who speaks untruths. Even one who is well regarded.”
She grinned with me, curtseyed, and left my chambers. A few minutes later I arrived at the sitting hall that was ablaze with beeswax candles—no stench of tallow in this household. My younger brother, Hugh, sat, uneasy in his finery, in an overstuffed chair covered with damask, driving his boots into the floor to avoid slipping off of it. “I’d rather be jousting or hunting or even cleaning
stables,” he muttered. “Rather than be sitting here trussed up like a partridge.” A beard of the finest blond hairs was beginning to poke through his cleft chin, which was losing its padding.
“What are those?” I asked, gently running my finger along his chin.
“Those are my beard! Have you not seen a beard before, mistress?” he blustered.
“I have indeed, young sir, but not upon your face.” I squeezed his shoulders and he warmed beneath my touch. Our mother was not given to physical affection, though Hugh and I had both thirsted for it since our father’s demise.
“I’m sure we can arrange for some stable cleaning,” I teased. “If that’s your pleasure.” We continued talking for a moment and then walked over to where my mother stood conversing with Sir Thomas and several of his men. I was shocked to find her face in high pink and her manner almost flirtatious. “Sir Thomas, my daughter, Juliana,” she said. She looked worried. Had my mother finally found someone who daunted even her?
“We are acquainted.” Sir Thomas took my hand in his again and explained to all how he’d listened to me read in church that morning. He introduced me to the other courtiers around him, all finely garbed, and I had the opportunity to show, by my manners, my learning, and my use of language, that my mother had brought me up well. One or two gazed upon me admiringly and that pleased my mother not at all, but it made me feel young and desirable and hopeful for the first time in many years. Within a few minutes the musicians stopped playing and my mother’s chamberlain led us into the dining hall.
After a fine meal of roast chicken with honey and almonds, several of Sir Thomas’s retinue begged their leave, and we four—my
mother; Sir Thomas; my brother, Hugh; and myself—were left at table. I kept waiting for my mother to dismiss my brother and me but she did not. And then, Sir Thomas made an announcement.
“Mistress Juliana,” he said, looking at me. “I have a proposal for Lady Frances’s consideration.”
I felt a flush up the back of my neck and my mother looked alarmingly from Sir Thomas to me and back again. ’Twas clear she had not anticipated this.
“Indeed, Sir Thomas?” I asked demurely.
“My friend Lord Latimer’s lady, Kateryn Parr, is a fine woman who loves reading, and Scripture, and cultivating young women of good birth in her household. It is seemly for every maiden to spend some time in a good household, besides her own, of course, to further her education and polish.”
I could sense that my mother was about to object when he said, “You were a companion to my sister Jane, were you not, Lady Frances?”
“I was indeed,” my mother admitted. “Afore I married Sir Hugh.” There were familiar shards in the tone of her voice at his rebuke, so I did not voice my incredulity that my mother had once known a queen. The servants, recognizing her tone, too, melted into the background. “But, Sir Thomas, it had been my husband’s understanding that you were going to take our son, Hugh, and place him with a household, so that he may learn better the ways of the world. And make connections that will help him when he assumes his father’s business.”
“All in good time, lady,” Sir Thomas said. “He is young.” I looked at Hugh, who seemed crestfallen that he would not be leaving Marlborough immediately. “After hearing Mistress Juliana read today, I knew that Lady Latimer would immediately take her to
heart and it is now my wish to see her placed there. Unless you object?”
His voice was a challenge and the room grew quiet. I thought it bold that Sir Thomas could speak so confidently about placing me in another man’s household and wondered exactly what his ties were with Lord and Lady Latimer.
My mother did not answer directly. She preferred Hugh above all others, and I suspected she was unwilling to let him leave yet anyway.
“Not at all … if Juliana wishes it,” my mother said, forfeiting.
“Good!” Sir Thomas grew jovial again. “I have reason to believe that soon enough there will be a place for Master Hugh in one or another fine household. And now, young Hugh, whilst I get my horses from your stable, shall I teach you a sea song that we sailors sing when no ladies are present?”
Hugh broke out in delighted laughter and Sir Thomas thanked my mother profusely for her hospitality.
I had noticed something alarming about Sir Thomas, though, and I knew I had to ask my mother one question before I could consider Sir Thomas’s offer. I knocked gently on her chamber door.
“Yes?” she called out as she sat at her dressing table while Lucy’s mother unwound my mother’s hair. I went in and stood next to her.
“If I leave with Sir Thomas, will I be safe? I mean, is he safe? With me?”
My mother barked out a laugh. “Even Sir Thomas would not stoop that low,” she said, waving me away with nary a glance in my direction. “He has the pick of the realm.”
“Thank you, lady,” I said as I withdrew, crushed, but keeping a steady look upon my face so she wouldn’t realize my pain, if she looked up to glance at me, that was. If I hadn’t suspected already that she found me unlovely, I knew it now.
Late that night, I visited Hugh in his chamber. “Will you go to London with Sir Thomas?” he asked.
“Yes I will. I will miss you greatly, Hugh, and home. Truth be told, I am a bit afraid of what I may find in London, especially as I shall be alone but for Lucy in a household that is mighty and grand and well beyond what we’ve ever experienced.” I thought back upon my vision, and the timing of my discussion with Father Gregory, who had urged me to be faithful to my gift, and Sir Thomas’s appearance in Marlborough. “But I believe that going is the right thing to do.” I smoothed the coverlet at the foot of his bed. “And so I must.”
“Sir Thomas liked our wolfhounds,” Hugh said approvingly. Then he asked, “Will you come back to marry Matthias? You do not wish it, do you?”
“Nay,” I said, my heart and voice resigned. “But I believe that is what our lady mother wants and therefore that is what I shall do. But there is time.” Time for our Lord to fulfill this prophecy and bring no more, I thought hopefully.
“I shall miss you,” Hugh said. “We’ve not ever been apart.”
“God forbid that we be apart for long,” I quietly replied. Hugh was all I had. “Shall I tell you about the knight Saint George?” He was really too old for such fooleries. But he nodded and I began to recount a story our father had oft told us when we were children because it comforted us both, then and now.
“Now this knight was heroic, and chivalrous; he lived by truth
and honor and justice, having won great esteem in his lord’s wars, and was well liked in both Christian and heathen lands,” I began.
“Like our father,” Hugh said sleepily, half-man, half-boy. I agreed and continued the story.
Later, I returned to my chambers in darkness, after Lucy had also retired to her own room nearby. I lay in bed stark awake. It was not in fear of another dream but of something yet more dreadful in the present reality, the knowledge of which I wrestled with.
At dinner I had noted, with apprehension, that Sir Thomas wore a gold and black onyx signet ring on his left small finger. He was, without a doubt, the man with the dagger, slashing the maiden’s black dress, in my prophetic dream.