A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  My maid comes and unlaces my gown. It is damp with sweat and dusty.

  “That’ll need sponging, my lady,” she decrees, hanging it up on a peg. Then, as I stand there at the mirror in my petticoat, dabbing my armpits with rosewater, I catch her reflection: she is looking at my skirts.

  “I see your courses have come, my lady,” she says. “I’ll fetch some cloths for you.”

  When she has disappeared into the inner closet, I sit down and reprimand myself. What if Harry and I had gone so far …? In the heat of the moment, I had not given a thought to the possible consequences.

  But I must think of them. What if I had proved with child? Of course, I should be delighted to have a child, but it would plunge us both into awful trouble. I should have been more prudent; I should have stopped Harry from getting carried away; and yet I cannot but regret that we did not love each other properly. I understand now why men and women risk much for passion, and why they get into terrible tangles simply for a few brief, ecstatic moments of it. But that matter is not the only cause of my disquiet. The chilling memory of what I saw on those stairs still disturbs me. There is something that escapes me about the matter, some connection to be made.

  Elegantly garbed and bejeweled, I make my way to the great parlor, where supper is to be served, and stand behind my chair as the family gathers and grace is said. I dare not meet Harry’s eyes for fear of blushing and giving myself away, and yet I can feel his admiring gaze upon me.

  We sit down. The earl lays his napkin over his shoulder, carves some meat from the serving platter and serves us, then breaks his bread. “I hear you two young people were exploring the York wing today,” he says. Clearly Sanders has made his report.

  “Katherine wanted to see it,” Harry replies easily. “We enjoyed looking at the old pictures, didn’t we, sweetheart?”

  “Never go there myself,” says Pembroke. “One day I hope to refurbish or rebuild it, but I have extended my credit on this side of the house. I hear there was a little upset.” He looks at me inquiringly.

  “I thought I saw a shadow on the stairs,” I say, embarrassed in case they think me a fool. “It was a trick of the light or the eye, I’m sure, but it did give me a fright.”

  “We went to investigate,” said Harry, “but there was no one up in the turret room. The only thing we saw was an old chest. There was no intruder hiding in it!”

  “They would have found it difficult, for that chest contains all the old records and papers from Raglan,” his father commented. “I had it stored up there, out of the way. Anyway, my dear, I trust you are over your fright now.”

  “Yes, sir, I thank you,” I say.

  “You may have heard of Raglan Castle, Katherine,” the earl continues, signaling to the servants to fill the goblets. “It is—or was—our ancient family seat on the Welsh Marches. It was the greatest fortress of its time, and my grandfather, the first earl, built it.”

  “It’s a mighty castle still,” Harry says. “If only we still owned it!”

  “What happened?” I ask, hoping I am not being too forward in asking.

  “My grandfather, whom men called Black William, was a staunch Yorkist,” the earl explained. “He was created Earl of Pembroke by Edward IV, and given custody of the little boy who would one day grow up to be King Henry VII. He brought him up at Raglan Castle. But during the wars between York and Lancaster, my grandfather was defeated while fighting for the King at the Battle of Edgecote, and beheaded.”

  “I’m very sorry to hear that, my lord,” I say, looking, I hope, suitably mournful.

  “Oh, you must not fret, my dear,” the earl says kindly. “It happened more than eighty years ago. I never knew him, and my own father died when I was four. Ancient history, as they say.”

  “Black William’s son married twice, but left only a daughter, Elizabeth,” the countess chimes in. “When she married the Earl of Worcester, Raglan Castle formed part of her inheritance; and so it went out of the family.”

  “But why didn’t it pass to you, my lord, as the heir?” I ask, puzzled.

  The earl chuckles. “Because I was not the heir then. I wasn’t even born. Truth to tell, my dear, my grandfather left several bastard sons, and my father was one of them. I had to make my own way in the world. It’s good service to your monarch that does that—and being a stout fighting man. I prospered under King Harry, and his son made me Earl of Pembroke, not two years since. As I was saying, my dear, that chest of papers came from Raglan Castle. I should go through it one day; one’s family history is always fascinating.”

  In my lonely bed I dream vividly of the girl in the picture, and in my dream she is beckoning me, giving me that intense, appealing look again, yet this time her face is shadowed by sadness. Even in the dream I have that sense of recognition, as if I know her from somewhere. But I can never have seen her before.

  After sleeping only fitfully through the night, I am resolved. I dare not venture up there alone, but I ask Harry to accompany me to that turret room and open the chest—and he agrees. This time there will be no snatched moments, for Sanders insists on accompanying us. No doubt he told the earl how we gave him the slip yesterday.

  I approach the dark passageway with trepidation, scarcely daring to look ahead of me at the wall of the stairwell, and reminding myself that I have two strong men with me. But today there is nothing there. We mount the stairs, and then Harry and I sink to our knees by the chest, while Sanders perches on the top stair, balancing an account book on his knees, seemingly absorbed in checking his columns of figures.

  Harry snatches a kiss behind his back, runs his fingers up my arm, and allows them to stray for a moment to my breast, then grins mischievously at me as he unlocks the chest. The old lid creaks as he raises it, and the dry, musty smell of long-forgotten documents is released. There are piles and bundles of them to be gone through: deeds, grants, warrants, formal letters, a treatise on hunting (“I’ll keep that,” Harry says), a crumbling missal with faded pages, broken seals, a long scroll bearing a family tree, plans of Raglan Castle on brittle parchment, a tattered heraldic banner, a marriage contract bearing the date 1484, and a thick bundle of yellowing papers tied up with frayed satin ribbon. We spend ages sorting everything, but it soon becomes clear that the chest’s contents are very old and mostly of little interest. There is nothing recent here, nothing that could possibly concern me. Nothing for which some supernatural entity might beckon me up the stairs. I must have imagined it.

  But wait a minute!

  “Let me see that marriage contract,” I say, and Harry passes it to me. “It was dated 1484?”

  “Yes, sweetheart.”

  “The same date as the portrait downstairs, the one of the girl in blue. I wonder if this is her marriage contract.” I read the tortuous legal script. “ ‘William Herbert, Earl of Huntingdon, covenants with King Richard III to take the King’s daughter, Dame Katherine Plantagenet, to wife before Michaelmas of that year.’ There is more, about the marriage settlement. Harry, it must be her, the girl in the picture! That could be her marriage portrait.”

  “It’s possible, my love, but we can’t know for certain.”

  “She is richly dressed, and that pendant must have been costly—fit for a king’s daughter. I think it’s her.”

  “Well, it may be …”

  “She was your ancestress.”

  “I don’t think so. My father is the Earl of Huntingdon’s nephew. Huntingdon left only a daughter. I’m sure my father would be delighted to tell you more of the family history if you ask him. He’s inordinately proud of it.”

  We are nearly finished now. Harry is poring over the family tree, absorbed in the lineage of his ancestors, so I carefully untie the rotten ribbon and begin looking at the yellowing papers, which are all written in the same faint hand. They are very thin and very fragile, and prone to tearing along the creases.

  “Look at this!” Harry says suddenly. He is dangling something bright and shiny, a diamond-shaped
pendant on a chain. Old-fashioned as it is, it is of gold, and cunningly wrought. A great sapphire winks as he rubs the jewel on his sleeve.

  “I recognize it!” I cry. “It’s the pendant the girl is wearing—the girl in the portrait. The very same.”

  “Really?” And before I can say anything, Harry leaps up and bounds down the stairs. “Yes, you’re right, my sweetheart,” he says as he returns, a little breathless. “It is the same pendant.”

  Now that I know it was hers, I want it for my own. I cannot explain why I am drawn to the girl in the portrait, but I know I felt that sense of recognition when I saw her likeness. And she came to me in my dream, smiling sadly, pleadingly … as if she wanted something of me. Can she be haunting me? That shadow beckoning on the stairs—was it her? Might she have been guiding me to the chest, to the pendant … maybe she wants me to have it. After all, I am another young Herbert wife like her, and so she thinks it should be rightfully mine. Maybe she loved her husband as much as I love Harry …

  Harry leans forward and clasps the pendant around my neck. “There, it suits you!”

  Then suddenly, inexplicably, I am filled with a sense of despair so powerful that I feel I might faint. I rip off the pendant, fearing it must be bewitched.

  “I cannot wear this, Harry,” I gabble. “It—It would be seen as Papist idolatry, with those images. My parents would have a fit! As for Jane—she would never speak to me again. But it is lovely.” And it is too, lying there in my palm, as innocent-looking as anything. As soon as I took it off, the feeling of despair dissipated, and now it is hard to believe I did not imagine it.

  “I suppose my parents would disapprove of it too,” he concurs, “even though it was made long ago. You may keep it all the same.”

  Reluctantly, I put the pendant in my pocket. But I am deeply troubled by the effect it had on me. That beckoning hand, my strange affinity with the girl in blue, the dream, and that dreadful feeling of despair … What could they all mean? Are they somehow connected? Or am I just imagining things?

  Resolutely, I turn back to the papers.

  The old-fashioned script is hard to read, and although I persevere, it is not easy to decipher the words. But suddenly it becomes clear that these are no mere letters, as I read something that strikes a strange chill into me, even on this beautiful sunny morning. And now it occurs to me that I was beckoned into the tower chamber to find much more than a pendant.

  KATE

  June 13, 1483; Tower of London

  and Crosby Hall, London

  The guards at the entrance gateway to the Tower whistled appreciatively at the two girls. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening; in fact, the place was quiet. Kate approached one of the sentries.

  “My father is the Duke of Gloucester,” she told him, as he eyed her skeptically. “Is he within?”

  “And my father’s the King of England!” the man retorted.

  “Very well, I shall wait over there until the duke comes, and then you shall believe me,” Kate said with dignity.

  “Show him the pendant,” Mattie whispered.

  Kate drew the package from her velvet purse and unwrapped it. The large sapphire glinted in the sunlight. “Now do you believe me?” she challenged.

  The man was dumbfounded. “I crave your pardon, lady. We get all sorts of nutters here. Yes, the duke is in council in Caesar’s Tower—the big white keep yonder. I was on duty when he arrived. He came out for an hour or so, with his henchmen—but then he returned. He didn’t look too happy.”

  “Oh, no!” Kate said. Something was amiss, as she had feared.

  “Go on in, my lady. The public are allowed into the Tower. We’re just here to keep out troublemakers.”

  The sentry waved the girls through the gateway, and they found themselves in the outer bailey, walking past the great barred water gate where the Thames lapped at the steps. Mattie knew her way around the Tower well.

  “I’ve been here before, my lady,” she revealed. “My uncle brought me to see the lions and other beasts in the menagerie; he’s one of the warders here. We’ve had supper at his house a few times.”

  To their left was one of the inner towers, a tall, ancient edifice. Kate looked up at it and glimpsed a face staring through one of the upper windows. It was the face of a young woman. The window was barred.

  “There’s someone up there,” she said to Mattie. “Is she a prisoner?”

  “I can’t see anyone,” Mattie said. Kate was puzzled. The girl was still there. But Mattie was walking on, leading her through an archway, then along a narrow passageway. In front of them was a massive gateway, next to what was obviously Caesar’s Tower, built of white stone; to the right was a high wall with buildings behind it.

  “That’s the royal palace,” Mattie said. “We’re not allowed to go in there. That big gatehouse ahead—that’s the entrance, the Coldharbour Gate.”

  “The King is in there somewhere,” Kate said. Poor boy, she thought, spending his days in regal isolation, surrounded by a court of adults, and required not only to do his lessons but also to learn about the heavy business of governing his subjects. He was expected to attend council meetings, her father had told her, but had been excused of late because he was suffering from some malady of the jaw that his physician could not alleviate.

  Things would be better for him when he had his brother for company. Her father’s determination to bring the Duke of York here was a wise resolve, and showed how much he had his nephews’ welfare at heart.

  Kate and Mattie emerged from the passageway onto Tower Green, a wide-open grassy space in the Tower’s inner bailey. Great towers and wall walks surrounded it, and leafy trees shaded the enclosure. Mattie pointed out the Lieutenant’s Lodging, a fine house on the left, and the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula ahead, where the Tower garrison worshipped. Beyond that was a broad arena where, Kate learned, tournaments were sometimes held.

  There were few people about. Some men-at-arms were sitting dicing on a bench. A couple of their fellows stood guard nearby at the Coldharbour Gate. On Tower Green, in front of the chapel, some workmen were sawing wood. There was no one else in sight, although Kate could hear horses neighing and snorting nearby.

  Then suddenly there were shouts from the other side of the Coldharbour Gate.

  “Make way for my Lord Hastings!”

  The sentries looked at each other, shrugged, and opened the gate. Immediately, a small band of angry men burst through it. One, an official in a black gown with a rod of office, was dragging a well-dressed nobleman who was putting up some spirited resistance, although his face was twisted in what looked like terror. Behind followed a furious priest.

  “In the name of God, stop!” he was bellowing. “This is outrageous! You have allowed this poor wretch no time for any long confession or any space for remembering his sins.”

  “Spare me! Oh, my God, spare me!” the nobleman was pleading.

  Kate did not wait to hear more. She grabbed Mattie by the hand and ran back to the passage, where they could hide behind the wall. She prayed no one had noticed them.

  They stood there for a moment, looking at each other helplessly.

  “What’s happening?” Mattie cried. “What are they going to do to that poor man?”

  “Shhhh! I don’t know,” Kate whispered. “I wonder which one is Lord Hastings. Surely he will not allow anything bad to happen.”

  “Where have you been all these years?” Mattie hissed. “That poor nobleman is Lord Hastings!”

  “Oh, sweet Holy Mother,” Kate breathed. “I think they are going to kill him. Oh, what can we do?”

  Gathering every ounce of her courage, she peered around the wall. The men were now on Tower Green, in front of the chapel. They had set up a stock of wood from the astonished workmen’s pile and were forcing Lord Hastings to his knees in front of it. He was praying aloud, and although she could not hear what he was saying, she could detect the desperation in his voice. His tormentors were arguing, and
a man-at-arms was waving his hands and protesting angrily about something. Then another was summoned, one of the soldiers from the bench. A man in a rich gown turned and she suddenly recognized the Duke of Buckingham, who seemed to be in charge; he barked an order and the second man-at-arms drew his sword. At this, Hastings’s prayers grew frantic. The furious priest was on his knees beside him.

  Kate drew back behind the shelter of the wall, shuddering. It was horrifyingly clear what was to happen next, and she shrank from witnessing it. Behind her, Mattie was sobbing silently, hugging herself in distress, and Kate put her arms around her, as much to comfort herself as Mattie, wondering how people could treat an execution as a public spectacle, a holiday even, as it seemed they did in this alien city—and no doubt elsewhere.

  There was a sickening thud, then a short silence, broken by Buckingham’s hoarse shout: “Behold the head of a traitor!” This was greeted by desultory cheers, and sounds that the gathering was breaking up.

  “They might come this way and see us!” Mattie whispered, quivering. Kate feared she might be right, and guessed that those wicked men would not have wanted witnesses to their dreadful deed. There had been something furtive and underhanded about it. What had the priest said? That poor Lord Hastings had been allowed no time to make a proper confession. The cleric had been indignant, and rightly so.

  But how had this happened—and why? These questions struck her as she grabbed Mattie’s hand and hurried back with her through the winding passage. There was no one about but the sentries on the gate. The two girls fled past them, ignoring their cheery farewells.

  “Don’t bother to say good-bye!” one sentry called after them.

  Why? Kate kept asking herself as she half ran through the streets of London, and then again as she hastened up the stone stairs to the door of Crosby Hall, where she dismissed Mattie and went alone to her chamber. Why? It was a question she could not, would not, pose to her faithful maid, because it concerned her father.

 
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