A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

  At the sight of Agnes, come to claim her new charge, the ranks of serving women and noble ladies parted, and the midwife straightened.

  “A boy,” she announced. “Poor lady, she has had a terrible time of it, but she’s sleeping now.” The duchess could be glimpsed, a pale-faced figure lying in her great curtained bed, through the open door. Kate was relieved to see her there, and mightily intrigued as to the contents of the fine oak cradle beside her. Two rockers were gently tilting it, crooning to what lay within.

  “Is all well with Her Grace?” the nurse asked.

  The midwife hesitated. “The child is small, but he will grow. I’ve sent for the wet nurse.” There was a pause, while her eyes met those of Agnes. “The doctors say the duchess will recover, but there will be no more children, so thank God it’s a son and heir for the duke.”

  “Has the duke been sent for?” Agnes asked.

  “Been and gone. He could see the duchess was exhausted, so he said he wouldn’t tire her.”

  “How did he take it—about there being no more children?”

  “I don’t know. The doctors went into the great chamber with him. They spoke in private.”

  “Well, we must give thanks that my lord and lady have a son,” Agnes said resolutely. “Shall we go and take a peep at him, Kate? John can come too.”

  The duchess slept on as they gazed on the tiny mite in the cradle. He was so little and looked so fragile.

  “He favors his mother,” said Agnes uneasily; she could think of nothing else to say. If this little scrap lived, she would be surprised.

  “He’s so sweet,” Kate observed. “Can I rock him?” One of the young rockers moved aside to make room for her. Kate found it hard to imagine that this weakly mewling infant would grow up to be a great lord like her father. She did not voice her new fear that this trueborn child would displace her in her father’s affections, and that the Duchess Anne, for all her kindness, would cleave to her own blood far more closely than she had to the baseborn children she had adopted.

  But soon Kate would find that her fears proved groundless. Anne loved her son with all her heart, and he was her favorite, of course, but neither Kate nor John would ever have guessed it, so fairly and lovingly did she treat all three of them. And it was the same with Duke Richard: proud as he was of his legitimate heir, he was equally affectionate to his natural children, and had grand ambitions for them all.

  Edward of Middleham did live. He survived all the perils of early childhood, grew stronger, and thrived—although he would never be the most robust of children. He had even been created an earl by his uncle, King Edward: he was now my lord the Earl of Salisbury, and proudly bore the title that had belonged to his mighty Neville forebears. One day, with God’s good grace, he would be Duke of Gloucester, like his father before him. But not yet, not for a long, long time, Kate prayed.

  For all his exalted rank, young Edward was a boy like any other, and grew up to worship his older half sister and brother. He tried to emulate them in all they did, and learned quickly so as to keep up with them. The three children could often be seen building castles out of toy bricks, or playing make-believe games of knights and dragons, in which Kate was always the princess in distress, John was always St. George, and Edward insisted on being the dragon, ranting around and pretending to breathe fire. Fine weather found them running wild in the gentle dales around Middleham, with their attendants lazing on the grass in the distance. Kate and John always kept a protective watch on Edward, for while he was lively and full of mischief, he tired more easily than they did, and was younger and much smaller in build.

  Life was good. From his great castle of Middleham, their father ruled the whole of the North, almost like another king. He kept great state in his household, a lavish table, and a vast train of retainers who wore his badge of the white boar. His family resided in luxurious apartments, furnished with the best that money could buy, and everything was carved and gilded by master craftsmen, or draped and hung with the costliest fabrics.

  The best tutors were appointed to teach the children; the duke even insisted that Kate be taught lessons with the boys, saying a well-born girl should know how to read and write. Those skills would bring her pleasure, he promised, and gave her the run of his library, where she spent happy hours poring over exquisite illuminated manuscripts and some of the new printed books made by Master Caxton on his recently established press at Westminster.

  She would also, Richard added, find that a good education would help her in other ways.

  “One day,” he said to her, when she was ten, “you will be the mistress of a great household, for I intend to find a wealthy husband for you.” He had said this before, and meant well, but Kate hated to hear him talking about her marriage, because marrying would mean leaving her home, her close kin, and all she held dear, and perhaps living very far away. Her fear was all the greater because the years were passing by and she was well aware that girls of her rank were often married off at fourteen or fifteen, or even younger. But she never said anything for she knew that her father only wanted the best for her. He had often told her that too.

  This time, though, he said more. It was growing late; the duchess and the two boys had retired to bed, and Kate was just about to follow them, wishing that the duke had not brought up the subject of her marriage. But he stayed her, and bade her sit opposite him by the hearth, in the duchess’s chair.

  “There is something I must tell you, my Kate,” he said, his strong, lean face with its prominent nose and chin looking slightly tense. “You are old enough now. You must never doubt my love for you, child; you know I would do anything for you. But the truth is … that you were born out of wedlock. You are aware of this, I know: I charged Agnes to tell you as soon as you were of an age to understand.”

  “Yes, sir.” She was amazed that he should speak to her of this. In the four years she had known she was baseborn, she had never dared mention it, for she knew that such matters were unseemly, and she could never have summoned up the words to voice her questions to her father. In fact, she had never voiced them to anyone. She feared to upset the duchess, and had no wish to draw attention to the divide between her and John and their half brother Edward. It was enough to know that she had been lucky, for to be baseborn was not a desirable state; and there was a worse word for it too—she had overheard the waspish Cecily saying it behind her back: bastard, little bastard. That had hurt. Fortunately, Cecily had since married and moved away, and was no longer there to torment her.

  “I did not love your mother,” her father said, “and she did not love me, but she was very beautiful, just like you.”

  Kate did not like to meet his furrowed gaze—it did not seem fitting—so she stared at the crackling flames instead. The duke, taking quick sips of his wine, continued his tale.

  “I was her knight, paying my addresses to my chosen lady. But my chosen lady was married, and matters went too far. She told me she was with child. She had to tell her husband too, and he forbade her ever to see me again. Give him his due; he arranged for her to go away to a nunnery to be delivered, and although he forgave her, he would not bring up another man’s child as his own, and so you came to me, as was only meet. I had done a dishonorable thing, but I did all I could to remedy it. I paid for your mother to stay at the priory, I arranged for you to go to a wet nurse, and then I brought you here. And I have been rewarded a thousandfold.” His visage creased into one of his rare smiles. “I can only excuse myself by saying that I was young and ardent, and that I forgot myself and my knightly oath.”

  “What was my mother’s name, sir?” Kate ventured.

  “Katherine. You are named for her.” And then he told her all he thought she needed to know about her mother: the few bare facts of her name, her station in life, and where she lived. He did not tell Kate what she burned to know. Did Katherine Haute think often of the daughter she had been forced to relinquish? Had it torn her apart to give her child away, or had her shame made he
r anxious to get rid of it? Had she ever felt love for her baby? Did she wonder what Kate was doing, and if she thought about the woman who had brought her into the world?

  “What did she look like, my mother?” Kate asked, thinking this a safe question.

  “She was brown-haired like you,” her father said, “with blue eyes and a pretty mouth. She dressed well, as I remember. But in truth, Kate, I knew her for such a short time that my memory of her has faded. Suffice it to say she was a charming lady with a ready laugh and high spirits. And she was quick-witted, I remember. In fact, she was much like you.”

  Kate could not help herself. “Will I ever meet her?” she implored. “I would love to know her, even just a little.”

  The duke shifted in his chair and frowned. “No, Kate. I fear it is out of the question. I gave my word that I would never try to see her again. I did it for the sake of her marriage and her future happiness. I cannot go back on it. I am sorry.”

  “No matter,” she mumbled. And in a way, when she thought about it in bed that night, it didn’t matter, not too much. She was loved. She had a father, and to all good purposes a mother, and two brothers. Her real mother was a stranger. With sudden grown-up insight, she realized that Mistress Haute might not wish to be confronted with the living evidence of her sin, and that it might have disastrous consequences for her, given that her husband sounded a stern, vengeful man. And Kate was bound to honor her father’s promise, as he did. So she tried very much to lay her inner yearnings aside and forget about her mother. But that did not stop her from wondering about her, and spinning fantasies about meeting her unexpectedly, or Katherine sending for her, or even secretly contriving to see her.

  Being bastards both, John and Kate shared a common bond. When she judged him old enough, they would whisper together about their mothers, and speculate about them. John was an easygoing, unimaginative boy, though, and did not display the same lively curiosity as Kate did—and maybe it was just as well. For John was the fruit of adultery: he had been born not two years after their father’s marriage. No one had ever spoken openly of this, and Kate sensed that it would not be wise to inquire about his mother. She thought it showed exceptional kindness on the part of the duchess to have taken him in and cared for him as tenderly as she did, for the news of his birth must have caused her great pain, and he was a constant living reminder of her lord’s infidelity.

  And yet, Anne loved the duke. That was as plain as day to anyone. They seemed as happy as any noble couple should be, with their shared interests and their great wealth, much of which had come to the duke by their marriage. He showed his wife every respect and courtesy; he deferred to her wishes; he looked to her comfort. In fact, he did all the things you might expect a good husband to do. But did he love Anne? As Kate grew older, she began to wonder.

  She had overheard the damsels whispering one night in the maidens’ dorter, which she shared with them after she became too old to sleep in the same chamber as the boys. They must have thought she had fallen into slumber, and in truth she nearly had, but what she heard made her prick up her ears.

  “My aunt at court says it is no true marriage.” That was Joan Tankerville, recently returned from visiting her kinsfolk near London.

  “Really?” Thomasine Vaux sounded shocked.

  “It’s no secret, apparently. The duke did not seek a dispensation. They are close cousins, you know, and they should have had one before they wed.”

  The duke? Kate was bewildered. Were they talking about the duke her father?

  “But why did he not get one?”

  “Aunt Lucy said it was in case she bore him no heir, then he could get an annulment and marry someone else.”

  “But she brought him great lands, which he would stand to lose if he divorced her.”

  “Great lords like Gloucester don’t easily let go of what is in their grasp. He would find a way, make no mistake about it! Force her into a nunnery probably, or shut her up, like he did her mother.”

  “What did you say?” Thomasine nearly squealed.

  “The old Countess of Warwick. My aunt said he seized all her lands and lured her out of sanctuary at Beaulieu. Then he had her brought here, and locked her up in a tower. He had Parliament pass an Act declaring her legally dead, so that he could keep her lands.”

  Kate was outraged. How dare they speak of her father so! She reared up in her bed and took pleasure in seeing their faces aghast in the candlelight.

  “If I reported you, you could be whipped for what you have just said, or worse!” she warned, her voice icy. “The duke my father loves his wife. I should know, and I will hear no more! And my grandmother is not locked up: she wanders in her mind, and is cared for by a servant, and she goes out sometimes. So get your facts right before you spread evil gossip! Now can we get some sleep?” And with these words, she turned over and presented her back to them.

  Yes, her father loved his wife. Of course he did. She had been wrong to doubt it. And all this talk of dispensations was nonsense, for the duchess had borne him an heir, and even if she hadn’t, it would surely never have occurred to him to put her away.

  But how could she really know the truth of it? Kate wondered. No one could be privy to all the secrets between husband and wife. And she was no longer as naïve as she had once been. She knew that her father had not always been faithful: John was the living proof. And she remembered that there had been some dark mystery, and muttered innuendos, about Isabel Burgh, who had lodged in the household for two years as Edward’s wet nurse and now lived over Knaresborough way. Was Isabel John’s mother? She had never believed it. Isabel had been as correct in her conduct as any servant could be, and Kate had never once seen her lift her eyes to the duke or show any interest in him. And she was not the kind of woman one could imagine inspiring lust: in fact, as Kate recalled, she was rather plain.

  But she’d heard that Isabel Burgh had a sister, Alice, who had once worked as a chamberer to the Duchess Anne until, suddenly, she left. Later, she had been appointed wet nurse to the son of the Duchess of Clarence. Over the years, Kate had become aware that voices became even more hushed and secretive whenever Alice Burgh’s name was mentioned; there had been gossip—quickly but belatedly silenced when Kate appeared—about the duke awarding the woman a pension, and she had deduced that Alice Burgh left her employment some months before John was born. Could it be that Alice was his mother? That would explain many things.

  If so, she reasoned, John must have been the result of a passing fancy on her father’s part. Had it been more, matters between the duke and duchess would hardly have mended to the point where they could appear so contented together. And Kate had seen her father grip Anne’s hand and look at her with dark passion in his eyes as she stood at his stirrup in the courtyard at Middleham and bade him farewell.

  No, there was nothing wrong with their marriage, and the duke’s brief fall from grace had meant little. He was a sinner, like everyone else, and no one had the right to throw stones. His lapse made no difference to Kate’s feelings for him. He was her father, and she could not have loved and revered him more.

  As for her grandmother, that sad, feebleminded figure who lived in the southeast tower and rarely ventured out of it, the duke had given her a refuge. She could not manage her estates, he had explained, so it was better that he had charge of them. And it was clear that he had provided well for the old countess, for she was housed in good comfort, and provided with a servant and an allowance for her small pleasures, and sometimes Kate and the boys would visit her. But they never stayed long because she often forgot who or where she was, or would rant and rage against their father, who had been such a succor to her.

  “She is losing her mind,” he had said sadly, after they told him of one especially vitriolic outburst. “Pay her no heed. She imagines herself at odds with the world, and with me in particular. Alas, she has had a sad life; it must be hard to be so reduced in circumstances when she was once the wife of great Warwick. Small wonde
r her mind is gone.”

  And small wonder too that silly girls made up silly stories about an old lady locked up in a tower!

  The news that filtered piecemeal through to Middleham was relentlessly disturbing.

  In London, the duke wrote, the Wydevilles were busy trying to consolidate their power in the face of strong opposition from Lord Hastings and other powerful barons, and the hatred of the commons, who had always reviled the Queen and her faction as upstarts.

  My Lord Hastings has proposed to the council that I should govern, the duke informed them.

  “And he is right to do so,” said the duchess, looking up from the letter, “because King Edward, in his will, directed that the government of the realm ought to devolve on my lord until the King attains his majority.”

  “When will that be?” Kate asked.

  “When he is fourteen or fifteen, perhaps. Kings are often declared of age long before ordinary mortals. It’s not a very long way ahead, but it’s long enough for your father to make a difference, and to wean His Grace away from the influence of his mother’s blood. I fear he is entirely their creature.”

  “Then he probably hates my father,” Kate said.

  “That is a very shrewd observation.” The duchess smiled, although the fact that the smile did not reach her eyes betrayed her anxiety. “It is what my lord greatly fears, and why the boy must be removed from their care.”

  Kate felt a pang of sadness for her cousin, who might be the King, and hostile, but who was also a boy of twelve about to be deprived of his mother and the kinsmen who had brought him up.

  “But will my father succeed in becoming Lord Protector? Has it been agreed?” She was twisting her embroidery in agitation.

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