A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  My every whim—but one—is gratified. Do I but express a wish for a bunch of cherries or a cup of cordial, it is there, in my hand, within minutes. My wardrobe is stuffed with gorgeous gowns of every hue, rich furs, embroidered kirtles, and costly velvet hoods—for now that I am a wife, even though I am still a virgin, I must bind up and cover my hair. That crowning glory is now for my husband alone, or it would be were he allowed to be with me when I take my hood off. The Herberts did not have to provide me with such attire, for I brought a fitting trousseau with me when I married, but they dismiss such largesse as the least they can do for a daughter-in-law in whom they are well satisfied.

  Daily I feast on the choicest foods served on gold and silver-gilt plate; I drink from glasses of the best Venetian crystal. I attend divine service in a lofty chapel plainly appointed, as befits the house of a good Protestant, but hung with arras and paintings of scenes from the life of Our Lord. Musicians while away my evenings on lutes and virginals, as I beat my lord at chess and tables, or read my book.

  It seems strange not to have my days governed by the strict round of lessons that my parents decreed for us. At home, even before we were old enough to put away childish things like the baby dolls dressed in crimson satin and white velvet, we had to get up at six and eat our breakfast before we visited my lord and lady for their daily blessing. Then, when our proper tutoring began, we had lessons in Latin and Greek, which lasted all morning. I struggled, God help me I did, for I was nowhere near as good at mastering those ancient tongues as Jane. She even learned Hebrew, at her own request.

  After dinner we would be drilled in French and Italian, and then we had to read from the Bible or the classics. I think I read the Bible three times over. Even then we were not free, for after supper we were expected to practice our music, dancing, and needlework before being banished to our beds at nine o’clock. There was hardly any time for our own favored pursuits. Even on holidays, when the merry maypole was set up and the Morris dancers made sport on our lawn, we were kept to our daily tasks and not allowed to take part. So I find it difficult to live in idleness. I do not know how to fill the long, spacious hours.

  “What shall I do?” is my constant question. My lady the countess kindly takes time to instruct me in the ordering and running of the household, which will be my responsibility one day, but not for ages yet, God willing. She finds me books to read, or tapestry to stitch, although I am not very good at it. I cannot, whatever I do, make the stitches small enough. My mother-in-law is endlessly patient. I believe she feels sorry for me, but does not like to say so for loyalty to her husband.

  With Harry, it is difficult. It is hard to be together, knowing we are man and wife, yet not free to love each other. Yes, we kiss and we embrace, but only furtively or self-consciously, for we are never left alone together: there is always at least one servant within sight or earshot. And at night my door is locked. My lord earl will not risk his will being thwarted a second time. It would be easier if I could understand why we are being kept apart, but it still makes no sense to me. If I venture to ask, I am told—not unkindly—that I am too young to understand.

  But Harry has of late been taken a little into his father’s confidence. When I suggest, only half jesting, that he attempt to steal the key and come to me at night, he tells me no, it cannot be, for fear of Northumberland.

  “Northumberland?” I echo. “What has our marriage got to do with him?”

  Harry looks unhappy. There is no one within earshot in the courtyard, only a gardener deadheading the flowers in the stone urns, but still he bids me lower my voice.

  “Northumberland urged our marriages, ours and that of your sister to his son,” he mutters. “Maybe he feels being allied to royal blood enhances his power.”

  There is something that does not make sense. “In that case,” I say, “it would make better sense to let us consummate our marriage.”

  Harry looks at me admiringly. “It would indeed! It would bind our families irrevocably to him. By God, I have it! Maybe Northumberland and our parents don’t want to be committed for good.”

  “That makes sense, given what I overheard my father and mother saying,” I say.

  Harry shakes his head. “But why would they not want to be bound? Why agree to the marriages in the first place?”

  “I cannot think,” I say. “You could ask your father.”

  “He would not tell me,” he answers glumly.

  Nevertheless, that evening, at the supper table, Harry makes so bold as to bring up the matter.

  “Sir,” he ventures, “why do you and my lord of Northumberland not wish our families to be bound for good by our marriage?”

  The earl appears disconcerted, but recovers himself at once and lays down his knife on his plate. “Who said that we do not?” he asks.

  “We worked it out for ourselves, sir,” Harry says. “We know that Northumberland suggested these marriages, and that, in some way that you will not reveal, they are advantageous to him. But maybe there are disadvantages too.”

  There is silence for a moment, and then the earl roars with laughter. “You’re a statesman, Harry, by God! And you have a good grasp of politics. But rest assured, your mother and I would not bind you in a disadvantageous match. The Lady Katherine here is the King’s own cousin, of royal lineage, and herself in the line of succession. Who could be more suitable? Nay, lad, curb your passions and let wiser heads rule you. You will not be stayed from your wife for long. Be patient, I counsel you.” And with that, the earl changes the subject and speaks of hunting. It is an end to the matter. But am I the only one who noticed that, when he laughed, his eyes remained cold?

  Harry and I are bored. We have played chess in the garden, read our favorite poems aloud to each other, raided the kitchens for marchpane and comfits, and played hide-and-seek in the great state rooms, always with the inevitable servant keeping a safe distance.

  We are getting to know each other. His face, so utterly dear to me, is now as familiar as my own. I try to stop myself wishing that his body could be too, for in every other respect we are becoming closer in our minds and hearts, united in our shared sense of injustice against the world, Northumberland, and our parents. It has bound us faster than I could ever have imagined.

  I am finding Harry to be not just a loving husband, but a young man of letters and culture. He has been well tutored, which is no surprise, since his mother—dead these two years now, and much mourned by her son—was very learned. After this early grounding, the earl sent Harry to live with a tutor at the university at Cambridge, yet he is no bookish dullard: he likes a good play too, is passionate about racing horses, and collects books and manuscripts on heraldry.

  He snatches every opportunity to touch me, to kiss and caress me, but he always ends up on fire for me, and finds it very frustrating to have to hold himself back. In the beginning I would ask myself if I truly loved him, as is my duty as a wife. Now I no longer need to ask myself that question. It is my duty—but also my greatest joy and pleasure. I am a changed person because of Harry. I feel myself opening outward, blossoming like a flower, as I reveal myself to him bit by bit—my inner nature, my hopes and fears, my very soul—knowing that everything about me is precious in his eyes. And he is no less dear in mine. I cannot have enough of him.

  So here we are, this hot June day, weary after so much running about, wondering what to do next to fill the empty hours, when we are both tense with the knowledge that we could be spending them in bed, were we allowed to. Wandering through the vast house, we enter the old wing, the only part that escaped the attentions of my great-grandfather, Henry VII. Here, the chambers are smaller, wainscotted and paneled, with stone fireplaces and mullioned windows grimed with dirt. Dust motes dance in the musty air; there is a faint smell of damp, and something nasty, probably a dead mouse, behind the wainscot. Wrinkling my nose I walk on into the next room, where I pause before a portrait of an old lady dressed as a nun, in a long wimple and chin barbe. She looks
very severe and forbidding. There is a date painted above her shoulder: 1490.

  “I know her,” I say. “I’ve seen her likeness before. That’s the Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and my great-great-grandmother.”

  “Wrong!” cries Harry. “It’s the old Duchess of York, Cecily Neville. She was the mother of Edward IV and Richard III, and your great-great-great-something-grandmother! She lived here in the last century—ran the household like a nunnery, for she was very religious. But that wasn’t always the case!”

  “I heard tell that she was a very venerable lady,” I say.

  “Not always. It was quite openly said that she betrayed her husband with an archer, and that Edward IV was the archer’s son.”

  “I can’t imagine her betraying her husband with anyone, looking at her picture!” I giggle.

  Harry laughs. “I can’t even imagine her having a husband,” he says.

  “Do you think it’s true, what people said?” I ask, staring at the portrait and trying in vain to imagine the Duchess Cecily as she would have looked in her younger days.

  “Who can say? My tutor told me that two of her sons, no less, made the accusation. Richard III was one of them.”

  “Oh, well, in that case it can’t be true,” I retort. “Richard III was a deceiver and a murderer. How could he have said that about his own mother?”

  “Indeed, especially if it wasn’t true.”

  “I’ll wager he just made it up.”

  “No, he didn’t,” Harry tells me. “Apparently his older brother, the Duke of Clarence, had said it first, many years before, when he wanted to impugn Edward’s title so he could get the crown for himself. He was a villain too, by all accounts. He was executed by drowning in a butt of Malmsey.” I had heard that old tale many times.

  “They were all villains, by the sound of it,” I laugh.

  We wander on, through several more interconnecting rooms, most of them bare of furniture and very dusty. It is obvious that even the servants rarely come here. The few old pictures that still hang on the walls are cracked or buckled. There is one that strikes me particularly. It is very finely done, a half length of a young girl, a very pretty girl with a sweet round face, serene dark wide-set eyes, and thick, wavy chestnut hair bound only by a filet. She wears a rich blue gown figured in gold with an embroidered border around the neckline, and an exquisite diamond-shaped pendant. Her beauty and grace are arresting, and the colors look as fresh as if the picture had been painted yesterday.

  “Who is that?” I ask Harry.

  “I have no idea,” he replies. “It’s probably been here for years. It’s not anyone I recognize.”

  I peer closer. “There is no clue, no coat of arms or date or age. But she must have been someone important to have had her likeness painted.”

  The girl seems to stare back at me: her face is skillfully painted and uncannily lifelike. I feel I know her from somewhere, but that cannot be, as the style of her dress is years out of date; and yet I am drawn to her. It’s not just that it’s a beautiful portrait. There is something more, something about the eyes. The limner has caught them so craftily: they seem to be looking directly into mine, holding mine, appealing … He must have been a master of illusion, I think, as I drag myself away, breaking the spell.

  Harry slides his arm around my waist, and just at that moment there is a muffled footfall not far behind us. We are being watched again. It’s a horrible feeling because the watcher is keeping himself just out of sight in the next room. But Harry seems unaware. He is looking at the painting.

  “Those clothes are very fine, but very old-fashioned. This must have been done years ago, possibly back in the Duchess Cecily’s time.”

  “Maybe it’s a princess,” I venture.

  “Aye, one of the daughters of Edward IV perhaps. They were Duchess Cecily’s granddaughters, and what is more natural than for her to have a picture of one of them? I wonder if there is anything on the back.” He lifts the painting off its hook, scattering enough dust to make us cough, and turns it around. There is nothing to see but the date 1484 inked in spiky faded script.

  “Well, I was right!” he declares. “It does date from the Duchess Cecily’s time. She died in 1495, I recall. Possibly it’s Elizabeth of York.”

  I know it cannot be. We have a portrait of my great-grandmother, Henry VII’s queen, at home at Bradgate, and she looks nothing like this girl. She had fair, reddish hair.

  Harry slides the picture back onto its hook, and I take one last, wistful look at it before following him into the next chamber. I am much taken with the young girl in the portrait. If only I could discover who she was.

  There is little of interest to me in the rooms beyond, although Harry is intrigued by a rusted sword that rests suspended on hooks above a fireplace, and stops to examine it.

  “This was a fine weapon once,” he murmurs. But I am not interested in swords. I walk ahead, into a narrow windowless passage leading only to a spiral stairway. It is dark here, but from above a bright shaft of sunlight illumines the stairwell. I stop, my blood running cold. For there appears before me, in the pool of light reflected on the wall, what seems like the black shadow of a moving hand, its index finger extended, beckoning me up the stairs.

  I start trembling. Is there someone up there, playing a trick on me? A ghost? Surely not, I pray: it is broad daylight, and ghosts are creatures of the night, or so I have always been told. But there is something horribly sinister about the summoning shadow, and although it is a hot day, the passage has suddenly turned freezing cold. With the chill fingers of fear creeping up my neck, I stand shaking, unable to move but compelled to watch.

  Then suddenly the beckoning hand disappears, and Harry is behind me. The spell is broken and I turn to look at him, relieved beyond measure to have him near me.

  “By God, what’s the matter, sweetheart? You look as if you’ve seen—”

  “I have! A ghost! There was a shadow—a hand beckoning me upstairs. There, on the wall. It’s gone now. It was there, and then it just wasn’t there anymore.” I realize that it is considerably warmer now.

  Harry’s face darkens. “So help me, if anyone has played a cruel prank and affrighted you, they will answer to me and my father for it!” he assures me. “Wait here. I will go up and investigate.”

  “No, don’t leave me!” I plead.

  “You are not alone,” Harry says comfortingly. “Sanders is not far behind us. Aren’t you, Sanders?” His voice rises on the last words.

  His father’s groom—our unwanted shadow—immediately appears in the doorway. “Aye, my lord.”

  “Stay here with my lady,” Harry commands. “No doubt you overheard all that. I won’t be a moment.”

  The sight of Sanders, solid, dour, and for once strangely welcome, has steadied me. I am happy for him to guard our rear.

  “I’m coming with you,” I say to Harry. “Let Sanders keep watch down here.”

  “Very well,” says Harry. “I’ll go first.”

  “My orders are to attend on you both at all times, my lord,” Sanders protests.

  Harry looks furious. “We will not be gone long; we’ll only be up the stairs. And I have reason to believe that there is someone up there who is bent on making mischief. If I need you, I will call you, or send my lady down to you. Someone has to stay here to make sure that the culprit has no possible means of escape.” He speaks with an authority he has never before asserted in my presence, and although Sanders looks unhappy, he nods and acquiesces.

  Harry grips my hand and leads me up the twisting stair. We climb higher and higher, me bunching up my skirts so as not to trip, and emerge at last in a circular turret room lit only by a narrow window overlooking the broad width of the busy Thames. There is no exit—and no one here. The room is empty, apart from an old iron-bound chest below the window.

  “You must have imagined it, my love,” says Harry, and then in one swift movement he gathers me in his arms, kisses me hard on the
mouth, and pushes me against the cold, whitewashed wall before I can catch my breath. He is breathing heavily, grappling with my skirts and whispering hotly in my ear, “We must be quick, dear heart! It’s not the way I wanted it to be, but I must have you …”

  He is panting so hard I cannot make out the words, and soon I no longer care, for I am swept along by his sense of urgency. We are clinging to each other as if we can never let go, opening up to each other, striving to become one, and hastily disarranging our clothing—and then there is a cough from below, and footsteps coming up the stairs. Quickly I smooth down my skirts and my hair, while Harry, breathless, ties the points of his codpiece—and just in time, for Sanders appears a moment later, looking at us suspiciously. I feel my cheeks flaming and turn to the window. I have to admire Harry’s composure. He is superb.

  “No one was up here,” he tells the groom, as calmly as if he had not been in the throes of desire only seconds before. “My lady must have imagined what she saw. There is nothing of note here, just that old chest. We checked inside, to see if someone was hiding in there, but there are only a few old papers. Does that satisfy you?”

  “I am just obeying my orders, Lord Herbert,” the groom says resentfully. “I don’t enjoy it any more than you do, sir.”

  “No, I don’t suppose you do,” Harry says, more kindly. “The view from here is splendid,” he adds. “We have been admiring it. You can see the heights of Highgate and Islington.” He winks at me and I try not to giggle.

  Sanders grunts, and says we should go down, and Harry, squeezing my hand and mouthing “I love you,” follows him, preceding me on the stairs. If only our spy had not appeared! Up in that turret room, my love awakened a need in me; I wish, how I wish, I could recapture the moment.

  “We must be getting back,” Harry urges. “We have got ourselves all mucky in here, and Heaven only knows what my lady mother will say if we appear at the supper table looking like two vagrants, eh, Katherine!”

  We retrace our steps through the old wing, emerging thankfully into the gilded splendor of the modern part of the house and summoning our personal servants to attend us. It is only when I am back in my bedchamber, seated at my mirror, that I start shuddering again at the memory of that beckoning hand.

 
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