Chapter no 19

The Silent Companions

I do not suppose there ever was a shame like ours. I can barely breathe for the despondency that lays upon my spirit, the guilt I cannot scrub off.

Again and again, that morning circles in my mind. I remember the shocked silence all around; how the courtiers were no longer gay but grave, stern as judges. I hear the humiliation ringing shrill inside my head as the Queen sobbed. She loved that horse. Of course we gave her my mare, but how insufficient it was compared to the fine-blooded creature she had lost. It looked like a poor woman’s horse. They rode away with a double guard, leaving us alone at The Bridge. Alone, with the echoing taunt of our failure.

My disgrace is twofold. I have failed not only my King but my lord and husband, my heart’s dearest hope. He was not aware of my treachery – at least, not the nature of it. He came to me soon after they left and gripped my hands. When he stared into my face I saw that his own was drawn and quivering, as if the muscles themselves shook for fear.

‘Anne, you must tell me the truth.’ I could not speak. ‘I know we never mention it, but we must now. The time has come.’

My guilty mind flew straight to Merripen. ‘Josiah . . .’

‘I know you have always seen things. Sensed things, before they are there. Those tisanes you gave me . . . I thought it a gift from God. But . . . Tell me truly.’

‘Tell you what?’

He had difficulty pushing the words up his throat. ‘You had a daughter. They said it was impossible to birth another child, but you had a daughter. I rose faster in court than any other man of my station. Was it herbs? Or . . .?’

I know I coloured, conscious of my transgression, of drawing my skirts a little too close to the flame of sin. ‘How can you ask me such a thing?’

‘I know you would not do that awful, that wicked act in the stables,’ he ran on hurriedly. ‘But do you think that you might have accidentally . . .’ He glanced at my diamonds. They flashed as I swallowed. ‘I do not know. Is it possible that some dark force has its eye fixed upon you?’

‘Josiah!’ I cried.

‘Answer me, Anne. For I looked at that animal and I cannot believe this is the work of human hands.’

So I told him. I told him the excruciating, miserable truth: that it was his wife’s stupidity, not her cunning, that brought a demon upon him.

He has not spoken to me since.

I cannot summon the strength to cry. I do not resent his hatred. Nothing can burn hotter than the contempt I feel for myself. I ripped off my sparkling diamonds, ashamed to think how much my poor Josiah spent, how much he invested in me.

He is confined to the country now; he cannot show his face at court. His acquaintances no longer answer his letters. He has nothing to do but stomp about like a caged bear, shoot our grouse and pick quarrels with the villagers as we prepare for the harvest. They do not want to work our land after what has happened. They are afraid that the gypsies have cursed us.

Heaven grant that the servants do not follow suit. For now they seem minded to stay and revel in the gossip, yet when all is said and done only Lizzy can be trusted to remain with us. Not that Lizzy is quite content – her every glance reproaches me for keeping Merripen a secret from her. Dear Lizzy, she never can accept that I am a lady grown. She does not realise how many secrets my traitorous heart can keep.

The house falls silent as a tomb. No guests, no decorators, not even my sons to cheer the gloom. Years ago, we placed the boys in

noble households so they could learn how to run vast estates. They are back with them now, but I do not suppose Josiah’s relatives will be prepared to keep them for much longer. It is a risk to be allied with us.

Even Hetta is not the comfort she once was. As I sat in the Great Hall today it was heartbreaking to see her skipping around those wooden cut-outs, as if the prospects of our house and our family had not gone up in smoke around her.

I have spent nearly nine years of my life yearning only for her smile, but today I could not stand it.

I watched her, playing as she does for hours with the painted boards, and unleashed the wicked torrent of my thoughts. I thought that I should be happy today, were it not for her and her gypsy friend. I should be on my way into the service of the Queen herself but Hetta was the reason – the only reason – that no one else in The Bridge smiled today.

‘How can you?’ I burst out. ‘How dare you smile and prance like that? You know what has happened.’

She cocked her head at one of the companions, as if it had spoken.

Then she went on playing.

My rage mounted. God forgive me, I know it was wrong, I know she is only a child. But I could not help myself. ‘Listen to me! Do you not understand what this means for us?’

She should do. But it seems she does not fully comprehend.

Perhaps she cannot.

‘Merripen!’ I cried, pushed to the end of my endurance. ‘Your friend Merripen has done this to us!’

The smile dropped from her face, quick as a curtain falling.

‘He has killed the Queen’s horse,’ I said, ‘because we moved his people off the common. He has made your father most unhappy.’

She glanced at the nearest companion and then at me.

‘You made me employ that heathen and now he has ruined us, ruined us for good!’

I could not read her expression. She opened her mouth and, for one wild moment, I thought she was actually going to speak. Then she ran from me.

I heard her feet pattering on the stairs as fast as rain, as fast as my tears fell. I slid down into my chair, feeling like a knave.

Hetta was the only one left who did not hate me. And now I have pushed her away.

Somewhere in the distance, thunder booms. I do not know how long I have sat here rueing my fate, begging for the strength to go on. But the storm must have nudged closer, for the light has clouded and the hall has fallen into a bruised, grey-yellow murk. Drops of rain hit the window. A companion, the sweeper, watches me.

Her gaze has become shameful, degrading; as if she knows every secret of my soul.

I have ordered them returned to Mr Samuels first thing in the morning. All of the fine objects, returned. I cannot stand to have his treasure in my house any longer. I hate every piece of it.



A very curious thing happened today. My cart rumbled back from Torbury St Jude with my servants, but the goods were still tied down.

‘What is this?’ I barked. ‘I told you to leave these with Mr Samuels.’

‘I know,’ said our man Mark, ‘and I’m sorry, mistress, but it weren’t there.’

I looked at Jane. ‘What does he mean? Did Mr Samuels refuse to take delivery?’

‘No,’ she said shakily. ‘No, not that.’ Lines of confusion furrowed her brow. ‘The shop – it wasn’t there.’

How could that be? A shop so full and well stocked only last June!

‘What? Is the shop vacant?’

‘No, mistress.’ Her voice was high now, close to tears. ‘It was not there. The shop. We must have driven up and down a dozen times but I swear . . . It’s as if it never existed.’

I could only gape at her. The beef-witted girl! I never heard anything like it. She went into the shop with me herself. Shops do not simply disappear!

Perhaps she is ill; there is certainly something amiss about her, for she has been all aquiver since they returned.

I must go into town to settle the business myself, and soon. Until then I am stuck with our misbegotten companions. I cover their

faces with sheets but I know they are there, watching. As if they know what has happened. As if it amuses them.

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