Chapter no 21

The Silent Companions

Hetta’s birthday. In accordance with my custom, I went to All Souls Church to give thanks for the daughter they told me would never come.

I say I am giving thanks. But deep down, I wonder. Am I praising God or serving a penance? For each time I step into the church there is a nagging guilt at the core of me. When I pray, there are two voices inside my head, gabbling over one another. One cries thank you; the other forgive me.

Today I felt, more powerful than ever, the weight of God’s disapproval pressing down on me as I slipped into the deserted church and took a pew. A force loving but sad, intolerably heavy.

Saints gazed upon me from the old stained-glass windows left from Queen Mary’s reign. They seemed to shake their heads. I clasped my hands tighter. And as I closed my eyes, the words came to me in a torrent: How dare you?

My eyelids snapped open. I felt suddenly very small. But even as I dropped to my knees, the voice came again. How dare you? My gaze flew to the front of the church, to the cross, soaring up before the altar. Who are you to create a life where I have refused it?

I knew then that it was an answer to my prayers, to the nights I have spent on my knees asking why our family has suffered such humiliation: it was my fault.

And I see it now. God has a plan for each and every one of us He creates. His plan for Josiah was a brilliant one, set at the centre of court. But that plan did not account for one factor: Hetta.

Hetta befriended the gypsy and I, weak again, gave in to her demands. My sin looms so large that it has changed the path of my life.

This idea haunted me all the way home. As I walked through the swirling leaves, as I tasted the musk of late October on the air, I kept asking myself why I had done it. I had three boys. Three! My mother would have given her right arm for only one. But I had wanted a girl. Another Mary to sit with me and walk with me, a mirror of my own childhood springing up at my feet. And wrong as it may be, I want her still.

When I returned to The Bridge, I went straight to the nursery. Lizzy sat in her rocking chair beneath the trailing vines, darning one of Hetta’s torn stockings.

My child wore the gown of olive silk I commissioned for the royal visit. It becomes her well, bringing out the coppery tint to her hair. She let me kiss her, but I could not keep her for more than a moment. As soon as my lips met her cheek she was off again, running between her companions.

It hurt me. I put my soul in peril, I paid the price of my future –and I receive one meagre kiss.

I sat down heavily beside Lizzy. ‘I hope it will not be seen as odd for Hetta to spend so much time with these boards. She never was an ordinary creature and now . . .’

‘No, no.’ Lizzy snipped off a thread. ‘Don’t go fretting about that. It’s only natural she should take to the things, not having any friends of her own age. She doesn’t have to speak to the boards.’

Hetta is not like me. That is not her fault, of course, but every difference I find is a little chip in the dream I had of my daughter. The close confidante, who was to be the repository of all my secrets, can confide none of her own. She isn’t at ease with me. I am not to her what I am to the boys.

Perhaps it is part of my punishment. A check to my hubris. With herbs and ancient words I can create a daughter, but I cannot make her love me.

‘Remember,’ Lizzy went on, turning the stocking over, ‘when you were Hetta’s age, you could run about with poor Mary. God rest her soul.’

‘And after that, I always had you to talk to, dearest Lizzy.’

She smiled up at me, her old gums dotted with black. ‘Though there were some who thought that unfit, weren’t there, because of my station? So you see, there’s nothing strange about Hetta playing hide and go seek with wooden people.’ She began a new stitch. ‘What I do find strange is Mr Samuels, disappearing so suddenly like that. Have you found no trace of him in town?’

I shook my head. Mark and Jane were right: the shop simply is not there. I cannot see how it has happened, but it has. Even that man and his premises have fled from us. I am stuck with my cursed treasure.

Lizzy sighed. ‘A mystery. I thought maybe there was news of Samuels, when the master rode off so fast.’

I jerked round to face her. ‘Josiah is gone?’ ‘Aye. Didn’t you know?’

‘I was at church.’

‘Oh.’ Without looking at me, she threaded her needle. ‘Rode out about an hour ago, he did.’

Foreboding hit me, as keen and sharp as the wind hurtling over the hills. ‘Fast?’

‘Aye.’ She pursed her lips. ‘As fast as if the hounds of hell were on his tail.’



I waited in the Great Hall. The day wasted fast. Indigo clouds blushed pink underneath as the sun slipped away. Blackbirds chimed until the light extinguished, then the owls began to mourn.

At long last the gravel crunched. I heard voices in the stable yard and the tramp of feet. Moments later Josiah strode through the door, splashed with mud.

I flew to him. ‘Josiah, what is it? What has happened?’

His look was guarded. He removed my hands from his cloak and held them at a distance. ‘The boy has been found.’


‘Yes. It was our own man, our own Mark, who found him.’ ‘Thanks be to God.’

‘Finally, I have some news to send to the King.’

What a blessed relief to picture that evil spirit captured and shackled! I had never supposed that the devil would sup with a child

so young. I remembered Merripen’s eyes, dark and blazing like a brazier of flaming pitch, and it struck me cold.

Foolishly, I thought that would be an end to it; that Josiah and I could go on as before. But he released my hands and swung off his cloak, turning from me as he said, ‘The boy will be confined in Torbury St Jude tonight, and tried tomorrow. I shall attend.’

‘Tomorrow is All Saints’ Day.’

‘The day after then,’ he said irritably.

I knew I should leave it there; congratulate him and flee from his sight. But a raw uneasiness in my soul compelled me to blurt out, ‘What will happen to him?’

He stared at me. His pointed beard made his mouth appear mocking, somehow cruel. ‘That will depend on the verdict.’

Guilty. It must be guilty. Josiah will not let them find anything else. His reputation stands on the line. If he cannot catch and punish the miscreant who offended the Queen in his own house, his shame will know no end.

My throat grew tight, tight enough to choke me. I remembered the man who had his ears cut off. ‘A traitor’s death, then? Will they truly bestow that upon a boy?’

His crack of laughter made me jump. There was no mirth in it. ‘A boy! Can a human boy do that to an animal? Oh no, my lady. Mark my words, he is possessed of a demon.’

‘Indeed he must be. At that young age!’ He is only a little older than my Hetta. I pictured him, so short beneath the scaffold. How thickly the rope would pile around his small neck, how smooth and flat his little stomach would lie beneath the blade. A child hung, drawn and quartered. ‘Do you expect the King to show mercy?’

‘Mercy?’ He spat the word out like a thing vomited. ‘Would you extend mercy to the fiend?’

I stuttered. ‘No . . . I do not know. Deeds so wicked cannot go unchecked, and yet . . . Does not something within you baulk at this? Do you not feel the execution of a child will hang heavy upon your soul?’

‘In nowise.’ His eyes glittered. I did not like the thread of steel in his voice. ‘am not responsible for this. The only person responsible is you.’

It hit me like a blow to the face.

You let him into the stables, you put the horse in his way. This would not have happened were it not for you.’ His glare pinned me to the spot. ‘If anyone has that boy’s blood on their hands it is you, Anne, and you alone.’

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