Chapter no 7

The Silent Companions

I want nothing more than the promise of spring. It was sore weather all through Lent and then the church flooded at Easter. Josiah writes that the court have suspended their festivities until Whitsun. Verily, I cannot blame them. These have been more like drear November evenings than spring days. Heaven knows what I will do if things have not improved by August. If the King cannot hunt in the woods and the Queen cannot enjoy the pleasure grounds, it will be a disaster.

This afternoon I was able to get out into the formal gardens for the first time in weeks. The sun shone, but there was no piping skylark, no sticky buds upon the trees. My Hetta worked in her physic garden where she raises herbs. She looked charming in her straw hat, intent on her work, her little scissors cutting off the dead heads – snip, snip – and releasing their earthy scents. I watched her with pleasure. In the shade she looked like a lily; her pale skin and the gossamer veins beside her eyes. Such a fragile, delicate girl: my sister Mary wrought in porcelain.

I tried not to let the smell of the herbs stir my memory, but I could not control it. I closed my eyes and journeyed back to that night, that tisane brewed under a full moon. Back to my own murky face reflected in the bottom of a cup. The guilt lingers, like the scent of fallen apples rotting in an orchard. It may have been wrong of me to interfere in the natural order of things, but I cannot regret it – I cannot regret her.

Harris tended the knot garden on his knees, trimming the shrubbery with precision and raking the coloured gravel. The high winds had scattered it out of pattern, so I made him redesign the twists. I asked for new shapes in the hedges, or at least the parterre –angels and fleur-de-lis for a daughter of France – but he doubts he will be able to train them before August.

‘Purchase full-grown shrubs then,’ I said. ‘And cut them.’

He seemed to think this was amusing. Nonetheless, he has promised to do his best in that quarter. As to my planting requirements, he is perfectly hopeless.

‘Roses and lilies won’t grow together,’ he said, picking the dirt from beneath his crooked fingernails. ‘They don’t suit.’

‘I know that. We do not need them growing together, but they must both be in the garden. A rose for the King of England, a lily for the Princess of France.’

‘A lily I might manage. The bulbs like to be deep and cool and shady. Though give me much more of this wet weather and they’ll speckle up.’

‘What about our rosebushes?’ I demanded. ‘Do they not thrive this year?’

He spread his arms with an infuriating sigh, as if it were not his job to make these things work. ‘Full sun, mistress. They need full sun and drained soil to flower. Find me some of that and I’ll sort your roses.’

I was afraid of losing my temper, so I fisted my hands upon my hips and looked over to Hetta. She had stopped working and stood on the soil, staring out over the green hills as if waiting for something. Small white flowers wound their way over her shoes; unruly twigs seemed to reach out and embrace her.

‘Hetta,’ I called. ‘Step back, sweeting, you will tear your gown.’

She obeyed but did not look at me. By her side I heard the little scissors going snip, snip. Cutting nothing. Cutting air.

‘As for thistles,’ said Harris, ‘I can’t let you do it. They’re a weed,

mistress. Take over the whole garden, give them half a chance.’ ‘The thistle is the symbol of Scotland. The Stuart kings’ symbol.’

‘It’s a weed,’ he repeated. ‘Invasive. Devouring. It creeps.’ I took a sudden chill. The weather was not so very clement, after all. ‘If you

must plant them somewhere, do it in little Miss’s patch. Happen it’ll wreak less harm there.’

I had to confess that he was right – about the damage, I mean. It may well be that he cannot control the spread of a weed but I know my Hetta can. I have not seen a single plant she cannot grow or tame, from the rock sampier and gooseberries thriving in the kitchen garden to the coltsfoot and feverfew she raises for our aches and pains. I taught her to plant, but she has surpassed me. She has far surpassed me at just eight years old.

Sometimes I think it is the tisane flowing through her veins, which causes her flowers to bloom. She has inherited more than just her looks from Mary, for it was my older sister who visited the wise-women in secret and instructed me in their ways.

‘Hetta. Hetta, my sweet.’ I picked up my skirts and threaded my way through the unpruned branches to her side. She did not turn her eyes towards me until I placed my hand on her shoulder. ‘I have a favour to beg.’ Ignoring the dirt, I squatted down to her level. ‘Would you grow some thistle for me in your patch?’

She blinked. Her head tilted to the side as if she did not understand.

I hesitated. Josiah has not permitted me to speak of the royal visit before Hetta, but he underestimates her. As I often say, she is only mute, not some poor natural. She hears others talk. She must have a hint of what is going on.

‘The reason I ask is that the King and Queen are coming to stay.

The thistle is one of the King’s symbols, do you understand?’

She nodded. The pink, misshapen stump of her tongue moved and a sound came from her throat; not like speech, more a bleat.

I felt hollow inside. Gazing upon that tongue is like looking upon a gown I have stained or a letter I have blotted. Once again I heard Josiah’s words: her aberration. Mary would never have made such a mistake.

Prodded by guilt, I said, ‘Indeed, sweeting, it may be that you can help me prepare in more than one way. The dinner I serve the King must be very fine. I will need rosemary, sage and thyme for seasoning. Basil, and perhaps some parsley too. Onions, quinces, parsnip,’ I counted them on my fingers. ‘Do you think you could manage to grow all this?’

A smile dawned on her face and my heart lifted. With Hetta’s smile, you do not need words: it captivates you with upturned lips and soft dimples. How can people whisper that it is a demon that holds her mute? How can they even think it?

‘Good.’ I touched her cheek. The smell of her, so sweet and floral, and the feel of her skin, silky as petals. ‘Good girl. You write down what you need and Mr Harris will fetch it.’

At least now she will be involved in the glory of the day, no matter what Josiah commands.

His words haunt me: her aberration. As I stand in my stillroom, trying to grind out my remorse with pestle and mortar, I see it again: that tongue. Josiah’s expression.

I think that he knows.

He has never feared my power before. He will take herbs and brews for luck without question. But when he looks at Hetta, it is as though he sees not a flower – only the mucky soil beneath. As if he sees my hands, thick and claggy with dirt.

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