Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A preview from 1603: The Queen's Revenge, Part III of the Midwife's Secret

The novel 1603: the Queen's Revenge takes place in 1602 while Scotland and England both await the unspeakable possibility that Elizabeth Tudor may indeed be mortal.  She had been queen of England for more than forty years, and if truth be told, her subjects had grown tired of her. Years of failed harvests and indecisive leadership had prepared them to welcome her successor, and most of heads had turned north toward the homeland of her cousin James VI, King of Scots.  Our scene opens as Queen Anna's secretary, a member of the privy council and a member of the king's inner circle hovers in the shadows of Canongate street, a stone's throw from the window of the woman who held Will Fowler's heart in the palm of her hand--the famous wad wife, Mistress Daisy Kirkcaldy, presumptive widow of Will Hepburn, bastard son of the man who had seduced the Queen of Scots and brought her to her ruin. To Fowler's consternation and the distress of Daisy's friends, she refused to accept her husband's fate and and consoled herself by marketing treasures she imported from the Low Countries to Scotland's rising merchant class, and lending them the funds to cover their purchases at a high rate of interest.  Fowler's efforts to court her properly had met with the rebuke that until someone brought her Hepburn's bones, she was a married woman.

William Fowler was a poet and a courtier with the proper blend of intellect and grandeur to gain admission to the inner circle of the king --  the small band of poets to which James VI himself belonged. The king had jokingly dubbed the group ‘the Castilians.’  To those who remembered Scotland’s mid-century politics, it seemed an odd designation, since both of the earlier groups to which that label had affixed had been rebels and did not fare well. But James Stuart was a man of many anomalies, none of them well defined. So, indeed, was Fowler.

There was more to Fowler than just the attributes he displayed at court. When he was younger he had been an agent in the pay of Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. While he was careful not to flaunt his past allegiance like a badge on his sleeve, Fowler was a conspicuous Anglophile, and with Elizabeth Tudor approaching seventy, that made him a perfect friend for James, who coveted the English crown and expected Fowler to help him grab it up. On the list of topics that Walsingham had assigned Fowler to explore during his years in England's service was the mystery of Loch Leven and the Earl of Morton’s obsession that there had been a live birth of a daughter to Marie Stuart, the ill-fated Queen of Scots. Other than a report of questionable veracity from the queen’s French secretary Claud Nau whose information had come to him years after the fact but allegedly from the lips of the queen, there was not a shred of evidence to support the myth. Walsingham had disregarded it entirely until he personally interrogated Nau, who insisted that the child had been smuggled out of Scotland and into France, where she had been hidden  in one of the Benedictine houses controlled by her mother’s French relatives, the Guise. Nau speculated that the child had been sent to the convent at Soissons, since it was under the patronage of the Guises, but Nau was only guessing.

Even after speaking to Nau, Walsingham regarded the legend of the hidden princess as nothing but an interesting coincidence until his spies in France reported the presence of a mysterious Scottish child that the nuns at Saint Pierre les Dames in Rheims called La Belle Écossaise . She had been brought there as a young child by the abbess Renee de Guise, Marie Stuart’s aunt, and her name was Marguerite d’Kircaldie. Walsingham  asked  Fowler to check it out. But before his report was submitted,Sir Francis died and William Cecil took over the control of Elizabeth’s spy net work.  After the Earl of Morton was executed and the young king freed himself of his controllers,  Fowler’s redoubtable mother Janet Fockart  gained high favor with the James of Scotland, since she was his largest creditor and he was vigorously acquiring the finer things in life.  Fowler severed his ties to the Tudor court and returned to Scotland. Before he left, the Cecils encouraged him to wiggle his way into the king’s inner circle and pass along anything that might interest them.  Young Robert Cecil told of  his concerns over efforts being made by exiled English Catholics to identify and promote Catholics exiles with ancestral ties to the English succession.  Cecil presumed that would include the mythical nun suspected of being the daughter of Marie Stuart and the former Earl of Bothwell Lord James Hepburn. In spite of public policy to the contrary, Gloriana was not expected to live forever and the Cecil were anxious to eliminate any threats to their own dynastic plan which had already settled on the Scottish king.
Thus, it was more than just a heavy dose  of inquisitiveness  that drew Fowler to his mother’s pretty young protégé, a lass whose birth name was Marguerite Kirkcaldy, and who was known in the Canongate as the posthumous bastard of the executed  knight of Grange and a laundress working in Edinburgh Castle during the siege.  Although his mother’s young friend had the same name as the subject the Cecils wanted him to investigate, she was far too young to have been the fabled infant from Loch Leven. Nevertheless, the fact that the two women shared a name suggested a link between them.
However, when Fowler discovered that the Kirkcaldy lass and two Scotsmen, the king's browdinstair Will Hepburn who Daisy  later married,  and her notorious Reiver nephew Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst had visited Saint Pierre les Dames du Rheims as guests of the abbess Renee in the winter of 1596-1596 his interest was piqued.  When he confirmed that Hepburn was the bastard son of Lord James Hepburn, Marie Stuart's husband at the time of her imprisonment at Loch Leven Castle, he was certain he had uncovered a pot of gold. There were enough exiled Scottish nuns who had found haven at Saint Pierre but with families living in Scotland for Fowler to easily glean the information that while she visited there, his mother's protege Daisy Kirkcaldy was often seen  in the company of the nun with whom she shared a name.  It was not enough to prompt Fowler to send a dispatch to Robert Cecil, but  it provoked him into paying more attention to his  mother’s youngest and brightest protégé.  After  his mother died, he continued to keep an eye out for her and his interest in Daisy was no longer purely political. When Daisy Kirkcaldy’s husband Hepburn was reported lost at sea, Fowler realized that his natural curiosity had developed into something deeper. The most eligible bachelor in the Midlands had become infatuated with the widow woman.  Mistress Kirkcaldy had taken the news of her husband’s drowning with the stoicism Fowler  associated with his thrice widowed mother and went on about her business. If she shed a tear, she did it in the privacy of her apartments at Cockie House. Fowler began to wonder if the newly widowed wad wife might make a perfect  partner in the tricky game called life. 
He knew that Daisy assisted her half-brother Gilbert in his shop, but since discovering her knack for moneylending she had left most of the hammerings to Gil. But the new royal goldsmith George Heriot, who had purchased some of her designs  could not quite duplicate them to the satisfaction of Queen Anna. Thereafter, Daisy limited her labors at the jeweler’s bench to an occasional piece for the queen, and devoted most of her passions to money-lending and the raising of her child. Fowler was elated when she hired his old nursemaid to assist her.

The inhabitants  of CockieHouse were an industrious lot, the kind that appealed to Fowler’s Presbyterian morality.  It did not hurt that Mistress Kirkcaldy was the most attractive woman in the Canongate—tall and sturdy and very Scottish, a worthy daughter of the laird of Grange. The only drawback was that the pretty wad wife showed no interest in marrying again and was holding on to a fantasy that Will Hepburn had survived  the sinking of his merchantman by a Spanish galleon.
Thus, on the brisk autumn evening when Fowler lingered in the close across the street from Cockie’s House, he was not there to spy.  He was playing the role of a lovesick suitor, afraid to cross the avenue and knock on the door at so late an hour, settling instead for an occasional back lit tableau  of a shadow women appearing through the linen of the summertime window coverings. Had he been the least bit brazen he would have marched directly to the door instead of cowering in the darkness, and would not have seen the figure of a man lurking in the narrow alleyway between Cockie House and the residence next door to it.   Because he was a spy and by nature, curious, he put his love-sickness aside and summoned forth his tradecraft.

The man held an object in his hand that Fowler could not identify until the clouds enshrouding the moon blew on.  It was a grappling hook of the sort associated with maritime combat from the time the Roman’s invented it in the third century. Once Fowler had identified it, it was not hard for him to spot the coiled rope on the man’s shoulder and to conclude that the man was up to no good.  Fowler set aside the bouquet of asters he had been carrying and reached for his sword, but he did not charge across the street foolhardily. Sir Francis  Walsingham had taught him that information was often a greater prize than  an opponent’s severed head. Hasty action often led to ultimate defeat. Besides, Fowler was in no rush to get himself killed.

He was puzzled by the man’s inactivity. He remained in the darkness, as inanimate as Fowler, still grasping the hook but making no move to use it. Fowler wondered at the man's inaction  until he applied his familiarity with the surrroundings to the problem.  After dark, Canongate was a relatively quiet street, not at all like the High Street in Edinburgh where there were busy inns and taverns.  The Canongate was more residential. Fowler also knew that  grappling hooks made a noisy clanking sound when they hit their targets. The man outside the Cockie House was waiting for the bells of the new Canongate Tollbooth to mark the hour.

At the first sound of the bells, the culprit wound up the chain and let loose of the hook.  Before the resonance had dissipated, the prong was solidly lodged between the  wings of a smiling gargoyle positioned near the roofline. The man gave it a healthy tug before he began to climb. Fowler ran across Canongate Street like a mad man and launched his body at the spot where the man’s boots met the wall.    With Fowler hanging onto his feet, the man could climb no higher.One more minute and the invader would have been out of Fowler’s reach.

The man  had not seen Fowler coming out of the shadows or he might at least had launched some well placed kicks. But he had been  too preoccupied with falling to notice what was happening until he felt the weight of Fowler’s substantial body pulling him down. He let go of the chain and fell on his back onto a row of stacked flower pots. Fowler thought he might have broken the intruder’s back until the man raised himself on an elbow before he fell back onto the paving stones and swooned. Before he was able to check the injured man,  he felt a heavy hand fall on his shoulder, and Gilbert Cockie knelt down beside him.  Fowler did not need to explain the scenario. The dangling chain and the hook told the story.Someone had already sent a runner to the Tollboth to sound the alarm.

When the Constable of Canongate arrived, the three men speculated that the injured man was a burglar seeking to pillage Gilbert’s store of precious gems and metals, until Gil  searched his  pockets and found a crude sketchmarked with an “X”.
“Daisy’s window,” Gilbert said, gesturing upward to the lighted casement in the upper story.
“Looks like ah cannae throttle him  right off as ah would like…not until he tells us what he’s doing here and who set  him on ma sister.”
It became vital that the man survive long enough to be questioned.
“It is too far to the infirmary,” Fowler announced.
“Help me carry him inside the house. We can ask our questions there, without interference from the neighbors.”
Walsingham would have applauded his decision.  The Constable was certainly happy with Fowler’s suggestion, and gave it his tacit approval with a malevolent leer. Cockie  took one leg and the Constable took the other, and the robust pair  lifted the man by his shoulders. Fowler grabbed his boots. By the time they reached the door, the servants had congregated but let them pass inside.

Daisy stood near the bottom of the inner staircase.  Her eyes locked with Fowler’s. She had already guessed that the episode had something to do with her. They deposited the man on the floor and the varlet Mat Hamilton checked his pulse while Fowler handed her the sketch. He may have been lovesick, but he was still too level-headed to hide the truth from anyone as astute as Mistress Kirkcaldy. She did not fit the role of a damsel who needed protecting.  She walked over to the unconscious man and kicked him in he ribs.

Daisy’s  varlet  Matt Hamilton searched the intruder thoroughly  while Fowler and Gilbert looked on. The Constable was outside canvassing the alleyway between the houses, looking for clues among the broken shards of pottery.  Daisy stepped back and  hovered by the door, not out of fear but to keep the gathered onlookers off the stoop. She had sent her housekeeper Isabeth upstairs to make certain Peter remained sleeping in his room.  He was already too curious for his own good. She was relieved that Peter’s nursery window had not been the target. If it had been, she would have taken the poker from the hearth and bashed the villian’s head in, and there would have been no  hope of getting any of the Constable’s  questions answered.

It was no surprise when Hamilton discovered that the trespasser had a small dagger called a sgian dubh tucked in the folds of his clothing.  All that  did was identify him as a Scot and not a foreigner. Daisy kept one of her own in a little pouch tied around her waist.  But the intruder had several pieces of coiled and knotted animal hide with handles attached at the ends in the pocket of his weskit.  When Hamilton raised them up for all to see, Daisy’s hand went to her neck.

Hamilton had grown up in Fifeshire on a farm and he probed the man as if he were an injured sheep. 
“He seems to have a chipped tailbone and a dislocated hip. The remaining injuries are less severe.   He needs to go to the infirmary in the Tollbooth –not the one up the road-the one in Leith. 
They have a military surgeon who deals with such injuries. We could arrange a horse litter.”
“Or we could dump him in the Nor Loch,” said the Constable who had finished his search outside the house.
 “The rapscallion had a purse of Spanish gold,” he added, tossing a pouch on the table.
The prisoner began to moan and opened his eyes.  Gil threw a pitcher of water in his face to rouse him. When the man  recovered his senses, Fowler began to question him methodically, much like a parent questioning an errant child.  His target’s  only response was a series of negative head-shakes . 
Daisy had endured enough of Fowler’s mollycoddling. The man has been sent to do murder.  There was no other reason for the knotted cords.
She left her station beside the door and marched across the room and fell to her knees.  She reached over with her left hand and grabbed a handful of the man’s hair and lifted his head off the tiles.  Then she reached into the folds of the kirtle with her right hand, withdrew her own sgian and pressed it against his throat.
“Dinnae think that ‘cause ah am a lass ah will nae slit your  throat, ya filthy scag,” she said, bearing down with the blade until it drew blood.  She put her finger to it and then pressed her bloodied finger to his lips.
“Ah dinnae have time tae  play games wi' the likes of ye.”
“Perhaps I’d best have another look in yonder alley,” the constable said as he withdrew. What Mistress Kirkcaldy was prepared to do did not need require witnessing by a representative of the law.
“Ya see, even yonder  lawman  knows that ah’ll do it,” she said, applying more pressure to the man’s neck. Her act not only drew blood, but also generated a grunt.
Daisy released her grip on the man’s hair and let his head slam down on the tile.
He  looked first at Hamilton and Gilbert, and then settled his eyes on Fowler.
“Cannae ya gents save me from yonder She-Devil?”
Hamilton  turned his back to hide the laugh he could not suppress, and Fowler prepared to join the constable outside..  Aiding and abbetting a murder was not a proper activity for a member of the king’s council.
“You gents can handle him, I reckon.  I’ll go outside to help the constable search the grounds and shoo away he crowd..”
The man’s call was desperate.
Fowler turned back. 
“Perhaps it’s better that I stay.” 
Then he joined Daisy and knelt beside the man.
“Give the lady the name of who it was that sent you here and she’ll likely let you live.”
“Please, Mistress—A rag to stop the bleeding on the back of ma head and then ah’ll tell ya..”
“Only to save the Turkey carpet, ya vermin.”
She instructed Matt Hamilton to bring some rags.  When he came back with a basin and some linen, she told him to lift the stain from the carpet as best he could and roll it out of the way. Then she took the wet dirty toweling and rung it out on the injured man’s face.
“’Tis only water, Brother. Would ya rather ah’d pished on him?”
Gil Cockie was seeing a different side of his sister, and so was  William Fowler.  Daisy  was behaving exactly like Janet Fockart  would have behaved in the circumstances.
“Hamilton, dinnae ye have a cousin who was a butcher?” Daisy asked.
“Aye.  He taught me all I know about dressing game,” Hamilton responded with a wink.
Hamilton had known Daisy Kirkcaldy for a long, long time. She had grown into a replica of his  prior mistress Jean of Argyll, who spared no indignity to her enemies and took no prisoners. Hamtilton knew exactly what was expected of him, and he was thoroughly enjoying his role.
“Best we let the neck be for now and pierce him in the belly instead. That way he's sure to bleed out nice an’ slow. No sense being too quick about it. The constable is an old mate of mine.  He’ll be happy to tell the others that the pisser  fell on his blade.”
Daisy sported a devilish grin that her captive could not see from where he lay but  Gil and Fowler saw it and finally caught on to Matt and Daisy's game. Foster stood up and assumed the threatening posture he often used at court to enforce his will. Gil, who needed nothing more than his size to intimidate the fearless, began sharpening his knife on the leather strap he used to hone his carving tools.
“It was the Armstrongs-- Jock’s boys!” the man shrieked. “They offered us a fistful of  money.”

Daisy let his head fall back against the floor. Blood from the head wound spattered on the tiles.
“Ah know the Armstrongs well enough. Cutthroats and hooligans they well may be but ah cannae recall a time when they dinnae do their own dirty work. What you speak of sounds more like the Eliots than any Armstrong ah have e'er met.”
“The husband is the Armstrong. The Missus is the Eliot.  She would ‘a come herself but he wouldnae let her since she is expecting to drop her bairn before the Saddurday.”
“And who would the likes of ya be to land yerself in the middle of this mess.”
“The only one a’ us Eliots dumb enough to take the purse ma sister  offered.”

Fowler saw his opening.  The Eliots and Armstrongs had been locked in a blood feud with the Hepburns since before anyone could remember. Historically,  Borderers had pursued  their vendettas in the Borderlands, but even the strange protocol of the Reiver bands was changing. He was not surprised that they were bringing their vendetta into the city.  But the plan did not seem like the concoction of any Borderer.

“Are you saying that you bought your way into this cowardly deed because Mistress Kirkcaldy’s  dead husband was a Hepburn?” 
“Oh Nay. Nothing at all like that, Mister. We made our peace with Will Hepburn long ‘fore he upped and disappeared. It is his cousin Bothwell who churns our innards.  And ah was nae sent to kill the little wadwife. Ah  was supposed to threaten to stick her bairn if she dinnae tell me where her nephew Ferniehirst is headed, but ah had no intention to do the evil deed. ``
"Why would you care where Sir Andrew Ker of Fernehirst's travels take him?"
"He has gone abroad to meet up with the king's cousin Wild Frank Stewart, the crazy earl of Bothwell,  and there’s a pot of English silver for the man who can tell Mister Robin Cecil when and where.”
“Liar!” Daisy hissed.  “My nephew spits on traitors the likes of Lord Francis Stewart.”
Daisy had drawn the sgian dubh from the folds of her nightdress and was fumbling it.
Fowler was not certain what Daisy planned to do with her dagger, but she appeared about to wield it, and to be on the safe side, he wrapped his cloak around her so she could not strike.It was like trying to restrain a wild piglet in a burlap sack, but with her brother Gilbert’s superior strength they finally settled her. She did not seem happy when they demanded she surrender the knife but finally she passed it to Gil.  Fowler decided to be careful never to cast aspersions on any of her kinsmen.
The man on the floor was noticeably relieved.Tears began to flow.
“What else?” Fowler said, sensing that this was his chance to wring the rest of it from the half-crazed prisoner before the head wound rendered him unconscious. Fowler had his own history with Francis Stewart dating back to a trip he had made to Naples in 1598 ostensibly to purchase art for Queen Anna, but actually to investigate rumors that  Bothwell was soliciting a group of Italians as potential financiers of a Scottish invasion. The man on the floor was quite correct in calling Frank Stewart mad. It turned out that the Italians were not bankers but sorcerers and witches. Bothwell brought the men to Brussels where the magicians failed to find a way of invading Scotland through occult means, and Fowler laughed the whole way home. He conjured up his own visions of the Orkneys being invaded by Italians on broomsticks.  In any case, it appeared that Bothwell was back to his old pursuits and again conspiring with Sir Andrew Ker. Although Mistress Kirkcaldy  may have scoffed at such an alliance, Fowler did not like the sound of it. Ferniehirst had been staying away from court and had openly disagreed with the king’s blatantly pro-English policies. It would not have been the first time that Kerr had entered Bothwell’s camp. He gave the man a sip of ale to urge him to continue talking.

 “Ah swear tae ya, Sir, that is the whole of what ah was told,  but ah  heard my cousins talkin’ to another man—an Englishman who runs a livery out of Berwick and who does business with us from time tae time—horses for the most part. But sometimes he brokers jobs that require talents other than rustling, skills special to a few of ma kinsmen from Liddesdale  of the sort ya wound nae want tae meet up with.  Ah dinnae get the whole of it, but from the gist of what ah heard, it has to do with fouling a plot to put a split-tailed papist nun on the Scottish throne,  and Ker and Bothwell are in the thick a' it.”   "Sweet Jesu, not again," Daisy said with a sigh.

This is an unedited draft of an early part of  1603:The Queen's Revenge.  The storyline follows the second book in the Midwife's Secret books, The Other Daughter: Midwife's Secret II,  in which we meet Daisy Kirkcaldy, Will Hepburn and Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst, as they become embroiled in the mystery of La Belle Ecossaise, Sister Marguerite d' Kircaldie.  

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