Authors: Mary Hooper
By Royal Command
For the Twyford Soirée Group,
who are all within these pages
he first half of December was a weary time when drizzle fell continually and it never seemed to get fully light, but on the fifteenth of the month it finally stopped raining. Damp still seemed to pervade everything, however: my clothes, my hair and whatever I touched, and all along the riverside at Mortlake lay thick grey mud which had been churned up by passing horses. In the afternoon, when I looked out of the kitchen window to see if I could spy Isabelle, I noticed that a dingy, opaque fog had rolled off the river and was now enclosed by the overhanging trees. These were clammy with mist, their bare twigs dripping with moisture.
Such a dreary day was not, perhaps, the best time for anyone to come a-visiting, especially someone like Isabelle, who was extreme nervous about coming to the magician’s house and had hardly set foot inside the door before. I’d invited her on this day, however, knowing that the family were all going to be out. This did not happen often, for Dr Dee, my employer, was fully occupied in his library most of the time and hardly went abroad at all unless his presence at Court was requested by the queen.
On this day, however, which was a Sunday, the whole family, including the two little girls I was nursemaid to, Beth and Merryl, had been invited to the home of a near-neighbour in Barn Elms on the occasion of his birthday. Mistress Allen, Mistress Dee’s maid, had gone with them, and Mistress Midge, our cook and housekeeper, had taken herself off to see her aged sister, who lived a ferry ride away across the river in Chiswyck.
I set the kettle on the fire and leaned over the big stone sink again to see if Isabelle was coming. She and I had become friends shortly after I’d begun to live in Mortlake and had much in common – although she didn’t make her living as a housemaid, but bought and sold goods at the market.
As I stared into the mist, longing for her to arrive, a shape gradually emerged, which a moment later resolved itself into Isabelle, treading carefully, holding her skirts high and wearing high wooden pattens over her shoes to raise herself above the mire.
I ran into the outside passageway to meet her, carrying a candle to light her in.
‘’Tis horrid out, the lanes are thick with muck,’ she said, shaking off her pattens at the door and hanging her cloak, ‘and as I passed through the marketplace a cart went by at such a pace that it covered me from head to toe in muddy water!’
I looked at her and couldn’t help but laugh, for not only had her gown been splashed all down the front, but her face had mud-coloured freckles all over.
‘Leave your gown to dry and we’ll brush it clean before you go,’ I said. I handed her a clean piece of rag. ‘And here’s a cloth to wipe your face.’
She dampened the cloth in a bucket of icy water and dabbed it across cheeks already pink with cold, then found her reflection in a copper saucepan and, peering in it, rubbed harder. Her face being cleaned satisfactorily, she fastened back strands of her long dark hair which had come out of the coil at the nape of her neck. As she did so, she glanced anxiously over her shoulder. ‘You are
sure no one is home?’
‘I am certain,’ I assured her. ‘We all went to church as usual this morning, then I made Beth and Merryl tidy and the family went off in a carriage.’
‘A carriage!’ she said in admiration, for carriages were still somewhat rare in our part of the world. ‘I should like to have seen that. Was it very grand?’
I shook my head. ‘Dr Dee called it a carriage, but I should have said it was a hired cart.’
‘And they won’t come back unexpectedly?’
‘They will not,’ I assured her. ‘Indeed, Mistress Midge said that Dr Dee was so pleased to get an invitation to dine from such a noble source that he’ll likely stay until midnight – or his host shows him the door.’
‘Who is his host?’
‘Well,’ I said with some import, ‘’tis Sir Francis Walsingham.’
’ Isabelle’s face lightened with interest. ‘There is much talk of the queen’s spymaster. Have you ever seen him?’
‘Never,’ I said. ‘But I have seen Lady Walsingham, because she has been here three or more times to pay her respects to the mistress following her confinement.’
‘And does she dress very fine?’
‘Extreme fine,’ I said, remembering the last time Lady Walsingham had called, and the shot-silk gown in brightest sapphire blue and matching cape with pink lining.
‘Was she pleasant?’
‘I can hardly tell,’ I had to admit, ‘for though I ushered her into Mistress Dee’s chamber and curtseyed to her very low and respectful, she barely noticed my presence.’
‘Ah,’ said Isabelle, shrugging her shoulders, ‘that’s always the way. Who notices the likes of us?’
‘Though I may meet with her again one day . . .’ I said with some meaning.
‘Of course!’ said Isabelle. ‘But you still haven’t heard anything?’
I shook my head somewhat despondently. I’d carried out a certain service for Her Grace, Queen Elizabeth, and that exalted lady had sent a message through her fool, Tomas, to say that she was most grateful and that I might be called on to serve her again. When I’d first heard these words, I’d thought she’d meant that I was to attend Court and become one of her ladies-in-waiting, but that was not to be, for Tomas had told me quite frankly that only titled and educated young ladies might take up these positions and attend on the queen. Instead, however, I was to be ready to carry out certain duties for the queen as and when they might occur . . . duties which might involve working covertly for Sir Thomas Walsingham, who managed the queen’s secret network of spies.
‘I suppose it has only been a matter of a few weeks,’ I said, though indeed I was burning with impatience and fair desperate to begin serving the queen, for I revered her highly and would have done anything for her.
Isabelle was rubbing her hands together to try to warm them, all the while looking about her. ‘Such a well-equipped kitchen . . . so many skimmers and pans and cooking tools,’ she said. ‘And that huge table – why, our bedchamber at home could easily fit on to such a thing.’
I nodded, knowing that Isabelle’s family lived in a cottage so poor that the living room barely contained more than a fire with a stew pot over. ‘Dr Dee has more money to spend now,’ I said – for he’d recently carried out a service for a nobleman and been richly rewarded. ‘We’ve had meat to eat every day of these two weeks past. Even on fish days,’ I added.