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William Constable, astrologer and physician, has been summoned by Sir Francis Walsingham to assist Dr John Foxe in the examination of an object captured from an enemy agent.
I hear the sound of raised voices nearby. Someone shouts. I cannot distinguish the words, but the angry tone is unmistakeable. The door opens and Walsingham brushes past the outstretched arm and bowed head of a servant without waiting to be announced. His eyes shine with sharp intensity and the atmosphere in the room is changed. A quiet conversation with a leisurely breakfast has gone; the air crackles with urgency and menace.
‘Gentlemen, I beg your pardon for my brusqueness.’ He eyes the table and our plates of fish. ‘I will join with your refreshment. Good food and drink will improve my humor.’ He takes a knife, fills a plate, pours a cup of wine and takes a seat across the table. I watch him as he eats in silence for some minutes, his eyes firmly fixed on the business of easing his hunger. The settlement in his mood is visible and eventually, he lifts his head, smiles at John and me in turn and pushes his plate away.
‘I trust that you have both had a comfortable night? I am eager to hear what you have learned from your examinations.’ His eyes narrow as he looks at John. ‘Doctor Foxe, are you quite well? Your colour suggests that you may require some warmth and rest.’
‘Thank you for your consideration, Mister Secretary. I regret that an old infirmity of the lungs has returned to trouble me, as it often does in the winter months. William has been most thoughtful and attentive to my needs and I hope that I shall return to full health shortly.’
Walsingham turns to me. ‘So, William, the main burden of this task has fallen on you. Have you made progress?’
‘John and I examined the box and chart. The Aramaic script on the box and the natal chart together conspire to suggest harm and disruption to Her Majesty.’ Walsingham’s face is set hard and it is impossible to determine if he has foreknowledge of the message. ‘The insinuation is that Her Majesty had a hidden or stillborn child in August of 1560.’ I hesitate, unsure of how much detail to offer and John continues after a brief pause.
‘The translation of the Aramaic script is unfinished and somewhat cryptic. It is recently cut, but masquerades as an ancient Judean prophecy referring to deliverance from the queen of a faraway land by Rome through a hidden or bastard daughter. The star chart is plain in its assertion of character flaws in Queen Elizabeth and her delivery of a bastard child. Although the box was captured in France, the chart was prepared in England.’ He clears his throat before adding, ‘We are of one mind. The implication is manifestly false and we suspect that this is part of a larger conspiracy.’
A silence follows. The effort in making his statement seems to have taken its toll on John and his body sags into his chair. The door opens and Mistress Goodrich enters carrying a tray with a steaming bowl of what must be John’s soother. She bobs a curtsey to Walsingham, bows her head to me and sets the tray down in front of John. She asks John if the potion might be to his liking. He cups the bowl in his hands, takes a sip and confirms his deep satisfaction to her. She colours a little at his praise, smiles and departs after another brief curtsey to Walsingham. I remark on Mistress Goodrich’s efficiency and John murmurs his agreement.
‘She keeps an orderly house and she has a good mind,’ says Walsingham. ‘She has been in my service for over fifteen years and I have come to rely on her management and shrewd observations.’ I assume that last part of his statement refers to her watchfulness and reports to Walsingham on his house guests. I cannot think that I have erred in her presence, but must take care with… the box and the papers; was she spying on me? I feel the heat rise in my neck and must hope that this does not show to excess in my face. Walsingham continues. ‘I thank you both for your enquiries. The date and scribblings on the chart suggested a similar mischief to me, but it is satisfying to have your confirmation. You should know that this is a matter of extreme sensitivity to Her Majesty. She takes any intimation of an improper liaison and childbirth to heart. I should be grateful if you would pen me detailed notes on your findings before leaving this house.’ Walsingham adjusts his seat and shifts his gaze towards me. ‘Meanwhile, I should be interested to learn why you consider that this may be an element in a wider scheme against our state.’
#HistoricalFiction #Elizabethan #Tudor #Walsingham #Thriller #Constable