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In 1566, Elizabeth Tudor faces tremendous opposition from Parliament for ruling England without the help of a husband. Instead, she turns to her Privy Plot Council for help, only to discover from her royal herbalist that a woman has drowned in a tub of starch. Soon another garment worker meets the same rigid fate. Elizabeth becomes unbending in her attempts to solve the murders, as well as iron out the problems of her kingdom. But with her list of suspects growing—and firm evidence pointing to those she trusts the most—Elizabeth must hang the murderer out to dry or risk losing her reign—or her life.
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About the Author
Karen Harper is the author of seven previous Elizabeth I mysteries: The Poyson Garden, The Tidal Poole, The Twylight Tower, The Queene's Cure, The Thorne Maze, The Queene's Christmas, and The Fyre Mirror. She also writes historial romance and contemporary suspense novels, including the bestselling The Falls. Karen Harper lives in Columbus, Ohio, and Naples, Florida.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter the First
"Just everyone in the city is talking about what you said to the deputation from Parliament, Your Grace," Meg Milligrew told the queen the next morning. As Her Majesty's strewing herb mistress of the privy chamber, Meg scented the draperies and bedclothes with fresh, fragrant herbs each day.
They were more than queen and servant, for Meg had been with Elizabeth in the difficult days before the throne was hers. Now, with select others, she sometimes helped Her Majesty in dangerous situations that had to be kept private. The young woman resembled her monarch, and that had served the queen's purpose more than once.
Meg had recently returned from a week at Hampstead Heath, a rural area just north of London. She had gone to gather autumn herbs, but also to see her ten-year-old daughter, Sally. Years before, though Meg had been told by her now deceased husband that their only child had died of the small pox, he had actually given the baby away to a country couple. Later Meg learned that her child lived, though her little face was horribly scarred. Meg visited Sally at her family's small farm several times a year, laden with gifts from the queen so that the child would know, as Elizabeth had said in a note to her, "that you are special to us."
"Then what are they saying about me today?" the queen asked, looking up from the letter she was writing.
"That you are as strong as your sire, old King Henry, even if you are one-tenth of his size, that's what I heard the bargeman say."
Elizabeth shouted a laugh. "I like that. What else?"
"That no matter if the Scots queen has a son, they prefer their virgin queen since she ispure English."
Elizabeth threw down her quill and stood. "Their virgin queen is pure English," she echoed as Meg began to rub the bed curtains with sweet cicely and woodruff. "I'd wager my people are pleased I am pure English because of all the foreigners coming to our shores these days. Our island is becoming quite a stew of strangers and their ways."
"But that means new fripperies and fancies," Meg said, as she sneezed at her own scented dust. She jammed a finger under her nose and spoke nasally. "I've smelled that new nicotine smoke the sailors inhale from their pipes, 'drinking tobacco' as they call it. Others are trying it, too, though I don't s'pose it will ever catch on with proper people."
"You never know about the passion for fashion, my Meg."
"Like the Dutch ladies started with their starch. Oh, by the way, Your Grace, I brought back baskets of cuckoo-pint roots for Hannah von Hoven's starch. I'm grateful you let me sell to her, as it gives me extra money to send to Sally's family. I'm hoping to harvest enough of the roots next year to visit your other starcher and see if she'll buy some, too. Hannah's been arguing with me about the prices lately, saying the cost is too dear, when I work hard to find and dig up those roots. Still, what would she do without starch, and what would we all do without the Dutch ladies bringing in their secrets of it?"
"What indeed? Keep to our limp little ruffs or start a new trend, I warrant. But as for fancy foreign imports, I draw the line at French cooking. They actually eat frog legs," Elizabeth said with a shudder, "and who knows what else they try to hide under all those strange sauces. The Earl of Leicester's looking for a Frenchie cook, and I told him I don't trust one of them worth a fig in a kitchen I'm eating from."
"But won't there be French stuffs to buy at the shops in Sir Thomas Gresham's new mercantile exchange when it's finished? That's what else is on everyone's lips in London, how your money man, as they call him, looks like he's building a place bigger even than his house on Bishopsgate. After he's lived abroad in Antwerp all these years, they say he's building a barn house just like the Flemish built there."
"Not a barn house, my Meg--a bourse."
"That's right--a bourse, just like the foreign one."
Frowning, Elizabeth leaned on an elbow into a recessed window overlooking the Thames. She pushed the mullioned pane farther ajar to catch the crisp breeze off the river. The autumn sun felt fine, but with it in her eyes, even leaning out a bit, she couldn't see far in the direction where Gresham's great endeavor was under way.
"Sir Thomas Gresham's new financial and shopping establishment," the queen said, "may be inspired by the mercantile exchange in Antwerp, but it is to be an English exchange house, with shops to sell our goods as well as some of the finer imported ones. But predominantly English, not foreign, for that belief has always undergirded his philosophy even when he's lived abroad."
Sir Thomas Gresham was her chief financial advisor and one of the new breed she was relying on in her reign: men of exceptional talent, not necessarily of noble birth; men like William Cecil himself, who had been Thomas Gresham's mentor. Brilliant and adept in international finance, Gresham had risen fast and far under her brother, King Edward. Elizabeth's sister, Queen Mary, had dismissed him because he was not Catholic, but Hugh Dauntsey, the man Mary had put in charge, made such a botch of England's foreign financial affairs that she had eaten royal crow and brought Gresham swiftly back.
In Elizabeth's reign, Thomas had helped her pay off foreign debts at good rates and strengthened English coinage, which her father had debased with all his wild spending. Gresham had been her eyes and ears abroad, living in Antwerp in Flanders but traveling widely. She admired and relied on him so heavily she had knighted him. Even though her lord treasurer, William Paulet, who had served the Tudors even longer than Gresham had, often spoke against the younger man as rash and too freethinking, she would bet her kingdom on Gresham. More than once, when it came to the fashions of finance, she already had.
"Meg, when you go out, have the guards send a secretary and a rider to me. I believe I will inform Sir Thomas that I will come myself to see this new wonder of our age."
The queen set out that afternoon garbed like a prosperous merchant's wife in a sturdy, dark worsted gown, the hood of a cloak pulled over her red head. With three others, she went by unmarked barge to the river steps at Dowgate Street. Lady Rosie Radcliffe, likewise attired, attended Elizabeth with two plainly dressed, armed guards. These were her most trusted yeoman, Clifford, and her longtime protector, Stephen Jenks.
Sir Thomas Gresham, with two of his men waiting with horses, met the incognito party at the landing. He was dressed in somber black, not in mourning for his son or to match the current style but because he always wore that practical, businesslike hue.
Gresham at forty-seven was beginning to show his age. Furrows lined his brow, and crow's-feet perched at the corners of his gray-blue eyes. His taut lips were framed by a trimmed silvered beard. Thinner than usual, almost gaunt, he leaned on a walking stick and limped markedly from being thrown and nearly crushed to death by his horse six years ago.
The queen realized her money man had also been aged by grief. Two years ago he had lost his only son and heir at age twenty from malignant fever. Thomas and his wife, Anne, had a young daughter they had adopted in Antwerp, but she could hardly inherit the massive Gresham fortune. So Sir Thomas had decided to spend part of his wealth on his huge building project to help his homeland and perpetuate his name.
"Thomas, I am pleased you recognize me without the fabulous pearls you brought me," she jested as they huddled together at the windy watergate. "I thought it best you give me a tour without a lot of to-do and hangers-on."
"I am honored, Your Majesty. I believe this exchange will be a star in the crown of your capital city, and I am proud to show it to its crowned queen, even in fledgling form as it is. And, I must say, this project has begun a building boom in other parts of the city."
The mutual admiration between the financial genius and his queen ran deeper than many knew; theirs was a meeting not only of minds but of memories. Thomas had been one of the first to pledge allegiance to Elizabeth when she became queen, and he had served on her first council. He, too, had lost his mother when he was but three and knew what it was to have a stepmother. Like the queen, he'd had a powerful father, albeit a commoner, in whose footsteps he walked: His sire had been high sheriff and lord mayor of London as well as founder of the Gresham family fortune through trade with the Merchant Adventurers.
Jenks cupped his hands to give Elizabeth a boost up to her mount, and she lifted her knee over the horn of the sidesaddle to settle herself. With a guard before and behind her, the party strung out along Dowgate, heading north toward Cornhill in the most mercantile part of town, crowded with shops and livery company halls. This late in the day, the hawkers' cries were few, as many were already home. By now goodwives or servants had purchased whatever would grace the tables of London this evening before darkness fell.
"To clear the area for your visit, I gave the crew an early good day," Thomas explained as he rode beside but slightly behind her. "There are but a few necessary watchmen about the place now."
People made way for the mounted party, though some stared up at them. Elizabeth kept her hood pulled close to her face. She startled as a pan of slop from one of the overhanging stories above just missed her skirt. She urged her horse toward the middle of the street, despite the fact it then walked in the shallow sewer ditch. Just ahead, she saw the large cleared site, looking clean and spare with great marble stones rising from its base.
"This will be very grand, Thomas, bigger than I imagined it when you explained your plans," she said as they reined in. Both he and Jenks helped her down. Three men were on the site, guarding stacks of materials and supplies, but only one seemed to pay them heed.
"It was shameful the way merchant traders had to meet in the open on Lombard Street for years, Your Grace. There we were much subject to the weather and to the possibility that someone lurking nearby would overhear us. Yet I am keeping the tradition of a bell rung twice a day to summon traders. Only this bell will hang from a high tower--there," he said, pointing skyward. "And it, like the dormers of the fourth-floor slate window, will be graced with the sign of the Gresham name."
"Your grasshopper insignia?" she asked, for she recalled the name Gresham came from two old English words for "grass" and "farm," a farm no doubt full of the high-jumping insects. Now, as never before, that sign seemed a perfect symbol for this ambitious, loyal man who leaped fast and high in her service and esteem. Thomas's notes to her always had his grasshopper crest pressed into the wax from his signet ring; he wore a gold one now on his left index finger.
He took her on a tour, pointing out sites whereon would stand outer colonnaded arches supporting second-story rows of shops for mercers, smiths, and tradesmen. Within the future colonnades would lie the open space for a vast inner courtyard where merchants and traders from England and all of Europe could meet and bargain for personal and national fortunes.
"No more, I pray," he told her solemnly, "will the focus of financial power be on the Continent, among our foes as well as friends, but here, in the heart of our England. By the way, Your Majesty, second-floor niches will each be graced by the bronze and painted statue of an English ruler, with yourself in the very center. And, of course, your royal arms will hang over the Gresham arms at the front double-arched entry."
"All that pleases me mightily, for this grand edifice must be not be a mere copy of a foreign bourse but English to its foundation. As you say, it will bring the control of capital and trade monopolies to our very door."
"But the future of our mercantile power lies in competition, Your Grace, not in monopolies," he corrected, then looked as if he'd like to snatch his words back. "Though I realize," he added hastily, "that the monarchy keeps powerful noble factions loyal by bestowing monopolies."
"I've always encouraged competition and then granted monopolies to the best man. In the case of the fledgling starch industry, however, my approval shall go to the best woman."
"Forgive me, Your Majesty, but monopolies in the financial future I--we--envision must rely on open competition."
"As I do now," she insisted, her voice rising. Though she was hardly dealing with stiff-necked parliamentarians, she faced him squarely. "Here is my credo on all of that, Thomas. Competition--and perhaps monopolies, if they are best--is for deserving men and women. Why, if I didn't believe in competition for all, I'd still have Lord Paulet handing out consignments and gratuities as my father did. I keep Paulet as treasurer of state in name only, a figurehead. It's you I consult, not him, though I know he fumes at both of us for that."
"More than fumes, Your Majesty, now that you bring him up. I warrant he tries to do me damage in the eyes of others--including my queen--at each turn."
"But I am onto him, and he still serves his purpose to keep my conservative-minded men in line. They've been seething since we stripped to the bone that bloated bureaucracy of Paulet's friends my father left behind."
"I have often been grateful you are so bold and clear-sighted in assessing people, Your Grace."
"Though there have been a few who have hoodwinked me," she muttered, as they began to stroll again. "But, Thomas, as for my fostering competition, even foreign if need be, take the burgeoning new starch industry. Mrs. Dingen van der Passe and her hovering hulk of a husband have more than once tried to suggest I bestow upon them the right to control all London starch houses, and I've told them no. I cannot see shutting the door on such young talent as her competitors, someone like Mistress Hannah von Hoven, who also--"
Though Thomas had seemed sure-footed, he stumbled, grunted, and almost pitched into her. She caught his arm as his walking stick clattered to the cobbles. One of his watchmen, a short, sinewy man with eyebrows that seemed knit together as one dark slash across his face, darted to pick it up, then backed away again. Elizabeth was surprised that anyone had stood so close, for she had not seen or heard him. But she noted now that the man emanated a strange acrid scent she had smelled earlier, no doubt the residue of mortar or resin on his person.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty," Thomas said. He turned away a moment and called to the man--perhaps a personal guard, she thought--"My thanks, Badger."
"Thomas, I will forgive you on the condition that you visit both of the starch houses I've mentioned, Mrs. van der Passe's large one and Hannah von Hoven's small establishment, to see what I mean. I've been sending ruffs to both, encouraging both. Indeed, Hannah's small shop is holding its own in the burgeoning business."
Suddenly, he seemed more distressed than his near fall had made him. "Your Most Gracious Majesty, I keep so busy here--"
"I will only be a gracious majesty if you humor me on this. I'll not have you believe your queen is not forward-thinking. I will inform both women that the illustrious Sir Thomas Gresham, financier and builder of the English exchange, will honor them with a visit. My herb mistress sells Hannah the roots of the cuckoo-pint herb to make starch, so everyone profits, you'll see."
Thomas nodded, but she could see she'd upset him. Perhaps, despite the numerous industries he had personally encouraged, one run strictly by women to promote style was beneath him. If so, her heartfelt admiration of the man would suffer. Too, she had heard that he and his wife were not getting on of late, and she never approved of marital discord among her closest subjects.
"I shall look forward to the visits and encourage both ladies," Thomas assured her, but he still looked annoyed. Men would ever be men, she thought. She told herself again: Though she could hardly rule without them, she'd never take one on as mate or king.
Carting four hemp sacks of walnut-sized cuckoo-pint roots, two sacks knotted over each shoulder, Meg Milligrew left the palace through the kitchen block and headed for Kings Street at midmorning the next day. Under the Court Gate, she nearly bumped into Ned Topside. Ned, whose real name was Edward Thompson, was the queen's principal player for court entertainments.
With roguish green eyes, chiseled nose, curly hair, and well-turned legs, Ned was beguiling and knew it. Talented, too, for the clever thespian could become a prince or a pauper in the blink of an eye. When Elizabeth Tudor was still a princess and struggling simply to remain safe, Ned had taught Meg not only to read and write but to mimic the queen in stance and speech, so that she could serve as Her Majesty's counterpart upon occasions of the queen's choosing.
Ned was witty, besides, with his glib tongue and teasing ways, a man women adored on stage and off. Though she'd lied to herself about it for years, Meg knew she not only hated but loved Ned, and had since she'd laid eyes on him eight years ago. She considered herself a reasonable person, but, curse the man, he always managed to make her sound like a ninnyhammer.
"Mistress Milligrew," he declaimed, and swept off his cap in a bow, "as they used to say in days of yore, whither goest thou?"
"Where you'd like to go, you blackguard, but Her Majesty has sent me this time instead. To Hannah von Hoven's with roots to make starch."
"Her Grace only sent me once to her with your cuckoo roots when you were puking, as I recall. After all, I deem you the real stiff and prickly Mistress Starch, not her."
"That isn't funny. And one official visit doesn't mean you didn't go back to see her on your own and more than once, smelling of pomade, I heard you did."
"Did Jenks tell you that?" he inquired, taking two of the sacks from her shoulders so fast that, suddenly unbalanced, she almost tipped into him.
"What if he did?" she challenged, her voice rising.
"Jenks is still sweet on you and wants you to be angry with me, that's all. I don't love Hannah."
"Love?" she screeched, snatching back her sacks. "When did that ever enter into the talk between you and one of your--"
"I missed you, too, the week you were away," he interrupted, and darted a quick kiss on her forehead. He wedged her in with one arm on the arched wall of the gate, heedless of how people stared. To her amazement, he tenderly brushed her flyaway hair from her face and tucked the loose tresses behind each ear.
In a silky voice, he said, "You always did have the most lovely skin, and your ears are like little sea shells. Meg, Hannah may be fair of face and form, but you are--"
"--onto your seductive flatteries, Ned Topside, actor extraordinaire. Save your lip for Her Majesty--or both lips for Hannah. Now leave off and let me pass!"
Instead, he stepped closer and put both big, warm hands on hers where she gripped the tied necks of her sacks. Her voice came out breathy this time. "Don't trifle with me, Ned."
"You are not a trifle to me, lovey." His voice, too, was husky, which only made the butterflies in her stomach beat their wings harder in her wretched need for him. "Let me go with you," he whispered, "and after we can--"
"I have business with Hannah and don't need you underfoot!" She wrenched herself from his touch. Devil take it, she should have wed Jenks when she had the chance two years ago, but she feared then her heart would be untrue not only to herself but to dear Jenks. And after he had saved Ned's life, they both owed him dearly.
"Her Majesty," Meg said in a calmer tone, noticing that several palace servants upon their own errands had stopped to stare, "has sent me to tell Hannah that Sir Thomas Gresham will visit her soon with some questions and she's not to think aught is amiss. Now, if you please, let me pass."
She was certain Ned, too, realized they had an audience, because he dramatically lifted his hands, palms out, to his shoulders, as though he would never touch her again.
"If I pleased, you would not pass," he said. Those green eyes seemed to devour her. "I had hoped for a softer tone and sweeter touch after your week away. I only hope things went much better between you and your little Sally than between us. Good day then, Mistress Milligrew, alias Mistress Starch."
With a half-bow and a flourish of his hand, he disappeared into the small crowd that had gathered. Her cheeks aflame, Meg turned and hied herself up Whitehall toward Charing Cross just west of the royal mews, berating herself with each step.
Ned had seemed so sincere when he'd mentioned her daughter and bid a hurt farewell. Why did she always have to act the shrew with him when he made advances? If he didn't care for her one whit, wouldn't he have given up long ago? Or did he just like the challenge? For the love of heaven, why couldn't she feel this swept away by solid, sturdy Jenks?
She saw a little girl about Sally's age sitting in a doorway, cutting scraps of cloth with a small knife. Tears filled Meg's eyes. Sally. She must keep her thoughts on Sally, not Ned.
Though she made her way through the crowded cross-traffic of Charing Cross, Meg saw again the day--last Wednesday, it was--when she and Sally had gone off alone to cut the cuckoo-pint roots she now bore on her shoulders.
Look in the shaded spots for the telltale bright red berries, but don't eat any, Meg heard her own warning voice say to her daughter. All parts of the plant are poison. Why, even touching the starch made from the roots turns the hands of laundresses and starchers chapped and red.
But it won't hurt us to just pick them, Mother Meg, before the starch is all boiled up?
Meg smiled even now at the way the girl called her "Mother Meg" and her adoptive mother "Mother Susan." They both tried hard to keep anything from harming or even frightening the child. Her poor face was so scarred from the small pox that had nearly killed her as a baby, but her adopted family owned no mirrors, and the child knew she was cherished.
Meg prayed that would be enough to sustain Sally when her parents told her--soon but reluctantly they would, they said--about her disfigured face. Meanwhile, Meg feared the girl would see her image in a polished kettle or horse-trough water. At least Sally was living on a small, isolated farm on the fringe of the heath, not here in London where a woman's face could be her fate. Gracious, if Hannah's starch business didn't make her name and fortune, surely the blessing of her beauty would.
Even though the cuckoo-pint plant is cursed to be poison, Meg had told Sally, the Lord God gave it a special blessing.
Sally had looked up into Meg's face, breathless to hear. What blessing, Mother Meg?
The pollen--the seed dust--of the plant glows in the dark, like fairy lamps. Can you see it on the leaves in the deep shade there?
Oh, yes--pretty fairy lamps! she'd cried, clapping her hands.
The fen folk call them shiners, my dearest girl, and can even find them at night by their glow. I think the stuff is so pretty, I've collected it over the years, and keep it in a little box. In daylight it is mere dust, but at night--bright magic!
Isn't it silly, then? Sally had said with a giggle. Poison that glows and draws one to it . . .
"Eh, watch where ja going, ja clay-brained baggage!" A man's voice jolted Meg from her reverie.
She'd bumped into him, a tall man with hulking shoulders. Though he was all in black, he sported a flat taffeta cap of striped red and blue. He sounded foreign, but then, so did too many in London these days. As he, fortunately, turned away and hurried off, Meg noted she'd somehow walked a few doors past Hannah's. From here she could see laundresses and bleachers, called whitsters, guarding their linens spread to dry in St. Martin's fields just beyond, so many sheets it seemed to have snowed. She turned around and went through a narrow alley to the entrance of the young Flemish woman's starch house.
Compared to the large establishment Mrs. Dingen van der Passe owned over on Holywell Street, Hannah's place was small and plain, just a large loft; three women worked with her, instead of the veritable army Mrs. van der Passe employed. Both of the starchers were from Flanders in the low, or Dutch, countries, but the older woman had come first and caught the queen's eye. Why, Dingen van der Passe claimed she could make a ruff from a spider's web, and she charged five pounds to teach others to starch their own neck and wrist ruffs at home if they didn't bring them in like the servants of the queen's courtiers did.
"Hannah!" Meg called up the narrow enclosed stairs, wishing the sprightly woman would come down to help her lug these sacks. Meg hoped she wasn't still upset over the way they'd contended over the price of the herbs last time. Gracious, that petite, pretty woman could screech and argue, and she was tight with the purse strings.
"Hannah, it's Meg Milligrew with your starch roots!"
Silence from above. Not even the usual echo of laughter or patter of quick feet. Was no one up there to help, even if Hannah had stepped out? Grunting, Meg trudged up the steps, bumping her sacks against the walls, half wishing she had let Ned come along. She really had been too hard on him.
Though amazed to find the loft deserted, she saw nothing amiss. Suspended from stretched cords, rows of newly starched ruffs of all shapes and sizes dried in the brisk air from a window set ajar. The neck-sized wooden forms that held ruffs while they were set with heated poking sticks bore finished ruffs.
Meg thumped her burden to the floor and noted that the low braziers that heated the poking sticks had burned down to silver ashes. She walked toward the long, open window overlooking the fields. Within the large, coffin-shaped dipping vat, the bath of milky white starch lay undisturbed--but for the stiff human hand that floated up from beneath to break the surface.
Copyright © 2005 by Karen Harper