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London, April, 1537 ” How many husbands did you say?” The king turned his heavy head towards Thomas Cromwell, his Lord Privy Seal. His eyes rested with almost languid indifference on his minister’s grave countenance, but no one in the king’s presence chamber at Hampton Court believed in that indifference.
“And the lady is of what years?”
“Eight and twenty, Highness.”
“She has been busy it would seem,” Henry mused.
“It would seem a husband has little luck in the lady’s bed,” a voice remarked dryly from a dark paneled corner of the chamber.
The king’s gaze swung towards a man of square and powerful build, dressed in black and gold. A man whose soldierly bearing seemed ill suited to his rich court dress, the tapestry-hung comforts of the chamber, the whispers, the spies, the gossipmongering of King Henry’s court. He had an air of impatience, of a man who preferred to be doing rather than talking, but there was a gleam of humor in his eyes, a natural curve to his mouth, and his voice was as dry as sere leaves.
“It would seem you have the right of it, Hugh,” the king responded. “And how is it exactly that these unlucky husbands have met their deaths?”
“Lord Hugh has more precise knowledge than I.” Privy Seal waved a beringed hand towards the man in the corner.
“I have a certain interest, Highness.” Hugh of Beaucaire stepped forward into the light that poured through the diamond-paned windows behind the king’s head. “Lady Mallory, as she now is . . . the widowed Lady Mallory . . . was married at sixteen to a man whose first wife was a distant cousin of my father’s. Roger Needham was Lady Mallory’s first husband. There is some family land in dispute. I claim it for my own son. Lady Mallory will entertain no such claim. She has kept every penny, every hectare of land from each of her husbands.”
“No mean feat,” Privy Seal commented. “But of course there is a father . . . brother . . . uncle to advise and arrange matters for her.”
“No, my lord. The lady manages her affairs herself.”
“How could she do such a thing?” The king’s eyes gleamed in the deep rolls of flesh in which they were embedded like two bright currants in dough.
“She has some considerable knowledge of the law of property, Highness,” Lord Hugh said. “A knowledge the bereaved widow puts into practice before embarking on a new union.”
“She draws up her own marriage contracts?” The king was incredulous. He pulled on his beard, the great carbuncle on his index finger glowing with crimson fire.
“Exactly so, Highness.”
“Body of God!”
“In each of her marriages the lady has ensured that on the death of her husband she inherits lock, stock, and barrel.”
“And the husbands have all died . . .” mused the king.
“Each and every one of them.”
“Are there heirs?”
“Two young daughters. The progeny of her second husband, Lord Hadlow.”
The king shook his head slowly. “Body of God,” he muttered again. “These contracts cannot be overset?”
Privy Seal, himself once an attorney, lifted a sheaf of papers from the desk. “I have had lawyers examining each one with a fine-tooth comb, Highness. They are drawn up as right and tight as if witnessed by the Star Chamber itself.”
“Do we join Hugh of Beaucaire in his interest in these holdings?” Henry inquired.
“When one woman owns most of a county as extensive and as rich in resources as Derbyshire, the king and his exchequer have a certain interest,” Privy Seal said. “At the very least, one might be interested in adequate tithing.”
The king was silent for a minute. When he spoke it was again in a musing tone. “And if, of course, foul play were suspected with any of these . . . uh . . . untimely deaths, then one would not leave the perpetrator in possession of her ill-gotten gains.”
“Or indeed her head,” Privy Seal murmured.
“As I understand it Lord Mallory adhered to the Church of Rome,” Privy Seal continued, stroking his long upper lip. “We could perhaps make some connection between him and the Yorkshire rebellion last year. What think you, Lord Hugh?”
“You would have Mallory make common cause with Robert Aske and his Pilgrimage of Grace, Lord Cromwell?” Lord Hugh looked askance.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Privy Seal said with a shrug. “ ‘Tis but an option . . . to confiscate the woman’s wealth on suspicion of her late husband’s association with Aske’s northern rebellion. ‘Tis a treason to question His Highness’s decision to dissolve the monasteries. There’s many a man been hanged for less, and many an estate thus confiscated for the royal exchequer.”
“Aye,” the king rumbled. “And I’ll see Aske hang for it too.” He looked up once more at Lord Hugh. “But back to this widow. She intrigues me. Do you suspect her of foul play, my lord?”
“Let us just say that I find the coincidences a little difficult to believe. One husband dies falling off his horse in a stag hunt. Now that, I grant Your Highness, is a not uncommon occurrence. But then the second is slain by a huntsman’s arrow . . . an arrow that no huntsman present would acknowledge. The third dies of a sudden and mysterious wasting disease . . . a man in his prime, vigorous, never known a day’s illness in his life. And the fourth falls from a window . . . the lady’s own chamber window . . . and breaks his neck.”
Lord Hugh tapped off each death on his fingers, a faintly incredulous note in his quiet voice as he enumerated the catalogue.
“Aye, ‘tis passing strange,” the king agreed. “We should investigate these deaths, I believe, Lord Cromwell.” Privy Seal nodded. “Hugh of Beaucaire, if it pleases Your Highness, has agreed to undertake the task.”
“I have no objection. He has an interest himself after all . . . but . . .” Here the king paused, frowning. “One thing I find most intriguing. How is it that the lady has managed to persuade four knights, gentlemen of family and property, to agree to her terms of marriage?”
“Witchcraft, Highness.” The Bishop of Winchester in his scarlet robes spoke up for the first time. “There can be no other explanation. Her victims were known to be learned, in full possession of their faculties at the time they made the acquaintance of Lady Guinevere. Only a man bewitched would agree to the terms upon which she insisted. I request that the woman be brought here for examination, whatever findings Lord Hugh makes.”
“Of what countenance is the woman? Do we know?”
“I have here a likeness, made some two years after her marriage to Roger Needham. She may have changed, of course.” Hugh handed his sovereign a painted miniature set in a diamond-studded frame.
The king examined the miniature. “Here is beauty indeed,” he murmured. “She would have had to have changed considerably to be less than pleasing now.” He looked up, closing his large paw over the miniature. “I find myself most interested in making the acquaintance of this beautiful sorceress, who seems also to be an accomplished lawyer. Whether she be murderer or not, I will see her.”
“It will be a journey of some two months, Highness. I will leave at once.” Hugh of Beaucaire bowed, waited for a second to see if the sovereign’s giant hand would disgorge the miniature, and when it became clear that it was lost forever, bowed again and left the chamber. $
It was hot and quiet in the forest. A deep somnolence had settled over the broad green rides beneath the canopy of giant oaks and beeches. Even the birds were still, their song silenced by the heat. The hunting party gathered in the grove, listening for the horn of a beater that would tell them their quarry had been started.
“Will there be a boar, Mama?” A little girl on a dappled pony spoke in a whisper, hushed and awed by the expectant silence around her. She held a small bow, an arrow already set to the string.
Guinevere looked down at her elder daughter and smiled. “There should be, Pen. I have spent enough money on stocking the forest to ensure a boar when we want one.”
“My lady, ‘tis a hot day. Boar go to ground in the heat,” the chief huntsman apologized, his distress at the possibility of failing the child clear on his countenance.
“But it’s my birthday, Greene. You promised me I should shoot a boar on my birthday,” the child protested, still in a whisper.
“Not even Greene can produce miracles,” her mother said. There was a hint of reproof in her voice and the child immediately nodded and smiled at the huntsman.
“Of course I understand, Greene. Only . . .” she added, rather spoiling the gracious effect, “only I had told my sister I would shoot a boar on my birthday and maybe I won’t, and then she will be bound to shoot one on hers.”
Knowing the Lady Philippa as he did, the chief huntsman had little doubt that she would indeed succeed where her sister might not and shoot her first boar on her tenth birthday. Fortunately he was spared a response by the sound of a horn, high and commanding, then a great crashing through the underbrush. The hounds leaped forward on their leashes with shrill barks. The horses shifted on the grass, sniffed the wind, tensed in expectation.
“Tis not one of our horns,” the huntsman said, puzzled.
“But it’s our boar,” Lady Guinevere stated. “Come, Pen.” She nudged her milk-white mare into action and galloped across the glade towards the trees where the crashing of the undergrowth continued. The child on her pony followed and Greene blew on his horn. The now unleashed dogs raced forward at the summons, the huntsmen chasing after them.
They broke through the trees onto a narrow path. The boar, his little red eyes glowing, stood at bay. He snorted and lowered his head with its wickedly sharp tusks.
Pen raised her bow, her fingers quivering with excitement. The boar charged straight for the child’s pony.
Guinevere raised her own bow and loosed an arrow just as another flew from along the path ahead of them. The other caught the boar in the back of the neck. Pen in her mingled terror and excitement loosed her own arrow too late and it fell harmlessly to the ground. Her mother’s caught the charging animal in the throat. Despite the two arrows sticking from its body, the boar kept coming under the momentum of his charge. Pen shrieked as the animal leaped, the vicious tusks threatening to drive into her pony’s breast.