Time to read: about 1 hour
Lord Denbury gave the case to Eleanor. This was only fair, in a way. There were four of them in Denbury’s service that year—there had been only two the previous year, but under Queen Philippa the purse of the Treasury had been opened more generously—and as the work to be done did not always equal the number of lawyers prepared to do it, there were sometimes polite little quarrels. Only ten days earlier, Eleanor had handed over to Henry Fairfax, not without regret, the task of preparing a memorandum on the law of wills. Henry had not exactly asked her for it, but he had made her understand it would be indefensibly selfish of her to keep it, when, after all, he had studied wills under Charles Antarat. That the memorandum was good work—the sort of work that might, with luck, attract someone’s attention, someone with the power to bestow appointments—was beside the point.
In light of which, Eleanor argued to herself, it was not really wrong of her to accept the duchess’s case. But she was still uneasy as she pushed open the door of the chamber reserved for Denbury’s lawyers.
Paulina and Thomas, their heads close together, were bent over an old book of Plumbridge’s Reports. And Henry—she allowed herself one quick glance—was trimming the nib of a pen. The colorless sunshine poured through the single high, narrow window and made a pale stripe on the flagstone floors. This particular chamber, once upon a time, had been used for storing quicklime in the days when the Kingdom of Chancon had had to repel the blue-sailed ships of Alget and the war-boats of Marevia. But no enemies had crossed the sea in two hundred years—not since Queen Margaret’s day. The chamber now held four tall desks, and several book-chests, cheaply made, and cupboards, and, on a shelf next to some dusty paper flowers, a painted prayer-image of the Lady of the Sword.
There was no fire. The generosity of her Majesty’s Treasury did not extend as far as that. As she sat at her desk, Eleanor rubbed her hands together to make the blood flow.
Paulina said, “Has he given it to you?”
Eleanor became abruptly and disconcertingly aware that they were all looking at her.
“Aye,” she said, “he has—”
“Don’t tie yourself in knots,” said Thomas. “He’s given it to you. Naturally, we’re all bitterly envious and we all despise you.” He winked at her. “You can’t blame us; it’s an interesting case, isn’t it?” Something sly came into his face. “Don’t you think it’s interesting, Henry?”
Henry set down his half-mended quill.
“Very interesting,” he said. “But I don’t envy you, poor girl, having to dig through two or three centuries’ worth of cases on criminal procedure. Good luck to you. I expect you’ll turn up an answer in half a year or so.”
He laughed at his own joke—the others did too—and so, with relief, did Eleanor. It’s all right, she thought to herself. Now that the moment was safely past, she realized she had been afraid that he would produce some reason—impossible to argue against—why she should hand it over. But it was all right. He didn’t want it.
“Denbury will want an answer sooner than that,” said Paulina. “That woman is lodging in the city. She won’t leave till he delivers the verdict.”
“What did Denbury say to you, anyway, dear girl?” said Thomas. He was polishing the silver buttons of his glove carefully on his sleeve. Of the four of them, he was the least poor. His grandfather had been a charcoal-burner, and he had no living family, but he had a remarkable talent for cards. Twice weekly, he went to a wine-shop in Devil’s Eye Ward and spent the night playing White Lady and Two-Headed Dog for stakes that frightened Eleanor. “Is he really going to allow her to fight—ah—what’s-his-name to the death?”
“If the law permits it,” said Eleanor, “he will have to.”
Two days earlier, the Duchess of Harcliff had come to the Sea Tower to bring her petition before the court. The rumors of what the duchess was going to do had penetrated into every house, wine-shop and tavern in Whitepool. Eleanor had heard them at the supper-table in her own house and had flatly declined to answer questions from the two students who lodged in the room below hers.
On the appointed day, she, Henry, Thomas, and Paulina shoved their way through the crowd of laborers, shopkeepers, and craftspeople who had crammed into the court’s immense hall to spectate. They found a place to stand in one of the galleries behind a man wearing an elaborate rabbit’s fur hat. By standing on her toes, Eleanor could peer over his shoulder. A memory stirred of when Eleanor had gone as a little girl to see puppet-shows in the yard of the Hare and Hound. Except that, before her was not a child’s entertainment, but the court’s carved throne and walls hung with tapestries in rich greens and golds—walls within which had echoed the last futile plea of Baron Arlindane against the sentence of death, and the pitiless accusations of the lawyers acting for the Countess of Shaw in her suit against her husband.
The prisoner stood alone before the throne of justice. A little way distant, Martin Redborough, one of her Majesty’s most senior lawyers, was talking with a scribe. Eleanor pointed him out to the others.
“There’s the duchess!” hissed the man in the rabbit’s-fur hat to his neighbor, a ruddy-faced woman dressed in apron and cap. In the holiday mood of the occasion, he seemed not to notice or care that he was speaking to a person who, on any other morning, would have wrapped up meat or fish at market for one of his servants to carry home. She leaned over the railing.
“Gawd above,” she said. “There’s murder on that woman’s mind. Just look at her.”
Eleanor looked. She could not help looking. The duchess was reading through some papers. Her clothes were black, and her dark hair—she had doffed her hat—had been cut short in mourning. Then a thing happened which Eleanor never forgot. At the moment Eleanor looked at her, the duchess turned—who could say why—and stared up into the gallery. It was as if she had stared directly at Eleanor. Eleanor felt her face burn. She hardly heard the court being called to order as Lord Denbury entered and seated himself upon the throne. She bowed mechanically, rose, pressed her hands together.
Lord Denbury was addressing the court. He bade them good-morning; he understood that several petitions were before him; he would first of all address the duchess’s. The duchess set down her papers.
“My lord,” she said.
“Your lordship will forgive my blunt speech,” she said. “I have no training in rhetoric. I am the sister of Lord Alfred of Harcliff. It was my brother whom that man killed.”
“That, madam, must be proved before this court,” said Lord Denbury. “That is the purpose of entering a petition for prosecution.”
“It was not entered on my behalf, my lord,” said the duchess. “It was done by friends of my brother’s. Had I been in Whitepool then, I should have prevented it.” Her voice was deep and full of the burr of Ganot Island. “All free persons in the Island, my lord,” she said, “have the right of trial by battle in a case of homicide. That is how matters of blood were settled when my father was Duke of Harcliff before me, and when his mother was Duchess of Harcliff before him. You people of this city may settle your affairs as you like. But this is my case. I ask this of your lordship. Give this man into my custody. Let me arrange a trial, so that his guilt or innocence may be decided by the sword, in the sight of God, and not by men.”
Lord Denbury repositioned his spectacles on his nose. He said, “Redborough—”
“My lord,” said Redborough, “the Statute of Queen Margaret sets out the procedure in a case of homicide. I have read it over thoroughly. It prescribes that a jury shall be summoned, and shall comprise five persons, and each of them receive a penny a day and bread and beer—”
“But it does not speak to the abrogation of any rights,” interrupted Lord Denbury. “It might have been intended, for instance, that a jury should be summoned only on the condition that the petitioner demanded a trial by jury in the first place.”
Redborough looked annoyed. “I cannot say what was intended or not intended,” he said. “But there has been, my lord, no such proceeding in Whitepool that I can remember. I doubt very much whether it would be permitted under the present laws concerning public disturbances.”
There was a little laughter from the gallery.
“There have been many such in Ganot Island,” said the duchess. “My brother was Island-born, and so am I, and so is Sir Oswin. And never before has anyone dared to interfere with our own law and custom in such a case as this. I wonder whether her Majesty intends to be the first.”
Redborough cleared his throat. Lord Denbury said, “I cannot speak for her Majesty. I can only speak for the Court of the Green Chamber, and as a lord justice of that court, it seems to me that this is simply a matter of whether Queen Margaret’s Statute eliminates any right to trial by battle. Before you speak again, duchess, I should like to hear from the prisoner: I suppose you will both admit that he is an interested party. Sir Oswin of Blyhelm, if you please—”
Sir Oswin had been made a prisoner in his own home, bail having been taken, instead of being kept in the prison at Lady-of-the-Rose as would have been done with a common criminal. His head was unshorn, his legs unfettered. But his face was bloodless: a dead man’s face.
“Have you anything to say?” said Lord Denbury.
“No, my lord.”
“You understand that if I find in favor of her Grace of Harcliff, she will have the right to elect for trial by battle?”
“Yes, my lord.” His hands twisted compulsively. He’s afraid, Eleanor thought to herself, and was disturbed by the flash of contempt that went through her. You could hardly help being afraid. And yet—
Her eyes went to the duchess—stone-faced, resolute, austere.
“Very well,” said Lord Denbury. “Redborough—”
“I really do not think,” said Redborough, “that your lordship can give serious consideration to this—to her Grace’s proposal. It is entirely irregular.”
“I have only this to say,” said her Grace of Harcliff. “You may, it is likely enough, succeed in overcoming all my complaints, and in carrying this thing off—though I do not understand how the old law, the unwritten law, can be overturned with the stroke of a pen. I think that is as irregular a thing as I ever heard of. You will never persuade any of us in Ganot Island that the question of guilt in a matter of homicide can be decided otherwise than by battle.”
Lord Denbury nodded politely.
“Well,” he said, “unless anyone has any very original argument to offer, I think I have heard enough. Duchess, I suppose you have brought your servants with you.”
“Yes, my lord. Two-and-twenty of my household are in the city this morning.”
“I cannot charge you formally to keep the peace: that is within the jurisdiction of the city magistrates. But I should not be pleased, madam, to hear that any person in your service had come before the lower court. I advise you to do nothing adventurous.”
Eleanor had not expected that. Did he really think that the duchess might—what? Send her servants to abduct the prisoner and try to force him to fight? But it didn’t matter. The duchess bowed.
“You have my word, my lord,” she said, “that you shall hear nothing more of us until you have reached your decision.”
When Eleanor and Henry had joined Lord Denbury’s office, they had arrived by coincidence on the same day—Eleanor from Ladychapel, Henry from the chambers of Charles Antarat in Hawk’s Rest—and had been shown together around the Sea Tower. Henry was cheerful, but Eleanor was disturbed by the small, dark chamber, filled with a damp unwholesome smell, into which Thomas ushered them. At the moment that he shut the door, she had had a horrible feeling of being shut in a tomb. Later, she was a little surprised at herself. It was, after all, quite as respectable a position as she had any right to expect.
Her mother was Lady Thomasine Marjoy; her sister was Lady Jane Marjoy, of her Majesty’s household. As a girl, Eleanor had been a page in the household of Sir Richard Royden, and had learned to read and play the harp and shoot with bow and arrow; meanwhile Jane, twelve years older, obtained for herself knighthood, a husband, and a place at court. Eleanor heard that her sister was invited to Castle Florifell and the hunting-lodge at Winterwill, and one summer when Eleanor was thirteen, Sir Richard took her to the town of Mistmere to see Lady Jane ride in the lists—all gleaming mail, mounted on a white gelding with scarlet trappings.
“A year or two, girl, and you’ll ride at her side,” said Sir Richard.
Lady Thomasine Marjoy, however, was not a rich woman. To provide Lady Jane with two good horses and a servant, to enter her in tournaments and pay for her clothes and armor, required bitter, grinding economy. And after Eleanor there were Robert and Blanche and Margaret, all of whom had to be educated and clothed to such a standard as would not disgrace the House of Marjoy. “We can’t afford for you to become a knight,” her mother said, on Eleanor’s fourteenth birthday, “and you can’t count on a decent marriage: you aren’t a beauty. You had better find yourself a place in a lawyer’s chambers, or else become a priest.”
Sir Richard had always been kind to her. He arranged for her to attend Harrill College in Whitepool, and when she was seventeen, he found her a place in the office of the Magistrate of Ladychapel. After two and a half years, the magistrate fell ill, and as a kind of deathbed charity, recommended Eleanor to Lord Denbury, who was a friend of his.
Thus began her existence as an officer of the Green Chamber: an existence of cheap food and rented rooms, centered around the hope of climbing higher—of receiving a case that would enable her to produce work so brilliant, so meticulous, that Denbury or the Lady Chief Justice might be moved to recommend her to the chambers of a respectable lawyer, or for a posting as a deputy magistrate in a decent town.
Perhaps the duchess’s case—
“It is,” said Lord Denbury to Eleanor, when they met again, “an interesting problem.”
They were sitting in the small chamber, with its broad hearth and comfortable furnishings, which Denbury had claimed for himself—evicting a junior member of the bench in the process—on discovering that it was the warmest in the Sea Tower. Eleanor had brought him some books, and he had asked her to stay and drink a cup of wine with him.
She was glad of the hearth that afternoon. It was a wretchedly wet autumn: the rain was slopping against the painted window-shutters. Lord Denbury held his cup in an age-spotted hand and sipped from it.
“And he is one of them,” he went on. “He is Island-born. And he does not want to do it. You could see it in his face that morning.”
“He might have objected when you asked him,” said Eleanor.
“I expect he was afraid to,” said Denbury. “If I should find against the duchess, and later on a jury should acquit him, it would be known in Ganot Island that he had refused to fight. It would be as disgraceful a thing as if he had sworn a false oath. He could never go home.”
She remembered his warning to the duchess. “Do you think—”
“What is it?”
“Do you think,” she said, “that if he is acquitted, she will try to arrange to fight him—even so?”
“I don’t know.” Lord Denbury considered. “I daresay she will obey the law,” he said. “It would be murder, after all.”
They drank their wine.
“I wrote to him after the duchess’s hearing,” said Lord Denbury. Eleanor was speechless. “I suppose you will think I should not have done that, but I was curious about him. I wished to have his explanation of how he came to run Lord Alfred through in the middle of Groat Street. He answered my letter yesterday. He is not a person who inspires admiration, or even ordinary pity. He seems totally without remorse.”
“There is some grudge between the families over which of them may properly include the heron crest of the old barons of Blyhelm in their arms,” said Denbury. “Sir Oswin came to Whitepool to seek a position at the palace—though he won no success there—and then Lord Alfred came to the College last year. Well, it is very remarkable that in a city of a hundred thousand people, they should happen to encounter each other—but they did. Sir Oswin admits that he insulted Lord Alfred, but he insists Lord Alfred was the first to draw steel. He acted in self-defense.” Denbury gave a delicate shrug of his shoulders. “Of course, the jury must decide that—if you tell me I may summon one.”
Eleanor smiled as she knew he meant her to do.
“I have always thought,” he went on, “that some trouble would come out of Ganot Island. They are like half-wild cats there. They are perfectly amiable so long as they are left alone to do as they please, but they will draw blood if interfered with.”
The conquest of Ganot Island was, in fact, within his own long memory. As a boy, he would have known it only as a name, a lonely, insignificant province in the vast possessions of the Empress of Alget, enjoying a kind of independence because it was not worth the trouble of bringing to heel. As a man her own age, he would have seen King Edward’s armies embark from Whitepool on the hundred and fifty ships—and return triumphant at the summer’s end, having won the Island for his Majesty, along with the bitter resentment of the Islanders, already suspecting that their new sovereign might be disinclined to allow them their old freedoms.
“They will never give up their manorial courts in favor of magistrates,” said Denbury. “In a matter of blood, of course, they are in theory obliged to have resort to her Majesty’s court, but they get around that. They arrange amongst themselves for a trial by battle, and then you will not find a single person to testify that it was homicide rather than an accident. And her Majesty is obliged to turn a blind eye: there would be open rebellion if she tried to intervene.” He dabbed at his lips with a silk handkerchief. “May I fill your cup again?”
“Thank you; just a little.”
He filled his own as well and replaced the decanter on the table. “Her Majesty has taken an interest in this matter,” he said. “She has sent me a note about it. You will be able to guess what verdict she would prefer. You see, I am not the only one who is behaving badly,” he added, with a dry little laugh. Eleanor could not imagine what had shown on her face. “However, if she wished to tell her judges what to do, she should have appointed someone else.”
“But if her Majesty should dismiss you—”
“I will go home,” —his home was in the town of Tumbleford— “and sleep late in the mornings, and enjoy good suppers in the evenings. I am eighty-two years old, Eleanor, and when one is eighty-two, the possibility of being dismissed from one’s office loses a good deal of its power to terrify. I have wondered sometimes why I go on letting myself be awoken before dawn in order to spend the day listening to people quarrel in front of me.” He coughed. The tower’s chimneys were not reliable, and the room was beginning to be smoky. “Will you open the shutters a little, Eleanor, before you go?” he said.
She did so. The window looked out over the dark shapes of houses and streets, made indistinct by mist and rain. In the distance was the old palace of Lady Anne Cardine, long since given over to the Keeper of her Majesty’s Seal—and below it, the place of execution. Eleanor gazed out for a long moment. Then she saw the rain spattering on the floor, and pulled the shutters half-closed again, so that it would not stain Denbury’s carpets.
A few evenings later, Thomas and Paulina went to dine on roast pork and baked apples at a tavern in Heartsblood Row. They had invited Eleanor and Henry, but Henry was serving in the watch that night and said he wanted to sleep beforehand—anyone under forty-five was obliged to serve four nights every quarter, and none of Denbury’s lawyers could afford to pay a substitute—and Eleanor disliked the idea of the three of them going without him. It would be unkind to seem to leave him out. She pretended she had meant to go to the library at Harrill.
The wind was blowing off the estuary that evening, and the sky was full of dark blue clouds. Eleanor shivered as she walked. As she came to Queensway Bridge, the cracking boom of the city guns echoed through the street—the signal that the gates were closing for the night.
She crossed the river and found herself amidst the tall, black-timbered houses of Hyrst Ward. By and by, her feet brought her along a stone wall overgrown with red-leafed ivy. It was the south wall of Harrill College. She imagined looking through it: through to the grounds, the halls, the dormitories. How long ago it seemed—and yet it was not even four years since she had been an undergraduate. It was not even seven years, in fact, since Sir Richard had taken her to the tournament at Mistmere, when she had dreamily imagined herself in Jane’s place.
What lay ahead now, she wondered, if someday she were fortunate enough to secure a decent appointment, by virtue of the duchess’s case or some other piece of work? Accepting invitations from people she disliked? Flattering them when she would just as soon avoid their company altogether? Spending money to impress them while scrabbling for her living? Lady Thomasine had written to Eleanor twice since her return to Whitepool. In both letters she had reminded Eleanor that in not quite half a year, Robert would be sent to Harrill, and that it would make matters a great deal easier for him (and for Lady Thomasine) if Eleanor were able to assist him in finding a place in somebody’s chambers afterwards. They could not afford for her to stand still.
But there are worse things, thought Eleanor, than standing still.
She was thinking of another letter, which she had received earlier that day. Lady Jane did not write to her often, and Eleanor did not look forward to her letters. This time, at least, she had not asked for money. But lately there had been rumors—of flirting with the married brother of an important duke, of drunken fighting in a certain tavern in Devil’s Eye Ward—and Lady Jane, having seen through the polite note asking after her health, had written back that Eleanor should feel at liberty to go to hell.
The porter let her in. Rain had washed away most of the early snow in the quadrangle, exposing patches of dead brown grass. A large snowman, whose beaky nose suggested a resemblance to her Majesty, listed tragically to one side.
She was received in the library’s hall by an irritable clerk and shown unceremoniously to the reading room. Several years ago the Lord Mayor of Whitepool, in return for the nearly ten thousand crowns needed to repair the roof of the College’s Great Hall, had required Harrill to open the doors of its library to the paying public, and the College had never forgiven the indignity. Eleanor was turning over one of the book-weights attached to the desk when she heard the sound of footsteps and looked up, expecting to see the clerk.
It was the Duchess of Harcliff.
Several years of hearing surprising evidence had trained Eleanor to a degree of control over herself. She did not jump or cry out—but it cost her an effort. What was the duchess doing here? She had on plainer clothes than she had worn in the Green Chamber, and her hair was covered by a fox-fur hat. But it was her: the pale, cold face was unmistakable. It occurred to Eleanor that, if she never saw the duchess for another fifty years, she would still know her at once if they were reunited.
Strangely enough, she seemed to see the same recognition in the duchess’s eyes.
“I know you,” she said to Eleanor. “I have seen you before. You were in the gallery when I brought my petition.”
“I beg your pardon, madam,” said Eleanor, “we ought not to speak to one another.”
“I am an officer of her Majesty’s Court of the Green Chamber.”
“You are a lawyer?” said the duchess. “Oh, I see. You are one of Denbury’s—one of the lawyers who helps him to find old cases, and things like that. That is why you say we ought not to speak to each other. Isn’t it?” She did not wait for Eleanor to answer. “I won’t trouble you for long,” she said. “I am here on an errand of my own. I saw you as you came in. I thought you might be one of Sir Oswin’s friends.”
Eleanor wished that the clerk would come in with her books. Surely, she thought, the duchess would have to leave her alone if someone else were in the room.
“We must not speak about this, madam,” she said.
The duchess ignored her. “Perhaps it is good luck that I met you,” she said. “You will be able to help me.”
“I cannot help you with—with anything to do with your case, madam.”
“Under the old unwritten law,” said the duchess, “if anyone is guilty of murder, his kin must pay the blood-price. Forty head of cattle for a free person, ten for a serf. But I had always understood her Majesty’s law to be that if a person were guilty of a capital crime, then a writ would be issued, and his property be forfeit: all his land, and money, and everything.”
Eleanor, in spite of herself, gave a little nod. There was no harm in confirming what anyone could find out.
“Well,” said the duchess, “we have never cared about that in Ganot Island, and her Majesty has never troubled to enforce her rights: there has never been any writ issued in respect of a homicide in the Island.”
“I wonder, madam,” said Eleanor, before she could think better of it, “how many of those homicides have been brought to her Majesty’s notice.”
There was a short, unpleasant silence.
“Do you know,” said the duchess, “I am starting to feel a little less hopeful about my prospects with Lord Denbury. However, we are getting away from the point. What I want to know is whether there is—well, whether there is any possibility that the writ might not be issued. If one were to petition the court—”
“It is her Majesty’s prerogative, madam,” said Eleanor. “The court cannot bind her Majesty at the request of a petitioner.”
“No?” said the duchess. “That is what Edmund Hartfree told me.”
Hartfree was a lawyer—a very expensive lawyer—in Lion’s Head Street.
“He was quite right,” said Eleanor. “Sir Oswin’s heirs may, of course, plead with her Majesty directly.”
The duchess picked up Eleanor’s quill and put it down again.
“I suppose you think the idea of trial by battle is horrible,” she said. “Sword against sword, and one of us dead at the end of it—”
“It is not my place to say, madam.”
“You do, then. But I think it very strange that under your law you are not satisfied with punishing a man if he is found guilty: you must make beggars of his family, too.” She turned away, then seemed to reconsider. “I know Sir Oswin’s family,” she said. “They are renting a room in Birdgate Ward. They are very poor now. He had some property when he came to Whitepool: some silver, and some furniture. They were obliged to pledge it all to raise the money for Sir Oswin’s bail—and to borrow the rest.”
Eleanor felt a sympathetic pang. She knew what Whitepool’s money-lenders would get out of Sir Oswin’s situation.
“If her Majesty should seize what is left to them,” said the duchess, “it will be like adding a single grain of corn to a great pile. It will make no difference at all to the Treasury. As to punishment, he and his wife and child are nearly starving already.”
“Is there no one to help them?” said Eleanor.
“If they were in Ganot Island, their kin would do something for them. But they have no friends in the city. You must not think,” added the duchess, “that I have not tried. But they won’t take charity from me—or my friends. His wife wouldn’t let me in the house.”
Eleanor took this in.
“You have petitioned to be allowed to kill her husband,” she pointed out.
At that moment, the clerk came in with her arms full of books. She set them on the table and went out without a word.
The duchess moved to the door. But she lingered there, looking back at Eleanor.
“He may kill me,” she said. “One never knows.”
It had begun to snow when Eleanor left the College. She had turned the pages of Plumbridge’s Reports and Sumner’s Treatise on the Law of Chancon in a sort of daze. Finally, when she heard the bells sounding midnight and, looking down at her paper, saw the poor notes she had made, she set down her pen.
The streets were dark, the wind was raw. Eleanor wrapped her cloak around her body. Her gloves were of thin goatskin and her hands ached with cold. At the base of her left thumb was a torn place—she had tried to mend it, and it had torn open again—and the air was like ice on her bare skin. But after a while, she hardly felt it. She was too much preoccupied with her own thoughts. Why had she let the duchess go on speaking to her? It was against every rule of procedure for a party to speak to a judge alone: to seek out and speak to one of that judge’s lawyers was, considered objectively, every bit as improper. And Eleanor had not even tried to get away from her. She was half-minded to go to Lord Denbury in the morning and tell him everything. If he removed her from the case, it would be her own fault.
But he had written to Sir Oswin—
She thought too of the unlucky little family the duchess had described to her. If the prisoner were tried by a jury and found guilty, he would be sentenced to death. Or if Eleanor could find some grounds on which a trial by battle might be permitted, the duchess would kill him. She did not believe for a moment that he would manage to kill the duchess. She wondered what would happen to his wife and child when he was dead.
Past Queensway Bridge, the streets were narrower and the houses smaller. In places, the upper floors extended so far as to almost meet in the middle, and formed a kind of tunnel which sheltered her for a moment or two against the snow. She passed beneath the Temple of the Lady of the Lantern, its high windows like eyeless sockets in the darkness, and met a pair of night-soil collectors, who saluted her.
She had turned into her own street when it happened. A sound of footsteps in the snow and—before she could move—a hand clapped on her shoulder from behind. Eleanor’s hand went to her knife.
Then she heard someone laughing. “Don’t do anything reckless, Eleanor!”
“Henry,” she cried out, turning around to face him.
His cheeks were flushed with cold. “Did I frighten you? I’m sorry if I did.”
“No,” said Eleanor, “you didn’t frighten me, exactly—I—” She broke off. “You’re alone,” she said. It was the custom of the watch never to walk through the streets except in pairs. “Is there something the matter?”
“Nothing the matter. George is over in Water Street hoping someone will try to burn down Market Hall and give him something to do. I waited for you here. I wanted to speak with you. Let me see you to your door.” Eleanor frowned. If he had gone to the length of leaving his companion, she supposed it must be important. And it would not be polite to refuse. She let him take her arm and they walked on together. “How are you getting on?” he asked her.
She choked back the absurd impulse to confess everything.
“It is rather difficult,” she said. “I think perhaps I will try to draw an analogy with the law concerning the jurisdiction of civil suits.”
“It’s surprising,” said Henry. “These people seem bloodthirsty enough: you’d think one of them would have been murdered here before now. Still, I daresay you’ll find an answer in the end. Denbury wouldn’t have given it to you if he didn’t believe you could do it.” He brushed the snowflakes from his dark hair. “Lord Denbury,” he said, “is fond of you.”
She glanced at him wonderingly.
“I don’t believe he is especially fond of me,” she said. “He has been kind to me. He would be kind to anyone in his office.”
“You haven’t heard him speaking about you,” said Henry. The wind was blowing harder than ever. Henry put an arm about her shoulders. He was a big man, and Eleanor was a small woman: she felt like a little girl being led upstairs to bed at the end of a long day. “He—which of these places is yours, Eleanor?”
“At the sign of the rose and hawk. Near the end of the street.”
“Oh, I see. Well, about Denbury. He cares a great deal for what you have to say. He would have ruled against Lady Montgard in that trusts case if it weren’t for you.” Eleanor did not think this was entirely true, but she waited for him to go on. “He would listen if you spoke to him about—about something else. You know he is friends with Alison Vane in Pennyloaf Street.”
Alison Vane, who occupied the same fortunate position as Edmund Hartfree—wealthy, well-connected, her name printed in the books of reports—shared her chambers with several younger lawyers, chosen by her from the offices of magistrates and judges. Denbury had introduced Eleanor to her one afternoon when she had been visiting him at the Sea Tower, and Eleanor had tried awkwardly and unsuccessfully to make remarks which were suitably respectful without being over-fulsome.
“I heard from a friend of mine,” said Henry, “that one of Vane’s people is going to leave her. I wanted to speak to you because—because there will be a place open there by next year. If Lord Denbury were to put in a word—”
Eleanor began to understand.
“I am sure he would be glad to recommend you,” she said. “Would—” Perhaps he was too modest to ask on his own behalf. She herself would have sought the position, if she had known—but, of course, now it would be unfair to Henry. She grappled with how to say what she meant without seeming to patronize him. “Would you like me to speak with him about it?” she said.
“Not quite that,” said Henry. “Has Thomas spoken to you—about Vane?”
“No,” said Eleanor, puzzled. “I hadn’t heard about it at all till you told me.”
They had come to the house where Eleanor was lodging. She found her key and let them in, and together they entered the cramped, chilly corridor that ran the length of the front of the house. There were no lamps lighted: she could not see his face.
“No. I suppose he wouldn’t. Well, he means to try for it. As I said,” said Henry, “a word from Denbury would carry a good deal of weight with Vane. And he listens to you. If you were to—well, to make him understand that someone wasn’t altogether suitable—”
Eleanor stood rigid. Her blood seemed to turn to ice in her heart—as if the freezing wind could penetrate her very skin.
“You can’t,” she said, “you can’t mean that I should say something against Thomas.”
“I’m not asking you to tell a lie,” Henry said. “Just to remind Denbury of—of who Thomas’s grandfather was. Or wasn’t,” with disconcerting lightness. “Anyway, you’ve done worse things before. Telling him you knew nothing about wills—that he’d better give it to me—”
She said, pleadingly, “Henry—”
He bent his head and kissed her cheek.
“Go upstairs,” he said. “You’ll freeze to death down here. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Eleanor, in silence, watched him go out and shut the door. She was dizzy as she climbed the stairs. Her room was on the third floor of the house, and before she reached it, she had to stop and lean against the wall.
She took off her shoes mechanically—a pair of shoes cost threepence, and these would not last out the winter if they were not looked after—and wiped the mud and melting snow from them, and dried them, and rubbed them with grease. All the while, as she undressed and brushed off her clothes and hung them to dry, her mind was swinging like a pendulum between Henry and the duchess and back again. Once Sir Richard had told her, when she was grappling with some childish trouble, that if she said a prayer, she would hear the Daughter of God whisper in her ear what to do. She had prayed for a whole afternoon and heard nothing. She wished she could believe that the Daughter of God cared about people’s troubles.
She slept very little that night and spoke to no one when she left the house in the morning.
But as she picked her way through the snow-slick streets that led to the Sea Tower, she found that her mind was made up on one point at least. It had been wrong of the duchess to approach her. But she had not done it on her own account. She had done it because she wanted to help people who had no claim on her at all. And they had spoken about her case only briefly. The duchess had not asked Eleanor to betray any secrets.
Eleanor knew she was working backwards: that she was justifying a conclusion at which she had already arrived. If Henry had not spoken to her, she might still have gone to Denbury despite the duchess’s good intentions. But he had. To speak to Denbury would, without a doubt, risk prejudicing him against the duchess. It would be cruel, when the duchess had only meant to be kind to Sir Oswin and his family. At that moment, Eleanor shrank from any cruelty—even cruelty which her oath as a lawyer might demand of her.
It was twelve days later, in the slummy back streets of Birdgate Ward, that she saw the duchess again. Though her feet found the way easily by now, she walked carefully. A last thaw had settled over the city. The melting snow had turned the street to mud—her shoes and stockings were plastered with slime—and a thick, poisonous smell smothered the ward: rotting garbage, and old fat from the cook-shops, and the stink of the tanneries. She had not eaten since yesterday, and the smell made her a little faint.
Henry had not spoken to her again about Alison Vane. Whenever they met at the Sea Tower, he was scrupulously polite to her. She was tempted to let herself hope that he had gone home that night and thought better of what he had asked her to do. But Henry, she knew, would never change his mind once he had set it on something.
She came into Kildren Lane. It was a narrow street, ascending steeply uphill, with dirty houses standing at odd angles—a tiny pawn-shop, and two or three dubious-looking cook-shops. Between a money-lender’s house and what Eleanor suspected was a brothel stood a small house whose sign was painted crudely with three blue roses. A servant of twelve or thirteen, with grimy hands, let her in and showed her up to the small chamber at the back of the house.
Sir Oswin and his wife were seated at the table. Sir Oswin was scratching at the table’s surface with his knife, and Lady Hildegarde, her son at her feet, was knitting a stocking. One could earn a little money by selling knitted things. They bowed to Eleanor, and Lady Hildegarde came to help her unpack the bundles she had been carrying. She was a tall, tired-looking woman of about forty. The child was nearly three years old. His face and eyes were yellow and his hair seemed to have no color at all.
“I am glad to see you,” said Lady Hildegarde to Eleanor. “I told myself when he was arrested,”—Eleanor glanced at Sir Oswin, who appeared to take no notice of them—“that I would stand anything. But I am not made of iron. Just before you came here for the first time, I had almost—”
She collected herself.
“What I am trying to say,” she said, “is that you have lifted a weight from me. More than you know, I daresay.”
The first time she had come to the house, Eleanor had asked herself whether she had gone mad. Her meeting with the duchess had been bad enough. This was a something else entirely, a definite step. But then, Lord Denbury had written to Sir Oswin, after all, merely to gratify his own curiosity. And Sir Oswin’s wife and child and even Sir Oswin himself had nothing to do with the merits of the duchess’s case.
After the first time, there had been no question in Eleanor’s mind about whether she would come back. The starving child and the desperate woman had sunk hooks into her heart.
They ate together. Sir Oswin hardly spoke to her, but she sensed that it would have hurt Lady Hildegarde’s pride if Eleanor had come, left her parcels, and gone. The bread was hard, the cheese blooming with bluish mold which Lady Hildegarde sliced away. Even so, it required an effort on Eleanor’s part to make herself eat as little as possible.
She wondered, as she went downstairs, why Lady Hildegarde had married Sir Oswin. It was strange that a woman who was too honorable to take charity from an enemy even when her own child was starving should ally herself with a man like that—a man who shrank from what anyone else, being Island-born, would have accepted as right and necessary. But perhaps she had fallen in love with him and couldn’t help it.
“So it is you,” said the duchess, as Eleanor entered the hall.
“Duchess,” said Eleanor.
It was not an exclamation—not quite.
The duchess moved in front of her. “One of my servants told me you were here,” she said. “What are you doing in this house?”
“If you will let me by—” said Eleanor. The girl who had let her in, warming herself by the fire, was watching them curiously.
“I will ask you again. What business have you here?”
“She comes to see Sir Oswin and his wife,” said the girl. “She brings ’em things to eat, and candles.”
The duchess’s eyes might have burned through her. “You have come to give them charity?” she said.
“By your leave, madam—” said Eleanor.
“I don’t understand. Why should you concern yourself with these people?”
The same question had occurred to Eleanor. There was no lack of beggars in Whitepool, if you were inclined to give charity. The answer was simply that she could not resist the impulse. She said, “Why should you, madam? I suppose you are watching the house.” It was too great a coincidence that the duchess should happen to turn up in Birdgate Ward. “Let us at least get away from here,” said Eleanor, “or Lady Hildegarde may come down and see us. She’ll think I am something to do with you.”
They went out into the street and crossed into an alley between two houses, where they could be out of sight.
“It is true what you said,” admitted the duchess. “I have ordered some of my servants to keep watch here. I thought perhaps I could persuade Lady Hildegarde to let me help her.”
“I doubt that very much, madam.”
“It doesn’t matter now. Why have you come here? I swore when I was knighted to love God and the poor, but you—”
Eleanor said, in as even a tone as she could manage, “One needn’t be a knight in order to have a human heart.”
A flush colored the duchess’s cheeks.
“I beg your pardon, madam,” she said. “I spoke badly. I ought to thank you. You have done what I could not.”
Eleanor said, stiffly, “Thank you.” She spoke stiffly because she was gripped by the uncomfortable feeling of being praised beyond her due. Her income was not really capable of feeding four people, and though she had been going without her own breakfasts and dinners since she had begun visiting Kildren Lane, she was obliged to account for every quarter-penny and to buy the cheapest things she could find.
“I—” The duchess broke off. A window opened over their heads. A white length of linen was flung out and shaken. Drops of water rained down on them.
Eleanor held still. Her eyes moved over the duchess’s face. She was not beautiful. But her long tunic and cloak were perfectly made, and her large fox-fur hat was sleekly luxurious, and at her throat gleamed a silver pin in the shape of a heron. Eleanor, who had in the past twelve days been so hungry she felt almost hollowed out, was momentarily ill with envy: not merely for good clothes, and comfortable rooms, and enough to eat, but the relief that all those things represented—relief from pinching and scrabbling, from trying to climb higher, from fearing what might happen if you couldn’t.
A smock was aired out, a tunic, two pairs of breeches. At last, the window shut.
The duchess said, “You are a running a great deal of risk. I don’t think Lord Denbury would like you to come here.” Eleanor said nothing. “I wondered about you, after we met,” the duchess went on. “Your name is Eleanor Marjoy, isn’t it? I have heard that name before. Your sister is Lady Jane. I met her once at court. If you were found here—”
“Lady Jane does not care where I go.”
“Well, have it your own way. At least I can pay you for what you bring them.”
“I don’t—” Eleanor forced down the dreadful urge to give in—forced down, also, the thought of how long she might have to go hungry now that she had committed herself. “You had better not, madam,” she said. “After all, Lady Hildegarde already refused charity from you. It would be a kind of lie to force it upon her through me.”
“I suppose it would,” said the duchess.
“I think I will go now, madam,” said Eleanor. “If you will wait here for a little while longer, so that no one sees us together—”
“Very well. Be careful.” Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “I suppose you are going to walk home? There is no night watch in Birdgate Ward. You might be robbed. Or murdered.”
There was a sort of stern kindness in her voice. Eleanor’s eyes fell to her feet.
“And if I were robbed and murdered,” she said, “Lord Denbury would have to find someone else to investigate criminal procedure in the City of Whitepool. His verdict would be delayed.” It was an awkward joke, but it made the duchess smile, ever so slightly.
“So it would,” said the duchess. “So you had better take care.”
Afterwards—after the blow fell—Eleanor reflected disbelievingly on how she had, only a few days earlier, been capable of joking about anything.
She seemed to see herself from far away: moving, eating, working—as if it were all happening to someone else. Amabel, Sir Richard’s daughter, who was a year younger than Eleanor, came down to Whitepool to have her wedding clothes made, and Eleanor spent a half-hearted afternoon walking with her in the gardens at Scurcliffe Hill. The brilliant yellow of the trees and blueness of the sky, the tea-colored water of the fountains strewn with red and yellow leaves, made no impression on her; neither did Amabel’s speeches about her husband-to-be. Twice Eleanor forgot entirely what they were talking about. She was aware that she was behaving rudely towards her old friend, and that Amabel was puzzled and hurt, but she was incapable of pretending to be cheerful.
She had met the duchess again. On her way into Birdgate Ward, she had fallen into step with Eleanor and had walked at her side all the way to Kildren Lane. They did not speak until the moment of parting.
“Are you ill?” said the duchess. “You look as if you haven’t slept in days.”
“I am perfectly well, thank you,” said Eleanor. “Good evening, madam.”
But she was disturbed. Could everyone see through her? It was true that she had not been sleeping. The same thought kept coming back to her, throbbing in her brain in time with the beating of her heart: what was she going to do? What could she do, she asked herself as she lay in bed. In the darkness she would gaze up at the shadows on the ceiling and imagine wild possibilities: going to Lord Denbury, bringing a prosecution against Henry—but she knew they were all fantasies.
The morning after the duchess had confronted her in Sir Oswin’s house, Henry had come to see her. In the privacy of her little room—he was considerate enough to allow her that—he explained things to her with smiling brutality. He thought she might be shy about speaking with Denbury. But one had to be practical. And then he had produced from his purse the paper that meant the end of everything.
It was a letter—a letter in her sister’s hand.
My darling William, I—
Eleanor put the paper down. She would not read any more.
“This is a private letter,” she said to Henry. “What do you mean by—by showing it to me? How did you get it?”
“It isn’t private any longer,” said Henry. “I am going to speak bluntly to you, Eleanor. Anyone can see what you think of your sister: it’s in your eyes whenever anyone mentions her. And there have been—well, rumors.”
“About Jane,” said Eleanor.
“About Lady Jane,” agreed Henry. “You see, I spoke with some of Lady Jane’s friends at the Fox and Lion, in Devil’s Eye. I thought perhaps they might have something interesting to tell me. Your sister wrote this letter to Sir William Pearl.” The name was half-familiar. Sir William was one of her Majesty’s gentlemen-in-waiting. “She wrote a great many letters to him, in fact. I paid one of his servants to get them for me. Don’t be too hard on poor Lady Jane, Eleanor: we can’t all have your severe and spotless nature. The point is—”
“The point is,” said Eleanor, “you are going to send these to Jane’s husband if I won’t do what you want—or else bring a petition for prosecution on grounds of adultery yourself. You are blackmailing me. Have I got it right?”
She had expected, or hoped, that having it flung into his face in this manner might startle him. Instead, he nodded.
“You have got it quite right,” he said, as if he were speaking to a child who had worked out her sums correctly on the first try. “What do you think?”
Eleanor dug her nails into her palm. She was afraid she might slap him.
“Get out,” she said. Henry opened his mouth. “Get out!” she cried.
“Do you imagine that I enjoy this?” he said coldly. “Ferreting out your dreary little secrets? We’re all treading the same wheel, Eleanor. I can’t afford another year in Denbury’s office. I am going to find a way out.”
But Eleanor had turned her back. She stood facing the wall, unspeaking, unmoving, until she heard the door shut behind him.
A conviction of adultery carried a sentence of death, in theory. In nine cases in ten, the sentence was commuted: a person of decent family could expect nothing harsher than a public whipping. But the sentence was not the worst thing. Eleanor wished she were really as severe and spotless as Henry thought she was. She wished she could not be tempted. In her heart, she knew it was not really for her sister’s sake that she wavered. Jane had never been fond of her, nor she of Jane. But there was their mother. And for her own sake, too, she wavered. To have her family’s name entered on the rolls of the court—to have people question her about Jane, or fumblingly avoid speaking about her… Denbury would be obliged to dismiss her. No decent lawyer would have her in their chambers—no mayor or village council would stand for her to be appointed to any office. The gossip of Jane’s friends might be explained away, and at least would never suffice as evidence at trial, but the letters were irrefutable. The bars of a cage seemed to form around her.
Just then, she hated Jane a great deal more than she hated Henry. Henry had no particular reason to care what became of her. But Jane must have known what would happen if she were found out. She must have known what it would mean for Eleanor—and their mother.
“Eleanor,” said Thomas, a few days after her visit with Amabel, “you’re starting to alarm me. You’re getting thin. And you go on staring at me—I suppose when you think I’m not looking at you.”
Eleanor winced. “Have I been staring?” she said.
“You have, dear girl. I hope you haven’t fallen in love with me. I can’t afford to marry. If it’ll cure you, I’ll begin eating onions in here, and picking at my teeth.”
That evening Eleanor sat up in her room with her tablet and stylus and a rushlight. She must write to Lady Jane—and to their mother—to warn them of what to expect. That was how she put it to herself. From downstairs came a cheerful clatter. It was thirteen days till the Feast of the Lady of the Lantern: Lionel and Stephen, the two students, were making paper lanterns for the windows. Eleanor wrote a line and scraped it away.
If only she were like Henry and felt neither remorse nor pity. If only she could bring herself to act in her own defense—Thomas be damned.
She had scraped the wax four times and written Jane’s name—nothing else—when a strange thing happened.
Something like it had happened before—as a little girl when she was in bed with a fever, and on her first night in Ladychapel. At the same time as she sat in bed, her tablet in her lap, she found herself on the roof of the house, looking down into the darkened street. Then she rose upwards, upwards, till the City of Whitepool—the slate-roofed houses and the estuary of the Brimwater choked with new ice and the royal palace and the spires of the College—lay spread out below her, and farther beyond, the little towns of Brimcliffe and Lady-of-the-Dawn, the fishing villages and the Brimcliffe Light on the clifftop, and the dark, moving mass of the sea.
Lady Anne’s Palace gleamed as if it were made of mother-of-pearl: the square below seemed to be paved in moonlight. Eleanor saw every detail: the scaffold, the block. Something had occurred there—recently. Blood was pooling at the base of the block.
How small it is, thought Eleanor. But the smallness of it did not matter, or rather you could not make yourself believe it was small—not when it possessed the power of destroying a human life. A coin looked bigger than the moon if you held it an inch from your eye.
She blinked—and was back in her own bed. The tablet had slipped to the floor. She had fallen asleep. She picked up her stylus and began to write in a quick, merciless hand.
“There is something the matter,” said the duchess the next day.
They were walking together in Birdgate Ward. Eleanor had been hurrying along, trying not to think about how hungry she was—consoling herself with the thought that at least she would have a share in that evening’s bread-and-cheese—when she caught sight of the duchess at the window of a disreputable-looking house and signaled to her.
“Well?” said the duchess. “Are you going to tell me that my case is hopeless?”
“No. I wouldn’t tell you if it were. I had to speak to you, madam, because—” Eleanor made herself go on. “I wanted to know whether you meant what you said—that you would help Lady Hildegarde yourself, if she would let you. I don’t suppose she will accept, but—”
“I am not in the habit of saying things I don’t mean,” said the duchess. “But why—?”
It was no worse, Eleanor told herself, than when she, as a girl, had stood in the temple and confessed her sins. All you had to do was make yourself speak and then it was over with.
“I will be obliged to leave Lord Denbury’s service soon,” she said. “I won’t have my wages.”
“You don’t mean that because you and I have spoken—”
“No, madam,” said Eleanor.
She had not sent her letters. But she had copied them out the night before and knew she would not amend them.
“I am going to speak with Lady Hildegarde,” she said. “I will try to reason with her. She has her child to think of. If I can make her agree—”
“But why should you leave Denbury’s service, if not because of me?”
“I believe you actually want to know,” said Eleanor, in surprise. It had occurred to her that Lady Thomasine’s rage and humiliation, when she received Eleanor’s letter, would relate almost entirely to her own prospects and those of the children still in her charge. She would not care very much about Eleanor’s own humiliation. “You know,” said Eleanor, “that it will break Lady Hildegarde’s heart if you do what—what you have petitioned to do. Will you be sorry?”
The duchess seemed to perceive that there was some deeper significance to the question.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I will be sorry.”
“But you will do it—even so.”
“It sounds monstrous of me, when you put it in those terms,” said the duchess. “I don’t want to do it, really.” She ran her fingers over the silver Blyhelm heron. “I am almost afraid. Not of dying. One must die sometime. I’m afraid that God and the Lady will not be watching when I meet him in battle. If I were to die, or kill, and it should mean nothing—”
She shook her head.
“At any rate,” she said, “what I want doesn’t matter. If this part of the old law can be taken from us, what is there to preserve the rest of it? Why should anyone shrink from thievery or murder if the law that forbids them is no sturdier than a paper screen, in which anyone can slash holes if he chooses?” Her hot gray eyes were fixed on Eleanor. “I am Duchess of Harcliff because our law commands it. And if I were to say that our law was of no account—if I were to abandon my petition—it would be like declaring that it did not matter whether my son was Duke of Harcliff after me, or whether the sun rose in the west or the east.”
“I don’t think you are monstrous,” said Eleanor. She was tempted for a mad instant to touch the duchess’s arm, as she would have done to comfort a friend. “I understand you,” she said. “There are certain things one cannot do—not even to save someone else.”
“Not even then,” said the duchess.
They had come to Kildren Lane.
“I am leaving Denbury’s service,” said Eleanor, “because—because I have learned of something that makes it impossible for me, or any of my family, to hold such a position.”
Now that she was resolved, some small measure of her childhood love for Jane returned to her. She remembered that the duchess knew Jane, if only slightly.
“I hope you will not think badly of Jane, whatever you hear,” she said. “She has made mistakes, but—” Eleanor bowed and said, “Goodbye, madam.”
She had put off speaking to Lord Denbury. She spoke to Lady Hildegarde, who received the news with chilly graciousness, and refused equally coldly and graciously to accept a penny from the duchess.
Eleanor was sure that Henry would speak to her again before he made good on his threat. He would try to persuade her. She had a few days, at least, and she spent them at the Sea Tower. There were notes to be made—memoranda to finish. And there was Denbury. What could she say to him? She had never really believed that he was fond of her. Now it seemed unhappily possible. She recoiled from admitting it. It meant that she would hurt him by leaving. But she could not bring herself to wait to be dismissed.
The winter was coming on. The wind had blown the last leaves off the trees in the Scurcliffe gardens, leaving bare branches the color of bone.
Late one evening, after the others had gone—she was working still, breaking off now and then to blow on her freezing hands—one of the Tower servants knocked at the door to announce a visitor. Eleanor rose quickly to her feet. It could not, of course, be the duchess—but if she had some message that she was afraid to trust to anyone else—
“Jane!” she said, as the door opened.
“Yes, Jane,” said Lady Jane Marjoy. “Run away,” she ordered the servant, and sat down unsteadily at Paulina’s desk. She was, Eleanor saw, a little drunk, as she had been the last time they met. “I called for you at home. They said you must be here. What a dismal hole you’ve crawled into, Eleanor. Can’t you do better for yourself than this?”
Eleanor clenched her jaw. Jane as the distant object of pity and regret was much more tolerable than Jane in the flesh.
“It’s a very respectable position,” she said.
“Oh God,” said Jane. “How I hate that word. Respectable. It makes me think of Mother—of going without firewood so that we could have new clothes, and not being allowed to speak to this or that person because he gambled, or she lived with a man after her husband died.”
“I don’t see why you should bear any grudge against Mother,” said Eleanor. “At least she brought us up to be honest.”
“Well, not exactly honest, dear,” said Jane. “I am a scoundrel, and you are a lawyer. But never mind. I didn’t come here to quarrel. I—”
Her smile slipped away. An uneasy thought struck Eleanor. She had not yet sent her letters. Had Jane somehow caught wind of what Henry was planning? Perhaps Henry thought it would serve his purposes to involve her. Eleanor wondered what Jane would advise her to do.
“Do you remember,” said Jane, “when Great-grandmother used to tell us stories of—of how she dreamed she saw her youngest son dressed in a funeral shroud, and four days later had word that he had been thrown from his horse and killed? I have had dreadful dreams just lately. I daresay you think I have enough misdeeds on my conscience to haunt my dreams—but I am used to that. This is different. I believe, Eleanor, it has come to me—what Great-grandmother spoke of. Did you ever—?”
“Yes,” said Eleanor. She was reluctant to elaborate. “What have you dreamed of?”
“I have seen you—”
“At Lady Anne’s Palace,” said Jane. “These past three nights I have seen you standing at the foot of the scaffold.”
Then she laughed.
“There it is,” she said. “Make of it what you like. I came here only because—because I thought perhaps if I told you about it, I wouldn’t dream it anymore. It is as if I was given a message to pass on to you. If you were planning to commit a capital crime, I advise you solemnly as an elder sister to give it up.”
“I am not going to commit any crime,” said Eleanor. “You needn’t be afraid of that.”
She was too startled and dismayed to say anything more intelligent. She had never more than half-believed in their great-grandmother’s powers of prophecy. But Jane could have no reason to lie about her dreams—and there was her own dream of a few nights ago.
“Good girl,” said Jane. “Well—”
Eleanor’s guilt was sour in her mouth. Nothing very horrible was going to happen to Jane, she told herself. She would not be sentenced to death. And as for the rest of it—shame and disgrace—Jane would not care. It would hurt Eleanor and it would hurt Lady Thomasine. But Jane would not care at all. Jane, if she were dismissed from court, would simply go drinking in cheaper taverns.
But she thought of her unsent letter—of how Jane’s face would look when she opened it.
“Jane,” she said, “I—”
“Never mind,” said Jane, getting to her feet. “I can see you want to give me some advice in turn, so I am going to take my leave. I can’t bear advice—from anyone.”
“I have tried—”
“So you have, dear. So has Mother,” said Jane. “Never fear. If I go under, they won’t lay the blame at your feet. That’s what keeps you awake at night—isn’t it?”
Afterwards, Eleanor sat at her desk, neither reading nor writing, while the candle burned down. Only when the flame guttered and went out did she move again. She rose and lit a new candle. Then she took a book of case reports from her desk—not looking to see what it was—and began to read. She read through five cases, and then, in the middle of the sixth, a prosecution for coin-clipping, tossed it aside. She pulled apart her piles of borrowed books and snatched up another. It was Milary’s Reports, nearly a hundred years old, written on parchment instead of paper and bound in stiff leather. Eleanor wrenched it open. She wanted to forget herself: wanted to numb herself with words as Jane numbed herself with wine.
The second candle had nearly gone out when she found it. She was absorbed in the first pages of the Count of Ashby’s Case, which described a murder that had occurred in Whitepool in the days of King Thomas. The said prisoner being of Barstuth, it was argued that the proper mode of trial…
Her eye snagged on the words.
… it was argued that the proper mode of trial in this matter was trial by battle, which bloody practice, it was explained to this Court, is still extant in the northern counties: as to that, the Statute of Queen Margaret is a complete answer, and if it were not, the practice would be nonetheless unlawful as being inconsistent with the right of his Majesty’s subjects to trial by jury.
Carefully, neatly, she placed a book-weight on the page.
Two thoughts struck her almost simultaneously. One, guiltily, was the realization—it did not quite rise to actual temptation—that it would be possible to shut the book and return it to Harrill without saying a word to Denbury. But that, she knew at once, was possible only in the abstract. She would not betray Denbury.
The other was a sort of self-revelation. It occurred to her, as she began copying the page, that she had hoped to leave Denbury’s service without having to help him render his verdict.
It was nearly dawn when she left the Sea Tower. That morning, for no particular reason that she could discern, she found her feet taking her towards Lady Anne’s Palace instead of her own street. It was very cold: her breath formed clouds of ice. Hardly anyone was about. It was not a market-day, and begging was forbidden in the palace square. Eleanor walked slowly, almost against her will, across the frost-rimed stones, towards the many-stepped scaffold.
She could not look away from it as the red light of morning filled the square. There had been beheadings enough since Eleanor had come back to Whitepool, but she herself had never seen one. She had gone to executions as a child in her own village and they had given her nightmares. The smell of blood came back to her as she stood gazing up at the block. She had no qualms about a sentence of death, but something in her was sickened by the public spectacle. She had tried to explain it once, and Thomas had laughed at her.
“It’s a pity you didn’t become a priest after all,” he said. “You belong in a prison somewhere, ministering to criminals and sinners.”
And yet it must be a relief in a way—if you had fallen farther than you would have believed possible, if you were suffering darker disgrace than anyone could be expected to bear. At least it was an ending. She would not mount the scaffold. For her, it would not end as easily as that. She would go on year after year, sinking lower—writing letters for illiterate laborers at a quarter-penny a page, or copying out records of debts for money-lenders—enduring the sneers and gossip and, what was worst of all, the pity of her old friends.
She told herself to trust in God. But God did not care, any more than Jane cared. He would not care if, one day, Eleanor threw herself into the sea. Why should He?
“So,” said the duchess, “this is another haunt we share.”
“Madam—” she said.
“Don’t look at me as if I were going to eat you,” said the duchess. “I want to speak with you once more, that’s all.”
“How did you find me?” said Eleanor.
“Did you not think I would set my servants to watch you? I have been following you since you left the Sea Tower.” Eleanor began to speak, but the duchess went on. “Listen to what I have to tell you, and then you may be as angry with me as you please.”
The thought occurred to Eleanor that perhaps the duchess had managed to persuade Lady Hildegarde to be reasonable.
“Very well, madam,” she said. “But not here.”
“No,” said the duchess. “Not here. I hate the sight of that thing.”
They went into a wine-shop. The duchess paid for a pint of sour red wine mixed with honey and spices. It was warming after the chill of the early morning, and Eleanor drank deeply.
“I knew there must be something the matter,” said the duchess. “You are not the kind of woman to change your mind with the turning of the weather-cock. There had to be some reason for your leaving Denbury’s service. And when you spoke about your sister—”
“You had no right to pry into my affairs,” said Eleanor.
“Oh, shut up,” said the duchess. And she reached into her purse and flung a bundle of papers on the table.
Even before she picked them up, Eleanor knew what they were. She recognized Jane’s writing. But how they had come into the duchess’s possession was impossible to understand. She lifted her eyes—asking for the explanation—and saw that the duchess was watching her intently, as if the letters were a silk handkerchief or a love-poem, and she were anxious to see how Eleanor liked her present.
“There may be rumors,” said the duchess, “if your friend Fairfax is inclined to be malicious. But you can’t bring a prosecution for adultery based on rumor.”
Eleanor made herself put the letters down. She spoke without quite knowing what she meant. “You didn’t speak with him yourself—”
“I’m not a fool. I spoke with your sister’s friends. The trouble with paying people to betray confidences, as Fairfax did, is that sooner or later they may be inclined to betray yours, too. Particularly,” she added, “if they are paid more.”
“But how did you—?”
“I sent two of my servants to the house where Fairfax is lodging.”
“To—to reason with him?” said Eleanor.
“No,” said the duchess, “to burgle the house. They found the letters in his clothes-chest.” She added, almost slyly, “I hope you won’t feel honor-bound to report that to Denbury.”
Eleanor began to laugh, and then, mortifyingly, to weep at the same time. She hated to cry in front of people. She had not cried in front of Henry. But she cried in front of the duchess.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have done it, you shouldn’t have done it,” she said. “You don’t know—you shouldn’t have done it.”
“What don’t I know?” said the duchess. “It doesn’t matter. I wanted to help you.”
“You—” And then, without wiping her eyes, she found herself telling the duchess everything. It did not even occur to her that she was breaking the confidence that her Majesty’s court had reposed in her. She thought only that her tongue was like a hot coal and that it would burn the inside of her mouth if she could not speak.
“You have been so kind to me,” she said, “and I—”
“You have done your duty,” said the duchess. “What do you suppose I expected you to do?” She was silent for a moment—her face unreadable. Eleanor, caught between joy and misery, felt almost feverish. “So, I am not to be allowed to kill Sir Oswin,” the duchess said at last. “You can’t be very sorry—not really.”
“It is better than—that,” said Eleanor, glancing at the door of the wine-shop—in the direction of the scaffold. “Aren’t you angry with me?”
“Why should I be angry with you? You have done your duty: that’s all. As for the rest of it—you are as poor as a rat in an empty house, and still you scrimped and sacrificed to keep those people from starving: you did for them in my stead. Well, they are poorer even than you, and in all likelihood they will never in their lives be capable of doing you a good turn, so I mean to do one in their stead.” For the first time since they had met, she smiled at Eleanor. “You are free of Henry Fairfax.”
There was no reason now that they should go on meeting. Eleanor had resumed her visits to Birdgate Ward. The duchess was neither welcome there nor capable of doing anything useful. All the same, they did meet. Two times, three times—talking about nothing in particular.
Lord Denbury was writing his decision. He had summoned Eleanor to his chamber to thank her for finding Ashby’s Case. He did not exactly promise anything—but his voice was warm, and once or twice he alluded to the need for deputy magistrates in certain towns.
“I am not sorry,” he confided, “that her Majesty will be pleased with me. Upon reflection, Tumbleford is a little dull in the wintertime.”
Henry, when he spoke to her at all, did so with bitter courtesy. Eleanor was capable, now, almost of laughing at him. She wondered what he imagined had happened: whether he blamed her, or suspected Jane herself, or her lover. One night, after everyone else in her house had gone to bed, she stole downstairs and fed her letters and Jane’s into the fire.
“You seem in better spirits these days,” said Paulina. “Fallen out of love, have you?”
“I never was in love with Thomas,” said Eleanor. “But I am in better spirits. I was—mistaken about something.”
“Betting on long odds, eh?” said Thomas. “Dog-fighting, is it? Bear-baiting? Had too many sleepless nights—waiting, wondering? Eleanor, dear girl, that way lies ruin and disgrace. I implore you as a friend: give it up. I’ll teach you to play Two-Headed Dog, if you like.”
Eleanor shook her head.
“I won’t give it up,” she said. “One should have some joy in life.” She clasped his shoulder. “You can do better than playing cards for your living,” she said. “Speak to Alison Vane. There will be a vacancy in her chambers soon. Lord Denbury will put in a word for you, if you ask him.”
It was the Feast of the Lady of the Lantern. The Green Chamber heard no petitions; the lawyers and judges of the Sea Tower had the day to themselves. Eleanor, for once, had nothing to do. She had thought of going to Kildren Lane, but Lady Hildegarde quashed the idea before Eleanor even suggested it.
“Go and amuse yourself tomorrow,” she said. “This place is horrible. You ought not to be here on a feast-day. I have taken your food: I will not take your holiday from you as well.”
The students found her in her room, playing at fortune-telling with an old deck of cards, and dragged her out. The three of them went from street to street, drinking steaming cider and marveling at the lanterns—pink and green and red—and the fireworks over the palace. Several men, and one woman, tried to give Eleanor a paper flower in return for a kiss. Nobody had ever wanted to kiss her before. She came home after midnight, very tired and cold and very happy, and fell into bed without undressing.
She was tearing pages out of Milary’s Reports and making them into paper flowers. She was riding with Jane through the snowy street. She was standing before the scaffold, and the duchess was standing beside her, and the blood was running down the steps.
She startled awake.
You ought not to be here on a feast-day.
Eleanor rose and straightened her clothes. Her heart was beating hard.
You ought not to be here—
The memory of speaking to Denbury came back to her.
I daresay she will obey the law.
She was wrong: she must be wrong. Even so—
She wrapped herself in her cloak and found her knife. Then she went downstairs. Lionel was snoring in the hall. Outside, the lanterns made pools of stained-glass color on the snow. She began to walk in the direction of Birdgate Ward—feeling like a criminal. She was afraid to meet the night watch, because to meet them would mean committing to a course of action: either asking their help, or else keeping silent and abetting—what?
I am acting like a fool, she said to herself. It was half a prayer.
Even in Kildren Lane there was a festival atmosphere. Some laborers were dancing in a circle in the street, stamping footprints in the new snow. One of them, a woman in a smock with her hair loose around her shoulders, was singing:
“My love was hangèd for a thief
He left a maid bereav’d
My love was hangèd for a thief
Upon Midwinter Eve.”
She came to Sir Oswin’s house, under the sign of the blue roses, and hammered at the door. The only light was in a downstairs window. After a moment, the servant appeared.
“You mustn’t come in here,” she said.
Eleanor seized her by the shoulder.
“Who told you I was not to come in?” she said. “I want to see Sir Oswin.” The girl’s silence inflamed her. “Tell me, by God,” she said, “or I shall have you whipped. Where is Oswin?”
She was only a girl, and Eleanor was a grown woman: she was helpless, and Eleanor was capable of having her whipped, or worse, at a word. Her courage gave way.
“The duchess,” she said, “her Grace of Harcliff come and spoke with him, and gave me a quarter-penny and said not to let anyone enter the house except herself, or Sir Oswin, till morning, and then—then they gone away together.”
Sheer horror made Eleanor almost sick to her stomach. She wrenched her thoughts into practical lines. Of course, the duchess would not have done it under the eyes of the other people in the house. “Where did they go?” she said.
“I don’t know, ma’am.”
A man called from within the house, “For God’s sake, kid, shut the door. It’s cold.”
Eleanor tasted blood. She had bitten the inside of her cheek. She found a penny in her purse. The girl took it sullenly.
“Run to Market Hall,” she said. “Find the night watch. Tell them everything you have told me—tell them to come here. Go,” she snapped, “or it will be the worse for you.”
Only as she ran up the stairs did it strike her that—by no more significant gesture than the payment of a penny—she had committed herself.
The child was asleep. Lady Hildegarde, her needles clacking, was sitting at the table.
“You knew,” said Eleanor.
Lady Hildegarde did not ask what she meant.
“Yes, I knew,” she said. “You have been kind to us. That is why, when the duchess asked me to make sure you would not be implicated, I consented. If it had been for anyone’s sake but yours, I would have spat in her face.”
Eleanor was past speaking. She turned and left the room and went out into the darkness of the street.
Let the watch come, she prayed. All her fear was for the duchess. Let them stop her before she strikes the blow that will make her a murderer.
She glanced about desperately. Here was the entry to a long alley; there was the opening of a side-street; there was a darkened house. What use were her prayers? It was hopeless to guess where the duchess might have gone. Hopeless to think of finding her before it was too late.
The woman was still singing:
“My love was hangèd for a thief—”
Eleanor sank down on the muddy step of a house. A little sparkling snow was falling from the purple-velvet sky. A man in a belled cap darted up and pushed a paper rose into her limp hand.
In the morning, when she returned home, two pieces of news were already being talked over in the hall: that Sir Oswin of Blyhelm had been found dead by the night watch in the yard of a wine-shop in Birdgate Ward, and that the Duchess of Harcliff, having confessed to his murder, was being held at Lady-of-the-Rose.
The prisoner was released on bail. Eleanor wondered whether the duchess would refuse to see her, but when she came to the inn in Lion’s Head Street, a servant bowed to her and led her into the hall as if she had been expected.
“They will think I went mad, I suppose,” said the duchess. “That my blood ran so hot I could not stand to wait for Denbury’s verdict.”
They were sitting before the fire. One of the innkeeper’s dogs had sprung up into the duchess’s lap. She stroked its ears as she spoke.
“I am sorry,” she said, “that they will remember Oswin as a coward. He was far braver than anyone knew. He knew that he must say nothing—give no hint. We arranged it together. He was Island-born—the same as I am. He would not take money from me to feed his child, but he would conspire with me to arrange a trial under our own law.” She studied Eleanor’s face. “Why are you crying?” she said.
Eleanor had to swallow before she could speak. She said, “It was because of me. His death was my doing as much as—as—”
“As mine is?” said the duchess.
“Yes,” said Eleanor. “If I had not told you about finding that case for Lord Denbury—”
“Don’t waste any tears on my account. I told you I wasn’t afraid to die. It was why I asked you about the law of forfeiture that day. He might have killed me and been tried by a jury in any event—”
“You are perfectly satisfied, then,” said Eleanor.
She thought at first that the duchess would not answer. Her face was more remote than ever.
“No,” she said, finally. “When I struck the last blow and Oswin’s blood poured out into the snow—” Eleanor did not want to hear. But she could not bring herself to turn away. “I felt nothing,” said the duchess. “I didn’t even know that he was dead until somebody pulled me away from him. I never will know whether God guided my hand that night—or whether I killed a man, and nothing more.”
Snow fell down the chimney: the fire hissed. The dog raised its head and whimpered.
“All the same,” said the duchess, “what else could I have done?”
It was a moment for confession. Eleanor—recklessly, wildly—put her hand to the duchess’s cheek.
“I wish,” she said, “I wish—”
The duchess nodded.
“So do I wish it, Eleanor,” she said. “If I had been different from what I am—but probably then you would not have liked me as well. Our hearts are made of the same true steel.”
The crowd which gathered on the shining spring morning when the Duchess of Harcliff was brought to the place of execution was, if it were possible, larger even than the crowd which had gathered to see her in the Green Chamber the previous autumn. Eleanor had arrived before dawn. She was standing before the scaffold—close enough to touch the stone steps with her hand if she had wanted to.
She had left Denbury’s service the day after the duchess’s arrest. The duchess had refused to implicate her—but to rely on the duchess’s silence was no different to telling a lie. Already she had had a furious, uncomprehending letter from Lady Thomasine.
The sun scorched the back of her neck. She had cut her hair. More than one of her friends, on meeting her, had asked if there had been a death in her family.
“I want to see them cut her head off,” whined a little girl.
“Be patient, kiddy,” said the man next to her.
At last, the creaking of wheels announced the duchess’s arrival. The mob parted. The executioner helped the duchess to descend from the cart and led her up the steps to meet the priest. The prayers were spoken. The duchess kissed the executioner’s hand and gave her pardon. She stepped forward—and glanced down.
Her eyes met Eleanor’s. A strange half-smile touched the duchess’s lips. Then she kneeled—laid her head on the block—and the sword flashed down.
Support Lost Colony
Like this masterfully crafted story? Want us to keep producing masterfully crafted speculative fiction? Here are a few things you can do to support Lost Colony:
Stuff that won’t cost you anything
- Leave a review of this story. It can be on Goodreads, Amazon, another retailer’s site, our site, anywhere else you can leave a review, or, even better, all of the above.
- Tell a friend. Word of mouth is hugely important in spreading the word about what we are doing.
- Join our email list, if you haven’t already, so that you can know about all of the masterfully crafted speculative fiction that we are putting out (and, you’ll get a free copy of our first issue just by joining).
Stuff that will cost a little money
- Buy an issue (maybe even this one), either directly from us, from Amazon or from another retailer. The ebook issues are ad-free and include an Editor’s Note explaining why the story was chosen for publication.
- Subscribe! You’ll get instant access to all of the stories we’ve published over the past year and early access to all of the stories we will publish over the next year.
Any little thing you can do makes a big difference and helps us produce masterfully crafted speculative fiction now and into the future! Thank you for all of your support.
Image Credit: AlexeyMaltsev via Shutterstock