The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The author researching in Lapland
It is the middle of the night. The sun has set six weeks ago and will rise in another six weeks.
The three month winter night in Lapland is seldom completely dark. The never-setting moon silvers the snow of the high fells, and the Northern Lights trail curtains of pink and purple flame among the frost-bright stars.
It is darker below the cliffs in the bay. Two ships, almost as broad as they are long, sit upon the landfast ice in the shadows. The topmasts had been taken down and the sails and spars now form a canopy over the maindeck between the fore and stern castles. No lights shine. Nothing stirs. There is no watch on deck, yet the ships are not deserted.
There are no common sailors aboard, although some bodies lie stacked at the foot of the cliff, for the ground has been too hard frozen to bury them. Admiral Sir Hugh Willoughby sits in his stateroom at the head of his table and his officers are at their places – all bar one whose chair is unpturned and who lies sprawled by the door. The wine is poured but the meal lies unfinished; every man is quite dead. They have perished between courses. Their frozen uncorrupted corpses await the daylight and the thaw.
When the ships and their ghastly complement are found it will be recorded that the officers have died of cold ‘twixt cup and lip’, a theory nobody dares question. The fate of the men will not be recorded. And so the Bona Esperanza and the Bona Confidenzia sail out of history, leaving the Edward Bonaventura, which left the Thames with them seven months before, to sail on to make its mark on history alone..
The hall was scented with wood-smoke and despair.
The Great Hall at Penshurst Place had been built before the days of chimneys and fireplaces. The only warmth to fend off the autumn chill came from an open fire, blazing on a stone slab set in the middle of the hall. The smoke drifted lazily to the roof-beams high above, to seep out under the eaves, lifting with it the chatter of rich men and women complaining of hard times. If only they knew real despair, thought Kate.
‘Pardon my asking’, said the woman next to Kate, edging closer along the bench and putting her face close to Kate’s ear, to be heard above the hubbub, ‘but you seem much younger than the other ladies here – and prettier too I should add. Do you have money of your own to put into Sir Henry’s venture? Are you a widow?’
Kate looked around and counted five women among about thirty men. They all looked older than her, but it was difficult to tell their ages, for they all dressed much the same; good quality cloth in long, loose old fashioned styles in sober colours, mostly black (the most expensive dye). City merchants trying to look rich and prudent, thought Kate. She was dressed much the same herself. They reminded her of a flock of crows cawing around a ploughshare.
She was minded not to answer her inquisitive neighbour, but she was lonely for all that Sir John was only inches away on her left, deep in a heated conversation with some other merchants. Also she could not afford to be rude to any of his friends.
‘To answer your second question first, My Lady, I am indeed a widow. I lost my William four years since, in the year of the sweating sickness. We had been married nine months.’ Tears pricked at her eyes and she fought to hold them back. ‘As for money, I have none, although I have a trading house in London with twenty servants who look to me for a living.’
‘That must have been hard for you, left to manage on your own and you so young.’
‘Not really. My servants are very able and they do the work. We managed well enough until last year, when everything in England went mad. Now nobody wants to lend money any more, at least not to a small enterprise like mine, and if we can’t borrow money how can we pay for the wool to take to our weavers? And then this year the Cloth Fleet didn’t sail.’ She could feel the tears once again.
‘I know, I know. I’m a widow myself. I lost two husbands, although luckily they were both quite rich. My name is Mary, Lady Mary Knollys. And you are?’
‘I’m in the cloth trade too, Kate – I dare say most of us here are. What cloth do you deal in?’
‘Kerseys, from Suffolk.’
‘Ah, the heavy rough stuff. I deal in finer cloth myself. Like you I send it to Antwerp with the Cloth Fleet, or I did until this year Now its rotting in a warehouse by the Thames.
‘I blame the German Emperor’, she added, warming to her theme. ‘He’s the king of Spain too, so why did he let Spain fail to honour its debts? You’d think that with all that silver coming from the Indies they wouldn’t have any problems, but no, they spend it all before it arrives. Europe is in a worse state than England. Sir Henry is right, we must find somewhere else to sell our cloth! But tell me, if you have no money to invest, why are you here?’
‘I came with Sir John.’ She nodded toward his white haired bulk beside her. ‘He asked me to ride down through Kent with him and meet his friends.’
‘You mean to show off the pretty wench he’s found for himself. I know the old devil.’
She put her mouth closer to Kate’s ear.
‘Keep with it Kate! John knows how to make money and you stand to inherit the richest fortune in the City.’
Kate blushed. This was entirely the reason she was here.
‘With your looks’, continued Mary, ‘you could have the pick of any rich widower in London. But beauty doesn’t last. Invest it while you can.’
‘I’ll do my best’, murmured Kate.
‘Have you been Court?’ asked Mary. ‘Have you seen Princess Elizabeth?’
‘I’ve never been to Court.’
‘No, of course, you wouldn’t have done. Well, the young king’s sister is the very image of yourself, the same fair skin and lovely red hair. It’s a pity the king isn’t so healthy. They say he’s very poorly.’
‘Did I hear you two ladies talking about the king’, said Sir John, turning towards them. ‘Gerald here has a lady friend who serves in the king’s bedchamber and he says she tells him that Edward’s been coughing blood.’
‘Tis true’, said Gerald, a big plump man with a short grey beard. ‘And I shudder to think what will happen should he die. There’s only Mary and Elizabeth in the succession and I can’t imagine a woman running England in the state we’re in now. The nobles will start fighting for the crown, like in my grandfather’s day. Did I tell you he was killed at Bosworth Field?’
‘You did’, said John, ‘several times. But it’s not the nobles who worry me, it’s the peasants. Another harvest like the last and they’ll attack London, like they did Norwich. You and I will have our throats cut and Kate here will be raped by a gang of Kentish yokels.’
Kate shuddered. John could be coarse mouthed at times.
‘The peasants aren’t a problem’, insisted Gerald. ‘After all, they didn’t take Norwich. They just camped outside the place and then went home. They always go home after a bit of rioting. It’s our high-born betters who’ll be the ruin of us.’
‘Fie on you all!’ exclaimed Mary. ‘If you had such little faith in England you’d be burying your silver, not coming all the way through the Kentish mud to invest it. I’m sure Sir Henry has a plan to save us. And here he is – and doesn’t he have fine legs?’
Indeed he had. Sir Henry Sydney strode down the hall, flaunting his long, strong limbs, dressed in the latest Italian fashion, a scarlet and gold doublet, short breeches and red stockings. He mounted the dais at the end of the Hall followed by six other men, to open the meeting.