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Face Down Upon an Herbal

Face Down Upon an Herbal by Kathy Lynn Emerson
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Susanna, Lady Appleton, is ordered by Queen Elizabeth to assist Eleanor Madderly with an herbal she is preparing. The queen?s emissary failed to mention that a man had been murdered at Madderly Castle?and that part of Susanna?s mission is to solve that crime. Traitorous forgery, hidden identities, and secret passages all make her task the more dangerous.

2nd of the Face Down historical mystery series by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Belgrave House; November 2000
176 pages; ISBN 9781575666204
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Title: Face Down Upon an Herbal
Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson
 
Excerpt

Madderly Castle, Gloucestershire

October 1561

Startled by a small sound, Magdalen Harleigh looked up from the herbal she was studying. Lord Madderly?s two towheaded sons moved with studied stealth among the trunks and aumbrys that furnished their father?s private library. Bent on no good, she?d warrant.

?Good day to you, Edward. Philip.? Magdalen hopped off her four-legged, joined stool, abandoning the treatise on poisonous plants propped open on the armariola?s in?clined lid.

Edward, who was ten, stopped short. Philip was so close behind that he barreled into his brother, bumping his nose hard against the stiffened back of Edward?s doublet. The seven-year-old managed not to cry, but Magdalen could tell from the tortured workings of his mouth and eyes that it was a near thing.

?Good day to you, Mistress Harleigh,? Edward replied. ?We needs must fetch a book to the schoolroom.?

He was lying. Magdalen knew because he refused to meet her steady gaze and was toying nervously with the black braid at the hem of his dark green doublet.

?What book?? she asked.

Over the years of her service to the Madderlys, offi?cially as Lady Madderly?s companion and waiting gentlewoman, Magdalen had assumed many of the duties of librarian. She knew precisely where every volume was stored and could name a dozen more on related subjects when asked. If her expertise made her a trifle territorial about Lord Madderly?s collection, no one else in the household minded. She was useful to them. Efficient.

?A Latin book,? Edward said, but he did not give its title.

Another lie, Magdalen thought. What did he want in truth? Barely conscious of her action, she began to scratch her left forearm beneath the loose-hanging gray wool sleeve.

Edward rushed into speech, turning quickly away from her as he spoke. ?We know where it is kept, Mistress Harleigh. You need not trouble yourself to help us find it.?

?Indeed?? She found this claim even more suspicious. The boys had never previously shown much enthusiasm for books. Rough games and practical jokes interested them far more.

High, narrow windows of expensive clear glass pro?vided light to Lord Madderly?s library. Two huge fire?places heated the large, L-shaped room. Between them, fifty large chests and ten small coffers, many of them of cedar, sat on the tiled floor and on top of sturdy tables. They held one of the largest collections of books in all of England. At present it included folios, quartos, booklets, pamphlets, and broadside ballads. Over eight hundred books in all. Five languages were represented: Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and English.

Lord Madderly also acquired maps, which were stored in a long wainscot box. His collection of letters from fa?mous men filled the drawers behind doors in two carved oak aumbrys.

Magdalen paused in front of a tapestry showing the allegorical figures of Faith, Hope, and Charity and watched the boys? progress. First they stopped at the Dutch-made trunk, its exterior painted with landscapes and flowers. They looked at it with real longing but knew better than to try to open that one. Lord Madderly had for a time used it as a sort of family bank and it had a Spanish-style double lock, the springs of which filled the whole of its lid.

They likewise passed by the long trunk and the great chest bound with iron, coming at last to a smaller version of the latter. This had been designed as a traveling chest. Made of leather soaked in oil to make it waterproof, it had been reinforced with iron fittings. As Magdalen watched, Edward lifted the top, which was curved so that rainwater would run off, and quickly selected a slim vol?ume from the linen-lined interior.

Only then did he look over his shoulder and realize he was being watched. Bright color flooded into his face, but he seemed determined to brazen it out. ?Come, Philip,? he said to his brother. ?We will go back to the schoolroom now.?

Philip flushed even more darkly than his brother. The color extended up into the roots of his pale hair.

?What book have you selected?? Magdalen blocked their escape route and held a hand out for the purloined volume, noticing as she did so that there were flecks of blood under her fingernails. A stinging sensation along her arm told her she?d been digging at the rash again.

Edward clutched the leather-bound volume to his chest and ignored her outstretched hand. She wondered what she would do if he simply turned his back on her and walked away. She had no authority over the boys, but she was entrusted with the care of their father?s collection.

?Are you certain you wish to take that particular book?? she asked.

The books in Lord Madderly?s library boasted a variety of bindings. Some had only paper or vellum covers. 0thers were bound in calf, sheepskin, or deerskin. A few had colored Morocco leather, which came in blue, red, and green as well as brown and black, and featured gold stamping and tooling. The volume Edward held was dis?tinctive enough, with gilt on the edges of the pages and a black velvet ribbon holding the dark wine red cover closed, that she could guess which book it was.

?Master Wheelwright recommended that we read it,? Edward insisted. His high, piping voice came close to be?ing a whine.

That Magdalen doubted, but the boys? reading material was not her responsibility. The preservation of Lord Mad?derly?s collection was.

?If you wish to read that book, you must do so in this room.? She resisted the urge to scratch her itching arm, but a dispirited sigh slipped out before she could stop it.

?Our father is master here,? Edward reminded her in haughty tones.

?Aye, and that book is one of the rarest in your father?s collection. He?ll not be pleased if aught happens to it.?

To herself Magdalen admitted that she did have another reason for her objections. The item in question contained nasty French fabliaux full of carnal coupling, profusely illustrated with woodcuts. ?Twas scarce suitable subject matter for boys so young. Almost as shocking as Lord Madderly?s copy of Aretino's Postures. The household chaplain would be appalled if he heard Edward and Philip had been exposed to such depravity and Magdalen would no doubt find herself the subject of his next sermon for allowing it.

As she sought inspiration for dealing with this ticklish situation, she suddenly sensed a new presence in the li?brary. A glance toward the entry revealed Niall Ferguson, eighth baron Glenelg, the annoying man who had been Lord Madderly?s guest this sennight past.

Scholars arrived at Madderly Castle at regular intervals, invited to study the rare volumes the baron had collected. Sometimes other collectors visited, or booksellers came with stock to sell. Magdalen had been told Lord Glenelg had a deceased relative?s book collection to dispose of, but he was taking an extraordinarily long time about completing his business.

Glenelg strode through the library as if he owned it, stopping briefly to stare at the balcony on the second level. That area, about the same size as the musicians? gallery in the great hall, could be reached only by a flight of wooden steps at the southern end of the library. It held storage chests and aumbrys full of material which, while still precious, was used less frequently than the rest of the collection. Lord Madderly?s study, the room he?d set aside for private contemplation, was also reached by way of those stairs.

What unpleasantness, Magdalen wondered, was Lord Glenelg plotting? In the short time he?d been in residence at Madderly Castle he had managed to intimidate or al?ienate almost everyone with whom he?d come in contact.

Mistress Magdalen Harleigh was no exception. She did not care for Lord Glenelg. She was made wary by a hint of cruelty in his piggy little eyes. His air of superiority set her teeth on edge.

Besides that, two days past, she had caught Lord Glen?elg snooping among the private papers she kept here in the armariola. He?d insisted he was only looking for the small, fat, parchment-bound book in which she recorded new acquisitions, and he?d surrendered to her the sheets of foolscap he?d been holding clutched in one beefy hand, but she did not believe his disclaimer. She only hoped he?d not had time to read what she?d written.

The distraction provided by Glenelg?s progress through the library gave Edward the chance to bolt. Magdalen just managed to catch him by the collar.

?Not so fast. The book, if you please.?

?Why should they not have that book?? Lord Glenelg asked in his raspy, irritating voice. He came near enough for Magdalen to smell the noxious scent he used in a futile attempt to mask foul body odor. Something with civet, a musky aroma she could not like no matter how expensive it was.

Obviously enjoying the fact that he made her uncom?fortable, Glenelg smoothed the fabric at the front of his plum-colored doublet over a considerable paunch and re?garded the two boys solemnly. After a moment, he held out one hand.

To Magdalen?s disgust, Edward immediately relin?quished his treasure. Glenelg opened the volume, flipped through a few pages, then handed it back. His lips quirked, exaggerating sagging jowls in a fleshy face. His small dark eyes glinted with malice.

?Off with you, lads,? he said. ?Who is Mistress Har?leigh to refuse? Why, she is naught but an upper-level servant, your stepmother?s companion, whatever that im?plies.?

The younger boy shuffled his feet, glancing warily in Magdalen?s direction. Edward accepted the windfall and made a hasty exit, leaving his brother to follow. After an indecisive instant and an even more wary glance at Glen?elg, Philip did so.

Magdalen heaved a long-suffering sigh, one that started on a high note and ended with the expulsion of air an octave lower. Then she deliberately drew herself up to her full height, relishing Lord Glenelg?s frown of displeasure. Knowing she was his social inferior did not quite quell his annoyance at being forcibly reminded she was taller than he.

Gratified at scoring a point, even if she had lost the match, Magdalen prepared to resume her work, but Lord Glenelg was not finished with her. His pudgy fingers snatched up the herbal she?d left on the armariola.

?What is this?? he demanded. He answered his own question by reading the title aloud. ?A Cautionary Herbal, being a compendium of plants harmful to the health.?

Glenelg let the book fall open at random and silently perused the page. His face purpled at what he read there, forcing Magdalen to hide a smile.

The treatise, written by an anonymous herbalist who used only the initials S.A. for identification, described the effects of various poisons. Its stated purpose was to warn against the accidental ingestion of dangerous herbs in foods, simples, and compounds, but in effect it actually gave recipes for many deadly combinations. A useful sort of guidebook, she thought, if one wished to rid one?s self of an annoyance.

Lady Madderly had recently told Magdalen that this anonymous author was a woman, the wife of a courtier. The S. stood for Susanna; the A. for Appleton. Magdalen thought she might like to meet Lady Appleton one day. It was not impossible. Lady Madderly was already corre?sponding with her, for Lady Madderly was working on an herbal of her own.

?You tried to confiscate that book from the boys,? Glenelg said. ??Tis only just that this one be kept out of your hands.? He tucked it inside the front of his doublet, through an opening at the waist.

Magdalen did not trouble to point out to him that the boys had gotten away with their prize. Although it was an effort to hold her tongue, she did not protest his high?handed behavior, either. Nor did she lose her temper.

?No doubt you will find it fascinating reading,? she told him. She had other work she could do. From the open shelves of a nearby livery cupboard she removed the copy of Liber de arte distillandi, a volume she?d earlier ex?tracted from a chest of such books.

Patience, she cautioned herself as she began to take notes for Lady Madderly. Glenelg would not dare keep the herbal long, not if he wished a successful conclusion to his business with Lord Madderly. She could wait to read it. She would not give this infuriating man the satis?faction of quarreling with him.

As if bored by such an easy victory, Glenelg returned to his contemplation of the balcony. He?d just started to?ward the stairs when he was interrupted by the arrival of Beatrice Madderly, his host?s sister.

Magdalen felt a moment?s envy when she noticed how splendidly the other woman was dressed. Beatrice could afford the best and indulged herself, though at times her sense of what went well together was somewhat lacking. She favored pale shades like maiden?s blush and sheep?s color and they had the unhappy effect of making what was normally a pale complexion even more pallid. This day, however, she was wearing one of her most flattering gowns, a creation of lion-tawny velvet. It was lined with orange-tawny taffeta, edged with black velvet and trimmed with black cony. Just the sight of all that sump?tuousness made Magdalen feel drab and unimportant in her ash-color kirtle.

?My dear lady!? Glenelg turned his full attention to the noblewoman.

At the sight of the Scots lord bearing down on her, Beatrice?s expression froze. Magdalen suspected she was fighting an urge to spit in his eye, but instead she squared her shoulders and forced herself to smile. He was a guest here. She was his hostess. Courtesy was required.

After a moment, at Glenelg?s whispered urging, she ac?companied him to one of a series of windows set into the thick outer wall of the library. Unlike the higher openings, these were filled with colored, patterned glass. Curtains of yellow say hung at the sides of each recess, behind facing seats cushioned with embroidered pillows. Glenelg sat down opposite his victim, keeping one hand on her arm, and continued to speak in low tones.

Watching them, Magdalen told herself she should be grateful Beatrice had distracted him. Glenelg was the no?blewoman?s problem now, not Magdalen?s.

She fiddled with the plain falling band at her throat, smoothing the strip of linen between her thumb and fore?finger. One hand fell to the embroidered forepart that showed through the inverted V of her kirtle and she touched one of the flowers done in silks of murrey, russet, and whey. Magdalen knew she was foolish to feel envy, but there it was. She did covet the other woman?s position. Were Lord Madderly Magdalen?s brother?

She cut off that thought before it had fully formed. She had no cause to complain. She?d done well for herself at Madderly Castle. She?d do even better once Glenelg was out of the way.

Magdalen went back to her note-taking with a new sense of dedication, but from time to time she stole glances at the couple in the window embrasure. At first they seemed to get on well enough, but before long they appeared to be openly quarreling. Magdalen did not imag?ine anyone could long endure Lord Glenelg?s superior at?titude, not even Beatrice. From the look on her face, she longed to strike him.

Sympathizing with the impulse, Magdalen once more bent over her book. She studiously avoided looking toward the couple at the window but could not entirely ignore them. She could hear the rise and fall of their voices and discern a note of agitation in Beatrice?s tone even though she could not make out any of the words they exchanged.

Whatever their debate, it came to an abrupt end when the daylight began to wane and a servant arrived to per?form the late afternoon ritual of lowering the candle beams and lighting the tapers. By the time he raised the iron supports to the ceiling again with the aid of a pulley, Mag?dalen had gathered her papers together and placed them inside the desk and was returning her book to its proper place.

She did not realize Lord Glenelg had abandoned Bea?trice Madderly until he appeared at her elbow. The lid of the book chest closed with more force than she?d intended.

?The key, Mistress Harleigh.?

?Key, Lord Glenelg?? She blinked at him in confusion.

?To Lord Madderly?s study. His sister tells me you have it and I wish to study certain books he keeps there.?

Magdalen looked around for Beatrice, who had bla?tantly lied to Lord Glenelg on the subject of this key, but the other woman was nowhere in sight. Magdalen sus?pected she?d ducked around the corner made by the room?s L shape and left by way of a secret door hidden behind a huge panel of arraswork, abandoning Magdalen to deal with Lord Glenelg.

?I am sorry, my lord, but Lord Madderly is most par?ticular about his study.? She tried to sound polite but firm. ?It is his rule that no one enter that room unless he is there to issue an invitation.?

He rarely extended one. Lord Madderly would not even let the maids in to straighten and his wife had been spe?cifically banned from the premises.

Glenelg?s lips curved into the threatening glimmer of a smile. At the same time he drew from its black leather sheath a small sharp dagger with an ornately carved han?dle. Magdalen?s sharp eyes picked out a crest with a bee and a thistle.

Ostentatiously, Glenelg began to clean his fingernails with the blade. ?Ah, rules. Foolish rules,? he murmured.

?Foolish it may be, but Lord Madderly is master here and must be obeyed.?

A derisive snort answered her. To emphasize his con?tempt, Glenelg used the knife to gesture toward the bal?cony. ?Rules are meant to be broken.? The blade swung threateningly close to the tip of Magdalen?s nose. ?You, my dear young woman, will hand over your key or I will tell Lord Madderly what I found among your papers.?

Magdalen?s hand flew forward in a vain attempt to knock the knife aside, but Glenelg was too quick for her. Laughing unpleasantly, he returned the blade to its sheath, turned his back, and started toward the stairs.

?Come with me, Mistress Harleigh,? he commanded.

?But I do not have a key,? she protested as she scurried along in his wake. She wondered how far he was prepared to go to get into that room. She was shaken by his threat to reveal her secret, but also concerned that he might break the lock and enter if he was left to his own devices. She?d not put such behavior past him.

A masculine voice interrupted their progress. ?May I assist you, Lord Glenelg??

Magdalen was unsure whether to feel relief or embar?rassment. Master Wheelwright, the schoolmaster, lean as a whippet and quiet as the pet ferret he kept, had slipped into the library without either of them noticing.

?Will you return this to its proper place?? Wheelwright asked, his voice full of sympathy as he held out the book his charges had made off with earlier. ?I do not imagine you intended the young masters to abscond with it.?

?My thanks,? she murmured. ?I will do so at once.?

So saying, she turned her back on the two men. As she did, a flash of tawny and black caught her eye. Beatrice Madderly. She had not left the library, but stood hidden behind a tall aumbry. When Magdalen stared at her, she held a finger to her lips. Clearly the noblewoman intended to stay where she was and eavesdrop.

Magdalen pointedly went about her own business. Even so, as she replaced the volume in its book chest, she could not help but be aware that Master Wheelwright and Lord Glenelg were engaged in an intense conversation. Beatrice wore a frown, likely because she was unable to overhear any more than Magdalen could.

And none of this, Magdalen reminded herself, was any of her business. Taking the opportunity to escape, she whipped behind the arras and darted out through the small door it concealed.