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Face Down beneath the Eleanor Cross

Face Down beneath the Eleanor Cross by Kathy Lynn Emerson
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Susanna, Lady Appleton is an expert on poisonous herbs, but she never expects to diagnose her own husband’s death as murder. Sir Robert, long believed lost at sea, turns up freshly dead in Westminster and Susanna is accused of the crime. To prove her innocence she must discover the real killer’s identify.

Elizabethan mystery by Kathy Lynn Emerson; originally published by St. Martins and Kensington

Belgrave House; February 2000
203 pages; ISBN 9780312205447
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Title: Face Down beneath the Eleanor Cross
Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson

January 3, 1565

"Back again, eh? 'E's gone on without ye. In a powerful hurry, 'e were, too."

Susanna Appleton broke off her survey of the tavern known as the Black Jack to stare at its proprietor. Until a moment ago, she'd never set foot in the place, but there might be some use in letting his misconception stand, especially if the mysterious "'e" turned out to be the man she sought. "How long ago did he leave?"

The tavernkeeper was shorter than she, a small, wiry man in a canvas apron. When he took a step closer, Susanna smelled garlic and stale, spilled wine, a pungent and unpleasant combination when trepidation had already made her queasy. A pockmarked face and brown teeth did nothing to alleviate her first, negative impression.

"Come and sit with old Ned, sweeting," he invited, leering at her, "and I'll tell you everything I know. But let's see what's under the 'ood this time."

Before she could stop him, he flipped the heavy wool away from her face, narrowing his eyes to get a better look. As he leaned in, the stench of his breath nearly made her gag.

Repulsed, Susanna backed away. Beneath her cloak, she fumbled for the small sharp knife suspended from the belt at her waist. She could expect no help from customers who frequented a place such as this, and for once she did not think it likely she'd be able to talk herself out of trouble.

The Black Jack Tavern was as disreputable as the lowest tippling house. A smoky fire burned in the chimney corner, spreading its murky light over four rickety trestle tables in a windowless, low-ceilinged room. Around them, occupying rough-hewn benches and stools, with not a chair in sight, were more than a dozen patrons, men who appeared down on their luck and potentially dangerous. A few of them were eating, but most ignored offerings of cheese and meat pies in favor of beverages served in black jacks, wooden cans treated with pitch on the inside.

To Susanna's relief, a call for more beer distracted Ned. The moment he turned away, she fled, escaping into the narrow street outside.

Frigid air lanced through her like a thousand ice-tipped arrows. Hugging herself beneath her warm wool cloak, Susanna left the slight shelter of the building's overhang and started walking. Her heart was racing, but she no longer had any immediate fear for her safety.

 When she reached the corner, she glanced back at the tavern. Its sign, showing a crudely painted black jack, creaked as a chilly gust of air set it swinging. A second pole bore a picture of leaves, proclaiming that wine, as well as beer and ale, could be found within. 

Shivering and stamping her booted feet to keep warm, Susanna considered what to do next. She'd arrived almost an hour late, delayed by this uncommon cold weather. The Thames was frozen solid. She'd planned to hire a boat to take her across. Instead, she'd been obliged to walk, or rather to slip and slide, until she reached the opposite shore.

For whom had the tavernkeeper mistaken her? One cloaked and hooded woman looked much like another, she supposed, especially in a poorly lit room. But why would Robert have been with someone else when he was expecting her?

Her lips twisted into a mockery of a smile as Susanna silently answered her own question. With Robert, there always seemed to be another woman.

Their marriage had been arranged as soon as Susanna turned fourteen and solemnized when she was eighteen. Robert, then twenty-seven, had expected to acquire a quiet, obedient spouse, one content to remain in the background, to stay in the country while he was at the royal court. For the most part, at least in the early years, she had obliged him.

A door opened a few feet from where Susanna stood. Giving her a suspicious look, a shopkeeper hung out a lantern containing a candle. A hook had been set into the doorframe for that purpose.

The action served as a pointed reminder of the foolishness of remaining where she was when the sun was about to set. She'd come alone, as Robert's coded message had instructed. Now she was acutely aware that she was in a strange neighborhood without the protection of servant, friend, or husband.

Susanna was tall for a woman, and sturdily built. Along with a sharp mind and an inquisitive nature, both characteristics had been inherited from her father. Neither, however, made her any match for footpads or cutpurses. The fact that she had on her person a pouch containing the gold coins Robert had requested she bring with her rendered her even more conscious of her vulnerability.

Where was he?

Why had he not waited for her, especially if he was in need of money? Susanna was torn between relief and disappointment and beset by the same anxiety that had settled over her five days earlier, when she'd first opened the letter and realized it had come from Robert, a man most people supposed to be dead.

Leaving the environs of the Black Jack, she began to walk toward Charing, in the north part of Westminster. She'd suspected all along that Robert had not drowned eighteen months earlier. Seeming to do so had provided too neat a solution to his problems at the time. And to her own.

Susanna had allowed others to persuade her to declare him dead and go on with her life. She'd had no real choice, and it had scarce been a hardship, not when the result was complete control over all Robert had owned. She was honest enough with herself to admit she enjoyed the freedom her false widowhood entailed. In her opinion, the advantages of the married state were much overrated.

During the previous year and a half, while waiting for some word of or from her "dead" spouse, Susanna had come to the conclusion that Robert must have planned well, secreting funds sufficient to spirit him safely out of England. She'd begun to think she'd never see him again. On the other hand, she had not been unduly surprised to receive what amounted to a demand that she secretly come to him and bring with her a considerable sum in gold.

Despite the acrimonious nature of their relationship, she and Robert knew each other well. He'd have had no doubt she'd obey. Her sense of honor compelled her to comply with his wishes, no matter how much she resented doing so.

She had made certain vows when they wed. Robert might hold them in little regard, but Susanna had always been a woman of her word. As long as her husband lived, she was bound by her obligations to him. For that reason, she had come to Westminster in secret, and she had not betrayed Robert's whereabouts to his enemies.

This would be their last meeting, she'd decided on the long, cold journey from her home in rural Kent. They would clear the air between them. She'd remind him that he had a most pressing reason not to be seen by anyone who might recognize him. Then she would explain that the money she'd brought, invested wisely, should be sufficient to allow him to live comfortably for the rest of his life. If he followed her advice, he'd have no need to contact her again.

At Charing, where King Street met the Strand and both noisy thoroughfares were crowded enough to make Susanna feel safe, she paused in front of a bookseller's shop and contemplated her next move. The buildings directly across from her comprised the Royal Mews. In spite of the name, which implied the presence of falcons and other hunting birds, this mews housed the queen's horses. Robert had been wont to leave his own mount there when he was in attendance on Queen Elizabeth. On such occasions, when he could not secure a bed in the palace or impose upon the hospitality of friends with lodgings in the vicinity, it had also been his custom to take a room in a nearby inn called the Swan.

She would spend the night there, Susanna decided. It was possible that Robert, following her logic, would look for her at that inn. If he did not, then in the morning she would return to Leigh Abbey. She had, she assured herself, obeyed every instruction in the coded letter. After a dozen years of betrayals, her sense of obligation was worn thin. Any true affection for Robert Appleton had long since withered and died.

Susanna had just turned toward the Swan when she heard a commotion erupt behind her. Shouts and laughter drew her attention to the ornate Eleanor Cross at the center of the intersection.

Like similar memorials in Cheapside and thirteen other locations throughout England, this Eleanor Cross had been erected by King Edward I to mark one of the stopping places of his beloved queen's funeral cortege. A tower of Caen stone, decorated with sculptured scenes from the life of Christ, and with Eleanor of Castile's image and arms, rose above a flight of stone stairs.

In the last rays of the setting sun, Susanna saw a man, apparently much the worse for drink, struggle to climb them. His slow progress was marked by considerable weaving and stumbling. To the delight of the jeering, hooting crowd that quickly gathered to watch him, he suddenly clutched at his throat and tottered, his footing precarious on the icy surface of the top step.

Beset by an uneasy premonition, Susanna joined the throng moving toward the cross. She was too far away to do more than gasp when the man seemed to lose control of his legs. Before anyone could aid him, he tumbled headfirst down the stairs, losing his bonnet on the way and striking his unprotected skull several times before his limp form came to rest at the base of the monument.

A sudden hush fell over the spectators. The man lay still, sprawled face down at the foot of the stairs. Bright blood stained the back of a bald head. That, together with the unnatural angles of his limbs, made it likely he was beyond human help.

All the same, Susanna stepped closer. She was a skilled herbalist. A healer. If any spark of life remained, she felt obliged to do what she could to ease the fellow's pain and suffering.

Another would-be Samaritan reached the body ahead of her, turning it over only to recoil in revulsion.

At first, in the rapidly fading twilight, Susanna did not recognize the dead man. She did not know anyone who was both completely bald and clean shaven.

Then someone brought a lantern forward. Silhouetted by its light was a familiar profile of brow and nose and chin.

Susanna heard a choked sound and realized with a dull sense of surprise that she had made it. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, struggling to exert some measure of control over her rapidly fluctuating emotions.

The dead man was her husband, Sir Robert Appleton.