"If this is what hell looks like," Matthew murmured the week after our encounter with Hubbard, "Gallowglass is going to be sadly disappointed."
There was, in truth, very little fire and brimstone about the fourteenyear-old witch standing before us in the parlor.
"Hush," I said, mindful of how sensitive a child that age could be. "Did Father Hubbard explain why you are here, Annie?"
"Yes, mistress," Annie replied miserably. It was difficult to tell if the girl's pallor was due to her natural coloring or some combination of fear and poor nutrition. "I'm to serve you and accompany you about the city on your business."
"No, that wasn't our agreement," Matthew said impatiently, his booted feet landing heavily on the wooden floor. Annie flinched. "Do you have any power or knowledge to speak of, or is Hubbard playing some joke?"
"I have a little skill," Annie stammered, her pale blue eyes contrasting with her white skin. "But I need a place, and Father Hubbard said-"
"Oh, I can imagine what Father Hubbard said," Matthew snorted contemptuously. The look I gave him held sufficient warning that he blinked and was quiet.
"Allow her a chance to explain," I told him sharply before giving the girl an encouraging smile. "Go on, Annie."
"As well as serving you, Father Hubbard said I'm to take you to my aunt when she returns to London. She is at a lying-in at present and refused to leave while the woman still had need of her."
"Your aunt is a midwife as well as a witch?" I asked gently.
"Yes, mistress. A fine midwife and a powerful witch," Annie said proudly, straightening her spine. When she did so, her too-short skirts exposed her skinny ankles to the cold. Andrew Hubbard outfitted his sons in warm, well-fitting clothes, but his daughters received no such consideration. I smothered my irritation. Françoise would have to get her needles out.
"And how did you come to be part of Father Hubbard's family?"
"My mother was not a virtuous woman," Annie murmured, twisting her hands in her thin cloak. "Father Hubbard found me in the undercroft of St. Anne's Church near Aldersgate, my mother dead beside me. My aunt was newly married and soon had babes of her own. I was six years old. Her husband did not want me raised among his sons for fear I would corrupt them with my sinfulness."
So Annie, now a teenager, had been with Hubbard for more than half her life. The thought was chilling, and the idea that a six-year-old could corrupt anyone was beyond comprehension, but this story explained both her abject look and the girl's peculiar name: Annie Undercroft.
"While Françoise gets you something to eat, I can show you where you will sleep." I'd been up to the third floor that morning to inspect the small bed, three-legged stool, and worn chest set aside to hold the witch's belongings. "I'll help carry your things."
"Mistress?" Annie said, confused.
"She brought nothing," Françoise said, casting disapproving looks at the newest member of the household.
"Never mind. She'll have belongings soon enough." I smiled at Annie, who looked uncertain.
Françoise and I spent the weekend making sure that Annie was clean as a whistle, clothed and shod properly, and that she knew enough basic math to make small purchases for me. To test her I sent her to the nearby apothecary for a penny's worth of quill pens and half a pound of sealing wax (Philippe was right: Matthew went through office supplies at an alarming pace), and she came back promptly with change to spare.
"He wanted a shilling!" Annie complained. "That wax isn't even good for candles, is it?"
Pierre took a shine to the girl and made it his business to elicit a rare, sweet smile from Annie whenever he could. He taught her how to play cat's cradle and volunteered to walk with her on Sunday when Matthew dropped broad hints that he would like us to be alone for a few hours.
"He won't . . . take advantage of her?" I asked Matthew as he unbuttoned my favorite item of clothing: a sleeveless boy's jerkin made of fine black wool. I wore it with a set of skirts and a smock when we were at home.
"Pierre? Good Christ no." Matthew looked amused.
"It's a fair question." Mary Sidney had not been much older when she was married off to the highest bidder.
"And I gave you a truthful answer. Pierre doesn't bed young girls." His hands stilled after he freed the last button. "This is a pleasant surprise. You're not wearing a corset."
"It's uncomfortable, and I'm blaming it on the baby."
He lifted the jerkin away from my body with an appreciative sound.
"And he'll keep other men from bothering her?"
"Can this conversation possibly wait until later?" Matthew said, his exasperation showing. "Given the cold, they won't be gone for long."
"You're very impatient in the bedroom," I observed, sliding my hands into the neck of his shirt.
"Really?" Matthew arched his aristocratic brows in mock disbelief. "And here I thought the problem was my admirable restraint."
He spent the next few hours showing me just how limitless his patience could be in an empty house on a Sunday. By the time everybody returned, we were both pleasantly exhausted and in a considerably better frame of mind.
Everything returned to normal on Monday, however. Matthew was distracted and irritable as soon as the first letters arrived at dawn, and he sent his apologies to the Countess of Pembroke when it became clear that the obligations of his many jobs wouldn't allow him to accompany me to our midday meal.
Mary listened without surprise as I explained the reason for Matthew's absence, blinked at Annie like a mildly curious owl, and sent her off to the kitchens in the care of Joan. We shared a delicious meal, during which Mary offered detailed accounts of the private lives of everyone within shouting distance of the Blackfriars. After lunch we withdrew to her laboratory with Joan and Annie to assist us.
"And how is your husband, Diana?" the countess asked, rolling up her sleeves, her eyes fixed on the book before her.
"In good health," I said. This, I had learned, was the Elizabethan equivalent of "Fine."
"That is welcome news." Mary turned and stirred something that looked noxious and smelled worse. "Much depends on it, I fear. The queen relies on him more than on any other man in the kingdom except Lord Burghley."
"I wish his good humor was more reliable. Matthew is mercurial these days. He's possessive one moment and ignores me as if I were a piece of furniture the next."
"Men treat their property that way." She picked up a jug of water. "I am not his property," I said flatly.
"What you and I know, what the law says, and how Matthew himself feels are three entirely separate issues."
"They shouldn't be," I said quickly, ready to argue the point. Mary silenced me with a gentle, resigned smile.
"You and I have an easier time with our husbands than other women do, Diana. We have our books and the leisure to indulge our passions, thank God. Most do not." Mary gave everything in her beaker a final stir and decanted the contents into another glass vessel.
I thought of Annie: a mother who'd died alone in a church cellar, an aunt who couldn't take her in because of her husband's prejudices, a life that promised little in the way of comfort or hope. "Do you teach your female servants how to read?"
"Certainly," Mary responded promptly. "They learn to write and reckon, too. Such skills will make them more valuable to a good husband-one who likes to earn money as well as spend it." She beckoned to Joan, who helped her move the fragile glass bubble full of chemicals to the fire.
"Then Annie shall learn as well," I said, giving the girl a nod. She clung to the shadows, looking ghostly with her pale face and silver-blond hair. Education would increase her confidence. She'd had a definite lilt in her step ever since haggling with Monsieur de Laune over the price of sealing wax.
"She will have reason in future to thank you for it," said Mary. Her face was serious. "We women own nothing absolutely, save what lies between our ears. Our virtue belongs first to our father and then to our husband. We dedicate our duty to our family. As soon as we share our thoughts with another, put pen to paper or thread a needle, all that we do and make belongs to someone else. So long as she has words and ideas, Annie will always possess something that is hers alone."
"If only you were a man, Mary," I said with a shake of my head. The Countess of Pembroke could run rings around most creatures, regardless of their sex.
" "Were I a man, I would be on my estates now, or paying court to Her Majesty like Henry, or seeing to matters of state like Matthew. Instead I am here in my laboratory with you. Weighing it all in the balance, I believe we are the better off-even if we are sometimes put on a pedestal or mistaken for a kitchen stool." Mary's round eyes twinkled.
I laughed. "You may be right."
"Had you ever been to court, you would have no doubts on this score. Come," Mary said, turning to her experiment. "Now we wait while the prima materia is exposed to the heat. If we have done well, this is what will generate the philosopher's stone. Let us review the next steps of the process in hopes that the experiment will succeed."
I always lost track of time while there were alchemical manuscripts around, and I looked up, dazed, when Matthew and Henry walked in to the laboratory. Mary and I had been deep in conversation about the images in a collection of alchemical texts known as the Pretiosa Margarita Novella-the New Pearl of Great Price. Was it already late afternoon?
"It can't be time to go. Not yet," I protested. "Mary has this manuscript-"
"Matthew knows the book, for his brother gave it to me. Now that Matthew has a learned wife, he may regret having done so," Mary said with a laugh. "There are refreshments waiting in the solar. I had hoped to see you both today." At this, Henry gave Mary a conspiratorial wink.
"That is kind, Mary," Matthew said, kissing me on the cheek in greeting. "Apparently you two haven't reached the vinegar stage yet. You still smell of vitriol and magnesia."
I put down the book reluctantly and washed while Mary finished making notes of the day's work. Once we were settled in the solar, Henry could no longer curb his excitement.
"Is it time now, Mary?" he asked the countess, shifting in his chair.
"You have the same enthusiasm for giving presents as young William does," she replied with a laugh. "Henry and I have a gift in honor of the New Year and your marriage."
But we had nothing to give them in return. I looked at Matthew, uncomfortable with this one-way exchange.
"I wish you luck, Diana, if you hope to stay ahead of Mary and Henry when it comes to gifts," he said ruefully.
"Nonsense," Mary replied. "Matthew saved my brother Philip's life and Henry's estates. No gifts can repay such debts. Do not ruin our pleasure with such talk. It is a tradition to give gifts to those newly wed, and it is New Year. What did you give the queen, Matthew?"
"After she sent poor King James another clock to remind him to bide his time quietly, I considered giving her a crystal hourglass. I thought it might be a useful reminder of her relative mortality," he said drily. Henry looked at him with horror. "No. Not really."
"It was an idle thought in a moment of frustration," Matthew reassured him. "I gave her a covered cup, of course, like everyone else."
"Don't forget our gift, Henry," said Mary, now equally impatient.
Henry drew out a velvet pouch and presented it to me. I fumbled with the strings and finally drew out a heavy gold locket on an equally weighty chain. Its face was golden filigree studded with rubies and diamonds, Matthew's moon and star in its center. I flipped the locket over, gasping at the brilliant enamelwork with its flowers and scrolling vines. Carefully I opened the clasp at the bottom, and a miniature rendering of Matthew looked up at me.
"Master Hilliard made the preliminary sketches when he was here. With the holidays he was so busy that his assistant, Isaac, had to help with the painting," Mary explained.
I cupped the miniature in my hand, tilting it this way and that. Matthew was painted as he looked at home when he was working late at night in his study off the bedroom. His shirt open at the neck and trimmed with lace, he met the viewer's gaze with a lift of his right eyebrow in a familiar combination of seriousness and mocking humor. Black hair was swept back from his forehead in its typically disordered fashion, and the long fingers of his left hand held a locket. It was a surprisingly frank and erotic image for the time.
"Is it to your liking?" Henry asked.
"I love it," I said, unable to stop staring at my new treasure.
"Isaac is rather more . . . daring in his composition than his master is, but when I told him it was a wedding gift, he convinced me that such a locket would remain a wife's special secret and could reveal the private man rather than the public." Mary looked over my shoulder. "It is a good likeness, but I do wish Master Hilliard would learn how to better capture a person's chin."
"It's perfect, and I will treasure it always."
"This one is for you," Henry said, handing Matthew an identical bag. "Hilliard felt you might show it to others and wear it at court, so it is somewhat more . . . er, circumspect."
"Is that the locket Matthew is holding in my miniature?" I said, pointing to the distinctive milky stone set in a simple gold frame.
"I believe so," Matthew said softly. "Is it a moonstone, Henry?" "An ancient specimen," Henry said proudly. "It was among my curiosities, and I wanted you to have it. The intaglio is of the goddess Diana, you see."
The miniature within was more respectable, but startling nonetheless in its informality. I was wearing the russet gown trimmed with black velvet. A delicate ruff framed my face without covering the shining pearls at my throat. But it was the arrangement of my hair that signaled that this was an intimate gift appropriate for a new husband. It flowed freely over my shoulders and down my back in a wild riot of red-gold curls.
"The blue background emphasizes Diana's eyes. And the set of her mouth is so true to life." Matthew, too, was overwhelmed by the gift.
"I had a frame made," Mary said, gesturing at Joan, "to display them when they are not being worn." It was more a shallow box, with two oval niches lined in black velvet. The two miniatures fit perfectly inside and gave the effect of a pair of portraits.
"It was thoughtful of Mary and Henry to give us such a gift," Matthew said later, when we were back at the Hart and Crown. He slid his arms around me from behind and laced his hands over my belly. "I haven't even had time to take your picture. I never imagined my first likeness of you would be by Nicholas Hilliard."