Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick Online

PROLOGUE

Twenty-fifth of March, 1603—Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

SHE STOOD AT THE WESTWARD-FACING WINDOW OF HER BEDCHAMBER. The sun was poised to slip over the horizon, and its rays slanted across the rolling hills and fields as though in a last desperate attempt to cling to the rolling ball of the earth. The sky was shot with pink and gold, the underside of the drifting clouds aflame with the sun’s dying glory.

The queen was dead.

Bess found it hard to take in this fact. Since the messenger from her son William in London had arrived that afternoon her mind had seethed with thoughts and memories. Elizabeth, whom she had first met as a grave-faced girl of six, her dark anxious eyes in a pale face beneath the shining red hair—so like Bess’s own—standing like a small soldier in petticoats to meet the arrival of the stranger who would marry her father. Elizabeth, her face at twenty gaunt with suppressed terror at what she might suffer at the hands of her sister Mary, newly queen, though no one then could have guessed at the horrors the next handful of years would see. Elizabeth, her face alight with love as she gazed on Robert Dudley. Elizabeth, the wind from the sea whipping her skirts at Tilbury as she sat a-horseback, exhorting her troops. Elizabeth, as Bess had last seen her, in that July more than ten years earlier, the queen about to set off on progress to the West Country and Bess returning to Derbyshire, fleeing the plague that raged in London. The queen had turned then, caught Bess’s eye, smiled as she raised her hand in a wave of farewell.

Now Elizabeth was gone, reckoned an old woman, and she had been six years younger than Bess. And it was James of Scotland who would succeed her. Bess’s hopes and dreams and schemes of the last twenty-eight years, that it might be her granddaughter Arbella who sat on the throne, had finally been crushed in the dust. Well, what did it matter, when all was said and done? Arbella had broken her heart—only five days earlier Bess had revised her will, cutting out her granddaughter as well as her son Henry—and this news was but the final disappointment.

The sun was gone now, and dark fingers of shadow were reaching toward Hardwick Hall. Bess shivered, despite the voluminous folds of the heavy black wool of her gown, and drew her fur-lined robe tighter about her. She felt the cold so easily now and it seemed she could never get warm. Though today, Lady Day, the start of the new legal year, was deemed to be the first day of spring, the Derbyshire countryside was still wintry. And all this glass—her glorious windows, soaring up to the high ceilings—made Hardwick even colder than it would have been otherwise. What was it Robert Cecil had said about the house? Ah, yes. Hardwick Hall, more window than wall.

A discreet cough interrupted her thoughts and she turned to see Robert Crossman, her master builder, who had come at her summons, hat in his hands as he made his bow.

“How may I be of service to your ladyship?”

Crossman had been with Bess for more years than she could recall, working first on Chatsworth, then on the alterations to the old manor at Hardwick, then through the ten years it had taken to build the new house, and then at Oldcotes, and he remained in her employ now, with a quarterly wage and the free lease of a farm. She noted his fingers, their knuckles rough and swollen, and the size of his hands, grown with the decades of hard work.

“Thank you for coming, Rob. I know it’s late.”

He smiled and gave a small shrug. “There is yet light to see by, your ladyship.”

She smiled in return. “So there is.”

She went to her writing desk and lifted the lid from the wooden box that sat atop a stack of papers. Suddenly she felt a little shy about the reason she had asked him to come. Shy? That was not an emotion that had visited her in decades. She met his eyes.

“I have these few things that I wish you to—to immure.”

“Immure?” He tasted the word cautiously.

“I would have you seal them within the wall.”

She reached into the box and hesitated before she lifted out a small shoe, the once-bright crimson of its leather faded and dry. It was not exactly shyness, she realized now. It was that the shoe and the other objects nestled