Authors: Nicola Cornick
is a historian and author. She studied at London University and Ruskin College Oxford and works for the National Trust as a guide at the seventeenth century hunting lodge Ashdown House in Oxfordshire. Her award-winning books are international bestsellers and have been translated into 26 languages.
To Andrew, who has lived with my obsession with Ashdown House and William Craven for many years.
All my love as always.
Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time.
All my thanks go to my wonderful editor Sally Williamson who had faith in me to write this book and who gave me endless encouragement and support. I’m also hugely grateful to all my writing friends, especially the Word Wenches and the lovely Sarah Morgan for giving me the confidence finally to write the book of my heart.
I am very fortunate to work as part of a great team of volunteers at Ashdown House. Thank you all for sharing your knowledge and for being so much fun to work with. Special thanks go to Maureen Dawson and to Richard Henderson at the National Trust.
I’d also like to thank Denny Andrews for showing me the site of Coleshill House and Neil Fraser for being so generous in sharing his archive on the Ashdown Estate.
I would like to pay tribute to the late Keith Blaxhall, for many years the Estate Manager at Ashdown Park. His enthusiasm and encouragement was inspiring to me and it was a great privilege to have known him.
Finally a big thank you to Julie Carr for allowing me to ‘borrow’ her lovely dog Bonnie for this story, and to Bonnie herself for graciously agreeing to star in
House of Shadows.
London, February 1662
he dreamed about the house on the night before she died. In the dream she felt as insignificant as a child; a miniature queen clad in a cream silk gown embroidered with gold. The collar prickled the nape of her neck as she craned her head to gaze up, up at the dazzling white stone of the house against the blue of the sky. It made her dizzy. Her head spun and the golden ball that adorned the roof seemed to plunge like a shooting star falling to earth.
Beyond the walls of her bedchamber crouched the city; filthy, noisy and seething with life. But in her dreams she was far from London; she had followed the wide ribbon of the Thames upriver, past the hunting ground at Richmond, and the great grey walls of Windsor, to a place where two rivers met. She took the narrower path through drowsy meadows thick with daisies and the hum of bees, for in her dream
she was a summer princess, not a winter queen. The river became a chalk stream that bubbled up from springs deep in the dappled woods until finally she burst out of the shade and onto the highlands, and there was the house in a hollow of the hills, a little white palace fit for a queen.
Her lips moved. One of her women, weary, anxious, attentive, bent to catch the whisper. It could not be long now.
It caused consternation. She had sent him away, her cavalier, told her servants to bar the door against him.
‘Madam …’ The woman was uncertain. ‘I don’t think—’
The queen’s eyelashes flickered. Her eyes, blue-grey, were clear, imperious.
‘Majesty.’ The woman curtsied, ran.
The room was hot, windows and doors closed, fire roaring. She drifted between sleep and waking, on the fringes of shadow. Outside, dawn was breaking over the river, the water rippling with a silver wake. It was unseasonably mild for February and the air felt heavy, waiting.
She heard the stir, felt the cool shift of the air before the door closed again, sealing them in.
No one argued, which was good because she was too tired for arguments now. Her eyes would not open. In the silence she could hear everything though; the hiss of the fire as a log settled deeper in the grate, the creak of the floorboards beneath his boots as he crossed the room to her side.
‘Sit. Please.’ It was an effort to speak. There was no time for discussion now, or apologies, even if she had wished to make them, which she did not.
He sat. Now that he was close she could smell on him the night cold and the scent of the city. She could not see him but she did not need to. She knew every plane of his face, each line, each curve. It was as though they were written on her heart, an indelible picture.
There was something she needed to tell him. She fought for the strength to speak.
‘The crystal mirror—’
‘I will get it back. I swear it,’ he replied instantly. A second later his hand grasped hers, warm and reassuring but still she shook her head. She knew it was too late.
‘It will elude you,’ she said.
He had never understood the power of the Order of the Rosy Cross or its instruments, though perhaps he did now, now that the damage was done.
‘Danger to you—’ She tried one last time to warn him. ‘Take care or it will destroy you and your kin as it did me and mine.’ She was gasping for breath, frightened.
His fingers tightened on hers. ‘I understand. Believe me.’
She felt the knot inside her ease. She had to trust him. There was no alternative. Her life was unravelling like a skein of wool. Soon the thread would run out.
‘I want you to take this. Keep it safe, hidden.’ With an effort she opened her eyes and unclenched the fingers of her right hand. A huge pearl spilled into her lap, glowing with baleful fire in the subdued light. Even now, looking on it for the last time, she could not like it, for all its ethereal
beauty. It was too powerful. It was not the fault of the jewel, of course, but of the men who had sought to use it for their own wicked purposes. Both mirror and pearl had once been a force for good, strong and protective, until their power had been corrupted through the greed of men. The Knights had been warned not to misuse the instruments of the Order and they had disobeyed. They had unleashed destruction through fire and water, just as the prophecy had foretold.
She heard the catch of Craven’s breath. ‘The Sistrin pearl should be given to your heir.’
‘Not yet.’ She was so very tired now but this last task must be completed. ‘You need to break the link between the pearl and the mirror. One day the mirror will return and then it must be destroyed. Keep the pearl safe until that is done.’
Craven did not refuse her gift or tell her that he had no time for superstition. Once he had scorned her beliefs. No longer. She watched him scoop up the pearl on its heavy gold chain and stow it within his shirt. His face was grave and set, as though he were facing battle, such was the weight of her commission.
‘Thank you.’ Her smile was weary. Her eyes closed. ‘I can sleep now.’
There was a sudden commotion. The door swung back with a crash and a protesting creak of hinges. Voices; loud, commanding. Footsteps, equally loud: her son Rupert, come to be with her at the end, always hasty, always late.
There was so little time now.
She opened her eyes again. The room swam with shadows and the red and gold of firelight but she felt cold.
She looked on Craven for the last time. Grief was etched deep into his face.
‘Old,’ she thought. ‘We have had our time.’ The loss cut her like a knife. If only …
‘William,’ she said. ‘I am sorry. I wish we had another chance.’
His face lightened. He gave her the smile that had shaken her heart from the moment she had first seen him.
‘Perhaps we shall,’ he said, ‘in another life.’
She forgot that her time could be measured in breaths now, not hours or even minutes, and tightened her grip urgently on his hand.
‘The Knights of the Rosy Cross believed in the rebirth of the spirit,’ she said, ‘but it is against the Christian teaching.’
He nodded. His eyes were smiling. ‘I know it is. Yet still I believe it. It comforts me to think that we shall meet again in another time.’
Her eyes closed. A small smile touched her lips. ‘It comforts me, too,’ she said softly. ‘Next time we shall be together always. Next time we shall not fail.’