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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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Elena Appleyard said: ‘The white falcon of Anne Boleyn.'

‘Exactly! The heraldic emblem granted her in 1532 by Henry VIII when he made her Marquess of Pembroke. So much for my Victorian doodad! I put down the string and scissors, picked up the wallet, and examined it properly for the first time – and found out that what was keeping it stiff wasn't muslin at all. Carefully folded between the two thicknesses of silk were nineteen letters from Anne Boleyn to her brother George.' A pause. Then: ‘Love letters.'

Chapter Seven

‘My sweet lord and brother,

‘Tomorrow we are away to Windsor where His Majesty hath been assured by one Thomas Bolden, a soothsayer of Dover, that I shall not fail to be brought to bed of a lusty son, whereas if I remain at Greenwich, as I am much minded to do, the child shall be a girl and mine the fault that out of woman's waywardness would not pay heed to so sage an oracle.

‘In truth, brother, so that I am shortly rid of this burden I bear before me like Salome the head of John the Baptist, I care not if it be maid or mannikin, provided only that its hair be red and not black, so that I may know without peradventure whom I have to thank for this amazing discomfort of the body. Yet indeed if I might only be in Norfolk with the one to whom that body and heart are bound by ties not Hercules himself could sunder, cumbered though I be with this imp within, I would count the journey no more than from my bed to my seat in the window and so back again.

‘This past week we have shown much entertainment to the embassy from France who depart hence tomorrow with gifts of worsted and kersey but nothing of what they came for. Every day, after we have eaten, His Majesty and some ladies of the court dance gavottes and galliards in the French manner in compliment to our guests, whereat the Frenchmen cry La! for wonder, never having seen the like in Paris, nor any other place, I warrant; the whiles myself sits quiet and smiling, my embroidery in my hand, remembering the night when you and I, sweet love, you and I only, danced in the Long Chamber, the moonlight coming through the window and Joris the lute player plucking his strings in the gallery. Else had he not been born with eyes that see only the black of night, such sights might he have seen, that summer eve, as would straightway have struck him blind! – or dead, had he but dared to speak of it.

‘Fare you well, then, in Norfolk, sweet brother. Yet fare you not too well there, lest, being in such wise, you make no shift to come soon to the court, and to the side of one who has for you more regard than is convenient either for her safety or her salvation.

‘From her that is yours wholly, though the heavens fall.'

Francis Coryton looked up from the typed copy he had been reading.

‘It's signed, “Anne, sister and paramour”.'

For a moment there was a hushed silence. Before the excited voices could break out, Coryton went on: ‘This room, as many of you know, used to be called the Long Chamber. The windows were smaller than the ones we see today, but otherwise everything is much the same as it was then. No electricity, of course – candles perhaps, or torches dipped in pitch, stinking to high heaven. But I think, don't you, that they danced, the two of them, by the moon's light only, treading these very boards under our feet.' The man took off his glasses and raised his head. ‘” If a man take his sister, his father's daughter, or his mother's daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness, it is a wicked thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the people.” Leviticus, Chapter twenty, verse seventeen – the formulation of one of the deepest and most solemn taboos held by the human race. Today, when we read such cases in the papers, we are revolted. Disgusting! we say. Well, those two were guilty of incest, a crime that strikes at the root of everything we are pleased to call morality. And yet – and yet –' the man's face was rapt, his gaze on the past – ‘picturing those two young people four hundred and fifty years ago, dancing by moonlight in this very room to a melody played by a lute player blind as Cupid himself was blind, I can't help seeing this – this squalid amour, if you like – as something poignant and beautiful. I've only read you one of the letters, choosing that particular one because it refers to the room we're occupying at this moment. But reading the whole correspondence – all on Anne's side, there are none of George Bullen's replies – there's a kind of doomed grandeur, a passionate greed –' Coryton reddened and broke off, as if he had given away too much of himself. He replaced his glasses, and retired thankfully behind them. ‘So now you know,' he concluded, smiling, ‘why, despite Jane's plans for me, I shall not be devoting my new-found freedom to becoming a big shot on the Bullensthorpe Parish Council, or to growing the biggest pumpkin ever seen in East Anglia. I shall be sitting in the Library at Bullen Hall, poring over the love letters of a queen, and, hopefully, writing the book that puts the record straight. I can't wait to get started!'

As soon as he had finished, the noise broke out unimpeded. The party guests looked pleased, proud to be in on a royal scandal, even if it was four and a half centuries after the event.

Jane Coryton, so kind to the living, said: ‘I can't see she deserves our sympathy. She set out to catch a king, and she caught him. She knew what the stakes were. It's George I'm sorry for.'

‘Oh, come!' her husband protested. ‘George did all right. Until Henry tumbled to what was going on, he loaded his brother-in-law with lands and titles. You even end up sorry for the old monster.'

‘They couldn't have been happy,' Jane maintained stubbornly. ‘People still believed in hell in those days.' She looked down the length of the Long Chamber. ‘It wasn't all dancing by the light of the moon. Underneath it all, they must have been racked by the most awful feeling of guilt. They knew they were damned to all eternity.'

Elena Appleyard exclaimed quizzically: ‘My ancestors!'

Jurnet was unable to pinpoint who it was who demanded a few words from the new curator, but presently, without overmuch persuasion, Chad Shelden was on his feet, contriving to look at the same time fetchingly reluctant and managerially deft. His jacket of brown velvet was Bohemian as befitted a writer, but expensive-looking as befitted a successful one. Cuff links of gold set with sapphires glowed expensively in his white silk shirt.

‘This is a farewell party for Francis,' he began with his boyish smile, ‘not a hello party for me. I hope, though, our host will allow me to congratulate him not only on a well-earned retirement, but also on his marvellous discovery. The letters are a wonderful – and valuable – addition to the Bullen Hall collection, and I'm sure I speak for the Trust –' Elena Appleyard inclined her head slightly – ‘when I say how grateful we are for his sharp eyes. I just want to add how marvellous it's been to meet you all this evening. Speaking for myself –' with a charming air of imparting delicious confidences – ‘I can truly say it's love at first sight. I can only hope that, when you know me better, and discover my sterling qualities – and find out what an intelligent, lovable, and above all, modest, chap I am – you will feel the same for me.'

The laughter that greeted this extravagance was loud but a whit uneasy. As if recognising that sentiments which went down well in NW3 were perhaps a little lush for the Norfolk outback, Sheldon modulated smoothly to another key.

‘You're wondering about me,' he asserted, with a forthrightness which went down better than the gush. ‘Very naturally. You want to know, am I hard to get on with? Shall I be making any changes? As to whether we'll get on together only time will show, but –' with a practised and pretty twinkle – ‘let me say I'm hopeful. As to whether I plan to make any changes,' Shelden continued, the tone still light, but underpinned with a hint of steel, ‘the answer, as I'm sure you'd expect, is yes, of course I do. Francis has set me a marvellous example, but I know he won't take offence if I say that a new man coming in is bound to have a fresh perspective –'

Jurnet thought: he's had this speech planned all along. Ever since he came down to Bullen and cased the joint.

Ever since he'd had a talk with Elena Appleyard.

‘As you all know, we simply have to get in more money. The stonework is only one priority. And that means somehow, by hook or by crook, we've got to attract a lot more people to Bullen than we've managed to do up to now.' The new curator paused, and regarded his audience with a shrewd blend of amusement and sympathy. ‘Do I see an apprehensive look in your eyes? Of course I do! You love the Hall the way it is – its tranquillity, its exquisite orderliness which you labour so hard to preserve. And so do I. What I don't like –' and now the challenge was out in the open, all part of an adroit, if rough, wooing – ‘is that it's completely unreal. A fairy tale. Is it possible that all the time you've been lovingly polishing the silver and dusting the pictures, you yourselves can't see that dust on the sideboards thick enough to write your names in would be infinitely preferable to the spurious air of refinement which has somehow crept into every corner? How have you lovely people with the best intentions in the world managed to drain off the very life-blood of Bullen Hall, leaving it a wan and anaemic shadow of what it once was, and must become again? Do you honestly think that if Laz Appleyard were alive today he'd feel at home in what is basically – if you'll allow me to be brutally frank – a boring old house full of boring old furniture that people only come to see when they're bored out of their minds, and can't think of anywhere else to go?‘

Chad Shelden paused. He settled his jacket on his shoulders in a quick, agreeable way, and surveyed his hearers with an expression so open-faced and quaintly mischievous as to make it implausible to believe that anything but high spirits and a wonderfully life-giving energy informed his every word.

Sober as a judge, Jurnet decided, despite all the wine. And very, very clever.

Chad Shelden said: ‘When I said Francis had done a fantastic job I meant every word of it. But times change, and every so often one has to readjust the focus –'

‘Bullen Hall bullshit!'

Suddenly Charles Winter was there, swaying, so close to Shelden that the canary-coloured sweater – whose front, Jurnet noticed, had gathered several additional stains since he had seen it last – brushed the sleeve of the brown velvet jacket. Mike Botley came to a halt a few paces behind, looking well pleased with himself.

Jane Coryton stepped forward and took the potter's arm.

‘Now, Charles,' she reminded him, ‘you know I told you to go home. It's long past your bedtime.'

‘So it is, and so you did – except that I'm allowed to stay up late on special occasions. I'm a big boy now, ducky, and God knows somebody's needed to tell this Little Lord Fauntleroy where he gets off.' The man looked at the expectant faces that filled the room. ‘In case you haven't managed to work out what all that pretentious twaddle you've just had to listen to was in aid of, I'll translate. It means we're in for Bingo in the Banqueting Hall, camel rides for the kiddie-wids on the front lawn, only £6.50 for an inflatable Laz Appleyard to take home and enjoy in –'

‘What a marvellous idea!' Chad Shelden interposed, the smile still brilliant, the eyes unamused. ‘You really must get together with a chap we've got coming in – used to work at Longleat – simply bursting with ideas. I know he'd love to hear your views.'

‘How to muck up a stately home in three easy lessons.' Charles Winter thrust his face close to the new curator's. The latter – to his credit, Jurnet thought – did not flinch. ‘You're a curator, now, laddie –
, Latin for to take care – not the manager of an amusement arcade on Yarmouth front.' The man backed away, thick grey eyebrows drawn together, seeking someone.

‘Ah, there you are, Maigret!' Jurnet's opinion of the new curator's strength of will rose abruptly as he found himself gripped by the lapels, the distillation of a vile pistachioed ferment diffusing over his face and up his nose. Unlike the other, the detective made no bones about flinching. He jerked his head away sharply.

‘Pay attention, Sherlock!' Winter admonished. ‘I'm speaking to you as a member of the public with reason to believe a serious crime is about to be committed, if steps aren't taken to prevent it. If that bloke's a curator, I'm the Queen Mum. He's here for what he can pick up – and there's plenty. Snuff boxes, Fabergé Easter eggs, Nicholas Hilliard miniatures – lovely loot you can stick in your pocket when no one's looking. Don't say I didn't warn you, Poirot!'

‘He's absolutely right!' Shelden admitted with a chuckle. ‘The trustees and I
been going over the inventory to see what can be turned into much-needed cash without any gaps showing. But we shall see –' the new curator's expression as he smiled directly into Charles Winter's bloodshot eyes had become one of tender concern – ‘just as we shall have to reevaluate the position as regards the rent-free accommodation in the Coachyard –' Turning back to the assemblage at large: ‘I'm going to let you into a secret. Mr Winter's not the only one to know some Latin! Just in case there are some of you who feel, like him, that I'm planning to lower the tone of Bullen Hall – to make it, shall we say, a bit
– if there are any who think that, let me say at once that you're absolutely right! Because – watch for it, here comes the classical bit –
in Latin means the crowd, the multitude – in other words, all the people who ought to be flocking to Bullen Hall and, instead, are staying away in their thousands. A little judicious vulgarity, so far from spoiling Bullen, will be like opening a window in a stuffy room, and letting in some much-needed fresh air. There!' Shelden pushed a wayward lock from his forehead. ‘I've said it while I still have enough of that gorgeous wine in me to give me courage. Nothing's going to happen in a hurry, I promise you that. There'll be no one breathing down your necks. Most of the time, you'll be glad to hear, you won't even know I exist. Wearing my other hat, as you may or may not know, I'm a writer. Francis isn't the only one at Bullen with literary plans, whatever comes of them. Miss Appleyard has done me the enormous honour of commissioning me to write a biography of Appleyard of Hungary, the first, full-length portrait, warts and all, of one of the heroes of our time. The tremendously exciting thing is that Miss Appleyard has turned over to me, with unfettered discretion to make what use of them I will, all the family papers, private and personal, relating to her brother. It's the kind of opportunity any biographer would give his eye-teeth for, and all I can say is that I hope most fervently that the finished work will justify the great trust she has placed in me.'

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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