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Act 4, Barn Elms House

Simon stirred, then woke, as doors banged closer and closer to his bedroom. Morning light streamed through the gaps in the shutters. The erratic English weather had decided on summer sun, at least for the next few hours. He climbed out of the wooden bed and padded over to open the window to partake of the morning air. The new sun had not yet driven the chill from the air so he was glad of his full-length nightgown and nightcap.

A servant pushed open the bedroom door.

"Mornin', sir," said the man, in a rustic Surrey accent.

"Morning," replied Simon politely, and gestured for the man to set the tray down on a table.

"Cook has instructions that you like to breakfast frugally, sir. So I have just brought a little rye bread, a few slices of ham and chicken, a couple of boiled eggs, a piece of game pie, and a bowl of fruit from the orchards."

"Thank you," said Simon, with resignation. He had long given up debating the meaning of the word frugal with the cook.

The servant beamed at Simon with the air of a job well done. He departed, slamming the door hard to wake any remaining sleepers. Most of the Barn Elms household would already be awake. Simon was important enough to have a room at the front of the building, overlooking the ornamental gardens rather than the farmyard at the back, but he was far enough down the pecking order to be at the end of the east wing.

Barn Elms was a working farm so the food was fresh and good. It was said that an English peasant dined on better quality food than did a duke on the Continent. That may have been an exaggeration but the agricultural richness of the island gave the English a reputation for idleness. Gluttony was supposed to be the English sin, as lust was the French and drunkenness the German.

Simon ate with his fingers, cutting the food up with a steel knife. A household in England had to be very poor indeed not to be able to afford a good blade of Sheffield steel. The meal was washed down with ale from a wooden mug. No one but the desperate drank water in England. The poor drank water and died of typhoid. The last administration in England that had delivered clean water supplies to the cities had owed their allegiance to Caesar.

When he had finished breakfast, Simon washed his hands and face and dressed. Law in Elizabethan England tightly controlled who could wear what clothes. There were strong consumer laws that guaranteed quality. Of course, the laws only applied to cloth sold to Englishmen. One could sell any old rubbish to foreigners. Clothing also denoted social rank. In a world without identity cards, to wear clothing more suitable for a higher rank was to commit identity fraud. Elizabeth's government solved this problem by forbidding credit sales for clothing.

Simon was a gentleman so he wore a shirt, breeches, and a doublet. He was also entitled to wear an open, knee-length robe to show that he was an educated man, who worked with his head rather than his hands. Simon opened the door to go to work and bumped into a servant come to clear away the breakfast debris. The man looked pointedly up and coughed discretely.

"I think sir has forgotten something."

Simon blushed and grabbed the nightcap off his head. He carefully positioned his circular cap and retreated with as much dignity as he could muster from the presence of the smirking hireling.

Queen Elizabeth herself had given Barn Elms to Sir Francis Walsingham. It was a gentleman's villa on the south bank of the Thames, a few miles upstream from London. As a working farm, it had some of the most productive eel ponds in England. But Barn Elms was much more; the house was the headquarters of the Secret Service.

Simon had an office in the centre of the building at the back. It contained a small desk and chair by a lead and glass window, so he could still work in the light when the weather was inclement. The window was a major status symbol. The rest of the room was full of trunks and bookcases stuffed with the records of the Secret Service. The Spanish ambassador would have sold his soul for an afternoon alone in this room.

Simon worked steadily filing new papers and adding notes of their location to his various storage lists. This was an infinite task and he was still working assiduously when Walsingham entered.

The spymaster dressed all in black with a small white ruff under a neat pointed beard. Simple, unostentatious clothing was the mark of Elizabeth's closest ministers. There could only be one sun in the sky, and in the English sky that sun was the Queen. In any case, Walsingham hardly needed clothes to demonstrate his importance.

"Ah, there you are, Tunstall. Clients have arrived for an interview and I need you to take notes."

"Of course, Sir Francis."

Simon followed the statesman down the back stairs to the audience room on the ground floor. Walsingham seated himself in the middle of the room and Simon sat at a desk to one side. The room smelt of wax polish. A servant knocked and ushered in a portly visitor who was dressed in the fashion of a senior member of the merchants' guilds.

"Master Mascall of London," the servant announced the visitor and backed out.

"Please be seated," said Walsingham, pointing to a wooden upright chair.

"Thank you, Sir Francis. This is a most delicate matter. I hardly know where to start."

The man waffled on for some time. Walsingham sat patiently. Mascall was one of his more important clients.

"Calm yourself, Master Mascall. Come, my secretary will pour you a glass of malmsey."

Simon did as he was bid. He produced a piece of Venetian glass and carefully filled it with the expensive Greek wine. The sweet smell filled the room. The merchant took it without looking at Simon or offering thanks.

"A woman dressed as a lady came to me with a letter of introduction from another guild member. She called herself Judith Phillips." The merchant paused for another sip. "She told me that she had irrefutable evidence that there was treasure hidden somewhere in the grounds of my town house."

Simon almost groaned aloud. Not another treasure hunt. It was true that the ancients had been in the habitat of burying their wealth in moments of crisis but most of it was either found or forever lost under some new building. Nevertheless, the lure of easy gold still drew fools, like the North Star dragged a lodestone.

"The witch Phillips claimed that she could find the treasure with the help of the fairies."

"The fairies?" asked Walsingham, enquiringly.

"Yes, Phillips claimed to be a white witch who had the goodwill of their Queen," said Mascall.

"The, um, Queen of the Fairies," said Walsingham, thoughtfully. "Ah yes, Titania."

"You know her?" The merchant seemed to think it quite possible that Walsingham might well be on intimate terms with supernatural royalty.

"Not personally," said Walsingham, solemnly.

Simon noted down "Titania, Queen of the Fairies."

"This Phillips woman promised to use a magic spell to locate my hidden gold in exchange for a share."

Simon noted that the hypothetical ancient treasure had become "my gold" in the merchant's thinking.

"Would you describe the spell, Master Mascall?" asked Walsingham.

The merchant flushed. "Is that really necessary, Sir Francis?"

"If I am to help you then I need to know it all," Walsingham said, firmly, slapping his hand down on his knee, for emphasis.

"To appease the, um, Fairy Queen, Mistress Phillips had me dress in horse harness."

"Horse harness?" asked Walsingham, faintly.

"You know, reins and a saddle and things," said the merchant. "Then she rode me on all fours around the house calling out Titania's name."

Simon wrote down "horse harness" and worked very, very hard at maintaining his composure.

"She whipped me quite hard as well," said the merchant, with a touch of self-pity.

The laugh bubbled up but Simon just managed in time to turn it into a cough.

Walsingham pinned Simon with grey eyes. "I trust you haven't picked up a chill, Master Tunstall? It would be so inconvenient to train a new secretary."

"No, Sir Francis. Sorry, it won't happen again." Simon busied himself in his notes.

"Phillips instructed me to wrap up a goodly pile of sovereigns in linen and leave them in the centre of my garden as a lure. She said the fairies would add the lost gold to the package." The merchant ploughed on. "I waited two days but no fairy gold appeared so I took back my package."

"Let me guess," said Walsingham. "Your sovereigns had been replaced by . . . ?"

"Metal scrap!" The merchant wiped his brow.

"And I suppose Judith Phillips has disappeared," said Sir Francis.

The merchant nodded.

"You enquired with the guild member who had written the letter of introduction?"

"It was a forgery," said the merchant, heavily.

Walsingham sat pondering, touching the end of his fingers together in a characteristic pose. Simon knew this was theatrics for Master Mascall's benefit. Walsingham had already decided what to do.

"I fear your money is already lost, Master Mascall," said Walsingham. "The knaves likely have already spent it, but I think we can get you justice."

The spymaster turned to Simon. "Send a message to Pooley in London, Master Tunstall. My 'projectors' are to pass the word around the London taverns that Master Mascall has come into a great fortune."

Walsingham preferred the English word projector to the French word agent. "Send another message to the Constable in London. Tell him that I would deem it a great favour if he would station a couple of men in Master Mascall's house."

"What for?" asked Mascall, in bewilderment.

"Why, to arrest Mistress Phillips when she comes for her share."

"You think that this woman will fall for such a simple trick?" asked the merchant.

"Greed makes fools of us all," said Walsingham, dryly. "In my experience cozeners are fantasists who half believe the lies they spin. That's why they are so convincing."

After more platitudes, the merchant was ushered out. Walsingham placed his head in his hands and his whole body shook. "Queen of the Fairies!" he guffawed. "Whipped around the house like a recalcitrant stallion!"

He wiped his eyes. "You see the cunning of the woman, Tunstall? Most men would be too humiliated to report the loss and just shrug it off. She misjudged both Mascall's greed and stupidity. Both exceeded her expectations."

The steward entered and coughed discretely. Walsingham indicated he should speak.

"The heads of the Montague and Belmont houses await on your pleasure, Sir Francis," said the steward.

"In different rooms, I trust," said Walsingham, dryly.

The steward looked puzzled but Walsingham waved away his question before it was begun. "Show them in."

Masters Montague and Belmont were well-to-do farmers with considerable land holdings near Barn Elms. They were involved in an acrimonious land dispute that had dragged on for more than a year now. They entered the room, each studiously ignoring the other.

"I have had my clerk investigate your conflicting claims to Green Acre Farm. He tell me that both of you lack convincing proof of ownership," said Walsingham.

"But I have proof of purchase—" both men said simultaneously before leaving off and glowering at each other.

"Yes, yes gentleman," said Walsingham, impatiently, drumming his fingers on the table by his chair. "You both have proofs of purchase but from different vendors. And there is little evidence that either vendor could legitimately sell. My clerk tells me that this case could drag on for years in the courts. That should cost a pretty penny in lawyers' fees. Of course, the farm could revert to the crown if neither of you can demonstrate a legitimate claim. My clerk also thinks that a likely possibility."

Walsingham gave both men time to digest the implications.

"Do you have any advice for us, Sir Francis?" asked Montague, eventually.

"Well, I have had an idea," said Walsingham. "I seem to recall that you have a comely daughter, Montague."

"Er, yes," said Montague, clearly struggling to discern the significance of the new direction of the conversation.

"And you, Belmont, have a second son. A clean-limbed boy, as I remember."

Belmont nodded.

"Then the solution is obvious. You, Montague, give your claim on Green Acre as a dowry to your daughter and you, Belmont, give your claim as a wedding present to the fortunate couple. Second sons are always a tricky problem. That way, you both have your grandson inherit and with no legal bills either."

"But the couple have never even met," said Montague, stubbornly. Belmont, however, looked thoughtful.

"Excellent," said Walsingham. "Then they will not have had time to develop any unfortunate prejudices about each other. I always think too long an acquaintance before the wedding spoils the marriage. Introduce them, gentlemen, and promptly."

He signalled that his steward should show the men out.

"Montague," said Belmont as the men left. "I generally throw a feast for Saint Swithin. Why don't you join us this year? You may wish to bring your charming daughter."

The steward returned with a leather saddlebag. "The post, Sir Francis."

Sir Francis looked through the bag. It was stained with wear. "This letter is from my spy in Edinburgh," said Walsingham, placing a document on the desk in front of Simon.

Superficially, the letter was an ordinary communication from a wine merchant in Scotland to his agent in London. It contained various opinions of wines and delivery dates and prices, coupled with family news and harmless gossip about King James's court.

Simon retrieved a sheet of stiff paper from a drawer and laid it over the letter. The paper had rectangular holes that hid certain words but revealed others. Simon copied the revealed words and then moved the paper down the letter by three lines to reveal new words and so on. The agent in Edinburgh who had written the letter had a piece of stiff paper that was identically cut to the one in Walsingham's office.

Walsingham's secret service relied heavily on codes and used the most sophisticated and modern methods. The best codes were steganographic, where the secret information was hidden in plain sight. The letter from Edinburgh was an example of a new steganographic code known as a Cardano Grille, named after a Milanese mathematician. Doctor Girolama Cardano was one of Dee's friends, so the English secret service had full access to his latest ideas.

Simon's notes built up into a new letter that contained the secret message. The beauty of the Cardano Grille is that the original letter looked so innocuous that it passed unnoticed. A mathematician could break even this code in time, but first he had to know which of a batch of harmless-looking letters to spend the time on.

Simon handed the revealed message to Sir Francis without comment. The spymaster would draw his own conclusions but to Simon it was clear that King James was treating secretly with the French again.

"Tunstall, remind me. What was the value of goods seized by our bold sailors during the last political crisis with Scotland?"

The art of being a good secretary is to anticipate your master's wishes. Simon already had the records on the table.

"Some thirty-five thousand pounds, Sir Francis."

"That must have made the Scottish merchants howl. And how much did we lose to Scottish pirates?"

"Five thousand pounds," said Simon.

"An acceptable rate of exchange," noted Walsingham. "Draft a letter for me to send to King James noting these figures and expressing my satisfaction that a state of peace exists between England and Scotland. Explain how distressed I would be if the political situation deteriorated and Her Majesty was forced to unleash the sea dogs again. And make sure you praise his good relations with France, so the royal whoreson knows that we know."

"Yes, Sir Francis," said Simon.

"That should give His treacherous Majesty something to think on," said Walsingham, with satisfaction. He leant back in his chair. "Ludicrous fellow told me once that a king's every utterance was sanctified by a divine right and could not be questioned. I wonder how divine his utterances would seem to his subjects with Drake's men plundering the Solway Firth?"

Walsingham stared out of the window. "At least the fellow is a protestant, of sorts, and he is the Queen's natural heir. But I cannot help but pray that Her Majesty enjoys a very long reign."

"Yes, Sir Francis. I think we all hope that," said Simon, loyally.

A paid man, even one who had been educated at Cambridge, normally found it wise to keep his political opinions to himself. But a long life to the Queen was a sentiment that could be safely endorsed by any subject.

Walsingham smelt the next document. "An expensive perfume, Leicester's, I fancy." He slit the seal on the next document and read it. "Leicester is concerned that Drake is still missing. The Earl will lose a tidy sum if Drake has been lost."

Drake had left in great secrecy in '77, for a voyage to the Pacific to intercept the unprotected Spanish silver trade. Both the Earl of Leicester and Walsingham were among the financial backers for the venture. So, in great secrecy, was the Queen herself. Many in England, including Lord Burghley, disapproved of the more spectacular naval enterprises on the grounds that they were a needless provocation to Spain, hence the need for secrecy.

Simon consulted his notes. "There was an intelligence report from your spy in the maritime ministry in Madrid. Drake was certainly operating in the Pacific a year after he left. There were squeals from every provincial governor in South America."

"Yes, the political results were most gratifying. Hopefully, Drake will cause money to be diverted from the war in the Low Countries to shoring up defences in the New World," said Sir Francis. "I am concerned that we have heard nothing since. Even the Spanish appear to have lost track of Drake's ship. Send a message to Leicester reporting no news. Then answer all the routine correspondence. Tomorrow, I intend to ride to Nonsuch."

The stallion gave Simon the evil eye and shied when he tried to mount, causing him to slip down in the mud. A groom helped him up. Simon examined the stable lads carefully but they all adopted studiously blank faces. Simon had a notoriously unsafe seat.

"Up you get, sir," said the groom. "Don't worry, the lad will steady the horse."

Simon climbed back into the saddle and adjusted his cloak. Walsingham had already mounted and the two men rode slowly from the stable enclosure. Their horses picked their way carefully around the chickens and the bored farm dogs. A solitary pig watched their passing and snorted, before resuming his endless rooting for edibles.

Two mounted men waited for them at the gate. The one in front wore the coarse smock of a farm labourer but the rearward was a gentleman.

"What are you doing here, Gwilym?" asked Sir Francis. "I don't recall requesting your company."

"No doubt an oversight on your 'ighness' part," said Gwilym raising his hat. "You being so busy in affairs of state and such."

"About your business, man. Think you that I need a nursemaid?" Walsingham made a shooing gesture. Gwilym ignored it.

"With respect, Sir Francis," said Simon. "They did try for Lord Burghley last month. You could be next."

"Stuff and nonsense," said Sir Francis, but he raised no further objections to an escort.

"I would also like to join your party, Sir Francis. The Queen has given her assent for me to travel to court."

"And welcome you are, James. You can tell me of your father's new enterprises as we ride. No doubt you will want to see Lady Dennys when we arrive." Walsingham kicked the flanks of his horse.

Simon sighed. James Sydney was the latest of Lucy's suitors. Sydney was entirely suitable, being upright and heir to a noble name and fortune.

Lucy herself was an eminent catch. She was a Dennys, a lady of gentle breeding and inheritor of the Dennys estates. Also, it had not escaped the notice of English aristocracy that marriage to Lady Dennys would connect a family to Sir Francis Walsingham. In uncertain times, the favour of the Queen's spymaster might be an invaluable asset to even the highest. So the sons of the noblest houses in England were paraded before Lucy.

And then there was Lucy herself, fair of face and bonny of character. Simon felt his heart lurch in the familiar pattern but ruthlessly suppressed the thought. Lady Dennys was not destined for the likes of him. Sir Francis had a duty to arrange that she married well and that did not mean to an impoverished scholar with no connections. When the time came, Simon would choose a bride from among the daughters of merchants or the more prosperous yeomanry.

The riders followed the muddy track that wound through forests and fields. Where possible, they rode two abreast, Sir Francis and Sydney in front and Simon and Gwilym behind. Often the track narrowed between bramble thickets, forcing the riders into single file. Sometimes the surface was so cut up by farm carts that the men took to the fields and rode parallel to the road, merely using it as a guide. No road had been built, or even maintained, in England since the legions left.

Nonsuch was irritatingly placed in that it was not on the River Thames, the great highway of southern England. The Palace was about ten miles south of Barn Elms, in the land surrounded by the great southern loop of the Thames. One could take a boat upriver to Kingston and then go a-horse southeastwards to Nonsuch but that would save no time. There was a Roman road, Stane Street, that ran from London southwest to Nonsuch, but it was a little too far to the east of Barn Elms to make it worthwhile seeking out. Nonsuch was just plain in the wrong place. So the party were forced to trek overland.

By midafternoon, the travellers were within a short ride of the palace. Walsingham led the way single file through a thicket. Simon had found the journey tedious beyond belief riding alongside Gwilym. The man refreshed himself often, from a beer jar slung around his saddle. He sang continuously, mostly a ditty about the amorous adventures of a Little Pixy.

"Rye-over, rye-over, rye-over, aye-ay,
"I up's on me shoulder, me shoulder away,
"For when she was only an unkissed sixteen,
"I showed 'er "

Simon dreaded to think what the Little Pixie showed her.

Two men rushed out at the spymaster and thrust weapons at him. Walsingham's horse reared in panic, throwing the rider over the tail. The horse took the billhook meant for the spymaster's throat, but the fall left Walsingham helpless on the forest floor.

Young Sydney screamed a battle cry and rode straight into the fray bowling over Walsingham's attackers. Six generations of aristocratic breeding paid off. Two more bandits appeared and Sydney took them on as well. He punched a hole though a throat with his sword but a blade caught him a nasty gash in the thigh. He lost his weapon and slumped over his horse's neck in shock.

Simon froze.

Gwilym rode past him at the gallop.

" 'Ave a sip on me, sunshine," said Gwilym.

He felled one attacker with a single blow from the jar, which smashed, spraying the man.

"My beer! A pox on you tosspots," said an enraged Gwilym.

In fury, he engaged the other two with his sword. Simon unfroze and rushed to Gwilym's aide, waving his sword over his head and screaming. The attackers took one look at the charge of the wild man and fled, retreating into a thicket where the horses couldn't pursue. Gwilym roared abuse after them, flicking his thumb against his teeth in a gesture of contempt. Simon fell off his horse into a bush.

"Are you all right, Sir Francis?" Simon spat out leaves.

The statesman sat up and flicked mud off his doublet. "Yes, yes, look to Sydney. He took a bad blow."

The young gentleman held tight to his horse's neck. His face was white with shock and blood ran down his leg. Simon and Gwilym lifted him from the saddle and placed him flat on the ground.

"Hold him, Gwilym, while I stop the bleeding." Simon cut open Sydney's breeches and tied a tourniquet around his leg.

"Tight now, Gwilym. I am going to put pressure on the wound and it will hurt."

Sydney moaned. His eyes rolled up in his head and he fainted.

"Can you save him, Tunstall?" asked Walsingham, concerned.

"I think so," said Simon. "The bleeding is slowing."

A groan sounded from the ground behind them.

"Broke my beer jar and the villain don't even have the decency to die cleanly." Gwilym pulled the fallen man's head back and placed a dagger against his throat.

"No, Gwilym, hold," said Walsingham. "I'll have that one alive."

"As you want, your 'onour." Gwilym reversed his dagger and struck the bandit carefully on the temple with the pommel, knocking him out.

Walsingham's quick eye alighted on a pouch at the belt of the man killed by Sidney. He pulled it off and handed it to Walsingham, who unlaced it. Gold sovereigns spilled out into Walsingham's palm.

"A rich purse for bandits. I wonder who gave them these?" asked Walsingham, suspiciously. "Just reward for you, Gwilym. You earned every pennyworth today." He tossed the coins to the Welshman.

Walsingham turned to Simon. "Your bravery did not pass unnoticed either, Master Tunstall. I had no idea you were so fierce with a sword."

"In truth, Sir Francis, I have no skill with the weapon," said Simon, ruefully.

"Then what would you have done if they had stood and fought?" asked Walsingham with a laugh.

"I had not thought things through to that point," admitted Simon.

Walsingham's praise did not fill him with pride. He recalled that moment of weakness when he could not move with complete, shameful, clarity. Without Gwilym, they would all be dead.

Gwilym tied the semiconscious prisoner to his horse and they resumed their journey. Simon led Sydney's horse. One hundred and forty-three more verses of "The Little Pixie" brought them into the estates around Nonsuch.

The lands around the palace were extensive. Old King Harry had demolished a whole village, Cuddington, and diverted several highways to create the thousand-acre park. The King died before the palace was complete and Queen Mary subsequently sold it to the Earl of Arundel. The old Earl died a few weeks ago and the palace had passed to his son in law, Lord Lumley.

Elizabeth, and hence the court, was a frequent guest.

No matter how many times Simon saw Nonsuch, it always took his breath away. King Harry had hired Italian architects to work with his English master masons. The result should have been a disaster but instead it was a triumph. Ornate Italian towers soared airily over dark, brooding, English Gothic halls.

The riders threaded their way through ornate tents outside the palace. Nonsuch lacked sufficient guestrooms for the royal entourage, so the minor courtiers and servants were consigned to canvas. This made Nonsuch an unpopular destination for all but the Queen, but her opinion was the only one that counted.

Walsingham hailed a guard captain at the gate. "Get Master Sydney to a bed and see he is attended by a physician."

"Yes, Sir Francis."

"Gwilym," said Walsingham. "Take the prisoner to the guard house and patch him up. I want him put him to the question."

"Yes, Sir Francis."

"You, fellow." Walsingham gestured to a steward, who stood ringing his hands in the middle distance.

"Yes, Sir Francis."

"Where would I find Lady Dennys?"

"In the Italian Garden, Sir Francis."

Lord Lumley had created an Italian garden, the first in England, to complement the Italian features of Nonsuch. Walsingham strode off in search of his niece, Simon following.

"I have been far too indulgent with that girl, Tunstall." Walsingham set a brisk pace for a man of mature years.

"Yes, Sir Francis."

"This time I intend to have my way."

"Yes, Sir Francis."

"I spoil her because she reminds me of my daughter, Frances, of course. That the same plague took my wife and child as well as Lucy's parents seemed an omen that God intended me to be her guardian."

"Yes, Sir Francis."

High hedges laid out in a halfhearted maze shielded the Italian Garden from the wind. Walsingham and Simon entered at the lower garden below the long pool. Inside the green walls, the air was still and warm. The garden was alight with the buzz of insects visiting the flowers. Lucy sat reading on a stone bench in the shade of a small folly.

"Lucy!" called Walsingham.

She looked up and leapt to her feet. Abandoning dignity, the girl ran the full length of the long pool. As she was at court, she wore a formal gown even in the garden. It split down the front as she ran, her legs kicking out her white petticoat in front. The effect was exactly as the French dress designer intended, which was an act of great imagination on the designer's part, as he preferred boys.

She threw herself into her uncle's arms and he whirled around with her. The girl disengaged and curtseyed.

"Greetings sir," she said to Walsingham. "I hope you had a tolerable journey?"

"Well, actually . . ." Walsingham began but Lucy was not listening. She kissed her uncle and then Simon formally on the lips in the way that an English lady greeted or took leave of guests or a host. The freedom given to English women was the scandal of the continent and nothing aroused more comment than the "English kiss."

"Now, Lucy. I want a serious talk with you," said Walsingham, leading her back into the folly. Simon waited politely outside but he could hear every word.

"You were sixteen this summer, well past the age you should be betrothed. You have not lacked for offers from men that I consider suitable. I have been more than patient but this cannot go on. I shall just have to select a husband for you if you do not make your own choice soon."

Walsingham would be quite within his rights in ordering Lucy to wed; indeed, it was his duty to her dead parents. Young women were delightful creatures but absurdly flighty and inconstant. It was said that the love of a maid was like the spring rain—it was as like to fall on a cowpat as a rose. Left to her own devices, Lucy would probably waste her fortune and her maidenhead on the first rascal that gave her a pretty smile and a beguiling story. That was why the law quite rightly insisted that she should have a male protector, responsible for both her money and her future.

Lucy's lip trembled. "Please, Uncle, don't scold me so. I have so been looking forward to your visit."

"Now, now, Lucy. Don't take on. I have your best interests at heart," Walsingham said, patting her hand.

Simon thought that it was just as well that Elizabeth's enemies could not see the fearsome spymaster being moulded like fresh clay by the young girl. Lucy had that effect on men.

"I mean, take that young Sydney. He is eminently worthy and the man clearly adores you. Probably too much for his own good, I'll warrant. He would never be complete master of any household that included you despite being brave and valorous as a lion. The boy took a terrible wound defending me on the way here to see you."

"Master Sydney hurt . . ." The girl put her hand to her mouth in shock.

That was the trouble with Lucy, thought Simon. She was essentially good-hearted as well as beautiful, so men were drawn to her like drunkards to a keg.

"I have sent a physician to him," said Walsingham.

"Poor James, I must go to him at once." She picked up her skirts and ran out of the garden.

Walsingham leaned back on the bench and grinned at Simon. "I thought that might do it. Nothing like a wounded hero to win a young girl's heart."

"Yes, Sir Francis," said Simon. He held his council, as he thought otherwise. Sir Francis seemed not to have noticed that Lucy had adroitly removed herself from a conversation that she wished to avoid.

In the last two years, Walsingham had paraded a small phalanx of suitable men in front of the girl. She had seemed struck with a number of them but, like a frightened filly in a steeplechase, had always shied away at the final fence. Simon suspected that poor Sydney was about to be another casualty in the quest for Lucy's heart.

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