The 8th of September 1560.
The group coming home from the fair were full of happy chatter. They had seen dancing, acrobats, strange animals and many other funny things. The weather had been good and they had drank deeply of the local ale.
Mrs Oddingsells laughed with another lady about one of the dancers who had fallen during his display, obviously having already drunk plenty of the ale!!
In the distance, she spotted the dust of a horse riding quickly away and wondered if their mistress had had a visitor while they had been away from the house. She looked forward to hearing who it had been when she got back and returned to the conversation with the lady next to her.
Cumnor Place was not a big country house, but it was homely and all the staff who had been given the day off to enjoy the fair were grateful to their Mistress for the treat. It was no surprise to any of them that the house was totally quiet on their arrival, the mistress had been home alone all day and would be in her sitting room with her embroidery most likely, it was her favourite pastime.
As they entered, still chattering and joking among themselves, a scream went up from the young girl who had been skipping ahead of the main group.
Everyone rushed forward to see what was the matter.
Mrs Oddingsells pushed her way through the now silent and shocked group and immediately wished that she had not.
On the floor at the foot of the stairway lay her mistress. Her neck twisted at a strange angle, her legs awry, probably broken. She looked as white as a ghost and all present knew that her spirit had already left her body. The young girl sobbed as she stood next to Mrs Oddingsells, who instinctively put an arm about her shoulders and hugged her close.
EARLIER THAT DAY
Amy stood by the window, watching the group of servants as they traipsed across the fields towards the town. She had done as he had asked, she had made sure she was alone today for him coming. She just had to wait until he arrived now.
Moving to her mirror, she checked her appearance, tucking a stray piece of hair back into her plait.
Satisfied, she picked up her embroidery and moved to the seat by the window to wait.
It had been well over an hour when she saw the first signs of a horse coming along the dusty road to the house.
Her anticipation rose. He was coming to see her after such a long time apart, she could hardly wait to see him again. She must try to be calm, he hated it when she was too clingy.
She hoped the covered food that had been brought to her room this morning was enough for him and had not been spoiled over the day. She knew it would have kept well enough, she berated herself for thinking that cook would risk giving her food that would not be edible by the time it was eaten. Amy was good at worrying, she always imagined she had done something wrong. Looking around the room, she mentally checked that everything was in place and tidy, she did not want him to think she had let herself go in any way.
Standing by the window, she watched as the rider drew closer. Biting her bottom lip, she smiled widely as she saw the stately figure with his cape flowing out behind him as he rode. Her man. Her husband.
Nerves danced in her belly as she heard the door below slam and his footsteps on the stairs. Slow and steady. Tapping at her hair to make sure it was still all in place, she tried to calm herself.
The door swung open and she held her breath.
The caped figure appeared around the wooden door and flung off the hood.
Her heart melted as it had on the day she had met him, he could still affect her in the same way.
“My liege, it is good to have you here again, after so long.”
“Wife. I had news that you were seeing a physician? That you were ill? You do not look ill.”
“I-I have seen a physician, but who….I have a growth, but it is nothing too serious. He thinks I will survive it. Is that the only reason that you are here?”
“No,” he paused, looking her over.
“Good. I mean, I am glad that you chose to come to see me. Would you like some food? I had cook prepare a cold meal for us.”
“She knew I was coming?”
“No. I mean that she prepared some food for me to eat while they were at the fair. I told no-one that you were coming. Although I do not really see the need for the secrecy, we are husband and wife……”
“It is more expedient for me to be here but not known to be here. We need to talk Amy, but I do not necessarily want rumours to be spread about the subject matter before a decision is reached. Please sit down.”
Nervously, she took a seat on the corner of the bed.
“Do we have to talk immediately? Can we not spend a little time together first?”
“Time doing what?”
“We have not seen each other for months, husband. Is there nothing that you would want from your loving wife?”
“There is something that I want very much from my wife, though I am not sure you are willing to give it.”
“I will do anything for you my love. You should know that.”
“Then give me a divorce. It is all that I want from you?”
She sat back a little, shocked.
“A divorce. Face it, we have not been man and wife for many years now. There is no point in dragging this out any longer.”
“We married in a church, in front of a priest. We promised to be together until death. How can you throw that away?”
He sighed heavily, he had expected an argument.
“It is true then. Mrs Oddingsells told me that it was but I refused to believe her. You are HER lover. You want to get rid of me so that you can marry her, do you not?”
“I am not her lover. I would not commit adultery with her and neither would she with me. I will not deny that I have an……emotional attachment to her, we are very close.”
“You want to marry her.”
“We have not discussed it.”
“But you want to.”
“I would like to be a free man to be able to talk about it should the matter arise, but as of yet, the matter has not been discussed.”
Standing and crossing to the window to look out, she tried to quell the tears that stung at her eyes. She had been hoping for such a different meeting this afternoon.
“I will provide for your care, you will be given ample funds to keep yourself and a good household. All you have to do is agree to a divorce. I will have all of the paperwork done and you will only have to sign the agreements. It is quite straightforward, you will not have any worries.”
“No worries? Except for the fact that my husband would be sleeping with another woman, against God’s laws.”
“I am not sleeping with anyone. And if we were divorced, it would be legal if I chose to be with another woman.”
“Why cannot you choose to be with me? I am your wife. You chose to marry me, what has changed so much?”
“We married many years ago, much has changed since then.”
“Such as what? Why not try and make this marriage work instead of trying to plan another? We could have a child. You need an heir, after all. Why not try and give me a baby?”
She crossed to him, gazing up into his face imploringly.
“I have no wish to have a child with you, Amy. That would just complicate matters.”
She pressed her hands to his chest, feeling the heat through the layers of material, sending shivers of excitement through her body.
“Please, I would be such a devoted mother. I have longed to have your baby for so long.”
He reached for her wrists and pulled them away from him.
“We are not having a child, Amy. You have to get used to that idea.”
He pushed her away from him.
“I knew this was a bad idea, I should just have sent a message. I heard you were ill and stupidly thought you would be amenable to listening to me. I should just go.”
He headed for the doorway but she got there first, hands back against his chest.
“NO! No, please do not go. We can talk, I will listen. Please do not leave.”
He tried to push past her but there was not enough space.
“Woman! Let me pass! We have nothing more to say to each other.”
She backed up a little as he pushed but held her place in front of him.
“I am your wife, we will always have things to talk about. Why do you never take me to court? Because of her? Why do you never acknowledge that you have a wife? You loved me once, why do you not now?”
“It is because I still have some feelings for you that I do not take you to court. We cannot hide our feelings for each other when we are together and I would not want you to be hurt by being forced to see that! You would be laughed at or rumoured about if you were there, do you not see that? That is why I offer you a good settlement if you agree to a divorce. I want you to be well cared for even if we are not married any longer. I can arrange a good Abbey for you to move to if you wish it that way? I can make your life as happy as you want it to be.”
“I will only be happy if you come back to me and are married again!” she cried out, tears flowing freely over her cheeks now.
“We will never be as man and wife again, you simply have to face that fact, Amy. You need to plan for your own future, without me in it. I will give you a week to think on this and send a secretary to you with some paperwork.”
“And what if I refuse?”
“Then maybe I shall send you to a nunnery and declare you dead,” he answered angrily.
“My family would never allow that!”
“Your family would have to live with it! Now get out of my way!”
He grabbed her arm and roughly pushed her aside.
She wobbled and took two steps backwards, not quite realising where she was stood. By the time she realised that she was on the top step of the spiral staircase, she turned to look at him wide eyed. Reaching for the bannister, she missed it by a nail’s width and grabbed only at thin air.
His eyes slowly widened as he realised she was falling, reaching forward too late to catch her.
“Robert!!” she cried as she fell backwards.
Her head hit the wall a few moments later and her world went black, her voice fell silent.
He watched in horror as she fell. Every crunch and thud as she hit the steps resounding in his head. Out of sight, as she fell around the spiral of the stairs, he listened still, unable to move. A loud final thud signalled that she had reached the bottom of the stairs.
He stared after her for a few minutes before willing himself forward and down. Blood spattered the walls where she had travelled and he felt like retching. He took a deep breath as he rounded the last corner and saw her crumpled body laid in front of him.
He looked for any sign that she was breathing, but there was none. Her eyes gazed up at him in a spooky way, as though blaming him still.
He had not come here for her to die!! He had never intended this. He may have come with a vague hope of hearing that she was ill enough to die in the near future, but he had never admitted that to anyone, not even himself.
Panic flooded through him. He would be blamed for this. He would be blamed for her death. He had to get away. If anyone suspected that he had been here…….he did not want to consider that.
Squeezing past her body, being careful not to get any blood on his clothing, he moved towards the door.
Opening it to leave, he stopped, turning to look back at his wife.
“I am sorry, Amy. I truly am.”
Hurriedly he left, jumping onto his horse and pulling his hood well over his head. And he was gone……..