Maria Morales Browning forced the words out through teeth clenched in pain. She clutched at her sister’s wrist, pulling her closer. "You must promise me now, before it’s too late."
Maria felt death’s presence grow stronger. She could not fight much longer and the matter that weighed heavily on her conscience must be dealt with before she died.
"I am here,"her sister whispered, "Tell me what I must do."
"My writing desk...open the third drawer."Maria struggled to point her sister in the correct direction. "There is a packet."
Her sister opened the drawer and rifled through the contents. Then lifting an object, she held it out to Maria. Maria’s eyes and throat burned with unshed tears as she beheld the proof of her gravest sin. Blinking against them, she leaned her head back and considered the high price her lie had cost her soul and her adopted country. The anger and hatred had faded in the years since her act of betrayal, but those feelings were now replaced with the dread of dying without absolution.
"Take it and hide it, I beg you. Make certain that no one, no one, knows where you put it."
"Maria, what is this?"her sister asked, holding out the packet of folded and sealed parchment to her. She feared even touching it now and shook her head.
"You must preserve it, for if a time comes when England has need of a king, this will put him on the throne."A cough rose from her chest, cutting off her breath. Pain burned a fiery path through her limbs as the spasms went on and on. ‘Twas worse with each bout. Soon, she would be unable to draw air into her chest.
As her sister aided her in sitting up, Maria smelled the rancid odor surrounding her own body. ‘Twas coming, sooner than she’d first thought.
"Remember, tell no one."
Maria Morales Browning, daughter of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s Spanish physician and midwife to two of England’s ill-fated queens, closed her eyes and gave up her fight. The proof, now safe with her sister, weighed on her no more. Death overtook her. She fought no more.
The thump of her head hitting the wall and her yell echoed through the tiny dust-filled chamber. Wincing against the discomfort, Sharon Reynolds sneezed four times in a row. Crawling around the large open trunk, she tried to find a less dangerous place within the small room.
Gently, she lifted another piece of clothing and carefully examined it. If she were correct, this chest of women’s dresses was one of the biggest finds of Elizabethan artifacts to date. Her optimism warred with her scientist’s sense of caution and her own recently-acquired cynicism as she gathered the dress for a closer look. A thin seam along one side of the bodice didn’t match the size or stitch of the ones in the rest of the garment. Flicking her nail against one end of it, the end unraveled slightly.
She should probably wait until the trunk was removed from the room to do any close-up work but her curiosity overwhelmed her. Although the dresses had been carefully photographed and replaced in the trunk, Sharon could not resist the urge to have a quick look at one of them. Of course, by the time she’d arrived at the site nightfall approached and she had to postpone a true examination.
"Sharon? Are you almost finished? We’re about to head out for a bite."
The voice drifted into the cubbyhole as she bent over examining the loose thread. Her classmate from her studies at the London Textile Institute soon peeked her head in looking for her.
"Mo, I’d really like to continue here for a bit?"
Maureen Boylan, assistant director-on-site for the renovations, stepped into the already cramped room. "It’s difficult to stop, isn’t it?" Mo reached out to touch the dress Sharon held and then stopped. "And just as difficult not to hope."
"Not to hope?" Sharon frowned at her friend and looked back at the trunk before her.
"That they’re authentic. It would be the find of a lifetime if they are." Optimism filled Mo’s voice. A scientist through and through, but Mo always hoped for the best. That was something that Sharon was learning not to do much anymore.
"I have my suspicions," Sharon answered. "But I’ll reserve judgment until you look at them in the lab and do some dating of the fabrics." She placed the dress back on top of the other garments.
"Things that bad?" Mo asked, her eyes meeting Sharon’s for the first time since she’d arrived.
"I’m here, aren’t I?"
"Are you ready to tell me, Sharon? I could read it in your emails and hear it in your voice. Telling me might make you feel better?"
Sharon wasn’t sure she wanted to tell anyone about it yet. The sense of failure was too new and strong to make it easy to talk about, even with her dear friend.
"Let’s just say that politics are about to ruin the position I’ve wanted to hold for most of my professional life."
"Whew! That sounds even worst than I’d imagined." Concern filled Mo’s voice--Sharon could hear it. "But, you had the full approval of the museum’s board."
"Until Jasper Crenshaw started his campaign behind my back."
The man had been acting curator of the Chicago Museum’s Historical Costume and Fabric collection until her own appointment as Head Curator. His protests of her youth and inexperience had gone ignored and unanswered until
"That snake is still in Chicago?" Mo knew Jasper by reputation and appearance, a reputation Sharon had always doubted and ignored. . . until now.
Sharon slid her glasses higher up on the bridge of her nose and sighed. This was not the time to talk about her reasons for taking this unexpected sabbatical ‘in the field.’ The outrage and embarrassment were too fresh. She didn’t want her excitement about this probable historic find to be dampened by the reality of her present-day life.
"Can we talk about this later? Maybe over a drink?"
"Oh, aye. But, I’ll only be put off if you promise to tell me all the details." Mo cocked one eyebrow in question.
"Oh, aye," Sharon winked as she answered, mimicking her friend’s soft English accent. "You will get more details than you really want after you buy me a couple of shots of single malt."
"You have yourself a bargain." Mo inched her way away from Sharon and toward the door. "We’ll be securing the house for the night soon. A RenFaire troupe will be using the grounds this weekend so we want it locked up nice and tight before they arrive."
"You’re letting them on the grounds even with this," she pointed at the trunk before them, "still here?"
"We’ll be moving that tomorrow. The troupe isn’t due to set up until the day after that. And, they are only permitted to use the far barn and fields beyond."
"I’ll finish up and be ready to leave in just a few minutes then."
"This trunk has been here for a long time," her friend said with a smile. "You’ll have more time in the morning before we move it."
"I just want to look at this dress. I’ll meet you downstairs in twenty minutes?"
"That’s fine. Watch your step coming out of there. The floors haven’t been reinforced yet."
Sharon listened as Mo’s steps traveled down the corridor away from her. Turning back to the item of interest, she shoved her hair back behind her ears, slid her glasses back down onto the bridge of her nose and leaned down for a closer look.
The dress was a classic example of a minor noblewoman’s gown from the Elizabethan period in England. The only discrepancy was the tattered seam along the side of the stomacher. The shoddy workmanship was at odds with the rest of the carefully sewn dress. The dangling thread piqued her curiosity and she gave a slight tug on it. The seam gave way and a small bundle of parchment slid partly out of the dress.
Tucking the bulk of the long dress carefully over and under one arm, Sharon eased the parchment out of its hiding place. A shock traveled through her as it landed in her hands, waves of shivers moved up and down her spine making it difficult to breathe. It bore no markings on the outer cover. The vellum was of a high quality and she was amazed that it was in excellent condition. It was then that she realized that even the dresses were in good shape--no sign of mildew or moths or damage of any kind.
Something strange was happening here. These dresses, even sealed inside a trunk and protected from air and sunlight, would still show signs of their age. But these garments looked as though someone had just placed them in storage. And the parchment was smooth and supple, opening with no evidence of drying.
A part of her knew she should call in the others to witness her opening the packet but a strong urge pushed her forward. Slipping one finger under the seal, she gently lifted the edge of the outer covering and eased it away from the pages inside. Gazing at the documents before her, Sharon felt light-headed. Droplets of perspiration trickled down her face and down her back. The very air in the small chamber seemed oppressive and electric as words became clear to her.
June, in the Year of Our Lord, 1560.
May God in His infinite wisdom and mercy, grant forgiveness to a sinner. I, Maria Morales Browning, now an English subject, do, in fear of the Lord’s wrath, write this confession.
A confession? This letter was over four hundred and fifty years old if that date was correct. Again, from the look of it, it was written just yesterday. Somehow though, Sharon knew deep inside that this was authentic. And yet it couldn’t be, could it? She tilted the page to try to get a better light in the lessening light of dusk and the poor quality of the lamps available.
I do not know if I will have the courage to confess my sin as it should be done or even if I will have the opportunity to do so. My confessor has not traveled to this land for many years and I can feel the disease taking its hold within me.
As I have watched the King of England and his households and courts over these many years, I thought that this sin would remain between God and myself. But, like so many other sins, the effects of this one have spread away from the center like waves on a pond’s calm surface --affecting much as time passes.
Sharon shook her head and blinked to clear her vision. The handwriting, although of some quality was still in the older English style with flourishes and different letters than she was used to examining. In spite of the difficulty, she was drawn back to the document, a sense of anticipation and even dread building in the bottom of her stomach.
My actions cost a queen her life, a son his mother and a country her Queen. If hatred had not corrupted my heart, Anne Boleyn might still live today. And her son, Henry Tudor, would be King after his father Henry. If arrogance and misplaced loyalty had not blinded me, I would have revealed the truth and all would be different in England and the world.
Anne Boleyn would still live? Another Henry Tudor would be King? Sharon searched her memory for information about Henry the Eighth and his children. There had been at least one bastard son but he had died before reaching adulthood. Maybe the letter would explain more?
It was easy to hate her for the humiliation she caused for my Queen Catherine. It was simple to think of her as the Great Whore who had stolen my Queen’s lawful husband. But truly, not even I should have taken the Lord’s work into my own hands. Even as I bore the babe farther and farther from the birthing chamber, I knew in my soul that I sinned most grievously. I told myself that with his small size and pitiful cries he would not last an hour. But, he was a true son of Henry and fought for his life.
A son? A son of Anne Boleyn and Henry the Eighth? Sharon tried to take a breath but the room seemed to close around her. The information in this letter would change history’s view of Henry and his wives and children. If it were true, of course. Sharon tried to step back mentally and look at this logically, but the ramifications of this letter stunned her.
A true son of Henry’s would have saved Anne Boleyn’s marriage and may have prevented Anne’s execution. He would have succeeded Henry and the world as she knew it would be vastly different. As possibilities filled her mind, she took a breath and muttered to herself. Whoa! This was a wonderful what-if scenario but there was no proof that this woman’s deathbed confession was true. Although her initial reaction was that it was authentic, only accurate scientific testing and research could point to the truth.
Glancing back at the page, Sharon wanted to finish the woman’s account before calling her colleagues in to examine it. Even knowing that she was breaking protocol, Sharon hesitated to share this exquisite find with anyone just yet. A few more moments would not make a difference.
He roused from his stupor as I carried his frail body to be disposed, all in the birthing chamber believed him dead. My first thought, God forgive me, was to cover his face and finish the deed. I can only believe that the Holy Mother’s intercession stopped me from committing the most heinous of sins in that moment of supreme hatred and by doing so, She saved my soul from eternal damnation.
Instead I carried the child out of the palace and gave him to a Catholic family to raise, letting them believe this was another of the King’s bastards to be kept from the Whore’s path. He grew to be a healthy and robust child in spite of his weak beginnings.
I have not the courage nor connections nor power to right the wrongs I have done for I shudder to think what would happen to him if his true parentage were known. His bastardy has been and will be his best protection as the struggle to establish which faith is the true faith continues. I lost my faith long ago but not my fear in the Lord and so I do what I can do now to protect the true heir to the throne of England.
The true heir to the throne? Not Elizabeth? What would England and the world be like without her long and successful reign? Sharon shook, almost dropping the parchment onto the floor. Her knees gave out and she sat down heavily on the trunk not trusting her legs to hold her up.
What proof could the woman refer to in her letter? What would prove to the power brokers of the time that a man was a legitimate son of a King?
I have sealed with my confession a copy of the attending physicians’ statements and descriptions of the son, born prematurely to Anne Boleyn in January, 1536. The babe inherited his mother’s birthmark, one passed through most of the Boleyn family and easily recognizable as belonging to them. I have also obtained and enclosed a copy of the boy’s baptismal certificate, accomplished in secret shortly after his birth. With these proofs, he could take his place on the throne.
Her mouth dropped open in disbelief. Her hands began to tremble and the edges of her vision blurred. If this was true, she held proof that could have changed the world. If only the baby named Henry Tudor had lived and held this proof in his own hands. What could have happened then?
Sharon shook off her astonishment and knew she’d better inform the British authorities of the existence of this piece of evidence pointing to a different possibility of succession. It would need to be authenticated and preserved as one of the greatest what-if’s of history. Carefully re-folding the pages together and wrapping the covering around them, Sharon stood up.
In her excitement, she forgot about the dress now twisted on her lap and over her legs. And about the low ceiling. And the position of the trunk in the room. Bumping her head yet again, she tried to sidestep the chest but the dress tangled around her legs and sent her stumbling. Trying to regain her balance and to protect the valuable dress and documents, Sharon turned as she fell toward the wall.
As she landed heavily against the wall, it gave way, dropping her several feet down into another room. Mo’s warning about the instability of the structure echoed through her brain as she slid to a stop against another wall. She watched in disbelief as the wooden partition in front of her closed like a door but with her on the wrong side.
Sharon scrambled to her feet and dusted off the dress she still carried. This chamber was bigger but not by much. Readjusting her glasses on her nose, she noticed bright light coming into the chamber from under a door on the opposite side of the room. After placing the dress over her shoulder, she tucked the packet into the pocket in her broom-style skirt for safekeeping and walked over to where she entered this room.
Examining the edges of the wall revealed nothing, no sign of a latch or handle for her to open the door. This was very strange. She knew that this wall was really a doorway--that made sense since the small chamber where the trunk was had been a priesthole, a hidden room used to hide Catholics during time of persecution. But how could she open it if she couldn’t find the latch?
Shaking her head at her bout of stupidity, she turned to use the real doorway in the room. If she couldn’t get back through the fake wall, she would go around through this other way. Sharon approached the door and turned the knob, pulling on it as she rotated the handle. It wouldn’t budge.
The same hot and stuffy feeling she’d experienced a few minutes before returned, perspiration pouring down her back and a feeling of fear tickling her gut. She fought to control the fear and anxiety even as she struggled to open the door. Finally, footsteps approached from the other side and the knob jiggled as someone opened it from outside.
Mo! Mo must have come looking for her and knew the other way around to this room. She let out a nervous laugh and took a deep breath. As the door opened, she smiled, ready to tease her friend for taking so long. But it was not her friend standing before her. A woman dressed as an Elizabethan courtier stood before her. In shock, her words escaped before she could control them.
"Who the hell are you?"
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