Last August, we were staying at a hotel in Devon when a fellow guest mentioned that Cotehele was just over the border in Cornwall. Had we seen it?
To my shame, I had never heard of Cotehele before, but it sounded interesting and so we decided to go. It was a still, hot day, and from the moment we walked through the old gatehouse into the courtyard, I knew I had found the house where Isabel grows up in House of Shadows. It is a magical place. The house itself is beautiful and very old, so full of steps and turns and secret glimpses that I would not have been in the least surprised to have found myself face to face with Isabel herself.
I was so inspired at Cotehele that I used several features of the house when it came to writing House of Shadows, including the clover-shaped squint that looks down on the great hall.
‘Isabel!’ Judith tugged at my sleeve. ‘Come away. We shouldn’t be here.’
I ignored her. My uncle had a small, secret closet off his chamber. It was forbidden to us, and perhaps because of that, it was my favourite room in the house. I’m afraid I was ever contrary that way.
One wall had a grille over a window looking down into the chapel that meant he could listen to the service without troubling himself to dress like the rest of the household. Even better, to my mind, was the little clover-shaped squint carved into the other wall. You could peer down into the great hall and see who was coming and going without anyone knowing you were there at all.
I put my eye back to the squint. ‘The Vavasours are here,’ I whispered for Judith’s benefit. ‘They are dressed very fine. That is my cousin Lawrence, there in the blue doublet.’ I drew back so that Judith could see, but she only wrung her hands.
‘We should go before anyone finds us.’
‘Oh, pooh, they are all downstairs gawking at our grand visitors.’ For days now all the talk had been of my Lord and Lady Vavasour and how they were coming to Crabbersett.
It was Judith who had told me, when we lay in bed one night. ‘I heard your uncle and aunt talking,’ she had whispered. ‘They think to make a match for you with Edmund Vavasour.’
‘But I do not want to be married!’ Scrambling up, I pushed the hair out of my face in dismay. A bar of moonlight fell through the casement window and turned Judith’s golden hair to silver.
Since she had climbed into the hayloft ten years earlier we had never been apart. Judith was the dear friend I had always wanted, even though we were as day to night, as sunshine to storm. Where I was gangly and plain and untidy, Judith was small and neat and fair. I was restless and unruly, and she was so quiet that oftentimes folk forgot she was there at all and spoke unguardedly; she learnt all manner of things that maids like us were not supposed to know.
My aunt Marion approved greatly of Judith, who sewed a neat seam unlike my own careless, looping stitches, and was diligent about her prayers, while I fidgeted and cast longing glances at the door. I teased Judith that she was like a cat, twitching her paws at the first sign of wet. I could not understand how she could prefer to stay inside rather than be out, and she could not understand the pleasure of riding over the moor, face lifted to the wind, while the skylarks darted above the heather.
For all our differences, we fitted together like fingers in gloves. We knew each other inside out. In summer, we chased butterflies around the garden, and caught them between our cupped hands for the pleasure of letting them go. We lay in the orchard and spat cherry stones to see who could send them further. In winter we skated on the frozen pond, holding each other up, shrieking and laughing while the cold stung our cheeks.
Every night I brushed Judith’s hair until it gleamed gold, and she did her best to tame my wild curls. Together, we puzzled over ciphering. Judith untangled the silk threads in my needle case and unpicked my seams, and I sang loudly to disguise the fact that she was an indifferent player on the virginals.
When Judith fell ill with the pox, I sat holding her hand while she burned with fever, and refused to be separated from her. No sooner did her fever break than I caught it. We shared even the pox. Afterwards, Judith was barely blemished – a single pockmark on her temple – but I was left with a scatter of marks high on my cheeks that my aunt bemoaned forever after, though it seemed to me that they could have been much worse and I cared little for my appearance anyway.
‘You do not need to,’ said Judith, who was always groomed to a nicety. ‘You are an heiress, while I have only my face to recommend me.’