Australian-American Loretta Goldberg earned a BA in English Literature, Music and History at the University of Melbourne. She came to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship for piano performance. After careers in music then financial services, she sold her financial services practice to focus on writing. She is on the steering committee of The Historical Novel Society, New York Chapter, where she started the chapter’s published writer public reading series at the Jefferson Market Library, New York, now migrated to Zoom. Commuting between NYC and Chester, Connecticut, she lives with her partner, enjoying extended family, friends, colleagues and animals.
Sir Edward Latham: Lady Elizabeth Bolte, Lady Betty? My manservant Joris told me you were sitting in my study, having the password to enter our rooms. That you wished to ask me questions. The password again if you would be so good? Joris is an incomparable servant but can reverse letters into curious muddles.
Betty Bolte: Ah, of course. ‘That long blond is Gloriana’s best man in France today.’ Sir Edward, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me.
Sir Edward Latham (thinking): The password is right, but I don’t remember any agreement! Is this a dream? The stranger on my carved wooden guest chair displays the confidence of status through wealth or rank. My morning small beer tasted bitter. My servant girl, Marie, Joris’s wife, is an herbalist. She concocts tonics to keep my instincts sharp. She fears that my advanced age of forty-eight has dulled my sense of danger, putting my household at risk. Civil war rages in France, so anticipating who wields power is vital. My instincts haven’t dulled whatsoever—my current unraveling of a plot in Brussels proves that—but I take Marie’s potions to calm her anxiety, she a new mother and fragile. Mayhap her tonic brought me this visitation. Claviceps purpurea, a toxic fungus described by Paracelsus, produces fantastical waking dreams.
Betty Bolte: Sir Edward, don’t be afraid. I come in friendship What do you think is your greatest achievement so far? And why?
Sir Edward Latham: My greatest achievement is easy to describe, Lady Betty. But should I?
(Thinking) She smiles encouragingly. My greatest achievement. Is Satan tempting me to the sin of pride? I must be wary. Now, the Bolte family exists. Saxon farm holders from Lancashire, they acquired land and rank. Her given name of Betty is after my Queen, the great Elizabeth, Gloriana. But I cannot place her dialect. No burr, a crisp delivery with an upward lilt at the end of her sentences.
She’s not an enemy informer, because her appearance and smell are so unfamiliar my guard is up. She’s of middle years, fleshly padding beneath her skin filling her out pleasingly. But her teeth are white and even, her gums pink like a new-blooming maiden. How can that be? No tooth soap or tooth-drawer could preserve a mouth to the years this woman seems to have attained. Her hair is a springy grey, bare of no jeweled ribbon or bonnet, against fashion. Her smell is not of lead paint, thick fabrics beaten clean, but of a mild soap I don’t know. By contrast, her perfume is less subtle. It’s a solid sweetness of orange, gardenia and peach flowers, a forwardness I associate with, well, not nobility. Rosewater, burnt orange peel and marjoram, with an earthy touch of truffle, are the spicy/sweet individually complected scents women of rank like. We men, too, have individual scents. Most odd is that I’ve seen her necklace of blue and transparent glass beads before, on a similar woman. Well, benign visitation or fungi hallucination, I sense no danger. I’ll play along. I point at my quills, inkhorn and paper. Does she want to write my answers? No. She shakes her head, touching a little glass rectangle on her lap.
Betty Bolte: Sir Edward, let’s begin. What is your greatest achievement? And why?
Sir Edward Latham: Preventing the Spanish Armada from landing on English soil last year. Lady Betty, I am Queen Elizabeth’s, Gloriana’s, best intelligencer abroad. I didn’t start that way. When she made England’s religion Protestant, which was her Divinely anointed right, I couldn’t live as a covert Catholic. Others felt different, which I respect. A life of discreet worship didn’t seem right either. By God’s grace I am gentry, with a duty to defend society against anarchy.
I worked for European Catholic rulers against Dutch and French Protestant rebels. I soon learned how cruel and stupid are these Catholic Princesses. Offensive and defensive weapons are balanced today, so there’s no winning or losing, just more broken bodies and grieving hearts. That can’t be pleasing to the Almighty who created us all. When Philip II of Spain, the mightiest Catholic king, marshaled forces to invade England I became a double agent. I use my access to both sides to importune for peace. Monarchs resent criticism, but peace is my mission.
From the Spanish admiral’s house in Lisbon I got Spain’s original plan for 500 ships to land 60,000 men in England. I got it by trickery. Even in these days of strife, Lady Betty, men’s hearts are often more mutable than the violence of their causes. Bribes, pride in being a keeper of secrets that can only be demonstrated by sharing the secrets, a dainty conscience about a master’s cruelty—we all face judgment day—non-brutish methods can unravel astonishing plots.
Elizabeth had only 120 ships to defend her coast. Fortunately, the Spanish plan shrank to the 130 ships that sailed from Lisbon last year. They were to meet an equal force in the Spanish Netherlands. If those forces could join up they’d be invincible. By God’s grace I helped to prevent their linkage. I fostered in the minds of Spanish ship captains the illusion that the English had a diabolical new weapon we don’t have. Illusion split apart thousands of tons of enemy wood, iron and munitions, not force of English arms. I saw it in Calais.”
Betty Bolte: Sir Winston Churchill said that the truth is so precious it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.
Sir Edward Latham: I know nothing of Churchills. They’re not a notable family like the Boltes. But the words make sense. The diabolical weapons we don’t have are Hellburners. They’re big ships with thousands of pounds of explosives and every kind of stone, metal and weapon that can crush, shred or impale, trapped within a stone pyramid on deck. This pyramid is designed to explode sideways and not up. No man lights the fuse. A timed clock does the work. This is utterly new. One Hellburner wreaked havoc on Spanish forces besieging Antwerp. Over 1,000 killed in a second, rubble and body parts strewn over a mile and a half. Ever since 1585 Spaniards quake at the word Hellburner. The inventor of this terrible machine fled to England. He was seen there in Sir Francis Drake’s company by Spanish spies. The Spaniards have almost a mystical fear of ‘El Draco,’ who has raided Spanish lands with seeming impunity.
Elizabeth wouldn’t risk her limited powder on an innovation. But for the enemy to think Drake had Hellburners was the goal. I wafted the notion into receptive ears at the Madrid court, which became Royal warnings to Spanish commanders.
Lady Betty, it’s not given to many men to see the fruits of panic by illusion. Almighty God graced me with this privilege. I was on the water in a rowboat in Calais, peering up at the towering castles of Spanish warships, bristling with cannon and crammed with crews. Days of fighting in the English Channel hadn’t dented the impregnable formation of the Spanish fleet.
Around midnight, when the tide favored the waiting desperate English fleet, Drake sent six traditional fire-ships bigger than Hellburners at the anchored Spanish fleet, which had orders to stand firm. “Hellburners!” was the universal shriek as the fire-ships glided closer. It became a general signal to flee. Armed merchantmen pulled up anchors, blundered into each other, frantic yelling of “Pole apart! Axe!” The formation disintegrated, waterborne castles cutting cables, most abandoning anchors. Wobbling stern lanterns mapped their course to open sea.
It was Divine malice, Lady Betty, this mismatch between the Armada’s physical might and the illusion that ripped it up. Without anchors, the monstrous castles on water couldn’t re-group, and would be at the mercy of any wind. A king’s treasure in iron plunged to the sea bottom. The English fire-ships burned out harmlessly, doing no physical damage. As we know now, a north wind blew the Armada around Ireland, where most of the ships were wrecked. Yes, nurturing a brainsick piece of folly is how I helped to shape the great battle of last year.”
Betty Bolte: That sounds like an example of how a slender lever applied right can topple a boulder. Moving to the personal, are you close to your family? Do you wish your relationship with them was different in any way? If so, how?
Sir Edward Latham: Why would you ask about anything as small as one sinner’s heart? My kin are Catholics but accommodate to Protestant rule. I revered my father and am close to my sister, Katherine, who lives. Mother died when I was a child. How I missed her warm hugs. In the days when I had no permission to be in England, I visited Katherine secretly. If I have a wish, it is that my three brothers would accept my choice as Katherine did, and as I respected theirs. But some turbulent times do not admit of tranquility.
Betty Bolte: When did you have your first kiss and with who? How did it go?
Sir Edward Latham: An even stranger question. Evaluate a kiss? Certainly, my wet nurse and nanny gave me many kisses though I have no memory of them. As adults we kiss on the lips freely. But I think you mean the dance of the two-backed beast? Lust, my first bedfellow. Alas, I must demur. Some magnificent bedfellows have honored my bed, whose dignity I revere. You showed me a book about me: The Reversible Mask, an Elizabethan Spy Novel. Do I have a chronicler? The cover is shiny paper, not leather. How can such a flimsiness last? But its image depicts the comet of 1578 over Constantinople. I was there then, had a very great friend, an Ottoman slave serving the Sultan. If I have a chronicler, my notorious loves will be there. About such matters I am stitch-lipped, resisting even the sweetest, most probing, needing tongue.
Betty Bolte: What characteristics are you looking for in a spouse?
Sir Edward Latham: That sounds like the Protestant new-fangled notion of a companionate marriage. For us Catholics virtue and property determine unions. I left that prospect behind.I’m too much the nomad to settle. Indeed, my life is precarious. My loyal household is my beloved family. Are you remembering my words? You write nothing.
Lady Betty turns the glass rectangle around. I see my words, ‘You write nothing.’ What is this? Terror braids my gut, bile rises, I want to vomit. But the close stool is in my bedroom upstairs. I gulp the bile down. It’s a dream. I’ve seen innovations before and survived.
Betty Bolte: How would you describe your childhood?
Sir Edward Latham: You ask questions as if you are not of this earth. What is childhood? We sprawl from the womb, squalling protests amidst a spew of afterbirth. We are scrubbed, wound in swaddling cloth and handed to a wet nurse. We learn later whether the mother who gave us life died from childbed fever. Alas, too many do. As soon as we’re ripped from breast milk, we’re undersized adults, wearing itchy little ruffs, eating little portions of meat, bread, cheese, washed down by much-watered wine.
Betty Bolte: What kind of schooling did you have? Did you enjoy it?
Sir Edward Latham: Our family had a wonderful governess for letters and numbers, then a tutor in fighting arts, riding and jousting, rhetoric, Latin and Divinity. Others go to the grammar schools. Some go to Oxford or Cambridge to be lawyers, scholars or physicians, a few on scholarship. Gentry like me go to Oxford and Cambridge to be groomed as courtiers. Her Majesty visits both. She loves long Latin debates. Those who wish to serve her must pay attention, no matter how much they drank the night before, because she looks for slack mouths and will ask, ‘What did you think of the riposte before the last?’ Woe is the dreamer with no cogent reply. Her Majesty never forgets!
For me, the learning, riding, dancing and lute playing were, and will always be, a joy. But the specter of misfortune hovered equally—plague, a fall from royal favor, fire, yet another change in State religion. There were five gyrations of State religious doctrine before I was eighteen, each bringing possible death for non-conforming. You know my family are Catholics. But when my poor mother died when I was four, King Henry VIII had an anti-Papist policy. I don’t know if my mother got the sacred last rites. To ensure I have access to last rites from a priest in good order with Rome I went abroad. That aside, even in tranquil times, we youths have a sense of somber waiting, if our fathers die young, to assume responsibilities at a tender age.
Betty Bolte: What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you?
Sir Edward Latham: The true worst I cannot bear to reveal. That night when the enchanting Lady Barbara, greatest singer of the century and my bedfellow, named my deepest fantasies. How? But that’s the nature of genius. I’ll give Lady Betty a more suitable one.
Ah, a scene out of low theatre comedy, butchased and insulted bystreet urchins in Constantinople, brazen thugs hurling filth and rotten fruit at me. I was dressed for an audience with the assistant secretary to the Grand Vizier. Fortunately, I’d thought to wear an old cloak I could throw away. They were shouting ‘Dung-sucker’ and other curses because, in truth, I had a foul smell from an adventure the night before. I was going to the baths before the audience.
Have you hobbled miles inside the skin of a two-humped Bactrian camel? Yes, my manservant Joris and I pretended to be a camel. I needed to get inside a warehouse guarded by the Sultan’s ferocious deaf mutes, to see artifacts and papers I suspected were there. We borrowed the camel skin from St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Catholic church in the European quarter of Galata, where it was used in the procession of the Three Wise Men. We were pretending to make a delivery, so a heavy box swayed on top of us.
My great friend Ibrahim enlisted two boys from his household to guide us. Inside the camel was miserable. We stooped under the humps, camel skin pinned around our legs, shoulders bruised by the box. Oh, the stink! Old hair, dried tissue, dander and curing chemicals made us lightheaded and desperate to sneeze. I doused the camel with ox piss, hoping to discourage scrutiny by the guards, who were known to be fastidious. Joris and I were roped at the waist, so when our guide rapped my thigh, my step jerked Joris into motion.
The whole caper nearly ended disastrously. At a thump on the neck, I stopped suddenly. Joris kneed me. Our load wobbled. I heard heavy footsteps, hawking phlegm, spit, a high whine. We pushed our shoulders up, feeling our guide steady the box. My breath out was one of the happiest of my life. We got in and out safely. It was a neat piece of inquiry. Everything I was sent to Constantinople to discover fell into place. A secret alliance and trade treaty between the Sultan and a European monarch I had early knowledge of. But our stinks took scouring after scouring to lighten. Even now I think I can sniff the residue. Truly, Lady Betty, dross is the companion-lover of all our ambitions.
Betty Bolte: I am glad I wasn’t there. How do you like to relax?
Sir Edward Latham: Not being a Bactrian camel. How about if I show you? It’s a good day to walk. I’ll show you Boulogne. King Henry VIII attacked it in 1544, held it for five years. I dine at a harbor tavern, The Swooping Gull. There’s interesting military detritus on the way. The vegetable and fish market in the main square is still open. As we exit the archway of the old walls I can point out new stones where Henry’s cannon breached the fortifications and his engineers tunneled under the wall. On the switchback path down to the lower town, there’s a rotting hulk the French sank during their blockade, which was useless. One sunk ship doesn’t make a barrier. Plague forced Henry to terms.
The Swooping Gull is famous for waterzooi, and Friday is the best day to go The tavern has a curious ritual, rather romantic, which I sense will be to your taste, something St. Francis of Assisi would bless. Before dinner, a swarm of gulls–yellow-legged, black-backed, white-herring patterned, grey-winged—rise into the air, mingling promiscuously, circling nothing, but in military order. An old fellow emerges from the tavern, a sack tied to his chest. At the jetty he thrusts his left arm into the air, holding today’s catch between his second and third fingers. A single gull swoops to retrieve the piece, while the fellow’s right hand pulls a replacement from the bag, left hand meeting it and rising for the next gull. All moves serene and the gulls exquisitely courteous. No gull tries the ground because the fellow never drops anything. Nor do the gulls mistake finger for fish. The legend is that the longer they feed the tastier the meal will be. It’s a better brag than any placard.
I stand, arm extended. I’m still comely, with chiseled features, flaxen, grey-tipped hair and a ready smile over yellowed, but not rotted, teeth. Unusually tall, I’m neither flabby nor gouty. Today I’m clothed in the Tuscan style, wearing a white cambric shirt with blackwork at the cuffs and collar, a black velvet doublet with vertical and horizontal slashes showing russet satin, and discreet silver thread trim. My upper stocks have slashes over russet and black hose. With no shoulder puffers or padded codpiece, my figure is discernible. My boots have leather tassels as fine as fronds. I move out from my desk. Lady Betty stands too, in a fine red wool dress with grey leather patches.
I hear her great sobbing sigh, long and long, see her reaching hand. “They don’t make clothes like that anymore. Gorgeous fabrics, so lush, so opulent and elegant it hurts!”
I reach out a hand to help her. I meet a vibrating wall of scorching air. My body trembles with sound I cannot hear but know is in me, battering. All goes black. When light returns Lady Betty is gone. I return shakily to my desk, cone out. My guest chair has no residue of her perfume. I rub my clothes. No Tuscan finery, but black wool hose, black linen breeches, loose white shirt and a black jerkin, my letter-writing clothes. But I remember where I saw that bead necklace: on a woman with the same shaped eyebrows coming out of a glover’s shop in Oxford during my student days. A hint of sweet orange wafted above the horse dung. I thought her the goodwife of a steward at a provincial estate. Wherever she’s gone she’s been here before. Did this visitation even happen? Do I have a chronicler? Ah, asking about a chronicler is the sin of pride. I ring for Joris to send for my priest.
Intrigue, lust and war combine in this debut spy thriller, meticulously researched in events and settings. Young Catholic courtier, Sir Edward Latham, has a brilliant future in Protestant Elizabethan England. His loving family made the necessary accommodations. He cannot. Patriotism and religion wage war in his heart. He throws away title, kin and land to serve Catholic monarchs abroad in missions that propel from Paris to Constantinople and places between. But wandering doesn’t quiet his soul. When war threatens his beloved homeland patriotism prevails. He becomes a double agent for Queen Elizabeth. Life turns complicated and dangerous as he balances protecting country and Queen while entreating both sides for peace.
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Where did he go? He was sitting right there in the interview chair and then—poof!—he disappeared! I suppose he had to get back to work. I hope you enjoyed meeting Sir Latham!
Happy reading, all!
Best-selling Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories