Excerpt from A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Net for Small Fishes

by Lucy Jago

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago X
A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago
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    Nov 2021, 352 pages

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Maria Katsulos
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1

The servant led the way as if into battle, his torch throwing monstrous shadows of my form against the walls. Fog muffled the light and dewed the stone. Although midmorning, the place felt to be just waking.

As we threaded our way through a maze of passages, the cries of a woman disturbed the torpid peace. The servant sped up. It troubled me that we charged toward the sounds of anguish.

I confess, so that you hold no illusion of me, I have never learned to govern most of my faults, nor even tried very hard, especially those of ambition, curiosity and pride. A godly woman would have run from that place as from the maw of hell; everyone knows that the jeweled façades of courtiers thinly veil their greedy, scurrilous, vain, lascivious souls.

Me? I rushed in.

Crossing an inner courtyard, we passed a fountain on which figures in pale marble wrestled, their naked limbs frosted by the English winter. The water at their feet was stopped and a stench rose from the puddle in its scalloped bowl, yellow with the piss of noblemen and their dogs; even the places these people relieved themselves were not ordinary.

We arrived on the third floor of a building against the Thames and entered a large apartment. Here the crying was loud enough to be described as wailing without risk of exaggeration, although the people standing in the entrance hall ignored it. I twisted my head about like a pigeon; every surface glowed with polish, tapestry or gilt, the air itself perfumed with such exotic scents that my nose was as greedy as my eyes for the extravagance with which I was enveloped. A tall gentleman tried to attract the servant's attention. He accompanied a man clutching a drawing board, a painter, I assumed, but the servant ignored them and I was chivvied through a series of magnificent rooms glinting even in the dull January light. Too soon we reached a door upon which he knocked, gave me a look that said, "God's blessings, you'll need them," and fled.

The door was unlatched and an old eye looked at me blankly through the crack.

"I am Mistress Anne Turner, wife of Dr. Turner," I announced over the noise from within. "I have been summoned."

The servant opened the door on a scene fit for the Globe. A hundred candles illuminated the tableau of a woman, a girl really, on her knees and sobbing. Long chestnut hair swung about her blotchy face, giving the appearance of a lunatic, an impression heightened by the undershirt slipping off her shoulders, kept up by nothing but a black armband. In one hand she clutched a string of pearls, while the other was buried in the silken pelt of a small white dog that whined each time she howled. The chamber appeared to have been ransacked. The contents of a sewing box were strewn upon the floor among shoes, undershirts, bird droppings and a little pile of dry dog turds. From the bed canopy swung a green parrot and circling like distressed mayflies were three maids, the ancient one who had opened the door and two very young ones, holding lace-edged handkerchiefs, hairbrushes and wine.

As another of my faults is not to know my place as well as I should, I stepped forward. "My lady," I said with a deep curtsy, for this unhappy creature was the Countess of Essex, Frances Howard. She was wife to an earl, daughter to an earl, great-niece to an earl and lady-in-waiting (second rank) to the Queen. The Howards were as close to the King as his own family; oftentimes they appeared more favored. I had not seen Frances in the three years since her wedding nor had I ever known her intimately, but we were acquainted, both our families being Catholic and living within a short distance of each other in the country, near Saffron Walden. "My husband is Dr. Turner, your husband's physician."

She gave no indication of having heard me. Slowly, however, after much hiccupping and sniffing, her crying subsided. The silence that ensued was not of the peaceful kind. No one moved, the fire did not spit, all eyes were on the bowed figure, even her dog gazed into her face with concern. As her stillness became unbearable, she extended an arm. Without hesitation, the maid with the cup stepped forward and placed it in the girl's outstretched fingers. She drained it and sat back on her heels. With eyes closed, she pushed the hair back from her damp face. Only then did she look at me.

Excerpted from A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago. Copyright © 2021 by Lucy Jago. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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