The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Marriage suited Katherine well: There was a radiance about her, and she delighted in talking about her handsome husband.

  “I told him,” she was saying, “that if he must devise new pleasures and pastimes every day, then he would see other things slide.” But she did not look too worried about this. “What matter, eh? This life is short, and we must make the best of it. I admit my lord is rather a naughty man, and not perhaps as devout as he might be. Strangely, he always has some urgent matter of business to attend to when it’s time for morning service in the chapel on Sundays, but he is a law unto himself, I have found.” She grimaced ruefully, yet her eyes were dancing.

  “And it is good for you to have a father figure in your life, Elizabeth,” she went on, reaching over and patting the girl’s hand. “A proper guardian who can look to your interests.”

  “I am glad of it,” Elizabeth told her, and suddenly there he was, that guardian, striding along the path from the house, his smile dazzling in the sunlight.

  “Good day, Your Grace, ladies!” he cried, sweeping an exaggerated bow. “Can you spare a chicken wing for a starving man?”

  “I think we’ve eaten everything,” Katherine said mischievously.

  “For shame!” he told her. “You will all get very fat!”

  “Here, sir,” Elizabeth said, passing the dish. “Her Grace but jests.”

  “Are you enjoying yourself, my Lady Elizabeth?” the Admiral asked, turning the full force of his intense eyes and brilliant smile on her. Her heart began to beat faster, and there was that strange sinking feeling low in her belly once more. He really was the most attractive fellow…

  She pulled herself together.

  “I cannot believe my good fortune, my lord,” she replied. “I should be mourning my poor father, yet Her Grace here enjoins me to be happy, and you and she have made this place a very paradise for me.”

  Thomas regarded her for a minute, admiring her regal bearing and the way she held her head, and noticing also the budding breasts beneath the tight bodice.

  “I am glad,” he answered, then turned to his wife. “I go to court again tomorrow, Kate, to take my brother to task for giving the Queen’s jewels to his grasping wife.”

  “They are mine by right, until the King marries,” Katherine said. “I pray you be forceful. We cannot let them get away with it.”

  Thomas bent and kissed her full on the mouth. Elizabeth looked away, not understanding why seeing them thus caused her to feel such a pang.

  By and by, Elizabeth realized that she was taking more and more notice of the Admiral. She was becoming increasingly aware of his presence, in the house, at table, in the gardens, or at chapel—on the rare occasions he was there. She would find herself surreptitiously sneaking a glance at him, noting his finely boned features, the dark, wicked eyes, straight nose, and bushy dark beard. She could not get her fill of looking at him.

  There were plenty of opportunities to indulge this fancy, for although the Admiral often haunted the court by day, his barge would bring him back to Chelsea in the evenings, in time to eat supper with his new family. His manner toward Elizabeth was always exaggeratedly chivalrous, and he was fond of teasing her—for she always rose to the bait. Yet never once, in these early weeks, did he appear to remember that he had proposed marriage to her.

  As the time passed, she found herself longing for him to appear. His sheer physicality appealed to her, as did his flamboyant personality. One morning, waking early, she looked out her window and saw him making his way back to the house from the tennis court, clad only in breeches and hose, a white towel around his bare shoulders. His hair was damp with sweat, so he must have been playing with some ferocity. One glance at his broad muscular chest, lightly covered in dark hair, and Elizabeth was lost. She had never seen anyone as pleasing to the eye, with all his limbs and features so well put together. What a proper man he was!

  She knew of course that men were differently formed from women, and why, and she could not but surmise what wonders that well-stuffed codpiece concealed, although she had only the vaguest idea of how a naked man might appear, for the only male she had ever seen undressed was her brother as a baby. But alongside the delicious infatuation and fevered imaginings, she felt guilt too, for this was the Queen’s husband, and she loved the Queen and had no wish to hurt her. Yet there was no harm in daydreaming, surely?

  A new portrait of the Admiral had been hung in the great hall—a very good likeness. Kat came upon Elizabeth staring entranced at it one day, and summed up the situation at once.

  “A fine man, isn’t he?” she said. Elizabeth jumped.

  “Indeed he is,” she agreed, somewhat breathlessly.

  “The Queen is a lucky lady,” Kat went on. “But never forget that you were his first choice. And if I’m not mistaken, you’re a little bit moonstruck on him, aren’t you?”

  She smiled questioningly at her charge.

  Elizabeth blushed and said nothing, all the time gazing wistfully at the portrait. The artist had caught the Admiral to the life.

  “Ah, Kat, I do not understand myself,” she said at length. “You know that for a long time I was resolved never to marry. And you were right—now I am not so sure. It seems to me that love between a man and a woman is a thing that perhaps ought not to be denied. I should have listened to you, for I know now that marriage with a man such as the Admiral would surely have swayed my opinions.”

  “Well, it is too late now,” Kat said flatly. “You cannot guess how bitterly I regret that it did not come about, for you and he would have made a handsome couple; and I’ll warrant you’d go a long way to find so dashing a bridegroom. But he is married to the Queen now, and you must not think of him in that way.”

  “He is so handsome and charming, I cannot help but think of him,” Elizabeth whispered.

  “You will get over it,” Kat said brusquely. “Young maids often develop a fancy for an older man, especially one as good-looking as the Admiral. Such an infatuation is harmless, and of no consequence, although I know it seems of great import to you. But he is forbidden fruit, child, so put him out of your mind.”

  But Elizabeth could not. He was with her everywhere she went. Even the unworldly Master Grindal noticed that she was not as attentive to her studies as before. Into her mind, unbidden, came tantalizing but uninformed images of herself and the Admiral in bed together, of him performing that intimate act which Kat, red-faced, had described to her in such embarrassing detail. And when she tried to imagine how it would feel to have such a man love her in that way, her heart would pound and her palms sweat.

  She could not stop thinking about him.

  Kat climbed into bed beside her husband and doused the candle. As usual, John Astley leant over and kissed her before lying back on the feather pillows. Kat relaxed. She would not have to pay the marriage debt tonight. What men got out of it she could not imagine. For her, it was an uncomfortable, messy business, and quite unnecessary anyway, since she was past the age for childbearing. Still, she loved her husband, who was a good and kind man in many ways.

  “Kat,” John said in the darkness, “something is worrying me. It concerns the Lady Elizabeth.”

  Kat was startled. “Whatever are you talking about?”

  “I’ve been watching her,” John explained, “and I’ve noticed that, whenever the Admiral is mentioned, she becomes very attentive and stops whatever she is doing to listen. When the Queen praises him, she is immoderately pleased, and today, when someone spoke his name, I saw her blush. I think you should take heed, for I fear that she bears some hidden affection for him.”

  “Nonsense!” said Kat tartly, jolted into defensiveness by his perspicacity. “He’s an attractive man, and she’s at an age when she notices such things. It’s entirely innocent, and even if she is harboring romantic feelings for him, she would never do anything to hurt the Queen.”

  “She might not, but what about him?” John sounded agitated. “Think about it, Kat. I’ve seen him l
ooking at her, and that look didn’t seem innocent to me. You must speak to her, warn her. Just think, if there were ever any impropriety between the Admiral and the Lady Elizabeth, both would be guilty of high treason. High treason, mark me!”

  “He wouldn’t be such a fool,” Kat opined.

  “Many men have been made fools by pretty young girls,” John interrupted. “And may I remind you of the penalty for high treason. For him, hanging, drawing, and quartering, although because of his rank they’d probably just chop off his head. And for her, it’s beheading or burning.”

  “They’d never dare—she’s the King’s sister,” Kat retorted, aghast.

  “Two queens have already been beheaded, and not that long ago,” John reminded her. “Her own mother was one of them.”

  “I tell you, there’s nothing in it,” Kat insisted, after a pause. “It’s an innocent infatuation, nothing more.”

  “I hope to God you’re right,” John said with a sigh. “But just in case you’re not, keep your eyes open, and if you see anything that troubles you, anything at all, put a stop to it.”

  “The Admiral would never take advantage of her,” Kat said angrily. “He’s an honorable man, and her guardian while she is under his roof. I cannot believe he would stoop to such evil conduct.”

  “Charmed you as well, has he?” John asked sourly.

  “Oh, stuff and nonsense!” Kat was having none of it.

  “In faith, Wife, you are too trusting of others,” John observed, then turned over to face her, his eyes troubled. “As your husband, I command you to be watchful. Otherwise we could all end up in the Tower.”

  Kat said nothing. She did not believe it could ever come to that.

  Elizabeth had just finished dressing one morning when the door opened and there stood the Admiral, elegant in a dark green suit.

  “My lord!” cried a flustered Kat. “I beg you, please knock before you enter. My lady might not have been ready to receive you.”

  “Good morrow, Elizabeth,” smiled Thomas, ignoring the governess and patting her nonplussed charge on the shoulder.

  “Good morrow, my lord,” Elizabeth answered, her cheeks flushed with the pleasure of seeing him.

  “Are your attendants awake?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the maidens’ chamber. “If not, I will go and rouse them! We cannot have tardiness in this household.”

  “They are awake, my lord,” Kat said hastily. “I heard them moving about a few minutes ago. May I ask why you are here?”

  “Why, I came to bid good morning to the Lady Elizabeth,” he said, grinning. “May not a man pay such a courtesy to his own stepdaughter?”

  Kat looked unhappy.

  “Good morrow, my lord,” Elizabeth said, coolly enough, although her cheeks were flaming.

  “I trust you are well, my lady?” he smiled, nodding. “Do you always arise this early?”

  “I do, sir,” she told him.

  “Well. So do I! Every morning!” Something in his tone, and the twinkle in his eye, made Kat blush. The naughty man! Fortunately, Elizabeth was too innocent to have understood his meaning.

  “I am glad to see you well, and I bid you good day, ladies,” he said, bowing, and departed.

  “Well!” Kat breathed. “That was most irregular!”

  “I think he came for a jest,” Elizabeth said, her heart racing.

  “He had better not come again,” Kat retorted, agitated, although it did her heart good to see her charge looking so radiantly happy.

  “I’m sure he will not,” Elizabeth replied, but it was hard not to hope that he would.

  Two days later, the Admiral returned, bursting into the bedchamber just as Elizabeth was putting on her French hood. He had timed his entrance well, for Kat had just gone in search of a laundress.

  “Good morrow, my lady,” he beamed, slapping Elizabeth lightly on the bottom. “How does my stepdaughter today?”

  At the touch of his palm, felt through the thickness of her heavy damask skirt, Elizabeth had begun to tingle, and she was struggling to control the sensation. The tingling had started in the pit of her stomach, then spread downward, where it had metamorphosed into the now familiar aching feeling between her legs. Had that been his intention, to arouse her?

  “I am well, sir,” she said, her voice barely steady. “Forgive me, I must go to the schoolroom. Master Grindal is waiting.”

  “Good, good,” beamed the Admiral. “I am pleased to see you so eager to be at your studies.”

  “I love learning, as you know,” Elizabeth told him. “Now, if you will excuse me.” And she more or less fled out the door.

  Elizabeth stretched out between the sheets. Through a chink in the bed curtains she could see that it was still dull in the room. Dawn had not yet broken fully, so she could indulge in a few extra minutes in bed. Sleepily, she turned over.

  Suddenly, the curtains were pulled apart and there was the Admiral, devastatingly handsome, smiling down at her.

  “Still abed?” he cried. “Good morrow, my lady—time to arise!”

  “Sir, you should not be here!” she reproved him, alarmed. “Mrs. Astley is not yet up.”

  “Then she is neglectful of her duty!” he retorted, grinning. “Come, get up!”

  And he yanked the bedclothes off her, leaving her slim body exposed in its thin lawn chemise. Elizabeth gasped.

  “Shall I tickle you?” he cried, wiggling his fingers and making as if he would come at her.

  “You must leave, sir!” she told him, shrinking back farther in the bed.

  “I will leave when I see you get up,” he replied. “Come on! Do not dally!”

  Reluctantly, Elizabeth gathered the skirts of her chemise about her legs, for modesty, and slid off the bed on the opposite side. Then she peered out from behind the bed curtains, aware that his behavior was most improper, and conscious that she must put a stop to it.

  “I am up, my lord. Please leave.”

  Kat, entering at that moment, a vision of sleepiness in her voluminous nightgown and beribboned bonnet, took in the scene with a horrified glance.

  “My lord! You should not be here!” she exclaimed.

  “On the contrary, the Queen asked me to say good morrow to the Lady Elizabeth before I leave for court,” the Admiral said smoothly.

  “But she is not dressed; it is not seemly!” Kat protested.

  “Of course it is seemly. She is just a child, Mrs. Astley; I am her stepfather, and I was but jesting with her.” His level gaze dared her to disagree.

  “Very well, sir,” Kat said doubtfully. “But in future, I should be grateful if you would wait until my Lady Elizabeth is dressed.”

  The Admiral ignored her.

  “Good day, Elizabeth,” he said, bowing. “I will look forward to seeing you this evening. Now I must go. My barge awaits, but the tide will not.”

  Elizabeth’s cheeks were bright pink.

  As soon as he had gone, she ran to her mirror and scrutinized her reflection in its polished silver surface. Fortunately the light in the bedchamber was dim, yet she could still make out the dark peak of a nipple under the filmy fabric of her chemise, and was that a hint of pubic hair? How much of her body had he espied? She was trembling, torn between embarrassment and excitement. He had called her a child, but he would probably have seen all too clearly that she was a child no longer.

  As she was pulling on her tawny velvet nightgown, Kat came in.

  “If he comes again, you must call me at once!” she ordered. “What would people say if it became known that the Admiral visits you in your bedchamber, and you in a state of undress?”

  “He thinks me a child. It is just his idea of a romp,” Elizabeth said, only half believing it, and yet perversely hoping that he did not think of her as a child.

  “A romp indeed!” Kat frowned. “There’s more than one kind of romp! You just call me if he comes again.”

  That evening, Elizabeth saw to it that her nightgown was laid on a chair within reach
of the bed, just in case the Admiral burst in on her the next morning. And Kat, torn between suspicion and anticipation, had promised to get up earlier and be in her chamber before dawn. Just in case.

  But he did not come the next morning, or the one after that. Elizabeth began to relax, yet she was also inexplicably disappointed. The thought of the Admiral in her bedchamber, and she half clothed, was an arousing one, and she could not help feeling the stirring of desire. But this was wrong; she knew it was wrong. He was the Queen’s husband, and she must never forget that.

  “Awake, my lady! Up! Up!”

  “Sir, I beg of you!” Kat’s voice, pleading.

  “Stop griping, woman. I am but come to see that my stepdaughter gets up in time for her lessons. The Queen knows I am here.”

  “My lady is never late, sir, there is no need. I really must insist—”

  The curtains were flung back. The handsome face loomed down at Elizabeth, who instinctively huddled beneath the covers. Dare she make a grab for the nightgown? The chair seemed a long way away.

  “And how does my lady today?” Thomas inquired. “Don’t you think it’s time you made ready? It’s nigh on five o’clock.”

  Elizabeth was just about to answer when he suddenly hauled the bedclothes off her, leaned forward, and slapped her on the buttocks. Her body responded treacherously, and neither her tormentor nor her nurse missed the shudder that coursed through her, or the fleeting gasp of ecstasy.

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