The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Kat moved quickly.

  “Your robe, my lady,” she said, snatching up the nightgown and handing it to Elizabeth. “Now, my lord, if you would kindly leave us, so that my Lady Elizabeth can have some privacy.”

  The Admiral looked as if he was about to protest, but evidently thought better of it. Without a word, he bowed and left the room.

  “Tonight, we are locking the door!” Kat declared firmly. This was getting beyond a joke.

  A key rattled in the lock.

  “Whatever…,” Kat began, bewildered.

  The door swung open and there was the Admiral, once again. This time, Elizabeth was sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling up her cloth stockings, and her slender thighs were exposed to his gaze. Quickly, she pulled down her chemise.

  “My lord!” Kat cried, determined to put a stop to these morning visits. “The door was locked!”

  “Indeed it was,” he responded cheerfully. “But you see, Mrs. Astley, I have had keys made for all the rooms in the house, for my own use, and as I am master here, don’t you agree that none should gainsay me entry?”

  “We are not gainsaying you, sir, just asking, yet again, that you delay your arrival until my Lady Elizabeth is dressed. Surely that is not too much to ask.”

  “Calm yourself, Mrs. Astley. I have just come, as usual, to bid my stepdaughter good morrow. I mean no harm. Elizabeth knows that, don’t you, my lady?”

  Elizabeth was praying he could not see through the thicker linen chemise that she had deemed it safer to wear in bed.

  “Yes, my lord,” she said distractedly. “But I should prefer it if you came later.”

  “Indeed?” he asked quizzically, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Naturally, I shall do what I know Your Grace to prefer.”

  Elizabeth felt the heat rising to her face. This was no innocent game. He knew, she realized; he knew how she felt about him, and he was taking full advantage of it. But why? she asked herself. He loved the Queen, didn’t he?

  Or had he loved her, Elizabeth, all along? Her heart leapt at the thought.

  Later that day, Elizabeth received a note from the Admiral. It was brief but it made her tremble.

  If you are still abed when I come to you in the mornings, I will bend you over a chair and give you the beating you deserve! he had written. Then underneath, he had added, Of course, I but jest, but a father ought from time to time to remind his daughter of her duty.

  Kat had received a note too.

  “Ooh, the very brazenness of the man!” she cried.

  “What does it say?” Elizabeth asked, her heart still racing.

  “He asks—oh, for shame, the naughty man—if my great buttocks, as he puts it, have grown any less or no!”

  “That is so rude!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “What a strange thing to write.”

  “I know why he wrote it,” Kat said. “The other day I was saying to the Queen that I should restrict my diet, as I have put on weight around my hips, and he overheard me and made some remark about liking women with big buttocks. Her Grace just laughed, but I told him off, saying he should not speak thus before ladies. This”—she waved the note—“is his revenge. Oh, the wicked knave!”

  Elizabeth had crumpled her own note, which was now concealed in her sweating hand.

  “Did you get a letter too?” Kat asked.

  “No,” she lied. She could not face Kat’s reaction, or risk her showing such a note to the Queen.

  It was at Seymour Place, the Admiral’s fine London town house, whither they had removed so that Chelsea Palace could be cleansed, that Kat began to be really alarmed by his behavior.

  The morning visits had seemingly ceased, much to her relief.

  “Thank goodness the Admiral has put a stop to that nonsense,” she said to Elizabeth.

  Elizabeth said nothing.

  Then suddenly, one morning, Thomas burst into her bedchamber, wearing just his nightgown, beneath which he was bare-legged in his slippers. Elizabeth, already up and dressed, raised startled eyes from her book, astonished to see him there. Immediately, her face reddened, for the nightgown was only loosely tied, and it was gaping slightly open. Hastily, she lowered her eyes.

  Kat, seeing what Elizabeth had seen, swooped down on the Admiral like an avenging angel.

  “For shame, sir! It is unseemly to come to a maiden’s chamber so improperly dressed!”

  The Admiral wrapped his nightgown more tightly about himself. His face registered anger at Kat’s outburst.

  “I must insist you leave at once, sir!” she went on, undeterred. “I have my Lady Elizabeth’s reputation to consider.”

  Without a word, the Admiral left the room, slamming the door behind him. He did not appear in his nightgown again.

  Yet he would not desist. Back at Chelsea, he came again and again, every morning.

  “How much earlier will he come?” cried Elizabeth, who had taken to getting up well before dawn so as to be dressed and ready when he arrived. “I may as well stay up all night at this rate!”

  By now, though, the maidens had talked and the other household servants were beginning to notice what was going on; Kat had already heard some bawdy gossip in the kitchens, and a couple of the Queen’s ladies had made very pointed remarks about Kat’s failure to put a stop to the Admiral’s antics. That hurt, because she had tried, many times, to do just that, even though it had been in vain. He was the master of the house and he just would not listen. Nothing deterred him.

  Then came the morning when Elizabeth awoke to see him bending over her, grinning purposefully.

  “A kiss, my fair maiden!” he demanded, puckering his lips in anticipation.

  “No!” cried Kat, emerging from the inner door and advancing on the bed. “I beg you, sir, go away, for shame!”

  “Go away?” he growled in mock rage. “Nay! I will claim a kiss from my stepdaughter, my good woman, and then I will go away.”

  Kat stood her ground.

  “Forgive me, sir, but I have my lady’s reputation to protect,” she insisted. “You should know that because of these morning visits, the servants are saying evil things about her—and about you too, my lord!”

  The Admiral frowned.

  “Are they? By God’s precious soul, I will teach them not to gossip. They shall hear from me! I mean no evil, so I will not leave off. On the contrary, I will report to my brother the Protector how I am slandered. And then there will be some merry repercussions, I’ll warrant.”

  After he was gone, slamming the door in his anger, Kat stood there shaking. It had all gone too far, and she knew herself to have been in some way to blame. Yet she had tried to put a stop to the morning romps, had tried to rein in the Admiral’s boisterousness. Deep within herself, though, she was aware she had not tried hard enough; that she had obtained a vicarious pleasure from the interplay between him and Elizabeth. She had been thrilled to see the pleasure on Elizabeth’s face, to observe her flushed responses to my lord’s horseplay, and to feast her eyes on the handsome rogue as he plied his charms. And so she, Kat, had tacitly encouraged the Admiral, pretending to herself that her inferior rank rendered her powerless to resist his intrusions.

  Well, she must delude herself no longer. It had to stop, or Elizabeth’s reputation would be lost, her very life endangered even. Her dear little lady was being dreadfully compromised, and the spreading gossip was changing something that was essentially harmless into something awful. People might even think that Elizabeth was encouraging the Admiral…

  Well, there was something Kat could do: She could tell the Queen.



  Why, Mrs. Astley, this is a pleasant surprise.”

  Queen Katherine looked up from the letter she had been writing and smiled. She was well aware of the governess’s jealousy, but knew it to be unfounded. In fact, she felt sorry for the poor woman.

  “Your Grace, I would speak with you on a matter of some delicacy,” Kat said.

  Katherine laid
down her pen and rose.

  “Do sit down, please,” she said, taking a seat on the settle and indicating that Kat should join her. Kat sat down stiffly.

  “Now,” said Katherine, looking concerned. “What is the matter?”

  “Your Grace, forgive me, it’s my Lord Admiral,” Kat began hesitantly. “It’s all innocent, of course, and he means no harm, I know that, but he will come of a morning to my Lady Elizabeth’s chamber to bid her good morrow, and sometimes he comes when she is still abed and tickles or smacks her in play, as one would a child. But, madam, she is no longer a child, and the servants are talking. I have tried to tell him that it is unseemly, disporting himself thus with a great girl of fourteen, but he will not listen. Instead, he gets angry and threatens to complain to the Lord Protector that he is being slandered.”

  Katherine quickly collected her wits. Kat’s words had plunged her into turmoil. Was it all as innocent as Kat claimed? Of course it was, it was merely Tom being his larger-than-life self. She must believe that, and not doubt his motives. Truly, she had no other cause to doubt him: He was as attentive and loving as ever, if not more so. A faint flush warmed her cheeks as she remembered last night’s lovemaking.

  “Fret not, Mrs. Astley,” she said calmly. “I make no matter of this, and neither should you. I know my lord means well, even if he goes about things a little clumsily, and that he would do nothing to compromise my Lady Elizabeth’s reputation.”

  “I hear what you say, madam, but however innocent, these visits cannot be allowed to continue,” Kat protested. “People are talking.”

  “Well, I think I know how to put a stop to that,” Katherine smiled. “I myself will accompany the Admiral whenever he visits the Lady Elizabeth’s chamber of a morning. Will that set your mind at rest?”

  “I am most grateful, madam,” Kat told her, irate with herself for responding to Katherine’s charm. Nevertheless, she felt relieved. As long as the Queen was present, there could be no suspicion of anything improper. Her little lady was safe.

  They had come to Hanworth, one of the Queen’s dower properties, for a change of scene. Elizabeth was delighted to discover that it had once belonged to her mother.

  “All those terracotta roundels that you see were put in place for her,” the Queen said as they strolled around the beautiful gardens, pausing to admire the birds in the aviary or pick a strawberry from the lush beds near the orchard.

  “I love the antick style,” Elizabeth enthused.

  “The steward told me that your father remodeled the house in that style to please your mother,” Katherine told her. The girl’s eyes were shining.

  “It is a lovely place,” she breathed. “I can tell you this, madam—I feel close to my mother here. I wish I had known her better. I can hardly remember her. Did you ever meet her?”

  “Not personally, for I was rarely at court before I married the King, but I saw her at her coronation, which I attended with my second husband, Lord Latimer,” Katherine recalled. “She was pregnant with you then, and she looked very fine in her rich white gown. I remember that she had very long hair—so long, she could sit on it.” Katherine refrained from mentioning the scurrilous jibes of observers, who had thought it scandalous that a woman so great with child should have appeared in public in the white robes and flowing hair that betokened virginity. Nor did she tell Elizabeth that there had been few to cheer Anne Boleyn, who had never been popular.

  “I wish I could have seen her,” Elizabeth said wistfully. “Alas, it is so sad to be an orphan, and have neither mother nor father.”

  “Neither of them would have wanted you to be sad,” Katherine said. “Life goes on, you know, and there are compensations to be found. We cannot keep harking back to the past.”

  “I fear I have been guilty of that,” Elizabeth confessed with a wry smile.

  “Don’t you think that you have worn mourning for long enough?” the Queen asked gently, eyeing Elizabeth’s black gown. “Court mourning ended weeks ago. It is six months now since the King died.”

  “I am his daughter,” Elizabeth said. “I but wish to honor his memory.”

  “Then you must think ill of me,” Katherine replied ruefully, looking down at her own yellow dress.

  “I could never think ill of you, dear madam!” Elizabeth protested. “I am happy for you. But I wish to wear my mourning for a little longer.”

  “I respect your wishes,” her stepmother assured her, “but you are young and pretty, and youth should not be constrained to somber colors. No one will blame you if you put off your weeds.”

  “I will think on it,” Elizabeth promised.

  Since the Queen had insisted on accompanying him, the Admiral’s morning excursions to see his stepdaughter had become less frequent. At Hanworth, however, they arrived together one day, in a mischievous mood, and found Elizabeth still abed.

  “Let’s tickle her!” the Admiral cried. Katherine bent and, giggling, lightly tickled the slender white foot that was protruding from the bedclothes. But Thomas was bolder and made for his victim’s armpits and ribs.

  “Your Grace! My lord! I pray you desist!” cried Kat, as Elizabeth lay there in helpless spasms, clutching her sides.

  “Calm yourself, Mrs. Astley, it is but sport!” cried the Admiral. “Look at her, she’s enjoying it!”

  “I think she’s had enough,” Katherine said, still laughing breathlessly. “Do as Mrs. Astley says, Tom, and desist!”

  Tom ceased tormenting Elizabeth, but bent and gave her a parting tap on the bottom. Katherine frowned but said nothing.

  “I think we will take a picnic in the gardens today,” the Admiral announced. “My Lady Elizabeth, I trust you will join us?”

  Elizabeth sat up in the bed, her long red tresses streaming about her shoulders.

  “Aye, my lord, if you promise not to tickle me again,” she challenged, her reddened face a mask of mock fury.

  “Granted!” Thomas chuckled. “And wear that black gown you had on yesterday. It becomes you so.”

  “Tom!” murmured the Queen reprovingly. Kat caught the glance that passed between them. Was the Admiral up to something?

  “Come, my love,” he said to the Queen, “we will see the Lady Elizabeth after her lessons have finished.” And with that, they departed.

  The game pie had been excellent, Elizabeth thought, dabbing her napkin to her mouth. Before her, the remains of the picnic lay spread out on the table, and above her the trees sighed gently in the breeze. The servants had been dismissed, and there were just the three of them in the garden, herself, the Queen, and the Admiral.

  “Some Rhenish, my lady?” the Admiral offered.

  “Thank you, my lord,” she replied.

  The Queen leaned back in her chair, savoring the warmth of the sun on her face, and looked dreamily across at her husband as he refilled her goblet.

  “Don’t go to sleep!” he commanded, his eyes alive with mischief. “I thought we could all play tag to work off that very rich food your cooks prepared.”

  “Tag?” repeated Katherine. “It’s too hot for that. Later.”

  “Nonsense!” retorted Thomas.

  “Oh, yes, please!” cried Elizabeth. There was little she loved more than vigorous exercise in the open air. “Can I be It?”

  “Naturally, my lady. Your wish is my command!” the Admiral said with a flourish. “Come, Kate, don’t be lazy! Up you get! This is to be a special game, remember?”

  “Oh, very well.” The Queen smiled, rising. “But don’t let it get too out of hand.”

  Elizabeth went and hid in a little arbor ringed by trees. After she had counted slowly to twenty, she emerged and looked about her. Was that a patch of scarlet she could see through the privet hedge? Both the Queen and the Admiral were wearing scarlet. On tiptoe, she padded toward it.

  “Got you!” cried Thomas, coming up from behind and pinioning her by the arms. “Kate! I’ve got her!”

  The Queen, giggling, appeared from behind a fountain.

  “But I’m supposed to catch you!” Elizabeth protested, struggling.

  “Ah, but this is a new version of the game, which I myself devised,” the Admiral informed her. “You see, my Lady Elizabeth, I am weary of looking at you in that dreary black gown, and Her Grace here agrees with me that it is time for you to wear something more becoming to a young lady of your age and station.”

  “My lord, that is none of your business,” Elizabeth said as firmly as she could, a little outraged at his boldness, yet trembling at the shock of feeling his body against hers. There was a strange hardness pressing against her lower back.

  “It is my business, since I am your guardian,” he told her, his breath hot on her neck. “Now, Kate, hold her fast, while I make sure that she is never seen in this monstrosity again.”

  The Queen, still laughing, caught Elizabeth by the hands and held her tightly as the Admiral produced a large pair of scissors and proceeded to cut and slash at her gown. At first, she tried to resist and struggle, but she was fearful that the blades might jab or injure her, so she let him do as he would as she stood there, torn between laughter and tears, and giggling helplessly, as was the Queen. Soon, her skirt, or what was left of it, was hanging in tatters, her sleeves were ripped to pieces, and the seams of her bodice were left hanging by threads. She realized she was out in public wearing not much more than a chemise, petticoat, and corset.

  Embarrassment made her giggle. Her tormentors were shaking with mirth.

  “This is a fine game!” cried the Admiral. His fingers were dangerously near her left breast as he made further inroads upon her bodice. The Queen, seeing this, suddenly ceased laughing.

  “I think she’s had enough,” she declared breathlessly. “Stop now, my lord! The poor child is all but naked! I didn’t think you would be this enthusiastic.” She let go of Elizabeth’s hands and pushed her husband away, only half playfully.

  “You must forgive my lord’s boisterousness,” she told Elizabeth, “and take this in good part, child, for we both felt it was high time you put off your mourning. We but thought to make it easier for you by turning it into a game, and we are quite private here, so no one can see. Tell Mrs. Astley that I will replace the gown with another, finer one, and that petticoat too—it’s torn.”

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