The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Elizabeth nodded, aware that the Admiral’s eyes were straying to the low neckline of her chemise.

  “I thank you, madam,” she said unsteadily, then turned and walked away with as much dignity as she could muster. Behind her, on the gravel, lay jagged strips of black cloth.

  “Your Grace, I must protest!”

  An outraged Mrs. Astley stood quivering with anger before the Queen.

  “That gown had been cut into a hundred pieces and more! And my Lady Elizabeth was left to walk back to the house in just her underclothing. In truth, madam, the cutting of the dress by my lord was bad enough, but Elizabeth tells me that you were a party to it by holding her fast. Really, madam, I know not what to say to you…”

  “It was but a harmless frolic, Mrs. Astley,” the Queen soothed. “Maybe we went a little further than we had intended, and if so I am sorry for it. I have offered to replace the gown.”

  “It was a mourning gown,” Kat said aggrievedly, looking perilously near to tears. “Worn in memory of the late king, your husband.”

  Katherine did not like the tone of Kat’s voice as she said that. It was meant as a rebuke, she was sure. And perhaps, she thought wearily, she deserved it.

  “My lord and I felt that the child had gone on wearing mourning much longer than was necessary,” she felt obliged to explain. “It was precisely because it was a mourning gown that my lord devised the prank. He desired to show my Lady Elizabeth that life goes on and that she need not waste her youth in somber clothing. That is all. If we have offended her, and you, I am truly sorry.”

  Kat sniffed. She was not deceived, even if the Queen was.

  “These romps must stop, madam,” she said firmly.

  “I promise you I will see to it,” Katherine assured her. She now had the uncomfortable feeling that it had been inappropriate to behave as she had, even though Tom had made it seem harmless enough at the time. In short, she was ashamed of herself. She must beware of his unruliness, and seek to curb it, not abet it, for in so doing she had willingly been led to abandon all sense of decorum. In fact, the whole episode had left her feeling distinctly uneasy…

  “My Lady Elizabeth, your cousin Lady Jane Grey is here,” the Queen said, her arm around the richly dressed child whose red hair was so like Elizabeth’s own. But whereas the adolescent Elizabeth was tall, slender, clear-skinned, and confident, the nine-year-old Jane was small and thin with a mass of freckles and a wary expression.

  “Cousin, you are welcome,” Elizabeth greeted the younger girl, extending a hand then impulsively kissing her on both cheeks.

  “Lady Jane is going to live with us, as the Admiral has made her his ward,” Katherine explained. “Jane is of course too young to share lessons with you, so she will have her own tutors.”

  She turned to the child and caressed her cheek.

  “I hope you will be very happy here, Jane,” she said warmly. Jane looked up at her with puppy-like devotion.

  “Perhaps you would care to show Jane around the house, Elizabeth,” Katherine suggested.

  “Of course. Come, Jane. No wait, first I will show you this.” Elizabeth picked up the book she had been reading. It was a volume of Italian poetry that Master Ascham had sent her.

  “Master Ascham corresponds with me regularly,” she said proudly.

  “The famous Master Ascham?” Jane echoed. She too, Elizabeth knew well, was an avid scholar. “I do envy you, Cousin.”

  “Perchance you will meet him someday,” said Elizabeth generously, basking in Jane’s admiration. As she led her from room to room, she took great pleasure in displaying her own knowledge and did her best to impress her young acolyte.

  “Why did the Admiral make you his ward?” she asked Jane.

  “He has promised my father he will make a great marriage for me,” Jane told her.

  “With whom?” Elizabeth wanted to know.

  “They have not yet told me,” Jane said, “and I really do not care too much. I am just so happy to be living under the Queen’s roof.”

  Elizabeth had heard Queen Katherine say that Jane’s parents were unkind to her. She felt sorry for her, and understood why she was grateful to have been made the Admiral’s ward.

  “I wonder whom the Admiral has in mind,” she said aloud. “A great match! It might be to one of the Lord Protector’s sons.”

  “I should prefer not to marry at all,” Jane said. “I should like to be left in peace with my books and my tutors.”

  “I felt like that once,” Elizabeth confided, thinking about the Admiral and feeling the familiar thrill of excitement. “But now I am not so sure, and it seems to me that there is much to be said for the love of a good man. You may find, little Cousin, that you too change your mind as you grow older.”

  “Whether I change it or not, I must do as my parents command in the matter,” Jane said sadly.

  “Well, it is a long way off,” Elizabeth consoled her. “Anything can happen in the next few years. Let us make the most of our time in the Queen’s household.”

  Jane was entranced by Elizabeth, and took to trailing her like a devoted hound. Elizabeth enjoyed showing off to the younger girl, being as worldly-wise as she dared, and when they were alone together, she would swear great oaths just for the pleasure of seeing Jane’s reaction; that made her feel very daring and grown-up. Jane would giggle in horror and hide her face in her hands.

  “You would be beaten for that if anyone hears you,” she warned.

  “God’s blood, they would never be so bold!” Elizabeth swore again. “No one gets beaten in this house. Everything is devoted to happiness and pleasure.”

  “In truth, I think I am in Heaven,” Jane said. “I was beaten often at home. My parents are very strict.”

  “Well, you won’t be beaten here,” Elizabeth reiterated. “Now, would you like to come and see my fine gowns? The Queen has just bought me a new one.”

  “It grows dark in here,” Master Grindal observed. “I think I will light another candle.”

  Elizabeth gazed out the study window at the November twilight. The evenings were drawing in fast now, and even the crackling fire in the brazier could not banish the chill in the air. She bent her head again to the passage from Tacitus that she was translating into French.

  “I think we should finish now,” Grindal said. “Supper will be ready soon.”

  “I will just complete this paragraph,” Elizabeth told him, not looking up as he left the room. Minutes later, she laid her quill down.

  She was glad to be alone with her thoughts. They had been in turmoil all day. For many weeks, in fact since Kat had complained about the dress incident, the Admiral and the Queen had desisted from visiting her in the mornings. Instead, she had exchanged greetings with them at table as they broke their fast after morning prayers. That was right and proper, Kat had told her.

  In truth, she had missed the excitement of the Admiral’s appearances in her chamber, the anticipation of his coming, and the heady feelings generated by his obvious admiration for her. She still looked to see him wherever she was in the house, and loved nothing more than to feast her eyes on his debonair features or delight in his vibrant personality. It was the sweetest of torments to be with him and be constrained by the bounds of courtesy and social convention.

  Was this love? she asked herself. The love of which the poets wrote? She did not know. The Admiral did not act the ardent suitor with her, adoring her from afar and lamenting the fact that she was far above him and would therefore never condescend to love him. That was how lovers were expected to behave, at least in the romances she had read. No, he had proceeded boldly, and overfamiliarly, and that—if she spoke the truth—was what she admired about him. In fact, his directness thrilled her. But did it betoken love?

  She had often caught his eye upon her, often felt his hand on her arm or her waist, casually, as it were, during the everyday course of life. Naturally she had doubted there would ever be more between them, for he was happily married to t
he Queen.

  Or so she had thought. Until today.

  Wrapped in her thick cloak, she had been taking her usual lone morning walk in the gardens, striding briskly in the misty chill along frost-rimed paths shaded by skeletal trees. And there he had been, coming toward her, his eyes wicked with intent. Had he known she would be there? she wondered afterward. It was no secret that she liked to take the air before lessons began.

  He bowed, observing protocol, as ever, and doffed his ridiculously large plumed bonnet.

  “My Lady Elizabeth! I do declare, the cold has lent your cheeks a becoming hue!”

  “It is exertion, my lord,” she answered guardedly, refusing to acknowledge his courtly speech and thinking that Kat would have a fit if she knew they were alone together with no one else in sight. “A healthy long walk each day is good for you.”

  “You are good for me,” he said, to her mingled horror and joy, and without preamble he stepped forward, clasped his arms about her waist, and drew her to him. “In faith, I have never been so stirred by a woman. I cannot bear this charade any longer.”

  “My lord!” Elizabeth broke away, striving to resist the treacherous responses of her body and her feelings. “You must not say such things, and I must not hear them. You are a married man, and I have my reputation to consider. What you are thinking is madness.”

  “Such a sweet madness!” Thomas breathed, holding his hands out in a helpless attitude. “My lady, I am consumed by my desire for you. I can think of nothing but you.”

  “Be quiet, sir!” Elizabeth commanded desperately. “This is wrong.” She was saying it to convince herself as much as him.

  “To deny it would be wrong,” he replied, gripping her shoulders and gazing intensely into her eyes. “I love you,” he said. “Don’t pretend you haven’t been aware of that. You may be a child in years, but I can sense you are as old as the hills in wisdom when it comes to bewitching the opposite sex.”

  “I beg of you, sir,” Elizabeth pleaded desperately, putting his hands from her. “Remember that you have a wife, the kindest lady there could be. I would not hurt her for the world, and you are sworn to faithfulness.”

  “She need not know.” The Admiral smiled. “We can be discreet. Don’t pretend you don’t want me. I can see it in your eyes, as plain as day.”

  “What I want is of no consequence!” Elizabeth cried, feeling the tears welling and turning to go. But he grasped her wrist and twisted her around to face him again.

  “I will have you,” he said, his eyes dark and determined, “I will have you, if I have to go to Hell for it and burn for all eternity. And then you will learn that what lies between us is of the greatest consequence.”

  “No, sir, you will not!” Elizabeth said, with far more firmness than she was feeling.

  “We will see, my fine princess,” the Admiral retorted, letting her go. “Who was it said she wanted to live and die a virgin? I think not!”

  “Oh, you are hateful, my lord!” she flung at him, then ran back to the house, leaving the sound of his laughter behind her.

  From an upper window, the Queen stared, her heart faltering. She had witnessed the whole scene from afar off, watching her husband and her stepdaughter, like tiny puppets, moving together then apart, then together again, their gestures implying desire on his part and conflict on hers. Then the girl had, quite clearly, fled.

  Katherine sat down on the bed. She had had her suspicions, but had loyally suppressed them. Mrs. Astley had been suspicious too, but she herself had dismissed that as groundless, God forgive her. Now she knew.

  The knowledge lay as heavy as a stone, crushing all that was precious in her life. She wanted to weep, to scream, but she found she was in the grip of a terrifying inertia, and unable even to raise her head. What to do? What could she do? What dare she do?

  The habit, acquired over long years, of putting the needs of others first came to her rescue now. Her duty lay clear. She must protect the royal child who had been entrusted to her care.

  She must confront her husband.

  Tom strode in, throwing his cloak and bonnet across a bench. He noticed his wife, sitting unusually still on the bed. Something in her countenance alarmed him.

  “Are you feeling all right, Kate?” he asked concernedly.

  “I am well in body, I think,” she replied slowly, raising sad, reproachful eyes to him. “In heart, I fear I am not so sure. What was your business in the garden with my Lady Elizabeth?”

  “My Lady Elizabeth?” Tom repeated, playing for time and striving to think up a credible explanation. Katherine was watching his face intently.

  “Why, Sweetheart,” he said, sitting down beside her and taking her hand, “there is no need to vex yourself. When I met the Lady Elizabeth, she was in great distress and I got her to confide her worries to me. That was all. Would you not have had me offer a little fatherly comfort?”

  Katherine’s shoulders were poised to sag with relief. Dare she believe him? She badly needed to. She might have gravely misjudged him, after all, thinking him faithless when he had probably been trying to be kind. He was a tactile person, after all.

  “Why was she so distressed?” she asked. “She seemed in good heart last night.”

  “It is a man, I fear,” the Admiral told her, thinking rapidly.

  “A man? Who dares presume so far?” Katherine cried angrily.

  “Alas, I know not, for she would not say,” Tom replied. “But I have seen him for myself. I have seen them together.”

  “When?” Katherine demanded of him. She was deeply shocked.

  “You know that little window that overlooks the long gallery? I espied them from there. They were embracing; I fear she had her arms about his neck.”

  “Embracing? And you never told me?” She was aghast. “Tom, I am her guardian.”

  “Ah, Kate, but I did not then know it was Elizabeth. At first I thought it might be, but I could not see the girl’s face, only her red hair, and she was wearing a dark cloak. Then I remembered that red-haired wench in your chamber, and I just assumed it was her. But just now, Elizabeth confessed to me that it had indeed been she.”

  He could not be making this up, Katherine thought. He would not dare. The matter was too serious.

  “This is appalling,” she said. “Has she told you who the man is?”

  “She would not, I fear,” Tom said, breathing easier now. “I tried all manner of ways to get her to confess, but she steadfastly refused.”

  “And just how far has this relationship progressed?” Katherine wanted to know.

  “No further, she has assured me. In fact, the gentleman has withdrawn his affections from her. That was why she was so distressed.”

  “I must send for Mrs. Astley,” the Queen said, rising.

  The governess’s face registered shock.

  “In faith, Your Grace, I knew nothing of this,” she declared unhappily.

  “It seems we neither of us have been vigilant enough,” Katherine said. “But that it should come to this! I pray the girl has spoken truth, and that she has indeed emerged as unscathed as she claims.”

  “I will talk to her, madam, at once.”

  “Please do. And please say that I insist she divulges the name of this unspeakable knave.”

  “Oh, I will, never fear, madam.” Kat was almost beside herself. “Yet who could it have been? There comes no man near this house save the servants, and surely she would not have stooped so low? That leaves just Master Grindal, and he’s a dried-up old stick of a man if ever there was one. I cannot imagine him entertaining a single lustful thought.”

  “He’s a man,” observed the Queen tartly, “and therefore we cannot rule him out. But it’s unlikely, I agree.”

  “Let me talk to her, madam,” Kat said. “I’ll go and find her now.”

  After she had gone, Katherine still felt agitated. Whatever had gone on in the garden, it did not bode well for any of them. Yet if Elizabeth did deny having any dealings with this mys
terious suitor, and something really had gone on between her and Tom, then learning that she, Katherine, was aware of what had happened in that garden might well jolt the girl into a belated awareness that it must cease.

  In truth, Katherine did not know which possibility appalled her the most: the thought that Elizabeth had been compromised by a member of her own household, with all the implications that that threatened; or the prospect of Tom having lied to her, to cover up his own wicked pursuit of the girl.

  “My lady,” Kat said, appearing at the study door.

  Elizabeth and her tutor looked up from their books. Grindal wondered why the governess was giving him such an odd look.

  “Begging your pardon, Master Grindal, but could you spare my Lady Elizabeth for a moment?”

  “Of course, Mrs. Astley,” he replied, hoping for enlightenment but receiving none.

  Elizabeth rose, puzzled, and followed Kat to her bedchamber. Whatever was wrong? Kat rarely interrupted lessons—Elizabeth couldn’t recall the last occasion that had happened. Then she remembered the scene in the garden with the Admiral, and her heart plummeted. They had been discovered!

  Shutting the door, Kat turned steely eyes on her.

  “I have just seen the Queen,” she said. “She told me something that has greatly disturbed me.”

  Elizabeth groaned inwardly. This was proving to be even worse than she had expected.

  “What did she say?” she asked, feigning an innocent expression.

  “That you told the Lord Admiral you have been seeing a man.”

  “I?” Elizabeth was stunned. “I never said any such thing to him.” She looked genuinely amazed.

  “The Queen said you were seen with him, embracing in the gallery. It was the Admiral himself who saw you.”

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