The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “Naturally, you must submit to your guardian’s judgment,” Ascham conceded.

  “I have every intention of doing so, provided she agrees with my choice!” Elizabeth replied, laughing. “I will go to London myself and persuade her, if need be! And you, Master Ascham, will you go back to the university at Cambridge and ask for leave of absence to join the Queen’s household?”

  “Are you that certain of success, my lady?” Ascham asked, bemused.

  “Never doubt it!” Elizabeth told him.

  “That’s a lot of work,” observed Kat doubtfully, regarding the piles of books on the study table. Roger Ascham smiled.

  “Not at all, madam,” he replied. “Those will keep us busy for a long time. You will learn that I am no believer in cramming. If you pour too much drink into a goblet, the most part will run over the sides.”

  Kat nodded, satisfied.

  Lessons with Master Ascham, for Elizabeth, were a joy. She was delighted to discover that his favorite Latin author was Cicero. She loved to read the letters Ascham received from the wide circle of European intellectuals with whom he corresponded. She thrilled to his praise for her command of Latin and Greek and her knowledge of the classics.

  “You read more Greek in a day than most doctors of the Church do in a week!” he told her.

  The mornings were spent in the company of Sophocles and Isocrates, the afternoons fencing with Livy and Cicero, or studying theology. When lessons were over, tutor and pupil often indulged in their shared passion for riding and hunting, cantering out into the fields beyond the palace, come sunshine, rain, or snow. In the evenings, Elizabeth would practice on her lute or her virginals—Katherine Parr had presented her with a beautifully crafted set that had belonged to her mother and bore Anne’s device of a white falcon. They were among Elizabeth’s most prized possessions, along with the portrait of Anne that now hung openly in her bedchamber, and the initial pendant in her jewel coffer.

  Elizabeth was quick to notice that Master Ascham often appeared to be scrutinizing her clothes.

  “What are you looking at, sir?” she asked one day, seeing a slight frown appear on his brow as he regarded her damask rose silk gown and costly gold chains, the latter a gift from the Queen.

  “May I speak freely, my lady?” he asked.

  “Of course,” she agreed.

  “Godly Protestant maidens usually wear simple apparel,” he said.

  Elizabeth looked down at her dress. It suddenly seemed rather extravagant, with its silver undersleeves, bejeweled girdle, and pearl trim around the neckline. And the five rings on her slender fingers…She found that she was embarrassed. It occurred to her that pious little Jane Grey invariably favored black clothing uncluttered by much jewelry, even though she came from a wealthy background. And Queen Katherine too—she had lately taken to wearing more sober colors, even though the fabrics were rich, and fewer pieces of jewelry. What must Master Ascham be thinking of her, Elizabeth, still got up in her gaudy finery? She cared very much for his good opinion.

  “Wait!” she said impulsively, and sped away to her bedchamber.

  “Where’s my black velvet gown?” she asked an astonished Kat.

  “Why, my lady, has somebody died?” the governess cried in alarm.

  “Nay. I am but come to my senses, thanks to Master Ascham. Ladies who follow God’s word must dress themselves simply and modestly.” She was ripping off her necklace and rings.

  Kat shook her head. The young were prone to fads and odd ideas, she knew. It just wasn’t worth arguing with Elizabeth when she was in one of her determined moods. Better to indulge her fancy than provoke a tantrum. Bemused, she lifted the black gown off its peg in the closet, helped Elizabeth to change, and stood lacing it up at the back.

  When Elizabeth presented herself again in the study, Master Ascham was gratified to see the change in her—and not a little disturbed. In the severe but elegant black gown, with its low, unadorned square neckline, tight bodice, and full skirts, and with her red hair loose about her shoulders, Elizabeth looked the epitome of a godly Protestant maiden—and unsettlingly seductive.

  She espied him looking intently at her.

  “Do I look godly enough now, Master Ascham?” she asked.

  “Indeed you do, my lady,” he replied. “The epitome of virtue.”

  “Yes,” she said, reflecting with some shame on how, of late, she had been tempted to stray from the path of virtue. One could not look the part and be something quite other underneath. She meant it when she added, “Not only am I determined to dress soberly from now on but also to lead a sober life, and control whatever ungodly emotions and desires may come upon me.”

  She did not realize how soon this new resolve would be tested.

  “Why, my Lady Elizabeth,” the Admiral said, encountering her on the stairs, “you are a vision of perfection!” His eyes raked her partly exposed bosom.

  “Thank you, my lord,” she replied, basking in his naked admiration, yet willing him to let her pass, knowing that she dared not trust herself to be alone with him for long lest she betray her inner turmoil. For the madness—it could not be sanity to feel thus, she told herself—was still within her, feeding on regular contact with the beloved one, feasting on the sight of him and the sound of his voice. Since their near-catastrophic meeting in the garden, the Admiral had kept his distance, had no longer come to her chamber in the mornings. Yet despite his playing the devoted husband to the Queen, Elizabeth was aware, from the smoldering looks he gave her, that he still burned for her—as, despite her resolve, she still did for him, God help her.

  Thomas raised his hand and gently touched her hair. His touch was like a shock to her senses, and instinctively she clutched that hand and put it away from her.

  He was staring at her longingly, saying nothing—not needing to—and she knew she must break that gaze and proceed on her way. But she could not; she stayed there, rooted to the step, just that little bit too long.

  Katherine Parr, hastening down the stairs in her soft shoes on some urgent errand, came upon them thus, standing staring wordlessly at each other, and her appearance abruptly broke the spell.

  “Hello, Kate,” stuttered the Admiral, recovering himself.

  “Is everything well?” the Queen asked sharply.

  “Yes, madam,” whispered Elizabeth. She curtsied and fled upstairs.

  “Of course everything is well,” Tom said evenly.

  Katherine looked long and hard at her husband, then went on her way.

  Elizabeth began to notice, by and by, that the Queen was no longer so warm toward her. Katherine did not seek out her company as often as she once had, and when they were together at table, or during her regular visits to the schoolroom to inspect Elizabeth’s work, she was civil, even pleasant, but these days her smile did not reach her eyes, which always seemed to be regarding her stepdaughter warily. And Katherine looked tired and drawn, too, her joyous spirit no longer much in evidence.

  Thomas Parry, Elizabeth’s cofferer, said as much one day in March when he joined Kat and Elizabeth for a nightcap one evening in the winter parlor. Elizabeth liked this rotund Welshman: He was a bit of a fusspot, but kindly and avuncular, and utterly devoted to her.

  “I must confess I am concerned about the Queen,” he said. “She doesn’t look at all well.”

  Elizabeth, seated at the table, looked up from her book.

  “So I have noticed,” Kat said.

  “She seems distant and preoccupied,” Parry went on, “and she spoke very sharply to the Admiral this morning in the stables. She seemed very vexed with him for some reason.”

  Elizabeth could not help herself. She had to say something. If she did not, she would burst. She could no longer shoulder this burden alone.

  “I think I know why,” she said.

  They both turned to look at her.

  “I fear it is because the Admiral loves me too well, and has done for a long time,” she confessed, “and the Queen is jealous of
us both.”

  “I do not believe it,” exclaimed Parry, shocked.

  “How do you know this, Elizabeth?” Kat asked, looking at her charge closely.

  “The Admiral told me he loved me. That day in the garden. I think the Queen knows of it.” Her cheeks were flaming.

  “He told you?” echoed Kat.

  “Yes. In faith, Kat, I did nothing to encourage him. I got away from him as fast as I could.”

  “Did he touch you in any way?” Kat demanded to know.

  “He has tried once or twice, but each time I pushed him away,” Elizabeth told her. That was the truth, wasn’t it?

  “Then you have done nothing worthy of reproach,” Kat said, relieved.

  Oh, but I have, Elizabeth thought. I have wanted him. I have sinned with him in my thoughts…and might do so in very deed, given the chance. She knew in her heart that her much-vaunted resolve to remain a virgin might easily crumble in the face of his seductive charm.

  “Well, you do amaze me!” commented Master Parry. “I would never have believed it of the Admiral.”

  “He has been after my Lady Elizabeth for a long time,” Kat revealed. “He even asked for her hand after King Henry died. The council put a stop to that, so he married the Queen instead.”

  “And you think the Queen knows of his interest in you, my lady?” Parry asked Elizabeth.

  “I fear so,” she said, shaking her head. “I would it were otherwise. But what can I do?”

  “Nothing, except be watchful of your conduct, and give the Admiral no encouragement whatsoever,” Kat warned her, worried in case the situation was escalating beyond her control; the Admiral might be an attractive man—there was no denying that—but her responsibility was to protect the Lady Elizabeth from harm, and she had the uncomfortable feeling that she herself was in part to blame for what was happening because of her earlier laxness.

  “I would do nothing to hurt the Queen, or injure myself,” Elizabeth assured her.

  The Admiral had arisen at first light and gone to attend to a bitch of his that had whelped the previous day. He had promised Elizabeth one of the puppies, and by God, he would see she got the best one. Of course, Katherine could have one too—they promised to be a fine litter.

  There was a chill in the air, so presently he returned to the privy chamber to don a warmer doublet. He thought he would look in on his wife—she had not been well of late. Some vague malady, of the kind to which women seemed all too susceptible—he hadn’t troubled to inquire too closely. Whatever it was, rest and hearty fare would cure it, of that he was sure.

  But as he entered their bedchamber, he heard the sound of choking. Alarmed, he found Katherine, still in her night robe, retching into a basin.

  “My love!” he cried. “I had no idea…” He held her heaving shoulders and stroked back the damp tendrils of hair from her forehead.

  When the spasms had passed, Katherine wiped her mouth on a towel and sank down on the bed. Tom sat beside her, his face a picture of concern.

  “It is nothing,” she said, smiling weakly. “I am all right.”

  “We must summon a physician,” he insisted.

  “No, Tom, I do not need a physician. You see, I have been sick every morning for a week now, and my courses have stopped. You must know what that betokens. I am going to have a child.”

  “Oh, my love!” Tom exclaimed, and hugged her. “That is the most marvelous news. A child—a son and heir, hopefully! I cannot believe it!”

  “I assure you I can!” Katherine grimaced. “But I am overjoyed. I never thought, at my age, to be so blessed. I have long prayed to be a mother, and now the good Lord has seen fit to answer my prayers.”

  “And mine too,” Tom added. “I have prayed for a son.”

  “It might be a girl,” Katherine reminded him.

  “Whatever it is, I shall be the proudest father alive! So long as you are safely delivered, Kate, and the babe is healthy. We must take good care of you. You must rest and eat well, and not worry about anything.”

  “I see I shall not need a midwife, with you to look after me, my lord!” she laughed. Then her smile faded. “If I were honest, I am a little fearful. I am thirty-six, and that is old to be having my first baby.”

  “Never fear, my darling, we will engage the best midwives and doctors to be found,” Tom promised. “I will make the announcement immediately, and send letters to all our friends.”

  “Whatever you wish.” Katherine smiled, quelling her fears. “But there is one thing else—something that troubles me.”

  “What is it, my love?” Tom was eager to reassure her.

  She swallowed.

  “All is well between us, isn’t it, Tom? I have feared of late that we might be growing apart.”

  “Nonsense!” he declared. “I sense no distancing. It is but the fancy of a breeding woman, I’ll warrant.”

  “Of course,” she agreed, relieved beyond measure. She had imagined it. There was nothing wrong. Her fears were groundless. No philandering husband could react as lovingly as Tom just had to the news that they were to become parents.

  “You rest here,” he told her. “I will go and make the announcement.” Then he added gaily, “What will we call him?”

  “Thomas, of course!” Katherine smiled mischievously. “Or Katherine!”

  The sickness continued unabated for the next month, and so the Queen lay abed late every morning, recovering from its onslaughts.

  Thus the Admiral was free to wreak mischief. Careless of the consequences, for he was consumed with lust and longing, and confident of his charm and his powers of persuasion, he waxed now so hot in the pursuit of his nubile stepdaughter that, always a man to court risks, he believed he would have what he wanted and get away with it.

  And so it was that, one early-spring day, just after dawn, Elizabeth was sliding out of bed when she heard his key in her lock. Kat had not yet appeared, and Thomas’s face when he saw that she was alone was jubilant.

  “My lord,” she began to protest, pulling on her velvet nightgown.

  “Shhh!” he hushed, putting a finger to his lips. “I would speak with you privately.”

  Elizabeth was both appalled and excited.

  “What could you have to say to me that cannot wait?” she challenged, fearing that it was something he had no right to say…

  In a moment, he had crossed the floor and come to stand in front of her, too close for comfort.

  “Elizabeth,” he murmured, “I have been longing to speak to you. I meant what I said all those weeks ago. I love you.” He put his arms around her, enclosing her tightly, and began to whisper into her hair. “I want you…wanting you is torturing me.”

  “Sir!” she protested weakly, knowing that she should push him away but finding that his nearness was too wonderful to resist. “I beg of you…”

  She could feel her body, her treacherous body, responding. A tremor ran through her. Feeling it, Thomas bent her head back and kissed her gently on her mouth. The touch of his lips was sensual, irresistible…

  “Ah, so you want it too,” he chuckled. Then he kissed her harder, pushing his tongue against her teeth and forcing them apart. Elizabeth felt a deep warmth flooding through her, a beautiful lassitude that left her incapable of resistance. The Admiral’s hands were trembling down her back, playing at her waist, and moving daringly over her hips. His touch through the velvet robe and the thin lawn of her chemise was both shocking and glorious. The small voice of wisdom cried out that she should put a stop to this now, but it was drowned out by the swell of great waves of feelings. She responded to the kiss, and let the Admiral’s tongue move insistently in her mouth.

  “Are you up, my lady?” It was Kat’s voice from the inner chamber, calling Elizabeth to her senses. Abruptly, the Admiral let her go and stood panting softly, regarding her admiringly.

  “I must leave,” he mouthed, “but I will be back, never fear.”

  No sooner had he silently closed the door than Kat
came bustling into the chamber with Elizabeth’s clothes. Elizabeth hoped her governess had not noticed her flushed face and dazed expression, and quickly turned her back on Kat, busying herself at the washbasin, slapping a cold damp cloth on her hot cheeks.

  It was all beginning again, she thought. She had had such good intentions, but she had not bargained for the effect the Admiral was having on her senses and her emotions. She honestly did not know how she would summon the strength to resist him.

  “Good morrow, my Lady Elizabeth, Mrs. Astley!”

  Kat stared in horror as the Admiral burst into Elizabeth’s bedchamber the next morning, just as she had finished dressing.

  “Whatever is the matter, Mrs. Astley? You look as if a ghost had just walked over your grave,” Thomas teased her.

  “My lord, this is most improper!” the governess insisted. “My lady could still have been abed.”

  “Mrs. Astley, we have thrashed out these arguments before,” the Admiral said patiently, noticing that Elizabeth was looking at him with undisguised appreciation.

  “Yes, sir, and then you ceased to come here and outrage my lady’s modesty with these visits. I cannot understand why you are back here again. It’s indecent!”

  “Pray tell me what is wrong with a stepfather come to bid his stepdaughter good morrow?” the Admiral asked loftily.

  “With respect, sir, does the Queen know you are here?” Kat asked boldly.

  “Of course she does,” he said, but the furtive look in his eyes gave the lie to it.

  “Well, I will speak to her,” Kat replied. The Admiral groaned inwardly.

  “Nay, do not trouble her, for she is unwell,” he urged.

  “I will see her this afternoon. She is always better in the afternoons,” Kat said defiantly. “If she is content that you come here in the mornings, then I am too. But I must insist that I be present.”

  The Admiral gave her a filthy look and turned on his heel, leaving Elizabeth aching with loss.

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