The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “Yes, I did know,” said Katherine sharply. She had been enjoying a peaceful nap in the parlor, and was not pleased to see Kat standing there before her, asking if she was aware that the Admiral had taken once more to visiting the Lady Elizabeth of a morning.

  But she had not known anything about it, and the news both alarmed and grieved her, although she was not going to reveal that to the governess.

  “Then am I to understand that these visits have Your Grace’s approval?” Kat persisted.

  “They do, Mrs. Astley,” answered Katherine irritably. “Although I think it would be wise, for the sake of the proprieties, if you yourself were present. My lord himself would wish that.”

  “Very well, madam,” Kat said. “I will make sure I am always there.”

  Elizabeth had wandered down to the banks of the Thames, where the water lapped gently at the low stone wall by the landing stage. The Admiral’s barge was tied up at the jetty; he had not long returned from London. The days were really drawing out now, she noticed, watching the sun setting in a pink-and-gold sky. She must return to the palace for supper shortly, but not yet. She was savoring these stolen moments of solitude. The atmosphere in the house was tense. There was a coolness between the Admiral and the Queen, who was still suffering the discomforts of early pregnancy; Katherine was, if anything, chillier in her manner toward Elizabeth; Kat was being as vigilant as a mother hawk; and Elizabeth was all too aware of the Admiral’s smoldering eyes upon her, and of the excitement that welled up in her whenever he came to bid her good morning.

  Kat would probably be looking for her now: She seemed afraid to let Elizabeth out of her sight these days. But Elizabeth did not think that Kat would walk as far as this; Kat had grown plumper of late, and often got out of puff. And besides, the shoreline was concealed by a high privet hedge; she could be private here for a short while.

  And it was there on the riverbank that the Admiral found her, and again took her in his arms, she melting against him as if it were the most right and natural thing in the world. She could not help herself.

  “Elizabeth!” he breathed, between kisses. “I am in torment!”

  “This is wrong,” she murmured brokenly, but the response of her body belied her words.

  “True love can never be wrong,” he said softly.

  “But the Queen…,” she protested feebly.

  “The Queen will never know,” he vowed. “I would not hurt her, especially at this time.”

  His allusion to Katherine’s condition drove a spike of jealousy into Elizabeth’s breast. In her mind, she saw him making love to his wife, impregnating her…The image made her catch her breath. How she, Elizabeth, craved to share that forbidden joy with him. If only she had accepted his proposal of marriage in the first place, she would not be in this sorry situation today. It was not fair.

  The Admiral was kissing her neck, his hands holding her waist in a vise.

  “I must see you alone,” he muttered thickly.

  “It cannot be,” Elizabeth heard herself answering. But it must be, her heart cried. She could bear her need for him no longer.

  “Sunday,” he said low. “I rarely go to the chapel for morning service, so the Queen will not mark my absence. Plead illness—say your courses have come and your belly aches. Then none will suspect us. And get rid of that dragon that guards you. Then I will come to you, and we will not be disturbed.”

  Elizabeth felt a fearful thrill at his words. Surely she was not going to agree to this? She knew it was wrong. But her body was afire with longing and she could not help herself.

  “Say I may come!” he demanded, gripping her tighter, his dark eyes boring into her.

  “You may come,” she whispered, and breaking away from him, she began running back toward the palace, her long hair flying behind her in a coppery stream.

  She would not do it. She would, she could not deny herself. No, she could not. She was in turmoil, her tender conscience warring with her burning desire. Her inborn good sense seemed to have flown out of the window: She could no longer reason with herself. She knew in her heart that she would have the thing she wanted.

  “I think I will lie here awhile today,” Elizabeth said from the depths of her bed. “I do not feel well.”

  “What’s the matter?” Kat inquired, poking her head between the curtains.

  “I have a vile headache,” Elizabeth said. She had thought better of pleading her courses: Kat would soon find her out, for there would be no bloody clouts to dispose of.

  Kat felt her forehead.

  “At least you have no fever.”

  “No, it’s just a megrim.” Elizabeth grimaced, hoping she looked convincing.

  “Do you want me to sit with you?” the governess asked.

  “No, I just want to sleep. Don’t miss the service on my account,” Elizabeth told her.

  “Very well, then; you get some rest,” Kat said soothingly, drawing the curtains together. She busied herself for a bit, laying out Elizabeth’s attire; then the door clicked shut and she was gone. Elizabeth let out a long sigh of relief, counted to ten, then jumped out of bed, splashed some rosewater on her face, and brushed her hair. She dared not change her plain lawn chemise for one with embroidery, for Kat would surely ask why she had done so, and nothing must be allowed to rekindle her suspicions.

  When the Admiral tapped on the door, she was ready, seated in her chair, her black velvet gown on over the thin chemise. She looked striking, he thought, with her flame-colored, wavy hair spread out on her shoulders. True, she was not conventionally beautiful, with her narrow mouth and undeniably hooked nose, but her eyes, so like her mother’s, were knowing and inviting, and her tall, slender body utterly desirable. To add piquancy, she was a King’s daughter into the bargain, and that lent a fillip to Thomas’s lust for her.

  She watched him standing there, looking down on her, his dark eyes brooding and intense. Then suddenly he was kneeling beside her, gathering her into his arms and gently pressing his lips against hers. She was all but lost, still unclear in her mind as to how far she intended to let him go.

  “Sweetheart,” he murmured, nuzzling her ear, then seeking her lips again. “Oh, I have wanted you.”

  She could not answer. If this feeling was love, she did not know how to give it voice. Nor did she resist when he scooped her up in his arms, as if she were as light as feathers, and carried her to the bed, laying her down tenderly among the tumbled sheets. Then he was beside her, his face close to hers, his hands thrusting insistently beneath the velvet gown and stroking her body through the filmy material of her chemise. The feeling was delicious; it made her entwine her arms around his neck ever more tightly.

  The first alarum sounded when he suddenly ripped open her chemise, exposing her small, pointed breasts, and began to kiss and fondle them vigorously before sliding his hands farther down her body, venturing more daring caresses. The sensations his fingers aroused in her were glorious, but suddenly, they ceased, leaving her desperate for more. He was going too fast for her, fumbling with the points of his codpiece, all the while breathing heavily against her face and whispering words she could barely make out. Then hastily he pulled up her chemise, baring her thighs and buttocks to the shock of the cool morning air. Distracted, and suddenly belatedly aware that she was well on the way to committing not only a sin but also high treason, Elizabeth tried to fend him off, but found her young girl’s strength no proof against his aroused masculinity. Blind to her struggles, Thomas was already on top of her, his knees holding her legs apart, then he was forcing himself hugely within her, thrusting backward and forward with increasing vigor. The pain was very great, and she could not stop herself from emitting a series of sharp cries. But the Admiral seemed oblivious, and labored on, his passion ever more urgent. Suddenly he tensed, panting, before the rhythm resumed its urgent pace, faster now, harder, until he climaxed in a series of spasms before suddenly subsiding in a wet, slippery rush, leaving Elizabeth shattered and sore, horri
fied at the knowledge of what had been done to her—and what she had been a party to.

  When the Admiral slumped over her, having seemingly expired from his efforts, she feared he was ill, and wondered frantically what she should do if that indeed proved to be the case. They could not be discovered here like this! Imagine the furor that would provoke! Yet she could not shift him—his weight lay heavy upon her.

  “My lord!” she whispered in a panicked voice. “Wake up! Oh, please wake up!” For answer he opened his eyes and winked lasciviously at her.

  “Well, my princess, did you enjoy that?” he asked lazily.

  Elizabeth had not enjoyed it at all. In fact, it had left her feeling raw, both physically and emotionally. Were women meant to enjoy such intercourse? How could they, when it was both undignified and messy, and had left her strangely unsatisfied and completely unmoved? In short, she felt used—used to gratify a man’s illicit lust. There had been no uplifting feelings of love to sanctify the act.

  Instead, there was only a horrifying awareness of the enormity of what had just transpired. Guilt flooded her; this had been an unforgivable betrayal of her kind stepmother. As soon as the Admiral had rolled over onto his back, she quickly pulled down her torn chemise, with trembling fingers. She was trying to cover her breasts with its tattered remnants when he raised himself onto one elbow, wrapped the other arm around her, and began nuzzling her neck.

  It was then that the door opened, revealing a shocked Queen Katherine standing on the threshold.

  Elizabeth had never seen a man move so fast. The Admiral leapt off the bed, threw a blanket over her, and began fumbling with the laces of his codpiece. She was mortified, more embarrassed than she had ever been in her life, and she dared not look the Queen in the eye. No words were spoken; there was just a terrible, prolonged silence. Then suddenly Katherine was gone, and the Admiral after her, shouting her name.

  “Her Majesty would be obliged, Mrs. Astley, if Your Grace would attend her urgently,” the lady-in-waiting said, her face impassive.

  Kat, just returned from the chapel, was putting away her prayer book. She looked at Elizabeth, who was sitting reading in the chair by the fire.

  “Now whatever can that be about?” she asked.

  Elizabeth, before whose eyes the words were dancing up and down, just shook her head, feigning ignorance. She knew, with a sinking heart, that her misconduct would shortly be uncovered, but she could not bring herself to confide in her governess for she feared the storm it would provoke, and was resolved to delay it for as long as possible.

  Kat hastened to the royal apartments, wondering all the while, and was admitted at once to the Queen’s privy chamber. She found Katherine alone, pacing up and down, her face drawn, her eyes shadowed.

  “Your Majesty.” Kat curtsied.

  The Queen did not ask her to sit down, as she customarily did. Instead, she kept her standing; nor did she herself sit. Clearly she was very agitated.

  “Mrs. Astley, when I asked you to head the Lady Elizabeth’s household here, I had every confidence in you and trusted implicitly in your integrity,” Katherine began, her anger barely suppressed. “But now I find that confidence and trust to have been utterly misplaced.”

  “Madam, whatever—”

  “You will hear me out, Mrs. Astley,” the Queen cut in. “Not half an hour ago, I found my husband in bed with the Lady Elizabeth in her chamber. Both were in an unseemly state of undress.”

  Kat’s hands flew to her mouth to suppress the moan of dismay.

  “I have spoken with my lord, who is all contrition of course, and he has sworn that nothing of moment took place, which is one small mercy for which we can thank God, I suppose. Yet his betrayal and my displeasure apart, think on the gravity of this matter.” Her voice grew urgent. “Elizabeth is second in line to the throne, and a minor under my protection. Her marriage will be a matter of state, and you know very well it is high treason for any man to marry her without the council’s permission, let alone take liberties with her. If I make a public show of my anger—which I have every right to do—the scandal would probably ruin us all.”

  Her ravaged gaze came to rest on Kat; she seemed to be barely holding herself together.

  “It is you whom I hold accountable, Mrs. Astley. True, Elizabeth has behaved disgracefully, and in so doing has shown marked ingratitude for the kindness that I have shown her these many years. To say I am most displeased with her is an understatement. But you, Mrs. Astley—you had the responsibility for the virtuous upbringing of her, and you have clearly failed in your duty, both to Elizabeth and to me!”

  Kat burst into tears; she could not help herself. She was horrified by what the Queen had told her, furious with Elizabeth, and deeply hurt that the girl should have let this happen after all that had been said. And that she should have kept it a secret and put Kat herself in danger…

  “Believe me, madam, I tried to stop the Admiral’s visits, and I did warn you, you must remember,” she protested vehemently. “But you made little account of them. Even so, I made sure I was present whenever he came to my lady’s chamber of a morning. As for today, she told me she was ill, and she did seem so, so I left her in bed. I cannot be held to blame for her misconduct. Rather it is my Lord Admiral’s behavior that is inexcusable, for Elizabeth is but an innocent girl of fourteen, while he is a man of the world.”

  “That is enough!” the Queen cried, her face flaming. “Maybe we are all to blame. The question is, what to do about it? Clearly Elizabeth cannot stay here. I do not want her in my house any longer than is necessary. But where to send her? Whom can we trust?”

  Kat’s mind was racing ahead, turning cartwheels. Hurt and resentful as she was, she yet saw the need to remove her charge to a place of safety. The Queen was right: Elizabeth could not stay here. The Admiral was too dangerous, Katherine too hostile. Elizabeth must not remain one moment more than necessary under their roof.

  “My sister Joan is married to Sir Anthony Denny,” Kat said at length. The Queen would know him well—he had been the head of King Henry’s Privy Chamber, and present at his deathbed. “They have a country house at Cheshunt. I know my sister would be glad to welcome me and my Lady Elizabeth, and that we can rely upon her discretion.”

  Katherine ceased her pacing and sat down at last. She thought for a moment.

  “In truth, that sounds a sensible solution, if the Dennys are willing to help. I will write to them now and ask if Elizabeth may go to stay with them.”

  “Very good, madam,” Kat muttered, still smarting from the Queen’s harsh criticisms, and grieving at their unfairness.

  “You may go now, Mrs. Astley,” Katherine said tersely. No sooner had Kat departed than the Queen ran, retching, to the basin, her tears mingling with the vomit, then sank to her knees, sobbing her heart out.

  “Tell me the truth!” Kat cried in fury, banging the door shut behind her. “What happened between you and the Admiral?”

  Elizabeth started shaking. Never had she seen Kat so moved to anger.

  “Nothing of any moment,” she faltered. Well, that was the truth: It had been nothing of any moment to her. Yet she knew that was not the answer to Kat’s question.

  “How far did he go?” Kat demanded.

  Elizabeth hesitated.

  “Not very far,” she answered. Kat’s eyes narrowed.

  “What did he do?” she persisted.

  “He just cuddled me, and kissed me,” Elizabeth murmured.

  “I was told that his codpiece was unlaced,” Kat said, grim. “Did he expose himself to you?”

  “No,” Elizabeth replied, blushing hotly. Her voice was almost inaudible.

  “Do you expect me to believe that you were both there, half undressed on the bed, and nothing happened beyond kissing and cuddling?”

  “Nothing else happened, I promise you,” Elizabeth lied.

  “Well, I hope that is the truth,” Kat said, half disbelieving.

  “It is,” Elizabeth said, a
little more firmly.

  “You do understand what I am talking about, don’t you?” Kat asked anxiously. She still had the feeling that her charge was hiding something…

  “I do,” the girl said, unable to meet her gaze.

  “Then you have had a lucky escape,” Kat told her. “And a narrow escape too, mark me. Whatever possessed you to let the Admiral into your room, without me being there, is beyond me. It was the height of folly—virtually an open invitation. If this got out, your reputation would be in ruins. Do you hear me?”

  “I hear you,” Elizabeth muttered. “But the Admiral was quite insistent—I found it hard to resist him. If the Queen hadn’t come in…” Her voice trailed off; she could lie no more.

  “Then thank goodness the Queen did come in,” declared Kat devoutly. “I have a feeling you will not be seeing the Admiral here again.”

  “That would be a relief,” Elizabeth said, and meant it. Handsome and charming he might be, this stepfather of hers, and persuasive with it, yet he had stolen her virginity, the one thing she could never have back. She had not yet quite come to terms with it. Her stepfather, the man who should have made it his business to protect her from such things, had not only taken her maidenhead but had also made her a partner in his adultery. And to him it had appeared such a little thing…

  Well, the deed was done. It was no use wasting regretful tears on it. Somehow, she would find the strength to put it behind her. Already she could sense that she had had a lucky escape. He was just not worth it…

  The Queen and the Admiral had gone up to London. Neither of them wished to be at Chelsea at this time, and Katherine knew she needed some time alone with her husband to attempt to bridge the rift between them and reclaim him. They were away for some days, and on their return, Elizabeth received a summons to the Queen’s presence.

  She hardly knew how she would face her stepmother, knowing how treacherously she had behaved toward her. But Katherine Parr was brisk and matter-of-fact in her manner, having persuaded herself that a fourteen-year-old girl was pretty powerless against the strength and charm of a forty-year-old man. In fact, she reasoned, Elizabeth was as much a victim of Tom’s lust as she herself was.

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