The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “You are to leave this household,” she told the red-faced girl standing before her. “You will go to stay with Sir Anthony and Lady Denny, who have written to say that you are very welcome. Lady Denny is Mrs. Astley’s sister, as you know, and I hear that Cheshunt is a pleasant house. I am sure you will be much happier there. Master Ascham will go with you.”

  “Yes, madam,” Elizabeth said meekly.

  “I am sure I need not remind you that you were foolish indeed to court scandal. I am not sending you away to punish you for it, though, but for your own protection.” Her eyes were dark with pain: How she hated having to admit, even indirectly, that her once beloved husband had betrayed her.

  “Madam, I do fear for my reputation,” Elizabeth said anxiously. “I beg of you, pray tell me if you have heard any gossip about me.”

  “I have heard none,” Katherine assured her, softening in the face of the girl’s genuine concern. “Nor will there be, I think, because the matter has been handled so discreetly. If I do hear anything, though, I will inform you or Mrs. Astley.”

  “You have been more than kind to me, madam,” Elizabeth said. “Believe me, I am deeply sorry to have offended you. May I write to you from Cheshunt?”

  “You may,” Katherine agreed, not trusting herself to say more. She had loved Elizabeth like a daughter, and her feelings toward her were now very confused. Watching the girl curtsy and leave the room, she felt strangely bereft.

  The litter was drawn up outside the house. Grooms and porters were loading Elizabeth’s baggage and effects onto the carts and sumpter mules, and Kat was arranging the cushions in the chariot and stowing away a hamper of food so that their journey should not lack comforts.

  Queen Katherine, attended by her ladies, stood on the steps of the great porch; her pregnancy was just beginning to show, and she had in the last few days taken to loosening the laces on her gown. Beside her stood a forlorn-looking Lady Jane Grey, who was clearly sad to be saying farewell to Elizabeth, whom she so much admired.

  “Why do you have to leave, Cousin?” the child asked.

  “We have been invited to stay with Mrs. Astley’s sister,” Elizabeth told her evasively.

  “When will I see you again?” Jane asked yearningly.

  “Soon, soon, doubtless,” Elizabeth interrupted. She was too grief-stricken at the thought of leaving this place where she had once, not long ago, been so happy to think much on her little cousin.

  She was relieved that the Admiral was nowhere to be seen: She could not have faced him, she was sure, without betraying, by a chance look or gesture, what had taken place between them.

  The Queen regarded the forlorn figure in a green riding habit and jaunty feathered cap, and felt sad. Sad at having failed in her duty to this royal stepdaughter, sad at the prospect of losing one to whom she had been as a mother. Yet it was hard to forgive the girl for what she had done.

  Nevertheless, she must be just. Elizabeth was, after all, little more than a child. Impulsively she stepped forward, clasped her stepdaughter’s hands lightly, and kissed her on both cheeks.

  “God has given you great qualities,” she said. “Cultivate them always and labor to improve them. May God go with you.”

  “And with you, madam,” Elizabeth replied, tears welling in her eyes. “And I pray that He will send you a happy hour when the time comes.”

  “Write to me,” Katherine said.

  “I will,” Elizabeth promised.

  “And Elizabeth,” the Queen added, “I will warn you if I hear anyone speaking evil of you.”

  “I thank you, madam,” her stepdaughter replied, too choked to express her indebtedness more fully. Then she climbed into the litter beside Kat, and it was drawn relentlessly away, northward on the road toward Hertfordshire.

  Cheshunt was a large, imposing moated house built around a spacious courtyard. Sir Anthony Denny and his wife Joan were waiting just across the drawbridge to greet Elizabeth when her litter drew up. Sir Anthony was tall and dark, with a long bristly beard, heavy-lidded, intelligent eyes, and a lugubrious expression; his wife, the former Joan Champernowne, was a younger and prettier version of her sister Kat, dark and amiable-looking.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, you are most welcome,” said Sir Anthony, bowing deeply. In no way did his face betray his awareness of the reason she had come.

  “I thank you for your hospitality, Sir Anthony,” Elizabeth said, trying to conceal her embarrassment. How much had Queen Katherine told them of her situation? She could only guess. She smiled as graciously as she could as Lady Denny curtsied to her and then greeted her sister Kat with a warm hug.

  “Master Ascham, you are most welcome too!” declared Sir Anthony, shaking the tutor’s hand vigorously. “We have a great love of learning in this house.”

  “Your reputation goes before you, Sir Anthony,” Ascham complimented him. “In truth, my Lady Elizabeth, you could not have chosen a better place to lodge—this erudite gentleman is passionate about the new learning and a great lover of God’s word to boot.”

  Their host smiled modestly.

  “Pray come within,” he invited, and led the way into a fine timber-raftered hall of elegant proportions. Behind the dais, a door led to the private apartments, and Elizabeth was escorted up a spiral stair to a suite of rooms overlooking the woods beyond the moat. There was a parlor with a wide stone fireplace, carved chairs and benches, and a large table covered with a Turkey carpet; a bedchamber with a big four-poster bed made up with inviting white sheets, plumped downy pillows, and a rich velvet counterpane; and rooms beyond for Mr. and Mrs. Astley, Master Ascham, and Elizabeth’s other personal servants.

  “This is most pleasant, I thank you,” Elizabeth said to her hosts, but inwardly, she was already pining for Chelsea and her light, airy rooms overlooking those enchanting gardens. Oh, how she ached to be back there…They would be seated at the board for supper right now. She could not bear to think that she was no longer a part of that world, and probably never would be again. It would be impossible to return to the old easy relationship with the Admiral after what had been between them, and she was too full of guilt to sit at table with the Queen, knowing that she had sinned with the Queen’s husband…

  That first supper at Cheshunt was the occasion for stimulating conversation and simple but well-cooked fare. Sir Anthony and Master Ascham, increasingly aware of Elizabeth’s low spirits, did their best to engage her in their discourse on learned topics, and Kat and her sister were very lively, catching up on all their news. In any other circumstances, Elizabeth would have enjoyed the meal, but she was relieved when the cloth was lifted and the final grace was said. After that, she could plead weariness from the journey and flee to her rooms.

  Later that evening, as she was unpacking her books and stowing them away on a shelf, Master Ascham came into the parlor.

  “It grows dark,” he said, placing another lighted candle on the table. “I’m glad to see you’re getting everything arranged, my lady. We can begin lessons tomorrow.”

  “I shall be glad of that,” Elizabeth replied.

  “You will get used to it here,” Ascham said gently.

  “Is my homesickness so obvious?” Elizabeth asked.

  “Desperately,” he said, smiling ruefully.

  “Do you know why I am here, Master Ascham?” She had to ask this, had to know. After all, she would be in his company nearly every day.

  “The Queen did explain something of it,” he revealed. “She was at pains to tell me that you were more sinned against than sinning.”

  His gentleness seemed to invite her confidences.

  “I acted very unwisely,” Elizabeth confessed. “I cannot believe it of myself.”

  “We all have our weaknesses,” Ascham told her. “We are but human. And many a young girl has acted unwisely in the presence of a handsome rogue.”

  “You dare to speak thus of the Admiral?” she asked, surprised.

  “I dare to speak the truth. After all, it’s wh
at most people think. He is a rogue, and he bears far more blame than you for this affair.” Ascham was clearly trying to conceal his anger. “He deliberately put you in that situation and took advantage of you. No decent man would do such a thing.”

  Elizabeth wondered why she felt compelled to stand up for the Admiral. She hated hearing him spoken of thus, even though she knew that Ascham meant well, and was right. Did that mean she still loved Thomas, after what he had done? She could not forget her own complicity in the matter; whatever her tutor said, she knew herself partly to blame. And knowing that, she could still think kindly of her seducer.

  “I too did wrong,” she said, “and my conscience still troubles me when I think of how badly I behaved toward the Queen. I do realize that, in sending me away, she was acting for the best. And although I would give anything to be back there, I know I am here through my own fault.”

  “You must stop punishing yourself for it, and face life anew,” Ascham counseled her. “Mrs. Astley would say the same to you, I make no doubt.”

  “I will try,” Elizabeth promised. “I have asked God’s forgiveness, now I must hope for human forgiveness. I will write to the Queen as I promised her.”

  “I have had a letter from the Lady Elizabeth,” Katherine said, easing her thickening body into the cushioned chair.

  “Have you, my love?” the Admiral said, his tone light. Elizabeth’s name had hardly been mentioned since her departure.

  “Yes. She thanks me for my kindness on the day she left, and says she was replete with sorrow at leaving, knowing I was unwell with my pregnancy. She thanks me also for offering to warn her if I heard any evil spoken of her—not that there should be any cause for it, mind you—” The Admiral winced at her sharp tone.

  “Then she says hopefully that if I had not had a good opinion of her, I would not have made such a friendly gesture.” She broke off and reflected for a moment. “It was not made so much in friendship as in the knowledge that forewarned is forearmed. Because if any scandal comes of this…” She did not finish. Her voice was bitter.

  “I am very sorry for it, Kate,” the Admiral said, for what seemed like the thousandth time. Would she never cease reminding him of his fall from grace?

  His wife had turned back to the letter.

  “She ends by saying that she thanks God for providing her with such friends, and desires Him to enrich me with a long life. She signs herself Your Highness’s humble daughter.” She laid the letter on the table. “There, you can read it for yourself.”

  She rose to her feet and slowly and wearily walked to the door.

  “Kate!” he called after her. “I want us to remove to Sudeley Castle. We have never been there, and I thought it fitting that our child should be born in the principal seat of my baronage.”

  Katherine turned and looked at him. Her face was guarded, remote.

  “I should like that,” she said. “There are too many bad memories here.”

  “We could make a fresh start,” he said tentatively, watching for her reaction.

  “Mayhap,” she said, and walked out of the room.

  Elizabeth tore open the first letter. It was a brief note from the Queen, thanking her stepdaughter for her kind words and assuring her of her friendship. Her heart leapt—she had not looked for or expected such generosity of spirit on Katherine’s part.

  Now she opened the second letter. The Admiral had written to her too! Eagerly, she scanned the single page. He had been brief. He asked after her health, and told her that the Queen was enjoying being at Sudeley very much and eagerly anticipating the birth of her child in August, which was only weeks away now. Elizabeth caught her breath when she read the passage in which he told her that he was resolved to take upon himself all the blame for what had happened, and she was heartened to learn that he would swear to her innocence if necessary. Pray God it would never come to that! He ended by saying that he was determined to be a good lord to her, and that if there was any service he could do for her, she had only to ask.

  Was this a covert attempt to rekindle their relationship? Or had he come to his senses and decided, as she had, to put the whole sorry episode behind him and behave honorably toward her? Even now, despite everything. Elizabeth could not suppress a frisson of excitement at the possibility that it might be the former, although she was painfully aware that what he had written was certainly no love letter. Even so, she was determined to give him no encouragement.

  She wrote back, a courteous note that would bear scrutiny by anyone, thanking him for his letter and the good news of the Queen, and asking him to perform the small service of dispatching to her a book she had left behind at Chelsea.

  Weeks passed with no reponse from him, weeks in which she became certain she had misread his overture; then a note arrived with his profuse apologies for having been unable to find the book she had wanted, and his assurance that his failure to do so had not proceeded from a want of goodwill or friendship. That was a bit excessive, she thought, but it was typical of the man, so she wrote back telling him he needed not to have excused his behavior so profusely. I am a friend not won with trifles, nor lost with the like, she concluded. Then, wishing to maintain the distance between them and make it clear that any familiarity was well and truly over, she added, I pray you to make my humble commendations to the Queen’s Highness. I commit you and your affairs into God’s hand.

  She was relieved they were in touch again. It suggested to her that things had settled down somewhat and that the whole sorry episode was receding into the past. She dared to hope that the Queen had forgiven her, and that one day they would be reconciled. As for the Admiral, she was resolved to forget him entirely, and never betray by a word or gesture that he had ever meant anything to her. In the meantime, her life at Cheshunt would go on, a daily round of lessons, walks, meals, and intelligent conversation with her kindly hosts. All in all, she reflected, she had gotten off rather lightly.

  In fact, she had not gotten off lightly at all. She had been at Cheshunt for just a month when she awoke one morning in June feeling very nauseous. Retching into her close stool, she wondered whether she had eaten something that disagreed with her.

  When the same thing happened the following morning, she still believed that she was suffering from food poisoning. But when, after having felt better in the afternoon, she vomited for the third morning running, she began to wonder, with sinking spirits, if there was a more alarming cause for it. By the fourth day, she had begun to fear that God might indeed be punishing her for her great sin, and on the fifth morning it happened, she knew in her heart, with deadly certainty, that her fears were well grounded. After all, she had seen Katherine Parr in the same condition not four months before. There was no escaping the fact, she told herself, trying to ignore the icy chill that shivered down her spine each time she thought of it, which was more or less constantly: She was pregnant with the Admiral’s child.

  Her monthly courses, which had only commenced the previous year, had never been regular. She might go two months or more without seeing any show of blood. So she had not thought it odd that she had not bled since April. She had in recent months suffered bad headaches and megrims, so there had been nothing unusual in the fact that the megrims had grown worse lately. She had put that down to the stress of all that had happened recently.

  Nor had she laid any significance on the fact that her breasts were now straining against the tight corset she wore: She had been eating better lately and had gained a little weight—or so she had thought.

  What should she do? She would rather die than tell anyone her secret. And yet, her common sense told her, someone would have to be told. She did not live in a corner, and people would soon notice her condition. The consequences of that were unthinkable; again that cold shiver. No, she could not cope with this alone. She had to have help.

  Terror engulfed her. She could not face Kat’s reaction, let alone that of the Dennys. Would they inform the Admiral? Worse still, would they tell the Que
en? And could she rely still on Katherine’s discretion? If this got out, the scandal would ruin her. She knew she was not permitted to marry without the council’s consent. Whatever would they do if they found out she was expecting the Admiral’s bastard? It would mean the Tower for him, or worse. And for her? Would their illicit coupling be seen as high treason? She could already sense the confining walls of the Tower, feel the iron blade of the ax slicing into her neck, see the flames crackling voraciously at her feet…

  The room seemed to spin crazily; she seemed to be viewing it through a dark tunnel. There was a frightening jarring in her head, and her heart was pounding violently, her knees trembling, her hands sweating. She was going to die, right now, she knew it.

  “Oh!” she cried in panic. “Help me!”

  Kat came running, saw her standing there, white-faced and shaking, the telltale basin of vomit on the windowsill. Then she too was nearly overcome with panic. She had had her suspicions: There had been no bloody clouts to dispose of for weeks, but she had reasoned—God forgive her—that that might signify nothing. After all, Elizabeth had given her word that nothing of any moment had happened between her and the Admiral. But now, with certainty, she could see the truth staring her in the face. And she, too, saw the Tower, the dungeon, the rope, and—horror of horrors—the flaming faggots.

  “What have you done?” Her voice was shrill. “You gave me your word!”

  Elizabeth tried to speak but couldn’t, so potent was her own fear. The panic was receding, but it had left her drained and shivering.

  “Answer me!” Kat hissed urgently. “Are you with child?”

  The girl could only nod mutely, her eyes dark pools of terror.

  “When was your last course?” Kat demanded.

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