The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Elizabeth gulped.

  “Just after Easter, I think,” she whispered.

  “The beginning of April,” Kat recalled, “and we are now in late June. When did you…When did the Admiral…?” She could not utter the words: They only compounded her own guilt.

  “Once, at the beginning of May,” Elizabeth said, beginning to weep. “I tried to stop him—he was insistent. I loved him too well!” She was sobbing bitterly now.

  “Never mind that. You must be nearly two months’ gone,” Kat calculated, seeking refuge in briskness. “Are there any other signs? Are you passing water more often? Are your breasts tender?”

  “Yes.” Elizabeth sniffed.

  “Then God help us, you must be with child,” Kat said, feeling near to tears herself. “Whatever possessed you to let him get near you? You were warned never to see him alone.”

  “I loved him!” Elizabeth burst out. “I could not resist him. Oh, what am I to do?”

  “God knows,” Kat replied. “Let me think.” She stood there for a moment breathing heavily. “I shall have to tell my sister. I have no choice.”

  “What did she say?” Elizabeth asked anxiously, the moment Kat stepped back into the room.

  Kat sighed and sat down heavily on a bench.

  “She was shocked—rightly, of course. And she would do nothing without her lord’s sanction. She called Sir Anthony and told him everything.”

  Elizabeth hung her head. She liked the Dennys, who had been kind, generous hosts to her, and she valued their good opinions. But now they would, quite justifiably, despise her…

  “I was mortified,” Kat was saying. “The way Sir Anthony looked at me…” She felt like howling. “He wants to see you—now.”

  Elizabeth entered the Dennys’s parlor in trepidation. Lady Denny, seated by the hearth, rose and curtsied, then seated herself primly in her chair. Sir Anthony, standing with his back to the fire with a pained look on his face, bowed, then fixed his gaze at a point above Elizabeth’s head, as if he could not bear to look at her.

  “My Lady Elizabeth,” he said stiffly, “I am exceedingly distressed to learn of your condition. If a serving wench in this house were in such trouble, I would dismiss her at once. But I have a long-standing loyalty to the Crown, and to the memory of your late father, King Henry. For his sake, I will succor you in your trouble.”

  “I thank you,” Elizabeth faltered, dismayed at his cold manner. “I do not deserve such kindness.”

  “It is no more than my duty,” he replied, his tone still chilly. “You will stay here until the child is born. For as long as your condition can be concealed, you may join us at meals and go for walks in the gardens and park, although I should prefer it if you would keep within a mile of the house. Later, of course, you must keep to your rooms. We shall give out that you are sick, and keep the details as vague as possible. Kat alone will attend you. No one else must know the truth.”

  “I am so grateful,” Elizabeth whispered. “But what of the child?”

  “It will be put out to nurse on one of my Norfolk manors, and then placed with a reliable family. We will say that it was a foundling, left in the church porch. None shall ever discover its identity.”

  “And you must needs forget about it, my lady,” his wife added.

  “I will,” Elizabeth promised. She felt faint, and the nausea was threatening again. But at least she was safe—for the moment, anyway, and if everything went according to plan.

  She would never have believed she could feel so sick. Every morning she awoke nauseous, and had literally to run to the basin. The only thing that helped was eating meat or fish, but she could hardly send Kat to the kitchens demanding those things at eight o’clock in the morning, for people might become suspicious. So she suffered.

  “Try an apple,” Kat would urge. “Joan said it helped her.” But Elizabeth could not face an apple. She took one bite and spat it out.

  Mealtimes were purgatory. She would be ravenous, but after tasting the food, the desire to gorge deserted her, so she sat there pushing the morsels around her plate until everyone else had finished. Wine tasted oddly metallic, and she could only drink a few sips.

  Then there was the tiredness—it was overwhelming. Sometimes she could have slept standing up. She might have the freedom of the house and grounds for the time being, but she spent most of her time resting on her bed, drained by exhaustion. And she lived in fear of the birth pangs to come, recalling every tale of childbed horror she had overheard. She had never realized what gravid women went through, and constantly vowed to herself that, even in happier circumstances, she would never ever again risk a pregnancy.

  In the high summer, news came that the Queen was ill; in her advanced stage of pregnancy, the heat was affecting her badly, and she was troubled by severe headaches. Elizabeth read the Admiral’s latest letter with a heavy heart.

  “Poor lady, I do pray for her relief,” she told Kat. “She has taken to her bed with fainting fits.”

  Kat was still angry with Elizabeth, but she was thawing bit by bit.

  “I must confess, I had my misgivings as soon as I heard she was expecting,” she said, shaking her head. “Thirty-six is late to be having a first baby.”

  “I hope she will be all right,” Elizabeth said worriedly, thinking of her own ordeal to come.

  “That is in the hands of God,” Kat stated, “and all we can do is beseech Him to vouchsafe her a safe delivery.”

  “I do daily so beseech Him,” Elizabeth said fervently. Pregnant herself, she was now painfully aware of how deeply she had hurt and wronged the Queen, her kind benefactress, and wanted to make it up to her in any way she could.

  Roger Ascham came to her. He did not know she was pregnant.

  “With Your Grace’s permission, I should like to visit my friends in Cambridge,” he said.

  Elizabeth was dismayed. The plan was that, when her condition was in danger of becoming evident and she took to her chamber, feigning illness—feigning? Elizabeth thought incredulously—Master Ascham should be sent back to Cambridge to pursue his studies there; she had made such progress with him that he had been planning to return to university for good in the autumn anyway. So it would not make much difference if he went a month or so earlier.

  Suddenly, though, she wanted him to stay with her. He was kind, and he was ignorant of her situation, so he still treated her with respect and deference—unlike Kat and the Dennys, who were uncomfortably aware of her fall from grace; Kat was brisk with her, her host and hostess distant and unforgiving.

  “Do not go,” she said plaintively. Ascham looked at her, surprised.

  “Whatever is wrong, my lady?” he asked.

  “The Queen is ill, and I fear for her,” Elizabeth told him, near weeping. “I need the comfort of your presence.”

  The tutor was taken aback. He had until now accounted the Lady Elizabeth a strong, self-contained person. But she was crying now, and fumbling for a nonexistent kerchief. He gave her his own, then ventured tentatively to place an arm around her thin shoulders as she dabbed at her eyes. Inwardly he sighed.

  “Of course I will not go,” he told her, albeit reluctantly. “But you know my work here is nearly completed. You know you will not need my services for very much longer, and that I have work to do at Cambridge.”

  “I know,” Elizabeth said. “Yet despite all that, I had hoped you would stay on as my tutor and friend, for I depend on you utterly.”

  Ascham’s heart sank. Admire and like her he did, but Cambridge was calling to him, and he was beginning to fear she would never give him leave to go back there.

  He said gently, “I have studies of my own that I wish to pursue, studies I interrupted when I entered your service, my lady. But never fear. I will tarry awhile and put off my departure.”

  “You are a true friend to me,” Elizabeth told him.

  Early August, and she was feeling so much better. The only problem was that her belly was beginning to swell. The pointe
d stomacher, which she must wear for as long as possible, became tighter and more uncomfortable with each day. Soon she must go into seclusion, for she could not keep up this pretense very much longer. It did not seem fair that she should have to live in such a covert fashion when her partner in crime, all unwitting of her plight, was free to come and go as he pleased.

  But at least the Admiral’s next letter brought heartening news.

  “She is better! The Queen is better!” Elizabeth cried, almost dancing into the bedchamber where Kat was laying away sheets in the chest beneath the window.

  “Praised be God!” the governess said, ignoring the old familiar dart of jealousy. “I am pleased to hear that.”

  “And,” Elizabeth added triumphantly, “my lord says she is missing my company. Oh, Kat, do you think this means we might one day be summoned to Sudeley? Not yet, of course,” she added hastily.

  “I would not look for it,” Kat warned. “Besides, Her Grace will have much on her mind just now. She will shortly be taking to her chamber, and then she will have a child to care for.”

  “Yes, she will,” said Elizabeth wistfully, but her excitement at the news that the Queen was missing her soon resurfaced, an unlooked-for joy in her shattered world. She turned back to the letter and read it again, just to make sure she had not dreamed it. “The Admiral writes that the babe is very lusty and kicks so often that the Queen cannot sleep at night. I shall write back and ask him to keep me informed as to how his busy child is doing! Do you know, Kat, I’ll warrant that, were we to be at his birth, we might see him beaten for all the trouble he has put the Queen to!” She was quite beside herself with elation. Everything would come right in the end, as she had prayed it would—she knew it!

  “Lord save us, the Duchess of Somerset is here!” Kat whimpered, bursting into the bedchamber.

  “Am I discovered, then?” Elizabeth whispered, thinking the worst.

  “I think not, mercifully,” Kat replied, “but my fine lady has gotten wind of some scandal and is no doubt come to satisfy her curiosity.” Her tone was tart. “She wants to see you.”

  “She cannot…I dare not…” Elizabeth was terrified. She feared that her condition stood little chance of escaping the eagle-eyed Duchess’s gaze.

  “You have no choice,” Kat told her. “Get up and dress.” She surveyed her charge’s slightly swollen body as Elizabeth reluctantly pulled her nightgown over her head. “There’s nothing for it, I’ll have to lace you tightly,” she told her, fetching a clean shift.

  When Elizabeth appeared in the great parlor, she looked as slender as ever in her pink damask gown, its stiff stomacher flattening her bulge. She was in misery with the constraint, and light-headed with the effort to breathe shallowly and maintain an erect posture, keeping her shoulders high and her stomach in.

  The Duchess Anne came toward her and made her curtsy.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, I rejoice to see you in health,” she said stridently. “My Lord the Protector sends his greetings.”

  “Welcome, madam,” Elizabeth said distantly, seating herself gingerly in the fireside chair that Sir Anthony had just vacated. “What brings you to Cheshunt?”

  “I came to see my old gossip, Lady Denny here, and to inquire after your health, my lady. Rumor has it that you have been indisposed.”

  “A summer chill,” Elizabeth said airily, noticing that her hosts appeared distinctly uncomfortable. “I am better now, I thank Your Grace.”

  “Better in more ways than one, I wist,” the Duchess agreed. “You are far better out of the Queen’s household.”

  “Begging your pardon, madam,” Elizabeth bridled, “but Her Majesty was very good to me.”

  “It was not Her Majesty of whom I spoke,” Lady Somerset said, her tone implying that Her Majesty was no doubt responsible for the laxity at which rumor had hinted. Their quarrel over which of them should take precedence at court and wear the Queen’s jewels was notorious.

  “I know not to what Your Grace refers,” Elizabeth said innocently.

  “I think you do, my lady,” the Duchess replied firmly. “And I say that you were very wise to come here. Or were you constrained to it?”

  The atmosphere in the room grew tense. Elizabeth was furious at the woman’s temerity. Furious, and at the same time frightened. What rumors had the Duchess heard?

  “I invited my sister, Mrs. Astley, to visit, and my Lady Elizabeth was happy to honor us with her presence,” Lady Denny said, a touch too hastily.

  “I have been made most welcome,” Elizabeth added. “Cheshunt is a beautiful house.”

  “Hardly as beautiful as Chelsea or Sudeley,” her ladyship retorted sharply.

  “Ah, but the Queen was tiring easily with the child on the way, and I did not wish to weary her at this time,” Elizabeth said, feeling as if she was engaging in armed combat. “Her Majesty writes to me regularly, and I expect to see her after she has been delivered.”

  Knowing herself bested, the Duchess retreated. Short of embarrassing her hosts by openly insulting their royal guest, she forbore to say more, and the talk reverted to gossip of the court and the splendors of Somerset House.

  For all the breeze blowing through the open windows, Elizabeth felt hot. Her hands were clammy, and rivulets of sweat were trickling down her neck. The cruelly laced corset was all but unbearable, and she longed to cast it aside and lie untrammeled on her bed. The room darkened, and it seemed that the polite chatter was coming from farther and farther away…She swayed in her seat.

  “My lady!” It was Kat, stepping forward and shaking her. “Are you all right?”

  Elizabeth came to, uncertain what had happened, and stared at her governess, uncomprehending. The blood was pounding in her temples, and she could barely breathe.

  “I’m hot,” she whispered, and suddenly crumpled to the floor in a dead faint. Kat swooped, falling to her knees beside her, grateful that her ample skirts were shielding any telltale signs of pregnancy in the prone body from the hawk-like view of the Duchess, who was all feigned concern.

  “Some wine, Sir Anthony!” she commanded, taking charge of the situation.

  Sir Anthony jumped to do her bidding, and his wife carried the goblet to Kat. Kat, meanwhile, had pulled Elizabeth to a sitting position and was relieved to see her coming around.

  “Sip this,” she murmured, holding the vessel to the girl’s lips. “There, feeling better?”

  “It’s her age,” Lady Denny offered helpfully. “I used to faint a lot when I was about fifteen. Here, let me assist you.” She helped Kat to get Elizabeth to her feet.

  “With your permission, Your Grace, I will help her to bed,” Kat said, and she steered her charge through the door, emerging with a sigh of heartfelt relief. Watching them go with narrowed eyes, the Duchess inwardly deplored the lack of backbone in young girls these days…

  That month, Elizabeth received a letter from a Mr. William Cecil, secretary to Protector Somerset. He wrote that he had been appointed her surveyor, to help administer the lands her father had left for her dowry. His tone was gratifyingly courteous and deferential.

  She went to Sir Anthony and showed him the letter.

  “Have you heard of this William Cecil?” she asked, hoping that her host would unbend a little toward her. He was still unfailingly civil, but cool in his manner, as if he was barely able to suppress his disapproval.

  Sir Anthony took the letter and read it.

  “I know him,” he said. “He is a clever young man, one of the rising stars at court. You are fortunate, madam, in having him for your surveyor. His intelligence and his wit are impressive.”

  He handed her back the letter, bowed formally, and walked out. Elizabeth sighed—would he never unbend or forgive her?—then looked again at William Cecil’s letter.

  “If there is ever any service I can do for you, do not hesitate to command me,” he had written. One day, Elizabeth thought, she might just take him at his word. In the meantime, she wrote back, warmly and appreciati
vely. I hope one day to thank you in person for your diligence in my affairs, she told him.

  Before long, they were in friendly correspondence with each other, quickly establishing a lasting rapport. It was true what Sir Anthony had said, she discovered: Cecil’s wit was formidable, and he had a talent for driving to the heart of a problem and finding the best, or at any rate, the most pragmatic, solution. Yet beyond his undoubted abilities, she could sense an affection for, and staunch loyalty to, herself, and that cheered her immeasurably at this time.

  The first week in September was warm. Elizabeth was now confined to her rooms, and the days dragged heavily, for she had been persuaded to let Master Ascham return to Cambridge and was already growing weary of having just Kat for company. She wanted to be out of doors and active, but that was just not possible. So she sat about, reading, doing the odd translation here and there, and generally driving Kat to distraction with her complaints.

  “I am so bored,” she grumbled one evening.

  “Then find something to do,” a provoked Kat snapped. “The devil makes work for idle hands, you know.”

  “What shall I do?” Elizabeth moaned.

  “How about finishing that little smock you were embroidering for the Queen’s baby?” Kat suggested.

  Elizabeth thought about it.

  “Very well,” she sighed. “But first, I must go to the stool chamber.”

  Alone, lifting up her skirts, she was puzzled to see spots of blood on her white petticoats and stockings. A little alarmed, she grabbed a clout and dabbed at her female parts with it. It came away bloody. Elizabeth caught her breath. What could this portend?

  Stuffing another clout between her legs, she hobbled out of the stool chamber and cried, “Kat—help, I’m bleeding!”

  “Bleeding?” echoed her governess. “Oh, dear Lord! Look, child, don’t fret. Go and lie down. I’ll get my sister.”

  By the time Lady Denny had arrived, the cramping pains had begun, a dull, relentless, recurring ache in Elizabeth’s belly and lower back. She lay there rubbing herself, groaning a little.

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