The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “I fear it is a miscarriage threatening,” Lady Denny said.

  Elizabeth did not know whether to rejoice or cry.

  “We must get help,” Kat said. “She is second in line to the throne. We cannot risk any injury to her. She is four months gone, and it may not go easy for her.”

  Elizabeth groaned again, louder this time. In a matter of minutes the pain had become dragging, acute, and she was thoroughly frightened.

  “We dare not risk her condition being made public,” Lady Denny reminded her sister. “Wait—I have an idea.”

  The woman who was led into the bedchamber at midnight was blindfolded, but by then, Elizabeth was too far gone to notice. The pains were sharp now, knifing through her lower body, searing through her back, her abdomen, her buttocks, and her privy parts, and there was a lot of blood now, seeping from her womb. She was exhausted, feverish, nauseated, and confused.

  After Sir Anthony had removed the blindfold, averted his eyes from the bed, and slipped out the door, reminding them to ring the bell for him when he was to return, the midwife squinted in the firelight, realized that she was in a fine mansion—although goodness only knew which one—and allowed herself to be ushered toward the bed by a finely dressed lady who was clearly in charge. There lay a young girl, very fair of face, obviously in the final stages of a premature delivery. A middle-aged woman with anxious eyes sat beside her.

  The midwife did not waste time; she prided herself on her reputation, although she doubted anyone would ever give her any credit for tonight’s work. Pulling down the bloodied sheet, she prised apart the girl’s thighs and took a good long look at what lay between them.

  “Has she miscarried?” the older woman asked quietly. The girl was panting, oblivious.

  “Yes.” The midwife nodded. “Do you have a cloth?”

  Kat handed her one. The midwife used it to scoop up the blood clots and the pathetic little scrap of dead humanity that had been born too soon. Then she called for water and towels and tended to the young mother, who had now sunk into an exhausted stupor.

  When she was tidied and sleeping peacefully, they rang the bell, and Sir Anthony returned.

  “Where is it?” he asked.

  “It is dead,” Kat said flatly. She handed him the tiny cloth-wrapped bundle. He pulled the wrapping aside and gazed for a moment at the crumpled, purpling face.

  “Was it born dead?” he inquired, his face impassive.

  Kat nodded.

  “Then it has no need of our prayers,” he said grimly, and without another word, he threw King Henry’s lost grandchild onto the fire. The women all gasped in horror and protest, but Sir Anthony ignored them. He blindfolded the outraged midwife once again and hustled her out of the room, leaving his wife and Kat standing there, hands clamped to their mouths in dismay, watching the flames destroying the evidence of Elizabeth’s sin as the girl herself slumbered on and the room filled briefly with the ghastly stench of roasted meat.

  The sense of relief was overpowering. She could cope with the dull ache and the bleeding, which was subsiding with each day that passed; that was nothing to what she had gone through. There were some darts of sadness too, but they were fleeting. All that mattered was that she had been reprieved. God had seen fit to punish her, but had then miraculously relented. Rashly, she now realized, she had risked her life in every way. She could have died losing that child. She might well have ended up in the Tower, or worse…

  Never again, she vowed, would she risk her reputation, let alone allow any man to come near enough to get her with child. The whole experience had been appalling, in every respect, and she could not offer sufficient thanks for her deliverance.

  “You don’t know how lucky you are,” Kat had said, shaking her head, looking down at her as she lay there, wan and exhausted after her ordeal.

  Oh, yes I do, Elizabeth had thought. “I can never thank God sufficiently for it,” she said. She did not grieve for her dead baby, did not even think to ask what had become of its sad little corpse.

  “We are telling everyone it was a sudden fever,” Kat explained, spooning her some heartening broth. “Soon you will be up and about again.”

  That day was fast approaching. Elizabeth was getting out of bed for the afternoons now, and sitting in a chair by the window. Her normal high spirits had begun to revive. Life would soon resume its normal course, and no one would be any the wiser.

  Naturally, she had plenty of time on her hands in which to think and reflect on her situation.

  “I was right to begin with,” she told Kat. “I will never marry. I could not go through that again.”

  “Nonsense!” Kat retorted. “Lots of women go through it, and live to bear a brace of healthy children. It is unnatural for a girl to remain unwed. You’ll get over this, mark my words.”

  “I will get over it,” Elizabeth said determinedly, “but I am now more than ever convinced of the benefits of staying single.”

  Kat sighed. “You say that now, but you may change your mind when another handsome man comes along.”

  “I think not.” Elizabeth’s face was set. “I will never again allow love to blind me to all good sense and reason. I must have been mad.”

  “They say love is a form of madness,” Kat mused, “and in your case that was probably apposite.”

  “I will be circumspect in future,” Elizabeth assured her. “I will continue to wear sober clothes and be a virtuous Protestant maiden.”

  Kat’s eyebrows shot up. “A maiden you can never be again,” she said, tart.

  “Nay, but the world must think it,” Elizabeth said, wincing inwardly. “I will never give anyone cause to doubt it. I have been given a second chance, and I will not squander it. I will flaunt my virginity as others flaunt their charms, and lead a godly life from now on. None will ever have reason to cast any slur on my reputation.”

  “Well, you have come to your senses,” Kat said with admiration. “I am heartily relieved to hear it. But what of the Admiral and your feelings for him?”

  “I loved the Admiral,” Elizabeth admitted, “I was mad for him, and utterly foolish, and I did the Queen a great wrong, God forgive me. I daresay I love him still—I cannot help that—but not in the same way. My love is now tempered with caution and reason. With God’s help, I may forget him.”

  She rose slowly, steadying herself on the arms of the chair; her legs were still unused to walking.

  “I think I will rest for a while,” she said, but then a sudden commotion in the courtyard below drew her eye to the window and, looking down, she saw a travel-stained horseman dismounting and hastening into the house.

  “He wears the Queen’s livery! Do you think he comes with happy news for us?” Elizabeth asked of Kat, who was peering over her shoulder.

  “I’ll go down and find out,” Kat said, hastening to the door. “You lie down.”

  Elizabeth lay there, contrasting her own experience with the Queen’s, and wondering how it would feel to give birth to a much-wanted and loved baby. Then suddenly, Kat burst back into the room, her face grave.

  “It is ill news, I fear, my lady. Tragic news. The Queen was brought to bed of a daughter, but took the fever afterward. She is dead, God rest her.”

  “Dead?” Elizabeth’s forlorn cry echoed woefully in the chamber. She could not believe it. Poor Queen Katherine, who had been as dear as a mother to her. She did not think she could bear this new grief, on top of the guilt and everything else that had happened lately. Feeling utterly bereft, she burst into noisy sobbing.

  Kat was there at once, cradling her.

  “Hush, hush, sweeting. Kat’s here. Kat will always be here for you, God willing.” Shocked as she was at the tragedy, she could not suppress the treacherous feeling of triumph that had been bubbling up inside her since she had learned of the death of the woman whom she had always regarded as a rival for Elizabeth’s affections. Now Katherine was gone, and Kat would never again suffer that sinking sense of jealousy and betrayal th
at the Queen’s love for her stepdaughter had engendered in the governess.

  “She did not suffer,” Kat said. “She died a most Christian death, and was buried in the chapel at Sudeley. Lady Jane Grey was chief mourner.”

  Elizabeth did not heed her. Kat let her weep, stroking the damp red tresses from her temples.

  “Poor Jane,” Elizabeth, calmer now, said later. “I’d forgotten her. What will happen to her?”

  “Well, she cannot remain under the Admiral’s roof,” Kat observed. “It would not be seemly. I expect she will be sent home.”

  “I am sorry for that,” Elizabeth said. “She was happy with the Queen—as was I.” The tears were threatening again.

  “There is something else,” Kat said quickly. “I think you should know that the Admiral himself sent that messenger specially, to break this news to you, my lady.” She took a deep breath. “Has it occurred to you, Elizabeth, that his lordship, who wanted to be your husband after the late King died, and loves and admires you, is free again?”

  Elizabeth looked up, startled. Her expression was unreadable.

  “You may have him now if you will,” Kat said, smiling encouragingly. “After a decent time of mourning has passed, naturally. He would have married you, if he had had the chance, rather than the Queen. And given what has happened, perhaps he should marry you. Having taken your maidenhead, it would set matters right if he made an honest woman of you.”

  The girl on the bed did not speak. The silence lengthened. Kat saw that a flush had spread over her neck and face.

  “No,” said Elizabeth.

  “Yes!” cried Kat excitedly. “Yes, my lady. You will not deny that you want this, especially if my Lord Protector and the council were to approve it. In a sense, you are married to the Admiral already, and when the King sees that it is what you want, he will approve it, I’m sure. All this nonsense about not wanting to marry! You love the Admiral, you have admitted it! He has been a very naughty man, but he would make you a very proper husband.” She could just see the two of them together, such a handsome couple, walking merrily down the aisle, making good sport together in bed, and presiding over the board with their growing family of cherubic children around them. And she, Kat, there to enjoy it all, running the household, feasting her eyes from afar on the Admiral…

  “Marry, he is a charming man, and handsome to boot!” she went on. “You and he accord well together—you know that in your heart. And he is an important man in the kingdom, destined for great things. He would make a marvelous husband—a fit match for you.” She knew in her bones that this was what Elizabeth wanted—even if the girl did not know it herself—and that it was what she herself wanted for her.

  “I cannot countenance it, or even think about it. It is not only that the Queen is so recently dead—my mind is made up,” Elizabeth declared firmly.

  “I understand that,” Kat conceded, reining herself in. “But after a suitable interval has passed, and if the Admiral were to show his interest, I’ll wager you’ll be thinking very differently.”

  “No,” said Elizabeth again.

  Kat changed tactics.

  “The messenger said that my lord is the heaviest and most doleful man in the world just now,” she revealed. “It would be a kindness to write him a letter of condolence.”

  “I hardly think that the Queen’s demise could have occasioned him that much grief,” Elizabeth sniffed, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “I cannot believe he loved her that deeply. No, I will not write words of comfort, for he needs them not. And I should hate him to think that I was chasing him. That is the last thing I would do.”

  “So you do not look to marry him?” Kat persisted.

  “No,” Elizabeth said for the third time.

  But Kat still doubted she meant it.

  By October, Elizabeth had fully recovered from her miscarriage, and plans were made for her to leave Cheshunt.

  “The King has placed Hatfield House at your disposal, madam,” Sir Anthony informed her, a little less stiffly than was his custom, because he was relieved to be getting rid of his unwanted guest at last. Elizabeth’s presence in his house had caused nothing but trouble, and she had long outstayed her welcome. Nevertheless, he had not once failed in his courtesy toward her.

  Elizabeth too was relieved that her stay at Cheshunt had come to an end—in fact she never wanted to see the house again, nor be reminded of the ordeal she had endured there. And it would be good to be back in her old, familiar childhood home, mistress of her own household, and free to come and go as she pleased. Her step was light as she hurried about her rooms, humming and gathering her possessions for Kat to pack in the big traveling chests. Kat was naturally sad to be bidding her sister farewell, but she too had had enough of Cheshunt and blessed the day they departed, trundling away in the litter as Sir Anthony and Lady Denny stood waving a shade too enthusiastically on the porch.

  “I am pleased to be reunited with you all again,” Elizabeth told her reassembled household, now gathered in the great hall to receive her. She had taken only a few servants to Cheshunt; the rest had remained for a time at Chelsea, and had then come here to Hatfield to make all ready. “I trust you were well looked after by the Admiral and the late Queen.”

  Was she mistaken, or did she detect a few furtive smiles, whispered exchanges, and an undercurrent of mirth among her people? She could not be sure, but it bothered her a little. Surely word had not gotten out of what had happened between her and the Admiral?

  Word had. Her women, those who had been at Chelsea, kept glancing at her in a knowing, unsettling way, making her cheeks burn. Of course, they would remember the morning romps in her bedchamber; her maids had been witnesses to that on several occasions, and servants loved nothing better than to discuss the private business of their betters. Well, she must trust upon their loyalty not to turn idle gossip into something more malicious. At least only a handful of trusted people knew about her pregnancy, and they could be relied upon never to talk.

  Kat, bustling into the kitchens later that day, was herself disconcerted to come upon some young scullions gossiping.

  “And they do say that the Admiral was alone with her in her bedchamber on more than one occasion!” one was saying.

  “I’ll wager I know what they were up to!” the other smirked. “Making the beast with two backs!”

  “And what exactly are you talking about?” Kat barked, descending on them like an avenging angel. Both the boys looked scared.

  “Well, out with it!” she insisted.

  “It were just gossip, missus. No offense meant,” the first lad excused himself.

  “Gossip about the Lady Elizabeth?” Kat demanded to know.

  The youths looked embarrassed. Just then, one of the cooks intervened.

  “You may as well know, Mrs. Astley, that the gossip has been of nothing else for a long time, I’m sorry to say.”

  “Then we must put a stop to it!” Kat cried, horrified. “I will speak to the Chamberlain and the Steward. Such idle talk undeservedly disparages my lady’s reputation, and could get those who spread it into serious trouble.”

  The Chamberlain and the Steward were duly summoned to the parlor to speak with the governess. Elizabeth, Kat had decided, was better left out of this.

  “As well command the tide to go back,” the Steward observed unhelpfully. “I’m not surprised the servants are gossiping, given what I have heard.”

  “It was the women of Lady Elizabeth’s bedchamber that started it,” the Chamberlain explained. “Apparently they had been quite scandalized by what they had witnessed—although I don’t pretend to know if there was any truth in it. Women, of course, just can’t keep quiet—and now the whole household is abuzz with it.”

  “You must command them to stop,” ordered an affronted Kat. “Threaten them with dismissal or whatever punishment you like, but still their tongues.”

  “Very well, Mrs. Astley,” the Chamberlain said. He departed with the Steward, shaking hi
s head.

  Elizabeth saw her servants going about looking subdued, and guessed why. She could sense that people were still whispering about her, and she caught the odd salacious grin in her direction. Going about the house, she was aware that all eyes were on her, and that she was the object of much covert speculation. It made her resolved not to give people any further cause for gossip. She took to dressing more severely than ever, in high-collared black gowns unadorned by any jewelry save her mother’s initial pendant at her neck and a miniature prayer book clasped at her waist; she affected plain hoods with modest black veils, and walked about with her eyes discreetly downcast and her hands folded virtuously across her stomacher. She spent a lot of time on her knees in the chapel.

  “I know one way in which you can put a stop to the gossip,” Kat said one evening as they sat by the roaring fire. “Marry the Admiral.”

  “No,” Elizabeth said.

  “I’ll warrant you’ll change your tune when you see him.” Kat smiled archly. “He’ll be coming a-courting soon, mark my words.”

  “I sincerely hope not,” Elizabeth said, shocked. “That would be far too soon.”

  “Remember, he did not waste time in pursuing the Queen,” Kat reminded her.

  “He will find that I am made of sterner mettle,” Elizabeth said, frowning.

  “Listen, my lady, I beg of you,” Kat urged, resorting to desperate measures. “Your late father, King Henry of blessed memory, wanted you to marry the Admiral.”

  Elizabeth stared at her.

  “My father wanted it? But he had no good opinion of him—I have heard people say that.”

  Kat was beginning to regret the lie. “Only because the Admiral was a rival for Katherine Parr,” she said.

  “There was more to it than that, surely,” Elizabeth answered. “I heard that my father refused to let him serve on the regency council. That he did not trust him.” And he was right, she thought.

  “Well, maybe my information is wrong,” Kat blustered, “although I know what I was told. He was good enough for a Queen, so why not for you? Why should you quibble at marrying him? It would be a good match for you, especially now. With the Queen dead, God rest her, you lack a powerful protector. As your husband, the Admiral would fill that role perfectly.”

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