The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

  “I have always been eager for it,” she lied, “and it was the fault of your master, the Emperor, that the earlier negotiations broke down.” Cecil almost gaped at her in dismay. Was she trying to wreck all his stressfully negotiated diplomacy by offending his Imperial Majesty? It seemed, God help them all, that she was.

  “The Emperor behaved like an old woman,” she went on, as if injury was not sufficient on its own without insult added to it. “He refused to let his son come to England. It is unreasonable of anyone to expect me to accept a suitor without seeing him first, and it is proper for the Archduke to make the first move toward reviving his courtship, since I myself cannot do so without covering myself in ignominy. For my part, I would far rather be a beggar woman and single than a queen and married.”

  Cecil, feeling uncharacteristically savage, hurriedly steered Herr Allinga out of the room, and he was not surprised when the envoy sympathetically—in the circumstances—told him there was no point in pursuing the matter further.

  “You must be patient with Her Majesty,” Cecil hastened to reassure him. “Knowing her of old, I believe that she is by no means averse to the marriage.” But Allinga went home all the same, and who could blame him?

  Matters remained decidedly cool between Elizabeth and Robert. Even the departure of the Emperor’s envoy had not thawed Robert’s frigid manner toward her. When she attempted to cozen him with her ready wit and a warm, repentant-looking (she hoped) smile, he responded only with chilly courtesy.

  Have it your own way! she fumed. She would show the world that she needed no man in her life! And she would show Robert who was mistress here.

  Randolph was now back in London, having left Queen Mary none the wiser as to whom her English suitor might be—and, as Elizabeth had anticipated, desperate to know.

  “You are to return to Scotland,” Elizabeth commanded him. “You may now tell the Queen of Scots that we are offering her Lord Robert Dudley as a husband.” Randolph hid his trepidation by bowing low.

  When he had gone, with dragging steps, to start packing, Elizabeth summoned Robert. She could put off the evil moment no longer.

  He came, stiff and unrelenting, his face cold. One glance and she feared that she might falter in her resolve. Given how things stood between them, he would think that she really meant to do this. And really, it would be better for him to believe it—for now, at least.

  “I have made up my mind,” she said firmly. “I want you to marry the Queen of Scots, if she will have you.”

  Robert erupted. “No!” he raged. “No, and no again! I will not leave England and everything I hold dear, not even for you, especially to go and live in a land of barbarians.”

  “Robert, I am not asking you. I command it, as your queen!”

  That broke him. She had never seen him weep, and she was stunned to see tears in his eyes now. “God,” he said helplessly, trying to compose himself. “God help me … Bess … Damn you, I am distraught at the thought of leaving you. We were so close. You promised to marry me. What the devil has gone wrong? How could you do this to me—to us?”

  She nearly gave way. But it would be better for the successful outcome of her scheming if Robert believed her sincere. That way, none would guess what she really intended.

  “Robert, I insist—no, I ask—for your cooperation in this important matter. This is how you can serve me best.”

  Robert was struggling to control himself. Anger, pain, and bitterness suffused his handsome face. He knew he had no choice but to obey, but he knew too that he would never, ever understand how this woman, whom he had so faithfully loved—and still did love, God help him—could treat him so cruelly.

  Elizabeth looked up from her desk and laid down her pen. Cecil stood before her holding a letter with a broken seal.

  “From Thomas Randolph, madam,” he said, passing it to her. She read it and smiled. Mary’s feathers had been ruffled. She had shown no enthusiasm for marrying Robert; indeed, she had asked incredulously if it would stand with her honor to wed a mere subject.

  “You had best go and put him out of his misery, William,” Elizabeth said.

  Cecil found Robert in the tennis court, whacking a ball against the penthouse above the wall with grim fervor. He was utterly relieved to hear that the Queen of Scots did not want him for a husband, and joyfully welcomed the implied slur. Aversion to the match was, at least, one thing they had in common.

  But that was not the end of it. Even though she knew there was no chance of Mary’s agreeing, Elizabeth continued to press the matter. She had Cecil write a sixteen-page justification for the marriage, to be sent to Randolph in Edinburgh. She smiled at the thought of Mary’s response, not sparing a thought for poor Randolph, who would have to read it to her. Brainless Mary might well fall asleep, not having much head for politics. But she would wake up, of course, when he got to the part where Elizabeth promised her that with Dudley would come the English succession—subject, of course, to the consent of Parliament. A small clause to which Mary might not give much credence, but a crucial one.

  Mary not only woke up, she sent an ambassador, Sir James Melville, to Elizabeth’s court to foster goodwill with her dear sister of England. Elizabeth took to the cultivated, charming, and urbane Melville at once, and even Robert, withdrawn and resentful under his assumed patina of courtesy and princeliness, began to wonder if it were true that the Scots were actually barbarians after all.

  Elizabeth enjoyed flirting with Melville. It was important to her that he found her more beautiful, more accomplished, and much, much cleverer than his own queen. She was determined that every word he wrote in his reports home would show up Mary as wanting in every respect.

  She was delighted to find that Melville was as proficient as she at languages, and enjoyed besting him in conversation. Responding to his compliments, she took care to appear in different stylish outfits, all dripping with jewels: one in the English fashion, one in the French, and a third in the Italian.

  “Which do you prefer, Sir James?” she asked, twirling in her heavy silk skirts, her low-cut pleated Venetian bodice almost falling off her shoulders.

  “I like you in this one, madam,” Melville told her. “But they are all beautiful, as is their wearer.”

  “And do you like this headdress?” she persisted, making a minuscule adjustment to the jeweled caul and bonnet that crowned her long red curls.

  “Assuredly, madam.” He smiled. “It suits you charmingly well.”

  “Tell me, Sir James, what color hair is considered best in your country?” Elizabeth trilled, tossing her long locks over her shoulder for effect.

  “In Scotland, madam, we like a bonny lady whatever color her hair is,” Melville replied, sensing that all his diplomatic skills were about to be brought into play.

  “How does my hair compare with your queen’s?” Elizabeth inquired. “Which of us is the fairest?”

  It seemed to Melville that any political rapprochement between England and Scotland might hang on his answer. He thought rapidly. “Madam, it would be impossible to decide. You are both faultlessly fair.”

  Elizabeth tapped him playfully with her fan. “That is no answer!” she chided him.

  “Then, madam, I can only say that you are the fairest queen in England and Mary is the fairest queen in Scotland.”

  “A diplomat’s answer, but it tells me nothing!” she reproved him, with an arch smile. “Each is the only queen in her realm, so each must of necessity be the fairest. You must choose!”

  Melville was sweating in his velvet suit and cloak. “Then, madam, I can only say that you are both the fairest ladies in your courts, and that Your Majesty is very white in complexion, but Her Majesty is very lovely.”

  Elizabeth was not letting him off so easily. “Which of us is the tallest?”

  “Queen Mary,” he replied. It was well known that Mary was six feet tall.

  “Then she is overhigh,” Elizabeth observed happily. “I am neither overhigh nor overlow. Do
es your queen play well on the lute and virginals?”

  “Reasonably, for a queen,” Melville told her, then realized—too late—that his words could be taken the wrong way.

  That evening, Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, sought Melville out after supper, and he found himself very firmly steered along a gallery above a chamber in which someone was playing the virginals in a most accomplished manner. Hunsdon paused to listen, nodding appreciatively, so Melville followed suit, peering over the gallery to see—to his amazement—the Queen herself at a keyboard bearing the famous Boleyn arms.

  “Her Majesty has excellent talent,” he murmured.

  “Reasonable, for a queen,” smiled Hunsdon. Melville winced.

  Just then the music stopped and Elizabeth rose and left the room. Seconds later she was advancing along the gallery toward them. When she raised her left hand, Melville thought she was about to strike him for his earlier faux pas, but she merely cuffed him gently. “Well, Sir James, how naughty of you to enter my chamber without leave!” she said. “How did you come to be here?”

  Melville realized that he had a part to play in this little charade, which had obviously been staged to teach him a lesson. “Madam, forgive me,” he pleaded. “I heard such melody as ravished me and drew me to this chamber, I know not how.”

  Elizabeth sank down on a cushioned chair, clearly pleased. “I do not usually play before men,” she told him. “I play when I am solitary, to shun melancholy. But now you can tell me, who is the better musician, myself or Queen Mary?”

  “It is yourself, madam,” Melville conceded, without flattery.

  Elizabeth smiled. “I thank you. I hope you will be at court tomorrow night to watch me dance.”

  “Madam, for that privilege I will gladly delay my departure,” Melville assured her. And when he had seen her twirling and leaping in branles and galliards, and she asked him if Mary danced as well as she, he was ready with his answer. “Not so high or energetically, madam,” he said. In truth, he had never met a woman as vain, and he thanked God that his queen, who had every cause to be proud of her looks and accomplishments, had only a proper pride—and a becoming modesty.

  The next day he found Elizabeth in a more businesslike mood. She brought up the matter of Queen Mary’s marriage and insisted that Lord Robert would make her an excellent consort.

  “It seems selfless of Your Majesty to offer my queen one for whom you clearly cherish great affection,” he ventured.

  “If I had ever wanted to take a husband, I would have chosen Lord Robert,” Elizabeth declared, “but it is my own resolution at this moment to remain a virgin queen until my death, and nothing will compel me to change my mind save any undutiful behavior on the part of the Queen my sister.”

  “Madam, you need not tell me that,” Melville answered, thinking that, from what he had heard, there were more ways than one to be a virgin. “I know your stately stomach. You think that if you were married, you would only be a Queen of England. But now you are king and queen both. You will not endure a commander.”

  “You are perceptive, Sir James.” Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled. She wished her councillors—and Robert—were as intuitive.

  “As for my mistress, she loves Your Majesty so much that she could never contemplate being undutiful in any way.”

  “We hope and trust that will always be the case,” Elizabeth said, not forgetting for a moment how Mary had claimed to be Queen of England, and dismissed him.

  Robert had simmered in the background throughout Melville’s visit. He had been desperate to know what was being discussed behind closed doors—apart from hair and gowns—when Elizabeth conversed with Melville alone. As he lay restless in his great empty bed, he wondered what new strategy she was cooking up to make the Queen of Scots take him, Robert, for her lawful wedded husband. God’s blood, it was his marriage that was under discussion, and it looked as if he would be the last to know whether it was going ahead or even if a date had been set!

  It was now months since he and Elizabeth had slept together, and he was damned if he would make any move toward her. He had even thought of secretly taking a mistress, because a man was a man, after all. But even there she had him. The truth was, he did not want any other woman; it seemed to be his fate to want the one he could not have. And while there was the remotest chance that Elizabeth’s ever-changing mind might once more focus upon him in the way it once had, he was determined not to jeopardize his prospects. In the meantime, though, he felt that wearing his displeasure on his sleeve might bring her to heel. It worried him that so far such tactics had gotten him nowhere.

  Did she really mean to wed him to the Queen of Scots? How could she seriously contemplate it after all they’d been to each other? Or was the whole farce a devious ploy to test his loyalty and prove that it was not just a crown he lusted after? One never knew with Elizabeth. Her opinions were mercurial, her intent often masked by obfuscation. It might be that all this talk of the Scottish marriage was yet another delaying tactic, since speculation that Elizabeth would marry him had lately all but ceased. He wished he could be certain. It occurred to him that he had endured nearly six years of uncertainty, yea, and of celibacy too! By God, he was now thirty-two, and these four years a widower—and he still lacked heirs to inherit the wealth that had been bestowed on him. A man needed a wife and sons. This life he was leading was not natural—and it was all Elizabeth’s fault. Rage—no stranger to him these days—again consumed him.

  At that precise moment the door opened and Elizabeth walked in, alluring in the candlelight in a black velvet nightgown, her burnished hair loose about her shoulders. He sat up with a jolt, unable to believe his eyes.

  “We need to talk, Robin,” she said in her usual forthright way, and sat down on the bed, her face unreadable.

  “I don’t think I want to hear what you have to say,” he replied sullenly, wishing that he didn’t find her so enchanting.

  “It pains me to see us like strangers,” Elizabeth said, “and I have not been fair to you. I see now that I should have been plain from the first, but I thought my plan would only work if you believed that I really meant to marry you to Mary.”

  “And you do not?” he asked, hardly daring to hope.

  “No.” She smiled at him, a touch shamefaced. “It’s complicated, as it always is with me. I know full well that Mary will not marry you and that I am safe in pursuing these negotiations. No, Robin, I have another husband in mind for her, one who will well suit her—and me—but I do not want to be seen putting him forward.”

  “So I am the decoy!” Robert said, understanding dawning.

  “Yes, my Eyes, you are the decoy. You will never know what it has cost me to pursue this policy.” Elizabeth met his gaze. Her eyes were brimming. “I cannot bear us being estranged.”

  Robert shook his head despairingly. “I wish you had told me, Bess. I thought you were testing my loyalty. You could have relied on me to play your game. Another of your games! And you could have spared us both much hurt. I cannot begin to tell you—”

  “Don’t!” she interrupted. “It is in the past now. I just want us to be as we were before. I need you, Robin.”

  “And I need you, Bess.” He bent forward and drew her into his arms. It felt sublime after their long abstinence. “But I need you in a different way. Be mine now! And when all this playacting is over, marry me!”

  Elizabeth responded hungrily. Her urgent lips and fingers told him more than any words could convey. Soon they were riding the storm, oblivious to everything but their passion for each other. Instinct told Robert that this was the moment when he would gain mastery over his queen. Consumed and gasping with long-suppressed desire, he pulled off her gown and rolled her onto her back amidst the disordered bedclothes. Then he mounted her, hard and insistent, and was about to enter her when he sensed her going rigid beneath him—just as she always had.

  “Not now,” he rasped. “I can’t stop. I must have you!”

  “No!” Eliz
abeth squealed. “Please, Robin! Please!”

  Shuddering, he drew back, his breath coming in jagged spurts. She lay there sobbing quietly beside him.

  “I cannot go on like this,” he sighed at length. “Bess, you must trust me. I love you more than I have loved any woman. I will never betray you, or hurt you. If you are worried about my getting you with child, I have come by a device that will prevent it.” He clambered to his knees and reached down into the chest at the foot of the bed. From it he drew a short linen sheath with ribbons attached, and deftly he tied it on.

  “Now you may be sure that no child will ensue,” he declared, lying down beside her once more and taking her again into his embrace.

  Elizabeth had watched the whole performance in dubious silence.

  “It is known to be effective,” Robert promised. “And as we both know, the act of love can hold no terrors for you. It is not as if it would be the first time.” He bent forward and kissed her neck, his hands moving purposefully but gently over her body. He could feel her relaxing. “Come now!” he said, his voice tender.

  Elizabeth knew that denying him at this moment would be the worst thing she could do. She owed him something precious to make up for the suffering he had endured on her account these past months. She had already given him everything else of herself. Could she now give this ultimate gift?

  He was moving against her, desire lively in him. She tried to relax, to tell herself that her fears were as insubstantial as cobwebs and could be blown away as easily. It would be all right. This was the man she loved. It would not be as it had been with the admiral, nor would it end as it had for her father and mother. The heavens would not fall, the executioner was not about to hone his ax, and there would be no blood shed on account of this night. But still she shrank from giving herself. That flimsy bit of linen might yet be the cause of her downfall.

  “Not now, Robin!” she cried. “Wait until we are wed.”

  With an immense effort, Robert drew back once more, his face contorted like that of a man in pain. “I hope you mean it this time,” he gasped.

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