Chapter the First
JULY 17, 1564
HAMPTON COURT PALACE
“I’M ECSTATIC TO HAVE MY DEAR MARY BACK AT court,” Elizabeth said as Kat helped her fasten on her sleeve a mermaid pin that her friend Mary Sidney had given her long ago.
“Too many Marys about you to keep straight anymore,” Kat groused. “It’s a good thing you call Mary Radcliffe Rosie.”
Kat’s head seemed to be quite clear today and that lifted the queen’s spirits even more. The older woman often had trouble recalling recent events and slipped back into the past, too often a painful past. But it was only recently Elizabeth had nicknamed her young maid of honor Rosie, partly because her surname meant “red diff” and partly for her blushing complexion.
“I hope you don’t include Mary, Queen of Scots among my Marys,” Elizabeth told her long-time companion. She patted Kat’s arm, longing to be able to command her to be young and strong again, despite the increasingly frail form, graying hair, and web of wrinkles.
Kat, First Lady of the Bedchamber and Mistress of the Robes, walked the customary two steps back and a single yeoman of the guard brought up the rear as the three of them left the privy chambers of the queen. Chatting, nodding, Elizabeth and Kat wended their way through the public rooms, stuffed with chatting courtiers. With the guard still in their wake, they turned into the library and walked out the other side into a back hallway to leave the others behind. Immediately, Elizabeth slowed her steps and linked her arm in Kat’s as they strolled companionably toward Mary’s rooms in the wing near the Chapel Royal.
Mary Sidney, sister to Elizabeth’s former favorite, Robert Dudley, had once been her closest friend at court. But the busy wife, mother, and lady of the bedchamber had been stricken with smallpox when Mary and Kat nursed Elizabeth through her nearly fatal battle with that dread disease. Although the queen bore few pock marks, Mary’s case had been more virulent, and the once beautiful woman was dreadfully disfigured with pits and scars.
Though Elizabeth could not bear to part with her, Mary had begged that she be able to retire from court to her rural home of Penshurst in Kent. Elizabeth missed her greatly and visited when her busy schedule allowed it. Even at home, Mary went veiled and, the few times she came to court, remained a recluse, seeing only Elizabeth, Kat, her own family members, and servants.
“No, I don’t include Mary, Queen of Scots,” Kat said, when the queen, this time, had quite forgotten their conversation. “She wants your crown, and she’ll not have it, not have anything of yours, lovey.”
“Not even my candidate for whom she would marry, though she pretends to ask me for my advice on that. But to keep her from wedding a Catholic to breed dangerous rivals to my throne, I shall suggest someone I know will be faithful to me.”
“Not Lord Darnley?” Kat asked. “Oh, he’s handsome enough for Mary’s tastes, I credit, and his mix of noble Scots and royal Tudor blood must make him a tasty morsel for her.”
“No, not Darnley. I cannot see one sound reason to promote him with her except it would rid my court of his simpering, fawning presence—and he’d mayhap take his crafty dam and sire with him.”
“Then, of course,” Kat added as they entered the corridor outside Mary Sidney’s rooms, “your sister Mary’s probably going to want to have her say in all these royal marriage doings.”
Elizabeth jolted as if she’d taken a fist in the stomach. Her sister had been dead nigh on six years. Worse, if Mary Tudor weren’t long deceased, Elizabeth would not be queen, so even Kat’s reasoning had deserted her this time. Just when she hoped Kat was somewhat improved from the treatments Elizabeth’s herbalist, Meg Milligrew, had brewed to help her, Kat’s mind had slipped again.
“Do you ever feel her presence in this hall?” Kat asked as if naught were amiss.
“Mary Sidney’s or my sister Mary’s?”
“Queen Catherine Howard’s, of course. They say her ghost walks here—or rather runs,” she whispered. “More than one have seen her.”
At least, the queen thought, Kat had that much right, for she’d heard of the ghost from time to time. King Henry VIII’s young fifth wife had been beheaded for adultery over twenty years ago. It was here Catherine had run from her bedchamber toward the Chapel Royal to beg her husband not to send her to the Tower, here where he had ordered her dragged away to imprisonment and death.
The queen’s footsteps faltered when her companion bumped into her. Keeping Kat close was a double burden of late: by day she too oft lived in the past; by night, she suffered from frightful dreams. Elizabeth hated sickness, and she did not need the painful past hauled from its grave and paraded by. But she would care for Kat—as Kat had nursed and comforted her from before she could recall anything of her life.
Elizabeth glanced up and down the bright hall. Surely no ghosts lurked here now. On the outer edge of the building, several deep-set windows overlooking a kitchen court below threw light upon the old oak floor. Dust motes spun in the air amid the slant of sunbeams, for several casements were set ajar to let in fresh air. To their right were the doors of bedchambers that lined the white-washed hall which connected the state rooms to the chapel.
“I do not believe in ghosts, but for those in one’s head, my Kat.” Elizabeth whispered, too, until she realized it, and said more loudly, “My father once said ghosts are but unburied secrets and bad consciences, and surely he knew whereof he spoke on that. Let’s see Mary now—our friend Mary Sidney—and talk only of happy times and things.”
Elizabeth gestured for her yeoman guard Stackpole to wait down the hall, and knocked on the door herself. Elizabeth stiffened her backbone for that first sight of her friend, for it ever jolted her anew, not only that Mary was prisoner of a monstrous appearance but that she herself had escaped such a fate. Mary’s young tiring woman opened the door, swept the queen a low curtsy, and stepped out, closing it behind her.
“No, do not curtsy to me,” Elizabeth insisted and hugged her friend before she could bend a knee. As always, Mary wore a veil, a thin one this time. But with window light behind, the queen could glimpse her ravaged complexion. “What is the point of formalities here, as above all we are fast friends.”
“Because you are ever, always my queen, too,” Mary replied gently. “And it is so good to see your—your lovely face, Your Majesty.”
“I have said you must call me Elizabeth,” the queen insisted, squeezing Mary’s pock-marked hands. “I am so glad you are here. I must tell you, I ordered full-faced masks for the masque this evening, so that you might attend and feel no fear of anyone staring. Every lady in the play will be dressed identically to you down to flaxen wigs, so no one will even know it’s you. I shall order that we not unmask and let them all guess even who is their queen this night. And, of course, you may portray one of the five wise virgins in the play and not a foolish one.”
“It is all so thoughtful of you, as are all the letters and gifts you’ve sent,” Mary said, as she and Kat hugged, too. “But cannot it be enough that I am here at court? I must beg off moving among my former friends, even disguised. Everyone would be so curious as to which player is poor Mary Sidney. I cannot comply, and pray you will understand, my friend Elizabeth.”
Mary sniffed once from behind the veil as she indicated where Elizabeth should sit. “It is bad enough to bear the pity of my children,” she added quietly, “and my dear lord.”
“A lord who is loyal and loves you yet, no matter what,” Elizabeth insisted. It was as much a command as a question, for the queen would brook no disloyalty in her realm’s marriages. She’d seen enough of that and the destruction it wrought.
“Of course, and Robin’s been steadfast, too,” Mary said as the three of them sat, Elizabeth and Mary on a padded bench under the single window and Kat on the coffer at the end of the curtained bed. “It was a joy to have our Robin visit Penshurst after his business journey, so I must thank you too for giving him leave to go from court for a time.”
Robin was the nickname those close to Robert Dudley, Elizabeth included, called Mary’s brother. As soon as the throne was hers, Elizabeth had named him to her highly visible post of Master of Horse and later Warden of Windsor Castle. She had secretly desired Robin from the days they were prisoners in the Tower, but when his wife Amy had died in mysterious circumstances, the queen had sent him away from court and tried to shield her heart from his power over her. She had long ago summoned him back, but tried desperately to keep him at arm’s length. She loved him yet, and damn the man, he knew it.
“Our Robin?” the queen queried. “I hope you mean you and your kin, for he is not my Robin. But did he not return with you to court then?”
“Yes, and bid me beg you for a time and privy place to get—well, caught up on things a bit with you.”
“Playing Cupid, Mary?” Kat put in, though Elizabeth thought the older woman looked as if she hadn’t been listening, at least to them. She’d cocked her head and had been glaring at the door as if she heard something strange in the hall.
“I am merely relaying a message between two good friends,” Mary declared as she passed Elizabeth a small silver plate with candied figs and suckets.
“Why did he not directly ask me to meet him?” Elizabeth demanded, frowning at her selection.
“He is going to be busy in the royal stables for several hours because your Araby mare is about to foal. But tonight after the masque …”
“Ah, good, for I’ve missed riding her,” Elizabeth said, but her mind raced for a privy yet nearby place to meet him. She thought of the maze, for she was soon to meet her guests Templar Sutton and his wife there. She could get away after the masque, just for a few moments, of course. “Tell him the entrance to the maze then,” the queen clipped out, “and if he stands me up for a horse, even my Araby, I’ll have his head.”
“Then he can haunt the maze,” Kat said, her mouth full of a candied fig. “As for now, I warrant someone’s listening at this keyhole.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Elizabeth said. “My guard or Mary’s maid is out there, that is all.”
But to calm Kat’s nerves, the queen got up and went to the door herself. She pulled it open and, seeing no one, stuck her head out. No guard, no tiring woman, no one in the whole corridor.
“Hell’s teeth, I’ll sack the lout for this!” the queen muttered and stepped out to look up and down the hall for her guard. Inside, she could hear Mary talking soothingly to Kat. Undecided whether to shout for the man or just step inside and bolt the door until he returned, Elizabeth hesitated when she heard someone.
Light, quick steps, probably a woman, Mary’s servant, or someone coming to explain that the guard had suddenly taken ill. A rustling skirt nearby, a panting breath, but no one in sight.
The air moved across the queen’s flushed face as if someone had rushed past. Footfalls faded in the other direction, and the slightest aroma of gillyflowers wafted on the air, when the queen never wore that scent.
The hair on the back of Elizabeth’s neck prickled; she broke out in an immediate sweat. Nothing—still nothing in the hall at all. Surely not Catherine Howard’s ghost? And in broad daylight? Elizabeth pressed her back against door and stared in the direction the sounds and scent had gone. She jumped as the door behind her swept open.
“Lovey,” Kat said, “are you quite all right? Who was it then?”
“Nothing to cause a stir.” She shook her head to clear it. Obviously, the corridor was so strangely wrought with those deep-set windows that sounds echoed here from the kitchens and courtyard below. And scents no doubt blew in too, gillyflowers from Meg Milligrew’s herb gardens. That was the logical explanation, and, she thought, like any lawyer worth his salt, she prided herself in her logic.
“It’s nothing,” she repeated, hoping to calm her pounding pulse.
Although her new baby had quieted at last, the crying seemed to echo in Mildred Cecil’s very soul. Grateful when the wet nurse carried little Elizabeth to the nursery down the hall, Mildred closed the door to her bedchamber to mute further noise. At least little Robert was sleeping, but she could hear her eight-year-old Anne, squealing at some game of tag or bowls outside.
Mildred strode to the oriel window that overlooked the spacious gardens of their London house. She felt cooped up here, but her lord must keep close to the queen, ever at her beck and call. The court had moved upriver to Hampton Court, and he’d gone with her, leaving Mildred behind to oversee shifting her household to their northern home at Stamford ninety miles north of London, lest the plague increase here. Too bad it would take years to build a great house on the new land at Theobalds, for that would be much closer, even if it might never have her husband’s heart as Stamfbrd—and his son Thomas—did.
Always queen’s business, the kingdom’s care calling her lord, Mildred fretted, hitting her fist on the window frame. She hated herself for begrudging her husband’s work for their realm and religion and their brilliant and bold Protestant queen. William Cecil thrived on it all, and his wife had been so proud of him, but lately it all dragged her down.
God help her, Mildred thought, her children, whom she loved like her own life, annoyed her, too, even her innocent babes, but especially her twenty-two-year-old stepson Thomas, whose voice she could hear now entwined with Anne’s.
Peering out the window, she could not see Anne, whom they yet called Tannekin for her early childish pronunciation of her own name. “I’ll tell my lady mother!” the girl screeched.
Doors banged. Footsteps sounded, coming closer, closer in the house.
“Ha, I’ve got you now, you ninnyhammer—you little tattale!” Thomas’s voice boomed.
“Just you shut your trap! You pushed me in the rose bushes, and my gown’s all snagged. I’m going to tell on you no matter what you say.”
Anne burst into the room, but her first impassioned words blurred in Mildred’s ears. The slender girl was red as a rose with sunhat askew, tendrils loose, and her skirts snagged indeed.
The handsome, tall Tom looked as if he would chase and harass her the more. But when he saw his stepmother, he halted and, crossing his arms nonchalantly, leaned in the doorway as if to flaunt his fine face and athletic form.
“I’d admonish you, Thomas,” Mildred said, “to torment someone of your own size and sex, but I know that you do that too in your caperings and scrapes about town.”
He shrugged. “She’s the one who begged me to play with her. I can’t help it she darted into the privet hedge. And don’t bother to give me a dressing-down, as I’m sure Father will when his little Tannekin tells him I’ve been picking on her.”
As charming a young man as Thomas could be, Mildred marveled that he could make himself so disagreeable. From the first, no love had been lost between them, for he oft placed on a pedestal his dead mother, who died when he was so young he could surely not recall her. Mildred sighed inwardly again, wanting to say something to soothe and forgive, but that’s not what came out of her mouth.
“Your hard-working, disciplined, God-fearing father,” she declared, “is driven to distraction by your wastrel ways, as am I. Here he was this past winter, trying to make a fine marriage match for you while he sent you to the Continent to study, and you—”
“And I spent his coin and chased other sorts of doxies besides this one, eh?” he said with a sharp laugh and wink at his stepsister.
“Mother,” Tannekin cried, “I’m not a doxy, am I? What’s a doxy?”
“Go downstairs and have Cook give you something cool to drink,” Mildred ordered the girl, who obeyed, though she flounced from the room most unladylike.
“I’ll give you good day and a view of my backside, too,” Tom clipped out before she could scold him. “I don’t need a pious lecture from you if I’m in for another drubbing from Father. Of your growing brood, we all know his precious little Tannekin is still the favorite, do we not?”
And he was gone. Mildred stood staring at the empty door, wanting to ward off his sly stab that Cecil preferred Anne to their heir Robert. Mildred had the strangest urge to run after the boy and choke him. She was too busy, that’s all, so much to do here, so much to oversee. She wanted just to run away for good. How did her husband manage to keep his sanity with all his burdens of queen and country? He ought to be here more. The queen kept him away.
“Dearest, good news!” Her husband’s voice from the hall so surprised her that she thought she had imagined it at first so she could vent her spleen on him. Home unannounced. In the middle of the day. And from Hampton Court upriver, not just nearby Whitehall?
“I could use some good news,” she said, forcing a smile when he strode into the room and swirled his riding cape onto a chair.
“Since you are recovered from the birth,” he told her, clasping his hands in his excitement, “the babe is thriving, and our household is heading for Stamford, Her Grace has bid me fetch you to court for a few days.”
“That’s a wonder, after how I behaved when she was here.” She found herself resenting the queen’s meddling instead of being grateful for her goodness, but she tried not to let on. Though Mildred was strictly Protestant with a Puritan bent, she usually enjoyed the queen’s company. As two of the most learned ladies of the land, they delighted to speak Greek and Latin together. Yet, Mildred thought, to have all those people about, their eyes probing, their mouths moving as they talked and gossiped … mayhap about her carrying on the day of the christening …
“When shall we go then?” she asked, relieved at least to be escaping both London and rural Stamford and—God forgive her—her noisy, troublesome brood.
“Today, my love. I need to get back today.”
“But—all the packing. The planning …”
“Don’t fuss. There will be no real frivolity at court, so the tenor of the times will suit you,” he added, putting his arms around her. “And Templar Sutton’s visiting, so the talk’s all been very scholarly.”
“And his wife, too?” she clipped out before she could stop herself.
“I thought you’d be glad to go with me.” He tilted her back to study her face. “I had hopes it might lift your spirits.”
Mildred wanted to scream at him that her spirits felt scraped raw, but she forced a stiff smile. “I shall pack my things while you look in on Robert and the babe. Oh, and your Tannekin’s downstairs. And Thomas is in his usual choleric disposition.”
“Instead of to Stamford, I’m sending him to join the Sidney boys at their Penshurst for a while, hoping their gentlemanly ways will rub off on him. I swear, I’ll make him a man worthy of his heritage yet.”
“Or one of us will die trying,” Mildred whispered as she turned away to summon the servants.
Copyright © 2003 by Karen Harper. Excerpt from The Queene’s Christmas © 2003 by Karen Harper.