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Elizabeth I - 05 - The Thorne Maze

Karen Harper

  Table of Contents

  Title Page


  The Prologue

  Chapter the First

  Chapter the Second

  Chapter the Third

  Chapter the Fourth

  Chapter the Fifth

  Chapter the Sixth

  Chapter the Seventh

  Chapter the Eighth

  Chapter the Ninth

  Chapter the Tenth

  Chapter the Eleventh

  Chapter the Twelfth

  Chapter the Thirteenth

  Chapter the Fourteenth

  Chapter the Fifteenth

  Chapter the Sixteenth

  Chapter the Seventeenth

  Chapter the Eighteenth

  Earlier Events in Elizabeth’s Life




  Copyright Page

  Our special thanks and much love

  to Jayne Harper Black

  for her gracious Sunshine State hospitality

  And, as ever,

  to Don.

  The Prologue

  In such a manner of labyrinth am I placed …


  JULY 7,1564


  “EVEN ON THIS DAY, DAMNED DEATH SO NEAR …” William Cecil whispered to himself, but the queen overheard him as she walked just ahead.

  Squinting into the late morning sun, Elizabeth of England looked back at her closest advisor. He said naught else, shaking his head as if to scold himself before he noticed her sharp stare.

  “Your meaning for such mutterings, my lord?” she inquired.

  “Forgive me, Your Grace. I warrant we should not have walked back from the church this way, but since it was only a half-furlong to my house …” His voice faded, and he shrugged.

  “The walk is fine,” she assured him. “You know I favor constitutionals in good country air.” Despite the joyous occasion, she had sensed her principal secretary had been of melancholy mind today. His usually careworn countenance had become solemn, and he seemed older than his forty-four years. It was not like him to leave thoughts half-spoken, especially morbid ones. Elizabeth’s unease increased as their small, guarded party wended their way from the church along the fringe of the Convent Garden orchards toward the brick-and-timber facade of Cecil House.

  It was hardly the rural view which had riled Cecil, the queen surmised, so perchance it was the old cemetery clinging to the stony skirts of the church. She surveyed the warren of tilted gravestones guarded by the low wall of St. Clements Dane where she had just attended the christening ceremony of Cecil’s week-old daughter, Elizabeth, named in honor of the Tudor monarch.

  Her Majesty had stood as one of the three godparents for the child. The customary second sponsor of the same sex as the child was Elizabeth’s half-Scottish cousin, Margaret Stewart, Countess of Lennox, the person of second royal rank in the realm. Templar Sutton, the brilliant law lecturer and Cecil’s mentor and friend from his law school days, was the traditional single sponsor of the opposite sex of the newborn. The father and godparents always attended the service while the mother remained at home until she had her own churching ceremony at a later date.

  Elizabeth’s scrutiny of the graveyard finally yielded what could have caused Cecil’s outburst. “Within lies your son’s grave, the child who died two years ago,” she said and motioned he should walk with her apace. She rested a hand on his arm. “Yet you have another daughter and last year Mildred bore you little Robert, so surely all will be well with this new babe, too. But that grave is of the boy who was your namesake and Mildred’s first hope for a son after nine years of marriage.”

  “Your wits are sharp as ever, Your Grace, and I meant not to be morose,” Cecil said, his usually clear voice rough with emotion. “Yes, William’s loss as well as my care for my lady wife has laid me low of late. Truth be told, Mildred’s been distressed since Robert’s birth, though you’ve seen the best of her when she’s come to court. She’ll be fine for a while, then lose herself in the depths of despair. She can become someone I hardly know. I fear baby William’s death and little Robert’s slightly crooked back and frailty are only part of it …”

  His voice broke and faded to nothing again. Cecil silent—now that was momentous and ominous.

  “You are also worried because your first wife died in childbed? Mildred cannot have childbed fever. It’s been a week since the birth.”

  “Your Grace, I meant not to burden you with this, nor to be ungrateful for God’s bounty.” He glanced back at the wet nurse who carried the sleeping, swaddled infant in her arms. As if he would address the commons or the queen’s privy council, he cleared his throat. “I fear Mildred compares my hearty, handsome nineteen-year-old Tom by my first wife—hell-raiser that he is,” he added, “to the lack of robustness of baby Robert, the firstborn surviving son she bore.”

  “I charge you to tell Mildred she must count her blessings she has an heir. I would tell her so myself today, if it weren’t deemed bad luck for the mother to attend any of these festivities.”

  “Mildred greatly admires your womanly wisdom. I’ll tell her, Your Grace. And all this was for your ears only because the last thing I need is for your cousin Margaret to be privy to my affairs, though I make it my business to know hers.”

  “I also, or I would not even have the smug harpy about the court. I trust her and her scheming Papist Scottish husband and her eldest son Lord Darnley as much as I do my ‘dear, devoted cousin Mary of Scots,’ who is the most rapacious schemer out to get my throne I’ve ever known. But I have held it firm through twists and turns these six years, and I shall hold it for my people’s charge and care yet many more. I am but thirty and shall rule even longer than my father did!”

  “Of course, you shall, Your Grace. By the way, Templar also knows Mildred’s state of mind,” he added, with a nod toward his friend, who, with his sprightly wife, brought up the rear of the procession as they neared Cecil House. Templar was somewhat unsteady of step, so by now their party was a bit strung out.

  “You told him before you told me—and I had to nearly pry it from you?” she asked, tapping his arm with her fan, hoping he took her words as banter and not rebuke. “Then you two are closer than I realized,” she mused when he did not defend himself.

  Strangely, Cecil now looked pained, as if she’d accused him of some dire deed. Under the portals of his London home, he glanced back with a frown at his dignified fellow lawyer while they waited for the others to catch up with them.

  “I understand your concern for Mildred’s being out of sorts,” the queen assured him. She spoke quickly, wanting to get this out before they went inside for a light repast. “As unhinged as my dear Kat’s become, I surely know why you don’t want the word out. People presume to gossip, to stare and poke and pry—in my case to whisper that I’ll replace her as First Lady of the Bedchamber or Mistress of the Robes—or even put her away somewhere. But, God as my witness, I never shall, not Kat.”

  “She’s been almost—forgive my bluntness, Your Grace—a mother to you.”

  “She has indeed, and I will take that from you, Cecil, when another dare not say such. So we both have those dearest to us in sad straits and shall search out ways to best treat these malaises of the mind, shall we not?”

  Cecil had no time to answer as Margaret Stewart pressed close to be certain she would be directly behind the queen to enter the doors of Cecil House. Inside t
he threshold, liveried servants scurried to take hats and gloves and proffered trays of cooled Rhenish and sweetmeats. In the bustle, Elizabeth studied the distinguished-looked Templar Sutton and his buxom wife Bettina, for she had never met them before the ceremony. She guessed the silver-haired and –bearded Templar was a good two decades older than his wife.

  “Master Sutton,” Elizabeth said as everyone strolled into the dim, wood-paneled parlor, “you and your wife must come to court, and we shall discuss the state of law and lawyers in my realm.”

  “’Tis a fiercely litigious society we live in, Your Gracious Majesty, though lawyers, necessary and sought after as they may be, are much abused in tales and jests these days. I shall be honored to come at any summons from my queen.”

  He inclined his head and splayed a hand on his chest as if he would declaim a fervid closing argument even now. “And, I must admit,” Templar added, “it has long been a dream of mine to see your great vintage hornbeam maze at Hampton Court.”

  “Then consider the invitation for Hampton. Indeed, my court moves there on the morrow as there have been rumors the dreaded plague will return to the city.”

  “Pray God not, but for today’s occasion, I shall strike a happier note,” Templar said as Cecil came closer. “I must show you what I brought for my new godchild.”

  “As we have no children, Your Majesty,” the dark-eyed Bettina put in, “my husband’s former law students like Lord Cecil and others at your court have been his heirs. Beyond the law, mazes have ever been his passion, and I believe he’s interested more than one student in them, too.” The petite woman spoke with a hint of continental accent, one the queen recognized was, blessedly, neither Spanish nor French, but Italian.

  Templar Sutton produced from a black velvet drawstring bag a handkerchief-sized wooden puzzle, open on top, that resembled an intricate maze. He dropped a wooden ball into its opening, then tipped the piece so that the ball clicked into turns and out of dead ends as it rolled toward the center, which sported an elaborately carved E.

  “Charming and clever, too,” the queen proclaimed. “E for the newborn Elizabeth or the royal one?”

  “For both,” Templar declared, beaming.

  “He gives these to his law students,” Bettina explained, “with a J in the center for Justitia to demonstrate that the law is like a labyrinth.”

  “Or like life, since—” Elizabeth began, then noted with alarm that Mildred Cecil suddenly stood in the doorway of the room.

  She looked like a ghost loosed from limbo. Though Mildred Cooke Cecil was a respected and learned woman, one with strict Puritan leanings, she looked as if she’d been on an all-night debauch. Her hair could have nested birds, her nightrail and gown were pulled awry, and she looked feverish and frenzied. So much, the queen thought, for tradition and ill luck at christenings.

  “Cecil …” the queen murmured, gesturing only with her eyes and the tilt of her head. He turned and gasped to see his wife.

  “If you are going to give Tom the lands at Stamford, what will you give Robert then?” Mildred cried as if they had been in the midst of a deep, privy conversation.

  Cecil moved instantly toward her, but she tried to shake him off. “Robert shall inherit the new property,” Cecil said, his voice low and restrained, “and the grand house yet to be built. Come, Mildred, back to your bed.”

  She leaned far out to nearly topple the spare Cecil as he tried to steer her from the room. Her loosed hair swinging wildly, half covering her face, Mildred looked past his shoulder at the queen.

  “Are you taking him away again—back to court?” she cried. “I cannot be without him, cannot lose him!”

  “Do not fear, my lady,” Elizabeth said as everyone else gawked. “You have borne your lord a lovely child, and your family needs you.”

  “It is you who needs a lord and child, Your Majesty!” Mildred shouted, then pulled free of Cecil and ran from the room with him in quick pursuit.

  Everyone stood silent and still. Elizabeth felt her face flush. “It’s some sort of fever talking,” she said, turning away to look out the window as if naught were amiss. But she was astounded by the behavior of the tormented woman, as bewildering as the convoluted dementia which oft possessed her dear Kat. And sometimes, if God’s truth be told, she thought, even Elizabeth of England, the calm and courageous, the grand and great, floundered in the dark turns and dead-end agonies of her own fears.

  Chapter the First

  JULY 17, 1564


  “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 ti
me. 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.”