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The Queen's Pleasure
By BRANDY PURDY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 Brandy Purdy
All rights reserved.
Amy Robsart Dudley
Cumnor Place, Berkshire, near Oxford Sunday, September 8, 1560
The hot bath feels heavenly — the billowing clouds of steam caress my face as they rise, like warm and comforting angels' wings — but it has also sapped my strength. I feel lightheaded, and a little dizzy and faint, with a persistent fear of falling should I dare attempt to stand. Part of me wants to give up, to surrender to the desire for sleep that never leaves me now, to lay myself down in the arms of Lethargy and never rise again. Now, each time I sleep, I feel as if I am floating out to sea, and the tether that binds my boat to the shore is stretching farther, growing frailer, and fraying more and more. Sometimes it scares me, and sometimes I don't even care; I turn my back to the shore, stare straight ahead, and face the horizon boldly, ready to drift away and leave all my pains and woes behind me. Nausea stirs deep inside my stomach, like a serpent slowly uncoiling and waking grumpily from its slumber, just enough to make me aware of it but not so urgent as to send me grasping for the basin that is now never beyond my reach. But I say nothing of this to dear Mrs. Pirto, who has attended me faithfully and lovingly for all of my eight-and-twenty years, as a nursemaid turned lady's maid turned nurse again; it would only distress her, and she worries so about me; my failed marriage and failing health are the cause of most of the lines on that kind and careworn face and have turned her ebony hair to pewter and dingy silver.
From my bath I can see the sky, black and starless, through the high, arched windows, yet one more reminder that monks once made their home at Cumnor, for two hundred years or more, before King Henry ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and cast their cloistered inhabitants out to fend for themselves in a confusing and frightening, often unkind world. Before Cumnor fell into private hands, my spacious apartment was divided up into several stark and tiny monks' cells furnished with only the bare necessities — a hard-as-a-board cot to sleep upon, with a chamber pot hidden underneath, and a crucifix looking down on its occupant from high upon the wall, to remind him that God is always watching us. Sometimes I fancy that I can still see their faint outlines, like the ghosts of those banished crosses haunting their former home. In spite of myself, I smile and blush a little at the thought that a monk's cot might even have sat right here where I sit now, naked in my bath.
No doubt to the simple country folk hereabouts it seems like the height of extravagant folly or absurdity — like the French king's mistress bathing in a tub filled with crushed strawberries to preserve her famous beauty — my rising when it is still as black as tar outside to take my bath. Many already think me a woman of a strange mind. But it's a soothing and peculiar kind of peace, to sit in a candlelit bath while most of the world still sleeps, and I like it, and even though I am naked, I feel less vulnerable somehow. I like the quiet solitude of sitting in my bath, luxuriating in its warmth undisturbed, before the sunrise and the busy bustle of the day begins, hours before there are voices downstairs and outside the windows, the clatter of cart wheels and horses' hooves in the courtyard, the laughing, joyfully raised voices of children playing, servants calling to one another, and footsteps and chatter in the Long Gallery outside my room where I used to walk up and down before I became so weak, and below stairs the gossip of servants and the crash and clang of kitchen pots. Though Cumnor is in reality four separate households under a shared roof, and I keep to myself most of the time, the other ladies who lodge here are more social creatures than I, and each thinks that she is the queen bee here, and over this entire hive reigns. There is the ancient Mrs. Owen, the mother of Cumnor's owner, Dr. George Owen, who, like the mouse who bravely pulled a thorn from the lion's paw, received it as a reward for his attendance on King Henry's sore and seeping leg; and the plainspoken, sometimes tart-tongued Mrs. Forster, wife of Sir Anthony Forster, my husband's treasurer, who holds the current lease on Cumnor; and his mistress, the widow Mrs. Oddingsells, one of those rare women who seem to grow more attractive and alluring as they age. My servants dart about Cumnor like busy bees doing whatever they are told to do regardless of who gives the commands; sometimes they don't even have time for me, they are so busy doing Mrs. Owens's, Mrs. Oddingsells's, or Mrs. Forster's bidding. But I let it go; I am too tired to complain, it would take more strength than it is worth, and I just don't care anymore. Besides, I like being here with only Pirto to attend me, free from the fear that some well-intentioned or curious maidservant will come knocking and catch a glimpse of my pain-wracked body and ruined left breast when Pirto opens the door, or will even boldly cross the threshold and ogle me, while pretending not to, so she can tell the others what she has seen, as she delivers a stack of fresh linens or a package from my husband containing a pretty piece of apparel to lift my spirits, or the latest doctor's or witch's brew calculated to restore my health or more likely hasten me to my grave if I were fool enough to drink it. With rumors rife in London and spreading throughout the land, and even across the sea, that Robert and his royal paramour mean to poison me, I would be a fool to let any potion he sent cross my lips. But the colors are pretty, and I sometimes set the glass bottles on my windowsill so that when the sun strikes them just right, rays of amber, ruby, emerald, and lemon light shoot into my room like a rainbow to fight the clammy gloom of Cumnor's gray stone walls and floors.
Outside my windows the sky is as dark as black velvet, with not a star in sight to provide even a pinprick of diamond-white light, and the silver coin of the moon has been spent. It's strange, but before the cancer burrowed into or erupted out of my breast, whichever description fits it best, I never realized how dark it is before the dawn. It frightens me yet at the same time makes me feel so grateful and glad to be safe and warm inside my room with numerous candles all about, beside a comforting fire that crackles with flames that move and sway and leap like dancers in red, yellow, and orange costumes, instead of wandering lost, stumbling and staggering blindly, out there in the dark, feeling likely to jump out of my skin at every noise, whether it be a rustle of branches in the breeze, the hoot of an owl, the trill of a night bird, or the howl of a beast. The thought of being enfolded by darkness terrifies me and makes me shiver despite the warmth of my fireside bath. I am so afraid that that is what death will be like. What if Heaven is only a comforting myth, a fairy story to reassure the faithful, to instill hope instead of horror, peace instead of panic, calm instead of a frenzy to cram full and make each moment count? What if death is really the permanent cessation of light and an eternal reign of darkness, like being wrapped 'round and 'round and suffocated in a bolt of heavy black velvet, unable to breathe or see or move, locked in stultifying black stillness forevermore?
Sometimes I dream that I awake in black-velvet darkness to feel a pair of strong hands about my throat intent on squeezing the life out of me. It's funny in a way, I used to be so afraid of the city, the country used to seem such a safe haven to me, and London with all its crime, bustle, and brawls the epitome of danger, yet now I realize, secluded here in the country, that if anyone came meaning harm to me, if they chose their moment well, no one would hear me scream. I know now that I was wrong to insist on solitude. If anyone should come to me with murder in mind, I have colluded in my own demise, I have made it easier; all a killer has to do is wait and choose his moment well, and Justice will turn a blind eye.
Hot tears fill my eyes and threaten to spill over as I gasp and shiver. Gazing at me with deep concern, Pirto starts to speak, but I shake my head and reassuringly murmur, "It's all right, Pirto. Come." I force a smile. "Let's wash my hair now. I want to look my best today!"
I mustn't spoil dear Pirto's day; up until the last moment she must think this is one of my good days, and I am excited about going to the fair.
I close my eyes and lean back as she ladles warm water onto my head and begins to massage my scalp and, from root to tip, to work in a special chamomile and lemon blend to make my hip-length yellow hair shine like straw miraculously spun into curls of living gold, as though King Midas himself had touched my head. "Harvest gold" — years ago my husband dubbed its color as he lay upon me in a bed of buttercups by the river, our favorite trysting spot, playing with my sun-streaked hair, stroking and fanning it out above and about my head like rays of the sun, likening it to a bountiful wheat harvest flourishing proudly beneath the sun that daily bestowed a thousand kisses upon it. "Hair with a luster that puts gold to shame," he said, then kissed my face and declared that my cheeks were "as pink as the sweet roses of May." He has such a way with words, my husband; his letters used to make me melt like butter left out under the hot summer sun. Does he lie by the fire with Elizabeth and fan her red hair out around her head whilst in poetic words comparing it to the dancing, crackling flames, I wonder? Does he make her melt too? And is she fool enough like I was to love, trust, and believe him?
I sigh and breathe deeply of the lemons' tart tang and the fresh, clean smell of the chamomile, a combination at once soothing and invigorating. I wonder if this was made from chamomile I helped gather before I became too ill. I can't help but smile at the memory of my former self standing young and strong amongst the sun-kissed flowers with a straw hat crowning my wild, wayward hair to keep my fair skin from freckling or worse — Robert would be horrified if he came riding up for a visit and found his wife burned as red as a boiled crayfish or looking like "The Nut-Brown Maid" stepped out of her song — with a basket slung over the crook of my arm, and my skirts tucked up to my knees, and the grass tickling my bare ankles and toes.
I was never sick a day in my life before this disease! I used to be a strong, happy, country lass, pretty, pink-cheeked, and smiling, brimming over with health and vigor. Not rawboned, big, and brawny like a blacksmith in petticoats, but hale and hearty, round and rosy, not like a fashionable, porcelain-skinned lady of the court who would like the world to think that she is as delicate and fragile as an eggshell, a treasure to be handled with the utmost care lest it shatter beneath the slightest pressure. I sometimes think that the real tragedy of my marriage is that for Robert the novelty of what I was paled against the reality of what I wasn't.
As soon as it is light enough outside to see, everyone will be stirring, alive with excitement and anticipation, fidgeting through their chores and the church service at St. Michael's like children eager to go outside and play. Today the Fair of Our Lady opens in Abingdon. I have given all my servants leave to attend and cajoled the other ladies to do the same, to make this Sunday not just a holy day but a holiday, a happy day. I want them all to do what I cannot — to forget their cares and woes, and frolic, laugh at the antics of the jugglers, acrobats, dancing dogs, puppet shows, and clowns, to dance and sing, have their fortunes told, ask a question of "The Learned Pig," gape in wonderment at the living oddities like the two-headed sheep, test their strength and skill and win a prize for their sweetheart, and glut themselves on cider and cake until their bellies feel fit to burst, and spend their hard-earned pennies on trinkets and frivolities from the peddlers who follow the fair like fleas after a dog.
My servants have been so good to me, putting up with all my pains and whims, all my tears and fears, my melancholy and maudlin fancies — if they really are fancies. There are times when I am not sure anymore what is real and what isn't. I know it is what they are paid to do, but it is no fun or easy task attending a sick woman, breathing in the stink and stale air of the sickroom, the endless changing of pus-stained dressings, laundering sweat-sodden bedsheets and night shifts, emptying basins and chamber pots, carrying in trays of nourishing broth that like as not will be carried out again untouched or nearly so, the applications of ointments to flesh that is at once alive and festering with disease and pain yet also decaying, dying right before any eyes that dare look upon it, whether it be in curiosity, revulsion, compassion, or necessity.
Death put His mark on my breast, and it is now spreading throughout my body. Sometimes I fancy I can feel it swimming through my veins like a school of tiny fish. And soon He will take my life as well. Death will take my heart in His hand and squeeze it until it ceases to beat and lies squashed, broken, and bleeding in the palm of His hand, both merciless and merciful at the same time.
My mind is already giving way. Already there are fissures through which fantasy and suspicion seep in and become hopelessly blended with my reason, and the resulting mixture is not pleasing to anyone, least of all me. It frustrates and bewilders me to always have to stop and wonder and ask myself, and sometimes even to swallow my pride and ask others, if something truly happened or if I only dreamt or imagined it. I used to be a woman with a calm and steady, sensible mind, possessed of good country common sense, dependable and reliable. Despite my very feminine love of fashions and finery, I was never a woman who could be called frivolous or featherbrained.
I used to be the chatelaine of my father's estate. My mother was a rich widow who never had much interest in such things. She preferred the life of a pampered invalid, lounging her life away in bed, propped up against a mountain of pillows, munching sweetmeats, gossiping with the friends and family who came calling, and showing off one or another of her pretty lace-trimmed caps and bed gowns, so I took charge of the household as soon as I was old enough. I kept account of 3,000 sheep — the lambing, the shearing, the wool sales, those animals sold for mutton at market — I tallied the profits and the losses and kept account of the barley crop, the yield from our famed apple orchard and other fruit trees, the berry picking, the brewing of cider and ale, the salting of meat for winter, the milk, butter, and cream from our cool stone dairy, the honey from the hives, the distillery where we made our own perfumes and medicines and dried herbs and flower petals for sachets and potpourri to sweeten our rooms and the chests where we stored our clothes and bed linens; I oversaw the larder and wine cellar and made sure they were always well stocked, with plenty to eat and drink, barrels of dried fruits and salted meats, and jams and jellies to delight us with summer fruits in wintertime. I supervised the laundry and candle-making, planned the meals with our cook, and dispensed charity, packing and giving out baskets of food, clothing, and medicines to the poor, ailing, and elderly. I rode out daily to inspect the fields, orchards, and pastures. I used to be able to do it all! Father used to say I was a paragon of efficiency!
But now ... Now there is no work for me to do even if I were able. Now I sit in the homes of strangers as a gracious, idle, and ailing houseguest with too much time on my hands and weighing heavily upon my mind. I was brought up to believe that idle hands are the Devil's tool, but I think that is equally true of an idle mind. Rumors, fears, and fancies prey on me, they bite deeply like fanged monsters, and I can no longer distract myself and stave them off with work as I used to do. It is not just my body that is failing. Now my mind is a mass of contradictions — I think or say one thing and then another, I veer from the highest heights of hope to the deepest pit of dark despair, one moment joy rules my life, then, in a finger snap, I am fury incarnate or drowning in deep blue doldrums; I grasp greedily at life yet long for death, I fight to survive and then sink down, ready to yield, admit defeat, and surrender. I've lost control of my own mind, and I don't know what I want anymore when I used to be so certain. I've strayed so far from the woman I was and the woman I always meant and wanted to be. I've lost my way, and now it is too late to remedy my course, to stop, stand still, get my bearings, and think, turn back to the crossroads of Fate and choose a different path. As my father would say: "You've made your bed, Amy my lass, and now you have to lie in it!"
Some rumors already claim that I am a madwoman kept chained in an attic for my own good and the safety of others and that loyal Pirto is not my maid turned nurse but actually my keeper.
Excerpted from The Queen's Pleasure by BRANDY PURDY. Copyright © 2012 Brandy Purdy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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