The Queen's Bastard: A Novel448
The Queen's Bastard: A Novel448
Set against the sweeping, meticulously rendered backdrop of court intrigues, international scandals, and England's battle against the Spanish Armada, The Queen's Bastard deftly juxtaposes Elizabeth and Leicester's tumultuous relationship with the memoirs of the adventurous son lost to them yet ultimately discovered.
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My Father is dead and my Mother is Queen of England.
The handwriting on the first page of the blue leather journal was bold in stroke and plain in design. The author, a tall, powerfully built man, gazed out across the vast expanse of sea, his red-gold hair whipping sharply round a strong-boned jaw. The face was deeply lined and ruggedly handsome, with searing black eyes that blazed with a fine intelligence. As he steadied the volume he held upon his knees, he hoped the ocean would remain calm and the winds too, for he was unused to such writing, and was hard pressed enough putting his thoughts to paper without this tilting ship sending his inkwell flying or the pages flapping about in the breeze.
Far off to starboard a flock of gulls in straggling formation caught his gaze. Probably making for the Canary Isles, he thought, but a long way for gulls to be from land. Dipping his quill in the inkwell at his knee, he began again, considering each word before committing it to the vellum page.
My name is Arthur Dudley, he wrote. These are words which ring to my own ears as strange and ungainly, but they are nevertheless good and true. That which follows is not a diary, for until the events of several years past I had thought so little of my own life and condition that the conceit of journal keeping had entered my mind never once. Instead, this document constitutes the twenty-seven years of my history as best I remember it. A memoir. Tis odd that such a plain life as my own should be worthy of remembrance. But as I have said, Iam the son of a Queen and therefore mentionable.
The creak of the sails on the mizzen as the wind shifted pulled him sharply back to the deck, the day, the sun dipping toward the western horizon. He sought the flock of gulls, but they were no longer off to starboard, nor were they dead ahead where he expected they would have traveled. How could this be? The birds had been in the air a moment before. He scanned the sky round him. There! The flock was a diminishing speck still flying low, but off the port side.
"I have been lost," said Arthur to himself, "lost within the words I have been writing." Time, he realized with a pang, had simply vanished, gone whilst within the thrall of memory a bit of natural magic. Arthur Dudley smiled with the thought. Each day of his voyage to the New World he could write his life, and for those few moments would become a conjurer of time.
"He is here, Your Majesty." Kat Ashley's voice was grave, and she made no attempt to hide her displeasure. The fifty-two-year-old waiting lady observed with annoyance that the young queen, who now primped before her dressing table, bothered equally little to suppress her delight. "If you do not mind my saying so, Madame ..."
"But I do mind, Kat, I mind very much indeed. I have no need to be reminded of the scandal over Amy Dudley's death. I know it quite well already."
Kat Ashley snorted. "Your favorite wears his mourning black all right, but he struts about, a peacock all fine and glowing with good health, like a man just back from taking the waters instead of a widower come from a funeral, not to say a suspect in a murder inquest."
"Would you have my loyal friend looking grey and ill, then?"
"Never, Your Majesty." Kat realized winning an argument with the Queen was impossible. "Never in a thousand years. Shall I show him in?"
"No ... just one moment more." Elizabeth took stock of herself in the silver-framed looking glass and prayed her nervousness would not be apparent. She looked well enough. The three months of her lover's enforced absence enforced by herself had been a strain, certainly. She had suffered more than her share of migraines and head colds. But now her eyes were bright, her skin beautifully pale and opalescent, and her red-gold hair a wavy halo round her perfectly oval face.
Elizabeth's long graceful fingers unconsciously sought a large silver locket she wore at her throat, one she'd recently taken to wearing, and she grasped it for comfort. 'Twas no ordinary bauble, this, but a valued keepsake. Not a soul knew that inside it nestled a miniature of her long dead mother, Anne Boleyn, and a lock of that lady's dark silky hair.
Her black taffeta and brocade gown heightened the whiteness of the Queen's flesh, but this day the choice of attire was dictated not by vanity but by respect for the dead Amy Dudley and the return to Court of Amy's husband. Elizabeth's favorite. Her Master of the Horse. Her beloved. Robin Dudley.
Elizabeth rose from her dressing table. She was tall for a woman, almost unnaturally tall, but her father King Henry had been a giant of a man. She was slender as a reed, and the stays and underpinnings of her heavy gown held her torso rigid. The only allowances for graceful effect were her arms and hands, the tilt of her head, and her rich, modulated voice.
"This will be the last day of mourning attire," she suddenly announced to Kat Ashley. "Have Lady Sidney see to my wardrobe after she's had a moment to greet her brother."
"Yes, Madame. And which gown will Her Majesty wish to wear first," inquired Kat, her voice acid with sarcasm, "the scarlet one?"
"Katherine Ashley!" Elizabeth's eyes flashed furiously.
"I'll show Lord Robert in," murmured the unrepentant waiting lady and bustled from the Queen's bedchamber.
It was the longest Elizabeth had been without him. Since her accession to the throne two years before, she had insisted that Robin, her dear friend from the age of eight, be at her side continually. His appointment as Horsemaster had guaranteed his close company, and their passionate love affair had borne him on a great wave of aggrandizement at her hand. But it had gained him more jealous enemies at Court than friends. He had nevertheless weathered his raising with good nature and astounding grace, and despite the barbs and criticisms from every direction, Elizabeth had never once questioned his love and loyalty.
Then his wife Amy had died under mysterious circumstances, and the hated courtier had fallen under suspicion. With leaden heart, Elizabeth had banished him from Court to his house at Kew until the coroner's inquest would, hopefully, establish his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Elizabeth had endured their separation in a wholly disquieted state, for she had only recently completed the reading of her mother's secret diary. Filled with revelations shocking to the young queen, the writings had illuminated the nature of the deceiving and ambitious men who had destroyed Anne Boleyn. And for the first time, unbidden but undeniable doubts had arisen in Elizabeth's mind about Robin Dudley's motives.
In his absence Elizabeth had visited her mother's unmarked grave under the floor of a chapel in the Tower of London. Lost in grim musings, she had imagined the corpse, its head severed from the body and laid at its side in a rude arrow box for that was all Henry had cared for his once beloved wife and pondered the treachery of men. In that moment and the terrible empty days that followed, a strange and unthinkable idea had been forged in her mind, and like the blacksmith's white hot sword plunged into a trough of water, it had hardened into steely resolve. She would never marry any man, not prince nor king nor subject, never relinquish the vast power she had legitimately inherited from her father, Henry VIII. It was outrageous, she knew. The natural order of things was for a woman to marry, bear children. And for a queen, imperative. To the thinking of all Englishmen of conscience, the only reason for Elizabeth's existence was to bear heirs princes for the succession, princesses to be sold into marriages of alliance.
But now, despite the "death by mischance" verdict that freed Robin from official responsibility, Elizabeth could not be moved from her course. She might play the game of courtship, pretend her intention to marry, but she would never ever give in. Not a soul knew of her decision. Least of all Robin Dudley.
The bedchamber door opened and there he stood in somber black doublet and hose, all stately carriage and grave countenance. 'Twas said of Robin Dudley even by his enemies, those who derisively called him the Gypsy that he was the most reserved man of his time, and carried a depth not to be fathomed but by the searchers of hearts.
My God, thought Elizabeth, how beautiful he is! She wished for nothing more than to fly into Robin's strong embracing arms. But she was determined this day, resolved to dignity and restraint. There were so many problems lying heavy on her heart and mind. Problems of politics and diplomacy and religion, some a result of this disastrous affair of Amy's death.
"Your Majesty." He spoke quietly and, at an almost imperceptible nod of Elizabeth's head, moved to kneel before the Queen and kiss her hand. Then he rose to his full height over six feet tall, the only one of her men to whom Elizabeth was forced to look up.
"You are welcome back to Court, my lord," she said, willing her voice to calm steadiness. With these words Robin Dudley's face exploded into a smile, and he instantly pulled Elizabeth into an embrace which she resisted for less than a moment before returning it in kind. They held thus entwined until he pushed her to arm's length, stared in through her eyes to her soul, and kissed her hungrily on the mouth. She yielded to the kiss and moaned with the familiar pleasure of his touch. But this sound of pleasure she suddenly heard as an alarm, and wrenched away perhaps more violently than she had intended.
"Elizabeth, what is it?"
"What it is, Robin," she said, pulling herself together, "is a disaster. My reputation in Europe is sullied beyond imagining, some say beyond saving."
"But why!" he demanded hotly. "I've been found innocent of any wrongdoing in Amy's death. 'Twas an accident, so say a jury of the country's most able men. Men of integrity!"
"And know you what my Scottish cousin Mary says? That the Queen of England is going to marry the Master of her Horse, who has killed his wife to make room for her!"
"Mary is bitter. She no longer has a place in the French royal family since her husband's death. And she has nothing to come home to in Scotland but a pack of Protestant nobles who'd best like to see their Catholic queen disappear. She has every reason to slander you, Elizabeth. She wants your crown!"
"And she may get it if I cannot salvage my reputation and strengthen my position."
"You exaggerate, Elizabeth. The Scots queen has no power. Her mother-in-law de Médicis is well rid of her and has too many problems of her own in France to support a Scottish invasion of England. You are talking nonsense."
"I, talking nonsense!" Elizabeth bristled. "When have you ever known me to talk nonsense?"
"When you are angry with me," he said quietly, holding her with his eyes.
Elizabeth groped helplessly for a retort. Robin was right. She was still furious with him. Furious for destroying the dream she had harbored from the bright January day of her coronation, as he rode proudly beside her, till the moment the messenger from Cumnor House had knelt before her and with trembling voice announced the death of Amy Dudley. "She was found at the bottom of the stair by her servants when they came home from the fair," the courier had said. "Her neck was broken, but her death seemed not from the fall. Her headdress was never disarranged. They are calling it murder."
Murder. And Lord Robert Dudley, scandalously embroiled with the Queen of England for all the world to see, hoping for his way to be cleared to marry Elizabeth, had been the prime suspect.
Perhaps, thought Elizabeth, he had nothing whatsoever to do with Amy's death. Perhaps he was entirely innocent of that crime. But of the crime of ambition Robin Dudley was wholly guilty. It was in his blood. His ancestors before him grandfather, father, brothers had died for the sin of ambition, and though she knew he loved her truly, she did not know if he loved the dream of becoming king of England more. She had been told that when Robin, still in exile at Kew, learned she had angrily slashed to ribbons the patent granting him the promised earldom of Leicester, he had raged and thundered at the unfairness of it. But now, only grateful for his return to the Queen's good graces, he made no talk of anger or bitterness.
"Whilst I was banished at Kew I knew only the deepest misery, Elizabeth. I missed your sweet company most of all, but I worried, too, that I was unable to discharge my duties as Horsemaster. I knew not how you would be attended when you rode abroad, if the right horses would be chosen, if you were safe from harm. For no one knows or cares for your person as deeply as I do."
With his words Elizabeth felt her anger recede like an outgoing tide, for she knew them to be true and utterly sincere.
He went on. "Those months away, awaiting the verdict, I felt I was living in a strange dream from which there was no waking. My only relief, and I thank you for it, were the visits from Secretary Cecil, who was, despite the sour feelings I know he harbors for me, very kind. I want ..." Dudley stopped as if he could not find the words to go on. "I want you to forgive me, Elizabeth. This is no admission of guilt for Amy's death. I mean forgive me for causing you, by my very existence or circumstance, any misery or grief. I wish only the best for you, you know that. I want your reign to be long and glorious, and I mean to be at your side in whatever capacity you allow me. I am your subject and your servant, Your Majesty, but I do and will always love you."
Elizabeth's eyes had suddenly filled with tears, and she quickly turned away that he should not see them. "Very well," she said with forced levity. "You are forgiven." And with the suddenness of the sun emerging from behind a black thundercloud to brighten a dull day, Elizabeth felt her soul lighten. Her love had returned to her. She faced him with a piquant smile. "Faithful servant, would you care to see your new apartments?"
"Have I new rooms?" Robin's features softened with surprise.
"Come," said Elizabeth lightly.
He looked puzzled as she moved to a curtained wall and pulled back the heavy arras to reveal a door. With the expression of a bemused child Dudley opened it. A short unlit passageway lay ahead.
"You may lead, Sire," she said teasingly.
Taking her hand, he headed into the darkness, and not ten feet beyond found another door.
"Open it," Elizabeth commanded.
Robin Dudley stood staring in at his new rooms. Not overlarge, they were nonetheless sumptuously appointed with a great canopied bed fit for a king, a fine silk-threaded tapestry of mythical beasts on one wall, and on another his family's coat of arms the red and blue field upon which rose the bear and ragged staff. A fire blazed welcomingly in the hearth.
He was overcome and, for once, speechless. This gesture from the Queen adjoining apartments was certain to infuriate her councillors and his enemies, further scandalize gossipmongers ... and solidify his position as Elizabeth's favorite. Was she not but a moment ago venting her fury at him and bemoaning her tainted reputation in the European courts? What could she be thinking of? But of course, thought Dudley, changeability was Elizabeth's chiefest foible ... or virtue, depending upon one's perspective. It drove her advisors wild and kept her friends and playmates breathlessly entertained.
"Elizabeth, this is impossible!" he cried with obvious delight. He turned to find Elizabeth smiling mischievously at him.
"I am the Queen, and I do as I please," she said resolutely, then thought to herself, I may choose never to marry, but I shall not be without pleasure in my life.
At the same instant each took a step toward the other, and then in a moment they were in each other's arms. In quiet ecstasy Dudley breathed in Elizabeth's natural perfume, delicate and powdery like the rarest of white birds, and she his familiar masculine scent tinged with a horsey musk. Then in Robin Dudley's kingly bed, he made long-awaited and passionate love to the Queen of England.