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The queen’s breath came rapid, rasping, her chest rising and falling in short, jerking movements. There could be little time. Frances hastened to her side and, without observing the usual ceremony of undressing, peeled back her mistress’s gown, exposing her ragged, wasted chest. ‘Crooked carcass’, the Earl of Essex had scoffed. He had lived to regret it.
She smoothed the oil over the queen’s waxy skin, uttering a prayer as she did so that it might soon take effect. The breathing slowed, became more melodic, quiet. Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered open.
At once, Frances’ mother rushed to her old mistress’s side. ‘Ma’am’, she whispered. Slowly, the queen surveyed the gloomy confines of her chamber. Her bony fingers trailed distractedly over the sumptuous damask bedclothes, tracing the intricately embroidered spheres of moons and pearls. Her bright red wig had long since been discarded, along with the other youthful adornments of her wardrobe, and her thin grey hair lay in lank, wispy clusters, barely covering the scalp underneath.
‘Are they gone? All?’
The queen’s lips curled into a small, sardonic smile, showing her sparse, blackened teeth. ‘Of course’, she lisped. ‘Why worship the setting sun when the Scottish dawn is upon us?’
The chill March wind, which bent the skeletal trees to and fro in the park beyond, could not penetrate the thick glazed windows of Richmond – the queen’s ‘warm box’, as she called it. Braziers had been lit in every room and thick tapestries lined the walls of the royal bedchamber, rendering it hot and oppressive. Impatiently, Frances brushed a stray lock of chestnut brown hair from her clammy forehead as she continued her labours. Please let her live. Just a little longer.
The silent gloom was suddenly broken by the sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs to the chamber. The door was flung open, though the force of the gesture was at odds with the man who made it. Robert Cecil, the queen’s diminutive chief adviser, walked haltingly into the room, his gait made awkward by his twisted back. He was flanked by members of Elizabeth’s council. They fanned around the bedside, reminding Frances of crows on a winter’s day. She looked at their faces, searching for concern, or grief, or obeisance. But she saw only impatience.
‘Lady Frances’, drawled Cecil. ‘How fares Her Majesty today?’
That he should address the daughter was a deliberate slight. Frances glanced towards her mother, who gave the slightest of nods.
‘The same, my lord’, Frances replied. She ignored Cecil’s expression of disapproval, and added: ‘We pray for improvement.’
Frances focused intently upon her work, her fingers moving deftly between tiny glass phials, scales and pots.
‘And you, my lady. What occupies you there?’
Silence followed. Frances knew the question was directed at her but kept her back turned and became conscious that she was holding her breath. Her mother made a gentle cough, prompting. Slowly, Frances turned to face the assembled company.
‘Well?’ Cecil urged, clearly enjoying her discomfort. He watched her intently, his eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly as they met hers.
‘I am making salves for Her Majesty’s comfort, my lord.’
A pause. ‘Do you think the ministrations of Her Majesty’s physicians inadequate, then?’
‘No, my lord, of course not’, she said, feeling her colour rise and silently chiding herself for it. She cast about for an explanation that would satisfy her interrogator, for such he seemed. ‘Her Majesty willed it’, she added weakly.
‘You should have a care, my lady’, Cecil murmured, his voice low. ‘Our new king might mark you as a witch!’ Then he let out a peal of laughter, so loud and prolonged that his fellow ministers felt obliged to join in, somewhat uncertainly.
‘He is not our king yet, my lord.’ Her mother’s voice cut through the mirth.
‘Indeed not. But we must ever have an eye to the future, eh, my Lady Marchioness?’