She smiled stiffly. Lavina, having been at court off and on for years, evidently recognized the tone and look of her royal mistress, for she dropped a quick curtsy and, linking her arm through Heatherley’s, who looked as if he’d like to dig his heels in, urged her fellow artists away.
In the late afternoon of the next day, as she approached Nonsuch Palace, set like a jewel in the rolling green hills of Surrey, Elizabeth summoned Gil Sharpe to her open coach from his place far back in the royal retinue. Again, as he approached, he reminded her of her half brother, though the boy rode awkwardly, while Edward had been a fine horseman. But then Gil had been reared poor in the city. What was important was his gift from God to paint. She recalled the first sketch the boy had done of her, scribbled on crumpled paper, but so skilled that she thought at first her master of revels, the wily Ned Topside, had done it.
“Such a beautiful sight, Your Majesty,” Gil called to her as, at her cue, the entourage halted behind, overlooking the palace and its hunt park. Elizabeth alighted from the carriage in which her people had cheered her on her way, and waited for her mount.
“I am going to ride ahorse the rest of the way,” she explained to Gil, “and I want you to approach Nonsuch without everyone else in your way for the first time. Though faces may be your forte, mark my words, someday you will paint this vista, and I shall keep it with me all winter long.”
When the queen was mounted sidesaddle and had led her entourage into the gentle slope of rolling meadow before the walls, she rode slowly to savor the moment and allow Gil to keep up.
“However did your royal sire find such a perfect site?” the boy marveled. “I heard he built this place in his old age for a hunt lodge, but ended up making it his most wonderful building project.”
“This site is the single sad thing about fabulous Nonsuch,” she told him. “A village stood here with a Catholic church and manor house—Cuddington, it was called. But when Great Henry wanted his palace here, the townsfolk were moved, the entire village was razed, and this was built—plain on the outside, but wait until you see within! It is the ultimate blend of the English with the Italian.”
“If your father loved it and you do too, Your Grace, then why is it Lord Arundel’s possession now?”
“It was too fancy for my sister, Queen Mary, and she hated the place. She sold it to Lord Arundel for a pittance,” she said, her voice not betraying her anger at her sister for that and so much more.
“But I heard Lord Arundel favors you and if you but asked for it back …”
“Gil, you must learn not to blurt your thoughts, though to me in private you may say all. Yes, Lord Arundel, Catholic that he is, has hopes of being my suitor to save my Protestant soul and bring his own great name into the ruling family. As for keeping this palace myself, isn’t it better to have a wealthy, devoted host to care for it?”
“Of course, Your Grace, like dining at someone else’s table. And my lord Cecil has lectured me more than once to keep my ears open and my mouth closed. I swear I was quiet as a mouse in Italy, though that was partly because the place overwhelmed me and it took a while to learn that singsong language.”
They laughed together as they rode onto the wide gravel avenue that headed straight as a die for the great north gate. “Gil,” she said, raising her voice over the noise of hooves and the rumble of the retinue behind them, “I hope to hear what you observed in Italy. But I warrant my master secretary does too, and even helped support you as I did.”
Gil almost managed to cover his surprise. “He said to tell no one, but I’m sure he didn’t mean you—if you asked.”
“Exactly. You see, my lord Cecil often has English visitors abroad do more than visit. They become his eyes and ears on my behalf. Ah, I see Lord Arundel standing inside the gate to welcome us. Best drop back with the other artists, then.”
“Yes, Your Grace, but I wasn’t riding with them. I was back farther with your servants Meg Milligrew, Stephen Jenks, and Ned Topside, remembering old times and getting caught up on the new.”
“One more thing,” she told him, even as she lifted her gloved hand in distant greeting to Lord Arundel. “As I was saying, the secrets and wonders of Nonsuch are not visible until one reaches the innermost court, as in coming to know a person. Gil, tread carefully with the other artists until you know them better and …”
The clatter of hooves on gravel and excited voices drowned out her words as the boy was swallowed by the closest riders. To remain at the head of the onslaught, the queen spurred her mount through the tall, turreted brick gate.
Elizabeth rose, late for her, at midmorn. It had been a short night since her wealthy host had given a welcoming feast followed by a masque. But this was her favorite time of day at Nonsuch, and the morning was stunning with a clear blue sky, brisk wind, and strong sun already casting off its heat. She scented faint smoke and wondered if someone was burning dead leaves nearby.
She favored strolls in this inner courtyard when the sun climbed above the eastern walls and shone upon the western ones. Then, sharply defined in their life-sized relief, the classical gods and goddesses of gleaming white marble seemed to leap to life.
She walked among them and recalled their stories and how her father had loved these gilt-framed granite panels flaunting the labors of Hercules in powerful bursts of energy, balanced by the more gentle figures of the Graces. As she touched them and marveled at their contrasting strengths, she realized that she must radiate these varied virtues to her people.
Her eyes, as everyone’s here must do, then came to rest on the massive statue of King Henry VIII enthroned in splendor, presiding over the array of deities which he had commanded built here. Unlike her father, she would not hide her kingdom’s grandeur within the walls of privacy and privilege. She, Elizabeth, meant to use portraits of herself, carved or painted, to reach her people and to help her rule.
“Your Grace! Your Grace!” a man’s voice called, much agitated.
As the Earl of Arundel ran toward her, Elizabeth came back to the present with a jolt. The four ladies-in-waiting she’d brought along came closer as if to shield her, but she stepped out from them.
Henry Fitzalan, Lord Arundel, was forty-four, a wealthy widower with two grown daughters, who fancied himself a suitor for her royal hand. But above all, Arundel was a bred-in-the-bone Catholic. And so, though he seemed to serve her well, and she had granted freedom to worship privily as one willed in her kingdom, she could not completely trust him.
“My lord, what is it?” she asked. The usually elegantly attired man looked rakish and hastily clothed.
“A fire among the tents! I’ve sent men out with water buckets to help fight it—fire, like a flaming torch!”
“Then let us go out and be sure no one is hurt,” she cried, and lifted her skirts to break into a fast walk. “Pray God it doesn’t spread, as those tents are cheek by jowl.”
“I hear not, but they say the cries were dreadful.”
“What cries?” she asked as she rushed from the inner courtyard to the outer, with Arundel and her ladies behind.
“They say one of your artists was trapped in a tent,” he told her, gasping for breath.
Elizabeth of England left him and the women in her wake as she hiked her skirts higher and broke into a dead run.
OUTSIDE THE PALACE GATE, ELIZABETH TURNED RIGHT and ran toward the haphazardly pitched white canvas tents. From the far fringe of the encampment, she could see and smell smoke.
The immediate area seemed deserted. Trailed by Arundel and her women, she tore down a zigzag grass path, avoiding tables set outside the open-flapped tents. Ribbons fluttered in the breeze on tent poles; here and there were remnants of last night’s revels, a dropped tankard, spilled food, an overturned bench or stool, a cold cook fire.
She saw everyone had gone where she surmised. Courtiers and servants stood in a circle, gaping at a collapsed, blackened tent. It was the only one, as far as she could tell, which had been engulfed in flames, though others near it looked soot-stained. The grass in an oval around the ruin lay burned and black. The tent had been pitched on the outer edge of the encampment in the meadow about fifty paces before the thick trees of the hunt park began.
Though several men heaved useless buckets of wash water on the charred, sodden mass of canvas, it still smoked. One man tried to lift the edge of the tent with a lance, as if someone inside could yet escape the collapsed weight of devastation. Women shrieked or cried. Someone began a dreadful wail as if she were a professional mourner in a funeral procession.
“Let me pass!” Elizabeth commanded, though her voice was tremulous and she was panting.
People gasped to see her and parted as if she were Moses at the Red Sea. The first face that emerged from the blur of horrified countenances was that of her longtime guard and groom, Stephen Jenks. Though Jenks’s wit was mostly for horses, he was ever loyal, and she trusted the brawny man with her life. She realized it was Jenks who had pried two of the tent poles from the ground and tried to lift the canvas with a lance in an obviously doomed effort to allow those inside an escape route.
“Jenks! Who?” she demanded.
Still squatting, then going to one knee before her, he said, “It was the artist with the boy—”
“Not Gil!” she shrieked.
“No, your painter Will Kendale and his lad Niles who mixes his paints and all,” Jenks got out before Robin Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stepped between them.
Where had Robin suddenly appeared from? She always picked him out, even in a crowd. Now she noted other individuals, some with soot- or tear-streaked faces. But for the two distraught artists, Lavina and Heatherley, who stood in her line of sight, surely not many of these people had known Master Kendale. Since he had recently come to court, her people must be reacting to the sheer horror of this. Her own stomach roiled as she fought to keep control.
Robin’s voice was much quieter and calmer than Jenks’s had been. “Yes, Your Grace, it’s Kendale’s tent. His servant Niles was also evidently trapped inside, his artist’s aide, cook, and, ah—body servant,” he added, and lifted a sleek eyebrow at those last two words as if to insinuate something she didn’t even want to contemplate.
“According to Lord Arundel, there were screams,” she said. “If they were awake and aware, why did they not escape?”
“Yes, my man told me dreadful screams,” Arundel repeated, for he’d now caught up with her and had pushed his way through the crowd. He was sucking in great breaths and holding his side as if he had a stitch in it. “But then, evidently,” he went on, “either the fire or the choking smoke silenced them. The tent must have gone up quickly.” Arundel began hacking into his hand.
Despite his coughing fit, others now stood silent, staring at the tomb of two lives snuffed out within. Again the queen fought to keep from vomiting. The odor of charred flesh emerged from the mass as surely as some strange, acrid scent she could not place.
Her knees went weak with relief when she glimpsed Gil’s frightened face in the crowd. Thank God he was safe. Like the child he had once been, he waved to her, then signaled with quick hand gestures,
I was in that tent last night. No one but one man, one boy there last night.
At least Gil had not stayed with Kendale and Niles, but had probably been with Jenks or Ned Topside. She must question the boy about it all later. She shuddered and took Robin’s arm to steady her weak knees, but it was her trustworthy Jenks who thought to fetch a stool for her.
“Your Grace must surely want to go back in now,” another voice behind her said as she sank onto the seat. Cecil had appeared from the palace. “Arundel, Leicester, and I,” he went on, “can see to the removal of the bodies, the clearing up of all this.”
“Yes,” she said, and her voice rose, “the clearing up of this, indeed. My lords, send everyone back to their tents and tell them to guard their cook fires. We will hold a memorial service in the chapel later today. I will go inside the palace soon but not quite yet.”
The three men hovering over her exchanged swift glances. Robin, the love of her life, though she prayed he did not know it, had never gotten on with the other two older, more conservative men. Nor was her indispensable Cecil liked or appreciated by Arundel, for the aristocratic earl felt Cecil was a pushy “new dealer” whom she heeded far too much. Still, at least when any sort of upheaval threatened, her triumvirate of close advisers managed to work together for queen and country.
“Yes, Your Grace, anything to help,” Robin said, and began to urge the curious onlookers away. She heard him even mention the cook-fire explanation she had put forth, though she wasn’t sure that was the cause of the conflagration. After all, artists carted about with them all sorts of oils, resins, and strangely concocted paints and powders. It might have been an accident.
She was not surprised to see Cecil still at her side. “Your Grace,” he said, his voice low as he bent down, “Dr. John Dee arrived just after dawn with his new wife. He’s come from Mortlake with news for you. I had planned to meet with him in my chambers just now. If you wish, I shall remain here while you see him, as it’s best you not sit out in the open here—like this. With this smell and the bodies in there, it isn’t seemly.”
“Seemly?” she cracked out, glaring up at him, though she had to look directly into the sun. “I will be the one in this realm to say what is
my lord. If you had your way, it would not be
that I rule without a husband or heir. What is seemly is to look into this, just to be certain it was an accident.”
“If you mean to inquire into this tragedy, can you not do so from within the palace?” he argued quietly, not budging.
“Cecil,” she said, her tone more tempered as she stared back at the fatal tent, “I shall go inside only if you and Jenks remain here as witnesses and report forthwith to me every detail, however dreadful. And place all the evidence of these dire events under lock and key inside the palace—the tent, its contents, however charred, except the corpses, after they are examined. I shall go inside and ask Dr. Dee to view the bodies. He may not be a medical doctor, but he is a learned, brilliant man, and I value his advice.” She lowered her voice even more. “And if I must, I shall convene my covert Privy Plot Council just to rule out any sort of foul play.”
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” Jenks put in, stepping between her and the ruins and doffing his cap in his blackened hands, “but I’d wager foul play for certain. See,” he rushed on, gesturing, “I only tried to lift the bottom of the tent canvas to let them out
I saw the entry flaps were tied tight shut.”
“You mean secured from the inside of the tent for the night?”
“Oh, no, Your Grace,’cause I couldn’t have seen the ties then. If the ropes for the flaps aren’t all burned up under this mess, I think we’ll find them tied—even knotted—from the outside, not within.”
From the outside, not within
. Elizabeth kept hearing Jenks’s words as she went inside the palace and headed toward her second-floor apartments. “From the outside, not within,” she whispered.
Had someone deliberately pulled the tent lacings—by which the flaps could be secured from the inside—to the outside and knotted them, as Jenks claimed he’d seen? She had ordered him and Cecil to be certain that that observation was correct before the bodies were removed and the interior of the tent was examined, and if it was so, to preserve whatever was left of the ties.
“Clifford, fetch Dr. Dee to me from Secretary Cecil’s chambers,” she told her guard at the door to her apartments. She sent her ladies away and went in through her privy chamber to her bedroom by herself. Only Meg was in the room.
“I heard what happened, so I’m mixing the strongest-scented elixirs and powders I have, Your Grace,” she told her, fussing with a wooden box of herbs and a pitcher on the table. “Though I couldn’t bear to go out to see the tragedy myself, I know you have a delicate sense of smell and—”
“But more than that has been thoroughly ravaged today,” Elizabeth finished for her. “Two of my people are dead, under mysterious circumstances, and I’ll not abide it. This is dreadful, as if it were an attack on my painters, and on myself for finally deciding to have my approved likeness completed and made public. Here, let me have some of that stuff and throw the windows open wider, as I smell like smoke myself.”
“Shall I send for your ladies to help you change your garments?”
“I just sent them away and have summoned Dr. Dee.”
“I heard he’s arrived with his new wife, Katherine Constable. She’s a London grocer’s widow, not one with a good dowry, though he’s always needing money, so I hear, but she’s a fetching, younger woman. Didn’t think he was the type to be swayed by all that, he’s so brilliant and all, so deep into examining so many things.”
“But he is a man,” Elizabeth muttered as Meg dusted her sleeves and bodice with the sweet-smelling powder. The queen exploded in a huge sneeze. It was just as well; she was afraid she’d never get the stench of death out of her nostrils and her head. She took the scented, damp cloth Meg held out to her and rubbed her face and hands with it.
“If you’re sending for Dr. Dee, is there something, well—that needs study and examining, Your Grace?”
“As you said, John Dee is skilled in all pursuits,” Elizabeth muttered, giving her the cloth back, then pacing to the window. Already the bearded, black-garbed Dr. Dee was striding across the courtyard, his skullcap perched on his head, his robe billowing out behind him. Yes, his bride, a young blonde who trailed along, was beautiful, willowy and graceful, hurrying to keep up and chattering away at him.
“Opposites attract,” Elizabeth said as Meg peeked past her shoulder. “I wonder if Dr. Dee ever proved that in his laboratories at Mortlake amidst his experiments with magnets, optical glasses, maps, and cryptic writing.”
“Mayhap the brilliant doctor won’t be traveling so much anymore then,” Meg said.
“He will if Cecil sends him at my command.”
The two figures disappeared below, and the queen sank into a chair behind the table. “Meg, where is that soothing throat elixir? I feel I could spit smoke, but I’m going to probe this tragedy, beginning right now.”
Despite his forty-two years, John Dee always felt a childlike thrill to be summoned by his queen.
“But I don’t see why I can’t go with you to meet her now,” his wife of three months, Katherine, coaxed. She pouted prettily and laced her arm through his when they were admitted through the guarded door into the wing with the privy apartments.
“Because, my dearest, she has summoned me. It’s something, I surmise, about that dreadful, fatal fire this morning.”
She gasped and tugged back. “But what could you possibly know about that?”
“Do not fret, my little love. As the Bible says, ‘Do not fret because it only causes harm.’”
“I haven’t caused any harm! I can’t help worrying that you need to make your way with the queen and keep in her good graces.”
He noted she managed to match him step for step up the stone staircase, however much shorter her shapely legs. She looked especially young this morning, all flushed with health and life, all passionate for building their future together on the petticoats of the brilliant, powerful queen. And, of course, he had no right to scold his Katherine for wanting to meet Elizabeth Tudor. He himself stood ever in awe of her quick mind, her tenacity to know things, her wide-reaching education, those very things which animated his being.
“And what would I know about the fire?” he repeated her question. “I’m Her Majesty’s official court philosopher, a man in quest of universal knowledge, so she summons me for advice on many things, my dear, you’ll see.”
Katherine was always vexed that philosophers at royal courts were paid well on the Continent, but Elizabeth always paid him in books and favors. He never intended to tell his Katherine that books were what he wanted, what he loved almost more than life itself—and now her, of course.
“Do you think she’ll visit us at Mortlake as she has you before?” she went on. “I mean, I know we wouldn’t be worthy to entertain her there, but you promised I would meet her and—”
“Katherine, Katherine,” he chided at the top of the staircase. Just ahead—he could tell by the two yeomen guards at the door—lay access to Her Majesty’s privy chambers. “I promise you that you shall meet her soon, and I will indeed invite her to Mortlake.”