THE QUEEN’S STOMACH KNOTTED AT THE SIGHT OF THE ruined portrait, and not only because it was an attack on her. Such a furious slashing was exactly what she had been tempted to do to a painting of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, when she discovered that Robin kept a likeness of the queen behind a curtain in his privy chambers, as if he could hide it.
“Lavina,” she cracked out, “what do you know of this?”
“Not a thing, truly, Your Majesty. I can’t help that it was put with my canvases—if indeed it was.”
“Do you imply I’m lying?” Heatherley demanded, glaring back at Lavina. “That I would do such a low thing as secreting this and then accusing you? Your Majesty, you may ask your lady’s maid who found it and brought it to me.”
“Lady’s maids or maid?” Lavina demanded. “Your story seems to change. One maid or two? All three? How interesting that they would run to you. Give us their names so th—”
“Your Majesty,” Heatherley interrupted her, “God as my witness, I have naught to do wi—”
“All right, none of you know anything!” Elizabeth cried, holding up both arms stiffly as if to keep bullies from cuffing each other. She saw her guard had come closer as the voices rose. “Clifford,” she called to him, “take this ruined portrait into custody and escort my two artists back to the encampment straightaway, for I would see the very place this was discovered.”
Elizabeth was relieved to see that Floris and Kat were going back inside the palace as she and the others headed toward the cluster of tents. Her poor Gil would have to wait for his interview a little longer.
“Which tent?” she inquired of Lavina as they approached them. The queen noted thankfully that few courtiers were still in the area, for they must be about their various duties and pursuits. Most were probably within the palace, thinking she was there.
“This one next to where Master Kendale’s was—and Master Heatherley’s yet is,” Lavina said as Heatherley shot her another hot glare.
The three artists’ tents, which the queen had heard all but Kendale had shared with servants other than their own, had stood in a nearly perfect triangle. Since the three lady’s maids who also resided within Lavina’s tent were gone, it was deserted. The maids would be easy to question, the queen thought, for she had daily access to them. She stepped inside; her eyes skimmed the small, dim interior of the tent.
“My sleeping pallet is there,” Lavina told her, entering and pointing a trembling finger, her voice deadly calm now. “And the few canvases I brought are there, against the inside of the tent.”
Elizabeth went closer. Three stretched canvases leaned on their sides, shrouded in separate hemp sacks. She bent to pull each forward in turn and unwrapped a corner of each to peer at the canvas. The partial portrait of herself was the second one in and, thank the Lord, undisturbed.
“Was this,” she asked Master Heatherley, “where the maids—or maid—say they found the slashed portrait?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. They admitted they wanted a peek at the one Mistress Teerlinc had begun of you—and found the ruined one.”
“’S teeth, Henry,” Lavina cracked out, “if I’d harmed Vill, I’d hardly have secreted his painting vit mine!”
The queen let them rail at each other this time. If they were guilty, they might let something slip. Indeed, Lavina’s accent was doing just that. “And vat a coincidence the maids ran right to you!” the woman repeated, pointing straight-armed at Heatherley.
“Because I happened to be here, not out in the middle of some field as if you were skulking away or feeling guilty!”
“Guilty! I vas mourning the poor man in my own vay, though you seem not to give a fig vat happened to him!”
As Elizabeth put Lavina’s canvases back against the edge of the tent, she noted how loose it was. Hadn’t Jenks said the tent stakes were pounded in tight?
She moved the canvases out again and pressed the toe of her shoe against the side of the tent. It poked out so far that she almost went off balance, though she was certain her broad skirts hid from others here how loose the tent wall was.
She placed the canvases on Lavina’s pallet and asked them all to wait there a moment. Alone, though Clifford stood in the entry to the tent, keeping a nervous eye on them and her, she circled the exterior to its loose section. The stake which should have secured it was pulled completely out of the ground, as was the one next to it.
Aha! Elizabeth thought, feeling she was getting somewhere—but where, she did not know. This meant, at least, that Lavina could have crawled out of the tent without being seen by the sleeping maids. Or it could be just the opposite: someone had reached in, pulled out the portrait, slashed and then replaced it. But it was far too early for accusations: the background sketch of this double murder was barely filled in, and many details were yet needed.
Again, the stench of smoke crept into her nostrils and lumped in the pit of her belly, for it seemed to have permeated the nearby tents. Despite the fact that she must now suspect her two remaining artists—not counting Gil, of course, who had been in a more distant tent with Jenks and Ned—with good conscience she could not ask those living closest to the site to remain here. After all, she had invited these people to accompany her. She owed them kindness and hospitality, at least until she could prove someone’s guilt.
“I’m going to order these closest tents to be pitched on the other side of the encampment,” she announced to Lavina and Heatherley as she returned to the entry of the tent. “It won’t do anyone any good to try to sleep near this site. I suggest you go inside the palace to get something to eat, then attend the memorial service. Afterward, you will find your tents on the far side of the encampment with everything moved for you.”
Both of them looked immensely relieved, as if they had just been exonerated from any wrongdoing. They had no notion that she, Cecil, and Dr. Dee were going to give their tents a thorough tossing before they saw them again.
As if he weren’t on edge enough, Gil fumed, the queen kept him waiting outside her apartments a good hour after she sent for him. He paced the grand, ornate staircase up and down. Each time on the ground floor, Gil studied the frescoes of cavorting gods and goddesses that Master Kendale had boasted he’d painted in the six months he’d lived here while the palace was being built. Gil could almost hear the man’s voice now, for his bragging last night had been as bloated as his flesh. But now that the blowhard was dead, Gil had regrets.
“Great King Henry visited many times to see the progress we builders and artists were making, and he complimented me especially,” Kendale had boasted just the night before, after he’d invited Gil into his tent and, stupidly, Gil had gone. The man had been drinking overmuch; he reeked of wine and slurred his words. “Complimented me especially” had come out more like “come peaceably.” He’d looked unsteady on his feet too, though the cause of that might have been balancing his excessive girth on those spindly ankles.
Gil had replied, “Her Majesty fondly recalls how proud her royal sire was of Nonsuch.” As he pictured Master Kendale’s annoyed expression again, suddenly the entire encounter came rolling back in a vividly colored scene in his mind.
“Oh, flaunting that you’re more’r less her foundling again, eh?” Kendale had goaded. Gil could tell that Niles, the young artist’s assistant, was vexed with his master for baiting another young man, or at least that’s the way Gil read things.
“I’m just recalling something she said yesterday,” Gil replied, and sidled toward the open tent flap.
“As if she’d share personal mem’ries of her royal family with a vagabond like you,” Kendale said with a hiccup. “A pox on you wi’ your inflated sense of worth, you rough-edged whelp. So what if you had three years’n Urbino or wherever—”
“And a four-month visit to Venice,” Gil said, his bile rising at Kendale’s insulting tone and glare as well as the pointed words. This man annoyed but didn’t frighten him. What scared him to death was the possibility that he’d been followed here from Urbino. Master Scarletti had said the guild of artists would kill to keep its secret. Could it have hired the man who might have been following him in Dover and again in London?
“Venice, eh?’S’at so?” Kendale needled, but Gil could tell he was impressed despite himself.
“Aye, Venice, where I met the artist I admire most in all the world, Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian.”
“Who? Well,” Kendale said, moving his bulk to deliberately block Gil in the tent, “Her Majesty’ll be sad to hear you ven’rate a foreigner over a pure English painter, like at least two of us she selected to do her official portrait.”
“One thing I’ve learned on the Continent, Master Kendale,” Gil countered, “is that the talent of true artists knows no boundaries. Henry Heatherley and you are pure English, as you say, so perhaps your work will remain provincial. However, Titian sells paintings to King Philip in Spain, as well as—”
“You young whelp, half schooled, thinkin’ you’ve all the answers! You’re outta your el’ment!”
“My element, Master Kendale, is to serve Her Majesty with my hands and head and heart.”
“Heard you were born deaf and dumb, but you’ve got a quick lip now, however dumb you still act to be so flippant with your betters!”
“I was not born either deaf or dumb, but was scared into silence as a lad by an explosion. Aye, the queen good as plucked me off the streets to help make me what I am today. And whatever I am, that which you are so disdainful of, best you’d complain to her then!”
“If you open that quick mouth to tell’r one thing about what I said—”
“Good night then, Niles. And Master Kendale,
buone notte ed arrivederci, lei il maiale grasso!
He prayed Kendale had no idea he’d just been bidden good night as a “fat pig.” Gil turned sideways and managed to get past the man. He hoped Kendale wouldn’t take his temper out on his boy.
“Boy! Gil Sharpe!” a tall queen’s yeoman guard called over the banister to where Gil glowered and even gestured at Kendale’s frescoes. “Her Majesty will see you now.”
Taking two steps at a time, Gil hurried upstairs and into the first chamber past the guards. The queen sat at a table, eating figs and drinking wine. After Gil bowed, she pointed to the chair across the table and pushed the dish of figs toward him. Compared to her high mood yesterday, her spirits seemed low. She looked both weary and wary, but surely not of him.
“I have so much to ask and you so much to tell, yes, my Gilberto Sharpino?” she said with her mouth half full.
“Oh, yes, Your Grace, of artists, and Italy, and anything else you would know.”
“In due time. My lord Cecil and I want to discuss your impressions of politics and papists as well as paintings. But for now, tell me about your contretemps with Master Kendale last night.”
Gil sat up straighter, his heart pounding, though he knew by now not to be surprised that the queen seemed to know everything. “Yes, Your Grace.”
“Then I want you to go up on the roof with Jenks to view the way we’ve laid out the things from the burned tent and see if you can add or change anything. And sketch it for us again, lest we need to store the things away.”
As he explained to her his encounter with Master Kendale, he tried not to sugarcoat what had passed between them on the last night of the man’s life. But he intentionally muted his own anger.
“So he was drunk,” she said. “Perhaps his besotted state is why—besides his weight and girth—he might have been slow to move when his tent began to smoke and flame. Beyond the fact, of course, that someone had laced the fat man in his tent as tightly as a fat woman is laced into a corset.”
“What is it, Your Grace?” he asked as she jumped up and began to pace. “Murder for certain, you mean?”
“We’ve already established that. But I hadn’t thought of something before, that those ties were laced the way a woman would close a corset with a single, flat bow at the bottom.”
“A woman did it?”
“I don’t know! Never mind for now. Gil, I must ask you something else. Although Master Kendale insulted you last night, you did nothing to retaliate, did you? I know you will ever answer me truthfully.”
Her dark eyes burned into his. He silently thanked God she had not asked another question, for it was nearly impossible to lie to her. “I tried to insult him back—circumspectly, Your Grace—and did manage to get him doubly vexed. And one more thing.”
“Which is?” she asked, still looking worried. He realized again how blessed he was that, for some reason he would never grasp, Elizabeth of England cared deeply for his well-being. It was his amazing, grand good fortune of all time, even more precious to him than his gift to draw and paint people.
“I do admit at least, Your Grace, I reviled him all the way back to my tent with every foul, cesspool Italian curse word I ever knew.”
She smiled stiffly. “Then, if that was your only retribution, I may need your services, not only to paint a portrait or sketch a tent, but to help Cecil and me with the investigation into Kendale’s and the boy’s deaths. But best you go now. Find Jenks before you go up on the roof, for I must attend the memorial service I have ordered in the chapel. As he bowed and headed for the door, she called after him, “Gil, one thing more.”