Fire of a Comet’s Tail
Woken by her fever, Kate rolled over carefully and drew open the bed curtains to the light of a single candle guttering by the bed. Moonlight pooled over the nearby window-seat from its partially uncovered window, making a gossamer pond on the floor.
Kate turned to the sleepy voice, watching her daughter rub her eyes, her shift slipping down to expose a shapely shoulder. Lettice seemed a beautiful marble statue coming to life, but even in candlelight and moonlight, there was no mistaking the red, curly hair that fell around her oval face. She looks like Bess, Kate thought. Ten years younger than Bess, Lettice had taken the best from both grandparents — Tudor red hair and good skin from her grandfather, the king, and the English rose beauty of Mary Boleyn, but she had the same slanted eyes that made her Aunt Nan so memorable and now her daughter, Bess. Elizabeth, though, possessed her mother’s sharper features and wide, thin mouth. Lettice half rose. “Are you well?”
Kate shifted, agitated anew by the pain under her ribs. She looked back at the window-seat. Knowing she had lost her chance for sleep this night, she yearned to leave the imprisonment of her bed. “Help me up, daughter. A full winter moon is a magical sight.”
Lettice laughed. “Do you truly wish to leave a warm bed?”
“Indulge your mother, child. I love the night sky. We’ll be warm enough in our furs.”
With another laugh, Lettice swung out of bed, grabbing two robes from the end of the bed. Placing one closer to Kate, she covered her chemise quickly in the other. Lettice reached out both hands. “Come, let’s bay at the moon together.”
Aided by her daughter, Kate swung around. She sat on the edge of the bed as her daughter put her fur robe and slippers on. Wheezing, feeling stiff and ancient, Kate stood. In the light of candles, fire and moon, cold draughts curled their wispy white breaths—as if ghost-like fingers soon vanishing into the night. Kate grimaced. Is death reaching out to me? She shook her head. Not yet; not tonight.
Kate threaded her arm underneath Lettice’s and they made their slow way to the window-seat. At last, Lettice assisted her into the window-seat.
“Was it worth it?” Lettice asked, sitting next to her.
Kate attempted a smile, peering out the window. She hoped she hid from Lettice what the struggle had cost her, and the pain now tearing at her. In silence, they gazed at the enormous moon. Dominating a clear night sky, its light flooded over them.
Blue-white moon, blue-white snow. “Beautiful,” Kate murmured, remembering back thirty years and more to another winter night, when Francis, her husband, had kissed her for the first time. The pain surged and tightened its grip. She bent over, moaning.
“Mother!” Lettice’s vise-hold of terror hurt her too, but not as much as the lion tearing her apart, its claws ripping her into shreds. She tossed back her head, the tendons of her neck tightening. “Oh God, oh God,” she cried. Lettice released her and ran to the door, leaving it open in her rush to get help.
Kate inhaled deeply. She began to rock, praying for the pain to ease; for the pain to end. “Pray God, not yet. Let me see Francis one last time…”
The pain at last bearable, Kate unravelled herself from her tight knot, allowing herself hope. Yet again, the lion’s claws had released the mouse, not ready to kill.
Bess, in a velvet bed-robe, her red hair loose and flying behind her, dashed into the room, followed by Robert Dudley and Lettice. A physician, carrying a candle, dragged his feet after them. “Kate!” Bess called.
Kate sat forward, tried to smile as Bess embraced her, fighting against another burst of pain. “Lettice should not have troubled you,” Kate said with difficulty.
Bess released Kate, rounding on the physician. “I commanded you to never leave Lady Knollys’s antechamber at night. I found even your servant gone. The countess of Essex needed to rouse me from sleep before you showed your face.”
“But, your Grace, ma’am I —”
Bess’s eyes flashed with fury. “Do not dare give me excuses.” She turned to Lettice. “And you! Are you a fool? Is this the care you give your mother—letting her leave her bed on a night like tonight? What were you thinking—or do you not think at all?”
Dudley, now by the queen’s side, rested a hand on her arm. Dishevelled dress and hair, and open shirt, he exuded sensuality. “My queen, the physician must see to Kate.”
The physician straightened and came to Kate’s side, putting his candle down on a nearby chest. He gazed over his shoulder. “Your Majesty, may I be alone with Lady Knollys?”
Bess gestured angrily. “Are you dismissing me?” She lifted her chin, glaring at the physician. “Why do you need to be alone with my cousin?”
Kate lifted a hand, dropping it back into her lap. “Your Grace, pray do as he asks.”
With a grateful glance to Kate, the physician bowed to the queen. “You do not need to leave the chamber, Your Majesty, pray allow my Lady Knollys speak privately to me.”
Bess considered Kate. “You’re right. She will not speak the truth if she fears I might hear.”
Dudley took her arm. “Come, Your Grace, stand by the fire with me.” He turned to Lettice. “You, too, Lettice.” Lettice gazed at him with wide eyes, then lowered her head; a cloud of hair fell, hiding her face.
The physician held up his candle to Kate and murmured to her, asking questions. He walked away from her, poured wine into a goblet from the flask on the table, and shook a power into it. Bringing it to her, he watched her as she drank to the finish, taking the goblet from her. He returned to the queen and bowed.
“Your Grace – I think there is no need to worry tonight. Another acute attack, but Lady Knollys assures me she feels minor discomfort now. I will come and bleed her in the morning.” He turned to Dudley. “My lord Earl — Lady Knollys asks if you could please carry her back to bed. She is too weak to walk.” He looked at the goblet in his hand. “I shall prepare another potion just in case the pain returns.”
Dudley strode to the window-seat, picking Kate up with ease, and returned her to bed. Bess and Lettice followed, helping him with her pillows.
Lettice turned. “Your Majesty, there’s no need for you to stay longer. You can leave my mother with me.”
“With you?” Bess scowled at Lettice. “When you’ve proven once more you’re nothing more than an empty-headed chit? You are a fool, but I’m not. I’ll stay with your mother tonight.”
“But, your Grace —”
“Is it the full moon causing everyone to argue with me tonight?” She spun around. “Robin, take the Countess to my chambers. Blanche will ready a bed for her. I’ll sleep here.”
After waiting for them to go, Bess took off the robe covering her shift and climbed into the bed. Kate half rolled with caution, touching Bess’s shoulder. “You’re too hard on Lettice.”
“Hard?” Bess’s eyes glowed in candlelight. “She has no conceit of what that means — not like us. Now, are we going to sleep tonight?”
“You sleep… don’t worry about me. I’ll rest here quietly…”
Bess gazed at her, frowning. “Are you still in pain?”
Kate averted her face. “Not like before. But after pain like that, I think of death.”
“Think of something else,” Bess commanded, clasping her hand.
Kate settled her head against her pillows. “We could talk.” She tried to laugh. “To make me sleepy…”
“But you’re exhausted, Kate.”
“What of it? I want to talk.”
Elizabeth frowned again. “I’m uncertain it’s wise….”
Kate looked over at the nearby lit candle and turned to her cousin. “Bess — pray, light more tapers. I do not want to wait until dawn to see you better.” She tightened her mouth. “There is so much I want to say to you—so much we have never spoken of. For too long, I’ve remained silent…” She settled back on her pillow and closed her eyes. Listening to Bess lighting the candelabrums in the room, she drifted back the years to an enclosed garden at Hatfield where spring had done its magic. The day’s beauty remained at odds with the distant sound of a weeping child.
Bess’s secret place? Her hiding place in the garden—the place Bess shared with Kate only yesterday. “’Tis mine,” Bess had said to her. “No one else knows of it.” Was that where she had gone?
Kate ran, following the same path. Surely she’d find Bess before the others. Pray God she found her before the others.
Up ahead flashed the golden yellow of a satin kirtle. Bess’s red, loose hair streamed behind her, as if a comet’s fiery tail. Kate shouted, “Bess, wait!”
The little girl glanced over her shoulder and bolted, running for her life. Kate picked up her skirts. Her longer legs outdid the shorter legs of her three-year-old cousin. Kate snatched her up and dropped to her knees. Bess struggled, then sagged in her arms, sobbing. Kate wanted to cry, too.
“You shouldn’t run away,” she said. Catching her breath, she kissed the top of Bess’s head. Her hair smelled of rosewater, but there was another smell. Bess wet herself? Sweet Jesu’. What have we done to her?
“We must go back,” Kate crooned. “Everyone is looking for you.”
Bess rubbed muddy hands on her face. The tears falling from her eyes left dirty tracks behind. “Why do they call me the Lady Elizabeth and not princess?” Bess lifted huge, frightened eyes. “Where’s Mama? I want my mama. I want Mama, now!”
Kate pushed away the memory and opened her eyes to the light of many candles. She clasped Bess’s hand when she returned to bed. “Of you and me, you’ve been the one who refused silence. When you were a little girl, we who cared for you often pulled out our hair, trying to stop you from saying too much.” The increasing pain caused her to shift. “You were not even four when you asked why we called you princess one day and the Lady Elizabeth the next.” She met her cousin’s gaze. “Such a tiny child you were, but already you queened over us.” She drew a careful breath. “I keep homing back to my beginning. Soon, I’ll go beyond that, too.” Kate pulled Bess’s hand closer, keeping hold of it. “Dying gives me unexpected courage. Coz…No, no more coz, but sister. Always my heart yearned to call you that.”
Bess half rose; tears trickled down her face. “God’s oath, Kate…”
Pain knifed her, twisting with a vengeance. Kate stared at the ceiling, breathing slowly. She swallowed, licking dry, chapped lips, seeing Bess reach for the goblet on the side table before she lifted her up to sip. Her mouth wet, Kate feebly pushed the goblet aside. “I must speak. Pray, let me speak.”
Bess replaced the goblet, resting her head against the bedhead. She toyed with the locket ring on her marriage finger before taking Kate’s hand again. “I’ll never command you to be silent,” she said, tightening her hold. “Not you.”
Kate smiled a little. “I’ve never called you sister. I stopped myself from even thinking about it. Let’s end this pretence now.” She gazed with panic at Bess. “I beg you, do not let me face my maker with this lie.”
“You’re right.” Bess rested her wet cheek against Kate’s hand. “No more lies, no more pretence, my sister.”
Kate softly laughed. “Strange, don’t you think, but for different mothers, I may have been queen, not you. Would it have been the same story, Bess? Would our father, the great King Harry, have murdered my mother, too?”
Bess straightened, her face losing all colour. Taking her hand from Kate’s, she bent her head, playing once more with her ring. “Different mothers…” she repeated. Her stark eyes raked the room with a wildness reminding Kate of a woman long dead. “Your mother never wanted to be my father’s wife, his consort, his queen. You told me that many times.”
Kate nodded. “’Tis the truth. Mother was a simple soul. She hated the court and what it cost her. She was happy with my stepfather, and the life they made together. My mother belonged to the hearth. All she wanted was a safe home for her family. Her sister wanted more than that. Aunt Nan wanted the crusade, the fight, the victory. She believed God meant her to be queen, to help our father make England no longer controlled by a corrupt papacy. That did not stop you being her first concern.” Kate shifted, the pain worsening. “She loved you more than life itself.” Breathing with difficulty, she locked her gaze upon Bess. “I am dying, sister.”
As if in denial, Bess tossed her head, leaning closer to Kate. “I command you, talk no more of that. Women of our family do not give up without a fight. You’ve told me that from my earliest days. Fight, Kate. Aye, sister, fight.”
Kate rubbed the side of her face. “Sister… how long I’ve waited, longed, to hear you call me that. Oh, Bess, do not mistake me. I don’t want to die. I do not want to leave all I love, or give more reason for grief.” She gazed at Bess. “I love so many. You… from the time you were born, you’ve held my heart in the palm of your hand. My beloved husband and our dear children… my youngest is only a few years older than what you were when you lost your mother. I rely on you to help my child remember me, as once I helped you remember…”
Bess’s fingers formed a steeple below her mouth. “That goes without saying, Kate. She will remember… But you will not die.”
Kate strained back against another onslaught of fierce pain.
“You will not die,” Bess repeated softly, brushing at her eyes. “I command you… I beg you… Oh, my Kate… my sister, pray don’t leave me.”
The last pangs of her pain seemed to blossom within Kate into strange flowers—blooms of death. Drained of almost her last reserve of energy, she turned back to Bess. “Our time for dying is not for us to say.” She inhaled a ragged breath. “I can no longer fight this.”
Bess’s eyes flashed. “Physicians—damn them to Hell. They’re fools, fools I say. Charlatans—every one of them.” She spoke harshly and fast, as if grasping at straws. “They gave me up when I had smallpox and readied my winding cloth.” Bess bit her lip. “Robin found one who saved my life. Why not for you, Kate? I’ll send for Robin. He’ll know what to do.”
Swept by compassion, Kate gazed at Bess and shook her head. “I did not tell you this, not wanting to worry you, but I’ve ailed from the time of my last child’s birth. The midwife told me if I survived the birth of a twelfth child, I’d survive anything. ” Kate laughed softly, carefully. “She was wrong, and I was overconfident. I’ve been with child sixteen times from the time I was sixteen, giving birth to fourteen living babies. I believed myself strong enough to bear a child in my forties. I’ve bled a slow death ever since.” Her vision blurring, Kate turned towards the window. “Perchance I would have been if my babe had lived.” She sighed. “No matter. While I do not want to leave those I love, I am ready to die. You and I have known too many who never saw twenty, let alone reached thirty. We’ve lived longer than your dear mother, God bless and keep her soul. I thank God I’ve shared these years with you. I’ve watched you grow into a great queen. Pray, don’t grieve.”
Bess lifted her chin, licking away her tears. “I cannot help to grieve… I do not know how to live without you.” She hugged her knees. “You’ve been with me all my life—even in my earliest memory, I remember you. I was in my mother’s arms, terrified. The king, my lord father, looked at us as if he hated us.”
Her father, my father, God help us both. Kate listened again to Bess’s words.
“They took me back to Hatfield, and I never saw her again.” Bess gazed at Kate. “I’ve never spoken to you of this…” She swallowed. “All my life, I have been too fearful to ask… But I must know, Kate. What was it like for my mother, waiting for her execution in the Tower?”
Kate considered Bess. “You also waited for death in the Tower. What was it like for you?”
“A wide awake nightmare.” Bess’s smile trembled. She looked vulnerable, no longer a queen. “But, in my heart of hearts, I knew Mary could not bring about my death—not after poor Jane. She never forgave herself for that. My mother though… Betrayed by the man she loved, she must have felt cast into Hell.”
“Yes—but by the time she died, she welcomed death. Let me see the ring,” Kate said. Bess stretched out her left hand to Kate. Opening the locket ring on Bess’s finger, Kate studied the miniature portrait of a woman wearing the long, unfashionable French-hood alongside a recent miniature of Bess. “A good likeness.” The pain intensified again, and Kate closed her eyes. “Pray, the potion.”
Bess helped her up, holding the goblet to her lips. She swilled down a mouthful, touching Bess’s wet cheek. “She never wanted you to cry.”
Bess shook her head. “I will cry. I cry for my mother, for you, and for myself. I cry for the lies, for the children I will never have because I cannot trust or give my life over to the power of a man.”
Kate clasped Bess’s hand. “There’s still time for you to marry and have children.”
Bess stroked the portrait of her young, smiling mother, who seemed to speak of loving life. “My father murdered her. He compared his love for her to the stars themselves and said he could not bear to be apart from her. He moved Heaven and Earth to make her his queen, yet the time came when he did what was necessary to kill her and rid her from his life.” Bess raised a haunted face. “I will never marry, sister.”
Kate blinked away tears. “Forgive our father, I beg you. He was truly terrified of dying and leaving behind no prince for England. He never recovered from his jousting accident the year of your mother’s execution. Until his death, the headaches he had afterwards – they drove him to near madness; the man who killed your mother was not the same man who loved her. Madness killed him, madness made him believe her enemies until he became the tyrant king we all feared. I pity him.”
“Pity him? After what he did to our mothers? Yours, he treated as a whore and discarded when he had no more need of; mine he killed as surely as if he swung the sword.”
“Aye, I pitied him then, and I pity him now. Remember, my mother forgave him, and so did yours. We hurt only ourselves if we cannot forgive him, too.”
Elizabeth hooded her eyes. “I don’t think I can.”
“Bess, you know what is to reign—how easily the power can steal away your soul if you forget, for one moment, you are first the servant of God. Our father, coming so close to death, became a servant to his fears until he served them utterly. Cromwell made certain of that. Cromwell knew if your mother lived, it would cost him his life.”
“So honey-mouthed Cromwell made the king a servant to his fears to save himself and then died in any case….” Elizabeth let out a long sigh. “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown. I pray to God that fear never rules me, so I am driven to do murder.”
“I pray for that, too, Bess. But your mother’s life was not in vain, or without victory; you are her victory. She loved you so much.” Kate smiled. “How proud she was of you. Even when you a little girl, she believed you had a great destiny. She was right. It was your fate to be England’s Queen.”
Too tired to speak anymore, Kate kept hold of Bess’s hand and stared at the ceiling. In the flickering candlelight, the plaster angels seemed to dance and play; she returned to nine years ago, on a snow-white January day, squinting against winter sunlight reflecting a white world.
Following closely behind Bess, her cousin, her sister, she raised her head. The wind lifted Bess’s loose red hair, swirling long streaks of fire within a sudden drift of snowflakes.
One of the honoured women helping carry Elizabeth’s long, heavy train up the steps, Kate couldn’t resist doing a dancing step, far too excited and happy to mind the cold. Drums rolled and trumpets blared. A thousand voices roared in triumph: Long live the queen. Long live the queen.
Bess looked over her shoulder at the crowds and waved. In the sudden hushed silence, before the crowd shouted out as if in one voice, “Elizabeth! God Save Elizabeth!” the wind carried to Kate the well-remembered laugh of another queen. One more shout mounted up, God save the queen. Out of the corner of her eye, her aunt seemed standing beside her. Love. Love never dies, or is forgotten, her aunt’s voice said in her mind. Strange. She had no memory of her saying that while she lived. She rubbed her eyes, snow-light blinding her again. When she opened them, Bess had entered the ancient doors of Westminster.
Kate smiled, squeezing Bess’s hand one last time. She closed her eyes and slept.
An earlier version of this story was originally published in Tudor Life, March, 2019.
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