THE DRAGON AND THE ROSEby Roberta Gellis
Neither Henry, earl of Richmond, nor his mother, Margaret of Somerset, was expected to survive Henry’s birth. Margaret was only thirteen and a half years old and Henry, once delivered, was a tiny wizened infant, who could barely suckle. But they both did live and presented a serious threat to the Yorkist rulers who had taken the throne from the feeble-minded Lancastrian Henry VI.. After a last unsuccessful Lancastrian revolution, Henry fled England, ending in Britanny, where he became a favorite of the duke–enough of a favorite to keep him safe from more than one attempt on his life. Edward IV died and his heirs disappeared into the Tower and did not emerge so that Richard III came to the throne. But Richard was blamed for every scandal that rocked England and became unpopular enough that a large conspiracy gathered to offer the throne to Henry, who would be the seventh of that name, if he could find the courage to make the attempt.
On December 22, Henry sent a formal invitation to all the ladies of the household to move to Court for the Christmas celebrations. Even the dowager queen could find no fault with the apartments assigned nor with the furnishing of those apartments. She did protest that Elizabeth's rooms were so widely separated from hers while Margaret's adjoined them, but the lord chamberlain, under strict instructions from the king, was immovable.
When Henry himself was approached, he looked startled and asked in an indignant voice whether he could be suspected of wishing to dishonor his intended bride—and in his own mother's presence, too? Elizabeth retained her privacy, and Margaret's respect for her son increased yet again as the girl came slightly more alive.
It was hard to pinpoint the exact cause that was bringing color back to Elizabeth's cheeks and an occasional smile to her lips. Perhaps it was the brilliance of the Court, which reminded her of her happier youth. Perhaps it was the effect of Henry's attentions, which were becoming steadily more particular. Margaret guessed, however, that freedom from her mother's complaints, demands, and nagging was in part relieving Elizabeth's depression.
Certainly Henry was putting himself to pains to make the season merry. Each night the feast was grander; each night the courtiers appeared in new and handsomer clothes; each night the music was gayer and the dancing lasted longer. Elizabeth could not complain of her betrothed's attentions now. Henry danced well and he danced every dance with her.
Even more surprising, his eyes were for her alone. Unfortunately, what looked out of those eyes on the few occasions when Elizabeth was able to catch their expression unveiled was not love but curiosity, caution, and—hunger. Still, it was better than hate or indifference, and since her mother could not plague her to make demands of him, Elizabeth did not need to see again the contempt and distaste with which Henry had regarded her at their first meeting.
Twelfth Night brought a culmination of the festivities. The entire day was replete with excitement as gift after gift arrived to be examined, ohed over, and set up for display. As the hour grew later and later, however, Elizabeth began to wonder whether the favor Henry had shown her was merely a gambit to make her vulnerable to a more cruel insult.
Plate and jewels and gold had arrived for Margaret; a similar gift with a correct, although impersonal letter, had been delivered to the dowager queen. For her—nothing. Elizabeth was trembling between rage and terror when the king himself was announced. He dismissed her women and his gentlemen with a quick gesture, and Elizabeth drew in her breath and braced herself. Henry, however, did nothing more alarming than to bow over her hand and kiss it.
"Madam," he said, his eyes sweeping her from head to foot, "you are in truth a white rose."
Was it a compliment or a cruel gibe? "I endeavor only not to shame your own magnificence, sire."
Henry laughed, and Elizabeth felt a trifle better for the sound seemed natural. "I am a pretty popinjay these days," he admitted, "but it is necessary, and, in truth, I love fine things. I wished to bring you your New Year's gift with my own hands." He withdrew from his voluminous doublet a purse and a box. "I brought you no plate, madam, for all that is in the royal residences will be yours. This," he laid the purse in her hand, "for your charities or your pleasure."
Elizabeth curtsied and set down the purse, which was very heavy.
"This," Henry continued, opening the box, "for your eyes and to grace your white throat."
Once more Elizabeth bent her knees. She could feel Henry looking at her directly for once, and the speeches were both pretty and proper, but her relief had blossomed into resentment rather than gratitude. The very appropriateness and beauty of the diamond and sapphire necklace he was extending toward her fed the sensation. Did he never make a mistake? Never say an incorrect word or display an improper emotion? The silence was now becoming marked. Henry was waiting for a proper expression of thanks. A flush stole up Elizabeth's throat as she realized that he was perfectly prepared to stand there and wait forever for the response he desired. Apparently nothing could disconcert the king.
"Thank you," she said in a gasp as she took the box and laid it beside the purse.
"And this is my last gift—one to be shared between us."
A rolled parchment, heavy with seals, had appeared from nowhere. This time Elizabeth took it without delay, having no desire for another engagement with this imperturbable man, which could only lead to her discomfiture.
Henry's eyes were veiled, but the slight curve of his mobile lips seemed to indicate an expectation of amusement. A glance at the document was sufficient. Elizabeth paled. She was not even to have respite until the pope sent a dispensation; Henry had procured one already from the papal legate.
"When …" she faltered.
"I am happy to see you so overjoyed by the imminence of our wedding." Henry lifted his right hand so that it drew her attention and twisted the ring she had sent him which was prominently displayed on his forefinger. "Any day this month will suit me, madam. I give you the honor of naming the day."
Did he expect her to plead for more time? She would plead for nothing. Did he believe he could taunt her into rejecting him? The parliament had asked him to marry her; it was her duty to the people and to her father that the legitimate line remain on the throne. It was God's will that she be the sacrifice for this purpose.
"The eighteenth would be a good day," Elizabeth said at random.
"The eighteenth it is," Henry approved. "I will announce it to the court at once."
He did so simply and with apparent pleasure, holding her hand in his own and, when the cheering stopped, turning to touch her lips with his, to bring on a new ovation. Elizabeth, not to be outdone, did not shrink from his salute, and no one but Henry knew how cold and passive her lips were under his brief caress.
However, she extended herself for the first time to be gay and witty with the courtiers. Perhaps it would seem to them that she had been sullen in the past because of Henry's delay in setting the date. Her pride was hurt at that notion, but her fate and the Tudor's were now linked. For the sake of the children she would bear, the grandchildren of Edward IV, the rightful heirs to the throne, it must be her purpose to support her husband. There were plenty of ways to salve her pride and show him what she thought of him in private.
"That was well done, Henry," Margaret said when he came up to her in his progress through the room.
"I could still wish that it need not be done at all, but needs must is soonest mended with willing compliance." He smiled when he saw his mother's troubled face. "Nay, I am not all ill-pleased. She is beautiful—and that much is sweet to me."
"There is goodness and warmth as well as beauty in her."
"I have seen none of it."
"For that you may blame only yourself."
Henry's mouth set hard. "What she desires, I cannot give."
"You are mistaken, my son. She desires only what all women desire—love."
"Perhaps." Henry's eyes slid away. "But I cannot love Edward's daughter."
"Oh, my God," Margaret whispered, "will you never cease to hate? What black sin do you feed in your heart? It is God's law that we forgive and even love our enemies."
"Edward and Richard are dead. I do not hate the dead nor even the living—I hope. But I cannot trust Edward's daughter. Think, mother. I love you. What could you ask of me that I would not give? Is it safe to put such power in hands other than yours or my uncle's? I dare not—"
"Sire!" Foxe was slightly breathless, and Henry turned to him at once. He whispered; Henry smiled.
"So? God bless Morton that he made me see the reason in sending those gifts to James. Mother, a Scots embassy is here with New Year gifts. I must away to receive them at once. This means a truce with James that will permit me to settle with those damned rebellious northerners."
Henry kissed his mother's hands and left, hardly knowing whether he was more pleased by the political significance of the event or by the fact that it gave him an excuse to be busy. His recent constant contact with Elizabeth was unsettling him. Although he was willing enough to acknowledge his physical desire for her, he had found himself recurrently battling the temptation to make her smile at him, and to discover whether he could bring out the warmth that his mother promised she had and make it replace her cold passivity. It was no safe wish. Henry knew he had no skill to dissimulate with women, to draw affection from them without being trapped in it himself.
His unease grew as the days passed and his wedding drew nearer. It was a shock to find himself with pen idle in hand wondering what color Elizabeth's eyes would turn when they were passionate or pleased. He buried himself in practical details, estimating how much increase in expenditure a suitable household for her would mean, poring over the lists of crown lands to determine which would be best to assign as her dower property. All too often, however, Henry found himself in the state apartments that were being readied for Elizabeth's use, meddling with the choice of hangings and furniture, particularly those for the bedchamber.
His uncle laughed at him openly, and Courtenay innocently brought Henry's wrath down on his head by proposing to fetch him a wench to ease himself upon. Henry apologized and kissed his startled friend, rather startled himself by the violence of his reaction. It would not do, he told Courtenay, to affront his bride and the Court with such behavior; but he knew the matter could have been kept secret and would really affront no one but Elizabeth. He closed his mind to the real reasons for his refusal and worked harder than ever on the Scots truce. That night he cursed himself heartily as he turned and twisted, inflamed and unable to sleep. A few days more, he told himself, but whether in hope or in fear he could not decide.
The Tudor's luck held for the day of his wedding. Henry had decided that the thing must be done decently, but in no way rival the brilliance of his coronation. Compliantly, the skies were grey and the cold more than sufficient to keep any large crowd from gathering. Unfortunately Henry was too far gone to appreciate nature's willingness to fall in with his plans. His temper was so bad that his squires of the body slunk out of sight the moment their particular task was finished, and Margaret and Jasper could do nothing but stare at each other in despair.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was perfectly calm. She had come to terms with her personal sacrifice. She did not expect any pleasure from her relationship with the Tudor, whom she still found rather unattractive, but she did not fear him either, for she knew herself to be valuable property. There were also advantages to come from her marriage. She would be relatively free of her mother, and, God willing, she would have children. Elizabeth's lonely heart yearned toward that day. Even Henry's passionate desire for an heir could not overmatch her need to have something to love.
Of the two, therefore, Elizabeth's voice was the steadier in the exchange of vows, her hand the warmer of the two when they clasped. She grew positively merry at the wedding feast, capping jests, teasing the fools, and laughing heartily at the bawdy farces presented. Elizabeth was a virgin, but her mind was not in the least virginal and her body had long since been ready for love. She was accustomed to the lewdness that had been a regular feature of her father's Court and was unashamed of her own sensuality.
If her husband was no beauty, she had no reason to doubt that he was a man; and if he did not desire to amuse her, at least he had reopened to her the Court life that she loved. When the feasting was ended and the dancing was done, however, she grew a trifle nervous. Henry had been unusually silent and she detected tense glances cast at him from the men who knew him best. There was nothing to be read in his face, but were his lips thinner? Was there a cruel glint in the half-lidded grey eyes? Elizabeth did not fear the natural consummation of marriage, but she wondered if Henry could mean to take his revenge on her family by misusing her personally.
Margaret was quick to see the changed mood, quick to respond to it by beginning preparations for the bedding. Henry's temper had not improved, and it was useless to delay longer and permit the girl's apprehension to increase.
All in all, it was not a merry bedding. Henry's intimates had more than a suspicion that the king was something of a prude, and the remainder of the lords and ladies were too much in doubt and awe of him to be free with their jests. They stood in a formal semicircle as Elizabeth was led to the huge bed and ensconced in it, wrapped in her bed robe. The dowager queen whispered urgently in her ear, but Elizabeth stared straight ahead, frightened more by her own imaginings than of Henry.
In all honesty, he did not look a fearsome sight when the knights of the body and the gentlemen of the bedchamber escorted him in. He was paler than Elizabeth, and Margaret, who had never dared ask, wondered if he were as much a virgin as his bride. He also was assisted into the high bed, and in a most unnatural silence, the bed curtains were drawn closed.
Usually that would have been a sign of dismissal for all except the ladies and gentlemen who slept by turns in the royal bedchamber to attend to chance wants in the night. Tonight, however, the courtiers merely drew back a little and waited. It was their duty to be witness of the consummation of the marriage, as it would be their duty to watch the birth of Elizabeth's children to be sure that the queen had given birth to the child, and that the child presented to them was the child that had been born.
In spite of maidenly modesty—of which, in truth, she had very little—Elizabeth was suffering far less acutely than Henry. She was accustomed to the lack of privacy in which royalty lived, having endured it for most of her life.
*** Henry felt paralyzed. He could hear a low buzz of whispering, but he knew that every ear was cocked for a sound from the great bed. Desperately he untied and shrugged off his bed robe. Elizabeth turned
. Elizabeth turned and regarded him with her blue eyes gone almost black in the dim light that filtered through the bed curtains. For a long moment Henry sat still, allowing her to examine him, his chest rising and falling quickly with his short breath. Then, as she made no move, he reached slowly toward the fastenings of her bedgown.
For once Henry's iron will failed him. His hands trembled, and his fingers were so clumsy that it seemed hours before he had the robe loose. In fact, when he thought he was done and made to slip it off Elizabeth's shoulders, he found to his chagrin that a lace bow remained. Forgetting himself completely, he uttered a resounding oath and tore the knot free. Sudden silence fell outside the bed curtains, and Henry blushed as red as ever Elizabeth could.
It was impossible, Elizabeth found, to continue being afraid of a husband who blushed like a girl. Her sense of humor was tickled and she giggled. The silence in the room remained tense. Henry glanced distractedly from the bed curtains to his bride's face. A fine impression of his virility he was giving both his court and his wife.
Elizabeth's movement, however, had shaken her robe open. Tantalizing glimpses of a breast even whiter than her throat appeared. Henry ceased to worry about either the watchers or the impression he was making. Very gently he thrust the robe from one shoulder, then the other, and drew it off. Such delicate fairness! He traced the line of throat, shoulder, and arm with his fingertips, then the curve of the breast. Elizabeth's eyes widened and she drew a faintly shuddering breath, but Henry seemed entranced by what he was doing and he paid her no heed. Self-absorbed in the pleasure he was taking, for he lacked experience with all but bawds who made the advances and scarcely gave him time for this slow titillation of the senses, Henry did not realize he was giving as much pleasure as he was receiving.
He closed his eyes and the flesh was like velvet beneath his fingers. Soft to touch, he soon found it sweet to kiss also, sweet and scented with roses. Desire stung him sharply, but he resisted, for to take what he desired would quench desire. Elizabeth slid down on the pillows and lay flat, breathing in gasping sobs. Vaguely aware that there was some reason to maintain silence, Henry stopped her lips with his own—and then he could wait no longer.