In looking through her private papers, the Queen came across Lord Oxford’s angry letter. She read it again, and with great sadness, folded it and placed it deep inside her writing table. She expected Lord Burghley at any moment, and was sure the familiar sight of his son-in-law’s handwriting would only have added injury to his heavy loss.
Dr. Lopez had assured them that Anne’s death had been unavoidable. Her melancholia had evolved into full blown madness since Susan’s birth one year earlier. That, coupled with the deaths of other children and her husband’s hasty departure for the war unraveled the remains of her sanity. She slipped away from her caretakers in an unguarded moment, wandered over to the river and was swept downstream like a crumpled autumn leaf. Anne, Countess of Oxford, was buried in the Cecil family tomb at Westminster Abbey, her drowning ruled an accident resulting from her pathetically troubled mind.
Feeling anxious, the Queen reached for her Bible. The gilded pages fell open to the prophet Nathan’s parable, in which he chided King David about the slaughter of a poor man’s only lamb. When the King ordered the thief punished, Nathan pointed an accusing finger at him and said that David was the guilty one, who had taken a man’s wife and sent him to die in the war.
The Queen was sure the prophet’s rebuke was also addressed to her. For years, she had come between Oxford and his wife, and he was the only man the poor girl had ever loved. Their star-crossed marriage was an epic tragedy that would make the boards in the playhouses weep, if it ever played upon the stage.
As a royal child, having suffered the degradation of being set aside as a bastard, she had imagined her father King Henry VIII as resembling King David - a red haired, warrior-monarch guilty of arrogance, gluttony and abuse of power. She was sure she had inherited his sinful propensities, and swore once more to atone for them. She carefully folded Oxford’s Last Will and Testament and placed it between the pages of Nathan’s parable, hoping to mute the flagrant reproaches of both poet and prophet.
She thought of Lord Burghley, so distraught at Anne’s funeral, he could barely stand. He leaned on his staff of office, but lost his balance several times and his sons Robert and Thomas had to bear him up. The old man wept as if his heart would break when his daughter was laid to rest in the family tomb. Just steps away, seventeen years earlier, he had rejoiced at her wedding. The Earl of Oxford had been the love of her life, but her affection seemed unrequited. No one knew whether word of Anne’s death had reached him at sea.
A herald announced Lord Burghley’s arrival. The doors opened and the old man entered, relying on his staff to draw him forward. Robert Cecil followed, keeping an awkward pace with his progenitor’s hesitant footsteps. At twenty-five, Cecil was prepared to take his father’s place as the Queen’s advisor, but Her Majesty saw him as a shadow of his father’s greatness. She distrusted him and frequently rebuffed him, nicknaming him Dwarf when he pompously asked for favors and advancement.
As a disciple of Sir Francis Walsingham, the nation’s spy master, Cecil had learned how to apply interrogation and torture with consummate skill. To the Queen, who had known him since birth, his crooked body matched his devious intentions; and yet his dedication served the government well.
“Majesty, you have summoned me and I await your pleasure,” Burghley wheezed, as he bowed before her.
“Don’t stand idly by, fetch your father a chair,” the Queen snapped. “He can speak to me while seated, without disrespect. You, Dwarf, are another matter. Stand aside. Leave us a while.”
Robert bowed, brought a chair and scurried away while Burghley sat below the throne. He seemed weak with sorrow. Her Majesty’s heart filled with compassion.
“How are you these days, good old man?”
“Sad to say, Majesty, my gout has worsened in the past few weeks. It’s particularly bad on rainy mornings like this one.”
“I know, the pain is as sharp as knives. My father suffered from it.”
“He did indeed. You’re fortunate to have been deprived of that particular aspect of his legacy.”
“Has my physician called on you yet?”
“Yes, Dr. Lopez has altered my diet and offers me much encouragement.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Make sure you heed his advice and hasten your recovery.”
“I will, Majesty,” Burghley said, bowing his head. “I humbly thank you for your kind attention to my welfare.”
“I’ve tried my best.”
“And you have succeeded brilliantly. Well, what news from the war?”
Robert stepped up and handed his father some papers. The Queen watched as Burghley clumsily unfolded them.
“According to these dispatches from the Earl of Leicester,” he said, “the battle seems to be in the hands of God. At times a fierce wind blows the Spanish off course and the sea engulfs them; at others, their guns rain fire and brimstone on us and we suffer heavy losses. But Leicester assures me the Armada suffers far more grievously, and Howard seconds that opinion.”
“Then the whole world knows that God is on our side.”
“Indeed. The Almighty has turned his back on the evil doers.”
“Amen!” the Queen said, her eyes cast up to heaven, her palms together in prayer. Her mood quickly changed. “God’s blood, what is that dreadful noise in the hallway? Where are my guards? Dwarf, go and see the cause.”
Before Cecil reached the door, a servant flung it open. He knelt breathlessly before the Queen.
“The Earl of Oxford is on his way here, Majesty, and he’s in a terrible rage. The guards are trying to stop him.”
The Queen glanced at Burghley. The old man withered at Oxford’s name.
“Fear not, I’ll put that bold Turk in his place,” she said. “You, Cecil and you, herald – escort my Lord Burghley outside through the antechamber passage. He’s too sick with grief to suffer this venomous bile.”
“Permit me to stay, Majesty,” Burghley said. “My son-in-law’s outbursts are nothing new. I’ve survived quite a few of them in my day. They always pass away like clouds.”
“Nonsense! You’re entitled to be spared at least one undignified onslaught. It’s too soon after the tragedy and we must protect your broken heart.”
Seconds later, Lord Oxford pushed past the guards and burst into the room, his fine clothes drenched with rain. The Queen countered his rage by calmly ordering her guards to leave them. She would toy with the braggart, and show him no mercy.
“Your long arm has pulled me back from the war, Majesty,” he bellowed, “but I have no idea why you’ve summoned me home like an errant child!”
“Good morning, my Lord of Oxenforde,” she said pleasantly, just to irritate him. “It’s not my fault you ventured out in the rain without your cloak.”
“The almanac called for sunshine today.”
“Sunshine, in England? Is that a joke? Your smile used to warm my heart. Come, kiss me, and let the brilliant rays of my countenance dry your storm-beaten face.”
Oxford wiped off the rain and glared at her.
“Everyone on the battlefield is laughing at me. They say you sent for me to warm your bed!”
“I summoned you home on personal business. Haven’t you heard the news?”
“What news? This ‘personal business’, is that what you call it nowadays? You’ve made me the laughingstock of my peers, but I won’t tolerate it anymore. You’ve summoned me home and I’ve obeyed. I’m at your service, but this isn’t the same service I used to perform for you in the old days, when you ordered me into your bed.”
“Edward,” the Queen said. “Didn’t Leicester tell you why I’ve called you home?”
“No. Your pig-headed cousin has always taken a peculiar thrill in baiting me. Tell me then, why did you send for me?”
“To allow you time to mourn.”
“Mourn for what, for the loss of your body? That works no hardship on me.”
“What loss? Have my plays been destroyed in my absence? Where the devil is William Shaxper? He’ll answer for it.”
As the Queen drew her breath to speak, Robert Cecil stormed in and leapt at Oxford, throwing him to the floor.
“Wretched dog! Have you no shame, showing your face in England after causing my sister’s death!”
“Majesty, this crooked little flyspeck is mad!” Oxford shouted. “I’ve done nothing to his sister. Anne and I have made amends, she’s recovering from her illness.”
“Liar!” Cecil roared. “My sister is dead, drowned, drowned – ”
“Take . . . your . . . hands . . . off . . . my . . . throat!”
“Not until I send you to join her in the grave!”
“Cecil, stop!” the Queen shouted. “Release him, I command you, let him up!”
Cecil obeyed. The guards encircled the Queen for her protection as the two men stood facing each other.
“I treated you like a brother,” Oxford said.
“But you treated my sister like a whore,” Cecil cried, “and she was pure and innocent.”
“I loved Anne. A battalion of brothers couldn’t have loved her as much as I did.”
“That’s what you say now, but it’s too late . . . too late.”
“She deceived me. She took a lover while I was in Italy and gave birth to his child.”
“For five years, you cut her out of your life!” Cecil hissed. “You were going to divorce her and marry Lady Vavasor, the Catholic whore who spawned the bastard that carries your name. You disgraced our entire family, and everybody knows it.”
“That’s not true!” Oxford said. “I gave Anne my estate at Wivenhoe. We reconciled and raised a family. I accepted her daughter. No girl should be bereft of a family name, unable to marry or maintain dignity in this world.”
“And what will you do now?” Cecil bellowed. “Cry out to Anne’s ghost in the night? Write penitential verses and hang them in the trees? It’s too late. You killed a sweet and innocent girl and I warn you, you won’t escape my revenge!”
“Silence!” the Queen shouted. She rose, trembling with fear and rage, remembering Oxford’s letter. “I’ll hold you personally responsible if any harm befalls Lord Oxford, Dwarf, regardless of what you consider to be a justifiable provocation for your act. You’ll pay with your life if you harm him! Guards, take this wretched cripple to the Tower. Show him what happens when weak-minded inferiors threaten the great earls of our realm with violence.”
Cecil was removed from her presence and the doors closed behind him.
Oxford sat on the steps of the dais and wept. The Queen rested her hand on his shoulder.
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