Alone in her private chamber, the senescent Queen broke with tradition and gazed into her mirror. Despite her velvet gown and layers of jewels, she searched in vain for the remnants of her beauty, but found no trace of them in her reflection. Time had forced her into the strange and unfamiliar mask of an old woman. Regardless of her efforts to revive the natural blush of youth, she recognized that it was irretrievably gone.
These days, she felt as if she wasn’t fooling anyone. In the eyes of the world she was an old crone, like those burned at the stake in the superstitious villages to the north. Men had no respect for such haggard creatures. Even though she still ruled a powerful nation, she was no different from any other wretched woman who had suffered the indignities of Time. In men, old age symbolized wisdom; but in women, it meant decay. Age had rallied her enemies against her and made her more vulnerable to destruction.
Tonight she barred all attendants from her door. Alone and unobserved, she removed her wig and ran her fingers through her wispy gray hair. She tried to recall the face of her mother, the beauteous Anne Boleyn. But so many years had passed; she had been only three at the time of her mother’s execution, and the memory refused to answer her summons. At least her unfortunate mother hadn’t been forced to endure the agony of outliving her beauty.
Indeed, Elizabeth Tudor had survived long enough to have gained wisdom, the essential quality Lord Burghley had assured her was required by a successful monarch. But now she wondered if it was better for a female monarch to die young and at the peak of perfection – like her mother, bereft of the head whose face would one day betray her in the mirror. Wisdom was a fine quality, though perhaps overrated; for when it came down to a universal truth in a world governed by men, women without a trace of sensual beauty were powerless to control events in their favor.
She dipped a small towel into the bowl of rosewater and wrung it out. She closed her eyes and spread the linen across her face, feeling her tears merge into its warmth. After a few moments, she removed the cloth and gently began peeling away the layers of wax that covered her face, just as her ladies had routinely done under strict orders of absolute silence. When finished, the mask of her royal persona lay in pieces on the table.
In the glass, she saw the reflection of an ordinary woman who had governed in extraordinary times. The Earl of Oxford would have understood her ambivalence at this cruel unmasking, for he had often described his emotions after a performance, when the illusions he had created were stripped away, yielding a harsh reality that slowly emerged from the fading mists of glamor.
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