Tudor Ghost Story Contest Second place winner 2012
The Final Rose
By Cynthia Green
At Richmond Palace, the queen’s favourite winter residence, grey smoke spiralled from the ornate chimneys and candle flames illuminated the leaded glass windows. Autumn marched into winter on the late afternoon of the final day in October, 1602.
The queen and two of her ladies-in-waiting walked through a long corridor, passing portraits of former monarchs and tapestries of medieval feasts and hunting scenes. Stuffed animal heads of past hunting glories boasted exciting memories for the old queen.
They descended into the privy garden where gardeners were spreading straw over dormant plants. The mossy path stilled their footsteps and the hems of their dresses swept the fallen leaves. Cool air swelled with scents of thyme and lavender, dried on their stems.
“I used to love to hunt in the park.” Queen Elizabeth gazed beyond the castle gardens and smiled at the sight of deer grazing on Richmond Green. “They said I hunted as well as any man.”
Jewels adorning the silk netting on her curly, red wig sparkled in the twilight. In the distance, near the River Thames, she squinted to ascertain a figure in black, standing motionless, looking over the water. Tall as a man, it was a woman’s cloak that divulged her gender.
Elizabeth shivered and the starched, fan-shaped ruff at her neck prickled her skin.
“Are you cold, Your Grace? Twill be dark soon and we should return to our rooms to prepare for the festivities.”
“Fuss not, Catherine, and allow me to enjoy this All Hallows’ Eve for I fear it may be my last.”
“Pray do not speak such a thing.” Catherine, Countess of Nottingham, took a breath and went on, “I am surprised that the Church has retained the custom of All Saints’.”
“Aye,” Elizabeth agreed. “Perhaps the Pope feared the dead would arise from their graves if they abandoned the tradition. Come hither, ladies, for I have something to ask. My old eyes cannot see very far. Who is that woman by the river?”
Helen and Catherine claimed they could not see the woman, but the queen watched as the blurred figure turned and faced them.
The great queen sucked in her toothless breath and leaned on Lady Helen’s outstretched arm. “I have heard that when a reigning monarch witnesses the ghostly apparition of someone they condemned to death it shall herald their own demise.”
“O, how frightful, dost thou believe is it true?” the countess asked.
“Perhaps.” The old queen nodded. “They say that my father, the king, saw the ghostly figure of Catherine Howard just before he took to his deathbed.”
“The poor man,” Helen said with a gasp. “I would surely die on the spot if a ghost revealed itself to me.”
Elizabeth turned to look at her lady-in-waiting. “I am surprised that my mother did not haunt him for all the wrongs he caused her. Alas, I have no memory of her, but for the sweet scent of her perfume that visits my dreams.” She opened a locket ring on her middle finger and stared at a miniature portrait of a woman wearing a French hood.
“Thou art fortunate to have escaped the executioner’s blade, Your Grace,” the countess observed.
“There were times when I came close to sharing my mother’s fate. I have her courage and my father’s strength. I am not ready to leave this earth. Surely God cannot begrudge an old woman her final days.” Elizabeth squinted into the low sun and saw the mysterious woman advancing across the Green. The icy air prickled her skin and she shuddered. Looking at her ladies-in-waiting, she said, “My nights are filled with faces of those I condemned to death and my days harbour no peace. Much to my better judgement, I have spilled the blood of my own kinswoman. I am alone and fear no one loves me.”
“Nay, we love you and your subjects love you, also, is that not so, Catherine?”
“Aye, Helen, they call Your Majesty, Good Queen Bess, and they rejoice in your good heart.”
Elizabeth nodded. “That doth please me.”
“And they praise thy beauty as well,” Helen added.
Beneath the wig, covering her bald head, and heavy make-up, concealing her pocked complexion, the queen gave a half-hearted chuckle. “I am a withered pear, Helen. I would rather be remembered for my courage. Some men claim I am nothing but a mistress of half an island, but I defeated the Armada, and Spain and France tremble at the mention of my name.” She stopped to admire a single red rose on a thorny stem that reached her chin. “I am much like this flower as I was born from an uncertain beginning and blossomed into a reigning queen. Without the title of princess, my claim to the throne was weak and I had much to prove. I have tried to be kind, but my enemies have felt the thorns of my anger.”
Elizabeth picked the rose from its bush and the fragile petals scattered to the ground. A thorn pricked her finger and droplets of blood stained her white glove and painted the fallen petals.
“Thou art bleeding, Your Grace. Here, allow me to—”
“Nay, fuss not, Helen, ‘tis only blood.”
An owl hooted somewhere in the large oak trees, announcing the time had arrived to hunt for food. The queen envied its prowess. For the first time in her sixty-nine years, she felt the aches and pains befitting an old woman. “Let us sit, ladies, for I am weary.”
Catherine guided the queen to a long bench and they sat watching the sun set.
Elizabeth sighed deeply. “I sense my time is drawing to a close. Nay do not refute the truth, Helen,” she said when her friend opened her mouth to speak. “My reign hath been peaceable, but my heart aches for I am the last sovereign of a great lineage. The glory of the Tudor crown will tarnish after I am gone.”
“Nay, do not speak such things.” Catherine twisted her fingers together. “You have not been yourself, lately, and you refuse to see the doctor.”
“I am not ill, Catherine, and to prove so, I shall walk again in the garden.” The old queen allowed her ladies to assist her from the bench and they strolled down the path toward the courtyard.
“Thou art true, in part, Catherine, for my heart pines for happier times. I am alone and old. So many friends, family and suitors have passed over and, as my own death approaches, I sense their presence and those I sentenced to death as well. Their fate cries out for revenge.”
“You are well protected here.” Catherine stopped walking and continued, “And the poor, who came to the palace for food this day, spoke prayers for your soul.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I will need more than their prayers when the hourglass of my life is spent.”
Helen wept tears of anguish and fear. “Please, stop, Your Grace, you frighten me. Pray, come inside now.”
Elizabeth smiled and patted her dear friend’s hand. “You must expect to be frightened on All Hallows’ Eve, Helen. Let us cheer you with talk of the merriment we will share tonight as well as the sweet cakes and wassail.”
Helen nodded and wiped the tears from her face.
In the approaching twilight, shadows from the willow trees wavered long branchlike fingers across the ground. Wind scattered golden leaves around their feet and the sun’s orange ball hovered above the skyline. Sensing someone watching her, Elizabeth turned her head and spied the inky, cloaked figure drifting inside a boxwood maze.
“Daylight fades, Your Grace. I beseech you again to leave this place.” Desperation plagued Helen’s voice.
The old queen pointed to the maze. “Hath she come to forgive me or avenge me?”
“Who, Your Grace?” Helen asked.
“She favoured black, or so her many portraits tell. Did you know that both of our mother’s were French?”
“You speak of Mary Stuart?”
“Aye, Catherine. I thought if we never met, her execution would not distress me, but I was wrong. Before she died she returned the ring I sent to her as a promise of my friendship. She begged me to let her body be buried in France and I denied her plea. It took three blows of the axe to kill her. Is this her spirit returned this night?”
In answer to her question the cloaked figure emerged from the maze just as the sun vanished below the horizon.
“There she is. Can you not see her?” the queen asked, raising her arm to point at the figure.
“No one is there, Your Grace. Come away, now,” Helen pleaded. “‘Tis dark and the days of the dead are upon us.”
Elizabeth gestured to the palace. “Go inside if you fear the dark. I must wait a few more moments to be sure.”
“Nay, we shall not leave thee.” Catherine drew to the queen’s side and Helen flanked a protective barrier on the opposite side.
“Then take my arms and we shall wait for what will come together.”
The three women stood on the path, their heavy breaths clouding the cold air.
“Where is she now?” Catherine asked.
“Not far.” Elizabeth watched the glowing, black spectre drawing closer.
“Why can we not see her?” Helen asked.
“She comes for me.”
Only the old queen saw the spirit of her beautiful, Scottish cousin, but all three women felt a cold draft of air as the phantom glided through their bodies. Her ghastly wail filled the ebony sky and the old queen shivered.
“Come, my friends, take me inside for I feel a chill in my bones.”
Less than five months later, Good Queen Bess died at Richmond Palace. And since that time the spirit of ill-fated, Mary Stuart, has made herself heard just before the death of every English monarch.