Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter XVII.

The end approached very gradually — with the delay which, so it seemed, had become de rigueur in that ambiguous Court. The ordinary routine continued, and in her seventieth year the Queen transacted business, went on progress, and danced while ambassadors peeped through the hangings, as of old. Vitality ebbed slowly; but at times there was a sudden turn; health and spirits flowed in upon the capricious organism; wit sparkled; the loud familiar laughter re-echoed through Whitehall. Then the sombre hours returned again — the distaste for all that life offered — the savage outbursts — the lamentations. So it had come to this! It was all too clear — her inordinate triumph had only brought her to solitude and ruin. She sat alone, amid emptiness and ashes, bereft of the one thing in the whole world that was worth having. And she herself, with her own hand, had cast it from her, had destroyed it . . . but it was not true; she had been helpless — a puppet in the grasp of some malignant power, some hideous influence inherent in the very structure of reality. In such moods, with royal indifference, she unburdened her soul to all who approached her — to show her his books. With deep sighs and mourning gestures she constantly repeated the name of Essex. Then she dismissed them — the futile listeners — with a wave of her hand. It was better that the inward truth should be expressed by the outward seeming; it was better to be alone.

In the winter of 1602 Harington came again to Court, and this time he obtained an audience of his godmother. “I found her,” he told his wife, “in most pitiable state.” Negotiations with Tyrone were then in progress, and she, forgetful of a former conversation, asked Sir John if he had ever seen the rebel. “I replied with reverence that I had seen him with the Lord Deputy; she looked up with much choler and grief in her countenance, and said, ‘Oh, now it mindeth me that you was one who saw this man elsewhere,’ and hereat she dropped a tear, and smote her bosom.” He thought to amuse her with some literary trifles, and read her one or two of his rhyming epigrams. She smiled faintly. “When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate,” she said, “these fooleries will please thee less; I am past my relish for such matters.”

With the new year her spirits revived, and she attended some state dinners. Then she moved to Richmond, for change of air; and at Richmond, in March, 1603, her strength finally left her. There were no very definite symptoms, besides the growing physical weakness and the profound depression of mind. She would allow no doctors to come near her; she ate and drank very little, lying for hours in a low chair. At last it was seen that some strange crisis was approaching. She struggled to rise, and failing, summoned her attendants to pull her to her feet. She stood. Refusing further help, she remained immovable, while those around her watched in awe-stricken silence. Too weak to walk, she still had the strength to stand; if she returned to her chair, she knew that she would never rise from it; she would continue to stand then; had it not always been her favourite posture? She was fighting Death, and fighting with terrific tenacity. The appalling combat lasted for fifteen hours. Then she yielded — though she still declared that she would not go to bed. She sank on to cushions, spread out to receive her; and there she lay for four days and nights, speechless, with her finger in her mouth. Meanwhile an atmosphere of hysterical nightmare had descended on the Court. The air was thick with doom and terror. One of the ladies, looking under a chair, saw, nailed to the bottom of it, a queen of hearts. What did the awful portent mean? Another, leaving the Queen’s room for a little rest, went down a gallery, and caught a glimpse of a shadowy form, sweeping away from her in the familiar panoply of Majesty. Distracted by fear, she retraced her steps, and, hurrying back into the royal chamber, looked — and beheld the Queen lying silent on the pillows, with her finger in her mouth, as she had left her.

The great personages about her implored her to obey the physicians and let herself be moved — in vain. At last Cecil said boldly, “Your Majesty, to content the people, you must go to bed.”

“Little man, little man,” came the answer, “the word must is not used to princes.” She indicated that she wished for music, and the instruments were brought into the room; with delicate melancholy they discoursed to her, and for a little she found relief. The consolations of religion remained; but they were dim formalities to that irretrievably terrestrial nature; a tune on the virginals had always been more to her mind than a prayer. Eventually she was carried to her bed. Cecil and the other Councillors gathered round her; had she any instructions, the Secretary asked, in the matter of her successor? There was no answer. “The King of Scotland?” he hinted; and she made a sign — so it seemed to him — which showed agreement. The Archbishop of Canterbury came — the aged Whitgift, whom she had called in merrier days her “little black husband”— and knelt beside her. He prayed fervently and long; and now, unexpectedly, she seemed to take a pleasure in his ministrations; on and on he prayed, until his old knees were in an agony, and he made a move as if to rise. But she would not allow it, and for another intolerable period he raised his petitions to heaven. It was late at night before he was released, when he saw that she had fallen asleep. She continued asleep, until — in the cold dark hours of the early morning of March 24th — there was a change; and the anxious courtiers, as they bent over the bed, perceived, yet once again, that the inexplicable spirit had eluded them. But it was for the last time: a haggard husk was all that was left of Queen Elizabeth.

But meanwhile, in an inner chamber, at his table, alone, the Secretary sat writing. All eventualities had been foreseen, everything was arranged, only the last soft touches remained to be given. The momentous transition would come now with exquisite facility. As the hand moved, the mind moved too, ranging sadly over the vicissitudes of mortal beings, reflecting upon the revolutions of kingdoms, and dreaming, with quiet clarity, of what the hours, even then, were bringing — the union of two nations — the triumph of the new rulers — success, power, and riches — a name in after ages — a noble lineage — a great House.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31