The Rose Without A Thorn

Now the moment was at hand, Catherine was calm. Her composure, however, owed much to the laudanum with which the flagon of sweet, redcurrant wine had been doctored. Her attendants fussed over her headdress and the folds of her gown while Catherine dazedly reflected on the events that would soon culminate with the wielding of the Royal Axe.

The crowd gathered by Tower Hill munched on veal pies and marchpane, making a feast day out of the occasion. The tender-hearted females had sighed and shed a regretful tear or two when Thomas Culpepper's handsome head had been severed from his lithe body. A man of honor, he had chosen to say nothing at all for fear he would incriminate the little queen even further, and so had gone to his maker without asking for mercy.

Not a woman in the assembly could bring herself to condemn Catherine for preferring that virile and brave courtier to the obese monarch Henry had become. They chatted among themselves, perpetuating gossip of the king's private disease which was, or so it was rumored, outwardly exhibited by foul-smelling, ulcerated sores on his huge legs which required constantly fresh dressings.

"Poor little duck," they sympathized. "Small wonder she turned for comfort to her former lover!" The men laughed raucously. "Would appear that comfort wasn't all he was willing to give her. Not that you could blame him for that. She's a beauty right enough...for the time being anyway!"

They wondered what it was inherent in the nature of Howard women which was so beguiling and yet, in the end, so perilous to their existence. Many had attended the execution of Catherine's cousin...still sometimes referred to irreverently as "Nan Bullen," but less so in recent years. She too had captured the heart of England's Harry and inflamed his desire to fever pitch. In less than an hour, her kinswoman would follow in that late queen's final footsteps.

Catherine searched the eyes of the pale-faced, auburn-haired young woman who stared back at her from the polished mirror until she found the soul within...not innocent by any means, but nevertheless naive. Men had constantly been her downfall with their flattering, honeyed words...and she had always been far too eager to please, but then pleasures of the flesh brought her such delight.

She had been only a girl the first time, willingly seduced by her music tutor whose hands were skilled at far more than mere mastery of the keyboard and whose fingers were as expert with a woman's body as they were with the delicate strings of a mandolin. She struggled to recall his name, but it was lost within the opiate smog of her memory. There had been others...too many...but none like Thomas Culpepper. Catherine scanned the room for a moment, wondering why he wasn't there when she needed him. He had never failed her before.

Her ladies forced her to sit, apprehensive of the delirious look stealing into her green eyes. They prayed she was not on the brink of panic, as she had been the previous evening. Wrenching open the heavy door, she had fled along the dimly-lit corridor, screaming like a petrified child. The guards had dragged her back by the hair, their roughness bruising her porcelain skin and tearing her thin shift.

Safe in her women's arms, she had sobbed. "If I could talk to him," she begged, "I could persuade him to forgive me. He is a king, but he is also a man...a man who loves me and who can be kind." They had given what solace they could, refusing to coddle her with false hope. Even if he wanted to see her, Henry's ministers would find a way to prevent it. The marriage promised no political power to any but the unscrupulous Howards, who most believed were already too big for their own britches.

It was then they had described the dignity and courage of Catherine's cousin, Anne. She had listened carefully, head tilted to one side like a watchful bird, and requested they bring her the block so she could practice laying her neck upon the indentation with grace and fortitude. It had been a pathetic and sorrowful tableau to all who watched her rehearsal. They had removed it from the chamber during the night while she slept fitfully on the narrow bed.

They pressed her to swallow one final goblet of tranquility before leading her to the scaffold. She faltered when she saw the traces of coagulated blood which had settled into the grooves of the wood...stains which had been indescernible beneath the dim candlelight of her chamber the previous night. Pressing her palms together, she knelt in the straw.

Henry pulled his velvet cap over his ears to drown out the somber drum roll. His beefy fist struck the table. Damn them for bringing her peccadilloes to his attention and making them public knowledge! Damn them all to hell for thus leaving him no choice!

She had been his rose without a thorn...fresh and guileless. He had suspected her of infidelities, both before and after marriage but with deliberation had turned a blind eye. She had rejuvenated his jaded spirit and given him the illusion that he was once again a potent and powerful young man. Now she was gone and, with her, his last remaining chance to recapture the glory of youth.

The pain in his legs was agonizing. "Culpepper!" he roared, and then realized that Tom with his gentle touch was also now nothing but a decapitated corpse.

"Oh, Catherine, my love" he whispered, head buried in his hands. "Why could you have not been more discreet?"

Catherine Howard

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