I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (5 page)

“You saw him invited to the Dormers’ banquet this evening. You are certainly resourceful when you put your mind to it.” Margery’s voice was rising and growing thin. It was a predictable precursor to
one of her fits of anger. Like a weather instrument before a windstorm, there was that little tremor that meant danger was not far off.

“A banquet and a royal invitation are two very different things, sweetheart,” he tried with futility to remind her as she shot to her feet, stiffening her resolve along with her spine.

“Can you not call upon your cousin to aid us?”

“Francis Bryan is a
distant
cousin,” he gently reminded her.

“Blood is blood. There is loyalty in it. Why else does he so regularly send us letters of what is going on at the court of our king?”

John rolled his eyes and swatted at the old man behind him to leave before he had a chance to apply the scented oil to his combed hair. “Sir Francis sends those to everyone, Margery. That young buck with whom I share only the faintest bit of blood is a braggart of the first order now that he has become one of the king’s hunting companions. He likes to flaunt his alliances, not offer them up.”

Undaunted, Margery Seymour, in a beaded mauve-colored dress, swept across the bare floorboards to a table beneath the window that held a looking glass and a large, heavily carved jewelry chest with a brass hinge and latch. The lid of the chest was engraved with the Wentworth family crest. Her own lineage was as impressive as her beauty, and she liked to keep the chest prominently displayed to remind herself, John, and their children that she bore royal blood through her mother’s ancestral connection to King Edward III. It gave Margery the right, she believed, if not the relationships, to advocate for her son.

After their first child was named John for his father, Margery had insisted on naming her second son, Edward, after that king. It was a boastful reminder to everyone, especially in this provincial setting to which her parents had seen fit to consign her, that she had
once, in the full bloom of her flaxen-haired, blue-eyed beauty, been important enough to be a muse for the celebrated poet John Skelton.

She now used the tale to guide her young daughters in her expectations for them, comparing them, prodding them, nagging them. Even Elizabeth, who had only just turned six, was already a victim of her mother’s ambition.

It was obvious that even at the tender age of eight, Jane was sorely lacking in the refinement necessary to obtain an important suitor. That was going to change if Margery Seymour had anything to say about it. Her flawless face hid a steel core. She had taught little Jane a lesson last month. And the child’s hair would grow back. Well before she needed it anyway. Jane was clearly meant to be plain, with lovely hair or without it. Poor girl had gotten John’s looks—his receding chin, thick brows, and lifeless blue eyes. Ah, if only her beauty, which had won a master of words like Skelton, had taken Margery to court and not to Wiltshire.

Skelton’s words flowed through her.
Ye be, as I divine, / the pretty primrose, / the goodly columbine.

With a discreet nod, Margery excused her maid, then prepared to try another tack. She drew near her husband, more handsome now in his dress doublet of green grosgrain and silver braid. He was not a tall man, but he stood very straight, which made him seem impressive. The brawny physicality that had won him a knighthood from Henry VII at the Battle of Blackheath nearly two decades earlier had softened with time. The winning smile that had once charmed his wife now hid beneath sagging jowls, but she did not find his nightly gropings completely objectionable. After so many years, she knew how to seduce him to her purposes, quickly and efficiently.

With that in mind, Margery ran a hand skillfully down the
length of his doublet, across the folds of fabric accented by an ivory hem. As always, her touch aroused him instantly.

“We haven’t time for that now, sweetheart,” he murmured, his voice threaded with desire.

“I do not ask you for a great deal, John, you know that. But I must have you to do this for me. Write to Sir Francis on behalf of our son. Find us a way to match the opportunity the Dormers have been given. Edward is already fifteen years old. Their son is two years younger. ’Tis Edward’s time.”

“And your time as well, my dear?” he asked as she pressed a kiss along the vein that was pulsing wildly now in the thick column of his neck.

Jane stood in the alcove beneath the staircase as her parents and brother departed for the evening. Jane loved her elder brother more than anyone in the world, she thought, and she admired him for how handsome and self-assured he seemed. Yet he was something of a mythical figure to her and rarely spoke to her. She watched their mother smile up at him now with a light in her eyes that Jane only ever saw when their mother looked at Edward. The three of them were collected closely, speaking in low tones while they waited for the horses and drawn litter to be brought up from the thatch-roofed stables down the long gravel drive near their gate. Jane looked enviously at her mother’s rose-colored satin evening dress with puffed sleeves and embroidered edges and rope of pearls. It was a new dress, ordered for the occasion. The hood had been made to match.

Jane knew she was nothing like her glamorous mother, nor would she ever be. She reached up and touched the front of her own hair, remembering then. The repercussions from that day in Savernake Forest never left her mind for very long. Defeated, she sank more
deeply into the shadows beneath the stairwell, feeling set apart more than usual in a family where everyone else seemed golden and full of promise. Even her six-year-old sister, Elizabeth, held tightly to their mother’s loveliness. Jane tried not to take that out on the little girl, who followed her around Wolf Hall as much as she followed Edward.

Remembering her hair again, Jane fingered the tendrils at the back where the jagged pieces touched the nape of her neck. It had become a habit this past month as the warm air whispered over her bare skin, which not long ago had been warmed by a full, reassuring mane like that of every other little girl in Wiltshire.

But she was nothing like any of them, and now there was not the faintest resemblance to hide behind.

She watched her family leave and waited for the jangle of the horses’ harnesses out in the courtyard before she dared peek around the corner. Finally she cautiously emerged from the stairwell, the scent of her mother’s rose-water perfume still lingering threateningly.

They were going to Idsworth House. The thought filled her with envy.

They would see that boy who had tried to help her. William. She had heard her mother say he was going to France to see the Princess Mary become queen there. Everyone in England was talking about the marriage.

Jane could not quite imagine such a thing herself—a voyage across the Narrow Sea among actual royalty, or being surrounded by such power and elegance. There could not possibly be anything more exciting or unfathomable.

“’Tis a good thing Mother did not catch you lurking there, or you might well have lost
all
of your hair.” Thomas stood before Jane wearing a serious expression. His coloring was fair and his hair was light auburn. He was a strikingly beautiful boy with the same
brilliant Wentworth eyes as their mother. He was loyal to Jane above all others, and he had actually wept with shock when he first saw what their mother had done in her fit of fury the month before.

“I would so have liked to go with them tonight,” she wistfully confessed to her brother as they walked together toward the long gallery that faced the timbered inner courtyard of their house. The Seymour children spent hours strolling the gallery along a well-worn path, forward and back again, especially when the weather was poor. The household staff often set up games there to keep them from boredom.

“We all would have liked that,” Thomas said. “But none of us are Edward.”

“I met him, you know. Their son, William.”

“Edward said he is a bit uncertain for someone with such an impressive fortune.”

“He was quite certain with me,” Jane countered, remembering how he had saved her from Lucy. “I envy him being allowed to attend the king’s sister to France. That cousin of father’s, Sir Bryan, with a place at court, always writes that the princess is very beautiful.”

“Everyone at court is beautiful…and
rich
,” Thomas countered, making an astute connection for someone so young as they moved to a carved oak bench beneath a bank of leaded windows.

“Did it hurt when she cut it off?” he asked suddenly.

Jane tipped her head. “It was only hair.”

“I know. But there was just…so much of it. Are you still angry?”

“I try not to be. There is really no purpose in it. She is our mother, after all. We must love her.”

“I don’t always,” Thomas confessed, glancing through the
diamond-shaped leaded panes onto a small garden. Two butterflies fluttered over a small fountain surrounded by a neatly trimmed hedge. “Perhaps I would if I were Edward, but I shall never be him.”

“With John and Henry both dead, you are the second eldest now. You know how determined Mother is about everything. She will see Father make a brilliant life for both of you. She means to find a way to get Edward to court. Perhaps you shall go with him one day.”

Thomas laughed at the absurdity of her statement, but then as usual his expression fell more serious. His smile faded and his blue eyes dimmed slightly. “I fear there is as much chance of that as of horses flying.”

As Margery had suspected, Idsworth House, which loomed across a stone bridge and mossy moat, was enormous. It was heavily gabled, wrought of red brick, and ornamented with a great blanket of emerald-colored ivy. Many of the manor’s mullioned windows were filled with colored glass and inset with mottos and the Dormer family coat of arms—a shield with a plumed silver helmet.

Margery felt her heart quicken at the grandeur as she watched a gathering of other well-dressed guests, none of whom she knew, move confidently toward the entrance. Two servants as still as carved statues dressed in gold and blue livery flanked the door, holding flaming torches. In that moment, in spite of the costly and heavily embroidered fabric she had whined and coaxed her way into obtaining, she felt underdressed. She could not let John know it, however, for the protest she had made to look her best. Insecurity was beneath the dignity of a Wentworth and the small but undeniable bit of royal blood that ran through her veins.

Determinedly, she tipped up her chin, as she so often did when she felt challenged, fending off her own demons of inadequacy as
she prepared to advance into the fire. In the first blush of excitement over the invitation, Margery had not counted on the massive size of the crowd or what a challenge it might be to make her mark with Lady Dormer. Ushered into the hall filled with glowing candle lamps and flanked with massive tapestries on heavy rods over freshly lime-washed walls, Margery realized with a sensation of panic that she would not recognize the woman even if she were standing right beside her. She drew in a breath, then sought out a servant. Anyone would do.

John reached for a glass of Rhenish wine offered from a silver tray and cast a wary half glance at his wife as they stood beneath the entrance, penned in like sheep, with all the other guests. A trio of musicians, on dulcimer, pipes, and lute, played too rousingly for the space, and there was far too much undignified chatter going on around them.

Pressing forward anyway, she queried the servant.

“By your leave, where is your mistress? I should like to commend myself to her before the banquet begins.”

He was a tall, thin man, slightly stooped, and quite preoccupied. “I am afraid I have not ever seen her myself, my lady.” Margery could hardly imagine such a thing—to be rich enough to have servants so far removed that they had never actually seen the mistress.

“That makes two of you,” John blandly quipped as he drank his wine in two quick swallows.

Margery shot him an angry glare as she felt the rise of panic. An obstacle that she must surmount lay before her. If only her husband were half so ambitious as she, they would be a formidable team. She might at last see the inside of a royal palace, sip the wine there, and hear the young king himself play one of his own famous tunes. Then she might sleep beneath palace eaves on the finest Holland linens on
swan feathers meant for a queen. If Skelton had made more of an attempt than a lovely, trifling poem, she would not have had to wait so long.

Ah, those days when she had touched the edge of grandeur!

Her heart quickened along with her ambition. She would do this by herself.

Margery scanned the room for another servant. It would not do at all for the other guests to sense her ambition or her fear. John and Edward followed her too much like ducklings; silently, compliantly, padding across the floor as she waded slowly through the velvet-clad press of bodies, the yards of fabric, silk, velvet, the lengths of pearls, the flashing medallions, and the rich, wine-scented laughter.

“My pardon, but,” she pressed a different, younger steward who was serving another guest, “pray, where might I find our hostess?”

It was not the servant who answered.

“’Tis my wife you seek?” the man beside them suddenly asked.

Margery felt her face go very hot. She was flushed as the man with hooded, deep-set, dark eyes turned to look at her. She felt her husband’s impatience and her son’s embarrassment as they came up beside her.

She heard Edward’s quick intake of breath as she blithely replied, “I wished to inquire of her about those magnificent musicians. I’ve a mind to hire them for a party we are going to have at Wolf Hall.”

His demeanor changed swiftly, closing off. She saw him assessing her in the way his black eyes narrowed and in the way his open smile faded to only a reserved upturn of the lips. “Our musicians, my lady, gain their employment from my family exclusively, as we find regular enough opportunities to entertain here and at our other homes.”

She cast him a forced smile, trying casually to respond. “Still, I should like to commend myself to your wife for her discerning ear. Their music is really quite remarkable and jolly.”

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