I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (6 page)

Like a door opening into a forbidden room, his smile deepened and a hint of kindness returned to his face at her flattery. He leaned nearer, as if he were about to tell her some little secret or other.

“If there is anything Lady Dormer enjoys, ’tis praise,” he responded with an unexpected little chuckle.

In a pearl-dotted swirl of silk and a whisper of essence of oranges, a woman near them turned at Dormer’s words. She faced Margery with a bright, somewhat false smile. She was an attractive woman, Margery thought as she quickly assessed her in the way that one beautiful woman often does to another. She rivaled Margery with her classic and vivid beauty, wide blue eyes, and fair, flawless skin, and Margery felt disarmed.

It was not often that anyone could match her looks.

“Oh, there you are, my dear,” Dormer said, turning to Lady Dormer. “May I present Sir John and Lady Seymour,” he said perfunctorily, already beginning to scan the crowd, no doubt for more important connections to reaffirm.

Margery made a small nod and slight curtsy to their hostess. In spite of her own superior lineage, it seemed in the moment the right thing to do if she wished to ingratiate herself. With the noise and activity swirling around them, Margery knew she would not have much time for so sizable a task.

“Seymour, is it?”

“My husband, Sir John, was sheriff of Wiltshire for a time. We are presently the owners of Wolf Hall,” Margery said with a note of pride coloring her voice for the lovely old property they owned.

“Wolf Hall?” Lady Dormer made a little sniffing sound as she
said it, as though there was something foul in the air. “That timbered old place beside the forest?”

Margery saw they had been assessed unfavorably. Their hostess was unimpressed.

“And sheriff of Southampton before that.”

She might as well have said village butcher or candle maker, Margery thought, feeling the rise of desperation at the perceived disparity between them.

“He was also for a time sheriff of Somerset and Dorset.” She heard the pleading tone in her own voice and forced, with great strength, a carefree smile.

“Indeed.” Lady Dormer made the same little sniffing sound of superiority and began to scan the crowd, as if she could not wait for a reason to be taken away from this pointless introduction. “Well, welcome to you both.”

As Lady Dormer turned away, some odd power she had never felt before forced Margery to reach out and clutch the woman’s arm. Tension flooded the moment, quickly snuffing out any pretense of hospitality Lady Dormer had shown before. As she gazed down at her own arm, becoming ever more aware of the untoward connection, Margery forced a little nervous chuckle.

“I wished to commend your musicians,” she said frantically enough that she felt John take a step forward. Lady Dormer lifted her arched blond brows disdainfully.

With unexpected determination, Margery turned to her son, hearing the frantic tone in her own voice but ignoring it.

“Your son and ours here—our Edward—have met, you see. I actually believe Edward, being a bit older, was able to help acquaint your son, William, with our little corner of Wiltshire on your last stay here. And I dare say they have forged something of a friendship.”

She was prattling on and she knew it, but as with everything else in the last few minutes, it was absolutely beyond her control to stop it. She was a boulder of commitment rolling downhill, gaining more speed with each thump of her heart.

“I would not really say we are friends, Mother, but we
have
met,” Edward spoke up with surprising ease for an adolescent as he bowed. Margery released her hand from the bell sleeve of Lady Dormer’s arm. “’Tis an honor to be here this evening, Lady Dormer. Like my parents, I am very much enjoying the music.”

To Margery’s relief, something akin to a smile brightened Lady Dormer’s face. The back-and-forth was all very unsettling amid so much noise and music. “Ah, yes. Edward. My son has spoken well of you.”

“I am glad.” He nodded to her, as he had been taught well to do. But there again was the expression of superiority from Lady Dormer, and a spark of condescension. “Perhaps he might come to Wolf Hall one day and we might practice French together. I am frightfully slow at the conjugations, I am afraid, but he has told me he is even slower.”

Lady Dormer and her husband exchanged a quick glance, followed by a slight rolling of their eyes, which said that was never going to happen.

“Why, certainly,” Lady Dormer lied with a smile so chilly Margery actually felt a shiver. “Although his French is passable enough for the king’s court.” Margery felt the pointed barb. “When he has returned we shall make a plan of it. Now pray, do excuse us. We must see to the banquet before our guests start fighting one another for food. But truly, ’twas lovely to have met you all.”

And with that, they slipped back into the same cloud of entitlement from which they had emerged.

“That went well,” Edward said drily.

“Well indeed, if you fancy catastrophe as a first course,” John said sarcastically, feeding off his son’s tone.

“Do be silent, the pair of you. I’ve got a dreadful headache and I must think how we can mend this!”

“We?”
John asked. “Has this family not made quite enough of an impression for one evening?”

“Certainly not the impression I wished to make, for Edward’s sake,” Margery snapped, feeling entirely frantic now and losing the control she so obstinately maintained over her life. She glanced around, wide-eyed, her cheeks flushed. “I
must
get Edward and the boy together. Edward, you must remind him how agreeable your company is and—”

“And then what, Mother? His gentrified parents will move heaven and earth to have a lad from the country he barely knows join him on the voyage to France in the company of the king’s sister?”

It had sounded so much better in her mind.

“There must be a way. We are certainly close now.”

“We are no closer now than that steward over there is to the throne of England,” John said coolly.

“She thought herself better than us,” Margery grumbled of their hostess.

“Clearly,” John agreed.

“Loutish boors,” said Edward.

“No better,” John said, biting back the same smile his eldest son tried to hide from his mother.

“We are gentry as well! By my heaven, you were knighted!” Margery exclaimed heatedly as other guests swirled around them.

“But they are wealthy, and that does make all the difference.”

“Well, I am the one between us who bears the blood of royalty, not her!” Margery countered indignantly.

“For all of the good that trickle of crimson has done us,” John remarked.

“Edward deserves to be in that party to France as a page of honor far more than the son of some wool merchant!”

She spoke the words harshly, but her envy could not be masked. Just then, a trumpet fanfare announced dinner, just as it was done at court banquets. Her resolve hardened along with her expression.

“How must you feel to see your son demeaned in this way?”

John rolled his eyes. “I know not if that was the intention.”

“Well, it most certainly was the result. She believes me to be no better than one of her servants. I could see it clearly on her face, and therefore our son is no better. That shall not stand! I have been immortalized by poets. Not her! Anyone who is anyone has read
Garland of Laurel
and knows I am the subject,” she whispered heatedly.

Now she wanted to spite Lady Dormer as much as to elevate her son.

They began the slow shuffle along with the other guests toward the elegant dining hall. “Will you write to your cousin at court now, or shall I?” Margery asked.

It was clear she meant to see it done…no matter what her husband said in response.

As angry talk of the incident in Savernake Forest finally began to fade at Wolf Hall, Jane was allowed back into the gardens to play with the other children. She had not, however, minded being sequestered at first because of her jaggedly shorn hair, which itched madly when tucked beneath her tight-fitting gabled hood.

She did not mind solitude. Jane liked to read on her own. Anything she secretly took from her father’s library was a welcome
challenge, and she preferred it over the Psalter that Father James, their village priest and tutor, forced each of the children to read from every day.

She might be young, but Jane craved escape with spirit and excitement. Stories of kings and queens, daring knights, and beautiful princesses captured her. Granted, there was not much of that to be had in John Seymour’s musty library, but she had secretly come upon a small volume of
The Canterbury Tales
, which she kept like spoils beneath her mattress. Theft made the reading of the verses all the more sweet.

She was not a swift reader, and many things she did not understand, so it seemed to take an eternity to move through the bawdy stories, but when she could capture a moment by candlelight when she was meant to be asleep, she easily lost herself in the smart, humorous vignettes, like “The Prioress’s Tale.”

The stories reminded her of William Dormer. That boy was actually going to meet the king! He was going to wear incredible costumes and wait on a queen. It was as if he had leapt out of the pages of her book.

One late afternoon, when she was covertly reading, she was so lost in her fantasies that she did not hear the frantic knock at her door. A moment later, Thomas dashed inside, his face alive with excitement.

“Sister, you must come at once!” he said urgently. “Downstairs! You’ll not believe what they are saying!”

Jane slipped the book back beneath her mattress, then picked up her hood and reluctantly fitted it back onto her head.

“What is it, Tom?”

“Father received a letter just this morning from court, from that cousin of his, Sir Francis Bryan, and now Mother is in an absolute state!”

“Mother is always in a state,” she countered, as yet unimpressed. “So then you were eavesdropping?”

“As
you
taught me to do. And you should be happy I did, since I heard your name. Truly, sister, you really must come!”

“I am involved?”

Jane felt the blood rise hotly in her face, remembering with fear the last time she had displeased her mother. Her hair was still recovering from that experience. Reluctantly, she left the room behind her brother, who scrambled out the door.

The stairwell was as efficient a place to eavesdrop now as always, and as children who had spent their whole lives in these chambers and corridors, Jane and Thomas knew how to slip unnoticed from place to place if they so desired.

Margery and John were standing near the door. There was an open letter dangling from her father’s hand. His other hand was on the massive open door, a messenger having just departed. There was a fresh wisteria-scented breeze blowing in from the courtyard.

“This cannot be serious!” Margery shrieked, panic lighting her eyes, making them shine as blue as water in the shaft of sunlight through the door. “We cannot possibly afford to send them
both
! Think of the money for her wardrobe alone to keep up with the other invited girls there—if such a thing were even possible to imagine! Gowns are far more costly than boys’ costumes!”

“Be that as it may, they’ll not take one without the other. Read it yourself. They have enough pages of honor as it is, so my cousin would be doing us an enormous courtesy just finding a place for Edward on the journey.”

“But Jane? Saints above, John, can we not at least send our
pretty
daughter?”

“Margery, the girl is not yet six and does not take direction well. We could not risk proposing that.”

Jane heard her name and tried to process what they were saying. It has got to be Jane for
what
? What wrong had she committed now? It was like trying to translate the Latin Vulgate of the Bible, never quite getting past the words to the actual meaning of the text.

“Pray, how will we possibly afford it, John? Our Jane cannot go to the French court looking like someone’s poor relation or we shall be the laughingstock of England, and Edward’s opportunities shall come to an end.”

Her mother could not seem to speak without shrieking, Jane thought.

“Perhaps I can ask Sir Francis for a loan.”

Margery slapped her forehead with her palm and rolled her eyes with incredulity. The shrieks grew louder. “You cannot be serious! You wish us to ask a great lord to do us a family kindness and then ask him to foot the bill as well?”

“A loan, Margery.”

“’Twill not stand. No. There must be another way. Both of the children will need new costumes, shoes, costly beadwork, and lace to make certain they are fashionable enough.”

“There
is
your grandmother’s brooch.”

Margery clutched at the large pearl framed by a jeweled halo pinned prominently to her dress. She looked as though she had been wounded with a dagger by the mere suggestion. Their bickering fell to an abrupt halt as she held fast to the gem. “Out of the question. ’Tis my birthright,” she said with a snarl.

“It really is the only thing we have of substantial value, Margery, something to provide ready money on the scale required. It is that, I fear, or humiliate ourselves when we ask Sir Francis for aid.”

From the hidden stairwell, Jane saw the sheer panic bloom on her mother’s expression, like the unfolding of some grotesque flower, changing her face into something wild.
“Jane’s hair!”
she gasped, adding it then to the litany of reasons not to send their daughter to France.

“That, I’m afraid, my dear, was your doing,” John said blandly.

“’Tis pointless to assign blame now.”

“Pointless was doing it in the first place.”

“You know perfectly well I was angry, John, and besides, it was meant to teach the girl a lesson.”

“The only lesson learned is to avoid impulsivity.”

“Oh, do silence yourself!” she spat, rolling her eyes again. “And help me work this out.”

A shift of weight on the floorboards caused a creaking sound, and both parents turned toward the stairwell. Reluctantly, Jane and Thomas both emerged, hands behind their backs, a sense of fear rising in both of them.

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