I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (12 page)

“Insult me if you will, but we have living daughters, John, one with real prospects, and I do not regret my determination to pull something decent for Elizabeth from the ash heap of this tragedy. And if I can do it because of my tie, however distant, to our king, then I shall pay whatever the cost—even if it is my pride!”

“I suspect it does not dampen your desire that Lord Ughtred was
knighted by the king and serves him now as friend to my own cousin Sir Francis Bryan. You have always wished to rival the Dormer family, and having them as our guests would achieve just that.”

Jane had heard her parents arguing many times before. She knew her mother had never quite gotten over the rejection of her request for assistance from her own powerful relation at court, her first cousin the great Earl of Surrey, when she was seeking to place Edward in the French court. The rejection had only strengthened Margery’s resolve. Clearly, she was not above using tragedy to achieve her goals.

“What would you have me do out here in the country where influence is as difficult to find as French wine? Marry Elizabeth to a pauper? A butcher, perhaps? Our widowed groundskeeper is in need of a wife!” she snarled sarcastically.

“Our children are barely cold in their coffins, Margery!”

“Yet life does go on for the rest of us!”

Stunned, Jane had risen from her reading chair and was standing now in the doorway of the chamber in which her parents were arguing. Elizabeth had been eavesdropping on the staircase landing and was standing beside her now. At just ten years old, Elizabeth Seymour was already showing the promise of her beauty, with wide blue eyes and exquisite apricot-colored skin. Jane saw the contrast between them more starkly every time she looked at her sister.

“May I have a new dress if I am to be trotted out?” Elizabeth asked sourly.

Both Margery and John looked up then, unaware, until now, that they had an audience.

“Of course, sweetheart, I’ve a new bolt of silk just arrived yesterday from Antwerp to make a dress for myself, but this does seem a much better use of the fabric. ’Tis robin’s-egg blue and shall
complement your eyes perfectly. I have already sent to London for a pearl-dotted hood to match.”

Their mother was smiling and her cheeks were flushed with excitement as if she were planning a May Day celebration and not a funeral Mass for her children. Jane watched the scene silently and with a detached calm. The wound of rejection no longer stung as it once had. She looked from parent to parent then. Her mother’s mouth held a smile, but her father’s was a flat, unrevealing line that bore the stress he could not verbally reveal at his wife’s insistence on proposing their very young daughter to a much older man.

In that moment, she could not recall why she had wished so desperately to return from France to Wolf Hall, for now she saw it as a prison she would probably never leave. She might be plain faced, but she was smart enough to know her future ended here as the caretaker of her aging parents. Dormer and Sir Anthony would be given an opportunity at the funeral Mass to reserve Elizabeth’s hand—Sir Anthony for himself, Sir Robert for his young son. Jane’s would not be given or offered to anyone.

“Of course we are not going, and that is that.” It was not merely a statement by Lady Dormer, but a decree. “Such an invitation is unsavory, to say the least.”

Lady Jane Dormer, with her stiff, beaded collar, commanded her dinner table of three as if she were the captain of a ship. She insisted that her husband and son sit at the far end of the grand polished table, while she sat at the head. It was a weighty, symbolic gesture not lost on any of them.

“But my lady mother can scarcely refuse a funeral Mass for departed children, can you?” William pressed as he took a small sip of
Gascony wine from a crystal goblet emblazoned with the Dormer coat of arms. Candles glowed between them.

William was taller now but still slim, with the same tousled, wheat-colored hair, darkened a shade since his childhood, but it was his magnificent eyes that had gained a weighty depth since his childhood.

“The woman is shamelessly ambitious. Everyone from here back to Buckinghamshire knows it,” his mother scoffed.

“And yet the village priest did make it clear that the Seymour family is aware that we are back in residence here at Idsworth House. We lost too many of our own babies on our way to William not to find some compassion for their family,” Dormer said.

Sir Robert was a pious man with a round little paunch, a slow-eyed gaze, and the unlimited patience of a saint. A Dormer family steward leaned in then and placed a large platter of stewed partridge beside the roast stag, dates, figs, oranges, and sugared almonds between them, and another came forward to serve it.

“I would like to go,” William dared to admit, carefully watching his mother’s eyes for the telltale narrowing, followed by the tightening in her jaw, both warning signs of an impending outburst.

Ever since he had heard about the funeral Mass, William had been reminded of the little girl he had first met in Savernake Forest, and their last conversation on the choppy waters of the Narrow Sea on the voyage back from France. Jane…

He had wondered about her from time to time when news or gossip of court was brought into the conversation. He’d heard that Jane’s elder brother, Edward Seymour, had begun to make something of a name for himself in royal circles and that he was currently in the employ of the king’s much favored little bastard son, Lord Henry Fitzroy, as Master of the Horse. Why that impressive elevation
did not matter more to his mother, William was not certain. The Seymour family obviously had the court ties for which she so desperately longed. His mother liked to say it was because the Seymours had no great patrimony, not enough to make them suitable to advance a friendship. But William had come to believe that it was her envy rather than her sense of superiority that prevented her from associating with them. In France, he had heard Sir Francis boast that Jane’s mother was a relation of the Lord High Admiral himself, so that connection must have been what secured Jane’s place in the French delegation.

Had his mother not forced him to keep his distance from Wolf Hall, through the years when his family came to Wiltshire to visit, he might have seen little Jane again, and not just the village children who circled as flies to honey around him. Like that overly flirtatious Lucy Hill, with whom he had nothing in common, and for whom he had certainly no interest.

He had never forgotten Jane, and the memory of her awkward sweetness haunted him. He may be nearing seventeen, but William still lacked real friends.

“I am old enough to go on my own to the Mass,” William calmly persisted, although he felt his heart beneath the elegant doublet beat very fast at his defiance. “I shall represent the family well.”

As his mother’s eyes narrowed, they carried a potent mix of surprise and fury. He knew very well that she did not like being defied. But like a captive trying to negotiate his own release, William felt compelled to press through the danger.

“Do not be impertinent, William. You are not to attend,” Lady Dormer declared, her fork clattering onto her plate dramatically.

“Bollocks! Jane, you cannot keep the boy captive forever! ’Tis a funeral Mass after all, not a spritely dance around the Maypole.”

“If it means steering our only child from the wrong sorts of influences, I certainly can keep him here forever,” she growled with an almost masculine determination.

“The Seymours desire nothing from me, Mother. I wish only to make a show of honoring them as our neighbors in their time of great grief. ’Tis the proper thing to do.”

“The boy is right, Jane.”

“Lady Seymour is a dangerously competitive woman, William. I can smell that across the clover. Do you not recall what she did in order to see her son included in the royal entourage to France?”

“And now that son is at court making quite an impression, and ours is not,” Dormer grumbled and lowered his head to his stew.

Lady Dormer’s face flushed with anger. “She clearly has gifts of manipulation!”

“Or perhaps young Master Seymour simply acquitted himself better than I did.”

“Mind your tongue, William. I do not require you making excuses for them in my own dining hall.”

“Yet is it not you who always says God will put each of us precisely where we can do our best work? The good Lord must have something in mind for Edward,” William muttered.

She slapped down her napkin and bolted from her chair. Robert Dormer held his fork in midair. His mouth, already open to receive it, closed again.

That was at the heart of the matter, and all three of them knew it. Families know the soft underbelly of each member as no one else does. The truth was that Lady Dormer had spent immeasurable hours, and massive resources from their sizable fortune, bribing anyone she could in order to find a way back to court for her son. But the effort had been to no avail, while their lowly neighbors saw their
son hunting, dancing, dining, and thriving in the company of the king himself! The disparity between the two families was repugnant to a woman who had invested her entire existence in success.

William stood slowly, meeting his mother’s gaze as he did. The bank of clouds outside the long dining hall windows broke, and a strong, silvery ray of sun shone through. William could feel it warm and sharp, heavy almost, on the back of his neck above his braided collar. Just then, he felt that it was God’s hand pressing him forward—giving him strength against his overbearing mother.

“I am going to the Mass,” he announced, careful not to expose a hint of disrespect.

“From impertinence to insolence all in one meal, William? I believe I have raised you better than that.”

“I have no wish to disappoint you, Mother. I am simply attempting to follow the example of personal conviction which you so unfailingly set for me all of my life.”

A quick sideways glance just then revealed his father’s slight, bitten-back smile, and William knew that he had cleverly maneuvered his mother into a corner. His father’s expression said he wished he had thought of it himself.

The little parish church of gray stone sat starkly beneath a heavy and equally gray sky on the cold and wet morning of the Mass. William arrived with a groom from Idsworth House as companion, although he directed the slim, ebony-haired servant to wait for him outside with the drawn litters and saddled horses. One litter in particular was ornate and very costly. On the side, it bore a crest emblazoned in gold. It was very clearly the conveyance of someone important. What would his mother have made of that? William thought smugly.

The family had already gathered inside at the front of the church
as William drew off his gloves and entered. A few of them who were dressed in shades of gray and black were near the altar speaking with the village priest, so William hung back. Quietly, he slipped into a pew. There were fewer mourners than he had expected for a family of such prominence in the region as the Seymours. Perhaps it was due to the nature of the deaths, he thought, since the specter of the sweating sickness continued to terrify everyone even once it had passed.

William had never had the opportunity to grieve the loss of his own siblings, as they were stillborn or had died before he was born. It would have been nice to have had a brother, he thought as he watched a pale, ginger-haired adolescent boy sling his arms supportively around the shoulders of two girls and walk with them into the first pew. He had known the Seymours had several children, and those must be some of them. He was not near enough to see whether one of those girls might be Jane. Would he even recognize her after all these years? William wondered then, feeling foolish for insisting on coming here to pay homage to a faded childhood memory. Even if he did, would she remember him? Such a quiet girl. Not quite shy, but one who, back then, kept her thoughts and feelings well guarded.

As the Mass began and the nave filled with the pungent aroma of incense and the low sound of a mournful dirge, William saw Sir Francis Bryan, whom he had met in France. Then he noticed two men behind Bryan dressed more brightly than the other guests. One wore russet-colored velvet slashed with brown, and the other was garbed in azure satin. Their caps were ornate, one dotted with beads, the other plumed with an ostrich feather. As the Mass progressed, William could see that they were whispering to each other. Their attention was clearly not focused on the sad circumstances that had brought them here. It was disrespectful, but they were not like any
two men he had ever seen. At least not since he had been at the French court. His curiosity was piqued.

Everyone gathered outside afterward as a low-lying fog swirled around their ankles. Once again William hung back, trying to take in the scene without feeling awkward for being here. As she emerged from the church, he easily recognized Lady Seymour. A strikingly attractive woman with few of the ordinary marks of age for a woman with grown children, she had changed little. The man beside her, against whom she leaned heavily, was less notable, with his thinning gray hair, high, shining forehead and kind blue eyes.

Then he recognized Edward Seymour as one of the two well-dressed young men from the front of the church. The one wearing azure and the ostrich plumed cap. His companion was older than the Seymour heir, with thick hair that had begun to gray at the temples. His eyes were deep, hooded, and slightly brooding. William linked his hands behind his back to give himself courage and moved forward as he knew he must do.

“My lady Seymour,” he said sincerely with a proper bow to her. “I know not if you will remember, but I am the son of your neighbor to the north, the Dormers, come to pay respects to your family at this time of great sorrow.”

Her blue eyes lit magically with recognition like the flare of a sudden fire. “Of course I remember. Sir Robert’s eldest son.”

“Their only son, my lady. I am William, charged with conveying to you and your family our deepest sympathy.”

She drew in a discerning breath before she tipped her head and focused her eyes on him. “Your parents were unable to accompany you?”

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