I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (3 page)

“Meddler!” Lucy Hill whined, her thick lower lip turning out in a predictably childish pout. “You might save her from us, William, but you’ll never save her from being ugly.”

By any standard, Lucy was Jane’s polar opposite. Lucy’s hair, parted and showing at her forehead, was golden and shiny as it hung down behind her blue muffin cap, banded in red and white. Her brown eyes, fringed with dark lashes, were lively and full of mischief. Where Jane was thin, Lucy had a shapely body, one that amply filled out her gray clothing and bespoke her coming womanhood. Lucy’s skin was like fresh cream, her features striking, compared to Jane’s own pallid complexion. Jane’s beauty, if there was a hint of it, was fragile. She was not a verdant, budding thing, as Lucy was. But there was beauty lying fallow beneath the awkward waiflike frailty, a consequence of neglect.

“Why on earth do you want to ruin our fun, Will?”

The question came from Cecily Strathmore. The voice was sharper, full of even more venom. Jane did not know her, but she was not as pretty as Lucy. Though Jane could see, as she pressed the wet
hair away from her eyes with the dirty palm of her hand, that they shared the same air of entitlement.

“I owe her elder brother something of a favor. This shall be payment,” the mop-haired boy replied with genial authority, having cleverly moved between Jane and the other girls with two imperceptible steps.

Jane did not know this boy, whom Edward apparently did, but she could see, by the shiny gold buttons of his dove gray doublet and the gold braid at his cuffs, he clearly possessed the pedigree to which the three other girls aspired. It was odd she did not know him, when they all appeared to be acquainted with him. Then again, this fellowship of catty little country girls made it their business to know everyone in Wiltshire, including this elegant young boy. The four exchanged glances in the heavy silence that descended between the trees that sheltered them beside the forest pond.

Suddenly, and without ceremony, the girls all turned in a swirl of gray, blue, and green cloth skirts and began to walk away, as if bored by the entire escapade, which they had initiated.

“Are you coming, Will?” Lucy called playfully over her shoulder in the same entitled tone. But he did not reply, even as they broke into a run toward the meadow and out of the forest

Jane stood alone then, astonished by what had just happened. She faced the boy. There did not seem much honor in helping her, and yet he had done it. In spite of Jane’s tumble, and her sodden appearance, she was grateful. She knew it could have been much worse. Jane looked at him more closely then, as she felt a chill prickle her skin beneath the wet gown.

He was a tall boy with long legs and a slim, regal neck, and he was clearly older than she was. Probably three or four years older. His face, on the brink of adolescence, projected a certain air of
nobility in the set of his jaw and the slim line of his nose. It was Roman almost, Jane decided, like one of the statues lining the walls of the long gallery at home, and there was just a hint of arrogance in his wildly bright blue eyes that held a curious, youthful flicker of interest in her.

There was an odd, silent moment between them before Jane, like the girls before her, pivoted away from the boy and stepped back toward the meadow that lay, like a great flower blanket, beyond the bower of forest trees.

“Do you not mean to thank me?” he called after her in a voice slightly different from the commanding one he had used before.

“For pushing me into that pond? Thank you,” Jane replied tersely.

“For trying to save you from Lucy,” he called out.

“If that was saving me, seeing you angry would be rather unpleasant,” she returned over her shoulder in a slightly louder voice.

The boy moved quickly until he was beside her. “You know perfectly well that was
not
my fault. I tried to help you.” He extended a blue silk kerchief he had drawn from his doublet then and handed it to her. Jane dried her face hesitantly with the lovely slip of fabric. She was stunned by the rich elegance of it but did not let it show through her anger.

“And so you did. What were you doing in the forest any-way? Hoping to come upon someone to rescue?” She did not see his frown, yet she felt it. “You knew those girls meant to harm me, didn’t you?”

“It seemed likely. My father says love is as strong as death, but jealousy is as cruel as the grave.”

She tipped her head and looked at him more closely. “My father says the same thing; he says it is from scripture.”

“My father agrees with yours, then.”

“Your father?”

“Sir Robert Dormer.”

“So, then, Will Dormer, son of Sir Robert, pray, what do those girls have to envy me about?” she asked as they began to walk in tandem. She continued to press the lovely fabric against her face and wet hair to dry them.

“You live at Wolf Hall; they live in the cottages surrounding it. In the case of Lucy, she is your groundskeeper’s daughter. You knew that, did you not?”

Jane held up a length of her skirt and twisted the water from it as she slowed her step. The canopy of branches opened above them and the colorful meadow ahead broadened.

“Yes, I knew it, but I’ve not been permitted to play with girls beyond my sister, Elizabeth, so I know her very little.”

“Can you not see how they might envy you?”

“You are William Dormer, son and heir of a great knight. I have heard of you. You live in that very grand Idsworth House. Why do they not envy you far more?” she pressed him as they began to trek through the open field of bluebells that moved with the late summer breeze.

“Because I am a boy, of course. My father is a gentleman of means, and their fathers want them well married when they grow up.”

“You cannot be that much older than I am, though, and I won’t be nine until October. You’re a child just like me.”

“I am thirteen,” William said proudly. “And the father’s burden is a heavy one to see his daughters well married.”

“Something else your father says?”

“As a matter of fact, it is. Regularly.”

“Why have I not seen you before?”

“We live mainly at Eythrope, our other property in Buckinghamshire. Idsworth House is our summer place, just over the rise.”

“Well, your summer place is behind a grand gate and all of those trees, so I have never seen it, but my brother Edward says ’tis very grand.”

“Quite large and drafty, actually. There’s an awful echo in the wing in which I am commanded to sleep, and sometimes I think ’tis not the wind but a voice calling out.”

“What sort of voice?” Jane asked him.

“An old man’s voice. Angry. Telling me not to be there.”

“That’s dreadful.”

“Especially when you are forced to sleep alone, as I am.”

They walked now more tentatively together, her hair still dripping as Wolf Hall grew more loomingly large on the horizon beyond the fields.

As did the fate that awaited her there.

Jane was a child of only eight, but she knew better than to think she could escape punishment for falling into the pond.

“So what exactly did Edward do for you that you felt bound to defend me?”

“He told my steward that I was helping him with a new saddle when I wasn’t. And because Edward is fifteen, and so nearly a man, they believed him.”

“Would they have flogged you?” Jane asked, assuming the answer.

“Of course not,” William said with a note of surprise, looking back at her. “My parents are quite fond of me. I am their only child, you see. They had another son after me, but he died, so now I have all of their attention and hopes.”

“That must be nice.”

“’Tis rather a lot of pressure, actually.”

“I had a brother once who died, too. John was his name. After my father,” Jane revealed.

Her revelation came on an awkward note of sadness, but in truth, the two had not been close. John had been older than Edward was when she was born. But still, he was her brother. And she always thought he might have loved her. The Seymour family did not value displays of affection, and so fantasy held more sway with Jane than it might have otherwise. Fortunately, she had Thomas. He was younger than Edward by two years, but he was sweet with her, and they liked to play the same games in the fields and meadows. More than Elizabeth, who was pretty. Too pretty. She hated to spoil her looks by frivolously running about. And Edward was too old to be much of anything to her. Seven years was an eternity, Jane thought. When she was Edward’s age, she would be grown, and hopefully she would not fear returning home.

They were walking now up the wide gravel path, an avenue lined with bristling copper beech trees, the branches of which closed above them and which stood like a row of sentries leading back to the timber manor. Wolf Hall was modest in comparison with what she had heard of Idsworth House behind its massive black gates and bower of mulberry trees. Still, Wolf Hall was a commanding presence on the softly undulating landscape of Wiltshire farmland with its never-ending vista of meadows and fields. Jane had been born here, as had all her siblings. There was comfort to her in that shared history, with little else to count on for her future. She was too plain to hope she would ever find a grand marriage.

“Are you happy that I did defend you?” William Dormer suddenly asked, surprising Jane.

“Happier than my mother will be when she sees my dress,” she
replied, clinging to her sodden hood with one hand and his kerchief with the other.

“Shall I come with you and explain to your mother what happened? I think I learned how to do it fairly believably from your brother Edward,” he said with an awkward yet boyish smile.

“Explain that I defied her?” Jane asked. “I think that shall be apparent.”

They stopped in a small clearing. The shaft of sun between them was like a warming beacon, fingers of protection that she must move past, into the shadows beyond. Jane looked at the tall boy with the tousled hair, who seemed less of a stranger now. Yet he was still curious to her child’s mind for how he had dropped so suddenly into her world when she scarcely knew anyone outside of her family here in the endless miles of Wiltshire. As she looked into William’s warm eyes glittering in the sunlight, she held out the blue handkerchief he had loaned her.

“You keep it,” he said as his smile widened. “I have others.”

Unaccustomed to small kindnesses, Jane flushed and lowered her eyes. “Thank you,” she managed to whisper before she turned and ran from him the rest of the way.

After William left, the steps to her house seemed to be many, fear making her heart beat furiously. The scent of her mother’s rose-water perfume met her before Jane saw the imposing figure standing on the landing.

Her mother, slim and graceful, was still lovely after the births of all of her children. With wide blue eyes, direct and unyielding, sleek blond hair with only the smallest streak of gray tucked meticulously beneath a mesh caul, Margery Wentworth had been the classic ideal of beauty in the most vivid bloom of her youth.

Jane’s father was also thirty-nine, but time had not been quite so forgiving to him. John Seymour wore his struggles to elevate himself and his family most prominently in the furrows etched deeply into his forehead. Even his warm smile brought out the web of lines at the corners of his deep blue eyes. When he was alone, Jane craved her father’s embrace. There was a kindness there. When he was together with his wife, they were an impenetrable force that a little girl was meant to fear more than respect.

Compact and lean in his usual green tunic, nether hose, and white, full-sleeved shirt, her father watched her approach. She saw first his brows, thick and straight like her own, knit together in a slight, discerning frown. Then, with the next beat of her heart, she saw a comforting spark of amusement light up his expression.

But her heart began to race as her mother’s discerning blue gaze settled on her from where she stood on the rise of the polished oak staircase landing, wiping away any sense of relief. Margery’s lips became a slim, bloodless line, and Jane saw the shock in her eyes as the water dripped in a steady rhythm from her hair and sodden garments onto the bare wood floor beneath her slippered feet.

Jane could see her mother’s body go rigid. She lifted her chin just slightly. Her father reacted instantly to his wife, almost as if they were two parts of the same creature. The action melted the amusement in his eyes, and his own expression turned to one of grave intensity. The next instant was very swift. Her mother descended the remaining stairs in what seemed like a powerful, ominous whirl of silk skirts, noxious rose water, and growing fury. She slapped her daughter across the cheek with such force that Jane’s sodden headdress, hastily replaced a moment ago, fell to the floor in a wet thud. She staggered back.

“Brainless, fool child! You openly defy me, do you?”

“No, my lady mother, I—”

“And you have the hubris to speak as well?”

Jane’s eyes were rooted in terror upon her mother so that she did not see her father. Rather, she felt his supportive approach from behind.

“Pray, Margery, do not be too harsh with the girl. Mayhap there was a circumstance.”

“The
girl
?” she raged, her anger in full, dark bloom now. “Is that how she appears to you? To me, she looks like a cellar rat. Certainly she is no
girl
of my choosing!”

The harsh words hit Jane with the force of an axe, wounding her, and she felt deeply the pain of her mother’s disapproval. There was no point in arguing. She, at least, was old enough to know that. There was no freedom allowed beyond the meadow, past the orchard, on the outlying edge of Wolf Hall. Yet her wet clothes proved she had crossed the boundary.

“You have defied me, knowing clearly how I value shy reserve!”

Jane lowered her eyes to calm her trembling chin and stop her tears from falling. “Forgive me.”

“Have you only
that
to sputter as you stand there dripping on my polished floors and setting the worst possible example for your brothers and sisters? You went into the forest!”

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