Authors: Adrienne Dillard
A Novel of
Copyright © 2014 Adrienne Dillard
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, except as permitted by the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, without the prior permission of the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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A Portrait of a Woman, Probably Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys
Steven van der Meulen, 1562
Photo © Yale Center for British Art
Original cover design by Ronda Lehman,
Lucky Dog Design.
Cover adapted by MadeGlobal Publishing
The dream was always the same. My feet were filthy. To most children my age this would be expected, something they dealt with every day of their lives as they toiled alongside their parents in the fields, usually too poor to afford proper footwear. But to me it spelled disaster. I knew that soon my grandfather would be home and would be very displeased. Instead of swinging me in the air, plying me with affection as he usually did when he returned from Court, he would stare at my dirt-caked toes and say disdainfully, “You are a Boleyn and you should know your place. No Boleyn will ever live like a beggar child. I have worked hard my whole life to make sure of it.” With those scornful words, my heart would be cut in two. I knew I had to find my brother Henry, get back to the house and clean up before our grandfather arrived.
Henry had always been excellent at hiding and I felt as though I had been searching for hours. Quietly I tiptoed through the orchard, making as little sound as possible in the hopes that he would give himself away. Finally I heard a shuffle off to my right. I moved slowly towards the noise and prepared my ambush. I burst through the apple trees into a clearing and saw the scaffold before me. “No!” I shrieked, feet rooted to the ground. I stared on in horror as the sword sliced the head from my aunt’s swan-like neck. The executioner raised her severed head into the air by its long chestnut locks. Anne’s eyes were wide in shock, her lips still moving, the blood formed a river in the dirt. The last thing I remembered before my world turned black was my own scream.
I smelled my mother before I saw her: lavender and the musk of a restless sleep. Since Anne’s death, peace had eluded her and she had begun to surround herself with the calming scent in the vain hope that one night could be nightmare-free. She threw her arms around me and ran her fingers through my hair. She did not even need to ask, the dreams had been coming since I was twelve years old. Three years had passed and each one was as vivid and as dreadful as the last. After planting a kiss on my forehead, she opened the window above my head so that the crash of the sea against the rocks would lull me back to sleep. My last thought before slipping back into that fearful dream-world was of gratitude for the move to Calais.
The bright morning sun streamed in through my window. I burrowed deeper under the covers to escape it. I knew that Matilda, our maid, would soon be in to lay out my clothing and I would join my small family downstairs for breakfast. As if she sensed that I was thinking of her, Matilda appeared in my doorway. “Mistress Catherine, you are going to catch your death sleeping with that window open,” she admonished, marching towards the window Mother had opened in the night. I sent a grunt her way from beneath my blanket cocoon.
Suddenly, my world grew bright again as Matilda released the covers from my grasp and threw the counterpane off me. “Matilda,” I groaned.
I was out of bed within minutes, standing naked in the middle of the room with my linen night shift crumpled on the floor, the cool air that had settled overnight pricked goose-pimples all over my skin. I prayed that Matilda would choose my clothing quickly so I could be out of my discomfort. The Lord must have been listening to me because moments later Matilda bustled out of my closet, dress in hand. I shot her a confused look, suspicious as to why she had pulled out one of my more formal dresses. Without meeting my eye she said, “Lord Lisle is here. He has news for Master Stafford. I expect he will be joining you while you take your meal.”
I softened at her thoughtfulness. I smiled and reached out to brush a strand of hair from her eyes. “Thank you sweet Matilda. You always make sure I look my best.”
Lord Lisle was our window to the world back in England. As a cousin to the king, he was well-known by the nobles throughout the realm. He had his eyes and ears on everything that went on at Court thanks to his servant, Master Hussee, who reported back, often, in writing. He took a keen interest in my stepfather, William Stafford.
Stafford initially came to Calais with little more than love for his country, bright hope in his eyes and a drive to work, so Lord Lisle took him under his wing and made him a spearman. Not even his secret marriage to my mother or our resulting exile from Court could turn Lisle away from him. He opened his arms when Stafford returned from London, disgraced, with us in tow. That was a dark time for my mother.
Stafford had never cared for Court. It was a fateful turn of events that he and my mother had even met considering that she was serving her sister, the queen, in London while he was serving across the Channel at the Calais garrison. A trip to France for King Henry and his soon-to-be queen led my mother to Calais and, somehow, she unwittingly found herself in his arms. After the tour she went back to England and, less than a year later, realised that her love was still strong when she spied him across the banqueting hall during Anne’s coronation. Soon, my baby sister was growing in her belly and she and Stafford were banished from Court by order of the queen, who was furious that her sister would marry below her station. The child that their love created had not made it more than mere months after its birth, but that only strengthened their bond and it was not long before the cliffs of Dover were far behind us.
Once I was dressed, I grabbed my leather-bound lesson-book and scrambled for the stairs. When I reached the top of the staircase, I heard murmurs coming from the hall. Whatever Lord Lisle and Stafford were discussing, they did not want an audience. However, their whispers only served to make me more curious. Quiet as a mouse, I slipped down the stairs slowly. By delicately placing one foot in front of the other I managed to carefully avoid the spots that I knew would creak.
“The king wants me, of all people, to attend on the Lady of Cleves?” Stafford snorted in derision. “Well, I guess now that Anne is out of the picture and the woman who so eagerly displaced her is in her grave, the Boleyn connections can finally return to Court.”
Piqued by this new information, I leaned further over the railing so that I could see the look of surprise that surely graced my stepfather’s face.
“Now William, if your loyalty had truly been in question do you think that the king would have allowed you back at the garrison? He knows where your heart truly lies. And he has always had a soft spot for Mary. Your banishment was more Anne’s work than his,” Lisle said in a soothing voice.
I heard Stafford’s sarcastic reply, “Soft spot for Mary... Every morning I am reminded of that soft spot when my red-headed step-daughter comes to the breakfast table. Thankfully she was born with her mother’s sweet disposition and I have come to love her as my own, but it still pains me to be reminded of my wife’s time in the king’s bedchamber.”
Startled by this revelation, I allowed the book I had been carrying to slip from my hands. It tumbled over the railing and fell to the floor below with a dull thud. I struggled to grasp the meaning of his words.
I looked down the stairs and into the warm brown eyes of Stafford. I was caught. Instead of looking angry, Stafford appeared concerned. I was certain that he knew I had heard and he was worried about how I would react. I took a deep breath and smiled confidently saying, “Good morning, Stafford. I am so sorry to have disturbed you. Matilda informed me that we have a guest and in my haste I dropped my book.” Stafford eyed me quizzically, but accepted my response for the moment and offered his hand to help me the rest of the way down the stairs.
At the bottom he retrieved the book and placed it gingerly in my hands. My eye caught Lord Lisle’s and, though he smiled as if he had not noticed the commotion, I noticed a twitch in the corner of his eye and secretly relished his discomfort. “Lord Lisle, so good to see you again,” I said as I swept to the floor in a deep curtsey. I showed him far more reverence than was required, but I wanted to put him at ease. I knew the comments were unintended for my ears and I sensed that both of them wished they had been discussing something else.
“Mistress Catherine, always a pleasure. You look more beautiful every time I see you. Please join us,” he said gesturing to an empty chair.
Stafford led me over and, moments later, my mother bustled in with trays of food, saving us all from a very awkward conversation. Lord Lisle gave us his commentary on all the events happening across the channel. It seemed that the king had decided to take another wife.
The king’s most recent wife, Jane Seymour, had given him the son and heir he craved, but after a tumultuous birth she took ill with a fever and did not live past the first month of her son’s life. The king was so stunned by her death that for the first time in his life, after three marriages, he mourned the loss of a wife. The court fell into a period of darkness. In the last few months, however, King Henry recovered from his heartbreak and succumbed to the prodding of his chancellor, Lord Cromwell, to take on another bride - but she was not just any bride.
“She is a Lutheran!” sputtered Lisle. “The king has tired of his battles with the Spanish and French kings and has decided instead to align himself with the Protestant rebels of the Low Countries. He is to marry the sister of the Duke of Cleves.”
As Lisle continued to rant about the king’s intended, I stared down at my plate, pretending to be interested in a bit of bread. In reality, I was sneaking glances in my mother’s direction. Starting at the top of her head I began an inventory of her features. She had strands of grey in her golden brown hair, not a hint of red to be seen. Her skin was a swarthy olive colour, not the pale blush of mine. Her face had a clear complexion, but mine was mass of freckles. I searched my memory for just a small picture of William Carey. Did I share his thin-lipped smile? Was his nose as prominent as mine? Did he hear a song and feel the melody pierce his heart like an arrow, driving in the beauty of the music? Whose blood was coursing through my body? I resolved to corner my mother before the day was over. I needed to know the truth.
After Lisle had gone, I helped my mother clear the table and complete our daily chores. I knew it pained her that she had been reduced to washing her own clothes and scrubbing her own floors, even though she would never admit it. Her father was an earl, her uncle a duke. She had grown accustomed to having a suite of rooms at Court with maids for her every need. Being the queen’s sister had had its advantages and my mother had received all the benefits. Well - she did until my father died. The man who, up until hours ago, I had thought was my father. William Carey caught the dreaded sweating sickness and left my mother alone with two children and no money to her name. Her sister, Anne, stepped in immediately and sent Henry off to be educated, but I was left in my mother’s care and we learned to lean on each other. After frantic letters to Lord Cromwell, my grandfather’s hand was forced to help. I was sent to Hever and she was sent to Court to wait on Anne.
Hever was a lonely place for me. Most of my family was at Court and I was left with a castle full of servants. I had a tutor who made sure I learned my lessons, but mostly I was on my own. It has occurred to me that the reason why I can never find Henry in my dream hide-and-seek game is because he was never with me. Instead, I always found Anne and her bloody head. Why do I always dream of it? I was not even in England when it happened. When Anne was executed, my mother and I were safely across the Channel at Calais.
I had always looked up to Anne. She was beautiful. Chestnut hair, dark flashing eyes, it was obvious that many of the men at Court desired her. Once I had been allowed to visit my mother at Court and found myself in her presence. She paid special attention to me, giving me a small brooch and allowing me to pet her tiny dog, Purkoy. The excitement made me feel as though I were flying, being carried along on her laugh as the wind. I hated the king for her death. I did not like the idea that he could be my father. I thought him a monster. Could his blood be flowing through my veins, making me a monster by inheritance? As the day grew darker, so did my mood.
By evening, I was pacing my room. I started at my bed and worked my way around, ending in front of the window next to it, staring out at the sea. I knew I needed answers, but I needed to ask the questions when my mother was alone and feeling charitable. She did not like to talk about the past because it was far too painful. I shored up my courage and headed for the door.
I padded quietly down the hallway hoping that the element of surprise would lower her guard, but I lost my nerve when I reached her bedchamber. I peered in her doorway. She was sitting in a chair with her back to me. A fire was dancing before her, casting shadows around the room. She was sitting so still and quiet, I thought she was asleep. I exhaled in frustration and decided to ask later. It was so rare to see her so completely relaxed that I could not bring myself to intrude.
“Catherine, is that you?” she called out, looking over her shoulder into the darkness.
“Yes, it is me,” I said, skulking into the room. She jumped out of her seat and reached for me. “Please Catherine, sit,” she said and gestured to her now empty chair.
I sat down and allowed her to brush the hair from my face. She planted a kiss on my forehead and then dragged a stool across the floor and sat down in front of me. The movement caused the rushes to shift and I was enveloped in the scent of fresh rosemary and juniper, and it comforted me. She reached for my hands and said, “I know what you heard today.”
I was stunned for a moment. I had thought I would have to prod, but it seemed she was ready to talk. I swallowed hard and nodded.
Her bright blue eyes looked into mine and she began, “Many years ago when I was first married to William and brought to Court, the king saw me during a masque and decided that he wanted me for his own. He made a deal with my husband and my father and I became his mistress, and even though William benefited from this arrangement, I knew that my relationship with the king hurt him. I tried desperately to avoid falling in love with the king, but he showered me with affection and doted on me as though there were no other women in the world. He was intelligent and kind and I surrendered myself wholly to his charm.