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The secret bride, p.2
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       The Secret Bride, p.2

           Diane Haeger
 

  “I will try,” Mary resolved on a tearful little hiccup, her lower lip turned out. “But only for you, Harry.”

  Henry smiled at her and chucked her gently beneath the chin. He had a way with her—and she with him—that no one else did. “Splendid. Because I could not bear it if we were really angry with one another, especially with all that is about to happen,” he said with a weary little chuckle, and Mary could not help but feel the enormous weight of the future in that sound.

  Their brother’s funeral was a great state occasion, costly and somber. He had died on the second of April and had lain in state until St. George’s Day, on the twenty-third of that month. The king was devastated by his elder son’s death.

  Like Mary, he had not allowed himself to believe that Arthur might actually die. Margaret, Henry and Mary were taken to Ludlow Castle to participate in the somber procession. It was to culminate at the great Worcester Cathedral, with its towers and pointed spires and massive stained-glass window, on the banks of the Severn River. No one was surprised that a foul April day blanketed the procession in cold, gray rain.

  Stricken by the same sweating sickness that had killed Arthur, Katherine was too ill to attend her young husband’s funeral. The king and queen would attend the funeral, but would enter the cathedral privately. They were too bereft to ride in the procession. It was therefore left to Henry, Margaret, Mary and their grandmother Lady Beaufort to hold their heads high and show the dignity of their line to those who, three and four people deep, lined the muddy, rain-soaked roads. The people had come to pay their respects to a prince who had been loved and respected by everyone in England.

  The children rode white palfreys in a somber cadence behind the queue of bishops, abbots and priors who followed a cart draped and canopied in black velvet, drawn by four sleek Italian coursers. Despite the crowd, the only sounds were the muffled clop of horses’ hooves in the mud, the jangle of harnesses, the tolling of church bells and the soft echo of weeping. There was an unending procession behind Mary, Margaret and Henry, lords and ladies cloaked in black satin or velvet. In spite of the thick black mourning attire, the cold, windy rain seeped through their cloaks and beneath the brims of their plumed hats and headdresses.

  As she rode, Mary tried to ignore the constant rhythmic drip, drip, drip of raindrops from the frame of her black gabled headdress as they fell into her eyes. She was glad for the rain, which helped to hide her tears. She had been wiping them away until her grandmother shot Mary a reproachful glare from eyes that were deep-set and commanding. The family matriarch was as religious as she was stern. Her expression reminded Mary they were Tudors, victors in war, and meant to suffer with the greatest dignity and grace no matter what they felt inside. They were above all other things to be gravely royal. Mary learned that lesson well in those days just before her eighth birthday, not only from her grandmother, but from watching her brother Henry work hard not to shed a single tear, and succeeding.

  When they finally entered the cathedral, Mary saw the plain wood coffin was surrounded by torches and beeswax candles all blazing beneath banners embroidered with the royal coat of arms for both England and Spain in a soaring nave lavish with marble and medieval carvings. The bishops, gowned in copes of rich velvet, stood beside a grand collection of stone-faced abbots and priors. A choir of children in the gallery above them, wearing white surplices, looked, Mary thought, like little angels come to bear poor Arthur up to heaven.

  The requiem sermon felt to her as if it lasted an eternity.

  She sat motionless in the dank, musty-smelling cathedral chilled to the bone and biting her lip until she could taste her own blood so that she would not cry again, but the somber scene was almost too much for her to bear. She could hear her mother’s quiet weeping from the seats in the row ahead of her. Henry sat on one side of Mary, staring straight ahead and unmoving, and on the other side of her was Thomas Wolsey. Their father’s robust almoner, with his fleshy face, black eyes and hawkish nose, seemed always to be about these days. Now he reached over and put his large hand atop her own and squeezed ever so slightly. The compassionate gesture surprised Mary yet brought her an odd comfort, and she did not pull away. She turned to look up at him after a moment but he did not meet her gaze. Like Henry, he sat staring straight ahead, fixed on the ancient ceremony being carried out before them. Still, she thought, she would not forget this small kindness.

  After their elder brother’s coffin was lowered into the deep pit prepared before them all in the church nave just below the altar, it was covered over with rich cloth of gold that had been sewn with a cross of white silk—a blanket for eternity, Mary thought. She was frightened by the endless ritual of Arthur’s burial when the staffs and rods of his household were broken. The rigid, snapping sound was like bones breaking, and it echoed across the vast cathedral, just before they were cast into the grave and his body was lowered away forever from those who had so dearly loved him. Down into the earth, buried away forever. Gone. One day forgotten.

  Choking incense clouded the cold, hollow nave, along with the sounds of a somber Te Deum, and it darkened her heart. Arthur, sweet gentle Arthur, with his shining eyes and the dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose.

  Arthur, whose laugh had been sweet and light, and still full of as much innocence as hers. It would be forever gone from all but for her fleeting memories. No more jests. No more hope of a future with all four of them grown, powerful and united, as they had so often childishly decided they would be. Nor would he be buried in London or Richmond, or anywhere she could ever easily visit to ease a sister’s heart.

  He would be alone here in Worcester, so far from court, far from those who had loved him. At that moment, that felt a devastation. She may be a princess and a Tudor, but she was still a little girl.

  Even after midnight, all of the images, sounds and memories of the day moved through her mind, and Mary could not sleep. She lay fitfully beneath her red velvet canopy, the curtains drawn around her bed. She could hear the fire in her room cracking and sputtering to embers. As she listened, she heard two of her ladies who had begun to whisper in the alcove just beyond the crimson velvet curtains. Their tone was hushed, yet urgent. Carefully, she pressed back the bedcovers, then the curtain, got out of bed and very quietly tip-toed toward the sitting room.

  “Poor little Katherine suffers the sweating sickness now as well?” Lady Guildford was asking on a sigh. “It is said that Queen Isabella is demanding the girl’s return to Spain the moment she is recovered.”

  “Not if the king can find a way to keep her here once she recovers. He is determined to do that, for if she goes, that vast Spanish dowry goes with her.”

  “I heard it whispered that now he wishes to marry her to the new Prince of Wales, so that he can maintain the alliance with Spain—and keep her Spanish purse.”

  “The pope will never permit such a scandalous thing.

  The Bible clearly directs no man to lie with his brother’s wife.”

  “Unless perhaps he was too young to lie with her himself?”

  “Would His Highness argue such a point?”

  “For the riches of Spain I should think King Henry would argue it to the death.”

  “Sad little princess,” Lady Guildford sighed. “Good only for the purse she bears.”

  “And the princes she yet might bear for England.”

  She may be a princess meant to be a queen, Mary thought, yet poor Katherine was no better than chattel. Mary remembered how the sweet Spanish girl had struggled so nobly with her English, broken and charming as it was, just to please Arthur the last time Mary had seen her. Now that same girl was being bought, sold and now bartered. She leaned forward on her toes and pressed her hands against the wall, but abruptly the women stopped speaking. She could hear skirts rustling, then the tap of shoe soles across the wood floor.

  Princess or not, the punishment for eavesdropping would be severe. Lady Beaufort ran the royal nursery with precision, and no deviation
would be tolerated. Thinking only of that, Mary spun away and dashed through a small, rounded side door to her dressing room and out the servants’ entrance into the long, torchlit gallery—and headlong into Charles Brandon. As she collided with that same long, lean chest, Mary realized he had with him a companion who was clinging quite tightly to his arm. In a glance she saw he was with the widow. The one about whom everyone gossiped.

  Margaret Mortimer was tall and attractive, but noticeably older than Charles—thirty-eight to his eighteen years. She had heard Henry and the Earl of Northumberland’s son, James, speaking about it that morning before the funeral procession. She knew that Charles intended to marry Lady Mortimer for her family’s fortune. This was in spite of his having been first contracted to marry Margaret’s younger and beautiful niece.

  “Be not too hard on him,” Henry had laughed that morning when she had told him the gossip she had heard. “Marriage really is the only way for poor Charles to rise above his modest circumstances. He will get her houses and land, and Lady Mortimer will get a young, virile man in her bed.”

  “That is vulgar.”

  “That is the dirty side of life at court,” he had countered on a wicked laugh. “And the life you will know only too well before you are ready, if you insist on hiding around corners and eavesdropping.”

  Hearing the cause of his ignoble ambitions had done little to make Mary like Charles Brandon any more than before.

  To a child, her brother’s exceedingly handsome friend seemed self-serving and shallow. Just as he looked now, she thought as she gazed up at him.

  “Ho there, my little lady Mary.” Charles laughed deeply, stopping her with his arms and pushing her back to regard her. “Should you not be more properly attired for a midnight stroll?”

  “Should wisdom not counsel you to speak less condescendingly to the daughter of your king?”

  “Point taken.” He nodded, his smile broad and confident. Mary felt like an awkward child in her nightdress and cap, just as she often did in his company. Glancing at Margaret Mortimer in her elegant blue silk dress with white sarcenet sleeves lined with fur, and a gable headdress, she fought a childish burst of jealousy. “My most humble apologies to you,” he added, bowing deeply, almost reverently, which seemed a small condescension of its own.

  Only then did Mary realize that she had been so entranced by this eighteen-year-old upstart swaggering and smiling before her that she had not heard the footsteps approaching from behind. It was not Lady Guildford, as it might have been, but the queen, who was returning with a collection of her ladies from supper in the great hall. There could not be a worse circumstance. Mary could feel her mother’s reproving stare like heat on the back of her neck as Charles once again bowed deeply and Margaret Mortimer made a proper curtsy.

  Mary let the fear invade her as her heart pounded. A girl of any age at court was not to be out in her nightclothes—least of all a child-princess whose virginity and honor were the highest prize.

  Her mother’s voice was sharp. The heavy fragrance of her ambergris perfume swirled around her, along with the scent of burning candles, which glowed, flickered and danced from the iron braziers on the wall. “Mary . . .”

  “My lady mother.” She curtsied deeply now, trembling as she did, and sensing her mother’s displeasure.

  Elizabeth of York had been a wonderful role model for her daughters and had patiently taught them the importance of their heritage and duty. And since Margaret had become betrothed to King James, the queen had seemed especially at peace with her life. That was, until Arthur’s death. Now both the king and queen seemed brittle, both pale shadows of what they had once been. The happiness was gone from them both. All that remained seemed to be a shallow sense of obligation that moved them through their duties.

  Oddly, while standing in the glare of her mother’s cold stare, Mary’s mind flitted to a joyful memory. It had been a warm summer day when the queen had held her hand and taken her daughter alone to her private chamber. Together they had laughed and ate jellies and sweets and her mother had set her on her lap to teach her how to embroider a rose.

  Her sweet scent of lavender water encircled Mary like a warm embrace, as she patiently guided her daughter’s tiny hand through the fabric on the hoop before them. That’s it, my heart . . . like that . . . just like that. . . .

  She stood before Mary now in a tight-bodiced dress of mourning black, the square-cut neck hung with a chain of gold and pearls. She offered no smile, no sign of affection.

  She was surrounded by her ladies and Mary’s frighteningly stern grandmother Lady Beaufort, all of whom wore black as well. The kind softness she remembered was gone now.

  “What have you to say for this?” her mother now asked.

  “I—well . . . my lady mother, I truly thought that I—”

  She heard herself stammer out sounds for words, the kind of spineless response she knew the queen despised. Elizabeth of York, Queen of England, had, along with the king, survived what would later become known as the War of the Roses, and she respected conviction and purposeful speech above all else. She had learned in her own childhood not to suffer weakness at all.

  “If Your Highness shall permit me, I must entirely take the blame,” Brandon said, suddenly intervening. “Embarrassing as it is to admit, the lady Mary heard my companion and I, not a little drunk, I am afraid, outside her chamber door. The child only came to bid me not to disturb her ladies, who were retiring, and to be quiet so that she too might sleep. Both Lady Mortimer and I were asking her indulgence when Your Highness came upon us just now.”

  Mary looked over at Charles Brandon, unable to mask her shock at what she thought was his smooth and believable response.

  “Someone nearly grown asking indulgence from so young a child—and in the dark of night?”

  “Your Highness’s daughter has a keen sense of propriety and a most caring nature. Alas, yes, the fault is mine, in the dark of night.”

  “Odd that you would notice a child’s nature when you are so entirely turned toward maturity, Master Brandon.”

  “The influence of His Grace, Prince Henry, has enhanced my discerning eye to all manner of things, Your Highness. Unfortunately, it has done little to increase my sense of moderation.”

  Mary watched her grandmother assess him critically in the awkward silence that followed as candles flickered in the wall braziers around them, casting them all in shadows and golden light. The awkward moment stretched on, her mother’s and grandmother’s expressions both softening at last. Mary thought angrily that there was probably no woman Charles Brandon could not sweeten. “You appear to owe my daughter a debt of thanks.”

  “Indeed I do.” He smiled charmingly, his smooth cheeks dimpling. “And I was in the midst of paying that debt.”

  “Is that true, Mary?” the queen asked, still with a hint of suspicion sharpening her tone, and a single thin eyebrow raised, as she always did when she was attempting to discern truth from fiction.

  “It is, my lady mother,” Mary replied, head held high, eyes trained on the queen, her tone so convincing suddenly that she nearly believed the lie herself.

  “Then Lady Guildford, see my daughter back to her bed. Just so she is not tempted to assist any other poor unfortunate soul who might lose his way in the dark of night.”

  Mary’s attendant, Joan Guildford, ruddy-cheeked and hearty, nodded to the queen but Mary still did not break her gaze. Conviction was of more value to the queen than nearly anything else. As Lady Guildford pressed Mary’s small cold fingers into her warm fleshy hand, and finally turned to lead her away, Mary caught a last glimpse of her mother. In Elizabeth’s reserved smile she was certain she saw what seemed a tiny hint of pride in her younger daughter. That moment would have lived on in Mary’s memory as a small sweet victory had her mother not died in childbirth a few months later. As it was, Mary was left with a great guilt for having deceived her mother so boldly on the very day she had buried her eldest child. But worse than t
hat guilt was the knowledge of how effortless it had been, and what she had learned from succeeding.

  Taut and ready for a fight, Henry stormed into his own chamber, pushing past the green-and-white-clad Yeomen of the Guard who stood at attention, gilt halberds and silver breastplates poised beside them—past the courtiers, rooms and gentlemen ushers, esquires and pages there waiting just to serve the future king. He startled his entourage of young cultured friends, all Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, who sat playing primero, waiting for him, as he sent the heavy oak door back on its hinges crashing with a thud against the wall.

  It was 1505, and Henry was now living at Greenwich Palace. Mary was at Eltham, and the king was at Richmond.

  The queen had died in childbirth a year after Arthur. His closest friends—Charles Brandon, Edward Howard, Thomas Grey, who was Marquess of Dorset, Thomas Knyvet and the Guildford brothers, Edward and Henry—all looked up and then each laid down his cards.

  Henry’s rooms at Greenwich were suitably elegant, with grand Flemish tapestries warming the walls, heavy oak furnishings, a ticking clock, and the Tudor coat of arms in the colored windowpanes beside them. The rushes upon the rich floor carpets were strewn daily with herbs to help sweeten the stale air. At this hour, their scent was still strong.

  “Have I any news from court?” Henry called out to no one in particular, slumping into one of the chairs. “Or from Croyden?”

  Croyden Palace was the residence, on the shore of the Thames in London, where Katherine of Aragon had been made to wait in seclusion during her recovery, and while the king negotiated her return to Spain now that she was widowed. There was a notion among some of his privy councillors, the Duke of Buckingham primarily, that to maintain relations and keep her sizeable dowry, His Highness should consider a marriage between Katherine and his new heir. For his part, Henry had begun to allow himself the dangerous desire of wanting that more than anything. Waiting for his father’s decision had, of late, begun to consume his emotions and his life.

 
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