A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  Her feelings for John were growing. They would try to slip away from the revelry at court or their respective duties and seek each other out in deserted gardens or shadowed arbors. It was in the garden at Nottingham Castle, that mighty fortress built on a rock, that he first kissed her, on a bright afternoon with a fragrant hint of autumn in the air. Without warning he’d bent forward and gently brushed her lips with his. And then they were in each other’s arms, kissing as if the world was about to end, and not caring who saw.

  “Sweet lady,” John gasped, “no one has ever held such mastery over my heart as you. I am in torment!”

  “Torment?” Kate echoed.

  “I would serve you all the days of my life, so I were allowed,” he breathed. “I love you, Kate. Without you, all joy must be at an end. It is that which torments me, for there can be no remedy.”

  He loved her! Her heart sang.

  “There can be a remedy,” she told him. “Why do you think I would not permit you to serve me?”

  “It is not what you would not permit,” he answered. “It is not you who can heal my malady.”

  “Then who?” She felt a twinge of fear. Had her father said something to John?

  “Let us not speak of it. I want nothing to sully our precious time together.”

  “It is sullied already,” she said, near to tears. Something or someone was standing in the way of their love: she knew it.

  “We will defy them all!” he said fiercely.

  “Defy who?” Her rare temper, born of fear, was rising. John pushed his fingers through her luxuriant dark hair and took her face firmly in his hands.

  “The whole world, if need be!”

  “I cannot fight an unknown enemy,” she told him, her voice cold.

  “Believe me, little love—let well enough alone for now. All may right itself in time. Leave it to me.”

  “I am not a child!” she cried, and walked off, leaving him to keep his secrets to himself.

  He sought her out again, of course. He came and sat quietly beside her in chapel when she was at her devotions, but she refused to acknowledge that he was there. It seemed more than coincidence that she kept running into him in halls, courtyards, and other public places, and had repeatedly to force herself to ignore him. Her heart was breaking, but she kept her head high.

  “You will slay me unless you soften your hard heart,” he muttered, waylaying her by the door to the Queen’s lodgings.

  “The remedy is in your hands!” she said, but that hard heart of hers was fluttering like a trapped bird’s wings.

  “Very well, have it your way. But you will not like what I shall say to you.”

  “I would prefer honesty, sir!”

  “It is my father. He has chosen a bride for me, and is already negotiating the marriage contract. I have told him I would wed you instead—and he said that if you were the King’s lawful daughter he might consider it, but that we are too near in blood anyway.”

  It was the first time her bastardy had hit her like a slap in the face. She had been made to look of scant consequence in the eyes of the man she loved. Seeing her distress, John took her hand and squeezed it.

  “I paid him no heed, Kate. He is a bully and a blusterer, but I am used to him. I told him I would always love you whatever your birth, and that you are a lady worthy of the highest honor. I said I could never love another.”

  “And what did he reply?”

  John frowned. “No matter. I will wear him down. It won’t be the first time. And if he thinks he can stop me from paying my addresses to you, he can think again.”

  “He has forbidden it?”

  “I will not let him come between us. It is you I want, Kate. Your beauty, your gentleness—all the wondrous things that make you what you are. If I cannot love you, I should be dead! Say I may remain your servant, I beseech you.”

  She said it; of course she did.

  KATHERINE

  February 7, 1554; Whitehall Palace

  It is rare to be alone in a court, and in Her Majesty’s privy chamber there are always servants about. The Queen is never alone, even when sleeping or performing her most intimate functions. Thus, when my mother suddenly appears, grim-faced, and drags me into an anteroom, brusquely dismissing two grooms and saying we need some privacy, I know that the matter is serious. Yet just how serious I could not have dreamed.

  “I have just come from the Queen,” she blurts out, and to my horror I see that her eyes, normally so sharp and piercing, are brimming with tears. I have never seen my mother weep before—ever. “Katherine, there is no easy way to say this. Jane and Guilford are to be put to death.” Her voice breaks.

  Words fail me. I am looking into an abyss. My world is coming to an end.

  I sway on my feet, and my mother steadies me, her hands on my shoulders, tenderer than I have ever known them.

  “But the Queen gave her royal word!” I wail. “We trusted in that. How can she go back on it?”

  “Things are different now.” She sits me down on a stool and half collapses into a chair, trembling. “I don’t know what I can do. I feel so helpless. Your father—I can live with that. But Jane! She is a child. She has done nothing but what she was bid. Oh, God forgive me, that I ever consented to Northumberland’s stupid, stupid plans!” Suddenly we are both sobbing helplessly in each other’s arms, devastated by this tragedy that is overtaking us.

  When my tears finally subside, I find myself beached on a strange shore, where nothing makes sense anymore.

  “Jane is innocent,” I declare. “She cannot die for that.”

  “The Queen knows that,” my lady says, dabbing her eyes. She is now recovering her composure and striving to be the controlled, practical mother I have always known.

  “Her Majesty has capitulated, for her councillors will not hear of her exercising clemency in the wake of the rebellion,” she says, bitter. “She has signed the death warrants. She said the least she could do was to break the news to me face-to-face. She wept, and assured me that this is the last course she ever wanted to take, but that she has no choice. But she has promised to do all she can to bring about a reprieve. Tomorrow she is sending the Abbot of Westminster to the Tower, to persuade Jane to convert to the Catholic faith. If she consents, her life will be spared.”

  I remember the staunchness of my sister’s faith, her scathing comments about the Pope and his cardinals, her contempt for those who compromise their religion for worldly considerations. Dear God, let her not be so dogmatic now!

  “Oh, my lady, do you think she will?”

  “I pray for it. But she was ever a froward, difficult girl. I just pray that God guides her to make the right decision.”

  God has indeed so guided her: but it was the right decision for Jane, not for the rest of us. That she—a young woman of seventeen, young and comely, and with her life ahead of her and so much to live for—could willingly embrace death for the sake of the finer points of a creed is to me beyond comprehension. Does she care at all about us, her loved ones, who are suffering the tortures of the damned on her account? One word, one little word—and her life would be given back to her. Why can she not say it? Why?

  A letter from Jane arrives. It is the first I have had from her since those short days of her reign—a lifetime ago now, it seems—and it will probably be the last. I seize it, hoping to read that she has changed her mind; but instead, she reminds me sternly that the New Testament is worth more than precious stones and will win me more than our woeful father’s lands, which we will surely lose when he is attainted for treason. She speaks of our being God’s elect, and set on the path of righteousness, even to the point of martyrdom. I am in misery, knowing she will die thinking me perfect in the new religion, when in fact I have betrayed it—and the ideals in which she firmly believes, and for which she is prepared to pay the ultimate price.

  Reading on, I realize that she is already gone from us.

  Live to die. Trust not that the tenderness of your age shal
l lengthen your life, for, as soon as God will, go the young and the old. Labor always and learn to die. Deny the world, deny the devil, and despise the flesh. Take up your Cross. As touching my death, rejoice, as I do, that I shall be delivered from corruption and put on incorruption. Farewell, dear sister. Put your only trust in God, who only must uphold you.

  Your loving sister, Jane Dudley

  The letter falls to the floor. I see two little girls, dabbling their feet in the stream that runs through the gardens at Bradgate, playing hide-and-seek amid the oak trees in Charnwood Forest, practicing their dance steps, and huddling together in the face of parental wrath. I see Jane as she was when I last saw her, slender and earnest, her red hair long and luxuriant, her skin creamy, apart from the freckles that have been the bane of her life. Her life, which will soon be at an end, when the living, breathing entity that is Jane Grey, with all its hopes, fears, beliefs, and everything that matters to it, will be no more.

  I remember I should be attending on the Queen. I am late. I look in the mirror to make sure I am tidy. I hardly recognize myself, I look so wasted. My eyes are ravaged with crying, my face drawn, my hair dull and lifeless under my hood. I smooth it ineffectually and splash water from the basin onto my face, then try to rearrange my features into some semblance of composure.

  When I enter the Queen’s chamber, she is alone save for an elderly priest.

  “Lady Katherine, this is Abbot Feckenham,” she tells me. “I have brought him here because he has been with your sister. I pray he can give you some comfort.”

  I find myself looking into the kindliest pair of eyes I have ever seen.

  “How is my sister, Father Abbot?” I ask.

  “Firm in her resolve and her faith, I regret to say.” The old man looks deeply saddened. “I did all I could to turn her mind, but she would not deny her God. Certainly He is a tower of strength to her. She declared she would not suffer me to tempt her beyond her power, yet when put to the test, she stood staunchly by her faith. Her steadfastness is an example to us all, even if it is misguided.”

  “She does not believe that,” I say. The Queen glances at me sharply.

  “No,” the abbot agrees, his thin voice hoarse with emotion. “She said it was not her desire to prolong her days, and that she does not despise death and willingly undergoes it since it is the Queen’s pleasure.” He pauses, and gazes on me with boundless compassion. “She told me these times have been so odious to her that she longs for nothing so much as death.”

  The Queen looks so anguished, I can find it in me to feel sorry for her. “Katherine,” she says without ceremony, “there is something I must explain to you.” Her eyes are troubled as she takes my hands in hers most kindly; it is as if we are no longer Queen and subject, but two women bound by tragedy.

  “I do not seek your sister’s death,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “I am constrained to it by my council and by Spain. They will not let King Philip marry me until the land has been purged of traitors. I know full well that Jane is no true traitor, but nevertheless she accepted the crown that was rightfully mine, and the late rebellion, which was partly led by your father, was raised in her name. It nearly cost me my throne, as my councillors constantly remind me. I have no choice! But I want you to know that I have done everything in my power to save your sister.”

  She squeezes my hands and swallows nervously. “I sent my beloved Abbot Feckenham to Jane to persuade her to convert to the true faith. I have arranged to have her examined tomorrow by a panel of matrons, to determine if she is with child, when, again, I could spare her life. But that, I fear, is a vain hope. She and Lord Guilford have not been alone together for months. So I have no choice, God help me! But I tell you now, Katherine, that her death is something I shall regret to the end of my days. She is my flesh and blood too—and she is so young.”

  I turn away, forgetting the courtesy due to my sovereign. I feel as if a torrent is building up within me, that I might scream and cry and never cease. But I struggle to control myself.

  “Madam …” I falter. Until now I have not dared to ask this question. “When—When is it to be?”

  “Tomorrow morning,” the Queen says. Her cheeks are wet. “Your lady mother knows.”

  “I have promised your sister I will attend her to the scaffold,” Abbot Feckenham says. “It is the least I can do for her, and she wants me there, even though she fears we will never meet in Heaven.”

  This is all too much for me. Forgetting that I am in the presence of my sovereign, I collapse into the abbot’s arms, howling my heart out.

  “I will be there, child, never fear,” he soothes. “I will be with her to the very end.”

  KATE

  September 1483, York

  York had been a triumph, but it had worn the little prince out. Everyone agreed that the healthy air of Middleham, to which he was used, was the best thing for him.

  Kate had a lump in her throat as she stood with her stepmother, waving him off. She knew how keenly Anne felt the parting, but there was more to it than that. The duchess always looked pale and tired these days, and she had developed a slight but persistent cough. Kate feared for her.

  She was sadly aware too that since Anne had cast doubts on the King’s claim to the throne, the old familiar closeness between stepmother and stepdaughter had diminished. Kate still loved Anne, and deeply respected her, but she was aware that Anne had distanced herself from Richard, and that relations between them were becoming increasingly strained. She knew that the Queen was thinking of taking up permanent residence at Middleham, as far as that fitted in with her state duties. That would mean that she, Kate, would have to live there too, for an unwed girl could not remain in a court of men.

  She fretted constantly about the prospect of being parted indefinitely from John. If only they could be married! That would be the ideal solution. She must make it happen! Driven by the need for action, she confided in Mattie. Not that Mattie could be of much help, but at least she was willing to listen, and when it came to affairs of love, she showed herself to be Kate’s champion.

  “My life would be empty without John,” Kate declared. “I cannot bear the thought of being so far away from him. I will make my father the King consent to our marriage. I will warn him about the earl’s possible betrothal, and beg him to speak to the Duke of Suffolk. But first, I must see my dear lord.”

  In the end they agreed that Mattie would take a sealed message to John to tell him that Kate needed to meet with him urgently.

  “What did he say?” Kate asked eagerly when Mattie returned later that day.

  “Nothing. He wasn’t there. I left the note with his valet.”

  Kate hoped that the valet was discreet.

  “Don’t look so worried, my lady,” Mattie reassured her. “He thinks ’tis me in whom my lord earl has an interest—I gave him to believe that.”

  Kate watched the hourglass marking the passage of time. She prayed that John would send word to her, or even contrive to seek her out himself. The waiting was pure torture.

  He came at ten o’clock, cloaked and hooded, so that none would have recognized him. As Mattie closed the door on them, he held Kate strongly and tightly, and kissed her passionately. With that, the world receded and she was lost.

  It seemed the most natural thing to lie down together on her bed, with the curtains drawn, and to kiss and caress each other with increasing ardor. It seemed so right for John to stroke her breasts through the thick velvet of her bodice, and to press his searching lips to the inviting cleft that disappeared into the neckline of her gown. When he ran his fingers over her hips and thighs, she made no protest. Nothing else mattered except the dizzying sensations that were consuming her and banishing all reason. And indeed, she would have let him do more, save for the fact that John himself, breathless and tousled, drew back, forcing himself away from her and grimacing as if he were actually in pain.

  “No, my darling, we must not! I honor you too greatly,” he bre
athed in her ear. For answer, she clung to him more tightly until he groaned and pried her eager fingers away.

  “Let be, sweetheart,” he cried, “or I will not be able to trust myself. Oh, my Kate, my sweet lady, I do worship you! It has seemed an eternity being apart from you.”

  She was so rapt in wonder that she could not speak. He smiled down at her.

  “We must be married!” he declared. “I will speak to my father and make my position plain, and then I shall go to the King—if you will have me, of course.” He looked at her pleadingly.

  “Did you need to ask?” she teased him. “Of course I will have you. And please speak to my father soon, or I might be banished to Middleham.”

  “That I will not allow.” John stood up, straightening his clothes. “I will see my father in the morning.” Then, with a radiant smile, he executed a courteous bow and left her sitting on the bed, unable to believe how easy it had been.

  KATHERINE

  1554–55, the Court

  In this bitter spring that has followed hard upon the tragedies, the world seems dead to me, and the budding blooms and glorious flowering of Dame Nature are no more than cruel mockery. My soul is consumed by loss: husband, sister, father, all taken brutally from me. There can be nothing good for me in this life now, and I sometimes wish that the grave would swallow me too.

  My dreams are of blood-spattered axes and the mutilated corpses of the beloved dead, or of Harry and me in those brief, bittersweet weeks we had together; Harry, my love, who is gone from me as surely as if Death had done his work upon him too. How dare the flowers open out their beauty to the heavens; how dare the lambs gambol in the fields; how dare the gentle warmth of the breeze caress my face like a lover, when all is lost to me?

  The Queen has been uncommonly kind to me, my mother, and my poor sister Mary. She has done everything she can to support my lady in her grief, and has even restored to her some of the lands and manors confiscated by the Act of Attainder that condemned my father. Of course, there is between the Queen’s Grace and my lady a wary courtesy, for how could it be otherwise, when the one has sent the other’s husband and child to their deaths?

 
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