Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  Farther along the high table, Katherine is radiant as she gazes into the adoring eyes of her groom. Clearly she and Lord William Herbert have struck up a warm rapport. He seems entranced by her, and justifiably so, for she is surely the beauty of the family, with her fair hair and her eyes the color of cornflowers. It’s a pity, then, that the consummation of their marriage is also to be postponed, since—to judge by the way they are behaving—they are ripe for it now. Perhaps they will find a means to outwit our parents.

  At last the festivities come to an end, and I can take my leave of a very drunk Guilford and walk with my parents across the sloping lawns leading down to the river and our waiting barge. It’s a warm, starry night, and most of the company is tipsy and in high good humor. I have no inclination to join in their jesting. Despite the heat, I feel an inward chill: I am cold to my soul and doubt that the sun will ever shine for me again. The deed is done, I have been sold into bondage, and there is no remedy. I long to get back to my bedchamber and my books, the only comforts I have left.

  Lady Jane Dudley, Formerly Grey


  Servants do gossip, and gossip travels swiftly, for London is a small world.

  “I do not like what I hear,” says Mrs. Ellen, coming into my chamber one evening with some dried herbs to scatter in the clothing chests.

  “What have you heard?” I ask, abandoning my book.

  “You will remember, my lady, that on the night of the wedding, the Earl of Pembroke took his son and your sister to his London residence, Baynard’s Castle.”

  “I do remember. I hear that Katherine is being housed there in palatial style and that my lord Earl cannot do enough for her.”

  “And very proper too, I say. But already she has displeased him. I have it on good authority, from one of her maidservants, whose brother is a groom in this house, that on the wedding night Lord William was caught by his father in the act of stealing into her chamber, and she all undressed ready to welcome him. Well, the Earl ordered them both back to their separate beds, telling them they must be patient a little longer. He was not best pleased, I can tell you.”

  “Poor Katherine.” I recall the radiant, ardent bride.

  “I don’t like it a bit,” Mrs. Ellen repeats. “It’s not natural. The Lady Katherine is nigh thirteen, of full age to be a wife, and why she should not be one I cannot understand. It’s the same with you, and you’re even older. Is it that my lord of Pembroke does not trust your lord father, or your lord father does not trust my lord of Northumberland? In truth, that does not augur well for the future. Why make such marriages in the first place if you’re not willing to let husband and wife bed in the natural way?”

  “Why indeed?” None of it makes sense. But, in very truth, I am quite content to leave things as they are and not ask questions.


  I wake up in a strange bed. For a long time now, it seems, I have been inhabiting a shadow world, suffering—I vaguely recall—from constant vomiting, fever, and a humiliating looseness of the bowels. But today I am myself again, although weak and shivery.

  “Thank God you’re looking better at last, child,” says Mrs. Ellen fervently, reverting from the formal title by which she must now address me to the old, familiar endearances, and stroking the hair from my forehead. “I do declare that there was a time when everyone feared you might die, so virulent was your fever.” Tears of relief are in her eyes. Was it that serious, then? I have blurred memories of leeches being applied to my body, to bleed me of evil humors.

  Mrs. Ellen plumps the pillows and raises me gently in the bed. Then she pulls off my sweaty shift and replaces it with a freshly laundered one. My exposed body looks thin and wasted; of course I have not been eating. When I am decent again, Mrs. Ellen rebraids my hair. I ask for my mirror, and she hands it to me. One glance reveals skin stretched taut over delicate cheekbones, and eyes overbright with the aftermath of fever. Surprisingly, I am not ill pleased with what I see, for illness has lent a strange, ethereal beauty to my face.

  I remember that I fell ill at Suffolk House three days after my wedding.

  “I do think, Jane.” says Mrs. Ellen, as we discuss it later, “that your collapse was caused by nervous strain and unhappiness. I don’t believe there was anything more to it. Do you remember what you were saying at the time?”

  “No, I do not,” I murmur. “What did I say?”

  Mrs. Ellen’s voice drops to a whisper. “You thought that it was due to something more sinister. In your more lucid moments, you expressed the fear that His Grace of Northumberland did not like you and was trying to poison you.”

  “I said that?” I am shocked.

  “You did indeed. Naturally we all dismissed it as an absurd fancy, the ramblings of a mind crazed by sickness. In fact, the Duke and Duchess, and your husband, all expressed their deep concern and sent regularly to inquire after your health. And then, when your condition deteriorated alarmingly, the Duke placed his mansion here at Syon at your parents’ disposal, because the air is more healthful in these parts than in Southwark.”

  I realize I am in the former abbey of the Brigittine nuns, by the Thames at Isleworth. The nuns were turned out by my great-uncle during the dissolution of the monasteries. The Duke of Somerset, and Northumberland in his turn, took possession of their house, and a glance around my bedchamber with its fine furniture, rich carpet, and rare tapestries suggests that they both turned it into a very comfortable residence indeed.

  Mrs. Ellen places a clutch of papers on my bed. “The Duke and his family wrote to you.”

  I pick up the papers and peruse them. They are heartening letters, expressing concern, a sincere desire for my return to health, and the hope that I will soon be back in London. I am tempted to feel touched by such overt kindness, but remind myself that it doubtless springs purely from self-interest.

  There comes a morning when I am strong enough to join my parents and sister Mary for a slow stroll along the gallery, as it is too wet outside to venture into the gardens. We inspect the many portraits that hang there; among the sitters are several we know personally, or recognize, and my mother is particularly taken with a group portrait showing her grandmother Queen Elizabeth of York with her four young daughters kneeling behind her. She points to the third daughter in line.

  “That’s my mother, Mary Tudor. How fair she was,” my lady remarks, gazing at the pretty child with long blond curls.

  “Think you it is a true likeness?” asks my father skeptically. “Her sister Katherine is shown as a full-grown child, yet you told me she died an infant.”

  “I can see a likeness,” says my mother, considering. “Perhaps the artist was told to make Katherine look like her sisters.”

  Suddenly, shockingly, an ax wielded by a bloody hand comes crashing through the wooden paneling next to the portrait. My mother has the rapid presence of mind to push my father aside to avoid his head being cloven in two, before he is even aware of the danger. Mary and I scream in horror—later, Mary tells me she thought it was a spectral apparition, although it looked horribly real to me. But as my father reaches for his sword, the ax crashes to the floor and the gory hand is withdrawn through the splintered gash in the wood.

  Tentatively my lord examines the rough slit; behind it is a dark, empty cavity. He shouts for strong men to attend him with cudgels and axes, and when they come hurrying, he directs them to chop down that section of the paneling. Within minutes, holding aloft a lantern, he is able to enter the space behind. We peer through to a hidden passage with bare stone walls. My father disappears down it, his retainers at his heels, still brandishing their weapons.

  “Careful!” cries my mother in alarm. We girls are huddled together in terror, fearful of what might ensue.

  After a time my lord returns, grim-faced.

  “God, it’s dark and dank in there,” he exclaims. “There’s only room for one man at a time to get through. The passage leads to a spiral
stair, which we descended until we came to a cellar. And there we found our axman. These good fellows here laid hold of him, and by the tried and trusted method of pointing my dagger at his throat, I extracted a confession from him. It seems he was once a lay brother here at Syon, and that he has nourished his bitterness at its dispossession these past thirteen years. He said he’d survived by doing odd jobs as a laborer, and on the occasional charity of the local people. He longed, he said, for the chance to have his revenge on the House of Tudor and was gratified to hear that the King’s own cousins had taken up residence at Syon. This morning, he slipped into the house unchallenged, made his way to the south gallery, and was gratified to find that the secret passage and stair were still there behind the paneling, untouched by the renovations. And there he hid, his ax grasped in his hand. It was meant for you, my dear.”

  My father puts an arm around my mother’s shoulders. I have never seen her look so discomposed: she is fighting to retain her customary dignified manner.

  “Is he still down there?” she asks, her face pale. “I hope you’ve tied him up!”

  “As it happens, my dear, he’s quite dead,” my lord tells her. “He managed to wriggle free, grabbed my dagger, and stabbed himself with it.”

  The men exchange glances. My father fixes them with a steady gaze. I cannot take this all in.

  “Take him away tonight and bury him at a crossroads,” he commands them. “He has offended God by taking his own life, so he may not rest in hallowed ground. He tried to murder my good lady here, and he almost murdered me.” The men seem about to say something, but he stills them with another look. “Say no more about this to anyone. I do not wish to cause my wife and daughters any further distress. If anyone asks what you are about, say you found his body in the woods.”

  They leave, and my father hurries us back to our private chambers, permitting no further questions. And that is an end to the matter, although I am left to wonder just what did happen in that cellar, and whether murder was committed this day after all.

  Northumberland, my father says, is rarely far from the King’s side these days. Something ominous is in the air, and today a messenger in the royal livery came cantering to Syon, although I don’t know what his errand was.

  I am still a little frail after my illness and spend my days reading in the great parlor, or strolling with Mrs. Ellen through the beautiful gardens that Somerset planted. The roses are in bloom just now, and I savor their heady scent, and the sensual whisper of the warm breeze on my face.

  It is late afternoon, and the sun is a golden ball slowly moving westward. As we are about to return to the house for supper, we espy two horsemen trotting through the main gates.

  “It’s Lord Guilford,” I say, startled. I have not seen him since our wedding day, and I have not missed him, either. What could he possibly be doing here? The other rider is obviously a manservant, for he wears the Dudley livery.

  Guilford sees us and waves, reining in his horse.

  “Good day, my lady!” he calls. “I hope I find you better.”

  I dip a brief curtsy. “Much improved, sir, I thank you,” I reply politely. “What brings you here?”

  He dismounts and walks toward me, a lean, graceful figure in tawny velvet.

  “You may go,” he says curtly, addressing Mrs. Ellen. Startled by his rudeness, I shoot her a pleading look that begs her to remain within earshot, and she quietly withdraws into the next garden, behind a high box hedge.

  Guilford looks down at me. He is so tall, and his eyes are very blue. Reluctantly I find myself admiring his perfect features, even while reminding myself that I have no cause to admire his character.

  “I came, my lady, at my parents’ behest. Were you not informed?”

  “I know nothing,” I answer in some bewilderment.

  “Oh. I thought you were waiting for me.” He seems at a loss for words.

  “Of what should I have been informed?” I ask in mounting trepidation, for I begin to think I can guess the answer.

  Guilford draws a deep breath. “That we are to consummate our marriage,” he says with an odious leer. “I am to make a true wife of you. My father says the King wishes it, and your parents have agreed.”

  There is a silence while I try to compose my thoughts, which are now plunged into fearful turmoil.

  “I did not know,” I stammer at length. “I am unprepared. They should have told me. And I’ve not been well. This is impossible!”

  He looks at me in dismay. “But my father sent a messenger.”

  “I am unprepared. They said nothing.” He must be able to detect the panic in my voice: I sound to myself like a trapped animal.

  “There is nothing to fear. I would not hurt you. Trust me.” He tilts my chin upward with his fingers and our eyes meet. I feel myself flushing. Again I think, how handsome he is! And how I wish I liked him better. Then I reprove myself for going over to the enemy. But he is very good-looking, and for the first time he seems disposed to be kind.

  Young as I am, I have learned, over the years, to accept the hand that Fate has dealt me, even if I occasionally rail against it. My situation could be a lot worse. I have heard of girls wedded to graybeards who can do little in bed save indecently paw their young wives, while yet expecting those same wives to bear them sons. At least I will not have to suffer an old man’s caresses. Instead, my duty bids me submit to this fine-looking youth, whom Fate has set in absolute authority over me as my husband. Many girls would envy me, I make no doubt, but they are not the kind of girls who look beyond a beautiful face and a muscular body. What irks me most is that I have been sold for gain, and I cannot help my resentment running high.

  Guilford is watching my face and has the wit to read my conflicting emotions. Tenderly, to my surprise, he bends and kisses me on the mouth.

  Supper in the evening is a horribly embarrassing occasion. My parents have welcomed Guilford warmly, obviously aware of the purpose of his visit. For my part, I cannot forgive them for keeping me in the dark. During the meal, which we take in the private parlor, they make excruciating bawdy innuendos and jokes. I squirm when my father, seeing me blush, observes that I am lucky to have been spared a public bedding ceremony.

  “Unlike your mother and me.” He winks, expansive with good wine. “They stripped us naked in front of all the company.”

  “Don’t remind me,” says my lady. “I thought I should die for shame. And then they returned an hour later with the loving cup and demanded to know if we had performed the act. They even inspected the sheets.”

  Guilford is sitting there smirking. I wish I were anywhere else.

  It is an utter relief when the cloth is lifted and spiced wine and wafers are set out in honor of the occasion. We all raise our goblets in a toast, then my lord claps Guilford on the back.

  “To your labors, my boy! Do your duty and provide me with a brace of grandsons!”

  My mother leads me to the state bedchamber, which has been made ready for the occasion, and helps Mrs. Ellen disrobe me and dress me in a beautiful chemise of white silk embroidered in gold. My long hair is brushed until it shines, then spread becomingly over my shoulders as I lie in the vast bed, which is hung with painted oriental curtains and spread with herb-scented lawn sheets and a counterpane embellished with the Dudley arms. I rest on the pillow stony-faced as my mother kisses me—a rare occurrence—and departs with Mrs. Ellen.

  All the lurid female gossip I have ever heard about virgins being deflowered has surfaced in my head, and I am doing my best not to panic or burst into tears. Once, one of my mother’s ladies said the pain was so great that she had screamed out loud, and even then her husband had not been able to penetrate her, though he went repeatedly to the assault like a battering ram to the siege-tower, she shrieking in agony every time.

  Please, God, I pray, let it not be like that for me.

  Guilford, clad in a red velvet nightgown, places the candle on the table and smiles uncertainly at me.

“Blow it out,” I whisper.

  “No. I want to see you,” he says with that leer, pacing toward the bed and throwing off his nightgown to the floor. I have never seen a naked man before and lower my eyes, not daring to look at the virile nudity so blatantly displayed before me. He climbs in beside me, taking me in his arms and kissing me hard on the mouth. The feel of his bare flesh is a shock to me.

  “Take off your shift,” he orders, his voice hoarse. Mutely I obey. Snuggling down under the covers, I unlace the ribbons threaded through the bodice and wriggle out of the garment, thrusting it under my pillow, ready for when I can put it on again. I am desperate with embarrassment, but Guilford allows me no vestige of modesty. He wrenches back the bedclothes and exposes not only my nakedness, but also his own. I close my eyes for shame.

  “Look at me,” he insists. “Look at me, Jane.”

  “I cannot,” I whisper.

  For answer, he grabs my hand and guides it to his erect penis. Startled, I open my eyes and am again shocked at what I see and feel. It seems to have a life of its own, for it throbs and swells at my touch. It is horribly big.

  Guilford starts touching me, fingering me hastily from breast to thigh.

  “Squeeze me,” he demands, breathing heavily. “Go on! Hard!”

  Timidly, I venture a squeeze.

  “Harder!” he rasps. “Harder!”

  My hand tightens. His manhood is taut beneath it. I cannot believe how large it has become and draw my fingers away involuntarily.

  “Will it not hurt me?” I whisper fearfully. He makes no reply. He has gone red in the face, and it is as if he is no longer truly aware of me. It is only my body that he wants, as he writhes against me, rubbing me vigorously and panting with increasing fervor. His strength is fearsome: I cry out as he jabs me with an elbow, but he takes no notice. Suddenly he leans up on one forearm and pushes my legs apart with his free hand. His fingers boldly explore the secret place between them, briefly caressing every crevice, then suddenly, brutally, thrust inside me. A hot splinter of agony pierces my core, and with unwilling tears spilling down my cheeks, I use all my strength to pull his hands away, but he is too strong, too insistent, forcing his fingers farther inside, invading, probing, and wounding.

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