To Die For ONE Year of Our Lord 1518 Allington Castle, Kent, England
Come with me,” I whispered to Anne. She turned to look at her older sister, Mary, busy flirting with our tutors—forbidden, and therefore enticing, conquests. After assessing the safety of our escape Anne turned back to me and nodded. She was up for an adventure, as I knew she would be. Rose Ogilvy sat in the corner, carefully plying her needle in and out of a stretch of linen. She was seventeen years old, same as Anne and I, but I knew she would shy away from this particular exploit, any particular exploit, in fact. To save her embarrassment I didn’t ask her along.
We slipped out the door, gathered the layers of skirts in our hands, and then raced down the long stone hallway. Recently painted portraits of my Wyatt ancestors were awkwardly affixed to the walls. When he bought the castle, my father, Henry Wyatt, had placed them there to make our family seem more ancient and noble than it was. We were not exactly pretenders but not exactly of Norman blood, either. They stared down at me, ill at ease, smiths and butchers and small-time landowners now forced into velvets and
ruffs within a span of time no broader than the width of my hand. And yet we were gentry now. My father expected me to act like the lady he’d suffered to make me be.
We slid out the main entrance, one or two servants catching my eye and warning me back inside with a stern look. “No, Mistress Meg,” one urged me. I disregarded them. They knew what might lie ahead for me—they’d borne the same fate, maybe worse. But I refused to be intimidated.
Anne and I linked arms and strolled toward the rows of unattended garden. Just beyond, on the neatly clipped field, our brothers play-jousted with long branches though all were training for real jousts as well. As we strolled by, my brother Thomas stopped, dipped into a bow, and flourished his hat in our direction. “What a polite young man,” Anne said. “Mayhap you’ll notice, my
brother George isn’t tipping his hat toward me.
I grinned. “My brother isn’t tipping his hat toward me, either. He’d as soon ignore me as do me good. It’s you he’s trying to impress, as well you know.” A light flush of pleasure spread up Anne’s long neck and a little catlike mewl escaped her lips. She fully realized the effect she’d begun to have on men. Whilst she didn’t court their praise, false modesty was not her besetting sin, either.
“I see another bow and this one is particularly in your
direction,” she said. I looked up and saw Will Ogilvy.
A year older than I, Will had brown hair that was long and tousled, his face slightly reddened from the joust. I couldn’t help but notice that his arms and chest had thickened over the summer as he grew from a gangly boy into an assured young man. Even from this distance I could see his eyes had the same merry twinkle for me they always had. I nodded primly in his direction—after all, I was a lady, and we were in mixed company. He winked at me.
A wink! The audacity. Who else had seen it?
“Mayhap Lord Ogilvy’s son should come out of the field. He seems to have dust in his eye,” Anne teased. I turned toward her and grinned, thankful for her faithful friendship. She never trained her charm on Will. She knew I planned to have him for myself.
Rewardingly, he seemed completely uninterested in Anne.
We sat in the gardens, enveloped in the haze of the exotic scent of my mother’s jasmine plants, gossiping about overheard conversations between Anne’s ambassador father and high-born mother; they had sent Anne and her sister, Mary, to apprentice at the French court when Princess Mary married some years back and they were to return shortly, after this visit home with their father. We talked about my sister, Alice, who had borne yet another child. I would soon go to stay with her for a few months, if my father allowed it. But as Alice was an obedient girl, marrying young and bearing quickly, my father favored nearly every request she made. Alas, the same could not be said for me.
“We’ve got new horses.” I finally got the conversation around to its planned target. “My father’s horsemaster brought them round last week.”
“Ooh,” Anne said. “Are they fast?”
“I don’t know…,” I answered. We’d prided ourselves—unseemly, I suppose—on riding as fast and as well as any boy in our group.
“Should we see?” she asked me, as I knew she would. For me to suggest the idea would be disobedient, but for me to accommodate a friend would be hospitality indeed.
We ran to the stables and after petting old favorites we walked to the stalls where the new horses were housed. Our vanity guided our choices. Anne picked out her favorite, a raven mare, barely three
years old with deep black eyes, like her own. I showed her the one I loved best, a tamed stallion with a thick auburn mane like my own. He glanced nervously about his stall till I gentled him with quiet words and touches.
“Should you have them saddled?”
“My father shouldn’t be home from court till tomorrow morning.” Then I called over a stable boy. “Saddle these two for us, please.”
“If ’n you say so, miss,” he said, unable to disobey me but nervous nonetheless. I smiled kindly at him, hoping to gentle him as I’d done the stallion.
“I do,” I said. And then Anne and I raced and rode.
The fields were thick and green, flowers clinging on the tips of the field grass, ready to fall forward into the late summer’s heat. We slowed when we came to the woods and picked our way through the tangle of downed trees, their mossy shroud bringing a soft, dank smell.
“I’ve missed this,” Anne said. “My father won’t let me ride our horses unattended anymore.”
“Mine says the same.”
“Why did you not say anything when I suggested the ride?”
“I felt it would be our last time, as girls,” I told her. “We’re becoming women now and our lives are going to change.”
We turned our horses around, back toward Allington.
I felt his eyes upon me afore I saw him from a distance. My father stood in front of the stables. My first trembling urge was to turn my mount and gallop back into the woods, as far as he could carry me, and not return. If Anne hadn’t been with me, I might have. But I couldn’t leave her and anyway, where would I go?
“Your father…,” she said softly, though I heard her over the hoofbeats.
I nodded. “He’s home early.”
We rode the mounts into the stable. My father stood at the door, looking at me and no one else. My brothers, and Anne’s brother, George, were there, and Will Ogilvy…. as were all their sisters. Like a bearbaiting,
I thought. Everyone come to witness the bloody violence, some there of their own will and pleasure, like my warped brother Edmund. The others dragged there by convention or lack of choice.
My father indicated that we girls should be lifted from our mounts—more to protect the horse than myself, I knew.
“I thought I told you not to ride alone. And you certainly understood not to lather my new mounts.” He tapped his horsewhip against his riding boot.
“I’m sorry, Father.” I felt a trickle of sweat course down my back; it felt like a spider scurrying away.
“It was really my fault.” Anne nobly stepped in and tried to protect me. “I suggested it.”
“And I could have told her no.” I spoke up, not willing to let her shoulder the blame on her own. I needn’t have bothered.
“Thank you, Mistress Boleyn,” Father said. “But Mistress Wyatt knew not to ride out and chose to disobey me anyway.” He cheerfully dismissed the Boleyn and Ogilvy children to the manor; their servants waited to take them back to their homes.
We Wyatt children knew to stand fast. My brother Edmund grinned. Thomas focused his eyes on the ground, as always. I knew my father would be softer on me if I cried, but I refused to.
I looked at my friends hastily retreating in the distance, and just as I locked eyes with Will, my father struck.
He backhanded me against the cheek and for a moment I felt nothing but my teeth chattering as if they would loosen in my heavy skull. I fell to the ground. He yanked me to my feet and then slapped me from another angle. Blood dripped out of my nose and I felt the tingle through the top of it and across the bridge above my eyes. In the distance, I saw George Boleyn restrain Will from coming back to the stable and I silently thanked him.
I stood up because I knew my father didn’t want me to. I fixed my eyes on his, not blinking, willing myself not to be snuffed out, and forced out the words that we both knew were meaningless. “I’m sorry, Father. Would you forgive me?”
“You’re to be a lady, do you hear me?” he roared. I stood still as he strode back to the house, Edmund nipping at his heels. Thomas waited behind for me.
At the end of the summer our tutors held a picnic for us on the grounds of Hever Castle, the Boleyns’ home. Each of us was going a separate way, and though we would join again for social occasions and perhaps further instruction, we would not gather together weekly or monthly anymore. My brother Thomas would soon be sent to Cambridge and Edmund and I would continue at home with private tutors after my visit with Alice. My mother, ill again, could not be parted from me.
Anne, and her older sister, Mary, of course, were going back to the French court to serve Queen Claude. My father allowed a servant to take me to Hever Castle, the Boleyns’ family seat, the day before the picnic so we could look through Anne’s wardrobe trunks as girls are wont to do.
“Ooh, look at this!” I held up a skirt and stomacher of emerald
green, perfect to set off her dark skin and eyes. “The waist is tightly fitted.” I danced around the room with it and curtseyed to my imaginary suitor.
“Yes, I know,” Anne said drily, rolling her eyes at me. It wasn’t hard to see which of us was the refined friend and which the spontaneous one. Anne had a smart fashion sense and knew how to show off her best features.
She held up another gown, this one of navy satin, slashed to show a snowy white kirtle below with long French sleeves. “I think this would look good on you.”
“I do, too. Shall you leave it here?” I teased.
“No, but sketch it quickly, if you want,” she said. “They’re in the French fashion, my father had them made for me in France. No one here will wear anything like them. Just you!”
I took a piece of paper from her study book and quickly drew a few of her dress designs. Our seamstress could do a rough copy, I thought. Perhaps not perfect, but still.
I ran my fingers through the treasures in her little jewel cabinet and then brushed my hand over the stack of her hose made of finest silk. “I think your father has grand plans for you and your sister.”
“He’s the ambassador to France. Mayhap he wants England to be well represented,” she answered evenly.
“Mayhap,” I said. “Are you nervous?”
She nodded. “They have such big expectations for me and for Mary. And if we don’t meet them, they’ll set us aside. It’s family advancement first…. and last.”
I nodded, wishing I could contradict her, but our friendship had been built on honesty and I wasn’t about to belittle it now with a soothing lie.
“I believe in you,” I said. “And I’ll pray for you every day.”
She squeezed my arm. “I know you will. I am glad one of us has faith.”
“You have faith!” I contradicted her.
“Not like yours.”
After leaving her things for her maidservant to repack, we went down to the gardens outside.
The chairs and table were set up in neat little quartets on the Hever property, and Master Ridley, our music teacher, had recruited friends to play lutes. The notes wafted over the field, the sweetest of aural perfumes. The mood was one of love, of friendship, of pledge. We’d all been forged together and though circumstances might separate us for a time, we were somehow inextricably bound for life. I sat down alone at a table near the edge of the garden, a private spot, and wished it to remain so but for the company of one.
My wish was granted.
“May I join you?” Will approached. I remained seated, as a lady should.
“Of course.” I gestured to the seat next to me with grace and dignity that would have made my father proud. I caught Anne out of the corner of my eye gently steering the others to different tables so Will and I might have some time alone.
“What’s this?” He touched the wreath of daisies I’d woven whilst waiting for the day to begin.
“A wreath of the last flowers clinging to summer,” I said. “Something to both pass and mark the time.”
“There is no flower here to contend with you.
You believe they’re dying off because it’s the end of summer? Methinks they saw the competition and realized they must capitulate.”
“Will Ogilvy, are you practicing courtly manners on me?” I teased.
“No,” he said. “I mean it. May I have this wreath as a keepsake?” I wound it around his fingers and I wished it were my hand I was placing in his instead of that which my hand had created.
I nodded my agreement and kept my eyes lowered. For once, overcome by the moment, I had no smart retort.
We sat for a little while, intensely aware at the adult turn in our relationship. Will cheerfully turned the topic back to mathematics, and then horses, and finally Latin, which we both loved. We sparred over the rendering of a certain word, and in the end I believe I won. “Succumbo,”
he admitted. “A rare victory, and one you will not soon duplicate.”
“Is that a challenge?” I teased. But then his look turned somber. “Why not?” I asked, more subdued as I sipped from the goblet in front of me and tapped at the light sheen on my forehead with my kerchief.
“My father is sending me to Cambridge.”
“Ah.” I nodded. So now I knew why my brother Thomas was going to Cambridge. Not that my father couldn’t have thought of it on his own, but he admired the Ogilvys and Boleyns as his betters in many ways. Feeling unsure of himself, he often imitated their choices. If only he would send me to France!
“I’ll surely see you at pageants now and again,” Will said. “And at the Christmas celebration at court.”
“Surely,” I agreed, knowing that those pageants and jousts would be infrequent, that my mother was often ill and required my companionship, and that the studies at Cambridge were demanding and could take up to eight years to complete.
“There are so many different teachers there.” His voice rose with excitement. “I hope to learn more about our Lord too. What we have here is so….” He shrugged his shoulders. “Limited.”
I nodded, happy for him but envious of his opportunity. Anne and I had many rigorous debates about holy things, too, which would have horrified my father and even Will, had they known. “You’ll do well. I’m glad for you.” I echoed the sentiment I’d given Anne just an hour before, and the words, whilst well-intentioned, felt as dry in my mouth as my oft-prattled apologies to my father.
“There are fine days ahead for you, too, Meg.” Will rested his hand on the table near mine, not able to take mine in his while others were around but showing me what was in his heart by his gesture. “I know it. Omnino scire.
” He used the Latin word that meant “to know something without doubt, to be certain.” Strangely enough, I believed he was right. I’d had the feeling that their ships were setting sail, leaving port perhaps a year or two afore my own, but that my ship would set sail, too, and it would be in the same direction. I looked at Will, suffused with happiness, and Anne, an already court-worthy hostess. Then I looked toward the sky, where the heavy gray clouds of late summer were already beginning to clot.
Lady Boleyn, ever the chaperone, made her way toward our table. As reluctant as I was to see her come, I understood she had my good name and Will’s in mind.
“I’ll send you a note sometimes through my sister, Rose,” Will said, and I nodded. “Tui meminero,”
I said. I will remember you.
Perhaps because he was leaving and felt free to be candid, he answered me back more strongly. “Te somniabo.” I will dream of you.
Later in the afternoon, when the others had mostly returned
home, I stayed to say my final good-bye to Anne. We walked in the garden and sat on a bench, carved gargoyles expressing silent horror over her departure. “I’ll miss you,” I said. “Our constant companionship. Studying together.”
“I’ll be home soon. If Mary or George gets married or if someone dies….”
“Don’t say that!” I told her, aghast. Even my jesting wouldn’t go that far.
“No, no,” she reassured me. “And then, soon, I’ll be home to stay.”
“Yes,” I said. “And things will be as they ever were between us. We’ll marry rich, titled, wonderful men, and have renowned parties and beautiful children.” I looked at the gathering storm clouds and knew that if what I sensed was true then I was a liar and, worse, was breaking our friendship pledge of honesty. And yet I wasn’t sure my impressions were true. They were wobbly things, jellies to roll out from under my thumb as soon as I tried to pin them down.
To make things even, I offered another oath. “You know how the boys, ah, relieve themselves together when they make a promise?”
Anne, mannered and discreet, looked at me, shocked. “Surely you can’t be suggesting….”
I blushed. “No, no, I speak too fast.” Oh my, what would my father think if he could overhear me now? “I just meant we could plight an oath too. Afore you leave.”
She nodded and turned toward me on the bench before speaking. “A friendship oath. So you won’t choose Rose Ogilvy as your dearest friend in my absence.”
“As much as I like Rose, she’s not the Ogilvy I desire to pledge an oath with,” I teased, and we laughed. It was one of our friendship’s
better qualities, the ability to laugh together in the most difficult moments. “And make sure you don’t find a French friend to replace me,” I said.
“Never.” She reached up and plucked one of the roses. She pricked her finger with its thorn till a little drop of blood oozed out. “It didn’t hurt much….”
I looked at her hard, reminding her of the difficulties I faced with my father. “A poke to the finger is not going to harm me,” I said, grinning. I pierced my finger too.
We held our fingers together and commingled our blood, friends to the end, never leaving one another’s side, loyalty firmly pledged, come what may.