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The Last Boleyn: A Novel

Chapter One. July 16, 1512. Hever Castle, Kent

As she searched back over the span of years to where it all began, her mind always seized upon that golden day at Hever when she first knew there could be uncertainty, yes, and even fear and pain. They were all so young then--she but eight years, George a year older, so baby Anne was five years that summer. The July day spent itself in gold and green caresses for the tiny knot garden, and the yew-lined lanes, and grassy swards at Hever. But the reverie of that warmth and beauty always paled beneath the darker recesses of memory. Indeed, that was the first day she knew she was to be sent away and used, and that it would make her dear mother most unhappy.

The first thing she would recall were Anne's squeals of delight and George's high pitched tones of command mingled with the yelps of the reddish-coated spaniel pups which nearly drowned the drone of bees in the beds of roses and Sweet William. The pups were but a four month litter from their lady mother's favorite lap dog Glinda, but George was determined to control them and train them to be his obedient pets.

"Stop that! Stop that! You shall bend to my will, you little whelps!" he shouted with a grown-up edge of impatience to his boyish voice as he swung smartly at them with a willow switch. They yelped sharply when the stings struck, but continued to cavort and roll about on each other, all silken floppy ears and clumsy paws.

"Cease, George! They are too young to be whipped or trained," came Mary's clear voice from the vine-woven gallery where she sat slightly apart from the scene. She felt growing annoyance from the raucous laughter and pitiful cries of the pups. "They are not hunt hounds, only lap dogs for ladies, so leave them be. Gentleness and love will train them well enough. Leave off, or I shall tell mother or Semmonet!"

The boy turned to face her, a look of disdain clouding his fine features. He put his fists on his hips and stood straight, his eyes squinting in the sun toward her shady bower.

"You shall not order me about, Mary. I am the elder, and I am the son, and I already own three hounds and two falcons. And I shall see service in the king's court long before you. Father has promised!"

"Has he now?" Mary countered, for George did annoy her so of late when he acted as though he were a lord's man or knight already and not some country lad whose father was always gone to court. "I warrant we all may stay here with mother at Hever, or maybe Blickling or Rochford, and never see the court at all," she continued.

Usually that sort of taunt unsettled George enough to quiet him, but today she hit a different mark. He advanced several swift strides toward her and, as he came into the shade of the arbor, she was startled to see the flush of his cheek and the frown on his brow. Anne trailed in his angry wake, her face curious, her raven hair spilling from beneath her white-ribboned cap.

"The fair-haired Mistress Mary with Grandmother Howard's beauty! Do not think to set yourself above Anne and me that we show the Butler blood for our dark locks and plainer faces. We are every bit as much a Howard too, and I shall be lord here at Hever someday and then you shall do my bidding, or--or I shall wed you to a poor landed gentry knight!"

The vehemence surprised the girl, for though she sometimes goaded George for his imperious ways or silently smarted beneath his overbearing attitude, he seldom responded this way. It almost frightened her and, except for Anne's large, dark eyes peering earnestly at her, she would have responded haughtily.

"I meant nothing by it, brother, and never vowed I had more of the Howard blood than you. Our lord has often told us we are all to be proud of our heritage of Irish Butler and powerful Norfolk, for was not our grandfather the High Treasurer for our king's father?"

George nodded curtly as though he had bested her and turned his attention back to the pups again. Now tired of their romp, they lay stretched into little splashes of shining bronze beside the marigold beds.

But Anne lingered, her pale yellow gown almost touching Mary's emerald skirts. The child often gazed at her older sister. She admired Mary's golden hair and clear blue eyes and lovely face, for their beauty was noticed by all, and the tiny girl sensed the import of this more than did Mary. It meant somehow that Mary was special, was different, and though George resented this, the child Anne was quite in awe.

"Why can we not go into the solar to see father, Mary? He comes not much to see us. What has he so secret to tell mother that Semmonet sent us away from the house? I wish he would come out and play with us and the pups, but I know he will not."

Anne sat beside Mary on the rough wood bench, her hands folded in her lap. She looked so dainty and demure that Mary wondered anew at the quicksilver changes of temperament the girl showed. She herself felt no such feverish blood stir her moods, nor did she ever throw the noisy tantrums of which this child was capable.

"Dear Annie, Semmonet said only that father had an important message for mother and that we shall learn of his tidings later. I am certain you can manage to wait until supper, for he will no doubt stay at least until the morrow, so you may ask him then, minx."

The pale child bit her lower lip, and Mary knew another question would follow. Did she never tire of her endless probings of everything? Her mind is quick and her French and Latin may soon overtake mine, she thought.

"Mary," Anne began in her childish voice, "do you believe the king looks in true life as he does in the portrait? He always seems to look sideways at me as I come down the stairs or go in the solar. His hands are so big and strong and he looks very frightening."

Her eyes looked like wet black brook pebbles, and Mary reached out to touch her white cheek. "Well, little one, I have not seen His Majesty either, but father is proud of that portrait copy by Master van Cleve, you know, so I would guess it catches the king in truth. And I agree, Annie, the eyes and the hands do look most frightening, especially at night when the hall lies in shadow with only candle gleams." She hesitated. "Is there anything else you would ask, Annie?"

Mary smiled at her little sister and the dazzling beauty that angered George, worried her mother, and pleased her father, simply amazed the younger child. Why could she not have golden hair and sky colored eyes and an angel's face like those in the stained glass windows at grandmother's chapel?

"I was only hoping, Mary, that he comes not back to take me to the king's court, for I should be afraid to go from mother and Semmonet and George and you. Even if father were there, I should be afraid, for father has eyes and hands like the king." Her lip quivered, and her fears, so plainly spoken, tugged on Mary's love though she herself felt no such childish worries.

"No, Annie. Do not be afraid. We are all too young to leave here now. George will surely go first and though you and I are not too young to be engaged, there has been no word of this. Maybe father comes to tell of a fine promotion above being Esquire of the King's Body. Father wishes to rise far, I know."

"Yes, Mary. And mother says he shall. Does she miss him as much as we, do you think?"

"Yes. No doubt even more. But she loves it here and has almost no desire to be at court, though I do not know why. But who would not love life at our Hever, Annie?" Mary's eyes skipped swiftly across the low boxwood hedges and the carefully tended beds of riotous marigolds, snapdragons and sweet heartsease.

"Father will soon ride back to the king's business, and we shall be safe with mother and Semmonet. You shall see," she comforted.

The child shot her a sunbeam smile and darted off, eager to follow George and the pups around the other side of the garden. Soon her lilting laugh and George's sharp tones floated through the air again punctuated by excited yelps from the litter of spaniels.

Mary grimaced as she rose, but walked away from their play. She did not want another rude encounter with George if she scolded him again. Then, too, Anne's innocent questions had unsettled her more than George's bloodless cruelty to the pups could.

Her father had ridden in hard from Greenwich and most unexpected. He did have special news for the family, that she knew. But what puzzled and bothered her the most was that he had sent the children out to play yet had summoned Semmonet. Why would his words be of import to their governess unless it concerned one of her three Bullen charges? Her heart beat slightly faster as she paced the squared outer edge of the heady-scented boxwood walk toward the house.

As she emerged from the gardens, the brightly painted ornamental facade of Hever rose up before her set like a gaudy jewel in the clear blue frame of cloudless sky. Its blond brick walls and decorative chimneys and water lily studded moat rested in the meadows at the fork of the gentle River Eden. Mary knew well the heritage of the house, for it was the same proud heritage of her family, and she and George and Annie had been taught to rehearse it well.

"Built by great-grandsire Geoffrey Bullen, lord mayor of London, who married the proud daughter of Lord Hoo," she recited half aloud. "Once a mere hunt lodge, but now the family seat of his grandson Lord Thomas Bullen of King Henry's great court and his Lady Elizabeth Bullen."

She went in step to her chant toward the house from which she and the other Bullen children had been temporarily banished. She crossed the now-useless drawbridge and went beneath the rusty pointed teeth of the raised portcullis. As a younger child of Anne's age, she had pictured that entry as the mouth of a terrible dragon whose jaws might snap shut in an instant and devour a fair maiden beneath. Long ago she had darted through fearful that the iron jaws would trap or crush her, but she was much too old for such foolhardiness now.

The cobbled courtyard lay silent, and the shiny leaded windows of the hall and solar glinted in the afternoon sun and gave no hint of what dark secrets might be proudly announced within. She would await the parental summons in her bedchamber away from the howls of pups or George's taunts or even Annie's childish questions. Maybe Semmonet would be in the nursery now and could tell her of the special news, for did not Semmonet treasure the happiness of her three charges above all?

One oak door to the hall stood agape. The warm fresh air of the day was a blessing in the frequently shut-up house. A sunbeam-dusted shaft of light poured onto the worn oak floor inside the entry as the girl stepped inside and looked guardedly about. The low hum of her parents' voices drifted from the solar, still lifted in earnest conversation. She continued to the great banister and put one slippered foot on the first stair, but halted in the huge square of sunlight as her mother's raised voice pierced the silence.

"My dear Lord Thomas, I grant it is an honor, and I am proud of your appointment as ambassador to the Archduchess of Savoy, but the other matter is out of the question." Her clear voice stopped, and Mary sought to picture her lovely mother's angry face. She had always seen her in control of herself, always calm and gentle. Surely father would not insist he take George abroad with him on this new business.

"Settle your feathers, my beautiful little mother hen," came her father's voice with its familiar edge of authority. "I have already obtained the placement. I have great plans for all three and, believe me, the opportunity is fortuitous. We dare not pass up this chance for the advancement and polish needed. Where else could the golden egg fall right in our laps and without cost to us? I had thought, of course, when the king's sister should be sent abroad to marry, the time would come, but this is even sooner than I had hoped."

Mesmerized by the voices, Mary edged closer to the huge door of the solar, set slightly ajar to seize the fresh air. Guiltily, she stared back at the piercing eyes of her king whose portrait hung in the dimness of the hall not washed by the sunlight which slanted in on her trembling body. Yes, indeed little Anne was right. The king's eyes seemed to accuse and frighten.

Suddenly, her heart lurched and her mind grasped each single word of her mother's quaking voice: "I pray you, my lord, let this honor go until she is at least in her tenth year. She is but a mere eight years and not a child fully raised yet."

Mary's slender frame leaned for support against the carved linen fold paneling of the hall. She crumpled wadded balls of her green skirts in tight fists. They spoke of her . . . and to be sent to . . . to . . . where is Savoy?

"Margaret of Austria and Regent to the Netherlands, Elizabeth, imagine it. It is the highest rung of the ladder for now, and when she is educated there, it will be a finishing school second only to the French court itself. When she returns, where else is there for her but among Queen Catherine's ladies in His Grace's very eyes?"

"Yes. Where else," came Elizabeth Bullen's low voice, and Mary was hurt and shocked by the anger of it.

Mary could hear her father pacing now as he often did when he thought out a problem or gave orders. His footsteps approached the door and turned back. She wanted to flee but her knees shook and her feet were rooted to the floor.

"Not all women as beautiful as you, Elizabeth, choose to live their lives away from the power and heat of the sun, however lovely their country homes like Hever."

"There is sun here, my lord, and beauty--and peace of mind."

Excerpted from The Last Boleyn © Copyright 2012 by Karen Harper. Reprinted with permission by Three Rivers Press. All rights reserved.

The Last Boleyn: A Novel
by by Karen Harper

  • paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press
  • ISBN-10: 0307237907
  • ISBN-13: 9780307237903