Authors: Darcey Bonnette
He stood for a long while, one hand on his hip, the other roving through his hair over and over in an involuntary gesture of nervousness.
At last Grace sat up. Her tear-streaked face was stricken. “Oh, Hal …”
“Don’t.” Hal held up a silencing hand. “Please.” He sighed. “Oh, for love of everything holy, Grace, why? Whatever you feel for me, why? We are ruined now. We will not recover from this. And what’s worse is that Brey’s chances may be ruined as well.” He shook his head. “Do you know at all what you have done?”
Grace’s eyes made their appeal. “I do, Hal, I do,” she whispered. “I cannot say what came over me. It was like a devil … I just knew I couldn’t bear it any more. I couldn’t bear any of it and I wanted it to go away. I remember the feeling of tearing at my clothes—in that moment there was a strange freedom.” She regarded Hal, her eyes lit with the peculiar pleasure of the memory.
Hal shook his head again in disgust. “You enjoyed it, didn’t you?”
“Yes. For one moment I enjoyed it,” she said. “I was unfettered. I was free of all of it, all the pain and the constraints. And then I saw all the faces. …” Her voice broke. “And I knew I could never be free, not of the pain, not of anything. I knew then what I had done, how shameful it was. I did not plan to do such a disgraceful thing, God knows I would never have planned it. And I know what it has done to us.” She paused. “We—we have to protect Brey. Perhaps when he and Cecily marry they can be sent away to court—”
“Do you think the king would receive him after he learns of the goings-on in our household?” Hal retorted with a bitter, joyless laugh.
“As if his goings-on are any more dignified!” Grace railed. “You know he plans to marry the Boleyn woman. There’s even a special court being convened to set aside the queen! He’s hardly one to—”
“It doesn’t matter!” Hal cried. “He is the king and the biggest hypocrite in the land! Convenient for him to be one and the same. If he finds our son unworthy based on the scandal you created—”
created!” Grace seethed. “Who is the hypocrite now, Harold?”
Hal bowed his head. He hated this, confrontation, arguing. The pain was strangling them both. He drew in a slow breath.
“We must go on, Grace,” he told her. “Somehow. We will keep to ourselves. We’ve no choice now. And after a while, perhaps it will fade away. …”
He turned from her. He did not want to lie to her face.
Such things never faded away.
ummer passed, fading into autumn. Time did nothing to alleviate the pain permeating every pore of the Pierce household. It seemed to ooze forth from the very castle itself, chokingly pungent as the pus of a plague sore.
A year passed. Then another and another.
Father Alec marvelled at how one night, one incident, no matter how outrageous, could impact so much. What had been a vivacious, energetic household was sluggish, strained. The halls no longer teemed with the erudite and noble guests who once had flocked to the Pierces’ door. It had once been an honour to receive an invite to the Pierce table; indeed, it was something of a competition and those who had been fortunate to stay on at Sumerton always returned to their respective homes boasting of the privilege, thus elevating their own status by association.
Now the extra apartments, which had always been kept ready and waiting for occupants, were empty. The great hall was vacant. The voices of the children echoed in rooms too big, rooms meant to be warmed by the bodies of friends. But had the Pierces any true friends they would have remained. It was a sad illustration of human nature to Father Alec, a lesson of hypocrisy and judgement at its apex. Bile rose in his throat whenever he thought of it.
Lord Hal was slowly welcomed back into the arms of a society moved to pity and he found other locales in which to gamble.
Except now he was losing. More and more, a piece of art could be seen missing, an expensive vase, a portrait, plate that had once belonged to Lord Hal’s grandmother. Gone in a night. Jewels began to disappear as well and soon Lord Hal’s fingers were bare.
Lady Grace remained cloistered in her apartments. She never went out of doors again after that night. She no longer took her meals with the family. She escaped her shame, or wallowed in it, alone in a world she created for herself, a hard world softened by decanters of wine no one refused her till she remained in her bed, quivering, drooling, and incapacitated.
Though Father Alec visited her, attempting to bring what comfort he could, she stayed her course with a steely determination that would have been admirable had it been directed into a more honourable pursuit.
“We all make our choices, Father,” she had told him. Father Alec stared at her in bewildered consternation. She took in little nourishment, save bread and broth, and was reduced to a white, sore-covered, skeletal wraith. “This is my life. This is what I want.”
It churned Father Alec’s gut with both frustration and agony to see her willingly render herself mad. He shook his head. “You cannot mean that, my lady. You are destroying yourself and the body God lovingly fashioned for you.” He retrieved a hand glass and held it before her. She averted her head as though she had just looked into the depths of Hell. Father Alec seized her chin and with gentle force faced her toward the glass again. She closed her eyes.
“Open your eyes, my lady,” he urged her. “Open your eyes!”
Grace submitted, slowly opening her glazed eyes, struggling to hold her image in focus.
“Look what you have done to yourself,” he told her, sitting beside her. “Lady Sumerton, you have children in your care and a husband. You must reconcile yourself with past transgressions that you might recover and be of some good to them!”
Grace offered a bitter, hoarse laugh. “No, no,” she said in offhanded tones. She rolled on her side. “Your counsel is appreciated, Father. But I no longer require it.”
He was dismissed.
And so he left, shoulders slumped, weighed down by the anguish of the household. Thus Father Alec took to distracting the children. They must be protected from the stranglehold of despair, and since no one else had stepped in, he considered it his sacred duty.
Mirabella was found in the chapel or praying before her priedieu. Her interactions with the rest of the family were limited and she saw Lady Grace as little as possible. But Mirabella still confided in Father Alec and he listened, trying his best to soothe her anger with urgings that she forgive and find peace in God. The ritual of her prayer and incantations became as much her escape as wine was Grace’s. Father Alec did not know if this was a good thing. He had always fancied that the true calling to God should be taken up with a peaceful heart, not one filled with the acute desire to avoid reality. But then he could not judge Mirabella. His reasons for entering the priesthood had been no better.
The glimpses of hope and indeed the only place from which a measure of sanity prevailed came from Cecily and Brey, whose light seemed so misplaced in this dark place. Yet there it was, white, shining, emitted like rays of sunshine bursting through the clouds in their giggles and plots and shrill, happy voices. Bosom companions, Cecily and Brey collected animals and insects together, making the nursery a veritable menagerie. No one stopped them, and if anyone dared, Father Alec would have had their head. The children would be allowed their happiness and Father Alec thanked God they found it in each other. Cecily emanated joy; it came natural to her. She was by no means simpleminded. Her wise eyes could be seen making their observations and Father Alec wondered what went on behind them. What conclusions had she drawn about this place so tinged by tragedy? She did not reveal them. Instead she smiled her sweet smile, she laughed her infectious, lilting laugh, and pressed on, always inventing new ways to spread cheer.
Father Alec continued to pray for her and Brey, hoping nothing would invade the world Cecily so lovingly created.
For his part, he kept them busy. They took many of their lessons out of doors during the warm months. He utilised anything he could think of to tie in his lessons with the wonders of nature. Instead of studying astronomy in the stuffy library, they spread blankets out in the garden and looked up at the dazzling array of sparkling stars littering the night sky. The children snuggled against him as they pointed out each of the constellations and discussed navigation, astrology, and the myths from which the constellations derived their names.
Father Alec loved to discuss military history and reenacted battles with toy soldiers. This became a favourite sport of Brey’s and together they spent many hours fashioning their soldiers and kings out of wood, painting them, and reliving the battles of old just as Father Alec described them.
The children learned of flora and faunae by taking long walks through the forest. Father Alec taught them about herbs and mushrooms with medicinal properties, in which Cecily took great interest.
With them the knot in his heart eased. They were the hope of this broken household. With love and guidance, they could still prevail to be productive, successful individuals.
What’s more, and what was most important to Father Alec, they could be happy.
“The king has broken from Rome!” Lord Hal cried one evening as he burst into the solar where Father Alec had been engaging Mirabella in a game of chess while Brey and Cecily drew purposefully unflattering pictures of the servants.
Mirabella rose. “No!”
Lord Hal nodded, his handsome face ruddy from riding. “King Henry has been named Supreme Head of the Church of England by Parliament. It is because of the Boleyn woman, of course. It is almost certain he will marry her.”
“But the Pope—” Father Alec began, rendered breathless at the prospect. He was more than interested in the whole affair. The king’s will intrigued him. He seemed so intoxicated by this Anne Boleyn that he would rearrange the world for her. Father Alec could not imagine the power she must have over him. He wondered after her beauty. She must be in possession of something extraordinary for the king to be so taken with her. Father Alec had heard she held the New Learning in high esteem and for this he admired her. He wondered what influence that had on His Majesty’s startling decision.
Lord Hal shook his head. “Is no more, not for England, anyway.”
Father Alec could not imagine it. But others had broken away, though not on such large scale. It was interesting. “This could create a great deal of strife. Catholics loyal to His Holiness will never abide it.” He wondered if he could abide it. He was alarmed at how unperturbed he was by the news. But what did he know of the Pope? Was he not as corrupt as every other church official jealously guarding his ill-gotten gains? Yet was he not God’s representative on earth? Wasn’t the king? What an opportunity this could be! Imagine the possibilities of reform he could be bringing! Imagine the new age of thought he could be ushering in, an age where simplicity replaced extravagance, an age where priests could not be bought, an age of humility and true devotion to God, not under the grandeur and illusion the Church provided. It did not have to be Lutheran per se but something different, something tailored for English people and English needs. … Oh, bless this King Henry!
Father Alec tried to rein in his enthusiasm as he speculated, focusing on the reactions of the room.
“Oh, Father,” Mirabella interposed, addressing Lord Hal. “What is going to happen to poor Queen Catherine?”
“No one is sure yet, lamb,” Lord Hal told her. “I suppose all we can do is wait it out.”
“Oh, that Boleyn woman!” Mirabella cried, narrowing her eyes. “I have heard the names they have called her—all fitting, it seems! For her to corrupt His Majesty this way … she is an abomination!”
“Whatever she is or isn’t, Mirabella, we are the king’s subjects, you must remember,” said Lord Hal. “And we are beholden to him. He is not one to tolerate differences in opinion.”
“So we accept it? The displacement of an anointed queen and a split with the
?” Mirabella asked, eyes wide, incredulous.
Her father nodded. “Yes, Mirabella. Whatever the king’s pleasure. If we want to keep our place, if we want to keep our heads, we keep silent.”