Although Jane is plain, her father is rich enough to buy her a fine husband, and she is married to Robert Holmwood. Robert is young and handsome and wealthy; Jane can hardly believe her luck.
After the wedding, there is a feast in the Holmwood’s grand house in Micklegate, and then Jane is put to bed to await her new husband …
Still, she was married. Jane tried to absorb the idea, to comprehend the reality of it, but the idea was too huge, too slippery. No sooner did she think that it felt real after all than it would slither out of her grasp, like the wet soap Ellen had taught her to make all those years ago.
Jane wished she hadn’t thought about Ellen. Did you think I wanted your father rutting on top of me? The image of her father’s meaty hands on Ellen still had the power to make Jane acutely uncomfortable. She knew what would happen tonight, of course. She had heard the servants talking, and Eliza Dawson, taking pity on her motherless state, had taken it upon herself to give Jane instruction in a wife’s duties.
Robert would put his thing inside Jane, she had said, matter-of-fact. ‘It will hurt at first, but you’ll get used to it.’
It hadn’t sounded very pleasurable when Eliza described it, but when the other maids talked about their sweethearts they smiled behind their hands and stroked their throats in a way that made Jane feel … envious. She wanted to know what made their eyes dance with remembered delight, what secret memory caused their mouths to soften into curve.
And tonight she would know. Jane’s blood fizzed with mingled nervousness and anticipation. Her role had been made very clear. Margaret Holmwood had looked Jane up and down, lips pursed, eyes flinty. ‘You are to give Robert a son,’ she said. ‘I trust you will be a good breeder.’
‘I would like to have a baby,’ Jane had confided shyly. Even if it did mean she might bellow and scream in pain the way Ellen had done, the thought of holding her own child in her arms warmed her heart.
But Margaret wasn’t interested in what Jane wanted. Her hands were brisk as she unpinned Jane’s sleeves, lecturing her on the need to please her husband. Jane’s new maid, Annis, was silent but her eyes met Jane’s in sympathy as she unlaced her bodice and helped her out of the new white satin kirtle Henry Birkby had given Jane for her wedding gift. White didn’t flatter Jane. It drained her of colour and left her whey-faced and lustreless. Robert had barely glanced at her during the marriage ceremony, and had sat silent and resentful at the feast below. Only Margaret, leaning over to whisper in his ear or stroke his cheek, had been able to make him smile.
When Jane was standing in her shift, Margaret nodded to Annis to brush out her straight, fine hair while she stood back to study her critically. ‘You’re no beauty,’ she said, ‘but that matters little if you can bear a son. You know what’s expected of you?’
The roast meats from the wedding feast rolled queasily in Jane’s stomach. ‘Mistress Dawson explained it to me,’ she said.
‘And who, pray, is Mistress Dawson?’
‘Mr Dawson is a scrivener,’ said Jane, glad to be able to boast a friend with more prestige than a butcher, but Margaret was unimpressed.
‘A scrivener’s wife?’ she jeered. ‘What does a scrivener’s wife know of pleasuring a man?’
Jane bit her lip. ‘She told me I must do as my husband desires.’
Margaret’s smile struck a chill in Jane, like her father’s cleaver slicing into a carcass. ‘Did she so? Then see that you do.’
Nobody had bothered to scatter rosemary on the sheets, and the bridal bed felt cold and uninviting when Jane clambered in. Margaret had left, followed by Annis who at least sent Jane a sympathetic smile of farewell.
Jane pulled the coverlet up beneath her chin. She was cold and tired and she felt sick from the rich food. She’d drunk too much spiced wine because she was nervous and now her head was thumping. She didn’t want to be married, she realised. She wanted to be at home in the bed with Juliana pinching and snatching at the covers.
But it was too late to go home. She was married, and now she had to wait for her husband to come to bed.
Excerpt from The Edge of Dark © Pamela Hartshorne 2014.