Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (3 page)

He looked out of the parlour window across the market square to the elegant façade of the great church, with its long lines of lancet windows and pointed arches. It had been there every day of his life: only the sky above it changed with the seasons. It gave him a vague but powerful sense of reassurance. People were born and died, cities could rise and fall, wars began and ended, but Kingsbridge Cathedral would last until the Day of Judgement.

‘So you went into the cathedral to give thanks,’ she said. ‘You’re a good boy.’

He could not deceive her. ‘I went to the Fitzgerald house as well,’ he said. He saw a brief look of disappointment flash across her face, and he said: ‘I hope you don’t mind that I went there first.’

‘A little,’ she admitted. ‘But I should remember what it’s like to be young and in love.’

She was forty-eight. After Edmund died, everyone had said she should marry again, and little Ned, eight years old, had been terrified that he would get a cruel stepfather. But she had been a widow for ten years now, and he guessed she would stay single.

Ned said: ‘Rollo told me that Margery is going to marry Bart Shiring.’

‘Oh, dear. I was afraid of that. Poor Ned. I’m so sorry.’

‘Why does her father have the right to tell her who to marry?’

‘Fathers expect some degree of control. Your father and I didn’t have to worry about that. I never had a daughter . . . who lived.’

Ned knew that. His mother had given birth to two girls before Barney. Ned was familiar with the two little tombstones in the graveyard on the north side of Kingsbridge Cathedral.

He said: ‘A woman has to love her husband. You wouldn’t have forced a daughter to marry a brute like Bart.’

‘No, I suppose I wouldn’t.’

‘What is wrong with those people?’

‘Sir Reginald believes in hierarchies and authority. As mayor, he thinks an alderman’s job is to make decisions and then enforce them. When your father was mayor he said that aldermen should rule the town by serving it.’

Ned said impatiently: ‘That sounds like two ways of looking at the same thing.’

‘It’s not, though,’ said his mother. ‘It’s two different worlds.’

*

‘I
WILL NOT
marry Bart Shiring!’ said Margery Fitzgerald to her mother.

Margery was upset and angry. For twelve months she had been waiting for Ned to return, thinking about him every day, longing to see his wry smile and golden-brown eyes; and now she had learned, from the servants, that he was back in Kingsbridge, and he had come to the house, but they had not told her, and he had gone away! She was furious at her family for deceiving her, and she wept with frustration.

‘I’m not asking you to marry Viscount Shiring today,’ said Lady Jane. ‘Just go and talk to him.’

They were in Margery’s bedroom. In one corner was a prie-dieu, a prayer desk, where she knelt twice a day, facing the crucifix on the wall, and counted her prayers with the help of a string of carved ivory beads. The rest of the room was all luxury: a four-poster bed with a feather mattress and richly coloured hangings; a big carved-oak chest for her many dresses; a tapestry of a forest scene.

This room had seen many arguments with her mother over the years. But Margery was a woman now. She was petite, but a little taller and heavier than her tiny, fierce mother; and she felt it was no longer a foregone conclusion that the fight would end in victory for Lady Jane and humiliation for Margery.

Margery said: ‘What’s the point? He’s come here to court me. If I talk to him, he’ll feel encouraged. And then he’ll be even angrier when he realizes the truth.’

‘You can be polite.’

Margery did not want to talk about Bart. ‘How could you not tell me that Ned was here?’ she said. ‘That was dishonest.’

‘I didn’t know until he’d gone! Only Rollo saw him.’

‘Rollo was doing your will.’

‘Children should do their parents’ will,’ her mother said. ‘You know the commandment: “Honour thy father and mother”. It’s your duty to God.’

All her short life Margery had struggled with this. She knew that God wished her to be obedient, but she had a wilful and rebellious nature – as she had so often been told – and she found it extraordinarily difficult to be good. However, when this was pointed out to her, she always suppressed her nature and became compliant. God’s will was more important than anything else, she knew that. ‘I’m sorry, Mother,’ she said.

‘Go and talk to Bart,’ said Lady Jane.

‘Very well.’

‘Just comb your hair, dear.’

Margery had a last flash of defiance. ‘My hair’s fine,’ she said, and before her mother could argue she left the room.

Bart was in the hall, wearing new yellow hose. He was teasing one of the dogs, offering a piece of ham then snatching it away at the last moment.

Lady Jane followed Margery down the stairs and said: ‘Take Lord Shiring into the library and show him the books.’

‘He’s not interested in books,’ Margery snapped.

‘Margery!’

Bart said: ‘I’d like to see the books.’

Margery shrugged. ‘Follow me, please,’ she said, and led the way into the next room. She left the door open, but her mother did not join them.

Her father’s books were arranged on three shelves. ‘By God, what a lot of them you have!’ Bart exclaimed. ‘A man would waste his life away reading them all.’

There were fifty or so, more than would normally be seen outside a university or cathedral library, and a sign of wealth. Some were in Latin or French.

Margery made an effort to play host. She took down a book in English. ‘This is
The Pastime of Pleasure
,’ she said. ‘That might interest you.’

He gave a leer and moved closer. ‘Pleasure is a great pastime.’ He seemed pleased with the witticism.

She stepped back. ‘It’s a long poem about the education of a knight.’

‘Ah.’ Bart lost interest in the book. Looking along the shelf, he picked out
The Book of Cookery
. ‘This is important,’ he said. ‘A wife should make sure her husband has good food, don’t you think?’

‘Of course.’ Margery was trying hard to think of something to talk about. What was Bart interested in? War, perhaps. ‘People are blaming the queen for the war with France.’

‘Why is it her fault?’

‘They say that Spain and France are fighting over possessions in Italy, a conflict that has nothing to do with England, and we’re involved only because our Queen Mary is married to King Felipe of Spain and has to back him.’

Bart nodded. ‘A wife must be led by her husband.’

‘That’s why a girl must choose very carefully.’ This pointed remark went over Bart’s head. Margery went on: ‘Some say our queen should not be married to a foreign monarch.’

Bart tired of the subject. ‘We shouldn’t be talking of politics. Women ought to leave such matters to their husbands.’

‘Women have so many duties to their husbands,’ Margery said, knowing that her ironic tone would be lost on Bart. ‘We have to cook for them, and be led by them, and leave politics to them . . . I’m glad I haven’t got a husband, life is simpler this way.’

‘But every woman needs a man.’

‘Let’s talk about something else.’

‘I mean it.’ He closed his eyes, concentrating, then came out with a short rehearsed speech. ‘You are the most beautiful woman in the world, and I love you. Please be my wife.’

Her reaction was visceral. ‘No!’

Bart looked baffled. He did not know how to respond. Clearly he had been led to expect the opposite answer. After a pause he said: ‘But my wife will become a countess one day!’

‘And you must marry a girl who longs for that with all her heart.’

‘Don’t you?’

‘No.’ She tried not to be harsh. It was difficult: understatement was lost on him. ‘Bart, you’re strong and handsome, and I’m sure brave too, but I could never love you.’ Ned came into her mind: with him she never found herself trying to think of something to talk about. ‘I will marry a man who is clever and thoughtful and who wants his wife to be more than just the most senior of his servants.’ There, she thought; even Bart can’t fail to understand that.

He moved with surprising speed and grabbed her upper arms. His grip was strong. ‘Women like to be mastered,’ he said.

‘Who told you that? Believe me, I don’t!’ She tried to pull away from him but could not.

He drew her to him and kissed her.

On another day she might just have turned her face away. Lips did not hurt. But she was still sad and bitter about having missed Ned. Her mind was full of thoughts of what might have happened: how she might have kissed him and touched his hair and pulled his body to hers. His imaginary presence was so strong that Bart’s embrace repelled her to the point of panic. Without thinking, she kneed him in the balls as hard as she could.

He roared with pain and shock, released her from his grasp, and bent over, groaning in agony, eyes squeezed shut, both hands between his thighs.

Margery ran to the door, but before she got there her mother stepped into the library, obviously having been listening outside.

Lady Jane looked at Bart and understood immediately what had happened. She turned to Margery and said: ‘You foolish child.’

‘I won’t marry this brute!’ Margery cried.

Her father came in. He was tall with black hair, like Rollo, but unlike Rollo he was heavily freckled. He said coldly: ‘You will marry whomever your father chooses.’

That ominous statement scared Margery. She began to suspect that she had underestimated her parents’ determination. It was a mistake to let her indignation take over. She tried to calm herself and think logically.

Still passionate, but more measured, she said: ‘I’m not a princess! We’re gentry, not aristocracy. My marriage isn’t a political alliance. I’m the daughter of a merchant. People like us don’t have arranged marriages.’

That angered Sir Reginald, and he flushed under his freckles. ‘I am a knight!’

‘Not an earl!’

‘I am descended from the Ralph Fitzgerald who became earl of Shiring two centuries ago – as is Bart. Ralph Fitzgerald was the son of Sir Gerald and the brother of Merthin the bridge-builder. The blood of the English nobility runs in my veins.’

Margery saw with dismay that she was up against not just her father’s inflexible will but his family pride as well. She did not know how she could overcome that combination. The only thing she was sure of was that she must not show weakness.

She turned to Bart. Surely he would not want to marry an unwilling bride? She said: ‘I’m sorry, Lord Shiring, but I’m going to marry Ned Willard.’

Sir Reginald was startled. ‘No, you’re not, by the cross.’

‘I’m in love with Ned Willard.’

‘You’re too young to be in love with anyone. And the Willards are practically Protestants!’

‘They go to Mass just like everyone else.’

‘All the same, you’re going to marry Viscount Shiring.’

‘I will not,’ she said with quiet firmness.

Bart was recovering. He muttered: ‘I knew she’d be trouble.’

Sir Reginald said: ‘She just needs a firm hand.’

‘She needs a whip.’

Lady Jane intervened. ‘Think of it, Margery,’ she said. ‘You will be the countess one day, and your son will be the earl!’

‘That’s all you care about, isn’t it?’ Margery said. She heard her own voice rising to a defiant yell, but she could not stop. ‘You just want your grandchildren to be aristocrats!’ She could see from their faces that her surmise had touched the truth. With contempt she said: ‘Well, I will not be a broodmare just because you have delusions of nobility.’

As soon as she had said it she knew she had gone too far. Her insult had touched her father where he was most sensitive.

Sir Reginald took off his belt.

Margery backed away fearfully, and found herself up against the writing table. Sir Reginald grabbed her by the back of her neck, using his left hand. She saw that the tongue end of the belt had a brass sleeve, and she was so scared that she screamed.

Sir Reginald bent her over the table. She wriggled desperately, but he was too strong for her, and he held her easily.

She heard her mother say: ‘Leave the room, please, Lord Shiring.’ That scared her even more.

The door slammed, then she heard the belt whistle through the air. It landed on the backs of her thighs. Her dress was too thin to give her any protection, and she screamed again, in pain this time. She was lashed again, and a third time.

Then her mother spoke. ‘I think that’s enough, Reginald,’ she said.

‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ said Sir Reginald. It was a grimly familiar proverb: everyone believed that flogging was good for children, except the children.

Lady Jane said: ‘The Bible verse actually says something different. “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” It refers to boys, not girls.’

Sir Reginald countered with a different verse. ‘Another biblical proverb says: “Withhold not correction from the child”, doesn’t it?’

‘She’s not really a child any more. Besides, we both know this approach doesn’t work on Margery. Punishment only makes her more stubborn.’

‘Then what do you propose?’

‘Leave her to me. I’ll talk to her when she’s calmed down.’

‘Very well,’ Sir Reginald said, and Margery thought it was over; then the belt whistled again, stinging her already painful legs, and she screamed once more. Immediately afterwards she heard his boots stamp across the floor and out of the room, and it really was over.

*

N
ED WAS SURE
he would see Margery at Earl Swithin’s feast. Her parents could hardly keep her away. It would be like an announcement that something was wrong. Everyone would be talking about why Margery was not there.

The cartwheel ruts in the mud road were frozen hard, and Ned’s pony picked her way daintily along the treacherous surface. The heat of the horse warmed his body, but his hands and feet were numb with cold. Beside him his mother, Alice, rode a broad-backed mare.

The earl of Shiring’s home, New Castle, was twelve miles from Kingsbridge. The journey took almost half a short winter day, and made Ned mad with impatience. He had to see Margery, not just because he longed for a sight of her, but also so that he could find out what the devil was going on.

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