Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (5 page)

Swithin said: ‘I hear she has Protestant leanings.’

That was the heart of it, Rollo thought.

Cecil smiled. ‘She has told me, many times, that if she should become queen, it is her dearest wish that no Englishman should lose his life for the sake of his beliefs.’

Ned Willard spoke up. ‘That’s a good sign,’ he said. ‘No one wants to see more people burned at the stake.’

That was typical of the Willards, Rollo thought: anything for a quiet life.

Earl Swithin was equally irritated by the equivocation. ‘Catholic or Protestant?’ he said. ‘She must be one or the other.’

‘On the contrary,’ Cecil said, ‘her creed is tolerance.’

Swithin was indignant. ‘Tolerance?’ he said scornfully. ‘Of heresy? Blasphemy? Godlessness?’

Swithin’s outrage was justified, in Rollo’s opinion, but it was no substitute for legal argument. The Catholic Church had its own view on who should be the next ruler of England. ‘In the eyes of the world, the true heir to the throne is the other Mary, the queen of the Scots.’

‘Surely not,’ Cecil argued, clearly having expected this. ‘Mary Stuart is no more than the grand-niece of King Henry VIII, whereas Elizabeth Tudor is his daughter.’

‘His illegitimate daughter.’

Ned Willard spoke again. ‘I saw Mary Stuart when I went to Paris,’ he said. ‘I didn’t talk to her, but I was in one of the outer rooms of the Louvre Palace when she passed through. She is tall and beautiful.’

Rollo said impatiently: ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

Ned persisted. ‘She’s fifteen years old.’ He looked hard at Rollo. ‘The same age as your sister, Margery.’

‘That’s not the point—’

Ned raised his voice to override the interruption. ‘Some people think a girl of fifteen is too young to choose a husband, let alone rule a country.’

Rollo drew in his breath sharply, and his father gave a grunt of indignation. Cecil frowned, no doubt realizing that Ned’s statement had a special meaning hidden from an outsider.

Ned added: ‘I was told that Mary speaks French and Scotch, but she has hardly any English.’

Rollo said: ‘Such considerations have no weight in law.’

Ned persisted. ‘But there’s worse. Mary is engaged to marry Prince Francis, the heir to the French throne. The English people dislike our present queen’s marriage to the King of Spain, and they will be even more hostile to a queen who marries the King of France.’

Rollo said: ‘Such decisions are not made by the English people.’

‘All the same, where there is doubt there may be fighting, and then the people may pick up their scythes and their axes and make their opinions known.’

Cecil put in: ‘And that’s exactly what I’m trying to prevent.’

That was actually a threat, Rollo noted angrily; but before he could say so, Swithin spoke again. ‘What is this girl Elizabeth like, personally? I’ve never met her.’

Rollo frowned in irritation at this diversion from the question of legitimacy, but Cecil answered willingly. ‘She is the best-educated woman I have ever met,’ he said. ‘She can converse in Latin as easily as in English, and she also speaks French, Spanish and Italian, and writes Greek. She is not thought to be a great beauty, but she has a way of enchanting a man so that he thinks her lovely. She has inherited the strength of will of her father, King Henry. She will make a decisive sovereign.’

Cecil was obviously in love with her, Rollo thought; but that was not the worst of it. Elizabeth’s opponents had to rely on legalistic arguments because there was little else for them to take hold of. It seemed that Elizabeth was old enough, wise enough, and strong-minded enough to rule England. She might be a Protestant, but she was too clever to flaunt it, and they had no proof.

The prospect of a Protestant queen horrified Rollo. She would surely disfavour Catholic families. The Fitzgeralds might never recover their fortunes.

Swithin said: ‘Now, if she were to marry a strong Catholic husband who could keep her under control, she might be more acceptable.’ He chuckled lasciviously, making Rollo suppress a shudder. Clearly Swithin was aroused by the thought of keeping a princess under control.

‘I’ll bear that in mind,’ said Cecil drily. A bell rang to tell the guests to take their places at table, and he stood up. ‘All I ask is that you don’t rush to judgement. Give Princess Elizabeth a chance.’

Reginald and Rollo hung back when the others left the room. Reginald said: ‘I think we set him straight.’

Rollo shook his head. There were times when he wished his father’s mind were more devious. ‘Cecil knew, before he came here, that loyal Catholics such as you and Swithin would never pledge support for Elizabeth.’

‘I suppose he did,’ said Reginald. ‘He’s nothing if not well informed.’

‘And he’s evidently a clever man.’

‘Then why is he here?’

‘I’ve been wondering about that,’ said Rollo. ‘I think he came to assess the strength of his enemies.’

‘Oh,’ said his father. ‘I never thought of that.’

‘Let’s go in to dinner,’ said Rollo.

*

N
ED WAS RESTLESS
all through the banquet. He could hardly wait for the eating and drinking to end so that the game of Hunt the Hart could begin. But just as the sweets were being cleared away, his mother caught his eye and beckoned him.

He had noticed that she was deep in conversation with Sir William Cecil. Alice Willard was a vigorous, tubby woman, wearing a costly dress of Kingsbridge Scarlet embroidered with gold thread, and a medallion of the Virgin Mary around her neck to ward off accusations of Protestantism. Ned was tempted to pretend that he had not seen her summons. The game would take place while the tables were being cleared and the actors were getting ready to perform the play. Ned was not sure what Margery had in mind but, whatever it was, he was not going to miss it. However, his mother was strict as well as loving, and she would not tolerate disobedience, so he went to her side.

‘Sir William wants to ask you a few questions,’ Alice said.

‘I’m honoured,’ Ned said politely.

‘I want to know about Calais,’ Cecil began. ‘I gather you’ve just returned from there.’

‘I left a week before Christmas, and got here yesterday.’

‘I need hardly tell you and your mother how vital the city is to English commerce. It’s also a matter of national pride that we still rule a small part of France.’

Ned nodded. ‘And deeply annoying to the French, of course.’

‘How is the morale of the English community there?’

‘Fine,’ said Ned, but he began to worry. Cecil was not interrogating him out of idle curiosity: there was a reason. And, now that he thought about it, his mother’s face looked grim. But he carried on. ‘When I left, they were still rejoicing over the defeat of the French at St Quentin back in August. That made them feel that the war between England and France was not going to affect them.’

‘Over-confident, perhaps,’ Cecil muttered.

Ned frowned. ‘Calais is surrounded by forts: Sangatte, Fréthun, Nielles—’

Cecil interrupted him. ‘And if the fortresses should fall?’

‘The city has three hundred and seven cannons.’

‘You have a good mind for details. But can the people withstand a siege?’

‘They have food for three months.’ Ned had made sure of his facts before leaving, for he had known that his mother would expect a detailed report. He turned to Alice now. ‘What’s happened, Mother?’

Alice said: ‘The French took Sangatte on the first day of January.’

Ned was shocked. ‘How could that happen?’

Cecil answered that question. ‘The French army was assembled in great secrecy in nearby towns. The attack took the Calais garrison by surprise.’

‘Who leads the French forces?’

‘François, duke of Guise.’

‘Scarface!’ said Ned. ‘He’s a legend.’ The duke was France’s greatest general.

‘By now the city must be under siege.’

‘But it has not fallen.’

‘So far as we know, but my latest news is five days old.’

Ned turned to Alice again. ‘No word from Uncle Dick?’

Alice shook her head. ‘He cannot get a message out of a besieged city.’

Ned thought of his relations there: Aunt Blanche, a much better cook than Janet Fife, though Ned would never tell Janet that; cousin Albin, who was his age and had taught him the French words for intimate parts of the body and other unmentionable things; and amorous Thérèse. Would they survive?

Alice said quietly: ‘Almost everything we have is tied up in Calais.’

Ned frowned. Was that possible? He said: ‘Don’t we have any cargoes going to Seville?’

The Spanish port of Seville was the armoury of King Felipe, with an insatiable appetite for metal. A cousin of Ned’s father, Carlos Cruz, bought as much as Alice could send, turning it all into cannons and cannonballs for Spain’s interminable wars. Ned’s brother, Barney, who was in Seville, was living and working with Carlos, learning another side of the family business, as Ned had done in Calais. But the sea journey was long and hazardous, and ships were sent there only when the much nearer warehouse at Calais was full.

Alice replied to Ned’s question: ‘No. At the moment we have no ships going to or from Seville.’

‘So if we lose Calais . . .’

‘We lose almost everything.’

Ned had thought he understood the business, but he had not realized that it could be ruined so quickly. He felt as he did when a trustworthy horse stumbled and shifted under him, making him lose his balance in the saddle. It was a sudden reminder that life was unpredictable.

A bell was rung for the start of the game. Cecil smiled and said: ‘Thank you for your information, Ned. It’s unusual for young men to be so precise.’

Ned was flattered. ‘I’m glad to have been of help.’

Dan Cobley’s pretty, golden-haired sister, Ruth, passed by saying: ‘Come on, Ned, it’s time for Hunt the Hart.’

‘Coming,’ he said, but he did not move. He felt torn. He was desperate to talk to Margery, but after news like this he was in no mood for a game. ‘I suppose there’s nothing we can do,’ he said to his mother.

‘Just wait for more information – which may be a long time coming.’

There was a gloomy pause. Cecil said: ‘By the way, I’m looking for an assistant to help me in my work for the lady Elizabeth; a young man to live at Hatfield Palace as part of her staff, and to act on my behalf when I have to be in London, or elsewhere. I know your destiny is to work with your mother in the family business, Ned, but if you should happen to know a young man a bit like yourself, intelligent and trustworthy, with a sharp eye for detail . . . let me know.’

Ned nodded. ‘Of course.’ He suspected that Cecil was really offering the job to him.

Cecil went on: ‘He would have to share Elizabeth’s tolerant attitude to religion.’ Queen Mary Tudor had burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake.

Ned certainly felt that way, as Cecil must have realized during the argument in the earl’s library about the succession to the throne. Millions of English people agreed: whether Catholic or Protestant, they were sickened by the slaughter.

‘As I said earlier, Elizabeth has told me many times that if she should become queen, it is her dearest wish that no Englishman should lose his life for the sake of his beliefs,’ Cecil repeated. ‘I think that’s an ideal worthy of a man’s faith.’

Alice looked mildly resentful. ‘As you say, Sir William, my sons are destined to work in the family business. Off you go, Ned.’

Ned turned around and looked for Margery.

*

E
ARL
S
WITHIN HAD
hired a travelling company of actors, and now they were building a raised platform up against one long wall of the great hall. While Margery was watching them, Lady Brecknock stood beside her and did the same. An attractive woman in her late thirties with a warm smile, Susannah Brecknock was a cousin of Earl Swithin’s, and was a frequent visitor to Kingsbridge, where she had a house. Margery had met her before and found her amiable and not too grand.

The stage was made of planks on barrels. Margery said: ‘It looks a bit shaky.’

‘That’s what I thought!’ said Susannah.

‘Do you know what they’re going to perform?’

‘The life of Mary Magdalene.’

‘Oh!’ Mary Magdalene was the patron saint of prostitutes. Priests always corrected this by saying: ‘Reformed prostitutes,’ but that did not make the saint any less intriguing. ‘But how can they? All the actors are men.’

‘You haven’t seen a play before?’

‘Not this kind, with a stage and professional players. I’ve just seen processions and pageants.’

‘The female characters are always played by men. They don’t allow women to act.’

‘Why not?’

‘Oh, I expect it’s because we’re inferior beings, physically weak and intellectually feeble.’

She was being sarcastic. Margery liked Susannah for the candid way she talked. Most adults responded to embarrassing questions with empty platitudes, but Susannah could be relied upon to tell the plain truth. Emboldened, Margery blurted out what was on her mind: ‘Did they force you to marry the Lord Brecknock?’

Susannah raised her eyebrows.

Margery realized immediately that she had gone too far. Quickly she said: ‘I’m so sorry, I have no right to ask you that, please forgive me.’ Tears came to her eyes.

Susannah shrugged. ‘You certainly do not have the right to ask me such a question, but I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be fifteen.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Who do they want you to marry?’

‘Bart Shiring.’

‘Oh, God, poor you,’ she said, even though Bart was her second cousin. Her sympathy made Margery feel even more sorry for herself. Susannah thought for a minute. ‘It’s no secret that my marriage was arranged, but no one forced me,’ she said. ‘I met him and liked him.’

‘Do you love him?’

She hesitated again, and Margery could see that she was torn between discretion and compassion. ‘I shouldn’t answer that.’

‘No, of course not, I apologize – again.’

‘But I can see that you’re in distress, so I’ll confide in you, provided you promise never to repeat what I say.’

‘I promise.’

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