Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (7 page)

He was watching the game of dice. The gamblers were the sons of prosperous citizens, he guessed; jewellers and lawyers and builders. One of them, Bertrand, was cleaning up. At first Pierre suspected that Bertrand was a trickster just like himself, and observed carefully, trying to figure out how the dodge was done. But eventually he decided there was no scam. Bertrand was simply enjoying a run of luck.

And that gave Pierre his chance.

When Bertrand had won a little more than fifty livres his friends left the tavern with empty pockets. Bertrand called for a bottle of wine and a round of cheese, and at that point Pierre moved in.

‘My grandfather’s cousin was lucky, like you,’ he said in the tone of relaxed amiability that had served him well in the past. ‘When he gambled, he won. He fought at Marignano and survived.’ Pierre was making this up as he went along. ‘He married a poor girl, because she was beautiful and he loved her, then she inherited a mill from an uncle. His son became a bishop.’

‘I’m not always lucky.’

Bertrand was not completely stupid, Pierre thought, but he was probably dumb enough. ‘I bet there was a girl who seemed not to like you until one day she kissed you.’ Most men had this experience during their adolescence, he had found.

But Bertrand thought Pierre’s insight was amazing. ‘Yes!’ he said. ‘Clothilde – how did you know?’

‘I told you, you’re lucky.’ He leaned closer and spoke in a lower voice, as if confiding a secret. ‘One day, when my grandfather’s cousin was old, a beggar told him the secret of his good fortune.’

Bertrand could not resist. ‘What was it?’

‘The beggar said to him: “When your mother was expecting you, she gave a penny to me – and that’s why you’ve been lucky all your life.” It’s the truth.’

Bertrand looked disappointed.

Pierre raised a finger in the air, like a conjurer about to perform a magic trick. ‘Then the beggar threw off his filthy robes and revealed himself to be – an angel!’

Bertrand was half sceptical, half awestruck.

‘The angel blessed my grandfather’s cousin, then flew up to heaven.’ Pierre lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘I think
your
mother gave alms to an angel.’

Bertrand, who was not completely drunk, said: ‘Maybe.’

‘Is your mother kind?’ Pierre asked, knowing that few men would answer ‘No’.

‘She is like a saint.’

‘There you are.’ Pierre thought for a moment of his own mother, and how disappointed she would be if she knew that he was living by cheating people out of their money. Bertrand is asking for it, he told her in his imagination; he’s a gambler and a drunk. But the excuse did not satisfy her, even in his fantasy.

He pushed the thought from his mind. This was not the time for self-doubt: Bertrand was beginning to take the bait.

Pierre went on: ‘There was an older man – not your father – who gave you important advice at least once.’

Bertrand’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘I never knew why Monsieur Larivière was so helpful.’

‘He was sent by your angel. Have you ever had a narrow escape from injury or death?’

‘I got lost when I was five years old. I decided that my way home was across the river. I almost drowned, but a passing friar saved me.’

‘That was no friar, that was your angel.’

‘It’s amazing – you’re right!’

‘Your mother did something for an angel in disguise, and that angel has watched over you ever since. I know it.’

Pierre accepted a cup of wine and a wedge of cheese. Free food was always welcome.

He was studying for the priesthood because it was a way up the social ladder. But he had been at the university only a few days when he realized that the students were already dividing into two groups with radically different destinies. The young sons of noblemen and rich merchants were going to be abbots and bishops – indeed, some of them already knew which well-endowed abbey or diocese they would rule, for often such posts were effectively the private property of a particular family. By contrast, the clever sons of provincial doctors and wine merchants would become country priests.

Pierre belonged to the second group, but was determined to join the first.

Initially, the division was only dimly perceptible, and during those early days Pierre had attached himself firmly to the elite. He quickly lost his regional accent and learned to speak with an aristocratic drawl. He had enjoyed a piece of luck when the wealthy Viscount Villeneuve, having carelessly left home without cash, had asked to borrow twenty livres until tomorrow. It was all the money Pierre had in the world, but he saw a unique opportunity.

He handed the money to Villeneuve as if it were a trifle.

Villeneuve forgot to pay him back the next day.

Pierre was desperate, but he said nothing. He ate gruel that evening, because he could not afford bread. But Villeneuve forgot the following day, too.

Still Pierre said nothing. He knew that if he asked for his money back, Villeneuve and his friends would understand immediately that he really was not one of them; and he craved their acceptance more than food.

It was a month later that the young nobleman said to him languidly: ‘I say, Aumande, I don’t think I ever repaid you those twenty livres, did I?’

With a massive effort of will, Pierre replied: ‘My dear fellow, I have absolutely no idea. Forget it, please.’ Then he was inspired to add: ‘You obviously need the money.’

The other students had laughed, knowing how rich Villeneuve was, and Pierre’s witticism had sealed his position as a member of the group.

And when Villeneuve gave him a handful of gold coins, he dropped the money into his pocket without counting it.

He was accepted, but that meant he had to dress like them, hire carriages for trips, gamble carelessly, and call for food and wine in taverns as if the cost meant nothing.

Pierre borrowed all the time, paid back only when forced, and imitated Villeneuve’s financial absent-mindedness. But sometimes he had to get cash.

He thanked heaven for fools such as Bertrand.

Slowly but surely, as Bertrand worked his way down the bottle of wine, Pierre introduced into their chat the unique buying opportunity.

It was different every time. Today he invented a stupid German – the fool in the story was always a foreigner – who had inherited some jewels from an aunt and wanted to sell them to Pierre for fifty livres, not realizing that they were worth hundreds. Pierre did not have fifty livres, he told Bertrand, but anyone who did could multiply his money by ten. The story did not have to be very plausible, but the telling of it was crucial. Pierre had to appear reluctant to let Bertrand get involved, nervous of the idea of Bertrand buying the jewels, perturbed by Bertrand’s suggestion that Pierre should take fifty livres of Bertrand’s winnings and go away and make the purchase on Bertrand’s behalf.

Bertrand was begging Pierre to take his money, and Pierre was getting ready to pocket the cash and disappear from Bertrand’s life for ever, when the Widow Bauchene walked in.

Pierre tried to stay calm.

Paris was a city of three hundred thousand people, and he had thought there was no great danger of running into any of his past victims by accident, especially as he was careful to stay away from their usual haunts. This was very bad luck.

He turned his face away, but he was not quick enough, and she spotted him. ‘You!’ she screeched, pointing.

Pierre could have killed her.

She was an attractive woman of forty with a broad smile and a generous body. Pierre was half her age, but he had seduced her willingly. In return, she had enthusiastically taught him ways of making love that were new to him, and – more importantly – loaned him money whenever he asked.

When the thrill of the affair had begun to wear off, she had got fed up with giving him money. At that point a married woman would have cut her losses, said goodbye, and told herself she had learned a costly lesson. A wife could not expose Pierre’s dishonesty, because that would involve confessing her adultery. But a widow was different, Pierre had realized when Madame Bauchene turned against him. She had complained loud and long to anyone who would listen.

Could he prevent her from arousing suspicion in Bertrand? It would be difficult, but he had done more unlikely things.

He had to get her out of the tavern as fast as possible.

In a low tone he said to Bertrand: ‘This poor woman is completely mad.’ Then he stood up, bowed, and said in a tone of icy politeness: ‘Madame Bauchene, I am at your service, as always.’

‘In that case, give me the hundred and twelve livres you owe me.’

That was bad. Pierre wanted desperately to glance at Bertrand and measure his reaction, but that would betray his own anxiety, and he forced himself not to look. ‘I will bring the money to you tomorrow morning, if you care to name the place.’

Bertrand said drunkenly: ‘You told me you didn’t have even fifty livres!’

This was getting worse.

Madame Bauchene said: ‘Why tomorrow? What’s wrong with now?’

Pierre strove to maintain an air of unconcern. ‘Who carries that much gold in his purse?’

‘You’re a good liar,’ said the widow, ‘but you can’t fool me any longer.’

Pierre heard Bertrand give a grunt of surprise. He was beginning to understand.

Pierre kept trying all the same. He stood very upright and looked offended. ‘Madame, I am Pierre Aumande de Guise. You may perhaps recognize the name of my family. Kindly be assured that our honour does not permit deception.’

At the table by the door, one of the men-at-arms drinking toasts to ‘Calais française’ raised his head and looked hard at Pierre. The man had lost most of his right ear in some fight, Pierre saw. Pierre suffered a moment of unease, but had to concentrate on the widow.

She said: ‘I don’t know about your name, but I know you have no honour, you young rogue. I want my money.’

‘You shall have it, I assure you.’

‘Take me to your home now, then.’

‘I cannot oblige you, I fear. My mother, Madame de Châteauneuf, would not consider you a suitable guest.’

‘Your mother isn’t Madame de anything,’ said the widow scornfully.

Bertrand said: ‘I thought you were a student living in college.’ He was sounding less drunk by the minute.

It was over, Pierre realized. He had lost his chance with Bertrand. He rounded on the young man. ‘Oh, go to hell,’ he said furiously. He turned back to Madame Bauchene. He felt a pang of regret for her warm, heavy body and her cheerful lasciviousness; then he hardened his heart. ‘You, too,’ he said to her.

He threw on his cloak. What a waste of time this had been. He would have to start all over again tomorrow. But what if he met another of his past victims? He felt sour. It had been a rotten evening. Another shout of ‘Calais française’ went up. To the devil with Calais, Pierre thought. He stepped towards the door.

To his surprise, the man-at-arms with the mutilated ear now got up and blocked the doorway.

Pierre thought
For God’s sake, what now?

‘Stand aside,’ Pierre said haughtily. ‘This has nothing to do with you.’

The man stayed where he was. ‘I heard you say your name was Pierre Aumande de Guise.’

‘Yes, so you’d better get out of my way, if you don’t want trouble from my family.’

‘The Guise family won’t cause me any trouble,’ the man said, with a quiet confidence that unnerved Pierre. ‘My name is Gaston Le Pin.’

Pierre considered shoving the man aside and making a run for it. He looked Le Pin up and down. The man was about thirty, shorter than Pierre, but broad-shouldered. He had hard blue eyes. The damaged ear suggested he was no stranger to violent action. He would not be shoved aside easily.

Pierre struggled to maintain his tone of superiority. ‘What of it, Le Pin?’

‘I work for the Guise family. I’m head of their household guard.’ Pierre’s heart sank. ‘And I’m arresting you, on behalf of the duke of Guise, for falsely using an aristocratic name.’

Widow Bauchene said: ‘I knew it.’

Pierre said: ‘My good man, I’ll have you know—’

‘Save it for the judge,’ said Le Pin contemptuously. ‘Rasteau, Brocard, hold him.’

Without Pierre’s remarking it, two of the men-at-arms had got up from the table and were standing quietly either side of him, and now they grabbed his arms. Their hands felt like iron bands: Pierre did not bother to struggle. Le Pin nodded to them and they marched Pierre out of the tavern.

Behind him, he heard the widow yell: ‘I hope they hang you!’

It was dark, but the narrow, winding medieval streets were busy with revellers and noisy with patriotic songs and shouts of ‘Long live Scarface’. Rasteau and Brocard walked fast, and Pierre had to hurry to keep up with them and avoid being dragged along the road.

He was terrified to think what punishment might be imposed on him: pretending to be a nobleman was a serious crime. And even if he got off lightly, what was his future? He could find other fools like Bertrand, and married women to seduce, but the more people he cheated, the more likely he was to be called to account. For how much longer could he maintain this way of life?

He looked at his escorts. Rasteau, the older by four or five years, had no nose, just two holes surrounded by scar tissue, no doubt the result of a knife fight. Pierre waited for them to get bored, relax their vigilance and loosen their grip, so that he might break away, dash off, and lose himself in the crowd; but they remained alert, their grip firm.

‘Where are you taking me?’ he asked, but they did not trouble to reply.

Instead, they talked about sword fighting, apparently continuing a conversation they had begun in the tavern. ‘Forget about the heart,’ said Rasteau. ‘Your point can slip over the ribs and give the man nothing worse than a scratch.’

‘What do you aim for? The throat?’

‘Too small a target. I go for the belly. A blade in the guts doesn’t kill a man straight away, but it paralyses him. It hurts so much that he can’t think of anything else.’ He gave a high-pitched giggle, an unexpected sound from such a rough-looking man.

Pierre soon found out where they were going. They turned into the Vieille rue du Temple. Pierre knew that this was where the Guise family had built their new palace, occupying an entire block. He had often dreamed of climbing those polished steps and entering the grand hall. But he was taken to the garden gate and through the kitchen entrance. They went down a staircase into a cheese-smelling basement crowded with barrels and boxes. He was thrust rudely into a room and the door was slammed behind him. He heard a bar drop into a bracket. When he tried the door it would not open.