Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (9 page)

‘You’re very perceptive.’

So there was something else. She could not help feeling disappointed. It was vain of her to have believed, even for a moment, that he had been bewitched by her beauty. Perhaps she would end up with Georges Mauriac after all. ‘You’d better tell me,’ she said, trying not to reveal her disillusionment.

‘Have you ever heard of Erasmus of Rotterdam?’

Of course she had. Sylvie felt the hairs on her forearms rise. For a few minutes she had forgotten that she and her family were criminals, liable to be executed if caught; but now the familiar fear came back.

She was not stupid enough to answer the question, even when it came from such a dreamboat. After a moment she thought of an evasive answer. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘I’m a student at the university. We’re taught that Erasmus was a wicked man, the progenitor of Protestantism, but I’d like to read his work for myself. They don’t have his books in the library.’

‘How should I know about such things?’

Pierre shrugged. ‘Your father’s a printer, isn’t he?’

He
had
been watching her. But he could not possibly know the truth.

Sylvie and her family had been given a mission by God. It was their holy duty to help their countrymen learn about true religion. They did this by selling books: mainly the Bible, of course, in French so that everyone could easily understand it and see for themselves how wrong the Catholic Church was; but also commentaries by scholars such as Erasmus that explained things clearly, for readers who might be slow to reach the right conclusions unaided.

Every time they sold such a book, they took a terrible risk: the punishment was death.

Sylvie said: ‘What on earth makes you think we sell such literature? It’s against the law!’

‘One of the students thought you might, that’s all.’

So it was only rumour – but that was worrying enough. ‘Well, please tell him that we don’t.’

‘All right.’ He looked disappointed.

‘Don’t you know that printers’ premises are liable to be searched at any time for illegal books? Our place has been inspected several times. There is no stain on our reputation.’

‘Congratulations.’

He walked a few more paces beside her, then stopped. ‘It was a pleasure meeting you, anyway.’

Sylvie said: ‘Wait.’

Most of the customers for prohibited publications were people they knew, men and women who worshipped side by side with them at illicit services in discreet locations. A few others came with the recommendation of a known co-religionist. Even they were dangerous: if arrested and tortured they would probably tell all.

But Protestants had to take the even greater risk of talking to strangers about their faith: it was the only way to spread the gospel. Sylvie’s life’s work was to convert Catholics, and she had been presented with an opportunity to do just that. And if she let him walk away she might never see him again.

Pierre seemed sincere. And he had approached her cautiously, as if he was genuinely afraid. He did not seem to be a blabbermouth, a japester, a fool or a drunk: she could think of no excuse for refusing him.

Was she, perhaps, a little more willing than usual to take the risk because this prospective convert was an alluring young man who seemed attracted to her? She told herself that this question was beside the point.

She had to put her life on the line, and pray for God’s protection.

‘Come to the shop this afternoon,’ she said. ‘Bring four livres. Buy a copy of
The Grammar of Latin
. Whatever you do, don’t mention Erasmus.’

He seemed startled by her sudden decisiveness, but he said: ‘All right.’

‘Then meet me back in the fish market at nightfall.’ The waterfront would be deserted at that hour. ‘Bring the
Grammar
.’

‘And then what?’

‘And then trust in God.’ She turned and walked away without waiting for a reply.

As she headed for home, she prayed that she had done the right thing.

Paris was divided into three parts. The largest section, called the Town, was on the north side of the River Seine, known as the right bank. The smaller settlement south of the river, on the left bank, was called the University, or sometimes the Latin Quarter because of all the students speaking Latin. The island in the middle was called the City, and that was where Sylvie lived.

Her home stood in the shadow of the great cathedral of Notre Dame. The ground floor of the house was the shop, the books in mesh-fronted cupboards with locked doors. Sylvie and her parents lived upstairs. At the back was the print works. Sylvie and her mother, Isabelle, took turns minding the store while her father, Giles, who was not a good salesman, toiled in the workshop.

Sylvie fried the trout with onions and garlic in the kitchen upstairs and put bread and wine on the table. Her cat, Fifi, appeared from nowhere: Sylvie gave her the head of a trout, and the cat began to eat it delicately, starting with the eyes. Sylvie worried about what she had done this morning. Would the student show up? Or would a magistrate’s officer come instead, with a party of men-at-arms, to arrest the whole family on charges of heresy?

Giles ate first, and Sylvie served him. He was a big man, his arms and shoulders strong from lifting the heavy oak formes full of lead-alloy type. In a bad mood he could knock Sylvie across the room with his left arm, but the trout was flaky and tender, and he was in a cheerful frame of mind.

When he had finished, Sylvie sat in the shop while Isabelle ate, then they changed places; but Sylvie had no appetite.

After the meal was over, Sylvie returned to the shop. There happened to be no customers, and Isabelle said immediately: ‘What are you so worried about?’

Sylvie told her about Pierre Aumande.

Isabelle looked anxious. ‘You should have arranged to meet him again, and learned more about him, before telling him to come to the shop.’

‘I know, but what reason would I have to meet him?’ Isabelle gave her an arch look, and Sylvie said: ‘I’m no good at flirting, you know that, I’m sorry.’

‘I’m glad of it,’ Isabelle said. ‘It’s because you’re too honest. Anyway, we must take risks, it’s the cross we have to bear.’

Sylvie said: ‘I just hope he’s not the type to have an attack of guilty conscience and blurt out everything to his confessor.’

‘He’s more likely to get scared and back out. You’ll probably never see him again.’

That was not what Sylvie was hoping for, but she did not say so.

Their conversation was interrupted by a customer. Sylvie looked at him curiously. Most of the people who came into the shop were well dressed, for poor men could not afford books. This young man’s clothes were serviceable but plain and well-worn. His heavy coat was travel-stained, and his stout boots were dusty. He must be on a journey. He looked both weary and anxious. Sylvie felt a pang of compassion.

‘I would like to speak to Giles Palot,’ he said in an out-of-town accent.

‘I’ll fetch him,’ said Isabelle, and she passed from the shop into the factory behind.

Sylvie was curious. What did this traveller want with her father, if not to buy a book? Probing, she said: ‘Have you come a long way?’

Before the man could answer, another customer entered. Sylvie recognized him as a clergyman from the cathedral. Sylvie and her mother were careful to bow and scrape to priests. Giles did not, but he was grumpy with everyone. Sylvie said: ‘Good afternoon, Archdeacon Raphael, we’re very glad to see you, as always.’

The young man in the dirty cloak suddenly looked annoyed. Sylvie wondered if he had a reason to dislike archdeacons.

Raphael said: ‘Do you have an edition of the Psalms?’

‘Of course.’ Sylvie unlocked a cabinet and took out a Latin version, assuming that Raphael would not want a French translation, even one approved by the Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne. She guessed that the archdeacon was buying a gift, for he must already have the entire Bible. ‘This would make a beautiful present,’ she said. ‘The tooling on the binding is gold leaf, and the printing is in two colours.’

Raphael turned the pages. ‘It is very pleasing.’

‘Five livres,’ said Sylvie. ‘A most reasonable price.’ It was a small fortune for ordinary people, but archdeacons were not ordinary.

At that moment a third customer entered, and Sylvie recognized Pierre Aumande. She felt a little glow of pleasure at the sight of his smiling face, but she hoped she had been right in thinking him discreet: it would be a catastrophe if he started talking about Erasmus in front of an archdeacon and a mysterious stranger.

Her mother emerged from the back of the premises. She spoke to the traveller. ‘My husband will be with you in a moment.’ Seeing that Sylvie was serving the archdeacon, she turned to the other customer. ‘May I show you something, Monsieur?’

Sylvie caught her mother’s attention and slightly widened her eyes in a warning expression, to indicate that the latest arrival was the student they had been talking about. Isabelle responded with an almost imperceptible nod, showing that she understood. Mother and daughter had become skilled in silent communication, living as they did with Giles.

Pierre said: ‘I need a copy of
The Grammar of Latin
.’

‘At once.’ Isabelle went to the appropriate cabinet, found the book, and brought it to the counter.

Giles appeared from the back. There were now three customers, two of whom were being served, so he assumed the third was the one who had asked for him. ‘Yes?’ he said. His manner was usually gruff: that was why Isabelle tried to keep him out of the shop.

The traveller hesitated, seeming ill at ease.

Giles said impatiently: ‘You asked for me?’

‘Um . . . do you have a book of Bible stories in French, with pictures?’

‘Of course I do,’ said Giles. ‘It’s my best seller. But you could have asked my wife for that, instead of dragging me here from the print works.’

Sylvie wished, not for the first time, that her father could be more charming to customers. However, it was odd that the traveller had asked for him by name before coming up with such a mundane request. She glanced at her mother and saw a slight frown that indicated that Isabelle, too, had heard a wrong note.

She noticed that Pierre was listening to the conversation, apparently as intrigued as she was.

The archdeacon said grumpily: ‘People should hear Bible stories from their parish priest. If they start reading for themselves, they’re sure to get the wrong idea.’ He put gold coins on the counter to pay for the Psalms.

Or they might get the right idea, Sylvie said to herself. In the days when ordinary people had been unable to read the Bible, the priests could say anything – and that was how they liked it. They were terrified of the light of the word of God being shone on their teaching and practices.

Pierre said sycophantically: ‘Quite right, your reverence – if a humble student may be permitted to express an opinion. We must stand firm, or we’ll end up with a separate sect for every cobbler and weaver.’

Independent craftsmen such as cobblers and weavers seemed especially liable to become Protestants. Their work gave them time alone to think, Sylvie supposed, and they were not as scared as peasants were of priests and noblemen.

But Sylvie was surprised at this smarmy interjection from Pierre after he had shown interest in subversive literature. She looked curiously at him, and he gave her a broad wink.

He did have a very engaging manner.

Sylvie looked away and wrapped the archdeacon’s Psalms in a square of coarse linen, tying the parcel with string.

The traveller bridled at the archdeacon’s criticism. ‘Half the people in France never see their priest,’ he said defiantly. It was an exaggeration, Sylvie thought, but the truth was that far too many priests took the income from their post and never even visited their parish.

The archdeacon knew this, and had no answer. He picked up his Psalms and left in a huff.

Isabelle said to the student: ‘May I wrap this
Grammar
for you?’

‘Yes, please.’ He produced four livres.

Giles said to the traveller: ‘Do you want this story book, or what?’

The traveller bent over the book Giles showed him, examining the illustrations. ‘Don’t rush me,’ he said firmly. He had not been afraid to argue with the archdeacon, and he seemed unaffected by Giles’s bullying manner. There was more to this man than was apparent from his grubby appearance.

Pierre took his parcel and left. Now the shop contained only one customer. Sylvie felt as if the tide had gone out.

The traveller closed the book with a snap, straightened up, and said: ‘I am Guillaume of Geneva.’

Sylvie heard Isabelle give a small gasp of surprise.

Giles’s attitude changed. He shook Guillaume’s hand and said: ‘You’re very welcome. Come inside.’ He led the way upstairs to the private quarters.

Sylvie half understood. She knew that Geneva was an independent Protestant city, dominated by the great John Calvin. But it was two hundred and fifty miles away, a journey of a couple of weeks or more. ‘What is that man doing here?’ she asked.

‘The College of Pastors in Geneva trains missionaries and sends them all over Europe to preach the new gospel,’ Isabelle explained. ‘The last one was called Alphonse. You were thirteen.’

‘Alphonse!’ said Sylvie, remembering a zealous young man who had ignored her. ‘I never understood why he was living here.’

‘They bring us Calvin’s writings, and other works, for your father to copy and print.’

Sylvie felt stupid. She had never even wondered where the Protestant books originated.

‘It’s getting dark outside,’ Isabelle said. ‘You’d better fetch a copy of Erasmus for your student.’

‘What did you think of him?’ said Sylvie as she put on her coat.

Isabelle gave a knowing smile. ‘He’s a handsome devil, isn’t he?’

Sylvie’s question had been about Pierre’s trustworthiness, not his looks; but on reflection she was not keen to get into that conversation, in case it scared her too much. She mumbled a noncommittal reply and went out.

She headed north and crossed the river. The jewellers and milliners on the Notre Dame bridge were getting ready to close their shops. On the Town side she walked along the rue St Martin, the main north–south artery. A few minutes later she reached the rue du Mur. It was a back lane rather than a street. On one side was the city wall; on the other, the rear entrances of a few houses and the high fence of an unkempt garden. She stopped by a stable at the back of a dwelling lived in by an old woman who did not have a horse. The stable was windowless and unpainted, and had a patched and half-derelict look, but it was solidly built, with a strong door and a discreetly heavy lock. Giles had bought it years ago.

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