Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (4 page)

Ahead, New Castle appeared in the distance. It had been new a hundred and fifty years ago. Recently the earl had built a house in the ruins of the medieval fortress. The remaining battlements, made of the same grey stone as Kingsbridge Cathedral, were adorned today with ribbons and swags of freezing fog. As he drew near, Ned heard sounds of festivity: shouted greetings, laughter, and a country band – a deep drum, a lively fiddle, and the reedy whine of pipes drifting through the cold air. The noise bore with it a promise of blazing fires, hot food and something cheering to drink.

Ned kicked his horse into a trot, impatient to arrive and put an end to his uncertainty. Did Margery love Bart Shiring, and was she going to marry him?

The road led straight to the entrance. Rooks strutting on the castle walls cawed spitefully at the visitors. The drawbridge had gone long ago, and the moat had been filled in, but there were still arrow-slit windows in the gatehouse. Ned rode through to the noisy courtyard, bustling with brightly dressed guests, horses and carts, and the earl’s busy servants. Ned entrusted his pony to a groom and joined the throng moving towards the house.

He did not see Margery.

On the far side of the courtyard stood a modern brick mansion, attached to the old castle buildings, the chapel on one side and the brewery on the other. Ned had been here only once in the four years since it had been built, and he marvelled again at the rows of big windows and the ranks of multiple chimneys. Grander than the wealthiest Kingsbridge merchants’ homes, it was the largest house in the county, although perhaps there were even bigger places in London, which he had never visited.

Earl Swithin had lost status during the reign of Henry VIII, because he had opposed the king’s breach with the Pope; but the earl’s fortunes had revived five years ago with the accession of the ultra-Catholic Mary Tudor as queen, and Swithin was once again favoured, rich and powerful. This promised to be a lavish banquet.

Ned entered the house and passed into a great hall two stories high. The tall windows made the room light even on a winter day. The walls were panelled in varnished oak and hung with tapestries of hunting scenes. Logs burned in two huge fireplaces at opposite ends of the long room. In the gallery that ran around three of the four walls, the band he had heard from the road was playing energetically. High on the fourth wall was a portrait of Earl Swithin’s father, holding a staff to symbolize power.

Some guests were performing a vigorous country dance in groups of eight, holding hands to form rotating circles then stopping to skip in and out. Others conversed in clusters, raising their voices over the music and the stomping of the dancers. Ned took a wooden cup of hot cider and looked around the room.

One group stood aloof from the dancing: the ship owner Philbert Cobley and his family, all dressed in grey and black. The Kingsbridge Protestants were a semi-secret group: everyone knew they were there, and could guess who they were, but their existence was not openly acknowledged – a bit like the half-hidden community of men who loved men, Ned thought. The Protestants did not admit to their beliefs, for then they would be tortured until they recanted, and burned to death if they refused. Asked what they believed, they would prevaricate. They went to Catholic services, as they were obliged to by law. But they took every opportunity to object to bawdy songs, bosom-revealing gowns, and drunk priests. And there was no law against dull clothes.

Ned knew just about everyone in the room. The younger guests were the boys with whom he had attended Kingsbridge Grammar School and the girls whose hair he had pulled on Sunday after church. The older generation of local notables were equally familiar; they were in and out of his mother’s house all the time.

In the search for Margery his eye lit on a stranger: a long-nosed man in his late thirties, his mid-brown hair already receding, his beard neatly trimmed in the pointed shape that was fashionable. Short and wiry, he wore a dark red coat that was unostentatiously expensive. He was speaking to Earl Swithin and Sir Reginald Fitzgerald, and Ned was struck by the attitudes of the two local magnates. They clearly did not like this distinguished visitor – Reginald leaned back with folded arms, and Swithin stood with legs apart and hands on hips – yet they were listening to him intently.

The musicians ended a number with a flourish, and in the relative quiet Ned spoke to Philbert Cobley’s son, Daniel, a couple of years older than himself, a fat boy with a pale round face. ‘Who’s that?’ Ned asked him, pointing at the stranger in the red coat.

‘Sir William Cecil. He is estate manager for Princess Elizabeth.’

Elizabeth Tudor was the younger half-sister of Queen Mary. ‘I’ve heard of Cecil,’ Ned said. ‘Wasn’t he secretary of state for a while?’

‘That’s right.’

At the time Ned had been too young to follow politics closely, but he remembered the name of Cecil being mentioned with admiration by his mother. Cecil had not been sufficiently Catholic for Mary Tudor’s taste, and as soon as she became queen she had fired him, which was why he now had the less grand job of looking after Elizabeth’s finances.

So what was he doing here?

Ned’s mother would want to know about Cecil. A visitor brought news, and Alice was obsessed with news. She had always taught her sons that information could make a man’s fortune – or save him from ruin. But as Ned looked around for Alice he spotted Margery, and immediately forgot about William Cecil.

He was startled by Margery’s appearance. She looked older by five years, not one. Her curly dark hair was pinned up in an elaborate coiffure and topped by a man’s cap with a jaunty plume. A small white ruff around her neck seemed to light up her face. She was small, but not thin, and the fashionably stiff bodice of her blue velvet gown did not quite conceal her delightfully rounded figure. As always, her face was expressive. She smiled, raised her eyebrows, tilted her head, and mimed surprise, puzzlement, scorn and delight, one after another. He found himself staring, just as he had in the past. For a few moments it seemed as if there was no one else in the room.

Waking from his trance, he pushed through the crowd towards her.

She saw him coming. Her face lit up with pleasure, delighting him; then it changed, faster than the weather on a spring day, and her expression became clouded with worry. As he approached, her eyes widened fearfully and she seemed to be telling him to go away, but he ignored that. He had to speak to her.

He opened his mouth, but she spoke first. ‘Follow me when they play Hunt the Hart,’ she said in a low voice. ‘Don’t say anything now.’

Hunt the Hart was a hide-and-seek game played by young people at feasts. Ned was bucked by her invitation. But he was not willing to walk away from her without at least some answers. ‘Are you in love with Bart Shiring?’ he asked.

‘No! Now go away – we can talk later.’

Ned was thrilled, but he had not finished. ‘Are you going to marry him?’

‘Not while I have enough breath to say go to the devil.’

Ned smiled. ‘All right, now I can be patient.’ He walked away, happy.

*

R
OLLO OBSERVED WITH
alarm the interaction between his sister and Ned Willard. It did not last long but it was obviously intense. Rollo was concerned. He had been listening outside the library door yesterday, when Margery was beaten by their father, and he agreed with his mother that punishment just made Margery more obstinate.

He did not want his sister to marry Ned. Rollo had always disliked Ned, but that was the least of it. More importantly, the Willards were soft on Protestantism. Edmund Willard had been quite content when King Henry turned against the Catholic Church. Admittedly, he had not seemed very troubled when Queen Mary reversed the process – but that, too, offended Rollo. He could not bear people who took religion lightly. The authority of the Church should be everything to them.

Almost as importantly, marriage with Ned Willard would do nothing for the prestige of the Fitzgeralds: it would merely be an alliance between two prosperous commercial families. However, Bart Shiring would take them into the ranks of the nobility. To Rollo, the prestige of the Fitzgerald family mattered more than anything except the will of God.

The dancing finished, and the earl’s staff brought in boards and trestles to make a T-shaped table, the crosspiece at one end and the tail stretching the full length of the room; then they began to lay the table. They went about their work in a somewhat careless spirit, Rollo thought, tossing pottery cups and loaves of bread onto the white tablecloth haphazardly. That would be because there was no woman in charge of the household: the countess had died two years ago, and Swithin had not yet remarried.

A servant spoke to Rollo. ‘Your father summons you, Master Fitzgerald. He’s in the earl’s parlour.’

The man led Rollo into a side room with a writing table and a shelf of ledgers, evidently the place where Earl Swithin conducted business.

Swithin sat on a huge chair that was almost a throne. He was tall and handsome, like Bart, though many years of eating well and drinking plenty had thickened his waist and reddened his nose. Four years ago he had lost most of the fingers of his left hand in the battle of Hartley Wood. He made no attempt to conceal the deficiency – in fact, he seemed proud of his wound.

Rollo’s father, Sir Reginald, sat next to Swithin, lean and freckled, a leopard beside a bear.

Bart Shiring was there, too, and to Rollo’s consternation so were Alice and Ned Willard.

William Cecil was on a low stool in front of the six local people but, despite the symbolism of the seating, it looked to Rollo as if Cecil was in charge of the meeting.

Reginald said to Cecil: ‘You won’t mind my son joining us? He has been to Oxford University, and studied law at the Inns of Court in London.’

‘I’m glad to have the younger generation here,’ Cecil said amiably. ‘I include my own son in meetings, even though he’s only sixteen – the earlier they begin, the faster they learn.’

Studying Cecil, Rollo noticed that there were three warts on his right cheek, and his brown beard was beginning to turn grey. He had been a powerful courtier during the reign of Edward VI, while still in his twenties, and although he was not yet forty years old he had an air of confident wisdom that might have belonged to a much older man.

Earl Swithin shifted impatiently. ‘I have a hundred guests in the hall, Sir William. You’d better tell me what you have to say that is important enough to take me away from my own party.’

‘At once, my lord,’ Cecil said. ‘The queen is not pregnant.’

Rollo let out a grunt of surprise and dismay.

Queen Mary and King Felipe were desperate for heirs to their two crowns, England and Spain. But they spent hardly any time together, being so busy ruling their widely separated kingdoms. So there had been rejoicing in both countries when Mary had announced that she was expecting a baby next March. Obviously something had gone wrong.

Rollo’s father, Sir Reginald, said grimly: ‘This has happened before.’

Cecil nodded. ‘It is her second false pregnancy.’

Swithin looked bewildered. ‘False?’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’

‘There has been no miscarriage,’ Cecil said solemnly.

Reginald explained: ‘She wants a baby so badly, she convinces herself that she’s expecting when she’s not.’

‘I see,’ said Swithin. ‘Female stupidity.’

Alice Willard gave a contemptuous snort at this remark, but Swithin was oblivious.

Cecil said: ‘We must now face the likelihood that our queen will never give birth to a child.’

Rollo’s mind was awhirl with the consequences. The longed-for child of the ultra-Catholic Queen Mary and the equally devout King of Spain would have been raised strictly Catholic, and could have been relied upon to favour families such as the Fitzgeralds. But if Mary should die without an heir, all bets were off.

Cecil had figured this out long ago, Rollo assumed. Cecil said: ‘The transition to a new monarch is a time of danger for any country.’

Rollo had to suppress a feeling of panic. England could return to Protestantism – and everything the Fitzgerald family had achieved in the last five years could be wiped out.

‘I want to plan for a smooth succession, with no bloodshed,’ Cecil said in a tone of reasonableness. ‘I’m here to speak to you three powerful provincial leaders – the earl of the county, the mayor of Kingsbridge, and the town’s leading merchant – and to ask you to help me.’

He sounded deceptively like a diligent servant making careful plans, but Rollo could already see that he was, in fact, a dangerous revolutionary.

Swithin said: ‘And how would we help you?’

‘By pledging support for my mistress, Elizabeth.’

Swithin said challengingly: ‘You assume that Elizabeth is heir to the throne?’

‘Henry the Eighth left three children,’ Cecil said pedantically, stating the obvious. ‘His son, Edward the Sixth, the boy king, died before he could produce an heir, so Henry’s elder daughter, Mary Tudor, became queen. The logic is inescapable. If Queen Mary dies childless, as King Edward did, the next in line to the throne is clearly Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth Tudor.’

Rollo decided it was time to speak. This dangerous nonsense could not be allowed to pass unchallenged, and he was the only lawyer in the room. He tried to speak as quietly and as rationally as Cecil but, despite the effort, he could hear the note of alarm in his own voice. ‘Elizabeth is illegitimate!’ he said. ‘Henry was never truly married to her mother. His divorce from his previous wife was disallowed by the Pope.’

Swithin added: ‘Bastards cannot inherit property or titles – everyone knows that.’

Rollo winced. Calling Elizabeth a bastard was unnecessary rudeness to her counsellor. Coarse manners were typical of Swithin, unfortunately. But it was rash, Rollo felt, to antagonize the self-possessed Cecil. The man might be out of favour, but still he had an air of quiet potency.

Cecil overlooked the incivility. ‘The divorce was ratified by the English parliament,’ he said with polite insistence.

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