Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (6 page)

‘Brecknock and I are friends,’ she said. ‘He’s kind to me and I do everything I can to please him. And we have four wonderful children. I am happy.’ She paused, and Margery waited for the answer to her question. At last Susannah said: ‘But I know there is another kind of happiness, the mad ecstasy of adoring someone and being adored in return.’

‘Yes!’ Margery was so glad that Susannah understood.

‘That particular joy is not given to all of us,’ she said solemnly.

‘But it should be!’ Margery could not bear the thought that a person might be denied love.

For a moment, Susannah looked bereft. ‘Perhaps,’ she said quietly. ‘Perhaps.’

Looking over Susannah’s shoulder, Margery saw Ned approaching in his green French doublet. Susannah followed her look. Perceptively she said: ‘Ned Willard is the one you want?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good choice. He’s nice.’

‘He’s wonderful.’

Susannah smiled with a touch of sadness. ‘I hope it works out for you.’

Ned bowed to her, and she acknowledged him with a nod but moved away.

The actors were hanging a curtain across one corner of the room. Margery said to Ned: ‘What do you think that’s for?’

‘They will put on their costumes behind the curtain, I think.’ He lowered his voice. ‘When can we talk? I can’t wait much longer.’

‘The game is about to begin. Just follow me.’

Philbert Cobley’s good-looking clerk, Donal Gloster, was chosen to be hunter. He had wavy dark hair and a sensual face. He did not appeal to Margery – too weak – but several of the girls would be hoping to be found by him, she felt sure.

New Castle was the perfect location for the game. It had more secret places than a rabbit warren. The parts where the new mansion was joined to the old castle were especially rich in odd cupboards, unexpected staircases, niches and irregular-shaped rooms. It was a children’s game and Margery, when young, had wondered why nineteen-year-olds were so keen to join in. Now she understood that the game was an opportunity for adolescents to kiss and cuddle.

Donal closed his eyes and began to say the paternoster in Latin, and all the young people scattered to hide.

Margery already knew where she was going, for she had scouted hidey-holes earlier, to be sure of a private place in which to talk to Ned. She left the hall and raced along a corridor towards the rooms of the old castle, trusting to Ned to follow her. She went through a door at the end of the corridor.

Glancing back, she saw Ned – and, unfortunately, several others. That was a nuisance: she wanted him to herself.

She passed through a small storeroom and ran up a twisting staircase with stone steps, then down a short flight. She could hear the others behind her, but she was now out of their sight. She turned into a passageway she knew to be a dead end. It was lit by a single candle in a wall bracket. Halfway along was a huge fireplace: the medieval bakery, long disused, its chimney demolished in the building of the modern house. Beside it, concealed by a stone buttress, was the door to the enormous oven, virtually invisible in the dimness. Margery slipped into the oven, pulling her skirts behind her. It was surprisingly clean, she had noted when scouting. She pulled the door almost shut and peeped through a crack.

Ned came charging along the passageway, closely followed by Bart, then pretty Ruth Cobley, who probably had her eye on Bart. Margery groaned in frustration. How could she separate Ned from the others?

They dashed past the oven without seeing the door. A moment later, having run into the dead end, they returned in reverse order: Ruth, then Bart, then Ned.

Margery saw her chance.

Bart and Ruth disappeared from view, and Margery said: ‘Ned!’

He stopped and looked around, puzzled.

She pushed open the oven door. ‘In here!’

He did not need to be asked twice. He scrambled in with her and she shut the door.

It was pitch-dark, but they were lying knee to knee and chin to chin, and she could feel the length of his body. He kissed her.

She kissed him back hungrily. Whatever else happened, he still loved her, and for the moment that was all she cared about. She had been afraid that he would forget her in Calais. She thought he would meet French girls who were more sophisticated and exciting than little Marge Fitzgerald from Kingsbridge. But he had not, she could tell, from the way he hugged and kissed and caressed her. Overjoyed, she put her hands on his head and opened her mouth to his tongue and arched her body against his.

He rolled on top of her. At that moment, she would have opened her body to him gladly and let him take her virginity, but something happened. There was a thump, as if his foot had struck something, then a noise that might have been a panel of wood falling to the ground and suddenly she could see the walls of the oven around her.

She and Ned were both sufficiently startled to stop what they were doing and look up. They saw that the back of the oven had fallen away. Clearly it connected with another place that was dimly lit and Margery realized with trepidation that there might be people there who could see what she and Ned were doing. She sat upright and looked through the hole.

There was no one in sight. She saw a wall with an arrow-slit window that was admitting the last of the afternoon light. A small space behind the old oven had simply been closed off by the building of the new house. It led nowhere: the only access was through the oven. On the floor was a panel of wood that must have closed up the hole until Ned kicked it in his excitement. Margery could hear voices, but they came from the courtyard outside. She breathed more easily: they had not been seen.

She crawled through the hole and stood upright in the little space. Ned followed her. They both looked around wonderingly, and Ned said: ‘We could stay here for ever.’

That brought Margery back to reality, and she realized how close she had come to committing a mortal sin. Desire had almost overwhelmed her knowledge of right and wrong. She had had a lucky escape.

Her intention in bringing Ned here had been to speak to him, not kiss him. She said: ‘Ned, they want to make me marry Bart. What are we going to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Ned.

*

S
WITHIN WAS
quite drunk, Rollo saw. The earl was slumped on a big chair opposite the stage, a goblet in his right hand. A young serving girl refilled his glass, and as she did so he grasped her breast with his maimed left hand. She squealed with horror and pulled away, spilling the wine, and Swithin laughed.

An actor came on stage and began a prologue, explaining that in order to tell a story of repentance it was necessary first to show the sin, and apologizing in advance if this should give offence.

Rollo saw his sister Margery come slinking into the room with Ned Willard, and he frowned in disapproval. They had taken advantage of the game of Hunt the Hart to go off together, Rollo realized, and no doubt they had got up to all kinds of mischief.

Rollo did not understand his sister. She took religion very seriously, but she had always been disobedient. How could that be? For Rollo, the essence of religion was submission to authority. That was the trouble with Protestants: they thought they had the right to make up their own minds. But Margery was a devout Catholic.

On stage a character called Infidelity appeared, identifiable by his oversized codpiece. He winked and spoke behind his hand and looked from left to right as if making sure he was not overheard by any other characters. The audience laughed as they recognized an exaggerated version of a type they all knew.

Rollo had been unnerved by the conversation with Sir William Cecil, but now he thought he might have overreacted. Princess Elizabeth probably was a Protestant, but it was too soon to worry about her: after all, Queen Mary Tudor was only forty-one and in good health, apart from the phantom pregnancies – she could reign for decades more.

Mary Magdalene appeared on stage. Clearly this was the saint before her repentance. She sashayed on in a red dress, fussing with her necklace, batting her eyes at Infidelity. Her lips were reddened with some kind of dye.

Rollo was surprised because he had not seen a woman among the actors. Furthermore, although he had not seen a play before, he was pretty sure women were not allowed to act. The company had appeared to consist of four men and a boy of about thirteen. Rollo frowned at Mary Magdalene, puzzled; then it occurred to him that she was the same size and build as the boy.

The truth began to dawn on the audience, and there were murmurs of admiration and surprise. But Rollo also heard low but clear noises of protest and, looking around, he saw that they came from the corner where Philbert Cobley stood with his family. Catholics were relaxed about plays, provided there was a religious message, but some of the ultra-Protestants disapproved. A boy dressed as a woman was just the kind of thing to make them righteously indignant, especially when the female character was acting sexy. They were all stony-faced – with one exception, Rollo noticed: Philbert’s bright young clerk, Donal Gloster, who was laughing as heartily as anyone. Rollo and all the young people in town knew that Donal was in love with Philbert’s fair daughter, Ruth. Rollo guessed that Donal was Protestant only to win Ruth.

On stage, Infidelity took Mary in his arms and gave her a long, lascivious kiss. This caused uproarious laughter, hoots and catcalls, especially from the young men, who had by now figured out that Mary was a boy.

But Philbert Cobley did not see the joke. He was a beefy man, short but wide, with thinning hair and a straggly beard. Now he was red in the face, waving his fist and shouting something that could not be heard. At first no one paid him any attention, but when at last the actors broke the kiss and the laughter died down, people turned to look at the source of the shouting.

Rollo saw Earl Swithin suddenly notice the kerfuffle and look angry. Here comes trouble, Rollo thought.

Philbert stopped shouting, said something to the people around him, and moved towards the door. His family fell in behind him. Donal went along too, but Rollo saw that he looked distinctly disappointed.

Swithin got up from his chair and walked towards them. ‘You stay where you are!’ he roared. ‘I gave no one permission to leave.’

The actors paused and turned to watch what was going on in the audience, a reversal of roles that Rollo found ironic.

Philbert stopped, turned, and shouted back at Swithin: ‘We will not stay in this palace of Sodom!’ Then he continued marching towards the door.

‘You preening Protestant!’ Swithin yelled, and he ran at Philbert.

Swithin’s son, Bart, stepped into his father’s way, holding up a placatory hand, and yelled: ‘Let them go, Father, they’re not worth it.’

Swithin swept him aside with a powerful shove and fell on Philbert. ‘I’ll kill you, by the cross!’ He grabbed him by the throat and began to strangle him. Philbert dropped to his knees and Swithin bent over him, tightening his grip despite his maimed left hand.

Everybody began to shout at once. Several men and women pulled at Swithin’s sleeves, trying to get him away from Philbert, but they were constrained by fear of hurting an earl, even one bent on murder. Rollo stayed back, not caring whether Philbert lived or died.

Ned Willard was the first to act decisively. He hooked his right arm around Swithin’s neck, getting the crook of his elbow under the earl’s chin, and heaved up and back. Swithin could not help but step away and release his hold on Philbert’s neck.

Ned had always been like this, Rollo recalled. Even when he was a cheeky little boy at school he had been a fierce fighter, ready to defy older boys, and Rollo had been obliged to teach him a lesson or two with a bundle of birch twigs. Then Ned had matured and grown those big hands and feet; and, even though he was still shorter than average, bigger boys had learned to respect his fists.

Now Ned released Swithin and smartly stepped away, becoming one of the crowd again. Roaring with fury, Swithin spun around, looking for his assailant, but could not tell who it had been. He might find out, eventually, Rollo guessed, but by then he would be sober.

Philbert got to his feet, rubbing his neck, and staggered to the door unobserved by Swithin.

Bart grabbed his father’s arm. ‘Let’s have another cup of wine and watch the play,’ he said. ‘In a minute Carnal Concupiscence comes on.’

Philbert and his entourage reached the door.

Swithin stared angrily at Bart for a long moment. He seemed to have forgotten whom he was supposed to be mad at.

The Cobleys left the room and the big oak door slammed shut behind them.

Swithin shouted: ‘On with the play!’

The actors resumed.

2

Pierre Aumande made his living by relieving Parisians of their excess cash, a task that became easier on days like today, when they were celebrating.

All Paris was rejoicing. A French army had conquered Calais, taking the city back from the English barbarians who had somehow stolen it two hundred years ago. In every taproom in the capital men were drinking the health of Scarface, the duke of Guise, the great general who had erased the ancient stain on the nation’s pride.

The tavern of St Étienne, in the neighbourhood called Les Halles, was no exception. At one end of the room a small crowd of young men played dice, toasting Scarface every time someone won. By the door was a table of men-at-arms celebrating as if they had taken Calais themselves. In a corner a prostitute had passed out at a table, hair soaking in a puddle of wine.

Such festivities presented golden opportunities to a man such as Pierre.

He was a student at the Sorbonne university. He told his fellows that he got a generous allowance from his parents back home in the Champagne region. In fact, his father gave him nothing. His mother had spent her life-savings on a new outfit of clothes for him to wear to Paris, and now she was penniless. It was assumed that he would support himself by clerical work such as copying legal documents, as many students did. But Pierre’s openhanded spending on the pleasures of the city was paid for by other means. Today he was wearing a fashionable doublet in blue cloth slashed to show the white silk lining beneath: such clothes could not be paid for even by a year of copying documents.

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