Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (8 page)

The cell was cold, and stank like an alehouse privy. A candle in the corridor outside shed a faint light through a barred window in the door. He made out an earth floor and a vaulted ceiling of brick. The only furniture was a chamber pot that had been used but not emptied – hence the smell.

It was amazing how fast his life had turned to shit.

He was here for the night, he assumed. He sat down with his back to the wall. In the morning he would be taken before a judge. He had to think about what he would say. He needed a story to spin to the court. He might still escape serious punishment if he performed well.

But somehow he was too dispirited to dream up a tale. He kept wondering what he would do when this was over. He had enjoyed life as a member of the wealthy set. Losing money betting on dog fights, giving outsize tips to barmaids, buying gloves made from the skins of baby goats – it had all given him a thrill he would never forget. Must he give that up?

The most pleasing thing to him had been the way the others had accepted him. They had no idea that he was a bastard and the son of a bastard. There was no hint of condescension. Indeed, they often called for him on their way to some pleasure outing. If he fell behind the others for some reason, as they walked from one tavern to another in the university quarter, one of them would say: ‘Where’s Aumande?’ and they would stop and wait for him to catch up. Remembering that now, he almost wept.

He pulled his cloak more closely around him. Would he be able to sleep on the cold floor? When he appeared in court he wanted to look as if he might be a
bona fide
member of the Guise family.

The light in his cell brightened. There was a noise in the corridor. The door was unbarred and flung open. ‘On your feet,’ said a coarse voice.

Pierre scrambled up.

Once again his arm was held in a grip hard enough to discourage fantasies of escape.

Gaston Le Pin was outside the door. Pierre summoned up the shreds of his old arrogance. ‘I assume you are releasing me,’ he said. ‘I demand an apology.’

‘Shut your mouth,’ said Le Pin.

He led the way along the corridor to the back stairs, then across the ground floor and up a grand staircase. Pierre was now completely bewildered. He was being treated as a criminal, but taken to the
piano nobile
of the palace like a guest.

Le Pin led the way into a room furnished with a patterned rug, heavy brocade curtains that glowed with colour, and a large painting of a voluptuous naked woman over the fireplace. Two well-dressed men sat on upholstered armchairs, arguing quietly. Between them was a small table with a jug of wine, two goblets, and a dish piled with nuts, dried fruits and small cakes. The men ignored the new arrivals and carried on talking, careless of whether anyone heard.

They were obviously brothers, both well built with fair hair and blond beards. Pierre recognized them. They were the most famous men in France after the king.

One had terrible scars on both cheeks, the marks of a lance that had pierced right through his mouth. The legend said that the spearhead had lodged there, and he had ridden back to his tent and had not even screamed when the surgeon pulled out the blade. This was François, duke of Guise, known as Scarface. He was a few days short of his thirty-ninth birthday.

The younger brother, born on the same day five years later, was Charles, cardinal of Lorraine. He wore the bright red robes of his priestly office. He had been made archbishop of Reims at the age of fourteen, and he now had so many lucrative Church positions that he was one of the richest men in France, with an amazing annual income of three hundred thousand livres.

For years Pierre had daydreamed of meeting these two. They were the most powerful men in the country outside the royal family. In his fantasy they valued him as a counsellor, talked to him almost as an equal, and sought his advice on political, financial and even military decisions.

But now he stood before them as a criminal.

He listened to their conversation. Cardinal Charles said quietly: ‘The king’s prestige has not really recovered from the defeat at St Quentin.’

‘But surely my victory at Calais has helped!’ said Duke François.

Charles shook his head. ‘We won that battle, but we’re losing the war.’

Pierre was fascinated, despite his fear. France had been fighting Spain over who was to rule the kingdom of Naples and other states in the Italian peninsula. England had sided with Spain. France had got Calais back but not the Italian states. It was a poor bargain, but few people would dare to say so openly. The two brothers were supremely confident of their power.

Le Pin took advantage of a pause to say: ‘This is the imposter, my lords,’ and the brothers looked up.

Pierre pulled himself together. He had escaped from awkward situations before, using fast talk and plausible lies. He told himself to regard this problem as an opportunity. If he remained alert and quick-witted he might even gain by the encounter. ‘Good evening, my lords,’ he said in a dignified tone. ‘This is an unexpected honour.’

Le Pin said: ‘Speak when you’re spoken to, shithole.’

Pierre turned to him. ‘Refrain from coarse language in the presence of the cardinal,’ he said. ‘Otherwise I shall see that you’re taught a lesson.’

Le Pin bristled, but hesitated to strike Pierre in front of his masters.

The two brothers exchanged a glance, and Charles raised an amused eyebrow. Pierre had surprised them. Good.

It was the duke who spoke. ‘You pretend to be a member of our family. This is a serious offence.’

‘I humbly beg your forgiveness.’ Before either brother could reply, he went on: ‘My father is the illegitimate son of a dairymaid in Thonnance-lès-Joinville.’ He hated having to tell this story, because it was true, and it shamed him. However, he was desperate. He went on: ‘The family legend is that her lover was a dashing young man from Joinville, a cousin of the Guise family.’

Duke François gave a sceptical grunt. The Guise family seat was at Joinville, in the Champagne region, and Thonnance-lès-Joinville was nearby, as its name implied. But many unmarried mothers put the blame on an aristocratic lover. On the other hand, it was often true.

Pierre went on: ‘My father was educated at the Grammar School and became a local priest, thanks to a recommendation from your lordships’ father, now in heaven, rest his soul.’

This was perfectly believable, Pierre knew. Noble families did not openly acknowledge their bastards, but they often gave them a helping hand, in the casual way that a man might stoop to draw a thorn from the paw of a limping dog.

Duke François said: ‘How can you be the son of a celibate priest?’

‘My mother is his housekeeper.’ Priests were not allowed to marry, but they often took mistresses, and ‘housekeeper’ was the accepted euphemism.

‘So you’re doubly illegitimate!’

Pierre flushed, and his emotion was genuine. He had no need to pretend to be ashamed of his birth. But the duke’s comment also encouraged him. It suggested that his story was being taken seriously.

The duke said: ‘Even if your family myth were true, you would not be entitled to use our name – as you must realize.’

‘I know I did wrong,’ Pierre said. ‘But all my life I have looked up to the Guises. I would give my soul to serve you. I know that your duty is to punish me, but please – use me instead. Give me a task, and I will perform it meticulously, I swear. I will do anything you ask – anything.’

The duke shook his head scornfully. ‘I cannot imagine there is any service you could do for us.’

Pierre despaired. He had put his heart and soul into his speech – and it had failed.

Then Cardinal Charles intervened. ‘As a matter of fact, there might be something.’

Pierre’s heart leaped with hope.

Duke François looked mildly irritated. ‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

The duke made a ‘help yourself’ gesture with his hand.

Cardinal Charles said: ‘There are Protestants in Paris.’

Charles was an ultra-Catholic – which was no surprise, given how much money he made from the Church. And he was right about the Protestants. Even though Paris was a strongly Catholic city, where popular hellfire preachers raged against heresy from the pulpits every Sunday, there existed a minority eager to listen to denunciations of priests who took their Church income and did nothing for their congregations. Some felt strongly enough about Church corruption to take the risk of attending clandestine Protestant services, even though it was a crime.

Pierre pretended to be outraged. ‘Such people should be put to death!’

‘And they will be,’ said Charles. ‘But first we have to find them.’

‘I can do that!’ Pierre said quickly.

‘Also the names of their wives and children, friends and relations.’

‘Several of my fellow students at the Sorbonne have heretical leanings.’

‘Ask where one can buy books and pamphlets dealing with criticism of the Church.’

Selling Protestant literature was a crime punishable by death. ‘I’ll drop hints,’ Pierre said. ‘I’ll pretend to have sincere doubts.’

‘Most of all, I want to know the places where Protestants gather to perform their blasphemous services.’

Pierre frowned, struck by a thought. Presumably the need for such information had not occurred to Charles in the last few minutes. ‘Your Eminence must already have people making such inquiries.’

‘You need not know about them, nor they about you.’

So Pierre would be joining an unknown number of spies. ‘I will be the best of them!’

‘You will be well rewarded if you are.’

Pierre could hardly believe his luck. He was so relieved that he wanted to leave now, before Charles could change his mind; but he had to give an impression of calm confidence. ‘Thank you for placing your trust in me, Cardinal.’

‘Oh, please don’t imagine that I trust you,’ said Charles with careless contempt. ‘But in the task of exterminating heretics, one is obliged to use the tools that come to hand.’

Pierre did not want to leave on that note. He needed to impress the brothers somehow. He recalled the conversation they had been having when he was brought in. Throwing caution to the wind, he said: ‘I agree with what you were saying, Cardinal, about the need to boost the popular reputation of his majesty the king.’

Charles looked as if he did not know whether to be offended or merely amused by Pierre’s effrontery. ‘Do you, indeed?’ he said.

Pierre plunged on. ‘What we need now is a big, lavish, colourful celebration, to make them forget the shame of St Quentin.’

The cardinal gave a slight nod.

Encouraged, Pierre said: ‘Something like a royal wedding.’

The two brothers looked at one another. Duke François said: ‘Do you know, I think the rogue might be right.’

Charles nodded. ‘I’ve known better men who have understood politics less well.’

Pierre was thrilled. ‘Thank you, my lord.’

Then Charles lost interest in him, picked up his wine, and said: ‘You’re dismissed.’

Pierre stepped to the door, then his eye fell on Le Pin. Struck by a thought, he turned back. ‘Your Eminence,’ he said to Charles. ‘When I have the addresses where the Protestants hold their services, should I bring them to you, or hand them to one of your servants?’

The cardinal paused with his goblet at his lips. ‘Strictly to me in person,’ he said. ‘No exceptions. Off you go.’ He drank.

Pierre caught the eye of Le Pin and grinned triumphantly. ‘Thank you, my lord,’ he said, and he went out.

*

S
YLVIE
P
ALOT
had noticed the attractive young man at the fish market the day before. He was not selling fish: he was too well dressed, in a blue doublet slashed to show the white silk lining. Yesterday she had seen him buy some salmon, but he had done so carelessly, without the keen interest of one who was going to eat what he bought. He had smiled at her several times.

She found it difficult not to be pleased.

He was a good-looking man with fair hair and the beginnings of a blond beard. She put his age at twenty, three years older than herself. He had a beguiling air of self-confidence.

She already had one admirer. Among her parents’ acquaintances were the Mauriac family. Father and son were both short, and played up to it by being cheery wisecracking chaps: the father, Luc, was a charmer, and everyone liked him, which might have been why he was so successful as a cargo broker; but the son, Georges, who was Sylvie’s admirer, was a pale imitation, all poor jokes and clumsy sallies. She really needed him to go away for a couple of years and grow up.

Her new admirer at the fish market spoke to her for the first time on a cold morning in January. There was snow on the foreshore of the River Seine, and thin layers of ice formed on the water in the fishmongers’ barrels. Winter-hungry gulls circled overhead, crying in frustration at the sight of so much food. The young man said: ‘How can you tell whether a fish is fresh?’

‘By the eyes,’ she said. ‘If they’re cloudy, the fish is old. The eyes should be clear.’

‘Like yours,’ he said.

She laughed. At least he was witty. Georges Mauriac just said stupid things like
Have you ever been kissed?

‘And pull open the gills,’ she added. ‘They should be pink inside, and wet. Oh, dear.’ Her hand went to her mouth. She had given him the cue for a smutty remark about something else that might be pink inside and wet, and she felt herself blush.

He looked mildly amused, but said only: ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’ She appreciated his tact. He was not like Georges Mauriac, evidently.

He stood beside her while she bought three small trout, her father’s favourite, and paid one sou and six pennies. He stayed with her as she walked away with the fish in her basket.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

‘Pierre Aumande. I know you’re Sylvie Palot.’

She liked straightforward talk, so she said to him: ‘Have you been watching me?’

He hesitated, looked embarrassed, and said: ‘Yes, I suppose I have.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you’re so beautiful.’

Sylvie knew she had a pleasant, open face with clear skin and blue eyes, but she was not sure she was beautiful, so she said: ‘Is that all?’

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