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The Mirror and the Light (Ascension Day | Part 2)

Within a week he hears that Mr Wriothesley has bribed or frightened one of the cipher clerks, and got the key to Wyatt’s letters. It is Rafe who tells him: sheepish, ashamed of what Call-Me has done. He himself is more amused than angry. Good luck to him, if he can disentangle the Italian schemes. Wyatt says, start fires in the Pope’s backyard. Use your money and your expertise to fan the sparks of conflict between states, then keep Rome busy quenching the blaze. It might work, he thinks. It might just as easily blow back in our faces.

He says to Rafe, ‘In the cardinal’s day, when I was his man of business and Stephen Gardiner was his secretary, I would have opened Stephen’s letters if I could.’

And where I could, I did. And I would still. And I do.

He calls in Hans: ‘Paint the Lady Mary. I need to send her likeness to the Duke of Cleves.’

‘You want this match?’ Hans says.

‘Certainly.’

‘Listen, I do not flatter.’

‘Not in my case, certainly. But you made Thomas More look congenial.’

‘I do not flatter because I dare not. The king relies on me. But if I paint our little shrew faithfully, Wilhelm will take fright. Therefore I cannot see the advantage for me in this commission, or how it could end well.’

‘You would not refuse to paint the king’s daughter, surely? You will find a way, Hans.’

‘People say, when all offers for Mary have failed, she will turn to Cromwell.’

‘That is nonsense.’ He thinks, she hates me: can Hans not see this? ‘You speak as if she is an ancient lady. She is, what, twenty-two, twenty-three?’

‘She looks more. Her prospects oppress her.’ Hans laughs.

It is true it would not be easy for a stranger to guess Mary’s age. Sometimes she looks like a pallid child, sometimes like an old woman. There will be a sweet moment, he thinks, half an hour on some ordinary afternoon, when she looks like herself.

At Greenwich this Easter he watches Mary; he knows the court is watching him, watching her. She has recently bought a hundred pearls, and has spent three hundred pounds on clothes for the feast. In yellow damask and purple taffeta, she plays with the little prince. She takes a hand at cards, plays the virginals, gossips with her ladies, and rides out into the fresh air as the winter relaxes its grip.

When the Courtenays and Poles were arrested, the king had his daughter’s household questioned. She was asked to hand over her letters from Chapuys, and was able to supply a bundle, empty in content; the ambassador had written them specially, at a hint from him, and lent them various dates. If Mary had claimed to have received no letters, the king would have suspected she had burned them. Which he is quite sure she has.

Mary can play such a game as this, needing no explanations. But the week of the beheadings, the king had to send her Dr Butts, who found her so faint she could hardly stand.

She will miss Chapuys, no doubt. But it is spring, and at court her father makes a fuss of her. He, Lord Cromwell, escorts her to watch the tennis play. He says, looking sideways at her, ‘I hear Duke Wilhelm is very handsome.’

‘That does not weigh,’ she says equably.

‘No, but better than the other thing. By the way, do not let people tell you he is a Lutheran.’

The balls whistle across the court. ‘My lord Cromwell,’ she says, ‘I don’t let anybody tell me anything.’

The king’s Easter pieties are as fervent as any papist could wish. Good Friday saw him shuffling to the crucifix on his knees. The German envoys are aghast. If this is what he does at Easter, what will he do on Ascension Day? As Christ rises bodily to Heaven, will your king have himself hoisted on a rope and pulley? Will he bask among the goddesses on his ceiling, till at Whitsuntide he descends in the form of a dove?

He, Lord Cromwell, is planning his own Ascension Day. He has devised a new order of precedence for the realm, to be enacted by Parliament. From now on, it is not your noble and ancient blood that will place you in the hierarchy. It is what job you do for the king. The king’s Vicegerent – that’s him – outranks the bench of bishops. The king’s Secretary, once created a baron, outranks all barons. If the Lord Privy Seal was born a commoner, he can still sit higher than a duke. Christophe says, ‘If all your offices were counted, you should have a ladder on a chair, and a ladder on that, and a throne perched up in the clouds, to look down on Norferk and the foes, and spit on them.’

Thomas Howard does not lose under the new scheme, but he can still grumble about the elevation of others. ‘As for Gardineur,’ Christophe says, ‘who is only a little bishop, he will gnash his teeth right out of his head.’

Under a painted ceiling, under a hard marbled sky, he sits putting together his programme for Parliament. The last of the monasteries will go down and the king will begin to found colleges and cathedrals in their stead. There will be devices for poor relief and the defence of the realm, and a device for unity in religion: what form it will take, he hardly knows, but the king wants it.

His daughter writes at last from Antwerp. Things are difficult here, I might come to England if you will receive me? He writes to her, trust to Stephen Vaughan for help. Though our ambassadors have come home, Vaughan stays in Antwerp as head of the English merchants. He will arrange your passage.

If she comes she will be in danger, and a source of danger too. The king has made it clear that certain sectaries must avoid his realm. He can ask for her discretion. Can he ask her to dissimulate? He has asked it of others. He says to himself, if Cranmer can hide a wife, surely I can hide a daughter. He has many houses, and is always getting more. When you look at him these days you think of Jupiter, planet of increase.

One morning after Easter he wakes with a heavy, aching head, his neck stiff. He cannot eat, goes out on an empty stomach to the council meeting. The king will not preside today. Henry is at his manor house at Oatlands, which he is planning to rebuild. Then perhaps he will go on to Nonsuch, to see what progress Rafe is making.

The council is waiting. He drops his papers at his place. ‘Couldn’t you get on without me?’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘It is more that we dare not.’

‘You are out of humour, my lord Southampton. Is your guest tormenting you? Lady Salisbury cannot be easy. I promise I will take her away to the Tower.’

‘I have been asking you to do that since Christmas. And you need not guess at the cause of my humour. I am not a woman. Ask me and I will tell you.’

Perhaps Fitz is jealous of his new offices? Captain of the Isle of Wight. Constable of Leeds Castle. Or perhaps someone has dropped a word of poison in his ear: Lord Cromwell doubts your commitment to the gospel.

Lord Audley says, ‘Shall we get to the agenda? Letters come from my lord Norfolk –’

He lets Audley thrash through the duke’s latest complaints, while he pins Fitzwilliam with his gaze. You would think Fitz is doing well enough: an earl, and Lord Admiral. Perhaps, he thinks, he is jealous because I have a son I can put into the Parliament. And Fitz has not.

Presently, under his scrutiny, Fitzwilliam grows upset and spills his papers. A little clerk has to fall to his knees and weave around their feet like a cat. Gardiner laughs out loud. He says, ‘Glad to see you merry, Winchester.’

His head is pounding. As the meeting rises, Audley says, ‘Now don’t be late again, my lord. We are the fellowship of the Round Table, you know, and that chair of yours is the Siege Perilous. It stood empty for ten thousand years, till Lord Cromwell came to fill it.’

Next day he cannot get out of bed. He tries to say his prayers, but all he can recall is a sermon Latimer preached, on a hot July day, it would be the summer Anne Boleyn came down. But God will come, God will come, he will not tarry long away. He will come upon such a day as we nothing look for him, and such an hour as we know not. He will come and cut us in pieces.

By the time Dr Butts arrives, he is able to give an account of himself. He has been at the Sadlers’ house, and the children have come out with measles, is it possible …? Old women claim you only have it once.

Butts frowns. ‘If it is the measles we will soon know, but you must stay away from court.’

This infection kills children but he does not think it will kill him. He has his papers brought in. By noon he is working. By next day he is ready to go out, his entourage assembled, his papers in hand. But then he sits down, and does not feel he will get up again. He is transfixed, watching his old enemy emerge from the mist. You would think he would recognise his Italian fever by now. ‘Parliament will be meeting,’ he says, ‘and I must …’ His sentence tails off. Already weakness like tepid water is trickling through his limbs. He hands his papers to Richard. ‘Will you get a message to the king? No – go in person. Ride where he is. Tell him I will see him soon.’

The shivering begins. He has a clerk follow him to his room, and dictates letters until the trembling means he has to clench his jaw: and even then, between spasms, he is able to dictate.

Anne Boleyn used to say to him, ‘You are only ill when you want to be.’ How wrong she was.

In the first access of the fever, it is George Boleyn who is lurking behind the door. There is a noise, low conversation or insects, perhaps a fly banging its head and cannot get out, buzz buzz against the pane. He sees the door is ajar. George will slide through it: perhaps on the bolster, already soaked with sweat, he will lay his blind and weeping head.

The doctors say, ‘You know the procedure, my lord. Bed rest and small beer.’

And the pungent remedies, that never do any good, but when you are lucid and can hold yourself up, you swallow them, because it cheers up the people around you.

‘I want Wriothesley,’ he says, ‘where is he?’

‘He has gone down to Hampshire, sir, to prepare for his election.’

‘Norfolk will be back for the Parliament. He will make speeches. What shall I do?’

‘Sir, this fever was, before parliaments were thought of.’

This fever was before the Bible was written, in English, Latin or Greek. It was before the Table was round, before Troy burned. It destroyed folk before the Flood, and afflicted the first men when they were exiled from paradise. Abel was weak from a bout, and that is how Cain slew him.

His whole body aches. His eyes swim. He hears timbers creaking about him, like the timbers of a ship under sail, and he thinks he is back at Austin Friars, and his wife is still alive. He thinks of himself flying through the hours of darkness, reassembling himself on his bed: as they say the home of the Virgin Mary flew to Italy, and rebuilt itself among people who appreciate it.

But when morning comes and they open the shutter – the light in his eyes like a knife – they say, no, you are still here at St James’s. But anything you want, we can go and fetch it.

He thinks, where did I go? I was travelling all night.

He sits up. ‘Today I shall work.’ One day the fever rages, next it abates, next it rises. Soon he will have gone through the full cycle. He can sit up in a chair, but he has no illusions, he has not seen the worst. If I am going to die, he thinks, there are papers that ought to be destroyed. But then if I live, inconvenience will ensue. Surely death will give me notice. We have met before. He should not be churlish like a stranger.

The doctors say, ‘In extremity, who would you like?’

He stares. ‘Who would I like?’

‘The Bishop of Worcester? The Archbishop of Canterbury?’

‘Oh, I see. A confessor. Not Gardiner. If he saw me on my deathbed he would tip me out of it, so I should die on the floor.’

He goes through his work at double speed. Instructions for Mr Sadler, soon to lead a mission to Scotland. A letter to Wyatt, to say the king has named his replacement. He asks his French secretary to come in. ‘Nothing from Paris today? Letters from Edmund Bonner?’

He signals for a basin and vomits neatly. He stares at what his body has produced. ‘What do we hear of the Venetians?’

The fleet is manoeuvring, was the last information; they are preparing a power against the Turk. The German princes are meeting in Frankfurt: any dispatches?

Sir, they say, we will bring you every letter as soon as it comes in, but you must go back to bed now. Your malady rushes on you fast.

When he was a boy in Putney he used to pick up coins from the mud of the foreshore. They were thin and worn and bore the features of monarchs almost erased. You could not spend the money; it was not even good to clink in your hand. All you could do was put it in a box and wonder about it. If so many coins are washed up, how many does the river conceal, in its channels and deeps? A treasury of princes, squinting up at the hazy light, each with a spoiled single eye, like Francis Bryan. He lifts his head. ‘How is Francis? Is he still alive? I forget.’

‘Oh yes, my lord,’ they say. ‘Sir Francis is still with us, he made a recovery both from his illness and the king’s displeasure. As we trust you will too.’

His displeasure! I am sure I have displeased him, he thinks. Look how he steamed and glared, that day I took a holiday. Look how he pawed the ground and rolled his eyes. This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.

He is not sure if he has spoken aloud. But he knows that he is in his barge, his flag flying. He can feel the river moving beneath, and Bastings conveying him to some further shore. In his fever he thinks Becket is back in his niche above the water at Lambeth Palace. Bastings says, I told you he would return. Man and boy I have been saluting him, my father before me.

Nonsense, he says. Becket is in the cellar locked in a box. If I die, fire my bones from a cannon. I should like to see Gardiner’s face!

Next day he sends courteous messages to the new Frenchman, Marillac. Ambassador Castillon is back home, but the new man has already seen the king at Greenwich. He is uneasy about what has passed while he has been in the grip of his malady; besides, he would like to hear any news from Persia or the east, which the French always get before we do.

On the day when the fever abates, you measure the hours and you live in dread; it is coming, inexorable as nightfall. Shuddering, stricken, he is helped back to bed, just as they are bringing in word that envoys have arrived from Cleves: they are here in London, they are asking for Cromwell right now. He is burning with heat like an armourer’s shop; he is in the forge, he is ash. His father Walter comes in and shouts, you fool of a boy, if you don’t caulk the bellows how am I to get a blaze?

You fool of a father, he shouts back. Don’t you think it’s hot enough?

But once you have been in Italy you can never really get warm. The English sun has half a heart, it flickers and lurks, it sinks when you least expect it: then comes the autumn, the warm and smoky rain.

Once he was at Launde Abbey, in the cardinal’s service. Launde is lush pastureland, it is quiet, only the murmur of bees over the herb garden and the drone of prayer. It is summer, and he sits at ease in an arbour, talking with the brethren. Brother Urban holds a gillyflower. He speaks of the Holy Ghost. Fleecy clouds sail above.

Now he is at Launde in winter. The trees are silver, and a cold sun shines from a clear sky. He is tramping, Brother Thomas Frisby at his side, the snow crunching under his boots, his blood singing in his veins. All around, scattering from the misted eye, the tracks of small birds and animals, cut into white like some code or lost alphabet. God sees them, two black figures under enamelled blue.

Then with a yell, Frisby disappears. In a hollow on his back he thrashes, and he, the cardinal’s man, plunges to the rescue. He shouts and heaves, the world sliding under his feet, and snow flies about him like feathers. Frisby’s shape cuts deep into the white, his habit spread; he stretches out his arms, his feet scrabble for purchase, he grunts, flounders, curses – then he, Thomas, has him on his feet, the monk’s eyes screwed up against the glare, his nose red, his laughter ringing in the air. They embrace, snow sliding from their cloaks; grace seeps through them like aqua vitae, as they haul each other towards the abbey and the sound of bells.

The Prior of Launde is standing over him, with the face of Dr Butts. ‘By the Mass,’ he says, ‘I have never known a living man so chilled.’ Another minute, and he will be a block of ice. He thinks, they will be able to put me in a cellar and chip from me all summer. They can stir me into crushed strawberries with elderberry wine.

He wakes: tentative at first, his hand creeping over the sheets. He is not at Launde at all. They have piled so many blankets on him that he resembles a blockhouse or fortification. I could stop the Turks, he mutters.

He sits up. He signals for a drink. They have lit candles. He thinks, I wonder what happened to Frisby? He cannot be any great age. I will have Launde, when the abbot surrenders it: Launde for myself. I shall go and live there when all this is over. I shall be Lord Cromwell at home. In summer I shall sit in the arbour. In winter I shall walk on the ice.

There is a letter from Melanchthon. There is another from the Duke of Saxony. They come in and say, ‘My lord, Master Gregory is here, ridden hard from Sussex.’

Gregory comes and stands at the foot of his bed. He looks at his father. ‘Christ,’ he says.

He says, ‘Oh, God help us Gregory, don’t tell me I am wasted and wan. It will take more than a bout of this ague to part me from my life. They should not have disturbed you.’

Gregory says, ‘I was coming up anyway. For the Parliament.’

He says, ‘Richard Riche was right. You are too young.’

‘He said that?’ Gregory is amused.

He says, ‘Gregory, after Jane died, you asked me, who will you let the king marry next?’

Our sweet Jane. A tear rolls from his cheek. His folk run about in a panic. ‘My lord is crying!’ Naturally, they have not seen it before.

He wipes the tear away. ‘I have letters out of Germany. My clerks are making translations now. The princes have given their word in our favour. For a marriage into Cleves, for the king. Now bring me, will you, ink and paper?’

‘You are not able,’ his son says.

He says, ‘Gregory, I must use my time. I have less than twenty-four hours.’ Before my bargemaster rows me again, and dips me in the river Styx.

But it is some time till he returns to business: a night, a day, a night. He has gone down to Putney. For some time – now he is fourteen, fifteen – he has been hanging about at the Williamses’ house in Mortlake. His sister Kat has married into these respectable folk, and they say, ‘Young Thomas, he’s a clean biddable lad: writes a fair hand, good with figures, steady around horses, and not too proud to chop firewood or swill out the yard. Anybody would have him apprentice, and be glad of him.’

They talk about him as if they were selling him.

‘Poor little lad,’ a woman says. ‘Walter knocks him about. But then you know what Walter is.’

The Williamses know nothing of the imperatives of your life, as you lead it now. They know nothing of the tangle of Putney feuds, the network of obligations to fight and win that has ensnared you since you could walk: sure as any duke, you have honour, honour must be served. The Williamses are good people, and that protects them from the need that gnaws you: the need for everything you haven’t got and they’ll never want.

The Williamses say, ‘We could get the boy a place. There’s Arthur Whatyoucallit, over Esher way. He wants a lad.’

He cannot bear it, this place he will get. He cannot be Arthur’s lad, over Esher way. He has to be some other lad, that would make Esher quake.

The time he spends with his sister, it gets him out of Walter’s way, but then again it allows the eel boy to arm his band. Since he was seven years old the eel boy has been his enemy. He does not know how the feud began. But he remembers dipping the eel boy’s head in a barrel, holding him under till the bugger nearly drowned.

Now when he goes swaggering home, the eel boy and his friends are waiting. ‘Oy,’ they call. ‘Oy, Put-an-edge-on-it.’

They call him that because Walter grinds knives. They sing when they see him:

‘I lay ten year in Newgate

Methought I lay too long:

My whoreson fetters hurt me sore,

My fetters were too strong.’

They call out, ‘You Irish bastard, that go in a bald dogskin!’

Is Walter Irish? He denies it, but you wouldn’t put it past him.

They shout, ‘You killed your mother when you were born. She couldn’t stand to look at you, out you slid and she cut her throat.’

His sister Kat says, ‘Don’t listen to them. That’s not what occurred.’

He calls back, ‘You devil’s turd, eel boy, are you tired of life?’

Eel boy calls, ‘I’ll dint you, craphead.’

‘When?’ he says.

‘Saturday night?’

‘I’ll skin and salt you, and fry you in a pan.’

So then he has to do it.

Saturday night you chased him uphill. By then you had created a deep fear in his heart, by messages transmitted through acquaintances of yours. If eel boy thinks (and he has had days to think) he will recall that he has lost every bout he has fought with you. He can’t fight history, so he runs, because what else can he do? He could stand on the high road, and offer his hand: but then, Thomas Craphead would slice his fingers off.

If he runs to his uncle’s warehouse, eel boy believes, he’ll escape you. He’ll go charging past the watchman at the gate, who will bustle up and strong-arm you, ‘Crummel, what do you here?’

But there is no watchman tonight, as you well know. When you issued out, Walter and his mates were an hour into strong ale. He’s a beast of a brewer, but he keeps back the best for his crew. And it’s Wilkin the Watch who sticks his face out of the room: ‘Drink with us, Thomas?’

He says, ‘I’m going to church.’

Wilkin retreats, withdraws his slack glistening face. From behind the door, rollicking song: By Cock, ye make me spill my ale …

You walk, under the waning moon. Only when you sight eel boy do you break into a trot, an easy pace that will take you unwinded to your destination. When you enter the yard he is not in sight. But there is no one to stop you following him into the darkness, into the undercroft, where under deep vaulting, behind chests and boxes stamped with the devices of alien cities and their trading guilds, eel boy has burrowed in.

You think of the home you left. You wonder where Walter and his mates have got to with their song. With its refrains and variations they can draw it out an hour or more. Walter likes to take the lass’s part, squealing as she is backed against the wall: Let go I say …

Then the men chorus: Abide awhile! Why have ye haste? and mime pulling their breeches down.

Luckily, when they sing this song, there is never an actual woman in the room.

Down in the cellars your eyes have adjusted to the gloom. You want to laugh. You can hear the rasp of the boy’s breath. You move towards him, and you let him know that you know exactly where he is. ‘You might as well wave a flag,’ you call.

You halt. If you stand longer (and you have the patience) he will begin to cry. Beg.

Let go I say …

And if you stand longer still, he might die of fright: which would save a mess on the floor. You take the knife out. Can he see you? The only light is from a high barred window, and it is not so much light as an alleviation of the murk. Not much point his uncle barring the window, is there, if Wilkin rolls out and leaves the door unlocked? You remark on this. ‘Go on,’ you call, ‘agree with me.’ His breath now sounds like three cats in a sack.

Eel boy was only ever brave with his cousins and brothers about him. ‘Now you shit yourself,’ you tell him: his calm instructor, his guide.

When you move the crate (you are strong, as the Williamses say) you see his face, blank and white as a sheet stretched on a hedge. It must provide its own pallid light, because you look straight into his eyes. You are surprised by his expression. ‘You look glad to see me,’ you say. He steps forward, as if in greeting, and in one smooth unhesitating action, offering his soft belly, he impales himself on the blade.

It’s the sudden heat that shocks you, the contaminating swill across the stone. You bend and pull out the knife. Something comes with it: a loop of his tripes. Your first thought is for the blade. You wipe it on your own jerkin, an efficient action, one-two. You don’t look down: but you feel him at your feet, a lumpen mess. At once you offer a prayer.

You bend down stiffly, like an old man. Perhaps you accede too readily to the idea that he is dead, but you close his eyes, reaching down into the pool of darkness. You do it delicately, as a virgin might finger fruit. If the pool of gore appears modest, it is because his bulk is hiding it. But when you shift him, flopping him over, you see the neatness with which he is pierced.

You cannot guess later what makes you decide to move him. Perhaps you thought he was not dead but pretending. Though what quality of pretence does it take, to let your eyelids be pressed shut?

Later you comprehend nothing of your choices that night. Thomas Craphead was in charge, his arms and legs working independently of his soul. So you dragged eel boy, his red head bumping along, sedate. Your pace is necessarily slow: Abide awhile, why have ye haste? Outside, it is warmer than in the cellar. The street is empty, till you see the watchman, heading home. His walk is the purposeful sway of a man in drink, still hoping to pass as an upright citizen: ask him, and he’ll say he’s swaying like that just for fun. ‘Straight as a …’ the old sot shouts. He has baffled himself; he can’t think what is straight. ‘Put-an-edge-on-it! You’re out late.’

He’s forgotten he saw you earlier. That he invited you to a bench at his song school.

Wilkin blinks: ‘Who’s yon?’

‘Eel boy,’ you say. No point pretending.

‘By Cock, he’s had a skinful! Taking him home? Good lad. Got to look out for your friends. Want a hand?’

Wilkin heaves, and vomits at his own feet. ‘Clean that up,’ you say. ‘Go on, Wilkin, or I’ll rub your head in it.’

Suddenly you are outraged: as if the only thing that matters is to keep the streets clean.

‘Shog off,’ Wilkin says. Glassy-eyed, he lurches away. You watch him go. He is heading in the direction, vaguely, of his place of work. You can’t resist it: you shout after him, ‘Don’t forget to lock up.’

You could, if you had a friend to help you, put the boy in the water. If dead he will sink, if alive he will … sink. It is a still night, there is no sound from the river, and you feel he would slip down the bank, frictionless, unresisting as if oiled, and go into the Thames with a whisper. You can see it: how the surface simply slides away from him, like a bored glance.

But you can’t do that. It’s not compunction. It’s that strength has flowed out of you. You take out your knife from its sheaf. You give it another wipe on your sleeve. Truly, you would not know it had seen action. You put it back. You feel a powerful impulse to lie down beside eel boy and sleep.

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