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The Mirror and the Light (Corpus Christi | Part 2)

He has nothing against Francis, personally. It is only out of a sort of affection that he calls him the Vicar of Hell. And it nettles him, that men are applying for his offices even before he is dead. He writes him a letter to encourage him to live, and he asks Dr Layton to send him some of the excellent pears he grows at his rectory at Harrow-on-the-Hill.

Mr Wriothesley, passing through Antwerp, carries a letter to Jenneke. He is unsurprised when he receives no reply: if she perceives a risk she should not take it. He thinks of her; he sees her sitting under the tapestry where her mother is in the weave; he sees her bold and bright on the page, when Anselma is a faded text. Her visit marks her place in the book of his life – a book which falls back into loose leaves. Printers can read as if through a mirror. It is their trade. Their fingers are nimble and their eye keen. But examine any book and you will see that some characters are upside down, some transposed.

November: the feasts of All Souls and All Saints. In the last few days William Fitzwilliam has been six times to the Tower to see Geoffrey Pole. Fitzwilliam has not hurt him, though he has mentioned the possibility of doing so. After the first interrogation, having somehow obtained a blade, the prisoner stabbed himself in the chest.

Nephew Richard goes to see the prisoner. He adds his persuasions to Fitzwilliam’s. Just tell us everything, he says to Geoffrey; it couldn’t be simpler. Open your heart, and throw yourself on the king’s mercy. Do it before my uncle gets here.

Finally he, Lord Cromwell, arrives himself. ‘How is Geoffrey today?’

The gaoler Martin says, ‘Well enough. For a man with a hole in him.’

They had brought in surgeons, who declared it a small hole, and that in a week you would hardly see the mark. They had brought Geoffrey’s wife, Lady Constance. After the visit she left by boat, tear-streaked and panic-stricken, exclaiming that Geoffrey would ruin his whole family. Fitzwilliam said, ‘We should bring Constance before the council, she clearly knows a good deal. But my lord Privy Seal should talk to her first, he always makes progress with the ladies.’

Geoffrey has been cleanly kept these weeks. No one has insulted him, or spoken to him less than deferentially. But since his interrogations began, he has been taken lower, and his chamber smells stale. He has not been eating, his eyes are hollow. Seeing his visitor, he struggles up from his bed. Good manners, or alarm? ‘Cromwell,’ he says.

‘I hear you punctured yourself.’ He shakes his head. ‘Dear God, Geoffrey, what were you thinking? Do you need to lie down again, or can you sit?’

Geoffrey looks at his stool dubiously, as if it might be a trick. Martin assists him to it.

‘Fitzwilliam has been here,’ Geoffrey says. ‘With fifty-nine questions. Who would put fifty-nine questions? Why not sixty, I ask myself. He had a pattern drawn on his paper, and he made to write between the lines. I said to myself, this is some device of Cromwell’s.’

It seems the grid on the paper has filled the prisoner with dread. It makes no more sense to him than a heptagram or other figure drawn by a magician. ‘It’s only to help the clerks,’ he says. He sits down opposite Geoffrey, drawing his coat about him. ‘It helps them record the dates and places and who was present when treason was spoken, or some treasonable act set in train. It is a help to us when the conspiracy is a big one. Especially when many of the wretches are related to each other and have similar names. You remember the Holy Maid? We used a device of that sort, when we questioned her.’

‘The woman Barton? You harp on that still? Barton is hanged.’

It is Geoffrey’s first flash of spirit; his hands tremble on the tabletop.

‘Yes, she is good and dead,’ he says. ‘A poor simple country girl, who would never have thought of treason if the monks at Canterbury had not corrupted her. She forecast the king’s death, and the death of his queen that was then. She foretold my death too. We were all dying and damned, she said – myself, my little nieces, the maid who brought her dinner when she lodged with me, and the spaniel who lay on her feet at night and kept them warm.’

‘You lodged her?’ Geoffrey is shocked. ‘I did not know that. What did you do to her?’

He leans forward. ‘Your family are lucky you were not all hanged with her. You were mired in Barton’s schemes up to your necks, you and the Courtenays both. The king was merciful because he respected your ancient blood. But you know what I think of it. I respect it no more than I do your dung.’ He looks up. ‘Martin, I want two candles please.’

It is a fine afternoon, and though the window is small, there is a wan silver light outside. Geoffrey starts in his skin: ‘Jesu, do not burn me!’

‘Beeswax, Martin,’ he says. ‘A small size.’

Tallow would do, to burn a man. As the thought penetrates, he sees Geoffrey’s shoulders ease. He says, ‘I thought you and I understood each other.’

‘Who can understand you, Cromwell?’

‘I have been feeing you for years. And now I find you have wasted my substance. I paid you to watch your family and yet you appear to know nothing of their dealings. Is it negligence, or lack of capacity, or do you play me false?’ When the man does not answer he says, ‘Call it question sixty.’

Martin brings the candles and a pricket stand. ‘Geoffrey,’ he says, ‘the French merchants have a custom they call the vente à la bougie. Suppose you have something to sell. It may be bales of wool, it may be a book, it may be a castle. All interested parties gather, there is some discussion, perhaps a glass of wine, and then the bidding begins, and lasts while the first candle burns. Martin, will you light one?’

‘I know nothing of this practice,’ Geoffrey says. ‘I have never heard of it.’

‘That is why I am explaining it to you. When the first candle is burned down, the bidding ceases. But then, who wants to make a hasty bargain? Buyer or seller, a man needs thinking time. A second candle is lit. There may be higher bids. When the second candle goes out the deal is done.’

A grating laugh. ‘Do they not know their minds, these merchant friends of yours?’

‘Oh, they are not my friends,’ he says innocently. ‘They are just divers Frenchmen, I don’t know them personally. But I know how it works. The second candle tends to drive the bids up. A man thinks, I have put my best offer on the table … but regret overcomes him, as he sees his chances melt away. He searches his pockets, taps his friends for a loan – he finds that his best offer is far better than he thought. Now, you have offered us a few scant pence. I think you are good for a thousand pounds. Dig into your resources, and find what you have that will persuade me.’

‘What do I get?’ Geoffrey says.

‘Caveat emptor,’ he says. ‘This is the good part. You have to bid blind.’

He has a satchel of paperwork with him. While the candle is wasting and Geoffrey is sweating, he takes out a bundle and lays it on the table. Martin comes in and out with ink and sand and each time the gaoler goes out of the room Geoffrey follows him with his eyes, as if Martin’s presence offered him some protection. ‘Forgive me,’ he says to Geoffrey, ‘if I make use of the time. There is a letter here I must attend to, from Bishop Latimer. He is at Hailes Abbey, finding out one of their frauds. It is what they call the Holy Blood.’

Geoffrey Pole’s hand twitches. At the mention of this very sacred residue, he wants to cross himself. But he does not think it would be wise.

‘Latimer says it’s some sort of gum. But if shown the coins of simple folk, it becomes liquid.’ He returns to Hugh’s letter. ‘Don’t hesitate to interrupt me when you are ready to bid.’

The next paper in his bundle should properly go to Richard Riche at the Court of Augmentations, as it relates to the surrender of the nunnery at Malling. But pinned to it is a note to him, from the abbess in her own hand. She is Margaret Vernon, Gregory’s old tutor: she who so tenderly taught him to write his name and say his Ave. I’m coming to see you, she writes. I’m coming Friday. I can’t travel up from Kent in one day. I’m getting old. I’ll have to stop with you overnight.

‘Martin,’ he says, ‘I feel in my bones that my friend will soon make me an offer. Bring my lord Southampton’s interrogatories. So they are ready to my hand.’

‘Southampton.’ Geoffrey invests it with a sneer. ‘It put him out of countenance, when I called him by his plain name Fitzwilliam.’

‘I understand that. If I were made an earl, I would expect you to address me as one.’

‘You?’ Geoffrey laughs. ‘That were a world where fishes walk.’

‘And trees sing,’ he agrees. ‘I shall put questions now. You will offer answers. I shall see if I can accept them.’

‘You have no proof,’ Pole bursts out. ‘All you allege is words, words, words. But you cannot prove any of them were ever spoken.’

‘I have letters.’

‘My brother burns his letters.’

‘Your brother Montague? I wonder why? A heap of ashes may be eloquent.’

It is now late in the afternoon. He glances through Fitzwilliam’s notes, and allows a silence to blossom. He feels Pole watching him. The first candle is spent and Martin, glancing at him for permission, kindles the second from its stub. ‘This is what they call le dernier feu. While the light lasts, I am accepting bids.’

‘I will not play your game.’

‘It is a serious transaction, I assure you. I am still in the market. Help me fill in the grid. Part of it is done but you will see,’ he holds the paper up, ‘there are spaces. If between us we can complete it, I will offer you your life. It will be on my terms, not yours, but still it will be your life. You may live quiet. Away from the court. I am not a hard man. You will have a competence. Enough to live as a gentleman.’

Let Pole wrestle with that. He picks up Margaret Vernon’s letter. She wishes to strike a bargain. Let me sell off one of the abbey manors, I’ll pay the sisters their pensions out of it yearly, and settle up with the servants. What’s left will be my portion for life. Enough for a woman on her own. I know people who will give me a home.

He thinks, I do not seem able to help women. Dorothea. My daughter. Lady Rochford. They present me with their pain and longing. They tell me they are lost and confused and fatherless and out of hope. I give them money. Or in the case of the king’s daughter, a horse, a jewel, a piece of advice.

The sun has slid away. Le dernier feu burns orange. ‘Speak to me, Geoffrey. When the last fire is done we will be in the dark. Then I will break your legs. And that will be just the start of it.’

Pole leaps up from his stool. A jolt rocks the table and the draught he makes causes the flame to buckle. He, the Lord Privy Seal, reaches out, closes a hand round the candlestick; it is a cheap thing, tarnished pewter. ‘Steady!’ he says. ‘Do not shorten your time. You may still trade. No? Then will you fetch the frame, Martin?’

‘The frame?’ Geoffrey says. ‘What is that?’

‘It is a sort of vice, in which we clamp the limb to be broken.’

Martin, uncertain, does not move. ‘I am sure, sir,’ he says to Pole, ‘you would not want my lord to go to that trouble.’

‘Observe the candle,’ he suggests.

‘Mother Mary protect me,’ Pole says.

‘She will not.’ His tone is bored. Outside the moon is rising. His mind keeps straying back to Margaret and her letter. ‘Do you know,’ he says to Geoffrey, ‘I’m weary of this. Fetch the mallets as well, Martin.’

He settles back to his papers. What Margaret Vernon asks is unusual but not unreasonable. Her terms are precise – she is a woman who knows some law – and her figures look sound at first glance. Geoffrey on his stool is trying to make himself narrow. His shoulders are drawn up, his eyes closed. If you laid your hand on him you would feel every pulse in his body jumping.

Martin comes in. ‘Is this what you require, sir? The frame is on its way.’

He had imagined a wooden-headed mallet, short-handled, for tapping in the wedges to hold the limb rigid. What Martin has brought is another kind of instrument, a weapon not a tool, with a handle three foot long. ‘That would smash the head of a Scot,’ he says admiringly. He stands up and takes it from Martin. ‘Just the one? It will do for now.’

The weapon’s head is solid and cold against his palm. He tests the weight of the whole, holding it away from him, at a right angle to the stone flags. Then he drops his arm and swings the hammer, experimentally. He likes the sensation. The pleasant sway of the body; the moment of balance, control, then the growing impulsion, the motion from the heels up. It takes you beyond yourself, into a pleasant giddiness, such as you might feel with a woman: a lightness, when you reach the point of no return.

The noise when the hammer hits the wall is enough to wake the dead. It knocks Geoffrey’s stool from under him, jerks him to his feet. ‘Jesus!’

While the light is still quivering, while their ears are still ringing, he says, ‘We can start without the frames. Perhaps they are in use elsewhere. Martin, will you gather up those papers? They are the king’s affairs, and I would not want blood on them.’ With his right hand he grips the hammer and with his left he pinches out the candle.

Later, outside, Martin leans against the wall, shaky. ‘You said, fetch the frame. I thought, Mother Mary, what does he mean, I don’t know any frame.’

‘There are such things. I have seen them. Not here. In other prisons.’

‘I can imagine them,’ Martin says.

‘So could Geoffrey.’

In the room behind them the prisoner weeps. There is no damage, not even a scrape to his shins. ‘But would you do it?’ Martin says.

There is little light: only one torch burning in its bracket. Somewhere a drip of water, actively corroding stone. It is the smell of these places that is the worst, the enclosed, stale air, the metallic tang of fresh blood, the sour reek of piss. ‘I mean,’ Martin says, ‘could you smash a man’s limbs, then go home to your supper and your family?’

‘I haven’t a family.’

‘No,’ Martin says. ‘Begging your pardon. I know you haven’t.’

‘Although,’ he says, remembering, ‘I am a grandfather now.’

‘I’ve seen people hung up,’ Martin says.

‘Sooner or later, you see everything.’ He feels a weight in his chest; it is dull, the shape of the hammer head. He wishes he were back in time, before Geoffrey started to talk. He wants to swing the hammer again. The head was large and it diffused the impact, so it barely jarred.

‘When they’re hung by their wrists their own weight does it,’ Martin says. ‘You might say, they torment themselves.’

The manacles get you a result within twenty minutes. The cold sweat starts out of the man as if from a faucet. If you’re short of time you can hang weights on his feet. You’re across the room, your pen poised, when he breaks; no point being awash in other people’s body fluids. Once you’ve taken down the first, virgin words of his confession, words that are green and sweet, the gaolers come and swab the snot, the tears, the loose stools that creep down his legs.

‘There is a rack.’ Martin indicates with his head. ‘It is used. I’ve been in earshot.’

It is a nice question. Do you let the fellow scream? Some men who are used to the work say it is the prisoner’s own wails that drive up the terror and make him speak. Others feel it’s not worthwhile, for it agitates those who overhear; there are always clerks on hand, or gentlemen councillors, who may be sickened by the racket. In these cases, some means may be used, short of suffocating the prisoner, to stifle the noise. He says, ‘The Spanish, when they burn what they call a heretic, they parade the poor soul through the streets. They sheet him in white, and shave his head and sometimes his eyebrows, so that he looks more like a puppet than a human.They put a taper in his hand, as if he were lighting the fire for himself. They promenade him across the cobbles with his feet bleeding and papers pinned to him proclaiming his heresy, and the monks process behind him with their silver crosses and their psalms. And the people line the streets to see it, the market squares. But when the whole city has viewed the spectacle, they burn him in private in some prison yard, with a gag in his mouth.’

‘You have been in Spain, sir?’

‘No, but Thomas Wyatt has told me, and when Wyatt tells you, it is as good as witnessing.’

Martin looks respectful. ‘If your lordship recalls, I had the privilege to serve Master Wyatt when he was last in ward. Generous and open-handed.’

‘Generous to a fault,’ he says. ‘Look, do not let Geoffrey injure himself again. Turn his clothes inside out and make sure he has not so much as a pin. He will give us no trouble now. The king will not inflict pains on any man from a noble house. I cannot think it has ever been done, not in his reign. But can they rely on that? The king has done a number of things that have never been done before.’

‘He has not done the dungeon work,’ Martin says.

Or mopped the floor afterwards. Or, on the execution ground, shaken adherent flesh from chains. He asks, ‘What persuaded you into this trade?’

‘A man must get a living.’

‘You could have been an honest farmer.’

‘And kill pigs?’

Sow seed, that’s what he was thinking. Harvest the grain. There is a pure, clean world, where men subsist on milk and apples, and bread so white and soft it is like eating light. He says, ‘William Fitzwilliam is on his way. And Richard Riche, and Richard my nephew. Now Geoffrey is babbling, they will be able to fill in the grid. And we can do as we like hereafter with his kin. A good day’s work, I call it.’ And all from smashing a mallet against a wall. ‘When they’re done, take Geoffrey upstairs. Give him his supper, if he can eat it. Cut up his meat for him.’

Martin looks chastened. ‘When we took his knife away, he threatened to hang himself from a beam.’

‘I am not afraid of that.’ It would take a resolution he doubts Geoffrey could summon. ‘Still, if he does, it is no great matter. Though it must be clear it is by his own hand.’

‘Do you want me to give him a rope?’

‘I wouldn’t go that far.’

Soon reinforcements arrive, with a brace of clerks carrying ink-horn and paper. ‘You boys stay out in the fresh air,’ he tells the clerks. ‘Or do you follow Martin here, he will get you some ale. Richard Riche will write for us, won’t you? I have another sixty-two questions for Geoffrey. If we get tired we’ll whistle for you.’

The clerks look grateful. He watches them out of the passage and waits till they mount the twisting stair. He says, ‘Geoffrey will talk around the point. He will blizzard you with “I swear it was October but it could have been March,” and “I believe it was in Sussex or else it was in Yorkshire,” and “It might have been my mother or it might have been the Wife of Bath.” Nail him down on threats to the king himself – threatening his councillors, that is no news, we know his brother Montague hates us. Chapuys is one of the chief doers in their plots, and that is no news either. But I think the King of France is deeper in this than a brother monarch should be.’

‘If François invaded,’ Richard Cromwell says, ‘I believe he would put the King of Scots on our throne.’

‘Yes. But Exeter’s people don’t know that. Or the Poles. They have such pride of their persons. They think they will all be kings.’

‘I fear we lack proof against Exeter,’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘He is a cautious man, he destroys his traces. Geoffrey will give us enough on his own family, but –’

‘But it will stretch,’ Riche says. ‘They are known confederates, the two houses.’

‘You recall I have a woman with the Courtenays,’ he says.

Riche says, ‘What, some laundrymaid?’

Fitz laughs: ‘Leave Cromwell to his devices.’

Riche says, ‘I do not see how the Lady Mary can be left out of it this time. Surely, if they were planning to make use of her, she cannot be ignorant of that?’

‘That were great pity,’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘To see a princess destroyed, on suspicion.’

He says, ‘They abuse her trust. She would never strike down her own father.’

‘We have been here before,’ Riche says. ‘You are too lenient. You do not see her nature, sir.’

‘What did you do to Geoffrey?’ Fitzwilliam asks.

He bundles his papers under his arm. They are strung with twine, Margaret Vernon’s note with the rest. He had run her figures in his head, while Pole was confessing. ‘I made a noise,’ he says.

He thinks, I took up residence in the pit of his stomach. What do I ever do?

A week on, he will hear what the people of London are saying: that Gregory Pole was tortured at the Tower: that he was strapped to a grid, and it was heated, so he was grilled like St Lawrence the martyr. That Thomas Cromwell did it all.

He is shocked when he sees Margaret Vernon. It is disconcerting to see her dressed like a burgess’s wife, although he himself has recommended nuns lay aside their habits. Fashion is shifting. Women are showing their hair again. Margaret’s is silver. He asks her, ‘What colour was it before?’

‘No especial colour. Mouse.’

They are at Austin Friars in the parlour. She has been waiting for him. He feels he should have changed his own clothes. He feels there might be blood on them, though no blood has been shed at the Tower. Geoffrey has admitted he planned to go abroad, with a band of men to join his brother Reginald. He speaks of confederacies in closets and in garden arbours, plots over supper and after Mass. He reports dubious talk overheard: from Thomas More’s family, from Bishop Stokesley. The ripples spread wider, wider with each whispered phrase. Signing off his statement for the day, he begs the king’s mercy. At the foot of the page he scribbles, Geoffrey Pole your humble slave.

Margaret says, ‘You are stouter, Thomas. You look as if you don’t get any fresh air.’

‘Sometimes I try to get out with my falcons,’ he says. ‘But the king might call me back at any time. The Venetians, you know, they draw a line on their ships to see that they don’t overload them. I have no load line. Or none that the king can see.’

‘You don’t have enough help? All these boys …’

He thinks, no one can help. It’s just Henry and Cromwell, Cromwell and Henry. ‘Once I took Michaelmas Day off, because it is a lawyers’ holiday, but the king objected. His reasoning is, he doesn’t get a day off, every day he has to rule. I say, but Majesty, you are divinely anointed, you are granted a special grace that means you are never tired. He says, it’s thirty years since I was crowned. It must have run out.’

‘You ought to have a wife.’

‘Well, get me one. If you know a comfortable woman, send her my way. I do not want for fortune so she need not bring a penny, she needs no great wit and she need not be young. All I stipulate is that she not be a papist, and subvert my household.’

Margaret laughs. ‘What a pity, because soon there will be a pack of young women turned out of their cloister, but I fear some of them cleave to Rome. Not I. I took my oath to the king and meant it.’

He says, ‘I think the king will not allow a woman to marry, if she has been a nun. Not if she was sworn and professed.’

‘So where would he have my sisters live? Southwark, in the stews?’

He wants to beg her, don’t be angry. Angry people fill my life. ‘You should go and see Gregory. If you want a home, he would welcome you. I am sure he would be pleased for you to teach his son as you taught him.’

She shakes her head. ‘I shall set up housekeeping with some of my sisters. We shall be unruly women, with no master.’

‘You will give scandal,’ he says.

‘We are too old for it. Folk will pity us, and leave apples on our doorstep. They will come to us for poultices and lucky charms. All the same,’ her face softens, ‘I should like to see my little boy.’

‘My wife – Elizabeth – she used to be jealous of you.’

Margaret says calmly, ‘There was no need.’

He thinks, if it could be held that Katherine of Aragon was no wife, if it could be held that Anne Boleyn was no wife, might it not be discovered that Margaret Vernon was no nun? Could we not find an error in the paperwork? Then she would be free.

But what’s the point? he thinks. She would die and leave me. Or I would die and leave her. It’s not worth it. Nobody’s worth it.

In the first week of November he arrests Lord Montague and the Marquis of Exeter. He detains Constance, Geoffrey’s wife, and Gertrude, the marchioness, and some other of the king’s old friends. He sends Fitzwilliam down to Margaret Pole at her castle in Sussex. Keep at it, he says: question her day and night if you have to.

But Fitz gets nothing from the countess. Her answers, he says, are earnest, vehement and precise. She denies any wrongdoing or intent to do wrong. When Fitzwilliam calls her son Reginald an ingrate bastard, she says, not a bastard, no: I was ever true to my lord husband, I was a wife beyond reproach.

She admits that when she knew Reginald had evaded harm, she expressed relief: she is his mother, after all. Yes, she knows that he despises her for keeping faith with the Tudors. Does she know he has said he will tread her under his feet? She purses her lips. ‘I know, and must abide it.’

Fitzwilliam tells Margaret Pole to pack her bags. He means to bring her on a litter to his own house at Cowdray. When he tells her that her household goods are to be inventoried, she knows her long run of good fortune is over; the wheel has turned, and she is going down. For the first time, Fitz says, dismay shows on her face. But that is nothing to the dismay on the face of Lady Fitzwilliam, when he tells her the Countess of Salisbury will be living with them, for how long no one knows.

He himself, at the Tower, questions Margaret’s eldest son. Detached, disdainful, Montague often declines to reply. ‘My lord, witnesses have heard you say you never liked the king, not from boyhood.’

Montague shrugs: as if to say, that is my privilege.

‘False reports have come out of your household, that parish churches are to be pulled down. You know there is no rumour more calculated to bring simple people out under arms. Why did you not intervene?’

‘It is hard to stop rumours,’ Montague says. ‘If you can do it, let me know your method. I assure you, it was not I who started them.’

‘Did you say …’ he consults his papers, ‘… that the king killed his first wife by unkindness? That he next married a harlot? That he bred a bastard?’

‘Women’s things.’

‘Did you say the Turk is a better Christian than the king?’

‘Did Geoffrey tell you that?’ Montague laughs.

He presses on: has Montague conferred with Lord Exeter, as to how many men they can raise between them? Has he said it is not enough to kill the king’s councillors, one must also aim at their head? And is this not plain treason?

‘I suppose it would be,’ Montague says.

He goes to the Marquis of Exeter. He has fewer cards in his hand, and Exeter knows it. But both the Poles and the Courtenays, in recent years, have dismissed any servants they suspected of favouring the new learning, or of Bible reading. They have dug, therefore, a deep well of resentment on which he may draw. It takes just a little time to fetch up the bucket.

He says, ‘Lord Exeter, you have been in company where the king has been called a beast.’

Exeter sighs. ‘Is this the best poor Geoffrey can do?’

‘You have said, the king and Cromwell are alike, they disdain the whole realm to get what they want.’

Exeter rolls his eyes.

‘Have you not said, “All the king’s pretensed authority cannot cure his sore leg”? Have you not said, “His leg will kill him one day”? Have you not said, “When Henry dies, then goodnight Master Cromwell”?’

Exeter makes no reply.

‘Have you not said, “We may have a prince but he will soon be dead, the whole Tudor line is accursed”?’

Exeter bridles: ‘I do not deal in curses.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘Women’s things. Perhaps your wife does?’

Richard Cromwell steps in. Has Lord Exeter not taken abbey lands?

Yes.

Accepted them of his own free will?

Yes.

Excused himself, saying God will forgive him, as they will all be restored to the monks one day?

Silence.

‘How could that be?’ Richard asks.

‘By a reversal of policy,’ Exeter says. ‘The king might repent.’

‘Or join again with Rome?’

‘You cannot rule it out.’

He smashes his hand down on the table. ‘Believe me, I can.’

He talks to Gertrude, Exeter’s wife. She is the man of the household, a bold and enterprising woman, constantly seeking to advance the family she has married into. Her stepmother was Spanish, one of Katherine’s ladies; no wonder she is drawn, he observes, to the company of the Emperor’s ambassador, Chapuys. No wonder they confide in each other.

It is hard to abash Gertrude. He has let her go free before, so she thinks he is soft-hearted. ‘I beg the king to stay his hand,’ he tells her. ‘God knows, my lady, he has been merciful in your case. Myself, I always hope folk will amend.’ He looks at her, sorrowful. ‘I am often disappointed.’

He walks out. Says to his people, ‘We must lay hold of the child. I mean, Exeter’s son.’

They stare at him. He says, ‘When have you known the king harm a child? But all the same, fetch him.’

Richard Cromwell says, ‘We cannot risk Exeter’s heir being taken out of the country, to gather supporters abroad.’

‘And bring in Montague’s son too,’ he says. ‘Henry Pole is of like age.’

It is a cataclysm. They are down, the great families, falling like skittles when a giant bowls; swept from the shelves like jugs in an earthquake.

Bess Darrell is brought to the Tower. No one raises an eyebrow over it, since all Gertrude’s women are questioned. Bess is her angel self: her golden hair, her eyes of cornflower blue. She gives him facts on paper, letters she has copied. She gives him samples of treason embroidered: the pansy for Pole, the marigold for Mary. But when he has done with her she asks, ‘What now? Must I go back and live amongst these people? What shall I say, when they ask me what I told Cromwell?’

‘Say you told me your dreams.’

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