The Mirror and the Light (Light)

28 July 1540

A prisoner thinks of nothing but meals. ‘Christophe, where’s my breakfast? And my water to wash – I cannot meet God in this state.’

Cold sweat. He rubs his hand across his chin. They have been wary of sending him a razor: as you would be.

The boy creeps in with bread and ale. ‘Martin brings cold fowl.’

‘Good. See if you can get anything out of him. About what time I shall go.’ He doesn’t trust Kingston’s schedules. He kept Anne waiting a whole day.

But Martin will not spend many words on this prisoner now; he represents a task near-done. He thinks, I did not know that, when you are dying, no one will look at you. Nor do you want to look at them. You see a pattern you cannot imitate.

He yawns. But speaks to himself: you must not be tired. If a man should live as if every day is his last, he should also die as if there is a day to come, and another after that.

Martin says – to Christophe, rather than to the prisoner – ‘Lord Hungerford, they don’t know how to convey him. He saw the devil in the night. He’s lying on the floor bawling like a drunk.’

The sheriffs, William Laxton and Martin Bowes, come in with Kingston. They make him a civil good morning: ‘Are you ready, Lord Cromwell? We are ready for you.’

They give him coins, which he will pass to the executioner, payment for his services. His coat, too, will be the headsman’s perquisite. He thinks, I should have looked out the purple one. Or that violent orange coat, that upset Mr Wriothesley once. It occurs to him that when he is dead, other people will be getting on with their day; it will be dinner time or nearly, there will be a bubbling of pottages, the clatter of ladles, the swift scoop of meats from spit to platter; a thousand dogs will stir from sleep and wag their tails; napkins will be unfurled and twitched over the shoulder, fingers dipped in rosewater, bread broken. And when the crumbs are swept away, the pewter piled for scouring, his body will be broken meat, and the executioner will clean the blade.

‘Messages?’ Martin says. He is willing to bear them, for payment from the dead man’s kin.

‘Tell my son –’ He breaks off. ‘Tell Master Secretary Sadler … no, never mind. Send to Austin Friars and tell Thomas Avery –’ No. Avery doesn’t need telling twice.

He says to the sheriffs, ‘There is a Plymouth man, William Hawkins, has fitted a ship for Brazil. He is taking lead and copper, woollen cloth, combs and knives and nineteen dozen nightcaps. I would have liked to know how that works out.’

The sheriffs make commiserating noises. No doubt they wish they had invested.

He looks back over his shoulder. ‘Christophe, get a broom and sweep this floor.’

The boy’s face crumples. ‘Sir, I must accompany you. Some menial may sweep. Here,’ he fumbles inside his shirt, ‘I have a medal, it is a holy medal, my mother gave it to me, take it for the love of Christ.’

He says, ‘I do not need an image, because I shall see God’s face.’

Christophe holds it out on his palm. ‘Sir, take it back to her. She is waiting for it.’

He suffers it to be hung about him. He remembers the medal his sister gave him; it lies beneath the sea. ‘Now Christophe, obey me this last time. When you have cleaned the floor you may follow on behind, but no fighting. I must pray, you understand, so do not interrupt my prayer. Martin, do you pray for me too, while I am dying. And after, if I may, I will pray for you.’

He remembers what George Boleyn had said: we have a man plays Robin Goodfellow. When kings and queens have quit the scene, he comes with broom and candle, to show the play is done.

The light is early and tender, the sky eggshell blue. He can feel already it will be another hot day. He must walk out of the fortress as far as Tower Hill, where they have set up a public scaffold.

He stares, incredulous, at the bristling ranks of the guard. ‘All these?’ he says to Kingston.

‘Wait, wait, wait!’ yells the captain of the guard. ‘Halt, halt, halt!’

It is only Hungerford. He is propped up between two officers, his mouth gaping, his feet dragging. The intention is for the processions to merge. Hungerford’s glazed eyes pass over him as if he is a stranger. ‘My lord?’ he says. ‘We have very little time now and I trust our pain will be sharp but will not endure. Are you man enough to bear yourself in hope? If you are truly sorry for what you have done, there is mercy enough with God.’

He has been in prison forty-eight days, during which time he has hardly stepped out of doors. Even this light seems to dazzle, so he thinks of Tyndale, walking in the bleach fields. Rafe is right, he thinks, we always complain of the weather, and today is not what it should be. An Englishman dies drenched, in the rain that has enwrapped him all his life. Then he lurks about his old haunts in the drizzle and mist, so you cannot be sure whether he is quick or dead. The climate protects him, as a cupped hand protects a candle.

They are outside the fortress, on Tower Hill. The crowd surging towards the execution ground are walking on their own dead, their foremothers and fathers. They say the bones of thousands lie underground, the men and women of London killed by plague. They fell in the streets and died where they fell, they were carried off in such haste that they were buried in their good boots, and not even their purses cut; so if any man dared dig for it, there’s a fortune beneath our feet.

It is not clear, from the roaring, whether the Londoners are there to regret or revile. But the king has turned out some six hundred soldiers so it hardly matters. And perhaps they don’t know themselves. After the silence of the Bell Tower, he feels he is on a battlefield, moving to the beat of the drum: boro borombetta …

Scaramella to the war is gone …

Now the pages of the book of his life are turning faster and faster. The book of his heart is unscrolling, the lines erasing themselves. Between his prayers run the lines of a verse:

I am as I am and so will I be

But how that I am, none knoweth truly

Be it evil, be it well, be I bound, be I free,

I am as I am and so will I be …

… But how that is I leave to you.

Judge as ye list, false or true

Ye know no more than afore ye knew

Yet I am as I am, whatever ensue.

His heart thuds as if it will break out of his chest. Behind him, another drumbeat, rat-tat-tat. It trips the rhythm of his own heart – pit-pat, rat-tat. He feels the surge of his blood check and stand, like a tide about to turn. He swivels his head, distressed, to the source of the racket, a drum in the crowd. The guard close in, as if to block his view. Why? Do they think it is a signal? Rat-tat-tat: do they think he hopes to be rescued?

Scaramella fa la gala …

‘Look where you are going, my lord,’ one of the guard says; and he does, and finds he is at the foot of the scaffold. ‘So one arrives,’ he says. Thomas Wyatt stands before him. It was Wyatt who wrote the verse: who but he? Judge as ye list, false or true … Wyatt holds out his hands. They have not bound him, so he is able to grasp them. ‘Do not weep,’ he says. ‘If there is anything to forgive, I forgive it. Mind, that does not go for Stephen Gardiner. But I forgive the king. Be quiet now and you will hear me do it.’

He thinks, there is death in Wyatt’s eyes. Who can better recognise it, than I? Your enemies will flourish. You will follow after.

‘Go up,’ one of the guard says.

He tries to shake off their hands. ‘I can do this.’ His heart is still tripping, racing. But they will help you whether you need it or no. Men have been known to fall. Men have been known to plummet. Men have been known to do anything and everything. Lords have stood up to death; indeed, they have stood up after death. In the days of our ancestors Thomas Fitzalan, who was Earl of Arundel, was axed down on this spot and his corpse leapt upright to say a Pater Noster. All headsmen, when they meet in their conclaves, talk of it as a fact.

His foot is now on the step of the scaffold. His mind is quiet but the body has its own business, and that business includes trembling. His head turns again. He is not looking for pardon. He knows the king is busy getting married. All he is looking for is the source of the noise, to quell it, because he wants to die listening to his own heart, till verse and prayer fade and heart says hush.

Then in the depths of the packed crowd he sees Christophe. He is pushing forward, flailing his arms. Please God he has not a weapon. His whole body braces, ready for a mêlée. ‘My lord, my lord,’ Christophe calls. The guard make a wall, but Christophe’s arm snakes between them as if to touch him. One of the men raises his armoured fist. He hears a crack. He sees the boy’s face twist in shock and pain. Holding out his arm like a broken wing, his voice hoarse, his body convulsing, he speaks his curse: ‘Henry King of England! I, Christophe Cremuel, curse you. The Holy Ghost curses you. Your own mother curses you. I hope a leper spits on you. I hope your whore has the pox. I hope you go to sea in a boat with a hole in it. I hope the waters of your heart rise up and spout down your nose. May you fall under a cart. May rot rise up from your heels to your head, going slowly, so you take seven years to die. May God squash you. May Hell gape.’

Christophe is hauled away. The crowd is so thick he can hardly distinguish one man from another. There are places kept for courtiers at a spectacle like this, but he will not afford them a glance. All the bloodied waters have run under the bridges. And now no more for lack of time.

He is face to face with the executioner. He sees the spectators spiralling away from him, growing very small. He can smell drink on the man’s breath. Not a good start. He can imagine Walter beside him, ‘Christ alive, who sold you this axe? They saw you coming! Here, give it to my boy Tom. He’ll put an edge on it.’

He thinks of picking up the axe and felling the headsman, but this is what life does for you in the end; it arranges a fight you can’t win. In his time he has encouraged many who lack practice and capacity. In other circumstances he would take the axe from the man’s fumbling grip: say patiently, ‘This is how.’

The man holds out his palm. He drops his fee into it. ‘Do not be afraid to strike. You will not help me, or yourself, by hesitating.’

The man kneels. He has remembered what he ought to say. ‘Forgive me what I must do. It is my office and my duty. I have this cloth here, sir. Will I cover your face?’

‘For what possible purpose?’ Only to spare you.

‘My lord, you must kneel. When you are ready, repose your head upon this block.’

After Anne’s swift end he had spoken with the headsman; he read the words engraved on the blade. Speculum justitiae, ora pro nobis. They don’t write words on the head of the axe.

He kneels. He makes his prayer. Drumbeats. La zombero boro borombeta … Blink of red. He thinks, this is all I have to do: follow my master, this and no more. Reach out your hand to find the train of his robe. Look for the spill of scarlet, follow.

He eases himself down to die. He thinks, others can do it and so can I. He inhales something: sweet raw smell of sawdust; from somewhere, the scent of the Frescobaldi kitchen, wild garlic and cloves. He sees the movement from the corner of his eye as the spectators kneel and avert their faces. His mouth is dry, but he thinks, while I breathe I pray. ‘All my confidence hope and trust, is in thy most merciful goodness …’ In the sky he senses movement. A shadow falls across his view. His father Walter is here, voice in the air. ‘So now get up.’ He lies broken on the cobbles of the yard of the house where he was born. His whole body is shuddering. ‘So now get up. So now get up.’

The pain is acute, a raw stinging, a ripping, a throb. He can taste his death: slow, metallic, not come yet. In his terror he tries to obey his father, but his hands cannot get a purchase, nor can he crawl. He is an eel, he is a worm on a hook, his strength has ebbed and leaked away beneath him and it seems a long time ago now since he gave his permission to be dead; no one has told his heart, and he feels it writhe in his chest, trying to beat. His cheek rests on nothing, it rests on red. He thinks, follow. Walter says, ‘That’s right, boy, spew everywhere, spew everywhere on my good cobbles. Come on, boy, get up. By the blood of creeping Christ, stand on your feet.’

He is very cold. People imagine the cold comes after but it is now. He thinks, winter is here. I am at Launde. I have stumbled deep into the crisp white snow. I flail my arms in angel shape, but now I am crystal, I am ice and sinking deep: now I am water. Beneath him the ground upheaves. The river tugs him; he looks for the quick-moving pattern, for the flitting, liquid scarlet. Between a pulse-beat and the next he shifts, going out on crimson with the tide of his inner sea. He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the waters salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall.