Welcome to Jin Novels dot com   Click to listen highlighted text! Welcome to Jin Novels dot com

The Mirror and the Light (Salvage (Part 3))

‘Believe me, Francis,’ he says, smiling, ‘I have no expectations. All I want is to get through the week.’

‘You won’t stop till you’re a duke. Or king.’ Francis pushes up his eye-patch. He rubs the scar tissue beneath. ‘Not that you would be a bad king, by the way.’

His glance flicks away from the wreckage of Bryan’s face. Its owner laughs. ‘You’ve seen worse.’

He goes to the door. ‘Martin? Fetch me a proper chair. How is this miserable stool still here? Didn’t I kick it out?’

Martin appears. ‘It must have trundled back by itself. I’ll toss the little bugger downstairs.’

‘Chop it up for firewood,’ Francis says. ‘Show it who’s master.’

‘And fetch claret,’ he says to Martin. ‘Put it on my tally.’

‘You keep an account?’ Francis says. ‘St Agnes bless me.’

‘I think of setting up my own cook, with a few spit boys and a cold room for pastry. I keep spare shirts here, and my lambskin coat. I keep clerks.’

‘No clerks,’ Francis says. ‘Or I fall silent.’

‘If you will give me the testimony you promise, I will put it away till such time as I can use it. I will write down what you say myself, and no one need ever know it comes from you. But if any of us are to live to see next week, Carve-Away must write to Mary, and admit she can look for no practical help from him or his friends, and that if she does not do exactly as I tell her, she will be lost. And I will speak to Henry for you and’ – he rubs his own eyes – ‘as soon as we are to the other side of this, you will be free. It will not be long. Mary must choose now: her father or the Pope.’

‘Her father or her mother,’ Francis says. ‘You cannot fight the dead. You may have to cede her to them. God knows why you think she is your future. Even if you save her now, she will die on you; she is always ailing. And if the king turns on you, it will not be like when old Henry Guildford quit and went off to the country to prune his fruit trees and enjoy the birdsong. Remember how Wolsey fell. Bungle this, and Henry will put you where I am now. Or in a worse place, where you would be glad of the three-legged stool.’

‘You sound as if you care,’ he says. ‘Giving me good advice.’

Francis says, ‘What is this commonwealth without you? I would like to see you thrive. After all, I may have to borrow money from you.’

Martin comes in, bumping a chair before him. He thinks, this will need patience: even if I get sure proofs of treason, can I afford to use them? Bryan is right. It is no small matter to bring down two great families and their affinities, when you have scarcely buried the Boleyns; and to do it without damage to the young woman whose cause they claim they promote. Henry cannot be ready before I am ready: I must restrain my cannibal king.

‘One more thing, Francis. When Carew has written his letter, your sister Eliza must take it to Hunsdon herself, and confer with your lady mother. Lady Bryan has brought up Mary from her infancy. I trust her to have her interests at heart.’

‘And,’ Francis says, ‘my lady mother is not the dottypoll she seems.’

‘They must go to Mary, mother and daughter, and be earnest with her, and use any persuasion. I am trusting your whole family to serve me in this.’

‘Well,’ Francis says with distaste, ‘if you must pull the women into it.’

‘The women are already in it. It’s all about women. What else is it about?’

Francis looks into his cup. He swills the contents about, as if he were divining and trying to change the fate in the lees. ‘People say, Henry will not make away with his daughter. Others say, we did not think he would make away with his wife. But I – I always knew he would kill Anne Boleyn. Or if not, then some other man would do it for him.’

The warm weather is here. The long days in which, if rumour is true, the Lady Mary does not eat: the short, light nights, in which she paces sleepless, her face swollen, her eyes red-rimmed; in which she swims in her salt tears as in a drowning pool. Tears are good for young women, especially those in whom the menstrual flow is stopped, or those who want a man in their bed but are obliged to do without. If Mary stopped crying, she might be even sicker than she is now. So when she sobs and retches, no one stirs to comfort her. When she cries, ‘Jesus pity me,’ it appears He does not.

The jurists whom the king consults suggest that the oath should be put to Mary again, so there can be no doubt that she knows what is required. Of course she knows, the king says. She is in no doubt. But he adds, as he did last month in the matter of Anne Boleyn, ‘Cromwell, I wish to stand right with the law in every particular.’

‘Send for Chapuys,’ he tells Richard: he, Lord Cromwell. ‘He must take supper with me. He will plead he has no appetite. But he can watch me eat.’

Richard says, ‘You could have resolved this two weeks ago. You have put us in peril day after day. Why do you not go to Mary yourself?’

‘Because I can only do this at a distance,’ he says.

He remembers the castle at Windsor, a day of baking heat; the year of our salvation, 1531. In the great courts, the king’s baggage wagons stood ready, the household departing for a summer of hunting, dancing and other sport. He himself, compelled to melt into shadow, up staircases and through shuttered rooms empty of contents; through the queen’s suite of rooms to find Katherine sitting alone, abandoned, obdurate, knowing but not consenting to know that Henry had gone without a word of goodbye; the child Mary, fragile as straw, leaning on the back of her chair. Madam, he said, your daughter is ill, she should sit. A spasm of pain shook the girl and caused her to droop, and clench her hand on the gilding. Katherine spoke to her in Castilian: ‘You are a daughter of Spain. Stand up.’

He battled that day for the sick, narrow body, and he won. At his feet, a stool: on the stool, a cushion embroidered with a mermaid. He picked up the stool in one hand, the mermaid in the other. He held the gaze of the Spanish queen, and slammed the stool down on the flags. The sun streamed through coloured glass; squares of light, pale green and vermilion, fluttered like standards against pale stone.

Katherine had closed her eyes. As if she herself were suffering, she made the barest concession to a nod. Then she opened her eyes and shifted her gaze to the middle distance. He saw the princess sway; he moved and caught her, arm outstretched. He steadied her: he remembers her tiny bones, her weightless body quivering, her forehead sheened with sweat. She sank to the stool. He passed her the cushion, studying her face. She hugged the mermaid against her belly, wrapping her arms across herself, bending double to ease her pain. After a moment, she let out her breath with a grunt. Then her head jerked up, and she took him in, astonished and grateful. In an instant she had wiped the expression away. It was a transaction so swift that you could barely say it occurred. But until the interview was concluded and he bowed himself out of the room, her eyes followed him everywhere he moved.

After supper, as a hush falls and the long midsummer day folds itself and disposes to dusk, he and the ambassador climb one of the garden towers. London lurks below them in the blue haze. Before them is a dish of strawberries they must finish before the moon rises. The ambassador has left his papers at the foot of the tower. His folio of white leather, stamped with the Emperor’s double eagle, rests on a bank of turf starred with daisies.

‘What irks me,’ he tells Chapuys, ‘is that no prince in Europe has a place to stand and look down at Henry. They have broken their parliaments, such as they were, racked their people with taxes, raided the church coffers, killed their councillors – but if they crook their knee to the Vatican, all is well, they are moral fellows and the Pope sends them a blessing and tells them what glorious monarchs they are. Which of them would have endured a barren wife, year after year? They would have poisoned her. Which of them would bear with a disobedient child? If Mary were the daughter of some other prince, she would be walled up and forgotten, or she would meet with an accident.’

‘Yes,’ Chapuys says. ‘But that is not what you are going to recommend.’

‘It doesn’t matter what I recommend. This affair has broken me. I am a dead man.’

‘You said that before. When the concubine was plaguing you.’

‘I said it and I meant it. I have gone so far in this matter there is no way back – I assured the king that Mary would comply. He hates a promise-breaker.’

Chapuys is pensive, tracing with a finger the faint, feathery pattern on the marble tabletop. ‘How did you get this up here?’

‘Winched it through the window. Did you think I prayed to the holy bones of Bishop Fisher, and he made it fly?’

He has leased this house from the canons at Smithfield, at St Bartholomew’s. Their prior Will Bolton was the king’s builder, a man with a good head for planning big works and seeing them through; bless me, Bolton, he sometimes says, when he arrives here and takes a breath, his horse walked to the stable, his bags hauled in by Christophe. The prior used to come out here to hunt in summer and recreate himself, and his rebus – a barrel or tun shot through with a crossbow bolt – is set into the garden walls. It is a small house with one good square chamber on each floor, and fruit trees and arbours all around, and garden towers so placed that they catch the summer breezes, and look down over the treetops to the city.

‘Prior Bolton was lame the last five years of his life,’ he says. ‘He can never have made it up here to get the view. Though one could not expect it, he was eighty-two at his decease.’

‘You are going to live for ever, of course,’ Chapuys says. ‘Always climbing.’

‘When we go in I will show you the enamelled tiles in the parlour. They are a pure lapis blue. He must have got them from Italy.’

The low murmur of their voices, the settling, preening doves in their cote: like a flake of summer snow, a stray feather floats past, and his eyes follow it into the dusk. Chapuys says, ‘Of course, I do not wonder everyone in this country has contempt for the Vatican. Rome let Katherine down, vacillating year after year.’

‘Everybody let her down. Her advisers were a set of old women. Fisher may have been a very holy man, but he was useless. As far as I can see, he told her to keep cheerful and hope for the best. And as for her friends abroad – what did your Emperor do? He made warlike noises.’

Chapuys says, ‘My master has the Turks to fight. He has more to do than quarrel with a wilful prince in a small island.’

‘So why should my king hold back now? He is at ease in his own kingdom. He can deal with his daughter as he pleases.’

‘You will forgive me for saying this,’ Chapuys says, ‘and I hope the dead will forgive me too – if the Emperor did not make shift to rescue his noble aunt, perhaps it was because he did not know what he would do with her thereafter. She would only have been a charge on him. She was used to spending money, as a queen does. And she might have lived to a great age.’

You must respect a man who cuts through the pieties as the ambassador does. He always tells people, don’t underestimate Chapuys. Behind his politesse there is a passionate little man, a cunning man too, and one prepared to take risks.

‘With Mary it is otherwise,’ the ambassador says. ‘Even if she does not achieve the throne, her children may, and they may turn the world in a way that is very much to the Emperor’s mind. You say Henry is at ease. But though the Emperor will overlook much, he will not suffer Mary to be mistreated. He will send ships.’

‘He will never make landfall.’

‘Have you studied a map of these islands? My prince is master of the seas. While you are guarding the coast of Kent, his ships will be bobbing in from Ireland. While you are watching the south-west, he will invade from the north-east.’

‘His captains will die on these shores. The king has said he will eat them.’

‘I am to carry that message?’

‘If you like. You know, and I know, the Emperor in arms has no power to save Mary. Her case is urgent.’

A head emerges, coming up the winding stair. It is Christophe. ‘Lords, will you have comfits?’ He clatters down a silver tray. ‘Master Call-Me is here.’ He casts an evil glance at Chapuys. ‘He is here for breaking ciphers. None may stand against his wit.’

Chapuys clasps his hands together. He fears for his papers, left below. His knee joints are sore, and a small groan escapes him, at the thought of lurching down three flights then climbing up again.

‘Ask Call-Me to sit beneath the vine and listen for the nightingales. Then fetch up the ambassador’s papers. Do not look into them.’

Christophe’s head sinks out of sight. ‘What a donkey that boy is!’ Chapuys selects a strawberry and frowns at it. ‘Thomas, I see it is not an easy thing to do, to show an innocent girl that the world is not as she thinks. The late Katherine never let the child hear a word in dispraise of her father. Everything was the fault of the cardinal, or his council, or his concubine. Nothing was the fault of Henry. Naturally she expected to be embraced, without question, once Anne Boleyn was dead.’ He takes a chary nibble. ‘Naturally, you must disabuse her.’

He nods. ‘She does not know her father.’

‘How could she? She has hardly seen him in five years. She has been in prison.’

‘Prison? She has been kept in great comfort.’

‘But we must not tell her that, Thomas. Better to tell her she has suffered grievously, in case she feels she has not done enough. She boasts to me she is not afraid of the axe.’

‘Is she not? When her last night on earth falls, and she must wait it out sleepless, and all that is before her is a sorry breakfast with the headsman, it will be no good crying for me to save her then.’

In the silence that ensues he wonders, where has Christophe got to? Is he reading the ambassador’s papers after all? What a breach of decorum that would be. But profitable, if the papers were in French. Christophe has sound recall.

‘It is her mother …’ Chapuys says. He is afraid, as shadows gather, at having spoken ill of the dead. ‘I believe she vowed to Katherine she would never give way. Vows to the living may be set aside, with their permission. But the dead do not negotiate.’

‘She does not want to live?’

‘Not at any price.’

‘Then how will history regard her – the grandchild of the kings of Spain, with not the wit or policy to save herself?’

Christophe whoops from below: the ambassador, who has selected an aniseed sweet, almost swallows it. The boy erupts among them, slaps down the Imperial folio: the black eagle flies against white marble. ‘What kept you, Christophe?’

‘One came up from Islington and says they fear thunder, the cows are lying down in the fields. I pray you, come down at the first spot of rain. If lightning strikes you are undone. Only a fool would stay at the top of a tower.’

‘I shall watch the sky,’ he says. ‘It will break over London first.’

Christophe’s head declines from view, a greasy planet in a crooked cap. He waits till he is sure the boy is out of earshot, then says, ‘If her father were to die now, then Mary might find herself queen, despite any disposition her father has made, despite any act of Parliament. Then as queen, she could put all to rights. Reunite us with Rome. Rivet on our shackles. She would have the pleasure of striking off my head. I do not trust her fair words.’

‘And what words are they?’

He takes out Mary’s letter and skims it across the table. ‘Shall I have Christophe fetch lights?’

‘I will puzzle it out,’ the ambassador says. ‘It is her hand,’ he allows. He squints at the paper. The arch behind him fills with the evening’s lustre, a pale opaline glow. ‘She is adamant she will resist the oath. But she calls you her friend – next to her father, God save her innocence, she calls you her chief friend in this world.’

‘But why should I trust her? I think she is full of guile.’

He is enjoying himself. The ambassador, he thinks, must woo me. I shall pretend I am a flighty heiress, and he must soothe my fears and caress me with his promises.

‘Mary has led me into a place of great peril,’ he says. ‘I have lost my reputation with the king. And what had I, but my reputation? Even if he does not kill me, nobody wants a used councillor.’

The ambassador knows the game but he will not play. Grimly he says, ‘Why does she think you are her friend? Something her mother told her. It can only be that. To think that after all this toil –’ He breaks off. He looks both angry and ashamed. ‘It seems to me that, if she trusts you, so must I. Which is an unfortunate situation to be in.’

‘You must advise her to give in, and you must make it right with the Emperor. Get his permission. His blessing.’

‘Unfortunately I do not keep the Emperor in my closet, where I can consult him at will.’

‘No? You should hang up his portrait. Perhaps in time you could teach it to speak.’

He thinks he hears a footstep below. ‘Hush.’ He is on his feet. He calls into the stairwell: ‘Who is that?’ The ambassador tenses and gathers himself, as if at any peril he would launch himself from the tower. The window is unglazed; the fading light softens the brickwork to a faint, flushed rose.

No answer. Prior Bolton did not build his garden walls high, or secure his fences. An ill-wisher can bend wattle or willow; through a fence of pliant hazel, a felon insinuate. He touches his heart and feels the knife, nestled between silk and linen.

‘Defence of a tower is easy,’ he says. ‘Even a garden tower. Anyone coming up, you just push them down again.’

‘You would relish that,’ Chapuys says. ‘They tell me you greatly enjoyed your tussle with the councillor Fitzguillaume. Really, Thomas, you are such a boy.’

‘Christophe?’ he calls. His voice curves in the stone spiral. ‘You are there?’

An answer echoes: ‘Where else?’ Christophe is surprised. He is always on guard, it is his early training as a thief. In his unoccupied moments, he sinks on his heels, his back against the wall, his head dropped as if he were dozing; but his ears are open, his eyes scanning for movement at the edge of his vision.

‘No one is there,’ he reassures the ambassador. ‘It is only Christophe.’ Chapuys settles back in his chair. ‘Eat up the strawberries,’ he tells him. ‘Write to Rome.’

‘But should one trust this fruit? To eat it raw?’ Chapuys frowns. ‘Chez-moi, we bake it in tarts.’

‘The Pope will forgive her, if she submits to save her life. Tell her you have asked for absolution for her. If you’re worried about the cost, I’ll cover it with Rome myself.’

‘I am more worried about my digestion. And I doubt she will credit this specious reasoning.’

‘Go to her first thing tomorrow, I’ll write you a pass.’ He leans towards the ambassador. ‘Tell her this. While Anne Boleyn was alive, there was no chance that Henry would restore her to the succession. But now, if she obeys him in every particular, her fortunes may look up.’

‘You are making her this offer?’ Chapuys raises an eyebrow. ‘Will Henry not prefer his bastard boy? I thought you favoured Richmond yourself. What has happened?’

‘Richmond cannot be put in place without great quarrel and grudge. Whichever lady the king has been married to – if he was ever married to anybody – the whole world agrees it was not to Richmond’s mother. As for any new heir he may get – the life of a young child, you cannot count on it from hour to hour. Tell Mary: if ever she is to compromise her conscience, now is the time, when she can do herself some good.’ He leans back in his chair. ‘Yes, of course she will despise herself afterwards. But that is the price. Tell her time will ease the sting of it.’

‘It seems to me,’ the ambassador says, ‘you are saying, you can live, but only as Cromwell permits. You can reign even – but only through Cromwell’s grace.’

‘If you wish to explain it like that.’ He has lost patience. ‘Explain it how you like. I will send her a document to sign. A deed of submission. She need not read it. In fact, she must not, as she may need to repudiate it later. But she must have a clerk copy it, because it cannot go to the king in my hand.’

‘No, that would wreck everything,’ Chapuys smiles. ‘She is not simple, you know.’

‘Tell her that from now on I will make sure she is protected. She will live at her ease, as a king’s daughter, and no one will trouble her to make the same prayers as I do, or to give up her saints, or her ceremonies. But then tell her – if she does not give way now, she is lost. I will regard her as the most obdurate and ungrateful woman who ever lived. I will not block the king’s will. And even if by some miracle she survives, she is dead to me. I take my leave of her for ever. I shall never come into her presence. I will never see her or speak to her again.’

A pause. ‘I see.’ The ambassador looks sardonic. ‘You had better write that yourself. I will carry your letter faithfully.’

‘Shall we go down?’

Chapuys winces as he stands, and rubs his back. ‘You first, my lord. I am so slow.’

He scoops the papers from the marble. ‘I’ll carry these.’ He is ahead of the ambassador. At the first landing he calls up, ‘I am not looking into them, I promise!’

Christophe is squatting, vigilant, in the posture he had imagined. Standing by him, another shape in the dimness. ‘Good evening, sir,’ the shape says softly. It is Mr Wriothesley, a sheaf of peonies in his hand.

In the parlour with the lapis tiles, the flame of a single wax candle shimmering in the blue, he makes his first draft; it is hard for him, to become the king’s daughter. At dawn he takes the draft back to the city, and in the morning light sits before it again: humble, trembling, obedient. Perhaps he should do this in a room alone; but he does not want to think about it too much.

He picks up a quill. Examines its tip. ‘This will require self-abasement.’

Richard Cromwell says, ‘Shall I go out and find somebody who’s better at it than you are?’

‘Richard Riche knows the art of creeping,’ Gregory offers. ‘And Wriothesley can crawl when required.’

He begins: ‘Most humbly prostrate before your Majesty …’

‘Try, prostrate at the feet of your Majesty,’ Gregory says.

‘Redundant,’ Richard says.

‘Yes, but it makes her sound … flatter.’

He amends the phrase. ‘Don’t let our efforts be mentioned outside this room. The king must think she composed it herself. I write to … why do I write?’

… To open my heart to your grace … as I have and will put my soul under your direction … so I wholly commit my body … desiring no state, no condition, nor no manner or degree of living but such as your grace shall appoint …

‘It sounds straight out of a law book,’ Richard says. ‘Not this, not that, not the other.’

‘True. She is not a Gray’s Inn man.’ He is exasperated. He knows no way to draft, but to cover every circumstance; no way to write that leaves a gap, a hairsbreadth, a crack, that would allow meaning to slide or leak away. Forgive my offences … I do recognise, accept, take, repute and acknowledge …

‘The king must expect her to take a lawyer’s advice,’ Gregory says. ‘He will expect it to show.’

… repute and acknowledge the king’s highness to be supreme head, under Christ, of the church of England …

I do freely, frankly … recognise and acknowledge that the marriage formerly had between his majesty and my mother … was by God’s law and man’s law incestuous and unlawful …

‘Incestuous and unlawful,’ Gregory repeats. ‘It covers everything. Nothing is left to want.’

‘Except,’ Richard says, ‘that she has not actually taken the oath.’

He dries the ink. ‘As long as no one makes Henry face that fact.’

Let this be her own form of oath, crushing and comprehensive. When she writes of Katherine, she says, the late princess dowager, as any subject might; but she also writes my mother, my dead mother: whose hand now falls incapacitate, and flinches into its shroud. Catalina, today you are put down; the living beat the dead, England conquers Spain. I have written letters for Mary before, he thinks, more pitiful than this and more yielding: I am but a woman, and your child. They met with small success. They did not touch the king’s heart. What touches his heart is giving him everything he wants: and in such a form that, until he had it, he did not know what he lacked. I put my soul under your direction. I commit my body to your mercy.

‘I want Rafe to take this to Hunsdon,’ he says. ‘Get it signed tonight.’

We are now in the third week of June. A gusty wet spring when Anne died; a month passes, and we are in high summer. On a hot morning you close your eyes and on your lids is stamped a blazing pattern of cloth of gold. You raise your arm to cover your face and the glare shifts to purple, as if bishops were hatching through flames. With the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, he rides up to Hunsdon to honour the young lady who – penitent, chastened, abased – is once again fit to be called the king’s daughter.

Hertfordshire is a moneyed and populous country, well wooded and well furnished with the residences of gentlemen and courtiers. The house itself, brick-built on high ground, is fit for the accommodation of a king’s family. The manor itself is ancient, but this present house is perhaps eighty years old; they show as antiquities their charters with painted shields bearing the emblems of long-dead lords: the bend sable of a Despencer heiress, the Mowbrays’ lion argent, and the royal arms of Edmund Beaufort, with their broken border of silver and blue. Two years back the king laid out near three thousand on new tiles and timbers, and sent up people from Galyon Hone’s workshop to glaze the principal chambers with striped roses, lovers’ knots, shivering white falcons and fleur-de-lys. At the same time – providentially, as it turns out – the whole house was made more tight and secure, with new hinges, clasps, hooks, bolts and locks.

On the journey the trains of the three lords keep separate, for fear of quarrels between servants. Norfolk says, cackling, ‘It is well-known what Cromwell does when he strays north of London, he will stop at some low hostelry to drag out a pot-washer and have his pleasure of her.’ Except that the duke uses a coarser expression, accompanying it with a driving elbow and a pumping fist.

Charles Brandon roars. It’s Brandon’s sort of joke.

He notices the Lesser Thomas is riding with Norfolk. Whatever the half-brothers were whispering about when he left them together, they are whispering still. ‘You see that?’ he says to Suffolk.

‘I do,’ Suffolk says. ‘Your man, Tom Truth. Walking/talking. Dipping/snipping. Wishing/fishing.’

Poor boy, he thinks. Even Suffolk knows how evil he rhymes. He recalls the young Howard’s stricken face, when he broke it to him that the ladies shared their verses. As if he never thought that could happen. As if he thought they read the poem then ate the paper.

In the great hall, Lady Shelton meets them; she has been Mary’s custodian these last three years, not a post anyone envies. Brandon strides in: she makes her reverence: ‘My lord Suffolk. And Thomas Cromwell, at last.’ She kisses him heartily, as if he were her cousin; whereas to Thomas Howard, who really is her cousin, she says, ‘May we hope your lordship will not abuse the furnishings? Inventory is kept, and the tapestry that was rent by your lordship, the other week, was worth a hundred pounds.’

‘Was it so?’ Norfolk says. ‘I wouldn’t use it to wipe my arse. Where’s John Shelton? Never mind, I’ll find him myself. Charles, come with me.’

The dukes exit, hallooing for their host. He says, ‘He attacked the arras? What else did he do?’

‘He threatened Lady Mary with a beating, and drove his fist into the wall, injuring himself.’ Lady Shelton raises a hand to hide her smile. ‘He was like a drunken bear. I thought Mary would faint from fright. I thought I would. Anyway, you are here now, thank God.’

‘Uglier than ever,’ he says. ‘While you, my lady, the more cares are heaped on you, the more gracefully you wear them.’

It is clear Lady Shelton bears him no ill will: which she might have, as the late queen was her niece. With a whisk of her hand she brushes his compliment away, but, ‘By Our Lady,’ she says, ‘we have wanted you here a long season. Lady Bryan, as you know, is solely in charge of the nursery and what appertains to the little child, but having nursed Mary herself when she was scarcely weaned, she thrusts her advice in at every turn, and she presumes to tell Shelton how to run the wider household, as if the whole world must revolve about my lady Eliza. We have no instructions about the baby, except that she is no longer to be called “the Princess Elizabeth”. What do you think, will the king disown her?’

He shrugs. ‘We dare not ask. His leg has been paining him and he is out of temper because he cannot ride three hours in the morning and play tennis all afternoon. It is never sweet dealing, when he wants exercise. But who knows – now he has Mary’s conformity, we may be able to approach him. What do you think? You see the child daily.’

‘I think she’s Henry’s. You should hear her bawl. Had any of Anne’s gentlemen red hair?’

‘None of the dead gentlemen,’ he says.

She hesitates. Then, ‘Ah, I see … there may have been others? Who were not brought to trial?’ He can see her mind ranging. ‘Wyatt you would call blond …’

‘Wyatt I would call bald.’

‘You men are cruel to each other.’

‘The king said Anne slept with a hundred men.’

‘Did he? Well, I suppose he could not be any ordinary cuckold.’ She glances over her shoulder. ‘Is it true Wyatt is released?’

He wants to say, the ground is closing over your niece, we are moving on. ‘No one is detained now – not in connection with that affair. You have heard of this letter come from Italy?’

‘Reynold. Yes. The great fool. I thought he had ruined Mary, I tell you. And what about John Seymour’s daughter? How does she do, now she is mistress of all?’

‘She is good for Henry. She soothes his temper.’

‘A wet cloth can do that. Still, good luck to her. She must have more about her than first appears, if she was able to displace my niece.’

Lady Shelton takes his hand and draws him into the house and calls for wine. ‘I will tell you how it was, when Sadler brought your letter. We may as well sit. Shelton will be an hour with the dukes, pouring out his complaints about Lady Bryan.’

He likes to be told a story by Lady Shelton. He feels it will be one he can keep a grip on. ‘You can go, Rob,’ she says to the waiting boy. The boy – it is Mathew, from Wolf Hall – turns at the door and catches his eye. He looks away. I shall say to him, he thinks, lonely though you be – in a strange house, serving under a strange name – you must make no signal, and certainly never in a woman’s presence: they see plenty that men miss.

‘We hourly expected your letter,’ Lady Shelton says, ‘and the paper for Mary to sign – because the Emperor’s man Chapuys came two days past, and was shut up with her three or four hours. When he arrived here he would not eat, but drank off a great draught of ale before he went in, and Shelton said, “I hope the poor fellow does not regret that last swill” – for when a young woman insists she is a princess, how can you say, “Pardon me, Highness,” and leave her to call for a pisspot? We could hear her all the while, talking, talking, talking. And the ambassador putting in a word, as he could. When he came out, he looked as if he had been on trial for his life. Shelton walked him out to his horse and waved him off, and as he came back in and was pulling off his boots, Mary ran to her chamber and slammed her bolt and shoved a chest against the door. It is not the first time. We have a burly fellow who cuts wood for us, and Shelton sent for him to set his shoulder at it. And when the woodsman fell in at the door, Mary ignored him, and went on saying her prayers.’

But then, he thinks, she had all next day to dwell on what she must do.

‘So when Sadler rode up, it was long after dark, I believe it was eleven o’clock. Mary was still awake, stretched on her bed in her shift – lying on the counterpane, we could not get her to go between the sheets. She said, “If it is a gentleman, I will get dressed. But if it is only a letter, I declare I will not read it till morning.” We said, “It is Sadler,” and then we did not know what she would do, because she held before that he was not a gentleman, and yet she knows he serves in the king’s privy chamber.’

I wonder how I would stand with her, he thinks.

‘But then she exclaimed, “Sadler is Lord Cromwell’s servant!” She ran down the stairs, no shoes on her feet, and snatched the package from his hands. “Give it to me, and let us have it over with,” she said. And she crushed it to her, and made away with it, back up the stairs. She shouted out, “I will sign. I must. Ambassador Chapuys counsels it, and my cousin the Emperor commands it, and the Pope will forgive it, for I am enforced, and so it is no sin.” And,’ Lady Shelton says, ‘I was never so surprised. A little later she came out of her chamber seething with spite, and called to me, “Shelton! You will soon be put out of your place. My good father will bring me to his side now. You will never have my keeping again.”’

She cradles her cup in her hands. ‘By midnight she had signed. She said she wanted the paper out of the house. She commanded Master Sadler to set out in the dark. “Either the letter leaves the house,” she said, “or I do. I will not be under roof with it.” Which was foolish talk, for the gate to the park was guarded, she would not have got fifty paces. And all this while, you must picture, Lady Bryan was scuttling in her wake bearing a beaker of camomile, the steam rising from it, and she wailing, “My darling, you will fall into a fever!” And in the nursery that demon child was howling – for her great teeth are not through yet – and Shelton, who is mannerly on ordinary occasions, roared out, “Get you away, Lady Bryan, and you, Princess, drain that beaker, or I will hold your nose and enforce you thereto!” You will forgive him for using that title, but it is the quickest way to get her to do anything. Then Master Sadler very civilly and properly spoke up, and said, “I would not disdain a pallet in your summerhouse, and would take the letter out with me; it seems to me a solution that would unite all parties.”’

Good boy. He smiles. Rafe had told him, I swear to you, sir – so that I got out of that house, I would have slung a hammock. I would have lain in a manger, or slumbered on the sward. As it was, I passed a pleasant night, and dreamt of my wife Helen. And I woke with the birdsong, with Helen in my arms. They brought me bread and ale, water to wash; unshaven and with curt farewells I mounted up, and rode to you. And it is worth a night under the stars, sir, to put this paper in your hand, and see your face clear.

He puts down his cup. ‘My lady, we should join the others. I shall stand between you and Norfolk. If he rends the arras, he shall not rend me.’

He thinks, Mary Boleyn once leaned against me, mistaking me for a wall. Norfolk will drive his fist into me, but it will bounce.

Lady Shelton says, ‘John and I wonder – is this household to be broke up?’

‘Not yet.’ He hesitates. ‘The king will not receive Mary himself till news of her submission has gone abroad, and he knows from Rome and the Emperor that they have understood.’

‘Of course. Or it would look as if he had just changed his mind, and let her off. Or as if the Emperor had frightened him.’

‘You are a woman of sense. Come here.’ He holds out his hand to her. He thinks, all the Boleyns are politicians. ‘You might ease her conditions. No visitors unless I say so, but let her take the air in the park. She may have letters.’

She takes his hand. ‘I think she only simulates her obedience.’

‘Lady Shelton,’ he says, ‘I don’t care.’

When they come into Mary’s presence they kneel. It is for Norfolk, as their senior, to greet her on behalf of her father, that puissant and merciful prince, long may he reign: begging her pardon for any offence given, by their rude solicitations, on a previous occasion. Their severity occasioned only, he says, by their fear for her.

‘Thomas Howard,’ Mary says, ‘I wonder you dare.’

Norfolk’s head rears back; he glares.

‘My lord Suffolk,’ Mary turns to Brandon, ‘you have given no offence.’

‘Oh, in that case …’ Brandon begins to scramble to his feet; but one look, and he subsides again.

‘You must think a woman a very feeble creature,’ Mary tells Norfolk, ‘if you think her memory does not reach back a week. Mine is good for that, and more. I know very well how you persecuted my mother.’

‘Me?’ Norfolk says. ‘What about –’

‘I know how you promoted the ambitions of Anne your niece, and afterwards disowned her, and condemned her to death. Do you think I have no pity for that misguided woman?’ She checks herself, drops her voice. ‘I have compunction. I am no stranger to it.’

From his kneeling position, he appraises the king’s daughter. She is twenty, so it is not to be expected she will grow. Her person is as meagre as when he saw her at Windsor five years back: her face wan, her eyes dull, puzzled and full of pain. She wears a bodice and gown of tansy colour, which nothing becomes her, and her hair is scooped into a net of braided silk; she has left off her hood, no doubt because her head aches too much to bear the weight.

‘My sweet lady,’ Charles says. His voice unexpectedly lulling, he repeats the phrase: but then, it appears, he has nothing to add. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘here’s Cromwell. All will be right.’

‘It will be right,’ she snaps, ‘when my lord Norfolk makes it right. Would you use me as you do your wife?’

‘What?’ The duke’s eyebrows shoot up, and an unwilling grin creeps over his face.

She blushes. ‘I mean, would you beat me?’

‘Who told you I beat my wife? Cromwell, was it you? What has that blasted woman been telling you?’ He wheels around, arms spread to the company. ‘That scar she shows folk, on her temple – she had that before ever I knew her. She says I dragged her up from childbed and knocked her across the room. By John the Baptist, I did no such thing.’

Mary says, ‘If I did not know this tale before, I know it now. You have no respect for any woman, though she be set above you by God. Go out of here. I want to speak with Lord Cromwell alone.’

‘Oh, do you?’ Norfolk is chastened, but not chastened enough. ‘And why can you say things to him that you cannot say to us?’

Mary says, ‘To explain that to you, my lord, eternity is not long enough.’

Brandon is on his feet. His dearest wish is to be out of the room. For Norfolk, getting up is less easy. A leg shoots out – he treads down hard on the rushes, trying for leverage – he grunts, and an arm thrashes the air. Charles grips him under the elbow, ready to hoist. ‘Hold hard, I’ve got you, Howard.’

Norfolk beats off assistance. ‘Unhand me. It’s cramp.’ He will not admit it’s age. But he swerves around both dukes – allow me, my lord Suffolk – grips Thomas Howard, double-handed, by the back of his coat, and sets him on his feet with one contemptuous twitch. His heart is singing.

‘So,’ she says. ‘I hear you are Lord Privy Seal. What will happen to Thomas Boleyn?’

‘The king has permitted him to go down to Sussex, and live quietly.’

She sniffs. She rubs her forehead; even the net seems to fret her. ‘I will say that Boleyn was civil in his dealings with my mother, unlike Thomas Howard. He never gave her harsh words – not in her hearing, at least. Still, he was a cold and selfish man, and he consorted with heretics. The king is merciful.’

‘Some say, too much so.’

It is a warning. She does not hear it.

‘You are grown very grand, Lord Cromwell. I suspect you were always very grand, only we did not see it. Who knows God’s plan?’

Not I, he thinks. ‘I directed Carew to write to you. I trust he did?’

‘Yes. Sir Nicholas gave me certain advice.’

‘Which disappointed you.’

‘Which surprised me. You see, my lord, I know that he has taken the oath, even though he loved my mother and stood up in her cause. I think all have taken it, who are alive today.’

Not all, he thinks. Not Bess Darrell, Tom Wyatt’s lady.

‘My lady Salisbury signed it,’ Mary says. ‘And Lord Montague her son, and Lord Exeter and all the Courtenays. When Anne Boleyn was alive, they would have suffered if they had not bent to that lady’s will. But when I knew she was cut down, I thought, what needs this concealment now? Will they not say plain what I know they believe, that my father should reconcile with the Pope? And will they not aid me, to be restored to my father’s favour, and to have my rights and title? I did not know he meant to persist in error, I did not know –’

That you had so many faint hearts about you? Time-servers and placemen and cowards? ‘They left you to bear the risk,’ he says. ‘They have practice in scuttling for cover.’

‘Since then – since I received this advice from my friends, so much contrary to what preceded it – you must understand me, my lord, I have felt so alone.’

She moves towards him – he’s forgotten her clumsiness, the way she blunders like a blind woman. A low table is set with wine, in a jug of silver and crystal; she sees it, sidesteps, clips it; it sways, the wine slops, a tide of crimson washes over the white linen. ‘Oh,’ she cries, and her hand dives out – the jug leaps from her fingertips –

‘Leave it,’ he says.

She stares at her shoes, appalled. Picks her feet out of the shards. ‘It is John Shelton’s. He had it of the Venetians.’

‘I will send him another.’

‘Yes, you have friends in those parts. So Ambassador Chapuys tells me.’

‘I am glad he succeeded in bringing home to you the peril in which you stood. This last week has been –’ He shakes his head.

‘Chapuys said, “Cromwell has used all the grace that is in him. Risked all.” He said, “He feels the axe’s edge.”’ The hem of her skirt has soaked up the claret. She shakes it, ineffectually. ‘No other lord has spoken for me. Not Norfolk, he would not. Not Suffolk, he durst not. This goes far with us to mitigate –’

She breaks off. He thinks, she is using the royal plural. Already.

‘The ambassador says, “Cromwell is a heretic. But we may hope God will guide him to the truth.”’

‘We may all hope that,’ he says piously.

‘I often think, why did I not die in the cradle or the womb, like my brothers and sisters? It must be that God has a design for me. Soon I too may be elevated, beyond what seems possible now.’

The peril in the room is as quick and rank as a flare of sulphur. The tansy bodice casts an aura as she moves, a wash of jaundiced light. She is like Richmond; she thinks Henry is dying. ‘What design could there be,’ he asks, ‘but that you should live content, and be a good daughter to your father?’

‘The king will find me always obedient. But I have another Father, and a higher.’

‘The will of the heavenly Father is often obscure. The will of your earthly father is plain. It is not for you to make reservations now, Mary. You have signed.’

She lifts her eyes, and her glance is rinsed with rage. And the next second, once again a mild passionless blue, like Henry’s. ‘Yes. I set my hand to it.’

‘Chapuys is right. I could have done no more for you. I doubted my powers to do so much. Your resistance has injured your father. It has made him ill.’

‘I believe it,’ she says. ‘It has made me ill too. So when shall I come back to court? I will come with you today, if you will take me. Let them find me a mount. We could be at Greenwich before dark.’

‘The king is at Whitehall. And there are matters to settle.’

‘Of course, but I do not mind about my lodging. I will share a truckle bed with a laundrymaid, if it means I am nearer my father.’ She stumbles across the room again, trampling the shattered glass. ‘I know you think me weak. Lady Shelton says a corpse has more colour and she is right. But I have always been a good horsewoman. I can keep pace with you, I swear it.’

‘Lady Mary, you must have patience. The king must make sure news of your reformation travels to all parts, here and abroad.’

‘So everyone will know,’ she says. ‘I see.’

‘And few will doubt you have done right.’

‘Chapuys told me about Reynold’s letter. It is nothing to do with me. I had no foreknowledge.’

He thinks, I can pity you, without entirely believing you. He says, ‘These supporters you think you have – the Courtenays, the Poles – forget them. They say they revere your ancient blood, but they think more of their own. Oh, they may spare one of their boys to marry you, but then they will exact your obedience, for a wife must obey her husband, no matter what her degree. And if your father, God forbid, should die before he gets a son, they will bid for the crown, and they may march behind your banner, but by their grace you will never rule.’

She has turned her back. In the sunlight that filters through the royal arms, through the tawny hide of glass lions, she raises her arms, and fumbles with her cap, and then lifts it free. Head dropping, she rubs her temples and forehead, then reaches up and pulls her hair from its pins.

He stares at her, dumbstruck. He cannot remember watching a woman do this, except in one circumstance. Even then, he has known a woman of business signal the start of proceedings by knotting her hair more firmly, and pinning it on top of her head.

She says, ‘I suffer so much, Master Cromwell, that I think God must love me. Forgive me, I could not bear the confinement one minute more. My scalp throbs and my teeth ache. John Shelton says, perhaps you should have them pulled out, at least then the pain would be over. I have had a rheum in my head and here’ – she puts her hand to her cheek – ‘a swelling the size of a tennis ball.’

She is innocent, he thinks. Surely. Look how she said to Norfolk, ‘You would use me as your wife,’ and did not know why he was grinning. ‘My lady,’ he says, ‘let me help you. Your eyes, your head, your understanding, all parts of you have been rebellion; you could not digest what you ate, if you slept it did not restore you. But now you have chosen a wise course, you have done as others have – men and women who love God, just as you do – all of whom have embraced conformity, and seen their duty to this realm. You have put all your strength into saying no. Now you have said yes. You have chosen to live and you must find a way to thrive. Do you think only weak people obey the law, because it terrifies them? Do you imagine only weak people do their duty, because they dare not do other? The truth is far different. In obedience, there is strength and tranquillity. And you will feel them. Believe me, I am earnest when I tell you this. It will be like the sun after a long winter.’

She says, ‘I would give anything to ride again. But I have no saddle horse. They would not let me have one.’

‘As soon as I get back to London, I will find you a mount, it will be the first thing I think of. And I will tell John Shelton you are to ride out with an escort, whenever you choose.’

‘He was afraid the country people would see me, and would kneel to me, and acclaim me as princess.’

If that happens, he thinks, Shelton will know how to quell it. And I hardly think Chapuys will rise out of a ditch and carry you away. He says, ‘I have a pretty dapple grey in my stables, a very gentle beast. She can be here with you in no time.’

‘What is her name?’

Her hair, hanging limp, is a thin russet streak. She drags at it, anxious. At this moment she looks half her age.

‘She is called Douceur. But you can change it if you like.’

‘No. It is a good name.’

She drops her silk net on the table, and he watches it soak up the spilled wine. He wants to pick it out of the liquid, but he knows it is spoiled. She says, ‘I can get another.’ Her eyes pass over him; she looks covetous. ‘Your jacket is a good blue. I like that figured stuff.’

He thinks of Mary Boleyn: I like your grey velvet. It seems so long ago, it could be another life. I was a different man then, he thinks, inside my jacket. A little thinner, perhaps. More tentative, certainly. He says, ‘When you come back to court, you can have all the silk and damask your heart desires. The king has spoken to me of what he will give you.’

Mary puts her hand over her mouth. She gives a little moan, and her forehead tents in a deep frown, and the next moment, her nose is running and tears are rolling down her cheeks – cold weighty tears, like stones before a tomb.

He crosses the room to her. On a thin note, from between her fingers, she keens as if she had stumbled over a corpse. She sways and bleats, and he grips her to keep her on her feet, mouse bones jumping and trembling in his grasp. The door opens. Lady Shelton sweeps a glance over the smashed crystal, the crimson spill, the girl with her terrible naked face, and she speaks as directly as a mother to her daughter: ‘Mary, stop that noise. Let go of the Lord Privy Seal. Put on your cap.’

Mary’s wail cuts off. Her face is streaked; she shakes like someone in the grip of fever. ‘I cannot. My cap is spoiled. I walked into the table and smashed Sir John’s jug, for which I am sorry, and then I –’

‘Never mind,’ Lady Shelton says. ‘I have never made any sense of what you say, and I suppose I shall not begin now.’ She gathers up the girl’s hair and stands holding it in her fist, as if to lead her from the room; then with a sound of exasperation, lets her go. ‘I shall take you to Lady Bryan to put you to rights. Blow your nose.’

He can hear Mary’s thoughts, as loud as if they were slapping the walls: I am a princess of England, you have made promises to me. ‘Mary,’ he says, ‘mark this. My promises are kept now. You have my duty and regard. Count on that. No more.’

Mary’s eyes flicker with dismay. ‘But you said I should be – that if anything befell the king – that you would help me to – did you not promise the ambassador?’

‘I promised what I had to,’ he says. ‘It was an extremity.’

With a tug to her scalp, Anne Shelton stops any further questions. She speaks to him over the girl’s head. ‘You cannot leave without you see Eliza. Lady Bryan insists.’

What Lady Bryan has to exhibit is a convulsing mass of linen, red flailing fists, a maw emitting shrieks. ‘Now, my lady!’ She sweeps up the little girl. ‘Show your goodness to these gentlemen. They have ridden to see you to tell your lord father how you do.’

He is dismayed. ‘She screams as if she had seen Bishop Gardiner.’

A chortle from Brandon. A tight smile from Thomas Howard.

‘Will you tell their lordships you are glad to see them?’ Lady Bryan asks her charge. ‘Will you sing them a song?’

‘I take leave to doubt it,’ Norfolk says.

‘Fol-de-dee, fol-de-dee, fol-de-dee-do,’ trills Lady Bryan. ‘When sparrows build churches upon a green hill … No? Never mind, darling. Bite on this.’ She produces a circle of ivory, garlanded with green ribbons; the child seizes it and falls to. ‘Her teeth come very slowly forth.’

Suffolk stares down from his vast height. ‘Thank God they are no faster. I should be afraid she would nip me.’

‘Perhaps we could come back at a better time,’ he says.

‘Aye,’ Suffolk mutters, ‘when she is thirty.’ But he likes children, and he cannot help leaning down and making faces at her. The little girl breaks off grizzling, touches his beard; she rubs it, and looks at her fingers, dubious.

‘It doesn’t come off,’ Charles tells her. The child’s black eyes snap at him; she thrusts her ivory ring back into her mouth, but she does not cry again.

‘I never saw a child suffer so,’ Lady Bryan says. ‘It makes me give way to her when perhaps I should not. Sir John lets her sit at table, and she is too young to be refrained from what she has a fancy for.’ She turns to him. ‘Master Cromwell, how does your little Gregory these days?’

‘A head taller than me, and in want of a wife.’

‘How the years fly! It seems no time since you brought him to … wherever we were …’

‘Hatfield.’

‘Mary was wasting away.’ She turns to the dukes. ‘Till Thomas Cromwell came, we could do nothing with her. We could not make her come to the common board, because she would have had to sit lower than her sister – Eliza was a princess then. And Sir John said, mark my words, give way to one, and they will all be wanting to dine in private, and the cooks will be put about, and the expense will run beyond my means – no, he said, Mary dines and sups in the hall with us, or she must go without. But Master Cromwell got the physicians to state, on their honour, that Mary could not thrive without a trencher of red meat at her first rising in the morning. Sir John could hardly refuse her a breakfast, for that meal we all take apart. So she had her fill of venison while the larder lasted, and salt beef when needs must.’

Suffolk smiles. ‘She breakfasted like Robin Hood and his men, feasting in the green wood. I trust it did her good.’

‘So is Mary now a princess again?’ Lady Bryan asks.

He says, ‘She remains as she was, Lady Mary the king’s daughter.’

‘And this lass,’ Norfolk says, ‘is to be known as My Lady Bastard, till you hear different.’

‘For shame!’ Lady Bryan is distraught. ‘Whoever she may be, she is a gentleman’s daughter, and I know not how to keep her in that degree. All children do grow, sir, and this last month she has outgrown every stitch she owns, and Sir John says he has no budget and no instructions. We have patched and mended till we can do no more. She needs nightgowns, she needs caps –’

‘Madam, am I a nursemaid?’ Norfolk says. ‘Tell Cromwell about it – I dare say he can understand the child’s requirements. No trade is beyond him – give him some cambric and a needle and you will find your little dame clad before supper time.’

The duke turns on his heel and stalks out of the room. They can hear him on the stairs, calling for John Shelton to fetch the horses.

‘Write to me,’ he says to Lady Bryan. He wants to get after Norfolk. He doesn’t want him alone with Mary.

But Lady Bryan follows him, a buzz at his elbow. On the stairs, ‘Cromwell, I spoke to her. As you demanded. So did my daughter, Lady Carew.’ Her voice is low. ‘We did what you asked.’

‘Good.’

‘You have broken her pride. It is ill-done.’

‘It saved her life.’

‘To what purpose?’

He strides ahead. ‘Send me a list of what the little maid needs.’

Shelton is outside, with the horseboys. Lady Shelton says, laughing, ‘No need to haste away. Mary has run upstairs. Did you think she would be rushing to confer with your enemies? You take her for a fickle mistress.’

He checks his pace. ‘The dukes are not my enemies. We are all the king’s servants.’

‘You appear to have Suffolk in awe.’

True, he thinks. Brandon gives no trouble these days.

He turns and takes her hand; but there is a yell from below, like a hunting call. ‘Cromwell!’

It is Charles, stopped on the threshold, head thrown back, pointing upwards. ‘Cromwell, see that?’

He has to clatter downstairs, to look from another angle. Far above them, in a haze of blood-coloured light, the initials of the late Anne rest on a glazed cushion.

‘Shelton!’ the duke yells. ‘You’ve got a HA-HA. Knock it out, man. Do it while the weather’s fine.’ Charles bellows with laughter. ‘Get the Lady Mary to heave a brick at it.’

The boy Mathew is outside, holding his horse’s bridle. ‘Keep steady,’ he says. He doesn’t mean the horse.

He mounts, and below the creak of saddle and harness the boy murmurs, ‘Get me home when you can, sir.’

‘I’ll tell Thurston you miss him.’

Mathew backs away. ‘God be with you, sir.’

He gathers his reins. John Shelton is standing in their path, apologising for the HA-HA. ‘I thought I had got them. Every last one.’

He says, ‘It’s scarcely a month since Galyon Hone sent in his bill from Dover Castle, for setting the queen’s badges in the private lodgings.’

‘What?’ Norfolk says. ‘The queen that is now, or the other one?’

‘Wasted,’ he says. ‘Two hundred pounds.’

Brandon whistles. ‘It’s the devil. Stone, you can chisel it off; wood, you can rip it out or reshape it; whitewash and repaint your plasterwork, and stitching you can unpick – but when it’s blazing down at you, the sun behind it, what can you do?’

They get on the road. The early-summer day will allow them home by dusk. ‘Which is sad for you, Cromwell,’ Norfolk says. ‘You’d rather make a stop, I suppose. Still, keep looking in the ditch, you might spot some drab with her legs apart.’

Norfolk rides ahead with his people; but he and Brandon ride companionably, knee to knee. In Southwark, Brandon says, where his family has a great house and the glassmakers have their shops, they are at constant peril from the fires that blaze away when their kilns are opened. ‘Catch a wisp of straw,’ Brandon says, ‘and whoosh – the whole district goes up.’

Well, at those temperatures, he thinks. A blacksmith’s forge is dangerous, and smiths are always blackened and burned, but you don’t find them pierced to the heart with their own product, or hurtling to their deaths from church towers, as glaziers do every day of the week.

As they meet the road to Ware, Thomas Howard stops and turns in his saddle, watching them. His half-brother Tom Truth stops too, and twists to look back.

‘Look at the Howards, twitching,’ he says. ‘They want to know what we are talking about.’

Glazing still, as it happens. ‘Do you know, Cromwell,’ the duke says, ‘I was a rare hand at smashing glass in my youth? I expect you were. Though perhaps you didn’t have the chance?’

‘Yes, my lord, we had glass in Putney.’

‘My lord Norfolk?’ Charles calls out. ‘Just telling Cromwell here – I’ve not broken a window in years.’

In the first week of July, the king indicates that he is ready to meet his daughter. Not, yet, to bring her to court: ‘But the queen is urging me,’ he says. ‘And I thought you might manage it so as … just to allow me to see her. Allow me to judge her feelings towards me. And Crumb,’ he says, ‘I don’t want to ride far.’

The physicians are in daily consultation. The king’s good humour is soured by the nagging pain of his injured leg. I have feared for some time, Butts says, there is residual foulness in the bone. What is in the flesh, we can wash out – cut out, if we have to. But the bone must mend itself. Or not. Young Richmond was right. Decay runs deep. Next year the king might not be here.

At Austin Friars, he goes to Mercy Prior’s chamber. ‘Mother, the king would like to see his daughter. I thought we might use our new house at Hackney.’

Mercy’s lodging gives out onto the garden, so she can sit in the sun when there is any. She keeps up letter-writing with her friends, many younger than herself, some of them learned, some of them Lutherans. Sometimes Mistress Sadler comes to read to her; Helen can read now as well as if she had learned as a child, and can write a fair hand too. But today Mercy is alone with her New Testament, the book of Tyndale’s making. If she cannot always make out the words, she likes to have the text to hand. She sets it down and watches it for a moment, as you might watch a child to see if it will settle. ‘I suppose there is no news?’

The Bible scholar has been in the Emperor’s prison at Vilvoorde for a year now, ever since he was taken up in Antwerp. Now his time is short. Tyndale will recant, or he will burn. Perhaps he will recant and burn. The Emperor wishes to make an example, and keep the town of Antwerp in fear. The King of England will not stir for this subject of his, as Tyndale stood against him in the matter of his divorce. Because you are against the Pope, it doesn’t mean you are for Henry; Tyndale has always said, as Martin Luther does, we do not love Rome or its authority, but we cannot fault your marriage to Katherine, it is good and it must stick.

‘You cannot move the king to speak for him?’ Mercy asks. ‘Now he has his new queen and is at ease … you say he will reconcile with his daughter, and the other party in the quarrel is dead and gone.’

Katherine is dead and not dead. Her cause flourishes, its taproot deep in acid soil. Mercy says, ‘I think of Tyndale in his cell. Could you fetch him out of there, before winter comes? Would it be possible?’

‘You mean, would it be possible for me? You think it is a thing I might attempt?’

‘You might attempt anything.’ She does not mean it as a compliment.

He has a ground plan of the fortress of Vilvoorde. He knows where Tyndale is kept. But if he got him to the coast, where would he go? ‘I think we will see the Testament in English soon. I think Henry will allow it. The work will be Tyndale’s. But it cannot have his name on it.’

‘I hope I live so long,’ Mercy says. ‘I blame Thomas More for Tyndale, his nest of spies that lived on after he was dead, and if I thought the dead in their graves felt pain I would grub him from the ground and kick him up and down Cheap, for what he inflicted on men and women who are nearer to God than he will ever be.’

‘Blessed are the meek,’ he says.

‘Yes, so they claim. I notice where it gets you.’

He has often thought, these last weeks, that if you matched the king’s daughter with Tyndale – to see which was the more stubborn, the more set on self-destruction – it would be a close contest. ‘But you see,’ he says, ‘she has yielded. If we bring her to Hackney, then if it goes ill, the king can quickly be away.’

For the last year, he has been rebuilding a place made over to the king by the Earl of Northumberland. Young Harry Percy is sick, and deep in debt to the crown. He offered in part-payment the house with all its contents; Henry had said, why don’t you move in, Crumb, during the renovations, then you can keep a hand on the workmen? With young Sadler building his house just across the meadow, you can redirect the labour as needed … The king had sent seasoned oak from the royal forests, and he and Rafe had set up a brickfield, the water from the brook supplying it. Mercy had said, ‘You’ll see, Thomas, as soon as all the hard work is done, Henry will turn you out.’

Of course – but it’s the king’s house, after all. He is laying out a new garden and he has ambassadors alert for cuttings and seeds, of plants not grown in England. Light will flood the old rooms. There will be no HA-HAs, nor need he bear the arrogance of Hone’s glaziers – James Nicholson is just as skilled at a lower rate. He has walked the ground with the builders, deep in talk about pipes and culverts, the capacity of cisterns, hidden springs that can be tapped. Even in his early days at Austin Friars, he had made a bathroom, but it is hard to get piped water to more than a trickle; you need a healthy supply for a kitchen, if it has to feed a king.

‘Will you come out there?’ he asks Mercy. ‘Everything must be ready for royal ladies to lodge one night.’

‘Helen Sadler will do it. I am too old to go jolting out to the country. And as neither of us have ever been near the court, she can guess as well as I what is wanted. Mary is only human, I suppose, and a girl like other young girls.’

Yes, he thinks, and Jane a queen like other queens. Henry has been showing her off to the ambassadors, allowing her to converse. He is surprised – everyone is surprised – by her calm and poise. But afterwards she seems to withdraw into herself. During her first week on show, her eyes had sought out her brothers, or his, for a signal what to do. The women around her are still set fluttering by any disturbance. Francis Bryan says, what do you expect, Thomas? It is only weeks since you were questioning them one by one and tying their poor little stories in knots. They need time to recover from the fright.

The day is upon us. Helen has a list in hand. Harry Percy’s furnishings have been under covers to protect them from plaster dust and the smell of fresh paint. In the chief bedchamber, the earl’s arms have been unpicked from bed hangings of blue and cloth of gold. The counterpane of gold damask and blue velvet came with the house; beneath it, layers of new blankets of dense white wool. He woke, this morning, thinking of Tyndale, lying in the running damp. If the executioner does not kill him, another winter will. In Antwerp they slide the printed sheets of the gospels between the folds of bales of cloth, where they hide, white against white. Warm, nestled, God whispers within each bundle; His word sails the sea, is unloaded in eastern ports, travels to London in a cart. He makes a note to himself: Tyndale, talk to Henry, try again.

For the Lady Mary’s use, he has advised choosing the warmest room in the house. A great bed of down is ready, hangings of tawny velvet, cushions of russet velvet and figured green satin. ‘It could be a bridal bed,’ Helen says. He can see the pleasure it gives her – a poor girl, brought up hard – to handle the fine stuff and have a brigade of cushions at her command. She says, ‘I have moved the great purple chair to the gallery for the king. I must find a lower one for the queen. There is a little gold brocade chair for the Lady Mary. They say she is spare of habit and small.’ She hesitates. ‘Shall I see her?’

Helen is the wife of a man in the king’s privy chamber, close to his person; why should she not make her curtsey? But there are customs, and she will not break them. ‘When you show them in to their supper, I shall stand with the servants. You must not bring me forward, I should not like that.’

They are in the gallery as they speak; Helen looks up at the arras, at the white thread limbs of running figures, a maid with streaming hair. ‘I have no idea who these folk are.’

It is the story of Atalanta and her unfortunate start in life. ‘She was a king’s daughter too,’ he says.

‘And?’

A king’s daughter cannot just live quiet. There is always an and or a but. ‘But the king wanted a son. So when a daughter was born, he left her to die on the mountainside.’

‘A blameless infant?’ Helen is shocked.

‘It was a long time ago,’ he says, ‘and in Arcadia. But she was saved, because by good fortune a she-bear was passing, and gave her milk.’

‘Ah, I understand. It is a fairy tale. And then what?’

‘She grew up to be a huntress. She lived in the wilderness. She vowed herself to virginity.’

‘What did she do that for?’

‘I think it was an offering to the gods. It was before popes. Before Christ. They had small gods of their own in those days.’

Noise from the courtyard brings them to the window. Thurston is here. The kitchen staff are braced for him. In an English summer you must make your own sunshine. Downstairs, Thurston will attend to fine detail: rosewater jelly, quaking puddings, curd tarts.

The king wears white and gold, the queen white and silver. ‘Better today,’ the king says: meaning himself. In no haste to see his daughter – or wishing to seem in no haste – he strolls in the garden, Rafe Sadler at his side, examining the new planting. ‘I shall spend a week here. Perhaps towards the end of the summer.’

That’s you out on the road, he thinks. Rafe catches his eye. ‘I shall visit you, Sadler,’ the king promises. ‘Master Sadler lives down the lane,’ he tells Jane. ‘Did you know that he married a beggar woman?’

‘No,’ Jane says: adding nothing.

‘She came to the gate of Lord Cromwell’s house, two little children at her skirts. And no resource in the world – but Cromwell here, perceiving her to be of an honest demeanour, he took her in.’ Henry warms to his own story; his colour is high, his manner easy and gracious, his eye brighter than for weeks. ‘Master Sadler, seeing her flourish day by day, his heart was won – and despite her want of fortune, he married her.’

There is something lacking in Jane’s response – or at least the king thinks so. ‘Was that not great charity?’ Henry urges. ‘A man who might have married to his advantage, to match with a lowly woman, only for the virtue he perceived in her?’ Jane murmurs; the king leans down to catch it. ‘Oh yes, I expect they were marvellously put about. Cromwell, were Sadler’s family not angry? But Cromwell here pleaded their cause. He said nothing must stand in the way of true love. And,’ the king lifts Jane’s hand, and kisses it, ‘Cromwell was right.’

The signal is given, the moment arrived. The king beams around the room. ‘This day has been long in coming. You may conduct her to us, Cromwell.’ He turns to Rafe: ‘Lord Cromwell has behaved to my lady daughter with such tenderness and care that he could not have done more if he were my kinsman. Which of course,’ the king seems surprised at his own words, ‘he could not be. But I mean to reward him, and all his house. Lady Shelton, will you go with him?’

Lady Shelton has ridden from Hertfordshire in Mary’s train, along with her chest of new clothes. As they walk upstairs together, she says, ‘The king looks lighter in himself. You would almost think Jane has given him good news, though I suppose it is too soon for that.’

‘Some women seem to know it the very moment they conceive.’

‘When there is a king in the case, you would not risk a mistake.’

At the head of the stair he stops. ‘How shall I find her?’

‘Silent.’

‘The tansy bodice …?’

‘Extirpated as thoroughly as the name of the Pope.’

‘Never to return?’

‘It is made into a cushion, and sent to the nursery. We can expect the Lady Eliza to deal with it, as soon as her teeth appear. I must confess it was my fault in the first place. The king supplied her well with mourning clothes for her mother, he did not stint. But I thought your lordship might not like her to appear in black.’

Thirty-two yards of black velvet at thirty pounds and eight shillings. Forty-two shillings and eightpence to the new Master of the Merchant Tailors, for making up. Fourteen yards of black satin at six pounds and six shillings. Thirteen yards of black velvet for a nightgown and taffeta lining. Ninety black squirrels’ skins. Plus kirtles, partlets, bodices, sleeves, sundries: one hundred and seventy-two pounds, sixteen shillings and sixpence in total, on the king’s account. Now she will wear brighter hues. Every day since his visit – or rather, since the king signalled he was content – bounty by the cartload has been bumping over the roads out of Bishopsgate. He has spoken to the Italian cloth merchants, and to Hans about a design for a fine emerald, to be set as a pendant with pearls. Katherine’s furs will be inspected, and, if the king sees fit, given to Mary this winter ahead.

Tyndale, he thinks. Remember the winter ahead.

Mary looks up at his arrival. She meets his eye. The beauteous Eliza Carew is with her; Eliza does not look at him at all. Another lady is kneeling, making some adjustment to Mary’s hem. It is Margaret Douglas, the king’s red-headed niece. ‘Lady Meg is here,’ Mary says: as if he might not notice her. ‘The king thought … as it was a family occasion …’

Every time I see you, Meg, you are on your knees. He offers a hand. She ignores it, flounces up, crosses to the window and stares out over the garden. Carew’s wife is left to fuss about Mary’s train. ‘My lady?’ he says. ‘Are you ready?’

Meg is train-bearer. As they sweep out, Mary stiff and precarious in her new gown of crimson and black, he holds back Lady Carew with a gesture: ‘Thank you.’

‘For what?’

‘For your part in saving her.’

‘I had no choice. I was told.’

Women, staircases, words behind the hand: are the Emperor’s servants, he wonders, forced to work like this? You have to hold your breath, as Mary negotiates every tread on the stair. The King of England’s daughter, the Queen of Scotland’s child: such moments seem like the work of some artificer, who designs to weave them in wool or flowers. Mary glances around, as if to check he is following. Meg gives her train a shake. She seems to steer her from behind, with clucks and murmurs, like a woman driving a cart. When Mary stops, Lady Meg stops. What if Mary panics? What if she thinks at this last moment, I cannot do it? But, he murmurs to Lady Shelton, my anxiety is not so much, will she change her mind – it’s will she trip over her feet and land before her father in a heap.

‘We have done our best with her,’ Lady Shelton sighs. ‘In my opinion, a gentler hue would have flattered her complexion, but she wished to be as regal as possible. What’s the matter with the Scots girl? Doesn’t she like you?’

‘It happens,’ he says.

They had received no notice that there would be three royal ladies – Mary, the queen, Meg Douglas too. They had expected the queen to bring her familiar chamber women. But the party had not dismounted before he had called out to Helen, and she had sped away. In short order she was back: got the red tinsel cushions, she said, and laid a foot carpet down. Hung up the story of Aeneas; at least, that’s what Rafe said it is. He had thought, I hope Dido is not in flames.

At the foot of the stairs, Mary stops abruptly. ‘My lord Cromwell?’

Meg releases one long outraged breath: ‘Madam, the king is waiting.’

‘I forgot to thank you for the dapple grey. She is a gentle creature, as you promised.’ She says to Meg, ‘Lord Cromwell sent me a pretty mount from his own stable. Nothing has pleased me more – I have not ridden in five years, and it is much comfort to my health.’

‘She does look better,’ Lady Shelton says. ‘A little colour in her cheeks.’

‘Her name was Douceur,’ Mary says. ‘It is a good name, but I have renamed her. I have called her Pomegranate. It was my mother’s emblem.’

Lady Shelton closes her eyes, as if in pain. Mary gains the threshold. She disposes her skirts. The doors are flung open. The king and queen are still against the light: golden sun and silver moon. Mary takes in a deep, ragged breath. And he stands behind her: because, what else can he do?

That evening, the king releases him, so he can be alone with his family. They will retire early, and there will be no policy discussed, or papers signed. Helen says, ‘You are exhausted. Will you not stroll down the lane and sit in our summerhouse for an hour? Gregory and Mr Richard are there already.’

The evening, dove-like, is settling itself to rest. When the chronicles of the reign are composed, by our grandchildren or by those in another country, distant from these fading fields and glow-worm light, they will reimagine the meeting between the king and his daughter – the orations they made each other, the mutual courtesies, the promises, the blessings. They will not have witnessed, they could not record, the Lady Mary’s wobbling curtsey, or how the king’s face flushes as he crosses the room and sweeps her up; her sniffling and whimpering as she grips the white-gold tissue of his jacket; his gasp, his sob, his broken endearments and the hot tears that spring from his eyes. Jane the queen stands, dry-eyed, shy, until a thought strikes her and she removes a jewel from her finger. ‘Here, wear this.’ Mary’s mewling cuts off. He is reminded of Lady Bryan, holding out a teething ring to the Lady Bastard.

‘Oh!’ Mary juggles with the ring, almost drops it. It is a vast diamond, and it holds the light of the afternoon in an ice-white grasp. Margaret Douglas grips Mary’s wrist and hoops the jewel on a finger. ‘Too big!’ She is desolate.

‘It can be reset.’ The king holds out his flat palm. The gem vanishes into some pocket. ‘You are generous, sweetheart,’ he says to Jane. He, Cromwell, has seen the flicker in the king’s eye, as he calculates the worth of the stone.

‘You are gracious, madam,’ Mary says to the queen. ‘I wish you nothing but what is for your comfort. I hope you will have a child soon. I shall pray for it daily. I take you now as my own lady mother. As if God had ordained the same.’

‘But,’ the queen says. Perturbed, she motions her husband to bend his head: whispers to him. He says, smiling, ‘The queen says, it would be hard even for God to ordain, as she is but seven years your senior.’

Mary stares at the queen. ‘Tell her it is an expression of my regard. It is an established form of well-wishing. Her Grace should not –’

‘She understands, don’t you, sweetheart?’ Henry smiles down at Jane. ‘Shall we go in?’

The servants wait, kneeling, for the royal party to pass. But Helen wafts in with halved lemons on a silver tray – seeing she has come at the wrong moment, she draws back and curtseys deeply. The scent of the lemons cuts the air. Jane smiles absently at Helen. Mary does not seem to see her, but she does not trip over her either. The king checks his stride and seems about to speak; then turns to his wife and daughter, who face each other in the doorway.

‘I will not go before you,’ Jane says.

‘Madam, you are the queen, you must.’

Jane holds out her hand, naked without its diamond. That star, pocketed, beams its rays at the king’s belly. ‘Let us go in like sisters,’ Jane says. ‘Neither one before the other.’

Henry glows with pleasure. ‘Is she not a jewel in herself? Is she not, Cromwell? Come, my angels. Let us ask God to bless our repast and our new amity, and I pray it may never falter.’

But later, when their grace is made, and the king has washed his hands in a marble basin, and the dishes are served, and he has eaten artichokes and said they are his favourite thing in this world, he falls silent and seems to brood; at last bursts out, ‘Sadler, is that your wife? She who made her curtsey as we came in?’ He chuckles. ‘I think if she had come a beggar to my gate, I would have married her too. I see it was no charity. Such eyes! Such lips!’ He glances at Jane. ‘And she has already given Sadler a son.’

Jane neither sees nor hears. She just goes on steadily eating her way through her trout pasty, slices of cucumber scattered around her like green half-moons. It is as if the blessed Katherine is inspiring her. If it had been the other one sitting here, she would have laughed, and set up some peevish revenge.

Down the lane, ‘Pomegranate?’ Rafe says. He groans. ‘I should have known it was going too well.’

Strawberries and raspberries arrive. Wriothesley arrives, arm in arm with Richard Riche. They take their seats in the arbour. Pitchers of white wine rest in a bowl of cold water on the ground. He thinks, if Mary were here she would tread in that.

Rafe’s goblets are decorated with pictures of Christ’s disciples. ‘I hope it is not the Last Supper,’ Rafe says. ‘Here, sir. This one for you.’

He recognises St Matthew, the tax-gatherer. He raises the saint, and offers them the Tuscan merchants’ toast: ‘In the name of God and of profit.’

The weight of the day has fallen on him. He listens to the rise and fall of their voices, and allows his mind to drift. He thinks of the wings he wears; or so he boasted to Francis Bryan. When the wings of Icarus melted, he fell soundless through the air and into the water; he went in with a whisper, and feathers floated on the surface, on the flat and oily sea. Why do we blame Daedalus for the fall, and only remember his failures? He invented the saw, the hatchet and the plumbline. He built the Cretan labyrinth.

He comes back to himself; from the house, a baby’s cry. Helen jumps up. ‘Small Thomas. His window is open. To the night air!’

They look up; a nurse’s face appears, the shutter is drawn close, the wail cuts off. Rafe stretches out his hand. ‘Sweetheart, take your ease. He has attendance enough.’

They want her to stay in the garden with them, her beauty like a blessing. She sits down, but she says, ‘My breasts ache sometimes when he cries, even though he is weaned now. My girls I fed myself – the children I had before. But now I am a lady. So.’

They smile: they are fathers, except only Gregory. And he is already thinking how with advantage Gregory could be wed.

Riche raises St Luke. He will never stray long from the business in hand. ‘To your success, sir.’ He drinks. ‘Though you ran it to the danger point.’

Gregory says, ‘By the time my father let our friend Wyatt go free, Wyatt had pulled out what was left of his hair. He delays to show his power.’

‘Nothing amiss there,’ Riche says. ‘Since he has it. My lord – Christopher Hales is sworn in as Master of the Rolls today. He asks, do you mean to vacate the Rolls House?’

He has no plans for moving. Chancery Lane is easy for Whitehall. ‘Tell Kit we’ll lodge him elsewhere.’

‘You should have heard the king,’ Rafe says, ‘when he spoke of what he owes our master. He said, Lord Cromwell could not be more to me if he were my own kin.’

‘Then he remembered I was of mean parentage,’ he says, smiling. ‘If it were not for that, he would very much like to be related to me.’ He looks around at them. They are waiting. He remembers how Wyatt had said, you are in danger of explaining yourself. ‘God knows,’ he says, ‘I would have moved sooner, but I had to let Mary fetch herself to where we needed her to be. You were there, Riche, that day the king threw Fitzwilliam out of the council chamber –’

‘It was you who threw him out, I think.’

‘Believe me, it was better so.’ It was hard for me to walk back, he thinks, with his chain of office in my hand. I felt a breeze on my neck, as if my head were lifting away. I could have kept walking. Like Jesus, walked on the water. Or deployed my wings.

Master Wriothesley touches his arm. ‘Sir, your friends wish me to say – they have authorised me to say – that they hope you do not lose by the amity you have shown the king’s daughter. For while, on the one hand, it must be a blessed work to reconcile father and daughter, and bring an unruly child to proper obedience –’

‘Call Me, have a strawberry,’ Rafe says.

‘– yet on the other hand, we have no reason to believe proper gratitude will follow. Let us hope you have no reason to regret your goodness towards her.’

‘Gardiner will be in a rage,’ he says. ‘He will think I have stolen a mean advantage.’

‘You have,’ Helen says. ‘Mary cannot take her eyes off you.’

‘But not like that,’ he says. She watches me, he thinks, as one watches some rare beast – what might it do, if it would? ‘I promised Katherine I would look after her.’

‘What?’ Rafe is shocked. ‘When? When did you?’

‘When I went up to Kimbolton. When Katherine was ill.’

‘And you bedded that woman at –’ Gregory breaks off. ‘Sorry.’

‘At the inn. Yes. But I did not have her husband poisoned. Or invent a new crime and have him hanged for it.’

‘No one thinks you did,’ Riche says soothingly.

‘Bishop Gardiner does.’ He laughs. ‘I never saw the woman after.’

But I remember her, he thinks: at dawn, singing on the stairs. I remember the sickroom at the castle, and Katherine shrunken into her cape of ermines: her face marked with what she had already endured, and what she knew she would endure in the weeks to come. No wonder she was not afraid of the axe. ‘Contemptible,’ Katherine had called him that day. He remembers the young woman – whom he knows, now, was Bess Darrell – gliding away with a basin. Master Cromwell, Katherine had asked him, do you take the sacraments still? In what language do you confess? Or perhaps you do not confess at all?

What had he said? He can’t recall. Perhaps he said he would confess if ever he was sorry, which mostly he wasn’t. He was leaving, but – ‘Master Secretary? A moment.’

He had thought, it is always the case: it is just as you are heading out of the door – as if to show you no longer care – that your prisoner concedes guilt, or offers you a bargain, or yields up the name you have been waiting for. Katherine had said, ‘You recall when we met at Windsor?’ She had added, unflinching, ‘The day the king left me?’

The very swans on the river stunned with heat, the trees drooping, the hounds from the courtyard making their hound music, till their bell-like voices withdrew into the distance, and the train of gallant horsemen moved away over the meadows, and the queen knelt praying in the afternoon light, and the king who went hunting never came back.

‘I remember,’ he said. ‘Your daughter was ill. I made her sit. I did not intend she should faint and crack her head.’

‘You think I am a bad mother.’

‘Yes.’

‘But still I believe you are my friend.’

He had looked at her, astonished. Painfully, clasping her hands on the arms of her chair, the dowager got to her feet. The ermines slid to the floor, nosing each other, curling at her feet in a soft feral heap. ‘I am dying, as you see, Cromwell. When the time comes that I can no longer protect her, do not let them harm the Princess Mary. I commend her to your care.’

She did not wait for his answer. She nodded to him: you go now. He could smell the leather binding of her books, the stale sweat from her linen. He made his reverence to her: Madam. Ten minutes later he was on the road: and ridden here, to the conclusion of the enterprise, to the place where promises are kept.

Gregory says, ‘Why did you do it?’

‘I pitied her.’ A dying woman in a strange country.

You know what I am, he thinks. You should by now. Henry Wyatt told me, look after my son, don’t let him destroy himself. I have kept the promise though I had to lock him up to do it. In the cardinal’s day they used to call me the butcher’s dog. A butcher’s dog is strong and fills its skin; I am that, and I am a good dog too. Set me to guard something, I will do it.

Richard Cromwell says, ‘You could not know, sir, what Katherine was asking.’

That’s the point of a promise, he thinks. It wouldn’t have any value, if you could see what it would cost you when you made it.

‘Well,’ Rafe says. ‘You kept this close.’

‘Since when was I an open book?’

‘I don’t think it was a good idea,’ Gregory says.

‘What, you don’t think it was a good idea to stop the king killing his daughter?’

Richard Riche says, ‘Tell me, sir, I am curious – how far does your care of her extend? Were she openly to rebel against the king, what would you do then?’

Richard Cromwell says, ‘My uncle is the king’s sworn councillor. The promise he made to Katherine was – I will not say a word lightly given, but it was no solemn oath. It could not bind him, if there were any conflict with the king’s interest.’

He is silent. Chapuys had said, you may renegotiate with the living, but you cannot vary your terms with the dead. He thinks, I bound myself: why did I? Why did I bow my head?

Riche says, ‘Does Mary know of this … what shall we term it … this undertaking?’

‘No one knows, except myself and the dowager Katherine. I have never spoken about it till now.’

Riche says, ‘Best if it goes no further. We will consign it to the shadows.’ He smiles. Perhaps nothing is quite clear, that is spoken in a garden on an evening like this. In Arcadia.

Richard Cromwell looks up. ‘Don’t try and make it a dirty little secret, Riche. It was an act of kindness. No more.’

‘But here comes Christophe,’ Rafe says. ‘Et in Arcadia ego.’

Christophe’s bulk occludes the last rays of sunlight. ‘Chapuys is here. I told him, stay in the house, till I see if my lord desires your company.’

‘I hope you put it more courteously,’ Rafe says. He gets up.

‘I’ll fetch him,’ Gregory says.

His son has seen that Rafe needs to arrange his face. Rafe takes off his cap and flattens down his hair.

‘You look tidier now,’ he tells him, ‘but no happier.’

Rafe says, ‘Truly, Mary shocked me, when I went up to Hunsdon with the papers for her to sign. Running downstairs like that – I never saw a gentlewoman go unshod – at least, not unless a fire broke out. When she snatched the letter from my hand, I thought she meant to rip it up. Then she went shrieking away with it as if it were a map for buried treasure.’

‘That treasure,’ he says, ‘is her life.’

‘I could not answer for the worth of that lady,’ Riche says. ‘I fear she may be counterfeit coin.’

Helen looks up. ‘Hush. Our visitor.’

Gregory says, ‘He doesn’t understand English.’

‘Doesn’t he?’ Helen says.

They watch the ambassador pick his way across the lawn, flickering like a firefly in his black and gold. ‘I took a chance on my welcome,’ he says. ‘Master Sadler, how happy I am to see you in the midst of your family. How well your garden flourishes! You ought to set a vine here, and train it over a trellis, like the one Cremuel has at Canonbury.’ He takes Helen’s hand. ‘Madame, you have no French, and I no English. Yet could I command your tongue, words are needless, for at so sweet a flower, it is enough to gaze.’ He swivels on his heel. ‘So, Cremuel, we survive the dies irae. And all your boys are here. I think we may congratulate ourselves. Echoes have reached me. I hear the king has given his daughter a thousand crowns, not to mention a diamond worth as much again, and made her great guarantees as to her future. And I tell you, gentlemen, if Cremuel can pacify the Lady Mary, I expect soon to see him descend to Hell and fetch up Satan to shake hands with Gabriel. Not that I compare the young lady to a devil, you understand. But he is quite justified in reproaching her with being the most stubborn woman alive.’

Ah, he thinks. She showed you the billet doux I sent her. They embrace. He is careful not to crush the ambassador’s bones. Chapuys looks around him, smiling. ‘My friends, let this be a new era of concord. No one wants another dead lady, or a war. Your prince cannot afford it, and mine is a lover of peace. What I always say is, wars begin in man’s time, but they end in God’s time. What a pretty summerhouse.’ He shivers. ‘Forgive me. The damp. We could go inside, perhaps?’

‘What a deficient climate,’ Rafe says.

‘Alas,’ says the ambassador. He follows Rafe towards the house. ‘When once you have been in Italy …’

Helen collects the disciples. ‘Christophe, you can take these, but mind St Luke, I think he is chipped. Richard Riche must have gnawed him. I shall have to use him for flowers.’

‘Chapuys looks upon you with lust,’ Christophe tells her. ‘He says, when I gaze on Mistress Sadler, I burn with desire, I wish command of her tongue. I shall fight King Henry for her.’

‘He does not!’ Helen is laughing. ‘Get inside, Christophe.’ She takes his arm. ‘You did not finish the story, sir. About Atalanta. In the tapestry.’

He thinks, I wish it were some other story.

‘She was a virgin,’ Helen prompts. ‘But her father, you said. Then you stopped.’

‘He wished to find her a husband. But she was averse to matrimony.’

‘She challenged her suitors to a race,’ Gregory says. ‘She was the fastest person in the world.’

‘If the man outpaced her, she must wed him,’ he says, ‘but if she won, then –’

‘Then she was allowed to cut off his head,’ Gregory says. ‘Which she greatly enjoyed. There were heads bouncing everywhere, you could not go a pace without one rolling out of an olive grove and eyeing you. In the end she married a man who outran her, but he only did it with the help of the goddess of love.’

Later, back at his own house, in the gallery’s waning light. ‘You see the golden apples?’ Gently, Gregory aligns her, points them out. ‘Venus gave them to the suitor, and when they began to race, he threw them at Atalanta’s feet.’

‘Those are apples?’ Helen is staring at the arras. She sucks her finger, laughs. ‘I did not know they were running, I thought they were having a bowling match. Look at her hand – I thought she had just sped the ball away.’

He sees how it scoops the air. He grasps her error. ‘So, what happened,’ someone says, ‘did she trip on the apples?’ Their voices are a murmur. They recede. The light falters. Nesting birds rustle under the eaves. Vespers are sung and Compline, the offices of night. The dew is cold in the grass. Shutters are closed against the exhalations from meres and ponds. Atalanta snapped up the gold, she sold the race. You cannot say she lost on purpose, but she knew the consequence if she swerved. ‘Perhaps she was tired of running,’ Helen says.

‘She was not insensible to the value of money,’ he says. ‘Et in Arcadia.’

‘Did she like being married?’ Helen appraises her – a wild-haired woman, a bare arm flung before her. ‘I suppose her husband stopped her running around like that, with her duckies on view. Or perhaps a husband didn’t mind in those days.’

He thinks, I have seen her in Rome, carved in marble: her slim running legs, her pleated tunic, her torso straight as a boy’s. She got a taste, some versions claim, for the carnal life. She bedded her spouse in the temple of a heathen god, after which she was changed into a lioness.

At least, he thinks, that’s one worry I don’t have. Daughter into beast, it won’t happen to Henry’s child. One day she will have to marry, but for now she is safe from adventurers who have special arrangements with the goddess of love. She is to go back to Hertfordshire tomorrow morning. The king and queen are planning their first summer together. They will make their visit to Dover. When Parliament rises, they will go hunting. The ring, impulsively offered, will be reduced to fit. In recompense, the emerald pendant will be worn not by Mary, the branch and flower of Aragon and Castile, but by Jane, the daughter of John Seymour of Wolf Hall.

Perhaps you have seen, in Italy, a painting of a house with one wall removed? The painter does this to show you the deep interior of a room, where at a prie-dieu a virgin kneels, surrounded by bowls of ripening fruit. Her expression is private and reserved; she has kicked off her shoes and she is waiting to be filled with grace. Already you can see the angel hovering above the rooftops, a blur of gold on the skyline, while below in the street the people go about their business, and some of them glance upward, as if attracted by a quickening in the air. In the next street, through an archway, down a flight of steps, a housewife is hanging out washing, and someone is rising from the dead. White pelicans sit on rooftops, waiting for Christ’s imminence to be pronounced. A mitred bishop strolls through the piazza, a peacock perches on a balcony among potted plants, and striated clouds like bales of silk roll above the city: that city which itself, in miniature form, is presented on a plat for the viewer, its inverse form dimly glowing in the silver surface: its spires and battlements, its gardens and bell towers.

Imagine England then, its principal city, where swans sail among the river-craft, and its wise children go in velvet; the broad Thames a creeping road on which the royal barge, from palace to palace, carries the king and his bride. Draw back the curtain that protects them from the vulgar gaze, and see her feet in their little brocade slippers set side by side modestly, and her face downturned as she listens to a verse the king is whispering in her ear: ‘Alas, madam, for stealing of a kiss …’ See his great hand creep across her person, fingertips resting on her belly, enquiringly. His hands are alive with fire, rubies on every finger. Within the stones their lights flicker, and clouds move, white and dark. This stone gladdens the heart and protects against the plague. The speculative physicians speak of its heated nature: notice the heated nature of the king. The emerald too is a stone of potent virtue, but if worn during the sexual act is liable to shatter. Yet it has a greenness to which no earthly green can compare, it is an Arabian stone and found in the nests of griffins; its verdant depths restore the weary mind and, if gazed on constantly, it sharpens the sight. So look … see a street opened to you, a house with its walls folded back: in which the king’s councillor sits, wrapped in thought, on his finger a turquoise, at his hand a pen.

At midsummer, the walls of the Tower are splashed with banners and streamers in the colours of the sun and the sea. Mock battles are staged mid-current, and the rumble of celebratory cannon fire shakes the creeping channels of the estuaries and disturbs the fish in the deep. In sundry and several ceremonies, Queen Jane is shown to the Londoners. She rides with Henry to Mercers’ Hall for the ceremony of setting the city watch. A parade of two thousand men, escorted by torchbearers, walks from Paul’s down West Cheap and Aldgate, and by Fenchurch Street back to Cornhill. The city constables wear scarlet cloaks and gold chains, and there is a show of weaponry, and the lord mayor and sheriff ride in their armour with surcoats of crimson. And there are dancers and morris men and giants, wine and cakes and ale, and bonfires glowing as the light fades. ‘London, thou art the flower of cities all.’

Click to listen highlighted text!