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The Mirror and the Light (The Bleach Fields – Part 1)

When you become a great man, you meet kinsfolk you never knew you had. Strangers turn up at your door claiming to know more about you than you know yourself. They say that your father helped them in their misfortunes – unlikely – or that your mother, God rest her, knew their mother well. Sometimes they claim you owe them money.

So when among a crowd of petitioners he sees a woman who looks familiar, he takes her for a Cromwell of some sort. Seeing her again next day, and it appearing she has no protector, he has her fetched in.

She is a young woman, robust, sober. Good wool, he thinks, looking at her gown. He does not look at her, as looking at women gets him into trouble. ‘I am sorry you had to come back for a second day. As you see, half of England is out there.’

‘It has been a longer wait than you know, sir.’ Her English is fluent, her accent Antwerp. ‘I have come from over the sea, from Meester Vaughan’s household.’

‘You should have said so, they would have brought you in at once. You have a letter?’

‘No letter.’

Messages that can’t be put in writing are usually bad news. But she seems unperturbed: her eyes sweep over his coat of arms painted on the wall, and the set of pictures made by Holbein’s apprentices. ‘Who are those?’

‘Princes of England.’

‘You recall so many?’

He laughs. ‘They are long gone. We have invented them.’

‘Why?’

‘As a reminder that men become dust, but the realm is continued.’

‘You like to think about old days?’

‘I suppose I do.’ I prefer the common history, he thinks: in my own life and times, certain themes must be elided.

Her questions are simple ones, her manner open, and surely her message is nothing – snippets of Antwerp gossip too trivial for a courier. Still, he is interested to sweep them up. ‘Christophe, wine for this young lady – will you take some wafers and spices, some raisins? An apple?’

‘It was by eating of an apple that sin came into the world.’ But she smiles as she says it, and as she takes her seat, raises her eyes to the Queen of Sheba, behind him on the wall: where she with her kindly expression and modest diadem offers a cup to the wisest of kings.

Her eyes flit to his face. She looks shocked. ‘Where did you get that tapestry?’

‘Our king gave it to me. For my services.’

Her glance moves back. ‘And where did he get it?’

‘From my patron, Wolsey.’

‘And where did he get it?’

‘Brussels.’

She looks as if she is calculating its value. ‘So you did not have it made yourself?’

‘It would have been beyond my means. I was not always a rich man. You see that it is Sheba and Solomon. You know your scriptures, I venture.’

She says, ‘Also I know my mother.’

The cup in his hand is part-way to his lips.

She says, ‘I am Anselma’s child. I do not know how she is in this tapestry, but we can ask ourselves that some other day.’

He rises to his feet. ‘You are welcome. I did not even know that lady had a daughter. I also have asked myself how it came about that her picture is in this weave. It is for her sake I always coveted it. I would look and look, and one day the king said to me, “Thomas, I think this lady should go and live with you.” He turns back to her, smiling. ‘So your father must be –’

He knows who Anselma married, after he left her to return to London. He knows the man’s banking house, his family. Yet his name has always stuck in his throat.

She says, ‘I know the gentleman you mean. My mother married him after I was born.’

He frowns. ‘So he is not your father?’

‘No,’ she says. ‘You are.’

He puts down his cup.

‘Look at me,’ she says. ‘Do you not see yourself?’

Her sectioned apple lies on her plate; he studies its green peel; he studies the plate beneath it, blue and white, Italian, the design half-hidden by the fruit. His mind completes the hidden picture.

She says, ‘I came because I heard from Meester Vaughan there was revolt here, and that you were in danger from certain pilgrims. I wanted to see you, even if it was only once.’

He thinks of his daughter Anne following him upstairs, her stocky little form wobbling, her fat hands reaching out. He says, ‘My daughters are dead.’

‘I am informed.’

By Vaughan, of course. What more has he told her? And what less? He says, ‘How is this possible?’

‘Secrets can be kept.’

‘Evidently.’ In his experience, secrets do not keep. Perhaps that flat watery country is less leaky than this.

She says, ‘It was my mother’s wish that after you left Antwerp you should not be troubled. When I would ask her, “Where is my father?” she would say, “Gone over the sea.” When I was a little child I thought you were one of those men who sails to the new-found lands, and brings back treasure.’

He turns his back to give himself a moment to arrange his face. He looks at the tapestry as if he had never seen it before: as if he were taxed to unpick it and reweave it. It is usual to show Sheba gazing at Solomon. Hans, for instance, has made a picture in which the monarch wears the face and garments of our own king, and the onlooker sees the back of Sheba’s head. But Anselma looks you frankly in the face; she has turned away from the Israelite, as if behind her smile lies boredom.

She says, ‘You are thinking, I am not much like my mother.’

More like me, poor girl. ‘You are aware that until this moment I did not know you lived?’

‘I have shocked you. I am sorry.’

‘You must allow me time to understand it … Your mother bore you after I crossed the sea, and said not a word to me?’

‘That was her resolve.’

‘But why did she not write, when she knew her condition? Why bear it alone? Of course,’ he sighs, ‘you cannot answer that. Such matters are not discussed with children, are they? But I would have come back. I would have married her. Tell her –’

‘My mother is dead. A cold on her chest this winter.’

In the pause he consults his heart: it registers nothing, except the trace of the pen that, in the Book of Life, lightly inks a fate. It is the fate of a woman he knew in another country. And she not young, either.

His daughter says, ‘My mother always spoke well of you. Though she did not speak of you much. She said, Jenneke, I do not want him to regard you as a mistake he must pay for; he was a young man far from home, and I a widow, and both of us wanted company. But as you say, a child never hears the whole of these matters, and that is why I have come to find out for myself what manner of man you are. Are you glad to see me?’

‘I am amazed,’ he says. ‘How could I have a daughter and not know it? When she was carrying you, how did she hide you?’

She shrugs. ‘As women do. She went away. She made a journey. I was born in another town.’

‘And she married the banker.’

‘Yes, it was a good chance for her. He was a kind man and made her no reproach, but he had sons from his first wife, he had no need of an Englishman’s daughter. I stayed with the nuns, who were good to me. Then my mother took me to Stephen Vaughan. Teach her English, she said, against the day.’

Against the day when the secret comes out. ‘How could Stephen know and say nothing?’ Each word she speaks seems to deepen his bewilderment. Though he has heard, of course, of cases like this. Men like him, who have been travellers; men like him who are not celibate saints: one day they are going about their lawful occasions and there is a knock on the door, and ‘Guess who?’ It was a joke with the cardinal, who claimed he had spawned bastards everywhere: whenever some squat rascal heaved into view, he would say, ‘Look, Thomas, one of yours.’

No joke now. He says, ‘You know Stephen Vaughan is here in London?’

‘He will scold me,’ she says. ‘He intended to pick his good time and tell you himself. He said, Cromwell rises in the world, he has the ear of the king; he defends the gospel, he protects our sisters and brothers, and we should not carry fuel to the flames. He said, no name is too bad for his enemies to smear him – and if they know about you, Jenneke, they will call him a whoremaster too.’

‘True,’ he says.

‘But then he said, you do not want to be a nun, Jenneke, nuns are finished; so it is time you were wed. And your husband will need to know who you are, or we can make but a poor bargain – you are a bastard, but you are not just any bastard. We must sound out my lord your father, we must prepare him. But then this trouble broke out. And I did not want to wait any longer.’

When he held out his hands to her, she had not risen to take them; she had kept her seat and kept her countenance, and he admires her for it. He searches for Anselma in her but can only find himself. He thinks, why did you not come early? Time was when I was a different sort of man. Time was, I would bound into my own house and run upstairs singing. Even last year I was different, before I met Wolsey’s daughter: before she cut me to the quick, and the wound healed and scarred.

He asks, ‘Your mother had more children? With the banker?’

‘No. But she lacked nothing. Nor did I. The nuns taught me what a woman needs to know. Later, many of them who were wise women read the books of Erasmus, his New Testament, and became wiser still. Perhaps you knew him?’

‘No, not I. I only know his books. Though he came to London and stayed with Thomas More. Outstayed his welcome, Lady Alice said.’

‘More had a wife?’ She digests this. ‘I thought he was some kind of monk.’ She puts down her plate; she has eaten most of her apple, so now the platter shows the blue townscape beneath: campaniles, castellated towers, bridges over fast-flowing water. He has spoken of More without thinking – the name hovers at everyone’s lips these days, you would hardly think the man was dead; to hear the chit-chat about him, you would expect to meet him as you hurry down Cheap. ‘You are a Bible woman?’

‘I am instructed.’

‘And you know – forgive me, I do not know what Stephen has told you – but you know it is my cause, it is my chief endeavour –’

‘The English scripture. I am advised.’ She says, ‘Meester Vaughan tells me your father was a brewer, trading in wool also, having a sound business, and connected to a good family called Villems, who were towards the law.’

‘Williams,’ he says. ‘We say it so.’ He considers. ‘All that is true.’

Enough said, perhaps? She doesn’t need to hear about Walter.

‘These people have helped you to your fortune? The family Williams?’

She is a quick learner. Already she seems less foreign than when she entered the room. He says, ‘Wolsey helped me. But perhaps Stephen has not told you who Wolsey is?’

‘A worldly prelate. Dead.’

‘You see my coat of arms, painted there on the wall? Those black birds are called choughs. They were the cardinal’s emblem.’

‘Does it not anger his enemies to see them there?’

‘Yes. Oh, yes. But, you see, they have to grit their teeth and stifle their curses. They have to bow their heads and endure it and say, “I trust you are in health, Lord Cromwell?” They have to fetch up a smile for me. And bend the knee.’

‘You are proud.’ She gazes at him. ‘Your person is very fine, and I like very well your house. I was told, your father is the first citizen of London. I did not believe it but I believe it now. I have stood outside a day or two. I wanted to look at you and judge.’

That seems reasonable. ‘I am encouraged that you decided to come in.’

‘Who would not be curious to see such a great household? Especially if your father is in it.’

He feels he ought to make some statement, some apology – some lengthy explanation, why all is not as it seems – but already he hears footsteps and voices outside his door, his people will be thinking this young woman has taken enough of his time. He says, ‘When you work for Henry Tudor you have no choice in how you appear. You must be a courtier, you cannot look like a clerk. And the common people, outside the gate, you must show them you have the king’s favour. They only understand what they see plain. If you put on no show, they take you for nothing.’

He wants her to know, I was happy in my lawyer’s black. But is that true? He thinks, I used it for concealment. That does not mean I was content. Did I not have a doublet of purple satin, long before the cardinal came down?

The door opens. It is Thomas Avery. He stares at the visitor. ‘Christ in Heaven, Jenneke, what are you doing here?’

‘Thomas Avery, this is my daughter.’

The young man stands with a folio slapped to his chest, his eyes on Jenneke. ‘I know.’

When Jenneke has gone he calls Avery in and bids him sit; he would give him an apple if he wanted one, and they are good Charterhouse apples too. ‘I am not angry,’ he says. ‘Come, Thomas Avery, you are a Putney boy, my people knew your people, we should deal straight with each other.’

‘None of that follows,’ Thomas Avery says warily. ‘Putney people are as crooked as anywhere. Worse.’

‘I mean, we should be at ease with each other.’

Avery looks at him as if to say, do you have any idea how impossible that is?

‘You saw her, did you not, at Stephen’s house, when I sent you over to learn his trade? You came back and talked about her. Jenneke, you said. The name so often on your lips, I thought you were in love with her.’

Avery says nothing. His hands lie still, unoccupied.

‘I thought, we will make this work for Avery – even if she is an orphan with no money, Stephen and I will manage it between us. But then you ceased to speak of the girl and I thought – God help me – I thought perhaps she had died, and so I did not speak of her either. I waited for news. And now …’

He feels he is reaching for the truth but failing to grasp it. A dead thing has proved quick: it is as if Anselma is one of those statues monks keep, that moves its eyes, jerking them in their orbits; or reaches out a wooden hand, and adjusts its cerulean robe.

Avery says, ‘Sir, I came home from Antwerp with Jenneke’s picture in my mind as clear as if she stood before me, and in this very room I took your measure, I studied your features, I crossed the sea again and studied hers. You can see she resembles you, and I could not miss it. I put the question to Mr Vaughan. He said, Avery, you have it right, but be very secret. I saw I had trespassed in private business. Vaughan said, I will not ask you to take an oath, for that should not be done except in the gravest cases, and I suppose it will come out one day – but let it not be through you.’

‘And you kept my secret. That I did not know myself.’ He considers Avery. ‘Well, if you can keep one secret, you can keep another.’ The boy stirs, reaching for paper, but he raises a palm: ‘Sit still and listen. I am going to tell you where my money is.’

Avery is surprised. ‘Well, sir, I talk to your receivers and your surveyors. Your officers are all confidential with me. If they were hiding anything, I would know.’

‘I applaud your diligence. But there are other funds.’

‘Ah.’ Avery thinks about it. ‘Abroad?’

He inclines his head.

‘Why?’

‘Against the day.’

‘But has not the king said – you will pardon me, sir, but the whole city talks of it – “I will not part from my Lord Privy Seal, not for no man on earth”?’

‘That is what he has said.’

Avery looks down at his feet. ‘We know the love his Majesty bears you. We see the fruits of it daily. But we fear the country will rise again, and who knows how the world will turn? Not that we doubt our sovereign, his word – but who was in greater favour than my lord cardinal in his day?’

‘His example is before me.’ Though not his ghostly person: not since Shaftesbury. ‘So if one day the Duke of Suffolk and the Duke of Norfolk storm in here, breaking my locks and splintering my chests, and wrecking like the devils at the sack of Rome, I want you, Thomas Avery, halfway down the street, and not so much as “What do you?” Do not even stop to curse them, just run. As soon as you can get a letter abroad, send to those names I shall tell you. Then if Henry lays hands on what is mine, he will think he has the whole, but he will be – let us not say he will be deceived, for I would not deceive my king – let us say he will be less than fully informed.’ He watches Avery. ‘You can do it? Or the task lies too heavy?’

The boy nods.

‘Good.’ Because Richard is of too hot a temper for such a post-mortem task. And Rafe is assumed to know all my business, he thinks, and I should not like his loyalty divided, as he is the king’s servant now and must answer to him. He says, ‘Gregory is still young. He would need help. And now it seems I have a young woman to provide for as well.’

‘Where has she gone, sir?’

‘To seek Vaughan. I wonder what she will tell him.’

He would be glad to have Avery in his family. But he is no longer free – he is pledged to the daughter of Thacker, the steward. They keep close, the Austin Friars boys: perhaps there will be one of them spare for his daughter to wed. Though something in Jenneke’s manner tells him that she has not come to stay. She came to satisfy her curiosity and set eyes on the father who is a great man. Perhaps as a child she watched for his ship coming up the Scheldt. But those days are long gone and childhood is over.

Aske’s safe-conduct is good till Twelfth Night. At Greenwich during the Christmas season, the king has asked the rebel leader to write an account of the outrages in the north – from the first hint of trouble in the autumn, to his winter journey under flag of truce.

Aske is two or three days about his task, sustained by prime beef, claret and banked fires. The product is conveyed to my lord Privy Seal. He is spending his holiday dealing with letters from Calais, where the population has been swelled by an influx from beyond the Pale of men and their families pressing to become English denizens. Grain is short this winter and herring go four for a penny, therefore some plan will have to be made to feed the town. No use waiting for the governor to do it. Lisle can’t boil an egg.

My lord Privy Seal lays aside his letters to read Aske’s tale of the Pilgrims. ‘What a marvellous little book,’ he says at last. ‘I wonder that a lawyer should be so free with the ink.’ Aske talks about himself like a man in a storybook. ‘The said Aske’, he calls himself. He says what he did in the rebellion, but he doesn’t say why.

‘Aske has seen the king,’ says my lord Privy Seal. ‘The king has seen Aske. He has served his purpose. Now get him back to Yorkshire.’

Aske must be conveyed promptly, with the king’s offer of a general pardon, in order to quash rumours that on the one hand he has been hanged, and on the other hand promoted to high office. No loyal subject could turn down Christmas with his king. But the visit has compromised him: it will be easy for the Yorkshiremen to say the court has bought him. In any event, it is futile to believe Aske alone can command the towns and shires. The banner of the Five Wounds has even been seen in Cornwall, where they say it was brought back by some real pilgrims, who had walked right across the country to the shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk.

Does this not show the nature of the pilgrim trade? In my lord Privy Seal’s view, nothing comes of trailing from shire to shire to pray. You can pray at home. It costs you less, you don’t get robbed on the road, and you don’t spread diseases or carry them back to your native country. Besides, Walsingham is useless, the king says. ‘I went there to pray for my son I had with Katherine, but he only lived two months. Still, Jane wanted to go. Women are fanciful and set store by shrines. She prayed for her womb to quicken but … There you are,’ the king says. ‘Nothing’s happened yet.’

As part of his peace offer, the king has committed himself to a progress through the north. At Whitsuntide in York he will open a parliament and crown Jane: or Michaelmas, at the latest. Convocation will sit in York too, so the northern church can have its say in how we worship God, instead of being quashed by Canterbury and told what to think and how to pray. Ahead of the king’s coming, the Duke of Norfolk will arrive to guarantee order, and deal out justice to anyone who breaches the newly-established peace. Norfolk will have the title of the King’s Lieutenant, and he will not come with an army, but only his ducal train. Meanwhile those gentlemen who have taken part with the rabble, voluntarily or not, are required to get themselves into the king’s presence to make their explanations and receive their pardons man to man.

But when the north empties of its chief leaders, every tanner and butcher pushes to the fore, inscribing rebel proclamations and nailing them to church doors. The Earl of Cumberland writes it is dangerous for a messenger to be taken with a letter addressed to Cromwell – whatever the content, he will be murdered. The wars are bitter, in pulpit and in print, in guildhall and market square: name-calling, placarding, brawling. Royal couriers and even the heralds are attacked on the roads, their office not respected. Since they meet the Pilgrims’ immediate demands, the king’s offers are enough to buy a truce. But with regard to their request to turn time backwards, nothing is done and nothing can be done.

The crown is anxious about its income this year; he, the Lord Privy Seal, meets with the treasury to plumb the depths of the deficit from the north, where taxes due last September are still unpaid. Rafe Sadler leaves mid-January on a mission to Scotland – he is meeting our king’s sister Margaret, who is seeking to annul her third marriage. On the road he sees how uneasy is the king’s peace. At Darlington, forty men with clubs come and stand outside his inn, with no good intent. ‘So Rafe is having a dangerous time after all,’ says my lord Privy Seal. ‘He thought his life was too quiet.’

Rafe talks down the Darlington men, addressing them from the window of his inn, shivering as the wind slices: out of sight below the sill he grips a dagger. Lucky they don’t know Rafe is like a son to Cromwell, or they would haul him out and make short work of him. Worse is ahead, he fears, from the Scots. Besides, experience assists him: forty armed Yorkshiremen do not equal Henry on a bad day.

‘Wait till the king gets among them,’ my lord Privy Seal says with relish. But only part of him believes the king will go.

We are all concerned about our friends in the north. When Lord Latimer set out for London, to give an account of his conduct in last year’s broils, a rebel host entered Snape Castle and took his wife Kate hostage. There is eye-rolling and elbowing among the young clerks at the Rolls and at Austin Friars: ‘Our master will ride to her rescue – he must, she is his bride-elect.’

According to the northerners, it is the king’s niece Margaret Douglas who is his bride-elect, and he is aiming to be named the king’s heir.

He says, ‘This Douglas marriage, is this instead of the Princess Mary, or as well? The rebels think I am a heretic, but surely they know I am not an infidel, to have a wife in every house?’

Gregory says, ‘I think I should have some choice in my stepmother, but nobody asks me what I think. These ladies are none of them much my senior. And anyway,’ he says, puzzled, ‘why do people think my lord father will outlive Henry, to reign after him? It does not say much for Dr Butts and his art.’

The news of his father’s bastard, Gregory has received with equanimity. He is glad to have a sister again. ‘When my father is king,’ he says, ‘and wed to Latimer’s wife Kate, and to Meg Douglas and Mary Tudor, you will be the Princess Jenneke, and you and I shall harness a gold chariot with white horses, and speed like Phoebus through Whitehall, and throw buns to the populace. The populace will say, “They are plain-looking folk, but see how their faces shine!” And eat up their buns, and bless us as we hurtle past. Surely you will stay with us? What can Antwerp offer, next to the prospects here?’

When he has cleared an afternoon, he sits with his daughter, the snow-light filtering into his workroom: ‘These books?’ she says.

‘Law books.’

She nods. ‘It was your trade.’

He asks her, ‘How is Antwerp now? I try to picture it. I heard about the fire at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe church. I hear that the roof fell in.’

‘It was a catastrophe,’ she says. He is pleased that she knows the word. ‘It started with one candle. All the timbers from the transept fell, and destroyed the chapels below. Some of us said it was God destroying idols.’

‘When I came back here I was homesick for Antwerp,’ he says. ‘I was settled among its customs, and I would have stayed there, for not much encouragement. You must believe me – if I had understood your mother to be with child, I would not have left her. I would not have dragged her to England – you see, I was returning home after many years, and I had no patron, and no sure livelihood.’

He sees himself then: sleek young Italian, face attentive, eyes busy. What’s left of that boy? Only his glance around a room to note the exits, his dislike of having people moving behind him. Now he settles into a chair when he sits in it. His hands – formerly busy with knife and quill, taking down the words of other people – now rest lightly one in the other, right fist in left palm. He looks as if he is praying; but with a slight shift of posture – a straightening of the shoulders, a dip of the chin – he looks as if he is spoiling for a fight.

He says to his daughter, ‘I forgive Stephen Vaughan, I must, because he meant for the best, even though it would have been a consolation for me to have you here with me. Such things happen. Misunderstandings. Partings.’

‘It is through Stephen Vaughan I know you,’ she says. ‘He talked of you, long before I had reason to listen. He would not admire a soft man or a foolish man. He loves you next to God.’

‘Do people know who you are? In Antwerp?’

‘Some guess. You are well-remembered in the town.’

No doubt he is. The English merchants would say, go out, Thomas, and hear the gossip. Tell us what our neighbours are saying; when they put their heads together and use Antwerp expressions, what are we missing? He wore in those days an air of dazed amiability, the new boy keen to learn. ‘What can Antwerp offer?’ Gregory has asked Jenneke, and once he had asked it himself. In Italy you thought, this is all I want: this misty view from belvedere or turret, this blue, this gold; this heat filtered through leaves, this mosaic across which the light shifts, where ancient eyes look back at me. It was true there were aspects of Italy he preferred to forget. What can you learn from the memory of hunger and pain, of destitution and flight? He remembers the day when his only task was to drag himself undercover before it was too cold to sleep in the streets. But in Florence his fortunes turned. It was there – and in Venice, in Rome – that he had learned to be sly and sidelong, always vigilant, always ready to take offence or pretend it, ready also to back off with a soft word when the odds were against him. He learned to walk by night, to whisper, to bow to magnificos; to step forward at the right time, with the right hint or suggestion made in a low voice, so magnifico can take the credit.

But then he was restless. He thought, what next? And when he set foot in Antwerp he thought, there is more to want and more to know. The sky so wide and the land so flat, possibilities stretching out before you. In Italy you learned cunning, but in Antwerp, flexibility.

And besides, the shopping! Just step out of your door and you can get a diamond or a broom, you can get knives, candlesticks and keys, ironwork to suit the expert eye. They make soap and glass, they cure fish and they deal in alum and promissory notes. You can buy pepper and ginger, aniseed and cumin, saffron and rice, almonds and figs; you can buy vats and pots, combs and mirrors, cotton and silk, aloes and myrrh.

Already he had friends in the city. On the day he first sailed from England, a boy, he had met a merchant family with their samples of wool, and they had seen the marks of his father’s boot on his face. We shall not forget you, they said, there is a bed for you whenever God brings you to our town. The years rolled by: ‘Good Lord!’ they said, when he knocked at the door. ‘It’s Thomas! He is grown up! He is an Italian now!’

In Antwerp, the more tongues you could master, the more you could succeed. If he lacked a phrase in one language, he had it in another, and his earnest vehemence made up for any gaps. He sought out, as he had in Italy, the company of sober elders, whose table talk was refined and who would give away their wisdom to a young foreigner who admired them, one who asks questions, questions, and looks impressed by the replies. Such dignitaries always need a repository for their secrets, just as they need a man who will take a confidential dispatch and be back with an answer before you notice he’s gone. The drawback is that one must consent to their indoor lives: no calcio, just polite archery on a Sunday. The courtyards where one trades in wool and money may be open to the sky, yet they cannot help but smell of tallow, ink and dinners, seeped into the wool of dark winter garments: he would walk, and under the shadow of the Steen with its warehouses take a breath of river air, and imagine the great world beyond. There were some hundred of his countrymen – Englishmen, that is – dwelling in or around their English House; they lived side by side with the Castilian nation, the Portuguese and the Germans, but they were cherished by the city because they paid so well for their privileges. When their ships came in they had first use of the crane at the docks, powered by a man treading inside a wheel. He asked one of the Antwerpers, ‘Does it have a name?’

A baffled look. ‘We call it the crane.’

He thought, if a cannon has a name, if a bell has a name, the crane should have a name too.

‘It is not unreasonable,’ he said coolly.

The Flemish fellow said, laughing, ‘We can call it Thomas if you like.’

‘By the way,’ he muttered, as he walked away, ‘it would work a lot better if you had men treading the outside, not the inside.’

No use trying to disturb the fixed notions of a strange city. But he is a man who thinks about lifting heavy weights, about winches, beams and pulleys, and about joints, how to make them frictionless.

Of course they gossiped about him, when he moved into Anselma’s house. She undertook to show him the country and introduce him to people who could do him good, relatives of hers. One day they went to Ghent together and stepped into the church of John the Baptist to say a prayer. It is only on a feast of the church that they open the doors of the great altarpiece to show you the crowds of angels and prophets flocking to the Lamb of God. Instead they saw the donors of the piece, portrayed on the outer doors. They were a careworn couple, she purse-featured, he bald: but no doubt full of grace. He thought, give it thirty years, and that could be us. I would have forgotten my English and be entirely a Fleming: a stout burger, persuading younger legs to run to the wharves for me, or climb up to high places to see if my ships are coming in.

The church was bustling and noisy, but they could hear each other whisper: their heads close, her fingers sliding into his palm. Their breath mingled; she leaned against him, soft and warm. He said, ‘Make me good, O Lord, but not yet.’

She laughed, and he said, ‘Not me. Augustine.’

Yet the day came when she told him, ‘Time to sail, Thomas. You are my past now, and I am yours.’

He goes to the Tower to interview Robert Kendall, the vicar of Louth, the first begetter of the trouble in Lincolnshire: the pardon does not extend to such principal offenders as he. Clouds stack over the town in grey-blue fortresses of air, battered by the wind as if by cannon-fire. Mr Wriothesley attends him. He misses Rafe, but Rafe is heading to Newcastle, to await his safe-conduct over the border.

Reginald Pole has left Rome, in his new cardinal’s hat. Now that peace has broken out, he has missed his chance to invade and lead the English, though the Scots have made clear they would have been ready to come to his aid. When Lord Cromwell hears Pole is en route to Paris, Francis Bryan crosses the Narrow Sea with a demand for his extradition. Reginald reaches the French capital to find the king is elsewhere. Thwarted and scanted, blocked and barred, he skulks off towards Imperial territory: but our man in Brussels has already persuaded the Emperor’s regent not to receive him.

The new cardinal’s relations – his mother Lady Salisbury, his brother Lord Montague – still protest they abhor his foolery. All they want is to see Reginald conformable and loyal to the Tudors, as they are and ever shall be. To hear them talk, if they saw Reginald in his red hat, they would snatch it off and spit in it.

Mr Polo, the Spanish call him. It makes my lord Privy Seal laugh.

‘I hear you have had a visitor, Cromwell,’ the Imperial ambassador says.

‘Oh yes? Why don’t you tell me all about it, Eustache?’

The ambassador waves a hand. ‘Naturally the neighbours talk. It is not every day they see the Queen of Sheba’s daughter with her travelling bag.’

Their dinner comes in: in deference to the cold, a thick ragout of mutton, and an ox-tongue pie heavy with mace. ‘Ça va, Christophe?’ the ambassador enquires, but Christophe only grunts; he is wondering how much of the pie they might chance to leave.

‘I wish it were spring,’ Chapuys says. ‘I am like the Israelites in the desert, I long for the melons and cucumbers of Egypt.’ He sighs. ‘Mon cher, you must not blame me if your amours are of interest to all Europe. Hitherto, observers have been frustrated by your extreme discretion.’

‘It is a stale sin,’ he says. ‘If it was ever a sin at all.’

Chapuys serves himself a little ragout. The scent of dried sage fills the room. ‘You think your Lutheran God will understand?’

‘I tire of telling you I am not a Lutheran.’

‘Rest from your labours, for I shall never believe it,’ Chapuys says cheerfully. ‘Certainly you are a sectary of some sort. Perhaps one of those who oppose the baptism of infants?’

He chews a little, his eyes on Chapuys. This is the rumour young Surrey has spread, and other ill-wishers; it is the way to ruin him with Henry, and the ambassador knows it. ‘Christophe,’ he calls, ‘where’s that capon?’ He puts down his napkin. ‘Is it likely?’ he says to Chapuys. ‘How could I profess such a creed, and remain the servant of a Christian commonwealth? Those people oppose the payment of taxes. They oppose the taking of oaths. They oppose books and writing and music.’

‘Yet they say this sect has crept in everywhere in Calais. And Lord Lisle cannot do much against it.’

Christophe bears in the capons, the flesh cubed and seethed in red wine, the sauce thickened with breadcrumbs.

‘This is a very brown repast,’ Chapuys says, ‘but it tastes better than it looks.’

‘Soon it will be Lent. Then you will be crying for the fleshpots of Egypt, and never mind the melons and cucumbers.’

The ambassador dabs his mouth. ‘What will you do with your new daughter? Marry her quietly, I suppose, with a good dowry. You will confess to the world who she is?’

‘I shall have a hard time to hide it, with you shouting it through the streets.’

‘It is a miracle,’ Chapuys says. ‘Like Lazarus. Though one wonders, was he truly welcome?’

It has crossed his mind before now. Were his family pleased to see him, or did they think he had been too self-important, in violating the laws of nature?

‘What does she want, actually?’ Chapuys asks.

‘Just to see me. She says she will not stay.’

‘Back to the heretics’ refuge?’

‘Antwerp is hardly that. Your Emperor keeps his hand on it.’

‘As I understand it, the whole place is hollow. There are tunnels and cellars, a whole city underground, and from the surface you would not know it was there. Of course, you will have been in them yourself, in your young days?’

‘Naturally. Because they are warehouses. Nothing more.’

Chapuys says, ‘If you want to keep your daughter in England, you will have to tempt her. You must unlock your chests and spend your money. Is there a woman in this world who will refuse a string of pearls, or a border of goldsmiths’ work?’

In Antwerp you open a door that you think leads to another room. Instead, plunging at your feet is a stair down into the earth. You strain your eyes into the darkness. You creep like a snail, your shoulder brushing the wall to steady you, a foot feeling for the edge of the step. Yet within weeks, you can run up and down easily, your feet knowing exactly where to go.

But only in your own house. On another man’s steps, look out.

Austin Friars, January: his daughter turns over, in a flood of splintered sunlight, the Book of Hours that belonged to Lizzie Wycks. ‘Your wife, what was she like?’

What can he tell her? We were practical people, who did each other acts of practical kindness; she died and I missed her. Her affections were deep and stern and when she spoke to the children about their derelictions she would say, ‘I tell you this for your own good.’ When she went into company she wore a gable hood like a woman of fashion but when she was at home she wore a housewife’s coif. She was a maker of lists, a tabulator of stores: servants careless as they are, a woman must always be taking stock. She kept a list of his sins, in the pocket of her apron: took it out and checked it from time to time.

When his children were born, the house was entirely given over to women. Elizabeth was well-furnished with cousins and godsibs. They knew his family, his history, and perhaps they did not think he could rise above it. He was very pleasant to them, very mild. One day he heard a cousin say to Liz, ‘He tries really hard, your husband.’ He could not hear Liz’s muffled response. For all he knew she might have said, ‘He tries really hard but he consistently fails.’

When they married he had said to her, one thing I guarantee: no woman of mine will be poor. He had hoped to be a good husband, to be provident, faithful. He was exceptionally provident and mostly faithful. By the time Grace was born he was working for Wolsey every hour. The cousins would look at him warily when he came in: where have you been? As if it must be somewhere nefarious. They were waiting to see another self: the wolf that lives in man, his father Walter bristling through his skin.

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