The Mirror and the Light (The Bleach Fields – Part 2)
By the time he returned from Antwerp, Walter was a man of consequence in the district. Formerly he had enlarged his land-holdings by kicking over his neighbours’ boundary-markers, but now he had acres by lawful purchase, and he had invested in his brewery, even tempting a Lowlander over to teach him to improve his beer, for the art was well-mastered there. His brother-in-law Morgan had said, ‘Thomas, you should go to Putney and see your dad now. You should see the belly on him. You should see the hat he’s got, now he’s a churchwarden.’
‘If you recommend it,’ he’d said, ‘I’ll go and have a look.’
The day came. Before he caught sight of Walter, the neighbours caught sight of him. Word spread. Some gawper said, ‘It’s bloody little Put-an-edge-on-it. Where’s he been, do you think?’
He did not feel a need to answer.
‘Show his face here!’ a woman said. ‘He must think we have short memories!’
He had nothing to say.
‘We thought you were dead,’ a fellow exclaimed.
He did not correct him.
Then he looked up and Walter was rolling towards him. He wasn’t wearing the hat but he was wearing the belly. It didn’t soften him. He might be sober and shaven, but he still looked as if he would knock you down as soon as blink.
The smithy was still there, not that Walter did the work these days; when he held out his hand it was pink and clean and you would have to look close to see the burn marks.
He, Thomas, prowled around the premises. Tools in their racks; a leather apron on a peg, with the stench of the tannery still about it. Or perhaps he imagines that: sweat, salt, shit, all the savours of his early life. Walter said, ‘Taking inventory, are you? I’m not dead yet, boy.’
He made no answer.
‘You moving back?’ Walter asked.
‘We not good enough for you?’
People are always prompting you, you notice, to forgive and forget. They are always urging you, do as your father did, boy: be what your father was. Young men claim they want change, they want freedom, but the truth is, freedom just confuses them and change makes them quake. Set them on the open road with a purse and a fair wind, and before they’ve gone a mile they are crying for a master: they must be indentured, they must be in bond, they must have someone to obey.
He would like to be the exception. He has travelled a mile and more. But perhaps he isn’t that different from the mass of men. As a boy, before he ran away, all he wanted was to be his father – Walter, but tidier. He had thought, one day the old man will keel over and get buried: then I, Thomas, will be master of the brewery and runner of the sheep, and I’ll hand the smithy work to boys I’ll train, only because of lack of hours in the week. There’s something about a smithy (it’s the warmth) that draws in all the idlers of the district on a winter’s day, and they stand around gossiping, till the light drains from the sky, and the colours of burning, cherry red to pale straw, are replaced by a sky of slate, by the moon heeled underfoot by late drinkers heading home. The day gone, and what’s to show for it? Rose-headed nails or brads, hooks, skewers, stakes, bolts, holdfasts, bars.
In Florence, and then in Antwerp, Walter patrolled his dreams: he would wake up belly churning, awash with rage. But still, he came home to Putney. When Walter died the neighbourhood mourned his loss: the new, reformed Walter. He believed in Purgatory in those days, and though he paid a priest to pray for Walter’s soul, he hoped Purgatory had a good strong lock on the door. He sees no need for Walter’s grandchildren to put him in their prayers.
Anne is a child who grizzles and wails, a trouble to the wet nurse: greedy, Liz says. She always wants something but nobody knows what it is. All of us are born into sin, our souls already besmirched: Anne illustrates it, the picture of infant turpitude. She creates spillages and knocks objects flying. She sits on the stairs outside the room where he is working, till he brings her in and she sits under the table with the dog, twisting Bella’s fur into spirals, humming to herself; till he says, ‘For God’s sake, daughter, can’t you read a book?’
‘Not yet,’ she says. ‘When I’m six.’
‘How old are you now?’ (He loses track.)
‘I don’t know.’
It is a good enough answer. Why would she know, if he doesn’t? He brings her out from under the table, and says he’ll teach her. ‘But I should warn you,’ she says, ‘I’m not fit to have a book.’ She speaks in her mother’s voice. ‘Give that child anything and she destroys it. You’d think she was brought up in a midden. Look at the state of her.’
When Anne applies to her needle, beads of blood decorate her work. Liz says, she’d be better with a cobbler’s awl, except a cobbler wouldn’t be so chatty. He will not let his wife strike her; Anne cannot be faulted for diligence, and for the rest he feels she should not be faulted. ‘I suppose she will outgrow it,’ Liz says. As Gregory will outgrow his bad dreams, in which demons who live south of the river try to bribe the guards to let them across the bridge; or knock down the watermen and commandeer their barges, leaving them bloody smudges on the quays; or simply wade through the black tide and pad the streets with their webbed feet, looking for Gregory Cromwell to chew and digest.
When Gregory commands a story he wants the same one over and over, till he can take it away and murmur it, his private possession: the fair knights Gawain and Galahad, or the giants Grip and Wade. But Anne shouts, ‘Oh, we killed that beast yesterday, isn’t there a worser?’ What next, she says, what next? The world is burning under her hand. She lives in intense striving, her earnest little face creased with concentration: the women say, don’t frown like that, Anne, you’ll stay that way and then no one will marry you.
Before Advent he made the peacock wings for Grace, working with a penknife and a fine brush, sticking feather to fabric with bluebell-root glue. ‘Sad work to be doing by candlelight,’ Liz had said. But the days were short and there was no choice if she was to have them for the Christmas play. He prayed he would not be called away before the job was done; he was always out making money for the cardinal. He would have liked Grace to know it was for her that he was so often on the road, to provide for her future: but how would she understand that, when he never comes home, if he comes at all, till the fires are damped and all God’s people sound asleep? Sometimes he would stand by the door of the room where she was bundled into bed with Anne and a young servant, the three entwined like puppies. Once, once only in all the nights, she had raised her head and looked at him from the darkness, her eyes open wide and the flicker of the candlelight inside them; perhaps she thought he was in her dream, as she was in his. She wore no expression, nothing he could later recall: he remembered only the shape of the bedcurtain, a curve of shadow; the glow of a white sleeve, a white face, and the flame in her eyes.
Jenneke says, ‘It was a cruel time for you, the children dead so young. I ask myself, why did you not begin another family?’
‘I had Gregory.’
‘But why did you not marry again?’
He doesn’t know why. Perhaps because he didn’t want to have to give an account of himself, to say what he was thinking. It didn’t matter in Lizzie’s day, because he only had the usual thoughts. Some men can make a tidy parcel of their past and hand it over; not he. But when he looks at Jenneke he cannot help but imagine other histories. If he and Anselma had wed, would they have had only one child? Or is he more potent than the banker? In this reconfiguration of circumstance, Gregory would be unborn. His soul would be bobbing around in the somewhere, still waiting for a body. Anne and Grace, likewise, would never have been conceived. And this house would not have been his house. The day not his day, when they told him his wife was dead, and the day not his day, when his daughters were sewn into their shrouds and carried to burial: two lost little girls, weighing nothing, owning nothing, leaving barely a memory behind.
‘So what have you done since?’ his daughter asks. ‘About women?’
‘You are blunt.’
‘An Englishwoman would not ask?’
‘Not out loud. She would wonder. And listen to gossip. And add to it. Invent something.’
‘Better to say the truth. Of course,’ she says, ‘one buys women. No doubt your people arrange it for you. They are in awe of you.’
‘I am in awe of myself,’ he says. ‘I never know what I will do next.’
He goes to court: in his bag are plans for war machines. Better he has the king’s ear in these matters than Norfolk, whose ideas are old-fashioned.
But the gentlemen grooms intercept him: there are six French merchants with the king, with chests full of fabrics and ready-made garments – they have guessed at his measurements. ‘He is trying on all their stock,’ the grooms warn. Their faces say plainly, stop him, Lord Cromwell, before he spends the cost of a castle, or fritters away some cannon.
It is a day of raw cold, a metal light. But great fires are blazing in the king’s chambers, and the scent of pine and amber floats towards him on a warm cloud. ‘Come and get warm, Thomas,’ the king says. ‘Come and look at what these fellows have brought.’ His face is alight with innocent pleasure.
The merchants murmur and make him a bow. They have thrown open the lids of their travelling chests and are spreading out their stock: not only embroidered garments but looking glasses and gemstones. They show the king a standing cup whose lid is topped by a naked boy riding a dolphin. They unfurl a needlework panel four yards long, and line up with it plastered across their persons. The king’s eyes pass left to right over Susanna going to bathe, the Elders spying from the bushes. They offer a child’s cap garnished with gold buttons in the shape of the sun in splendour; the king smiles and perches it on his fingers, saying, ‘If only I had a child to fit it.’
Mr Wriothesley’s eyes signal to his: distract the king, please. ‘Ah, you have dog collars!’ he exclaims: as if dog collars were his only thought.
‘Let us see,’ the king says. ‘Ah, this is pretty, it would look well on little Pumpkin!’ He says to the Frenchmen, almost shyly, it is my wife the queen’s pet, Lord Cromwell got her from Calais.
At once, they write him down for a velvet collar, six shillings, and making further curtseys draw out bags, and disgorge crucifixes and clocks and puppets and masks, topaz rings and tortoiseshell bowls. Kneeling, they offer bracelets enamelled with the signs of the zodiac, and a picture of the Blessed Virgin standing on a carpet of fleur-de-lys, her immortal child in the crook of one arm and a sceptre in the other. They lay out chessmen and cases of knives, and the king’s hand reaches out, as if to set the board or test a blade. From a linen shroud the Frenchmen draw a jeu d’esprit – a pair of sleeves in grass-green, embroidered with deep-red strawberries: to each berry there is a dewdrop, a diamond clear as water.
‘Oh.’ The king glances away, to dilute their sweetness. He is pink with desire. ‘But I am too old for those.’
‘Never!’ The French speak as one man. Call-Me joins the chorus. He keeps quiet. The king is right, the sleeves are meant for a tender youth, like Gregory or the late Fitzroy. But you can see how Henry’s mouth waters.
A hush falls on the Frenchmen. It is the signal, he knows, that they have arrived at their best item. Their captain gestures the youngest of them forward. The Frenchman stoops over a chest; he clicks a key in its lock; he pauses, then draws out and floats into the air something like a swathe of evening sky, or a thousand peacocks, or a vestment for an archangel. Murmuring in delight, they flourish, they spread, they caress the gorgeous vestment: ‘We designed it expressly for you, your Majesty. No other prince in Europe could carry this off.’
The king is entranced. ‘I may as well try it, since you’ve come so far.’ His face is shadowed by a sea-green ripple. ‘We call it pavonazzo,’ the Frenchman says: a turn of the wrist, and the cloth flows in liquid iridescence, turning from sea-green to azure to sapphire. The king shines like Leviathan, upheaved from the ocean bed. He takes a breath at the sight of himself.
They mention a sum. The king laughs, incredulous. But you can see him edging towards the purchase. Mr Wriothesley, brave man, makes an ah-hem. The king acknowledges it with a flicker of his blue eye, then he grimaces, cunning as any old miser: ‘It is a pauper king who stands before you, messieurs. I have spent all my money on the wars.’
‘Really, Majesty?’ The Frenchmen look at each other; you can be certain one or more of them are spies. ‘We thought it was only a spit-spat,’ their captain says, ‘some far-flung agitation of no import, and no more to your puissance than a flea-bite.’
‘At least,’ one adds, ‘that is what Monseigneur Cremuel is telling the world.’
Even while the false Frenchman is saying it, he is sliding other wares from a leather bag soft as a virgin’s sigh. It crosses his mind that in Harry Norris’s day, they would not have got access: unless of course Norris was taking a percentage.
The sun has come out, a white haze infiltrating the forenoon. It emboldens the merchants, who hold up their mirrors, and walk around the room with them: as they angle them, they catch little off-cuts of the king’s person, and with each caprice of the light, he dazzles himself.
Yet still Henry hesitates. ‘Come, Majesty,’ they say. ‘We are giving you first refusal. Think how you will feel if one of your courtiers were to buy it – it would be a humiliation for any prince.’
An inspiration seizes the king: ‘You know my vessel the Mary Rose is enlarged? I mean to make her carry more ordnance, and to build some new warships – two or three. I believe those are the drawings, that the Lord Privy Seal has in his bag.’
Mr Wriothesley grins. Warships: the message cannot fail to be carried home to France. ‘So you see I may not commit great sums for my adornment,’ the king says. ‘It would wrong the commonweal.’
The dealers begin to gibber. Sweat starts out of their brows. He realises that even their captain must answer to a master, and he dare not take these wares back unsold. If the King of England will not buy, where next: the Emperor, the Sultan? Add in the expense of the voyage; factor in that the goods may look fingered.
What he really has in his bag, besides the war machines, is an excitable proclamation from the north, urging a new Pilgrim effort. ‘Wherefore now is the time to arise, or else never, and go proceed with our pilgrimage for grace …’
He steps forward. ‘My lord Cromwell?’ the king says.
He whispers in Henry’s ear: caveat emptor, sir, and by the way – let me at these pedlars.
‘I know,’ Henry says aloud. ‘I will.’
But Thomas, he whispers: I want it all. I want Susanna and the Elders, and the chessmen, and the puppets, and the strawberry sleeves. And in that pavonazzo, I like myself much better than I did.
‘Watch this,’ he whispers to Call-Me. He follows the Frenchmen out. Safely beyond the closed door, he throws an idiomatic fit: what do they take him for? What fraud is this they are trying to perpetrate, on one of Christendom’s great potentates? Do they not fear for their souls, passing off such trash? Our Lord Jesus Christ, if he saw them, would personally hurl them out of the Temple and break their teeth: and as it seems Jesus is not here, he will gladly do it himself.
‘But Milord Cremuel,’ the Frenchmen moan. One begs, ‘Magnificence, lend your king the money.’
They reduce their demands, drooping with anxiety and fatigue.
‘I’ll have your total in writing,’ he says. ‘Five copies, please.’
They blanch. They are afraid he means to pay them with a warrant, which they must then present, and sue for payment, and wait till quarter-day. ‘We dare not go back without money in hand,’ they say. ‘We will be skinned alive.’
‘Cash, then,’ he says, indifferent. ‘But a third off the price.’
They brighten. The compliments begin. ‘We will make you a present, of course, my lord – this mulberry satin would do much to enliven your complexion?’
He considers it. It’s something, not to be purple-faced like old Darcy. Not to be drawn and jaundiced, like Francis Bryan. Yes, he agrees, that hue has a certain appeal.
Call-Me says, ‘Be careful, sir.’ With the colour, he thinks he means. He wants to unroll the bolt, see it in the piece, how it changes with the light, but this is not the place. ‘You can come to my house,’ he says. ‘And those vanities you did not show the king you can show to me.’ He turns away. ‘Mr Wriothesley, do you have my list, my remembrances there? We should get back to our meeting, we have a dozen items to work through before we can let his Majesty have his morning back. And we must talk about the new warships of course.’
When after Vespers he goes back to the king with papers to sign, he tells him how much money he has saved him. ‘Did you?’ Henry says. ‘I thought I had driven a bargain, but there you are.’ The king’s brow has cleared. He looks five years younger than before the Frenchmen came; it’s almost worth the expense. ‘I want some new clothes,’ he says, ‘because I think of being painted. Speak to Master Hans for me.’
‘Gladly,’ he says. He goes out smiling: good news for once.
Before he left court after the Christmas season, the king gave the rebel Aske a coat of crimson, which ill became him, especially when he blushed red with pride. Departing homewards, Aske left it at an inn, the Cardinal’s Hat, with other stuff too heavy to port to Yorkshire. Perhaps he did not want his gruff compeers in the fells to see him tricked out like a dancing monkey. The outer man, Henry knows, shows the inner man to the world; and if he knows it, how much more does Master Hans. He paints your shell and he does not put his sticky fingers on your soul; when he draws you in preparation, he makes a note of the colours you wear, in a tiny hand that looks like stitching along a seam. Hans has waited for a big commission, and here it is: as the Boleyns used to say, le temps viendra.
The rebels say, Wherefore now is the time to rise, or else we shall all be undone: Wherefore forward! forward! forward! Now forward on pain of death, forward now or else never.
His daughter says, ‘I want to tell you about Tyndale, how he died.’
It is twilight; they sit together in an alcove. ‘You saw it with your own eyes?’
‘Tyndale wanted witnesses. People who would not look away. Have you ever seen a man burned?’
He says, ‘In the king’s service, yes, I regret.’ Henry controls what you look at; you cannot direct the angle of your gaze. ‘I have seen a woman burned.’ He feels a tightness in his chest. ‘But that was a long time ago. She died for Wyclif’s book. It was an old Bible. She was what they call a Lollard, and many such folk were poor and could not read, and so they learned the scriptures by heart. But she whose death I witnessed – this heretic, as they termed her – she was not poor, and not unfriended. It was only that, I being a child, and seeing her bareheaded and in a smock, and seeing their base usage of her, I took her for a beggar.’
She interrupts him. ‘You were a child? Who took you to see such a sight?’
‘I brought myself. Wandering through the city, to Smithfield. It is open ground, where folk suffer even to this day. My family did not know or care where I was. My mother was dead.’
In deference to her English, which is good but not perfect, he is speaking simply; a lesson for me, he thinks, a lesson for us all, to converse with Jenneke. Never have events seemed so plain: no nuance, but a clear noonday light. She says, ‘Stephen Vaughan has told me of how he first met Master Tyndale. He says it was at your instruction.’
‘I hoped at that time Tyndale would come back to England. Be reconciled with the king.’
‘They did not stay within doors,’ she says, ‘because walls have eyes and ears. They went out to the fields – not the schuttershoven where they practise with their arrows, I mean the … the raamhoven – the bleach fields?’
‘Ah,’ he says, ‘not bleach fields, you mean the tenter-grounds. Where they pin out the cloth to dry.’
But she has put in his mind an image of Tyndale strolling in the open air, the ground dissolving into a pale radiance, the city walls whispering into vapour: his shabby cross-grained countryman transfigured, and Meester Vaughan beside him, hood pulled up, his secret instructions hugged to his heart.
‘Tyndale lodged with the merchant Poyntz,’ she says. ‘He lived quiet, like the poor apostles, working to make his Bible, and he sought no payment for the great pains he took. The merchants fed him, they gave him a little money in his hand, and out of that he gave charity. He made no trouble, so the city magistrates were content.’
‘Your overlords, of course, were aware of him.’ The Emperor’s black double eagle flies over the walls; Antwerp is not a free city, though it has free men in it.
She says, ‘He was careful, he drew no attention. The English language is not much understood of them, nor did they know his face. But then the man Phillips came, the man who sold him.’
‘Harry Phillips,’ he says. ‘Yes.’
‘You know him?’
‘I know who paid him. Everybody knows.’
‘Meester Poyntz misliked this person. From the first he warned, beware of that one, you do not know his intentions. But Tyndale was not of that suspicious sort. His mind was only on his book. No one who knew him would have given him away. Only a stranger, and a paid stranger. Phillips learned his habits, where he would walk and with whom converse. He enquired, how far along with his holy work? Then he took the word to Brussels. The councillors did not listen at first but he had money to buy their attention. He brought them papers of Tyndale that he had stolen, letters, and he put them into Latin so that those councillors could understand, and always he was urging how the Emperor would recognise their services, and reward them. And so they decided to seize up Tyndale. They waited for a day when the quarter was empty, when all the merchants were out of town, gone to the Easter market at Bergen. They wished, you understand, to do it quietly and without any disturbance on the street.’
‘Poyntz would be away,’ he says. ‘Everybody.’
‘You will hear he was taken outside the English merchants’ house. This is not true. It was outside the house of Poyntz.’
‘The first news is always wrong,’ he says.
‘Phillips led the soldiers, and they blocked the way. He pointed: “That is the heretic, take him.” The good man went with them like a lamb. Even the soldiers pitied him.’
That narrow place, he can picture it as if he stood there. He has lived and worked in that same net of streets. He sees Tyndale – a little man, irate – turning desperate between gate and wall.
‘When they returned from Bergen the English merchants made their protest. But they could not do anything.’
‘Thomas More paid for Tyndale’s death,’ he says. ‘He vowed he would follow him to the world’s end. He planned it from his prison, and he had plenty of time, the king was patient with More and so was I. You must not think he was straitly confined. His friends sent his dinners in. He had good wine and good fires and good books. He had visitors. Letters came and went.’
‘I would have kept him closer,’ she says.
‘We were remiss, I see that now. Killing Thomas More did not avail because the payments were already in the pocket of that shabby knave Phillips.’
Early dark has fallen. He rises, lights a candle, closes the shutter against a night of steel-tipped stars. His daughter’s eyes follow him, every move. She would make a good witness, he thinks. ‘Thomas More wrote his epitaph in his lifetime,’ he tells her. ‘He was that sort of man.’ Words, words, just words. ‘He wanted it engraved in stone: Terrible to heretics. He was proud of what he did. He thought if you let the people read God’s word for themselves, Christendom would fall apart. There would be no more government, no more justice.’
‘He believed this? Truly?’
‘That we needed the constraint of ignorance? Yes.’
‘He did not give much credit to his fellow man.’
‘But then – I dare say that unless you knew him you could not understand – his own sins lay heavy on him. And at the end, I think he had lost faith in his own arguments. Those people who now claim to be his followers – he would not recognise the painted papist they make of him. I can remember a time when he was no great friend of popes. And you know that blood-truffler Stokesley is still at work? Stokesley who is Bishop of London, I mean. It was a protégé of his that was vicar of Louth – that is in the east country, where these late troubles broke out. It all goes back to More.’
She frowns. So many names, too many; too much geography, the terrain of a strange land. ‘Nothing ended with his death,’ he says. ‘It only began. When he was alive and Lord Chancellor, Stokesley used to aid him, raiding houses, hauling men and women to prison.’
‘Dismiss this bishop. You have power.’
‘Not that much.’
‘Shall I see him?’
‘Stokesley?’ He is amused. ‘If you like. He is a blustering fellow. Not worth the seeing, in my opinion. I have better bishops to show you. And noble dames, if you like. And their lords.’
‘Shall I see Henry, where he is throned?’
He hesitates. ‘Tell me about Tyndale. After his arrest.’
‘He was not hurt in prison. I can say at least that. They respected his scholarship and they tried by reason to convince him. They treated him as a Christian man.’
More, he thinks, would have tormented him with bitter words and with scourges.
‘He wrote much in his own defence. They brought against him the worst people they had.’ She spits out their names. ‘Dufief, who is a corrupt lawyer. Tapper. Doye, Jacques Masson. All the great papists of Leuven.’
‘They wanted to destroy him in argument,’ he says. ‘I admit, I have wanted that myself. If he would have come to the king’s side in his great matter – I mean, the matter of his marriage – he would have been safe, perhaps sitting here with us now. I tried to save him, but I am only a private man. I was not even Lord Cromwell then. The Emperor did not heed my appeals.’
‘Your king might have saved him,’ she says, ‘but he would not. Some would ask why, when your ears are open to the gospel, you would serve such a master.’
‘Who else should I serve? A man cannot be masterless.’
The door opens. Young Mathew. Letters. ‘Put them there.’
‘They stay for an answer, sir.’
‘Leave them. Say I am with my daughter.’
‘I should say that?’ Mathew asks. ‘As you please, sir.’ He goes out.
She says, ‘My tale is almost done. Tyndale gave no ground. They could not shake him. All the weary months they say he prayed for his gaolers, and I believe we shall presently hear that some of them were brought to Christ.’
‘That would be good hearing.’ More likely, he thinks, they stripped his cell after he was gone, stealing even a threadbare coat or candle-end. ‘They say he tried to work even while he was shut up.’ He imagines the word of God, damp and slimy, slipping from the page and pooling on the stone flags.
‘I can’t see that could be possible.’
She says, ‘He left certain writings behind him, in the city, in the secret places of the wall.’
‘Who has them? I shall buy them.’
‘I cannot tell you. Your king might rip them from your hands.’
True, he thinks.
‘We thought they would burn him as soon as the trial was done, but they kept him a little space – to give him more chance to recant, we suppose. Then we thought they might burn him inside the prison, but it was done in the market. They chained him to the stake, and put a halter around his neck. They arranged this mercy, as they call it – to be strangled first. They make a hole in the stake – do you know this? – and pass the rope through, so the executioner is behind him, and when the flame is set, he heaves backwards on the rope, and so kills the good soul. But often of course he does not.’
‘I have heard he was not dead when the fire reached him. That he spoke from the flames. He said, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”’
She says, ‘He spoke nothing. How could he speak? He was choked. He stirred and moved and cried with the pain.’ She is angry. ‘Who is King Henry, to occupy his last thought? And what is England – except the realm that turned its back on him?’
They sit in silence. Tyndale has left us his New Testament and some of the Old; the Law and the Prophets, the records of Israel’s fearful wars, God’s long campaigns against His chosen people. ‘The king sees …’ he begins. But he lapses into silence. Smoke is what he sees; hears the distant bellowing of a crowd. ‘He sees that an English church needs a Bible. We have worked long to bring him to it. We have agreed a translation, and it is Tyndale’s, as far as we have his work, but it goes under another scholar’s name. We have put Henry’s own image on the title page. We want him to see himself there. We need him to set forth a Bible under his own licence, and set the scriptures up in every church, for all to read who can. We need to get it out in such numbers that it can never be recalled or suppressed. When the people read it there will be no more of these armed and murdering Pilgrims. They will see with their own eyes that nowhere in the scripture does it mention penances and popes and purgatory and cloisters and beads and blessed candles, or ceremonies and relics –’
‘Not even priests,’ she says.
Not even priests. Though we do not stress that point to Henry.
‘Jenneke,’ he says, ‘you have come so far to bear witness. Now it is done, you will not abandon me? This place is strange to you now but you will soon feel at home. I will make you a marriage, if you think you could love an Englishman.’
Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims. Martyrs don’t reckon with the results of their actions. How can they, when their mind is only on how to endure pain? A month after Tyndale, the merchant Poyntz himself was arrested, on the word of Harry Phillips. Poyntz was accused of being a Lutheran and he would likely have burned, but he escaped and is now in London. His wife Anna has refused to join him. Why should she leave her life, her language, to dwell with a man whose name is besmirched and who has abandoned her and his children, and whose livelihood has gone too?
As for Phillips: with Thomas More dead, he is seeking other paymasters. He has been in Rome, and our man there, Gregory Casale, reports him trying to worm into the Pope’s favour by claiming to be one of More’s relations. Now he is in Paris, they say, looking for who he might destroy. Phillips is plausible, none more: a witty, conversible young man, easy to like, with a bagful of hard-luck tales, and a treasury of names he can mention from his time at Oxford. It is easy to see how he insinuates himself, the ever-helpful youth with his mastery of several tongues.
He says, ‘Do not go back, daughter. Life will be harder. Antwerp will be less free. The city magistrates – the sway they thought they had, they do not have. There will be more arrests. The printers must take care.’
There are more English books printed in Antwerp than in London, but those who print without a licence are branded, sometimes an eye is gouged out or a hand cut off. And informers are everywhere. Even, no doubt, amongst our own merchants.
He says, ‘Your mother –’
‘The Queen of Sheba?’ She smiles.
‘– she knows this is her home, Austin Friars. I never move her. If I quit this house for the summer I roll her up and put her in store.’
Anselma’s woollen self has never aged. But he fears if she is carried too much across country, her features may fuzz and blur. She came into his house only after his wife was dead. He is not the sort to run two women at once, or, like Thomas More, to marry a second wife before the sheets of the first are cold.
The fire is low; he throws a log on it. ‘My wife’s mother, Mercy, she is aged now. A house needs a mistress. I am always hearing that I am about to marry, but I never seem to do it.’
He pictures Meg Douglas swishing across his threshold. Or Kate Latimer, which seems a lot more likely, if old Latimer would go and die. He pictures Mary Tudor blundering in, flailing around her as she did at Hunsdon, her tiny feet grinding his Venetian goblets to dust.
‘Or you could live with Gregory,’ he says.
‘Gregory has a house?’
‘He will have. I will marry him this year.’
‘No,’ he says shortly. ‘I shall tell him when I have found a bride.’
‘Would it be the same with me? This Englishman you say I might wed?’
He looks up. ‘I will give you your choice of bridegroom, of course. Gregory is my heir, it is not the same. I will make you a good settlement.’
She says, ‘I am like poor Anna Calva. Poyntz’s wife. She would not live among strangers.’
‘But think of Ruth, in the Bible. She adapted herself.’
She laughs. ‘You mistake those times for these? We live in the last days, they at the dawn of the world.’
So. She is one of those who think, what is the use of marrying, or giving in marriage? These are the end times.
He thinks of Wolsey’s daughter, knocking him back. He is not sure he has got up again.
‘I shall leave you,’ she says. ‘I mean, for tonight only. I shall not go without a goodbye.’
She came to tell a story, and she has done it; to see a father, and she has seen one: what’s to keep her now?
Lazarus, of course, died twice. The second time it was for good and all. Travelling east for his bank once, he visited his second and final tomb. It is guarded by ferocious monks, who stick a collecting bowl in your face and make you empty your pockets to see something that, after all, is only proof that miracles do not last. The crippled man walks, but only twice around the churchyard before he collapses in a flailing of limbs. The blind man sees, but the faces he knew in his young days are altered; and when he asks for a mirror, he doesn’t recognise himself at all.
After his daughter has left, Mr Wriothesley comes in. ‘So what about Harry Phillips? Could she tell you anything you didn’t know?’
He says, ‘I see he is a useful man. And mobile.’
‘One might send him after Polo. I do not think Phillips is a papist, sir, for all his pretences. I think he will work for anybody.’
He nods. ‘But I fear only direct force will do for Polo, and a man like Phillips leaves the killing to others.’ He pauses. ‘But no harm to sound Phillips out. Interest him a little. One never knows if there might be a use for him.’
‘After all,’ Call-Me says, ‘you employ Dr Agostino. Even though –’
‘Yes.’ He cuts him off. He uses him even though he suspects him of selling the cardinal. Dr Agostino travels Europe, and sends much useful intelligence back.
He thinks of Tyndale in the bleach fields, his human sins whited-out, speaking from within a haze of smoke. He thinks of the river at Advent, its frozen path. There is a poet who writes of winter wars, where sound is frozen. The soil beneath the snow seals in the noise of stampeding feet, the clank of harness, the pleas of prisoners, the groans of the dying. When the first rays of spring warm the ground, the misery begins to thaw. Groans and cries are unloosed, and last season’s blood makes the waters foul.
Now Tyndale has put on the armour of light. On the last day he will rise in a silver mist, with the broken and the burned, men and women remaking themselves from the ash pile: with Little Bilney and young John Frith, with the lawyers and the scholars and those who could barely read or read not at all but only listen; with Richard Hunne who was hanged in the Lollards’ Tower, and all those martyrs from the years before we were born, who set forth Wyclif’s book. He will clasp hands with Joan Boughton, whom he, the Lord Privy Seal, saw burned to bone when he was a boy. In those blessed days the whole of creation will shine, but till then we see through a glass darkly, not face to face.
Somewhere – or Nowhere, perhaps – there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.