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The Mirror and the Light (The Image of the King | Part 2)

Sometimes, sitting beside the king – it is late, they are tired, he has been working since first light – he allows his body to confuse with that of Henry, so that their arms, lying contiguous, lose their form and become cloudy like thaw water. He imagines their fingertips graze, his mind meets the royal will: ink dribbles onto the paper. Sometimes the king nods into sleep. He sits by him scarcely breathing, careful as a nursemaid with a fractious brat. Then Henry starts, wakes, yawns; he says, as if he were to blame, ‘It is midnight, master!’ The past peels away: the king forgets he is ‘my lord’; he forgets what he has made him. At dawn, and twilight, when the light is an oyster shell, and again at midnight, bodies change their shape and size, like cats who slide from dormer to gable and vanish into the murk.

But today it is not ten o’clock: a morning in early spring, the light a primrose blur. ‘Is it not dinnertime?’ the king says, and then, ‘What do you hear from Norfolk?’

‘That he has a chill. A lax. Each day a flux.’

The king laughs. ‘So delicate a soul. Like the Princess Madeleine.’

Hans tuts. ‘A solemn countenance, if it sorts with your Majesty? And eyes to me? If my lord Cromwell does anything worth turning around for, I shall let your Majesty know.’

The silence returns. In Florence, he thinks, an artist would make a whole man in a mould. You strip him naked and rub him with grease and close him in a case up to his chin. You pour in plaster and let it set, and when you are ready you take a chisel and open the case like a nut. You draw out the man, his skin rose-red all over, and wash him, then you promise to model his head another day: but you have his form you can use ever after, to make satyrs or saints or gods from Mount Olympus.

Down below in the privy kitchen they are roasting dottrels for dinner. His spaniel starts awake, and runs in excited circles as the savour drifts up. The king’s eye follows her; Hans scoops her up and gives her to a menial, saying severely, ‘Collect her later, my lord.’

As the hour passes, more and more noise crowds into it: the ring of horseshoes on cobbles, bursts of shouting from distant courtyards, trumpeters clattering past to practice: till finally it seems as if the whole of the court is in there with them. Meanwhile the king’s expression changes slowly, as if the moon waxes; so by the time Hans signals that he is done, Henry seems to glow from within. He gathers himself, rearranges his robes. He says, ‘I think the queen should be in my picture.’

Hans groans.

The king says, ‘Come to me later, Cromwell.’

‘How much later, sir?’

No reply: Henry sweeps away. A boy belonging to Hans gathers in the drawings. The king’s heads are turned this way and that; his brow is furrowed or clear, his eyes are blank or hostile, but the mouth is always the same, small and set.

‘Enough time, Hans?’

‘I suppose. I only wanted his head.’

‘We should have a lute player next time.’

‘With you in the room? You’re dangerous to them.’

Mark Smeaton resists oblivion. It is not yet a year, after all. He says, ‘I tell you again, I did not hurt Mark.’

‘I hear when he left your house his eyeballs hung out on his cheeks.’

Hans does not sound indignant: more curious, as if he imagines making an anatomical drawing.

‘Witnesses saw him on the scaffold,’ he says, ‘uninjured. Do not try my patience. And do not try the king’s.’

Hans says, ‘Henry is easy. He never shows he would like to be elsewhere. He takes it as his duty to be painted. Do you not see? His face shines with the wonder of himself.’

Towards the end of May the queen’s child quickens. The Te Deums of Trinity Sunday celebrate not only the hope in her womb but the close of the campaigning season. The parish churches ring their bells, cannon are fired at the Tower, and butts of free wine trundle over the cobbles so even the beggars can join in crying, ‘God bless our good Queen Jane.’ Banners drop from windows, streamers fly from housetops, thrushes sing, salmon leap, and the dead in London’s churchyards jiggle thighbone and knee.

Jane has objected to the taking of her portrait, saying, ‘Master Hans will look at me.’

But she has yielded to the king’s pleasure, requesting only that Lord Cromwell be present: she seems afraid that the artist will shout at her in a foreign tongue. He makes the introductions and then retreats, so he is out of the painter’s eyeline.

‘Here?’ Jane says.

The queen takes up her stance. Her sister Lady Oughtred, now in attendance, stoops to arrange her skirts. Jane is as stiff as a woman on a catafalque. She stands with her hands clasped over her child, as if keeping it in order. ‘It is very correct to breathe,’ Hans reminds her. ‘And certainly your Highness may sit if she pleases.’

Jane’s gaze rests on the middle distance. Her expression is remote and pure. Hans says, ‘If your Highness could lift her chin?’ He sighs; he shuffles, he walks around the queen, and hums. He is dissatisfied; her face is puffy; he cannot find the bones in it.

Jane speaks only once: ‘Is Lady Lisle delivered yet?’

‘It cannot be long, madam,’ he says, from his seat in the window.

‘God send her a good hour,’ Lady Oughtred says.

His mind shifts, wanders: he takes a prayer book out of his pocket and thumbs through it, but an image of water, of daylight on water, begins to flicker and flow between his eyes and the page. He thinks of a woman sitting upright in a tangle of linen sheets, her breasts bare, sunlight sliding over her arms. He thinks of himself at nightfall, on the slippery paving beside the German House in Venice, his friend Heinrich asking as they step out of their boat: ‘You want to see our goddesses on the wall? You, guard, hold up your torch.’

Almost imperceptibly, Jane’s chin has dropped again. Hans approaches him. It does not matter, he whispers, whether she sits, stands, kneels, anything she has a fantasy to do; her hands, her posture, I can fix it later, and we can put her in another gown if she likes, or paint on different sleeves, we can push her hood back a little, and as for her jewellery I will give her pieces of my own design, which will be a good advertisement of my skill, Thomas, do you not think so? But I must have her face, just for this one hour. So implore her – spare me a glance.

‘The king will want her as she is,’ he warns. ‘No flattery.’

‘It is not my habit.’

‘I warrant when he married her,’ her sister says, ‘she did not look so much like a mushroom.’

The queen’s happy condition is now known all over Europe, and the Seymour name exalted. It is time he, Cromwell, opened talks with Edward.

‘Your lady sister,’ he says. ‘Oughtred’s widow.’

‘Yes,’ Edward says.

‘Her hand in marriage.’

‘Yes?’

‘I believe you’re talking to the Earl of Oxford? You know he’s older than I am?’

‘Is he?’ Edward frowns. ‘Yes, I dare say.’

‘So would Bess not prefer a young lad?’

Edward looks as if something improper has been hinted. ‘She knows her duty.’

‘I see it is promotion for you, to marry into the Vere family. Yet the Seymours are as old a house, I would have thought, old and just as good, if less rewarded till now. The Veres have more power, but not more estimation.’

‘So what are you saying?’ Edward is cautious.

‘You don’t need Oxford to make your fortune. It is already made. And I suggest that a bride could be happier elsewhere.’

‘This is a surprise,’ Edward says. ‘Would you then …?’ He closes his eyes as if in prayer. ‘That is, are you willing …’

‘We are willing,’ he says.

‘And ready? To talk about money?’

‘It is my favourite subject,’ he says.

We rough Cromwells, eh? Edward tries to smile.

‘But Edward, this could be a great thing,’ he says. ‘We can make an alliance in blood, as well as in the council chamber. Have no qualms. All the grace and goodwill lie on your side, and the rude substance will come from mine. I will build Bess a new house. While she is waiting she will not be short of a roof over her head – Mortlake is much enlarged, and there is Stepney which is a very pleasant house at any season, and there is Austin Friars of course – all my property is at her disposal, and if there is some house of the king’s she has a fancy to, I feel sure that of his kindness he will lend it us. She will have whatever I can give to make her happy.’

Edward says, ‘I have heard gentlemen venture – saving your lordship – that Thomas Cromwell is not base-born after all. That you are the natural son of some nobleman.’

He is amused. ‘Do they say which one?’

‘They reason, how else to explain your talent for ruling men?’

Walter ruled with his fist, he thinks.

‘Well, however that may be,’ Edward says, ‘I shall talk to my sister, and know her mind. And the queen, she will have a view, of course. I don’t know what I shall say to the Earl of Oxford …’

‘I’ll talk to him.’

‘Would you?’ Edward grasps at that. ‘We have come a long way together, my lord,’ he says, embracing him, ‘since we welcomed you to Wolf Hall.’

He goes home and tells Gregory, ‘I have found you a bride.’

‘Very well,’ Gregory says. ‘I shall contain myself in patience till you mention who.’

He hurries on. There are six bishops here to see him, and a delegation from the French embassy. But that night my lord Privy Seal sleeps soundly, under his canopy of violet and silver tissue, beneath a ceiling dusted with gilded stars.

On St George’s Day, at the chapter of the Order of the Garter, the king selects the Earl of Cumberland to fill a vacant stall, in exchange for his offices on the Scots border. It is the first, my lord Privy Seal hopes, in a series of tacit bargains that will free up posts in the north country for keen young men he will choose, whose loyalty is not to great families but only to himself and the king.

Cumberland’s grandfather was known as the Butcher, and the family has not mellowed since. Generations of raw dealing made his tenants smart; no wonder they turned on him, in the late rebellion. But such magnates, even in our day, are best controlled by offering them rewards. And the Garter is Europe’s most ancient order of chivalry, the highest honour the king can bestow.

Mr Wriothesley edges up to him: ‘Shall I tell your lordship what the heralds are saying?’

He waits.

‘They say that the king is disappointed he must give the Garter to Cumberland. He would rather have filled the vacancy with one he holds more dear.’

The dear one should not have long to fret. Harry Percy has requested the loan of his old house in Hackney; he wants it to die in. The doctors say he will not last the summer, and when he goes, that will free a Garter stall. And when Lord Darcy comes to execution, that will make another vacancy. Mr Wriothesley looks coy. ‘Better order your mantles, sir.’

Your mantles of cerulean velvet: sky blue lined with white damask. Hans busies himself at once with new and better designs for Garter insignia: he never lets slip a chance to market his genius. ‘I am not your enemy, you know,’ Hans says to him. ‘Even though I did paint you.’

As Jane lets out her bodices and appears unlaced, she yearns for cherries and peas, but there are none yet. She asks for quails, and the Lisles send them from Calais by the crate. They are fed on the boat and killed at Dover, to keep them as fat as possible, but even so they dwindle on the road, and Jane complains she must have more, and fatter. She eats them rubbed with spices and basted with honey, cracking and sucking the tiny bones. ‘She sets into them as if they had done her an injury,’ Gregory says. ‘Though she looks as if she would only eat curds and whey.’

The king says, ‘I like to see a woman show her appetite. The late Katherine, God rest her, when first we were married –’ he corrects himself, ‘when first we were thought to be married – she would make short work of a duckling. But then later,’ he glances away, ‘she began to undertake special fasts and penances. Always some strict practice, above the misery prescribed. It was her Spanish blood.’

He thinks, she was praying for us. Offering up her hunger pangs for England.

John Husee brings the quails at seven in the morning. Jane sends word from her suite: roast half for dinner, and we’ll have the rest for supper.

He asks Husee, ‘Is there no child yet? The king is keen for the outcome. It will warm his heart if Lisle has a son and heir.’

Husee shakes his head. He looks harassed, but then he always does.

‘Perhaps Honor has mistaken her reckoning,’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘What do the doctors advise?’

‘They advise patience.’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘By the time it is born it will know its letters, and be fit to gnaw a marrowbone and wave a wooden sword.’

In return for quails, and cherries when they are ripe, Jane agrees she will give a position in her household to one of Lady Lisle’s daughters. Jane asks them to send two, and whichever she rejects she will place in the train of some other noble lady. She kindly says that the girls may wear out their French apparel, even though English fashion has changed since last year.

But when the girls arrive, Jane looks at them and says, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no. I will have that one, but take her away and bring her back dressed more seemly.’

Anne Bassett must have finer linen, so fine the skin shows through. She needs a gable hood, and a girdle sewn thickly with pearls. When she reappears by the queen’s side, it is with her hair hidden, her skull squeezed, and in a gown belonging to my lady Sussex.

When next he sees John Husee and hails him, Husee shoots off in the other direction.

Whitehall: he arrives outside the Lady Mary’s presence chamber, Gregory attending him. Some grand arrival is in the air. Household folk crowd him, chattering: ‘Who is it, Lord Cromwell?’ Mary’s silkwoman has brought a basket. A boy has come to tune her virginals. A little dwarf woman called Jane is waddling around the chamber: ‘Welcome, one and all.’

‘Dodd!’ He greets Mary’s usher. ‘Big fish today.’ He speaks for everyone to hear. ‘A Spanish gentleman has come from the Emperor, to assist Ambassador Chapuys in wooing the Lady Mary.’

One of the queen’s ladies, Mary Mounteagle, has coins in a net purse; the queen lost at cards last night, and now pays her debts. Another lady, Nan Zouche, escorts her, as if she might be robbed. Both of them hang on his elbows: ‘A Spanish gentleman? Is not Dom Luis a Portuguese?’

‘Though it is all the same,’ Nan Zouche says. ‘All the Emperor’s cousins.’

Mounteagle asks, ‘Does Dom Luis speak English? If not, Lord Cromwell will have to kneel at their bedside, interpreting.’

‘I do not speak Portuguese, so they must make shift,’ he says. ‘Does the Lady Mary always collect her winnings?’

‘Always,’ Nan says. ‘And she is such a gambler! One day she bet her breakfast on a game of bowls.’

The little woman says, ‘I hope the ambassador does not bring her comfits. Her teeth are not sound.’ She shows her own. ‘Me, I can crack nuts.’

The great men enter to the sound of giggling. The new envoy, Don Diego de Mendoza, is followed by Chapuys, followed in turn by his Flemish bodyguard. Don Diego is one of those men who requires a big space around himself. Chapuys looks jittery: he backs away to allow the new man to be admired, in his plumes and black velvet. Prominently and reverently, Mendoza carries a black-ribboned letter, sealed with the double-headed eagle. ‘Lord Cremuel,’ he says. ‘I have heard a great deal about you.’

‘And I,’ he says pleasantly, ‘feel I know you already. For you must be related to that Mendoza who was ambassador in the cardinal’s time?’

‘I have that honour.’

‘The cardinal locked him up.’

‘A violation of every agreed principle of diplomacy,’ Mendoza says. The chill in his voice would blight a vineyard. ‘I did not know you were at court then.’

‘No. As I was the cardinal’s man, I have inherited his concerns.’

‘But not his methods,’ Chapuys says quickly.

It is evident that Eustache is keen to make a success of the encounter. ‘You have much in common, gentlemen. Don Diego has been in Italy. At the universities of Padua, and Bologna.’

‘You were there, Cremuel?’ Mendoza asks.

‘Yes, but not at the university.’

‘Don Diego knows Arabic,’ Chapuys offers.

He is alert. ‘Does it take years to learn?’

‘Yes,’ Don Diego says. ‘Years and years.’

He asks, ‘Have you brought Dom Luis’s portrait for my lady?’

‘Just this,’ the ambassador says, showing his letter.

‘I thought perhaps you had it in miniature, and carried it next to your heart.’

It is obvious that Don Diego is carrying something of which he is painfully aware: as you might be aware if someone slid a hot iron under your shirt. No doubt it is a second letter, perhaps in code.

‘There are presents, of course. Which follow by mule,’ says Mendoza.

‘Because they are large,’ Chapuys says.

‘Good. Lady Mary has lavish tastes. That’s why her father has brought her to court. He could not maintain her in a separate household. She wrote for more money every week.’

‘She is generous with her small means,’ Chapuys says. ‘Charitable.’

‘I suppose she lives as befits a princess?’ Don Diego says. ‘You would not expect her to do other?’

‘Ordinarily,’ Chapuys advises, ‘Lord Cremuel would kick your shin if you spoke her proper title. They call her by her plain name, Mary. But behold – when they are offering her in marriage, we call her “princess” and suddenly,’ he smirks, ‘Cremuel does not mind at all.’

The door of the chamber opens and out issues Mary’s chaplain, in conference with her doctor, a Spaniard. To the chaplain he says, ‘How do you, Father Baldwin? How does my lady?’ The doctor he greets in his best Castilian: suck on that, Mendoza. ‘I will give you a quarter of an hour, ambassador. Then I regret I shall interrupt you.’

Chapuys protests: ‘It is hardly time enough for them to pray together.’

‘Oh, will they do that?’ He smiles.

Dodd the usher bows Mendoza into the presence chamber. ‘Has she attendance?’ Nan Zouche says, and the two ladies exchange a glance and slip in after the ambassador. The door closes.

Chapuys mutters something. It sounds like, ‘Hopeless.’

‘I’m sorry, ambassador?’ he says.

‘I think those ladies are your friends, who have just intruded on the Lady Mary.’

Mary Mounteagle is Brandon’s daughter, from one of his many early marriages; yes, he would say they were friends. Nan Zouche – Nan Gainsford, as she was – gave him matter to use against Anne Boleyn.

‘How is the queen?’ Chapuys says. ‘The king must be very anxious.’

‘She gives no reason for anxiety.’

‘But even so. Given his past losses. They say Edward Seymour is certain of a prince, that he is walking around with his head swelling like a yeasted loaf. Of course, if she has a boy, the Seymour brothers will be promoted – they may come to rival you.’

He cannot see Tom Seymour running the Privy Seal’s office. He says, ‘I’ll have to watch that, won’t I?’

‘But then I am sure they will be wary,’ Chapuys says, ‘remembering what you did to the brother of the other one. If I were them, I would hurry back to Wolf Hall and be forgotten.’ He chuckles. ‘They should become shepherds, or something of that sort.’

He says, ‘Don Diego is not very friendly. I thought it was an ambassador’s duty?’

‘He is fastidious,’ Chapuys admits.

He laughs. A hiatus. From behind Mary’s closed door, voices too faint to be useful. Chapuys says, ‘Mr Call-Me is much in your confidence.’

‘Yes, he is growing into consideration.’

‘He opens your letters.’

‘Someone must. There are too many for one man.’

‘He was Gardiner’s man,’ Chapuys says.

‘Gardiner remains in France.’

‘And loyalty is to the proximate,’ Chapuys says. ‘I see.’

He looks over his shoulder. ‘A word to the wise?’ The ambassador approaches. ‘Aske implicated you.’

‘What?’ Chapuys says.

‘Under questioning. And we have letters you sent to Lord Darcy. Going back three years.’

‘I protest,’ Chapuys says swiftly.

‘You claim they are forgeries?’

‘I make no claim. I say nothing to them.’

‘I know how it is, Eustache. You come to my house and you sit down to supper and you say to me, peace. You go home and light your candle and you write to your master, war.’ A pause. ‘Lucky for you, I am more clement than the cardinal. I shall not lock you up.’ He gestures to the closed door. ‘I think that’s ten minutes.’

He is as good as his word: kicks his way in like a drunken horse-boy. Gregory and the ambassador are at his heels. As they enter, they hear a scream. A large green parrot is bouncing up and down on its perch. When they wheel around, it laughs.

‘It is a present,’ Mary says. ‘I apologise.’

‘Does it speak?’

‘I fear it may.’

Mary, he notices, has not asked Don Diego to sit. The ambassador draws up his person: ‘My lord, go out, we are not done.’

The parrot sways on its perch, and squeaks like an unoiled wheel. He says, ‘I come to remind you of your urgent next engagement.’

Don Diego looks for a second as if he will try to face him down. But Chapuys clears his throat. The moment passes. The Spaniard says, ‘My lady, for now we must part.’

‘No, do not kneel,’ Mary says. ‘Haste away – the Lord Privy Seal is holding the door for you.’ She extends a hand for the ambassador’s kiss. ‘I thank you for your good counsel.’

He cedes the door-holding to Gregory, steps into the room. The ambassador passes out with an ill grace: Chapuys follows, making a comical face at him as he passes. He closes the door. The parrot is still scolding. ‘It has not taken to the Spaniard,’ he says.

Mary says, ‘Neither have you.’

He approaches the bird. He sees the slender gold chain that fastens it to a bar. The creature stamps, and raises its wings in threat. ‘I used to have a magpie when I was a child. I caught it myself.’

She says, ‘I cannot imagine you as a child.’

He thinks, neither can I. I cannot picture myself.

‘I tried to teach it to speak,’ he says. ‘But it flew away, first chance it got.’ But not before it said, Walter is a knave. He turns to Mary. ‘So what passed?’

She is unwilling to divulge. ‘He asked me if I meant what I said.’

‘Generally? Or specifically?’

‘You know well,’ she says. An instant flare of passion: her face is alight, as if someone had forced air into her with a bellows. But the next moment, she drops her eyes, an obedient woman, deflated: reverts to her monotone. ‘He asked if I meant it, when I said I accepted my father as head of the church, and that he and my mother were never truly married. I said I did. I said I accepted it all. I told him I had taken the advice of my uncle the Emperor, as conveyed to me by Ambassador Chapuys. I told him you, Cromwell, had stood my friend. And if he did not believe me that is not my fault.’

He says, ‘But did you tell him how you wrote to the Pope, taking back your statement, and begging to be absolved?’

Her eyes fly to his face.

‘No matter,’ he says. ‘It is another case where I forbear to bring your conduct home to you. I only mention it by way of warning.’

Panic in her voice. ‘What do you want?’

‘Want? My lady, I only want you to pray for me.’

‘Oh, I do,’ Mary says. ‘But do you know what I have discovered? The king has great power, but he has no power to know me, except through what I say and what I do.’

The parrot has put its head on one side, as if listening.

He says, ‘The previous Mendoza was never allowed to be alone with your lady mother. It was for her safety.’

‘I think, rather, it was for the safety of the state.’

‘Everything we do is for that. Without the king’s peace, my lady, we would be in the wilderness with the wild beasts. Or in the oceans with Leviathan.’

He moves about the chamber to put space between them. Zouche and Mounteagle slide back against the wall; if they could weave themselves into the arras, they would do it. The parrot swivels its head to follow him as he moves. ‘I suppose the ambassador promised to get you away from these shores.’

Mary looks down at her feet: as if to catch them going somewhere.

‘If he did not, then he will. He thinks we will force you into a marriage with the French.’

‘I trust my lord father will not do that.’

‘I myself have no such intention. I make you no guarantee, his Majesty’s will being supreme, but you are better to trust to my efforts than to scrambling down a rope ladder in the dark, and setting to sea in a sieve.’

She turns her face away.

‘Give me the letter,’ he says. ‘The ambassador’s letter.’

She takes from the table the fat ribboned packet, the seal broken, and offers it to him. ‘Perhaps you would like to read it and then take it to the king?’

‘The other letter,’ he says.

She hesitates, but only for a moment. Without a word, without glancing at his face, she slides it from her book and gives it him. It lacks a seal. But she has not had time to read it.

‘What is your book?’ He turns it up to see. It is a Herbal, with a device of a wild man and a wild woman, hairy creatures holding a shield with the printer’s initials. ‘I have one of these,’ he says. ‘It is ten years old, it could stand some correction.’ He turns the leaves, looking at the woodcuts. ‘But there will be other matter for us soon. Archbishop Cranmer is sending me a new translation of the scriptures.’

‘Another?’ she says wanly. ‘It must be the third this year.’

‘Cranmer says it is the soundest yet. He is confident your lord father will license it and set it forth.’

‘I am not against the scriptures. Do not think so.’

‘I will make sure you receive an early copy. You will do well to study the Commandments. Honour thy father. Since thy mother is departed.’

Katherine, God pardon her. Katherine, whom God assoil. Katherine, whose children would not stay within her womb: who is responsible nevertheless for the sorry object before him, her eyes dull, her face swollen with toothache.

He thinks of her Spanish grandmother in shining breastplate, mirror of fate to the infidel. Isabella took the field: Andalusia trembled.

On Whitsun eve, after a voyage so long postponed, the King of Scots makes landfall on his own shore. The French bride looks as if she has heaved up her soul on the deep. She falls to the ground, observers report, scoops up two handfuls of the port of Leith and kisses the soil.

A man called William Dalyvell, a follower of Merlin and King James, is put into the Tower. He has been spreading a prophecy that the King of Scots will swoop down from the north, expel the Tudors and rule two kingdoms. He also says he has seen an angel.

In former ages this would have been a cause for congratulation, but times being what they are, Dalyvell is put on the rack.

The Cornish people petition to have their saints back – those downgraded in recent rulings. Without their regular feasts, the faithful are unstrung from the calendar, awash in a sea of days that are all the same. He thinks it might be permitted; they are ancient saints of small worship. They are scraps of paint-flaked wood, or stumps of weathered stone, who say and do nothing against the king. They are not like your Beckets, whose shrines are swollen with rubies, garnets and carbuncles, as if their blood were bubbling up through the ground.

June, second drawing: ‘The king is to stand on this carpet,’ Hans decrees. Boys spread it at their feet: his own feet of Spanish leather, the neat red boots of Mr Wriothesley, the distinguished padded toes of Lord Audley and Sir William Fitzwilliam. It is one of the cardinal’s carpets; he stoops to uncurl an edge.

‘All of them?’ the Lord Chancellor asks. ‘Together on this carpet? The king, the queen, and his royal parents too?’

Hans gives him a withering look. ‘His father I will place behind him. His royal mother, behind the queen that is now.’

He asks, ‘How will you show the old king and queen? At what age?’

‘In eternity they have no age.’

‘There are other pictures to guide you, I suppose.’

‘Did we not make you a gallery?’ Hans says. ‘A whole room of the lost.’

Yes, but that was more like a game, he thinks, a game of kings, their faces like clues in a riddle. No one could point to them as a true or false likeness. They were all so old and they had been gone so long.

Hans begins to pace out the scene. The father here, towards the centre, but Henry in the foreground. Between the two parents I shall place a column, he says, or a piece of marble –

‘A sort of altar?’ Lord Audley offers.

‘He will want verses on it, Hans. Extolling him.’

‘Words are for Lord Cromwell to supply.’

‘Mr Wriothesley,’ he says, ‘will you make a note?’ But Call-Me is already sketching out suggestions.

They look up as the king comes in. He has to walk the length of the gallery. He seems unbalanced, as if the floor were soft. Fitz whispers something: ‘Hush,’ he says.

‘Ah, Cromwell,’ Henry says. ‘Lord Chancellor. I hear a rumour that François is dead.’

‘I fear untrue,’ he says.

The king’s face is pale and puffy. He dare not ask if he is in pain. Henry would not want an underling like Hans to hear the question, let alone the answer.

‘Better light today,’ the king says. ‘Norfolk writes to me that in Yorkshire there is a hard frost every morning. When here, the roses are out!’

Call-Me says, ‘There is always a hard frost in the region of Norfolk.’

Henry smiles. ‘The zephyrs do not play about his person. And young Surrey, he writes, is suffering from a depression of his spirits. Myself I always thought action dispelled melancholy, and I should have thought the Howards would find plenty to do …’

‘The duke should stay up in Yorkshire,’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘He is as well-accepted among the northern sort as any lord can be.’

Thomas Howard says another winter will kill him. But he can take his chances till September. He would not want to be in London, surely, with the plague’s incursions? A hundred and twelve buried last week.

‘And what do we hear of Harry Percy?’ The king rubs his nose, reflective. He is looking forward to the reversion of the Percy earldom to the crown. ‘Send young Sadler, will you, to see how the dying goes?’

From Wriothesley, a stir of mute discontent: not him, Majesty, send me!

‘Unless you care to go yourself, my lord Privy Seal? But I think the earl fears you of old, and I do not want to be accused of frightening him to death.’

‘I never hurt the earl,’ he says. A picture rises to his mind of Call-Me at the deathbed, taking off his coat and turning back his sleeves, picking up a pillow …

The king calls, ‘Hans, where are you? We are ready. Today you must finish with the drawing, or you will have to chase me. I shall not linger at Whitehall when I could be hunting.’

The king’s tone is hearty; as if he is trying to encourage himself as well as the painter. Hans whistles through his teeth and flaps over his sheets. When stitched together they will cover the wall. The councillors fall back, making space. Fitz murmurs, ‘What’s the matter with him today? Something’s the matter.’

He thinks, the damage has been done since last October. It is cumulative, but we are only noticing now. The rebels have knocked him out of true. He will not be the same again. The king stands alone on the turkey carpet, feet planted on the cobalt stars. His voice reaches out, as if to loop them into his plans: Hampton Court to Woking, to Guildford, to Easthampstead. ‘You will hunt with me this summer, my lord Cromwell.’

He moves so fast that he is able to grip the king by his upper arms and steadies him as he sways. Fitz is behind him. ‘A seat for the king!’ Audley bawls. Cries of distant alarm – how news flies! – then pounding of feet, and servants and courtiers pour in. ‘Keep away!’ Fitz windmills his arms, bellows as if he were on the battlefield. Wriothesley has a stool, gliding it smoothly under his monarch’s haunches. Gingerly, they lower the afflicted man, so he sits gaping, his face working as if he might cry. He and Audley lean in, propping him up. There is a sheen of sweat on Henry’s face. He takes out a handkerchief. They huddle to shield him from the ring of faces. ‘Have you a pain, sir?’ Audley asks. ‘Where is your pain?’

‘Give me some air,’ the sick man says.

They step away; but Henry takes him by the sleeve; he is reeled in. ‘My lord,’ Henry blots his face, ‘this is not the first time we have felt ourselves fall. A humour has got into our legs. A weakness. No, the doctors don’t know, any better than we know. But it will get better, it must.’

He sees that the king is furious with himself: a low white fury that makes him tremble. ‘Send all these people away. Tell Hans to come tomorrow. Tell them it is only a – no, tell them nothing. Disperse them.’

He thinks the king is done. He eases away from him, straightening up, but the king still holds his sleeve. ‘Cromwell, what if it is a girl?’

His heart sinks. ‘Then boys will follow.’

The king releases him. ‘Where’s Fitz?’ Henry says, plaintive. ‘I want Fitz, send the rest off.’

He turns. No one dares approach. ‘Allons,’ he says. Audley falls in with him, Wriothesley treads on his boot heels. They do not speak till they reach the other end of the gallery. Audley casts a glance back. ‘We must keep this secret.’

Mr Wriothesley says, ‘Of course, my lord.’

He says, ‘Not a chance.’ The painter has followed them. ‘Master Holbein? Bring your drawing. The king’s face. Let me see.’

Hans whistles up a boy, who scuffles through the sheets bearing the king’s head, till he finds a version the master is content to show. He, Cromwell, puts his thumb on the king’s forehead, as if he were smudging him with chrism. ‘Turn the head. Turn it full on. Make him look at us.’

‘God in Heaven,’ Hans says, ‘that will be frightening. Turn body and all?’

Frowning face and massive shoulders. Bloated waist, padded cod. Legs like the pillars that hold the globe in place. Legs that could never stagger, feet never lose the path.

As July comes in Lord Latimer is down from the north, complaining to all who will listen of his sufferings at the hands of the Pilgrims. He will be glad to see much less of Yorkshire; he knows the king’s business will force him back, but for the rest of the time he will be content to live on his property in Pershore: and so says his wife Kate.

Lord Latimer wonders why young men hide smiles. What’s funny about his wife Kate?

News comes from Scotland that Princess Madeleine is dead. Her triumphant entry into Edinburgh will not now take place. The banners are furled, the pageants dismantled, the silver trumpets laid in their cases.

Henry says, ‘Surely James will seek another Frenchwoman. But I do not think François will let him have his younger daughter, to be exposed to the Scottish air. There is the Duchess of Vendôme – though James turned her down once, and I do suppose her people are offended.’

‘The Duke of Longueville has died,’ he says, ‘leaving a widow – a very handsome woman, they say, only three years wed, yet with a son in her arms and another child in the womb. James might look that way.’

But I don’t know, he thinks, if she would look at James. The family of Marie de Guise are such lofty people they might not know where Scotland is. Anyway, James will be mourning a while yet. A pension was to come with Madeleine, thirty thousand francs a year; it will not continue with a corpse.

Madeleine was one month shy of her seventeenth birthday. In fairness to the French, they did advise James to choose a more robust bride.

With Lady Oughtred, on a fine evening, he walks in the queen’s privy garden. Bess rests her hand on his arm. ‘So the marriage, when shall it be?’ she asks.

‘As soon as you like. But,’ he stops and turns her to face him, ‘you do like?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Her eyes are warm. ‘I know some would think …’

‘There are disparities, of course. I have talked it over with your brothers. I have not shirked the point.’

‘But after all, I am a widow,’ she says, ‘and not some inexperienced girl.’

He is not sure what she means; but then, why should he expect to understand this young woman’s mind? ‘My lady, may I ask – it is perhaps too private a matter –’

‘Whatever it is, I am bound in obedience to tell you.’

‘Well then … I should like to know, do you mourn your husband still?’

She turns her face away; he admires her: her face, like Jane’s, has a soft smooth shape, and she has the same habit of dipping her chin, as if taking a covert survey of what’s around her.

She says, ‘I make no complaint of Oughtred. He was a good husband and I regret his passing. But you will not think me heartless if I say I could also be happy with a different kind of man?’ She turns her face up to his, earnest; he sees how she wants to please him. ‘I am quite ready to make trial of it.’

‘When my wife died,’ he says, ‘I missed her out of all measure. Considering what my life was then, always riding up the country, over to Antwerp half a dozen times a year, late nights with the cardinal, livery dinners and conclaves at Gray’s Inn … sometimes when I’d come in she’d say, “I’m Lizzie Cromwell, have you seen my husband?”’

‘Lizzie,’ she says. ‘Just as well I’m Bess these days. It is the same with all Elizabeths – as we are called, we answer.’

He smiles. ‘I won’t confuse the two of you.’

‘We did suppose, myself and Jane, that you were fond of your wife, because you never took any opportunity you were offered – and Jane says you were friendly with Mary Boleyn, and could have married her if you pleased.’

‘Oh, that was just Mary’s whim,’ he says. ‘She wanted to upset her people. Put Uncle Norfolk in a rage. And she thought I would do a good job of that. Mary has a good heart, and they say she suits well with that fellow Stafford she wed. But I thought of her as … God love her, well-used.’

She is anxious. ‘But you do not object to a widow?’

‘My first wife was a widow.’

‘If you had wed Mary Boleyn you would have been related to the king.’

‘After a manner.’

‘You will be related to him now. Though it has taken longer.’

He thinks, how gentle she is, to give thought to my state of mind. How careful she is, for she has mentioned the old gossip about Mary Boleyn, but never the new gossip about Mary the king’s daughter.

He halts; the garden’s scents rise around them; he turns her to face him, taking her two hands. ‘Let’s not talk about the dead. I would rather talk about you. We must dress you up. We must order some silks and velvets. And I thought, emeralds?’

‘I lent my jewel box to Jane, when she was so suddenly elevated. I suppose she will give it back now I am to be married.’

‘I will talk to people in Antwerp. We could go through the king’s man, Cornelius, but I know some setters who do beautiful work, and after all, you won’t want to have what your sister has.’

She drops her eyes. ‘Jane said you would be generous.’

‘You must indulge me. I have no daughters. Though that is not true, I have one, you will have heard.’

‘Your Antwerp daughter.’

‘But I don’t think she cares for such things.’

She lowers her head and smiles. Suddenly she is as shy as her sister. ‘My lord, you may indulge me and I shall indulge you. But I shall hardly be your daughter.’

He says gently, ‘I had hoped that you would see yourself in that way.’

‘Oh, but …’ She stops and puts her hand on his arm. ‘It is to be like that? I did not know. As you please, of course … but you are not so very old, and I had hoped to have your children.’

‘Mine?’

He is shocked to the marrow. He, who has been in Rome! Who has been, frankly, everywhere … ‘Bess,’ he says, ‘we should go inside.’

‘Why?’

These Seymours, he thinks, they are like something from the Greek legends. A curse will fall on them. We know Old Sir John tupped his daughter-in-law, but surely she does not think that is the usual arrangement?

‘It is late, you are tired, it’s cold,’ he says. ‘And we should not be alone.’

‘Why?’

‘It could lead to –’ He passes his hand over his face. What could it lead to? ‘To misunderstandings.’

She says, ‘It is barely eight o’clock, the night is warm, and I am as fresh as a milkmaid at dawn.’

‘Come in,’ he urges her.

‘In other respects I agree.’ Her voice is icy. ‘I think there has been a misunderstanding. I am offering my person to one Cromwell only, the one I marry. But which Cromwell is it meant to be?’

 

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