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The Mirror and the Light (The Image of the King | Part 3)

His mind flies back to his conversation with Edward. It lands, light as a fly, and begins to crawl over it: over every meaningful pause, every ellipsis. Were names spoken? Perhaps not. Could Edward have supposed – could Edward have mistaken – yes, he supposes he could.

He lets out his breath. ‘So. Well. I am flattered, Bess. That you would even consider it.’

She says firmly: ‘I am not at fault.’

‘By no means.’

‘You are at fault. I listened to what my brother required of me. I made no objection. I never said, what age is Cromwell, and was his father not a tradesman? I just said, Yes, Edward. For the family, Edward. Anything and anyone you command, Edward.’

‘I see,’ he says. ‘I begin to see.’

‘I know you are a busy man. But I think you might have paused to explain yourself, so Edward could explain to me. But with no elucidation, I assumed –’

‘But why would you? When Gregory is so likely a young man, and of an age to marry?’

‘I think you have no idea, my lord, how much your single state is talked of. How much the whole court looks to you to change it. How they speculate, men and women both, that a great and dangerous honour will come your way.’

‘It is all just gossip,’ he says. ‘And you are right that it is dangerous. Dangerous to me, dishonourable to the Lady Mary.’

‘Then you would do well to be clear in your mind. Who you will marry. Who you will not.’

He begs, ‘Don’t tell Gregory. He thinks you have freely accepted him.’ A qualm overtakes him. ‘You will accept him? Because Bess – my lady – you are relieved, that it is not as you thought?’

A pause, then: ‘My lord, I will not tell you whether I am relieved or not. You must puzzle it out. But I dare say you will be too busy to puzzle for long.’

‘Gregory will make a tender husband,’ he says wretchedly, ‘and he will make you proud of him. He is a kind young man and gentle, and he is a good dancer, and he cuts a fine figure in the tilt yard, as fine as the best gentleman with sixteen quarters of nobility on his shield, and the king likes him, and no doubt he will make him a baron very soon and you will once more have your title and style. He is all together better than me –’ I, he thinks, who am so soiled in life’s battle, so seamed and scarred, so numb, so unwanted, so cold.

‘Stop,’ she says. ‘First, too few words. Now, too many.’

‘But you will? You will wed Gregory?’

‘Tell me when and where, and I will come in my bridal finery and marry whichever Cromwell presents himself. I am an obliging woman,’ she says. ‘Though not so obliging as you thought.’

She walks away on the grassy path, but she does not hurry. Her head is down, she appears to be in prayer. He thinks, she will be plain Mistress Cromwell, and she had not reckoned on that. Does she mind? It is not the least part of it, to find you are not only dropped down a generation, but have no title. Yet surely she would prefer the son, with all his prospects before him, to the father who – well, he thinks, I suppose there are prospects before me. No doubt Wriothesley is right, about the Garter. It seems such a thing could never happen, not to Walter’s son. Yet so much has happened already, that the most credulous child would never believe.

When he was a boy he used to go door to door offering to sharpen scissors and bodge pans. He would scrub out a henhouse or scour pewter or cut up a carcass if a housewife had come by half a pig unexpectedly. He called all his customers ‘my lady’. He saw how it brightened their day. Sometimes it earned him an apple or a halfpenny, and once a kiss: and these things were over and above the fee for his services.

His father’s friends worked the river, piloting travellers and running ferries from bank to bank. So he did river work too: a hungry, ignorant boy. What did he want with a horn book? As soon as he needed to read, he could read. If there was something worth writing, he could scratch it out. He used to search for treasure in the riverine mud, and plenty treasure he found. Let a gentleman’s cap blow off and it will feed a family for a week: it is not the watermarked velvet that you trade, but his cap badge. It could be a gold Becket or Christopher; a flower with enamelled petals; or a jewelled cross, with a garnet where God’s head should be. He learned to hide his finds from Walter, and keep the profit for himself.

One night, drunk, Walter said to him, hand slapping his own breast: ‘This boat is rowing and rowing, Thomas. I’m rowing to save my life.’

Towards the end of June the Cromwells visit the Seymour household at Twickenham. Gifts are exchanged, they take pleasure trips on the river, and musicians play into the dusk: then by the scent and light of beeswax candles he makes his arrangements with Edward, the head of the house. Edward agrees with him that the young couple should have time together without being overlooked by their elders. They will marry in early August when he, the Privy Seal, sees a two-day gap in his schedule; two days when, we trust, the princes of Europe, instead of clashing in arms, sit with dreaming eyes in the shade, listening to water drop in marble basins.

If Edward Seymour shared his sister’s mistake, he does not allude to it: neither of them do. Messages of congratulation pour in, a few of them sincere. Call-Me says, who would have thought Gregory would be so useful to you, as to unite you with the king’s family? I always said he would come to good. Once the paperwork is done, the match is as good as made; and with the short scented nights before them, there is no harm if the young couple go to bed. Try and make her happy, he tells Gregory, happier than an old earl ever could: then she never regrets it, never looks back and says, I could have been the Countess of Oxford.

For his son’s first household he has ordered majolica ware from Venice, from the masters who work by the church of Barnaba. A rush job, but he looks forward to unpacking the crates, running his finger over the glaze. He has stipulated gods and goddesses: Danaë visited by Zeus, who arrives in the form of a cloudburst. This is no ordinary rain: the bride stands, complacent, as gold plummets down on her, and nuggets roll over her bare arms and thighs and pool as a pile of bullion around her ankles. Never was a lass so augmented; and no bruises either. Bess Seymour will recognise Danaë, and no doubt give her a nod.

The faux-pas is forgotten, he thinks. No reason the girl should speak of it: it would make her seem a fool. He wishes Jenneke might come from Antwerp; he will write, or Gregory will write, but he does not know if she will stir. All the household is braced for celebration. The kitchen can build his major cake at last, topped with balls of gilded marzipan: the one he intended for Easter. They will eat Venetian cakes from the new dishes, some made with pine-nuts and ginger, and some with syrup of violets.

By midsummer the Pilgrims are all dead: hanged or beheaded, along with those who assisted them, excused them, or fed them with money and hope. Bigod, Lord Darcy, and Captain Cobbler himself, the great rebel of Louth; the Abbot of Jervaux, the one-time Abbot of Fountains: some executed at Tyburn, some at the Tower, some sent to be killed in York or Hull. They say old Darcy spent his last days cursing Thomas Cromwell, when he should have been telling his beads. The recalcitrant monks of the London Charterhouse are chained up at Newgate, and in less than a week the plague takes five of them, leaves others dying: dispatched, it seems, by the hand of God.

Harry Percy does not outlast the month of June. Rafe is at his deathbed, where he lies sans sight and speech, yellow as saffron and with belly blown. You would have pitied him, sir, Rafe says, and he says, I am sure I should. Did he mention his wife Mary Talbot?

After a manner, Rafe says. When the onlookers reminded him he had made no provision for her he nodded that yes, he knew: but she was not his wife, never his wife, he was married to Anne Boleyn. And all this he showed them, Rafe says, by pushing away any papers they laid before him, and by a petulant sweep of his hand over his embroidered coverlet: his palm, damp with his last secretions, brushing the emblems of Percy rule, the blue lion and lozenges of gold.

He says, ‘His memory was still good, despite his pain, if he remembered Anne Boleyn. I wonder if he remembered the night he walked in to arrest the cardinal?’

The Percys’ noble house is now utterly undone. Harry Percy has no offspring, and the king is his heir. His brother Thomas has pre-deceased him, beheaded for treason in the late broils; his brother Ingram lies in the Tower, under threat of the same.

And Robert Aske is dead. Norfolk supervises the execution. He is hanged in York, from the Clifford Tower, on a market day. Where now his tawny silk jacket with the velvet facings, his crimson satin doublet? Still in London at the Cardinal’s Hat. Aske begs to be full dead before he is cut up: the king concedes it.

After that, his mercy appears exhausted. Among the traitors fetched to London is a woman, Margaret Cheney – known as wife to Sir John Bulmer, but really his concubine. It is indecent to cut a woman apart in public or strip her to draw out her entrails, so if guilty of high treason she is burned. He goes to Henry. Asking for quick deaths devolves to him, a duty inherited from the cardinal. For Anne Boleyn he procured not only the swifter end, but the Calais swordsman: she too could have died by fire.

He says, ‘Sir, Bulmer’s woman is sent to suffer at Smithfield – I know the penalty is specified, but it is not often enforced.’

Henry grunts.

‘Consider, sir, she made a guilty plea.’

‘She could hardly do other,’ the king says. ‘No, my lord, there is no help for it, she must endure – it will be an example to other women, should they incline to papistry and rebellion.’

Margaret Cheney is beautiful. He has seen her. She is tender and young. He says, ‘Majesty, let me bring her where you can see her.’

Her beauty might move him. He can be moved. We have seen it happen.

Henry says, ‘I have no curiosity to see a traitor. Except Pole. I would be curious to see Pole, but you seem unable to get hold of him.’

He bows, withdraws: a failure, twice a failure. He thinks, perhaps Cranmer and I, perhaps if we pleaded on our knees for him to stop the burning … But Cranmer is in the country. In times past, the king’s women might have appealed to him, for one of their own sex. But the Lady Mary has been warned stiffly, by him, not to speak for any rebel; and the queen, he supposes, has been told the same by her brother.

He leans against the wall in the privy chamber. He thinks, do not falter, Master Secretary. Have no qualms, my lord Privy Seal; Baron Cromwell, do not fail. You must not soften now.

A young man approaches: ‘May I offer you assistance, my lord?’

‘Tom Culpeper,’ he says. The young fellow bows. Doublet silk, manners honed: by blood, some sort of Howard. Is there no end to them?

The young man says smoothly, ‘Messages from Calais, my lord.’

‘Lady Lisle is delivered at last?’

‘Ah, no, it is not yet her time.’

‘Then do not trouble the king. He looks every hour to hear Lisle has a son.’

He brushes past Culpeper, hugging his folio of papers. You cannot falter, he thinks, and you must not. You must crunch up the enemy, flesh, bones and all. You cannot afford to fail, you must bring Henry good news, you must dredge it up from somewhere; he is outwardly serene, but not serene or patient when he wakes in the night, not when his leg pains him in the small hours.

The king has pulled Francis Bryan back from France, saying, ‘What’s the use? This ingrate Pole always eludes us.’ The difficulty is not how to seize his person – it is where. In the Low Countries, jurisdictions lie so close that a man may easily pass from France to Empire and back in a day; territory is so contested that the border can change while a traveller is hearing Mass or taking a nap. But Pole does not hover in mid-air, he is always in someone’s jurisdiction. Any violence involved in arresting him could be taken as a hostile act on foreign soil: a provocation to war, or an excuse for it.

But where can Pole go next? Neither France nor the Low Countries will receive him, but they will not extradite him either. He says to Wriothesley, he will go to Italy now. He has missed his chance with our rebels. He will retreat to warmer climes, where his pedigree is applauded, and where with fellow prelates in scarlet he will pace on a white mule, while poor peasants throw money under the hooves.

And that is our chance to kill him, he thinks. For in Italy who owns the night, who can patrol it?

He says, ‘I wish I had the man who shot Packington. Were he the greatest papist alive, I would turn him, and send him after Reginald.’

At the Charterhouse – the property now shuttered and barred – lights have appeared at night. Papists spread the word that ghosts walk abroad. ‘Probably thieves,’ he says to Wriothesley. ‘Tell them, set a good watch. All the movables belong to the king.’

But the watchmen see who holds the lights; it is the plague-stricken brothers themselves, tiptoeing the cloisters in their stinking shrouds. They bring dispatches from the world beyond, apparently: they have seen the martyred Bishop Fisher, seated at the right hand of God.

‘What about Thomas More?’ he says. ‘Anybody seen him?’

Revenues from the London Charterhouse should be £642.0s.4d. Riche has the figures. Take all the Carthusians’ houses together, and you are looking at the annual sum of £2,947.

‘And fifteen shillings, four pence, and one farthing,’ says Richard Riche.

He says, ‘It seems to me, Sir Richard, that you have done service to the state. You can have the farthing, and spend it on your little pleasures.’

The Lisles’ man, John Husee, is never away from his door, jostling with other petitioners and begging for ten minutes. When Richard Cromwell waves him in at last, he has his arms full of maps and account books, but he has the face of a downtrodden spaniel. ‘Sir,’ he says, ‘Lord Lisle’s promised abbey – he is desperate to get it signed over.’

‘I’ve said I’ll see to it, Husee, and I will. Give all those papers to Master Richard.’

‘With respect, sir, my lord – you have been promising to attend to it since last November. My lord is so beleaguered, you would not imagine how his creditors press. And Sir Richard Riche has brought in a delay at every turn. Without a fee Riche will do nothing. And my lord cannot pay his prices.’

‘Sit down, Husee,’ he says. ‘Shall we have a glass to keep up our strength?’

Husee sits, but he shifts on his stool. ‘The abbey – my lord trusts to have the rents for the months he has been waiting?’

He sighs. ‘I’ll talk to Riche. No more delays, I swear. But now, look, Husee, I have always known you for an honest man, so give me an honest answer. Only this morning at early Mass the queen asked me, how does my lady in Calais, is she not a mother yet? By my reckoning, she said, the child should be teething by now.’

To his astonishment, tears fill Husee’s eyes. He says, ‘My lord, I do not dare to tell you.’

‘She has lost it?’ Richard says.

‘No.’ Husee looks wild. ‘It has gone away.’

He says, ‘I know that prodigies and wonders have been seen in Calais this year. But a child does not vanish before its birth.’

Richard says, ‘Is her belly down?’

‘No.’ Husee rubs his eyes. ‘She appears as ripe as ever woman was. But it comes not forth and it comes not forth, and now the midwives say they were in error.’

‘We thought she was carrying some fabulous beast,’ Richard says. ‘But she never conceived, is that not the truth?’

A tear drops on a map of Lisle’s new property. He leans across. ‘Tell Lord Lisle we will pray his lady will amend.’

‘Oh, she must,’ Husee says. ‘Were she to die, how would we settle her debts? She has wept a salt ocean. My lord set so much store by his heir. But good gentleman that he is, he will love her no less, he only asks her to stop grieving. If I could tell her the abbey were signed over, it would do her heart good.’

‘Husee, go away,’ Richard says. He sounds tired.

‘I will, Master Richard. But by your favour, do not forget the abbey.’

The door closes. ‘Christ,’ Richard says. ‘Who will tell the king?’

‘That lucky man sits not far from you.’ He lifts the topmost papers from the pile Husee has left. ‘If Lisle wants his abbey he needs to find money for the clerks’ fees, they will not give him credit.’ He scratches his chin. ‘I wish John Husee worked for me. He only gets eightpence a day with the Calais garrison, and I warrant Lisle never shows him gratitude. He is a tenacious man.’

Richard says, ‘This will strike Henry to the heart.’

He gets up, heavily. His feet seem reluctant to walk. ‘I’ll make sure he is sitting down, and help at hand.’

Henry does not stagger at the news. He just stares, mute, his colour rising, till he says, ‘Gone? Gone where? St Gabriel help and guide us.’

‘I have never heard of such a case,’ he says, ‘nor I suppose have the physicians.’

‘Oh, have you not?’ Henry’s tone is savage. ‘If your memory were longer you would know that Katherine misled me in the same fashion. God punish these women, they are serpents!’

‘I did not know,’ he says. ‘I was not here then.’ He feels like Tom Thumb, an inch high.

‘We were but newly wed,’ Henry says. ‘What did I know of women and their schemes? She miscarried of one child, but kept her chamber, and claimed she was carrying its twin. Till the imposture was found out.’

‘Majesty, was it not an honest mistake?’

‘Women are the beginning of all mistakes. Read any of the divines, and they will tell you.’ Henry turns and looks at him. ‘Always you, Cromwell, with the bad news.’

Tom Thumb is caught in a mousetrap. He is baked in a pudding. He is swallowed by what beast you please, not to emerge till it shits.

‘But then, no one else tells the truth,’ the king says. ‘So how does Lady Lisle now?’

‘Weeping.’

‘She may well. My poor uncle.’ A pause. ‘Send my doctors over.’

Relieved, he bows again. ‘Lord Lisle will be indebted.’

Henry says, ‘I want to know what is inside her. Some women carry dead flesh in their wombs, they call it a mole, it is not alive and it cannot be born. But sometimes it is sloughed off, it proves to have the features of a monster child, such as hair, or teeth.’

When the king sees the mural Hans has painted, he says nothing. It is not for him to thank a mere artist. But he glitters: not merely augmented, but enhanced.

The queen stands by him, and his hand steals out, and rests on her belly, as if testing what he finds there: as he has many times in the last few days, while she holds her breath and wonders why. On the advice of her brother, her ladies and the doctors, the news from Calais has been kept from her. And she has trained herself not to pull away, but to keep her frame steady and her face as immobile as the face of a marble Madonna. If she shrinks a little now, and averts her eyes, it is from the man on the wall: from his fist planted on his hip, from his hand on the pommel of his dagger, from his belligerent gaze; from his straddled legs, unbandaged calves bulging with muscle; from his bejewelled manhood, with a bow tied on top.

Jane stands herself, caught in her own gaze, crimson and tawny: her painted eyes resting beyond the frame. Behind her, our king’s gracious mother, in an old-fashioned hood with long lappets. And leaning on the altar which bears his son’s praises, the pale invader who carried his banners from the sea to the altar at Paul’s: narrow-faced, narrow of shoulder, his robe twitched across his person, his hand half-concealed by the ermine lining his great sleeve. Four-square in front of him, his son seems twice his girth; he could tuck mother and father both inside his jacket, he could swallow them whole.

‘By the saints you were right,’ Hans whispers, ‘when you said I should turn him to face us.’ He seems awed by his own creation. ‘Jesus Maria. He looks as if he would spring out of the frame and trample you.’

‘I wish France could see this,’ Henry tells the company. ‘Or the Emperor. Or the King of Scots.’

‘There can be copies, Majesty,’ Hans says, modestly. Mirrors of his lively image: ever larger, more active with every telling.

‘Come, Jane.’ The king plucks his eyes away. ‘We are done here. Time to be off to the country.’

Like a cottager he takes his wife by the hand, and kisses her mouth. My dear darling, I to Esher, you to Hampton Court. I to pleasure, you to pain: but not just yet.

August: the Lady Mary requests a greyhound to course with the royal party, and so before the sport begins he is taking her one: pure white, clean-limbed, with a small proud head and a green and white collar of plaited leather. Himself, Richard his nephew, Gregory his son – soon to be a happy bridegroom – and Edward Seymour, Lord Beauchamp – soon to be a happy brother-in-law. And as their escort, Dick Purser to lead the hound, and the boy Mathew, in his Cromwell livery coat; and a score of followers who have tagged along.

Lord Beauchamp frowns at the boy Mathew. ‘Did you not use to be my man, down at Wolf Hall?’

‘Aye, sir. But I came to seek my fortune, and I have found it.’

‘I am at fault,’ he says. ‘I drew the boy from his rustic innocence.’

‘Country mouse to town rat,’ Dick Purser says, shoving Mathew in the back.

‘Stop that,’ he says. ‘Arrange your faces. Here is Norfolk’s boy.’

A blazing day, a young lord in orange satin: Surrey advances, his long limbs flying, his eyes screwed up, his hands beating the air like a man in a cloud of mosquitoes; the court is swarming with rumours about his father, and all of them sting.

‘Seymour!’ the young man yells.

I shall speak first, he thinks, the soul of courtesy – ‘My lord, I see you have quit Kenninghall –’

‘You are not wrong,’ Surrey says.

‘– and the court is the gainer.’

Surrey is upon them. His father is right, he looks ill: his face has fallen in. ‘My business is with Lord Beauchamp. I have nothing to say to you.’

Edward Seymour says, ‘Surrey, stand where you are.’

‘Or take a pace back,’ Richard Cromwell says. ‘I sincerely advise it.’

‘I stop where I please,’ Surrey says. ‘Do not tell me where to stop.’

‘Armed like a man,’ Richard says, ‘yet talks like a three-year-old.’

Surrey does step back, as if he wants to view them better: the servants in their grey marbled coats, Gregory and Richard and Seymour in their peacock silks, and Lord Cromwell in his indigo gown, body solid beneath its soft folds. The greyhound steps sideways, grizzles and yaps, and Dick Purser bundles her backwards for fear she should snap: how tempting must be Surrey’s thigh, the tender flesh in its flashing hose. Surrey jerks a thumb at him – at the Lord Privy Seal: ‘Seymour, are you so in love with this churl’s money that you drag your family name through the mire? When they told me of this match you have made I could scarce believe it – not even of you.’

‘He means me,’ Gregory says. ‘I am the match.’

‘Aye, you,’ Surrey says, ‘you squat little clod.’ He whips around, long body glinting like a viper’s and ready to bite. ‘What evil persuasion is this, Seymour, to marry your sister to these shearsmen, these sheep-runners – I ask you, what disparagement is it, to your own family’s coat of arms, and to the name of the late Oughtred, so worthy a man –’

‘Oughtred is dead,’ Gregory says. ‘He is well dead, worthy or not.’

‘He sees you!’ Surrey yelps.

‘And I see you, you sorry piece of work.’ Now Richard Cromwell steps forward. He does not touch Surrey, but he locks his gaze.

He, Lord Cromwell, pats a hand to his own chest: there is his knife, but no man must draw. He sees the pain that clouds Surrey’s face – belligerence, bewilderment. ‘Surrey, you are not yourself.’ As he speaks he takes Richard by the elbow to hold him back. ‘Your lord father has told me you are mourning still for young Richmond, God rest him.’

‘It is a year,’ Surrey says, ‘a year my friend has been mouldering in his tomb at Thetford – and blackguards like you left to run above ground. I come here and the whole court is buzzing like a muckheap in a sty. I dare say there are a score of rascals who would perjure themselves to pull the Howards down. They are so eaten by envy that they would consent to have both their legs broken if they could see us take a fall.’

‘You will take a fall anyway,’ Richard says, ‘if you do not back off.’

‘My father could be king of the north. All the great families support him. But witness his loyalty. He has refused all offers to turn his coat –’

‘Has he?’ Edward says. ‘Offers from whom?’

‘And where are the rewards for him? Does he not deserve more rewards and greater than any other subject? Instead, we of noble blood must stand by and watch knaves filching manors from those who have owned them time out of mind, and trusting to mingle their seed with the finest blood this land affords. What does the king do, keeping about him such a set of common thieves and dip-pockets? Thrusting out of his council gentlemen of high birth –’

He puts his hand on Surrey’s arm. Surrey dashes it away. ‘Cromwell, you plan to murder all noblemen. One by one you will cut off our heads till only vile blood is left in England, and then you will have all to rule.’

‘This is my quarrel,’ Edward Seymour says. He steps up to Surrey, lays a soldier’s hand on orange satin and silver fringing. Surrey lurches forward, hand on his dagger. The dog barks in panic. The boy Mathew shouts, ‘No blades, Spindle-shanks.’

My lord Privy Seal roars, ‘Drop your hands all. Hands at your sides.’ Shocked, they do it – but Surrey flails overarm, and the boy Mathew throws up a hand and then sags against his master. A bright spatter of blood drops to the tiles.

Surrey steps back, aghast. His face is smeared with sweat and tears. Richard twitches the dagger out of his hand. It was like disarming a child, he will say later. He will recall how the young man’s fingers felt: numb, cold and blue.

Mathew has righted himself. Furiously he sucks the wound in his palm. The greyhound licks the floor: vile blood. ‘A scratch,’ the boy claims, but his blood runs down his chin.

Gregory takes out a handkerchief. ‘Here, Mathew.’ The youth Culpeper has appeared, alarmed, and other gentlemen, sprinting from gallery and guard chamber.

Richard says, ‘Are the tendons cut?’

‘Culpeper, run and seek a surgeon,’ Gregory says. In the hubbub he notes his son’s ease of manner.

Edward says, ‘An inch, Surrey, and you would have severed his veins at the wrist, a defenceless lad who never did you harm.’

‘Well, he called him spindle-shanks,’ Gregory says. ‘And so do I.’

Surrey rubs his face and glares at Gregory. ‘Meet me in the fields, Cromwell – or no, I will not fight you, you are not my match, find some nobleman to fight for you if you can, and I will skewer him and you may come and collect his carcass at your pleasure.’

‘You’ll skewer nobody, boy,’ Richard says. ‘You won’t be able to skewer your own dinner. You won’t have a right hand to pick your nose with.’

‘What?’ Surrey says.

Edward says, ‘It is forbidden to draw blood within the precincts of the court. Any such action is a threat to the sovereign.’

‘He’s not here,’ Surrey says stupidly.

‘The queen is here,’ Richard says. ‘With a child in her womb. So is the king’s maiden daughter.’

He says soberly, ‘My lords, gentlemen, you are all witness. One blow was struck, and my lord Surrey struck it.’

Edward says, ‘Surrey, you know the penalty.’

The dog’s tongue diligently polishes the tiles at their feet. Surrey gazes at his right hand, holding it before him. It is limp, as if already it does not belong to him. ‘I did not mean to wound him. I only meant to make a show. And he is not much hurt, is he?’

Mathew begins to agree. But Surrey turns on him: ‘Mathew – is that your name? I am sure I know you under another.’

No doubt, he thinks. From some household under suspicion, where he waits at table or carries coals: hands clean or hands dirty, working for the safety of the realm.

Richard says, ‘It does not matter if he has as many names as the God of the Jews. It is not a servant you have injured, it is the king’s peace.’

Surrey’s hand goes to his purse. ‘Let me give the boy some recompense.’

‘Offer it to the king.’ Seymour looks as grim as if he is presiding over the punishment already. ‘Your father will be shocked to his marrow when he hears this. He will know the punishment laid down – and you Howards, you always say that old customs should be kept.’

There is a method for it: ten men are required. The sergeant surgeon with his instrument; the sergeant of the wood-yard with mallet and block. The master cook, who brings the butcher’s knife; the sergeant of the larder, who knows how meat should be cut; the sergeant ferrer, with irons to sear the wound; the yeoman from the chandlery, with waxed cloths; the yeoman of the scullery, with a dish of coals to heat the searing iron, a chafing dish to cool them; the sergeant of the cellar with wine and ale; the sergeant of the ewery with basin and towels. And the sergeant of the poultry, with a cock, its legs strung, struggling and squawking as he holds it against the block and strikes off its head.

When the fowl has been sacrificed the right arm of the offender is bared. His forearm is laid down. The butcher fits the blade to the joint. A prayer is said. Then the sword hand is severed, the veins seared, and the body of the collapsed offender is rolled onto a cloth and carried away.

He takes two days off for the wedding, as promised: leaving the king at his hunting lodge in Sunninghill on 1 August, heading to Mortlake on 2 August for the ceremony next day, and back with the king in Windsor by the fifth. It is a modest wedding, not one of those that ape the nobility; but the sun shines on the bride and groom, and the guests are in high good humour. ‘Where’s Call-Me?’ Gregory asks.

He has to draw his son aside. ‘At home. His little boy has died.’

‘God save us. Does the king know?’

Gregory is a courtier, he thinks: he is what I have made him: his mind goes first to the king, to whether the news might frighten him or put him in a bilious humour.

He says, ‘The king need not be told. He does not usually enquire after our sons and daughters.’ He has not, for instance, alluded to Jenneke, though someone must have told him all about her. ‘I do not think he knows how many children Wriothesley has, and it would be a pity if the first he heard of William was his decease.’

They are at Mortlake: Cromwells en fête, in their old country. What would Walter say, if he knew his grandson was the king’s brother-in-law? Though it was Walter who used to claim the Cromwells were gentry. He said he could show parchments about it, but then he said that rats had eaten them. Walter said, your mother came from good stock, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, places up north; no paupers they. This may be true. But these strangers who write to him, claiming kin; what if he had made a claim on them, when he was a boy? They would likely have kicked him downstairs. Prised his fingers from the ironwork of their gate.

Gregory says, ‘Surrey lies under a heavy sentence. Perhaps the king would pardon him, as a wedding gift to me?’

‘Three points,’ he says. ‘First, I am hoping he will give you an abbey. Second, you are not the person offended – it is the crown that is offended, this is not a private matter. Third – I thought you hated Surrey.’

‘He hates me,’ Gregory says. ‘That is different. Though I am not squat, am I?’

‘By no measure,’ he says. ‘You are happy? You and Bess do not seem shy of each other.’

‘Yes, I am happy,’ his son says. ‘We are both happy. So please not to look at her, sir. Converse with her when others are present, and do not write to her. I ask this of you. I have never asked anything much.’

His heart misgives. She has told him, then. ‘Gregory,’ he says, ‘I do not defend myself. I should have made myself clear.’ He looks at his son and sees he must say more. ‘It was only out of duty she consented, when she thought I was the groom, for surely I could never be preferred, not to a goodly young man like you – and as for how the muddle came about – Seymour, you know he can be brisk. One gentleman going past another in conversation, it can happen.’

‘Other things can happen. But do not let them.’

He feels himself flush. ‘I am a man of honour.’

Gregory will say, what honour is that? The Putney sort?

‘I mean,’ he says, ‘I am a man of my word.’

‘So many words,’ Gregory says. ‘So many words and oaths and deeds, that when folk read of them in time to come they will hardly believe such a man as Lord Cromwell walked the earth. You do everything. You have everything. You are everything. So I beg you, grant me an inch of your broad earth, Father, and leave my wife to me.’

Gregory is going. But then he turns. ‘Bess says she could not eat her breakfast.’

‘It is a big day for her.’

‘She says it means she has conceived already. It is how it took her before, when she was carrying both her children.’

‘Congratulations, Gregory. You are a man of action.’

He wants to stand up and embrace his son, but perhaps not. They have never had a harsh word till today, he thinks, and perhaps what has passed is less harsh than sad: that a son can think evil of his father, as if he is a stranger and you cannot tell what he might do; as if he is a traveller on the road, who might bless your journey and cheer you on, or equally rob you and roll you in a ditch. ‘Gregory, I am glad with all my heart. Do not tell Bess I know, she might take it amiss.’

‘Anything else?’ Gregory says.

‘Yes. It will be the back end of the year before the world needs to know, and meanwhile, it is another thing not to tell the king.’

Henry will think, why so easy for some? How are children so cheap they are left on doorsteps to be scooped up and parented by the parish, and yet the King of England is begging God for one solitary boy? How are they got so easy that a hot kiss in a garden arbour springs fertile desire, and leads to the font and the chrisom cloth when we have scarcely blessed the wedding bed?

‘And also,’ he says, ‘we do not want it said, Cromwell’s son is so keen to be at his bride he does not wait for the blessing of holy church.’

‘It would be true,’ Gregory says. ‘I did not wait for it. I do not give a fig for their blessing. What do priests know about marriage? The king bars them from it. It is time they were put out of the business entirely. They have no more to do there than cripples in a footrace.’

‘I’ll not argue with that. Though I wish them able-bodied.’

‘Oh, the archbishop is your friend,’ Gregory says. ‘I sometimes wonder what Cranmer will do in Heaven, where there is no marriage or giving in marriage. He will have no pastime.’

‘Do not talk about Cranmer’s wife.’

‘I know,’ Gregory says. ‘It goes into the big box of secrets, where an ogre squats on the lid.’

A late-spring child, he thinks. I shall be a grandfer. If we can get through next winter.

‘Go and find your bride,’ he says. ‘You have left her too long.’ But then: ‘Gregory? You are the master in your household – you are the head of it and there is not a soul will doubt it.’

And I like wandering Odysseus, salt-hardened, befogged, making my long way home to a house full of raucous strangers. When I see ordinary happiness the horizon tilts and I see something else. And now I sound like a dotard, saying ‘If we can get through next winter.’ As if I were Uncle Norfolk, claiming the damp will finish me.

On his next mission he takes Fitzwilliam with him: they chase Henry up-country, find him sulking indoors on a wet day, and looking, except that he is seated, much as he does on the mural at Whitehall: less ornamented, but with the same glare. All the same, he seems glad to see them: ‘Thomas! You were to hunt with me, I thought. I have been expecting you. But now the weather turns.’

He opens his mouth to tell the king about the heap of papers on his desk at home. Henry says, ‘What is this we hear, that France and the Emperor have stopped fighting? Can it be true?’

‘They will be fighting again next week,’ Fitzwilliam says, ‘depend upon it. But Majesty, we are here about young Surrey. You cannot cut off his hand, you know.’

The king says, ‘I expect Thomas Howard has written to you? Begging?’

True. You can see the stains seeping through the paper: sweat, tears, bile. Good Lord Cromwell, stand my friend: exert yourself for Thomas Howard, who is your daily beadsman, your debtor for life. Let my foolish son suffer any punishment, but not maiming, a Howard cannot live without his sword hand …

‘Norfolk thinks you bear much credit with me,’ Henry says. ‘That whatever you say, I will do. He thinks me your minion, my lord Privy Seal.’

He cannot think of an answer. Not a safe one.

Henry says, ‘Why should I not punish Surrey according to custom? Let me hear your reasoning.’

Because, Fitzwilliam says. Because it is almost worse to maim a nobleman, than to kill him. It savours of barbarity, or at best of an alien code.

He, Thomas Cromwell, takes up the theme: because he is young, and experience will temper his pride. Because your Majesty is far-seeing, sagacious, and merciful.

‘Merciful,’ Henry says. ‘Not soft-hearted.’ He stirs crossly. ‘I know the Howards and what they are. They expect prizes, when they should expect forfeits. I have kept Tom Truth alive, have I not, when I might have cut off his head for his knavery with my niece?’

He says, ‘My advice, sir – let Surrey sweat for a space. It is a lesson he will not forget. And he will be in your debt thereafter.’

‘Yes, but you always say this, Cromwell. You say, remit them, and they will behave better. Three years back Edward Courtenay’s wife entertained that false prophetess, Barton – ah, you said, forgive her, she is but a woman and weak. I believe now she intrigues again.’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘Courtenay’s wife is clear of present offence, to my mind. And if she is not, Cromwell will soon know, for he has a woman in her household.’

‘And the Pole family? Whom I prospered? Whom I restored in blood, whom I plucked from penury and disgrace? How am I repaid? By Reginald parading around Europe calling me the Antichrist.’

He says, ‘Perhaps there must be a new policy. But – craving your Majesty’s favour in this – we will not start it by cutting off Surrey’s hand.’

Fitz says, ‘I beg you, do not lightly shed ancient blood.’

‘Ancient blood?’ The king laughs. ‘Was there not a Howard who was a lawyer at Lynn?’

‘Majesty, that is true.’ It was some 250 years back, and what is that but the blink of an eye, in a land where the heads of giants emerge from the treetops?

He thinks of them: Bolster, Grip and Wade. He watches Henry. He is about to yield, he thinks, and spare the boy; but Surrey should be aware. The king is like the shrike or butcher bird, who sings in imitation of a harmless seed-eater to lure his prey, then impales it on a thorn and digests it at his leisure. He says, ‘Saving your Majesty, I believe if you go back far enough we were all lawyers. At Lynn or some other place.’

‘And not long before that, we were all beasts.’ Henry smiles, but his smile fades. ‘Send the boy to Windsor. He must stay within the bounds. He may take his exercise in the park, but tell him he will be watched. When we come there ourselves, he need not approach us till we give him leave.’ He stares into space. ‘My lord Cromwell, it is blessed work, to reconcile great families. But you do not imagine Norfolk will ever be your friend, do you?’

‘No,’ he says. ‘And it is not to please him that I ask for mercy.’

‘I see. It is not to please him. Yet I hear you are talking to him about the great priory at Lewes? Howard territory, and yours too I think?’

The king has been in a huddle with Richard Riche: asking what gentleman wants which abbey, and why. Lisle, for instance, has tried to get Beaulieu, Southwick and Waverley, before settling for a modest Devon property. He, Cromwell, has been buying up land in the county of Sussex: terrain where he means to push the Howards, to nudge up against them, run his borders with theirs. ‘I thought that when Lewes comes down, if your Majesty is not averse, the prior’s lodging might be rebuilt to make a house for my son.’

The king’s anger has drained away. He has remembered to be the Well-Beloved. ‘Gregory and his wife should expect every kindness at my hand. Only, my lord, such a great church as there is at Lewes, will it not take many months to pull it down?’

‘I’m not going to pull it down. I’m going to blow it up.’

‘Really?’ The king looks respectful.

‘I know an Italian. He is confident it can be done.’

‘Come to me after supper,’ Henry says. ‘Bring drawings.’ He looks as excited as a child.

When the chapter of the Order of the Garter is held in the king’s closet at Windsor, the king runs his eye along the list and says what everybody is primed to hear: ‘One place we will keep for the prince who will soon be born to us, by God’s grace. The other is for the Lord Privy Seal.’

A muffled – what? The gentlemen rustle in acknowledgement but cannot bring themselves, for a moment, to applaud. They knew it was going to happen. But they are still shocked. A brewer’s son: it takes time to get used to it.

He kneels before the king and makes an eloquent thanks. Henry lowers over his head his Garter collar, a thirty-ounce chain of gold knots and enamelled roses. Affixed to it is the Garter badge, with the image of St George, a golden saint astride a golden horse. ‘Stand up, my lord,’ the king whispers.

Only the dragon is missing: not killed, he thinks but sated, lolling, curled up in the hot sun. His sister Kat used to tell him about a dragon that ate seven women every Saturday, not sparing them even in Lent.

Henry says, ‘You are entered into a sacred brotherhood now. All you need to know of the rites to come, my lord Exeter here will tell you. Or Nicholas Carew, or any of these most noble confreres of mine. I hold them all next my heart, as I do you, my dear Thomas. I hope you will live many years to enjoy your new state.’

There is a sort of groaning, a heavy banging, which signifies the knights’ assent. Henry Courtenay, the Marquis of Exeter, is laggard in joining in. The ceremony is to come: late August. In Europe the peace holds. The king says the gospel may be given to the people, this new translation is fit: and the bishops sign off on their deliberations, and send both of them to the printer.

The night before the Garter ceremony, he rides to Windsor, where the canons receive him kindly. But they are hesitant, he perceives, afraid of offending the recruit. My lord, one advises gently, tonight you should think on your failures and derelictions, and make confession if you will: tomorrow you must be perfect, for tomorrow you enter into this order where, if all the knights happened to gather, you would be joined in procession with the kings of France and Scotland, and Charles the Holy Roman Emperor himself.

Do you know, a man from the Wardrobe asks him, the king still has young Richmond’s Garter robes stored here? They are hanging up. If he came down from Heaven, he could step right into them.

In one of the canons’ houses, painted foliage grows over the wall: Tudor roses with giant pomegranates. These are the only licit paintings of such fruits, the canon tells him, and why are they so? Because there, you see, above the door, is the image of Arthur, Prince of Wales, portrayed as he was when he took his Spanish bride: and there she is herself, indicated by the image of the wheel, on which St Catherine was martyred. And we have always said, we canons, the paintings are very clean and fine and we can keep them without penalty or fear, because though our king has denied he was married to the Princess of Aragon, he has never denied she was married to his brother.

‘But all that is a long time ago,’ he says.

‘Really,’ the canon says, ‘you think so? It does not seem so very long ago to me.’

In the precincts there has been a song school, for as long as anyone can remember. As he searches out the old queen’s image above him, he can hear the children learning a motet, and the sound leads him out into the splash of sunlight, under ancient walls. He has seen them in their schoolroom, a nest of chirping birds, little bodies huddled together, their voices soaring above their circumstances: when their voices break, who will they be, will they live meanly? They will be music masters and teach the virginals to oafish boys with thick fingers, to simpering girls who toss their heads and try to see their reflections in the window. They will sing in church on a Sunday: verses of the new gospel, perhaps. He has such children in his own household, though they are not so polished as the king’s performers. In the song school the notes are painted on the wall so the whole group can learn at once. When they are well learned, the notes are whitewashed over. But none of the songs vanish. They sink deep, receding through the plaster, abiding in the wall.

Tomorrow there must be no mishaps, so they walk him through: Lord Exeter, Carew, William Fitzwilliam an encouraging presence at his shoulder. Everything is laid at hand: his cerulean mantle, his feathered hat. He has billed the king for eighteen yards of crimson velvet and nine yards of white sarcenet. Everything is ready to furnish his stall: his helm, cushion, banner, all as prescribed in the statutes. The knights will process to St George’s Chapel, then in the chapter house they will take away his cloak and he will put on his surcoat, and receive his sword. Then he will walk to the quire, head bare, supporters at each side, and there place his hand on the gospel and take the oath. Then, they say, you may ascend to your appointed stall, and Garter Herald – who will be standing just there, please note – he will hand your mantle to your supporters and they will place it on your shoulders. Then they will take your collar and – be ready – they will put it over your head. Then the blessing is read, beseeching St George that he will guide you through the prosperities and adversities of this world.

That’s what we want, he thinks: help in prosperity. We can brace ourselves for the seven lean years. But when the fat years come, are we prepared? We never know how to take it when our life begins to be charmed.

I failed with Jenneke, he thinks. I had her and I let her go, I was handed a precious vessel and I dropped it in shock. I was not prepared for the past to yield such sweet fruit: I was busy painting it out, whitewashing my wall for what was to come.

The Marquis of Exeter says sharply, ‘Have I your attention, my lord? When the blessing is read, you take the book of statutes in your hand. Then put on your cap. Bow to the altar. Bow to the king’s stall. Then take your place, among the illustrious knights.’

Those present, those absent. Those quick and those dead.

It is hard for Exeter to call him ‘my lord’. It sticks in the Courtenay craw. Four years back, he thinks, I salvaged you and Gertrude your wife, and now the king suspects me of too much forbearance; he thinks I am trying to make friends of you people. You and Lord Montague, you are sprinting to the end of your silken rope. One more step, then see if I favour you.

That night he prays and goes to bed early. I am not ill, he says to Christophe, do not fret. He needs a space in which he can watch the future shaping itself, as dusk steals over the river and the park, smudges the forms of ancient trees: there are nightingales in the copses, but we will not hear them again this year. Tomorrow, all eyes will turn, not to the Garter stall he fills, but to the vacancy, where a prince as yet unborn reaches for the statute book, and bows his blind head in its caul. Why does the future feel so much like the past, the uncanny clammy touch of it, the rustle of bridal sheet or shroud, the crackle of fire in a shuttered room? Like breath misting glass, like the nightingale’s trace on the air, like a wreath of incense, like vapour, like water, like scampering feet and laughter in the dark … furiously, he wills himself into sleep. But he is tired of trying to wake up different. In stories there are folk who, observed at dawn or dusk in some open, watery space, are seen to flit and twist in the air like spirits, or fledge leather wings through their flesh. Yet he is no such wizard. He is not a snake who can slip his skin. He is what the mirror makes, when it assembles him each day: Jolly Tom from Putney. Unless you have a better idea?

The morning of his installation he is awake early. He should lie rigid, he thinks, like an effigy on a tomb, waiting for the ritual to commence. But instead he climbs out of bed. He needs a candle, till he doesn’t; when he lowers the shutter a wan light filters through. A knight of the Garter begins his day as any other man – pissing, stretching, rubbing his blue chin. If you are alert to the workings of the household it is hard to go back to sleep after dawn. The noise only ceases in the darkest hours; hemmed in by the town below, the castle is supplied by wagons that rumble constantly over the cobbles and in at the great gate. And as you make your way about those precincts, point to point, the ages joust and clash: as if armoured monarchs were colliding, a wall built by a Henry driving into a wall built by an Edward who is long ago dust. All these holy kings gone to their rest: time is battering their works like siege engines, and when you descend a step you are walking on another layer of the past.

He wants a walk, perhaps to exchange a good morning with some fellow creature who will dissipate his dreams. The kitchens, the larder, are stirring, ready for goods inward. Men rub their eyes and sleepwalk past each other as if swimming in a grey sea: no one speaks, they merely blink and swerve him as if they were skimming through his dreams, or he through theirs. When he hears footsteps, purposive, descending, he follows them. Down and down, to a stone-floored room, where a deep gutter runs with brown water, burbling like a running stream.

When he was a child at Lambeth he saw the coupage, as the dead animals were carried in, beef and sheep and pig. He learned to stand still as blades sang in the air and whistled past his ears. He grew to relish the company of men who feel a cleaver fit their hands, who plunge skewers into shy flesh, who split and spit and haul great joints with flesh-hooks. He saw beasts disassembled, becoming dinner; witnessed the household officers shovel up their perquisites and portions, neck and scrag-end, forelegs, feet, trotters and tripes, the calf’s head, the sheep’s heart. He learned to sweep out the sawdust clogged with blood and swab down the slabs where lung and liver clump, to chase the jelly particles stained with gore. He learned to do it all without a contraction of the gut: to do it calmly, to do it without feeling. Twilight coupage or dawn, the light is the same, grey-streaked, wine-dark: the butchers pass without seeing him, eyes front, their burdens hoisted on their shoulders.

Get out of their way: he moves back against the wall. They ignore him, in the dimness taking him perhaps for some inventory clerk. Still they tread, with their cadavers the size of men, eyes on their feet, their heads bent and hooded, silent, undeterred, squishing the gore from their bloody boots, around the winding stair and, guided by the sound of rushing waters, down into the dark.

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